Introduction: Aaron's first homecoming (1994)
Aaron and Robert had been best friends for as long as they both could remember. Not the typical, casual best friend of youth, the kind that can be irreparably broken and permanently fixed over the course of a school dinner time, no, theirs was innate and unshakable. Their mothers often remarked that Aaron was born with a best friend, in later years Sarah wistfully reminded Chas of how Robert and Aaron often seemed to exist in their own little world when they were together, from the very first day Chas brought her son out of the hospital and into the wider world, and Sarah and Jack had brought their boy over to greet him. Aged two but brimming with the bravado of a man twice his age, Robert had offered to look after the tiny boy when Chas needed a break (she looked tired, he said, and there wasn't a hole big enough for Sarah to escape into that day).
"Robert sweetheart, we need to let Aaron and his mummy rest together," a slow smoothing of his hair punctuating her words, "but if Mrs Livesy doesn't mind we can pay a visit, when Aaron gets settled in."
Truth be told, Sarah and Chas were chalk and cheese (but, as they were all too delighted to point out to their boys in later years, opposites do indeed attract), they were acquaintances at best and the absurd rivalry between their respective families was too great, but as the years passed a friendship grew from the seeds of the fundamental bond their sons had.
Chas's marriage to Gordon was a trapeze act without a crash net, thrilling at best but devastating when the act went wrong; Sarah's to Jack seemingly always walking that knife edge of wonderfully content and desperately unhappy. Neither man was the banner father, Gordon resenting his child from the off, the monopoly Aaron had on his wife's attention and affection ate away at him until not much human was left, and his departure from their lives when Aaron was aged 12 was a monumental relief for Chas and her boy, for very different reasons.
Jack was comfortable, with his farm and his marriage and his life, every day exactly the same and the weeks bleeding into each other. Jack wanted for the same for (his) their son, and it was clear from too early in her introduction into Robert's life that Sarah's role was dutifully enable that or to be quiet. Sarah proved to be quite unwilling to follow orders.
So that first meeting at the Woolpack quickly became a regular date, the husbands playing darts in the pub, the wives enjoying a respite from their lives while their sons played at their feet underneath the table. Those dates became daily after-school dinners, weekend sleepovers, trips away to the coast, Aaron even briefly staying with the Sugden's when Chas's marriage finally gave up the ghost.
Nobody could forsee a time where the boys wouldn't be living in each others pockets; not Chas, not Sarah, certainly not Aaron and Robert themselves. Unfortunately, life had a different plan.
A fond yet unmistakably weary warning shot from Aaron Livesy.
"Listen, dickhead, just give it here."
"I just don't see a universe where that happens Aaron, especially when you ask like that." That smile ghosted his face, the smile that said Robert Sugden was having entirely too much fun at his own peril.
"No, this is mine, my own, myyy precccciousssss," an eerily accurate Gollum impression escaping his lips as he raised the can above his head, arm at full extension, insufferability at its maximum.
Aaron huffed, returning to his prior position, flat on his back, Robert looming at his side looking every bit the wanker, all blonde hair and skinny limbs. One sip later and the can was back in Aaron's hand, of course it was.
Robert remained propped up on his right side, peering down at the grump beside him.
"Andy's coming to live with us, I think. Mum loves him and I think he's dad's idol in some weird way so yeah. That okay or....."
"You're asking me if it's okay if the lad who just lost his world comes to live with you?" Aaron asks, incredulous.
"It's not that, I just know you and him don't get on, that's all, and he'll be around a lot and.... "
"Your mum and dad are doing a good thing Rob, chill"
A long, uncomfortable silence develops, which they're both aware of, mostly because uncomfortable silences rarely exist when they're alone.
"Does Vic like him? Andy. Since you know, he's coming here or whatever."
"She loves him, think she likes him better than me!"
They both hear the tone of Robert's voice.
"You know, as fascinating as this is, it's freezing and I spend more time than I want to in these barns as it is so....."
"So what?", a flicker of Aaron's eyes to Robert's betraying his affected indifference.
"So, are we going to talk about what happened today? Vic said you were in a right state Aaron....."
"He was mouthing off, the mouth needed shutting, I shut it. End of." Statement punctuated by a long swig of his mother's supermarket lager, hard man swagger firmly in place, Aaron refused to look his best friend in the eye.
"You're getting excluded for this, you know that yeah? You couldn't have just...."
"Just what?" Aaron asked dangerously, resolutely staring at the barn ceiling.
"Let it go? You were so close to getting out of there anyway, why fuck it up now?"
"Why do you care, Robert? You left.. you left ages ago, and we both know I'm not exactly Einstein. Just let it go yeah? Some knobhead mouthed off, I put a stop to it, I was leaving school with no qualifications anyway so I'm not really seeing what difference it makes."
