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From now on, our troubles will be out of sight

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There were two things that never changed in Emmerdale, that was the joke. One was that everyone knew your business, and the other was that the Sugden and Dingles had nothing to do with each other. The tales of what happened when they did could keep any tourist wishing to listen entertained for hours. Being part of either family and falling in love with the enemy wasn’t much fun.

That old saying came back to him as he walked home, hands stuffed in his pockets because he’d forgotten his gloves and Robert hadn’t been home to remind him, against the cold, the streets full of people doing their Christmas shopping.

He’d always kind of enjoyed Christmas. Time off school or work, family get togethers, even if his lot drove him crazy. The last two hadn’t been that great, wanting to spend time with Robert and not being able to. This year though, it was going to be different. They were together now, didn’t have to hide anymore.

There was still the issue of presents though. He couldn’t help staring in all the shop windows, all bright and full of temptation if you had the money.

It all came back to money. Money they didn’t have. Why he tortured himself like this when he couldn’t afford it he didn’t know, but every time he headed to the bus stop he would stop and look.

The past six months or so had been good, finally able to be a couple, without having to hide from their warring families, but now reality was starting to set in.

It had been his eighteenth birthday when he’d made his move, emboldened by his first legal drink at the party Adam had surprised him with. Robert was there chaperoning Victoria, everyone knew she was Jack Sugden’s little princess and he didn’t approve of her going out with Adam, much to her annoyance.

He can’t even remember what he said to him, it’s lost in a haze of alcohol but they’d ended up kissing at the end of the night, and Robert later told him he’d confessed to fancying him for ages.

They didn’t match, the gobby teenager and the quietly smug, over confident twenty year old, but somehow they fit.

They’d had to sneak around because you just didn’t have anything to do with a Sugden if you were a Dingle. It just didn’t end well. Just look at Debbie he thought to himself. Still they couldn’t stay away from each other, meeting up in barns whenever they could, sneaking about the village or escaping to Leeds sometimes. It wasn’t enough and that was what had prompted Aaron to suggest they leave in the first place.

It had all sounded so easy that night in the barn, when they could dream of a life where nobody wanted to keep them apart, where everyone could know what they meant to each other. It had started off as a thought about the future but the more they talked, the more they hated the thought of spending any longer pretending they hated each other, the better his idea had sounded. They’d done nothing about it right then, there was a lot to think about, but in the end the decision had almost been made for them.

The latest episode in the Sugden/Dingle drama revolved around little Sarah, Andy wanting custody, backed by Jack, while Debbie and Cain wanted anything but. Somehow Robert had ended up involved, his rivalry with Andy so messy that Aaron didn’t even know who did what anymore. The panicked afternoon phone call telling him he was leaving gave them the perfect opportunity to put their plan into action.

Somehow Robert and Andy had got into a fight, Max King somehow getting himself involved and then their cars had crashed with Jack being called. He’d told Robert to leave, disguised as concern about him getting into trouble, but the message was clear.

Go and don’t come back.

Robert hadn’t been that surprised, or even that upset and Aaron wasn’t either, he knew Robert had been ready to leave ever since he’d suggested they go together.

Robert had suggested he go first, find somewhere for them to live, get a job then Aaron could follow on, but Aaron was having none of it. They were doing this together, come what may. Anything was better than staying in the village without him. There was no time, not after what had happened to Max, Robert’s garbled words had made that clear enough.

They’d cut off contact with everyone, both of their families which had probably been harder on Aaron than on Robert. They couldn’t bear the idea of them finding them and making them go home, or splitting them up. The only person Aaron kept in contact with was Liv and that was only because she didn’t speak to anyone in Emmerdale. He’d found her and Sandra, a year or so back, wanting to get back in touch. They lived in York and they saw them reasonably regularly. Liv had taken a while to warm to Robert but they were good now. She was the main reason they’d not gone any further away, he wanted to be close to her, wanted to keep an eye on her, and Sandra.

It wasn’t really a difficult choice, to go, they’d been talking about it after all, wanting more than what they could have in the village. Fleeting meetings, the odd chance to be together wouldn’t be enough. If anyone had known about them they’d say it was just a passing thing, forbidden love, all that crap, but it wasn’t any of those things. It was real.

The reality though was so much different. Robert had found a job straight away with a small firm in Leeds, paying enough to cover rent and bills but little else. He had the gift of the gab after all, had a couple more years on him, could talk himself in or out of anything really. It wasn’t like that for Aaron, his lack of actual qualifications was holding him back, as was his desire to find work somewhere that no one had heard of Cain. They were doing their best not to be found and finding a job in one of Cain’s mates garages wasn’t going to help that. The only trouble was, without being able to use his name, no one was willing to take on a lad barely out of his teens with no official qualifications, even if he did have a bit of experience. Then again there were plenty like him. Robert had never said anything, never complained but it all weighed heavily on Aaron.

At some point he would have to swallow his pride because the constant rejections were taking their toll. Eventually Robert would get sick of providing for the both of them wouldn’t he. He already felt he was holding him back, knows he’d rather be somewhere else, somewhere more glamorous. Many times he’d told him of his grand plans for getting out of the village, away from the farm and a tiny flat in Leeds and an office job that he hated wasn’t any part of it. How long would it be before he tired of this humdrum life, of Aaron?

