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This Time Imperfect

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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.

***

March 2010:

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."

"Okay bu..."

"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.

"Love?"

"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?

And yet.

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.

Chapter Text

April 2010:

Aaron was at his wits end.

He hadn't spoken to Robert since the night they kissed, a month and more ago, and it was killing him. They'd never gone this long without talking, not even close, and matters weren't helped by the sardine can village they lived in.

They were bumping into each other everywhere, in the case of the café incident as Aaron began to inwardly refer to it very literally (Americano all down the front of one of Robert's poncier shirts and god, how it hurt that they couldn't laugh about it). As the days stretched into weeks the predicament he found himself in became more and more unbearable, and yet, as his thumb hovered over Robert's name in his contacts list, he found himself unable to make the first move.

Part of it was fear; Aaron was a lot of things but he was no fool, and he was perfectly aware of how scared he was of the prospect of having to confront what happened. He imagined all of the conversations they could have.

What if Robert turned around and claimed the whole thing was a huge mistake? That he only saw Aaron as a friend, that he didn't want things to be different between them? Aaron wasn't sure he could go back, not now he'd had a taste of having Robert in the way he'd wanted him for so long. What if he did say he wanted something more? Their friendship was the most precious possession he had, the thought of losing it if they took things further and it imploded was almost more than he could stand.

But how was this state of limbo any better?

Another part of it, however, was resentment. A voice in the back of his mind was growing ever louder, asking why Robert hadn't been the one to break this deadlock. He'd been the one to make a move in the first place after all, wasn't it his mess to clear up?

His train of thought was broken by the sound of the back door of the pub opening and closing, his mother's cackle carrying through the interior door to the backroom. Huffing himself off the sofa, he prepared to make himself scarce. Nobody would ever accuse Chastity Dingle of being the most observant parent but she'd noticed the strange absence of Robert after a few days, and the constant needling for information was making a terrible situation worse. Plus, there was the Gordon of it all.

Aaron was between a rock and a hard place, and he was slowly being crushed.

"Oh there's my sweet, sweet boy!" Chas half sang, half slurred as she entered the room, Charity following. She grasped his face between her hands as he attempted to move past her and he'd never wanted her to be near him less.

"Babe, let's get you upstairs yeah?" Charity said, steering Chas by the shoulders back out of the room. As she left she turned her head back over toward Aaron.

"You. You stay there.".

Charity wasn't a high ranking member of the family, but he was even lower, so he did what he was told for once in his life.

 

***

 

Robert was at his wits end.

He'd fucked up his one credit, his one lifeline. And the truth of it was, he didn't know which way he'd fucked it up. Had he ruined his life by kissing Aaron in the first place, or had he ruined it by not knocking on his door?

He mostly hated how things had irreversibly changed between them now, and he had done that. The village is tiny enough but ever since he destroyed things it got smaller. Aaron coming out of the shop as he walked into the village, Aaron laughing with his uncle at the garage as he learned how to be a man.

He didn't even get so much as smirk when they'd inadvertently bumped into each other in the café, in a moment Robert had inwardly began to call the coffee fuck up.

He had other shirts, would Aaron understand?

He buried himself further into the couch.

"Legs up, me and you are going to have a chat."

Sarah took her seat as her son lifted his lower legs to accommodate her. She sipped her tea and waited for Robert to start a conversation she'd been preparing for for years.

 

***

 

Aaron was sat clutching a beer when Charity re-entered the room, eyeballing him from the off.

"You're really going to make your mam choose?"

"Shouldn't be a choice."

"And yet, here you are."

Aaron sniffed a laugh, and thought.

"Where's Robert? Barely seen you two apart since you were in nappies and now it's been what? A month?"

Aaron said nothing. Charity took a seat.

"She knows something's happened."

"But that's the thing, she doesn't know anything at all."

Charity considered Aaron, and took his hand across the table.

"You don't tell her anything babe. You can tell me, if it's any easier."

Aaron thumbed his nose, willing himself to not cry even as he physically felt himself crack.

"I love him. I love him and it's ruined now."

 

***

"You're a special lad, Robert." Sarah said as she broke the deadlock, unwilling to push him but unable to sit in silence with her hurt son any longer

"Cheers, you'll be sending me to uni with a helmet."

"You and Aaron had a falling out?"

"Managed to notice that did you? Between yelling at dad and making sure Andy and Vic are okay I'm surprised you care."

Sarah wasn't a stranger to Robert's vicious tongue, she'd talked Victoria down from the attic enough times after Robert had her caught her snooping in his room and unleased it on her after all. Still, he'd always known better than to turn it on her, so this was a development she was quite unready for. She swallowed it and squeezed his calf.

"Robert..."

"Sarah."

Neither of them could remember a time he'd called her anything other as mum. As the deathly silence hung, Robert knew he'd taken it too far. And he cried.

"Sorry mum." he said, sitting up to bury himself in the crook of her shoulder.

"It's okay sweetheart. Just tell me. It'll go no further, you can trust me." her soothing words punctuated be her stroking his hair.

And he did tell her, how he was in love with his best friend, and how he'd done something about it, and how his best friend had run away.

"It's a good thing, sweetness. I've been waiting for you boys to catch up for years."

Robert managed to choke out a laugh.

"You could've told me it'd hurt like this, mum."

"No love. It's something you need to feel unfortunately. But I'll tell you how to fix it if you'd like?"

 

***

 

"What are you crying about you daft sod?" Charity said as she scooted closer, chair legs most likely ruining the carpet as she did. Fuck it, she hadn't paid for it. "Anybody with eyes could see it was just a matter of time for you two, it's about frigging time you caught up."

Charity Dingle was a woman of many talents but unfortunately, tact was out of her reach.

Aaron bolted away as she began to stroke his arm, getting himself to the doorway to the hallway in some kind of record time.

"And that means what? That you've all just been waiting? For weird Aaron to muck up?"

"Babe no...."

"You ever heard about how uncle Zak and Shadrach talk about two blokes? You ever heard what they say they'd do if a shirt lifter was near them?"

"Well first off, stop listening to what those knackered old drunks say about anything. The family's bigger than those two and I promise you, Aaron, we'll listen to whatever it is you need to say."

"Proper easy for you to say that though isn't it? Worst you get is a clip around the ear for getting arrested again, this is different."

Charity paused for a second, then made her choice.

"Your uncle Zak caught me eating out that new vet last week."

"PADDY?!" Aaron exclaimed, horrified.

"No you complete prat, Vanessa! That's what the family meeting was about last week. He caught me and well, I couldn't exactly make an excuse when I was practically flossing with her pubes could I?"

Aaron winced. Definitely gay, she thought.

"What about Cain?"

"What about him? He hasn't flossed with me in a long time. I like both, Aaron. Always have. Bisexual, I suppose. Does that sound like you?"

Aaron shook his head minutely.

"You just like blokes yeah?" she said, slowly closing the distance between them.

Aaron nodded.

"Bit stupid. You really like Robert?"

Aaron nodded again.

"Definitely stupid.

Aaron gave a wet laugh as Charity pulled him into a headlock and leaned in to whisper in his ear.

"Just say those words and I promise you it'll be better, babe. Nobody'll touch you while I'm breathing."

Aaron sniffed and nodded as the landline rang.

Charity extricated herself from Aaron and answered.

"Alright Sarah! Speak of devil and all that...."

 

***

So Aaron found himself up at the Sugden farm the next day.

Sarah had told Charity she was struggling with the work now Jack had left, she'd wondered if Aaron would be up for earning a bit of brass. He knew Robert wouldn't be there, Robert's love for his mother didn't often extend to shovelling horse shit, and truthfully, Aaron would never say no to Sarah regardless. So he'd popped in to the farm house for a cup of tea at 4pm, tried to ignore how weird she'd been with him (god Robert must've said the worst, she hates me), then left for the barn in the north field after recieving her instruction.

He opened the barn door, shovel in hand, and promptly dropped it.

Robert was stood in the centre of the structure, in a poorly fitted suit that had probably been handed down through generations. He looked ridiculous, and utterly amazing. There was a small round table with two chairs and a wicker basket, full of food. Breads and cheeses and meats and Aaron had never felt like eating less in his whole life.

 

***

 

Robert exhaled a breath he felt he'd been holding since Sarah had told him her plan at the sight of Aaron before him.

He loved him, loved him the way his favourite authors wrote about. He pulled out the chair closest to him.

"Wanna talk?"

Chapter Text

"Wanna talk? You've ignored me for a month and I've nee... talk?! Fuck off, Robert"

"I've ignored you?! Sorry, who was it that ran after we kissed?

 

***

 

Sarah winced as she peeled her ear from the barn door. When she'd told her boy he needed to corner Aaron, to be honest and talk she thought he'd have just a little more tact about him bu-

-the barn door swung open, Sarah pulled herself away to the exterior barn wall just in time to avoid a broken nose, and also to catch an irate Aaron round the middle as he attempted to storm away. She held him close as he struggled.

"Aaron sweetheart, he's not cut out for this but he wants to try! Give him the chance, cherub." And she pulled Aaron into the crook of her neck.

Aaron briefly pressed himself into Sarah's embrace before he pulled away, wiping his nose with the sleeve of his hoodie, unable to look her in the eye.

"Whatever Mrs Sugden. You were well off with me earlier." Aaron said, scrubbing his eyes

And she had been, not to make him feel bad or unwanted of course. She just didn't want him to be suspicious. But her heart broke all the same, thinking she'd made him think she was mad at him. She pulled Aaron back in to a hug, pressing a kiss to the top of his head.

