Aaron can’t deny his heart breaking a little when he steps outside and sees Seb on the swing. He looked so frightened back in there and Aaron feels the urge to throttle Finn for being such an insensitive twat. As if you can talk to a little chap like you do to a grown up. Finn’s charm obviously only works on adults.
The damage is done, Seb is already scared - and therefore not the most reliable witness. But still the best shot they have at this point. Letting out a harsh breath, Aaron tries to clear his mind while he walks over to the swing and makes sure his phone is recording. He casually leans against the metal pole next to Seb .
“Sorry for my colleague,” Aaron starts, “he kinda sucks.” He hopes a little joke might break the ice, but of course it’s not that easy.
Seb only casts him a quick glance and then he pointedly stares away again.
He doesn’t get anything in return, but he didn’t expect it anyway.
“Need a push?” he offers instead and when he’s met with ongoing silence he just nods to himself and bites his lip. “Yeah, thought so.” He sighs and sinks to the ground, crossing his legs and trying to get comfortable. “I bet this isn’t how you imagined the day, huh. Having to answer questions from annoying cops.”
“I just wanted to play dragons with my mate!” it bursts out of the boy.
Aaron stares at him, surprised that he actually got him to say something at least. He’s searching in his brain for any dragons movies he knows. There aren’t many. “Dragons, yeah? That’s cool,” he says slowly to buy a bit of time. “Hey, what was that one called, the black one… something with teeth, right?”
“Toothless!” Seb says, a glimpse of excitement in his voice, and he actively looks at Aaron for the first time.
Damn, he is a cute little fella with his big eyes, strawberry blond hair and freckles.
“That’s it!” Aaron snaps his fingers.
“You know Toothless? Did you watch Dragons?”
Well, that’ll be a bit of a stretch, but Aaron does know that there is a movie about training dragons, because little Isaac was totally obsessed with it a few months ago and one time when Aaron was babysitting his little cousin he switched it on. And then got busy on his phone, not really paying attention to the stuff on screen.
“My nephew loves it. He’s five now.”
“I’m five too!” Seb grins.
It’s not like Aaron doesn’t know that already, but since Seb finally seems to relax and open up, he makes a surprised face, hoping it’s not too fake. “Really? That’s great. Isaac’s birthday is in October, when’s yours?”
“November.” Seb smiles at him. “I want a Light Fury or the Night Terror for my birthday, I already have Toothless and the Night Terror looks really scary, so maybe the Light Fury would be cooler and it would also be a friend for Toothless and everybody needs a friend, so I’ll probably want the Light Fury a bit more that the Night Terror.” Aaron nods along as if he understands any of the stuff the boy is rambling about. Seb suddenly laughs, like he just thought of something. “Or Grump. He’s funny.”
“Sorry we crashed your dragons play, mate,” Aaron says, attempting to carefully steer the conversation back to the questions he has.
The smile dies on Seb’s face. “I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up,” he says, resigned now. “I’m never allowed to go on playdates.” He hangs his head.
Aaron’s heart breaks a little more in that moment. He’s not sure how to respond to that if he’s honest.
“I hate my daddy!” Seb hisses all of a sudden, his little face twisting with fury.
“Hey, whoah. No, you don’t,” Aaron says and holds his hands up. “Your dad is a good dad, alright?” Seriously, Robert’s love for his son is obvious and he would do anything for him, the thought alone turns Aaron’s insides to mush. He had no idea he’d find that endearing, but damn. He does.
“He never lets me do anything !” Tears are shimmering in the kid’s eyes.
“That doesn’t make him a bad dad. He cares about you.” For a brief moment Aaron thinks about all the horrible stuff he’s seen at work, men hitting their spouses and their kids, torturing them in unthinkable ways, abusing them.
A memory of Gordon is flashing up in his mind, he shuts it down before going down that route any further.
“Believe me, I know a bad dad when I see one.” His voice shakes a little and he clears his throat. “I’m a cop, remember?” Aaron reminds Seb and he puts on a reassuring smile. “I know who’s a good or a bad person, it’s part of the job.”
The boy still looks sceptical.
“Also, come on, you don’t mean that, you don’t really hate him. You’re just angry right now.”