“Robert, you home?” He calls as he makes it back to the flat. It was small, probably suffering from damp or some such thing, but it was theirs. It had been partly furnished when they moved in and they’d managed to add enough to get by with their savings but it still looked bare and unloved.

“Kitchen. You’re late.” He greets him with a kiss. He’d never thought he’d be that person, coming home to someone waiting, the simple domesticity, but here he was.

“Bus got stuck on the ring road again.” He doesn’t want to tell him he’d missed the first bus fantasizing about Christmas presents, or more truthfully the lack of them. They’d agreed after all that they didn’t need anything but each other. “What’s for tea?”

“Leftovers. I’ll shop tomorrow. It’ll be ready in a minute.” He schools his face because there’s nothing wrong with leftovers but sometimes he craves more. How can he complain when this was all his idea. “Any luck?”

“No. Everywhere is fully staffed.” He grabs them both a beer from the fridge, remembering to bang the door shut just so, so it stayed closed, swallowing down the guilt he feels. “I’ll try again tomorrow.”

“Probably be better after Christmas, for something long term anyway. No one wants the hassle of training someone before the holiday do they. We’ll be alright.” He feels him press a kiss to his hair as he hands him the beer. Every word just adds to the guilt and worry. He can’t tell him though because he’ll just brush it off, or have more to worry about himself.

He sounds so sure, and maybe if he didn’t know just how little Robert was paid and how much they were shelling out every month he would believe him. Robert’s job might be secure but it only paid a little more than what the rent and bills was costing. It wouldn’t last forever if he couldn’t find a job. It didn’t stop him feeling like he wasn’t contributing anything, despite what Robert might say.

They were good for the most part, their own home, luckily found after just a few nights in a B&B. He’d had time to get most of his stuff, but Robert hadn’t gone back home, hadn’t dared just in case his Dad changed his mind about the police, so all he had was what had ended up in his car over time or what Aaron had borrowed. At least Aaron’s stuff made the place looked lived in. He knew there were things Robert missed.

“Hey. Where’d you go?” He shakes himself out of his daydream and smiles over at Robert.

“Just thinking.”

“Hmm. Oh! I got something for us. Couldn’t resist.” He swallows down the last of his food and disappears, so giddy Aaron has to laugh. He starts washing up while he waits, knows Robert will hate it if he follows him and spoils whatever the surprise is. He’s a kid that way really. “Now don’t get mad, it was half price and I know we said we didn’t need any of it to have a good Christmas, but this place needs brightening up a bit.”

He looks so pleased with himself that Aaron doesn’t like to ask how much it all cost, and he is right, the flat is dark and dull without any sign of Christmas. The tree that he’s now putting together will make all the difference, but now all he can think is that he just can’t afford to buy him anything for the day itself.

“You’re not mad are you?” He sounds worried all of a sudden and Aaron realises he’s just standing there, wet hands dripping all over the floor.

“No. It looks good.” It really does, but it’s just another thing Robert has paid for, that they can’t really afford.

It’s later when they’ve had fun decorating it and they’re cuddled up on the sofa, room lit only by the tree lights, one of Aaron’s box sets playing on the TV that the fears come back. Was Robert missing home, did he regret everything, was he wanting more. Aaron had pushed to come with him straight away, however much Robert had agreed it was still his doing that they were both here.

“Stop worrying.” Robert pauses the TV, looking over at him.

“Who says I am?” He feels his fingers smooth along his forehead as he speaks and his other arm tightens round him a little.

“The lines on your face. What’s the matter?”

“Do you…are you happy? Don’t you ever get tired of struggling?” It’s pointless asking, he knows Robert wouldn’t tell him otherwise, but he can’t stop himself.

“Do you?”

“I…” He should stop because they’re having a nice evening and he shouldn’t spoil it but he can’t.

“You’d rather be back there? Caught in the middle, unable to see me? Is that what you want?”  Of course he doesn’t, but he can’t make himself put Robert’s mind at rest and before he knows it Robert’s getting up and pacing. “I thought you were happy.”

“It’s not that…I’m just tired of having to struggle. Do you know why I was late tonight? The bus didn’t get stuck on the bloody ring road. I was looking in the shops at all the things I want to buy you for Christmas, when all I’ve got in my pockets is change.”

“We agreed we wouldn’t. I don’t care about that. I get to be with you, that’s all I want.”

“That’s not the point. I want to buy you things, I want you to have better than this. I want to have our own things, nice things”

“And one day we’ll be able to do that. It’ll all work out, I know it will.” He sounds so sure and for tonight Aaron makes himself believe it.

*****

It doesn’t get any better, it’s not just him having a bad day and the last straw is seeing Robert’s look of panic when he checks his bank account one night. His own is all but empty and the fact that Robert’s not hiding his shock is enough to make him start worrying all over again.

He can’t say anything because Robert will just shake off his concerns and yes maybe one day they will be alright, that everything will work out, but this isn’t what either of them dreamed of that day in the barn.

Robert won’t go home, he’s sure of that, would never give Andy and his Dad the satisfaction. Too much went on, some of it Aaron doesn’t even know, he never pushes for answers, knows to leave well alone just like Robert does with him. Still, he has to ask, because Robert’s pride won’t let him admit defeat. He waits until they’re in bed, duvet tucked round them against the cold.

