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i think that it's best if we both stay

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Aaron looks like he’s ready for a fight. That’s what Robert thinks, between the first, immediate, hit of what? and the second sharp, desperate spike of lust.

It’s a photograph, faded around the edges. Robert found it trapped in a box of papers, mostly just college work, certification. He was going to put it all in the filing drawer marked Aaron and say, “look, some of us can organize things.” Then the photo fell out, and Robert caught it, with careful hands.

He had expected more paperwork, or perhaps a photograph of Aaron at some form of graduation. Instead he had gotten this.

Aaron, sprawled on a bed, naked except for a towel, with his thighs spread - and his thighs are well-muscled, familiar, but - fuck. He’s glaring at the camera furiously. He can’t be more than twenty. His hair is close-cropped, and his jaw is bare, and he looks as liable to mug you as he does to say hello.

Robert stares at the photo - at Aaron, young and angry, with his chest bare and free of any marks. His breath catches. His dick jerks.

God, Aaron.

 

“Oi,” Aaron says, leaning in the doorway. “What’ve you got there?”

Robert looks up at him: Aaron, twenty-four years old, in a green jumper that brings out his eyes, with a dark beard defining his jaw and an easy, small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. Why would Robert want to look anywhere else? Aaron in the flesh, whole and breathing and warm, threatened not at all by even the printed version of himself. “Found this.”

Aaron bends down and takes the photo from him carefully, takes a little breath. “Oh,” he says. “Where’d you find this?”

“In the box marked Aaron ,” Robert says. “The one your mum told me not to drop on my feet, because it was heavy, only she said it like-”

“Like she really wanted you to drop it on your feet,” Aaron finishes, smile widening. He drops easily to the floor, bumps his shoulder against Robert’s and stretches out his legs so their ankles are touching as they sit by side. “She does like you, really.”

Robert raises an eyebrow, unconvinced.

“Nah, all right,” Aaron says. “She thinks it’s all right that I don’t hate you.” He’s still looking at the photograph, fingers tracing over the shape of his own body. “Christ, look at this.”

“How old even are you?” Robert asks, hooking his chin over Aaron’s shoulder. “You look like trouble.”

Aaron laughs. “I was,” he says. “Don’t look at it like that, you perv.”

“What?” Robert says, batting his eyelashes; butter wouldn’t melt. “It’s interesting. Look at you. All - young and smooth.”

Aaron elbows him, and none too gently. “Put your tongue back in,” he says. “You just like it ‘cause I don’t have any of my scars yet.” He says it lightly, no heat, no bitterness. “Don’t worry. I’m still moving in with you, you’re stuck.”

It stings.

“Hey,” Robert says, easing an arm around Aaron’s shoulders. “You know-”

Aaron rolls his eyes and puts the photograph back on the pile of papers. “Yeah, yeah.” He settles his palm on the inside of Robert’s knee, walking his fingers along, up. “I didn’t actually come to talk about that,” he says. “I actually just came to say that I was bored of doing the kitchen, wondering if you wanted a break?”

Robert hums. “Oh, really?”

“Yeah,” Aaron says, smiling again, easy and sweet. “Got through three whole boxes. Figure I could use a distraction. Can you think of anything?” He’s got his other hand on Robert’s chest, now, pressed over his heart. He tangles his fingers in the fabric and pulls. 

Robert goes, easily. Settles up onto his knees and lets Aaron tug him till their mouths are almost touching and he can feel the hot puff of Aaron’s breath. “Reckon I can come up with something,” he says.

Aaron laughs and closes the distance between them with his lips.

 

-

 

Robert closes on the flat on a Monday. It’s grey out, and miserable, but it feels better when he closes his hand around Aaron’s wrist, resting his fingertips over Aaron’s pulse.

“Can I buy you a pint? To celebrate.”

Aaron wrinkles his nose. “At my own mam’s pub? Big spender.”

Robert kisses his nose. He thinks Charity might be watching them from the other end of  the bar, but Charity only ever laughs at him, anyway. “You offering to buy, then?”

“Don’t push your luck,” Aaron says.

Robert grins at him, bright as he can manage. It’s shit out but he’s in here, with Aaron, and that’s - he never wanted to be back here, in Emmerdale; he never thought he’d stay. Now he can’t get over how lucky he is, that one day not so long ago Aaron tangled his fingers in Robert’s and looked away and said, all right, yeah, let’s do it.

Chas swings in and replaces Charity, glares at Robert but in a faintly amicable way which Robert takes as basically approval at this point.

“Two pints, thanks Chas,” Robert says.

“He’s paying,” Aaron says, slipping his hand into Robert’s back pocket, and giving his arse a pointed squeeze.

 

They end up in the back room, obviously. “Where’s Charity gone?” Robert asks, but Aaron shakes his head, says, “Don’t even think about it, Rob,” and he’s pulling at the buttons of Robert’s shirt with an alarmingly focused intensity, so Robert puts aside his curiosity about Charity Dingle’s no-doubt horrifying scheme for the moment, in favour of getting spectacularly laid.

 

Afterwards they lie, shoulder-to-shoulder, in Aaron’s tiny bed. Robert traces his fingertips along Aaron’s chest, chasing his gradually-slowing breath.

“Could open a window,” Robert observes. He smells like sex, like sweat; mostly like Aaron.

“Could do,” Aaron agrees.

Neither of them move. Robert draws a little circle around Aaron’s left nipple and smiles at his faint exhale.

“Oi!” That’s Chas’ voice, and that’s the thump of Chas’ feet on the stairs coming up. “Aaron, are you in for tea?”

Robert looks at Aaron and Aaron looks back at Robert, and they both freeze for half a second and then Robert’s laughing into Aaron’s shoulder and Aaron’s got his hand over his mouth and they’re trying not to move, but Aaron’s bed creaks.

“I saw you come back here,” Chas says, voice louder now, and she’s knocking on the door. “I’ve done chips.”

Chips,” Robert whispers.

Aaron kicks him in the shin with vicious accuracy. “Don’t you dare.”

Robert grins and sticks his tongue in Aaron’s ear and then they’re in a silent, deadly wrestling match that ends with Aaron straddling his thighs and pinning him to the mattress.

“She’ll get bored,” Aaron hisses, thumbs digging into Robert’s wrists with entirely pleasant pressure. “We’ll just have to wait it out.”

Robert breathes out, looks up at him. At Aaron’s eyes, blue and sharp; at Aaron’s face, the familiar lines of his beard and his mouth and his jaw. He thinks, I love you. He says, “D’you wanna move in with me?”

“What?” Aaron says. His grip slackens on Robert’s wrists; Robert takes advantage to roll them over and settle into the splay of Aaron’s thighs, drape himself across Aaron’s chest. “Are you serious?”

Robert tries to not get nervous, as a general rule, but Aaron has never had much regard for rules Robert lives his life by. His heart rate picks up. “Yeah,” he says, keeping his voice steady. He could play this off as a joke, probably, throw it aside as a heat of the moment thing - but he doesn’t want to. He wants this, every day. Aaron in his bed, in his life, bumping  shoulders with him and bickering over whose turn it is to take out the bins. “I want you to move in with me. D’you want to move in with me?”

“Fine,” Chas yells, from outside the door. “Go hungry for all I care.”

Her steps decrease in sound as she leaves. Robert doesn’t move.

Aaron swallows. He doesn’t look away from Robert; holds his eyes, steady, searching - and Robert tries his best to be as open as he can, to show Aaron, I want you, I love you, this is it. Finally, he nods. “S’pose so.”

Robert laughs, relief flooding through him, through his entire body. He leans down and presses his mouth to Aaron’s ear and the bed creaks, very loudly. “Not bringing this bed, though.”

“Oi,” Aaron says. But he’s grinning, this smile creeping across his face. “Watch it, you.”

“I’m all right,” Robert says.

Aaron kisses him, fast and hot and sweet. “Yeah,” he says. “You are.”

Robert definitely thought his dick was down for the count, but this is Aaron Livesy. Wouldn’t need three days for a resurrection, let alone for this.

 

The flat is nice. Robert wouldn’t have bought it if it wasn’t, let alone moved Aaron into it. It’s pretty big, for one person; roomy for two. Two bedrooms, a little study, a big lounge and a nice kitchen, and the decor is all right, even if he doesn’t know what Priya and Rakesh were thinking half the time. It’s not like Aaron’s got an opinion with syllables about the decor, beyond annoyed grunting between guests on Jeremy Kyle.

He bought furniture before he asked Aaron to move in, started boxing up his things at Vic’s the minute he knew for sure he was staying in Emmerdale - the second time Aaron said I love you and Robert’s heart tried to leave his body. But the furniture’s still on hold, so Robert offers to send it back, take Aaron to Hotten and go shopping together, pick out stuff they both like, things that will fit the flat they’re going to live in together.

Aaron stares at him like he’s daft. “You’ve already bought it,” he says. “Are you trying to waste both our time? I’ve got a job, y’know, and I was pretty sure you did, too.”

It does make sense. Robert has already made all the arrangements.

Still, he finds himself morose about it, drinking in the Woolie with his little sister. “I just thought it would be nice.”

Vic pushes his hair out of his face and pets him gently, tells him, “You’ve got to tell him if you feel this strongly, Rob.”

“I don’t,” Robert lies. He had just - it had been nice, thinking about him and Aaron, working as a team. Making a home together, for - for as long as Aaron will have him. Which Robert hopes is forever. It’s not like Robert’s got a lot of practice with fidelity, but it’s Aaron. Aaron’s not like anyone else. Aaron breaks all of Robert’s rules.

It’s just - Robert likes when they are on the same page.

“Oi,” Aaron says, breezing by the table. “Meet me round back in half an hour, yeah? I’ve got boxes.” No hesitation. Just - a matter of fact statement.

“Okay,” Robert says.

“Bring a car,” Aaron says. He leans down and kisses Robert’s cheek swiftly, the bristles of his beard soft against Robert’s face. “See ya.”

