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All is calm, all is bright
By thegirl20


Part 1

Merry Christmas babe x

If Vanessa's looked at that text once today, she's looked at it a hundred times. Fishing her phone out of her pocket and flicking to her messages, just to see three little words. It's not so much the words, though, it's the little 'x' that follows them. It's the first time Charity's put a kiss at the end of a message to her. And she knows, because she checked back through all the other ones she's received, in case she missed it before. But no, this is the first.

When her phone had pinged with a message that morning, she was in a bit of a guddle with the dinner preparations. Nigella makes it all look so easy with her cavernous kitchen and double oven and shiny hair. Vanessa would kill to be that glam in the kitchen. She'd finally managed to get the oven door closed, after wedging one of the roasting tins in at a funny angle. With a nod of satisfaction, she'd stood up, wiped her hands on her pinny and reached for her phone. And then she'd nearly dropped the bloody thing because of that message with the kiss.

In truth, she'd avoided seeing Charity on the couple of days running up to Christmas. She'd really been enjoying this thing between them. And that day, in the pub, when Charity threatened to whack Veronica over the head with the poker from her own arse, well, Vanessa's heart felt like it might burst with joy. It seemed like a validation of everything that Vanessa had been feeling, and hoped Charity felt in return but was too scared to ask. It felt like they were on the same page, at the same level. And it had been such a relief to be able to finally talk to Rhona about it, even if Rhona was more judgemental about it than Vanessa would have liked. It was great just to be able to say the words out loud; I like her.

And then everything had come crashing down. Couple of weeks, I'll be bored of you. Vanessa was surprised how painful those words were, considering that's what she'd been assuming since they'd started. Maybe that's why they hurt. They were confirmation that Vanessa wasn't enough. And that, no matter how many times Vanessa thought she saw genuine emotion in Charity's eyes, in the end it was just a distraction for the other woman. Someone to pass the time with for a while. Charity's heart clearly does not start beating faster when Vanessa walks into a room.

So, after two days of avoidance, the text was a bit of a surprise. Vanessa had agonised over her response. She could've just left it and not replied at all. She only considered that for a second before discarding the notion completely. She'd started to type a response several times, then deleted what she'd written, then panicked in case Charity was sitting looking at her phone and seeing the three little dots and expecting a novel. Finally she'd settled on something simple.

Merry Christmas x

As an afterthought, she'd added a Santa emoji and then sent it so that she couldn't second-guess herself any longer. She'd watched the text be delivered and then read almost immediately, her heart in her throat as Charity started to type again. The message came through a few seconds later.

Enjoy your day with Rhona and the kids. Try not to think of me too much. Stuck up here fighting Sam over the last mince pie and trying not to gag from watching Chas play footsie with Paddy. I swear I'll punch one of them before the day's out.

Vanessa had laughed at that, standing alone in her kitchen. And she'd hated Charity a little for being able to make her.

Try not to hurt Paddy too much. I'd have to cover his shifts.

Again, Charity's response was immediate.

Can't have that. Then I'd NEVER get to see you.

Vanessa's breath had quickened then, just from some stupid words on a screen. The instinct to type something passive-aggressive about Charity getting bored had been strong, but she'd resisted. Not on Christmas day.

There you go. An incentive not to punch Paddy.

There had been more of a gap before Charity's next response.

I'm being summoned to help in the kitchen. They must be desperate. Have a good day Ness x

And there it was again. That innocent little character that made all the difference. Vanessa thinks it's probably lucky texting wasn't a thing when she was a teenager because she'd have driven herself mad trying to decipher the meaning behind every little thing. She caught her lip between her teeth as she read it over and over again before typing her response.

You too x

Rhona comes over after midday, as arranged, and they exchange gifts and work together to pull the meal together. They spend a really nice day, just eating and laughing and playing with the kids and their new toys. It's just gone six when Leo starts yawning and rubbing at his eyes.

"I'll need to get him home soon," Rhona says, sipping her wine. "He was up far too late last night and far too early this morning, so he's gonna crash at some point."

"Poor little mite," Vanessa comments, glad that Johnny's still too little to fully appreciate all this Christmas stuff. "Too much excitement for one day, eh?"

Her phone rings in her pocket and she fishes it out, her stomach dipping when she sees the caller. She quickly glances at Rhona before standing up.

"Sorry, I'm just gonna-" She nods to the kitchen. Not that there's a hell of a lot of privacy in there either, but it's something. Rhona's face tightens just slightly before she nods and Vanessa rolls her eyes. She answers the call. "Hiya."

"Hey." Charity's voice is hushed and soft, like it is when they're in bed and the lights are off. "How's your day going?"

"Yeah, fine. Dinner's done, dishes are washed, kids are exhausted." She looks back into the living room. "How about you? Lamped anyone yet?"