“We could always go back…just for a bit, save up some money, I could get a job back with Cain.”

“No.”

“Rob, we can’t keep…you don’t say anything but I can see it, we’re broke and you’re worried. At least this way we can save up…”

“Go back to hardly seeing each other, meeting up in stinkin’ barns or in some random layby somewhere, putting up with Dad and Andy, not to mention Cain. Is that what you want?”

“I’m just trying to…I could work at the garage, get some experience.”

“If the money’s that important to you then go. I’m not, not for anything.” He pulls away then, leaving Aaron feeling cold.

“It’s not about the money…but the way we’re going, we’ll be out on the streets. How is that going to help?” Robert’s stubbornness was one of the things he could do without. “I’m trying to help. You’ve stopped letting me in, you just keep saying everything will be alright, but it won’t, will it?”

“What do you want me to do then? Sit and wallow? What good does that do.”

“So let’s just…we could go, just for a bit, rethink what we want to do.”

“I’ll get another job or something. You know what Dad said…No Aaron, I can’t.”

“We’ll never see each other if you’re working all hours…How is that better than going back home? It’s not admitting we failed Robert, it’s just putting things on hold for a while. We left before we planned to. Maybe if we’d had more time it’d be better.”

“So that’s my fault as well? As if I didn’t feel bad enough already about Max.” He knew he did, he sometimes had nightmares where he’d call his name.

“Don’t put words in my mouth! You know what I meant!

“If you want to run away at the first hint of trouble then go. I won’t stop you.” He’s never heard him like this, at least not directed his way. “Maybe you were right, I should’ve come alone. You obviously couldn’t handle it.”

“That’s not fair.”

“What’s not fair is you doing this. You pushed to come with me, you wanted this and then you’re just giving up.”

“I’m trying to do the sensible thing.”

“Stop talking about going back there then. I’ve had enough of this!” That’s clearly the end of the conversation because Robert gets out of bed, grabbing the spare duvet and his pillow before leaving. He doesn’t follow, there’s really no point, they’re just going round in circles and there’s no talking to him when he’s like this.

He spends the night awake, the thoughts running round his head, trying to find any other way around it all but he can’t.

They’re silent the next morning and it’s excruciating. It’s not the usual comfortable silence, it’s frosty and horrible. He holds out until Robert’s nearly out of the door before he stops him, he can’t leave it like this.

“Have a good day, yeah?”

He gets a smile at least. “Sorry…about storming out. I can’t go back there though, you know that. Without anything else, I can’t go back to pretending I don’t like you. We did it for nearly two years and I hated it.”

“You think I didn’t?”

“We’ll manage, ok? Don’t worry.” He tries to smile. “How about we go to the Christmas market tonight, we can soak up the atmosphere if nothing else.”

“Yeah, ok.” He kisses him, not one of their usual kisses, just a peck on the cheek and then he’s moving away and Aaron wants to stop him but he forces himself not to. “See you later.”

*****

They do have fun at the market and he thinks that maybe they will be ok, but the next day Robert is distracted as he goes off to work. When Aaron gets home from the supermarket later that evening, Robert’s sat on the sofa in the dark.

“Robert?” There’s a feeling settling in his stomach and it’s not good.

“I didn’t hear you come in.” He doesn’t get up though, just keeps staring into space.

“You were miles away. What’s going on?” He leaves the bags on the floor and crouches in front of him.

“I was offered another job.” Now he’s confused, why would that have him in this state. “More money, responsibility, doing more with computers like I want.”

“Well that’s great…isn’t it?”

“It’s in France. They’re opening up a new office there.” Oh.

“So what did you say?”

“I told them I needed to think. They gave me until after Christmas, but…I’m not taking it.”

“What? Why?”

“When we left, you said you wanted to stay close to Liv, keep an eye on her…well Sandra.” Neither of them were that impressed with her but Liv wanted to stay with her and they knew they couldn’t look after her so this was the best option they had. He couldn’t keep such a close eye in a whole other country though, Robert was right.

“We could…you can’t just turn it down flat without even talking to me.”

“It doesn’t matter. There’ll be other jobs. Ones that are based here.” He gets up, still not really looking at Aaron. “I’ll get tea on.”

“Robert, wait. We should talk about this.”

“There’s nothing to talk about. I’m not taking you away from your sister, no way.”

“Then why tell me? Why sit here in the dark.” He grabs hold of his arm to stop him walking away. “You want to take it don’t you?”

“It would…it’d solve a lot of problems, but…no, it’ll just create more in the end. Like I said, I got this offer, I’ll get others. Now, pasta ok?”

“Yeah, whatever. Robert…”

“It’s fine.” He kisses his forehead, moving into the kitchen.

He doesn’t know what to think. Robert is right, it will solve so many problems, money being the main one, but the thought of leaving Liv when she only has him and her Mum, it scares him. That’s without the whole moving to a new country thing, but even so, he can tell Robert wants this and the thought of being the reason he loses out is awful.

They don’t talk much more about it, Robert’s mind is made up and Aaron knows him well enough that talking about it will just make him more stubborn. Even so he still can’t get the idea that he’s stopping him getting a job he loves out of his head.

He convinces himself that it’ll be fine, but the next few days see Robert snapping that bit more, pulling away from him, distant almost. Is this how it’ll be now, will he blame him? Will it be this, not everything else, that ends up tearing them apart.

