Aaron was freezing, standing in the queue for prison visiting was tedious especially in winter. Not that he would've missed it. After not hearing from Robert for nearly two years he'd jumped at the chance to see him when the visiting order landed in the letterbox.
He'd no idea what had prompted the sudden change of heart, Robert had sent divorce papers, it'd all gone through, so he was curious. He hadn't told anyone where he was going. telling his Mum he was visiting mates in London. The lecture he'd get if she knew where he was, was something he was more than keen to avoid.
He was nervous, his mind going over all the reasons Robert had got in touch, the worst case scenarios all he could imagine.
Finally the line began to move and before long he was at the gateway. He handed over the letter expecting to be let straight through.
"You've had a wasted trip pal." The guard told him already looking at the person behind him in the line.
"Hang on, I've got a visiting order. Robert Sugden."
"Like I said, you've had a wasted trip. He ain't here."
"Popped to the shops has he? He's serving life!"
"Not any more. He was released three days ago, now if you don't mind..."
"Well, where is he now then?" He couldn't believe it. After all this time, he was so close to seeing Robert and he'd gone. "Is there someone I can talk to? Where did he go..."
"Once they leave here they ain't our problem." Aaron stood his ground and the man sighed. "There's a place in Ryde, sometimes prisoners go there for a few days when they first get out...don't let on I told you, cost me my job."
He went back to the car. half worried that Robert might be in some kind of halfway house with who knows who, and half furious that his ex-husband had let him drive all the way from Yorkshire two days before Christmas for no reason.
He looks at the building in front of him and shoves his hands in his pockets. It looks tired and he can only imagine what the inside is like. He doesn't even know if he's in there hopes he won't, but if he's not then he's no idea where he is and that thought is even worse.
When he spots someone coming out he rushes inside, has to know one way or another, There's a desk with a bored looking guy behind it.
"I'm looking for Robert Sugden."
"I'm..." He hesitated, he wasn't his husband anymore, and besides he wasn't going to advertise it anyway, he wasn't stupid. "I’m a mate. Is he here or not?"
"Room 10. Second floor, third on the right."
He finds it easy enough hesitating as he stands at the door. He'd never thought he'd see him again after he'd sent the papers and now...he had no idea what to expect. How was he out? After he'd rejected Vic's plea to appeal they'd both resigned themselves to Robert serving his full sentence. what had changed, and more importantly, how had Robert changed.
Aaron wasn't stupid, he knew he would've changed, it was inevitable. Even the shortest sentence had an effect and Robert had been looking at fourteen years. What would he be like?
He shook herself, he wasn't going to find out just standing here. All he had to do was knock on the door and he'd have the answer, so why couldn't he do it.
When he'd received the visiting order a part of him had hoped it might be the start of a reconciliation but now he wasn't so sure. Robert hadn't let him know he was out, hadn't cancelled the visit. He didn't know what to think.
Taking a deep breath he raises his hand and knocks on the door.
"Who is it?" He gasps at hearing Robert's voice after so long albeit muffled by the door.
"It's me." The few seconds it takes him to open the door last an age, but then he's there and Aaron can't breathe.
He’s different, of course he is. Aaron had imagined his husband in many situations but never in a million years did he expect to see him sporting a man bun or a beard. Aside from that and what looked like a slightly leaner body than before he looked just the same.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” He asks after the silence goes on for an age.
“Like why you sent me a visiting order two weeks ago and had me drive all this way only to be told you weren’t there. Do you know what went through my head? I thought the worst Robert!”
“They would’ve called you if anything had happened.”
“That’s meant to make me feel better is it? Why did you send it, the visiting order?” Robert doesn’t answer. “Well? Why didn’t you tell me you were getting out? Why didn’t you just come home.”
“Not home anymore is it?”
“There’s a cafe down the road.” He goes quiet again and Aaron’s on the verge of leaving when he speaks again. “Meet me there in ten minutes.” With that he closes the door leaving Aaron standing there.
He finds the cafe with ease and sits by the window waiting for Robert. Part of him wonders if he’ll even show up. He hadn’t exactly looked pleased to see him and he couldn’t work out why. He was the one who’d made contact, had made the first move so to speak, so why act this way when he turned up. It made no sense at all.
