“No Alex, tonight?” Adam asked as he settled into the booth next to Aaron.
“Nah,” Aaron grunted in reply.
“Trouble in paradise?” The look on Aaron’s face might have deterred a weaker man, but Adam knew him too well; he wasn’t intimidated by Aaron’s grumpiness. “I’m just sayin’. I’ve not seen him as much lately so, you know, is it not working out with him?”
“Dunno,” Aaron shrugged. He hated conversations like this; he really wasn’t good at talking about feelings and shit. “He’s just…I dunno,” he repeated. “He’s a nice bloke, but I just don’t think…” he sighed in frustration. “I just don’t think we’re right for one another.” He chugged a great mouthful from his pint in relief at managing to explain it, albeit rather haltingly, to his best mate.
“Your mum’ll be devastated,” Adam chuckled, causing Aaron to scowl at him again. “But, in all seriousness, if it’s not working out, just tell him. Like you said, he’s a decent bloke: he’ll understand. No point dragging it out.”
Aaron hummed in agreement. It really was time for him to sit Alex down and tell him that they didn’t have a future together. He was just dreading the prospect of having that conversation.
As he took another sip from his beer, his eyes were drawn to the bar where Robert was sitting with his own pint chatting with his sister. He couldn’t help but stare at Robert. No matter what had gone on in the past, he would always love Robert. Maybe that was why he couldn’t see himself settling with Alex. He couldn’t see himself with anyone else. Ultimately, Robert was the one for him.
“Is he something to do with why you’re going to dump Alex?” Adam’s voice cut through his thoughts and he turned to see his best mate gesturing towards the bar with his glass.
“What?” Aaron asked, playing dumb to avoid the question.
Rolling his eyes, Adam said, “Whatever, mate. You can keep trying to pretend, but it doesn’t work with me. I’ve known you too long.” He sighed as he looked at Aaron closely. “Why don’t you just talk to him? Tell him how you feel.”
“It’s not that easy,” Aaron muttered.
“Course it is!” Adam exclaimed. “You obviously wanna be with him. I’m pretty sure he’d jump at the chance to be with you again. Maybe it’s time you let go of everything that’s happened.”
The thing was, Aaron already had let it go. He wasn’t holding onto that anger about Robert’s betrayal anymore; he was over it. And he still loved Robert – there was no denying it. They’d become friends over the last few months - really good friends. They’d become comfortable around one another again, without the tension that had been lingering between them. The mistakes of the past had well and truly been left behind.
But Aaron couldn’t ignore the fact that while they’d become close again, he’d also realised just how much he still wanted Robert.
Robert hadn’t realised that anyone had walked up behind him. It wasn’t until the hand smoothed across his shoulders that he noticed, jumping in surprise and turning around on his stool.
“Ian?” he said in surprise as he realised who it was that was now standing next to him. “What are you doing here?”
“I was on my way back from work, passing the village, so I thought I’d drop in and see if you were around. You’d mentioned ‘the only pub in the village’ was the place to be so I thought I’d try my luck, and here you are,” Ian told him brightly. “Just what I needed after a long day at the office.” He leant down and placed a soft kiss against Robert’s cheek, his hand gentle against his back.
Robert just stared at him in awe, feeling a little heat rising in his cheeks. He couldn’t believe that Ian had gone to the effort of coming to see him and seemed so genuinely pleased to have found him.
After much cajoling by Vic, who kept insisting that he ‘moved on’, Robert had ended up out in Leeds a few times. It didn’t matter that he kept telling her that he wasn’t still hung up on Aaron, he’d let him go and they were just mates now, he wasn’t clinging on to any foolish hope that they’d get back together. She wasn’t having any of it.
Vic had even gone with him as his ‘wing woman’ (as she’d put it) to ensure that he didn’t just sit around looking bored and actually gave some people a chance.
The first few evenings hadn’t been anything to get excited about, but on the third night out, an attractive, well-dressed man had caught Robert’s eye and clearly returned the interest. The man (Ian) had offered to buy Robert a drink and they’d got to chatting. Ian was probably a few years younger than Robert, with light brown hair and lovely warm chocolate-coloured eyes. He was taller than Robert, and he actually found that he quite liked looking up at someone, and he was broader too. It didn’t take much to imagine that he was probably really fit beneath his clothes. He was dressed impeccably in a smart jacket and tight jeans and, when he leant closer to speak into Robert’s ear over the music thumping in the crowded bar, he smelt delicious.
There was a moment when Robert compared him to Aaron. Of course he was going to. After spending so long being completely in love with Aaron, only ever wanting Aaron, not imagining himself with anyone else, it was impossible not to compare this man to the love of his life.
The two men were different. And that was good. That was what Robert needed. Not that Robert was looking for anything serious, or any sort of commitment, and he certainly wasn’t looking for an ‘Aaron replacement’: it was just time for something different. He just wanted to enjoy himself and if this bloke was going to help with that then Robert wasn’t going to complain.
