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Seb might have a sixth sense. Well actually, he knows he does. It comes in handy almost all the time and his little brother Finn may be seven years younger than him but it might as well be seventy because he’s incapable of cottoning on to anything.

The fact that their mum and his dad are about to do that inevitable grown up thing and Split Up is just the latest example of it. All they do is shout, and his mum’s shrieky crying thing she does may as well be the doorbell it’s so frequent. He knows what’s coming even if Finn doesn’t so he takes it upon himself to let him know what it’s all about.

He sits him down, rolls up the sleeves of the jumper his mum decided to knit when she was having one of her Good Moments and he tells Finn that things are going to change and there’s not a lot either of them can do about it. Seb’s tried, he’s asked his mum if he can help more around the house, he’s made a point of being nicer to Ross, and yet there’s just no getting round it.

Not when Ross does his bouncy thing and points his finger.

Not when his mum makes out everything is perfectly fine and ends up putting salt instead of sugar in Finn’s birthday cake.

“We just have to know it’s not our fault OK?” Seb searches the look in Finn’s face. He watches as his blue eyes start to fill with tears and he knows it’s because he has no clue what he’s on about. He cries at the drop of a hat sometimes and Ross says he’s just like how his brother was.

The ‘was’ seems to be everywhere sometimes and Seb wonders if any chance of Ross trying to love them equally and all that bullshit just flies out of the window when he looks at his son and sees his dead brother. It’s a hard pill to swallow but so is the sound of Ross calling him his step-kiddy and making Seb want to fly off the face of the earth.

Seb stops when Finn starts crying. He decides that maybe he’s a little too young for it all. The thing is, he was going to really go through everything with him, he was going to tell him that at least they’ll both be dadless now, but he already knows that it’s hardly going to be true. Yeah Ross has another kid he barely sees, some odd biblical name that he blames the kid’s “crazy family” for but Seb already knows Finn’s different. He squeezes Finn’s shoulder, tickles him under the arm and somehow that still works.

“It’ll be OK.” Seb tells him, even though he knows it probably won’t be.

 

*

 

Seb’s memory is shocking and he doesn’t know if he’s done it on purpose or not. His mum did, she said once that if you try hard enough you can separate things in your mind, get rid of other things completely.

Seb tried when he was little. He sprained his ankle and it hurt so much that he sat on the hospital bed and tried his hardest to make his mind forget it even happened.

It didn’t work, because Seb knows that some things just remain.

Like the way his mum has her Moments or the way Ross’ face is scarred.

Things remain but things go too.

Seb knows all about things, people, going.

 

*

 

Things definitely aren’t OK when he realises that his mum has some sort of stalker or something. Seb comes home from school, tie already loose and his backpack hanging almost by his feet as he plays with the strap and that’s when he first sees a car he doesn’t recognise across the road.

He can’t work out the person in the car, just knows that it’s one he hasn’t seen before and it’s not every day some bloke is just staring up at his house the way this guy is. At first, Seb figures it’s like that thing in Matilda, he reckons the guy works for the MI5 and Ross is selling dodgy car parts or something.

“What’s with the guy?”

Seb kicks his shoes off and then sees the way his mum looks at him like she’s seen a ghost. She tells him he’s no one, that he’s probably just visiting someone on the street and it’s a big fat nothing to even talk about. The way his mum clatters about in the kitchen is a dead give away that she’s lying so Seb has to do his own investigating.

He’s got science homework he should be getting to, but he sits awkwardly against the tiny window ledge of his room and he stares out. He shouldn’t have thrown away his plastic binoculars, it would have made squinting down onto the street a lot easier than it is now. The guy keeps tapping his hand against the wheel and then he looks up at the house again before he’s leaning against the seat and finally driving off.

It’s so anti-climactic, Seb almost forgets about it completely until he’s fobbing off his after-school club and getting to actually hear the guy’s voice. This time, he’s found the strength to actually ring the doorbell and something tightens in Seb’s chest as he hears his mum scurry to answer it. Seb freezes on the landing before backing against the wall and tilting his head down just a fraction.

He makes out black trainers, and black jeans and a rough voice that isn’t from around here.

“Rebecca I’m begging you.” The bloke does sound like he’s pleading, Seb leans down, takes the piss with it and suddenly is met with his face.

He doesn’t look old. In fact he looks younger than Ross but somehow older at the same time. Seb remembers his mum saying how possible that is, how sometimes things happen, and you can suddenly be ten years older. He didn’t understand her then, he doesn’t really understand her now, but he no longer thinks she’s on about travelling in a time machine or whatever.

“No. Aaron, it’s been too long.”

“Exactly.”

Aaron sounds like a young name, Seb doesn’t think he’s ever heard of an Aaron who was past it. This Aaron nods at his mum, comes a little closer towards her and Seb’s unsure if he’s hearing things or if this Aaron is actually crying now.

“We just want to make up for lost time.”

The “we” happens to be the only thing that Seb latches on to. Suddenly, Seb’s not sure if this guy really is a stalker or if there’s something that’s clearly going on that no one is telling him about.

“Now it suits.” Seb knows when his mum is frazzled, he knows when sometimes she gets ahead of herself and she’s suddenly too overwhelmed by what’s going on. It’s happening now, he can almost see her hand flying through her hair, tucking loose strands behind her ears and shaking her head.

“You know I never wanted to stop seeing …”

“Well it wasn’t your choice.” His mum snaps at Aaron and Seb’s sure that it only makes Aaron’s face redder, sadder.

“Now he can, now he’s … he’s – he wants it more than anything, but he’s scared you’ll say no.” Aaron bites his lip like he’s a kid trying not to cry. Seb holds his breath as he watches Aaron close his eyes like it’s all getting too much.

“I have every right to.”

Aaron raises his head. “I know. I know … I know he’s yours … but he's ours too. Always felt like that, and it still does, even after all this time. I promise.”

Seb feels his heart pound and he suddenly backs away from the wall. He doesn’t want to guess, doesn’t want to sit here thinking what it’s all about but then his mind bounces back to how his mum and Ross were doing all that shouting. It makes his head spin, and he keeps his mouth firmly shut as the door closes. He races to his room and watches as Aaron gets back into his car and sits there for what feels like ages. Seb watches him wipe his eyes and then he’s holding a phone to his ear and talking away. He looks determined, looks like his weird stalking isn’t going to stop anytime soon but Seb reckons the actual reason for it isn’t as bad as he once thought.

He doesn’t dare to think.

He doesn’t dare to stare out the window and wonder and almost hope.

Aaron looks right up at his room and Seb darts away almost like he knows he should.

 

*

 

A door slams and Finn cries and Seb’s just about had enough of having to be a parent to him so it means he finally asks his mum what’s going on and why this Aaron is fascinated by them. The question alone makes his mum drop the wash basket on the floor and stare at him like she still thought he was a baby who doesn’t notice things happening around him.

He does. Sometimes that sixth sense he has just fizzles way out of control and he’s sure that he’s smarter than his mum and Ross combined.

“Nothing’s going on sweetheart.”

Only it doesn’t work this time. Mainly because this Aaron is someone he keeps thinking he knows, and it doesn’t make any sense.

“Who’s Aaron?” Seb asks the question he should have asked the minute he saw him. He’s been thinking about it for so long now and Finn’s absolutely no help at all. He’s too young to get his head around anything and when Seb asks him if he remembers mummy’s friend Aaron he only mentions if he’s on Fireman Sam.

Seb’s looked through the photos Ross keeps under the bed. They’re all his family and he only really recognises Pete the Farmer and Finn the Nerd. Finn looks at the picture of the guy he was named after and pretends like he’s some sort of superhero. Seb always thinks he looked absolutely harmless. He knows he died young and it was messy and sad, and it only makes Ross’ voice go funny when he mentions it. But that’s where his pictures seem to stop. He doesn’t have any others. His mum’s the same. She has dozens and dozens of baby pictures of him, loads more pictures of his aunt Chrissie and grandad but that’s where it stops too.

Seb’s never been fussed about the tininess of his family until now, until now he’s daring to believe that it isn’t as true he always thought.

Seb’s left it a few seconds now and the question still seems to hang around like a terribly bad smell. His mum’s face is a proper picture and it’s like she thinks if she makes out she’s turned into a statue for long enough Seb will leave it.

“Is he your brother or something?”

His mum shakes her head slowly. “What?” Her eyes start to dart. “No. No he isn’t my ...”

“So he is someone?”

His mum looks absolutely caught out and then she sighs like she knew that her thirteen year old son was going to be able to outsmart her sooner rather than later.

“He isn’t my brother.” The thought seems like a strange one to her and he’s almost irritated by the fact that thinks the question is so insane.

“Well it’s not like I know a lot about … stuff.”

Seb remembers when he was seven and the world was so massive, and he couldn’t get his head around the fact that only him and Ross and Finn and his mum were the people they said were ‘family’. It didn’t make sense; it didn’t make a single shred of sense. He remembers telling his mum how weird it was and her looking so stricken with something that he stopped asking straight away.

He knows now she was probably thinking of death. He used to think of it as some sticky murky black liquid that filled his mum’s mind from time to time.

She has the same look on her face now, only she’s not as lost. It makes Seb press on, feel like he’s going to get somewhere if he does.

“That’s because … things are fine as they are.” His mum doesn’t look convinced, she doesn’t even sound it either and Seb makes the point of rolling his eyes at her.

“Seb.”

“I know you and Ross are splitting up.” Seb tells her the truth, treats her like the adult he knows she is. Sometimes he doesn’t, sometimes he puts his ‘kid gloves’ on or whatever Ross bangs on about when his mum’s head is a little cloudier than usual.

His mum comes alive at that. “No we’re not.” She says, and then she’s cradling his head, stroking gently and telling him not to worry about a thing.

“You’re arguing. All the time.”

“It’s not about us.”

“Then what?” Seb drags himself away from his mum’s soft hands and sweet voice. “Aaron?”

“Why couldn’t they just leave it?” His mum mutters and Seb listens hard.

“Who’s they?” Seb remembers the way Aaron said “we” and something sparks in his chest.

“Mum if you’ve got family that want to see me and Finn then what’s the –”

“It’s not that.” Seb watches her face, the way she seems to be caught between the truth and the way she wants to protect him from something. It hurts, makes him feel so far away from the truth of whatever is going on that he turns and bolts out the door.

It’s not like him at all. He’s a good kid. He’s not like Timo’s big brother who goes around stealing bikes and smoking cigarettes, or Leni who spends half her morning copying anyone’s homework she can find. He’s a good kid and yet it gets him nowhere.

So he really deserves to be a rebel doesn’t he?

The whole being a rebel thing involves stuffing his backpack with a hoodie and his favourite book and legging it out the front door before his mum can call him Sebastian. It involves watching the sun set as he sits on some bench in his local park and contemplates his next move. He’s almost sure it’s going to have to be turning back because it’s getting dark so quickly now and his paper-thin jacket is hardly going to keep him warm.

He thinks of Finn too. He thinks of the fact that he’s there and his mum is probably losing her absolute mind over everything and making it worse.

It’s what takes him home, drags him home, three hours later.

He rings the doorbell, waits for all of two seconds before his mum is flinging her arms around him and making out he’s just woken up from the dead.

“Mum, I’m fine.” Seb mumbles against her shoulder as she gives him this tearful speech about being freezing from the cold. He leans away eventually, reckons that the pinkness of his cheeks and the way the wind has made his hair spike in all directions, is enough to make her not believe him really.

“You shouldn’t have just gone like that, I was worried.”

“So were we.”

Seb frowns when he hears it. The voice doesn’t sound like Ross’ or Finn’s, so he hesitates and then watches his mum bend her head a little like she’s not ready to look at him. Seb’s forced to follow the voice himself and he ends up in the living room.

That’s when he sees him.

The not stalker not his uncle person who remains the biggest mystery in the world. He’s got tears in his eyes, a greyness etched into his face, and his hair, like he's about to be sick or something and when Seb looks right at him he seems to perk up. His face comes alive in way that Seb only sees with his mum when he’s made her proud or something.

He sees him wearing a black coat, paper thin like it’s made out of bin bag and sagged shoulders as he plays with his hands and then he looks at the man standing right next to him.

He’s different. He’s taller and his shoulders are broader, and his hair isn’t greying. It’s blond and all over the place like Seb’s is. It’s not what Seb can focus on though, it’s his eyes that look so familiar.

It does something to his chest, makes him have to breathe in so sharply.

“Who are …”

Aaron wipes a hand over his face and crouches like Seb’s six. “Um. Your mum was worried. She didn’t know where you’d … where you’d gone.”

Seb gulps hard. “Doesn’t explain who you are.” He says, and then his eyes drag over to the other man. “Or you.”

For some reason, it makes the other stranger look like he’s been punched right in the face and Aaron runs a hand over the guy’s back like he’s telling him it’s OK even though it isn’t.

“We …” The other guy speaks. He says one word, one single word and it’s enough to make Seb’s eyes widen. He feels like he knows him, he feels like he knows before he even carries on. “I’m your dad Seb.”

Seb doesn’t say anything at first. It’s like everything around him just stops altogether and his mind races back to when he was three years old. Almost everything about his life before the age of eight is a blur, he doesn’t understand how anyone can properly remembering anything from when they were so little. But he does remember sitting on a long sofa and being told by his mum that his daddy had to live somewhere else for a really long time and that it was going to be sad, but they were going to be OK.

He doesn’t remember crying.

He doesn’t remember getting to say goodbye.

He just remembers that it was a thing that happened, and it didn’t mean that he wasn’t loved. He was tiny, and it didn’t mean anything because Ross was there, and his mum said he was so lucky to have him and he wasn’t going anywhere. He had to remember that.

It didn’t mean he wasn’t loved.

Apparently he was loved so much that his dad left him because he wanted him to be happy. Seb’s older now, hates how that sounds now because he’s not an idiot and he knows that you don’t leave someone if you love them. You can’t.

Seb drags himself out of the thoughts and watches as his dad stares at him.

He knows the name of his dad. His name’s Robert and he had to go away for a long time but that didn’t mean he didn’t love him. He remembers.

“My …” Seb’s the one who can’t speak now. His eyes flicker and he watches as Robert holds his arms out like he wants to touch him but then he decides against it. “What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to see you.” Robert says it like it’s obvious.

Seb scoffs. “All of a sudden?”

“No.” Robert’s voice is filled with this sadness and his eyes start to fill with tears. Aaron’s there, he’s pulling a hand over Robert’s shoulder. Seb stares between them both and it dawns on him that they’re together. It makes him smile for some reason. It’s like he sees that both of them have been lost for a really long time and somehow they’ve found their way back to each other.

It sounds too mushy for words but Seb looks past it for the sake of just watching the moment between them.

“I’ve wanted to see you for so long.”

Seb frowns, then turns and sees his mum standing awkwardly by the door. “Did you stop him?”

“No.” Robert jumps to correct him. He seems to come alive and then he shrinks back into this nervous thing. “I was …”

“You moved?” Seb looks at him and then Aaron. “Both of you?” He studies the look on Aaron’s face and then down at the wedding rings on both of their fingers. He suddenly thinks of them being actually married. It doesn’t look like it suits Aaron for some reason, and then he’s playing with the ring and Seb can see it. He can see something as he looks at both of them.

“Why don’t we sit down?” Aaron tells them, this nervous little smile on his face.

Rebecca wipes a hand over her face and pulls toys off the sofa before Aaron sits down next to Robert and Seb slumps himself down on the beanbag in the corner of the room. He stares down at the way Aaron has his hand wrapped tightly in Robert’s like he’s steadying him against something.

There’s this long bout of silence suddenly and Seb hears the sound of cars driving down the road, people chatting as they walk past the house. He hears a car door slam and then watches as his mum scurries off to answer the door.

Ross comes in suddenly. He takes one look at Aaron and Robert and then sniffs loudly before nodding his head.

“Boys.” Ross says it like it’s some sort of dig or something.

Aaron scowls up at him, actually looks like he wants to deck him, but Robert just keeps staring at Seb like he can’t look anywhere else.

Ross calls Seb’s name. “Oi kid, you OK?”

Seb knows Ross actually does care, he’s seen the fear in his eyes one too many times when he’s fallen off his bike or got stuck up a tree or disappeared in a crowd. It’s why he nods back at him, tells him that he’s fine.

It seems to do the trick and Ross nods.

“I’ll go check on Finn.”

Robert frowns slightly. “Finn?”

Seb shrugs. “My little brother.” He says.

Aaron smiles almost faintly and then looks up at Ross who is hanging by the door. They share this small look and Seb’s left wondering if they knew the real thing, the actual one.

Nothing more is said for a second or two. Seb looks around the room and thinks hard about the fact that maybe him having a little brother, having someone, has ruined their plans to come here and tell him that they’re rescuing him from his sad lonely little life.

Aaron looks at Robert, and Robert finally looks at him and they clearly exchange about a million words in absolute silence.

“Will you just … make some sense?” Seb bounces his knee, finds himself mirroring Robert and then he stops.

Robert nods at him and then he breathes in. He just stares at Seb. Again. It makes Seb wonder if Robert thought he was going to be smaller or something. He’s tall for his age but on the weedy side and Ross keeps banging on about getting him in a ring to “get him going.” Whatever that means. Seb’d rather read.

Robert looks at him like he really expected his long-forgotten son to be the age he was when he walked out. Seb doesn’t get it but then he remembers how the six weeks holidays happened, and he was so surprised by how tall Rosie had got. He remembered her one way and then she wasn’t.

Seb wonders if Robert had this picture of this tiny needy little kid in his head. He doesn’t know how to feel about it at all.

Then Robert opens his mouth finally, says where he was. He makes it make sense and Seb still doesn’t know how to feel about it.

 

*

 

Seb’s not quite sure if prison is cool or not. He knows that everyone says it really isn’t, that it’s terrible and he shouldn’t think of it as some place for people who just don’t take to authority really well, but he can’t help but be unsure right now.

Robert says he was in prison.

Aaron looks like he’s about to burst out crying.

And his mum just stands there like a lemon.

Seb takes it in. If he’s being honest, Robert reeks of prison. He can’t sit still, the sound of the clock ticking away keeps making him stare up at it and the way he bounces his knee tells Seb that he probably wasn’t living it up in St. Lucia.

“I didn’t …” Seb looks at his mum and she gives him this sorry look, tells him that it was easier.

“For who? You?”

His mum keeps her mouth shut and he’s sort of thankful for it. His head fills crammed with so much stuff at the moment, her apologies and explanations can wait.

Seb looks back at Robert. “For what?”

