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Robert and Aaron first speak on a Wednesday.

Aaron’s boss Craig tosses a mountain of paperwork his way that morning, a bright green post-it note placed crookedly in the corner of this week’s report. Angry black letters in jagged lines dug into the paper: ‘Call ClearSwift today – speak with line manager Robert Sugden – right sarky bastard.’

This isn’t how Aaron planned to spend his twenties; working the day shift at CitySprint in Leeds city centre, tracking packages that aren’t his and arguing on the phone with miserable, middle-aged Londoners he doesn’t want to speak to. His desk is small, pushed into the corner next to Caroline, a loud and chatty woman, shocking blonde hair and personality to match. He’s been here long enough for her to know now, a nod and a wave are fine, a gossip and a hug are reserved for the rare promotion or holidays.

It pays his rent though; a stuffy little one bedroom flat a five-minute walk from work he calls home, a place to kick off his shoes and throw himself down on the sofa, Chinese takeaway in hand and a warm beer on the coffee table.

The phones are ringing around him as he slams down the folders on his desk, knocking over the remains of the sandwich he had eaten for breakfast, cardboard packaging spilling out crumbs over the wood. The one thing he’s grateful for with this job is that he doesn’t need to wear a uniform; no unbearable overalls he was forced to wear in his uncle’s garage, no excruciating suit and tie pulled tight around his throat. He’d opted to wear his warmest jumper today, the maroon cotton pulled over his knuckles, fighting against the biting January cold outside.

“So, what’s it like to hit the big two-five?”

Caroline’s sat perched on the edge of his desk before he even realises she’s there. Aaron barely holds the sigh that’s dying to escape, as he all but collapses into his seat, twisting around to face her.

“Caroline, what did we say?”

“Yeah, I know, no talking about the birthday.” The last word coming out as barely a whisper. “I still don’t get why you don’t want the attention.” Her voice is mocking, laughter in her pale green eyes, slight wrinkles forming around her wide smile.

“Because we’re not all loud-mouths like you who thrive off it.”

Caroline reaches over the desk and grabs at Aaron’s shoulder, bright pink nails digging into his muscle. Aaron winces, he’s almost gotten used to the loud tapping on the keyboard next to him, but she still hasn’t got the hint that he wants her claws nowhere near him, no matter how many times he tells her through gritted teeth and fake smiles.

“You know you don’t mean that, you love me.”

Aaron can’t help but smile, a small quirk of the side of his mouth as he shrugs her off. You’d never know she was just weeks away from turning forty. Brightness pours out of her, or maybe it was just the disgustingly bright yellow jumpers she insists on wearing every day, either way, she was loud and charming, and everything Aaron had once hated.

“Shove off. Some of us have actual work to do today.”

She hurries off with a grin on her face, eyebrows raised, and returns to her desk as Aaron scoots his chair closer to his desk. It’s a mess, paper strewn across the wooden surface, stacks of folders he has no use for hanging precariously off the edge. It’s then he notices the post-it note again, and grimaces. He reaches over and grabs it, the paper sticking to the end of his finger. There’s three harsh lines underlining the word ‘today’; Aaron scrunches his nose and glances at the small digits on his computer screen, 13:15 flashing brightly at him.

He can’t really put it off any longer, the companies down south usually clocking off at three in the afternoon, and if this Robert Sugden fella is anything like the inept man Aaron dealt with this morning, he wants to get this over with as quickly as possible. The phones already in his hand as he punches in the number, his fingertips leaving slight grease marks on the keypad as he tosses the post-it note across his desk. The phone rings twice.

“ClearSwift; Robert Sugden speaking.”

The man’s voice shocks Aaron; it’s assertive, strong, yet still soft enough to make Aaron stop, words getting stuck in his throat. He doesn’t sound like the normal men Aaron deals with, his voice higher, Northern, yet still kind enough to tug at something in Aaron’s stomach.

“Hello? Is anybody there?”

Aaron snaps out of his shock-filled haze, and scrambles to collect himself, straightening his back and uncrossing his legs, as though the man was walking into the room and not sat  in an equally stuffy office five hours down South.

“Yes, sorry. Aaron Dingle from CitySprint here. I’m calling about Payment Number AC7-“

Aaron’s interrupted by a quiet “Oh, shit” and a flurry of papers on the other end of the call, the man’s voice sounding soft and hushed, followed by a heavy sigh.

“I’m sorry?”

“Oh God, I am so sorry. I was supposed to process it this morning, but it completely slipped my mind.”

“One of those days, huh?”

“You have no idea.”

Aaron has no idea what he’s doing; making conversation, conversation with a stranger no less, but the words are tumbling out of his mouth before he can stop them. The man, Robert, Aaron realises, sounds stressed, his voice tight and firm, suddenly. Aaron can almost picture him, sat hunched over his desk in a similar way to how Aaron is now, scrambling over mountains of paperwork to match Aaron’s own.

“What happened?” If Aaron could, he would be kicking himself right about now.

“What? You really want to talk to a complete stranger about his shitty day?” He sounds shocked, ‘not as shocked as you are’ a voice in Aaron’s head helpfully supplies, as though the idea of talking to someone about their day is an entity entirely unheard of.

“I mean, why not? I have nothing better to do, and I can keep you company as you process our payment.” Aaron leans back in his chair, spinning it around slightly to face out of the window, the busy Leeds high-street bustling with life below him.

“Well thank you for your offer, but you really don’t need to hear about how little sister’s idiot boyfriend had her crying on my shoulder, in the work canteen, all morning. I could kill him.” Robert sighs heavily again, but he sounds calmer now at least, Aaron is relieved to realise his tiny rant did something to relieve his stress.

“I’m so glad my little sister isn’t at that stage yet.” Aaron chuckles.

“Yeah? Hold on to that feeling, it comes quicker than you expect. I’ll just process this for you.” He can hear Robert tapping away quickly at the keyboard, and a minute later his voice returns, “It’s really late, even without my stupid mistake, by the way, surprised we haven’t had your lot calling us all hours for it.”

“I know, but I put off calling you posh lot for as long as I can.” Aaron notices he’s twirling the phone cord around his little finger, his head resting against the back of his chair; he’s never been so glad that most of his floor are still away for Christmas. Aaron can almost hear Julie and Simon, hiding in plain sight by the printer, gossiping that Aaron Dingle has a blush spreading across his cheeks, biting into his lip slightly as this ‘London Boy’ chuckles softly down the phone.  

“I hate to spoil your fun, but I’m only down here for work, I’m Northern scum just like you.”

“Really?” Even though Aaron isn’t shocked at the revelation, a part of him questions how he could tell so easily, Aaron not one for picking up things as insignificant as accents.

“Yep.” Aaron can see the grin plastered on Robert’s face, even though he has no idea what Robert’s face actually looks like, he can see it. “From a little place in Yorkshire but lived outside Liverpool for a bit.”

“Liverpool fan, then? A man after my own heart.”

Robert makes a quiet retching noise, and Aaron’s smile grows wider. “Oh God no, Sheffield all the way over here.”

Aaron sucks in a breath and tuts, “Oh that’s a shame. This conversation will have to be over then. I can’t be heard associating with the likes of a ‘Blades’ fan, I have a reputation to uphold, you know.” It makes Robert laugh, louder and higher than his previous chuckles; It comes out as almost a cackle, a noise he hadn’t expected to hear. Before he has chance to comment he hears a quiet shushing on Robert’s end, followed by a murmured ‘sorry.’

“Thanks for that. Now I’m getting shushed by postman Joe, of all people, I look like a right nutter.”

“I should think so too, with a laugh like that.” Aaron turns back around from where he’s facing the window and plants his elbow back on his desk, resting his chin on the fist that’s formed.

“That was all your fault that was. Look, my boss is glaring at me from across the room so I’m gonna have to go get some work done, considering my sister took up all my morning. The payment is all sorted so you won’t have to badger us for it anymore.” If anyone asks, Aaron will completely deny the fact his heart dropped to his stomach then, disappointment washing over him at the thought of never speaking to this stranger again.

“That’s good.”

“Look, Aaron, I’m probably way overstepping here, but, well, you sound pretty great. Would you mind if I added you on Facebook or something? So, we could keep talking?” He sounds nervous suddenly, voice low and embarrassed and a smile flashes across Aaron’s face.

“I would love that.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I’m just Aaron Dingle on there, I think.”

“I’m looking now. Short hair, scruffy beard? Someone’s, I’m presuming your mum’s, arms wrapped around you?” He can hear the smile in Robert’s voice, and any embarrassment about his profile picture being with his own mum vanishes almost as quickly as it appeared.

“That’s me.”

“You’re a handsome man, Mr Dingle”

Aaron’s face flushes, and before he can quip something back, he feels his phone vibrate in his back pocket. Pulling it out he sees the notification ‘Robert Sugden sent you a friend request.’ Aaron bites down hard on his lip and uses his thumb to swipe on his phone, entering his passcode, tightening his grip on the phone pressed against his ear as he waits for Facebook to load.

Robert’s face pops up then, and Aaron’s heart stops.

He’s blonde, hair spiked up into a perfect little quiff. His smile is wide, white teeth shining, and slight wrinkles form around his mouth and his eyes. His eyes. A pale green, from what Aaron can tell, open wide and smiling, almost. There’s a smattering of freckles dancing across the bridge of his nose, and spreading across his face and, Aaron presumes, continuing down his neck, moving down his chest and- fuck.

“You’re not too bad yourself, Sugden.”

 

---

 

“You’ve been staring at your phone all night mate, keeping you from someone, are we?” Adam’s pressed up against Aaron’s side, propped up against the bar. They’ve managed to escape the crowd, instead sticking to the side as Adam shouts for the bartender, Finn and Ross sat at a table near the speakers.

Aaron had reluctantly agreed to some belated birthday drinks; Adam coming up from his village to crash at his for the weekend, dragging him out to the nearest club to get ‘absolutely wankered’ as he so elegantly shouted down the phone to Aaron a few weeks prior. Somehow Finn and Ross tagged along with him; the three of them showing up at the door with wide smiles and full suitcases. Finn’s eyes didn’t leave his face as he hurried them inside, something in Aaron’s head reminding him of the hushed words Adam had whispered in his ears the last time they saw Finn in Adam’s local, eyebrows raised and voice mocking: ‘He’s gay you know, if you were, wondering.’ All Adam received in reply was an elbow into his side.

From Robert: ‘my sister is dragging me out for the night as well, help her get over the dickhead.’

Aaron smiles at the text that’s popped up on his phone from Robert. He’d spent hours, after that first conversation, listening to how much Robert hated the little brat; ‘Jason’ Robert had hissed through gritted teeth one night, the one who held his little sister’s heart and stamped all over it. He knows, how hard Robert has tried to make her feel better, to make her feel loved, and it makes Aaron’s heart stutter in his chest.

They’d exchanged numbers a week after they started talking, Robert saying it felt too impersonal to use Facebook; Aaron agreed quickly, wanting the excuse to be able to have Robert call him when he wanted. Before they knew it, they fell into a routine, despite only knowing each other for three weeks; Aaron would receive texts all day long, his phone hidden underneath the desk as Robert’s stupid gifs and snapchats came through. He’d receive a phone call at 5pm, Robert needing entertaining on the hour-long drive home, complaining about working extra hours (‘I wish all us down here could finish at three, not all of us can sit talking to strangers on the phone all day.”)

“Mate!” Adam all but shouts into Aaron’s ear, hitting his hand sharply against Aaron’s bicep, the pint in his hand spilling slightly.

Aaron pushes his phone into his back pocket and smiles at his best friend, Adam’s eyes looking him up and down.

“What?”

“You! You’ve not stopped looking at your phone all night, got a fella you haven’t told me about?” He’s got that stupid look on his face, mouth spread in a wide grin, eyebrows wiggling as he laughs into his pint.

“What? No.” Aaron looks down and grabs his pint, bringing it up to his lips and gulping it down quickly. Any hopes of Adam changing the subject soon vanish, his friend’s eyes widening almost comically, the wide grin on his face somehow managing to spread wider.

“Mate! Have you?” Adam shakes at Aaron’s arm whilst Aaron slams his pint down, blows out a puff of air and straightens his back.

“No! Or I don’t think so. I don’t know, just leave it.” Aaron turns around to head back to their table, plans to ignore Finn’s eyes on him all evening when Adam grabs at his shirt sleeve, tugging him roughly back towards the bar.

“Bro, what are you on about?”

Aaron sighs and shrugs his shoulders, slamming his drink down on the sticky wooden surface underneath, the beer tipping over the brim slightly as Aaron runs his finger over the concentration on the side of the glass.

“I don’t know, mate. Met ‘im on the phones at work, got talking and stuff.” He blows out a puff of air, and looks towards his friend, Adam looking at him with the soft eyes he was hoping to avoid. “He’s really fucking nice, and really fit. We talk every day, but I don’t think he’s interested in me, not like that anyway.” It comes out as a rush, Aaron stumbling over the words as he all but shouts them into Adam’s ear, the pounding of the speakers suddenly drilling into the side of his head.

“Why not?”

“I dunno. Why would he be interested in me like that? We haven’t even met properly.” A blush creeps up the side of Aaron’s neck, the heat travelling up his cheeks quickly, and in an instant he’s grateful for the low-light and pounding music surrounding them, his red cheeks and shaking voice somewhat hidden. He risks a glance back up towards Adam, the embarrassment clear as he takes in the small smile on Adam’s face, the slight smirk on his face a contrast to the sad look in his eyes. Aaron brings his drink to his lips as Adam digs his elbow into Aaron’s side, the drink spilling over the side and covering his hand.

“What are you on about?”

“Ad! Don’t do that!” Aaron shakes his hand and wipes it on his jeans, wet marks covering the baggy fabric as Adam carries on punching at his shoulder lightly.

“What are you talking about, bro? Most blokes don’t carry on talking to people from work unless they have to, he’s at least a little bit interested surely?”

Adam pokes at Aaron’s arm as the latter shrugs and takes a sip of his pint, licking away the foam covering his top lip quickly.

“Dunno, I just,” He sighs “I just, really like him.” Aaron looks down into his pint, the small bubbles popping in his glass suddenly more interesting to him than his best friends face.

“Hey.” Adam says quietly into Aaron’s ear, and waits for him to look up at him, which he eventually does, his eyes dark and brow furrowed.

“Don’t stress about it, and don’t keep staring at your phone or someone’s gonna think you’re up to something.” Adam wiggles his eyebrows slightly again and scoffs before kicking at Aaron’s ankle.

“Come on, let’s get these back to them two, and let’s get wasted. By the end of the night you won’t even remember the fellas name.” Aaron shakes his head but reaches to grab Finn’s drink when Adam’s hand falls on his arm.

“By the way, what the hell is his name?” Adam raises his eyebrows, his eyes blown wide as Aaron bites his lip.

He picks up the drinks from the bar, and steps back slightly, a small smile growing on his face.

“Robert.” He says softly, “His name’s Robert.”

 

---

 

Bodies push against Aaron’s side as he forces himself through the crowds of people; the dance floor is sticky and loud, music booms over the speakers as people move in time to the beat, pressing against Aaron and yelping when his elbow accidentally digs into their sides too hard. The cold night time breeze hits his face as he pushes open the wide double doors at the back of the club, the biting air a welcome relief to his flushed face.

He faces a small smoking shelter, empty, and takes a seat at one of the benches. There’s discarded cigarette butts scattered across the dark wood, half empty pint glasses haphazardly placed on the small brick wall.

Aaron sighs heavily, a cloud of condensation forming in the dark air around him. He throws his head back slightly; his head dizzy from the shots Adam had forced on the group. Aaron’s eyes sting against the cold air, his eyelashes fluttering as he blinks quickly, a small tear forming at the corners. His legs ache from dashing out the club so quickly, a drunk Finn cornering him in the toilets, face pink and eyes wide, a hand falling onto Aaron’s waist as he leant in slowly. Even in his tequila-induced state Aaron’s hands found their way to Finn’s chest, fingers still damp from the stream of water from the tap and leaving small shadows on Finn’s white shirt, and pushed him back harshly, Finn staggering backwards clumsily and a small ‘sorry’ falling from his lips as Aaron hurriedly rushes from the toilets, quickly finding himself here.

He puts his hands on the cold wooden table, intending to pull himself up and back into the dark club now he’s calmed down, plans to spend the evening dodging Finn’s apologetic eyes and take drinks from Adam’s hands willingly, when he feels a small vibration against his thigh.

Aaron stuffs his shaking hand into his back pocket, pulling out his ringing phone with a sigh and a roll of his eyes. It’ll be his mum, stressed and worried, demanding to know where he is and whether or not he’s gotten into a fight tonight; he doesn’t have it in him to calm her down right now, reassure her or calm her worries.

It isn’t Chas.

It’s Robert.

A week ago, Aaron had set Robert’s ID to a ridiculous selfie he had sent; his face takes up the whole of Aaron’s screen, cheeks puffed outwards and a filter thrown over the top. His blonde hair laying flat on the top of his head, eyes tired, but there’s a small smile on his face, shoulders clad in pyjamas, and Aaron’s heart melts in his chest.  

He presses accept and brings the phone up to his ear and is immediately attacked by loud dance music and Robert’s slurring voice. The music from inside the club, muffled by thick walls, still filters outside.

“Aaron!” Even in Aaron’s tipsy state he can hear the alcohol in Robert’s voice, his voice is higher pitched than usual, laughter in his voice as he hears a girl yelling in the background.

“Aaron! It’s Robert!”

“Yes, I know it’s you. Are you having a good night?” Aaron’s voice is soft, loving, and he wants to kick himself for being so obviously besotted with the older man.

“No! Vic made me do shots and you never answered my texts! I was waiting for you to answer all night!” He’s loud and stumbling over his words, syllables dragged out and slow; the deafening music almost drowning out his whining voice.

“Rob, you didn’t send me any texts?”

“Yes, I did! But it doesn’t matter because you’re here now.”

Aaron smiles at the bluntness of Robert’s words, but before he can reply he hears Robert yell ‘Vic’, followed by Robert’s sister shushing him loudly, and realises the music has quieted down; he can only just make out the melody over Robert’s heavy breathing down the phone’s speaker.

“Where are you?”

