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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.”

 

Chapter Text

The pain called her to him. She felt it inside of her, as though he was magnetic. Her atoms were not stable at the best of times; he was in pain, and he was thinking of her, and so she went.

It was, she thought, probably not insignificant in terms of why she had gone to him, that he had killed her.

“Aaron,” Katie said. “Aaron, listen to me.”

He blinked at her with unsteady eyes. He was shaking.

He must be able to see her; he had never been able to see her before.

He was lying on the ground. He must have been there all night, in running gear, with an ankle that moved wrong and a shiver he couldn’t contain.

“They’re coming,” she said, kneeling to press her hands to his chest. They went through him, like usual.

She had never hated anything quite so much as she hated being dead. Perhaps Robert Sugden: though the two of those things were, intrinsically, linked.

“You’re dead,” he said. “I killed you.”

“No,” she said. Her throat hurt. The air was cold out here and it went right through her. “Don’t worry, I know who killed me.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, and he was crying, face squished up, miserable. “Katie, I’m so fucking sorry.”

“It's okay,” she said. “Aaron, listen to me. Listen.” She crouched in front of him; her best friend’s son, running himself to death because he didn't know what Robert had done. “I forgive you. I forgive you.”

She was surprised to find that she meant it.

She had been bitter for a long time. If he had not asked her there she would have been alive.

But he had hurt himself disproportionately, more than she ever could have.

“Katie,” Aaron said, blinking. “Am I- Are you here to take me? Am I done?”

“No,” she said. “No, it’s all right, I’m here.” She’d never been kind like this to him, but now she was. “They’re coming for you, Aaron. You’re going to be okay. You’re going to be fine.” She swallowed. “You’re going to live, Aaron, okay. I want you to do that for me. I want you to promise.”

He licked his lips and reached for her; she leaned away, kindly. “Katie-”

“Promise,” she said. It was important, she realized.

She blinked and saw a dark blue thread binding them, tangled round his throat and when she followed it with her eyes it came back to her, back to her heart. She knew without question that it held her here.

 

Robert came, then, and put his coat over Aaron and cupped his fingers round Aaron’s cheek.

He looked at Katie, eyes flashing, sick and terrified. His face was very pale.

She got to her feet. “Told you, Aaron,” she said.

“Katie,” Aaron said, turning his head to the side, to look at her. “I promise.”

“Shh,” Robert told him. “You’re gonna be all right, Aaron, okay? I’m here now. Just trust me.”

“He’s done that before,” Katie said, letting the bitterness sink into her words. “Look how that turned out.”

“Robert,” Aaron said, sinking against Robert's hands. His eyelashes fluttered.

Katie didn’t want to look at it. She went to Chas, instead. “I'm sorry,” she said. “I wish I had been able to tell you. I wish I could have helped.”

Chas looked right through her. She looked so, so tired. Katie wished she could hug Chas and make a silly joke. She wished she could make everything better.

Katie swallowed, and looked away.

 

Aaron closed his eyes. “Katie,” he whispered.

The cord linking her and Aaron glimmered. As she watched it unspooled. She reached for it, with nervous fingers; it slipped right through, and away. Suddenly she was lighter, warmer. Like now the sun could touch her, a little. Just a little.

 

-

 

She didn't really remember dying. She remembered hating Robert; she remembered the hot spurt of vicious victory, of knowing she had won. She remembered the confrontation, remembered Robert and Aaron kissing; she remembered the fall. She remembered the sound of her own neck snapping. It had been a surprisingly small sound. Just a little snap, and then - quiet. An aching, deafening silence.

 

But after that it was a blur. Just foggy darkness where her memory ought to be.

 

-

 

She opened her eyes again at Wylie’s Farm, lying on the ground where she had died. Andy and Robert were standing in front of her. Her first thought was that she was cold, and her second thought was Andy.

She drank in the sight of him: Andy, with his dark beard and his broad shoulders. Loving him had never been easy but she had never stopped. She never would stop. As long as there was a Katie she would love Andy.

Robert was there, too, but he didn’t matter. A long pale mirror to Andy, like a reverse shadow. She hated him, of course, but that hate was nothing compared to - Andy, Andy, Andy. The constant call of her heart, of her entire being.

She picked herself up. “Andy,” she said. “I’m sorry about everything, I-”

“If you can’t handle it, go,” Andy said to Robert, tightly, with little grace. He looked right through Katie, as though she did not exist. It was like falling all over again.

Robert winced, looking at him, and turned away.

And Katie -

Katie felt this tug on her, on her chest. She felt all of her move to follow him. She knew, instinctively, that this was why she was here: she was here to follow Robert, to make him put things right.

But she didn't want that; she wanted Andy. She was in love with Andy. She loved Andy.

What she felt for Robert had been as intense sometimes, especially when it was hate, but now, nothing came close.

“Andy!” she yelled, but it was too late; she was drifting, she was following Robert out the door.

 

He got into his car, his stupid flash white Audi, and she slipped into the passenger seat. Her hands didn’t fit on the door but that didn’t seem to matter, because she just - passed through it, and fit herself against the leather, which she couldn’t quite feel. She was floating, she thought, and then that thinking about the logistics made her stomach spin, so she stopped.

“Robert,” she said.

His eyelashes flickered, barely. He checked all the mirrors and then pulled out.

“Robert,” she repeated.

He turned the radio on. His fingers slipped over the settings - pop music to static to r&b and back to pop. Taylor Swift sang boys only want love if it’s torture, filling up the car, filling up Katie’s ears.

“Belle likes Taylor Swift,” Katie said mildly. “She’s a nice kid, you know. Sweet.”

Robert’s jaw twitched. It was as good as a blaring neon sign. Robert had been away a long time but not long enough for Katie not to know him; he was Robert Sugden, he was in her very bones as she was in his.

Not that she had bones anymore. Because she was -

Fuck.

Katie exhaled. “You killed me,” she said. “I know what you did, and so do you. And I’m not going to let you pretend that you didn’t.”

The car swerved. There was nobody else around on country roads to see them, though.

Robert clenched his mouth shut, and kept driving.

 

-

 

Robert continued to pretend that he couldn’t see her. She had thought maybe someone at the pub might - maybe Chas, who loved her? Maybe Aaron, who had been there when she died? Maybe Diane? - but they all looked right through her, and none of them were cruel in the way that Robert was, none of them had the stomach for it.

“Diane,” she said, leaning across the bar. “Diane, please, oh, come on.”

Diane, her stepmum-in-law. Diane, who loved Andy and Robert both, who could contain that love, from whom Katie had always wished she could learn this knack.

Diane shook her head, busy with other things. Her gaze ran over Katie like a wave.

She watched Robert go off at Georgia - oh, about the house, she thought, that might matter to people without broken necks - and then Diane dragged him into the back of the pub and she followed, to learn that everyone thought her death had been an accident.

“I’m fine,” Robert told Diane, over and over. “I’ll be fine, honest.” He repeated it like he was convincing himself and that was good, she felt that, it was something to soothe the endless furious scream that was all she was, now that he had killed her.

 

He left the pub and went outside. The night air was cool, cool like Katie, cool like death.

It slammed into her, then.

“I’m dead,” she said. “I died. I’m dead.” Her heart was hammering too fast, except that she didn’t have a heart, did she? Because she was just - something, an echo, a memory, floating crystallized rage.

She was dead. She would never again kiss Andy, would never again laugh with Belle or plait Sarah’s hair.

Of course she had thought about death. Everyone she loved died, or came close. Andy had tried to kill himself; she had almost died so many times.

She hadn’t reckoned on this. On feeling so, so alone.

“Please,” she said. “Robert, please. I’m right here.”

He looked right through her, unmoving.

“Robert,” she said, again. His name felt like mush in her mouth. “Robert, I’m dead, Robert, I’m so scared. Can you please - I know you hate me. Can you please just tell me you can see me. Please.”

He got in the car and turned the key in the ignition. His shoulders were straight. His jaw was still.

She didn’t want to go with him but she couldn’t do anything else. She was sobbing. She didn’t have a body but she was still crying and she still couldn’t control it; how did that work?

“Please, Robert,” she begged, the entire drive to Home Farm, but he ignored her. Didn’t you love me once? But he had killed her, so maybe that was all the answer she needed.

 

She didn’t need to sleep. She wasn’t tired at all, except for in her soul. But she couldn’t go far from Robert. Home Farm was large but not very large when you couldn’t get out of it, and it was interesting to see all the things that the Whites had done differently, but not that interesting when nobody could see you and also you walked through walls.

There was a working cat, a little black thing with big, round eyes. It purred at her.

She sat down and offered it her hand. “I’m really scared,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this scared, before.”

It washed its paw, and flicked its tail.

“Thanks,” she said. “Much appreciated.”

But it sat with her until the sunlight came, which was more than nothing.

 

-

 

“Stop ruining my funeral,” Katie hissed.

Robert turned and stared obviously at Aaron some more. She wondered if he thought he was being subtle. He didn’t look subtle. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen it.

She couldn’t believe she had thought it was anyone else.

“God, you’re such a piece of shit,” she said. She had no idea if he could hear her. God, if she was stuck, a voiceless ghost following Robert Sugden around for the rest of eternity - that would be just her luck.

She had no choice, though. If she stopped speaking she would fade into dust, she would become something that had never been, something that didn’t matter, and she would not let Robert Sugden reduce her to that.

She wrapped her arms around herself, watching Ashley talk about her, about how everyone had loved her. About how she was somewhere better now, in the arms of a loving god.

She snorted.

A loving god. One that had stuck her traipsing after Robert Sugden as he made mess after mess, while his poor wife tried her best to help him, unknowing.

Not that she had particular sympathy for Chrissie, who had been part of the reason she'd died, after all - but more sympathy than she had for Robert, or for Aaron, who had left her there.

She sighed and looked at the crowd. She could walk amongst them but it was almost not worth it, to have the sightless lack of response any time she said anything. She loved them all so much.

Chas looked like she had not stopped crying for days. Katie wished she could do something, anything. She had said, I still love you, I’m not Gennie, so many times but it didn’t stick. Chas’ eyelashes didn’t even flutter.

When she looked she saw: all these bright, shimmering cords, that spooled from her heart and tied her to all the people she loved. That was easy to understand. A literalized metaphor. The people she loved, holding her to this side of death.

Andy was speaking now. It was easier to focus on Robert, who she hated, than Andy, who she loved. Robert was uncomplicated - Robert had killed her, and he was in denial, and he was cruel to Aaron who was Chas’ son.

Andy was - god, she wanted to be with him, to go to him, to never look away from him. Perhaps because she was dead, the yearning was more intense. She just wanted him to hold her. If he would only see her, she thought, this long nightmare would be over. If he would wrap his arms around her - all of this mess would be undone.

She had been so angry with him, but none of that mattered, anymore. He was Andy and she was Katie and she loved him. She went to him, to try and wipe away the tears, to try and hold him, but she couldn’t. Her fingers went through him, feeling only the barest trace of the warmth of his body. Still, she clutched for it anyway, for the pulse of him.

“I love you,” she said. “Please, I love you.” She didn’t know what she wanted. Just him. Always him.

The last time they were in this church together they were getting married. Robert had ruined that, too, but not really; they had been so happy. They had been so in love.

