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Stay by my cradle till morning is nigh
She's pulling a pint for Jimmy when her phone buzzes. It's sitting on the bar by the hatch next to the magazine she'd been reading. She looks over her shoulder at Chas.
"See who that is for me, eh?" She nods to the phone. "If it's Debs, tell her I'll phone her back in a minute. She was on about going into town tomorrow for summat or other."
Chas salutes at her, but heads over anyway. Charity doesn't like the frown that appears on her face when she picks it up. "Who is it?"
"It's Tracy." Chas holds up the phone to show Tracy's name and a picture of her asleep on Vanessa's couch with 'drunkard' written across her forehead in eyebrow pencil. "Shall I...d'you want me to answer it?"
It's not like she hasn't spoken to Tracy since her and Vanessa split up. Things have remained fairly civil between all of them. She doesn't see Vanessa very often these days as she's taken to avoiding the pub. Which is probably for the best.
There was no big blow up or anything. They never descended into screaming matches or recriminations. Nobody cheated or lied.
Charity just got scared.
After Bails was convicted and Sarah's heart operation had gone well and Ryan had been fully integrated into the Dingle clan, there was a period of relative calm. And it gave Charity time to think about her relationship with Vanessa. And that thinking had pointed to the fact that they'd never really had a time when things had been quiet. They'd always been facing something. Tracy and Phil, Vanessa's suspension, the whole Bails saga, including Ryan, Sarah's illness, Ross up and leaving her in the lurch with Moses...there had always been something for them to focus on, to get through. And when that wasn't the case, Charity had panicked that Vanessa would finally see her, really see her. So she started pushing her away. And she pushed too hard.
Charity sets down the half-filled glass and shakes her head, holding out her hand. "Give it here." She accepts the call, heading through to the back. "Hello?"
"Charity...I...sorry for ringing you out the blue like this...I…" Tracy's voice is rough and unsteady, like she's been crying.
"Tracy, what is it?" Charity's mind rattles through a hundred possibilities. "Are you okay? Is...is Van-"
Her stomach dips and she presses a hand to her mouth. "What's-" She swallows. "What's happened?"
"He...uh…" Charity closes her eyes. It must be bad or Tracy would rush to reassure her. "We're at the hospital."
"Oh God." The words escape in a breath.
"I don't know what's wrong. His temperature's really high and he's...he had, like a fit kind of thing and then he was all groggy and-" Her voice cracks. "He looked like a ghost, Charity."
"I-" She shakes her head. There's nothing to say. She can't say everything will be alright when nobody even knows what's going on. "Can I...is there anything that needs doing or-"
"No. I...I didn't call because we need anything." There's a pause. "I just...well, I think she might need you."
"Has she said that?"
"No...but, Charity...she's in bits. I don't know what to do or, or what to say."
"And I will?"
"You always seemed to before."
"Yeah, before we broke up, Tracy." She shakes her head. "I...she's not gonna want me there, is she? I don't...I don't want to make her more upset."
She presses her lips together, weighing up all the ways this could go wrong. But there's only ever going to be one answer.
"I'll be there as soon as I can."
After a quick explanation to Chas of where she's going, she heads out of the pub, but hesitates before getting into her car. She heads down the street to Tug Ghyll instead, quickly locating the hidden key and letting herself in. Part of her thinks this is a violation, but she also knows what it's like to spend hours and days in a hospital, and a few home comforts can make a difference. However small.
She tries not to notice the feeling that immediately washes over her when she steps through the door. Without really noticing when it happened, this house became her safe place. Where she ran to when she needed to shut out the world and know that nothing could hurt her. She deliberately doesn't look at the familiar surroundings and instead hurries up the stairs, not taking the time to examine the many pictures that adorn the walls. She couldn't stand to see if the ones of her have been removed.
Pushing open the door to Johnny's room, she's assaulted by a dozen memories of saying goodnight to him. Of laughing with him when he tried to wheedle another story out of her. Of kneeling by his bed when he was certain the sea monster from one of his books was under there. She closes her eyes, briefly, trying to push away thoughts that aren't going to do any good. She goes into his chest of drawers and pulls out his favourite pair of pyjamas. As she's about to leave, she catches sight of something on the bed; his cuddly Rubble. He always has Rubble with him when he sleeps. Insisted on bringing him to the pub every single time he stayed over. He'll need Rubble in that strange hospital bed to make him feel safe. She picks the toy up and heads out onto the landing and into the bathroom.
