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Although it's been said many times, many ways
It's subtle at first, probably unnoticed by most other people. But Charity picks up on it pretty early on. Vanessa's just not as excited about Christmas as Charity would have expected, given that she goes all soppy over every vaguely family related event that takes place. Vanessa gets excited when Noah sits at the table with them at teatime. Vanessa gets excited when Moses and Johnny hold hands when they cross the road. Vanessa cried when Charity eventually left a flaming toothbrush at Tug Ghyll for heaven's sake. But the biggest family celebration of the year is rapidly approaching, and she seems unmoved by it.
And it's not that she hasn't gone through the motions with the rest of them. She's bought presents and written cards. She's snapped pictures of Johnny and Moses staring wide-eyed at Eric done up as Santa in David's shop. She's made a list for a frankly massive food shop they've got to do tomorrow.
But there's something missing. Some little spark that Charity's used to seeing in her eyes.
She's kept quiet about her concerns, mostly because it's not been anything overt that she could really put her finger on. But it's three days before Christmas, the boys are in bed, and instead of having a bit of a cuddle in front of a cheesy Christmas movie with a hot chocolate spiked with peppermint schnapps, Vanessa's brought paperwork home from the surgery.
Getting up from her spot on the couch, Charity walks over and stands behind Vanessa's chair, smoothing her hands over her shoulders, thumbs rubbing at the knot that sometimes sits at the top of her spine. Vanessa hums in pleasure, tipping her head back against Charity's stomach with her eyes closed.
"Yeah?" Charity trails one of her hands up Vanessa's neck, cupping her chin and waiting until she opens her eyes. "So how about you put all that boring paperwork away and come over to the couch and I can make you feel really nice?"
"But I need to-"
"Vanessa, it's three days before Christmas. Folk have got more on their minds than whether their Shar-Pei's anti-wrinkle cream prescription is up-to-date."
"You'd be surprised with some of our owners." She starts to gather up the paper into a neat pile, though. Charity grins, waiting till she's done and taking hold of both of her hands, pulling her up and across to the couch. She flops down and tugs Vanessa into her lap, wrapping her arms tightly around her waist. She nuzzles the spot just below Vanessa's ear.
"Now, the boys have told Santa their Christmas wishes, but I haven't heard yours yet." She gently bites Vanessa's earlobe. "Course, you might be on the naughty list this year, babe, what with all that lying to the police and whatnot."
Vanessa pushes at her shoulder, but kisses her forehead right after. "Getting through the day without giving anyone food poisoning from that immense turkey is top of my list right now."
There it is again. Where Vanessa should be gushing about the season of goodwill to all men, she's talking about adequate turkey cooking times. Charity pulls back and looks into her eyes, searching them for a clue. She clears her throat.
"I thought you'd be more into this whole 'Christmas' thing, if I'm honest."
Vanessa's smile drops, worry creasing her forehead. "How d'you mean?"
"Well, you're one of those, you know." Charity rolls her eyes. "Eternally cheerful folk. And...you're a bit less cheerful than usual. And I just thought it would go the other way."
"Oh." Vanessa looks over Charity's shoulder rather that at her. "I thought I was doing alright with it all. You know...for the boys."
"Hey! You are! That's not what-" Charity cups her cheeks, making her look up. "You've been amazing. You've done everything perfectly for the boys, I promise." She leans in, lowering her voice to a whisper. "It's just that I'm a little bit obsessed with you and so I look closer than your average man on the street, yeah?"
Vanessa smiles, her hands coming up to encircle Charity's wrists, leaning in to press their lips together briefly. "And I love that you do. But you don't need to worry about me." She smiles brightly. "I'm fine."
Laying her head on Charity's shoulder, Vanessa nestles closer and Charity closes her eyes, resting her cheek against Vanessa's hair. "So, that's just it, then? Conversation over?"
A sigh warms her neck and Vanessa lifts her head. There's a tiny frown between her eyes, because she knows she has no argument here; she's always on at Charity to talk to her about stuff and tell her how she's feeling.
