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maneuver one into place

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there’s a niche in his chest
where a heart would fit perfectly,
and he thinks if he could just maneuver one into place–
well then, game over.

                    – Richard Siken, Road Music

-

Robert’s face hurt. It was pretty much the only thing he could focus on. The left side felt like it had just been hit by a bus. His nose wasn’t broken, but just barely. Both his eyes were black, with the left one being almost entirely bruised shut. He could taste the blood from his split lip into the back of his throat, metal and salt. He was having trouble breathing, so probably a few cracked ribs too, if not worse.

He needed to get up. He had to get up.

Robert cleaned his mouth carefully with the back of his hand and slowly, excruciatingly so, got up. His suit was ruined. His shirt was probably beyond salvageable, too. Pity, he really did like this shirt. It brought out his eyes.

Once he was up things got exponentially worse. His ribs were definitely cracked. He could feel them now, aching with every shallow breath. His vision was going in and out of focus. He really needed to get that checked out. If he had survived the hell inside the White Rose only to die in an anonymous parking lot at the edge of Monte Carlo he was going to be really mad.

Robert limped in a random direction. He knew his car couldn’t be too far away. Lawrence wasn’t that much of a monster. It was the only reason he walking towards his car instead of bleeding to death in the boot.

Lawrence would regret it. Robert would make sure of it.

Robert spared a last glance at the illuminated city centre in the distance. His eyes and head were swimming and he couldn’t really make out much of it, but the lights were still dazzling. He probably had a mild concussion.

Robert tried to take a deep breath, but settled for a shallow one when his various injuries screamed in protest. It was nothing more than a setback. He would come back for his money, his place in the company, and his revenge.

-

The green countryside rolled by the open car window at a breakneck speed. Robert wasn’t necessarily in any rush to get to Emmerdale, but the sooner he got there, the sooner he could get started. He’d never thought Plan B would bring him back to his childhood home, of all places. Lawrence and Chrissie had reduced him to that. The thought made his stomach turn.

Emmerdale looked the same as when Robert had left it. He wasn’t surprised. Villages like these were eternal. The same places, the same people, the same conversations, over and over and over again. It gave him a bad case of claustrophobia. It was why he had never come back, not beyond the day of his father’s funeral.

Robert parked his car and got out. He took a deep, steadying breath, and pushed open the door to the Woolpack. Even the pub was still the same. It was like stepping out of a time machine.

Robert approached the bar, where a dark-haired woman was serving the early afternoon crowd. She wasn’t very tall, or very intimidating. Robert knew enough about her to not be fooled by the act.

“Hiya love, what can I get you?” She asked him. Her tone was cheerful, but she was eyeing him warily.

“I’m looking for Victoria Sugden. Does she still work here?” Robert asked.

“That depends. Who are you?” Chas asked, with a subtle edge to it.

“I’m her-”

“Robert!” Vic yelped, cutting his reply short. She flew from behind the counter and into her brother’s arms.

They hadn’t seen each other in a while, not properly, face to face. Robert was struck by how much older she looked in person. Her hair was lighter now and she was wearing her chef uniform, but her smile was the same. She was the only real indication that time touched Emmerdale in the same way it touched the rest of the world. He’d missed her so much.

If Robert held onto her just a bit too long or too tight, no one could really blame him.

“What are you doing here?” She asked once they’d separated.

“Oh, you know. I’m here for a job.” Robert replied, keeping his answer as vague and non-committal as possible. “I’ll tell you everything later. How are you?”

He chanced a look at the woman behind the bar, Chas Dingle. She was looking at him with distaste written all over her features. She knew who he was, then. Not that Robert was expecting any different.

“I’m good! Better than good, now. Listen, I have still a few things to do here, why don’t you sit down and I’ll bring you lunch? Then we can go home together. I’m assuming you’re staying with me for a few days?” She said it all in one breath, as if she were afraid that any pause might make Robert disappear into thin air.

“If it’s not too much trouble? I could check into a hotel.” He replied.

“Nonsense! You’re staying with me. Adam and I live with Andy, but there’s a spare room.”

Home with Adam and Andy was exactly where Robert needed to be. Living with Dopey and Mopey, however shortly, would prove difficult, but for the kind of goal Robert had in mind, it was worth it.

“Why don’t you take the afternoon off, love?” Chas interjected, shooting a grin at Vic and a dirty look at Robert. He probably deserved it. “If your brother is here for a reason he might want to get on with it.”

Vic looked puzzled by Chas’ sudden offer, but she seemed to be considering it.

“Won’t Marlon mind?” She asked. She sounded torn, but her fingers were already fidgeting with her white chef uniform’s top button.

“I’m sure he won’t.” Chas said with a final tight-lipped smile in Vic’s direction.

“Thanks, Chas.” Vic replied with a radiant smile.

She grabbed Robert’s arm and dragged him none too gently out of the door.

Vic’s cottage wasn’t too far from the pub. They were walking and Vic was doing most of the talking, going on and on about all the people in the village Robert barely remembered. He nodded and hummed in all the right places, but his head wasn’t really in it. He was about to meet Andy again for the first time in two years. He could feel the anticipation in every nerve ending in his body.

To Robert’s relief, the cottage was blessedly empty when they got in. Vic immediately ran to the kitchen, telling her brother to follow her.

“Come here, sit down, let me feed you.” She said, already grabbing pots and pans from the cabinets.

“Vic, it’s fine, you don’t have to make me a feast.” Robert replied with a grin.

Vic was an exclamation point of a woman, at turns overly excited and reproachful. She had always been like that, she took care of people and she badgered them when they annoyed her. She hadn’t seen her brother in years and already she was treating him as if no time had passed. It made a weird mixture of guilt, worry and fondness churn uncomfortably in Robert’s stomach. He had always thought that one day he would go clean, or as clean as possible, and come back for Vic. Take her away from the humdrum life of Emmerdale and give her the life she deserved. Take her sunbathing on some beach in France or Italy or Greece. She shouldn’t have been grinding away, day by day, in a small, timeless village in rainy Yorkshire.

“Oh, shut up, Robert. As if I’m not going to cook for my brother.” Vic said, the effect of her rebuke somehow diminished by her huge smile. “So, tell me everything. How are you? Is Chrissie with you? Why are you here?”

“I’m good. I’m here because I need to take care of some business in Leeds and I thought I could visit you for a while.” Robert said, trying to stay as vague as possible. Vic had the extremely annoying habit of latching onto significant details and never letting them go.

“I sense a very obvious lack of Chrissie in that recap. Everything okay between you two?” She asked, exactly proving Robert’s point.

Robert sighed. The absolute least amount of time he was going to spend there would be a month, most likely more. A month without phone calls or visits from a wife were a huge red flag. There wasn’t really a point in keeping up appearances. Not there. “Chrissie and I got divorced.”

It was the truth only strictly speaking. Robert hadn’t really had a voice in the matter. Lawrence’s henchmen had made a very compelling case for his signature on the divorce papers.

Vic’s face softened, but Robert noticed she remarkably didn’t look surprised. He tamped his irritation down. She cleaned her hands with a tea towel and went to hug her brother. Robert let her.

“Are you okay?” She asked.

Robert shrugged. He had loved Chrissie at one point. He had loved her money and status more. He was honestly more upset about losing his place in the company than losing his wife. Even he could admit it was screwed up. Still, if Vic thought he was in town to recover from his divorce she would be less interested in his actual purpose.

“What happened?”

“She cheated on me.” Robert said, immediately regretting it. It was a bald-faced lie and he was sure Vic was going to see right through it. Vic looked at him for what seemed like an uncomfortably long time.

“What a cow!” Vic replied, seemingly accepting her brother’s explanation.

Robert laughed, more to release the tension than anything else. Vic chuckled.

“I’m sorry! She is. Did she run off with some count or something? Because that’s the only explanation I could accept.” She joked, going back to her lunch preparations.

“No, she got back together with her ex-husband.” Robert replied. The clear distaste in his voice at least was genuine. He hated Donnie. So did Chrissie, though. At least these days.

Vic huffed out a breath. “Honestly I never even met her and I hate her.” She said, somewhat pointedly. Robert looked away.

He’d always been careful not to let the Sugdens and the Whites cross paths. It had been easier once Andy had declared Robert persona non-grata and he had started working more closely with Lawrence. There just wasn’t the time. Or Andy wouldn’t like Robert visiting. Or Diane and Vic would visit the only week where the Whites were conveniently out of the country on vacation. One time, Vic had asked him, point blank, if he was ashamed of them. He wasn’t. He was proud of his little sister more than he had ever been proud of anyone else, that wasn’t the issue. In his more charitable moments, Robert had told himself it was a necessary evil, to protect his family from Lawrence’s business and his own dodgy connections. If he was being honest with himself however, something he did more often than people gave him credit for, he didn’t want Chrissie and Lawrence to see glimpses of the person he used to be. Every story of his childhood felt like a crack in his new life. Like someone could look inside and see all the parts of Robert he had tried so hard to forget.

“Yeah.” Robert replied.

The room descended into a companionable silence. It was their pattern. The two of them shared a comfort and familiarity Robert had never felt with anyone else, except maybe his mum. Sometimes Robert was struck by how much Vic was just like her. She could make any place feel like home.

-

Robert endured Vic trying her best not to fuss over him for the whole afternoon, with questionable results. She just looked so excited to have her brother home, that he decided to just grin and bear it. Even more so when Diane came over, so that her and Vic could fuss in synchronicity. For his part, Robert tried not to complain too much about it.

Eventually even Adam came home, much to Robert’s annoyance. He looked at Robert with open curiosity, greeting him with an “hey, mate” that grated on Robert’s nerves. They’d only met fleetingly once, but it had been enough for Robert to form a very strong opinion.

Adam was aggressively okay. He treated Vic well, but that was about all the positive qualities Robert could find in him. He was childish, irresponsible, and about as sharp as a marble. Vic could have done so much better than the village idiot. If Robert had been around, he would have never let her marry Adam. It was just another entry in the long laundry list of Andy’s failures. Andy, with his holier-than-thou attitude and tortured soul routine. He couldn’t even do one thing right and stop Robert’s little sister from ruining her life.

Robert needing Andy for the job was one of life’s greatest tragedies.

As if summoned by Robert’s hatred, Andy came through the cottage’s door. As soon as he saw Robert, he froze. Adam was blathering about something or other, but it was nothing but white noise. It was just the two of them, standing in front of each other, a mirror image of so many times before this.

“Hey, Andy. Long time, no see.” Robert greeted him, cutting the tension.

Andy spared him no words before rushing up the stairs. The sound of the door to his room banging shut followed him soon after.

“I’m so sorry, pet.” Diane said. “I should have warned you. Andy’s been through a lot recently. He’s not his best self.”

Robert’s quip of does he even have a best self? died on his lips when he saw Vic’s face. She looked sad, deeply and heart-wrenchingly sad. Robert buried the pang of guilt he felt deep in his gut. This was for Vic too. She would be less sad once his plan succeeded.

-

Robert walked into the pub and was greeted by a twin stare. Chas was behind the bar as always, cleaning glasses and looking murderously in his direction. Robert frankly thought the whole thing was a bit unwarranted. She didn’t even know why he was here yet.

The other stare was coming from one of the stools.

Aaron was nursing a pint and looking at Robert like he believed world peace could be achieved by killing Robert with his eyes. Robert didn’t put it past Aaron to try. He grinned at Aaron and approached him.

“Aaron Livesy, as I live and breathe.” Robert greeted as he sat down next to Aaron.

“I thought you were dead.” Aaron replied, his tone suggesting he wished it were true. “And it’s Dingle now.”

“Rumours of my death were greatly exaggerated.” Robert replied, glossing over the name change. He’d heard rumours about a big blow out between the Dingles and Aaron’s father, but everyone had been tight lipped about the details. He would ask, in time.

“Pity.” Aaron replied, gulping down the last of his pint. He looked like he couldn’t wait to leave the pub and Robert really couldn’t have that. He needed Aaron. If Aaron had learned how to be indifferent to Robert his plan was doomed. He needed a reaction.

Aaron was making to get up, but Robert spoke first. “Still holding a grudge about our last job together?”

He saw a multitude of emotions flash in Aaron’s eyes. There was incredulity, disgust, and rage. Aaron, predictably, settled on the last one. He got up, and leaned down so he could crowd Robert’s personal space.

“You mean the job where your selfishness cost your sister in law her life? Yeah. You could say I still hold a grudge. Others would call it having a conscience. Not that you’d know anything about that.” With that, Aaron stood up straight, shot a look at his mother, and left.

Robert shook his head, as if it could help him clear his thoughts. The ghost of the smirk he’d given Aaron was still lingering, frozen and fake, on his mouth.

He had been expecting someone to bring up Katie. He had assumed it would have been Andy. Maybe follow it with a nice punch in the face. Andy was dependable like that.

From Aaron, he had been expecting something else. Something about that night before Katie’s accident. Something about the warm sheets in that hotel room, or the taste of whiskey on Robert’s tongue, or Robert’s hands gripping his naked shoulders. Or maybe something about waking up to an empty bed, about Robert pretending it had never happened, about him getting married a week later.

Robert couldn’t figure out if the cold feeling in his stomach was relief or disappointment.

He glanced at the bar. Chas eyed him, but said nothing. She kept cleaning the glasses. Robert waited. That was all one ever needed to do with Chas.

“What do you want, Robert?” She asked, eventually.

“A meeting. That’s all.” He replied.

“Why don’t I believe you?”

“Because you have underlying trust issues you need to address?” Chas gave him a dirty look. It was probably wise not to antagonize her further, considering what he had to ask her. “I’m serious. All I need is a meeting. If you say no, then I’ll go.”

“I’ll say no. But if you really want to hear it multiple times, come back here at closing time.” She said finally with a shrug.

Robert shot her a confident smirk. Chas rolled her eyes.

-

Around closing time, Robert returned to the pub. It was late and the only light was coming from the back room. He followed it.

Chas was sitting at the table, drinking something from a mug. She looked dead on her feet, but she straightened up as soon as she saw Robert walk in. Always a performer. Robert could appreciate that.

She rolled her eyes at him. “I was hoping you’d forget.”

Robert smirked at her. “Not a chance.”

She sighed. Robert sat down in front of her.

Chas Dingle looked tired and worn out, but Robert knew better. She had been the best in the business before she had decided to live a quiet life. She had made powerful men – rich men, smart men – fall in love with her and left them all in ruin. Now here she was; serving drinks at all hours of the day. Robert never understood why she had done it. Most con-women he knew found themselves a rich, old man in poor health and got themselves set for life. Not Chas Dingle though. She’d cashed her chips in and bought half a pub in the little village where her family had lived for years.

Whatever her reasons, they must have been pretty damn good ones.

“I have an offer for you.” Robert said.

“Let’s hear it, then.” She replied.

“A job.” He leaned in. “A big job.”

“I’m out of the business. I thought the honest day job would be a dead giveaway.” Chas said, contorting her lips in a tight, humourless smile.

“This would give you the chance to quit.” Robert said, trying to appeal to her greed. There was no way Chas was happy. Robert couldn’t imagine it.  

“Maybe I don’t want to quit.” She replied, irritation clear in her voice.

“Okay, but think about it. I don’t need you to give me an answer right now. Just talk to Cain and get a crew together. We can discuss it then.” Robert said, trying to push in and get at least a foothold. If he could find one chink in the newfound respectability Chas was wearing as an armour, he could convince her. He knew he could.

“How many times do I have to say no for you to get it? Whatever it is, it’s not worth it. I have a family here. A job, an honest job. I have a son to take care of.” She hissed at him. Her eyes were wild and she had never looked more like Aaron than in that moment.

“You wanted your meeting and now you had it. You can let yourself out.” She said, finally, standing up.

Slowly, Robert got up as well. He sighed.

He had thought he could talk some sense into Chas, but clearly the woman couldn’t see the chance of a lifetime when it was staring at her in the face. Not that Robert found it a deterrent. Chas’ little rant had served a purpose. She would do anything for her son. Robert just needed a way to exploit that.

-

“I got your text.” Aaron said as soon as he got into the barn. “What do you want, Robert?”

“‘Good morning Robert.’ ‘Thanks for calling, Robert.’ ‘Thanks for the opportunity of a lifetime, Robert.’” Robert greeted him, closing the barn door behind him.

“Goodbye, Robert.” Aaron replied, making to leave again.

Before he could think better of it, Robert’s hand closed around Aaron’s wrist. “Wait. It’s important.”

Aaron stopped and didn’t try to break Robert’s hand, which Robert chose to interpret as a good sign. Eventually, Aaron sighed, giving in.

“What do you want, Robert?” Aaron asked again, this time softer, almost tired.

It reminded Robert of their first job together. They’d been running on fumes, surviving off of caffeine and energy drinks. They had been relegated to surveillance and neither of them was particularly fond of it. It meant long hours sitting in a freezing car, with nothing but each other for company. They had spent their days mostly in silence.

They had met three days before the job and had immediately disliked each other. Or rather, Aaron had been downright hostile from the get-go. Robert couldn’t understand why. He had been positively charming.

It had come to a head one night when Robert had gotten incredibly, stupidly drunk. It had been on the heels of a huge fight with Chrissie. Something about Lachlan needing a reliable step-father in his life and the subtle threat of breaking up with him. He had been on that job for Lawrence, not that Chrissie had known that. Robert had quickly fallen in a spiral of paranoia and loathing. For whom, he hadn’t been sure, exactly.

He had ended up in front of the door of his terrible motel room somewhere in the Czech Republic, steaming drunk. He remembered the night in bits and pieces, but he did remember Aaron finding him sitting down, his back to his door. He hadn’t been able to find the keys to the damn thing. They were probably somewhere on the floor of a dingy bar in Eastern Europe.

“I think I’m ready to die.” Robert had said.

“Do it inside your room.” Aaron had replied, managing to pry his own door open. Robert had been about three minutes away from falling asleep in the corridor. Aaron had sighed.

“Do you need help with that?” Aaron had asked, with a tone that had implied dire consequences if Robert had said yes. Robert had been too drunk to appreciate the subtle warning.

“I think I lost my keys. I’m coming in with you.” Robert had said, getting up.

“No, you’re not.” Aaron had said, unsympathetic.

“Your bed. Looks comfortable.” Robert had said, peering past Aaron and into his room. The bed was not comfortable. Robert knew it, Aaron knew it, everyone who had ever slept in that motel knew it. But it was a bed and Robert had been very drunk and very tired. “Please.”

Robert hadn’t known what had closed the deal, if it had been the please or his pitiful tone, but Aaron had sighed, and had said “Come on.” His tone had sounded almost soft. But it couldn’t have been, because Aaron looked anything but soft.

Robert couldn’t really remember much after that. He assumed he’s fallen asleep as soon as his head had hit the pillow. He’d just woken up the next day still fully clothed and with a pounding headache. He had found an aspirin and a glass of water on the nightstand and an Aaron who had been crankier than usual, which hadn’t helped with the headache one bit.

The whole experience, however, had made Aaron thaw. He had almost been friendly for the rest of the week. Robert had nearly felt a pang of sadness when the surveillance job had ended.

Robert looked at Aaron. His face was set, hard. It looked like he’d lost any goodwill he might have had once. Well, hopefully not all of it.

“I need your help convincing Chas to get me a meeting with Cain and a crew.” Robert said, letting Aaron’s wrist go.

“You need a miracle worker then.” Aaron replied. His left hand was massaging the wrist Robert had touched. He didn’t think he had been holding on that tight, but he could see the white imprint of his fingers on Aaron’s skin.  

“Come on. We both know she’ll do it if you say you’ll take the job.” Robert knew Aaron very well, and he knew Chas by reputation. It was well known inside their circles that Chas would move mountains for her son, and well, she’d implied as much the night before, hadn’t she?

Aaron looked into Robert’s eyes. He seemed to be searching for something and whatever it was, Robert hoped he would find it.

“Why should I help you, Robert?” Aaron asked, crossing his arms on his chest.

Finally, the question Robert had been waiting for. Resentment, anger, frustration, were all things he could work with. The true tragedy would have been discovering Aaron was now indifferent to him. Indifference couldn’t be manipulated. The venom in Aaron’s voice was a foothold.

“Who said anything about helping me? Look. You wouldn’t be doing it out of the goodness of your heart. There’s money to be made here.” Aaron rolled his eyes. Robert suppressed a grin. Classic Aaron, he hadn’t changed at all. “Do you want your family to be stuck here forever? I know I don’t. With this money Vic and Adam could buy a house, Vic could open a restaurant, and they could start a family.” He continued.

Aaron’s face changed. He seemed to be considering it. Robert mentally patted himself on the back.

“One condition.” Aaron said after a few moments. This time, Robert let the triumphant grin break on his face.

“Whatever you want.” He promised.

“You don’t involve Adam in this. He’s had enough trouble as it is.” Aaron said. He looked concerned.

“Sure, okay.” Robert lied.

It wasn’t even two hours later when Robert’s phone rang with an unknown number. Only Vic, Diane and Andy had that number, and he had theirs. There was only one other option.

“Hello, Chas.” He said.

“Try again.” A deep, masculine voice replied.

“Cain Dingle.”

“Saturday night, after closing time, my shop. Bring in your men, I’ll bring my crew. If you’re screwing with me, I’ll kill you.” Cain said, then hung up.

“Charming as ever.” Robert muttered to himself as he put his phone back into his pocket. It didn’t matter. What Cain lacked in charm, he made up in experience.

Everything was coming together.

-

Robert realized the hole in his plan almost immediately. Andy, who was built like a monolith, all solid muscle and farm-built strength, was alone moving hay into the stables. Robert had been hoping for someone who could intervene before a fight could even start. Sure, Robert could hold his own well enough, if he played his cards right and had the element of surprise. Surprise was just not how his relationship with Andy worked. They knew each other too well.

Robert started approaching his brother and, as soon as Andy saw him, he appeared to steel himself. Evidently Robert wasn’t the only one feeling the electricity of an inevitable fight in the air too. Good to know.

“What do you want, Robert?” Andy asked. He was still moving hay, as if Robert didn’t deserve his full attention.

Robert really wanted people to stop assuming the worst about him on sight, for starters. He kept that to himself. There was no reason to start aggravating Andy before it was absolutely necessary.

“I need your help with a job.” Robert said, trying to inflect as little emotion as possible into his words.

“You’re joking.” Andy replied, with the determined tone of incredulity one would reserve to discuss alien abductions with. He had finally stopped working and was now just staring at his brother.

Andy must have read something in Robert’s eyes because suddenly his incredulity was replaced by hot white anger. “Robert. Tell me you’re joking before I bash your face in.”

“You don’t even know what the job is.” Robert replied, subconsciously taking a step back. Robert had first-hand experience of being on the receiving end of Andy’s temper. He didn’t need a refresher.

“I don’t care if it’s the job of a lifetime, Robert. I’m not working with you. Not after you killed Katie.”

“How many times do I have to tell you, what happened to Katie was an accident. I didn’t kill her, Andy!” Robert said, his voice carrying into the wind. For a split-second he was glad they were alone on that farm.

Robert had known Andy was going to mention Katie and what had happened to her, but every time still felt like a punch in the stomach. It had been an accident. He hadn’t meant for her to die. He had no blame in that. Those statements were true, and yet every time he saw Andy, Katie’s death weighed heavily on his conscience. This job could be his chance to make things right. With the money Andy could move on, make himself a new life somewhere else. Somewhere the memory of his dead wife didn’t haunt every inch of every place.

Katie had always been a fraught subject between them. They’d both loved her. They’d both hated her. Or maybe that had just been Robert.

He had been on a hatred upswing when she had died. She had been running her mouth, coming at Robert about his engagement to Chrissie. He hadn’t meant for the rope to slip. He had threatened to do it, to drop her to her death. It was meant to scare her. He would have never hurt her. Robert could still feel the rope burn through his leather gloves as it tried to drag him down with her. It had been raining. Robert had been busy the whole week and he had left the job for the last possible moment. It had been an amateur mistake. He had been busy with Aaron. They shouldn’t have been up there; the rain was bound to make everything slippery and dangerous, but Katie had been the one to insist on it. She was adamant she needed the money and wouldn’t accept when Robert had offered if she would just leave him alone. She had been screaming and Robert could feel gravity pulling him down with her and he had just…let go. It was that or dying with her. It had been an accident.

“Leave now, Robert. While both of your legs still work.” Andy said, final, before turning his back on Robert again.

“Think about your daughter!” Robert yelled after him. It was a desperate appeal. A dangerous strategy. Andy froze. “I know she’s sick again. With this kind of money, she could get the best doctors.”

The punch, Robert was expecting. Andy’s fist connected with his eye and Robert went down like a lead balloon. The kick in the stomach while he was down was new. He had always thought Andy too noble for that sort of trick, but he hoped it meant he’d touched the right button.

“One job. Then you’re gone. If you ever come back here I’ll kill you myself.”

Robert gasped. His stomach was trying to escape through his mouth. He picked himself off the ground.

If everything went according to plan, he would never have to set foot in Emmerdale again.

-

Robert only needed one more member to have a full crew, and the opportunity to bring him on board presented itself that very afternoon.

“Jesus, Robert, what happened to your eye?” Vic asked as soon as he saw him sitting in the kitchen, icing his eye with a bag of frozen peas.

“I fell.” He replied. It wasn’t his most imaginative of excuses, be he could be forgiven if he wasn’t at the top of his form.

“On someone’s fist!” She said, taking a closer look. “Did Andy do this to you? I thought you were over this stuff.” She continued with a resigned sigh.

“No, no, Vic I promise. Andy didn’t do this.”

“You know, you’re not as slick of a liar as you think you are.” Vic said, resting a cool finger on Robert’s mangled eye. Robert had to suppress a laugh at that. If only she knew.

“I need to tell you something.” Robert said, after a few seconds.

“If this is your way of changing the subject, it isn’t very good.” She replied, good-naturedly.

“No, it’s not.” Robert agreed. “I don’t know if I should tell you.” He continued, feigning reticence.

Vic fixed him with an eloquent look of ill-disguised curiosity. “Robert.”

“It’s about Adam.”

“Now you have to tell me.” She said forcefully, letting herself drop on a chair in front of her brother. She looked curious rather than worried.

“Well, he was at the pub last night and I heard him talking to Aaron.”

“That sounds like Adam, alright.”

“Yeah well, they were talking about you.”

Vic made a face. “I’m not sure I want to know what they were saying. And since when you’re mates with Adam and Aaron?”

“I’m not, am I? They were just sitting behind me.” Robert replied, a hint of frustration in his voice. This was supposed to be the easy part. “And that’s not the point. Adam was telling Aaron that he’s worried you’re unhappy.”

“What?” Vic asked, startled. “But we went on a lovely date two days ago.”

“I didn’t hear all of it, but I think he’s worried you don’t share the big things with him anymore? Does that make sense to you?”

Vic started chewing on one of her nails. “I mean. We used to talk about buying a house of our own, but lately I laid off, you know, I didn’t want to pressure him.” She said. “D’you reckon that’s what he meant?”

“Maybe.” Robert said. “You should probably just have a night out and have a chat about it.”

“You’re right, thank you, Robert.” Vic said, jumping up. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell Adam you told me.”

“Oh, no problem. I just want what’s best for you.” Robert replied. Just because in this case what was best for Vic happened to coincide with what Robert wanted didn’t make it any less true. Vic’s best was never going to be Adam Barton, but at least a rich Adam Barton could start the long and arduous process of becoming good enough for his little sister.

Now all Robert had to do was sit back and relax.

Adam knocked on his door that very same night.

“What can I do for you, Adam?” Robert asked with a smirk. He had an inkling.

“Whatever job you’re planning with Chas and Aaron… I want in.” Adam replied. He looked as if the words were physically paining him.

Robert loved when a job took care of itself.

-

Cain’s mechanic shop was badly lit and very crowded with all of them there. At least it was private.

Robert sat on the hood of a Ford Focus and surveyed the room. Ross and Cain were looking bored, consummated professionals that they were. Finn looked nervous, but after spending five minutes with the guy Robert had come to the conclusion that was just his natural state of being. Charity looked like she was the only one properly excited to be there. Truly, a woman after Robert’s own heart. Adam was huddled in a corner, yawning, and probably wishing he was anywhere else.

Andy was looking anywhere but at Robert, even though the intensity with which he was avoiding Robert’s gaze betrayed the fact that he was still not over their argument from the day before. Chas was keeping an eye on everyone, but her eyes would occasionally send daggers in Robert’s direction before turning, concerned, towards her son. Aaron himself had been staring at Robert ever since he’d gotten in. If looks could have killed, Robert would have been a dead man as soon as he’d crossed the threshold.

Everyone seemed uneasy, but at least only Andy, Aaron and Chas were looking openly hostile. Three out of nine wasn’t bad. Robert was going to take a win wherever he could find one.

“So, what’s this all about?” Cain asked, once everyone had settled down.

“How do you feel about a job with a total score of seventy-five million euros?” Robert answered. He found it easier to start with the end goal. The Dingles and the Bartons weren’t the sharpest tools in the shed, but even they could understand the enormity of a figure like that.

Robert looked around. Everyone was looking at him now. He had definitely captured their attention.

“What’s the catch? There’s always a catch with you.” Chas said, shrewd as ever. Robert rolled his eyes.

“No catch. It’s not an easy job. Someone could get hurt.” Robert replied. It wasn’t his best opening speech, but he wanted everyone to be aware of the score going forward. He couldn’t deal with another Katie. If everyone knew the dangers of the job and decided to follow him and something did happen, well, it was out of his hands then.

“If there’s any justice in the world it’s going to be you.” Andy interjected, steely gaze trained on his brother.

“Thanks for your input Andy, as always much appreciated.” Robert replied, dismissing him with a wave of his hand. At least Andy’s theatrics were improving. It was a shame his brother was only interesting when he was actively considering his murder.

“So, I’m guessing these seventy-five millions aren’t exactly waiting for us to come and liberate them.” Charity said, breaking the tension.

“No. They’re in a highly secure vault in a Monte Carlo casino.” Robert replied.

“Wait a second. Didn’t your super rich ex father in law own a casino in Monte Carlo?” Finn asked hesitantly.

Robert grinned wickedly in Finn’s direction.

There was a general groan from the group.

“Is that what this is about?” Chas asked. “Is this all your sick revenge fantasy against Lawrence White?”

“It’s not a fantasy when his own daughter is my mole inside the casino.” Robert replied, choosing to focus on the easiest part.

“You mean Chrissie? The wife who kicked you on your arse no more than three weeks ago?” Adam asked, incredulous. Robert made a mental note to stop telling Vic things because apparently, she couldn’t help but blab everything to her idiot husband.

“No, I mean Rebecca.”

“Is she why your wife kicked you out, mate?” Ross asked with a cackle.

Robert sighed and passed a hand on his face. It was like herding cats. He was dangling seventy-five million euros in front of these idiots and all they wanted to talk about was his love life. Maybe it wasn’t too late to find another crew. One that didn’t relish his suffering so much.

“We can sit down and chat about my marriage or we can discuss this job. Choose.” Robert snapped.

“We might as well do the former because robbing Lawrence White is impossible. There is no job.” Cain concluded.

“There is if you have inside knowledge of the security measures and the blueprints of the building.” Robert shot back. Cain looked at him. Robert held his stare. He wasn’t going to throw this opportunity away. It was his chance to get what was rightfully his and make Lawrence and Chrissie pay in the process. He wasn’t going to let the Dingles or the Bartons or anyone else take it away from him.

Cain nodded once, short and assertive. “Okay. Okay, I’m in.” He said.

After that, the others were quick to jump in as well. Chas and Aaron seemed somewhat more reluctant, but everyone had seemingly been reassured by Cain’s faith in the plan. Relief washed over Robert for the first time in weeks. The team might not have been first rate, but they weren’t amateurs either. They had a shot, a real shot. Now all they needed was a plan.

“We’re gonna need a space to set up shop.” Charity said. “We can hardly do all the planning in here after hours.”

“There’s an abandoned barn not too far from here. We’ve used it before.” Ross said with a shrug. Robert didn’t know the specifics but his tone suggested the barn had been used for other unsavoury business.

“That’s it then, folks. Great meeting. See you at this barn tomorrow evening. Same time.” Charity said, gleefully walking out of the garage. Slowly, everyone started following suit.

Robert hung back, giving Andy enough time to get home and close himself in his room, so neither of them had to be in the other’s presence. And people said he wasn’t thoughtful.

At last, the only people in the garage were Robert, Cain, and Aaron.

“Just give us a second, Cain. I’ll close up in a minute.” Aaron said. Cain nodded and left with a parting glance at the two of them.

“So,” Robert said, “do you reckon Andy’s gotten home yet? I need to time it so we don’t meet on the stairs.”

“You’re unbelievable.” Aaron said. His jaw set and his eyes hard.

“Unbelievably charming?” Robert asked with a grin. He was trying to delay the inevitable and he knew it.

“One thing, Robert. One thing.”

Robert rolled his eyes. “Is this about your best mate Adam? Because he came to me.”

“Sure, like I believe you.” Aaron spat out. Sure, Robert hadn’t always been honest, not in this, not ever, but the way Aaron said it still hurt a little. He and Aaron had been close, once.

“You can ask him if you’d like.” Robert replied, holding up his hands in surrender.

“You haven’t changed at all.”

“You know what they say. If it isn’t broken…” Robert trailed off.

Aaron shook his head and started towards the door. Robert grabbed his arm to stop him. For a second Robert was sure Aaron was going to deck him. Robert just hoped he would have the decency to aim for the other eye.

“Let go of me.” Aaron hissed. He was so close that Robert could feel his breath on his face.

“That’s not what you said the last time we were alone in a room together.” Robert shot back. His eyes were immediately drawn to Aaron’s lips. He had very vivid memories of Aaron’s lips.

“And if I remember correctly you said ‘I’m straight and you’re convenient’ and then you got married a week later. I’m not doing this with you anymore, Robert.” Aaron said. Despite his words, he got closer. His eyes were scanning Robert’s face, looking for something.

“Yeah, well. It’s been two years. You need to learn how to let things go.”

Aaron groaned and got free from Robert’s grip. Before Robert could steel himself for another punch, Aaron’s mouth was on his.

Aaron kissed with the sort of quiet intensity that permeated his entire being. His mouth was hungry against Robert’s, taking and taking. Robert let him. His hands sneaked under Aaron’s shirt, dying to expose skin, to taste, to touch now that he was allowed to.

Aaron released Robert’s mouth with one last bite to his lower lip and started trailing wet, open mouth kisses on Robert’s neck. Robert’s hands travelled south, dipping below the waistband of Aaron’s trousers. Bless Aaron’s horrifying fashion sense and predilection for track bottoms.

Aaron wasn’t hard yet, but he was getting there and Robert really wanted to help him. Robert brushed his hand against the front of Aaron’s boxers, eliciting a moan from the other man.

