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It's pulled the best from me (For all the world to see)
By thegirl20


They got the call late last night to let them know what had happened and since then, Charity has been a bundle of nervous energy, snapping and snarking at everything. Neither of them have slept, though at some point, Vanessa must have dozed off on the sofa and is woken up by Charity murmuring apologies in her ear.

"What you saying sorry for?" Vanessa's only half awake, but happy to snuggle into Charity's warm body when she pulls her closer.

"For taking things out on you." Charity sighs, and kisses her forehead. "I always do that, and I need to stop it because it's not fair."

Vanessa tries to protest. "Charity, I understand. You're worried and-"

Drawing back, Charity looks into her eyes for a long moment. "And you're here with me. Holding my hand. Making me a brew. Listening to me go on." She shakes her head. "I've never had that before, not properly. Not someone who-" She strokes her thumb along Vanessa's eyebrow. "Not someone like you."

Vanessa smiles and leans in for a chaste kiss. "Well, you do now."

"And I want it to stay that way."

Vanessa tilts her head at the honest and straightforward admission of feelings. Tiredness sometimes does that; makes Charity less guarded. Some of their most revealing conversations have taken place late at night, in bed, safe and warm, when Vanessa's arms are tight enough to let Charity's words come easier.

"So do I." Vanessa squeezes Charity's knee. "You don't have anything to worry about on that front."

Charity nods and blinks a few times, turning to look out of the window. "Hey, ummm-" She meets Vanessa's eyes briefly before looking down. "You should get up to bed. Try and get a proper rest."

"Only if you come too," Vanessa frowns, suddenly on edge as Charity continues to avoid her eyes. "Charity?"

"I'm going out to look for Belle. Marlon's gonna come and we're gonna pick up Fai-"

"No!" Charity meets her eyes and she shakes her head, grasping desperately at Charity's shirt. "He's...no, you can't!"

"What do you mean I 'can't'?" Like a cornered cat, Charity's shoulders go up, ready to spit and hiss, and Vanessa curses herself for sounding like she's giving out orders.

"What I mean is that he has a gun, Charity," Vanessa says, as calmly as she can manage. "And by the sounds of things it he isn't shy about using it. The police are out there looking. Cain's off on the rampage. What good is it going to do if you and Marlon are out there too?"

"Because we might just be the ones to see something that other people miss. Isn't that worth a go? Instead of sitting here fretting and drinking tea?" Charity puts her elbows on her knees, letting her head hang forward. "She's a kid, Ness. A scared kid out there with a man who's keeping her against her will. The more people looking, the more chance there is of finding her, yeah?"

It becomes clear all at once and Vanessa feels stupid for not seeing it before. She wraps her arms around Charity's shoulders, pulling her in and kissing her head. Nobody had looked for Charity. Nobody had come along and saved her from the monster who kept her locked up. Nobody had cared enough. Vanessa closes her eyes and holds Charity as tightly as she can for as long as she dares. She sighs. "Promise me you'll be careful."

Charity lifts her head. Sometimes, it's as if she's looking for deception in the things that Vanessa says. Like she can't believe someone would take the time to tell her to look after herself. She nods, the edges of her lips twitching into a smile. "I promise."

"No daft heroics. You've got people here who-" She stopped, pressing her lips together. "-who need you, right?"

Charity grins. "Think I'll leave the heroics to you, babe. You're the one with the cape, aren't you?"

She doesn't smile. "I mean it, Charity."

Growing serious, Charity nods once, cupping her cheek. "I know you do." She kisses her. "I know."

 "-and you put your hand down like this." Vanessa demonstrates, placing her paint covered hand on the large piece of paper and lifting it again to leave a bright red handprint. "See?"

She surveys her work and sighs; Blue Peter won't be calling any time soon.