 

Aaron stood up. He was crying. He had squared his shoulders and told Robert he would tell everyone what they had done, and Robert had again bullshitted his way out of it, but there had been certainty in Aaron’s jaw and she wanted, she needed to trust him, to hope.

“Tell them,” she said. “Please.”

But he didn’t; he just walked out.

 

-

 

She didn’t watch them put the coffin in the ground. It just didn’t seem worth it.

Robert darted his eyes to her, when he wasn’t darting them at Aaron. She wanted to cry but she didn’t want him to see it. He didn’t deserve it.

“I hate being dead,” she said, going to him, to press herself against his side in a parody of intimacy. Once she had loved him, and stood like this to kiss his cheek, to want to be with him. Now the warmth of his body felt like a joke. She wanted to rip his heart out and make him eat it. “Just so you know. I’m not in the loving arms of God. I’m right here, and I’m fucking cold, and I’m miserable. And it’s all your fault.”

 

-

 

Aaron wanted to tell everyone. Katie wanted that, too. She felt it in her aching soul: this was justice, this would free her.

“Do you love him?” she asked.

Robert’s eyes flickered to the space that held her and back to Aaron. He continued speaking smoothly, without missing a beat.

“That’s how you justified it the first time,” she said. “The first time was me, though. I guess I thought I was special. After that you got sloppy. After that you just got lazy. Remember Sadie? You didn’t give a shit.”

Aaron looked miserable, torn up. He was so guilt-ridden, always; always took the blame for things that weren’t his fault. It made Chas so scared.

Katie wanted to say, taking up with Robert was not your best bet, Aaron, but he couldn’t hear her. She was pretty sure that if Aaron could have heard her he would have paid attention.

Robert was trying to talk him out of taking the blame for Katie’s death, but he was doing it in the most Robert way, which meant calling him selfish and small and weak. Katie thought probably he meant something good in it, at least a little, but that was Robert for you: a little kernel of something all right buried in the rest of a despicable nest.

“You should tell him,” she said, sharply, “that the only person being selfish here is you. Because you’re small and scared and you’ve never taken responsibility for anything in your entire life.”

Robert froze for half a second, before he spat something at Aaron about hurting everyone around him.

Katie wished she could touch him. If she could, she would have slapped him. She regretted, viscerally and violently, every moment she had been alive in which she had not been slapping Robert.

 

Andy walked past them, to his car.

There was something about him, about the slope of his shoulders, about the set of his mouth.

“Robert-” Katie began, but she didn’t have to, he was moving.

 

-

 

Robert found the note - the suicide notes - and then they were at the quarry. Aaron ran out in front of the car and Robert slipped into the side, the two of them working quickly and smoothly, like they had talked about it on the drive up, as Robert slammed through speed limits and Aaron dug his hands into themselves.

There was a bright, shining cord that ran from her heart to Andy's. It was gold, the gold of a wedding band, of a promise. She could feel it pulse as he closed his fingers over the stick, as his foot trembled on the accelerator. She wanted him so much. She wanted him with her. If he would just go over, he would - He would be hers again. She could be warm again.

Robert was speaking, trying to get Andy back. Telling him about Jack, about Sarah. Robert had always been good with words.

Andy looked so tired. She was glad. He was hers. She wanted him. She always wanted him.

 

Fireworks went off, ricocheting through the dark sky. She looked at them for a moment, but then away.

Andy got out of the Land Rover, and went up to the edge. He was shaking. All of them were shaking, even Katie.

 

Robert turned and looked, right at her. Finally, finally. “Please help me,” he said, “I know you hate me, but please.”

She was a vengeful spirit. The air whipped about her in a mad frenzy. She wanted so much; she wanted Robert's blood and she wanted Andy, she wanted him with her. She didn’t want to be alone. She had never been cold with Andy and she was so cold now.

“Please,” Robert said, low and urgent. “I know I messed up, but don’t you love him? Don’t you want more for him? Don’t you want him to live?”

“No,” she said, because she was tired and cold and her neck had snapped and they had lowered her body into the dirt, where it would soon be eaten by worms, and Robert had ignored her for days and she was so, so afraid. “I want him to be with me.”

Robert blinked. He looked as if she had hit him. She wished she had. She wished she could.

“I want you,” she said to Andy, ignoring Robert, willing him to listen, to hear. “Don’t you love me? Don’t you want to be with me? I’m so cold. You’re the only one who can save me.”

She went to him. She could feel his body, could feel the warmth of his skin. She wanted him so badly. Even if he would be cold at least he would be hers.

“Do you think Katie would have chosen to see you hurt like this?” Robert said, and he was looking at Andy but he turned and looked at her, and that hit her, harder than she expected.

 

She tipped her mouth against his ear. Please, she whispered. She sounded like a chorus of the wind, whispering.

Andy shuddered, and then he swallowed. “I don’t need to kill myself. I’m already dead. I died with her.”

 

Aaron was crying, silently, the tears streaming down the sides of his face. Robert looked broken.

Andy didn't look like anything. He just looked hollow inside. He walked round the back of the car, graceless.

Katie said, “Andy, please,” and reached out for him. Her fingers went right through. She had spent so much time trying to save him, failing. He had done the same for her.

Now she just wanted him.

Now she just didn’t want to be alone.

 

Robert looked at her and she looked back.

“You did this,” she said. “You set fire to that caravan. You pushed me and pushed me and then you killed me. You could just push him over, now. Finish the job.”

He ducked his head and looked away.

“This is all on you,” she said. “Fuck you, Robert.”

 

-

 

Robert got Andy into bed and told Chrissie and Lawrence something, Katie didn’t quite know what. It was all blurry. She was shaking. She couldn’t stop shaking.

Then he went into a spare bedroom and shut the door firmly, and locked it, and put his back against it.

He looked right at her, finally, finally. Even though he was poison, even though he was venomous and petty, she was overwhelmed. “Why are you here?”

She shook from the force of it, the power of being acknowledged. She had been so scared and so alone. She hadn’t been admitting it to herself, because if she had she would have given up. But she was not made to be an echo; she would melt away, whispering, silent.

“I don’t know,” she said, wrapping her arms around her knees. “I guess because you killed me, didn’t you?”

“Did I make you up? Is this -     it wasn't my fault, okay. It was an accident.” His fingers clenched in his sleeves, betraying him.

She stared in disbelief. “Leave it to you to make me being stuck as a ghost all about you.”

“My brother almost killed himself,” Robert said. “And you’d have let him, all right? You’d have pushed him over the edge. So excuse me if I have other priorities.”

“Are you saying I don’t love him?”

“I think you’re busier hating me than you are saving him,” he snapped. “I think you’re too busy being dead to care that he deserves to live.”

“I deserved to live,” she said. “But you would rather keep it a secret where you put your dick, you fragile little closet case, and this happened, this is what you did.”

“You’re a fucking ghost,” Robert said.

“Because you fucking killed me,” Katie said. “This is not about your feelings, Robert, this is about me, and how I’m stuck fucking haunting you because you won’t own up to what you did!”

“I didn’t do anything! I didn’t, I don’t-” He shook his head. “You have to stop telling Andy to kill himself. I think he can hear you.”

“Good.”

“No, it’s not. I know you’re selfish and obsessed and you can’t think of anything but yourself, but he’s got kids, Katie. He’s got a family. I know you clung to him because you didn’t have anything else-”

She slapped him.

He brought up one hand to his cheek. “I felt that.”

She glared. “I can’t believe you’re gay,” she said. “You didn’t feel gay when we were kids, but I guess you were always great at lying to yourself.”

“I’m not-” Robert shook his head. “Why are you so obsessed? I love Chrissie.”

“And you killed me why?”

“This isn’t- you’re full of it, Katie. You’re just trying to not think about the fact that you would have let Andy die - and you would have been happy about it. How fucking selfish is that?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “How fucking selfish is hiding my body so he had to find it?” It came back to her: the sound of Andy screaming her name, and the overwhelming stillness of her own corpse. “How selfish is hiding what you did?

“Is that what this is about? Holding me responsible for what happened to you?” His eyes darted round the room, like he was just waiting for someone to burst in. “Is this like- that film with the pottery, and that weird song-”

She laughed. “I don’t fucking know what this is,” she said. “But I do know that you’re going to slip up and I’m going to cheer when everyone sees you for the small, selfish, evil man that you are.”

“Fine,” he said. “I don’t care. But you care about Andy, don’t you? You married him, Katie. You promised the rest of your life to him, not the rest of your death.”

“My life was supposed to be long,” she said, and she could hear the desperation in it, could hear the way her voice cracked and she sounds weak. “Our lives were supposed to be long.”

His mouth twisted. “You’re saying you loved him. Come on. How long would you have made it into the marriage before you cheated on him? You've got form.”

“I love him,” she said. “Don’t bring your own inadequacy into this. You know I'm better than you.”

Robert closed his eyes and opened them. “Prove it.”

She flinched. “What?”

“Just stop telling him to do it,” Robert said. “I- you owe it to him, don’t you think, to let him make the choice? To let him choose you or not?”

“I’m alone,” she said. This was small. She wanted to hide her face in her hands and shrink away from it, from the ugliness of her own death.

He shivered. “I’ll be with you,” he said, and this - this was kind, in that terrifying way Robert had always managed to pull out at the ends of things, when you thought there was no possible way he could salvage things, but he did. “I - I won’t pretend you don’t exist. I’ll be here for whatever you want to yell at me, I’ll accept whatever - whatever you want to say to me. You can convince me to turn myself in. I won’t stop listening to you.”

“Robert,” she said, trying for disdain, but he knew he had her and she knew it, too. “Fuck you.”

He swallowed. “Think I’ve got my hands full there,” he said, and then he rubbed his eyes. “Can you watch him while I get some sleep?”

“What makes you think I’ll tell you? I could just watch him kill himself.”

He tightened his hands. “I know you. If he was going to do it, you would want me to see.”

“What makes you think I won’t push?”

“You’re Katie,” he said. “You wouldn’t. Is that a deal?”

She offered him her hand, but he couldn’t shake it anyway. “All right,” she said. “A deal.”

 

-

 

She watched Andy sleep. His chest went up and down and his mouth twisted, and he cried, a little. She smoothed her hand over his brow but of course it did nothing.

She was so afraid, and so tired.

In the moment right after he woke up he smiled. But then the light crossed his face and he shook his head and she saw, in his eyes as he opened them, the truest reflection of her own self.

 

-

 

Debbie was furious, but she was also crying. She knelt in front of Andy, told him, “Just think about your kids. How much they love you. How much they need you. That’s all I ask.”

Katie missed Sarah and Jack.

Robert looked at Debbie, and at Katie, and then at Andy. His eyes always went to Andy.

Katie wrapped her arms around herself and thought about Sarah’s tiny, brave smile, about the way she looked at Andy and called him Dad.

She wanted him so much, still.

So, so much.

 

But they wanted him, too.

 

-

 

Chrissie looked tired. She touched Robert often - glancing brushes along his shoulders, his waist. Katie remembered doing that, reminding herself that Robert was hers. But he hadn’t been, because she’d been Andy’s.
“Does she know you’re gay?” Katie asked. “I guess, with her dad, maybe she just doesn’t care.” Then she laughed. “No, she would care. Of course she’d care. Why else would you kill me?”

Robert’s mouth twisted down at the corners.

“Are you all right?” Chrissie asked.

“No,” Katie said. “His boyfriend dumped him for being a murderer, oh, and he killed me.”

