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A mid (summer) life crisis

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“What the fuck happened to the flowers?”

“No reason to cuss, sir.”

It was five pm, and Robert was five minutes away from having a meltdown; at that point, using the f-word was the nicest way he could’ve possibly expressed himself.

Because the fucking flowers weren’t there, were they? Not the ones he’d ordered.

“They will be here any minute, sir,” the bored-looking girl said with a shrug, because of course a complete idiot had been in charge of receiving the bouquets that had been picked and ordered eight weeks ago – that is, if the kid had remembered the order in the first place, not to mention she actually thought getting the right flowers after the fact was something to celebrate.

If Robert had had his way, there would’ve been a dozen meltdowns already, a cleansing plethora of contemptuous words directed towards stupid people at an impressive volume, things thrown and folk scandalized; he didn’t enjoy the shock caused by his menace like he had when he was younger - and let’s face it, by society’s standards he was getting too old to be menacing in the first place, but right now Robert didn’t care. He had promised himself he’d take the liberty of exiting the premises for a moment and going off on one in the next flippin’ five minutes.

It was his little sister’s wedding reception, and it was going to hell in a handbasket – granted it was a meticulously picked, perfectly weaved, pure white, tulle-decorated, filled-with-expensive-keepsakes sort of basket, but it was still going to hell, riding on an overly tuned, cheap motorcycle with an environmentally unfriendly motor and a noise that will make one’s ears ring for days.

It wasn’t just the wrong looking flowers, it was the last-minute change to the perfect menu, it was the dodgy decorations, the not-so-great champagne, the low-quality music.

Robert had been putting endless effort into the process, rightfully driving florists, dessert chefs and dressmakers up the wall with his lists and questions – to everyone else it seemed a complete mystery why his sister had agreed to her brother crowning himself the wedding planner, but Victoria knew her brother well, which was why she’d known he’d be the best – only – choice.

Robert ignored those who claimed she was letting him do it just to shut him up because he knew better.

He was the best planner around, and that included weddings too, obviously.

It was just a tad unfortunate that he couldn’t’ve picked the groom.

The bloke – a little halfwit called Terry – was mouthy, sarky and generally exhausting with his grating voice, black messy hair and big grey eyes that were always a little glazed. Not because he was high, no, it was worse; he was just that uninterested in most things that it left a strange, shady membrane into his gaze, like he was hiding behind a curtain of juvenile indifference.

That little shit didn’t even do it on purpose because it would’ve been too much effort.

Speaking of, the little shit was approaching Robert now, looking like the casual second-rate human that he was.

“Mr S, there you are!” Terry beamed, handing him a glass of champers.

Robert knew damn well the bloke wasn’t that excited, and he didn’t call him Mr S to be polite, he did it because he could get away with something that sounded an awful lot like Mr Ass.

He didn’t bother to get offended though, knowing that the things he called that two-bit wrong’un behind his back were ten times worse and more to the point, in a completely different league of intellectual wordplay.

Not that Terry knew about intellect or wordplay in general.

Robert took the glass from him and nodded with a fake smile, wondering if there was time to entertain himself by challenging the bastard to a game of Scrabble, just to sharpen his smugness to its shiniest state.

“Vickybear is outside, so I better scarper,” the hideously dressed man-child said, clinking his glass against Robert’s – his words could’ve given Robert the push he needed to sling him out, but sadly Terry wasn’t going to scarper for good, was he - he was about to go entertain the last person that should be interested in said entertainment.

But scarpenter or not, he had no business calling Robert’s sister Vickybear because it was stupid and offensive.

It was a pet name for a child or a dog, and Victoria was neither.

Robert flinched at the thought.

She indeed was not a child anymore.

She was twenty-four, a tiny, fierce woman with a sincere laugh, an intricate brain and the sweetest of hearts.

She was Robert’s favourite person – now officially married to the worst person.

He downed the rest of the fizz with one gulp, just to wash the thought back into that part of his brain where he kept the file of brotherly denial, sealed tightly for the rest of time.

Terry the prat started banging on about the upcoming honeymoon, and Robert zoned out decisively during the first seventeen seconds because he didn’t need yet another reminder of the cold hard fact that his sister was shackled to this discount deuce for all eternity - and after he’d pretended to listen for a couple of minutes, he was getting ready to leave when a certain woman appeared.

Oh look, it’s all my favourite people.

Chrissie waltzed over – quite literally, as she was taking dance-like steps towards them, looking so happy that a part of Robert was certain it was just to spite him; after all, she was just annoying enough to do so.

Once she had grooved her way to them, she smoothed down her blue satin dress and flipped her shiny Louise Brooks-type of bob hairdo, moving like it was the highlight of the day everyone had been waiting for.

Robert gave his ex-wife a forced smile.

“Chris,” he said calmly, proving to be one heck of a trooper, considering the amount of stress he was under already without having to deal with this lot.

Chrissie scoffed, because she didn’t have Robert’s nonchalant elegance.

“Terry darling, shall we go and check on the evening’s itinerary?” she cooed, linking her arm around the bloke’s.

“The itinerary doesn’t need checking, I’ve got it under control,” Robert cut in, picking up another flute of champagne.

Chrissie raised an eyebrow.

“I hope your drinking is under control too,” she said evilly, throwing a condescending smile into the mix.

“Of course it is, I haven’t felt the need to get sloshed since I divorced you,” Robert replied happily, matching her smirk.

Chrissie huffed out a fake laugh.

“You look lovely, Christine,” Terry sidetracked sweetly – well, it was sweet in a way that overeating candy floss was; sticky, nauseating and making one grind one’s teeth until there’s no teeth left to grind – but Chrissie just giggled like an idiot and mumbled something classic akin to oh Terry, you flatter me.

It was flattery, because Chrissie wasn’t all that, was she?

Robert blew out a breath and decided it was time to grab his phone and go yell at the florist because that was a legitimate reason, not an excuse - but boy, was he keen to get away before Terry would start calling him all sorts of fake names.

He would rather remain Mr Ass for all eternity than become mate or even Robert to this parking lot random who would get lost chasing his own tail.

“Where’s Victoria?” Robert asked, perhaps accentuating her name, just to point out there was no need for dodgy nicknames.

Terry’s face broke into a wide grin.

“She’s outside with her mates, she’ll be here in a minute, Mr S.”

Sounding more like Ass by the minute, isn’t it?

Robert felt a tiny wave of sadness; he wasn’t ready to acknowledge that Vic wasn’t with him, because he was still her best mate.

Right?
Chrissie looked at Terry with adoration.

“I’m so glad she’s got you,” she said with a sigh of relief.

“I could say the same to you, Chrissie,” Terry beamed.

Robert held back his scoff and gave them a nod as he excused himself to make the rounds, hoping to find people who had earned the right to call him Robert, and did so without unintelligent sarcasm.

After he’d chit-chatted with a few people, Robert stepped outside through the backdoor; he didn’t feel like throwing a tantrum anymore, which was unfortunate because now would’ve been the perfect time to get rid of some of that rage he was holding back, but all he felt was the sweet breeze of the wind, the warm sweep of sunlight, indulging in the fresh air and the break from all the hassle.

He watched the venue staff checking the fairy lights and little lanterns hung in the lush maple trees in the yard; it was a beautiful garden, with tiny ponds, gorgeously carved stone fixtures and endless rows of flowers – a thoroughly romantic place, and Vic had been smitten as soon as she had laid eyes on it.

She had kissed her brother’s cheek, offered a big hug and said Robert’s favourite sentence in the universe.

Thanks bro, you’re the best.

In your face, Terry, Robert still was and would always be the best.

And thank goodness his and Chrissie’s son was still aware that Robert was his number one hero and expressed that on a regular basis with all his six-year-old enthusiasm.

Seb was probably doing a silly dance right that minute, telling adoring tales of his dad.

Robert felt a yawn escape him; he was exhausted and it wasn’t just the wedding stress, it was the previous night getting to him.

It had been one strange evening.

There was something proper weird about stag dos in general but attending one that was arranged for the fiancée of one’s sister was alarming; Robert had agreed to go to that shindig just to please Vic, and he could honestly say he’d been on his best – well, decent behaviour. He had bought everyone drinks, he had told them stories about his dating history, embellishing only when he felt a need to make the groom particularly uncomfortable, he had paid for dinner, he had paid for the taxi.

He had left early, because when going out with a group of younger, daft blokes, a mature person knows to head for the exits before the youth start getting on one’s nerves.

He'd done well, and once he had ended up at the restaurant a few miles from the wedding venue, he had run into another party group and joined their drunken forces, entering a hotel bar just to make sure no one in the building would get decent shuteye.

Robert hadn’t been that drunk, but he had been in an anxious mood, dreading the upcoming nuptials, battling between wanting to make his little sister happy and his ever-growing need to go a bit Tarantino on her groom, and that made him restless, itching to blow off some steam.

As the evening turned into night and Robert was behind the hotel in the big yard, staring into the little midsummer bonfires lit in barrels, sat on a lounge chair, watching the nightless night keeping the pale shades of daylight in its palette with a warm persistence, someone very pretty from the afterparty sat down beside him.

They chatted.

They laughed.

They kissed.

And once they ended up in one of the rooms at the hotel, they didn’t really have time to chat or laugh.

The kissing continued, and then things got very naked.

Robert was a little ashamed now; hooking up the night before his sister’s wedding might have been a tad questionable, but then again his steam had been properly blown off in a rather literal sense, and he knew he’d be ten times more wired if that hadn’t been the case.

Nevertheless, Robert was on edge now and the need to scarper would’ve gotten the best of him if it hadn’t been for Vic.

"Terry, congrats! So good to see you,” a voice came from behind them.

There was no sarcasm in the words, and now Robert was morbidly fascinated to see who would say such a thing.

He glanced at the man who had appeared beside Terryble, smiling so widely that he must’ve been having some liquid courage of his own.

Robert heard something crash – in truth, there probably was no crashing sound, but a thing or two took a plunge in the universe and rearranged the space time continuum as Robert locked eyes with the man.

Jesus Christ.

Not quite, but a revelation of his own right for sure.

There was a pair of ice blue eyes staring into his; those eyes framed by a slightly smug face, casual in a confident sort of way - a nicely trimmed beard, and the most curious little smile.

Robert just stared; he could honestly say he had never seen a more gorgeous man in his entire life.

He hadn’t dated a bloke since his early twenties, as he’d been married for years and after that, there’d been a couple of girlfriends – he’d never been one to favour either gender, but the interesting blokes seemed to have gone into hiding.

Until this one.

This one was definitely interesting.

Also definitely the same bloke that had shagged Robert to oblivion the previous night.

“Hiya. I’m Aaron,” he said nonchalantly.

Robert knew that already; it’s a bit difficult to forget a name once you’ve said it about fifty-three times in one night, usually adding a fuck, right there, harder, oh God to go with it.

Aaron was smirking at him now, looking very pleased with himself- with those kinds of skills, one should be pleased but it wasn’t fair, making him blush like that, because blushing he was; Robert never blushed, but first time for everything, eh?

The idea of berating a florist couldn’t’ve been further from his mind.

He wasn’t really thinking about flowers at all – well, not in a wedding bouquet sort of way, it was more in the lines of the birds and the bees.

His skin felt tight; it tingled with the memory of being touched by the beautiful man standing in front of him, unfortunately not naked now.

“This is Vickybear’s brother,” Terry said because he just couldn’t not use that infuriating term of questionable endearment, “Mr S.”

Aaron’s eyes widened; for a moment he looked like he was about to fly off the handle, but then he just nodded.

“So, this is Mr S,” he said, giving Robert an entirely different look now.

And it sounded a lot like Mr Ass.

Robert wouldn’t’ve minded Aaron calling him Mr Ass, had it happened twenty hours ago.

Or nineteen, or eighteen, because there had been a lot of…opportunities.

“Just Robert will do,” Robert said quickly, reaching out his hand.

Aaron didn’t take it, he just scowled.