Aaron looks at him with wide eyes and Seb has no idea how they didn’t think this question might just crop up.

Robert looks right at him, breathes in deeply and then gulps. “I did something bad.”

“No kidding.”

“Seb.” His mum hisses from the corner of the room.

Seb bites his lip, offers a sorry look as he waits for Robert to stop acting like a robot.

“I killed someone. I didn’t mean to. But he died. In the end.”

“The end?”

Robert nods. “He was in hospital for ages. It was … one hit … with a shovel and he fell.”

Seb’s not sure if he should be finding any of this funny but he just never thought he’d come home and be hearing a sentence like that. He studies the look on Aaron’s face and quickly learns that he doesn’t seem to care an ounce about any of it. It’s like it’s all old news, like they’re stamping over old ground. Seb holds in the questions about who the guy was, almost like he knows that he can save that until later.

Robert’s hands shake slightly as he pulls them away from Aaron’s and holds them up in the air. “I promise you, I never wanted him … I wish I never …” His words trail off like he isn’t really sure what he was trying to get at.

Seb nods all the same. He nods because for some reason, he isn’t angry in the slightest.

If he’s being honest, he never really thought about his dad much until Finn was born and Ross was this super dad and he got to watch from the outside as they had their little things together. It’s when he started to think about his dad and hate him for not being around. He doesn’t hate this man though; he’s almost instantly realised that Robert probably hates himself a whole heap more than Seb ever did.

He isn’t sure if that’s reassuring or not.

“What about you?” Seb mumbles. He looks at Aaron and frowns slightly.

“Me?” Aaron whispers.

Seb nods. “Were you in on it too?”

Aaron shakes his head in surprise. “No but he left, and I was … I wasn’t in a good place and your mum thought …”

“You were around then too?”

Seb remembers toys. He remembers a giraffe and an elephant and having endless amounts of things to play with when he was little. He used to hog up the living room with his stuff. He remembers a bag too, one with tiny spaceships on it that hung on the back of his door. He never used it. He can’t help but think now if he used to pack it with toys to go see Aaron and Robert. It makes something ache in his chest and there’s this feeling of being missing that’s slipping right through him.

Aaron nods sadly and then he’s crying again.

“What you just couldn’t be bothered anymore?”

Aaron’s eyes widen. “No. No, it wasn’t like that.” He whispers.

“So you …” Seb looks at his mum and she keeps saying words like it being for the best and not wanting to confuse him too much.

“Well that’s worked out great. ‘M not confused at all now. Thanks.”

“Seb.” Aaron whispers the word so softly and he looks at him like he’s wanted to call his name for so long now. Seb thinks of him being a weirdo and watching him from his car and somehow it makes him feel special. “I wanted to see you, so much.” He bites his lip. “But your mum … she knew best.”

He’s lying and Seb knows but he doesn’t push it. He thinks about the fact that they’ve both been trying to see him, how they’re finally sat here, in his mum’s house, and they can’t push anything, or she’ll tell them both to leave.

Robert just keeps staring at him. It’s sort of weird. But he looks like such a dad, so Seb doesn’t mind. He lets him, wonders what he’s thinking and why he’s being so quiet. Seb was always sure that when he met his dad he was going to have a million questions ready and yet his mind has gone blank, maybe Robert’s had too. Maybe they’re similar like that.

“So did I … did I call you dad too?” Seb asks Aaron.

Apparently anything he asks is going to set Aaron off and Seb watches him wipe at his eyes and nod.

“Daddy Aaron.”

“More like daddy ‘ron.” Robert says, and his face seems to light up at that. He looks normal. Seb doesn’t even know what his normal is but he feels like he’s right. “Like …”

“Harry Potter.” Seb says. “Less ginger.”

It’s Robert’s turn to look like he’s going to cry. It’s a lot to deal with.

Robert breaks out into this smile. Seb watches it pour over his face and brighten him instantly. “You know Harry Potter.”

Seb nods. “They’re like classics right? Proper old but ….”

Aaron runs a hand over his face. “God don’t say that, you’re making us feel …”

“Past it?”

Aaron pretends to be shocked and Seb feels like a little kid. He can imagine Aaron being daddy Aaron, can imagine the sweets he gave him and the funny faces he pulled when Seb looked like he was about to cry or something.

He feels this warmth when he looks at him, and then when he stares at Robert and thinks about the fact that this weird search for his dad that the adult him was meant to do, doesn’t need to happen now. Robert’s here, in his house, on the tatty sofa resting against his mum’s good cushions and he’s wanting him.

Robert breathes in again, like he’s preparing himself for something. “I thought you wouldn’t want to see me.” He says seriously. “I don’t know … maybe it would have been too long.” He starts playing with his hands again and then he stares at Aaron. “But Aaron tried.”

Seb instantly knows that Robert’s got Aaron to thank for a whole heap of good things that have happened to him in his life.

“He kept trying even when I was scared.” Robert shudders. “And I was. I was scared of everything, I still am. But not of you.” Seb’s eyes widen. “I want to be … someone you know you have.” He tries to smile. “We both want to be that.”

His mum comes closer, she places a hand on Seb’s shoulder, and he tries not to feel like something a dog is weeing over.

“Yeah, OK.” Seb says like he’s giving them permission. And it’s not because his mum has tried to stop this, or because Aaron might cry if he says no or because Robert’s muscles or way bigger than Ross’. It’s because of that feeling, that niggling one that tells him that there was a whole life he doesn’t know about, one where he was sort of the centre of their worlds and it would have stayed that way if a shovel wasn’t close by.

It feels like too much to say so he backtracks, tries to sound cooler, more unbothered, more like a teenager. It only makes Robert’s shoulders relax further until he’s practically melting into the sofa and shaking his head.

“You don’t … don’t know what this …”

Seb feels like a King or something and his mum keeps whatever she’s feeling way deep inside. Maybe it’s because Seb already knows she’s tried to stop all this happening so there’s no point in her trying to have her say.

He knows her say, wonders if Ross’ was different and that’s why the shouting started.

“It’s getting late.” His mum says a few minutes later. It means that Aaron and Robert need to piss off and they do. Only they’re shit at saying goodbye all of a sudden and their arms hang around Seb like they’re not sure whether to touch him.

Aaron settles on punching his arm and Robert hesitates to do anything before he’s leaning down and kissing Seb’s head. It makes Aaron cry. Again. It must be trait of his or something.

“Maybe you can … you could come to the village … um … Yorkshire. We live in a little village, well you used to live there too … Emmerdale?”

Seb remembers it faintly. He nods his head at Robert.

“Well. Yeah. Your mum has both our number’s … maybe …”

“Yeah.” Seb whispers. “I’ve got half term next week.”

His mum’s “we’ll see” comes quicker than he expected, and he throws her this look before watching as Aaron opens the front door and leaves with Robert. He waves, feels like a kid and Robert stays rooted right on the spot like he doesn’t want to say goodbye to him ever again, like this is torture. Aaron kisses his head, holds at his hand and whispers something. It seems to get Robert moving again.

Seb watches until his mum shuts the door and he’s forced to stare at her instead. He isn’t sure what she expects him to think of her, but she looks more nervous than anything else.

“I always … always had it in my head that my dad was almost two people. Don’t know why. It always sounded weird, but I did have more than one didn’t I?”

His mum’s eyes flicker. “I did what I thought would help you.”

And the thing is it did. He can’t imagine being at school and knowing that his dad killed someone, was in prison for it and his other dad was too messed up to care for him. He doesn’t know the ins and outs but he can fill most of it in himself. He can’t be angry at his mum for it and yet he is angry at her for something. It’s deep and sad and makes the crushing hug she gives him feel like trying to put a plaster over a stab wound.

It goes too deep.

“I’m so sorry sweetheart.”

It’s sincere enough. He believes her enough too. It’s why he doesn’t hang around asking her why she robbed him of the truth, why he doesn’t badger her with questions and demands to see photos of Aaron and Robert and him.

He doesn’t do any of that. He feels grown up enough to know it can wait.

“Don’t try and stop them seeing me mum.” Seb says, and he’s confident in the knowledge that she won’t as he gets up to his room.

Seb lays flat on his bed then hears a car engine starting. He looks out and sees that Aaron’s just starting the car up and then he’s leaning over and hugging Robert again, bringing his forehead right down against Robert’s. Seb fees weird for watching but he doesn’t stop.

He looks out and sees two people that want him.

It feels like a lot more than he was expecting to have when he woke up this morning.

 

*

 

Seb doesn’t sleep a wink. It’s like he forgets how to, it’s like everything inside him is telling him to just think and think for as long as possible.

The next morning, his eyes are puffy and red from not being able to sleep and his mum mumbles something about him having to be grateful it’s the weekend. It makes what he’s about to say a whole lot easier.

“Can you tell me about them then?”

His mum gives him this look as she pours Finn’s cereal that says that she doesn’t know what to tell him and it’s enough to make Seb bang on a tiny bit more.

“Have you got any photos or anything?” Seb looks at Finn who’s sat with his face glued in some virtual headset game. He’s not even in the room but his mum is almost certainly going to say she’s busy tending to him. “Mum.”

The frailty of the one word does it, gets his mum walking away from the kitchen and bringing a ladder down so that she can climb up into attic. Seb remembers never being allowed up here. Once when he was little he thought that this giant monster lived here and would come out at night to scare them all. Then he was very much convinced his dad lived up there and that’s the important business he was getting up to. It seems daft now, and yet a better place than where he actually was.

His mum drags out a box hidden by another box and Seb’s wondering if his dad actually was in the MI5 or something. She opens the box, marked ‘Paint stuff’ and Seb’s left in awe of her ability to hide things from him. It’s like she guesses because she gives him this little look and then pats the space next to her on the floor.

Seb goes willingly and then manages to peak a look at what she’s about to bring out.

“I kept this stuff in here because … it makes me sad sometimes Seb.”

The sometimes should be replaced with always.

His mum shows him a picture of her in Ibiza, diamond crusted headphones and waving her arms about. She goes on about her being a DJ like it’s still really cool. Seb indulges her, makes her smile and realises for the first time that she probably needs to. He tries to imagine how she feels knowing all this stuff she tried to protect him from just came rushing out yesterday.

“This is you as a baby.” His mum shows him pictures that he’s seen before, he nods and smiles and holds them and then his heart stops a little when he sees who he assumes is himself on top of Robert’s shoulders.

Robert looks completely different, miles younger and happier than he ever was yesterday. Seb’s struck by it for a second, he almost can’t look anywhere else. He holds the picture up and then sees another. This time he’s littler, he’s being held by a woman with dark hair and she’s smiling at him, practically beaming.

“Who’s …”

“That’s Victoria.” His mum says the words carefully and Seb knows something else is coming. Victoria’s mum’s friend from where she lived before, she sends him Christmas cards and birthday presents and it always says, “with all our love” and he never ever gets it.

“She knew me when I was that small?”

Maybe it’s the fact that he’s asking so many questions, or maybe it’s just the innocence in his voice, but his mum seems to stop whatever simple nod of the head she was planning.

“She’s your auntie. She’s Robert’s little sister.” His mum says it like it’s nothing and Seb thinks of that word Family again.

“Why didn’t you let me …” His mum goes to say something. “Don’t say because it was easier.”

His mum wipes tears from her face, leans over and says something else about leaving it too late. She says she was going to sit him down and tell him everything and then leave it for him to decide what was best. She says it like him knowing the truth about who he was, was just something she was planning on getting round to doing.

Seb goes to stand, nearly whacks his head as he goes and then he’s being dragged right back down again.

“She lives in Emmerdale. I hardly hear from her anymore OK? But I know she still lives there with her little boy, your little cousin I suppose.”

“You suppose?”

“I mean yes. Yes your cousin. She um … she’s always wanted to see you, but I thought she’d talk about your dad and Aaron was still there and I didn’t want you to get confused and think that they ….”

“Only wanted me half the time?” Seb’s old enough to get things now. Maybe he’s still stupid but he understand what she’s trying to say. He just doesn’t like the sound of any of it. “I want to go and see them.” His mum nods. “Today.”

His mum’s reaction is completely different now. “You don’t even know them.”

“Yeah and who’s fault is that?”

Maybe it isn’t hers. Maybe he’s just not ready to hear the fact that Robert went out and shovelled a bloke instead of cooking his son his tea and that’s the reason why he doesn’t know them or remember them.

His mum puts up a fight about it. She says all sorts about it being too soon, but he doesn’t seem to care. It’s that warmth thing he felt yesterday that makes him certain. It’s also the fact that Aaron and Robert have tried, and he’s seen them try and it’s something that means something to him.

“You kept turning them away.” Seb says.

He hasn’t cried about any of this yet. He doesn’t really have a reason too because like he’s known for so long, none of this has really impacted him the way it has for other kids. He’s had Ross. He’s had someone who isn’t the best but who can lend him a fiver when he wants some sweets, someone he’ll wish happy father’s day too, someone who can teach him how to ride a bike without skidding his knees down the pavement.

He’s not cried because of all that. But now there’s tears pricking his eyes that he roughly wipes away because he thinks about what else he could have had.

“Don’t you ever … think about what things could have been like if you let Aaron see me?”

He might have grown up with a cousin, and an aunt, and another stepdad. He might have been loved by three more people.

His mum gives him this look that tells him he’s naïve. “Messy.” She says. “Because Robert was stuck in the Isle of Wight and decided to divorce Aaron, so sooner or later Aaron would have moved on and lost complete interest in …”

Seb gulps way too fast and nearly chokes to death on his own spit. His eyes widen under what she’s saying, and he suddenly thinks about the fact that he is naïve. Robert was in prison, for murder, on some tiny island you probably need to take a plane to visit. Aaron must have been lonely, but then he must have moved on.

He sort of hates his mum for pointing it out, being right or whatever. He hates her in a way kids shouldn’t hate their parents. He hates her because she did something to protect him.

 

*

 

The news that his dad and Aaron aren’t eternal lovers enduring a murder sentence is something that leaves a sour taste in his mouth. It makes him hesitate, makes him overthink the convenience of them wanting him back now.

They’re good now.

They’ve probably done all the making up now and he gets to be the final piece in the jigsaw before they’re back living their happily ever after.

They might even have a dog already.

Seb’s after the dog in their happily ever after plans.

 

*

 

His mum tries to bribe her way back into Seb’s good books, she makes him a milkshake, adds Nutella and sprinkles and cream and brings it up to his room whilst he sulks. He’s sulking by himself because Finn doesn’t get the deepness of any of what’s going on.

He thinks it’s all great, all super that his dad is back and only wants to know if Seb will go leave with them soon. Seb thinks Finn wants his room but he’s way too soft to think like that, in fact the thought of Seb leaving manages to set Finn’s waterworks off so he tells him he isn’t going anywhere.

“I just rang Robert.” Seb thinks he’s misheard her, and she nods, strokes a hand through his hair. “Ross said something. He said he doesn’t know why I have to answer all the hard questions so … he’s picking you up tomorrow with Aaron and you can … stay for … a day or two.” She sounds so cautious with it. “The minute you want to come home you say and … Ross will come and get you.”

He thinks about her turnaround and the fact that she doesn’t want to answer awkward questions and it leaves this pit in his stomach as he wonders what else there is to come.

 

*

 

Robert’s on time exactly. He takes Seb’s overnight bag like he’s a bellboy and calls him Seb, and mate, and buddy about one hundred times before they’re even in the car. Finn comes out to inspect too. Robert looks at him, waves, then bends his knees and Seb hears something click when he does it.

“You must be Finn.” Robert’s voice sounds like he’s trying way too hard to be sweet but Seb doesn’t mention it.

Finn doesn’t either, instead he stares at Robert’s car and tells Seb to let him know if this village everyone is going on about is actually cool or just as boring as it seems. Seb nods, makes sure to keep it in mind as he ruffles Finn’s hair and gets in the car. He watches his mum and Ross standing from the doorway looking half anxious half relieved by it all.

Seb gives them a little wave, tries to keep his general anger at being lied to at bay for now.

Halfway through the journey, Robert has to stop the car and get out to stretch his legs. Seb follows him and watches as Robert just stares at him like he thinks he’s going to disappear or something. Seb could be thinking the same thing but he isn’t.

If he’s being honest, he should be scared that none of this is real, but he isn’t. It’s like he’s been able to properly rationalise things and realise that things happen but Robert’s here now and that’s something.

It’s something.

“Where’s Aaron?”

Robert smiles, and Seb thinks that he should keep mentioning him because it seems to put Robert at ease.

“Home.” Robert says, soft against the way it’s starting to rain now. Seb watches as Robert’s hair darkens, settles into this almost dark brown colour.

Seb remembers how much he used to love the rain when he was little. He’d wear wellington boots printed with dinosaurs and stomp about. Then he’d lose his mind thinking about his hair had managed to change colour. He used to think there were tiny people in the rain spraying him with hair dye. His mum used to think he was hilarious for thinking it.

“He’s um … he’s trying to cook for us tonight.” Robert bounces a little and then walks back towards the car. “It’s not something he’s all that great at.”

Seb smiles a little faintly. “Right.” He whispers.

Robert gets back to doing that silence thing he’s good at and Seb’s almost one hundred percent sure that it’s because he doesn’t know where to start.

“I know there’s so much to say, and to go through.” Robert says, like he’s teacher at the start of term.

Seb nods. “’S why I think my mum wants me to ask you instead of her.”

Robert bends his head a little, looks really vulnerable in a way Seb doesn’t think over a decade in prison will make someone.

“But I just want things to be perfect. Straight away.” Robert looks all serious again and Seb nods at him.

“Not that easy though is it?”

“No. It’s not Seb.” Robert says his name like it’s something really important. “But we can try can’t we?”

The rain is getting heavier, and it’s getting colder by the second but Seb keeps feeling that warmth thing settle right through him.

“Let’s get you …”

Robert doesn’t say home, but Seb knows what he’s trying to get at.

 

*

 

It’s a village.

It’s literally just a village.

Seb takes a picture of the Welcome to Emmerdale sign like he’s entering a new country and he might as well have considering how slow it all seems.

Robert has to slow the car down from five miles per hour to two when some old biddy crosses right in front of him. Robert’s concentrating on the road like they’re in the middle of a busy motorway and Seb thinks about him in prison for a second.

He can’t really imagine him there sometimes, and then he watches the way his hands grip around the wheel and his leg bounces and he feels like a part of him is still there. It sounds weird, if he told Finn  he’d probably wonder which half he was on about, but it makes sense in Seb’s head.

