“No, honestly, I’ll be back before 10,” Aaron promises down the phone. It’s leaning precariously against his windscreen as he drives around the corner. “I just have a client to see. Wine and dine, or whatever.”
Ben chuckles through the phone. “Alright,” he says. “Be safe.”
“Yeah,” Aaron agrees as he pulls into the restaurant car park. “Bye.”
Aaron feels guilty long enough for Ben to hang up and for him to get parked. As soon as he sees Robert waiting in the restaurant doorway, however, all feelings of guilt disappear almost immediately. Robert is wearing a suit, charcoal grey, which fits him in all the right places - tight across his thighs, hugging his shoulders, shirt buttons straining just enough against his chest to make Aaron consider ditching dinner altogether. He feels a bit underdressed in his black trousers and white shirt. He did polish his shoes before he left, which he feels should earn him some brownie points at least.
He takes one last, deep breath before turning off the ignition and grabbing his phone. As he climbs out of the car, that fizzy, giddy, warm feeling settles in his stomach the way it always does when he sees Robert. After all these years he would’ve thought it would be gone by now, but as he walks across the car park to greet him, it only feels all the more intense. He exists in a constant state of wishing it would disappear and never wanting it to end.
“Hiya,” he greets, feeling almost shy as he reaches Robert.
“Hi,” Robert replies, looking him up and down. There’s a dark glint in his eye that tells Aaron he needn’t have worried himself about being underdressed. “Alright?”
A steady silence settles between them as they stand looking at one another. Aaron knows he has to drink his fill now, because neither of them know when the next time they’ll be able to see each other is, especially like this where they're so unimpeded. It’s complicated with Ben and with Vic breathing down Robert’s neck. Aaron has a feeling his mum is watching them, too, to see if exactly this is going on under her nose. They both know how careful they have to be, and not least because they’ve been exactly here before.
“Do you… want to go in?” Aaron proposes, the chill of the night air making goose bumps raise on his skin and the delicious scents emanating from the restaurant enticing him inside.
“Yeah,” Robert says, nodding slightly more violently than is necessary. He pulls open the door, and gestures with his hand. “After you.”
“Incurable romantic,” Aaron accuses, but he’s unable to fight a smile as he steps inside.
It’s a nice restaurant. That much is obvious right from the start. The walls are papered in ornate red and gold wallpaper, the picture rails and skirting boards are both gold plated, and the gaudy chandeliers hung at intervals offer little light, supplemented by candelabras on the tables. A pimpled waiter whose hands won’t stop shaking steps up to a podium that requests guests wait to be seated, and smiles at them tightly. He can’t be any older than Liv. Aaron forces a smile back.
“Hiya, reservation for Sugden,” Robert says, stepping up to the podium. The waiter scans the diary on the other side, then smiles again once he sees their names. He nods and grabs two menus, then takes off at speed across the restaurant floor. Robert and Aaron shoot each other amused looks, then follow after him before they lose him. He shows them to a secluded table in the corner. “Thanks,” Robert says, but the waiter is already rushing off. He laughs, then pulls out one of the chairs. “For you.”
Aaron raises his eyebrows at him, but says nothing as he takes the seat. He’s trying to work out why Robert is being so intense with the chivalry, when he realises this is their first proper ‘date’ since he got back, the many instances of sneaking out to make out in barns, or the scrap yard, or in laybys notwithstanding. Suddenly, Aaron feels like he should have made more of an effort. He doesn’t want Robert to think this doesn’t mean just as much to him.
“Thank you,” he says, though he fears enough time has passed for it to just be awkward. Robert doesn’t say anything if it is. Aaron picks up a menu to distract himself regardless.
He can’t read half the food items, and it doesn’t have any price listings, so he knows it must be expensive. Robert had already insisted that he was paying, no complaints, but Aaron wasn’t expecting this. He thinks of the anniversary dinner he and Ben had shared a few weeks before: a slightly stale pizza from an Italian in Hotten, followed by an early night - and not the fun kind. He quickly pushes the thought from his head, but the knowledge that he’s far happier here with Robert than he’s ever been with Ben lingers.
Robert ends up ordering for the both of them. Aaron is slightly terrified about what he’ll end up with, because Robert’s gastronomical tastes have always been questionable. They make small talk as they wait for the food to arrive and Aaron can't take his eyes off of Robert's face, the flickering candles casting shadows across his features which make him look ethereal. They always go for the safe topics first; Liv and uni, work, Vic and Harry. They’re neutral enough to keep a conversation going without diving into the arenas that make one or both of them squirm. There are certain topics they never discuss: them, Ben, the future. Aaron knows they have to live in the moment, or they’ll never get to live at all.
When the food comes out, Aaron is pleasantly surprised. It’s a pasta dish with a garlic bread side. “I know what you like,” Robert says, catching sight of Aaron’s expression.
Aaron hides his smile behind a mouthful of the food. He tries not to think about how Robert knows him in all the ways Ben fundamentally doesn’t . Ben probably knows just as much about his life, they’ve had all the uncomfortable conversations about Jackson and Ed and Robert, but Aaron isn’t convinced Ben knows him much at all. He doesn’t think anyone has ever known him as inherently as Robert always has.