“Not a handshaker, eh?” Robert joked, to which Aaron gave a sloppy smile, not really making an effort.

It was as if though Aaron had never shaken his hand.

But in all honesty, he hadn’t.

Pretty much every other body part, but not his hand.

“Robert,” Aaron said, in a pondering sort of way.

Like he had to be reminded, even though much like Robert, he had repeated the name just as many times, adding a just like that, you feel amazing, don’t stop, I’m close to it.

Now Aaron couldn’t’ve looked less close if he tried.

He looked annoyed.

True to oblivious form, Terry didn’t notice the tension – he simply pushed a tray of some bite-sized nibbles in their faces– something coated in liquorice, wrapped in bacon and stabbed with a stick full of dates – and grabbed two more glasses.

Robert shook his head at the glass offered; he had been evening out his sleep deprivation, but it was such a short journey from self-medicating tiredness and a sore body to being that brother who thinks he’s making an epic speech and impressing people, when they’re actually slobbering into a microphone all breathy and slurry, hugging guests by leaning on them with full bodyweight and filling the air with a very, very bad case of salmon breath.

Now he would keep things sharp, although it was a bit difficult as he was failing to do so in the presence of the bluest eyes ever.

“I’m gonna go check on my wife,” Terry said happily, making Robert cringe at the word wife, “I’ll see yous later!”

Then he simply swanned off, leaving Robert standing there with his beautiful, but very much scowling hook-up.

“Fancy seeing you here,” Robert said, flashing a smile that said fancy seeing you with your clothes on.

Aaron just hummed absentmindedly, looking at Robert with a tad intense gaze.

No, it was a very intense gaze.

A jolt sparked in Robert’s system; maybe this gorgeous man was looking for a repeat of last night and wanted to skip the talking?

He had that hostility to his desire, which had made things a lot more interesting between the sheets.

Robert leaned a little closer, feeling a rush from the scent of the other man filling his nostrils.

It was one truly nice scent.

“So how do you know Terry?” Robert asked.

Please don’t say you’re related, please don’t say you’re related, please-

“I’m Vic’s best mate,” Aaron said tightly.

Robert felt his eyes widen.

Oh, so this was that mate Vic and Terryble had been banging on about several times; the hero who was so inspiring, an incredible mate and apparently a life-changing teacher too and all that – according to the stories Robert had heard, the Mr Keating of the eight-year-old’s Dead Poet’s Society - a proper role model.

Role model who looked devastating in a suit.

Robert couldn’t decide which he wanted more; to see Aaron in a suit or see him out of it.

Then again both options would be pleasant, as the previous night had proven.

Robert gave Aaron a once-over that left absolutely nothing to the imagination.

“Why don’t you give me your number,” Robert said lowly, “I’d like to call you later.”

Aaron scoffed.

“Why would I wanna do that?” he asked, his beautiful eyes narrowed.

“I think you know why,” Robert said with a smirk.

Aaron put away his champagne glass, crossing his arms.

“Listen, mate, last night was a one-off, and I’m not looking for anything else.”

“It doesn’t have to be anything else,” Robert replied smoothly.

Aaron huffed, rolling his eyes.

It was annoying, but it was also really cute.

Cute?

Robert flinched, quickly forcing his mind to retreat back to the images from their tryst, because he didn’t use words like cute.

Maybe Aaron was cute, but that didn’t mean one should go acknowledging such.

He was hot, and that was a word Robert found acceptable.

Hot man Aaron stared at him with cold eyes.

“You’re a prat,” he said with an absolute confidence one used when stating that the sky is blue.

Robert ignored it and just smiled.

“Aaron, I don’t think prat was a word you used last ni”-

“Shut up,” Aaron cut in, “I’m not doing a flirty-bantery routine here, mate, the fact remains that you are a prat, and I’m not going to waste my time on you. I’ve heard the stories from Terry and I’m not impressed, so how’s about we just keep things cordial and be done with it.”

With that, Aaron turned his back and went about his way, soon crossing paths with Chrissie, greeting her, and giving her a hug.

Robert was seething, but it was mostly about Terry once again ruining a good thing for him, the dismay over Chrissie’s existence was one he was used to by now.

But he wasn’t about to back down because Robert Sugden didn’t do such, and Aaron was too gorgeous to not go after.

He waited a couple of minutes before he casually walked past his ex-wife and his grumpy hook-up; then he threw a calculated glance over his shoulder, searching Aaron’s gaze.

God, could he be any more gorgeous?

Aaron looked at him with an impatient scowl, and then his lips moved, mouthing two words at him.

Robert could read those words very clearly.

Do one.

Robert felt a familiar sensation in his gut; one that confirmed he wasn’t about to comply.

If anything, he was gearing up.

He kept on smiling at Aaron, raising his eyebrows.

Aaron looked away, biting his lip with yet another eyeroll, completing it with a sarcastic smile.

Robert’s smirk widened at that.

Hard to get. I like it.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Robert was scowling at the lupines, baby breaths and daisies as he walked past the long table they were setting up for brunch; the ruined floral arrangements - amongst other things - were still bugging him regardless of the previous evening having turned out moderately acceptable. Not according to his standards, but he had bit back a big ole’ pile of lamentation to not make it seem like it was his shindig.

He wasn’t stupid, he knew weddings never went to plan - just because he was a man of great organizational skill and endless wit, that didn’t stop others being their idiotic selves and the rest of the evening had proven just that.

There had been the cliché party games, garter toss, making a big deal of the disappointment of a cake, stupid marital advice for the couple of the hour, and karaoke - yes, the most grating past time activity in history.

At least Robert's own speech had been perfect. 

However, fact remained that Robert hadn't managed to stop the ceremony, no matter how many questionable, possibly illegal spells and curses he recited in his head - Terryble was still around, being his underachieving self.

What was worse - Vic was happy.

Contrary to every possible ounce of sanity, that is what she was.

Happy being Mrs Terryble.

“Rob!”

There she was, the bride herself - wrapping her tiny frame around him, bringing about a whiff of champagne, brisk morning wind and something like powdered sugar – and something coming out of her mouth that definitely wasn’t baby breath or flowery in general.

Vic’s face was flustered, the lazy spark in her big fawn eyes correlating the tad too noisy a greeting and the manic thump of her heart; it was 9 am, and Robert’s little sister was drunk – and not just a tad.

No, Mrs Terryble was absolutely wankered.

And who could blame her, after the life choices she had recently made.

She swayed there with her hair up in a crooked ponytail, wearing a white velour tracksuit with dubious words embroidered onto it in pink letters.

Robert ignored the terrible bridal realityshow trackies and the booze breath, squeezing his sister into his arms; circumstances aside, it was never a bad time to hug her, and it gave Robert the much-needed illusion that he could keep her safe at all times simply by giving her a squeeze on a regular basis.

Vic pulled back a bit, Robert tutting at her inebriated grin.

“Jesus, Vic, did you start as soon as you woke up?”

Vic snorted, pressing a finger against the false eyelash that was threatening to drop.

“Woke up? I haven’t been to bed yet,” she said, examining her index finger like it was about to tell her why.

Robert chuckled, averting his eyes from the ring glinting on her other finger.

Vic burped, followed by a giggle.

“Charming.”

She gave him her best innocent face, which wasn’t great right now.

“Terry fell asleep early, so me and Aaron got to talking and the fizz, I kinda lost track of time there.”

Yeah, that can happen with Aaron.

“Sorry to say sis, but those trackies are ghastly,” Robert said, shaking himself out of the Aaron stupor he’d been stuck in, “I’m a bit shocked that you’re willing to wear such. It’s so…not you.”

“I know,” Vic replied, patting his arm, “but the bridesmaids love them, so I agreed to it.”

“Seriously?”

Vic shrugged like it was obvious.

“Same reason I agreed to the liquorice appetizers; because Chrissie loves them. The church wasn’t all that, but it made our mates happy. And Terry’s mom likes that Canadian lounge singer, the one that sounded like a kitchen appliance gone rogue - that’s why we had him crooning at the reception.”

“Why on earth would you agree to all of that?”

Vic gave him a pointed look.

“You’ve been married, Rob. You know perfectly well that a wedding is always about the guests in the end, not the people actually getting married. Giving them guests what they want right from the start is the only way to make it less daunting.”

Robert did know that; his and Chrissie’s wedding with the out of sync dance- performing relatives, lace cake with actual lace and the geese - yeah, geese, not doves - it had been a day to remember, no matter how much he’ d tried to forget it.

Vic attempted to fix her ponytail, but it looked like she barely knew where it was and her hands seemed to just make aimless motions above her head, like she was watching Flashdance and doing just as bad a job at mimicking the ballet dancers as Jennifer Beals did on screen.

“It was a great party,” Vic stated easily with a confident smile, her arms dropping and settling into a child-like swing, volume going from too loud to too quiet on her very own champagne frequency, “no-one complained or cried to my knowledge, me and Terry included.”

She paused and looked up at her brother.

“And you didn’t sleep with any of the bridesmaids, which was very nice of you.”

“You’re welcome,” Robert said with a grin, leaving out the admission that making Terry cry would’ve been a perk of monumental proportions if it didn’t mean making Vic sad too.

“Also, you kept the stupidest ideas from happening, being your micromanaging, merciless despot of a weirdo self and I'm thoroughly grateful for that.  I loved seeing you so fired up - that was my concession to you, but it didn’t feel like one.”

Robert felt the biggest splash of happiness at that.

Vic picked up the glass of Ruinart the waiter had brought her – yeah, there was better champers now, thanks to Robert.

“Besides, this day is all mine since guests are no longer whingeing on about their great ideas,” she said matter-of-factly, taking a sip.

“So that’s why you’re drunk and blasting One Direction first thing.”

Vic narrowed her eyes.

“You love One Direction more than I do, Rob, let’s not pretend otherwise.”

She wasn’t wrong, but Robert still scowled at her just for the vast hell of it.

“I still can’t believe you’re so calm about it,” he said, even if the giggling, restlessly inebriated person bouncing about in front of him wasn’t living up to the compliment right now.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Vic replied happily, “everyone knows that the hangover brunch after the shindig is the best part. And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to the kitchen because I want the perfect brunch menu, and that can only happen if I make it myself.”

Robert laughed.

God, he was so proud of his smug little rascal of a sister.

“How’s about I give you a hand? I promise to follow instructions and take any criticism with the obedience of a Victorian footman – obviously, being the footman of Victoria.”

Vic gasped.

“A chance to order my brother about? Just when I thought this day couldn’t get any better.”

“Oi.”

Robert meant to berate her, but he just gave her another hug instead because it was so much better.

Once Vic had kicked out the kitchen staff and Robert had begun cutting ingredients, decisively keeping sharp objects from Vic’s reach - he decided to throw his very casual question into the conversation.

“So what’s the deal with Aaron?” he asked, piling up the zucchini slices on the grill after splashing them with olive oil and French herbs, “how come I’ve never met him before?”

It was a very unfortunate thought indeed; if he had, there would've been plenty of hotel encounters already.

Vic poured the potato chunks onto the large pan, reaching for the spices.

“He just came back to the country a few weeks ago, he was in Canada for two years.”

Robert raised an eyebrow.

“Scouting lounge singers for Terry’s mum?”

Vic laughed; it was heartfelt.

A joy to witness.

She looked so much like their mum it made Robert’s heart constrict with the familiar blend of happiness and sorrow; luckily Vic started talking again as his eyes had begun to glisten.

“He worked in a garage and did some extra credentials for his degree.”

“Credentials in a garage? For what, to get a PhD in grease monkey?”

Vic swatted his arm away as he tried to steal a piece of prosciutto.

“Don’t be a prat, Rob. He worked as a mechanic for the dosh and took classes at Alberta uni for his teaching degree.”

“A mechanic, eh?”

So that explains the skilful hands.

Robert shook away the highly inappropriate thought as soon as it arrived, not getting into Vic’s dig either.

“Yeah, a mechanic. But unlike you, he’s actually a great one,” Vic quipped.

Robert scoffed.

