Aaron wipes his oily hands with the tiny rag that‘s already covered with black stains and unsurprisingly his fingernails stay mucky. He sighs - not because of his hands, he doesn‘t mind them being dirty, if he did, he‘d use those awful rubber gloves from the dispenser, hanging right between Cain’s office door and his uncle‘s cheap topless calendar. No, he sighs because of the bloody state the Renault Clio is in, whose owner clearly didn’t give a toss about the old girl and drove her until she basically fell apart on the driveway of the garage.
An engine roars up and Aaron doesn‘t need to turn his head to know who‘s driving up the yard, gravel gnashing under spinning wheels when the driver slams on the brakes. He smiles and shakes his head, because he had this conversation with his best mate like a thousand times already, when he told him to be more gentle with his car since it‘s a goddamn Porsche , but mind you, it‘s not like he listens to what Aaron says anyway. At least not in that matter. Robert Sugden is a show off, always was, always will be.
The door is being thrown shut and footsteps are approaching him and Aaron says, still staring at today‘s job: “How many times, you need to-”
“-be more gentle with your lady,“ Robert finished the sentence for him, tone mocking, “yes, mum, I know!“
His friend finally appears in his field of vision, styled as usual, hair in perfect streaks, floral shirt under that tan leather jacket he loves to wear no matter how warm or cold it is in the Dales… because it fits him perfectly and he knows it, talk about show off and all that.
Robert leans against the small metal workbench, careful to catch a clean spot to spare his expensive wardrobe from stains, a smirk on his face.
His pristine presence makes Aaron feel even more oily and sweaty, fully aware that he must reek by now since it‘s the afternoon and Cain made him arrive early to open up the shop.
“How‘s it going?“
Aaron frowns and shrugs. He‘s repairing a car, it‘s not like there‘s a big thrill when working as a mechanic in your uncle‘s garage in a tiny village. “Alright,“ he says, sensing Robert isn‘t too keen on talking about old cars - if they aren‘t classics. Or functioning. “What brings you here? Finished work already?“
It‘s not unusual for Robert to pop up in the garage although he and Cain are like cats and dogs, but normally he would come around noon, bring some lunch for Aaron and himself and rant about his job, his wanker of a boss, Lawrence White, or the stupidity of the villagers. Now though it‘s half past three and Aaron knows Robert is glued to his desk at this time, trying to prove himself to White or whatever. Aaron always tells him that he doesn’t need to, because Robert is brilliant in wrapping clients around his finger and negotiating new deals.
Robert‘s face lights up in a blinding smile. “The Tate deal‘s done!“ he smirks smugly.
You could easily mistake that face for arrogance, but Aaron knows how hard Robert worked in the past few weeks to get that client especially.
“You got Jamie Tate to sign? Thought he was a stubborn twat with no sense for business?“ Aaron grins, using Robert‘s words.
“Ha!“ Robert shouts triumphantly and points his finger at him, “He is! But mummy dearest interfered, knowing her son would blow my excellent offer and overruled him.”
“Kim Tate?“ Aaron raises his eyebrows.
“Yup. Should have seen his face, it was…” Robert fakes a blissful shudder. “Delightful.“
Aaron laughs and shakes his head, taking a wrench to go back to working on the Renault. “Congrats, mate, that‘s mint.“
He bends over the engine, expecting Robert to keep on chatting, because that‘s their dynamic - Robert loves to talk and Aaron loves to listen, throwing in his two cents every now and then, not being a talkative person in general - but his friend stays silent. After a few minutes Aaron, where he tries to loosen a screw and utterly fails, he turns around, catching Robert‘s gaze quickly darting away. His friend's jaw seems tense and he’s kneading his hands, like he wants to say something but he’s mulling over the words.
“Alright?“ Aaron grunts.
“Yeah, yeah, it‘s just…” Robert says curtly, but then pauses.
Aaron frowns. Running out of words is usually not Robert’s problem. “Rob? What d’you want?” He gives an encouraging smile over his shoulder, arms still shoulder deep in the car.
