The incessant beeping of machines was the first thing that he heard. Maybe it was that which brought him round. Robert strained to open his eyes, then scrunched them closed again when a bright light blinded him. He tried breathing in, and groaned when it hurt his chest.
‘Robert? Rob! Oh thank god you’re alright!’
He swallowed; his throat felt thick and rough. ‘Vic?’ he murmured.
‘Yeah, I’m here.’ He could hear the tears in his little sister’s voice and longed to open his eyes to look at her. And there was something else niggling at his mind.
‘Aa—Aaron,’ he gasped.
‘Sh sh, he’s okay, Rob.’
Okay. Not fine, just okay. Alive though, and that was the main thing. He nodded.
‘You scared me,’ Vic said, a telling wobble to her voice. This time Robert did open his eyes slowly. His stomach dropped at the sight of her: brown hair in disarray, mascara streaking down her cheeks, her eyes red from crying. He raised a hand and put it to her cheek. She held it there and smiled shakily at him. ‘Don’t do this to me again, Robert,’ she said. ‘I’ve done this once, with you in hospital. I don’t want to do it again.’
He swallowed again around his dry throat. ‘Sorry, Vic.’
‘Don’t be sorry, just… don’t do it again.’ Her eyes filled and she looked at the ceiling, trying to will them back.
‘Where is he?’ Robert asked. ‘Aaron?’
She hesitated, then nodded to another bed. Frowning, Robert moved his head slowly. His breath caught when he saw him, and he started to cough. ‘Sh sh,’ Vic soothed. ‘Easy, easy. He’s okay.’
And when he managed to focus, when the pain in his chest had lessened, he saw that his chest was moving up and down with his breaths. Though they sounded harsh and laboured. ‘What happened?’ he asked, not taking his eyes from his boyfriend.
‘I don’t know,’ Vic said. ‘I’d hoped you could tell me. Us.’
‘Yeah, Chas is outside, so is Rhona and Marlon.’ When her brother frowned, Vic said, ‘Paddy’s here as well. He’s doing a lot better than either of you two, but he’s still out. He had a bang on the head and a cut to the arm.’
‘He’s okay though?’
‘Yeah. No concussion or anythin’. They’re just waitin’ for him to come round on his own.’
Robert nodded. The last thing Aaron would want to know when he woke up was that his father was seriously injured. ‘And Aaron?’
‘A few broken bones and hypothermia,’ Vic said.
And then it all came rushing back to him.
Lachlan was at the quarry’s edge. He should have jumped. Aaron should have let him jump, after everything he said that he’d do, all the threats that Lachlan had made. Aaron should have just let him end his pitiful life. But he’d gone closer to him instead, arms outstretched.
‘Aaron! What are you doing? Get away from there!’
But his boyfriend didn’t even look back at him. ‘Lachlan,’ he said, calmly and quietly. ‘Look, I know things are bad—’
‘You tried to kill me,’ the teen said.
‘Can you blame him?’ Robert shouted.
‘Robert!’ Aaron yelled. He still hadn’t taken his eyes off Lachlan. ‘Look, come with us now, yeah? Come with us, go to the police, tell them about Lawrence. If you go now, before things get worse—’
‘They can’t get worse!’ Lachlan yelled. His voice was cracking and tears were falling from his eyes. Robert felt no sympathy for him. He had been ready to accuse Robert of a terrible crime, ready to go to the police with it; he’d been more than willing to lie about something that Aaron had lived through, and use something that he had put Alicia through. As far as Robert was concerned, Lachlan would be doing the world a favour.
‘Aaron, just let him jump!’
‘No! Lachlan, look. You can still put things right.’
‘Yeah? How? By going to the police? By telling them what happened? They’ll throw me in prison!’
‘But you know that Andy did nothing wrong. Neither did Robert; he didn’t do… do that to you.’
Lachlan opened his mouth again when there came the sound of car brakes squealing. It was enough to draw his attention, enough for Aaron to rush forward to try and grab him, enough for Lachlan to turn around and push Aaron instead.
Robert felt his world crumble.
He had jumped in after Aaron, he remembered that. And he remembered dragging his boyfriend to the edge of the quarry, and calling for an ambulance. But nothing else.
‘You and Aaron were soaked,’ Vic was saying. Robert shook himself back to the present. ‘What happened?’
Robert opened and closed his mouth, ready to say that he didn’t know. Victoria gave him a look. ‘I know you remember, Rob. Tell me! You and Aaron could’ve died!’