He’s on his second cup of tea when he sees him, standing outside as if working out whether to go in or not. Finally he walks in, blowing on his hands to warm them. He doesn’t take his eyes off him as he goes to order before sitting opposite him.
“Are you going to give me some answers now?” He wishes he wasn’t so sharp with him, but he can’t help it, his mind is all over the place, no idea what Robert’s thinking.
“I’m sorry if it’s all too much trouble for you Aaron.”
“What? Of course it’s not. I’m just confused. You sent me a visiting order. Do you know how happy I was to get that? Two years Robert, two years I’ve waited to hear from you, and then when I do, I get here and find you gone. I just…I don’t understand.”
“Why did you come? After so long.”
“You asked me to.”
“And that’s all it took? I divorced you, didn’t even talk to you, why would you even give me the time of day.”
“You know why, unless prison has completely addled your brain.”
“But…the way I treated you…”
“Maybe it’s me who’s addled then. You know why I’m here, but I don’t know why you’re here, why you didn’t come home.”
“I told you, it’s not home anymore.”
“Of course it is. All you had to do was come back.”
“Everyone’s moved on, maybe it’s better everyone just forgets about me.”
“Because it’s that simple.” Aaron scoffed. “Ok, so if that’s how you feel, why send me a visiting order? Why not just disappear.”
Robert doesn’t say anything, just stirs his tea over and over until Aaron’s had enough, and covers his hand with his own to stop him.
“I’m not going anywhere, whatever you tell me.”
“It was, I don’t know, about three months ago, not that long after Vic told me about him, my solicitor came back to me, said there was a chance, just a chance, but I should take it.” Aaron goes to interrupt but a look from Robert stops him. “I should’ve jumped at it, but…I called you, one afternoon, to tell you or I don’t know, maybe I wanted you to tell me what to do.”
“I didn’t get any call.”
“I know. Your Mum answered, as soon as I asked for you she went off at me, saying I should leave you alone, that I’d ruined your life…well you can imagine.” He can, all too well, he’d heard versions of it for the last two years. “So I didn’t tell you anything, but I let my solicitor do his thing, thinking it would come to nothing, but here I am.”
“I wish you’d called again, or the yard. I would’ve been there, in court, you know that.”
“Your Mum said you were with someone, um, Ben? I don’t know but she made it sound like you were happy, and I wasn’t going to mess that up. I've messed up enough of your life.”
Aaron can’t help swearing under his breath. “Ben was no one and she knew that. We had a few drinks and he helped me out with Liv a couple of times, but that was it. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“So…why send me the visit then?”
“For old times sake I suppose. Maybe a part of me still wondered.” He smiles then, that little smile of his that Aaron has missed so much.
“And yet you didn’t tell me you’d been released.”
“Yeah well.” He looks down at the table, as if he can’t meet Aaron’s gaze. “Maybe I needed to know…if you came to the prison, if you were willing to visit me there…”
“So it was a test?”
“Maybe…probably. I don’t think I was thinking straight. Maybe I thought…I knew you’d be there if I was free, maybe my mind was playing tricks on me, I needed to know you’d be there no matter what.”
“I would’ve been. I would’ve been there the whole time if you hadn’t cut me off. Surely you know that.”
“Of course I did, that’s partly why I did things the way I did. But after two years, and what your Mum said, I guess I needed to know that it was still true. Sorry.”
“Don’t apologise. I can see why…it’s just such a mess. You know I’ve forgiven her so much over the years, but this…not anymore.”
“I didn’t do this to cause trouble between you.”
“I know. None of this is your fault. It’s her, always sticking her nose in, deciding what’s best for me. Well not any more.” Robert sighs, smiling a little at his tone. “I mean it.”
“She’s your Mum.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t give her the right to interfere in my life. If you hadn’t sent me the visit…if you’d spoken to her and…you could’ve gone off on your own and I’d never have known. That’s unforgivable.” Robert can’t help it, the laughter bursting out of him. “Stop laughing. I mean it.”
“I have no doubt. I missed you so much.” He reaches over and takes his hand. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have let you go to the prison like that. Me of all people should’ve known how it felt to turn up and not be allowed in.”