Either Aaron hadn’t liked it or he had liked it very much because one moment he was leaving a very inconvenient hickey on the base of Robert’s neck and the next he was gone. For one fleeting and horrible moment, Robert thought Aaron had changed his mind and was going to ditch him. Instead of heading for the door however, Aaron simply shifted so he could open the door to the Ford Focus’ backseat.

Without a word, Aaron grabbed Robert by his shirt and manhandled him into the car. Robert, who had already been getting hard, was dying to free himself of his jeans.

“Whose car is this?” He asked, helping Aaron get rid of his hoodie and t-shirt. He had seen Aaron shirtless only once before in his life, and it had been a rush. The hoodies gave the impression of Aaron being smaller, but underneath his body was something else entirely.

“Do you really care?” Aaron asked, working on the buttons of Robert’s shirt. Robert was going to start investing in easier to shed clothing with the money from the job, for sure.

“No, not really.” Robert replied, lifting himself up enough so that he could get his shirt off. Robert grabbed the back of Aaron’s neck and pulled him down for a mouth-bruising kiss. Now that they were skin to skin he felt feverish with want. Every single nerve ending in his body was attuned to the feeling of Aaron’s body on his. Every point of contact felt like a wild fire.

There was Aaron’s weight, holding him down, too much heat and not enough friction. There were Aaron’s hands, roaming on Robert’s chest and shoulders. And then there were Aaron’s lips and tongue and teeth leaving marks on Robert’s skin.

Finally, finally, Aaron shifted, unbuckled Robert’s belt and undid the button on his trousers. Robert shimmied out of them, taking his underwear off too, in a way he knew was not very dignified. He couldn’t bring himself to care.

Aaron was looking at him. It should have made him feel exposed, but it only made him shiver with anticipation. Suddenly Aaron’s mouth was on him, hot and wet and absolutely perfect. Aaron licked the length of Robert’s dick, slow and teasing. Robert’s entire higher brain functions short-circuited and all of his thoughts restricted to a pinprick of sensations and feelings. There was Aaron’s hand on his hip, big and warm despite the chilly evening air. Aaron’s beard, rough against the sensitive skin of his inner thigh. Aaron’s smell. Everything in that backseat was Aaron, Aaron, Aaron. He was at once everywhere and in one place.

Robert let his hands wander towards Aaron. Gripping his neck, his shoulders, his back. Not pushing or dragging him, just holding him.

Aaron kept working on him. His hand meeting his mouth on the length of Robert’s dick. His brow was furrowed in deep concentration and Robert felt the uncomfortable pang of something like fondness spread through his chest.

Robert could feel the heat pool low on his stomach. His skin felt feverish hot and tight, every single touch of Aaron’s hands and mouth sending shivers down his spine. He urgently touched Aaron’s cheek and Aaron’s eyes shot up to meet his. Aaron seemed to understand what it meant because he pulled off, using the back of his unoccupied hand to wipe his mouth.

“Come on, Robert. Come on.” Aaron said, his voice low and husky. That was all the push Robert needed. Sooner than he would have liked to, he came all over his own stomach and Aaron’s hand, his moans and breathing obscenely loud in the quiet of the garage.

Robert stared at the car’s ceiling for what felt like an eternity. He felt untethered and light in the best kind of way. Sex with Aaron had been like that the first time too. Fun, good, easy. It was the only easy thing about Aaron. They understood each other during sex. Robert had had sex with his fair share of people over the years and he had not enjoyed that kind of easy communication with any of them.

The reverie was broken when Aaron got up and used Robert’s shirt to clean himself up.

“That’s a very expensive shirt you just used as a hand towel.” Robert said, aiming for annoyed and failing spectacularly in his blissed-out state. He mostly sounded sleepy.

Aaron didn’t reply, and instead grabbed his t-shirt and put it back on.

“You know, I could return the favour.” Robert said. The mood had apparently shifted rather dramatically, but for the life of him, he could not fathom why or how.

“It’s okay, I know the score. You’re straight.” Aaron replied, zipping his hoodie up.

“Doesn’t mean I can’t help a mate out.” Robert replied, shooting one of his most dazzling smiles at Aaron.

Aaron looked at him. Now that they weren’t pressed against one another it did make Robert uncomfortable. Maybe it was just the ice in Aaron’s eyes.

“We’re not mates. After this job, you’re gone. This is my new term. Either leave or get yourself another thief.” Aaron spared Robert one last look before running for the door.

Robert pulled his trousers back up and got out of the car. He cleaned himself up the best he could. He put on his sweater, then balled his discarded shirt up and hid it under his coat.

When he got home the house was completely dark. He got up the stairs, closed the door to his room behind him and flopped on the bed, his coat still on.

-

It was a new day and despite the gross feeling of waking up in the clothes from the day before, Robert was feeling optimistic. He had a crew, they were going to come up with a plan, and he had a personal project to work on. That was all he needed to face the day.

Robert came down and realized the house was blessedly empty. He sighed with relief. He couldn’t deal with Vic’s chatter, Adam’s “jokes”, or Andy’s stony silence that morning. He needed to brainstorm.

His main problem was the fact that he had really enjoyed sex with Aaron the night before. Very much. Despite the lack of reciprocity. It had been the best sex Robert had had in a while. Maybe the best sex since the first time with Aaron two years before. The thought should have made Robert feel bad about his sexual encounters, but mostly just made him giddy to try again. Robert always wanted the best, and if right now the best happened to be Aaron Dingle, then that was what Robert was going after.

Robert looked at the clock. He had overslept and he really needed to shower, but that aside, the day still stretched uncomfortably long in front of him. He needed to keep himself busy.

In the end, Robert decided to kill two birds with one stone. He showered, got dressed in one of his best suits, and headed for the scrapyard he knew Adam and Aaron co-owned. How they had managed to not sink it into the ground from Adam’s stupidity and Aaron’s poor social skills was a feat Robert couldn’t quite fathom.

As predicted, he found the two of them sitting down, Adam apparently laughing at something Aaron had just said.

“Hard at work I see.” Robert drawled, getting closer. As he did so, the smiles fell from Adam and Aaron’s faces.

“You can leave the way you came in.” Aaron replied, helpfully pointing in the direction of the exit. At least he was talking to Robert. Admittedly, it was to tell him to leave, but Robert wasn’t picky.

“Can’t. I need you to come with me. It’s about the job.” He replied. If the smirk he was suppressing bled into his voice, well, Robert was only human.

“No.” Aaron said, final.

“Glad to see you can turn up your nose at seventy-five million euros.”

It looked like Aaron was about to tell him where exactly he could shove his seventy-five million euros when Adam sighed. “Mate.” He said to Aaron.

Apparently, Adam and Aaron were now capable of communicating telepathically, because Aaron just looked at his friend, and without another word got up.

“Fine.” Aaron said, stalking towards his car. Robert followed suit.

They got into the car in silence, Aaron behind the wheel.

“Where am I chauffeuring you?” He spat out after a few aimless turns.

“You’re coming with me to Leeds.” Robert replied, stressing the first part. “I just saved you from a boring afternoon at the scrapyard, you could stand to be more grateful, you know.”

“Right saint, you are. What do you need in Leeds?”

“I need to get some money from the safe. We’re going to need supplies.” Robert replied. He took his phone out of his pocket and fired off a quick message to Vic telling her he might not be home for dinner. Not if he could sweet talk Aaron into having dinner together.

“And whose money are we taking? Because I can tell you right now, I’m not currently equipped to rob a bank.” Aaron said. He took a left turn sharper than strictly necessary.

“No, it’s my money. One of my stashes.” Lawrence had kicked him out with nothing but the shirt on his back and his car, but Robert wasn’t an idiot. He still had money saved around England and Europe, some in safe houses and unscrupulous banks, some tied up in long term investments. Not enough to live off long term though, nor the amount he deserved for his contribution to Lawrence’s business.

“Wow, we’re using your money? You must be really confident the job is gonna go your way.” Aaron was staring at the road in front of him, but for a split-second Robert recognized real surprise on his face.

Getting a read on Aaron was like trying to read a French newspaper from 1889 on which someone had blacked out every single word except five names. The paper was also on fire. Occasionally however, for just a moment, Aaron was an open book. He had been one on their first job, his dislike of Robert plain on his face. On their last job, just before they had kissed for the first time, his hunger loud in his eyes. The night before, while he was sucking Robert’s dick.

“I’m willing to risk it.” Robert said.

“Robert Sugden, willing to lose money? That’s not how I remember you.” Aaron replied. There was a hedge of bitterness to his voice.

“Jealousy isn’t a good look on you.” Robert teased.

“And wilful delusion isn’t a good look on you, but you seem to be coping just fine.” Aaron snapped back. Robert probably deserved it.

Before Robert could make another attempt at conversation, maybe even apologise, Aaron started fiddling with the car’s radio. It seemed to mostly be set on EMD and dance music stations. Robert really hoped Aaron wasn’t planning on listening to that until Leeds because he was not above flinging himself out of the moving car to escape. Instead, Aaron seemed to recognise the first few notes of a song, not a dance song thankfully, because he settled on that radio station with a sly grin.

“Hey, it’s your song.” Aaron said, while Culture Club’s Karma Chameleon wafted from the speakers.

Robert rolled his eyes, but his irritation was short-lived. Aaron was grinning. Sure, it was at Robert’s expense, but at least it wasn’t chilly silence. It wasn’t a bad song either.

The car trip wasn’t the liveliest Robert had ever been on, but it was its own kind of relaxing. Aaron wasn’t radiating murderous vibes anymore, the music wasn’t half bad once the radio station had exhausted their 80s playlist, and the weather was nice. It brought Robert back to that first surveillance job, once again. Even then, Aaron hadn’t been the chattiest person, but their silence was companionable, built on hard won camaraderie on Robert’s part. Robert had never really had that with anyone. He was always talking, manipulating, lying. It was what he had always had to do to get by, to get on top, to become the person he wanted to be. Silence was refreshing.

Once in Leeds proper, Robert started giving out more specific instructions, until he made Aaron park in front of a bank downtown.

“What’s the plan now?” Aaron asked, unfastening his seatbelt and turning to face Robert.

“There’s no plan. I go in, take my money, come out.” Robert replied, eyeing the bank.

“That simple? No offshore account in the Cayman Islands?”

“I’m not Al Capone, Aaron.”

“Then why did you even bring me with you?” Aaron asked. Robert could tell he’d been sitting on that question for a while. Probably since they had gotten in the car.

“I’m about to come out of that bank with roughly two hundred thousand pounds. You’re protection.” It was the truth. A part of the truth. The only part Aaron needed to know for the moment.

“Should have asked Cain, then. Or Ross.” Aaron said, rolling his eyes.

“Can you stop arguing for five minutes? Are you physically capable of it?” Robert snapped back. He mentally retracted all those things he had thought about Aaron being easy to be with. Aaron was a nightmare with a dangerous lack of self-esteem. “You’re the only one I trust with this.” He added, quietly. He looked at Aaron. Aaron looked away.

Robert sighed and got out of the car.

He reached into the inner pocket of his jacket and took out a small key. He walked into the bank. The air inside was uncomfortably warm and stuffy, but at least the place was quiet and almost empty. The only other patrons were an old lady and a middle-aged man, both already being served by the tellers. Robert scanned the place and located the office of the branch manager.

“Hi, I need to access my deposit box, please.” He said, flashing her one of his most blinding smiles. The manager, a woman in her fifties wearing an impeccable grey dress, did not look suitably impressed. She did, however, smile back and lead him towards the deposit room. The whole process was fairly straight-forward; she checked his ID, made him sign a register and took the key from him. She crouched in front of one of the biggest cabinets, opened it, and took out the metal box inside. She smiled at Robert and left him alone.

As soon as Robert was sure the woman had left, he opened the box. Nestled inside was a gym bag, black and unassuming. He zipped it open just enough to look inside. The cash was all there. Robert smirked to himself. Stuff like this was why Lawrence had clearly needed him in the company. Forgetting to clean out a stash like that was clearly the mistake of someone who had more money than common sense.

Robert took the bag, closed the box and left the room. The manager was outside waiting for him.

“Did you find everything in order, Mr. White?” She asked.

“Yes, thank you.” Robert replied. He slung the bag over his left shoulder and left the bank.

“Are you trying to get robbed?” Aaron hissed as soon as Robert was back into the car, bag secured between his feet.

“What?” Robert asked, turning around. No one suspicious seemed to be lurking in the shadows. No one was even really paying any attention to them. He was fairly sure he would have seen it if someone had tried to rob him.

“Were they all out of sacks with the dollar symbol on them? Could you be any more conspicuous?” Aaron continued, throwing a sharp look at the gym bag. Robert rolled his eyes. At this rate, he was going to lose one.

“Careful, that’s a big word.” He replied, completely ignoring Aaron’s point. Mostly because he didn’t have one. It was half a miracle that someone as jumpy and paranoid as Aaron had managed to have a semi successful career as a thief.

Aaron huffed but didn’t say anything else, choosing instead to re-fasten his seatbelt and start the car.

“Should we go for dinner?” Robert said, casually.

“No.” Aaron replied, inserting himself seamlessly in the light traffic.

“What? Why not?” Robert asked, probably with more force than slightly necessary because Aaron shot him a worried glance.

“We have a meeting at the barn? Your meeting. For your job.” Aaron replied. The condescension in his voice obvious.

“It’s still early for that.” Robert replied. They totally had time for an early dinner. Maybe even a hurried repeat of the night before if they parked very far from the main road.

“Yeah, well. I have stuff to do, Robert. A real job. You might have heard of those.” Aaron said.

“Who cares? You won’t need it after the other job. The lucrative one.”

“I can hardly just start living it up from one day to the next. Would be a bit suspicious, wouldn’t it?”

“I’m just saying, you could take it easy.”

“I like working. Keeps me sane.” Aaron said. He was keeping his eyes on the road so Robert sneaked a look at his face. He wasn’t showing a lot of emotion, mostly focusing on driving.

“You know, I never asked-” Robert ventured, before being almost immediately shut down.

“Let’s keep it that way.” Aaron snapped.

“Okay.” Robert replied, making sure to keep his tone even and nonchalant. “But you know; if you wanted to talk about it…” He continued, leaving the invitation open.

“You’d be the last person I’d go to.” Aaron replied. His voice didn’t have the same edge as before. He wasn’t angry or snapping at Robert. He sounded matter-of-fact about it. It made Robert strangely angry. Maybe he wasn’t the most caring person in the world, he could admit that, but he and Aaron had some sort of relationship. A friendship, maybe. Hopefully a mutually beneficial one.

The drive back was silent, tense. Aaron seemed lost in his own thoughts. Robert was too.

He was attracted to Aaron. He couldn’t really deny that. He had always been. Aaron was objectively good-looking. Aaron was attracted to Robert as well; there was no doubt in Robert’s mind about that. First, because how could he not be, and second, no uninterested man had sex with that kind of intensity. Now, if only Aaron would see that it would also be in his best interests to keep having sex with Robert, Robert could start concentrating exclusively on the job. It was a matter of pragmatism, really.

-

The first meeting as a team was always the hardest one. You got that many people with criminal tendencies in once place without firm leadership and you could kiss the job and your money goodbye. It was something Robert had seen happen a few times. He was adamant it was not going to happen on his watch.

Someone had brought a couple of tables and a few chairs into the barn, or maybe they’d been there for a while, assisting the other criminal activities Ross had mentioned before. Robert positioned himself at the head of one of the tables. He motioned for everyone to get closer.

“Okay, here’s why you’re here. As I told you before, we’re going to rob Lawrence’s casino. It’s going to be his birthday in six weeks, May 23rd. He always organizes a huge party. Lots of shows, high rollers, and money. The vault is going to be full. This is where we hit him.” Robert said.

“There’ll be more surveillance. More guards.” Cain stated.

“Yes, that’s why we have to go in with surgical precision. Lawrence’s security team doesn’t mess around. They’re armed and not afraid to shoot.” Robert replied.

“What d’you propose then?” Adam asked.

“My contact gives us the blueprints, so we can map out our entry and exit strategies to the inch. She also gives us the access key to the vault.” Robert started. “Cain goes in as a security guard in four weeks. He tells us about the guards’ routines and schedules. Charity, Andy and Chas are distractions. Finn and Ross are clean up. Aaron and I are going to grab the money. Adam is our driver. Questions?” Robert asked. He’d seen better speeches and better plans in his life, but this would have had to do.

“So many.” Charity replied with a grin. “What do you mean with ‘distraction’ exactly?”

“Classic honey pot. Nothing fancy. We’re going to need to spread security and the Whites thin on the ground. This includes keeping Lawrence occupied.” Robert said.

“I’m not going to sleep with Lawrence White, Robert! And neither is Charity.” Chas snapped.

“For my cut of seventy-five millions, I am.” Charity replied, nonplussed. Robert always knew he liked Charity for a reason.

“Calm down, will ya? No one is going to sleep with Lawrence. I’m much more his type than either of you. You’re just going to pose as rich socialites; be friendly, flirt with him if necessary, and just keep him occupied. Make sure security has no window of opportunity to approach him without interfering with his duties as host. We’re leveraging his concern with keeping up appearances against him.” Robert said.

“So, is Andy gonna sleep with him?” Ross asked with a snicker. Robert was about to embark on the most dangerous job of his career with a bunch of children.

“No, Andy is our demo expert.” Robert replied with a sigh.

“I didn’t know we were working with the Unabomber, here.” Charity chimed in.

“Hardly. But he’s handy with explosives.” Robert said.

“I’m assuming I’m here for tech purposes.” Finn interjected.

“It sure isn’t for your sparkling personality, sunshine.” Ross replied, shooting a smile at his brother. Finn rolled his eyes but smiled back. There was no real heat in it, just good-natured brotherly jabs.

Robert chanced a glance at Andy. He was looking at the table and studiously ignoring what was happening around him. Robert could relate.

“Yes, Finn, you are.” Robert started. “The Whites’ security system is state of the art and it controls the surveillance system. A system that at any given time is running face and licence plate recognition software, background checks with non-obvious relationship analysis, and controls cameras and monitors magnetic badges accesses. Beyond that, all footage is backed up independently on a server farm on the other side of town.” Finn looked on the edge of a panic attack. Good. Robert didn’t want any of them going in thinking it was going to be a walk in the park.

“Anything else? Lasers? Live alligators?” Charity asked, her words dripping with sarcasm.

“Armed guards. Many of them. Everything is within one hundred and twenty seconds running distance from a guard, so if we’re caught our windows of opportunity are incredibly short.” Robert replied. “Then there’s the police. Monte Carlo police are highly trained and responsive. Our only shot is to not let them realize they’re being robbed until we’re clear of there.”

“That’s impossible.” Aaron said, speaking for the first time during the meeting.

“Thank you for your blinding optimism, Aaron, always much appreciated.” Robert shot back. “It’s not impossible. It’s going to be difficult, but I wouldn’t have proposed it if I didn’t believe in you.”

“That warms my heart.” Cain said. Robert wondered whether that man had ever had an emotion in his life that was not anger, contempt or aggressive disinterest.

“Yeah, I’ll remember that when I’m lying dead in a ditch in Monte Carlo.” Charity added.

“No one is forcing you to do this.” Robert replied, trying to hold onto his temper. “You can quit right now. No one is stopping you.” He continued, looking at every person in the room. No one replied or made to leave.

“Okay, boss, no need to get worked up.” Ross replied in what was objectively a very good Italian accent. Robert rolled his eyes.

“Good. Let’s get down to business then.”

-

Robert walked into the barn a few days later, coffee cup in hand. He pushed his sunglasses up his head. He was alone. The Dingles and the Bartons were not exactly renowned for the punctuality, but Robert could work with that. As long as they were where they were supposed to on the day of the job, he didn’t really care if they were late to the meetings. Not that he was going to tell them that. Letting a Dingle or a Barton know it was okay for them to be late was basically giving them permission to just not show up. Robert suddenly and acutely felt what it must have been like to be one of the local teachers. He idly wondered whether a shudder passed the entire faculty whenever they saw the names Dingle or Barton on the official papers.

Robert sat down on one of the chairs and took out his phone. He might as well deal with some emails while he waited. He did still have some legitimate investments he needed to take care of. It was a good thing Robert had never fully trusted Lawrence as far as he could throw him and had diversified his income stream.

The door to the barn squeaked open and Robert looked up to see Finn come in. He had a laptop bag on one shoulder and another one in his hands. He was also carrying in a portable generator. Robert hadn’t thought about it, but it stood to reason the tech expert would need electricity to perform his duties.

Finn nodded at him before walking towards the table on the opposite side of the barn. He delicately put everything on it before grabbing a chair and sitting down sandwiched between the table and the wall, facing the door – the position of a man who clearly didn’t want anyone to sneak up on him and see whatever was on his screen.

Robert returned to his emails but he watched Finn with the corner of his eye while he set up shop. He had a laptop, but it looked bulkier than the usual ones, more hardware under it than Robert was used to. He also took out a smaller notebook computer, one of those whose desktop detached to become a tablet. Then there were external hard drives and extra batteries and roughly a dozen USB drives. Last but not least, came out a headset so big Robert almost did a double take. He watched Finn put it on and somehow not have his neck snapped in two by the sheer weight of it.

Robert tried to concentrate on his own work, but ultimately his curiosity got the best of him. He got up, careful to stay out of Finn’s line of sight. Not that Finn seemed too bothered with him; he was staring intently at his laptop’s screen, seemingly engrossed in something important. Robert approached him, careful not to be seen.

“Are you watching Game of Thrones?” He asked, putting a hand on Finn’s shoulder.

Finn yelped, jumping at the contact. “Nervous bloke, aren’t you?” Robert mocked him.

“I was just engrossed; I didn’t see you get up.” Finn replied, just this side of annoyed, still clutching his chest.

Robert ignored him and grabbed a chair to sit on. “So, Game of Thrones?” He asked again. Finn had paused it now, but he seemed to be watching one of the earlier episodes.

“Yeah, I’m re-watching before the new series starts again. Why?” Finn asked, a bit leery. Maybe he was expecting Robert to make fun of him. Robert just grinned at him.

“My next job might be stealing the latest draft of Winds of Winter from George R. R. Martin’s desk.” Robert replied.

Finn beamed at him. “Have you actually read the books?” He asked.

“Read the books, watched the show, played the videogame. I’m properly obsessed.” Robert said. He had always been a bit of a nerd, not that he would let anyone call him that.

“You’re such a Lannister.” Finn replied, laughing at Robert.

“Oi! I consider myself more of an Oberyn Martell.” Robert replied in mock-outrage.

“Riveting conversation.” A voice said, startling them. The tone was dry and mocking. Robert turned to see Cain walk in.

“You’re late.” Robert said.

Cain looked around the barn, then back to Robert. “No, I’m not.”

Robert rolled his eyes but decided not to bother arguing with him. Having a discussion with Cain was the conversational equivalent of hitting a wall headfirst repeatedly. It wasn’t worth it.

As if summoned by Cain’s disdain, the rest of the Dingles started filing in. Chas and Charity first, followed by Aaron.

“We’ll continue this discussion later.” Robert whispered to Finn. Finn grinned at him and nodded.

Robert looked at Aaron. Aaron studiously ignored him, sitting down on one of the chairs, his gaze fixed on the hem of his hoodie.

Robert sat opposite of him.

The others started sitting down too, Andy, Adam, and Ross eventually coming in as well.

Robert made a show of looking at his watch. Forty-five minutes late wasn’t even nearly as bad as he’d been expecting. They were already making progress.

“Now that we’re finally all here, let’s start.” Robert said. “I have the basic skeleton of a plan, but it needs refining. We also need to write down anything we need. The faster we get our supplies, the faster we can begin actual preparations.”

“Those aren’t gonna be cheap.” Cain interjected.

“Money isn’t an issue. We have two hundred thousand pounds of spending cash. Should be enough.” Robert replied.

“Oi, big spender!” Charity said.

Robert smirked at her. “Something like that.”

“Cain, you’re going in before us. You’re going to need a fake passport and a whole host of fake documents. The hotel security is always looking for new people to hire, if we give you a military background, nothing too fancy, you’re gonna get in without a problem. Once inside we need you to discreetly make sure the blueprints still match the actual layout of the building. You’re also going to take note of the security team’s timetables. If there’s a gap, we can exploit it.” Robert said.

“Copy that.” Cain replied. His face looked as unimpressed as ever, verging on bored, but his eyes were positively glinting.

“Now, our biggest problem is the security system. It’s a seL4, virtually unhackable.” Robert said, looking at Finn.

“Scratch that, it is unhackable. The only way to get in is to physically be connected to the hardware.” Finn replied. There was an edge of panic in his voice.

“Then we get you in, easy.” Ross interjected.

“Sure, of course, then you also waltz into the vault where security is gonna be waiting for you with the money already in bags ready to go.” Finn replied.

“No, no, Ross has a point.” Robert said. he had never been too interested in the security system, but he remembered the long boring calls every few months to coordinate with the manufacturer for an update. “Someone from the company used to come in every few months to check the system and make sure everything was in order. It took a few hours, usually at night. If we can time it right we can get you in that way.”

“Okay, and once I’m in?” Finn asked. He still looked remarkably worried.

“The system is in a separate room as the rest of the security team. Which means that once you have control you can substitute real time footage for time delayed one. You can eliminate every trace of us as we go. You can be our eyes and ears.”

“Okay. We’re going to be needing earpieces for that. I can get us good ones.” Finn replied.

“Great. Thanks, Finn.” Robert shot a smile in his direction. “Speaking of eliminating footage… Ross is going to go to the data farm and blow it up.”

“Sure, I’m always up for a spot of international terrorism.” Ross replied.

“Adam, do you think you can make the drive and be back in time for extraction?” Robert asked, ignoring Ross.

“Maybe. I need more info. I need detailed and up to date maps of the city and the specifics of what car I’m driving.” Adam replied. As the plan took shape, he seemed to be getting more into it. While he had looked like a man marching to his death on the first meeting, he was now more animated. Robert knew his kind of people. They could never resist the lure of an exciting job.

“Okay, I’ll get you everything you need.” Robert replied. He felt energized. This was where his talents lay. “We need to make sure Lawrence doesn’t leave the floor for any reason. Chas and Charity, you’re on Lawrence duty. There’s a high roller that sends his mistresses to the casino often enough. Finn will flag your car as one of his. Lawrence will come and greet you; you have to make sure he stays with you until we’re done.”

“Easy as pie.” Charity replied with a smirk.

“Lawrence isn’t stupid. If you try too hard he’ll know something is up.” Robert replied.

“Robert. Who conned Gladioli and his crew out of three million pounds without him even noticing? Was it you?” Charity asked. Robert rolled his eyes.

“No, it wasn’t me. No one knows who did it.”

“That’s on purpose. It was us. Chas and me. We’re pros.” Charity said, jamming a finger in Robert’s direction for emphasis.

“Okay, okay, no need to have a go at me.” Robert replied.

“Then don’t doubt my skills.” Charity said with a huff.

“We’re going to need clothes, jewellery. High class stuff.” Chas interjected before the discussion could devolve into an argument.

“I’ll get them to you.”

“What do you want me to do?” Andy asked, with all the enthusiasm of a man facing death row. At least he was reliable that way.

“We’re going to need a distraction. Something bad enough that they’ll cordon off the third basement level floor, but not so bad that they’ll suspect something. Make it look like an accident.” Robert said.

“I’m going to need smartphones, bought abroad. And military grade C4.” Andy replied, like he hadn’t just basically asked for the moon. Maybe the moon would have been easier to get.

“Military grade C4? Do you have any idea how hard is it to get stuff like that?” Robert asked.

“Yes, I do. It’s why I’m telling you.” Andy replied dryly.

“Can’t you be like a normal bomber and use fertilizer or something?”

“Do you want a controlled, clean and undetected blast or do you want to blow up the entire place? Because only one of these options is achievable with a fertilizer bomb and it’s not the former.” Andy replied. He was talking to Robert like he would talk to his children, which just managed to irritate Robert. Robert reminded himself Andy was the expert. The only expert. Robert needed him.

“Fine. I’ll see what I can do. We also need something similar for the data farm.” Robert said.

“Then I’ll need at least half a brick. More if you can get it.”

“Sure, because I’m sure they just let that stuff lying around. I’ll pop in at David’s shop. Maybe he’s got some.” Robert replied, sarcasm dripping off his every word. Andy just had to go and be difficult. Clothes, jewellery, cars, all those things he could get easily. Where was he going to find C4? He still had some old contacts in London, but none that he would have liked to revisit.

Andy looked like he was a few seconds from getting up and walking away when Adam put a hand on his shoulder. Andy took a deep, steading breath. Robert smirked at him, just to wind him up a little, but Andy didn’t meet his eyes. Pity.

“What about me?” Aaron asked. “Why am I here?”

Robert smirked at him. “There’s a safe. Old school. My contact might not have the code for that.”

“Why?”

“Because Lawrence’s a paranoid bastard? I don’t know. Can you crack it?” Robert asked. Aaron shot him a withering look.

“I can crack any safe.” He replied.

“Great. Are we done here? Because I actually have a job to get to.” Chas said, sounding tired.

“Yeah. I think we’re done.” Cain said, getting up.

Robert sighed. “Sure. Tomorrow at the same time.”

Everyone got up to leave. Robert didn’t. Andy didn’t either. At least he waited for them to be alone to speak again.

“I can’t be in two places at once.” Andy said as soon as the doors to the barn closed again.

Robert swallowed his immediate sarcastic response and settled for something slightly less caustic. “I’m aware. So?”

“I can’t be at the casino and the data farm at the same time.” Andy replied, like he was talking to a particularly slow child.

“You won’t be at the farm. Build the bomb and Ross will detonate it.” Robert replied. He thought he’d been clear about it, but apparently not clear enough for Andy.

“I’m not teaching Ross Barton how to make a bomb.” Andy replied, final.

“You’re not. You’re just teaching him how to plant and detonate one. He’s a big boy, I’m sure he can handle it.” Robert replied. He still didn’t get the issue.

“It’s not Ross’ safety I’m worried about.” Andy said, his face dark.

“Oh. You’re pretending you care about other people’s safety these days. Got it.” Robert spat out, getting up.

“When will you stop blaming me for what happened to Mum?” Andy asked, getting up and positioning himself between Robert and the door.

“When will you stop blaming me for Katie?” Robert shot back, holding Andy’s gaze. Andy broke away first. “Teach him. You can have a crisis of faith when you’re rich.” Robert continued. He pushed past Andy and got out.

It was a nice day. Sunny. Robert couldn’t feel it. Everything under his skin felt ice cold.

He started walking in no particular direction. Sometimes he still felt it, the blast, the sirens, the screams. He pushed it all down. Maybe coming back had been a mistake. Including Andy had been a mistake. Marrying Chrissie had been a mistake. Katie had been a mistake. Max King had been a mistake. His skin felt too tight. His hands were numb.

He pushed it all down.

His phone vibrating in his pocket snapped Robert out of his spiral. He fished it out. It was a message from an unknown number.

Meet me tomorrow afternoon where we had our first Manchester rendezvous –Bex

Robert fired off a quick reply, smiling to his phone. Finally, something pleasant.

Maybe he could make it even better. He thumbed through his contacts until he found the number he was looking for.

“What?” Aaron replied, picking up after a few rings.

“Are you free tomorrow afternoon?”

-

Robert couldn’t help the smile that spread across his face when he met Aaron the next day. He was looking sharp in a suit and tie. Aaron noticed him and smiled back, reflexively, before catching himself and setting his expression back to his usual scowl. Robert’s smile got bigger.

“Are you going to tell me what’s up at some point or have I been promoted from chauffeur to psychic?” Aaron asked, crossing his arms. His words were sarcastic, but the curiosity behind them was plain to see.

“You’re coming with me to meet my inside woman.” Robert said, climbing into Aaron’s car.

“You know, you don’t have to say everything as if it were the line right before the opening credits of CSI: Miami.” Aaron grumbled as he got in the driver’s seat. Robert rolled his eyes but didn’t reply.

He was nervous. He needed Rebecca to deliver. Aaron was a soothing presence beside him, despite the fact that the man breathed out more negativity than carbon dioxide. Somehow, even his negativity and general distaste for life had the power to centre Robert.

From the very beginning of their weird partnership, Aaron had stood out. In a world that thrived off lies and manipulation, Aaron had always been weirdly earnest. An honest thief. Robert had thought it was an act, at first. A façade maybe, another way to get the trust of a mark. It hadn’t been. Aaron was just a walking oxymoron.

“Come on, let’s go. We need to be in Manchester before she changes her mind.” Robert fastened his seatbelt and leaned into his seat.

Aaron sighed and started the car. “Are you going to tell me why I’m in a suit or should I guess?”

Robert grinned. “You’re my bodyguard.”

“Yes. Of course. Silly me for not realizing sooner.” Aaron deadpanned.

“Just stand behind me and try to look intimidating.”

“You should have gotten Cain or Ross to come with you.” Aaron replied, quietly. He had a point. Cain and Ross could definitely pull off the scary bodyguard act. They wouldn’t have been as much fun on a day out though.

“They wouldn’t have looked as dashing in a suit, would they?” Robert said. Aaron didn’t reply, but Robert could see him trying to fight a smile. The day was off to a great start. “Even though I’ve seen better suits in the clearance section of the supermarket.” It was all wrong for Aaron. Too dark, too big, the cut too boxy. And yet. He still looked amazing. Robert was going to make it his mission in life to get Aaron into a proper suit. Something that highlighted his strong features instead of hiding them.

“Thanks.” Aaron replied drily. “It’s the only suit I own. Doubles for funerals and court hearings.”

“That’s just depressing.” Robert replied, laughing.

They drove in silence for a while. Aaron’s eyes on the road and Robert’s darting between his phone and Aaron’s profile. When the silence had been stretching for too long, Robert turned the radio on. He fidgeted with the buttons until he found a song he liked.

“Taylor Swift? Really?” Aaron asked once the first verse had finished.

“What? It’s a good song.” Robert refused to be shamed by someone whose idea of relaxing music was EDM.

“Of course you believe that.” Aaron mocked him. Robert grinned at him, turning the volume up. Aaron rolled his eyes, but it lacked any real heat.

Robert started humming along with the song.

“You would like this song. It’s basically your anthem.” Aaron said after a few seconds. Probably more to shut Robert up than anything else.

“I thought Karma Chameleon was my anthem.” Robert replied. Maybe it was the fresh air, or sharing a car with Aaron wearing a suit, or maybe it was the song, but he felt giddy, happy. He felt carefree and almost drunk with it.

“You can have more than one.” Aaron replied, as if there was some serious science backing him up in this ridiculous discussion.

“Wait, am I Taylor Swift or am I the guy on her blank space?” Robert asked with as much seriousness as he could muster.

“Taylor Swift, obviously.” Aaron replied with the same tone.