“I’m fine,” Robert said, leaning into Chrissie’s hand. “It’s just a lot going on.”

“I know,” Chrissie said, kindly, kissing his forehead.

“Also,” Katie said, sourly, “he’s been cheating on you for months, probably. You stupid cow.”

Robert twitched. He put his hand on Chrissie’s waist, and held on.

 

-

 

On the third day, Katie slept.

Dreaming was different now that she was dead. She curled up in a little ball and the black cat watched over her, while Robert lied to Chrissie and lied to Diane and anyone who would listen. She was so tired.

To dream was less to dream and more to drift; in waking, she wandered bodiless amongst the people she had once known. It was like that, dreaming, but she had even less control in sleep; here she couldn’t even choose where she went, she just was.

She opened her eyes, and she had a handful of Andy’s stupid overalls and they smelled like him.

“Hiya,” he said, coming over to kiss her cheek, and he smelled like himself.

She almost sobbed but she didn’t want to ruin it. Instead she just leaned against him, let him put his arm around her. “Your overalls are disgusting,” she said. “I should get hazard pay.”

“I know, I know,” he said, catching her chin with one hand and tipping her face up to kiss her. He tasted like toothpaste, and his beard scratched against her face, and she thought, I love you, I love you, I love you.

 

When she opened her eyes she was crying. Great, wracking sobs, shaking all through her body like earthquakes.

“I just want you to be happy,” she said.

God, it hurt.

Robert leaned in the doorway. He was wearing a fucking leather jacket and she could have made purses out of the bags under his eyes. “I told you we weren’t all that different,” he said.

 

-

 

Time passed. Andy got better. This was a relief, for most of Katie, the parts of her that remained her. The bits that were more - dead, for lack of a better word - still screamed that they wanted him, that they would do whatever they needed to to get him. She tamped them down.

Katie and Robert settled into something like a truce. This meant: they fought about everything, but mostly about Andy. (Andy was everything.) She yelled at him until her lungs hurt, even though she didn’t have lungs, anymore. In return he told her she was selfish, stupid, that she had brought everything upon herself.

But Robert didn’t ignore her, which was the important thing for Katie. He could hear her and she could hear him, and they were stuck with each other, so that hurt.

Robert was stubborn and so was Katie and also he had killed her so she really didn’t feel the need to pull any punches. He had the advantage of being able to touch things, but the disadvantage of being heard when he yelled. It worked out; she was very close to getting him to drop his guilt somewhere someone would hear him. She was sure she’d get there.

 

Andy was getting better. Katie told herself that he was getting better.

Katie told herself this was what she wanted, because it was the right thing to want.

“He's doing his best,” Robert said, clearly attempting to keep his voice even.

“He's sleeping with Tracy!” she yelled. It was kind of freeing to be dead because she could yell as loudly as she wanted and nobody would get mad or offended, except for Robert, whose opinion mattered less than the dirt he was constantly trying to get off his expensive shoes.

“Are you jealous?” Robert hissed. “You're dead, Katie!”

“And whose fault is that?” she snapped. She was crying, tears that would have been hot when she was alive but now were just a strange sort of prickly wet sensation on the endless coolness of her cheeks. “Fuck you, Robert.”

“I didn’t exactly want this,” he said. “Look at him, for fuck’s sake, Katie. I’m trying my best.”

“Well, it’s not fucking good enough,” Katie said. She sounded, she thought, like she was eighteen and angry with him for not doing the washing-up. “You’re the one that went away and came back better than us, aren’t you? Fix this.”

“What do you want me to do?” he hissed. “Put him in the ground so the two of you can be together?”

“Yes,” she said, immediately, because it was true. She wanted him so much. She would take anything to have him.

He rocked back on his heels, as though she had pushed him. As though she was capable of touch.

She raised one shoulder, and dropped it. “You forget that I’m dead, Robert. I don’t have the same rules I used to have.”

He softened his voice. “Katie.” He was talking to her like he talked to Aaron: that particular mixture of venom and gentleness. She hated watching him do it to Aaron. She hated watching him do it to her.

“He’s mine,” she said, shaking with it. “But if you can’t - if you won’t do that, at least fix this.”

“You could help me,” he said. “Instead of just - trying to ruin everything, trying to get me caught.”

“Are you seriously bargaining with your brother’s life right now?” She laughed, hollow. “Of course you are.”

“Look,” he said. “What matters to you more? You left everyone in a mess, Katie. Half the village hated you, the other half thinks you hated them. Belle thinks she killed you. I reckon, and I’m willing to put money on this - you’d rather fix that, than you would see me get sent down for an accident.”

“I’m flattered,” she said. “Do you really think I’m that good of a person?”

“I’m saying,” he said. “This is a deal, if you want it. You stop hurting Andy, and stop trying to get me sent down; I’ll help you with everything else.”

She screwed her eyes shut. Her throat felt raw. “I really fucking hate you,” she said.

“If it helps,” he said, “I’m not exactly your biggest fan, either.”

 

-

 

“It’s not just about Andy,” Robert said. “It’s about you. About being scared of being dead.”

“You having fun psychoanalyzing me?” she asked. “Because from where I’m sat, you’re the one with the actually lethal sexuality issues. I’m just saying.”

He shrugged. “You literally couldn’t die,” he said. “You’re moping around here, because you couldn’t get all the way dead. You can’t blame that on Andy. That’s not very feminist of you, for one thing, making all your afterlife about a man.”

She said, “You can judge my coping mechanisms for death when it happens to you.” And she twisted up her mouth. “I hope it happens sooner, rather than later.”

He laughed. He was starting to do that, more and more, when she said things, instead of flying off the handle or retreating inside himself. It reminded her of - a Robert she was trying to forget. A Robert worlds away from the one that had killed her.

“I’ll put that in the suggestion book, shall I? Die soon.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Sounds good to me.”

 

-

 

Aaron was breaking. He was running too much and Robert was worried about it, in his own Robert way. He had a dark bruised-up face and he was still going, he was still running after Aaron, he was still holding on to the secret and to Aaron himself.

“Just let him tell the truth,” Katie said. “Just let me go, Robert.”

Robert shook his head. He had never liked doing as he was told.

“I love you,” Robert said, like a revelation, like giving in. “I love you, and I can’t watch you suffer.”

Katie stared, in sick horror. She wondered if this was what he’d looked like when he said it to her, that first time. She wanted to go to Aaron and save him but she couldn’t, because she was dead; and he had made his own bed, anyway, hadn’t he? Or he’d made Chrissie’s, and fucked her husband in it.

 

“Did you mean it?” she asked, outside the pub, wrapping her arms around herself as though it would help. She was very cold. She was always very cold, but colder, now. The wind cut through her as though she was paper, as though she was a fogged-up breath on a wintry night.

“Does it matter?” Robert asked. “He needed to hear it.” He cast his eyes down, thoughtful. “I don’t want any more blood on my hands.”

It was the truest thing she'd hear him say since he got back to the village, probably.

She tangled her hands up in themselves. “That’s why you want to help me.”

“You’re following me around,” he said. “That’s a sign from somewhere, isn’t it? That I’d better get my act together.”

“Maybe,” she said. “Maybe I’m just mad.”

 

They walked together for a bit, just through the village. Him with his hands in his pockets; her with her arms wrapped around herself. She didn’t have anything to say and he looked cold and tired.

Finally, they stopped outside the cricket pavilion and he stamped his feet once, twice.

She looked at the fog from his breath. She didn’t generate anything, now. No heat, no warmth, no breath. No evidence that she was here, except for the way that sometimes, when he looked at her, he shivered.

“You called yourself a monster,” she said. “Were you just saying that so he’d feel bad? So he’d do what you wanted?”

He looked down at his hands, and then back at her face. “I never wanted to kill you,” he said.

She took a step closer to him, raising her hands as though she could put them on the side of his face and hold him, force him to look at her. She could not so her fingertips pressed against air, for a moment, till she dropped them to her sides.

“I’m sorry,” Robert whispered. “Katie, I'm so, so sorry.”

“Not enough to turn yourself in,” she said.

“It would kill Andy,” he said. He bit his lip. “It really was an accident.”

She laughed, hollow. “You’re a good liar,” she said. “Especially to yourself.”

He looked down and up again. “It would kill me,” he said, softly. “I’m not like you, Katie. I'm not brave.”

She had let the anger simmer somewhere else. It was a self defence mechanism. He was the only person she had, the only person who could hear her voice. She couldn't afford the energy to be furious.

She was so, so bitter. Bitter like black coffee, like the twist in Declan’s voice, at the end. Bitter like old blood.

She shook her head. “Your dad would have wanted more from you.” She hadn't even liked Jack. Jack had hated her. But Robert and Andy - and even Victoria - Jack was different, for them. Something mythological.

“My dad taught me this,” he snapped. “My dad covered for Andy and when Max died he told me to run.”

She put her hands in her pockets and traced her eyes along his familiar face. So much had changed, in all his years away, but also so little. He always got brittle about the mouth when it came to his father.

His shoulders slumped. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I wish you weren’t dead.”

She raised one shoulder and dropped it. “You know I'm not going to forgive you.”

He swallowed. “Yeah, I know.”

 

-

 

Sometimes, she remembered things from the bits in between her death and her waking. In just -   little, horrible flashes.

Just things like: she had been very cold. There had been a rat that washed its tail and sniffed at her hand.

The way Andy had screamed her name.

She tried to not think about that. She had been very much in her body and that was - it had been a dead body, bloodless, with no heartbeat. Now she didn’t have a body, which was strange and terrifying, but it was much, much better than being trapped in her own corpse. She remembered the weight of her own meat and it terrified her. Sometimes, when it was very dark and she was afraid of Robert, she wondered: had he saved her from that? Had her own rage pulled her to him?

Without him, would she still be there, decaying?

Nothing scared her more.

 

She hated Robert so much.

But the idea of that - that yawning, gaping darkness, and her dead flesh pressing down upon her -

She could bear anything, even Robert, not to go back.

 

-

 

Katie had died in a right mess. She made Robert write notes -   for Chas, for Belle, for everyone. He wasn't bad at faking handwriting.

“I can’t believe you took up with Adam Barton,” he said.

“I've had worse,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Just look in the mirror.”

“Very funny,” he said, making a face at her.

She laughed.  

 

Things became a little clearer, after she said You’re going to live, okay, and Aaron said, I promise. One by one, she found the cords that anchored her there unspooling. She didn't touch Andy's, though. She didn't know what to say to him. There was nothing she could do.

She could only want, and not have.

She trailed Robert round, fitting her incorporeal feet into the prints of his shoes, and thought they had always been more alike than they wanted to admit. It was terrifying, when she thought about it. 

There was nothing she could say. Nothing she could do to make it better.

Robert was trying, but Robert was running on guilt. Even if it was guilt mixed with love, it would taint whatever he did, and both of them knew it.

 

She wasn’t guilty, though, when she asked him to help her make amends with Chas, with Belle. Just little quiet things that nobody else would have known. It wasn’t as good as Robert in jail would have been, but it was good. She spent a lot of her time trying to trip him up - throwing words at him so he’d snap and implicate himself in her own death - but it almost became a game, between the two of them.

She was starting to think, maybe this was okay. Not ideal, but okay. Robert wasn’t soft but he listened to her, and he spoke to her, and without him - without him maybe everything was quiet.