She's kneeling by the coffee table, a toddler pressed against each shoulder, watching her attempt to do arts and crafts. She's never been much of a drawer, or a painter, or anything creative really. But she needs something to keep the little ones occupied, and her own mind busy, so that she's not out of her head worrying about Belle or worrying about Charity worrying about Belle.

"Can I have a go?" Moses asks, bouncing against her. "Please?"

"Course you can, love. You both can. Just let me-" Her phone buzzes on the floor beside her and she automatically reaches out to grab it with her right hand, stopping just before she touches it and swapping hands to pick it up with her left. "Hang on a minute, boys, I just need to talk to Moses' mummy and then we can do your handprints, okay?"

They both nod, but she can see they're champing at the bit to get their hands in that paint. She answers the call. "Hiya."

"Hey, babe. Just letting you know that I'm back at the pub so you can stop worrying."

Vanessa closes her eyes and lets out a slow breath through her nose, her body immediately feeling lighter. She nods. "And what about Belle? Any news?"

"No. Nothing. The police are still looking and Cain's been AWOL for hours but...nothing yet."

"They'll find her." She knows that she shouldn't say things that she can't be sure of, but she hates hearing Charity's voice like that, so defeated. "They'll get him and they'll throw away the key."

"Always the optimist, eh?"

Vanessa smiles at the affection in those few words. "I like to think I'm a realist with optimistic tendencies."

Charity laughs softly in her ear. "Got quite a few 'tendencies', you."

"And you like- Johnny! No!" She wedges the phone between her cheek and shoulder, using her dry hand to catch his arm just before it delves into the green paint. "Leave it just now, love. I'll only be a minute, I promise."

"What's going on there?"

"We're doing some painting, aren't we boys?" They chorus 'yeah' loud enough for Charity to hear.

"How much of it is on the paper and how much of it is on the three of you, though? That's what I want to know."

"Oi, they're both clean as whistles, I'll have you know." She looks at the paint drying and flaking off her hand. "I...am another story."

"Well, you know I love it when you're dir-"

The doorbell goes and Vanessa frowns at it. "There's someone at the door. Can I call you back in a sec?"

"Yeah. Zak's looking a bit down so I should go and try and gee him up. 'Cause you know I'm so good at comforting folk."

"You're better than you think, Charity Dingle." Vanessa says, struggling to her feet with no hands. "I'll speak to you in a bit, yeah?"

"Bye babe."

She shoves the phone under her armpit, opening the door with her left hand, her right jutting out awkwardly in front of her. "Sorry, I'm-" She stops talking. Noah's standing on her doorstep with his backpack on his shoulder. "Noah."

"Hiya." He shuffles his feet. "I...was-" He frowns, eyes on her hand. "What's that?"

"Oh! You've caught me red handed!" She hides a smile when he groans and rolls his eyes. She quite enjoys winding him up and letting him think she's really uncool.

"Why are you like this?"

"It just comes naturally." She smiles. "Me and the boys were doing some painting."

He looks over her shoulder and grins. "Yeah, I can see that."

Her smile slowly fades. "Uh...what do you…" She turns and sees what's amused him so greatly. Moses and Johnny are giggling and chattering away and she closes her eyes when she sees why. Both of them are covered in handprints. Johnny's hands are green and Moses has a green handprint on each of his cheeks. Moses' hands are red and Johnny's hair and ears are red.

"Boys! I said to wait for me!"

"Sorry Ness!" "Sorry mummy!" Their giggling doesn't stop and Vanessa turns back to look at Noah.

"Listen, could you…"

He rolls his eyes again, but there's a sense of relief about it this time, like now he doesn't need to find an excuse for why he was ringing her doorbell. "Fine. I'll give you a hand."

"You're a lifesaver." She steps aside and lets him in. He dumps his rucksack under the coats and heads through to the living room where he's greeted with cheers. She comes to stand by his shoulder. She goes up on her tiptoes to murmur by his ear. "Okay, you grab the one on the left, I'll grab the one on the right, and we'll attack them with baby wipes on three, yeah?"

