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He’s lucky, they say. 

It’s a word he never thought he'd hate, but it didn’t take long for him to resent it. Lucky . Robert isn’t lucky. He’s far from lucky, but those thick doctors are just seeing the case, the condition, the therapy. They talk about neurology and nerve regeneration, about physiotherapy and they call everything a ‘progress’. 

Oh bloody hell, ‘progress’ is as bad as ‘lucky’ . Fuck progress.

Progress is just medical jargon for ‘your recovery is going to take months, Mr Sugden, maybe even years, or maybe you might never be the person you once were again’. Of course the doctors don’t say it to his face, because they‘re cowards. He’s not stupid though.

Yes, he can’t move his entire left half, he’s hallucinating and the pain in his back is so bad that he’s constantly on painkillers, but he’s not fucking stupid.

He woke up from a coma a few days ago - he can’t even tell how many days it was, because sometimes he still can‘t tell if he’s awake or sleeping. It’s normal, according to the scrubs after being comatose for four months, except it’s not normal because Robert doesn’t feel normal at all.  

A nurse is brushing his teeth, they bloody feed him some nasty mush because he can’t chew and he’s pissing through a tube into a plastic bag and how the fucking hell is any of this normal ?

They roll him to another scan on his bed because he can’t even sit in a damn wheelchair. 

Sure, he’s lucky.

The cynicism. 

There are mirrors in the elevator they’re using to get him to the other department and Robert closes his eyes, doesn’t want to see what he already saw. What he will see the rest of his life whenever he’s confronted with his own reflection. What he can never unsee again. 

Down in the room where he’s going to have the MRI, a doctor is waiting for him with a clipboard in his hands and a smile plastered on his face.

“Ah, Mr Sugden, I’m Dr Banaszinsky, how are you feeling today?” he says cheerfully and Robert would give anything in the world if he’d be able to punch that offensive grin off his stupid face.

“I’d be better… if I didn’t… deal with morons.” His words are a bit slurred and spoken slowly.

The doctor keeps smiling and clasps his hand. “Oh, wonderful! I already heard about your sarcastic and dry sense of humour! That’s good! A good sign.” 

Seriously, Robert needs to hit him, right now.

He gets examined, can’t do anything other than lay still and endure it, hoping it’ll be over quick. The doctor reads his file and tells him he’s making progress and that he’s been lucky , so lucky, because if that lorry had hit his car in a tiny different level, he might be dead.

Robert thinks he’d be lucky if he was.

 

  • -

When he finally reached the hospital doors, he was already stumbling more than running, his hands trembling, his breath shaky, but he refused to cry.

Aaron, Vic had cried into the phone and he had known instantly that something terrible must have happened. Aaron, it’s Robert. 

Books liked to describe how the world would basically stop turning when someone received a message that sent them straight into shock. Haha, the opposite was the truth, because everything was spinning, faster and faster, out of control and Aaron couldn’t focus anymore. 

He had run out of the café, not sure if he had even said goodbye to Alex or not. He couldn’t bring himself to care since this hadn’t been the moment for politeness. 

Robert was in hospital. 

Robert had a car accident. 

Aaron’s legs were jelly when he reached the information desk. “Sugden,” he spit out, not capable of using proper words to string a complete sentence. 

The nurse typed the name in her computer, like she had all the freaking time in the goddamn world and Aaron wanted to scream at her to-

“I’m afraid, I can’t find anyone with that name,” she said and he was ready to break down then and there.

“No, what- … no.” He swallowed. Not crying. “He had an accident, he-”

Finally picking up on his stress, the nurse's face softened. “If he’s still in surgery, he’s not in the system yet,” she explained. She told him there was a waiting area outside the operating theatres and that he should go there to ask for further information. He barely heard what came out of her mouth, too loud was that swoosh in his ears and he just tumbled blindly forward until there was Vic, crashing into him, clinging to him, sobbing.

They’d told her it’s bad. They’d told her Robert was having brain surgery. They’d told her other organs were damaged as well, his right kidney, his liver. They’d told her they didn’t know if they would be able to save his right leg. 

They’d told her they didn’t know if they were able to save Robert.

Aaron felt like he was thrown back in time, it was suddenly 2010 again. A blood smeared face, the waiting, the allconsuming terror.

And then he started crying. 

 

Needless to say Robert lost Seb. The little man survived the crash only with a few scratches because he was on the left side of the backseat instead of the right side which the lorry hit, but of course Rebecca won’t give him access anymore, not in a million years. Vic already told him as much. 

He lost Seb. This is the biggest loss, he learns, lost brain or body functions are nothing in comparison to that pain that tears him apart inside.

In Robert’s mind he saw his boy only a few days ago - in reality months have passed. He’s probably crawling now and babbling. Eating proper baby food. Robert missed all that. And he’s going to miss so much more. 

It must be the universe having an epic laugh at his expense, because he never wanted that baby to begin with and he wished for so long that it would just be gone. And now, that he’d fallen in love with Seb and created a whole life in his head for him and his son, the bloody universe snipped its fingers and just like that, Seb is gone. 

Ha ha, fuck you Robert Sugden.

Because everything you touch, you ruin.

It hurts so much, he wants to scream, instead he presses his lips together and snaps at everyone who approaches him. 

That’s why Diane only visited him twice, he reckons bitterly. Well, he can’t exactly blame her for staying away. The only ones sticking around are Vic and Aaron.

Aaron.

Of all people. His ex. Robert isn’t sure what to make of that, if he’s honest. Isn’t sure why Aaron even bothers. Shouldn’t he be with his boyfriend, Dr Bore-face? But yeah, no, Aaron is here in that stupid hospital room, is here when the nurse comes in to change Robert’s urine bag.

“Don’t you have somewhere else to be?” he spits out, scowling, embarrassed. “Didn’t know you were into piss.”

The nurse looks uncomfortable, coughs and leaves the room much quicker than she entered it, but Aaron just sits in the visitor’s chair and keeps reading his magazine. 

“Your speech is improving,” he observes calmly, not even looking up. 

“Why do you even bother?” it bursts out of him. He just wants to be alone, but there is always someone there, either the nurses and doctors, or Vic, or Aaron. 

Robert wishes they would all just fuck off.

Now Aaron lifts his gaze, his blue eyes big and bright. He wears that open and vulnerable expression on his face Robert has seen before. The curls are a bit too long and messy and Robert spots lines and dark rings around his eyes that didn’t used to be there. He steels himself for whatever Aaron is going to say back at him, but the other man just stays silent. After a while, he gets up, takes the cup with the straw from the nightstand and brings it to Robert’s mouth.

“Shut up and drink something.”

“I’m not thirsty.” He is thirsty. He is just too angry to admit it.

