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Aaron groans as he clambers out of the taxi, stretching his arms over his head before helping Seb out. Robert pays the driver and moves to the boot, hauling their luggage out. Seb quickly darts to his side.

“I can help!”

Robert smiles tiredly and passes Seb his child-sized Spider-Man suitcase, the one he’d wheeled through the airport with pride.

“Cheers, mate. More helpful than Daddy, aren’t you?”

“Alright I’m comin’,” Aaron grumbles as he takes the larger suitcase and slings a bag over his shoulder. “Keep your hair on.”

“Can I watch cartoons inside?” Seb asks as they make their way down the Mill’s driveway.

“Nope, you’re going straight to bed, mister. It’s past your bedtime and you didn’t sleep a wink on the plane.”

Seb lets out a whine but doesn’t protest otherwise, a sign of just how exhausted he is, even if he won’t admit it.

“Think we can go straight to bed, too?” Aaron says as they reached the doorway. “I’m knackered.”

“Definitely,” Robert says around a yawn, searching his bag for the keys to the front door. “Hang on, they’re here somewhere.”

“Good holiday though, right?” Aaron leans against the wall, smiling softly at him.

Despite his exhaustion, Robert smiles back. “Great holiday.”

As Christmas had approached, they’d made a somewhat last-minute decision to fly out to Portugal to spend it with Diane, plus Vic, David and their boys. The drama on Aaron’s side of the family – namely the never-ending feud with Al – was becoming too much hassle to bear, so they’d decided to avoid being dragged into it by removing themselves from the situation altogether. Fleeing the country may have seemed like a slightly drastic move, but as Robert spent Christmas Day lounging by Diane’s pool next to his husband, sipping cold beer and watching Seb play with his cousin, he mentally patted himself on the back. Best decision he’d made all year.

Chas hadn’t been thrilled, of course, sending both of them text after guilt-tripping text with such frequency that they’d decided to switch their phones off on the first day, only briefly turning them on to send an obligatory Merry Christmas text. On the taxi ride back to Emmerdale, they’d switched them back on and had both been hit with a barrage of missed call notifications – Aaron especially. It hadn’t concerned them, nothing out of the ordinary when they spent more than one night away from the village.

“Anytime before the new year would be great,” Aaron mutters, making Seb laugh.

“I’m looking, I swear they were – aha!” Robert finally finds his keys in the last pocket and unlocks the door, ushering them inside. “Home sweet… ”

He falls silent. Something isn’t right.

As they step into the Mill’s living room, Robert’s eyes narrow at the kitchen, where the lights are switched on. There are two unwashed mugs on the counter, plus a couple of takeaway cartons and the smell of Chinese food in the air. He hears Aaron stumble and swear under his breath, and turns to see he’d tripped over a pair of heeled shoes that were lying on the rug.

“What the hell is – ”

Their heads snap up to the ceiling at the sound of footsteps above them, and Aaron immediately grasps Seb’s hand to pull him closer. Just as Robert’s about to grab his phone and call the police, a figure appears on the staircase and he lets out a groan.

It’s just his bloody mother in-law.

“Oh!” Chas looks at them with wide eyes, like she’s the one who’s just had a shock, before plastering a smile on her face. “Hello love, I er… I didn’t think you’d be back this soon.”

“Mum? What the hell are you – we thought someone had broken in!”

Chas rolls her eyes and descends down the last few steps. She’s wearing a dressing gown and slippers, like she’s in her own home.

“Don’t be silly, it’s only me. And Paddy and Eve.”

She wraps the dressing gown tighter around herself and wanders to the kitchen so her back is to them, and Robert knows, he just knows, that she’s feeling guilty and trying to hide it.

“Would either of you like a brew?”

Aaron gapes at her, apparently too gobsmacked to speak, so Robert decides to take over.

“No, what we’d like is to know what you’re doing in our house in your dressing gown?”