"I've adored you since the day I met you, and I'm sorry you I made you feel otherwise."

Another kiss, letting him know everything was okay while he was on her soil. He was still gripping her so tight.

"But Robert has missed you so much, so maybe hear what he has to say before you run away, yes? We both know he's a big clumsy fool, but he tries not to stumble around you. He's trying not to stumble this time."

Aaron looked up at her, and Sarah nodded, smiling, and gave him a wink. Aaron buried himself back into the hug.

"Piss off somewhere though Mrs Sugden, I'm not doing this with you earwigging." he mumbled into her heavy coat.

Sarah stopped smoothing his hair to tap him on his head for swearing, before pushing him back to survey him at arms length, looking at him in the eye.

"I'll go. But really try to listen to what he's saying, because it's hard for him and he means it. And it's Sarah to you, you know that."

Aaron nodded before flinching, as if making a move his body instantly reconsidered. Then he looked at her face, reached up, and kissed her on the cheek for the briefest second, before re-entering the barn, closing the door behind him.

Sarah paused for a second, stroked her cheek, stroked the barn door, then swung her leg over her quad bike.

She rode into the village. She needed to see Chas.

***

 

Robert was sat at the table, head in his hands.

Wanna talk?

He'd had all the extravagant sentences in his head when his mum dropped him off at the barn. He'd had all the explanations in his mouth for the picnic basket (he'd tried to take Aaron for a picnic once before under very different circumstances and suffice to say did that not go well).

All the lines he'd used on the nothing hers and all the things he'd said to the forgotten hims were on the tip of his tongue at all times, but Aaron wasn't that, Aaron was real, and then Aaron was stood before him and suddenly there was nothing in his head.

Wanna talk?

He could kick himself. He was, mentally. He thought back to that conversation he'd had with his mother the previous night. Where she'd stroked his hair and listened, and they'd never come up with a word for what he was feeling but she understood all the same. Then she gave him a plan to fix things.

***

"Robert, anything worth having in this life is worth fighting for" Sarah had said the night he confessed all.

"You fought for Dad?" he'd replied, neither from hope or expectation. He just wanted to know.

"I've been fighting for a long time, sweetness. I'm old enough to know to wave a white flag in response to a red one."

Her last sentence was lost on him for some time.

"Now what's Aaron's phone number again?"

 

***

 

He remembered his mum's words, clenched his fists and went to sling the barn door open, only to be beaten to the punch by Aaron, who flung himself inside, closing the door and crashing against Robert in the process.

 

***

 

Aaron found himself pressed against Robert, hands somehow clutching the lapels of his shit suit, eyes upturned meeting Robert's downward gaze. They were so close together space meant nothing, and all the words Aaron had had in his head were lost because Robert was right there, his breath was right there blowing in his face, so he said the first words that were on his tongue.

"Wanna ta-"

"No."

Robert cut him off with a kiss that he's fairly sure would've knocked him out if he hadn't had lapels to hold on to. Where the first kiss had been a perfect mess, tongue and mouth and saliva and fear all over, this was controlled. It was a question, and as Aaron pulled Robert in closer, they both knew it was a question that had been answered years ago.

He pushed Robert back, and Robert slowly pulled him down to the barn floor as he did, and he found himself on top of his best friend, kissing him in a way he didn't know he had in him. He was soon harder than he'd ever been in his life and he had no idea what to do with it, so he pushed into Robert's groin, and was more than a bit furious when Robert shoved him off.

He propped himself up on his elbow, bit his lip, and looked over to his left-hand side expecting to see regret. Fear. Disgust even, maybe, only to see Robert flat on his back, dazed and staring at the ceiling, hair a mess and laughing, hand stroking down the front of the old shirt that had become untucked. His hand stopped at his crotch, a visible bulge there that made Aaron's senses go haywire.

Aaron realised he'd caused Robert to be like this, and he found that he wasn't scared of it. Not right here and now.

Robert turned his head to look at him and slowed his laughing, slowing further to a chuckle until he stopped at merely deep breaths.

"We were meant to talk," he said, removing his hand from his dick to instead scratch back up his body.

Aaron started laughing in response, the brief confrontation with the deepest shame in his mind (am I gay/I'm gay) offset by the utter perfection of this moment.

"If I'd known all it took to shut you up was a snog I'd have done it ages ago," he lied, he'd never have been brave enough.

Robert turned his head and considered him.

"You should've," Robert breathed, pushing Aaron back down so he was looming over him, chest to chest. "We both know I talk too much."

And Robert leaned down close to kiss him in a way that, in memory, in the years that were to follow, kept him tethered to reality.

 

***

 

Sarah strolled into the Woolpack, proud of her achievements.

Things had been hard, these past few weeks since she'd told Jack to leave. She was capable at the farm, more than, she knew this. But it was insurmountable work, and though she was loathe to admit it even to herself, Jack was born to be a farmer, and their adopted son was made in his image, so losing him and Andy both took its toll. And god, she missed her Andy.

Different than Robert, Andy was, very much taken in by the farm from the day he'd come over to play with Robert all those years ago. And they'd gotten along so well back then.

He'd chosen to go with Jack in the end, they were so similar after all. She tried not think of it, or of how her ex-husband hadn't demanded Robert or Victoria, or their time. They were with her.

"What can I get you, on the house, my most beautiful costumer of the night!" said Bob from the behind the bar, towel slung over his shoulder while tossing a pint glass between his hands, looking very much the stereotype of the working man's bar steward.

"No thank you Bob, I'm actually looking for Chas," she said with a polite smile.

"Well through to the back you go my love!" said Bob, with a flourish of the towel.

Sarah made her way through to behind the bar, passing the new local, Diane. New owner of the village b&b apparently, she'd been seen with Jack a few times around the area if gossip was to believed.

God help her, Sarah thought. Maybe god would, but Sarah wouldn't, so she passed without a word.

Sarah paused outside the door to the living area.

"No Gordon I am not putting it off! I know we have to tell him! N-n-no I know it's something I have to tell him sooner or later but just give me time! Because I can't just drop it on him that we're pissing off to London! O-okay, love you. Bye".

 

***

 

Aaron looked up at his best friend. Boyfriend maybe, although that word made something in his gut twist. He hadn't said the words yet, he couldn't have a boyfriend. His brain didn't know what was going on, evidently, but it rarely did. All he knew was that he'd spent the better part of an hour being kissed (and more, not much more, but enough) beyond sense by the sprawling mass of blonde and limbs beside him, and he was uninhibited.

Aaron shifted to his side, resting his head on his elbow.

"Have we ruined everything?" he said quietly.

"Only if it stops" Robert said, still blissfully flat on his back, annoyingly vague. "Do you want it to?"

"Not ever" Aaron said, the most honest he'd ever been in his short life.

Robert sucked in a great breath, then turned his head to face Aaron. With that smile.

"Then we haven't. Because it won't. Because we're forever, you and me. No matter what."

They kissed again, and it was easy and perfect.

But they never actually talked.

 

***

 

"You're leaving him to go where?" Sarah said, knowing full well she already knew the truth.

Chas snapped her head to the door, "Sarah! Drink love?"

Sarah held her gaze.

"I'm not leaving him, Sarah" Chas said, and to her credit she looked sad.

Chas grabbed a glass and poured a generous measure of whiskey before tilting the bottle, offering it to Sarah, who shook her head in decline. Chas looked at her in the eye.

"Me and Gordon are taking Aaron to London in a month."

Chapter Text

Robert returned home around ten, hair askew and suit in some state of distress, grinning from ear to ear. He sandwiched himself between Sarah and Victoria on the three seater sofa, dipped his hands into the bowl of popcorn his sister was sat with and ate, and Sarah felt a rush of love she'd only known since Robert had come into her life, since she'd had Victoria, since she'd decided Andy was hers.

Robert lent leftwards into his mother.

"Thank you mum," he whispered, and he pressed a kiss to her cheek.

"So I take it tonight went well?" Sarah replied, grinning at her boy with an eyebrow raised.

Robert's own rose with his ever widening smile.

"Could say that mam."

Victoria surveyed the scene from her end of the sofa, and decided she wasn't having any of it.

"Has he copped off again because I swear down, I am not having one of them snooty White's showing up here again trying to break the door down because he-" and she kicked him, sisterly but still, a kick- "can't keep it in his boxers!"

Robert scooted over to her end of the couch and nuzzled her cheek with his nose.

"Little sister, you will be thrilled to know that I am officially, as of this day, off the market. A taken man. Tied down."

"Well I'm sure the hundreds of parents of daughters all over Yorkshire that you've charmed before will be thrilled but I'll believe it when I see it" Victoria scoffed, shoving him back over to their chuckling mother.

Robert adored his sister, the only person he'd loved longer was sat to his other side, but sometimes he wondered if he liked her. This counted as one of those times. He drilled himself back into Sarah's side, smiled, and took out his phone.

 

***

 

If Robert left the barn that evening in a state of disarray, Aaron left it a shambles.

He was happy, god was he happy. His lips were sore and he was picking hay out of his hair and he was happy. He felt good about things that he'd only ever felt ashamed about, if he'd ever acknowledged the feelings at all, and he knew that was because it was Robert who was with him. It was meant to be Robert.

But there was a loud, annoying voice in his brain that was telling him he hadn't done it right.