“Am I your nightmare dressed like a daydream?” Robert asked raising an eyebrow.

“Wow, you really do love this song.” Aaron replied, mocking him.

“Yes and I’m not letting you shame me out of it.”

This time Aaron didn’t even try to hide his smile.

The song ended, fading into another one. Aaron went to change the station, but Robert batted his hand away.

“Seriously? Cher?” Aaron asked.

“Who doesn’t like Cher?”

“Sorry, only one of us was alive in the 80s.”

“Yeah, barely!” Robert replied in mock outrage. Aaron laughed and Robert couldn’t help but follow suit.

Robert was almost sad to see Manchester loom in front of them.

Once Aaron parked in from of Rebecca’s hotel, however, he was glad for the chance to get up and stretch his legs. Aaron locked the car and leaned on the hood, waiting for Robert.

“Now what?” He asked after a minute.

Robert reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and took out a pair of sunglasses. He tossed them to Aaron who caught them mid-air.

“I thought you were joking!” Aaron hissed.

“No. Put them on. Stand behind me. Try to blend into the background. Don’t say anything. Pretending to be a bodyguard is really simple.” Robert shrugged.

“This isn’t gonna work.” Aaron said.

“Have you looked into any reflective surface recently? Just stand up straight and scowl like I just said something you found particularly offensive.”

Aaron predictably shot him a dirty look, but didn’t answer. He put on the sunglasses.

Robert reached on the back of his trousers, where a holster was clipped to his belt. He undid the clip and walked around the car, getting closer to Aaron. “Take this too.” He said.

Aaron blinked at him. “I’m not taking that.”

Robert wondered idly if Aaron was ever going to make anything easy on him. But then again, he hadn’t until then, why start.

“It’s not loaded, you just need it for show.” Robert replied. This close he could feel the warmth radiating from Aaron’s body. “Just put it on your belt and try to move so it will be visible. Trust me.”

Aaron sighed, and Robert felt it on his face. He took the gun from Robert’s hands, handling it like one would handle a live, poisonous snake. The fact that Aaron’s distaste for guns had survived this long in their line of work was half a miracle. He clipped the holster on his belt. Robert could see it through the suit jacket. Perfect.

They walked in. Aaron one step behind Robert. They slinked into an empty elevator and Robert pushed the button to get to the restaurant on the terrace.

The air on the terrace was warm, with a gentle breeze moving the flowers in the pots lining the balcony. The patrons were making the best out of the unseasonably warm weather. Someone had gone through a lot of trouble to make the place look like some kind of Greek or Tuscan villa, with billowy white sheets hanging around as sorts of makeshift screens between the tables. It couldn’t compete with the real deal, but it was the best approximation anyone in Manchester was going to get.

Sitting in a secluded corner of the terrace was Rebecca White. As always she was pristine in her mustard sundress and burgundy hat. She smiled at him and waved him over. He smiled back, real and unguarded. He felt a pang of something in his chest. Nostalgia, maybe fondness. They had been close once. Before he’d made one of the worst choices of his life and married Chrissie. Not that he and Rebecca were ever going to work out as a couple, but they had been friends. Robert didn’t make friends easily, but Rebecca had stuck by him.

“Robert Sugden, in the flesh.” She greeted him as soon as he was within earshot.

“Rebecca.” He replied, with real warmth in his voice. He sat down. Aaron stood behind him.

“Can I get you anything?” She asked. “Your bodyguard too, if he’d like.” Her words were directed at Robert, but her smile was towards Aaron.

“No, thank you. I can’t stay long.” Robert replied.

“Seduced and abandoned. Again.” Rebecca said. She was smiling, but it was sharp, all teeth.

“Hardly.” Robert laughed. “If I remember correctly you were the one who boarded a flight to India with nothing more than a text.”

“Well. You were going to marry my sister. It seemed suitably dramatic.” She said. She took a sip of her wine. “But enough chitchat.” She continued, lifting on the table a beige canvass bag with some plastic cylindrical containers. She pushed the whole thing towards Robert.

“Thanks, Bex.” He said, trying to put as much feeling and sincerity behind it as he could. His entire plan hinged on those blueprints.

“No one gets hurt, Robert.” She said, not for the first time. Her smile had slipped off and now her expression was serious. She looked the most adult Robert had ever seen her.

“I promise.” He replied.

Rebecca nodded. A pause. “I still can’t believe my dad would do that to you. I’m worried about him.” Rebecca continued.

“Your dad, he’s not okay. After this you and Chrissie can make him take a break from the business.” Robert said, taking Rebecca’s hand in his and nodding behind him at Aaron. Rebecca still looked unconvinced. He needed to take out the big guns. “You’re doing the right thing; you’re taking care of them.”

“Maybe.” Rebecca conceded.

“It’ll be fine, Bex.” He said, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze and letting go before taking the bag and standing up. “Well. It was, as always, a pleasure working with you.”

“Too bad you couldn’t stay longer. To properly catch up.” She replied with a smile and a suggestive rise of her eyebrows, her anxiety seemingly forgotten. That’s one of the things he loved about Rebecca. She could put on a good show. Just because he could see right through it, it didn’t mean he didn’t appreciate the effort.

Robert grinned at her. “Too bad.”

Robert turned around to leave when she called him again. “Hey, Robert.” She smirked at him. “Do you by any chance know anything about my dad’s stash in Leeds? I went to check on some things but it seems to have magically vanished.”

Robert grinned at her and without answering, left. Aaron right behind him.

They got inside a crowded elevator again and Robert risked a glance at Aaron. His scowl was still in full force, despite the dark sunglasses. He was radiating hostility and contempt.

They walked towards Aaron’s car, Robert clutching the bag. As soon as he got in, he opened the containers. From a quick glance, the floor plans looked exactly as he remembered them, but he was going to have to study them with Cain once at the barn.

Aaron rudely tossing his sunglasses and holster at him interrupted Robert’s reverie. He looked angry. Robert sighed. Sometimes talking to Aaron was like a game of minesweeper played with real bombs. He tried to think back to his conversation with Rebecca, trying to figure out what could have ticked him off. Maybe it hadn’t been the content of the conversation, maybe Aaron was just jealous. He and Rebecca had definitely been flirty, but that was just how they talked to one another.

Robert went for the radio. Maybe he and Aaron could get back on track with some good music.

“Touch that damn radio and lose a hand.” Aaron snapped, his eyes not straying from the road. Robert rolled his eyes.

“You know, you don’t have to be jealous of me and Rebecca. We’re old history.” He ventured.

It was the wrong thing to say because Aaron bristled.

“Jealous? Of what? Your lack of shame and decency? No, I just don’t like being lied to.” Aaron snapped, yanking the steering wheel with more force than necessary to make a turn.

Robert mentally slapped himself. The money. Rebecca and her big mouth.

“I didn’t lie.” Robert said. “The money was mine. I earned it.”

“You know, next time you drag me to a bank robbery, I’d like to be informed beforehand.”

Robert considered his options. He rolled down the window. He would give Aaron the time to cool down and then dive back in.

They drove back in silence. Aaron fuming at the wheel, and Robert wasting time playing games on his phone and answering emails.

“Fuck!” Aaron cursed. Robert looked up, startled, and noticed the car had stopped.

“What now?” He asked, looking up at Aaron. “Why did we stop?”

Aaron gestured in front of him. Thick plumes of white smoke were coming out of the car. Fantastic. Exactly what they needed.

Robert looked out of his window. For some reason, they had stopped in the middle of nowhere, with green rolling fields as far as the eye could see. The road was deserted as well.

“Why aren’t we on the highway?” He asked. He tried to keep his voice even, but he couldn’t deny that an edge of frustration had crept into it.

“I was taking a shortcut.” Aaron replied, making no mystery of his own frustration. He unfastened his seatbelt and got out. Robert followed suit.

“A shortcut? In the British equivalent of Middle Earth?” Robert asked, mockingly. He had been distracted for five minutes and that was the result. A broken-down car in the middle of nowhere with a surly Aaron Dingle.

“Oh, shut up, Robert!” Aaron shot back.

He opened up the bonnet and more smoke came out. Robert sighed. Aaron waited a few seconds for the smoke to dissipate before getting closer to the engine. Robert followed him.

It had been years since Robert had actually worked as a mechanic, but he liked cars. Beyond that, he understood cars. They were easy. Everything had a purpose and function. Everything could be fixed or substituted. But of course, Aaron’s car was being difficult. Just like its owner.

“It seems like the engine overheated.” Robert supplied.

“You don’t say? Thanks, Sherlock.” Aaron replied.

“You know, I don’t appreciate your tone.” Okay, sure, he had lied. A minor lie. Robert genuinely couldn’t understand why Aaron had taken it so badly, beyond the fact that Aaron seemed to regard everything Robert did as a personal offense against him.

Aaron ignored him. He crossed his arms and leaned with his back against a nearby tree, waiting for the engine to cool down. If that was how he wanted to play it, Robert could play along.

“How should we ever pass the time?” Robert replied suggestively, getting closer to Aaron. It was a half-hearted joke at best, but Aaron still looked at him like he’d just suggested cannibalism.

“I’m warning you, Robert. Stop it.” Aaron’s tone was short and clipped; as if he were holding himself back from saying more. Robert wanted to know what exactly.

“Why are you so mad at me? I have done nothing to you.” Except offering to give him the sexual experience of a lifetime. An offer Aaron had soundly refused. 

“You really have to ask?” Aaron sounded genuinely incredulous. Robert rolled his eyes.

“Yes. So, what? I lied about the money. Why do you even care?”

“I care because it’s not just a job, Robert!” Aaron burst out. Robert took a step back with the force of it. “This is my family! We have to trust one another to pull this off. Right now, I wouldn’t trust you to get me the right sandwich for lunch.”

“Oh, so it’s all about the job now?” Robert started pacing. He was starting to lose his patience. He had done nothing to deserve that kind of behaviour from Aaron. He had lied, sure, but it came with the line of work.

“No, it’s about you constantly lying and manipulating everyone around you.” Aaron spat out. He was back to leaning against the tree in his suit and ugly tie. Somehow, that made Robert even angrier. Mostly because he still wanted to get that tie off and lick the skin of Aaron’s neck.

“We hadn’t seen each other in years!”

“Yes. I remember.” Aaron replied, suddenly quiet. Robert knew what was coming after. They had avoided talking about it. Very deliberately in Robert’s case. “The week before your wedding.” Aaron’s face had gone weirdly soft around the edges.

Something ugly and burning uncoiled itself in Robert’s stomach and slithered past his lips. “Oh, so it’s about you being jealous. Because you couldn’t have me.” He smiled, sharp and calculated. A punch in the gut with teeth.

Aaron sprang back up, balled up fists at his side. “I swear, Robert. Shut up or I’m going to punch that smug smirk of yours right off your face.”

“You wanna have a go?” Chances were that Aaron would beat the hell out of him, but at least it would clear out the air. It usually worked well with Andy. He was tired of the bitten off replies, the dirty looks, and all of the things left unsaid. If he could get rid of it with a good punch to the eye, so be it.

Aaron sighed. He seemed to be steadying himself. He took a deep breath and then another.

“No. Let’s get this sorted so I can get home.”

Aaron took off his suit jacket, tie and shirt. He carefully laid them into the car’s backseat. Now, wearing only his dress trousers and an undershirt, he got back to the cooled engine. Robert looked on in silence, his breath still heavy.

Despite the anger, the annoyance, and the worry, Robert took a moment to appreciate the sight. Aaron was handsome; there was no way around that. It was something he was always aware of on some level, but at times like this, it smacked him right across the face. The dark hair, the blue eyes, his arms, his shoulders, his legs. Everything about Aaron was enticing.

Robert had slept with men. Not often, but it had happened. They had been one-night stands, a few enjoyable hours together and then onto the next best thing. He’d had that with Aaron, twice now, and yet he still wanted. Despite the fights and Aaron’s sour disposition and the way he seemed to always want to see the worst in Robert. He still wanted Aaron’s hands on him. He still wanted to touch and taste and feel. It was dizzying and disconcerting. Heady, too.

Robert, going against every single self-preservation instinct he’d ever had, got closer again.

“Get me the tools in the boot.” Aaron said, without sparing him a glance. Robert complied. It was easier to just go with it. “Okay, now get behind the wheel. When I say so, put the parking brake on and put your foot down the accelerator.”

“I know how to check for a faulty serpentine belt, you know.” Robert said, but he did as he was told and got behind the wheel.

“Now.”

Robert turned on the ignition and put his foot down. Beyond the sound of the engine, he could hear the belaboured sound of the belt trying and failing to do its job. Robert turned it off. “I could hear it from inside the car. No wonder it was overheating. Is the belt dead?”

“No, just wet. There’s a leak somewhere.” Aaron said, touching something with his hand. He looked at his fingers and smelled it. “Water.”

“Probably the shaft seal on the water pump.” Robert ventured. Aaron clearly loved the car, if there was a problem it was going to be with something as finicky as the seal rather than something born out of inattention or lack of care.

“Probably. Get me the empty jugs in the back.”

Robert did as he was asked and waited while Aaron drained the coolant and the antifreeze into the containers.

He sat sideways in the passenger seat, the door open, waiting for Aaron to be done.

“I really didn’t mean to lie to you about the money. It is my money, in a sense.” Robert said, getting up and getting closer to Aaron again. Aaron didn’t move or acknowledge him.

“Then why not say that? Why lie?” Aaron asked finally, his eyes still on the engine.

Robert didn’t really know what to answer to that. He hadn’t made a conscious choice to lie, he’d just done it. Maybe he’d thought Aaron wouldn’t have helped him otherwise, but even in his head it sounded like a cop-out. Despite their issues, Aaron had gone along with everything Robert had thrown at him up until that point. Complaining the entire time, sure, but still. Aaron would have helped him. Maybe the truth was that he had lied to make Aaron think better of him. To make him think he was willing to put his money where his mouth was. Robert didn’t feel like digging too deep to analyse exactly why that was.

“I am sorry for how I left things with you, years ago.” Robert said again, getting closer. His voice had gone soft without his permission, but at least now, it was out there. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

“Okay.” Aaron replied with all the feeling of someone who’d just heard the weather forecast of another country. “Hand me the wrench.”

“You don’t believe me.” Robert said. He gave Aaron the wrench, but made sure to brush his fingers against Aaron’s. Aaron didn’t react.

“No, I don’t.” He replied; his hands now busy dismantling the engine to get to the water pump.

“What will it take for you to believe me?” Robert asked. He knew it could as well been a rhetorical question. Aaron was stubborn as a mule.

“Stop lying for five minutes and grow a conscience and then we can revisit this conversation.” Aaron replied. Robert sighed. He was getting really tired of everyone assuming he was only ever in it for himself. He’d learned early on that he could only count on himself to watch his back and he acted accordingly. It wasn’t a crime. Still, it didn’t mean he didn’t care. He cared about Vic, for one. He’d cared about Andy, once upon a time. He begrudgingly cared about Aaron too, despite his unshakable belief that it was a really bad idea.

“Oh, come on. I have a conscience.” Robert tried to make it sound like a joke, but it came out more plaintive than he was comfortable with.

“Doesn’t look like it from where I’m standing.” Aaron replied. “Look at that girl, Rebecca. You say she’s your friend, and she clearly had feelings for you at some point and yet you’re more than willing to let her betray her family for your own gain.”

“They deserve it. And I didn’t lie to her.” Rebecca knew the score. She wasn’t some kind of saint either. She wanted the keys to the kingdom just as much as Robert did. Unlike Robert however, she had qualms about going against her family. Robert had just given her an excuse to take action and still feel morally superior.

“Really? Because I don’t see you going around with an armed escort 24/7.” Aaron replied. His tone was still measured and even. It was driving Robert up the wall. It was worse than the screaming and the bone deep certainty that Aaron wanted to punch him in the face.

“I was selling the con! You should know that; your mum is the best at it.” Robert said in a last-ditch attempt to get a reply that wasn’t said in that unnerving flat tone.

“Yes, but my mother doesn’t lie to family. But then again you can’t be honest with yourself, why should anyone else be different.” It was below the belt, Aaron must have known it was. His face betrayed nothing; he wasn’t even looking at Robert.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know what it means.” Aaron took the tape from the toolbox and sealed the pump with it. It was a makeshift job, but it would hold until they got to the village, or at least until they weren’t in the middle of nowhere anymore. Robert forced himself to look away from his fingers.

“I’m not like you.” Robert replied, matter-of-factly.

“You’re right, you’re not. I’m actually okay with who I am.” Aaron replied, finally an edge of something beyond indifference in his voice. Robert would have appreciated more if it weren’t for the cold knot in his stomach.

“There’s nothing to accept.” He replied, taking care to keep his voice as unaffected as he could.

“Whatever helps you sleep at night.” Aaron replied with a sarcastic close-lipped smile and slamming the bonnet shut.

Aaron cleaned himself up as best as he could and shrugged on his shirt, forgoing doing the buttons up. He climbed up behind the steering wheel. Robert got into the passenger’s side. He took a deep, steadying breath. The smell of grease and gasoline was overwhelming now that they were in the confined space of the car. It hadn’t felt that small before.

Robert wasn’t gay. He didn’t want to go to the Pride parade or hold hands with a bloke or get married to one. Sometimes he had sex with men and that was all there was to it. It was just sex. He could have gone his entire life without ever having sex with another man and it would have been fine, more than fine. He just wasn’t very good at denying himself life’s pleasures, and why should he? He wasn’t doing anything wrong, not really. Let Aaron think whatever he wanted.

They drove in silence. The radio off, the windows up, the only sound was the engine. They were both listening to it, hoping to catch the tell-tale sounds of it overheating again. Aaron drove them back into busier roads, and then finally on the highway. At least they would be able to call for help there if the worst came about.

Robert tried to focus on the scenery, the green and brown of the trees, the other cars, the signs by the road. Anything not to look at Aaron, not to focus on the sound of his breath or the smell of grease still staining his hands. Not to have to think too much about his words.

When the scrapyard came into focus, Robert almost sighed with relief. Aaron parked his car in the middle of the driveway and Robert got out of there before the tires had even fully stopped. He took care of slamming the car door on his way out.

“What’s with the Driving Miss Daisy remake?” A familiar voice on his left asked.

“What the hell, Vic?” Robert startled. He had been so focused on his walk back home that he hadn’t even noticed Vic siding up to him. “You gave me a heart attack.”

“Don’t change the subject. I saw you in the car with Aaron. Are you guys mates now?” Vic asked.

“No. He just gave me a lift.” Robert replied, keeping his tone as non-committal as possible.

“I thought he hated you.” Vic said, only half joking. Robert gave her a side-eye look. “What?” She continued with a laugh. “It’s true.”

“He doesn’t hate me.” Robert replied. Aaron definitely didn’t like him, not particularly in that moment, but he didn’t hate him. Robert was reasonably sure.

“Okay, he doesn’t like you. Why was he giving you a lift, then?” She asked.

“We were just going in the same direction, is all.” Robert shrugged. Vic was smart and curious, and the last thing Robert needed now was her sniffing around and finding out about the job. He needed the whole thing to sound as uninteresting as possible.

Vic shrugged, seemingly happy with the answer. They walked home together, Vic talking about the latest of Marlon’s affronts to her culinary skills. Robert nodded and hummed in all the right places, but his head was somewhere else.

-

Robert woke up that morning, got dressed, and got into his car. He sat in it for a few minutes, willing his brain to focus on the task at hand. He needed to reach a P.O. box in Leeds, where one of his contact had stashed a few essentials.

Robert vividly remembered the strenuous lectures from Lawrence about cutting contact with their former lives and former business. About being cordial but making it clear they had moved on. Robert was starting to feel uniquely happy he had never listened to even a single one of them.

The day was grey and gloomy, made even worse by the fact that the weather had been incredibly mild in the past few days. Rain splattered on Robert’s windshield, and Robert just looked at it go for a few seconds. It was pathetic. He was pathetic. Sitting in his car like some sort of lovelorn teenager, watching the rain. All he was missing was Adele wailing in the background.

Just as Robert was about to shake himself and turn on the engine, he heard someone knocking at his side window. Robert saw Finn standing outside, a newspaper held over his head to shield himself from the rain and a cup of coffee in his hand. Robert unlocked the car doors and Finn climbed into the passenger’s seat, shaking water droplets all over the interior of Robert’s car. Robert tamped down his irritation.

“Morning!” Finn said cheerfully.

“What’s that?” Robert asked, eyeing the coffee in Finn’s hands.

“Uhm. Coffee? An Americano.” Finn replied, clearly thrown by the abrupt shift in conversation. Robert took it, ignoring Finn’s protests and downed it in one go. It was lukewarm at best and Finn really needed to stop drowning his coffee with so much sugar, but it was better than nothing. He gave the cup back to Finn.

“Excuse you?” Finn asked, indignant.

“Thanks. I didn’t have time for breakfast this morning.” Robert replied with a shrug.

“There’s a perfectly good coffee shop across the street!” Finn said, pointing animatedly at Bob Hope’s café.

“I’m kind of in a hurry, actually.” Robert said, pointedly looking at Finn.

“Where are you going?”

“Leeds.” Robert replied.

“Okay, I’m coming with you.” Finn said, fastening his seatbelt.

“You can’t.” Robert replied, matter-of-factly. “I have some business to attend to.”

“You can just drop me off to the comic book shop and pick me up when you’re done.” Finn said, shrugging at Robert and settling into his seat.

Robert sighed. He glanced at the clock. He was supposed to be there and back again in time to have lunch with Vic. There was no point in arguing. He turned the car on.

“If you make me late I’m stranding you in Leeds.” Robert warned, making a sharp turn.

“Do you want anything from the shop while I’m there?” Finn asked absentmindedly, already absorbed by something on his phone.

Robert looked at him from the corner of his eye, trying to figure out if Finn was making fun of him or if his question was genuine. Robert couldn’t really tell. “No, thanks.” Finn didn’t reply.

The silence stretched for a few minutes. Robert’s thoughts started drifting towards Aaron, as they had done often lately. He couldn’t stop replaying the argument from the day before over and over in his head. Aaron thought he knew everything about him. Aaron knew nothing.

And yet. Both times with Aaron had felt to Robert like being known for the first time, hadn’t they? That was what made sex with Aaron so easy. They understood each other. Bodies and minds, without words.

Robert started tapping a frantic rhythm on the steering wheel with his thumb.

“Can you stop that?” Finn asked, still not looking up from his phone.

Robert rolled his eyes, but acquiesced. He refused to spiral. He needed a distraction. Luckily for him one was conveniently sitting on the passenger’s seat, wetting the interior of his Porsche.

“So,” he said, “how come someone as talented as you is still living in Emmerdale? Man of your talents, I figured would have run away to London as soon as possible.”

“I wanted to, growing up. But I decided to stay with my family.” Finn replied with practiced nonchalance.

“You got stuck, you mean.” Robert said.

Finn rolled his eyes. “No, I mean some things are more important than me gallivanting around London. Like keeping Pete and Ross from killing each other. Or teaming up to kill my mum.”

Robert thought about his early years in London. He’d been completely on his own. He had been a scared, lonely, angry young man. But it had forced him to learn how to take care of himself.

“I’m just saying, you’re still young. You could leave.” Robert replied with a shrug. Even as a kid, he had never wanted to stay in Emmerdale his entire life. He hadn’t planned on leaving like he had, but he had always known he was going to take off on his own. But maybe he would have gone to university. Maybe he would have been there when Jack had died. Maybe he would have gotten to be closer to his family. Maybe he would have even gotten to meet Aaron sooner, before all the jobs and the hurt had gotten to him.

Robert shook his head, as if to physically dislodge those thoughts from his brain. Dwelling on what could have been was of no use to anyone. Robert didn’t do regret. He lived with his choices and moved on.

“Robert, I don’t want to leave. I’m serious.” Finn replied, placing emphasis on the last part. “Was this my dream life? No, but it’s better. I’m home. I have a family. I won’t lie, it took me a while to appreciate it. But after my dad died, it was different.” Finn continued. He had a faraway look on his face.

“I’m sorry about your dad.” Robert said, carefully keeping his eyes on the road.

“Thanks. It was a while ago.” Finn replied.

They fell into silence. Finn was looking out of the window, clearly absorbed by memories and thoughts he didn’t want to make Robert privy to. Robert didn’t mind. He tried to think about his relationship with his dad the least possible amount. It didn’t help that every time he did think about it, he still felt the sting of Jack’s hand on his face.

As long as Jack had lived, Robert had been a balloon on a very long string. When the man had died, that string had snapped and Robert had become untethered. Instead of taking it as a chance to go back to Emmerdale, Robert took it as sign to stay as far away as possible. He had taken his first overseas job that same night. He had breathed in the sticky sweet air of Hong Kong and it had felt like the first breath after a long underwater swim. With the money from the job, he had bought his first bespoke suit and had reinvented himself. He had stopped being Robert Sugden, son of Jack Sugden, and he had become someone else. Someone who never had to go back to Emmerdale.

Except now, he was back. Entrenched in the daily life of the village. Not for very long, though. Andy and Aaron, not to mention Chas and Adam, were basically running him out. Robert was expecting torches and pitchforks any minute.

Robert drove in silence, until he reached the outer edge of the city. From there Finn gave him directions to the comic book store. It was on the other side of the town from where Robert had to be. Not that Finn seemed to be particularly concerned with having derailed all of Robert’s plans for the day.

Robert stopped in front of the shop, car still on.

“Thanks for the ride.” Finn said, opening the passenger’s door.

“If you’re not out when I’m back I’m leaving you here.” Robert replied.

Instead of replying, Finn slammed the door shut and ran into the shop, trying not to get soaked again.

Robert sighed and sped off.

He drove towards a bank on the other edge of town. A small thing, hardly any employees. No one batted an eyelid in seeing come in with a big black gym bag.

This time no one asked him for any ID or signature. He just handed some cash over, was shown into a small room containing a few deposit boxes. Once there, he was left to his own devices, the clerk leaving his keys behind with nothing more than a curious look.

Robert checked his phone again. The number in the text was still the same. Box 3. He quickly found it, nestled on the bottom row of security boxes and picked it up. Inside, as promised, were a bunch of fake documents and passports. He checked every piece of it. They all seemed in order.

Quickly and efficiently, Robert swapped the contents of his bag – one hundred thousand pounds, all cash and small bills – and the documents. He closed the box again and put it back where it was. His contact would be there in a few hours to pick it up.

It wasn’t the way Robert was used to handling business. He preferred meeting his contacts face to face. It was riskier, but it fostered good relationships. Good enough that even years after the last contact they were more than happy to provide him with top-notch fake documents at the drop of a hat.

When Robert stopped in front of the comic book shop, Finn was already there. He was holding a plastic bag in his hands, and he was leaning on the wall, under the awning, to avoid getting wet. Robert almost felt bad for him. Then he remembered how annoyed he’d been when Finn had soaked the interior of his car and the moment passed.

Finn climbed in, put on his seatbelt and started rooting into his plastic bag.

“Productive day?” Robert asked, sarcasm dripping from his words.

“You could say that.” Finn replied, retrieving a paper bag and tossing it at Robert with a smug look.

Robert gave Finn a questioning look, but he just nodded towards the bag. With a sigh, Robert opened it. Inside there were earpieces, except they looked nothing like the ones Robert had seen before. They were small, smaller than anything he’d ever seen before, round and a pale beige colour.

“Told you I could get us something nice.” Finn said.

“Where did you get these?” Robert asked, struggling to hide the awe in his voice.

“I know a guy.” Finn shrugged.

“A guy you meet in a comic book store?” Robert asked. The more he looked at the earpieces the more he realized how sophisticated they were. He’d only ever seen stuff like that when dealing with black ops people or those working in espionage.

“It’s more like a hacker collective masquerading as a comic book shop.” Finn explained. “They did however have the last X-Men volume, so it’s a win-win for me.”

Robert blinked slowly at Finn. Some people really had hidden depths.

“How much will this set us back for?” Robert asked.

“Nothing.” Finn replied cheerfully. “They owed me a favour.”

“Must have been one hell of a favour.” Robert said, turning the car on.

“It was. Let’s just say I need to stay out of sight of a few foreign governments.” Finn replied.

“Does your hacker collective by any chance also know where to get military grade C4?” Robert asked. It was a long shot, but still worth trying. Anything to not have to revisit his old London contacts. Nothing was done for nothing, and he didn’t mean just money. Something as big as military grade explosive would have required owing a lot of favours to people Robert did not want to owe anything to. That’s how people found themselves in real trouble. The more distance he could put between himself and them, the better.

“No. But you know who has that kind of contact?”

“Don’t say Ross.” Robert begged. On the one hand, sending Ross to do his dirty work was an acceptable compromise, but on the other hand it meant relying on Ross. Ross was well-known in the criminal underworld for being a loose cannon. He wasn’t necessarily dangerous, just unpredictable. There was also the mystifying fact that the man had managed to shake the police loose literally every time he had been caught red-handed. He was an unknown variable and Robert didn’t like dealing with those.

“Ross.” Finn said. Because Finn was terrible and clearly hated Robert very much. “Listen, it will be fine. Just ask.”

“No offense, but your bother is a lunatic.” Robert replied.

“He’s unusual,” Finn admitted, “but he’s not bad.”

Robert rolled his eyes. All this brotherly love was starting to grate on him. “Where’s your brother this afternoon?” Robert asked. Robert hated to admit it, but this was probably his best option.

“He’s got a shift at the garage.” Finn replied.

-

“Ross Barton.” Robert called, walking into the garage. He had fond memories of that garage. Or well, of some of the time spent there. He looked inside; it looked like Ross was alone.

Ross emerged from under the bonnet of a car, blue overalls and grease stains on his hands and face. He was handsome, in a dangerous sort of way. Dark hair, dark eyes, smug look on his face. In Robert’s opinion, he had too much confidence and not enough talent to warrant it.

“Robert Sugden.” Ross greeted him. He grabbed a towel and started cleaning his hands with little success.

Robert had thought about approaching Ross throughout his entire lunch with Vic. He’d come up empty. Ross couldn’t really be manipulated, and Robert had nothing on him or nothing he wanted, except the promise of money. He could only be direct and hope Ross was in a good mood.

“So, are you here for a reason or are you just going around reminding everyone their names?” Ross asked before Robert could speak again. Robert refrained from rolling his eyes. He needed Ross. He wished he didn’t, but he did. He needed to keep his head on straight.

“I need something from you.” He replied.

“Don’t they all?” Ross asked, shrugging.

“It’s for the job.” Robert continued, maybe a little bit more forcefully than strictly necessary.

“Yes, Finn mentioned something.” He replied, leaning against the side of the car and crossing his arms. He looked like the cat that ate the canary. Robert felt the fleeting but intense urge to deck him.

“I need some C4 for Andy. Military grade. Finn said you might know where to get some.” Robert said, tamping down his violent urges. This was already the most frustrating conversation he’d ever willingly started.

“I do.” Ross replied with a smug look.

“So? Can you get it?” Robert asked, the impatience and frustration clear in his voice.

“I can.” Ross replied. “Now, all hinges on whether I want to get it or not.” He continued, smiling at Robert.

“You do understand that without this we can’t go forward with the job.” Robert replied. He couldn’t believe he was having this conversation.

Ross shrugged. “I can manage.”

“Clearly.” Robert replied, dry, eyeing the badly lit garage. Ross’ “managing” had always brought him a lot of trouble but no real results. Surely, even he was aware this was the opportunity of a lifetime. “What do you want?” Robert asked.

“Nothing. For now.” Ross replied turning his sugary sweet smile on Robert. “But you owe me a favour.”

The last thing Robert wanted was to owe Ross Barton anything, but it was either Ross or some very dangerous people. He hated feeling like he was trapped in a corner, but that’s where he was.

“Deal.” He said.

With enough luck, by the time Ross Barton wanted that favour back, he’d be as far away from Emmerdale as possible.

-

A few days later, Robert walked into the barn. At the end of the table closer to the door was a giftbox. It was red with a pattern of gold swirls and flowers. Ross Barton was sitting on the other end of the table, no one else was in the barn yet.

“What’s this?” Robert asked, settling his bag onto the table.

“Open it.” Ross replied, smirking.

Robert sighed, but got closer to the box. He carefully opened the lid, just enough to peer inside. There was a rectangle, not much bigger than a brick, wrapped in beige paper with the words “c4 explosive” printed on it in all caps.

“That was fast.” Robert said, carefully putting the lid back on. His voice was measured and even, so that Ross wouldn’t detect just how unnerved he really was.

“What can I say? I deliver.” Ross replied. He looked particularly satisfied with himself.

Before either of them could say anything more, Finn, Adam and Aaron walked in.

Robert sat down, his eyes glued to the box. That was the last piece he needed. Somehow, the explosive was the thing that was making Robert realize there would be no coming back from this. He had gone all in and this was his only option. He risked a glance at Aaron. Aaron was ignoring him. Robert guessed in a way he deserved that. He’d get Aaron to thaw eventually.

As soon as Andy walked into the barn, Robert called him over. The sooner he could get rid of the explosive the better. He’d never been particularly comfortable handling it. He’d tried a couple times, he was smart, good with the maths and the chemistry of it all, but he could never bring himself to actually detonate the thing. He’d leave it to Andy.

“What?” Andy asked, standing up next to Robert. Like this Robert had to crane his neck to look Andy in the face.

“I got something for you.” Robert said, carefully sliding the box towards Andy.

Andy rolled his eyes, but opened the lid. He looked inside, then at Robert. If he was surprised Robert had delivered so quickly, he didn’t show it. “This should do.” He said before taking the box and walking away to sit as far away as possible from Robert.

“You’re welcome!” Robert yelled after him, but Andy ignored him.

“If you’re done with your brotherly bonding, can we begin?” Charity asked, sitting down. “Some of us still have day jobs we need to attend to.”

“Yeah, for the amount of work you actually put in it.” Chas sniped, without any real heat to it.

“Oi!” Charity protested. “Debs is coming over later, okay? I need to be there.”

“Can we start? Please.” Finn said, raising his voice. Robert decided to take pity on him, and himself if he was being honest. He didn’t think he could stomach another Dingle blow out.

“Okay, I thought up of a way for Andy to get in.” He said.

“We’re all ears.” Cain replied.

“The casino has a jail.” Robert explained.

“A jail?” Finn asked.

“Yes, a jail.” Robert replied.

“Really? Inside the casino?” Adam asked. It was a valid question. One Robert himself had asked himself a few times.

“Lawrence fancies himself old school. Roughing people up, dropping them off in the desert never to be seen again and so on.” Robert replied. He had found Lawrence’s dramatics unnecessary at the time, but he couldn’t deny he would have done the same in his position.

“Monte Carlo has no desert.” Adam said. Robert rolled his eyes. He was almost impressed Adam knew that.

