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I remember thinking that Christmas must have been made for us

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Robert ambled through the village, he had nowhere to go, no one to talk to, and it was all his own fault. He knew that, he wasn’t that self unaware. He’d ruined everything, he’d let Aaron go for his own good, thinking it would be fourteen years, way too long to keep the two of them going, only to be released after two years.

Getting back to the village to find Aaron was in Scotland helping Debbie out left him with mixed feelings. He could only assume he’d found out he was coming back and taken off. He’d tried his phone but just got an out of service message. He hadn’t tried asking any of the family, the glares he’d got from Chas when he first braved the pub had said it all.

The only bright spot was reconnecting with Seb, he’d visited every weekend since he’d been released and had got Rebecca to agree that the little boy could come to him for Christmas. Vic was still in Portugal with Diane so Robert had spent the past few days making the house perfect for them both. He was determined Seb would have the best Christmas, even if Robert felt like there’d be something missing.

He’d taken to going for a long walk each day, making the most of being free, roaming through the fields he’d played in as a child, shutting out the bad memories and relishing in the good.

He’s coming back into the village when he smells it, the cloying smell of smoke, memories coming back immediately, taking him back to being fourteen again. He looks around, can’t see anything at first, it’s getting dark already, but then he spots the telltale orange glow and it sets him running. It’s the pub, there’s no mistaking it. He knows it’s closed, the shorter hours apparently Al’s idea. Robert had heard the gossip about him and Chas being at war, and part of him is amused by her finally meeting her match.

When he reaches the back door it’s locked and he’s banging on it as if his life depended on it. The fire seems to be upstairs but he doesn’t know if anyone’s inside. Pulling out his phone he dials 999.

“Fire…There’s a fire, the Woolpack, Emmerdale. I don’t know if anyone’s inside. You need to hurry.”

He should wait, he shouldn’t try and be a hero or anything, but if there’s someone inside then it’s Aaron’s family. He’d never forgive himself if anything happened to them and he’d stood outside doing nothing.

Summoning all his strength he charges at the door, shouldering it open, taking a second to shake off the pain before running upstairs.

“Chas! Paddy! Anyone home?” The backroom is empty, he can see as he runs up the stairs. The heat is unbearable as he makes it to the top but he makes himself keep going, going room by room until there’s only the main bedroom and what he guesses is Eve’s left. The fire is in the main bedroom, the smoke billowing and he knows he can’t open the door, so he rushes into the other room and stops seeing Chas in the rocking chair, seemingly asleep, Eve in her arms.

“Chas!” Nothing. He’s petrified, can’t see Eve moving and for a minute he doesn’t know what to do, he’s frozen in fear. Why is no one else helping, how can they not have noticed. “Chas! Wake up!”

Still nothing, she’s breathing he can see that much, but he knows he has to get Eve out first. Picking her up he tucks his coat around her, taking one last look at Chas he runs back down the stairs. As he reaches the back door he breathes in lungfuls of fresh air, looking up he sees Billy walking by.

“Billy! Take her.” He almost throws the little girl at him. “I don’t know if she’s breathing.”

“Slow down mate. What happened?”

“I don’t know, but Chas is still in there. Look after her.” With that he heads back inside, ignoring Billy’s calls to wait. The smoke is heavier now, and when he gets back to the stairs the fire is licking round the door. He forces himself to keep moving, ignores the screams he can hear in his head from all those years before.

Slowly he manages to carry Chas from the room and downstairs and then there’s someone helping him as he starts coughing, the cold air making it worse. He feels someone wrap a blanket round him, and then everything’s muffled.

_____

The next thing he knows someone’s shining a light in his eyes and he moves away from it, frowning.

“Mr Sugden, you’re in Hotten General. How are you feeling?”

“Tired. What happened?”

“You’re suffering from smoke inhalation but you’ll be just fine. Quite the hero I understand.” He frowns again, can’t remember and then it all comes back to him.

“Chas, Eve. Are they alright?”

“As I understand they’ll both be right as rain in a few days. Thanks to you.” He relaxes, relief washing over him. “Now, you need to rest, but there’s someone to see you, just for a few minutes mind.”

“Who?” He can’t think who it could be, maybe Cain, but he doubted if even this would put him in the man’s good books. It can’t be Vic, she wasn’t on his records as far as he knew so they wouldn’t have called her.

“Your husband…” She paused looking at him. “At least that’s what he said…should I send him away.”

“No! No, don’t, please.”

“Alright, but not for long. You need to rest.”