Seb thinks about that and eventually he just shrugs. Of course he doesn’t hate his dad. Aaron would bet his year's salary that Robert and Seb are usually thick as thieves.
“I totally get it. You planned that awesome playdate and now you’re stuck with me. I’d be pissed off, too,” Aaron jokes.
This time the tactic of distraction works. Seb slaps his hand on his mouth and snickers. “You said ‘pissed off’!”
Aaron makes a show of gasping in shock. “Do you think your daddy will give me a TV ban?”
Seb keeps on giggling and Aaron smiles along, relieved that he somehow managed to build a connection to Seb. Now might be a good moment to push the conversation forward. Aaron gives him a few more seconds before he casually asks: “Speaking of telly. You like Paw Patrol too, don’t you? Besides dragons?”
Seb nods enthusiastically. “Yeah, I’m, like, the biggest fan! Even bigger than Simon.” While Aaron still wonders if Simon is another fictional character or maybe a real life person, Seb keeps talking: “Marshall is super funny because he’s so clumsy, but I like Chase the most. And Rocky. Don’t lose it, reuse it!”
That… doesn’t say anything to Aaron, but he tries to keep a neutral expression and hums a few times. “Your balloon yesterday, which dog was it again?” So smooth Aaron, he thinks, pleased with himself.
“It was Chase. But the mean woman cut it off!” Seb exclaims, still upset.
“That’s really mean!” Aaron affirms. “Did she say why?”
The boy shakes his head. “No, she just said that the man told her to do it.”
Without even realising, Seb just made a very important statement and Aaron has to force his eagerness back down when he asks: “She said that? What exactly did she say?”
“Just that she’s sorry but the man told her to do it.”
Aaron’s mind is already running a mile a minute.
A man .
Does that mean they are dealing with a male stalker? Women are often stalked by an ex partner from the other gender, but regarding men the data isn’t that explicit.
And what does that mean regarding Rebecca? Robert was so convinced it was her and Aaron thought she was shifty. But then again - she was at the station all afternoon, that’s a fact. That was probably the best alibi in the world, wasn’t it?
It’s too early to rule her out. That man might be an accomplice after all.
Being caught up in his thoughts, Aaron is surprised by Seb’s next words. “I’m sorry,” the boy whispers.
“Hm?” he frowns, confused. “Bout what, mate?”
“The other man said it’s important that I remember stuff…” Seb trails off, looking miserable and suddenly Aaron gets it, why he was so tense earlier, why he ran out of the house.
“It’s okay if you can’t remember anything more.”
Seb just sniffs quietly in response.
“Honestly. Cop promise. It’s normal that our brain doesn’t memorise everything.”
“It just… it all happened so fast! There was this lady and she talked to me and suddenly she had scissors and I was so scared, but she didn’t hurt me, she just cut off the balloon and it flew away and I was so sad and then she was gone again.”
“Yeah, I can imagine. But you remembered something really important. What she said. That’s really helpful.”
“Yeah?” Seb asks, full of hope.
They are both silent for a moment, both following their own train of thoughts.
“Daddy says the woman could be dangerous. Do you think she’s dangerous?”
Aaron thinks about the promise he gave Robert not to scare Seb and the last thing he wants for the kid is to live with the constant fear there’s a scary woman out there, threatening innocent children on playgrounds. “Probably not. I dunno,” he says truthfully and adds: “Yet. But you don’t need to worry, because I will find out, I promise.” Okay, maybe he has watched too much CSI:Miami, Aaron thinks, cringing at his own Horratio-Caine-phrase. Jesus.
Bless Seb though, oblivious to adult crime TV, smiling gratefully at him.
“Hey, sitting on a swing without swinging is boring,” Aaron states, gets up and pats the dust off his numb arse. Good god, he’s getting old.
He gives Seb exactly 2 seconds to protest, but when the boy doesn’t stop him, Aaron gives him a few pushes.
A moment later, they decide to go back inside and he is not surprised to see Robert standing in the frame of the backdoor, watching them with an unreadable expression. Aaron kinda assumed Robert would keep an eye on them after what happened inside with Finn.