“Yes, I’m aware, thanks for the geography lesson.” Robert replied, probably with more venom than strictly necessary.

“Why?” Adam asked again, ignoring Robert’s tone.

“I don’t know, he’s seen too many Frank Sinatra movies?” Robert replied. It was his best guess.

“Okay, how does this help us?” Cain asked, bringing them all back to the task at hand.

“We use it and the face recognition software to our advantage.” Robert said, waiting for the others to connect the dots.

“Are you waiting for a drum roll, mate?” Ross asked. Robert sighed.

“We make the system flag Andy as a thief.” He explained. “They’ll want to scare him off. Throw him in and rough him up a little. Nothing too serious, but enough that he won’t try to get in again.”

“How does that help us?” Andy asked, looking perplexed.

“Because Cain is going to let you out. You’ll wear one of the handyman uniforms and get Aaron and me in from the inside.”

“There’s just a little problem with this plan.” Finn interjected.

“Just one?” Aaron asked, speaking for the first time. Robert shot him a look, but Aaron wasn’t looking at him.

“We still don’t know how to get me into the system room.” Finn continued.

“We know the company is scheduled for an update of the system. We just need to find out when and derail them.” Robert replied.

“Easy.” Chas said snidely.

“No, I never said it’d be easy, but doable.” Robert replied, trying very hard to keep his anger in check.

“Won’t we look suspicious? Three strangers strolling in a restricted area?” Andy asked.

“That’s where the diversion with the explosive comes into play. We’ll need something to cordon off that hallway. In the chaos, no one will notice us. Finn, can you record some fake footage to air on the security monitors?”

“Yes, but I’ll need a picture of the wall and some measurements.” Finn replied.

“Cain can do that once he’s inside.” Robert said.

“Wait, wait, back up a second. Won’t they call Lawrence or Chrissie?” Adam asked.

“It’s Lawrence’s birthday, no one will disturb him if they think it’s just an accident. Especially if they think he’s having a good time with a pair of wealthy guests. And Chrissie never works on her father’s birthday.” Robert replied, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice. He had spent one too many of Lawrence’s birthdays holding the fort while they celebrated. It was just another passive aggressive way of Lawrence’s to say you’re not one of us.

“You’re banking a lot on dumb luck.” Charity replied.

“No, I’m banking a lot on my intimate knowledge of how Lawrence operates his business.” Robert snapped, then took a steadying breath. He needed to get his act together. “I built that place from the ground up, trust me.”

No one looked particularly convinced, but, well, Robert didn’t need them convinced, he just needed them there.

The rest of the meeting was fairly straightforward, getting into the material details of the operation, clothes, transportation, papers. One thing movies like Ocean’s 11 or The Sting never got right was just how tedious a lot of these jobs were. They were seventy-five percent waiting around, twenty percent preparation, and just five percent action. Robert wasn’t the most patient person in the world, but he made more than up for it in sheer stubbornness and talent.

“So, are we done? My daughter is waiting for me.” Charity said, already getting up.

Before Robert could even reply, Cain was also up and out of the barn. Soon, everyone else started filing out. Robert seized his opportunity. Just as Aaron was getting up to get out, he walked up to him and put himself between Aaron and the exit.

Aaron looked at him, hostility clearly written all over his face.

“What?” He asked once he realized Robert wasn’t going to move. Robert hadn’t really thought that far ahead.

“The vault has an old school safe.”

“Yes, you told me. That’s why I’m here, to crack it.”

“We should probably practice.” Robert said with a winning smile. Aaron did not look impressed.

“Do one, Robert.” He replied, dodging him and hurrying out as if the barn were on fire.

Robert sighed. Not the ideal outcome, but he could try again later.

“Stop it.” Chas said as soon as Robert was out of the barn. He only barely managed not to jump a foot in the air. He hadn’t realized she was still there.

“Stop what?” He asked, willing his heart rate back to a normal level.

“Whatever you’re doing with Aaron. It has to stop.” She got closer. She looked both sad and murderous. It was a weird combination to pull off, but Chas managed.

“We’re just friends.” Robert said, but even to his own ears the words sounded hollow and fake. He was losing his touch if he couldn’t even convincingly lie to himself.

“You don’t have any friends. You just have people you use and manipulate.” Chas spat back.

“And what would I gain from Aaron?” Robert replied. His voice had his usual smug tone, but he had to swallow through a sudden knot of anxiety lodged in his throat to get it out.

“I don’t care. Just stay away from him.”

“He can make his own choices, don’t you think?”

“Oh, I’m aware. That’s not that I’m worried about.” She replied.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s none of your business.” Robert said, starting to walk away. The conversation had been going on for far too long already.

“You weren’t here, okay?” Chas finally exploded, stopping Robert dead in his tracks. She took a step towards him. Her dark hair was whipping past her head in Robert’s direction. As if even her curls were coming towards him to slap him. Every fibre of Chas’ being was hostile to him. “He lied for you and it hurt him so much. He couldn’t shake the guilt of something you did. You killed Katie. And you didn’t even have the decency to face it. We had to bury her and we had to carry this secret, this festering, rotting, vile thing with us. And in all of this, where were you? Eloping to the south of France on a yacht. How is that fair, Robert?” She asked.

“I–” Robert started, but he found himself speechless. What could he say? It was true. Not the part about Katie, but the part about Aaron lying for him. He’d asked him, begged him, to tell the police they’d spent the entire day together. Aaron had agreed, for whatever reason, he had agreed. And he’d taken that with him for years.

“Just stay away from Aaron, or I’ll make you regret ever coming back.” Chas warned. With one last withering look, she left.

Robert had known. He’d heard whispers, rumours, but criminals were a gossiping bunch, everything had to be taken with a pinch of salt. But it made sense, didn’t it? The scars, they’d been there before, but there were more now. Why the Dingles had closed rank and decided to dedicate themselves to a normal life, or as normal as they could have. They were there for Aaron. Because of what Robert had made him do. What Robert had done to him.

Robert’s phone buzzed with an incoming call. He declined it without even looking at it.

-

Robert was walking and reading an email on his phone. Admittedly, it wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but it was still early and the sleepy Emmerdale roads certainly posed no threat to him. He’d woken up at five am, trying to figure out his next step and to get coffee before the morning rush. He’d basically been hovering near the entrance while Bob opened the café. Not his finest moment, but one he could live with.

It certainly beat the current atmosphere at home. Andy and Adam were busy being alternatively gloomy or annoying, while a confused Vic tried to cheer everyone up without really knowing what was going on. It was suffocating. The mix of self-pity and stubbornness was starting to choke him.

Those were the thoughts that were swirling around Robert’s head when he felt something solid collide against his legs.

“Watch out where you’re going!” He yelled, almost dropping his phone.

“I’m sorry!” Came a small, high-pitched voice.

Robert looked down. In front of him were two kids. A girl and a younger boy.

Robert was more than a little embarrassed by how long it took him to place them and realize he was staring at Andy’s kids. In his defence, he’d only ever seen pictures of them during the years, and they looked nothing like their dad.

“That’s okay.” Robert replied. All he needed now was to accidentally traumatize Andy’s kids.

The older kid, Sarah, looked at him. She didn’t look ill, but Robert guessed it was probably still too early for that. She mostly just looked a bit tired.

She didn’t look anything like her namesake either, which made sense, they weren’t related in any way. Still, Robert couldn’t help but feel a pang of sadness. Sarah and Jack. Andy had taken even that from him.

“Aren’t you Daddy’s brother?” Sarah asked. She was studying Robert’s face like she could will some sort of recognition upon it. Maybe she’d seen pictures. Or even more likely, she’d been issued dire warning against approaching him.

“Yeah. I’m your uncle Robert, I guess.” Robert said, wrinkling his nose. It felt weird. This whole conversation was weird.

It wasn’t that Robert disliked children, not particularly, and not in small doses, but these were Andy’s children. Bearing the names of his dead parents. There was a whole Twilight Zone feeling to it.

Sarah nodded. Next to her Jack was starting to get impatient, but she didn’t seem to notice. Or maybe she didn’t care. She looked up at him. He could see Andy in her eyes.

“Is it true you got kicked out by your wife?” She asked.

Robert sighed. Glad to know the Emmerdale rumour mill was still in perfect conditions. “Who told you that?”

“I heard Mum and Dad talk about it.” Sarah replied with a shrug. That was all Dingle.

“It’s not nice to eavesdrop.” Robert replied. He was not about to discuss his private life with a kid barely out of primary school.

“I wasn’t. They were talking very loud.” Sarah said, with a grin that implied the exact opposite. Maybe this kid was his niece after all.

“Sure, I believe you.” Robert replied. Then he noticed the suspicious lack of parental supervision. Emmerdale was a quiet village, but not that quiet. “Where are your parents?”

As if summoned by Robert, Andy appeared in his line of sight. He was scanning his surroundings, probably looking for his kids.

As soon as Andy’s eyes found them, his entire demeanour changed. His shoulder tensed, his eyes darkened, and his pace quickened. In just a few strides, he was in front of Robert, shielding Sarah and Jack from him, as if Robert were some kind of threat or menace to them.

“What did I tell you, Sarah?” He asked his daughter. His tone was measured and even, but his eyes were set on Robert, a new kind of hardness to them Robert had never seen before.

Sarah rolled her eyes, hidden safely where her dad couldn’t see it. Robert almost wanted to laugh. “To go straight to Mum at the garage.” She replied, clearly parroting someone else’s words.

“Go on, then. Go to your mum.” Andy said in that same tone.

Sarah sighed but started walking away, still clasping Jack’s hand. “See you later, Daddy. Bye Uncle Robert.”

Robert waved at her, looking at her go until she was out of sight.

“What game are you playing at, Robert?” Andy asked, an edge of danger in his voice.

“Nothing! Your daughter bumped into me.” Robert replied. “I’m not the Pied Piper. I didn’t lure her here to annoy you.”

“Is everything a game for you?” Andy spat out, his voice barely more than a whisper. “Those are my children.”

“Are you sure? Because they look nothing like you.” Robert replied.

In retrospect, he should have seen the punch to the stomach coming, but hindsight was 20/20.

Robert doubled over, clutching his mid-section, the pain cutting off his breathing. Andy still had a hand on his shoulder, fingers digging painfully into his skin and muscles. He hunched over, getting his face to Robert’s level.

“You destroy everything you touch, Robert.” Andy said, close enough that Robert could feel his breath on his cheek. “Stay away from my kids.”

Robert looked around, hoping someone would come and into the street and see what was going on, but he had no such luck. The streets were still deserted. If it came to it, Andy could probably beat him pretty badly before anyone would even notice.

Just as Robert was starting to really panic, Andy straightened up. With one last look at his brother, he left. Robert watched him go, and as soon as he was out of sight, he collapsed onto his knees, breathing heavily despite the pain.

-

The barn wasn’t exactly a high security facility. Anyone could come in and find out what they were doing. Robert counted on Cain’s reputation to keep most of the village at bay. Everyone knew something was going on, but as long as Cain was involved, no one wanted to know exactly what that something was. So far, the strategy had worked wonders.

It all, however, came to a head on a foggy morning.

Robert was working with Finn on a way to bypass the casino’s security system. Well, “working with” might have been an inaccurate assessment. It mostly involved Finn talking about specifics and Robert nodding along as if he understood what he was saying. Suddenly, the barn door slid open.

Ten heads turned to look at the intruder, as a thick silence fell into the barn.

“I can’t believe this.” Vic said before rushing out again. Both Robert and Adam sprang up to run after her.

“Vic! Vic!” Adam yelled, running after his wife. He managed to catch up with her just as she stopped and turned around, moving so fast it was half a miracle she didn’t knock Adam out. Robert stopped too, a bit farther away. He suddenly wished he hadn’t come out after them.

“You lied to me!” She yelled. She was looking at Adam, but Robert felt the sting of it too.

“Babe, I just didn’t want you to worry.” Adam replied. He approached her like Robert had seen animal control approach deadly snakes on the Animal Planet. Weirdly, it just seemed to make Vic angrier.

“I am your wife, Adam. Not your child.” She snapped. At least now, her voice was down to a less ear-splitting volume. “And you.” She continued, her attention veering onto Robert. “My own brother. I knew you were involved in some dodgy stuff, Robert, but this? I saw what was in that barn. And you roped my own husband into it?”

“He made a choice. They all did. Andy was there too, in case you didn’t notice.” Robert replied, rolling his eyes. Classic Sugden behaviour, accusing him of something while Andy was doing the exact same thing. Except worse.

“I did notice. Somehow though, I’m not convinced he’s the mastermind behind this.” She replied.

“Yeah, because he’s dumber than a box of bricks.” Robert muttered under his breath. Apparently not low enough, because Vic’s eyes got bigger, brimming with barely repressed fury.

“This isn’t a joke, Robert! This is my life. My marriage.” She yelled.

“I’m doing it for you! Adam, as well!” Robert shot back, just as loudly.

“Yeah, sure. You’ve never cared for anyone in your entire life. Why start now?” She spat out.

Robert blinked, slowly. Andy’s punch to the stomach had hurt less. Robert looked at Vic, his little sister. Her hair was in disarray and she was clenching her fists, as if fighting the urge to hit him. Her eyes were red, but she was valiantly fighting back the tears. Robert had never wanted to hug her more desperately than in that moment.

Of course he cared about her. She was one of the only people he had ever cared about in his entire life. She was one of the only people who had ever believed in him.

“Come on, Vic, that’s unfair.” Adam interjected. His voice barely above a whisper.

“Not from where I’m standing.” She replied, her voice hoarse from the screaming.

“Vic.” Robert said, taking a tentative step towards her. She stepped back.

“You know what? Why don’t you move the whole thing home? Because I won’t be there when you come back.” Vic said. With one last look at the two men, she turned around and started running towards her car.

Adam made a move to follow his wife but Robert stopped him. “Let her calm down first.” He said. 

Adam and Robert stood there dumbfounded for a few seconds, looking at Vic’s retreating form. Even from where they were standing, they could see her wiping her eyes on her sleeve. “I’m sorry.” Robert said after a while. There was a cold knot of worry lodged in his stomach and a painful itch behind his eyes. Robert pushed both away. He didn’t have time for this. Now more than ever he needed the job to be success so he could fix things with Vic.

“It’s not your fault. I asked to be a part of this.” Adam replied, but it sounded hollow.

“It’s going to be okay.” Robert said, plastering on a smile and patting Adam on the back. “You’ll be back in two weeks with seven and a half million euros and I promise you, you won’t be in the doghouse anymore.”

“If you say so.” Adam replied. His voice sounded far away.

As soon as Robert and Adam walked back inside, the seemingly lively discussion that had been going on until then stopped abruptly. That lot was about as subtle as a brick through a window. Robert sighed and strode back towards Finn’s desk, where he’d left his briefcase. Adam slinked towards Aaron, who just gave him a look. Adam shook his head. Robert was never going to understand how those two managed to communicate without talking.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen, I wanted to do this later, but since we’re all here.” Robert said, taking an envelope out of his briefcase. Inside there were nine fake passports. He distributed them among the crew.

Charity whistled her appreciation. “Top of the line.” She said, opening hers and flipping through it.

“They better be, with what they cost me.” Robert replied. Good thing it wasn’t his money he was spending.

“Always classy.” Chas shot back, but it lacked her usual heat. Robert ignored her.

“Cain’s going to leave tomorrow. Plane is at 3 pm, sharp.” He said, taking out a boarding pass and handing it to the man. “Are you clear on the plan?” Robert asked.

Cain shot him a look that made it abundantly clear that if Robert asked one more time there would be no plan because Robert would be too dead for the job.

The fact that Robert had gotten so good at deciphering Cain’s murderous looks was just depressing.

Instead of answering verbally like a normal person, Cain got up, gathered his stuff and left.

Gradually, everyone else followed suit. The last people in the barn were Robert, Aaron and Adam. Adam was looking into the distance, spaced out. Close to him Aaron was looking at Robert. Robert looked back.

Their eyes locked and Robert wanted more than anything for Aaron to say something to him. To tell him how much he’d screwed up, how this was all his fault. Instead, Aaron got up and looked away.

“Come on, let’s get you drunk.” He told Adam. Adam nodded, dejected, and they both left.

Robert sighed. The evening stretched, silent and stony, in front of him.

-

The village was as quiet as it ever got. Robert had to admit he almost liked it like that. Dark, no one in sight. Just him, his thoughts, and the brick houses that had been standing there since forever.

He let his feet lead him around, the cold wind whipping past him. The house had felt dangerously empty and silent without Vic. Like the house of a mourning family.

He would know.

The cold was almost a welcoming distraction. The bottle in his hands would soon be one too.

He didn’t really have a destination in mind. He was just walking aimlessly. Hopefully he would tire himself out enough that drinking a bottle of whiskey on his own in the middle of nowhere became a good idea.

Robert got his wish a few minutes later, arriving in front of the cricket pavilion. At that time of the night, it was absolutely deserted. Exactly what he needed.

The ground was cold and hard, but the whiskey would soon help with that. Robert twisted the cap off and took a swig. It burned all the way down his throat; the difference between that and the outside temperature made him shiver.

He wondered idly how he’d gotten here. Lonely and on his way to drunk off his face, shivering in a field in Emmerdale of all places. Maybe if he could retrace his steps he could figure out where he’d gone wrong.

Vic. Andy. Aaron.

But the forces turning his life into a disaster zone had been in motion long before he’d set foot in Emmerdale again.

The affairs, for sure. Not his brightest moments. But hadn’t the affairs been a symptom of something else? Boredom, mostly. Fatigue, too. Robert had underestimated the energy needed to fool everyone around him. To pretend to always be the man they wanted him to be. The devoted husband to Chrissie. The attentive stepfather to Lachlan. The savvy businessman to Lawrence. Sure, those were parts of him, but they weren’t all of him.

Maybe his marriage to Chrissie had been a mistake too. Despite what he told himself and others he’d loved her fiercely once. He still remembered seeing her for the first time. Her hair had been long then, her face set, but her eyes had been shining, amused by something Robert had said. She had been radiant. Robert had emptied his already lacking back account to treat her to the best restaurant in town. She hadn’t been impressed one bit. Not until Robert had taken her to his favourite ice cream shop in the city, a small place nestled at the corner of a busy street. It had been summer and the place had been packed, but Robert had been there so many times that the owner herself had come out to greet him and get him ahead of the queue.

He had waged a second date on the condition he guessed Chrissie’s favourite flavour. He still didn’t know if he had guessed correctly or if Chrissie had let him win. “I’ll tell you on our tenth anniversary.” She’d joked.

Robert took another swig.

Sure, Robert had been attracted to Lawrence’s money as well; Chrissie had guaranteed him access to that, but that hadn’t been the only reason he married her, despite the accusations Chrissie and Lawrence had flung in his direction. He had loved her – just not enough to be fully honest with her or be faithful to her. Robert could admit that much to himself.

Lawrence had been a mistake as well. Robert had had zero experience running a legitimate business, but he’d had initiative and pretty eyes. He wasn’t ashamed to admit he’d flirted a little, stroking Lawrence’s ego and playing along. He had known Lawrence would never make a move beyond ogling him on the odd Sunday spent on the family yacht.

There’d been cutting ties with his former life. It hadn’t been perfect, by any means, but he had been his own man as much as that life permitted him to be. Why had he left it? To become a legitimate businessman? To prove to the ghost of his father that Robert could be better than him?

Another drink.

Oh, Katie. Katie had been such a big mistake. He hadn’t meant for it to happen, for her to die. The offer of that one last job had been a taunt; it was supposed to be a reminder that they hadn’t been so different after all. He hadn’t known about Sarah at the time. He couldn’t have known Katie had desperately needed the money. He hadn’t known about the rain or the weak knots. Another ghost, another mistake, another relationship never fixed before it was too late.

A drink. Another. One more. The bottle was getting lighter, but his arm was getting tired.

Aaron. That first time. Had that been a mistake too? Yes. The biggest mistake of his life. There had been electricity that night. He had felt it in his veins for weeks, trying to chase it with Chrissie and a string of nameless men and women. It hadn’t been enough. Robert had lied to himself, told himself he could forget about it. He hadn’t. The moment he’d seen Aaron again he had known it was a fight not worth fighting. How was he supposed to deny himself one of the best things that had ever happened to him? He had never been particularly good at that. If given the chance, falling into bed with Aaron was an inevitability.

Not that it was going to happen again, given the state of their relationship.

Before that, there had been the gangsters and mobsters in London. Max King. Andy. His dad. The farmhand. His mum. Katie. Donna. Debbie. Thomas. Vic. Robert chased every memory down with a drink from the bottle, until they all blurred together in a montage of bad choices and bad luck.

Deep blue eyes, two sets, different shades, different lives. Gentle hands, touching his cheek and stroking his hair one second, then hard and calloused, slapping him across the face the next. Skin, smooth under his fingertips, the burn of stubble on his inner thigh. The smell of the fields and the smell of perfume and the smell of the city.

What was the point? The money? Sitting on the ground, alone, on a cold night, it seemed so unimportant. He was alone. Completely alone.

The money could help him build himself a new life. Far away from Emmerdale. Away from Andy, Vic, and Aaron. Away from the ghosts and the gravestones he felt hanging from his neck.

He didn’t want it. He didn’t want to go. Not again. Despite the pain and anger, despite the burned bridges. He was startled by the intensity of this one single thought: I want to stay. It would have knocked him off his feet if he hadn’t already been sitting down.

After years of running away. Years of Vic begging him to come back and Andy asking him to stay after Jack’s funeral. Aaron’s soft you could come visit while Robert pretended to be asleep. Years of keeping the Whites as far away from Emmerdale as possible.

After everyone in his life had made it clear they wanted him gone.

Robert had never claimed to have good timing.

He wasn’t drunk. Definitely on his way there, if he kept up this pace. He didn’t want to. He found the bottle’s cap lying on the grass and twisted it back on. He got up, wobbling a couple of times before finding his footing.

Robert started walking back towards the village. He could still feel the wind, but despite his now open jacket, he didn’t feel the cold. He needed to get home and sleep the whiskey off. He needed to get up the next morning and fix things.

His phone rang. He let it. Whoever it was, they could call back.

Robert was trying to force his alcohol-addled brain to formulate coherent thoughts when he saw a light flicker in front of him – a cigarette being lit up. Behind it was the unmistakable shape of Aaron Dingle shivering against the cold night. Robert’s brain shouted at him to walk back. His traitorous feet led him closer instead.

Aaron must have seen him come over, because he had no discernible reaction when Robert sat down next to him on the picnic bench behind the Woolpack.

“I didn’t know you smoked.” Robert said, aiming for neutral. The slight slur probably giving his night time activities away.

“I don’t. First one in two years.” Aaron replied, flicking the ashes to the ground. “Are you drunk?” He asked, eyeing the half-empty bottle still in Robert’s hands. Robert had forgotten he still had it with him.

“A little bit.” He replied, squinting at Aaron against his cigarette’s light.

Aaron sighed. “Come on, let me get you home.” He said, getting up from the bench.

“Yeah, okay, in a while.” Robert replied, stretching his legs out in front of him.

Aaron sat back down again with a shrug, as if it didn’t bother him either way.

Robert looked back at The Woolpack. Everything was dark, everyone presumably asleep. Everyone but him and Aaron, sitting in the cold.

“If you’re looking for Vic, she isn’t here.” Aaron said.

“No, I know. She’s at the B&B with Diane.” Diane had called a few hours earlier, trying to pry the truth from Robert’s mouth. Vic had fed her a story about needing a night with her step-mum, but Diane had seen right through that. That was Vic; she had the most readable face in existence. She just couldn’t lie. Robert felt the weight of fondness and regret lodge itself in his chest.

The silence stretched for a while. It was comfortable, in a way. Sitting there in the cold, the only light coming from Aaron’s quickly dying cigarette, the only sounds their breathing and the wind. It was peaceful. For all that people liked to tout living in a village as the height of quiet living, it was anything but. Emmerdale was always bustling with activity. Except for this specific moment in time. It was so quiet Robert felt like he and Aaron were the only two people alive in the world.

It was that feeling that prompted Robert’s next words. “I’m sorry.” He had apologized more to Aaron in the last few days than he had in his entire life. He had to start fixing things in some way. As it was, starting with Aaron wasn’t a bad idea, even though Aaron was as likely to dismiss this apology as he had the other one.

“I know.” Aaron replied, so quietly that Robert wasn’t sure if he had been meant to hear it.

“You think I don’t care, but I do.” Robert continued. Now that he had started talking, it was hard to stop. He really wanted Aaron to understand the situation. To understand him.

“I know you care about your family, Robert.” Aaron replied, extinguishing the last flicker of light from his cigarette.

On any other day, it would have felt like a huge victory; as things stood, it barely registered. Robert was fully aware of what people thought of him. His own sister had made it quite clear just a few hours earlier. It didn’t matter that he genuinely loved Vic and even Andy. It didn’t matter because he had never let anyone see that, not even his siblings.

“Are you going to be okay?” Aaron asked.

Robert thought about it. He didn’t want to lie to Aaron. “I’ll fix it.” He replied. It was the only truth he was willing to share.

“I meant, are you going to be sick?” Aaron clarified. It felt like both truth and lie.

“I didn’t drink that much.” Robert replied.

“You get chatty when you’re drunk.” Aaron said, a smile as if he was sharing an inside joke. Maybe he was, Robert didn’t know.

Robert closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The air smelled cold, and he could taste the lingering smell of Aaron’s cigarette on his tongue. He turned to look at Aaron’s silhouette against the pale moonlight. Aaron breathed on his hands and rubbed them together. Without thinking too much about it, Robert turned and caught Aaron’s hands in his, warm from the alcohol and from having been nestled inside his coat pockets. To his surprise, Aaron didn’t yank them back.

Robert thought they must make for a weird picture. Two grown men, sitting in the dark, motionless, holding hands, neither of them willing to break the weird spell. They must look comical.

“I can’t do this with you anymore, Robert.” Aaron said eventually. His voice was soft, almost pleading.

“Do what?” Robert whispered back.

“You know what. Sleep with you a couple of times before you find yourself another pretty wife.” Aaron replied. There was no hostility in his voice, just resignation.

“Maybe that’s not what I’m offering.” Robert said tentatively. What was he offering? He wasn’t sure. Not what Aaron had suggested. Not at this point.

“What are you offering, then?” Aaron asked unwittingly echoing Robert’s own thoughts. One of his thumbs started rubbing soothing circles in the middle of Robert’s palm. Robert felt a wave of relief crash over him so strongly that for a fleeting second, he felt like he could have cried.

“I don’t know.” He knew it wasn’t what Aaron wanted to hear, but at least it was the truth. It felt surprisingly light on his tongue.

Aaron held his gaze.

“I’m not going back into the closet, Robert.” Aaron said. It wasn’t the outright rejection Robert had been expecting. Sure, it wasn’t a warm invitation inside, but Robert wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

“I’m not asking you to. I just need some time.” Robert replied.

Aaron was looking at him, his eyes were the edge of a precipice. For the first time in his life, Robert thought maybe diving off wouldn’t be so bad.

“Okay.” Aaron said after a while, smiling. It was a smile Robert had never seen on him, open and sweet and happy. It made Robert’s heart stutter. “Let’s get you home.” Aaron continued, softly.

Robert nodded and got up, a bit wobbly but sure. Aaron put an arm around his waist. Robert could smell his soap and the smoke from his cigarette. He didn’t tell Aaron he could walk without help.

Together, they made their way to Adam and Vic’s house. They didn’t speak again. Aaron helped Robert open the front door, and with one lingering brush of his arm, left.

-

Robert drummed his fingers of one hand on the table while scrolling through his emails with the other.

It was a slow day – the only people in the barn beside him were Andy, Ross and Finn. Andy was still reluctantly teaching Ross how to plant the explosive on the data farm. Finn was plugged in, ostensibly working on something, but Robert suspected he just preferred the relative quiet of the barn to watch his anime. He’d managed to get one of his hacker friends in London to get into the phone lines and screen all of the company’s calls. Now it was just a matter of waiting for the dedicated phone to ring. Cain had called, to confirm the blueprints still matched the internal layout of the White Rose. Finn had filmed the explosion on the fake wall, so they could substitute the CCTV live footage. Chas and Charity had managed to get together some fancy outfits for their night with Lawrence. Even Adam had delivered, maps of Monte Carlo with speeds and tank capacities scrawled on the margins littering the tables. The only thing missing was Finn’s way in.

It had been a few days and Robert knew the others were starting to lose morale. Without Finn in the control room their entire plan crumbled. He knew they needed a contingency plan and fast, but he was still clinging to the original one. It was by far the simplest. They were only a few days away now. Robert looked at Finn. He had his big headphones on and he was looking closely at the screen. So closely that Robert could see something animated reflect on his glasses. Finn had been fairly stressed in the past few days. His job wasn’t easy, and he needed at least this part to go smoothly.

As for Robert, officially, he was at the barn to supervise and work on some of his legitimate business ventures away from the house or prying eyes. The truth, however, was in the black gym bag currently resting between his legs under the table. He’d been absentmindedly tapping his foot against it, debating with himself whether this was a good idea after all.

A phone rang. Robert didn’t look up from his emails. It was Finn’s Spider-Man ringtone. Robert couldn’t help but start drumming his fingers in tune with it.

Finn gasped.

“Guys. It’s them. It’s a White Rose number.” He said excitedly.

“Answer it.” Robert replied. He could feel the adrenaline begin to run through his veins. This was it. They needed it.

“Hello, Eire Security. Daniel Bryant speaking, how may I help you?” Finn asked in a posh London accent.

“Hi, this is Chrissie White, from the White Rose casino and hotel. I was hoping to speak to Valerie Brown?”

Robert’s blood froze. He wasn’t expecting this. Usually the head of security was the one calling, not Chrissie. She still sounded the same, polite and haughty at the same time.

“Hi, Mrs. White.” Finn replied, glancing at Robert. “Valerie is on holiday at the moment, but I am taking care of her clients.”

“Oh.” She sounded surprised. Robert held his breath. Chrissie was a hound, if she suspected something was wrong she wouldn’t stop until she’d found out exactly why. “I just need to schedule our system’s update and check in.”

“Yes, I see it on our calendar.” Finn replied, randomly tapping away on his keyboard to provide ambient noise. “Let’s see. Would the 23rd of May work for you?” He asked.

“Can’t we do a different day? We have an event on the 23rd.” Chrissie said. She sounded vaguely annoyed, but that was Chrissie’s baseline.

“Not if you want it done this month, I’m sorry.” Finn replied. He sounded professional and in control, a far cry from his usual demeanour.

Chrissie sighed on the other end of the phone. “What problems could wait until June cause?”

“We really don’t recommend it. Casinos are a sensible target.”

“Fine.” Chrissie conceded. “What time on the 23rd?”

“Nine pm.” Finn replied. “This way there should be no disruption of any kind for you or your guests.”

“The name of the employee who will perform the update?” She asked.

Finn scrambled, looking for the fake IDs Robert had given them a few days before. Robert started looking as well among the various papers and assorted documents littering Finn’s work space.

“Just one second, please.” Finn said, still typing randomly with one hand while he parsed papers with the other.

It was Ross who eventually emerged triumphant, holding Finn’s fake passport in his hand.

“Our employee is Edward Smith. We will email you a picture and a copy of his ID immediately.” Finn said. If he was feeling relief at the near miss, he hid it well from his voice.

“Perfect.” Chrissie replied before giving Finn the email address of the chief of security.

“Thank you. We’ll be in touch.” Finn said.

“Yes, of course. Have a nice day. Bye.” Chrissie replied. She hung up before Finn could reply.

Ross hit Finn upside the head. “That’s for the state of your desk.”

“Okay, I probably deserved that.” Finn replied, massaging the back of his head.

Robert sighed and slumped into one of the chairs. They were in. He was happy, but hearing Chrissie’s voice again had been a strange experience. His drunken revelations from the day before and hearing the voice so soon after it had stirred something in him. A type of sadness that he didn’t really know what to do with.

He pushed it down. He didn’t have time to sort through his feelings for Chrissie. He could do that at his leisure once he was done with the job.

“I reckon we earned the rest of the day off.” Ross said, straightening up and stretching out his muscles.

“Agreed. Pint on me?” Finn asked getting up as well.

“That’s the least you can do after this near heart attack.” Ross replied, starting towards the barn door.

“Are you two coming?” Finn asked Andy and Robert.

“No, thanks, I’m going home to the kids.” Andy said.

“I’ll catch you up later.” Robert replied. Not that getting a drink with Finn and Ross would be the highlight of his day, but hopefully Aaron would be at the Woolpack. Before that, however, he had something he needed to do.

Finn shrugged and he and Ross left. Andy got up as well.

“Andy, wait.” Robert said. Andy froze, his back to Robert. For a second Robert thought Andy would just keep walking, instead he turned around. He didn’t move closer.

Robert stood up, only to lean back on the table. He didn’t remember ever feeling quite so awkward around Andy. Angry, annoyed, murderous, yes, never awkward. Robert imagined it could be considered progress.

“What do you want?” Andy sounded tired.

Robert walked to where he had been sitting down before, bent down and picked up the gym bag, the one he’d taken from the bank in Leeds. The money inside had definitely dwindled, but there was still enough for what Robert had in mind. He tossed the bag at Andy’s feet.

“What’s this?” He asked. He didn’t pick it up. Maybe he was afraid there were explosives inside, but that had always been more his move, hadn’t it?

“Twenty grands.” Robert replied.

“For what?” Andy asked. He sounded suspicious and Robert couldn’t blame him really.

“Sarah, the treatment in Prague. That’s how much it costs, right?” Robert said. He crossed his arms. He’s heard Charity and Chas talked about it. Hushed whispers and panicked half conversations. A life of jobs and cons and not even twenty thousand pounds to show for it. Not yet.

“Why? Why now?” The while I can still walk away from the job was unspoken, but there.

“She’s my niece.” Robert replied with a shrug.

“It’s not like you ever cared before.” Andy said, this time he bent down to take the bag. He opened and peered inside.

Robert rolled his eyes. “Of course I care.”

“Could have fooled me.” Andy replied, securing the strap on his shoulder. Robert swallowed down his reply about how fooling Andy had always been too easy. It wasn’t the point of the exchange. “What’s stopping me from calling the whole thing off, now?” Andy asked, finally.

“Twenty thousand will get Sarah to Prague for her treatment, but your cut of the job will take care of her and Jack for the rest of their lives.” Robert replied.

“We don’t need that much.” Andy said, predictably. Good, old, consistent Andy.

“Maybe you’re happy living your Little House on the Prairie fantasy for the rest of your life, but if I were you I’d want better for my kids. That money can’t buy you better, it can buy you best.” Robert replied.

Andy sighed. “See you tomorrow.” He said.

“Andy.” Robert said, stopping his brother once again. “Don’t tell anyone about this.”