“You’d know that already if either of you bothered to check your phones every once in a while,” Chas says primly, sniffing. “We needed a place to stay after – ”

“Chas, I can’t find the – ”

Robert’s head whips to the staircase to see Paddy standing there in his pyjamas. He jumps a mile at the sight of them.

“Oh, w-what are you – I didn’t realise you were – um – ”

Aaron’s head swivels back and forth between his mum and stepdad.

“We’re taking Seb to bed,” he says slowly. “And then you two can tell us exactly what’s going on.”

****

“There was an explosion at the pub,” Chas blurts out the second they return downstairs.

Aaron frowns. “An explosion?” 

“Did you not see it?” Paddy says, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the Woolpack. “When you came back? The whole thing’s destroyed!”

“It’s dark out, we weren’t looking.”

“Was anyone hurt?” Robert asks, feeling the beginnings of a headache coming on. Five minutes they've been back and there's already a new Dingle drama to deal with.

“No one was inside, thank god. We’d gone away to Scotland for Christmas,” Chas says with a shake of her head, and he has to resist the urge to roll his eyes. All the fuss they’d made when Aaron told them he was going away for Christmas, only for them to do the same themselves. “Manpreet and Meena were near the blast so they both got a bit banged up, but they should be alright.”

“How did it even happen?”

“Al flippin’ Chapman is how,” Paddy spits out angrily. “He caused it.”

“What, he’s been arrested?”

“Well… no, not as – the fire investigation team haven’t found any proof yet – ”

“But they’re just as incompetent as the police,” Chas snaps. “Maybe they can’t prove it but I know he had something to do with it. And now – ” Her voice wobbles. “Now we’ve lost our home, all our belongings… ”

“Everything we had of Gracie.”

“I’m sorry,” Aaron says with a sigh. “Really. But… that doesn’t explain what you’re doing here?”

“Well we – ” Chas glances uncertainly at Paddy. “We had no choice, nowhere else to go!”

“Where’s Gran?”

“Eric and Brenda are letting her stay with them.” Her face sours. “No idea how she managed that.”

Wonder if they’d consider a swap, Robert thinks idly.

“And what, no one in the family offered to put you up? Why didn’t you go to Cain’s or Wishing Well?”

“Well… ” She looks uncomfortable now, the guilt Robert had spotted earlier making a reappearance as she averts their gaze. “That would’ve been a bit of a squeeze, love, and your place was just sitting here empty so we thought – ”    

“So you thought you’d just make yourselves at home?” Robert says with a scowl, Aaron’s hand wrapping around his wrist doing nothing to abate his irritation.

Chas scowls back at him. “We’re family, I don’t see what the problem is.”

She might as well have thrown the Dingle Code handbook at them and made a run for it.

“The problem is you didn’t even ask us, Mum!” Aaron says, his voice raised as he looks at her incredulously.

“How were we supposed to ask when you weren’t answering your phones!” Paddy cries.

“That doesn’t mean you can just – ”

“Aaron, don’t be selfish about this,” Chas interrupts him and oh, Robert can feel his blood pressure rising. “We’re homeless, we’ve lost everything, would you really see us out on the street? And your sister, too?”

There’s a long silence, and Robert can see Aaron’s resolve crumbling in the face of his mother’s dramatics.

“…Fine,” he says through gritted teeth. “You can both stay here tonight, give me and Robert and chance to talk about it. And we will be talking about it.”

“But Aaron – ”

“Or there’s always the B&B?”

Chas glowers at him, clearly weighing up whether it’s worth putting up any more of a fight. Eventually, she sighs and nods.

“Thank you, love.”

“Yeah,” Aaron says dully, getting to his feet. “We’re going to bed.”

“Um – ” Paddy holds out a hand to stop them. “Before you go, Bear’s been – he was staying with a mate but he’ll have to leave theirs after tonight and he can’t really afford the B&B, I was j-just wondering if he could maybe sleep on the sofa or – ”

“No!” 

****

“Unbelievable.”

“I know.”

“This is unbelievable.”