“Vic wanted chips because she’s boring.” He whispers the last word, as though the insult was so shocking he couldn’t possibly face his little sister overhearing.

“That’s a good idea. It might sober you up a bit.”

“I don’t wanna sober up! I wanna talk to you!” He yells in a sing-song voice.

Aaron feels the heat travel up his neck and onto his cheeks, and he quickly glances around himself, checking that he’s still alone.

“What you bein’ all cute for?”

Robert giggles quietly and shushes loudly down the phone.

“Don’t tell anybody! I have a reputation you know!” He snorts.

Aaron laughs softly under his breath, and looks down in his lap, pulling a thread from his black jeans as the doors behind him bang open.

“Mate! I’ve been looking for you!” Adams wasted, swaying on the spot beside Aaron, his eyes glazed over slightly; Aaron knew it had been a bad idea to leave him alone with Ross.

“You didn’t look very far, did you?” Aaron lowers the phone from his ear to talk to Adam, he just heard Robert shout: ‘No Vic, I don’t want a battered sausage! Yes, I’m sure!”, so he figures he’ll be able to leave him alone for a second without him accidentally walking into the road.

“Yeah, alright, it’s packed in there. What you doin’ out here?” Aaron raises his phone and waves it slightly,

“I just needed some air, and then Robert rang.”

Adam lifts his eyebrows slightly, a smirk growing on his face, swaying even more as he leans down and slaps at Aaron’s arm hard.

“Hey! Get in there, son! I’ll leave you to it then.” Adam winks and stumbles back inside the club, the yelling from inside filtering through and making Aaron cringe slightly.

Aaron puts his phone back to his ear and is hit by;

“Aaron! Aaron, where are you?” He yells down the phone, voice stressed and high, and his breathing heavier than before.

“I’m here, sorry Adam came to find me.”

“Aaron!”

“Yes, it’s me.” Aaron laughs loudly. Drunk Robert is new to him, the older man usually much quieter and calmer.

“I missed you! I always miss you.” He slurs.

“Yeah, alright, are you still with Vic? Is she is drunk as you are?”

“The chip shop kicked us out because it’s late, and nah, she keeps saying I’m old because I can’t handle my drink like her. Which is just fuckin’ rude to be honest.”

“I don’t think you can handle it either, mate.”

Robert sighs softy; Aaron can almost see the soft look in his eye, the gentle smile on his lips as he does so.

“What’s wrong now?” Aaron says, teasing.

“Don’t like it when you call me mate.”

“What? Why not?” Aaron frowns slightly, his eyebrows scrunching up in confusion.  

“Wanna be more than that. Don’t wanna just be your mate.” Robert whines, mumbling, and Aaron freezes, heart stuttering in his chest.

“Robert, what are you talking about?”

“You only ever call me mate.” He whispers the last word, voice catching around the letters and he sighs laboriously again.

“What’s wrong with that?” There’s a heavy weight on Aaron’s chest as he whispers down the phone, his fingers suddenly shaking in the cold air, legs restless underneath the wooden table.

“I don’t like just being your mate, wanna talk to you all the time, never let you go.” Robert mumbles, voice sad, quiet and low, and Aaron strains to hear him.

“Robert, you don’t mean that. You’re drunk.”

“I do mean it! Aaron, you’re so kind, and funny, and you deal with all my shit. And you’re fit as fuck.” Robert exhales, “Wanna be your boyfriend.” He rushes out, words stumbling over one another, melting into the next.

Aaron blushes, breath stuck in his throat, his cheeks flushing bright red as he takes in Robert’s drunk words.

“Why didn’t you say anything before?”

“Scared.” He murmurs, “Didn’t want you to say no.”

He hears Robert curse quietly, a crackle down the phone as, Aaron presumes, Robert covers the microphone on his phone with his finger.

“Rob, you okay?”

“Hm? Yeah, I’m fine, nearly tripped on the curb, Vic’s dragging me home.”

“Good, go get some sleep, we can talk about this when you’re sober.”

“I’m sorry, Aaron. I’ve ruined this haven’t I?” He sounds crushed, and Aaron feels a pinch in his stomach.

“No, of course you haven’t.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, just go home and get some sleep, we can talk later.”

“Alright.” Robert’s voice is quiet, a stark contrast to how he was acting earlier in the night. “G’night, Aaron.”

“Night, Rob.”

Aaron goes to end the call, wants to call a cab and crawl into bed, forget tonight ever happened. He knows what will happen next, knows that when he wakes up, Robert will take back all he said, will say it was the shots talking and he hopes nothing will change between them; it will, of course it will.

“Robert?”

“Hm?”

Aaron takes a deep breath, and the little voice in his head tells him to fuck it. Robert’s drunk enough that he won’t hold it against him in the morning.

“I’m not saying no. I feel the same way.”

“Thank ‘ou. I’ll talk to you in the morning.” His voice is soft, still slurring, but not as sad as before.

The phone call beeps to an end, and Aaron lowers his phone from his ear, the biting cold air hits him all at once. Goosebumps travel up his arms underneath his thin shirt, he bites his lip and closes his eyes.

And despite the dread twisting in his stomach, his heavy beating heart and sweating palms; Aaron smiles.

 

---

 

Aaron wakes with a thumping pain in the side of his head, his face is buried deep into the cushion as he groans loudly, lifting his head slightly to glance quickly at the alarm clock on his bedside table. ’11:43’ flashing brightly in front of him. Aaron sighs and turns over, kicking the duvet off his legs and he looks up towards the ceiling, eyes scrunching up tightly.

He can hear the heavy footsteps of the people above him, a dog barking outside, and he resists the urge to curl up and pull the covers over his head. He silently curses Adam, his best friend to blame for the pain pulsating at his temples after shoving tequila into his hand before stumbling out of the club at 3am, Adam leaning heavily against him as they waited for the taxi, a cold wind sending chills down his spine.

He should probably get up, shuffle over to the window and throw open the curtains; bathing the room in the bright yellow light that’s trying to peek through the gaps. He should take a shower, let the hot water pour over his flushed skin to wake him up properly. Instead, he groans again, and shuffles across to the other side of the bed, kicking the duvet further down his legs, a cool draft dancing across his bare feet.

Aaron’s mouth is dry, he mentally kicks himself for not leaving some water on his bedside, and the pulsating in his head has only gotten worse since his eyes flickered open. He pushes his face further into the cushion and squeezes his eyes shut, desperate for a few more hours of glorious sleep, when he’s hears a quiet buzzing noise coming from his left.

His phone is ringing.

And suddenly, every memory of last night washes over him; Robert’s drunken declaration, Aaron’s heart hammering through his chest. He reaches over with a sigh, and through squinted eyes, he sees Robert’s name, the selfie of him no longer bringing a small smile to his face, but a dull ache in the base of his stomach. This is it.


Aaron’s eyes fall shut as his thumb brushes across the screen, accepting Robert’s call, before slowly bringing up to his ear. He can hear soft breathing crackling down the phone, and his heart beats a little quicker.

“Robert?”

“Hi.” Robert’s voice is low, croaking almost, as he speaks slowly down the phone. “How are you?”

“I’m alright, you?”

“I’m good, a little hungover though.” Robert lets out a hollow laugh, before sighing deeply as Aaron shuffles further up the bed, his back resting against the headboard as he brings his knees closer to his chest, the duvet falling from his legs as he almost folds himself in half.

“Did you have a good night at least?” Aaron forces the words out, they sound distant, even to his own ears. It’s difficult, Aaron realises, to talk to him, to act as though nothing has changed, when they both know it has.

“Yeah, I did.” Robert sighs heavily again, “Look, I don’t remember much of what happened last night, but I remember that I rang you, and I wanted to apologise, I shouldn’t have done that.” His voice is low, melancholic even, the words tumbling out of him as he barely pauses to breathe. “I’m not saying I didn’t mean it, because I did, but I shouldn’t have sprung this on you, especially when I was so drunk. If you never want to talk to me again, I get-”

“Robert, shut up a minute.”

There’s a beat where Aaron can hear Robert’s breath steadying slightly whilst Aaron pushes a hand through his hair, his little finger slightly getting caught in a knotted curl at the side of his head as he takes a deep breath through his nose; he really needs some water.

“M’ sorry.”

“Don’t be, you were actually quite cute.”

Robert laughs softly, a breathy and quiet giggle, and Aaron smiles faintly.

“Shut up.” He whines, “I’m never cute.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Ya’ sounded like a right twat.” Ignoring the drilling pain in his head, Aaron laughs.

“Oh, ha ha. Right little comedian you are, aren’t you?” Robert says dryly, voice dripping with sarcasm, but Aaron can clearly hear him trying to refrain from laughing; his voice shaking and breathless.

“Yeah, I am, that’s why you like me, isn’t it?”

The phone falls silent; Aaron bites his lip harshly and berates himself silently, wishing he could rewind the past ten seconds.

Finally, after what feels like hours, Aaron hears Robert’s voice again, quiet and steady.

“Yeah, it’s one of the reasons.”

Aaron blinks rapidly, a lump rising in his throat. It was unexpected, Robert’s voice suddenly confident and sure of himself; sounding so much different to seconds earlier that Aaron startles slightly.

“One of?” He stutters out, words catching in his throat as he tries to gulp around them.

“Yeah, I don’t really know what I said last night, but there’s a lot of reasons I started to fall for you, Dingle.”

Unsure of where this newfound confidence arose from, Aaron retaliates whilst wrapping an arm around his knees, his face now a blushing pink; he resembles, he thinks mockingly, a twelve-year-old girl who finally managed to say two words to her crush.

“Well, how do you think I feel? I have to talk to Mr. Perfect all day and try not spill my guts about how pretty I think he is.” He says bitingly, his words teasing.

“Pretty?”

“Not denying the ‘Perfect’ thing I see.” He chuckles, “But yeah, it pains me to say it, but you’re fucking pretty, Sugden.”  

Robert laughs, loudly this time, and draws in a deep breath.

“Thanks, I guess.” Another giggle, “I honestly don’t know what I did yesterday, I just know that I definitely made a massive tit of myself.”

“Well you kicked off because I didn’t reply to your texts, even though you hadn’t sent me any.”

Robert groans quietly, “That explains it.”

Aaron frowns slightly, “That explains what?”

Robert chuckles under his breath and clicks his tongue quietly, “I woke up this morning to a notification on my phone, saying thirty messages hadn’t been sent; I was so hammered I couldn’t even press send properly.”

A giggle bursts out of Aaron, an almost high-pitched cackle, that causes a heavy blush to crawl up his neck, ducking his head slightly he replies: “You’re a fuckin’ idiot, you know that?”

“Vic forced tequila on me, it’s hardly my fault.”

“Everything’s your fault, mate.”

“Hey! I might have been pissed, but I still stand by what I said.”

“Oh yeah? And what’s that?” Aaron wraps his arm around his knees even tighter; he’s getting pins and needles in his leg slightly, a static-like feeling travelling up his calf, but he doesn’t want to move.

“Hate being called your mate, makes me sound like a flamin’ builder or something.”

“Well, what do you want me to call you?”

Robert falls silent again, and Aaron can just hear a hitch in his breath, a quiet gulp before he speaks again. “I quite like the sound of your boyfriend.”  

Aaron freezes. His heart drops to the pit of his stomach and he stretches his legs back out, shuffling further up the bed again, as he blinks slowly, gaze fixed on a peeling piece of wallpaper in the corner of his room.

“Aaron?”

He shakes his head quickly, snapping himself out of his apparent reverie, and swallows harshly, breath caught in his throat as he scrambles to say something, say anything.

“You mean that?”

“Yeah, yeah I do.” A beat. “Only if you think so too, I don’t want to, I don’t know, force anything, or if you don’t feel like that all then I can-”

“Robert, you’re babbling again.” He scrunches his eyes shut, and berates himself silently, you sound like your mum, but Robert stops talking, his heavy breathing crackling down the phone, again, and Aaron smiles.

“I would love that.”

“Really?” Robert whispers, voice gentle.

“Yeah, boyfriend.” The word feels unfamiliar, sounds strange falling from his lips so simply, almost like it’s easy. “I like the sound of that.”

“I like the sound of it too, boyfriend.’

And as Aaron’s heart thunders in his chest, beating fast and heavy in his throat, he realises; it’s the easiest thing he’s ever done.

 

---

 

Aaron’s scared, scrap that, he’s absolutely terrified. He can feel his heartbeat, fast and heavy, in his throat, palms sweating as he throws himself onto the couch. He’d worked a late shift tonight; the sun already set long before he found himself leaving the office, the moon high and a bright white above his head as he sped home.

Empty beer cans lay scattered across the coffee table, left over from a night-in with Adam, one almost toppling over as Aaron kicks his legs up, trainers thumping loudly on the dark wood. He’s got his phone in hand, waiting for the device to start ringing.

It had been the night before that Robert had suggested it, his boyfriend’s voice quiet and low as the clock on Aaron’s bedside ticked over to 3:30am, Aaron’s eyes drooping softly as Robert huffed out a breath down the phone:

“We should probably get some sleep, ay?” He had whispered.

“Yeah, I can’t keep my eyes open.”

“I wish I could see you.” Robert’s voice had broken slightly, cracking ever so quietly.

“Really?” Aaron chewed on his lips, teeth tugging the skin into his mouth and he fidgeted further down the bed.

“Yeah, I hate not seeing you. Why don’t we FaceTime sometime? If that’s okay with you?”

“Yeah.” He had murmured, biting his lip softly, “That’s more than okay with me.”

So, Aaron finds himself here; spread out on the battered leather sofa, jacket thrown haphazardly over the arm, cold bottle of beer placed on the floor as he sighs, throwing his head backwards and gazing up at the off-white ceiling, his eyes softly falling shut.

 

---

 

He’s jolted awake what feels like minutes later; a gentle vibrating on the sofa beside him, his phone having dropped from his fingers slightly. He scrunches his eyes tightly and readjusts himself, clicking his neck loudly, as he yawns.

Aaron glances over at his phone; Robert’s face is in full display, lighting up the screen with a wide smile and bright eyes and Aaron snaps his head to the clock on the wall. 23:52. Almost an hour after their agreed time. Shit.

Aaron shuffles over to his phone, his legs aching from their position on the table, so he pulls them off and brings them underneath his body, trainers digging into his jeans slightly.

He swipes a thumb across the screen, accepting Robert’s call, before the call can end. His face is probably flushed pink, eyes red and tired, he considers, as the screen cuts to black quickly, before Robert’s face fills the screen once again.

Aaron begins talking before he can even register it.

“I’m sorry. I just had a really long day at work and I was sitting on the sofa waiting for you to call and I must have fallen asleep. Well, I did fall asleep, obviously. And I woke up to my phone ringing and I know you must have rung before and I’m so sor-”

“Aaron!”

Aaron’s head snaps up, his eyes focusing on his phone’s screen, rather than his stained jeans.

“Shut up a minute.”

Aaron’s heart lurches in his chest as he takes Robert in. His hair is soft atop his head, blonde fringe covering his forehead, edging over his eyebrows slightly. Despite the low quality, he can see the freckles adorning the bridge of his nose, delicately dancing along the pale skin and spreading across his cheeks. He’s shirtless; the edge of a blanket laying precariously underneath his collarbones, the fluffy olive-green fabric a stark contrast against the pale skin hiding underneath, blooms of constellations speckled across his broad shoulders.

To Aaron, he is breathtaking.

“You’re beautiful.” He whispers.

Robert chuckles quietly and Aaron swallows around the lump in his throat, his brain snapping back into gear and realising what he just blurted out, a hot blush creeping up his neck.

“Sorry.”

Robert shuffles slightly, his head pushing into the white pillow below him, forming a sort of halo surrounded his head. The phone is his hand wobbling slightly as he brings his other hand up to his eyes, wiping at them gently.

“Don’t be. You look great, Aaron.” His voice is steady, eyes soft as he bites his lip, tugging gently at the skin as he gazes at Aaron.

“I just got in from work and fell asleep on the sofa, I wouldn’t call that great.” He snorts.

“That explains why you missed all my calls, I had a shower and got into bed before I tried again. Thought you were ditching me.”

Aaron’s stomach drops, “No I wouldn’t, I swear, I was just so tired and I-”

“Aaron! It’s fine, I’m joking!”

Aaron lets out a deep sigh as his mouth begins to form into a small smile, a blush heating up his cheeks again as his eyes flicker over Robert’s face. He’s grinning, a wide, dazzling smile; his white teeth peeking out from underneath his pink lips, his tongue edging out slightly and resting at the corner of his mouth as he giggles.

Aaron’s breathing falters again: “You’re so gorgeous, Rob.”

Through the low quality of the camera, Aaron sees the embarrassment flooding his face, his cheeks reddening heavily as he glances down, the thin duvet sheets falling to rest underneath his ribcage, and he tugs his bottom lip in between his teeth, biting roughly.

“Shut up, you loser.” Robert’s quiet, but a giggle still emerges from under his breath. His eyes are drooping shut slightly, and with the soft light hair resting on his forehead, he looks impossibly gentle; Aaron resists the urge to let his eyes flutter closed and pretends to feel the smooth expanses of Robert’s pale, freckled chest flush against his cheek, the steady pounding of his heart unwavering against him.

“It’s true!” Aaron is very rarely this brazen, usually relies on a snort and a ‘you think you’re fit, the rest of us think you’re a bit of a mess’ whenever Robert brags about his prowess. But this boldness runs through him and falls out of his mouth without a thought.

“I’m allowed to think my boyfriend is handsome, aren’t I?” He mocks.

“I guess so, only if you accept you’re the much more handsome one.” Robert pulls the duvet back up his chest and shifts slightly onto his side, resting the phone on the pillow beside him. As though Aaron is lying to his left, and God, how he wishes he were.

“Well, of course I am! Knackered after no sleep and no hair gel? What more could a man want?” He laughs loudly and reaches down to the floor to grab his beer, gulping it down quickly as Robert gives a vague smile before falling quiet.

Aaron scrunches his eyebrows in confusion at his boyfriend’s sudden silence, before raising his right eyebrow and opening his mouth to speak; but Robert beats him to it, the words tumbling from his lips in a hurry.

Weshouldmeetupsometime.” He mumbles.

Aaron’s heart lurches slightly, a common occurrence around Robert, as he stares blankly at the phone in his hand. His fingers are shaking slightly now, Robert’s picture wobbling slightly as Aaron notices him looking down in his lap.

