Having given the living room a quick tidy round, not that it's made that much difference, Vanessa heads upstairs to join Charity in saying goodnight to the boys. She notes that Sarah's bedroom door is slightly ajar, and she knocks gently before sticking her head in. Sarah looks up from her phone, with that flare of panic Vanessa's noticed recently. She lifts her eyebrows.
"Yeah. Fine." Sarah puts the phone face down on her bed and stands, shoving her hands in her back pockets.
"You were a bit quiet today," Vanessa notes. "I mean, I know between our Tracy and your gran, there's not much room for anyone else to get a word in but-"
"I'm fine," Sarah insists. She shrugs. "Just tired." Vanessa goes to ask another question but Sarah preempts it. "And not sick tired, just tired. You know, with everything that's been going on."
"Yeah, course." Vanessa nods. She can certainly relate to that. "Did you speak to your mum?"
For the first time in the conversation, Sarah's face loses some of its tension and she smiles. "I Facetimed her and Jack a little while ago." She rolls her eyes. "Jack told me every detail about some action figures he'd got."
"Awww, it's sweet when they're that excited though, eh?" Vanessa leans against the doorframe and crosses her arms. "How was your mum?" It irks her a bit that Debbie hasn't come down to see Noah or support Charity. She's had people up and down to Scotland every other week to help her out, but there's no sign of her when her brother's in such a bad way they weren't even sure he was going to make it?
"She's okay. A bit soppy because I wasn't up there with them," Sarah says. "Oh, and she was asking after Noah. I told her he was doing better."
Vanessa offers her a tight smile. "So, are you coming downstairs? We can stick a film on or something?"
"Nah, I'm just gonna have an early night if that's okay?" Sarah gives a very unconvincing yawn.
There's something going on with Sarah, Vanessa's sure of it. But with everything else they've got on their plate right now, it'll need to wait. She doesn't have the energy to have a conversation about it right now. "Course it is. You get some sleep. See you in the morning."
She closes Sarah's door softly and continues on to the boys' room, where she finds Charity seated on the floor between their beds, talking in hushed tones about the things that had happened throughout the day.
"-an' then the doctor gave us a go on his telescope!" Johnny's telling her.
"S'not a telescope," Moses tells him, his voice slow with drowsiness. "S'a stefascope."
"Stef-" Johnny begins, his brow creasing.
"Steth-" Charity says, waiting for him to echo her. "-o-" And again. "-scope." She grins. "Stethoscope!"
"Stesofope!" Johnny announces at the back of her and Vanessa covers her mouth to stop from laughing.
"Close enough, Johnnykins," Charity whispers, winking at Vanessa. "You know Mummy's got a stethoscope, yeah?"
Moses sits up, his eyes wide. "Have you, Ness?"
"I have got a stethoscope, yeah," she confirms. "I can probably find an old one at the surgery that I can bring home for you both to play with, if you like?"
Her suggestion is met with an enthusiastic response from the boys, and a nose wrinkle from Charity.
"Make sure you disinfect it first, eh babe?" Charity struggles to her feet. "And you might've suggested giving them old veterinary equipment before we spen-" Her eyes go wide. "Uh, I mean, before Santa brought them all those presents!"
"This is just an extra little present," Vanessa says, rolling her eyes. "Right boys, we've all had a long day, and it's bedtime now."
She's surprised to get no protest from either of the boys; they must genuinely be exhausted. She moves further into the room, tugging Johnny's covers up and tucking them around him while Charity tickles Moses and plants kisses all over his face. She sits on Johnny's bed and smiles at him, sweeping his hair off his forehead.
"Have you had a good day, love?" she asks, keeping her voice soft.
"Mmhmm. It was fun," Johnny says. "I liked the presents that Santa left an' goin' to see Noah an' eatin' all the chocolates."
"Good." She leans down and presses a kiss to his cheek, closing her eyes and savouring the moment. She won't get too many more Christmases where he'll be little enough to believe in Santa. Soon enough, him and Moses will be the same as Sarah; holed up in their rooms on their phones instead of scooting around the living room and causing chaos. They need to enjoy these years while they last.