“Like you know anything about that job.”

“I know enough,” his annoyingly grinning sister said, “enough to know the difference. Anyways, he just got back and we didn’t get a chance to get together before this weekend.”

Robert considered that, digesting the information.

“Things got tough for him at the end, so it’s a good thing he’s home now.”

“Tough how?”

Vic tutted, sipping her coffee.

She seemed completely sober suddenly, but then again, cooking did that to her. It was something they had in common; Robert could effortlessly make a stellar meal after downing a bottle of Côtes du Rhône.

“It’s none of your business, Rob. Why are you so interested in his life anyway?”

“Well he’s your best mate, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, but I don’t gossip. Not like that.”

Vic paused; her eyes were staring through the pan it seemed, like she was looking into the hidden details of Aaron’s life.

She looked a little sad.

“Anyway,” she said, flinching out of whatever she’d dipped into in her mind, “he’s back now, and that’s what matters. He’s coming to visit for a long weekend after the honeymoon so we can spend some actual time together.”

She looked up at Robert with a face he knew well; she was about to suggest something weird, not that it was a rare occurrence where Vic was concerned.

“I’d like to have Seb over then,” she said cautiously, pouring the whisked eggs on top of the potatoes.

Robert’s stomach was rumbling, but he couldn’t pay attention to it after hearing Vic’s words; he wasn’t entirely sure what he’d thought she would say, but that was not anywhere near the things he might have guessed.

“Why’d ya wanna have Seb over?”

Vic was batting her crooked false eyelashes at him.

“I love my nephew, isn’t that enough?”

“No it isn’t. Why would Aaron want my kid tagging along?”

Robert crossed his arms, cocking his head towards the veggies that were ready now.

“I reckon Turner would like it,” Vic said as she picked up the greens from the grill – Robert let her do it, because no-one was allowed to do the plating and the display, he had bickered over it with her enough times to know it was a losing battle, and a gruesome one at that.

“Who’s Turner?” he asked, stealing some prosciutto just to wind her up.

Vic stuck out her tongue because she was equally mature.

“Turner is Aaron’s kid, he's a single dad. The boy's six, like Seb.”

“And his name is Turner?”

Vic grinned.

“Yeah, it’s weird innit? Everyone in Aaron’s family has biblical names, maybe he fancied a change to that. Although his middle name is Abraham, so not really.”

Robert was getting more puzzled by the minute, and he was beginning to think he couldn’t digest this information without getting a tad lushed.

Not just a tad, he needed to get Vic- level hammered, with the Turners and the biblical relatives, garages, credentials and Canadian secrets confusing him.

“Aaron’s smitten with Seb,” Vic continued, “and I bet his kid will be too.”

Robert scoffed, sprinkling rosemary on the potatoes.

“Everyone is smitten with Seb,” he said arrogantly, knowing Vic couldn’t deny it; everyone loved Seb, and it was something Robert felt incredibly smug about every single day - and rightfully so.

Vic picked up the platter of veggies as Robert took a pile of plates along with the cutlery and insulated bowls, setting them on the serving trolley. “Well, Seb is the best kid ever,” she said proudly, “now let’s go and show those pillocks what real food is, and why we’re the greatest team in the history of teams.”

It was the best way to start the day; sharing a smug smile with his favourite person.

Robert kissed her cheek, his heart so full of affection at the sight of her self-satisfied face.

“Lead the way, queen Victoria."

 

 

 “Cheers, Mr S!”

Terry raised his glass as he slumped – yes, slumped onto his chair like Seb did when he was being difficult and very six years old; at the moment Seb was sat outside with his mum, watching the birds flying and chirping about, asking a million questions about them.

Terryble was likewise asking a million questions, mostly about what the other people’s thoughts were on whether the chair he sat on was wobbly or not.

Unlike Seb, Terry wasn’t adorable during his chair-slumping question hour – he was just being the unpleasant looking, adolescent mood killer he had always been, casually expressing his general wankerism. 

“Well haven’t I got a face like a wet weekend,” Terryble cackled – sadly it didn’t mean that he was unhappy, it just meant he had been splashed with a bit of rain outside and he now called himself a wet weekend.

Because it was the weekend, and he got wet, get it?

No, Robert wasn’t laughing either, his nerves were dripping onto the floor along with the drops that Terryble was shedding from his atrociously cut mop of hair.

 However, Robert good-heartedly swallowed his potential remarks and settled for chewing his last mouthful as he had cleared his plate now – thankfully at least the food was properly prepared since they’d made sure of it, and it was indeed delicious, even if the sight of Terry stuffing mushroom sloppily towards his laughing gear proved that there was nothing appetizing about the view in that room.

That was, until a certain someone sat down next to the bloke ruining the moods and mushrooms.

Much like in the garden, butterflies were fluttering about Robert’s stomach too.

How was it possible that Aaron had been out of his periphery for just a few hours, yet somehow become even more gorgeous?

It was a tad baffling, just how much the bloke made his insides stir.

“Morning,” Robert said casually, flashing him a smile.

Aaron gave him a nod and then immediately turned towards Terryble, because he clearly was planning on giving Robert  little stabs of rejection all morning, making sure he'd be extremely horny and miserable by lunchtime.

“Sorry for keeping Vic up,” he said, a warmth to his tone that had Robert feeling pure, organic, first-rate envy towards Terry for the first time in his entire life, “I guess we got a bit carried away.”

“No worries Aaron,” Terryble said happily, “I got so sleepy, she needed the company.”

He slept a lot, often napping throughout the day like babies.

It wasn’t something Robert complained about, since it kept the atrocity of a man out of sight.

Terry picked up his fork, glanced at his plate and then looked around with a frown; Robert deduced he was probably looking for instructions.

“Where’s the lovely Chrissie?” Terryble asked because he was the most jovial wanker ever, “I didn’t see her this morning.”

“She’s outside with our son,” Robert said firmly, making sure the words our son had the most emphasis one could possibly apply, “Seb likes to watch the birds.”

“I’m aware, Mr S,” Terry said, “it’s great.”

The I’m aware had a very bold amount of emphasis too, as it happens.

"Congrats," Robert replied, just to give him sarcastic credit for being aware of something.

He could get away with saying congrats, given the circumstances.

"Thanks," Terry said happily, like Robert had just offered the greatest compliment.

Robert ignored him to the best of his ability and it wasn't hard as he fixed his eyes on Aaron; how could he not, him sitting there looking ridiculously fuckable in his white shirt, sinful jeans and his fluffy morning hair all over the place.

Robert swallowed, his blood stirring.

He had enjoyed looking at that hair in the hotel room too, running his fingers through it, grabbing a fistful and giving it a firm tug when Aaron was sprawled under him, noisy and sweaty.

God, he looks amazing naked.

The images were taking over his mind again, plunging it into the filthiest of gutters; Aaron under him, Aaron on him, Aaron sideways, Aaron upside down.

Aaron all over.

“Robert.”

That’s it, say my name.

“Robert.”

Yeah, just like that.

“Robert.”

Say it again and beg me to fu-

“Robert!”

Unfortunately he hadn’t teleported into a repeat of that hotel room workout; he was still at the wedding venue, Aaron was just waving a hand in his face and Terryble was still very much an existing sad disaster of a fact.

Aaron cleared his throat and pointed towards the garden.

“Your son was asking for ya.”

Robert stumbled to his feet and strode towards the garden, heart pounding so fast he just might pass out.

This was getting pathetic, but the more pathetic it became, the more stubborn he grew.

Not a new thing for him, was it.

Luckily he was able to take a break from it all as soon as he opened the door and saw his son sitting there, breaking into a wide smile as he saw his dad’s face.

“Dad!” Seb squealed impatiently, motioning towards himself.

Robert walked over and ruffled his strawberry hair.

“Hiya,” he said gently and sat down next to Seb; they drank lemonade, laughing and chatting about swallows, starlings and robins, Chrissie showed pictures of the rare hawfinch sighting and Robert told stories about the birds he’d seen often growing up.

Seb had absorbed an impressive amount of information like children his age could, many times outshining his parents but they didn’t mind.

They just shared an amused, polite smile.

There may have not been any love lost between Robert and his ex-wife - well, it was more in the lines of throwing passive aggressive verbal missiles and icy stares, but when Seb was around the animosity knew it was time to do one.

If only that had been the case with Terryble.

Robert glanced up from the bird photos and saw a figure by the door.

Aaron was stood there, watching.

Not scowling.

Not smiling.

Just... looking.

As soon as he realised he'd been seen, he looked away and turned around, like he was ashamed.

Robert frowned, turning his attention back to Seb.

 

After Chrissie and Seb had gone for a walk, Robert returned to the table and was just about to strike up a conversation with Aaron when a horrible thing occurred.

Robert heard the opening chords of Blank space and almost squealed; having his stomach full, the most beautiful man sitting across from him, and Taylor singing through the speakers – he could easily turn it all around, he could block out Terryble and simply change Aaron’s mind if he just-

“I love her,” Terry said dreamily, humming along with the song, completely out of key of course.

Robert felt that wave of rage crashing into his system like the crazy monkey that it was; this was unacceptable.

His hands were balling into fists, and he just might bend the cutlery and snap it, giving Uri Geller a run for his money.

“Isn’t she great, Mr S?”

Robert stared at his empty plate, feeling like he was the one lacking instructions now.

“You like her, don’t ya?” Terryble pressed on because why stop now when Robert was almost dead on the inside.

“I’ll be right back,” Robert muttered and headed towards the coffee machine.

Watching the liquid drip into his cup, he was about to cry, frustration doing its manic Riverdance in his head.

That pillock had married his sister, was bogarting the seat next to the person who was Robert’s new number one wankbank image as his morning shower had proven – and now he had stepped into another important territory in his life.

Bloke just had to go and try to ruin Tay-Tay for him too, didn’t he?

Robert had decided he would never tell the pillock about his own, much bigger and dignified love for Taylor because that just wasn’t a possibility. Of course he hadn’t denied it either because a real Swifty doesn’t do that, but the result was the same; he had to bite back the words, grit his teeth and let Terryble victory dance about the chess board whilst Robert’s queen was knocked over, laying there black and immobile.

He glanced at the table, sorrow washing over him at the sight of Aaron smiling at that pillock, happily like Vic did.

No-one had told Robert life could be this unfair.

He noticed the song had ended and he could breathe again, if only for not having to listen to Terryble’s humming.

He took a sip of coffee.

It was still as disappointing as the groom. 

Vic was dancing to Night changes - again - when Robert spotted her; she had changed into her own clothes, grateful at Robert’s offer to burn that tracksuit in the bonfire barrels outside.

And Robert had, because he was a brother who kept his word.

Vic squealed a bit, going for a tilted pirouette.

Her moves didn’t do the concept of music much justice; Robert cackled at her weird choreography, feeling relieved that he himself was a much better dancer.

A great one.

“Pet, come sit with us!”

Robert shook his head at Diane, not really feeling up to chattering with his stepmum.

He was reaching his limit of chitchat.

And missing his real mum.

Wishing she were still around.

It made him feel oddly guilty, but the guilt always locked horns with his anger, that anger directed at nothing and everything.

The anger splashed in his mind again.

It was like a crappy flatmate, the anger; he had grown so accustomed to it that living without it seemed frightening, but the thought of still putting up with its draining presence in twenty years’ time wasn’t an option he was fond of.

Robert felt that wave of it as his eyes roamed the room, staring at the carved marble and the white wood, the floor-to-ceiling windows, the stupid flowers, too tall candlesticks and napkins on plates with half-finished meals, people with bandaids on their grazed knees and too many smiles on their faces, staining glasses with lipstick traces and sun lotion fingers. 

The waves always came unexpectedly.

Suddenly the air seemed to disappear.

He put down his coffee cup and picked up a glass of fizz, nodded to Diane before striding towards the kitchen again, not knowing what he was doing and why but it needed to be something other than this.

