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I promise you the best life

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“I’m sorry.”

Aaron’s apology was barely audible.

Not that it made much difference.

It hadn’t, and it wouldn’t.

His voice was hoarse, eyes red rimmed, his entire body stiff and exhausted. He clutched his cup of tea in his hands, though the tea had gone cold along with the atmosphere, silence spreading its heavy thickness around apart from the clock on the kitchen counter, ticking out of sync and telling lies.

He really should’ve changed that battery.

“Sorry”, Ben scoffed. “Yeah, you’re always sorry, aren’t ya?

He looked exhausted. Pissed off. Betrayed.

Heartbroken.

Aaron wanted nothing more than to disappear. Just spin into a vortex, never to be seen again.

But that wasn’t an option, not anymore, not now with his boyfriend staring at him in disbelief, disappointment coming in waves from his defeated demeanor.

They’d been going round in circles for a good hour now. Accusation after another, frustration swirling in the air, harsh words being thrown around like they were going out of style.

They both knew damn well they’d reached an impasse. An ending. But apparently that didn’t stop either from beating that dead horse of a conversation, surrounded by the smoking ruins of their relationship.

Ben began to pace again. Any other day Aaron would’ve told him it was irritating.

“First you said no to my proposal. And I can understand that you don’t want to get married. But this” – Ben gestured around them- “this makes no sense, Aaron! We were planning a life together! You and Liv sold this house, you hired people to take over the scrapyard, you sat your entire family down right here in this room and told them we’re leaving!”

Ben’s voice faltered; he turned his gaze away and shook his head. “I don’t understand”, he muttered, his tone shaky from withheld anger, “please explain this to me. You owe me that much!”

“I can’t go with you. I need to go on me own, Ben. To Scotland, by myself.”

His voice was stable now. Determined, solid even.

“Why though?” Ben’s eyes were glassy and full of hurt.

He hadn’t cried yet. He probably wouldn’t.

Aaron sighed and rubbed his face, scratching his beard that desperately needed trimming.

He had cried for the both of them. Mostly out of frustration it seemed.

“Ben, I need to be by myself”, he repeated for the – seriously – hundredth time, “ I haven’t had a moment’s peace for ages. I’m just not ready for a big change.”

“Like leaving on your own isn’t a big change. What’s this really about, Aaron?”

Ben turned, his gaze locking back to Aaron’s.

A million emotions flashing across his face, he tilted his head and seemed to consider something Aaron couldn’t quite place.

 Ben’s expression went cold.

“This is about him, isn’t it?”

The words came out forced and icy.

“Who?”

“Don’t play dumb, Aaron.”

Aaron swallowed thickly, trying to keep his temper reigned in. Ben seemed ready to explode too, but he never had gone off the rails properly and he probably wasn’t about to start now.

Though this moment just might throw the familiarities out the window.

Ben paced in circles, burning a hole to the floor.

“You never did choose me, did you? Yet you said-“

“This is about me and only me, getting out of this toxic village.”

And Aaron knew he had to say it now.

The loud truth. Screaming at him.

So he spoke.

“Yeah, if it had come to it I wouldn’t have chosen you over him. I know that, you know that, everyone knows that-“

“He tied you to a radiator!”

Aaron’s guilt subsided momentarily, his eyes growing wide.

This? How the hell - his mother’s face flashed in his mind. Hers and Paddy’s. I hate them, he thought.

And I’m done apologizing for it.

He’d enjoy that realisation a bit later tho.

But now? Ben talking about this?

Ben had no business talking about this.

Anger took over his tone. He glared at Ben.

“Yeh. He did tie me to a radiator. But so did I, in a manner of speaking” Aaron seethed, teeth grinding, “I punched him. I outed him. I let him down way more than once. I took him for granted. And I abandoned him when he needed me the most. I’ll never forgive myself for the things I did and especially the things I didn’t do for him. And I know he won’t forgive himself either. He never does, especially when he should.”

“And now I’m choosing myself, because I need to better myself.”

“Did he contact you?” Ben asked, pressing the issue.

“No.” Aaron felt the painful truth in the word.

“He didn’t contact me. He hasn’t. Like I said it’s not about him, it’s about me. And you know I’ve been a shitty boyfriend to ya.”

Ben scoffed. “You can say that again.”

Aaron desperately wanted a drink. He wanted to be drunk, just him and a bottle, playing the greatest hits of his self deprecation.

Chance’d be a fine thing.

“Why did you want this to happen, Ben? Why did you come after me? Why did you want to become involved with someone who fuckin’ bullied ya?”

Ben just stood there, frozen. This was something they’d avoided to discuss at any cost.

It always had been a subject too messed up to address.

“You know what? I honestly don’t know. Maybe I wanted a chance for you to make it up to me, as insane as it sounds. Trust me, I hated myself for falling in love with you.”

“And I hate myself for letting ya.”

They stared at each other. The silence was no longer just a vague cloud floating about. It was a flippin cumulus nimbus looming straight above, ready to pour its contents on them.

And it did.

Aaron flinched, shocked as Ben threw his teacup against the wall. Covering his face with his hands, he took a shaky breath.

“Fuck you, Aaron” he chocked out.

His (ex) boyfriend was flooded with guilt inside, a gnawing regret setting in.

Yeah, he thought, fuck you Aaron is right.

Ben didn’t behave like this. Aaron had made that happen.

He had hurt Ben all over again.

He had bullied him again.

Waves of nausea crashing against his chest, Aaron willed himself to step closer and speak.

“Ben..”

“No!” Ben yelled and stepped away from him, his face closed off with a sense of finality, “enough! As far as I’m concerned, we’re done and I don’t want to see you ever again.”

Pausing, he lifted his gaze one more time, resentment pure and unwavering.

“I meant it at school and I mean it now. I fuckin’ hate you.”

Ben paused again and then spat out, “you and Robert deserve each other.”

And with that, he stormed out, slamming the door so hard the windows rattled.

Disappearing into the vortex, never to be seen again.

Aaron knew it was more than fair Ben got to have the last word.

He’d hate himself for a long time for all of it.

But he didn’t kid himself into thinking Ben would appreciate - or even care about that. Or forgive him again.

And Aaron would have to live with that.

Just another thing to add to the list, right?

Aaron looked around the empty house. His heart shattering, the anguish tangible. He stood there, trying and failing not to hate himself.

You built us a home-

He shook his head as if he could will the thoughts away. But the truth was , apart from the guilt, from hurting Ben, he wasn’t sad about the break up that had happened two minutes earlier. It was something else entirely.

Someone else entirely.

I promise you the best life. And that’s what you’ll get.

Aaron laughed bitterly. This was far from his best life. He had wasted two years. Living his worst life, being his worst self.

Liv. Ben.

Broken and abandoned by him.

Seb. The boy he called his son. The boy he didn’t even try to fight for.

Robert.

Aaron hadn’t just been a shitty boyfriend.

He’d been an even shittier husband.

But Ben had been wrong.

Aaron didn’t deserve Robert.

Robert deserved better.

 

 

Aaron stood outside the Mill, blowing into his mug, the coffee still too hot to drink, thinking about the journey ahead. He regretted he had sold his car simply because he hated the idea of sitting on a bus today, not being able to properly process his emotions. He wanted to drive. To stop at a certain lay by-

You know why we’re both still here.

Aaron bit back a sob, looking at the house before him.

His heart clenched painfully.

Despite everything, it hurt to leave his home behind.

Robert’s trace on every surface. The effort and time he’d put into it.

But it hadn’t been a home, not really. Not for a long time.

But still. It was hard.

Aaron sighed, put his coffee on the ground, pressed his forehead and his arms against the door, as if to pull the memories inside his embrace, making sure he’d take every single one with him.

The good, the bad, the ugly and the lovely.

Every memory of his family.

His husband.

Them lazing about on the sofa, bantering, smiling, snogging, undressing.

In love.

Liv.

Dinners, fights, movie nights, both of them suffering from a cold at the same time, bickering over the best spot to rest in.

That monumentally stupid fuckin’ Vespa lamp.

Robert’s poncey coffee Aaron used to swear would bankrupt them.

Sunday mornings.

Kisses.

Robert cooking.

Robert telling him he loved him.

Robert refusing to get a dog - Robert distracting a pouting husband upstairs.

Robert hurting. Robert leaving.

Liv doing her homework. Liv laughing. Liv giving him a surprise hug.

Liv drunk and cruel.

Liv teary eyed and alone.

Both of them broken, drifting apart and hurting each other, lost without their peacekeeper.

His family.

His biggest treasure.

His biggest loss he’d never mourned properly.

Aaron pushed himself off the door, giving the house one last glance.

He forced himself to turn and head for the bus stop, trying to clear his mind at least a little bit.

It was an unusually warm December morning. The darkness of the early hours felt safe.

It felt good not having to look at the village in daylight.

Not having to face a single soul.

He hadn’t told anyone apart from Liv that he’d decided to take the earliest bus.

Aaron looked around absently. He couldn’t wait to get away. He wasn’t sad.

Not about this.

The sight of the village still in slumber awakened very few emotions in him at this point.

Except one.

The realisation that he’d been ready to go for ages now.

Ever since-

He bit his lip, refusing to cry.

The bus came, he got on board, sat down and closed his eyes.

He slept the entire trip, the sleep deprivation from the past week getting the better of him.

 

He woke up with a start, someone shaking him gently.

Aaron opened his eyes, blinking sleepily.

Zac Dingle’s face carried the widest smile, his eyes crinkling.

Aaron mirrored the smile. His uncle’s nonchalant affection - much like his son’s- felt comforting as it quietly radiated around Aaron, giving him warmth.

Giving them both warmth, surely.

Aaron stood up and gave his uncle a tight hug, grabbed his rucksack and soon they were off the bus.

“Alright, son? Good to see ya”, Zac said as they made their way to his car.

“Likewise. It’s good to be here.”

Zac looked well. He looked more or less content.

As content as he could be without Lisa.

 

Once on their way, they talked about Liv and Debbie, Sam and Lydia - Jack and Sarah who were both living with their mum now. Zac told Aaron about his farm, his friends, his “side project” that involved sheds and farming equipment and odd meeting hours. Aaron didn’t really grasp what it was from the vague description he got, but if it was a certain kind of a Dingle thing he wouldn’t really want to know, would he.

He just hoped that whatever it was, it didn't include putting people in boots of cars because really, they were all too old for it.

Happy surprise wedding day.

Damn it.

 

They talked about Charity, Cain and Moira.

They didn’t talk about Chas, Paddy or Ben.

Zac had always known better than to pry or judge.

And Aaron loved him for that.

 

They arrived to their destination with Aaron changing into warmer clothes and taking a walk around the moors. It was quiet. The village he’d left behind was too, but this was a different kind of quiet.

Better. Less judgemental, more soothing.

As he made his way across the land, he thought back to the last time he’d been there.

He shivered, remembering the all consuming pain.

Crying endlessly.

Clutching at the rings he couldn’t put away.

The pain hadn’t changed. Perhaps it was slightly less devastating, but it was there all the same.

Missing Robert hadn’t become easier.

Aaron wrapped his arms around himself and bit hard at his lip to keep his emotions under control. Now wasn’t the time to fall apart.

He ate dinner with Zac and Debbie, mostly listening to his family talk. After they’d finished Aaron did the washing up, took a shower and sat down to drink a beer by the fire.

He hadn’t planned on napping but after Debbie had told him three times he should snore somewhere else, he reluctantly relented and stood up. Looking at his uncle, he said “wake me up soon, yeah? There’s a crate arriving for me.”

Zac gazed at him quizzically.

“Thought all yer things are here already?” Then he leaned closer and stage whispered ”or is it something of the dodgy nature?”

Aaron raised an eyebrow.

“No dogdier than your side project, mate.”

And that shut Zac right up.

 

Going into the guest room, laying down and closing his eyes was all it took, soon Aaron was fast asleep.

The crate had arrived whilst he’d slept. When he stepped outside, hair wild and bleary eyed, Debbie and Zac told him they wanted to let him rest so they’d decided not to wake him up.

But they said nothing about the amount of stuff he’d had delivered earlier with the moving van.

They knew why there was so much of it.

They knew it wasn’t all Aaron.

They knew whose things were there, too.

Debbie handed him a wrench. Aaron twisted the side of the crate open, the wood landing on the ground with a thud.

Debbie stared at the crate’s contents, turned towards her cousin and raised her eyebrows.

“Really, Aaron?”

Aaron nodded in confirmation. “Really, Debbie.”

He stood next to her, looking into the crate.

There it was.

The monumentally stupid fuckin’ Vespa lamp.

 

 

In the evening Aaron knew he needed a cigarette. He drunk smoked sometimes but it was rare.

He did need one now though.

Not because he was drunk. He wasn’t.

But he knew he needed one.

The moonlight lingered around him, the cold air clearing his thoughts. He’d stood outside for a while now, thinking of everything and nothing.

He’d spoken to Liv. She’d arrived to the rehab centre.

Aaron was proud.

He lit a cigarette, took his phone from his pocket and clicked the email icon.

His heart pounded, blood rushing in his ears as he saw a new message.

Sender: HMP Rightworth.

He swallowed hard and opened it.

Re: Visitation request

Prisoner name: Robert Sugden.

Visitation request: Denied.

Aaron felt the sharp, familiar pain run through him. He looked around as if to find something that might change the outcome of his request.

Nothing did.

But he wasn’t surprised.

Every week since September he’d sent a request.

Every week it’d been denied.

Every week he grew more stubborn.

Honestly, Robert should know by now.

The idiot.

He should know.

Aaron sniffed, put out his cigarette and pocketed his phone, only to pull it out again.

Time to fight harder.

He opened the email again and typed a message to Robert’s solicitor.

Tell him I’ll keep sending requests until he caves” was the gist of it.

Sent.

Time to fight harder.

Aaron clicked away the icon, staring at his lockscreen.

Robert’s face smiled at him, all gorgeous and happy.

The beautiful bastard.

“I’m not giving up”, Aaron whispered.

He felt relieved.

For the first time in ages.

He would wait as long as it’d take.

The wind picked up, as if in confirmation.

I’ll wait. I’ve waited before, haven’t I?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Oi."

 

Something was poking at his side relentlessly. Aaron came to, stirred, thoroughly sleepy - and now thoroughly annoyed, lazily swatting – or, rather, weakly brushing - his hand in the sensations' general direction.

“Oi.”

Poke

Everything was too warm, too still, too slow, too deep in slumber, it clearly wasn’t the poking holes into people – time just yet.

He didn’t need to check the digits on his phone to know it was too early, do one o’clock.

Poke.

Begrudgingly, he blinked.

Sarah was sitting on the edge of his bed, sniggering as her younger brother was laying about on the floor, regularly reaching up his hand to cause an unwanted jolt to the system by sticking his finger determinedly into Aaron’s ribcage.

Neither of them had noticed he was awake. Aaron quickly closed his eyes again, waiting for when Jack’s thoroughly unenjoyable pokey-hokey from below would continue and he’d get a revenge out of it.

When the next poke came, Aaron quickly grabbed Jack’s hand, holding it tightly in place as his eyes flew open, he turned around and his left hand reached out, landing on the boy’s stomach and tickling mercilessly.

 

Jack squealed in surprise as his face was scrunched up into a delighted expression, laughing.

Sarah giggled. Of course she did nothing to help, clearly enjoying Aaron getting the better of Jack.

Siblings, eh?

After Aaron had soon enough been declared the champion of The annoying morning pokefest of 2021 by the now hysterically giggling boy, he sat up, grinning at Jack’s half-fake pout. The boy was still on the floor, breathless and red-faced, puffs of laughter still bursting out.

Aaron was pleased - and let’s face it, had a bit of a smug tone in his voice as he said, “alright, you two need to scarper and let the champion wake up properly.” His eyes landed on Jack. “Unless someone needs a reminder of who’s the champion here...”

Jack got up in a nanosecond, running out of the room, yelling “NOOOOOOOOO” as he went.

“Wake the whole house why don’t ya”, Debbie’s voice came from the doorway. She leaned against the frame, eyes puffy and hair still thoroughly static from sleep.

She didn’t look the least bit angry though.

“Mum”, Sarah started.

“No”, her mother cut in immediately, her face going from neutral to peeved, “I said no and that no remains a no.”

Aaron looked at her quizzically.

Debbie sighed. “The kids have been pestering me about some day festival in town and I’ve told them it’s not an option today, I’ve a million and one things to do.”

“Mum”, Sarah tried, sticking out her bottom lip further into a pout.

“No. That no is now packed away and sealed as a no for the rest of time, kid.”

“M not a kid.”

“Your behaviour right now tells a different story.”

Sarah sighed dramatically.

Then she looked between Aaron and Debbie, her face changing into an expression that promised absolutely nothing but mischief.

The mutual oh no between the cousins didn’t need voicing.

Sarah turned to Aaron.

“You’ll take us, won’t you Aaron?”

“As if. I’m still asleep, mate.”

Sarah shrugged. “Well, if you want to wake up...”

Aaron narrowed his eyes. “What?”

“I’ve hidden the coffee. All of it. You’d have to go to town for it, and since you’d be going anyway...”

“Sarah!” Debbie reprimanded.

“Your choice, mate” Sarah said, vindicated already, and grinning shamelessly.

Aaron ran a hand through his hair.

“Fine”, he sighed, relenting. “But I decide when we go and when we come back.

He paused, looking at Sarah. “I can’t believe you hid the coffee.”

“Yes, you can”, Sarah said and walked out, leaving a whiff of her Eau de arrogance behind.

Debbie and Aaron shared a look, chuckling.

“She really is half Sugden, isn’t she?” Aaron said, amused.

Debbie nodded. “And we know which Sugden she gets it from.

She looked at Aaron with hesitance and after a beat, she spoke.

“Still nothing?”

Aaron nodded. “Yeah. Still nothing.”

Debbie skipped the don’t worry’s and the it’ll be alrights, because she knew better.

“So what’s the plan?” she asked in true Debbie style, not even considering Aaron would give up, knowing he’d be sticking with it, firmly.

Stubbornly.

Endlessly.

Aaron swallowed, the raw feelings washing over him. He felt a bit too vulnerable to discuss it - but then again, when wasn’t he?

“I’m sending the requests every week. I’ve been emailing with Robert’s solicitor. Well, more like I’ve been bombarding him, getting back a couple of very short and very uncomfortable replies.”

“So he’s told you nothing.”

“Robert would have to give him permission to, and he clearly hasn’t.”

Aaron could taste the bitterness of his own words.

He desperately needed to wash that away with coffee.

He’d coax Sarah into revealing the location of the ingredients for his much needed morning jolt soon enough.

Using whatever tactics, because he needs the caffeine five minutes ago.

“Are you sure he’s told Robert about you reaching out?” Debbie asked.

“He has. That much I do know. God, I really need that coffee now.”

And for once, the universe was listening – which truly was the rarest thing - and Sarah appeared, handing over a steaming cup to Aaron, the delicious smell filling his nostrils.

“We’re still going to town”, she said, looking at Aaron firmly as he took the cup, sipping immediately.

It was definitely not a question, it was a statement, and a non-negotiable at that.

Aaron nodded. “And I’m still deciding the schedule.”

Sarah smirked, ever so pleased (with herself, mostly) and went about her morning.

Debbie smiled, looking at her cousin.

“Thank you.”

Aaron shrugged. “Don’t mention it. It’ll be fun. At least for them” he emphasized, noticing Debbie’s grin, “ but I’m sure it’ll be good for me and all.”

“I mean thank you for being here. I haven’t seen the kids so happy for a while. Behaving like kids, unlike..”she trailed off.

The rest went unspoken, but they both knew what it would’ve been.

Unlike us, because we never really had the chance.

“Speaking of kids, any word from Liverpool?”

Aaron took a sip of his coffee. “I need a smoke, Debs.”

Debbie’s eyes narrowed. “You said you’d not start again with the ciggies."

“And you want me to talk about Rebecca White without one.”

Debbie said nothing to that.

 

They put on their shoes and coats and stepped outside, slowly walking about on the grounds.

Once Aaron had lit up a cigarette, he said “I spoke with her yesterday morning. For like a minute, ‘cause she said she didn’t have her memory book with her and couldn’t confirm anything we’d talked about. Sounded like a ruse tho. I swear I could hear Ross in the background, encouraging her to get off the phone.”

Debbie scoffed. “Figures.”

“Seb’s in trouble in a lot of ways, one of them being him having ghosting genes. Idiots for parents, them two.”

Aaron could feel the bitterness seeping out again.

Debbie put her hand on his shoulder, her eyes determined as she spoke.

“You’re his parent too, Aaron. That hasn’t changed, and I don’t give a monkeys if anyone – including you - says otherwise. It’s still a fact.”

Aaron felt the waters rise behind his eyes but he fought against it.

“Rebecca did send me a text later on, saying I should talk to Diane”, he continued.

Debbie frowned.

“Diane? That’s...a bit random, isn’t it?”

Aaron shook his head, taking a drag from his cigarette. “Just another way to try and be rid of me.”

“And have you? Spoken to Diane?” Debbie crossed her arms, rolling her shoulders.

“No. Why would I? I don’t need to hear the crappy excuses from Rebecca’s messengers, do I? Trust me, it was bad enough the first time, having to listen to Pete.”

Aaron was fighting the stinging sensation in his eyes again.

Debbie sighed, the cold air making the puffs of her breath visible as she said “I still can’t believe he went along with it.”

“I can’t either to be honest. But he is Ross’s brother after all. Maybe not in personality, but in family.”

“Ross is not Seb's dad though, and he never will be”, Debbie said fiercely, “but he is a muppet who has no ability to think beyond his limited views.”

Aaron huffed. “They both are. Him and her.”

They fell silent, watching the daylight come about slowly, as if it was reluctant to appear.

As they made their way back towards the house, Debbie said, “I never could stand the sight of her, you know? Rebecca. Being the boring slapper that she is.”

“She has a permanent brain injury, Debs. Needs a book to check if she had her coffee or not.”

Debbie linked her arm around Aaron’s, smirking.

“Like you don’t enjoy my trashing her.”

“Didn’t say that, did I?”

 

Later, Aaron had considered calling Diane, he’d had his phone in his hand more than once, ready to dial.

But every time he talked himself out of it.

Because what he’d said to Debbie was true, he didn’t need another painful conversation about Seb being kept away from him.

He didn’t need the reminder of Seb having been taken away.

He didn’t need the feeling of losing his son again.

But he had to risk feeling that.

He wouldn’t do it by contacting Diane though.

Instead, he tried calling Rebecca again, unsurprisingly not being able to reach her.

Aaron stood in his room, staring at the pile of clothes on the bed he’d really should start sorting.

He stared at the leather jacket on top of the pile.

He’d once fallen asleep here in this house, in the living room, clutching it tightly in his arms.

From thereon he kept it in his room.

Not because he was somehow embarrassed by it.

Not because someone had said something about it.

In this house no-one would.

In this house, no-one tried to force him to move on and be happy.

No-one in this house was that cruel.

So it wasn’t about what others thought.

It was about those moments being private.

It was about him and Robert and no-one else.

Aaron closed his eyes, a sob escaping him.

Pain - its ability to knock the breath out of him, to make his entire body, his heart and mind throb with desperation, making him double over - in all its bright, sharp and merciless glory, the pain was nothing if not a reminder of what Robert meant to him.

needed reminder of why he wouldn’t give up.

His phone pinged.

Aaron fished it out of his pocket and saw a notification on his email app.

Sender: HMP Rightworth.

He quickly threw the phone on the bed as if it had burned him.

On most days, it did in a way.

But today was about those two kids downstairs.

About them having a laugh.

About them not being subjected to the darkness.

Lord knows they’d had enough of that already.

 

 

As Jack and Sarah had grown increasingly restless and impatient, Aaron had decided it was time for them to be on their way to town. When they arrived, the festival was in full swing, Christmas ornaments, trees and flashing lights greeting them. The smell of food lingering in the air, red, green, gold and silver everywhere, a bonfire, stands selling linens, jams, spices, mulled wine, endless amounts of toys and candy. It took fifteen minutes of negotiations with the kids and their cotton candy stained faces for Aaron to put his foot down and make them understand they’d not be going over the budget Debbie had decided on, and no amount of pleading looks from them would change his mind.

He let them go about on their own for a while after making it clear running off would mean all of their privileges taken away during Christmas.

That was a threat most kids took seriously.

Once alone, Aaron looked around with only one thought floating in his mind. 

Robert would love this.

The Christmas obsessed muppet that he is.

Aaron didn’t really want to buy anything but as he stopped at a candy stand, he saw a box of chocolates with a vaguely familiar logo on it.

As he studied it, he realised where he’d seen it.

He knew the chocolates were poncey, tasted horrible and would cost him an arm and a leg.

So he bought it. It did cost him an arm, a leg and then some.

He’d never eat the damn thing.

But he knew someone who would.

The saleswoman gift-wrapped it.

Aaron couldn’t help but smile.

He’d send it, regardless of the outcome.

 

Once he’d managed to load the sugar-drunk kids into the car - with them asleep as soon as he began to drive – Aaron was tempted to pull over and check the email, but before he could take that thought any further, his phone rang.

“Alright, Debs?”

“Hiya. Where are you? Still stuffing your faces?” Debbie asked.