They eat mostly in a companionable silence, trading intermittent quips about what Vic would think of the food, or reminiscing about nights just like this which were so plentiful once upon a time. Their past counts as a topic which falls in the grey area between safety and discomfort. Their marriage lives in Aaron’s mind on an almost constant loop, so it’s usually a relief to get to talk to someone about it. A lot of the time it makes him miss what they had, when nights like these (Robert overdressing and paying for meals well outside their budget, the incessant bickering that's tinged with an undeniable fondness, catching the other staring then looking away bashfully once they're caught) weren't such a rare commodity.
Once they’ve finished eating, a waiter comes over to take their plates. “How was everything?” he asks, piling them on top of one another.
“Great,” Aaron praises. “Definitely better than cooking.”
“Anything is better than your cooking,” Robert counters, eyes wide, passing his plate to the waiter.
“Er, ‘scuse me, I’m a good cook!” Aaron rebuts, frowning.
“Yeah, from a packet,” Robert teases, a slight smile appearing on his lips.
Even the waiter laughs. “You two are such a cute couple,” he says.
He disappears before Aaron can deny it. But then, what would he even say? Oh, no, sorry, we’re actually just ex husbands. My boyfriend is at home watching Grand Designs and eating frozen pizza right now thinking I'm trying to win over a client. He has no idea I’m currently embroiled in another affair with this man. It hits him like a wave of ice just how complicated everything is. Not that he isn’t perpetually aware of how screwed they both are, but he sometimes gets caught up in being back with Robert that he forgets everything else. It’s always a shock being brought back to reality.
“Sorry,” he mumbles to Robert, who is staring pointedly down at his placemat.
He forgets, too, how much worse this must all be for Robert. He’s been there, he knows how much it hurts being the other man. Watching Robert trying to live out his happily ever after with Chrissie had been hell, the pain of being apart from him like nothing else Aaron had ever experienced. He can't imagine how much worse it must be for Robert now, after all this time, two marriages, a house and a kid between them. At least back then ahalf of Aaron had seen how unlikely it was for anything to be able to happen between them, knowing he was always second to Chrissie. But with Robert and Ben...
Robert presses his lips together and shakes his head. “No,” he says, lifting his head. “No, it’s okay,” he assures. He reaches across the table and takes Aaron’s hands in his. Aaron has to wonder if that simple touch will ever stop sending jolts down his spine. “I know this isn’t ideal. I know we’re not technically a couple, but I will have you in any capacity I can.”
Aaron searches Robert’s face and finds nothing but complete sincerity written there. It’s a terrifying kind of certainty that Aaron isn’t sure he’s ever felt about anything. Except, maybe the certainty that he and Robert will always find their way back together. He can only nod in response, not trusting his voice, especially with the lump that builds in his throat. He squeezes Robert’s hands just to remind himself that Robert is real and here with him, looking at him with so much love Aaron could never feel worthy of it. He already knows how much it’ll ache later to be in bed, in their home, without him.
He gets back just after 11, because he and Robert had found a secluded layby near a field and managed to somehow squeeze both of their bodies into Aaron’s backseat. It had been uncomfortable, and awkward, and the best - always the best. Aaron’s not expecting Ben to be waiting up for him once he gets home, but the TV is still blaring, and as he closes the door behind him, Ben’s sleeping figure on the sofa jolts awake.
Aaron stares at him a moment, until the voice in his head telling him it’s the wrong man he’s going to bed with quietens down, then says, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“‘S alright,” Ben replies groggily as he wipes the sleep from his eyes. He squints against the brightness of his phone as he taps it on. “‘S late.”
“Yeah, client was a bit more difficult than I thought,” Aaron lies. He scares himself with how easy it is, and he knows it's because it's the only way he gets to have Robert. He’d do anything for that.
Ben nods and clears his throat. “Right, yeah. Did it go well?”
“Great,” Aaron replies. It’s a rare bit of truth.
“Are you coming to bed?” Ben asks. He gets up off the sofa, bones cracking as he goes. The side of his hair is sticking up in a way that, a few months ago, Aaron would’ve found adorable. He would’ve tried flattening it down just to give himself an excuse to run his fingers through it, and teased him all the way up the stairs. Now, the thought of it makes him feel sick.
“I’m gonna have a shower first,” Aaron says. He hates to wash the traces of Robert from his body but he knows if he tries going to bed without one the guilt of it will eat him alive.
“Okay,” Ben says around a yawn, padding over to the staircase. “Love you,” he says as he goes up.
“Yeah, love you too,” Aaron replies, instinctively.
He freezes, another wave of ice in his veins, paralysed as he realises it’s a complete lie. He knows it’s probably stupid to be surprised, given everything with Robert, but none of that meant he didn’t still care for Ben, love him even. But now, with Robert in his life, living just up the road, everything is different. He’s different. He never would’ve thought he’d be the guy who went to dinner and hooked up with another man while his boyfriend waited for him at home, but that’s exactly who he’s become. It leaves an unsavoury taste in his mouth.
Worse still is that he knows, if Robert is the reward he gets, he can’t even bring himself to regret it.