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soon we will be strangers

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“Soon we will be strangers. No, we can never be that. Hurting someone is an act of reluctant intimacy. We will be dangerous acquaintances with a history.”

 

-

“I'm home!” Robert yelled, pushing open the door of the little cottage. He smelled like engine grease from the full rebuild on which he’d spent all day. It was under his fingernails. He needed a shower.

Max barreled at him like a miniature rocket, slinging his arms around both Robert’s legs. “Dad!”

“Oof,” Robert said, stooping to pick him up and press a kiss to his blond hair. “Where's Mum, then?”

“She's put the tea on,” said Donna, tilting her head to one side to look at him with her big blue eyes. Robert felt the usual pang that her grandmother was not here to see her - to see both his kids - and suppressed it. “Then there was a problem with one of the horses, so she took it off again but she was too late and it burnt. She said to get chips.”

“Ah, chips,” Robert said. Now that he sniffed for it, he could smell the faint aroma of charred pasta. “Balanced nutrition, there. Full food pyramid.”

“She said you'd say that,” Donna said. She was the spitting image of her mum, down to that matching disapproving eyebrow thing they both did, cut with good humour. “Then she said to do this,” and she blew a raspberry at Robert on the back of her hand.

He leaned down and kissed the top of her head. “Mum been gone long, then?”

“Just left,” said Max. “She said to call her if you weren’t home in ten minutes, and then she set a timer on the microwave.”

Robert walked through to the kitchen, balancing Max on his hip, Donna trailing like a puppy. He hit the off button on the microwave and put Max down on the counter. “You’re getting too big to carry,” he said, ruffling his son’s hair. “C’mon, we’d better go down to the pub. See if Auntie Vic will do us some proper food.”

 

Katie swung round the door around half-nine. She was in a state; there was hay in her long blonde hair and a smudge of dirt along her left cheekbone. She shrugged out of her coat, sighing.

“Chip?” Robert asked, offering her the container. “Kids are in bed, washed and bedtime storied.”

“Cheers,” she said, hovering by the table for a moment before she leaned down and he kissed her cheek.

Everything flickered: the house went pitch black and everything was yawning, echoing darkness - and then the lights roared back and Katie was still there, hair falling onto his shoulder, with her mouth curved in that familiar tired smile.

“You've got to change that lightbulb, Rob,” she said. “It’s been funny all week.” She smelled like horses and straw.

“Yeah, I’ll do it tomorrow,” he said. “We’ve got bulbs in the attic.”

“All right,” she said, sitting down opposite him. “Sorry, that took ages.”

“It’s fine,” he said. “We went down and ate with Diane and Doug and Vic, they loved that.”

“Oh, that's nice,” Katie said. “There was something a bit weird with the horses -  a bunch of flickering lights in the stables.”

“I’ll have a word with Andy, if you like. He should know better than to do that to you.”

“No thank you, I don't need World War Three with my business as ground zero.” She picked at the chips.

“As long as you know I've offered.”

“You have.”

He slid a takeaway across the table at her. “Vic did you a pie.”

“God, I love you,” she said, peeling the paper open. “Fuck, I should have a shower, shouldn’t I? This smells great.”

He laughed. “I won’t tell if you don’t,” he said. “But definitely shower before you get in bed, yeah?”

“What, like you haven’t made the sheets smell like engine before?” She was smiling, her big wide Katie-smile. “I should go kiss the kids.”

“Not smelling like that,” he said. “Eat your pie, then do it. They’ll keep.”

She reached out and covered his hand with her own. “What would I do without you?”

“Die, probably,” he quipped. “Love you too.”

 

-

 

Robert went to work and Aaron Livesy was in, scowling as usual in his blue jumpsuit.

“Hiya,” Robert said. “D’you want a brew?”

Debbie Dingle raised her eyebrows at both of them, but she and Robert owned equal shares of the garage even if Debbie and Aaron were both Dingles, and Aaron had made his feelings about her interference very clear.