There was always some voice in his head, sometimes it was his, or Robert's, and he loved those. Sometimes it was his mum, or Sarah, and he mostly loved those too. Sometimes it was an echo of what Gordon had said to him before he left, but he's gotten good at shutting that voice out no matter how loud it gets.

Tonight it's Charity's voice.

"Just say those words and I promise you it'll be better."

Part of him believed it, is the thing. Especially now, after the evening he'd just had. He could tell Robert at least? Sarah probably, it's not like she didn't know. His mum was out of the question, she'd just tell him. And he was the last person he wanted to let into his life. Before he knew it he was home, leaning back against the door.

***

"Aaron?"

Charity came hustling through the door to the backroom, eyes wide and Aaron knew what she was after, and he couldn't suppress the grin that came to him staring back at her eager face.

"Take it Sarah's fix up did the job then?" she smirked, leaning against the doorframe opposite him. "See I know that look anywhere. Cat that got the cream. So to speak." she winked, and Aaron winced, not at the implication as such, more at who it came from.

"M'off to bed, night." He said, starting the ascent to his room.

"Oh come on! I've been waiting on pins and needles all day! Just give me something at least!"

Aaron halted, turned back to face her at the bottom of the stairs and sighed. One day he'd get a handle on the whole saying no to his family thing.

"We made up," (his grin gave him away, he knew by the look on Charity's face. He found to his surprise he wasn't all that embarrassed) "it was a great night. And now I'm knackered so..."

"I bet," Charity said with that smirk again, and yeah, now he felt embarrassed. "I'm happy for you babe, anybody deserves some happiness it's you." And she hugged him, and in what was turning out to be a night full of surprises, he hugged her back.

"I'm... I'm gay." he said, grinning into her shoulder. And she squeezed him tighter. He broke away eventually and fixed her with a glare. "It stays between us though because I can't deal-"

"Does it feel better?"

"Feels alright. Keep your trap shut though, gob on legs."

"You know I will, you rude little bastard" Charity said, slapping his cheek a little too hard for family, before walking away.

Aaron wasn't exactly sure why he trusted her with this, considering she nicked his birthday money once for a haircut she absolutely had to have, she insisted, but he did. As he flopped on his bed he recalled what he'd done this night and grinned, wider than he'd ever, that was until his phone buzzed in his pocket.

*Fancy tea at ours tomorrow? Mam says you can stay if you fancy it* - Rob

*Ring me dickhead* - Aaron

He laughed as the Robert's call came through almost instantly.

"So?" What you doing?"

"Bed, you?"

"Is that right? Me too." Aaron felt the blush spread, well, everywhere. He still had some things to think about, seemingly. "So we on for tomorrow or are you going to break mum's heart?"

"I'll be there."

"And?"

Aaron thought for a second.

"I'll stay."

 

***

 

Sarah sent Robert bounding off to bed. She could give her son something, she had to. Seeing him beaming when he'd come home that night made her happier than she could say yet, there was a constant ache at what she knew was to come. So she endeavoured to make the few weeks they had left together perfect.

Robert would know before long anyway, Chas had sworn to her that night she was going to tell Aaron and well, anything Aaron knows Robert would know soon after. But she was furious, and felt more than a little guilty at keeping this secret in the face of her son's glee. She thought back to her conversation with Chas.

 

~

 

"London? You're going to uproot that lad to London?"

"There's a pub opening down there, steward and stewardess like..." Chas replied, clutching her whiskey glass, avoiding Sarah's insistent gaze. "It's a new start, Sarah."

"You had that when you and Gordon split."

"Oh get off your high horse, Sarah! Are you telling me you wouldn't take Jack back if he'd changed? Are you telling me you wouldn't do anything to make it work if he promised you it would?"

"At the expense of my children? No. Does Aaron know you're back together?"

"He thinks he does."

"There's a reason you haven't told him."

Chas drained her glass, then poured another.

"You know what our Aaron's like. His temper. I just needed time, that's all."

"He can live with us. Chas, let Aaron stay. Why move him when he's settled?"

Chas snorted.

"Look at the last kid you took in. Andy's with Jack, isn't he he? Aaron's coming with us, end of."

"What about Robert?"

Chas shifted in her seat and took a deep drink.

"He can visit. It's London, not Australia."

"They're going to be crushed, you know what they're like. Hardly spent a day apart since Aaron was born."

Chas met Sarah's stare.

"They'll make new friends."

 

~

 

"Went the full day today then?" Robert said as Aaron departed the bus. Aaron had to smile at the sight of Robert leaning against the bus stop.

"Can't all be part timers, bit weird you stalking me like this though."

Robert had met Aaron at his stop many times, but this, now, felt different. It was different, they knew it. Robert nodded toward the pavilion, and Aaron knew what it meant. He was there before Robert was.

"We still on for tonight then?" Robert breathed up his neck, Aaron against the wall and struggling to keep himself together.

"'course" Aaron strangled out, pulling at Robert's hair to get his attention, to move his lips to his. Robert obliged.

"Still staying the night or..." Robert said between kisses that left Aaron legless, all he could do was nod.

Aaron finally pushed Robert away as the latters hands went roaming further south than he could deal with.

The thing was, he wanted to. He wanted to know, god knows his body did. But Robert had experience. How could he match up? He just had to be honest, or honest adjacent. Luckily, Robert beat him to it.

"Sorry," Robert said, panting heavily, forehead pressed to Aaron's. "It's just, now we're..."

"I don't think I'm ready yet."

Robert grasped Aaron's face with both hands and nodded against his forehead.

"We can wait. It's not as if we're going anywhere," Robert breathed against his lips, and Aaron kissed them in return. "You're still sleeping over though?"

Aaron looked down, thought to the countless sleepovers they'd had over the years and wondered if Robert was expecting more. Robert read his face.

"Just sleep, like always, if you want. Or if you want to go home mum'll drive you. But I want you to stay."

Aaron pressed a kiss.

"I'll stay."

 

***

 

Sarah had outdone herself, if she did say so herself. Aaron had demolished the roast, made her blush saying he'd have to take her recipe, and as she excused herself she thought maybe her boys would survive the distance coming. The fact was, she'd never seen her son happier than when he was sat side by side with Aaron in this moment, occasionally nudging him, sharing looks only they knew the meaning of. By dessert, they were holding hands under the table, and that was when she knew she had an exit to make.

"Well boys, it's far past my bedtime. Leave the washing up, I'll sort it in the morning." She kissed them both, then left them to it. It'd been a good night, one she was glad she'd given them.

 

***

 

The thing was.

The thing was, Robert turned Aaron on constantly, and now they were officially whatever they were, he just wasn't sure what to do with it. He wasn't sure he was ready to do anything with it, is the thing. Because it's Robert. And he's, well, him.

Robert was doing the dishes, he wouldn't have left them for Sarah despite what she said, and Aaron was thinking. He looked at the wide shoulders moving under the sweater, he'd seen them bare before. Why was it driving him crazy now?

Was it that he wasn't ready, or just his brain telling him he wasn't? He'd loved Robert for as long as he could remember loving anybody, Robert was the first person he'd wanted when he started wanting someone. What was keeping him from making that step?

"Oi Aaron" came Robert's voice from a distance, "think I cracked this plate?"

Aaron was shook from his reverie and went to Robert by the sink, where he received a substantial amount of soap suds to the face.

"You're stressing out, and it's stressing me out, so stop it off." Robert said quietly as he wiped Aaron's eyes, then kissed his lips.

"I'm not stressing out," Aaron bit out, wiping his face, clearly stressed. "It's just been a long day and your mam made enough food for an army and I'm knackered so....."

"So...." Robert stopped doing the dishes and turned his full attention to Aaron, which didn't help.

"So it's late, so we should get the blankets out. For me, for the couch. You know." Aaron looked at his feet.

"You've slept in my bed every time you've slept over for years, now you're taking the sofa?" Robert's stare was piercing and frankly, too knowing. "What's that all about?"

"Just different now in innit." Aaron was still finding his footwear too interesting, as they scuffed the floor. "Me and you."

Aaron felt a hand under his chin, strong but gentle, raising his face so his they were eye to eye.

"I'm not ready for it either, you know. Not with you. I won't ever push you, I won't. But I know I won't sleep with you in the house but on the sofa, so cmon. Bed, same as always."

And that night they slept, not top and tail as in the past, and as morning came very tangled, but they slept.

And it was as good a nights sleep either of them had had in a very long time.

And it was the last time Aaron slept at Robert's house.

Chapter Text

Sarah woke with birds, quite literally, and felt uneasy.

The previous night's dinner was meant to be some kind of send off, something for her son to look back on fondly when years had passed and Aaron was nothing but a memory. But seeing them the previous night, all big eyed and jokes only they knew and entwined under the table where they thought she couldn't see, seeing their shy faces when she said she was going to bed.

She had to try again. So at half past six that morning she dressed, had a quick cup of tea, swung her leg over the quad and rode into the village.

 

***

 

Robert woke an hour after Sarah had left the house unbeknownst to him, warm and comfortable with Aaron pressed against his chest.

He was also stiff as a brick.

This wasn't the first time he and Aaron had shared a bed, hell it wasn't even the first time he'd woke up in bed with Aaron and morning glory. But it was different then, then he could tell himself he was dreaming of the her or him that he'd been with most recently, go to the bathroom to sort himself out, and get back to sleep. But now.....