 

He said, “I think I trust you. Isn’t that funny?”

She shrugged. “I’m keeping your biggest secret, aren’t I? All of your secrets.” She wished she had told Aaron what he had done, but she had not. And he was easy to be with. She hated it, but it was true.

 

-

 

Katie had thought they were getting somewhere. She had thought: Robert wouldn’t admit it, but maybe he would get better. She thought, maybe with this evidence of her, of what he’d done - she didn’t like being his conscience, but she thought maybe it might work.

And then: the fucking grain pit, and the fucking hospital, and Aaron in the lodge. Katie had not felt so helpless since she had died. She spent all of it screaming until her throat hurt and he ignored her, pretended she didn’t exist, and she couldn’t bear it. Her fingers hurt. She still couldn’t touch anything; she was still a wailing echo of guilt.

 

“I can’t believe you,” she said. “You can’t do this. You have to turn around, Robert, you fucking have to.”

His fingers were tight on the wheel of his obnoxious car. His knuckles had gone white. He was trembling.

She had not been so angry in centuries. It felt like she was on fire. She had spent so long made of ice but now she was burning.

“He is tied to a radiator,” she yelled. Her voice was shrill; she was leaving imprints on the leather of the seat as she gripped it. Under normal circumstances she would have stopped to stare, but these were not normal circumstances. “You can't just leave him there!”

“Last time I checked,” he said, ice cold, “I can do whatever I want. And you're dead. So shut up.”

 

She screamed and pushed herself away from him. She felt like a rubber band - pulling and pulling until finally, finally the world gave out, and her soul went to the only other place that made sense -

To the other person who had killed her.

 

Aaron was bloody. She couldn’t do much but she could get the rag off his mouth so she did that, fighting hard to make her fingers solid enough to act on cloth. Then she sat down next to him and stretched out her legs.

He shook his head and squinted. “You're not-”

“You're in a state,” she observed, as calm as she could make herself. “Last time you could see me you had hypothermia.”

“Well,” he said, with remarkably good humour, “I am tied to a radiator right now. So at least I don’t have to worry about that.”

She tried to reach for the ties on his wrists but her fingers went right through. “I'm sorry,” she said.

“Me too,” he said. “What's it like, being dead? Since I'm about to join you.”

“It’s rubbish, to be honest,” she said. “You get stuck following Robert around. It's boring, and then you end up trying to be his conscience.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Bad luck of the draw, there.”

“Pick a better murderer next time,” she quipped. “Somebody fit, you know.” But she’d been a ghost a while now.

“I didn’t know,” Aaron said, screwing his mouth up. “That he had pushed you.”

“I know,” Katie said. She rested her hands on her knees. “It’s been a long time.”

“I swear to you,” Aaron said, tipping his head back against the radiator. “If I’d known, I wouldn’t have - I would have called the police. I’d have done something.”

“I’d still be dead,” she said. “It’s - I get it. It’s sweet, Aaron, but it doesn’t matter to me.”

“But you’re here. So you must want something.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I think I was supposed to stop Andy killing himself, but I couldn’t. I wanted him.”

Aaron closed his eyes. His fingers flexed into fists and then fell open. “That’s very Robert of you.”

“You've got to leave him,” she said, because someone should have said it to her, in a way that she had heard it. “You know that, don't you?”

“I think he's going to kill me,” Aaron said. “So I wouldn't worry too much about that, if I were you.”

“If I tell you something, will you listen?”

“Katie,” he said.

“He’s not lying when he says he doesn’t want to hurt you. He’s in love with you.” She knew what it looked like. And he had killed her; he was the one keeping her here. She felt him in her heart, in her soul.

“Oh.” Aaron swallowed. “That doesn’t mean much, though, does it. When he hurts everyone I love. When he killed you.”

“You have to walk away,” she said. “For real, for good.” She bit her lip. “You owe that to me, Aaron. I haven’t asked anything of you but I’m asking you for this.”

He closed his eyes. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I will.”

 

-

 

Robert sat with her, right after she died. It took her a long time to remember that, to remember the way he had stayed with her, the steady rhythm of his breath.

She had been very cold and everything had been very dark. And he had killed her.

 

She had hated him so, so much. It was that hatred to which she had grabbed, to pull herself back, from the dark.

 

-

 

“I was an accident,” Katie said. She thought she might be crying. She had loved Robert, once. She had walked the edge of it again in these long days with nobody else.

Now all of that was gone. Her face was hot and she was so scared and so angry.

“Robert,” she said, grabbing the sides of his face. Her fingers went through his skin. It was still weird. “I was an accident. If you kill him, I will ruin you. You will ruin you. Do you understand? You can come back from me. You cannot come back from this.”

“I can come back from you?” he asked, dazed.

“I don't know,” she said. It hurt to say. It hurt to think that she had hoped. “I thought you could, maybe, with good luck, if you tried. But I don't know, anymore.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The air smelled like exhaust and petrol. The sky was grey, like concrete, like a storm come and passed.

Katie was trembling, as though she had blood in her, as though she had a body to run things. She couldn’t look away from Andy - Andy Sugden, with blood on his face, barely clinging on to life.

God, she loved him. She had always loved him. If you defined love in the dictionary of Katie's life you could put a picture of Andy next to it: spotty fourteen year old Andy Sugden, writing her poorly-spelled love letters behind his dad’s back.

“Katie?” Andy said. His voice shook. He reached out for her - unsteady fingers, unsteady mouth. Both of them on ground that might give out any moment.

Her stomach lurched. She had never wanted anything more.

“I missed you so much,” she said. “I miss you so much.” And then she closed her eyes and opened them again. “Why did you go and do this, Andy?”

 

-

 

The hospital was cold and Robert’s head was spinning. He was on a lot of drugs. Like, a lot. Like, a lot a lot. Everything hurt, but also, he was floating.

He had been shot, after all. He had been shot by an as-yet-unidentified shooter, and then he had spent several weeks in a coma, where he had lived a fictional life in which he had been married to a woman he had killed. Who was, in fact, a ghost that haunted him.

He felt that he was owed a little floating.

Speaking of the ghost: Katie sat at the edge of his bed and glared at him. She was, as ever, wearing the clothes in which she had died. He wondered sometimes if that got uncomfortable, or if she would like to change, but she snapped whenever he asked.

Katie was very bad at allowing Robert to float. She had an allergy to letting him get away with anything; she’d had it since they were very young. For a brief time he had found it attractive but in this context it was really, really not.

“Hi,” he said, struggling upright. His lower lip tasted like anaesthetic, faintly numb. “You all right?”

She was shivering. “You almost died,” she said. It was sharp, like an accusation.

He sat up. “It’s okay.” He made his voice as soft as he could. “I’m okay.”

“I wanted you to be dead,” she said, voice shaking, teeth white and bared. “I was so angry, Robert.”

“You’d miss me if I was dead,” he said, as lightly as he could.

“You ruined everything,” she said, but she was crowding in next to him, her long translucent body fitting into the space at his side. “You always ruin everything.”

He sighed. “I know.” He put his hand on his thigh, palm up, so that she could trace her ghost-fingers over his. He couldn’t feel anything.


“I couldn't have kids,” Katie said, after a minute, the silence petering out between them. Her mouth flattened into a thin line. “When I was alive. There was an accident, and - it doesn't matter, but I couldn't have had kids. I don't think you knew that.”

“I think Vic told me,” he said. “She told me a lot about you. Like I cared.”

“You’re such an arsehole,” she said, but there was little heat in it. “Why were we married, Robert?”

“You tell me,” he said. “I wasn’t the only one there.”

“I haven't trusted you since I was eighteen,” she said, with low, easy certainty. It should have been a barb, but it wasn’t; it was just the truth. This stung.

He said, “We were close there for a bit, weren't we?”

She said, “Not right before you got shot, though.”

“Okay, that’s fair.” He remembered kissing her, remembered the softness of her mouth and the sweet scent of her hair. He had loved her so much when they were young. It had been about Andy, at first, but everything was about Andy. Afterwards it had been theirs.

“It's funny,” she said. “In the dream I loved you. We didn't have all that history, so I could.”

“Are you saying you don't love me now?” He meant it like a joke. It didn't come out like that.

He needed to stop doing that, telling Katie the truth, but after eight months of being stalked by her ghost he'd gotten in the habit.

She stared at him. “You pushed Andy so far,” she said. “You almost killed Paddy, you almost killed Aaron. The things you did-”

“You're still here,” he said. “And I am, too. We’ll fix everything, okay? We'll figure it out.”

He thought about the version of her with his child on her hip, laughing  at his terrible jokes. It made him soft with longing.

He thought, she must be thinking about that, too. Because she sighed and closed her eyes and did not move.

“Our kids were cute,” he said. “Our fake coma kids.”

She said, “They got it all from me.” And then she shivered. “I was in love with you. Were you in love with me?”
“Does it matter?”

She shook her head. It swept, long and blonde, through the air. He thought, as he always did, about the halo it had made when she was a corpse. “Maybe not.”

“Okay,” he said. “I don’t love you and you don’t love me. Sorted.”

 

-

 

Robert moved into Victoria’s box room, even though he was barely alive, even though his body was a mess. Victoria was the only person on his side. Except for Katie, Katie thought, wondering when she had become someone on Robert’s side.

Familiarity breeds-

She went with him, because that was what she did. Somewhere in the muted dream of the coma she had stopped hating him, and she hated herself for that weakness but what else could she do when he was the only one who saw her, who heard her speak?

She had been done with him so many times but she was still stuck, she was still here. He had still killed her.

 

“We need to find out who did this,” Robert said, leaning back against the pillows Victoria had stacked against the headboard of the tiny single bed, while Adam glared at her. He rubbed at his chest, over his t-shirt. If he kept going there would be blood.

Katie sat cross-legged at the foot of the bed and put on her least impressed face. She used it on Robert a lot but he was pretty much immune, which was galling. “Oh, there's a we now,” she said. “There wasn’t when you were running round trying to get everyone in the bloody village to want you dead.”

He rolled his eyes, with little rancor. “Shut up, Katie.”

“You don’t want it to be Aaron,” she said, because that was how to hurt him. “Could have been, though.”

“Aaron, going out to buy a gun? I doubt it.” Robert was brittle around the mouth, around the eyes. More hope than true belief, there, despite the fact that he’d always been able to read people better than most. “You’ll help me, though.”

Katie could do things now. Not much but little things: hold the door for Chas, redirect a warm wind to Belle's hair. Catch a bale of hay if Andy dropped it. Sometimes, if she was particularly irate with Robert, a spark would jump from her fingers to his and he would jump.

She was becoming more and more dead, every day. It scared her, but it also didn’t; there was a part of her that thought, of course, yes, and yearned for it. She held it back with her teeth.

She did not want it to suit her, but it did.

She could help Robert, if she wanted to. She could be a help rather than a hindrance. She was startled to think that she might not mind it.

“I don’t know what would happen if you died,” she said, softly, by way of answer. “I don’t know what I am. I don’t- what if I just disappeared?”

“What’s on the other side?” he asked. He had never asked before; then again, he’d never been almost-dead before.

“I don’t know,” she said. She grimaced. “Do you want to find out?”

“Not really,” he said.

“Me either.” She looked down at her hands and breathed out, and breathed in. She didn’t need to do that, anymore, but she did it anyway.