“It’s alright. It was just a shock that’s all. I found you, didn’t I? Can’t keep away from you, can I?”
“So what now?”
“Well I don’t know about you but I’m starving. So…breakfast?”
“So?” He taps the menu, a little bit dogeared but he doesn’t care. “All day breakfast, see? You bring me to some proper classy places mate.”
“Not your mate.” Aaron rolls his eyes at him. “Fine, breakfast. And after that?”
“Home, and no arguments. It’s your home, Robert. Everyone else can do one if they don’t like it. It hasn’t been the same without you…come home with me.” He says, tightening his hold on his hands, echoing his words from years before. “We’re going to spend Christmas together and everything else can wait.”
“Yeah. I mean…if that’s what you want?”
“More than anything.”
“There is just one thing that needs sorting.” He starts looking straight at him, watching as his face turns to worry. “The hair, and the beard. What on earth were you thinking?”
“So what now?” Robert asks, sitting back in his chair, sliding his cutlery together, the plate clean after polishing off the full English he and Aaron had ordered. “Wow that was good, not as good as yours mind.”
“Flatterer.” Aaron smiles. “Now, well it’s up to you. If it were up to me we’d grab your stuff and go home on the next ferry, but like I say it’s up to you.”
“I want to…it’s just…facing everyone. Your family, Vic, and then there’s Wendy.”
“It’s no consolation I know, but when it all came out about Luke she did help Vic out. Maybe we can just ignore her.” Robert nodded, but he didn’t have Aaron’s confidence. “As for my family, it’s really only Mum, and you leave her to me.”
“You make it sound so simple.”
“It’s not, I know it’s not. I know how difficult it is to go home after getting out, even if the worst for me was a few months. But you’ve got me, you’ve got Vic, and god help me Nicola and Jimmy. We’re all going to be there for you.”
“But if you don’t want to go back then we can find a decent hotel and hole up there until we decide what to do.”
“I can’t drag you away from them at Christmas.”
“You’re not. All I care about right now is you. Two years, Robert, two years we’ve got to make up for.”
Robert doesn’t say anything, just stares out of the window at the dull gray skies, the sea murky and rough. Aaron lets him, gives him time to make his own decision. He knows only too well that you don’t get that luxury in prison. He takes the time to really look at him, the dim light in the hostel hiding the new lines on his face, the dark circles around his eyes. Underneath he knew his Robert was still in there, despite everything, he just had to be patient.
“I want to get off this island.”
“I want to go back and have this last two years to never have happened.” He covers Robert’s hand with his own at that. “And I know I can’t, but everyone’s going to be looking, watching, judging. I don’t want everyone thinking I’m this animal.”
“Hey, no one thinks that. There’s not a person in that village who wouldn’t have done the same in your situation, me included. And you know what, anyone who does say anything is going to have to deal with me.”
“My bodyguard eh?”
“If you want. Not sure this is the place to be talking about your fantasies though.” He winks, happy when it makes Robert smile. “It’s not going to be easy I know that, but we can be a family again, and it will get easier.”
“Ok.” Aaron blinks. “Ok, we’ll go home.”
They’re nearly to Hotten when Robert wakes. He’d fallen asleep not long after they got onto the motorway, head resting against one of Aaron’s hoodies against the car window. Aaron hadn’t the heart to wake him, just gazing over every so often to make sure he was ok. He looked so peaceful.
It hadn’t taken long to go back to the hostel and collect Robert’s stuff, just a small bag. He’d looked embarrassed when he’d packed it in mere minutes but Aaron had shook his head, it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except the fact that he was there.
They’d not talked much other than Aaron filling him in on bits of village gossip, staying away from anything too heavy or to do with family, and in return Robert offered nothing about his time in prison. It seemed like they both wanted to keep everything pleasant enough at least for the time being.
“How long was I out.”
“A few hours. Hotten turn’s coming up soon. Anywhere you want to stop off on the way?”
“Is this your way of telling me, again, that I need a haircut?” He’d mentioned it a fair few times during the journey before he’d fallen asleep. He didn’t care really, it was just so alien to see Robert like that.