Robert entered the empty kitchen , had a little chat with his bubbling rage, silencing it, sealing it back into the barrel of toxic emotional waste and tossing it into the ever-growing pile, and proceeding to do the washing up; the machine was broken, but having something to do by himself was a godsend right now, just doing without thinking, mind a blank space indeed.

It made the waves smaller, and he was okay again, despite the frantic thump of his heart.

He knew how to make himself okay.

It was all going to be okay.

 

As he left the now spotless kitchen sans anger and got to the corridor leading towards the side exit, Aaron appeared from behind the corner.

They stopped in front of one another, eyes locking.

Aaron didn’t scowl.

Instead he gave him that impatient, smug smile.

The zipping fire immediately licked its way through Robert’s system; he felt sliced open, like Aaron could see it, see the devouring flames thrumming about, his want blatant.

“Hiya.”

Robert’s voice sounded foreign to himself, it was all hoarse and needy.

Aaron was looking anything but as he tilted his head, as if to assess just how many insults he could fit into ten words or less.

“What’cha want?” he grumbled.

Like you don’t know.

Aaron’s eyes were flickering across Robert’s face, taking in the sight with an expression that was still unreadable, unashamed in its hostility.

Robert felt like he was melting into the deadly blue gaze, and it didn’t seem like a bad thing.

Somehow it seemed like the only thing that made sense.

That was of course because he needed to get Aaron alone and naked five minutes ago.

“Why don’t I take you to that nice gazebo across the field?”, he suggested on an impulse, “it’s a nice place.”

“Yeah, I’m not going,” Aaron replied tightly.

“I was thinking more in the lines of coming, not going,” Robert said with a wink.

Aaron huffed, looking up at the ceiling.

“Mate, I’m neither coming or going with you.”

He really knew how to make the word mate sound like a proper insult, didn’t he?

“We could just have a chat,” Robert said, getting increasingly flustered by the feel of Aaron’s proximity.

He could settle for a chat, even though he was already half hard again from just looking at that man.

Aaron looked amazing.

That arse. It's perfect.

Robert felt dizzy with want.

Fuckin' hell.

That's where he was, a hell of fucking, or rather lack thereof.

“Why would I agree to a chat? So you can bang on about how you’re actually all nice and profound underneath whilst pulling down your pants? No ta.”

Even the digs Aaron was throwing his way sounded gorgeous, because why would they not when they were spoken with that deep, scratchy voice, a voice that could make millions working on a chatline of the adult kind - a voice that had a pulse, a vibration going on, a heated energy that floated around Aaron’s entire demeanour. 

That vibration had also come as an extremely nice blessing when his mouth had been wrapped around Robert’s co-

“Oi.”

Aaron was snapping his fingers impatiently in front of Robert’s face.

“What?”

“I said can you move out of the way, we’re done here.”

Robert didn’t want to move out of the way, he wanted to get in Aaron’s ways in every aspect that comes with such concept.

“Go on then, what’s the brainiac been saying about me?” he asked, mostly just gasping to skip this conversation and get to the undressing part, even though a part of him was vaguely intrigued by what the sad sloth had been cooking in his empty warehouse of a brain.

Aaron huffed, his smirk contemptuous.

“S’all a big joke to ya, innit?”

He was right - everything about Terryble was a big joke but Robert chose not to state the obvious and said instead:

“I don’t know why he’s badmouthing me, and I reckon I’m entitled to find out why.”

“Blimey, you really don’t give others much thought,” Aaron said with a tone that sounded almost sad, turning away from him in a manner that looked like he was trying to block Robert’s existence altogether.

“That’s not true in the slightest,” Robert said firmly, “and frankly I don’t care what that little weasel’s been chinwagging, but I bet it’s all lies.”

“Right,” Aaron sighed, “as thrilling as this vague excuse of a conversation is, I’m gonna ask you to leave me alone now.”

"Why?" Robert asked, "we had a great time before the little plank meddled."

And that was the truth. They did have a great time.

Very sweaty time, but they'd had a really good chat before the sweaty part.

Aaron made a frustrated sound, like a growl.

"Just do one, Robert."

The thunder was back in his eyes; the aggressive burn scorching through Robert’s skin, making him stir.

“Why?” he repeated.

“I don’t trust you,” Aaron said matter-of-factly.

“You don’t know me well enough not to,” Robert replied, knowing Aaron didn’t know him well enough to trust him either.

“I know enough, and I don’t like being messed around,” Aaron replied adamantly, words clear and firm.

“I’m not,” Robert said.

He stood firmly in place, gaze sweeping over Aaron’s body, his mouth going dry from the images of the night at the hotel that kept flashing through his mind.

Aaron was narrowing those eyes of his again.

“Robert, I won’t say this again, get lost.”

Methinks the gentleman doth protest too much. 

Robert didn’t say it out loud, something told him that he just might get punched, not fucked – at least not in a good way.

Aaron’s breath was a little shallow, accelerated, that along with the heat radiating from that sinfully beautiful body was turning Robert’s brain into a pile of goo, but seriously, who the fuck cared?

Robert stared at his mouth, very much aware he himself was probably salivating visibly.

He leaned just a little closer, letting his breath take a sweep at Aaron’s neck as he spoke.

“I think you don’t want me to leave,” he said quietly, examining Aaron’s face, knowing his gaze to be hungry.

Aaron’s breath hitched just a bit, or perhaps he was imagining it.

“Oh really?” Aaron scowled, eyes beady, “and how’s that?”

Robert felt a tiny wave of hesitation, but he didn’t give into it.

“We’re both still here,” he said, "and I think you know why."

The way he said it was like a question,  almost desperate; Robert hated that.

Aaron was quiet.

Robert leaned in, lips just brushing at Aaron’s jaw; a touch that wasn’t really there, but touching all the same, in so many ways.

And he heard it.

He heard the tiny moan; it was barely there too, but it was there.

It made his blood boil and his dick twitch painfully.

He inhaled that intoxicating scent of the beautiful man and pulled back, looking for confirmation.

Aaron just stood there, his body seeming to pulsate on the edge of surrender, eyes wide and crushing blue.

Robert's index finger climbed up Aaron's shoulder, dancing across his neck, down his jawline, stopping under the chin, pressing a bit, tilting Aaron's face upwards.

Then he leaned closer again, his mouth stopping right above Aaron’s; it was a shared breath of air, but it felt too vivid and wild in his lungs, like the air in high altitude.

Aaron swallowed, eyes closing and opening again, their colour turning a deeper shade.

Like it had a day and a half ago.

The crackle pinning the room's energy was drowning him.

Robert hummed, lips quivering and parting.

Then Aaron pulled away, blowing out a breath, the mirror-calm surface of the moment gone as the ripples began to multiply.

The corridor seemed to tilt and crumble, closing in on them.

“I have to go,” Aaron said, voice rising from faded and rough to clear and decisive through his words,

Robert waited for a tiny moment, waited for him to change his mind, to come closer again.

Aaron didn’t, and it made him ache.

“Robert.”

It wasn’t a question.

Robert relented; rather begrudgingly, he turned sideways and gestured towards the shrinking corridor, clinging onto his state of denial where him blushing wasn’t happening.

“After you,” he croaked out, voice shaky.

Aaron said nothing - nor did he look at him again, going about his way.

Robert was left standing there, his knees unsteady, trying and failing not to lose his breath, his pulse galloping ahead, like it was attempting to leave his body, charge after the figure disappearing into the corridor.

Fuck.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Robert threw his phone onto the table and sighed, letting the soothing profanities out as he colourfully cursed the bloke who had made some impressive strides towards ruining his morning.

It was an annoying dèja-vu; they’d had that same conversation dozens of times, and each exchange ended with Robert feeling like incompetence was the only thing that was thriving in the world of labour.

He had considered hiring a new private investigator because this one was turning out to be yet another pillock made of fruitless work hours and professional disinterest, not to mention he wore suits that were an insult to the concept of suits – something wrinkled, colourless and very much corduroy, sitting on his arse at an office, eating bacon butties and wasting Robert’s money.

But the thought of having to explain everything from the beginning again seemed like a task that wasn’t only tedious, it was too heavy, even if Robert knew it was inevitable now.

He’d been actively looking for his brother for three years now, ever since he had left – or rather, just vanished – completely out of the blue.

The police had given up quickly, they weren’t in the habit of making an effort when all the evidence pointed out that Andy didn’t want to be found, especially considering he had frequently talked about starting over before his disappearance.

Robert wasn’t fussed about finding him, but he knew it would mean a lot to Vic and in that way, it meant a lot to him too.

Today wasn’t the day apparently.

Robert picked up his pencil and tapped in against the armrest of his chair, as if though he could shake out the answers he was no closer of reaching.

It was his pet peeve; being outsmarted by something non-existent like Andy’s wit - or remaining in the dark of it all courtesy of a bacon-corduroy wanker of a PI who had zero ambition.

Robert glanced towards the kitchen; perhaps he should do the washing up now.

As he sank his hands into the soapy water, he once again went over the scarce information he’d managed to obtain; Andy had left his flat in Leeds on a Tuesday morning and was spotted first at a London hostel in the afternoon, followed by a restaurant in the evening, and again at the airport the next day. The last sighting of him had been on Wednesday around 6 pm at a luggage facility two minutes from Heuston station in Dublin, and much to Robert’s dismay there were no signs of him boarding any trains – or exiting the building, for that matter.

Having spent a fortnight in the city looking for leads right after the disappearing act, this was as far as he got each time; the same useless clues followed by that heavy stone wall arrogantly looming above him, riddled with indifference and dead ends.

There were a million CCTV cameras in the area and although Robert had managed to bribe his way into accessing the right ones, there was no footage of Andy exiting the Tipperary house where he’d been seen picking up luggage.

It was as if though he had indeed vanished to thin air and as Andy’s mind was anything but inventive, it seemed more than questionable that he’d been ducking the cameras on purpose.

Really, how hard was it to find someone as simple as his brother?

Turns out, very hard indeed.

Robert was certain he was hiding out on an Irish farm, sheering sheep and happily breathing in the smell of hay and manure; the probability of Andy living a rogue life of crime and deprivation on the streets of Dublin with a dodgy beard and a hardman stare was little to none.

That was the outcome Robert wasn’t keen on discovering, if only for the fact that finding out his uneventful brother was living a life much more exciting than him was thoroughly appalling.

Vic didn’t know about his expeditions, but Robert was sure she had done digging of her own. Vic was anything but stupid, and she was just as bad at letting things lie as Robert was.

They never talked about it because they never talked about Andy in general, but Robert knew Vic actually missed Andy - which was a whole headscratcher of its own.

His phone chirped; Robert quickly dried his hands on the tea towel and picked up the device, smirking to himself as he saw the message.

Hey Rob,

got a number for you. This bloke can find anyone, give him a ring. Hope to see you soon, let’s go for a pint.

The text was from Connor Jensen, the sneaky and blatantly two-faced little ginger who still worked at the gigantic corporation that was White Haulage, where Robert had spent many gruelling years with his ambition and his patience battling against one another on an endless loop.

Working for Chrissie’s dad when they’d been married had been tolerably tiring, working for her once they’d become divorced was on a whole other level of daunt; being the decisive, cut-throat she-devil that she was, she had managed to twist the loopholes to her liking, not going for the obvious route of getting him sacked – she had demoted him.

Not to the bottom of the chain, just low enough to give him a lot of responsibility and very little say.

If he was honest, Robert had been impressed by the move and it made him almost miss her in a nauseating sort of way.

The truth was, he would’ve done exactly the same thing.

As his last task at that company, Robert had taken a high-rank risk spying on a competitor to get his hands on crucial information, the kind that would give the White empire the power to drag its challenger out of the sea of possibilities and leave it gasping for air on a deserted beach, where small time crooks would walk all over it and take great satisfaction in watching it struggle.

Robert knew that much like in the hidden truths of his own employer, he could find something equally incriminating in the competitor’s files - something he could use to deliver the final blow to the proverbial whale’s head, but first he’d have to get his hands on the files - and as usual, he put his hands on the person that had the password to the files holding the secrets as well as his promotion hostage.