 

-

 

Aaron blew everything up: he told Chrissie about the affair, about everything. When he looked at Robert he was hollow in the eyes and that hurt, more than it was supposed to.

Then Chrissie actually blew everything up. Robert lost his shit, because what the fuck else was he going to do? But Katie was loving it, bright-eyed and archly gleeful. Fucking Katie.

Sometimes he forgot she was a ghost; sometimes she just seemed like herself, albeit a self that only Robert could see, hear, or speak to. Not when people were dying, though. When people were dying Katie had this - this strange brightness to her, a coolness. She didn’t want to be around it, but she did. She wanted Robert to linger, to go to funerals, to -

Robert tried not to think about it too hard. He’d decided a long time ago that thinking too much about death was just a recipe for discomfort. It had become more complicated now that he had a ghost, but he was pretty good at avoiding things, so things hadn’t gone completely off the rails.

Like, aside from Robert probably having a mental breakdown, but Katie was quite shrill when she was angry, and he felt like he could avoid taking everything she said as gospel.

Sometimes she got a little creepy. Like, she’d tilt her head and go somewhere else, go transparent. It happened more and more as she got more comfortable with being dead, but he got used to it. It wasn’t that big of a deal.

 

Then Andy started to find things out. Andy started talking to Aaron, and suddenly hanging around in Vic’s box room was less easy than it had been - and not just because Robert had to keep his voice down when he was talking to his ghost.

Katie was excited, flickering between that and vicious. She went through phases where she spoke to him and phases where she was completely, eerily silent. She looked at Andy like he had the sun inside him, like he was the most wonderful thing she’d ever seen.

It hurt. Robert had lured himself into thinking she liked him.

He thought, probably she did, in the way of necessity; in the way that despite all of their bust-ups he was glad that she was there, that he had her to speak to. The way that, by existing, she meant that he wasn’t alone.

And he was the only one who could hear her. She had to love him.

He’d always been scared of not being worth something. Well: he was important to Katie, even if she didn’t like him much, even if she wanted Andy to find out what he’d done so he’d get sent down. Being important to someone was better than being liked, and they both knew it.

It still stung.

“He needs me,” Robert said. “You can’t want this, Katie, he’s not ready, he can’t handle it.”

Katie rubbed her eyes. She didn’t have a body, but she sometimes complained of headaches, anyway. “You keep saying that,” she said. “But he deserves to know. He deserves to know who you are.”

It settled in his chest, like a stone in your shoe. A little rubbing irritation against the chambers of his heart.

Robert was, as a rule, terrible at grinning and bearing things. It was a family trait.

Andy pushed, and pushed. He wanted to know how Katie had died. He wanted Robert to tell him. He was barely handling things, and he’d been doing so well - they’d been doing so well, the two of them, together.

Robert snapped. More accurately, Robert broke down. He felt like he’d in been free-fall, when he thought about it later; it was an assertion that Katie validated, with a sharpness in her eyes that told him he had been horrifying, as he often was.

Robert told Andy the truth. He broke down. He told Andy everything; that it was an accident, that he hated that it had happened. It felt good to say. It washed out of him, like a flood.

It hadn’t been his fault. That was the truth.

It wasn’t wrong to say that; it wasn’t wrong to not want Andy to hate him. Andy had killed their mother, it wasn’t all that different. He didn’t - he understood that Andy was upset, that he had loved Katie and that Katie was dead.

Nobody could understand that Katie was dead better than Robert.

But it hadn’t been his fault. He hadn’t wanted it.

Katie stared at him the whole time, and he was waiting for her to interrupt but she didn’t. She didn’t say, no that’s not how it happened, or it was all your fault and you wanted it. That was what she usually said.

She didn’t. She just looked at him, with cool eyes, and then she looked at Andy.

She was always longing when she looked at Andy. Robert tried not to think about that too hard.

“You want to believe it was an accident,” Andy said, in the end; all balled up fists, barely-held contempt. “But it wasn’t.”

Then Robert got punched in the face while Katie, pale and translucent, hovered still at his side, unmoving.

 

Then Andy went to the police.

Robert lay on his back on the carpet and tried not to think too hard. Thinking had gotten him into this mess, anyway.

“To be expected,” Katie said, leaning in to look at his face. “That’s going to bruise.”

Robert put a hand on his cheek. Predictably, it hurt. “Cheers,” he said. “Good spotting.”

She twisted her mouth to the side. “Thanks for telling him,” she said.

“Are you saying that I did something right?” His lip was bleeding. He flicked his tongue over it, a little burst of pain and the sharp tang of copper.

“Not quite,” she said. “Just something a little less wrong, maybe.”

 

Robert took it back in the end. Prison was scary, and Katie was bitter, and he just couldn’t. He’d always been selfish.

And he hadn’t meant to kill her. Crimes were about intent, weren’t they? They had to be. And Katie was here. Katie was still here. Katie was still here and he -

 

Katie shook her head. “I wish I had come back to be with him,” she said, bitter and longing. “I might have fixed it, then. I might have helped him. Instead of you - what good have I done with you?”

“You’d have pushed him over,” Robert said, more sharply than he intended. “You'd both be dead.”

She glared at him. “It’d be better than this.”

“I can fix this,” he said. “You need to help me, Katie. That’s the only thing we can do. He’s not stable enough to know this, to know any of it.”

“To know his brother killed his wife?” She raised an eyebrow. “Because that’s what happened, Robert. That’s what you did.”

“I know,” he said. “Katie, I know.” He felt - pulled thin, like toffee, like a rubber band. “But I didn’t - you know I didn’t do it on purpose.”

“Yeah,” she said. “That's what you told Andy.”

He said, “I had to do it. You - you have to know that.” He didn’t know what to say but he was shaking. “You know I didn’t mean it.”

She stared at him in disbelief. “Are you asking me to forgive you?”

“I-” But he closed his mouth. There wasn’t really any way round it. “I thought we were okay, Katie. I thought we were good.”

“You killed me,” she said.

“I pushed you,” he said. “And then you died. It wasn’t-”

She shook her head. “You pushed me for no reason. You made everything awful.” She paused. “D’you know what the worst of it is? My death meant nothing. You wanted to get married? You did. Managed to screw that all up on your own. She left you. You don’t even have Aaron, and he’d have done anything for you.” Her eyes were very sharp. “And now you won’t even have Andy. He’s done with you, now.”

“I had to,” he said. It felt weak in his mouth. He tried not to talk about this with her because it always ended up like this; sawdust in his teeth, and the memory of the sound she’d made crashing through the floor.

“I died for nothing,” she said. “And now you’ve broken Andy, too.”

 

He was so used to hearing the truth from her, but it hurt every time.

 

-

Andy and Adam were on Aaron’s side. Victoria was on Robert’s.

Katie didn’t know how she felt, but she was stuck following Robert around, so, here she was in the courthouse for Aaron’s plea, watching Robert yet again push and push and push.

He always took things too far. She knew the feeling, because she had done it; because that was how she had died.

Robert looked at her, cautious; she looked back at him. She knew he wanted her to say something reassuring, and she almost wanted to, but she didn’t.

 

Robert pushed. That was what he did.

Robert pushed, and Aaron fell. As good as. He told Robert he wished he was dead and Robert reeled backwards, like he’d been hit, like it was him falling through floorboards for the longest moment ever felt.

Katie was too busy looking at Andy to care. Andy, up in the gallery,  sitting with Adam, with a sick curve to his mouth that made her worry. Andy looking at Aaron like the world might end; like it had, already.

 

Andy and Robert got in a fight in the hall. Andy yelled; Robert stood there, mostly stunned, a little upset. Katie wrapped her arms around herself and missed him.

She had told herself that she was okay without him but she was wrong. To see him was to open a yawning gaping absence at the heart of her.

Now that he knew why she had died it was different. She had spent all this time thinking maybe she could fix Robert, maybe she could make this better; maybe she could undo the circumstances of her own death.

To have Andy know, and to be furious, on her behalf - it hit her hard. She was so used to being dead.

“Don’t fight him,” she said, in concert with Victoria. She felt numb. She tried to focus on Adam, who sometimes if she fought hard would tilt his head and respond to things she said, because he had loved her, once upon a long time. “Just take Andy home, Adam. Please.”

Adam scrunched up his eyes and looked exhausted. She had loved him, once. “Come on,” he said. “It’s not worth it.”

Robert leaned back against the wall and watched them go.

Victoria put her hand on his shoulder and spoke to him, but his eyes went to Katie.

She looked away.

 

-

 

“I never understood why you loved him,” Robert said. He was not exactly telling the truth, but he was tired, and he didn’t know what to say to her, anymore.

She tucked her fingers into the sleeves of her jacket. Sometimes it was a bit weird to think she’d died in these clothes, that she’d never wear any others, but he had gotten used to it pretty quickly. Like he’d gotten used to having her around. Robert was an adaptable person. He got used to things.

“Just really always wanted to complete a set,” she said. “Thought I’d try for Vic when I was done with Andy, you know.”

“You can tell me about him,” Robert said. “If you want.”

“Why would I go and do that?”

“Because you love him and you can't have him ever again,” Robert said. “You dreamed about him. And it's my fault.”

“Is it? Are you actually admitting something?”

“It was an accident,” he said. “But - I mean, I did push you. If you need to think of it like that.”

“You were gone for so long,” she said. “You know, you missed a lot of the worst of it. I know Vic told you, but that’s not the same.”

“Dad told me to go,” Robert said. “Because he loved Andy more. Because everyone does.” He was trying not to be bitter but it was hard, inherently, because he was bitter. “I didn’t want to miss him. I wanted to be there for him.”

“Really?”

“I do love him,” Robert said. Trying to be honest, because it was Katie, who was dead, who was his in a way nobody else could ever be. “I know you don’t think-”

“I know,” she said. “I didn’t think we’d get back together, you know. I thought we were done. So much happened to him, to me.”

“I didn’t want to miss it,” Robert said. “I swear, I didn’t.” He shook his head. “But he hates me, and that’s - that’s that, isn’t it? I just miss him.”

Katie sighed. Her shoulders slumped. “He wanted to believe the best things about you. He wanted to believe the best things about me. He loves his kids so, so much. Look how that turned out, eh?”

“You’re dead,” he said, sharply, automatic. “I didn’t - I’m sorry.”

She said, “You told Andy, and then you took it back.”

“I was so scared when I got shot,” he said. “Was that what it was like for you?”

“I was just cold,” she said. She sounded as though she was far away. “I don’t want to talk about Andy with you, Robert. I love him too much.”

He reached for her, as though his hands would help, as though they would be warm.

They never talked about this. He didn’t want to ask about being dead. She’d always told him, he was never really that fond of the truth.

Now he had brushed against his own impending mortality. She had held his hand and kissed his cheek.

He supposed, he had sat with her corpse. She had been so, so cold. Cold and clammy and so still, as she had never been in life. He had been unable to get the image out from under his eyelids for months.

“You know that if I could change things so I hadn't - so you hadn't been at the farm, so I had walked away - you know I would.”

“It doesn’t really matter now,” she said.

“I know,” he said. “But - I just want you to know that.”

 

-

 

Katie was dead, and Robert was the reason. Early on it had been hard to think of anything else, anything that wasn't him. She was better at not feeling it now, at expanding, at having a larger world - he was still the only one who could hear her. But he was still the centre of her, the heart of what she was doing here. The thing that kept her from drifting away, away, to the bright light that she saw when she closed her eyes and tried not to think too hard. The thing that she was supposed to be doing.