“Ta,” Aaron said, the normal furrow settling between his brows. “I'm due a break.”

 

Robert gave Aaron a blowjob in the break room and then got to his feet.

Aaron rubbed his hand across his mouth and looked at Robert the way he always looked at Robert, but he didn’t say any of the things Robert knew he wanted to say, so Robert leaned in and pressed a kiss to the corner of his mouth, zipping up Aaron’s trousers one-handed as he did.

“Better do the accounts,” he said, and fucked off to do them. He could feel the weight of Aaron’s eyes on his shoulders but he was used to it, by now.

 

“I like Katie, you know,” Debbie said. She leaned in the doorway with her hands wrapped around a mug. “She deserves better than you.”

It was an empty threat; he’d heard it before.

“Probably,” he said, mildly.

“Aaron does, too.” This was banter; it was easy, automatic. He knew what she would say and how he would reply. They’d been doing it for months now, almost a year.

“You want to be the one to tell him that? Oh, no, wait, you already have. And what's he done? Nothing.”

She shook her head. “This is going to fall to pieces on you, Robert,” she said. “And I’m going to be glad to watch it.”

“Better hope it doesn’t happen before you can afford to buy me out,” he said. “So maybe in the next ten years?”

She flipped him off. “You’re a fuck,” she told him. “You’ve been a piece of shit since you were fourteen and you haven’t changed since.”

“Cheers,” he said, baring his teeth at her in a not-quite smile. “Love you too.”

 

-

 

The next day at breakfast Donna was sick all over the kitchen table. It wasn’t that surprising; the flu had been going round.

“I wouldn’t stick you alone with it,” Katie said, frazzled, “but Rob, I’ve got three hacks today, I really can’t-”

“It’s fine,” Robert said, taking his jacket off. “I’ll call in, we haven’t got anything big at the garage today anyway.”

She kissed his cheek. “You’re a good dad, you know.”

“Cheers,” he said. “You’re a better mum.”

She grinned at him. “I know.”

 

Katie went out the door with Max and Robert went into the bathroom and called Aaron. It took two rings before Aaron picked up.

“Robert?”

“I’m sorry,” Robert said, forestalling anything. “Donna’s sick.”

Aaron sighed. “Can you get the hotel room back?”

“Doubt it,” Robert said. “Last minute cancellation. It’s fine, I’ll eat it.”

“All right,” Aaron said. “If you’re sure.” He had that tired, stressed note in his voice, but Robert didn’t have time for it.

“I’ll see you at work tomorrow,” Robert said. There was a pause where he would say I love you if he was talking to Katie, but he wasn't, so he didn't. Aaron had heard everything Robert needed to say to him, anyway.

“All right,” Aaron said again, and hung up.

 

“Dad?” Donna said, wrapped up in a little cocoon of blankets. She sneezed and reached for him, all small clammy fingers, fisting in his t-shirt.

Robert kissed her forehead and smoothed her hair back. Her skin was very hot. “I’m here, sweetheart.”

Something in the house was whirring, a low mechanical noise that stuck in the backs of his teeth. Probably the washing machine, which needed to be fixed. He shook his head and said, “I’ll get you some tea in a minute.”

“Okay,” she said. “I’m really cold, Daddy.”

“I know,” he said, heart aching. “I’m not going anywhere, okay? I’m here.”

 

She wheedled him into Frozen on his laptop, all big eyes and crumpled up tissues and so he tugged her into his lap and let her curl up against his chest while Anna and Elsa did their thing. She liked the reindeer; so did Sarah and Jack, as Robert found out every time he got roped into babysitting for Andy.

 

Katie came in at lunch, sticking her head around the door of Donna’s room. She’d always walked quietly, but he was used to it by now, and had sat up at the sound of the door.

“Cute,” she said, smiling softly, and took a picture with her phone. “I'm putting that in the family photo album.”

“Shh,” Robert said, stroking Donna's hair very carefully. “She's just gotten to sleep.”

