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Have you ever loved and lost somebody?
Cain leaves a charged and heavy atmosphere behind him. Debbie's shoulders are rising and falling with the deep, fast breaths she's taking as she stands, frozen. Charity moves forward to touch her shoulder, to offer some small comfort, but she flinches away. Charity pulls her hand back, cradling it like a wounded paw. She used to be more prepared for it; the lashing out, the blame and the recriminations. She's obviously grown soft around someone whose touch is always gentle.
"Debs, I think-"
Breaking the silence prompts Debbie into motion and she turns, her fury whipping around her as she advances.
"And you." The word is uttered with such contempt that Charity takes a step backwards to get away from it. "You say you've got my back. But all you do is try and make me cover up for him."
Charity shakes her head. "Babe, I've told you, I'm on your side no matter what you do." Her hands want to reach for Debbie again, but the rejection still stings so she twists them together instead. "I just don't see what good going to the police and blowing the whole thing open would do for anyone right n-"
Debbie's eyes grow narrow and dangerous, her movements quick and jerky. She reminds Charity of a shark. Or of Cain. She's not sure which is more frightening. "Oh really? But you going to the police about Bails after twenty-five years was fine, yeah?"
It would have hurt less if Debbie had slapped her across the face too. She swallows. "That was totally different, and you know it."
"Was it?" Debbie shrugs, seemingly unaware of how every word she says is piercing Charity's heart. "He did something terrible and you reported him. And he was put in prison for what he did. Like he deserved. How's this any different?"
Put in those terms, it makes perfect sense, but it's not the same. Bails deliberately hurt her, over a long period of time. He used her like she was worth nothing. He shaped her whole life, because she believed him. Cain throwing a single, horribly unlucky punch is not the same thing. "Debs, it's not that straightf-"
A sharp laugh cuts her off. Debbie's shaking her head. "You've not actually stopped to think about how I'm feeling at all, have you?"
Charity frowns. "How d'you mean? Course I have."
"Really? Have you really, properly thought about it?" Debbie puts a hand on her chest. "I loved him. I really, really loved him." Her lower lip trembles, and she looks so young that it breaks Charity's heart. "And my own dad killed him and covered it up. Did God only knows what with his body. Lied to my face about it for months on end." Debbie shakes her head, ignoring the tears streaming down her face. "What if it was Vanessa that had been killed?"
All at once, Charity's right back in that hospital. Tracy's telling her that they don't know if Vanessa will be okay. The doctor's saying they've found another internal bleed. Those flaming machines are beeping and flashing. She shakes her head to clear it. "That's...that's not-"
It's like Debbie can smell the blood in the water. "No, mother. I want you to really think about it. It's your wedding day, you're stood there like a spare part, excited and nervous, waiting for Vanessa to show up. And she doesn't show." Debbie throws her hands out to her sides. "And you're mortified and you're angry, but mostly you can't understand it, because she was so looking forward to it."
Charity backs up another couple of steps, but Debbie moves with her. "Debs, come on, stop-"
"And someone tells you that she just decided to go away. Without a second thought for you."
Charity's shaking her head. "It's a totally different situation, babe."
"And then you have to convince yourself that she was a horrible person who never really loved you. Because that's the only reason she wouldn't turn up, right? She can't have loved you the way you loved her." Debbie's voice breaks and Charity's throat throbs with the sob she's trying to hold back, both at seeing her kid in pain and at the picture she's painting. "Only you find out, months later, that someone you loved killed her. That she was trying to get to you and someone killed her. She died all alone, wanting to get to you."
Charity grabs Debbie by the arms, shaking her. "Stop it, alright?"
"Why? Because it's so awful to think about? Yeah, I know that mum. I'm living it." Debbie pulls away, wrapping her arms around herself. "I can't sleep at night for thinking of him and what must have been going through his mind at the end. For thinking about all the things we could have had. And feeling guilty that I believed he'd just left us."
"But see? There. That's the difference." Charity knows she really shouldn't be pushing back on this, but she can't help it. It is completely different. "You believed it because you knew he was capable of it. He'd taken you for a mug for months. Fake name, fake business, all so he could humiliate us. If Vanessa didn't turn up at our wedding, I'd know something was wrong because I know her, and I'd move heaven and hell to find out what had happened." She touches Debbie's back, watching the side of her face. "You never knew him, babe, not really. Even at the end, you didn't know the money and the house weren't his. I don't even know if anyone could know him properly."
Debbie pins her with her glare. "And that makes it okay that my Dad killed him, does it?"
Charity sighs. "No, of course it doesn't."
"But Joe's less deserving of justice than other people? Is that what you're saying?" Debbie pulls away from her again "He doesn't deserve the same justice that Vanessa would?"