She knew that she would go, and it would be sooner rather than later. But there was still the part of her shrieking, and that was Robert’s doing. That was Robert’s blood it wanted.

 

When Robert slept, the ties that anchored her to him were not nearly as strong. She drifted, often. Mostly to various parts of the village, where everyone was sleeping and the air was clear. Now that she was more used to being dead, and stronger, she could kind of choose where she went, sometimes. She had tried to go to Andy, but it didn’t work, no matter how much she wanted it.

Now she went to Aaron.

 

Aaron was awake, because of course he was. He looked like shit, greyer than the walls of his cell.

“Did you do it?” she asked. She knelt beside him, keeping her voice as steady as she could.

Aaron wrapped his arms around his knees. He looked at her, eyes flat, all sick, hollow emptiness. “Does it matter?”

“I told you to get shot,” Katie said, and then winced. “Sorry. Tasteless. I told you to get over him.”

“Did you see what he said to me? Did you see what he was doing?” Aaron hissed it, quietly, eyes darting round the cell. “I didn’t do it, Katie, but I could have. And everyone thinks I did, so what does it matter?”

“Adam doesn’t,” she said, softly. “I don’t.”

“Did you see it?”

“No.”

“Then how can you know?” He shook his head. “Why are you still here, Katie? What do you want to talk to me for? For him?” His mouth twisted down at the edges. “He killed you.”

She swallowed. It stung. “Why can you see me, Aaron?”

“I killed you, didn’t I? Well, all right, I didn’t. But I helped.”

“I am the only person who knows what’s happened with you and Robert,” she said. “Please trust me.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. He closed his eyes and leaned back. “Nothing matters. What’s it like, where you are? You’d tell me if you’d seen Jackson.”

“Oh my god,” she said. “Aaron, no, you don’t have to-”

 

That was when Robert woke up, and she was pulled back.

“He didn’t do it,” she said. She had to say it. Robert - it was killing Robert, to think Aaron had done it.

And Aaron was right.

That mattered.

“You wouldn’t care if he had,” Robert said, calmly, for someone who was sitting with sleep-spiky hair in his sister’s box room. “You want me dead.”

“Robert,” she started, and then she shook her head. “Without you I can’t look after Andy, can I?”

He laughed, very tightly. “You lie to me all the time,” he said. “Sometimes I think you don’t know you’re doing it.”

“Coming from you that’s rich,” she said. “Aaron doesn’t have it in him, Rob.”

“People said that about me,” Robert said.

She raised her left eyebrow, voice as deliberate, as steady as she could make it. She landed each word with precision, with accuracy. “I never did.”

 

-

 

Robert was tired and he was furious but mostly he was sad.

“He shot me,” he said to Katie, because Vic was sick of hearing it and couldn't be trusted with the scope of Robert's traitorous heart, anyway. “Even if he didn't he wishes I was dead.”

“You love him,” Katie said, exasperated, like it wasn’t something she said all the time, like it wasn’t something she used as a weapon. “You’re in love with him.”

“He tried to kill me,” Robert said. He was trying not to think about Aaron, who made his heart turn over when he thought about him, despite Chrissie, despite unending stupidity, despite everything. Perhaps not despite a gun.

“You actually killed me,” Katie countered.

He rolled his eyes. “Look,” he said. “We’re never going to get anywhere if you keep bringing that up every time we have a disagreement.”

She snorted and a book fell off the shelf next to Robert’s head, narrowly missing his hand. “I’m just saying,” she said. “You dreamed us being married, and you actually ended my life. It's really not like murder, attempted or otherwise, is that big of a boner killer for you.”

“No, it really is,” Robert said. “Quite a big one.”

“Hypocrite.”

“Bitch.” It was light, a routine. Something he understood.

Katie tapped her fingers on her thigh. “If he died you wouldn't handle it,” she said, thoughtful. “Isn't that how you kept him the first time?”

Robert swallowed. “It wasn't a lie.” He hated giving Katie the truth - invariably she used it against him - but there was no way round it. Not with her so close, kissing close, close like his own mortality.

She tilted her head to one side. “You could face one thing,” she said. “I’m not saying it has to be my death, but you could face something.”

“Since when have you been my conscience?” He rolled his eyes.

“Since never,” she said, baring her teeth. “For me to be your conscience you’d have to listen to me once in a while.”

He fluffed one of the pillows. They were all bright pink. Thanks, Vic. “I listen to you all the time,” he said. “I know you don’t think so, but I do.”

“You say things,” she said. “You know, sometimes I can’t even figure out if you actually know that you’re trying to get something out of someone when you speak or if it’s just instinct.”

“What would I get out of you? You’re a ghost.”

She laughed, hollow. “Everything,” she said. “You killed me, Rob. If you can make me forgive you, then - there’s nothing you can’t do.”

“Good job you haven’t, then.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, I suppose.”

He looked at her, let his eyes roll along her. It was funny, but she was the only one who hadn’t betrayed him.

 

-

 

Sometimes, when Katie squinted, she could see the ties that kept her here. They were unspooling, as time passed and she became more accustomed to being dead, but they were still shimmering -  yellow for Belle, bright wedding ring gold for Andy. Chrissie’s was silver, and very faint. Katie only saw it when she was looking for it, specifically.

 

When Aaron told Chrissie about the affair, he looked right at Katie, and he smiled.

It was not quite justice, but it was something. Chrissie’s silver tie rang tight, like a bell that had been rung, and then it unravelled. Katie felt herself glow, and heard the call of something else, something beyond, louder than she had heard it before.

She pulled herself back with the sharp brace of fear, but it wrapped itself around her, the want.

 

When Chrissie’s had gone there had only been Andy’s left, the last surly bond of earth. She didn't know what would come after. She was scared. She loved Andy. She didn't want to leave him.

And Robert was complicated and she hated him; he had killed her. But there was something else, something that had blossomed in all the weeks and months where they had been trapped together, he the only one who could hear her, she the only person he could trust by dint of that most perfect secrecy of death.

 

When Robert got shot, she was with him. She was leaning over his shoulder, trying to pull him back, while Chas screamed at him.

The gunshot was, like the sound of Katie's neck snapping, very very small.

Robert got shot and he fell. It went through Katie, too, like shrapnel, like a ricochet.

“Robert,” she said, so fucking afraid, what was she without him? But she didn't have too long to panic, because then everything went black, and she was in the fever dream.

 

She tried not to think about this too much. That as much as she was bound to anyone else it was Robert who had killed her; it was Robert who kept her here. She wanted him dead so much; she wanted justice, she wanted vengeance, she wanted to be free.

But her first thought in that moment, the moment of his gunshot, had been terror. She had thought, no, not him. And she had wrapped herself around him, as though he was hers.

Perhaps it was even the way she had clung to him that had saved him, that had pulled him back. She had more power than she thought she did.

 

-

 

From the beginning, Katie had talked a lot about closure. Robert felt that was fair, since she didn’t really have much else to talk about, besides his life choices and the fact that she was dead as a direct result of something he had done. She wanted him to do things, to talk to people.

He agreed to do them, because what else was he going to do? Ignoring her didn’t do much, she just yelled louder, and people looked at him funny when he flinched.

She had stopped trying to get him to implicate himself in her death. She was not very good at it, anyway. She wasn’t a manipulative person by nature. That was why she had lost the battle of wits between the two of them.

Robert almost missed it. Without having to defend himself to Katie, he had to defend himself to himself - and he was a lot better at knowing his own weak spots.

Katie was angry but less angry. Sometimes she smiled at his jokes or laughed at the lies he told Chrissie to get to the barn with Aaron. There was a brittleness about her, a shape of her body that he didn't remember from a time that he had loved her. Sometimes when he looked too closely he could see the fury and the bleakness at the centre of her, which he had made. And that guilt was enormous. It carried him, like a wave.

But she had people to say goodbye to, people to forgive. He could help with that, even if he couldn't do the two things that she wanted, the two biggest things: to turn himself in, and to give her Andy. He would not give her Andy. He would die first, and she knew it.

 

It was early on in her afterlife. After Aaron's fall, but before the disaster with Victoria and Adam, at which she had been so angry that a small whirlwind tore his favourite shirt.

She told him, Belle.

Belle Dingle looked at him suspiciously, with large eyes. “She hated you,” she said. “I dunno why you're here.”

Katie went to her. It was strange to watch, it always was. Katie, leaning in, with her mouth against Belle's ear. Katie with her long hair falling over Belle's shoulder, and the sunlight streaming through them both.

Robert put his hands in his pockets. “Just checking up on you,” he said.

Belle narrowed her eyes. “Well, you can stop,” she said.

But Katie was closing her hand on Belle’s shoulder and something was happening, something soft and careful.

Robert shut his mouth. It was almost - perhaps he shouldn’t be here at all? But without

Katie closed her eyes. “I love you,” she said. “I loved you. I forgive you for everything.”

She was glowing, now. Not just from the sunlight. Like something had changed inside of her. She was suddenly both less visible and more.

“This wasn’t your fault. You’re good. Always remember that.”

 

Robert went outside and leaned against the wall of Wishing Well. A pig made several loud noises. He texted Chrissie about dinner plans and Aaron about meeting up on the weekend.

Eventually, Katie floated out through the wall, head first. It was pretty creepy, but it was all right. He was used to it.

“All right?” he asked. Nobody was around.

“It feels different,” Katie said, smiling, and reached over to push her fingers through Robert's hair.

He felt it.

“Oh,” he said.

She blinked. “Oh,” she said. She looked scared, more than anything. “That’s new.”

 

-

 

Robert got a phone call from Ashley. It was meant for Andy. It was: you must know that nothing can justify sending an innocent man to prison. Ashley, threatening to go to the police for something he wouldn’t explain on the phone, in the message.

Robert took a deep breath; eyes wide, mouth open.

“No,” Katie said. “Robert, it doesn’t - It’s Andy, it doesn’t make sense.” He wouldn't. Not Andy. There is one bad Sugden and it’s not him.

Robert said, “You said it wasn’t Aaron.” He was trembling, very slightly. She wanted to put her hand on his shoulder, but she couldn’t. “You said it wasn’t Aaron, Katie.”

 

They went to the scrapyard. Katie would have offered to drive, but she was dead and her fingers passed through the steering wheel unless she was really concentrating. (She could touch more and more things, these days. It was both alarming and satisfying. Like she was getting used to being dead - not even resigned, but getting used to - something without negative connotation. That was terrifying.)

Adam stared at Robert in disbelief and told him Andy had been in the psychiatric unit. Katie’s blood - not really blood, protoplasm, whatever - Katie hummed with relief. Andy, Andy, Andy. She loved him. He was a good man. If nothing else she knew that. He had made mistakes, but who hadn’t? He was good now. He was so much better than he had been.

She loved him so much. She didn’t know how not to love him, even after all this time without him.

 

Then Andy pulled in, all screeching tyres and the hot smell of rubber, and she didn’t need her heart anymore but it pulsed in her chest anyway, sharp and painful like a knife wound.

He looked drawn-out and desperate; both of them did. She had loved both of them so much. This reminded her of every complicated Robert-and-Andy disaster, Katie as the chew toy between them. Now it was just her memory, not even her.

“Tell me what you did, Andy,” Robert said. His teeth were white. When he was angry he became short of breath.