“It’s just … up here.” Robert points to the furthest house in the village, almost buried deep within the landscape of the place. It looks prettier than he thought, like it’s been built with this care that he didn’t expect.

“Looks massive.”

Robert seems to find it amusing. “You used to call it a castle.”

Seb blushes, thinks about how much he hasn’t really grown up when he looks at it like that. He dips his head a little and then gets out the car. He frowns as he sees a shadow in the window and then Robert’s opening the door and there’s about a million different faces staring right at him.

The whole thing is short of a welcome home banner like he’s just come back from war or something.

He hasn’t. He’s spent a few hours on a motorway whilst it rained. That’s it.

Seb feels a hand on his shoulder and jumps slightly as he feels Robert’s large hand against him. He squeezes slightly and Seb looks up, sees that Robert looks horrified.

“Hey Seb.”

Seb searches for Aaron like he’s a little kid. He sees him coming through from the kitchen and Seb feels the hand on his shoulder tighten a little and he keeps staring at the girl who’s spoke to him. She’s wearing dungarees and a striped jumper, and she pulls this face that makes her look like Aaron.

“Liv, not now.”

“I’m only saying hi.” Liv scowls at Aaron and Seb looks between them both.

“Aaron, this is too …” Robert whispers gently.

Seb feels like he’s in a fish bowl and everyone’s staring. He breathes in and sees some woman looking at him like she think he’s hung the moon or something. She whispers something to the girl sitting next to her, she calls her Eve.

Aaron nods, looks like a deer in headlights as he looks towards the crowd and tells them that they can do this another time. Seb watches them all leave slowly; everyone seems to be moving at a snail’s pace until Robert’s removing the hand on Seb’s shoulder and waving an arm around to get them all out.

It takes ages, the woman with the girl Eve is the last to leave. It makes Seb feel like they have this right to be here.

Then it makes him think about that Family word again.

“Are they … did they know me?”

Aaron looks like he wants to kick himself or something and he looks at Robert, offers him what Seb can only understand is a wordless apology, before looking down at Seb again.

“They’re my crazy lot. They just wanted to … say hi. They haven’t seen you since …” Aaron trails off and Robert fidgets on the spot before carefully taking Seb’s bag and placing it on the sofa. “But we can … that can wait I think. Must have been weird to see all those faces.”

Seb gulps hard. “Bit.” He says, because he doesn’t want them to think he’s some little kid who gets overwhelmed by new faces.

Aaron does this weird dad thing as he nods, folds his arms over and bends his head a little. It makes Seb almost laugh. “Right well. I made … oh shit …” He practically bolts towards the kitchen again and Robert has a hand on Seb’s shoulder, he squeezes gently and tells him that he’s going to go rescue their dinner.

Seb watches him leave and stays rooted on the spot. The place looks brand new. The walls are a dark green and there’s this blue sofa in the middle of the room, a rug beneath his feet that has circles printed. It all looks as normal as it can be and yet different from the tiny fragments of memories he’s trying his hardest to latch onto.

He takes in how bare the place seems, how they’re both clearly in the middle of making it a home again. He sees a picture of Aaron and the two girls who were just here. Eve and Liv. They’re both smiling up at him and he’s pulling a face. He looks young, Eve looks like she’s Finn’s age in the photo.

Seb’s pulled out of it all when he sees Aaron and Robert come back into the room and sit down on the sofa at the exact same time.

“I’m sorry about all of them.” Aaron says, he practically whispers it and then he’s placing a hand down on Robert’s knee to maybe stop him from bouncing it again. “Everyone’s just dead excited to see you.”

“Now the divorce thing doesn’t matter?”

Aaron’s face falls a little and Robert looks like the very word divorce is enough to send him over the age. Aaron looks like he’s been doing a lot of caring when it comes to Robert. The arm that’s suddenly bringing Robert in that little bit closer speaks as loud as it can about all of this.

“Did your mum tell you that?” Robert asks.

Seb nods, feels guilty suddenly. “It’s why I didn’t see you.” He looks up at Aaron. “’Cause when Robert went to prison you were …” He can’t even really imagine how it feel to love someone, choose to spend the rest of your life with them and then have to be without them suddenly. “So it was easier.”

Aaron looks like he’s about to start crying. “It’s not ‘cause I didn’t want to.” He tells him. Seb watches as his face reddens and he starts to cry. “I wanted to see you so much and when I couldn’t it made every single thing worse.”

Seb feels something inside him shift and then he’s watching Aaron walk across the room and bring out an album.

It says Seb + Us on the front and Aaron opens it, strokes a hand across the pictures that are inside.

“We used to take so many.” Robert says, and then he shudders, becomes almost this shell of a person as he looks across and gets out a particular one. “Had this one on my wall.”

“Your wall?”

Seb feels like he’s put in it as everyone clearly tries dancing around the P word. He feels like an idiot for a second and then Robert’s explaining.

“You’re so tiny. Dummy in your mouth, that little giraffe tucked under your little arm.” Robert looks like he’s tracing back in time. “Now look at you, all grown up.”

“That’s what happens when you’re not around.” Seb doesn’t really mean it. It slips out and Robert looks crushed for a second before he gulps hard.

Aaron wipes a hand over his face and then brings the other over to grip Robert’s hand. Robert gives Aaron this look. It’s all they seem to do, just communicate almost wordlessly to each other like they know exactly how to act. It’s probably because they’re old.

“You’re right. That’s exactly what happens.” Robert suddenly speaks to him like he’s an adult. “I should never have left you. Never. And I wish I didn’t.”

Seb blinks gently. He’s suddenly aware that he doesn’t really have anything to say back.

Robert clears his throat again. “I get if you hate me, I do.” He nods his head sadly. “But don’t hate Aaron, please. He … none of this was his …”

Seb finds it strange to think that Robert’s seemingly convinced that he hates him. He thinks of how he’s a teenager, and maybe saying he hates Robert will be apt for things people do his age, but he’s not even tempted to. He isn’t tempted because they’d be no point and it’d be a lie anyway.

“I don’t hate either of you.”

Aaron gulps thickly. “You don’t?”

Seb frowns. “Well no I wouldn’t be here if I did would I?”

It makes Aaron laugh and then the hand he’s got squeezed in Robert’s is squeezing his arm instead now. “Sounds like you.” He says, like it’s the best thing he’s ever said.

It makes Robert’s face light up.

Seb sits opposite them feeling like he’s watching two people fall a little more in love with each other and it really is the most gross thing ever but he’s indulging it.

Robert wipes a hand over his face and then he looks right at Seb. “You’re right, that wouldn’t make any sense.” He nods his head a little and then sighs. “And it’s good too because we love you, you know.”

Seb’s not sure why that shocks him, but it does. It’s not that surprising really. They look at him like he’s hung the moon or something. So it isn’t far-fetched and yet he’s stumped by what to say back.

“Thanks.” Seb blurts out and then he’s blushing and running a hand over his hair, flattening it in embarrassment. It only makes Robert look at him with this warmth even more.

“Sounds like you that.” Robert tells Aaron.

Aaron pushes at Robert’s shoulder, tells him to shut his face and then he’s touching him again. It’s all they seem to do. Touch. Feel. Stare. It’s like they both are struggling to realise that the other is actually sitting right next to him.

Seb stares into space for a second and then a timer goes off. It makes Robert jump a little and Aaron smooths a hand over Robert’s back as he gets up.

“That’s the gammon. I uh … I made a roast but without … the chicken or beef. Gammon’s the only thing we had.” Aaron looks like he’s rarely like this. In fact, if Seb’s being honest, Aaron looks more suited to prison than Robert. He looks miles more suited.

It’s what makes his stuttering funny, it’s what makes Seb feel like he’s special because Aaron just looks like the type of bloke that doesn’t really get messed around or flustered.

He looks like that and then he also looks like he’s seen a world of pain too. It’s a funny mix to have and Seb’s grateful that the sadness of things he’s gone through hasn’t stopped the softness that seeps through him now as he explains that they’ve got tons of vegetables if he wants those instead.

“It all sounds good.” Seb tells him.

It makes Aaron’s shoulders relax until he’s banging on about a nut roast they bought just in case.

It makes Seb smile a little.

 

*

 

Aaron and Robert are dads without the practice. It’s clear as day as they make small talk and dish Seb up plenty of vegetables and then also ply him with coke because they’re clearly trying to make him like them. Seb wonders if they know his mum only buys the nasty sugar free stuff. He isn’t complaining about any of it.

After his finished, he watches as Robert washes up and Aaron dries. They look perfect.

He’s suddenly struck by it.

They look picture bloody perfect as Robert passes Aaron a plate and Aaron mumbles something against Robert’s shoulder and laughs about something or other.

“Why’d you get divorced?”

Robert turns first and Seb nearly loses his bottle. He nearly pretends like he didn’t mean to say it, only he really did, and he really wants to know more about this whole situation because it still doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Aaron itches his eyebrow as he puts the tea towel down and breathes in. He looks at Robert, and Seb does too.

“Mum told me you divorced. Was it before or after you went inside?”

Robert thinks the thought is a crazy one not to know, it’s all in his face really. He sits down at the dining table again and then breathes in. “They moved me. To the Isle of … and I couldn’t imagine Aaron giving up his life for me like that.”

“Ain’t you meant to be his life or whatever?”

Aaron gulps hard. “He was.” He says quickly.

“I cut him off Seb. I cut everyone …”

“Like Victoria?” Seb whispers. Robert looks at him in shock. “Mum told me.”

Aaron pulls this face that Seb can’t read.

“I really thought I was … doing the right thing.” Robert looks down and Seb wonders how many times he’s had to go through this, if each time gets harder. He bends his head just a little further and then he looks up again. “Because Aaron had … he had so many people who loved him still here and …”

“Like that woman that said hi to me?” Seb gulps. “You called her Liv, is she your sister?”

Aaron nods.

“She knows me?”

Aaron smiles faintly. “Yeah she does. She used to live here when it was just us four.” It sounds all cosy. “But she’s moved away now. She’s living with her mate, but she wanted to see you.”

“Why?” Seb says like an idiot.

He’s starting to feel like a local celebrity or something.

“Because she remembers you like everyone else does.” Aaron leans closer a little. “Because you were ours Seb.” He says, then he looks up at Robert. “And we want that again, more than anything.”

Seb gulps hard, doesn’t know what to do with the way they speak about him.

“When did she leave?”

“Well she lived in the flat above for ages, but then she left properly about … I don’t know, five years ago.”

“And you were left.” Seb thinks that Aaron’s been lonely for a long time. He thinks he’s got real good at it.

Aaron bristles slightly. “I did OK mate.” He whispers, like he’s trying to not come across as a sad loser to his ex-son or whatever.

“Did you move on?” Seb watches Robert raise his head and he gulps hard once more. “I just thought …”

“Tried to.” Aaron tells him. “In fact, I was with someone when your dad got out.”

Seb thinks of that awkward love triangle and how films make it sound much more exciting than he can imagine this one was. His eyes widen and he watches Aaron start getting all teary again.

“I told myself that I was … I was doing so fine without Robert but …” Aaron breathes in. “The second I saw him it was like nothing else mattered.”

“So you still … you still loved him?”

Aaron almost looks indignant. “Don’t know how not to.” He whispers.

Seb pulls a face. “You’re proper cringe.” He tells Aaron.

“So was his speech to me.” Robert says.

Aaron rolls his eyes and Seb sits back to listen to the fact that Robert had stumbled back into the village with nothing just over a month ago, and he was a mess beyond words and Aaron wasn’t meant to be the one to pick him up any more, but he couldn’t help himself. He was there, because apparently the thought of being anywhere else was almost too much to bear.

Seb thinks they’re proper mad.

He can’t get his head around the fact that they’re very much divorced, and that’s sad and sorry and yet they wear rings and talk about the fact that they got married not once but twice and it’s a thing they clearly like to do.

Seb listens to it all. He sits there and watches Robert begin to come out of that shell prison’s pushed him in. He laughs freely and happily, and Aaron doesn’t let go of his hand as he speaks about holidays they had together and things that Robert wishes he’d given to Seb.

“Like the moon?”

Seb frowns at the memory of himself, tiny and sleepy and being told that if he wants the moon, they’ll build a ladder and go get him it. No bother. If he wants a few stars too, they’ll bring up a massive net and take it all down for him.

It’s clearly the wrong thing to stay because Aaron starts almost blubbering into his bottle of beer. He keeps saying sorry, and Robert keeps telling him that they’re really not trying to scare him away but they can’t help it.

They say that they used to tell Seb that all the time, right before they put him to bed.

It makes Seb blush red again.

“Look.” Robert clears his throat as wipes at his face again like he doesn’t want to cry. “There’s still … I bet you have a million things to ask. And that’s fine. Me and Aaron, we just want you to know that we … we can just be Aaron and Robert to you forever if that’s what you want.” Aaron nods readily. “We just want to be around; be people you know … are there.”

It’s a heavy note to end things on and Seb’s still stuck thinking about what he’s supposed to think about all of it. He supposes he’s relieved, he supposes that their lives are really a testament to overcoming things and getting out the other side.

It’s what he thinks as he gets ready for bed. They’ve put him in a room they say he used to sleep in, and he stares around at the pale blue of the walls and the plush grey carpet. No one’s been in here for a while. He looks around and stares at the small S E B that is still faintly outlined on the back of the door. He runs a hand across the letters before hearing the sound of Robert talking downstairs.

He decides to eavesdrop as he comes down towards the landing and sees Robert hugging Aaron so tightly that they both look like they could break any second now and yet don’t give a shit.

“Hey, hey we did it.” Aaron whispers, he has this voice on, the one he used earlier. It’s all soft and delicate and Seb hasn’t seen Robert look as vulnerable as this before.

“He doesn’t hate me.” Robert’s clearly taken that as the most important thing to come out of tonight.

Seb almost feels sorry for him. Then he really thinks about it and decides that he definitely does.

Aaron strokes his hands across Robert’s face and then bends his forehead against Robert’s again. “It’s going to be OK.” He’s gentle suddenly, like he’s handling this precious thing and then he leans in and kisses Robert. He presses their lips together and Robert pulls a hand through Aaron’s hair.

Seb shouldn’t be looking, he feels like an absolute creep until they stop again and Aaron’s mumbling something into Robert’s chest as they stand by the kitchen and just hug each other.

“I love you too, you don’t know how much …”

“Shh.” Aaron whispers and Seb wonders if this is normal, if they talk about loving each other and being sorry that they were apart for so long and all that. “Let’s go to bed yeah?”

Aaron pulls a hand in Robert’s as they walk towards the stairs and Seb goes quietly back to his room.

 

*

 

The village is tiny, and boring and has the smell of just old people running right through it. Seb thinks he’s already taken everything in he has to at this point.

He’s at the garage now. It’s a Monday, a week day and apparently half terms don’t mean the world stops moving. It’s what Robert said, this softness in his voice and this look on his face that said he was sorry he couldn’t spend all the time in the world with him.

But Seb’s here now.

He’s staring up at a garage that says Dingle & Sugden and apparently it’s theirs. Apparently they finally got round to sorting out paper work only a week before they showed up to see him. Seb thinks of the way they tried to clearly get everything in order for him.

A house.

A business.

He still hasn’t seen a dog yet.

Aaron’s in overalls, working away or whatever when Seb asks him if he’s a fan of dogs.

Aaron offers him this warm little smile, starts banging on about this dog called Clyde he had and how he died a really long time ago. Seb pulls a face that says he’s sorry and goes back to thinking of the amount of loss Aaron’s probably had in his life.

It’s the sixth sense thing he has.

“You’re a mechanic then?” Seb sits on a tyre, nearly falls right in and he imagines what his mum would say about all of this. He thinks that the text he sent her last night isn’t going to be enough to keep her mind at ease and he’s not sure if it really should. He said he was fine, that he’s OK with staying for a few more days and he really is.

He’s saying it’s the curiosity, and not the weird warmth thing he feels when he’s around Aaron or Robert.

Aaron nods his head now. “Have been for ages now. So’s your … Robert.” He itches the side of his head and Seb gulps hard around the fact that calling Robert his dad is something he doesn’t know makes sense at the moment. He knows he is, knows that Aaron was too, still is in his mind but Seb can’t bring himself to get to that point yet.

“Robert works here too?”

Aaron thinks it’s laughable and Seb’s left wondering about what Robert was like before.

“No he works with Noah , my cousin’s kid, up at that posh house you probably passed. They use cars from the garage for important client things.”

“So Robert works up there?”

Aaron nods again and looks up from the car he’s working on. “Your mum … lived there before …”

Seb hates the word ‘before’. He hates it more than anything else in the world.

“Before what?” Is the question really, before she had an accident, and her brain went fuzzy or before he was born or before –

Aaron’s shoulders seem to tense at it, and he shrugs a little. “Before um … before the accident she had.” He says, and suddenly he’s all careful and slow.

It makes Seb sit up, it makes him want to ask more and he thinks about last night and how they kept banging on about how he could ask them anything, and how they want to be there for him. Now seems like a good time for all of that.

“With Robert?” Seb blinks the words out and realises really suddenly that they’ve all kept timeframes hazy.

Aaron pulls this face and then suddenly his shoulders relax. Seb turns to see that Aaron’s staring at Robert who’s just come in with two coffees and a hot chocolate from the café at the corner of the village. He’d rather be in there himself right now than have to do deal with whatever secret language Robert and Aaron are adopting. They don’t actually say anything at all for a second until Robert is passing him over his hot chocolate and asking if he fancies a walk.

Seb can’t think of anything worse but he feels like if he tries, he might get some answers to the questions he has.

 

*

 

They walk up until the edge of the village and end up at some old cricket pavilion that looks like it’s on its last legs. Robert stays quiet, only asks if he likes his hot chocolate until they’re sitting on a bench and Seb’s staring out at rolling hills and realising he’s lost all signal on his phone.

He sighs, feels the wind catch up with him and then he sees Robert’s leg start doing that bouncy thing.

Seb stares at Robert, and somehow it manages to make him stop.

“I don’t know what your mum told you but …”

“Nothing. A big fat nothing.” Seb says.

Robert gulps hard. “I was married to Aaron.” He blurts it out, almost like he thinks if he says it fast enough, they can just move on.

Seb’s eyes widen and then he suddenly understands. “You …”

Robert nods, and then his eyes are glossing over with tears that he probably doesn’t want to shed right now.

“You had an affair.”

Robert raises his head. “No.” He says. “No. It was just … once.” He gulps hard.

