Robert agrees to let Liv live with them for a number of reasons. Firstly, and most importantly: Robert loves Aaron. He loves Aaron so much it’s embarrassing; many people have told him this, at differing volumes and levels of pitch, ranging from Vic cooing to Chrissie spitting it in his face to Aaron himself muttering about it late at night in the safety of their bed. Really, Robert is at the point in his life where he’s come to accept that he’ll pretty much do anything for Aaron, no matter how fucking stupid it is.
Secondly: Robert will be earning back Aaron related guilt for the rest of his life, which isn’t something Aaron has held over his head or anything, but is something that lurks at the back of Robert’s mind, especially when Aaron has a nightmare and Robert has to hold him through it and worry if it’s his fault.
Thirdly: Liv’s actually not the worst thing in the world. They’ve got two dogs and both have full time jobs and she’s good with them, so, really, it’s like a free dogsitter. Where “free” means, obviously, cost of board and also bail and solicitors’ fees - though, he was probably paying those even when she lived with Sandra - and also whatever shreds of Robert’s dignity Liv can manage to claw off him.
In short: Robert really loves Aaron, and Aaron really wanted it.
On the positive side, the sex has been great.
He should have known it was coming. Spot hasn't growled at him in three days, meek as a kitten; even fetched a stick when Robert threw it for him. Liv’s been living with them three weeks and nothing has exploded. Something in Robert had known not to trust anything, but Robert’s gone soft in all these months with Aaron, and he pushed it aside.
It’s eight pm on a Wednesday night, and Liv is sitting on the couch petting Stella and watching Grand Designs while wishing ill on every construction. Robert is doing some paperwork at the kitchen table, drinking from a cup of very nice tea. Aaron’s taken Spot out for a walk.
Robert’s phone rings.
Aaron, says the screen.
“Did you forget plastic bags?” Robert says, getting to his feet. “Aaron, come on, this is the third time this week.”
“Robert,” Aaron says, and his voice sounds flat and firm and urgent, with this low undertone that sets the hairs on the back of Robert’s neck all the way up. “I need you to come to the bridge right now, all right? Bring blankets, bring my car. Just do it.”
“On my way,” Robert says. He looks over at Liv, who looks back at him. “Liv, too?”
“Yeah,” Aaron says. “Bring a box.”
Spot’s found a litter of puppies in a burlap sack. They’re tiny, and very quiet; almost silent. Aaron’s kneeling when Liv and Robert arrive, and Robert’s heart flips even though he knows intellectually he heard Aaron’s voice; he knows Aaron’s fine.
“We’ve gotta get them to Paddy,” Aaron says, voice eerily calm, the kind of calm you get in the middle of a crisis. “He’s set up the surgery for us.”
“They’re so little,” Liv says, wide-eyed. She sounds - very young, like she doesn’t often, these days, ever.
Spot butts up against her side. She reaches down and buries one hand in his fur, swaying against him, like she doesn’t realize she’s doing it.
“It’s gonna be all right,” Aaron says, firm and kind. “Yeah, Liv?”
“Yeah,” she says. “Okay, yeah.”
Robert looks down at his hands. He remembers Stella, when she was little, when she’d cry and cry all night, when he thought, how could anyone leave you?
The puppies will need to be fostered. They’re all suffering from shock.
“They were in a bag,” Aaron says, grimly. “A bag that someone threw into the river.” The shape of his shoulders is a fight, an oncoming storm.
Paddy says, “Aaron-”
“We’ll look after them,” Robert says.
“Yeah?” Aaron says. Relief flickers across his face, tired and bright.
“Yeah,” Robert says. He reaches out, tangles his fingers in Aaron’s. Squeezes. “Yeah, we can do it.”
Stella barks when they get home, gets up and presses her nose to Spot’s. He licks her gently and then goes back to Aaron, who’s carrying the box of puppies carefully.
There are five puppies. Paddy thinks they’re sheepdogs, mixed with something. Spot loves them with an alarming protectiveness he saves for mostly Aaron, Liv and Stella - circles round them and refuses to sleep until all the puppies are fed and asleep.
“It’s sweet,” Robert says.
Spot growls at him. Just to make sure Robert understands where they are.
“Yeah, yeah,” Robert says, reaching down to scratch him behind the ears. “You're stuck with me, mate.”
Aaron, bottle feeding a puppy, looks up at him and smiles. His hand curves round the puppy’s jaw and he looks deeply and truly wiped out.
“You don’t have to stay up,” Aaron says. He looks exhausted. “I know you’ve got work tomorrow.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Robert says. He looks over at Liv, who is cradling the smallest puppy to her chest and looking distinctly soft around the mouth. Drops his voice. “You’ve gotta make Liv go, though.”