Andy tried to parry Robert but it didn’t work, it had never worked, it would never work. Andy would never be able to match Robert in this: in vitriol, in anger, in clear-sharp-tongued accusation.

She could see that Robert was worn thin. She could hear it in the cadence of his voice, shivering slightly, with rage, with anticipation, with fear, with hurt.

“Be careful,” she told him. The last time he had been like this, things had ended badly. Like, gunshot wound badly.

“It was you, wasn’t it,” Robert said, exhaling. There was something like mania in his voice; thin and high, like it had been when he’d had the gun, and Aaron, bloody. “You shot me.”

Robert never listened to Katie.

Andy didn’t have to say anything. Katie could see it in his face: evidence. If Katie could see it, Robert could, too.

If it made Katie feel like this - nauseous, full of bile, like she wanted to claw off her own skin - god. Robert must be on fire. 

 

Robert got into the car and Katie followed him, because that was what she did. No matter where he went, no matter what she did; she followed.

You keep what you kill. Wasn’t that a thing? Had Katie and Robert just been watching too many terrible action films late at night in the safety of Vic’s living room?

“I’m going to the police,” Robert said. “They need to know what he did.”

Katie’s stomach lurched. “No.”

Robert’s face was straight. He was very, very still. His fingers tightened round the wheel.

“No,” Katie said. “Robert, no, you can’t. This isn’t fair.”

“He had me shot!”

You killed me,” Katie said. “You fucking owe me, Robert, if you don't -”

“You say that all the time,” he said, tightly-wound, lips pressed together thinly. He couldn't be in good shape right now; she saw the little tremors from too much stress on an already weakened body, barely clinging to life. “You say that you're done with me but you're not. You're still here.”

“I can't leave,” she said, but they both heard it, it was I won't.

“I’m going to tell the police,” he said.

“It’s Andy!” It was the only thing she could say.

“He tried to kill me! Don’t you give a damn, Katie? There’s a bullet hole in me because of him.”

“I don’t care,” she said. She was faint with it, dizzy. “I really don't, Robert. You don’t matter. He matters.”

That hit him: he shook, and his mouth narrowed into a firm line. He said nothing.

 

Andy was on them, then. He was driving too fast, tailgating.

She didn’t know what to do, what to say. She’d never known with the two of them.

She grabbed the wheel. It gave, under her hands; it slammed to one side, and with it, the whole car. “Robert,” she said.

He stared at her, wide-eyed.

They pulled over. She felt seventeen, with the Sugden brothers fighting in front of her as they always had, as they always would.  They had all been foolish, Jack especially, to think that anything could fix it.

It would always come back to this.

“You’re right,” Andy said. “It was me.”

Robert spat out words - who did it, how much did you pay Aaron - but Katie didn’t care about that. She cared about Andy, about the way Robert had changed him.

She had been so busy with Robert - trying to incriminate Robert, trying to stop Robert, trying to fix him - she had missed Andy, falling apart.

“I wanted you to die,” Andy said. He looked so ugly but more than that he looked sad.

“You really hate me that much?” Robert looked as though he had been hurt. He was always surprised, she thought, bitterly.

“You killed Katie,” Andy said, furious.

It stung to hear it. It stung to see what it had done to Andy.

Sometimes she forgot that he had killed her. Like - it was easy to let it slip, to think about how she liked Robert, how he made her smile. How he was the only person who knew she existed.

But now Andy was here, and Andy had gotten someone to try to kill Robert. Andy, her Andy, who was brave and kind and loved her.

Her Andy, with blood on his hands.

“You want to believe that?” Robert snapped. He turned his head and looked right at her. There was something flat and cruel in the blue of his eyes. “Fine, I killed the bitch.”

 

Katie felt something snap inside of her. He had never admitted it like that before. Only with the dampeners of I didn't mean to, it was an accident. Even with her, he had refused. He had only said, Katie, I’m so sorry.

He had meant it, but that wasn’t quite the same as this.

She sat down on the side of the road and waited.

 

Time to break the cycle.

They ripped at each other; old wounds, old hurts. Jack Sugden, hovering over all of it. The car crash that had killed Max King. And Sarah. The first Sarah, whose death had hovered over Andy for all the time she had loved him.

She was so scared. She didn’t know who she was scared for.

She wished she wasn’t dead. She wished Robert wasn’t Robert, and Andy hadn’t done this damn silly thing in her memory. She wished they weren't on this stupid stretch of road.

She wished she had never let herself fall in love with Andy's brother the first time round. It had ruined everything.

(It wasn’t her fault. She knew that. It was about Jack, and Andy, and Robert. But she hadn’t helped, and she knew that, and it had scared her. It scared her, still.

Inasmuch as she could be afraid anymore.)


“This doesn’t end!” Robert yelled. His mouth was twisted up. His eyes were too bright; the bright of someone pushed too far.

Andy got into the Land Rover.

For a second, Katie thought it would be all right. She thought that Andy would drive away, and she would - she would talk Robert down, she would have to. It was Andy.

Robert loved Andy, and Katie loved Andy. Andy, who everyone loved best.

But then the Land Rover turned around, and Robert got into his little white car, and Katie closed her eyes and followed him.

 

-

 

The first game of chicken had been a nightmare: a nauseous horrifying disaster, that Robert had experienced it as he remembered it, a foggy blur.

This was almost worse. For this, Robert was sickeningly awake.

This time, Robert was the one with the passenger. For once, she wasn't yelling at him. This was entirely out of character.

But so was having someone attempt to kill him on Andy's behalf.

He tightened his fingers on the wheel of the car and hit the accelerator. He felt -

“Robert,” Katie said, quietly, so quietly he almost didn’t hear it.

He yanked the wheel sideways.

It was Andy. He would never be able to drive head on into him. Never.

Robert saw the Land Rover, not as lucky; it rolled three times against the side of the road as Katie screamed, and then Robert’s head hit the steering wheel and everything went black.

 

He opened his eyes. Katie was shaking him, the press of her fingers less tentative than normal, as though this time she was assured of her own corporeality. His teeth rattled against each other and he clenched his jaw.

“I'm okay,” he said, bringing a hand up to his forehead, which hurt but not too badly, all things considered. “How long was I-”

“Not long,” she said. “The Land Rover flipped, Rob.” She sounded scared. She didn’t often sound scared, not since she had died - not since he had killed her.

His heart spiked. He got out of the car and Katie followed.

The Land Rover lay on its roof on the side of the road. A plume of grey smoke stretched out of its undercarriage, up to the sky.

Robert walked towards it. He could make out the shape of Andy tucked against the window, breathing. He didn't look well but he looked alive.

Which was more than could be said, for what Andy had done to Robert. Robert had never wanted to kill Andy.

“Jesus,” Katie said, lowly, hand over her mouth.

Robert turned around and went back to his car. It was functional enough to get onto the road. He sank back into his seat and pulled out.

“Robert?” Katie asked, in a small and cautious voice, entirely unlike her.

He had admitted to Andy that he had killed her and that felt very, very strange.

“You have to save him,” Katie said. “Robert, please.”

“You didn’t want that the first time,” Robert said. “You’ve changed your tune.”

He had been furious with her but it had bled out, with the rain, with all of the adrenaline. He thought about the shape of Andy’s body, curled up, in the window of the Land Rover.

She was crying.

His fingers hurt. All of him hurt. He had never loved anyone the way he loved Andy. His mouth tasted like petrol.

Andy was his brother. Andy would always be his brother, despite everything. Because of everything.

Who else had Robert loved like he loved Andy? Who else had hurt him, had been hurt, had still loved Robert back?

“I don't want him to die,” Katie said, as though it hurt her to say it, as though she had been struck by lightning in the form of that realization. “I want him to live.”

Robert closed his fingers round the steering wheel. He dug in his thumbs. He thought about being shot, about feeling sick and empty and alone.

In the distance, the Land Rover caught flame. The smell of it cut the air, sickly-sweet and toxic.

“Robert-” Katie said.

Robert’s heart was very loud. Thump, thump, thump.

“He’s going to die if I don’t save him,” Robert said. His chest hurt, a low throbbing ache, bleeding through the stitches. 

It was funny, he thought. It always came down to him and Katie, who was dead, and Andy on the edge. 

 

He got out of the car and ran. His head throbbed and he faintly wanted to be sick, but it was Andy. The first time he'd done this he had been with Max. He had saved Andy, and left Max.

It had haunted him for his entire life. Like Katie, but worse, because he had had to remember Max all on his own.

Now there was no Max to save, but Katie was dead, so that math had already been done, he assumed. That sacrifice, already made.

Andy’s eyes were shut but he was breathing. Robert could see his chest move up and down.

He tried to pull the door open but it was stuck.

Katie went through the metal and knelt at Andy’s side. “Wake up!” she yelled. She kept trying to touch him but her fingers slipped through his body.

Robert hammered on the doors, on the windows. Nothing was moving. “Wake up!” he yelled, in case it was just Katie’s voice that Andy couldn’t hear.

Andy opened his eyes, jerked his body forward. He looked at Robert, in confusion, and then lay back.

Everything smelled like smoke and hot metal.

Something had caught Andy’s foot. He kept pulling himself but he couldn’t get out, and Robert was trapped on the other side of the door, and things were getting hotter. He couldn’t imagine a world in which there was no Andy, he couldn’t - he would die, he realized.

“You’ve got to get yourself out,” Robert called, hammering on the back window. He put as much force into it as he could but the glass wasn’t moving.

Andy pulled one last time and met Robert’s eyes, dark and exhausted. He lay back into the seat and closed his eyes.

“Andy!” Katie screamed.

Andy’s eyes flickered open. He tilted his head, just to one side. Like he’d heard something, but not enough to actually do anything.

Robert’s fingers slipped on the metal as it got hotter. He pulled his sleeves down over his palms and pulled harder. “It doesn’t have to end like this.”

“Fuck this,” Katie said, and she was glowing, she was alight. For a moment everything went still, silent and slow: Katie reached out and the car ripped itself apart, pieces scattering themselves everywhere.

Andy said, “What the fuck, Rob!”

Robert didn't bother paying attention, he just grabbed Andy by the armpits and yanked, pulling them both backwards, out, away. Andy was fucking heavy but Robert didn’t feel it. He was all adrenaline. It was Andy.

Katie said, “Andy?” She left the Land Rover and came towards them, on quiet feet. She looked almost tentative.

Andy opened his eyes and turned his head to look at her. There was blood trickling down from his forehead into his eyes; he blinked, twice, and scrunched up his face, and then:

“Katie,” he said. “You’re really here. It’s really you.”

“Yeah, Andy,” she said. Her voice was soft. Her eyes were wide with longing. “It's really me.”

 

Behind them, the Land Rover was on fire. The flames licked the air, and stretched up, and up, and up.

 

-

 

Robert being shot went like this:

Chas was yelling, and Robert was yelling back.

Katie stood in the dark and felt it go through her. She didn’t see the shooter; she didn’t see anyone.

But she saw the bullet. Time slowed, like molasses.

She could have pushed him out of the way. She could have -

She remembered dying. She remembered the weight of his hands and the snarl in his face, the ugliness in someone she had once loved.

They were with Chas and she remembered the way Robert had wanted Chas dead; the way he would have gone through with it, if it hadn’t been for Aaron, pleading, and Katie, who had begged him not to.