A hand squeezes her shoulder and she looks up at Charity who tilts her head. "Swap over?"
With a smile and a nod and a final kiss for Johnny, they manoeuvre round each other and she sits on Moses' bed. He blinks up at her sleepily. "Did you have a good Christmas day?" she whispers, rubbing the top of his ear.
"Yeah. It was ace," he says. He widens his eyes, like he's struggling to stay awake, and she laughs softly, bending to kiss his cheek.
"Na'night, darling," she tells him. "Sleep tight, and tomorrow, if it's a nice day, we'll go a walk with your scooters, yeah?"
"Yeah," he agrees, his eyes drifting shut. "An' then you can get the stefoscope."
"Not getting out of that one, then?" Charity murmurs from behind her.
She stands up and they head out of the room, leaving the little nightlight on the cabinet, with the door slightly open. Charity stretches out her shoulders and turns to her, lifting an eyebrow.
"So? Me and you? Glass of wine? Crap Christmas telly? How about it?"
"Oh, go on then," Vanessa says, allowing herself to be led down the stairs. She's surprised that Charity didn't just suggest going straight to bed, because they're both probably more exhausted than even the little ones.
Charity goes to the kitchen to get the wine and Vanessa hovers by the Christmas tree, rubbing her palms on her jeans and rolling her eyes at herself. She's being ridiculous. Charity comes over with two glasses of red, eyeing her curiously.
"I thought we might, you know, watch telly while sitting down, babe?" She lifts both eyebrows and nods to the couch. "Mad notion, I know."
"Yeah, we will, but-" Her tongue sticks to the top of her mouth and she takes one of the glasses from Charity, swallowing a generous glug before putting it on the table. As an afterthought, she takes the other glass and puts it beside it, before taking both of Charity's hands in hers.
"Ness?" Charity's eyes are full of concern. "You alright?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine." Vanessa tries to flash her a confident smile, but it's only half successful and seems to freak Charity out more, so she rushes to explain. "I've got something to tell you." Wrong choice of words as she immediately sees fear flash in Charity's eyes. "No, it's-" She catches herself and shakes her head. "You know how we agreed we'd spend fifty quid on each other this year because Christmas is about the kids?" Charity nods, still wary. They'd exchanged gifts that morning; she'd got Charity shoes and some other bits and pieces, and Charity had given her a lovely jumper and some perfume. Vanessa bites her lip. "Well, I went a teeny bit over that budget."
"Eh?" Charity frowns. "I mean, the shoes were gorgeous, babe, but I-"
"D'you notice anything extra on the tree since this morning?" Vanessa asks, keen to get through this now she's started; she's never been one for big speeches.
Narrowing her eyes, Charity turns to the Christmas tree. "Well, I saw Moses wellying a Chocolate Orange across the room like a shot put earlier, so I suppose it might've ended up-" She stops talking when her eyes land on what Vanessa's referring to.
On one of the higher branches, out of reach of grubby little hands, there's an extra bauble. It's clear and inside there's a little red cushion with a ring resting on it. Vanessa swallows, watching Charity's face as she takes it in.
"I-I wasn't going to do this today, not after everything with Noah," Vanessa says, squeezing Charity's hands. "But then I thought there's probably never an ideal time with us." Charity tears her gaze away from the ring and meets her eyes. "And it's not a big thing. You did all the hard work already by doing the asking. This is just me-" She shrugs. "I dunno. I just want you to have something to look at that reminds you that I love you." She holds up her left hand, displaying her ring. "Even when we were apart, Charity, I couldn't take this off because every time I looked at it, all I could think about was you saying that we were gonna spend the rest of our lives together and I knew, in my heart, that was true."
Charity lets out a sob. It's the first noise she's made since she saw the ring and it seems to surprise her. Vanessa laughs, her own eyes growing watery, but she's determined to get through this. She reaches up and takes the bauble off the tree and twists it so it opens. She picks up the ring and discards the rest, turning back to Charity.
