Robert thought 10 years would have been enough time to dull the wave of nausea at the sight of Emmerdale’s name in big block letters. The sign reflected in his high beams and announced to the prodigal son that he had indeed returned. Coming back here was the one thing he swore he would never do. But it wasn’t the first promise to himself he’d broken; he doubted it would be the last.
Everything looked the same. Fresher coats of paint on the doors and newer cars lined the streets but overall it was still Emmerdale. Still home.
Or the place that was supposed to feel like home and never had. Not to Robert. At least not after the day when he’d packed up his truck with his few belongings, with the added gifts of a black eye, a split lip and some bruised ribs courtesy of his father.
Still, 10 years was a long time and it was Christmas after all. A time for family, or so Victoria had told him repeatedly via text, email and voice message over the last two months. He finally gave in and promised to spend two weeks with her and her husband, Adam, for the season. Emmerdale would be in his rear view mirror before noon on January 1st, that much he was counting on.
It’d been a shit year overall. One divorce, too many one night stands to count, and living life out of suitcase has made him weary. He hadn’t stopped looking for home since he left this god forsaken village and he’d yet to find it. He was starting to believe it didn’t exist.
Yet something in him kept searching; maybe he always would. His Dad had told him long enough he was a dreamer, reaching for things he had no business wanting. Maybe his father had been right after all. Robert never did seem to find what he was looking for.
Victoria was racing out to his car before he’d even cut the engine. She wrapped him in her arms and squeezed tight. She looked so much like their mother now. A young woman, no longer the small girl he pictured in his mind when he thought of her. Every year Robert shelled out for them both to go away, just the two of them. Spend a week in some all inclusive resort together so they could could catch up. Pretend the past was still back there, not hanging over their shoulders like the blight it was. She got a vacation and he got to accept the love she so freely graced him with. It was always worth every penny it cost him.
She babbled away at him, asking him about his journey but not stopping long enough for him to answer. Before he could think straight his bags were tucked in the guest room, the presents he bought stored under the tree, and a hot brew pressed in his hands. Adam made himself scarce, something about meeting his mates for a drink. Clearly, the couple had planned this from the outset. Robert couldn’t say he minded spending the evening surrounded by the glow of coloured lights and Victoria’s joyful smile, just the two of them.
They talked well into the night, finally switching from tea to harder stuff, whisky for Robert and white wine for Vic. They steered clear of the topics of Andy (living in Ireland), their father (still dead, still a bastard) and Robert’s divorce (finalized and another mistake to add to his growing list).
It was coming on midnight when a loud bang came through the door. Robert heard Adam’s mumbling and a clear but quiet laugh that still haunted his daydreams. He’d know it anywhere; time didn’t erase everything.
That beautiful laugh was Aaron’s.
He’d been 18 the first time he heard that laugh. Aaron was a young thug, new to Emmerdale and every bit a chav. He stuck out like a sore thumb, not mixing in with the farm boys or the hooligans who thought nicking beers was the height of criminal activity.
Robert had seen him scowling as he sat at the bar, a pint in hand. Always alone, always looking angry at the universe. That was a mood Robert could relate to even if he wasn’t allowed to show it.
But it was a busy time of year on the farm and their father was desperate for cheap labour. Desperate enough to hire a Dingle. Aaron had shown up the first day in trainers and trackies, gold chain around his neck. Andy has laughed in his mocking way and Robert could see Aaron’s back come up ready for a fight. Not wanting to lose the little bit of help they had for the next few weeks, Robert offered to take Aaron under hand, show him the ropes and save him from Andy. First thing he did was throw Aaron a pair of his old work boots.
“Probably too big for you but better than what you’ve got.”
Aaron had turned his nose up at him until he caught sight of the field they’d be sweating in that day. They took some old newspaper and shoved them in the toe for a better fit.
Surprisingly, they worked in comfortable silence. Robert would ask Aaron to do something, usually with a please and a thank you. That seemed to get him some mild respect, and Aaron did as asked. Even if he did mutter a complaint under his breath a time or two. It was nice, to be alone like he usually was, and yet have someone standing beside him at the same time.
At the end of their first day they were heading back to Robert’s truck. Aaron went to hop into the bed for the ride back to the house, forgetting his shoes were too big for his feet and heavier than expected. His feet hit the side and he slid down, landing arse first in the mud and the muck.
Robert couldn’t see Aaron and raced around to make sure he was okay. Then he heard it, that booming laughter of genuine delight. When he finally laid eyes on him he was sitting legs bent in a mud puddle. Arms braced on his knees as casual as could be, his head thrown back as he barked out his unstoppable laughter.
It warmed Robert in a place inside he thought was dead, or maybe forgot even existed. Bright blue eyes twinkled at him and Aaron held out his hand for assistance. Robert leaned down and before he knew it he was down in the muck with Aaron, on his knees, mud seeping through his jeans.
Robert took in Aaron’s shocked expression, the audacity of the situation and couldn’t help but release some laughter of his own. It was only a few moments, the two of them wet and dirty, sharing a laugh after an exhausting day.
It became one of Robert’s favourite sounds, their laughter harmonized together.
“Adam, shut up. You’ll wake Vic.”
Robert watched Adam stumble forward into view, Aaron’s hand on his shoulder to keep him upright. Robert froze in his chair, his eyes greedy as they ran over Aaron from top to bottom. He was the same and yet so different. He’d filled out, lean muscle now bulked up. But it was hard to tell fully, his body obscured by the black puffy jacket he wore. His face was no longer smooth, now that stubborn chin and those smirked lips were surrounded by manly stubble. The hair was no longer gelled within an inch of its life. It looked soft and touchable.
Aaron seemed larger than life now, a man come into his own. It made Robert feel small and insignificant.
Aaron stopped then, realized that Vic and Robert were still up. Vic watched both men with a bemused expression on her face.
Adam’s jovial and drunken hello was punctuated with him throwing his arms wide, sending him off balance again. Vic shot to her feet.
“Thanks Aaron, I got it from here.”
Adam grinned at his wife as he let her shoulder him towards the stairs.