Aaron sighs, like he sees right through him. “Are you hungry? I could fetch you a yoghurt or something.”

“You could also just leave.”

Another sigh. Aaron puts the cup back down and goes back to the visitor’s chair. Giving Robert a demonstrative look, he sits down again. Goddamn idiot with his Dingle stubbornness, like a mule.

Robert just turns his head away and ignores him. 

 

  • -

There were so many machines. The constant beeping. The stench of antiseptics and illness. 

Aaron’s stomach was churning and for a long moment he feared he might puke right across the floor. He had always hated hospitals, too many bad memories, but this is the worst.

Because Robert’s face. His face. 

One half is hidden with bandages and they’d said there will be scars remaining. The other half of his face didn’t even look like Robert, not really. Gravity was taking its toll, pulling at the slack muscles, deforming his silhouette. The nurse told Aaron that was normal. He breathed shakily and tried to get his pulse under control. His anxiety went through the roof every time he came for a visit and saw Robert in that state, but damn, if he stayed away it got only worse. So he kept coming. 

Of course Alex didn’t get it.

“You are spending more time with your comatose ex than with me!” he shouted one evening when they had yet another row. 

“Are you jealous?” Aaron snapped back, incredulously. “That’s sick!”

“No, maybe you are!” 

Aaron stepped back, feeling like he got slapped.

“Look,“ Alex said then, a bit calmer, and held his hands up, “I looked at his notes and… it‘s most likely he won‘t wake up.“

“You can‘t know that,“ Aaron said out of reflex and hated that his voice broke.

“The damage he suffered was severe and-”

“Shut up.“

“-even if he wakes up, he won‘t be the same-”

“I said SHUT UP!“ he yells.

When Alex tried to get closer and touch him, he flinched back, not wanting any kind of contact right now, too upset. “Get out.“

Alex stopped and looked at him stunned. “Are you choosing him over me?“

“Do I need to choose?“ he asked back and raised his chin.

The man who had been his boyfriend for the past few months stared back at him and Aaron wondered if he knew this person at all. “It‘s either him or me.“

 

  • -

Robert gets physiotherapy and he hates it.

His body feels weird and stiff, his limbs heavy and dead in the hands of the therapist. Chuck tells him to ‘breathe into his legs’ and to ‘close his eyes and see into his body’ and other shit and Robert thinks he‘s kind of an idiot who probably smokes too much weed. But although he hates it, he hates doing nothing even more. 

And now he‘s doing something . That is progress in Robert‘s books. It still sucks, but it‘s progress.

Vic visits him, happy as ever, babbling about everything and nothing that happens in the village and Robert finds himself relaxing at her chit-chat. At least Emmerdale gossip takes his mind off things. 

“Oh, before I forget it,“ she says and takes her bag. “Aaron gave me this for you.“ She pulls out a little plastic bottle and his eyes widen when he realises it‘s his shower gel. “He said you probably hate the stuff they use here.“ Vic laughs. “He can‘t come in today and tomorrow, but he says hi.“

Robert stares at the bottle Vic puts on his nightstand. Suddenly he remembers Aaron packing for his jail stint last year and that he took Robert‘s shower gel with him to keep his scent.

He wouldn’t have thought Aaron still knew the brand. Apparently he does.

“Why does he even care?“ he mutters more to himself than to Vic, but since he says it out loud, his sister answers.

“Of course he cares.“ Like it was obvious.

“We‘re not even friends. We‘re nothing.“

Vic stays silent at that but she takes his hand and squeezes.

“I bet Alex loves this, Aaron coming here all the time,“ Robert snorts and avoids her big brown bambi eyes. 

She tilts her head. “Robert… he broke up with Alex months ago.“

He what?! His eyes fly up, staring at her in disbelief. 

“Not long after your… not long after it happened.“

He didn‘t know. It‘s not something you ask your ex when you‘re tied to a hospital bed. It‘s not like he talked much to Aaron at all, apart from when Robert snapped at him, if he comes to think of it.

Aaron is mostly just there, sitting and reading. Or he puts on some music and they listen together. 

It‘s weird.

It‘s even weirder that he misses Aaron on the next day. Vic is busy as well and for the first time since he woke up no one visits him. Instead of being relieved, he’s hella bored. Robert wishes Aaron was here.

When the nurse comes in to wash him, he asks her if she could use his shower gel and she smiles at him. And for the first time he smiles back.

It‘s good to smell like him again.

 

  • -

They told him to talk to Robert, but he didn‘t know what to say. Talking wasn‘t his thing. Robert had usually carried their conversations while Aaron mostly had listened and replied. 

But now Robert was just lying there and a heavy silence lingered in the room.

Sitting in his chair, Aaron stared at him and felt incredibly useless. Wishing for Robert to just wake up like in some bad Hollywood movie. Of course this wasn‘t fiction, this was his life a.k.a. a clusterfuck. 

He pulled out his phone, googled what coma patients were able to sense and was surprised when he found lots of articles. Many of them advised visitors to talk, because there were chances the person in the coma might actually hear them.

Aaron stared at Robert again, at this foreign version of his ex boyfriend, with his deformed and scarred face, with his body getting thinner and thinner, and he wondered if Robert was trapped in there right now, hearing him. He wanted to talk then, opened his mouth, but no word came out. 

What should he say? Hi, it‘s me? 

Hey, this is Aaron, you probably hate me by now, but…

He sighed, rubbed his forehead and felt helpless. Another article suggested to put on some music the patient liked.

That he could do.

After opening and scrolling through his spotify app, he nearly choked out a sob when he came across a ‘Robert playlist’ he once had made for a date night. The memory hit him, right in his core. It had been a rare evening where they had the backroom of the pub to themselves. The Woolpack had been closed and Liv, Chas and Charity had been out, leaving the house oddly quiet and dark and it had been just them . Robert had cooked for them and Aaron had started this playlist and put it on speakers. 

He remembered how Robert had laughed, soft crinkles around his eyes, and how he had been swaying in the kitchen as Aaron was watching him roasting the meat and steaming the vegetables. 

Aaron would give anything, anything in the world to go back to that point, before his irrational jealousy and anxiety drove them apart.

He hit play and Taylor Swift started singing and of course he would cry now. Using the sleeves of his jumper, he wiped at his eyes quickly, refusing to be that loser. This wasn‘t some tacky Hollywood movie.

Robert had always loved to dance, shake his body in the most weird kinda way, mostly even off-beat, and Aaron wondered if he ever would be able to do that again.

That is, if he ever woke up at all. 

Robert, please, wake up, please. 

He didn’t say it out loud, but he kept repeating it over and over in his head, wishing it would happen.

