"So, based on this new evidence, the court has decided to change your sentence from murder to GBH." The judge started and Robert held his breath, looking straight ahead. He didn't dare hope. "Your solicitor has informed me that you have decided to plead guilty? Is that correct mister Sugden?"
"Yes, your honour."
The judge nodded and looked over the papers again.
"Well then, taking into account your time served, your guilty plea, and other mitigating circumstances..." the judge looked up and met Robert's eye. "You have served your time, you are free to go mister Sugden."
There were cheers coming from the gallery behind him but he didn't dare turn around to face them. He couldn't believe what he was hearing.
"Congrats, it's all over." Ethan, his new solicitor patted him on the shoulder. When he'd gotten a letter from his previous solicitor saying new evidence had come to light and his case would be reopened and taken over by one of their new hires, Robert had thought the universe was playing some kind of cruel joke on him. Even more so when he met the guy for the first time and he told him he was friends with Vic.
But it turned out the guy was like a dog with a bone and wouldn't accept anything but a win for his case. He knew his stuff and he had good instincts and he'd given Robert hope after every meeting.
One of the prison guards that had escorted him to the court room came over to take off his handcuffs and told him to contact the prison with an address to send his personal belongs to.
He nodded and finally turned around. His eyes first found Vic and a wave of sadness hit him. She'd changed so much. She was a mum now, she'd been through hell and back, and he'd cut her out of his life. And yet here she was for him. Again.
Next to her were Matty and Amy. He didn't know either of them that well but he appreciated them being there for Vic. Next to them was Ethan's father who'd come to watch his son work his first big case.
Wendy Posner was there too, though not sitting with Vic and the rest of them. He knew what role she'd played in everything and he probably should be thankful, but he'd sooner serve the full 14 years behind bars than to say thank you to her.
And behind them, hidden in the back row, as if Robert wouldn't be able to pick him out of a crowd of millions in a heartbeat, there was Aaron. His hair was a little longer than when he'd last seen him and he looked tired, maybe a little thinner, but still as breathtakingly gorgeous as ever.
"Come on, let's get out of here, before anyone changes their mind." Ethan joked and gently pushed him towards the doors. "Vic has been dying to see you again."
He followed Ethan out into the hallway and before he really knew what had hit him, Vic had her arms tightly wrapped around him, and was telling him how much she'd missed him. He hugged her back and told her he'd missed her too, while scanning the place for a sign of Aaron.
Before long they were asked to leave so the next hearing could be prepared and the defendant brought in.
Vic linked her arm through his and lead him outside, down the steps and into the street. It was a warm day, the early spring sunshine breaking through the clouds after one of the coldest winters he'd ever lived through, and Robert closed his eyes for a moment to enjoy the sun on his face and breathe in the fresh air.
"Robert?" someone said, softly and unsure.
He opened his eyes and turned to see Wendy Posner. He could tell she was nervous from the way she was playing with the strap on her bag and the way she looked anywhere but his face.
"I uh... just wanted to say... uhm... I'm glad it all worked out in your favour."
"Aww thank you Wendy." Vic replied for him. "I'm sure today hasn't been easy for you either."
"No... no it hasn't... but uhm... It's... this is the way it should have been from the start." she settled on.
"Yes it is." Robert agreed. "Thanks to your sons I lost everything. I spent two years in prison with abusers and murderers for something I didn't even do. You and your precious boy spent that time playing happy families with my sister, while I lost mine. I lost the love of my life, my son, my future! All because of you and your inability to raise your sons as decent people."
"Rob... calm down..." Vic started. "She's the one that got the ball rolling, you know."
"No, he's right. I've failed as a mother...I thought my sons were good boys... but I was wrong..." Wendy said and took a deep breath. "And I know nothing I say can give you back the time you lost with your family... but I just.... want to apologise for the hurt my family caused for yours."
Robert nodded but didn't say anything.
"Thank you Wendy. That means a lot." Vic told her and Robert had to bite his tongue not to say anything he'd regret.
"I uh... want you to know I'm leaving the village. I've found a new job in Bristol and a flat... I'm starting over."
"Bristol? That's miles away. Harry will miss you if you live that far away." Vic protested.
"Harry has his uncle that he has to get to know."
"And his cousin." a familiar voice said, making Robert's heart skip a beat. He looked over Wendy's shoulder and saw Aaron walking up to them with Seb holding onto his hand tightly.
He looked the boy up and down, he'd grown so much since he'd last seen him. He'd been just two, he was four now.
Robert dropped to his knees in front of Seb and blinked back the tears in his eyes.
"Hi. You probably don't remember me... but I'm your dad... and I've missed you so much."
Seb looked up at Aaron.
"It's daddy Robert. From the pictures." Aaron told him. "We talked about him, didn't we?"
Seb nodded slowly and looked back at Robert.
"You were away."
"Yeah... but I'm back now. And I'm never leaving again, I promise."
Seb stuck out his pinky.
Robert could cry out of sheer happiness as he hooked his finger around Seb's.
"Pinky promise." he couldn't help himself and pulled the boy in for a hug and actually cried when Seb wrapped his arms around his neck.
"Daddy? If you're back now... we can get a puppy!"
Robert laughed and kissed the top of Seb's head.
"We can definitely talk about that."
Vic and Amy distracted Seb as Robert stood up and came face to face with Aaron, to give them some privacy to talk.
"Hey..." he said, not knowing what else to say.
Aaron nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
"So... uh... Seb is with you now? What happened to Rebecca?"
Aaron shook his head.
"He's with Vic. She has custody of him. I'm nothing to him anymore since you divorced me and cut me out of your life."
"Aaron... I... I'm sorry... I just..."
"No, Robert, I don't want to hear it. I got your letter the summer after you got sent here... I understand why you did it... but it still hurt. A lot. You could have told me that time I came to see you. We were a team weren't we? We shared everything. We were going to run away together before you handed yourself in!"
"I... I couldn't let you do that. I couldn't let you give up everything for me."
"Don't you think I would have liked to make that decision myself?"
"I get that you hate me now... but I hope one day we'll be able to move past it... and I hope you'll still be a father to Seb... if your boyfriend doesn't mind..."
"Who? Ben? Who told you about him?"
"Ethan... because I asked him..."
"When did you ask him?"
"Uh... I uh... when he told me he knew Vic and lived in the village... the first time I met him... sometime last year."
"I'm happy for you." Robert said sincere. "That you found someone you can be happy with after I screwed everything up."
"Yeah. Well... That didn't work out. We split up. I guess Ethan didn't keep you updated on the gossip from back home."
"Oh... I'm sorry."
"I'm not." Aaron said, stepping closer to Robert and gingerly pulling him into a hug. He buried his face in Robert's neck and let the other man breathe him in. "I've missed you."
"I've missed you too." Robert told him. "And I'm sorry I hurt you."
"I know." Aaron stepped back and wiped the tears from his face before taking Robert's hand. "Come on, Harry is with Liv and Diane in a B&B down the road, I'm sure he wants to get to know his uncle.
Robert smiled and followed Aaron to where Vic and the others were waiting with Seb. The boy took his free hand and started babbling about what he was going to call the puppy Robert was going to buy him. He glanced at Aaron who just smiled and gave his hand a squeeze. He knew things weren't magically ok between them and they still had a long way to go to get back to where they were before.... but he was free and the worst two and a half years of his life were over, and that was a good place to start.