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For all this searching, you're the best thing that I've found

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Aaron was painfully late, the minutes creeping painfully higher as his left foot twitched anxiously on the clutch, all the Hotten drivers having received the same memo to converge at the same road works at once. Nobody was going anywhere, temporary lights confusing everyone and horns blaring from every direction. All Aaron needed was to reach the turn off for Emmerdale, a mere mile past the lights, and he would have the whole road to himself. After all, the village he grew up in was hardly a premier destination for travellers, despite what Eric Pollard and his B&B brochure may say. He had been at a standstill for twenty minutes now. His phone buzzed again on the seat beside him, Vic’s name appearing on the screen, but he had tried to placate her three times already, and though he knew ignoring her would make things worse, he didn’t have the energy to try and appease her for a fourth time.

The morning had started off well enough. He had flown through some last minute scrap yard paperwork that he had been avoiding for weeks before setting off to Hotten to pick up Lilly’s birthday cake. His daughter was six today, and sometimes he couldn’t believe that a spotty nineteen year lad had managed to create something so beautiful. He and Vic hadn’t worked out, but that was inevitable really once she realised that he was more interested in what was under Adam’s clothes than hers.

Finding out she was pregnant just after he confessed to her would have been enough to make anyone implode, but she had been incredible once the shock had worn off. Adam took a little longer to come around, but his ego soon kicked in when he realised he was irresistible to both sexes, and somehow, once he and Vic had finally gotten together, the three of them managed to make it work. Aaron was the best man at their wedding, Lilly the flower girl, and she now had one more parent to love her, so everything just seemed to work itself out. Adam adored her and he was a great stepfather, even if sometimes Vic and Aaron had to put him in the naughty corner more than their own daughter.

 

Picking up the cake was his only job that morning in town, and he couldn’t wait to see Lilly’s face when she opened it, a chocolate creation featuring a collage of all her favourite Disney characters. He was already mentally preparing himself for the onslaught of sing-alongs that would follow its unveiling, an onslaught led mainly by Adam. He hadn’t counted on the road works on the way into town, but he had left enough time to get back for the party. At least he had, until he pulled into the car park opposite the bakery, feeling his luck was in as he spotted one last space, a car backing out of it. But fortune was never that kind to him, as just before he could put his car in gear and pull in, a white Audi R8 swooped in out of nowhere and took the space. A tall, blond man swept from the car, not even bothering to look behind him as he hit the locking switch on his key.

‘’OI!!’’ Aaron yelled as he blew his horn. The blond turned back and smirked at him. ‘’You saw me waiting. You took my space.’’ He had an arrogant look on his face, and he seemed to be watching Aaron, assessing if he was worth a response, which only served to anger him even further.

Apparently Aaron was worthy, because Blondie came strutting over to him, dangling his keys in front of him as he leaned down on the window frame of the car.

‘’I waited, but you took too long.’’ He smirked as he looked down at Aaron, who wanted nothing more than to wipe that smarmy grin off the bastard’s face.

‘’No you didn’t, now get out of my space.’’

‘’No thanks, I’m fine where I am.’’ Aaron couldn’t be sure, but Blondie seemed to lean in closer as he said it, and he could swear his eyes were sparkling during the exchange. Wait, why was he noticing his eyes? He mentally shook himself out of it and continued to glare.

‘’Now if that’s all, I’ll be on my way.’’ Blondie straightened up, but before he could move away, he had one last parting comment.

‘’I hope she’s worth it, whoever you were daydreaming about.’’

 

 

So now, Aaron was stuck in traffic minutes from home, and all because some arrogant prick had taken his space, forcing him to drive around for another twenty minutes to find a spot before running to the bakery to get the cake, nearly dropping it on his way to the car, all the while trying to assure Vic during her multiple calls that he would make it back on time. He eventually made it through the haze of traffic, and as he pulled up outside Adam and Vic’s house, he dared a glance at the clock. Only forty-five minutes late then.

‘’Finally, I was about to send out a search party for ya.’’ Vic exclaimed in her most exasperated tone (something Aaron was sure she practiced for moments like this.)

‘’I know, I’m really sorry. I had an incident with a small space and a big prick,’’ Aaron offered as a way of explaining, too flustered to form coherent sentences.

‘’Oi oi mate, I don’t think your daughter’s birthday is the right time to discuss your sex life’’ Adam chuckled as he came up behind him.

‘’ Oh I didn’t know we hired a comedian for the party? Aaron responded dryly. ‘’Where is the birthday girl anyway?’’

‘’In the garden, she’s been asking where you are every five minutes, better not keep her waiting any longer.’’

Aaron headed out into the back garden, taken aback at the transformation it had undergone for today. Chas had gone all out, taking the doting grandmother thing to new levels. A bouncy castle and trampoline took up most of the garden, while a face painting/Disney dress up area took over any remaining space, leaving just enough wriggle room for the twenty kids milling around, all hopped up on sugar already.

‘’DADDY!!!’’

Before Aaron could turn around, he had two arms wrapped around his legs, clinging on for dear life. He looked down at his daughter, her tiger face paint smeared all over her, and the remnants of melted chocolate buttons dotted on her chin.

‘’Well well, if it isn’t my favourite little munchkin,’’ Aaron scooped her into his arms, years of scrapping making her still feel feather-light in his embrace. ‘’Are you having a good birthday?’’

‘’The best’’ she grinned at him, but her face suddenly changed. ‘’You’re late.’’ She said it with such utter disapproval that Aaron had to stifle a laugh. He rearranged his face before she could notice and tried to look contrite.

‘’I’m sorry munchkin, but I think you’ll forgive me when you see what I got ya.’’ She continued to look at him reproachfully, clearly not convinced.

He was right. One look at her cake and she was his best friend again, telling anyone that would listen how great he was. Aaron could feel the tears welling up as he watched her, a hand on his shoulder as Chas came to stand next to him.

‘’She’s the spit of you Aaron.’’

‘’Nah, she gets all her best bits from Vic.’’

‘’Don’t be so sure love, you weren’t so different at that age. I just wish it had stayed that way.’’

‘’Don’t mum, not today.’’

‘’I’m not trying to bring anything up. I’m just saying Aaron, I see a lot of you in her.’’

He put his hand on her back, offering her a comforting touch for a just a moment.

‘’I’m just gonna go and see how Adam and Vic are getting on.’’ They were in the kitchen, bickering over the contents of goodie bags they were preparing. It always made Aaron laugh to see them like this, dancing around each other in their cosy kitchen, mirroring each other in their movements. He was happy by himself, but sometimes his thoughts wandered to images of faceless men, if one day someone would dance around him the way Adam did around Vic. He shrugged the thought from his head. Today was a day for celebrating, not lamenting.

‘’Do you two ever stop bickering?’’ Aaron ribbed good-naturedly.

‘’It’s all foreplay brother’’ Adam grinned, as Vic groaned behind him.

‘’Ooh, speaking of brothers,’’ Vic suddenly piped up. ‘’Guess who’s on his way here.’’

‘’I thought Andy couldn’t make it?’’ Aaron asked. Katie had been left the deeds to a massive stables further south, an inheritance from her aunt, so she and Andy had moved a year after Lilly was born, and he looked after the farm while she taught horse riding. They came back every few weeks to see Jack and Sarah, but they were slammed at the moment, so Andy had sent his apologies and some presents.

‘’I do have more than one brother ya know.’’

‘’We know babe, but why is Robert suddenly making an appearance today? He’s never even met Lilly, never shown any interest in her. I’m your husband and I still haven’t even met him, because he wasn’t bothered coming to the wedding.’’ Adam replied, the scepticism evident in his tone, but Vic ignored his dig.

‘’He knows it’s her birthday, and I guess he figured it’s time to start making an effort. I don’t know why he’s coming, but I haven’t seen him in years, and I’m just happy he finally cares about his niece, okay?’’

Vic stared down the two men opposite her, though why she was glaring at Aaron he had no idea. Robert had been around the village when he was younger, a very vague memory, but he couldn’t pick him out of a line up if he saw him now. He supposed that Vic was launching a pre-emptive strike, knowing full well that he would probably share Adam’s opinion of him. Their standoff was interrupted by a knock at the door, snapping Vic back into the room.

‘’That’ll be him. Play nice, both of you.’’ Aaron could hear her excited squeal as she opened the door, making him smile. Yet, as the voices drew closer to the kitchen, the man’s voice became vaguely recognisable. It had an arrogant, smug quality to it, one reminiscent of a voice he had heard earlier that day. No, it couldn’t be….

‘’Adam, Aaron, this is my big brother Robert.’’

 

It was him. The Audi R8 driving, parking space stealing, blond tosser was Vic’s brother.

 

Well, this day just went downhill.

Chapter Text

Aaron faded into the background as Vic introduced her brother and her husband, both men sizing each other up as they shook hands. There was false compliments and superficial chitchat aplenty, but the tension radiated off both of them, and as Aaron watched Robert, saw how his eyes glided over Adam dismissively, he could feel the anger simmering underneath him. The dislike towards Robert that had started with a car park spat increased with the way he had so obviously written off Adam before getting to know him. Robert had glanced briefly at him as he walked in, but gave no indication that he recognised him, probably so far up his own arse to remember someone like Aaron. Not that Aaron wanted to be remembered by the likes of him, not at all.

The smarmy git’s mention of Lilly brought him back to the kitchen.

‘’So, where is this niece of mine hiding then?’’ Aaron bristled at Robert’s tone, the way he said the word mine, as though Aaron’s daughter was somehow this man’s property, even though he had only just arrived on the scene five minutes earlier.

‘’I’ll go get her, I haven’t told her you’re coming, but she knows all about her uncle Robert’’ Vic beamed, heading out the back door, but not before mouthing ‘Be nice’ once more to the two men in front of her. What did she think they would do, run Robert over in his own pretentious car in the thirty seconds it took her to find Lilly? Actually, that wasn’t a wholly unpleasant idea, and the thought made Aaron smirk to himself, an action that drew Robert’s attention to him.

‘’Something funny?’’ Robert drawled sarcastically.

‘’No no,’’ Aaron shook his head slightly in response, drawing a confused glance from Adam, but the moment was broken by Vic’s return, Lilly holding her hand and hiding slightly behind her. She was a chatterbox was Lilly, just like her mum, but always slightly shy in front of strangers, a trait she had picked up from Aaron.

‘’Lilly, this is your uncle Robert’’ Vic said, as Lilly looked up at the imposing figure in front of her. ‘’What do you say?’’

The young girl assessed Robert for a moment, Aaron watching her like a hawk the entire time. Finally, she seemed happy to give an opinion on the stranger in her home.

‘’You’re very tall.’’ Robert fought back a grin as he looked down at her.

‘’Yea…’’

‘’But mum is really little. You can’t be her brother’’ Lilly said with absolute conviction. Robert crouched down, so he was making eye contact with her.

‘’Believe me kiddo, I tell myself that every single day.’’ He said it with a wink, and just like that, Lilly was besotted. She let out a giggle, melting the hearts of everyone in the room and stirring something in Aaron that he couldn’t recognise. She turned to her father, wearing her ‘negotiator face’ as Adam called it.

‘’Uncle Robert can stay.’’ And with that, she was out the door, back to her guests without a look back.

‘’Wow, that’s high praise mate.’’ Adam chuckled as he followed Lilly out the door.

‘’Did I just pass some kind of test?’’ Robert asked his sister in disbelief.

‘’With flying colours.’’ Vic smiled at him, before heading out after her husband. Aaron was acutely aware that it was now just the two of them standing in the kitchen, and he wondered if Robert would acknowledge their earlier encounter. Evidently not.

‘’So,’’ Robert began with a smirk. ‘’What about you, do I pass your test?’’

‘’Excuse me?’’

‘’Well you’ve been stood there in silence this entire time, just watching. Are you their bodyguard or something?’’

‘’She’s mine.’’

‘’I’m sorry…’’ Robert started, but trailed off as he realised the meaning of Aaron’s words. ‘’You’re Lilly’s father?’’ He couldn’t keep the surprise from his voice.

‘’Yes, I am. Do you have a problem with that?’’

‘’No it’s just well….’’ Robert looked smug, irritating Aaron once more.

‘’What?’’ he snapped.

‘’Nothing, just didn’t know my sister had such interesting taste in men.’’

‘’And what’s that supposed to mean?’’ Aaron could feel his temper rising, his earlier simmering anger at the way Robert had looked at Adam returning, and they locked eyes, but before Robert could answer, they were ambushed by a horde of kids grabbing coats and goodie bags on their way out the door. Aaron tore his gaze away from Robert, his attention diverted by the obligation to say goodbye to all the parents, make sure all the kids hadn’t forgotten anything. Like a tornado, it was all over in five minutes, and silence descended on the house.

Chas appeared at the back door, a precariously balanced array of dishes in her hands, which upon seeing Robert, she very nearly dropped all over the floor.

‘’Robert Sugden,’’ she began, with thinly veiled contempt. ‘’Victoria said you were here, but I just assumed the pressure of entertaining was making her hallucinate.’’

‘’Now Chastity, I’m hurt. Here I was thinking you’d be waiting to greet me with open arms.’’ Robert smirked.

‘’In Hell maybe.’’ Chas scoffed.

‘’At least there we’ll have each other.’’

Chas ignored him, turning to Aaron, who had watched their verbal tennis match with curiosity. Clearly these two had history, though why he suddenly found himself caring he didn’t know.

‘’There’s plenty more dishes outside love. C’mon, I’m the grandmother, not the maid.’’

The ‘grandmother’ comment caught Robert’s attention. He quickly had a think, knew that Adam’s mother was married to Cain Dingle, but that wouldn’t explain Chas calling herself granny. Unless.....

‘’Chas is your mother? You’re a Dingle?’’ He directed at Aaron in disbelief.

‘’Wow, you’re sharp. Does MI5 know about you?’’ Aaron deadpanned.

‘’What’s it to you anyway?’’ Chas butted in.

‘’Not a thing. This just gets better and better.’’ That smug smile was tipping Aaron closer and closer to the edge every time it made an appearance. How dare this git come here, judging him and his family. It’s not like he had a leg to stand on, having been AWOL for so long. But any retort Aaron had died the moment Lilly came running back into the kitchen, her face covered in even more chocolate and an exasperated Victoria and Adam following after her with the remaining party supplies.

‘’A little help would be nice Aaron. This is your daughter’s birthday ya know.’’ Vic huffed. ‘’And that goes for you too Rob.’’

‘’Actually Vic, I need to head off.’’

‘’What? But we haven’t even had a proper catch up yet.’’

‘’I’ll be around for a couple more days. I’m staying nearby. Give me a call and we can go for lunch. Now, come here missus.’’ He crouched down again and opened his arms for Lilly, who fell into them willingly, covering his poncy floral shirt in chocolate, much to Aaron’s amusement, but Robert didn’t seem to care, which surprised him.

‘’Be good for your parents, and don’t get into too much mischief, at least not without me.’’ Lilly let out that giggle again as she hugged her uncle, and came to stand by Aaron as Robert hugged Vic and shook Adam’s hand, with the promise to return for lunch.

‘’Bye Aaron, it’s been illuminating.’’

His voiced dripped with sarcasm, but there was a tone there that couldn’t be placed, leaving Aaron feeling like all the blood had rushed to his head. The door slammed behind Robert, and as the rest of the group returned to clean up duty, Aaron stood rooted to the spot, utterly flabbergasted at the day’s events.

 

Chapter Text

Robert hesitated as he sat in his car and looked up at the imposing shadow of the Woolpack. He had never imagined he would be back here after all this time, building up the courage to walk in. His heart had sank a little when Vic had text him the night before, telling him in no uncertain terms that he was to meet her at the pub the following day for lunch. He hadn’t been ready to revisit the pub and become fodder for all the gossiping locals just yet, but now it seemed he no longer had a say in the matter. His phone was ringing next to him, but he ignored it. He could only focus on one painfully stilted conversation at a time.

He promised himself five more minutes in the car before heading in, but the sight of Aaron strolling inside made him reassess that promise. He had thought of the man far more than was healthy once he had returned home from the party. Of course he had instantly recognised him from their little car park spat that morning, those blue eyes impossible to forget, but Aaron gave no indication that he remembered Robert when their paths crossed again, and Robert was happy to play along, even if his ego was dented a little by the man’s nonchalance.

Robert didn’t know how Aaron had gotten so far under his skin. What Vic had seen in him, he had no idea. He should have known he was a Dingle from the moment he met him, all gruff manners and brooding glances. But something about him intrigued Robert. Maybe it was the fact that clearly Aaron had no time for him, prepared to be civil only for Victoria’s benefit. He headed straight inside after him, his five-minute promise forgotten.

 

There was no sign of Aaron as he walked through the door, but Victoria soon spotted him and came running over to drag him back to the table before he could bolt.

‘’I’m so glad you came.’’

'‘I said I would, didn’t I?’’

‘’Yes, well some people weren’t convinced, were they Adam?’’

Robert hadn’t spotted Adam until now, stood at the bar with two pints in front of him, and he couldn’t resist the urge to wind him up.

‘’Doubted me did you? Well at least I have Vic to keep me company, who’s that pint for, your imaginary friend?’’

‘’Actually, it’s for me.’’

The voice came from behind him, and he turned around to face Aaron, their eyes locking instantly. Robert found himself momentarily at a loss for words, so Victoria unhelpfully decided to break the tension by inviting Adam and Aaron to join them for lunch. Robert groaned internally, but seeing the look in Aaron’s eyes, the one challenging him to disappoint his little sister strengthened his resolve and he agreed.

They slid into a booth, Robert and Aaron sat opposite each other, missing the doubting glances that Adam and Victoria were giving each other.

‘’So, where’s Lilly?’’ Robert asked.

‘’With Debbie. She and the kids have gone to some adventure park.’’

‘’I must say mate, she loves you.’’ Adam chirped in. ‘’Wouldn’t stop going on about ya the other night.’’

‘’Well, I’m very lovable.’’ Robert smirked, but his response elicited a scoff from Aaron. ‘’What’s funny Aaron? Do you not think I’m lovable?’’ he challenged.

‘’Based on popular opinion, I doubt it.’’

‘’I don’t think a Dingle is in any position to talk about popular opinion do you?’’ Robert could see Aaron’s grip on his pint tighten, and for some unfathomable reason, it made Robert feel a sliver of guilt for making Aaron angry, but he pushed it aside.

‘’Alright boys, let’s simmer down now eh.’’ Adam suggested, glancing at Vic again.

Aaron released the grip he had on his glass, determined not to let Robert get to him. He could see the corners of his mouth twitch, clearly enjoying himself. Well, Aaron wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

‘’So how did this all happen then?’’ Robert quizzed. ‘’ This dysfunctional family set up? Not man enough to keep my sister Aaron, was that it?’’

‘’Robert!’’ Vic admonished him as she realised her lunch idea was rapidly hitting the skids.

‘’Nah mate, more like she wasn’t man enough to keep me.’’ And with that parting shot, Aaron downed his pint and was out the door, Robert staring after him in disbelief. He was gay.

 

Aaron was gay.

 

‘’Robert, what the hell was that?’’ Vic stared at him, waiting for an answer, but got nothing, because there was only one thought circling his head. Aaron was gay.

 

Three days had passed since the disaster of a lunch in the pub, and Robert was back in the village. He had actually come to lunch that day with news for Vic, but Aaron’s revelation had put paid to any announcements. His thoughts kept coming back to Aaron’s face as he rose from his seat, the piercing look he gave him, one of something resembling triumph knowing he had won this particular bout. Well it wasn’t over yet, not by a long shot. So here he was, standing in front of Mill Cottage, waiting for Vic to finish her shift at the pub.

‘’Hiya. So….what are we doing here Rob? Bit of a random place for a catch up.’’

‘’Well it won’t be soon.’’

‘’I’m confused.’’

‘’It’s mine, contracts were signed a couple of days ago.’’

‘’You’re moving back? This is sudden, what’s brought it on?’’

‘’I thought it was time I came home, finally spend time with my baby sister and be a proper uncle. I’ve bought into Home James, so you’re stuck with me now sis.’’

‘’Oh my god Rob! I’m so happy you’re home.’’ Victoria seemed to pause suddenly, piquing Robert’s interest.

‘’What is it Vic?’’

‘’Well, it’s just, you do know that Home James shares an office with Holy Scrap?’’

‘’Nicola mentioned something, why is that important?’’

‘’Well Adam owns Holy Scrap.’

‘’I’m sure your Neanderthal husband won’t bother me too much Vic.’’

‘’Yea…. Thing is, he owns it with Aaron.’’ Robert flinched slightly at the name, but shrugged it off quickly, hoping Vic hadn’t noticed.

‘’Okay… can we get to the point of this Vic?’’

‘’Well, don’t you think you should apologise to him, for the lunch debacle? You don’t want to be sharing an office with all this tension do you? Please, for me? He is your niece’s father after all, and he’s Adam’s best mate.’’

‘’Fine, next time I see him, I’ll apologise. Happy now?’’

‘’Very.’’ Victoria beamed at him, and suddenly Robert confident in his decision to return, trying to ignore the voice in his head telling him that part of the reason would be Aaron’s daily presence in his life.

 

 

He got his chance to apologise the next day. Leaving the Mill after a meeting with his contractor, Robert caught sight of Aaron leaning over a car, dressed in dark blue overalls that did things to him that he didn’t want to acknowledge. He was bisexual, a fact he had accepted himself years ago, but admitting it to other people was a different story. But as he walked closer to Aaron, seeing his bicep muscles flexing in the sun under the overalls, he momentarily forgot to care. He needed to know if Aaron was interested. If he wasn’t, then he could move on easily enough. He had done it before. He could do it again. Aaron wasn’t that special.

‘’Hey.’’

Aaron glanced up at him briefly before returning to the task at hand.

‘’What do you want Robert?’’

‘’So, you’re a grease monkey as well as a scrapper, man of many talents I see.’’

‘’And like I said before, M15 doesn’t know what they’re missing. Now can I get on with this?’’

‘’You don’t like me do you? I mean you don’t know me, but you don’t like me.’’

Aaron put down the wrench he was holding. If he was going to get rid of Robert, he clearly needed to give it his full attention. Looking at him, he tried to ignore the frisson of energy that passed through him at the look Robert was giving him.

‘’Astute as ever. You haven’t answered my question though, what do you want?’’

‘’To apologise.’’

‘’I’m sorry?’’

‘Kinda stole my line there Aaron.’’

‘’Oh, sorry.’’ What was wrong with him? He glanced at Robert, who was chuckling softly now, the sides of his mouth crinkling, making his eyes look brighter, more genuine and – no, stop that train of thought.

‘’Why don’t I apologise, and you just listen?’’ Aaron nodded.

‘’I’m sorry for the whole lunch mess, if I said anything that offended you, I was just being…’’

‘’A colossal smart arse?’’

‘’Yea. It’s pretty much my default setting. Anyway, I’m gonna be sticking around, and…’’

‘’I heard. Your sister’s got a massive mouth.’’

‘’We don’t do small, us Sugdens.’’ Did Robert dream it, or did Aaron glance down at that comment? ‘’Well anyway, as we’ll be sharing an office, I’d like us to get on. I mean you share a child with my sister, so we’ll be seeing a lot of each other.’’

‘’I guess we will.’’

‘’Mates?’’ Robert extended his hand. Aaron looked at it briefly before grasping it with his own.

‘’Mates.’’

Robert smiled at him before walking towards the pub. Aaron went back to his wrench, neither man acknowledging the tingles flowing through their fingers as they faded from each other’s sight.

Chapter Text

Aaron tossed all night, images of blond hair and freckles invading every dream. Why could he not get Robert out of his head? He didn’t even like him. He was arrogant and cocky, one of those people who just breezed through life on their Disney prince looks – wait, where did that come from? God, he was spending far too much time with Adam and Lilly, indulging their fascination with blond princes. That clearly needed to stop at once.

It had just been a while since he had any action; that was the only reasonable explanation for the thoughts swirling around his head now. And Robert wasn’t interested, was he? He had noticed – or imagined, probably – some lingering glances, but as far as Aaron knew, Robert was straight as a dime, and he couldn’t exactly go up to him and ask him outright – Oh hey Robert, quick question: I know when you lived here before you bedded half the female population, but any chance of a quickie? No, that thought was a bad idea, as images of Robert’s lips, eyes and freckles swam in front of him. But he would never get him out of his system if he didn’t get an answer one way or another. The only question was how?

Before he could think too much on it, distraction came in the form of a six-year old fireball lurking outside his room. Aaron heard his door creak open and waited, pretending to be asleep, until he felt the familiar waking technique his daughter had perfected over the years, which basically consisted of her clambering on top of him and repeatedly poking his nose and cheeks until his eyes fluttered open.

‘’Don’t wanna sleep’’ she whispered brightly, once his eyes opened all the way to find her crouched over him like a tiger.

‘’Well daddy does, so why don’t we make a deal? If you snuggle up next to me now and sleep for the next two hours, I’ll make you pancakes for breakfast and I’ll even let you annoy auntie Charity until she gives you a fiver to leave her alone.’’

‘’Okay, deal!’’

Aaron curled up in bed, his daughter huddled into him and already on the verge of sleep. His thoughts of Robert could wait until tomorrow.

 

 

As it turned out, Aaron didn’t need to fabricate an excuse to gauge Robert’s feelings, as one fortuitously presented itself the next evening. The Mill was a hive of activity, builders coming and going throughout the day, Robert supervising like a military leader complete with clipboard, and Aaron had to stifle a laugh as he watched him from the garage during the day. It hit clocking off time for the builders, and Aaron didn’t realise he was absentmindedly staring in the direction of the Mill until a voice broke him out of his reverie.

‘’Enjoying the view?’’

Aaron turned in the direction of the voice, and found it was one of the Mill builders. One of the better looking ones in fact, at least in the sense that he had all his own teeth and hair, and his stomach didn’t protrude over his jeans when he bent down.

‘’Yea…oh sorry no, I was miles away. Can I help you?’’

‘’Yea, look sorry to do this when you’re locking up, but me car has given up on me, I was wondering if you have a quick look?’’

‘’Loose connection.’’ Aaron discovered five minutes later. ‘’All sorted now.’’

‘’Thanks, how much do I owe ya?’’ the guy asked, taking out his wallet, but Aaron shrugged him off. ‘’Well, at least let me buy you a pint.’’

‘’Yea sure, thanks.’’

Ten minutes later, Aaron was sat in the pub, wishing he wasn’t. Chas couldn’t keep her beady eyes off him and Craig? Chris? No, it was definitely Craig. After she approached their booth for the third time in as many minutes, even he picked up on it.

‘’Just ignore her,’’ Aaron shrugged in response to his questioning looks. ‘’She’s starved of entertainment.’’

‘’Two grown men having a drink is classed as entertainment now?’’

‘’It is when it’s a country pub and one of the men is gay.’’

‘’Didn’t realise I was so fascinating.’’

‘’I meant me, but you’re…?’’

‘’I thought it was obvious?’’ Aaron shook his head. ‘’Don’t worry, I didn’t fake a break down to get you to come for a drink, that was genuine. I have a fella at home.’’

‘’I’m cool mate, I think I’ll get over ya. But let’s not ruin the illusion for my mother just yet eh?’’ Aaron said, nodding over to where Chas was none too subtly staring at them from behind the bar. ‘’One more for the road?’’

‘’Yea, why not?’’ They both chuckled and Aaron grabbed their glasses, but as he turned to the bar, he noticed Robert standing there, giving Chas a run for her money in the art of obvious staring. Maybe MI5 was better off after all.

‘’Alright?’’

‘’Yea, you? How’s the date going?’’

‘’Good thanks, no need to pick out hats just yet’’ he directed at Chas ‘’but ya never know.’’

Robert nodded slowly into his pint, an annoyingly attractive look of smugness and contemplation etched on his face.

‘’What?’’

‘’Nothing, just wouldn’t have pegged him as your type.’’

‘’Oh yea, and what is my type Robert?’’

‘’So, ten minutes into your first date and you’re already bored with him’’ Robert replied, ignoring Aaron’s question. ‘’Chas might be waiting a while for that hat.’’

‘’What makes you think I’m bored?’’

‘’The fact that you’re still standing here with me despite the fact that your pints have been ready for the past five minutes.’’ Robert smirked victoriously as Aaron looked down. He hadn’t even noticed that Chas had filled them up, too engrossed in Robert. He leaned closer, barely a hair’s breath between them.

‘’Well, thanks for keeping tabs on me and my date.’’ Aaron smirked, seizing a chance. ‘’If I didn’t know any better, I’d hazard a guess that the great, straight Robert Sugden was jealous.’’

‘’Of him?’’ Robert scoffed. Two could play this game. ‘’That would have to mean I feel something for you in the first place though, wouldn’t it?’’

He downed his pint, and with that, he was gone, leaving Aaron stood dumbstruck at the bar. He couldn’t leave it like that. He gave Craig his drink and apologised before rushing out of the pub, ignoring his mother’s calls. He looked around and saw Robert heading to the Mill. He soon caught up with him, catching his foot in the door to stop it closing, much to Robert’s shock.

‘’That’s the thing though Robert, you do feel something, don’t you?’’

‘’Aaron, what are you doing here?’’

Aaron edged himself around Robert and into the Mill. It was a mess, but he wasn’t taking in his surroundings, too concerned with Robert’s parting line in the pub.

‘’I asked you a question.’’

‘’A vague one. I feel lots of things.’’

''And some of those things are towards me, aren't they?''

''What are you on about?'' Robert was nervous now, Aaron's eyes piercing through him.

‘’See, I think you were jealous in the pub, and like you said, you would only be like that if you felt something for me. So tell me I’m wrong.’’

Robert hesitated. He wanted to touch Aaron, to kiss him, just to see how it felt, but he felt rooted to the spot. He hadn’t expected to be confronted like this, and his preservation instincts kicked in.

‘’I’m sorry Aaron. I don’t know what to tell you. If I gave you that impression I….I thought we were mates.’’ Robert’s voice wavered on the last word, and Aaron noticed. He stepped forward, testing the waters, but almost immediately, Robert stepped back. Aaron slumped ever so slightly. He had gotten it wrong, all wrong.

‘’Fine. I’m sorry. See you around, mate.’’ Aaron turned around and was halfway out the door when –

‘’Aaron, wait.’’

He felt a strong arm pull him back in. Robert was staring straight at him, his eyes burning into Aaron’s. His lips parted and Aaron could feel the breath on his face.

‘’Fuck it.’’

Before he could even register what was happening, Robert was kissing him. He pushed him back, causing Aaron to stumble against the door, his tongue caressing Aaron’s lips and prising them open until they were locked together in an embrace. Robert tasted of beer, but his lips were soft, and Aaron could feel the heat of his body as he pushed up against him. It was hot, electric and relentless, and everything he had imagined it to be. Aaron pulled Robert in closer, gripping his hands in his hair and turning him around so he was the one pushed against the door, an anchor for Aaron to start unbuttoning his shirt. Robert followed his lead, hands roaming down his chest until he found what he was looking for. He started pulling on the hem of Aaron’s t-shirt when suddenly the contact was broken, Aaron pushing him off and pulling his top back down.

‘’I shouldn't have come here, this was a mistake.’’ Aaron was now reaching for the door handle as Robert stepped back, stung by the rejection.

‘’Aaron?’’