“Oh, Aaron, you remember my brother, Robert?”
But she was gone already, shuffling Adam out of the room and giggling at whatever he was whispering in her ear.
Aaron’s eyes were shuttered but he had a polite smile on his face. That look you gave to strangers, not someone who meant something once upon a time.
“Well I should be off, welcome home and all that.”
In a blink Aaron was gone. The front door shutting softly and Robert was left like he always was, alone.
Robert hadn’t slept well, but he blamed it on the lumpy bed and not the endless memories that wouldn’t leave him alone. They’d run on a continuous loop all night long. He let Vic feed him breakfast and he made casual chit chat with Adam, who seemed way too perky after the night he’d had before.
They both had to work, Vic at the pub and Adam at the scrapyard he co-owned with Aaron. Robert would be left to his own devices for the day. Vic wrapped an arm around his shoulders and demand he meet her and Diane for lunch. He would, because Diane hadn’t been married to his father long before Robert left but she’d been good to him. Kind. Not so much motherly, more of an affectionate aunt. She was the one who called on his birthday, at Christmas and she’d continued long after his father had died. She had been the one to call him the day his father passed, steely nerved, her voice never wavered.
She’d never seemed to judge him for not coming back for the funeral, not like Andy had. Then again there wasn’t much Andy didn’t hold Robert responsible for.
He spent the morning staring at the cold tea in his hands before he got ready, bundled up to walk the streets he grew up on. The sun was shining over Emmerdale, almost blinding as it reflected on the snow drifts. Just enough to stick and make the village look like a postcard.
He should have known his feet would take him to the place he’d always gone when he felt unsettled and lost. He knew the path by memory, her spot amongst the rows. He brushed snow off her name with his gloved hand. It’d been too long.
After the first week Aaron and Robert seemed to get along. They didn’t talk, not really. Said what needed to be said when it came to work, ate their lunch in relative silence.
Aaron has started dressing for the part now. Jeans a little too baggy but more sustainable for farm work than his trackies. He had a good pair of work boots now, Robert never asked where those came from. Aaron still wore ridiculous jumpers though. Fake graffiti slang or bizarre slogans splashed across the front. He wore a beanie on his head now, so Robert didn’t know if it was a helmet shell of gel underneath.
Robert couldn’t help but watch him sometimes, always when he was sure Aaron was preoccupied. There was an energy to Aaron; he radiated a sadness that matched Robert’s own. Also there was something else, but Robert ignored it, like he’d trained himself to for years.
When they got back to the house Robert’s Dad handed Aaron his weeks pay with a nod of approval and a “See you on Monday.” Robert never got a weekend off, let alone as much cash for his labour as Aaron did.
That evening he went into town, walked to the graveyard as the sun started to set. His Dad was in a right mood and Diane had tried to gloss over it. Vic was staying at a friends and Andy, well he was always there wasn’t he? Perfect son in Jack Sugden’s eyes, making Robert look that much less than.
He was surprised to find Aaron leaning against a headstone, beer in hand, eyes closed with his head tipped to the sky.
“You are a right hooligan aren’t yah?”
Aaron didn’t react to the sound of his voice, so he either knew he was coming or was possibly passed out. There were four cans still by his side, but who knows how many he’d already had.
“Come here cause it’s quiet, or usually is anyway.”
Aaron opened his eyes and looked at him then, ever defiant, like he was bracing for battle.
“What you doing here?”
Robert looked at him in confusion and then pointed to the grave one over and across from Aaron’s legs.
“That’s my Mum.”
Aaron had the sensibility to look horrified then.
“Shit, mate, I didn’t….”
He was scrambling to get up but Robert waved him off.
“She wouldn’t have minded. She was the good sort, you know?”
Aaron nodded, settled himself back down. He reached for a can with his free hand and raised it in Robert’s direction. He snagged it and took a spot in the damp grass across from his Mum. Smiled at her stone, like she was actually sitting in front of him. God, he missed her.
He didn’t know what to ask him, but he still wanted some answers. Robert knew why he was here, he didn’t have anywhere else to go.
“It’s just quiet here. No one nagging about what I ain’t and what I should be.”
They drank two beers apiece, nothing but the occasional sigh and the rustle of the wind around them. Both just needed a moment to be somewhere other than where they ended up.
Like everything else the Woolpack looked the same. He was feeling a little raw; he’d had a long talk with his Mum. Told her everything he’d been up to the last 10 years. Replaying it all out loud reminded him once again that his Dad has been right, he was a lost cause.
Chas Dingle was behind the bar, looking older, and hopefully, wiser. She surprised him when she smiled at him.
“Well look at that, Robert Sugden. You’re all grown up.”
She leaned against the bar.
“Vic is just finishing up in the kitchen. Your first pint is on me. I’ve been wanting to buy you one for a long time.”
He wanted to question her, that made no sense. He’d never done a thing for Chas Dingle, couldn’t even remember talking to her that much back in the day. But Diane came hurried out of the back and once again Robert was being hugged within an inch of his life.
He drank his free pint and ate Marlon’s huge helping of shepherd's pie. Even Cain Dingle stopped by the table at one point to shake Robert’s hand and say hello.
It was surreal. These people wouldn’t give him the time of day a decade ago. He was a Sugden, even worse, the son of Jack Sugden. Vic was all sweet natured, no one could hate her. Andy had moved away after their father had passed and the farm was sold. Diane owned half the pub, no one wanted on her bad side.
But Robert was still, well, Robert. When had that been worthy of any of this?
Later that night he couldn’t sleep once again. He’d hoped to catch another glimpse of Aaron in the village. Hoped to maybe get a moment to speak to him. He didn’t know what he’d say, he just knew he needed to say it.
Three weeks in and Robert would almost say they were mates. They chatted more during the working day, the occasional can after work. Aaron was easy to joke with. Sometimes Robert would push it too far just to watch Aaron’s face go red. Then Robert would laugh and slap Aaron on the shoulder. Aaron would shove him slightly and call him some foul name, but they’d be back to normal. Or their normal at least.