Aaron follows the line of his look, sighs. “Yeah,” he says quietly.
It’s the smallest one Paddy was most worried about. He said, you've got to be prepared, Aaron, and took hold of his shoulder and Aaron flinched but let him do it.
Robert shuffles over very slightly on the couch, to the soft snuffled objection of the puppies on his lap, to press a shoulder against Aaron’s.
Aaron leans into him for a moment and then straightens. “Liv,” he says. “You’ve got school tomorrow.”
“You’re joking me," she snaps, disbelieving.
“You know we’ll look after them,” Aaron says. “Can you just- Liv. C’mon. I’m supposed to look after you.”
She pulls her shoulders in on herself. “Aaron,” she says, quietly. “What if-”
“You’ve gotta go to bed,” Aaron says. He offers her a tight little smile. “You’re gonna have to look after them when you get back from school, yeah? We’ll both be knackered.”
“Every three hours, Paddy said,” Liv says. “You better remember.”
“We’ll remember,” Robert says.
Aaron hugs her and kisses the top of her head. “See you in a bit,” he says. “It’ll all be right.”
“Better be,” she says, tight, fitting herself against his chest.
The littlest puppy dies around two am. Just - stops moving. Goes still and small and cold.
Aaron sobs into Robert’s shoulder and Robert puts his arms around him and just holds him. There’s nothing he can do about this; he can’t throw money at it, can’t threaten someone. It’s just a puppy, and it doesn’t have its mother, and someone tried to kill it, and they succeeded.
He kisses Aaron’s forehead and feels Aaron shake in his arms and it’s awful, it’s horrible. Robert hates using his hands but if he could fight someone now, he would.
“Paddy said he might,” Aaron says, finally, pulling himself together. “Said we’d be lucky to get them all.”
Robert hates watching Aaron put himself back together. Hates watching the seams disappear; hates the idea that Aaron has to hide from anyone, from anything.
He puts his hands flat on his knees. “He said once we get through the first night things’ll be better.”
Aaron closes his eyes. Breathes in, breathes out. “Yeah,” he says.
Despite himself, Robert falls asleep against Aaron’s shoulder around half two. He wakes around five to the soft sound of Aaron feeding puppies.
“Morning,” Aaron says. His eyes are red and he’s got the puppy with the spots tucked up against his chest, sucking loudly on the bottle. “You can take the last feed, if you want?” He jerks his chin in the direction of the cardboard box, where one last puppy is making sad snuffling sounds.
Robert yawns. “Yeah, all right.”
There’s a clatter, an enormous sound of feet on stairs. Both of their heads jerk up but it’s only Liv, of course, taking the staircase at her usual breakneck speed.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she says, defensively. She’s wearing pajama pants and a big jumper that might be Aaron’s, and she crosses her arms over her chest when she gets to the living room. “Can I help?”
“Liv,” Aaron says, and darts his eyes at Robert.
“I’ll just-” Robert says, putting the puppy and the bottle in Aaron’s arms.
“Where’s-” Liv says.
“Liv,” Aaron says, softly, and holds out one arm and she goes to him, immediately. “I’m so sorry.”
“You promised,” she whispers. “Aaron, you said.”
“I’m sorry,” Aaron says miserably. “I know I did.”
Robert goes to the toilet and takes a long time to splash water on his face. When he gets out, Liv is sitting next to Aaron on the couch and his arm is around her, and Spot is lying on both their feet, like he has something to protect.
Now they have four puppies. They’ve put them in a cardboard box with a bunch of blankets and a carefully wrapped up hot water bottle, but they need regular feeding and Paddy said it would be touch and go for the next few days.
Aaron takes the day off; Robert works from home mostly, anyway. He has a lunch meeting he can’t miss, but otherwise he’d rather be around. Just in case.
When he gets home, Aaron’s in the kitchen mixing formula and sterilizing bottles. Robert kisses the back of his neck. “Go to bed,” he says. “I’ll get this.”
“What,” Aaron says, reluctant. His back’s stiff.
“I know what you’re doing,” Robert says, gently. There are plenty of ways to hurt yourself, and Aaron's good at finding them. “I’m here, yeah? You’re not in this alone.”
“You let me sleep,” Robert reminds him. “Just get a couple of hours. I promise I’ll wake you up if anything happens.”
Aaron rubs his eyes. “You promise?”
Robert watches him strip off his clothes, can’t help checking for anything new.
Aaron catches him looking and the smile that twists his mouth is wry and sad. “I’ve been too busy for that, Rob.”
“Never stopped you,” Robert says, feeling awkward and defensive. Part of him wants to apologize but part of him insists he hasn’t done anything wrong so he just wraps his arms around himself and shivers. “I love you,” he says, instead of I’m worried about you and also I’m sorry.
