It couldn’t last.
Aaron was killing himself every time he told a lie. With every secret getaway, every flippant excuse to avoid spending time with Ben - his boyfriend , a man he claimed to love - with every time he sat across a dinner table from his family, and from Ben, and pretended like he wasn’t about to bring the whole thing crashing down.
Robert hadn’t accepted it at first. He’d talked of how they loved each other, how them finding their way back to each other had to mean something, this second chance they were given. He told him he loved him. But none of it mattered because Aaron had made his mind up - he couldn’t keep doing this anymore. There were too many people at stake who were going to get hurt if he didn’t get it together and put a stop to it. He wasn't a kid anymore, he had responsibilities now.
Robert had shown up at the scrapyard a few days later, thrown some questionable innuendos Aaron’s way, and looked at him like that . Like the way he always did when he wanted him, with heavy lids and an easy, cocky smile. It had taken every ounce of Aaron’s willpower to say no. It helped that Vinny had shown up a few minutes later and interrupted them, but the next time, a week or so after that, when Robert had cornered him by the toilets in the pub, he’d managed to say no all on his own then. He’d gone back to his quiet drink with Ben, and he definitely didn’t think of Robert later that night when they had sex.
They’d done it before, this friends thing. With Gordon, with Alex, and when Robert showed up at the Mill three days later only to be rejected once more (as much as Aaron would have loved to have grab him by the lapels of his jacket and pulled him into the bed that was once theirs), he agreed that they could try and be friends again.
Aaron liked Robert. He found him funny, and interesting, and it wasn't like there was ever a dull moment. He could spend time with Robert, and he’d even learned to like his personality. It was the wanting that was the problem. It was looking at the way Robert was back to filling out his shirts, or the way his jeans stretched tight across his thighs, or the way he bit his lip sometimes when he smiled. It was then that Aaron had to remind himself that they were just meant to be friends.
It wasn’t like Ben wasn’t good looking - he was. Sex had never been a problem, Aaron’s insecurity aside. Aaron was attracted to him, so he told himself that he could survive. And he did. He stopped letting his eyes wander when he saw Robert, and he made sure he was only thinking of Ben when they went to bed together, and it was fine. He survived.
He wasn’t surprised when Robert fell back out of his life. It wasn’t quite a gradual thing, just one day they were making eyes at each other across the pub, and the next they weren’t. But Aaron had expected that, really. He didn’t know what he’d do if their roles were reversed, so he couldn’t even really be mad at him for it.
He started to miss him maybe three days later. He forgot how much distance there could be between people, even with how small the village was. Robert was only up the road, but it felt like miles. The guilt was easing, he could just about look Ben in the eye again, but it was just replaced by a longing.
He managed a week and a half before it all got too much, and he tracked Robert down to the cricket pavilion. He was playing football with Harry - very, very badly - and Aaron very pointedly did not think about the family they almost had. He sucked in a breath and walked over, hands balled into fists in his pocket so tightly that even his blunt fingernails bit into the skin of his palms.
“Well, you’re no Pele,” Aaron called as he approached.
“Er, I’m doing quite well I think, thank you very much,” Robert protested just as Harry managed to kick the ball behind him into their makeshift goal. Aaron looked at Harry and rolled his eyes and shook his head. Harry giggled. “Right, for that you can go get the ball,” Robert said to Harry, nodding to where it had rolled down into some bushes. Harry skipped off in the direction of the ball, but Robert’s focus was all on Aaron.
They stared at each other for what felt like an eternity before Aaron spoke. “Look, I just… I don’t like how weird things are between us and I-” He was cut short as Robert huffed a bitter laugh and shook his head. “We agreed we’d be friends!”
Robert looked away as he spoke. “Look, you might be able to just shut off your feelings or ignore them, but I can’t.” He turned back to look at Aaron. “I love you, Aaron. I always will. And so the thought of just being your mate, of watching you and Ben ride off into the sunset-” He stopped to take a sharp breath. “It hurts. A lot.”
Aaron nodded and looked at his feet. He knew he wasn’t being entirely fair expecting Robert to be able to just put their entire history behind them and move forward as nothing more than friends. Hell, he struggled enough with it, and he had Ben to distract him. But he just couldn’t imagine a life without Robert in it at all. Not again.
“I know,” Aaron acquiesced with a shrug. There was a pause as Aaron mustered the courage to ask, “Do you think we’ll ever get to a place where we can be friends?”
The seconds that past as Robert looked at him felt like an age before he finally said, “Yeah. I do. Eventually.”