“On our way back, shouldn’t be long now”, he replied.

“Okay, good. Just checking. See you soon!”

“See ya.”

The call ended.

Something had seemed slightly off in her tone, but Aaron wasn’t sure.

Perhaps he’d just imagined it.

 

Jack and Sarah had climbed out of the car, grumpy from the sugar crash. Once they were inside and gone back to being their mother’s problem, Aaron walked around the corner, lit a smoke (he really should quit, again) and took out the phone that had been burning a hole in his pocket for a good few hours now.

Sender: HMP Rightworth

Re: Visitation request

Prisoner name: Robert Sugden

Visitation request: Denied

 

After another cigarette – because who cares about fuckin’ quitting- he was actually contemplating a third one when Debbie appeared.

Well, more like stormed in view.

“Oi, I’ve been looking for ya everywhere!”

Aaron wiped at his eyes.

“Not now, Debs.”

“Yes now, Aaron. Come on!”

Debbie began to drag him towards the house.

Aaron forced her to stop.

“What’s up?” he asked, worried.

Debbie swallowed, hesitant.

“Well?”

“Diane’s here.”

Aaron felt the anger cloud his sadness.

“Right. Let me know when she’s gone.”

“No!” his cousin said, stubbornly, “she’s here to see you and you need to come inside now.”

Debbie’s eyes were darting around.

“I know what she’ll say, I really don’t”-

“Aaron, just shut up and come, alright?”

“Why?”, Aaron asked bitterly, “did Rebecca come with her? So they could double down on the misery?”

Debbie huffed. "No, Rebecca's not with her."

His cousin looked at him gently, stepping closer. She took Aaron’s hand and held it tightly. "But Seb is", she said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“What? S- Seb's here??”

Debbie nodded.

Time stood still, as did Aaron.

The world seemed to be spinning in an unknown rhythm, dancing about with a sickening, perpetual fouette, making his insides burn. The air was crispy, prickling at his skin. His hands were bare and the cold wasn’t doing them any favours, but really, it wasn’t the time to cry over spilled winterwear.

“Aaron.” Debbie took his hand again and began to walk towards the house, determined to take him inside now.

“Can’t I just – “

“No, you can’t. The longer you stay out here, the weirder it gets.”

“My life couldn’t get any weirder.”

“That’s not the point. And judging by our family history, life can always get weirder.”

Aaron had imagined this moment so many times, with a hundred and one scenarios and outcomes running through his mind.

He hadn’t prepared for this one though.

But had he really been prepared for any scenario?

Seeing his beautiful boy again?

Seeing how much he’d changed?

Seeing the evidence of time wasted?

Aaron felt the all consuming sadness take over.

No, it wasn’t just sadness.

It was shame.

Numbing yet aching, rushing through ever fibre in his body sort of shame.

Debbie, sharp and present as ever, was right there with his train of thought.

“You can’t mull over the past, not now. That little boy is in there and deserves to see ya.”

“He won’t recognise me”, Aaron said quietly.

“He will soon enough. In time.”

“He will resent me n’all in time when he’s old enough”.

“Well that’s a given. Kids will eventually resent their parents one way or another. And really, you reckon he’d resent you more than the Liverpool idiots who kept him from you? Trust me, they’ve got a lot bigger hassle coming their way. Even though you’re an idiot too.” She smiled, winking.

And truly, Aaron could never fully express to her just how grateful he was for her not sugarcoating any of it.

How grateful he was for her existence alone.

Her unwavering support.

Wish I’d been there for her like this.

“It will take time, Debbie said, blocking the dangerous path of his thoughts, “but he will recognise you eventually. Isn’t it better he gets to see you like this, rather than the version of you after Robert left?”

“I might've not been like that if I’d had him this whole time. Making sense of things. Making my life worth struggling through.”

Debbie’s nose had turned red, her hair flying about in the wind. She kept stepping back and forth, almost as though she was trying to teach Aaron how to walk.

Watch me how I do it, you’ll get to see more ruins of your past behaviour so much faster.

Her voice came cutting through his scattered mind once again:

“You’ll be even worse off than you were if you don’t let him back into your life. Seriously Aaron, you need to do this. For the both of you.”

She gazed at Aaron, laying a hand on his arm and pulling out the ultimate persuasion card.

“You need to do this for Robert too, Aaron. He’d want you to be a dad to Seb. And before you go off on one, I know Robert’s been a right prat about this, not putting anything on paper. How he didn’t make sure of it I’ll never understand. He would’ve easily made it happen because we all know that bloke could sell sand to Sahara. But I do know he’d want this, this right here, right now. He might be ghosting you, but he’d be devastated if he knew how things have gone with Seb. He knows you love that boy – not as if he were your own, because he is your own.”

It felt terrifying to hear that.

Terrifying, because he wanted to believe it.

And he almost did.

Aaron knew Debbie would stand there, stubbornly freezing with him for all eternity, whatever excuses he’d come up with.

He sighed.

And nodded.

“Right, let’s go then.”

As they entered the house, Aaron felt thoroughly disappointed to discover from Zac that Seb was already asleep.

Thinking it over, he realised he felt relieved too.

Getting to sleep on it was a gift of mercy after all.

Mentally preparing for seeing Seb.

Seb. With his strawberry hair and irresistible smile, Aaron cuddling him, knowing his freckles would melt his heart just like his dad’s had always done.

I wonder if he still has that stuffed toy I gave him during the last time we.. before I-

He shook his head, shaking the gnawing thoughts away.

Or at least a bit further back into his mind.

He’d deal with that mountain of baggage later.

 

 

“No point dragging it out”, Debbie whispered.

They were standing in the kitchen making a brew, Aaron having a minor meltdown in between plating biscuits and folding napkins. For some unknown reason, they were whispering like first graders secretly watching a forbidden TV series from their hiding place.

Or, whispering like adults spying on an unwanted guest who brought the most wanted guest, which seemed more accurate.

“I need a beer.”

“We don’t have any.”

You are a Dingle, how can you not have any?”

Aaron paused, looking at her with suspicion.

“Or is this you taking a leaf out of your daughter’s book? Let’s play hide and not seek with Aaron’s lifelines?”

Aaron’s face scrunched up in dismay.

“If there’s no beer I might as well just do one.”

“Aaron, it’s just Diane.”

“Debs, I am not about to sit there chitchatting with Malice in wonderland without having a beer first.”

“Fine, I get it”, Debbie agreed, pulling a bottle out of the cupboard and turning it towards Aaron. “How does a shot of homemade from uncle Zac’s shed distillery sound?”

“Horrible. Make it a double.”

Well, that bottle explained some of Zac’s side projects.

It also confirmed that there were definitely boots of cars involved.

Because obviously.

I’ve got something in the boot.

It’s not Lachlan, is it?

Enough with these already, he thought and shook his head for emphasis to push the memory away along with the lump in his throat.

“Here”. Debbie watched him carefully as Aaron took the glass from her and downed it. Grimacing, he blew out a breath and rolled his shoulders.

“Right then, into the hyenas den it is.”

“Behave.”

He shrugged. “What? It’s not like I’m about to grab a knife and go finish what mum started.”

Debbie punched his arm.

“Aaron, that’s way too morbid.”

“Fine, ruin the fun why don’t ya.”

As they were about to enter the living room, Aaron grabbed Debbie’s arm, pulling her backwards slightly and into a hug.

“Thanks Debs”, he said, with a rush of affection coursing through him as he squeezed tightly, making his cousin squirm a little.

“What for?” she asked as they pulled apart.

“Everything. Being Debs. Always be Debs, yeah?”

Debbie smiled warmly.

“That I can do.”

They stood in silence for a beat, overcome by the emotions.

Debbie chuckled, shaking her head.

"What?"

"Malice in wonderland. Sounds like a nickname Robert would've given someone."

Aaron laughed. "He did."

 

Zac and Diane were sat on the living room sofa, with enough distance between them to show just how little both of them wanted to be there.

Aaron looked at them, thinking of being his sixteen-year-old self, seeing into the future and coming up with this.

He shuddered suddenly, not for the things he’d see in his own time to come, not now - but because he was suddenly thinking of Robert, sixteen years old and seeing his life twenty years later.

He’d see the lack of appreciation; clearer, more piercing and cruelly obvious than ever.

He’d see the concrete wall.

Wearing the maroon clothes.

Hardened stare, colder voice.

Aaron knew the old Robert – no, the shield Robert - had emerged already.

Not because Robert particularly wanted that.

But because he’d had to.

And that thought split Aaron in half.

Every time.

He pushed away the resentment towards the woman sitting before him and promised himself he’d get through this encounter without going off his trolley, because this was about Seb and Seb alone.

Aaron knew Diane Sugden considered herself an institution, a family landmark, matriarch - or, if one preferred a blatant, simple yet equally false wording - a mama bear.

The things he knew about her now proved otherwise.

How she always belittled Ro-

But again, this was about Seb and Seb alone.

Diane clocked him and rushed to her feet, hugging him before he could even blink.

“Aaron! How are you, pet?”

Pet. Aaron had always hated that particular pet name – is that where it was from? Did they call them pet names to emphasize the obnoxiousness, by naming them by the most annoying one?

Be that as it may, Diane Sugden was force-hugging him all the same.

“Hiya”, he simply said and held out his arm – surely to suggest they sat down but mostly to just be rid of that damn hug already.

Debbie appeared with mugs and plates, carrying the infamous shed booze under her arm. She filled Zac's glass and turned towards Aaron, raising her eyebrows in question.

Aaron shook his head. “No, ta. I’ll just have a brew.”

Debbie nodded with an obvious well done I’m so proud of you – type of look. It was annoying, but Aaron offered her a smile anyway.

“Seb must’ve been tired from the travel, he was out like a light as soon as he got in bed”, Diane said.

Aaron swallowed hard, thinking of his son sleeping soundly. In that house.

Seb is here. 

It just seemed thoroughly unreal.

For a moment Aaron felt angry; why couldn't he tuck the boy in, read him a story, kiss his forehead as he said goodnight? His own son? How was that fair?

It wasn't. But he knew he couldn't. 

Because he doesn't know you.

For once, Diane had good timing as she stopped his depressing train of thought.

"What did you do today, pet?"

Her voice was grating – nowhere near as grating as his mum’s, but it still had the nails and chalkboard - effect on him.

Perhaps it was the context rather than the voice.

It probably was.

“I took Sarah and Jack to the winter shindig in town, now they’re both out for the count n’all”.

Diane chuckled. “So nice of you to take them, pet.”

Okay, he’d might have to just deal with being called the pet name and simply get on with it.

And he did just that.

They went through fifteen minutes of chitchat about the weather, Diane’s trip to Spain, the winter festival, Zac’s plans for his farm.

Aaron realised this was all new information to Diane.

Which meant she and Zac had probably, in fact, been sat there in complete silence before he and Debbie had appeared.

For some reason it made Aaron smile.

Widely.

After covering every non important subject under the sun, he decided to bite the bullet and finally discuss the reason he was having tea with pet names in the first place.

Seb is here.

And damn if it wasn't the most beautiful thought he'd had in ages.

“So how is he?” Aaron asked.

Diane looked at him with a sad smile. He felt a twinge of worry in his heart. Although it was more of a flood rather than a twinge.

“I think he’s okay. Well, you can never tell when it comes to him, but I think he’s coping.”

Diane looked at him, caution in her eyes.

Aaron frowned.

“Howd’ya mean, coping? Has something happened? What’s he coping with..is it Ross? Or Rebecca? Has she “-

It felt like the room was closing in on him, his breathing disappearing as he realised the reason behind Diane’s sad smile.

Realising they weren't talking about the same person.

Coping. You can never tell when it comes to him but I think he’s coping.

Aaron swallowed, trying to stop the room from spinning.

He stared at Diane.

Shocked, colours drained.

“You’ve spoken to Robert”, he said, not quite believing his own words.

"You spoke to him and that's why Seb's here, isn't it?"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Zac Dingle was good at many things.

He knew plenty about things.

He had seen a lot.

And he had one of the biggest hearts in the history of hearts, because and despite the things he had seen.

But he did not know how to make a good cup of tea.

Yet in this moment it was the greatest blessing ever, as Aaron and Diane had been grimacing at the taste, chuckling at his trying and failing to serve a proper brew.

And it broke that certain tension between them.

The kind of tension that holds a dangerous and fickle undercurrent, which can easily divert towards a direction that promises a massive aftermath.

In other words – no, there wasn’t about to be a bust-up.

A heavy conversation, yes.

Aaron held his teacup, still just sipping through the shock of it all.

But he could do with a bit of talking amongst the sipping.

“It’s prison, Diane. No-one really copes. Everyone just breathes and goes about things on autopilot.”

It wasn’t that simple – obviously – but Aaron felt it was neutral enough.

Yet still sounded like he was guilt tripping her.

Perhaps he was a little, wasn’t he?

His tea's taste seemed to get even worse as he sipped it, but it gave him something to do.

Diane fiddled with the collar of her blouse, clearly trying to gather her thoughts.

“What exactly did Robert say?” Aaron asked, dreading the answer.

“Not much. There’s a counselor he’s been talking to. He said it helps.”

Aaron scoffed a bit internally.

So it takes a prison sentence for that idiot to give therapy a go. Better really late than never tho, eh?

Still, he felt proud. And perhaps a grain of relief settled in too. A tiny one, but it was there all the same.

“How did this plan to bring Seb here even happen? Was it his idea?”

Diane seemed to run through a plethora of answers in her mind before she picked one.

And with that, she nodded.

“I told Robert I'd have Seb for a week and might bring him up here, as I haven’t seen Jack or Sarah for a while. It seemed like the right moment to tell him that you’re living here now too.”

Aaron felt fidgety; he thought of Robert hearing Diane talking about him.

Wondering how Robert felt about that.

What he really felt.

Aaron thought of Robert’s voice; that beautiful, deep voice that had made him feel everything.

Impatient, mystified, sad, furious, wonderful, worried, soothed.

Happiest he’d ever been.

Weak.

Hard.

Complete.

It had made him think anything was possible.

For a while, it had been.

He thought of Robert standing there, wearing the itchy clothes, talking on the prison phone, glancing around to watch his back (watching his words), carrying a heavy darkness upon his shoulders, undeniably suffering and still trying to convince his estranged stepmother he was doing fine.

Preferring to be broken instead of letting others break.

It stole his breath, thinking of Robert there.

The worry spreading out in his heart.

Aaron wanted to protect him.

Shield him.

From the world and from the darkness in himself.

And also in pure selfishness, to just see his face.

And to be able to sit in the bleak visiting room and tell that stupidly gorgeous face well about flippin’ time, letting Aaron see him and be done with the recluse hour.

To let Aaron help.

To let him.

Please Robert, will ya – will you just come home with me? And let me help you this time?

He hadn’t really helped, had he?

Not in the end.

“When I told him you were here, he said it probably would be good for Seb to see you.”

Aaron raised his eyebrows.

“He did?”

“Don’t sound so surprised. Robert knows how well you and Seb got on.”

Got on. Not exactly the same as calling them father and son, but he’d take it.

He’d take anything right now.

“I am surprised”, he said, feeling the regret spilling into his chest as he continued: “you know, considering. That I lost access to Seb.”

“Robert was furious about that.”

“Which part? Rebecca and Ross cutting me off or me not trying to contest it?”

Diane gave him a nervous smile and said the one thing she apparently could say.

“You were heartbroken.”

I still am.

I think we both are.

“Robert wouldn’t have given up if it’d had been me facing a sentence that long”, Aaron said, adamant.

He forced himself to look Diane in the eye.

“He wouldn’t have given up on me or our child.”

There. Enough with the got ons and the having a lovely times.

He was the estranged dad, aching to tell his son he was sorry.

He would never stop thinking of Seb as his son and everyone else should get with the program and realise that was the truth, end of.

Diane seemed to be at a loss for words, but she continued after a beat, repeating herself as she said “You and Seb are both here now and I’m sure you’ll have a lovely time. That says something.”

In Aaron’s mind it said only one thing.

That it seemed like an afterthought.

That he was trying to reconnect with Seb because now it was convenient for him to do so.

And he felt quite sure that was exactly how Robert had seen it.

He hadn’t had any time to process any part of these particular evening news, yet he was surprised by the relatively calm way his mind was working.

Seb is sleeping in this house and Robert made it happen because he wanted you to be in touch.

Well, that took the calm out of the equation a bit.

Yet it gave him a calm that hadn’t been there for ages.

That means something - what that meant in Diane’s eyes was probably miles away from Aaron’s interpretation, but he didn’t take the bait dangling in his head.

“Has anyone been to see him?” Aaron asked, impatient to get more details.

Diane shook her head.

“Not that I know of. Victoria spoke to him multiple times in the summer but that came to a halt when..” she trailed off.

When none of us encouraged him to go for the appeal.

None of us even tried.

The weight of that made the air thicken.

“Did you offer? To go see him?”

Aaron could read the answer on her face.

“He doesn’t want that, Aaron.”

Diane’s expression was unreadable.

“Yeah.”

Aaron felt his voice disappear into the horizon along with the mercy he was incapable of showing either himself or Diane, who hesitated for a moment before she said, offering a cliché from her collection “I think he’s just trying to protect us.”

But who’s protecting him?

Aaron noticed the others had left the room.

That probably had happened a while go.

He wasn’t sure whether it was a relief or not.

He had been itching to ask the question, the question with no possible answer which could do him any sort of favours in the self mercy department, but he really needed to voice it anyway.

“Did he ask about me?”

Yes, despite the vast amount of raw and bleak emotions swimming about in his heart, Aaron did feel as though he was a desperate teenager asking about his crush for a minute there.

It almost made him smile.

Just almost though.

“He didn’t really get a chance, pet. I did tell him a few things and then he had to get off the phone. You know what it’s like, there’s very limited time to talk.”

And just like that the prospect of a smile flew out the window.

Because this was Diane being Diane, oblivious to just how much in denial she was about so many things.

Diane gazed at Aaron, voicing the oblivion.

“He is strong. And you brought out the best in him, Aaron. That will help.”

Aaron almost laughed at that, not because it was particularly funny – but because it was tragic.

Not to mention completely inaccurate.

Aaron knew it didn’t help.

And he knew Robert had brought out the best in Robert. He had become himself, worked hard at it and never really got recognition for it.

He had also brought out the best in Aaron though.

And Aaron had thrown it away, as if it didn’t matter.

And Robert truly was strong, fiercely so, but prison wasn’t a place where it could be tested endlessly.

Hadn’t his strength been tested enough already anyway?

But this wasn’t the time to fall to pieces, because Aaron had zero desire to do that in front of Diane.

Or Seb. He would not crumble while his son was there, because that boy deserved better.

Not to mention Seb probably saw so much crumbling in adults at home he’d think it’s normal, and Aaron wasn’t about to fortify that twisted lane of upbringing.

He wondered just exactly how much Seb had to worry.

To be afraid.

The thought was curling around his neck in strangulation.

He cleared his throat, wishing his mind could do the same.

“How long are you staying for?” Aaron asked, keeping a steady gaze on Diane, hoping it came through at least vaguely calm.

“I don’t know yet, we’ll see how it goes.”

“You mean how Seb and I will go.”

“That too. Don’t you worry, Rebecca and Ross are both fine with it.” Diane stood up, saying “one moment, pet, I’ll just nip to the restroom.”

Aaron sat there contemplating Diane’s words; how little of a toss he’d prefer to care about Ross and Rebecca being fine with it.

He was openly furious about Rebecca ghosting him; that could not be brushed off, because blocking Aaron from Seb’s life without even considering a chance for a reconciliation was cruel and stupid, and Aaron wasn’t about to let it go.

Blanking him was a reminder of Rebecca’s worst characteristics – a reminder that if she hadn’t been in that accident, she would’ve kept rolling her eyes and trolling his life for all eternity.

Not that he had felt like she had never used her condition as an excuse.

Sometimes unintentionally.

Other times, absolutely deliberately.

Her obsession with Robert was rooted so deep in her mind, playing the world’s loudest violin of delusion and updating its playlist endlessly; it didn’t matter how much time would pass, or how many times Robert had chosen Aaron over her.

Her blatantly manipulative behaviour would irk him for all eternity. Aaron hadn’t forgotten about those weary moments when she’d happily played with his insecurities just to drive a wedge between him and Robert.

But there never had been a wedge strong enough to keep them apart.

Rebecca knew that.

As much as she had tried and at times succeeded to muddy the waters, with or without using feigned helplessness and her bimbo - Bambi stare, desperately cooing through her teeth like only she could (and thank heavens no-one else could) - Robert had always chosen him in the end.

Yet it hadn’t stopped her from still attempting to break them, to shatter their love and diminish its meaning, her hair flipping and tragedy card at the ready.

Sometimes Aaron wondered if Robert had initially let her take Seb to Liverpool because he’d felt guilty about leading her on.

And about Aaron having to start a family with him the way it had come about.

Perhaps he had thought Aaron really hadn’t come to terms with Seb, and tried to put a bit of distance between them to make it easier on him.

Seemed like a very Robert thing to do.

But Aaron had been honest; he had loved Seb from the start when he’d come to live with them. He had never resented Seb.

Like he had told Robert in that garage on a cold February night, he could never resent him, because he was Robert’s little boy.

Who had become their boy.

Seb falling asleep in his arms was the only feeling that felt equally as right as Robert doing the same.

It had never been in question.

And the truth was, he did feel sorry for Rebecca.

Not entirely, not all the time.

Especially now, with Seb caught in the middle of it.

So he didn’t pity her every single day.

But he knew she faced every single day with uncertainty, having to rely on a notebook and Ross Barton with going about things.

And with Seb though - Aaron knew many unflattering things about Rebecca White, but intentionally neglecting Seb wasn’t one of them.

Despite the worry, the horror of even thinking just how difficult things were in the home Seb had been growing up in, he didn’t want to put the blame entirely on Rebecca.

He knew she’d done the best she could when it came to looking after Seb.

Well, leaving the village with Ross hadn’t been her finest hour, but she’d felt suffocated and judged there.

And that was something Aaron definitely could relate to.

He didn’t hate her, not anymore – not that he had ever liked her either, but he knew he could grit his teeth and get on with her again, for Seb’s sake, offering another adult in his everyday life, taking some of the pressure off.

He’d manage that, if Rebecca were to let him.

And he was desperate to make sure Seb would remember who Robert was and what he was like, even if it meant getting to know him through photos and stories.

Seb deserved to know he had been loved by his dad. That he’d always be loved by his dad.

Diane came back, and Aaron was grateful for that.

It would give him the chance to discuss things instead of just being sat there, thinking of Rebecca - that particular pastime had never been on top of his list of things to do at his time of leisure.

Diane sat down, fixing her hair and smoothing at her clothes as she did so.

“Rebecca and Ross are both working a lot, so they need a proper break too”, she said, picking up her plate along with the discussion, and biting into a biscuit.

Working a lot. So Ross was probably flogging gear and Rebecca sat in an office in the “let’s give challenged mummy a job and polish our company shield, not because we give a flap about her struggles”-department.

Well, with these themes around, Zac’s revolting homemade whiskey would get a nice seeing to in the near future, when he’d be even remotely able to. After Seb had spent time with at least one adult who had genuinely good things to say about Robert.

“Seb will be happy to see you, Aaron.”

Aaron wanted to tell her off – perhaps at a younger age he would’ve done - or back then he’d been more likely to rather just flip the bird – but a part of him was dying to hear things like that, thus he could join Rebecca at the delusion club for a quick pint, couldn’t he?

“Not as happy as I’ll be to see him”, he said, swallowing hard and pushing his palms against his knees.

Diane nodded. “In the morning you’ll both be happy.”

Aaron saw Debbie come into the room with a frown, as if she’d lost something.

“Everything alright, pet?”

Debbie nodded absentmindedly, picking up a stack of papers and browsing through them.

Aaron suddenly remembered what he’d heard from Zac; the garage Debbie ran had come to a bit of financial troubles because of some tossers stealing client’s cars, and the insurance company had brought Debbie to tears with their indifferent stalling, making her stress levels spike to new heights with each phone call she went through with those people.

And Aaron had decided that just wouldn’t do.

He wanted to go talk to them idiots in the sweet language of a baseball bat – well, no he didn’t. Not really.

He didn’t want to be that Aaron anymore.

So he decided to do something else.

“Debs, a word?”

He glanced into the kitchen’s direction. Debbie followed him and as soon as they were alone, Aaron took an envelope from his pocket and handed it to her.

Debbie looked at him, questioning.

“What’s this then?”

“Just open it.”

Aaron braced himself for arguments, and that’s what he got as soon as his cousin had clocked the cheque in the envelope.

“I know you need something to get by for a while and that should do it.”

Debbie shook her head, touched and smiling, but refusing all the same.

“Aaron, I can’t take this.”

“Tough. You’ll be taking it anyway.”

“No.”

“Shut up, Debs. Just take it.”

“This is a lot of money.. it’s just too... Debbie stammered, eyes wide.

Aaron put his hands on her shoulders, looking into her eyes firmly.

“It is just money, Debs. And after everything you’ve done for me it’s the very least I can do. Think of it as an investment if you like, although I will turn down any profits offered. Now take the flippin’ cheque and do one, I’ve got a Sugden to deal with.”