“Look at that,” Vic says, beaming.

“Shut it,” Robert says. The disappearing shape of Aaron’s back looks like - the two of them, in a little flat, rambling round each other at in the kitchen, having rows in the toilet over who took too long in the shower. Like Aaron waking up at arse o’clock to get to the yard and reaching for the nearest jumper so he doesn’t have to turn the lights on and wake Robert, and having that jumper be Robert’s. Like a future.

 

-

 

“That was nice,” Robert says, rolling himself off Aaron. His arse lands in a stack of papers - actually important ones, from the divorce. Well.

“It was okay,” Aaron allows, a tiny smile playing at the corner of his mouth. He takes the papers when Robert hands them over and stretches his arm up to put them on the desk. Robert stares at the muscles in his forearm, thinks about putting his mouth on them.

Thinks: “I could take a photo of you,” he says. Offers. “It could be fun.” He wonders if the Aaron in the picture is the kind just brought out for photos, or if he’s someone Robert just - entirely missed. The idea of that makes Robert’s heart twist.

Aaron jerks his head up. “What?”

Robert shrugs, trying to keep it nonchalant. “You know. Like - a nice photo.”

“You mean wank material,” Aaron says flatly. “Er, no thank you. We’ve literally just had sex, Robert.”

“Not like that, ” Robert says. He shrugs. “I’ve done it loads of times. It’s just, you know, fun. You make silly faces, you make sexy faces-”

“Loads, eh,” says Aaron. Raising one eyebrow; half teasing, half something actually there.

Oops. Robert settles his hand on Aaron’s knee and squeezes. “Are you gonna tell me about the photo, or?”

“Nah,” Aaron says, pressing a kiss to his forehead. “It’s a boring story. I bet the one you come up with is more fun.”

“I don’t know about that,” Robert says. He thinks he might be pouting.

“You’re pouting,” Aaron says, pressing his thumb to the middle of Robert’s lips. “D’you know how sad that is? Grow a pair, mate.”

“I’m just curious,” Robert says. “I love you, don’t I?”

“I dunno,” Aaron says. “You tell me. Oh no, wait, you do every other minute.”

He’s getting faintly shirty now and Robert doesn’t actually want a row, on this, their day of first occupancy, so he chews the inside of his mouth and waits.

Aaron sighs and subsides. “C’mon, I need a hand with the kitchen, get your trousers on. Mam gave us a chocolate fountain and I’ve absolutely no idea where to put it.” He pulls himself to his feet and offers Robert his hand.

“In the rubbish,” Robert says firmly, wrapping his fingers around Aaron’s wrist. Not before he gets a good look at Aaron, though - it’s nice to see him like this, completely naked in the low light of the home office, dick soft against his thigh, scars fading on his abdomen.

“I could do without you getting murdered, ta,” Aaron says, and they both sort of flinch at it, before Robert shakes his head and kisses his cheek. “Trousers.”

“Hey,” Robert says. “I don’t have to if I don’t want to. This is our home, you know.”

He shivers, saying it: our home, our life, our world. He’s gratified to see Aaron’s tongue flick out, wet his lips. It’s no fun being the only one affected.

Aaron offers him a long, considering look; eyes dragging along Robert’s body, up and down. It’s nice to know Robert’s still got it. “Could get used to this,” he says.

“That’s the idea,” Robert says, slinging an arm around Aaron’s shoulders. “C’mon, you said boxes.”

The last time Robert did this, he had staff. Even if they were just Sam Dingle, and Andy. It’s strange to think about it.

Stranger still, to think about how much happier he is now.

 

Of course, this is when Vic lets herself in with a fucking cake and Adam and Finn at her back. Robert can’t bring himself to feel too guilty; they’re all adults, they know about the birds and the bees. Well, maybe not Finn.

The cake’s all right, though. Even if they do have to eat it off the floor.

 

-

 

The next day Robert is finishing the study. There are only a couple more boxes, most of it filing anyway, and Aaron’s filling in for someone last minute at the garage, because Debbie begged, so Vic’s come round with a bottle of wine and she’s sitting on the edge of the desk swinging her feet. She’s not exactly helpful, but Robert doesn’t mind.

Vic’s - Robert’s never really got on with Andy, even before all the disasters; they’re all right now but there will always be that history, and the scar on Robert’s ribs, and Katie, dead, hanging over both of them. Vic is just Robert’s little sister, his best person, the only one who’s loved him always, through thick and thin, even when he didn’t deserve it. Any time he gets to spend with her, he’ll take.

(Getting soppy in your old age, says a voice in his head that sounds like Aaron.

Shut up, he tells it, but fondly.)

Now she’s gossiping. “So that’s when Gabby and Liv had to do a runner,” she says, “just jumped right out the window and went for it-”

Robert rolls his eyes. Aaron’s got Liv for the weekend, and now because they live together that means Robert does, too. He’d been blocking it out of his memory.

He doesn’t exactly have something against Liv - everyone’s a mess when they’re a teenager, he could tell you stories - but she’s Trouble with a capital T, and Aaron loves her so, so much. And he knows from experience how easy it is, to take advantage of that love. “Of course they did.”

“Be nice,” Vic says. She sips from her glass of wine, shifting to a topic less controversial. “This is a nice room,” she says. “Nice windows.”

“Yeah,” he says, looking at it: big window at the end of the room, nice broad desk that he and Aaron have yet to christen, big stack of bookcases, big pile of empty boxes in the corner he’s got to take out. “It’ll do.”

She laughs at him and leans over to ruffle his hair. “I’m really glad you’re here,” she says. “I’m really glad you stayed.”

I’d never leave you is on the tip of his tongue, but he did and he would, so he bites it back. “Me too,” he says, instead. He gets to his feet to wrap his arms around her and press a kiss to the top of her head and that’s - he likes the way she fits into his arms.

He missed her, when he was gone. He didn’t miss anything else, but he missed her.

She squirms out from his arms. “Too tight,” she says, faintly pink, entirely fond. “What’s in the box, Rob?”

He resists the urge to do a Se7en voice. Instead, he bends down and gets it, lifts the lid, and -

“Oh,” Vic says, picking up the picture, carefully, by the edges. “That’s - I shouldn’t be looking at this.”

Teenage Aaron glares at both of them, sexually. He looks, Robert thinks, not exactly attainable - like he’d punch you so much as kiss you, and you wouldn’t know which until you were already almost there - but worth the effort.

Aaron has always been worth the effort. Even Robert was denying it to himself, he knew.

“Hey, Vic,” Robert says. “You didn’t take it, did you?” Him and Vic, they’ve never talked about the Aaron thing, but in a village this small - well. You don’t not find out things like this. Aaron is significantly nicer to Victoria than Robert is to Nicola Blackstock, but Aaron is also a nicer person than Robert.

“Oh my god,” Vic says, dropping the photo like it’s on fire. “No, Christ, Robert. And - I know you and Andy have that weird thing going on where you try to, I don’t know, share girls or whatever - but I don’t want to talk about this with you. Ever.”

“It’s not like that,” Robert protests. “Not on purpose.”

She rolls her eyes. “Not talking about it,” she says. “Seriously, never. Build a room in your head, put this conversation topic in it, lock the door, throw away the key. Never. I am not a Sugden brother, I want nothing of this.”

“Well, it’s done now,” Robert says, lightly. “Cause Andy’s not going after Aaron, is he? And I’m not letting Aaron go anywhere. Specially not to Andy.”

Vic makes this funny expression - torn between rolling her eyes and being painfully fond. She settles for snorting loudly and also kissing his cheek, and then saying, “You’re disgusting, d’you know that?”

Robert laughs at her, puts the photo away back into the back of the box marked Aaron. There’s nothing remarkable in it: just a few CDs, a Green Day and a Blink-182, and Aaron’s college papers. He thinks about Chas packing it up, wonders if she’d seen it. Thinks about Chas, never mother of the year but trying all the same, keeping Aaron’s paperwork even after it was no longer useful.

Probably not. The way the photo was in the papers, someone had tucked it in to hide it, to keep it safe.

“D’you think it might have been Holly, then?” Robert asks, after a minute. “I’m just curious. He won’t tell me.” He doesn’t know about anyone else, and with the timing - maybe Jackson? Maybe a boyfriend he hasn’t heard about? He can’t imagine, though, with Aaron the mess that everyone says he was, that he’d be caught dead taking a photo like that for a man.

It’s a photograph. Someone took that on film. Someone developed it.

“You can ask him yourself,” Vic says. “I’ve got no idea. He was in France all those years, didn’t even talk to Adam-” she pauses, thoughtful. “You don’t think it was trouble, do you?”

“Now who’s nosing,” Robert says, looking down at the photo, surreptitious as he can manage. Aaron looks - he doesn’t know. He doesn’t look like Aaron.

He reaches out for Vic’s glass and takes a sip, hands it back.

She shakes her head. “Too right.” Pours herself more wine and hands him the bottle. “Anyway, I was gonna ask - d’you mind if me and Adam take Liv for her tea tonight? You and Aaron have a bit of work left here, it looks like, and I’d like a chat. Me and Liv get on, you know.”

“I don’t get it,” Robert says. Holds both his hands up. “Not a word against her, I’ve got it. Won’t even mention the time she crashed Aaron’s car. If you want her, have her.”

Vic pokes him in the chest. “Oi. That’s your future sister-in-law.”

“Stop it,” Robert says, feeling himself get a little hot in the cheeks. “That’s - stop it, all right.”

“That’s not a no,” she says, teasing. “She’s a good kid, all right? Just, she’s got a lot going on.”

“And she talks to you.”

“I’m not her brother,” Vic says. “And I know what it’s like to have a bit of a rough go of things, not really have parents, you know.”

Robert winces. “All right,” he says. “I’ll text Aaron and ask, shall I?”