Katie smiled her cautious Katie-smile and pressed a kiss to the corner of his mouth. “Okay,” she said. “You’d better not move, then.”

“Try and make me,” Robert said, smiling back.

 

-

 

The rest of the week passed without incident. Robert, Aaron and Debbie rebuilt an Austin Healey; Robert fucked Aaron in the back of it. Robert made a fish pie and successfully didn’t burn it. Max almost ate a highlighter. Donna was off for two more days, then did a first-aid module at school where she learned about how to stop blood flow in case of gunshot, which Robert thought was a bit advanced for Year Four, but probably useful as they lived in Emmerdale. Katie baked a terrible cake and they had a row over the kids’ bedtimes, which they then made up spectacularly. Robert finally changed the lightbulb. It didn't do much; the one he'd pulled out was perfectly intact.

 

Robert was having trouble getting to sleep. When he’d lie down he’d find himself unable to breathe right, choking - like there was something in his throat.

Katie whacked him on the back.

“Something went down the wrong pipe,” he lied.

She narrowed her eyes at him, but didn’t push.

He was probably just coming down with something. Donna’s flu, or whatever. That kind of thing was highly contagious; they were all lucky Max hadn’t gotten it.

 

-

 

They had family dinner on the Thursday; Katie wrestled the kids into coats and they trekked down to the Woolie, Andy shepherding Jack and Sarah. Vic brought a chocolate cake and Diane did a lasagne. Andy was with Tracy this week, again; Katie stepped on Robert’s foot when he opened his mouth to make a joke. Robert supposed that was fair. Tracy wasn't that bad, looking at Andy's dating history.

Sarah and Donna got very into something on television, some doctor show with men in white coats clustering round looking at somebody in a coma. Max tried to vault over the back of the couch and sit with them, but was resoundingly ignored; thankfully Doug was there with the sort of model plane that Max could go at for ages. It was all very domestic and very routine, and Robert chafed at it, a little, when he thought about it too much, but mostly he was very happy.

 

Andy and Robert got stuck doing the dishes. Andy washed; Robert dried. The tea towel had a pear on it, and the threads were unspooling at the edges.

Andy was scrubbing firmly at the lasagne dish. He paused, and turned to look at Robert. His eyes were very calm. “Why did you kill my wife?”

“What?” Robert put his plate down with a clatter.

Andy tilted his head to one side, like it was Robert who was being absurd. “You killed my wife and then you made everyone think I was crazy. You killed my wife, Robert.”

Robert took a step back. “Andy, do you need meds?” He was already thinking about how they were going to get Andy to agree to go back to the mental health unit. Last time they had had to wait until Andy broke his hand punching the wall; it had been a mess.

“What?” Andy said. He shook his head. “Sorry, did you say something?”

Robert narrowed his eyes. “You said - something about me killing your wife.”

“Well, I’m not married,” Andy said. “So that’s a bit odd.” He looked over at the women, laughing at the kitchen table. Robert knew Andy’s eyes had gone to Katie.

“Okay,” Robert said. “If you- okay.”

Andy shrugged. “Really, Rob,” he said. “Why would I say something like that? Don’t be ridiculous.”

“All right,” Robert said. “If you need anything, Andy - anything at all - you know where to come, all right?”

Andy gave him a cautious little smile. “Yeah,” he said. “I do, yeah.”

 

-

 

“Something’s wrong,” Katie said. Their bedroom was dark but there was sweat on the hollow of her throat and her eyes were gleaming.

Robert stopped mid-thrust, hands either side of her. “I’m sorry?”

She blinked at him. “You look-”

“What?”

She shook her head. “No, I’m sorry.”

“What is it?”

“I just - for a second, I thought I saw - it doesn’t matter.”

He pulled out. “Katie, what is it?”

She swallowed. “I saw - you were in a hospital bed,” she said. “I don’t know why. I wasn’t dreaming, I wasn’t- it just happened. You were lying there and it scared me.”