Music wasn’t some miracle cure that pulled Robert out of his coma, he remained in the state he was, like he was sleeping. But Aaron made it a regular thing, playing music when he was visiting. It was nice having a different sound than the typical hospital noise and it was soothing and to be honest, Aaron wasn’t sure if he did it for Robert or more for himself. 

Either way, it was something that surely couldn’t be bad - so that made it automatically good in Aaron’s book. And maybe, maybe , Robert could hear it after all.   

 

“It’s gonna be you and me,” Robert smiles, “you and me against the rest of the world.”

He only gets a gurgle in response and he turns around to take a quick glance at his boy. Seb looks so tiny in his huge car seat as he kicks his legs, like he’s excited, and makes bubbles of spit between his lips. 

Suddenly there’s pain, chaos, screaming, glass splintering, the pain getting unbearable. And then. Nothing.

 

“Robert. Rob. Shhh. It’s okay.”

Someone’s screaming and it takes a moment until Robert realises it’s him . He’s sweating and panting, but the excruciating pain he felt a second ago is gone, just a dull ache somewhere in his body. And Seb, Seb…

“Seb!” he cries, turning his head to look after his boy, but what the hell, there is a pillow, because he’s lying on something soft and he’s lying on a bloody bed and why is he on a bed and not in his car and where is Seb!

“Breathe, Robert, it’s okay. You’re okay.”

Only then he notices he’s not alone, he’s wrapped up in an embrace, the sleeve of a jumper is right in front of his nose. He knows that piece of clothing all too well. It’s a black jumper with white stripes that most likely belongs to Aaron and the voice that keeps murmuring into his hair definitely belongs to Aaron.  

And then it all comes back to him - the accident, the hospital, everything - it’s like he’s losing Seb all over. 

It hurts so much, he wants to die. 

He must have fallen asleep after lunch, his day and night rhythm still fucked since he woke up from the coma. Aaron must have come in at some point and for whatever reason he decided to stay although Robert wasn’t even awake. Well, now he’s glad Aaron is here, because deep down it does feel good, being held like that even though he‘d never admit it. Especially not to Aaron. 

He hears the door being opened. “What happened?“ A nurse checking in on them.

“It‘s fine, just a nightmare,“ Aaron tells her and Robert is glad he doesn‘t need to talk yet. 

Breathing is still difficult enough.

“I could get him a sedative…“

“No,“ Aaron interrupts her quickly, “not necessary.“ Robert presses his head closer at his chest, trying to show without words how grateful he is that Aaron knows him so damn well.

He hates those tranquillisers. They make his head feel like mush - as if he needs this on top when his head constantly feels like mush anyway

The nurse leaves, they‘re alone again and neither of them talk. They‘re just on Robert‘s bed, Aaron sitting on the edge, Robert half lying on the mattress and on Aaron‘s lap. It‘s not an exactly comfortable position, but it‘s… It‘s okay. 

So he lets it happen, closes his eyes and matches his inhales and exhales to Aaron’s breathing rhythm. For a tiny second it‘s like the old days, back when they were a thing, something more than just Aaron and Robert’s ghost with a broken shell. But the nightmare is still too present, the shock still in his system, leaving no room for him to feel anything other than miserable. 

 

  • -

He jumped on the chair and groaned when a sudden pain stabbed into his neck and shot through his entire back.

“Sorry,“ a voice said.

Aaron blinked in confusion before his eyes focused on the nurse next to him. She was smiling apologetically at him before she went back to checking Robert‘s vitals. He rubbed his face and tried to shake the exhaustion off, which, well, didn‘t work at all. He was totally knackered and one quick look at his watch told him why. It was nearly midnight. Visiting time ended like four hours ago. 

“Sorry.“ Now it was his turn to apologise. 

He hadn‘t meant to doze off. Hell, he had no idea he could sleep at all on this awfully uncomfortable chair, but work had been horrible today and then he came here, like usual, and yeah. Fell asleep. 

The nurse made some notes on the clipboard with Robert‘s file and gave him a look. “It‘s okay for you to stay the night, you know.“

“It is?“ he frowned. Wasn‘t that against the rules or something?

She smiled at him again and Aaron read the name ‘Rita’ on her nametag. “Course it is. Your presence is very important for his recovery.“

“Is he though?“ Aaron looked at Robert, his pale face and the hair that slowly grew again where they had shaved it for the op. “Recovering?“

“You shouldn‘t lose hope,“ she said softly instead of actually answering his question and she touched his shoulder. 

“Do you think he knows I‘m here?“ he whispered.

Her gaze flicked to Robert and back to Aaron. “I believe so, yes.“ She believed . She didn‘t know for sure. Because nobody did. Nobody could answer that question. “I’m sure he is down there, somewhere, and it’s good for him to hear your voice and get body contact, you know?”

He stayed quiet, didn’t tell her that he actually never had spoken to Robert directly, let alone touched him. 

“There is so much we don’t know and all there’s left is faith.” She patted his arm as if to encourage him and she looked at him in such a motherly way he wished Chas would do sometimes. “Look, if you want I could go and check if we have a spare bed…?“

He should drive home, but then again it was late and he was so damn tired. 

“Yeah. Okay. Thanks.“

Rita‘s smile got even wider. “Alright. It‘s good for him that his boyfriend is here.“

Oh. He wanted to correct her. 

He should correct her.

He didn‘t.

 

  • -

Every day is bad at this rate, but today is particularly bad. It‘s shit, everything is, and Robert hates the goddamn world. 

He started with occupational therapy today. Occupational therapy.

At this point, he doesn’t mind physiotherapy, he even looks forward to it. The stretch is good for his body, helps to keep his muscles relaxed and prevents cramping. His leg doesn‘t hurt that much anymore and the control over his left side got a lot better. So good in fact, he can already move his arm and leg a little bit on his own. Progress and that. 

Occupational therapy though. This has to be Satan‘s work. 

His occupational therapist is a tanned bloke named Joshua - ‘ call me Josh’ - in his early twenties and he‘s buzzing with too much positive energy for Robert‘s liking, too much grinning, too much use of words like awesome and mint and progress

They tell him it‘s necessary to train his fine motor skills and well, yeah, considering Robert‘s hands are stiff like tweezers and he has no control over them so far, he agrees. He really wants to wipe his arse on his own one day and that day can‘t come soon enough.

They didn‘t tell him that he has to do exercises where he is supposed to pick up a soft ball the size of a golf ball and squeeze it with his right hand, which they call his ‘good hand’. 

Like, just pick up a fucking ball and squeeze. It should be easy, he did that a gazillionth times before and babies can do that, okay?

Robert can‘t do it.

The therapist encourages him to try over and over, but apparently his good hand isn‘t that good at all and when he thinks about his bad hand - pretty much his whole bad side actually - he loses it.