“Ta,” she says. Squints at him thoughtfully for a moment, and then: “I’m dead proud of you, you know,” she says. “You had us worried for a bit there, but you’ve really got it together.”

He ducks his head. “Aw, Vic.”

“Don’t let it go to your head,” she says. “It’s big enough as it is.”

He kisses her cheek. “Love you too.”

 

-

 

The next night, Aaron and Liv bring home fish and chips, and they all sit in front of the TV and watch some game show that Robert doesn’t care about at all, and Liv and Aaron seem to only care about in terms of insulting every contestant.

Robert perches himself in the armchair next to the sofa and watches them, the way Liv leans into Aaron and Aaron laughs delightedly when she’s particularly unkind about someone, the way she lights up when she makes him smile. He remembers being in Sandra’s house, that little girl asking him if he knew anything about her dad.

(Then he remembers how much his balls had hurt.

Less sympathetic, now.)

The show ends.

“All right,” Aaron says, ruffling Liv’s hair. “Go get your kit, we’ve gotta get a move on.”

He’s got a thing at the scrapyard in the morning, arse o’clock. Robert asked if he wanted help but Aaron said, silent partner, growled it through his teeth, so Robert put his hands up and made himself a cup of tea instead, smiling to himself in a way that Aaron later called smug and then fucked off his face.

The point being, he can’t drive Liv home in the morning, so she’s got to go home tonight if she wants to make school tomorrow. She doesn’t, but Sandra does.

“Do I have to?” Liv says, looking imploringly at Aaron. “You know I hate it there.”

“Yeah, but she’s your mam,” Aaron says, “and she loves ya, so.”

Robert sighs. Vic does this - she gets into your head and makes you want to be a nicer person. Why he got stuck with her is beyond him. “I’ll drive her,” he says. “I’ll drive you, Liv. I don’t have to be in till later, if you wanna ring Sandra and ask? And then you can stay over tonight. Shame to waste the guest room, since we’ve got it all set up for you.”

Liv looks at Aaron. Aaron looks at Liv, and then at Robert.

They are wearing matching expressions of suspicious disbelief.

“I’m hurt,” Robert says. “I mean, I don’t have to, obviously, I can have a lie-in, maybe visit Vic at work?”

Aaron coughs and Liv rolls her eyes and they have a complicated conversation entirely in eye contact that ends in Liv shrugging both shoulders and Aaron saying, “Yeah, all right, ta.”

 

Robert doesn’t go and hide in the study, after that. He’s not intimidated by a fifteen year old kid, thanks very much, especially not one he’s about to do a favour.

He just - makes a tactical retreat. He’ll have Aaron all week, anyway. (Unless Liv hotwires a car and comes to visit, which she has been known to do, but lord preserve them all.)

“She’s gone to sleep,” Aaron says, leaning in the doorframe. He’s smirking. “You can come out now, if you like.”

“I’m not hiding,” Robert says, but he gets up anyway and goes to kiss Aaron, curl his fingers around the sweep of Aaron’s jaw and hold tight. “Been wanting to do that all day.”

“We had sex this morning,” Aaron says, mildly, but his breath’s picked up and he’s slipped his own palm down to the curve of Robert’s arse.

“I like getting to kiss you,” Robert says. “I know, I know, not in front of Liv.”

Aaron shrugs. “We can go to bed now, if you like.”

“You’ve got the thing,” Robert says. “In the morning.”

Aaron grins at him, pale and luminous in the darkness of the hallway. “Ain't the morning yet.”

 

Robert doesn’t mean to, but later, when he is straddling Aaron’s thighs and riding Aaron’s dick and looking down at Aaron’s face, he thinks about the photograph. Aaron’s teeth are white in the light and his fingers are digging into Robert’s hip, just on the good edge of violent, and Robert looks down and thinks, I want to know everything about you.

 

-

 

Aaron wakes him with a gentle hand on his shoulder. “C’mon,” he says, softly. “School run, Rob.” He’s already dressed - shirt and tie, smart trousers - and he’s got a mug in one hand that he offers to Robert. “You volunteered, remember that.”

It’s dark out. No light coming in through the crack in the curtains.

Robert rubs his eyes and takes the mug: coffee, the way Aaron makes it when they’re sharing a cup, which is one milk instead of Aaron’s usual three and Robert’s usual zero, and one and a half sugars instead of Robert’s usual no sugars and Aaron’s usual eight. He swallows about half of it and hands it back. “Thanks.”

Aaron smiles at him, tired and sweet. “I’ve woken Liv up but you’ll have to do it again. Just put her in the car, she’ll sleep most of the way. Don’t let her forget her bag.”

“How old is she, eight?” Robert grumbles, but he leans up and kisses Aaron quickly. “Don’t worry, I can manage. I’ve done it before.” He freezes - it’s too early in the morning to carefully excise all mention of his former life - but Aaron just shrugs at him skeptically.

“Yeah, all right,” he says. “Good luck, I’ve gotta-”

“Yeah, of course,” Robert says. “I’ll see you later, have a good day. Knock ‘em dead out there.”

Aaron’s eyes go soft and he pauses, one hand on the edge of the bedside table. Waiting.

“Love you,” Robert says, raking a hand through his hair. “One day you’re gonna say it first.”

“Not today,” Aaron says, but relenting, “I love you too.”

 

Liv is exactly as non-responsive as advertised, but it’s sort of nice. For once she isn’t on the verge of a fight, she’s just - sleepy, easy, gently guided into the passenger seat, persuaded to do up her seatbelt and then curled up there with her face tucked into her own shoulder.

Robert hands her a flask of tea - he does actually know how to do this, thanks Aaron; he’d done Lachlan’s school run plenty of times, back when - and she murmurs, thanks, instead of a thinly veiled insult or some attempt to manipulate him. He catches himself smiling fondly and schools his face back to neutral.

They pass most of the drive in silence. Liv wakes up halfway through and sips at her tea, staring at him thoughtfully; he turns on the radio, the station Aaron likes. It’s a bit heavy for him this early but Liv nods her head along to the beat so he lets it go.

Finally, Liv says, “It’s a weird sex thing, innit.”

Robert says, “I’m sorry, what?”

Liv shrugs, sipping her tea. She looks like a small animal; harmless. “You doing this,” she says. “He’s gotta be bribing you with a weird sex thing. You don’t exactly like me.”

“I don’t dislike you,” Robert says, and then, because it’s important to be clear about these things, “It’s not like you’re falling over yourself to make me feel comfortable.”

She inspects her fingernails. “I’m fifteen, though. How old are you?”

“Not that old!” Robert says. Young enough to show your brother a good time, but he’s got enough self-preservation not to let himself say that out loud. “Look, couldn’t I just have wanted to do something nice for you?”

“Nah,” she says, calmly, clearly. “Cause you look at me, and you still - cause I hurt Aaron, didn’t I? And you’re not good at watching that.”

Robert swallows hard. “You were a kid,” he says. “You’re a kid now. It wasn’t your fault. And you fixed it right away.” And it would make me a massive hypocrite, considering all I’ve put him through.

She chews her lip. “That ain't a no.”

“Look,” he says. “Aaron’s - I’m gonna be with Aaron, for as long as he’ll have me. And he loves you. And, sorry, bad luck, but he loves me. So we’ve got to get on.”

She hums, turning the flask round in her hands. “Makes sense,” she says, and then she sighs. “You know I’m - I never wanted to.”

“I know,” Robert says. And he does. “How about this? I’m living with Aaron, and you’re round all the time-”

“Can’t get rid of me,” Liv says, proudly.

“-And I’ll try to let it go if you try to get over whatever it is about me you don’t like, yeah?”

“It’s your face,” Liv says, thoughtfully. “It’s punchable.”

“Cheers,” Robert says. “Never heard that one before.”

“Really?” She blinks. “Definitely would have thought you would have.”

“Yeah, that was a joke. Heard it loads.”

“Huh.”

“So we’re all right?” He taps his fingers on the wheel, looks out at the morning traffic stretched in front of them. “For Aaron, you know.”

“Yeah,” she says, and he doesn’t have to turn to know she’s gone soft round the eyes and the mouth. Aaron’s got a way of doing that to people. “And Vic’s all right, so I s’pose if she likes you you can't be that bad.”

“Ta,” Robert says. “Feet off the dashboard, please, this is expensive.”

“I take it all back,” Liv grumbles, but the sun’s made it into the sky and the fingers of colour are spreading across the road, brilliant, warm, beautiful.

Robert smiles. It’s something, he supposes.

 

-

 

“Aaron, are you home?” Robert shrugs out of his coat, hangs it on the tree. It’s a nice little coat tree; Aaron thinks it’s stupid but Aaron thinks lots of things are stupid, and when Robert offered to trade it in Aaron rolled his eyes and said don’t be stupid.

He goes into the kitchen, and when he goes to put the kettle on it’s still warm. Aaron’s used all the water, though, so he has to refill it from the tap. Pulls down his mug from the cabinet and fishes round for a teabag.

“Bathroom,” Aaron yells.

Robert pours hot water into his mug and wanders down the hall, leans himself in the doorway, and pauses. “Aaron?”

Aaron turns to look at him. He’s leaning over the sink, and he’s got Robert’s razor in one hand, and shaving cream all over the lower half of his face. “All right? Cheers, I’ve got my own brew.” He gestures to the mug balancing on the edge of the sink.

“Are you-” Robert’s pretty sure he’s staring.

“Have you never seen a bloke shave,” Aaron says, rolling his eyes, but fondly. “How was Liv?”

“Good,” Robert says. “Er, Sandra says hello, all the usual.” Sandra had actually stared at him for a full half-minute before Liv said, you’re gonna catch flies, mum, and then she offered him a cup of tea which he respectfully declined.

He hasn’t looked away from Aaron. He honestly doesn’t think he’s blinked.

“It was nice of you,” Aaron says. “Cheers.”

“I don’t mind,” Robert says, edging into the bathroom. “She’s not so bad.”