"Look, can we just stop talking about Vanessa dying, please?" The irritation Charity had been trying to keep under control bubbles up. "Considering she's still actually recovering from a stab wound that nearly killed her."
"Yeah. And you nearly killed the bloke that did it." A flash of hot anger goes through Charity's chest at the thought of him, but Debbie's not done. "But I'm supposed to have tea and biscuits with my dad and pretend everything's hunky-dory?"
"Babe, nobody's saying that you-"
"Just go, mum." Debbie sighs and heads into the kitchen, flicking the kettle on. "You're not helping so just...just go."
Fighting down the urge to argue, Charity decides that there's no placating Debbie right now, not when she's in this mood.
"Okay, babe. Well, you know where I am if you need me."
Debbie makes no indication that she's heard and just continues to watch the kettle. Charity nods at her back and heads outside, with Debbie's words ringing in her ears.
All she wants is for her children to be happy and safe, and she's not helping with that. She's prolonging her child's suffering. And for what? To protect Cain? A man who's spent most of his life making her feel like something he trod in. But then she thinks of Moira, and Kyle, and Isaac and how all of their lives would be ripped apart because of a stupid moment's thoughtlessness.
And, Charity knows better than most, getting justice doesn't actually fix the hurt. Cain ending up in jail wouldn't bring Joe back to Debbie. It wouldn't fill the hole inside of her.
Her stomach churns as she heads up the road to the pub. Nothing's resolved, Debbie's still intent on leaving and dragging the kids with her. Cain's not going to do anything to make the situation better and Charity is utterly powerless to help.
But there's something else gnawing at her. What Debbie had said was true; if it was Vanessa, she'd kill whoever had done it. That white hot fury she'd felt standing over Donny sweeps through her and she knows that if Cain had killed Vanessa, unlucky punch or not, she'd kill him. Even the thought of someone snatching away the happiness they've built together is unbearable and she does sympathise with Debbie on that front.
She opts to go in the back door, and is surprised to find the living room empty. Vanessa was working for a bit earlier, but she should be home by now. She frowns, ignoring the uncomfortable shifting of her stomach. She moves to the bottom of the stairs. "Babe?"
There's no answer so she heads through to the bar. Chas gives her a quizzical look. "What's this? You read the rota wrong or summat?"
Charity doesn't bother to enter into the banter. "I'm looking for Ness. Is she about?"
"She was in earlier, but Pete called and asked if she could nip over and sit with Rhona." Chas lifts her eyebrows. "She said she was gonna text you."
Fumbling in her coat pockets, Charity locates her phone and, sure enough, there's a message from Vanessa. Gone to do my Florence Nightingale routine at Rhona's. Be back later. Can you get the boys from Tracy? x
The confirmation does nothing to calm Charity down. In fact, it annoys her further. She shakes her head and calls Vanessa's number, mumbling to Chas as she does so. "So she's up there lifting and laying Rhona when she's barely recovered herself? That's sensible."
"Not having great luck just now are they, them vets?" Chas bites her lip. "I'm gonna tell my Paddy to watch himself."
Charity listens to each ring, getting more irritated. "In a collision between Paddy and a tractor, I think the tractor would come off worse, babe." The call goes to voicemail and Charity huffs, looking at the phone like it's to blame. "She's not picking up."
"Well, like I said, she's up helping Rhona." Chas frowns. "And there's Leo to be seen to an'all. She'll just be in the middle of something. What is it you need her for?"
Glancing up at her cousin, Charity tries to smile, but it feels like a grimace. "Yeah...it's...you're right. It's fine. I'll speak to her later." She nods and heads through to the back before Chas can say anything, and before the tightening in her chest gets to the point where she can't breathe.
This has happened a couple of times since the stabbing. When Vanessa's not in her line of sight, not within arms reach, then she imagines all sorts of things that could be happening to her. Leaning against the wall now, she closes her eyes and concentrates on breathing, but her heart is racing and she's starting to sweat and she knows the only thing that will calm her down is seeing with her own eyes that Vanessa's okay.
Unsteady legs somehow get her out the door and up the street, although she has no conscious memory of the short walk when she finds herself on Rhona's doorstep. Before she can talk herself out of it, she bangs her fist on the door, harder than necessary. The door opens to reveal Vanessa, and the coiled spring in Charity's chest loosens just at the sight of her.
Vanessa gives her a confused smile. "Hiya." She tilts her head. "What's up?"
"You didn't answer your phone," Charity barks, before she can help herself. Anger's always easier. "I called you and you didn't answer."
Frown deepening, Vanessa pats her pockets. "My phone must be knocking about somewhere inside. I was getting Leo ready for bed and cleaning up after tea." She steps closer to Charity. "Why? What's happened? Are you okay?"
