Aaron was just coming out of the pub when he saw her: Vic, sat on the doorstep of Keepers with her head in her hands. Jogging over to her slowly, he crouched down next to her on the pavement.
‘’Vic? You alright?’’
She looked up at him, her eyes struggling to focus and Aaron noticed that she looked pale. As she removed her hands from her face, he saw the gash on her temple.
‘’Vic, you’re bleeding, what’s happened?’’
‘’Slipped and fell.’’ She mumbled.
‘’Let’s get you inside.’’ Aaron said softly as he hooked one arm under her, hoisting her up and bringing her inside where he placed her gently on the couch. He grabbed the first aid kit from where he knew it was kept under the sink, and sat opposite her on the coffee table as he dabbed at her cut, apologising as she winced.
‘’So, how did you do this to yourself?’’
‘’Some water on the floor. I fell and banged my head, so I just went outside for some fresh air, but I felt a bit woozy and couldn’t get up.’’
‘’Vic, you need to go to the hospital, you might have concussion. I’ll drive you.’’
‘’I’ve got Seb.’’ She answered, and for the first time Aaron noticed the little baby, fast asleep in his basket.
‘’Well where’s Robert?’’
‘’At a haulage conference in Birmingham.’’
‘’Okay, well let me call Diane. She can come and watch Seb and I’ll take you to hospital.’’
Vic shook her head.
‘’She and Doug have taken Arthur and Dotty off into Leeds for the day, some adventure thing.’’
Aaron glanced around, contemplating what to do. The cut on her head had stopped bleeding, but she still looked pale and her eyes were coming in and out of focus. Against his better judgement, he finally had an idea.
‘’Right, here’s what we’re gonna do. I’ll call a taxi to take you to A&E. I’ll text Alex so he knows to look out for you and…’’
‘’Seb?’’ Vic interrupted, her eyes darting to her nephew.
‘’I’ll…stay here and watch him until you get back, or Robert comes home, whichever happens first.’’
‘’You don’t have to…’’
‘’It’s fine; you need to get checked out. And Robert shouldn’t be long should he?’’
‘’I think he should be on his way back by now.’’ Victoria agreed. ‘’Are you gonna call him?’’
Aaron considered it for a minute, before shaking his head.
‘’No, he’ll only worry and rush home, and I think one Sugden being involved in an accident is enough for today.’’ Aaron joked weakly, getting a small smile from Victoria.
Ten minutes later the taxi arrived, and after whispering in Seb’s ear to behave, Victoria reluctantly went on her way, Aaron’s orders to update him when she was coming home ringing in her ear.
The little cottage suddenly seemed far too big and imposing after Vic left, the soft, snuffling sounds of Seb asleep in his basket the only noise to be heard. Aaron paced the living room for a few moments before eventually sitting down, chewing on his nails as he risked a glance over at Robert’s son, who was still out for the count and would hopefully stay that way until his dad returned home.
Aaron tried not to look at the time as he watched the sleeping baby. Birmingham was a good two hours away, and at this time could be even longer, but he tried not to focus on being left alone with Seb for that amount of time. Hopefully Vic was right and Robert was already on his way back.
All he wanted was to sit quietly on the couch and wait for one of the Sugden siblings to return, but eventually his curiosity got the better of him and he crept slowly over to Seb’s basket, watching intently the rise and fall of his little chest as he snuffled gently in his sleep, his eyes fluttering as he dreamt.
As though he knew he was being observed, Seb blinked himself awake, and Aaron had to stifle a gasp as the little boy’s wide eyes surveyed him with wonder. He had never noticed it before, had never allowed himself close enough to look but now as Seb grew into his features more and more it was evident that he was Robert’s son, and Aaron had to look away for a second while he composed himself.
It was the wrong move though, as Seb clearly picked up on Aaron’s agitation and began to fidget, soft wails coming from the basket as he looked around for someone familiar.
‘’Hey, hey it’s okay, ssh.’’ Aaron said softly as he crouched down next to the basket, trying to rock it gently to settle him, but to no avail, as the wails began to increase in volume. Knowing he had no other choice, he picked Seb up slowly and bundled him into his arms, continuing to bounce him as he huddled him to his chest.
‘’It’s okay it’s just me. I’m Aaron.’’ He said as he cradled him, and if it wasn’t for the fact he was holding an infant, he could have sworn Seb’s eyes flickered in recognition at the mention of his name, but he shrugged it off.
‘’Auntie Vic just had a little accident so she’s gone to get better but your daddy will be back soon, I promise.’’ He said softly as he continued to rock Seb.