Debbie smiled, cocking her head to the side.

“Looks like you’ve got two.”

Aaron turned around.

Seb was standing there, in green pajamas, hair askew, sleepily rubbing his eyes.

Aaron’s heart did a back flip any gymnast would envy.

His beautiful boy. He was there.

His son.

His eyes watered.

Seb looked so tiny, like he was still the version Aaron had last seen, only in a bigger boy’s body, not knowing how to deal with being in it.

Little freckled face, strawberry hair and a tired smile.

Sweet, sleepy smile.

He looked so much like Robert.

Aaron crouched down, looking at Seb carefully as he stood there.

Seb clocked him and looked at Aaron, who was about to double over with the rush of emotions he couldn’t even begin to name.

And he didn’t exactly have time to as Seb was suddenly in front of him, gazing at him with his beautiful (dad’s)eyes.

“Aaron”, he said, grabbing his beard, his breathing accelerated like kids always seemed to have.

Aaron, he’d said.

And it wasn’t a question. It was confirmation.

“Hiya Seb”, Aaron said, astounded by his own ability to speak.

His little boy. God, he’d missed him.

Hiya son, was what he wanted to say.

With the same desperation he wanted to hear Robert’s voice, just so he could call him husband.

“I have juice”, Seb said determinedly, because it was the most important thing in the universe.

To Aaron it was.

“Is it good?” Aaron asked, watching Seb’s pondering face, his heart pounding so loud he was sure Seb could hear it.

“Maybe”, Seb said, shoving his sippy cup in Aaron’s face.

Aaron took a sip. It was good.

He remembered that taste.

It was Lisa’s recipe.

“Thank you”, Aaron said, handing back over the cup.

“Can you read for me?” Seb didn’t wait for a reply, simply grabbed a book from the floor and pitter-pattered towards the sofa, his little feet making a noise a kid’s feet always made; the joyous impatience in his movements making everything form an echo.

After that it was a blur; suddenly Aaron found himself on that sofa again, with Seb sitting next to him, talking a mile a minute.

That reminded him of Robert too, but the scattered monologue coming from Seb was because he was four; with Robert it was because although he was going on fourty he was a big child in his heart, completely, openly excited and glowing, his feet and his joy magnifying their echo too.

Aaron read the book with a shaky voice, trying hard to keep his emotions intact. Seb listened with varying success, interrupting to babble about everything and nothing.

“I love dinosaurs”, he said loudly as Aaron was reading about a garden fairy, true to the random trait of his age.

“Me too, mate”, Aaron said, getting a pleased smile in return.

And off went the monologue train, cho-chooing away as Seb began to list animals he liked.

Apparently he didn’t like panthers, but four animals later he backtracked and decided to give the panthers a go. Aaron told him he had all the panthers now but Seb might get one if he got another sip from his cup.

Aaron got a sip.

Seb got his panther.

They both got a giggle from the deal.

Aaron couldn’t remember feeling this kind of happiness in such pure form in so long. Seb’s scent, that sugary scent, his restless little boy breath, his hands sticky – why was it that their hands were so often sticky, as if perpetually slathered with jam? Kids and jam were such an obvious yet perplexing combination.

Mind you, Aaron would’ve happily swum in a jam ocean for the rest of time if it had pleased Seb.

How was this even real? Seb was sitting next to him, snuggled up to his side like it was the most natural thing in the world.

It was, but Aaron hadn’t dared hope it would be that to Seb.

They talked about animals for a good fifteen minutes – which was an admirable length considering the previous ability to stick to one with earlier subjects - and generally for a four-year old's attention span. Then Aaron told Seb about cars. Seb informed him that auntie Debbie knew a lot about cars too, and he said it with such pride Aaron could just see Debbie’s smug smile upon hearing about it.

Seb decided to just play with the storybook for a moment, with Aaron just looking at him, his back getting stiff but he was afraid to move.

As if Seb might disappear.

Many things could happen, but that wasn’t one Aaron would allow to.

He sat there simply inhaling Seb's presence, their short cut history together offering its pieces to accommodate. Seb still loved being tickled. He still got up and danced randomly.

Aaron wished he could've called Robert, just to tell him that their four-year-old son was a terrible  dancer but not nearly as bad as his dad. 

Aaron felt thrown back in time, to breakfasts, evening baths, toys and nappies, sniffles, giggles, everything running on loop around them, reminding not only what had been, but what could and would be.

Because the love of their family remained no matter how much that idiot refused to see him.

“Daddy Robert.”

And for the briefest second, upon hearing Seb's words Aaron expected to see said idiot, his husband in the doorway, as if this was a family holiday with the past two years wiped away and replaced with something sublime; just them, together, wherever.

He looked at his son who was staring at Aaron’s phone on the sofa. His lockscreen was visible and Seb had clocked the photo, Robert’s happy face gazing ahead.

And for a moment, it felt like Robert was looking at them, smiling at his husband and their son.

 

It was getting late; Seb had been more or less sleepy throughout their encounter, which is why he soon began to nod off. Then he was climbing on Diane’s lap with heavy eyelids, and she got up to take him to sleep.

Seb looked at Aaron over her shoulder. “Good night Aaron”, he said, smiling, half asleep, thumb slipping into his mouth as his eyes closed.

Aaron felt the love, the intense, frightening, all consuming love wash over as he offered Seb a watery smile.

“Good night, Seb”.

It was more than acceptable for him to cry a few minutes on Debbie’s shoulder after that.

 

He was stood outside with a cigarette, everything in his mind bouncing back and forth, the overwhelming happiness from seeing his son, their conversation and Seb’s beautiful features going on replay.

“Here you are”, he heard Diane’s voice. She stepped to stand next to him. Aaron turned towards her.

“Thank you. This means..” he couldn’t finish.

Diane patted him on the shoulder.

“I know, Aaron. And it went so well, too.”

Aaron nodded with a shuddering breath.

“Robert was right. This is good for Seb. For the both of you.”

Aaron looked at her, realisation hitting him.

“How did he recognise me? It’s been so long.”

And he really hadn’t thought about it at any point, because everything had happened so naturally.

It was better than he ever could’ve imagined.

Diane wrapped her coat tighter around herself, blowing out a breath.

Aaron suddenly felt a bit ashamed and quickly put out his cigarette. Not many people were able to make him feel fifteen and caught out, but Diane Sugden was one of them.

Even though she’d said nothing. Perhaps that was exactly why.

“A child needs to know its parents. One must make sure of it”, she said.

Aaron frowned.

“Why would have Ross or Rebecca made sure of it?”

Diane gave him a smile that could only be described as sly.

“They didn’t, pet. I did.”

For a moment, the nails slipped off the chalkboard and her voice wasn’t so grating to Aaron anymore.

Diane’s phone rang. She looked at Aaron apologetically.

“Sorry love.” 

Love. No pet this time.

Everything seemed to be improving.

Diane answered her phone.

“Hello pet!”

Oh, so that didn’t last long, did it?

Diane was staring at him, in the way people do when they’d like to keep two conversations going simultaneously.

“Seb is asleep. Yes, he’s just fine. Yes. How come you’re calling me this late, I thought you could only call at six?”

Aaron froze.

Six o’clock phone call.

“Seb and Aaron are thick as thieves. One would think they’d just seen each other yesterday. What’s that? Oh, I see. Alright then, I understand. Tell you the truth I don’t even want to know how you managed to get to a phone now even for a minute.”

Aaron held out his hand as a reflex. Diane hesitated, and then clicked the phone on speaker.

“Are you still there? You alright?”

“I’m fine, Diane.”

His voice.

Robert’s voice.

His beautiful voice.

Aaron’s heart was bursting; perhaps I’m fine Diane weren’t the words he’d thought to hear after two years of silence, but it didn’t matter, did it?

It was Robert.

His husband.

His beautiful husband.

“Robert”, he croaked out before he could stop himself.

He was met with silence.

“Are you there, pet?” Diane asked.

The silence was getting increasingly loud, pressing at Aaron’s chest with heavy hands.

Then the line went dead.

It felt as if though hours had passed as Diane sighed and put her hand on Aaron’s arm.

“Come on Aaron, let’s go have a sip of that terrible excuse of a drink Zac made.”

Aaron nodded.

He looked around the fields, seeing nothing.

Silence everywhere.

As he went back inside, toed off his shoes and unzipped his jacket he thought of Seb, that he had a week with Seb to look forward to.

And having Seb around meant having the biggest piece of Robert's heart there, which made it all a little bit easier. 

No, a lot easier. 

Robert's silence cut him in ways that were too painful to think about, but he would concentrate on Seb now. 

And clearly that was what Robert wanted too.

Aaron just wished for the silence to end.

When he was about to go to the living room, he heard Zac and Debbie talking in the kitchen.

“That little lad takes after our Aaron”, he heard Zac say, “don't trust many people but when he does, trusts with everything he’s got, like a Dingle.”

Debbie hummed in agreement.

“Did ye see Seb's face when he saw him?” Zac said, amused, “the room just about disappeared and Aaron was all the boy could see.”

“Takes after Robert then too, doesn’t he?” Debbie said, a smile vibrating in her voice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“God, Aaron, you’re so stupid.”

“Thanks for that. And you always think I’m stupid so narrow it down will ya.”

Aaron put the conversation on speaker, as he was changing into attire that would be better in accommodating some outside house work and later on, a snowball fight with Seb. The snow had been falling relentlessly for two days, which meant more work for the grownups and truckloads of fun for the kids, quite literally.

All the adults agreed the latter mattered the most.

It was barely light outside. When the phone had rang, Aaron was about to go fix a fence with Zak, and the hoodie and trackies he’d been wearing all morning wouldn’t get him very far in that regard.

“You said Seb’s there, you sure know how to bury the lead. Why’d you let me go on about my rehab, it’s hardly a press-stopping newsflash at this point.”

“It’s important to me, Liv. And you”, Aaron said as he pulled the jumper over his head.

“Seb’s also my brother, Aaron. Sort of. S'pose everyone is at this point. I know you’d want to be the only one, just so you can be all cocky about it because I’m awesome but give me something here.”

Aaron could just see his sister rolling her eyes.

Well, he rolled his right back at her.

He wished he could actually see it happen though.

He missed her. Terribly so. And now they didn’t even have access to videochat because of the strict rehab rules.

“Liv, will ya just tell me about – oh God, the cheese.”

“Aaron, I don’t speak random dairy so I’m gonna need context.”

Aaron sighed. “I forgot to buy cheese for Seb’s tea tonight. I wanted to try out this recipe I got from Lisa’s kitchen drawer notes.”

You cooking tea? Planning on burning down the house afterwards? ‘Cause you know it’ll be the only way to get rid of the smell of whatever disaster you’ll come up with.”

“Oi.”

Liv snorted.

“You know I’m right. So how is the little nightmare?”

Aaron smiled as he said “He’s good. Really good. We both are.”

“About flippin’time, I’d say.”

“Wish you were here n’all tho”, Aaron said, the urge to hug his sister increasing by every passing minute.

“Enough, sappypants, “Liv said with that tone which was half annoyed and half pleased, “you’ll be sick of the sight of me in about ten seconds when I get a weekend pass to visit.”

“I’m sure I can make it twenty.”

“No you can’t.”

Aaron chuckled. “Tell you what tho, I reckon you should come up here for this weekend if you can. A lot can be done in twenty seconds.”

Ten, Aaron. But yeah, that sounds great actually. I’ll ask about the weekend tonight after group counseling.”

The way she said group counseling sounded more like group torturing but Aaron knew better than to point that out, so instead he said “and just to make sure you’ll actually come, I’ll have Debs and Diane do the cooking.”

“I’ll drink to that.”

“Too soon, Liv.”

“Alright spoilsport, keep your hair on. Not that there’ll be much left with the way it’s been drowning in that gel for ages.”

“D’ya know what, I’m beginning to like the idea of ten seconds instead of twenty.”

Liv laughed – genuinely, almost carefree like laughed and said “so come on, tell me about Seb. How did he end up there in the first place?”

Aaron swallowed, focusing on keeping his tone level.

“It was Robert’s idea.”

Talking about him after hearing his voice made the wounds throb a bit harder, as if he had a fever that spiked every time, draining the strength out of him, leaving him shivering and breathless.

Missing Robert after hearing his voice had multiplied.

Three words, and none of them addressed to him.

But he’d heard that voice again, fearing he never would.

Now he needed to hear it again and again.

His determination had risen along with the need.

Robert? Seriously?”

Liv sounded small all of a sudden.

Like that fourteen-year-old Liv, the one who had spent a lot of time trying to hide the fact that underneath her stroppiness and monumental stupidity was a sharp-witted, big-hearted girl who loved both of her big brothers madly, adamantly.

Endlessly.

“Yeah. Diane told him she’d be bringing Seb to see Jack and Sarah. Mentioned then about my living here. Robert thought it’d be good for Seb to spend time with me.”

“That was nice of him”, Liv said without even a hint of her (in)famous sarcasm in her tone, “he knows it’d be great for you n’all.”

She paused, Aaron already knowing what she’d say next.

“So you haven’t spoken to him?”

Does an “I’m fine Diane” count?

It probably didn’t. And Aaron didn’t want to worry Liv – not because she couldn’t handle it, but because he couldn’t handle it – it being the worrying about the worrying.

And she was fragile now. Aaron knew by very empirical research that the last thing a fragile person needed was someone constantly bringing it to their attention.

And that was exactly what he’d end up doing if he’d tell Liv about the phone call.

Perhaps he felt a bit too fragile to face it, too.

Especially after he’d received the usual visitation request: denied the previous week.

“No, I haven’t talked to him.”

“Aaron, you know that doesn’t mean-“

He cut her off. “Let’s not, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Seb loves this place”, Aaron said, quickly changing the subject “he’s completely at home here. So am I to be honest. You will be too.”

“He should live there permanently.”

“We all should.”

The Robert should too went unspoken, but they both knew it was there.

“Aaron?”

Seb’s face appeared to the doorway – for a second, as he quickly made his way across the room to be a part of the conversation, moving all whirlwind – like.

“Who is that?” he asked, chewing the edge of a blanket so determinedly it reminded Aaron of the time he’d chewed on everything because he was teething.

But he wasn’t now, hence Aaron gave him a pointed look.

“Put that away, Seb, that’s not your breakfast. It’s your auntie Liv on the phone”, Aaron said, with a scoff coming through the speaker in a heartbeat.

“Just Liv will do, thanks. Hiya Seb, are you having a good time?”

“Yes!” Seb squealed and continued as if in passing: “Sarah said we can have chocolate for breakfast”

He said it so innocently.

As innocently as a half Sugden morning-manipulated by another one could.

Liv laughed. “Does Aaron look like he will say yes?”

Seb glanced at Aaron, sighing. “No.”

He grabbed the hem of Aaron’s trackies. “Snowball fight.”

“I haven’t forgotten, Seb. But I need to help uncle Zak and you need to go have your breakfast and that means no chocolate. Tell Sarah I said that.”

Seb shrugged, pouting but went about his breakfast anyway. Undoubtedly Sarah would try to change the breakfast menu again, but Debbie would be there to put an end to it. And Aaron could always threaten to put away all the chocolates in the entire house for all eternity.

Sarah wasn’t the only one who knew the 101 on blackmailing family with hidden goods, was she?

Even though she was the one getting the better of them most of the time.

Liv’s voice came through, impressed. “Wow Aaron, all tough love, aren’t ya?”

“Robert’s not here so someone has to. I’ll bet Seb hasn’t had much of it at home.”

“He is at home now, so it’s all good.”

And that was music to Aaron’s ears, better than anything one could find amongst the pages of NME.

Seb was home. With him. For the foreseeable future.

He thought about it all after his phone call with Liv came to an end as her art therapy class was about to begin. Knowing her it was the part of her daily routine that she thoroughly enjoyed.

Two and a half weeks earlier he had driven to Liverpool with Seb as agreed, arriving to Ross and Rebecca’s house during Seb’s nap. As soon as he’d gotten out of the car he could just smell trouble.

And sure enough, there was an incident happening on the street, Ross yelling at some bloke who looked like he had spice instead of chocolates for breakfast.

Aaron was grateful for one thing at that moment. Seb was fast asleep and safe in his car. Diane was in the car too, so Aaron speed texted her Ross up to no good don’t get out of the car I will handle this don’t worry.

He was also grateful that he’d promised himself no more violence because if anything put that promise to the test, it was Ross Barton.

The bloke disappeared soon, Ross left standing there.

As he clocked Aaron, he was shrugging, waving his hands about with elbows pressed to his sides, much like the most ridiculous version of a falsely stereotypical Italian in movies.

Aaron knew Ross didn’t need the hand gestures in order to look stupid but they did accentuate his sad cartoon character demeanour, one that suggested he was that particular character who would always get up and do more moronic things, no matter how many pianos had already fallen on his head.

Aaron desperately wanted to deck him, but he was much more desperate to not do that, for Seb, for himself. For Liv. For Robert.

So he settled for raising his voice instead of his fists.

What the fuck, Ross? This is not happening. Whatever this is, it stops now.”

He had been right about the details of Ross’s part in the working hard Diane had mentioned.

The situation at hand turned out to be – obviously – a drug deal gone wrong. True to form, Ross tried to downplay it but Aaron wasn’t having any of it and coaxed the details out of him.

The awful truth unravelled; Rebecca was getting worse with her condition and Ross was too busy flogging gear to actually do something about it.

Honestly, Aaron had known somehow. The last time he’d seen their house it had been a tad too staged. As if they had something to hide, and their attempt to keep it hidden only made it more obvious.

It had all been a bit too...tidy.

A textbook example of Keeping up appearances for the authorities, volume 1.

Aaron wasn’t with the official authorities.

But he was a Dingle, and that meant he’d spot the hidden signs of a broken home quicker and better than any social worker ever could.

Not letting himself become blinded by the rage as he stood in the street with Ross, the rage about Seb being stuck in such a vulnerable situation, Aaron told Ross firmly he was taking Seb back to Scotland for the foreseeable. He called Peter, Rebecca’s support worker to inform him about her struggling. The social promised there’d be someone to see her that day but Aaron decided it was better to take Rebecca to them immediately. After he had forced Ross to tell Peter that he didn’t contest Aaron and Diane taking Seb, Ross scarpered without even looking at Seb (like the loyal stepdad and partner he wasn’t) Aaron drove off with Seb, Diane and a very disoriented Rebecca who slept through the car ride, thankfully so did Seb.

Once they arrived, Diane put a hand on Aaron’s arm and looked at him firmly.

“ I’ll take it from here, Aaron.”

She spoke quietly, to avoid waking up the sleeping boy and his mum.

“How’d ya mean?”

“I mean I will take Rebecca inside and speak to..”

“Peter.”

“Right. I will speak to Peter and make sure Rebecca’s taken to a hospital. Meanwhile you can take Seb for a meal to that café over there” – she pointed towards the park where a cafe was situated in the corner across the street – “and when I come back you go speak to Peter. I don’t think it’s a good idea to have Seb with us in the office building at any point. If he sleeps now, he won't know about Rebecca being here which is a blessing in this mess if you ask me. After you’ve spoken to Peter, you can ask him to come with you so he can see for himself how well you get on.”

Aaron didn’t even notice the get on which had irked him greatly, he was too busy being thoroughly impressed by Diane’s ability to form a plan so quickly.

“And I will go back to Debbie’s with you. That way Peter will be more likely to agree.”

Aaron simply nodded, and the plan was put to action.

And indeed, after they’d sorted everything with Peter and one of Rebecca’s mates – a sane and sober one – showed up to look after her, they were on their way back.

When Peter added Aaron as one of Seb’s emergency contacts to his planner, Aaron felt something shift in a way that could only magnify in the future.

He didn’t know how or why, but the feeling was there and somehow he just knew.

When they were stopping for a quick coffee on their way back towards Scotland, Diane brought Aaron a cupcake.

Aaron frowned.

“What’s this then?”

“Well we should celebrate”, Diane said, sipping her service station cappuccino (Robert wouldn’t drink that muck in a million years) “it is a big day.”

“Having Seb with us is celebration enough”, Aaron said, not being able to hold back his smile.

Turns out, neither could Diane.

 

Aaron was shaken out of his thoughts by Zak coming in and they went about their fence fixing. After a quick lunch – with Seb chanting snowball fight, snowball fight on a loop throughout the meal – Aaron finished the work with Zak and then took his son outside and played with him until they were both exhausted, red-faced and freezing.

As he got out of the shower after giving Seb his supper, followed by a bath and soon to be continued with tucking him in for the night, Debbie was in front of him, grinning and handing him a beer.

“Alright big boy?”

“Since when do you call me big boy, Debs? And by the way, don’t.”

“Since today. Don’t you worry, we’re celebrating .”

“What’s with the pestering celebration talk? First Zak talked my ear off about some shindig and now you. What'ya babbling about it to me for, you people know I hate that hassle and need no part in it. I’ve been talking about Seb and with Seb all day, that’s enough for me so I’m all shindiged out, ta.”

“Well tough”, Debbie said, “tonight there’ll be loads of hassle. It’s not everyday you turn thirty, is it?”

“Oh. Right. I didn’t realise it was today.”

Aaron saw Zak and Diane share a look, smiling.

Debbie half sighed, half chuckled, looking at him knowingly.

“You forgot your birthday entirely because of Seb. You really are a parent, aren’t you Aaron?”

 

They went about their supper and - much to Aaron’s chagrin – started the birthday celebration. Liv had sent him a present, a book called Poetry for the elderly (during their next phone call, he’d have some words to say to her about that and the card that said Nice one grandad, try not to have too much of not having fun).

Seb giving him a big birthday hug and a drawing though, that he didn’t mind at all.

After he’d read his son a story and the boy was asleep, Aaron went outside to enjoy a birthday cigar Zak had given him.

It didn’t taste good, and he opted for a cigarette instead.

The door opened, a rush of warm air and voices chatting carrying through.

Debbie was standing there, arm stretched out to hand him a phone.

“Oh God, just tell Cain I’m not taking calls.”

Debbie shook her hand impatiently, waiting for Aaron to take the phone.

Relenting, he took it.

“What?” he grumbled.

Aaron.”

It wasn’t a hallucination.

It was his voice.

Robert?”

“Hiya.”

Aaron bit his fist to stop the tears from coming, battling the fear and the even bigger rush of love spreading its warmth into his entire body.

“Robert”, he repeated breathlessly, as if he needed to double check, itching to say what he really wanted to.

Please forgive me.

Let me make it up to you.

Let me help you.

Please.

“You need to stop with the requests, Aaron.”

Robert’s voice was firm, but it sounded gentle all the same.

“Well I am not about to, idiot”, Aaron said, pushing the hurt from Robert’s words away along with this ridiculous attempt to block him.

Not this time, Sugden.

“Thought not”, Robert said, sounding a bit more quiet, a bit more unsteady now, “there’s something I need to tell you.”

I met someone here.

I met someone and they’re here for me. Unlike you.

I don’t want you.

I don’t need you.

I’m so glad I divorced you.

You let me down.

I hate you.

It wasn’t any of the horrifying options Aaron had running through his mind though.

“I’m being transferred next week. To Strangeways.”

“As in Manchester?”

Aaron was beginning to suspect it was a dream after all.

A cruel yet beautiful dream.

“Yeah. How’d ya know where it is so quickly?”

“I’m a Dingle.”

He undeniably was one, but I know the exact location of every soddin' prison because I’ve a visiting plan for every single one of them was closer to the truth, wasn't it?

He could hear the chuckle, even though it wasn’t audible at all.

"Are you okay? I know it's a stupid question, but..are ya? I need to know, Robert."

Robert didn't give him an answer. Instead he said“If I arrange a visiting order, will next week work?”

Robert was asking him to visit.

Aaron no longer bothered to fight the sobs. They flew out of him, bursting into the air, echoing the longing, the regret, the heartache, the sorrow.

The love.

The love he feared Robert didn't believe to be there.

The love he feared Robert didn't feel anymore.

What if he doesn't love me anymore?

He could hear Cain's voice in his head, saying "that's ridiculous" with a scoff.

But he wasn't sure. And that hurt beyond belief.

Robert not loving him.

And worse, Robert not believing Aaron loved him.

“’Course next week will work. Of course it will”, he chocked out, knowing that Robert could hear the tears in his voice.

“Right. I’ll do that then.”

It sounded like a sob had escaped from Robert too, but he wasn’t sure.

Please don't cry, husband. 

God, Robert.” Aaron whispered, hoping it would say the things he daren’t say.

Yet.

Robert cleared his throat.

“Next week then.”

“Next week”, Aaron confirmed.

“I’ve to go now.”

No. No. Not yet. Please. I need to keep talking. I need to hear your voice for the next hour at least. 

I've missed you so much.

Please forgive me.

Please.

But he knew it wasn’t the time.

Robert wasn’t ready for any of it.

And Aaron wasn’t either.

“ ‘Kay”, he said quietly, about to put the phone away but then Robert spoke.

“Aaron?”

“Yeah?”

“Happy birthday.”

“It is now.”

Robert hung up.