Guilt touches the sides of Charity's irritation. Vanessa's first thought is always her welfare. Always. No matter what's going on, Vanessa takes the time to check on Charity.
"Nothing's happened. I just-" Charity sighs, feeling utterly stupid now that she's stood here, having to justify her actions. "You know what? It's fine. I'll see you later."
She turns, cheeks burning at her behaviour, but she's stopped by Vanessa's hand on her arm.
"Oi." There's a tug on her arm. "Look at me." With a sigh, she complies, meeting Vanessa's eyes briefly before looking at the ground. Vanessa steps closer, her hand sliding up Charity's arm and squeezing her bicep. "This isn't about me not picking up my phone."
The warmth and tenderness in Vanessa's voice is almost enough to make her weep. It's almost enough to blunt the edges of Debbie's earlier words.
"Well...it is actually," Charity mumbles, shifting from foot to foot. "But...not because..." She blows out a frustrated breath through her nose. Vanessa's fingers brush her jaw and she looks up, meeting eyes that contain nothing but understanding.
"Did it happen again?" Vanessa asks.
Charity nods, glad she doesn't have to say the words again. They'd been hard enough after the first time Vanessa had gone back to work and Charity had burst into the surgery, snapping at Pearl and stuttering some rubbish about Vanessa forgetting her packed lunch. It had been later that evening that she'd managed to explain the panic to Vanessa.
"I'm sorr-" She's cut off when Vanessa pulls her forward, into her arms. She closes her eyes and holds her tightly, drinking in all of the sensations that come along with Vanessa's embrace.
"What brought it on?" Vanessa asks, stroking her hair. "Me not answering my phone?"
"No." Charity swallows. "Well, not just that." She lifts her head and swipes a thumb along Vanessa's jaw. "Debbie was mouthing off about Joe and she...she said that I hadn't stopped to think about how she felt...about how I'd feel if...if you-"
Vanessa pulls her in again, shushing her and holding her tightly. "That's...it's terrible, what Debbie's going through. Losing the person you love like that. And so suddenly...God, I can't...I don't want to imagine." There's a squeeze around her shoulders before Vanessa pulls back and meets her eyes. "But it doesn't mean she gets to take it out on you, okay?"
"I'm her mum," Charity says. "Isn't that what I'm here for?"
Vanessa shrugs. "Well, it seems to be what you think you're there for, a lot of the time." She smiles, sadly. "You're not to blame for everything that goes wrong in their lives, Charity. And I know you want to fix it all for them, and make them happy, but you can't fix everything. Short of tracking Joe down and marching him back here to explain-" Charity's eyes drop to the ground again. '-there's really not much you can do except be there for her. But not as her punching bag, okay?"
"Yeah." She wishes she could tell Vanessa about all of it. About Cain and Joe and Debbie. But it's not fair to lay yet another Dingle drama at her feet. Not when she's just signed up to be one and fresh off a genuine near-death experience. She can't put all that on her as well. So she does what she does best; she bottles it up and plasters on a smile. "Anyway, babe, I'll let you get back to Rhona. She's probably needing something by now." She winks. "Very demanding patients, these vet types."
She gets a half-hearted smile in return and Vanessa looks at her for a long moment. "I know there's something going on, Charity," she says, quietly. "And if you don't want to tell me what it is, that's fine. I know your family is complicated but-" Vanessa bites her lip. "Well, I just wanted to let you know that you can tell me, if you want to. And I'll listen."
A wave of love wells in Charity's chest and crashes over her heart. Sometimes she forgets just how different Vanessa is to everyone else. How well she knows her, how well she can read her. And how she always knows what Charity needs. Just that reminder that she could speak to Vanessa if she wanted to and that she could trust her is so refreshing and new. She leans in and presses her lips to Vanessa's.
"I know, babe. I know." She pats Vanessa's backside. "Now, you get back to Rhona and I'll get back to picturing you in a nurse's outfit, yeah?"
Vanessa rolls her eyes, giving Charity a shove down the path to get her moving. "I won't be long. I'll get Rhona settled in for the night and then I'll be home." Charity turns and walks backwards, nodding. "You okay to get the boys from Tracy? They've had their tea already, so just get them bathed and in their jammies."
It's all so domestic and settled. It's what Charity told herself she never wanted. And now she has it, she can't imagine ever wanting anything else. Debbie's voice echoes in her head.
Thinking about all the things we could have had.
"Bath and pyjamas." She salutes. "Think I'll manage that, yeah." She stops walking and smiles. "I love you." Sometimes it's like those words are just bursting to come out of her and she has very little control over it.
Vanessa beams, and it's like the sun coming out. "I love you too."
Charity has everything. Everything that Debbie wanted and hoped for and will never have with Joe.
She resolves in that instant never to take it for granted.
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