“So.” Seb bends his head and feels this wave of something race through him. “You didn’t even …”

Seb’s never thought about being a mistake. He’s always thought about the fact that he wasn’t as important to Robert as he should be but being a mistake like this is different. He doesn’t know whether to run and hide or stay and thank Robert for not treating him like a kid.

“I don’t want you to hate me.” Robert tells him. “But I don’t want you to … I don’t want you to think we’re hiding things from you.”

Seb’s face is bright red and he gulps. “So how comes Aaron … stuck around?”

Robert shrugs. “He’s crazy.” He huffs, almost laughs. “We split up, and I was … I watched him move on, but he came back. He stood at Vic’s door and did this massive speech like an idiot.” Seb almost smiles. “And he raised you, like his own. And he lost you, like you were his own when I was inside.”

Seb frowns. “Don’t get how he can … want me like that. After all this …”

Robert gets a picture out of his wallet with shaky hands. Seb’s eyes widen as he sees Robert and Aaron and that girl Liv from yesterday. Then there’s him in the middle of them, sat on Robert’s lap and grinning at the camera. He takes the picture slowly and feels this sense of loss again.

He lost this.

He should hate Robert for making him lose something that looked so special to have.

“We were a family. We really were.” Robert smiles sadly. “And I had to give that up.” He gulps hard. Seb looks up at him. “I never thought I’d have this again, but …”

“You’re lucky I suppose.”

Seb’s eyes widen under how that could come across as the wrong thing to say. He only has to really look at Robert to know he’s gone through things that are the unluckiest of all.

“To have you, yeah.” Robert looks like a dad when he stares. He shakes his head. “And Aaron, and …” He looks content for the first time since Seb’s seen him, his knee doesn’t bounce, and his eyes don’t look filled with something bad. He looks happy.

“I told my mum I don’t mind staying here for a bit … longer.”

Seb tries not to make it sound like a big deal, but he knows it is. He knows because Robert squeezes his arm and nods his head and says it sounds amazing.

“Haven’t scared you off yet then?” Robert sounds half jokey half serious.

Seb bites his lip, thinks about the fact that maybe he should be wary. He’s only sitting here because Robert had a one night stand, was a cheater, and a liar and probably destroyed a lot of things. He thinks about this guy, this nameless man that Robert’s responsible for killing. He thinks of all of it and then shakes his head.

 

*

 

Apparently Aaron and Robert can’t hold the herd off for any longer which means they have their dinner in the pub, and he gets bombarded by the faces he saw from yesterday. It’s a lot, and Robert acts his own personal bodyguard through half of it. Especially when some old guy gives him this manky boot and tells him to drink from it.

“Alright Sam enough with …”

“You had one when you were little.” Sam’s jolly, practically bounces as he talks and then he looks at some other woman as she comes over her towards them.

She says her name’s Chas. She looks like she wants to smoother him in kisses but also give him enough space to breathe. She shoves her kid in front of his face too and does that silly thing and asks if he remembers her at all.

Seb shakes his head, and then Eve’s shoving her phone in front of his face.

“You can add me on everything.” Eve says with a shrug.

Seb just sort of stares, looks down at the phone and then up at her crazy brown hair and even darker eyes. Then he gets down to adding himself on all her socials. She buys him a coke and says that she can because her mum still owns the place. He sits with her through the commotion of names.

“That’s uncle Cain.” Eve points to some old guy in a leather jacket sipping a pint. He looks up, smiles at Seb like he really wants him to know that means something and then Eve’s direction his attention towards Cain’s son Isaac that looks at him like he’s some long-lost relic or something. “Oh and that’s …”

“Giving Seb a run through then?”

Seb looks up and sees Liv. She suddenly looks shy, and older than she did yesterday as she runs a hand through her hair and tucks it behind her ears. She almost crouches as him and Eve sit in the booth and Seb’s grateful when she decides not to.

“I’m …”

“Aaron and Robert told me who you are.” Seb blurts out. “Sorry. Um. I didn’t mean to …”

Liv pulls this face, looks so moved it’s weird. “You don’t apologise for anything kid.” She says.

“Remember she said that Seb.” Eve chimes in, yanking her head up from her phone and then she’s practically being chased around the pub for it by her mum who keeps saying she’s way too old to be playing these games.

Seb stays where he is, and Liv takes Eve’s place like she was always going to wait to. He looks up at her and thinks about how she really doesn’t need to be here, how in the grand scheme of things, he’s her older brother’s ex step son from way way back and yet she says she came down from London especially to see him.

“Couldn’t believe it when Aaron said you were here.” Liv tells him. Seb stares at the stack of rings on one of her fingers and the way her nail polish shines. “I … it’s been such a long time since … since we all saw you.”

Seb looks up. “Must be weird.”

“Weirder for you.” Liv elbows him playfully. “Rob said Sam tried to make you drink from the welly.”

“That’s a thing?”

Liv laughs and it’s something that makes him smile.

 

*

 

Eventually they get to eat in relative peace and the welcomes die out into goodbyes and promises to go round to the Mill whenever they can. Aaron looks like the idea is the last thing he wants and Seb wonders how recluse him and Robert are. They sort of look it. They really do now actually, Seb’s looking down at his phone and realising he’s being added to some group chat by Eve and then he looks up and sees them both snogging by the toilets like a couple of lovestruck fools.

They’re just all hands and soft whispers and Seb wonders if prison makes you suddenly not care about hiding once you’re actually free. He supposes that’s exactly what Robert is. He’s free.

The fact that he doesn’t look it half the time is something that Seb tries to forget.

He doesn’t get to try for that long because Aaron comes back to the table and tells Seb if he’s ready to get heading home.

“I mean back to ours. Sorry.”

Aaron’s nervous and unsure and sorry a lot.

“You don’t have to be sorry.” Seb says, he makes a point of looking right at Aaron and sort of smiling.

Aaron smiles, goes and grabs his coat. Seb watches Robert leaving, saying something about getting some snacks in for them and Seb seizes the opportunity.

“Robert told me about my mum and him and … everything.” Seb says it as quickly as possible and Aaron lets go of his coat before clearing his throat and sitting down slowly.

“OK.” Aaron’s eyes flicker. “I hope it didn’t … upset ya, because …”

“You chose him.” Seb speaks like a proper adult now and he’s not sure if it was talking to Liv or seeing the look on Aaron and Robert’s face across the room as Cain awkwardly shook his hand, or even how Sam just wouldn’t leave the welly thing alone, but his heart’s doubled in size since being here.

Aaron frowns slightly.

“You didn’t have to get back together with him or forgive him or anything, but you did. And you took me on.”

Aaron bites hard on his lip and his eyes are all watery. “How could I do anything but hmm?” He gently runs a hand over Seb’s hair and then gives him this dad look.

Seb blushes red. “You didn’t have to.” He gulps thickly. “Not then. Not now either.” He can’t get his head around it. “I’m just a kid your ex used to see.”

Aaron leans away slightly. “You were never that.” He says. “You were a son to me.” He wipes his face. “And when I couldn’t see you, I had to try and move on but every November 9th I thought about bombing it down the motorway to see you.”

Seb sniffs. “Yeah?”

Aaron brings his hand out and squeezes Seb’s. “Yes.” He says. “Because me and Rob, we know what it’s like to not feel wanted, to feel like …” He drops his head and Seb feels his hand grow clammy. “But the whole reason why Robert didn’t just run away from everything is because he wanted you to know he did the right thing by handing himself in. You know?”

Seb thinks of how that sort of makes sense and also how having a dad on the run would have probably been a whole lot worse than this. With that, there isn’t any sort of time frame. Yeah it’s way cooler to tell people but Seb’s trying to be mature about this isn’t he.

“I don’t … he doesn’t look like he’d do something like that.” Seb admits.

Aaron frowns like he doesn’t understand and then he gets it, sits up just a little. “He never meant to.” He says seriously. “He shouldn’t have gone anywhere near the idiot.” He breathes in sharply; he’s probably said all this so many times in the past. It’s been ages but it’s still something that gets him all worked up then.

Seb wants to ask why Robert did, why he hated him so much he whacked a shovel over his head and killed him. He wants to ask but there’s still something that tells him that he shouldn’t, not yet anyway.

“Aaron.”

Aaron looks up, nods steadily. “Yeah mate?”

“Would you have stayed with him? If he wasn’t moved to the Isle of Wight.”

That’s really important to him suddenly. He stares down and sees Aaron playing with his wedding ring, stroking gently and then he’s nodding his head.

“Would have gone anywhere with him if he let me.” Aaron’s all sad suddenly and Seb thinks about all the lost time him and Robert have had. He thinks about them being old and boring and probably wanting to celebrate every single anniversary of theirs and then suddenly not having the chance.

He feels something ache in his chest because of it.

“I’m sorry.” Seb blurts out.

Aaron frowns. “Hey, don’t say that.” He tells him. he finally lets go of Seb’s hand and runs it through Seb’s hair again. He stares at him for a second, just really stares.

“What?”

“You look like him so much you know.”

Seb dips his head and then Aaron’s leaning away again.

“All of this … I don’t know … it must be hard to wrap your head around new faces and everything else but …”

“You’re alright.” Seb shrugs a little and Aaron gives him this smile that makes him feel like he’s three years old again.

“Even my mad mum?” Aaron tilts his head and Seb teases for a second before nodding.

Aaron looks at him like he wants to tell Seb he loves him or something. Seb can tell. He can feel it.

He doesn’t mind.

 

*

 

Seb’s not eavesdropping but he hears what he hears, and it makes something in his heart thump a little harder. He sees Robert by the sink, and it must be three in the morning but he’s there and he’s breathing all funny and then Aaron’s moving a hand up and down his back.

“It’s OK, you’re OK.”

“Aaron you shouldn’t have to ...”

“What? Be here with you? Well tough.”

Seb hears how Aaron’s speaking, practically feels his desperation as he moves a hand up to cup the back of Robert’s neck.

“I didn’t mean to ...”

“It’s fine.” Aaron’s quicker than Robert is with his words. He gets in there first and Seb’s grateful because he doesn’t like to think about Robert thinking Aaron deserves better.

He doesn’t even know them both properly yet but he does know that Robert’s said something like that before and then there’s been divorce papers and sadness and loss.

“I could have hurt you.”

Seb’s eyes widen, and suddenly he’s imagining Robert thrashing around in bed or something. He hadn’t heard a thing. It makes his heart twist as he thinks about Aaron and Robert trying to keep quiet, trying not to scare him or something.

“You didn’t.” Aaron has hands falling, and stroking Robert’s face, tilting his chin up and making him listen or something. “I’m hard as nails.” He shrugs.

“Because I’ve made you have to be.” Robert shudders, and Seb thinks he’s close to crying. It makes him want to turn away, makes him want to stay put at the exact same time.

“No.” Aaron whispers and then he clears his throat. “You need to see someone.”

Robert raises his head and Aaron’s hands fall flat against his chest. “No.” He says. “No, there’s nothing they’ll say that will ...”

“What if it gets worse?”

Seb watches as Robert turns his head to the side like he’s almost pretending he can’t hear Aaron. It makes Seb want to shake him, want to ask what is it exactly that’s getting worse and then he’s realising just as quickly as Aaron says the word ‘nightmares’ and it makes him want to do something.

It makes Seb want to charge into the room and tell Robert that prison’s shit and he shouldn’t be spending any more of his energy on thinking about it. He suddenly has all this stuff he wants to say but he hangs back.

He watches as time goes by and Aaron seemingly manages to kiss away Robert’s fears and worries long enough for them to stand their hugging like it isn’t three in the morning or anything.

Seb stays for a little longer just to watch, to check, to be in the moment or whatever and then he’s spending the next few hours wide awake and thinking of how much Robert might not be the same as he was before.

He suddenly hates that he didn’t know the before.

That he can’t remember the before even if his life depended on it.

Seb’s sure the old Robert is still there; sure he hasn’t disappeared or anything and Aaron holding his hand and being there is probably doing him the world of good and yet —

Prison’s still shit for taking Robert in and spitting him right back out again.

It’s all Seb thinks of before his phone vibrates and he looks down to see that Eve and that Isaac are texting each other on their group chat.

Isaac sends a picture of his dad half asleep on the sofa with his mouth wide open.

Seb smiles down at it before replying.

 

*

 

Finn rings him early the next morning using his mum’s phone and Seb knows that his mum’s close by just to pick up on everything.

“Are they weird?”

Seb laughs. “Nah. They do kiss a lot though, and cry. And they hold hands all the time.”

It makes Finn laugh and then he’s asking about what the village looks like and Seb disappoints him by saying how boring it is.

“Aaron fixes cars and Robert does some weird event things I don’t know. They’re actually …”

Seb thinks about calling them ‘cool’ for a second and then he stops himself because Finn would only laugh at him.

 

*

 

He finally meets Victoria and she’s the first person to actually do the squeezing the life out of him thing. 

She’s tiny and has this smile on her face that won’t budge as she looks at Seb and then back at Robert and Aaron.

“This doesn’t seem real.” Victoria tells them, and then she’s looking back at Seb with these big round eyes and asking him if he knows about her at all.

Seb’s stumped for a second and then he feels this wave of emotion whack him right over the head. “I got all your cards and stuff.” He tells her. “Mum … she said you were a friend of hers.”

Vic looks back at Aaron and Robert like she’s silently communicating something to them. She’s probably surprised or something.

“I’m so sorry you couldn’t see us but look.” Vic waves like a kid. “We’re all here now and we’re not letting you go.”

“Don’t let my mum hear you say that.” Seb jokes, actually jokes and everyone laughs for his benefit or something. He dips his head and then gets properly introduced to Harry who looks like he’s a lot tinier, a lot shyer too. He reminds Seb of Finn for a second as he takes him in.

He looks like Victoria, has faint freckles like Seb does too, only his hair is darker. They look like proper cousins and that word Family crops up in Seb’s mind again.

The cake Victoria pushes in front of him, and the photos of him and Harry she shows when they were just little, and the way Aaron kisses Robert quietly in the corner of the room when he thinks no one is looking, makes all of this feel like something Seb might belong too.

He doesn’t mind at all now.

 

*

 

Harry’s room is a shrine to the planets and Seb would call it geeky if he was being mean, but he isn’t. Instead he sits on his bed and checks out the telescope Harry’s got chilling by his window like that’s completely normal.

“You actually see anything with this?”

Harry nods. “See loads of stuff.” He tells Seb, and then he’s yanking at Seb’s shoulders and pulling him down so that he can stare out and see the faint traces of the moon trying to peak through the sky when it shouldn’t be out yet.

Harry bangs on for ages about the fact that the moon is always there and then he’s explaining about stars and planets and everything. Seb sits and listens like the good older cousin he wants to be and then he has to change the subject before he’s ready to take his GCSE science exam.

“Who’s that?” Seb points to the picture Harry has on his dressing table. He recognises Victoria, and Harry in the middle but then there’s this other guy who can only assume is Harry’s dad. He’s in fancy dress, smiling through a white beard. “Your dad?” He guesses, puts it out there and apparently it’s the wrong thing to say and no one bothered to give him the heads up.

“He’s um … he’s dead.”

Seb has loads of mates who have dads who just aren’t around, that are weekend ones or holiday ones or just plain invisible ones, but he hasn’t known anyone who’s dad is dead, and it rocks him a little.

“I’m … sorry about that.”

Harry looks like he’s sad because he should be and Seb wants his psychology degree to be posted, not emailed, to him right this minute for recognising it.

“It’s fine. He died before I was even born.” Harry shrugs a little like it’s really nothing at all and then he sits on the bed next to Seb. “Do you know Aaron’s my godfather?”

Seb shakes his head, wants to tell Harry that he doesn’t know anything about anyone, and everyone should know that by now. He settles on just the shake of the head and nothing more. “That’s cool.”

Harry nods. “He’s been more like a dad … than anyone I think.”

Seb doesn’t know whether to feel jealous or not and then he realises who the man in the picture actually is. It must have been taken at Christmas and it’s Aaron dressed in some stupid Santa outfit, white beard and everything. Harry’s a lot smaller than he is now and Seb imagines Aaron doing everything with him like he should have done with him.

He doesn’t know what to say for a second.

“Then Robert came back.” Harry speaks like he’s reciting his life story and Seb sits back, lets him as he crosses his legs over and tilts his head.

“You know where he was?” Harry nods like what they’re talking about is really serious. “And … why?”

Harry plays with the hem of his jumper. “He did something really bad because he thought he was protecting us.” He says. “But he’s sorry.”

Seb nods at that. “He looks it. All the time.”

“Used to cry as well.” Harry looks up at Seb. “He lived here before Aaron said he couldn’t have him live anywhere else but with him.” It sounds a little romantic but Seb doesn’t think about that. “He had the box room, and he’d cry all the time and say they took everything he had.”

“Who did?” Seb whispers.

“Prison.” Harry shrugs. “I think.”

“And then … then Aaron was there for him?”

Harry clearly knows way more than Seb gave him credit for. He goes on about the fact that Aaron would sleep on the floor of the box room just so that Robert wasn’t alone, and then he’d pretend like they were only friends because he had someone already.

“Was the guy Aaron was with … nice?”

Harry pulls a face. “Gave me money every time he saw me.” Seb pulls a face. “Mum said he was too nice, or boring or something. That Aaron deserved it, but he deserved having Rob back more.”

“And then he did?”

Harry smiles. “He banged on the door at like ten at night and told Robert if he doesn’t pack a bag and come back home with him he’s going to break the door down.”

Seb laughs at it, and then he imagines it for a second.

“Then he said all this soppy stuff.” Harry rolls his eyes and then pulls a face.

“I don’t think Robert … thinks Aaron should be sticking around.” Seb admits, he chews his lip and waits for Harry to say something as his heart thuds hard in his chest.

Harry shrugs. “That’s because of what prison did. But he’ll get better at believing.” He sounds like he’s reciting everything Victoria has told him. Seb can’t do anything other than nod his head along. “And now he’s found you again so …”

“So what?” Seb frowns.

Harry looks just like Victoria as he smiles. “He’s got his family back I suppose.”

Seb smiles faintly.

 

*

 

Isaac’s a tiny bit older than him but he definitely acts as if it’s years and not less than a month. He looks hard as nails half the time, looks like he’s ready to break someone’s legs Eve says but he’s alright really.

They’re in the garage now, and Seb should be getting back home because Robert’s cooking them tea but he’s not moved yet. Instead he’s watching Isaac mess around with a tire and a spanner and pretend like he knows what he’s doing.

Apparently he’s doing work experience.