"JUST DROP IT ROB," Aaron exploded, launching the can against the barn wall.
A swelling silence, maybe 10 seconds, maybe 10 minutes, before
"I think mum's seeing Gordon again. Well I mean, I know she's seen him, but you know. Seeing him seeing him."
He chanced a glance up and to his left. Watched his best friend, stone faced, opening a fresh can, and then a second, passing the former to Aaron before raising the latter.
"To the happy couple," he paused for effect (of course). "May they live happily never after."
Slackjawed for just a second, Aaron cracked, laughing as his can met Robert's in its salute.
"She's still my mum, cunt. And you love her, so drop whatever this attitude is. I'm pissed off enough for both of us. I just don't get what's wrong with... we're fine on our own, me and her. He fucked off. He made her cry, I remember it, all the time. I cheered her up and now what, Robert?"
Another glance at Robert, who looked deep in thought, staring at the can between his hands, hands between his outstretched legs.
"I don't know Aaron. Maybe she needs something more."
A look, almost accusatory, but so fond, and one Aaron would become very used to. He blushed under the intensity of it, turning his attention to his own lager. The silent minutes stretched.
"You wanna hear what my mum found in my room the other day?" Robert perked up, eyes aflame, mischievous grin fixed.
Aaron exhaled a breath he didn't know he was holding, turned his head and inquired.
"That gay porn mag."
"The corner of the page wasn't down where I left it, shut up laughing!" Robert said with false offense.
"So yeah, between that and the lesbian porn I crippled the computer with because Limewire is shit, I reckon I'm in for a fun conversation when she corners me. Probably thinks I'm a sex addict."
"She'd be right. Can't believe you turn the corner of the pages of porn mags! Who does that? No bookmarks lying about?" Aaron laughed out. "Sarah's the best, you'll be right."
"Yeah, I know."
Jack went unspoken between them.
Aaron and Robert had both discovered Robert's attraction to the same sex at a house party the previous year, a shock to them both for vey different and very similar reasons. Aaron had walked in on Robert on the recieving end of a toothy blow from a lad neither of them even liked, and the giving end of a sloppy fingering of a girl who frankly embarrassed herself daily over Robert. They left together, obviously, Robert sobbing into Aaron's shoulder for understanding. And he did, only Robert didn't realize to what extent.
"You know, if you need it, you could probably come crash with us for a bit. You know mum loves you, called you a cherub once." Robert chanced with a quirk of his eyebrow.
"Get fucked." Aaron laughed out, letting the quiet grow as he finished his lager, knowing their night was coming to an end.
"It'll be fine, I'll deal with it," he sighed. "He'll mess up before long anyway I reckon"."
A swelling silence grew, and it continued to grow, until -
"You know I love you, yeah? Because I do, more than pretty much anything. I know it."
Robert was looking at him in that way, that way that told Aaron something was between them that was bigger than either of them knew how to admit.
It knocked the air out of him, because Robert didn't even realise it (didn't even look at him like he did Connor and whatever her name was and who knows who else?), and even if he did, what difference would it make? Robert, brilliant at college and life, the world and it's men and women at his feet and Aaron? Probably getting kicked out of school for fighting, and a man he so desperately had hoped was gone for good creeping back into his world, intensifying memories that already haunted him in the depths of night. So he swallowed it down.
"I know you're a pisshead, get me out of this barn yeah?"
Robert was a clever boy, and he grew into a clever man. The boy often saw his parents dance around each other, short sentences and shorter words, but he was just a boy then and his mother sent him to his room. He still heard everything, of course, but parents fight, right? Aaron's did, he said so.
But there was a difference between the fights he'd always heard as a boy, fights about money and the farm, fights about emptying the bins and leaving the toilet seat up, and the fight he heard as he left his bedroom that night, intending to get a sly revision snack.
"I will not have that in my house," Jack growled.
"What? Our son, Jack?"
"My son will not be that Sarah, my son will not be that in this house!"
Robert was halfway down the stairs when he heard his mother's voice ring clear.
"Then you leave, Jack. Leave this house, this marriage, and our children. You leave my son alone."
A door slammed, and Robert found himself in his kitchen with his mother. She held herself together long enough to ask what eggs he'd like for tea before it was broken, and they were clutching each other.
"Don't worry about any of this sweetheart," she whispered into his hair.
Robert wasn't Sarah's, he knew this. But he was, she had come into his life at an age where he couldn't know anything else, and so he didn't. And though the reason for the argument went unsaid for years, he knew, and he always believed he was the reason his father left him and his mother.
He texted Aaron.
