DISCLAIMER: The characters herein are used without permission. No infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To scotangelina[at]yahoo.com
Don't you know all the world wants to laugh?
"Excuse me, my bedside manner is legendary, thank you."
Paddy laughs and she turns to leave, just in time to see Vanessa entering. Immediately she knows it's not good news and her insides turn cold. She'd been so sure that Vanessa'd just get a slap on the wrist, and she'd put all her energy into that line of thought, that she hadn't really prepared herself for anything else.
"Babe! I've been trying to ring you all morning," Charity says. Her mind flicks back to earlier in the week, when a morning of unanswered calls drove her up the wall in a completely different way.
"How did it go?" Paddy asks.
Vanessa walks a few steps closer and shrugs. "I've...been suspended for twelve months." There's a tremble to her voice that hits Charity in her chest so hard she almost misses the words themselves. Twelve months?
"What?" That's the least helpful thing she could have said, but it's all that comes out because of the shock.
"Gross negligence. Apparently I'm lucky I haven't been struck off." Her voice is barely a whisper by the end of her sentence, her eyes bright with tears, and Charity closes the few steps between them.
"Oh, Ness," she murmurs, reaching for her. But Vanessa takes a step back, shaking her head.
"I'm fine," she says, blinking too fast. She catches Charity's eye for a brief second and tries for a smile. It breaks Charity's heart. "I'm fine."
"Do you...uh...well...I mean…" Paddy's bumbling gets on Charity's wick at the best of times, and this certainly isn't the best of times. She's pleased to note that he's at least subdued. After his utterly unnecessary interference yesterday, he bloody should be. She fixes him with a hard stare.
"Didn't you have a llama to go and bother somewhere?" she snaps, lifting her eyebrows at him and inclining her head towards the door.
"It's an alpaca, actually," he says and she rolls her eyes.
"Then what are you waiting for? D'you want me to alpaca you a lunch? Get moving."
He looks at the top of Vanessa's bowed head for a moment and then back at Charity, as if he's weighing up whether he should stay or not. She widens her eyes at him and nods to the door again. At last, he takes the hint.
"Right. Right...I should...yeah." He nods and hefts his bag a little higher. As he passes Vanessa, he reaches out to put a hand on her shoulder but she turns out of the way of his hand.
"I'm fine," she tells him. "Go on."
"I'll see you later, eh? We can…" he trails off, because he clearly has no idea what any of them can do.
"We'll see you in the pub later." Charity tells him, if only to stop him standing there like an idiot, trying to find comforting words.
That seems to spur him back into action and he flashes her a grateful smile. She regrets putting it there, a little, because he deserves to feel bad for his part in this. Charity feels bad enough for her own.
"Yes. Pub. That sounds like the best plan," he says, heading for the door. Finally.
"Drinks on you then, yeah?" Charity calls after him as he bids them goodbye.
Once the door is closed and they're alone, Charity takes a chance and moves closer to Vanessa again, only to have her hold up a hand to stop her. "Don't," she whispers, her eyes pleading.
Charity frowns. "Don't what?"
"Don't…" Vanessa draws in a shaky breath, shaking her head. "I haven't cried since I got out of the meeting and I...if you touch me...if you're nice to me...I'll cry."
"Wow. Call the Hotten Courier. 'Local Woman Loses Job. Has a Cry.'" She tilts her head to catch Vanessa's eyes. "Front page news, that is."
Vanessa manages a small smile. "No, I know, I just-" She closes her eyes, pressing her lips tightly together and shaking her head. "If I start, I'm scared I won't stop."
Charity takes another step closer, so she's standing right in front of Vanessa, without touching her. Close enough that she can feel the warmth coming from the other woman's body and hear how unsteady her breathing is. "Don't be daft," Charity keeps her voice gentle. "'Course you'll stop. You'll stop when you've let it out."
Opening her eyes, Vanessa just looks at her for a long moment, as if she can find the answers she needs in Charity's eyes. Then her lip trembles. "Charity," she whispers. "What am I going to do?"
As the first tear starts to make its way down Vanessa's cheek, Charity's arms are already around her, pulling her close as their stupid bulky coats will allow. Vanessa's face goes to her neck, the chill of outdoors still clinging to her cheeks. A contrast to the stream of hot tears tickling Charity's skin.