“You.” His friend’s green eyes are locking on his own and god, Aaron’s heart is doing a backflip and his stomach is clenching so hard he fears he might throw up. “Well, you know. Your company,” he adds quickly. “To celebrate. I thought we could go to Bar West?”
Ah okay, Robert needs him as a wingman. Aaron turns around to the car again to hide his face getting hot from embarrassment. For one second he actually thought-
“Thought you didn’t do gay bars anymore,” he mutters to shut his stupid brain up, his voice sounding like gravel in his own ears.
They went there once, after Robert came out to him as bi and it’s not like the evening was a disaster, in fact, Robert even pulled. Nevertheless, he never wanted to go back there, saying it wasn’t his scene. Well, until now, apparently. Aaron wasn’t too sad about Robert avoiding Bar West deep down. He could somehow handle seeing his mate getting handsy with women. Bad admittedly, but he could handle it. That bloke though - a guy named Mike with black curly hair, Aaron will never forget his stupid face and name - approached Robert and it was like something inside of him broke. Watching them head out of the club together left him devastated. Knowing that this idiot Mike was the first man Robert slept with… It still hurts so much he wants to scream.
“I mean, yeah, but I want it to be something special,” Robert says cheerfully.
At those words, Aaron pulls aggressively with his wrench at that goddamn screw, cursing under his breath. Fuck. He hates it already. He doesn’t need a repeat of the Mike-experience. He doesn’t wanna play wingman for Robert in Bar West.
It’s not fair.
Of course Aaron is in love with Robert, has been for years now. It’s just his fucking luck that he’s the walking cliché of the gay boy who’s crushing on his best friend although he knows nothing will ever come of it.
Robert doesn’t see him that way.
Oh yes. He is supposed to answer, so he swallows and bites his lip. “Sure. Fine,” he mumbles eventually. As if he could ever say no to Robert.
“Don’t sound too excited,” Robert teases him. Aaron hears him moving behind him and a moment later he’s being poked into the side. “C’mon, you party pooper, it’ll be good.”
He squirms and turns around, the happy grin on Robert’s face makes him smile despite his sour mood. His mate deserves happiness, he deserves to find someone, have a relationship. Aaron reminds himself that he needs to stop being selfish and jealous. With a sigh, he rubs his forehead. “Yeah, course. Can’t wait,” he lies, “It’s just… work, you know.” He gestures lamely to the Renault behind him.
The blinding smirk slowly melts off Robert’s face, leaving a small and soft smile behind. He steps closer to Aaron and his heart speeds impossibly up when Robert raises his hand and lays his palm on his cheek, warm and perfect. A thumb is stroking softly over his forehead.
Aaron blinks, dazed and stunned into silence, at the man in front of him and the fond expression on the freckled face.
“Dirty, little greasemonkey,” Robert whispers.
He’s rubbing off oily stains from his skin, Aaron realises breathless and it’s such a tiny, but intimate gesture. His body downright burns where Robert is touching him.
Suddenly Robert steps back and clears his throat, the hand slides off Aaron’s face, making him shiver.
“I’ll pick you up at 8. Take a shower!” The smug smirk is back.
Robert winks at him and turns around to get back to his Porsche. Aaron scoffs, grabs the dirty cloth and throws it, aiming at Robert’s shoulder blades. His mate shrieks and jumps, the towel missing him and landing on the gravel. Robert points his finger warningly at Aaron, but he’s laughing, loud and carefree, infectious, and Aaron can’t help but smile along.
He watches that giant giraffe of a man folding himself into his ridiculously awesome showy car, feeling a tug at his heart when he thinks of tonight.
Robert closes the buttons of his pink shirt and tugs on his sleeves as he looks into the mirror to check his outfit, pleased with what he sees. But then he remembers Aaron making jokes about ‘pink panther’ and ‘peppa pig’ when he wore it in the Woolpack and besides, isn’t a pink shirt in a gay bar a bit too much cliché? Not that Robert is an expert when it comes to gay bars, but for sure he utterly hates clichés.
With a frustrated huff, he unbuttons the shirt again, chucks it off and throws it on the other one’s that are piling up on his bed already. Staring at the remaining clothes on the hangers, he tears at his hair exasperatedly.