It took him exactly ten days, four hours, and seventeen minutes of persistent flirtation and flattery to get the key-holder named Celia Jones into bed.

Well, it wasn’t a bed per se, it was the storage room at the side-office where Celia worked as a receptionist.

Robert didn’t get a shag out of the supply closet visit, not exactly but that wasn’t a necessity - wide-eyed and hopelessly romantic Celia did, because Robert fingered her with the utmost skill and managed to make her come three times within a matter of minutes.

That earned him a dopey, rosy-cheeked smile and fifteen minutes later, the keys that would give him the means to get things rolling properly.

The thrill he got from getting the files and cooking up the smartest scheme of his entire career gave him a rush that no amount of fingering could match.

After some post-storage room sweet nothings whispered into Celia’s ear, Robert went back into his own office and presented the masterplan; his father-in-law Lawrence was proud, so proud in fact that his ridiculous man-crush towards Robert showed a little more vividly than he usually let it.

Robert was pleased with the confirmation; this was indeed gold in so many ways, including the Rolex he received- letting Lawrence put it on him of course, holding his gaze with a smirk that made his boss’s breath hitch just a little.

Robert got his promotion, Lawrence got a few well-planned and subtle yet just audacious enough winks to keep the prospect of delicious extortion valid.

Robert spent increasingly longer days at the office that week because now was the time to strike; his iron wasn’t just hot, it was scolding in all its glorious calculatedness.

He ignored the part in his mind that had the audacity to question it and went home each night, putting himself to sleep with a few glasses of the ridiculously expensive whiskey Lawrence had given him, once again letting their hands linger in the passing contact a tad longer than was necessary as the boss man had handed the bottle to his son-in-law.

The sense of power of it all created a high and a buzz he had never experienced.

It was a dizzying buzz, and Robert felt like he was perpetually afloat.

After it had all blown up, the buzz gave him nothing but motion sickness and he had slept on the floor for a good while, just to feel the ground closer.

During his last day on top he went into the office, about to put the finishing touch into his masterplan when he was escorted into a room; there stood Lawrence, and there stood another person too.

Little Celia Jones.

Long and impressively exhausting story short, Lawrence ripped up his masterplan, shoving it into the same shredder where his promotion and his future access to the house on the tallest hill were whirring away into the thinnest slices.

Celia Jones had narrowed, thundering eyes instead of rosy cheeks, and she smirked triumphantly at Robert as she went.

His only mistake in his masterplan had been ignoring Celia’s longing texts one time too often.

Hell hath no fury and all that.

Celia hadn’t been there to accuse him of espionage because she hadn’t clocked it, being in that infatuation bliss of hers - she had been there simply to reveal his itsy-adult-bitsy-spider game in that storage room.

Robert remembered desperately looking around Lawrence’s high-class office, eyes roaming back and forth from the appalling golden wallpaper to the ridiculous vases and on to the heavy wooden desk as if he could spot a key to the file cabinet that held his second chances - but Robert knew that particular cabinet was empty by now, and no amount of smooth talking, scheming, or fingering would change that fact.

If he hadn’t had information that could crush Lawrence too, he would’ve been jobless, homeless and most likely banged up in a matter of hours -but as he had secured a backup plan because he wasn’t an idiot, the result of the corporate standoff was acceptable in the circumstances.

Lawrence stayed quiet about the Celia situation and let Robert’s marriage die on its own - which didn’t take long - and Robert stayed on the payroll; he wasn’t particularly keen on staying put, but as it seemed like an annoying fuck-you that it was, he hung in there for another year even though Lawrence’s last fuck-you had been efficient too – making his daughter Robert’s boss.

Thus in came the demotion and away went the perks.

Robert bit back his fury and concentrated on saving as much money as he possibly could, and after hanging on for a year he had quit, managing a hefty severance package after he had found pictures of half-naked men on his now ex-father-in-law’s laptop.

Some of them didn’t show a face, but Robert recognised his own body.

He hadn’t found a way to access the pics himself, but little Connor Jensen had.

Despite the rumours and the demotion, Connor was still loyal to him. Robert didn’t kid himself into thinking Connor wouldn’t turn on him in a nanosecond, but that made the setting much more exciting. His position workwise was frustrating and reeling Connor in had been the sort of challenge he had needed.

On his last day, Robert had taken Connor into the parking zone of the company building

He’d been stood there, gathering the remnants of his now indisputably past corporate life and putting them in his pocket, staring into the light flooding from the exit, anxious to drive into it and dust off the White ages whilst Connor just stared.

His gaze was always a little sad and a little too intense, like a kid chronically unable to impress the grown-up. 

He hadn’t really impressed anyone in that corporation, but he found ways to take what he needed on the quiet – and had given Robert some almost endearing, enthusiastic fanboy speeches that had always ended with an equally heartfelt fuck. 

He was a decent shag – nothing earthshattering, but he got the job done, so to speak; much like he had done with Robert and his many schemes, turning out to be a slightly exhausting but loyal sidekick.

And that’s why on his last day Robert had given Connor a thorough hand job in that carpark, just to keep him useful – perhaps partly to express his gratitude too, partly to have a door ajar – and most of all, to make him come on the bonnet of Lawrence’s Lamborghini as the last and rather literal and ultimate fuck-you.

As he had watched Connor scrunch up his face, about to spill the load, Robert wondered if this could be counted as going out with a bang.

 

Now that he still had a good amount of savings which had multiplied, thanks to him making a couple of truly smart investments including a scrapyard that thrived - Robert had time to look for Andy, and Connor had sent him the details of a PI – knowing Connor, this bloke would be sneaky and ruthless and get much further than Bacon Corduroy ever could.

Now he also had time to write his second novel, something he had put off for the sake of the White walkers.

And what was more important than anything, he could spend as much time with Seb as he wished; it was the one thing he and Chrissie could agree on, figuring how to fit their lives around Seb’s needs, never the other way round, hence Chrissie let him have more time with their son without hesitation.

He’d gotten used to having Seb with him for most days of the week instead of the usual three nights, and every time Seb went to his mother Robert felt a little more lonely.

And as Vic often said, Seb was the greatest kid ever. Anyone would miss his company.

Robert was already anxious to see him again in an hour.

He saved the contact info of the PI Connor had recommended and was already feeling a little buzz; he knew he’d have to work hard to get things into motion, but that was something he loved after all, hard work was his high.

Speaking of working hard, he had sent Aaron a text.

As Robert had become a man with a plan - he had agreed to letting Seb join Vic and Aaron for their long catch-up weekend, but not until he had invited himself to stay over too. Vic had been immensely pleased at that, anxious to get off the phone when Robert had presented his idea, undoubtedly already planning a lavish menu, not that Robert was complaining.

After battling internally over whether he should approach the grumpy dreamboat in advance or not, he came to the conclusion that reaching out in a casual way would be a good way to remind Aaron of his existence, in case the weekend at Vic’s wouldn’t happen by for some reason.

Robert liked being prepared.

The text had been a casual what’s new with you, I’ll be seeing you next weekend type of message.

The reply however was just, well, apparently very Aaron.

Right, see ya.

Robert sent back a seemingly clueless and friendly see ya, risking even a happy emoji which wasn’t like him by a long way.

It was slightly disturbing how much that sulky, gorgeous enigma of a bloke occupied his thoughts, which had been the case this particular morning too, laying in his bed at six am, eyes closed, body tingling and needy. He rarely managed to get through a morning these days without having a private film festival in his head, presenting himself with a screening of the steamy movie called At the hotel, reliving the best bits of that night a couple of weeks ago.

He had tried going on the pull, but there was no one interesting about – there rarely was, and Robert was picky.

Sleeping with a random could’ve taken the edge off, but the assumption that it wouldn’t be nearly as good as it had been with Aaron was a fair one.

It was easily the best sex he’d ever had, and he just might go completely off his trolley if he wouldn’t get a repeat soon.

I’m neither coming or going with you, mate.

Aaron’s words flashed in his mind, and it annoyed him to no end; the sulky man couldn’t not agree with him over the superb quality of their encounter between the sheets, and he really should know better than to hold back on it.

After all, life is too short to not shag.

With that, Robert went into his bedroom and began picking out his clothes.

Aaron would be his by the end of the weekend, he would dress just right for the occasion - and who doesn’t love floral print?

And what floral print couldn’t fix, their kids bonding could make up for.

 

 

"You’re stupid if you don’t like chickens.”

“I like chickens when they’re dead on my plate.”

“I hate you.”

“I hate you more.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t an immature conversation between Vic’s dreadful – Terryble - husband and one of his questionable mates - if that had been the case, it would’ve provided a bit of entertainment, something to feel smug over – something akin to the reaction reality tv was invented for, the feeling of intellectual superiority for the viewership.

But as this conversation was happening in Vic’s kitchen with no sight of Terryble and the dialogue was provided by Robert’s and Aaron’s sons, it was nothing to feel smug about, nor did it provide any sort of entertainment; it was more in the lines of parental embarrassment and absolute denial.

They sat there, platefuls of food that made the taste buds dance and the stomach wail for getting a tad too much grub, because who would not go for seconds at Vic’s.

Well, Robert did not go for seconds now, his appetite had seemed to vanish along with the prospect of a nice weekend.

Seb and Turner had known each other for three hours now, and it had been the longest three hours known to man.

The boys had their first disagreement in the first five minutes over which monster truck or other in one of those noisy Japanese cartoon series was the best, and it was steadily downhill from there on; they questioned each other’s taste in ice cream, pet of choice, playground equipment and – very disturbingly – whether animals belonged on a plate or a petting zoo.

At that point, Robert didn’t even try to put a stop to the morbid conversation. He felt thoroughly helpless - and exhausted in advance about having to explain the topics covered here to Chrissie, because somehow his ex-wife always found out about such events, being the all-knowing chief whip that she was.

Seb didn’t like to blab and he was anything but malicious but if it hadn’t been just his six-year-old stupidity, Robert would’ve easily believed he was doing it on purpose, considering his genes – on both sides, Robert wasn’t delusional over his own part in the equation.

And this is where they were now, listening to two kids argue over the topic “chickens; better before or after a trip to the slaughterhouse.”

Robert took a quick glance at Aaron.

Yep, still looks like he’d rather send me to the same place as his son would do to poultry.

Vic stood up and clasped her hands together with a cheery smile because she never gave up, especially when she should.

“Right, who’s up for dessert?” she asked enthusiastically, drowning out the poultry debate.

Turner raised an eyebrow at that, his blue eyes flaming, breath accelerated, little arms crossed dramatically.

“Is the dessert chicken?” he asked aggressively.

“Oi, that’s enough,” Aaron cut in, taking away his plate, “stop being an idiot.”

“You can’t call me an idiot, dad.”

“I think I just did, kid,” Aaron deadpanned.

“Even your dad thinks you’re an idiot,” Seb said happily, looking very pleased about being on his worst behaviour.

“Seb, stop that or I’m taking away your weekend perks. No, actually I’ll be taking away your weekend, end of. We’ll be doing school stuff and nothing else, how does that sound?”

Seb didn’t look like it sounded great but still he stuck out his tongue, first at his dad and then Turner because he was just that determined to keep poking the dead atmosphere with a stick, long after it had stopped fidgeting in the ditch where social encounters go to croak.

Robert didn’t even bother to say Seb’s not usually like this because Aaron knew that already – and now he was likely to think Robert’s presence made the kids behave like two very impolite little demons. The situation was going against Robert so gloriously in so many ways that he had a strong urge to scarper and go drink thoroughly and depressingly like Don Birnam in The Lost weekend – the book, not the film.

God, they ruined the ending in true Hollywood style.

This gathering’s ending seemed to be ruined Yorkshire style already but Robert put his faith in his little sister, as she was the greatest peace negotiator in the county – sometimes he felt like Her Majesty had missed out on a great agent as Vic could squeeze bad manners out of anyone, be it six-year-olds or enemy spies – not that the six-year-olds weren’t more difficult than the spies, because they certainly were.