“We should meet up, at some point. You know, see each other in person. I really want to see you.” He trips over his words slightly, the syllables melting into one another as he repositions his head on the pillow, a pool of yellow light from his bedside lamp falling over the side of his face, bathing him in a glowing shine.

Aaron gulps harshly, the lump in his throat expanding, as he gasps and blinks furiously. He opens his mouth slightly, but Robert beats him to it.

“No, stupid idea. Ignore m-”

“Rob, do you ever shut up?” Aaron chuckles, his voice high-pitched yet soft, as he finds his breath again.

“Robert,” He whispers, “I would love that, so much.”

Robert’s lips lift upwards; a small dimple in his left cheek crinkles slightly, his white teeth peeking out from his stretched lips. He shuffles further down in bed, his head firmly placed on the cushion below and a small sigh escapes his chest. The dull quality of the screen does little to shield Aaron against the light pouring out of Robert, like a sun shining before his face, Aaron basks in the warmth of him.

 

---

 

The door shuts behind Aaron with a dull thud, the squeaking hinges attacking his ears. He tosses the duffel bag in his hand towards the bottom of the stairs in the hallway, the grey adidas bag bulging at the seams. He’s pulling off his jacket to hang on the hook to his left as Chas thunders through the door in front of him, wine glass in hand a wide smile on her face.

“My baby boy!” She squeals, rushing forward to wrap her arms around Aaron’s neck, pressing a wet kiss to his cheek as she squeezes him tightly.

“Mum can’t- can’t breathe” He squeaks, the breath being pulled out of him as she squeezes him tighter, before pulling away.

Aaron scrubs at his cheek with his screwed-up fist, and steps forward into the living room, just as Paddy steps through the door from the pub, high pitched laughter he recognises as Brenda (or is it Pearl?) filtering through the corridor.

“Mate!” Paddy rushes forward, grabs Aaron’s shoulders and pulls him close for a tight hug. He slaps at Aaron’s back lightly until he returns the favour before pulling away slightly, smiling broadly.

“Didn’t think you’d be here so early!” He steps over to the kitchen, wrenching open the fridge and pulling out two cans of beer, tossing one over to Aaron, who catches it swiftly.

Aaron kicks off his shoes in the corner of the room, the battered trainers falling into place beside Chas’ pink high heels, before throwing himself down on the sofa, tugging the tab of the beer can open, a slight spray sprinkling over his fingers. Paddy takes as seat next to him.

“I got out of work at lunch, figured I’d bring my stuff here early.” He mumbles, taking a swig of the cold drink.

Paddy flushes pink and falls silent. He plays with the tab of his drink before glancing back up at Aaron. Chas shouts about running upstairs to retrieve something, her feet quietly thumping against the carpeted stairs.

“You nervous? About tomorrow, I mean?” Paddy mumbles.

Aaron bites his lip harshly and stares at him, his eyebrows pulled tight underneath the frames of his glasses.

He nods, a little shake of his head, as he takes another, deeper, gulp of his beer. “I’m terrified, Pads.” He mummers, glancing down into his lap.

“Why?” He pulls himself up a fraction, looking down at Aaron, who is slouching into the arm of the sofa, with downturned lips and a concerned gaze.

Aaron shrugs his shoulders quickly, the small twitch barely noticeable, yet Paddy’s eyes focus on him sharply.

“Aaron?”

“I don’t know, just- what if he’s disappointed? What if, I dunno, he wants better?” Aaron slouches further down into the cushions, lifting his leg and slotting it underneath him.

Mate,” He says, elongated and soft, reaching up to pull his glasses off from his face, rubbing at his eye softly before returning the frames, “Why would you say that? Has this- what’s his name again?”

“Robert.”

“Oh yeah, has this Robert, has he said anything to make you think that?” His mouth remains open once he finishes speaking, his jaw dropped open as though in shock.

“What? No, no course he hasn’t.” Aaron shuffles again, uncomfortable with Paddy’s unwavering gaze on the side of his face. He takes a shuddering breath, and scratches at his foot that’s pulled underneath him. “It’s just,” He exhales, “What if I’m not what he expects?”

He watches Paddy gulp harshly, the sound resonating through the otherwise quiet room, and his eyes flick up to the ceiling, where the faint sound of Chas’ steps can be heard on the floor.

“Have you been lying to him or something?”

Aaron’s cheeks flush red, and his mouth falls open faintly, “Wha- what no of course I haven’t! Why would I lie to him?” He stutters.

“Well what are you worried about then?” Paddy takes another drink, before shuffling forwards in his seat, now perched on the edge of his cushion, he places the can on the coffee table in front of him. “Aaron, this Robert bloke, he clearly really likes you, if he wants to see you. Stop worrying, ay, he’s gonna love you.” He reaches forward and slaps at Aaron’s arm awkwardly, and offers him a small smile, barely noticeable, but still there.

Suddenly, Chas thunders down the stairs; now dressed in blue jeans and a white jumper, in a change from the black jeans and low-cut top she had worn previously. She pushes the door open wider and it slams loudly against the wall; making Aaron wince and the picture frames tremble.

“Thought we’d order a takeaway tonight, Aaron.” She says, as she strides towards the kitchen, “That alright?”

Aaron shrugs his shoulders slightly and glances over to his mum, who’s now bending down to the bottom of the fridge, pulling out a large bottle of wine with a small cheer. He raises his can to his lips once more and gulps heavily, the cool liquid sharp against his warm, bitten lips as he drains it, crushing the silver slightly with the tight grip of his fingers.

Chas is muttering under her breath, words melting into each other, as she slams the fridge door shut; she moves across the small kitchen, pulling the drawers open and rustling inside them loudly, before turning around to face the men on the sofa, eyebrows creased.

“You see the menu anywhere?”

“Look in the messy drawer.” Aaron suggests.

“I’ve looked in the messy drawer.” She shakes her head towards Paddy, waiting.

He shrugs: “I always keep mine by the yellow pages.”

“Aha!” She mutters, “That’s it!” She spins around and drops to the cupboard by the sink, wrenching it open and shuffling her hand around in there, while Aaron and Paddy continue to sip their drinks. Chas stands and turns to face them again, her mouth pulled into a wide, triumphant grin as she presents a menu in her left hand, her chipped red nail polish a startling contrast against the tinged yellowed paper.

“Adam’s on his way, so we’ll have to wait for ‘im.” Aaron says, shuffling up straighter as Chas sits herself down in the chair opposite them; the red wine now in her half full wine glass splashes against the sides of the glass roughly as she brings it to her lips.

“Alright.” She says, the glass still pressed against her mouth, “So, how ya feeling?”

Her words seem harmless enough, but Aaron risks a glance at her face, his eyes flicking up from where they were stuck on a thread in the arm of the sofa. She’s looking at him, eyes locked onto his face, with the sad expression he’s grown accustomed to but still causes a lump in his throat to grow.

He nods in her direction, a small tilt of his head and a tiny smile on his lips, “I’m good.” He says.

Chas’ mouth falls open, but her words are cut short by the loud slamming of the door behind them. Adam.

He enters the living room without kicking his shoes off, or taking the large padded coat off his shoulders, but his grin is as wide as expected, matching his arms that are thrown wide and find themselves wrapping around Aaron. He’s cackling and pulling away before Aaron can attempt to shove him away.

“Bro! I’ve missed ‘ya!” He yells and steps towards Chas, pressing a small kiss to her cheek, before heading towards the fridge and pulling out a can.

“Yeah,” Aaron mumbles, “Me too.” Paddy is chuckling to his side, his cheeks flushed pink and thumbs twiddling with each other.

“Your Moira alright?” Chas asks, taking a sip of her wine.

“Yeah, course. Now what’s this about an Indian?”

Chas leans forwards to grab the menu off the coffee table and waves it behind her, expecting Adam to take it from her, but he shakes his head and takes a drink of his beer.

“No need. Chicken bhuna, lamb bhuna, prawn bhuna, mushroom rice, bag of chips, keema nan and nine poppadums.” He recites, not pausing for breath, as the rest of them look on.

Paddy swallows loudly before saying, “Then we can just chuck it on the table and,” He waves his free hand in the air aimlessly, implying ‘we’ll all share’ with a gesture.

“Woah, woah. Right. Okay.” Adam splutters, putting his can down on the kitchen counter, “What’s with all this?” He waves his hand in a similar fashion to Paddy’s, the disgust evident on his face. “What we all sharing for?”

“Because it’s nice.” Chas says, turning in her chair to face Adam.

“Not for me it isn’t.” Adam’s cheeks flush a red close to the shade adorning Paddy’s, “Because I guarantee someone, probably you Chas, no offence, will order a korma. Am I wrong?”

She shrugs her shoulders, “Well, yes, you’re right.”

“Exactly!” He exclaims, “And in my book, a kormas futile; I won’t touch it. But I guarantee Pad’s thought about my bhunas. Paddy,” He says, looking at the older man and pointing an arm in his direction, “Have you thought about my bhunas?”

“Well, a little bit.”

“Told ya!” Pointing his hand back at Chas, “But they’re my bhunas! You want a bhuna, order a bhuna. That’s why I ordered two bhunas.”

“Three actually.” Aaron mumbles, behind his, nearly empty, can of beer. His eyes crinkled as he attempts to hide his laughter.

Adam turns his gaze on him, eyes narrowed, and cheeks puffed out. “Don’t you start with me, mate.”

“Alright Adam, we get it.” Chas rolls her eyes and stands up, scooting around him to grab the landline phone, docked in its charger. “We’ll order our own.”

“Thank you, had the same last week. Went to a bar in Leeds with Finn and his new fella and they’re all dipping in mine going ‘oh that’s so nice’. I know it’s nice, I flamin’ well ordered it.” He grunts as he throws himself down in the seat Chas just left; propping his legs up on the coffee table, mud scuffed around his shoes, as Chas quietly dials the number into the phone.

“What’s gotten you in such a mood?”

He sighs heavily again and throws his head against the back of the chair, “That Ella, isn’t it? Gone and called it off.”

Again?” Paddy interjects before Aaron can ask the same.

“Yep.” He says, popping the ‘p’ at the end of the word loudly.

“Mate,” Aaron grunts, leaning forward to place his drink on the coffee table, before placing his elbows on his knees, staring at Adam. “Do ya not think it’s time to call it quits? She keeps messin’ with ya.”

“Yeah, I know. But she’s so fit, mate.”

Aaron chuckles under his breath and rolls his eyes.

“Anyway,” Adam continues, “It’s not like we can all find the love of our lives at work, can we? Not like lover boy over there.” He tilts his head mockingly towards Aaron, who rolls his eyes again.

“Shut up.”

“No seriously though, bro. You’re meeting him tomorrow. You nervous?”  Chas finally finishes reciting their order down the phone and places it back in the charger dock, she comes to stand behind Adam, eyebrows raised.

He shrugs, “I guess so.”

“No one would blame you for cancelling.”

“Why would I cancel?” 

Adam leans over to take the can he’d left on the side out of Chas’ hand, he takes a loud gulp and sighs, “Dunno, he might be a freak.”

“Robert’s not a freak.”

Paddy sips at his drink quietly as his eyes flick between the two men.

“All I’m saying is; you’re putting all your eggs in one bag. He might not even turn up tomorrow.” 

“Since when did you become an expert on relationships? Ad, you’re doing a shit job of this pep talk. I want to meet ‘im. I’ve gotta meet him.”

As Adam finally lets his point drop, sipping his drink loudly, and turns around to ask Chas the time of arrival for their curry, Paddy nudges his elbow into Aaron’s side. His cheeks are still flushed red, but a small smile has formed across his lips.

“Proud of ya.” He whispers under his breath.

Aaron ducks his head, a blush creeping up his neck and across his jaw, hidden only by the slight stubble adorning his cheeks. He nudges Paddy back slightly harder, his step dad almost spilling beer over the side of the can, but he smiles wildly.

Then, Aaron realises; he’s proud of himself too.

 

---

 

There’s a baby squealing three rows in front of Aaron. He can hear the child’s mother shushing him quietly, her murmurs clouded by the gentle chugging of the train currently rocking him side to side. He’s leaning against the window, the cold glass pressed flush against his cheek the vibrations of the glass shaking him slightly, lulling him gently. Flashes of open fields peek through the fast-moving trees outside, blurring into green stretches of land out the corner of his eye. His eyes blink slowly closed.

Aaron’s legs rest awkwardly in front of him, the cramped space forcing static to travel through his feet; the prickling sensation only eased when he wiggles his toes slightly, digging into the sole of his trainer. An elderly lady is sat to his left, the middle seat left vacant, and her head nods, chin pressed to her chest, as she snores lightly. He shifts in his place slightly, the navy backpack on his lap weighing down heavily on his legs.

Aaron’s eyes snap open as the tannoy system rings to life, a crackling voice pouring out of the speakers, “We are now fifteen minutes away from entering Kings Cross Station. Please ensure you collect all your belongings and-” The monotone voice of the driver drowns out and falls on deaf ears, and Aaron gulps.

He sits up straight, the old lady now snapped awake and rubbing her neck and rubs at his eyes roughly. His elbow aches from its position propping up his chin on the window frame, the black jumper he picked out last night itching his skin, the prickling fabric seems like a mistake now. But Aaron can do little but focus on the thundering beating in his chest, his heart rapidly thumping as he struggles to breathe clearly. His palms are clammy, hot with sweat, as he rubs them against his jeans. He needs to get his duffel bag out from the overhead storage, but he can’t seem to make his limbs work in unison.

His eyes are falling closed again as he attempts to breathe deeply through his nose, Paddy’s breathing techniques from when he was younger, an angry teen with too many thoughts and no idea how to control them, swirling around in his head, when a small, familiar beep sounds from his back pocket. He reaches forwards slightly, lifting himself off his seat as he stuffs a shaking hand into his pocket, pulling out the phone.

I’m in the taxi. I can’t wait to see you. xx”

And despite the thumping in his chest, his shaking fingers, and the lump in his throat, Aaron can breathe.

 

---

 

They’d agreed on Leicester Square in the end. It being busy enough that any awkward silences wouldn’t be too awkward (‘although’, Aaron thinks, ‘Robert can talk for England, that won’t be a problem.’) yet still quiet enough they can exist in relative peace.

There’s a bustling of people walking around Aaron; businessmen with too big briefcases, families with too many kids, lonely travellers like himself heading in all different directions, bumping into his side and knocking into each other. He tightens his grip around the coffee cup in his hand, a nervous trip to Costa after dumping his bags in the Travelodge he’d booked weeks earlier, the lukewarm coffee threatening to spill over the rim.

Clouds hang over London threateningly, but Aaron tips his head back, looks upwards and smiles broadly. It’s a warm day for March, the air crackling with humidity and sending the hairs on the back of his neck shooting upwards.

He reaches the bench after a short walk from the tube station, the metal frame planted directly underneath a precarious looking tree, the dark branches drooping dramatically and almost brushing the floor. The large fountain nearby is splashing droplets of water over him, sprinkling over his face and nestling in his hair. A small ginger cat pads delicately across the road, it’s fur damp and scruffy as it hides underneath a nearby parked car. Aaron puffs out his cheeks and exhales loudly as he falls into the seat. His shoulders hunch over as he rests his elbows on his knees, his foot taps loudly against the cobblestones underneath, inadvertently in time with the gentle whooshing of the pouring fountain.

He pulls his phone out of his pocket once more, his fingers still trembling, as the time ticks over to 16:00. The time Robert should be pulling up in a taxi. Aaron loudly gulps again. He continues to stare at the numbers, as they sluggishly continue to tick over, 16:01, 16:02, 16:03. It’s as it reaches five past Aaron notices the quiet footsteps heading in his direction.

The sound of the squealing children, the angry voices on phones and the splashes of the water fade out around him into the background as he glances upwards;

Blue eyes meeting green.

Robert.

He’s taller than Aaron had expected, almost towering over him as he steps closer to him. He’s got his hands pushed into the pockets of his jeans and his leather jacket is tight around his arms in the most glorious way. He’s gelled his hair, his quiff almost perfect despite the wind pushing through his fringe without a care. As Aaron hurriedly stands from his seat, the coffee now sat abandoned on the bench arm, Robert bites down on his lip, suppresses a grin, and comes to a stop in front of his boyfriend.

“Hi.” He breathes out, a blush appearing on his pale skin.

“Hey.” Aaron’s blush matches Robert’s almost entirely, skin flushed crimson as his lips split into a wide grin. Robert’s lip frees from under his teeth and then he gives a smile, so genuinely sweet with an unexpected shyness that pours out of them both, and a warmth floods Aaron’s body.

Robert’s mouth twitches slightly as Aaron falls unceremoniously into his arms.

The top of Aaron’s head barely reaches Robert’s chin, but Robert’s arms wrap tightly around him all the same. Robert tilts his head slightly to rest his cheek on the top of his head, his nose buried in Aaron’s untamed curls as he exhales loudly. In a fit of unanticipated confidence, Aaron pulls his arms tighter around Robert’s back and scrunches the leather jacket firmly with his still shaking hands, securing him to Robert; a sudden need to be flushed against him flooding his body.

He’s almost childlike in the way he nuzzles his face into Robert’s neck, his short beard tickling Robert as he murmurs into his skin, with little regard to those around them.

“God, it’s so good to see you.” His words are almost unintelligible as he presses even closer to him, but Aaron feels Robert’s grin spread even wider against his hair.

“I know.” He whispers, bringing his hand up to the back of Aaron’s head, carding his fingers through the short hair as Aaron pulls back, tilting his head slightly to look him in the eyes.

“Drink?”

Robert smiles again and nods his head once.

“Drink.”

 

---

 

Robert’s hand is tight around Aaron’s. Aaron glances down at their intertwined fingers and his mouth twitches into a slight smirk. Robert’s hand is bigger, almost engulfing his, and the pale white skin is a stark contrast to his own flushed red fist. The beating in his chest is yet to slow, the nerves still flowing through him, but he resists the urge to press his hand to his mouth and chew on his nails, instead allowing it to stay nestled in Robert’s firm grasp, their hands swinging between them.

“Is here alright?”