Right at that moment Vic pokes her head in, eyes widening in surprise when she takes the mess in. “What‘re you doing?“ she wants to know, nosey as ever.
“None of your business,“ he bites back and god, sometimes it‘s like they‘re still 15 and 7 and not 26 and 18.
“You‘re dressing up!“ she observes cleverly and slips into his room.
“I like to look smart, Columbo.“ He picks out the purple shirt with a tiny pattern he loves and it reminds him of Aaron’s purple hoodie which he loves even more, but the colour would require black shoes and jacket and then he can‘t wear his tan leather jacket and he wants to wear his tan leather jacket, because he knows for a fact that Aaron likes it!
His sister jumps on his bed and ends up on her side, head resting on her hand, watching him closely and says gleefully: “I bet you want to impress someone!“
Robert tries not to freeze, feeling caught out, when he carefully puts the purple shirt back into his closet.
“I regret the day I let you move into my house,“ he mutters and they both know it‘s a lie.
There wasn‘t one moment of second thoughts when he took her in after Jack Sugden‘s death, she is his favourite sister after all.
“And I bet I know who it is…” she sing-songs, ignoring his words as usual.
Or maybe she is not his favourite sister.
“Vic…“ he warns her as he grabs the white shirt with the little blue flowers.
He pushes his arms through the sleeves in quick, harsh motions, suddenly feeling his heart speeding up and body starting to sweat.
It‘s one of his tighter shirts, fitting like a second skin and it has his beloved brown elbow patches. Why this wardrobe gem wasn‘t his first choice, Robert has no idea. He stares at his reflection, pulling and turning.
“He‘ll love it, you know.“ Vic‘s voice sounds gentle, nothing like the moody teen that refuses to revise for her exams.
This time, Robert does freeze.
She can‘t know. Only Jimmy knows, because Robert got terribly wasted a few weeks ago, so wasted that he just blurted it out to bloody Jimmy King of all people.
His feelings for Aaron. Which, actually, sounds like the understatement of the century. Aaron is his everything.
He loved him the minute he laid eyes on him, back when he just finished school and was forced to work on the farm, that mouthy little chav moved into the village, acting like the big boss with his gold chain and his socks rolled up over his trackies. But there was something more to him than the chavvy facade which Robert somehow knew immediately. And indeed, Aaron is the most caring, genuine soul Robert ever met. A big teddy bear.
He might have never had the courage to sell the farm after his father‘s death and aim for his own path, his own career, his own happiness, if it wasn‘t for Aaron‘s careful pushes.
And Robert loves him, always has, although he fought it for a long time.
Vic cannot know about Aaron, it’s probably, most definitely, nothing but a blind shot. With him being bi there is at least a 50:50 chance that the ‘he’ might be correct.
He grits his teeth, ignores her and arranges his leather belt.
“I‘m happy for you, seriously.“
At that he loses it. “Will you just shut up!“ he snaps at her much louder than he meant.
The hurt is visible in her eyes. She gets up from the bed quickly and Robert deflates, letting all the air rush out of his lungs.
“Vic…“ he starts, quiet now. “I‘m sorry.“
His nerves are shot, his stomach twisting and turning. Tonight‘s the night, he decided. Tonight he‘s gonna tell Aaron that he loves him. The thought is only partly exciting and the excitement is outweighed by fear. Robert is terrified. Yes, Aaron is gay, but Robert isn‘t that bold to assume his mate is just waiting for the sign to jump on him. What if this is the biggest mistake of his life and he‘ll lose his best friend over it?
It‘s overwhelming. And then his sister shows up and starts making these remarks he can‘t deal with right now. Robert genuinely feels sorry for snapping. He knows the shitty feeling of being shouted at all too well.
Vic stops next to him on her way out, looking up at him with her big eyes. “Robert, it‘ll be fine,“ she says, emphasising the last word as if she could read his thoughts. “Aaron loves you.“
With that she‘s gone, leaving him there, jaw dropping, absolutely dumbfounded.
He wonders how obvious he is. He wonders if Aaron knows, too. And if so, why did he never confront Robert about it? Well, there is only one explanation for it, really. Vic is wrong and Aaron doesn’t reciprocate.