They were working in the barn, stacking hay bales and sweating in the warm weather. Aaron had removed his long sleeved shirt, going topless. Robert found it distracting. He’d been so good up until this point, able to shove his thoughts of Aaron into a small pocket of his mind. Didn’t admit that at night when he took himself in hand that it was Aaron’s smirk that filled his vision. That he didn’t zone out of his father’s daily rant by thinking about the way Aaron’s eyes crinkled when he scowled.
They’d spent many an evening now at the graveyard. They drank their beer and Robert usually brought some candy, eventually sharing when Aaron put up a fuss.
Sometimes they talked, nothing too deep mind you. They always skirted around why they were both alone and yet still together. There was a rightness to Aaron, one he wanted to take onto himself. When he laughed Robert saw blue light shine from those eyes. It was mesmerizing and haunting, it was all he could think about most days.
That was probably why Robert was distracted as he climbed down out of the loft in the barn. Why he hadn’t secured the load like he should have. He hopped down from the ladder, looked at Aaron as he bent down to shift a bale. But Robert glanced up and saw a load starting to tip. He was behind Aaron in an instant, pulling him back before the hay dropped with a thud right where Aaron had stood moments before.
Robert had his arm banded around Aaron’s naked stomach, his gloved hand squeezed into the flesh he found there. Aaron’s back pressed to Robert’s front. Robert’s lips brushed against the shell of Aaron’s ear and he felt both of them shiver at the contact. It rippled through Robert, into him, and made him groan involuntarily.
Aaron turned his head, their lips were merely a small breath away. He almost leaned forward, almost gave in.
The slam of a car door caused them to jump apart. Robert had paced to the other side of the barn when Andy walked in. He demanded Aaron’s help with some fencing. Aaron grabbed his shirt and left the barn, didn’t even turn back to look at Robert as he went.
Three full days in Emmerdale and he hadn’t seen Aaron again. Not that Robert had been looking mind you. He was just around the village and Aaron never seemed to be. But he heard all about him, from everyone. Aaron was a staple in this town. The lovable grump who was always willing to lend a hand.
He heard Aaron owned the Mill, some sort of inheritance enabled him able to start the scrap yard and buy the old burnt out shell. He made two apartments, one for himself and one he rented out to a teacher in town. He heard Aaron had moved to France for two years with some rugby star boyfriend but it hadn’t worked out. He heard his first love had died in a car accident.
That had stung. He didn’t know who Jackson was but he got to be labeled as such. Robert had thought maybe it had been him. But what is love at 18?
Fuck, what was love at all?
He saw it in Vic and Adam. The soft smiles and glowing eyes. Casual touches and teasing words. It was what Robert had always imagined love was supposed to be. He hadn’t loved Chrissie, not really. He’d cared for her, just not enough to stop his wandering eye. He was amazed they’d lasted a year before she found out. He wished he could say he had regrets and he did, but none where his marriage was concerned.
Vic and Adam were going into Leeds that night, some supplier of the scrap yard was putting on a fancy holiday bash. They were staying at a hotel in town, Vic was over the moon excited. Robert was looking forward to a night by himself. Adam was way too controlling over the remote.
He assumed Aaron was going too. He wondered what he’d look like all decked out in a suit. He’d probably catch the eye of every man and woman there. Robert would pay good money to see Aaron in a crisp white shirt and blue tie, something to bring out those eyes of his.
He waved them off with a warm smile and then headed out himself. He passed the Woolpack that seemed right crowded with those wanting to enjoy the holidays. He walked right on by and headed for the shop to pick up some beer and maybe something sweet. It was Christmas time, you were meant to live off sugar. He grabbed two of the bags of sour candy and a chocolate bar when he heard a chuckle behind him. The shiver that went up his back should have been a warning; he should have been prepared. Still, when he turned his head and caught sight of Aaron’s wide smile Robert’s heart stuttered.
It was like being 18 all over again. That flush of want mixed with excitement. The thrum of the blood in his veins. He wanted to hold him and whisper how much he missed Aaron into the skin on his neck. He wanted to lean into him, soak up the smell that was always too strong of sweat and green grass. He wanted to turn back the clock and be a better man, or even a man at all. He wanted them to be what they had been, because Robert realized that’s who he’d always wanted to be. Just Aaron’s.
And he was having this soul shattering realization as Aaron cocked his eyebrow and quirked his lips. Like his world wasn’t falling apart or falling into place. Aaron had moved on, Robert hadn’t given him any other choice.
“Still the same sweet tooth I see.”
Memories of smacking Aaron’s hand away as he dug into his snack bag in the graveyard bloomed forward. Because Aaron always took too many, shoving them in his mouth all at once. Robert liked to have one at a time, savour them, draw out the treat. Aaron has always taken what he could, devouring lest someone try and steal it from him.
He’d kissed Robert the same way.
Aaron looked concerned for a second and Robert pulled it together.
“Sorry, I thought you would be at that party in town with Adam and Vic.”
“Nah. Rubbing elbows with people I don’t know or want to know isn’t my thing. Let Adam do the schmoozing.”
“So I guess I’m not the only one who hasn’t changed.”
Something flashed in those blue eyes then. The first sign Robert had seen that Aaron even remembered the past at all.
“Yeah well, time doesn’t change everything. Just most things.”
God his words hurt, sliced a piece of Robert he thought long gone. Aaron lips were turned down and Robert resisted the urge to kiss the sadness away. Just drop his basket and hold that face in his hands in the middle of David’s market. Give them both some comfort. He panicked slightly as Aaron turned to leave. He couldn’t have that, not yet, not with so much unsaid.
“Hey, I’ve got loads of candy here and beer. I was going to make a night of it. Maybe watch some bad Christmas movies. You’d be welcome to join me, if you like.”
He thought for sure Aaron would say no, was formulating ways to get Aaron to say yes. But he didn’t need to, because Aaron surprised him when he met Robert’s eyes. Looked resigned to the inevitable, they both always had been.