"Not yet, no," Charity says, and Vanessa can hear her smile, can picture it clear as day. "But I've come close a few times."

"Well done. I know Paddy and Chas get on your wick with their carrying on sometimes."

"Mmmhmm." There's a pause, and Vanessa has a million things she'd like to fill it with, but Charity beats her to it. "Can...can I see you? Today I mean? Well, tonight. Later, like. Not for, well, you know...just...Jesus, Ness, feel free to cut in anytime."

She'd been so enchanted by Charity's nerves, she hadn't even thought to reply. "Yes." The word is out before she can even give it a second thought and she rolls her eyes at herself. So much for avoiding Charity for a while. A minute of hearing her voice and Vanessa's ready to agree to whatever she suggests. "I mean, yeah, if...if you want to."

"Be nice to get some peace from this lot," Charity says, too quickly and Vanessa tries to quell the rising hope in her chest. If Charity wanted peace, she could just go home.

"Well, come over whenever. Rhona's heading off soon."

"I'll wait a bit and then sneak away," Charity says. "Noah's already gone to play video games with Jacob and Debs and the kids have been whisked off somewhere by Tom. No-one'll even notice I'm gone, probably."

"Oh, I'm sure they will," Vanessa says, with a smile. "You're pretty noticeable."

"Only when I wanna be, cupcake." Vanessa swears she can hear Charity wink through the phone. Charity clears her throat. "Anyway, I'll head over in a bit. Need me to bring anything?"

"You're joking, aren't you? There's enough food here to feed an army."

"Or Paddy?" Charity suggests.

"Well, that might be a stretch," Vanessa says, with a laugh. "No, don't bring anything. Just yourself."

"I think I can just about manage that," Charity says, her voice soft and intimate in that way that warms Vanessa's belly. "I'll see you soon, babe."

"Yeah." Vanessa curses how breathless she sounds. "See you soon." She ends the call and takes a minute, bracing herself on the edge of the counter to make sure she doesn't look as shaken as she feels. When she's happy she's got herself under control, she slips her phone back into her pocket and heads through to the living room.

"Was that the person we've pointedly avoided speaking about all afternoon?" Rhona asks, helping Johnny to get a toy truck out of its packaging.

"It was," Vanessa says. "She was just calling to wish me a merry Christmas." She takes her seat back on the couch beside Rhona. "And she's, uh, she's gonna stop by for a bit later."

Rhona nods. "Is it...is it always late when she stops by?"

Sighing, Vanessa shakes her head. "Maybe we should just go back to avoiding the subject, eh? I don't want to spoil the nice day we've had."

"I'm sorry," Rhona says, reaching over and squeezing Vanessa's arm. "I'm just-" She stops herself, biting her lip. "I'm just trying to look out for you, like you'd do for me. Like you have done for me. Even if I wasn't willing to listen."

Vanessa frowns. "This is nothing like that!"

"No, no I know!" Rhona holds up her hands. "I just mean, well, it's Charity. We all know what she's like, and I-"

"No, Rhona," Vanessa interrupts her. "I know what she's like. You don't know what she's like with me, when we're alone." Her frown deepens. "And I'm not just talking about sex. She's...she's different with me." Her lips twitch into a smile as she thinks of Charity's softer moments. "She's sort of sweet, in her own way. You should've seen how she stuck up for me with Veronica the other day."

"Well, I know how much I had to grovel to make up for it," Rhona mutters.

"Veronica was being her usual self and laying into me about something and Charity stepped in and defended me," Vanessa says. "And she didn't have to. But she did."

"Look, Ness," Rhona says, reaching for Vanessa's hand and holding it. "I want so badly for you to be happy, okay? That's all I've ever wanted for you. And I don't want you to get hurt. And with Charity's track record I just-"

"What about my track record? What about yours?" Vanessa asks, shaking her hand free of Rhona's. "None of us is lily white, Rhona. And I prefer to judge someone on their behaviour rather than on their reputation. And I like spending time with Charity and I'm gonna keep on doing it until-" She falters, swallowing down the lump in her throat and shaking her head. "I'm gonna keep on doing it." She meets Rhona's eyes. "And it'd be great if my best mate could at least try and be happy for me."

Rhona looks at her for a long time, as if weighing up whether or not to pursue the issue. Vanessa's relieved when her lips pull into a smile, even if it is tight and grudged. Rhona nods. "I'll try," she says. "Like you said, I don't know Charity very well at all. I will give her the benefit of the doubt. For you."

"Thank you," Vanessa says, tilting her head to the side. "That means a lot." She tries not to think about the fact that it might only be required for another couple of weeks.

They wrangle the living room into a vaguely tidy state and Rhona's just about managed to get Leo's shoes on and is on the hunt for his jacket when the doorbell goes, making Vanessa's insides turn to jelly. Rhona's eyebrows go up.