“I know, Rob,” Aaron says exasperatedly from his spot on the bed. “But what am I supposed to do? Mum’s right, I can’t turf them out on the streets tonight. And you shouting at me about it isn’t gonna solve anything!”

Robert sighs and stops pacing.  “I’m sorry, I’m not having a go. I’m just… ”

“Yeah, me too.” Aaron slumps down against the pillows. “Look, will you just come to bed? I know I told Mum and Paddy we were gonna talk, but I’m too tired.”

Robert nods and quickly changes into his pyjamas, crawling in bed next to Aaron and flicking the lamp off.

“Too late to go back to Portugal?”

He feels Aaron sigh, a light puff of air against his cheek.

“‘Fraid so.”

They lie there in silence for a few minutes, Robert staring at the ceiling until Aaron turns onto his side to look at him.

“What you thinking about?”

“December 2015.”

“That’s… weirdly specific. What’re you thinkin' about December 2015?”

“I’m thinking should’ve just gone through with my plan to buy Diane’s share of the pub. Then I could’ve moved myself in without telling anyone, your mum wouldn’t have known a thing about it until she saw me sitting at the breakfast table. See how she likes it.”

Aaron laughs tiredly against his shoulder. “You would’ve been lucky to make it to lunchtime alive.”

“Eh, it would’ve been worth it for the look on everyone’s face. Besides – ” He rolls over so he’s nose to nose with Aaron. “You and me as roommates, that could’ve been fun.”

“Wow,” Aaron says, deadpan. “Us living together, wonder what that’d be like.”

“Oh, shut up.” Robert shoves him lightly on the arm. “You know what I meant.”

“Shut up yourself.” Aaron shoves him right back, before pulling him in for a kiss that swiftly brings the conversation to an end. “Go to sleep, you idiot. We’ll figure everythin’ out in the morning.”

Despite the low hum of outrage still thrumming through Robert’s body, the exhaustion that comes with travelling back from holiday soon kicks in and he quickly falls into slumber… only to be awoken just a couple of hours later by a poke to the cheek. He cracks an eye open in the darkness to see Seb standing next to the bed.

“Hey, what you doin’ up?”

“It’s too noisy,” Seb huffs and points to the open door to the landing, his face full of annoyance. “Snoring.”

Even from the other end of the house, Robert can hear the faint sounds of Paddy’s snores. Considering the spare room is next to Seb’s, the volume of the nasally snorting and wheezing coming from next door must have been loud enough to disturb him.

“Paddy woke you up, did he?”

“Can you make it stop?”

“Don’t tempt me,” Robert mutters, hauling Seb up and rolling them over so he’s sandwiched between him and Aaron, snuggled in the centre of the bed. “How about you sleep with me and Daddy tonight?”

He tugs the duvet higher and cups his hands over Seb’s ears. “You won’t be able to hear it from in here.”

“‘Kay.”

Aaron groans and shuffles closer to them. “Everythin’ alright?” He mumbles, eyes still closed.

“Paddy’s snoring woke Seb up.”

“Ugh, I remember that. Used to keep me awake for hours when I lived with him, drove me mad.” Aaron blindly reaches out to run a hand through Seb’s hair. “Sorry mate, hopefully you won’t have to put up with it for long.”

Not long at all, if Robert has his way. He falls back to sleep silently vowing that this is the last night Chas and Paddy will spend under his roof.

****

“I’m so sorry!” Charles blurts out the next morning.

Robert jumps a mile and spins around to see his tenant hovering by the front door. He sighs and closes the bin lid.

“I have a feeling I know the answer, but what for?”

“Chas and Paddy… Ethan and I saw them moving in on Boxing Day and asked them what was going on, Chas said it was fine because they were – ”

“Family?”

“Pretty much. She made it seem like you’d given them the okay, but… ” Charles shuffles awkwardly. “I couldn’t help overhearing when you got home last night and… sounds like that wasn’t the case.”