He hadn’t seen Aaron again for the rest of the day. He never returned after leaving with Andy and his bike was gone when Robert arrived back at the house. He knew he should go inside, have a shower and some dinner. He was exhausted and sleep would be welcome. Still he didn’t bother with any of those things, just stayed in his truck. Let it idle as he thought too long about where he wanted to be.
Because he knew, had for a while. He just wanted to be wherever Aaron was. Where he could breathe.
He drove the short bit into town. He parked off the street, knew the rumble of his engine would let Aaron know he was coming. That was, if Aaron was there at all.
He jogged in the dusk light, his heart beating fast. The words he wanted to say bubbling out. He found what he longed for standing at his mother’s grave. Aaron’s hand rested on the headstone but he stood tall as Robert approached.
“I don’t think we should do this anymore.”
It would have been easier if Aaron had yelled at him. His words had been a whisper and Aaron wouldn’t meet his eyes. Aaron wasn’t allowed to kill the one good thing in Robert’s life so quietly.
“Do what? What are we doing, Aaron?”
Because he needed him to say it. He needed Aaron to admit that this was more than mates having a drink. That this was two people looking for something and finding it finally, in each other.
“You don’t get to do that. Don’t put this on me. If you can’t say it why should I?”
Aaron was turning, walking away and something in Robert snapped. He’d never moved so quick. Then Aaron was in his arms, lips against his as every part of Robert sighed in relief. Because Aaron wasn’t pushing him away put pulling him closer. Fingers dug into his hair and teeth nipped at his lips.
It had never felt like this before, not with the girls he’d stolen moments with in the past. This was hard hands and yet soft lips. He couldn’t get close enough. His hands grabbing fistfuls of Aaron’s shirt and hauling him closer.
When they finally broke apart, chests heaving and foreheads pressed together, Robert couldn’t stop his grin. Had to press his hands to Aaron’s cheeks to pull him in again.
At the time he had been happy that his mother got to witness the first kiss of Robert’s life that actually meant something. He hadn’t realized that life was playing a cruel joke on him. Yes, his mother was there for his first kiss with Aaron, and as punishment Robert’s father would be there for the last.
They hadn’t said anything in a while. Not since they’d sat on opposite sides of the couch and Robert had turned on the TV. The movie was in black and white but the coloured lights of Vic and Adam’s tree twinkled red, blue and green around them.
Weirdly it felt like old times, beers in hand, nothing said but sadly without the comfortableness their silence used to have. Still Robert ate his candy slowly, every so often extending the bag in Aaron’s direction without taking his eyes off the screen. He knew Aaron took some, watched him out of the side of his eyes as Aaron stuffed his face like he used to long ago. Aaron still swirled his can when he got to the dredges, still fiddled with the tab, working it back and forth until it broke off. Then he’d drop it in the empty can, swirled it again so it would clink once, then twice.
How could Robert know so much and yet so little about the man who held every part of him?
But Robert was still a coward, couldn’t get up the nerve to say whatever it was he wanted to say. And too soon the credits were rolling and he heard Aaron yawn beside him.
“I should be off.”
“I said I should be off, tomorrow is the usual Dingle do. If I don’t get some sleep, it’ll end me.”
Robert turned his body then, so this time the meaning behind his words wouldn’t be lost.
“No Aaron, that’s not it. I’m sorry.”
Realization dawned on Aaron’s face as he leaned back against the couch, putting more space between them.
“Robert, what do you mean? You have nothing to be sorry for.”
And Robert realized Aaron meant it. The truth was reflected back at him, there was no ill will, no anger or pain or resentment. Just honest confusion.
“You aren’t mad at me, for leaving?”
Aaron sighed, put his hand on Robert’s knee. It was friendly, casual affection. It still made Robert’s skin burn.
“Robert, you did what you had to do. You didn’t owe me anything.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. Aaron, I owed you everything. I still do.”
And Robert lost himself to the want, surging forward to take Aaron’s face in his hands. Let the scruff on his beard tickle his fingers. He might have given Aaron a moment to pull away, he wasn’t sure because the instant their lips touched everything exploded inside him.
Home, what he’d been looking for for 10 long empty years was in his hands once again. He overflowed with the rightness of it as Aaron’s tongue curled in his mouth, as he felt the tug in his hair. They pressed as close together as they could given their position on the couch. Then Robert was leaning forward, leaning himself into the heat of Aaron.
When Aaron pulled back finally Robert couldn’t stop himself. He kissed Aaron’s cheeks, the tip of his nose, the smooth skin of his forehead, dipped to press his lips to the underside of his jaw.
“I love you Aaron, I always did. I always have. I love you so much.”
Aaron pushed Robert back, warm hands on Robert’s chest as he put what felt like miles between them. His eyes were sad, tears threatening to fall and Robert moved to stroke his cheeks again. But Aaron pulled his hands away, stood up.
“Rob, I can’t. I’m just... I can’t.”
It was only a few days, 10 to be exact, the happiest Robert could ever remember being. They’d kissed until they couldn’t anymore, freezing in the last of the spring chill that clutched the village at night. Robert felt the loss instantly when Aaron was out of his arms.
The next day they worked once again in their comfortable silence. They stole heated glances, the occasional lingering hand on the arm. It was only them but they both knew without needing to say it, Sugden land was never safe land. Never had been.
When the day was done Robert would watch Aaron peddle away on his bike. Shower and down dinner, listen to his father’s complaints and then be out as soon as he could. Aaron would be waiting for him at the churchyard, jumping in Robert’s truck before he could even fully stop. They’d drive to the quarry, to a spot Robert knew was off the beaten path. They’d hold hands until they were out of sight, then Aaron would slide down the bench seat to wrap his arms around Robert.
They’d be frantic for each other, the kind of pent up lust that came with youth and hours in each others company without being able to touch like they craved. It was just mouths and hands at first, both of them uncertain of what they wanted, just that they wanted it. When Aaron had crawled into Robert’s lap and ground their hips together it was the first time Robert believed in a heaven.
When the windows had fogged and the need calmed down they’d talk. Sometimes Robert would lay his head on Aaron’s shoulder, feel those fingers dance through his hair. Sometimes Aaron would put his head in Robert’s lap, his legs bent up on the bench seat to make room for his lanky frame.