Aaron was so angry, all the time, and he hated it. His mum tried with him, in her own way, but how much could she do when his furious brain told him her every gesture was an attack? He loved her though, his desire to fight against her at every opportunity constantly at war with his desire to see her happy.
It's not that he hated the idea, he loved the local vet Chas was seeing for a bit, he wished he'd stuck around. But Gordon came back and Paddy was gone, and she didn't realise why he was so angry. It's not like he could ever tell her, but surely she should be able to tell? But she couldn't, so he developed mechanisms to deal with it all.
He had Robert, he knew it, but for how much longer? It was selfish he knew but for the longest time it had just been the two of them, and then Robert had left him behind. And he knew it was nonsense, Robert still lived at the same farmhouse, they still saw each other every night. But it was as if there was a countdown timer in his head slowly but steadily working toward a point in time where Robert would fully leave, fully forget him, forget them, and it scared him more than he could put into words.
Robert didn't know. Sometimes he thought he might, thought that he saw the same love he felt for Robert reflected back at him, but nothing ever changed, and Robert never did a thing to change it. Robert would still go to his college, and to his parties, dicks down random bloke's throats and hands up random girl's skirts, and Aaron would always just be Aaron.
If he was just a bit braver he'd take the risk. Sometimes when he dreamed, he dreamt he'd cornered Robert and he'd told him the truth, and left the rest to fate. Robert would say he didn't know Aaron was into blokes (even though Aaron's utter disinterest in the opposite sex had been commented on by many of their peers, always dismissed in uncomfortable rage by Aaron). Robert would say he'd always hoped but hadn't wanted to ruin anything between them, and then they'd laugh and kiss and everything would be perfect.
But he wasn't brave, he was a closet case who was counting down the days until he was left all alone.
Alone with Gordon.
Chas reached for his hand, her other on her glass of whiskey.
"I hate you seeing him, mum."
A pregnant pause, before Chas painted on her smile.
"He's your dad, and it's casual. Do not worry yourself, you're still my number one boy. We're just talking, that's all."
Aaron didn't believe a word of it, but he was exhausted, the events of his day at school taking a toll mentally as well as physically. He wasn't even sure what the lad had said, he just knew that he'd gotten lippy and now his knuckles hurt. The loss of control terrified him. Normally he'd challenge his mum, point out that he knew she'd seen Gordon almost daily for the past month but he was just so tired. So he swallowed it down.
Aaron gave a nod of his head to satisfy his mum when his phone vibrated in his pocket, a quick glance at the screen confirming it was Robert.
"Nipping out for a bit, do we want owt or...?
"No love, just be back before eleven."
Aaron stood from the dining table in the backroom of the pub, grabbed his most threadbare hoody and left.
Chas watched him go, smile still affixed, then looked down at her glass when she heard the door slam shut.
Breaking the news that they were moving, she thought as her son went to meet his best friend, was going to be the worst thing she'd ever put her son through.
Little did she know how wrong she was.
Aaron found Robert kicking a tree, because he's stupid and always picking fights he can't win.
"You'll break your foot, div," he called out as he approached
Robert didn't look up, kept his forehead against the trunk, kicking like his feet deserved the punishment.
"Dad knows, I think. About me, not about the lads, or u... I think he knows I like lads sometimes."
Aaron nods, unsure of what to do with the information.
"They were shouting, Mum stuck up for me. She's leaving him, or kicking him out. I dunno. Somebody's going."
Robert's kicking paused, left leg held in suspension. He turned his head towards Aaron, cheek against bark.
"Is it that bad? Liking both, Aaron, is it? It just felt normal and now..." his eyes squeezed shut, tearless sobs wracking his whole body. Aaron was close by in a second.
"Dyu wanna know what I think? Honest to god what I think? I could lie, I've got both."
Robert opened his eyes and exhaled.
"What do you think? Honest to god?"
Aaron held his eyes with his own
"I think your dad's a dickhead and your mum's been holding on by her fingernails and 'im taking shots at you was the thing that finally broke her, you know it's been weird with them for ages now Rob....."
Aaron needed to look away from Robert's eyes, it was too much. But through stubbornness, or needing Robert to know he was there for him, or something, he kept his gaze.
"But it's not your fault, whatever happens. It's just not."
"Yup, Vic'll see that way. Andy and me.... we're old enough. Why does Vic have to go through this because I'm..."
Whatever Robert was, the unknown word, hung in the air between them, until Aaron finally had to break the gaze and look down at his feet.
Robert remained leaning against his enemy tree, eyes wet but focused. His thoughts, up to that moment a jumbled mess of self loathing and resentment, coalesced, a sudden peace and clarity formed that only Aaron ever seemed to bring to him. And suddenly he knew, suddenly a missing piece of some puzzle he never knew he was solving fell into place. He knew if it was ever going to happen, it had to be then. Pushing himself off the trunk with his right hand, he cupped Aaron's cheek with his left, gently pulling Aaron's head back up and closer to his own.