His body stiffened as Aaron stirred, and he prayed to gods he didn't believe in that this would pass and he'd get away with it.

"Rob?"

Swearing that he'd never go to church again, he took a deep breath and pretended to wake up. The radio silence from Aaron worried him, so he took the only option open to him.

"I'm sorry, can't really control it." he said, then slapped a hand against his forehead because what does that even mean? "Or you're just.... dreaming....? "

Aaron shifted around in his arms to face him, looking thoughtful.

"Robert it's fine," he breathed, mouth and face and body millimetres away from Roberts, their combined heat creating an inferno under Robert's thick duvet. "I'm still not ready for that though."

Aaron looked Robert straight in the eyes and Robert could've died, he was so embarrassed.

"No I know and I'm so sorry, it wasn't intentional," he coughed out, and to his surprise Aaron laughed, then glanced down under the duvet.

"Might not be ready for everything but," and he took Robert in hand under the cover. "I'm ready for something."

Roberts brain was begging him to pull away, to get out of bed, to ask if Aaron was really sure. But as he felt Aaron bite down a bit too harshly on his collarbone he knew the question was redundant, and as he grasped Aaron reciprocally they both gasped, and a line was crossed between them.

 

***

 

Sarah arrived at the Woolpack to Gordon Livesy, a man she hadn't seen in years, packing boxes into a van.

"Alright Sarah love?" he called, and she ignored him, as she shouldered the doors of the pub open to Chas handing the keys over to Jack's new woman. Right now she couldn't care less.

"I thought you were going to tell him." Sarah said, staring holes into the back of Chas's head.

Chas offered an apology to Diane, faced Sarah and smiled a smile that didn't reach anything on her face.

"Gordon thought it'd be better to just do it. The new pubs ready for us to move into, no point sticking around."

"Let him stay Chas, I promise I'll look after him. Don't do this to them." Sarah begged, and she caught Chas's eye, and saw something. Something that when all was said done granted forgiveness.

"He's already on his way here, I called him fifteen minutes ago."

Chas gave Sarah a look.

"He's my son, he's coming with me."

Sarah stared at Chas, unable to articulate what she was thinking. And then she thought of Robert, and a plan formed at once. She ran out to the front of the pub where her bike was, Chas on her heels.

"Don't you dare!" Chas warned.

"I'll look after my boys whatever the cost, it's a shame you can't say the same." Sarah spat, closing the visor on her helmet and speeding away.

***

 

Robert revelled in Aaron's body that morning like it was his first time. It wasn't, by a long shot, but seeing his best friend laid bare for him, touching him and being touched, it might as well have been. When Aaron's phone rang the first time he batted it away, to busy exploring his newly conquered land, Aaron all too willing let him. But as the calls went on Aaron grew more and more annoyed, both with the calls and Robert telling him to ignore them. So he answered the fifth, his mother telling him to come home immediately, and he did.

Aaron dressed as Robert lounged in bed, well aware he was being watched and almost set aflame from the intensity and yet, he'd crossed a line that morning, they'd crossed a line. He'd done something with a man, not just a man but a man he'd loved all of his life and he felt amazing. The voice that always lived in his head was shaming him but it was quiet, so quiet he could barely hear it, and as he lent back over the bed to kiss Robert goodbye ("for now") he knew this was what he was supposed to be, and Robert was who he was supposed to be it with.

He let himself out of the Sugden farmhouse with a smile that threatened to break his face, and made his way back to the village over the fields, trespass maybe but he knew Sarah wouldn't mind and besides, he had to get home.

 

***

 

Robert laid in bed, absentmindedly stroking up and down his body. This morning with Aaron had been incredible, better than. He'd gone further with countless lads and lasses, he wasn't proud of the vast majority but god, he was of this one. He reclined even further, intending on sleep when his mum's voice rang from downstairs.

"Aaron? Aaron? Robert?"

"Mum? What's up?" Robert was confused and on a level he didn't understand, scared.

His mum burst through his bedroom door, and he scrambled to cover his body, and on any other day she'd have rolled her eyes and said it's nothing she hasn't seen before and he'd have died of embarrassment, but today she just looked wildly around the room, not seeing him, before dashing to the bathroom.

"Aaron!" She yelled again. Robert was sure he didn't want to know what was coming but he answered her anyway.

"Mum! He went home ages ago, Chas told him to."

Sarah flew back into the bedroom.

"Get dressed love, now."

And Robert did, immediately, and got on the bike when she told him to even though she never took him on the quad, not ever. He was too confused to question why she was speeding into the village, too scared to ask what Aaron had done.

The bike broke down as they entered the village proper and Sarah let out a string of words he'd never heard her say before. She grabbed his face and told him to run to the Woolpack. He did as she said, without question, and what he saw as he rounded the corner to come into view of the pub never left him.

Multiple trucks moving off in a row. He saw Charity and Chas hug, then Chas hand Jack's new piece Diane something, before she lent into the right back seat window. He knew who she was talking to. Robert started to run. He saw Chas get into the passenger side door, and the car pulled away following the vans. Robert ran like he'd never ran before, he ran until he thought his heart was going to burst, but the car was soon lost to his view and he collapsed, partly out of lack of breath and partly out of tears, at a layby, open fields on either side of him, he'd never felt more suffocated.

He was knelt in the middle of the road, cars were honking at him to move but he just didn't hear them. He didn't hear his mum finally catch up to him, falling into a hug he didn't reciprocate, having received a lift from Charity. He didn't see how Charity, a usually hard faced woman you wouldn't ever cross if you were smart, looked at him softly and called him babe, offered him a free pint back home. He didn't feel anything for a long long time. Years in fact.

Aaron was gone and he didn't even tell him. He never forgave himself for not running faster.

Chapter Text

December 2010

 

Sarah and Charity had become close after Chas had left the village. Charity wasn't a woman Sarah had ever got along with in the years gone by, she was loud and lazy and left a trail of destruction everywhere she went, but she saw Charity's fondess for her son the day she scooped him from the layby and tenderly walked him back to the village, offering a pint and words, and well, any friend of Robert's is a friend of hers. So these days, she often found herself propping up the bar, most times without a drink, talking. And she needed somebody to talk to, because Robert was so far away.

Charity set a pint before her.

"Is he still not talking?" Charity asked, ignoring the bloke behind her who'd been trying to catch her eye, if not more, all night.

"Talking? He's not been out of his room for four days." Sarah took a deep drink. "You've not heard anything from Chas? You don't have to tell me where he is but...."

Charity shook her head, and Sarah knew she was telling the truth, there'd been nothing. She remembered Gordon of old. Charming, in a slimy way. But controlling. They went home when he said they did, Chas had had too many halves when he said she did. Aaron was spending too much time with Robert when he said he was, but Sarah had seen to that.

She missed her Aaron.

"Robert's found nothing online then?"

Sarah shook her head into her pint.

"He says Aaron's not one for facebook or whatever and well....." Sarah swiped her suddenly wet eyes. Charity stroked the wrist grasping the glass.

"His number was blocked. Second day after they took him, Robert'd been trying to call and it was just voicemail and then he was blocked. I've barely seen him since. He won't open the door for me."

And Sarah buried her face into the crook of her elbow for just a second.

"Ba-GIVE ME A MINUTE!" she yelled at some customer who'd surely not be back, before turning back to Sarah "babe if I knew anything..…. Aaron talked to me and god, he loved your lad."

Sarah nodded before draining the last of the glass.

"I need to get back, but thank you Charity."

"I can ask Cain to put the word about!" Charity flailed, "you Sugdens know there's thousands of us Dingle's about, somebody's bound to run into our Chas eventually."

"I don't think Chas is the issue here, do you?" Sarah said, and Charity knew what she meant.

 

*

 

Chas sat nursing a bottle of whisky in her hands. Things had gone so south so fast after the move. She'd barely seen her boy, Aaron holed up in his room, a threadbare thing above a threadbare pub that made her long for the warmth of the Woolpack. But she couldn't go back up there, she'd given the family enough shit when they'd protested her leaving.

For him.

Gordon crashed through the door from the pub, he'd taken liberties behind the bar again. Chas grasped the holdall on the floor beside her, carrying some clothes, a passport and pictures of her boy just a little bit tighter.

"l'riht love" he slurred, unsteady and unfocused but looking at her.

"Look after our Aaron, won't ya," she said, on the verge of sobbing, and sank her whisky.

They'd had another call from school that day, he'd picked a fight again.

"was just going up to see him actually," he replied. "Needs fixin that lad. YOU never did so." And he stumbled up the stairs.

Chas took a phantom drink from an empty glass and slipped out of the door into her freedom, not knowing what she was leaving her son to.

 

February 2011

Sarah came home to Robert packing a bag, telling her he was taking the car. He was sick of it, he said. He had to know. She told him London is a massive place and he said he didn't care. He walked out the door and came back a week later distraught, and he repeated the process, as soon as he could afford it, for six months before he gave up.

As Robert lost hope, Aaron laid in bed, punished again for something he didn't know he'd done, and wondered where his mum was. Wondered if Robert ever thought of him.

Chapter Text

March 13th 2019

 

***

 

"Robert! Timothy! Breakfast is on the table and it'll be gone in ten minutes so you decide if you want to eat!"

Robert kept his eyes closed, cursed his mother, and hoped Tim was still asleep with him (or more to the point, hoped that Tim still thought he was asleep) when a gentle prod at his left eye disabused him of that thought.

"Dad."

Silence.