But Aaron was sure he wasn’t the only one standing in silence, letting the sobs out, reeling through it, and feeling the universe beginning to slide back into place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sender: HMP Manchester

Re: Visiting order

Prisoner name: Robert Sugden

Visitation: Confirmed

 

Aaron had always loathed sending and receiving emails, even if it did save him from speaking in person with people of such great heights in the idiocy department, but he hated having to deal with it anyway, the typing, the tapping, the editing, the will-to-live-slowly-dying.

Today though, email was the best thing invented by man.

He had replayed his very short phone conversation with Robert so many times he could feel his mind stuttering with a sigh, asking for just one moment’s peace.

He had been thinking about it a little less than a hundred thousand times every day, but the number was still up there with digits that would buy him a very nice car had those numbers represented his spending bank account balance.

He hadn’t really talked about it, but the looks he was getting from his family members over his absentminded behaviour were so understanding, that it just made it that more clear they only put up with it knowing he’d be off to Manchester soon enough.

Apparently there was a limit to family loyalty, and clearly this was the deal-breaker.

As if he cared.

He’d see Robert soon.

He’d see Robert soon.

But he’d still have to wait for the next day, when he’d get up at dawn to check everything and spend time with Seb before he’d head off to Manchester.

Aaron drove up the hill and parked in front of a brick building, full-on cacophony filling his ears as he stepped out of his car, little puffs of powdered snow flying around him.

The renovation was going well.

He went up to one of the builders, confirming that the walls weren’t allowed - nor did they need - to get torn open for insulation, because it could be compensated by adding thermal insulation to the roof.

He could just picture Jackson laughing at his builder lingo when he negotiated with the work crew.

Aaron picked up his tea thermos from the front seat, locked his car and went inside.

Looking around the old building, plastic sheets, jars of spackle and tools everywhere with the cold air whipping about and sunlight dancing on the walls, he stood there, feeling the weight of change sweeping over him.

This was something he’d never thought of doing, yet it felt like it made sense in the purest way.

It’d take time for it to sink in though.

Aaron Dingle, mechanic, was someone he had known.

Aaron Dingle, scrapyard owner, that bloke he remembered too.

Aaron Dingle, youth centre co-director; that was someone Aaron would have to adjust to befriending.

It had all happened so quickly, from getting the idea of changing career lanes in his head in the autumn, contacting the city council, meeting them and offering them his plan which was welcomed with open arms (he wasn’t kidding himself into thinking the hefty donation from their savings he and Liv had given wasn’t one of, if not the biggest incentive). After they’d discovered a plan for a new youth centre had been in progress but never had come about, they’d decided to just make it happen.

A youth centre with different forms of group counseling, activities, meals and a social worker arranging emergency accomodation if needed.

Aaron had made it clear since the starting second that he would be running the things in the background and not agreeing to any sort of attention that wasn’t absolutely necessary.

Yet here he was, with a camera crew flitting about with wires and weird outfits, a microphone about to be shoved into Aaron’s face and his nerves being shattered by well-meaning people who really didn’t know what it meant when they were being told to do one.

Ally, the real director of the place as Aaron called her, the witty, no-nonsense forty-something woman with majestic features and a sharp tongue - who in her frighteningly assertive yet overwhelmingly affectionate presence reminded him of Moira - was nowhere to be seen and had clearly left Aaron to his own devices, that being forced to give an interview to a nationwide channel which meant he’d be getting the piss taken out of him for all eternity - in every possible dialect. And Ally had done this more or less intentionally.

Thanks a lot Ally, you’re not getting a Christmas card this year, are ya?

“Mr.Dingle..”

Aaron. Just Aaron, please.”

“Right then, Aaron. Now, remember that this isn’t a live interview, so we can stop and start again at any point. Here, I brought you some breakfast.”

The reporter left the paper bag on the table and backed out as if Aaron were an unpredictable wild animal, but given the circumstances it was probably for the best.

“We could start by you telling about how this idea came to you...”

After they’d barely sat down in the soon-to-be day room with their breakfasts with wooden crates mimicking as chairs, someone approached him with a brush - as if Aaron would let anyone called I’m from the makeup department get anywhere near his face – the reporter told him with a sly smile that they could sneak out soon for a smoke if he’d just agree to a bit of primer, whatever that was. Aaron relented and let the makeup person do their worst, then he stepped outside with the reporter in tow, handing him a paper cup (decent coffee, Robert would approve) and they had a chat along with the much needed cigarette (a partner in crime, finally).

Once they began filming Aaron was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t quite as daunting as he’d thought – they walked on the grounds, Aaron showing them around and discussing the opening which was scheduled to take place in March. The reporter – Aisling - was a laid back and genuinely nice person with a sincere smile and downright kind delivery, which made Aaron wonder how on earth she survived the world of media where - to him it seemed - the staff were taking politically incorrect pride in tearing each other a new one as well as their bosses and subjects.

Miracles happen, apparently. She’s young tho, there’ll be plenty of time for the world to disappoint her.

Yeah, those weren’t the thoughts he was meant to be saying on television, especially when discussing the perks of a youth centre.

And he was actually quite sure Aisling would be just fine. As they kept talking, Aaron discovered that underneath her sweetness was clearly Liv-like fire that didn’t allow anyone to take her for a mug. She was just smart enough to alternate between the layers to each situations benefit.

Yeah, she’d be more than fine.

“So, Aaron, if you could describe the meaning of this place in a nutshell, what would you say?”

Half wanting to help kids to have a safe place, half wanting to do my own penance for generally being a massive knob for the past two years and then some.

Yeah, that wasn’t it.

Aaron looked at Aisling and smiled nervously, trying to block out the thought of the recording camera present.

“Well it’s meant to be a place where young people can come as they are, with whatever problem they might have or to just spend time together. It's a place where they have a say in what goes, including the activities we arrange. A place where we try and just do things together,  respecting and listening to what the people coming to us need."

God, I sound like a tosser.

Still, Aisling smiled at him as if though he weren’t one, bless her.

“Sometimes things can change when you just pull over for a minute and breathe. That’s why we named the place The Layby.

 

Aaron hadn’t been inside a prison building for a long while – not since he’d last seen Robert – but the procedures before being actually let in hadn’t become any less daunting. Before leaving his hotel room in Manchester he had called Seb, missing him already and feeling guilty for not being able to say I’m going to see daddy Robert.

After a quick meal which tasted like cardboard because of his nerves, he had triple checked everything but he felt the same ridiculous panic as one felt at the airport security scan, thinking someone had slipped a nice big chunk of illegal substances amongst the toothpaste and the kecks while he hadn’t been looking, making the day a complete and utter nightmare about to unravel.

To his relief, Aaron’s things didn’t include any more such substances than the zero of them he’d had before.

He looked on with the familiar awkwardness swirling in his thoughts as the guards ripped open the letter he’d written, flipping through the photos stuffed in the same envelope, invading on the fragile privacy - the privacy that for them didn’t have much to go on these days.

The letter or the photos didn’t have anything incriminating in them, but there wasn’t any intimacy to them either.

It just wasn’t a possibility.

Standing by the gate that led to the visiting area, Aaron was grinding his teeth and fighting against his tears so hard it made him wobbly, as if he’d keel over by the sheer force of his thoughts.

Because there they were, the thoughts he’d tried to skip but couldn’t.

The words running on repeat.

Still just as painful to think of.

You’re strong.

You can get through anything.

You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

Promise me you’ll never forget.

Goodbye, Aaron.

Aaron knew he was fighting a losing battle against his tears, but he wouldn’t give in just yet.

Even though the pure, overwhelming shame was taking him over.

Promise me you’ll never forget.

Hadn’t he?

The buzzer went, and he hesitated for a moment.

He wasn’t ready for this. Robert probably wasn’t either.

“Come on, we haven’t got all day.”

The guard looked at Aaron as if he was completely thick, and that was what he felt like at the moment, a complete moron, being here and thinking he could’ve somehow been prepared for any of it.

He really wasn’t.

But he walked in all the same.

The drafty space with its horrible lights and chalky smell, the cold chairs and tables, broken walls and broken faces, the entire building just standing there oozing rejection, as if saying whatever it is you want, you do not deserve.

Whether you’re coming or going, the outside has become the inside, overlapped yet pulled apart and you’ve fallen out of rhythm with both of them.

All Aaron could register was the pounding of his own heart and the sea of maroon jumpers around him.

Panicked, he was caught in place, turning around, desperately scanning through the room.

He’s not here.

Robert’s not here.

“Oi, sit your arse down.”

“He’s not... I can’ t see him. Robert Sugden.”

Thoroughly bored with Aaron’s general existence, the guard flipped through his clipboard, huffing. He turned towards the other guard standing nearby.

“Tim, where’s Sugden?”

Tim shrugged.

Cheers Tim, you’ve been a great help.

“This isn’t a hotel, you don’t have an option of changing the check out schedule”, Bored guard number one grumbled suddenly.

“Well I’m here now”, a voice said.

And indeed there he was.

A bit breathless, hair askew, but steady on his feet and eyes full of determination.

In other words he looked exactly like Seb when he’d been rushing in from heaven knows where, heading off to do heaven knows what, adamant about whatever it was only heaven knew - and heaven, upon knowing everything, was probably thinking a little less information on it all would’ve sufficed.

They sat down.

Aaron swallowed.

Once sitting still, Robert didn’t look so much like Seb anymore.

He looked thin.

His hair was longer.

His features were sharper.

He looked exhausted.

Too tired and too alert simultaneously.

Hard.

Irritated.

(Disappointed.)

“Hiya”, Aaron managed to say.

You’re still the most beautiful man I’ve ever layed eyes on.

Robert hadn’t said anything yet, he just looked at him intently.

His eyes looked glazed and off, but Aaron knew he wasn’t high.

It was just prison.

That’s what prison did best; splitting and slicing and randomly reassembling without logic or empathy.

And then there was the anger towards Aaron, which wasn’t all that unnoticeable.

“Thanks for seeing me”, Aaron continued. His breathing had become laborious.

“I wasn’t at all sure you would”, he added quickly, fiddling with his shirt with his fingers, while staring at Robert’s hands on the table, likewise perpetually in small, restless motion.

“Well I did, didn’t I?”

Robert ran a hand through his hair and went back to fiddling about with both hands.

The memory of Robert slipping off his wedding ring and sliding it across the table towards Aaron - who had been oblivious about what it meant - ran through his mind.

I'll keep it safe.

Followed by Robert sat at the bar, taking it off in the Woolpack, unnoticed by Aaron, who had only clocked the real organizer behind his present a bit later.

Happy birthday Aaron.

Aaron remembered taking off his own ring and handing it to Robert at the Mill, Robert’s eyes pleading and watery.

I know you love me, and this is ridiculous.

Please Robert, just go.

Robert taking his ring off in the back room.

Are you seriously ending this?

I can’t make you happy.

The memory of himself, taking his off upon arriving to Hotten prison.

Sexual orientation: prefer not to say

Robert had filled out the same paper just this week.

Definitely ticking the divorced box.

“Seb okay?”

Finally, Robert was talking. Not looking at Aaron, which was tearing at his heart but Robert was finally in the room, sitting across the table.

Aaron would’ve gladly sat there just looking at him till the end of time.

I’ve missed you so madly.

Look at me.

See me.

I know I don’t deserve you.

But I’m here and I need you to look at me.

Aaron cleared his throat. “He’s good. Really good. We’re still waiting for the parental order to be processed but they reckon the temporary custody with Diane and, well, me will continue regardless. As temporary but still.”

Robert simply nodded.

Under different circumstances, Aaron would’ve said something teasing about his lack of words.

“Rebecca is being treated by a specialist at the Walton centre. They said there’s a few treatments they can help her with. It’s not gonna cure her but it’ll help anyway.”

“So Ross actually picked up the yellow pages”, Robert said absentmindedly, still averting Aaron’s gaze, concentrating on picking on invisible lint from his jumper instead.

“He didn’t, but I did. Luckily Ross hadn’t managed to squander all of the White inheritance. Diane’s handling her finances, we put half of the money in a trust fund for Seb.”

Robert nodded again.

“So tell me”-

Robert cut him off.

His eyes were fixed on Aaron now, looking at him in a way that seemed mostly indifferent, as if Aaron was a thousand-piece puzzle he’d now finished after having lost interest five hundred pieces ago, and built the whole picture simply because that’s what one does.

“I know you came here to feel better about yourself Aaron, but I’m not the one who can give that to ya.”

Robert’s voice was like stone.

As was his face.

It was cold marble, perfectly carved - and perfectly detached.

And Aaron felt the sharpness of his eyes pierce through him and not liking what they saw.

He barely managed to keep himself in tact.

And he couldn’t look away either.

Because he’d rather gaze upon Robert’s steely disappointment than not see him at all.

You are the only one who can make me feel better but I know you just don’t want to. And I get it.

Please tell me you’re okay.

Did someone hurt you in Rightworth?

You’re not eating enough.

Is someone giving you grief here?

Do you have a counselor here?

Are you telling them how you really are?

“I know you think I came here just to feel better about myself. And that is part of it, I’m not gonna lie to ya. But mostly I came because of you. To tell you I’m sorry.”

Aaron continued as he was met with silence again.

“I’m not delusional, Robert. M not asking for your forgiveness. Well, I am, but I’m not expecting it. At all.”

He kept looking into Robert’s eyes, keeping his gaze and his voice steady, whilst fighting back the throbbing need to reach out and touch. God, he missed touching him.

A few inches and he could’ve run his hand across that face, thumb brushing at his cheek.

Just checking you’re still mine.

But he knew it wasn’t an option, for so many reasons.

Robert looked away again.

Robert wouldn’t want Aaron to touch him.

Aaron bit back the sob, watching Robert lay his palms on the table, Aaron’s fingers itching to reach out.

 

His heart seemed to make a crackling sound.

A few uncomfortable sentences here and there, much ado about nothing, and then, truly nothing.

The silence was now officially running the show.

He ignored it to the best of his ability.

“I brought you some pictures”, he said suddenly, realising he had the approved envelope in his pocket.

Robert’s face seemed to harden even more at that.

“Don’t.”

He was closing off before he had even begun to open up, the ice of his voice never beginning to thaw.

“Okay. I’ll just leave them for later.”

“There won’t be a later.”

Aaron’s eyes widened.

Robert was rejecting him with such a sense of finality. So quickly, so determinedly.

Rejecting him.

Again. Only this time he knew it was happening.

No, it wasn’t any better that way.

“Yes, there will be a next time”, he said stubbornly, almost grabbing Robert’s chin to force him to meet his eye.

Robert sighed, clearly tired, clearly annoyed.

Idiot.

I’m here, can’t you just lie to me that you’re glad about it?

I need to know you’re okay.

I know you’re not.

Please, let me help.

Like he said to Seb:

You can always tell me if something’s wrong.

Together we can make it better.

Tell me where it hurts.

The silence between them was the size of two years apart, filled with unspoken things, too many and too loud.

“Why are you really here, Aaron?”

Out of all the stupid things Robert had said over the years, that was in the top ten.

Easily.

You know why I am here.”

He had wanted to stop that sentence after the first two words, but this obviously wasn’t an ideal moment to do so.

No matter how much he wanted to.

No matter how true it would’ve been.

Robert closed his eyes for a moment, his gaze steering clear from Aaron’s as he opened them again.

“Why d’ya agree to see me?”

Robert scoffed, as if it wasn’t a fair question.

Under the circumstances it most definitely was.

“You wouldn’t stop pestering my solicitor.”

“You both could’ve blocked me completely but you didn’t. So I’ll ask again, why d’ya agree to see me?”

Robert shrugged. He looked like he was done.

He looked done in.

Like he’d had to come back from a darkness that never really left, never let light in through the cracks it had made.

This was the tint and the shade of the shield Robert, the one he never wanted to be, the one he wasn’t.

The one he’d had to become in order to just survive.

Robert sat there simply doing time, as if this was no different from the cell he was kept in, Aaron being someone he had to deal with because he couldn’t walk out of the building.

Knowing he couldn’t leave for another twelve years and choosing to not try and change that.

Aaron had let him down one time too many.

The rest of the world hadn’t done much better when it came to Robert.

Aaron decided to ignore the cold hand curling its fist around his heart and speak.

To shake him like a snowglobe and see if anything changes.

“Just say it, Robert.”

After a beat of silence again, he said, fighting to stay audible, “look, if you only agreed to see me to be rid of me then just say it.”

“I did.”

The black onyx like stare he got from Robert would haunt him for the rest of time.

So this really is over.

“No.”

“I think you should go now, Aaron.”

No. Not yet. Please, not yet.

Aaron could feel the overwhelming panic set in. He probably had about a minute’s time to secure the next visit.

Things weren’t hinting in that direction.

But yes, he only had a minute now.

He opened his mouth as they both stood up:

“You make it seem like you don’t need me, and God knows I wasn’t around when you did. Maybe you really don’t need me anymore. But I need you, just to let me try and make it up to you. As little as I deserve it, but please let me try. Robert, look at me.”

As soon as Robert’s eyes – reluctantly - met his, Aaron felt the tears threatening to slip out.

“I love ya. As much as you may not care about that anymore, but I love ya. Just – tell me you know that I do, Robert. Tell me you know.

Aaron saw something shift in Robert’s eyes. It may have been a blink-and-you'll-miss-it type of thing.

But Aaron was neither blinking or missing.

But he wasn’t missing the sight of an approaching prison guard either.

Robert raised his hand a bit towards the guard, who went about his way.

He was coming to throw me out. Robert planned on throwing me –

Aaron was being pulled into a hug.

He was being pulled into an embrace – more like ripped into it, a stiff and angry squeeze. Aaron felt arms hook around him, a quick rough pull closer and then – he was in Robert’s arms.

He was in Robert’s arms.

The strong, protective arms that would and had done everything and anything for him. Those arms seemed to radiate hatred now.

But they were holding him all the same.

Aaron let out a broken sob.

He inhaled Robert in, holding, squeezing, clutching desperately. God, how it amazing it was to feel Robert’s arms around him, his thinner yet just as perfect body against his.

It was simply unreal. Aaron felt drunk and dizzy from Robert’s scent, the feel of him, the breath in his ear –

Then he felt lips on his neck.

Aaron froze.

Breath hitching, gasping in surprise.

Shivering.

Robert’s mouth latched onto his skin, blocked from view by his arms as he parted his lips, his warm breath tickling as he worked on the side of the neck, attacking just that right spot with precision –

Robert’s tongue slipped out just a little, and now he was just downright snogging the skin, kissing it hard and raging, his teeth grazing violently, further and harder –

He bit down so hard, so furiously Aaron could feel the skin being penetrated.

Aaron let out a strangled sound.

Robert was marking him.

He was fucking him with a kiss of teeth that was so painful it made his blood crash against his veins in massive waves.

He hadn’t felt that utterly hostile desire coming from Robert in so long, the anger and want clashing, the battle Robert used to draw him into with such ease and determination he’d been left breathless and undone, surrendering each time.

They’d always been that way in the beginning, winding each other up as much as they possibly could, Robert pissing him off with such magnitude of arrogance Aaron was itching to put him in his place –

Do yourself a favour, stay out of my way ‘cause if I catch you lordin’ about near me again I’m gonna wipe that smug smile right off your face, d’ya understand me?

Bite. Growl.

What Robert had always known then was that as much he wanted to deck Robert right into next week, he’d wanted to shag him into next year.

And love him forever.

The teeth still attacking him, Aaron realised he hadn’t been this hard in years –

Trying to rub my nose in it, were ya?

Why? Jealous, were ya?

Upstairs. Now.

Bite. Growl.

The rage prickling at his skin seemed to keep going deeper, as if Robert was flowing into his blood, claiming the territory as his, conquering every corner of him with an escalating hostility, a possessive bite that screamed nothing but mine, mine, mine.

All mine.

Aaron moved his own mouth quickly to Robert’s ear, kissing behind it, then sucking on the lobe, pulling it with his teeth a little, just like Robert liked it.

Bite. Growl.

Robert’s guttural, desperate little groan was barely audible, but Aaron heard it loud and clear. He felt the hands roaming around his back, feeling him, holding him so tight it nearly knocked the breath out of him. Robert's touch was everything. 

Robert is everything.

His entire body was thrumming with need.

Then he was suddenly shoved back.

They were both looking around instead of each other, as if feigning nonchalance at that point would make their teeth banging so much less obvious.

The room was thankfully empty, apart from the guard who probably would’ve rather been in a place called anywhere but flipping here.

Robert looked almost just as angry as before, but the lust in his veins had clearly taken over completely for a while there.

And Aaron knew he was radiating with the same shameless want.

Just two ex-husbands, having a little spontaneous coitus dentum in the prison visiting area.

Robert got his bearings – sort of – first.

His eyes had gone from cold to lust and now to sadness.

His voice mirrored the sentiment, as he shook himself out of the stupor, shaking his head.

“You can’t come back here, Aaron. I can’t – you just can’t.”

But all Aaron heard was the hidden you have to come back.

Aaron ignored the worry trying to overthrow the determination he had regained.

To him there was no now or never, just now or next time.

There’d always be a next time.

Nice try, Sugden.

He tilted his head, letting a little smile through, his eyes flickering across the stupidly beautiful sight that was Robert Sugden’s face.

He looked oddly...trimmed for a prison setting, but only yesterday Aaron had been the one with primer on his face so it’d be a bit hypocritical to take the piss now, wouldn’t it?

“Aaron”-

“Yeah, yeah. Nice try, Sugden. Call me tomorrow?”

Robert let out a shuddering breath, the marble facade crackling and sliding, shattering. He looked at Aaron as if he’d come to life a little more.

He looked more like... Robert.

“Well? Call me tomorrow.”

Robert sighed deeply, looking slightly less alert and more out of a job, as if he had just blown his own double agent cover.

Well he kinda had, hadn’t he?

“Yeah”, Robert said, “’course I will.”

They looked at each other and shared their first smile in two years.

It lasted long enough to make anyone’s cheeks hurt.

Aaron looked at him one more time, drinking in his beautiful features as Robert gave him such a hungry and shameless once-over that made it seem like he did, in fact, have x-ray vision.

And with that look, Aaron knew the new, very well fitted suit he was wearing had already paid for itself.

Robert seemed to agree as he shook his head in disbelief, breathless and surrendered.

 “Christ, Dingle, you don’t play fair, do ya?”

“I really don’t. See you soon, Sugden.”

And with that Aaron winked, turned around and walked out, feeling Robert's eyes travelling on him as he went.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

See you soon, Sugden.

Aaron had been sat against the headboard on the hotel bed that had been holding his sleeping abilities very much hostage when he finally moved, rubbed at his eyes, and got up, slightly unsteady on his feet. Reaching for the kettle as he stood up, trying to gather his wits about him and figure out whether he’d dreamt it all or not.

The previous day ran on repeat in his head.

Ran with a fever, running amok.

All he could feel was overwhelmed, floating about at sea, constantly brushing his fingers on the brutally sore and definitely hideous looking lake-sized lovebite on his neck.

More like a hatebite.

He glanced at the clock. 7.37 AM.

Well, that is unnecessarily early. Considering I was asleep starting at about 5.39

Aaron had poured himself a cup of instant coffee (sorry about that, Robert) and lit up a smoke standing by the window, not quite admiring the less glorious sight of a littered brick alley with the usual half-burned bins, needles and broken glass, left behind by people clearly excluded from any sort of prospect towards the paramount thing in life called a second chance.

I’d rather die than let that happen to Robert.

Again.

His phone rang.

It’s probably Seb again, boy does he have a habit of being up at an ungodly hour and staying up for all the other hours of all days. Kids, right?

“Hello?”

Not Seb, but same gene pool.

“Robert?”

As if he needed confirmation.

God, it was good to hear his gorgeous voice.

“Hiya”, said gorgeous voice greeted him, quiet, timid even, “wasn’t sure you’d be up yet.”

“Seb has your sleeping habits...hang about, how are you calling me at this hour?”

“I’m working. At the office.”

For a mad nanosecond Aaron thought of him sitting in the portacabin, shuffling papers and getting pissed off by Jimmy and the clients who were (always) intellectually inferior.

Between the paperwork and the sleeping habits it felt as if they were very much married and no-one was in prison.

Aaron pushed that thought back into the file called No, you’re not going there yet and said:

“Let me guess, you’ve talked yourself into doing favours for the big boss.”

Robert chuckled. “Pretty much. The guv at Rightworth gave me a reference.”

Aaron laughed. “Only you could get a reference for becoming office manager when switching prisons.”

“I’m just that good with paperwork, you know that.”

“Yeah, I do.”

It was almost comfortable. And quite weird that they’d managed to slip into the banter just like that.

It wouldn’t last, but for now it was there.

“Well it’s a good thing you didn’t end up in a white- collar joint, you’d not be the only Mont Blanc prat there.”

“I’d be the best one though.”

“Yeah, you would.”

It may had been an opportunity for taking the piss, but Aaron had opted for just saying what he really felt.

“You need to stop smoking”, Robert said abruptly, tone firm and nonnegotiable as if he was telling Seb to stop attempting at shampooing his hair with porridge.

Aaron was feeling the dangerous path of just like it used to be spreading out in front of him, tempting in all its deceitful glory of nothing’s changed, go ahead, have at it.

Nothing had changed, that was true enough.

Just not in the way he would’ve wanted.

“How did you know?”

Robert had probably been on that frighteningly beckoning path right with him for a moment there, as it took him a while to answer.