He sits himself up a bit more, running a hand through his hair. It’s stupid but he feels nervous. Aaron’s here, and he doesn’t know how or why but he’s here, it must mean something. Suddenly he looks up and there he is. He looks good is the first thing he thinks, his hair a little longer but not too long.

“Hi.”

“That’s all you can say?” His voice is flat, giving nothing away and Robert can’t work out if he’s mad at him or what. He can’t be if he’s here though can he?

“I don’t know what else to…”

“Do you know what it was like getting that call? That my Mum and sister were in hospital?”

“I don’t…” He didn’t understand. He’d got them out, wasn’t that a good thing.

“Then when I get here and they’re fine I’m so relieved, but then they tell me you’re here, that you’re still unconscious…” He steps further into the room, still not close enough to touch and Robert huffs in annoyance, making Aaron smile. “I thought…you saved them Robert…”

“Of course.” He couldn’t leave them could he. “Anyone would.”

“But you did. You went into a burning building for my family, and I know what that means for you. You scared me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologise…God, you don’t have to…Oh I’m making a mess of this.” Finally he comes to sit down. “How are you?”

“I’m alright, I think they’re just keeping me in to be sure, as I’m on my own.”

“You’re not.” He coughs. “I mean…I’ll be around, I can keep an eye on you if you want to go home quicker.” He shrugs, think that’s going to be as awkward as hell. “They’re keeping Mum and Eve in a few days just to be sure so I’ll be around.”

“I thought…well, you left, thought you’d want to be off as soon as possible.”

“There’s nothing waiting on me. I told Mum I’d stay until the pub was sorted, maybe longer now Debbie’s alright, so I can help you out too.” He hates this, feeling so detached from Aaron, the conversation so stilted. It’s never been like that for them, even at their worst.

“Thought you’d done a runner when you knew I was coming back.”

“Still think a lot of yourself then.” He grins. “No, Debs was getting hassle and Cain couldn’t go so I offered. Nothing much keeping me in he village these days.”

“Oh.”

“You don’t need to hear all that now, but a bit of space helped. Like I say, I’ll help you.”

“Uh…thanks. Seb’s meant to be coming and I don’t have anything finished. The tree is in but I haven’t got anything to put on it or food or anything. God there’s so much to do.”

“Could he come over a little later, to give you more time?”

“No! No, if I do that Rebecca won’t let me have him again. It took ages to convince her to let him stay with me. He has to come over and it has to be perfect.” He can feel himself getting worked up and then Aaron’s putting a hand on his shoulder, push him back against the pillows. “It has to.”

“Alright, calm down. We’ll get everything right, don’t worry. Why don’t I go and find the doctor, see if you can leave, and then we’ll make a list of what needs doing. I can go to the shops while you rest.”

He’s gone a few minutes and Robert’s already trying to work out what needs to be done, anything to distract him from the fact that Aaron’s there. Neither of them have mentioned what had happened, the divorce or anything, but he supposed there had been other things on their mind. Surely thought it would come up in the next few days. Maybe Aaron had decided he didn’t want to mention it, had moved on with someone wherever he was living no matter what he said. Maybe Robert would have to be content with the next few days before he took off again.

“Right, you can go as long as you’ve someone looking after you and you don’t overdo it.” He winks at him and Robert smiles weakly back. “Um, I don’t know if you want to, not after everything but Mum…I reckon she’d like to see you, to say thanks and that.”

“She doesn’t have to.” He really didn’t feel up to facing the woman who’d done nothing but glare at him since he came back.

“Yeah well she wants to.” He can see it means a lot to Aaron so he nods, easing himself out of bed looking around for his clothes. “I brought you a few bits from Vic’s, your stuff reeked of smoke.”

He nods, and self consciously goes into the little bathroom to get changed and when he comes back Aaron’s holding onto his bag, so he follows him down the corridors to another side room. He can see Chas through the window, sitting by Eve’s bed, the little girl sat up and playing with some toys.

“Mum…” She looks up as Aaron opens the door and then she comes outside and immediately pulls Robert into a hug. Aaron smiles at him and disappears in the room with Eve. 

“I don’t know how I’ll ever thank you Robert.” She tells him, still holding onto him.

“Anyone would’ve done it, Chas.”

“But you did. I know me and you, well, we’ve not been on good terms, but thank you.” She pulls away, both of them standing there awkwardly. “Aaron tells me you’ve got Seb for Christmas.”

“Yeah.”

“Well good, I’m glad the two of you are getting to know each other again.”

“Well…” He shrugged. “Aaron’s going to help me get everything sorted. I don’t want to let him down you know”

“You won’t. I should…get back.”