"Now, you'll have to do without the impeccably timed firework display," she says, drawing a rueful smile from Charity as she takes her hand again. "And I'm not going to ask you to marry me, because you're already marrying me." She swallows and rubs her thumb over Charity's knuckles. "But I do want you to wear this ring to remind you that, no matter what's going on in our lives, I love you."
"Ness," Charity whispers, voice thick with emotion. "Of course I will."
Vanessa grins as she slides the ring onto the fourth finger of Charity's left hand. "There." Charity lifts her hand, letting the light catch the platinum band with its solitaire diamond. Vanessa watches her face, suddenly nervous. "D'you like it? We can always go back and-" She's cut off by a kiss, both of Charity's hands are on her face then her back, then her waist, it's like she can't get close enough and Vanessa tries to help by holding her as tightly as she can. They're both a little breathless when the kiss ends, and Charity's eyes are brighter than the diamond.
"Like it?" She laughs through her nose. "Babe, you could've got it out a Christmas cracker and I'd love it. After saying what you did? You could've shoved a Hula Hoop on my finger and I'd have been over the flamin' moon."
Laughing, Vanessa pulls Charity close again and buries her nose in her shoulder; more relieved than she'd like to admit. Charity's got one arm wrapped around her, presumably the other is still being held up so she can look at the ring. A kiss is pressed to her temple, and warm lips brush her ear.
"So, I suppose, after this subtle reminder, that we really should set a date, eh?"
Vanessa lifts her head, mouth open in shock. "Charity! That wasn't what this was about! I wasn't-"
"I know, Ness. I know." Charity shrugs. "But it's been nearly a year." She lifts Vanessa's left hand and rubs her thumb over the ring. "And if this year's taught us anything, it's to not take anything for granted, yeah?" She sighs. "I started off the year sitting by your hospital bed, praying for you to wake up and be okay. And I've ended it doing the same with Noah." She shakes her head, meeting Vanessa's eyes. "And you lost your dad without getting the chance to say goodbye." Vanessa's eyes drop and she blinks back more tears, but Charity hooks a finger under her chin and lifts it back up. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have brought that up, but I just-" She closes her eyes. "What I'm saying is that we need to grab onto all the happiness we can get in this life and keep hold with both hands." She smiles. "I want to marry you, and you want to marry me, so what are we waiting for, eh? Like you said, there's never an ideal time to do anything, so let's just go for it. Let's set a date and do it."
When she decided to give Charity a ring, she never dreamed it might prompt this, but it does make sense. They want to be married, so they should get married. She nods and sniffs. "The summer, then. I'd like a summer wedding." She shakes her head. "And no more bridezilla stuff. Whatever we do, all I care about is that by the end of the day, I'm your wife. That's all that matters."
"Sounds doable," Charity says. "And you can be a bit of a bridezilla if you like. I mean, I get it, it's exciting." She rolls her eyes. "You're marrying me. And it's your first wedding."
"It's my only wedding," Vanessa corrects her with a playful glare. "And it's our wedding. So it's about us, not me, okay?"
Charity nods, letting her forehead fall against Vanessa's. "Been a bit of a weird Christmas, hasn't it?"
"It has," Vanessa agrees. "But we spent it together, with the kids, and that's what's important. Doesn't matter where we are, as long as we're together."
Charity hums her agreement. "How about next year we aim to be together on a beach somewhere warm, far away from everything and everyone?"
"Sounds like a plan," Vanessa says, letting more of her weight rest against Charity as they sway together.
"As for this Christmas, how about we end it with a bang? Literally." Charity lifts her head and looks at the ceiling, wiggling her eyebrows suggestively.
"So romantic," Vanessa says.
Charity laughs and waltzes her over to the middle of the room, stopping under the sprig of mistletoe Noah had hung for them earlier in the month. "How's this for romantic?" She leans in and brushes a soft kiss over Vanessa's lips. "Merry Christmas, babe."
Vanessa smiles, pulling her in for a longer kiss. "Merry Christmas, Charity."