“Why? It’s unlike you not to want to take credit.” Andy narrowed his eyes, probably trying to figure out what Robert’s angle was.

“Technically that’s money from the stash for the job.” Robert replied with a shrug.

“Sure. I won’t tell anyone you’re capable of complex human emotions.”

“You’re welcome!” Robert shouted to Andy’s retreating form.

-

The next day, Robert walked into the Woolpack. He didn’t even know why. Habit, probably.

Vic still wasn’t talking to him and he didn’t really have friends in the village. Unless he counted Aaron as a friend, which he didn’t really want to.

Robert sat down at one of the tables, playing with his phone and waiting for someone to come and acknowledge him as a customer. Chas was behind the bar, studiously ignoring him, and Charity was nowhere to be seen. He would probably wait a while.

Robert was well into his third candy crush level of the day when he heard one of the chairs scrape the pavement. He looked up just in time to see Aaron sit down in front of him. He tucked his phone away.

“How are you feeling?” Aaron asked, keeping his tone studiously neutral.

Robert smiled at him. “Never felt better. If you ignore the hangover headache I have had for two days and the Andy-induced acid reflux.”

Aaron gave out a bark of a laugh, half surprised half delighted. “I thought you hadn’t drunk that much.”

“I didn’t.”

“You must be getting old then.” Aaron teased, raising an eyebrow.

“You’re hilarious.” Robert replied, dry.

Chas chose that moment to start doing her job and walked up to their table. “What can I get you, love?” She asked, pointedly talking just to Aaron.

“I don’t know. What are you getting, Robert?” Aaron replied, just as pointedly.

“Fish and chips?” He suggested.

“Yeah fish and chips sounds good.” Aaron agreed.

“Fine, two fish and chips.” Chas said. She looked like every word uttered in Robert’s presence was causing her physical pain. Robert would have been lying if he said he didn’t find it annoying, but he could understand. She was trying to protect her son. Robert hadn’t always been a paragon of virtue. Still, he was hardly going to cause Aaron any sort of psychological trauma just by having lunch with him.

Chas left and both Aaron and Robert watched her go. Aaron fidgeted for a few seconds before getting up. He had a thunderous expression. Now that it wasn’t directed at him, Robert was fully enjoying it. The set of Aaron’s jaw, his frown, the hardness in his eyes.

“Wait a second, I’ll be right back.” Aaron said.

Aaron reached the kitchen door just as Chas was coming out of it.

Robert didn’t mean to pry or stare, but, well, they were in a very public place. He couldn’t really hear what they were saying, but he could see their faces. Chas looked as angry as Aaron. He didn’t seem to care. It was weird, Aaron sticking up for him like this. He didn’t want Aaron’s relationship with Chas to be strained, he knew they were close, but there was still something twisted and warm blooming in his chest. It was both an ugly and comforting feeling. Robert didn’t want to examine it too closely.

Eventually, Chas’ face softened, her hands flying to cup Aaron’s face. He didn’t look pleased, but he let her. He even let her hug him and kiss his cheek. It was cute.

“Is everything okay?” Robert asked as soon as Aaron sat down again. He’d even brought two pints with him, sliding one towards Robert.

“Yeah, I just needed to have a chat with my mum.” Aaron replied, taking a sip.

“About?” Robert asked in a tone he hoped sounded casual.

“About how I can make my own bloody decisions.” Aaron replied, looking Robert in the eyes. Robert swallowed.

“Good for you.” He replied somewhat hoarsely.

“So, any plans for later?” Aaron asked, smirking.

“Not really, why?” Robert replied, taking a swig of his beer.

“Adam and I are going to the movies. Fancy coming with us? I’m trying to cheer him up, so I’m letting him pick, fair warning.” Aaron said, smiling.

“So, I’m assuming we’re seeing something directed by Michael Bay?” Robert asked. Not that he was complaining. A whole afternoon spent in a dark theatre with Aaron sounded great, even if Adam was tagging along and car robots were duking it out on screen.

“Possibly.” Aaron shrugged.

“Okay, I’m in.” He said, just as Marlon brought them their fish and chips.

“Enjoy, boys.” He said, depositing the plates in front of them with all the grace and poise of a drunk giraffe. Robert and Aaron shared a look over their food, both trying to stifle laughter as Marlon retreated.

Robert was startled by how normal and how good it felt. It was so mundane, yet Robert didn’t feel the usual wave of claustrophobia close in on him. He’d always thought Emmerdale had been the problem, with the same houses, the same streets, the same country pubs, but maybe it wasn’t that clear cut. The adrenaline and the danger of his life were exciting, alluring, empty. But this – this felt meaningful. This felt right.

-

Two days before the crew was slated to leave, Robert woke up with anxiety and excitement thrumming in his veins. He could feel it in every cell of his body, every nerve ending, in every inch of skin. He needed to reign it in. It wasn’t useful to him, not yet.

He made a call to arrange a meeting. Then he called Aaron.

“What?” Aaron asked as soon as he picked up. Robert found it strangely charming, which was the biggest indication that he was in too deep.

“I need you to come with me to Manchester.” Robert said.

“Did we have that conversation about me having a day job or did I dream it?” Aaron replied. He sounded like he wanted to be annoyed, but couldn’t muster the energy for it. Robert counted it as a victory.

“Aw, you dream of me?”

“Bye, Robert. Have fun in Manchester.” Aaron replied, Robert could practically hear the smile in his voice.

“Aaron, come on. It’s important.”

“Is it for the job?” Aaron asked.

“Yeah.” Robert replied. It wasn’t a lie, not really. More of a half-truth.

Aaron sighed. “Fine. Meet me at the scrapyard, my car’s there.”

“No, I’m driving. Where are you? I’ll pick you up.”

“I’m coming back from a job. I’ll meet you outside the pub in fifteen minutes.” And with that he hung up.

Robert parked his car and took his phone out, idly wondering what people used to pass the time before dumb smartphone games were invented. He knew for a fact it must have happened to him during his life, yet he couldn’t really remember.

He was woken from his reverie twenty minutes later, when Aaron climbed into the passenger seat of his car. Perfect timing too, because Robert had just used his last life. Then Robert looked at Aaron.

“Go shower.” He said. Aaron was sweaty and covered in grease and motor oil. Not that it was a bad look for him. Robert was definitely going to save that specific mental image for another time, but that was beyond the point.

“What?” Aaron asked.

“You’re dirty.” Robert replied.

“Yes, I was at work, I told you.” Aaron said, his face puzzled.

“And I told you to go shower, we’ve got time.” Robert replied, pointedly taking his hands off the steering wheel.

“I thought it was urgent.” Aaron said, looking at Robert like he thought Robert was crazy.

“It is, but trust me, you’ll be glad I made you shower.” Robert replied with a smirk. Aaron sighed, clearly knowing he’d lost the battle, and got out of the car again. “And wear clean underwear!” Robert called out when Aaron was almost at the Woolpack’s doors. All the reply he got was Aaron’s middle finger clearly raised in his direction.

Aaron came back and settled again into the passenger’s seat without a word. He had changed into his usual black jeans and black hoodie. His hair was still damp.

Robert allowed himself a moment to just look at Aaron and take in how handsome he was. Every single time it was a thrill, just to be allowed to look, to linger, to appreciate. It wasn’t something he had ever envisioned for himself. Yet there he was, ogling Aaron Dingle of all people.

“You look good.” Robert said, starting the car. He didn’t miss the pink flush rising on Aaron’s face.

Robert drove. The radio was on, tuned on a station that seemed to play nothing but pop songs from the 80s. Aaron was quiet beside him. It wasn’t a heavy silence; it was companionable, comfortable.

By the time they arrived in Manchester it had started raining. Robert drove through the city centre, taking measured turns and attentively looking at the streets, trying not to miss the building he was looking for.

“Are we going somewhere in particular?” Aaron asked, after the second trip around the same building.

“Yeah. I just need to remember exactly what the right door is.” Robert replied, his eyes glued to the storefronts. Then he saw it. Red, understated, more like the door to a flat than then door to a store.

Robert parked and got out. He popped the collar of his leather jacket to protect himself from the rain. He jogged towards the door, conscious of Aaron following behind him. He rang the doorbell.

A woman in her late twenties with deep brown eyes and dark brown hair tied in tiny braids and pinned to the back of her head, opened the door for them.

“Hi, Leah. Mr. Salvi is expecting us.” Robert said.

The woman smiled brightly at him. “Of course, please come in.” She stepped aside and let Robert and Aaron walk in.

Robert had only been inside once, but it was as impressive as he remembered. The interior looked like something out of a royal residence. All warm wood and rich, red velvet. Despite this, it was understated, worn but very well cared for. Robert looked at Aaron. He looked in awe of his surrounding, verging on uncomfortable. Robert knew it wasn’t really Aaron’s scene, but hopefully it was about to change.

“Mr Sugden. Welcome back.” Mr. Salvi said, descending from the staircase at the back. He was a classically handsome man in his late fifties. He had perfectly coiffed grey hair, piercing blue eyes and a slender build. He was wearing one of his usual suits, a tweed three piece – beige, chequered, with a white shirt and bright salmon tie. Robert walked up to him and shook his hand.

“Mr. Salvi, good morning. Sorry for making you come all the way here on such short notice.” Robert replied.

“Don’t worry about it. I was due here in Manchester anyway. Can I get you anything? Coffee? Tea? Mr-?” He asked, addressing the last part to Aaron.

“Dingle. And no, thank you, we’re in a bit of a hurry, actually.” Robert replied. It wasn’t exactly the truth. Robert had the whole day stretching in front of him, but he knew Mr. Salvi. He was old school. A trip to his shop usually took hours. He doubted Aaron would be compliant for that long.

Mr. Salvi’s smile didn’t falter, but Robert could see his eyes flicker towards Aaron, a hint of curiosity in them.

“Very well. Your suit is ready. One final fitting and you’ll be ready to go. And if Mr. Dingle follows Leah she’ll take his measurements.” Mr. Salvi said.

“Of course. Lead the way.” Robert replied before Aaron got a chance to. Robert looked back at Aaron, he looked utterly confused. “Just go with it. I’ll explain later.” He whispered. Aaron nodded.

They were showed into a backroom. The interior there was more spartan, with changing rooms lining two of the walls, a big mirror right in front of a round slightly raised platform, and a big couch. Mr. Salvi handed Robert a clothes bag, while Leah led Aaron to the mirror.

Robert took the suit out and took a moment to admire it. It was blue, the trousers in a solid colour, while the jacket had a subtle lighter windowpane pattern. It was a slim fit, the material a soft wool. He put it on and immediately felt at ease in it. He was wearing a plain white shirt and no tie, which didn’t really go with the vibe of the suit, but he knew how to fix it.

He went out of the changing room and he had to stifle a laughter. Aaron was standing there, arms held up, looking every bit like he was contemplating murder, while Leah took his measurements. He had lost his hoodie somewhere along the process and it was now lying haphazardly on the pristine couch. Robert felt a pang of fondness.

“Very good, Mr. Sugden.” Salvi said, giving him a critical once-over. “Try it with these.” He continued, handing him a pink tie and a white pocket square with a pattern of light blue dots. Robert complied, expertly tying his tie in a Windsor knot.

He looked at himself in the mirror. His hair was shorter than it had been the last time he’d been a proper suit, but he still looked good. Maybe even better. Life without the Whites suited him, despite its limitations.

Robert chanced a look at Aaron. He was still standing there, arms up. Despite the awkward position however, his eyes were serious. He was looking at Robert like he’d been five seconds before they’d had sex the first time. It sent a shiver down Robert’s spine. He smirked in Aaron’s direction. Aaron, instead of giving him his patented annoyed look, smirked back. Robert couldn’t deny it was a good look on him.

Mr. Salvi politely cleared his throat and Robert directed his attention to the man. His face was a mask of professionalism, but Robert could see amusement in his eyes. “It fits very well.”

“Yes.” Robert agreed easily. It was the reason he went to the man in the first place – his suits were works of art. “I still wish you’d let me try a double breasted one. Or at least a three piece.” Robert needled. It was the usual script between them.

He’d chanced upon Salvi’s shop in London when he had been barely 21. He had been just a grunt doing the boss a favour and picking a suit up. He’d immediately fallen in love with the place and the tailor. He had even considered quitting his life just to become an apprentice in Mr. Salvi’s shop, but then he’d gone up the ranks, met Chrissie and Lawrence White and his life had taken a different turn.

“I promise for your fiftieth birthday I’ll make you one.” Mr. Salvi replied, good-naturedly. The man had an uncompromising eye for menswear and he wouldn’t let anyone leave his shop with something he personally did not approve of. It didn’t matter how much Robert wheedled. “Will Mr. Dingle need a bespoke suit as well?” Salvi asked, addressing Robert. Clearly, he’d realized Aaron wasn’t exactly the one directing the show.

Robert sent one last lingering look towards Aaron. He wished. “No, we need something we can take home today. Blue?”

“Beige? Brown?” Salvi asked back, eyeing Aaron with a critical eye.

“Black.” Aaron interjected. He didn’t look like he was still entirely sure about what was going on, but he wasn’t going down without a fight.

“Charcoal.” Salvi replied, clearly having settled it with himself. Aaron rolled his eyes but didn’t comment. “Three piece, definitely.”

“Tweed?” Robert suggested. Salvi shot him a look.

“How old are you, Mr. Dingle?” He asked, finally addressing Aaron.

“Twenty-five.” Aaron replied. Salvi raised an eyebrow. Robert raised his hands in defeat. His dreams of seeing Aaron dressed as a hot university professor clearly had to wait another day.

“I have a nice Fioravanti in the back. Charcoal, pinstriped, should fit Mr. Dingle very well.” Salvi said, already walking towards his workshop. Robert took the opportunity to go back into the changing room and change back into his own clothes. When he got out, Salvi was back and Aaron was nowhere to be seen, probably changing.

Robert’s phone rang. He looked at it. It was the same number that had called a few times already. Rebecca’s number. He let it go to voicemail. He liked Rebecca, but he didn’t have time to hold her hand about her part in the plan. He knew her – she would deliver in due time.

Robert sat down on the couch. “So, how’s everything? I heard you were thinking of opening up another shop.” Robert said.

“Yes, that’s true.” Salvi replied, sitting down next to Robert. “I’m thinking of opening up shop somewhere warmer and nice. Like the south of France.”

“You’re breaking my heart, Mr. Salvi.” Robert joked, bringing a hand to his chest.

“Yes, clearly.” Salvi replied drily, glancing at the changing room Aaron was holed in. Robert grinned at him. Salvi smiled back. “Don’t worry Mr. Sugden. I’m leaving the business in my daughter’s capable hands.”

“Leah is going to be brilliant. She learned from the best.” Robert said. “Maybe she’ll make me a double-breasted suit.”

“Not if she really learned from the best.” He replied.

“I look stupid.” A voice from behind them grumbled.

Robert turned around and the view almost knocked the breath out of him. Aaron looked perfect. The suit might not have been made exclusively for him, but it might as well have for how it fit. The colour looked great in contrast with Aaron’s own colouring, the cut made his shoulders look broad, and the pinstripes made him look taller and leaner. Salvi had accessorized it with a simple white shirt and a purple silk tie. Robert desperately wanted to ruin that suit. To ruin Aaron in that suit.

“You look many things, Mr. Dingle. Stupid isn’t one of them.” Mr. Salvi said, getting up and circling Aaron. “It’s not custom made, but it falls surprisingly well.”

“Yeah.” Robert said, his throat dry.

Mr. Salvi arched an eyebrow in his direction, which Robert had learned a long time before meant he was silently laughing at him. Robert probably deserved it. He also didn’t care.

“If you say so.” Aaron said, retreating back into the changing room. He hadn’t even properly looked at himself in the mirror. This man was going to give Robert a premature heart attack.

“He seems like a nice young man.” Salvi said, he wasn’t looking at Robert, which Robert was glad for.

“He is. He was clearly raised in a barn, but he’s a good person.” Robert replied. To his horror, he felt his face going soft.

“You should come visit me, once we open the shop in France. Bring your friend too.” Salvi said, a faction of a smile on the word ‘friend’. Apparently, Robert was not as inscrutable as he liked to believe he was.

Robert thought about it. A quiet villa tucked away in the French countryside. The smell of lavender and rosemary. Good wine, good food, good company. Aaron lying under the French sun, not a care in the world.

“Yeah.” He said, his voice suddenly hoarse. “Yeah, I will.”

Aaron came out again, back in his clothes. Pity.

“We’ll take it, Mr. Salvi. And a few ties and shirts.” Robert said.

Mr. Salvi nodded, and he and Leah disappeared in the front of the store, presumably arguing about what kind of colours would go with Aaron’s complexion. Robert hoped they would settle on the purple tie. It looked gorgeous on Aaron’s skin.

“How much is all of this gonna set me back for?” Aaron asked, always pragmatic.

“Nothing. I’m paying.” Robert replied with a shrug. He hoped if he was nonchalant enough Aaron wouldn’t protest.

“No, you’re not.” Aaron replied, turning his head so fast Robert was half worried it would unscrew from his neck.

“Listen, it’s fine. Salvi is a friend, this won’t cost much and we need it for the job.” Robert explained. Sure, those were lies, but he thought they were justified in this instance.

“Robert, no. Use the fund money, then.” Aaron protested. Aaron didn’t know that the fund money was almost entirely gone. And even if it hadn’t, Robert would have insisted on paying.

“Aaron, let me do this for you. Please.” Robert pleased, shooting Aaron his most earnest smile. Robert suspected it was also his most smitten smile.

Aaron smiled back, just a second, before remembering himself. Robert couldn’t wait for the day Aaron smiled, blissful and unguarded at him, for longer than a few seconds. He wanted it with an intensity that scared him.

Leah chose that moment to come back and call them into the front room. They followed her and found their suits and shirts carefully nested inside the clothes bags, with the ties in a different package.

Leah discretely passed Robert a slip of paper with the total amount. Robert resisted the urge to look at it and took out his credit card. He could have a stroke about it privately later, when Aaron wasn’t around.

“Thank you, Mr. Sugden. We hope to see you again soon.” Mr. Salvi said, handing them their bags while Leah gave him his card back.

“Thank you. I’ll take you up on your offer.” Robert replied.

“You’ll know where to find me.”

With one last goodbye to Mr. Salvi and Leah, Robert and Aaron got out. The sky had cleared up, enough for them to reach their car without getting wet.

“That was weird.” Aaron said once he was comfortably sat in the passenger’s seat.

“What? Buying a suit?” Robert asked, turning the car on. Aaron needed to learn how to relax.

“No, you dragging me to Manchester to buy a suit from that specific bloke.” Aaron continued. He was looking at Robert’s face, as if maybe he could read the answer he wanted to see on his features.

“Angelo Salvi is a master. I just want you to enjoy the finer things in life.” Robert replied, flashing a grin to Aaron.

“If you say so.”

“You weren’t actually raised in a barn, you know.” Robert quipped.

“Yeah, it’s still not exactly my style.” Aaron said, shrugging.

“It could be. The suit looked good on you.” Robert replied, truthfully. He was starting to believe that Aaron could look good in everything, but that suit had been something else.

“Thanks.” Aaron replied. Robert sneaked a glance at him and saw his face flush pink. He grinned.

“So, are you gonna tell me how you met him or should I guess?” Aaron asked after a minute or so of silence. Robert sighed.

“Nothing special. He was Gallagher’s tailor when I used to run with his people. I picked up a suit of his once and I’ve been going to him ever since I started making money.” Robert replied, condensing about ten years of personal history in a few sentences. He’d gotten good at that over the years. Saying the exact right amount to get someone off his back.

“Gallagher? London mob Gallagher?” Apparently, he wasn’t good enough to shake Aaron Dingle off, though.

“Yeah, that one.” Robert replied, keeping his eyes carefully trained on the road.

“How old were you? When you started working for Gallagher, I mean.” Aaron asked.

“Nineteen.”

“Oh.” Aaron said, shutting his mouth. Aaron wasn’t going to ask. Maybe he thought Robert wouldn’t answer. Robert really wanted to answer. He sighed.

“You know I left Emmerdale around that age.” He ventured.

“Vic mentioned it, yeah.” Aaron replied.

“I didn’t leave voluntarily. My dad threw me out. There was an accident. Andy and I were involved. My dad…he sided with Andy, told me to start driving and never come back.” Robert said. He kept his tone even and steady. The last thing he needed was to get emotional over something that had happened so long before.

“It must have been tough. You were just a kid.” Robert had expected Aaron to ask about the accident, but either he already knew about it or he didn’t care. Robert hoped it was the latter.

“It was. I didn’t really have any money or anywhere to go. I got as far as London. I slept rough for a couple of weeks, until I met one of Gallagher’s guys and I guess he took pity on me.” Robert replied.

It had been difficult; he had barely slept for weeks, too afraid of what could have happened to him if he had dropped his guard. London had seemed too big and cold compared to Emmerdale. He had known no one. For the first time in his life he had been truly, utterly, soul-crushingly alone. He had gotten a job as a dish washer in a restaurant, and with that he’d managed to get a bed at a youth hostel. That too, had been a nightmare. Crowded and dirty and dangerous.

Then Thomas had come along. He had been older, charming, well dressed. They had slept together once, Robert’s first time with a man. He was still embarrassed to think about all the times he’d followed Thomas around like a lost puppy, but it had been worth it. Thomas had introduced him to Gallagher and his crew, pulling him into London’s seedy underbelly. For the first time in his life Robert had been good at something. Sure, that something was crime, but Robert could live with that. He’d risen through the ranks, making a name for himself and catching the eye of most of Europe’s top dogs. To think he’d thrown all of it away for the Whites and their legitimate business gambit.

“Vic doesn’t know any of that. I never told anyone.” Robert added. He knew Aaron wasn’t the chatty type, but he needed Aaron to understand that he was trying, that he was making an effort.

“You have. You told me. Before now I mean.” Aaron said. He wasn’t looking at Robert’s face, but rather his hand on the gear shift.

“What? When?” Robert asked. He was reasonably sure he would remember discussing one of the worst periods of his life with someone, especially with Aaron.

“When we were in Czech Republic. You were drunk.” Aaron replied with a shrug.

“I need to get new anecdotes.” Robert said, an attempt at lighting the mood.

“Don’t.” Aaron said. He covered Robert’s hand with his. It was warm and rough, but kind. “You can talk to me, you know.”

“I know.” Robert replied.

-

The day the left for Monte Carlo, the sun was shining. Robert fastened his seatbelt and tried to relax. It was not an easy task. Beside him, Aaron was the picture of calm and Robert hated him a little for it. Aaron had a magazine out and was passing his time before take-off, studiously ignoring Robert. At any other time, Robert would have respected his space, or at least he would have made a valiant effort. This time it was going to be considerably harder.

“What?” Aaron asked, clearly having noticed Robert’s staring. Not that Robert had been trying to hide it.

“Nothing.” Robert said, forcing a shrug and going back to facing the seat in front of him. He started fidgeting with the seatbelt’s buckle. He could feel Aaron looking at him.

“You look pale. Are you gonna be sick?” Aaron asked, none-too-subtly shifting further away from him. Robert rolled his eyes. He was regretting not using the last of the money for first class tickets. Aaron clearly did not deserve the surprise he had planned for him in Monte Carlo.

“I’m fine. I just don’t like flying.” Robert said.

“Okay. But if you’re going to be sick-”

“I’m not going to be sick, Aaron, I promise you.” Robert replied, huffing a laugh that was half exasperation and half a weird sort of fondness.

Aaron settled back and Robert took out a book from his bag. It wouldn’t do much for him, but it would at least keep him entertained until it was time to panic. It was the latest Stephen King novel, something he knew would keep him engrossed for as long as possible. He wasn’t exactly counting on Aaron to be chatty.

“I didn’t take you for the fear of flying type.” Aaron said after a while, his magazine now nowhere in sight.

“I’m not afraid. I’m…cautious.” Robert replied. Saying he was afraid of flying made him sound irrational, and Robert’s preoccupation was nothing of that sort. Planes crashed all the time, usually at take-off and landing. Being worried was just common sense.

“You’re afraid.” Aaron said again, matter-of-factly.

“Whatever.” Robert replied, rolling his eyes. Trying to change Aaron’s mind on something was a Herculean task Robert didn’t feel equipped to engage with in that moment. “I’m just saying, men aren’t meant to fly.” He continued in a light tone.

“I didn’t think you were so cautious. I’ve seen you drive.” Aaron said. He wasn’t looking at Robert anymore but he was grinning.

“That’s different. I trust myself not to wrap my car around a tree.” Usually.

“Oh.” Aaron said, as if he’d just discovered the secret of the universe. “You’re a control freak. Now everything makes sense.”

“I’m not a control freak.” Robert protested. “I would just really like not to die, in general.” He thought that was the general idea of living, but apparently Aaron wasn’t familiar with it. “And I’ve let you drive me, haven’t I?”

“You’ve made me your chauffeur, more like.”

“Oh, come on, you enjoyed it.”

“I endured it.”

“You’re so gracious.”

Their bickering was interrupted when the flight attendants asked for everyone’s attention while they explained the safety measures. Robert mentally checked out and instead decided to look at Aaron. It was something he was starting to realize he had done often ever since meeting him for the first time. Shame it had taken him so long to realize it. Aaron looked completely engrossed by the safety demonstration. Despite his most valiant effort, Robert felt the corners of his mouth get pulled into a smile. He turned his head to hide it. It was a bit pathetic. The worst part was that he didn’t even particularly care.

The crew started the procedures for take-off and Robert gripped the armrests. He tried to school his features into neutrality. Beside him, Aaron seemed delighted.

“Are you flying for the first time or something?” Robert asked, more roughly than he had intended.

“No, I just enjoy it.” Aaron replied. He looked at Robert. Aaron sighed. “I wanted to give this to you once we had landed, but since you’re clearly about to die.” He said, trailing off and bending down to reach into his backpack.

“In the middle of a crowded flight? We might get arrested.” Robert said, managing a grin.

Aaron fixed him with a murderous look. “You’re not funny.”

“It’s because I never had to compensate for being ugly.” Robert replied.

“Humble, mate.” Aaron shot back.

“Humility is for people without my bone structure.” Robert said, gesturing at his own face.

“You know what? You don’t deserve this present.”

“No, no, okay I promise I’ll shut up.”

“Yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it.” With that, he shoved a duty-free plastic bag into Robert’s hands. “I didn’t have time to wrap it up.”

“That’s how you get unexpected pregnancies.” Robert replied, opening the bag. Inside was a CD.

Robert couldn’t help the loud bout of startled laughter.

The Best of Pop Divas. Wow. Thank you.” He said, sarcastically clutching the CD to his chest. He was going to treasure it forever. Not that he was telling Aaron that.

“Now don’t say I never did anything nice for ya.” Aaron replied. His eyes were positively shining with amusement. Robert loved to see him like this, unburdened. It was a rare sight. Robert hoped he could make it more frequent.

“And will you look at that? We’re already in the air.” Aaron continued, grinning and pointing at the window. Robert turned around to look. Aaron was right. They hadn’t quite reached cruising altitude yet, but Robert had missed the initial take off, the usual lurch in his stomach nowhere to be found.

He turned again towards Aaron. He was back to his magazine, but he looked remarkably self-satisfied. Robert was alarmed by how into it he was.

-

Robert had forgotten what being properly warm felt like. He had been in Monte Carlo less than an hour and he was already in his shirt sleeves, soaking up as much sun as possible sitting in a shiny silver convertible. He parked in front of where Aaron was standing.

“Is this why you left me alone outside an airport?” Aaron asked, raising an eyebrow. He was looking appreciatively at the car. It wasn’t as powerful as Robert’s Porsche back home, more flash than real substance, but it was a good car nonetheless. Sleek, elegant, expensive.

“I had to get our ride.” Robert replied with a grin. Aaron grinned back and climbed into the passenger’s seat.

“I thought we didn’t have any more money left. That’s what you told Charity when she asked to stay at one of those fancy hotels.” Aaron said.

“I might have stretched the truth. Just a little.” Robert replied with a shrug.

“Charity will kill you.” Aaron said, resting his head against the seat.

“Charity won’t know.” Robert replied confidently.

“I might tell her just to enjoy the fireworks.” Aaron teased. He looked relaxed next to Robert, his head thrown back, a smile on his face. Robert sneaked a glance at Aaron’s hands; they were resting on his knees. Robert was hit with the intense desire to pick one up and hold it. He squashed it down. Not yet.

“But then you wouldn’t get to see the surprise I have planned for you.” Robert said.

“Knowing you, that’s not the negative you think it is.” Aaron replied, throwing a smile in Robert’s direction to soften the blow.

“No, I promise you’ll like this.” Robert said. At least he hoped so.

They drove in silence for a while, Robert more concerned with not getting lost than anything else, and Aaron looking out of the window, probably taking in the scenery.

After about half an hour, Robert parked in front of the hotel Hermitage. It was striking, the cream coloured exterior looking rose pink under the Mediterranean sun, its big blue and white windows creating a pleasant contrast. The place was huge, blending classic and modern architecture. Robert knew from experience that the inside was even more stunning, with vaulted ceiling, stained glass, and intricate chandeliers.

“What’s this?” Aaron asked, eyeing the place warily.

“Our hotel.” Robert replied, climbing down and handing a valet the keys to the car.

Aaron followed him, clutching his bag and looking around sceptically.

Robert strode into the lobby and towards the help desk. The man behind – mid-thirties and well groomed – immediately looked up when he heard them approach.

“Hello, how may I help you?” He asked in a French accent.

“Hi. I have a reservation. Moore.” Robert said, putting his fake ID on the desk.

The concierge took a look at it and started tapping away on the compute in front of him, eyes trained on the monitor.

“Yes, the penthouse suite is ready for you Mr. Moore. If you would just give Bernard your luggage he can escort you.” The man replied, calling for one of the porters, a young man no older than twenty.

The three of them got into the elevator. Beside him, Aaron looked stunned. He hadn’t spoken a word since getting out of the car. He almost looked shell-shocked. Robert could only hope it was a good sign.

The boy pushed the button for the seventh floor. Once they reached it, he led them to one of the doors on the right and opened it for them. Robert stepped inside and breathed in the salty sea air from one of the open windows. Part of him had missed it, the proximity to the sea. The smell, the different weight of the air, the warm sun on his skin.

“Here you go sirs. If you need anything the staff is at your service.” The porter said in a thick French accent.

“Thank you.” Robert replied, sliding a generous tip to the man. He smiled, thanked him, and left.

As soon as the door had closed, Robert turned to look at Aaron. He seemed busy taking in his surroundings. The room was big, two bedrooms, bathrooms, a living room, and a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The décor was more modern than in the lobby, sleeker, while still maintaining a Bohemian edge, and with purple accents. Robert liked it better.

“So, what do you think?” He asked Aaron.

“I knew we we’re all staying in different hotels, but this.” Aaron replied. “Wow.”

“I know. And it has two rooms, so this isn’t me taking advantage.” Robert replied with a grin and a wink. “I just wanted to do something nice for you.” He continued, with the sort of earnestness that would have embarrassed him if anyone but Aaron had been on the receiving end of it.

“Robert, I appreciate it, but this is…” Aaron said. He looked hesitant, almost small.

“Amazing?” Robert supplied half-heartedly.

“Yes, but also too much.” Aaron said. He smiled kindly at Robert, trying to soothe the sting of his words. “It’s not really my style.”

“It could be, you know. After.” Robert replied. He couldn’t understand why Aaron seemed to adamant to shun all manner of happiness and comfort. He deserved it. More than anyone Robert had ever met before, Aaron deserved it.

“Doubt it.” Aaron said, sinking into the couch and immediately lying on it with a sigh. At least he liked some of it.

Robert went and sat down next to him, close to Aaron’s legs.

“This feels like a bad moment to invite you out for dinner.” He said, after a few seconds of silence. Never let it be said that Robert was not a tenacious man.

“It’s not. I’d like to get dinner with you.” Aaron replied, shifting his legs so they were resting on Robert’s lap. Robert didn’t protest, instead resting one of his hands on Aaron’s ankle.

“Good. Be ready at eight. And wear the suit.”

Robert was going to woo Aaron Dingle yet.

-

The heat of the day had left place to a balmy summer night, a light but steady breeze offering relief from the warmth, especially so close to the sea. Robert pushed Aaron along, a hand at the small of his back. The material of Aaron's suit was warm and smooth to the touch.

The restaurant was a cosy place, just straddling the line between traditional and pretentious, which was no small feat. It was worth it though, to treat Aaron to a place he probably would have never gone to for himself, but wouldn't make him feel uncomfortable. Robert could learn from his mistakes. After the suit shopping and the hotel room, this would be more to Aaron’s taste. Robert was going to have to learn how to straddle the line as well, between treating Aaron to something fancy without making him feel self-conscious. He could get the hang of it. He was a determined man.

The maître-d, a tall man in a white shirt and black waistcoat, led them to their table. It was in a quiet corner, tucked away from the other patrons, intimate. For a split second, Robert wondered whether he should have helped Aaron sit down, but that would have resulted in the whole chair thrown at him, probably.

Aaron was looking around the room. It wasn't the best lit place Robert had ever been to, but he’d also once been on a “date” with Aaron in a darkened garage after hours. This was definitely a step-up.

It was romantic. Definitely not what Robert would have gone for in the past, but he was trying.

A smiling, blonde waitress approached the table and gave them the menu and the wine list.

“Do you gentlemen need any help with choosing the wine?” She asked them in a soft French accent.

“No, thank you.” Robert replied, surreptitiously checking on Aaron from the top of the menu.

“Then, I will give you some time and come back for your orders.” She said, tilting her head slightly to the right. She left to attend on some other tables and Robert started in on the wine list.

Robert was not a wine snob. He was barely even a wine drinker. Still, he was going to charm Aaron whatever it took. Robert immediately scanned the list, individuating a white and a red choice. They were the kind of wines Lawrence always ordered when he wanted to impress a client.

Not that Aaron was necessarily going to realize Robert was trying to charm him with fancy wine. The man pulled a face at anything that wasn’t beer. Still, Robert hoped it could be like the suit and Aaron would grow to appreciate it.

Robert looked up. Aaron staring at him, his face unimpressed.

“What?” Robert asked.

“Are we back to hiding now?” Aaron asked. He sounded – angry. Defeated.

Robert blinked slowly at him. He looked around. The restaurant away from the city centre. Small, secluded, romantic lighting everywhere. To the untrained eye, it would have looked especially remote. Never mind that Robert would have had to sell a kidney to afford it.

“Aaron, no. It’s – it’s supposed to be romantic.” Robert explained, almost pleading. He couldn’t really blame Aaron for assuming the worst of him, but it still stung.

Aaron face fell. His eyes darted around the room, probably noticing all the candles and couples sitting at the various tables. “Oh.”

“I should have been more explicit.” Robert said.

