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It’s easier than Aaron thought it would be to just be Robert’s friend. They settle into a routine of pleasant silences at the scrapyard, coffee every now and then in the café, playing football together with Harry (they all know Aaron’s far better at it, even if Robert is too stubborn to admit it). Aaron thought Ben would’ve made more of a fuss, but he’s been really good about it. He says it’s nice that Aaron has a friend, remembers hearing about Adam and feeling bad that Aaron was missing that connection. Aaron hopes the guilt doesn’t show on his face. 

It’s going surprisingly well, actually, by their standards, when Robert shows up at the scrap yard one day with a woman. She’s tall, blonde, has a figure like a model. Aaron wouldn’t think anything of it, except for the way Robert’s guiding her towards the portacabin with a hand on her lower back, and she’s laughing at something he’s said with the brightest smile Aaron’s ever seen. He bites the inside of his cheek and sits up, acting like he’s been working the whole time.

The woman steps into the cabin and greets Aaron with a smile and a, “Hiya!”

Aaron barely gives her a nod, instead pointedly pretends to be looking through the paperwork that’s spread across his desk haphazardly. He should leave. He said he’d meet Ben in the Woolie for lunch, but somehow he finds himself sending a text that he can’t make it. Ben is wonderfully understanding about it which makes him feel worse, but he’s rooted to his chair. There’s something about the way Robert and this woman are smiling at each other that seems to have him paralysed on the spot.

“Coffee?” Robert offers her. “I reckon for you I could even stretch to a rich tea as well.”

The woman gasps like this is scandalous. “I’m meant to be on a diet, but one won’t hurt.” Aaron really has to bite his tongue hard at that. This woman looks like she’s 100 pounds soaking wet, what could she possibly need to diet for? 

As Robert makes the tea he starts up a conversation about a haulage route through Belgium, which Aaron only half listens to. They circle around to the topic of Brexit and tunnel fees and the chocolatiers in Brussels, and Aaron can’t quite stop himself from rolling his eyes. It’s excruciatingly pleasant, the way she takes dainty bites of her biscuit and sits forward in her chair with one leg crossed over the other. Everything about her is elegant and purposeful.

Robert points something out to her on a spreadsheet they’ve got in front of them, and she leans forward to look, placing a hand on his bicep to steady herself. Aaron coughs to stifle a grumble in the back of his throat, and quickly averts his eyes when they both look over to him. Neither of them mention anything, and when he chances another look at them both, they’ve gone back to the spreadsheet, except now Robert has angled his body even more towards her. 

This goes on for a while, this process of conversation, spreadsheet, sitting closer and closer together - for the better part of half an hour. By the end of it she might as well be sat on his knee. Aaron is silently simmering with rage at his desk. There’s no subtlety to them, just shameless flirting. 

“This all sounds really great, Robert,” the woman says in her sickly sweet voice. “I just have a couple more questions, but I think they could be discussed over dinner? Say, tonight? There’s that lovely little Italian place in Hotten we could go to.” 

Aaron stands so fast he gets light-headed, quite without realising he was even going to. His chair bangs into the portacabin wall, and they both turn to look at him. He fumbles for an excuse before muttering a weak, “Have a run to do,” and all but sprinting out to his car.

He gets in, starts the ignition, and is pulling away before he’s even had a chance to take a breath. She’d just invited him out on a date right in front of him. Worse still, Robert had smiled at her like he’d been thinking the same thing. He drives without really knowing where he’s going to end up, fists gripping the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles go white. He knows he’s being erratic, and that he’s going to put people at risk, so he takes a couple of calming breaths and pulls over.

He doesn’t have any right to be acting like this, not when he’d told Robert they should just be friends, not when he’d been with Ben right in front of him via dates in the Woollie, or bringing him sandwiches from the café, or having to get home for family meals where Ben was going to be there. He’d been flaunting the relationship for months, it wasn’t fair for him to get mad about this. If Robert wanted to go off and fuck some slutty investor - one who looked suspiciously like Rebecca, but that was something Aaron was trying hard not to think about - then he had every right to do so, and Aaron had no authority to tell him otherwise. 

The thought left a bitter taste in his mouth but it did allow him to calm down enough to pull his head away from the steering wheel that he’d been pressing it into, and open his eyes. When he did he realised where he was - their layby - he couldn’t stop the tears any longer. Soon enough he was sobbing, hand balled into the sleeve of his hoodie, pressed hard into his mouth so he wouldn’t make a sound.