He sighs. "You're so weird."

She nudges him. "One...two...three!"

 A while later, the little ones are cleaned up and happily using potato stamps to make patterns with the paint. Noah's helping them and trying his best to keep them as clean as he can. Vanessa picks up the two cups of tea she's just made and brings them over, setting Noah's down on the table behind him, away from the kids and sitting on the sofa to watch them.

Noah helps Johnny stamp a 'J' on the paper. "Have you, uh...heard anything about Belle?"

"No. No word yet." She sips her tea. "Your mum called just before you arrived, actually. She'd been out looking for-"

His head snaps up. His eyes wide. "Out looking for Lachlan? Joe said he had a gun."

"I know, I know, I told her not to go, but you know what she's like." She gives him a lopsided smile. "Especially if it's someone she cares about."

He lets the statement hang between them for a while before he nods and returns to his painting. "She's not still out there, though?"

"She's at the pub with some of the rest of them."

"Yeah, Debbie and Joe are there." He smiles when Moses tells him that the splodge he's made is a dinosaur. "I was gonna go but…" He shrugs. "I'm not welcome there."

"Noah." She starts, but reins herself in. No good in pushing him too hard. He came here. He didn't feel welcome at the pub, but he came here. That's got to be a good sign. "You know, your mum's been trying to get hold of you since you left. She's been dying to talk to you."

"Yeah, I know."

He sighs, picking up a baby wipe and cleaning off his hands. He stands up and grabs his cuppa, taking a seat in the chair his mother so often chooses. Vanessa wants to say so many things, but she wants to let him speak in his own time. They sip their tea in silence, watching Moses and Johnny.

"I wish-"

She looks up and finds Noah staring into his tea. "What do you wish, love?"

"I wish we were just...normal." He blows out a breath, his face red. "I wish nobody had hurt my mum and I wasn't always getting surprise brothers and Sarah didn't need a new heart and-" He rubs at his nose and looks over at her. He looks so young and it flashes through her mind that this is the age Charity was when that bastard had a hold of her. Her heart breaks for Charity and for Noah and all the things they've seen and been through. "That picnic, the other day. That were pretty normal." He gives her a half smile. "It...it was alright, that was."

She smiles, surprised. "Yeah? Even though I had to kidnap you to get you there?"

He shrugs. "At least I knew I was wanted."

"Oh, Noah." Vanessa sets her tea down and moves across to sit on the arm of Noah's chair, she touches his shoulder, wanting to pull him into a hug, but unsure if he'll accept it. "I know it's easy for me to say, and I haven't really been around that long, but your mum always wants you and always loves you."

Her hand hasn't been shrugged off. "Funny way of showing it."

Vanessa sighs. "She does have a funny way of showing things, sometimes. But she does feel things and she tries to show them. She's just not always brilliant at it." She squeezes his shoulder. "But I know she loves you to bits. All of you. And she hates that you feel like she chose Ryan over you."

He looks up at her. "Didn't she?"

"No, love. She wants you both around. She's not choosing one of you over the other. It's not like she's got this shiny new son so she doesn't want you anymore."

"S'how it feels."

She slides her arm around him and pulls him against her. And he lets her. "You and your mum need to talk. Nothing will get fixed if you don't talk."

"I know." He sighs. "Next time she phones, I'll answer." She plants a kiss on the top of his head and he nudges her. "Gerroff!"

She gets up and ruffles his hair. "I'll make you a sandwich. Unless you want fish fingers and chips with the boys."

He perks up. "I like fish fingers."

"Fish fingers it is, then."

He smiles.

The three boys are happily eating and chattering amongst themselves when her phone rings again. It's Charity.

"Hey. Any news?"

"They've got her. She's in hospital, but she's okay."

Vanessa puts a hand over her heart and closes her eyes. "Oh, thank God." Noah looks over and she gives him a thumbs up. He nods. "And Lachlan?"

"Banged up. Looks like you were right after all, buttercup."