“No, Robert, I’m sorry. This is amazing. You’re amazing.” Aaron replied. His hand reached Robert’s over the table. He didn’t hold it, not really, he just patted it, hesitantly, as if he was afraid Robert would pull back.

Robert smiled at him. Okay, so it wasn’t the perfect beginning he’d been planning, but Robert didn’t believe in bad omens.

“It’s okay. What are you ordering?” Robert asked, with a charming smile.

Aaron visibly relaxed.

“I dunno. What’s good here?” Aaron asked, finally browsing the menu. His eyebrows shot up as soon as his eyes landed on the right side of the page, where the prices were.

“Everything is good here.” Robert replied. With those kind of prices. “I think I’ll order the veal.”

“I’ll have a steak. It better be the best steak I have ever laid my eyes on.” Aaron said.

The waitress chose that moment to come back to their table. “Are you ready to order, gentlemen?”

“Yes, thank you.” Robert said. “I’ll have the veal marsala. And he’ll have the steak.”

“Medium rare.” Aaron added.

“And to drink?”

“The 1996 Château Lafite Rothschild.”

“That’s a wonderful choice, sir. A great vintage.”

“You know I don’t drink wine, do you?” Aaron asked, as soon as the waitress was out of earshot.

“Trust me, you need to try this.” Robert replied. Not that he thought he could sway Aaron’s mind, but he felt a weird thrill showing him the finer things in life.

“Okay, but if you do that smelling bollocks, I don’t care how expensive it is, I’m throwing it on you.”

Robert snorted. It was the sort of undignified sound he thought he’d trained himself out of. Apparently, Aaron brought out the worst in him. He couldn’t really bring himself to care.

“Deal.”

The waitress came back with their wine and poured it in their glasses.

Robert looked on expectantly as Aaron took a sip of the wine. To his credit, he refrained from pulling a face.

“It’s alright.” He said.

“That’s a two thousand pounds wine.” Robert replied.

“It’s alright and vastly overpriced, then.” Aaron said with a shrug.

Robert rolled his eyes, but he couldn’t really suppress the smile that fought its way on his face. He couldn’t believe he was on a date with Aaron Dingle, of all people. Not only that, but on a date where Aaron Dingle was criticizing his taste in wine. It felt surreal in the best kind of way. The Twilight Zone meets Love, Actually.

“So, you used to bring your wife here often?” Aaron asked. The tone was meant to be teasing, but there was an edge to it.

“No, actually. She preferred to go have dinner in France.” Robert replied, truthfully. Actually, he wasn’t sure she preferred it. He had just always assumed and she’d never complained.

“I’m your first, then.” Aaron said, a glint in his eyes. Robert could have gotten used to that.

He suppressed a laugh, pretending to be annoyed. “You’re not as funny as you think you are.”

“I’m hilarious.” Aaron replied with a toothy grin.

He looked young like this, he looked his actual age. Robert often forgot that Aaron was still in his early twenties. It was easy to, looking at him. He was an overwhelmed Atlas. So young and already he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Robert had always known Aaron as quiet, intense, focused, but now he was discovering a different side of him. The side of him that made terrible jokes and had a weird sort of self-confidence. He liked it.

Robert’s musings were interrupted by the waitress bringing them their food.

If Aaron had been lukewarm on the wine, he was the complete opposite with the food, attacking his steak like he hadn’t eaten properly in months. Robert dug into his own food. It was good. Better than good, probably the fanciest thing he’d eaten in months. He couldn’t properly concentrate on it. His eyes and attention were being diverted by Aaron again and again.

He looked comfortable now, now that he knew it was a date. Robert assumed Aaron must have been on his fair share of dates with a guy. He couldn’t really say the same. This was his first real date with a man. He’d slept with a few, but none he’d ever wanted to wine and dine. It was weird – scary and exciting and daunting all rolled into one.

Robert went back to focusing on his food.

They ate in companionable silence for a while, more preoccupied with the food than with making conversation. It was the kind of silence Robert loved, easy and light. The silence of people who didn’t need to talk to fill up space.

Except, Aaron was looking at him now, his almost finished steak lying forgotten on the plate.

“You’re looking at me.” Robert said, looking up and meeting Aaron’s eyes.

“You were doing it first.” Aaron replied. Robert couldn’t really argue with him.

“If there’s something you want to ask, just ask.” Robert said.

“We don’t have to talk about it.” Aaron replied, looking uncharacteristically sheepish. Robert steeled himself. If Aaron didn’t want to pry, it probably wouldn’t be pleasant. Aaron wasn’t exactly known for his tact.

“You don’t usually have to pry.” Robert said, keeping his tone even.

“Which tells me you don’t wanna talk about what I wanna ask and I don’t want to force you.” Aaron replied, trying to talk himself out of the conversation. It was weird, seeing him so hesitant. Robert was almost startled to realize that Aaron didn’t want to hurt him. It was sweet, but unnecessary.

“It’s Chrissie, isn’t it?” Robert asked, biting the bullet.

“We don’t have to talk about it.” Aaron said. He nudged Robert’s foot under the table.

“No, it’s fine. I was always going to tell you about it, I might as well do it now.” Robert said, surprising himself by how much he meant it. Talking about his marriage to Chrissie would never be his favourite activity, but he could and would do it for Aaron. He wanted to be honest with him. It was a new experience. “What do you want to know?”

Aaron shrugged, but Robert could see the spark of curiosity in his eyes. “How did you meet?”

“I knew Lawrence first. He was friends with Gallagher and pretty much every big name in London. I heard rumours he was going to try and go legit and I wanted in. So, I got in.” Robert replied, unable to keep the smug tone off his voice. It hadn’t been an easy feat at the time. Lawrence hadn’t trusted him, and he had been good, but not a household name. It had taken him a lot of time, patience, and skills to get to the top of Lawrence’s operation. “I met Chrissie a few months into working for Lawrence. We hit it off.”

“Enough to get married.” Aaron interjected.

“Not enough to make it last.” Robert replied. This time he managed to keep the bitterness out of his tone.

“What happened?” Aaron asked.

“I cheated on her, repeatedly. One night stands, meaningless sex. Sometimes women, sometimes men. I was with a man when she found out. It did not go over well.” He wasn’t proud of it. Of himself. He was almost afraid to look at Aaron and see him unable to conceal his disgust. When he did look at Aaron, however, he just looked thoughtful.

“That must have been hard for you.” Aaron replied after a few seconds.

“Losing the money hurt more.” Robert shrugged. It was the ugly and plain truth.

“And then you came to Emmerdale.” Aaron said.

“Trust me, it was the last thing I wanted to do, but I had no other choice.” Hadn’t he, though? He could have gone back to London, back to Gallagher, back to the number of contacts and investments he still had. He hadn’t though. Not just out of a need for revenge. Sure, he wanted what was rightfully his, but there had been something else driving him, something bigger.

“Then why come back at all?” Aaron asked, inadvertently echoing Robert’s own thoughts for the past few months. Why go back to a place he had hated? A place where the hatred felt mutual?

“It was the only place I could remember ever felt like home.”

-

After dinner, they’d fallen into the hotel, laughing and stone cold sober.

“Why are you always arguing with me?” Robert asked, walking into his room in the suite, Aaron following behind.

“Someone has to.” Aaron replied, the laughter plain in his voice. He shut the door behind him.

“And that’s your job now, isn’t it?” Robert asked, taking off his tie and carefully putting it on top of the dresser.

“It’s been ever since we first met, actually.” Aaron replied, a spark in his eyes. He took his tie off and tossed it onto a chair, missing his mark and throwing it on the floor.

“You barely talked to me when we first met.” Robert argued, getting to the centre of the room.

“Yeah, because I thought you were an idiot.” Aaron replied.

“You loved me, really. Most people do.” Robert said. Everything around him felt dangerous and exciting, as if a livewire had filled the room with electricity.

“Sorry to burst your bubble, mate, but most people hate you.” Aaron replied, walking to where Robert was standing.

“Well, as long as the people who matter don’t, I don’t really care.”

Robert got closer and closer, slowly, giving Aaron the chance to back away. Aaron didn’t. He took a step forward; his body now flush against Robert’s. One of Aaron’s hands travelled upwards towards Robert’s face, and rested on the side of it. Robert leaned into it. It was such a weirdly tender gesture; it made Robert’s head spin and his heart race. He hadn’t felt like that in years.

Someone, Robert couldn’t tell who, closed the gap between them. Their mouths collided and Robert sighed into it. He could feel the kiss throughout his whole body, the feel of Aaron obliterating everything else. The only things that mattered were Aaron’s beard against Robert’s face and his hand on Robert’s hip, the heat of him making the air simmer. Robert inhaled Aaron’s smell, a mix of his laundry detergent and the hotel’s soap.

It was a sweet kiss, but hiding beneath the sweetness were urgency and hunger. It was the kind of kiss people wrote songs about. Aaron deepened it, slipping his tongue into Robert’s mouth. Robert took it as his cue to start heating things up. His hands sneaked under Aaron’s shirt and jacket and found the warmth of Aaron’s skin. Aaron shivered and Robert smiled in the kiss. Aaron laughed.

“Can you not smirk while we kiss?” He asked, his eyes reflecting the light of the chandelier.

“I’m not smirking!” Robert said, in a mock-affronted tone. Aaron shook his head, a smile still playing on his lips. Robert decided to kiss it away.

Aaron shoved off Robert’s suit jacket and tried unbuttoning Robert’s shirt, his fingers uncoordinated.

“You wear too many clothes.” Aaron grumbled in between kisses and pitiful attempts at getting Robert naked.

“Sorry, next time I’ll get myself naked beforehand.” Robert replied. It was a testament to his giddiness that it didn’t even occur to him to roll his eyes while saying it.

“That’s not a bad idea.” Aaron said, huffing and giving up on the buttons. He just grabbed the back of Robert’s shirt and yanked it forward. Robert let him; at that point, he wouldn’t have cared if Aaron had ripped the damn thing to shreds. He just needed more skin, more touching, more points of contact. He needed to get Aaron naked. He started with the jacket, and the shirt followed soon after. Robert drank in the sight of Aaron’s chest and shoulders and stomach, his arms, his hands. Every single inch of him made Robert’s mouth feel dry and his head swim in honey. It was like being drunk, but instead of things being hazy they felt more into focus than ever before, things looked sharper, the colours were brighter.

Robert was looking at Aaron and Aaron was looking back at him and Robert had never wanted anyone or anything so much in his entire life. He would have gladly given up on the seventy-five millions then and there if it meant having Aaron like this. He grabbed Aaron’s shoulders and tugged him forward in a lips-bruising kiss. Aaron responded in kind, his hands working the button on Robert’s trousers. Robert kicked them off along with his shoes and socks, before working on Aaron’s.

Finally, finally, they were almost naked and touching and kissing and Robert felt like he could explode right then and there, in a fancy hotel room in Monte Carlo. There were worse ways to go. Robert had almost experienced several and each one of those had been worth it for having brought him to this moment in time.

“Hi.” Aaron said, softly, the length of his body flush against Robert’s. He was hard against Robert’s thigh.

“Hi.” Robert replied with a cheesy grin. He was painfully hard and if Aaron didn’t touch him soon he was positive he would die, but he also wanted to stay like that forever, smiling like a lovesick teenager at Aaron. Somehow, it didn’t feel like a contradiction.

In the end, it was Aaron who took Robert’s hand and led him to the bed. Robert fell down with a soft sound, and positioned himself in the middle of the mattress. Aaron followed suit, straddling Robert. Every single brush of skin was setting Robert’s nerve endings on fire. Robert let his hands roam Aaron’s body, his thighs, his ass, his back. He wished he could touch every single inch of Aaron’s body at the same time. Every newly discovered patch of skin was simultaneously too much and not enough.

Robert looked down. Aaron’s dick was tenting the front of his underwear, a wet spot already forming. Robert bit his lower lip. He wanted, so desperately it felt like a physical ache, to taste and touch.

“Okay, get up, we’re changing positions.” Robert said, playfully tapping Aaron’s thigh. Aaron huffed, grinning, but did as Robert asked. Robert got up and shucked his underwear.

Aaron looked at him, really looked at him. Robert was struck by how comfortable he felt under Aaron’s gaze. It felt right. He felt right. Robert got back on the bed and crawled over Aaron’s body, deliberately touching him as much as possible. He kissed Aaron. A bruise of a kiss, hard and heady and hot. He started working his way down Aaron’s body, kissing, licking, and biting. Aaron’s fingers were tangled in Robert’s hair, and he kept moaning breathily, every tug and every sound going straight to Robert’s dick.

When he got to the waistband of Aaron’s boxers Robert let his tongue dip under it. “Can I?” He asked, his fingers already gripping the fabric.

“Yeah, yeah, take them off.” Aaron breathed out.

Robert took Aaron’s underwear off and he was rewarded with the sight of Aaron’s naked body. He had only seen it once before and it had been an experience. This time was no different. Aaron was gorgeous.

Robert wanted to map every inch of him. He wanted to explore every continent of Aaron’s body.

“You’re gorgeous. Have I ever told you that?” Robert asked.

“No, there’s usually not this much talking when we do this.” Aaron replied, his tone was clipped but a pleased sort of flush had crept on his face, neck and chest.

Robert grinned. He could do silent.

He leaned down and licked the head of Aaron’s dick, Aaron gasped. Robert gave another lick, this time going from the base to the head. He started swirling patterns with his tongue, every change of direction eliciting a moan or a breathy sigh from Aaron. He finally took as much of Aaron’s dick into his mouth as he could and he was rewarded with a sharp tug on his hair and a bitten off, moaned Robert. Aaron’s skin tasted salty and bitter, and Robert could have been there forever, licking, sucking, tasting. Still, when Aaron started writhing underneath him, he let go with an obscenely loud noise.

Aaron looked down at him like he’d just murdered someone. It would have been hilarious if Robert hadn’t been too turned on to properly function. Robert crawled up and towards one of the nightstands.

“What are you doing?” Aaron asked. He looked bereft now that Robert had stopped sucking his dick.

Robert rummaged into the drawer until he found what he was looking for. He tossed a strip of condoms and a bottle of lube at Aaron.

“I want you to fuck me.” Robert said, sidling up to Aaron and giving him a peck on the lips.

Aaron looked at Robert’s face for a long moment. “Are you sure?”

“I wouldn’t ask otherwise, would I?” Robert replied, an edge of impatience creeping into his voice. He really, really, really wanted Aaron to fuck him. He’d thought about it often in the last few days, tried to imagine what it would feel like. Now he wanted the real deal.

Aaron had the audacity to laugh at him. “Touchy. I just wanted to make sure.” He said, one of his thumbs drawing lazy circles on the skin of Robert’s hip. Aaron probably didn’t mean it to be as distracting as it was.

"I know, you're the real gentleman in this relationship." Robert replied, hooking one of his legs around one of Aaron’s.

Aaron grinned. "A gentleman thief."

Robert groaned.

Aaron kissed him, once, deeply, before getting up and setting one of the fluffiest pillows lower on the mattress.

“Okay, just lay on your stomach with your hips on the pillow.” Aaron instructed. Robert did as he was told. It was a weird position, but not an uncomfortable one.

Aaron settled behind him, between his legs, his hands stroking Robert’s sides. He crawled forward until his body was flush against Robert’s back and stole a kiss. He kissed the freckles on Robert’s shoulders, the space between shoulder blades, and down his spine. Robert was breathing heavily; he hoped Aaron would get on with it because it was going to be over embarrassingly quickly for him.

“I’m gonna try something. Tell me if you don’t like it.” Aaron warned him. Honestly, Robert couldn’t fathom Aaron doing anything in that specific moment in time that Robert wouldn’t like. He nodded, once. Aaron gave the base of his spine one last kiss.

Robert was expecting to feel Aaron’s fingers, but instead it was Aaron’s tongue that started exploring his body. Robert tensed up at first, not used to the feeling. Aaron splayed a hand on Robert’s lower back and Robert relaxed into it. It was hot and wet and perfect. Aaron’s was swirling circles on Robert’s entrance, his beard rubbing against the sensitive skin, while holding onto Robert’s ass with his hands. Aaron kept licking, saliva trickling warm and slow down Robert’s skin. Aaron’s tongue kept going, alternatively stroking and pushing, until Robert was open and writhing under it. Robert started rocking into the ridiculously fancy pillow, every inch of skin feverish and alive.

Then Aaron was gone, just for a second, before Robert felt a cold finger slide into him. Aaron slid his finger in and out, again and again, building up a rhythm, taking Robert to the edge of something before swiftly taking him back.

“Aaron, come on. I’m not getting any younger here.” He said, his voice muffled by the covers.

“Only you can still manage to be bossy like this.” Aaron replied. Robert didn’t need to look at Aaron to know he was rolling his eyes, but his voice was fond and amused.

Then, Aaron added another finger, resuming his slow and infuriating undoing of Robert. Robert started meeting Aaron’s fingers, trying to speed up the rhythm and get some much-needed friction. Maybe that was all a ploy to kill Robert with a premature heart attack because that was where he was headed.

“Aaron, come on. Please.” Robert begged. If the position had permitted it, he would have fallen to his knees. Maybe next time.

Something in his tone must have convinced Aaron, because he took his fingers out. Robert didn’t have time to feel their absence too acutely, because he could hear the distinctive sound of a condom being opened. Finally.

“Turn over, Robert.” Aaron said, his voice thick. Once again, Robert complied.

Aaron towered over him, beautiful and solid. Robert had a weird lump in his throat, and his vision was swimming and his dick was positively aching to be touched and yet he had never experienced such a perfect moment in his entire life. Aaron was gorgeous, kind, ridiculously difficult and his.

Aaron slid inside him slowly, carefully. It hurt, in a delicious sort of way. Robert gripped Aaron’s shoulders, Aaron’s breath warming his chest, his hair tickling his neck. It was weird – he felts so full – but absolutely perfect. He’d done this a couple of times with Chrissie, but never with a man. Never with Aaron. It was better than he could have ever imagined.

Finally, Aaron was in and Robert gasped.

“You okay?” Aaron asked.

“Yeah.” Robert replied, breathlessly. “Move.”

Aaron started moving. Slowly at first. The he started picking up speed. Robert couldn’t stop himself from moaning, the sounds obscenely loud in the otherwise silent room. Aaron was whispering something in his ear, too low to hear, while Robert was lost in a litany of Aaron, Aaron, Aaron. One of Aaron’s hands found its way to Robert’s dick and started sliding up and down. The mix of sensations was too much for Robert. He felt surrounded by lighting, the static raising every single hair on his body, the heat dancing on his feverish skin. He knew he was probably scratching Aaron’s skin but he couldn’t make himself unclench his hold on Aaron’s shoulders. He had completely lost control of his body, but instead of being terrifying it was the most freeing experience of Robert’s life.

Robert came with a shout, spilling all over his stomach and Aaron’s. Aaron fucked him through it, helping him ride his orgasm for as long as possible. Aaron’s thrusts started becoming more and more erratic, until Aaron too came with a whimper, kissing him messily before biting Robert’s shoulder.

Aaron flopped onto Robert. Robert’s arms reflexively wrapped around Aaron’s waist. It was going to be a really uncomfortable position in a few seconds, but in that moment it felt like peace.

Robert stared at the ceiling for what felt hours, come and sweat cooling on his skin. His head was swimming. He wasn’t sure he would ever regain full use of his cognitive faculties. Aaron had screwed the brains out of him.

Sadly, Aaron got up. Despite the titanic effort it took to move, Robert turned to watch him walk to the bathroom. Now, that was a sight Robert was going to treasure forever. Robert heard the water run and a couple of minutes later Aaron came back with a towel. He started cleaning Robert’s stomach.

“How are you feeling?” Aaron asked. He wouldn’t look Robert in the eye. Maybe he was expecting Robert to freak out and throw him out. It wouldn’t have been the first time. Robert pushed those thoughts aside. They were things of the past.

“Well fucked.” He replied with a grin. Aaron finally looked at him and smiled back. It was a beautiful sight, Aaron’s smile. It lit up his face.

Aaron cleaned up most of the mess of come and lube from Robert’s skin, but he still probably needed a shower. They both did, but the bed was comfortable and Aaron had done a good job of cleaning them up anyway. The shower could wait until morning.

They got under the covers. Robert was feeling pleasantly sleepy, his muscles relaxed and his head blessedly quiet. Aaron was a grounding presence beside him, solid and warm. Robert threw an arm over Aaron, who leaned into him. Aaron burrowed into the covers, hiding as much of his body under the duvet as he could, only the top of his head visible.

Between a breath and the next, Robert fell asleep.

-

Robert woke up for no apparent reason, the alarm clock next to the bed blinking at him that it was 1.30 am. He got up, put his underwear back on, and went looking for his mobile phone. It had been in the pocket of his trousers the night before, and he had forgotten to take it out in the heat of the moment. Robert located his clothes, strewn across the bedroom floor, and grabbed the phone.

He had no messages.

He sighed.

It was half past midnight in England, but he knew Vic would be still up, probably helping Marlon at the pub. Without Chas and Charity they were understaffed. He sat down on the bed and dialled her number.

It rang a few times before Vic picked up.

“Hey, Vic.”

“Robert.” Vic replied, she sounded tired, under the tone of forced coldness.

“I just wanted to let you know that everything’s okay. We arrived safely.”

“Oh. Okay. That’s good.” Vic replied. Robert knew his sister very well. He knew that under the hurt and the anger she worried about them.

“Vic, listen. I’m sorry about this. About involving Adam.” He started.

“You think this is only about Adam? I care about you as well, Robert. You and Andy both. I know you guys were involved in some stuff in the past, I’m not stupid. I know it’s the reason Katie died. I can’t lose you too. I can’t lose my entire family.” Vic said. The more she talked the angrier she sounded. Robert could understand. If the roles were reversed, he would have been beside himself.

“Vic, no one is going to die, okay? I promise you.” Robert said. He meant it. He knew it was a stupid thing to promise, but he would do everything it took to ensure they all went home safe.

“You promise a lot of things Robert, but you don’t always mean them.” It hurt coming from Vic – it would always hurt – but he couldn’t deny she had a point.

“This time it’s different.” Robert said. This time he wanted to go back home, free and willingly.

“No, it’s not.” She snapped, then sighed. “Rob, just come home. It’s not too late. Call it off.” She continued, her voice was sad.

“I can’t, I’m sorry.” Robert replied.

“Stop apologizing! You can’t apologize for something you haven’t done yet.” She hissed down the phone. Robert could almost see her, hiding in the back of the Woolpack, hair a mess, eyes shining, trying to reason with her idiot brother. Well, one of them.

Another apology died on Robert’s lips. “I just hope we can talk when I come back.”

“Are you? Coming back, I mean.” She asked.

“Yeah. Yes. I’m coming back. If that’s okay with you.”

“Of course, Robert. You’re my brother and I love you. Even though I want to strangle you right now. When you and Andy come back we’re having a proper family sit down and sorting everything once and for all. No more secrets.” Vic said, sounding final. She needed that. She needed everything in the open, she needed them all to start healing. Robert could do that for her.

“No more secrets, yeah.”

“Listen, I’m heading home now. I’m staying at the B&B until Adam comes back. Just tell him I love him. Goodnight, Robert.” She said, she didn’t sound mad anymore, just sad.

“Vic, wait.” Robert took a deep breath. No more secrets. “I think I’m seeing someone.”

“…okay. Do I know her? Is she the reason you called me?”

Robert had been beaten up more times than he could count. He’s been threatened with knives, guns, and baseball bats. One time he’d famously been threatened with a live python. He’d faced everything with a steady hand and a smirk on his face. Yet, his next words were making his heart thunder in his chest. For the first time in years Robert’s hands were trembling. This was Vic. His little sister. Despite what anyone might have thought, he cared about her more than he cared about anything else in the world.

“Yeah.” Robert choked out. “Yeah, you know him.”

“Is it Aaron?” Vic asked. Her tone was carefully neutral.

“Yes.”

“Oh, Robert.” She said, sniffling. “That’s wonderful. He’s great.”

Robert rubbed his eyes with his other hand. He refused to be a cliché and cry about this. He would not.

“He is.”

“If you both survive this, when you come home we’re doing a double date.” She said. She was clearly aiming for a joke, but it was undermined by the fact that she had begun crying.

“Sure, Vic. Go to bed now, yeah? Sleep well.”

“Yeah, you too.”

Robert took a deep breath and crawled back into bed. The room was chilly, but Aaron was a veritable furnace next to him. Robert got closer, until he was flush against Aaron’s back, an arm thrown over the other man’s side.

“You’re freezing.” Aaron mumbled.

“Sorry.” Robert whispered back. “How much of that did you hear?”

“Not much.” Aaron replied, turning around to face Robert. His eyes were still closed. His breath was warm on Robert’s neck.

“I told Vic about you.” Robert whispered.

“She already knows me.” Aaron replied, still half asleep.

“No, Aaron, I told her about us.”

That finally got Aaron’s attention. His eyes snapped open, suddenly awake. “Oh. Are you okay?” He asked, rubbing his eyes. All thoughts of sleep were apparently forgotten.

Robert rolled his eyes. “Yes, I’m okay. It’s just Vic.” He knew it was the wrong thing to say as soon as the words had left his mouth. It was Aaron. He didn’t need to lie to Aaron. Not about this. Yet, Aaron had always been so strong despite everything. When he looked down at Aaron’s face, he was looking at him softly, not with pity, but with understanding.

“I know how much she means to you, Robert.”

Robert sighed. “Sorry. Yeah, I’m okay. I think part of me knew she’d be okay with it because she’s Vic, you know? She’s the best. But the other part...” He trailed off.

“It’s okay, I understand.” Aaron replied. Under the covers his hand had found its way to Robert’s side and his thumb was now drawing soothing circles on Robert’s skin.

“You’ve been through that before.” It wasn’t a question. Aaron was a private guy, but people knew. He had heard him tell people before, he didn’t hide.

“You could say that, yeah.” His tone was neutral, but Robert could see Aaron’s troubled history in the lines of his face.

“Does it get any easier?” He asked. He felt so small. Vulnerable. Yet, in the warmth of that bed, talking to Aaron about it, it didn’t matter. He also felt safe. He hadn’t felt safe in a long, long time. Maybe the last time had been before his father had ran him out of Emmerdale ten years before. Maybe even before his mum had died.

“Surprisingly, yes it does.” Aaron replied with a soft smile. “Are you worried about Andy and Diane?”

“A bit, yeah. I mean, I’m sure Diane will be okay with it. I was never her favourite anyway.” Robert said, going for a joke, but falling flat. “Andy…I don’t know.”

“He’s your brother.” Aaron replied, matter-of-factly.

“Yeah.” Robert said.

Andy and Robert had done so many horrible things. To one another, to other people. There was so much history there. The lines between love and hate had gotten blurred so many times. Still, there was a part of Robert, a part of himself he had been desperate to crush into nothing, that still desperately wanted Andy’s approval, his understanding. Because maybe it was the closest thing Robert was ever going to get to obtaining his father’s. How pathetic was that? All those years and still hung up on a man who couldn’t have cared less about him. At least not enough to show it.

“He’ll get over it.” Aaron said, with the certainty of someone who was going to make damn sure of it. It made Robert’s heart miss a beat in his chest.

“I think you have more confidence in Andy than I do.” He replied, with half a laugh.

“He’s a good man, deep down.” Aaron said.

“Maybe you should sleep with Andy, then.” Robert joked.

“Thought about it, have you seen those arms?” Aaron replied, schooling his face in the mockery of a dreamy expression.

“Oi!” Robert yelped, playfully shoving at Aaron’s arm.

“Calm down, I like you better.” Aaron replied, leaning in for a kiss. It was short and sweet and perfect and Robert melted into it.

“Of course you do. He’s boring.” Robert said, his face still mere inches from Aaron’s.

“I never said that.” Aaron replied, laughing when Robert pinched his side in retaliation. It was all just so perfect. Robert hadn’t thought he’d ever get this. That he’d ever get Aaron, someone who was so inherently good and genuine. Someone who, for some reason, liked him, just him, for who he really was, not the flash, not the money, not the scheming. It was something else.

“My dad knew.” The words were out of Robert’s mouth before he even really knew what he was going to say. He waited to feel the usual swell of panic, but it didn’t come. He took a deep breath.

“About what?” Aaron asked. He looked surprised by the sudden shift in mood.

“About me being…” Robert started. Again, he waited to feel the dread creep into his stomach like an icy grip, but it didn’t. “Not straight. Bisexual.” There it was. He’d said it. He’d said the words and the sky hadn’t fallen.

“What? How?” Aaron asked.

“He caught me, once, with a lad who used to help at the farm.” Robert said. He turned on his back. He didn’t think he could go on if he had to look Aaron in the eye. “I was fifteen. We never really talked about it, but he knew. It didn’t end well.”

“I’m sorry, Robert, really.” Aaron said. His hand was still on Robert’s side, his arm now lying across Robert’s stomach.

“It’s okay.” Robert said, with a half attempt at a shrug. “It was a long time ago. I think it’s why I tried so hard to make it work with Chrissie even though my heart wasn’t really in it. I don’t know, some part of me thought he’d finally be proud of me. That he’d finally see me as something other than a disappointment.” Robert swallowed around the lump in his throat. He refused to cry about something that had happened such a long time ago. He refused to cry about Jack Sugden.

“Robert, look at me.” Aaron said, his voice was gentle but determined. Robert sighed but did as Aaron asked. He was starting to realize it was going to be a recurring theme in his life now. There were worst fates in life than doing as Aaron Dingle asked. “You’re not a disappointment. You’re amazing.” Aaron continued, his hand now resting on Robert’s cheek.

“Shut up.” Robert replied. He wanted to look anywhere but Aaron’s face, he wanted to hide the feelings he was sure were clearly written in his eyes, and yet, he couldn’t move. Aaron was grounding him, petrifying him, and instead of being terrifying it was freeing. With every word, every kiss, and every touch he was being tethered to the ground and he didn’t want to look for an escape route. He wanted to be grounded. To be held in place long enough to call Aaron’s arms home.

“I mean it, Robert. I mean it.” Aaron said urgently. His hand warm and heavy on Robert’s skin.

“Okay. Okay.” Robert replied, barely hidden desperation in his voice. He kissed Aaron, hard at first, then softer. Aaron held him and kissed him, and Robert let himself be wildly, ridiculously happy.

They broke apart, Robert was grinning, Aaron too. It was a perfect moment.

“I want to tell you about my scars.” Aaron said, dropping his gaze. “Not now, but soon. Soon enough.”

“You don’t have to. I can wait.” Robert replied. He was almost surprised to realize it was the truth. He would have waited a lifetime if it meant Aaron was comfortable sharing that part of his past with him.

“I know, but I want to tell you. I want you to know.” Aaron said. Robert kissed him again.

-

It was D-Day and the air in the warehouse was thick with anticipation and nerves.

Everyone was reacting to the stress in their own way. Charity was talking Chas’ ear off, going on about something or other, barely pausing to breathe. Chas for the most part was doing a half decent job of looking interested in what Charity had to say, while sneaking worried glances at the people in the room. Finn was in a corner, ostensibly reading, but Robert hadn’t seen him turn a page in more than an hour. Ross was playing games on his burner phone, looking the very picture of calm, if it weren’t for his leg, that had been going up and down intermittently ever since he’d gotten there. Adam was in a corner with Aaron. They were sitting close, heads bowed together, whispering about something. Andy was sitting close to them, but he was absorbed in his own thoughts, not really paying attention to what was going on around him.

The only one who looked genuinely calm was Cain. He was sitting on a chair, already dressed in his dark suit for work, calmly leafing through a magazine. Robert wished he could be Cain for just one moment. Which was admittedly not something he would have thought would ever pass through his mind. And yet. 

Robert looked at his watch for the umpteenth time.

“Let’s go over the plan one more time.” He said. There was a chorus of groans from the others, but no one protested. “Come on, chronologically.”

“Go in. Stash clothes. I let Andy out of jail and I help direct traffic away from you while you’re in the vault. When you’re done, I go back and clean up the physical evidence.” Cain said, looking like even just humouring Robert was causing him physical pain.

“I go inside first, present myself as the guy from the security system company and set up shop in the control room. From there I direct all communications and keep an eye on all the key players. I switch the live feed to our pre-recorded footage. At the end, I wipe everything out.” Finn said, counting every item off his fingers while he spoke.

“Walk around generally looking shifty, get thrown in jail. Once I’m out I’ll put on worker’s clothes and come and let you in from one of the side doors. While you change I will go and plant the explosive. Done that, I’ll start cordoning off the area. Once you reach me, we’ll go to the vault together. We stuff the cash into the garbage bags and smuggle it out pretending it’s debris caused by the explosion in the hallway.” Andy said, with all the passion of someone reciting their grocery list.

“In the meantime, Chas and I keep Larry occupied all night. We have to make sure there’s no window of opportunity for anyone to alert him of what’s going on.” Charity piped up.

“I’ll drive Ross to the data farm and then back, I should be there just in time to get the money and you out.” Adam said. He still wasn’t back to his usual self, the argument with Vic still probably weighing on his mind, but he looked focused, which Robert could appreciate.

“I’ll wait for Finn’s signal to blow up the thing.” Ross added drily.

“Not a second before that, you got it?” Robert asked. Ross rolled his eyes.

“Yes, but do tell me one more time, I loved the first three hundred so much.”

Robert ignored him. Instead he looked at Aaron. He looked almost comically calm, but Robert could see the tense line of his shoulders, the tightness around his eyes and mouth.

“Aaron?”

“We go in, get to the vault, and I have roughly forty-five minutes to crack an old school safe that could have dozens different combinations.” He said, aiming for a joke, but missing it entirely.

“You can do it.” Robert replied with more warmth than he would have normally used. He had absolute trust in Aaron and his abilities. “Okay.” Robert continued. “It’s time to go. Remember the plan, don’t interact with each other unless absolutely necessary, and keep your comms open. Be careful.”

“Sure, Mum.” Ross quipped, passing Robert and clapping his shoulder.

“You’re the one I’ll miss the least if you die.” Robert replied.

“Wow, now you sound like my real mum, it’s almost scary.” Ross said with a wicked grin.

“I can’t wait for you to have enough money to afford around the clock therapy.” Robert sighed, but there was no real bite to it. “Clear out everything incriminating or that you want to take home. We’re not coming back here.” He continued, addressing the room at large.

Robert didn’t wait for a response, instead he started towards the door, feeling more than seeing Aaron behind him, following him. As soon as he got out Robert shielded his eyes against the sun. It was warm outside, warmer than he had expected, but not unpleasant. Aaron stopped beside him and handed him a pair of sunglasses.

“Here, I nicked them from Ross.” He said with a grin. Robert took the sunglasses, deliberately letting his fingers brush Aaron’s hand in the process.

“He’s gonna kill you.” Robert replied, putting the sunglasses on. They were just his shape.