Robert told Aaron that he wanted to leave Emmerdale as soon as he could. How he’d squared away every penny he had so that he could leave this place in the dust. He was 18, there was a world out there, somewhere it was okay to be himself. Whoever that turned out to be.
Having just turned 17, Aaron loved the idea, the thrill of a big city calling to him. He wanted to do something with cars; he’d been spending his weekends with his Uncle Cain in his shop. He was learning he liked grease on his hands instead of dirt under his fingernails.
It was 10 days of absolute happiness, bliss in the cab of his pickup truck. 10 days Aaron’s mouth and hands and heart giving Robert everything he’d been missing. Somewhere to belong.
It was just a Wednesday. Nothing special about the day. Robert was just content, swung his feet out of bed and smiled at Diane as he headed out the door. Aaron climbed into the truck with a smirk on his face, slid his hand into Robert’s as they headed for the far south of the field. His Dad had demanded him and Aaron fix some loose barn panels.
They’d been joking around, just enjoying being together. Robert should have been smarter but he got comfortable, started to feel safe in who he was, what he wanted. How wrong he had been.
He’d meant to just push Aaron playfully into the wall, but the next thing he knew their arms were holding the other, lips pressed together. Just a soft kiss, the kind that told Robert everything he needed to know.
Aaron wiped sweat from Robert’s brow, smiled softly at him.
“I love you, Aaron.”
Joy, bright and beautiful shone out from Aaron’s eyes. Filled him up to bursting.
”Rob, I love you...”
So wrapped up in each other, so happy to have said the words out loud for the first time they’d not heard the barn door slide open. The rage in Jack Sugden’s voice, that was something Robert would never forget.
“Robert Jacob Sugden?!”
Robert wanted to reach for Aaron, pull him back into his arms. He hated how empty he felt.
“I’m sorry, is there someone else?”
Because that could be the only reason in Robert’s mind, the only thing that could keep them apart now. He knew, he’d always known, they were it for each other. It didn’t matter that they’d been kids, that’s who they were. Aaron had owned all of him for the last decade, always would.
It physically hurt when Aaron shuddered in a breath, wiped at his eyes.
“No, Robert, there is no one else. That’s, that’s not it. I just can’t go back. I can’t.”
Robert stood up, walked towards Aaron. He didn’t touch him, no matter how much he wanted to.
“Do you not feel that way about me anymore?”
Aaron choked out a wet laugh.
“I don’t know if I could ever feel anything but what I’ve always felt for you, Rob, you have to know that.”
“Then I don’t understand…”
“Because you left. And it was the right thing for you. I know that. I do. And it showed me who I had to be. I was alone and I realized that I would always be alone until I accepted who I was. Until I finally showed it to the world. No matter where I went, with or without you, I’d never be happy pretending to be someone else.”
“That’s great Aaron…”
“But you never did Robert. You never accepted who you are. And I won’t hide, never again. What I feel for you was what helped me break free from that, I won’t let it put me back there.”
Left stunned he watched Aaron walk away, the conversation over with the slam of the door.
He went straight to the kitchen, grabbed a glass and the bottle of whisky from the cupboard. He took them both back to the couch. He poured two glasses and downed them in quick succession before he even let his mind try to wrap around what happened.
He was angry. He’d just laid it out there for Aaron, laid his heart out and Aaron had rejected it. Robert knew who he was. Of course he did. He was successful, sort of, in business. He was attractive. He was intelligent. He was never good enough, he never would be, Aaron had just proven that point. Who he was had never been good enough, that’s why he’d always tried so hard to be someone else.
But with Aaron, with Aaron he got to be Rob. All the messed up, weird, nerdy parts of himself and he’d been loved for them. Then he’d run away.
He drank himself into oblivion, passed out with the empty bottle in his hand and the ghost of Aaron’s lips on his.
The last time Robert looked at his watch it had been hazy, but he was sure he saw it say somewhere around 3:00 am. Then he’d just stared at the fuzzy glowing tree, feeling sorry for himself and hating everything he’d ever done in his life until he eventually passed out.
He came to as a cold cloth was pressed to his forehead and a glass of water shoved in his hands. His sister, she was too good for this world sometimes.
“We left you alone for one night, Robert.”
But she was smiling at him, not knowing the grief that brought the binge on.
“It was Aaron, Vic.”
“Oh he came over last night did he? You should have known better than to try and keep up with him. He doesn’t get blitzed often but when he does no one can match him”
He gulped down the water. Amazed that his stomach wasn’t rolling, that it let him keep it down
“No, I mean yes he was here but…”
Vic just curled up on the couch beside him. He realized she was still wearing her scarf and hat from being out in the cold. She must have found him when her and Adam first came in. He didn’t see Adam anywhere. But fuck it, it didn’t matter anymore.
“Victoria, I am bisexual. Before I left Emmerdale I was in love with Aaron. I still am.”
She leaned forward, wrapped her arms around him, whispered in his ear.
“I know, Robert. And I love you.”
He didn’t expect the tears to come, but they did anyway.
Robert froze, he knows that now. He couldn’t move an inch, the wave of his Dad’s anger pulsed towards him.
“You, Dingle! You get out of here! You’re fired!”
Aaron ignored him, looked at Robert. Gripped his hands tightly.
He hung his head, wouldn’t let himself meet Aaron’s concerned gaze.
“Go, Aaron. It’s okay.”
“No I won’t…”
“Go. We’ll talk later yeah.”
Because he needed Aaron gone, he knew what Jack Sugden was capable of. He needed him safe. Aaron squeezed his hands and whispered “I love you, remember that.” Robert would never forget what that felt like. Hearing those words.
He kept his back turned, but he knew when Aaron was gone, that was when he felt the first smack of his Dad’s belt buckle across his shoulders.
After he had cried his tears and let her hold him for a while they talked, really talked, about all the things behind them Robert wanted to ignore. It was time to unwrap them, time to put them under the microscope. Time to finally let them go.