He closed his eyes. Nothing good could come of Vic knowing, but he also knew that he didn’t want to lie to his little sister anymore. She had been so great since finding out about Andy; he could use someone else on his side if Lachlan did get it into his head to go to the police after all with a lie about Robert. But just as he had made his decision, the door opened and Chas and Adam stepped in.
‘I’ll tell you later,’ Robert whispered.
‘We heard voices,’ Chas said quietly. She wasn’t wearing makeup and she was visibly shaking. ‘Thought it might’ve been Aaron.’
Vic shook her head. ‘Not yet.’ She sank into Adam’s welcoming arms, and Robert felt a pang of jealousy and sorrow. He needed Aaron.
Chas crossed the room, giving Paddy the briefest of glances and a touch to the arm, before sitting at her son’s bedside. She combed her fingers gently through his hair. ‘Aaron love, it’s Mum. Please wake up, sweetheart. You can’t do this to me again.’ She bit her trembling lip. Vic looked at Adam and nodded to Chas. The young man went to her and put his hand comfortingly on her shoulder.
Robert had eyes only for Aaron. How could this have happened? Why did this always happen to them? All he wanted was to spend his life with his boyfriend, live comfortably and quietly, spending the rest of his days by Aaron’s side. It was as if everything was against them.
The door opened again, and a doctor entered. She smiled at Robert at seeing him awake.
‘Mr Sugden, glad to see you back with us.’
‘The paramedics found you by the side of the quarry, soaked to the skin. Your weak lung was causing you difficulty.’ She looked at Victoria.
‘My sister,’ Robert assured her.
‘You’ve been out for a few hours, Robert. Like I said, your lung was causing you difficulty, but we managed to stabilise you. How are you feeling?’
‘It hurts a bit, especially when I breathe too deep.’
‘Yes, that sensation will only last for a while. You’re awake, breathing on your own and talking. That’s great for now.’
Before he could even ask about Aaron, Chas had got there. ‘Aaron,’ she said. ‘Why isn’t he waking up?’
The doctor’s eyes softened. ‘Your son suffered hypothermia, Ms Dingle. We’ve done all we can for him for now. We’re sure he’ll pull through, but it’s up to his body at this point.’
‘Fat load of help that is,’ Chas hissed.
‘I’m sorry. I know that’s not what you want to hear. But your son’s body is strong and we’re keeping an eye on him.’
The door opened again, and Rhona and Marlon rushed in. ‘We didn’t see anyone outside,’ Rhona said breathlessly. ‘Thought something had happened.’
‘I’m sorry, but I have to remind you that we can only allow two visitors per patient here.’
Marlon nodded. ‘We’re here to see Paddy,’ he said, though his eyes wandered over to Aaron as well.
‘Mr Kirk is showing excellent recovery signs,’ the doctor said. ‘He should come round soon.’ She left the room with one last reassuring squeeze to Chas’s shoulder.
There was silence for a few moments, but Robert could see the way that Chas was fidgeting where she stood. He knew it wouldn’t be long before she lost her cool. The only people who could usually calm her down then were Paddy, Aaron and Cain. The latter… well, no one had even mentioned him since Robert came to.
‘Fat lot of good that doctor was,’ Chas hissed. ‘My little boy could be dying.’
‘Don’t say that, Chas,’ Robert said.
‘Well he could!’ She sat down heavily in her seat. ‘Why Aaron?’ she sobbed. ‘Hasn’t he gone through enough?’
Robert had to look away. He couldn’t watch Aaron just lying there, unable to help him, unable to even get up from his bed to go to him. God, he needed Aaron. He needed his strength. Without him… He bit his lip, but it didn’t stop the tears.
‘Hey,’ Vic murmured. ‘He’s gonna be fine, you’ll see. He’s strong, is Aaron.’ Robert nodded. Vic looked at Chas, who was once again being comforted by Adam. ‘Did you get a chance to ask him?’ she asked quietly.
Robert shook his head. ‘All day I tried to. Oh, god Vic, what if I never—’ He broke into sobs, weeping into his hands cupped over his face.
‘Oh, love.’ He was enveloped in unfamiliar arms, breathing in an unfamiliar scent. ‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t even think about what you’re going through,’ Chas said. He looked up at her, surprised to see the sincerity in her face.
‘Aaron’s gonna be fine,’ Marlon said from Paddy’s bedside.
Adam nodded. ‘Yeah. He has to be. Promised me, didn’t he?’ He smiled shakily, and Vic crossed the room to comfort him.
Nurses came and went over the next forty-five minutes, checking everyone’s vitals and, Chas had convinced herself, checking that there weren’t too many people in the room.