“Yeah. I, um, I’m glad you’re both ok Chas.”

“Thanks to you. I won’t forget this Robert.” He doesn’t know what to say. “You know...as much as I wish he didn’t, my boy loves the bones of you.”

“Once maybe.”

“He still does. He puts on a good front, but I can see it. Don’t mess it up this time.”

“Why are you telling me this, thought you’d want me miles away from him.”

“Once upon a time maybe, but all this...well it makes you put things into perspective.” He nods, but he’s still sure she’s wrong.

He’s just standing there when Aaron comes back and he has to wave a hand in his face to get him to move. He doesn’t say anything until they're in the car on the way home.

“I’m surprised Vic isn’t coming home to look after you.”

“I told her not to.”

“Why?”

“She’ll only fuss, and her and David, think it’s better they sort themselves out before they come home. I’ll be alright, you know, if you don’t want to do this.”

“I said I would, didn’t I?” He doesn’t look over, concentrates on the road but Robert can see the tension in his hands gripping the steering wheel.

“We all say things we don’t mean.”

“Like you when you said you’d always love me?” He sighs. “Sorry.”

“No it’s fine. I meant that, I meant every word.”

“So why’d you do it, cut me off, without even a word.”

“Because I knew you’d never let me go. You would’ve dragged yourself to the prison every month for fourteen years, to your own detriment, because you’re good Aaron, you put everyone else before yourself.”

“Unlike you.”

“If you like.” He’s too tired to argue anymore. “Look just drop me at the house, I’ll manage everything.”

“Don’t be daft. I’m not angry with you Robert, that came out wrong. I was once, would’ve gladly throttled you for a while, but I get why you did it, even if I think you’re stupid. Besides, you just saved my Mum and my sister.”

“I’m not a charity case.”

“Oh will you lighten up. I’m kidding. Now look, you’re exhausted, so let me get all your bits in for Seb, get the place nice yeah? You both deserve a brilliant Christmas.”

“What are…where are you going to be?”

“Cain’s I reckon, Mum’s going up there when they let her out.”

“Well, if you need a break, you could always call in for a drink. Seb would love to see you.”

“Doubt he knows who I am anymore.” He looks over. “That wasn’t a criticism by the way.”

“I know. He does actually, still remembers his Daddy Aaron. Think about it, no pressure.”

_____

“There. Reckon that looks alright.” Aaron says, stepping back from the tree. They’ve been decorating it all afternoon, mostly him after Aaron surrendered when he nagged him one too many times about things not being in the right place.

“It looks great. I think that’s everything. Just got to pick him up tomorrow.”

“I’ll give you a lift if you like. Mum’s not coming out until tomorrow afternoon at the earliest. I don’t think you should drive all that way on your own.”

“I can’t ask you to do that.” 

“Well you're not, are you.” Robert just stares at him. “Do I honestly have to spell it out to you? I want to be with you, I want to…maybe try and see if the two of us can…not go back to how we were but maybe try again?”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Do I willingly shop two days before Christmas for just anyone?”

“Well…I thought you were being nice given I saved your mum and sister’s life.”

“Well I am, but…when I saw you lying there in that bed, I thought…I was so scared and I realised that if it had been anyone else in that fire then I never would’ve known…you could’ve died and I…”

“I didn’t, I’m fine. Hey, I’m right here aren’t I?” He risks pulling Aaron into his arms. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Promise?”

“Yeah. Anyway, you’re the one who moved away.” 

“Yeah well…I told Mum, this place hadn’t been the same since you left. But now you’re back.”

“So…”

“So, I’m back too.”

“For a few days. What happens after that?” Aaron starts laughing. “What?”

“Do you think I’d be anywhere else now you're here?”

“Oh. So you want to…”

“Yeah, I reckon we deserve another chance. Not right away, you need to have Christmas with your son, and I really should be with Mum and Eve, but after then maybe you can take me out.”

“I’m taking you out am I?”

“You don’t like the places I choose.”

“Only because I prefer somewhere that has, you know, cutlery.” He jokes, a memory coming to mind.

“One time!” Aaron laughs, remembering when he’d run out of petrol and their date ended up being a burger van by the side of the road. “I missed you.”

“Missed you too, more than you’ll ever know. I can’t believe this, half expecting to wake up in a minute back in the hospital.”

“It’s real, I promise.” With that he leans in to kiss him, arms winding round his neck, holding on dear life. “Convinced yet?”

“Hmm, could do with a bit more, just to make absolutely sure.”