Robert tugs on Aaron’s hand gently and Aaron quickly snaps out of his Robert fuelled haze. They’ve come to a stop in front of a small bar, blaring music pouring out the open door and crowds of people sat at the tables outside. There’s a soft smile on Robert’s face, his eyes blown wide as he looks down at Aaron and his head cocked a fraction to the side, as he waits for an answer.

“Sure, looks great.”

Robert doesn’t relinquish his hold on Aaron’s palm, only tightening his grip slightly, as he pulls Aaron behind him, stepping backwards slightly to allow Aaron to enter ahead of him. It’s busier inside than Aaron had expected, darker too, as a host of people flock around the main bar, calling to the bartender with loud, alcohol drenched shouts.

Robert pushes his way through the people hovering by the door but refuses to release Aaron’s hand; the younger man following closely behind, the fact that Robert towers above a majority of guests makes the trek slightly easier, as they head towards the bar.

There’s a small space in the corner of the counter that has been left unoccupied, Robert makes a direct beeline towards to the two stools, and is lit by bright red and pink lights, making Aaron’s eyes squint in protest.

The bottles behind the bar are lit up too, a garish display of changing pinks to blues that Aaron can’t help but compare to the dusty whiskey bottles that inhabit the brown, wooden shelves behind the woolpack bar.

“This isn’t really my scene,” Robert shouts over the music, taking a seat on the wooden chair, “but it’s nice enough here, isn’t it?”

Aaron nods quickly, a broad smile on his face as he leans in closer. “What you havin’?” He calls, trying to raise his voice about the clamour of noise that surrounds them. Only then does Robert release his grip from around Aaron’s hand, their fingers falling apart from where they lay intertwined; Aaron immediately feels the loss, his hand now feeling empty as he longs for Robert’s touch once more.

Robert brings his hands in front of his chest, palms upright and flat in their surrender, and a smirk overtakes his face.

“This round is on me.” He teases, voice light, “Pint?”

Aaron nods again and bites down on his lip as Robert waves over the bartender. He allows his voice to wash over him, clear and soft, not crackling or flat over a late-night phone call as they lie in their separate beds.

“Two pints, and let’s say, six aftershocks? Cheers.” Robert swipes his card over the machine to pay for the drinks as Aaron looks on, eyebrows raised.

Aftershocks? Are we fifteen now?” He laughs.

“I’m just getting the party started, babe.” He winks, and raises the freshly poured pint to his lips, gulping and returning the glass to the slightly sticky tray now perched in front of them. There’s foam resting on his top lip that he has yet to swipe away; Aaron wants to do it for him, to lean forward, press his lips firmly to his and swipe his tongue against the smooth skin.

Instead, he reaches for the first shot, and downs it in one.

“Better get on a move on then, hadn’t you?”

 

---

 

Half an hour later, they find themselves sat on the sofas pushed into the corner of the room. The brown leather is sticky to the touch, and smells suspiciously like the men’s room out back, but neither of them can bring themselves to care too much.

Aaron’s pulled his leg underneath him, comfortable despite the deafening music around him, his foot hanging precariously off the side and dangerously close to the pint glass on the small table in front. He’s turned his body towards Robert, resting his elbow on the back of the sofa, his clenched fist propping up his chin.

Robert’s sat next to him, their legs almost pressed together, with his pint resting in his lap, small black droplets appearing on his jeans as the condensation drips downwards. His cheeks are flushed pink, a sign of his steady descent out of sobriety: the only other hint being the now empty shot glasses scattered over the table.

“And then, and then, she just shoves me out the way! I mean, who does that?”

“Clearly, your sister does.”

“But I spent so long telling her what a waste of space that lad is, and she still goes back to him!” Aaron strains to hear his words over the loud music and responds with a roll of his eyes.

“She’ll learn. She’ll find that someone special one day.” He mockingly raises his hands, moving his fingers in air quotes around his sarcastic words, but his teasing tone doesn’t quite reach Robert’s ears.

He leans his head back, his fringe now softly falling on his forehead. His eyes are bright as he glances up at Aaron, “Have you? Found that someone special?”

Aaron swallows loudly, the sounds of ‘Years and Years’ thankfully drowning it out, and he resists the urge to break out into a smile. He glances down, suddenly shy, before returning his gaze to Robert, whose eyes have not left the side of his face.

“I think I might ‘av, you know?” He mumbles.

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

Aaron barely has time to register what is happening when Robert presses his lips to his. He stills, freezes in place as Robert’s, now empty, hands reach around his waist, toying with the fabric of Aaron’s jumper as he waits for Aaron to respond.

He does, of course he does, his eyes flutter closed slowly, his eyelashes tickling Robert’s cheeks softly as he moves his lips slowly. Robert’s lips are soft against his chapped ones, and warmth radiates from him as he presses even closer, tightening his grip of Aaron’s shirt. Aaron brings his hands from where they lay on his lap to the back of Robert’s head, feeding his fingers through the short blonde hair. He tugs slightly, and Robert exhales a slight groan before slipping open his mouth. Robert, Aaron realises, is an excellent kisser.

There’s no awkward clashing of teeth, no tongues fighting messily in their mouths, or over-zealous groans causing the strangers nearby to roll their eyes and move away slowly; there’s simply just two people kissing in a world of their own, oblivious to the music and mindless shouting that surrounds them. It’s right, Aaron thinks, the way they slot together in almost perfect synchronicity. Aaron’s thumb rests underneath Robert’s jaw, rubbing small circles against his skin, as their foreheads push together. Robert pulls back slightly but Aaron chases his lips, pressing soft pecks against his open mouth, his chin, any stretch of skin he can reach, before Robert pulls back slightly more.

His hair is a mess, tufts of blonde hair pointing out in each and every direction after being toyed with by Aaron’s fingers. His face is flushed pink and his mouth is a shocking red. Aaron imagines he looks exactly the same, the grin adorning Robert’s face a mirror image on his own face.

Robert’s eyes are closed, and he exhales deeply, all while stroking the now exposed skin on Aaron’s waist with his thumb, where Robert had worked his fingers underneath the fabric.

“I think I’ve found mine too.” He whispers, breath ghosting over Aaron’s warm face.

All Aaron can do in response is lean forward and press his lips against Robert’s once again.

It feels like he’s coming home.

 

---

 

There’s a buzz around them as the door of the bar slams behind them. It’s darker now, bright white stars in the sky, and streetlights bathing the cobbled pavement in an amber hue. There’s a group huddled together by one of the fire exits, wisps of smoke curling from their lit cigarettes and dancing in the air, before the wind dispels it almost as quick as it appears. The air smells acrid, bitter, as Aaron exhales deeply as they stand shoulder to shoulder, a small breeze shooting a chill down Aaron’s spine.

“Now what?”

Someone behind them crashes drunkenly into Aaron, his elbow digging painfully into Aaron’s back and jolting him forward, his shoulder clashing with Robert’s. They mumble a loud sorry, their words slurring together as they force themselves back into the bar.

Robert chuckles behind him, the noise sending chills down the back of his neck as he turns around to face him. A dopey smile is stretched across Robert’s lips, his eyelids blinking slowly as he gazes down at Aaron, his arm now reaching around and grasping Aaron’s waist.

“Do you wanna, erm, I don’t know.” Robert mumbles, eyes downcast, as he pulls Aaron closer, chests pressed together tightly.

Aaron chuckles quiet at Robert’s suddenly nervous murmuring, a grin spreads across his face as he pulls Robert even closer.

“Rob, you wanna come back to the hotel?” Aaron bites his bottom lip roughly, his teeth digging into the skin harshly, as he looks into Robert’s slightly glazed over eyes.

A blush creeps up Robert’s pale cheeks, the cold air hitting against his tinted pink face, hot skin shining bright underneath the yellow street lights; but as he nods his head a fraction, the small shake of his head barely noticeable to anyone other than Aaron’s careful gaze.

The grin on Aaron’s face shines even brighter.

 

---

 

The door slams against the wall with a crash, the silence of the dark hotel room ruined by their stumbling. Aaron’s hands are firm on Robert’s cheeks and he stands on his toes to reach Robert’s height, his arms stretched upwards towards Robert’s face. He exhales a loud sigh as they pull apart slightly, Robert removing his hand from Aaron’s waist to lean over and close the door. Aaron’s lips find themselves nestled against Robert’s jaw, pressing light kisses against the warm skin as a soft chuckle falls from Robert’s lips.

The alarm clock in the corner flashes over to midnight with a high-pitched beep, but neither man bothers to take notice. Robert pulls back slightly, close enough that his breath still washes over Aaron’s face, but distant enough that he leaves Aaron’s lips chasing his, tilting his head forward to reach Robert’s mouth with his own. He takes a small step back, but his eyes don’t leave Aaron’s face.

“Do you want a drink?” He takes a few steps over, heading towards the mini bar, the leather jacket Aaron had attempted to push off his shoulders almost falling off on his left side. The unobtrusive circular lights on the wall bathe the otherwise dark room in a yellow light as Aaron heads towards the bedside table, flipping on the light switch as Robert rummages in the small fridge opposite the bed.

The bed. A large king size in the centre of the room. Off white sheets neatly tucked into the slightly yellowed wood frame. Two cream pillows lie at the head of the bed, perfectly placed and fluffy, with a small slip of paper displaying the breakfast menu propped up in the middle. Aaron gulps quietly, and his eyes flick over to Robert whose choosing between the two bottles in his hands, before landing back on the bed.

“They’ve got some good stuff in here,” Robert says, breaking the silence that had washed over them, “or, I could go down to the bar, I’m sure it’s still open.”

“Robert.”

“Or I bet there’s a co-op somewhere on this street, I could get something else.”

“Robert.”

“We don’t have to rush into anything, we don’t even have to have a drink if you don’t want, there’s some lemonade in the fridge, I think.”

Robert goes to turn back to the fridge but is stopped by Aaron’s hand on his bicep, his grip firm and stopping him from turning.

“You’re talking too much, Rob.”

He moves to step forward, his shoes leaving small indents in the soft cream carpet, but Robert steps aside, halted only by the white bedsheets pushing against the back of his knees.

“How about some music?”

He stands in place until Aaron slowly nods his head, a small smile threatening to break out on his lips. “Sure.”

Robert leans over, Aaron noticing his fingers trembling as they push the small blue button on the side of the radio. Loud static fills the air as he fiddles with the dial, spinning it anticlockwise slowly, before an even louder screech emerges from the speakers and drills at their ears loudly.

Shit.”

 A bark of a laugh escapes Aaron’s mouth as he steps forward, toeing his shoes off and kicking them towards the end of the bed. He reaches around Robert, who is still frantically attempting to find a working station. Aaron slaps Robert’s fingers away, who recoils and groans, waving his fingers in the air.

“Ouch.”

“Oh, shut up, that didn’t hurt.” Aaron mumbles as he continues to turn the dial on the outdated radio. The almost painful noise suddenly dies down, fading into quiet as a gentle melody fills the room. The gentle sounds of Paolo Nutini’s ‘Last Request’ engulfing them as Aaron turns to face Robert once more, matching smiles on their faces.

“Better?”

“Better.”

Robert finally steps towards Aaron, jacket still hanging precariously off his shoulder, and his hands come to rest on Aaron’s waist. Aaron’s eyes slowly flutter close as Robert drops his head down, tilting towards Aaron, and presses his lips softly against Aaron’s. He moves slowly at first, lips barely moving, before Aaron reaches towards him, his hands settling on Robert’s biceps. His fingers stretch over the fabric that lies there, and finally pushes at the heavy leather jacket. Robert stretches his arms downwards and allows the garment to fall to the floor, landing with a quiet pat. He presses closer, lips pressing firmer against Aaron, forcing Aaron to take a step backwards, the back of his knees hitting the bed. He lowers himself instead, taking a seat on the soft duvet and shuffling backwards, not allowing Robert’s lips to leave his.

He lays down, the back of his head pressing into the cold cushion at the top of the bed, as Robert crawls on top of him; he moves his hands from Aaron’s waist, the fabric of his jumper now crumpled from Robert’s wandering fingers squeezing the cotton between his fingers. His hands press into the cushion below Aaron’s head, palms on either side of Aaron’s face as he brings his knees upwards, nestling into the duvet beside Aaron’s hips. 

Robert pulls back slightly, lips still close enough to Aaron’s they brush together slightly when he finally speaks;

“Are you sure you want to do this?” He says, shuffling slightly and brushing his thumb in a circle by Aaron’s short sideburn.

Aaron’s hands find Robert’s belt, where he gives a slight tug, and rests his hands just above Robert’s back pockets.

“Rob?” He murmurs.

“Yeah?”

Aaron hitches his leg upwards, his ankle rubbing against Robert’s as he presses a chaste kiss against Robert’s jaw.

“Get on with it.”

Robert allows a small laugh to fall from his lips, but happily obliges.

 

---

 

They’re falling apart before Aaron can catch his breath. His eyes flicker open and close several times before he finally allows them to fall shut, his chest rising and falling rapidly. Robert crashes down to his left, his leg thrown over Aaron’s, tangling their feet together.

Clothes lay thrown on the floor, shirts scrunched into balls and jeans hanging off the bedpost, but as Robert tucks his face into Aaron’s neck, his breath warm against Aaron’s hot skin, neither of them can bring themselves to care.

Robert’s hand creeps across Aaron’s now bare stomach, resting against the sweaty skin, and tugging the duvet that had almost fallen off the bed over them both. Aaron brings his own hand to rest over Robert’s, intertwining their fingers as they lay in the quiet room, the radio now playing their late hour 80’s hits on loop.

“Well,” Robert says, words muffled against Aaron’s skin, “That was good.”

Aaron huffs out a laugh, and opens his eyes, “Very, very good.”

Robert shuffles and presses closer to Aaron, squeezing his fingers tightly and pushing a chaste kiss against Aaron’s short stubble.

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect my night to go like this.”

“What did you expect?”

Aaron feels Robert shrug his shoulders, their shoulders sticking together and almost making Aaron wince.

“Dunno, thought you’d get bored of me.” Aaron’s heart is still thudding in his chest as he rests his cheek on the top of Robert’s head, the older man having shuffled further down the bed. Robert’s hair has fallen out of his quiff completely and lays flat on his forehead, patches of blonde hair tinged brown with sweat as Aaron nestles his face even closer into his boyfriend’s hair.

“Like I could get bored of you, ay?” He whispers, pressing a soft kiss to the crown of Robert’s head.

“Well phone’s a bit different to real life int it? Could have been a fat pensioner named Harold for all you knew.” He giggles into Aaron’s skin.

“Nah, always knew you were a good ‘un. I was looking forward to this for so long, I wasn’t gonna kick you out as soon as you bought a few rounds of drinks, was I?”

Robert nestles his face further into Aaron’s side and breathes in deeply, tightening his grip on Aaron’s hand and rubbing his ankle against Aaron’s shin.

The noise from the radio filters out into silence, the ticking of the clock over the mini fridge filling the room alongside the heaving breathing of both men. Exhaustion finally washes over Aaron as he aimlessly reaches to his side, fingers reaching plastic and flicking the switch of the bedside lamp, bathing the room in darkness. Aaron presses one final kiss to the top of Robert’s head, before shuffling down the mattress, tugging the duvet up and over both of their shoulders as Robert, who Aaron presumes has given into sleep, sighs deeply. His eyes flutter closed as he allows sleep to take him.

“Aaron?” Robert mumbles quietly.

“Hm?” Aaron absentmindedly hums in reply.

“I love you.”

 

--

 


Aaron’s eyes snap open. 

 

 

--

 

 

Robert wakes to an empty bed.

 

 

--

 

The floorboards creak underneath Aaron’s feet as he pads up the stairs. He’s dragging his bags behind him with minimal effort, as the lethargy seeps through him. The bag bumps and bangs against the carpet, scuffing the neat fabric. He sighs as he reaches the landing, his mum’s bedroom door propped open an inch and his shut.

He pushes it open and chucks his bags to the corner, not worrying about breaking the phone that lays stuffed in the bottom. He’d turned it off somewhere near Doncaster; the muffled vibrations of Robert’s endless calls against the train seat setting his teeth on edge and a pool of guilt filling in his stomach.

Aaron toes his shoes off and kicks them to the general direction of his bags and falls back on his bed, the pillows soft and grey underneath his head. He pushes his fingers through his fringe and rests his sweaty palm across his forehead. He’s hot, skin sticky and neck aching, but he curls his knees towards his chest, jeans chaffing against his calves, and pulls the blanket his mum lay on the edge of his bed over himself, tucking up to his chin. His mum’s need to preserve his old room finally providing some comfort to him as he sinks into the soft mattress.

As his eyes fall shut, the guilt in his stomach continues to swirl, niggling at his sides and reaching up his throat. Chas’ loud cackle can be heard from up here, and Aaron’s eyes reopen when he realises the time, it’s gone midday, but the lunchtime rush is still in full swing. He has time.

And with that, he allows his tears to finally fall.

 

---

 

It’s almost dark by the time he reawakens, eyes sore and legs cramped. He’s not sure how long he’s been asleep for, but the yellow light from the street lights peaks through his window, the darkness of the sunset outside confusing him momentarily. The big light is on, bright white and obtrusive against his eyes, and Chas stands by the foot of his bed, arms crossed, and smirk plastered on her lips.

Aaron groans as he notices her, pushing his nose into the soft cushion.  

“Rough night was it?”

“What?” His words slur together, his body still trying to cling to sleep.

“You. ’Ya look a wreck.”

“Cheers, mum.” He rubs a hand over his face as he sits up, wincing under his breath. His jeans have dug into his waist, red marks vibrant against his pale skin, and make sitting up an unnecessarily difficult task. He looks over to the clock on his bedside, 18:37 blinking back at him.

“How was it? Was he nice?” She says as she takes a seat next to him, grabbing one of the throw cushions she decorated the room with, and laying it on her lap.

Despite himself, a small smile crosses his face and he nods his head, “Yeah, um, yeah he’s great.” He mumbles.

“But?”

He finally looks at her.

“But what?”

She shrugs, “Just sounded like there was a but coming.”

“No,” He sighs, “He’s great. It was just, it was,”

“A lot?” She fills in for him.

Aaron nods his head again and breathes in deeply, “Yeah, it was just a bit overwhelming, I guess.”

“You must really like him then, he’s good for you.” She smiles wildly and reaches over, laying her newly manicured hand on his shoulder and squeezes.