Aaron blinks at him. “Okay,” he says.

“I’m just saying, I could do it again if you wanted.”

“Have you fallen on your head,” Aaron says. “Do we need to drive to A&E? Because if we’re going to A&E I've got to wash this off.”

“I can be nice!” Robert narrows his eyes. “Me and Liv are great.”

“Okay,” Aaron says, smirking. “Whatever you say, Rob. As long as she’s alive.”

Robert pads up behind him, sneaking one hand onto Aaron’s hip. “So, what’s brought this on?”

“Dunno,” Aaron says. “Felt like a change.” He shrugs. “You liked the picture, so … thought I might give it a go. Beard’s been around for ages.”

“I like the beard,” Robert says. “I like everything about you.”

Aaron makes a gagging noise. “I’m trying to shave here, don’t you have sommat to do?”

“You’re a thing,” Robert says, sliding his hand round Aaron’s front. “I could help you out.”

“I think I can manage,” Aaron says dryly. “Go find someone else to bother for ten minutes, yeah?”

Robert rolls his eyes. “Fine,” he says, makes like he’s about to leave and then ducks back to press a kiss to Aaron’s shoulder. “See you on the other side.”

Aaron turns back to the sink. “By the way,” he says, lifting the razor, “deal went well. Got everything we wanted, and a bit on top of that. Take you on holiday next month if you fancy it? Ibiza’s nice.” He pauses. “Don’t you go doing that.”

Robert stops the smile continuing to spread over his face. It’s hard work. “Dead proud of you,” he says. “That’s all.”

“Be proud somewhere else,” Aaron says fondly.

Robert takes his tea and goes.

 

The light in the study is nice this time of day, when the sun’s thinking about setting but hasn’t quite made its mind up in either direction just yet. Robert settles into the chair behind the desk and drinks his tea.

He thinks - well. Aaron without a beard, that’s going to be different. It was shorter when they first met. He wonders if it’ll make Aaron look younger, softer. More vulnerable.

If that’s why Aaron got the beard in the first place. That’s an unsettling thought, itching at the back of his neck. He thinks, I’m sorry it took me so long, but I’m here now.

He sighs and pulls open the bottom drawer that holds all the files, sifting through for the one marked Aaron. The photo is on the top, looking up at him, angrily. Aaron looks - there’s a fineness about his features, something that’s different now he’s older. Robert wants to know why.

 

“All right?” Aaron says, knocking twice on the door and coming in. He’s got two little bits of toilet paper on his cheeks, red with dried blood, and he’s grinning.

Robert slams the drawer shut and gets to his feet. He’s staring. “Told you I coulda helped.”

“Shut up,” Aaron says, and looks - faintly skittish, around the eyes.

“Looks great,” Robert says. “I mean, you always- This looks good.”

Robert was right. It makes him look younger, makes him look less guarded. Sweeter. It makes his face look softer.

“D’you like it?” Robert leans his hip against the desk. Waiting. Like there isn’t something in the room, something in the air; like anytime Aaron’s in a room he isn’t drawn, magnetized. How the hell did he manage that affair so long?

“I dunno,” Aaron says, running a hand along his jaw. “Bit of an adjustment.” He shrugs. “I was a bit short with you about that photo, so I thought-”

“I don’t- It’s fine, you didn’t-”

“I know,” Aaron says, fondly. Even his fondness looks different with a bare jaw; the twist of his mouth, usually hidden, seems like it’s being broadcast from the rooftops without the beard to disguise it. “Got a bit upset about it, though, had to have a chat with Paddy and sort my head out.”

Robert keeps his face calm. Of course he’s jealous; of course he wishes it was him Aaron went to, always. But that’s a part of him that’s ugly and cruel and capable of hurting Aaron and so he pushes it right down. “Yeah? You’re all right now?”

“I’m fine,” Aaron says. “But, you did me a favour. So I thought I’d do sommat nice for you.”

“It wasn’t really a favour,” Robert says. “So you know.”

Aaron raises an eyebrow.

“I mean,” Robert says. “You’re - we’re a team, right? So she’s part of it, of you, and if I want this to work we’ve gotta work together. And if that means being nice to Liv, I can handle it. As long as she doesn’t steal my car, and tell her I saw her eyeing it up.”

“Yeah?”

Robert drops his voice, leans forward. He hopes his eyes are as sincere as he feels. “I’m serious about you. Why else would I have asked you to move in? You’re everything. If you come with a bratty teenager, well. I can live with that.”

“Are you done being sappy now? Because I was trying to get laid, but if you wanna have a cry I can come back.” But Aaron’s body has shifted, arms swinging down by his sides, open. Waiting for Robert to come in and claim him.

Robert hums. “Oh,” he says. “You were trying to get it on with me, then?”

“Not gonna if it's work,” Aaron says, smirking. Everyone always goes at Robert for his smirk but Aaron's got one on him, if you ask Robert.

He pushes off the doorframe and pads across the room. Like a prowl.

Robert settles his hands on the edge of the desk and closes them. Waits.

“So what is it,” Aaron says, right up in front of him - almost close enough to touch, but just a finger-length too far. “About the photo. Is it the beard? Is that I look younger?”

Robert shrugs and lets his thighs fall open: an invitation for Aaron to fit himself between them. “Maybe I’m just sick of beard burn, ever think of that?”

“Never,” Aaron says, stepping forward. Finally, finally, warm and solid between Robert’s legs. It always feels like forever when Aaron’s away from him; it always feels like coming home when he’s touching Robert again.

Robert reaches out, fits one hand on Aaron’s hip, over the little sliver of flesh between his jeans and his jumper, rubs his thumb over Aaron’s skin. “Yeah,” he says. “Never get sick of anything about you.”

Aaron snorts. “What’d I say,” he says, but he’s got a pleased little smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Cut that soppy shit.”

“Oh, shut up,” Robert says, smiling back, and leans up, and kisses him. Aaron makes this - soft, perfect noise - and melts into Robert, just goes completely soft, easy, into his arms. It’s weird not to have the beard pressed against him, to have the bare flesh of Aaron’s face right there, against his mouth, against his skin. He wants to feel it. Wants to touch him, wants as much of him that Aaron will let him have. All of him, if Robert has his way.

Aaron lets his mouth fall open and tightens one hand in Robert’s shirt and sighs.

“Oi,” Robert says, pulling off to cup Aaron’s cheek. “That’s a bit strange.”

Aaron narrows his eyes. “Keep talking.”

“Just different,” Robert says, stroking along Aaron’s bare jaw, where there isn’t even stubble yet. Aaron shivers under him. “Hot as hell.”

“Haven’t had this in ages,” Aaron says. “Not since, I dunno. I was younger.” He presses a kiss to the underside of Robert’s jaw, and it’s so fucking strange to not have the beard there. “Might have a tracksuit kicking about in a box somewhere, if you want the full experience.”

Robert tries to laugh but ends up sort of choking on it, because his dick’s suddenly got all the way involved. He doesn’t even like tracksuits.

Aaron laughs, nips at Robert’s throat, just a tiny little bite. “That’s a yes?”

“Busy now,” Robert says. “But maybe later.”

Aaron hums. “You wouldn’t be able to handle it, anyway,” he says. “I’ve softened in my old age. You’d have had no idea how to handle me, back then.”

“Oh, really,” Robert says. His breath has quickened. He tightens his hand on Aaron’s hip, lets himself grind gently against Aaron’s thigh.

Aaron looks down at him, considering. “You’re really into this,” he observes.

“It’s hot,” Robert says, shameless. “Little scally, running wild, getting in fights, making trouble.”

“Sleeping with your sister,” Aaron says, a wry twist to his mouth.

“I thought we were having sex,” Robert says, dipping his hand past the waistband of Aaron’s jeans, “but if you wanna keep talking about Vic, feel free.”

Aaron huffs, a little displeased sound, and rolls his shoulders. Something settles in them, a kind of - the way he holds himself is different, more aggressive, almost confrontational.

Robert’s breath catches. “D’you wanna go to the bedroom?” he asks. “Might be a bit more comfortable there.”

“Maybe,” Aaron says. He’s done something to his voice. It sounds - rougher, different. The accent’s thickened up and he’s looking at Robert in a way that’s almost wary. “If you’re up for it.”

“I’m always up for it,” Robert says, “you know me.” He pauses. "Never tell Liv it was a weird sex thing."

He kisses Aaron’s throat and Aaron - this Aaron - shivers, visibly, entirely responsive, and jerks away.

“Bedroom,” he says. And stiffens his shoulders and walks away.

But he’s Aaron, so he pauses in the doorway, and turns his head to look over his shoulder, like there is any world in which Robert wouldn’t be following.

(There are plenty. Robert sets fire to them, in his heart.)

 

Robert shuts the bedroom door behind them and Aaron sticks his hands in the pockets of his hoodie and glares, a sturdy steady thing that might intimidate Robert if he couldn’t see the playful spark at the back of Aaron’s eyes, in the way his mouth’s flat but with a tiny quirk at the corner. “So,” he says. “You gonna do something, or?”

“Not that different from regular Aaron, then,” Robert says, smirking. “Don’t worry, you know I’m good for it.” He reaches for the bottom of his jumper and watches Aaron’s eyes dart to his fingers, the way Aaron’s tongue flicks out and wets his lower lip, the way he burns with want but tries to disguise it.

Aaron’s shoulders are tight. “Get on with it,” he says, accent thicker now, and he’s brittle around the mouth and Robert wants to just - press his mouth to Aaron’s mouth and be gentle with him, god. It’s not that Robert doesn’t think this often about Aaron - he thinks it all the time, how could he not, with Aaron with his bitter hard shell - but it’s different, Aaron with his bare face and his stiff shoulders and this sullen, arrogant look in his eyes.

Robert says, “Patience is a virtue,” and grins, easily.

Aaron sits down on the edge of the bed and fiddles with the strings of his hoodie. Looking at Robert under his eyelashes; pretending not to look.