Seeing two toothbrushes rather than three in the holder hits her harder than she expected it to. It had been such a symbol of their relationship; her finally deciding to leave a bloody toothbrush here. And now it's gone. Because their relationship is gone. She shoves the toothbrushes and the half used tube of toothpaste into a toiletry bag, along with a body spray of Vanessa's and leaves the bathroom, blinking away tears.
Inhaling through her nose, she pauses outside Vanessa's bedroom door, her fingers on the handle. This is definitely overstepping the mark. She opens the door and strides in, purposefully not looking at the bed she's spent many a night in. She reaches up to the top shelf of the wardrobe and pulls down a rucksack Vanessa sometimes used for an extra set of clothes when she was working, then quickly goes about grabbing some clean underwear and a hoodie, shoving them into the bag with Johnny's pyjamas. As she turns to leave, her eyes betray her and go to the bedside cabinet on Vanessa's side of the bed. Her heart jumps when she sees the photo frame still there.
She places the bag at the foot of the bed and moves around to pick the frame up. The photo is of her and Vanessa at the pub. Liv had snapped it at some do or other. There's chaos going on around them, but they're sat at a table, fingers loosely tangled together, looking into each other's eyes and smiling. It makes Charity's chest ache with longing to be back in that safe little bubble where everything was okay and nothing could touch them. She swipes a thumb over their joined hands in the photo, allowing herself a moment to embrace the pain and then sets the photo back down. She grabs the bag and Rubble and heads back down the stairs.
She bloody hates hospitals.
She knows this building far too well. They've spent more time than is fair here, watching over Sarah, hoping against hope that she will beat the odds again. And Vanessa's been in the same position with Johnny before too. Wondering if his tiny body would be strong enough to pull him through. But Sarah has beaten the odds, and Johnny did pull through. And he can do it again.
She rounds the corner to the children's ward and immediately spots the pair of them, huddled together on hard seats down the corridor a bit. Her stomach clenches; now she's here, she has no idea what she's going to say or do. Tracy catches her eye and gives her a half smile before she says something to Vanessa.
Vanessa lifts her head and their eyes meet. Charity forces her feet to propel her forward. Vanessa stands up, her eyes dipping to the toy in Charity's hand. Her face crumples and she reaches for it, lifting it to her face and breathing in deeply. Her eyes come up again, full of tears.
"Oh God, Charity."
That's all it takes for Charity to bridge the distance between them and gather Vanessa into her arms. Vanessa presses her face into Charity's shoulder, still cradling Rubble against her chest. Charity's hand goes to the back of her head, her other arm securely around her back. She sways them gently, unable to come up with any words that don't sound trite or forced.
After a few minutes, Vanessa sniffs and lifts her head, stepping back and hugging Rubble with both arms. It's like she's remembered she's not supposed to be in Charity's arms anymore.
"H-how did you-"
"I called her." Vanessa turns to look at Tracy, who shrugs. "I knew she'd want to know."
Vanessa nods, letting out a juddering sigh.
Charity looks between them. "How is he?"
"We don't really know anything." Tracy's voice is tight when she answers. "They're testing him for a couple of things but they've not come and told us anything else."
"He's just so little." Vanessa whispers. "He just looked so little when they were wheeling him away."
"Hey. What was it you kept saying to me when Sarah was in here, eh?" Charity's hand twitches, wanting to wipe away the tears freely running down Vanessa's face. "You said she was in the right place, with the right people around her. And so's Johnny, yeah?"
Vanessa nods, wiping at her nose with her sleeve. She sits down, setting Rubble on her lap, her thumbs rubbing back and forth through his fur. Charity looks at Tracy before taking a seat, leaving an empty chair between her and Vanessa.
"Listen, now that Charity's here I'm gonna try and get hold of Dad again, okay? See if they managed to get on a train." Tracy takes out her phone and checks it. "D'you want me to grab you a coffee on the way back?"
"No, I don't want anything." Vanessa shakes her head. "I'd be sick if I put anything in my stomach."