She’s about to speak again when a loud bang fills the room, and then again. Chas is already standing and halfway down the stairs by the time Aaron realises it’s the door. Another knock, loud and urgent.

Chas left the door propped open when she left, so her voice fills Aaron’s ears as though she’s still sat next to him. Her voice is high and nasally, falsely polite and welcoming.

“Hello, now what is it you’re selling? Cause I’ve got enough dusters.”

“No, no I’m not selling anything.”

The voice fills the room and stops Aaron dead in his tracks, pausing in pushing himself up from the bed, the hairs on the back of his neck standing to attention. Robert.

He forces himself up, the pillow Chas discarded from her lap toppling to the floor, as Robert and Chas continue to talk on the doorstep.

“What is it then? Clean Easy? No, can’t be, you don’t have the badge.”

“No, if you just listen, I’m not selling anything. Are you Chas Dingle?”

“Who I am is no business of yours, son. Listen, I don’t need whatever it is you want to sell me, so why don’t you just run along back where you came from.”

Aaron reaches the foot of the stairs by the time Robert erupts:

“Mrs Dingle, I’m Robert Sugden and I’m in love with your son.”

He comes to a stop by the door as Chas’ jaw drops open

Chas stills, hand awkwardly perched on the door handle as she stops herself from shutting the door in his face. Her eyes reach Aaron’s, who nods slightly, before turning back to face Robert.

“Right then,” She says, “You better come in.”

 

---

 

Robert’s not changed his clothes from last night. His shirt is ruffled, creases in crisscross amongst the small patterns in the blue fabric. He’s not taken his shoes off, the dark navy leather leaving slight idents in the carpet as Robert paces back and forth. He’s pulled his thumb to his mouth, nibbling anxiously on his nail as Aaron takes a seat in the arm chair across from him. Chas quietly shuts the door behind them as she leaves them to it, undoubtedly with her ear pressed to the door.

Aaron’s mouth falls open, but no words come out, in the end, they didn’t need to. Robert finally turns on his heel and faces Aaron.

“What the fuck, Aaron?”

His voice is harsher than Aaron’s ever heard it before, blunt, but his eyes are fixed on a spot on the door behind Aaron’s head. His eyebrows furrowed, a deep crease in between them, and his lips tilt downwards.

“I- I’m sorry.”

Robert doesn’t stop pacing despite Aaron’s quiet mumbling.

“I woke up and you were just gone. No note or anything. Did last night mean so little to you?” He runs his hand roughly through his fringe, tufts of blonde hair sticking out in all directions, not dissimilar to Aaron’s own bed hair, as though he didn’t bother to come through it this morning. Aaron’s heart lurches in his chest when he realises, he probably didn’t.

“No, no of course it didn’t.” Aaron stutters, forcing the words out. He rings his fingers together, his knuckles cracking as he stretches them, before tucking them underneath him. The fabric of the sofa digs into his cold hands, but he doesn’t move them.

“So, what happened? What did I do?” He finally pauses in his frantic walking, but his eyes still don’t meet Aaron’s, and Aaron’s glad. His voice had broken around his words, pleading and wretched, and after felt his heart fall to the pit of his stomach.

“Robert, please sit down.”

His eyes meet Aaron’s, and he does as he’s asked.

“I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“Upset me? Upset me? Aaron I was terrified. I had no idea where you were!”

“How did you find me?”

“Figured you must have come home.” He shrugs, “Remembered you mentioned an Emmerdale and a pub, wasn’t hard to figure out.” He flippantly waves a hand into space and sighs.

“Robert. I’m so sorry.”

“Just, please, please tell me what I did. I knew it, I knew we shouldn’t have gone so far. I fucked up everything.”

Aaron pushes himself up from his seat and makes way around the coffee table, pushing one of Chas’ books over and taking a seat on the edge, perched right in front of Robert, their knees brushing together.

“You haven’t done anything, Rob.”

Robert snorts loudly and looks up, his eyes a watery blue as they slowly brim with tears. “Aaron, you ran practically halfway up the country to get away from me.”

Aaron’s shaking his head before Robert is finished, “No, no it wasn’t like that.”

“Then what was it like? I thought we had fun, I thought, I don’t know. I thought this could actually work. But I guess I’m the stupid one here for actually thinking we had a cha-”

“I was scared!” Aaron exclaims, voice louder than he had expected, and snaps Robert out of his ramblings, his chin ducking as he recoils.

“What?”

Aaron breathes in loudly through his nose, “I was scared.”

“Of what? Of Me?” Robert rubs his chin with his hand roughly, covering his mouth as a small gasp escapes through his fingers.

“Of everything. It was all so much, so quick. I just, I just freaked.” He shrugs his shoulders a fraction, pressing his palms against his knees in a futile attempt to calm his shaking.

“Is this because of what I said? Last night?”

Aaron can only nod his head.

Robert sighs again and lowers his head, “I thought so. I’m sorry. I just got so caught up in everything it came out.”

“You don’t need to apologise to me, Rob.”

“Yes, I do.”

“No, you don’t. You never need to apologise for being honest about how you feel. Especially when I feel the same.”

Robert’s head snaps back up and his eyes stare straight through Aaron. His shoulders are hunched over awkwardly as he leans forward.

“What? But you-you just said,”

“I meant I was scared about how much I wanted to say it back. What I feel for you, Rob. It’s terrifying.”

“Why?”

“I’ve never felt like this before. For anyone. We only met in person yesterday, and I know we’ve known each other longer, but it all suddenly felt so,” He trails off. Robert’s there to catch him.

“Real?” He finishes.

“Yeah. I know I should have handled it better. But I was so scared about saying it back, because, because what if I lose you? I couldn’t handle that.”

“Hey.” Robert shuffles forward in his seat, he spreads his legs wider and places them either side of Aaron’s thighs. He lays his hand on Aaron’s knee, squeezing gently. “Look at me.”

He does.

“You’re not going to lose me. I promise.”

“But we’re from different worlds. You live so far away. How will this ever work?”

Robert gulps audibly, his Adam’s Apple bobbing in his throat. “We will make it work.”

Robert slowly nods his head, and Aaron mirrors him. A small smile appears on Robert’s face, he licks his bottom lip quickly, before the corners of his mouth drop once more.

“And I promise, I won’t say it again. I won’t pressure you.” He squeezes his knee again before slowly moving his hand around to meet Aaron’s, who hang limply by his side, and intertwines their fingers, thumb rubbing delicate circles into the back of Aaron’s hand.

He attempts to smile again, the smirk not reaching his eyes, as he leans forward. His lips barely brushing Aaron’s before Aaron’s free hand reaches up to Robert’s shoulder, pushing him back gently.

“Robert, wait.”

Robert pulls back, his fingers losing their grip around Aaron’s hand.

“What? What’s wrong?” His eyes quickly roam over Aaron’s face. His short beard is ruffled, hairs laying in disarray against his pale cheeks. His eyes are darker in the dim light of the living room, the low quality of Skype not doing them justice, Robert notes. Speckles of green amongst a bright lagoon of blue. Thick black eyelashes frame his eyes, a stray finding itself nestled on the apples of Aaron’s cheeks. Robert raises his hand to Aaron’s cheek, using his thumb to brush away the stray gently, but leaves his hand rested against Aaron’s face, fingers toying with the short hair framing his face.

“Tell me.”

“I don’t want you to stop.”

“Stop what?”

“Saying it.”

Robert sighs and lowers his hand to Aaron’s neck. “I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.”

“I won’t be.”

“Aaron.”

Aaron’s eyes slowly close; he chews on his lower lip for a second before reopening his eyes, staring directly into Robert’s.

“If you say it,” he murmurs, pauses, and takes a breath, “I’ll say it back.”

Robert’s lips part slightly, his tongue poking out in the corner, as he inhales loudly. He continues to rub his fingers through the short hair around his ear.

“Aaron, I love you.” He whispers.

This time, he doesn’t hesitate.

“I love you too.”

Robert barely allows the words to register before crashing his lips against Aaron’s. His fingers tug harshly at Aaron’s hair with a firm grip. Aaron nibbles at his bottom lip, forcing Robert’s lips to part slightly. Aaron’s hands find themselves clutching the front of Robert’s shirts, the cool fabric peeking out from between his fingers as he pulls him closer. They draw away from each other with a smack of their lips, their noses brushing together gently, but stay close enough for Robert’s breath to flow over Aaron’s cheeks.

Their lips brush together softly as Robert murmurs, “Now what?”

“Now,” A mischievous grin stretches across Aaron’s face, “It’s time to meet the family.”

 

---

 

To Robert, the stream of Dingles piling through the door of the pub is never ending. The Woolpack is virtually empty despite it being close to eight pm. There’s a couple of tourists in a booth opposite the bar that Aaron doesn’t recognise, and Jai and Nikhil sat hunched over and whispering in another corner.

Aaron’s hand is pressed against Robert’s lower back, his thumb moving in comforting circles as Robert grasps his Uncle Zak’s hand, shaking it with a tight grip.

“Nice to meet ‘ya, lad.” Despite the roughness of Zak’s voice, Robert senses the welcoming tone to his words. Zak nods in Aaron’s direction before leaning over to reach for his pint glass, tipping it slightly, and walking off to sit with Lisa, who smiles wildly at the pair of them.

“See?” Aaron mutters behind him, “Not too bad.”

“Yet.”

Aaron rolls his eyes and picks up their drinks, taking his hand off Robert to do so, and tilts his head. “Let’s go sit down.”

He leads Robert to the booth behind them, scooting into the corner of the seat so there’s room for Robert next to him. They’re facing outwards, so they can see the rest of the Dingles unapologetically staring at them; Robert shuffles uncomfortably in his seat.

Aaron lays his hand on Robert’s thigh, digging his fingertips in to his jeans ever so slightly, “Hey, it’s fine.”

“You have to say that, they’re your family.” He takes a deep drink of his pint, foam covering his top lip, and looks around again. “Who’s that one again?”

“Which one?”

“The one looking at me like he wants me dead?”

Aaron chuckles quietly at the fear in Robert’s voice. He glances up to see Cain glaring at them, eyes locked on Robert as he sips at the whiskey in his hand. He’d been the first to greet Robert, hand painfully tight around Robert’s as he cautiously looked him up and down. He’d silently shuffled off towards Zak, but his eyes continued to follow Robert around the room, uncomfortably watching his every movement.

“That’s Cain. My uncle.” He added, seeing Robert’s confused expression.

“And does he always look like someone’s just killed his cat?”

Aaron snorts behind the palm of his hand and shakes his head.

“Nah, he’s just protective. He’s figuring out if you’re a wrong ‘un.”

“And am I?” He teases.

Aaron digs his elbow lightly into Robert’s ribs, the older man groaning in protest.

“Hey! It was a simple enough question.”

“You just want me to stroke your ego.”

“You can stroke something else if you like.”

Aaron snorts even louder, laughing so hard he has to place his pint glass down, the beer almost spilling over the side. Robert throws his head back as he laughs, causing the vein down his neck to protrude.

“God, I hate you.”

“No, you don’t. You love me.” Robert tilts his head downwards, his lips meeting Aaron’s softly, moving against one another slowly, as Aaron’s hand squeezes his thigh harder. It’s chaste, both men conscious of their surroundings, but still a comfort to be so close to one another.

Aaron goes to move his hand upwards, slowly tracing the inseam of Robert’s jeans under the table, when a shout from across the room causes them to pull apart.

“Bro!” Adam calls, before falling down in the seat opposite them. He motions to Chas behind the bar for a drink, he smiles manically at the pair of them.

“So, you must be the loverboy I’ve heard so much about.”

“I’ve told you to stop saying that word.” Aaron says, cheeks still flushed red from his embrace with Robert, and rolls his eyes; an increasingly common occurrence around Adam

Robert looks between them, confusion clearly etched on his face, as he grips his pint glass tighter.

Adam sticks his hand out in front of him for Robert to shake, which he does. “Adam. Aaron’s best mate.” He winks at Aaron before murmuring a thanks to Chas, who quietly made her way to their table with his drink.

“Ah. Heard so much about you.”

“Bet none of it good.”

Robert chuckles and shakes his head. A memory of Aaron giggling down the phone at 2am and explaining Adam’s fondness for the older woman, Aaron having to stop every minute or so to breathe heavily through his nose as he told the story of Adam and his girlfriend’s mum.

“Absolutely none of it.”

“So, lads.” Adam wiggles his eyebrows at them, taking a drink “Tell me all about your dirty weekend then.”

“That’s not exactly what I’d call it.” Robert says, his hand meeting Aaron’s, still resting on his thigh.  

“Yeah, yeah. Did you have fun?”

Robert looks down at Aaron, who’s scooted closer to Robert, their shoulders and arms pressed together as they breathe almost in sync.

“Yeah, we did.”

Aaron lays his head on Robert’s shoulder, clutching his hand tightly, the reality of Robert being so close allowing himself to forgo his aversion to public affection to tuck his chin into Robert’s neck, a small smile growing on his face as he looks back at Adam.

“Must have been good, never seen misery over here so soppy.”

“Shut up, Ad.”

Adam chuckles and drinks the remnants of his drink, hitting his palms against the table loudly and standing.

“I’ll get ‘em in.”

 

---

 

Robert’s tipsy. He’s absolutely not drunk. His nose is pink, as are his cheeks and his neck. His shirt has risen, exposing a stretch of pale skin underneath, and is even more ruffled than before, as he lays back on Aaron’s bed. A large dopey smile adorns his face as he looks up at Aaron, who stands to the side pulling his jumper of his head.

It’s gone midnight, the street outside still and black, nearing more towards one in the morning. The Dingles had all shaken Robert’s hand before leaving, Cain hesitating as he stood before him, but nodded down at him before turning on his heel, formally accepting him into the family.

He gazes up at Aaron and stretches his hand out to him, his fingers splayed out as they grab the air, inviting Aaron to join him.

“You’re not sleeping in there dressed like that, mate.”

Robert huffs and raises his hips, haphazardly unbuttoning his belt and jean buttons, before pushing them down his legs, kicking them off and allowing them to fall into a pile on the floor. His fingers work quickly at his shirt buttons, unbuttoning them and pushing the fabric off his shoulders, his shirt joining the pile on the floor. He scoots up the bed, pulling the duvet from underneath him and over his legs. He lays his hands on his lap and stares back up at Aaron, a smug smile on his face, all while Aaron stands to the side in only his underwear, shirt hanging limply in his hand.

“There you go.”

Aaron grabs the corner of the duvet and slides underneath, their bare legs flushed together, and shuffles downwards; Robert following suit.

“So,” Aaron whispers, “Did you enjoy yourself?”

Robert turns on his side to face them, face pressed into the pillow, and nods.

“I’m glad.”

Aaron pulls the duvet up to their chins, cocooning them in the warmth, and moves slightly forward, close enough for their noses to brush together. He presses his lips to Robert’s softly, not moving, and inhales the smell of him. His beard brushes against Robert’s chin but Robert doesn’t complain.

“It was nice to meet your family. Even if they were terrifying.” Robert whispers.

“They weren’t terrifying.”

Robert huffs a laugh, a puff of air escaping his mouth, “Aaron, it was like meeting the Yorkshire Mafia.”

“What the ‘ell do you know about the Mafia?”

“I’m a lot tougher thank you think.” He whispers, “The glorified call centre could all just be a cover.”

Aaron rolls his eyes and brushes his hand over Robert’s hip underneath the duvet. His skin is warm underneath Aaron’s fingers; his pinches at his side tenderly, the smooth freckled surface probably tinted pink beneath Aaron’s fingertips.

“That comin’ from the guy who cried at Bambi?”

“Hey! I told you that in confidence!” Robert somehow shuffles even closer and wraps his arm around Aaron’s waist, pulling them flush together.

“Yeah, and I don’t see anyone else around, do you?”

“God, I hope not.”

Robert licks his bottom lip before their lips push together, noses bumping, rougher and quicker than before. Robert working Aaron’s lips open with his tongue. He moves suddenly, knee crossing over Aaron’s body and nestling in the mattress by Aaron’s side. Robert’s hands find Aaron’s, gripping them tightly, pushing them into the pillow under Aaron’s head. The duvet falling down to Aaron’s waist as Robert props himself up, their lips never leaving the others.

Aaron’s panting heavily before they part, Robert’s grip on his hands loose enough that he can pull away, his hands finding the back of Robert’s neck as their lips separate. 

“Robert?” Aaron whispers. Robert pulls back enough to see Aaron’s face properly, the dim light in the room casting shadows over his face.

“Hm?”

“I don’t want you to go home.”

Robert pulls back completely. He sits on Aaron’s lap, his hair in disarray from Aaron’s prying fingers toying with it, his hand trails down Aaron’s sides and rest on his hips. He sighs.

“I don’t want to go either.”

Robert leans forwards and lifts himself off Aaron, crashing back down to the other side of the bed with a thud. He wraps his arm around Aaron’s chest and tucks his chin into his neck. Aaron reaches down and grabs the duvet, covering them back up. Aaron’s chest is still rising and falling rapidly, his breathing loud against the quiet of the room.

“I can’t believe you came all the way up here like that.” Aaron says, and feels Robert attempt to shrug his shoulders in the limited space.

“You scared me. I needed to see ‘ya.”

Aaron’s heart drops to his stomach, guilt flooding through him once again.

“Rob, I’m so sorry.” He whispers into the crown of Robert’s head, his short hair bristling against his nose.

“Oi.” Robert presses himself closer, “No more apologies. I know why you did it.”

“Doesn’t make it alright though, does it?”

“No. But I forgave you as soon as I clapped eyes back on ‘ya. It’s okay.” He presses his lips to Aaron’s jaw gently, his beard rough but welcome against him.

“I really don’t want you to leave.”

“I don’t have to.”

“What?”

“I’ve got a couple flex days. I could take some time off. Spend some time up ‘ere with you.” His words are slurring together as his tiredness washes over him. “If you don’t mind takin’ a few sickies off work.”

Aaron pulls away slightly and glances down at the top of Robert’s head. His cheeks are still flushed crimson but he’s nibbling nervously on his bottom lip, his fingers trailing lightly around Aaron’s belly button.