"Well, she's keen, I'll give her that," she notes. "It's barely half an hour since she phoned."

"Please be nice," Vanessa begs, as she goes to answer the door.

"I'm always nice," Rhona protests.

Vanessa rolls her eyes and opens the door, only just stopping herself from gasping at how beautiful Charity looks bathed in the light coming from the house, hair glowing, cheeks rosy from the cold.

"Hiya," she whispers.

"Hiya." Charity grins at her. "Nice jumper."

Vanessa glances down at herself. She'd almost forgotten her jumper had a huge sparkly Christmas pudding on it. She offers Charity a crooked smile. "Thanks?"

"No, I mean it. It suits you. It's adorable." Charity says, stepping into the hallway and closer to Vanessa. "Merry Christmas." And before Vanessa can come up with any response, Charity's lips are pressed softly against her own. It takes her a few seconds to remember that they're not alone, and she lifts a hand to Charity's cheek to gently push her back.

"Uh...I...Rhona is-"

"Rhona wasn't looking! I promise." Rhona's voice floats in from the living room.

Charity's eyebrows shoot up and she widens her eyes at Vanessa, mouthing 'sorry'. Vanessa shakes her head, swiping her thumb over Charity's cheekbone.

"Don't be, it's fine," she assures her. She nods to the living room. "Go on, get in, we're letting all the heat out."

Vanessa closes the door and leans against it for a second, trying to get her racing heart under control. Before Charity can make it very much further into the house, Johnny has attached himself to her legs and is beaming up at her.

"Hi mate," Charity says, placing her hand on his head just as Leo comes to join them. Charity starts to bend, waiting for Johnny shift, so that she can crouch to eye level. Johnny immediately leans into her side, wrapping an arm around her neck. She turns and grins at him, but then shifts her attention to Leo, before making the makaton sign for 'hello'. "Hi Leo." He responds in kind, with a wide smile and Vanessa scolds herself for not remembering that Charity and Leo are, in fact, related. Charity makes another sign, speaking at the same time. "Merry Christmas." He again responds with the same sign, before throwing his arms around her neck.

Vanessa glances at Rhona, to find her looking at the scene in front of her with a slightly open mouth. Vanessa clears her throat and Rhona's eyes flick up to meet her own. Vanessa raises an eyebrow and Rhona rolls her eyes, but the soft smile on her mouth speaks volumes.

"Merry Christmas, Charity," Rhona says, and it doesn't sound as forced as it might have a couple of minutes ago.

"Merry Christmas," Charity says, still crouching down with two little boys wrapped around her. "Hey, don't rush off on my account."

"No, no," Rhona says, with a dismissive wave. "We were heading off anyway. Leo's knackered and I'm not much better." She hold up Leo's jacket. "C'mon love, let's get you wrapped up, eh?"

Charity pats Leo's back and he releases her, running back to his mother and obediently getting into his jacket. Vanessa notes that Johnny's hand is buried somewhere in Charity's mane of hair, but instead of having him remove it, Charity just scoops him up as she stands, settling him on her hip and turning to smile at Vanessa.

"I think this one's not gonna last much longer either," she says, softly, as Johnny's head falls to her shoulder, his eyelids growing heavy.

"No. I'll get him up to bed soon," she says, moving closer and stroking a hand over Johnny's head.

"No, mummy!" Johnny whines, even as he rubs a fist into his eye. "I wanna stay with Chatty."

"Oh, so not with me, then," Vanessa says with a smile, tickling him. Charity hasn't spent all that much time with Johnny, but he's completely charmed by her already. Far too much like his mother, that lad.

"Right, I think that's us sorted," Rhona says, finishing up buttoning her coat. "C'mon, Leo. Say bye to everyone."

A round of goodbyes are exchanged and Vanessa ends up standing at the door waving, with Charity, still carrying Johnny, by her side. She tries not to notice how much it makes her feel like they're a proper little family. Or how much she wants that to be true. She can't feel that way. Not if she's going to be chucked in a couple of weeks. In fact, Johnny shouldn't be getting attached like this either.

Once Rhona and Leo are out of sight, she closes the door and turns to Charity. "Right, pass him here and I'll get him to bed. Kettle's not long boiled if you want a brew, or there's wine or...pretty much anything else."

Johnny's practically asleep, and barely notices when he's passed between them. Vanessa, however, notices the smile Charity gives him when he's secure in Vanessa's arms, and the way she runs her finger down the soft skin of his arm.

"Night night, mate," she whispers, stepping aside to let Vanessa go up the stairs.