"Aren't I usually?" She laughs at Charity's snort. "Are you going to the hospital?"

"Not just now. There's enough of them heading over and I'm shattered. I was going to come over to yours and crash out on the sofa with the boys in front of Paw Patrol or summat."

"Of course, the boys would love that." Noah's still looking at her and for a second she considers telling Charity he's here. But if he chooses to leave before she gets here, it'll kill her, so she keeps quiet. "Have you eaten?"

"Nibbled here and there. Stomach's been all over the place. Don't make me anything. I'll see how I feel later and maybe we can order a takeaway, yeah?"

"Okay. I'll see you when you get here. Give everyone my love."

"I will, babe. Oh! And I've got news about Debs that I'll tell you when I get there."

"Intriguing." She smiles at how reluctant either of them are to actually hang up the phone, considering Charity's literally three doors up the road. "I'll see you in a minute."

"Bye babe."

She taps the phone against her chin, lifting her eyebrows at Noah. "She's coming over now. You staying?"

He shoves at the few remaining chips on his plate with his fork and shrugs. "Might as well. Said I'd answer next time she called, didn't I?"

Vanessa nods, trying to keep her smile at an appropriate level. "She'll be really happy to see you." She moves over to the table to survey the plates. She makes her eyes wide and lets her mouth drop open. "Wow! You've both eaten so much! You're gonna grow into such big strong boys!"

"Like Noah?" Johnny asks, and Noah blushes and looks down.

"No, like Uncle Pete!" Moses tells him. Noah frowns, deflating a little.

"Exactly like Noah and Uncle Pete." Vanessa collects their plates up to move to the sink, bumping Noah's shoulder with her hip. "Big strong blokes, you'll be."

Moses hops down off his seat and shows off his muscles, his face straining with the effort. Vanessa laughs and bends to brush a kiss against his hair. "Now, go and pick out something to watch." Johnny runs past them and Moses takes off after him, getting to the remote just a few seconds too late. "No arguing! Find something you both like."

She turns back around and is shocked to find Noah up to his elbows in soap suds, washing the plates. She crosses her arms and saunters over, leaning against the counter and staring at him.

"What?" he grunts.

"You sure you're definitely Noah? You've not been taken over by an alien or anything up at Home Farm?" She reaches up to feel his forehead and he ducks out of the way.

"Give over!" He shakes his head, hiding a smile. "You're dead funny, you."

"I know that's sarcasm, Noah Dingle," she says, with a sniff. "But I'm choosing to take it as a compliment."

He's stopped from responding when the front door opens and Moses and Johnny's faces light up. "Mummy!" "Charity!" They run out to meet her before she makes it to the living room. Vanessa squeezes Noah's arm and chucks a tea-towel at him as she walks over to see what's happening.

"Oh, kiddiwinks, this is exactly what I needed after the day I've had."

Vanessa reaches the doorway and finds Charity crouched down with Moses and Johnny wrapped around her neck, hugging the life out of her. She opens her eyes and looks up at Vanessa, offering her a tired smile. "Hiya babe. You alright?"

"I'm fine. And when you can untangle yourself from them two, there's someone else here waiting to see you."

Charity's brow creases in confusion and she squeezes the boys tight before letting them go. They run back to the couch and Charity takes the last couple of steps into the living room, stopping dead when she sees who's standing by the couch, fiddling with the cuff of his hoodie.

He smiles. "Hi mum."

She glances at Vanessa briefly, a million questions in her eyes, but strides over and takes her boy into her arms, hugging him tightly. "Oh, babe. I am so happy to see you. I've missed you so much. I'm so sorry."

Vanessa moves past them, touching Charity's back as she passes, and puts the kettle on, turning to watch them.

"I'm sorry too. I shouldn't have left like that. I shouldn't have...made you choose between me and Ryan."