Robert pulls off his top and lets it fall to the floor, soft and crumpled.

“Someone gonna pick that up?” says Aaron, and now he’s just staring outright. It’s nice, having Aaron’s attention all the way on him, having Aaron stare at him like Robert’s water in a desert. “Better not be me.”

“Shh,” Robert says. Hooks his thumbs in the belt of his jeans, watching the way Aaron’s eyes skitter towards his dick, then away. He’s always liked being watched. Always liked more when it was Aaron doing the watching.

Aaron observes, “You think you’re well fit.” He’s tried to say it like an insult but Robert knows his audience, knows that little catch in Aaron’s breath, knows the flex of Aaron’s fingers against the blankets.

“Well,” Robert says. “I am.” He grins and undoes his zipper, wriggles his hips a little to skim out of his jeans.

Aaron breaks character, laughing. His eyes are bright. “Seriously?”

“This is an effective seduction tactic,” Robert says. “Shut up, you. I have it on good authority that I’m and I quote, ‘seriously gorgeous’.”

“I was bladdered, all right,” Aaron says, “that’s not even fair.” He lets his eyes rest pointedly on the flat of Robert’s stomach, the v of his hips. “You just gonna stand there or get your kit off?”

“Ask nicely,” Robert says.

“I’m not nice,” Aaron says. He settles one hand on his own thigh, just - not quite there. Close. “You wouldn’t like me if I was.”

But the thing is, Aaron’s the nicest person Robert’s ever loved. He pretends like he isn’t; maybe thinks he isn’t. But he loves dogs, and he’s the only thing between Liv and jail, and Robert never knew that was what he wanted but it is.

“I’d like you no matter what,” Robert says. Slips out of his jeans and accidentally gets stuck on his own ankle.

Aaron laughs, raucous. “Jesus, Rob, d’you need a hand with that?”

“Go back to being a sullen teenage chav,” Robert says, “definitely woulda given me less lip.” He finally gets his jeans off and chucks them in the corner with unnecessary force.

“To be honest,” Aaron says, “I’d probably have stolen your wallet and run off.”

“Seriously?”

“What,” Aaron says, and the shoulders are back, and the faintly suspicious glare, “d’you wanna do sommat about it?”

“Yeah, actually,” Robert says, padding across the floor, toes digging into the carpet. “Was thinking I might suck your dick, how’s that?”

Aaron sucks in a sharp breath, digs his nails into his thigh - not hard, Robert observes, but keeps his eyes on them all the same. “Whatever,” he says. “Just as long as you don’t go expecting me to return the favour.”

Robert laughs, draws his hand along his stomach, curls his hand around his dick for the little hurt noise Aaron makes, involuntary. It’s just, it’s fucking funny, because one of Aaron’s favourite activities is sucking Robert’s dick; he can’t get enough of it. Like, he loves bringing Robert to the edge and holding him there and then telling him, sometimes, how fucking hot he looks while he plays with Robert's balls and presses his fingers to the base of Robert's dick until Robert’s lost it, until Robert is gasping and non-verbal and Aaron’s just smiling .

But that's beside the point, which is that Robert is naked and Aaron is still entirely dressed, sitting there in jeans and a hoodie staring at Robert like he wants him but he’s mad about it, like he could just easily bolt as reach out, and Robert is just thinking about that goddamn photograph, about Aaron with his angry eyes and his mouth waiting to bite, to kiss.

And Robert wants to get this right, wants to do it properly. So he leans forward, right into Aaron’s space, and puts his hand on Aaron’s chest and kisses him, long and easy, the way Aaron likes to be kissed - except this time Aaron’s tentative, almost shy, cautious in a way he hasn’t been, oh, ever, in all the time Robert’s been kissing him.

That’s so fucking hot, conceptually and in practice, that Robert finds himself rocking his hips forward, against the v of Aaron’s splayed legs.

“Mate,” Aaron says, breaking the kiss to blink up at him accusingly.

Robert huffs a laugh and kisses him again, “sorry, sorry, sorry,” pressed against the flush of Aaron’s mouth, before he’s tugging him to his feet and pulling at the hoodie. “Get this off,” he says, “c’mon, help me out here,” so Aaron stretches out his arms and lets Robert pull the clothes off him, tiny smile playing at the corner of his mouth when Robert throws them into the corner.

Robert breathes out, hard. Still loves this; this world where Aaron lets Robert take his top off and kiss his chest, and just look at him.

It’s better, this, than any photo. This is Aaron with his scars, Aaron who’s been through the wars and picked himself up and still, despite all that, manages to choose Robert. Time and time again.

Robert breathes in. I love you, I love you . He can’t say the words as much as he wants to, doesn’t want to strip them of their value, but he thinks them every time Aaron breathes.

Aaron dips his eyelashes and stares at Robert, greedily, like he’s never seen Robert before. “I’ve never done this before,” he says, like an accusation. Biting his lower lip, palming at himself in his jeans.

Robert has to drop his hand to the base of his dick and squeeze hard,  because holy shit, this could get embarrassing fast, neither this Aaron nor the one he lives with would let him live that down ever.

“Fuck,” he says, and slides to his knees, bats Aaron’s hand away and curls one hand around the side of Aaron’s hip. “You can pull my hair if you want,” he says. “But not too hard, all right?” And then he leans in, pulls out this trick he learned in Lanzarote, the summer he turned 21, closes his teeth around Aaron’s zipper and drags it down.

Aaron’s hand hovers above his head and then settles, very lightly, in his hair. “Gonna take care of me?” he asks, and that’s Robert’s Aaron, the faint tease in his warm voice, and Robert feels it, knows it in his bones; Aaron was playing along before but now he’s into it, and his dick is so hard it must be painful.

Robert looks up through his eyelashes. “Don’t I always?”

“Dunno,” Aaron says. “Let’s find out.” He tightens his grip for a second, backs off.

“You’re so hot,” Robert says. He presses a kiss to the familiar heat of Aaron’s dick, mouths along the line of it.

Aaron shudders, less in control than he usually is. Robert’s fascinated; wants to pick him apart, find all the seams, all the differences. Figure out what to do differently, figure out how to make Aaron melt. He’s never had Aaron vulnerable. He’s always had so much armour, so much experience.

This Aaron is hard on the outside but soft on the inside - remarkably soft, the kind of soft that makes Robert want to be so, so kind - and Robert’s never had much patience for virgins but he’d make an exception for Aaron, he thinks. God, if he had found Aaron - angry, messed up Aaron - well.

It’s not like he had an easy time with his sexuality, back then. Aaron’s right that they wouldn’t have spoken. Maybe Robert would have done something to him for the mess with Victoria. They’re both pretty fucked up, when you think about it.

Probably he wouldn’t have done this.

Not like this, anyway. He lets himself imagine for a moment, mouthing at Aaron’s dick through his underwear; imagines himself twenty-four and bitter, muscling Aaron with his short hair and his tracksuits into the hay at Butler’s, biting at his mouth and telling him not a word, never speak of it. That Aaron would have let him. That Aaron would have let Robert break him.

He hates the idea of it so he softens, strokes his thumb across the plane of Aaron’s hip and kisses the soft curve of his stomach, murmurs, “you’re the fittest bloke in town,” and Aaron laughs, a little soft startled sound.

“You’ve already got me into bed,” he says, but it’s hesitant, cautious, and his fingers have caught in Robert’s hair as though he’s worried Robert might pull away.

Robert laughs and pulls his boxers down, breath hot against Aaron’s dick; nothing’s changed here, at least, same familiar length, the same faintly purple head and ridges, veins that make Aaron hiss in a breath when Robert runs his fingers over them. “Gonna suck you off,” he says. “Gonna put my mouth on your dick and make you come.”

“Don’t need a lecture about it,” says Aaron, but his voice is tight and thready and there’s desperation coiling through it and god, fuck, Robert is so hard, Robert wants this so much, Robert wants to unwind him. 

Robert laughs and strokes him once, twice, root to tip. Takes his time about it, rubs his thumb over the slit the way Aaron likes it for the way his whole body shivers, for the way his mouth falls open and his head tips back and the line of his throat glows, long and pale and bare. Robert’s never seen Aaron so vulnerable.

He dips his head and fits his mouth around Aaron’s dick.

Aaron’s hips pulse, like a kick; his hand tightens in Robert’s hair. “Fuck,” he says, startled.

Robert keeps his hand hard on Aaron’s hip, holds him down. Thinks about Aaron in that picture, thighs spread, angry; licks messy around the head, then looks up at Aaron through his eyelashes and takes him all the way down.

It’s a party trick, honestly. He doesn’t do it that much. Aaron doesn’t like it particularly more than when Robert uses his hands, when Robert kisses him and keeps his mouth on the head, doesn’t go all the way. But it’s the sort of thing you’d pull out if you wanted to impress, and if this is Aaron, angry and nervous and not sure how to feel good, well.

Robert’s gonna make him feel good. He swallows around Aaron’s dick and tries an experimental bob - up and down, easy - keeps the pace slow, keeps his fingerprints firm on Aaron’s hip. He loves the weight of Aaron’s dick, has always loved it; he palms Aaron’s balls, lightly at first for the way Aaron shudders, and then harder for the way Aaron rocks, involuntarily, into the dual sensations.

He pulls back and scrapes his teeth, just barely, just a whisper.

Aaron makes this noise- jesus, and Aaron’s calf is right there, Robert just rocks against it, just a little, and Aaron tosses his head, like he doesn’t know what to do, like he’s confused by his body, and Robert loves it, Robert wants this forever, Aaron under his hands and his mouth, Aaron feeling good because Robert made him.

Robert swallows once, and then twice, works the muscles of his throat and trails his fingers back, behind Aaron’s balls, tracing across the sensitive skin and then further still, just fluttering the pads of them over Aaron’s hole.