Now would be a good moment to panic, Robert thinks, and so he does.
Aaron walks through the door of Bar West behind Robert, nodding at the bouncer and only getting a stern, unimpressed look back. Anyway, he inhales deeply to get another whiff of Robert’s aftershave which smells amazing. It’s a woody oriental scent with flowery notes of lavender, citrus and rosemary.
Not that Aaron looked up that perfume and its reviews online to order it secretly only to sniff it from time to time before he goes to bed. Or anything.
His friend looks stunning tonight, absolutely mouthwatering with his tight, dark jeans and his patterned shirt that should look ridiculous - and probably would on any other person Aaron knows, hands down - but somehow is perfect for Robert. Fuck, that lucky bloke who goes home with him tonight… Aaron hates him already.
He plasters a fake smile on his face when Robert turns around as soon as he reaches the bar. “What’d you want to drink?” Robert has to lean in and shout the words in his ear because of the loud music and Aaron’s terrible hearing in a loud surrounding. Being close is a necessity and Aaron definitely doesn’t mind.
“Pint!” he shouts back and Robert smiles before he turns around to the barman.
“A pint and a Whiskey, neat. None of your cheap stuff!”
Aaron looks around in the club, remembering how they went out in Hotten regularly years ago. Especially after Jack Sugden had died and Robert was left dealing with the old fella’s heavy heritage: a run down farm and lots of suppressed feelings regarding his sexuality. His friend was at breaking point back then, tending to drown his sorrows in too much alcohol - not that it got to the point of an addiction, but there were times when Robert drank himself into a state where he barely could walk. It got better after Robert came out and started his new job, now he’s got it under control, which Aaron thinks is pretty impressive. Others might have not gotten their act together.
His friend hands him the pint, they clink their glasses and take the first sip. Bar West isn’t too crowded yet. What once was a wooden bar with various pool tables, got transformed more and more into an actual club by the current owners. There isn’t much left from the former cosiness Aaron liked a lot. He isn’t exactly a clubbing person, not only because of the loud music and his poor hearing, it’s more like he feels so alien between all those fit blokes in their tight shirts, showing off their muscles. Although being quite fit himself, Aaron doesn’t like putting his body on display, doesn’t like being stared at and intrusively eyefucked. Hence the hoodies. He chose the purple one today, a bit too well-worn but still a favourite.
“You can dance, you know!” he shouts at Robert when a catchy pop tune starts that he doesn’t recognise. It’s definitely something right up his friend’s alley.
Robert looks sorrow-stricken for the briefest of moments, then he straightens his back and asks: “Would you dance with me?”
Aaron snorts. “I don’t dance.” Seriously, how long have they known each other? Dancing is… no. He’s coming here with Robert, he’s even willing to play wingman if he has to to make Robert happy, but he won’t dance. There are boundaries, alright.
Robert gives him a strange look before he says: “Well, then I won’t dance either.”
After that it’s getting a bit awkward, mostly because Aaron feels bad now, like a spoilsport, like it’s his fault that his friend is forgoing some fun. They’re standing next to each other, watching the people around them having a laugh, having a good time and Aaron suddenly wishes he was alone with Robert on his couch, watching whatever show on Netflix his mate is currently obsessing about.
He forces his stiff muscles to relax, sadly they won’t cooperate and that bloke who has been ogling Robert like some weird creeper for the past few minutes doesn’t help at all.
Leaning in, he gets distracted for a short moment by that mole right next to Robert’s ear and for the millionth of times he wonders where else his friend has beauty marks on his body, if the freckles continue onto his shoulders as well. “Looks like you might get what you wanted tonight!” he says into Robert’s ear when he remembers how to form actual words.
He feels Robert freezing for a second. “Yeah?” He moves back and his green eyes wander over Aaron’s face as if they’re searching for something. They look hopeful, open and vulnerable.
Aaron thinks he never looked more beautiful and perfect than right now and his chest gets impossibly tight. “Yeah, fit bloke at 3 o’clock.” The words taste bitter.