“It wasn’t, but that’s not your fault”

“I think Ethan had tried texting you to check, but – ”

“But our phones were switched off.” What had seemed like such a good idea on holiday is now coming back to well and truly bite him in the arse. “It doesn’t matter, we’ll sort it. How was your Christmas?”

“Oh, it was fine thanks. We had a good turnout for the carol service, anyway.”

“Sorry we missed it.”

“That’s alright,” Charles says with a shrug and his customary grin. “I’d run off to sunny Portugal if someone invited me, too.” He checks his watch and his eyes widen. “Gosh, is that the time? I need to get ready, said I’d visit Manpreet in the hospital today.”

“Give her our best, yeah?”

“Of course. I’ll see you later, Robert!”

Charles disappears inside, leaving Robert to go and join Aaron and Seb in his own house.

“Someone’s fiddled with the toaster settings,” Aaron grouches as he potters around the kitchen.

Robert sits at the table with a huff. “I saw someone also used my cafetiere without cleaning it.”

Aaron rolls his eyes as he sets Seb’s plate of egg and soldiers in front of him. “If we’d made this much mess when we lived at the pub, there would’ve been hell on.”

The three of them eat their breakfast quietly, and despite the irritation that had hit him the second he’d woken up and remembered who was currently in his house, Robert finds himself relaxing slightly. As much as he’d loved their impromptu Christmas getaway, it’s good to be home, spending a peaceful morning with his husband and son in their pyjamas.

“Morning all!”

He groans internally. There goes the peace.

Chas comes rapidly down the stairs, coat slung over her arm and Eve braced on her hip. Aaron’s sister beams when she sees them all, squealing and squirming in Chas’s grip.

“Hello gorgeous,” Aaron grins, getting to his feet so he can take Eve from Chas and sit her on his lap. “Did you miss us?”

“Yeah!” She snuggles into his chest, before spotting Robert and reaching across the table for him. “Robah!”

“No, come here baby,” Chas coos at her. She tries to take Eve back but she ducks away from her mother’s hands and slides to the floor, toddling over to Robert and pulling at his leg until he lifts her into his own lap.

“Good choice,” he whispers into her hair, holding in his laughter when he sees Chas’s face turn sour.

It’s no surprise; she and Paddy have never been particularly thrilled with Eve’s affection towards him – especially when Aaron jokes about it being in her genes. The first time Eve had walked on her own – after weeks of them trying and failing to teach her – had been when she’d seen Robert walking through the Woolpack’s door and taken her first wobbly steps so she could greet him. Both of her parents had given Robert the silent treatment for the rest of the night.

“We don’t have time for this,” Chas is snapping now. “We need to get over to the Woolpack and speak to the investigators, I don’t want to be late.”

She tilts her head up towards the staircase.

Paddy!” Seb winces and covers his ears. “For the last time, would you hurry up?”

“Well, you don’t need to take Eve, do you?” Aaron says around a mouthful of toast. “Me and Rob can watch her, can’t we?”

“Course we can,” Robert nods along, bouncing Eve on his knee and looking down at her. “Porridge and honey for madame?” Her face lights up at the mention of her favourite breakfast and she nods enthusiastically.

“Well, I’d rather she had… ” Chas trails off as Robert puts Eve in the high chair that’s been left out and Aaron pulls the oats from cupboard. “Oh fine, I don’t have time to argue – Paddy if you don’t get your backside down here right now – !

“Sorry, sorry!” The man in question finally appears, huffing and puffing into his jacket. “Sorry Chas, I was just – ”

“Save it,” Chas cuts him off angrily. “You’re meant to be supporting me right now, how am I supposed to be able to count on you when you can’t even – ”

“Oi,” Aaron interrupts her quietly. “If you’re gonna have a domestic, can you do it outside and not in front of the kids?”

Chas stares at him for a moment, open-mouthed, before blowing out a frustrated breath and heading for the door, only just avoiding slamming it in Paddy’s face as he hurries after her.

“They’re so loud,” Seb says, pushing his empty plate away.