He doesn’t take it personally. It’s just more proof of how much Robert cares about his son.
In a much better mood now, Seb hops inside, shouting a quick ‘hi daddy’, while Robert brushes his hand quickly over his red hair.
“So, how much of that did you hear?” Aaron asks, walking up the couple of steps to the backdoor. He just hopes Robert missed Seb’s little outburst, but one look at the man confirms that he hasn’t.
Robert looks worn out. “Enough.”
“You know he didn’t mean it, right?” Aaron says quietly, stepping closer. “Kids say all kinds of stuff when they’re angry.”
“Yeah, sure. I know.” The blue-green eyes tell a completely different story than the words. Robert is the worst liar on Earth.
Without thinking, Aaron takes another step closer and puts his hand on Robert’s arm. He just needs to set this straight. “Robert…”
“Aaron?” Finn interrupts them, his eyes fixed on Aaron while he approaches them. “Wise needs us at the station.”
Aaron jumps back like he burnt himself, feeling caught. And everything he wanted to say dies on his tongue just like that. He actually forgot for a moment his partner was here at all and that’s saying something, given Finn’s, well, wearisome persona.
“Kay,” he mumbles and then he quickly glances at Robert. “We are going to contact you soon to discuss the case and see if we can identify other possible suspects.” Aaron hates formal talking, it’s not what he really wants to say to Robert right now. It sounds false and stiff and Robert must hear it too, because he’s acting awkward as well.
“Sure. I’ll see you out.”
Seb, now playing with some Lego, waves at him on their way through the living room and Aaron waves back. He only talked to him for like 20 minutes, he barely knows Seb, but geez, he likes that boy. The mere thought of someone hurting him, causes a strange pain in his stomach he can’t quite describe.
At the front door it feels like Robert wants to say something, but he’s holding back and Aaron kinda wants to say something himself, but he doesn’t either. It’s weird. Tense. Or maybe it’s just Aaron. He’s usually good at reading people, situations, behaviour - but right now he feels a little lost and he’s not even sure why!
Then Finn Barton is rattling off his standard monologue about being available, blah blah.
Aaron wishes he could be alone with Robert and just talk freely, like they did last night.
When he gets into the car’s passenger seat, he turns his head back to the house, seeing Robert standing in the doorframe, looking back at him. He wishes he could have told him that he’s doing a great job as a father and that everything’s going to be fine, because Aaron is going to find that stalker and make them stop.
He makes the silent vow to himself instead.
Finn starts the engine. “So? Did Seb say anything?”
Aaron has to force himself to not look back over his shoulder back to Robert as his partner drives down the lane. “Yeah, he couldn’t remember what she looked like, but apparently the woman mentioned a man who told her to do it.”
“So we’re looking for a man now. Rebecca White’s off the hook,” Finn muses.
Aaron wouldn’t go that far. Rebecca White stays shifty in his eyes, but yes, they’ve got another lead to follow now. He stays quiet though, not interested in getting trapped in an argument with Finn.
“When I joined the police I never thought I’d investigate balloons,” his partner sighs and shakes his head.
Nothing new here, just Finn missing the bigger picture. Again.
This wasn’t about a cut off balloon, it never was. It’s about an obsessed stalker trying to show domination, to show their presence, their omniscience of what’s going on in Robert’s life. And also to demonstrate how quick and unseen they could catch Seb if they really wanted to. They could have taken him easily yesterday, but they didn’t. Everything was just another calculated manoeuvre to unsettle Robert, a little bit more with every passing day.
Again, Aaron doesn’t share his thoughts, wondering once more how Finn ever made it this far in the force.
“What does Wise want with us?” he asks to focus on the possible new task ahead.
From the corner of his eyes he sees how Finn presses his lips together and grips the steering wheel tighter. That doesn’t bode well.
“Finn,” he hisses sharply and frowns at his partner.
“I just had to interrupt, alright?” Finn exclaims, confirming Aaron’s suspicion that their Chief of Police doesn’t need them at the station at all. Finn just made it up. “You were crossing a line!”
“I was not-!” Aaron starts, anger bubbling inside of him he nearly chokes on the words. “I didn’t cross anything!”