‘’Just forget it happened Robert.’’ He was gone, just like that, leaving Robert stood in the dark in his half-finished shell of a home.

Chapter Text

Robert sat in the café the next morning, twisting his empty mug aimlessly around in his hands as he tried not to think about Aaron and what had happened the previous night. Bob had come over three times to ask if he wanted a refill, each time being more painfully jolly than the one previously, until a final death glare from Robert sent him packing.

He didn't know what he had done wrong. Yes, he had been jealous when he saw Aaron making eyes at that pathetic excuse for a builder all night. Yes, Aaron picked up on it immediately, goading him into leaving the bar. But he was the one who had come after Robert, pushing him until he was forced to act on his want, his need for the other man. Then, in a blink, he was gone. Like it was a game to him all along, just to prove he could get under Robert’s skin and then leave him discarded. And watching him leave had hurt. The rejection still stung now, prickling his skin all over.

He was distracted from his thoughts by two tiny hands wrapping around his head and covering his eyes.

‘’Diane?’’ he pretended to guess, feeling his niece’s hands stiffen over his eyes.

‘’It’s me uncle Robert’’ she huffed as she clambered onto the sofa beside him.

‘’My bad, must be those old lady hands of yours’’ Robert teased lightly, tickling his niece, who fell into a fit of giggles at his touch.

‘’So, where’s your mum then?’’ he quizzed as he looked around.

‘’At work’’ she replied suspiciously, sounding unconvinced that her mum even understood the concept. Clearly she shared Robert’s innate sense of scepticism.

‘’So who are you here with…?’’ his sentence trailed off as Aaron suddenly appeared in front of him. He looked completely unbothered by Robert’s presence, and that made the prickles across his skin begin again.

‘’Alright?’’ Robert nodded non-committedly. ‘’C’mon munchkin, let’s leave uncle Robert in peace.’’

‘’No, I wanna sit with him.’’ Her demanding tone made it clear she was not to be argued with, so Robert gestured in defeat for Aaron to sit down. The tension Robert felt was unbearable, but luckily Lilly didn’t notice, chattering away.

‘’Uncle Robert, mum says you’ve been home for three whole days, and you haven’t come to visit, why not?’’ Lilly quizzed, staring him down.

‘’Well trouble, I’ve been getting my new house all nice and cosy to live in. I want to make sure the spare room is perfect for any of my naughty nieces who want to run away from their annoying parents.’’

‘’Don’t give her any ideas.’’ Aaron suddenly chimed in, his eyes locking with Robert’s, his expression unreadable.

Lilly was glancing between the two of them with utter contempt.

‘’I am not naughty,’’ she argued, then turned to Robert with a glint in her eye. ‘’Mum and daddy are annoying though.’’

‘’Don’t I know it kiddo.’’ Robert avoided Aaron’s gaze as he said it, but he could feel the other man’s eyes burning into him and he needed to escape. ‘’Anyway trouble, I have to go and check on that house of mine. But you can be the first person I give the grand tour to, how’s about that?’’

‘’Promise?’’

‘’Promise.’’

Robert ignored Aaron as he left. He needed to get away from him, get away from the man who only a week ago was just some mardy scrapper that hadn’t been good enough for his sister and was now something else entirely.

Aaron had watched his daughter and Robert intently over the few minutes they had been sat together. The connection between them was obvious, and Aaron had never seen Lilly so at ease with someone so quickly. She had gotten that from him, an inability to open up to people until she was truly sure they would stick around. Yet Robert Sugden seemed to have an uncanny knack for breaking down people’s walls in mere moments, a skill that made him dangerously attractive, and just dangerous in general. It was that skill that had Aaron bolting last night. He had never been shy around men before, but Robert made everything seem more intense, more susceptible to breakage, and Aaron wasn’t prepared to take the risk, not with Lilly so closely involved. But as he watched Robert leave the café, his mind reacted before he could even register it. Leaving Lilly to play with Brenda for five minutes, he pursued him, heading once again towards the Mill.

‘’Robert, wait up.’’ His call was ignored, the other man walking determinedly on, but Aaron soon caught up to him and pulled him back. ‘’Please Robert, two minutes.’’

‘’I’m busy Aaron, make it quick.’’ His voice sounded cold as he said it, and that sliced through Aaron more than if he had said something cutting.

‘’I want to say sorry, for last night. It shouldn’t have happened.’’

‘’You made that crystal clear, now are we done here?’’

‘’Please, can we just forget it and be mates?’’

‘’We were never mates Aaron.’’

‘’Ya know what, I’m trying to say sorry here, but you’re the one who kissed me.’’

‘’Because you made me think you wanted me too. You came after me remember, but don’t worry Aaron I'll get over you. Apology accepted. I won’t bother you again.’’

Robert stalked off to his new house, leaving Aaron standing alone in the middle of the village. A part of him that stupidly hoped that Robert would just brush the previous night off, but now the idea of being ignored by him completely hurt more than he cared to admit. He trudged back to the café, finding Lilly in the throws of conversation with Brenda, telling her once again about the Disney cake she had gotten for her birthday. Aaron’s smile was uncontrollable as his daughter saw him watching her and grinned back at him. He took her to the swings, bought her ice cream – their secret – and chased her all over the village until she conked out in his arms on the way home. She was the light and the good in his life, something that helped him to focus, and someone who loved him unconditionally.

But as he stood in front of the mirror that night, his fingers raking over the scars on his stomach, his thoughts drifted back to Robert and how he had walked away from him that morning without a backwards glance. It felt like Robert was giving up on him, and it hurt, which was ridiculous. He had only kissed him once after all, yet he could already feel himself getting in too deep, and his most terrifying thought was Robert finding out the truth and giving him that same cold, detached look. He had to stay away from him.

 

Chapter Text

Aaron hadn’t seen Robert once since his failed apology attempt, which made avoiding him easy, but not thinking about him was proving nearly impossible. Lilly asked about him constantly, pecking both his and Vic’s heads with an incessant stream of questioning, asking where he was and why he hadn’t invited her to tour his house yet. She settled down when Vic told her that he was away for a bit with work and was practically bursting with delight when she said he would be back the following day. Aaron wished he felt his daughter’s sense of excitement, but the knot in his stomach was weighing him down, both at the prospect of seeing Robert again, and the fear that he would want nothing to do with him.

Just as Vic had said, Robert was back in the village the next day. Aaron had come into the pub with Lilly and clocked him sitting in a booth by himself nursing a pint. His daughter immediately released herself from Aaron and made a beeline for her uncle, crushing him in one of her trademark hugs that she reserved for only a select group of people. Robert’s smile broadened and his eyes sparkled as he embraced his niece, but as soon as he locked eyes with Aaron his expression darkened, just momentarily, just long enough for Aaron to notice. He flinched at the feeling of rejection that swirled inside him, so distracted himself by turning around to Diane, who was stood behind the bar.

‘’Ya alright Diane, is me mum in?’’

‘’No, sorry pet, she’s at the bank, is everything alright?’’

‘’No it’s fine, just…..well I need to head to the solicitors to sort out a contract for a client. Adam’s on a last minute scrap run and Vic’s still working, I’d take her with me,’’ he nodded at Lilly, ‘’but I don’t know how long I’m gonna be and I don’t want her getting twitchy, you know what she’s like.’’

‘’Awh pet, I’d look after her myself, but I’m on me own today.’’

‘’I’ll watch her.’’ The voice came from behind him and when he turned around, Robert was stood there, Lilly in his arms, and the sight made Aaron’s heart flutter.

‘’You don’t have to do that, I’ll find someone else.’’

‘’Why? You want to spend time with your favourite uncle don’t ya?’’ Lilly nodded excitedly. ‘’I’ll finally get to give you that tour eh?’’

‘’Oh please daddy, pretty please.’’

‘’Only if you’re sure?’’

‘’It’s fine. Just come to the Mill when you’re done.’’

‘’Thank you Robert, I really appreciate it.’’ Aaron was sure he saw Robert’s expression soften briefly at his words, but the wall soon went back up.

 

 

Two and a half hours later, after nearly losing his temper at both the inept solicitors and the bloody road works again, Aaron was parked in front of the Mill, feeling suddenly nervous. He couldn’t help but think back to the last time he was here, and the look on Robert’s face as he had left. After deliberating for several minutes, he forced himself out of the car, knowing at the very least that nothing could happen with Lilly present, acting as a shield between them.

‘’It’s open.’’ He heard from inside once he finally built up the courage to knock.

Whatever Aaron had expected to find when he walked in, it most definitely was not this. Robert and Lilly, both with glitter on their cheeks, were sat huddled together on the sofa under a massive blanket, drinking hot chocolate and watching The Lion King on Robert’s pretentiously large television. Robert had one arm draped around her protectively and Lilly’s head was resting on his shoulder. It pulled at something in Aaron that he tried to ignore, his daughter and this man so innately comfortable with each other, so content in each other’s company.

‘’Hi daddy.’’ Lilly said sleepily.

‘’Hi munchkin,’’ Aaron replied softly. ‘’Did you have a good time with uncle Robert?’’

‘’The best.’’ Her reply was so honest, so unguarded and childlike, that for a second Aaron thought his heart would burst. He locked eyes with Robert, but the other man’s expression was unreadable.

‘’Well c’mon then, let’s get you home.’’ He said softly as he scooped his daughter into his arms. ‘’Thank you.’’ He wanted to say more to Robert, but couldn’t find the words, and Robert’s phone ringing, which he quickly rejected, interrupted any response he may have had.

‘’Don’t ignore it on my behalf.’’

‘’It’s no one worth talking to. Anyway, I’ll watch her anytime, she’s a good kid. You’re a good dad.’’ He said it so quietly that Aaron almost didn’t hear him, and when he looked up at him, his expression still gave away nothing.

‘’Okay, well say bye munchkin.’’

‘’Bye munchkin.’’ Lilly whispered, her head lolling slightly on Aaron’s shoulder. Both men chuckled softly at her words, and Aaron hesitated slightly, before nodding goodbye at Robert and heading out the door.

 

 

Lilly was back at her mum’s, Adam having extracted her from Aaron’s arms at the front door, and now he was back at the pub, pacing his room, replaying Robert’s words. He had called him a good dad, and it meant more to him then he could have ever anticipated.

Suddenly, a memory came back to him of Robert, standing in the middle of the village telling Aaron that he wanted him. He hadn’t really acknowledged it at the time, but now it was the only thing in his head. Robert wanted him. He admitted it so readily, like he really wanted him, and not just for some meaningless hook up, and Aaron had just ran out on him. Did he still want him? Aaron had to find out. He wouldn’t sleep until he had an answer.

He found himself back at the Mill in a matter of moments, his heart pounding as he knocked on the door, and Robert’s surprised expression when he opened it showed that he clearly didn’t think it would be Aaron on the other side.

‘’Aaron, did you forget something?’’

‘’No I, um….I just wanted to say thanks again, properly. For looking after Lilly, you really didn’t have to do that. She wouldn’t stop going on about her room the whole way home.’’

‘’I enjoyed myself, and I meant it, she’s a good kid. But you already thanked me, you didn’t need to come back.’’

‘’I know, I just…yea, anyway, I’ll leave you in peace.’’ Aaron turned to head back out the door, mentally kicking himself as he walked for not asking the question he so desperately wanted answering.

‘’Aaron?’’

Aaron turned back, gazing at Robert, who seemed closer to him now, and looked nervous, if that was an emotion Robert Sugden could even feel.

‘’I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that the other day. You’re right though, it shouldn’t have happened. Let’s just forget it yea, easier for everyone.‘’

Aaron felt like his stomach was made of lead with the weight of disappointment he felt at Robert’s words, but he nodded in agreement.

‘’Yea, of course. At least I can say I’ve had two Sugdens now, kind of.’’ He feebly joked, trying to ease the thickness in the air. Luckily, Robert smiled at the comment.

‘’All you need now is Andy and you’ve got yourself a hat trick.’’

They both chuckled at the idea, and something in the crease of Robert’s cheeks caught Aaron’s attention.

‘’Oh, you’ve still got some glitter...’’ Before he knew what he was doing, he was by Robert’s side, brushing away the stray flecks with his fingers. He blew the glitter off his thumb and looked back up at Robert, the gaze in the other man’s eyes unmistakable. His heart was pounding again now, a steady thrum in his chest as he continued to look at Robert.

‘’Did you mean it, what you said the other day?’’

‘’What did I say?’’

‘’That you’d get over me?’’

‘’You were right, to just forget….’’ Aaron stepped forward, stopping Robert’s flow of speech. They were inches from each other now.

‘’I don’t want you to.’’

Robert’s eyes flicked momentarily to Aaron’s lips, and that was the only encouragement he needed to pull Robert into him, crushing their lips together. It was even better than the last time, Robert’s lips still tender and demanding all at once, but now more familiar, more consuming with every pulsating movement against his own. They broke apart briefly to catch their breath, and Robert searched Aaron’s eyes uncertainly, trying to ascertain if he would bolt again. When he was confident that he wouldn’t, he took Aaron by the hand and led him up the spiral staircase to his room.

 

Chapter Text

The sound of rain pattering lightly against the window woke Aaron up. As he blinked himself awake, his surroundings momentarily disorientated him but he grinned once he realised he was in Robert’s house, in Robert’s bed. He shuffled over to get closer to Robert, but his smiled faltered when he realised the space beside him in the bed was empty and cold.

Pulling on his jeans, he padded downstairs, expecting Robert to be hovering in the kitchen drinking some poncy coffee, but there was no sign of him. He realised that he was completely alone in the house, and a dead weight settled in his stomach.

 

Robert had run.

 

He thought back to the night before, and wondered if anything Robert had done could have indicated that Aaron would be waking up alone this morning. Once he had been certain Aaron was going nowhere, Robert had dragged him up the stairs, where Aaron had stripped him, slowly and teasingly, unbuttoning his shirt and tossing it to the floor before placing delicate kisses just above the waistband of his jeans. He had known what he had been doing as he slowly undid Robert’s belt, pushing him just a little to see how long his patience would hold out. Aaron had felt a thrill as he sensed Robert hovering closer to the edge, and the moans that had come from Robert’s mouth as Aaron sucked him off still reverberated in his ears now. As Robert pushed into him moments later, first on the bed and then in the monstrously oversized shower, It had seemed in those moments that their bodies were always meant to link together. Clearly, Robert hadn’t felt the same, and now Aaron was stood alone in the kitchen of a man who obviously didn’t have the guts to brush him off face to face.

A part of him wanted to stay, wait it out until Robert came back and demand that he say it to his face; that it was one night and nothing more. But he couldn’t face the rejection. Grabbing his hoodie and shoes from upstairs, he pulled open the front door, coming face to face with Robert.

‘’Aaron?’’ Clearly Robert was surprised to see him, must have expected him to get the hint sooner than this.

‘’It’s alright, I’m leaving.’’

‘’Why?’’ replied Robert, and the look on his face took Aaron off guard. ‘’Aaron, what is it?’’

‘’Look, last night was good and all, but I get the hint, you didn’t need to take off so I’ll just see ya around yea?’’

‘’The hint about what?’’ Robert’s confused expression was beginning to annoy Aaron now.

‘’It was one night; I get that. We both got what we wanted, end of.’’

‘’Who ever said it was one night?’’

‘’Well, I’ve heard the stories; you’re hardly the poster boy for commitment are ya? Robert Sugden, the great ladies man.’’

‘’Wow, I wouldn’t have pegged you for someone who listened to the village gossip, but good to know I’m so predictable.’’ Robert scoffed sarcastically. ‘’Thought you’d jump before you were pushed eh?’’

Aaron was shocked at how visibly hurt Robert appeared and he stopped in his tracks, unsure what to do next.

‘’I just thought, I thought you wanted to push me.’’ Aaron said shyly, and Robert’s face immediately softened.

‘’Why, because I’m the great, straight Robert Sugden? Maybe I’m not as predictable as you thought after all.’’ His words had no heat behind them, and the two men smiled at each other.

‘’But I woke up and you were just….gone.’’ Aaron admitted, his embarrassment evident now, if the look on Robert’s face was anything to go by.

‘’To get breakfast supplies,’’ Robert explained and for the first time Aaron noticed the bag of shopping. ‘’You think I’d give you the night of your life and then kick you out on an empty stomach?’’ He smirked.

‘’I’d hardly call it the night of my life.’’ Aaron retaliated, Robert’s grin lowering his defences.

‘’Oh, well if at first you don’t succeed…’’ Robert said seductively, dropping the shopping as he pushed Aaron back into the flat, kissing him softly as he backed him into the kitchen.

 

Two hours later, after coffee, bacon sandwiches and maybe even another round -or two - of fantastic sex, Aaron had to go. He had said this after the coffee, then after round one, but now he really had to go. They were stood at the door, pressing final kisses to each other’s lips before Aaron finally shoved Robert off and opened the door. He hesitated slightly, and turned back to face Robert, who looked at him with a concerned expression.

‘’Robert, what are you?’’

‘’Excuse me?’’

‘’Are you….?’’ Why Aaron was asking this at the door he didn’t know, but he needed an answer.

‘’Bi.’’ Robert confirmed, reading Aaron’s mind with such ease that he felt safe and unnerved in equal measure. ‘’Nobody around here knows yet though, had no reason to tell them before.’’

Aaron understood the meaning in Robert’s words, and warmth flooded his body, but reality was soon hitting him the face, and he hesitated before speaking again.

'‘Look Rob, I um….. I think we should keep this between us for now, just for Lilly’s sake.’’ He said it apprehensively, hoping that Robert wouldn’t think he was trying to jump again, but the other man nodded in agreement.

‘’Of course, I could do without Vic pecking my head about us anyway. Our secret. Besides.’’ Robert leaned closer, whispering in Aaron’s ear teasingly, ‘’Makes it more exciting doesn’t it, like we’re a sordid affair or something.’’

Aaron couldn’t help his blush at Robert’s words, and with a final kiss, was out the door and back to the pub. Robert made himself another cup of coffee, chuckling to himself as he relived the memory of Aaron’s mocking tone when he had seen the brand Robert used. His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of his phone ringing, which he rejected once he saw who was calling. No, Aaron Dingle was truly under his skin now, and nobody was going to interrupt his daydreaming about the surly scrapper with the piercing eyes, not today.

 

 

Over the next few weeks, Aaron and Robert couldn’t get enough of each other, sneaking into the pub toilets for quick kissing sessions, spending nights at Robert’s house, and sharing knowing glances across the scrap yard portacabin. Of course, Aaron never let it get in the way of his time with Lilly, and Robert was happy to come second, knowing how it important it was for Aaron to keep things as normal as possible with his daughter.

However, they clearly weren’t being as subtle as they thought, not when even Mr. Oblivious himself Adam Barton noticed something had changed in Aaron’s demeanour over the past few days and confronted him in the scrap yard, distracting Aaron from the texts he and Robert were sending each other from opposite desks.

‘’Oi mate, have you heard a word I just said?’’

‘’Er…..what?’’

‘’Oh yea, who is he?’’ Adam smirked, directing his question at the phone currently glued to Aaron’s hand.

‘’What? No, it’s nobody.’’ Aaron shrugged, shoving his phone away. He could feel Robert’s eyes burning into him, which was not helping his poker face.

‘’Yea mate, except the blush on your face says different. It’s that guy isn’t it?’’

‘’What guy?’’ Aaron and Robert shared a brief, apprehensive glance at each other, but luckily Adam didn’t seem to notice.

‘’That guy, the one working on Rob’s place. Your mum said it didn’t seem to end well that night in the pub but I’ve seen ya, those longing glances towards the Mill when you think I’m not looking, wish he was still there do ya?’’ Adam teased.

Aaron could see Robert trying desperately to stifle a grin from behind Adam, and he wanted to wipe that smug smile off his face, preferably with his own lips, but now probably wasn’t the right time for that. Luckily, Robert straightened himself and pretended to be oblivious to the conversation just as Adam turned to face him.

‘’Oi Rob, you’ll play matchmaker won’t ya? Make some problem up and get lover boy back so Aaron isn’t pining.’’

Aaron rolled his eyes as Robert got up from his seat.

‘’I’m sure if it’s true love, he’ll come back to Aaron without my help. And besides, I have better things to do than help the local scrapper get laid.’’ Robert replied, smirking slightly as he left the portacabin.

‘’Robert Sugden, charitable as ever then.’’ Adam muttered after him as a text from Vic caught his attention.

‘’Oh mate, before I forget, you can have Lilly tonight right?’’

‘’Of course,’’ Aaron replied. ‘’You guys got big plans?’’

‘’Something like that,’’ Adam replied casually, but his shifty expression piqued Aaron’s interest.

‘’Ok, what have ya done now?’’

‘’Nothing mate.’’

‘’Yea, you know I don’t buy that ‘what me?’ look when my daughter tries it, so you have even less chance. Spill.’’

‘’Ok, well me and Vic, we’ve been kinda trying for a baby, and we want the night to ourselves.’’ Adam said nervously.

‘’What? Ah mate that’s great news.’’

‘’Ya reckon?’’

‘’Of course. You’re a great step-dad to Lilly, and you and Vic are meant to have kids.’’

‘’Thanks mate. We haven’t told anyone, didn’t want to until there was something to tell.’’

‘’Hang on, is that why you’ve been so exhausted all the time lately?’’

‘’Yea mate, Vic keeps me going all night.’’

‘’Oh yea I remember, good times,’’ Aaron teased, something he regretted when a box of paper clips hit him across the head in retaliation, but any fight back he had was stopped by the arrival of another text from Robert.

You coming over tonight?

Can’t, I’ve got Lilly.

Bring her over. We can have a movie night.

The reply had come instantly, and Aaron was immediately hesitant. They had agreed to keep things quiet, and now here was Robert arranging moving nights like they were a proper family. Then again, he was her uncle, and he did have her over before, so it wouldn’t be all that out of character. However, his delay in replying seemed to change Robert’s mind, and another text came seconds later.

Never mind. It was just a thought. I’ll see you tomorrow.

No, I’d like that, we both would. Around six then?

Six it is. See you later.

Aaron’s heart had ached at the thought of Robert feeling hurt, so he had replied without really thinking, but it would be fine, wouldn’t it?

 

 

It had been more than fine, perfect actually. Lilly’s excitement was palpable at the thought of a movie night with her daddy and her uncle Robert, and soon Aaron was feeling good about the whole thing. When they arrived at the house a little after six, Robert already had everything set up, even making homemade chicken nuggets and chips for them all, much to Aaron’s bemusement.

‘’You made chicken nuggets?’’

‘’Yes, I’m not feeding my niece that fast food muck they pass off as chicken.’’

‘’Of course not.’’ Aaron smirked, before turning his attention to Lilly. ‘’So what’s the verdict munchkin, is uncle Robert a good cook?’’

‘’Yep, much better than you daddy.’’

‘’Oi, I thought you were always supposed to be on my side?’’ Aaron exclaimed in mock horror, but her replying shrug did nothing but make both him and Robert chuckle as she made her way to the sofa.

A little while later, after eating an entire chocolate factory’s worth of buttons and singing her way through Pocahontas, accompanied occasionally by Robert –I’m not singing along Aaron, whatever you say Robert – Lilly was fast asleep, wedged between the two men, her head on Robert’s shoulder and her legs on Aaron’s lap.

‘’I suppose I should get her home, it’s already way past her bedtime,’’ Aaron said softly, gazing down at his daughter, her nose twitching as she slept.

‘’She could always stay here….you both could.’’ Robert suggested.

‘’I don’t think that’s a good idea Robert.’’

‘’Why not? Look, all I’m saying is she’s got her room upstairs, better than carrying her back to the pub and trying to settle her again.’’

Aaron couldn’t help but nod at the valid points Robert was making.

‘’And, we don’t have to do anything. Just sleep Aaron, I promise.’’

‘’Okay then, we’ll stay.’’ As Aaron leant over to pick up his daughter, he came dangerously close to Robert and whispered, ‘’we don’t have to do everything, but we can still do something.’’ Robert’s stunned expression was worth it as Aaron smugly stepped back, his daughter in his arms.

As he put Lilly to bed, Aaron couldn’t help but think about the change in Robert he had seen over the past few days. Yes, to the general public he was still an arrogant git, and his enjoyment of winding people up occasionally grated on Aaron, but behind closed doors, when it was just them, he was soft and kind. Aaron couldn’t help but feel a little thrill at the thought that he was the reason, well, him and Lilly.

He came back downstairs to find Robert clearing up in the kitchen, sipping from a beer as he moved around the kitchen, another one left on the side for Aaron.

‘’Need a hand?’’

‘’Yea please, could you grab me that container, I’ll put the leftovers in it.’’ He pointed to some Tupperware on the top shelf. As Aaron reached up to grab it, Robert watched appreciatively as his t-shirt rode up his chest, his muscles on show, until something else grabbed his attention.

‘’Aaron?’’

‘’Yea?’’

‘’What are those?’’ Aaron looked to where Robert was pointing, the scars on his stomach visible where his top had gotten caught. He quickly smoothed it down and tried to shrug it off.

‘’They’re nothing, just leave it yea?’’ He made to grab his beer and leave the kitchen, but Robert caught him gently by the arm.

‘’Aaron, you can tell me.’’

‘’I said just leave it Robert.’’ Robert released his grip on Aaron, who sank back into the sofa and flicked aimlessly through the channels, eventually landing on some terrible action film. Robert followed him, sinking down on the other side, trying to lighten the mood by occasionally commenting on the silly plot, but Aaron’s stoic silence eventually shut him up.

How had he never noticed those scars before? He thought back, and realised that every time they had sex Aaron had kept his top on, but Robert had never really noticed. He had figured it was just Aaron’s thing. But as the end credits rolled, he couldn’t take it anymore.

‘’Aaron, look I’m sorry, you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to’’ he started.

‘’I used to…. I used to cut myself,’’ Aaron practically whispered, not meeting Robert’s gaze. This was clearly hard for him to say, and Robert fought the urge to move closer to him. ‘’When I first…realised… I didn’t really handle it very well. But then Lilly arrived and it changed everything. I wanted to get better, for her. So I stopped. I haven’t done it in years.’’

Tears were prickling Aaron’s eyes, and that was the last straw for Robert, who embraced him in one swift movement, kissing his temple softly.

‘’Thank you Aaron, for telling me.’’

‘’Thank you.’’

‘’For what?’’

‘’For still looking at me the same way.’’

‘’Always.’’

‘’There’s another reason, as well,’’ Aaron continued hesitantly. ‘’I’m not ready to tell you that yet, but someday, maybe.’’

Robert nodded softly in response. ‘’Well I’ll be here, whenever you’re ready.’’

Aaron kissed him softly, the only way he could show his gratitude to the man. They didn’t have sex when they eventually made it to the bedroom that night. Instead, they spent the night talking about silly things, and though Aaron had originally planned to sleep on the sofa so as not to confuse Lilly, they dozed off in each other’s arms, and Aaron couldn’t remember the last time he felt this happy.

Chapter Text

They were both awoken by the sudden heavy weight of a six-year-old child jumping onto Robert’s bed, but luckily they weren’t tangled around each other like they normally would be.

‘’Daddy,’’ She quizzed him. ‘’Why are you in uncle Robert’s bed?’’

Robert froze, his ability to spin a quick line momentarily forgotten. Luckily Aaron swiftly responded, pulling his daughter closer to him.

‘’Well you know when you have sleepovers at auntie Debbie’s house and you share a bed with Sarah?’’ Lilly nodded. ‘’Well me and uncle Rob are like that.’’

Lilly accepted his answer and scooted off the bed, the look in her eye telling Aaron that she had already grown bored of this topic and was instead thinking about breakfast. He knew that look well; he was the one who had coined it.

 

 

After a breakfast of waffles and chocolate syrup – do not tell your mother Lilly – and a sneaky goodbye snog from Robert, Aaron and Lilly headed back to Vic’s, but the sound of raised voices from inside made Aaron slow down. He glanced down at his daughter, but she was too busy chattering away about how brilliant uncle Robert was to notice. He took his chance and knocked loudly on the door to get Vic and Adam’s attention.

‘’It’s only us.’’ he called out as they came into the kitchen. Vic and Adam immediately stopped arguing, but Aaron could feel the tension between them.

‘’There’s my favourite girl.’’ Vic said as she crouched down to give her daughter a hug, a smile plastered on her face. ‘’How was your night with daddy?’’

‘’We stayed at uncle Robert’s and watched Pocahontas and had waffles for breakfast.’’ Lilly replied, grinning at Aaron as she said it.

‘’Traitor.’’ Aaron retorted in mock disbelief.

‘’Ooh, that sounds amazing. Wait hang on, uncle Robert’s?’’

‘’He invited us around to watch a film and the munchkin fell asleep so we ended up staying over, that’s all.’’ Aaron offered, trying to explain as casually as possible. Adam nodded acceptingly, but Victoria wore a bemused expression on her face, one that Aaron couldn’t place.

‘’Well c’mon missus, let’s get you upstairs and cleaned up. If daddy wants to secretly give you chocolate syrup, he needs to clean up the evidence next time doesn’t he?’’ She joked, pointing at Lilly’s chin.

Once they were out of earshot, Aaron turned to Adam.

‘’So, how did it go last night? No details necessary, cliffs notes version will do.’’

‘’It didn’t mate,’’ Adam replied as he slumped back against the counter.

‘’What, why not?’’

‘’Because mate, I’m barely in the door when Vic is talking about positions and elevation and the best food for fertilisation and it was just too much.’’

‘’Look mate,’’ Aaron started, trying to rid himself of the image of Adam and fertilisation, ‘’ You’ve only just started trying right, it’s not gonna happen overnight, just give it time.’’

‘’It’s been longer than that.’’ As he clocked Aaron’s questioning expression, Adam continued. ‘’It’s been nearly a year.’’

‘’Oh.’’

‘’Exactly.’’

‘’Well I still don’t think you need to panic. Some couples take ages to get pregnant, but it will happen.’’

The sound of Vic coming back down the stairs shut them both up.

‘’Look, I’ll leave you both to it, see you later.’’

 

 

The next morning, Aaron was finishing off a brew in the backroom when Victoria came in. Robert had texted him earlier to say he’d be gone all day with meetings and then sent another message with some very questionable content that Aaron was still blushing over thirty minutes later.

‘’Morning.’’

‘’Morning, ya alright?’’

‘’Yea Aaron, you alright?’’ She grinned at him.

‘’Eh….yea?’’

‘’Good, that’s good.’’

‘’C’mon Vic, spit it out.’’ It was too early in the morning for this.

‘’Well, since you asked so nicely. Our beautiful daughter told me something very interesting last night as I was putting her to bed.’’

'‘About?’’

‘’Oh just how daddy and uncle Robert were sharing a bed the other night.’’

‘’Yea, and I explained that to her.’’ Aaron replied as convincingly as he could.

‘’I know what you told her, but you know that ‘what me?’ look our daughter has that neither of us buy?’’ Aaron nodded. ‘’Well she gets that from her father.’’

‘’Look, Vic…’’ but he was stopped by Vic raising her hand up.

‘’Don’t even try Aaron. I’ve seen the way you look at him when you think nobody’s watching. And I’ve seen the way he looks at you too.’’ Aaron blushed slightly at that comment.

‘’So….you’re okay with this, you don’t seem surprised?’’