Tracy nods and looks to Charity, tilting her head in question. She considers saying yes, just to have something to hold in her hands now that Vanessa's there and out of reach. But she can relate to Vanessa's sentiment; her stomach's rolling with worry. "I'm alright, ta."
"Right. I'll be as fast as I can." Tracy looks at the top of Vanessa's head; her face is pressed against Rubble. She leans in and kisses her hair, rubbing her shoulder. "He'll be fine, V. I know he will."
Vanessa doesn't reply and Charity grabs Tracy's hand as she goes to leave, giving it a little squeeze and getting a tense smile in return. She watches her leave, heading down the sterile corridor and through the doors, leaving the two of them alone.
"Charity-" The voice startles Charity. She hadn't been expecting Vanessa to start up the conversation. She turns to find Vanessa looking at her, lip trembling. "-what will I do if...if he-"
"Hey. Stop that right now." Charity shifts over into the chair that separates them, not bothering what's appropriate in the face of Vanessa's distress. She wraps an arm around her shoulders and pulls her close. Vanessa melts against her, her face pressed to Charity's neck. Hot tears tickle her skin and she closes her eyes, willing her voice not to waver when she next speaks; she's got to be the reassuring one now, the strong one. "Come on, Ness, he'll get through this. He's a fighter, i'n't he? Scrappy, like his mum."
Vanessa nods against her cheek and she turns to press her lips to her forehead. "Think about when he was born, eh? Tiny little thing, you said. And he got through all that. This is a breeze for him." Vanessa hiccups and Charity tightens her arm. "He's going to be fine. You'll see. He'll be up and about and driving you to distraction in no time." She smiles against Vanessa's skin. "Remember that time I couldn't find one of my shoes for work and he'd nicked it and had his Batman figure tucked up in it like a bed?"
Vanessa lets out a half laugh against her neck and sits up . "With loo roll as a blanket." She sniffs and glances at Charity. "You let him keep it, an' all."
She laughs too and feels guilty immediately. "Well, Batman needed his beauty sleep."
Nodding, Vanessa sniffs and rubs at her nose with her sleeve. "Thanks for...you know, for coming down."
Charity shrugs. "I love the little mite, don't I?"
Vanessa covers her mouth and closes her eyes briefly. Charity pushes some of Vanessa's hair behind her ear as she inhales a shaky breath. "He talks about you all the time."
"All bad, I'm guessing?" Charity asks, trying to raise a smile.
"Hardly. He worships the ground you walk on." Vanessa looks up at her and Charity wants to fall to her knees and beg forgiveness for whatever insanity caused her to push this wonderful, beautiful, perfect woman away.
"Such a shame." Charity shakes her head, pressing her lips together. "I had high hopes for him an'all. But he's clearly a terrible judge of character. He takes that off you."
Vanessa leans into her, nudging her side. "Hey. I happen to think I'm an excellent judge of character."
Their eyes meet and if it had been a couple of months ago, Charity would have had no qualms about pressing her lips to Vanessa's, or gathering her up and holding her until the fear and doubt in her eyes were long gone. But she gave up that right, that privilege.
The doors down the corridor open and Tracy strides through, they both look away, as if they've been caught doing something they shouldn't.
"Any news?" Tracy looks at Vanessa hopefully.
Vanessa hugs Rubble close and shakes her head. "No. Nothing." She nods to the phone in Tracy's hand. "Did you manage to get him?"
"Yeah, listen, they're on a train but it only goes as far as Leeds and then the next one to here is ages, so I've said I'll go and pick them up and bring them back." She frowns. "I...I mean, if Charity's okay to...I don't want to leave you on your own."
Before Vanessa has a chance to object, Charity cuts in. "You go and get your dad. I'll stay."
Nodding, Tracy holds out her hand. "Right, give us your keys and I'll head off and be back as soon as I can."
Vanessa stands and fishes her keys out of her pocket, handing them over. Tracy pulls her into a hug, whispering something in her ear. Charity looks away from the moment. Not so long ago, she would have felt part of it; she'd have been an extension of Vanessa. Now she's a placeholder.
Tracy presses a firm kiss to Vanessa's cheek and then pulls back, looking between them. "You'll ring me the second you've got news, yeah?"