He jerkily wipes the items from the table and roars at the therapist: “Get the fuck out!“ 

“Rob, c‘mon-”

“Don‘t ‘Rob’ me!” he yells outraged. Who does this bloody kid think he is, just because he prefers the ridiculous shortage of his stupid name, doesn‘t mean that automatically applies for Robert. “I said, get out!“

Eventually Josh does leave, not without sighing and giving Robert a look he doesn‘t need.

He‘s going to be a cripple forever. 

He‘s never gonna be normal again. He‘ll always need help with the most basic things. Dressing, eating, using the bathroom. Robert turns his head to the side and closes his eyes in horror as if that could shut reality out. He can‘t live like that. 

Fuck this whole progress bullshit, they’re just lying to his face - his scarred face. When he blinks his eyes open, he stares at his own reflection in the window. 

When the lorry hit his car, it spun around in the air and landed on the driver’s side, Robert’s head got slammed onto the street into the splinters of his side window and it’s not just his brain that suffered severe damage. The scars are angry red, a criss-cross from his temple down to his jaw.

Robert looks like a bizarre real-life-version of Two Face. 

Aaron choses this worst moment imaginable to enter his room.

“Hiya.“

Turning his head to Aaron and meeting those wonderful blue eyes, Robert wonders what Aaron sees when he looks at him. Aaron gives him a small smile, bashful almost, soft and it‘s more than Robert can handle right now. 

“I‘ve already told you to leave me alone, but you never listen,“ he starts and Aaron, who is just chucking off his jacket, freezes in mid motion. “So I‘m telling you one last time, get the hell out of this room and don‘t come back.“

Aaron frowns at him. “Did something happen?“

Right, Aaron knows him like no other, can read him like no other and of course he knows immediately something’s up. 

“What’s it to you?” he scoffs bitterly. 

Aaron throws his jacket over the backrest of the visitors chair and makes himself at home like he always fucking does and then he looks Robert straight in the eye. “I care.”

Something inside Robert shifts and the room feels too small, the walls suffocating. “Oh how noble of the high and mighty Aaron Dingle,“ he bites out sarcastically, because he’s past the point where he can stop himself. “You think you’re some good samaritan or something?”

“You’re not pushing me away, Robert.” 

Oh God, he’d given anything if Aaron would have said those words months ago before shit hit the fan and all his plans and hopes and dreams went down the drain. Right now though? It has to be the bloody universe and its godforsaken timing again. It’s mocking him. And Robert can’t even walk away from the situation, his body is useless, so all he has left is his mouth. It was always his best weapon anyway.

“Is this your thing, yeah? Playing the hero for the cripple? Like you did with Jackson?”

As soon as the words are out, he regrets them. Jackson was traumatic and Aaron never really got over it and Robert knows that and bringing up his name is the lowest of all blows. Aaron jumps up from the chair again and makes two rushed steps towards him, his face twisting in fury. And Robert sees the betrayal in his blue eyes, swimming away in tears.

“Aaron-” he starts, nearly choking because his throat is way too tight.

“Say one more word, I dare you!” Aaron shouts at him.

>>>

For a moment they just stare at each other and Robert wants to apologise, he really does, but he’s a fucking mess inside, everything’s a mess. It’s like his brain decides to shut down and he can’t think straight anymore. It is way too hot in the room, was it that hot in here before? And breathing is difficult. Robert wants to sit up, to get more air into his lungs, but he can‘t sit up, he can‘t!

His vision hazy, his inhales ragged, he only registers that he‘s being moved when his stomach twists and he feels sick, he‘s gonna puke any second!

The next few minutes stretch like an eternity and somehow he makes it without vomiting which remains a miracle. Robert finds himself shaking and sweating in Aaron‘s death grip, a nurse is standing next to him with a syringe in her hand.

“It‘s okay, it‘s alright,“ Aaron murmurs against his hair.

Robert‘s breathing slows down quickly and his body is getting heavy. A sedative, he realises, this time they gave him a sedative. 

<<<

“I‘m sorry,“ he whispers, his mouth feeling like it‘s stuffed with cotton. “Aaron, I‘m sorry.“

“It‘s okay, you had a panic attack, but you‘re alright now.“ Aaron doesn‘t let go.

Turning his head to look at him takes all of the power left in Robert‘s broken body. He‘s not alright, he‘s far from it, but he can‘t get the words out because he‘s so tired and his eyelids are weighing a ton. Aaron‘s tear-streaked face and red-rimmed eyes are the last thing he sees before he passes out.

 

  • -

So, it became a thing, him sleeping in the hospital. Not every night, he couldn’t do that with Liv and all, but every now and then, he’d leave after dinner, after telling her to not do anything  stupid, he’d drive to Hotten with his foot put down. It was kinda weird, considering his hatred for hospitals, but still… he slept better when he was here. Calmer. He didn’t know why exactly, except he did know. 

It was the same reason he hadn't corrected the nurse when she assumed he was Robert’s boyfriend. 

Because it felt right.

After everything the feelings were still there. No matter how much they had hurt each other, no matter how often they had fought against each other, lied to each other. No matter how hard he had tried to move on to something safe and less intense. The feelings for Robert wouldn’t go away.

They never would. Aaron was done with pretending anything else. He didn’t have it in him, not when Robert was just lying there, motionless, and no one could tell if he’d ever wake up.

Come back to me.

Please.

I’m sorry.

I need you.

Please, wake up.

The pleas were a never ending loop in his mind, he never spoke them out loud. He never spoke at all to Robert. Instead he played spotify playlists, because Robert would like that. 

Someone came into the room and Aaron was surprised when he saw Vic. They didn’t meet often, since they’d usually take turns. She visited in the morning before her shift in the Woolpack and Aaron would come in the afternoon when his work at the scrapyard was finished.

“Hi!” she said to Aaron, went straight to Robert’s bed and leaned down to kiss her brother on the forehead. “Hi Robert, it’s me, Vic.” She took his hand and squeezed, then she stroked his hair gently out of his face. “Oh dear, it’s getting really long now, you’d hate that. You definitely need a proper haircut again.”

Aaron lowered his gaze and squirmed on the chair, feeling like he interrupted an intimate family moment. 

“Any new development?”

It took a moment for Aaron to realise that Vic was talking to him. “Oh, uh. No.”

Nothing. 

She looked incredibly sad when she nodded and then she forced a smile on her face when she turned her attention back to Robert. “That’s okay, take your time, Robert. We’re here.” 

Aaron noticed how Vic kept touching him, rubbing his arm, squeezing his hand, combing his hair with her fingers while she talked about her day. Chas had given her the day off and she would have been here sooner, but her car broke down on her way and she had to wait an eternity for Cain. Aaron wondered if she always talked like this to Robert. As if he was awake and listening. 