Seb suddenly feels like shit for not even thinking about any of that. His mum wants him to go to university, Ross says it doesn’t really matter and now he’s starting to wonder why Aaron and Robert would think about it.

Isaac looks up at him and frowns when he asks if he’s thinking of going.

“For what?”

Seb shrugs.

“Well my mum says I should, so does Matty but it looks like a waste of time.” Isaac pulls this face again. “I bet your dad wants you to go.” Seb just sort of stares. “Robert.” He laughs. “Just realised I have to specify with you.”

Seb almost hardens. “It ain’t funny.”

Isaac frowns again, puts down the spanner and then actually softens just like Eve says Cain does all the time. “I know it ain’t.” He sits on the bonnet of a car and Seb imagines Aaron losing his mind over them mucking about in here, even if it’s near closing time. “Aaron’s sound, proper sound.”

“And Robert?” Seb’s heart thumps for some reason.

Isaac smiles a little. “Dad says he’s a good man so that says it all I think. Plus, he isn’t making Aaron a wreck anymore.” He says it like it’s nothing and then Seb’s face says it all. “He was bad apparently, when Robert was moved. Like proper lost it. Got blind drunk half the time, pushed everyone away, put himself in danger and didn’t even care.”

Seb can imagine. He actually can because sometimes he catches Aaron looking at Robert like he’s still petrified of losing him or something. It’s like it takes over everything and creeps right around his heart, won’t let go until he touches him or something.

“Must have really loved him then I suppose.”

Isaac nods slowly. “Way too much I think.” He looks around. “My dad said they got married in here you know?”

Seb really thinks he’s heard it all.

“What?”

Isaac huffs out a laugh. “Yeah. Said their vows and everything apparently.” He shrugs. “Maybe that’s why my dad sold it to him when he did.”

“When did he?”

Isaac sits, thinking for a second. “A while ago. Aaron practically bit his hand off, said my dad would never know what it meant to him. I didn’t get it then but … sort of do now.”

Seb thinks it sounds as if everything goes back to Robert for Aaron and vice versa and his head spins as he realises that time for them seemed to be this massive illusion. It’s been fourteen years and yet they’re right back to how it was all that time ago. He doesn’t get it half the time, doesn’t want to get it.

He thinks love like theirs is crazy. Absolutely crazy.

 

*

 

His mum texts him, on the fourth day when they’re at the cricket pavilion playing football and Seb’s taking a picture of ‘Aaron woz here’ etched into the wood of the shed that’s very much on its last leg. Aaron keeps telling him to be careful until Robert’s telling him to calm down and they’re messing around with the football like a couple of kids.

Seb sees the text from his mum, the one that asks if he wants to come home tomorrow and he thinks about the fact that he doesn’t feel this need to leave.

The air here smells of farm, and Eve’s perpetual talking is a constant irritant, and yet he likes the place. He likes the garage, and the fact that Aaron still lives in the place that Seb did when he was a little baby, and the fact that he’s raked in a whole heap of cash from the millions of Dingles who want to make up for missed birthdays.

Seb stares up, sees Robert staring at Aaron like he’s the moon and stars before leaning in and kissing him gently. Aaron squeezes Robert’s arm and he hears him say something like “I missed your laugh” and Seb should think it’s disgusting but when he considers how tragic everything seems to be when it comes to them both, he decides to just look away.

“Oi Seb, are we beating him or what?” Aaron shouts after a few seconds, right against the wind and the fact that it’s probably going to pour down any minute now.

I think I’ll stay until the end of the week.

Seb texts back, already knowing the ‘think’ is a ‘I know’ as he runs towards where Robert’s waving his arms about like he’s an actual goalie.

 

*

 

Seb wakes with a start when he hears the sound of a glass smashing. He sits up in bed and wonders if he’s the one that’s caused the noise and then he doesn’t have to wonder anymore.

He can hear Aaron; his voice is strong and constant. He keeps saying things over and over again and Seb can’t just sit up in bed and listen to it. He gets up, hovers close to his door and opens it just slightly before leaning out and seeing Aaron pressing his forehead towards Robert’s as they sit up in their bed.

Aaron’s not got a top, and Robert’s hands squeeze down on Aaron’s naked shoulders as he breathes in and out. He looks like he’s having a hard time doing that though. Breathing.

It makes Seb panic slightly and then Aaron’s rubbing Robert’s back like he always seems to do.

“It’s OK.” Aaron tells him. “You’re with me, not there, with me.” He whispers the words so gently, over and over and over and Robert doesn’t seem to move at all.

He just sits, frozen, looking like he’s had the rug pulled out from under him and Seb wants to hug him. He does. He wants to run into the room and tell Robert that it’s really going to be OK, and that he really is safe.

Seb wonders if Robert’s never going to feel safe again. It makes everything inside him hurt so he pushes the thought down and sees Aaron’s hands falling through Robert’s hair.

Seb stares, wonders if it’s getting worse like Aaron said it might if he doesn’t go and see someone. Doesn't sit and talk about what’s going on in that head of his like that will help.

It might.

Maybe Aaron’s done it. Maybe that’s how he knows.

Robert eventually speaks. “I ... I think it was when you touched me. I don’t know.”

Aaron looks like he wants to burst out crying. His shoulders fall and Seb wonders if he should be listening to this, but something tells him not to look away.

“Well then we can go back to me sleeping on the ...”

“No I don’t want that.” Robert says it likes it’s the worst thing in the absolute world and Seb feels so sorry for him it’s a joke. “I want you here, I want you here.” He whispers.

Aaron sniffles, looks all relieved and then he asks Robert if he can touch him. Robert nods and Aaron stretches his arms right around Robert, pulls him into a hug.

“You’re safe.”

“I know I am.” Robert says. He tucks his face right into the crook of Aaron’s neck and then leans away again. “You shouldn’t have to ask to touch me.” He squeezes his eyes shut like he’s embarrassed.

Aaron almost scowls. “Shut up.” He says. Then he holds Robert’s hand. “You’re OK when we ... you know ...”

Seb could do without them talking about sex. He’s blocked out what he’s heard over the last four days. They’re at it all the time it seems.

“Of course I am.” Robert says quickly. “Aaron, it’s not you.”

Aaron nods slowly.

Seb almost does too because he also knows it’s not Aaron, it’s prison.

Robert suddenly moves his hand away from Aaron’s and groans. “God what if Seb heard the glass break?”

Seb’s shoulders tighten and he suddenly tries hard not to breathe or make too much noise.

Aaron shakes his head. “He’s fast asleep. Eve and Isaac and Harry probably knackered him out with all their texting.”

Robert doesn’t look convinced and Seb thinks about him clearly not wanting his son to know he has nightmares about a place he was forced to call home for over a decade. He thinks about how Robert wanted everything to be perfect and complete again.

Seb hates how Robert’s brain won’t seem to let that properly happen.

“I can’t have him knowing about this.” Robert tells Aaron. He says it like the thought is unfathomable.

Aaron tuts. “He’d understand.” He says. “He’s not a little kid anymore, he ... he knows you’ve been through –”

“He knows I left him.” Robert spits. He looks angry, for the first time since Seb’s properly known him he looks angry. “He knows I killed someone and — and now I’m meant to be past all that and wanting to be in his life.”

“This doesn’t change ...”

“Of course it does because it looks like I’m not coping and he’ll ...”

Seb won’t hate him. He won’t judge him. Maybe he won’t understand it, but he doesn’t need to.

“It’s meant to be perfect for him. I’m not meant to be — be a let down, or some liability, some freak who ...”

“Hey.” Aaron speaks like he really wants Robert to listen. “You’re not any of that. I see the way he looks at you.” Seb blushes hard at that. “He wants to be here doesn’t he?”

Robert breathes in. “I can’t let him down Aaron.” He says like he hasn’t bothered taking in any of what’s just been said.

Aaron’s shoulders slump and he drags Robert in for a hug again. Seb watches as Aaron gets out of bed and he has to lean back, close his door and listen to the sound of a dustpan and brush sweeping up shards of glass.

Seb gets back into bed and feels this need to protect whack him over the head.

 

*

 

“Harry wants to show me his new bike, mind if I go for a …” Seb’s halfway through a sentence when he looks around Aaron and Robert’s door and sees Aaron sat on the floor near his bed looking through a box of pictures. He’s all delicate with them and Seb thinks about the stash his mum had kept of him in the loft.

Aaron looks up, looks a little startled too. “Oh. Hey mate, you want something for lunch? I can rustle us up something or we can go to the pub or …”

Seb shakes his head slowly. “No, I’m meeting Harry, looking at his new bike.”

Aaron seems to really smile at that. “You two getting on then?”

Seb supposes they are.  “Yeah.” He says and then he looks down at the photo Aaron’s holding. “Is that the garage?”

He can make out tires and cars and assumes, and then Aaron’s shaking his head. “Nah this was … the scrapyard.”

“A scrapyard?”

Aaron nods. “I used to own one, Robert was an investor.” Seb frowns. “It’s a long story.” Seb’s starting to wonder what isn’t. He comes closer as Aaron shows him the picture and he sees himself, sitting on some tractor with a massive hard hat on that’s bigger than his head. He’s grinning though and his hair is this faint ginger colour he remembers his mum loving.

“I looked happy.” Seb almost says it to himself, only Aaron hears, and he’s forced to gulp hard.

“Yeah you were.” Aaron says, “Always were when you had jam sandwiches and could sit on that tractor and watch me smash up cars. Robert used to freak out that you’d start hitting if you saw me do it to cars all the time.”

Seb rolls his eyes and then his eyes flicker as he realises that it does sound like something Robert would say, and he can realise that. Maybe he knows him properly already.

“But you loved it.” Aaron says it almost to himself.

“What happened to the place?” Seb asks.

Aaron looks really sad suddenly and he pulls the box onto his lap before shrugging. “I … it just got a bit too much after a while.” He shrugs. “I couldn’t be there, but I couldn’t bare letting it go too.” He gulps hard. “Robert saved my life there once.” Seb knows not to ask what he hell he’s on about. “But I had to just … move on.”

“Like with that guy you were with?”

Aaron pulls this face.

“Harry mentioned …”

“Better than from Eve I suppose.” Aaron sighs.

“She’s a gossip.”

“She’s my mum.” Aaron says, but there’s no real heat in his voice so Seb carries on.

“Were you … with him long?”

Aaron plays with his hands suddenly. “Yeah. Bit.” He breathes in. “It was good, I was … I had the garage and everything but then … Robert waltzed back in and I had to … I couldn’t not be near him suddenly. It was like it didn’t matter that so much time had passed. Not at all. And I always thought it would.”

Seb gulps thickly. “So you just … Harry said you just … got back with Robert.”

Aaron huffs. “I tried to just be his friend but that’s never really been our thing.” He says. “So we got back together, after he tried convincing me it was the wrong decision.”

“Why?”

Aaron’s eyes flicker and then he bends his head. “Nothing.” He says, but that’s clearly wrong. He looks down and then gets out another picture, this one is of the garage.

“Isaac said you got married in there.”

Aaron warms slightly. “Yeah we did.” He tilts his head, “It wasn’t really planned but it was … it was just us.”

“In a garage?” Seb pulls a face and can’t really get the romance of it all. Aaron laughs. “And now you own it.”

“We both do now.” Aaron whispers. “Finally.”

“Finally?”

“Seemed right I suppose. Then Cain was selling and he just … gave me the keys.” Aaron strokes a hand through another couple of photos. “And Robert could have somewhere to go when he was out, and things got …”

Aaron stops again, almost like he catches himself and realises that he should stop. Seb gulps hard and he breathes in before deciding to just ask.

“Too much?” Seb whispers the words. “Is he alright?”

Aaron yanks his head up and Seb looks into his eyes so deeply that Aaron has to look away. “Of course he is.”

Seb gulps hard. “It’s just … well I …”

“Did you hear …” Aaron looks like he wants to cry suddenly, his shoulders sag and his eyes widen and Seb thinks about the fact that to them, he’s their little boy, the one they’ve not been able to protect for years, the one that want to make up for lost time with. He wants to say yeah, he heard last night but something tells him not to, tells him to indulge them in their clear need to protect him from things.

“No.” Seb says. “It’s just … he always has to have a shower at ten doesn’t he? And … I’ve seen the way his knee bounces all the time and how loud noises aren’t his thing.”

Aaron almost looks relieved. “He’s just transitioning.” He whispers. “Prison’s … not a great place.”

“I know that.” Seb says easily, and then he frowns. “Do you?”

Seb doesn’t know what it feels like to know his dad, and his other dad have been in prison. It’s something that makes him wonder about that lost look Aaron has in his eyes sometimes.

“Not for as long as him. Ages ago.” Aaron shakes his head. “Robert got me out early.” He talks like he’s really remembering it all suddenly. “But it was hard. Even with me being a Dingle in there.”

Seb bites his lip. “Robert doesn’t talk about it.” He blurts it out suddenly and Aaron’s back to looking all sad.

“It’s a lot for him to have to do mate.” Aaron pulls a hand through Seb’s hair and sighs. “Because it was so hard for him.” The tears come, of course they do. “Even if he was all savvy and cashing in favours here and there.” He almost smiles and then Seb is too.

“Was he?”

Aaron nods eagerly. “You’re da— Robert’s the smartest bloke I’ve ever met.”

Seb wipes a hand over his face. “But he still …” He stops himself. “But it’s still prison right?”

Aaron breathes in. “fraid so.” He whispers.

Seb dips his head slightly. “Is he not the same?” He thinks about the fact that Harry’s probably wondering where he is right about now, but he can’t move until he’s tiptoed around realities he knows Aaron would much rather forget.

Aaron wipes his face again, roughly pushing back tears. “No.” He says it like it aches him, it’s just the tiniest little whisper and then he sniffles. “No, he’s better.” Seb wasn’t expecting that. “He was amazing, and brave and – and the most selfless person in the end back then and now … now he’s all of that and more.” He tilts his head. “You probably don’t want to be sitting here listening me to be all mushy.”

Seb gulps hard. “I was going to … see about Harry’s …”

Bike. Yes.” Aaron waves a hand up. “Go have fun.” He smiles.

Seb stands slowly and gets to the edge of the door before turning around again. “Robert’s lucky to have you here, when things get too much.” He says suddenly.

Aaron’s shoulders sag and he bites his lip. “And you.” He whispers. “And don’t you go thinking you being around is making it all a bit too much even more. He’s got so much b— happier, complete, all that mushy stuff.”

Seb breathes in and then he turns away again.

 

*

 

Seb thinks of that word complete for ages.

He thinks about the fact that he really thought that Robert and Aaron would have their whole lives sorted by now and that he was going to be the add on, the extra or something. It’s sort of that, but it’s also painfully obvious that they’re still floating through this wave. It’s still clear that prison’s stamped all over them, left them holding onto each other so tightly and not wanting to let go.

He’s in the backroom of the pub with Eve and Isaac and Harry playing some video game that Eve’s got. Isaac’s not allowed a go because he called Eve bossy so he’s just sat there with his face in his phone banging on about the fact that they should be allowed free drinks in here because of her.

“My mum would kill you. And me. And probably Cain too for some reason.”

“I didn’t say booze.”

“And I didn’t say I care.” Eve shoots Isaac a look before she’s back killing zombies and Seb’s waiting his turn like the good kid he is. His turn does come, and then they all get bored of it and somehow the conversation goes back to how Seb’s fitting in.

“The actual village is almost shockingly boring.” Seb shrugs and apparently it’s the understatement of the year.

“At least you’ve got Robert working up at that fancy house.” Eve stretches her legs out and then spends ages complaining about the fact that watching Aaron fix cars or her mum pour pints or her dad inject a rabbit’s arse, is really the worst thing in the world about living here.

“Suppose.” Seb shrugs.

“Reggie used to take pictures of …”

Harry’s eyes widen. “Why mention him for?” He almost kicks Eve and she almost lamps him one in return.

Seb looks between them and Isaac finally feels in the gaps by telling him that Reggie was Aaron’s ex.

Reggie?” Seb almost laughs.

“Photographer bloke.” Isaac shrugs and then looks down at his phone again.

Seb thinks Reggie sounds like an idiot and he doesn’t even know him, but he hates him a little. Maybe it’s because his name is Reggie, or because he was with Aaron and that makes no sense in his head. Seb thinks that Aaron and Robert are the type to just properly belong together, be with no one else, and everything.

“Sounds annoying.” Seb pulls an arm around his middle.

“Look who’s suddenly protective over his dads.” Eve’s eyes practically sparkle and Seb looks away. “Don’t worry, me and Harry made sure to get him out the way.”

“Out the way?”

Isaac lifts his head again. “Robert turned up. Was sad. Then Aaron was sad ‘cause he was sad. Then these two made sure Reggie knew what was going on.”

Eve smirks. “Maybe he came home too early and Aaron was hugging Robert.” She’s an absolute menace. Seb’s decided.

“Should be … thanking you lot then.” Seb decides to say, awkward as ever.

Eve shrugs. “Would have happened anyway. Like getting you back and trying for …” She stops talking and Isaac looks up from his phone again like she’s started to say something she probably shouldn’t even know herself.

“What was that?” Seb says, because yeah the grown ups can lie to him but not these lot.

“Might as well finish now you’ve started.” Isaac says.

Eve sighs. “Mum said they want a kid now Seb’s back.”

Seb sits up straighter at that. There’s this ticking in his mind as he thinks about what she means, what it all means really.

“A kid or a baby?” Harry says, clearly trying to narrow down their whole conversation.

Eve looks at him. “I don’t know I just overhead.”

“Overheard what?”

“How they want to start a family or – be complete or something like that. Aaron only told mum because he thought I wasn’t listening so …”

Isaac sits back. “Right.” He frowns slightly and then looks at Seb. “You alright with that?”

The answer is no. The answer is he knows what it feels like and he doesn’t want to think about it.

It wasn’t a bloody dog they were after then.

 

*

 

Seb’s not sure why he cares. He’s known Aaron and Robert less than a week and yet it feels like ages. It feels like he’s actually part of something and now he isn’t and he wants to blame them for making him feel like that and it only ever being some sort of hurdle until they were ready for the real thing.

A baby.

One that gives them another chance after the mess they made of being dads to him.

It all leaves him sad, and hurt, and lost and he ends up walking around aimlessly for hours until he’s walking back into the Mill and watching as Robert and Aaron sit huddled together on the sofa and staring at the laptop between them.

Robert looks up in surprise. “Where’ve you been?” He blurts out.

Seb doesn’t say anything. Then Aaron looks at Robert, pulls this face.

