Their footsteps echoed off the walls of the Mill, neither saying a word. Aaron almost bumped into Robert’s back, his husband having come to a dead stop just inside the front doorway. Aaron circled in front of him, not liking the distance in Robert’s eyes as they traced the home they made together.
“Robert?” Aaron stepped up close, the two of them finally alone. Robert’s lips were slightly parted, and Aaron was close enough to hear him breathing shallowly. “Robert,” Aaron murmured, running his palm up Robert’s arm, starting gentle and becoming firm, easing into the pressure to bring Robert back to him. “Robert, look at me, eh? Be here.”
Focus swam slowly back into Robert’s eyes, the slow resuscitation before the pain set back in. Aaron made sure he was there, in Robert’s eyeline. He cupped Robert’s face, softly ran his thumb along the bruise around Robert’s eye, disgusted with how the situation was forcing him into being glad to see it. Glad to see a bruise on his husband’s face because it was evidence. Evidence that Lee had hit him, that Robert wasn’t some vengeful lunatic jumping him out of nowhere, that there was a fight, a back and forth that proved that Robert wasn’t a – at least not a premeditated –
Aaron closed his eyes, pressed his forehead to Robert’s, only for Robert to jerk back, out of his reach.
“Don’t.“ Robert said, tremulously, striding across their living room as if to put as much distance between them as possible. It hurt, hit Aaron right in the stomach as Robert stared out the back windows, his rigid back to Aaron.
“Don’t what, Robert?” Aaron demanded, suddenly angry again. “Don’t touch you? Don’t be close to you?” Aaron scraped his hand through his hair, the glide of his wedding ring not as soothing as it ought to be, filled with a ticking ticking ticking Aaron had honestly thought he’d never feel again. “If that’s what you want it’ll be Her Majesty’s pleasure, by the sounds of DS Wise.”
Tick, tick. Aaron could hear it, raised his voice over it.
“Probably a good shout, really. We should both get some practice at it,” Aaron felt his legs shake – even the idea of it was too much, insupportable. “Not touching. Not being together. Not – “ he swallowed. Plonked down on the bottom step of the stairs with his head in his hands.
Tick, tick, tick. The countdown to enough. The countdown to the last straw. The countdown to when they leave him.
He had almost forgotten the sound.
“Robert, please,” Aaron said, tonelessly, to the floor. The toes of his shoes. “Say something.”
He looked up as Robert’s still form burst into a flurry of movement, spinning to face Aaron like a man unleashed. Broad chest and big hands and heartbreak splashed across his face to match his bruise, his voice cracked as he yelled back, taking the reins of rage from Aaron. That’s how it always was with them, wasn’t it? The push, the pull. The crack of lightning rolling off their backs.
“Like what Aaron? What do you want me to say?” Robert stepped forward. “That I’m sorry? How can I be? How could you or Vic or anyone ask me to be, with the things he was saying about her? Saying how he'll rape more women, that sick smile on his face. He’s not sorry! How could I be sorry, when he isn’t, when he hurt – when he hurt one of the most special people in the world?” Robert tore his hands through his hair, wrenched himself out of his jacket, balled it up in a way Aaron had never seen Robert handle his clothes, and launched it at the couch. “Vic’s just supposed to wait for the day he feels guilty, as if that’ll make any of it better.”
“As opposed to this, which is working miracles?” Aaron volleyed back, standing back up from the stairs. “Come on Robert.”
“I didn’t plan it!”
“I’d figured that, funny enough, given that it was broad daylight, didn’t actually kill him, and was in our fucking front garden!”
Robert gritted his teeth, let loose a growling sound dripping with contempt.
“Fine then, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t kill a rapist cleverly enough for you, husband, would you like your apology in chocolates or flowers?”
Aaron stormed across the room, bunching his fists in Robert’s shirt and wrenching him close.
“I want it in years with you, you fucking idiot!” Aaron’s throat constricted. “I want it in everything you promised me on our wedding day. I want you, here, with me. Messed up forever, Robert, that’s what we said, and now – “
“I know!" Robert yelled. "I know! I’ve ruined it. I’ve ruined everything,” Robert broke, the fists Aaron had in his shirt taking his weight as Robert slumped in his arms. They were in the eye of their storm. “I’ve ruined everything, like I always do.”
“Don’t – “ Aaron softened his grip, felt the shake in his fingers quieten and still. Robert’s chin wobbled, his own hands growing desperate around Aaron’s waist like he was drowning and Aaron was his life preserver. “Don’t say that.”
“True though, innit?” Robert said, “Everything I touch I ruin.”
Aaron didn’t need to ask to hear that it was Jack Sugden’s voice in the room. The edge was there, the stick Robert never seemed to be able to stop beating himself with.
Aaron leaned his forehead to Robert’s again, slid his hands up into Robert’s hair to keep him there this time.
“You’ve touched me,” Aaron said, in the understatement of the millennium, “you’ve not ruined me. And you’ve not ruined us.” Aaron breathed, felt Robert draw a shaky one of his own, his lashes wet against Aaron’s cheek. Aaron pulled back, thumbing under Robert’s eyes, cradling his husband’s face in his hands in the way he didn’t usually do without a bed and the night’s shade present, but he needed to be strong. He needed to be strong for his Robert, be an anchor to keep him from floating away. “I love you. Have done since I first said it and always will do. There’s no ruinin’ that.”
Aaron looked at Robert, playfully stern. “No matter how hard you try at it.”
Robert huffed, then met Aaron’s eyes.
“I know,” Aaron pulled Robert into a kiss, firm and quick as a spark. A kiss that said stay here. Stay here with me. “We’ll manage,” he murmured into Robert’s neck, Robert’s arms around his waist and his around Robert’s shoulders. He rubbed up and down Robert’s back, tried to believe it.
“It’ll be okay,” he said.