"Shhhhhh." Charity strokes her hair, swaying her as she sobs quietly, shoulders jumping under Charity's arm. "That's it, have a good cry."
Vanessa drops her handbag to the floor, both of her arms slipping beneath Charity's coat to wrap around her waist, squeezing her. Charity closes her eyes, pressing her lips against Vanessa's forehead and leaving them there. She wishes she could take Vanessa's pain away and make it all better. She'd take it on herself if she could. And that's not something she can remember feeling for anyone else except her kids. It terrifies her and exhilarates her; the way she feels about Vanessa. Everything feels new and she can't tell if it's just been so long since she cared about someone, or if this is different to everything that came before. She knows it's probably the latter. Which, in itself, is scary. How do you get to be forty-two with three kids, married three times, and then find someone who can melt your heart with just a smile? It's ridiculous. It's Vanessa.
Charity's not sure how long they stand like that, but the collar of her blouse is soaked through by the time Vanessa's crying eases. Eventually, they're just standing in each others arms, one of Vanessa's hands is tracing patterns on the exposed skin at Charity's neck.
"Feel better?" she asks, not loosening her hold.
There's a pause. "A bit."
Charity smiles at the grudging admission. "Good. And, hey, as for what you're going to do, you don't have to think about that today, right?" she tells her. "Let yourself have a day or two to get your head straight...well, maybe not completely straight, eh? 'Cause that wouldn't be good for me." Vanessa exhales against her neck. It's almost a laugh. "And once you can think a bit more clearly, we'll figure everything else out."
Lifting her head, Vanessa looks up at her and Charity's breath catches in her throat at how stunning she is, even with smudged mascara and tear tracks down both cheeks. Crying seems to have made her eyes even brighter blue.
"We'll figure it out?" Vanessa repeats. "Me and you?"
For a woman who managed to get Charity to chase her down the street, then all the way to bloody Hotten, there's an insecure side to Vanessa that's popped up this week which surprises Charity. Charity makes a show of rolling her eyes, and when she speaks, it's as if she's talking to a small child.
"What did I say to you in this very building just yesterday?"
"That you're going nowhere." Vanessa's lips quirk into a tiny smile as she says the words.
"Right." Charity nods. "So that means I'll be here, with you, figuring out what's next, doesn't it?" Vanessa nods along with her. "And you've got your dad and Tracy an' all. And none of us is too shabby in the old brains department, are we?" She taps Vanessa's temple. "Especially you." She lifts her eyebrows. "Except when you're within five metres of me, apparently."
Vanessa lets out a genuine laugh at that, then covers her mouth, looking up at Charity with wide eyes. "I shouldn't be laughing." She slaps Charity's side, gently. "Stop making me laugh. This is serious."
"Yeah, it is," Charity agrees. She leans down so that her eyes are level with Vanessa's. "But sometimes being able to have a laugh is the only thing that gets you through the serious stuff. So I'm not going to stop trying to make you laugh, right?"
There's that look again. The one Vanessa gave her the day before when she stuck that daft moustache on her. It makes Charity's heart swell in her chest and words dance on the end of her tongue. Those words are going to escape one day, and she won't be able to stop them. But she keeps them in for today because she doesn't want them to be mistaken for pity or condolence.
Leaning forward, Vanessa brings their lips together in a chaste kiss before drawing back and smiling at her. "How is it you always manage to say the right thing to me?"
Charity laughs in surprise. "Well, I never get it right with anyone else. Law of averages, I suppose. There had to be one. Turns out it's you." Her voice tightens and the words hang between them, heavier than Charity intended them to be. Then Vanessa smiles and the world starts moving again.
"Then I suppose, despite being unemployed and potentially soon to be homeless, I'm actually pretty lucky, aren't I?"
"That you are, babe," Charity says, matching Vanessa's smile with one of her own. Content that she's managed to lift Vanessa's spirits a little, she decides it's time to get her out of this place, away from the reminder of what she's not going to have for a whole year. "C'mon then," Charity says, wrapping her arm around Vanessa's shoulders and turning her towards the door. "Let's get you to the pub. Where I will wait on you hand, foot and mouth."
Vanessa glares up at her, but Charity can see the fondness through it. "It is far, far too soon for vet jokes, Charity."
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