Aaron snorts as he starts preparing Eve’s breakfast. “Tell me about it.”

“I’ve finished my egg an’ soldiers, now can I watch cartoons, please?”

“Just until Eve’s had her breakfast, then it’s time to get dressed, alright?”

Seb’s already out of his seat and running to the living room by the time Robert’s finished speaking.

“So – ” He leans back and takes a sip of his coffee. “ – would it be too much if we had your Mum and Paddy’s suitcases packed by the front door when they get back?”

Aaron quirks a lopsided smile, stirring the porridge in the pan.

“Even then, I don’t think they’d take the hint.”

“Okay, no hints. When they come back, we tell them in no uncertain terms to find somewhere else to stay?” There’s a telling pause, the only sound coming from Seb's cartoons in the background. “Aaron come on, you can’t be serious.”

“Look, I don’t want them here any more than you do, and I’m still fuming that they tried to get away with stayin’ here without us finding out.” Aaron spoons the porridge into a bowl and adds a dollop of honey, putting it down in front of Eve and taking a seat opposite Robert. “But… I dunno. Doesn’t feel great, chucking them out after what’s happened to the pub.”

“Aaron,” Robert tries taking a deep, calming breath. He’s not sure how well it works. “I’m sorry about the pub, I am. But you just said yourself, you don’t want them here. You’re entitled to not want your home invaded when there’s plenty of other places they could go.”

Aaron raises an eyebrow at him, looking amused. “You mean you don’t want your home invaded.”

“I’m not fussed on having them under our feet making snide comments at every opportunity, no.” He lowers his voice slightly. “And I’m even less fussed on them rowing in front of Seb all the time, it’s bad enough when they come round to visit.”

Aaron’s face falls at that. “I know, I feel the same.”

“So we’re agreed, they need to leave?”

Eve lets out a short screech, banging her spoon against her bowl to get his attention.

“Not you, sweetheart,” Robert smiles and pats her on the head. “You’re an excellent houseguest and are welcome to stay as long as you’d like.”

He turns his gaze back to Aaron. “Because I don’t know about you, but I think it’s getting a bit ridiculous now.”

Aaron frowns as he dabs at Eve’s mouth with a napkin. “What d’you mean?”

“I mean it’s been two years of your lot inviting themselves here whether we like it or not and I’ve had enough.”

“It’s not been two years.”

“No? Right, let’s go back to late 2019, shall we?” Robert leans forward and fixes Aaron with a hard look. “First it was Cain – plus Kyle and Isaac. Which was fine when it was only supposed to be for a few weeks, but how long did it take for him to move out?”

“…A year.”

“A year. We had to do lockdown with him.”

“I know, I was there for the arguments.”

“And then the second Cain’s gone, Liv moves Vinny in without telling us – I didn’t even know he was staying here until I saw his pants lying on our bathroom floor. We had months of her letting him turn our living room into a pigsty and refusing to listen to us when we told her we didn’t want him here. We only got rid of him when their relationship went tits up and he moved out.”

He’s well and truly on a roll now, counting each incident off on his fingers.

“Then we had Charity on our doorstep after your mum and Debbie had her chucked out the family, until Diane took her in. Then it was Faith after your mum had her chucked out the family, until Eric and Brenda let her stay with them. Not even a month ago Lydia was crying on the sofa and asking if she could kip here, before she decided she'd rather stay at Marlon and Rhona's instead.”

He throws his hands in the air.

“And now this – your mum and Paddy actually moving themselves in behind our backs.”

Aaron sighs and folds his arms on the table, looking done-in all of a sudden.

“When you put it like that… ”

“I’m just sick of your family treating our house like a Dingle holiday home. Or an ‘I’ve cocked everything up and now I need a place to stay’ home, whatever. It’s not on, Aaron.”

“No, I know it’s not.” Aaron nods, looking more resolved. “We need our own space, especially with… with the baby coming.”