At least Aaron hoped that was why.

“Yesterday you were making that gesture with your hands you do like you’re fiddling with a lighter.”

It was possibly the worst thing Robert could’ve said.

Because it was small and simple hence vast in its naturality, determinedly wrapping up the familiarity around them.

It gave confirmation that Robert remembered those things and had kept the relevance he’d discovered there.

That he still knew Aaron.

The danger path was no longer just beckoning Aaron, it was devouring and throwing him into a tornado of what do you want for lunch, Liv put that phone away and study, we’re alone wanna go upstairs, I can’t stand this service station like coffee, Seb has the sniffles again, come here I’ll kiss away your bad day.

Robert had found the petrol to throw at the fire currently raging in the barrel of his emotions, whether it was intentional or not.

It probably wasn’t.

Aaron cleared his throat.

“See, you’re coughing in the morning, doesn’t that say something?”

“It says you’re reading into things, Robert.”

“I’m still right, Aaron.”

Aaron sighed, relenting.

“I know you’re right, but this is just temporary. And before you go off on one again, I can assure you it really is temporary. It’s just the last few months...” Aaron trailed off.

“I know, I get it.”

No, that was the worst thing Robert could’ve said.

Still putting Aaron first, after he’d done next to nil to deserve it.

He bit his lip and said: “ So tell me about the job.”

“It’s the usual. Proofreading, editing, crunching numbers and so forth.”

“Hope you’re not crunching those numbers in any dangerous directions.”

“I’m not, but if I was what could they do about it, put me in prison?”

They both chuckled a bit. It was awkward, with a tone of not really finding it funny, but it was what was needed.

“I bet you’re doing someone’s taxes too.”

“I’m not at liberty to say”, Robert said, very portacabin office-like.

“S’alright, I can tell anyway, you’ve got that tone going on there.”

“Right”, Robert replied with a slight quiver to his voice.

Take that, Sugden, you’re not the only one who can unintentionally throw petrol into the emotional bonfire of familiarities.

“So you actually have an office?”

“Not quite. I share it with two people.”

“Still an office though.”

“Yeah. The others have better plans for the weekend though.”

Aaron felt the sadness climbing up his spine.

“Speaking of plans, when can I see you next?”

Robert said nothing, and Aaron tried to push away the dread of being rejected again, this time for good.

No matter how well this conversation was going, it was just that, a conversation.

So he had to say it.

“If you’re not gonna see me again, Robert, I”-

Robert cut him off immediately.” I am. I’m just trying to work out if it could be sooner than a week from now.”

“Okay. You had me worried for a minute there.”

“Well, don’t. I will see you soon.”

Aaron tried and failed to contain the rush of relief and love exploding into his veins.

Biting his lip again and willing away the danger path again, he simply said:

“Could you say that from now on?”

“What?”

“That you’re gonna see me. Whenever we talk. Just so I know it still is what you..what we will do”, Aaron said, stumbling down the staircase of his words, knowing Robert had seen exactly where his foot had slipped.

“Course I can”, Robert confirmed,” will do.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

They went with the silence and the meaning it carried for a moment, Aaron lighting a cigarette as he muted the call for a second to prevent Robert from hearing the click of the lighter, feeling extremely stupid as he did so.

After talking for another five minutes Robert had to get on with his paperwork and Aaron had to start making calls; to Seb, Diane and Debbie, to Aisling, to Ally, basically the entire population of Scotland and then some.

Before they hung up, Robert said “I’m gonna see you soon, Aaron.”

“See you soon, Robert.”

It felt comforting.

He sat on the bed again, his thoughts wanting to push further into the direction which led to even bigger familiarities, but in truth it scared the life out of him.

He wondered how long he’d be intimidated by the fear of rejection.

Robert’s touch lingered on his skin.

In his very bones.

In his veins.

Robert swaying in his blood.

Especially when it circulated out, around, and into his heart.

Aaron decided to hit pause on the ramifications of his thoughts formed during their conversation and go about his day, but admittedly feeling thoroughly impatient about the fact that Robert would call him again in the evening.

Still, he could try and close his eyes for a while.

Five minutes later he gave up as it was impossible to slip back into slumber, no matter how tired his body felt, no matter how big a fog the lack of rest had inflicted on him and snuggled up to him without mercy.

Thanks for coming sleep deprivation, but you will not be staying for a fry-up and no, I definitely do not want your phone number.

 

Manchester weather was brutally windy and after being basically turned into an icicle, Aaron returned to his room with a takeaway and a headache from being on the phone for hours in the afternoon. The Walton center in Liverpool wouldn’t give him the details on Rebecca’s situation as they’d already told Diane everything, and for some frustrating reason they were running low on interest in keeping Seb’s other guardian on the loop.

Ross was awol as per, but Aaron was nothing if not glad about it.

He could’ve asked Diane, but Aaron wanted to hear things from the staff themselves.

It was not that he didn’t trust Diane.

It was just that he had trusted her so much lately that something in his gut was forcing him to pull back a bit, as little as it might have made sense.

To him it did though.

Seb was enjoying his time in the village with Diane and Victoria, which was something Aaron would need to know more details of eventually, but he really wasn’t keen.

Robert hadn’t mentioned his sister at all.

Aaron wasn’t about to either.

Nor had they spoken about his mum, or anyone in the village apart from Cain and Moira.

That was quite enough, and it would suffice better than fine for now.

Aaron knew they were putting off a plethora of problematic discussions, fighting off the tide of the inevitability of it all but for now they wouldn’t endanger the fragile peace they’d managed to create much to Aaron’s surprise.

Robert was probably just as surprised.

And Aaron would let him keep the reins.

Robert would decide when they would talk or meet, he would bring up the sore subjects, he would decide the pace at which everything would progress, towards wherever it may be heading.

But there was one thing Aaron was itching to talk about.

Robert’s appeal.

That, of course, was another thing Aaron wouldn’t be making decisions on, yet if it’d come to it he’d have to push Robert out of the plane at some point and force him to get that parachute going.

There would have to be lawyers and law enforcement of all sorts involved at some point.

There would be going through so many painful things again, things no-one would’ve preferred to relive ever again.

But for now, being reconnected and making sure Robert was safe, as safe as he could be, was the only thing he cared about apart from Seb.

Aaron reminded himself that if Robert wanted to back out of the whatever it was that they were now, he would have to let it happen.

Not immediately, not without a fight.

Not this time.

But the option he knew Robert needed was an option he feared in a way that was able to make him double over on just thought level alone.

And that fear fortified when Robert didn’t call.

After having his tea, followed by a cup of coffee (still instant, apparently a slightly better blend but Robert would determinedly pour it down the sink anyway without even taking a sniff) and a smoke (yeah, yeah, just don’t) Aaron had a brief conversation with Ally regarding the people currently giving her grief about getting the youth center up and running with their rather optimistic (unrealistic) timetable.

And with a few words and proudly presented paperwork, Ally had them eating out of the palm of her hand within an hour.

Lord knows what she could do – and did indeed – in a week.

Aaron was happy to just once again feel massively inferior to her abilities and was nothing but thankful, just for her existence alone.

 

When Robert didn’t call him that night at six, panic started its usual all-inclusive holiday in his gut.

Robert didn’t call at half six.

Nor seven.

Pacing about, and slowly (no, rather quickly) losing his wits, Aaron went for a run, experiencing a knee-jerk reaction of guilt because of it.

I’m not - self harming Robert, I just needed a bit of exercise.

It was true now. He needed it for the exercise and the fresh air, and for calming his nerves.

He’d stop running way before he felt exhausted.

Pushing himself to any degree of limits wasn’t something he was ready for anyway.

Perhaps he never would be, but it was a thought that brought him relief more than anything.

The temptation to keep going until the metallic taste rose onto his lips would come, he knew to expect it.

And rejecting it wouldn’t be all that difficult.

Not easy, but not impossible.

Not now.

 

Not hearing from Robert, that was as far from relief as anything.

Aaron had managed to imagine every possible horror scenario in his head.

Someone’s hurt him.

He’s ill.

He’s being held hostage.

Because there’s a riot in the prison.

Or a fire.

Probably a flood.

Or the one that was likely, the one no-one wanted to discuss in them visiting rooms, nor the rooms that regulated the former, the reason why everything always came with a side of sad smile.

He’s lonely and depressed because he’s in prison.

He’s suicidal.

And - inevitably: Me showing up yesterday made everything worse.

Thoughts like lockdown or there’s a long line to the phones didn’t cross his mind, because how can one catastrophize properly if reasonability comes knocking right when you’re getting to the good stuff?

Feet splashing against the sleet as he ran, Aaron looked at the Christmas decorations and flickering lights still stubbornly on display in surprisingly many a window, not being able to escape the thought that he’d spent yet another holiday season without Robert.

The ache to see Robert had re-established its previous volume. The slightly dulling effect of two years without contact had made the pain not less painful but rather just more constant; it was a consistent stream of hurt with a bit less spiking up.

Missing him, loving him -those things two poxy years couldn’t decrease.

No amount of time ever would.

Aaron just wanted him to call and tell him the truth, whatever it was.

As he stopped to take a sip of water, his phone rang.

Victoria.

Wrong sibling, universe.

If it hadn’t been for the fact that his son was there, Aaron would’ve gladly pressed the ignore button until the end of ignore button times.

But for now, need’s must.

“Hiya”, he said as he began walking towards a café he had spotted on the corner of a remarkably ugly office building.

“Aaron! So great to hear from you.”

Vic’s voice came through slathered with so much Diane mannerism that he automatically reached for the cigarettes, cursing in his mind as he realised they were on the table in his room.

You have to stop smoking, Aaron.

Stupid Robert’s stupidly gorgeous voice in his head.

Shut up Sugden, I’m trying not to verbally slice up your idiotic sister here.

“Hiya Vic”, he simply said, wondering how much easier he could make the call by downing five pints in as many minutes.

“Seb is having a bath right now but he’ll be out soon enough.”

Unlike his dad.

“ ‘Kay. How’s he been?”

Vic chuckled. It took a cheese grater against Aaron’s nerves.

“Good as gold”, Vic said, “we made pie and looked through my photo albums.

Oh really? Which ones? Those of Luke and Wendy?

“Sound. Has he been coughing?”

No, but you have. You need to stop smok-

Seriously Sugden, shut up.

“No cough. No signs of any sniffles. Harry gave him a run for his money at the playground, they’ll be kipping in no time.”

“Good. Is Diane about, I need to talk to her.”

Vic’s tone took a turn towards a combo of peeved and impatience.

Like Aaron cared, but anyway.

“She’s giving Seb his bath still. And I need to chat with you mister!”

Aaron nodded towards the barista who handed him a sarnie and a coffee (very dark French roast, Robert would give it a go), soon enough he was sat a table, pulling off his coat.

“Alright then. What’s up?”

Vic scoffed in disbelief, being the oblivious mini-Diane that she was.

“Howd’ya mean what about! About Rob! Did you see him yet?”

Cheers Diane, you just couldn’t zip it, couldya?

“Who says I spoke to Robert?”

Yeah, he feigned cluelessness just to wind her up.

“Aaron come on, tell me! How is the ole dirty stop out?”

 Not stopping out or about any time soon, exactly how thick are you, Vic?

“I haven’t spoken to him yet”, Aaron lied with determination, not about to spill any beans in that village’s general direction.

“Okay. I’m sure you’ll do your best that yous two will have a chat soon!”

I’m sure you’ll do your best.

That was the thing about Vic; she’d always been a proper country girl, made of fresh air, sweet pies and matriarchal passive aggression.

Or as in this case, also very much wrapped up in her self - indulgent indifference.

He could picture her sitting there across the table, big eyes full of oh so much concern, gesturing about whilst deserting her brother with her careless words all over again.

Aaron thought of Harry. He was, after all, the boy’s godfather – but he’d done it for Robert and nothing else. Although doing it for him had made him feel a tad closer to him.

His was a selfish motive, but it’s not as if Vic’s wasn’t, was it?

“Right. So how’s Harry?” he asked, because he did care about the boy.

Vic downright squealed at the mention of her son and banged on about things that Aaron had already heard and hadn’t taken that much interest in during the previous times either.

Turns out, he less than half listened this time too.

He felt guilty about it for Harry. Definitely not for his mum though.

But just hearing her babble even without making out any words took him into memories of a different kind.

Ones that inevitably surfaced at times when he was in any sort of contact with Vic.

Luke’s frightened face (his guilty looking face).

Photo smashed with a crash from the swing, powered by unfiltered anger for a woman’s life ruined.

That’s for Victoria.

Christmas ornaments shoved and destroyed, the golf club in perpetual motion coming from the rage of his own broken heart.

That’s for Robert.

Luke backing into a corner, stammering words that never could’ve made a difference in any version of events.

Aaron approaching, the bile of contempt rising and spreading in his throat, the bittersweet weight of the weapon in his hand.

But this…this is just for me.

He would’ve killed him. Aaron hadn’t changed his mind about that whenever – which thankfully wasn’t that often – he considered the different possible outcomes of the situation.

In his darkest moments he had sometimes fantasized about killing Luke Posner.

Ending up on the Isle of Wight.

You took out one, I took out the other.

We make a good team.

Darkest and most unrealistic moments, as his mind could create like no other.

“Aaron!”

Oh God, these people sure know how to overstay their phone line welcome.

Aaron took a guess at the correct answer.

“Yeah Vic, sounds great.”

“It does, doesn’t it?”

Ha. Not that hard to guess when talking to these particular Sugdens.

It’s all about them and if not, they’ll make it so.

“Hang on, Seb’s here. Seb, come here a minute, Aaron’s on the phone!”

Vic switched onto video call, and pretty much the only thing that could’ve grounded Aaron in that moment appeared on screen.

And it immediately did.

Strawberry hair sticking up in all directions, sleepy smile and the most disarming giggle Aaron had ever heard in his entire life.

“Hiya kid, did you have a good day?”

“Yes! I did a swing and Harry was jumping and there was a sandwich when Noah said a bad word.”

Time well spent, Aaron agreed.

“Sounds great mate. Have you been coughing today?”

“No!” Seb squealed because normal volume is overrated.

“Good. Did you read a story yet?”

“You can read it”, Seb said with such adamancy Aaron wanted kick himself for not being in his room, let alone with the boy.

Missing Seb was just as intense as missing his dad. All consuming and full of a love that always came with a twinge of worry and a pinch of the  waterworks.

He wanted to hug his son immediately. For a minute he thought about visiting the village in between days but he knew he’d wait.

Going there would subject Seb to events that he was never going to let him see.

The family animosity ends here.

“Sorry mate, I’m outside now having a walk.”

Why am I lying to my son? He’s not going to guilt-trip me about my exercise and its possible hidden incentives.

But Vic might find out.

She needn’t find out any more than was compulsory.

“Storytime!” Seb yelled, and Aaron relented like the softest dad that he was.

He arrived back to his room after he’d said good night to Seb, making up a story for him on his walk back.

It was the worst story ever, no wonder it put Seb to sleep in minutes.

But seeing Seb, even through a screen cleared his mind a lot, as it always did.

But as he was getting ready for a shower, his thoughts began to gather fog again as he looked at the time.

9.17. PM.

Can’t that idiot just call me already?

If he doesn’t call me, he’s changed his mind.

His solicitor isn’t going to like that.

They both can block me though.

Aaron shook himself out of the thoughts that were about to be led to another beckoning path, but this one was made of too late, I hurt him too much, I left Seb, I left Liv, he just called this morning because he’s a good person and doesn’t chew on people’s necks without calling them the next day because he’s just not the bite and scarper – type, not anymore at least he’s not.

As he felt the threat of tears looming about, Aaron stepped into the bathroom and turned on the shower.

And as the world tends to do, during the shower his phone had rang.

Unknown number.

A voicemail.

Aaron tapped to play it, his hands shaking.

“Aaron, I’m so sorry it took me a while to call”, that favourite voice of his said.

Don’t be sorry, I’m just glad you called in the first place.

“I had to deal with some formalities and it took a while.”

God, I hope that’s all it was. I can’t stand to think you’re hurt.

“I can get you a visiting order for Monday, I hope that works for you.”

Anything will, Robert. Anything will.

“I’ll call again tomorrow. And I’ll see you soon.”

“Five minutes, Sugden”, Aaron heard a voice coming from the background, the sort of voice that had the authority nothing short of an entire army, “five minutes and then you’re going back.” “Yes sir”, Robert replied to the voice, with a hint of mischief in his voice not many people would detect.

Aaron most definitely did.

“Anyway, I hope we can talk tomorrow.”

We will, because I won’t be taking other calls or showers ever again.

“Good night, hu- Aaron. Bye.”

Husband. That’s what Robert had been about to say.

Husband.

And even though it was clearly just muscle memory, Aaron felt the weight of it as much as the ghost of titanium on his ring finger.

 

 

“Oi, sit your arse down.”

Bored guard number one and Tim, just like the previous week.

I’ll tell ya where you can stick that clipboard-

It was an annoying déjà vu, but not really because this time Robert came through the gate smiling widely as he clocked Aaron.

It had been an extremely long three days before Monday, but here they finally were.

Here was Robert, clearly happy to see him as he arrived at the table.

They stood immobile for a beat, just taking the sight of each other in before they sat down, Aaron folding his hands onto the table, not knowing what to do with himself.

Robert put a hand on his arm, gave it a little squeeze before he pulled his hand away but still looking him in the eye.

“I’m glad you’re here”, he said, looking like he meant it.

Aaron swallowed the whirlwind of pent up affection so he wouldn’t scare Robert (or himself) and just smiled, because now he definitely had a reason to.

“Same”, he managed to say, feeling his nerves about to dissolve into space.

Robert just looked at him, eyes gentle, no façade.

He looked like Aaron’s husband which was just as painful, but in a much better way.

Then Robert spoke.

 “So I just saw you.”

 “I know, Robert, I was there.”

 “No I mean I saw you on the telly.”

For a moment he had absolutely no clue as to what Robert was talking about until he remembered Aisling again, people coming at him with various brushes and that mortifyingly bad interview he’d given.

Suddenly Aaron wished he had paid more attention to the mirror before he had left, because looking at least human was something he wanted to accomplish here.

If Aisling had been there, she would’ve called the make up department and sent someone.

Someone, who would’ve taken one look at me and said, “I don’t think primer is gonna cut it today, mate”.

Aaron looked at Robert’s proud face and decided that wasn’t the least bit important now.

“Oh, that thing. I only did it because I had no choice, the woman I work with stood me up.”

 Robert chuckled.

 “Mean.”

 “Yeah. She’s like that in general, a proper”-

 “I’m so proud of you, Aaron.”

That was one of those things that only Robert could say to him, simply laying out the words without leaving any room for doubt.

 Aaron managed to keep his composure (with great effort), not letting himself sob.

He’s in prison and I’m the one weeping again, just exactly how selfish can I get?

 “So proud of you”, Robert repeated, “it’s an amazing thing you’re doing.”

No. You’re amazing, for just existing and for having any sort of desire to even talk to me, not to mention you’re proud of me.

“Well it’s not all me, I’m just a part of it.”

“You started the entire thing, I know it’s hard for you but kick the modesty out the door a minute, yeah?”

“Well it did turn out to be kind of a good plan.”

Robert laughed.

Actually laughed, with warmth.

It was the best thing Aaron had heard in years.

“Still way too modest, but I’ll take it.” Robert paused, giving Aaron’s arm another squeeze.

Being touched by him sent Aaron reeling.

“I always knew you’d do something great like that. In addition to everything you already have.”

It was so sweet, so encouraging and so sincere that Aaron was sent into that lovely oblivion of their whereabouts, feeling as though they were at the Mill, just talking.

Being able to be together whenever.

If only.

Aaron told him about the youth center and about Seb, Robert listening intently and just looking so proud Aaron thought he just might find out what it actually feels like to burst.

After a few minutes, Aaron paused and decided it was his turn to be proud.

“I’ll tell ya more about it later, I wanna know about that office job of yours now.”

“It’s the same I’ve been doing before, except with a much less encouraging paycheck.”

“So it’s a nine to five with phone call perks?”

“Exactly that. The coffee is terrible, which I think I should be able to complain about.”

“You should. I hope you’re still telling people what to do and how to do it tho.”

“Course I am.”

They smiled.

And then the path of darker times opened.

“And other times?”

Aaron saw the panic rising in Robert’s eyes, attempting to hide.

“I mean - otherwise?” he sort of repeated, not knowing how else to word it.

“How d’ya mean?”

Now Robert was shielding up a little.

“I mean in general. How do you –

“I don’t want to talk about it, Aaron.”

His words weren’t harsh, but his eyes had darkened and there was an edge to them, a warning, an interlude of something that would unfold like the previous week and definitely end differently.

Still, Aaron tried.

“We have to”, he said, trying to break the blackness spreading into Robert’s demeanour.

“No. I don’t want to.”

Aaron reached for Robert’s hand, but he was crossing his arms, body taking a closed off position.

“Robert”-

“I said no.”

There it was, the dangerous kind of silence, arriving and crapping all over their atmosphere in a nanosecond.

“You did everything for me when we were married. You looked after me. You always put yourself last. Well fuck that, you’re not doing it again. I need to know at least some parts of what goes on here. You don’t have to tell me everything. But I hid important things from you when it was me banged up and we both know that wasn’t the greatest idea. I can’t have you doing spice” –

“As if I would.”

It sounded hurtful, but Aaron knew it wasn’t meant that way.

“I know you wouldn’t. But some ways”-

“I’ve managed two years without your help, so I reckon I know a thing or two about making do.”

That was hurtful coming from a place less accidental.

“I know. I’m not saying” –

“That’s just it. You don’t know.”

“You’re right, I don’t. Because my husband blocked me.”

Aaron let the words out, because he’d swallowed them too many times.

And just like that it was throwback Monday, pushing them through the shards of glass of the gone week.

Gone years.

Robert was looking away again.

Looking anything but proud.

“And I didn’t try and fight it like I should have”, Aaron said, promising himself to not go off the rails.

“Yeah. You didn’t.”

Robert stared at his hands. “Why though? Why didn’t you?”

“I can’t give you an answer that would be good enough.”

“Well how about a bad answer.”

“I lost you. I lost Seb. I almost lost Liv. And absolutely no one was there saying things I might have needed. If it wasn’t for Cain, I’d probably be dead.”

“And I couldn’t tell the one person I needed the most that I was broken.”

Robert’s face fell, both of them crumbling with the bricks of reality raining upon them.

Robert hung his head, a quiet sob escaping.

Regret invaded Aaron’s very bones, he almost stood up as if he could reach over to Robert and take the words back by physically pulling them out of him, ripping them apart and stop them from existing.

“Robert, I’m so sorry, please don’t” -

Robert shook his head.

The wheels of their fragile peace were turning, pulling off the backdrop and uncovering the sewers and the rats.

Aaron could feel Robert slipping away, after he’d barely been within reach.

Please look at me.

Don’t turn away again.

Yell at me.

Be angry.

“I’m not trying to make you feel guilty.”

Robert raised his head, eyes red.

“I do feel guilty. I just went so long thinking that..” he trailed off.

“That I don’t.”

Robert nodded.

“I do.”

Another nod.

“I don’t think we should talk about this now.”

And this time Aaron didn’t argue.

“I’m sorry I tried to force ya.”

“Don’t be, just..”

Robert laid his arms on the table, as if to emphasize his words, his nervous energy dancing about, Robert reining it decisively in like only Robert could.

“it wasn’t all you, Aaron. It was me n’all. And you have to understand that I didn’t block contact because”-

“I know. I understand why you did it. I hated that it happened, but I never hated you.”

“I never hated you either.”

But you wanted to. And I wanted to, but I couldn’t.

“I was the one that stopped fighting, Robert.”

The desperation of times spent was stretching in every direction, pulling them through its dimensions, not stopping by request, cruel in its serendipity.

Robert pushed his hands through his hair, exhaling slowly. He seemed to battle between the words he wanted to say against those he should say.

Aaron only wished they could be the same thing.

Robert looked at him carefully, like he had in the past, when the days were running out and the ice was thin.

“You’re here now. You didn’t stop fighting, not really.”

Aaron went to speak, but Robert raised his hand.

“And that’s all I need to know now. We’ll have to talk about everything someday, but I don’t think it’d be good for either of us right now.”

“I can work with that. And you’ll decide when and how. I want you to be in control.”

Robert shook his head, with a little smile coming through, a smile of something from the past that looked familiar.

“Remember what we talked about in the garage back then?”

“What, that you’re straight?”

Robert burst into laughter. Aaron joined him.

It was free. And freeing. A moment full of clarity and pure oxygene, brought by a silly joke.

Life had a tendency towards such, didn’t it?

There they were, free and laughing.

Not too bad for two ex-husbands covered in scar tissue, sitting at HMP Manchester.

A shared smile.

The backdrop slid into place a little, silently moving velvet of mercy.

Once the laughter quieted, Robert continued, “What I actually meant was when we got back together. That we’d keep talking and work things out together.”

Aaron nodded, the waters rising behind his eyes immediately.

I don’t want anyone else.

I think I’d rather never have you back than lose you again.

“We didn’t exactly live up to it in the end.”

“That shouldn’t stop us doing it now, should it?”