“No…well yeah, but I meant clothes or anything. I mean your stuff is still at home, but…”
“I stuffed it all into bin bags and shoved it into the loft so it might need a wash and iron before it’s any good. Sorry.” He risks a look at him, hoping he’s not angry but he’s smiling.
“S’pose I should be grateful you didn’t burn ‘em given what I did. It’s fine Aaron.”
“Well I did nearly chuck them, but in the end I couldn’t.”
“So, no to the clothes, but if we can find somewhere I’ll get that haircut.”
“There’s always Bernice.” He can’t keep his face serious as he says it, knows Robert would rather let Aaron cut his hair than let his stepsister near him. “I’ll find somewhere. You fancy driving for a bit?”
“Not on here maybe when we’re nearer home…it’s been a while.” Aaron nodded and flicked the indicator to take the Hotten turn.
An hour later Robert gets back into the car, and Aaron does a double take. The beard is gone and Robert’s hair is just how it used to be. If it weren’t for the less than fashionable clothes he could imagine they were just out doing their Christmas shopping.
“Yeah.” He manages to force out the words, can’t resist reaching out a hand to touch his jaw. “Perfect.”
“Not sure I could ever be called that.”
“Don’t be daft. So, home?”
“You want to drive now?” Robert hesitates and Aaron’s about to tell him it doesn’t matter when he nods.
Robert pulls over just outside the village, staring into the valley covered in darkness, an odd look on his face. “You alright?”
“Yeah, just…didn’t think I’d ever see the place again.” He blinks. “S’pose I thought I’d not come back once I got out…you know if it was the full term. Wouldn’t be anything waiting for me.”
“Yes there would.”
“You really think anyone would wait that long and be bothered about me. Vic would be…well I guess she’d be married, maybe a whole herd of kids, Harry would be a teenager like…Seb.”
“We’ll call Rebecca as soon as we get home. You’re going to see him again Robert, I promise. Even if I have to go to Liverpool myself.”
“Not sure kidnapping him would do much in our favour.”
“I wasn’t talking about him, I meant Ross.” Robert bursts out laughing. They both knew who pulled the strings when it came to Rebecca. “I’m just kidding. Come on, no putting it off.”
Robert starts the engine, driving through the village fast enough not to really see anything, not wanting to see anything or anyone, even if he can’t help slowing as he passes the garage, before he pulls to a stop in the driveway of the house.
“I would’ve waited.” Aaron says quietly. He thinks Robert’s not heard him until he leans over and presses a kiss to his cheek. “However long it took.”
“I knew that, just wouldn’t ever let myself believe it. Easier that way I suppose.”
“There’s lights on.” He says looking at the house, not sure what to say. “Liv?”
“No, she’s still in Dublin. Maybe I left them on. I left in a bit of a rush, I was running late. Right come on.”
Robert follows as he unlocks the door, frowning when he hears noises, assuming it’s just from upstairs. When he opens the front door he stops seeing Eve’s pushchair in the hall and then his Mum sat on the sofa, cup of tea in hand.
“Mum, what the hell are you doing here?”
“More to the point, what is he doing here?” Her tea goes everywhere as she jumps to her feet. Robert resists the urge to tell her to watch where she was throwing her tea as it would only wind her up. “Come crawling back have you?”
“Mum I asked you a question. What is going on.”
“You were too wrapped up in him I suppose to see that we’ve lost everything.” He looks back at Robert. “The pub. If you’d been here, if you hadn’t gone running after him you wouldn’t even have to ask.”
“Well I do, so tell me! Then you can tell me why you let yourself into our house without asking!” Just then Paddy comes downstairs holding Eve. The little girl immediately reaches for her brother and he takes her despite his mood. “Hello beautiful. Rob, can you take her.”
“Just a minute…” Paddy starts but Aaron just glares at him.
“Are you going to explain.”
“The pub, there was an explosion. You know we were in Scotland.” He nods, it’d been the one thing he was glad of, being able to get out of the village without endless explanations. “It’s ruined Aaron. We had nowhere to go.”
“So you just let yourselves in here?” Robert asks before he can stop himself, knowing his voice will only wind her up more.