‘’Nothing surprises me with my brother. As long as Lilly still comes first, and doesn’t get caught in the middle of anything, then of course I’m happy for you Aaron.’’ She pulled him into a hug, totally bewildering Aaron with how relaxed she was. As she pulled away however, she wore a puzzled expression, which Aaron immediately recognised.

‘’He’s not gay.’’ He answered, before she could even ask. ‘’He’s…..look it’s not my conversation to have. Talk to Robert about it.’’

‘’Okay I will.’’ She was nearly out the door when she paused. ‘’Aaron, I really am happy for you both. You both deserve it.’’

‘’Thanks Vic. Oh and Vic?’’

‘’Yea?’’

‘’Things will work out for you and Adam too.’’

‘’He told you?’’

‘’Only because he cares, he doesn’t want you working yourself up unnecessarily.’’

‘’Yea, guess I’m just anxious. Why is it taking so long when last time….’’

‘’When last time we slept together just the once and I still knocked you up ya mean?’’ Aaron joked, but it had the desired effect, as Vic smiled a little. ‘’Maybe, that’s the problem. When it happened with us, we obviously weren’t thinking about it. You need to relax a little, stop thinking about it, that’s when it will happen.’’

‘’You’re right.’’ Victoria agreed, looking brighter now. ‘’Thanks Aaron.’’

 

 

Diane was walking past the Mill on the way to David’s with Lilly when she saw it; a massive Range Rover parked in front of Robert’s house and a brunette woman peering through the door. Walking down to the cottage, she cleared her throat.

‘’Hi pet, can I help you?’’

‘’Is this Robert Sugden’s house?’’

‘’Yes pet, but I’m afraid he’s out at meetings all day. Can I pass on a message?’’

‘’And who are you exactly?’’ The woman asked rudely.

‘’I’m Robert’s step-mum, Diane.’’

‘’Oh well I suppose that makes us family then.’’ The woman got back in her car, her comment completely baffling to Diane, until she rolled down the window as she backed out of the drive.

‘’Tell him his wife is looking for him.’’

 

 

 

Aaron entered the pub after work, quickly glancing around for Robert, but there was no sign of him. Instead, the sight of Diane and Chas whispering intently in the corner greeted him.

‘’So, who’s the subject of gossip today then?’’ Aaron asked as he poured himself a pint.

‘’Robert Sugden.’’ His mum replied, with a hint of derision.

‘’Oh yea, what’s he done now?’’ Aaron tried to ask casually, but his voice cracked at the end. Luckily, neither woman seemed to notice.

‘’Only gone and got married without telling any of his family.’’ Diane replied in indignation. ‘’I had to meet his wife today for the first time at the house, she must have thought I was a right old fool, not knowing who she was. Mind you, I have to say, he did very well for himself there, no doubt about it.’’

Aaron nearly dropped his pint, and everything Diane had said after ‘married’ was a blur. Robert was married. Married. The word kept rolling around in his head, and his heart felt like it was suddenly made of lead. He was snapped out of his thoughts when he realised Diane was still talking.

‘’I need to speak to him about this. Why is he is the village without her?’’

‘’Maybe she’s kicked him out for some reason.’’ Chas suggested with a hint of glee. ‘’Probably caught him cheating on her with some two-bit slapper, wouldn’t be the first time.’’

Aaron had to get out of the pub. He muttered a line about forgetting something at the scrap yard and was outside in a matter of minutes. He needed to know if it was true, and there was only one man who could give him that answer.

 

 

Robert pulled up outside the Mill a short time later, and was surprised to see Aaron waiting for him.

‘’Hey, I thought we were meeting in the pub?’’

‘’Yea, and I thought you were single, so I guess we’re both wrong.’’

‘’What?’’

‘’Diane is in the pub now, telling my mum all about how she ran into your lovely wife today Robert.’’ Aaron looked at him, hoping, praying for Robert to come up with an explanation, tell him it wasn’t true, but instead, he just shook his head.

‘’I’m sorry Aaron.’’ Robert unlocked the door and headed in as Aaron followed him, needing something more than that.

‘’That’s it, you’re sorry. That’s all you can say?’’ He shouted as he slammed the door behind him. ‘’You’re married, Robert.’’

‘’Yes Aaron I know that. But we’re not together anymore. I don’t even know why she was here.’’ Robert shouted back.

‘’Nah, I don’t buy it. Why would you keep it this big secret from me or your family, if it was all over?’’

‘’We’ve known each other a few weeks Aaron, I don’t have to tell you everything. And I kept it from Diane and Vic because I didn’t want to drag up the past for no reason. I didn’t know Chrissie would turn up here.’’

‘’Or you just wanted to have your fun while you could, before you go back to playing the loving husband when the missus moves in right?’’ Aaron laughed darkly as a memory came back to him.’’ That first time, you called us a sordid affair. I guess you weren’t joking.’’

‘’Aaron, you know that’s not true. You know how I feel about you. Why can’t you believe me when I tell you we’re over?’’

‘’Oh, we are over.’’ Aaron turned to walk out the door, but Robert pulled him back.

‘’No, c’mon Aaron, please don’t leave it like this.’’

‘’So what happened, kicked out for cheating? Mum said it wouldn’t be the first time.’’

‘’And here I was thinking Chas Dingle would be first in line to give me a character reference.’’ Robert bit back sarcastically.

‘’Stay out of my life Robert.’’

‘’No Aaron, please don’t go.’’ Robert grabbed his arm again, but Aaron glared at him, anger and hurt evident in his eyes.

‘’Go on then, explain.’’ Aaron demanded. Silence. ‘’Yea, thought as much.’’

‘’And what about Lilly?’’ Robert asked desperately as Aaron turned his back on him.

‘’What about her?’’

‘’Your daughter’s pretty sharp Aaron, she’ll notice when we suddenly stop talking to each other. Don’t you think she’s gonna start asking where uncle Robert has suddenly disappeared to?’’

‘’She’s not your concern, so stay away from her, Robert. It should be pretty easy for you, shouldn’t it, given how well practised you are at that already with Sarah and Jack?’’

Aaron regretted it as soon as he had said it. He knew Robert’s history with Debbie and Andy. Robert had even brought it up one night in bed, saying he wished he were as close to Andy’s children as he was to Lilly. He saw the flash of hurt flicker across Robert’s face, but it was already out there, too late to claw back.

‘’Fine, if that’s how you feel. You can go now Aaron.’’

The sound of the door slamming behind Aaron as he left the Mill sounded so final. He had put his trust in Robert, put his daughter’s trust in him, and he had been let down. He could feel the anger and the hurt pricking at him as he walked slowly back to the pub, the tears he had managed to contain in the cottage now streaming freely down his face.

 

 

Robert woke up on his sofa, head pounding and an empty whiskey bottle dangling precariously at the edge of the sofa. Of course that bitch Chrissie couldn’t let him be happy and now Aaron hated him. He glanced at his phone, desperate to see a message from him, any kind of message, so he would know he still cared. But there were none. Just a dozen missed calls from Victoria and Diane, and a barrage of messages from them both telling him to call them. He slammed his phone down on the table and shuffled on the sofa, knocking over the bottle, which fell to the floor with a crash.

Two hours later, once he finally managed to extract himself from the sofa, have a shower and clean up the broken glass, he was headed to David’s for something to cure his throbbing head when Victoria accosted him.

‘’Not now Vic.’’

‘’Yes now, Robert. You’re married. This is huge. How could you not tell us?’’

‘’There’s nothing to tell.’’

‘’I don’t think having a secret wife squirrelled away falls into the ‘nothing to tell’ category, don’t you?’’

‘’Yes it does, we’re not even together anymore.’’

‘’Why not?’’

‘’Does it matter?’’

‘’Yes Robert it does. You should have known this was bound to come out eventually. And how could you even do this to….’’ Victoria paused. She hadn’t discussed Aaron with Robert yet.

‘’To who Vic?’’ Clearly, Robert had caught that.

‘’To us, obviously. I knew there was more to you moving home, but Diane told me I was just being silly. We’re your family and you’ve kept this massive secret from us.’’

Robert’s headache was becoming unbearable now, and he snapped.

‘’Well excuse me Vic, for not knowing how to tell the entire village that my relationship had crashed and burned before the ink was dry on the marriage license, but cheers sis, needn’t have worried, not with you to help bring it to everyone’s attention.’’ He directed at the growing crowd near the shop. ‘’If that’s all, I’m going home. Don’t follow me.’’

He turned back towards the Mill, but as he did, he caught sight of Aaron watching him. How long had he been there? He averted his gaze quickly, unable to face the anger in Aaron’s eyes.

Aaron had been quietly stewing in the garage with a brew when he heard it; raised voices coming from the shop, voices that he soon recognised as Vic’s and Robert’s. He had fought the urge to go out and see what was happening, pretending not to care until eventually it became too much and he ventured out.

Robert looked terrible, tired and hungover. Aaron instantly thought of this mystery wife. She mustn’t be taking him back, whatever he did. But a little part of him hoped that he was partly the reason, that Robert was missing him already. He had told Aaron that his marriage was over, maybe he was telling the truth? Aaron hadn’t really given him a chance to explain, too hurt and angry to listen. He saw Robert’s eyes dart towards him as he walked away from his sister, but before Aaron could decipher their expression he was gone.

 

 

He was locking up the garage for the night when he saw him again, coming out of the shop. Clearly the mission to buy what he wanted earlier had been derailed by his little sister. His heart ached to see him and he couldn't help it, so taking a chance, Aaron ran after him.

‘’Robert, wait up.’’

‘’What do you want Aaron?’’

‘’Wow, déjà vu much eh?’’ Aaron’s feeble attempt to lighten the mood fell flat as Robert just glared at him.

‘’I wanted to see if you’re alright?’’

‘’What, now that the entire village knows about my sham of a marriage, or the fact that Vic knows about us, about me, and I didn’t get the chance to tell her myself? Was it you?’’

‘’What?’’

‘’Don’t pull the innocent act with me Aaron. She’s not as clever as she thinks she is. You told her didn’t you? Was this your revenge for not telling you about Chrissie, out me to my kid sister?’’ Robert spat venomously, flooring Aaron.

‘’No, of course not. She had figured it out herself ages ago and then Lilly told her about us being in bed together.’’

‘’Well now she thinks I broke her best mate’s heart, so good day for me yea? Ya know what Aaron; I’m done caring. I tried telling you it was over and it got me nowhere. I’ll see ya around.’’

‘’Robert…’’ but any other words died on his lips as he watched him walk away.

He couldn’t sleep that night. He looked over at his daughter, snuggled up against him, fast asleep with her mouth open, a book open across her chest from when she had been practising her reading earlier. He knew that soon the questions would start as to why uncle Robert wasn’t around and why her daddy wasn’t talking to him. It would be for the best, Aaron would tell her, but best for who was a question he could not yet answer.

Chapter Text

Aaron didn’t have long to wait before the questions started. He was in bed a few days later, trying to avoid getting up and actually facing the day when his daughter pounced on him out of nowhere. He turned over to tickle her, but her solemn face stopped him in this tracks.

‘’Munchkin, what’s the matter?’’

‘’Did uncle Robert do something bad?’’ She asked, sniffing slightly.

‘’What makes you think that?’’ He replied, trying to avoid answering the question directly.

‘’I heard granny Chas and granny Diane talking about him.’’ Aaron rolled his eyes. Great. Whatever Diane was saying didn’t really matter but he knew full well that Chas wouldn’t be doing Robert any favours, and now his daughter had to overhear it.

‘’Well what did you hear them say?’’

‘’They said, they said he hurt people.’’ She let out a sob as she got the words out, and Aaron’s heart broke. ‘’Is it true?’

‘’No he hasn’t hurt anyone.’’ Aaron responded as surely as he could, rocking his daughter in his arms.

‘’Was granny Chas lying? Does she hate uncle Robert?’’

Aaron was really struggling to come up with good enough answers. At times like this he would turn to his mum or Vic, but they were both too close to this.

‘’No, she doesn’t hate him.’’ Aaron decided to be as truthful as he could be. ‘’Uncle Robert made a mistake and did something he shouldn’t have, so some people are a little bit upset right now. You might not see him that much over the next few days, but he still loves you, and he’ll visit you soon. You’re still his favourite niece.’’ Aaron kissed her softly on the head as he said it. He had no idea if Robert would visit her, but he needed to say something to his daughter, though he was completely floored by what she said next.

‘’Will he have to go away like granddad Gordon?’’

‘’No sweetie, definitely not.’’ Lilly wasn’t aware of what had happened between Aaron and his father, only that Gordon had done a bad thing and had to go away to say sorry. Aaron knew that someday his daughter would find out the truth, but he would keep that secret from her until the day he died if he could.

‘’Are you upset with uncle Robert daddy?’’

‘’A little.’’ Lilly was uncannily like her uncle at times, able to effortlessly see through Aaron’s walls at any moment, and the thought warmed him and scared him in equal measure.

‘’If he says sorry, will you be friends again? He loves you too daddy.’’ Aaron’s breath hitched in his throat at his daughter’s blunt assessment, as the thought of Robert actually feeling anything remotely like that for Aaron was impossible.

‘’We’ll see,’’ he replied. Lilly, satisfied with that answer, snuggled down next to her father and dozed off again, but Aaron was more awake than ever as he held his child in his arms.

 

 

A little while later, having left Lilly asleep in his bed, Aaron crept downstairs to scavenge some breakfast for the two of them. His rustling through the cupboards was interrupted by the sound of banging and cursing coming from the pub kitchen. He found Vic in there, a frying pan discarded hastily in the sink and a wet towel wrapped around her hand.

‘’Vic, you alright?’’

‘’I’m fine, I just burnt my finger on that stupid thing.’’

‘’Do you want me to take a look?’’

‘’Thanks Dr. Dingle,’’ eliciting a smile from them both. ‘’I’ll be fine I promise.’’

‘’Is everything else okay?’’

Vic hesitated, and at once Aaron knew the reason.

‘’You can talk to me about him Vic, It’s okay. He knows you know by the way, about us.’’

‘’How? Oh… never mind…’’

‘’Yea….he thought I’d told you. We had a row about it and he stormed off.’’

‘’So… where do you guys stand now? Do you believe him, about his marriage being over?’’

‘’Honestly Vic I don’t know, and maybe it’s for the best. I’ve got Lilly and the business to keep me busy so…’’

‘’Yea, well maybe you shouldn’t give up on him just yet. He does care about you ya know. Or maybe you should, I don’t know, you can’t fight forever can ya..’’

‘’Vic is there something else going on? You seem, I dunno, edgy?’’

Victoria hesitated, but eventually decided to come clean.

‘’Adam and I, we’re getting tested today.’’

‘’Tested? Oh…..tested.’’

‘’Diane’s given us the money to do it. Just wanna know that everything is alright ya know?’’

‘’And it will be Vic, this will just prove it.’’

‘’I hope so, I just feel like I’m running out of time.’’

‘’You’re twenty-three Vic, I think the menopause is a little way off yet.’’

‘’What do you know about the menopause?’’ Victoria joked.

‘’You try living with Charity, it’s a hormonal rollercoaster.’’ Aaron pulled Victoria into a hug. ‘’You’ll be fine, trust me. Anyway, I best get back to our kid before she sets my room on fire or something. Good luck.’’

 

 

 

‘’I need a beer.’’ Adam declared, after losing a battle with a beaten up car. ‘’Pub?’’

Aaron was looking at his phone, willing it to ring, but it wouldn't. He had pushed Robert away, but every part of him ached with the realisation that Robert had given up on them, that Aaron had let his walls down for nothing.

‘’Bro?’’

‘’Yea sorry, beer sounds good.’’

‘’No word from Robert eh?’’

‘’How did you….?’’

‘’Vic spilled her guts this morning. Think she was just distracting herself from the tests to be honest. I didn’t know Robert was gay, or married for that matter.’’

‘’He’s not.’’ Aaron sighed.

‘’Which one?’’

‘’I don’t even know mate. But yea, let’s call it a day.’’

‘’So how were the tests this morning?’’ Aaron asked twenty minutes later, the two of them sat in the corner booth of the pub.

‘’Well it wasn’t the sexiest experience was it bro? But if it calms Vic down then that’s all that matters.’’

‘’And it will, you guys will be fine. When do you find out?’’

‘’Two days.’’

‘’That’s quick.’’

‘’Yea, well the sooner the better right?’’ Adam tried to sound confident, but Aaron could sense the apprehension in his voice.

‘’Seriously Ad, you’ll be fine.’’

‘’I know. So that’s my problem talked about, you’re up mate. Why didn’t you tell me about you and Robert?’’

‘’We were keeping it quiet, for Lilly’s sake.’’

‘’Whose idea was that?’’

‘’Mine.’’

‘’But now you’re thinking how convenient it was for Robert to keep it a secret too?’’

‘’When did you get so perceptive?’’

‘’I have my moments bro.’’ Adam joked lightly. ‘’So who else knows?’’

‘’Just you and Vic, and we’re over now, so it’ll stay that way.’’

‘’Who are you trying to convince mate, me or you?’’ Aaron shrugged off the question.

 

 

An hour and three pints later, Aaron and Adam were in the midst of a heated darts competition when Robert suddenly emerged through the double doors, closely followed by Vic and Lilly. As soon as he clocked Aaron, he shook his head, whispered something in his sister’s ear and left the way he had come in, despite her protests. She looked sadly at Aaron as she came over.

‘’Hey babe,’’ she said affectionately as she wrapped herself around her husband. ‘’Who’s winning?’’

‘’Is it daddy?’’ Lilly asked excitedly.

‘’Please peanut, as if your daddy could ever beat me.’’ Adam joked, tickling Lilly as he did. Clocking his wife’s expression, he took Lilly’s hand. ‘’C’mon, let’s go and annoy Marlon for some grub eh?’’

‘’Well that was subtle.’’ Aaron said dryly. ‘’Just spit it out Vic, whatever it is.’’

‘’Have you spoken to my brother at all?’’

‘’Nope, don’t intend to either.’’

‘’He went to see her today, Chrissie.’’ Victoria clarified, as though Aaron wouldn’t know whom she meant immediately.

Aaron had seen Robert driving out of the village that morning, but the other man hadn’t acknowledged him as he drove past, which stung Aaron more than he cared to admit.

‘’Begging for another chance yea?’’

‘’Maybe you should ask him that yourself.’’

‘’Not interested.’’

‘’Aaron…’’ Vic tried to plead some more, but she was interrupted by Adam and Lilly’s return, massive plates of chips and chocolate cake balancing precariously in Adam’s arms.

‘’So what do you say peanut? Me and you take on mum and daddy and trash them in a battle to the death?’’ Adam suggested, trying to lighten the tense atmosphere, which Aaron appreciated greatly.

‘’Please, mum and daddy will make you cry into your cake.’’ Aaron retorted, winking at Lilly, who giggled, but then the negotiator face came out.

‘’You’re going down, daddy.’’ She decided, staring her father down in such a Robert way that Aaron shuddered briefly, but he shook it off.

Twenty minutes later, a smug Adam and Lilly were prancing around the pub in a victory lap, Aaron and Vic hanging their heads in shame at their darts ‘defeat’.

‘’Okay, I think it’s time for someone to go home.’’ Vic suggested as she watched her husband and daughter with a doe-eyed grin.

‘’Awh babe, don’t be bitter.’’ Adam joked as he sat back down, pulling Lilly onto his lap.

‘’Yea babe.’’ Lilly mocked. ‘’Can’t we stay a little longer, please?’’

‘’Listen to your mum munchkin.’’

‘’But daddy…’’

‘’Well okay, but me and your mum want a rematch, and it will be so much easier to beat you when you’re sleepy….’’ That comment was enough, and Lilly was off Adam’s lap and pulling him and Vic by the hand to get home.

‘’Talk to Rob, please.’’ Vic whispered to Aaron as she was dragged away.

‘’I’ll think about it.’’

 

 

And he did. He thought about it for all of thirty seconds before he found himself walking to the Mill.

He pounded on the door, the three pints of beer making him much braver than normal, but he sobered up as soon as Robert opened the door, all the feelings he had tried to bury over the past few days rising to the surface once more.

‘’Aaron?’’

‘’So when’s the leaving party?’’ Aaron asked as he pushed past Robert.

‘’Excuse me?’’

‘’No my mistake, it’ll be a housewarming won’t it? Once Chrissie moves in.’’ the name felt like it was slicing Aaron’s tongue as he said it.

‘’What the hell are you on about?’’

‘’Vic told me where you were today.’’

‘’Right, and you took whatever it was she said and spun it into your own convenient little story didn’t you?’’ Robert scoffed in response.

‘’Don’t you dare have a go at me Robert, you’re the one covering up a marriage, and a cheap affair come to think of it.’’

‘’If you think all we are is a cheap affair then why are you even here?’’

‘’I need to know why you lied to me Robert, I thought we had…’’ Aaron trailed off, but Robert understood him, of course he did. He took a step forward, tentatively pressing his hand against Aaron’s cheek.

‘’We did, we do….’’ Robert offered, and the look in his eyes was so sincere that Aaron had to look away. It was too much. He broke away from Robert’s touch, but the absence hurt instantly.

‘’How do I know you’re not just lying to me again?’’

‘’I promise you Aaron I’m not lying. Chrissie and I are over.’’

‘’Why?’’ Robert looked confused at the question. ‘’Why is it over with Chrissie?’’

Robert sighed deeply.

‘’You better sit down.’’

Robert grabbed them two beers and they sat in silence for what seemed to Aaron like an eternity. He was beginning to twitch, and he was on the verge of walking out when Robert began to talk.

‘’At the wedding…..’’

‘’Go on.’’ Aaron encouraged.

‘’Someone was killed.’’

Aaron was floored. Robert’s face had paled as he relieved the memory.

‘’How….what happened?’’

‘’Chrissie’s son Lachlan, he got drunk and took the wedding car. Him and his mates were messing around. They hit one of the guests.’’

‘’Who?’’

‘’Some business associate of Chrissie’s father. Never met him before that day.’’

‘’Robert I don’t know what to say. I don’t understand though, what does it have to do with you and Chrissie breaking up.’’

‘’Chrissie wanted us to cover it up. Lachlan told us and she needed someone to get rid of the car, get rid of the evidence.’’

‘’You?’’ Aaron realised, stunned by the enormity of what he was hearing.

‘’She couldn’t face her precious son taking responsibility and getting a sentence.’’

‘’But you wouldn’t.’’

‘’I rarely take the blame when I’ve actually done something, I wasn’t about to risk prison for a crime I haven’t committed.’’ Robert said bitterly. ‘’And I’d already….I couldn’t do it again.’’ Robert’s tone changed, and he looked hesitantly at Aaron.

‘’Already what, Robert?’’

‘’Covered up a death.’’ Robert admitted, the memories of his teenage years coming back to haunt him again as Aaron gasped in horror at the confession.

‘’We were kids, all of us.’’ Robert explained everything quickly, Andy, the stolen car, the dead teacher.

‘’Marc went to prison, the rest of us got community service.’’

Aaron suddenly felt like the walls were closing in. He needed to leave. He was almost at the door when Robert grabbed him.

‘’Please don’t go Aaron, please say something.’’

‘’I can’t…..I don’t know what to say Robert. This is too much.’’

‘’Please don’t walk away.’’ Robert pleaded.

‘’You helped cover up a person’s death Robert. You lied.’’

‘’To protect people I loved, and I was a stupid teenager back then. Why do you think I didn’t tell any of you about Chrissie now? ’’

In the midst of all the revelations, Aaron had forgotten the reason for his visit.

‘’Why was Chrissie even here?’’

‘’Lachlan confessed. His sentencing is in a few weeks. She wants me to be there, be a character witness, which is laughable.’’

‘’Are you going?’’

‘’No, why would I?’’

‘’To get her to take you back.’’

‘’I was the one who left, Aaron. I told you, I lie to protect the people I love, doesn’t me being here tell you something about how I felt about Chrissie?’’

‘’Then why did you marry her?’’

‘’For a life I thought I wanted. But the life I want is here, with the people in this village.’’

The way Robert looked at Aaron as he said those words had his heart thundering in his chest. As though he could sense it, Robert took a step forward, and the two of them were dangerously close now.

‘’Please Aaron, don’t go.’’ Robert took Aaron’s silence as encouragement and stepped even closer. He placed his hands on Aaron’s chest, and could feel the rise and fall of his breathing.

‘’Robert, don’t…’’ Aaron averted his gaze as he said it.

‘’Aaron, look at me.’’

Aaron looked up, and his breath hitched in his throat.

‘’I want you to stay.’’

‘’I need time, I’m sorry.’’ With that Aaron pushed Robert’s hands off him and left the Mill, running all the way back to the pub, leaving Robert alone and shaking in the breeze coming through his half-open front door.

Chapter Text

Two days passed and Aaron was running, the only thing he could think to do to get Robert out of his head.

I covered up a death.

His words were imprinted on Aaron’s brain now, tattooed on and immovable.

I covered up a death.

He didn’t know how to look at him anymore, but fortunately he hadn’t seen him since that night. He ran faster and faster, trying to run off the feelings of Robert’s hands on his chest, the warmth he felt being near him even after his confession. As he reached the pub, he decided that there was one person who could give him some clarity.

 

 

‘’If you’re trying to scrounge some brekkie from me this morning, you’ve got another thing coming. I’ve enough on my plate.’’

Aaron was stood in the pub kitchen, watching mesmerised as Vic flitted from one saucepan to another, chopping and sprinkling and stirring like a Cirque du Soleil acrobat.

‘’No, it’s not that. Vic, are you okay?’’

‘’Yea it’s….well it’s results day isn’t it? So I’m not the usual model of calm and sophistication.’’

‘’Are you ever?’’ Aaron teased lightly, which softened her somewhat. ‘’Do you want to talk?’’

‘’Nope, I want to be distracted. Speaking of,’’ she continued, looking at him properly now. ‘’You look like a man with something on his mind that will solve my problem, so spill. Rob told you didn’t he?’’

Aaron nodded slowly.

‘’And you don’t know how to feel?’’

‘’He told me about the teacher as well.’’ Vic nodded emphatically.

‘’I don’t really remember that, but from what I do remember, he was eaten up with guilt, him and Andy. Think it even brought them together a little more, before it all fell apart again.’’

‘’I just don’t know…..’’

‘’If you can trust him?’’ Aaron shrugged. ‘’Look Aaron, I can’t tell you what to do, but for what it’s worth, you mean a lot to him. It was years ago, and I think the fact that he didn’t help cover up this time shows how much he’s changed. I just…sometimes, judging someone for their past is easier than risking letting them in, but it’s not always right.’’

‘’Thanks Vic. I’ll get Lilly from Adam in a bit, good luck with the results.’’

 

 

Aaron was sat by the pirate ship, having picked up his daughter and given Adam a last minute pep talk. He had somehow been harangued into watching Arthur as well, but he didn’t mind, not when Lilly was having the time of her life. She was smitten, and Aaron was taking countless photos of the two of them, ready to use as ammunition during her awkward teenage years. He didn’t even notice Robert until he was right next to him.

‘’Hey.’’

‘’Hi.’’ Aaron replied, not looking at him. If he looked, he’d break.

‘’How are you? How’s Lilly?’’

‘’We’re fine.’’

‘’Please don’t shut me out Aaron.’’

‘’I’m spending the day with my daughter, so let’s not do this now, please.’’

‘’Ok, well when you’re ready to talk, I’ll be waiting.’’ Robert walked off, and Aaron couldn’t help but watch him as he faded from view. His shoulders were slumped, and Aaron itched to run after him. But Lilly’s excited yelps from the ship distracted him, and he brushed the thought from his mind.

 

 

Aaron returned with Lilly to Vic’s house later that evening. Letting himself in, he was shocked to find Vic on the sofa, her eyes red-rimmed. He wasn’t the only one who noticed, as Lilly rushed to her mother’s side and enveloped her in a hug.

‘’Mum, what’s wrong? Why are you sad?’’

Vic wiped her eyes and smiled sadly at her daughter.

‘’Nothing’s wrong mischief, just missed you all day that’s all.’’

‘’Well I’m here now, so you can’t be sad anymore, and daddy will give you his fluffy hug, it always makes me better when I’m sad.’’ She nodded at Aaron, who fought a smile at how perceptive she was for a six year old. She definitely did not get that from him.

‘’I’ll give mum a fluffy hug. Why don’t you go upstairs and get ready for bed and I’ll be up in two minutes.’’ Lilly nodded, giving Vic and Aaron both a hug before sprinting up the stairs.

‘’It’s the test isn’t it? What happened?’’

‘’Adam can’t have children.’’ Vic began to cry again, and Aaron pulled her into him, stroking her hair.

‘’Vic I’m so sorry. Where is he now?’’

‘’I don’t know,’’ she whimpered. ‘’He didn’t say a word the whole way home and took off as soon as we got back, I want him here Aaron.’’ Aaron felt helpless as he held her, her body rocking back and forth in his arms with the weight of her tears.

‘’Okay, you clean yourself up; we don’t want Lilly seeing you more upset. I’ll go and find him and bring him home okay?’’

Vic nodded slowly, and once Aaron had tucked his daughter in, he set off to find his best mate. He momentarily considered asking Robert to help him look, but thought better of it.

 

 

After an hour of searching and three laps around the entire village, he saw him, stumbling back to his house with a nearly empty bottle of whiskey clutched to his chest.

‘’Adam’’ he called out, running towards him and taking a hold of him, ignoring his protests.

‘’Vic sent you to find me did she?’’

‘’Yes as it happens, she’s worried about you, we both are.’’

‘’Oh, she told you then,’’ Adam scoffed. ‘’I don’t want your pity Aaron.’’

‘’Good, because you’re not getting any, just help. C’mon, nearly there.’’

‘’I can get through a door myself thank you,’’ Adam snapped as he practically fell through the front door, the noise bringing Victoria from the living room.

‘’Adam, where’ve you been?’’

‘’Why do you care?’’ Adam slurred as he leant up against the wall.

‘’You’re my husband, of course I care.’’

‘’Not the father of your kids though eh? Hey, maybe Aaron will give you another go. Oh no wait, he’s too busy screwing your brother now. Jealous are ya?’’ He sniped, grabbing Aaron roughly as he did.

‘’Adam, please don’t be like this.’’ Vic sobbed.

‘’Why, upsetting the father of your child am I?’’

‘’Adam,’’ Aaron interjected. ‘’We know you’re angry, but don’t take it out on Vic.’’

‘’Back off Aaron, this is nothing to do with you.’’

‘’It is when my daughter lives under your roof.’’

Aaron’s comment made Adam snap, and he shoved Aaron up against the wall.

‘’That’s right, your daughter, the one you conceived because you couldn’t admit you fancied me more than the mother of your child, and now you fancy her brother more, couldn’t make this stuff up.’’ Adam snarled.

‘’Please Adam, just let him go,’’ she begged.

‘’Adam, just calm down.’’ Aaron pleaded, but Adam’s rage was in full flow now, and before he knew what he was doing, Aaron was on the ground, the punch to his jaw flooring him in an instant. He caught the doorframe on his way down and cut his forehead, feeling the blood run down his face.

Victoria was sobbing, Adam was struggling to hold himself up, and Aaron was crumpled on the ground, trying to stem the bleeding. None of them heard the footsteps on the stairs or the creaking of the front door as it opened.