Charity nods. "Course we will, kid."
Tracy smiles and gives her shoulder a quick squeeze before she turns to leave. Vanessa drops back into her seat and sighs. Seconds tick by and Charity desperately tries to think of something to say. Vanessa's much better at this comfort stuff than she is. And she had enough practise at it with Charity.
"You don't have to stay. You know, if you...if you need to work or-"
Charity snorts. "Have we met? When have I ever bothered about having to work, eh?"
"Well, that's definitely true." Her shoulders move as she breathes out something like a laugh. "All those times you skived off to be with me. It's a wonder Chas put up with it, when you look back."
"Listen to you, Little Miss Innocent!" Charity bumps her knee against Vanessa's. "You skived off plenty an'all."
"Uh, and who got suspended for a whole year because of a bunk up with you, eh? I think I paid the price for my skiving, don't you?"
Charity looks at the floor. "I'm sor-"
A hand comes to cover her own. "No, I'm sorry. I was trying to make a joke and it didn't come across like that. And hey." She looks up, catching a whisper of a smile on Vanessa's face. "Didn't say it wasn't worth it, did I?"
Charity smiles. "Your suspension's up soon, yeah?"
"Mmhmm. Three weeks and two days. Not that I'm counting or anything."
"Looking forward to getting stuck back in? So to speak?"
"I really, really am." Vanessa tilts her head. "It's given me something to focus on, you know, since...well, lately."
"Course, yeah." The reminder of their situation shifts the air around them into stifling awkwardness. Vanessa withdraws her hand and goes back to clutching Rubble. Charity's hand sits uselessly on her knee. She shoves it under her thigh.
"Will Paddy and Rhona have the bunting out and champagne on ice for your first day back?" Charity almost rolls her eyes at her attempt at smalltalk. But anything's better than the silence that lets Vanessa think.
"Probably just a full diary of the worst patients they can find, to be honest."
Charity bumps her shoulder. "And you'll love every minute of it."
"Yeah." Vanessa smiles and nods. "Yeah, I will." She wrinkles her nose. "Unless it's reptiles."
"Well, when you're done with all the terrible jobs that Rhona and Paddy can throw at you, you should stop by the pub and I'll buy you a celebratory drink." She widens her eyes. "Might even have bubbles in it, if you're lucky."
Vanessa's smile slowly fades. "That's…that's really nice, Charity, but I…" Vanessa clears her throat. "It's hard. Seeing you, it's…it's hard."
"Yeah," Charity agrees, looking down, eyes burning at the rejection. She blows out a slow breath. "It's harder not seeing you, though."
She feels Vanessa move beside her, knows her eyes are on her. "Well it was you who-"
Charity looks up to see a doctor approaching. Vanessa's already on her feet and Charity stands too, shoving her hands in her back pockets and moving to Vanessa's side. Vanessa yanks her right hand out of her pocket and holds it as tightly as she did the day they heard Bails' verdict.
"Yes?" Vanessa's voice is shaking. "Is…is he okay?"
The doctor offers them a kind smile and Charity's heart lifts. She's learned to read people over the course of her eventful life, and this smile is genuine and not one that indicates bad news is coming. Charity squeezes Vanessa's hand.
The doctor nods, consulting her notes. "The tests have come back and, as we suspected, it's roseola."
"Is…is that bad?" Vanessa asks.
"It's a viral infection, very common in toddlers. His temperature's coming down in response to the medication. He might get a rash in a few days, but other than that he'll just be tired and irritable." The doctor smiles and reaches out, rubbing Vanessa's arm. "I know the spike in temperature and the seizure were frightening, but it's not something to be unduly concerned about."
"Oh, thank God." Vanessa turns to press her face into Charity's shoulder. Charity rubs her back as her shoulders jump with sobs, swiping at the few tears that have escaped her own eyes.
"How long does he need to stay in for?" she asks, as Vanessa seems incapable of speech.
"Usually we'd send him home and you could treat him with paracetamol or ibuprofen and rest." The doctor consults Johnny's notes again. "I'd like to keep him overnight, though, just because of the seizure and because he's still a little bit groggy." She smiles. "Purely precautionary and you'll be able to take him home tomorrow."