“I mean it’s only eight.” Aaron looks like he isn’t really sure what he’s saying. “So um. That isn’t … I don’t know how late that is for …”

“If it was a school night I’d be pushing it.” Seb says. “But it’s not that bad during the half term.” He breathes in and then frowns. “You want to write that down? Take anymore notes?”

Robert’s eyes flicker. “What?”

“Have you got a survey for me to fill out or something?”

Aaron instantly gets up. “Hey, hey, what’s happened?”

Seb’s eyes are wet suddenly and he feels like he’s already becoming more like Aaron and Robert than he thought he would.

Robert stands too suddenly; he looks like he doesn’t know what to do or say. He looks so helpful against his son crying and Seb hates the fact that he believes that they both care about him.

“Why couldn’t you just tell me I was a practice run?”

Aaron stares blankly. “A – a practice …”

“You want a kid and that’s why you went to get me, to try it out again.” Seb breathes in. “Aaron’s had Harry, but you’ve had no one so you probably just …”

“Seb.” Robert looks like he’s just been punched right in the gut. He breathes in and then shakes his head slowly. “It’s not like that.”

“What you don’t want a kid?”

Aaron looks at Robert slowly. “That’s got nothing to do with us wanting you.”

Seb scoffs. “Yeah right.” He says, because suddenly he feels like he has to protect himself and he hasn’t had this feeling before. He’s always had all the protecting done for him, almost too much sometimes. “You’re probably looking at it all now.”

“We’re doing the online shop.” Robert whispers.

Seb would laugh if he wasn’t so far ahead in how he feels about all of this.

Aaron looks like he’s going to cry again, only this time Seb makes a point of looking away from him.

“Who told you about …” Robert starts speaking and then Aaron just shoots him a look and it’s clear that they both know who the culprit was. “Seb, we were going to tell you when everything was …”

“Was what? Was I going to walk into the room you kept saying was mine and find some baby in there instead?”

“Don’t be …” Aaron stops himself short. “No. No of course not. It’s …” He frowns. “Before everything happened …”  Seb hates the word ‘before’, he really really does. “We wanted another kid.” He waves a hand out. “We were so close.” He squeezes his eyes shut. “And then …”

“You had to settle for me. Or not actually even do that.” Seb scowls at Robert and Aaron dips his head down.

“Seb …” Robert breathes in heavily. “We wanted a football team; we wanted a mad house and you having brothers and sisters that would annoy the life out of you.” His chin wobbles and then he sighs. “But it didn’t happen. It couldn’t happen. Now everything’s different.” He shrugs. “We can … we can try at least.”

Seb should be really happy for them. He almost is.

“You don’t need me here then.” Seb sounds like he’s trying not to cry, and he has to get a grip. He really does. “Not now you’ve got it all sorted out and …”

Robert’s suddenly closer. “We need you first.” His hands shake a little as he cups Seb’s face gently. “We need you more than anything Seb. You’re our boy first. Before – before anything else we want.”

Seb reckons Robert used to be a sweet talker, could talk his way out of almost anything. He gets it a little now, almost tries not to believe what he’s actually saying and then Aaron comes closer to him to and he nods his head and it’s everything.

“I promise you.” Robert tells him. “You’re not a practice run, you’re not … not anything like that.” He shudders. “I’m so sorry if … if that’s how we’ve made you …”

Seb bites his lip. “I just.” He almost feels stupid now. “I got scared.” He’s suddenly four, suddenly about to just say what’s on his mind and not worry about how the adults will react.

Aaron’s shoulders flatten down and he shakes his head, tells him he has nothing to be scared about. “Come here.” Aaron whispers and then Seb’s hugging him for the first time. He’s awkward with it for a second and then his head presses into Aaron’s chest and breathes out slowly.

Seb leans away eventually and his mini meltdown seems to be forgotten over pizza and a horror film later that night. Robert’s made them these hot chocolates that are basically more cream and marshmallow’s than anything else. Aaron’s got his feet stuck out over Robert’s lap and they’re holding hands and laughing at something as Seb sits and watches like some weirdo.

They keep looking over too, keep checking in on him with little looks and soft smiles and Seb feels wanted in a way that he hasn’t had to ever really think about before.

“Do you want to adopt then?” Seb mumbles, halfway through some action scene in this weird film they’re watching.

Aaron looks up. “Well, no. We were going to try surrogacy again. See if we get any further with that.”

Seb suddenly feels like an idiot when he realises that they’re probably not going to hand over a baby to a convicted killer. He wonders if Robert hates how he’s ruled out an option like that, if it’s really just guilt that keeps him up at night.

“Have far have you …”

Robert gulps. “Well we’ve got a meeting in a couple of weeks with an agency. So we’ll … take one step at a time.” He says it and then kisses Aaron’s head and Seb’s sure that it’s their mantra or something.

It should be considering the things they’ve been through and how far they’ve come in a matter of only months.

“Keep me … posted.” Seb tells them, suddenly cautious about coming off too strong about all of this.

“Of course we will.” Robert says. “We sort of wanted to … do the whole look at that on the fridge thing with you.” Seb frowns. “You know, the scan.”

“If we get there.” Aaron has a hand on Robert’s thigh and strokes gently. “One step at a …”

Seb nods gently.

“And you know, we already know you’re going to be the best big brother ever.” Robert looks brighter, looks happier. Seb notices the way his knee isn’t shaking and he’s not staring at the clock to check whether they should be heading up to bed because it’s too late or something. He looks almost like the old him, the one Seb doesn’t even know. It doesn’t make sense and yet it does at the same time.

“Finn’s lucky to have you, just like we are and just like whatever baby we might have will be too.” Aaron tells him, like it’s so easy to, like it’s really something he just thinks.

Seb thinks about the fact that Aaron has all these worry lines, and this greyness to the edges of his hair and how Robert’s all muscly and toned from having to spend so long in prison but is also older, and frownier and has wrinkles right around his eyes.

The thought of them having a baby is something that might seem weird, might seem like some mid life crisis, but Seb stops when he thinks about the word considering and it really does apply to them. It might feel like that but considering what they’ve been through, it’s almost the best thing in the world.

 

*

 

“That’s my mum that.” Aaron hisses.

Seb opens his eyes and realises that he’s fallen asleep through the film and either Robert or Aaron have thrown a duvet over him. His eyes flicker as he sees it’s got printed little butterflies over it.

“And the fact that Eve really does work for MI5.”

“She’s just … I know she thinks we’re doing this too quickly or something.” Aaron sounds like it annoys him, like it’s something that he’s had to talk about before now. “But. It’s us.” He almost laughs.

Seb peers his head up and sees Aaron and Robert trying to talk in whispers in the kitchen. Robert has a hand on Aaron’s waist, and he smiles nervously.

“It’s us.” Robert repeats. “Everything stopped didn’t it.” He looks haunted. “And I don’t want to waste anymore time. I can’t bare that.”

“Neither can I.” Aaron blurts out. “You know I …”

“I know.” Robert says it all sadly.

Aaron frowns.

“You said it never happened, that you never got close with … with anyone to think about kids like that but it could have.”

“But it didn’t.”

“But it could have.”

Seb hears what he figures is the beginning of an argument or something and he doesn’t know what to do other than just lay there.

“And so what?” Aaron looks annoyed, he moves from the hand Robert has on his wait.

“So. You could have been happier than now; you could have had a kid Aaron.” Robert breathes in. “And I took that from you. I took Seb from you, and I took the chance of you …” He dips his head and then shakes his head. “I used to think, I sometimes used to hope that you had found someone, had a kid, got married, the lot.”

Aaron looks like he doesn’t even know what to say.

“It would have hurt like hell but – at least I would have known you were happy, and I didn’t … didn’t ruin your …”

“You need to stop saying that.” Aaron’s crying now, Seb can hear is stretched out in his voice. “Look at me.” He all but begs and Robert looks up. “Kid or no kid, we’ve got each other forever now.” He smiles weakly. “And Seb doesn’t hate us like you thought? I reckon he thinks we’re alright.”

Seb does. He really does.

“I just …” Robert has his forehead pressed against Aaron’s. “I want to make you so happy.”

Seb almost melts. They’ve made him go soft.

“You do.” Aaron whispers, and then he’s clinging onto Robert’s shirt and almost shaking him. “You make me so happy.”

Robert breathes in. “And sad.” He whispers. Then he leans back, and he has a hand through Aaron’s hair. “I’m sorry.”

“So am I. For the past.” Aaron wipes a hand over Robert’s face. “But it’s best left there ain’t it? We’ve got a future. We actually do.” He nods.

Seb thinks about how alien that thought probably was for them before now.

“Me, you, Seb, little kid maybe.” Aaron runs a hand through Robert’s hair and smiles.

“I don’t deserve you.” Robert says gently, and then Aaron’s telling him to shut up. Seb’s sure he keeps having to say it.

Aaron kisses Robert then, and then they’re just snogging by the sink and Seb thinks it’s his cue to start stirring and remind them that he’s in the room. It gets Robert pulling away and telling him to make sure to brush his teeth before going to bed like a proper dad.

Seb nods along sleepily and then hears Aaron’s laugh as he reaches the top of the stairs.

“You’re such a dad.” He hears Aaron whisper.

“I’m trying.”

“Yeah, well it’s working.” Aaron says and then they’re kissing again and Seb just shakes his head before walking into his room.

 

*

 

Seb says one tiny comment about the fact that he likes the colour dark green and it lands them in B&Q on a wet morning looking for paint for his room. Robert’s meticulous with it all, he keeps repeating the word ‘forest green’ and flicking through the catalogue of over 45 shades. Aaron’s taken to wheeling the empty trolley back and forth, pointing to a greenish paint pot and saying, “something like this?” to Seb whenever he can.

Eventually, they find one, they find the exact forest green they were after and it ends up having to be a whole family project as they get back to the Mill and find Liv there already moving everything out of Seb’s room.

Seb wonders if they brought everything brand new or if they kept certain things stored away. Seb can’t imagine Aaron explaining to boyfriends over the years that he’s still got his ex-stepson’s room in perfect order for him. But the bed doesn’t feel new, and the wardrobe still looks like it’s for a kid.

Robert ends up being a way better painter than Seb gave him credit for. He’s so careful with it at all and Aaron just gets out a roller and goes in any direction he wants to.

“Aaron, long strokes.” Robert says.

“Keep talking.” Aaron smirks, and Seb wants someone to pass him a sick bucket as they stare at each other like they want to start shagging against the wall.

“God get a room.” Liv comes in with a cup of tea in one hand and a roller in another. She practically grins at Seb. “You need to get used to that.” She whispers as she passes him.

Seb stares watching for a second as Robert points out that he painted the Mill all those years ago and Aaron points out that he repainted about a million times over the years. Aaron probably thought he had to, that it would be a good thing because it would be like moving on or whatever.

“Rob give it back.” Aaron’s suddenly ten years old, fighting over a paintbrush and laughing his head off as Robert mimics him.

Seb looks down one second and then when he looks up again Robert’s got paint in his hair and Aaron looks like he’s taken up face painting too. They’re both really laughing, and it’s really nice to see. Seb wants them to be happy like this for the rest of their lives.

He almost crosses his fingers against it.

 

*

 

He should have crossed his fingers.

He should have really crossed his fingers.

 

*

 

Aaron’s mum is past it according to Robert, but she still has glittery tops and a shrill voice as she bangs on about a pub quiz on Friday night. Seb doesn’t mind but Robert does, he hears him telling Aaron that it’s the last day of his half term and they should do something special.

It makes Seb remember too. He remembers the fact that he’s got school on Monday and all of this will be a memory instead of something bigger than that. He’s already decided to annoy his mum and ask to see them on weekends. He’s already decided that he wants to be theirs, wants to stay in that poxy group chat Eve’s obsessed with.

He wants it all.

It’s not like he’s going to tell anyone that though. He’s going to pretend like he’s a proper teenager who doesn’t care about absolutely anything and then he’s going to do all he can to stay in touch, keep them close. It makes him sound like a sap but so are Aaron and Robert, so it’s clearly just rubbed off on him.

In the end, Robert decides to share Seb so they go to the pub and sit in a booth answering questions that Seb will never know the answer too. He’s quickly realised that Robert’s the brains in the family, that Aaron answers the football questions and shrugs at almost everything else, and Seb’s role is somewhere in the middle. He sits sipping a coke until a question about ‘pop music’ comes up and they look at him like he holds all the answers.

“Don’t ask me.”

“You’ve always get your headphones on.” Robert frowns at him, he’s got such a dad voice on.

“Yeah. Not listening to that.” Seb says, and Aaron yanks the pen out of Robert’s grip. He guesses and Robert pulls a face and Seb sits there fighting back a laugh as he watches them squabble.

They get through it though, and Robert’s smug about the fact that they come first. Aaron squeezes Robert’s hand and smiles.

“Still got it then?”

Robert bites his lip. “Are we talking about my quizzing skills or something …”

Seb goes to pull a face, tells them to stop making him want to be sick and then he hears the sound of a glass smashing and Robert practically jumps out of his skin. Seb’s heart flips as he sees Aaron suddenly place a hand on Robert’s neck, stroke slowly.

“It’s just a glass.” Aaron tells him, like Robert doesn’t know.

Robert just keeps his head down and Seb looks at where the sound is coming from. His eyes turn towards a group of blokes near the entrance of the pub. They’re pretty rowdy and Aaron shoots them a look like he wants to punch them all in the face as they jeer and laugh and clearly just try to have a good Friday night.

Chas comes over, bends her head a little. “Do you want me to ask them to go?”

Robert raises his head suddenly. “Don’t be daft. I just … had a …”

Seb knows what he had, he had a moment, just like his mum sometimes has and he’ll be over it in a minute.

He should be anyway.

Only he isn’t, only one of the guys comes up to the bar just as Aaron tries to get them all another round of drinks and he says something that makes Aaron’s jaw lock. He looks like he’s a second from punching the idiot in the face and Seb practically begs Robert not to move, he begs him to stay sitting because it’s like he knows it won’t be good if he doesn’t.

And then it’s that sixth sense thing again, isn’t it.

Robert gets up, because the idiot is going on about them both leaving if they have a problem with noise in a pub and maybe the guy touches Robert’s arm, or his shoulder, or something but Seb can’t be sure because it all happens so quickly.

Suddenly the guy is on the floor and Robert’s over him, breathing hard and fast and Aaron has to drag him away.

Seb sits there with his eyes wide and face pale and he thinks about the fact that Robert isn’t an angry person. Robert’s funny, and clever, and damaged in a way that Seb hates but he isn’t like that. He isn’t like that and yet –

It’s the whole reason why Seb’s never had a dad.

Seb gets up slowly as he thinks about that, he hears Chas calling him, telling him to come back. Maybe she wants to explain the fact that Robert’s got a lot going on, or that he didn’t mean to do what he did, or that the bloke who’s still laid out on the floor is an idiot who will be fine.

Maybe maybe maybe.

But he doesn’t let her. Instead he keeps walking until he’s spotting Robert and Aaron near the Mill and he watches as Robert breathes all funny like he’s having a heart attack or something. He watches as Aaron tries to catch up to Robert and then his hand is on Robert’s shoulders. Seb’s grateful for a second and then he isn’t.

And then he feels his stomach roll in this awful way because Robert pushes Aaron away. And it’s hard. It’s so hard that he falls and Seb’s eyes instantly fill with tears.

He wants to scream no, wants Robert to stop so his feet go faster than they ever have before.

“What are you doing?” Seb shouts and Aaron tries to scramble to his feet. He’s got this small cut to the side of his face and Robert just stands above them both and looks like he’s numb, like he can’t hear or think or even see. “What are you doing?” Seb tries pushing at Robert, he doesn’t know why, he just feels this anger.

Aaron’s inbetween them suddenly. “Seb, no. No, it’s OK.”

“He just …”

Aaron keeps shaking his head and then he’s holding onto Seb’s arm, practically pulling it. “I know, I know Seb but I’m …” He looks towards the pub and then sees Liv running out towards them. “Can you take – take Seb back inside.”

Seb’s bright red. “No. No he just … he just hurt you and …”

Robert suddenly almost folds into himself. “You’re … I …” It’s like this haze clears. “Aaron, I didn’t realise it was you, I didn’t realise it … it was …”

“But you hurt him.” Seb snaps. “You didn’t even think did you? Like before.”

Aaron snaps his head up and he presses a hand to where he’s been hurt. “It’s not that like that.”

“I’m sorry.” Robert whispers. “I’m so sorry.” He shakes his head, over and over again only it doesn’t mean anything does it?

“You still hurt him.” Seb blurts out. “That doesn’t make it OK.”

“I’m fine.” Aaron whispers.

“No you’re not.” Seb says, biting his lip and fighting back this need to cry. “Because he’s done it again, he’s – he’s done it again.”

“Seb, mate …” Aaron’s crying. He’s crying and it’s sad and Seb doesn’t know what to say suddenly. He just feels this aching feeling running through him because Robert’s just standing there shaking his head and running a hand through his hair.

“He’s killed someone and now – now look what he’s doing.”

Robert suddenly looks up and Seb instantly wants him to look away again because it looks like he’s just been kicked in the gut.

It’s all Seb sees.

“Seb.” Liv’s voice is tiny, gets dragged away in the wind really and he’s left just thinking, and hating, and wanting to go back to painting his room in the Mill.

It makes him bolt; it makes him run and Liv doesn’t follow him. She just stays there, and Robert keeps saying he’s sorry and that Aaron should stay away from him. It’s all he hears.

“No, no Rob you were just scared.” Aaron says, and then he’s leaning forward and holding Robert until Robert is pulling away and he’s shaking. “Robert I’m OK.”

But apparently, Robert’s a monster.

 

*

 

Seb doesn’t know where he’s supposed to go. He ends up at Isaac’s, sitting in one of his stinky barns and sitting across from him as he picks hay and holds back tears.

Isaac doesn’t say a lot. He just frowns, tilts his head.

“What so he just … lamped him one?”

Seb scowls. “He hurt him. He pushed him back and Aaron just acted like it was nothing which means …”

“Means what?”

“He’s probably done it before.” Seb bounces his legs, thinks about Robert and then he stops suddenly. Isaac gives him this look. “What?”

Isaac shrugs. “Ain’t he struggling?”

Seb feels his throat close up.

“He’s been in prison ain’t he? For like. Ever.”

“Because he killed someone.” Seb says. “He actually … killed someone.”

Isaac looks surprised. “He told you that.”