“I’m okay,” he said. “Here, touch me. I’m okay. I’m fine. I’m right here.” He leaned down and kissed her, pulled her hands all along his body. “I’m here,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Good,” she said, slowly, and then blinked as though she had startled herself by saying it; and then she dug her nails into his back and kissed him, with tooth, so hard he thought she might have drawn blood.

He didn't care. He kissed her back.

 

When he came, he froze. Instead of Katie, hair thrown back, eyes shut, beautiful, he saw - Katie, on the ground, eyes open, blank, her neck at the wrong angle. There was no way she could be alive like that.

“Did something-” Katie sat up, catching him with one hand.

“No, don’t worry,” he said, breathless, kissing her. “Just been a bit of a weird day.”

“You’re telling me,” she said. She rubbed her hand along his back. “It’s all right. We’re okay. You’re here.”

He pressed his face into her shoulder. “Okay,” he said. “Okay.”

 

-

 

On the weekend, Katie and Robert saddled the kids with Diane and went on a romantic trail-ride, during which Robert’s horse panicked and Robert fell off, catching himself with his bare hands, and as he fell he thought he heard Vic’s voice saying, Robert, I miss ya, please pull through, but that was ridiculous, because Vic was nowhere nearby. He shook his head and shook off Katie’s apologies and got back on his horse.

 

-

 

Andy texted Robert for lunch on Monday.

Yeah ok, Robert said. Good chance to corner Andy about Tracy and whether he was serious, this time around; maybe they could decide what to do about Vic and her latest disaster boyfriend. Honestly, when Robert was the member of your family most stable of relationship - take that, Dad.

He followed up with a text to Vic, who could be relied upon to throw together something nice and off-menu for the sake of family harmony. Things were good now, aside from the weird outburst the other night. Andy was a bit of a mess but he was all right with Robert and Katie now, and if he had to spend time in their box room every time he had a mental breakdown Robert was happy to handle it.

He liked being able to be there for Andy; he liked knowing that somebody had Andy's back. And Katie loved Andy too.

 

“Things are going well,” Andy said. “It’s just nice, you know. For once.”

Robert laughed. “Don’t risk it,” he said. “Salt over your shoulder.”

Andy laughed back and tipped salt into his palm, and tossed it. “Paranoid,” he said.

“Oi,” Vic said, coming over. “I’m going to have to sweep that.”

“Better do a little more then,” Andy said, pouring the shaker directly onto the floor so Vic shrieked and swooped upon him.

 

“I love you, you know,” Robert said, feeling sentimental and a little buzzed. “You’re my favourite siblings.”

“Cheers,” Vic said, from Andy’s arms where she was being clutched. She had given up struggling and instead just sat on him and was now picking at his chips, but he didn’t seem to care. “Glad you like us better than all your other siblings.”

“I actually have several,” Robert said smugly. “But you’re the best.”

Andy grinned at him. “Me too,” he said. “But I guess I’ll have you, you’re all right.”

“Well,” Vic said, “I’ve got no other options, so I suppose I’m stuck with you.”

 

-

 

Robert should have thrown his own salt, it turned out, because the next day at work Aaron cornered and summarily dumped him - “we’re done,” snapped at him when they had a row over replacing an alternator. It wasn’t about the alternator, really; it was the result of a boiling-over of weeks’ worth of frustrations, Robert blowing him off, refusing to be seen around with him. Aaron was mostly not a lot of trouble but he did sometimes snap, and Robert had sorely miscalculated, of late. He really ought to have seen it coming.

It wasn’t a new thing and it probably wasn’t permanent, either, but Debbie beamed at both of them and went over Robert's head to give Aaron the rest of the day off. Trust Debbie.

While Robert was doing the books he thought he heard Aaron speaking, thought he heard Aaron’s voice. Seems a shame not to see you like this. He looked up but Aaron wasn’t anywhere; it was just Robert in the office with ink on his fingers. Still, it unnerved him: there had been so much venom. He wondered why he was thinking about it.

