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SERIES: Part five of Here be Dragons.
Take a good look at these crow's feet (sitting on the prettiest eyes)
Charity finds herself alone in the house one evening. It's a rarity, these days, what with both her and Vanessa being mostly retired. Johnny still lives at home with them, although he's spending the majority of his nights with the new girl he's seeing. Charity rolls her eyes; falls in love at the drop of a hat, that kid. And out of it just as fast. And every flamin' break-up is the biggest drama ever. That last one, a lad from Manchester he'd met at a book signing, well, you'd have thought it was the end of the world when they called it quits. Spent a solid week in his bedroom. In the end, it took Moses coming home and physically wrestling him downstairs to get him back in the land of the living. Next day he'd been right as rain, knocking back pints in the pub with his brothers. As if he hadn't been wailing into his pillow and listening to maudlin 80s ballads on repeat at top volume for days on end. He gets that from Vanessa; the dramatic streak. Vanessa laughs whenever Charity voices this opinion. Yeah, you keep telling yourself that.
Vanessa's over at Rhona's this evening, listening to her latest marital woes. Vanessa had said she could come if she wanted, but she'd declined. Rhona and Pete go through this cycle every few years and Charity's heard it all before. She's not quite as good as Vanessa at hiding her thoughts on the matter either, so it's best if she lets the two of them get on with it.
She tidies up the last of the dinner dishes and wipes down the surfaces before heading into the living room and slumping onto the couch. She sighs. While she often goes on about wanting peace and quiet, she's really not all that keen on it when she gets it. Too used to the bustle of a big family, always talking and yelling and shoving. The silence of the house just serves to remind her that her kids are all grown up and mostly gone. Not that they've gone far, apart from Ryan. Noah's in Hotten with his partner and their kids. Moses and his girlfriend have a flat in Skipdale, and he's taken over the running of the Vets' from Vanessa. She smiles as she thinks of the day he came back home from uni, her boy, a fully qualified vet. Vanessa had been practically bouncing off the walls waiting for him to arrive back.
Pushing herself up, she saunters to the bookcase, tilting her head to read the handwritten labels on the top shelf before selecting the one she's after. It's a photo-album. More of a scrapbook, really. Vanessa's kept them for years, printing photos of significant events and keeping clippings from the paper and drying out flowers from special occasions. Charity makes fun of her for it, but she does love that they have these memories at their fingertips and not lost in an endless digital stream.
Settling back down on the couch, she opens the tome. This one in particular is Moses' journey to becoming a vet. She smiles at the first picture. It's him and Vanessa grinning at the camera while holding a newborn lamb between them. Moses can't be more than five in the picture and Charity idly wonders if they should have been letting him birth animals at that age. But there was no stopping him, not when he discovered what Vanessa did for a living. He begged her for stories about her day and always wanted the gory details of every procedure and call-out. Eventually she just started taking him with her. Just to Moira's, initially, and then to some of the other farms where she was friendly with the owners. Soon he was a permanent fixture by her elbow when she was working and was set on becoming a vet himself.
Charity flicks through the pages of the album, smiling at photos of her wife and their son covered in all manner of muck and bodily fluids. As she continues, she watches her boy grow up before her eyes. From a tiny, skinny little thing, barely up to Vanessa's waist, to a tall, strong man.
She sniffs, blinking away tears as she strokes his face in his graduation photo. His face is bright and split in two by a grin. Vanessa's teary, of course, her face half hidden in his chest. Looking at her own face, Charity sees nothing but pride shining from her eyes. That day was emotional for all of them, but for her, it was another sign that maybe she wasn't the complete disaster she'd always believed. She'd helped raise a son who had got his head down and studied hard and achieved something. Something amazing.
Turning to the final page, she finds the picture she was looking for. She took it, actually. It's Moses and Vanessa, stood on either side of the surgery door, pointing at the plaques. There's a new one, the brass shining brighter than the others.
Charity brushes a thumb over the plaque in the photo. And then the one directly above it, the brass duller, but the letters no less visible.
Charity'd got her that as a wedding gift and the soppy cow had cried over it and then yelled at Charity for ruining her make up. As if she hadn't already cried her way through most of the vows and all of the speeches. Flicking back to the first photo, Charity shakes her head. It seems like only yesterday he was that size, following Vanessa around like she was God's gift. Where has the time gone?
The door opens and she sniffs a few times, wiping at her eyes. "Ness?"
"Yeah, only me." Vanessa calls from the hall. "I couldn't listen to Rhona complain about the same stuff over again, so I made my excuses and left." She sighs, coming into the living room. "Honestly, if the two of them can't just trust one another, they need to put an end to-...is that Moses' album?"
Charity swallows. "Yeah, I ummm-" She sighs. "I was just, you know, reminiscing a bit."
Vanessa leans on the back of the couch, chin by Charity's ear. "God, look how tiny he is there. He's barely bigger than that lamb!" She comes around, plopping herself down next to Charity and pulling the album so that it's in both of their laps. "And look at me! To think I was worried about wrinkles and cellulite back then. God, what I wouldn't give to fit into them jeans again."
Charity turns to look at her now. The laughter lines around her eyes are more pronounced, a few more silver hairs slip through her golden highlights than before, but she's still the most beautiful woman Charity's laid eyes on. She shakes her head. "If this is you fishing for compliments, lady, then-" She leans in and kisses Vanessa's cheek, leaving her lips against it as she speaks. "You're gorgeous, kid. Always have been, always will be."