Robert blinks and frowns, looking adorably confused and turns his head into the direction Aaron mentioned. Sure enough that bloke is smiling brightly over and waving awkwardly, a tight tee straining over bulging biceps. Aaron wants to punch his pretty face.
“Oh.” Robert nods back at the guy.
“Go over, then,” Aaron nudges him gently. If he lets his hand linger a bit longer than necessary on Robert's shoulder blade, he hopes his mate won’t notice.
The freckled face shows a queue of emotions, eyebrows drawn together, jaw clenching. Robert doesn’t look happy.
“What?” he shouts confused.
Instead of answering, Robert suddenly pulls him into a corner of the club, furthest away from the speakers and the booming bass.
“Just-” Robert cuts him off, holding up his hand, “just let me say something, okay.”
Now it’s Aaron’s turn to frown, wondering why Robert is so damn weird now. For a horrible, long second that feels like an eternity, he fears he somehow was too obvious with his crush and this is Robert trying to let him down gently, because he is just that amazing bloke that doesn’t want to break his best mate’s heart. His mind is racing, wondering if he did something that gave him away. Maybe it was that touch a moment ago. Maybe Robert thought it was inappropriate for friends, which, of course, it was! Aaron’s heart beats in his throat all of a sudden and he tries to swallow it down again desperately. It makes breathing difficult.
“Okay, look. I’ve been thinking a lot lately…” Robert starts, but then trails off, like he’s lost for words and that’s definitely concerning, because one Robert Sugden never runs out of words. “The thing is, I know what I want now. In life. You know how my dad always… was my dad…” he chuckles and it sounds nervous. The frown on Aaron’s forehead only gets deeper, trying to make any sense from Robert’s weird behaviour or his even weirder rambling and he’d really prefer not to be reminded about the old Sugden who liked to fuck around with his son’s mind and feelings. “But you!” Robert emphasises and looks him straight in the eye. “You made me realise that I should go for the things I want and not what others expect from me…”
“Okay, mate, I feel flattered, but-” he tries to throw in, but he gets interrupted again.
“No wait. This isn’t what I’m trying to say!” Robert huffs out frustrated.
“No?” Aaron feels more confused than ever.
“No!” Robert is visibly struggling for words. “I never felt ready for a relationship…” He makes a pause and Aaron’s heart cracks.
“Just tell me, I can handle it,” he offers gruffly with false bravado and tries to prepare himself for the inevitable heartbreak.
“I’m ready now, ‘s what I’m saying!” Robert blurts out. “I know who I am and what I want. I’m ready now for love and commitment. For falling asleep together and waking up next to each other, for romantic dinner dates and boring TV nights. I want someone to share my life with, someone who helps me carry my sorrows and doubles my joy. I want the real thing, Aaron.”
Aaron can only nod like a robot, staring into Robert’s beautiful face, enchanted by his words. Whoever will get Robert’s heart must be the luckiest person on Earth, he thinks. The thought makes him sick.
“That’s… uh…” he clears his throat. “That’s good, Robert,” he says, feeling like it’s his turn to say something since Robert is looking at him expectantly. “And that’s exactly why you should put yourself out there more!” He forces a grin on his face, aiming for encouragement.
Robert doesn’t look encouraged. If anything his soft expression slowly slips off his face.
“Look, that bloke from earlier is still ogling you,” Aaron says, nodding with his chin in the direction where Creepy McShitface is leaning at a wall a few metres away from them, staring at Robert with a lewd grin. He must have been following them. God, Aaron wants to smack that smirk off his face so badly.
“You’re right. You deserve to be happy, mate. And I’ll help you, okay? What kinda wingman would I be if I didn’t.” He nudges Robert and fake-laughs. ”Who knows, maybe that guy could be The One for you, eh?” His hands are itching with the need to punch something. Someone.
Robert looks back and forth between him and the stranger, hesitating and Aaron realises that he probably has to push his friend even more to get things going.
“Seriously, you should go over to him, get to know him. He’s clearly interested. And what’s the worst that could happen?”
The green eyes are locking on Aaron’s and damn, he’s got no idea how he is supposed to handle life when Robert ever finds a partner. The thought alone is killing him. This isn’t about him though, he reminds himself, he needs to stop being a selfish arsehole for fuck’s sake.