 

Debbie said, “You look unusually shaken up.” She didn't sound sympathetic but she wasn't outright smug either, which must have meant that Robert looked actively terrible.

“It won't last,” Robert tossed out, but it wasn't his best retort. “You know what he’s like. He’ll come crawling back.”

“One of these days your shit is going to catch up to you,” Debbie said. “I’m going to throw a party. Get little cupcakes in.”

Robert rolled his eyes. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said. “You’ve got less of a spine than Aaron does.”

“God, I hope you stay dumped,” she said. “And I hope he tells Katie.”

“Shut up,” Robert said. “This isn’t about her.”

“Everything’s about Katie,” said Debbie, and there was something different in her voice, now. She didn’t sound like herself.

“No one’s gonna miss you,” she said, and that wasn’t her voice anymore, it was Aaron’s, it was Aaron’s face and Aaron’s mouth from which Aaron’s voice was coming - “so just hurry up and die.”

Robert was shaking. He felt sick: ice cold and terrified. Like something in his body was wrong. He stared -  Aaron, furious, standing there in the office with his fists balled up and his voice clipped -

 

“What?” Debbie snapped, shaking her head. It was her own face: her hair in a crown braid and her very long eyelashes. He had never loved her but he’d had her, to mess with Andy. Then he’d given up; Katie had said his name and it was always Katie, wasn’t it?

Robert shook his head. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said, “one of us has to actually keep this garage in operation. I’m going to the bank.”

Debbie whistled under her breath. “Try not to fall onto Aaron’s dick,” she said. “Oh, no, wait. Permission revoked on that.”

“Fuck off,” Robert said, inelegantly, and stalked out.

 

-

 

Obviously he didn’t go to the bank. He went to the pub instead, where he had a key, and let himself in, and climbed the stairs. Nobody was about in the hall but he had an excuse about one of Max’s planes ready, if he needed it. He hammered on the door of Aaron’s room. There was a poster of a Ferrari on the front, which, Robert didn’t think much about their age difference but sometimes he did.

“Aaron,” he said. “Aaron, let me in.”

“Fuck off, Robert,” Aaron said, muffled. “I’m serious. You don’t wanna mess with me.”

That was as good as an invitation; Robert pushed the door of Aaron’s bedroom open. “Did you say something to me?”

“What the fuck,” Aaron said. He was sitting on his bed, with a game controller in one hand. “Get out, Robert, you’ve been dumped.”

“I can’t have been dumped,” Robert said, flatly, “because that would imply that we were in a relationship to start with.”

Aaron laughed hollowly. “Sure,” he said. “Tell yourself what you like.”

There were many things Robert could say; all the vulnerabilities Aaron had laid open to him in all their time together. Robert could rip him apart.

He thought, hurry up and die,  all that venom in Aaron's voice, even if it hadn't meant anything, even if hadn't been anything.

He had a better trump card to play, anyway.

Robert sighed and crossed to the bed. “I’m sorry,” he said, leaning down, so his face was in front of Aaron’s; he could have counted the number of Aaron's eyelashes. “For everything.”

“What?” Aaron blinked at him, startled, but his eyes dropped to Robert’s mouth.

“You heard me,” Robert said. “I messed up. I've been messing up with you. I'm sorry. Are we okay?”

“What-” Aaron said.

Robert sighed and rolled his eyes and kissed him. There was one terrifying moment of stillness, where Robert thought he had maybe been out-manoeuvred - and then Aaron kissed back, and brought his hands up to clutch at Robert’s shirt.

 

Well, thank goodness that was settled.

 

-

 

Something had gone wrong with Katie’s business - some shady blokes hanging about, some complication with the loan.

Katie wrapped her arms around herself. “You know I wouldn’t ask,” she said. “You know I wouldn't. I just need a hand.”

“We’re married,” Robert said, leaning forward to press a kiss to her cheek. “You don’t even have to ask.”

She frowned. “I should, though,” she said. “Shouldn’t I?” She shook her head. “Sorry, that’s not- that wasn’t right.”