Charity pulls back and shakes her head. "I never chose, Noah. I could never choose anyone over you. But you have to understand that I can't...I can't abandon him again. I know I haven't been the best mum to any of you, but I...I-"

"But you try," Noah says and Vanessa's throat starts to ache when she sees Charity smile.

"I do." She nods. "I am trying, I promise."

Noah nods, and looks over his shoulder at Vanessa with a little smile. Charity catches the exchange, but Vanessa waves away her questioning look.

"So, I...want to meet him. Ryan, I mean. Like...if he's going to be around and he's...he's my brother, then I should meet him properly."

"Oh, babe, I'd love that." Charity picks up his hand and squeezes it in both of hers. "Really, it'd mean the world to me."

"D'you wanna, like, call him, or whatever? Set something up?"

"How about we do that tomorrow?" Vanessa suggests, moving over to stand by them. She puts a hand on Noah's back. "It's been a big day for everyone and your mum's knackered. She didn't get any sleep last night."

His nose wrinkles. "Gross."

Vanessa frowns, when Charity cackles in delight. "Eh?"

"Oi, you." Charity cuffs his ear, playfully. "Normally it would be that, but last night I was worried about Belle."

"Noah!" Vanessa gasps, catching up and fighting down a blush. She shakes her head. "Anyway, as I was saying, maybe tonight we can just get a pizza and watch some rubbish on TV." She looks at Noah. "Something normal families do."

He shrugs. "Yeah, that'd be alright, s'pose."

Vanessa beams at them. "Brilliant."

 Vanessa's just come down from popping Moses to bed. She'd carried a sleeping Johnny up first and then come back for Moses. Now it's just the two big Dingles she has to deal with, each slumped into opposite corners of the couch, and she doesn't reckon she could carry either of them very far.

They've spent the night in various combinations of snuggling on the couch, sitting or lying on the floor with the kids and floating back and forth to the kitchen for pizza or wine. Tracy had come home at some point and cooed over how cute they all were before heading upstairs.

Bending down, she kisses Charity's cheek. "Charity," she mumbles, shaking her lightly. "Charity, come on, it's time for bed." She gets a groan in response. "C'mon now. Noah needs this couch and there's a perfectly good bed for you to sleep in upstairs."

Charity opens her eyes and blinks at her a couple of times before breaking out into a smile. "'Kay, babe. Just two more minutes, yeah?" She closes her eyes again and Vanessa sighs.

Once she finally gets her up, they work together to lay Noah down. He curls his legs up instinctively, fitting easily onto the couch, and Charity grabs the blanket draped over the back of it and spreads it over him, leaning down to kiss his forehead.

"Ni'night, babe."

She stands up and wraps her arm around Vanessa's shoulders, pulling her into her side, and they stand and watch him. "You never did tell me how you managed to get him here. You didn't kidnap him again, did you?"

"No!" Vanessa slaps her arm, gently. "I didn't do anything. He turned up by himself."

"Hmmm." Charity lets her head rest against Vanessa's. "Well, it's good he doesn't think you're the devil incarnate anymore. That's progress."

"Yeah, definitely." She turns and rests her chin on Charity's shoulder, looking up at her. "Maybe he can finally see I'm planning on sticking around?"

Charity smiles and presses their lips together for a second. "Good. 'Cause I'm not planning to let you go anywhere."

"Could you maybe plan on going to bed?" The voice startles both of them and they jump. Noah's looking up at them with one eye. "Or are you gonna stand there yapping and watching me sleep like a couple of creepers for the whole night?"

Charity glares at him and turns to Vanessa with a sigh. "Now you're sure you wanna sign up for all of this? Cheeky, stroppy gets included?"

Vanessa grins down at Noah and then turns to Charity. "Oh, Charity, I like you no matter how cheeky or stroppy you are."

Charity laughs and pulls her close and Noah flops over, pulling the blanket over his head, mumbling something about weirdos and needing a bigger couch. Vanessa smiles into Charity's chest. This is normal.

The End

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