It wasn’t a lot but it was something. Walking back to the Mill after, Aaron felt a little lighter at least. He knew there was no quick fix for what he wanted, but he was willing to take it slow, to ease himself back into Robert’s life in a way that didn’t involve them tearing each others’ clothes off every time they saw each other. He’d made Robert wait once before, though. It was only fair that it was his turn, he supposed.
Nothing really changed after that. He and Robert would do that awkward half-smile-half-nod greeting when they passed in the street, and if Robert was with Harry then they’d always stop to say hi. Harry would tell Aaron about some cool new toy someone had bought him, and Aaron would play along with the excitement, and he and Robert might exchange pleasantries. It always felt awkward and stunted, but it also felt like it was eroding some of that distance between them, and that at least made it a little easier to breathe.
A few weeks later, Aaron was taking a walk. The Mill could feel stifling sometimes, what with Cain and his kids, Liv and her revolving door of friends, and Ben all but moved in. He needed the air sometimes just to stop himself from going crazy. He would take a walk down to the bridge, watch the water rushing by, take some breaths the way a therapist from years ago told him to. He’d take maybe fifteen minutes before going back to the mad house.
Just as he got to the bridge, however, he saw someone leaning over, staring into the water. Robert, he realised as he approached. He sucked in a sharp breath as he did, letting it out slowly. He coughed as he neared him, so Robert would know he was there, and then smiled tightly when Robert looked his way, tensed.
“Hiya,” he said softly, over the sound of the rushing stream. Robert relaxed when he saw it was Aaron. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Robert replied, quickly. Then, “No, I don’t know.”
“What’s up?” Aaron settled next to Robert, leaning onto the side of the bridge shoulder to shoulder with him.
There was a pause for a minute, and Aaron wondered if he would ever get an answer when; “Rebecca’s said I can go up to Liverpool and see Seb if I want.”
Aaron swallowed thickly and said, “That’s amazing!”
He hadn’t seen Seb since just after Robert had gone to prison, and he missed him almost every waking second. He couldn’t imagine what it would have been like for Robert, knowing he was growing up somewhere far away and never getting to see him, to hold him. He’d missed so much - first words, starting Primary school, and so, so many birthdays. Aaron’s heart broke for himself, but for Robert, doubly.
“Yeah…” Robert agreed, but his face read a different story.
“Why aren’t you jumping for joy right now? You get to see your son?”
Robert looked away, but not quickly enough for Aaron to miss the tears in his eyes. He kicked a stone from the bridge into the river and took a shaky breath. “He’s not going to know who I am. Just some bloke who’s come for tea. What if…” Robert trailed off and shook his head. Aaron nudged their shoulders together and nodded him to continue. “What if he doesn’t want to get to know me? I mean, he’s got Ross, right? He has a dad?”
“ You’re his dad, Rob.” Aaron said, turning to face him. “And it’ll be a slow process, yeah, you both need to get to know each other again. But you’ll get there. You just need to take the first step.”
Robert nodded, lips pressed tightly together. “I miss him so much,” he said after a beat.
“I know,” Aaron said with a sigh.
Robert looked at him, and Aaron wondered if he was thinking about before, about surrogates and Christmas plans and everything else they had when they were still a family. He thought about it all the time, as much as he told himself not to. Harry could have cousins to play with, maybe even a whole horde of Sugden-Dingle children running around the village - a football team’s worth. He felt guilty every time. He and Ben had never talked about family, but once or twice Ben had offhandedly mentioned that he’d like to get married eventually. It wasn’t a proposal, but Aaron knew the ‘to you’ was implied.
“Go,” Aaron said to try and ease the tension. “See him. You’ll only regret it if you don’t.”
“Thank you,” Robert said earnestly. Aaron merely smiled and nodded. “What are you doing here anyway?”
Aaron turned back to the water. “Just needed to clear my head.”
“ Have you been taking care of yourself ?” Robert asked, and Aaron pretended not to see his eyes flick down to his stomach.
“I’m good,” Aaron said, turning his head. “You don’t need to worry.”
“I’ll always worry,” Robert replied, and Aaron could see what he was really saying.
Aaron’s eyes flicked down to Robert’s lips of their own accord. He didn’t know when they’d ended up so close together, chests nearly touching. Their fingers brushed with the most minute of movements on either of their parts. Aaron’s breath caught as Robert moved to link their pinkie fingers together. He knew he could just lean forward, just a little, kiss him like he wanted to. Robert wouldn't pull away.
It took every ounce of willpower he had to take a step away and say, “I reckon I’d better get back, put tea on." Robert frowned. "Liv’s been at uni all week, she’ll want cooking for.” Robert just hummed and looked away. Aaron fumbled for something to say then settled on, “Tell Rebecca I said hi, alright.”
When he got no response, he turned and walked away, wondering if he’d just made a huge mistake, or avoided one.