“It’s fine,” he said, wrapping an arm around her, pulling her against his chest. Her hair smelled like like lilies, which was a bit weird since she hated them. “I’ll fix it, whatever it is.”

She laughed. “Just like that?”

“Just like that,” he promised.

She slipped her arms around his waist. “Anyone ever tell you you’re sexy when you do that?”

“What,” Robert said, “problem-solving? My favourite.”

“I thought I was your favourite.”

He dipped his head and kissed her. “You are,” he murmured, against the softness of her lips. “You absolutely are.”

 

He had to blackmail Cain.

What a pity.

God, Robert loved to solve a problem. Especially when it came with getting Cain Dingle to back the hell off and do as he was told.

 

Katie looked at him thoughtfully, considering. “Thanks,” she said.

He shifted from foot to foot, for some reason unsteady. “You’re welcome.”

She said, “It's convenient that you always know what to do.” But she didn't say it like it was a good thing. She said it like it was suspicious.

“Katie, what-”

She said, “You always know how to fix things,” and then she said, “you weren't like this when we were kids, were you?”

He laughed, pushing down the sense of unease starting to roil in the pit of his stomach. “I was a mess when we were kids,” he said. “I'm just lucky you've given me another chance, eh?”

“Yeah,” she said, thoughtfully. “I suppose you are.”

And then she shook her head and reached out for him, and he came and kissed her, and everything was all right again.

 

-

 

After that they were free of crises. Just Robert and Katie and the kids. (And Robert's family, of course, but he liked them mostly. They were worth having round.)

 

A new family moved in at Home Farm - the Whites. Vic said they were lovely, even if the son was a bit weird.

“They’re having a housewarming,” Katie said. “Do you want to go?”

“Not really,” Robert said. “We could stay in and do a DVD with the kids instead?”

She smiled. “Yeah,” she said. “I'd like that.”

 

Things were all in place. Except for the weird itching Robert was getting at the crook of his elbow, and the weird chest pain he kept experiencing, but honestly that was probably a side effect of the affair. Keeping secrets did stuff to your blood pressure. Everyone knew that.

 

-

 

Vic dumped her latest boyfriend - a sort of interchangeable face under a tuft of dark hair - and Robert and Andy traded off consoling her awkwardly and feeding her pints. Vic always got like this when she was breaking up, even if she was the one whose idea it had been.

He put his arm round her and she cuddled up against him. “It'll be all right,” he said. “You'll find someone.”

“We can't all have the perfect person fall into our laps,” Vic sniffled, putting her face into Robert's shoulder.

He made a helpless face in Andy's direction, and Andy made one right back.

“I'm glad you have Katie,” Vic said, tearily. “I wish I had a Katie.”

Robert rubbed his hand along her back. “You will,” he said. “Remember, it took me and Katie ages to sort it. You'll be fine.”

 

-

 

He stayed in late with Aaron after Debbie went home, texted Katie running late have tea without me.  All part of the “make Aaron less upset” project, but Katie didn't seem to mind.

When he got home, she and Andy were on the sofa, watching something about birds. They looked nice together, comfortable, her head on Andy's shoulder as she yawned. She lifted her head and smiled as Robert came in, and Andy smiled too.

“Hi, Dad,” Donna said. She was lying on her stomach on the carpet, doing something with her phone.

“Max is upstairs,” Katie said, stretching out an arm, beckoning. “Taking a three hour long bath, it's your turn to make sure he hasn't flooded anything.”

He came over and kissed her cheek, then ruffled Andy's hair. “Good night in?”

“Yeah,” Andy said, grinning at him easily, “sit down, mate, we saved you some pizza.”

 

-

 

Three days later, Debbie went on an overnight. Andy got the kids, so he was made up; Robert was less thrilled, as Debbie's idea of dealing with suppliers involved less finesse and more smashing things with hammers either verbal or actual, but he couldn’t do much about the bloke being exclusively into women, and Debbie being entirely willing to exploit that.