He has to do something, and the only thing he can think of hurts but it’s all he can do. Robert will get the job he wants, he’ll be happy, that’s the main thing.

*****

I’m sorry. It’s for the best. Take the job. xx

It was the cowards way out, he knew that, sneaking off when Robert was at work. He knew he couldn’t face telling him, seeing the look on his face. He’d never be able to do it, to make him hurt like that. At least this way he could keep pretending it was the right thing to do.

Another couple of days of snappy conversations, of more rejection letters coming through the door for him had left him feeling he had no other choice. It was for the best, if he could just keep telling himself that. Robert hadn’t budged, wouldn’t even talk about taking the job.

Leaving wouldn’t change anything for Aaron but if it would for Robert then it would be worth it. He’s never said it but he knows Robert wanted more when they left. The job could give him all of that.

Maybe it was the right thing, even though it hurt. This way Robert could do what he wanted, could go wherever he wanted in the world with no one holding him back. Everyone had always said he’d be some kind of big shot somewhere. No one had ever said that about Aaron.

He hoped Robert would forgive him. He could lie to himself and say it wasn’t forever, that he just needed time, but as soon as he closed that door, that was it, because he knew Robert well enough to know he’d throw his walls up and no one would get back in. He wasn’t as tough as he made out he was

One last look and he picks up his bags. The bus would be along in ten minutes and that would be it. Back to Emmerdale, to his family, to being on his own because he might have people around him, but without Robert he would be on his own. He stopped himself from going any further with his thoughts because if he did he wouldn’t go, and he had to.

One more look and then he pulls the door closed behind him, key pushed through the letterbox before he goes.

All the way home he thinks about what Robert is doing, how long it will be before he realises he’s gone. He feels sick thinking about it as he gets off the bus.

The village is the same as always, Christmas decorations the only thing that’s new. The pub is decked out as always and he can hear the low hum of chatter as he gets closer. Nothing for it then.

He’s just hit the doorstep as his phone buzzes in his pocket. It’s Robert, he must be home early. It keeps buzzing with a series of texts when he doesn’t answer, and he knows what they’ll say. He can’t bring himself to look, to see the words in front of him.

Coward, the word follows him as he goes inside. He knows Robert would never say it, but he knows that’s what he is. He just can’t deal with him right now.

“Aaron!” He’d know that voice anywhere, his Mum’s shriek carrying across the pub as he lets the door swing shut behind him. “Love, where have you been? We’ve all been so worried!”

“Come crawling back have ya? No Sugden trailing behind?” Cain. He should’ve known he’d be here. They must’ve guessed where he was, or at least that he and Robert disappearing on the same day couldn’t be coincidence. He’d left a note saying he needed to get away, unable to just leave without a word.

“Leave it Cain. Not even a phone call Aaron. Anything could’ve happened.”

“Well it didn’t. Don’t Mum, not now. Can I put this lot somewhere. Is it…can I stay?” He was suddenly fearful she’d say no, and then where would he be. He couldn’t go home, it wasn’t home anymore, was it?

“Course you can. I’ll bring you a pint through the back.” He sees her glare at Cain as she passes, and at least he might be off his back for a day or two. He can’t handle him yet, if at all. “You didn’t call Aaron, just left that note. I’ve been out of my mind.”

“Sorry Mum. I just…I had to go. You wouldn’t understand.” He watches as she pulls his pint, feeling at home straight away, feeling a sense of betrayal at feeling that way all at the same time.

“Hmm, well we’ll see. Go on, make yourself at home.”

He climbs up the stairs, knows he’ll have to face the messages. He can’t talk to him, not yet, maybe not at all because as much as this is the right decision, he knows it’ll take hardly anything for him to go back.

It’s the right thing.

If he says it enough maybe one day he’ll fully believe it.

Not until he’s downed his pint and partly sorted his stuff out does he look at his phone. Fifteen messages. All of them containing one same word.

Why?

He turns his phone off then, can’t deal with any of it now. All his energy has just drained away and he feels lost. He knows his Mum will be waiting downstairs, wanting to talk, probably holding Cain off but he can’t face it, just wants to curl up and shut the world out.

All of the bravado about making the right decision has gone and he just falls asleep wondering if he’s done the right thing, phone clutched in his hand.

*****

Next morning he checks his phone again, more messages, all the same, gradually getting more angry and bitter as they go. Everything downstairs is quiet and he knows he should talk to his Mum, really can’t put it off much longer.

Just as he guessed she’s sat at the table, cup of tea waiting and he doesn’t even care if it’s stewed or cold, it’s just a welcome sight.

“Where is everyone?”

“Charity’s sorting the bar, I told everyone else to steer clear. So there’s no reason why you can’t talk to me, is there?” As he sits, his phone lights up again, and again. “Robert, I’m guessing?”

“You all know then?” He turns his phone over, can’t face any more of his messages.

“Despite what the two of you think, none of us are stupid. Why didn’t you tell us love?”

“I’m sure Cain would’ve loved hearing how his nephew was sleeping with the enemy. Would’ve gone down really well.”

“You could’ve told me.” He shakes his head, she says that now, but he knows better, family loyalty comes first, always had. “Whatever, you shouldn’t have just upped and left like that.”