But what they all had in common was being afraid of Robert’s sister.

She was just that intimidating, all five feet and one-and-a-half inches of her.

Turner crossed his arms theatrically, sticking out his bottom lip in a pout and kicking about with his feet, just to hammer home he was sulking in case someone was missing it.

He looked a lot like his dad when he sulked, and in a less explosive situation Robert might’ve laughed.

“I wanna call Martin,” Turner said decisively, “you said I could talk to him.”

Aaron’s frustration seemed to reach such visible heights it was just about wearing bells and a pink flamingo suit, dancing about and screaming look at me.

“We are not calling him now,” Aaron said slowly through gritted teeth, like he was grinding the words first into a less expletive-ridden form.

“He’s my best mate, and you said we should always remember our best mates,” Turner blurted arrogantly, thinking his blatant attempt to manipulate his dad wasn’t as transparent as it was.

Aaron just blinked at him for a moment.

“I think best mates understand when we’re acting like muppets we don’t get to call them,” he said, “and trust me, kid, that’s exactly what’s happening here.”

Turner scowled, his hands making a grabbing motion as if he could pull an argument out of thin air.

“Chickens are stupid.”

It wasn’t a great argument, but to him it seemed like the greatest truth.

Vic pushed her chair against the table, indicating the kitchen was closed now and blew out a breath, letting her startling smile widen just a tad.

“If you boys are finished, go put your shoes on. I’m taking you for a drive, and then we’ll go to the beach.”

“I don’t like the beach,” Seb grumbled, crumpling his napkin, throwing it onto the floor and kicking out his foot but noticing to his dismay that he couldn’t quite reach Turner’s shin with it.

Vic gave that her sweetest death stare.

“Seb, pick that up right now. And I happen to know that you love the beach.”

“But I don’t wanna go with him,” Seb said, his voice raising towards tantrum-level at an alarming speed.

He did pick up the napkin though, as he had basic survival instincts.

“I don’t care, Seb,” Vic replied easily with an air-light cruelty to her tone, “I want to go with you both, and that’s how it’s gonna be.”

“Vic, are you sure”-

Vic glanced at Aaron and her brother with a smile that was downright terrifying now.

Robert flinched, and he was pretty sure Aaron had too.

Vic brushed aside her long braids from her shoulders, picking up her car keys and her handbag, radiating the most hospitable hostility as she stared down the dads of the children from hell.

“Yeah, I really don’t care about the opinion of yous two either, so leave it. We’re going, end of.”

She turned towards the boys.

“First one at the car will sit next to me.”

The boys just stood there, gawping and waving their arms like they were gearing up for a scrap – which they probably were.

Vic cleared her throat.

“Alright then, you can sit next to each other in the back.”

Robert couldn’t quite see his son after that announcement as Seb became a cartoon blur, hurrying out the door so fast he actually left flying dust in his wake.

He made it to the car first, and the groan that elicited from Turner was clearly audible from outside.

Robert had long ago stopped trying to decipher what sorts of potions Vic consumed to be that unwavering, but he would absolutely never stop enjoying the fruits of said determination.

Once the front door had closed, it took him a moment to realise Vic had unknowingly provided him with the opportunity to spend some time alone with Aaron, and that wouldn’t’ve been possible if their kids hadn’t decided to re-enact the most harrowing facial expressions of Damien from The Omen that afternoon; if it wouldn’t ultimately result in Chrissie turning him into a pile of dust, Robert would’ve high-fived Seb instead of grounding him.

“So are we doing this or what?”

Robert flinched and turned around.

Aaron was standing behind him, hands on his hips.

He looked like he would rather be a cartoon blur heading for Vic’s car too, so this probably wasn’t a casual invitation to his boudoir.

“Doing what?” Robert asked cautiously.

Aaron pointed towards the backyard.

“Vic’s old car needs seeing to before she can sell it.”

Robert could only nod at that.

He didn’t manage to say much else for a while, not after Aaron had changed into overalls that would’ve looked bland on anyone else, but on him they were…devastating.

Robert almost asked the universe what he’d done to deserve such visual torture, but he knew better; he’d done plenty to deserve it and then some.

Once he’d managed to shift his eyes away from Aaron’s arse, he found talking a tad easier.

“So, you just came back from Canada?” he said, leaning against the garage door.

Aaron nodded, looking through the tools he had spread out on the rag on top of the bonnet.

“Yeah, I did.”

Well don’t overshare or anything.

“How was it?” Robert asked.

Aaron paused for a good while, as if though he was scanning through the memories and forming a synopsis as he put down the tool and wiped his hands.

“It was okay,” he said eventually, proving to be one hell of a conversationalist.

Robert ignored the tight-lipped conciseness.

“Your kid must be missing his mate,” he said, “I get that it can make him grumpy.”

Robert felt slightly offended by the sincere look of surprise in Aaron’s eyes.

It’s not like Robert was a monster who didn’t think of such things.

“Yeah, he misses them,” Aaron said, a little reserved and tight but what else was new, “it’s been a big change.”

“And you’re a teacher?”

“Not now. I’m working at a garage, Turner needs to adjust first before I can do longer hours.”

Robert knew exactly what he meant.

He walked closer, leaning against the car now, shifting towards Aaron a bit more.

“Does he like the beach? Like Vic said, Seb loves it.”

“Not a lot, Vic will make him love it in a matter of minutes,” Aaron replied.

He glanced at Robert, a tiny flash of humour in his eyes.

Robert laughed.

“Yeah, she will. You wouldn’t believe the things she talks me into.”

“From what I’ve heard, you talk yourself into things just fine.”

Robert felt a splash of anger at that.

“As been said, you don’t know me,” he said a bit offendedly.

“Thank God for that,” Aaron replied easily, averting his gaze.

Robert sighed.

“Look, can we at least try to get along for Vic’s sake? Isn’t she the reason you’re here?”

Aaron looked him in the eye.

He was still a murderous block of ice, that hadn’t changed – but neither had Robert’s want, the dizzying lust the hostility awoke in him.

“Obviously I’m here for Vic,” the hot prince of Do-one land stated, “why are you here?”

“Seb’s my kid,” Robert said defensively.

“Right.”

It sounded so accusatory Robert felt like Aaron wasn’t just questioning his motives but rather doubting his paternity now too, thinking Robert was in fact some random who had tagged along just for the hell of it, bribed Seb to pretend to be his son and was now getting nowhere because he’d run out of sweets and cash to keep the pretence going.

Robert sighed, and if he was honest, this time it had a tad of Seb-like theatricality in it.

“Could we just wind down and have a beer, you do realise you don’t have to be sober for this,” he suggested, surprised by his own optimism.

Aaron looked at him like Robert had just told him he was a serial killer.

“I don’t get drunk with my kid around.”

Robert nodded impatiently.

“I don’t either and I wasn’t suggesting a bender, it’s just a couple of tins, mate.”

Aaron didn’t berate him for using the word mate, and in those circumstances Robert took it as an epic win.

Robert held out his hand towards the chairs at the door, handing a beer with the other.

To his surprise, Aaron sat down and took the drink offered.

It felt distracting to say the least, sitting so close to him now.

“Thanks,” Robert said gently, still in ready mode to climb a tree or jump over the fence in case his grumpy company opted for mauling him in a non-pleasant way.

Aaron raised an eyebrow at him.

His eyes seemed to pulse, the blue flashing at Robert, peeling away at the scarce remnants of his peace of mind.

“Thanks for what?” Aaron asked, drumming his gorgeous fingers against the can of lager.

“For not forcing our kids to shake hands or hug.”

“I don’t do that. It’s stupid,” Aaron stated bluntly.

Robert was sure their sons would’ve used those exact words on the matter too.

“I agree,” Robert said, relieved, “and if anyone can get at least a ceasefire out of them, it’s Vic.”

Aaron smiled.

It was a very, very tiny smile, but it was there.

His blue eyes were slightly less icy now, and there was a nice little pink on his cheeks from the lager and the manual labour.

He looked nothing if not edible.

Those lips -

Robert darted his eyes towards the wall, because if anything would make Aaron revert back to the rather intimidating grumpy stare, it was being gawped at.

He went for the best boner killer he could imagine; small talk.

They talked about the car and their kids for an impressive ten minutes, then Aaron just looked at him for a moment with a weird stare and stood up.

“I’m gonna call Vic,” he blurted out and went about his way, the sound of a closing door telling Robert that he had gone inside.

It was the best conversation they’d had since the wedding reception, hence it had to be taken as at least an acceptable sign.

The chat they’d had prior to their hook-up had been great; Aaron hadn’t really told Robert anything specific about his life, but it wasn’t like Robert had either. They’d just talked cars, restaurants, history.

Details without details.

It had been relaxed, fun.

And the charge between them had been immediate.

This silently seething, suspicious walking rejection of a man hanging about now was difficult to see as the same person as that smiling, seductive and shamelessly vocal hot dreamboat who had kissed Robert like his life depended on it, slipped a hand into his pants and purred you’re so fucking gorgeous, Robert whilst working him with such an expert touch it had nearly made Robert pass out.

Perhaps today there had been no hands in any pants, but he had gotten a fleeting smile out of Aaron and to Robert it seemed like the greatest thing ever.

He would have to get on with the other project too though, and as there was no sign of Aaron yet, he took out his phone and looked through the information of the potential new PI.

Connor usually came through, and he had no reason to doubt that would be the case now, but he had his trepidations at this point.

He blew out a breath as he typed an email to the bloke.

This Mackenzie Boyd better be worth my money.

Once he had written the email, Aaron appeared to his side, phone against his ear.

“Could you ask him to call me? No, not him. The owner. Adam Barton, who else? Do you not know your boss’s name? Right. Bye.”

Robert felt his eyes widen.

“How do you know Adam Barton?”

Aaron pocketed his phone, sounding as baffled as Robert felt as he spoke.

“Adam’s a good mate of mine. How do you know him?”

Oh I see, everyone who’s even remotely in my life knows Aaron except me?

“I invested in his scrapyard,” Robert said easily, now fully enjoying the flabbergasted look on Aaron’s face.

“Right.”

“Does he have incompetent people working for him, the call sounded like he does?”

Aaron looked at him, huffing and gesturing with his hands, frustrated, tone annoyed and smug.

“Adam’s got it covered. And doesn’t everyone have incompetent people working for them these days? All the pros run their own business and the people you find as work force are just lay-abouts with zero ambition and/or work morale.”

God, that was hot.

Honestly, Robert couldn’t have fancied him more if he tried.

“My thoughts exactly,” he said, voice maybe a tad too eager to his own liking.

Aaron gave him a little nod, adjusting his hoodie, taking a sip of his lager.

Robert felt a warm tingle in his belly; this was nothing if not progress.

Next week he’d pay a visit to the scrapyard.

Because a good investor does that, right?

If it were to happen when Aaron was there, it would just be a very happy coincidence.

 

Once he got home on Sunday evening, Robert received a message from Aaron.

Turner wanted to send this to Seb and say sorry.

There was a gift certificate attached; a receipt from a donation to a farm animal shelter, announcing that Turner had helped secure good conditions for three elderly rescue chickens.

Robert laughed, shaking his head.

He was impressed, and he was equally happy about the post script.

Cheers for the beers.

It might have been just that, saying cheers for the beers – but to Robert it sounded an awful lot like the prospect of a future date in the horizon.

He read the message again twice before he scrolled through his contacts and called Adam Barton.

 

 

Chapter Text

There were all sorts of PI’s in the world; those who overcharged and did nothing, those whose work experience was impressive but they had ruined their wits with a pint too many, those who had very little experience and a tad too much enthusiasm – there were the ex-coppers and soldiers, and of course the pimple-faced teens hiding in basements, basing their knowledge on YouTube videos and discussion boards.

And then there was Mackenzie Boyd.

It took Robert approximately thirty seconds to figure out he was an impolite, self-satisfied tosser whose prattle was lacking all sorts of finesse, strutting about in his chequered shirt and shaggy black hair so unapologetically it gave the impression he actually thought he was all that.