Prod.

"Daddy."

Silence.

Prod to the eye, to the bridge of his nose. Robert kept it up as long as he could, snuggling himself back into the pillow of the same double bed he'd always occupied, had occupied when he was his son's age, letting an exaggerated snore escape his mouth. Tim settled his small self back down behind Robert's back, and Robert congratulated himself on another great deception. He'd buy all the unhealthy junk for him at Bob's later, chocolate croissant and fried eggs and well, whatever he was ordering himself. He just didn't fancy being up at - Robert cast a covert eye at the ancient alarm clock on his equally old bedside table - half past ten. Crap.

Prod

"Daaaaaaaaad."

Robert forced a smile onto his face, peaked the unpoked (at this point, he wondered, unbruised) eye open and looked at his boy.

"What did we talk about, squidge? You can go to nana anytime you want."

"She's scary." Tim replied in so small a voice, Robert's heart didn't so much clench as implode. He lifted the little chin under his forefinger until he was looking back into pale blue eyes

"We talked about this, nana Sarah's not scary." Well, she is, terrifying in fact. Just last week she had the local shop owner, Dennis or something, in near tears after he'd put the price of corn flakes up, but Timothy didn't need to know that. "She's not scary, she loves you. It's not like it was before anymore, okay? Okay?" Robert stared into the little boy's eyes until he finally got his nod. "So do me a favour and go ask your nan to make some pancakes, I promise she'll do it and" Robert dropped his voice to a private whisper "between you and me, if you tell her her overalls look nice she'll do extra for you."

"But she said breakfast was already ready," he said, face scrunched and confused, sitting on his knees on Robert's chest. He was always mistrustful of adults since it* happened, and it broke Robert's heart every time. "We don't need more."

Tim was inquisitive and smart and he knew it too, the ego of Robert liked to think that was his influence, relatively short as it was. But then he looked at the little five year old whose life had been upended in so many ways, and that ego deflated, every time.

"She also said it would be gone in ten minutes and sleepy daddy wasn't ready, so she'll be happy to make pancakes because it's new breakfast now," and before Robert let his little Sherlock work out that he must have been awake if he heard Sarah's (incredibly empty) threat, he hauled him out of bed and carried him over to the bedroom door. "Daddy has to do one little thing then he'll be down for pancakes, don't be scared okay?" and he held out his fist to be bumped, before setting him down.

Tim paused at the top of the stairs, glanced unsurely at his dad, before walking down, hand on the rail. Robert watched him all the way down, then exhaled.

He walked in his pajamas back into his childhood room, closed the door behind him and breathed again. Of course he knew why today was taking its toll on him, why he was feeling down and why he'd slept in. He forced himself to get dressed, spurred on by the sounds of mirth from downstairs. A lavender shirt, a pair of jeans that would leave an imprint in his skin at the waist by day's end. Aaron would've laughed so hard. His mum hadn't called up for him again, but then he guessed she finally had her grandson with her so she was satisfied. Of course it didn't bother him, he'd let go of the jealousy over her affections so long ago and besides, it was his little man she doted on. In the back of his brain he knew she probably knew what today was the anniversary of, too, and he he sent thanks up to gods he didn't believe in that she wouldn't bring it up.

He sat at the edge of his bed for a few minutes, the want to look itching under his skin versus the need to just finally move on, and he then lost the fight with himself. Kneeling down beneath the bed, he pulled out the box. Nine years since that time in the woods and it still felt like yesterday. Robert squinted at the contents, as if they were foreign even though he looked at them weekly, before putting it safely back and leaving his room to join his family.

 

***

 

The same morning Robert awoke in his childhood bed, Aaron Dingle awoke in a four by four jail cell on a bed that could only be called a bed by a imaginative reach with a piss pot in the far (as far can be in a rabbit hutch) corner. That he'd reached the absolute bottom of his whole miserable life he suddenly struck him, and he had to laugh in the face of it because if he didn't he'd cry or paint his brains against the wall of his cell.

25 years old, jobless, in prison for rightly, finally, decking his.... decking Gordon and unfortunately getting his new bird caught in the crossfire.

He's not really sure what time it is, the peephole the criminal justice system calls a window didn't offer him much but the sun was high so he guessed afternoon. He knows what day it is though. How could he forget the day he was kissed and his life changed? Nine years later and it was like his lips were still wet. He often wondered what Robert was doing now, if he was settled and brilliant and everything Aaron could never be. He wondered, sometimes, if Robert had ever thought about him but he always quashed it as fast as it came up. What good was it to wonder that? He just hoped Robert was happy. God knows one of them deserved to know what that felt like.

A key in his cell door told him it must've been later than he thought, maybe tea time. If rubber chicken and water can be called that. He took another look out of the window, saw the brooding oranges and purples and wispy clouds. How could it be 5pm already?

"Aaron, son, with me please," Swirling said. You'd catch Aaron dead before he said there was a good copper but Swirling was as close as they come. He'd booked Aaron in with care on more than a few occasions.

"Time's it?"

"Two, better to do this when the rest of that lot are still locked down kiddo. You're released." he said, and Aaron almost broke his neck when he snapped his head up.

".....how?" He was crying, he knew, he didn't mind for once.

"Bail paid, out you go." Swirling cocked his head. "Now son are you really much of a lag that you're questioning this?"

Aaron almost flew off his bunk.

He'd only been inside overnight but he'd been expecting so much more, court and proper prison and all that. So walking back out into the chilly sun felt like liberation from some long stretch he'd never had to serve. He had no money, just the clothes on his back, but he felt free. He felt happy for the first time in near as damn ten years. Until.

"AARON LOVE!"

He hasn't heard that voice in.... six years now. Chas clutched his face in her hands. Seeing her up close, eye to eye, she looked well. He hated her for it. He hated himself for hating her. He pulled her hands from his face and looked anywhere else as he asked

"I don't understand, where have yo.... How'd you know, about me? How'd you get me out? Where we off?"

"Your uncle Cain's in the car," she nodded back over her shoulder, "we're going home love."

Aaron mulled it over, more because he didn't know where that was. But what other option did he have but to trust her again?

"Okay."

 

***

 

Robert and Timothy had just left the breakfast table to get washed up for the day ahead when the phonecall came. Sarah exhaled an exasperated sigh, she'd just started the washing up and was eager to head down to the lower field. Throwing down the last plate into the sink and peeling off her rubber gloves, she went answered the phone on the wall.

"What?!" She knew she should be politer, it could be Annie, but fuck it.

"Is this Ms Sarah Connolly?" came the reply.

"Ms Connolly, we have an Aaron Dingle in custody and you're listed as a contact. We tried the others but they didn't go through."

"Aaron?!! What's happened, is he okay?!"

"I can't say, Ms. But he's on £1000 bail and he-"

"I'll pay it." She said instantly, phone between her cheek and shoulder while she scrambled through her bag for her purse. "Just don't let him out until a Cain Dingle gets there to collect him, please."

She glanced upstairs. Robert didn't need to know yet. There was nothing to know. She called Cain.

 

***

 

Robert had been convinced to go to the pub and Timothy never needed an excuse to walk through the village, because a walk through the village meant a trip to the swings.

He left his family at the trestle tables in the forecourt while he went to get the drinks. He approached the bar, and was mildly offended when a doing nothing Charity pushed the inane Bob in his direction instead of serving him herself. Charity had become..... not a friend, as such. But a sparring partner, he'd toss a barb and she'd throw one back and it was fun. He'd ask her about Aaron, for the first few years, and she never knew, and he believed her. He tried to ignore how she was very obviously trying to ignore him (by glancing at him minutely every few seconds while she chatted up the new local vet. Robert regarded them for a second. Better than Cain, he supposed.)

"Young master Sugden! And what can we do for you this fine March evening?" Bob flourished, whipping his towel from over his shoulder and spattering Robert with God knows how many days worth of drink.

"Two pints and and house white aaaand a juice for Tim," Robert replied, wiping his face with his hand and withholding the please he knew his mum would chastise him for out of spite. "And bring it out front for us, mum's here."

"Mum's here" always worked when he wanted to be waited on by Bob.

He made his way back outside when he heard a commotion from somewhere in the near distance. He traced the noise to Keepers cottage where he saw Chas and Cain Dingle locked in some furious debate on the doorstep. Then the door opened. Black hair. Stocky. The piece of him that'd been missing for nine years.

Aaron.

Chapter Text

It's not entirely certain, to Robert at least, just how long he stood staring at the cottage. Seconds that felt like hours, most likely, or minutes that felt like days. All Victoria saw was her brother vacantly staring at Chas and Cain and some, admittedly pretty fit bloke for way too long to be normal. Sarah saw her son staring at what could've been, a future he'd once had and lost and so desperately tried to find again. She bundled Timothy into Vic's arms.

"Now then you daft beggar," she said, sidling up to him, "you stand there staring into space much longer my half will get warm!" When she saw he hadn't heard a word she'd said, her voice turned harder. "Sit down, Robert."

Robert continued to stare at the cottage as Cain, Chas and Aaron took the last of the bags inside.

"Robert love, please sit down." Sarah pleaded, and was relieved when he finally set the tray of drinks down on the table. Sarah took her seat and clapped her hands before picking up a menu. "Now let's see what my darling daughter is going to be cooking us ton-Robert? Robert!"

Robert stalked back into the pub, dead set on speaking to only one person.