Aaron wanted to cry now.

He needed to.

But that was another thing that could wait.

At least until he’d be in his room with sleep deprivation trying it on with him again.

“No, it shouldn’t”, he simply said and meant it.

“Okay then.”

It was one of those silences that was so them.

So heavy and light at the same time.

Robert suddenly scrunched up his face a bit, a sob coming through, a sob he wasn’t fighting.

“Robert, I meant it, I do want to work things out together.”

Robert let out a watery huff of laughter, disbelief radiating from him.

“It’s not that, it’s just…”he paused, breath shuddering, sniffing.

Then he looked at Aaron, with a gaze of realization, like he’d just seen colours for the first time.

Like he realised they were there for the first time.

He swallowed hard and then choked out:

 “God, Aaron.”

And that was all that needed to be said.

 Aaron’s eyes watered as their hands reached out towards each other, meeting in the middle.

Robert. You have no idea.”

 “I think I do”, Robert said, sounding wrecked and so gentle at once.

Somewhere in the room, the wheels stilled and fell into place.

The right place this time.

 They sat in silence, enjoying the moment of clarity.

After a beat, they went through the possibilities of when the next visit would take place, slowly emerging from the tempest.

Then Aaron cleared his throat, gesturing towards Robert’s head.

“Right, I’m just gonna ask now. What’s with the man bun?”

Robert’s face broke into a smirk.

Playful.

Teasing.

Flirtatious.

It made Aaron’s stomach flip, because since when did it not?

“Are you saying you don’t like it?”

“Well at least you haven’t got a goatee, that would put you on the VIP list of Prat Hipster festival immediately. And on the I don’t think so list of my company, I might add.”

Robert laughed, his eyes flickering on Aaron. It felt like a touch.

 “I did have a goatee. For a while too.”

“No. Why would you do that?”

“I don’t know, because I could?”

“Could doesn’t mean should, Robert.”

Robert tilted his head, smirk still in place.

Stop that right now Sugden, or I’ll do something very questionable right here, Bored guard number one and Tim be damned.

“You finally stopped using that hair gel. I like it.”

“I know you do.”

Visiting Robert: From rage to flirtation, the This is getting weird-edition.

Except it wasn’t.

Not for them.

Aaron shifted on his seat.

“Almost went to A&E last week, given that I have a mauled by wild animals type of neck situation going on here.”

 He quickly lowered the high collar of his jumper, Robert’s eyes widening at the sight.

But the smirk didn’t go anywhere.

“As if you didn’t think about it that night with a much less grumpy approach”, he said, voice dropping an octave now.

Aaron wanted to bottle that voice and replay it 24/7.

“Didn’t say that, did I?”

Aaron would be very much lying to say that after returning to his room from his first visit to HMP Manchester he hadn’t spent a good hour with a hand down his pants, reliving the love/hatebite formation.

He had been – and very much still was – extremely worried about letting his heart float about and start hoping.

But after feeling Robert’s touch again, he couldn’t not give into the thoughts anyway. Aaron hadn’t allowed himself to fantasize about him for so long. It’d been too painful. But his love for Robert had always come with a side of pain, and this was the douleur exquise he knew so well.

And he was making up for lost time now, fantasies and all.

After a while, he continued.

 “Did you? Think about it?”

 “You know I did”, Robert said, his voice dipping even lower, spreading its thick and dark want right into Aaron’s body, making him almost gasp.

"That suit....it was...oh fuck.

Robert's hungry eyes mirrored his words.

Now his voice came out with a vibration that had Aaron go weak, in a way that would’ve made him keel over if it wasn’t for being sat down.

Yet it still could’ve, mind you.

 The tension between them had taken a direction that had always been easy to step into, its usual intensity, the want between them tangible, its existence seeping through the slightly accelerated pace of both of their breathing.

They both had their activities locked down for that night too, it seemed.

Robert sighed, running his fingers on the table as if he was touching Aaron.

And Aaron felt it.

“I can’t believe you named that place The Layby”, he said.

“Yes, you can”, Aaron said, not at all oblivious to the shade of smugness trickling through Robert’s tone. 

And his own.

The silences were now increasingly more familiar.

Feeling like days gone by, but more importantly now, days to come.

The buzzer went, both groaned at it.

They stood up, just looking at one another.

 Aaron stepped closer without thinking, but his hu- but Robert was right there with him.

As they embraced, Aaron heard the tiny back-bitten sobs from both of them.

Breath stolen by one another, like always.

Robert’s scent filled his nostrils, the strong arms around him tightly, the warmth radiating with such degrees that Aaron felt feverish.

Then again, Robert’s close proximity had always had that effect on him.

Robert pressed his face against his neck briefly, making a little humming sound, his breath so comforting and almost like a caress.

“Don’t worry, I won’t bite”, the beautiful idiot mumbled against Aaron’s very much quivering skin. Aaron chuckled, because yeah.

The little puffs of breath on his skin making him so alive he could feel it running through them both.

The never-ending current of them.

They stayed like that for a lingering moment longer, just feeling the aching energy rushing between them, inhaling each other, exhaling the emotions it arose.

It felt healing.

Robert ran his fingers through Aaron’s hair, then took his face in his hands and pressed their lips together.

It was like slow motion, a prolonged slide of mouths, tasting and savoring, then breaths turning wet and hot, unraveling and opening. Aaron’s lips curling around Robert’s tongue in a way that made them both sigh into it, sigh turning into a shared moan, pace picking up and becoming frantic, greedy, hands grabbing tighter, with increasing desperation, wanting to crawl through each other’s skin, hearts ricocheting about ribcages, their limbs in synchronicity.

Robert inhaled the vibration on Aaron’s ragged breath, his lips hovering.

“I love ya”, he whispered through their shared gasp, chasing Aaron’s mouth.

“Love you more”, Aaron replied with something between a hum and a moan, his tongue slipping over Robert’s lips again, bliss entwined with desire, tingling at his skin, arms tight around Robert’s waist, feeling the hands on his face tightening their grip, and sinking into it.

They kept ignoring the voices breaking through the moment.

Bored guard number one and Tim would just have to wait.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Aaron stood outside the Woolpack, waiting for his feet to cooperate and take him inside. He was holding his cigarette behind his back, quickly stealing drags from it in a secretive way that just screamed the days of Aaron woz ere, his stalling perhaps echoing that same sentiment.

He was trying to convince himself that the shaking hands were a reaction to the nippy weather and nothing else.

He hadn’t spoken to his mum for six weeks and three days. Apart from the obligatory Christmas card back and forth, there had been nothing but silence.

But now that he was here, the very fragile yet very consuming bubble of being with Seb and their Highland family, working and talking to Robert at least once every day was suddenly threatening to burst.

It would, and Aaron felt sad.

Sad and a bit guilty yet thoroughly angry at just about everything.

Another trait of the Aaron that woz here.

“I don’t want to go back there, Robert. I don’t want them to see me and how happy I am now, they’ll find a way to ruin it”, Aaron said into the phone held up to his ear.

“Of course you want them to see you, Robert replied, “you want them to see exactly how well you’re doing without them and just how cocky that makes ya.”

Well, if being apart for two years not being able to stop them from still knowing each other still needed proof, this was a prime example.

“And sure enough, they will find a way to ruin at least a part of it, but that’s just life. They’re family, ruining the fun is part of the contract. But you know you’ve come so far, and definitely too far to let it stop you.”

Robert paused for emphasis and continued “you’ve cut the cord now, Dingle. They know it, so the worst part is over. I know telling them about me is the second worst part, but you don’t have to let them know just yet if you don’t want to.”

“I want the entire world to know about you.”

Saying it felt good beyond words, those spoken and those left unsaid.

Robert huffed. “If you want the entire world to know you can always make an Instagram story out of it and call it a day.”
“In what universe would I do an Instagram story in the first place?”

“You wouldn’t in any universe, Aaron, I apologize. I temporarily forgot you’re bad at sarcasm when you’re nervous. Just go in there and feel proudly superior like you want to. It’ll make you feel better.”

“Talking to you makes me feel better.”

Robert hummed in agreement, his voice doing its trick.

The warmth it spread throughout Aaron’s body was soothing.

“Good. Now get in there, Aaron. I have to get back to my terrible coffee and proofreading spreadsheets previously handled by some massive illiterate idiot, presumably bad at life in general in addition to maths and words.”

“Okay. Good luck to that idiot after you’re done telling him off. Call me tonight, yeah? I’ll see you soon.”
“ ‘Course. And I will see you soon, Aaron, you know.”
“I know.”

And damn if it didn’t make him feel like talking to Robert always had; that he could do just about anything.

This was, of course, vastly beyond anything.

Aaron stumped his cigarette, took a deep breath and stepped inside.

Robert had definitely been right; just being in the pub and at least seemingly casual and cocky felt good.

Unfortunately not that many people witnessing it apart from Kerry, but Aaron was basking in his own little glory all the same.

Fuck you all, I am superior.

He didn’t really think that, but for this visit he just might have to make it look like he did.

That feeling lasted about a minute and then Aaron saw his mother come through from the back.

Chas’s face didn’t show as much surprise as he would’ve wanted.

Oh so that’s how this will go, with a bit of “he’s back now, of course he is because he fucked up again and now wants to move back into his old room. We can start with a passive aggressive “look what the cat dragged in” and then-

“Well, look what the cat dragged in”, Chas said.

Yeah, obviously.

She approached Aaron, not attempting to hug him just yet.

“Hiya”, he said, not leaning for that hug either.

Everything looked familiar, too familiar.

It felt as if though the entire pub had been on freeze frame, someone just had hit play when he’d walked in.

Of course, it had only been six weeks but the change he felt in himself had 6 years’ worth of change.

The growth spurts of the rare kind.

“I just saw Diane and Victoria with Seb, they were on their way to the park”, Chas said, wiping down the counter with a towel.

“Thanks. I’m off to check on the scrapyard soon, I’ll catch up with them after that.”

“They seem nice.”

My son seems nice, does he?

Aaron knew she was talking about the lads working at the yard, but he wanted to slip in that malicious thought just for the vast hell of it.

“Yeah, that’s what Cain said. Not in those words as it is Cain, but something like that.”

“Good. D’ya want a coffee?”

“Yeah, ta.”

Chas went through the back again and Aaron followed.

He looked around absentmindedly, seeing a new sofa.

There were Christmas cards everywhere.

He glanced at the pictures on display on the cupboard.

His and Robert’s wedding photo, the one that had still stubbornly been there even when he’d left, was no longer there.

“So, how long are you staying for?” Chas asked, pouring coffee into two mugs.

They sat down as Aaron said “dunno yet. Probably just a couple of nights as I’ve to get back to the centre.”

Chas showed no emotion, just nodded.

Aaron took a sip from his mug (Robert was never keen to drink this, but he did just to keep the mother-in-law from having another reason to go off on one).

Chas stirred sugar into her mug, taking a sip as well, humming in a very pleased way that might as well have been this is good coffee, the lad knows nothing.

“How have you been?” she asked, eyes still fixed on her cup.

“Good. Really good. The centre is coming up nicely, we should be able to open in March. Been doing some repairs with uncle Zak, and a few fixes at the garage for Debbie. Seb loves it there, so he’s tagging along most days.”

“Well isn’t that nice.”

It is actually, no matter how condescendingly you say it.

“So what’s new here?”

Chas shrugged.

“Not much. Charity being Charity. Cain being Cain. The usual.”

The fact that she didn’t even try to up her game in order to make Aaron’s new life seem less great was alarming if anything.

As much as Aaron had had plenty of the sort of familiarities that scared him in the most wonderful ways, this was one that he could’ve gladly skipped.

No, I don’t. This needs to happen, whatever this is.

He sat up straight, holding the mug in a tight grip, hoping he showed an unwavering confidence, much like the one he definitely had left at the door upon walking in.

“Liv called the other day”, Chas said suddenly, turning towards her son.

“She called you?”

It came out just as stunned as Aaron felt.

“She did. Doing well in rehab, you must be proud.”

You just couldn’t say you’re proud of her too, couldya?”

“I’m proud of her too.”

Okay then, that’s better. God, I should at least give you a chance, right?

“She told me.”

Here we go. I won’t go off on one, I won’t go off one one, I w-

“’Bout what?” Aaron asked in a destined to fail attempt to buy some time.

Chas scoffed.

“You know what.”

“Narrow it down, I have a lot going on.“

“She told me about your ex-husband, Aaron.”

Aaron skipped the bubbling anger from her saying ex-husband instead of his name.

“I see. What exactly did she say?”

Chas drummed her fingers against her mug.

“That he’s been transferred to Manchester. She didn’t say much else.”

Thank you, Liv. For ripping off the bandaid and not giving out anything else. You’re getting two Christmas cards this year at the very least. Or two hugs, that’ll say thanks and gloriously wind you up, so double win to come, sis.

“Yeah, he is in Manchester now.”

“Have you spoken to him?”

Aaron looked at his mum, evaluating if she was in fact baiting him, if she had squeezed more information from Diane or just anyone who might do so hence was now just trying to casually steer them into a barney. One that she could sneak an “I’ve known for ages” into, just to prove a point, whatever that meant.

Aaron never had really understood what that meant.

Or as in her case usually was, she was about to give a monologue with no questions from the audience afterwards.

Chas simply sat there, sipping her coffee, her sharp eyes as piercing as ever.

You’ve cut the cord now, Dingle. They know it, so the worst part is over.

Repeating Robert’s words to himself like the sweetest mantra there was, Aaron said:” Yeah, I have. I’ve seen him too. Twice, actually.”

“I see.”

Aaron decided to just bite the bullet.

“I’m not going to discuss it with you.”

He knew that was a lie as soon as he had said it.

His mother smiled in a way that was definitely baiting him to have a go.

“So what then, you’re back together now?”

“Yeah, we are.”

“Not much of a life, Aaron.”

Finally, for a minute there I thought this was an actual conversation.

“It’s the best life, knowing he still loves me.”

“I promise you the best life.”

And Robert kept that promise. After everything.

Aaron felt the power in those words, grounding him.

“He left you.”

“No. I left him. I let it happen. And two years after I abandoned him, he still wants to give it a go.”

Chas stood up, shoulders stiff and walked to the sink, grabbing the kettle she definitely did not need at that particular moment.

“Like I was just saying to Paddy the other day”-

“I really don’t care, mum.”

“Of course you don’t. He’s back in your life, it’s what you do.”

“If by what I do you mean being with the love of my life then yes, that is what I do. I love Robert. I’ve always loved Robert and I always will love him. Better this time.”

Chas scoffed.

Aaron stopped and looked at his mother, standing there. Kettle in hand, earrings hanging like sad trophies, mouth a tight line.

“He blocked you out of the blue without even saying goodbye, Aaron.”

And I let him without saying goodbye either. Unless signing divorce papers counts, and I reckon it really flippin doesn’t.

That was the thing about being back; Aaron had known deep in his mind that facing his village family would result into him really having to see the selfish denial he himself had been ensconced in for so long. Seeing the big flashy graffiti of his own mistakes drawn on those people in great detail.

It had just been easier to hate them more, because that’s what one does.

“He did say goodbye, when I visited him. I just realized it only afterwards. He told me I was strong. He was right up to a point, but I really could’ve used someone keeping an eye out for a bit. Well, Cain did. But his heart was broken too. We could do things for each other only so far. Not to mention Liv, let down by me and everyone else. I’m her guardian and I did nothing. Except making things worse. She decided to go to rehab and get herself sorted. That is all her, I can take zero credit for it.”

Chas said nothing. She fiddled her hair into a bun, then let it fly about again. She took a random mug and put it into the sink. She just did whilst staying silent.

Much like she had always done when the conversation was turning out like this one.

“I’m not trying to make you feel guilty, mum. Because we all do already. I just want you to think about how irreplaceable Robert really is to me, how he always has been. And he was that to us all, including you. You denying it doesn’t change that.”

Chas’s eyes widened slightly, as much as she let them in a situation that was driving into a ravine she hadn’t chosen.

“He’s been fighting against loneliness all his life, mum. He grew up thinking he deserved it. That’s why he put on that front and behaved like a prat, because he thought he had to. Not being able to rely on anyone. Some people can handle it because they can rely on themselves. But Robert couldn’t even do that. Because he’d been listening to the voices inside his head telling him he would always eventually let everyone down. That included himself. And d’ya know what, I felt like that for years too.”

Chas stilled, the click of her heels silenced.

“That was different. What happened to you”-

“Don’t trivialize what happened to Robert. It’s not some competition that no one wants to win.”

Aaron stood up, approached his mum, met her gaze.

Her guard was up now.

A shield much like Robert’s, just built with different blocks.

“He hurt you so much during the affair.”

“I hurt him too. Still not a competition, mum.”

Aaron pulled his sleeves over his fists, suddenly aching to lie down on the sofa and just curl up into a ball, evaporating.

The lights in the room seemed too bright all of a sudden.

“You claim you’re not blaming me, but you say all these things”, Chas sighed, stubbornly trying to get a win out of it.

To her it was a competition of sorts, but she didn’t seem to understand she was the only participant.

“I blame all of us.”

“Robert is no saint.”

“Oh for the love of…did I say that he is?”

“You make it sound like that.”

“Have you forgotten why he is prison now? Or is your weird sort of being mates with Wendy that much more important? If Sandra had been running about the village, pestering and harassing and accusing me of lying about Gordon, would that been okay?”

Chas seemed to come to life a bit at that.

“How dare you say that”, she hissed, shaking her head, curls and disbelief waving around.

“How dare you not admit what she did? How she and that scum son of hers stalked and hounded Vic when she was trying to recover from what happened to her and dealing with being pregnant and her riled up brother heartbroken over it, not being able to let it go?”

Chas didn’t reply. Her eyes were wandering over the room, pausing her gaze on anything except her son.

Hers was a classic unnecessary Dingle standoff, random weapons shooting about with no one really understanding why it happened in the first place, just that a fight was needed.

Aaron put a hand on her arm. She flinched but didn’t pull away.

“Mum, we have to face up to this. We have to.”

Chas let Aaron’s hand drop, crossing her arms, face forming an unpleasant smirk.

“It’s all about what you want now, is it? Coming here and walking all over us like the man that can do no wrong. I can tell you’re seeing Robert again, the arrogance is nothing new.”

Aaron felt Chas’s words falling on him and tearing at his skin.

“Are you saying that me changing my life for the better is because of him? Because if you are, you’re absolutely right. Robert always saw the best in me, even when I was at my worst. And that kept me going when I left.”

“You left Ben too. He could’ve offered you stability. He loved you.”

Aaron bit hard at his lip, knowing this was a cul-de-sac if there ever was one, but he was there, talking, being the son that his mum didn’t recognize but he’d not leave it halfway like he’d done in the past.

She should want to know me at least, shouldn’t she?

“Mum, I didn’t love him. I tried to, but that was some twisted attempt to make up for what I did to him at school. He knows it. We talked things through with him before I left. Sort of. And yeah, he still hates me. Again. And I have to live with that which serves me right, I’m not saying it doesn’t. I would’ve broken up with him regardless, because Robert was still refusing to see me at the time. I started sending requests to Rightworth last September. He only accepted last month.”

Aaron took a breath, hesitating whether he should – or indeed, could – carry on.

Chas stood there, in her red blouse and black skirt, waves of hair and closed off demeanor. The lines on her face all standing tall, as if to say look what I’ve been through, I deserve a better son.

“Did you consider his motives to see you?”

Aaron would’ve laughed if it hadn’t been so monumentally sad.

“Robert had only one motive at first; to tell me to stop trying to see him. He tried to push me away, but I didn’t let him.”

I’m telling her too much but might as well ride this wave out properly.

“He loves me, mum. No one has ever loved me like he does.”’

“You still believe that after everything he’s done?”

Right, about that not going off on one.

“You mean the fact that he saved my life after I cut myself to pieces when Gordon came back, and stood by me through it all? Or that he saved my life again during the bypass crash? That he married me, knowing that I was going to prison? That he looked after Liv, renovated the Mill and supported me during my stint? And what happened during that one time with Rebecca resulted into me having the most beautiful son. If anything, Rebecca was a surrogate of sorts that came about in an unfortunate way. He thought we had broken up not to mention he was three sheets to the wind. But the result is the same, I have a child with the love of my life and it’s the most amazing thing there is. God, I can’t believe I have to repeat these facts again.”
Aaron was on a roll now, he quickly paused to take another sip of his coffee, holding his hand up as he did so to stop his mum from interrupting.

“And it’s not like I didn’t do worse when he went to prison. Instead of trying harder to get contact with him I slept around like a-well, one of those blokes. I didn’t fight for him, mum. I let him down. And I let you lot poison my mind thinking he just didn’t love me. And I will never forgive myself for that.”

“A lot remains unforgiven, Aaron.”

Chas shook her arms, as if dusting off the conversation.

“You’ll understand better if you ever have children of your own.”

Aaron felt his heart break at that. He wasn’t sure if the driving force behind it was his disappointment towards his mother, or the nearly blinding anger on behalf of his own son.

Seb is my kid. You might as well say Paddy was never my dad because we don’t share blood.”

Chas may have flinched at that, Aaron wasn’t sure.

“Mum, please just try and understand. Can you do that? I’m happy now, and you know when I’m happy, Robert is always part of the equation, and so is Seb.”

He could see Chas closing off and locking the door, a mask of nonchalance taking its throne.

“Shouldn’t you be at the scrapyard, I’m sure you’re very busy now as you seem to be these days anyway.”

It was said with the kind of cold and steely determination only Chastity Dingle could convey.

Aaron didn’t really want to attempt to break through that, at least not that day as it was.

“Right.”

“Right then, off you go.”

“Thanks for the coffee, mum.”

“Anytime.”

And that hurt. The anytime that didn’t really mean anytime, nor did it actually mean anything, and it being said by his mum gave Aaron a wave of sadness that could’ve overpowered most things.

Standing in the doorway, thoughts and feet lingering, he saw Chas walk over to the bar, pouring a pint for a punter and smiling about the room, at everyone but her son, her hollow eyes gone into hiding.

He still had words floating in his mind, aching to come out.

Words like abandoned, forgotten.

Names like Al, Carl, Cameron.

Places called you weren’t there.

Those words stayed still, desperately flapping their wings, knowing their feet were shackled.

Aaron walked out the back door, glancing towards upstairs.

Leaving felt difficult but staying would’ve been worse.

As he let the wind surround him, he felt the waters rising through his chest.

Just because he would never get on with his mum didn’t mean he wouldn’t always be a little desperate to be loved and approved by her.

That never changes between mothers and sons.

 

Seb was squirming in Aaron’s arms impatiently, wanting to continue his current game with Harry, which included very silly, wobbly movements followed by a yelp of “it’s awheel!” whatever that meant.

Reluctantly, Aaron put Seb down and let him run off, after hugging him a bit tighter than usual.

Aaron was glad he was able to live vicariously through his son.

He didn’t really remember his own it’s awheel times.

Vic stood next to him, talking on the phone to Harry’s babysitter.

Aaron had decided to spend time with her and Harry.

It can’t be worse than the encounter with mum, and with any luck I don’t have to be sober all the way through this one, do I?

The scrapyard was doing well, and Aaron was more than happy about it. That place meant a lot to him and would continue to do so.

It’s only so I can meet you legitimately without anyone getting suspicious.

Aaron chuckled to himself.

Robert had always teasingly called him a cheap date, but Aaron wouldn’t call 10 k that cheap.

It seemed like another lifetime when it had happened.

Then again it was exactly that, wasn’t it?

Parenthood shook him out of his stupor and made Vic hang up the phone too.

“Harry, put that away!”

“Seb, that goes for you n’all!”

The boys gave them their best innocent faces whilst their cheeks and chins held very clear evidence of the snowballs being consumed.

“So that’s what they decided to have for lunch.”

“Oh great, I hope they’re not gonna lose their lunch and all.”

Aaron and Vic shared a look, smiling.

“So how’s Rob?” Vic asked, drawing a circle in the snow with her shoe. Her question came with a tone that wouldn’t get Aaron out of it with lies anymore.

“He’s got some office job, obviously.”

Vic nodded, the little smile still in place.

“Of course he does.”

“Yeah. ‘Spose we just talk about..normal things, as normal as they can be.”

“Please, you’re the most normal thing he’s ever had.”

“Thanks. I think.”

Vic made a face that she’d just remember something, pulling two juice boxes out of her handbag with a pointed look towards their kids. It suddenly reminded Aaron the way she’d taken out the ring box from that same handbag at the hospital, Aaron sliding the ring on Robert’s finger.

God, I miss being married to him.

Seb and Harry ran up back to them, red cheeks and breathless, hair sweaty under their hats, babbling randomly with volume raising and dropping a thousand decibels in between.

“It’s awheel!” Seb squealed.

“It’s awheel!” Harry confirmed.

Their very silly looking choreography, something between a toddler macarena and wobbly line dancing seemed to take a turn towards even sillier.

“Right, these two will never be dancers”, Vic laughed.

“Still better than Robert”, Aaron said.

“Not exactly hard to be better than him now is it?”

“No, it really isn’t.”

They headed towards Keeper’s with Diane appearing by their side.

“What’s new with Rebecca, those doctors never seem to have time to chat?” Aaron asked as they entered Vic’s house.