Aaron breathes in, hard, like he’s running a marathon. Looks back down at Robert and his eyes - almost all pupil; his hand tightens in Robert’s hair and he shoves his hips forward and Robert can take it, Robert wants to, even if Aaron’s usually more polite he likes this, likes the desperation in it, the way Aaron’s given up on respectability, the way Aaron just wants.

Aaron brings his other hand down to Robert’s shoulder, fingertips light on Robert’s cheek and then on his throat - slow, careful, wondering-

And Robert swallows, hard, grinds against Aaron’s leg, fuck, fuck, fuck, he’s the one that isn’t supposed to be a teenager but it’s all good, it’s fine, because Aaron’s staring at him, teeth sharp on his lower lip and he’s saying, Robert, Robert, Robert -

And his hips pulse forward once, twice, and Robert just has to take it, god, just has to feel it, and Aaron’s coming, so deep in Robert that he can’t even taste it.

Robert pulls off, breathes in. Licks his way along Aaron’s sensitive cock and watches the way his whole body shudders, no more smart mouth. His mouth is so expressive. He looks so young. He looks so open, now. Like Robert could do anything and he’d love it.

He pulls the rest of Aaron’s jeans off and climbs onto the bed, kneels next to him and watches Aaron blink, blearily, and then come back to himself.

“All right?”

“Yeah,” Aaron says, like he’s in awe, and Robert could get used to this.

“It’s okay,” Robert whispers, kissing Aaron’s throat and his jaw, takes Aaron’s hand in his own and drags it down to his dick, curls Aaron’s fingers around him and says, “I’ll show you how, just trust me.”

Aaron blinks at him, dazed, but his grip fits around Robert’s dick just right. The first few strokes are tentative, but he picks it up fast; not quite familiar, but like he's exploring, trying new things, like it's all new. 

“Aaron,” Robert groans, feels his eyes flutter shut.

“Robert,” Aaron says, but he says it like he’s confused, like he thinks he should be saying something else.

Robert freezes, pulls off, pulls away. “Aaron,” he says.

Aaron blinks. “I-” he shakes his head and blinks three times, rolls his shoulders and then he’s back, Aaron with his sharp eyes and his wry smile, and he’s looking down at Robert, at the hard press of his dick against his stomach, and he says, “Look at you,” in this - immeasurably fond voice, low and rough and fucking gorgeous.

“Aaron,” Robert says, and he thinks his own voice breaks, feels himself unspooling as Aaron closes his other hand on Robert’s cheek and draws him in and kisses him, kisses him and kisses him and the frantic rhythm of his hand pulls Robert over the edge.

 

-

 

“You all right?” Robert settles a hand on Aaron’s wrist, careful.

Aaron blinks at him. His shoulders are stiff. “Robert-” he says, and shakes his head, and moves his hand away.

“You went somewhere for a bit,” Robert says, softly. “D’you wanna talk about it? You know you can tell me anything.”

“No,” Aaron says, flat. He rolls over, his back a straight, firm line. Reaches for the tissues on the nightstand. “Just leave it, all right?”

“Aaron,” Robert says. Reaches out, fingertips against the vertebrae at the top of Aaron’s spine. Aaron shivers, but doesn’t move away from him; in return, Robert keeps his touch light. Doesn’t press.

“You done with all that photo shit now, then?” Aaron asks. His voice is tight, and slightly muffled. “Got it out your system?”

I wasn’t the only one into it, Robert thinks, quietly. But he hates this, hates this fight, just wants to wrap his body around Aaron and hold him through whatever this is, until it passes. “Yeah,” he says. “Okay, yeah, I’m done.”

“Okay,” Aaron says. Something in his back loosens. “Good. Because it’s fucking - that’s not your business.”

“Okay,” Robert says. Curls his hand around Aaron’s hip and tugs him back, into the line of Robert’s body, and Aaron lets him. Aaron just sighs and Robert bites back the stupid words he stupidly wants to say and just wraps his arms around Aaron, kisses the back of his neck and tangles their legs together.

Aaron huffs, gently put-upon, but he covers Robert’s hand with his own, and holds on.

 

-

 

The photo isn't in the desk anymore, the next time Robert checks. He thinks, maybe it fell into a different folder? But no. It's just gone.

He doesn't miss it, really.

But when he asks Aaron if he's moved it Aaron's mouth goes tight and his eyes go flat and he says, “Robert, just go fuck yourself, all right?”

Which isn't, honestly, all that strange for Aaron. But Robert doesn't like it.

 

-

 

Vic is teaching Liv to bake scones.

Why in hell, Robert has no idea, but he’ll sit here on the arm of Vic’s sofa with his hand on Aaron's shoulder while Aaron and Adam play some shoot em up game on the PlayStation and enjoy the smell. Occasionally, when it looks like he won't get caught, he sneaks out a fingertip and traces it across the bare line of Aaron's jaw.

“Different, innit,” says Adam, catching him do it.

Aaron makes a face like a wet cat and slaps Robert’s hand away. “Trying to play here,” he says grumpily, but subsides well enough when Robert kisses the top of his head.

“Look like a baaaby,” says Adam, reaching out to cup Aaron's cheek with his own palm. “Feel that? Magical.”

“Do one,” Aaron says, shooting Adam’s character in the head. It explodes with a red, wet splatter. Honestly, technology is amazing.

“Just saying,” Adam says, “you could go out in a nice place like that. Pick up a nice bloke. No offence, Rob.”

“None taken,” Robert says, and then, “as long as he brings the nice bloke home to share.”

Adam chokes and gets shot in the head again.

Without turning his head, Aaron holds up his hand and Robert slaps it in a high five.

“Boys,” sighs Vic, bringing out a tray of scones.

“Don't worry,” Aaron says, reaching one handed for a scone, “we’ve got more controllers, you two can have a go when you're done in the kitchen.” He shoves the scone into his mouth rapidly and Adam, on the other side of the couch, does the same.

“Are you sure that's not burnt?” Robert asks, chewing thoughtfully on his own scone. Someone's gotta pay attention to them, before Aaron and Adam just mindlessly scoff the lot.

Liv goes pink and furious but Vic just rolls her eyes. “Don't worry,” she says, “he's trying to be funny. Dropped on his head as a baby.”

“That's good, that is,” Adam says, through a mouthful of scone. “Top baking, Liv.”

“Too right,” Aaron says. “Well good, nice one.”

She does this cautious little smile, warm in her eyes. Lights up her whole face.

It makes Robert think of Aaron. He wonders if anyone made Aaron smile like that, when he was young.

“Face looks good, Aaron,” Vic says. “Very professional. Clean cut.”

Aaron rolls his eyes. “Don't get used to it.”

 

-

 

Robert can’t get it out of his head. Aaron had been so - Aaron keeps things from Robert all the time, and Robert knows that’s his fault, knows that’s partly Aaron’s disposition but partly that the first, most important time Aaron offered him an I love you Robert threw it back in his face and has spent the past two years paying for it. But Aaron had been tired and angry and deeply, deeply sad, when he talked about the photograph. All right, when he told Robert to fuck off about the photograph. Same difference, when it comes to Aaron.

The last time Robert saw Aaron sad like that he was lying septic on Debbie’s couch and Robert -

Robert’s never going to live that again. Not if he can help it.

 

“You’ve got to talk to him,” Vic says, doing something with a pie filling. Her hair is up in a ponytail, back to brown as of this weekend. It suits her. It reminds Robert of the little girl he left behind, all long limbs and big eyes. “You’re getting - you’re doing that thing with your eyes.”

“What thing,” Robert says, bringing his hand up to feel at his face. “My face is fine.”

She sighs, turns round and wipes her hands on her apron. “You’re stressing. And you don’t do that like a normal person, Rob, no offence but you take things too far every time.”

“That’s not fair,” Robert protests.

“My wedding,” Vic says, flatly.

Robert coughs and looks down at his feet. His shoes are very nice. They’re new. Aaron thinks they make him look like he’s got more money than sense and Robert agrees, but they have different opinions on whether that’s a good way to judge clothing choices.

She sighs. “I know you’re worried.”

“It’s just,” Robert says. “Nobody knows where that photo came from. And Aaron won’t tell me. He gets upset when I ask. And you know he bottles things, Vic. You know.”

She chews on her lower lip. “Rob- He’s my mate. I can’t have this conversation with you.”

“I’m scared,” he says, quietly. “I’m scared that he doesn’t trust me. And I’m scared that someone hurt him.”

“You need to talk to him,” Vic says, and she looks sympathetic, now. Vic has always seen the best in him. Her mouth is turned down at the edges and she takes a step towards him, then another, and then she is in front of him and reaching up to wrap her arms around him. “You’ve gotta tell him how you feel.”

“What if he lies to me?” Robert says, softly, into her hair. “Vic, I - I don’t know if I could survive that.”

“Oh, Rob,” she says, all tight and soft and worried. “Please don’t do anything stupid.”

 

-

 

Obviously, Robert does something stupid. He’s just - he’s fucking terrified, all right? It’s hammering at his chest, it’s eating away at him, and Aaron doesn’t seem to care. And nobody will fucking tell him what happened in fucking France.

Not even fucking Adam.

He’s just-  the idea of someone hurting Aaron, the idea of someone making Aaron go hollow-eyed and furious - it makes Robert white-hot. It makes Robert burn.

 

He makes a call. He’s got a series of numbers in his phone, names that don’t match identities. If Aaron asked about them he doesn’t know what he’d say, but Aaron hasn’t asked so he’s avoided that particular bullet. He’s sitting in the bedroom, one hand balled up in the sheets, and he’s ready - he’s going to find this out, he’s going to figure out who hurt Aaron and then he’s going to pay a hideous amount of money and fucking sort it- "I don't care what it costs," he snaps, feeling it reverberate through his teeth, "I just need to know, all right-" 

And that’s when Aaron walks in.

Robert freezes.

Aaron says, “Robert?” Slowly, disbelieving. Not yet angry. “Robert, tell me this isn’t what I think it is.”