An epiphany at Christmas had helped Robert to realise that he couldn’t be with Aaron, not how he really wanted to. And he’d accepted that. He was friends with Aaron now, good friends, and he was grateful for that. He wanted Aaron in his life. He knew that friends was all they could be and even though he’d still always yearn for more, he knew he had to keep that desire locked away in his heart.
Aaron had moved on: he was in a healthy, happy relationship with Alex and Robert was pleased for him. It also made him realise that maybe it was time for him to move on too.
Ian had chatted with him for a long time and Robert had had to admit that he was charmed. He’d pulled out all of his patented Robert Sugden charm too to ensure that Ian was left feeling the same way. Eventually, with a soft smile, Ian had asked Robert for his number. He’d laughed lightly at Robert’s almost disappointed look. ‘I’m not looking for a quickie in the toilets,’ he’d said as he’d leaned in to Robert again. ‘But I’d really like to see you again.’ Robert had smiled back and they’d swapped numbers, before going their separate ways.
Vic had been beside herself with excitement about what had happened and hadn’t shut up about Ian since that evening. Robert had been playing his cards close to his chest, not wanting to tell his sister too much, but he’d been texting Ian since they’d met last week and they’d even shared some phone calls in the last couple of days.
He was almost too nervous to admit it, but he was actually excited about something for the first time in ages.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” he said as he smiled at Ian.
“Sorry. I probably should’ve called or something, but I guess I got carried away.”
“Don’t apologise,” Robert replied. “It’s great to see you. It’s a lovely surprise.”
Ian smiled brightly at him. “Shall I get you another one then?”
Robert nodded. “Yeah, I’d like that.”
“And you’d better introduce us,” Vic announced from the other side of the bar.
Robert had been so caught up in the surprise of seeing Ian that he’d completely forgotten his little sister standing right there. She was now staring at Ian with wide eyes and a cheeky grin on her face and Robert just hoped that she wouldn’t embarrass him too much.
“Ian,” he said, “this is my little sister, Victoria.”
“Ah, the bodyguard from the other night,” Ian concluded, and Vic laughed brightly.
“And here was me thinking I’d been so discreet that no-one noticed me,” she said. “Anyway, I had to hang around to make sure Rob didn’t get himself into any trouble.”
Robert rolled his eyes. So much for not embarrassing him.
“Who’s that?” Adam asked, his voice full of the same confusion that Aaron was feeling.
His mouth had flapped open, his pint suspended halfway to his lips, as he’d watched the stranger walk up behind Robert and touch him so casually. The churning in his stomach had only intensified as the man leant down and brushed a kiss against Robert’s cheek. And when he saw Robert beaming up at him, his heart had thudded painfully in his chest.
“I dunno,” he managed to say, unable to tear his eyes away from the chatting pair at the bar.
He knew he had no right to feel upset about seeing Robert with someone else. He’d made the decision that they were over. Even when Robert had begged, pleaded, that they could work it out, he’d stood firm. And it had been the right thing to do. They’d both needed some time to figure things out, work out how to be individuals without being ‘Robert and Aaron’. And they were both so much better now, so much healthier.
Aaron had moved on with Alex and at the time, it had seemed right. Robert had struggled to accept it. He’d been an idiot about it on more than one occasion, but eventually he’d come to realise that Aaron had moved on and he’d dealt with it. He’d calmed down a lot, accepted that Aaron was with someone else. He’d even taken off his wedding ring after so many months of wearing it in some vain hope that they’d get back together and just go back to where they’d been before everything was ruined.
And they were mates now. They could quite happily sit together and have a chat over a pint. Surely that meant he was supposed to be pleased to see Robert looking so happy with someone else after all this time. Unfortunately, it felt a lot like a punch to the gut.
He stared at the two men at the bar, trying to get his head (and his heart) to make sense of what he was seeing.
Robert was laughing brightly; that loud, carefree laugh that Aaron had always basked in because it made him feel warm from head to toe. The man beside him kept touching him: a hand on his shoulder, a touch to his arm. He kept leaning in to speak to Robert, as though they were in some crowded noisy nightclub and he had to get close to be heard. And Robert was absolutely glowing with the attention.
Something tightened in the pit of Aaron’s stomach as he watched. This was the moment, he suddenly realised. He’d not been prepared for it because he hadn’t ever really imagined it would happen. But this was it: Robert was moving on.
“You alright, mate?” Adam’s voice broke through his thoughts.
Blinking rapidly and tearing his eyes away, he glanced back at his friend. “What? Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. Think I’m gonna head home. See you later, yeah?”
He downed the last of his pint and stood up from the booth. Not wanting to be noticed by anyone, he quietly slipped out of the rear door of the pub and made his way home, his mind replaying what he’d seen.
“Alright?” Aaron grunted as he walked into the portacabin the following morning, flicking the switch on the kettle as he passed it.
“Yeah, you?” Robert asked as he looked up from the paperwork on his desk.
The conversation didn’t go any further but that wasn’t entirely unusual for them. Robert knew Aaron well enough to know that he didn’t do ‘chats’ until he’d had a least one cup of tea in a morning, so he usually waited before striking up conversation.