His voice falls to a low hush, the way it always does whenever they bring up the soon-to-be newest member of the Sugden-Dingle family. It’s still early days – their surrogate, Sofia, is only a couple of months along so they haven’t told anyone yet, not even Seb. It’s been the most exciting and terrifying secret Robert’s ever kept, making his heart do somersaults every time he thinks about it.

“You read my mind.” He smiles softly and reaches out to take Aaron’s hand, relieved that they’re on the same page. 

“Need to get that spare room cleared out so we can start decorating, don’t we?” Aaron squeezes his hand gently. “You still thinking we turn it into Seb’s new room so he’s got more space?”

“Yep, then Seb’s old room becomes an office so that – ”

“So that we can work more from home after the baby comes, I know. And then we turn Liv’s room into the nursery.”

“Nothing like a little DIY to start the new year with a bang.”

“Gonna have our work cut out for us.”

“I’ve got so many Pinterest boards to show you.”

Aaron throws his head back and laughs. “God help me.”

“It’ll all be worth it though, right?”

“Course it will.” Aaron grins and raises his eyebrows at him. “And y’know what no spare bedroom will mean?”

Robert grins back. “No unwanted guests looking for a place to sleep?”

“Exactly.”

“God, I love you.”

****

“This is the Doctor,” Seb announces, holding up his Doctor Who action figure. It’s the Matt Smith incarnation. “He’s a Timelord.”

Eve sucks her thumb as she watches him, transfixed. Seb holds up another figure.

“And this is Clara, she’s the companion. They travel round in this – ” He opens the door to the toy TARDIS and shoves both figures inside. “ – and they can go anywhere in space or go back in time. Or to the future!”

He lifts the TARDIS in the air and whirls it around, making his own sound effects to go with it. Eve’s gaze follows his movements in fascination.

“Got it?”

“Yeah,” she nods along, although Robert’s fairly sure she’s more focused on the bright blue colour of the box than anything else.

After getting the kids ready, he and Aaron had quietly explained to Seb that almost all of Eve’s toys were gone, so it might be nice if he shared some of his with her. He’s apparently taken this to mean showing her every toy he owns and explaining them to her in great detail so she can make an informed choice on what she wants to play with. Eve doesn’t seem to mind, sitting on the rug opposite him as he talks her through each one and making the occasional grab for anything that particularly catches her eye.

Robert half-watches them from where he’s curled up with Aaron on the sofa, both of them putting off unpacking their suitcases in favour of lounging in front of the TV. Just as he’s contemplating getting up to make yet another cup of tea, the front door flies open and Chas and Paddy come charging into the room, both of their faces like thunder.

“Hey, how’d it go?” Aaron asks, pushing himself up.

“Flippin’ waste of time,” Paddy says morosely, dropping the small cardboard box he’d been holding down on the coffee table.

“They can’t even tell us how the fire started. Inconclusive, apparently.” Chas adds, heeled boots clacking loudly around the room as she paces. “Well, what do they know? We can draw our own conclusions, can’t we?”

Aaron sighs and drops his head back on the sofa. “Let me guess, Al?”

“Of course it was Al! We saw him at the pub just now, lording it over us, trying to get us to sell our shares like the smarmy little weasel he is – ”

“What’s in the box?” Robert interrupts, trying to stop the rant he knows she was gearing up to.

“Oh, just a few things they managed to salvage from the pub, we haven’t looked yet.”

Paddy bends down to open the box, pulling out a few random items and putting them down on the table.

“…hairbrush… the clock from the mantlepiece… your mum’s compact… bit of loose change… ”

Chas snorts. “Fat lot of good that is.”

“Er… there’s a photo frame.” Paddy yanks out the charred frame and turns it so he can see what’s in it. “It’s – oh.”

“What, which one is it?” Chas asks from where she’s hanging up her coat. “Is it the nice one of me and Debbie?”

“No, it’s… ” Paddy trails off and turns the frame outwards.

Robert’s mouth curls when he sees what it is. Behind the cracked and dirty glass, he can make out the photo of himself and Aaron on their first wedding day.