He thinks Aaron gets it, because he sighs and walks over to Robert and kisses him. “Thanks for this.”
“I let you keep that fucking nightmare dog,” Robert says. “C’mon. Like this compares.”
Aaron laughs and leans his forehead against Robert’s. “You didn’t let me do anything, but thanks.”
“Go to sleep,” Robert says, curling his hand around the back of Aaron’s neck, pressing their mouths together, chaste and tired. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” Aaron says, soft, against his lips.
Liv comes home faster than normal, bounds in the door and drops her bag with a loud thump and says, “Can I feed them?”
“You can do some laundry, if you like,” Robert says. “We’ve got about a hundred rags that need to go in the machine.”
Liv sighs. But, “Yeah, okay.”
“Should have got puppies sooner,” Robert says. “Never seen you slack off less.”
Liv rolls her eyes. “Very funny.” She tilts her head to one side and looks at him. “You got Aaron to go to bed?”
“Barely,” Robert says. “But yeah.”
“Good,” Liv says, and then, considering: “you’ve been all right.”
“I’m all right,” Robert says, affronted. “They’re puppies, Liv, I’m not Satan.”
She shrugs. “Tell that to Spot.”
The dog in question lifts his head and makes a soft noise, then goes back to staring at the puppies. At first Robert was a little worried Spot would turn on them and think they were food but he hasn’t at all; he looks at them like he loves them, growls like he wants to fight everyone in the world for them. Robert understands the sentiment.
“That dog is Satan,” Robert says. “D’you wanna walk them after you’re done with the laundry, by the way?”
“Milking this,” Liv says. “All right, yeah, but I’ve got homework. I’m rubbish at maths, and so is Aaron.”
“Help you if you like,” Robert offers. “I wasn’t too shit.”
“Maybe,” Liv says. She looks down at her feet. “After - we’ve got to bury the puppy, first.”
“When Aaron wakes up,” Robert says. “Okay?”
“Okay,” Liv says, pulling at the hem of her skirt. “Where’s the laundry, then?”
They put the puppy in a shoebox. It says ADIDAS on the side in big letters; Aaron’s birthday present.
“Feel like I should wrap it or something,” Liv says. “But that’s a bit weird to think about, innit? Christmas paper or whatever.”
Robert puts the shovel aside and toes at the mound of dirt he’s excavated. “I think it’ll be fine like this.”
Aaron puts an arm round Liv, tucks her in against his side and presses a kiss to her hair. “You did your best, Liv.”
“I know,” she says, and she sounds just like Aaron for a moment, enough that Robert’s heart twists up. “I wish it was enough.”
“Me too,” Aaron says. “But we’ve got four more of them to keep alive, yeah?”
“Yeah.” She sighs, swallows. “Okay. Let’s do it.”
She puts the last bit of dirt down over the box. The thump is loud. She and Aaron are both crying, Spot weaving agitated around their ankles.
Robert wraps his arms around both of them, guides them inside, puts the kettle on.
It gets easier; it gets routine. Robert and Aaron trade off getting up through the night for feedings, and Liv does the five am one so it's not too bad, really. It’s weird how much it makes Liv seem like a person, like less of a scowl dressed as a girl and more - softer. Like Aaron, with careful hands and a gentle voice that she sometimes forgets to shed before she talks to Robert.
It’s not that Robert doesn’t trust Liv. (He doesn’t trust Liv.)
It’s just: he always thought of her, jealously, bitterly, as the Aaron he didn’t know. The Aaron he’d missed, the Aaron all teeth and snarling bravado.
But now she’s soft and kind when she thinks nobody is looking and that’s more like the Aaron he loves than he cares to think about.
The puppies have started to have personalities, though they haven’t yet opened their eyes.The biggest one is all black and really loud; he likes Liv best, nuzzles towards her when she comes close and never sicks up on her even though all the puppies have sicked up on Robert at least three times each. The second biggest one Robert has privately nicknamed Chrissie because she’s really mean; she’s got a big white patch on her back and she spits up on him just to make a point. The second smallest is mostly white and she yawns a lot. Robert likes her best but she likes Aaron best because that’s how all dogs work. (It’s all right; he has Stella. Stella is his best girl. Stella sniffs around the puppies often in a worried way but she’s still a baby, too; she gets bored pretty quick and wants to go play in the garden.) The smallest - after the one that they put in the yard in the box that had briefly held Aaron’s new trainers - is an even mix of black and white spots and keeps trying to get out of the cardboard box that they’ve put the puppies in to sleep. Robert doesn’t know he manages, but every time Aaron starts swearing it’s because of that one, dangling half over the edge.
“We shouldn’t name them,” Aaron says. “Paddy’s going to find them forever homes.”