 

 

Robert was restless. He flicked through the channels aimlessly, but couldn’t find anything to distract him from the thoughts of Aaron swirling around his head. He had lost him the other day, despite what he had tried to tell him. He picked up his phone to find three missed calls from Vic, but he couldn’t deal with the guilt she would put on him for breaking Aaron’s heart. He would have to face her eventually, but not tonight.

He decided to head to bed. It was ridiculously early, but he needed to just end the day and start over tomorrow. As he climbed the stairs, his attention was caught by the sound of banging on his front door. Whoever it was, they clearly didn’t have a lot of upper body strength, so it couldn’t be Aaron, and he ached a little at the realisation, the memory of his earlier coldness still seeping through him. Shuffling over to the door, he was aghast to find Lilly on the other side, tears streaming down her face and a panicked look in her eyes.

‘’Lilly? What is it, where’s your mum, or Aaron? He asked her, quickly glancing outside to see if anyone had followed her.

‘’Adam…..Adam’s……’’ she was clearly struggling to get the words out, so Robert lead her over to the sofa and sat her down.

‘’Just take a breath for me sweetie yea, that’s it, good,’’ he said reassuringly as she began to calm down. ‘’What’s wrong with Adam?’’

‘’I saw him, I saw him hitting daddy.’’ And with that she dissolved into floods of tears again, leaving Robert stunned.

‘’Where are daddy and Adam, are they at home?’’ She nodded, looking smaller than ever on his massive sofa. ‘’Okay munchkin,’’ using Aaron’s nickname, which seemed to relax her a little, ‘’you stay right here okay, and I’ll go and make sure they’re okay. They’re probably just being silly. Just watch some telly and I’ll be back in no time okay?’’

He kissed her softly on the forehead as she curled up on his sofa, and he walked as calmly as he could out the front door. As soon as he was away from the house, he was sprinting towards Vic’s, where he saw the door open and raised voices coming from inside. He gasped as he entered the house and saw Aaron in a ball on the floor, blood pouring from a gash above his temple and a bruise forming on his jaw. Meanwhile, Victoria was holding a clearly drunk Adam back as she pleaded with him to calm down.

‘’Oh, look who’s come riding to the rescue now,’’ Adam slurred. ‘’It’s big brother Robert.’’

‘’Vic what’s happened?’’

‘’Nothing, just get Aaron out of here, we’ll be fine.’’

‘’Really, because your daughter just came banging down my door to tell me that Adam was hitting Aaron. She’s terrified Vic.’’

The words cut through each of the three people standing in the hall. Adam immediately sobered up and looked at Aaron, horrified at what he had just done.

‘’Is she, is she alright?’ he asked shakily. Aaron and Vic both looked at Robert, desperate for an answer.

‘’Of course she isn’t, she’s at my house, scared out of her wits thanks to you. She’s gonna stay with me tonight, and so are you Vic.’’ He said it firmly, but his little sister shook her head.

‘’I’m not leaving you alone with him Vic.’’

‘’Please Rob,’’ she begged. ‘’Just get Aaron home and look after my daughter, I’ll be fine, okay, I promise.’’

‘’Ok, but you call me the second you need me Vic, I mean it,’’ he demanded as he took hold of Aaron, the younger man leaning against his shoulder.

He closed the door behind them and led Aaron towards his house, much to the other man’s surprise.

‘’Where are we going Rob?’’

‘’I’m gonna get you cleaned up, can’t have you going back to the pub in that state, and I assume you’ll want to stay with your daughter tonight?’’ Aaron nodded, then suddenly stopped.

‘’I can’t have her see me like this Robert.’’

‘’Okay, wait outside. I’ll go in and put her to bed and then you can come in okay?’’

Ten minutes later, Robert appeared at the front door, beckoning for Aaron to come in. He had a first aid kit and a glass of water laid out on the coffee table, and gestured for Aaron to sit down.

‘’How is she?’’ Aaron asked nervously.

‘’She’s okay, I told her it was a silly accident, and that you and Adam still love each other, and that you’ll be here in the morning when she wakes up.’’

‘’Okay…thank you, Robert, I mean it.’’

Robert waved away his gratitude and busied himself by dabbing Aaron’s wound with antiseptic. The sensation stung his damaged skin momentarily, but he soon got used to Robert’s gentle touches as he softly pressed the pad across Aaron’s temple. Aaron’s eyes closed as he let Robert clean him up, but all too sudden the contact stopped and he felt a sudden pang in his chest.

‘’Don’t stop.’’

He said it softly, the breath hitching in his throat as his eyes opened and looked directly into Robert’s. They gazed at each other, and Aaron felt his mouth go dry at the sight of Robert’s concerned expression, mixed with just a touch of want, but that look vanished as soon as it appeared, and Robert stood up, packing away the first aid and refusing to look at Aaron.

‘’So, ‘’ he started. ‘’Are you gonna tell me what that was about?’’

Aaron ached a little at Robert’s brush off, but managed to pull himself together.

‘’They got their results back today, Adam, he can’t have children.’’

‘’So he decided to take it out on your face, in front of your daughter? Maybe those kids are better off.’’

‘’That’s not fair Robert, and you know it. He’s devastated, and he lashed out okay?’’

‘’I’m sorry, I just don’t want you to get hurt….any of you, Vic, Lilly.’’

‘’You’re just trying to look out for the people you love, I get it.’’

The air was suddenly crisp with static and unsaid words, and Robert couldn’t take it.

‘’I think you should get some rest Aaron. Take my bed, I’ll sleep on the sofa.’’

‘’No it’s fine, I’ll sleep in with Lilly; I could use her cuddles right about now.’’ Aaron smiled softly as he said it, and Robert felt an irrational stab of jealousy that he didn’t make Aaron smile like that anymore.

‘’Of course, well if you need anything you know where I am. Goodnight Aaron.’’

‘’Night Robert.’’

Aaron climbed the stairs and, after watching Lilly from the doorway for a few moments, crept over to the bed and climbed in beside her. Her eyes twitched a little before opening.

‘’Hi munchkin.’’ he whispered.

‘’Hi daddy.’’

‘’Are you okay?’’ He felt her shoulders shrug under the duvet.

‘’Are you and Adam not friends anymore?’’

‘’Not tonight, but tomorrow we’ll be friends again. Sometimes grown ups just need a night when they take a break from their friends.’’

‘’Are you friends with uncle Robert again?’’

‘’Yea munchkin, I think we are.’’

‘’Okay,’’ she said sleepily, and soon she was dead to the world once again.

 

 

Aaron couldn’t get his mind to switch off. His thoughts flittered to Adam and Vic, what they might be saying to each other and how they might be feeling. He thought of his daughter, and how much of the fight she may have seen, how much she may have heard. Finally, his thoughts turned to the man in the room across the hall and what he was thinking. Was he thinking about Aaron?

Without even registering it, he was peeling himself away from his daughter and padding across the hall to the room he had claimed as his own so many times before. It had seemed such a long time ago and he felt like an intruder now, but he couldn’t sleep and he just needed, something. Knocking softly, he opened the door and walked slowly in.

‘’Robert,’’ he whispered. ‘’Are you awake?’’

‘’Aaron?’’ came the response from the other end of the darkened room, before a switch was flicked and there was Robert, half illuminated by his bedside lamp, looking immediately concerned. He was shirtless, and Aaron wanted nothing more than to lay his head on that chest. ‘’Is Lilly okay?’’

‘’Yea, she’s fine. She’s happy, thinks we’re friends again.’’ Robert smiled softly at the statement.

‘’But the thing is, we’re not friends are we Robert? We were never friends really.’’

'‘I don’t follow.’’

‘’You said the other day that you tell lies to protect the people you love right?’’ Robert nodded slowly. ‘’And I’m just wondering if maybe, I might fall into that category, and that’s why you hid what happened with Chrissie?’’ The air was thick now, and Aaron couldn’t bear to look away from Robert, desperate for him to say something.

‘’Aaron...’’

‘’Just tell me I’m not one of those people Robert, please.’’

‘’I can’t.’’

That was all it took. In seconds Aaron had crossed the room and was kneeling over Robert, pressing soft, lingering kisses to his lips. He could feel Robert’s hesitation, but it was brief, and soon the other man was responding, deepening the contact as he opened his mouth, allowing Aaron’s tongue access. Unlike some of their previous kisses that had been quick, frantic and lust-filled, these were soft, tender, slow and languid. He peeled himself off Robert briefly to remove the duvet from between them, and was soon back on top of him, pressing kisses to every inch of skin he could reach. He looked back up into Robert’s eyes, and the other man’s gaze made every part of him flutter.

‘’Aaron, do you really…?’’ Aaron could feel Robert’s body tense underneath him.

‘’I want this Robert. Forget the other stuff. I want you.’’

Robert’s body relaxed instantly, and he kissed Aaron fiercely on the lips, making him tremble. Robert rolled him over, kissing the wound on his temple and the bruise on his jaw. Aaron ran his arms down Robert's arms as the other man trailed kisses along his neck, taking his hair in tufts and pulling him closer to him with every touch. He pushed into Aaron minutes later, the younger man’s soft groans filling his ears with pleasure, and the two men came at the same time, before collapsing into each other’s arms and falling into a deep sleep. They would deal with the fallout of the fight tomorrow.

Chapter Text

Robert blinked himself awake. The moonlight streaming through the curtains told him it was easily the middle of the night, and the space beside him was cold and empty. Robert padded across the hall to the guest room, pulling on a t-shirt as he went, but though his niece was fast asleep, there was no sign of her father. Quietly descending the stairs, his heart stopped briefly when he saw Aaron curled up on the sofa, staring into space.

‘’Hey.’’ Robert said softly as he crept closer. ‘’What are you doing down here?’’

‘’I’m sorry, did I wake you?’’

‘’I missed you next to me.’’ Robert admitted sincerely, eliciting a half-smile from Aaron. ‘’So go on, what are you doing down here at this time?’’

‘’Just thinking.’’

‘’About Vic and Adam?’’ Aaron nodded. ‘’How’s your head?’’

‘’Fine, it’s not stinging anymore, must be your bedside manner.’’ Aaron smirked softly, making Robert grin.

‘’Want to talk about it?’’

‘’I don’t know what to say to Lilly.’’ Aaron admitted nervously. ‘’I’m not sure how to explain why it happened, and I don’t want her to be scared of Adam.’’

‘’Hey, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it okay? Let’s just see what she says when she wakes up yea?’’

‘’We?’’ Aaron asked as he looked uncertainly at Robert.

‘’Yes, we.’’ Robert confirmed. ‘’I meant it last night. I love you Aaron.’’

Aaron looked away shyly at Robert’s words, biting his lip and making Robert’s breath falter. He pulled Aaron closer to him, determined to make him believe his declaration.

‘’I love you.’’ He repeated, pressing a soft kiss to Aaron’s lips as he said it, and his heart leapt as Aaron responded, taking Robert’s hands in his and pressing their lips firmly together.

 

 

Robert was making breakfast when Aaron appeared at the bottom of the stairs a few hours later, having gotten some much-needed sleep. Robert could feel the tension and anxiety rolling off him even from a distance.

‘’What is it?’’

‘’Lilly, she’s awake but she’s not saying anything. She seemed okay last night, I don’t know….’’ Aaron faltered, and Robert took him in a hug.

‘’It’s probably just hitting her now, what she saw.’’

‘’But that’s the problem Robert, I’m not sure what she saw, or what she heard.’’ Aaron was beginning to get frantic the more he thought about it.

‘’Maybe just give her some time; she’ll talk when she’s ready. Listen, how about we sack off this place and go to the café for breakfast? Maybe getting out will cheer her up a bit.’’ Aaron smiled in agreement.

 

 

Minutes later, they were halfway to the café when they were accosted by Chas emerging from David’s shop.

‘’Oi, dirty stopout, where have you been all night?’’ she teased, before seeing the injuries on her son’s face. ‘’Aaron love, what’s happened?’’ She clocked Robert and immediately pounced on him. ’’Was this you?’’ She snarled.

‘’No mum of course it wasn’t.’’ Aaron interjected.

‘’What are you even doing with him?’’ She asked her son. ‘’If you had any sense, you’d stay away.’’

‘’He’s Lilly’s uncle mum, just leave it yea.’’

‘’Not until I know who gave you those.’’ She replied, running her finger over Aaron’s jaw.

She soon got her answer, as Adam emerged from his house. Catching sight of the group near the shop, he paused briefly then broke into a run to get to them.

‘’Aaron, mate I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I was doing.’’

‘’It was you?’’ Chas gasped in shock.

‘’I’m sorry Chas, alright, I’m so sorry.’’ Adam clocked Lilly, hiding behind Robert and bent down to her.

‘’Hey peanut,’’ he said softly. ‘’You gonna give me a hug? I missed you this morning.’’ But Lilly backed further away behind her uncle, and the look of pain on Adam’s face was unmistakable.

‘’Please peanut…’’ but Robert blocked his attempt to get closer to Lilly.

‘’Back off, Adam.’’ Robert commanded, pulling him up.

‘’This is between me and them Robert.’’

‘’Not anymore it’s not.’’

‘’Aaron, please…’’ But Robert’s protective stance over his boyfriend and his niece deterred Adam from coming any closer.

‘’Go home Adam.’’ Robert continued.

‘’I’ll talk to you later Adam, yea?’’ Aaron offered softly.

Adam nodded in defeat and made his way back to his house. Robert bent down to Lilly and picked her up, tension radiating through her little body.

‘’Hey kiddo, let’s see what we can bribe from Bob eh?’’ he said lightly, and she nodded shyly in response. He walked in the direction of the café, followed by Aaron, who gave his mum a parting nod.

‘’Aaron, what was that all about?’’

‘’Just leave it mum, I’ll talk to you later.’’

 

What neither man saw as they walked away was Chas’s stunned expression. She had seen the way Robert and Aaron had looked at each other, had seen the way Robert protectively put his hand on Aaron’s back, and heard the menace in his voice as he spoke to Adam. He jaw dropped as she twigged the reason for Aaron’s absence from the pub over the past few weeks.

 

He was sleeping with Robert.

 

In the café, both Aaron and Robert were trying to coax something out of Lilly, but the encounter with Adam had rendered her completely mute, and Aaron was beginning to get frustrated.

‘’Munchkin, please talk to me.’’ Lilly said nothing in response, just staring at the cut on her father’s forehead and the bruise on his jaw, remnants of fear etched on her face.

Robert could feel the waves of stress rolling off Aaron, so he decided to try a different tactic. Nudging Aaron to go up to the counter, he moved over and cuddled his niece into his arms.

‘’So trouble, now daddy’s gone away, are you gonna tell me what’s making you sad?’’

Lilly shook her head and curled into herself in Robert’s lap.

‘’Are you sad that daddy’s upset? But you don’t want him to know that?’’

She nodded slowly, fiddling with the hem of her dress.

‘’Me too.’’ Robert admitted.

‘’You are?’’ Lilly asked quietly.

‘’Yep. But daddy’s upset because you’re sad, and he hates seeing you sad. You’re his favourite person in the world. And you know, him and Adam will be friends again.’’

‘’But Adam hit daddy. I don’t want him to hit daddy.’’ She sniffed.

‘’He won’t do it again. He was really sad yesterday about something, and sometimes you are mean to the people you love the most when you’re sad, but they will be best friends soon. And Adam loves you trouble.’’

‘’He does?’’

‘’Of course. And you’ll have to help Adam beat my annoying little sister and your daddy at darts again won’t you?’’

The memory made her smile briefly, and she hugged Robert. Aaron, who had been watching from the counter, avoiding Brenda’s endless questions on his injuries took that as his cue and returned to his seat, where his daughter clambered on top of him and hugged him tightly.

‘’Thank you.’’ Aaron whispered softly at Robert as he embraced his daughter.

‘’Daddy?’’

‘’Yes munchkin?’’

‘’Uncle Robert said I’m your favourite person in the world?’’

‘’Yes you are.’’

‘’Is uncle Robert your favourite person too?’’

‘’He might be on the list, but ssshh, don’t tell him that.’’ Aaron whispered dramatically, eliciting a giggle from his daughter and a hopeful smile from Robert.

Just at that moment, Vic entered the café. She looked exhausted and drained, but the sight of the three people in front of her cheered her up instantly.

‘’Mum.’’ Lilly cried excitedly as she clambered down from Aaron’s lap.

‘’Hey mischief. Did you have a nice time at uncle Robert’s?’’

‘’Yea…..mum, are you and Adam still fighting?’’ she asked nervously.

‘’No sweetie, we’re okay now.’’ She said slowly, glancing doubtfully at Aaron.

Robert decided to leave them to it, giving Vic and Lilly a kiss on the cheek and Aaron a reassuring touch on his shoulder, leaving it just a fraction too long to convey everything he needed. With promises to call Vic later, he left the café.

‘’I saw Adam just now.’’ Aaron started, watching Lilly devour the cheese toastie Bob had brought over. ‘’How was he last night?’’

‘’Terrible.’’ Vic admitted. ‘’He feels awful for what he did to you Aaron, and her seeing it.’’

‘’I know, if anyone understands lashing out, it’s me. So, where are you with it now?’’

‘’Haven’t spoken about it. Not really.’’ Vic said sadly. ‘’He’s been avoiding it all morning, and I don’t know what to say to get him to speak to me.’’

‘’I’ll talk to him.’’

‘’Is that the best idea?’’

‘’I’ll guilt him into it, say he owes me.’’ Aaron joked feebly, pointing at his eye. ‘’I’ll see you later, yea?’’

Aaron kissed his daughter goodbye and headed off in search of his best mate.

 

 

Robert was back at the Mill pottering about and cleaning up the remnants of the breakfast he had half-prepared when he heard the knock at the door.

‘’Chas?’’

‘’Trust me, I didn’t expect to find myself here either.’’ She said dryly.

‘’What can I possibly do for you? Robert asked sarcastically.

‘’Well, you can stop sleeping with my son for a start.’’ Robert was floored.

‘’Chas…’’

‘’Don’t start on me Robert Sugden. You stay away from my son, and my granddaughter. I won’t have you messing with their heads.’’

‘’Lilly’s my niece, I’ll see her whenever I want. And Aaron’s a grown man, do you really think he’s gonna be happy with mummy coming here and warning me off?’’

‘’I saw what you did to Katie and Donna, I won’t have you do it to my son, he’s been through enough. What even is this? Got bored trying to bed women so you thought you’d give men a go?’’ she snarled. ‘’You thought Aaron was an easy target, didn’t you? Someone to play a sick little game on before crawling back to your missus.’’

‘’If you think Aaron is an easy target for anyone, then you clearly don’t know your son at all. And my marriage is over, but thanks for your concern Chas.’’

‘’Stay away from him.’’

‘’Not a chance. If Aaron wants me to go, I’ll go, but in the meantime, better set an extra place at the dinner table.’’ Robert smirked.

Chas was fuming, but she knew this was a battle she had lost for the time being, so she stormed out, leaving Robert smiling after her.

 

 

Aaron heard Adam before he saw him, the sounds of crushing metal and frustrated curses echoing all around him as he entered the scrap yard. There he saw him, having a repeat battle with the same car that had beaten him on the day of the tests, only this time, the car was losing. Aaron ran over, pulling the iron rod from Adam’s hands. Adam collapsed into him as soon as he saw who it was.

‘’Mate, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean anything I said.’’ He cried, gripping Aaron tightly.

‘’I know mate, I know. It’s all forgotten.’’ Aaron soothed him.

Ten minutes later, they were sat on the car, brews in hand.

‘’I don’t know what to do Aaron.’’

‘’Is it really all over, nothing you can try, IVF, anything?’’

‘’Nothing.’’ Adam confirmed. ‘’Vic’s gonna leave isn’t she?’’

‘’Why would you say that?’’

‘’Because I can’t give her what she wants.’’

‘’She wants you mate.’’

‘’Not without kids.’’

‘’And she’s said that has she?’’

‘’No but…’’

‘’Talk to Vic mate. She loves you. She’s not gonna walk away, trust me.’’

‘’She will if Lilly is still scared of me.’’ Adam admitted sadly.

‘’It’s been explained it to her, kind of. Apologise to her, tell her you’re still her best mate and she’ll come around in no time.’’

‘’How can you be sure?’’

‘’She’s got a soft spot for ya, just try it, yea?’’

Aaron and Adam walked back to the village, where Vic and Lilly, who were sat outside enjoying the sunshine, met them. Lilly tensed as soon as she saw Adam, breaking his stride as he came closer.

‘’Hey peanut.’’

Aaron nodded encouragingly at his daughter, who stood up slowly.

‘’Hi Adam.’’ She responded shyly.

‘’I’m sorry peanut, if I scared you. I was just really sad for a minute last night. But you’re my best mate, can we please be friends again?’’

Lilly nodded slowly and Adam scooped her into his arms, kissing her softly on the forehead. Aaron smiled reassuringly at Vic, and left them to it. He considered heading straight back to the pub, but he needed Robert’s arms around him.

 

 

‘’Hey.’’ Aaron said softly as soon as the door opened in front of him.

‘’Long day eh?’’ Robert asked, concern etched all over his face, and Aaron nodded. ‘‘Come on in.’’ Robert took him by the hand, pressing a soft kiss to his uninjured temple, closing the door behind them.

 

 

‘’I don’t bloody believe it, Robert flaming Sugden of all people.’’ Paddy exclaimed in the backroom, Chas pacing back and forth in front of him.

‘’I know Paddy, I’m not happy about this either.’’

‘’He’s up to something; he’s not even gay. What does he want with our Aaron?’’

‘’Your guess is as good as mine, but I’m going to find out.’’

Chas continued pacing, but her attention was diverted by the stack of post on the sideboard, in particular, the first letter on the pile, addressed to Aaron in formal type. Picking it up, she gasped as she saw the postmark and the official seal on the envelope.

‘’Chas, what is it?’’

Chas handed Paddy the letter, and his eyes widened. The letter had been sent from Hotten prison.

 

Gordon.

Chapter Text

‘’Your mum knows about us.’’

They were in bed; Aaron nestled against Robert’s chest, Robert running his fingers softly up and down Aaron’s arm.

‘’What? How?’’ Aaron propped himself up on his elbows as he looked at Robert.

‘’I think she saw how angry I was with Adam yesterday and twigged.’’ Robert shrugged. ‘’Anyway, she came over last night and gave me the big Dingle fear speech.’’

‘’And you’re still here?’’

‘’Told her I’d only walk away if you asked me to.’’

Aaron blushed furiously at Robert’s admission.

‘’And would you, walk away?’’

‘’Probably not. You’re stuck with me now.’’ Robert reached forward, pressing a kiss to Aaron’s lips.

‘’Well, if you must stay…’’ Aaron smirked through the kiss. ‘’So, what’s on the menu this morning?’’ he grinned.

‘’I said I’d walk away if you asked me to. I never said anything about cooking you breakfast.’’ Robert retaliated, but the glint in his eye told Aaron that he could be convinced otherwise.

 

 

After Aaron persuaded Robert to cook them breakfast, he finally decided to leave the comfort of the Mill and return home, knowing Chas and Paddy would never let up until they spoke to him, if the ten missed calls and as many messages were anything to go by. He was just putting his phone away at the top of the drive when a noise behind him startled him.

‘’Paddy? What the hell are you doing creeping in the bushes?’’

‘’I wasn’t creeping in the bushes.’’ Paddy replied indignantly.

‘’So you haven’t been here all morning waiting like some stalker for me come out.’’

‘’Let’s not worry about the specifics,’’ Paddy blushed. ‘’Your mum is worried about you.’’ He seemed very edgy as he said it, but when wasn’t he?

‘’And she has nothing to worry about. I know what I’m doing.’’

‘’You can’t rely on Robert flaming Sugden Aaron, I’m telling you now. He’ll prove it soon enough.’’

‘’What’s that supposed to mean?’’ Paddy was looking even more conspicuous now.

‘’Just stating the obvious, he doesn’t have a stellar record, does he?’’

‘’Well he hasn’t let me down yet.’’ Aaron retorted.

‘’Apart from the secret wife you mean?’’

‘’That’s in the past Paddy, can I go now?’’

‘’I don’t want you getting hurt Aaron.’’

‘’And I’m telling you I won’t. Now go and report back to mum that Robert hasn’t killed me in the night. I’ll see ya later.’’

 

Paddy watched Aaron walk away from him, and he glanced back towards the Mill. He desperately wanted to kick the door down and force Robert to stay away from his son, but if Chas Dingle couldn’t put the frighteners on him, then Paddy was willing to admit that he had even less chance. He would just have to be there for Aaron when the truth came out and Robert Sugden inevitably fled. His heart felt heavy at the prospect.

 

 

‘’Ya alright?’’

Aaron had opted to avoid the pub a little longer, paying a visit to Adam instead. Vic had texted to say her and Lilly were having a girly day in Leeds, so Aaron knew Adam would be alone, still be stewing on the previous day’s events. They were sat in the kitchen with a brew, and Adam was being suspiciously quiet.

‘’Not really man.’’

‘’Did you and Vic do much talking last night?’’

‘’She wants us to look at adoption.’’

‘’And you’re not convinced?’’ Aaron correctly guessed.

‘’I just….’’

‘’What Ad? You can tell me.’’

‘’I don’t think I can raise another man’s kid.’’ Adam admitted, taking Aaron by surprise. ‘’I don’t mean it like that.’’ He quickly edited. ‘’You know I love Lilly like she is my own mate, but that was different.’’

‘’How?’’

‘’She was already in the picture when Vic and I got together. And she’s yours mate, of course I was gonna love her. But some strange child coming into this house, I dunno if I can do it.’’

‘’Yea, I get it, but it won’t be Vic’s kid either, not really, and she’s still willing to try. You’ll be in this together.’’

‘’Tell me what to do bro.’’ Adam pleaded.

‘’I can’t make your decision for ya mate, but all I know is, you’re a great step-dad to Lilly and she loves the bones of ya.’’ Aaron hesitated before continuing. ‘’You were a dad to her when I couldn’t be, and there’s so many more children out there that deserve the same chance. Just think about it, yea?’’

Aaron’s regretful face pained Adam to see, and he wrapped his best mate in a bear hug. He knew Aaron had never really gotten over what had happened four years ago, but he was stronger now, and he even had Robert Sugden watching his back, so things seemed to be working themselves out.

‘’I’ll think about it mate, thank you. Now….how’s about I trash you on the Xbox until the women folk come back?’’ He grinned cheekily as he extended the challenge.

 

 

After three hours of brutal war combat on the Xbox, Aaron finally headed home to face the wrath of his mother for daring to have a relationship. He went through the back room, and his eyes rolled at the sight of Paddy and Chas sat at the table, staring at him anxiously.

‘’Mum, whatever you’re gonna say, I don’t want to hear it.’’

‘’It’s not about Robert.’’

‘’Really?’’ Aaron quizzed dryly. ‘’Because Paddy has that look on his face that says he’s already come up with half a dozen reasons why I need to stay away from Robert flaming Sugden.’’

‘’A full dozen actually.’’ Paddy quipped nervously, but a glare from Chas shut him down.

‘’Love, you need to sit down.’’

‘’Mum, whatever this is, just spit it out.’’

‘’How much have you actually told Robert about your past?’’

‘’What do you mean?’’

‘’About…..Gordon?’’

Aaron stilled as he heard the name. He had never once mentioned Gordon to Robert, and he was delaying it for as long as possible.

‘’Where is this coming from?’’

‘’You got a letter yesterday.’’ Chas picked up the now well-read letter from the table and handed it to Aaron, his hands shaking as he read it.

‘’Early release?’’ He finally managed to choke out.

 

Robert was trying to occupy himself, but his thoughts kept flitting to Aaron and what his mother might be saying to him. He hadn’t heard from him in a couple of hours, and he was worried that she was giving her son a hard time. He decided to face the music himself and head to the pub. Whatever Chas had to say, she could say it to both of them. He knew he had a reputation, knew Aaron had heard all about it, but he was willing to give Robert a chance, and like Robert told Chas, her dislike of him was not going to put him off. Grabbing his coat and keys, he left the Mill and began the short walk to the pub.

 

‘’I’m so sorry love.’’ Chas cried as she pulled him into a hug.

Aaron legs were shaking underneath him. Images of Gordon’s face as he was sent down all those years ago flashed before him, and he suddenly found it hard to breathe. He sank into the sofa, his legs no longer able to hold him up.

‘’Love, please say something.’’ Chas begged.

‘’He’s getting out….’’ Aaron finally choked out.

‘’Maybe not.’’ Paddy suggested. ‘’If you go and tell the review board how you feel, they’ll take it into consideration, he may not get out. ‘’

‘’Oh really? It’s that simple?’’ Aaron scoffed. ‘’If they really cared how I felt then they wouldn’t put him up for early release in the first place.’’

‘’It’s part of the system Aaron, but you’ve done it before. You can do it again.’’ Paddy replied.

‘’Baby, I’m so sorry.’’ Chas said softly, tears beginning to fall.

‘’Sorry for what? That I put myself through all of that four years ago and it may have been for nothing?’’ Chas’s tears began to fall more heavily now, but Aaron couldn’t stop. ‘’Are you sorry that I had to stand up in front of a room full of strangers and tell them how much of a pathetic victim I am, and now I’ll have to do it again? Tell them how my own father raped me over and over and beg them not to let him out?’’

Aaron regretted his harsh outburst as soon as he said it, but a noise from behind him stopped him comforting Chas. All three of them turned, and Aaron’s heart plummeted as he saw him.

 

Standing by the door to the backroom, eyes wide and face completely pale.

 

Robert.

Chapter Text

Forty-eight hours.

 

That’s how long it had been since Robert had heard Aaron’s voice. Forty-eight hours, with no contact at all, and Robert felt like one of his limbs had been severed, the absence of Aaron causing an immeasurable ache.

 

He had been heading towards the pub kitchen to ask Vic if she had seen Aaron when he heard the voices from the backroom. He could make out Chas’s voice, pained and pleading, as well as Paddy’s bumbling attempts to be helpful. He approached the door and opened it quietly, ready to jump in and defend his relationship when he heard it.

Aaron’s voice. The words rape and father and victim, repeated over and over.

He had frozen on the spot, unable to tear his eyes away from the devastation in front of him.

His eyes met Aaron’s, the tears in his boyfriend’s eyes and the horror in his face evident. And Robert had nothing. All words had left him, and he urged himself to say something, but nothing would come. He watched as the shock in Aaron’s eyes turned to defeat, and even as Aaron ran from the room, Robert still could say nothing.

 

And now, here he was, two days and no sleep later, his phone full of messages and phone calls he had left on Aaron’s phone, all unanswered. He had snapped out of his daze in the pub when Paddy’s voice filtered through, indecipherable mutterings about not being surprised, and he ran. Straight after Aaron. He looked everywhere; the scrapyard, the garage, the bridge, Vic’s house, the farm, but nothing. Aaron had disappeared. He was disgusted with that man for what he had done to his boyfriend, but he was more disgusted with himself for not reacting sooner, for letting his shock cloud him from comforting the man he loved, and now, said man was nowhere to be found.

 

Aaron was curled up in the spare room at Keepers, looking through the dozen messages from Robert and trying to avoid listening to the voicemails he had left. He had heard Victoria turn him away two days earlier and then again yesterday, and the guilt he felt at making her lie to her brother was exacerbated by the understanding look in her eyes when he explained why he couldn’t see him. She tried to make him call Robert and talk to him, but he wasn’t ready and eventually she gave up. Adam and Vic had both tried to coax him downstairs, but he stayed curled up in his ball.