“You’d do that?” The darkness in the room makes Aaron whisper, as well as Robert’s closeness, making him not want to break the quiet of his bedroom. He’s comfortable, despite the uniqueness of having a body lying next to him, face buried in his neck, Robert’s lips blowing puffs of air out and over his skin, causing the hair on his arms to stand to attention.

Robert nods his head again, “Yeah. If you want that.”

Aaron smiles slowly and presses a kiss against Robert’s forehead. “I’d love that.”

“I’ll call work tomorrow.” He presses even closer and sighs loudly, before shuffling further down the bed, his head rested on Aaron’s shoulder as his eyes finally close.

“Goodnight.” He mumbles.

“Night, Rob.” Aaron replies, allowing sleep to come.

And, with Robert by his side, it’s the best sleep he’s ever had.

 

---

 

Aaron had woken to the left side of his bed empty, his hand reaching out in a futile attempt to find Robert, his fingers curling around nothing but empty bedding. It took a few seconds, but he finally heard familiar footsteps ascending the stairs, his bedroom door creaking open as his eye’s flicker open.

“Mornin’ sleepyhead.” Robert whispers, tone mocking, as he makes his way around the bed, two cups of tea in hand. His hairs soft on his head, his fringe askew and messy, and he’s donned a pair of Aaron’s jogging bottoms that were probably discarded on the ground. Aaron smiles.

“What time is it?” It must still be early, Aaron thinks, as there isn’t the usual flurry of sound underneath his floor from the pub penetrating his ears.

“Just gone seven,” Robert replies, Aaron hearing the note of grogginess still in his words, “Figured I’d ring work early to tell them I’m not going in.” He places his tea on the bedside table, and lifts the duvet up, sliding underneath, and allows Aaron to sit up properly before handing him his drink.

“They okay with it?” He sips the hot liquid in his hand, the sugary sweetness a welcome taste to his dry mouth.

“Yeah. Just complainin’’ about the short notice. But they’ll get over it.” Robert smiles, faint lines framing his bright eyes, and Aaron leans forward, covering Robert’s lips with his own.

He presses against him only a few times, soft lips meeting chapped, before pulling away. He stays close, and Robert’s eyes flick over his face as he inhales sharply, as though breathing Aaron in.

“Mornin’.” Aaron whispers, lips pressing together once more, and pulls back to take a swig of his drink. Robert leans over to grab his mug and follows suit, the steam of the tea billowing in his face.

“I’d have been back before you woke up, but I wanted to make you a drink and couldn’t find all the stuff that easy.” Robert says.

“You should have woken me up.” Aaron crosses his legs underneath him, his limbs still tired and aching from his sleep, and yawns wildly.

Robert shrugs, “Thought you could do with your beauty sleep.” He teases, glint in his eyes.

“Shut up.” Aaron laughs, “That’s more your style.”

Robert chuckles around the brim of his mug. He’d chosen Aaron’s favourite, a simple porcelain with wide blue spots of paint covering the cream, it makes Aaron’s smile stretch even wider.

They sit in silence for a few minutes, taking sips of their tea and breathing in unison, before Aaron speaks again, the tea helping to relieve the grogginess of his deep voice.

“What do you wanna do today then?” He asks.

“I don’t know, what is there to do ‘round here?”

“Not much, honestly. There’s some places I used to hang out when I was a kid, but I don’t know how interesting that would be.”

Robert quirks an eyebrow upwards, so high it almost reaches his eyebrow, and hums, “I think that would be very interesting. A life of Aaron Dingle tour? Is there a gift shop?”

Aaron leans over to push at Robert’s knee, the older man almost spilling his drink as he snickers quietly.

“You’re such a dick.”

“You love it.” He winks, then turns to place his still half full mug back on the bedside table, he reaches over and prises the mug from Aaron’s hand and does the same. He climbs over, pushing Aaron down on the bed by his shoulders, his knees resting either side of Aaron’s hips. A sense of pleasant déjà vu washes over Aaron as Robert leans down, rubbing his nose against Aaron’s.

“Seriously though, a day of talking about you and seeing everywhere you used to hang out? Couldn’t think of anything better.” He says whilst kissing the corner of Aaron’s lips.

Aaron goes to laugh, considers pushing him off, as he thinks Robert is mocking him. But as Robert slowly pulls backwards, eyes blown wide and lips pulled in a thin veil of a smile, he knows he isn’t.

“Okay. That’s what we’ll do later then.”

Robert nods his head and drops back down, lips latching to the underside of Aaron’s jaw, his teeth grazing the thin skin.

“Later.” He murmurs, “I have an idea of what we can do now, though.”

Aaron breathes out a low chuckle, before hitching his legs up, bending at the knees, and flipping them. He can feel Robert’s heart beating furiously under his chest, Aaron’s fingers travelling down his sides and resting by his hips. He digs his fingernails into his boyfriend’s soft skin and presses his lips under Robert’s ear, his hot breath freely gliding over Robert, causing him to writhe underneath his body.

“I do need to repay you for that tea, don’t I?” Aaron mumbles, lips travelling down Robert’s neck.

As Robert groans loudly, Aaron’s lips continue their journey south, covering every freckle on the smooth expanse of Robert’s skin.

 

---

 

Robert’s been laughing for nearly five minutes. Every time he almost composes himself another wave of hysterics washes over him; high pitched giggles rolling out of him as they walk down Main Street, Aaron tugging him along with their hands firmly grasping the others.

“It’s not that funny!” Aaron exclaims, nodding to Bob as they walk past the café, the older man’s eyebrows creased in confusion at Robert’s still laughing face.

“It is! It really, really is!” Robert says, voice high pitched and nasally.

“I regret ever showing it you now.”

“Good job I took a picture then, ‘int it?” Robert says as they stop beside the church, reaching back and grabbing his phone from his back pocket. He presses the screen a few times before pulling up the image and showing it to Aaron. A grainy and shaky photo stares back at him, shaky because of Robert’s inability to keep his hands from quivering as he laughed; the subject dark and rain worn but the words still perfectly clear, much to Aaron’s disdain, ‘aaron woz ere 2003.’ dug into the splintered wood.

He pulls his hand back when Aaron rolls his eyes, looking back down at the picture he chuckles again, before pushing his phone back into his pocket. They continue walking as Robert carries on demanding answers.

“I bet you had the right chav look down, didn’t you? Did you have the matching shell suit?” He asks. When the side eye Aaron gives him answers the question without words, Robert laughs harder, “You totally did!”

“Ha flamin’ ha.” Aaron mutters, before tugging on his hand harder, “I was eleven. Bet you weren’t much better at that age.” He pauses, “Though, that was so long ago doubt you can remember it, old man.” He teases, mischievous grin on his face.

Robert’s mouth drops open in pretend shock, “You’re so rude. You should respect your elders.” He lets Aaron take a few steps in front of him, their hands still connected but their arms stretched far apart, before he pulls his hand away and rushes forward to grab him by his waist, jerking him back and allowing Aaron’s back to collide with his chest. He stumbles a few steps backwards as Robert wraps his arms tightly around Aaron’s waist, pushing his face into the crease of his neck, the fibres of his coat hood making his nose itch, and pressing his crotch against Aaron’s backside, a low groan releases itself from the back of Robert’s throat. His boyfriend laughs loud and free in Robert’s firm arms.

“Enough of that. Pearl could walk past.” Aaron says, though makes no attempt to move out of Robert’s clutches.

“Tell me I’m not old, and then I’ll let you go.” Robert counters.

“But I was raised not to lie.” Aaron shrugs, pressing his tongue to the inside of his cheek and blinks as though innocent, Robert’s hands are loose enough to move, so he turns around in his arms. He puts his cold hands into Robert’s back pocket, difficult with Robert’s phone there, and digs his fingers into the denim. He stands on his toes, the boost in height bringing his eyes up to Robert’s level, and kisses his cheek gently. He whispers against his skin, “I’m kidding. You know how much I love that you’re older than me.” He trails away after pressing another kiss to Robert’s cold cheek.

Robert gulps, the memories of several late-night phone calls flooding his mind, and moves his hands to reach around Aaron’s shoulders, tugging him in closer. Their lips collide without precision, their teeth clashing in their frenzy as their tongues roam over one another, Aaron digs his fingers in harder, his toes curling in his shoes as Robert hitches him up higher, tightening his grip on Aaron and bringing him even closer.

Aaron pulls away slowly and glances around them; the slight wind rustles the tall trees around them, a blur of green leaves surround them as a chill washes over them, sending goose bumps shooting up over his arm.

He stands back, loosening his hold on Robert, and retakes his hand, pulling him again. “Come on, there’s only one more place I want to show you.”

They walk for five more minutes, the hard ground turning into a muddy and damp mush underneath their feet, coating Robert’s earlier clean shoes in a film of dirt. The temperatures has dropped a few degrees since they left the pub, but Robert’s insistence that they both wore their coats came in annoyingly useful, the pair relatively warm despite Robert’s pink nose and incessant whining.

Aaron grinds to a holt suddenly as their crossing a bridge, Robert stumbling slightly to stop by his side, and a silence falls upon them. Robert observes the space around the river, unsure as to why they’ve stopped; the bridge is situated over a small bend in the river’s path, dark wood battered by the river water and splinters sticking out the wooden frame, there’s several rusty screws drilled into the surface unevenly, sticking out at every angle. The rush of water below them provides a delicate soundtrack to the world around them. There’s no one around, despite Aaron saying that the old ladies of the village love a stroll around here with their tiny lapdogs. It’s beautiful, but it’s nothing different to what he’s seen before.

He’s about to ask, his mouth already forming the words, when Aaron beats him to it.

“I wasn’t gonna bring you ‘ere.” He says, voice suddenly quiet, his eyes not leaving their fixed spot on the tree on the other side of the bank. “I was gonna take you to the first place I ever got pissed but changed my mind.”

“What is this place?” Robert murmurs, voice hushed to match Aaron’s.

“It’s my,” he waves his hands around aimlessly in front of him and breathes heavily, “It’s mine, I guess. My space.”

Robert’s forehead wrinkles with confusion, he glances back around before looking down at Aaron, who’s shoulders are hunched, as though he’s curling in on himself.

“What do you mean?”

“Whenever things got too much, in ‘ere like.” He taps at his temple hard, a white circle appearing on his pink skin before fading away, “This was where I’d come. I’d just run away and come here, sometimes for whole days. Mum would have the whole village searching for me.”

Robert shuffles closer, and moves to take Aaron’s hand, but Aaron pulls away and a sinking feeling grows in Robert’s stomach.

“Aaron?”

“There’s something I need to tell you. I should have told you ages ago but things were going so well, and I didn’t want to ruin it.” He rushes out, his words mixing together as he trips through them.

“Aaron, you’re scaring me.” Robert says, his voice barely intelligible against the rush of the wind around them.

“There’s a reason; why my mum is so overbearing sometimes, why I freaked when you told me you love me, why everyone always watches me so close.”

Robert didn’t want to say that he’d noticed, but he had. Chas’ eyes never left her son for too long, eyes almost permanently fixed on his back, or his arms, or anywhere she could see. Cain, whispering in Aaron’s ear as he stood at the bar, his boyfriend’s eyes dropping as he fidgeted with the beer mat in his hands, shaking fingers tearing at the thin paper.

“Right.” He doesn’t know what else to say.

“I didn’t want to ruin this. I always ruin this.” Aaron raises his hand to his mouth, dry fingers rubbing his dry lips, eyes watering as he gulped in breathes.

“Why would you ruin this? Aaron, I can’t help you if you don’t tell me.” Robert’s almost frantic; he wants to hold his hand, but he can’t. He wants to wrap his arms around him, but he can’t. All he can do is stand next to him as his mouth opens and closes in a futile effort to make words form.

“You can’t help me.”

“Yes, I can. If you just tell m- “

“He raped me.” Aaron exclaims, turning around to finally face Robert. “My dad raped me.”

The words hang in the air, not even the breeze whisking them away. Robert’s mouth drops open and this time, he can’t pull it closed. His hands feel clammy, fingers shaking, as he stares at the tears dripping down Aaron’ chin.

“And that right there,” He pauses and points at Robert’s shocked expression with his own, trembling hand, “Is why I didn’t tell you.”

He turns around and takes two steps away before sense returns back to Robert’s body. He grabs his hand lightly and wraps his arms loosely around Aaron’s shoulders, bringing his shuddering body in a light embrace, light enough that Aaron can step out if he wants to. He doesn’t. Instead, he hesitantly places his hands on Robert’s bicep and squeezes tight, holding on to him as though he’ll be swept away like the water below them. The bridge creaks underneath them, but Aaron doesn’t care. He buries his face into the crook of Robert’s neck, his boyfriends hold on him steadily getting tighter, and allows the sobs to wrack his body.

“It’s okay. It’s okay, I’ve got you.” Robert murmurs against the top of his head, mindless words of comfort sending warmth down Aaron’s limbs, and presses a kiss lightly to the mole on his temple.

They stand, Robert’s not sure for how long, but they stand, swaying slowly together before Aaron pulls away. He’d stopped crying five minutes ago but took the comfort he sought from Robert in abundance, burying his face in Robert’s soft jumper.

“Sorry.” He says, wiping at his eyes with his sleeve.

“You have nothing to be sorry for.” The firmness of Robert’s voice forces Aaron to look up, their eyes locking together. He’s shaking his head slightly, and a sadness fills his eyes that Aaron hadn’t anticipated, but he attempts a smile all the same.

“Do you, I mean, do people-“He stutters over his words, cautious suddenly.

Aaron nods, “Yeah, everyone knows. He tried to get back with mum a few years back and I freaked. Nearly ran off to France before I had the courage to tell anyone.” He shrugs, detached, as though talking about something as simple as the weather. Robert is in awe of him. “Paddy was the first person I told. He’s the dad I should have had, you know? Then I told mum and then suddenly everyone knows. There’s a trial and there’s his face in paper.”

“A trial?”

“Yeah, got eighteen years. Bastard.” Aaron spits, before turning around to face Robert again. “I don’t talk about it. I never talk about it. I just needed you to know.”

Robert sighs and reaches over again to take Aaron’s hand. This time, Aaron grabs hold of his fingers and doesn’t let him go. He doesn’t ask for details, he doesn’t want to know the details. Instead, he settles on; “Thank you for trusting me.”

Aaron nods his head once before sighing, “We should probably get back.” His voice is still low, sad, but the spark that was missing has returned.

“Can I just say something?”

“Sure.” Aaron shrugs.

“I promise, I won’t ever bring this up again. Not if you don’t want to.” Robert rushes out before sighing, squeezing Aaron’s hand tight, before continuing, “But I just wanted to say: You’re incredible. You’re so brave and I wish I could have been there to support you. I didn’t know it was possible to fall even more in love with you, but every day, I do.” He stares at Aaron, his eyes transfixed on him, and Aaron stares back.

“Thank you. I love you too.” He smiles slightly and leans forward to press a chaste kiss on his cheek, “Let’s go back.”

Robert pauses, and looks around them. There’s still no one around, but the water is moving slower now, and a squirrel runs up the side of a tree. “Can we stay here for a bit? It’s really beautiful.”

Aaron smiles back at him, stepping closer and allowing Robert to wrap his arm around his shoulder. “If that’s what you want.” Aaron lays his head on Robert’s shoulder, his cold nose brushing against Robert’s neck, and sighs, staring out at the greenery around them.

Suddenly, with this new perspective, Robert realises; as beautiful as the landscape is, it doesn’t come close to the man by his side. 

 

---

 

He should still be in bed, curled around Aaron as he breathes hot air over his neck from where he lays on Robert’s chest. He’d pulled away from him as the clock ticked over to seven, laying Aaron’s limp hand on Robert’s pillow as he shuffled out from underneath the sheets. He quietly padded down the stairs after pulling on a pair of Aaron's jogging bottoms, trying not to even breathe too loudly as to not wake Aaron or Chas. Chas is warming to him, Robert thinks as he enters the living room, the pair of them able to make polite conversation over dinner whilst Aaron sat in between them.

He reaches into the top cupboard to retrieve a mug and flicks on the kettle, the water bubbling loudly as steam erupts from the top. He yawns, mouth stretching painfully, as he waits for it to boil, heaping sugar into the mug and throwing a tea bag in. He’d not slept well, despite Aaron’s insistence that he was fine, watching every twitch of his eyelids and the steady rise and fall of his chest as his eyes stung in protest of being awake.

The kettle just boils when he hears the creak of the stairs and the door pushes open; he plasters a smile on his face for his boyfriend, but instead it’s Chas who walks through. Her hair in disarray and fluffy dressing gown wrapped tightly around her. She looks to him in shock, but Robert lifts his mug up in a silent question, she nods. He reaches over to grab another mug from the cupboard and makes their drinks as she quietly sits at the table. He pours a splash of milk in both mugs and turns to put the milk bag in the fridge when Chas finally speaks.

“Didn’t think anyone would be up so early.”

He picks up their drinks and places hers in front of her, Chas smiling politely at him.

“Couldn’t sleep. Aaron’s fast on though.” They share the same glint in their eyes as Aaron is mentioned, both finding comfort in the fact he’s still nestled in bed upstairs.

“Everything okay with you two?” She asks, sipping her tea slowly.

Robert nods his head, before sighing, “He told me.”

Chas’ eyebrows shoot up into her hairline, shock evident on her face, “About -?”

“About his dad, yeah. Told me yesterday.” Robert gulps, the words leaving an acrid and bitter taste in his mouth.

“Didn’t expect him to actually tell you. I knew he was thinkin’ about it though.”

“It wasn’t planned. He was showing me around and I think it just,” Robert pauses, flustered, “came out.”

Chas nods again, the room filling with a sense of sombre sadness, “He doesn’t talk about it. Doesn’t trust that people won’t start treating him different or leave him.” The accusation hangs heavily in the air between them, but, Robert reminds himself, this isn’t about him.

Robert hangs his head, staring at the small bubbles popping in his mug, “He was so scared, and I just froze. He told me that, and I couldn’t do anything.”

Chas smiles at him, a sad tilt of her lips as she blinks away the tears pooling in her eyes, “Nothing will ever prepare you for hearing something like that.”

“I had no idea. He’s normally so happy. A moody git, yeah.” Chas snorts at Robert’s words, “But he never let on.”

“He’s better. After the trial, he was a wreck, couldn’t cope. But you, Robert, you help him so much.”