“I don’t answer to you Robert Sugden.”
“No but you do to me. You didn’t even think to ask me? Not even a text?”
“I didn’t think I would have to. You’re my son and we’ve nowhere else to go. You can’t turn us away.”
“Oh I can. After what you’ve done that’s exactly what I can do.” He takes a breath, doesn’t want to upset his sister. “Can’t you stay at the farm with Cain and Moira?”
“They don’t have room. I don’t know what you’re talking about. What have I done?”
“So you don’t remember a phone call a few months back, answering my phone, and I presume deleting the call after so I wouldn’t know anything about it. How could you.”
“Chas?” Paddy looks at her and Aaron rolls his eyes, he knows he’ll be on her side. Once upon a time he could rely on him a hundred percent, but not anymore.
“I’m not going to apologise for stopping him worming his way back in.” She points at Robert and Aaron can tell she’s itching to grab her daughter from him, only him standing in the way is stopping her. “You were happy, you didn’t need him.”
“Yes I did! I always have. You had no right to tell him I was with someone else, none at all.”
“I wasn’t lying!” She spat out. “Give me my daughter. Paddy take her upstairs.” She orders when Robert hands her over. “You were with Ben.”
“For God’s sake Mum, I had a few drinks with him, that’s all. You knew that and yet you spun Robert a pack of lies to keep him away from me. You had no right.”
“I only want…”
“What’s best for me, yeah I’ve heard that before. What you don’t get is, it’s only ever what you think is best for me. If you really cared then it wouldn’t matter what you thought as long as I was happy. If you really cared then you’d know I was miserable without him.”
“He left you Aaron, he killed someone.”
“No he didn’t. He was acquitted of that. It was Luke, you know the guy you all thought was great for Vic, the one you gave a job not weeks after Robert had gone, knowing how much it hurt me to see that family around. But oh no Chas Dingle knows best.”
“Aaron, calm down.”
“No, Rob. If you’d listened to her, if you hadn’t sent that visiting order I would’ve lost you. She would’ve won, again!” He turns back to his Mum. “I’m calling Cain, I don’t want you here.”
“I already told you he doesn’t have the room.”
“Then I’ll call the B&B. I can’t have you here not after this. This is our house.”
“Aaron…we can’t afford that. You know we don’t have any money thanks to Al.”
“Then we’ll pay. I mean it Mum. You’ve interfered one too many times. Robert’s done nothing that any of us wouldn’t do. I’ve done worse, I’ve hurt people when they’ve done nothing, but all of you judged him, tried to turn me against him because it suited you. Well no more. He’s back now and he’s staying.”
“Just like that. He broke your heart and you’re just letting him back in as if nothing has happened. You’re a fool Aaron.”
“Chas that’s enough.”
“I said I don’t answer to you! You always come up smelling of roses, don’t you. No matter what you do, or how many people you hurt.” She turns back to Aaron. “He’ll do it again, break your heart.”
“Maybe, maybe not, but it’s my choice to let him back into my life, not yours. Now, will I ring Cain or pay for the B&B?”
“I can’t believe you’re throwing your sister out onto the streets.” Aaron sees Robert rolling his eyes out of the corner of his eye and wants to smile.
“I’m quite happy for Eve to stay. She doesn’t interfere in my life. But I can’t have you here. I’m sorry about the pub, and I’ll help sort it or whatever, you know that, but until you see that I’m not a child and I don’t need you to run my life then I can’t live in the same house as you.”
“I think you should go Chas.” Robert says quietly, hand on Aaron’s shoulder for support. “At least for now.”
It’s quiet for a good few minutes before she stomps up the stairs, not even looking at him. Aaron lets out a breath, sinking into a chair.
“Are you alright?” Robert asks, sitting opposite. “You don’t have to do this you know. I can always stop at Vic’s until they can go back to the pub.”
“No! This is your home. I could’ve lost you because of her, and she wouldn’t have cared. She would’ve been pleased.”
“I don’t want to be the reason you and her are at odds.”
“You’re not. Don’t ever think that.” He grabs his hand, sighing as he hears footsteps, getting to his feet.
“Right, well I won’t stay where we’re not wanted.”