Diane shook her head. “If only I knew, pet. They tell me one thing and then another.”

“We are her son’s guardians, I don’t get it.”

Diane sighed as she pulled off her scarf, placing it on the hanger next to her winter coat.

“I have an inkling she may have refused to let us know”.

Aaron hadn’t even thought of that option, which made him immediately feel a tad ignorant. Considering their history, it wouldn’t be surprising in the slightest.

“You reckon she did that? She does hate me, that’s not news but you’d think she’d be wanting to make things easier with him.”

Aaron felt the dread creeping up his nerves.

“No, it’s her brain making her paranoid. She probably thinks we’re gonna hurt her or something.”

Diane nodded.

“Exactly what I thought. We’ll have to apply for a trustee to be appointed. I don’t know whom she trusts at this point, but those doctors should realize she really can’t cope.”

Aaron froze.

“Diane, you reckon she might have lost her memory book?”

“It’s a possibility.”

“Right. I’ll go check at some point. But I can’t take Seb with me, he’d be beyond confused. It’s bad enough as it is, he’s asking for his mum often enough.”

Diane nodded to Vic as she took the teacup that had been offered to her, blowing into a bit before taking a sip.

“He’s been asking about Robert too, Aaron.”

“I know. I don’t have a lot of answers on that front”.

Ones that would satisfy the curiosity of a four-year-old AND keep things as Robert wants them to be.

"What does Robert want then?”

Now there’s the million quid question. I have no idea.

“Told me not to let Seb know yet I’ve seen him but I hate lying to Seb, no matter how much it may turn out to be in his best interest. Which I doubt.”

Diane gave him a little smile.

“He’ll understand.”

Aaron wasn’t convinced in the slightest, but he let it go.

The door opened.

“Here he is!”

Sarah and Debbie appeared through the door.

Aaron immediately felt relief setting into his bones.

“We went to see Grumpy”, Sarah said as she shook the snow out of her hair on the floor with Vic making a face at that.

“How was he?” Aaron asked, giving them both a hug because apparently they were that kind of family now.

“Grumpy”, Sarah said with a pleased smirk which said she’d been winding her grandad up thoroughly and just wanted to do nothing but be extremely pleased with herself now.

“Shocker”, Aaron laughed, “how’s about I make lunch and then we can do something fun?”
“Well said, you cooking lunch cannot be included in the fun”, Vic said.

God, I miss Liv. She would’ve said the same thing.

“I was actually thinking of making one of your mum’s recipes. The beef stew”.

Vic’s eyes widened.

“Don’t look so surprised, I know things. And I’m not winging it, Robert taught me how to make it.”

Vic grinned.

“I missed that.”

“What?”

"You, talking about my brother with a soppy smile like that.”

Aaron felt his ears turn red.

“Shut up.”

“I think you know I won’t.”

Aaron nearly flipped the bird at her but settled for a grimace as there were kids present. They could learn those gestures at school thus their parents could blame someone else for it.

Circle of life, innit?

“Right, I’m going to the kitchen now and Vic, do not follow.”

Aaron cooked, and it turned out like he’d wanted. They ate together, after lunch Diane went about her way with Seb and Harry as the boys had suddenly become obsessed with going to the garage, very much wanting to visit Grumpy. Sarah had decided to join them and as they were putting on their hats and coats, she gave the little ones the sort of instructions for the visit Debbie tried and failed to stop from happening.

Aaron was still laughing when they had already left.

Can’t wait to ask Cain “how was your day” later on.

 

When he came back from taking a shower, Aaron saw Debbie and Vic hunched over a laptop, looking at old photos from the Sugden farm.

“Look at that, the poor lamb.”

“Yeah, must be tough being so ugly, with its cute mates and all.”

“Debbie, that’s a terrible thing to say.”

“Don’t worry Vic, I’m sure it turned out to be a decent dinner and a nice pair of mittens.”

“God, Debbie you’re awful.”

“I know.”

Debbie’s tone was nothing if not proud.

You never could blame other kids for those traits with Sarah, couldya Debs?

Aaron swallowed the thoughts rising from his gut upon seeing Jack Sugden’s face and instead just cracked open the can of lager Debbie handed over to him.

He sat down between the two women and just as he had done that, the photos had switched to his first wedding with Robert, more specifically a photo of Robert drinking from the Dingle welly.

His heart clenched, the familiar combination of affection and sadness beating.

“God, he was so drunk after that”, Aaron said, with an ever so slight quiver to his voice.

“Drunk on you, more like.”
“Shut up, Debs.”

Debbie sighed and turned towards her cousin, eyes glistening.

“I’ve never had that.”

“Had what?”

“What you and Robert have.”

Aaron smiled at that.

“I never thought I would to be honest.”

I’ve never had this with anyone. I never thought I would have this. And I never thought I’d have it with you.

He patted Debbie on the shoulder.

“You will, Debs. If I can have it, so can you. With any luck, your bloke won’t be behind bars at any point.”

“Cheers Aaron, you say the nicest things.”

Debbie got on her feet, shedding off the sentimentality.

“Right, we need some vodka.”

“Jesus Debs, it’s half two.”

Debbie looked between Aaron and Vic.

“How is this not a cause to celebrate, Aaron and Robert finally talking?”

Well, the crazy woman’s got a point.

 

At four PM, the evidence clearly indicated there were two Dingles and one Sugden completely and utterly trollied at Keeper’s cottage.

Vic was currently leaning over to Debbie, a feather boa wrapped around her forehead (what is it with these women playing drunk dress up?) and she was dramatically stage whispering:
“You know that Adam?”
“I know who Adam is, Vic”, Debbie said, fiddling with the silver Christmas tinsel wrapped in her hair.

Vic scoffed. “Yeah yeah but you know about that Adam – she pointed her finger towards Debbie, definitely too close to her eye – “that Adam was a good bloke.”

Finger still very much pointing, she turned towards a wobbly and mullered Aaron who backed up a bit out of justified concern towards his retinas.

“Isn’t that right, Aaron?”

“Adam was the best bloke, bet he still is”, Aaron said.

Sharing a drunken melancholic look with Vic was inevitable.

“I liked Adam a lot”, Debbie said whilst burping, “he was the best of the Bartons, easily.”

“I miss Finn”, Vic said, “I still can’t believe he’s gone.”

Debbie gasped and sat up, spilling vodka in Vic’s hair, not that either one noticed.

“Oh Finn! He was lovely. I forgot him, because he never seemed like a member of that family. Or Adam, mind you.”

“Neither ever was, were they? Not really.”

Vic giggled suddenly.

“Finn was the funniest. Worst jokes in the Dales, but he made them hilarious."

It was a welcome distraction from the drunken sadness, which is always worse than the sober one.

Another giggle.

“And I can’t believe I slept with Ross.”

“Tell me about it”, Debbie said.

“Been there, done Barton”, Vic said, her eyes widening suddenly, volume raising, “and Aaron here too knows what that’s about!”

“Can we not do this who slept with whom right now?” Aaron asked, taking a sip of lager, “the answer is always the same, everyone copped off with everyone.”

“If Aaron were straight, yous two would probably be a couple”, Vic sniggered.

“For fuck’s sake Vic, she’s my cousin!”

“You’re both Dingles, I don’t see the problem.”

"Let’s not forget who was your first”, Debbie said with a wink that looked more like she just closed her eye for a moment too long.

“Ewwww!”

That came in unison from Vic and Aaron.

Debbie shook her head, a lopsided smile on her face pointed towards Aaron.

“It’s poetic in this village sort of way, innit? That your first and last are from the same”-

“Seriously Debs, just shut up, the game is now called just drink or do one.”

Debbie held her hands up.

“Fine, be like that. God, you’re just like dad.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“You would, wouldn’t ya?”

Vic’s phone went off, she took it and slid over the screen to answer.

“Hiya Wendy.”

The silence between Aaron and Debbie was tangible.

The freezing bucketloads of icy water called reality flooding the room moved in at a threatening speed.

Suddenly shaken out of his drunken state, Aaron stood up and said “I’m going for a ciggy.”

No one told him not to.                

The wind felt like the most wonderful thing as he stepped outside.

Aaron dug out his phone along with the cigarettes, thinking he could call Robert for a mad second.

Guilt prickled as he realized he had been about to pour this frustration on a man going through things that he didn’t even know the extent of.

They would have to change the setting, he knew it.

Because it was falling into the same mold too quickly, with a dangerous velocity.

Aaron leaning on Robert for half of his strength.

And Robert letting him.

Let me help you this time.

He’d make sure that would happen. This time.

He’ll be out one day.

We’ll be together.

If he’ll still want me.

He wanted to believe that the kiss they’d shared at the end of his previous visit was an indication towards yes, he will.

For now though, it was enough to just think about that kiss and let the memory wipe out the scenery of a village he was already anxious to get out of.

For a minute he saw the words he’d spray painted on that house’s wall.

Aaron hadn’t thought about it much lately, the mess of it all.

His thoughts were occupied with rather beautiful things for once.

And that kiss.

That Aaron thought about a lot.

 

 

As he came back inside, he heard Vic crying.

Hoping it would just be a random drunken escalation, he stepped into the room and looked between her and Debbie.

“What’s up?”

Vic’s glassy gaze locked onto his, hair tousled, vodka shot forgotten halfway through its journey towards her laughing gear.

Not that she was laughing.

“You, that’s what’s up!” she said, uninhibitedly riled up.

Not so random, then.

Aaron sat down, feeling the dread.

“What?”

Vic fiddled with her phone, nose scrunched up.

“You can’t tell me how to live my life.”
“At what point have I done that?”

Vic snorted.

“You hate me because of the choices I made. You may as well just do that. Tell me how to make better ones.”

Aaron ran a hand across his face, trying to keep his focus.

“Vic, I will never understand those choices but I’m not gonna tell ya what to do.”

Vic stood up, gesturing wildly.

She pulled off the feather boa as if to say the fun ends here.

“It was hard to get over what happened. And you know how hard that is.”

About the days that will always come, when every smile was forced at best and the cracks that would never leave your soul just hurt that much worse?

Yeah, Aaron knew how hard it was.

“Of course I do. Have I given you reason to think I don’t?”

Vic stomped her foot a bit, like the frustration just pouring out of her could get out faster.

“Don’t do that! You act like you understand my choices after the fact, but you don’t!”

“I really don’t understand it, Vic, and I’m not gonna lie that I do.”

Debbie was sat there, eyeing them, saying nothing.

Aaron was glad she was there.

And that out of all the possible people it was particularly her.

Vic waved her phone around as if summoning Wendy to back her up.

“My son has a grandmother, and I’m not apologizing for it!”

Aaron could see the red cloak dangling in front of him, the beast in his chest just barely resisting the urge to dig the ground with its hoofs.

“His grandmother harassed you”, he said firmly through gritted teeth, “her and that – son of hers. They harassed me and Robert. She’s the reason Robert is in prison!”

“Rob is in prison because he couldn’t control himself!”

And Aaron hated her for that the most.

Blaming Robert for other people’s crimes.

Choosing Wendy over him.

He stood up too, body suddenly stiff and feet weighing like lead.

“Yeah, and you chose her over him, didn’t ya?”
“You chose Ben over him!”

Aaron wanted to punch someone, but that someone was himself and no-one else.

“My stupidity has nothing to do with yours”, he said, voice raising now.

“Oh really?”
Vic was leaning back and forth a little now, like she was gearing up speed like an inebriated kid on a swing.

“My husband blocked me too, Aaron! The difference being I knew it was happening but it’s not like it was better, is it? And after Adam was gone, I went off the rails, slept around and pretended like I didn’t love him anymore. How is that different from what you did?”

Aaron went to speak, the edges blurring in his mind, but Vic cut him off, stare dark, teeth bare.

“But I never would’ve chosen someone I hardly knew over Adam if there had been even the smallest chance of getting him back.”

Her smile was a bit too pleased, though it had nothing to do with being happy.

Aaron couldn’t have hated that smile more than he did.

“Why’d ya think it took Robert four months to agree to see me, after the way I behaved?”

“Your self pity has nothing to do with me”, Vic said cruelly, “and you don’t get to act all high and mighty after you left Rob like that.”

“You left him too, Vic. You didn’t encourage him to appeal. I know I didn’t either, but you chose to play happy families with that woman instead of your own brother”, Aaron said, flinging the cruelty right back.

They were both out of breath now, the wasted days trickling through the walls, Vic’s eyes gone furiously black, Aaron holding his hands tightly in fists in his pockets.

“First I had to deal with what Lee did, and then Luke.”

“So, what, you decided to cozy up with Wendy to get back at them?”
“I did it for Harry!”

“No, you did that for yourself. You wanted to keep that denial of yours.”

“Pot kettle, Aaron.”

“I didn’t play house with the Posners, or anyone for that matter. I lost my husband and my son. At least you had Harry. I had no one when Robert left. I don’t remember you offering support or try telling me off when I began my stint as the village gay idiot.”

Vic blew out a breath.

“What exactly could I have done?”
“Not think with your baby-crazy brain for once.”

Vic froze, the steel in her eyes not that unlike the one in his mum’s gaze.

“Are you saying I shouldn’t have had Harry? Christ, it’s like Rob two years ago all over again.”

“That is not what I’m saying.”

“Then what are you saying?”

Vic stood there, daring him.

“I don’t know, Vic. I don’t know.”

Aaron sat down, exhaustion correlating with the anxiety.

The pain of memories swam in the air, pushing Vic towards Aaron as much as it was pulling her away.

Vic slumped into a chair, seeming to curl up into a shield, one that hid absolutely nothing.

“I’m not apologizing for having a family”, she said stubbornly.

After a beat of the flammable silence, she continued, sniffing, face red and hostile.

“I was used to it. Rob being away. And I always wondered if it had been because of me.”

“That was down to Jack.”

“What are you on about?”

“Just that…you know, he favored Andy”, Aaron stammered, realizing what he had almost done.

As much as he was still sort of itching to get one over Vic, this wasn’t his secret to tell.

“He didn’t, Andy was struggling.”

And right then Aaron realized he could never reach that place with Vic he’d had.

The place was built on outdated information.

That made the affection outdated too.

For both of them, surely.

He ran a hand through his hair, blowing out a breath, sipping the lager he was sure had been there for at least two hours, and the outcome of said sip confirmed it.

“I’m sorry”, Aaron said weakly.

“Me too.”

Because sometimes you have to say things you don’t really mean.

Aaron looked at Vic, his focus long gone and dissolved, heart thumping in the aftermath.

“God, Vic. We used to be best mates. What the hell happened?”

Vic gazed back at him, desolation wrapped around her like the unwanted blanket that it was.

“Life”, she said sadly.

 

Debbie cleared her throat.

“Right. I’m getting the vodka, and if you two are still breathing when I come back you might get a sip.”

Vic brushed at her hair and wiped at her face just as Aaron did, both attempting to hide the evidence of their friendship beyond repair.

The house around them filled with random words, not succeeding to remind of better times.

Better times came with a tint of future disappointment now.

Debbie appeared, with three glasses and a bottle again.

Aaron and Vic had both broken their previous shot glasses as stage props for the fury forever left unresolved.

Debbie sat between them on the floor, as if to undo the distance between them a bit.

It probably was intentional, Debbie being the trooper that she was.

Vic waved a hand at her.

 “No more vodka, Debbie.”

But she was already handing them a glass each.

Giving them both a firm look, she said “we were supposed to toast for Aaron and Robert, and I reckon everyone in this room still wants to do so.”

Vic leaned closer with her glass, nodding a bit.

“ ‘Course, she said, not meeting Aaron’s eye but body turned towards him all the same.

“And to Harry”, Aaron said.

Because sometimes you have to say things you at least half mean.

 

They clinked their glasses and downed the shots.

 

On his way to meet Cain, Aaron’s phone rang.

He just knew it would be Robert.

“Hiya”, he said, hoping it would convey every single drop of love he felt.

“Hiya. How did it go?”

If only I knew.

“Better and worse than I expected.”

Robert chuckled.

“Sounds about right.”

“I had to listen to a drunken Debbie heckle me with an atonal Aaron likes a bo-oooy, Aaron likes a bo-oooy for much longer than should be legal.”

Robert downright cackled at that.

“Pretty sure that can’t be legal. Is it true tho?”

“What?”

“Does Aaron like a boy?”

Aaron knew he was blushing but that really was nobody’s business but his.

“Yeah. Just one boy though. The best one there is.”

“You’re drunk, and I love it. Listen, I’ve only got a minute now as I spent a good hour with my chinwagging solicitor. But we’ll talk tomorrow again, yeah?”

“Course. I’m sorry, M a bit off my face actually.”

“With a day like that you should be.”

Aaron laughed.

It was genuine.

As was the laugh Robert joined him with.

“Miss ya”, Aaron said, squeezing his phone closer to his ear, to be closer.

“Miss you more”, Robert said, possibly clutching at the receiver on his end too.

“Can’t wait to see you. Are we still on for next week?”
“You know we are. Seeing Cain soon?”

“Yeah. Hang on, how did you know?”
“I may have instructed him to pass on something to you.”

Feeling the rush of chaotic affection, Aaron went for the worst joke possible, knowing Robert would be right there with him.

“It’s not divorce papers, is it?”

“Never again, Aaron. I can promise you that.”

“Same.”

It seemed they both sighed with relief.

And then, Aaron heard the best news he had heard since the visitation: confirmed and an I love ya from kiss-swollen lips.

“My appeal is moving forward.”

Robert said it so casually, much like a Sugden knowing the effect their words would make after plotting big time, patiently behind the curtains.

Aaron wasn’t behind any bloody curtains, he was stumbling and falling into them, ripping them off the rails.

“You what?”, he choked out, his own voice so thick and foreign.

“Yeah, it’s happening.”

Robert sounded wrecked with emotions too.

Aaron stopped walking, as if moving forward would end this conversation.

The universe seemed to spin faster, and the vodka wasn’t the culprit.

“But-how, it’s – when? When did you decide this? Robert, what?”

“I decided after you’d sent me the tenth request for a visiting order.”

Aaron would cry in about five, four, three-
“Because by then you believed I was serious”, he said, fighting the tide of what the hell-waterworks.
“Yeah, exactly. I hate to say this now, but I do have to go. Otherwise they’ll just rip this phone out of my hand and you’ll think I’ve hung up.”

“Jesus, Robert, not now!”

“I wish not. But I’ll call you tomorrow, yeah?”

“You better save me a bigger time slot then, you. God, I’ve never been this happy for your tendencies to long-term scheming.”
“Me neither.”

The snow didn’t seem that cold, flakes landing on him with kindness.

“I’ll see you soon, Aaron.”
“I’ll see you soon, Robert.”

The emotions that ran through Aaron after he’d hung up were too everything to handle.

So he went and sat in the gazebo for a good fifteen minutes, laughter and tears alternating, overlapping.

Some odd glances were shot his way from passers-by.

Still very much the village gay idiot, eh?

As if I care.

 

He stood in the garage, heart full of fuzzy memories, bursting with the sweetest disbelief.

The empty gift box on the bonnet of a Mercedes 300SL Gullwing, the contents of the box in the hand of a shakily weeping Aaron Dingle.

Cain told him what Robert had said to him; that he’d bought the present while they were still married, ordering it a couple of years in advance before his 30th birthday.

The card attached, from that time too, read:

If there’s one thing I know, it’s that one should never rely on the manufacturer’s tracker.

Happy birthday, husband. You know.

Aaron stared at the present on his palm, a miniature white Audi, crafted with perfect details, just like the one it was modeled after.

Aaron didn’t have to check the plates to confirm the SWI3 TX0 there, but he did, just because.

On top of the tiny car were two tiny items, as if thrown there.

A black leather jacket and a hoodie.

Standing right there, under the yellow lights and his uncle’s darting gaze grown very uncomfortable upon his nephew’s tears openly streaming, there amongst the tools and the grease and the memories of old and new, Aaron knew two things; that he’d never own a car more precious than this one, and that for the first time in two years, if only for a minute, he felt like he was very much married.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Did you know that when he croaked, the charges against Pinochet included over 300 cases of human rights violations like proper torture but he never stood trial for any of it?”

“No, I didn’t know that”, Aaron said as he was parking his car in front of Zak’s house.

More than that, he was a bit puzzled by the constant random fact-throwing that had been coming at him from the general direction of his little sister ever since Dumfries. 

Liv talking about torture as if it were a casual coffee table topic though, that wasn’t something he could be surprised by.

Liv hopped out of the car, shut the door, and took a deep breath.

“Nothing like the fresh smell of country shit first thing in the morning”, she said sweetly and grabbed her rucksack, still hopping about, much like Seb who had joined her.

“It’s the afternoon Liv, and as they say, shit always happens so you don’t have to enter the Highlands to find that smell. Also, can you not do that, especially in front of the little one ‘cause I don’t want his first word as he goes inside to be something that describes the gist from the latest issue of Outhouse and garden.”

Liv stuck out her tongue, making the resemblance demeanor wise even closer to Seb who was spinning around with his head thrown back and mouth hanging open, trying to catch the snowflakes.

If it were up to him, that boy would eat nothing but snow. I thought my cooking was getting better, but this is really not helping me believe that.

Aaron let both of the kids stay outside against his better judgement conversationally and carried their things into the house.

As he put the bags on the floor, he couldn’t help but feel guilt-ridden sadness.

He was happy about having Liv finally around.

But leaving Manchester had been hard.

Especially since his third visit with Robert didn’t happen as the prison had been in lockdown that day, which seemed very much his luck.

He opted for being selfish and imagining it was personal, because obviously other visitors didn’t quite matter as much.

The fear had crept up on him again. 

Robert had of few words and stretched out silences during their last two phone calls.

Asking what was wrong seemed pointless, but Aaron knew by experience that not asking would’ve been worse.

What if Robert changes his mind now? If we don’t see each other soon he might realize I don’t deserve this chance”-

“Oi, big bro.”  

Liv was tapping him on the shoulder.

“Can you stop daydreaming for a second and help me find Seb’s blanket, he’s about to turn on the waterworks over there.”

Aaron didn’t point out that his mind was definitely day dreading if anything and pushed away the thoughts.

I need to concentrate on the how to be a less crappy brother now, I can do the how to be a less crappy husb-well, something, later because I’ve been multitasking both thoughts enough as it is anyway.

The ole regret juggle wasn’t easy and despite the thorough practice, Aaron felt rusty.

“Blanket’s in the living room, on the sofa. And make sure he doesn’t track the snow here, because – oi Seb, shoes off now or there won’t be blankets and no cocoa either.”

The boy paused in the middle of the room in his boots and looked at Aaron with justified concern. 

“No but it was I need to go.”

Seb knew how to multitask his horrors as well, considering the prospect of his cocoa under threat was easily combined with needing the loo.

“Liv, take him into the outhouse. The toilet’s clogged so we’ll have to make do with it now until I fix it.”

“Why do I have to go?”

“Because I say so. And if you think you’re too old for having your cocoa taken away, think again.”

With two slightly pouting faces disappearing through the door, Aaron pulled out his phone.

Just to check there weren’t any missed calls.

There weren’t any.

And as always, it was impossible to say whether the having missed a call or not getting one was worse.

 

As they sat down for dinner, Liv’s face was nothing short of surprised as she demolished the chicken on her plate.

“This is actually good”, she said with her mouth shamelessly full.

Seb giggled, imitating her immediately.

“Don’t do that, Liv. God, I really can’t let you be a babysitter for Seb anymore if I need to get one for you n’all.”

“Yeah, yeah, calm down.”

Liv looked at her brother, thinking hard, in that way she did whenever she was trying to work out whether there was more reason for being cautiously worried or just straight up panicked.

Aaron wished she hadn’t had cause for that look so often in the past.

Liv bundled up her hair and tilted her head, still carrying both possibilities within the look in her eyes as she, thankfully, chewed her entire mouthful before speaking.

“This is Robert’s recipe, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is.”

“Daddy Robert”, Seb confirmed and went about his meal after contributing – unknowingly perhaps- an important piece into the discussion.

Liv and Aaron shared a look, one that they locked into only after they both had shot a glance towards the fourth chair at the table, the one that was empty.

Liv was clearly itching to expand the conversation into the direction of Seb’s comment and indeed did so, in proper code of course.

“You must be exhausted”, she said, “what with opening teen town and dealing with little terror and banged- up blond.” Aaron smiled.

“First of all, you don’t get to stress about me like before. Secondly, having teen town, little terror and banged-up blond in my life in the first place is more than I could’ve hoped for.”

Liv managed to mock gasp only for a second before Aaron added:

“Not to mention having the best sister ever, obvs”.

“About time.”

“We’ll celebrate officially. You can drink a coke from the welly if you’d like.” Liv snorted, waving her hand in his direction in disapproval.

“No ta. But speaking of wellies, did you know that the Nokia company used to make them, and cables and tires before all the tech stuff?”

Aaron looked at his sister chewing on her chicken and winking at Seb for God knows what reason – a reason Aaron preferred to not question out loud for the sake of his own sanity – and was now puzzled enough to ask.

“No, I did not know about the wellies and the cables. Liv, what’s with the Quizmaster: Flaherty edition? You’ve been doing that all day.”

Liv shrugged.

“Useless information is actually just information neglected by stupid people.”