“I had to, Robert had to leave…” He stops because he’s unsure how much she knows.

“We know what went on. Andy was shouting his mouth off about it for days until Jack stopped him. You still could’ve told me. Did he force you to go? Is that why you’re back? What did he do?”

“Mum leave it! Robert hasn’t done anything like that. He’s done nothing but work hard and look after me.”

“That’s why you’re sitting here now is it?”

“I’m holding him back Mum. He’s paying for everything because I can’t get a job and he says he’s happy, but how long for? I can’t even afford to buy him a Christmas present, and he says he doesn’t care but I do. Now he’s got this job offer and he won’t take it because of me, because I want to be close to Liv.”

“Oh love,” She reaches out and takes his hand. “If he loves you like you say then I promise you none of it matters to him and I know it doesn’t seem that way, but from the sound of your phone, he’s going out of his mind. Now I might not have much good to say about him, or any of that lot, but if you say he’s good enough for you…”

“He is!”

“Then why are you here with me instead of at home with him?”

“Because I’m not good enough for him! That job Mum, he wants it, I know he does, but he’s turned it down for me and I’m not worth that!”

He can’t stay here any longer, storms out the back door ignoring the shouts of his name, taking himself off into the village. It’s quiet and he bypasses the garage, although he’ll have to talk to Cain about a job before long. Not today though. He’s barely past the cafe before he runs into Jack Sugden. Everything Robert’s ever told him comes flooding back and he pushes past him not wanting to talk to him in the slightest.

“Where’s Robert?” He glares at him as he holds onto his arm. “I’m not stupid, I know you went off together.”

“Not here.” He doesn’t owe him anything and there’s no way he’s pointing him in Robert’s direction. “Just like you wanted.”

“He’s my son!”

“Oh, you remembered that did you? Well done.”

“You little…”

“Oi!” Aaron swings round to see Cain advancing on them and that’s all he needs. “What’s going on?”

“I’m just trying to find out where my son is. Not that it’s anything to do with you Dingle.”

‘I’d say it is when you’ve a hold of my nephew. I’m sure if that lad of yours wanted to speak to you he’d be here.” Jack scoffs and storms off leaving the two of them to stare at each other. “Your Mum said you could use some work.”

“Yeah.” He wonders just how much she’s told him.

“Tomorrow, half eight.” With that he stalks off.

Finally he’s alone but all he can think of is Robert. He should call him, try and explain, but what exactly can he say? Nothing is going to make it better. He can’t make himself ignore him though.

“Aaron?” Just the sound of his voice has him with tears in his eyes. He doesn’t sound angry, just sad and that makes it worse. “Where are you?”

“The village.”

“You always say that like it’s the village of the damned or something.” That makes him laugh.

“Isn’t it?” There’s silence, as if neither of them knew what to say.

“Come home.”

“I can’t. You can take the job now, have the life you deserve. You can do what you want now, what you always told me you wanted. You can do it all without worrying about me.”

“None of it matters without you.”

“You want to though, you want that job, I could see it in your eyes. I know you. You were distant, you were pulling away already. How long before you resent me for stopping you? How long before it’s too much?” He sighs. “I mean it. Stop worrying about me.”

“Like I ever could!” He shouldn’t have called, it’s just making it so much harder.

“Then try. I did this for you. I’m holding you back. You deserve more than a crappy flat, a job you hate, and a boyfriend you have to support.”

“You really think that bothers me? I would never ask you to do this. I don’t want you to. All I want is for you to come home.”

“No, and you never would and that’s why I had to.” He sniffs, looking around making sure no one is listening or watching. “It’s for the best. You’ll see that soon enough. I did what I had to.”

“You mean you ran away. The first time things got rough, you ran.”

“If that’s what you want to think. I should go. Just…take the job, be what you wanted to be. For me.” There’s just silence on the other end, until the call ends, and now he lets the tears come. He’s lost him and it was his own fault.

*****

The next few days he gets his head down, works at the garage, spends his evenings in his room, avoiding his Mum’s endless questions, trying not to regret his decision or think about Robert too much .

“Aaron! Don’t go upstairs again. I want to talk to you.” She nabs him as soon as he gets in from work.

“Mum, I’m tired, can we not.”

“I’ve hardly seen you. Come on, I’ve made your favourite tea.”

“You cooked?” He can’t help smile.

“Ok, Marlon made your favourite. Come on, just while we eat.”

He gives in because he doesn’t have the energy for anything else. “So, how long had you and Robert been…you know.” She manages to wait until he’s eaten a couple of mouthfuls before she starts.

“My eighteenth birthday.”

“But that’s…nearly two years! How did you manage to keep it hidden?” He wants to laugh at the look of shock on her face.

“Pretending we hated each other, meeting in secret. He didn’t want his Dad finding out, and let’s face it, our lot wouldn’t exactly put the bunting out would they? It was easier…until it wasn’t.”

“You love him, don’t you?” Normally he’d scoff, but now he just nods. “Oh love, being noble is all well and good but even Zak, as oblivious to everything as he is, can see how much you’re hurting.”

“Don’t.”

“I reckon that Robert’s probably sitting at home looking just like you right now. Is it really worth it?” He wants to yell that it isn’t, but he doesn’t. He’s made his choice.

“Yes. He deserves better.” He puts down his knife and fork. “I’m going to get a pint. I’m done talking about this.”