Seb’s eyes flicker and he nods. “I just put it to the back of my mind but … there’s a difference between actually thinking about it and actually seeing him … lash out.” He gulps hard. “He said it was one hit, with a spade.” He shrugs. “But he’s clearly got a temper.”

“Doesn’t look like it.”

“Isaac you ain’t happening.” Seb snaps.

“With what?” Isaac speaks like Cain; he shrugs slowly and then crosses his arms over slowly. “You think your dad is some raging killer or something all of a sudden.”

Seb’s eyes fill with water again and he suddenly stands. “I’ve only known him a week, he ain’t my dad so just … don’t say that.”

Then he storms out and feels this feeling of loss stretch right through him. It’s there the whole way back to the Mill. It only gets worse when he turns the door silently and comes inside to see Robert standing by the sink with tears running down his face.

“I’m – I’m damaged Aaron.” He’s saying. His voice is all funny and he keeps shaking his head.

“No you just need help, and we’ll get you that. We’ll get you to – to talk to someone.” Aaron whispers the words as he comes towards Robert and hesitantly touches Robert’s face. Robert cowers away from him. “Please, please don’t hide from me.”

“You’re – all I ever do is make you cry.” Robert dips his head and Aaron only seems to cry more at that.

“No.”

“I’m a … Seb had to see me like that.” Robert sounds wounded. It’s the only word Seb can use. “Oh God, oh … you need to leave me. You – you need to go.”

“Stop.” Aaron tells him. Maybe because he doesn’t want to listen to any of it at all. “Please – please don’t say that.”

Robert nods, and his eyes are wild suddenly. “I thought I was fine but I’m not. You – you need to go Aaron; I’m not hurting you again. I’m not.” He waves a hand out and then suddenly Aaron is holding Robert’s hands, stopping them from flying about and there’s this calm suddenly as Aaron breathes out slowly and rests his forehead against Robert’s.

“I love you.”

It’s like Aaron has it in his head that it’s that simple.

“I love you so much.” Aaron keeps saying it, and Robert’s shoulders keeping shaking and shaking.

“Shouldn’t.”

“I don’t care.” Aaron practically shouts and then Robert is jumping back, hips hitting the sink. Aaron gasps. “I’m sorry, I – I’m – I didn’t mean to …”

“Aaron just go.”

Seb’s hiding spot is discovered after that. Aaron looks up and then turns and pulls his hands away from Robert’s waist so he can stare at Seb by the door.

“Seb, you …”

“I’m going home.” Seb says.

It’s like he suddenly realises what he has to do, what he needs to do.

Aaron’s shoulders fall and Seb can only stare at the cut on his forehead. “No. No you don’t have to …”

“I was going anyway. Remember?” It’s Friday so he can say that. He can say that he was always leaving tonight and not that really he was planning on going back to his mum’s on Sunday just in time for her to check his uniform still fit like she always does.

“Seb. You don’t …”

“I’m getting my stuff.” Seb practically runs up the stairs. It takes seconds for him to shove things in his bag. He holds up a couple of shirts Isaac’s borrowed him over the week and tosses them aside as the smell of paint lingers in the room.

Dark green.

His favourite.

Seb’s back downstairs within seconds and Aaron tells him he doesn’t need to go again, he says he doesn’t want him to go either and Robert stays in the kitchen, caught up in a world of prison and God knows what else.

In the end, because there has to be one, Noah offers to drive him home because Aaron’s clearly too sad to do any of it. He has a flash car and Eve remembers saying he was only half Dingle, so it made sense. It was funny then, now he just aches when he thinks about the fact that he thought of himself as half Dingle, or maybe a quarter, or something, only a few days ago.

Then Robert was lashing out and all he could think of is the word Murderer.

Aaron chases after him, and Robert stays and there’s still this tiny part of Seb that wants to forget what happened actually happened, but he can’t because he can’t pretend like Robert doesn’t have a temper, and he doesn’t lash out, and he hasn’t hurt people.

It’s raining, turning heavier as every second passes.

“He’d never want to hurt me Seb.” Aaron’s chin wobbles. “Seb, he loves me, he loves you.” He shakes his head. “He’d never hurt …”

“He hurt the man he killed though didn’t he?”

Aaron’s face falls and Noah just stands there, he almost looks like he has something to say but he doesn’t.

“That was …”

“One hit he said. Or was that a lie? Was it worse than that?”

Aaron scowls. “No. No, Seb it was …” He squeezes his eyes shut for a second. “He’s not a bad man. He’s your …”

“I want to go.” Seb suddenly says to Noah who actually springs to life. He says sorry to Aaron, says he’ll make sure Seb gets back safely and all that and Aaron practically chases the car down for a few seconds.

Seb squeezes his eyes shut to stop from having to see Aaron love him.

He hears the sound of the rain hitting the car and tries to forget.

 

*

 

Noah’s not a talker until he is. He doesn’t say anything other than the fact that Robert’s not evil and that him and Aaron have waited for way too long to be happy again and that it should be simple and easy but sometimes it isn’t.

Somewhere along the way, Seb realises that Noah’s related to Moses who’s related to Finn and his head spins a little.

“Where is Moses?”

“Uni.”

“Ross misses him.” Noah rolls his eyes just slightly. “And I’ve got … Moses has a little brother, Finn.”

Noah gives him a little look. “Should … see him.” He tightens his hands on the wheel and Seb wonders if Moses had a hard time without Ross around. “I’ll … I’ll talk to him.”

Seb’s shoulders fall a little.

Noah looks towards Seb. “Family should … be family.” He says. “And Robert and Aaron … they’re your family. Like it or not.”

Seb’s mind wants to scream “not” but he knows that’s wrong, because he’s always thought of the word Family and it’s never made him feel as warm as it did when he was in that stupid village.

Until Robert was losing it again.

And he could have lost him all over again.

And he’d rather try and forget a week than whatever else could have come if he stayed, whatever else he could have lost if he stayed.

 

*

 

His mum thinks something is wrong, she just senses it and Seb tries and tells her that nothing has happened. He thinks she’ll believe him, and she nearly does until she properly looks at him and he almost cries. He blames Aaron and Robert for making him like this.

“Tell me what they did.” His mum says, hands falling through her hair and this serious look on her face.

He could tell her, but he doesn’t. Instead he just repeats himself, again, and again, and again until she eases off and he spends the night thinking of dark green walls and how Robert pushed Aaron with all his mite.

It stays on his mind over the weekend and well into the school week. Ross keeps calling him kidda and asking what’s wrong and he keeps saying it’s nothing. He keeps saying that Robert and Aaron are nice people, keeps ignoring the messages sent on the group chat Eve’s still got him on and keeps trying to forget.

He’s always been good at it until now.

 

*

 

It gets harder to ignore when he’s doing his maths homework and hears his mum at the door hissing like a bloody snake. He thinks she’s having a go at the postman with a delivery or something but then he hears Aaron’s voice, and Victoria’s voice and he freezes before sliding off his chair and going to investigate.

He stops at the top of the stairs and sees his mum shaking her head.

“I have absolutely no idea what happened, but I do know that since he’s been back he’s been quiet, and – and I don’t like it so no, you can’t just come in and speak to him.”

Victoria sighs. “Becks, we’re not going to make it worse. We’re trying to make it better.”

“Make what better?”

Aaron gulps hard and Seb takes in how sad he looks. “Robert got … spooked. He … just … he pushed me harder than I expected, and I feel, and Seb saw it.”

His mum is horrified. Well, even more than that, she looks like she’s practically shaking with rage.

“He’s a child.” His mum spits, like that isn’t … obvious. “And this … this is exactly what I didn’t want to happen. I didn’t want any of this, any of it at all.” She whispers. “I was doing fine raising him, me and Ross are doing …”

“Ross who doesn’t even see Moses.” Aaron hisses back, harsh and with this bite that makes his mum dip her head down.

“How dare you?” His mum says, but it’s hardly a question. “My son … my son shouldn’t have had to see Robert lose it over whatever’s going on between you two.”

“Nothing’s going on.” Aaron snaps. “He’s having a hard time; he’s having a shit time because prison kicked the life out of the man I lo—” Seb’s eyes are red suddenly and he doesn’t want to cry. “Some idiots were shouting and … and they were mouthing off and he was defending me.”

“Sounds romantic.”

“Becks listen.” Victoria says. “He thinks his dad is some monster capable of – of …”

“Killing someone?”

Aaron looks like he wants to lose the plot. Something seems to pull him back. “You know how that was.” He says seriously.

“I know that my son had to pay the price.” His mum says. “And he doesn’t have to listen to you try and convince him that his dad isn’t what he’s realised he is.”

“Mum.” Seb stops her before Aaron’s blubbering at the door and Victoria is pointing her finger at his mum. He comes down the stairs slowly and Aaron’s face brightens a little. “Just let them speak to me and then they can go yeah?”

His mum looks torn suddenly, and then Aaron’s giving her this look like he’s begging her. He may as well get on his knees.

It does the trick and Seb gets to show them his bedroom. The walls are just white, and he thinks of the dark green of his room at the Mill. He watches as Aaron looks at the posters he has up and the stack of books up against his shelf.

“Robert’s a reader.” Aaron looms awkwardly and then he’s leaning against his desk as Victoria hangs near the door.

“Are you just hear to talk about all the things Robert is?” Seb’s not angry at Aaron, or Victoria and yet it comes out like he is.

Aaron straightens his back. “You know that wasn’t him.” He whispers, and then he itches the side of his head and Seb sees that the small cut he has is nothing anymore. “He’s had a tough time.”

“So have I.” Seb blurts out.

Victoria looks like she wants to squeeze the life out of him.

“And I didn’t realise it really until I was there in that village and … and I saw what I was missing out on. I’ve always missed out.” Seb’s chin wobbles and he shakes his head. “And so have you, because of him.”

Aaron dips his head.

“How can’t you see that?”

“I do.” Aaron plays with his hands. “I lost everything and – I’ve tried to hate him, I’ve tried to pretend like I don’t need him and that he’s taken all this stuff from me but – he’s missed out too.”

“Yeah because he decided to hit someone over the –”

Aaron squeezes his eyes shut. “It wasn’t …” He gulps hard.

“He thought he was protecting me.” Victoria blurts it out and Aaron yanks his head up like he didn’t expect her to open her mouth.

Seb frowns. “What?”

Victoria comes into the room, closes the door and then she’s sitting down next to him. “Harry’s dad …”

“Vic I didn’t bring you here to have to say any of this. It was because you didn’t get to say bye to him the other …”

Seb sits confused and stunned and having no idea what they’re going on about until Victoria is looking at him again.

“Harry’s dad … he attacked me.” Victoria stammers slightly and then shakes her head. “He … do you understand what I mean?” Seb can suddenly imagine, he can see the horror bleeding out into her eyes. He nods his head slowly. “And then I got pregnant, and they … it was too late for them to do anything, to prosecute him.” She gulps hard. “And Robert tried to make it go away.”

Seb’s eyes fill with tears. “So it’s Harry’s dad who he …”

Victoria nods.

“And Harry doesn’t …”

Victoria looks paler suddenly. “No. He doesn’t. He’s too young to wrap his head around that.”

Seb nods his head slowly.

“He hit him once Seb. Once because he was teasing him and … and he wouldn’t leave us alone.” Victoria squeezes her eyes shut. “But he never wanted him dead and he never wanted to have to leave us all behind.”

Seb looks up and sees Aaron staring down at his carpet like he’s remembering everything.

“So he died … after?”

Victoria nods again. “A while later yeah.” She sighs. “And the charges were … changed. Increased.”

There’s this heavy silence everywhere until Victoria speaks again.

“What you saw … it wasn’t the same as what he did all those years ago.” Victoria says. “It was him struggling, really struggling Seb but he’d never hurt Aaron, or you.” She leans in a little and Seb breathes out slowly.

“He’s not a monster.” Seb whispers. “I shouldn’t … I shouldn’t have said what I did to him.”

Aaron’s suddenly close, leaning down and holding at Seb’s arm. “It’s OK mate.” He whispers.

“Does he hate me?” Seb whispers.

Aaron holds the side of Robert’s face. “No.” He says. “God, no … he loves you. He loves you so much mate.”

Seb dips his head down. “Well why isn’t he here too?”

Aaron gulps. “He’s … he’s just a little …” He dips his head. “Seb, I’m not going to lie to you, he’s not doing great but it’s going to get better. We’re going to get him help.” He whispers. “And I know it’s not fair on you to have to see him like that, and he’s so sorry but – but it’s not going to stay like this.”

Victoria looks like she’s nearly crying.

“OK.”

“OK. Come here.” Aaron pulls Seb into a hug and Seb lets him until Aaron’s phone is going and he jumps back to answer it. “It’s just Noah, one sec.” Aaron rises to his feet and then he’s frowning. “Noah, backtrack. What do you mean he’s gone?” Seb watches the colour drain from Aaron’s face. “No. No you stay there in case he comes back, I’m – I’m coming back now.”

Aaron foolishly tries not to show his panic and it only makes Victoria give him this look.

“We have to … get back.”

“What’s wrong?” Seb stands. “Is it Robert?”

“Aaron … what’s …”

Aaron’s eyes are wet as he shakes his head. “He’s … missing.”

 

*

 

It’s on instinct. Seb just shouts that he’s coming with them, that he’s going to help find Robert and they look at him like he’s mad. Then his mum does but it’s like he can’t listen to whatever it is they’re all saying. It’s white noise and Aaron’s practically leaping on his car to get going so Seb doesn’t have time to go through why he wants to go and help.

He does know though.

It’s because Noah was right. They’re his family and he’s gone and wanted them, needed them the way Robert needs him now.

So he can’t run from it.

He doesn’t run from it, instead he flings himself right into the thick of it and not even his mum shouting and screaming is enough to do anything to change his mind.

 

*

 

The journey back to the village takes ages and it’s nearly dark by the time Aaron’s running out the car and into the Mill like he half expects Robert to be there or something, like this is all some sort of dream.

Seb wishes it was. He wishes he didn’t have to see Aaron with tears streaming down his face and his eyes red raw and his chin wobbling as he races up the stairs into their bedroom. Seb hears Victoria say she’s going to check some places he might be, and he nods, feels her kiss his head like she knows he’s worrying too, and then she’s gone.

She goes and Aaron still calls out Robert’s name like he’s just going to appear.

“Robert.” Aaron opens the bathroom door, and then Seb’s room, and then the box room and then he’s running down the stairs, sitting on the last one and bouncing his knee as he clutches his phone tightly.

“Ring him Aaron.” Seb whispers. “He might just have …”

“Noah said he didn’t look right.” Aaron shakes his head. “I knew it, I knew when I … when I left this morning to go and talk to ya he wasn’t right.” He dips his head down.

Seb’s eyes flicker. “He can’t have gone far.” He blurts out. “His car is outside.”

Aaron’s head rises. “It is?”

Seb nods. “You bolted past it when you came in.” He almost smiles. “He’ll be … he’ll be fine.”

Seb doesn’t think he’s ever seen someone love someone as much as Aaron loves Robert right in this very moment. He looks like he’s in actual pain as he strokes his fingers against his wedding ring and squeezes his eyes shut.

Then the door is being knocked on and Aaron jumps at the chance to answer it. It’s only his mum though and she looks sick with this worry but Seb can already tell who it’s directed towards.

“Love, you need to sit down, you need to …”

“Robert’s missing.” Aaron snaps, like she’s too thick to understand it.

Seb stands back, thinks about the fact that he’s never seen Aaron look so disgusted before.

“My husband’s missing and – and he’s not well and you think I need to sit down.”

Chas’ eyes flicker. “I think you need to get your head sorted.” She tells him. “Noah’s told me; we’ve got the family out looking for him.”

Seb thinks the way the Dingles almost refer to themselves as the Sopranos’ sometimes is something quite ridiculous.

Aaron scoffs. “Don’t.” He says, he waves a hand out and his voice breaks. “Probably suits you all for him to have left me.”

“He hasn’t left you.” Seb blurts out and Aaron steadies himself again.

“Seb, can you … just give us a minute. See if Noah’s heard anything?”

Seb does as he’s told. He goes upstairs and sits on his bed and Eve’s already saying her and Harry are seeing if he’s in the Big House somewhere. He smiles faintly and then his heart is thumping as he hears Aaron crying.

“He’s … he thinks he doesn’t deserve to be happy.” Aaron’s whispering but Seb can hear it all. He left his door wide open for a reason. “And I know – I know we – we’ve just crashed back into each other’s lives but …” He breathes in. “I just want us to get to be happy.” He frowns. “Just happy. Again.”

“You are happy with him.” Chas says. “Or is that it? You’re not with him because of everything you’ve been …”

Aaron gives her this scowl. “Of course not.” He whispers. “I’m … I want to be with him for the rest of my life, want him and Seb and – I want to get to have kids and stupid stressful holidays and – I want everything Lee took from us.” He sounds angrier suddenly. “But Robert thinks he’s damaged.”

“He’s overwhelmed.”

“He won’t let me help him mum.” Aaron almost doubles over as he sits there. “I know what it’s like to feel damaged don’t I? But I just want to help him. So much.”

Chas is crying too, and then she’s pulling Aaron in for this tight hug.

“Let’s go looking for him then.”

 

*

 

Seb reckons Robert’s let Aaron down a lot in his life, which means he’s let Chas down, which means she’s never going to be his biggest fan. He knows it and yet she’s here helping look for Robert like he’s her own and he supposes that’s what the Dingles are like, until you’re excommunicated or something.

They’ve searched everywhere and it’s only getting darker but Aaron’s not giving up, it’s like the thought is insane.

He’s checking some old barns now and apparently it’s got some meaning attached to it because Cain reckons it’s a good idea. Aaron kisses Seb’s head before he races off in his car. He’s left with Sam and Lydia asking him if he wants a hot chocolate back at theirs and he shakes his head passionately, decides to keep looking because he has to, because it’s raining now, and he can’t even imagine where Robert’s ended up.

It’s what takes him out of the village, walking down country lanes using his phone as a torch and probably risking his life.

That’s when he sees a car, parked up against the side of the lonely road. He approaches it, he doesn’t even know why but he feels this pull inside him and he recognises who it is straight away. Robert’s just sat there, hands firm on the wheel and this blankness to his expression.

Seb stares, and then he’s leaning in with a delicate touch to the window because the last thing he wants is to scare Robert.

Robert jumps, and his eyes flicker as he sees Seb. He looks like he wants to burst out crying, like he wants Seb to suddenly not recognise him or something. Seb just keeps staring and maybe he looks desperate, and sad, and scared because Robert unlocks the car and lets Seb scurry in.