“You can touch him, too, you know?” she said out of nothing, looked at him with big eyes and gestured for him to come closer. 

“I-” he swallowed, sitting in his chair like he always did, two feet away from the bed.

“He’d like that,” Vic added softly. 

“You can’t know that.” He shook his head slowly. 

Him and Robert haven’t been together and he wasn’t sure if his touch was welcome. It wasn’t like he could ask Robert for his consent. 

“He loves you,” she insisted. “Maybe, when he feels you’re here-”

“Vic,” he sighed.

“-he might find his way back.” Her voice sounded shaky now, desperate. 

He rubbed his face. “This isn’t a fairy tale. He’s not Cinderella waiting for true love’s kiss to wake up.”

She thought about that for a moment. “Yeah, you’d make a shitty Prince Charming,” she finally joked weakly and sniffed. 

“Cheers.” Aaron couldn’t say she’s wrong though. 

“I know you still love him,” Vic said quietly, meaning Aaron but looking fondly down at her brother. “The nurses told me you’re sleeping here.”

He got up from the chair, that beige linoleum floor suddenly extremely interesting. “Getting a brew, you want something?”

“Aaron…”

He didn’t want to talk with her about it, it was bad enough that she knew. It was like his soul was stripped bare in front of her and he made his way to the door quickly.

“God, Robert, when you wake up you’re gonna be pleased to find that some things never change. He’s still an idiot,” he heard Vic mutter before he fled the room. 

 

Today is a good day, Robert decides.

They finally gave him a wheelchair, one of those fancy electric things you can steer with a joystick and Robert is outside. He’s outside in the park that’s attached to the hospital. With his eyes closed he lifts his face to the sun, enjoying the heat on his skin. Although the air is already chilly, the sun still has power. It’s autumn, it’s actually autumn and it’s hard to get his head around the fact that he hasn’t been outside for 10 months. 

The person next to him on the bench shifts and he doesn’t bother opening his eyes when he asks: “Wanna tell me why you’re skiving?”

“Who says I’m skiving?” Liv asks defensively.

Now he does look at her, slowly lifting his eyebrows. She came into his room around 11am and yeah, his body might be broken, but his brain isn’t.

“Could have a free period,” she mutters and crosses her arms.

“Please. You’re just as bad at lying as your brother.”

She does that from time to time. Visiting him. And Robert likes that, likes the fact that he bonded with her after their rocky start. Liv starts pulling at a loose thread of her jacket and she wears that sullen, grumpy expression that reminds him so much of Aaron, Robert has to turn away again.

“There would have been a maths test today…” she finally admits.

“Liv!” he groans, wondering how often they discussed the importance of school education.

“You don’t get it! You weren’t there!” she suddenly shouts at him and he flinches. “I nearly had to stay down, I barely made it through last year.” Her shoulders drop and she adds, sounding defeated: “Guess, I’m just too thick for the stuff.”

“You’re not too thick,” he objects, trying not to be hurt by her comment of him not being there. “What does Aaron say?” Her face does something weird then when she’s glancing at him and that’s answer enough. “Liv,” Robert sighs, “you have to talk to him about it, he needs to know.”

“He doesn’t even care,” she says quietly and sniffs.

“That’s bullshit. He does care, come on.” 

She shrugs and bites her lip. God, she really is a Mini-Aaron, it’s scary. “He’s got enough on his plate as it is.”

“Why, what happened?” he asks, immediately worried. When will he ever not be worried when it concerns Aaron? 

Liv turns her head, like in slow-motion and looks at him like he said something stupid.

“What?” he frowns.

She shakes her head and rolls her eyes. “Nevermind.”

Robert makes a mental node to talk with Aaron about Liv. And to ask what she was referring to. He could only hope that Aaron’s got someone to look out for him, because fuck, God knows he does a pretty shitty job at doing it himself. 

Right now though, Robert needs to focus on Liv. 

“Get your books out,” he orders curtly. 

“What?”

“Your maths books. We’re going through your stuff.”

“Now?” She doesn’t look excited. 

“Yep.”

“Are you sure you’re up for it?”

“I’m trying to not be offended,” he declares, “now get your books out.” Then he uses his right arm to reach over and puts his hand on hers to give her a little squeeze. It’s just a tiny gesture, something he did casually all the time. Before. Now it takes him a real effort and concentration to manage the motion and nothing about it is casual anymore. A few weeks ago he wasn’t able to do that at all.

Progress , he reckons and smiles at himself.

Liv’s eyes widen, but then she springs to action and opens her backpack. They go through her assignments and Robert quite missed her messy handwriting and the little challenge for his own brain cells. 

“Ah, I missed this,” he admits out loud after half an hour.

“Said no one, ever,” she grumbles, but he sees the corners of her mouth twitching which basically is a smile in Liv Flaherty speak.

He just smirks at her, knowing, and a moment later the teenager is hugging him tightly. For a second he’s stunned, frozen, not having expected that at all. Then he hugs her back as best he can.

“Missed you too,” Robert whispers and she doesn’t let go.

It is a good day. 

 

  • -

This might be the point where he was about to break, Aaron thought when he walked through the corridors on autopilot. 

Liv had blabbed. About him spending some nights in Robert‘s hospital room. It wasn‘t like he told her to keep it to herself, it wasn‘t a secret. Vic knew it too. 

But of all people she had told Chas . And no matter how many whatsapps his sis had sent him apologising, he had known the damage was done as soon as his mum had spotted him in the pub and dragged him into the backroom. She had been furious and that was an understatement.

“Is it true what Liv said? Him , again?!“ she had sneered and twisted her face like she was disgusted.

Aaron had felt his hackles rising. “This is none of your business.“

“I thought you were happy with Alex!“ 

Sometimes Aaron wondered what world she lived in and if either she or him was in the wrong universe. He had broken up with Alex months ago and literally no one in his family had ever been arsed about it. 

He just had wanted to leave then, but she‘d grabbed his arm and pulled him back. 

“You can‘t expect me to sit back and watch you fall apart.“

“I‘m not falling apart,“ he had growled and it was true, somehow he had made it this far and he was doing okay. Considering.

“Are you cutting yourself again?“ Blunt as ever.

He had stumbled backwards, feeling like a bucket of cold water was being sloshed over his head. “What?“

Chas had made a move to grab his shirt and pull it up to check if there were fresh scars, but Aaron had shoved her back, harder than he had aimed for and Chas had tumbled with her back against the cupboard.

The look he had gotten then from her. “Have you forgotten what happened with Jackson?“

And there it had been. The elephant in the room.

“No, I haven‘t!“ he had been shouting now, seething with rage.