‘Has anyone seen our Cain?’ Marlon asked. ‘Thought he’d be here.’
Adam was the first one to shake his head, and Robert realised that Aaron’s uncle probably wouldn’t make an appearance whilst Adam was here. At the same time that he marvelled at Cain’s diplomacy, he also wondered how much of it was down to cowardice. He’d thought Aaron meant more to him than that.
Chas cleared her throat. ‘He’ll be here. I’ll text him when Aaron wakes up.’
Adam’s shoulders clenched, but he didn’t say anything.
A groan came from Paddy’s bed, and everyone looked at him. He was stirring, frowning as he struggled to open his eyes. ‘Paddy?’ Rhona said. She took his hand in both of hers. ‘Paddy, come on.’ Robert saw Chas’s jaw clench. Interesting.
‘Come on, mate,’ Marlon said, on the other side of the bed. ‘Open those eyes.’ And he must have done because both Marlon and Rhona let out a breath of relief. ‘I’ll get a nurse,’ Marlon said, and hurried out the door.
Rhona had called Pearl, asking her to bring Leo in to see Paddy, now that he was fully awake and even sitting up in bed, talking with Marlon. Robert and Paddy had shared a look, but Robert shook his head slightly, silently asking him not to tell anyone that he had come to see him to ask for his blessing.
No one asked Rhona about Pierce, but everyone noticed that she hadn’t mentioned him. Whatever was going on, clearly she didn’t want anyone knowing. Robert had heard muffled arguing though, when Rhona had disappeared outside to call Pearl. He wasn’t really interested enough to ask Victoria to find out for him. All he cared about was Aaron, who still hadn’t woken.
Robert shifted in his bed, catching Victoria’s attention. ‘What’re you doing?’
‘I need to get up,’ he said. When she frowned sternly at him, Robert sighed. ‘Please Vic, let me go to his bedside at least.’
She must have heard the pleading in his voice because she helped him to sit up. His chest contracted painfully and he pressed a hand to it, squeezing his eyes shut.
‘You’re not strong enough,’ she scolded. ‘D’you think Aaron would want you hurting yourself like this?’
But he wasn’t deterred, and as soon as the pain had stopped, he rose to his feet. He was aware of everyone in the room looking at him, as if waiting for him to topple over like a felled tree, but he didn’t care. He needed Aaron.
He took the three shaky steps to his boyfriend’s bed. It seemed to take forever. Adam immediately rose from the seat and guided Robert down to it. He exhaled heavily, a little light-headed with breathlessness. But all of that ceased to bother him when he at last laid eyes on Aaron. ‘Hey, Baby,’ he whispered. He pressed a lingering kiss to Aaron’s forehead. ‘Please wake up, Aaron,’ he mouthed against his boyfriend’s skin. ‘Please. I can’t do this alone.’
Even though they had been warned earlier, other Dingles trickled into the room, and soon Diane and Doug followed as well. Diane made a bee line to her step-son, thanking god that he was safe. Then she turned to Chas and gave her a comforting hug. Chas had been talking to Paddy – one eye on Aaron always of course – to give Robert some space.
‘How’re you coping, love?’
At first, Robert didn’t respond until he realised that Lisa was directing the question to him. He looked up in surprise and opened and closed his mouth a few times. He’d thought he would be the last thing on their minds, pushed out of the way by their concern for Aaron and Chas. Yet here they were: Lisa and Bailey looking equally as worried for him, Zak placing a supportive hand on Robert’s shoulder, and Marlon giving him an encouraging smile.
‘Not great,’ he answered truthfully. ‘I’ll be better when he wakes up.’
‘Don’t lose faith, son,’ Zak said sagely. ‘Sit there as long as he needs you.’
‘I don’t intend to move,’ Robert agreed.
‘I don’t understand how it happened,’ Bailey said. Robert shot him a glare. ‘I mean, what were you lot doing anywhere near the quarry, let alone in the water?’
That garnered a few curious glances from the rest of the family. Robert clenched his jaw. ‘Just… something went wrong.’
‘Wrong enough that you ended up in the water?’ Bailey said. Robert wanted to snap, to ask what business it was of his, but he didn’t have the energy.
Luckily Diane stepped in for him. ‘Let the poor lad rest. God knows we’re lucky to have him and Aaron still with us. Why does it matter what happened?’ He remembered her trying to protect him from Jack, and now she was standing against an army of Dingles for him. He had never loved his step-mother more.
