Aaron doesn’t know how long he’s been staring into space for when the door to the portacabin opens (minutes, hours, his whole life). He focuses his eyes and finds Ben poking his head in, a grin on his face. Aaron’s stomach drops, and he knows that’s not the ideal response to seeing your boyfriend after a long day of work. He tries not to think too much about it - there’s a lot he’s trying not to think too much about at the minute.
“Hiya,” Ben greets, bright and cheerful as ever. Aaron’s heart squeezes, and he manages a tight smile and curt nod in response. “Thought you might want to get some lunch at the Woolie? I’m paying.”
Aaron honestly can’t think of anything worse. “I have loads of work,” he lies, gesturing to the random pile of paperwork spread out in front of him. “Sorry.”
Ben nods, smiles, shrugs. “Yeah, of course.” He smiles again, a grin that takes over his whole face. “See you later then.”
Aaron just about manages a smile before Ben disappears out of the door, but it’s weak at best and disappears from his face as soon as the door closes. He huffs a sigh, squeezing his eyes closed as he presses his forehead to the desk. There’s a slight ringing in his ears, and he can feel his heart pounding in his chest. He knows it shouldn’t still be this hard - he knows it’s been long enough now that he should have come to terms with this. But every year, like clockwork, it all comes back to him. The guilt, the heartbreak, the regret.
He knows he shouldn’t resent Ben for being oblivious. He knows it’s not really his fault. How could he expect him to know? How could he expect him to care? These are Aaron’s demons, ones which have long overstayed their welcome inside his mind. They’re no one else’s problem but his own. Ben had been nothing but sweet when Aaron had told him about Jackson, about what had happened. He’d held Aaron, he’d pressed gentle kisses to the scars on his wrist, he’d told him all the usual spiel about how it wasn’t his fault and it didn’t make him a bad person, and wasn’t he just a kid, really. He knows he could probably find Ben right now and tell him what was going on, and Ben would hold him and tell him everything would be okay.
The thought of Ben touching him right now makes him want to throw up.
Instead he just squeezes his hands into fists below the desk. He presses his forehead harder against the wood and screws up his whole face. It does nothing to alleviate the pressure in his head, and it certainly doesn’t make the thoughts go away. Nothing ever does. Sometimes he wishes he could take a chisel to the inside of his skull and calve away all the painful memories. He’s not sure if he did that that he’d have any left.
He growls low in his throat then stands abruptly. The force sends his chair slamming into the portacabin wall, but he barely pays it any mind. Instead he grabs his keys from beneath the mess of papers on the desk and storms out of the room. He closes the door behind him with a loud bang and fumbles to lock it. He hums at himself in warning before he manages to stop his hand shaking enough to be able to get the key in and turned.
As he walks away, he hesitates by the car before shaking his head and carrying on. It’s a warm enough day, and he hopes the cool breeze might help clear his head. He thinks of Hazel as he goes, of what she’s doing right now. Probably sunning herself somewhere more exotic than Aaron has ever heard of, some boytoy less than half her age feeding her grapes and fanning her with palm leaves. He chuckles to himself at the mental image. He hopes she’s happy, wherever she is. He hopes she’s over the worst of it.
He kicks a rock as he walks, watches it roll up the lane. He thinks of all the blokes who would have something profound to say about that: the state of the world, the destructive nature of man, the futility of everything. A million men who deserve this warm, sunny day more than he ever could - this life, the boyfriend sitting at home with no idea of all the ways Aaron has hurt him, the family who love him even despite all the pain he’s caused them. Aaron’s not sure he’s worthy of any of it.
He reaches the village and ducks his head instinctively. He doesn’t want to see anyone today, it had been hell enough getting out of the house without Ben prying that morning. He doesn’t have it in him for small talk, not today. It can only be by some benevolent divine intervention that no one sees him, and he makes it to the graveyard uninterrupted. He hesitates again once he’s inside, aware that he’s empty handed, improperly dressed, and feeling far more sorry for himself than he is worrying about Jackson.
He flinches when a hand touches his shoulder, and his stomach sinks. He has a horrible feeling this’ll be Harriet, trying to do a nice thing and see what’s wrong, but ultimately just making Aaron feel worse. He’s even more scared that it’ll be Ben come to interrogate him about his flimsy work excuse, and try dragging him to the Woollie anyway. He just- he can’t deal, not right now, not when he’s on the verge of tears, it taking everything inside him just to stay upright.
When he sees it’s Robert, he can’t tell if any of the confusing mix of feelings in his stomach are relief. His breath catches, regardless. He hasn’t really seen Robert since the bridge. He’s not sure if Robert has been avoiding him, though he couldn’t blame him if he had. He knows how unfair everything about this situation is. Still, he’s missed him. There’s always an oppressive Robert-shaped hole in his life (and his heart) when he’s not around. Aaron has never felt whole without him. He’s trying to be patient, give him the space he needs, but he hates this awkward stalemate they’ve got and just wishes everything could go back to being as simple as when they were together.