"It's just...it's never really been a big deal for me, Christmas." Vanessa toys with the neckline on Charity's blouse. "I mean, obviously with Johnny I do all the things you're supposed to do, but he's not really been old enough to properly understand any of it until this year."
"Did...was it not…" Charity sighs in frustration and rolls her eyes. No point in fannying around trying to find nice words for it. "Was it because your mum's a right bitch?"
Vanessa laughs and shakes her head. "Not...not entirely." She shrugs. "When I was little, there was one Christmas that was just...well, tension filled is how I'd describe it now, but at the time, I just knew something wasn't right. My mum was nipping at my dad all day and he was sniping back and it ended in him walking out." She swallows. "My mum cried all night. And drank. And I hid in my room with my new Barbie." She gives Charity a wan smile. "Christmas was never quite the same after that. When my dad was there I was always on edge, waiting for something to happen. After he left, my mum spent it drinking. Alone, at first, and then with my stepdad. After I went to uni, they started going on cruises over Christmas, so I never had anywhere to go back to."
Charity squeezes her. "What did you do?"
"Went to friends' houses, sometimes. But I never liked that, because I always felt like an interloper." She wrinkles her nose. "It's weird to be included on traditions that are somebody else's. Other than that, I just spent the day by myself."
"Oh, babe," Charity begins, but Vanessa shakes her head, pressing a finger over her lips.
"No, please don't." She smiles; lips forming a tight, desperate line. "It's honestly fine. No big deal. I've no right to go on about it. Not when you-"
"Stop right there, lady." Charity sits up a bit , keeping her arms around Vanessa's waist. "I've told you before, it's not a competition and you are allowed to complain about your shitty parents."
"No, I know. And I know I can speak to you. And I do." Vanessa bites her lip, looking at Charity with huge, sad eyes. "But I just...I can't bear to think of what you must've been going through some of the years I was moping around in my room or in some student flat, feeling sorry for myself. God, even a couple of years ago, you were all alone in prison."
Charity cups Vanessa's cheek, stroking her thumb over the soft lines by her eyes. "Look, sounds like we've both spent our share of Christmases alone, yeah?" Vanessa nods. "But we're not alone anymore." She rolls her eyes, playfully. "Got kids and relatives coming out of our ears now, haven't we?" She kisses Vanessa's cheek, giving her a little smile. "And each other." Vanessa's smile is warm and genuine this time as she nods. Charity nods along with her and clears her throat. "Is...is there anything I can do? To make it a bit better for you or-"
"Charity," Vanessa whispers, shaking her head. "I'm going to enjoy Christmas day just fine. But not because of the presents or turkey or paper hats." She squeezes Charity's shoulders. "I'll enjoy it because I'm with you and the kids." She leans her head to the side and Charity's heart tilts along with it. "Every day I get to spend with you is special. Okay?"
Instead of replying, Charity guides Vanessa's face closer and kisses her as softly as she can. When they draw back, Vanessa is grinning and the lump in Charity's throat has gone down a bit.
"You know, there are a couple of Christmas traditions that I don't really mind," Charity says, her hands running up and down Vanessa's sides before settling on her hips, urging her to stand. She does likewise, taking Vanessa's hand and pulling her over to the doorway leading to the stairs.
Vanessa looks up and smirks, meeting Charity's eyes. "Might've known you'd mean mistletoe."
Charity grins, leaning down and kissing Vanessa soundly, shivering when Vanessa's hands sneaks up the back of her shirt and splays across her bare skin. "Are you complaining?" she murmurs against soft lips.
"Mmmm, no." Vanessa pulls back to look into her eyes and, as ever, Charity's struck by the pure and unadulterated love she can see shining back at her. Vanessa touches her jaw and smiles. "We'll make our own traditions, yeah? Me and you and the kids. And we'll make sure they've always got a place to come home to for Christmas."
Nodding dumbly, Charity pulls Vanessa close, holding her as tightly as she can. "Always, babe. Always."
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