With a sigh, he basically shoves Robert into the direction where that guy is lurking. Waiting. Whatever.
His friend is gonna thank him later, he thinks bitterly right when the bloke smiles and opens his mouth: “Hiya, I’m Stephen.”
Well, at least he isn’t using a stupid pick up line on Robert, so thanks for small mercies. Aaron gives Robert a thumbs up behind Stephen’s back, thinking they’d make a cute couple, feeling dead and hollow inside.
“God fuck’n dammit!”
Jimmy sits up in his bed, disorientated, head spinning. The ringtone of his phone is blaring in the bedroom and he blinks at the watch on his bedside table.
Incoming call: Robert Sugden the display of his Samsung says and with a sigh he takes it and accepts the call.
“This better be important,” he grunts and rubs his face sleepily, yawns.
“Hello, am I speaking to Jimmy King?” a male voice that he doesn’t recognise is saying and Jimmy is awake and alert in a heartbeat.
“Yes! Who are you? Where is Robert? Is he alright?”
“Alright is a very elastic term, Mr King,” the man replies, carefully choosing his words. “I’m a barman in Bar West, Hotten and your friend is refusing to leave although we want to close up.”
In the background, Jimmy hears a noise and then a slurring, loud voice that definitely belongs to Robert: “I sssaid lemme ‘lone!” Which means, Robert is drunk, fuck. Jimmy knows the Sugden offspring since he was a moody teenager, would even say they’re friends, sort of. Of course he knows about Robert’s drinking habit as well. That doesn’t bode well.
“He asked me to call you, Mr King and I say it as it is: if you don’t come to pick him up in the next 30 minutes, I’m calling the coppers.”
“I’m on my way,” he mutters and ends the call. “Emergency call, I’ll be back soon, Nico,” he says and turns to his wife - only to see Nicola sleeping like a baby and drooling on her pillow. Bless that woman and her selective perception.
Half an hour later he strides into Bar West, still wearing his blue and white striped pyjamas under his parka. The lights are on and the interior looks run down in the brightness, the floor is sticky, plastic cups are lying around. Clubs these days are nasty places, he can't help but think and then he spots Robert at the bar, more lying on the counter than sitting on the stool.
“Robert.” He grabs his shoulders and shakes him carefully. “Time to go home.”
The man slowly lifts his head and turns around, his hair is a mess and his eyes are bloodshot. Jimmy wonders if he was crying.
“I wann’ed t’tell ‘im, Shimmy. I wann’ed.”
He has to strain his ears to focus on the words, squinting his eyes as he does so. “Tell who?” he asks, guiding Robert off the stool, holding him when he trips over his legs.
Jimmy only takes a second to put two and two together, since they talked about Robert’s feelings for Chas’ son a few weeks ago. “Sorry that he doesn’t feel the same, mate,” he grits out, trying to keep Robert upright on their way out somehow.
Sugden laughs at that, loud and dark and it ends in a broken hiccup. “Nah, didn’ get to it. He played match-m-maker. Se’me up wi’ Ste. The tosser.”
Jimmy frowns since he can’t make sense of Robert’s slurred words, but doesn’t say anything. There’s no use anyway as long as Robert’s in this poor state. Jimmy waves a silent goodbye to the remaining staff, silently cursing them for giving Robert so much to drink. They care more about their profit than the well-being of their guests.
It’s quite a task getting Robert into his car, because the younger man is all long, uncoordinated limbs and heavy like a bloody elephant.
“Don’t puke into my car!”
“Can’ make’em promises,” Robert slurs and hell, even when he’s pissed he’s smug. Jimmy rolls his eyes.
On the drive back to Emmerdale, Robert falls asleep and it takes Jimmy almost an hour to wake him up and get him into his bed somehow. But at least he didn’t puke, so it could have been worse.
The dart hits the bullseye. Pleased with himself, Robert swallows down his orange juice and rolls the sleeves of his blue shirt up to his elbows. It’s half past 8 and the Woolpack is filled with what seems like half the village and hot like a sauna. The door opens and Aaron rushes in. He’s wearing that dark green fine knitted jumper under his jacket that’s snug around his pecs almost in an obscene way and his hair is - oh good god, send help because Robert starts drooling at the sight - still damp from the shower he obviously just took. That he’s half an hour late is forgotten in a heartbeat.