Aaron sat at his desk and pretended to be looking through some papers, while he waited for the kettle to boil, but secretly he was watching Robert. He was looking for any signs that Robert seemed different, like he’d got a new boyfriend, for example.
An unsettled night had given Aaron plenty of time to think about what had happened the evening before in the pub. He’d come to the conclusion that he didn’t have any right to be upset or angry that Robert was flirting (was that all it was? his mind had asked him) with someone else. And it certainly wasn’t fair to take it out on Robert, even if he was feeling hurt.
He’d been the one to move on first. They’d both agreed that their relationship was over, but it had just taken Robert longer to actually meet anyone else. And Aaron couldn’t be an arse about it now - that would just make him a complete hypocrite. As much as he didn’t want to see Robert with anyone else, because he wanted him back, he couldn’t stop him; he wouldn’t interfere in his life.
Internally, he was going to be screaming about how Robert should be with him and only him, but he’d promised himself that he was going to make a real effort to be a good friend. He was going to try to be ‘happy’ for Robert.
“Saw ya at the pub last night,” he blurted and then wondered why he’d said anything at all, let alone that.
Robert looked up immediately. He looked a little nervous. “Yeah, I was going to come over.”
‘But then you got distracted by that poncey prick,’ Aaron thought to himself. Then he silently berated himself; he was supposed to be being a good friend.
“‘S’alright,” Aaron shrugged. “I know you were busy with that bloke.”
Robert didn’t speak: it seemed like he didn’t know what to say. It was like he was considering if there was any way this conversation would end positively and Aaron knew he had to make the effort to let Robert know that he was okay with whatever was going on because that’s what friends do for one another.
Aaron swallowed thickly and forced a little cheeky smile onto his face. “Looked like he was pretty interested in you. Where’d you meet ‘im?”
Robert cleared his throat. “Um, me and Vic went out last week and I met him at a club. I hadn’t seen him since, but we’d swapped numbers. I didn’t know he was gonna come to the pub last night.”
“He must be keen then,” Aaron surmised and he suggestively raised his eyebrows a little at Robert.
Robert actually let out a soft chuckle at his words and Aaron’s face. “Maybe,” he said as he fiddled with his pen, a little smile on his face.
Aaron’s stomach did a funny swoop as he looked at Robert sitting across the office from him, dreamy little smile in place. He was so bloody gorgeous there was no wonder people were interested in him. He was amazed this hadn’t happened sooner, but maybe Robert hadn’t been ‘available’ in his own head until now.
He wanted that smile for himself. But he knew that wasn’t fair.
“What’s his name then?” Aaron asked.
“Ian,” Robert told him simply.
Nodding slightly, Aaron said, “So, are you going to be seeing Ian again?”
A slight pink tinge had appeared high on Robert’s cheeks and Aaron had to hold himself back from diving over his desk and kissing him, pressing him up against the door of the portacabin (because they’d done that before, and he had very pleasant memories of the experience) and having him there and then.
“Probably,” Robert answered. “I suppose so. He seems like a decent bloke.”
Aaron tried not to clench his jaw. “And he’s fit,” he declared, like that was the deciding factor.
Robert laughed again. “He’s definitely fit, he agreed.
They fell into silence for a while and then Robert spoke again. “Thanks. For, you know, being alright about it. I was a complete shit when you first started seeing Alex.”
Aaron forced a smile again. “That’s all in the past now. As long as you’re happy.”
Robert smiled at him again before he turned his attention back to the paperwork in front of him.
The repetitive clanging of metal outside told Robert that Aaron was getting stuck into whatever car he’d decided to rip apart that morning. He sipped at his coffee and smiled fondly as he thought about their conversation.
When Aaron had mentioned seeing him in the pub with Ian last night, his heart had started racing. He wasn’t sure what reaction he’d been hoping for. He supposed it could’ve gone one of two ways: Aaron was either going to be supportive and a good friend like they’d vowed to be, or he was going to tell Robert that he shouldn’t be with Ian because he was meant to be with Aaron. Secretly, he supposed, he was hoping for the latter. For just a moment, as they’d been speaking, he’d been sure that Aaron was going to jump up, march over to him and kiss him. Obviously he hadn’t. And that was probably for the best. Robert would always want Aaron, always love Aaron, but they’d moved on. Aaron was happy with Alex. Maybe this was the signal that Robert had been waiting for. Aaron had pretty much encouraged him to see Ian again and maybe he was right. Maybe it was time for him to move on too. Besides, Ian seemed like a really nice bloke and, as Aaron had put it himself, he was fit.
Picking up his phone from the desk, he found Ian’s number and pressed to make the call. It rang three times before Ian’s deep voice greeted him.
“Hi, Ian. It’s Robert.”
He smiled as Ian told him how nice it was to hear from him, that he’d actually just been thinking about him.
“Well, I was just wondering...do you fancy meeting up for dinner this week?”
His smile widened as Ian immediately told him that he’d love to.
Aaron was right when he’d said ‘as long as you’re happy’. This was going to make Robert happy: he could just tell.