Liv chews her lower lip. “Okay,” she says.
Robert and Andy are, technically, in the middle of a fight. They’re at the point where they aren’t speaking to each other and pretending that they’ve disowned each other forever, but Vic’s hit the point in the fight where her patience is gone and if they’re not careful she’ll lock them in a room in a minute and then cry at them.
Robert doesn’t even remember what the fight was supposed to be about. He knows what it is actually about which is: Dad loved you more, and you set fire to Mum, and I killed Katie. Enough to drown under, if you’re not strong enough, and they are, both, when they are honest, which is not often, very, very weak.
Vic is strong, though. Vic is the strongest of them all.
“You love him,” she says. “Please.”
And Robert is, so tired. And so angry.
But after all of it, Aaron forgave him. He ought to be able to do the same.
Robert oughta be able to do a lot of things, though.
The puppies make it to three weeks old. They only need to be fed four times a day now, which is honestly a blessing for Robert’s ability to sleep and also ability to not murder Aaron in his sleep. (He shouldn’t make jokes like that, probably. He’s just been fucking tired.)
They’ve opened their eyes and now they really can move, which is hilarious and terrible. Aaron and Liv have decided that it’s their favourite game to, when Robert’s just sitting down trying to get work done, put several puppies immediately on him and let them try to crawl into his clothes. You can’t even kick a puppy off you, really. They’re helpless and small and Aaron would get mad.
(Fine. Robert thinks they’re cute.
He won’t tell anyone, ever. He is doing this on sufferance and because he is an excellent boyfriend.)
“It’s fine,” Liv says. “D’you really think I’m gonna burn the house down? You’re gonna have to leave me home alone sometime.”
“I dunno,” Robert says suspiciously.
“You need to get out,” Liv says. “You had a fight over the water in the kettle this morning. Just go to the pub, all right.”
“Did someone put you up to this?” Aaron says, squinting as he feeds the biggest puppy. Robert likes watching him do it, despite himself; he holds the puppies with one hand, with casual efficiency.
“Me,” Liv says. “I put me up to this, d’you know how exhausting it is to be around the two of you?”
“Love you too,” Aaron says, sourly.
“Two hours,” Liv says. “You just fed them. I’ll call if anything happens.” She pauses. “Is this what you’re gonna be like with babies? Because-”
“We’re going,” Robert says immediately, grabbing Aaron’s coat. “C’mon, Aaron, I’ll get the first round.”
“So you are alive,” says Chas, raising an eyebrow. “I was worrying he had you locked up in there.”
Robert sighs. “Alive and well,” he says. “You can thank Liv.”
She doesn’t even have the decency to pretend innocence. “She’s a good kid,” she says. “Pints, then?”
“Ta,” Aaron says, leaning across the bar to kiss his mother on the cheek. “Pups are doing well, feel free to come round and meet them.”
“Might not even sick up on you,” Robert says, settling a hand on the small of Aaron’s back, so the warmth of him flutters up through Robert’s fingers. “If you’re lucky.”
Chas narrows her eyes. “Yeah, all right,” she says. “We’ll see.”
Robert blames the fact that he hasn’t slept properly in three weeks; three pints is embarrassing, no matter how you swing it. Not that he’ll ever admit it to anyone. Especially not Aaron.
“I’m completely sober,” he tells Aaron. And Vic and Adam, whoever’ll hear.
Aaron smirks at him. “Say that a little louder,” he says. “Don’t think the whole pub heard you.”
Robert attempts to roll his eyes but everything gets a bit dicey so he settles for draping an arm around Aaron’s shoulders and pressing his nose against Aaron’s cheek. “I love you,” he says. “D’you know that?”
Aaron sighs at him, this soft fond sound. Like he gets when Spot won’t let them sleep, or the puppies are crying at three in the morning. Normally it would make Robert itchy and irritated that Aaron’s looking at him like he looks at the puppies, but right now it just makes him feel warm inside. “You’ve had too many.”
Vic laughs. “Charmer, he is.”
Robert drinks more beer. God, he loves beer. Beer and Aaron and puppies and Liv. “I even love Liv,” he says. “Don’t tell her I said so.”
“Better get him home,” Aaron says, but he strokes a hand over the nape of Robert’s neck and it’s so, so nice, the way Aaron is leaning into him, the smell of him.
Robert puts his other hand on Aaron's hip, gently pulls. He wants Aaron in his lap, which he does very, very rarely and only when he's wasted. Robert assumes currently he is drunk enough for both of them.
"Robert," Aaron sighs, batting him off, but kisses him softly to take away the sting.