How could she even ask that? How could he ever forget? 

She was his mum ! He needed her on his side! Aaron stumbled blindly into Robert’s room, his vision blurry. Since he had gotten here the first time, he hadn't cried, but now the dam was broken, the floodgates open and he leaned against the door, covering his face with his hands and sobbing. 

He told himself over and over that this was nothing like Jackson, Robert wasn’t like Jackson and Aaron was older now, more settled, better at coping. Being here calmed him down instead of upsetting him. 

But then, there was this other voice nagging him, reminding him that he last cut himself only a year ago, that he could always fall back into the wrong coping mechanism. And maybe his mum was right, maybe he wasn’t strong enough for this. Robert had been the one who had given him strength, but Robert couldn’t do that now, could he. No, it was down to Aaron and what if he wasn’t enough? 

He made the last steps to Robert’s bed and looked down on him. On his sleeping face. 

For the first time Aaron reached out, took his hand and exhaled shakily. Robert’s skin was warm, but his hand was heavy and dead.

“Please,” Aaron whispered desperately. “I can’t do this without you. I dunno what I’m doing.” He stared at Robert, checking and begging for any sort of reaction, a twitch of his eyelid or a squeeze of his hand, any proof that he heard him. 

Nothing happened. Of course it didn’t. Robert just kept on sleeping, because this wasn’t a Hollywood fairy tale. Just Aaron’s fucked up life. 

 

  • -

Every other day a nurse comes in, with a bowl and a washcloth. She draws a thin white curtain between his bed and the door, which is like the most ridiculous attempt for privacy since he is undressed and washed by another person. It’s humiliating and embarrassing and no matter how often Robert tells himself that it’s their job, that they see worse, he’s still ashamed. 

It’s another reminder that he’s helpless. 

Today’s nurse is a younger one and she’s clearly stressed. She keeps glancing at her watch and makes him feel like a burden. When the beeper in her pocket goes off indicating some emergency, she drops the cloth and checks the little device.

“Sorry, I-,” she mutters a curse, “we’re understaffed. I have to check that. Sorry, I’ll be back soon.”

And with that she’s gone. She’s gone! What the hell?

Robert is left there, his crotch barely covered with the hospital gown she pulled off him earlier and the stupid curtain is pulled back a bit. Never having felt so naked and on display in his life, Robert tries to use his right hand to spread that gown properly over his body, but his movement is jerky and the result isn’t quite satisfying. 

He’s getting cold. Fuck, she could have at least put a blanket over him. 

He feels like crying, knowing that this will be his life from now on. Depending on others, being helpless. But this isn’t him. This isn’t him. 

The door opens and he freezes, his heart beating in his throat with fear it might not be the nurse but someone else seeing him like this in this fucking poor state. 

It’s Aaron. Of course it’s Aaron. 

“Robert?” he frowns, blue eyes taking in the situation.

It’s still weird between them after the things Robert threw at him a few weeks ago before he had the panic attack. The panic attack is still fresh in his memory and he definitely doesn’t need a repeat so he agreed to see a shrink. One therapist more or less makes no difference at this point. Working on that front is easier than working on the Aaron front.

They haven’t really talked about it. Aaron just keeps coming and sitting in ‘his’ chair. 

“There was an emergency and the nurse had to leave,” Robert explains miserably. 

Aaron shrugs his jacket off, steps closer to the bed and pulls his sleeves up, then he puts a finger into the water in the bowl.

“It’s ice cold!” he says, upset. 

Yeah, Robert spent some time here waiting for the nurse to return. He expects Aaron to cover him and keep him company while they’re waiting, but Aaron takes the bowl and goes into the little bathroom attached to Robert’s room. He hears water running.

“What’re you doing?” he asks loudly.

“What do you think?” Aaron asks back when he comes back into the room. “Can’t have you lying here like that, can I.”

Trust Aaron Dingle to growl a sentence like he’s annoyed and personally offended when he’s obviously caring. Bless, some things never change. Robert’s brain goes offline when he watches baffled how Aaron takes the cloth and his shower gel.

“This okay?” he asks, lifting his eyebrows and holding up the items. 

Uhhh. Robert isn’t sure if this is okay and if okay is a term that is remotely coming close to this situation, but he nods anyway before he even realises it. Aaron is pressing his lips together and starts soaping up Robert’s right arm. His touch is so gentle, it’s almost a shock to Robert’s system how gentle, as he’s softly massaging his degenerated muscles and drawing circles on his skin. And God, this is so different to what he’s used by now! The nurses just want to get the job done quickly.

Aaron though.

Robert looks up at him, takes in his determined expression, soft eyes firmly on the task. He’s not sure if it’s the light or if the lines on Aaron’s forehead actually got deeper. His beard used to be neatly trimmed, now it looks a bit wild, a bit too long and Robert’s hand itches with the need to touch. He loved to cradle that scruff. A new pain flares up in his chest, an Aaron shaped ache that he hasn’t felt for a while. 

He misses him. So much. 

Aaron places his arm on the mattress, carefully checking if the position is comfortable, then he repositions the gown and the blanket, making sure Robert is covered and warm, before he moves on to the chest. It’s those small gestures that suddenly make him emotional.

Nobody speaks. Robert doesn’t know what to say anyway. 

Aaron has seen every inch of his body - hell, he has probably licked every inch of his body, but this is a whole weird new stage of intimacy. And Robert is extremely aware that he looks different now, much thinner than he used to be, his pale skin building a hard contrast to the red scars from the accident on his right side. 

If Aaron is affected by his looks he doesn’t show it, he just keeps washing him, thoroughly and carefully. 

As he moves further down the touch is stirring something in Robert. Like, literally. Awesome. Just fucking awesome.

He keeps staring at the ceiling, thinks of Diane and Doug or, ew, even worse, Paddy and Chas, feels his cheeks heating up and hears Aaron clearing his throat. No doubt he must have seen the little problem. Or the not-so-little problem, if Robert does say so himself. 

“Well, uh, seems like that part is still functioning, good to know,” Robert opts for a lame joke. 

Seriously, the first time since the accident he pops a boner it has to be now.  

“I could, err…” Aaron croaks out hoarsely and excuse me, what?

“What?”

“If you… you know…” Aaron makes an awkward movement with his head to the side and brushes Robert’s erection with the cloth. 

He can’t help but moan. This is the most dick action he has had in ages, he can’t even remember when he last got off. In the past couple of weeks he hasn’t even thought of it, but now… now he’s suddenly on fire, burning inside out with desire. When Aaron repeats the movement, he closes his eyes and hisses quietly. 

“Aaron!”

“I can stop.” The voice sounds strained. 

“No, no!” he breathes. “Don’t stop.” Fuck, he’d die from blue balls then and there. 