"Hear that, Ness?" Charity murmurs against the side of her head. "What did I tell you? Tough as nails, that kid."
Vanessa lets out a watery laugh against her shoulder and lifts her head, rubbing at her cheeks with her sleeve. "Can we see him?"
"Of course. Come with me." She starts to lead the way and Charity hangs back, only moving when Vanessa tugs on her hand. They're taken to a small, private room and the doctor stops outside. "You can go in and sit with him, but as I said, he's still quite groggy so he'll probably nap quite a bit." She smiles at them. "I'll be doing rounds shortly so we can see how he's doing then and speak some more if you'd like."
"Thank you doctor." Vanessa nods and goes to enter the room, but Charity holds her back, fumbling in her pocket and coming out with a tissue.
"Dry your eyes, babe," she murmurs. "You don't want him to see you upset, do you?"
Taking the tissue, Vanessa wipes away most of the evidence of her tears. She looks up at Charity. "Better?"
Charity's heart stutters at how beautiful she is. She wipes away an imaginary mark under Vanessa's eye with her thumb and winks. "You'll do. Go on."
"You're not coming in?"
Reaching out, Charity squeezes Vanessa's arm. "You go in first, have a minute with him. I'll be in in a sec."
She watches Vanessa go into the room and then leans back against the wall, head tipped back, looking at the ceiling. In the time they'd been apart, she'd almost forgotten how good it felt not to have that constant ache inside her. It's been there her whole life, a gaping wound filled with spite and anger, but with Vanessa it had started to heal. Just being close to her makes Charity feel better, more whole. She wants that back so badly.
The door opens and Vanessa's head pops out. Charity stands up straight and adjusts her jacket. "He okay?"
Vanessa nods. "Tired, but much better than he was earlier. I, uh, told him you were out here and he demanded to see you."
"Been a while since I've been in demand." She smiles, suddenly nervous. "I'll just grab this stuff." She heads over to pick up the rucksack she'd brought with her, trying to steady her breathing as she follows Vanessa into the room. Her heart dips at the sight of his little body in that big bed, Rubble tucked under his arm.
He turns his head towards the door and a slow smile creeps across his lips. He blinks, his eyes staying closed for longer than they should. "Char'ty."
"Hey handsome." Charity whispers, moving closer to the bed as Vanessa goes around to the opposite side. She gently boops him on his nose. "How you feeling?"
"Not very good."
Vanessa swipes some hair back off his forehead, rubbing her thumb back and forth against his skin.
"I know, babes." Charity says, trying to keep her smile bright. "But they're giving you medicine to make you all better, yeah? And you'll be back home in no time."
"Will you come and see me when I'm back home too?"
She glances at Vanessa. "Course I'm gonna come and see you."
"Like before?" Johnny asks, hugging Rubble close. "I miss you."
As if her heart wasn't breaking before. She forces her lips into a smile. "I miss you too, little man." She kisses his forehead. "Let's get you home and then we'll see, okay?"
"'Kay." His blinks are lasting longer every time and it's not long before he's asleep.
"You shouldn't have said that," Vanessa says, after a long spell of silence. Charity looks over at her and is surprised to find that she's crying again.
"Said what?" She moves around the bed. "Ness…what have I said?"
Vanessa moves away from her, wrapping her arms around herself and turning her back to Charity. "That stuff about missing him and coming to see him. You shouldn't get his hopes up like that." She laughs, shaking her head. "You shouldn't get my hopes up. Because I can't handle you coming to see him for a bit and then disappearing again. I couldn't take-"
Charity moves around, standing in front of her. "I won't, I promise." She takes Vanessa's hand in both of her own. "I want another chance. I know I don't deserve one, but…well, I'm shameless, aren't I? So I'm asking for one."
She can see Vanessa waver, see that familiar affection shine through, but then she swallows and presses her lips together. "Charity, I get why you push people away, I really do. And…and when you did it with me, it hurt, a lot, but I expected it would last a day or two, maybe a week." She looks up at Charity, tears running freely. "And when it went on longer than that, I assumed you'd decided your life was better without me…without us-"
Charity shakes her head. "No! God, Ness, no."