Her words follow him though, he can’t get them or Robert out of his head and it’s taking every bit of him to stay, to not go back. It’s harder every day, only the thought that he’s right keeps him here.

*****

It feels like he’s been back weeks but it’s only a few days Robert’s stopped texting, stopped calling, and it hurts more than he thought it would. It’s Liv that finally breaks through his armour. He’d promised her ages ago he’d meet up and take her Christmas shopping and they’re sitting in a cafe in York when she finally starts on him.

“Robert won’t answer my calls.” He’d called her when he got back to the village, told her they weren’t together anymore, hadn’t expected her to try calling Robert.

“Liv, I told you, we’re not together.”

“That’s not my fault. He said he’d help me with my project.” She always acts so grown up, has had to be really, but right now, sat in front of him slurping a milkshake through a straw she looks every bit her thirteen years.

“I know it’s not, but this is how it has to be.” He’d hoped this trip would take his mind off things but it’s doing the opposite. In the past it had always been the both of them visiting her, together, and it just felt like something was missing. He’d spent the time while she tried on outfit after outfit wanting to roll his eyes at Robert as he always did, but he couldn’t.

“I want to talk to Robert. He’ll listen to you if you tell him to answer me.” She’s probably right but he really doesn’t want to contact him, it’s not fair to either of them, prolonging things will only make it worse.

“You think so?” The pleading eyes are his undoing. “Fine.”

*I know I shouldn’t ask but would you answer Liv? She’s missing you.*

He shows her the text and she nods. The rest of the afternoon is good, the Christmas music in the shops and the decorations making him feel slightly better. He’s barely back home when she calls him.

“What now?”

“I spoke to him. He didn’t sound very good, kept on about you.” That stops him. It’s only been just over a week but maybe there had been a little bit of him that thought Robert would bounce back and get over him, self preservation most likely. He’d clearly been kidding himself.

He almost feels bad for doubting him, but he wanted him to move on, to get on with his life, that was the whole point. He doesn’t want to think of him sitting, moping around the flat, just like he’s doing at the pub.

Liv’s still talking but he’s not listening. He’d done it for good reasons but all he’d managed to do was hurt the most important person to him.

“You’re not listening! I asked him to come and see me, but he won’t. He’s going to be on his own. At Christmas!”

“Liv…” He sighed. “I’ve told you why.”

“I don’t care. Why won’t you go back to him? He misses you.”

“He wouldn’t want me back after this Liv.”

“You’re an idiot. You told me he was the best thing to ever happen to you!”

“Oi, miss! Liv sometimes things just don’t work out, no matter how much we want it to. I’ll still be here for you, you know that.”

“What’s the point if you’re just sad too?” He finds he just doesn’t have the answer.

*****

He lets himself get caught up in all the village Christmas stuff after that, determined to try and move on, the nativity, the lights switch on, but it’s all muted for him, like he’s under a layer of fog. Ever since he’d spoken to Liv he’d been feeling it, not guilt anymore although that was still there, it was more longing if anything but little things were making his resolve start to crack.

At the light switch on he’d suffered cold hands because Robert always reminded him to take his gloves. At the nativity, when the hall had erupted into giggles as Baby Jesus’ head came off in Sarah’s hand he didn’t have Robert’s shoulder there to muffle his laughter. Everywhere he turned he had reminders of what he missed, of what he’d lost.

Liv had called him again, told him she’d spoken to Robert and he’d told her about the job, that he wasn’t taking it. He’d not expected him to tell her but then again Liv had a knack of getting the information she wanted out of anyone. He let her shout at him about it all without saying a word, because nothing he could say would make it better.

He misses him, more than he thought possible, and he’s regretting his decision but still he can’t bring himself to go back on it, but at the same time he wants to run to Leeds and beg Robert to forgive him for leaving.

It’s the night of the Dingle’s Christmas party when his resolve leaves him completely. It’s like every other party but with enough tinsel to start a factory. He plans on drinking until it doesn’t hurt anymore.

He’d tried getting out of it but his Mum wasn’t having any of it. “You need to start living, not holing up in your room. This is you family Aaron!”

He’d expected lectures about being with Robert, maybe he’d even broken the silly Dingle Code, but none of them said a word.

It’s actually fun, dulled as it is by the alcohol and he’s enjoying himself until Zak gets up to speak. He rambles on about family for ages and all Aaron can think of is Robert. He’s his family. Why is he sitting here listening to Zak when he could be with Robert? He’s his family, and he’s alone. Why was he throwing it away?

He lays awake all that night, thinking about it. He misses him like crazy but he still can’t get past the thought that he could do better without him there.

In the end he lets his heart rule his head, but he can’t go straight away. He messed up, and he needs to put it right and for that he needed help. Robert was getting a Christmas present one way or another.

He sees Victoria after the carol service, sees Jack’s glare as she comes over to him. He’d texted her earlier asking her to meet him. He didn’t expect her to come over in front of her Dad and he can imagine how Robert would just love it. He almost pulls out his phone to tell him.

“Can you do something for me? When we left, Robert…he had to leave stuff behind. Could you get it for me?”

“Dad got rid of some of it when he left, but I can try.” He tells her what he wants, arranges to meet again. He knows going back would no doubt be enough, but he wants something more, something to prove he’s serious, that he won’t leave again.