And so he orgasms. In his hospital room. In the middle of the afternoon. While Aaron jerks him off. With a disposable washcloth. 

Robert is coming so quickly, so hard, he thinks he might even blackout for a moment. If he hadn‘t just jizzed out his brain, he might be embarrassed about it. When he finally comes to his senses again and his breathing evens out, he’s already cleaned up and tucked in under his warm blanket. 

Aaron must be done with washing him and he throws the cloth into the bowl, takes it and makes a beeline for the bathroom. The door is shut and locked and it takes a good five minutes until Aaron emerges again. His face is flushed. Robert knows that face!

“Jesus Christ, you jerked off in my bathroom,” he says giddy, a grin spreading on his face. 

“Shut up,” is all he gets in response.

Robert laughs. He pushes his head back into his pillow and laughs out loud. It bursts out of him, unstoppable. This has to be the most bizarre thing they‘d ever done. It was like an inappropriate, complicated and oh so dirty force of nature.

It was them .

And right then, Robert feels for a tiny moment like himself again.

 

  • -

Once he started touching Robert, he couldn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. 

Aaron needed to hold his hand or rest his head on Robert’s arm. He even combed his hair, wondering what Robert would say if he knew. He’d probably bitch about how it wasn’t styled like he prefered it and that they’d better get his stupidly expensive hair wax ASAP. The thought made Aaron chuckle. And then he cried. 

Because that was a thing now, too. Once he had started crying, he couldn’t stop. 

He’d just give anything to hear Robert’s voice again. To see his eyes again. 

It hurt thinking about Robert’s eyes. At how they had looked at Aaron like he’d hung the moon or something. Nobody had ever looked at him like that, nobody had ever loved him like that. And Aaron wanted that back, okay yeah, alright, he was selfish like that. 

He was selfish. He knew that. Couldn’t change it though. 

The nurse on duty asked him to wash Robert, because they were understaffed and that was…

“Uuuhhh.” He stared at her, the items in her hand, her pleading eyes.

Was this crossing a line? Would Robert want him to do that? On the other hand, it had to be done anyway, so. Yeah. Aaron sighed, nodded and took over the bowl and the washcloth. It took a moment for him to get his shit together, because this situation was all too familiar. 

He looked at Robert. Robert isn’t Jackson, he reminded himself over and over. 

The act itself wasn‘t difficult or awkward at all. Aaron knew what he had to do and finally he felt useful. This was something he could do. 

One day, he kept thinking, one day Robert would wake up and he‘d be okay and it would be nothing like Jackson. Nothing at all.

 

  • -

They don’t talk about the handjob, obviously. It’s not like it’s a biggie or something. Just, a mate helping out a mate by lending him a hand.

Robert thinks about it a lot. All the time. 

Sometimes he wants to talk about it, wants to ask what it meant. If it meant anything to Aaron. It definitely meant something to Robert.

In the months after the accident he was so busy with dealing and adjusting, overwhelmed with medical terms and caught up in therapy lessons that there was barely room for romantic feelings. Now though… all those feelings are back, full force.

Robert wants - but he also knows he’s not in a position where he should

Of course he thinks about Jackson and the bits he knows from Aaron’s past. He had no doubt Aaron loved that bloke and of course he stayed with Jackson - bless, Aaron is just loyal like that - and he would have stayed with him if it hadn’t taken that tragic turn. 

However, Aaron deserves more than being someone’s carer and let's face it at this point: Robert is always going to need help in the future. And no matter how much he wants Aaron, it wouldn’t be fair. 

And so they don’t talk about it. A few times he thought Aaron was trying to bring it up, when he was biting his lip and stealing glances at Robert before he cleared his throat and straightened his shoulders, but Robert just switched the topic and watched the brief flicker of disappointment on Aaron’s face.  

It’s better this way. Having Aaron as a friend is, yeah… Good, Robert reckons. Maybe it’s what he needs. A friend . Not a boyfriend.

There is nothing he could give a boyfriend anyway. He’s got nothing to offer. 

If only his bloody heart would get the memo, because it still wants

He focuses on his therapies instead, tries to transform his frustration into something productive by pushing himself past his limits. Today, Josh pours out a cup full of staples all across the table in front of Robert’s chest and it takes almost an hour, but in the end Robert manages to pick up each and every staple with his right hand and put it back.

Josh nearly loses it and cheers as if Robert just climbed fucking Mount Everest. The idiot also tells the nurses and doctors and even they join in the little celebration. The word ‘progress’ is being said multiple times again and Robert just smiles along, staying quiet mostly.

He doesn’t want to get his hopes up. These were just a few staples. It’s no guarantee that he will ever be able to dress himself or anything. But at the same time he’s a bit proud of himself and he wishes he could share his little success not only with the hospital staff.

Like. With Aaron for example.

Aaron, who is currently on a business trip in the south. You don’t have many business trips when you’re a scrapper, but the occasional networking is necessary even though you are a socially awkward potato like Aaron Dingle. Or especially then. 

“Hey, what’s with the sad face, luv, today’s a good day!” the nurse, Rita, says with an encouraging smile, when she checks on him after Josh has left. 

“It’s just…” Robert stops himself. “I dunno.” He does know. But he doesn’t wanna admit it out loud.

Aaron’s been gone for two days already and Robert misses him. Aaron was just always there , it’s weird not having him around.

“Missing Aaron?” the nurse grins and winks. 

Oh God, is he that obvious? Robert groans and Rita laughs. She is one of the older nurses and he kinda likes her.

“He’s a good one, your fella.”

“My fella?” he echoes dumbly.

Rita slips the blood pressure cuff on his arm. “Too bad he‘s not sleeping here anymore, the nurses on the night shift got rather fond of him,“ she tells him casually and it takes a moment for his brain to catch up.

“Wait? What?“

“Yeah, we fed him coffee and he got us sarnies from the deli down the street.“

“No! I mean, he slept here?“ 

“I know, I know! Technically he wasn’t allowed, but what were we supposed to do, after he fell asleep on that awful chair a couple of times, right? That poor lad.“

The nurse takes his blood pressure and makes a note on his file and Robert stares at her like she grew a second head.

“But I would remember if he slept here…“ he mutters, confused.

And now he gets A Look. Capital letters. “When you were in the coma, silly!“

Like… What the heck?!

 

  • -

Aaron dropped the bacon and cheese sarnies in the nurses‘ room, slightly disappointed to find it empty. He was hoping to catch up on the latest gossip since rumour had it one of the doctors was screwing a nurse on the paediatric ward. It was fun listening to their chit-chat and it took Aaron‘s mind off things. Like work, or his mum. Mostly his mum. Chas was still doing his head in. 