Aaron shrugged. “He can buy another pair once we’re rich.”

“That’s the spirit.” Robert replied, heading towards the car.

He climbed into the passenger’s seat, Aaron getting behind the wheel. It was the last bit of comfort Robert could allow himself before walking into Lawrence White’s casino. Once inside, things would get complicated. He and Aaron had jobs to do.

Robert allowed himself the drive to just bask in Aaron’s presence, to look at the tense set of his shoulders, his hair that was beginning to grow too long, his capable hands gripping the steering wheel. He still felt the thrill of being open about it. Of looking at Aaron with want and not feeling the rising shame of it chocking him. It was new and exhilarating and Robert couldn’t wait to explore it further. Ideally, on a white beach somewhere in the Maldives, but he wasn’t picky.

“Stop staring at me.” Aaron said, not taking his eyes off the road.

“No.” Robert replied, good-naturedly, putting a hand on Aaron’s knee.

“If you make me crash this car I’m gonna come back to haunt you.” Aaron said, still he didn’t shrug Robert’s hand off.

“I’ll behave.” Robert replied teasingly. He wasn’t going to start something he couldn’t finish. Maybe on the drive back to England. Robert kept his hand on Aaron’s knee, drawing circles with his fingers, feeling the soft denim and the warmth of his skin underneath.

Aaron parked a few blocks from the building itself, so that the cameras wouldn’t pick the car up. It was an extra precaution, but Robert wanted to be careful. Nothing could go wrong that night.

Aaron held his gaze for a few seconds. They didn’t need to say anything. Robert put on a baseball cap and adjusted the sunglasses. He knew where the cameras were and how to avoid them capturing his face, but safe was always better than sorry. He couldn’t risk Lawrence or Chrissie seeing him on a monitor and blowing the whole thing up.

Robert walked into the White Rose. The place was exactly the same as when he’d been kicked out. Admittedly, it hadn’t been such a long time, but still. Robert had assumed some things would have been changed, that his departure would have irremediably altered the very core of the place. But it was just normal, maybe busier than usual. If Robert cleared his mind, he could almost imagine it was a normal afternoon, he coming into the office after a day of meetings in other upscale hotels. Chrissie waiting for him in her office, head buried in documents, just waiting for him to swoop in and distract her with a glass of wine and some good company.

Robert surprised himself with how little he wanted it back. Not at all, in fact. Not when he already had so much better.

He strode with confidence to the last elevator on the right, the one that travelled to the private suites. He punched the code in, and waited. Good, old, reliable Lawrence. Robert had told him to change the codes at least once every four weeks, but Lawrence had never listened to him. For the first time in his life, Robert was immensely grateful rather than irritated.

The doors opened once again and Robert found himself face to face with a pacing Rebecca White. She was wearing a coat and in a corner, was a suitcase.

“Going somewhere?” Robert asked, stepping in.

“Rob!” She yelped, stopping dead in her tracks.

“Something wrong?”

“I tried to call you a few times. I didn’t think you’d come.” She replied, fidgeting.

Robert looked at his watch, he was a few minutes early. “Rebecca, what’s wrong?” He asked. He was getting worried.

“I can’t do this.” Rebecca replied, moving towards her suitcase. “That’s what I wanted to tell you.”

“Do what?” Robert asked, a sinking feeling already taking hold of his stomach.

“This.” She replied, gesturing between the two of them. “Give you the codes. Be a part of this heist of yours.”

Robert steeled himself. Rebecca was leaving his no choice. His people depended on him. Aaron, Vic, even Andy. They needed him to get those codes. He smiled at Rebecca, honey sweet.

“Bex, come on. It was always you and me.” He said, taking a step closer. Rebecca didn’t move away. “Remember the first time we met?” He asked.

“Yeah.” She replied. A smile made its way on her face. “One of my dad’s birthday parties. You looked lost.”

“I was drunk.” Robert replied. She laughed. He put of his hands on her shoulder. Her coat was soft and warm to the touch.

“You spent the entire evening complaining about my dad.” Rebecca said. She was looking at his lips.

“In my defence, I had no idea who you were.” It had been an amateur mistake, getting drunk in public, at a fancy party. He’d been lucky to bump into Rebecca. She had looked him up and down, appreciative, and she’d plastered herself to his side, making sure he didn’t do anything too stupid.

“Yes, I probably looked as out of place as you among all those stuffy types.” She replied, her voice barely above a whisper. She hadn’t. She’d looked beautiful and rich and bored. Despite the inappropriately bohemian clothes and defiant set of her shoulders and the spark of irreverence in her eyes, she had fit in in a way that couldn’t be faked. Robert had been chasing that effortless belonging all his life.

“You were never like them. You’re better.” He said. He meant it. Rebecca had the same ruthless streak as her father and Chrissie, but she tried. She tried to be better, kinder.

He could have done it then. He could have kissed her, charmed her into giving him the codes. It would have worked.

Robert took a step back, a different pair of blue eyes flashing in front of him. It startled Rebecca out of her daze.

“They’re my family, Robert.” She sounded final. It made panic rise in Robert’s mouth.

“Are you kidding me?” Robert pinched the bridge of his nose with a hand. “You made peace with them and suddenly everything is forgiven?”

“That’s not it!” Rebecca spat out. She took a deep breath. When she spoke again her tone was softer. “My family, they matter to me. I never thought it’d get this far. She’s still my sister. He’s still my dad. I can’t do this to them. They’d never forgive me.” She said, her voice breaking on the last few words. She was pleading with him. She was feeling guilty. Robert could probably work with that.

“They were my family too! And look at what they did to me. They threw me out of the empire I helped them build. They sent people after me!” The last part might not have been strictly true, but only barely. He wasn’t dead was because they thought they had beat him into compliance.

“Yes, you’re right, it’s terrible.” Rebecca agreed, reaching into the pocket of her coat. Cashmere, expensive. She took out a piece of paper and handed it to Robert. It was a check, folded in two. “This should take care of everything. They’ll never know. With this you can move on, build yourself a new life. You’re free of them, they’re free of you. Win-win.” She continued, forcing a cheerful smile.

Robert took the check.

“Good. Just leave, Robert. Don’t tell anyone about this and I won’t either, okay?” She asked, shooting a wobbly smile in his direction. Robert’s expression didn’t change.

Rebecca sighed, took her suitcase and moved towards the elevator, brushing against Robert as she walked. “Goodbye, Robert.” She said softly. It sounded final. It probably was.

She left.

Robert looked at the check. He opened it. It was for three million euros. Less than he was worth, more than he would have ever gotten out of a fair divorce proceeding.

He could take it. Run away. The rest of the team would never know what had really happened. They’d have to get back to England with no money, but if that was the worst thing that happened to them on this job, well, then it had been a good day.

Robert tore the check in two, then again, and again, until it was nothing but confetti. He let them fall on the floor. The gears in his brain were already whirring, trying to find a solution to the problem.

Robert ran out of the suite, careful not to be seen, and back into the car. Aaron was there, listening intently to something on the radio. Robert casually registered that the program was in French. He had to ask Aaron about that when the fate of the job wasn’t in the balance.

“Did you get them?” Aaron asked. Then he must have seen the look on Robert’s face because his expression darkened. “What happened?”

“She backed out.” Robert said, trying to catch his breath after the jog.

“What do you mean she backed out?”

“She got cold feet. She couldn’t betray her family.” Robert said mockingly.

“I can’t believe you chose the only mole with a conscience in the history of crime!” Aaron said, banging his hands against the steering wheel in anger. “So, it’s over?”

“I didn’t say that.” Robert replied, keeping his tone even.

“But you said-”

“I know what I said. She backed out, but there’s another way. We already have one of the codes to the vault, and we were always going to crack the safe open. We just need an electronic key.” Robert said. “If Rebecca won’t give us hers, we’ll steal Lawrence’s.”

“And how do you propose we do that?” Aaron asked, the curiosity and anxiety obvious in his voice.

“When I worked here he always kept it in his suit jacket’s inner pocket. If he didn’t bother to change the elevator codes I doubt he changed the hiding place for it.” Robert replied.

“And I suppose that’s my job.” Aaron said.

“Yeah. Go in posing as a guest, bump into him and steal it.”

“Easy as pie, isn’t it?” Aaron asked, his tone was annoyed, but Robert could already see his brain move behind his eyes. He was on board.

“For one of the best thieves this side of the Atlantic? Yeah, probably.” Robert said, grinning at Aaron.

“Flattery will get you nowhere.” Aaron replied, but he was already getting out of the car. Robert followed him.

Aaron went to the back of the car and popped open the boot. He took the bag with his suit out. “Good thing we remembered to take this.” And with a sly grin he was gone, walking towards the nearest hotel, bag in hand.

Robert looked at him go, always a pleasurable experience. He closed the boot and sat on it. The day was coming to an end, the sun lowering on the horizon. The air was still warm, though. Maybe after everything was over he and Aaron could take a vacation in Monte Carlo. A few days spent between casinos and the beach.

Aaron came back, once again wearing the suit Robert had bought for him. Robert let his eyes overtly drag all over Aaron’s body. Aaron raised an eyebrow at him. “You done?” He asked, a different kind of heat behind it.

“I’m just appreciating this fine suit.” Robert replied. He smoothed one of the jacket’s lapels with a hand, letting it linger on Aaron’s chest for a second. He didn’t miss the way Aaron’s expression darkened. “You know, we can’t really do anything until Finn gains access to the system.” Robert continued, suggestively.

“I’m not having sex with you now, Robert.” Aaron replied. Robert held his hands up in surrender. “Now” implied a later and he could work with that.

They sat on the boot of the car in companionable silence for a while. Robert was keeping his mind blank, thinking about car specifications. It was a trick he’d picked up on one of his first jobs. It allowed him to stay focused, but not spiral into panic. Beside him, Aaron seemed worried. Nothing major, but Robert could almost feel the steady thrum of anxiety coming off Aaron’s skin.

“Should we tell the others about the change of plans?” Aaron asked eventually.

“No. It would cause unnecessary panic.” Robert replied.

“So, we lie to them?” Aaron asked. It wasn’t hostile, just curious.

“Think about it. We tell them Rebecca bailed and? What good does it do?”

“Okay. I trust you.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Robert’s phone rang. Robert picked it up. “Hello?”

“It’s Finn.” Came the tinny reply. “I’m going in now. Open your comms.” Finn said before hanging up.

Robert took the small earpiece from the internal pocket of his leather jacket, switching it on and putting it in his ear. Aaron did the same. For a few minutes, there was absolute silence. Neither Aaron nor Robert dared say anything for fear they might miss the comms going live.

Now that it was actually happening, Robert could feel the anxiety and adrenaline rush through his veins, threatening to make his fingers feel numb. He wouldn’t let them. Instead he focused on the rhythm of Aaron’s breaths. In and out. In and out. He lost track of time.

The static in his ear alerted him someone was coming in. Finn’s voice rang loud and clear. “I’m in.”

Robert breathed a sigh of relief. Next to him, Aaron visibly relaxed. Things were starting out well, earlier betrayal notwithstanding.

“Okay, great job, Finn.” Robert replied.

“Walk in the park.”

“Okay, Chas, Charity, it’s time for you to come in.” Robert said.

“Yes, boss.” Charity replied, trying to sound professional and failing.

Robert rolled his eyes, but motioned to Aaron to follow him. They walked into the casino and were immediately hit by the temperature change. The air inside was cool and dry. There was no natural light, a well-known trick to make people lose track of time. For Robert, it was not going to be a problem. He sat at a slot machine, absentmindedly putting a coin in it. From his vantage point, he could see most of the casino, including the bar and the entrance. What he couldn’t see, Finn would see for him.

Aaron came in a couple of minutes after him, strolling in lazily as if he owned the place. With the suit he was wearing, he looked the part. Robert had seen many of them over the years, rich young men coming in after a day or a night of partying, looking to extend the fun. Aaron went to the bar. With one look at the suit, the barman immediately went to him to serve him. Lawrence could not be accused of not training his staff properly.

“Chas and Charity are coming in.” Finn said.

Robert turned his head just in time to see them enter the room. If he hadn’t spent every single waking moment in their company for the last few weeks he couldn’t have recognized them. They looked like they owned the place. Everything from the hair to the clothes to the jewels was perfect.

As if summoned by the call of wealth, Lawrence got off one of the elevators. Robert couldn’t take his eyes off of him. The last time they had seen each other, Lawrence had ordered one of his goons to break his ribs and toss him out. Lawrence had treated him like a son for some time. He had taken him in, taught him all he knew about the business. He had promised him one day he’d be the king. Robert should have known better than trust a parental figure, and yet. He’d fallen for it. He’d fallen for Lawrence’s promises, just to be tossed out with the trash at the first mistake. The Whites’ love had always been conditional.

Moving like a shadow, Aaron was on Lawrence before Robert could even fully process what was going on. Aaron had his phone out, looking completely engrossed in it, then he bumped into Lawrence, looking the picture of innocence. From his seat, Robert couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he saw Aaron look apologetic, touching Lawrence to make sure he was alright. Lawrence, for his part, didn’t look too bothered. Robert couldn’t imagine why.

Aaron walked away, leisurely, looking the very picture of wealthy innocence. One of his hands was buried in his trousers’ pocket. He didn’t look directly at Robert, but he turned into his general direction and covertly nodded. He had the key.

“What was that?” Finn asked, voice suspicious in Robert’s ear.

“Nothing.” Robert replied, then thought better of it. “Just trust me, Finn.” Robert pleaded.

“Okay.” Finn agreed easily. “I trust you.”

Lawrence in the meantime had moved onto Chas and Charity. He greeted them, like he usually did with his wealthy guests, ushering them into the inner rooms. Robert could see Charity speak, Lawrence throw his head back in laughter. He looked suitably charmed, which Robert didn’t doubt for a second. Lawrence was an open book with his distaste. Disgust always plain to see on his features. Robert had seen in it often enough directed at him. For someone who owned a casino, Lawrence had a terrible poker face.

Robert sighed with relief. If Lawrence was legitimately taken by Chas and Charity there was a good chance he would spend the evening with them. Robert almost couldn’t believe the plan was actually going to work.

That was when he saw Andy enter the main room. He looked appropriately suspicious in a baseball cap and a military green jacket that had seen better days. Robert brushed his finger against the earpiece. “Finn, Andy’s here.” He said, quietly so the other people sitting at the slot machines wouldn’t hear him.

“Copy that. Sending security in now.” Finn replied. Robert could hear him frantically tap away at a keyboard.

Robert tried to scan the room for familiar faces, bar staff, waiters, croupiers, security, but he couldn’t really recognize anyone. He’d never spent much time in the casino proper, beyond the occasional photo op and the greeting of some rich client or business partner. He had never been too attracted to the gambling, not on the casino floor at least. He’d always preferred gambling with higher stakes when it suited him.

Robert brought his attention back to his brother. Andy was leaning on the bar, in the middle of ordering a drink. Knowing Andy, probably a pint. The man had no imagination. From his vantage point, however, Robert could also see two security guards surreptitiously approaching him from behind. One of them tapped him on a shoulder. They seemed to talk for a few seconds. The other guard gestured towards a side door. Andy shrugged and walked towards it, the guards flanking him on either side. They disappeared behind the door.

Now, all they had to do was wait.

Robert searched the room for Aaron. He was sitting behind one of the slot machines on the other side of the room, not really doing anything. Robert got up. He approached Aaron, casually, as if he were seeing him for the first time. He would have never done it when he worked there – too risky – but there was nothing stopping him now.

He sat down next to Aaron.

“You shouldn’t be here.” Aaron said. He didn’t take his eyes off the slot machine in front of him.

“Relax. You just looked very lonely here on your own.” Robert replied, grinning. In his peripheral vision, he saw Aaron turn his head to look at him.

“Maybe not the best moment to try it on with me, is it?” He asked, huffing out a laugh.

“There’s never a bad time to flirt.” Robert replied easily.

Aaron grinned at him, relaxed and open. Robert could have fallen in love with it. He was probably already halfway there if he was honest with himself. It was scary, daunting, exhilarating. It was something he hadn’t felt in a long time.

Robert held Aaron’s gaze, until a voice in his ear forced him to focus on something else.

“Guys, we have a problem.” Finn said. He sounded on the verge of panic.

“What now?” Robert asked.

“I was dark when Andy started breaking into the maintenance room and the coast was clear. But now I’m back and there’s security headed towards him.” Finn replied.

“Can’t he hide somewhere?” Robert asked, already getting up.

“No, if he moves he’s going to be seen. His only chance is to get in, but he needs more time.” Robert needed to send someone to Andy’s rescue. Cain maybe, but if he was too far away he’d never make it in time. If Andy was found out the whole plan collapsed. Aaron and Robert needed him to get into the lower levels.

“We can go.” Aaron said, producing a magnetic badge from one of his pockets. “I swiped this off Lawrence earlier. Thought it might come in handy.” Aaron continued with a shrug.

Robert desperately wanted to kiss him.

“Okay, let’s go.” He said instead.

“The door on your left.” Finn supplied. “There’s no one in that corridor.”

The pair surreptitiously got closer to the side door Finn had mentioned. The doors were plain and unassuming; the only thing standing out was the metal card reader on the right. Aaron quickly passed the badge on the scanner, making it flash green for a fraction of a second.

They slinked inside, careful to not be seen by anyone. The service hallway was diametrically different from the casino’s interior. The lights were harsh and bright, the walls a stark concrete white. The floors were a pale marble. It made the whole place look like a corridor in a hospital from the 60s.

Robert and Aaron started walking, with Finn dictating where. They were trying to simultaneously hurry up but not look suspicious in case they met anyone in the hallway. The trick was always to look confident. No one questioned people walking hurriedly along if they looked like they belonged there.

“Okay, the guards are about ten seconds away. Think fast.” Finn warned, after their last left turn.

Aaron looked at Robert. Robert looked back.

“Are you ready to make some blokes very uncomfortable?” Robert asked, a face-splitting grin on his face.

Aaron gave him a look, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Before he could say anything else, Robert was already crowding his personal space, pushing Aaron against the wall. He got closer and closer, his mouth just inches away from Aaron’s. He could feel his breath against his face, the smell of the hotel’s shower gel on his skin. His eyes were wide, his pupils dark, a look of want in them that sent shivers down Robert’s spine.

Aaron was the one who closed the gap between them. Robert was ready to draw it out, to forget himself for a few more moments and just enjoy the agony of wanting, knowing what he wanted was so close. It made getting it all the sweeter. Aaron had other plans. He kissed Robert, his hands closing around the front of his leather jacket. Robert’s hands immediately reached for Aaron’s sides under his suit, his shirt was soft and cool to the touch, while everywhere Aaron was touching felt hot and feverish. Robert fleetingly wondered if it would always feel like this. If every kiss with Aaron would feel like victory and surrender at the same time.

Far too soon, Robert heard a polite cough behind him, rudely dragging him back to the reality of the situation. They were there on business, not pleasure. Robert’s only consolation was that Aaron seemed as displeased by the interruption as he felt, if his groan was anything to go by.

Robert sighed and straightened up, making sure to brush Aaron’s sides one last time. He turned around and came face to face with two men. They were older than him, but just barely, probably in their mid-thirties. Their faces were masks of professionalism, but Robert could see the amusement in their eyes. They were both wearing cheap suits and a badge pinned on their breast pockets. Robert had never seen them before, but he had been counting on that. Even when Robert had worked there, he had never bothered getting to know the security guards too well. The job had a high turnout. It was usually either a stepping-stone for ambitious young people looking to advance in the security business, or it was a cushy job for military types in between deployments. They were usually gone before even working three full months at the place. The only people who stayed were the ones higher up in the food chain, and they weren’t likely to meet any of them.

“Sirs? Excuse me, are you guests?” One of the guards asked. His eyes darted between Aaron and Robert before settling on the former. Robert chanced a look at Aaron. He looked positively wrecked. Robert would have felt very smug if he hadn’t been sure he looked just as bad, maybe even worse.

Robert blinked slowly at the men, trying to make his brain work again and stall for time.

“Uhm. Yeah.” Aaron replied before Robert could, his voice hoarse. He certainly looked the part in his fancy suit.

The other security guard nodded. “Sirs, I’m sorry but you can’t be here. This is a private corridor.” He said.

Robert made a big show of looking around, as if he had been seeing the place for the first time. “I have no idea how we got here. Do you, babe?” He said, turning to Aaron.

“No idea, sweetheart.” Aaron replied, the edge of sarcasm in his voice undermined by how absolutely ruined he sounded.

“Could you give us your names and room number, please?” One of them asked.

“Sure.” Aaron replied. “I’m-”

“Samuel Phillips. Room 730. Robert’s your guest.” Finn whispered into his ear. His voice coming out more strangled and high pitched than usual. Figured they’d given Finn a show. At least he had good timing.

“Samuel Phillips. This is my guest. We’re in room 730.” Aaron continued.

“Could I see your key card please?” The guard asked, taking a small scanner from his belt.

“Give them Lawrence’s.” Finn whispered in their ears. Aaron complied.

The guard took it and scanned the magnetic strip on the back. He nodded again, once, before smiling at Aaron and handing him back the key. “I’m sorry sir, we had to check.”

“No problem. I understand, you’re just doing your job.” Aaron replied. Robert could hear the relief in his voice.

“Andy got in.” Finn interjected in his ear.

“That’s okay, if you would just follow us, we’ll get you back on the main floor.” The first guard said, his customer service smile firmly on his face.

“Sure thing.” Aaron replied cheerfully, back into character now. He looked at Robert, raising an eyebrow. Robert just blinked at him for a few seconds before following them.

In no time, they were back on the main floor, with solemn promises that they wouldn’t wander off on their own anymore.

“And that’s why you should always dress like this.” Robert whispered to Aaron as soon as they were out of earshot.

“So people think you’re my high class escort?” Aaron asked, with less bite than usual.

“Yes, that is exactly it.” Robert replied with sarcasm. “Or maybe this way they just get to see the best version of you.”

“You mean the posh twat version of me.” Aaron replied dryly.

Robert rolled his eyes. “Has anyone ever told you you’re uniquely bad at accepting compliments?”

Instead of replying, Aaron touched his ear. “Finn, tell Andy we don’t need him to come and get us in. I have a magnetic badge. We’re going in on our own.”

“Done.” Came the reply a few seconds later.

“Come on, let’s go.” Aaron said, nodding towards the next room.

Once again, they discretely snuck into one of the service door. This time they already knew where they were going.

They reached their destination fairly quickly. It was another door. On the other side of it was a supply closet. None of the stuff the hotel used to clean the rooms or the main spaces. These were the cleaning supplies for the offices and workers’ quarters. It was small and cramped, but Aaron and Robert managed to squeeze into it.

As planned, on one of the highest shelves were thrown two garbage bags. Inside each one, were two handyman uniforms, work boots, and some more empty garbage bags.

Robert leaned on one of the walls and crossed his arms.

“What?” Aaron asked, already shuffling out of his suit jacket.

Robert grinned. “There’s not enough room for both of us to change at the same time.”

Aaron sighed, but he didn’t seem annoyed. He balled up his suit jacket and shoved it into the garbage bag.

“Oi! Be careful with that.” Robert protested. “That suit costs a fortune.”

Aaron rolled his eyes, but he handled the jacket a little bit more gently after that.

Robert smiled to himself as the vast expanse of Aaron’s back came into view. It was beautiful, like the rest of him. Broad and smooth. Robert wanted to sink his teeth and fingers into it.

Next went his shoes and trousers. From so up-close Robert could see every single one of Aaron’s muscles. He could see his lovely thighs, the back of his knees, his socked feet. Every newly exposed inch of Aaron’s skin brought back memories of the night before, when Robert had been allowed to explore and touch.

Robert realized he has been biting his bottom lip only when he felt the coppery taste of blood in his mouth.

Aaron, his back still to Robert, made quick work of getting dressed again. The work clothes hung on him, loose and a washed out grey colour. Robert’s heart still leaped at the sight. Robert was starting to feel distinctively pathetic.

Once Aaron was done lacing up his boots, he got up and leaned on the wall opposite Robert.

“Go on.” He said. The smirk on his face looked only out of place because Robert had never seen it before, not that he was complaining. It was a good look on Aaron. “It’s your turn.”

Robert shrugged off his jacket, carefully folding it and putting it into the bag, not that it would do anything to save it one Cain would get to it. He didn’t strike Robert as the kind of man who was particularly careful with other people’s possessions.

Robert went for his shirt next, looking at Aaron the entire time. Aaron’s eyes were on Robert’s chest, following his fingers as he undid his buttons, one after the other. This time there was no fumbling, no misses. Robert was precise and careful. He had no need to rush, not really. They were early for their meetup with Andy, but not so early that they could start anything in that supply closet. To Robert’s deepest regret. Still, any chance he got to wind Aaron up was too good to pass up. His face did complicated and wonderful things whenever Robert got too close, or rather, not close enough, whenever he let his fingers deliberately brush against Aaron’s skin, whenever he left the top button of his shirt open, exposing his neck. Robert had always known how much he wanted Aaron, and he knew that Aaron wanted him too, but seeing it written so plainly on his face was still heady.

Once the shirt was gone, folded and laid on top of the jacket, Robert made quick work of his shoes and undid his jeans. Aaron’s eyes dipped and a shiver ran down Robert’s spine. There wasn’t a graceful way to hop out of his trousers, not in such a confined way, but Aaron didn’t seem to mind. His eyes were once again dark, taking in as much of Robert as possible.

Robert didn't want to end the show, but sadly he had to. Andy should have been almost done with the device and then they had some real work to do. He put on the handyman uniform and the boots. He could still feel Aaron's gaze on him. Maybe he could make the common man look work, after all. Robert was almost certainly sure they would need to stop somewhere along the road and do something about the tension between them. If it kept going like this they risked losing it in the vault and just going at it on top of Lawrence's money. Now, that was a nice image.

As soon as Robert was done he pressed his earpiece. "What's Andy's status, Finn?" He asked.

"He's almost done. The device is set. We're ready when you're ready." Finn replied.

Robert looked at Aaron. His eyes were still dark, but he looked focused, ready to go. They were finally so close, Robert could almost taste it. It was finally there, the moment he had been waiting for months now.

"We're ready." Robert said, grabbing the empty garbage bags and stuffing them into the pockets of his uniform. Aaron nodded and did the same.

For a few seconds Robert could just hear the sound of their breathing in the small room. Then there was a loud bang. Not deafening, not loud enough that it could be heard from the main rooms, but Robert had still felt the walls shake.

"Is Andy okay?" He found himself asking. There was no answer. "Finn?" He tried again. Still, no answer.

"There's probably someone in the room with him." Aaron said. Robert knew he was right, but the silence was unnerving.

Suddenly, he could hear the tell-tale static of the comm. going live.

“Sorry, gentlemen. All kinds of alarms went off and security personnel flooded the office. It’s all good though. They saw the video we pre-recorded.” Finn explained, sounding a bit out of breath.

“Okay. How is Andy?” Robert asked.

“He’s okay. I see him on the monitor.” Finn replied.

Robert sighed with relief. The cold hold on his stomach relented. The last thing he needed was for Andy to get himself killed. He was already on thin ice with Vic as it was.

“You should go now, though.” Finn continued.

Aaron nodded at Robert and they slipped on white plastic masks. By the time they got out of the supply closet, people were already running towards the noise they’d heard. Some were security personnel, but most of them were the cleaning and repair people. Aaron and Robert blended with the crowd.

They turned a corner and they saw Andy directing traffic into the hallway. He looked perfectly at ease, taking charge and telling people what to do. The plastic mask on his face muffled his voice a little, but his tone was clear and even.

“Cordon this hallway off and don’t let anyone come through until I say so. I’m going to the other side and making sure there’s no damage to the parallel or tangent corridors.” Andy said, then he motioned to Aaron and Robert. “You two, come with me. Bring two of the carts. If there’s clean-up to do we can get started.”

Robert nodded and grabbed one of the carts used by the cleaning staff. The three of them headed further into the hallway while behind them the staff was coordinating the clean-up. Robert had to admit Andy had done a good job. The whole hallway was full of plaster and cement, white and grey debris strewn all across it, he’d even managed to hit a water pipe hard enough that there was a pesky puddle of water forming on the floor, but not hard enough that the whole hallway would get flooded. Okay, so maybe Andy had been right in insisting on the military grade C4, Robert could give him that.

As soon as they were sufficiently far from the scene of the accident, they all took their masks off.

“Good job, Andy.” Robert said.

“The coast is clear.” Finn said into their ears. “The guards on shift are leaving and the new ones won’t be able to get to the safe until the hallway is cleared. You have around forty-five minutes.”

“Let’s do it in half an hour.” Robert replied.

The three of them walked up to the vault. The first layer of security was a reinforced titanium door that could be opened only with the correct electronic key. Aaron produced a metal key, the end part covered in a mess of golden circuits, from one of his pockets. Robert inserted it in the slot before turning it carefully. The light turned green and the door opened. It was heavier than Robert remembered, a hulking titanium reinforced thing, but between the three of them, they managed to pry it open. One hurdle down, two more to go.  

They walked into the foyer of the vault, careful to wedge the external door open with one the cleaning carts. The door couldn’t be opened from the inside and the last thing they wanted was getting stuck inside. That wouldn’t have been a fun thing to explain to Chrissie or Lawrence.

On Robert’s right was another keypad. This one controlled the vault’s heat and motion sensors. One wrong move and they’d have security on them in a matter of seconds. Robert closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He had to believe that he knew Lawrence well enough not to screw it all up.

Robert opened his eyes and put down the four digits pin number. It was Lachlan’s birthday. Robert had told Lawrence to change it about a million times. It was too short, too easy to find out, not safe enough. The system disengaged with a satisfying beep and a flash of green light. For the first time in years Robert was delighted Lawrence had never listened to him about it.

“Erhm. Guys.” Came in Finn’s worried voice.

Robert’s throat was seized by panic for a second. Had he been wrong? Was security on its way?

“What Finn?” Aaron asked. He was shifting closer to Robert.

“I know this is a delicate moment,” Finn replied, he sounded nervous, “but well, Vic is here.”

“What do you mean Vic is here?” Andy asked.

“Not here, here. But she’s at the van with Adam.” Finn said.

“You’re joking.” Robert said. This could not be happening. Not now, when they were so close.

“I’ll patch you in, wait a second.”

“Robert, Andy, it’s Victoria.” Came in Vic’s voice. She sounded tired and angry.

“Vic, what are you doing here?” Andy asked before Robert could.

They didn’t have time for this.

“I came here hoping to stop you from doing something stupid. Evidently I’m late.” She replied.

“This isn’t a good moment, Vic.” Robert snapped.

“I will not let you make me a passive participant in my own life, Robert Sugden.” She shot back. “I came here to do the right thing. I can’t say the same about the lot of you.”

“I understand this is an important family conversation, but I need to get to work and I need silence to do it.” Aaron cut in.

Robert needed to make an executive decision. “Finn, mute her out.”

“Robert don’t you-” Then silence. Robert was definitely going to pay for that.

“Okay, back to the task at hand.” He said, turning towards Aaron and the second vault door.

It was big, bulky, and just as intimidating as Robert remembered.

Lawrence had never given him the combination to that one. It had always stung. The fact that Lawrence or Chrissie hadn’t trusted him enough for that. How was that working out for them?

Aaron produced a stethoscope, a notepad and a pen from one of the several pockets on his uniform. Robert stood behind him, giving him space to work, but also get a good view of the proceedings. He’d never seen him actually crack open a safe. Rumours had it, it was an art form of sorts.

“You need to be absolutely silent.” Aaron said, turning the dial clockwise a few times. Once done with that he put on the stethoscope, placing it close to the mechanisms, and started turning the dial counter clockwise. He did this several times, occasionally pausing to write down some numbers on the notepad.

Robert should have been bored to death. If it had been anyone else, he probably would have, but as things were, he was mesmerized. He couldn’t stop looking at Aaron’s clever and dexterous fingers, carefully and quickly working the dials. Aaron’s face was lost in concentration, eyes focused and a hint of tongue peeking out from behind his teeth.

“Of course, he’s got a five numbers combination. Why make my life any easier?” Aaron muttered to himself. He picked up the pen and pad and hastily sketched out a graph, nothing fancy, just an x and a y axis with the numbers on the dials written at the margins.

Aaron started his ministrations again, carefully turning the dial and listening with the stethoscope, the only difference this time he paused every few seconds to jot something down.

Robert looked at his watch. They didn’t have a lot of time left, but he also knew he couldn’t rush Aaron. He just needed to have faith. Behind him, Andy had started quietly pacing back and forth in the limited space.

“Got it!” Aaron exulted, resetting the dial. “3, 15, 42, 66, and 78. Now, we just need to get the right combination in.” He continued, thrusting pen and paper towards Robert. “Write them down as I try them.”

“How many possible are there?” Andy asked. Robert grimaced before Aaron had even answered.

“One hundred and twenty.”

They had fifteen minutes left.

Aaron tried a few combinations, number after number, dial after dial, each time trying the handle. Each time the door remained stubbornly closed. Robert could hear the ticking of his watch, the seconds burning away as Aaron worked. Robert cleaned the sweat off his forehead with the sleeve of his work uniform.

“3, 66, 15, 42, 78.” Aaron said, as he turned the dial for each number. He tiredly hit the handle. It moved. “I can’t believe this.” Aaron said, yanking the door open.

Robert wanted to scream. They’d done it. They were in.

He walked into the vault. It was big, bigger than he remembered, somehow. Big, fat stacks of colourful bills were amassed all around the room. Robert was not a religious man, but he was pretty sure this was what Heaven looked like.

“Okay, let’s start with the 500 euro bills, they’re over there.” He said, pointing to the far-left corner. He couldn’t help but let the giddiness he felt seep into his voice. That was so much money.

Robert took out the garbage bags from his pockets and started filling them up, one after the other. The stacks made things easier and slightly quicker. Once he filled a bag he went out and put it inside one the cleaning carts. They did this a few times, until the vault was looking noticeably emptier.

“We have three minutes to get out of here.” Andy said, looking at the watch on his wrist.

They all marched out of the vault, making sure to close the doors behind them and reinsert the alarm.

“Some of the debris had flown all the way to the other hallway, but luckily no damage there.” Andy said, approaching the other workers. He’d slipped his mask back on. “Keep working here, we’ll take this out.”

“What is all of this?” Came a voice Robert knew far too well. Sharp as nails, right behind him. He felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. Chrissie.

He had forgotten to put his own mask back on. One movement and Chrissie would have seen him. He couldn’t leave.

Robert saw a look of panic flash behind Andy’s eyes. Andy looked at him. Robert nodded. They needed to go. Immediately.

He surreptitiously pushed his cart towards Aaron. Aaron took it.

“Go. All of you. I’ll catch up.” Robert whispered into his comm.