He sobbed until he’d exhausted himself, then he just sat there, staring straight ahead unseeingly. He couldn’t get the image of Robert and the woman out of his head. Objectively, he knew that eventually Robert would find someone else. Aaron didn’t really expect him to stay single for the rest of his life. He’d just thought (or maybe hoped) that he’d have more time to come to terms with it.

He knows he can’t sit in the layby all night, and it’s starting to get dark, so he starts the engine and pulls back onto the road. He can’t face the Mill just yet, not with all those people to scrutinise him - not with Ben. Instead he drives back to the scrapyard, hoping it’ll be empty. He sighs in frustration when he sees that Robert’s car is still there. The woman’s, fortunately, is not.

He takes a couple of deep breaths before getting out of the car. He walks towards the portacabin and doesn’t realise he’s been scratching at a scabbed cut on the palm of his hand until he feels a light trickle, looks down and sees blood. He curses under his breath as he reaches the door. He steps inside and reaches for the first aid kit without acknowledging Robert who’s still sat at his desk.

He’s trying to balance the box on the side of a filing cabinet without bleeding all over it, when he feels a presence beside him. Robert takes the box from him and opens it. He takes out a sanitizing wipe then holds out a hand to Aaron. “Let me.”

“I can do it,” Aaron protests, not sure how he feels about how gentle Robert’s tone of voice is.

“Can you stop being a stubborn idiot for five minutes and let me help you, please?” 

Aaron wants to say no, to do it himself, maybe even turn back around and leave. But his hand is starting to sting now and he’d only bleed more all over the car. With a huff he relents and holds his hand out for Robert. Robert, naturally looking quite pleased with himself, guides him so he’s sat on the desk, then rips the wipe open. He’s careful as he presses it against Aaron’s palm to clean the cut, holding his hand gently. When the cut is clean, he grabs a bandage out of the kit.

“Aren’t you meant to be out with Haulage Barbie?” Aaron asks bitterly before he can stop himself.

Robert huffs, somewhere between annoyance and amusement. “I don’t think you’re really in a position to ask about my romantic life.”

Aaron knows he’s right, but it still stings. They’re quiet as Robert winds the bandage around his palm. It’s the closest they’ve been in months, the most physical contact they’ve had, and Aaron sort of doesn’t want it to end. Eventually, the bandage is tied. Robert turns his hand back so it’s palm up, presses his own against it softly, then takes a step away to dispose of the packaging and put the first aid kit back in its place.

“You know, I’ve seen you and Ben together. I’ve seen you happy, and that we’re over. And yet when a beautiful, intelligent, single woman asks me on a date, I still say no.” He’s got his back to Aaron which is a blessing because it means he can’t see the tears spring in Aaron’s eyes. “I say no because as much as I should be trying to get over you I can’t. I don’t even want to.”

“Rob…” Aaron whispers.

Robert turns around, and he’s crying too. “I am never going to want anyone else the way I want you. Never going to love anyone else. And I know that’s not fair because I broke us up and you’ve got Ben now.” He shrugs hopelessly. “But it’s true. I love you, and I always will.”

“God, Rob, I love you too,” Aaron says breathlessly.

Because he does. With every fibre of his being, every piece of his soul, he loves Robert. And deep down he knows his heart belongs to Robert. And he hates himself for saying it because Ben deserves better than this, but it’s the truth. He loves Robert like he’s never loved anyone else before, and he can’t fathom a future where he and Robert aren’t together. Robert is all he wants and he’s done pretending otherwise.

Robert is still crying but he’s smiling now. “I never thought I’d hear you say that again. When I got back I thought you’d’ve forgotten about me.”

Aaron huffs a bitter laugh as he tries to stop his own tears from falling. “ I couldn’t forget you even if I tried. And believe me, I’ve tried .” He shakes his head and wipes at his tears harshly. “But it’s you. It’s always been you .”

Robert nods as he takes a tentative step forwards. Then another. They’re almost touching now as he says, “I don’t think there’s been a day since I met you where I haven’t been in love with you.”

He starts to lean forward like he’s going to kiss Aaron, and Aaron knows he’ll not say no. Knows he’ll kiss back, wrap his arms around Robert’s neck, pull them so close there’ll not even be space for molecules between them. He’ll let Robert take him across the desk like he has a million times before and it’ll be just as good, just as right , and he won’t think of anything else but Robert. He knows this with a certainty he’s never felt about anything else before in his life.

It’s then that he hears a “What the hell?” from the portacabin door, and when he turns to look, there Ben is, stood bouquet in hands, looking horrified.