Eventually, the wails died away, and Aaron placed Seb gently back in his cot, but he was barely in ten seconds when he started to get distressed again, his wide eyes searching out Aaron.
‘’You want me to keep holding you?’’ He asked in disbelief as he scooped him into his arms again, Seb instantly settling as he burrowed into Aaron’s chest. He shifted gently onto the couch with Seb in his arms, looking down at the little boy watching him intently.
‘’Did you learn that trick from your daddy eh?’’ Aaron asked softly, trying to fight back a smile at the memories of lazy Sunday mornings spent in bed, where he would cuddle Robert for a while only for his husband to pout dramatically when Aaron pulled away. He would half-heartedly protest, batting him away until eventually he would inevitably cave, pulling Robert back in for another embrace and scoffing at the victorious smile on his husband’s face.
‘’You’re gonna be a heartbreaker if you end up learning all your social skills from that father of yours, you know?’’ Aaron said softly as he shuffled Seb back and forth, his wide eyes watching him as if he understood every word. A beep from his pocket roused Seb from his stupor, and he looked momentarily distressed, but Aaron readjusted him as he took out his phone, and the little boy looked at it in wonder.
‘’It’s okay. It’s just my phone. It’s your auntie Vic, wonder what the diagnosis is eh?’’ He whispered softly as he saw her message. ‘’Well, looks like it’s just you and me until your daddy gets back. She wants to know how you are. Will we send her a picture to prove you’re still in one piece because I don’t think she trusts me.’’ Aaron laughed as he snapped a picture of Seb, the little boy blowing a bubble just at the right moment.
After getting Vic’s message back, containing about a dozen heart eye emojis and a thank you, Aaron shifted the phone back into his pocket and put Seb back on his lap.
‘’So…what do you wanna do while we wait for daddy?’’
Aaron could have sworn Seb shrugged his shoulders in response, and he chuckled a little.
‘’You wanna hear about the first time I ever met him?’’ Aaron took Seb’s gurgle as a yes.
‘’I stole his car with my idiot neighbour Ross, and he caught me.’’ Aaron began. ‘’Not the best first impression, I admit. And don’t tell him this, but I fancied him even then, back when he was being a right smart arse. All worked out in the end though, for a while anyway.’’ Aaron said sadly, memories of slamming doors and shouting matches battling their way into his brain.
Almost as though he knew Aaron was sad, Seb reached up a tiny hand and grabbed a chunk of his beard, rubbing his little fingers against it to comfort him. Aaron felt a surge of some indescribable emotion pass through him at the little boy’s touch, and he fought back the tears threatening to prick his eyes.
‘’You really are Robert’s son aren’t you?’’ He smiled through his watery eyes. ‘’Know just what to do to make me feel better.’’
Seb took his hand away, sticking his thumb into his mouth and sucking on it hard as he looked expectantly at Aaron.
‘’Oh I see what this is.’’ Aaron laughed. ‘’You were just buttering me up so I’d give you what you wanted. Robert is a bad influence on you. Let’s get you some grub then yea?’’
Aaron edged himself off the couch, placing Seb back in his basket, much to the little boy’s disapproval if the look on his face was anything to go by.
‘’Don’t look at me like that. I can either hold you or make you a bottle, your choice.’’
Seb crinkled his nose as though he was contemplating his options, his face eventually softening.
‘’Thought as much. Your daddy was just as much of a nuisance, always trying to distract me when I was cooking him tea. Give me five minutes okay?’’
Aaron made his way into the kitchen, whipping out all the necessary equipment to heat Seb’s bottle, his years of experience looking after a million Dingle babies coming in handy. As he worked methodically, he tried to shrug off the memories of Robert that came with every look Seb gave him, but it was nearly impossible. Taking a minute to steady himself, he took a deep breath and went back to the living room, taking Seb in his arms as he fed him his bottle, the little boy latching on immediately, a contented look on his face.
‘’Can I tell you a secret?’’ Aaron asked as he watched Seb suck slowly on his dinner. ‘’I told your dad once that I hated you, but I don’t, not even a little. I was angry and upset at the time, but I never meant it, not really.’’
Seb gurgled a little, breaking away from the bottle to take a breath before ploughing back in for round two, making Aaron chuckle.
‘’I think you share my love of food kid. Just wait until you’re on solids and you discover toast, it will change your life.’’ He beamed.
‘’Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I’m sorry for saying those things, because they weren’t true. I mean, I was never able to hate your daddy, and you’re just a much cuter version of him, so I really didn’t stand a chance with you did I?’’