She looked at the bullet. It was rocketing towards him, on an irregular trajectory. If it kept going it would pass him. It would hit the air. It would be terrifying, but harmless.

 

She remembered: she reached out. Just a little tap. Barely a push.

She exhaled, and time started, and the bullet went -

In.

 

Of course, then she lost her nerve. Then she clung to him.

But the first push was hers.

 

-

 

“Katie,” Andy said again, struggling to his feet. He could barely stand but he was doing it anyway, wobbling, pushing Robert's seeking hands away.

Robert said, “Andy-”  His voice was shaking. He was hurt, she thought. He had been shot and was nowhere near recovered from that, and now he had been in a car crash. That would not help.

But Robert didn’t matter. Not here, not now. 

 

Katie stepped forward and Andy reached out, his fingertips brushing empty air. She wanted to close the distance, wanted - but if she did, and she could not touch him, she did not think she could bear it.

Around them time dripped. The fire climbed but gently, barely at any speed.

She could do a lot, now that she was dead.

Maybe she could even hope.

“What are you doing here?” he asked. “You're dead, Katie. He killed you.”

“I stuck around,” she said, making a little shape with her mouth. “Can't get rid of me that easy.”

There was blood on his mouth and on his forehead, and tears, shining on his face.

“He killed you,” Andy said. “Katie, he killed you.”

“I know,” she said. “But he didn’t kill you.” That hurt, to say out loud, to realize.

Robert was crying, behind them. Just soft little hiccups.

“Shut up, Robert,” Andy said. His hand was shaking. She loved him so much.

Robert took a sharp breath. His stitches had pulled and his chest was bleeding, where the bullet had hit him.

“I had to fix it,” Andy said. “I had to. He couldn’t get away with it.”

“That’s what I came back for,” she said. “I was supposed to - I don’t know. Hold him accountable. Make him pay for what he did to me. But I couldn’t, I just watched and I missed you.” She turned her head and looked at Robert, and he looked back, but didn’t speak. “I thought I could fix him, you know, maybe. Thought maybe since I’d died, something good would come out of it, that I’d stop him doing it to anyone else, or-”

“Katie,” Robert said, softly, agonized.

“It didn’t work,” she said firmly. And then she smiled, because she loved Andy, and her heart was breaking. “It’s never going to work. Nothing touches him, Andy. It can’t. You can’t live for him.”

“I’m trying to live for you,” Andy said. “I keep fucking it up, Katie. He’s always here.”

“I know,” she said. She stepped forward, closer, and stopped herself again. They were both swaying. “I didn’t want you to do this. You’ve got Jack and Sarah. And he’s not worth it.”

“You’re worth it.”

“I’m dead. I love you, Andy,” Katie said. “I will always love you. But you are more than me. Please let me go.”

“Katie,” he said, again. “I-”

“I know,” she said, and she was crying, and he was crying, and he reached out for her and she thought, please, please, please. Give me this one thing. “I’m so proud of you, Andy. Everything you’ve done - I’m so, so proud.”

“I just wanted to make it all right,” he said. “I just wanted you to be all right. I just wanted you to be avenged.”

“I will be,” she said. “If you live right, okay? If you’re happy. That’s all I want. You don’t have to do this, you don’t have to kill yourself to avenge me.”

“He killed you,” Andy repeated. He was staring at her like she was the sun, like it hurt to do it but he couldn’t not. “Katie, I love you. You’re everything.”

“If you kill him,” Katie said, “he’s gonna follow you around forever. And I promise, he’ll be a terrible ghost.”

Andy laughed, small and tight.

She wanted to smooth the blood away from his eyes, from his face. She hated the thought of him being marred in that way.

“I miss you so much,” she said.

“Please,” he said. Hope was terrifying; it always was. “Isn’t there anything you can do? Anything I can do?”

She wanted so badly to say yes. To say, come with me, to say, if you just touch me the right way then I’ll come back. She wanted to be a princess in a fairytale, but that wasn’t where she was. This was a ghost story.

Ghost stories always ended.

“You can let me go,” she said. “Like I have to let go of you.”

“I’m trying,” he said. He was almost crying but not quite; she could hear the tears, rough in his syllables. “I’ve tried so hard.”

She remembered the teenager he had been; the teenager she had been. She remembered that first rush of love, the way it had wrapped around her, all the way through her. “He's not worth it,” she said. “But you are, to me. I love you enough to walk away. Can you do that for me?”

“Again?” he asked. “We were supposed to have this. We were supposed to get it right.”

“Now you have to do it without me,” she said. “You're strong, Andy. You're stronger than this. You're stronger than him. Do you believe me?”

She paused, amended it.

“Will you try to believe me?”

“I promised to love and honour you,” he said. “This is what you want?”

This was her chance. He could walk into the fire: he would, if she asked. It would ruin Robert and she would be free. And she would be with him.

“I want you to live,” she said. “I really, truly do.”

 

The thread was gold. The colour of a wedding ring, of a promise. It held her fast, and then it didn't. She watched it unspool and shrink and fall away, and then it was gone.

The Land Rover was on fire. It smelt acrid, sharp.

She pressed her lips to Andy’s forehead and curved her hands round the sides of his face and held on for as long as it took her tears to fall from her own face to Andy’s, and then she let go.

“I loved you,” she said. “Live well, and remember that.”

“Katie,” he said, and his fingers caught themselves, tripping, along the line of her shoulder, the curve of her neck, like he had held her to kiss. “I love you.” And then he kissed her, one last time; the warm familiar press of his mouth against hers, the heat of him surging all through her-

“Goodbye,” he said, stepping back, pressing his fingers to his own mouth. “Goodbye, Katie.”

She turned to Robert, very quickly. She had the feeling that she was running out of time. “Thank you,” she said, offering him as kind of a smile as she could manage. “Try to be less of an arsehole.”

He took a sharp breath. “Katie-”

But she wasn’t looking anymore. It was Andy; it was always Andy.

Andy, with his kind eyes, crying. Andy who she had hurt, who had hurt her; to whom she had always thought she would come back.

“You made me so warm,” she said. She was glowing from the inside out; she could feel it, emanating from the shape of her. “You always did. You always will.”

 

And then she closed her eyes, and let go of life -  and was.

 

-

 

Robert woke up. The bed in Vic's box room was uncomfortably small but he'd been managing all right; this was something else that woke him. Like the sensation of being watched, prickling along the back of his spine.

He thought, at first, that it was just guilt. He'd gotten Aaron out, but Andy had still tried to kill him. Even if they'd approached a sort of détente it was still miserable, and his heart still hurt, not to mention the hole in his chest where he had been shot that had re-opened.

But he shook his head and looked around.

Katie was sitting on the end of his bed, cross-legged, observing him with her calm detached stare. The moonlight went through her, and onto the sheets at the foot of the bed.

“You're supposed to be,” he said, yawning. “You got closure. You're supposed to be on the -” He waved a hand through the air. “You're supposed to be on the other side.” Even if it made him feel empty, abandoned; even if he missed her like an ache. Even if she had gone on telling him that he didn't matter. 

“I still have unfinished business,” she said, mouth tight. “One last person.”

He scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Can we do it in the morning?”

She laughed, short and sharp. “I don't think so,” she said, and then she looked away and she was crying. “It's you, Rob. You're the one I can't forgive.”

He reached out, because she was crying and she was Katie, Katie who he had loved and hated with all of him, every fibre; Katie whom he had killed. For a moment he forgot that his fingers would sink right through her. All he wanted was to touch her, to say, I’m so sorry, to say, let me comfort you in this small helpless human way.

“Oh,” Katie said.

His fingers stilled above the cool curve of her shoulder. He kept them just - hovering, just above. I love you and I hate you and you’re mine, you’re mine, you’re mine. You are my guilt and I carry you with me.

“I’m sorry,” he said. It hurt to say it, but he - he owed her, that was the thing. He had pushed her and she had died. It had been his fault, and Andy hated him for it, and probably he deserved it. There was no probably about it. “I shouldn’t have killed you, but I did.”

“Robert,” she said, again. He thought she might keep speaking but she didn't; her mouth clicked shut, instead.

“Now I need you.” His voice was even. It was just the truth. “Please don’t go.”

They looked at each other. A ghost, and the man who had killed her, equal figures in the moonlight.

“I need to leave,” she said. She looked down. “Thank you for saving him, for helping me. I -  I'm glad you did that."

"I didn't do it for you," he said. But he had, a little, a lot; she knew it and he knew it. They had always seen each other differently from most people. They had always been, if not honest, understanding. 

He sat back, away. He tangled his fingers in his lap. 

"I know," she said. "But thank you, anyway."

"I don't want you to go," he said. "Without you- what am I supposed to do without you, Katie? Who's going to tell me to do the right thing?" 

He followed her lips with his eyes: a little curl down, at the corner. She breathed out softly, as though it hurt. "I can't,"  she said. "It doesn't work, if I do."

"Andy tried to kill me."

"That doesn't make us even." She hiccuped, like a laugh. She looked different now, like there was more light in her. Like she held the moon in the shape of her instead of letting it pass all the way through. "I wish it did. I wish it could."

"In the dream you loved me,"  he said, and now he was longing, he could hear it; he had always hated the way desperation made him sound. "You would have let Andy die so many times and it's me you can't forgive?" 

She balled up her hands in her lap and looked away, and then back again. She was his ghost, after all, his own. His grief. She was her own person, but it was his guilt that had mixed with her longing to hold her to him.  

"Not just in the dream," she said. 

He said, "Katie." It was so familiar to say her name like this. His gunshot itched and faintly throbbed. 

He had tried not to think about this, for all this long time. But in the dream he had loved her, and in real life he had killed her. 

"I can't," she said. "Robert, I- I don't want to." She swallowed. "I'm done dying for you."

"That's what Andy said, pretty much. That's what you told him not to do, wasn't it?"

"He's all right, you know. When he's not-" 

"Yeah, I know."

Her eyelashes fluttered softly. "I think you can be better than the man who killed me,"  she said. "I saw that today, you know. I told you that I'd picked him over you and I know that's the worst thing the world ever did to you, but you still saved him."

"Dunno what it is about him," Robert quipped, mirthless. "Gotta be the arms."

She laughed. "Probably." She reached for him, then, a quick jerk of fingertips before she stalled and pulled them back to herself. "I think you can be better, but you can also be worse. And I told myself I was the thing that made the difference, that you needed me to save Aaron and Paddy and Chas from what you are- and god, Robert, I loved you. I love you."

His chest hurt. They had told him he had been very, very stupid to move like he had. That he'd almost done himself worse damage this time. 

It felt like it. 

"You saying I shouldn't have saved him?"

"I'm saying you didn't need me for it. It's not my job to do that, is it? It can't be. I deserve more than that."

"I never meant to love you," he said. He wished he could touch her. He wished a lot of things, always. "Especially not the first time round."

"I know," she said. "Nobody knows you better than me."

"I can be better," Robert said. He dug his fingernails into his palms. She had touched him by the car, the force of her surprisingly warm; he wished she would touch him now. "I'll show you. I saved Andy. I saved Aaron." 

She looked at him, clear eyed. There was no hesitation in her voice. None at all. "You can't save me, Robert. No matter how much both of us wish you could." 

Robert looked at the space between them, and saw an inky black cord binding them, extending out from his heart, to wrap itself around her wrist.

He reached out. 

She didn't move.