It seemed Victoria had known that there was some flexibility to her brother’s sexuality four years earlier when they’d met up in Spain for their annual visit. The resort had been beautiful and some of the men even more so. Robert was always discreet but it seemed his sister saw him kiss a man goodbye down the hall from her room at 3:00am as she put her “Do Not Disturb” hanger on her door.
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Because Rob, it’s your life, if you wanted me to know you would have told me. Like you did now. It didn’t change anything for me, it still doesn't. You’re still Robert, you’re still my brother.”
He was grateful, he knew he shouldn’t be. How he felt, who he was attracted to, it didn’t define who he was but he could breathe. He felt like he could breathe in Emmerdale for the first time ever.
“Is that why you left years ago? Because something happened with Aaron?
She idolized their Dad, she had been his princess after all. He didn’t want to taint her memory of him but he was so tired of holding it in. So tired of pretending it was all his fault when all he’d done was exist.
“No Vic, it was Dad.”
He almost blacked out by the time it was over. Maybe he should have fought back but with every sting of metal and taste of blood he knew it was the last time. He swore it would be the last time. So he let Jack Sugden have one last go. His father couldn’t say Robert never gave him anything.
Robert never said a word as he lay on the ground, as he heard his father’s belt loop through his jeans once more. Heard the roar of his Dad’s truck engine and the squeal of tires as it kicked up mud and rock.
He got up eventually, almost on autopilot. Winced at the pain in his side, could feel his eye starting to swell. It took him a while to slide into his truck, the jump up impossible in this much pain. He just needed to keep it together, just long enough.
The house was empty when he pulled up, lights off inside. He made his way to his room. He filled two duffle bags with everything he owned worth taking. Every scrap of clothing, every picture he had of his mother and Vic. It nearly killed him to get his stash of money tucked up under his bed frame but he did it. 600 pounds wouldn’t get him far but it would be far enough. It had to be.
He loaded his truck slowly with his bags, stole some beer and bread, crackers and cheese from the house. Just enough to get by for a little while. He even took his pillow and quilt off his bed. He left a note for Vic on her dresser simply telling her he loved her. He left a bloodied swipe of his finger on his father’s office door. It felt biblical somehow, let him see what he’d done to his own son. Let Diane see who the man she married really was.
He did the laboured climb back into his truck. He noticed then Aaron’s jumper thrown over on the passenger side. He picked it up, held it to his nose. That aroma that was all fresh and musky, all Aaron, clung to the fabric.
He gripped the steering wheel tight as he drove out of Emmerdale. He refused to look at the church, the graveyard or the Woolpack as he passed. He couldn’t think of anything or anyone who could make him stay. Make him falter.
It wasn’t until he saw Emmerdale’s sign in his rear-view mirror that he let his fingers relax and the tears run free.
Vic had taken it all surprisingly well, sitting beside Robert on Christmas Eve, letting her brother destroy any ideal she’d held of the man who adored her. She didn’t question him, did nothing but hold his hand and tell him how sorry she was over and over again. She believed him.
By then Robert was worn out, strung out, and he knew his face was puffy from his tears. Victoria squeezed his hand.
“You go shower, Adam should be back from his parent’s any moment now. We’re supposed to go have a drink with Diane in the pub but if it’s too much for you I can make excuses.”
Vic, always his light in the dark. Looking after him when it was supposed to be the other way around.
“No, I just need to shower and change. Get my head together.”
He was halfway to the stairs when Vic called out after him.
He turned to her and the sad smile she gave him at the bottom of the stairs.
“Wherever I am is always your home. You always have one with me, if you want it.”
And the shower could wait, and it did, because Robert raced back down the stairs and took Victoria in his arms again. Because he realized she was right and it meant the world.
After a shower he felt human again, more like himself. Actually he felt more like himself than he had in a long, long time. He walked to the Woolpack arm in arm with Vic, who acted like the previous few hours hadn’t happened. Well not exactly, more like they didn’t matter. She was more gentle, soft because she knew he was vulnerable but still teased him when he had a tea instead of a pint.
“You’re getting old Rob, you can’t hold your liquor anymore.”
He let her tease and just smiled at her fondly.
It was weird sitting in the back of the pub, but it was Diane’s home. Chas’s too it would seem. She walked through at one point and gave Robert a wave. It still felt bizarre, the Dingle act of kindness.
Vic squeezed his knee under the table and so he told Diane and her husband Doug about being bisexual. Not about Aaron, not their history, but that he liked both. Dated both. Had loved both.
Doug just shrugged his shoulder and Diane beamed at him. Patted his hand. Maybe Jack had said something years before, because she didn’t seem surprised. He was slowly realizing his deeply held shame wasn’t something he had ever hid well, or needed to be ashamed of.
Once that passed they were eager to find out his future plans. Adam showed up then, it obvious he’d been waiting until he got the all clear from Vic. He patted Robert’s shoulder as he took a seat beside his wife.
“Well I can work from anywhere, I’ve just not found a place to settle since the divorce.”
Diane and Vic shared a smile and pounced.
Because why not Emmerdale? They were there. It was his home. They’d love for him to be around, even if it was just for a few months.
“You’re more than welcome to our spare room as long as you like Robert, you know that.”
Robert looked at Adam, expecting those words to have her husband seething. He just sipped his beer and shrugged his shoulders.
“Yeah mate, you’re family ain’t yah.”
His family. The one he’d run away from. The one that had patiently waited for his return. This had never been an option he’d considered, but maybe now he should.
Vic and Adam were going to stay at the pub a while for some last holiday cheer but Robert was worn out. He hugged Diane and shook Doug’s hand. They were doing a Christmas brunch the next day at Vic and Adam’s so the couple could spend the afternoon with the Barton’s. Robert had insisted after a morning full of family he’d need some down time so declined his invitation.
He walked out the pub back door, surprised when he saw Chas there taking out a bin of bottles.
“Can I help you with that?”
Chas just smiled and shook her head. As she made her way back inside he had to ask, he just had to know.