 

*

 

Charity was still leaning across the bar, chatting up the new vet as he stormed toward her, entirely too preoccupied to notice Robert approaching in a towering mood.

"So babe, about pugs, is that a thing vets can fix or do they just look like that-"

Robert (rudely it has to be said) nudged the vet aside, and got in Charity's face.

"Robert mate if you want serving there's a queue, see Bob if yo-" and then she saw his face and knew he knew. "They're back then," she sighed as her eyes rolled back in her head before she turned back to the vet. "Sorry babe, I'll have to knacker off for a bit but if Padders doesn't bore you death maybe we coul-"

"Charity I swear I'm not playing right now, and you know better than anybody what I can get like, so start talking."

Hearing Robert's voice, Charity closed her eyes and prepared herself for the storm that was coming.

"Rob, through the back. Bob, cover the bar. Dunno when I'll be back."

Choosing to ignore Bob's "so it is a day that ends in 'y" then response she walked into the back, Robert on her heels. As she held the door open for him to enter the living space he turned on her, nostrils flaring.

"Did you know," he breathed heavily, chest heaving. "And don't lie to me, I alw-"

Charity held her hand up to silence him, poured herself a generous measure of whisky and downed it in one large gulp.

"That answers one question then," Robert said, jaw clenched so tight Charity thought his mouth could probably make diamond from coal. "You knew."

It wasn't a question, nor a statement. It was an accusation. Charity held the empty glass to her mouth for as long as she could get away with under her friend's withering gaze before she relented. Putting the glass down, holding both hands in the air, for the first time in as long as she could remember, she told the truth.

"Babe I knew they were coming back sometime this week, I didn't know when. They said it'd be late, that's all."

"And you never thought to tell me?" Robert spat, barely containing himself at this point. They were in the kitchenette, not more than a metre apart, face to face. "It never entered your empty head to tell me he was coming back?"

"I only got the call from Cain late last night I promise, and he told me barely anything!" Charity yelled, holding the lapels of Robert's suit jacket. "He NEVER said it'd be tonight and I've been trying to find the right time to tell you it was happening but I thought I'd have more time and-,"

"And WHAT? You got too busy chatting up some slapper at the bar so you didn't have to cope with Cain leaving you that you forgot to tell me the only person I've ever wanted was back? Funny that, hypocritical but funny, remember how you were with me for years after Aaron left? Lecturing me?"

"Robe-"

"No, no! We're doing this now while I won't regret it. You found me on the road, chasing that car, and told me everything was going to be okay. You watched me spend money I didn't have looking for him, promised me you'd never heard a thing. When he came back? When Bails made your life HELL. Me and you took care of it. When it finally went south with... Simon... and I needed to get Tim out of there, WE sorted that. Because it's family. Water can be thicker than blood, isn't that what you said? And now it turns out-"

"Robert I'm sorry but I didn't know until last nig-" Charity sobbed.

"And now it turns out," Robert cut over her, leaning into her face, "now it turns out I can't even trust my only friend." Robert let it a mirthless laugh and wiped his hand down his face. " Pathetic isn't it? Nearly thirty, single dad, fucked up and friendless, the only people he can trust in the world? His mum and his sister."

He learnt further toward Charity's face.

"But I'll never forgive you for this."

"So,' Sarah said from the doorway to the stairs. "You'll never forgive me? Because I've done much worse."

 

***

 

"Well then lad. Think you'll be sorted 'ere, might be a bit pink and purple like but.... well.... you lads like them colours don't you so,"

"Quit while you're many, many miles behind Cain." Chas said, with her arm around her son while glaring at her brother. Cain shuffled at the bottom of the staircase.

Aaron ignored them both and looked around the small living room. Well, large relative to what he'd been living in recently, he supposed. It smelled like stale incense and new foist, forgotten happiness and growing mold. It was the perfect house for him to come back to live in.

It was so strange, entering the village. There was the sign but it wasn't worn and charming but new and soulless. The fields were barren this time of year, brown and churned. Those fields in the memories in the far reaches of his mind were all green and growing. The cottages were the same, from what he could remember. Little stone bricked things like the one he was currently squatting in. Chas always clipped him over the head when he said that word but he was honest, what else was he doing? He wasn't renting the house, he didn't buy it, he was lucky enough that Debbie was stupid enough to stay in this village to buy it then smart enough to leave it.

Aaron scratched his arm, then reminded himself through the fog in his head that it was much much worse for him not so long ago.

Be grateful.

But it was a lot better the first time he was here.

They'd passed any number of farms as they made their way from London to Yorkshire, and all of them stirred some nostalgia that twisted his gut, but he ultimately shrugged the past off. Untill he saw the barn.

 

* 10 years prior*

Sarah had allowed them to clear out one of the hay lofts in one of the older barns on the outer fields.

She didn't mind them figuring themselves out in her house, of course she didn't! She'd rather have them where she knew they'd be safe over a park or something. But the day she walked in on her son and his boyfriend getting to know each other on her brand new sofa. Well. There had to be a conversation.

"Boys, now you know I have no issue with this,"

"Mum...."

"Sarah fuc-"

"Language, Aaron."

"...sorry Mrs Sugden"

"Sarah, to you."

"Reet, Sarah,"

"AND YOU know, Aaron, that you can stay whenever you like. But Victoria's only young and she lives here too and I'd like you to respect that.

"Sorry Ms Sugden. I mean, Sarah. Sorry."

Robert laughed, which earned him a well deserved (in Aaron's view) lager ban (as in, Aaron didn't share the bottles he nicked from the pub)

"Sorry mum. But mum, Andy's always over these days and he's always up with her and you know I don't want dad to know so......"

And then it clicked for Sarah. Her son was scared.

That was the day Sarah agreed to let Robert have the old barn on the field. It was structurally sound, of course, and also the smallest, on the outskirts of her land. You'd barely get a calf in there, nevermind a cow, but there was hay and a second story and that's what Robert was after. So before long there was a mattress there, a duvet for the winter, some Glade smelly thing to hopefully cancel out the smell of farm.

And that's where Aaron and Robert found themselves that day.

"Happy one weekiversy," Robert snorted, clinking his can mostly against Aaron's hand.

"That's.... thas... that's.... not even a...." Aaron somewhat replied, side by and flat on his back, distracted by the slice of pizza in Robert's hand.

"Thing! Thing is what you meant. You meant thing, you always mean to say thing."

Aaron looked at him, somewhat puzzled but mostly drunk.

"Well," Robert continued, pulling Aaron into the crook of his shoulder, "things are things aren't they? So this is a thing," and Robert gently pushed Aaron down to be flat on his back, and dropped the slice he knew Aaron had been eyeing onto his chest. Once Aaron had stopped chewing like Flossy, the cow on the lower field, he spoke again. "This is a thing," he said as he turned over and straddled his boyfriend. Sliding his hand down Aaron's torso, toward the waistband he dipped his mouth to Aaron's and said "This is a thing I wan-"

And Aaron burped into his mouth.

Robert looked down at Aaron, and Aaron looked back up, and they snorted, laughed until their stomachs hurt, and settled on their backs.

Hours later Aaron woke up to sun and birds chirping and cows mooing and Aaron wanted to die. It was going to happen that night, IT was going to happen. And he'd ruined it. He looked at his phone, and saw numerous missed calls and texts from his mum. Chewing his lip, he looked at Robert, fast asleep, and back at his phone, before dressing and descending the ladder to the lowest barn. He'd see Robert again, but his mum needed him, it'd be fine.

It wasn't fine. Because *he* was there when Aaron got back home.

***

 

"Much worse?" Robert turned his back on Charity to round on his mother. "I've already had my best friend stab me anywhere she could stick it tonight but not you, mum. Please."

"I got a phone call. From a prison. You have to understand, Robert, I'd never heard anything before I SWEAR. He needed bail, I paid it, sent Cain down to get him. It'd been a long time but he's still mine, ours. I didnt tel-"

"Didn't tell me because?" Robert spat, "because you were too busy with Vic or Andy or JACK or who knows, knowing you, been thick as thieves with my "mate" Charity haven't you?"

Charity stepped from the kitchen, confronting him and taking his trembling shoulders in her hands.

"Babe I *swear* we just found out, and were looking for the right time to tell yo-"

Robert shrugged out of her grip and walked to the door, only to be stopped by his mother.

"Darling, please....."

"Where's my son?"

"Robert...."

"Sarah, where is my son?"

Robert would never forget the flash of hurt that he saw on her face when he went too far, again, that night. But in the moment, in the maelstrom of Aaron and his life. At that moment? He didn't care.

"He's with Victoria." Sarah sobbed.

Robert fixed her with a stare, very nearly broke when he saw the heartbreak in her eyes, before saying "he stays there tonight, I'll call Vic."

Robert left the pub with Charity on his heels. She grabbed at his arm, and as he turned she knocked him on his arse with a hard punch to the face.

"Me and 'er did nothing wrong, especially her." Charity said, offering a hand to pull Robert up off the ground already. "I know it hurt. When he went, I know, but none of the family knew where he took 'em. I didn't tell you because Cain never said when it was happening. We just needed to get our Aaron out, you understand that? And if you don't, Robert, none of us are expected to spell family out for you. But ya mam understood it." Charity leant down to stroke the cheek she'd hit.

"We didn't want to get your hopes up, babe."

Robert got back to his feet, with watery eyes. In later days he'd say it was because of the Aaron situation but Charity knew she'd hit him good. Charity cupped his face in both her hands and lowered her voice to a whisper.