And it did leave the garage missing one third of its usual dynamic, which was excellent, because with two thirds of its usual dynamic Robert could fuck Aaron at work and not worry about Debbie's sour and judgemental face.

 

“Hey, when did you get this?” Aaron asked, tracing his fingers along Robert's chest, in the back of a Honda Accord. They were both topless, Aaron deliciously warm against Robert.

“What?” Robert craned his neck to look down, and Aaron dug his fingers into-

the gaping wound in Robert's torso, wide open, blood everywhere, screaming, so much screaming-

“Must have fallen over as a kid,” Robert said, forcing a breath in. “Not all of us can have a good scar story.”

As expected, Aaron went stiff, pulling back and slamming his way out of the car. He went to the chair where his top had been discarded, and closed his fingers round it.

“Don't be like that,” Robert said, getting out, following him. He reached forward, cupping his fingers around the side of Aaron's face, pressing his body up against Aaron's. “It's okay. You know I like everything about you.”

“You're such a prick,” Aaron said, irritated, but he leaned in so Robert could kiss him, anyway.

 

That was when the door swung open and Andy's voice bellowed out, “Rob!” and it was too late, they were sunk, no matter how quickly they sprung apart there was no getting round the way they looked, the way they smelled, the open doors of the Accord.

“What’s happened,” Andy said, looking back and forth between them. “Robert, what-”

“It's not like that,” Robert attempted.

Robert," Andy said.

Robert felt - tired, almost, giddy. Like he had done all this before. “Yeah, okay. It is like that.”

“It's not a one-off, is it,” Andy said, in a voice of slow dawning horror.

“No,” Aaron said, and then he looked sideways at Robert as though Robert would deny it.

Robert closed his eyes. “I made a mistake,” he said. “I - keep making this mistake.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Aaron flinch. That hurt, but he didn't know what else to say.

“You have to tell her,” Andy said, all righteous indignation. “Right now.”

Aaron said, “Andy, mate-”

Andy whirled on him. “Aaron,” he said, “I like you a lot, but you need to leave right now.”

“It’s all right,” Robert said. “It’s fine.”

“It’s not fine,” Andy said, grabbing Robert by the shoulders and shaking him, with significantly less delicacy than Robert would prefer.

“Andy,” Aaron said, again, taking a step forward. He had gotten his top back on, covering up the scars. “Andy-”

“Go on,” Robert said, through gritted teeth. “This is between me and him.”

Aaron paused. “Andy, if you hurt him-”

“I won’t,” Andy said. “But Jesus, Aaron. He’s not worth it.”

Aaron’s face did something complicated and Robert wanted, almost, to reach out for him. He shook his head. “I swear, Andy, if he’s hurt-”

“He won’t be,” Andy said. “Swear on Sarah and Jack, Aaron. Get out of here.”

“Seriously,” Robert said, looking at Aaron with as much honesty as he could manage. “He's my brother, I'll be okay. Just go.”

Aaron eyed both of them with great distrust, but he zipped up his hoodie and went.

The car was less solid than Robert wanted it to be when Andy slammed him up against it. “What the hell, Rob,” he snarled. “Why can't you just be happy?”

Robert froze. He felt everything he could say - lie after misdirection after obfuscation after half truth - bubble up behind his lips, and then fall away. “I don't know,” he said. He felt himself go limp in Andy's grasp. “I wish I knew.”

 

-

 

Andy stood over him while he got dressed - and god, was there anything more awkward than fishing your clothes out of the backseat of the Accord you'd just had sex in, while your brother watched? Robert would really like to have known, it might have salved the screeching humiliation -  and then dragged him, bodily, to the doorstep of his own home, where he waited patiently, still holding the scruff of Robert's neck as though he was a recalcitrant kitten, while Robert fumbled with his keys and got the door open.

“Just in the shower!” Katie yelled down the stairs.

“Right,” Robert said.

He and Andy sat on the sofa in awkward silence for five minutes. Andy kept glaring like Robert was going to do a runner. Robert kept playing nightmare scenarios in his head.