Robert’s head snaps back up, eyes blown wide in shock as he looks at his boyfriend’s mum.

“I know, I didn’t think I’d be complimenting you either.” She jokes, “But, he’s finally content. He’s working, and he has a place of his own and even though you’re so far away, I know it’s nice for him to have you.”

Robert nods his head again, words not able to form in his mouth and he continues to stare at her, “Thank you.” He finally mutters. “I just don’t know how to help him.”

“Carry on as you are.” Chas says, as though obvious, “He needs normal. I’m overbearing at times I know, but I’m his mum, It’s my job. You just stay as you are. You love him.”

Robert nods his head eagerly before he realises it’s not a question.

“I think I can manage that.” He says, still shocked at words.

Chas smiles at him, taking a large gulp of her drink, when the door opens again. This time, a sleepy Aaron walks through, the sleeves of his hoodie pulled over his fists and rubbing his tired eyes. Robert glances up at the clock on the wall, the time almost quarter past seven, before smiling at him.

“What you doin’ up?” Chas asks, standing from her seat and placing her empty mug in the sink.

“Was about to ask ‘im same question.” Aaron mumbles nodding towards Robert, voice cracking slightly as he fights his need to sleep.

“Couldn’t sleep,” Robert shrugs, “thought a tea might help.”

Aaron comes to a stop in front of him and reaches around him, picking up his mug and drinking deeply from it, wincing slightly at the heat.

“You okay?” Robert asks, bringing his hands to rest on Aaron’s jogger covered hips.

He nods and leans down to peck Robert’s lips. Chas shuffles out of the room and closes the door quietly behind her.

They pull apart and Aaron whispers, “I missed waking up with you.”

Robert blows out a breath and chuckles quietly, “I promise, you’ll get to tomorrow morning.”

Aaron sticks out his bottom lip in mock consideration as he throws himself down on the sofa, propping his feet up on the coffee table. “I suppose that’ll do.” He says, teasing, before carrying on, “What were you and mum talkin’ about then?”

Robert shrugs and joins him on the sofa. “Not much, she was just asking how we are.”

Aaron raises his left eyebrow; an expression Robert can’t read washing over his face. “You were talkin’ about me, weren’t you?” He says.

Robert smiles sheepishly, “Kind of. I think she kinda likes me now.” He says, smug.

Aaron laughs, “You wish. We’re okay, aren’t we?”

He’s biting his bottom lip hard, nibbling the soft skin and tearing it, Robert presses his thumb against it and pulls it out of his mouth, leaving his hand resting on Aaron’s cheek. “We’re perfect. It was just a lot to take in. But as long as you’re alright, that’s all that matters.”

Aaron smiles and nods, understanding, “I know it was a lot to take in. And I’m good. I promise, I’m good.”

Robert’s hand trails down Aaron’s neck and falls to his lap, grabbing his hand and holding on tightly. They smile at each other for a few seconds before Aaron sighs.

“So, what are we doing today then?”

“Whatever you want.”

Aaron shakes his head, “No, yesterday was my day. You pick.”

Robert shrugs, about to brush of his words, when an idea strikes him. It must be evident on his face as Aaron smiles wildly at him and says, “Thought of something?”

He nods, “I’ve been owing my dad and step mum a visit for a while. They used to live around here but moved to Norfolk a while back. It takes like three hours, we could drive there?” Robert suggests, before hastily adding, “If you don’t mind meeting them, that is.”

Aaron shrugs, “Why not? You’ve met all my lot. It’s about time I met yours.”

Robert smiles gratefully and leans forward, pressing his lips against Aaron’s once, twice, three times.

 

---

 

“So, what’s your dad like?” Aaron asks as they pull onto the motorway. Robert behind the wheel of his crappy little car, one hand on the wheel and the other holding Aaron’s hand in his lap.

A grimace falls over his face, “He’s,” Robert pauses, struggling for words, “He’s difficult. Traditional farmer man, you know? Wanted me to stay working on the farm like Andy. We don’t really get on.”

Aaron nods, and sensing the uncomfortable tone in Robert’s voice, changes the subject slightly. “Can’t imagine you living on a farm, you’re far too pretentious for that.”

Robert glances at him with his mouth open wide, fake hurt on his face, “I am not pretentious!”

“Sure you aren’t, mate.” He squeezes Robert’s hand, “And how much did those ugly shoes you bought the other week cost?” Aaron teases.

“Shut up, they weren’t that much.”

“Robert, anyone spending over £100 on some ugly brown shoes clearly has a problem. Sorry, but you’re one of them.”

Robert rolls his eyes and flicks the indicator, changing lanes as he wrinkles his nose and mumbles, “Those shoes are nice.”

“You like them. That doesn’t make them nice.” He laughs.

“Alright, fashionista. There’s some services here, do you want to stop?” Robert asks, and Aaron hums in response. Robert changes lanes again and pulls off towards the small station.

They’ve been driving for about two hours now, their early start meaning the clock only reads twelve, Diane and Jack not expecting them until two at the earliest. They have time to grab something to eat and drink, to enjoy the last few hours of alone time before Robert’s parents greet them by the door.

It's strange, Aaron realises, how normal this feels. That, despite such little time spent so close to each other, it feels as though Robert has always been by his side, as though he was made to hold his hand. 

After they lock up the car in the car park, close enough to the entrance, Aaron grabs Robert’s hand again and pulls him in the direction of the McDonalds.

“Really? Here?” He asks as they queue behind a portly middle-aged couple and a woman with a sleeping baby nestled in her arms.

“It’s either here or Burger King.” Aaron replies, eyes scanning the menu, “It’s the best option.”

Robert hums as he reluctantly agrees, his eyes reading the menu also, as Aaron mumbles beside him, “And he says he’s not a snob.”

“Hey! I heard that!” Robert complains, pinching Aaron’s side and eliciting a giggle from his boyfriend, much to the disdain of the couple in front, who roll their eyes and groan under their breath.

“I’m joking!” Aaron surrenders, “Come on, lets order.” He says, walking up to the now free counter. A young teenage girl with her hair pulled into a bun on her head and two stars on her name badge smiling at them patiently.

“Hi, can we have a Big Mac meal, with a coke and –“ He pauses, glancing at Robert.

“Just two of them, please.”

The girl nods and presses her screen, tells them the price and Robert reaches into his back pocket for his wallet. He’s about to put his card into the machine she’s holding out to them when Aaron slaps his hand away.

“I’ve got this.”

“Aaron.” Robert says.

He rolls his eyes and hands the girl back the machine, “I can handle nine quid, Rob.”

They take a seat in the corner, the large window overlooking the car park and surrounding fields. They can see Aaron’s car from where they’re sat, the small vehicle nestled in between a 4x4 and Mercedes. It’s busier than Aaron had anticipated; a mum entertaining her kids in the booth next to them, as well as several elderly couples sat dotted around the small room. He can faintly smell petrol from the gas station next door, the smell sneaking in through the frequently opening and closing double doors.

“Thank you for paying.” Robert says, twisting the wrapper of his straw between his fingers. “You didn’t have to.”

Aaron rolls his eyes and passes Robert one of the napkins he’d picked up from beside the tills, “It’s really not a big deal.” He says, chuckling slightly.

“I know, but I didn’t want you to feel like you owe me or anything.” He’s bumbling, Aaron realises, a blush spreading over his cheeks as he stares out into the car park. Aaron reaches over to grab the hand Robert’s resting on the table, tangling their fingers together, and offers Robert a smile.

“Don’t be silly. Come on, let’s eat. We need to be back on the road soon.” Aaron smiles.

Robert’s breathing hitches as he mentions this. With traffic, they probably only have another two hours left to drive before reaching Jack’s farm. He gulps down some of his drink and looks uneasily at Aaron, a fake smile on his face as he tucks into the subpar food, Aaron goes to ask what’s wrong, but when Robert squeezes his hand tight and nudges his knee with his own underneath the table, all his thoughts fall from the forefront of his mind.

 

---

 

“No. No chance.”

Aaron leans over to grab Robert’s phone from where it’s placed between them on the console; a white cable connecting it to the car’s speakers, where the opening to ‘Dancing Queen’ is blaring out.

“Hey! What’s wrong with ABBA?” Robert protests, but doesn’t reach over to grab his phone back.

Aaron taps at the screen for a few seconds before looking back at Robert through his eyelashes, an aghast look on his face. He continues tapping until more mellow notes pour out of the speakers; ‘The Script’ something somewhere in Robert’s brain provides.

“I can’t believe you even have to ask me that. You need to be in that lane.” He points to the left lane, glancing down at his own phone in his lap which displays the map. Robert flicks the indicator and moves over, slowing as he reaches the junction. Aaron taps his fingers against his leg as the chorus begins, and Robert tuts.

“There’s nothing wrong with liking a bit of ABBA.” He states.

“Sure, there isn’t,” Aaron says, and then grins, “If you’re a pensioner, like.”

Robert’s mouth drops open in shock, the look of disbelief crossing his features making Aaron cackle loudly.

“They’re classic!”

“Just because somethings old, doesn’t make it a classic!” Aaron says, words swirling together through his laughter. “Although, you’d know all about being old, wouldn’t you?” He snickers before Robert can respond.

He leans over and pushes his knee, squeezing it gently, before returning his hand to the steering wheel. The look of shock staying put on his face. “I am not old.”

Aaron hisses a breath in between his teeth. “Whatever you say.”

Robert rolls his eyes, “Just because we can’t all be young and indie like you, you mean?” Robert nods his head towards the radio, where something he only faintly recognises plays.

“Nothing wrong with my music taste, mate. If I gave you free reign you’d be playing Wham! or some shit.” He laughs.

“I actually do quiet like Wham!” Robert mumbles, embarrassment flooding on his face as he turns down a smaller road. The car bumps up and down as they drive down the dirt track, rocks and sand shooting out from underneath the tears, and Aaron clutches his seat, knuckles turning white, as the car shakes.

“It better not be too further down, don’t think my car can hack this.”

“Nah, we’re almost there.” Robert says, eyes squinting against the bright sun shining through the windscreen, as he looks through the fast-moving trees surrounding them. In the small gaps between them Aaron can see stretches of empty green fields, tall grass and the odd cow. It’s beautiful, he thinks, but he’s glad he won’t have to be out there working like Robert used to.

“So,” Aaron says, changing the subject, “When you worked on the farm, what did you do?”

“What do you mean?’

“Like, you say you worked on the farm; does that mean you opened a few gates for your dad or you actually put your hands up some sheep.” Aaron scrunches his nose up in disgust, and Robert chuckles.

“Bit of both. Never put my hands up there but I was good with the new born lambs.” He says, a hint of a smile forming on his face. “If the mothers died, they’d have to be hand reared. For some reason, they trusted me.” He shrugs.

Aaron smiles, the nostalgia in Robert’s voice washing over him in waves, and he leans over to grab his hand off the steering wheel, gripping his fingers.

Robert turns the car around one more sharp bend before the house stands tall before them. It’s what Aaron had expected, really. Tall vines twisting and curling around the cobblestoned wall, some stretching over the windows like slim fingers knocking at the glass. He can tell the front door was once a bright blue, now the paint has chipped and faded into an almost white. Trees and shrubs surround the wrought iron fence, the greenery slightly overgrown and messy in places. Robert slows the car down in front of the building, as inhales deeply.

“Here we are, then.” He says quietly, as though tired.

“Come on then, we’re a bit later than we said we would be.” Aaron opens the car door and steps out, the ground soft and muddy underneath his feet. Robert hauls himself out of the car, slamming the door behind him, and stretches his arms out in front of him, elbows clicking as he yawns.

‘We can get the bags later.” He says, locking the door and chucking Aaron his keys. He catches and stuffs them into his back pocket, walking around to meet Robert by the gate. Robert pushes the metal with a large shove, the frame squeaking in protest as it falls open, when Aaron notices the slight tremble in his fingers. Aaron walks behind him up the small path to the front door, the air around them suddenly heavy, and they stand beside each other as they reach the entrance.

Robert turns his head to face Aaron, his lips attempting a smile, and reaches for Aaron’s hand. His palms sweaty, Aaron realises, his skin hot against his, and he can still feel him shaking slightly. He clutches tightly to Robert, only now realising he’s not the only one who’s nervous. He attempts to smile back, probably doing a better job than Robert is, as Robert finally leans forward and knocks loudly.

They stand in silence for a few seconds before the door finally cracks open.

A man stands before them. He’s taller than them both, despite Robert stretching taller than six foot, and he squints down at them through dark eyes. He’s wearing a cap, frayed and torn slightly at the seams, but a smattering of grey hair amongst brown peaks out from underneath. His shoes are well-worn too, grey trainers tinged brown with mud, and the fabric peeling away slightly. His breath heavy and lumbered, and an air of stale smoke surrounds him. He simply nods at Robert.

“Robert. Didn’t expect you to actually come.” He says, his voice deep and brittle.

“Dad.” Robert exhales, a quiver in his voice.

Jack’s eyes flick between the pair of them, confusion obvious in his eyes, before they land on their intertwined hands. Aaron hears the hitch in his breath, the small gasp that escapes him.

“And, who’s this?” He says, not looking directly at Aaron.

“This is Aaron,” Robert says, this time he doesn’t tremble, he stands tall as he continues, “He’s my boyfriend.”

Jack frowns and turns away from the door.

 

---

 

Diane is more welcoming, just like Robert had expected. She embraces Robert in a warm hug; and despite her small stature, she engulfs him in her arms. She does the same for Aaron, patting him gently on the back with her hand, squeezing him tightly and calling him a ‘handsome young man’ much to his embarrassment.

She’d planted Robert down at the dining table an hour after they arrived, Aaron following suit and sitting next to him, and rambled away about how much she missed him. Aaron glanced around the room, the cramped kitchen matching the outside exactly; pots stacked high in the corner, peeling paint and wallpaper in the corners of the room, framed photographs dotted around on top of cabinets and hanging crookedly on the walls. Aaron counts Robert’s face in two of them. A short freckly blonde kid sat perched on his dad’s shoulders, smiling wide and bright at the camera, and as a small boy with a woman’s arms wrapped tightly around him. The rest of them are filled with Jack, Diane, a young girl who’s hair changes from blonde to brown, Victoria, and a tall man with a face full of beard and creases between his eyebrows, Andy.

“So,” Diane starts, pulling a large dish out of the small oven, “How did you meet our Robert, Aaron?”

“At work,” He replies, a smile plastered on his face as he reaches underneath the table to rest his hand on Robert’s knee, before pulling away. “We just got chatting and got on really well, didn’t we?” He chooses to leave out the details, unsure of how much Robert is willing to tell them. Robert nods in time with him and pushes away from the table and steps over to Diane, removing the plates from her hands and placing them in front of his and Aaron’s spot. He reaches over to grab the knives and forks left out on the side and hands a pair to Aaron, who smiles at him in thanks.

Diane places the large dish in the middle of the table just as Jack enters through the side door, a draft filling the already cold room. He removes his hat, placing it on the rack to the side of him, and kicks off his shoes without looking in their direction. Diane opens the lid and the smell engulfs Aaron; it smells like the home cooking he used to have before his mum left, and when he looks in the pot; the brown stew looks more inviting than he’d like to admit.

“You’re just in time, Jack.” She says, passing Aaron a large spoon to help himself. “These two looked ravaged so we’re eating early tonight. Bet you’re both so tired from the trip. Are you living in London too, Aaron?” Diane asks, sitting herself in the chair across from Robert, Jack moves to join them and sits at the head of the table. He begins eating, Diane having already served his portion, somehow without making eye contact with either of them.

“No, I’m in Leeds, Robert says where I’m from isn’t too far from where you used to live.” He digs his fork into the food on his plate as Robert does the same, the taste a comfort in his mouth.

“Oh yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised. Oh, how I miss it up there.” She says, a fond look in her eyes as she glances at Robert, who’s looking anywhere except his father. “And, what is it your parents do?”

“Well, my mum runs the village pub, I help her out there sometimes when I’m visiting home.” Aaron says, feeling awkward that so much of this conversation relies on him, Robert normally contributing slightly, “Paddy, my mum’s ex, who’s kinda like my dad, he’s a vet in the same village.”

“Oh, that’s lovely.” Diane coos.

Finally, Jack speaks. “And your real dad?”

Aaron feels Robert tense beside him, sees him clutch his fork even tighter than before. He grits his teeth and breathes through his nose. “I don’t have anything to do with him.” Aaron states blankly, his tone firm, willing him to drop the conversation.

Jack chuckles lowly, all humour drained from him, and shakes his head, “Doesn’t surprise me.”

“Excuse me?”

“Must be difficult to raise someone like you, bet he couldn’t have gotten out of there fast enough.” Aaron places his cutlery down on the table harder than he should have, the clattering metal reverberating around the room.

“And what do you mean someone like me?”

Diane turns to Jack, mumbling quietly under her breath into his ear. Aaron’s sure he catches ‘leave it alone’ and perhaps a ‘not today”.

“Aaron, please leave it.” Robert mumbles, “Let’s just go.” He moves to stand up, but Aaron pulls him back down by his sleeve, not releasing him when he surrenders.

“No. I want to know what he’s on about.”

“I’m just saying, it isn’t easy raising a kid like that, like you.” He clarifies. Jack’s dark eyes stare directly through Aaron, as though his words aren’t meant solely for him.

“You keep saying like me. Come out and say what you actually mean.”

“Fine.” He huffs, “It’s not right, lying with other men. And you just show up to my home holding his hand like it’s normal.” He shudders, emphasising his angry words, and Aaron can’t listen to this anymore.

“Come on, Rob. Let’s go.” He stands, tugging Robert, who seems to be trapped in his head, up with him. “It was lovely to meet you, Diane. Wish I could say the same for that.” He spits, nodding his head towards Jack. She tries to smile back at him, but when it fails she merely stands too, ready to show them to the door; where she’ll apologise for Jack’s behaviour and invite them around for Christmas, Aaron guesses.

They’re nearly by the door when Jack speaks again.

“He’s with you for the attention, you know?”

“Excuse me?” Aaron turns around to face him. He’s sat back in his chair, his arms stretched as he rests his hand near his still full plate.