"How many jobs have we done together? We swindled Kim Tate out of half a million! When have I ever lied to you?"

Robert held Charity's gaze.

"You haven't, I suppose. But I told you on that last job that I could trust you. So I'm the liar, because I don't know who you, or my mother, or my family are".

***

 

Cain and Chas had gone out. To get furnishings, and clothes, but Aaron knew that was bullshit. They wanted out.

He'd been morose and surly ever since they'd been back, and they were sick of him.

Everybody gets sick of him

 

He's in Emmerdale.

 

Robert got sick of him.

 

Robert never found him.

 

Aaron laid in bed that night, wondering about the world. There's always clichés, he wondered what the root of them was. Because surely people "toss and turn" when they can't sleep, right? He doesn't.

*Knock knock*

"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger"? When does the strong part happen?

*Knockknockknock*

"The apple doesn't fall far from the tree"

*THUDTHUDTHUD*

"Ignorance is bliss"

*THUDTHUDTHUDTHUD*

Aaron ignored the door. Maybe it'd go away.

But suddenly, a voice. The good voice, that faded and left him when he'd needed it the most

"Aaron! I know you're in there! So let me in, it's pissing it down out here and oh yeah I've not seen you in TEN YEARS. So let. Me In!"

Aaron contemplated doing nothing, all the while making his way to the landing.

"AARON I SWEAR I'LL BREAK DOWN THE DOOR! I GO TO THE GYM NOW, TWICE A WEEK, I COULD DO IT!"

Aaron silently reached the bottom of the stairs, and sat against the door.

All he'd ever dreamed about, when things were bad but he was whole and hadn't been left, was Robert finding him. And now, and now he was on the other side of an inch thick piece of wood.

But Robert had never found him, had he?

Aaron went back to bed.

Chapter Text

"AARON," followed by more thuds on the door. "IM GOIN' NOWHERE, AND I KNOW YOU'RE IN HERE."

Aaron turned in his bed and put a pillow over his head to block out the voice. It was a familiar, welcome voice, but older, deeper and the age and depth just made him remember that the owner of that voice had abandoned him. Left him to live the life he'd lived the past ten years. As much as the voice was familiar to him, it was nothing. So Aaron pulled the pillow tighter against his ear and squinted at his crappy Nokia to look at the time.

10:55pm

Cain and his mum would be back soon, Robert would have to go.

THUDTHUDTHUD

***

 

To say the Woolpack pub was abuzz that night would be an understatement, not that it took much to set the Woolpack blazing with gossip when Betty Eagleton was around. Only, Mrs Eagleton didn't count on Sarah Sugden and Charity Dingle hearing this particular gossip this night.

"Well, and don't tell anybody this came from me but," Betty said, taking a sip from her sherry, "I have it on very good authority that yet another Dingle family has moved to this village and," she paused for dramatic effect, "and they're brother and sister."

Satisfied with the murmur she'd caused around the bar, she paused and and took another sip before adding "and they've come with a baby. Not that that's surprising knowing their lot bu-"

"Now listen here," Sarah said, wedging herself between a punter and Betty, Timothy asleep on her shoulder. "That's Chas Dingle and her little boy who have moved in, and yes Cain helped them. And if-"

"And you want to remember Betty," Charity interjected, "your Seth's got a tab bigger than your mortgage so think twice before talking about my family yeah?"

Well, Betty knew when she was beaten, and made a hasty retreat. Charity turned her gaze to Sarah and Timothy, giving a nod to invite into the backroom.

"Jan babe, watch the bar for a bit yeah?".

 

***

 

Robert was still speaking to the door. It was pitch black, cold and he should be elsewhere but this. This is what he'd spent ten years thinking about.

"I know you're in there, and I know you know I'm out here, so can you just. Stop being a prick and come talk to me."

Silence. Robert sighed. He'd have to get back soon, Timothy needed him, and god knows Sarah looked after them both enough these years.

But he couldn't leave this, knowing Aaron was mere metres away from him, behind wood and lock.

"Come on Aaron. It's me and you. And. Well I know it's been ages but, hiding away from me? Me?"

No answer.

Robert rested his head back against the door. How did they get here? How did their relationship become this? Separated by ten years, now separated by a door, and they were no closer to being back together, if anything they were further apart than ever.

He'd been through so much since he and Aaron were parted. Too much, Sarah told him, though he shrugged that off whenever she brought it up. Just like so much else, he'd buried that hurt and focused on the most important.

After Simon, it was Timothy. For years, nothing but Timothy. And he was happy, for the most part. Successful, if not popular. But he always went home to a small cottage, ate with his mother and his son, and tried to ignore the the hole in his heart.

But then he saw what was missing, a few hundred feet away from him and he remembered the hole was his first love.

And he still loved Aaron as much as he did that day in the woods, that night in the barn, the days they'd spend shouting over playstation games or breaking each others Lego toys.

Why wouldn't Aaron answer the door?

 

***

 

"Tea, Sarah?" Charity asked as Sarah laid Timothy down to sleep on the sofa.

"I'd rather have an explanation," Sarah said, stroking a hand through Timothy's hair before meeting Charity in the kitchen. "And a whiskey," she added, prompting a chuckle from Charity who had already poured her measure. She passed it to Sarah and took another glass for herself. They stood silently in the small, narrow kitchen for a long moment, looking into their glasses, before Charity spoke up.

"I really didn't know. I told Robert that but he was too....."

"Upset? Devastated? Betrayed?" Sarah said, her grip on her glass tightening. Charity had had enough.

"I DIDN'T lie to him," and she slammed her glass on the countertop. "I didn't know Sarah!"

"Oh spare me," Sarah said with a withering look. Charity had had enough."You're all thick as thieves, are you seriously telling me that you had no idea?"

Charity downed her glass, and poured herself another generous measure.

"If I knew where they were, explain me losing it over our Deb's a few years ago? Explain me going down for a year? Sarah babe I swear I had NO idea."

Sarah scanned her face, drained her own glass, before relenting and softening.

"So what do we do now?" she wondered, holding out her glass for another measure as she looked at Timothy, hard and fast asleep.

"What we always did? Wait for them to figure it out I suppose," Charity murmured into her glass. Sarah fixed her with a look.

"I won't have Robert going through what he did before again Charity. It nearly kill-" Charity took Sarah's hand.

"I was there, dyu think I'd let that happen again? And you know Aaron, he's no Si-"

"No," Sarah said, "no he's not. I can't wait to see him again."

"Me neither babe." And they clinked glasses.

Just as Jan poked her head around the door. "Charity love, I think we need to close the pub. Your Cain's kicking off apparently."

Both ladies sprang to their feet, leaving via the backdoor, Jan promising to keep an eye on Timothy.

 

***

 

Aaron had moved from his bed to sitting on the desk by an open window. He had no idea where his mum or his uncle were, all he could hear was Robert, still at their front door.

"It's midnight and I'm still going nowhere," his voice floated up. "Hey, remember how much you used to get pissed off at me? I think we were.... 8? And playing soldiers. I said I had a gun that could shoot round the corner of the barn, or that it could like seek you, or some shit, and you said that was cheating and cried. Mum told me off for that, remember? She gave you more ice cream that night, still haven't forgiven her."

Aaron remembered like it was yesterday. Them running around the farm, finger pew pew-ing and throwing mud bombs at each other. Aaron never wanting to go home, especially when his dad picked him up. There was a period of silence, Aaron half hoped Robert had left.

"Remember how we used to play hide and seek in the woods? Us and the Windsor's and that lot? I ALWAYS knew where you were."

'No you didn't, you would've found me' thought Aaron as he moved to go back to bed.

Robert's voice came again; "and then there was the rivCAIN I'M NOT DOING ANYTHING!"

And Aaron sprang downstairs to the front door.

 

***

 

Robert couldn't explain the feeling, or what he was even doing. He was freezing cold, sat on a doorstep, yelling at wood and nothing. He was sure somebody was going to call the police on him, which spurred him on. He was working with a time limit, Chas and Cain would be back any minute, his mum was constantly buzzing in his pocket. Why couldn't they just be left alone?

He shut his eyes and leaned his head against the door.

"Remember how we used to play hide and seek in the woods? Us and the Windsor's and that lot? I ALWAYS knew where you were."

Robert didn't notice Cain and Chas coming up the garden path. He started laughing, remembering how they'd built a raft one year, a tiny thing for a tiny stream, but had thought they were going upriver on a mighty boat. He raised his voice again, hoping Aaron would hear.

"and then there was the rivCAIN I'M NOT DOING ANYTHING!"

Cain had him by the collar and had pulled him to his feet before shoving him against the stone wall, "Listen to me Sugden, you leave our Aaron alone or I won't leave you alone, understand?"

Robert didn't have an opportunity to say "no" before Chas was wrenching her brother away, then the door flew open, and a hoodied figure came flying at Cain.

He watched, back against the wall, as Aaron's mother separated the two and ordered them back into the house.

Cain passed him without a word.

Chas passed, him with a slight touch on the arm as she went.

He was left with a visibly shaken and panting Aaron on the front garden. He couldn't really see him, it was pitch dark and Aaron was in all black, but it didn't matter. He took a few steps towards him.

Aaron recoiled like a skittish cat, didn't even look at him, before following his mother and uncle into the house.