Finally she came down the stairs, in one of Robert's hoodies, face pink from the shower, towel draped around her shoulders to catch her dripping hair. She looked between them. “What's going on?”

“Robert needs to talk to you,” Andy said, firmly. “Right now.”

Katie blinked, towelling at her hair. “Right,” she said. “I thought you were at the garage late tonight, Rob?”

Robert looked at Andy; Andy looked back at Robert, firmly, giving nothing. “We need to talk. In private.”

Andy sighed. “I’ll be right outside,” he said. “Right outside.” And then he caught Katie’s elbow and said, very quietly, “Whatever you need from me, okay? Whatever you need.” The tone in which he said it - and the glare that he levelled at Robert as he did - made it very clear that whatever meant anything, up to and including murder.

“All right,” Katie said, squeezing his forearm gently. “Thank you.”

Andy glared at Robert one last time, and stalked out the door.

Robert thought about lying, but there wasn’t any point. Andy was waiting outside.

The door shut, enormously loud.

Katie raised an eyebrow. “Spit it out, Rob.”

“I’ve been having an affair with Aaron,” Robert blurted out. “Aaron Livesy, at the garage. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s over now.” He swallowed, and because he thought he ought to- “I’m sorry, Katie. I’m so sorry.” He braced himself for tears, recriminations.

She didn’t- that was the strange thing.

She didn’t react like she thought he would. He had imagined it a half-hundred times over the course of the affair; the way that Katie’s eyes would widen, the way that she would throw Sadie in his face, and Andy, and Debbie, and everyone before. He had imagined her screaming, trying to take the kids, breaking all the kitchenware.

He had not imagined this: Katie, standing in the kitchen, looking at him with clear eyes and no surprise, no rage.

“I knew that,” Katie said, slow and thoughtful. “Robert, why did I know that?”

“Katie,” he said, hands up, placating. “Think about the kids-” and then he stopped. “Wait, what?”

“Something’s wrong,” Katie said. “This isn’t right, Robert.” She was frowning, brows knitted together, the way that their daughter got when she was trying to focus on a school assignment. “You and Aaron, you’ve been together for a long time.”

“We’re not together-” Robert began, but even he had to admit it sounded hollow.

“Shut up,” she said dismissively. “Since January at least. Why do I know that? You told Aaron you loved him in the back room of the pub. He believed you; you had him fooled. He broke his ankle; you tried to save him. Then you tied him to a radiator and almost shot him. God, you've got a bad way of loving people. The things you've done to Andy-” She twisted her mouth down at the corners, and then she dragged the back of her hand over it, in a motion entirely unlike herself. “Where are the kids, Robert? What are their names?”

Robert turned his head. The sofa was fading at the bottom, like it was made of cloud. Everything around them went white.

“Don’t be silly,” he said. “The kids are-” But he didn’t know, did he? He couldn’t remember.

“What’s that sound?” Katie asked, tilting her head up, looking skyward. “Haven't you noticed it, Rob? It never stops.”

Now that Robert listened - really listened - he could hear it. A slow droning hum, interrupted by an intermittent beeping. The beeping was getting louder, insistent. It slammed its way into his skull, over and over, a screaming crescendo -

 

-

 

Robert woke up. There was an enormous sound: beeping, whirring, machinery. There was a stale hospital taste in the back of his mouth. Everything was dry. His head ached and his mouth was sore and his jaw- oh, there was a tube in his throat. Ow.

“Mr Sugden?” said a woman’s voice, a nurse. “Try not to move. Stay calm. You’re all right.”

Katie, he thought, but he couldn’t speak, and anyway she was there, standing at the end of the bed. Her hair was shining in the halogen lamps; her teeth pressed white against her lower lip. There was something not quite right about the slant of her neck, the way it aligned.

He reached out for her and she reached back. His fingers passed right through her hand.

“Oh,” she said. She blinked; her eyes looked enormous, luminous. “Oh, that's right, I'm dead.”