“Robert. He’ll get bored of you.” He speaks bitterly, rudely, as though his son isn’t stood silently mere feet away. “Can’t help himself. You’re the next in a long line to get screwed over by him.”

“You don’t even- “

“I don’t know him?” Jack interrupts, “I know he’s only with you to get back at me. It’s his silly little show to hide the fact he’s got nothing else going on in his life. Victoria might go along with it, but she’ll see through him soon enough, just like you will.”

Aaron stares back at him aghast, anger filling his body as Jack sits there, his words filling the room and hanging in between them painfully. He hears Diane whimper behind them and Aaron clenches his fist.

None of them notice the tears filling Robert’s eyes, or the bobbing of his Adam’s Apple as he struggled to take in breath.  They didn’t see him clutch the door handle tightly with a shaking hand, or his eyes flutter closed as he counted to ten in his head.

But, they did notice the door slamming loudly behind him as he ran out of the room.

 

---

 

Aaron finds him a short way up the lane; far away enough that he can’t be seen from the window but close enough Aaron doesn’t get lost looking for him. The dry mood crunches underneath his feet but Robert doesn’t look up. He’s sat, slouched, against a wall, his head thrown back and his eyes closed. It’s reaching half four, the sun still in the sky but clouds creep over a cast a shadow over them. Trees rustle around them as the wind cards through their branches and send a chill over his bare arms, but Aaron doesn’t mind.

Robert doesn’t acknowledge he’s there until Aaron sits down beside him.

“Sorry,” He murmurs, “for leaving you in there.”

“It’s alright. I’d have run out too.” Aaron whispers, he keeps his voice low enough not to startle Robert too much, though everything in his body is wanting to scream.; At Jack, for saying what he did, at Diane, for allowing him to carry on, at himself, for not getting Robert out of there sooner. “I thought they knew? About you being bi?” Aaron asks.

Robert attempts a broken chuckle, “They do. Doesn’t mean they accept it.”

“Not even Diane?”

Robert shrugs his shoulders, “She wants me to be happy. Doesn’t care who it’s with. But I know she prefers the others to me. Can’t say I blame her.”

Aaron’s heart lurches in his chest. “Don’t say that.” He tuts.

Robert shrugs again and they lapse into silence for a few moments, before he speaks.

“There was this lad.” He pauses, and Aaron lets him. “He worked on the farm.”

He pauses for longer this time, words stuck in his throat, and Aaron decides to help him out.

“And, you liked ‘im?” Aaron guesses.

Robert nods once, the movement of his head barely noticeable, but Aaron catches it.

“Did something happen?”

“Not really. Well, nothing serious. I was fifteen. I think I invited him up to my room to show him my new GameBoy, and he leaned in and kissed me.” Robert says, his words rush out of him and Aaron barely catches some of them. “Well, he tried. Dad walked in just as he did.”

Aaron can’t help the small ‘shit’ that escapes his lips. “Take it he wasn’t happy?”

Robert snorts and blinks away the tears piling up in his eyes, “You could say that. He sacked him on the spot, and as soon as he left he started on me. Leathered me. Mum never found out.”

“Robert, I’m so sorry.”

“Not your fault, is it?” He shrugs again, leaning his head further back on the wall, “We never talked about it after that. Brought home a girl from school the next day to try and pretend I was normal. Mum said I did a great job of spoiling her, but he saw right through it.”

Aaron shakes his head, “You don’t have anything to prove to him, Rob.”

“I know. I just hate that he thinks that about me. I wanted to bring you today to show him I am serious about you, but he’s gonna end up scaring you away.”

“Hey, enough of that.” Aaron reaches over to take his hand, pulling it away from where it’s pulling up the weeds by his feet. He grasps his hand tightly, pressing a kiss to the back of Robert’s palm and not letting go. “He’s never going to scare me away.”

“But- “

“No buts.” Aaron interrupts before Robert can argue, “He doesn’t know you, he doesn’t know us.” He wants to scream, to shake Robert out of his dad’s clutches, but he tries a softer tactic, “He doesn’t know that you kick in your sleep or hold on to me so tight I feel like I can’t breathe. He doesn’t know how much we miss each other when we’re apart, or how good it feels to hear your voice after another night on my own. He doesn’t know how much you mean to me. He doesn’t know anything. Okay?” He nods his head and continues until Robert mirrors him.

“Okay.”

“And I’m so sorry he’s put you through this, but we’re not on our own now. He doesn’t get to hurt you.” He leans forward and presses a kiss against Robert’s temple, when he pulls away Robert falls slightly forward, wrapping his arms around Aaron’s bicep, almost cuddling up to him on the grassy banks.

“Thank you.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“And I’m sorry,” He mumbles, pushing his face into Aaron’s top, “That he brought up your dad. I should have told him where to go as soon as he started.”

He hears the guilt in Robert’s voice, and his hatred for Jack grows stronger in the pit of his stomach.

“It’s not your fault. None of what happened in there was. He’s just a dickhead. I don’t waste my time on them.”

Robert laughs wetly and pulls away, resting a hand on Aaron’s cheek. His fingers grazing his beard delicately. Aaron reaches up and wipes the tear that’s trailing down Robert’s cheek away. His chin wobbles slightly as he bites his lip, staring directly into Aaron’s eyes.

“He doesn’t deserve to know what happened, he doesn’t deserve any explanations from us. He has no right.” Aaron says, adamant.

“I love you, so much.” Robert whispers.

“I love you too.” Aaron leans closer and presses his lips to Robert’s softly. They move slowly in time with one another, Aaron brushing his lips over and over Robert’s mouth, before pulling away. Robert’s eyes remain closed as they breathe in sync, his hot breath pouring over Aaron’s face. Their hands are still tightly intertwined as Robert leans forward, resting his forehead on Aaron’s shoulder. He presses a kiss to Aaron’s neck.

Aaron’s glad, that despite all their time out here, no one has driven past. The dirt road further away than most people would bother looking for from the main road, so he allows Robert to cuddle closer into him for a few moments. Before pecking the top of his head and sighing.

“We better go. If we wanna make it back sometime today.”

Robert nods, and Aaron pulls him to his feet.

 

---

 

Despite the slow walk back, Jack hasn’t moved from where he was sitting. Diane is pacing up and down the small space and chewing on her fingernails. The plate in front of Jack is now empty and he’s sat slouched in his chair. He looks comfortable, Aaron wants to throw his fist into his face.

“We’ll be off now, Diane.” Aaron calls out to her, she halts in her pacing and looks to Robert, raising her eyebrows. Robert nods, and she smiles. The exchange not going amiss to Aaron or Jack, who both refuse to look at one another.

“It was lovely to meet you, Aaron.” She says, stepping over to him and pulling him into a small hug, just as inviting as the one he was given upon arrival. She pulls back and looks him up and down with a sad smile, “You must come back sometime soon. I’d love to hear about this village you’re from.”

Aaron smiles back at her gratefully and nods, “You should come and visit, I think you’d love it.”

They walk out into the hallway, Robert already shrugging on his jacket, when Aaron turns around to properly face Jack.

“Thank you for having us, sir.” He adds sarcastically, “And I’ll look after your son, seeing as you won’t.”

“Now hold on a minute.” Jack says, abruptly standing.

“No. You hold on. You know I feel sorry for you. You don’t get to see him as the wonderful person he is. You’re bitter and you’re twisted, and you don’t deserve him. So, stay away from him, stay away from the pair of us. Until you either grow up and appreciate your son for everything he is, or you drop dead. I won’t tell you which one I’d prefer.”

He turns on his heel and slams the kitchen door shut behind him, leaving Jack stood there with his mouth suspended wide open. He nods towards Diane again, and heads towards the car, after grabbing his jacket, suddenly grateful they’d chosen to leave their things in the boot. He gets into the driver’s side this time, and watches Robert press a kiss to Diane’s cheek through the windscreen.

He sighs as he sits down, Aaron starts the engine. “You didn’t have to say all that to him, ya know?”

Aaron nods, “I know. I couldn’t help it though. I just saw him sitting there and snapped. You’re not annoyed, are you?” Aaron asks, guilt suddenly washing over him. He looks over to Robert, who has a smile on his face for the first time in hours.

“Annoyed?” He asks, “God, no. No one’s ever stuck up for me like that.”

“Well, now you’ve got me. I’ll always stick up for you.”

Robert rests his hand on Aaron’s thigh, “Thank you.” He whispers.

They sit in silence until they pull onto the motorway; Robert’s forehead pressed against the glass window and his eyes closed making Aaron think he’s fallen asleep.

“If mum was still alive, she’d have stuck up for me too.”

“You think so?”

Robert nods, the movement of his head quick and jagged, “Yeah, I do. She might not agree with everything I’ve ever done, but she loved me. She’d have loved you too.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. You don’t put up with any of my shit, she’d have loved that about you. Probably would have ganged up against me.” Robert smiles a dopey smile, and Aaron copies him.

“You don’t talk about her much.”

Robert shrugs, “The more I talk about her the more I miss her. Pat, my birth mum, too. And, I never really had anyone to talk to her about them. Diane tries, but I don’t want her to think I’m ungrateful for everything she’s done for me. Dad just doesn’t care.”

Aaron averts his eyes from the road for a second, glancing at Robert, who’s looking at Aaron’s face, still.

“You can always talk to me. I know it’s hard, but I’ll always be here.”

Robert nods, “Thank you. And, I know you said you don’t talk about it ever; but if you need to, if you want to, I’ll always listen.”

Aaron smiles back at him, eyes returning properly to the road, as they stare out the window together. The sun’s setting now, and the long day hits them both as they yawn together. They both chuckle, and Robert carries on talking.

“I’d like to take you to meet them, one day.” He suggests.

“Your mums?”

“Yeah, I only go about once every few months. I don’t like going. But I want you to meet them.”

Aaron nods, lost for words, “I’d like that.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Need to thank them for raising such a good boyfriend, ‘aven’t i?” He says, not entirely sure he’s joking.

Robert smiles at him. He bites down on his bottom lip and resists the urge to smile even wider. He takes Aaron’s hand in his again, this time not letting go.

 

---

 

It’s Robert’s last day. It’s the only thought in Aaron’s head when he wakes up. Robert’s leaving in six hours. He’s going to drive Robert to the train station, and he’ll leave. It makes Aaron cling to Robert’s chest even tighter. After returning from Norfolk, they’d quickly gone up to bed, sleeping through until twelve the next day. After they’d descended the stairs, they continued to laze around the back room until Chas forced them off the sofa and into the pub to show their faces.

This time, they were both tipsy as they crawled into bed, Aaron immediately moving to mount Robert’s legs. His boyfriend taking him apart slowly with his trailing lips and gentle fingers. They gravitated towards each other in the night, moving together in the darkness before falling back to sleep, only to wake with the others’ hand on their hip again an hour later.

Robert’s still asleep, and despite the heavy thudding of his heart in his chest, Aaron curls tighter around him, and sleeps.

 

---

 

“I’m sorry I can’t drive you back, but work are already getting on at me.”

“Don’t be stupid. I know what it’s like.”

The train station is packed full of people. People bump into their sides as they rush across the tiled floor, their suitcases squeaking as they pull them behind them. Robert’s wrapped his arm around Aaron’s waist, pulling him flush against his side so they don’t get pulled apart by the crowds of people. Aaron’s holding on to Robert’s bag, grateful he hadn’t brought much with him, as they walk slowly to the terminal. He has twenty minutes before the train is scheduled to leave, they don’t need to rush, nor do they want to.

“It’s just annoying, we could have spent a few more hours together.”

“Hey, we’re going to spend so much time together from now on, you’ll wish you could get rid of me sooner.” Robert pinches at Aaron’s waist to make him laugh, the frown on his face growing deeper each step they take towards the terminal.

“I doubt that.”

Robert pulls Aaron to a stop, stepping in front of him, and looks down at his face. His palms flat against Aaron’s lower back. They’re out of the way enough that no one complains when Robert kisses Aaron softly. He’s wearing one of Aaron’s shirts, the small amount of clothing Robert had brought with him running out quickly, and despite their difference in size it fits him nicely. Robert’s still unaware that Aaron had tucked two of his hoodies into the bottom of his bag late the previous night, swapping it out for the plain white top Robert had occasionally slept with, tucking it underneath his pillow as Robert showered.  

“Oi. No being sad, not now. We’ve had the best time these past few days, I don’t want to finish it off being sad.” He tuts.

“I know. I’m just going to miss you, is all.” Aaron reaches up and kisses Robert again.

“I’ll miss you too. But I’ll skype you as soon as I’m back, yeah?” Robert nods at him, and Aaron agrees.

“Okay,” Aaron looks up at the departure boards and finally sees Robert’s number. “We best hurry up.”

They reach his gate not two minutes later. A tall guard dressed in black stands to one side, his cap crooked on his head as he inspects the ticket Robert handed him with a scrutinising gaze. He finally nods at him, and gestures at Robert to go through, Aaron following on behind him when his hand pulls out in front to stop him.

“Ticket please, sir.” His firm voice says.

“I haven’t got one,” Aaron replies, “I’m just walking my boyfriend to his train.”

“I’m afraid I cannot let you through without an appropriate ticket.”

“Oh, come on, don’t be so tight.” Robert argues, “He’s only carrying my bags.”

“Rules are in place for a reason, sir.” The guard shrugs.

Aaron shrugs his shoulders and stares back at Robert, “I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t be.”

“If you could both move out of the way, you’re blocking the other passengers.”

Aaron and Robert roll their eyes in unison, but step to their left, where a locked gate stands in between them. Aaron hands Robert his bag over the black metal, Robert takes it and places it down by his feet.

“I’ll skype you as soon as I’m home then, yeah?”

Aaron quickly shakes his head, “No, ring me as soon as you can.”

Robert smiles sadly at him and leans over the barrier, meeting Aaron's lips in the middle. He feels Robert’s arm reach around his shoulders, pulling him close to him despite their distance, and their noses knock together as they move.

“Um, enough of that.” They hear. They pull away and look at the guard together. He continues, “Nothing can be passed over the barrier.”

“It was a kiss.” Robert argues.

The guard merely shrugs and looks away, dealing with the middle-aged woman who just prodded at his elbow.

“Okay, then. I better go.”

Aaron nods and moves away from the barrier, shoving his hands inside his pockets. “I’ll see you really soon, promise?”

“I promise.”

Despite the tears pooling in both of their eyes, they smile one last time at each other. Robert takes a few steps backwards, picking up his bag from the floor, and moving his hand in a slight wave. He turns around to leave, and Aaron feels his heart go with him.

Robert’s several feet away before Aaron turns around to leave, not wanting to see the train carry him away. He makes it a few steps before Robert is shouting his name.

“Aaron!”

He turns around quickly, scared something bad is happening, and sees Robert waving his arm around wildly, a large grin plastered on his face.

“I love you!” He shouts, much to the amusement of the people standing around them who chuckle at his outburst.

Aaron, not as confident as Robert to do so in public, waves back with a small shake of his hand, “I love you too.” He barely whispers, but Robert understands.

He turns back around and heads to his platform. Aaron goes to move again but stops. He watches Robert disappear from view and the people filter in behind him. His chest aches, it feels like he can’t breathe, and his cheeks are hot. He misses him already, he realises, his left side feeling empty without Robert pressing against him or holding his hand as they walk. He glances around, sees couples hugging as they’re reunited, parents walking hand in hand with their children, and teenagers laughing at something on their phones in the corner. It’s too much.

Aaron runs.

 

---

 

He wakes up a baby in his frantic slamming of the windows. He bangs against them so hard his hands ache and people look at him like he’s losing it, maybe he is. He’s calling Robert’s name louder than he realises, his throat protesting in pain as his voice cracks around his shouting.  

“Robert! Robert!”

He finally sees him, seated near the back, bag on his lap. He pushes a couple out of the way to make it to the still propped open door and slams against the glass rapidly again.

“Aaron? What the hell are you doin’?” He stands in front of him, taller than usual due to Aaron still being on the platform, confusion evident on his face.

“No, just shut up a minute. Babe,” He’s never called him that before, and this time tomorrow he’ll cringe at himself, but the words are forming before his brain can catch up to them, “I’ve gotta say something, and I know it might feel too soon or too rushed, but, for me, it feels absolutely right.”

“Aaron, what you on about?” Robert glances around at the people staring at them, stood with bags in hand, and confusion on their faces to match Robert’s.

“I love you so much.” He rushes out, not pausing to take a breath.

Robert smiles widely, a blush creeping up his cheeks as he opens his mouth to respond, but Aaron continues.

“Look, you comin’ to my house and meetin’ my family, and me meetin’ yours and- oh, I dunno. It’s just that- “He finally runs out of words to say, and with the last shred of dignity he has remaining, he steps backwards, and falls to one knee.

“Oh, my god.”

“I don’t have a ring. I didn’t plan on doing this. But Robert, will you marry me?” Even to his own ears, he sounds desperate, his voice pleading an embarrassing amount.

“Oh, my god.”

Robert rushes forwards, forgetting about the small gap between the door and the platform, and trips, landing ungracefully in front of Aaron. He doesn’t pause before he’s got his hands resting on Aaron’s cheeks, his palms hot against Aaron’s flushed cheeks. He crashes their lips together, and as Aaron parts his lips he notices the slight taste of salt coating Robert’s mouth. He pulls Aaron to stand up with him, and Aaron’s arms engulf him, wrapping themselves tightly against Aaron’s waist. Robert pulls back first, and nods.

“Yes.” He whispers, kissing him hard again, “Fuck, yes.”

He kisses him before Aaron can respond, their lips pressing together firmly, when Aaron notices the whooping around them. He pulls away, his arms still tight around Robert, and glances around them. The few people still on the platform, Aaron only just realises Robert’s train has left the station, clap politely, small smiles on their faces as they watch the pair of them stand in each other’s arms.

He turns back to face Robert, tears freely falling down his face and a wide smile that keeps on growing. 

“I can’t believe this, you’re insane.” He whispers.

“I love you so much,” he shrugs “and that’s just the way it is.” He's smiling so wide his jaw aches and wrinkles form around his eyes. 

Robert grins, and presses his lips to Aaron’s one more time, people rush past them but neither of them consider moving from their spot, as Aaron holds him in a tight embrace. Robert pulls back and sighs, nodding his head as another tear trickles down his cheek.

“That’s just the way it is.”