 

***

 

After being separated from Cain by his mother a second time, Aaron barely made it to his bedroom that night. He was shaken on every possible level. Robert had knocked the breath out of him when the latter was a lanky streak of piss with bad hair and worse taste in music, but now he'd seen what he'd grown into. A tall, built, golden thing. Whatever slight hope that Aaron had ever had that Robert had given him a second thought in the time he'd been away evaporated. Why would he give a thought to a broken thing?

He went into his closet and fished out the shoebox.

Mix cd's of songs that reminded Robert of Aaron. The ticket stub from the first film they saw together. Bottle caps from when they nicked his mum's beer and got pissed on two bottles in the cricket pavillion.

He had an urge to throw it all away.

It went back into the closet.

 

***

 

"I put Timothy down in your bed. That alright?" Sarah said.

Robert just stared at the mug between his hands.

"Sweetheart," she came to sit by him, placing a hand on his arm. "I know this is hard. But-"

""It's not actually, mam. I'm going up, leave the washing, I'll do it in the morning. And thanks for watching Tim tonight." There was no emotion as he kissed her on the cheek and went upstairs.

 

***

 

Robert watched his little boy sleep, and was hit with a bullet of guilt. He'd stayed, sat outside the house of a bloke who couldn't even look at him anymore, a bloke he hadn't seen in nine years, while his son was. Where was he? All he knows is his mum had him. It wasn't good enough. Not after Simon. He leaned over and pressed a kiss to Timothy's head, and heard his mum ascending the staircase to her own bed. He crawled under his bed, and pulled out

*** Ten years earlier ***

"A shoebox?!"

They were in the hayloft Sarah had given to them, blissed out and more than a bit drunk on the bottles Aaron had stolen from his mum.

"Yes, a shoebox," Robert rolled his eyes and said. "Listen." and his face became serious as he held Aaron's face, as they lay half naked in the loft.

"I know you won't ever admit it, but you've said it. You think I'm going to fuck off to uni and leave you behind."

Aaron didn't reply, just scratched his chest and avoided Robert's eyes.

Robert leaned over him, forced Aaron to look into his eyes.

"Me and you? Forever. So, I thought you could put some stuff in this shoebox and I could too, you know, stuff that's us. And even when we're apart, we're not really. It's stupid bu-"

Aaron cut him off with a kiss.

"Might still have those film stubs in my wallet."

Robert grinned a wide grin, a grin Aaron already knew he had to shut down.

"Nowt special, I just put them there instead of the bin."

"Mmhmm," Robert replied with a deep kiss.

 

***

 

Robert shook himself from his reverie as he heard his mother pass his bedroom door. He loaded a pair of old shoes into the shoebox.

"Mum?"

Sarah opened the door with a smile.

"Yes love?"

"Take these down to the charity shop tomorrow. I don't think they fit anymore."

Chapter Text

The thing about Aaron, the thing about him that his mum or his uncle or that nice lady down the road he'd sometimes passed when he was taken out for walks when he was still down in London when he had nobody but a wish is ; he craves. When he was a kid, it always came back to one singular point: his best friend.

And as Aaron sat in a small room, after a long journey. after a longer nightmare, he once again wondered why Robert never found him.

he was just here you idiot, he was just at your door, he was just

Aaron turned on his single bed and faced the wall, his imagination conjuring little pencils marks , memories once again invading his mind.

"Robert, this is stupid," he said, stood face to face with Robert on an afternoon, sometime in February his grown mind supplied, back against the wall and pulsing with something he didn't have the words to put to. "You're tall!"

They were body to body, stomach to stomach, against his bedroom wall, and he tried not to laugh as Robert's hand hovered above his head, confirming he was indeed half a head taller than Aaron so obviously at LEAST the same height as Ross.

"You said you barely even like Donna, why's it matter if she thinks she's glad she's going with a tall lad for once'?"

Robert winced slightly, but continued the height comparison, tongue between his teeth, a look of intense concentration on his face. "I don't like her, that's not even the point! The point is...."

"What is the point then, Robert? 'coz I didn't exactly ask you over for to measure me and cry about her."
Aaron pushed himself off the wall and flopped, a bit dramatically, on to his bed. Flicking on the TV, he was acutely aware of Robert standing to his side, somewhat shellshocked having being shoved away. The bed dipped.

Robert sat with him, knocking his shoulder with his own.

"It's just... Andy with Katie. Ross with Donna, what do I have?"

Aaron almost bit through his bottom lip.

"you've got m-"

"AARON, pot of tea and brekkie downstairs love. If you can be bothered."

Aaron stirred from his dream to the sound of his mother traipsing back downstairs, remembering the first time he wanted something he couldn't have.

***

Because of his dream, Aaron was thrown the whole day, but glass half full: 1) he never left the house, 2) he didn't intend on leaving the house and 3) well, 1+2=3. His mum and Cain were both out (Robert's not knocking at the door), he had a house full of food and booze. Which is how, a few minutes after midday, he found himself with a bottle of vodka, every snack from every cupboard and a free television in front of him. This was his time.

***

"Now, son," his dad had him by the throat, against the back door. "what does grounded mean?"

Aaron had really tried, after they'd left, he'd tried so hard. To be good, to go to school, to not fight. But you can't be good forever.

Every day he remembers arriving home that morning, full on something. He'd had a boyfriend then, not only that, he was in love with the boy he'd grown up with.

And then he was in a car, driving so far away.

His mother had left not long after they'd arrived (was it not long?), all he could see anymore was her (and Robert) in a wing mirror when he closed his eyes. Preservation kicked in, and he begged to gods he didn't believe in that he'd be listened to, but like so many times in the ten years after he'd unceremoniously been removed from his home, there was nothing.

His mum had left him, Robert never came to find him (me and you forever, yeah?), nothing.

He learned another lesson.

***

 

*THUDTHUD THUD*

Aaron startled awake, looking around at the devastation. Empty crisp packets everywhere, empty beer bottles scattering the floor. he glanced a look at the clock on the wall to see he'd only been passed out for a couple of hours, it was before 5pm.

"AARON LET ME IN!" came a shrill, distinctly female voice through the door.

*THUDTHUD THUD*

The banging on the door echoed around the banging in his head, and strangely that seemed to wake him up, at least enough to kick the empty lager bottles under the sofa. Scrambling to the door, he gave a cursory look through the fishbowl hole and opened the door.

Charity strolled in, swiping the bottle of whisky out of his right hand, taking a glug before handing it back.

"been hammering at them windows for half' hour now babe, nearly froze these off," she said, inclining her head at her chest, grinning in a way that Aaron felt he should take as a reciprocal joke.

he was just exhausted.

"nice to see you again, you look like crap." she said, staring down at him.

Slumping on to the couch, his back crying out in relief ("you're nearly a corpse you," he'd said back when Robert helped Val carry a large screen TV into the bed and breakfast, him doubled over laughing at Roberts distress over his "decimated" back in his bedroom. ), he asked outright,

"What?"

Charity looked older than he remembered, but more beautiful for it, and also no more grown. like time had made an exception just for her. He thought about how Robert had looked the other night, when he'd caught the slightest glimpse, golden, and raised himself from the sofa to get another beer from the fridge in the kitchen.

Pulling the tab, he wheeled, done with whatever dance they dancing already. His mum had sent her, or Cain, spying up on him, the weird shut in. He didn't expect her to say:

"I really thought more of you."

Aaron paused, can of lager half way to his mouth.

"Our Chas said you got up to all sorts back down south, said you needed keeping out of bother. told me to stay away as it happens, dunno what she meant by that...."

Aaron was incredulous, mostly because she didn't know what he'd been through while he was away. And that was his call, he'd explicitly told his mother and Cain to not say a word when they offered to bring him back to Emmerdale.

All Charity knew was that he was a player,

"but whatever she meant, doesn't matter to me." Charity strolled over to him, "but if you fancy getting in on a job," Aaron felt his palm being caressed, "ring that."

Charity left with a confident strut, taking her phone from her pocket as she closed the door.

Aaron pondered.

He was bored, out of his mind really, and he was free now. would it really count as bad if family was involved too?

The thing about Aaron is: he craves, and what he craves he can't have.

 

***

 

Charity took out her phone, and fired off a text.

 

***

 

It was 11pm and Robert was done, 100% done. just done. as if letting the love of his life go wasn't enough, hed been roped into housework. he's a working dad, with a VERY energetic kid, and he's deep cleaning the kitchen because his mother gave him the eyes that said. well.

For once he didn't know exactly what she wasn't telling him, he only knew that when she looked at him she wasn't telling him something that he thought he should know

"I'm going into town later, love" she'd said, taking her coffee as Robert was at the counter. making breakfast, trying to forget what he'd asked her to do. the shoebox.

"don't forget anything," he'd said, pressing a kiss to her head as he walked by to check on Tim, ignoring her obvious sigh.

 

it made sense in his head.

he wonders when life became this, this boring nothing. where his biggest compliment of the day is Pearl admiring his shirt instead of a gasp in his ear

(when Aaron left)

and shrugs his shoulder, knocking the little man asleep on shoulder awake. They'd been watching something, something on TV, Robert didn't know what but it had superheroes and Tim was happy.

And really, that's all that matters.

isn't it?

 

***

 

Settling Timothy asleep, Robert felt a vibration in his jeans. Making sure the little one was gone, he exited his room and looked at the screen.

CharD: Got a job, you on?

Robert smiled, in spite of himself. maybe the person he wanted to be couldn't happen, but, he could scratch the craving couldn't he?

"Yeah"