Liv is lying on the sofa with a puppy on her stomach; Spot and Stella are play-wrestling, the kind of game where Stella gets very invested and Spot lets her win. Robert tries not to think about what their dogs say about arguments between him and Aaron.
“Did you get him plastered?” Liv says, perking up.
Aaron digs his fingers into Robert’s side. “Not on purpose,” he says, “oi, Liv, budge up.”
Obligingly, she lifts her feet out of the way so Robert can be dumped, like a sack of potatoes, onto the sofa next to her.
“Hi,” Robert says.
“Hello,” she says. “Are you gonna be sick?”
“He’s had three,” Aaron says, standing there looking unfairly gorgeous for someone wearing the world’s worst lumpy grey jumper and a pair of jeans with a rip in the knee. “He’s just being self-indulgent.”
Robert reaches out for him, gets a hand on Aaron’s side, where the jumper rides up and he can see a bit of t-shirt underneath. He knows from practice that if he keeps reaching eventually he’ll get through to skin.
Aaron slaps his hand away, but gently. “Stay here,” he says. “I’m gonna get you water and you’re gonna drink all it, understand?”
“This is why I don’t drink at home,” Liv tells Robert knowingly.
“Oi,” Aaron says. “Who was holding your hair last week, then?” Robert loves him so much. He’s so smart.
“I think Robert needs water,” Liv says, suddenly becoming very interested in the puppy snuggling at her fingers. Robert’s pretty sure that one’s Chrissie.
“You’re a muppet,” Aaron says, fondly, as Robert tries to get out of his pants and fails, falling onto the bed face-first. “You look like the puppies.”
“Ow,” Robert says, smushed into a pillow. “You’re s’posed to be nice to me, you know. Cause you love me.”
“I’m being very nice to you,” Aaron says. “I think you’ll find in the morning when you wake up that I’ve gone above and beyond.” He drops his hand on the back of Robert’s neck, fingers light on Robert’s skin. “Go to sleep, yeah?”
“Wait,” Robert says, rolling onto his back like a landed fish. He reaches up and grabs for Aaron; his fingers don’t quite work but he manages to get Aaron’s collar, manages to haul himself up just enough to press a kiss to the corner of Aaron’s mouth. “Love you,” he says softly.
Aaron smiles, small and sweet, and kisses him on the lips. “You too.”
Robert runs off his not really hangover (mostly a desire to avoid Liv's knowing looks and Aaron's sniggering) with Stella. They haven't been getting out as much, because of the puppies and Robert worrying about Aaron even though he shouldn't, and it makes Stella antsy, makes her chew at things and pick fights with Spot, who is patient but not that patient, and significantly larger than her if push comes to shove.
It’s Andy, standing on the top of the hill. He’s in jeans and a jumper, Jack holding his hand.
“Hey,” Robert says, tightening his hand on Stella’s lead. “Hiya, Jack, how are you?”
Jack blinks. “Hi, Uncle Rob. You haven’t been round in ages.”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” Robert says. “Aaron’s got puppies, so we’ve been busy.”
“Puppies?” Jack says.
Stella looks up at Robert and barks, beseechingly, and then looks at Jack.
“This is Stella,” Robert says. “D’you wanna say hi?”
“Can I, Dad?”
Andy raises an eyebrow and looks at Robert.
“She’s sweet,” Robert says. “Don’t worry, she likes kids.”
Andy raises one shoulder and drops it.
“Andy,” Robert says, softly. “Whatever you think I’m gonna do around you, he’s my nephew. She’s a puppy, she’s good. Aaron trained her.”
“All right,” Andy says, ruffling Jack’s hair. “Go on, then.”
They sit on the park bench and watch Stella nose at Jack while he beams at her and throws sticks for her to fetch. Jack’s good with her, calm and responsible; Robert keeps a close eye anyway, but Stella’s great, soft and cuddly with pretty much anyone she comes in contact with.
“Puppies, then?” Andy has always taken up too much space. This is something that’s always been true of him and now, here, is no exception. He’s spilling over his half of the bench into Robert’s space and it makes Robert’s skin itch.
“Yeah, Aaron’s idea,” Robert says. “Keep us up all hours, but anything to keep Liv out of my hair, right?”
Andy sighs. “Rob-”
“Hey, Jack,” Robert calls. “Come here, I’ll teach you a trick for Stella.”
Jack and Stella come running back.
“Just hold out your hand,” Robert says, “and tell her to shake.”
Jack, dutifully, does as he’s told. If only Andy was that easy.
Stella offers Jack a delicate paw and Jack beams at both of them.
“Go on,” Robert says, “you can shake.”
Jack kneels down and takes her paw. Stella pants at him, tongue hanging out of the side of her mouth, like she's smiling back.
Robert fishes round in his pockets and hands Jack a treat. “Tell her she was good.”