The only small sense of comfort he felt came from his daughter wrapping herself around him in the middle of the night, her tiny hands barely connecting around his waist, but he felt secure nonetheless. She had no idea what was going on, or why her daddy was so sad, but she stayed with him all night, tucked by him as he hugged the wall, whispering I love you daddy as she dozed off, and it shattered him to realise that she was the protector, keeping him safe from the demons she thought were under the bed.

He hadn’t slept much all night, but the sounds from downstairs the next morning were a comfort to him as he heard Vic and Adam go about their day. He kept his back to the wall as his bedroom door opened, and he heard the sound of a mug of tea being placed on the bedside table. After a while, he heard the door go below him and the silence of the house around him was deafening. All he wanted was for Robert to be next to him, but he couldn’t tear the look of disgust on his boyfriend’s face from his memory. Eventually, his willpower disintegrated, and as he played the first voice message, the tears began to fall, Robert’s voice as pained as Aaron’s heart.

Aaron, I’m sorry, I froze, please call me.

Aaron, it’s me again. I’m worried about you, I just want to talk to you.

At least let me know where you are so I know you’re safe, please.

Please let me help, we can get through this together.

I love you Aaron, so much. Please believe that.

 

 

‘’Is he here?’’

Robert was in the pub, having essentially taken the door off its hinges in his quest to get in and see Aaron. Chas scowled when she saw him, but he pushed past her and scanned the bar, having naively expected Aaron to miraculously appear. She shook her head sadly while Paddy watched on.

‘’What does it have to do with you anyway? We’re here for him, he doesn’t need you.’’

‘’Look Paddy, I know you’re competing with Pearl for the role of village busybody, but believe it or not, I do care about him, a lot. So while you’re busy twittering about in the pub like an old woman, I’m actually trying to find him and make sure he’s safe.’’

‘’You actually do care about him?’’ Chas asked, failing to hide the surprise in her voice.

‘’What gave me away?’’ Robert replied sarcastically. ‘’If he turns up, call me.’’ Ignoring Paddy’s scoff, he looked at Chas. ‘’Please?’’ She nodded reluctantly, and he was on his way, wracking his brains as to where he could possibly be.

He got his answer immediately.

‘’Uncle Robert.’’ The high-pitched yelp came from the direction of Keepers, and suddenly his niece was in front of him, having sprung from her mother’s clutches like a gazelle escaping a lioness.

‘’Hey trouble’’ he said as he picked her up, and an idea immediately sprung to mind. ‘’You don’t know where that silly daddy of yours is do you?’’

‘’Why?’’

‘’Well we’re playing a game of hide and seek and….’’

‘’You can’t ask for help, that’s cheating.’’ She admonished him as he swatted him on the arm.

‘’I know mischief, but he’s so good, he’s been hiding for two whole days now and I’m getting really sleepy, so I need to find him before I drop down and fall asleep….’’

‘’He’s at our house,’’ she admitted immediately, ‘’but don’t tell him I told you. Daddy’s a bit sad, I think he thinks you’ve given up on finding him.’’ If Robert’s heart wasn’t already broken, then that comment from his six-year old niece was surely the final nail in the coffin.

‘’Our secret.’’ He winked at her, and he could tell he was forgiven for getting her involved.

Vic and Adam reached them just at that moment, and Robert saw it then: the guilt in Vic’s eyes for lying to him the last two days. He would have been annoyed, had he not been so grateful that she was obviously just trying to protect a friend in need. He nodded softly at them all, released Lilly from his clutches and waiting until they were out of sight before descending on Keepers.

 

 

The relentless banging on the front door roused Aaron from his dozing, and his breath quickened as he heard the voice.

‘’Aaron, I know you’re in there.’’

Robert.

‘’You need to remember to tell your daughter if you don’t want to be found Aaron.’’ The banging persisted and then suddenly ceased, and for a brief moment Aaron thought Robert had given up, when suddenly it began again, but softer and slower this time, more pleading than anything else.

‘’Aaron, I’ll stay out here all day and night if I have to, but I’m not going anywhere until I see you, please….’’

Robert stepped back in relief as he saw the front door slowly open, but his relief quickly turned to devastation when he saw the look on Aaron’s face. He looked exhausted, but more than that, he looked broken. The strong, feisty man who verbally sparred with Robert on a daily basis was hidden from view, and he looked older, wearier, the scar tissue inside protruding to the surface.

‘’Aaron….’’ He breathed. He couldn’t say anything else, but he needed to say his name, prove to himself that the man was actually standing in front of him.

‘’Can I come in?’’

Aaron stepped aside and Robert took his chance before he could change his mind. Edging his way in slowly, he breathed in the scent of Aaron, and the warmth of his body so close made him shiver. He ached to reach out and touch him, but Aaron’s tense stance held him back.

‘’How are you? Sorry….stupid question….’’

‘’What are you doing here Robert?’’

‘’I needed to see you, make sure you….’’

‘’What, hadn’t cut myself?’’ Aaron said bitterly, but the thought had crossed his mind, Robert could tell.

‘’Please Aaron, just let me support you.’’

‘’How Robert? What can you possibly do? You know nothing about it, nothing.’’

Robert reached forward, the ache to touch Aaron overriding the frostiness that radiated from the other man. He took a tentative step, but before he could register it, Aaron was pummelling Robert’s chest, desperate to push him as far away as possible. Even when Robert grabbed his arms, he kept pushing, pressing his knuckles into his boyfriend’s chest until he had nothing more to give. His legs buckled underneath him, but Robert didn’t break contact, lowering them both down to the floor, Aaron’s sobs wrenching through his body. When he was sure the outburst had stopped, Robert gently released Aaron from his grip and kissed his forehead.

‘’Aaron, you’ve got me. Okay? You’ve got me.’’

‘’I can’t do it Robert, I can’t.’’

‘’Yes you can. And you will. You’ll do as Paddy says. You’ll speak up and tell them everything, and he won’t get out.’’

‘’You heard all that.’’

‘’I heard it all.’’ Robert said softly. ‘’Is that…is that the other reason, for the scars?’’

Aaron nodded, another stray tear falling down his cheek.

‘’Do you want to talk about it?’’

Aaron looked up at him. His face was so open, his expression so caring, that despite his walls, he told him everything. The first time it happened, when he was eight. He cried when he told Robert how hard he tried to be good, but he couldn’t do it, and he was punished again. He told him about getting kicked out. He mentioned his little sister, whom he hadn’t seen in years.

All the while, Robert held him close, not too tightly so he’d feel constricted, but close enough to feel Robert’s warmth. As he held Aaron in his arms, he felt a rage to kill that vile human that was so strong it frightened him. As tempted as he was to have it arranged and save Aaron the trauma of going to the parole board again to plead his case, he knew Aaron was too good-hearted to ever let that happen without feeling immeasurable guilt, despite what Gordon had done to him. Instead, he promised himself he would support him every step of the way.

As Aaron shuffled slightly beside him on the floor, exhausted from reliving his childhood, Robert sent a quick text to Chas.

I found him. He’s okay. I’ve got him, I’ll talk to you later.

The reply came instantly.

Look after him. I mean it Robert.

 

 

Robert had managed to move Aaron to the sofa, and the sound of a mug of tea being placed on the table woke him up.

‘’Thanks,’’ he said sleepily.

‘’You look like you needed it.’’

‘’I don’t know how to do this. I can’t live my life like this, just being the son, being the victim of a rapist.’’ Aaron admitted nervously.

Robert winced involuntarily as he heard the words, and Aaron’s throat instantly ran dry. He saw it, the look of shame on his face, repulsion towards Aaron, and he broke.

‘’But I’ll do it myself. You can go now Robert.’’

‘’I’m not going anywhere.’’

‘’Yes you are, you did your duty, pretended to care for the sad little boy whose daddy raped him, but you’ve done enough now.’’

‘’Aaron, where is this coming from?’’

‘’I don’t need you and your pity.’’

‘’Aaron, it’s not….I love you Aaron.’’

‘’No you don’t, not anymore. Leave, before I throw you out. Forget about me, and go back to your wife. I’m sure she’d love to have you back.’’

‘’No Aaron, I meant it. I don’t want Chrissie, I want you.’’

‘’Just get out Robert.’’

Aaron pushed him back, through the front door and into the early evening. Robert tried to fight back, but Aaron was incredibly strong, and as Robert stumbled back on the footpath, the sound of the front door slamming vibrated through him.

Aaron collapsed in the hallway, his back to the front door. Dry sobs heaved through his body; making his bones shudder with each new movement. He wrapped his arms around his body and didn’t move until he heard the sounds of Vic, Adam and Lilly coming up the path, running to the spare room and locking himself away, trying to fight the tears as he realised that Gordon had once nearly succeeded in taking his daughter from him, and had now actually succeeded in taking Robert from him.

 

 

Robert paced the Mill furiously, his head spinning as he tried to figure out what he had done wrong. Chas had sent another text asking how Aaron was, but Robert couldn’t conjure up anything to say back. She rang him, but he ignored it, continuing to pace. He itched to run back to Keepers, break the door down and force Aaron to believe him when he said he wasn’t going anywhere, but he couldn’t force his legs to carry him.

As the night settled in, and more messages went unanswered, he resigned himself to the fact that Aaron didn't want to speak to him, and he made another decision. Picking up his phone, he dialled a number he thought he’d said goodbye to a long time ago.

 

‘’Chrissie, it’s me.’’

Chapter Text

‘’Okay bro, spill it.’’

‘’Spill what?’’

‘’Whatever it is that’s giving you a face that would sour milk…apart from the obvious.’’ Adam finished feebly, blushing at his own idiocy.

Aaron was at Adam and Vic’s. He still hadn’t been able to face staying at the pub, not with Chas and Paddy hovering over him, and the Mill was a no go since he had chucked Robert out the night before. Robert. Even thinking his name made Aaron’s heart tremble. He had tried calling him multiple times last night, but Aaron couldn’t bear to hear his voice. It would hurt to much to hear Robert tell him that he was right, that he would go back to Chrissie, give things another go with her. She was better for him.

‘’Not now.’’ Aaron replied, directing his answer at Lilly and Vic, who were making breakfast in the corner.

‘’Is it about Robert?’’ Adam persisted, and the mention of her uncle’s name drew Lilly’s attention from the task at hand.

‘’Is uncle Robert coming for breakfast?’’

‘’No munchkin, he’s not.’’

Aaron’s sad tone piqued Victoria’s interest.

‘’I’ve an idea mischief, why don’t you go and get that book that uncle Robert bought you and we can visit him after breakfast and show him how well you’re doing at reading?’’

‘’Okay!’’ Lilly chirped in response, abandoning the breakfast to fetch her book upstairs.

‘’Okay, you have your window. It will take her ages to find that book.’’ Vic encouraged. ‘’What has my brother done?’’

‘’He came to see me last night, to talk about Gordon.’’

‘’And?’’

‘’It’s over.’’ Aaron admitted, tears prickling the backs of his eyes.

‘’That prick ended it with you?’’ Adam exclaimed. ‘’I don’t care if he is your brother Vic, I’m gonna kill him.’’ He stood up abruptly, but Aaron pulled him back.

‘’I ended it with him.’’

‘’Why?’’ Vic asked. ‘’Did he say something?’’

‘’He didn’t have to, I saw the way he looked at me.’’

‘’Aaron mate, the guy can be an arse, but it was probably just the shock.’’ Adam said softly.

‘’Yea well, I don’t have the energy to make him feel better.’’

‘’Maybe you should talk to him?’’ Vic suggested.

‘’I’m better off doing it on my own. I faced Gordon before without Robert, I can do it again.’’

‘’So you are gonna do it? Go to the parole hearing?’’

‘’I have to.’’ Aaron admitted. ‘’I have to do it for Lilly.’’

‘’Then we’re with you, aren’t we babe?’’ Adam replied as he hooked an arm around Vic, who nodded kindly. Lilly appeared right at that moment, hair sticking out in all directions and a flushed but triumphant look on her face as she waved the book victoriously in front of her parents.

‘’C’mon then mum, let’s go.’’ She demanded in her most authoritative tone, which brought a chuckle to the faces of all the adults.

‘’Well that’s me told.’’ Vic laughed, but as she grabbed her jacket, Aaron’s hand on her arm stopped her.

‘’Vic….’’

‘’I won’t say anything if you don’t want me to.’’ She said without missing a beat. ‘’But I think you should talk to him, he might surprise you.’’

 

 

‘’God Rob, could you not just buy normal coffee?’’ Vic groaned as she scrunched up her nose, putting her mug back down on the coffee table, just to the left of the coaster, which Robert was sure she did on purpose.

‘’Your mother has terrible taste trouble.’’ He said playfully to Lilly, who was sprawled across his legs, her book proudly perched on her lap.

‘’That’s not true.’’ She argued.

‘’Oh yea? What does she have good taste in then?’’

Lilly thought for a moment, and her eyes brightened considerably.

‘’Well, she picked Aaron to be my daddy, and he’s the best.’’ She said proudly, and Robert’s breath caught in his throat at the sound of Aaron’s name.

‘’Yea, you’re right there kiddo.’’ Robert agreed sadly. ‘’How is he?’’ He whispered to Vic.

‘’He’s okay, I guess. I promised him I wouldn't say anything.’’ He knew by the look in her eyes what she was itching to ask, and he wished he had the answer.

‘’I don’t know what I did Vic.’’

‘’Did you say something? Even by accident, something he could take the wrong way?’’

‘’No, I didn’t. I promise. I miss him Vic. It’s been less than a day and I miss him.’’

‘’Then talk to him. He misses you too, and he needs you more than he’s letting on.’’

‘’I tried.’’

‘’Try harder. He didn’t have anyone the last time, not like you. He didn’t have anything to fight for.’’

‘’Yes he did.’’ Robert replied as he nodded at Lilly, still engrossed in her book, but Vic shook her head softly, leaving him puzzled.

‘’What…?’’

‘’Talk to him.’’

Vic looked at her watch, and when she realised the time, she sprang from her seat.

‘’C’mon you, we have to get you to granny Diane before I start work.’’

‘’Can’t I stay here?’’

‘’Afraid not kiddo, I have lots to do today, but we’ll have another sleepover soon yea?’’ She nodded excitedly and extracted herself from her perch, kissed Robert goodbye and skipped out the door, Victoria giving her big brother a hug before following.

Robert was just heading out the door when his phone vibrated. Chrissie.

Tomorrow morning. 11am. Thank you Robert, you don’t know how much this means to me.

He smiled sadly, remembering Aaron’s instructions the previous night to go back to his wife, and he hoped that one day Aaron would understand what he was about to do.

 

 

Aaron was bone-tired, but his mind wouldn’t shut down. He had taken every frustration he had out on anything he could get his hands on at the scrap yard, but it wasn’t nearly enough to clear his head. Having watched him lose a battle with a car bonnet, Adam had dragged him to the pub in an ill-advised attempt to cheer him up, and he now had Chas and Paddy shooting him conspicuous glances every five seconds, but they both knew better than to approach him.

‘’Adam, did we have to come here?’’

‘’Yes, because I’m not having you holed up in my box room for another night, and you know you like to see me try and charm my gorgeous wife into sneaking us free chips.’’ His playful tone elicited a soft laugh from Aaron, the sensation feeling strange in his body.

‘’Hi babe.’’ Vic said affectionately as she suddenly appeared, chips in hand.

‘’Ha, didn’t even have to charm her this time.’’ Adam jested.

‘’If you call what you do to blag free food charming, then we need to have a little chat babe.’’ Vic teased, and the playful banter between them made him ache for Robert. As though she could read his mind, Vic turned to him, concern replacing the humour in her eyes.

‘’Has Robert spoken to you?’’

‘’No, and I don’t expect him to.’’ Aaron replied.

‘’He wants to put things right Aaron. He wants to be there for you.’’

Aaron remained silent towards Vic, and she and Adam both knew that there would be no arguing with him at this point. He would have to come to Robert himself.

An hour later, Vic and Adam said their goodbyes, but Aaron stayed on, stewing over his fifth pint. Chas had tried to question him, but he remained resolutely silent, refusing to meet her gaze. Instead, he replayed Robert’s voicemail over and over.

I love you Aaron, so much. Please believe that.

He downed his pint, wiped the stray tear from his eye and marched out of the pub.

 

 

Robert had dozed off on the sofa, but the sound of banging and –was that singing? – at his door woke him up. Padding across the living room barefoot, he was stunned to see Aaron on the other side.

‘’Hiya.’’

‘’Aaron, it’s late, what are you doing here?’’

‘’I’ve come to have my wicked way with you.’’ He grinned, but Robert noticed the way he propped himself against the door and the slight slur in his words.

 

He was drunk.

 

Robert normally loved drunken Aaron. A few beers in, normally at Robert’s house, and Aaron would unleash the most adorable dopey grin to match his unguarded affection, whispering salacious things in Robert’s ear and pressing warming kisses to his forehead. But this wasn’t his cute, puppy-eyed Aaron. The spark was missing from his eyes, and his words lacked their usual playful tone.

‘’Well, aren’t you gonna invite me in?’’ Aaron continued.

‘’I don’t think….’’ But Aaron stepping determinedly inside and fisting his hands in his shirt cut off Robert mid-protest.

‘’Ooh, playing hard to get eh?’’ He grinned, but the smile didn’t match his eyes.

Robert could feel Aaron’s breath on his face, could smell the woody, spicy scent that was just so Aaron that it invaded every part of his brain. He could sense his own body reacting, but his brain was screaming at him not to engage.

‘’Aaron….’’

‘’C’mon now, the great Robert Sugden can’t be getting all shy on me.’’

‘’No….’’

‘’Please Robert...’’ Aaron’s tone shifted abruptly, and Robert allowed himself to look into the younger man’s eyes. Gone was the drunken flirting. Aaron was pleading now, gripping onto Robert’s shirt even tighter. He took a step closer, and Robert’s throat went dry. He forced himself to look away, and he bowed his head.

‘’I can’t.’’

He felt the absence instantly as Aaron released his grip and stepped back.

‘’You don’t want this?’’ Aaron’s voice cracked as he said it and Robert wasn’t strong enough to look him in the eyes, knowing that he would crumble if he saw the rejection in them.

‘’You don’t want me?’’ Aaron asked again. ‘’I disgust you.’’ He concluded as Robert’s silence stretched on.

‘’No, Aaron….’’

‘’It’s fine, I'm used to it.’’ Aaron admitted in defeat, completely sobered up now, and he pulled the door behind him to leave.

‘’Aaron, stop.’’ Robert commanded, finally finding his voice. ‘’Don’t go.’’

Robert took a tentative step forward and placed his hand on Aaron’s cheek.

‘’I want you okay, so much it terrifies me.’’ Robert began, and a flicker of the spark that Robert loved so much came back to Aaron’s eyes briefly.

‘’Then have me.’’ Aaron pleaded, but Robert shook his head.

‘’Not like this.’’

‘’I want to….’’

‘’But it’s not what you need right now, and I can wait.’’

Aaron looked up at Robert in surprise, and Robert nodded to emphasise his point.

‘’I will wait. Stay here tonight, in Lilly’s room, get some rest and we can talk in the morning.’’

Aaron nodded acceptingly and allowed Robert to lead him upstairs to the spare room. As he sat on the bed and watched Robert pull his shoes off, he ran his hands through Robert’s hair, causing the other man to look up into his eyes.

‘’I’m sorry for being a drunken mess.’’ Aaron said sadly.

‘’Yea well, you’re my drunken mess,’’ Robert replied softly. ‘’I’ll get you some water, get some sleep yea?’’ While Robert was gone, Aaron pulled off his clothes and huddled under the duvet. Robert returned with a pint of water and some headache tablets, which he delivered to Aaron with a kiss on the forehead.

‘’If you need anything, you know where I am.’’

‘’Thank you Robert.’’

‘’Goodnight Aaron.’’

 

 

But Aaron couldn’t get to sleep. He lay in bed all night, staring up at the ceiling, aching for Robert to come back and just lay next to him. His favourite part of the day was having Robert wake him up by peppering soft kisses to his jaw, and it was the only comfort he wanted now. At one point, he even thought he heard movement outside the door, and thought he saw a shadow flicker across the gap under it. Please come in, please, Aaron pleaded silently, but there was nothing, and eventually he gave up praying. It was clearly his imagination playing tricks on him.

Robert buried himself under the duvet in his room. He had never before felt this close to Aaron but so far away from him at the same time. After endless tossing and turning, he pulled himself from his bed and crept out his door. He hovered outside Aaron’s room, hand pressed against the door handle, battling the urge to rush in and wrap himself around the younger man’s body, but the feeling of want was nothing compared to the hatred he would feel in the morning if things went too far. So he padded back to him room, shut the door silently and pinched his eyes shut until sleep eventually overtook him.

 

 

Chapter Text

‘’Hey.’’

The voice came so quietly behind Robert, it took him a second to fully register it. When he turned around, he softened at the sight of Aaron, pulling his sleeves over his hands and alternating between looking at Robert and having a staring competition with the floor.

‘’Hey. How did you sleep?’’ Aaron shrugged in response, and Robert understood the feeling.

‘’Thank you for last night. I’m sorry I was being an idiot.’’

‘’You weren’t Aaron, trust me. Listen, I hate to sound like I’m kicking you out, but I’ve got an important meeting this morning to prep for. I’d cancel it, but it’s kind of time sensitive.’’ Robert winced internally at the lie, but Aaron didn’t seem to notice.

‘’It’s fine I need to go anyway. I promised our Cain I’d do a shift at the garage.’’

‘’But you’re okay though, yea?’’

Aaron nodded and smiled softly. Hesitating slightly, he stepped forward and kissed Robert on the cheek, then headed out the door, leaving Robert with nothing to do but wait for his visitor.

 

Robert’s nerves were on edge as he waited for Chrissie to arrive. Time seemed to tick slowly by, and all he could distract himself with was the memory of their last phone conversation.

‘’Chrissie, it’s me.’’

‘’Robert?’’

‘’I’ll give you what you want. But I have a condition.’’

‘’Whatever it is, I’ll do it.’’

‘’You’re going to sign those annulment papers Chrissie. This has dragged on long enough. It’s over between us.’’

''Robert, we can get through this…..’’

'' No, we can’t, and I don’t want to. You sign those papers, and I’ll speak for Lachlan.’’

‘’Okay, I’ll do it.’’

‘’There’s one more thing I need from you…..’’

 

The knock on the door roused him from his thoughts. As he opened the door to find Chrissie, her lawyer and his PA on the other side, he was surprised to find that she looked nervous. He didn’t even think she lived in the same country as that emotion. Her icy exterior was there, but the cracks appearing in it showed.

‘’Come in.’’ he gestured, and she tentatively stepped inside, surveying the room.

‘’I didn’t know you had such good taste.’’ She admitted.

‘’You didn’t know a lot of things.’’

The cracks sealed themselves up again, and she glared at Robert, a heavy silence falling between them. Her lawyer helpfully interceded at that point, gesturing for his PA to get the documents out.

‘’So, let’s get this over with shall we? Rip off the plaster?’’ he asked apprehensively.

Robert’s phone began to ring at that moment. Vic. He’d have to answer it now, or she’d keep ringing, and if he continued to ignore her she’d march over to the Mill.

‘’Take a seat.’’ Robert offered, his company behaviour back in play. ‘’I’ll be back in a second. Hey Vic.’’ He began as he headed up the stairs.

 

Aaron couldn't concentrate at the garage. Last night had not been at all what he had planned, or what he had wanted, but Robert Sugden seemed to know what he needed better than he did himself. He had so much more that he wanted to say to Robert that morning. There had been three words lodged in his throat all night, and for days before that, and all he wanted was to let them spill out. Sod it, he thought. He ripped off his overalls, threw on his hoodie and ignoring Dan's protests behind him, he marched resolutely towards the Mill. 

 

The sound of knocking on the door caught everyone’s attention, but once Chrissie glanced in the direction of upstairs and could hear Robert still murmuring, she decided to answer it herself. Opening the door, she found herself standing opposite a gruff young lad in a well-worn black hoodie, a look of complete bewilderment on his face.

‘’Can I help you?’’ She asked, taken aback at how her simple question seemed to evoke a look of rage on this man’s face, but he quickly shook his head and she thought she must have imagined it.

‘’No…I…. I think I have the wrong house.’’ The lad muttered, stomping off up the drive.

‘’Okay…’’ she said to herself, closing the door behind her just as Robert returned downstairs.

‘’What are you doing?’’

‘’Oh there was someone at the door.’’ She explained, ‘’It’s fine though, said they had the wrong house.’’

Robert nodded in acknowledgement, his temporary fear that it had been Aaron dissolving.

‘’Let’s get this over with.’’ Robert said, and he gently took Chrissie by the arm as the stood by the door. ‘’And I mean it Chrissie, if you don’t follow through, I will not be at that courthouse on Monday.’’

‘’I promise Robert. You were right, I’d do the same if it were Lucky.’’

Robert breathed a sigh of relief, and they joined the others in the kitchen.

 

Aaron was slumped against the wall at the top of the Mill drive, his breathing rapid and shallow. That was Chrissie. After listening to the way Diane had described her, it was impossible that it could be anybody else. And Robert had gone back to her. That’s why he had kicked him out, so his precious wife wouldn't learn the truth. He considered banging down the door and revealing everything, but it wouldn't be worth it, because Robert would still choose her. He pulled himself up from the wall, crashing into Adam and Vic as he rounded the corner, his flushed and anxious appearance catching them off guard.

‘’Aaron, mate what is it?’’

Aaron looked from Adam to Vic, and he could feel the tears coming, but he forced them down.

‘’Aaron, talk to us.’’ Vic said softly.

 

‘’Vic, have you seen Aaron?’’

Robert was in the pub kitchen, having tried the scrap yard and the garage looking for his boyfriend. He had also tried calling him multiple times, but to no avail. He had felt a weight lift as he saw Chrissie sign the annulment papers, and now all he needed to do was hang on another few days and he and Aaron could have a fresh start, but the look on Vic’s face as he asked the question was nothing short of murderous.

‘’Okay, what have I done now?’’

‘’Don’t play the butter wouldn’t melt card with me Robert.’’ She snapped. ‘’How could you just turn your back on him like that?’’

‘’Vic, if this is about last night, I thought I was doing the right thing. Has Aaron said something?’’

‘’Why yes dear brother, he mentioned going to your house this morning and having your wife casually open the front door like she lived there.’’

Robert’s breath hitched in his throat. So it was Aaron. That explained the disappearing act.

‘’How could you do it to him? I thought you cared.’’

‘’I do, that’s why she was there. We were signing annulment papers Vic.’’

‘’And you couldn’t do it at a lawyer’s office like a normal person?’’

‘’Okay, I’ll admit bringing her here wasn’t my brightest decision.’’

‘’Why didn’t you just tell him? Why has it taken you so long anyway? You said you were over weeks ago, why the annulment now?’’

‘’Well forgive me sis for neglecting my life admin, I got a bit distracted you know, falling in love with someone.’’

‘’You’re in love with my Aaron?’’

The voice from behind him caught him by surprise. Turning around, he came face to face with Chas, wearing a stunned expression on her face.

‘’Chas, it’s pretty obvious.’’ Vic chimed in.

‘’I thought you were just using him.’’ she replied.

‘’And I thought landladies were supposed to have a knack for reading people, evidently not.’’ Robert replied dryly.

‘’Well I heard what you said about Chrissie, and if you really love him that much, you’ll be at the hearing with him on Monday.’’ Chas snapped back.

‘’I can’t.’’ Robert admitted slowly.

‘’Why not Rob? He needs ya there, even if he won’t say it.’’

‘’Because I’m…..’’

‘’Oh spit it out Rob.’’ Vic exclaimed.

‘’I’m testifying as a witness for Lachlan on Monday.’’

‘’Your ex-stepson Lachlan?’’ Robert nodded.

‘’I don’t believe this.’’

‘’Vic, it’s not how it sounds.’’

‘’Oh really? Because it sounds as though your choosing your precious moneybags family over Aaron.’’ Chas chimed in bitterly.

‘’I’m doing this for Aaron.’’ Robert replied back instantly.

‘’How is you getting your stepson off a hit and run charge helping Aaron?’’

‘’Because Chrissie’s godfather is the head of the parole board at the prison.’’

‘’And?’’ Vic and Chas both asked simultaneously.

‘’And I said I’d give Lucky a character reference if she made sure that her godfather rejected Gordon’s appeal.’’ Robert finally admitted, eliciting stunned gasps from his sister and Chas.

‘’So hang on, you told your ex-wife all about what happened to my son? How dare you.’’ Chas snarled, looking ready to punch him.

‘’Of course I didn’t. I’d never do that to Aaron.’’

‘’Then how did you convince her Rob?’’ Vic asked sceptically.

‘’All I said was that he came from the area and I couldn’t take the risk of him coming back, not with my nieces and nephew in the village. I told her she’d do the same to protect Lachlan if he was Lilly’s age, and she bought it. If she does as she's supposed to, then Aaron won't even have to give his statement.’’

Chas immediately softened, and she slumped back against the kitchen counter.

‘’And you really think she’ll go through with it?’’

‘’I told her that if she didn’t, then she could kiss Lucky goodbye.’’

‘’And you’d really do all that for my Aaron?’’

Robert nodded slowly, and she could see for the first time, the look of sincerity in his eyes.

‘’Then I’ll talk to him. I won’t let him give up on you.’’

‘’Don’t tell him Chas, what I’m doing. I want him to feel like justice is on his side for once, that it’s not just happening because I blackmailed someone.’’

Chas hesitated, but she saw Robert’s point, and once she agreed, he left the pub, running straight into Aaron on his way in, but the younger man brushed passed him without even a look.

‘’Aaron, wait.’’ Robert pleaded as he caught him by the arm.

‘’Unless you want to run home to your wife with a black eye I’d take your hand off me.’’ Aaron retorted.

‘’Look, I know what it looks like, but please let me explain.’’

‘’I’m done with you Robert. I don’t care what lie you’re gonna spin anymore. I have enough to deal with, and I don’t have space for you in my head.’’

‘’Aaron, Chrissie was here to sign annulment papers, so she could be out of my life for good.’’

‘’I don’t believe you.’’

‘’Why not?’’

‘’It that was all it was, then you would have just told me that this morning. You’re lying about something Robert, but you know I don’t even care.’’

‘’Aaron, please don’t say that.’’

‘’I’m done with you, I can do this by myself.’’

Aaron strode into the pub, leaving Robert desperate to chase after him, but he knew it would end in tears. As he walked towards the Mill, his heart clenched with nerves at the thought that his entire future lay in the hands of Chrissie White.

 

Chapter Text

‘'Hello son.’’

The glass shattered everywhere, beer spilling all over the pub floor. It couldn’t be him, not now, not after all these years.

‘’Gordon?’’ Chas exclaimed behind him. ‘’What are you doing here?’’

‘’I was in the area, thought I’d drop in on my boy.’’

‘’Wow, well this is an unexpected pleasure, isn’t it love?’’

Aaron was frozen to the spot, his breath caught in his throat.

‘’Aaron?’’

‘’Aaron?’’