Aaron looked at him. “No.” He furiously whispered back. They were close enough that Robert could feel Aaron’s breath on his skin. Robert looked at him, his face was set, his eyes hard, determined. Robert looked at Andy.

“Andy. Get him out.” Robert pleaded, looking into his brother’s eyes. Andy nodded, and without hesitation he grabbed Aaron’s arm, dragging him away. Aaron couldn’t struggle without causing a scene and getting them found out, he knew that. He still looked like he wanted to give it a valiant effort.

“What’s going on there?” Chrissie asked in Andy and Aaron’s general direction.

Robert’s heart was racing. Chrissie had noticed them. But while she was distracted she wouldn’t see him. He could blend into the background, retreat, get out. There was a chance Andy and Aaron would get found out. They would go to jail and they would lose the money.

Robert turned around. Just in time for Chrissie to look in his direction and catch his eyes.

“Robert?”

-

Robert gave the zip ties binding his wrists an experimental tug. They dug even more painfully into his skin. The only thing he would achieve this way were more cuts and bruises. He foresaw plenty of those already if past experiences were anything to go by. Lawrence’s goons weren’t exactly gentle.

He needed a different way out.

Robert studied his surroundings. Chrissie had left him with two guards. Two old timers, more loyal to the Whites than to the job itself, both heavily armed. There was no way he could get past them. Not without an army.

Chrissie’s office had been redecorated since he’d last been there. The walls were now an icy light blue, the furniture modern and sleek, minimalist. He liked it, despite currently being tied to a Swedish designer chair.

The picture from their wedding day was nowhere to be seen on her desk. Not that he had been expecting it to be. In its place was a picture of Rebecca and Lachlan. So that was why Rebecca hadn’t held up her end of the bargain, they were on speaking terms again. It wouldn’t last long; it never did. Maybe Robert could use it to get out of this particular situation. If he could make Chrissie hate Rebecca more than she hated him, he could waltz out of there.

Probably not a viable option.

Chrissie hated no one more than she hated Robert. Of that, Robert was completely sure. In all honesty, he probably deserved it. Not that deserving it made his predicament any better.

Robert spared a thought for his team. He’d seen Andy drag Aaron off before he’d been seized by security. They should have arrived to the meeting point by then. They’d talked about the protocol in a situation like this. Granted, he’d expected an acceptable loss, like Ross, but still. They had the money. They had the cars. No one was looking for them.

The job had been a success beyond his wildest expectations. He was rich. Vic was rich. Aaron was rich. Andy too, for all his whining, was now rich beyond all imagination. They’d made it. They had actually managed to rob Lawrence White.

Now he just needed to get out of there. He still had a few stashes and a safe house in the city. He could lay low and go back to Emmerdale in a few weeks with a new passport.

He just had to survive the night.

The door opened and Chrissie walked in.

Robert tensed, but she didn’t look at him at all. As if Robert were just another piece of décor in the room. A Swedish chair, a Brazilian desk, a British man.

“You can go.” She told the two men.

The men looked at each other with a puzzled expression. Robert was just as confused. Why would Chrissie let go of the armed muscle? It made no sense.

“Are you sure, Ms. White?” One of the gorillas asked.

Chrissie smiled at him, a flash of warmth amid her iceberg teeth.

“Yes, I’m sure. Go back to your assignments. If I need anything, I’ll call.” She replied.

With one last look to each other and to her, the men did as they were asked.

Chrissie was standing in front of him. Her arms were crossed and her eyes were trained on him. Robert hadn’t thought he’d ever see her again.

Robert was struck by how different she looked. Her hair was cut in a severe bob; her face was harder, her eyes were colder. She didn’t look anything like the woman he’d once fallen in love with.

“Nice office. Went on a redecorating spree?” Robert asked, aiming for casual.

“Robert.” She said, ignoring his attempt at a joke. Her voice was neutral, but Robert could hear the faintest crack underneath it. “I am only going to ask this once. Why are you here?”

“I heard you were hiring.” Robert replied, flippant.

Chrissie’s eyes flashed with rage. “I suppose you had nothing to do with the accident on the basement level?” She asked, walking towards the couch in front of Robert and sitting down.

“Now, why would I damage my property?” Robert asked.

Robert needed to stall her. The longer the Whites were in the dark about the breach of their security systems, the longer the team had to leave the country. More than that, Robert had done the math. The only way out of the mess of a situation he was in, was the way he’d gotten out the last time. Bloodied and bruised, tossed out of a still moving car. It wasn’t ideal, but the fastest he could get there, the better. He could always recover in a fancy French spa once he re-joined the team and got his cut of the money.

“Nothing here is yours.” Chrissie said, spitting out the words as if they were acid.

“I built this company from the ground up. You and Lawrence might try to deny it, but none of this would have been possible without me.” Robert replied.

“How dare you?” Chrissie hissed, getting up again. She was towering over Robert. Her eyes were slits, her mouth set in a severe line. “You did nothing but poison us, this family, our relationship.”

“We had our moments.” Robert replied, going for a charming smile and missing it by a mile.

“Yes. Until I found out you were having an affair behind my back.” Chrissie replied. She walked towards the drinks tray on a cabinet and poured herself a generous helping of whiskey.

At the pace it was going, the whole thing was going to take forever.

“You’re just mad it was with a man.”

“Oh yes, that certainly wasn’t the highlight of my life.” Chrissie replied with a bitter laugh. “You know, I think I would have understood if you had told me about it. About being gay.” She continued. Robert resisted the urge to roll his eyes. It all sounded so… perfunctory. It was easy to say that after having him beat up and unceremoniously dumped out in the streets with almost nothing to his name. “You just weren’t attracted to me.” Chrissie continued, more to herself than to Robert.

This conversation had only just started and it was already the longest of Robert’s life.

“It didn’t seem to be a problem with Rebecca.” Robert said.

Chrissie’s head snapped so fast that under any other circumstance it would have been comical. Her eyes were huge, blue pools of incredulity. Robert could have pinpointed with surgical accuracy the specific moment the realization hit her.

Robert could see her heart shatter all over again. He felt the viscous, hot feeling of guilt in his stomach.

That look. Those eyes. Her sharp intake of breath, as if she’d just been stabbed.

He pushed them all down. He needed to get out. He thought of Aaron, Andy, Vic, and the others waiting for him. He needed to reach them.

“No, you’re lying.” Chrissie said, but it was more of a plea than a statement.

“She was pretty easy to get into bed. Not as easy as your dad could have been if I were into that sort of thing, but still. Prettier, for sure. Too bad she didn’t have your kind of access to Lawrence’s money.” He replied, shooting her a smug grin.

Robert had been expecting Chrissie to shout. Maybe throw something at him. She didn’t. She got to her desk and sat down, tentatively, as if suddenly even standing up was too much.

“You’re sick.” She whispered.

She looked up at him. Her eyes were red but dry.

“Why are you here, Robert? Really. Are you here to torture me?” She asked. Her voice uneven, verging on the watery quality it took when she was about to cry.

“I’m here to get what’s mine.” Robert replied. His arms were starting to ache because of the awkward position they were in. He could feel sweat run down his spine. He could swear it hadn’t been that hot earlier.

“Nothing here is yours!” Chrissie shouted. Her right hand flew to the desk’s drawer.

The next thing Robert knew, there was a gun trained at his face. It was a small, sleek thing. More show than real power. At that range however, it could have killed him even loaded with a paper clip. Chrissie’s aim was shaky, but her grip was solid.

“Chrissie. Put the gun down.” Robert said, keeping his voice low and even. Or as low and even as possible while staring down the barrel of a gun. Admittedly, he’d had a lot of practice during the years.

“Why couldn’t you just stay away?” She asked. It sounded small and sad in a way Robert had never heard Chrissie be before.

“You know why.” He replied. He needed to talk her down. Fast.

“Ah, yes. Your money. It’s always money with you. You don’t care about anything else.” Chrissie said, getting up. The gun still trained on Robert’s face. “They tried to warn me. My dad, my friends, even Lucky. They all tried to tell me you were only after the money. I didn’t believe them. I didn’t want to believe them.”

Chrissie’s voice had gone cold, almost conversational. Either she was coming back to her senses or she was rationalizing shooting Robert. Robert really hoped it was the former, but the gun was still on his face.

“It wasn’t. It wasn’t always about the money.” Robert said. It would have been easier that way. Nothing about what had happened between them had ever been easy.

“Sure, you would say that now, wouldn’t you?” She replied, waving the gun.

“You know it’s the truth.” Robert said.

“I thought I knew that, but I think you made it quite clear I don’t.” She said, flashing him a humourless smile.

“I loved you. I really did.” Robert said, trying to appeal to her. The worst part was that it was the truth. He had loved her. Not enough.

“And yet you couldn’t help yourself, could you? You had to come back to torture me.” She was pacing now. Back and forth between her desk and Robert.

“It’s not like that.” Robert replied, but she wasn’t listening to him anymore.

“One thing I asked you. One thing. Don’t come back. You couldn’t even do that for the person you claim you once loved.” She continued, her last word dripping with sarcasm.

Robert hadn’t played his cards very well. He was starting to get anxious. Chrissie was quickly losing her hold on rationality, the gun still in her hands. He had no way of contacting the team. If Chrissie decided to use him as target practice, chances were no one would ever know.

“I’ll go. You’ll never see me again.” He said.

This, at least, made her stop pacing.

“You said that the last time.” She replied. “Yet, here we are. I think we need a more permanent solution.” She continued, switching the safety off the gun.

“Chrissie, please.” Robert pleaded. He gave the restraints on his wrists and ankles a forceful tug, but they didn’t budge. “You don’t want to do this.”

He’d always known there was something cold and ruthless beneath Chrissie’s surface, but this was beyond that. He’d pushed her too far. He could feel a lump form in his throat. He forced himself to make his mind go blank. He could still do it. He could still talk her down.

“You’re right. I don’t want to, but you left me no other choice.” She replied. She looked calm, despite everything. Her eyes were redder, but still stubbornly dry. Her voice steady. So was her hand.

Robert closed his eyes. He could feel the panic rise through his throat, he couldn’t breathe, his head felt like swallowed by honey and cotton. He opened his eyes again. His vision was dark at the edges, the only thing he could seem to focus on was the gun. He knew Chrissie was speaking but he couldn’t make out her words. He could only hear a loud whistling noise.

This was how Robert Sugden died. On the wrong side of a gun. It would have been funny if it weren’t happening to him.

Robert allowed himself to picture Vic in his head. She was going to be devastated. She’d already lost so much, an orphan by the time she had been fifteen. She was going to lose the only blood relative she had.

Andy would take her of her. He always had. It was just about the only thing Robert could find no fault in him for. If he didn’t count letting her marry Adam, but Robert could get past that. Especially in his final moments.

At last, his mind lingered on Aaron. They had only just started whatever it was they had. Robert had wasted so much time on his own issues and his own insecurities. He had barely had any time with Aaron at all. His heart ached at the thought. There was still so much he wanted.

“I’m sorry, Robert. You left me no other choice.” Chrissie said. Her voice felt like ice in his veins.

Robert looked up at her. He wanted her to see his eyes as she shot him. A parting gift. Let her see his eyes every time she closed hers. Let her smell the blood seeping through his shirt. Let her hear the sound of bone breaking, of brain matter splattering.

Robert expected to hear the shot. He did not expect to hear the door open and Lawrence’s voice to waft through.

“Chrissie, I think I lost — Chrissie.” Lawrence said, closing the door behind him and rushing towards his daughter. He looked confused and afraid. Robert had never seen him like that, not even when he’d had a heart attack.

“Don’t come any closer!” Chrissie yelled, the gun still pointed at Robert.

“What’s going on? Why is he here?” Lawrence asked, his eyes darting between his daughter and Robert.

“To destroy us, what else?” Chrissie replied. She wasn’t looking at Lawrence. “This is the only way. The only way he will leave us, leave me, alone.”

“Chrissie, put the gun down.” Lawrence said. His voice was calm, but firm. It was the same tone Robert had heard directed at employees. His I’m the boss tone. For once, it didn’t make Robert want to roll his eyes.

“I can’t.” She replied, matter-of-factly.

“Please.” Lawrence pleaded. His voice cracked on the word. “Think about it. If you pull the trigger there won’t be a coming back from this.”

Chrissie scoffed. “I grew up watching you make people disappear.”

“That’s not the point, Chrissie.” Lawrence replied, with urgency. “Killing someone would ruin you.”

“I’m already ruined!” Chrissie wailed, a wounded animal sound.

It made Robert’s heart clench involuntarily. He had the irrational urge to hold her. He couldn’t, in more ways than the obvious, but he still ached for it. Not because he was still in love with her, but because he’d been once. Maybe he hadn’t fully realized how much until he was confronted with the hurt that love had caused. Chrissie’s face was devastated. He’d only ever seen her like that when Lawrence had been in hospital. She was broken-hearted.

Robert swallowed down the lump that had taken residence in his throat. She was still pointing a gun at him, fully intending to use it. Lawrence didn’t seem particularly inclined to let him go any time soon. He was still tied to a chair with no hope of escape. He needed a plan. Or a miracle.

The door suddenly banged open and then shut. From his position, Robert couldn’t see who had come in, but he could hear the mechanical sound of a gun’s safety being switched off. Because what he needed right now were more guns, clearly.

“I suggest you all stop what you’re doing.” Came the new voice.

Except. It couldn’t be. Robert knew that voice. Intimately.

Aaron walked into his field of vision. He was wearing the suit; the one Robert had last seen getting discarded in a random supply closet. He was also pointing a gun at the Whites.

His grip was tight and firm, as if he’d been handling guns his entire life. There were no outward signs of discomfort or fear. He looked in his element.

Under any other circumstance, Robert would have been turned on. As it were, he was mostly relieved. For the first time since meeting Aaron, he was really glad the man was as stubborn as a mule and listened to what Robert had to say with about as much attention.

“Who are you?” Lawrence asked. “How did you get past security?” He sounded outraged.

Frankly, Robert would have liked an answer for the last part too. Ideally, in a different setting.

“None of that matters. What matters is that Robert is coming with me.” Aaron replied with confidence.

“I don’t think so.” Chrissie replied.

“Chrissie.” Lawrence warned her, eyeing Aaron’s gun pointed in her direction.

Would Aaron fire it, if the need arose? Robert knew he wouldn’t. Thankfully, the Whites didn’t.

“He does, or your father dies.” Aaron said, switching tactics and training his gun on Lawrence. It was a smart move. Robert would have been more impressed, but as it were, he was more worried about the fact that he couldn’t feel his hands anymore and that he was still staring down the barrel of a gun.

“Are you his new toy?” Chrissie asked unexpectedly, looking directly into Aaron’s eyes.

“What?” Aaron looked puzzled.

“What did he promise you? Money?” She continued, seemingly ignoring Aaron’s reply. “Did he promise you he’d love you? Because let me tell you, his promises are worth as much as the paper our marriage certificate was printed on.”

“You don’t know anything about him.” Aaron shot back, taking a step forward.

“Don’t I?” Chrissie asked. “In the five years I’ve known him he has done nothing but lie, manipulate, and cheat. What makes you think you’re different?”

“Well, he hasn’t got any money.” Robert interjected, shrugging his shoulders as much as the ties allowed him to. The conversation was becoming too unpredictable for his taste. They needed to get out of there before the whole thing could escalate further. The idea that he could get shot was bad enough, but the idea that Aaron could also get hurt was burning a hole in his chest.

Chrissie ignored him. “He will lie to you. He will cheat on you. He will betray you.” She said. “If he hasn’t already.” She added with a pithy look in Robert’s direction.  “You’re not that different from me.”

“Ugh, enough. Either shoot me or let me go, this is getting boring.” Robert said before Aaron could reply. It was a dumb move, but he couldn’t bear to hear Aaron agree with her. He knew he didn’t have the most spotless of track records, especially not with Aaron, but it was different. He felt things for Aaron that he had never felt for Chrissie. He had never been honest with her like he’d been with Aaron.

Chrissie blinked at him, slowly. “Okay.”

Robert heard the bang first. So up close it was deafening, leaving his right ear ringing. The pain came right after. A burning sensation on his right shoulder, accompanied by the smell of gunpowder and blood. He felt like he was going to be sick.

“You shot me!” Robert said, straddling the edge between shocked and angry.

He looked at Chrissie. She looked just as shocked by it as he was, the gun now resting against her thigh. Lawrence looked about ready to have another heart attack and Robert really couldn’t blame him. Still, he recovered enough to walk up to his daughter and take the gun from her limp hand.

As soon as the gun was gone, Aaron fell down near Robert, inspecting the wound with careful hands and worried eyes. He was pale and muttering to himself. Robert’s ears were still ringing and he wasn’t sure he was getting what Aaron was saying, but it sounded like a litany of he’s okay, he’s okay, he’s okay.

Aaron’s hands were smeared with blood. Robert’s blood. This was surreal. His ex-wife had just shot him. He was relatively sure he was in shock.

“Oh, come on, she barely grazed you.” Lawrence replied. He was surreptitiously cleaning the grip of the gun, wiping away Chrissie’s fingerprints with the edge of his suit jacket. Lawrence had always been calculating. “At this distance if she wanted to kill you, you’d be dead.”

That seemed to set Aaron off. He got up and lunged at the Whites, gun trained on them both.

Robert held his breath. Aaron was only dangerous when he was protecting someone he cared about, Robert knew that. Despite the situation, something happy and light bubbled in his chest.

Yeah, he was definitely in shock.

Before Aaron could do anything stupid – or amazing – the doors burst open a third time. Robert couldn’t see who it was, but he could hear them.

“Everybody freeze! INTERPOL! Drop your weapons!” Came a loud voice with an Italian accent.

Aaron immediately dropped his gun on the ground and put his hands up. The Whites were slower to comply, but did as ordered.

Robert heard footsteps approach and two people came into his line of view.

Ross and Vic.

Ross was dressed in a suit Robert was pretty sure was his and Vic was wearing a white shirt and a pair of blue dress trousers.

“Who are you?” Lawrence asked, an edge of panic in his voice.

“I am INTERPOL agent Michele Rossi and this is my Criminal Identity department liaison Sergeant Marie Levesque. Are you Lawrence White?” Ross asked.

Robert was hallucinating, right? There was no way that the whole thing was happening.

“Yes, I have ID in my inner pocket.” Lawrence replied. At least he sounded as confused as Robert was feeling. Chrissie had gone white as chalk, seemingly unable to speak.

“Take it out. Slowly.” Ross ordered.

Lawrence did as he was asked and Ross pretended to inspect the man’s ID card. He turned around enough to wink at Robert without being seen. Vic looked on, stony faced, hands linked behind her back. She was digging her nails in the palms of her hands. Robert could see the angry red half-moon marks from there. She didn’t look at him.

“Sorry, Mr. White, we had to check. We knew that our wanted fugitive was here with one or more accomplices.” Ross said, nodding towards Aaron and Robert. “Sergeant Levesque please handcuff them.”

Vic nodded and without speaking, took a zip tie from her pocket and got behind Aaron. She grabbed his wrists and bound them behind his back. Aaron pretended to struggle, but it was half-hearted at best. She then pushed Aaron towards Ross.

While Ross kept the Whites busy, Vic got behind Robert’s back and cut him free. Robert could have almost sobbed with relief. Both his hands were numb and his shoulders were screaming in pain.

“Make it look good.” Vic whispered in his ear, before roughly grabbing his shirt and yanking him up. She grabbed his wrists again, but this time at least she had the decency to tie them up Robert’s front.

“Why are you arresting me? She’s the one who shot me!” Robert protested.

“In self-defence! We had to restrain him for our own safety.” Lawrence shot back. And they always said Robert was the skilled liar.

Ross rolled his eyes. “Don’t worry, Mr. White. We know he’s lying. That’s his M.O., isn’t it?” He asked, with an amount of glee Robert felt was unwarranted.

Before Robert could protest further, however, Vic gently grabbed his uninjured arm with one hand, Aaron’s with the other, and led them out of the room.

Robert could just about make out Ross assuring Lawrence and Chrissie that an officer would be up soon to take their statements and to please not leave the room or touch anything.

Ross came out, closed the door behind him, and immediately started sprinting for the exit. “Let’s go.” He hissed, finally dropping the accent.

They all piled into the elevator. Robert felt like he could breathe again for the first time in hours.

“Finn, get out now.” Ross said into his comm. while Vic cut out the zip tie around his wrists once more.

“Wait, why is Finn still here?” Robert asked. “Why are you all here, actually?”

Three sets of eyes landed on him.

“How much blood did he lose?” Ross asked Aaron, who rolled his eyes.

“We’re the rescue team.” Vic replied, smiling at her brother. Her eyes, however, looked dangerously wet.

“I thought I had told you to leave.” Robert replied.

“You’re welcome.” Ross replied sarcastically.

“As if we were gonna leave you to die.” Vic said.

“I had it handled.” Robert said.

“Sure, Jason Bourne.” Aaron replied.

“Here, take this. Hide your wounds. You look like a PSA on the dangers of BDSM.” Ross said, shrugging off his jacket and handing it to Robert.

Robert put it on as quickly as his shoulder would allow. Even with Vic helping him, he couldn’t help but wince in pain. The wound was superficial, but he needed to take care of it soon, or it would get infected.

He looked at himself in the elevator mirror. He looked ridiculous. Suit jacket hanging over work clothes. His face was pale and sweaty, dark circles sinking his eyes. His hair was a mess, going in fifteen different directions. He could barely recognize himself. Beside him, Aaron nudged Robert’s hand with his own, slow and deliberate. Robert nudged him back.

On the ground floor, Robert immediately spotted Finn, his lanky frame standing out amid a sea of tipsy gamblers. He didn’t acknowledge them, but started walking towards the exit as soon as they were out of the elevators. Robert, Ross, Aaron and Vic followed him out.

As they were walking out, they saw two guards walk towards them. Wordlessly, and with an ease Robert couldn’t believe wasn’t practiced, the other three formed a sort of screen in front of him, making sure to stand directly between Robert and the guards’ line of sight. Thankfully, the guards just kept walking with nary a glance in their direction.

Robert walked out of the White Rose and he could have cried. Instead, he just inhaled deeply, the clean, fresh air filling his lungs. The van was parked right around the corner, close enough for a quick exit, but hidden away enough that no one would question why two handymen and three people in suits would get inside the same sketchy car.

Robert climbed into the back, Aaron’s warm hand a sudden but sure weight on his back, helping him up. From the front seat, a pale Adam looked at them but said nothing. He looked at Vic and visibly sighed with relief when he realized she was back and safe.

As soon as the van doors closed, he sped away.

As the White Rose got smaller and smaller in the distance, Robert relaxed against his seat. Next to him instead, Vic got tenser, drumming her fingers on her knees. At one point the drumming stopped and Vic shoved Robert in the good shoulder.

“Vic, what the hell?” He yelled.

“What is wrong with you?” She yelled back. She looked upset, on the verge of tears. The only thing that was keeping the waterworks at bay was the fury clearly written on her face. “I can’t believe you robbed your ex-wife and got kidnapped.” She continued, her voice getting higher and angrier with every word.

“And shot. Don’t forget he got shot.” Ross added unhelpfully. Finn elbowed him in the ribs. Finn was definitely on Robert’s permanent Christmas card list.

Vic shot both Robert and Ross a poisonous look.

“Oh, come on. It’s barely a graze.” Robert replied. “And what about you, huh? I had a carefully constructed plan and backup. You just barged in there on a limb. It’s a miracle we’re not all dead. Or worse, in prison.”

“Oh, shut up, Robert.” Vic replied, getting up with a huff. She climbed into the passenger’s seat next to Adam and she covered his hand with hers on the stick gear. Robert felt an unexpected wave of relief wash over him; at least they seemed to have sorted things out.

Aaron got up and walked to Robert’s other side, the injured one, sitting down again next to him.

“How’s the arm?” He asked, quiet enough that with the noise from the engine and the steady chatter between Ross and Finn, no one else could hear him.

“I think I might die.” Robert replied. He did feel lightheaded and a bit unsteady, but that probably had to do more with the entire experience than his wound. He shrugged off the jacket, Aaron helping him get his wounded arm out of the sleeve. The skin was red and angry and still smeared with blood, but the bleeding had stopped. He just needed to clean it and bandage it and he would be fine. Aaron lifted a hand with the kind of hesitant carefulness Robert would have never associated with him and softly stroked the skin exposed by the tear in Robert’s work uniform, a few inches below the bullet wound. His hand was cold and it felt great against Robert’s too warm skin.

“Wasn’t it just a graze?” Aaron asked with amused scepticism. His eyes were still trained on the wound.

“I was just putting on a brave face for my sister.” Robert replied exaggerating an expression of pain. “You should kiss it better.”

Aaron pulled a face, but said nothing. Robert grinned at him and then went back to staring out of the tiny back window.

His head felt a bit woozy, but his brain was already starting to work in overdrive. The Whites knew he was involved in something. It wouldn’t take them long to realize they had been robbed and connect the dots. They also knew Aaron was involved. They didn’t know him, personally, but they had a lot of resources at their disposal, they would find out. The lack of CCTV footage would make it harder, but not impossible. Ross and Vic had a better chance of getting out of this unscathed. Vic had a clean record, the Whites had never seen her before, and she could keep a low profile. Ross, despite being at best an average criminal, was apparently the Picasso of making the police lose his tracks.

He needed a plan.

The van came to an abrupt stop. “We’re here.” Adam said.

Robert got up and got towards the back of the van, Aaron closely by his side. They opened the van doors and Robert’s eyes were blinded by the sun, now bright and high in the sky. When he finally could see again, he realized they were at the designated meeting point, Chas, Charity, Cain and Andy waiting for them. Robert’s eyes scanned Andy. He seemed okay. Tense, but when wasn’t he?

As soon as they stepped down someone barrelled into Robert, almost sending him flying down. He was only spared the fall by the fact that Ross was standing behind him and managed to keep him upright. Robert looked at his side, where Chas was now hugging Aaron within an inch of his life. He couldn’t really blame her.

“Don’t ever do that to me again.” She said, alternating between a couple of words and a kiss on Aaron’s cheek. Aaron pulled an annoyed face, but he let himself be hugged.

“Yeah, I’ll try to avoid hostage situations from now on.” Aaron replied. Chas either completely missed the sarcasm in her son’s voice, or she wilfully ignored it, because instead of replying she turned towards Robert.

“You gave him a chance to run.” She said, there was a softness in her voice that Robert hadn’t heard from anyone in years, not directed at him. It made something in his chest crack open, something warm and soft leaking out.

Robert just shrugged, not trusting himself to speak. Chas gently pulled him down to her, hugging him as close as her concern for the wounded shoulder would allow her. If Robert leaned into it more than strictly necessary, well, he could blame it on the blood loss.

“Aw this is so touching.” Charity interrupted, her voice a mockery of concern. “If you’re all done singing Kumbaya, we should flee the scene.”

“She’s right.” Cain said. His face was as always inscrutable, except Robert saw his eyes dart to Aaron every few seconds, as if to reassure himself that he was still there and still in one piece.

“Yeah, yeah, we can all hug and kiss back in Emmerdale.” Chas said, but one of her hands had taken residence on one of Aaron’s shoulders.

“I can’t go back.” Robert said.

“What do you mean you can’t go back? Don’t be daft.” Vic replied. Robert looked at her face. She looked so young.

“They will know it was me. They’ll come for me. Emmerdale might not be the first place they’ll look but it’s definitely on the list.” Robert said. He remembered talking about the place with Chrissie, talking about his past, half a lie and a half a truth with every sentence. She would know.

“So what? Finn and I have done our parts, they’ve got no proof.” Ross replied with a shrug.

“It’s not the police I’m worried about. Lawrence might have tried to clean up his act and he might not have the connections he once had, but he’s still a very rich man with a grudge worth seventy five million euros. He’ll come for me.” Robert said, he sat down on the edge of the open van. He didn’t have time for this. “I need to lie low for a while. At least a year.”

“A year?” Vic asked. Her eyes were big and incredulous. Robert felt like throwing up.

“Maybe more.”

“More?” Vic asked again, she was looking at him like he’d grown another head.

“Vic, can you stop repeating everything I say? They shot me in the arm, not the head.” Robert snapped. Between frustration and anxiety, he would always choose the former.

“I don’t know, can you stop being an idiot for five minutes?” She snapped back.

“Babe.” Adam said, getting closer to his wife and putting a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry, but he’s right.”

“No, he’s not.” She replied but she already sounded defeated. “He just came back. You just came back.” She continued, this time talking to Robert directly.

“I’ll come back again.” Robert promised.

“No, you won’t! You promised you’d come back for ten years, Robert.” She said, her voice a mix of anger and grief. Robert felt every word like a punch in the gut.

“I’ll make sure he comes back.” Aaron said. All faces turned to him.

“What?” Vic asked before Robert could.

“They saw me too.” Aaron replied. He had his stony face on. “They know I was involved. If they come looking for Robert in Emmerdale they’ll find me.”

“If you’re saying what I think you’re saying, over my dead body.” Chas said, her hand holding even tighter onto Aaron’s shoulder.

“If Sugden’s right, the dead body will be his.” Cain interjected.

Robert stared at Aaron, but Aaron wasn’t looking at him. Robert felt something sweet and hot and light fill his chest.

An argument erupted between the Dingles, but Robert tuned them out and leaned onto the side of the van. Now that the adrenaline was fading, the events of the day were catching up with him. So much so that he didn’t notice Andy coming to stand next to him until he was touching his shoulder.

“Come on, let me help you with that arm.” Andy said producing a first aid kit from somewhere. The two of them sat down on the open back of the van.

“You came prepared.” Robert replied. He carefully and slowly shrugged off half of the work uniform he was still wearing. Now that he could see the entire area, the angry red of the wound was even in starker contrast to the paleness of his skin. The sight of the dried blood and the jagged skin should have made him feel nauseated, but he mostly just felt tired. He didn’t even have the energy to feel pain.

“I have two children, Rob. I’m always prepared.” Andy replied in a tone that might have passed for light and fun if anyone else had been on the receiving end of it.

They sat down in silence for a while, Andy cleaning up Robert’s arm with disinfectant and Robert trying his best not to make a sound. Around him the argument had become white noise.

Andy pulled out a roll of gauze and started wrapping a square of sterile cotton on the wound.

“Hey, Rob.” Andy said, his eyes focusing intently – too intently – on the job.

“What?” Robert asked, maybe slightly more roughly than intended.

“So, Aaron, huh?” Andy asked.

“What about him?” Robert was not in the mood for a lecture on sexuality from Andy Sugden. It was probably the thing he wanted to do the least at the moment. Or any moment, really. Andy was so big and such a farmer and so much like Jack. The son Jack wanted and deserved. Not someone like Robert, who was sort of maybe dating a man, a Dingle, and who was falling hard and fast for him.

But Andy was holding on to him, his hands carefully wrapped around Robert’s arm.

“You forgot to turn off your comm. before the guards grabbed you. We kind of heard everything. It’s why Aaron knew where you were.” Andy explained. He was still not looking at Robert.

Robert sighed. Well, that was that for keeping the thing between Aaron and himself. He strangely didn’t find himself minding very much.

“You know, he’s a nice bloke.” Andy continued.

“I know that.” Robert replied. The conversation was taking a weird turn.

“Maybe when you come back we could all have a family dinner together. Us, Vic, Diane, Adam, Aaron. Something nice, like Mum used to do.” Andy said, tying the gauze off. “There, all done.”

Robert stared at his brother. For the second time in ten years, the only difference that this time was unspoken, he was saying stay. Come back. Not forgiveness, not yet, but a chance to earn it. For both of them.

Robert didn’t know if it could be possible. There was so much history there. But Andy was extending a hand and asking him let’s try. It was more he’d gotten from him in years.

“Okay, yeah.” Robert replied, his voice cracking a little on the words. “That sounds good.”

Andy grabbed Robert’s good shoulder and hugged his brother for the first time in years. Robert hugged him back. “We’ll wait for you.” Andy whispered. Robert hugged him tighter, his wounded shoulder forgotten for a moment.

Andy got up and Robert took a moment to breathe and compose himself. He really needed to get going if they wanted to be out of the country before the police could get on their tracks.

“You are not going. We can find a different way.” Chas pleaded. In front of her, Aaron’s face was set. Robert had gotten good enough at reading Aaron to know he had made a choice. No amount of pleading could have made him change his mind now.

“Tell him he’s not going with you.” Chas said, turning to Robert. Her eyes were shooting daggers in his direction.

Robert held the hand of his good arm up in surrender. “It’s not my choice, Chas.”

“Enough.” Aaron said, his voice was even and firm. “I have to go. Ideally while there’s still time for us to leave.”

Aaron marched towards Robert and offered him a hand to get up. Robert gladly took it and let himself be led to their car. Aaron opened the boot and took out most of the garbage bags, haphazardly handing them to Cain, Charity and Adam.

Robert looked at the bags. They were full of money. He still couldn’t believe they had succeeded. He was rich. They all were. It sounded surreal. That was his money, their money, no strings-attached. He was free.

Once only a couple of bags were still in the boot, Aaron closed it up and walked up to Chas.

“Mum, don’t worry, okay? I’ll be fine.” He said, his tone soft.

Chas nodded, her eyes already wet, and hugged him again. “Be safe.”

“I will.” Aaron replied, a weight Robert couldn’t fully understand behind his words.

Robert turned to Vic. She was already crying, silent tears streaking her face. Without a word, Robert hugged her. She held on to him. “Promise you’re coming back.” She demanded.

“I promise. I’m coming back home.” Robert whispered into her hair.

With one last look at his ragtag crew, his family, Robert climbed into the passenger’s seat. He leaned into it. They would have to ditch the car at the first available opportunity, but for now he was looking forward to enjoying it a while longer.

Aaron started the car. Robert looked at him. The sun was kissing his skin and he his eyes looked bright. Robert’s chest ached with how much he loved him. This stubborn, grumpy, wonderful man.

“You don’t have to come with me.” Robert said. He wanted him to, so much that it felt like a physical ache, but more than anything he wanted Aaron to be happy. Robert was a selfish man, he knew that about himself, and most of the time it didn’t matter. Except with Aaron it did. With Aaron, he didn’t feel the need to be selfish. He didn’t want to be.

“Do you not want me to come?” Aaron asked, speeding out of the abandoned field they’d chosen as a meeting place.

“I’m giving you a way out.” Robert replied. “It’s not too late.”

Aaron turned to look at him. “I don’t want one.” He smiled his big, radiant, happy smile and Robert smiled back.

“Where are we going then?” Robert asked. For once he could let Aaron decide.

“How do you feel about Nice?”

Robert retrieved Ross’ sunglasses from the glove compartment, where he had discarded them the evening before, and put them on. He also found something else. He put it into the car’s stereo. Madonna’s voice filled the car a few seconds later. Aaron grinned.

Robert felt great about Nice.