“Oh, please! Aaron! I know you. You totally were.”
How Aaron hates being called out. God, he bloody loathes it. “At least I got the information out of the boy,” he sneers. He feels trapped on the stupid passenger seat, forced to be passive and with nowhere to go.
“No more private meetings with Sugden. We’re going to stick by the rules from now on,” Finn demands.
A part of Aaron wishes he could say something back like, ‘I always stick to the rules’, but who is he kidding. That’s horse shit. He doesn’t stick by the rules, rules are there to be bent. As long as the law isn’t being broken in the process and you’re getting the desired outcome, who the fuck cares, alright?
“We have to rely on each other,” Finn goes on, calmer now, soft almost. He probably mistook Aaron’s angry silence for agreement. “We have to trust each other.”
Aaron just stares out of the side window, sulking. A few minutes later, his phone is buzzing. His private phone in his back pocket, not the work mobile in his jacket. He pulls it out and is surprised to see the name ‘Robert Sugden’ on the display. He subtly angles the phone away from Finn to read the text message.
Sorry you got into trouble with your partner because of me.
He keeps reading the line over and over, slowly relaxing into his seat and feeling that pleasant warmth growing in his belly again.
Finn gave him hell for last night, threatening to go to Wise and tell him everything. Aaron also got a long lecture about rules, protocol and all that.
Immediately the app tells him that Robert is typing another text. It comes in a few seconds later.
And Aaron? Before I forget it…
There is a little pause and Aaron starts wondering what he’s gonna possibly add now. The phone vibrates in his hand again.
TV ban. One week.
He thinks back to the conversation with Seb earlier and barks out a laugh, his foul mood completely forgotten. Robert really has a wicked, dry sense of humour which Aaron likes a lot.
“Who’s texting?” Finn asks casually.
Aaron glances at him, the words of trusting each other still echoing in his head. He shoves the phone back into his jeans and says: “Just my mum.”
They are sitting in Jason Wise’s office, telling him about what they’ve got so far, which is embarrassingly little to nothing and the chief listens to their recordings with closed eyes and folded hands, the straightened pointers pressing against his chin.
When they are listening to the conversation he had with Seb, Aaron shifts awkwardly on his chair, staring at the dirty carpet. The chat was private for most parts of it, at least that‘s what it felt like - still feels like - and now it’s on display for his partner and boss. Aaron doesn’t like it.
Especially when the part comes where they talk about bad dads and Wise blinks one eye open to peer at Aaron.
His Chief knows.
Among colleagues it’s unusual to sniff around in the others' pasts, but of course Wise knows everything about everyone on his team, even if someone got as much as a parking ticket, simply because it’s part of the job. He knows about the file with Aaron’s name in it, a file he promised to keep secure and to never broadcast at the station back in a confidential talk at the very beginning of Aaron’s career.
Aaron stubbornly doesn’t look up from the floor. His leg is bouncing again.
“So…” Jason draws the word when the recording stops, “our new main suspect is that unknown male, is that correct?”
“Yes,” says Finn and at the same moment Aaron starts with an uncertain: “Well…”
His chief and his colleague are frowning at him. “Go on,” Wise orders calmly.
“I wouldn’t completely rule her out, sir.”
“And why is that? As I understand it, she has an alibi for the last incident and the witness spoke about a man.”
“I know, but…” Aaron struggles for words.
Rebecca White’s behaviour and the fact that she knew about Robert living in a townhouse. The way she smugly looked at Aaron. The little smirk as if everything was just a game for her. But it‘s nothing Aaron actually could put his finger on, it’s just his gut feeling. How can you explain something that doesn’t seem logical?
In the end it doesn’t matter what he wants to say anyway, because Jason Wise doesn’t wait for him to elaborate. “Focus on that man from now on.”
“No, you listen, Dingle. So far we have been flying under the radar of Lawrence White and that's how we keep it, because it ends here. We have a new lead, we follow that.“
Wise demonstratively leans over to his computer, letting them know they are dismissed without actually saying it.
Aaron grinds his teeth with almost unbearable frustration. Lawrence White.
All are equal before the law.
Except Lawrence White.