Aaron woke up, panic flooding through his veins and sweat dripping into his eyes, making them burn. Chas was hovering over him, concern etched in every feature. He let out a breath, and pulled himself up, taking the tea she offered him.

‘’Love, you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.’’

‘’Of course I do. I can’t risk it, him coming out and….’’

‘’He won’t come anywhere near this village. We’ll make sure of that.’’

‘’Yea I’m sure Doug and his veg cart will reduce him to a quivering wreck.’’

‘’You haven’t seen that man brandish a courgette. Lethal.’’ Chas joked feebly, but Aaron did relax ever so slightly. ‘’And you’ve got all the Dingles, and Adam and Vic, and…Robert.’’ She finished cautiously, but Aaron shook his head.

‘’Robert couldn’t care less.’’

‘’Are you sure about that?’’

‘’Since when are you his cheerleader?’’

‘’I’m just saying love, I don’t think he’s completely heartless.’’

'‘Gushing praise if ever I heard it. I’m gonna get ready, but thank you. I can do this, really.’’

Chas embraced him tightly, and then giving him a soft smile, she left him on his own. He glanced briefly at his phone, but there was nothing from Robert this morning, and his heart ached.

 

 

‘’Shit.’’

Robert was about to lose it with his shirt buttons in a minute. Chrissie had promised that her godfather’s assistant would text him the final verdict on the appeal, and though he knew it would come just before he was due to take the stand, he couldn’t help but glance at his phone every few seconds looking for an update.

He had also hoped for something from Aaron, but the cold look he had given him outside the pub the last time they had spoken seemed resolute. He had called, texted and even tried to orchestrate running into him more than once, but there was nothing, so eventually he had to stop trying. Aaron had cut him off completely, and he felt bereft at the loss. Finally winning the war with his buttons, he pulled on his coat, grabbed his keys and headed into town.

 

 

‘’So, what’s new? What trouble has my wayward son gotten into since I last saw him?’’

‘’Well, you’re a granddad now,’’ Chas replied as they sat in the backroom.

‘’My son managed to find a girl willing to have a child with him?’’

‘’Well it’s complicated, but Lilly is the best thing that’s ever happened to him.’’

‘’Lilly eh? Well I can’t wait to meet her.’’

‘’You’re not going anywhere near her.’’ Aaron said from the door, rage seething inside him.

‘’Aaron, c’mon love, I know it hasn’t been easy, but let’s put the past behind us yea?’’

‘’Yes Aaron, listen to your mother, let’s put the past behind us.’’

‘’You go anywhere near my daughter and it will be the last thing you do.’’

‘’Are you sure you want to do this?’’

‘’Will everyone stop asking me that?’’ Aaron scowled, as Paddy fumbled around, doing his tie for him, because apparently he was a five year old who couldn’t understand the concept of using his own hands.

‘’We’re just…’’

‘’Concerned I know,’’ Aaron softened, guilt flooding him at Paddy’s contrite face. ‘’I’m fine Paddy, really. I can do this.’’

‘’And we’re all behind you.’’ Vic’s voice came from the door as she entered the backroom with Adam beside her. The sight of their hands linked together made Aaron yearn for Robert’s touch once more, but he shook the thought away and smiled at Vic.

‘’Where’s Lilly?’’

‘’Diane’s. Thought it was best.’’ Aaron nodded, and took Vic’s outstretched hand, the comforting feeling a welcome relief from the swirling anxiety in his head.

 

 

Robert was pacing, the witness waiting room suddenly too small to think in. His phone was remaining obstinately silent, no news coming through from Gordon’s appeal hearing. The clock was ticking down, and soon someone would be coming to get him. He wouldn’t go in there, not until he got the text saying that Gordon would stay behind bars. This was Chrissie’s test. How much did she really love her son?

A knock on the door pulled him from his thoughts.

‘’Mr. Sugden? They’re ready for you.’’ The liaison announced kindly.

‘’Can I have five more minutes please? Sorry, I don’t like public speaking at the best of times.’’ Robert feigned, which seemed to work on the lady, who nodded.

‘’But no longer than that I’m afraid, you’ll need to take the stand.’’ Robert nodded in understanding, and his hands felt clammy as he stared down at his phone.

 

 

‘’Aaron, he’s your dad. I’m sure Lilly would love to meet him and get to know him.’’

‘’He’s not going anywhere near her Vic, I mean it.’’

‘’Why not? I want a reason. She’s already lost one granddad, it would be nice to have the other one in her life.’’

‘’No Vic. I’m telling you now to drop it.’’

‘’But he looked after you when Chas took off and you haven’t seen him in years, what could he possibly have done to make you hate him so much?’’

‘He raped me.’’

The look on Vic’s face that day still invaded Aaron’s memory, and he shivered as he remembered telling her the whole story. He could still feel the warmth of her hand in his as she sat next to him, as he first told Chas and Paddy, and again in the police station as he waited to give his statement. He didn’t know what he had done to deserve her, but she had been a rock throughout everything, even when he was at his darkest moments, and nothing had changed. She watched him like a hawk now as he paced back and forth, counting down the moments before he would need to leave. He missed the glances between her and Chas as he walked, and he missed them again as the sound of his phone ringing stopped him mid-pace.

‘’Who is it love?’’ Chas asked anxiously, her grip on Vic’s hand going unnoticed by Aaron again, but not by Adam, who shared their interest over the caller.

‘’It’s the prison.’’ Taking a deep breath, he put the phone to his ear.

‘’Hello?’’

 

 

Five minutes came and went all too quickly, and there was still no text.

‘’Mr Sudgen, it’s really time to go now.’’ Robert was fully ready to run, consequences be damned, when he felt the buzz in his right hand.

It’s over. Appeal denied.

Robert let out a breath he didn’t know he had been holding. Straightening his tie, he handed his phone over.

‘’I’m ready.’’

 

 

Six month suspended sentence.

The words rang in Robert’s ears as he left the courthouse. He had done his bit, and all he wanted now was to get to Aaron as quickly as he could. He was just making his way out the door when he felt a hand on his arm. Chrissie.

‘’Robert, thank you so much. I mean it.’’ He shrugged in response.

‘’You held up your end. It was only fair.’’

‘’Do you want to join us for a celebratory drink?’’ She sounded almost hopeful, and for a brief second, he felt sorry for her. He shook his head.

‘’Goodbye Chrissie.’’

 

 

‘’I want to see him.’’

‘’Who?’’

‘’Gordon.’’

Aaron and Vic were sat on the bench at the front of the pub, watching Adam chase Lilly up and down the village. She got her stumpy legs from Vic, but yet somehow she was managing to outrun Adam, if his raspy breathing and flushed face was anything to go by. Aaron knew he wasn’t faking, he had seen that shade of purple that Violet Beauregarde would be proud of many a time at the scrap yard, usually when he was losing a fight with a car door.

‘’Why? His appeal was denied.’’

‘’I think that’s why Vic. I didn’t get to say the things I needed to say today. I’m not the same person I was four years ago, and I want him to know that. Sounds mad doesn’t it?’’

‘’No Aaron.’’ Vic replied softly. ‘’It doesn’t sound mad at all.’’

‘’But…’’

‘’But, I want you to be sure before you do it. I don’t want you to put yourself through anything that you don’t need to.’’

‘’I’m sure Vic. It’s nearly over now. This will end it for me, for good.’’

‘’Do you want me to come with you? Or Adam?’’ Aaron shook his head.

‘’Nah, I’m gonna do it myself. But thank you Vic. And thank you for being such a good mother to our little girl. I don’t say it enough, or ever, but I mean it.’’

‘’Aaron don’t, me mascara will run.’’ She joked lightly through her tears, but it didn’t stop her linking her arm through his and putting her head on his shoulder as they watched their daughter skip merrily up and down the village, Adam leaning against the gate outside Keepers to catch his breath.

 

 

Robert watched them from the safety of the Mill drive. He could see Aaron’s smile from a mile away, brightening up the village as it always did on those rare occasions that he allowed it to bloom. He itched to go and join them, but something was stopping him. He looked happy, with Lilly running around him and Adam cracking jokes, and Robert didn’t want to intrude. He stepped back inside the Mill, closing the door and turning out the light.

 

 

Aaron had arranged a visiting order for the next afternoon, despite Chas’s protests.

‘’Love, let me come with you.’’

‘’No, I need to do this alone, but honestly mum, I’ll be fine.’’ He actually believed his own words this time, and clearly Chas did too, as her shoulders relaxed.

‘’Okay, but you call me if you need me, promise?’’

‘’I promise.’’

‘’Or you know…’’

‘’What?’’

‘’You could call Robert.’’ She suggested.

‘’Mum, what is this? I haven’t heard from him in days. We’re over okay, just let it go.’’

‘’Did he actually tell you that?’’

‘’No, but he didn’t have to. He chose Chrissie, despite whatever lies he might have spun Vic.’’

‘’He didn’t choose Chrissie. He chose you love, and I can prove it.’’

 

 

Aaron sat on the uncomfortable plastic chairs, watching carefully as all the inmates filed through the door and into the visiting area. He stiffened as he saw him, all those memories prickling the edge of his memory, but as he came closer, Aaron really saw him for the first time; a pathetic, broken man, and he almost felt pity.

‘’Hello Gordon.’’

‘’Son.’’

‘’I’m not your son. I was never your son.’’

‘’You’re more my son than you think you are.’’

Aaron smirked in response.

‘’Nah, I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to make me feel weak again, but it’s not gonna work.’’

‘’I never tried to make you feel weak Aaron, you were born like that.’’

‘’No, I was the strong one, and you were to weak to handle it, so you tried to control me, well not anymore.’’

‘’Why did you come here then Aaron?’’

‘’To tell you that it’s over, whatever power you think you had over me. I stood up and told everyone what you did to me once, and I was fully prepared to do it again yesterday. You know, you once made me terrified to do anything wrong, terrified of who I am, the people I love, but now, I look at you and I feel nothing. You’re nothing to me now Gordon. I have a daughter, and I’m never gonna make her feel like you made me feel. So thank you, for showing me how not to be a father.’’

Aaron hadn’t wavered once during his speech, and Gordon was rendered dumbstruck. Aaron took that as his cue, and he stood up to leave.

‘’Goodbye Gordon.’’

 

 

Aaron came out feeling lighter than he had in years. It was just starting to drizzle, and the drops felt good on his skin as he walked further and further away from the claustrophobic smells and sounds of Hotton prison. He smiled a little to himself as he walked to the car park, but the smile turned to shock as he saw the man sitting on the bonnet of his car, his hair sticking up in little tufts thanks to the rain.

 

Robert.

 

‘’I went to the pub. Your mum told me you were here.’’ Robert offered by way of explanation.

‘’And you wanted to check up on me?’’ Aaron asked in response.

‘’No, I ….I don’t really know why I came. I just wanted to see you I guess and tell you….’’ Robert trailed off, suddenly nervous.

‘’Tell me what?’’

‘’How proud I am of you.’’ Robert admitted. ‘’You went in there and faced him. I’ve never met anyone that strong before. I’m so happy that I met you, Aaron.’’

‘’Why does it sound like you’re saying goodbye to me?’’ Aaron could feel his heart clenching in his chest, and suddenly his lungs were burning.

‘’I’m not, I just….I’m sorry I let you down, not telling you about Chrissie, not being there for you during the appeal.’’

‘’Stop it Robert.’’

‘’Stop what?’’

‘’Lying to me. Mum told what you did, everything.’’ Robert’s eyes widened just a fraction, but before he could say anything, Aaron continued.

‘’I know why you wanted it kept quiet, but I’m glad mum told me. Nobody has ever done anything like that for me before.’’

‘’I just wanted to help you.’’ Robert replied, suddenly shy.

Aaron had never seen him like that before, and he suddenly felt a desperate urge to hold him. He took a tentative step forward, stepping into the space between Robert’s legs, as he remained propped on the bonnet. Taking Robert’s face in his hands, he looked into his eyes, and he finally said it, the words that had been lodged in his throat.

‘’I love you, Robert.’’

‘’Aaron, don’t say it just because….’’ Robert averted his gaze as he spoke, suddenly scared that Aaron would agree with him and take back the words.

‘’I mean it. I’ve loved you for a long time Robert, and I should have said it sooner.’’

Robert looked up at Aaron, and his breath hitched. His beautiful boyfriend was telling him that he loved him, and those words had never sounded so good.

‘’Well, aren’t you gonna say something back?’’ Aaron suddenly pouted.

‘’Well I have said it about half a dozen times now, so you have some catching up to do.’’ Robert smirked.

‘’Didn’t realise it was a competition.’’ Aaron fired back cheekily.

‘’It’s certainly not a close one.’’ Robert replied without missing a beat. He pulled Aaron closer to him and kissed him softly, neither of them caring that they were in a public place nor that rain was running down their cheeks.

 

 

They had barely made it through the door of the Mill before they were kissing each other again. After slamming the door behind them, Robert somehow managed to navigate Aaron backwards up the spiral staircase, their lips never breaking contact. He laid him down on the bed, continuing to kiss him, on the forehead, then his nose, then his lips and finally his collarbone, where he nipped at the bone in between kisses, eliciting soft groans from Aaron that sent a thrill through Robert’s entire body.

As they kissed, Aaron undid the buttons on Robert’s shirt and pushed it off him, and then rolled him over, so he was straddling him. He pulled off his hoodie and then without a moment’s hesitation, his shirt came off too. Robert stifled a gasp of surprise at Aaron’s gesture, and leant forward, kissing every scar over and over, suddenly determined to prove to this man how beautiful he thought he was. Aaron pulled his face back up to his, kissing him deeply again as they edged closer to each other, a hair’s breath between them.

‘’I want you Robert. I love you so much.’’ Aaron breathed, as he peppered more kisses to his jaw.

‘’I love you too Aaron.’’

‘’I want you inside me.’’ Aaron instructed, and Robert responded eagerly, reaching over to grab the lube and condoms from the drawer. He coated his fingers, and once Aaron had rid himself of his boxers, Robert worked him open slowly, Aaron’s twitching muscles and soft groans overwhelming Robert’s senses. He wanted this moment to last as long as possible, having never seen Aaron so relaxed, but evidently his boyfriend disagreed.

‘’Robert, please.’’ Aaron begged, and if Robert hadn’t been able to refuse Aaron before, now was definitely not going to be the first time. He pushed into him slowly, placing tender kisses to Aaron’s shoulder blade as he rocked back and forth, Aaron moaning steadily under him, reaching up to kiss Robert as he reached his climax. Aaron’s husky groans of delight sent Robert spiralling, and he came almost immediately after him. Once he eventually pulled out, he collapsed next to Aaron, who shuffled into his embrace, his beard tickling Robert’s cheek.

‘’I love you Aaron.’’

‘’I love you more.’’

‘’If you say so.’’

They dozed off together, their fingers linked together, and, for the first time in a long time, Aaron felt safe.

Chapter Text

‘’You’re making breakfast?’’ Robert asked in disbelief, padding across the kitchen and wrapping his arms around Aaron’s waist.

‘’You won’t be mocking when you’ve tasted my world famous bacon sarnies.’’ Aaron replied, turning around to face Robert, inches from each other.

‘’I’d much rather taste that world famous mouth of yours.’’

‘’Oh god, has that line ever worked on anyone?’’ Aaron snorted.

‘’Let’s find out shall we?’’ Robert flirted back as he pushed Aaron up against the counter, pressing their lips together and running his hands through his hair.

It felt so normal, Aaron thought to himself fifteen minutes later, watching Robert devour his breakfast, their legs linked together on the sofa. He couldn’t keep the smile off his face, something Robert picked up on immediately.

‘’What?’’

‘’Nothing, just….’’

‘’Feels nice doesn’t it?’’ Robert offered, and Aaron nodded. ‘’You know, we still haven’t told a certain someone, about us.’’

‘’I know, and I want to tell her, it just makes it all…..’’

‘’So much more real?’’ Robert finished. ‘’Aaron, I’m not going anywhere. It’s real.’’

Robert leaned over and kissed him softly on the forehead, and Aaron instantly relaxed.

‘’Well, guess there’s no time like the present eh? If you’re ready?’’

‘’I’m ready.’’

 

 

Twenty minutes later, Robert had just finished clearing up when he heard the thundering sound of footsteps behind him. He barely had a chance to turn around when his niece was on him, hugging him as though he had just returned from war.

‘’Hey trouble,’’ Robert grinned as he looked down at her.

‘’Hi uncle Robert.’’ She smiled back. ‘’Daddy says he has something special to tell me. Do you know what it is?’’

‘’Maybe….’’

Lilly did not seem at all impressed at his vagueness, and she looked ready to force it out of him when Aaron stepped in. Crouching down in front of her, he took her by the hand.

‘’Okay munchkin, this is what it is.’’ He began, suddenly nervous, but a reassuring smile from Robert encouraged him to continue. ‘’You know me and your mum love each other?’’ Lilly nodded. ‘’And your mum also loves Adam, but in a different way?’’ Another nod. ‘’Do you know what the difference is?’’

‘’You and mum love each other like best friends, but mum and Adam love each other like in films, and they hold hands and they’re best friends too but more.’’

‘’Exactly. Well do you remember ages ago, you told me that uncle Robert loves me?’’

‘’Yea,’’ she replied, looking shyly at Robert, as though she had given away a secret.

‘’Well you were right munchkin, and I love him too, like mum and Adam, like film love.’’

Robert and Aaron watched Lilly intently as she took the information in. Eventually, she glanced back up at Robert.

‘’You’re daddy’s boyfriend?’’

‘’Yes trouble.’’ He replied proudly. ‘’I am.’’

‘’Okay, well you have to kiss him then.’’ She decided.

Robert stifled a laugh, and pulling Aaron to his feet, kissed him on the forehead.

‘’On the lips silly.’’ Lilly huffed indignantly, rolling her eyes at them both like they were idiots.

‘’Well we better do as she says.’’ Aaron whispered, pulling Robert’s lips to his own and kissing him softly. A high-pitched shriek of joy came from beneath them, and they looked down to see Lilly grinning manically up at them, her little arms gripping their legs together. Robert kissed him again, pressing their foreheads together as Lilly continued to smile.

 

 

‘’We’ve got our adoption meeting tomorrow.’’

Aaron was back at Vic’s, having dropped Lilly back once she got over the excitement of daddy and uncle Robert being a couple. After seeing them kiss, she had ran all over the Mill singing Disney songs about finding your prince. After the fifth rendition of Beauty and the Beast, during which Robert earned himself a playful punch from Aaron for wondering aloud who was the beauty and who was the beast, Aaron finally managed to drag her away from the Mill, but not before she sealed the promise of another movie marathon and sleepover from Robert with a pinky swear. She was now chattering excitedly to her mother about what she had just learned, and Aaron’s heart melted at her excitement, but Adam’s words dragged him back to the present.

‘’Mate that’s great news. I didn’t know you’d decided to actually go down that route.’’

‘’Well you had other things on your mind.’’ Adam explained kindly.

‘’I’m sorry Adam, you still could have told me. So how do you feel?’’ Aaron asked, his sudden feelings of guilt not assuaged by Adam’s sincerity in dismissing his apology.

‘’Nervous,’’ he admitted. ‘’Vic will be great, I know she will, but I’m scared I’ll say the wrong thing.’’

‘’You’ll both be great Adam, trust me. Just think of all the ways you’re there for Lilly and say them to the adoption agency. Speaking of,’’ Aaron lowered his voice. ‘’Does she know?’’

Adam shook his head.

‘’Not yet bro, didn’t want to tell her before there was something to tell.’’

‘’Kinda like me and Robert then.’’ Aaron smiled.

‘’I’m happy for you bro, I never thought I’d say it, but he seems good for you.’’

‘’He is.’’ Aaron said softly.

 

 

‘’Pint please Chas.’’

‘’My AWOL son not with ya then?’’ She asked lightly as she poured his beer.

‘’He’s over at Vic’s, spending some time with her and Lilly.’’

‘’But you two are…..?’’

‘’We’re good Chas, we told Lilly about us. And it’s fine that you told Aaron what I did.’’

‘’Well, never thought I’d see the day I’m happy that my son is dating Robert Sugden.’’

‘’Never thought I’d see the day I’d be dating a Dingle.’’ Robert smirked, earning him a playful glare from Chas, but they were both distracted by a young girl propping herself up on the seat next to Robert.

‘’Love, there is no ID in the world good enough to convince me to serve you.’’ Chas started, but the girl scoffed.

‘’If I wanted your booze, I’d just knick it.’’ The girl retorted. ‘’I’m looking for Aaron.’’

‘’He’s not here right now, why are you after him?’’ Robert asked.

‘’Why do you want to know? You his boyfriend?’’

‘’Yes, as it happens. So, why are you looking for him?’’

‘’Yea, who exactly are you?’’ Chas chimed in.

‘’I’m his sister.’’

Chapter Text

‘’Mum, where’s the fire?’’

Aaron stared at her expectantly as he came through the pub doors, waving his phone - complete with half a dozen texts and three voicemails – at her.

‘’Love, you need to go through to the back. You have a visitor.’’

Her face gave away nothing and he knew better than to press her, so he headed through to the back room, where he found Robert and a young blonde girl staring at each other from across the room. Robert jumped up as soon as he saw him.

‘’Finally.’’

‘’You knew I was with Lilly.’ Aaron replied, glancing between his boyfriend and the girl watching them intently.

‘’Who’s Lilly?’’ She suddenly piped up.

‘’My daughter. Who are you?’’

‘’What, you don’t recognise your little sister?’’

‘’Liv?’’ Aaron was floored. ‘’God, you’ve….’’

‘’Aged.’’ She finished. ‘’Generally how it works, but you remembered my name, that’s something.’’ Liv said dryly.

‘’What are you doing here?’’

‘’Well at the moment being bored to death by your boyfriend’s pathetic attempts to bond with me.’’

Aaron glanced sceptically at Robert.

‘’Well you’re hardly the most witty conversationalist yourself.’’ Robert retorted, eliciting an eye roll from Liv and an admonishing glance from Aaron.

‘’Robert, can you leave us for a bit?’’

‘’Not until I know what she’s after.’’

‘’Robert, please.’’

‘'Yea Robert, please.’’ Liv mimicked, making a shushing motion with her hand. Seeing Aaron’s pleading expression, he reluctantly stood up and headed for the door.

‘’I’ll be out there when you need me.’’ Aaron nodded as he left, then sat down.

‘’Slim pickings round here if he’s your best option.’’ Liv said coolly, as the siblings eyed each other up.

‘’Leave off him Liv, and tell me why you’re here. Does Sandra know where you’ve gone?’’

‘’Nah, but she wouldn’t notice if the house blew off its foundations, a fifteen year old girl missing is nothing.’’

‘’Why are you here?’’ Aaron asked, trying to remain calm.

‘’Just wondering why you’re still keeping up the lie about our dad? Four years later and you’re still keeping him locked up.’’

‘’You know about…?’’

‘’The appeal? Yea, heard me mum talking about it to her dozy neighbour.’’

‘’It’s not a lie Liv. I know the last time I saw you I didn’t explain it well.’’

‘’It’s hard to explain a lie well.’’

‘’You were only eleven, you were too young to understand it.’’

‘’He’s our dad Aaron. I know you hated me mum for taking him off your mum, but how could you do this to him? He hit you once or twice, so what, you make up this whole other story to punish him?’’

‘’Liv, that’s not what happened, I'm sorry I didn't contact you to explain properly, but I'm telling you the truth.’’

‘’Well why should I believe ya? He never touched me.’’

‘’Then you’re the lucky one.’’ Aaron suddenly snapped, silencing the next retort about to come out of her mouth. ‘’Liv, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to….’’

‘’Getting a bit too close to the truth am I?’’ She piped up as she found her voice again.

‘’Ya know what, I don’t have to explain myself to you. I’ve done that enough over the years. I’m calling your mum to come and get you.’’ Aaron turned around and picked up his phone, but the slam of the door behind him spun him back, Liv gone from sight.

 

‘’What could she want?’’

‘’I don’t know Chas.’’

‘’Well did she say anything when it was just the two of you?’’

‘’I know I can charm most people into spilling their guts Chas, but I’m a bit rusty when it comes to young girls. Surprisingly enough, they’re not my usual chat buddies.’’ Robert said dryly as he stewed over his pint. The sound of the door caught his and Chas’s attention as Aaron’s sister blew past them like a hurricane. Robert jumped up from the booth, torn between the backroom and following Liv.

‘’You check on your son, I’ll go after her.’’ Robert commanded, Chas agreeing instantly, slightly surprised by his decision.

Robert headed out into the main street, thankful for his jacket as the brisk wind began to swirl around him. Trying to figure out where a fifteen year old girl would run to was proving surprisingly tricky, and he was on the verge of calling Victoria for her input when the sound of yelling from David’s snapped him back to the present.

‘’Oi, come back here.’’ David was yelling, broom in hand as a flash of blonde hair swooped past him, bottle of vodka in hand. Robert jogged down past the shop; promises to pay David back echoing behind him as he followed Liv in the direction of the cricket pavilion.

 

‘’Well well, only here ten minutes and you’re already winning friends and influencing people.’’ Robert said dryly once he caught up to Liv, who was clearly already well acquainted with the bottle of alcohol in her hands.

‘’What do you want?’’

‘’To make sure you’re alright.’’

‘’More like make sure I haven’t said anything to upset precious Aaron.’’

‘’And have you?’’

‘’Well if calling him a liar is upsetting, then guess what, job done.’’ She retorted as she took another swig.

‘’Ok, that’s enough of that.’’ Robert said gently as he prized the bottle from her. ‘’So tell me, what has Aaron been lying about?’’

‘’Our dad.’’ Liv replied. ‘’What he did to him.’’

‘’Who’s told you he’s lying?’’

‘’Nobody had to tell me. I know our dad, he wouldn’t do something like this.’’

‘’You know Gordon? Really?’’ Liv nodded with utter conviction. ‘’The same dad who ran out on you when you were just a little kid? The same dad who hasn’t spoken to you once, or tried to make an effort to see you? He’s the same dad you know so well?’’

‘’You know nothing about me and him.’’ Liv retorted, but her mask was beginning to slip.

‘’You’re right, I don’t. But I do know Aaron, and I believe him.’’

‘’Why are you so convinced he’s telling the truth? Bet you’ve only known him five minutes.’’

‘’You wouldn’t be far wrong there, but it only takes five minutes in his company to know he would never lie about something like this.’’

‘’But he’s my dad.’’ Liv argued back, as though hoping that would be enough.

‘’And your dad is supposed to protect you right? Well Aaron’s a dad too, and he just wanted to protect his daughter. He’s the best dad I know, and I think he’d like the chance to be a good big brother too. Maybe you should hear him out, and then decide for yourself if he really is lying.’’

‘’I don’t need to hear him out, he’s lying.’’

‘’Give him a chance Liv and I promise you, you won’t regret it. But if you do, I’ll drive you home myself.’’

Robert extended his hand and after a moment of hesitation, Liv clasped it, pulling herself to her feet. Robert chucked the half empty bottle in the bin then pulled out some mints, which Liv accepted with a scowl, the ghost of a smile peeping through.

 

Five minutes later, they were walking into the back room of the pub, where a restless Aaron was pacing and Chas was failing miserably at calming him down. The anxiety on his face turned to relief as he saw who was coming through the door.

‘’Liv, I’m sorry I snapped at you, are you okay?’’ Liv glanced at Robert, who gave her a told you so smile and then nodded in response to Aaron’s question.

‘’I want to know what happened with you and my dad.’’

‘’No, he shouldn’t have to go over it all again.’’ Chas interjected.

‘’Mum, it’s fine. I’m fine. Just leave us alone for a bit yea?’’

‘’C’mon Chas,’’ Robert said softly, nodding his head at the whispered thank you coming from Aaron as he guided Chas back in the direction of the pub.

Aaron gestured for Liv to sit down, and taking a seat opposite her, he inhaled a deep breath and began to speak, but the sound of his phone ringing interrupted him.

‘’Vic, yea now’s not the best time….yea I’m sorry I left so quickly, but I’ll explain later….yea I know, just tell Lilly I’ll see her in a bit.’’ Aaron hung up the phone and braced himself.

 

‘’Well I can see where Aaron gets his pacing tendencies from.’’ Robert muttered as Chas threatened to wear out the floor of the Woolpack.

‘’Well excuse me for being concerned, it’s been nearly two hours.’’

‘’And it’s a long story he has to tell Chas, but there’s no yelling, or plates smashing, so just give them time okay?’’

‘’It’s come to something when Robert Sugden is the voice of reason.’’ Chas said dryly, but she relented on the floorboards, choosing to grip the lager pump instead. Robert was relieved that his own worry wasn’t obvious, but he was half-tempted to take over the pacing relay when Aaron and Liv suddenly appeared from behind Chas, both with red-rimmed eyes and tear-stained jumpers.

‘’Love?’’ Chas questioned as she looked between them. ‘’Is everything…?’’

‘’We’re okay? Aren’t we?’’ he asked with a hint of uncertainty, but Liv nodded in agreement. ‘’I’ve called Sandra, Liv is gonna stay in my room tonight and we’ll bring her home in the morning.’’

‘’Why don’t you both stay at mine?’’ Robert offered. ‘’Better than sleeping above a pub for the night, no offence.’’ He directed at Chas, who smiled lightly in agreement.

‘’Are you sure?’’ Aaron asked.

‘’I wouldn’t offer if I wasn’t. You two go ahead.’’ He said, passing Aaron his keys. ‘’I’ll stop at Vic’s and rob some of her clothes for Liv to change into.’’

Aaron nodded and gestured for Liv to head out, but they were stopped by the arrival of Vic, Adam and Lilly, who raced into her father’s arms as soon as she saw him.

‘’Daddy, where did you run off to?’’ she quizzed him.

‘’I’m sorry munchkin, but I had a surprise visitor.’’ Encouraging Liv to come closer, he picked Lilly up. ‘’Lilly, this is my sister, Liv. Say hello.’’

After appraising the new arrival for some time, Lilly shook her head and buried herself in the crook of Aaron’s neck.

‘’Sorry, she’s not very open with strangers.’’ Aaron said by way of apology.

‘’She loved Robert.’’ Adam butted in unhelpfully, earning himself a kick to the shin from Victoria.

‘’Munchkin, look at me.’’ Lilly peered up at Aaron curiously. ‘’You don’t want to say hello to your auntie Liv?’’ Another head shake in response. Aaron sighed. ‘’Okay, maybe tomorrow?’’ A shrug. ‘’Well munchkin, auntie Liv is gonna stay at Robert’s tonight, so I’m just gonna help her settle in. I’ll be back in ten minutes, can you stay with granny Chas until then?’’

‘’I want you to stay here.’’ She pleaded.

‘’You won’t even notice I’m gone okay, I promise.’’

‘’C’mon sweetheart, daddy just wants to show her where everything is, he’ll be back in no time.’’ Chas stepped forward to extract her granddaughter from her vice like grip on her father, and she threw him a dirty look as he stepped closer to Liv. She turned her head away as he tried to kiss her on the cheek, and Aaron was baffled by the sudden hostility. He was tempted to stay and figure out his daughter’s mindset, but Chas nodded at him to leave and he reluctantly followed everyone else out the door to Mill cottage.

 

Twenty minutes later, once Liv was settled in Lilly’s room with borrowed clothes from Vic on the chair, Aaron, satisfied that his boyfriend and his sister were not going to kill each other in the immediate future, made his way back to the pub.