Humming, Vanessa turns so their noses bump. "Well, you've got to say that." She frowns, suddenly, pulling back. "Have you been crying?"
"What? No!" Charity rolls her eyes. When Vanessa's expression doesn't change, she relents. "Fine. Maybe I was. A bit." She shakes her head and huffs. "This is my life now, is it? Sitting blubbing over old photos of my kids and wondering where the time has gone?"
"But you don't have to wonder, do you?" Vanessa says, with a shrug. She points at one of the photos. "It's all here." She taps the side of Charity's head. "And here. All the memories we've made over the years."
Warmth flows through Charity's chest. Always finding the bright side. Always managing to raise a smile, even when Charity's feeling sorry for herself.
"Twenty years, babe. More than." She whistles. "You must be due a long-service medal soon. People do less time for murder."
"Oi, you." Vanessa scowls at her, turning the pages of the album. "Not one second of it has been service."
"Oh yeah, it's all been rainbows and candyfloss, hasn't it?" Charity looks down at a picture of Moses with his arm wrapped around Vanessa, a head taller than she is, with a calf covered in slime being licked by its mother on straw at their feet. "We both know I'm not the easiest person in the world to love."
Vanessa's hand lands on her wrist, squeezing until she meets her eyes. "Yes." She nods emphatically. "You are, actually."
She laughs at that. "Come on, Ness."
"I'm not kidding, Charity." Vanessa smiles. "Loving you, it's-" She puts a hand over her own heart. "-it's like my heartbeat. I don't have to think about it, it's just there. Constant. Keeping me going."
"Jesus, Vanessa." Charity swipes her sleeve across her eyes, a little awed that Vanessa can still manage to catch her off guard like this.
"And it's not like I planned on it." Vanessa laughs softly. "After all that stuff with my dad, you were hardly high up on my list of suitors."
Charity lifts her eyebrows and sniffs. "Oh, there was a list, was there?"
Ignoring her, Vanessa carries on. "But when I got to know you…" She shakes her head. "Charity, falling in love with you was the easiest thing I've ever done."
Before Vanessa, Charity had assumed she was difficult to love. Impossible, maybe. Her life had been a succession of people who taught her that she was a commodity; only worth what they were willing to pay and easy to discard. Their love, if it even was that, came laden with conditions and expectations which she inevitably failed to live up to. With Vanessa, that's never been the case. Vanessa always held her in such high regard that it made Charity rise to the occasion. She wanted to be the person Vanessa saw when she looked at her. She wanted to be worthy of Vanessa's love, even if Vanessa already thought she was.
Vanessa didn't want to make her better, Vanessa made her want to be better.
"Well," Charity begins, closing over the album and placing it on the table. She takes Vanessa's hand in hers, thumb rubbing over her wedding ring. "S'long as falling out of it isn't as easy."
"Oh, as if," Vanessa laughs, squeezing Charity's hand. "There's nothing in this world that could make me stop loving you."
There was a while, years in fact, where Charity's brain told her that kind of statement was false. That Vanessa would find some reason not to love her, like everyone else did. That she'd do something that showed Vanessa who she really was and she'd walk away. But as time went on, she showed more and more of herself to Vanessa. And all it did was bring them closer together. Like in one of Vanessa's more adventurous knitting patterns; two distinct strands intrinsically woven together to form a, sometimes slightly wonky, whole.
"Lucky that," Charity says, a glint in her eye. "Since we're both far too old to be breaking in anyone new now."
Vanessa sighs, shifting closer and working her way under Charity's arm, cuddling in. "I think our Johnny's got relationship dramas covered for the lot of us, don't you?"
Charity laughs. "Let's hope he doesn't take quite as long to settle down as the two of us did, eh?"
"Oh, I think the right one's worth waiting for," Vanessa says, drawing mindless patterns on Charity's chest with her index finger. She smiles, her voice softer when she continues. "And we've plenty of memories still to make, Charity." She leans in and kisses Charity's lips, an achingly familiar caress. "Plenty of albums still to fill, so don't you worry about that."
"Hmmm," Charity chases her mouth, seeking out another kiss and receiving one. "How about we nip upstairs and make some memories right now, eh?" She wiggles her eyebrows. "We probably won't put them in an album, though."
"Don't even joke about that." Vanessa shoves her shoulder lightly. "Debbie's still scarred from that time she was flicking through your phone and saw more of me than she ever wanted to."
"Serves her right for being a nosey cow," Charity says. "So, are we going upstairs or should I just slip my knickers off right he-"
The front door bursts open and slams shut and they both jump, turning in time to see Johnny framed in the living room doorway.
"It's all off with me and Freya. I'm going to my room." He turns and flounces towards the stairs, clomping up and slamming his bedroom door. The opening of Heart's Alone starts pounding through the ceiling.
Charity sighs, meeting Vanessa's eyes, eyebrows tilted plaintively. "Can't we just lock him in the pub cellar with Dotty and hope for the best? Not sure I can take another twenty years of this, babe."
Vanessa grins. "Course you can." She pecks Charity's lips. "You go up and do the door knocking, I'll get the hot chocolate started."
With a roll of her eyes, Charity grunts as she stands, watching Vanessa trot off to the kitchen to prepare for a night of tears and snot with one of their kids. She smiles.
Yeah, this is her life. And she wouldn't swap it for anything.
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