Once Johnny's safely in bed, Vanessa goes to her own room and yanks off her Christmas jumper, chucking it on the bed and rummaging in her wardrobe for something a little less chunky. She opts for a black top with a little sparkle through it, keeping with the festive theme. The fact that the neckline is cut low doesn't do any harm either. She goes to the mirror and pulls her hair out of its ponytail, shaking it out and fluffing it around her shoulders. She sighs, that'll have to do.

When she gets back down the stairs, Charity's sitting on the couch, two cups of tea and a box of Mint Matchmakers on the coffee table in front of her. Along with something else.

"What's this?" Vanessa asks, as she takes a seat beside Charity.

"Hmmm?" Charity turns to her, eyes immediately dipping to her cleavage, a smile growing on her lips. "Nice t...op." She winks and Vanessa shoves her shoulder, pointing to the table.

"What's this?" she asks again.

Charity sighs. "Well, Vanessa, it's a box wrapped in Christmas paper, so I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess it's a Christmas present." She shifts in her seat, eyes flicking around the room. "It's for you."

"Oh, Charity...I...I didn't get you anything," Vanessa says, her cheeks flushing.

Charity's eyes snap to her own. "That's okay," she says, with a shrug. "Why would you? It's not like we're a couple or anything." The hurt that flashes in Charity's eyes is brief, but clear as day. And Vanessa suddenly feels like the biggest idiot in the world.

"That's...that's not what I meant," she says, although it sounds pathetic, even to herself.

"Well, it's what you said."

"No, but…"

"And I'm really not sure how I'm supposed to interpret 'we're not a couple' as anything other than...well, we're not a couple."

Vanessa tries for an embarrassed smile as she replays the conversation in her head. For two solid days, she's felt like the injured party in all of this, not for one minute thinking that she'd been the one to hurt Charity. "I...I thought you'd correct me."

Charity tilts her head in question. "Eh?"

"I thought...this sounds daft now, but I thought...what with all the stuff you said to Veronica and...you know, the stuff in the cellar…" She's really blushing now, her face is burning. "I thought you'd tell me that we were. You know, a couple."

Charity blows out a breath, shaking her head. "Well, let me tell you, buttercup, when someone says 'we're not a couple' to you, the last thing you want is to invite more humiliation by arguing the toss with them about it."

"I'm sorry," Vanessa whispers, her head dropping forward. Charity's finger hooks under her chin and tips her face back up. She's wearing an indulgent smile and shaking her head.

"So, if I'm picturing this right," she begins. "You expected me to...what? Jump over the bar? Sweep you into my arms and dip you backwards? Look into your eyes and whisper 'yes we are' just before I went in for a kiss?"

Vanessa laughs a little at the image Charity's conjured up. "Not quite that elaborate, but yeah, I suppose that was the general idea." She lifts a hand and wraps her fingers around Charity's wrist.

"Oh, Vanessa, you have got to stop watching so many romantic comedies," Charity sighs. "They're rotting your brain."

"So...you...you're not gonna get bored of me in a couple of weeks, then?" Vanessa asks, looking up through her lashes at Charity.

"Listen, cupcake, I think it'll take me a good bit longer than two weeks to get bored of you," Charity says. "You're full of surprises. Like this latest one where you say the exact opposite of what you mean and expect me to read your mind." She widens her eyes dramatically.

Charity's voice is teasing, even if Vanessa knows her words are serious. "I'm sorry," she says, brushing her knuckles over Charity's cheek before cupping it. "I'm an idiot."

"Yeah, you are," Charity says, but she leans in and presses her lips against Vanessa's, firm and reassuring and the weight that's been pressing down on Vanessa's chest for two days suddenly lifts. She pulls back, still holding Charity's face, trying to find words to say what she feels, but Charity just rolls her eyes at her and shakes her head. "My tea's getting cold. Open your present."

Vanessa smiles, grateful for Charity's ability to keep things light. She watches Charity pick up her cup and take a sip. She leans forward and lifts the small wrapped gift from the coffee table. She carefully unpeels the sellotape and Charity huffs beside her.

"Just rip it," she says. "Can't be doing with people who try and keep the paper for next year."

Laughing, Vanessa follows her advice, ripping the paper off to reveal a plain white box. She opens it and takes out what's inside. It's a little figurine of a cow wearing red wellies and a bobble hat. Tears spring to her eyes and she presses her lips together.

"It...it reminded me of you," Charity says. "Not, you know, 'cause you're a cow or anything. But...you...you like cows. And you wear wellies and daft hats and-"

Vanessa shuts up her babbling with a kiss. "It's perfect," she mumbles against Charity's lips, feeling her smile into their next kiss. "I love it."

"Good," Charity says when they part. "Now drink your tea and try and find something half-decent on the telly."

They settle together on the couch, Vanessa resting her head on Charity's shoulder, the little cow figurine still clutched tightly in her hand.

She smiles. Suddenly the New Year is looking a whole lot brighter.

Part 2

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