‘’She’s in the backroom,’’ Chas said as soon as he walked in. ‘’Hasn’t said a word to me.’’

‘’What’s up with her?’’

‘’A simple case of the green eyed monster me thinks.’’

‘’Jealous of who? Liv? Why?’’

‘’You need to ask her that yourself love.’’

Aaron made his way through the pub, but there was a distinct lack of tiny human in the back room. After checking the kitchen and finding Marlon alone, niggles of worry began to set in.

‘’Mum, she’s not in there.’’ He said, trying to disguise the panic in his voice.

‘’Your room?’’

Thirty seconds later, he was back at the foot of the stairs, shaking his head.

‘’But I only left her alone for five minutes.’’

‘’My daughter has gone missing mum, you shouldn’t have left her at all, not when she was upset.’’

‘’I’m sorry love, I didn’t think she’d go anywhere.’’

‘’What if something’s happened? I need to find her now.’’

 

‘’Can you just pick a channel Liv?’’ Robert was twitching as he watched Liv play fastest finger first with his remote, her feet curled up under her on his sofa. At least she had removed her shoes.

‘’Well if you’re gonna buy a package that has nine hundred channels, you should expect your guests to check each one, duh.’’

Robert’s next snide comment died on his lips as his phone vibrated in his hand.

‘’Please tell me you’re coming back soon.’’ Robert said softly down the phone, ignoring the snort coming from behind him, but his face paled at the words on the other end of the phone.

‘’Liv, stay here.’’

‘’What’s happened?’’ She asked, suddenly alert.

‘’Hopefully nothing’’ he replied as he pulled on his jacket and raced out the door.

 

‘’Don’t tell me to calm down Robert, my daughter is missing.’’

Aaron was pacing Victoria’s kitchen, fear etched on both of their faces. Vic was on the phone to Diane, trying to contain her tears.

‘’Yes, but if she’s as much like her father as I think she is, she’ll be hiding in plain sight. Don’t worry, we’ll find her.’’ Robert pulled Aaron towards him. ‘’Hey, look at me.’’ And he did, first try. ‘’I promise, we’ll bring her back.’’

‘’What if…?’’

‘’Nothing has happened to her. Look, here’s what we’ll do. Vic, you stay here in case she comes back. Chas is at the pub so that’s covered, then me, you and Adam will go out and find her. ‘’

‘’But it’s getting dark, and she’ll be scared.’’

‘’All the more reason to get going. I’ve got some torches back at mine, I’ll go get them and then we’ll have her back in no time.’’ Robert placed a soft kiss to Aaron’s temple and he was gone, running back to the Mill.

 

Ignoring Liv’s questions as he burst through the door, Robert glanced briefly out the kitchen window before beginning his torch search. He was mid-rummage through the cupboard under the sink when he registered it. The door to his garden shed slightly ajar. Taking a chance, and risking Aaron’s wrath if he was delayed for no reason, he ventured into the garden and pulled the door further open, sighing in relief at the sight in front of him.

‘’Well trouble, what are you doing hiding in my garden shed?’’ he asked softly as he crouched down beside his niece, pulling her towards him. ‘’Let’s get you inside eh? It’s freezing out here.’’ Lilly shook her head, so Robert took off his jacket and wrapped it around her, pulling out his phone and typing a quick text to Aaron as she snuggled closer to him.

I found her. She’s at mine. Give me twenty minutes with her and then come over.

‘’So, are you gonna tell me why you ran off on granny Chas?’’ Lilly shrugged. ‘’I know, I always want to run away from Chas too,’’ Robert said, eliciting a weak laugh, ‘’but I think there is a reason. You can tell me you know.’’

‘’Daddy doesn’t want me around anymore.’’ Lilly sobbed quietly as she looked up at Robert, who was staring back at her in shock.

‘’Why would you think that?’’

‘’He’s got his sister now. He won’t need me. I’m not his favourite.’’

‘’Lilly, look at me.’’ She looked up at him, and she was so much like her father in that moment it nearly overwhelmed him. ‘’You are the most important person in your daddy’s life. He loves you more than anyone else in the world.’’

‘’Really?’’

‘’Really.’’ Robert confirmed. ‘’Your daddy has a massive heart, and he has a little space for everyone he knows in it. I’ve got my own space, and so does your mum and Adam and granny Chas, but you have the biggest space of all.’’

‘’But now Liv will have a space too. I don’t want her to take some of my space.’’

‘’That won’t happen.’’

‘’Are you sure?’’

‘’Definitely. You see, daddy’s heart will just grow a bit bigger, so your space will still stay the same size, but now there will be an extra little space for Liv.’’

‘’So I’m still his favourite?’’

‘’You’re my munchkin.’’ The voice came softly from the doorway, and Aaron was standing there with tears in his eyes. Lilly jumped up from Robert’s embrace and ran towards him, hugging his legs tightly.

‘’I’m sorry I ran away daddy.’’ She sobbed quietly.

‘’And I’m sorry you thought I didn’t love you. But uncle Robert is right, you’re my favourite and you always will be.’’ Aaron replied as he crouched down and hugged his daughter. ‘’Now, would you like to come and say hello to your auntie Liv, she’d love to meet you.’’

Lilly looked at Robert and he winked at her, so she nodded hesitantly. Taking Aaron’s hand, they made their way into the house, where Liv was sitting apprehensively on the sofa, still confused as to what was going on.

‘’Let’s try this again shall we?’’ Robert started.

‘’Lilly, what do you want to say to your auntie Liv?’’

‘’Hi auntie Liv.’’ Lilly said shyly.

‘’Hi Lilly.’’ Liv replied gently. ‘’Can I have a hug?’’

Lilly looked at Aaron for confirmation, and when he nodded, she walked slowly forward and into Liv’s waiting arms, watched by a teary Aaron, who was now wrapped in his boyfriend’s embrace.

‘’Lilly,’’ Liv began once they parted. ‘’Would you like me to make you a hot chocolate and warm you up? I make really good hot chocolates with marshmallows and cream and sprinkles.’’ Lilly nodded more certainly at the suggestion, and Robert and Aaron watched as they made a mess of the Mill kitchen, Robert for once not even caring.

‘’Thank you.’’ Aaron whispered.

‘’For what?’’

‘’For being you.’’ He finished as he pressed a kiss to Robert’s jaw.

‘’Anything for you.’’ Robert softly replied as he tightened his grip on Aaron’s waist.

 

‘’So how was it?’’

They were wrapped around each other in bed, Lilly in her room with Liv, who after the hot chocolate offer was now the best person alive apparently, and they could suddenly not be parted.

‘’I told her everything.’’

‘’And she believed you?’’

‘’Yea. I think, well I thought I’d never see her again, but now suddenly, here she is. I definitely never thought anything good would come from Gordon being sent down, but I have a little sister now. She’s properly in my life, it’s weird.’’

‘’Well if she’s anything like my little sister you’ll be wanting to send her back in a week.’’

‘’Hey, that’s the mother of my child you’re insulting there.’’ Aaron teased lightly.

‘’I’m really proud of you ya know, going over it all again for her.’’ Robert said, suddenly serious.

‘’She deserved to hear the truth, properly this time, not dodging it like I did four years ago.’’

‘’Well from here on in, things can only get better.’’ Robert finished, pulling Aaron closer to him and pressing a kiss to his lips, as both of them, suddenly exhausted from the events of the day, drifted off to sleep.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

‘’What did the classifieds section ever do to you?’’

Aaron was stabbing furiously at the pages of the local paper, Robert watching him with intense curiosity from the other side of the portacabin until he could bear it no longer. He had to step in before the desk became Aaron’s next victim.

‘’What?’’ Aaron replied absentmindedly, as he continued to swirl his pen around the pages, piercing at random intervals.

‘’The paper? I know it’s gone up by 20p but you don’t need to have quite such a violent reaction.’’

‘’Very funny.’’

‘’So you gonna tell me what’s up or what?’’

‘’I’m moving out.’’

‘’Aaron I was joking.’’

‘’What?’’ Aaron finally looked up, his boyfriend gazing back at him questioningly. ‘’No, not out of here. Out of the pub.’’

‘’What’s brought this on?’’

‘’Well Lilly’s getting older now and needs more space, and when Adam and Vic get a baby their place will be even more crowded. Liv’s been here a lot these last few weeks and she wants to stay for longer each time, and I just think it’s about time I got my own place.’’

‘’How long have you been thinking this?’’

‘’A while. Bit old to be living in me mum’s spare room, and a pub isn’t the best place to raise a daughter is it?’’

‘’That explains the frantic classifieds circling.’’ Aaron nodded in confirmation. ‘’See anything in there?’’

‘’Nothing. Anything decent is miles from here, and I don’t want to be that far from Lilly or…’’ Aaron paused, and he could feel the blush rising in his cheeks, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the man sitting opposite him.

‘’Or what?’’

‘’Don’t make me say it.’’

‘’Oh I’m gonna.’’ Robert swung off his chair and came closer to Aaron, perching himself on his boyfriend’s desk. ‘’Or what, Aaron?’’

‘’Adam.’’ Aaron smirked. ‘’Marlon’s chips, Bob’s bacon sarnie. Rodney’s magic tricks, you know I love those…’’ Robert’s lips on his cut off Aaron’s next smart answer. They were warm, tender and demanding, but just as he was relishing the feeling, Robert pulled away teasingly.

‘’Or…?’’

‘’Or you. There, happy now?’’

‘’Very.’’ Robert smirked as he returned to his seat.

‘’I hate you.’’

‘’Not as much as I love you.’’ Aaron felt the blush rising again, and he had to look away to settle himself. ‘’Don’t worry, your perfect home is out there somewhere.’’

‘’Yea? You know a place I can live in?’’ He said it without thinking, but he didn’t miss the look that crossed Robert’s features, just for a second and then it was gone.

‘’I almost forgot, I have that meeting in Leeds to get to.’’ Robert said quickly as he grabbed his jacket. Placing a quick peck to Aaron’s cheek, he headed out the door just as Aaron realised what he said.

‘’Robert wait, I didn’t mean it like that.’’ The end of his sentence trailed off as the door swung shut behind him, and Aaron threw the paper at the wall in frustration, kicking himself for giving Robert the wrong idea.

 

 

Two hours later, and there was radio silence from Robert. No matter how forcefully Aaron stared at his phone, it remained resolutely silent. He had lost count of the number of times he had started to compose a text message to his boyfriend, only to delete it immediately. He kept seeing the look on Robert’s face, and it hurt more than he cared to admit. Yes, they had only been together a few months, but Aaron had occasionally allowed himself to imagine living with Robert, waking up together every morning, making breakfast, and watching trashy telly with no other place to be. It gave him a warm feeling just thinking about it, but clearly Robert did not feel the same way.

He was midway through writing another message when Adam came barrelling through the door like a bloody elephant as per usual, his usual excitable grin firmly in place.

‘’Alright bro?’’

‘’Where’ve you been all day?’’

‘’Been busy mate, this and that. Look I’ve got some news bro...’’ Adam’s next words were drowned out by the sound of Aaron’s phone beeping, and his heart dropped as he looked at the message from Robert.

Come to mine. We need to talk.

‘’Bro, where are you going?’’ Adam called after him, Aaron already halfway out the door, the last words echoing behind him.

 

 

Before he knew it, Aaron was outside the Mill, but suddenly his legs couldn’t carry him any further. Robert was ending it; that was the only explanation for the clipped text, and if Aaron stayed outside, then they were still together. He could still live in this bubble they had created for themselves. The bubble soon burst when the door opened suddenly in front of him, Robert looking at him curiously from inside the Mill hallway.

‘’You gonna stand out there all night or…?’’

‘’Erm yea, I mean no…’’ Aaron tentatively stepped forward into the house. Robert continued to look at him intently as he took in his surroundings, almost as though he was seeing it for the last time and wanted to soak it in.

‘’Aaron, are you okay?’’

‘’Look, if you’re just gonna end it then do it now, okay? Don’t drag it out.’’

‘’What are you on about?’’

‘’I saw your face when I mentioned moving in, but I didn’t mean it like that…’’

‘’Woah Aaron, hang on.’’ Robert suddenly twigged, and he grabbed his boyfriend by the hand. ‘’Come with me.’’

Robert led him upstairs and into the bedroom, hands over his eyes. He manoeuvred him into position, then removed his hands, leaving Aaron stood in front of a wardrobe.

‘’What do you see?’’

‘’A wardrobe?’’ Aaron answered, thoroughly confused.

‘’Notice anything else?’’

‘’It’s empty?’’

‘’Okay, you need to stop answering my questions with questions.’’ Robert sighed.

‘’Well if you weren’t being so bloody cryptic.’’ Aaron retorted.

‘’Okay, well why would it be empty Aaron?’’

‘’Because nobody had put any clothes in it yet.’’

‘’Because…?’’

Aaron stared incredulously at Robert, still struggling to understand, but Robert saw the moment he twigged.

‘’And the penny drops.’’

‘’You want me to move in?’’

‘’Yes, you muppet, what makes you think I didn’t?’’

''We've only been together a few months, didn't think it would have even crossed your mind.''

''It crossed my mind every time I had to watch you go back to the pub.'' Robert revealed, his confession sending Aaron's heart fluttering. ''Are you saying you never thought about it?'' Aaron shrugged shyly.

‘’Of course I have.'' Aaron admitted. But you just took off after what I said, and then I didn’t hear from you, and then your text was so…abrupt.’’ he finished, suddenly very nervous.

‘’I’m sorry about the text, I just got so excited about asking you to move in. Probably not the most romantic summoning, I’ll grant you.’’

‘’It’s okay, it’s just…well after you left so quickly...’’

‘’You thought I was lying about the meeting?’’

‘’I didn’t know what to think.’’

‘’The meeting was real. I had to rush off, someone very interesting had distracted me for too long and I was nearly late. But…follow me.’’ Robert said, leaving the bedroom and heading towards the second spare bedroom, still completely bare despite Robert having been settled for months now. ‘’After the meeting, I went to that furniture place on the high street and ordered another bed, I thought maybe Liv would like this to be her room while she’s here. She can decorate how she wants. I mean there are limits, I don’t want any emo teenager posters or satanic ritual art on my walls, but the odd bit of tat I won’t be opposed to…’’ Robert wasn’t able to finish his sentence, having been cut off by Aaron, who had twirled him around and was now kissing him like his life depended on it. Once they finally pulled apart, Aaron was looking at him in wide-eyed wonder.

‘’You would do that for me?’’

‘’Still don’t know what you mean to me eh?’’ Robert smiled in response. ‘’So, what do you think? Is that a yes?’’

‘’Well I dunno, I mean you haven’t even really asked…’’ Aaron smirked.

‘’Aaron Dingle, will you move in with me?’’

‘’Oh go on then.’’ Aaron couldn’t fight the smile on his face as he looked at Robert, who after searching his eyes to make sure it was real, pulled him into a crushing kiss, his arms snaking around him as he guided him backwards into their bedroom.

Chapter Text

Aaron was sat cross-legged on the back room floor, tossing his belongings haphazardly into an empty crisp box when Adam burst through the door.

‘’Mate, finally. I’ve been looking for you everywhere.’’ He exclaimed in an exasperated tone that he had clearly picked up from Vic.

‘’Where’s everywhere?’’ Aaron asked dryly.

‘’The café, the garage…’’

‘’And my actual home was your third option? Now bloody wonder my six-year old always beats you at hide and seek.’’ Aaron laughed.

‘’Hey I let her win. What’s all this anyway?’’ Adam asked, pointing at the overflowing box.

‘’Robert, well he asked me to move in with him, and I kinda said yes.’’ Aaron smiled, looking anxiously at Adam.

‘’Awh mate that’s brill news.’’

‘’Ya reckon?’’

‘’Definitely. And you’re not the only one with news you know.’’

‘’Oh yea mate, sorry.’’ Aaron replied, suddenly remembering Adam’s earlier words. ‘’What’s up?’’

‘’Me and Vic have got through to the next stage of the adoption process.’’

‘’That’s amazing news mate.’’ Aaron grinned.

‘’I’m glad you think so, because the next bit is where you come in.’’

‘’Oh yea, how’s that?’’

‘’The adoption agency need a letter of recommendation from someone. We figured because I’m Lilly’s stepdad, that maybe you could write one for us.’’

‘’Oh, um…’’ Adam didn’t miss the flash of hesitation that crossed Aaron’s face, and his own features dropped at the realisation.

‘’Mate, I thought you’d want to help us?’’

‘’No, it’s not…’’ Aaron was struggling to find words.

‘’Wow, cheers...’’ Adam turned to leave, but Aaron sprung up from his position, and ignoring the pins and needles in his legs, he grabbed the other man by the arm.

‘’No Adam, of course I’ll write it. Sorry, I just…well we both know I’m not the best with words, it was just a moment of doubt that’s all.’’

Adam sighed with relief, clapping Aaron on the back.

‘’Yes bro, knew you’d come through. I’m gonna go and tell Vic. ‘’ Adam beamed, barrelling out the door as quickly as he had come through it, leaving Aaron to slump on the couch, thoughts running rapidly through his head.

 

 

The Mill looked like the aftermath of a Dingle knees up, Robert thought to himself as he looked around at the carnage in front of him. Boxes were strewn everywhere and they just kept on coming. For someone who seemed to live in the same hoodie and jeans combination day in day out, Aaron seemed to have an abnormally large amount of stuff, but Robert supposed that some of it had to be Lilly’s things that had ended up at the pub. The lady in question was running riot around the house, throwing herself excitedly into the bubble wrap that lay all over the floor and laughing hysterically every time there was an extra loud pop from underneath her. It didn’t help that Liv, who had come over for the weekend was egging her on, wrapping her in the bubble wrap and then spinning her around, Lilly coming precariously close to knocking over Robert’s lamp on more than one occasion. He almost wished they still weren’t talking, that way they wouldn’t be conspiring together like a young Thelma and Louise.

 

As he watched them messing around, and saw Aaron coming in with the last of his things, he admittedly couldn’t keep the smile off his face. The Mill was too big for one person, and he was looking forward to having a warm family atmosphere back. He had missed it all those years away, and living with the Whites didn’t inspire much homeliness either. As he watched Aaron set down the last of his things, he couldn’t help but notice the slump in his boyfriend’s shoulders, the way he fobbed off Chas’s concerned looks and the way she glanced at him when he thought she wasn’t looking.

‘’Is that everything?’’ Robert asked as he approached them both on the other side of the room.

‘’Yep, that’s it, all done.’’ Aaron smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. Robert looked at Chas, who looked just as confused as he was. Taking the initiative, she spun round to Liv.

‘’So, what’s say we leave the boys to it and we have a girls’ night at the pub?’’

‘’But I thought I’d get to test out my room, see if the bed Robert bought me is half-decent.’’ Liv protested.

‘’Maybe tomorrow yea, your brother and I want the place to ourselves tonight, to talk.’’ Robert replied.

‘’Urgh, talk, is that what you old people are calling it these days? Impressionable teenager here.’’ Liv grimaced, eliciting a laugh from Chas, but Aaron remained silent.

‘’C’mon lets get out of here.’’ Chas interjected. ‘’Hang on, where’s Lilly got to?’’

Robert glanced around, momentarily worried until he saw a seemingly empty box squirming of its own accord.

‘’I dunno.’’ He said loudly. ‘’Must have gone home, but you ladies have a good night. I’m just gonna put this box in the rubbish.’’ He finished, pretending to lift the box when his niece sprung out of it, grinning manically at him and popping more bubble wrap in his face.

‘’Haha, got ya uncle Robert.’’ She chirped.

‘’Yes you did kiddo.’’ He laughed. ‘’So, you gonna have a girly night with granny Chas and auntie Liv?’’

‘’You wanna pester Marlon until he cooks you whatever you want don’t ya?’’ Chas asked, her granddaughter nodding excitedly as she clambered out of the box. ‘’C’mon then, let’s go. Bye love.’’ She said, giving Aaron a hug, Robert watching curiously as he waved her off. With the three girls gone, the house suddenly seemed very quiet.

‘’I know this is my first time living with a bloke, but I thought you’d be a bit more excited than this.’’ Robert attempted to joke as he looked at Aaron, but a knot was beginning to form in his stomach.

‘’What? No, of course I’m excited. Sorry.’’

‘’Then what is it? Something’s on your mind Aaron, and you can talk to me.’’

‘’Adam wants me to write a letter of recommendation for him and Vic, you know for the adoption people.’’

‘’Ok, so what’s the problem?’’

‘’I just…I want to do a good job, sound smart you know?’’

‘’Well as long as you don’t sign it baby kangaroo Tribbiani you’ll be fine.’’ Robert joked.

‘’What?’’

‘’Nothing, ignore me.’’ Aaron smiled weakly and Robert was instantly concerned. ‘’There’s more to it then just you sounding smart isn’t there?’’

‘’I just…’’ Aaron was shuffling on his feet suddenly, pulling his sleeves over his hands, and Robert was instantly by his side, wrapping himself around his boyfriend.

‘’You can tell me anything.’’

‘’When…Gordon came back, the first time, I didn’t handle it well at all. I was lashing out at everyone, mum, Paddy, Adam and Vic. I couldn’t even look at Lilly. Didn’t want to be anywhere near her. I was this cold person that I hated. I just…’’

‘’You were scared you’d turn out like him, so you pushed her away.’’ Robert finished, and Aaron was overwhelmed by how well his boyfriend could read him. ‘’Vic did mention something during the appeal, that you didn’t have anything to fight for?’’

‘’She was right.’’ Aaron nodded. ‘’I wanted to stay far away from Lilly. I thought it was for the best.’’

‘’I’m guessing Adam and Vic knocked some sense into you then?’’

‘’Yea Adam, well he was an incredible dad to her when I couldn’t be, and I want to tell the adoption agency that. I just, I don’t know how to say it. After everything him and Vic have done for me, I don’t want to let them down.’’

‘’Then just say how you feel.’’ Robert advised. ‘’You don’t have to go into detail about Gordon or anything, but you’ll know what to say, just don’t overthink it.’’

‘’You’re right. And thank you, for listening.’’ Aaron said softly, closing the distance between them to plant a soft kiss on Robert’s lips.

‘’Anytime. You sure you’re okay?’’

‘’Yes.’’ Aaron smiled. ‘’In fact, I think I’m ready to really experience what life is truly like in my new home.’’

‘’Well in that case…’’ Robert smirked at him, taking Aaron by the hand and leading him upstairs.

 

 

‘’Robert, wake up.’’

Robert blinked himself awake and slowly turned over, Aaron looking at him wide-eyed. Pulling himself into a sitting position, he stifled a yawn.

‘’What is it? Is everything okay?’’

‘’You said this is your first time living with a bloke?’’

‘’Yea, and? Is this what living with you is gonna be like? Waking me up in the middle of the night to repeat things I said hours earlier?’’ Robert asked sleepily as he tried to stifle another yawn.

‘’Robert, this is a big deal.’’

‘’It’s your first time living with a bloke too isn’t it?’’

‘’Yea, but…’’

‘’But what? You think it’s a big deal because I’m Bi? I’ve only ever lived with women before, is that it?’’

‘’I guess so.’’ Aaron agreed. ‘’Have you had boyfriends before?’’

‘’A couple.’’

‘’And you never wanted to live with them?’’

‘’No.’’

‘’Why not?’’

‘’I wasn’t in love with any of them.’’

Aaron was floored. Robert had always expressed his love for Aaron easily, had never hidden it away once people knew about them, but actually hearing him say he was in love with Aaron was a whole other sensation and his heart fluttered a little as he looked over at his yawning boyfriend, now feeling immensely guilty that he had woken him up.

‘’Aaron?’’ It was only when he looked back at Robert that he realised he had been quiet for several minutes.

‘’Sorry, just thinking.’’

‘’What?’’

‘’You’re in love with me.’’ Aaron said shyly, the words melting over him as he looked at Robert, trying to fight his grin.

‘’Won’t be for much longer if you don’t let me sleep.’’ Robert retorted, but his words had no heat and he was trying to fight his own grin.

‘’I’m sorry, go to sleep Rob.’’ Robert shimmied back down under the covers, stretching his arm out so Aaron could snuggle into the crook of his neck. Placing a kiss to Aaron’s temple, he wrapped his arm around his waist.

‘’Goodnight Aaron.’’

‘’Night Rob.’’ Aaron leaned up a little closer, so his mouth was at Robert’s ear. ‘’I’m in love with you too.’’ He whispered, and he could feel the crinkle of Robert’s cheek as he broke into a grin. Aaron pushed himself further into his nook, and linked his fingers in Robert’s as they both fell asleep.

Chapter Text

‘’Shit.’’

A crumpled up ball of paper flew across the portacabin, narrowly missing Robert as he came through the door.

‘’Woah, since when am I target practise?’’

‘’Sorry, it’s not you. It’s this bloody letter.’’

‘’Not coming along so well then?’’ Robert asked as he picked up the dozen paper balls littered over the floor and dumped them in the bin.

‘’I keep trying to just jot things down, reasons I know they’d make good parents, but everything just sounds daft.’’

‘’I bet it doesn’t.’’ Robert said softly as he perched next to Aaron. ‘’You’re just overthinking things.’’

‘’It doesn’t help that Vic keeps texting me every five minutes asking me how it’s coming. ‘’

‘’What have you told her?’’

‘’I haven’t replied.’’ Aaron admitted. ‘’That munchkin of mine even stole Vic’s phone and rang me to ask why I was ignoring mummy. It’s getting out of hand.’’

Just at that moment, Adam appeared in the doorway, beaming at Aaron and the blank paper in front of him.

‘’Alright boys, how’s that letter coming bro? Ready to write that masterpiece?’’

‘’He’s not writing the defining British novel Adam, it’s a letter of recommendation.’’ Robert interjected.

‘’I know, but it needs to be a masterpiece if they’re gonna let me have a kid.’’ Adam joked feebly.

‘’Oh Adam can you just give it a rest for five minutes?’’ Aaron snapped, instantly regretting it when he saw the look on his friend’s face. ‘’I’m sorry.’’

‘’Adam, give us a sec yeah?’’ Robert suggested. Adam nodded and headed out the door, Aaron’s outburst not quite forgiven if the door slam was anything to go by.

‘’He hates me doesn’t he?’’ Aaron asked quietly.

‘’Of course he doesn’t. He’s stressed, you’re stressed, but it’ll be forgotten soon. Look, here’s what you do: go home and write the letter in peace. Leave your phone here so there’s no distractions and if anyone calls, I’ll just tell them you’re on a scrap run.’’

‘’Doesn’t solve the problem of actually figuring out what to write though.’’

‘’Well, just pretend you’re talking to me.’’ Aaron scoffed, but Robert pushed on. ‘’Remember all those times you told me how Vic was a natural mum, how good Adam was, how they made a great team?’’ Aaron nodded. ‘’Well just pretend you’re writing me a letter, telling me all these things. Just leave out all the smutty talk yea?’’ Robert winked, and Aaron instantly relaxed.

‘’Guess it can’t hurt to try. Can’t be any worse than what I’m doing now.’’

Aaron gathered his things except his phone and pecked Robert on the lips as he left the yard. Adam came in moments later, looking curiously at Robert.

‘’I know this is a big deal for you and Vic, but lay off him yea? It means a lot for him to get this right for you, and he doesn’t need reminding every two minutes.’’ Robert said firmly.

‘’I just want it to go well Rob.’’

‘’And Aaron will come through, just let him do it at his pace.’’ Robert said kindly.

‘’Where is he gone now?’’

‘’Scrap run, needed to clear his head. Give him time and you’ll get your letter.’’

 

Aaron was pacing the Mill kitchen, the blank page and pen staring daringly at him from the table. Robert’s words were floating around in his head.

Just pretend you’re talking to me.

He saw Robert’s face in front of him, the soft way his eyes crinkled as he listened to Aaron talk about family life with Vic, Adam and Lilly. He saw the pride in his eyes as Aaron praised Vic’s motherly manner, and the scoff at Adam’s playfulness. Finally, inspiration struck. Taking a motivating swig of his tea, Aaron settled down to write.

 

Three weeks passed by, the adoption agency remaining frustratingly silent in that time, save for an acknowledgement email to Victoria that they had received Aaron’s letter. Adam had tried to prize the contents of the letter from Aaron on more than one occasion, but he clammed up each time, shaking his head and awkwardly changing the subject. Even Robert had casually tried to ask once, but got only a stoic silence in response. Victoria was constantly on edge, burning food more than once at the pub, and it was only down to Chas and Diane’s awareness of the situation that she still had a job to go to. Even Lilly had picked up on the unsettling atmosphere, but Robert managed to keep her calm, whisking her away for Disney marathons at the Mill every time Vic and Adam seemed the most on edge.

 

 Nearly a month after Aaron’s letter was received, he and Robert arrived at the scrap yard to find Victoria and Adam in the portacabin, Vic sobbing in her husband’s arms.

‘’Vic, what is it? Is everything okay?’’ Robert asked urgently.

‘’The adoption agency called.’’ Adam replied through his wife’s sobs, glancing at Aaron, who felt a hole open up in his chest at the look on Vic’s face.

‘’And, what did they say?’’ He asked hesitantly, the letter he wrote floating at the front of his mind.

Vic finally looked up, her mascara running as she dried her tears on a tissue Robert passed her.

‘’They said…’’ She took a deep breath. ‘’There’s a pregnant girl in Manchester, and she’s picked us.’’ She descended into sobs again, but she was smiling through the tears, and Aaron felt a surge of relief pass through him. Robert pulled his little sister into a crushing hug, and Aaron did the same with Adam, as Vic’s happy sobs continued to echo through the portacabin.

 

 

‘’Here.’’

They were lying sprawled across the couch at the Mill, having just come back from telling Lilly about her new little brother. Robert’s ears were still ringing from her excited yelps, her devious mind already constructing ways to embarrass the new arrival with fancy dress outfits and ridiculous names. Leaving Vic and Adam to calm her down, they stopped by the pub to share the news with Chas before making it to the Mill and collapsing in a heap together, which was where Robert intended on staying when Aaron pulled an envelope from his pocket and passed it to him.

‘’What’s this?’’

‘’The letter I wrote. I made a copy. I know you wanted to read it, so here you go.’’

‘’Aaron, this is yours. I don’t have to read it if you want to keep it private.’’

‘’And I’m grateful for that. But I want to share this with you.’’

Robert pulled the letter out of the envelope, but just as he was about to unfold it, Aaron stopped him.

‘’You’ve changed your mind?’’ Robert asked softly.

‘’No I…I just want you to read it by yourself. I’ll be in our room, sorry I just can’t watch you.’’

‘’Ok, I’ll come and find you when I’m done.’’ Robert said softly, and Aaron peeled himself away. Once he had disappeared from view up the stairs, Robert unfolded the letter and began to read.

Hello, I’m not sure who I am supposed to address this to, so just, hi. Adam Barton asked me to write a letter of recommendation for him and his wife Victoria to finish their adoption application. I’ve never written one of these before, but a much smarter man than me told me to just pretend I am telling someone I love about Adam and Vic and how great they are as parents, so that’s what I’m gonna do.