But he was also ruthless, resourceful, and didn’t shy away from using dodgy ways, which meant he just might get things going properly in the quest of finding Andy.

Mackenzie Boyd was also an incurable flirt - and unfortunately it turned out that Robert wasn’t the only one who had his sights set on Aaron Dingle.

Robert was sat on an uncomfortable plastic chair at Adam Barton’s scrapyard, chatting with Adam – and Aaron, who had very conveniently appeared to the scene.

Coincidentally, not as a result of Robert spying on his sister and working out when he’d be there because of course he hadn’t done such a thing.

Mackenzie was drinking his coffee and smirking away, leaning against the portacabin.

“You do know that smiling hasn’t been illegal for a good while now, right?” he asked with his groovy Scottish accent, giving Aaron a blatant once-over.

Zero points for imaginative flirtation there, mate..

Robert clenched his jaw as he watched Aaron give the PI's words a smug scowl.

Yeah, it was a scowl - but it was the sort of scowl that could potentially lead up to all things naked -after all, Robert knew exactly how that could happen with Aaron, and the thought of the bloke he was pursuing having it off with his new PI was infuriating to say the least.

“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” he asked, giving Mackenzie a scowl of his own, one that indicated towards all things murderous.

Mackenzie shrugged, tapping at his cup with a dauntingly slow motion.

“I always have somewhere to be, and right now this is that place,” he said with infuriating nonchalance, his brown eyes full of arrogance and something that looked a lot like a pick-and-mix of trouble, “you see, this is a coffee cup, and I’m taking what they call a break.”

“I break from what?” Robert scoffed, “clearly not a break from being an inefficient prat.”

“You really need to relax, Robert, life is not all that serious.”

If he wasn’t someone who -according to his CV of the dodgy nature -  could get results, this would’ve been the go-signal for Robert to throw a punch. Not an actual punch because Robert didn’t do that, but rather to verbally crucify him. In the past, it might also have been the signal to push the prat down on a bed just to shut him up, but that wasn’t a thing for him anymore. He wasn’t one to make New Year’s resolutions or anything else that involved self-delusion through drunken promises, but if he had decided on anything it was to not shag people who were there for an entirely different purpose, and fucking someone just to get them talking or stopping them from doing so just seemed a tad tiring now.

And seriously, he had standards, no matter how intently Mackenzie was able to give people the slightly psychotic puppy-eyes.

“I’m sure you don’t take anything seriously, not even the money there’s to be made,” Robert stated calmly, knowing this could drive the Lingering Lothario elsewhere.

And sure enough, it did.

“Well, I should be off as the big man here seems to have his knickers in a twist. Nice to see you Aaron,” Mackenzie said shamelessly, “next time try not to gob so much, I could hardly get a word in.”

Aaron rolled his eyes, huffing.

Mackenzie winked at him and threw a careless “see ya” in Robert’s general direction before he went about his way.

Robert stared after him, seething.

“What a pillock,” Aaron said matter of factly, tossing pebbles at the barrel in front of them.

“Yeah, he’s a proper wanker,” Adam confirmed, “I know he’s me mum’s brother, but I don’t know what he was doing here in the first place.

“That seems to be the theme nowadays, brothers who are wankers,” Aaron stated calmly, leaving no doubt as to whom he was referring to.

Robert scoffed.

Adam looked between them with a frown, directing his words at Robert.

“Why are you here, since when is this a public café?”

“Since I put a chunk of money in your pocket,” Robert said firmly, “and he works for me too, as it happens.”

Adam stared at him with his eyes narrowed.

“I don’t work for you, mate. I work for myself, and you’re not the only investor here.”

Aaron looked way too happy at that.

“Are you going to show me the figures, or is that too much trouble?” Robert asked, attempting and failing to stare Adam down – he was just as unfazed about things as Aaron.

Adam held his hand out towards the portacabin.

“The files are on the table, knock yourself out.”

“You sure they’re heavy enough for that?” Aaron asked with a smirk.

Robert rolled his eyes and entered the little block of metal, his mind already cooking up plans.

As he sat down at the desk and picked up the folders, he glanced outside; Aaron stood there in the sunlight, looking like a snack in his moss-green tee and black shorts, cackling at some ridiculous remark Adam had made.

Flippin’ Adam Barton.

Competition was everywhere, it seemed.

Robert pursed his lips in dismay, itching to eliminate his opponents.

He turned his eyes towards the papers, deciding to make damn sure that Adam Barton wasn’t squandering his money in addition to stealing Aaron’s attention.

 

After Robert had done a thorough job at interrupting Adam’s chatter with Aaron with the extremely legitimate excuse of paperwork, they all headed to the village for lunch.

Robert felt himself tightening into familiar knots and wires as they entered the pub; he hated the entire village and especially that pub, that’s why he only visited it when he had to and otherwise kept his life right where it belonged, safely tucked into the city of Leeds like it had been for the past eight years.

Going to the Woolpack just to stay in Aaron’s proximity was beginning to seem like a stupid idea, not least because he wasn’t getting anywhere with the sulky dreamboat.

Yet.

As they arrived at the bar, Vic appeared from the backroom, looking alarmingly smug.

“Are you winding people up again, Vic? You don’t work here anymore,” Robert quipped.

Vic gave him a hug to go with her affectionate eyeroll.

“Did you just come here to be a pest? Nothing new there then," she laughed, waving a spatula about like she'd just eliminated some prey.

With all probability she had done just that.

“ I’m here on an official capacity, as it happens," Robert said smugly.

He wasn’t sure, but it seemed like he heard Aaron snort at that.

Vic turned her eyes towards Adam who held out his hand.

“I’m Adam. You must be Vic.”

Wow, such observational skills.

Vic smiled as they shook hands.

“Nice to finally meet ya. Sorry, I’ve got to rush back, I haven’t made the chef’s life difficult enough just yet.”

Adam laughed.

“I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.”

Vic nodded with a grin and disappeared again, leaving them standing there like schoolboys forced to work on a project together.

They took their pints and sat down - Robert had decided that since no-one had invited him but hadn’t told him to get lost either, this is exactly where he would park his arse; right next to another, very decent sort of arse.

His phone pinged; upon opening the message box, Robert saw a text from Mackenzie.

Got a lead, sunshine. Will give you a ring at my earliest convenience.

Robert couldn’t let himself be impressed just yet because he was still disgruntled over his PI’s heart eyes – or arse-eyes, more like – towards Aaron, and the way he had written earliest convenience clearly meant that Mackenzie’s current convenience consisted of leaning against some other portacabin, drinking coffee extremely slowly and irritating absolutely everyone on the planet.

Either way, it was a result; Robert would just have to grit his teeth and accept it, even if having to deal with Mackenzie as well as the prospect of finding his boring brother were nothing if not daunting.

Luckily for now he could concentrate on Aaron and the information he had on the bloke - Robert had become increasingly frustrated over everyone sharing some dodgy secrets whilst he had been just floating about in the dark.

If there was something he hated, it was not knowing everything and everyone.

Well, that had changed soon enough because Robert Sugden didn’t do cluelessness.

So far he had managed to find out that Aaron had lived in Alberta for two years, and upon his return had moved to Hotten and was sharing a flat with another single parent there. According to Vic they weren’t an item as the other bloke was straight, which had made Robert very happy. Aaron had become Turner’s sole custodian after the boy’s mum had split, and for that Robert was nothing but sorry.

Growing up without a mum was something he wouldn’t wish on anyone.

Speaking of mums, finding out Aaron was Chastity Dingle’s son wasn’t all that great; that woman with her ear-splitting nasal drawl and judgmental presence was simply exhausting. He hadn’t had to deal with her on many occasions in the past, but now that she ran the pub with Robert’s stepmother it was all a tad too much, not to mention it meant here was yet another annoying person who, without a doubt, had some proper crappy opinions about Robert.

Especially since Chas apparently was mates with Chrissie of all people.

Contrary to her previous declaration about not gossiping, Vic had divulged the information after Robert had taken her to a posh restaurant and let her drink copiously some impressively expensive rosé – granted he had used the pretence of wanting to know things about Aaron’s life because of him being around Seb, but in the end Vic had been rather eager to discuss it all, even if the details had still been a bit vague.

It was the sort of gossip her conscience could handle, but none of it would’ve happened if Vic had clocked that Aaron had taken a massive dislike to Robert’s general existence.

Robert was a tad worried about Vic’s antennas being offline; usually she noticed absolutely everything, often noticing things about her brother that said brother hadn’t even come to realise himself.

Then again being married to that sad excuse for a living creature must’ve taken its toll on her.

Terryble had been away for a week, visiting his parents in Kent.

Robert felt sorry for Kent, but he’d been more than happy on behalf of himself – even if the conversation now was still revolving around the gruesome gremlin who kept feeding himself after midnight.

“We should invite Terry for a night out when he gets back,” Adam said like the idea was somehow even remotely pleasant, “make a proper shindig of it.”

Aaron was nodding so eagerly Robert was this close to begin questioning his attraction.

“Vic would be pleased. How about tonight?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Yeah, a really bad one.

Robert decided to put an end to that subject and cleared his throat.

“So, Adam. You were in Wales for a while, how was it?” he asked, because he could be seemingly as jovial as the next bloke.

Adam looked at him, genuinely puzzled for the question. He had puppy eyes just like Mackenzie, but there was none of that potentially horrendous darkness floating about in Adam’s blinkers, he seemed startlingly sincere.

A bit too sincere.

If Robert found anything monumentally alarming, it was people who seemed genuine.

“It was good,” Adam said, sipping his pint, “I was there for a couple of years, ran two scrapyards. After my family moved out here, I wanted to be closer to them. Buying a third yard in this area seemed like a good idea.”

He paused, adding then a tad smugly; “And as you saw in the books today, it was.”

Robert nodded.

“It was. You’ve done well.”

It was irritating to admit, but Adam was indeed doing well and since it put some cash into Robert’s pocket too, he wasn’t one to complain.

Well, not about that.

Adam’s obviously close relationship with Aaron was a whole other thing.

Robert was about to casually sidetrack into that topic, but Mackenzie chose that particular moment to enter because he was just that good at being a pest.

He stood by the bar, gesturing at Robert.

Robert excused himself and walked over to the PI who had astoundingly become even smugger during his brief absence from Robert’s periphery.

“Well?” he asked impatiently.

Mackenzie tutted.

“No drink first? I’m not a cheap date, Robert.”

“First of all, you’d definitely be a cheap date, but since this is anything but a date, it’ll be less than cheap, it’s zilch. Get your own pint, I pay you enough as it is.”

Mackenzie gasped in mock offence.

Robert let him do his theatre performance from the half-off bin of the art world, waiting until the Pesty PI had a drink in his hand.

“There’s a woman,” Mackenzie said, pausing for a sip and the dramatics as an idiot of his kind would, “a woman who knew Farmboy rather well.”

He handed over a piece of paper.

“Here’s her number.”

Robert took it, slipping it into his pocket.

“How did you find her?” he asked, genuinely curious now.

Mackenzie shrugged.

“A gentleman never stalks and tells.”

“Good thing you’re not a gentleman then,” Robert sighed.

Mackenzie chuckled, enjoying the attention a bit too much and then leaned closer, using a stage whisper now because he was just that much of a yawn.

“I set up a dating profile for Andy. Farmboy seeks country girl to share cuddles in cow muck and all that.”

Robert couldn’t stop himself from sniggering.

“And?”

“Got seven replies since last Thursday.”

Unlike Mack's pick-up lines, the lies the PI had put into the project were undoubtedly imaginative; Andy being himself wouldn’t get such a swarm in a year, let alone in six days.

“This one,” Mack said, pointing at his phone all smug like he could make women pop out by sheer force, “this one nearly charged through the line last night. All sorts of profanities and un-ladylike wordings three messages worth’ later, I contacted her and told her the truth. Well, the gist of it. She’s not seen Brother Dearest in two years, and judging by the things she told me, it's been a very grumpy two years.”