Aaron grins and leans over to take it out of Paddy’s hands, carefully brushing ash off the glass with his thumb.

“It’s our wedding.”

“Oh,” Chas sighs, shoulders slumped. “Great, that’s about as much use as the loose change.”

“S’it you and Daddy?” Seb asks, shuffling over to Aaron so he can get a closer look.

“Yeah that's right, it’s from when we got married.”

“One or two?”

“Wedding number one, the one we had before you came along.”

“If we could get back to the point,” Chas says pointedly, clapping her hands together.

“Didn’t realise there was one,” Robert mutters as he disentangles his legs from Aaron’s and heads to the kitchen. Another brew is definitely needed – potentially with a splash of something stronger thrown in.

“The police obviously aren’t going to do anything about Al, and the insurance won’t come through for ages,” Chas declares. “Which means we need to make him pay ourselves.”

She pulls her phone out of her pocket and starts tapping at it.

“I’m calling a family meeting – Aaron and Paddy, you start doing the same. Tell everyone they need to be here in half an hour.”

Robert whirls around with the kettle in hand, ready to protest, but Aaron beats him to it.

“Here? Mum, you’re not havin’ a family meeting at our house.”

“We’re already here, it’s the most convenient place.”

Aaron’s on his feet at that. “Yeah, our place has been dead convenient for you, hasn’t it?”

He stalks over to the kitchen so that Chas and Paddy follow, leaving Seb and Eve to keep playing in the living room.

“Look sweetheart, if you’re still upset about Paddy and me coming here without telling you – ”

“I am.”

“Can’t we just move past it? I don’t need you throwing tantrums right now, and like we told you last night we tried to reach you and you chose to ignore our calls, so it really isn’t our fault that – ” 

“Enough,” Aaron cuts her off. “I don’t wanna hear it, Mum. The thing is… ”

He glances at Robert, who gives him an encouraging nod back.

“The thing is, you can’t keep stayin’ here.”

Chas and Paddy’s jaws both drop.

“S-sorry, what?” Paddy splutters, before letting out an awkward laugh. “Oh, unless you mean – well, of course we can’t stay forever, we know that, it’s just until the pub is sorted.”

“Which will take months, you said it yourself.”

“And that’s if you can even reopen it,” Robert adds.

He’d snuck a cheeky look at the books a couple of weeks ago and based on what he’d seen, he knows there’s no way they’ll be able to make a reopening work. Even if the insurance comes through, anyone with a head for numbers would know the only thing they can do at this point is sell to a new buyer. The Woolpack under Dingle ownership is finished, whether Chas, Paddy and Marlon are ready to admit it or not.

“But you – you said we could stay!”

“I said you could stay last night, while Robert and I talked about it. Well, now we’ve talked about it and we think it’d be best if you go to Cain’s. Or Wishing Well – they could probably do with a hand up there anyway, now that Lydia’s left.”

“A hand?” Chas hisses, hands on her hips. “We’re the ones who need help, not Sam and Mandy!”

“Okay, whatever. The point is, we really don’t have room for you here so – ”

“This is you, isn’t it?” Paddy’s narrowed eyes flick to Robert. “You’ve put him up to this.”

“Back off, Paddy, Robert didn’t put me up to anything. I told you, we talked about it and made the decision together.”

“Y’know, like adults,” Robert can’t resist adding, shooting Aaron an apologetic look when he glances at him in exasperation. 

“So that’s it, then? You’re chucking us out when you have a perfectly good bedroom just sitting there – ”

“It’s not going to be sitting there much longer!” Aaron snaps back, before his eyes widen slightly and he presses his lips together.

“What?” They both look at him in bewilderment. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“We’re redecorating it,” Robert jumps in, trying to keep his face neutral even as his heart is hammering. The last thing they need is them catching on about the surrogacy this soon. “Not just the spare room, most of upstairs really. The whole first floor’s practically about to become a building site, so we really can’t have anyone staying right now.”