“It’s-” Robert swallows. Puts his phone down, ignoring the squawk of confusion on the other end. His entire body says: lie. Lie, lie, lie. He knows how to get out of this. It’s a supplier, it’s a work call, it’s fucking Chrissie. If there’s anything Robert’s good at it’s lying his way out of trouble.

But this is Aaron.

This is Aaron, who shares his bed and his home and deserves so much fucking better than any of this.

This is Aaron, and the other thing that Robert has always been good at it, even before they’d ever met, is making Aaron happy. Before he ever started making Aaron sad, he’d known how to make Aaron happy. He’s so good at that, when he wants to be. Making Aaron smile, that’s what Robert was born for.

“Robert,” Aaron says, lowly. “Robert, please.”

“It’s what you think it is,” Robert says, looking down at his hands. “If what you think it is is me about to pay someone a lot of money to find out what happened to you in France. And then probably more money to hurt someone for hurting you.”

Aaron breathes out, hard. Robert doesn't look up but he hears the sound of Aaron's footsteps getting closer, Aaron breathing softly; feels the air shift as Aaron enters his space. His body knows what that feels like. His body will always know what that feels like.

“Robert,” Aaron says.

Robert looks up. His breath catches in his throat.

“I-” Aaron looks - his mouth is a straight, narrow line, made angrier and more obvious by the faintest scrape of stubble coming in along his wire-tight jaw. His eyes are dark. “I don’t know what to say.”

For a moment Robert thinks it might be okay. Thinks he might be able to salvage it. “I love you,” he says. “Look, be reasonable. I was just trying to help.”

Aaron’s shoulders drop. He looks - not even angry, not really. Disappointed. Sad. Exhausted. “Still don’t think I can look after myself, then.”

It hits Robert like a punch. “Aaron-”

“Robert,” Aaron counters, blindingly calm. “You just think I’m weak, yeah? Still do, even after all this time. Poor Aaron Livesy, can’t fight his own battles. Tapped, innit?”

“That’s not what it was,” Robert says. “You just- you bottle things, yeah? You don’t tell people when something’s wrong, and that photo- It just didn’t look like you, Aaron. It doesn’t look like you and that scares me.”

“The fucking photo,” Aaron says, rolling his eyes. “Jesus Christ, Robert. I told you to leave it alone. You and your fucking - can’t just accept that you don’t know something? That you don’t get to have all of me right away?”

“You’ve got one foot out the door,” Robert says slowly, realization dawning. “You’ve always had one foot out the door.” It feels like his heart hurts. His fingers twist. He wants-  he wants to put his hand on Aaron’s shoulder, tangle it up in Aaron’s jumper and pull him close and hold him. But that’s what got him into this mess.

The veneer cracks for a second, Aaron’s mouth twisting, ugly. He steps back, away. Robert’s heart drops out of his chest, smashing to the floor. “D’you have any idea what I gave up for you? Everyone told me this was a bad idea. Everyone. And I said, no he’s changed, and I said, no he loves me. I said, I trust him. And now you’ve made a mug out of me, Robert.” His hands have balled into fists at his side and Robert ought to be nervous; it’s not like Aaron hasn’t hit him before.

(But Robert asked for that. With words. He said, hit me, because the guilt was eating him up, and so Aaron did.)

“You didn’t tell anyone,” Robert says. “You hid it for so long.”

Aaron’s eyes flash. “I told you . And that was before I thought I loved you.”

That-

That was supposed to hurt.

Good job, Aaron.

“You didn’t fix Gordon,” Aaron says. “I don’t need you to fix anything. I don’t need you to fix me.”

“That’s not what I’m trying to do,” Robert says.

“You’re full of shit,” Aaron says tightly, looking past Robert, like he’s not even there.

 

Robert reaches out a hand for Aaron, but Aaron flinches and turns his face away. “I’ll sleep on the sofa.” He’s grasping at straws. He hates this, the way Aaron reduces him to desperation.

“You can sleep where you like,” Aaron says. His jaw clenches. There is a finality about his voice that makes Robert’s stomach flip unhappily.

 

His back’s straight. Painfully still. He doesn’t turn as he leaves but he does stop, right before he gets to the door, and Robert thinks he might say something, might say Robert’s name, but instead he just exhales and puts his fist through the wall and then walks out.

 

-

 

Aaron doesn’t come home. Robert calls him five times and throws his phone at the wall. When he picks it up, Vic’s texted: aarons @ ours. video games w adam. She doesn’t reply to Robert’s nineteen followup texts or ten attempted calls, so they’re not speaking either.

Fair enough. She did take Robert’s side when he got shot, so that’s something.

 

It’s Liv who shows up, eventually. It’s been three days of Robert moping round the house, putting plaster on the hole in the wall and pretending Aaron’s at a conference, or something, but Aaron doesn’t reply to his texts which makes it harder. He threatens to bankrupt four suppliers. He would feel bad about it, except that he doesn’t, and he gets four excellent deals out of it.

Liv’s got a backpack on and her hair’s up in a messy ponytail and when Robert opens the door she narrows her eyes at him like it’s something to be ashamed of, being at home in a bathrobe with a piece of toast between your teeth on your day off.

“Hello, Olivia,” Robert says. “Can I help you with something?”

She raises an eyebrow and breezes past him, taking his toast as she does. “I’ve kicked you in the balls before,” she says. “Just so you know. I’ll do it again.”

“Cheers,” Robert says. “Did you - your brother’s not here.”

She rolls her eyes. “Aaron’s miserable, and for once it’s not my fault. You’re supposed to love him, aren’t you? Fix it.”

“It’s not that easy,” Robert says. “I can’t just-”

She makes a little face, mouth twisted to one side just the way Aaron’s does when he’s not buying any of Robert’s bullshit. “Thought you weren’t a quitter. Thought you said you made him happy. He says you do. Reckons you can do pretty much anything you set your mind to.”

“I’m not,” Robert says. He sits down heavily. “I do. Fuck.”

She eyes him with the wary gaze of a teenager. “He’s better when you’re around, you know. Laughs more. Looks for you when you’re not in the room.”

“You’re not supposed to notice that kind of thing,” Robert says. “Aren’t you fifteen?”

She bites into his toast with a loud crunch. “Fix it,” she advises, mouth full. “Do it soon.”

 

-

 

“Nice to see you,” Victoria says, opening the door. “Finally.”

“That’s not fair,” Robert says. “You’re the one who as good as told me not to come.”

She rolls her eyes. “I love you,” she says. “You know I’ll always love you. But you’re a flipping moron. Go on through.”

 

Aaron’s sitting on the couch, bottle-feeding a tiny yellow puppy. His hand’s cradled around its jaw and his fingers are delicate around the bottle and his beard’s grown back in; he looks older, tired. The puppy is making soft little noises.

Robert doesn’t know much about dogs but it looks small.

“Thought you had your hands full with Liv,” Robert says, trying for light, falling well short.

Aaron doesn’t look up. “Took you long enough,” he says.

That’s not get out so Robert takes a step forward, and another. “I rang you.”

“I didn’t pick up,” Aaron says, like of course.

The puppy makes a soft noise and twists its head to look at Robert. It’s a little blob of a thing, barely with fur in.

“Didn’t know you got a dog,” Robert says, trying to keep it even; failing. Didn’t know you lived a life without me, and it’s been three days.

“Paddy needed someone to do a foster,” says Aaron, finally lifting his head. “Did him a favour.” His eyes snap to Robert’s and that’s -

Robert sucks in air, feels himself actually rock on his feet. “I miss you,” he says, all of it rushing out of him, can’t help it, can’t control anything anymore. “I do trust you, I swear. I just - I made a mistake.”

Aaron shakes his head. He looks - there is a flash in his face, the tiniest tell. Aaron, who loves him, despite everything. Robert has used this against him again and again and maybe he shouldn’t, now, maybe he should take this as a sign. But he doesn’t want to. He’s selfish. He’s always known that about himself.

“Not here,” Aaron says. He raises his voice. “Vic, d’you mind watching the dog if I go out?”

Vic, obviously earwigging from the kitchen, sticks her head round the doorframe. “Yeah, course.”

Aaron gets up, the puppy cradled in the crook of one arm, and carefully walks around Robert so their arms don’t even touch.

Still, the presence of him - close enough that Robert could reach out and feel him - is enough to make Robert shiver.

Vic takes the puppy, carefully. Looks thoughtfully at Aaron and Aaron looks back at her, something Robert can’t read, something of which he is painfully, strikingly jealous; but then again, Aaron lived a life before Robert, and he’s a person without Robert, and worrying about that is what got Robert into this mess.

“Bottle if she cries,” Aaron says. “If not, just keep an eye on her, yeah?”

“Yeah, got it,” Vic says. She looks at Aaron and then at Robert. “Call if you need anything,” she says.

“Who’re you talking to?” Robert asks.

Vic looks down at the puppy. Robert can’t for the life of him work out its breed. She rubs the tip of her finger over its head, and it yawns very wide. “Both of yous.”

 

“Get in the car,” Aaron says.

Robert gets in the car.

Aaron takes an extra thirty seconds - enough for Robert to get worried that he’s just going to walk away and leave Robert sat here in his car - but he sits down in the driver’s seat and pulls the door shut, staring out the windshield with a little furrow between his brows. Finally, he closes his fingers around the steering wheel. “Did you ring them back?”

“What?”

“Whoever it was you’d called about France,” Aaron says, with such force that Robert knows his fate is hanging on this. “Did you ring them back? Yes or no, Rob.”

“Jesus,” Robert says. “Of course I didn’t, what do you think I am?”

Aaron’s shoulders slump and he falls back into the seat. Robert thinks it’s relief but he’s wary, these days.

“Wait,” Robert says. “Is there- I can still ring them, is there something I needed to know-”

Aaron snorts. “Rob,” he says. “You’re digging yourself out of a very deep hole, all right? Don’t push it.”