Seb shuffled around as he swallowed the last dredges of his milk, letting out a little noise of satisfaction as he gazed up at Aaron.
‘’All done? Let’s get you cleaned up. Oh and never tell your father that I said you were cuter than him, he’ll sulk about it for the rest of his life.’’ Aaron joked, and he was convinced Seb’s eyes glinted in agreement.
‘’Oh, and one more thing.’’ Aaron said as he removed Seb’s bib and wiped around his mouth. ‘’If you need changing, just wait until daddy comes home yea? I don’t think we’re quite there yet.’’ Aaron took a crinkle of Seb’s nose as compliance with his request.
Aaron stifled a yawn and he had to hold back a laugh as Seb mimicked him, his entire body scrunching up as he let out a yawn of his own, squeaky little noises coming from his mouth making him sound like a mouse. He looked at the time, and it was nearly three hours since he’d found Vic, so he figured Robert must be stuck in traffic.
‘’C’mon trouble, let’s put you down for a nap. No, I’m not letting you sleep in my arms,’’ Aaron said firmly as he saw the look on Seb’s face. ‘’What if I fall asleep too and you roll off under the couch somewhere? Papa Sugden would not be impressed.’’
Seb seemed to shuffle in agreement, and he didn’t make a sound as Aaron popped him gently into his basket and gently placed a blanket over his lower body.
‘’I’ll be right over there though, if you need me okay?’’ He said, pointing to the couch.
He watched as Seb’s eyelids slowly fluttered, growing more and more heavy until eventually he was completely asleep. He couldn’t help the feeling of warmth that bloomed through his chest as he watched Robert’s son shuffle about, dislodging the blanket that covered him as he slept soundly.
Aaron hadn’t realised he had dozed off on the couch until he felt the hand on his arm, shaking him awake. As he blinked his eyes open, he momentarily forgot where he was, and seeing Robert looking down at him with a soft expression, he instinctively almost reached up for a welcome home kiss, only to remember at the last minute that he was in Vic’s living room with Seb, and that Robert was no longer his to kiss. He quickly righted himself as he sat up, and if Robert noticed how he had leaned in, he didn’t give any indication of it.
‘’Aaron? What are you doing here? Where’s Vic?’’ Robert asked softly.
‘’Vic?’’ He replied, still trying to settle himself. ‘’Oh, she slipped and banged her head, so I sent her to A&E.’’
‘’Is she okay?’’ He asked worriedly.
‘’She text me to say they were keeping her in overnight for observation. Concussion.’’ Aaron clarified, seeing the look on Robert’s face.
‘’And you looked after Seb?’’
‘’There was nobody else around.’’ Aaron offered by way of explanation.
‘’You should have called me.’’
‘’Didn’t want you to worry and rush back.’’
‘’How was he?’’ Robert asked as he glanced over at his sleeping son.
‘’Good as gold. You’re doing a really good job with him Rob.’’ Aaron said kindly, and he tried to fight the flutter in his heart at the way the other man’s face lit up.
‘’Fancy a brew?’’ Robert said, after a beat of silence.
'’Nah, Liv will be wondering where I am, but cheers for the offer. I’ll see you around yea?’’
‘’Yea, and thank you Aaron, really.’’
‘’It was nothing. Bye Rob. Bye Seb.’’ He whispered, crouching down next to the still sleeping baby. ‘’Look after your daddy yea?’’ he said softly before walking out the door.
Aaron didn’t let out a breath until he was back in the Mill and in his bedroom. He was suddenly exhausted, despite his nap in Keepers. He couldn’t make sense of the gamut of emotions running through him after what he’d experienced with Seb. Watching his little personality shine through was incredible to witness, and Aaron was unable to shake off the feelings that it had unearthed in him, feelings that he thought he had buried a long time ago.
He thought back to how he reacted when Robert came home, and what would have happened if his conscience hadn’t taken over and stopped him kissing him, and if Robert would have reciprocated. He wanted to blame it on being disorientated and nostalgic, but he knew it was more. Knew it when he looked in Seb’s eyes and saw Robert staring back at him.
He was still in love with his ex-husband, and now he was in love with his son.
He took out his phone and flicked to the photo album, where the picture of Seb remained. His finger hovered over the delete button, but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to press it, some weird part of him saying that if he erased the photo, he’d erase the day, and he couldn’t bare the thought of it. So he kept it, wiping away a tear as he put his phone on his bedside table and willed sleep to come.
What he didn’t know was that, at that very same moment in Keepers, Robert was in his own bedroom, running his thumb over a picture he had sneakily taken of Aaron and his son dozing side by side, wiping away his own tears.