“Well can’t you just put your little decorating project off for a few months? Until we’re ready to move out?”

“No,” Aaron says with a shake of his head. “No, we said we’d start it at the beginning of the new year, we’re not putting it off.”

“But why?”

Aaron flounders for a moment, before crossing his arms and fixing his mother with a look of steel.

“It doesn’t matter why, this isn’t a negotiation. I’m sorry, but you can’t stay here.”

“Liv wouldn’t do this to us, if she knew – ”

“Liv’s gone, meaning she doesn’t get a say.”

“So that’s it, then,” Chas says, voice low. Robert can practically feel the anger vibrating off her in waves. “You’re happy for us to be homeless.”

“For god’s sake Mum, you won’t be homeless, someone in the family will – ”

“And Evie, too?” Paddy interjects. “Have you even thought about her in all this or – ”

“Oh, Eve can come anytime,” Robert says with a shrug.

“We’d be happy to have her over a few nights a week, help you out with childcare if that’ll make things easier.”

“We don’t need help,” Chas fires back.

“A minute ago you were saying you did.”

“Well we won’t be getting it from you two, clearly.”

Silence falls over the group, one side glaring daggers at the other. Robert can tell by the look on both of his in-laws’ faces they’re trying and failing to come up with anything else that might help them win the fight.

“Guess we’d better pack our bags, then,” Chas says eventually, her tone cold as ice.

“Guess so,” Aaron answers, sticking his hands in his pockets.

“We’ll go to Cain’s – ” Robert mentally sends Moira his sympathies. “ – and then we’ll just see what he and the family have to say about this, won’t we?”

“We’ll take our chances.”

“Fine.”

She stomps up the stairs, Paddy on her heels. It’s no more than a couple of minutes before they both reappear, Paddy carrying the suitcases of belongings they’d taken to Scotland with them. Chas crosses the room to pick Eve up, sighing impatiently when she fusses over her game with Seb being interrupted.

“That’s us off, then.”

“Oh, don’t forget this!” Robert sticks the photo frame back in the cardboard box and holds it out to them.

Paddy fixes it with a look of disdain.

“Keep it.”

“Suit yourself.”

“Keys, Mum.”

Chas blinks at Aaron, uncomprehending. “What?”

“The spare keys you used to get in here, can we get those back?”

She huffs and readjusts Eve in her arms, digging the keys out of her pocket and tossing them down on the coffee table. Robert picks them up, making a mental note to find a better hiding place than the plant pot next time.

Or better yet, change the locks.

“Anything else?” She says sarcastically, eyebrows raised.

“No, think that’s it.”

“Good. Paddy, let’s go.”

The two of them walk out the door without a backward glance, Eve waving to them over Chas’s shoulder.

Aaron lets out a long breath and collapses on the sofa, pinching the bridge of his nose. Robert joins him and strokes a hand over his back.

“Okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just hate that they always have to turn everythin’ into an argument.”

“I know.”

He pulls Aaron into a hug and Aaron lets him, before pulling away to pluck the framed wedding photo out of the box next to them.

“Need to find a place for this.”

“Bit battered, isn’t it?”

“Nah, the frame’s toast but the photo should be fine.” Aaron carefully eases the photo out from behind the glass, revealing that it is indeed in a decent condition. “See?”

Robert takes the picture from him, running a finger along the edge. “Could stick it in the office when it’s done?”

“Or the nursery, put it with another photo from wedding number two?” Aaron suggests. “Make sure the little one knows just how mental his or her daddies were?”

Robert laughs and passes it back to him. “I like that idea.”

“I have them sometimes.”

“Daddy?” Seb abandons his Doctor Who toys and climbs onto the sofa, stretching out across both their laps. “The house quiet again?”

“Yes mate,” Robert sighs, tipping his head back and revelling in the blissful silence. “Nice and quiet.”

“For the next seven months, anyway,” Aaron murmurs under his breath.

Robert smiles to himself. He can’t wait.