It’s late that night when she waltzes into the pub handing him the bags with a smile. “I got everything. Reckon Dad’s more sentimental than he says. What do you want it for anyway? Thought you were over. Dad said you were.”

“What does he know?”

“Well you’re here aren’t you? Not with Robert.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

“I called him. He actually answered. He really loves you, you know. My soppy brother.”

“You got that from a phone call?” It makes him happier than he has any right to feel considering everything.

“Yep. He wouldn’t even agree when I told him you were an idiot.” That makes him laugh.

“Thanks I guess.”

“You’re alright for a Dingle. Are you going home then?” He shrugs, doesn’t want to get into it with her, but he is, he’s decided. “Don’t hurt him again, if you do.”

“I won’t. You’re not bad for a Sugden you know.”

*****

It’s too late to go by the time she leaves and he spends another sleepless night at the pub. Up early the next morning he finds his Mum waiting in the kitchen like she already knows what he’s up to.

“I’m not daft love. It’s obvious you miss him. It was just a matter of time.”

He’s still scared, of what he’s not sure. Rejection most likely. Maybe Robert’s seen sense, maybe he won’t want him back.

“What if he turns me away Mum? I hurt him. What if he’s realised I’m right? Changed his mind?”

“He won’t have love. But…if he has or he turns you away, then you come home to me. You won’t have to though.”

“Nothing’s changed though…I still have Liv to think about…what if we can’t sort it?”

“Look, think about it…if he really wanted this job more than anything then nothing would stop him and I know you love your sister and I know why you worry but she has her Mum and you told me she’s a lot better now. You have to live your own life, not hers. There’s no good you being unhappy because of her. That’s not doing anyone any favours.”

“But…”

“But nothing. You love Robert. From all you’ve said he loves the bones of you. Nothing much else matters. Oh I know the two of you won’t come back to the village but we’re your family, his too if he wants, let us help. Whatever you end up doing, you’ll be alright, you’ll see.”

“But…you all hate the Sugdens.”

“Yeah well, I reckon we can make an exception for someone who makes you happy. Seems to me he isn’t that keen on this whole feud anyway.”

“I…”

“Go home Aaron. You shouldn’t be here.” Right then he realises that nothing else matters, nothing else should matter. He jumps up, goes to leave before going back to kiss her cheek.

“Merry Christmas Mum.”

He doesn’t waste another minute, runs upstairs, stuffing all his things back in a bag before going back to say goodbye, asking her to tell Cain because if he waits he’ll miss the bus and he has a stop to make before he goes back to the flat.

He finds the shop just before it closes, almost has to beg the man to stay open just a bit longer, explaining what he wants and why it’s so last minute. Thanking Cain for the small advance he’d given him on his wages when he started, he’s soon on his way and it’s then that the doubts set in again.

What if Liv and Vic are wrong, what if his Mum is wrong, what if Robert has changed his mind, what if he’s realised he doesn’t want Aaron anymore. What if he’s not home? The flat is in darkness when he stands outside looking up and he almost loses his nerve. Then he shakes himself for doubting Robert and rings the bell.

“What?” His voice sounds flat, even through the intercom and the regret is all consuming.

“You got any room for an idiot at Christmas?”

No answer and he thinks that’s it, he’s blown it. As he’s about to go the door flies open and Robert’s standing there. He looks awful, shadows under his eyes, hair all over the place and he’s pale. Neither of them speaks, and Robert looks wary.

“I…” He doesn’t know what to say. He’d almost made himself believe he wouldn’t be here.

“You came home?” He says eventually.

“You’re not in France.”

“The job doesn’t start until next month.” Oh. Maybe he had changed his mind. His face must change because Robert rolls his eyes. “I didn’t take it. I told you I wouldn’t.”

“But…”

“I meant every word I said and that didn’t change because you weren’t here. Besides I couldn’t be happy in a job that caused us to break up.”

“I…I only left because I thought…”

“Well there’s your first mistake.” That sounds more like his Robert.

“Arse.” That makes Robert laugh, a proper laugh and it’s the best sound.

“Guess I am. You home then?”

“If you’ll have me.”

*****

He’d thought he’d shout, slam the door in his face or something, he hadn’t expected him to pull him inside and kiss him stupid. He supposed Robert did always like to surprise him.

Once the initial euphoria has worn off though, it’s awkward, silences going unfilled. He looks round the flat, nothing has changed, why would it, he hasn’t been gone that long, it just feels like it.

“Why did you come back?” He’s leaning against the kitchen cupboards, arms folded across his middle, protecting himself.

“I realised that I was wrong. That even though I thought I was doing the right thing, I still missed you, still loved you and nothing else mattered. I just got scared.”

“Of what? Me?”

“No! More that…that one day you’d realise what you’d given up, for me, that I wasn’t worth it. I felt useless and…” Robert’s beside him before he can finish and has him in a tight hug.

“You’re not useless you never were. I would never think that.”

“Everything just built up. It started when I couldn’t afford to get you anything for Christmas, and then the job and it was all too much.”

“I told you it didn’t matter.”

“I know. I’m sorry, I really am.”

“You can’t run Aaron, you have to talk to me, otherwise it’s not going to work. I know I shut you out a bit, but only because I was worried how we’d manage with me not taking the job, it was never about you, I never blamed you.”