Robert couldn’t relate, as to him it’d been nothing but bliss for the three years Andy had been out of his life.

“So what’s her problem with him?”

“Says she’s the mother of his children, and potty-prince Andrew had done one when she was preggers the second time.”

Robert almost felt envious now; despite having legged it with a kid on the way like a proper twat, Andy’s life was indeed beginning to seem overall much more eventful than his - and that was as unacceptable as his previous PI’s corduroy suits.

Robert downed his drink and took a deep breath, just to get his head around the news. After he’d given Mackenzie a reluctant thank you with gritted teeth over the fact that he hadn’t thought of such an obvious bait himself, Robert stepped outside and dialled the first number his PI had given him.

He could’ve started with the vaguer lead but this particular person seemed to have more nasty things to say about Andy, and Robert was definitely in the mood for some bashing.

The woman picked up.

“What?” the voice spat out, breathlessly lacking cordiality.

“Hi, this is Robert Sugden. You spoke to Mackenzie earlier, he told me you’re looking for Andy.”

The woman – Jules – had a voice that was hostile to say the least.

“Yeah, I am looking for him, not that he deserves it. After it’s been crickets for two years since he walked out on me and then seeing his face on a dating app...well, let's just say it was an unpleasant surprise.”

“Andy’s been an unpleasant surprise since his conception. Have you had any leads on his whereabouts since the disappearing act?”

She sighed.

“Just a couple of dead ends. Apparently it’s been longer for you.”

“Not long enough," Robert replied sincerely.

Jules laughed bitterly.

“I can imagine, Andy being the prat that he is.”

Robert chuckled; he liked her already.

“Did you report him missing?” he asked.

“No. He messaged me once, telling he was sorry - probably to stop me from looking through the police, and it's not illegal to be a two-faced prat, is it? After speaking to Mackenzie today I learned that just about everything Andy told me was fake, starting with his name which he claimed to be Brian Moore."

Brian Moore? Yeah, that suits him just fine.

Jules paused.

“So you’re his brother,” she said eventually, “he never mentioned having a brother. He said he had one sister, that was probably a lie too."

Yeah, that sounds about right.

“We do have a sister, and she’s the only reason I’m even trying to find him.”

“I wouldn’t do this either if it weren’t for the kids. I have one two-year-old and a fifteen-year-old.”

Robert was flabbergasted to say the least.

Fifteen?”

“Yeah. This isn’t the first time he’s disappeared on me, although the earlier thing was just a one-night stand in our teens and there was no exchanging numbers or anything like that. Then we bumped into one another years later, both trollied at a pub. There was a repeat of the mistake of youth and boom, another pregnancy. If I hadn’t been just as stupid about it, I’d blame him for everything.”

“Blame him anyway, no-one would judge you,” Robert said easily.

Jules laughed, less bitter and more pleased now.

“Will do. So, the second time round he was all about playing the doting dad, but that lasted about five months. Right after our firstborn had began to grow attached to him, he found it acceptable to just do one.”

Robert was itching to put the call on pause and text everyone, just to tell them how much of a tosser Andy was turning out to be. 

“Well, he has a habit of being a disappointment. Where did you bump into him the second time?” Robert asked.

“In East London. Apparently he'd been in Ireland before that. Listen, can we meet up? I’ll be in Leeds next week. I’ll email you the rest of the pathetic story, but I reckon we should talk through the details face to face anyway.”

“I agree. And don’t you worry, Jules, we’ll find him and rip him into nice little shreds,” Robert said matter of factly.

“That sounds great. Talk to you soon.”

After they’d hung up, Robert allowed himself a nice moment of very heartfelt gloating.

He was definitely keen on finding Andy, not least because the things he knew about the pillock now were nothing if not a source of happiness.

How the idiot had managed to slip out of Dublin without a trace was a mystery, one Robert was now adamant to crack.

It was a high, building this puzzle.

Wanting to keep the buzz going, Robert dialled the next number.

“Hello?” a high-pitched voice answered, sounding rich and bored like Chrissie did when she was feeling particularly arrogant and fancy.

“This is Robert Sugden, Mackenzie gave me your number.”

There was nothing but silence on the line.

Robert coughed.

“You there?”

“Yes. Hello, Robert.”

Damn, that was icy.

Yet another woman scorned by his knob of a bro who seemed to have literally used his knob to become such, as unbelievable as it seemed.

“So, what is your deal?” Robert asked, "what's Andy done to you?"

He heard a scoff, nothing more.

“Is this a bad time?” Robert pressed.

He was not in the mood for riddles, he was anxious to get back to solving the puzzle and the gloating that follows.

He could hear the phone lines turning into icicles as Princess Frozen Sterling spoke.

“Why would it not be a bad time to talk to you, Robert? It’s not as if though this is a pleasant conversation.”

Robert felt more confused than annoyed now, and that annoyed him.

The vicious cycle of dealing with prats.

“Sorry, do I know you?” he asked.

Miss Minus Hundred Degrees scoffed again.

“You really don’t remember me, do you? Why am I not surprised?"

Robert sighed internally.

Someone’s pissed off because I forgot about them, if I had a nickel.

“I don’t”, he said honestly, “I'm sorry, but I don’t recognise your voice. How’s about you remind me.”

“I was with Andy for quite a while. You of all people should remember."

With him, as in a roll in the hay or milking cows together, picking out wellies? Secretly engaged? Another baby he left? Narrow it down, lady.

“Yeah, that doesn’t ring a bell, sorry. I’m sure I’ll remember if you tell me all about it.”

Robert did not really want to hear all about it from the memoirs of an ice queen, but this is where his life was at now; listening to people he’d forgotten talk about people he’d prefer to forget.

“Look,” he said as patiently as he could, “I get that it’s trendy to be weird and mysterious these days but I’d rather just discuss the matter, or at least to have a name here. I reckon that might jog my memory a tad faster, miss….?”

Robert heard an inhuman, seething growl at that, like he’d awaken a thoroughly venomous beast from the past.

And sure enough, he had.

“This is Katie Addyman, Robert,” the beast barked, “I’ll talk to your PI from now on, you can delete this number five minutes ago.”

With that, she hung up.

Robert simply stood there and stared at his phone.

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

 

Upon going back inside and getting another drink, he found Vic sitting with Aaron and Adam, having a pint - which was very unlike her, drinking at lunchtime, but Robert wasn’t fazed about it right this minute because it seemed he couldn’t expect his siblings to be themselves at this point.

“Terry’s on his way,” Vic said as she put away her phone, slipping another cloud on Robert’s short-lived blue-sky gloat parade, “we could meet up with him soon.”

Or we could not.

Robert looked at his sister, feeling an unwelcome twinge of worry.

He knew what the truth about Andy would do to her, and that was why he decided to keep the information to himself as long as he could.

Possibly forever if the muppet wouldn’t be found.

Talking to the girl who had bounced between Robert and Andy for a while and in the end, chosen a third one – some older rich bloke – it wasn’t pleasant, it was just frustrating.

Robert thought he had loved her but he hadn’t, not really; he just wanted to get one over Andy by shagging her behind his back a few times when they’d been teenagers - but as it turns out, the sugar daddy had one over both of them. Katie had left and was never to be seen again; Andy had stayed at the family farm for a few years, gone through a failed marriage with a girl named Jo and then moved to Leeds – not far from either his brother’s flat or Vic's restaurant, much to Robert’s dismay.

And now the tiring reminders of their youth had come around like the infamous bad penny - in the form of Katie of all people.

Robert couldn’t possibly imagine the reason why she was looking for Andy after all that time - and he wasn’t keen on her being part of the equation, so he texted Mackenzie and told him to squeeze every possibly drop of knowledge out of her - but to absolutely not divulge any new information back to her at this point.

Whatever you say big man, was the PI’s reply.

Robert rolled his eyes internally.

As Aaron had so accurately said, what a pillock.

Robert glanced at Aaron, seeing the fire simmer in his eyes.

Damn, he’s hot when he’s mean.

“Why don’t we go back to mine,” currently not mean but equally hot Aaron suggested, “me mum's got Turner for the night, and Terry can join us when he arrives."

Vic nodded eagerly.

What is it with these people and their enthusiasm with that prat? A mass psychosis clearly isn’t out of the question.

“I’ll just go home and change first, I look a mess,” Vic said, smoothing down her static hair.

Aaron scoffed.

“Don’t be daft, Vic, there’s no need for that.”

“Aaron’s right, you look great,” Adam piped in.

Vic smiled at him and then looked down at her hands, suddenly seeming all shy.

His phone was burning a hole in his pocket as he really needed to read the material Jules would send, hence Robert excused himself and left the others to plan their shindig with the appalling man-child - whom Robert had already considered getting rid of with a little help from his annoying yet efficient PI.

As he stood in the backroom after briefly greeting Diane, about to type up a message to Mackenzie, he heard a grunt from the doorstep.

He looked up.

Aaron was scowling at him, quelle surprise.

Granted it was a sexy scowl, if he was being honest.

“What?” Robert asked with a tad forced nonchalance, waving his phone in his hand, “I’ve got things to do here so if you don’t mind..”

Aaron shrugged.

Even his shrugs are gorgeous.

“Vic asked me to find you, see if you fancy joining us.”

God, his eyes are so blue.

“Well?”

Yeah, very well, now that I can look at you.

Robert stopped himself from falling into the memory/fantasy stupor once again and cleared his throat.

“I’ll be out in a minute, I just need to take care of something.”

Aaron gave him a tiny nod.

“Right then.”

It’s not like Robert was deliberately staring at him; his eyes just happened to go in that direction.

Aaron was hesitating, like he was about to say something but he stayed silent.

Robert now realized what he was wearing and smirked.

“Nice hoodie,” he said casually, pointing at the purple garment Aaron was wearing, “looks good on ya.”

Robert had found it in his closet and given it to Vic, telling her she could pass it on to someone.

“Maybe you could give it to Aaron if you come to the conclusion it would fit him.”

Aaron scoffed and crossed his arms, saying nothing.

It looked like a dare, as if he was telling Robert that the next time he spoke there’d be consequences.

“I knew Vic would find it a good home,” Robert said calmly, drinking in the beautiful sight of the man, “she sure did.”

The look on Aaron’s face told that he now knew exactly where it had come from.

“Shut up,” the blue-eyed dreamboat grumbled, looking away, yet failing to hide a tiny smile.

Robert smirked.

“I was just complimenting you, Aaron."

“Well, don’t.“

Aaron's eyes went back to Icicle Land, possibly sponsored by Katie.

He held his hand towards the door.

“You coming or what?” he asked reluctantly, shifting on his feet.

Robert felt his smile widen as he tilted his head.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re keen on spending time with me, Aaron.”

Aaron huffed.

“Good thing you know better, innit?”

Robert didn’t stop smiling at him, because why would he.

“I’ll be there in a sec.”

“’Kay.”

Aaron turned and went about his way, Robert again accidentally staring after him.

He was more than astounded over Aaron talking to him almost as if though he were…well, an actual human being.

Then again, this seemed to be the day to reset his knowledge over everyone so Robert might just go with it.

After writing to Jules  with a suggestion for their meet-up the following week, Robert pocketed his phone and walked out the door, a buzz coursing through him as he saw Aaron standing there, still very much being his sexy self.

It was rather unfortunate that Terryble had to appear right then, but what else was new in Robert’s world.

The ghastly gobshite gave Vic a kiss on the cheek, greeted Adam and then turned towards Aaron.

“Great hoodie, Aaron,” he said enthusiastically, “suits ya.”

“Yeah, it does,” Robert stated casually, granting a very quick and seemingly harmless once-over.

Terryble said nothing and neither did Aaron, but it looked like the latter was fighting a tiny smile again before he stuck his hands in his pockets and cocked his head towards Terryble’s car.

“Shall we?”

Then he glanced at Robert; for a brief moment their eyes locked, and this time Robert couldn’t stop himself from melting into it, even if Aaron went back to scowling soon enough.