Andy looks at him thoughtfully. Like he's seeing something in Robert he didn't expect.
Robert shrugs it off. He likes Andy with his kids. He's much more tolerable like this.
Paddy comes round to see the puppies. Spot licks at his ankles in a way that is only twenty percent a threat and Stella tries to climb him like a tree. (She is getting good at climbing trees; Robert has a picture of her halfway up one as an alternate wallpaper on his phone. The main one is Aaron asleep in a pile of puppies, because he’s disgusting and practically married.)
“Stay for tea if you like,” Robert says, because Aaron won’t offer, and it’s the polite thing to do.
Paddy looks at him thoughtfully. “All right,” he says. “If you’re offering.”
“Aaron’s cooking,” Robert says, “so I promise you won’t get food poisoning.”
“That’s not a joke,” Liv says helpfully. “I got to stay home for three days last month because Robert tried to do a curry.”
Paddy stops laughing and shoots Aaron a look of pure panic.
Aaron shrugs aggressively back at him and elbows Robert right in the gut.
“What are you doing?” hisses Aaron, having unsubtly dragged Robert into the kitchen to ‘look at potatoes’. There aren’t even potatoes in the kitchen.
“Trying to be nice,” Robert hisses back. “He's not my favourite person on earth, is he?”
“I don’t like it,” Aaron says. “Don’t do it ever again.”
Robert rolls his eyes and goes to wash the puppies. Paddy observes him warily, like Robert is a snake and about to eat them, but otherwise it is fine.
Dinner is awkward. Liv, sensing weakness, goes for Paddy like a shark after a wounded dolphin and asks an endless series of questions peaking in an attempt to link his love life to gross stories about spaying cats.
“Has anyone ever told you,” Paddy says to Liv, “that you're exactly like he was at your age?”
Liv beams. “Really?”
“Don't get excited,” Aaron says wryly, cutting up a green bean.“It's not a compliment.”
“Not not a compliment,” Paddy says.
“Eh,” says Aaron, raising an eyebrow.
“Fifty-fifty,” Paddy concedes. “But you are very similar.”
Liv looks at Aaron and then at Paddy. “I want to know everything,” she says. “He won't tell me owt, says it's just gonna give me ideas, but you'll trust me, won't you?” She's doing that thing she does where she makes her eyes go big. It's infuriating. It worked on Robert last week - he gave her twenty quid and told her to have fun at the club night of the year.
“Padders,” Aaron says threateningly.
Paddy honestly looks like he might keel over. It's practically dinner theatre.
Robert eats his chips and smirks.
But nobody tries to shoot anybody else, or put them in a grain pit, or reveal an affair with wide-ranging consequences, so on the upside, it’s sort of a win.
The puppies hit a month old. Paddy makes noises about where they’re going to go eventually. They’re going to be eight weeks old soon, which is old enough to re-home. People need time to prepare.
“What if we just kept them?” Liv says. “We already have two dogs, four more wouldn’t be that many.”
Robert looks at Aaron. Aaron looks back at Robert and shrugs, very deliberately.
“You can have one,” Robert says. “If Aaron agrees.”
Liv beams. It’s like the sun is coming out of her face. She launches herself across the room and wraps her arms around Robert and then lets go and steps back and frowns at him. “Really?”
“Really,” Aaron says. And then he narrows his eyes at her. “Did you just-”
“Shh,” Robert says, reaching out to pull Liv in again. She’s kind of nice, honestly, she squeaks a little bit but she folds into his arms; even wraps her arms around his waist and rests her head against his chest. “Don’t spook her.”
“I’ll bite you,” Liv threatens.
He kisses the top of her head. It’s weird, because he’s never really thought about doing it, but it just happens, and it doesn’t - the weirdest bit is how weird it doesn’t feel. It just feels all right. “I know. Me too.”
Vic says, “I think you should ask Andy if he wants one of them.”
“What,” Robert says.
“I think he could use something,” she says. “He’s been so up in the air, you know.”
“And whose fault is that?”
“Robert,” she says. She sounds like their mother, but he can’t tell her that, because she’ll just beam and get teary eyed and sob all over him. “You know he’d be responsible. I think it’d be good for him.”
“He spends all day with dumb animals.”
“Sarah and Jack would love it. And Stella likes him.”
“Stella likes everyone.”
“He’s your brother,” Vic says. She’s doing that thing with her eyes and she reaches out and settles her hand on his forearm, gently. “You love him, Robert, come on.”
“I’ll think about it,” Robert says, and holds up one hand. “That’s all I can do, all right? It’s up to Aaron and Liv. It’s their puppies, really. Their bonding activity, or whatever.”
Vic narrows her eyes. “All right,” she says, and then she pauses and kisses his cheek. “Thanks.”