“Sorry,” Robert placates with a tight smile. Aaron pretends not to see how forced it is. “I saw you walking over. I took a guess where you were going, given the date and all.” Aaron can’t stop staring at him, mouth slightly agape. “Jackson?”
It’s alien hearing that name in Robert’s voice. They didn’t talk a lot about what happened, though he’d told Robert the whole story. Robert was always so careful about it, almost afraid to bring it up. On the few occasions he did, Aaron could never decide if it was a relief or a knife to the heart. It was a blessing to be vindicated, to have his feelings justified, but talking about Jackson was always painful, especially with Robert. He always felt a strange kind of guilt knowing that however much he had loved Jackson, Robert eclipsed it. It felt like betrayal, even though he knew objectively that Jackson would’ve wanted him to move on and be happy.
“Yeah,” he manages, voice weak around the lump in his throat.
“Do…” Robert clears his throat and rubs at his eyebrow with his thumb. He looks behind himself at the village and lingers a moment or so, before turning back to Aaron. “Would you like some company?”
“Yeah,” Aaron repeats before he even has time to consider if it’s the truth. He’s almost amazed when he realises it is.
They take off towards the grave in a companionable silence. Aaron is struck by how he doesn’t feel a need to fill the space between them with as much noise as possible. Quiet with Ben is stifling and he always feels the urge to overcompensate. With Robert, it feels totally natural for them to walk together, side by side, neither of them talking because neither of them need to. They can just be together. Aaron knows this is not the time to be thinking these kinds of thoughts, but he so scarcely lets himself think of Robert at all that they all come rushing to him the second he lets down his mental guard.
They turn up the row of graves to where Jackson is buried, and Aaron is surprised Robert remembers the way. There’d been a couple of years where they’d come up together on the anniversary, laid flowers down for him. Aaron would tell some stupid story about something Jackson said or did, and Robert would listen patiently, laughing in all the right places before kissing Aaron’s temple and walking off to wait by the gates, let Aaron have a few minutes alone. He was always so good at knowing when Aaron needed the space - at making Aaron feel understood.
They reach the grave and Aaron remembers how he has nothing to show for himself. He squeezes his hands into fists inside his pockets and presses his lips together. Jackson deserves far better than this, but then, what else is new? Robert nudges their shoulders together and when Aaron turns to look, he’s holding out a can of cheap beer from David's - the brand Aaron used to love when he was younger. Aaron frowns a little in confusion, but Robert shrugs flippantly and holds it out to him. Aaron, wishing Robert wouldn't be so casual about the things that makes his heart soar, takes it in a shaking hand and says nothing. He takes a breath before pulling the ring and opening it with a hiss.
He raises it a little and mumbles a, “Cheers,” before pouring it onto the soil by the stone. He shakes the last dregs from the can before crushing it in his hand and shoving it into his pocket. “Thank you,” he says to Robert, eyes fixed on the engraving. Boyfriend - it still haunts him. He's never been a good one.
“He’d be proud of you,” Robert replies, wrapping an arm around Aaron’s shoulders. Aaron leans into the touch on instinct. “Where you’re at, how far you’ve come.” Robert squeezes gently. “I am.”
Aaron has to press his lips together against the tears which threaten to fall. He’d thought that getting over Jackson would be the hardest thing he’d ever had to do. He’d loved him so much he didn’t know what to do with it all. It was painful; part of him hoped that some of the feelings would bleed out of the cuts on his skin and make him feel a little lighter, though they never did. He thought he’d spend the rest of his life carrying the weight of the guilt and the hurt around with him, knowing that Jackson was good and kind and honest, but knowing even more all the ways he'd had managed to ruin him.
Trying to get over Robert makes that feel like child's play. He can’t get him out of his head. He thinks of him constantly even despite himself, the jokes he’d laugh at or something he’d like in a shop window. Even when Aaron’s alone with Ben, more often than not it’s Robert who's on his mind. Robert makes him feel loved, whole, seen. Being in love with him is the easiest thing in the world, even if everything else about them is complicated. He doesn't know how to stop. Most of the time he can kid himself into thinking he’ll get over him in time, that eventually they can find a way to just be friends and Aaron can be content with Ben.
But, as Robert’s warmth bleeds into his side, and as the smell of Robert’s aftershave envelops him, he knows that’s not true. As long as Robert is in his life, he knows there’s no getting over him. Seeing him, talking to him, thinking about him - all of it just reminds him all the ways he loves him; all the ways he doesn't, and how they never seem to cancel each other out. He feels like he's been trying to get over Robert Sugden half is life, and he's beginning to see just how futile the endeavour is. He swallows thickly and tries not to think about whether the feelings that settle in his stomach are of dread, or something worse. Something like hope.