"-and that broke my heart, Charity." Vanessa sniffs, her hand tightening around Charity's. "And, like I said, I know why you act the way you do…but I can't keep letting myself get hurt because of it. I can't keep opening my heart up, letting my son open his heart up, only for you to do this again a couple of months down the line."
"Ness." Charity's throat is tight and her own tears are flowing now. It can't be over. She can't have thrown away the best thing that's ever happened to her. Lifting Vanessa's hand to her lips, she closes her eyes. "Vanessa, please…please don't-"
"So-" Charity's heart starts racing at the change in tone. She looks up and meets Vanessa's hopeful gaze. "If we're seriously talking about doing this, about trying again, then you need to be sure."
"I am! I'm totally sure." She smiles and tries to blink away the tears that keep coming. "I want to be with you. And I'm going all in, I swear. Toothbrush, slippers, matching sweaters, the lot."
"Wow," Vanessa says, wiping her eyes with her free hand. "That is a commitment."
"I should be committed for ever letting go of you." Vanessa's nose wrinkles and Charity sucks air in through her teeth. "Too much?"
Vanessa nods. "A little bit, yeah."
Charity rolls her eyes. "Well...see how desperate I am to get you back? I'm spewing out a load of tripe at you."
"I never needed you to spout fancy words at me, Charity." Vanessa shrugs. "That's not you and all I ever wanted was you."
"Oh, babe." Charity lifts her hand and cups Vanessa's cheek. "I've been daft, haven't I?"
"Yeah, you have." Vanessa's eyes sparkle with mischief. "But what's new there?"
Charity narrows her eyes, but doesn't bother trying to hide her smile. "I'll need to buy a new toothbrush for yours."
"I've still got your one." Vanessa tucks some hair behind her ear. "I couldn't stand looking at it every morning and every night. But I couldn't chuck it away, either. Not when it had been such a flaming battle to get it there."
There's a feeling that floods Charity's chest at that and it's the same one that she got when she walked through the door at Tug Ghyll earlier. And it hits her that it's the feeling of coming home, of belonging somewhere, of belonging with someone. And while she might have been in love before, she's never had this feeling of complete security. She's never had a home.
"Listen." Charity licks her lips, shifting her weight between her feet. "I know this isn't exactly the place for it, but can I...can I kiss you?"
"You bloody better." Vanessa's hand moves to the back of her neck, pulling her closer.
Their lips touch and Charity closes her eyes. The reality of kissing Vanessa is even better than the memories that would to dance through her mind on the nights she couldn't sleep. She makes a noise in her throat when Vanessa pulls away and when her eyes open, Vanessa's looking up at her with such affection, she has to look away.
"You still...ummm-" She swallows, unable to ask the question. Vanessa takes her face in both hands, waiting until their eyes meet again.
"Yes. I still love you, Charity." Charity nods, but Vanessa's not finished. "I can't remember what it's like not to love you, and I can't imagine a time when I won't love you. But I meant what I said before, I can't let myself keep getting hurt, okay?"
"Okay," Charity whispers. "And...I love you an'all."
"I know." Vanessa kisses her firmly on the lips. "You've a bloody strange way of showing it, sometimes, but I do know that."
Charity rushes to find words that will convince Vanessa she's in it for keeps this time. "I'll...I'll be different...I'll get better at-" Vanessa's finger on her lips cuts her off and she's shaking her head.
"I want you, remember? I don't want you to change or be different. I just want you to let me in instead of pushing me away. That's all." Vanessa smiles hopefully. "D'you think you can manage that?"
"You're a glutton for punishment, you." Charity smiles. "And yeah, I think I can."
"Good." Vanessa lets out a breath and slumps against her, wrapping her arms around Charity's shoulders and pressing her face into her shoulder. Charity hugs her close, smiling when she feels her yawn. "I feel like I've run a marathon."
"Worry takes it out of you." She leads Vanessa over to the chair by Johnny's bed, sitting her down. She goes and fetches another from the corner of the room and places it right next to Vanessa's, wrapping an arm around her, urging her to lay her head on her shoulder. "Why don't you try and close your eyes for ten minutes, eh?"
Vanessa sighs and fumbles around for her hand, taking it and squeezing it. "You're staying, then?"
"Yeah, babe." She presses her nose into Vanessa's hair, dropping a kiss on her temple. "I'm going nowhere."
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