Anyway, he‘d get his fill later, he guessed and made his way to Robert‘s room, only to stop dead in his tracks in the door frame. 

It was empty. 

Even the bed was gone. 

Aaron was sure his heart actually stopped for a very long, unhealthy amount of time, he lost focus and he didn’t even register that the coffee he just had dropped burnt his ankles through his pair of jeans. 

Robert was gone.

Dead.

Aaron hadn’t been here yesterday, had spent the afternoon and evening with Liv and they had been having a laugh, something they both truly needed and enjoyed, but in the meantime Robert had died, and fuck , Robert was gone forever and Aaron didn’t even get to say goodbye! 

He didn’t get to say he loved him. 

Robert was gone without knowing that Aaron loved him. 

“Oh God, Aaron, you’re here!” 

His legs were like jelly when he turned around to see a tear streaked Vic running towards him. He couldn’t do this. Not with Robert. Not Robert. 

She basically ran into him, clinged to his shoulders and sobbed into his chest. “I can’t believe it!”

“When-” There was more he wanted to say but the words were stuck.

“Apparently last night! I found out this morning, I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, I know I should have, I’m so sorry, but everything was so crazy and my head’s all over the place and Diane’s as well. She’s in the cafeteria, by the way, we can go and see her if you like. It all happened so fast, I still can’t believe it!” she rambled and Aaron finally remembered to use his bloody limbs and hugged her back.

“I’m so sorry,” he choked out.

“What are you sorry for?” Vic pulled back and looked at him questioningly. 

“Robert-.. I-” He couldn’t even say his name. 

After everything life had thrown at him, Aaron Dingle thought he knew what pain was. He thought he knew what loss meant.

Nothing came close to this. 

Even when he had been fighting with Robert, even when they hadn’t been together - Robert still had been there. He still had been a part of Aaron’s life. 

“How’s-,” he cleared his too tight throat, “how’s Diane?”

And then the biggest smile appeared on Vic’s face. “What do you think? She’s over the moon!” She half-laughed-half-sobbed and slapped his chest playfully. 

What?

His shock must have shown on his face because she frowned. “Aaron,” she started slowly and squinted at him, “what do you think happened?”

“I dunno… he’s gone and… he’s gone… ” he croaked out and right when he wanted to curl up into a ball and cry on the floor, Vic’s face softened and she gently shook him. 

“No, Aaron! No.” She reached for his hands and took them. “He’s getting examined, he woke up!”

 

  • -

The door of his room is open and Robert listens to the sounds in the corridor, kinda liking the constant low noise. It makes him feel less cut off from the rest of the world. 

They are going to shift him to another ward soon since he’s made progress

He recognises Aaron’s heavy footsteps before the man comes into his room, his jaw set, lips pressed together, blue eyes settling on Robert.

“Hi.”

“We need to talk,” Aaron says in lieu of greeting and throws his jacket on the chair in the corner. 

Well. Alright. 

“Go on then.”

Aaron starts pacing and rubs his lips, like he’s struggling for words. Suddenly he stops, opens his mouth, closes it again. And then: “I love you.”

He stands there with his stupidly adorable sweater paws, his expression open and vulnerable and his eyes have never been more bright, more blue, Robert thinks. Aaron’s the most beautiful man he‘s ever seen.

“Is that it? I was expecting a bigger speech,“ he teases, because he‘s Robert Jacob Sugden and winding up Aaron is just too much fun. 

“What? Shut up!“ Aaron huffs, pauses, puts his hands on his hips and straightens his shoulders. “You know what, here‘s your bloody speech, idiot. That whole ‘let‘s be friends’ stuff sucks. It sucks , alright? I love you and if I have learned anything in the past three years and especially the last 10 months it‘s that it won‘t change! I just do! So if you don‘t feel the same anymore, just tell me. But don‘t you dare think about pulling a self-sacrificing bullshit stunt with me!“ 

Once more, Robert is actually stunned how well Aaron knows him. 

“I know they can‘t guarantee if you‘ll ever be able to walk again and I know that sucks!  It‘s hard and… okay? I get it! But that doesn‘t change anything for me, alright? If you can walk or not, or use your arms or not, or if you have scars, it doesn‘t change anything for me. I can help you! And although my mum thinks I‘m not strong enough, I know I can be, I can be strong enough for you. With you. If you let me.“

Aaron shuts his mouth with an audible click of his teeth and he‘s breathing harshly. 

Robert’s heart feels too big, too warm in his chest. Instead of answering he reaches out with his good arm, holding up his hand for Aaron to take. A moment later the man throws himself at Robert and Aaron is half sitting, half lying on the hospital bed and sobbing against his neck. 

“I love you too. Always have. Always will.” It feels good, saying the words again. 

Freeing. 

He’s pressing his nose into Aaron’s curls and breathes him in. He missed him so damn much. 

“I really meant what I said, I love you for this ,“ Aaron whispers and puts his warm hand right on Robert‘s quickly beating heart. 

“The hospital gown?“ 

He just had to, okay? 

Aaron lifts his head and scowls. “Goddamn, I swear I‘m gonna-…!” And then he shuts up Robert‘s mouth. With his mouth. 

Feeling those lips and that scruff again is like a revelation. Aaron kisses him with the force of someone who was touch starved for too long and yeah, Robert can relate. So much. 

They end up on the hospital bed together, Aaron curled up against his side and Robert thinks about what he said. That Robert‘s condition makes no difference for him. 

Except it does

“I can hear you thinking,“ Aaron mumbles, his thumb rubbing little circles on Robert‘s arms.

He chuckles and sighs. “It‘s just…this isn‘t gonna be easy, you know.“

“We don‘t want easy, remember?“

“Yeah, but… how is this gonna work? I mean, the Mill isn‘t exactly accessibly for starters.”

“Then we rebuild,“ Aaron says calmly like it‘s the most obvious, simplest thing in the world. Like he thought about that already. 

It won‘t be that simple, Robert knows that, but today is a good day and he allows himself to be optimistic which isn‘t a common thing anymore.

They‘re gonna rebuild the house. Build up a new life. And surely it will be different to what they had, but maybe that doesn‘t mean it has to be worse. 

“Let‘s rebuild,“ he agrees. “And hey, when we‘re at it, let's change the locks as well and your mother doesn‘t get a key this time.“

 

  • -

On their two year anniversary of getting back together, on October 5th 2020, Robert Jacob Sugden marries Aaron Dingle in front of a small group of their nearest and dearest. 

He‘s standing. On crutches, but he‘s standing, which is definitely one hell of a fucking progress . And when Aaron slips the ring on his finger and looks at him with shiny blue eyes full of love and promises and the brightest smile that will always manage to light up Robert‘s darkest places, then yes, he thinks he's lucky.