There’s silence for a second, because the rain is so loud, and it can serve as adequate enough background noise for now. Seb’s hair is dripping wet and his trainers squeak a little as he tries to sit on the leather seats.

The rain eases, and Seb takes it as a sign that he should speak.

“Everyone’s looking for you.”

Robert frowns faintly. “What?”

“Aaron. Victoria. The Dingles. All of them.” Seb gulps hard. “No one knows where you went.” He says. “You just … upt and left.” He finds himself angry suddenly. “Aaron’s a mess.”

Robert looks down. “Aaron doesn’t need me.”

“Well that’s a …”

“He didn’t need me for fourteen whole years, and he doesn’t need me now either.” Robert shakes his head. “Neither do you.”

“That’s bullshit.” Seb blurts it out and Robert stares at him for a second, almost like he’s in shock. “You’ve got no idea how much that week with you meant.” His eyes are wet now, and he rubs them angrily. “I had a family I knew nothing about and you … I felt so wanted.” He dips his head.

“And then I showed you what I’m really like.” It’s Robert’s voice that’s scary, the way he doesn’t even seem to be here as they speak.

“I know what you’re like.” Seb tells him. “You’re kind, and …  smart and … you’re my dad aren’t you?”

Robert looks at him with wide eyes and this sadness to him. He makes this tiny little noise. “You deserve so much more Seb.”

Seb gulps hard. “You don’t get to decide that.” He says. “What you do get to do is … is decide to get help.”

Robert shakes his head. “I’m fine.”

Seb sighs. “You’re not though, not all the time.” And yeah, no one’s fine all the time but Robert’s different and it’s sadder. “And everyone cares so much, they want to help.”

“I just. Sometimes it’s all I remember.” Robert slides down on the seat. “I remember how loud everything was, how it didn’t really matter how much you kept your head down, helped, got people on your side, it didn’t matter because people are still so cruel.”

Seb feels this chill run through him.

“I’m sorry.” Robert stammers slightly. “You shouldn’t have to … you’re just a kid.” He turns slowly and seems to come alive a little. “My kid, little Seb.” He frowns. “I’m so sorry.”

“Stop saying sorry.”

“I … you had to watch me lash out and …”

“It’s not like before. What happened.” Seb tells him slowly. “I know and I … I know why.” Robert frowns slowly, it changes his whole face. “Victoria told me.” He says. “And I don’t hate you for any of it.”

Robert bites his lip and breathes out slowly, it sounds like a cry, like something being poured out of him.

“Let me call Aaron.” Robert seems to panic at that. “He’ll want to know why you’ve … been sat by the side of the road for hours.”

Robert’s shoulders slump. “’S where we first kissed.” He says, like he’s going back in time suddenly.

Seb should have guessed. “Romantic.”

Robert almost smiles. “I tried to leave, just go.” He frowns. “Thought it was … the only way.” He frowns a little. “Just take a company car and leg it. Spare you whatever I’ve … I’ve turned out to be.”

Seb shudders. “A good dad.” He whispers, and then he leans out and squeezes Robert’s arm. He feels that warmth again, and Robert looks like he’s aching. “The best actually. So. I don’t care that your head trips you up sometimes. All I care about is … is that you’re my family and it’s going to stay that way OK?”

Seb thinks he’s grown ten years since knowing Aaron and Robert. He feels stronger, and taller, and braver than he ever has before.

It’s why he calls Aaron, his fingers shaking as he trusts Robert not to bolt away from him as he steps out of the car and hears Aaron’s voice down the phone.

“He’s at some … dip in the road. He said it’s where you …”

“I’m on my way.”

Seb stares down and sees that Aaron’s already hung up. He waits for him, keeps looking back at Robert in the car who is looking more like himself now, less haunted and lost. He stares at him through the glass of the window until another car is on the road and he sees Aaron coming towards them.

Aaron’s running one second and then slowing right down again like he realises he has to, like he realises that this is sensitive, and something he has to be careful with.

“Is … he’s OK?” Aaron’s eyes are red, and he’s biting his lip so hard it looks like it’s about to bleed.

Seb takes it in, and then thinks about Chas’ worry over him and wonders how deep that’s had to run over the years. It makes him nod his head slowly, and then stop Aaron in his tracks as he approaches the car. Seb presses a hand on Aaron’s chest and sighs.

“He’s … he’s calmed down but are you OK?”

Aaron looks caught off guard and then he shakes his head. “No.” He dips his head a little and tries not to cry. “No, but we will be. He’ll be OK.” He nods again. “And we’ll be OK.”

Seb nods slowly and then he’s falling into Aaron’s chest and feeling Aaron’s arms wrap around him instantly. He feels like he’s a stupid little kid but maybe he is, and maybe he needs arms close and words soft in his ear. He allows it for a second, welcomes it for a second more and then he leans away and tells Aaron to help Robert.

He doesn’t know what he expects Aaron to do, or to say. But he watches it all happen. He watches as Robert looks, and he says he’s sorry and Aaron drags Robert close to him, so close that there’s hardly any space between them at all.

“You can’t … you have to talk to me … not run off.” Aaron’s saying, his voice thick with emotion. “I thought – I can’t …”

Maybe they had to have this. Maybe Aaron had to break down too and shove at Robert’s chest and tell him that he can’t hurt him like that anymore and maybe Robert had to be strong and tell Aaron he’s sorry and that he couldn’t leave.

“Maybe it’d be easier, but I love you too much to …” Robert gulps hard. “I love you.” He blurts out the words. “And I just want you happy.”

“Then let me help you this time, don’t … don’t go off and leave me and make me have to think you’ve changed your mind about …”

Never.” Robert whispers, Seb can’t help but think about how sad he sounds. “I’m never going to change my mind about you. How can I? You’re … you’re my whole world. You know that? All I could bring himself to think about when I was … when I couldn’t be with you.” He breathes in. “Sometimes … things up here don’t … don’t work that well, not like how they did before.” He points to his head with a shaky hand and Aaron makes this sound like it’s all hurting him.

“Look at me.” Aaron says, suddenly strong again. “We’re getting you help; we’re getting you … to cope with stuff better and I’m sorry I didn’t pay attention to it in the first place and …”

“It’s not your fault.”

“No but I could have noticed, not just … tried to get back to where we were and forget all the shit we’ve been through apart.”

Robert gives him this heavy look and closes his eyes before leaning his head down against Aaron’s chest. Aaron freezes for a second and then has a hand on Robert’s head. “We’re getting through this. I promise you.”

Robert says something, only Seb can’t hear it. He leans in closer and then Aaron’s practically vibrating.

“You do make me happy.” Aaron says. “You make me happier than you make me sad so don’t even start with that.” He’s almost bossy with it and Robert just stares, and then nods his head slowly.

“I was so scared you’d have forgotten you know.” Robert all but whispers the words. “I was so scared that you’d take one look at me and be grateful that I let you go.”

Aaron shudders. “Yeah well you’ve always been an idiot.” He says and then he leans back against the car seat. “I couldn’t forget you, even if I tried. And believe me, I’ve tried.” He whispers. “Tried convincing myself maybe it’s just been too long, that it’d never work but then I just saw your face, and everything made sense again. I promise.”

Robert shudders. “And then I ruined it.”

“You didn’t ruin anything.” Aaron shouts and then he’s cupping Robert’s face. “You got us Seb back, made me love like that again with him.” Seb’s heart does something funny. “You made the Mill feel … feel like it used to again.”

Robert’s shoulders flatten slightly, and he closes his eyes like there’s some sort of peace taking over him suddenly. His hands fall against Aaron’s chest and then he presses his forehead against Aaron’s as they sit in the car and the moon gets higher and higher in the sky and basks them in warm yellowing light.

Warmth, Seb thinks as he watches.

 

*

 

Seb misses school the next day and his mum has an absolute cow over it like it’s going to ruin his education or something. He lets her go on and on and then he tells her that he’s coming home tonight, that she doesn’t need to be worried.

He’s sure she always will be in that annoying why mums are.

But she doesn’t need to be.

Seb’s sitting on the sofa, borrowing Liv’s ancient maths books buried in a cupboard by the stairs and thinking about the phone call he knows Robert made this morning.

Seb’s told Isaac he’s seeing someone, and he had to rephrase when Isaac got it in his head that he was actually dating someone new and not trying to stop his head from being so noisy. He’s got his first session in three days, but his GP seems to think it’s PTSD from his phone consultation. He thinks about how Aaron looked half petrified, how reassured and he sat there confused about what it all meant.

Seb hates the word trauma now, he hates it so much but at least it’s something.

Robert’s outside now, sitting in the garden and planting whatever and talking about the fact that they’re going to get that allotment they were after. There’s pockets of blue skies high near the clouds and the sun tries to peak right through the greyness. Seb sticks a hand in his pocket as he leans against the backdoor and sees Robert smiling, and kissing Aaron gently on the lips.

It’s almost so shy, and soft that Aaron turns bright red and kisses him back.

“I love you.” Aaron says, like he’s saying it with every single fibre in his body, almost like it’s never been truer.

Robert breathes in. “And I love you.” He says, and then they’re kissing again and still not noticing that Seb’s by the door not knowing where to put his face. Eventually Aaron realises, leans away and laughs. Robert turns to see Seb. “You fancy helping me?”

Seb shrugs and then Aaron gets to his feet and says something about starting their tea.

It’s so normal, and Seb can’t help but think about the fact that last night, Aaron was stroking Robert’s hair until he feel asleep and then he was fighting back tears and looking up places that might be able to help Robert.

“Could do a vegetable patch.” Robert’s still on his knees, wearing old thick gardening gloves and a soft smile on his face.

Seb sits opposite him.

“Are you OK?” Seb blurts it out and then feels like an idiot.

Thankfully, Robert doesn’t think he is because he just nods slowly. “I feel … settled, good.” He gulps hard. “I’m not worrying about anything or …” He shakes his head and Seb thinks about how jumbled it all still must be in his own mind, so much so that having to try and explain anything is almost alien to him.

“Good.” Seb nods firmly. “Because I’m asking my mum if … if I can come on weekends. Always.”

Robert’s eyes widen. “Really?”

Seb nods, and then he’s picking up a stick and playing with the mud Robert’s kicked up to plant pots. “Yeah.” He says. “If that’s OK with you.”

Robert nods his head easily. “Of course it is,” He blurts out and then he frowns. “It’s not because you think I’m … going to run off again, right?”

Seb wants to say yeah, a bit. He wants to say everyone who loves Robert is probably always going to have something at the back of their minds saying maybe, but it’s not the main reason.

“I just want to be here.” Seb shrugs.

Robert gives him this smile, and he looks so happy it’s almost blinding. “Well good.” He nods. “That’s … good.” He lets out this little laugh and then stands. “Wait there, I’m getting the watering can.”

Seb watches as he gets up and he feels his heart pound and this warmth run through him.

“Dad.” Seb says it. He says a word he doesn’t ever think he’s ever meant as much as he does right this minute. Robert turns slowly, so slowly. “I’m really proud of you.”

And apparently it’s something that’s worth making Robert give him this watery smile and then comes closer to Seb so that he can squeeze the life out of him. Seb breathes into his dad’s shoulder, and then closes his eyes shut.

 

*

 

Things get easier.

Seb’s there to see it happen. He’s there on a Saturday night, popcorn on his lap and his dad sitting next to him telling him that apparently he’s buried too much for too long and has got too good at it. It’s a problem that he’s fixing, one that will takes ages apparently.

Robert says it could take the rest of his life and the thought hits Seb like a wave until he realises that his dad doesn’t see it as a bad thing anymore. He sees it as something he has to do, something that’s going to make him better.

And it does.

Seb sees his dad decide to leave his watch at home and turn off his phone if they go to the bed. He isn’t mad about time anymore, and he doesn’t bounce his leg that much either. And he actually smiles way more than Seb thought he was capable of. He can pull this face and it lights up something in Seb and Aaron so brightly that he’s not sure anything would stop it.

Seb gets to call Aaron his dad, gets to say it to him on father’s day as he forks out for three cards because Ross would only make a comment and besides, he’s alright too. Aaron starts blubbering and holding his hands around it so tightly that he almost breaks the bloody thing. He looks down at the card like he’s always going to hold it close.

And then him and Robert sit him down and say they’ve got something else to tell him to. They say they had another really nice card and Seb sits stumped until they show him a ‘Happy Father’s Day’ card.

“Go and look inside.” Robert says, like he’s almost vibrating with this excitement. He smiles, and it stretches across his whole face as Seb looks down and sees what he sees.

A tiny little blob.

“Is that blob your …”

Aaron laughs, and his eyes are so bright and blue as he nods his head and squeezes around Robert’s hand.

“That’s your little sister.”

“Or another little brother.” Robert says, “He’s convinced it’s a girl.”

“She’s a girl.” Aaron and Robert go back and forth with it for a bit and Seb just stares down and feels all this love pour out of him. “Seb.” He whispers. “You’re going to be a big brother again.” He smiles and then his face falls a little. “It’s not us replacing you or anything like …”

“I know.” Seb can’t stop staring at the picture, and then he’s thinking about how quiet they’ve been recently, how they’ve been almost pushing down this excitement for reasons Seb wasn’t sure of. He gets it now. He gets that after nearly a year, and then all those years and years and years of wanting to, they’re having a baby.

Seb finally looks up and sees Robert all hesitant.

“What do you think mate?”

Seb gulps hard. “Perfect.” He says. “Yeah, I think it’s perfect.”

Robert smiles and Seb lets his dads squeeze and hug him and then get back to saying that Blob will be here by Christmas.

And Aaron was right, because she’s a tiny little girl who comes a little early and gives them all a scare and makes things unsteady until she’s OK again. And then she’s more than OK, she’s perfect and everyone says so.

Seb gets to hold her and know why the name Annie was chosen and how much it all means to his dads. He gets to see her grow, and babble and make his dads feel this lightness that life tried to take so many times. He understands that all now, it’s etched deep into his mind sometimes.

“We did it.” Aaron has Annie on his chest and this softness in his voice as she sleeps soundly and Robert has his massive hand stroking her tiny head and parting her thick dark curls.

Seb’s got Annie’s sick on his top and a bib on his lap and yet his eyes closed shut but he still hears, still listens to them.

“Yeah. We actually did.” Robert yawns, and then he kisses the top of Annie’s head before giving Aaron this sleepy look. “Thank you.”

It’s heavy and makes Seb’s heart do something funny.

Aaron gives Robert this watery smile and then kisses Robert so gently.

“You know what’s next then.”

“Next?” Aaron laughs so quietly and then strokes a hand on Annie’s little back.

Seb opens his eyes, peaks through the blanket and know what Robert’s going to come out with.

“’M marrying you again Mr Sugden.”

 

*

 

Robert proposes properly three weeks later. In their garden. On a Friday night.

There’s fairy lights and some old song playing that they played at their previous weddings and maybe Seb should think it’s crazy that they’re doing this again but it doesn’t feel that way, it feels right, and perfect and the hand Annie slaps against the window as him and her watch Robert get down on his not dodgy knee is something that warms his heart.

The lights twinkle and Seb watches Aaron get down on his knees too, laugh and then he’s nodding his head and it’s something magical.

“Hear that Annie, our dads are doing that marriage thing again.” Seb kisses the side of Annie’s head and she makes all these little noises as he rubs her back and bounces her.

And then he watches Aaron and Robert do this weird half dancing thing for ages.

He sees it again in October, they wait months, for an anniversary, and they make it special and intimate and Annie’s big enough to wear a little dress and a hat and not kick up too much of a fuss.

Seb watches them dance a little and stand a little and then he’s asking Amba if she wants to dance too. He gets about a million looks from both his dads and Chas and Cain and everyone else who thinks it’s hilarious.

After things die down a little, Seb watches as Aaron bounces Annie on his knee and kisses Robert all lazily. He’s laughing and smiling, and it makes something get caught in his chest.

“You OK with all the noise?” Aaron asks Robert, a hand on Robert’s thigh suddenly.

Robert nods his head slowly. “It’s fine. I’m … it’s more than fine. It’s perfect.” He looks like he’s still getting his head around it all.

Robert holds at Annie’s hand and she laughs.

“Look at us eh.” Aaron mumbles slowly. “All old and …”

“Shut up.” Robert says and then he takes Annie from Aaron, straightens her little dress and lets her press her face into his chest. “Settled.” He whispers and Seb can’t think of a better word to describe what he sees in his dads now. “I’m not going anywhere you know.” He looks all serious.

Aaron suddenly looks scared. “Yeah I know that. Your life wouldn’t be worth living if you tried to.” He says, only it doesn’t meet his eyes and he reaches out to touch Robert’s hand. “Jade’s still helping isn’t she? That ain’t going to stop.”

Seb gulps thickly as they speak about Robert’s counsellor.

“I know.” Robert whispers. “I just want you to know, forever, always, all that stuff.” He gives Aaron this shaky smile and then he closes his eyes and kisses Aaron with this force.

“I love you.”

“I love you.”

Seb hears it, knows it, feels it.

“Seb, is that you?” Aaron leans up and calls for him to come over. He does, hand in his pocket and a smile on his face as he watches Annie sleeping soundly on Robert’s shoulder. “You not still dancing with Amba?”

Seb rolls his eyes. “Just being nice, she’s way older than me.”

Robert gives Aaron this look and they do this dad smirk thing. Seb watches, dips his head and almost laughs.

“You don’t mind staying with Vic tonight right?”

Seb pulls a face. “I’d rather sleep in a barn than have to hear you two on a wedding night of yours trust …”

Aaron makes this sound. “Got it.” He waves a hand out and then Vic is coming out to take a sleepy Annie from Robert.

“Right, you two go away now then. Better use all the time in the world before she screams my house down.”

Robert looks like he doesn’t want to leave her as he kisses her little head and looks up at Seb. “If she cries too much, just bring her home.”

“Yes dad.” Seb says.

And It seems to still make Robert smile, so blindingly.

Aaron kisses Seb’s head and squeezes him into a hug. “See you in the morning kid.” He whispers. “Love you.”

Seb’s way too old to say it back but he does.

“Love you too.” Seb mumbles, smiling a little as Robert cups his face and tries to say something that he obviously can’t put into words. “I know.” He whispers.

Because he does. He really does.

It swoops up inside him as he hears Robert say something about carrying Aaron over the threshold and Aaron tells him he wants his back to be working just fine tonight. They hold hands all the way home and Seb watches as Vic wipes happy tears from her face.

He stands in the boring sleepy village and watches as they disappear inside the Mill and he feels this like he’s home in this really easy way.