“Mum…don’t make it sound like that. You came here without even asking me, made yourself at home. Don’t you even think that’s a bit odd?”
“Do you even care that we’ve lost everything, all of Eve’s toys, our stuff…Gracie’s box.” That makes him stop, he supposed he hadn’t thought.
“I’m sorry about that, but it’s not my fault Mum.” He stands taller, he’s not letting her guilt trip him over that, as if he doesn’t miss her too, as if anything he did could’ve made it better.
“Most sons would help their parents out.” Paddy pipes up.
“Most parents would support the choices their son makes.” He fires back. “I’m not making you homeless. I told you we’d pay for the B&B if there’s nowhere else. I’m sorry Mum, but I can’t deal with you being here.”
She doesn’t say another word, just flounces out of the door, leaving Paddy to carry their bags, and Eve. Aaron waves at his sister, wishes he wasn’t hurting her, but the weight that lifts when Robert closes the door behind them tells him he’s done the right thing.
“Well…that was a hell of a homecoming.” He laughs.
“I’m sorry. I wanted it to be perfect. Just you and me.”
“Well it is now. Your Mum will come round you know, in the end.” Aaron shrugs.
“Maybe. Nothing I can do if she doesn’t. She’s made her choices. So…glad to be home?” Robert nods. “I’m knackered.”
“You should get some sleep, it’s been a long day.” Aaron nods. “I can…I can sleep down here if you want.”
“What? No. Unless you want to.”
“Course not. But…well…”
“Robert, shut up and come to bed. I haven’t got the energy to persuade you. We’ll deal with everything else tomorrow.”
“Aaron…where are you? You wanted this Christmas to be perfect and I’ve been slaving away over this turkey while you’ve been…well who knows where.”
He’d gone out first thing, saying he needed to pick something up, and Robert had just nodded, they’d been playing catch up on everything after the drama of the past few days, but it’d been hours and he can’t help worrying.
After Chas had left, they’d slept for hours, and spent the next day talking, him plucking up the courage to call Rebecca and try to see Seb. He’d not managed it, resolving to do it straight after new year once he was more settled. They’d not ventured out much, he wasn’t up to seeing loads of people, and part of him didn’t want to run into any Dingles. Aaron didn’t need to be made to feel guilty over asking his Mum to leave. The only one they’d seen was Cain, and he’d been surprised that the man was on Aaron’s side, only asking him to give his Mum another chance once everyone had calmed down. Robert wasn’t going to interfere, it was completely up to Aaron what he did.
Sighing, he sits down, resolving not to worry, instead answering his sisters text wishing him a merry Christmas from Portugal. He wished she was here but in a way he was glad he could get used to being home before seeing her. He needed to find his feet again.
“I’m back!” He hears Aaron call and gets to his feet, ready to ask why he hadn’t called when the words die on his lips because walking through the door in front of him is Seb. “I found this little waif, thought he could join us for dinner.”
He can’t speak past the lump in his throat, can only stare at his little boy. He’s grown so much, but he still has the same cheeky smile as he looks up at Aaron.
“Go on mate, say hello to Daddy Robert.” That makes him move, crouching down in front of the little boy.
“Hi. Do you remember me?” He gets a nod and then Seb runs over to hug him and he can only hold on and try and hold back his tears. “How?”
“Turns out even Ross isn’t immune to Christmas spirit. I called yesterday while you were out walking, managed to get Rebecca on a good day, got her to agree, made sure Ross didn’t scupper anything, and arranged to collect him after they’d done presents.”
“He’s here until the day after tomorrow. Then they both said we’d sort something proper.”
“I don’t deserve you.”
“What about…presents…” In the few days they’d had he’d not ordered anything, not wanting to jinx being able to see him at any point and now they had nothing.
“In the boot. I said I was going to the shops yesterday didn’t I? You just assumed I meant the supermarket.” He shakes his head, marvelling at his husband. Technically he wasn’t, he knew, but they’d never needed a piece of paper before, they didn’t now.
“Daddy?” Seb’s voice stops his reply to Aaron.
“You home now?” He looks up at him, eyes wide, thumb in his mouth and he just smiles back.
“Yeah. I’m home now.”