"I love you. I know it."
And before Aaron could reciprocate, before he could say those three words he felt more than anything, his best friend was kissing him.
It wasn't the first kiss of dreams, like they try to sell in the movies. It was sloppy and clumsy, and the longer it went on the sloppier and clumsier it got, but it was perfect.
Aaron was terrified.
Breaking the kiss with reluctance he pulled back, eyes looking anywhere but the face of the man who just gave him everything he wanted and everything he was scared of.
"I need to..." Aaron breathed, hand ironing his face, a face being infuriatingly warmed by his best friend's breath. "....Mum's expecting me back, so,"
He set off, a brisk walk that quickly evolved into a jog, not allowing himself to look back. If he looked back he'd go back, and if he went back he knew what would happen. It was all he wanted.
But this was Robert.
It was unfair, maybe, but he'd seen how Robert was. He wasn't going to become a statistic, not when the the one constant in his life was on the line. Robert was hurting, and he'd regret it anyway, and he couldn't put himself through Robert breaking him, breaking the friendship that meant the most to him.
But this was Robert. What if....
The jog became a flat out sprint, and later, when he curled himself on to his bed he realised he'd probably be running for the rest of his life.
Robert didn't know how long he'd stood stationary after Aaron had fled. Long enough for the tree to become his friend, he thought, a mirthless laugh accompanying the absent thought.
There's getting it wrong and there's getting it wrong and well, Sugden, you just destroyed the last good thing you had going for you aside from your mother. You just kissed your straight best friend and now you're alone, how's that working for you?
He'd been so sure, so sure, that whatever they were was bigger than the words they knew, and that if he just took the chance, he'd be rewarded. Aaron looked at him and he felt it, Aaron spoke to him and he felt it, that flutter in his stomach that was more than teenage hormones. But he'd got it wrong, so spectacularly wrong and now his one person, the one who got him, the one who was always just his, was gone. And who could blame him?
Aaron had kissed him back.
For just the briefest time, they were kissing, and it was incredible. Better than any of the nameless and faceless people he'd been with before. It hadn't been a chorus of angels or any stupid cliché like that, but it'd had been so much more.
He'd noticed Aaron before, of course he had. After the house party where he had let drunkeness and horniness come before discretion, after he'd cried his fear into Aaron's shoulder, he'd embraced his attraction to men, and eventually it didn't scare him. He knew he wasn't gay, he liked tits too much for that, he just didn't know what he was. That didn't scare him. He wasn't afraid of fancying the preening fashion victim from the boyband he saw on tv, he wasn't afraid of the flush he got when the new, fit professor joined his college and proceeded to make history an unbearable exercise in trying to keep focus.
He was only afraid of the fact that he was looking at his best friend differently.
Or was he? Suddenly, it was the past couple of years of their friendship that looked different.The fact that they often slept in the same bed when they stayed at each others houses, not even top and tail. How sometimes he woke up pressed into Aaron, stomach to back, mouth ghosting the crown of Aaron's head. How it was never uncomfortable later when they were both awake, just the two of them dozing and talking and entirely at peace. He'd just assumed that that's how it was for them, how it'd had always been but looking back, it was clear that they were different. That's not how it was for 'just good friends'.
He leant back against the tree, finally coming to terms with the fact that he had very likely not only loved Aaron, but been in love with Aaron for years. Was it one sided? He had to know.
With a determination he didn't quite know the source of, he set off toward the Woolpack.
Robert's mysterious determination had all but abandoned him by the time he found himself at the door to Aaron's house, hand poised to rap at the door.
In the gathering gloom of the encroaching night, he sensed he was at a crossroad. He could be brave. He could knock at the door and insist they have it out, all of it. The lingering looks, the ease of company. The kiss. They could have it out and Aaron might say what he wanted to hear, that he loved him and he wanted him and they'd kiss on the porch of the pub and then they'd be off, writing a new chapter in their book that they'd never seen coming.
He could be brave, and Aaron might break his heart, tell him that he'd got it all wrong. That he'd imagined the looks, that they were friends and that's all they would ever be. And Robert would be left standing on the porch of the pub, and all that would remain of them would be ruins, ashes and memories.
Or he could be a coward, walk away and hope that it would never come up. That they could brush it all under the carpet, write the kiss off as an emotional mistake, go back to what they were and remain that way forever. He'd never know what they could be, but he'd also never open himself up to the hurt of having his hope extinguished.
He turned on his heels and walked away into the night.