He has never met the famous media mogul in person so far, but he hates him. He hates the power White holds over so many domains throughout northern England and he hates even more how his own boss draws in his horns because of it. It’s a huge disappointment. The Chief Inspector gave his order and he’s not known as someone who backpedals, so this argument is lost.
Goddamn, Jason Wise was - is - like a secret father figure for Aaron, a man he looks up to, a man he admires and wants to be like. Not that he’d ever admit it, of course.
On their way back to their desks, Aaron is still pissed off. When he gets extra silent, it’s always a tell-tale sign. Which his colleague is unnervingly oblivious to, although they have been teamed up for a while now and he really should know Aaron well enough by now, but Finn keeps on rambling about how good it is to have a new, fresh lead to follow. Aaron breathes deeply through his nose to gather strength.
“I‘m gonna e-Mail Sugden to send us a list of possible suspects,“ Finn says. “Now that we are looking for a man, it‘s not a relationship related crime, it might be one of his former colleagues or clients.“ He sits down at his desk, takes his glasses off to polish them.
“Who says it can‘t be relationship related?“ Aaron asks, irritated. He shoves a pile of loose paper to the side to get access to his keyboard.
“Well, uh… isn‘t that obvious?“ Finn blushes.
Ah. Just because someone was with a woman and has a kid, they must be straight, right.
“As far as I know Sugden is bisexual,“ Aaron clarifies, trying - and failing - to hide his annoyance.
“How would you know?“ Finn asks, a suspicious frown forming on his forehead.
Aaron thinks back to the embarrassing-as-fuck-moment in the middle of the night in Robert‘s kitchen. “I observe , Finn,“ is all he says.
His partner mulls over the thought, looking sour for some reason and then he wants to know: “What are you doing then?“
“Calling Rebecca White,“ Aaron says easily and grabs his phone. “To tell her we are following another lead.“
At that Finn actually smiles at him. No, he downright beams at him. It looks like he‘s almost proud or something. Which is weird as hell. Aaron wants him to stop looking like that.
“Nothing. Just glad you‘re following the Chief‘s order. I thought you‘d… you know…“ Finn trails off and makes a funny hand move.
Aaron does not know. He also doesn‘t want to know.
Of course he’s gonna tell Rebecca White about the unknown male.
To cosy her along.
Hoping she might get careless and slip up somehow.
“Well, Finn,“ Aaron smiles at his partner across their desks, “orders are orders.“
He‘s screaming into the pillow and the slick hand slides off his dick. The prostate massager is still vibrating in his arse.
The hot image of Robert kneeling behind him and fucking him into the matress is still in his head.
Aaron collapses on his bed with a sob, right into the mess he just made, but he can‘t care about that yet, because his head is still dizzy and feeling light, no coherent thoughts possible.
It takes a moment until his mind has rebooted and he finally gains enough control of his muscles to pull out that toy at sloth speed. The following shower feels amazing, but he can‘t stop the guilt creeping up inside of him now the afterglow wears off.
Fantasising about Robert is admittedly a problem.
Even he knows that. Without needing Finn lecturing him, thanks a lot.
He really needs to get laid for real. To fuck Robert out of his system, so to say.
With the towel still wrapped around his waist, he walks back into the bedroom and sees the display of his phone shining bright in the dimly lit room until it goes black.
Aaron picks it up, ignoring the two new missed calls from his mum, but staring at the three whatsapps he got.
His heart suddenly beats loud and fast in his throat when he opens the app to read the full messages.
When I tucked Seb in, he told me that he loves me.
Thank you for today. What you said means a lot.
Anyway, sorry for disturbing your night. Again. Haha. Good night, Aaron.
Aaron stares at his phone, frozen on the spot, not sure if seconds or minutes are passing. All he knows is that his heart rate won‘t slow down, his hands are clammy and his belly feels warm again.
He throws the Samsung back on the nightstand and rubs his face to cool down his flaming cheeks. Then he makes a quick and sloppy job of changing the sheet.
When he slides under the cover, he takes his phone again and bites his lip, thinking. He types in three different replies that he immediately deletes again, before he finally settles for:
night robert x
The TV stays off and Aaron quickly falls asleep.