Pearl came into the room with Leo a few minutes later, and that provided enough of a distraction for Robert to turn his attention back to Aaron. He looked peaceful. He often looked peaceful when he was sleeping nowadays. He remembered weeks after the trial ended, Aaron had had a permanent frown on his forehead. He’d wake up in the night, sometimes all of a sudden as he was pulled from a nightmare, sometimes slowly with tears falling down his face. Recently though, he’d been sleeping well.
‘Wake up now, Baby,’ Robert whispered. ‘Come on. You’re not usually a late sleeper.’
‘Robert?’ Diane’s voice was soft and tentative, and somehow in that, he knew that Victoria had told her. A glance in her direction saw her looking a little sheepish, but he knew that she couldn’t keep something like this from their step-mother. She sat beside him and put her hand on his.
‘She told you?’
‘Yes.’ She smiled. ‘I am so proud of you,’ she said quietly enough that no one else could hear.
Robert shook his head. ‘I didn’t even get the chance to ask him.’
‘Not yet, but when he wakes up.’
‘What if he says no?’ It was a worry that had plagued him since he saw the ring, since the moment that he made up his mind that he wanted to be part of Aaron’s life forever. ‘He can do so much better than me, Diane.’
‘Now you listen to me, Robert Sugden. That lad loves you. I’ve known Aaron for a lot longer than you have, and believe me when I tell you that he has never looked as happy as he does now. He thinks the world of you, Robert.’
He breathed deeply, shakily, and looked at his boyfriend. ‘I want to make him happy for the rest of his life.’ Robert turned to Diane, and let the tears fall. ‘Don’t let him die, Diane.’
Paddy had insisted that he was feeling a lot better and had tried to get up, only to immediately fall down again. ‘I told you, didn’t I?’ Chas’s shrill voice rang through the room. ‘Pace yourself.’
‘I’m tired of pacing myself,’ Paddy argued like a petulant child. ‘I’m fine. Marlon, help me up, will you?’
Marlon, ever the good friend, backed away with his hands up. ‘No, sorry. You need your rest.’
Paddy glared at him. ‘Fine. At least I know who my mates are.’ He was being dramatic, and the twinkle in his eye said that he knew it, and was just teasing. He hoisted himself up again, swaying a little, and his hand raised just slightly to his head. ‘See,’ he said triumphantly. ‘I’m fine.’
Robert watched from his seat at Aaron’s bed as Paddy made his way unsteadily over to him. He got up to give the older man the chair, but was waved back down. ‘If I sit I may not get up again,’ he chuckled. ‘Did you manage to ask him?’ he said quietly.
‘No. Why, changing your mind, are you?’
Paddy narrowed his eyes. ‘No. I meant what I said to you: I can see that you love him. Just… when he gets out of this, protect him with your life, Robert. I mean it,’ he said when Robert nodded. ‘If you’re ready to be his husband, protect him with your life.’
‘I will, Paddy.’
The man nodded and walked off again, unsteady on his feet still. Robert watched him. He hadn’t thought that the thought of asking Paddy for his blessing could make him as nervous as it had. Paddy wasn’t very intimidating, but Robert knew how much Aaron meant to him, so asking for his permission to marry his son was a daunting prospect.
‘What was that all about?’ Chas said, suddenly sitting opposite him. She nodded to Paddy. ‘Didn’t think you two were mates.’
‘Oh yeah, we’re thick as thieves, me and Paddy,’ Robert said. When Chas gave him a stern look, he sighed. ‘I would’ve come to you,’ he said softly. ‘But it’s more traditional, isn’t it? To ask the father?’
‘Ask the father what?’ Chas said.
He looked down at Aaron’s hand, and imagined the ring that he had in his jacket pocket – hung up somewhere – on his finger. ‘I want to propose to Aaron.’
Chas’s jaw dropped. ‘Sorry, I think I misheard you. Did you just say you want to… propose to my Aaron?’
‘I know I’m not your ideal choice or anything, but I love him, Chas.’
She opened her mouth, and whether she was going to object or give her blessing as well, he didn’t know, because Aaron groaned.
‘Aaron?’ she gasped instead. ‘Aaron, love.’ Her son opened his mouth, but no words came out. ‘Aaron!’
Robert grabbed his hand. ‘Baby, come on. Open your eyes, come on.’ He wasn’t aware of the families gathered around the bed, he had tuned out Chas’s cries of her son’s name. All he focused on was Aaron’s eyes, and the breaths that were coming from his mouth. He knew that in a moment, there’d be doctors and nurses there, pushing everyone out and directing Paddy and he back to their own beds, and so he just pleaded with Aaron to open his eyes. It felt like an eternity before Aaron did just that, but when he did, Robert felt he could breathe again.