“Chas, why are you being so kind to me? You would barely talk to me a decade ago. I mean I know it was because of my Dad but…”
“We don’t get to choose our parents Robert, some of us end up with the short straw. Wasn’t fair we Dingles made you wear that all those years ago.”
He shrugged, it was just the way it had been.
“But what you did for Aaron, the friend you were to him. After it got out you’d left town he was a right bastard, got fired from the farm, almost got in a brawl with Andy. But he told us eventually, about being gay, how you’d been there for him and helped him see there was nothing wrong with who he was. I got my son back because of you.”
He was too stunned to do anything other than accept her quick but tight hug. Let her pat his cheek and offer him a warm smile.
“You’re always welcome as far as the Dingles are concerned.”
She shuffled back in then, and Robert just stared at the closed door. Could hear the sounds of Christmas music and laughter pouring from the walls.
Would wonders never cease?
It was still early so he pulled his scarf around his neck and headed for the graveyard. He wanted to be with his Mum, wish her a Happy Christmas. He stood there for a few minutes, smiled at her headstone. Hoped she was able to see him finally figuring it out, after all this time.
And that meant there was one other thing to do.
It wasn’t hard to find his grave. It was closer to his mother than Robert would have liked. He scoffed when he saw the words “beloved father” written in stone.
“I’m back, Dad. Bet you hate that. Hate that the son standing here is me and not Andy.”
He let the tears fill his eyes, the cold bitter against his cheeks.
“I don’t know why I was never good enough for you. Cause I tried you know, for years I tried, even after I left. Wanted to be a son you could be proud of. But it never would have mattered would it? Did you see it when I was younger, even before I did? Was that why? Knew I liked boys and that was just a step too far for you? Did you really think you could beat it out of me? Did you think I wouldn’t have been different if I could have?”
But it was void. He didn’t feel any pain, just resignation. It was the past. There had been no talking to Jack Sugden then, and there would be no answers now.
“So I’m just going to be me now. Every part of me that you hated, every part of me that you loved. Because I know you loved me Dad, in your own twisted way. But you were wrong. There is nothing wrong with me. And I’m going to be happy. I don’t know what that looks like yet, but it’ll be mine. You don’t get to keep that from me, not anymore.”
He turned away then, headed back to the spare room and the lumpy bed. Back to tacky Christmas decorations and a faded quilt to curl under.
That night Robert had the most peaceful sleep of his life.
Christmas was hands down the best one Robert could ever remember. He spoiled Vic with a fancy knife set he knew she always wanted and Adam with a couple games for the new system Vic had said she was getting her husband. Diane and Doug got an all expense paid vacation to Greece.
They kept telling him it was too much but he had a lot of time to make up for. They had a nice brunch they made together in Vic’s crowded kitchen. They laughed and joked and let Diane lead them in a prayer before they ate.
Rob promised to do the clean up as Doug and Diane went to Laurel’s and Adam and Vic to Moira’s. He was hugged and kissed and happy.
But a few seconds after they left Adam came back in, Robert turned from the sink in surprise.
He looked sheepish, embarrassed.
“Look Aaron, he’s home right now. Will be for a few hours still. You know, if you wanted to go see him. I think you two should talk.”
He raced out the door again, leaving Robert to stare at the empty room.
He reacted before he could think. Went up to his room, wrapped up one of his most prized possessions in some left over paper and headed out the door. He passed a few people who waved and wished him a Happy Christmas. It was still bizarre, how welcome he felt in a Emmerdale now.
He walked up to the Mill, knocked on Aaron’s door and gripped the package tight in his hands. Aaron looked surprised and gorgeous when he appeared. He was wearing a ridiculous Christmas sweater but it fit him well. Robert still wanted to run his fingers through that hair.
And he lost his nerve, shoved the package in Aaron’s hands.
He turned to leave but a hand on his shoulder stopped him.
“Don’t be daft, come in.”
He followed Aaron into his flat, gorgeous and grown up and the kind of place Robert could imagine living in one day. Bright and modern but comfortable.
Aaron put the present on his coffee table.
“Do you want a brew or?”
“Well take your jacket off and sit for a minute.”
So he did. Hated how awkward this was, because it was Aaron. It was them. He took the spot offered on the sofa and rubbed his knees.
“I didn’t get you anything.”
“It’s not much, actually it’s not technically a present. It was always yours.”
Aaron cocked his eyebrow in confusion before tearing open the package.
Aaron’s voice was a whisper as he picked up the jumper. The one he’d left on Robert’s truck seat all those years ago. He never got rid of it. Even though on Aaron it had been baggy it would never have fit Robert’s long limbs. He’d tried once, shortly after he left. He didn’t wash it until the smell of Aaron was long gone. Robert took it with him wherever he went. He’d held onto that part of Aaron for the last 10 years and now it was time to let it go. Even if it killed him.
“I doubt it’ll fit you now but I thought you should have it back.”
Aaron’s eyes never left the cloth in his hands and Robert realized this was a bad idea.
“Look I’m sorry, I’ll go…”
“No, wait here okay, just give me one sec.”
Aaron disappeared into a back room and he heard some doors open and then close. He watched Aaron come back towards him with...no they couldn’t be.
“Yeah. Kept them all this time. Always in my closet.”
Robert’s old work boots, the ones he’d given Aaron that first day. They were clean now, still scuffed and worn, but there. Aaron put them beside the sweater. Symbols of the boys they used to be. Aaron sat down beside Robert again, closer this time.
“Same reason as you I suppose, it was the only piece of you I had. I could never seem to let them go.”
Robert didn’t know what to say, because it hadn’t been in his head. It hadn’t just been him. The boots were proof of that. Aaron had felt it too, what they had. What they always were.
“It hurt so much when you left Rob, and I don’t blame you. I really don’t. I know why you had to do it. I just don’t know if I could survive it again.”
And life was about taking the risks after all. Aaron had always been the greatest risk of Robert’s life and the greatest reward. He turned slowly, puffed out a deep breath when Aaron let Robert take his face in his hands, made their eyes meet.
“Then let me stay, Aaron, with you.”