“Cain said if I wanted he’d talk to some of the garages round here for me. Seems like everyone knew I was coming back even before I did.” He’d been surprised the night before when Cain had sat him down and bought him a pint and started giving him advice.

“That’s great. He’s not so bad really.”

“It is, yeah, but…you think you could still say yes…about the job? You had until the end of the month?”

“I told them no, they’ve given it to someone else.”

“So I ruined it?”

“No! I told you there’ll be other jobs. Being without you the last couple of weeks…I hated it. Whatever happens now, we’re together. I don’t care about anything else.”

“Ok.” He could tell Robert wasn’t lying.

“I mean it though, you can’t just run Aaron. I can’t handle it.”

He can’t keep saying he’s sorry so he holds him tighter, now he’s here he doesn’t want to ever let go. They don’t say much else, no doubt they will, it’ll all have to be talked out, but for now he’s happy to just be with Robert in their home.

*****

Christmas Day dawns, the sun streaming in their bedroom. Robert’s holding onto him tight, almost as if he’s frightened to let him go. He’d been like it all night and he felt bad for making him feel that way, but at the same time he couldn’t help enjoy being back in his arms.

Still, that didn’t help him now when he needed to get up and put his plan into action. It took him a while but finally he slid free of Robert’s grip without waking him.

He sets everything up just the way he’d planned when he’d lain awake in his room at the pub. Slipping his hoodie on against the cold, putting the last piece of the present in his pocket he goes into the kitchen.

The last thing he does is boil the kettle for a cup of tea and checks the fridge, before making his way back into the bedroom to find Robert coming to.

“Where’d you go?” He mumbles and Aaron lifts the mugs in reply. “I thought I’d dreamt you.”

“You sure it wasn’t hope? After what I did?”

“Don’t be daft. Get back into bed.” He sits and takes the mugs from him so he can climb into bed, warm after the chill of the kitchen. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas. Drink that, and then you’ll get your present.”

“You said…”

“I know, and, well confession time…this is more about…well you’ll see, but I didn’t really do much.” With that Robert drinks his tea complaining about burning his tongue before all but leaping out of bed.

“Come on!” He almost pulls Aaron out of bed, the two of them falling about laughing. Eventually Aaron takes hold of his hands and leads him to the living room.

“Merry Christmas Robert.” He’s quiet as he looks round the room, taking everything in and Aaron grows increasingly nervous.

“How did you…I mean…”

“I spoke to Vic. Asked her to get some of the things you’d told me about, some other bits and pieces. Should’ve seen your Dad’s face when she came over to talk to me outside the church.” He watches Robert pick up the nearest photograph frame, the picture inside one of him and his Mum somewhere on the farm, both with massive smiles on their faces. He’d bought frames for all the photos Vic had given them and placed them round the room. “I know it’s not much but…”

“Are you kidding? It’s brilliant! I thought I’d lost them for good. Sometimes I think I’m forgetting what she looks like. This is…you’re amazing.”

“She gave me some of your books and bits and pieces too, a few questionable CDs and that…your Dad had got rid of some of it but she kept these. I wish it could be more but…”

“It’s perfect. Better than anything that costs the earth. I didn’t think I’d get them back.”

“There is just one more thing. You didn’t ever mention it but Vic gave it to me, said you should have it.” He digs his hand into his pocket, handing Robert the box that the jeweller had given him. He’d felt a bit of a prat going into the shop, the only one still open and very posh looking, not somewhere he’d ever usually go to, but the owner had been wonderful after he heard his story.

“Aaron…” He breathes out the word. “Is this Mum’s?”

“Vic said it was your Granddad’s. It didn’t have a strap or anything.” He lifted the watch from the box. “So I found the last jewellers open on Christmas Eve and he cleaned it up and put the new strap onto it. Do you like it?”

“I love it.” He doesn’t say anything, just fastens it around his wrist before gently tugging him closer, his hand winding round his neck as he kisses him. “I love you.”

“Love you too.” He can’t believe he was stupid enough to nearly throw this away. “You want breakfast?”

“You don’t have to keep doing stuff for me.”

“I want to, so shut up.”

“Actually, just hold on a minute. I have something for you. I bought it ages ago but when we said no presents I thought I’d keep it for your birthday or something. It’s not wrapped or ‘owt but…well here.”

It’s a model car, the exact model Aaron had pointed out in a magazine not long after they got together, telling Robert he wanted to own one. He’d laughed and called him a boy racer. He’d never expected him to remember a random conversation.

“I know it’s not one of those classic collectibles but I just saw it and the conversation came back to me. Is it…it is the right one isn’t it?”

“I…yeah, it’s the one. I can’t believe you remembered.”

“One day it’ll be the real thing, I promise.”

“With the decals too?” He can’t help but tease him.

“If you must. God I missed you!” He pulls him close again, clinging to him.

“I’m not goin’ anywhere. Never again.”

“Damn right.” He snorts a little but stays where he is, not wanting to move.

“Best Christmas ever I reckon.”

“It might just be. Did you say something about breakfast?” He can’t help shaking his head at his cheek. He kisses him once more before going to the kitchen. When they’re eating he notices his gaze straying to the photographs on the side, a small smile on his face, and it makes it all worth it. Like he said, best Christmas ever.