“Hiya! Sorry!” Aaron says breathlessly and slumps into what became over the years “their” booth. “Cain made me finish that bloody job and then I had to shower. All yours now, though.” He gives him one of his small, shy Aaron smiles and Robert wishes so much that he’d actually meant the words.
They play a few rounds of darts and Robert enjoys himself and the company - especially the company. It’s a good evening with laughs and banter, Aaron doesn’t stand a chance against him in the game and Robert has lots of time to appreciate his strong arms, broad shoulders and sweet, little arse while he’s throwing the darts.
Of course Aaron has to ruin his good mood, when he opens his mouth and asks: “So, uh, how was your evening? In the club? The other night?”
Robert just took his stand at the line and raised his arm to finish the game with the next dart, now he slowly turns around to Aaron again. ‘The other night’ is what he’s calling the Ste-saster in his head. Everything between them was awfully stiff and Robert felt wooden, although the guy wasn’t too bad, actually quite nice in fact. But something was missing. A spark. And how could there be when Robert’s heart was already taken? All he could think about was that Ste wasn’t a sarcastic little shit like Aaron, his scruff wasn’t as perfect as Aaron’s, his eyes weren’t blue and his smile didn’t set butterflies free in Robert’s belly.
“Yeah, good,” he lies anyway, not sure why exactly.
Sometimes his mouth just says things without his brain’s consent. Maybe he just doesn’t want to admit how awkward the evening was.
Aaron doesn’t look him in the eye and nods quietly. “And are you seeing that bloke again, or…?” His voice trails off.
“No,” he answers quickly, this time wholeheartedly. “He’s not the right one.”
His friend smiles at him then, bright and blinding, slapping his shoulder. “Nevermind, Robert. We’ll find someone for you!”
Robert has a hard time tearing his eyes away from the scruffy face with its adorable hamster cheeks to focus again on the dartboard. He needs the double 16 for his finish, but Robert’s dart misses the board and nearly hits Eric Pollard.
Robert’s acting weird. Aaron has no other word for it. Over the past few weeks he noticed a few changes in his friend’s behaviour and Aaron doesn’t know what to make of it, really. It started somewhat after the night out in Bar West.
He doesn’t even realise it at first, but then a movie night happens and suddenly the blinkers are removed from his eyes. They do movie nights regularly, so far so normal. What perplexes Aaron is Robert’s choice of film.
“The Conjuring?” he asks, eyebrows flying up to his hairline when he sees the title on Robert's huge flatscreen, ready to press play.
Carrying a giant bowl of popcorn, Robert walks from the kitchen over to the couch. “Yeah.” He shrugs as if this isn’t novel at all.
“Robert,” Aaron says as if he’s talking to a three-year-old, “you hate horror movies.” It’s a fact, a well-known fact and lots of banter ensued from it in the past. Robert always accuses him of having poor taste because ‘too much violence and a flat plot doesn’t make a good movie, Aaron’, whereas Aaron defends the genre as ‘simply entertainment, you bloody snob.’ They’ve never watched a horror movie together. Not once. Normally Aaron gives in and they end up with an action movie or the occasional rom-com Robert loves. Aaron secretly doesn’t mind watching those romantic films even if they’re total tearjerkers - it’s a fact he will take into his grave before he’ll ever admit it to his best friend.
Honestly, the movie isn’t the main reason why he likes those evenings so much anyway. It’s sitting close to Robert, having a laugh, seeing him wearing his grey trackie and a soft tee instead of fancy suits. It’s easy to let his mind wander into that parallel universe he created in his head, where he gets to rest his head on Robert’s shoulder or, holy shit, his lap. Where he gets to hold his hand and stroke his thumb over Robert’s skin. Where he gets a soft kiss when the credits are rolling and a husky command to go upstairs.
“But it is your favourite film, isn’t it?” Robert sits down next to him.
“Yeah, sure, it is… but…” Aaron frowns.