“You know,” Liv says, lying on her stomach and feeding the biggest puppy gruel from her fingertips, “Andy’s quite fit.”
“Liv,” Aaron says.
“I’m just saying,” Liv says. “Works out, lifts lots of things, definitely takes care of himself.”
“Stay out of it,” Aaron says. “I’m not kidding, Olivia.”
“Ouch, full name,” Liv says. “All right, no more about Andy’s giant arms, got it. Cause Robert's ego is so fragile.”
“It is not,” Robert says. “I just don't think he's that fit, all right.”
“Good job you don't, he's your brother!”
“If you're gonna make it worse I’ll leave you to her,” Aaron says, tracing a fingertip along the inside of Robert's knee. “No skin off my nose.”
Robert huffs, but subsides.
“Vic wants me to give him a puppy,” Robert says quietly, when Liv is distracted with her phone and like, planning to destroy the school or rob a bank or something. “I said no, obviously.”
“Well,” Aaron says, “we’ve got one to Marlon and April, and Liv wants to give one to Gabby, and then she’s got one, so-”
“You can’t be serious.”
“He’s responsible,” Aaron says. “I know you’re not - I know the two of you are weird. I’m not gonna get involved. But if Vic wants it and you agree, I’ve got no issue.”
“You were supposed to say he’d be shit,” Robert grumbles. “He’s got no time and his kids run wild and-”
Aaron kisses his temple. “D’you want me to lie to you?”
“Yeah, could you?”
“Shit out of luck, mate, you gotta outsource for that.”
“Useless,” Robert says. He reaches out and Stella jumps into his lap, licks at his face. “At least you love me,” he tells her.
She snuffles at him kindly. He scratches her behind the ears, like she likes.
Andy picks up the puppy Robert nicknamed Chrissie. She snuggles into his shirt and makes small happy noises.
Robert will never tell anyone.
“She likes you,” he says, instead.
Andy says, “She’s sweet,” and he’s holding her like - she’s fragile, like he might drop her, like he might break her. He’s got huge hands but he holds her like she’s delicate and it’s - weird. Robert and Andy, it’s complicated, but Robert likes to forget this about Andy. That for all of his flaws he is capable of great gentleness.
“You can feed her if you want,” Robert says. “We’re still weaning them, it’s a bit gross, but if you don’t mind-”
Stella looks up at him and then up at Andy and then licks Andy’s thigh until he shifts the puppy into the crook of his arm to scratch Stella behind the ears.
“She's a nice dog,” he says.
“Yeah,” Robert says. “Aaron’s influence, not mine, I promise.”
Andy shakes his head and looks at Robert, long and thoughtful. “You looked after them, then? Night feedings, all of that?”
Robert shrugs. “Wasn’t gonna leave Aaron to do it on his own, and Liv’s had school.”
The puppy noses into Andy’s chest happily. Honestly, Robert doesn’t know why Andy’s chest is so broad. It’s pointless. It doesn’t even look that good.
“You look tired,” Andy says, rubbing the puppy’s soft stomach. He’s looking down at her and he looks charmed, kind. Robert tries not to think these things about Andy unless they are obvious, but they are. “It was like that with Jack. Just cried all night, for ages. I was so tired I thought I was gonna start seeing things.”
Robert narrows his eyes. “Are you comparing your human baby to my boyfriend’s puppies?”
Andy shrugs. Doesn’t lift his head. “I’m just saying,” he says. “You really don’t get enough sleep, those early days.”
“I can take the puppy back,” Robert says.
“It looks good on you, you know. Responsibility.” Andy’s face is entirely neutral. Chrissie the puppy is licking his fingers.
Robert chews his own lip and looks down at his dog, who looks back up at him with big, loving eyes. “Paddy reckons they’ll be done with us in a few weeks,” he says. “If you wanna come and get her.”
“Really?” Andy does look up at that. Robert looks for anything in his face that might be calculating, but - it’s Andy.
Robert shrugs. “Be good for Jack,” he offers. “He got on really well with Stella, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, he loved her.” Andy cradles the puppy gently. “This is nice of you, Rob.”
Robert sighs. “If anyone asks, Vic twisted my arm,” he says. “Doesn’t know how to keep her nose out.”
“Yeah, same boat,” Andy says.
Robert smiles, and it’s weird, but Andy smiles back.
“Andy’s gonna take the last one,” Robert says. “Vic’s been on me all week, you know how she gets. Just wouldn’t shut up.”
“Nice of you,” Aaron says. He’s gone fond in the mouth.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Robert says.
Aaron elbows him in the ribs.
Robert kisses his cheek, leans in. “Happy to let you show me how much you like it, though.”