I’ve known Adam and Vic a long time, and they are my best mates. Victoria is actually the mother of my six-year old daughter Lilly, and to be honest I never thought I’d ever have children, but I am so happy that Vic is the mother of my child. She is a natural born mother, and watching her raise my daughter has been the best thing that I have ever seen. She is funny, kind, compassionate, and she loves with her whole heart. Lilly is the little lady she is today because of her mother. She gets all her best bits from her, and I can’t imagine Victoria not being a mum. It’s in her veins.

As for Adam, he’s silly, and excitable, but he is the best stepfather I could ever see for my daughter. I grew up with a father who didn’t love me like he was supposed to. And for a long time, I thought having this man as my father meant I was damaged, or that I couldn’t be a good dad myself. But watching Adam with my little girl, I have learned that being a good dad has nothing to do with genes or biology. Adam has been an incredible father to Lilly at times when I struggled to be, and I never thought I’d be so lucky to have my best mate as my little girl’s stepfather.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this; Anyone can be a mother or a father, but it takes a special kind of person to be a mummy or a daddy, and two better parents you won’t find anywhere. These two people have changed my life and my daughter’s life for the better, and they will do the same with any child that you entrust to their care. They are natural parents, and I promise you that no child will ever go a day without feeling loved if you place them with Vic and Adam. And I’ll keep Adam in line when his Disney obsession starts to get out of hand!

Please consider them, you won’t regret it.

Aaron Dingle.

 

 

‘’Hey.’’

Robert was standing in the bedroom doorway, tears in his eyes, and Aaron immediately tensed.

‘’You’ve finished?’’ Robert nodded. ‘’You hated it?’’

‘’It was perfect.’’ Robert said softly, making his way to the bed and lying down next to Aaron.

‘’Not too sappy?’’

‘’Just sappy enough.’’

‘’Why are you crying?’’ Aaron asked, as he wiped a stray tear from Robert’s cheek.

‘’Because all those things you said about Vic and Adam, they’re true of you too.’’

‘’No, they’re not.’’

‘’You’re an incredible father Aaron. Lilly is the girl she is because of you too, don’t put yourself down.’’

Aaron blushed furiously at Robert’s words, pulling himself in closer to his boyfriend, but something about Robert’s stance felt wrong.

‘’Rob, what is it?’’

‘’I’ve been thinking, after reading your letter.’’

‘’Yea?’’

‘’You said about Gordon not loving you the way he was supposed to.’’

‘’I know, I wasn’t gonna write anything about him…’’

‘’No, it’s not that.’’

‘’Then what is it?’’

‘’You shared this letter with me. I need…no, I want to share something with you, about my father.’’

Aaron couldn’t fight the tears as Robert talked about Jack. He winced as his boyfriend told him about the first boy he ever kissed, about the beating he got as a result, and how their relationship was never the same after that. Once Robert finished speaking, Aaron linked their fingers together and pulled him closer, pressing their foreheads together.

‘’So, I guess my father didn’t love me the way he was supposed to either.’’

‘’Guess not.’’ Aaron agreed. ‘’He missed out on a pretty special person ya know.’’

‘’Don’t, Aaron.’’

‘’It’s true. I don’t want you to put yourself down either. You’re incredible Robert, look at all the things you’ve done for me, and I’ve done nothing like that for you.’’

‘’You let me be myself Aaron, and you let me love you. That’s all I need.’’

‘’Thank you for telling me.’’

‘’Thank you for being you.’’ Robert kissed Aaron softly, and they just lay on the bed together in the silence, their fingers still linked.

 

 

Three months later, and Aaron couldn’t believe they were here again already. Lilly was seven, and the Mill was a hive of activity as they got ready for her party, Keepers not as option as Vic and Adam prepared for the arrival of their son, half-built cots and baby clothes covering every square inch of their kitchen and living room.

‘’Thanks Rob, for having the party here.’’ Vic said as she picked her way through the doorway, stacks of party supplies in her hand.

‘’How’s the prep going for the new addition?’’

‘’Slowly, but we’re nearly there. I just wish Adam would let someone help with the cot. And by someone I mean Aaron, because you’ll just shout instructions at him until he tries to punch you in the face.’’ Vic finished, recognising the look on Robert’s face.

‘’Well if you change your mind…’’ Robert smirked. ‘’You want a hand?’’

‘’There’s more stuff outside.’’

Two hours later, and the party was in full swing. Lilly was in her element running around dressed as Wonder Woman, Rob’s carefully drip-fed suggestions of a superhero themed party paying off to his immense satisfaction, despite Adam’s protests. Vic was just checking on the food when there was a knock at the door. Glancing at her watch, she looked on apprehensively before escaping the kitchen as Robert made his way to the door. Pulling it open, he stepped back in shock, the look on his face no doubt mirrored by the person opposite him.

‘’Well this is a surprise. Nice of Vic to tell me you were coming. It’s been a long time bro.’’ Ignoring Andy’s look of shock, Robert turned his attention to the person next to his brother, looking just as stunned.

‘’Hello Katie.’’

 

 

‘’So, the great Robert Sugden returns to the village. Vic said you’d set up home here. Done well for yourself I see.’’ Katie remarked as she glanced around the Mill.

‘’Heard the same about you. Stables still standing then?’’ Robert retorted.

‘’Of course. I’d invite you to come visit, but I don’t want you there.’’

‘’Katie, just leave it.’’ Andy interjected.

‘’Yes Katie, listen to your husband.’’

‘’At least he can still call himself that.’’ Katie smirked. ‘’Heard your wife saw sense and scarpered, not a moment too soon in fact.’’

‘’Oh, that the official party line is it? She left me?’’

‘’Oh please, like it’s gonna be anything else. So tell me Robert, what bimbo did she catch you with? I know the secretary is a cliché but I wouldn’t put anything past you.’’

‘’No, no bimbo Katie. Sorry to disappoint you, but once you’ve had one dumb blonde you’ve had them all.’’ Robert snapped back.

‘’Robert, that’s enough.’’ Andy chimed in.

‘’Is everything okay here?’’ Aaron appeared behind them all, glancing at Robert for confirmation. ‘’Good to see you both, thanks for coming.’’

‘’Thanks for having us, sorry we didn’t make it last year.’’ Andy started.

‘’Yea thanks Aaron. Can’t say much for the company you’re keeping though.’’ Katie added.

‘’Katie was just asking me about Chrissie.’’ Robert informed Aaron, who looked back at him, bemused.

‘’And what did you tell her?’’

‘’Not much.’’ Katie interrupted. ‘’Though I’m sure Robert is about to fill us in. So you left this Chrissie then? Found yourself a new poor sod to fool yet?’’

‘’Yes, as it happens, but there is definitely no fooling this one.’’ Robert said cryptically.

‘’Well then, I can’t wait to meet them.’’ Katie snarled.

‘’Hi.’’ Aaron stepped forward, extending his hand while Robert watched on smugly, feeling a sense of pride at the bewildered look on Andy and Katie’s faces.

‘’You two?’’ Andy gasped.

‘’Guess I’m not the only one Vic kept in the dark then?’’ Robert laughed.

‘’But you’re not even gay?’’ Andy said.

‘’Wow Andy, you’ve gotten more astute. You’re right, not gay. Bisexual.’’ Robert confirmed.

‘’You’re not serious? Aaron, what are you thinking?’’ Katie exclaimed.

‘’I thought I’d already had one Sugden, why not have another.’’ Aaron smirked.

‘’He’s gonna make a mug of you Aaron, you don’t know him.’’ Katie chimed back.

‘’Actually Katie, it’s you that doesn’t know him. I know he treated you unkindly once, but that was ten years ago, and if you can’t keep a lid on your teenage bitterness then you may as well leave, because I will not have you talk to my boyfriend like that in our home.’’

‘’Your home?’’ Andy quizzed as he took another look around.

‘’Yes, our home.’’ Aaron repeated, ‘’so either be civil or leave. This is my daughter’s party, and I won’t have you ruin it.’’

‘’Then we’ll keep quiet, won’t we Katie?’’ Andy asked, nudging his wife, who grimaced in response before shrugging her shoulders.

‘’Good, now who’s ready to see the birthday girl?’’ Aaron asked, and Robert was overwhelmed at the kindness of the man beside him, so quick to move on and start over.

 

Katie and Andy hovered in the garden, watching the party unfold before them. Though they wouldn’t admit it, neither of them could take their eyes off Robert. Seeing the way he interacted with Aaron and Lilly, Andy knew instantly that Robert was serious about them, a conclusion Katie refused to acknowledge. Leaving her to stew in the corner, he made his way over to Robert, who was taking a break from ‘training’ Lilly to fight like an Amazon.

‘’She really loves you.’’ Andy admitted as he stood next to his brother, both of them watching Lilly demonstrate her newfound skills to Chas.

‘’The feeling’s mutual.’’ Robert admitted.

‘’So, you and Aaron?’’

‘’Don’t start, Andy.’’

‘’I’m not. I’ve seen you together. He looks happy. I haven’t seen that in a while.’’

‘’What you’re really saying is; don’t mess it up, and I won’t.’’

The silence between them grew very heavy all of a sudden and Andy was desperate to break it.

‘’Who’s he?’’ he asked, looking at the man next to Chas.

‘’New fiance, whirlwind romance, met him at a brewery convention apparently.’’ Robert explained sceptically.

‘’So, any other news I’ve missed?’’

‘’Aaron has a sister now. Well, he always had, but she’s turned up recently.’’

‘’Oh yea?’’

‘’Yea, Liv. She’s a right handful, terrorising the village whenever she’s here and bringing Lilly along for the ride, but she makes Aaron happy.’’

‘’Not here today though?’’

‘’Her mum took her on holiday after her exams, coming next week for birthday party round two, god help us.’’

Lilly called for her uncle Andy at that point, probably to show off her skills to him, and Robert ushered him over, Katie taking the chance to sidle up to him now, rolling her eyes at him.

‘’So, you’ve got quite the perfect life now haven’t you?’’

‘’And you’re still holding a grudge.’’

‘’He’s too good for you.’’ Katie said, noticing the way Robert watched Aaron.

‘’I know.’’

‘’Wow, Robert Sugden admitting someone is better than him, that’s a first.’’

‘’That’s what love does to you I guess.’’ Robert said without a hint of sarcasm, causing Katie to step back in surprise. Finding her feet again, she watched him intently.

‘’What would Jack Sugden say if he saw you now?’’

‘’I reckon he’d be proud of the man his son is.’’ Aaron interrupted as he approached them, causing Robert to break out a relieved smile. ‘’The munchkin wants to cut the cake, you ready?’’

‘’Always. Bye Katie.’’

 

 

The door slammed shut behind the last straggler, and Aaron wanted to collapse in a heap on the couch, but groaned when he saw the state of the kitchen. Knowing if he didn’t do it now, he’d never do it, he began putting the remaining food in the fridge as Robert entered from the garden with Lilly’s presents, stacking them in a neat pile to give her the following day.

‘’So, it all went well today yea? One happy birthday girl, that’s mission accomplished I’d say.’’ Robert said proudly.

‘’Yea, and no murders committed, despite the surprise arrivals, so that’s definitely a win.’’ Aaron chirped in response.

‘’Thank you, for the things you said today.’’

‘’You deserve to have someone fight your corner.’’

‘’You know, you’re really hot when you’re playing the protective boyfriend.’’ Robert smiled as he wrapped his arms around his boyfriend.

‘’Well someone had to tell them to do one.’’ Aaron replied as he stroked Robert’s arms. ‘’They can’t come in here and talk to you like that in your own home.’’

‘’You’re the only one who gets to talk to me like that.’’ Robert smirked.

‘’Been doing it since the day we met. Can’t believe it was this time last year.’’

‘’Who’d have thought we’d be here now, shacked up together, living in sin.’’

‘’Not me, thought you were a right arse the first time we met.’’

‘’Do you mean at Vic’s house, or the carpark?’’ Robert teased.

‘’So you did recognise me then?’’ Aaron asked, remembering Robert’s nonchalance at Lilly’s last birthday. ‘’I thought you were too arrogant to give me a second thought.’’

‘’How could I ever forget the first time we met? Think I fancied you even then.’’ Robert admitted, causing Aaron to blush.

‘’You’re such a sod.’’

‘’You wanted me too, admit it. Oh, come here, you’ve got some icing...’’ Robert pulled his boyfriend forward and kissed the pink, sugary concotion off Aaron’s jaw, his lips tingling with the feeling of his stubble, before continuing to kiss down his neck. Aaron pushed him off lightly, fighting his grin and trying to look stern.

‘’Plenty of time for that later, we need to clean this mess up. The place looks like a unicorn threw up over it.’’

‘’We can do that later. I can think of more fun things to do upstairs.’’

‘’Since when does Robert Sugden willingly leave mess behind when he goes to bed?’’

‘’Since he had better things to do?’’ Robert smirked.

‘’Ten minutes, that’s all it’ll take to clean up this mess and then I’m all yours.’’ Aaron compromised, placing a promising kiss on his lips.

‘’Fine, have it your way.’’ Robert watched Aaron as he loaded the dishwasher in one swift movement and then smiled as he pulled out a bin bag and started chucking all the empty sweet wrappers into it. He still had some icing on his jaw, and Robert couldn’t hide his grin as he watched him potter about the kitchen.

‘’Are you gonna just stand there and watch me do this all meself?’’ Aaron pouted as he continued to clear the kitchen.

‘’No, I’m helping.’’ Robert replied as he grabbed another bin bag, but he continued to watch Aaron tidy up, humming to himself as he worked.

‘’Aaron?’’

‘’Hmm…’’ Aaron replied absentmindedly.

  

‘’Marry me.’’

Chapter Text

''Chas?'

''Yea?'

‘’Are you alright pet?’’

They were stood outside, the winter wind biting at them as Diane waited for an answer to her question.

‘’What? Yea…I’m fine.’’

‘’I know you may not want to, but I’m here if you need to talk.’’

‘’Don’t think there’s much else to say is there? Can’t force someone to marry you if they don’t want to eh? Just wish he had realised he still loved that ex-wife of his before we booked the honeymoon.’’

‘’Well come inside and let’s pop the kettle on, big day ahead. No point shivering on your doorstep when there is someone waiting to be wed''

Taking a quick glance towards the Mill, Diane led the way back into the pub, out of the chilly December wind.

 

 

Robert watched as the bin bag Aaron was holding collapsed on the floor, scrunched up sweet wrappers floating out of it onto the floor, then looked back up into the flabbergasted expression on his boyfriend’s face.

‘’What did you just say?’’ Aaron stuttered.

‘’Marry me.’’

‘’What? Why?’’

‘’Because I love you, and I want to spend my life with you.’’ Robert replied, confused as to what other reason there would be.

‘’No, no you don’t…’’

‘’Don’t what?’’

‘’Want to marry me, I’m just…me...’’ Aaron said, suddenly shy, breaking away from Robert’s gaze.

‘’And you’re everything.’’

‘’Oh come on, what do I have to offer? I only know about scrap and cars, and I don’t have two pennies to rub together. You're an idiot if you want to marry into that.’’

‘’All the more reason to say yes then.’’

‘’How’s that?’’

‘’Well if I’m as much of an idiot as you say I am, then I’ll need my husband to keep me in line won’t I?’’

Aaron’s heart fluttered wildly at Robert’s use of the word husband, and he continued to stare at him, the sincerity in his voice and eyes unmistakeable.

‘’You’re actually serious?’’

‘’I never joke when it comes to you Aaron.’’

Aaron suddenly felt unable to breathe, his heart pounding out of his chest.

‘’Say it again.’’

Robert took a step forward, linked his fingers through Aaron’s and looked him straight in the eye.

‘’Aaron Dingle, will you marry me?’’

Aaron could feel the tears coming, the prickling behind his eyes already starting as he searched Robert’s face for even a flicker of doubt, but there was nothing.

‘’Yes, yes I will marry you.’’

With those six little words, Aaron felt air rushing to his lungs, air that soon evaporated as quickly as it had come as Robert surged forward, pushing their lips together in an all-consuming kiss as tears fell from both of their eyes.

 

 

Aaron was staring at his reflection in the mirror, his bedroom at the pub feeling small and sparse after so long spent living at the Mill. He looked down at his bare ring finger, the memories of the proposal flooding his mind, his left hand feeling strangely heavier without the engagement ring Robert had so tenderly placed on there five months earlier.

‘’We can get them engraved if you want? I had some ideas, but I want us to decide together. Or not, if it’s too sappy.’’

‘’It’s not too sappy.’’

He remembered the look of love on Robert’s face as he compared their rings, snapping a picture to send to his nan in Spain, and wondered what Robert was doing now. He had woken that morning with a sudden ache in his chest at Robert’s absence, an ache he hadn’t felt for a long time, and he chastised himself for being so silly.

Chas knocking softly on his open door interrupted his thoughts.

‘’Hey love, how are you feeling?’’

‘’Fine mum.’’

‘’Are you sure?’’

‘’Mum, you don’t have to keep checking up on me every five minutes.’’

‘’I know love, but you’re my little boy. I can’t help it.’’

‘’I know, and I’m grateful but I should really be the one asking you these questions. You know, I’d understand if you didn't want to come…’’

‘’No, not a chance. It’s my own bloody fault for getting engaged to a idiot I met at a brewery convention for god’s sake. I am not staying away today.’’

‘’But if it’s too hard, if it's a reminder…’’

‘’And miss out on the biggest day of my son’s life? No wayNow, are you all ready?’’

Aaron took one last look in the mirror, smoothed his suit, tweaked his tie once more for luck and smiled.

‘’I’m ready.’’

‘’Then let’s get you married.’’

 

 

‘’Diane, where have you been?’’

‘’I’m sorry pet, last minute check up on Chas, still a bit raw for her.’’ Diane replied as she came bursting through the door of the Mill. ‘’How’s the groom?’’

‘’Pacing, but trying to act like he’s not pacing.’’ Vic responded. ‘’In all my life I don’t think I’ve seen Robert nervous, but he’s terrified.’’

‘’Probably hoping nobody gets run over at this one.’’ Adam piped up from the sofa where he was feeding JJ. ‘’Sorry, too soon?’’ He asked, cowering from his wife’s expression.

‘’Why don’t you take our son and go check on the other groom?’’ Victoria suggested firmly. ‘’Make sure you’re fulfilling all those best man duties?’’

Adam shuffled off the sofa, taking his son with him. Getting a goodbye kiss from Victoria, he scarpered out of the Mill before he could say anything else offensive.

‘’Speaking of best men, when is the other one arriving?’’ Diane asked.

‘’Text me this morning, got caught in traffic but should be here any minute.’’ Vic replied.

‘’And Katie?’’

‘’Took some persuading apparently, but she’s coming too and is prepared to be civil, believe it or not.’’

‘’Well, let’s hope it stays that way.’’ Diane replied. ‘’Now where is that stepson of mine?’’

 

 

‘’I think you should invite Andy to the wedding.’’

They were lying in bed, legs tangled together and a pen dangling precariously from Robert’s mouth, notebook wedged between his and Aaron’s thighs as they finalised their guest list.

‘’Have you made some kind of promise to give the village gossips a show by having my estranged brother and snarky sister-in-law in attendance?’’ Robert quipped.

‘’What can I say? Brenda broke out her famous chocolate banana cake and I was putty in her hands.’’ Aaron joked as Robert snorted beside him. ‘’But seriously Rob, don’t you think it might be a nice way to start over?’’

‘’I don’t know…’’

‘’Look, I know things with Katie aren’t great, but you and Andy seemed to get along at Lilly’s birthday, got to mean something right?’’

‘’Can I think about it?’’

‘’Of course. It’s up to you. I just think it would be a nice idea. Besides, I’m doing this for your ego ya know.’’

‘’Oh yea? How’s that?’’

‘’Well your side of the church will look pretty sad compared to mine. You’ll have Diane and Vic, and I’ll have everyone else. I’m pretty popular you know.’’ Aaron joked.

‘’Wow, will you even make it into the church with a head that big?’’

‘’Well you can’t jilt me now, you’ll need to find out the answer to that question.’’ Aaron smiled, pressing a soft kiss to Robert’s jaw. ‘’Think about it, that’s all.’’

 

 

‘’So, this is what Victoria meant by pacing but trying to not look obvious about it.’’

Robert stopped mid-pace, Diane watching him affectionately by the door.

‘’Can’t help it.’’

‘’You’re nervous.’’ Diane noted.

‘’Terrified.’’ Robert replied honestly.

‘’Why pet? You and Aaron love each other.’’

‘’What if I mess it up Diane? Aaron, he’s so good, too good for me, and I don’t want to let him down.’’

‘’And you won’t pet. You know my father always used to say that when you find the person who is too good for you, you marry them. That’s what you’re doing. You’re made for each other Robert.’’

‘’You’re sure?’’

‘’I’m sure.’’

Robert felt a surge of relief go through him.

‘’Andy?’’

‘’Stuck in traffic, but nearly here.’’ There was a knock at the door, and the sound of Victoria’s excited yelps drifted upstairs. ‘’Think that’s him.’’

Robert descended the stairs and found Andy smiling at the bottom, Katie hovering hesitantly nearby.

‘’Andy, I’m glad you’re here. Both of you.’’ He added, looking at Katie, who shrugged awkwardly, but a glare from Andy straightened her.

‘’Thank, for the invite.’’ Diane sensed the slight tension and pulled her away, chatting to her about the stables and the drive in the corner.

‘’You ready bro?’’

‘’Yea, I am.’’ Robert replied. ‘’Thank you Andy, for agreeing to this, I didn’t think you’d ever be stood next to me on my wedding day.’’

‘’Rob, the past is in the past. We’re both happy now. Of course I’m here for you.’’

‘’So, ready to go?’’

Robert nodded.

‘’I’m ready.’’

 

 

Aaron was hovering outside the church, Adam chatting animatedly beside him as he bounced JJ up and down on his hip, but he wasn’t listening to a word he was saying. How could he be this nervous? He glanced up at the church, trying to steady his breathing. The church wouldn’t have been his choice, or Robert’s for that matter, but Diane and Chas seemed keen, and they decided to compromise on it for them, having no better ideas themselves.

‘’Well, I can confirm that your groom is inside waiting for you.’’ Chas reported as she came out of the church. Aaron felt butterflies start to wage war inside him as Adam looked at him expectantly. All he could see in his head was Robert, and he was struggling to hide his smile as he thought of him standing up there, probably fidgeting if Aaron knew him correctly.

The slam of a car door behind him roused him from his reminiscing, and he turned around to see his little sister running towards him, Sandra flapping around frantically behind her.

‘’Aaron, sorry we're late.’’

‘’Liv, I didn’t think you were gonna make it.’’

‘’Sorry, stupid traffic, and my mum couldn’t find the keys to the car for ages.’’ Liv huffed as she came closer to Aaron. ‘’Still time to back out ya know.’’ She smirked.

‘’Cheers for the support sis, but I think I'll stick with him.’’

‘’I suppose he’s not the worst person you could have chosen. I mean he did let me paint that mural on the wall of my room, and he is quite fun to wind up.’’

‘’A ringing endorsement as always.’’

‘’Seriously though, I’m happy for you Aaron.’’ Liv was suddenly more solemn and soft than Aaron had ever seen her before, and it brought tears to his eyes. Pulling her into a crushing hug, he kissed her softly on the head before ushering her inside.

‘’Go on, we’ll see you in there.’’

 

 

Robert was desperate to pace some more, but decided to focus on staring at the church door instead. He had seen Liv enter with a smile on her face, which turned into a don’t mess it up face as she made eye contact with Robert, before sticking her tongue out and taking her seat next to Victoria. As Robert waited for the doors to open once more, he decided to steady himself by thinking of the night before.

‘’C’mon then, pub. Last night as a single man, you need to spend it apart, let’s go.’’

‘’Mum, is there really any need for this?’’

‘’Hey, it was his idea.’’ Chas replied, directing her response at Robert, who shuffled behind them.

‘’I know we’re not the most traditional of couples, but I thought this would be a nice thing to do.’’ Robert shrugged. ‘’Make tomorrow more special if we haven’t seen each other I guess.’’

‘’If you say so.’’ Aaron replied, reluctantly grabbing his rucksack and suit bag from the sofa and following Chas out the door, giving Robert a soft smile as he left.

As soon as the door closed behind Aaron, Robert felt an ache in his chest at his absence. He pulled his phone out of his pocket, the sudden urge to text his fiancé overwhelming him, but admonishing himself for his neediness, he put it back in his pocket. He was just about the head up the stairs to bed when the door opened and Aaron was striding purposefully towards him.

‘’Hey, did you forget something?’’ Robert asked.

‘’Yes.’’ Aaron replied firmly, closing the distance between them in two long strides and pulling Robert into a heart-stopping kiss, crushing their lips together until Robert had no air in his lungs left to breathe. Pulling away, the satisfied look on Aaron’s face was enough to send him into overdrive.

‘’Goodnight, fiancé of mine.’’ Aaron smirked, and just like that, he was gone, leaving Robert absolutely flabbergasted in the middle of his living room. Forgetting his earlier discipline, he whipped out his phone.

You’re pure evil.

The reply came instantly.

And that’s why you love me. See you tomorrow; I’ll be the hot one in the suit.

Again with the ego. I thought I was the bigheaded one in this relationship?

Clearly we’re spending too much time together.

Not possible. See you tomorrow fiancé. I love you.

I love you too.

 

 

 

Robert’s heart began to pound as the doors opened, and Aaron emerged through the rare December sunlight into the church, Chas beaming on his right side. As he watched him walk between the seats, Robert realised that he had never really appreciated just how beautiful his fiance was. His eyes shone as he came closer, and happiness just seemed to radiate out of him like a sunbeam. Robert had been nervous all morning, but the closer Aaron came to him, the more anchored he felt, until his nerves completed dissipated.

‘’Hi.’’ Aaron said shyly as he stood next to him.

‘’You came.’’ Robert replied softly.

‘’You’re impossible to say no to.’’ Aaron whispered back.

‘’Let’s get married.’’ Robert said, smiling at him, before nodding at Harriet’s questioning glance to begin.

 

 

The reception was in full swing at the pub, Vic already merry, Moira having taken JJ after the reception so her and Adam could fully enjoy the night. Adam was in the midst of trying to convince Robert and Aaron to down shots with him when the music suddenly cut off, replaced by the sound of the pub bell ringing out of sync, an increasingly drunk Charity somehow left in charge.

‘’I think we all know what time it is boys.’’ She slurred slightly, and the music started up again, the sounds of James Arthur’s Can I Be Him drifting through the pub, only it wasn’t coming from the CD player. Instead, as Aaron looked around, he was stunned to find it coming from a piano that had miraculously appeared out of nowhere, with Liv twinkling the ivories and softly humming.

‘’What the hell…?’’ Aaron gasped.

‘’I know Liv and I only tolerate each other most of the time,’’ Robert interjected as he twirled Aaron around to face him.’’ But we may have cooked this up together.’’

‘’I didn’t even know…’’

‘’She can sing?’’ Aaron nodded, dumbstruck. ‘’Well you’re not the one that naively offered to house her the first night she arrived and then had to listen to her singing along to every advert on the shopping channel.’’ Robert pretended to moan. ‘’Guess it had its uses in the end.’’

The sounds of the piano suddenly stopped and both men turned to face Liv, who was glaring at them impatiently.

‘’Are you two gonna dance or what? I’m not sitting here all night.’’

‘’You heard her.’’ Robert said, and Aaron scoffed.

‘’I don’t dance.’’

‘’Not even once? For me?’’ The look on his husband’s face was impossible to say no to, so after a moment of deliberation, Aaron pulled Robert in closer, swaying softly together as Liv began to sing again.

 

 

‘’Everybody, everybody, listen up.’’ Adam cried as he barrelled through the doors of the pub a couple of hours later. ‘’You have to come outside.’’

‘’Babe, what is it?’’ Victoria asked him, suddenly worried.

‘’Come and see.’’ Adam grinned, pulling her out the door.

Following Adam and Vic out the door, everyone gasped. Soft flakes of snow were falling, and clearly had been for some time, as the entire village was covered in a crisp white blanket, and looked like something out of a postcard. The wedding party descended into madness instantly, everyone running to bask in the flakes as they descended, snowballs and snowmen quickly being built. Aaron was about to follow Adam, who was in the process of making a mound of snowballs, when a hand on his shoulder stopped him, and he turned around to find Robert gazing at him.

‘’Hey, everything alright?’’ Aaron asked, seeing the look on his face.

‘’Yea, just wanted you to myself for a minute.’’

Robert pulled his husband closer to him, wrapping one arm around his waist and gripping him tightly.

‘’You warm enough?’’ He asked it with such care and softness that Aaron’s heart melted, and all he could do in response was nod and press a soft kiss to Robert’s lips.

‘’You look happy.’’ Aaron said softly.

‘’It’s all down to you.’’ Robert replied, causing him to blush. ‘’I love you Aaron.’’

‘’I love you too.’’

Aaron buried his head in the crook of Robert’s neck as they watched their wedding guests messing around in the snow.

‘’It’s been a perfect day.’’ Aaron murmured.

‘’And the best is yet to come.’’ Robert replied.

‘’Yes it is.’’ Aaron agreed, gazing up at Robert before a yelp in front of him broke him away.

‘’C’mon bro, I’m getting double teamed here.’’ Adam cried as he cowered from the snowballs Vic and Lilly were currently pelting him with.

‘’Go, save your mate.’’ Robert laughed.

‘’You sure?’’

‘’Yep, go. I’ll be here.’’ Robert kissed him softly and Aaron grinned at him before wading into the snowball fray.

 

 

Robert smiled as he watched Aaron and Adam frantically make snowballs, but Vic outnumbered each one of theirs two to one, her dough ball making chef skills coming into surprisingly handy. Aaron was laughing hysterically, and Robert couldn’t stop the fluttering in his heart at how happy the younger man looked.

‘’Uncle Robert?’’

Robert broke his gaze away from his husband and looked down to see Lilly tugging at his elbow.

‘’Yes trouble.’’

‘’Have you had the best day?’’

‘’The very best.’’ Robert smiled as he crouched down beside her.

‘’And did I do a good job as the flower girl?’’

‘’You were one of the best parts of the day.’’ Lilly blushed slightly, and she looked so much like Aaron that Robert’s heart swelled. ‘’Your little brother was good as ring bearer too, wasn’t he?’’

‘’He was alright.’’ Lilly shrugged, but there was a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. ‘’Uncle Robert?’’

‘’Yea?’’ He replied, only half-listening as he watched Vic attempt to dance with Aaron in the snow, who laughed at her before pulling her into a sloppy hug.

‘’Now that you’re husbands with daddy, are you kinda my daddy too?’’

‘’Not really, I’m still just your uncle Robert, but you can always come to me if you need anything and daddy is annoying you, our secret.’’ He winked at her, causing her to giggle.

‘’But maybe someday, you and daddy will be daddies together, like mummy and Adam have with JJ?’’

‘’Maybe someday.’’ Robert replied softly, and that was enough for his niece, who skipped off happily to join Vic and Aaron who were throwing snowballs at Adam. As he watched Aaron scoop his daughter into his arms and twirl her around, his new husband flashing him a beaming smile and a promising wink, Robert couldn’t stop the grin on his own face. He looked down at the ring on his finger, pulling it off and glancing at the words inside.

 

24.11.17 Mr. Dingle. Always.

 

He thought of Lilly's question again, and the answer he gave her.

 

Maybe someday.

 

And that was enough.