“Well, I'm interested in the things you like,” his friend flashes him a bright smile and presses play. “Here, I made popcorn.”
Still confused, Aaron slowly reaches over and grabs a handful. He pops it into his mouth and then he freezes mid-chewing. “Thif if falty!” Robert chuckles and Aaron swallows hastily, nearly choking on the still too big pieces of puffed corn in his throat. “I thought you hate salty popcorn!” His friend always had a sweet tooth.
“I made it because you like it.” Robert is still smiling and then he places his hand on Aaron’s jean clad thigh. The touch is so casual and yet so intimate, it’s burning through the fabric and his skin, downright to his core.
And that is… all of this is… weird. Considerate? Yes. Endearing? Absolutely. Weird? Fucking hell, totally! Aaron is close to freaking out, wondering what the fuck is happening and if he’s missing something. He must be missing something.
And that’s when he comes to think of the slight change in Robert’s behaviour, how he invited Aaron to dinner more often, how he always cooked stuff that Aaron loves, how he casually touched him more freely and laughed at his jokes, no matter how lame they were. Goddamn, once he even helped Aaron after work in the garage when Cain dropped another job on him that needed to be done by the next morning.
He thinks about it a lot, mulling it over and over in his bed at night when he tosses and turns. All those incidents lead Aaron to one conclusion.
“Is Robert lonely?“
Vic blinks at him like an owl after he asks the question and Aaron bites his lip. He left work without telling his uncle for a quick visit at Keeper‘s Cottage, Vic opened the door and told him that Robert wasn‘t home. Duh, he didn‘t come to see his mate obviously, knowing his appointment book presumably better than Robert himself - no, he wanted to talk to the little sister instead.
The thing is, he is genuinely worried about Robert by now.
His words about being ready for a relationship are still echoing in Aaron’s mind and he can empathise with Robert what a huge step it is to open up his heart to someone.
Some villagers used to wonder how Robert and Aaron became friends, not only because of the age gap, but also because they’re so different with Robert being the chatty, smug, clever guy and Aaron being the rough, chavvy grump. The thing is, the villagers don’t see beyond the attitude, because it turns out on the inside they are very similar, pretty much the same actually. They like to keep their hearts to themselves, like to protect it behind high walls, being burnt by people closest to them: Chas left Aaron behind when he was a kid and Jack never accepted his son like he was. They don’t trust easily. But they found some sort of substitute family in each other, Aaron’s home is where Robert is, not his rented flat in the Mill.
So Aaron gets it to a certain point, the significance of when Robert Sugden says he’s ready for commitment.
And if Aaron is certain of one thing it’s that Robert will make an amazing boyfriend. Because he cares - although he tries to hide it behind his snarky sarcastic one liner and his trademark smirk. But he’s the most caring, protective bloke Aaron ever met and the best exhibit is currently sitting in the armchair next to him. Robert would go to hell and back for Vic. After his father’s death he stepped up and took her in, raised her more or less and although it wasn’t easy during her teenage years, there was never one second where they weren’t thick as thieves.
Robert is a man who’s got a lot of love to give.
Unfortunately he hasn’t found The One yet. Hence, he’s projecting on the next best thing - his best friend. This is the only plausible explanation for Robert’s strange behaviour. It makes perfect sense and Aaron is damn proud that he figured it all by himself although it’s some deep psychological shit. Surely Freud came up with a term for Robert’s act.
However, Vic seems surprised by his question and needs a moment to think about it before she squints her eyes at him.
“Well, you know…” Aaron makes a gesture with his hand, but she only raises her eyebrows and shakes her head obviously not knowing. He sighs and his shoulders sag a little. “Like, love-wise.” His cheeks are starting to burn, because he’s exceptionally bad at talking about stuff like that. Feelings. “I’m talking about his love life.”
Vic’s eyes widen and then she starts nodding, her head is bobbing eagerly up and down. “You know, now that you mention it… I think, yeah, he is lonely,” she says, giving him a meaningful look. “And I think you should definitely do something about it.”
Aaron grits his teeth and lets out a long breath. Damn, if it makes Robert happy then he’ll do whatever it takes.