Aaron rolls his eyes. “Dunno if it was that nice.”
Robert comes home early and finds Liv lying on the floor in a pile of dogs, texting.
“Oi,” she says. “I’m trying to name the puppy. I’ve never named anything before.” She says the last bit softer than she says most things and he’s starting to get her now, really, after all this time.
He sits down next to her.
Spot yawns pointedly and licks Liv’s shoulder, bracing his paws on her thigh. He's much less threatening with a puppy attempting to climb his head, but Robert lets him have it.
“What are you thinking?”
“I’ve got a list,” she says. “Did you know, Max is the number two name for dogs? Max. Weird.” She rubs the biggest puppy under the chin. “You're not a Max, are you?”
Robert says, very carefully, “That’s a shit name for a dog.”
“Yeah, I know,” Liv says. “Here, look at this list with me.”
“Could always name him Dog,” Robert says, stretching his legs out. A puppy scrambles onto them - Chrissie, with her bright eyes. He should probably stop thinking of her with that name, it’ll slip out when Andy’s got her and then he’ll be in shit.
He scratches her behind the ears and rubs her belly. Her little tail thumps hard against his chest.
“That’s rubbish,” Liv says. She angles out her phone screen.
Robert scans the list; settles an arm behind her and feels her lean into him. It’s - not awful.
Unlike this list. “Buddy,” he says disparagingly. “Who would name - no.”
She giggles. “None of these look good,” she says. “I just- I want to get it right, you know? He’s had a shit time, and-”
Robert wants to kiss her hair, like he would with Aaron; tug her closer and tell her things will be all right. But this is Liv, and they’re still on fragile ground, the two of them.
He sits still instead, runs his hand over the puppy in his arms. “Sometimes you've just got to take your time,” he offers, looking down at her small face and pink tongue. “Sometimes things just work themselves out.”
Liv looks at him, a strange expression in her eyes. They're a lot like Aaron’s; Robert's forgetting less and less. “Yeah,” she says. “I reckon.”
They have pie for tea, and chips. Aaron hands Robert a can and tosses one to Liv.
Stella pads up to look big eyed at Robert but Aaron snaps his fingers and points her to her bed and with a deeply mournful look, she goes.
“No need for that,” Robert says.
“You’re a disaster,” Aaron says. “She’s got to learn.”
“What, like your dog?”
“He doesn’t beg,” Aaron says archly. “I think we know which one of us knows how to train a dog.”
Liv says, “That's not what Paddy told me.” She's beaming. Little ratbag.
“What’ve I told you about listening to Paddy?”
“Well,” she says, “you were pretty clear I couldn't steal from him, so I had to do sommat.”
“She has got a point there,” Robert says.
“Will both of you just eat your chips,” Aaron says, sullenly eating a chip.
Liv holds up her palm and Robert smacks it with his own.
“I'm gonna miss them,” Aaron says, later, on his third beer with his knee knocking against Robert’s, looking a little distant, faint around the eyes.
One of the puppies has climbed up onto his lap and is now trying to get in under his shirt. It doesn't quite have the appropriate coordination yet though so it keeps getting tangled up in the fabric and crying until he lets it out.
“We can still keep them all,” Robert says; mostly a joke, but he would do it if Aaron really wanted it.
Aaron sighs, fitting a hand around the puppy to pull his shirt off its head. “You know we can't,” he says, but longingly. “We’ll see them about, they've got good homes.”
Robert helps him untangle the puppy, which has gotten itself thoroughly ensnared. “How’d you even do that, mate?” he asks it, as his fingers brush Aaron's.
The puppy yips at him irritatedly and promptly tries to burrow against Aaron's stomach again.
“Honestly,” Aaron says, “you've not complained once about any of this.”
“I do have a dog,” Robert says. “And you stayed up with me when she was crying and all that.”
Aaron shrugs. “That's me, though, innit. You don't even like dogs.”
“I like you, though. And they're - they're quite sweet, after all that.” He looks down at his own fingers. He's got a little red mark from when the smallest puppy, teething, bit down too hard on his wrist. “I’ll miss them too.”
“I love you,” Aaron says, softly. “You know that?”
Robert presses his bare toes against Aaron’s ankle, for the soft hiss out through Aaron’s teeth. “Had some idea, yeah.”
Aaron rolls his eyes and kisses him. Right there, at the kitchen table; where everything is warm and the dogs are bickering over a squeaky toy and they’ve just had tea, all of them, together.
Robert brings his hand up, lets it settle on the curve of Aaron's cheek, on his warm skin and rough beard. Rubs his thumb along Aaron's cheekbone and lets himself be kissed.
“Oi,” Liv says. “Me and the puppies are right here.”
“I know,” Robert says, fondly, and kisses Aaron again.