She's done the rounds, made the smalltalk, forced as much food down as she can stomach. But the unexpected emotional discussion with Tracy had taken it out of her, even without the forced cheer at the party afterwards and she's absolutely exhausted. She looks around for an empty seat, but there is none. Her eyes land on Charity, sat on the couch, squished against the arm by Noah and Sarah. She's been subdued all afternoon, barely speaking to anyone. Probably thinking Vanessa's going to give her a right talking to about telling Tracy.
And yeah, she'd been upset initially. It wasn't Charity's secret to tell, and she should know more than most what it's like to have your deepest secrets shared with other people without your say so. But with the surgery scheduled for next week, she'd have had to tell Tracy sooner rather than later anyway, so she can't find it in herself to be angry.
Charity looks so sad, it breaks Vanessa's heart to leave her thinking she's in the doghouse. She moves over to the sofa, nudging Charity's foot with her own to make her look up. Vanessa smiles and tilts her head, trying to convey that everything's okay. That they're okay.
"Room for a little'un?"
"Always," Charity says, nudging Noah. "You. Move. Give Ness a seat."
Vanessa puts a hand on his shoulder as he starts to get up. "No, no. You stay there. I'll just-" Carefully, she lowers herself onto Charity's lap, trying to hold in a gasp when her side twinges. Charity's arms hover around her waist, unsure where they should land. When the pain subsides, she lets herself lean back heavily into Charity's body, grabbing her arms and bringing them around her waist. She closes her eyes and lets out a sigh of relief. She's so tired, she could go to sleep right here.
Charity's thumb rubs gently at her hipbone. "You alright?" she murmurs.
"Mmhmm." She squeezes her arm, resting her head against Charity's so their cheeks are pressed together. "Just tired."
"We can head any time you want," Charity says. "Just say the word."
"I'm fine," she lies. "Can't leave my own party early, can I?"
"Since when do you want to leave parties early?" Noah asks his mother, clearly amused by this turn of events. "You've not even had any wine." He reaches out and places his palm on Charity's forehead. "You feeling alright?"
Charity bats him away. "I'm feeling fine, thank you very much."
"I didn't get much sleep last night," Vanessa tells him. "So your mum's just being considerate."
"Like I said, is she feeling alright?" Noah says, and him and Sarah laugh.
She expects a sharp answer from Charity, or for him to cuff him round the ear. Instead, there's just silence. Noah frowns at the lack of response, his eyes flicking to hers in question.
"I was kidding."
"Yeah. Course you were," Charity says, quietly.
Vanessa's about to dig a bit deeper when Noah keeps talking. "Was that you that was up at the loo all them times, then?"
Vanessa feels her face flush, feels Charity tense up behind her. "Yeah." She pats her stomach. "Had a bit of a dicky tummy. Must've eaten something that didn't agree with me yesterday."
"What is it with you and your sister dissing my food?" Chas asks, her exasperated eyeroll indicating she's just messing. She tilts her head, trying to see round Vanessa to catch Charity's eye. "Oi. You gonna let your girlfriend away with maligning our good name?"
"Hmm?" Vanessa turns to find Charity frowning. "Sorry, I was miles away. What did I miss?"
Dreading the thought of getting to her feet again, Vanessa needs to get to the bottom of this. She can't have Charity panicking and withdrawing again. She doesn't have the energy for the hurt that it caused the last time. Nor does she have the mental capacity to be dealing with this on her own. So she steels herself and squeezes Charity's knee.
"I need a bit of fresh air," she says, sitting up and twisting as best she can to see Charity's face. It hurts her abdomen more than she expects, but she forces herself not to react beyond pressing her lips together and waiting for it to pass. She knows Charity knows, though, because her eyes grow large and her hands flutter by her stomach. The wave of pain subsides and she manages to lift her eyebrows. "Come with me?"
"Course, babe," Charity says, gently helping her up with hands on her hips. She reaches back and takes her hand as they move through the crowd in the kitchen, exchanging smiles with Rhona and Leyla as they go.
They get outside and the crisp air is welcome after the almost stifling warmth of all those bodies crammed into Tracy's little living room. She inhales and turns to face Charity, still holding her hand.
"Right, what's up?"
Charity looks at her like she's gone mad. "Besides the obvious, you mean?"
"Yes." Vanessa nods. "You were fine yesterday." Well, fine is maybe an exaggeration. Neither of them have been fine for a long time. But she wasn't this withdrawn, subdued version of herself. "You've barely spoken to anyone this afternoon."
Charity huffs, letting go of Vanessa's hand and wrapping her arms around herself, rubbing at her biceps. "Well, forgive me if I'm not in the mood for partying right at this very second."
Shaking her head, Vanessa swallows. A party was the absolute last thing she wanted for her birthday. She'd told Charity as much. Even when Charity wanted just a little thing in the house with the kids and a birthday cake, Vanessa had talked her out of it. But now, seeing all the people she loves in the same room, it's made her realise this could very well be her last birthday. It could be the last time they're all together and most of them are happy and carefree. And and all events in the future will be tainted with the fact Vanessa has cancer.
A flash of this group of people getting together for her funeral inserts itself in her mind and she has to close her eyes and shake her head to get rid of it.
Returning her attention to Charity, Vanessa sighs. "Yeah, well, neither am I, Charity, but at least I've been putting in a bit of effort so nobody wonders what's going on, yeah?"
Charity's eyes meet hers and they're full of tears. "Sorry," she whispers. "I'm so sorry. I'm doing everything wrong. I told Tracy when you didn't want me to and I-"
"Hey," Vanessa says, softly. She moves closer and runs her hands down Charity's arms, pulling them away and taking hold of her hands. "If that's what you're worried about, then-"
"What are you doing out here with no coat on?" Tracy's voice cuts into their conversation and the woman herself soon follows. She inserts herself in front of Charity and, over her shoulder, Vanessa watches Charity deflate. Her shoulders hunch and her eyes drop. "It's flamin' freezing! This is the last place you should be right now." Tracy gently takes her arm, and looks over her shoulder at Charity. Whatever look passes between them, Vanessa can't see. She shakes Tracy off and touches Charity's arm.
"You coming in?"
Charity's eyes move over her shoulder and her jaw tenses for a second before she shifts into a semblance of a smile. "You go on with Trace, babe. I'll be in in a minute."
The atmosphere is tense in a way it wasn't before Tracy came out to join them and Vanessa wants to address it, but Tracy tugs on her elbow.
"C'mon, V. You heard her. She'll follow us in a minute."
Too tired to get into anything, Vanessa nods. She goes up on her tiptoes and kisses Charity's cheek. "Don't stay out here too long, okay?"
She gets a nod. "I won't." Charity nods to the door. "Go on, kid. Get back in the warmth."
Vanessa lets Tracy lead her inside, where she's immediately embroiled in a discussion between Paddy and Rhona about ferrets. She joins in as much as she can, but she's preoccupied with watching the door. It feels like forever before Charity comes back in, and Vanessa's nerves settle just a little when the door opens and she enters. At least she hasn't run away again. After a smile and a nod, Charity takes up her former post of sitting on the couch, staring into space.
Vanessa knows all she'll be fit for when they get home is collapsing into bed, but she resolves to get to the bottom of this when she's more rested.