“Oh,” Robert says. “I’m - I’m getting out of it, then?”

Aaron shifts round, looks right at him. His eyes are calm and steady. “I know I bottle things,” he says. “But you have to trust me that when I say I don’t need you I don’t.”

Robert swallows. “I know,” he says. “That’s why I didn’t follow up. Can you just - I just wanna know that you’re safe.”

“I am,” Aaron says. “I swear.” His hand falls on the divider between the seats. “Spent three days worrying, did you?”

“Well, it’s not like you answered my calls,” Robert says. He puts his hand next to Aaron’s, so their little fingers are close, but not touching.

The air feels better. Tense, but - better.

“Did you think I’d rung?”

“I wasn’t sure,” Aaron says, quietly. “I didn’t think so. But -”

“I’m sorry,” Robert says. “I should have trusted you.”

“I didn’t know you were so worried,” Aaron says, sighing. “You shoulda said something, Christ.” But he reaches over and tangles his fingers in Robert’s and it’s like -

God, it’s like - taking a breath, it’s like opening your eyes after being in darkness for a very long time. Robert’s whole body didn’t realize it was missing this, and now it has awoken. He inhales and digs the fingers of his free hand into his thigh.

Aaron’s eyelashes flutter.

Good. Robert doesn’t like being alone.

“I tried,” he says, limply. “You just-  you really didn’t want to talk about it. And when you don’t want to talk about things I get worried. But I’ve gotta just learn to wait, I guess.”

“You don’t want to know why?” Aaron asks. His thumb strokes along Robert’s, light and sure.

“Of course I do,” Robert says. He shrugs. “I can wait.”

Aaron laughs, lowly, under his breath. It’s grey out but the light is breaking through the clouds and it falls on the blue of his eyes and the strong line of his jaw and Robert bites his own lip with how much he wants him. The way it bolts through him, like a bullet, and Robert would know. “Even if I never tell you?”

“Even if you never tell me,” Robert says. He looks down at their hands, at the way Aaron’s fingers fit against his. The contrast of their skin. It makes something in his chest settle, feel warm and still and whole.

“Yeah?” Aaron’s eyes search his face, all intense focus.  

“Yeah.” Robert squeezes his hand. Aaron’s pulse leaps under his hand. “You’re worth it.”

“All right,” Aaron says. His lips part, just a fraction. His fingers tighten round Robert’s.

Robert closes his eyes to bite back the wave of desire; opens them again, lets himself drift towards Aaron, as slowly as he can bear.

“Fuck,” Aaron says, shakes his head and smashes his mouth into Robert’s; lets go of his hand to bring his up and catch it in Robert’s hair. “Fuck, Rob, I love you.”

Robert pulls back. “Did you just say it first?”

Aaron’s panting, breathing shallow, shoulders heaving. Robert wants to get his hands in his hair and suck him and make him come and hear him say those words again, again, again. “Don’t push your luck.”

Robert lets himself grin and clambers across the divider, catching himself on the gearshift while Aaron pushes the driver’s seat all the way back and then reaches for Robert; his hands dig into Robert’s hips and pull him over. “I love you too,” he says, leans down and presses his mouth to Aaron’s again.

 

They set off the horn. Really, Robert’s arse hits the horn, but it’s because of the way Aaron’s wriggling under him, so Robert refuses to take sole responsibility.

Robert hides his face in Aaron’s shoulder, laughing. There’s really not enough space in the front seat of Aaron’s car for Robert to straddle Aaron’s lap, no matter how closely they’re pressed together, but it’s been three whole days; Robert wants his skin against Aaron’s, wants his breath to be Aaron’s, wants and wants and wants.

Vic comes out with the puppy. “Oi,” she says, walking over to the side of the car. “You have a flat, you know. Anybody could walk by. Could give Eric a heart attack, you could.” She’s covering the puppy’s eyes with two fingers.

“Vic,” Aaron says, heartfelt, rolling down the window to make eye contact as Vic leans into the car. “Do one.”

“Oi!” Vic says, points at Robert with the hand that doesn’t have a puppy in it. “You just gonna let him talk to me like that?”

Robert laughs. “Don’t think I’ve got much choice,” he says. “I’m in a bit of a compromising position.”

Aaron squeezes his arse. “Nice one.”

Vic rolls her eyes. “I’ll puppysit,” she says. “On one condition-”

“Yeah?” Robert adjusts himself, lets himself settle into a sitting position on Aaron’s lap.

“Ow,” Aaron mutters.

“Go somewhere else,” Vic says. “Do not have sex in a car parked outside my house. That’s my brother you’ve got there, Livesy. I don’t need to see it and neither does Pearl if she goes for her walk.”

“All right, all right,” Aaron says. “Anything to get you off my back.” But he’s smiling, and Vic’s smiling back, so Robert has to smile, too.

 

-

 

To Robert’s surprise, Aaron doesn’t drive them home. (Home.)

“Gonna ask?” Aaron asks, eyes darting sideways.

“Nah,” Robert says, slouching back in his seat, stretching out his legs. “Trust you, don’t I?”

Aaron laughs. “Suck up.”

“Just love you,” Robert says. “That’s why I say it all the time. It took me so long, and I know you still don’t trust me all the way. But I do.”

“I trust that you love me,” Aaron says, but it’s not a rebuttal and they both know it. “I was gonna come round, you know. If you hadn’t today.”

“Yeah?”

They’re on open road, driving through tree and farm. The clouds above them have parted but they’re heading into shadow. These things never happen on nice days.

“Figured, I know what you’re like; I signed up for this, didn’t I? You trying to help and getting things all wrong.”

“Ouch.”

“Nah, it’s sweet.” Aaron smiles, softly at the edges. “I like that you don’t let me bottle things. Mostly people can’t see it. I’m not used to someone noticing.”

“I’m always looking at you,” Robert says, has to close his own mouth before he keeps going.

“I know,” Aaron says. “I - but I needed to know you’d stopped. If you’d rung them, Rob, I don’t know what I’d have done.”

Robert exhales, tightens his hand into a fist and then lets it unfurl. “I do trust you. I’m just - I’m working on it.”

Aaron pulls into the drive, and oh - the graveyard. All right. Bit of a long way to get here, but Aaron’s not an open book. Robert’s never liked taking the easy path.

Aaron turns off the engine and turns sideways, looks at Robert so steadily that Robert holds his breath. “Me too,” he says. “I’m trying, too.”

 

Aaron’s got cans in the boot; he tosses one to Robert and keeps two for himself. Robert sticks one hand in his pocket and follows Aaron, watches him pick his way through the graves with steady, unhurried purpose, until he stops in front of a headstone.

Jackson Walsh, Robert reads. His eyes skim the rest of the text and pause at Loving boyfriend.

He stands, very still. Waits.

Aaron cracks one of the cans, pours it out. For all the time it takes the can to empty he’s silent, somewhere else. “Hiya, Jackson,” he says eventually. “Been a while. I’m sorry. I love you.” He raises an eyebrow at Robert. “You can sit down.”

“Are you-” Robert flinches. It feels absurd. “Are you gonna introduce me?”

“He’s dead,” Aaron says, like Robert’s gone mental. “But, all right; Robert, Jackson; Jackson, this is my new boyfriend, Robert. He's a tit.”

“Ta,” Robert says. “Er, thank you.”

Aaron shakes his head and sits down, opens his own can and takes a long swallow. “We never talk about him. D’you wanna know why?”

Robert’s stomach twists. He sits down next to Aaron on the grass; close, but not quite touching. He doesn’t say anything. Just waits.

It takes Aaron a minute. The lines of his shoulders are unhappy, tight.

Finally:

“Cause you’ve mentioned him four times, in all the time you’ve known me.” He’s looking down at his own knees, carefully. Not at Robert, not at anything else, not even the gravestone. “Every time, you said it to hurt me. Remind me what I did to him, make me feel worthless.”

Robert swallows, hard. He wants to say, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but that’s not what this is about. Robert is selfish, but he is less selfish about Aaron, so he keeps his mouth shut.

“And you know what? It worked. It fucked me up. Made me hate myself, made me hate you.” Aaron’s voice is even, steady. “We’re okay now, you and me. I love you. But that’s why I didn’t tell you about the photo.”

Robert looks down at his can. Snaps the top for something to do with his hands. “He took it.”

Aaron raises his can to his mouth, swallows for a long moment and then wipes his mouth with his sleeve. “We’d had a fight. He’d been asking. I didn’t trust him the way I should have; I was an arsehole, I was confused and angry and I kept hurting him. We’d fought, and he wanted it, so I did it.” He looks down. The line of his jaw is tight. Robert wants to reach out, to soothe him, to draw the tension out of his shoulders and kiss his mouth until he smiles, but he can’t. “I said, you can’t show this to anyone, and he said, I would never, and I believed him. After - he left it for me, in his things.”

“You don’t have to tell me this,” Robert says, quietly. “I meant it.”

“He was really angry,” Aaron says, softly. Tilts his head up and looks at the sky. “I thought - I was furious, you know, but I was also guilty. Almost hit him, felt so bad, I’d have done anything to make it up. You know the feeling.”

The beer is bitter on Robert’s tongue. “Yeah.”

“Took me a long time to forgive myself for everything,” Aaron says. “But I never told you, cause we weren’t - you know. And then you found that photo and it just all came back. All that guilt.” He sighs, wry. “I know you know about guilt.”

Robert puts his hand out, between them. Palm up, open. “D’you wanna tell me about him now?”

Aaron blinks at him, all dark eyes, clear. He’s got that tightness around his eyes that Robert remembers from the boy in the picture -  an illusion, mostly, something Robert built up in his head, to make an Aaron he never had. This Aaron is real, and whole, and Robert is allowed to touch him; Robert never wants anything else.

“Yeah,” Aaron says, slowly, thoughtfully. “All right, yeah. I’d like that.”