It was instant, Aaron surging forward and taking Robert’s lips, demanding and greedy just like he remembered them being. The familiar tug of fingers on his neck, the slide of his tongue past Aaron’s lips. He was pushed back and whimpered when he lost Aaron’s mouth. But he delighted when Aaron climbed into his lap, the move they’d perfected in the cab of Robert’s truck all those years ago.
They were older now, and that was made even clearer as Aaron threw his jumper over his head and rocked forward on his knees. His chest was broader, his arms more defined, more hair danced on his skin. Robert wanted to lick every inch of him, trace the muscle with his tongue. Wanted to take his time, wanted to learn all the places he’d never gotten the chance to before.
Aaron wasn’t having any of that, his fingers making quick work on the buttons that ran up Robert’s shirt. The feel of those rough hands on his skin made his hips jerk, enough that he lost that mouth again when Aaron leaned back and moaned. Robert snaked his hands up Aaron’s back, pressed him close so he could rub his lips against his neck, nip and sooth the flesh there. Every keen and moan Aaron gave him, every press of their clothed hips, had Robert closer to the edge.
It hadn’t ever been like this with anyone else. Robert had known it wasn’t youth, wasn’t hormones and lust, it was Aaron. What they made together since the very beginning.
He captured Aaron’s mouth again, worked his hands on the button and fly of his black dress pants, gasped when his hand wrapped around warm and soft flesh. They’d only done this once before, hands shoved down pants, spilling too quickly, too excited to be embarrassed. This time he enjoyed drawing it out, running his hand over Aaron’s tip, dancing his fingers slowly up the length. Savored the weight of him in his palm.
It sparked something in Aaron, an urgency that demanded to reciprocate. He batted Robert’s hands away as he kissed him again, worked his own magic on Robert’s fly. He was barely free from the constraints before Aaron took them both in hand, grasped them with his fingers as he spread the the warm fluid they made together.
Robert wrapped his hand around Aaron’s, linked their fingers together. Aaron pressed his forehead against Robert’s, shared his heated and wet breath. But their eyes locked and never wavered, because they were together in the glow of sunlight. Being able to see the crystal blue of Aaron’s eyes like this, he’d never had that before. He didn’t want to miss a second of it.
He remembered the tells, the way Aaron bit his own lip, the shuddered deep gasp, and he knew he was close. Robert wanted that more than anything, to take Aaron over again, imprint himself on every part of his heart. He pressed their mouths together, open and messy and perfect.
“I love you.”
Three words from Aaron's lips. The musky scent he’d never forgotten surrounded them. He could see nothing but blue eyes and black lashes, pink lips bit by white teeth. It was everything, and then he was flying.
When he could breathe again he kissed Aaron, lazy and soft, over and over. They were sticky with sweat and there was cum on Robert’s shirt but he didn’t care. It was perfect.
Eventually Aaron curled himself onto Robert’s shoulder, pressed their cheeks together in a messy hug that Robert wanted to live the rest of his life in.
“I love you too. Happy Christmas indeed.”
He felt Aaron’s whole body sigh.
“Happy Christ...oh shite!”
Aaron leapt up, shoving himself back in his pants. Robert missed him instantly.
“What, what’s wrong?”
Aaron threw a package of baby wipes at him. Now that was smart.
“Christmas, Rob. I should have been at Zak and Lisa’s almost an hour ago. If I don’t show up soon the whole lot of them will come looking for me.”
Robert laughed and tried to hide his disappointment as Aaron tugged his stupid Christmas sweater back on. He had Aaron back now, he didn’t want him out of his sight. But Aaron was like a mini whirlwind and Robert could hardly focus before he was smacked in the face by another equally ugly Christmas jumper.
“That’s mine from last year, it was too big on me. Should probably fit you.”
“Oh I don’t need a shirt.”
“Robert, you have my cum all over the other one. You can’t come to a Dingle Christmas with cum on your shirt. There are limits.”
Then Aaron was buzzing again, stuffing presents into bags and Robert was just stunned. He wiped at his chest but wasn’t sure about this. He stood up, fixed his pants but the jumper just stayed limp in his hands.
“You want me to come to Christmas dinner with you and your family?”
Aaron stilled then, dropped the bags he was holding and turned to Robert. He seemed to realize Robert was having trouble processing everything. He walked over and took the jumper from Robert, taking the thing and pulling it over Robert’s head.
“Yes. I love you. I want you to stay with me. I want us to make a go of this. Unfortunately that means starting right now, which means my boyfriend has to come with me to my family Christmas. Be warned, we’ll get teased, eat too much sugar, drink too much beer but we’ll be fucking happy and we’ll be together. You in?”
Robert shoved his arms through the jumper so he could grab Aaron’s face for another kiss.
“Bring it on, Dingle.”
Calling it teasing was an understatement but as far as meeting the family goes it was the most fun Robert had ever had. There were catcalls and whistles when they walked into house holding hands. Robert turned pink but Aaron let out a string of curses with a smile on his face. Everyone welcomed Robert like he had every right to be there. He shared a beer with Sam who he found surprisingly intelligent. Robert helped Chas and Lisa finish up in the kitchen. Aaron held his hand under the dinner table.
The Barton’s showed up for pie and tea, Victoria practically screamed her delight when she spotted Robert with his arm around Aaron on the couch. Adam just gave him a wink. Cain handed Robert a beer and gave him a quick nod.
Aaron somehow fell asleep during all the commotion. Zak was telling a long winded story about stealing a caravan on Christmas Eve 30 years prior. The kids had gotten some loud toy that they raced around with on the floor above, thumps and shouts filtering down below. Moira and Vic were laughing loudly into their wine. It was insanity.
Robert didn’t mind one bit. Aaron’s hand was holding his as their fingers intertwined and lay on his thigh. Aaron's cheek was pressed into Robert’s shoulder. Chas flung a blanket over them both as she walked passed, gave Robert a motherly smile. Aaron sighed and snuggled closer as Adam started to sing Jingle Bells off key.
Robert squeezed Aaron’s hand. He was home.