Aaron narrowed his eyes.

“That’s not exactly what you’d say, is it? That’s exactly what banged-up blond would say, not you. So try again.”  

“Don’t know what you’re on about, I reckon it’s fascinating.”

“Liv.”

She sighed.

“I got really bored in rehab and started listening to other people.”

“There she is.”

Seb squirmed in his seat. Aaron knew it was only a question of very little time before his son would start making conceptual art from the leftovers out of sheer frustration, so he took the boy’s plate.

“Thank you!” Seb squealed, got on his feet and ran over to the sofa.

As he was now out of ear shot, Liv turned towards her brother and said: “Look, I know we talked about this on the way, although vaguely but anyway and made that daft agreement that includes the weird not- allowed- to -worry clause but I’m gonna ask now because reasons. Are you sure you can handle all of this?”

Aaron hesitated. There was a tightrope-rationed honesty he held onto now as none of them knew just exactly how sturdy the safety net would be in case he’d had a wobble.

He looked at his sister, sitting there with her black blouse and her skinny jeans, oozing confidence, with her suddenly grown-up aura and her plate of chicken a’la Sugden, momentarily 100 percent free of the persistent shadow of her drunken desperation - the unwanted companion that had whispered its hollow sweet in a black hole sort of way nothings into her ear and seduced her loneliness into a circle dance of inevitable demolishment, taking her over for such a long time. A time when they had both struggled to see beyond their mutual obsession with making the worst of a broken situation.

Her eyes were clear now, her heart-shaped face a healthy color and her words chosen not by calculative cruelty but with something else in entirely.

A sincerity that can only come about with looking at oneself so deeply in the mirror it will make a person either drown or fly.

A bit of both at first, of course.

Aaron felt the urge to envelop her with an embrace that would keep her in the current state, stop her from growing up - and rather backtrack a bit with that.

He wanted her to have what Sarah had now; a chance to be a child.

But he knew that Liv had never really been one in the first place. 

They had that in common.

Aaron leaned towards her, laying a hand on her arm to keep them both there, as if the dinner would continue on a warm and safe loop for all eternity, eventually all seats at the table being filled.

“I can handle it, Liv”, he said firmly, “and if I can’t I’ll talk to my counselor about it.

I’m seeing her once a week. And if I’m not here, I’ll videochat her. Okay?”

“Okay.”

Aaron squeezed her arm.

“I do appreciate that you asked, Liv.”

She smiled, hair falling from its loose bun, framing her face.

“I know you do”, she said, smile intact.

That had changed between them; affection didn’t have to get turned into a joke to make them both comfortable with its existence.

“Just don’t overdo the understanding, you sound like a counselor already.”

And then there were times that reminded the changes weren’t absolute.

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask”, Aaron said as they took their already half- devoured cocoas to the living room, “but remember you can take your time with the answer and it’s just an idea.”

“Sounds like something I’m not gonna like but go ahead.”

As they sat down, Aaron threw a blanket on her and grabbed one for himself as well.

It was always a tad colder inside, proper winter style.

Seb crawled into his lap, sleepy but still randomly babbling.

Aaron pressed a kiss to his head and put his arm around him

To stop his son from squirming, sure, but mostly to have him laid against his heart.

“I was thinking you might take a part-time job at teen town. Under the condition that we stop calling it teen town because it’s not a dodgy den.”

Liv bit her lip, her big eyes framed by a frown.

She’s thinking before answering. What is this, a normal family?

“Sure, I’ll do it. But what would I actually do?”

Aaron shrugged.

“Whatever you like. Everything is still in process so you can take your pick. But before you ask, I’m not letting you be the person who conducts job interviews because I actually want to have staff this spring instead of being blacklisted by the entire work force of the country by then.”

Liv grinned. “So that’s bye-bye for me.” She paused, tickling Seb’s tummy and continued:

“I’ll do it, ‘course I will. And for crappy money too, but I’ll need something in return.”

“What’s that?”

“I want to see banged-up blond.”

“I’ll ask”, Aaron simply said, not wanting to make Liv – or himself - insecure.

His sister gave him a pointed look, much like the ones she used to cast on him when he’d asked her for the seventh time whether she had her mittens with her in case it gets cold, the look fluctuating between an I’m not a child and a concern appreciated, now get a grip.  

Waving her empty mug, biting her lip, Liv said: “Can we not do that? I get that he is trying to protect you and probably himself by falling into the whole denial bubble, but I want to know. If he’s not coping, we have to do something about it.”

“Part of his bubble is to not talk about anything like that.”

It was the truth; Robert was still tight as a coil, everything wound up and sealed in place, darkness swept into the bin and thrown away into the pile of nuclear family waste with the rest of the world’s barrels of venomous heartache.

“I get that. He’s not been in contact with anyone for so long, a vaguely familiar person nipping by for a visit would be a lot, not to mention the estranged husband he clearly is still mad about.”

“Mad at, more like.”

“Aaron, that’s not the point. If he’s going to be in touch, he needs to actually be in touch. With himself too.”

“God, you really went to rehab didn’t you?”

“The group therapy did a number on me”, Liv said, tangibly sad.

“Don’t worry sis, you’ll be back to hating everyone in no time.”

“Thanks Aaron, I needed to hear that.”

Seb switched onto Liv’s lap. His eyelids were growing heavy, thumb finding its way into his mouth.

“I’ll take him to bed. Your phone’s ringing, I can imagine who that might be.”

Aaron got up without replying, not getting a tease from Liv about rushing to answer the call.

She might do so later. Aaron hoped she would.

The three quarters of family in the same house was deceitfully wonderful time-travel. Liv giving him crap about Robert was an essential part of it.

As Aaron grabbed his phone, Liv walked past him with a quietly snuffling Seb in her arms, whispering “get a long-distance room” as she went.

Aaron pressed the phone to his ear.

“Robert?”

“Hiya.”

The word came out quiet.

Aaron knew immediately he wasn’t alright.

He’s not been alright for ages, has he?

“What’s up?”

I miss you, I’m worried, please talk to me.

“Nothing much. Everything’s been a bit half arsed here because the wannabe Escobar shut the place down. Thought he could do his deal on the down low, as if his peanut brain could accommodate such a task.”

“Peanut? I reckon you’re giving him too much credit.”

Robert hummed, with a reluctant chuckle.

He wasn’t really responding to the bad jokes, which was a truly bad sign if there ever was one.

“You okay?”

You’re not, just tell me.

“ ‘Course. Listen, I could get us a visit for Saturday, but I know it’s so last minute that”-

“I’ll make it work, Robert. You know I will.”

“Okay then. I have to go now, but we’ll talk tomorrow.”

Aaron swallowed around the dread that had been pestering him ever since Manchester had disappeared from his rearview mirror.

It was becoming evident that Robert was avoiding him. Or at least not telling him even the tiniest, most trivial details of his day-to-day.

Offering a visit didn’t mean that he wasn’t. How many times had he asked Aaron for lunch in the portacabin when they’d been in a ships that snipe in the night type of barney?

“Robert”-

“I really have to go now, Aaron.”

Yeah you do, just wish you’d tell me where and why.

“Right.”

“See you soon then.”

“Yeah, see you soon, Robert. Love ya.”

Robert hung up.

Closing the line in more ways than one.

 

Aaron knew Liv and Ally would be thick as thieves in no time, but still it was slightly surprising to see them become immediately inseparable. And a bit enviable, because as soon as they had shaken hands in the yard of their half-finished youth center, Ally took Liv to walk on the grounds and see the place, with Aaron left standing there amongst bricks and brooms like the replaced by someone cooler- brother that he was.

Mind you, he did know Ally was cooler than absolutely anyone, and Aaron would’ve slightly hated her for it if he didn’t love her already as much as he did.

So he didn’t really mind, of course, but the insecurity lingering in his mind over his last phone conversation with Robert was making him ridiculously territorial, wanting to keep the two quarters of his family just for himself. 

Robert wasn’t offering himself into the equation, and Aaron didn’t feel exactly useful in that regard either.

Neither of them was quite all there, were they?

Still, Aaron wanted his family back so badly now.

Now that he had seen all of them within a very short time.

Being away from Robert felt like it always did.

Wrong in every possible way.

He heard Ally and Liv laughing as they entered, arm in arm like the bezzies they were now.

“Oh look, mr. Lovebite himself.” Liv’s eyes widened.

“What’s this then? Aaron, how would you”-

“Story of his life, isn’t it? Man goes to prison, husband visits, husband comes back with a lovebite.”

“Christ, Aaron, he gave you a – no, I really don’t want to hear this.”

Liv was actually covering her ears for a minute before dropping her hands and making a face.

“I’m not talking about it with you, Liv”, Aaron said, shooting a glance towards Ally who was very much pleased with herself, holding her stack of papers in her hands like she had proof of everything under the sun there, including Robert Sugden’s dental habits.

She probably did, mind you.

“Trust me, I’m talking even less about that with you”, Liv sighed, “some things never change, do they? I’d be thrilled for the disgusting familiarity here, but you and Rob are just making me vom again, so be happy later, yeah?”

Aaron loved seeing her like that.

Over dramatic teenager, grimacing at the sheer thought of them.

Wish he were here tho, he would’ve shot at least three and a half snappy comebacks to her at this point.

“Put away the lovesick grin, Aaron. I wish banged-up blond were here, he would’ve found a quick and sarky route out of this already.”

Touche, Liv.

Ally raised an eyebrow.

“Seb code?”

“You know it.”

She grinned and then handed them each a mug of tea. “Drink up. Aaron, where are we with the social worker?”

“Exactly where all the social workers seem to be, underpaid and overworked but definitely not jobless.”

Ally nodded, smoothing at her wild curls, her gorgeous skin reflecting glitter from the rays of sun coming through the window.

“I’ll keep looking”, Aaron said, “ I spoke to Peter, the person handling Seb’s arrangements and he might have some leads. Mind you, I might just steal him for us if it comes to it.”

Ally waved her hand, gesturing towards the place, her colorful bracelets clinking.

“Things are really coming together then. We might have staff and we do have windows. Look at us and feel proud.”

Aaron grinned.

Yeah, they had windows and doors already. Floor was coming about nicely and all.

He did feel proud.

The opening date was still up in the air though.

Rightfully so.

“Someone from the council was nagging at the renovation crew but I told them where to stick it. God, I can’t believe someone is thick enough to think that it’s never the contractor’s and the overly optimistic pulled out of arse schedule’s fault.”

“Ally, everyone is thick compared to you, you know they are.”

Ally smiled.

“You’re not so stupid yourself, you know. And we also have Liv over here, so we’re halfway there, aren’t we?”

Ally put her arm around Liv’s shoulder. Liv shot her such an adoring glance that Aaron was beginning to suspect an Invader of the body snatchers in reverse type of situation.

Well, aren’t you cozy. I hope no-one notices my petty jealousy because it’s mine to feel and mine to keep whilst you girls talk taking over the world, which clearly wouldn’t even be that hard for the two of you, would it?

As it turned out, Ally and Liv did indeed stay at the soon-to-be center by themselves, obviously plotting things Aaron only partly wanted to become even remotely aware of.

Seb was with Debbie and Liv would join them, so he ended up going back to the house, opting for a nap.

It was Seb’s naptime, so apparently they’d become synchronized on that front and all.

It felt right.

Being in sync with Seb.

Then again, everything felt right with Seb, frighteningly so.

Aaron made himself some sandwiches and ate them whilst scrolling social media, things he had had to partake in due to his career path, not by his personal choices, obviously.

When he logged into Instagram, the first thing he saw was Vic posing with Wendy and Harry like a proper family portrait, grinning at the camera. Aaron recognized the park as the same one he’d been at with Vic just the previous week.

I’m not apologizing for having a family, Aaron.

Aaron threw his phone onto the table.

Social media could be Liv’s job at the center.  

He was done with it already.

 

After a cup of cocoa (hah, finally a mugful that won’t get knocked over, drank, or made cold by Seb) Aaron went through some work emails and was just about to bore himself with a reply to a tax inquiry when the phone rang.

He knew it would be Robert.

For the first time in a while, he felt nervous in a non-thrilling way.

He slid his finger over the screen.

“Robert?”

“Hiya.”

“So glad you called, we got cut short yesterday.”

Wedging his phone between his ear and his shoulder, Aaron carried his washing up to the sink.

“There’s just a lot going on”, Robert said.

“S’alright. So good to hear you now”, Aaron said.

Robert didn’t meet him halfway.

“What’s up?”

“I don’t know if Saturday is such a good idea, Aaron.”

The hollow in Robert’s voice made him immediately tense up.

It seemed like the beginning of something.

That being the end.

Yeah, because catastrophizing is the best idea right now.

“Why not? Is someone giving you flack about me?” Aaron asked.

Robert’s surprised tone indicated that he hadn’t even thought about such a thing.

“No, no one is giving me flack about you.”

You repeating what I say has never been a good sign tho.

“I know something’s up, but I know that you’re not gonna tell me either so you could just tell me you have to go like you did yesterday.  Just laying out the options here now, Robert.”

Aaron could hear the black clouds floating about in his tone as Robert said:

“Sorry, did you have somewhere else to be?”

He sounded impatient and bored, like he had the worst sniffles ever and was just waiting for the overworked and overbored A&E doctor to hand him a sad recipe for paracetamol and be done with it after an eight hour wait.

Aaron stepped outside and lit up, squeezing at the receiver, heart thumping at the dismissive tone of his missing quarter of their family and feeling it missing with a similar kind of pain he had felt during their two-year silence.

Heart gaping, opening, void moving in.

“No, Robert, I do not have somewhere else to be. You come first, and me being here every time you call should tell you that.” Robert said nothing. 

“Do you want me to tell you about Seb and Liv?” Aaron asked, keeping his tone as soft as he could, holding his heart offered towards Robert.

He could hear Robert shrug. “Go ahead.”

The moment was pulling Aaron back into the fragility of his first visit with him. And the second. He realized this was something he might have to get used to.

He might have to win Robert over every time.

He was more than willing to do that, but it didn’t diminish his worry much at all.

“They’ve gone to hang out with Debs for the day. Liv came with me to the center today, stole my co-director’s heart and turns out I’m giving her a little job there, something she can ease into. Can’t tell you how great it is to see her sober. Which she could probably say about me, in a manner of speaking.”

“Right.”

“Robert.”

Silence.

Aaron stared into the fields, into the blue.

“Do you want me to hang up now?”

“Do what you like.”

“What I would like is to keep talking, but I’m asking what you want me to do. I promised you I’d let you set the pace, and whatever it is that you need I’ll abide. Just tell me.”

Robert hummed absentmindedly and seemed like he was trying to figure something out, something that had nothing to do with what Aaron had said. He seemed preoccupied and thoroughly annoyed by Aaron’s presence on the line, as if it was stopping him from dealing with something he would much rather be doing.

“I’m not bothered either way.”

Aaron forced a little smile into his voice despite the feeling of skating on jagged ice.

“I don’t mind just being here in silence. Just knowing that you’re there is enough, I’m quite fond of it.”

“Managed a couple of years without it tho, didn’t ya?”

Well, I can’t say I’m not happy that you’re talking, whatever it is, even though you’re scaring me 90 percent of the time.

“So this is about me not reaching out sooner. I get that. You can be as pissed off about it as you need to, I deserve it.” Aaron stumped his cigarette, went back inside, pulling off his coat and toeing off his shoes.

“Jesus, Aaron, not everything is about you.”

Walking into the bedroom to deal with folding his laundry just to do something, Aaron knew there were no clouds in Robert’s eyes anymore, it was an even black, as was the icy tone that was drilling a hole into Aaron’s heart.

“Of course it’s not”, he said, “but you not wanting to talk to me definitely is.”

Robert scoffed. Perhaps at nothing, possibly just at Aaron’s existence.

Aaron looked at the pile of clothes.

The t-shirts definitely needed sorting.

“I said I’d wait, and I will, Robert.”

“So you keep saying.”

Aaron paused, holding Seb’s dinosaur tee in his hands.

“Is that what this is? That you don’t believe I’ll stick around this time? I don’t blame ya. I’m scared that you won’t either.”

“Not exactly going anywhere, am I?”

 “You will soon enough.”

The branch of the nonchalance tree Robert had been sitting on broke with an almost audible snap.

“That appeal is just what it is, Aaron, an appeal. No one has found that scumbag of a closet case and they might not find him ever, do you get that?”

Robert was hissing now, voice tight and about to reach its breaking point, his tone ricocheting somewhere between the contempt of September 2015 and the desolation of October 2019.

Perhaps that was the combination prison had blended him into.

The thought broke Aaron in ways he had never known before.

He stood there, holding a shrunk-by-the-years My friend went to Teneriffe in his hand now, not knowing how to move suddenly.

“I don’t care if I have to wait twelve years, Robert”-

“For fuck’s sake Aaron. “

Before Robert could expand on the aspects of Aaron’s potential ramifications stupidness wise and go ahead with his attempt that was clearly an attempt to have them properly arguing, Aaron continued:

“Like I was about to say before you cut me off, I don’t care about me having to wait. What I do care about is you getting out soon as and coping in there meanwhile. I know seeing me suddenly is doing your head in, it’s doing mine too, but this is on your terms now. Whatever you need to do. If what you need is being like this with me then be like this, it won’t make me wanna scarper, or make me love you any less. Nothing could. “

“Ben Tucker did. “

Debbie’s vintage boyband t-shirt dropped onto the floor, sliding a little as it landed.

That was the last thing Aaron thought Robert would say.

The last name he thought would enter this conversation.

And very much the last name he wanted to hear right now.

“What’s wrong, Aaron? Kayak cut your tongue?”

The venomous wine of thought inebriating Robert now was absolutely bottled with the grapes of September 2015.

Aaron knew anything he’d say would be the wrong thing, but he spoke anyway.

“He didn’t make me love you any less.”

“You cozying up with him instead of replying to my letter says otherwise.”

“Robert”-

“Forgetting Seb and Liv and just lazing about with that bloke in our home. Well done, Aaron.”

The shame that had been stabbing at him was gearing up in Aaron’s entire body, the regret wrapping its strangulacious arms around him and keeping him in its pressurebuilding grip. It mirrored the disappointment in Robert’s voice, a disappointment that was competing with anger, battling for the prize of becoming pinnacle brick in this particular house of hatred.

“I will never forgive myself for that, and I know you can’t either.”

Aaron felt his eyes beginning to water, a breath of it escaping.

“Crying is not going to fix this, Aaron. It’s not the answer to everything.”

I know you feel the need to be like this, but it doesn’t hurt any less. Especially knowing I’ve put the hurt there myself.

Aaron stared out the window, hoping to carry the apologetic look on his face all the way to Manchester, however it may be met upon arrival.

“I know it’s not gonna fix things. That’s why I shook myself out of that psychosis and moved away and ended that toxic excuse for a relationship that was hurting everyone involved.”  

Robert scoffed. He seemed like he was now properly thinking of scarpering to do something that was much better than talking to his ex-husband, as if this was something he’d been dying to get done and dusted, a laborious task he no longer had the patience for.

“Why’d you get involved with him then? Another doctor Distraction, was he?”

Go ahead, lay it on me. At least you’re letting it out now. I’ll take your hostility over your silence any day. 

“In a way I s’pose. But it was a twisted thing. I made his life hellv in school. He wanted to get an apology out of me. Then it fell into a different setting, God knows why.”

“And what, he was suddenly just in love with you?”

Robert’s delivery had broken into something that wanted to convey the unholy matrimony of contempt and sarcasm, but Aaron heard him flinch at his own words.

Saying someone else was in love with him.

“Apparently. I was never in love with him, and” –

“I don’t give a fuck.”

Robert’s reluctant jealousy did nothing but deepen his guilt.

“It was nothing, Robert. A distraction as you said.”

“Yeah. Choosing someone who was nothing over me is not nothing.”

“I know that.”

Black rage flying about on the line, seething through his teeth now Robert said: “stop doing that. You know nothing. I’m so fucking disappointed in you. I thought”- Robert cut himself off.

“I couldn’t even look at you now.”

“Good thing you don’t have to right now, innit. Just talk. I will listen.”

Aaron could hear his own mind screaming that this sounded like something with Vic and Chas written all over it, and in a situation happening in their previous life it would’ve been the obvious factor.

But this was simply a rage of its own.

Something Robert wasn’t coping with, in addition to the things Aaron didn’t know about.

“Robert, please talk to me. I’m listening.”

Robert stayed silent but he was still clearly seething, overly wired, furiously tearing at the cords of their barely- there connection, attempting to pull them down for good like cheap ugly Christmas decorations that were rotting about in February and ruining Easter in advance.

“Aaron, I don’t think I can ever forgive you.”

“Okay. But I’m sticking around while you figure out if that’s your final opinion or not.”

“Right.”

“It is right.”

Robert blew out a breath, saying nothing.

Aaron wanted to get a punch, something that would speed up Robert’s rage, his punishment to fortify, something that would make the black in his voice subside eventually.

Nothing did.

Perhaps nothing would.

“It would’ve hurt me less if you had just stayed away.”

Aaron could hear the broken glass the bare feet of Robert’s thoughts were treading on.

“I couldn’t stay away forever, Robert. You’re everything to me. You and Seb.”

“Because it’s convenient now?”

“Because I’m not that person anymore. Because I want to.”

“How long before you decide to give up again?”

“How long before you decide that I will? Or has that happened already?”

“I don’t know, Aaron.”

Waving a plain white tee in the air as if it were a peace flag Robert could see, Aaron said:

“I’ll take an I don’t know gladly at this point. If you decide that you don’t want to see me, then I’ll wait. If it takes another two years, I’ll wait. If it takes twelve years, I’ll wait. If you decide then that you still don’t want me, I’ll wait. I’ll wait until we’re dead, and even then, I probably will keep waiting. It’s not like I wouldn’t have time then. I’ll keep trying to visit you for eternity, my stubbornness has no end and you know it. Ignore me a hundred years, I’ll still wait. If you don’t want me then I’ll”-

“Enough.”

Robert paused, taking a deep breath.

“It’s never been about not wanting you, Aaron. That’s the problem. I’ve never been good at saying no to you, even when I should’ve done.”

“Yeah well right back at ya.”

“You said no to me when you kept being silent and said yes to Ben. Then it was suddenly just you and Ben.”

Aaron could hear the familiar you and Alex in his voice as a throwback - in reverse, as this time he wasn’t promoting another bloke as he had back then.  

Back then Robert had known Aaron would come back to him.

If only he’d know it now, with the same patient absolution as he had.

“The whole Ben thing - for me it was self-harm, Robert. Being in that weird situation. Punishing myself for what I had done to him by having to see his face constantly. And then I hurt him again. That was harming everyone. I never could make it up to him like that, or any way in the first place. I have to live with what I did to him. And I know I deserve it, that much is obvious.”

“But living with what I did to you – or didn’t do, more like - is a million times worse.

And I can’t ever make up for that. I know it. You gave me a chance, and if you think I’ve failed already then there’s not much I can do except to try again. I won’t stop trying.”

“You have no idea how much it hurts.”

The way Robert said it made everything still in the air, weighing at the possibilities of a better outcome.

“Losing you again gives me an idea of just how much it hurts.”

“Yeah well losing you to some fuckin’ funfair random pulled from the half off bin is”-

The rage in Robert’s voice was edging on to even darker, he was cutting himself off constantly, as if the words he had chosen weren’t quite furious enough to his own approval.

Aaron sat down on the floor, pulling his feet against his chest, suddenly freezing.

“Robert. I haven’t fallen in love with someone else and I never could. And I definitely don’t want to.”

That, if anything, was the truth.

Aaron was sure that Robert knew it, despite and because of everything.

“You didn’t lose me, not really. I’m still yours. I always have been.”

“But you’re not, are you? You were with someone else and now you’re saying that.

You’re so fuckin’ messed up, Aaron.”

“Yeah. Messed up forever. And you’re being mean just for the hell of it, not just for the hurt.”

“I reckon I’m entitled to. Some pathetic outdoor overlap getting his hands on you”- Robert’s jealousy had become much less reluctant now.  

Aaron knew where it was heading.

Aaron knew what it was about.

In every way.

“Oh for fuck’s sake, Robert. You need to shut up now.”

“Do I? And what are you gonna do about it?”

“If I were there I could easily shut you up.”

Shifting the phone into his other hand, Aaron walked over to the bed and lied down.

“Good thing you’ve got that ridiculous hair now. It’d be convenient to grab when I bend you over that desk of yours and shut you up.”

Robert had gone completely silent.

“No, you would be the one to bend me over, wouldn’t ya? Because that’s what this is, isn’t it Robert? You want to mark your territory again, don’t ya?”

“Aaron”-

“Shut up. You’re seething there with your jealousy, thinking someone else has had me.”

“Don’t”-

“No one else has had me, Robert. I don’t want that. I only want you to have me. All of me.”

“You made your mark on me at the end of that first visit, didn’t you? Bit into my neck like you could crawl into my blood? Well that’s where you are, Robert, in my blood, in my heart, my bones, in every fibre, throbbing so painfully every second because I fuckin love you so madly, love you and want you like I always have.”

“Remember Italy, Robert? When we found that empty barn somewhere outside Verona? When you just threw me onto that hay and had me? Tore me apart with your hands and your mouth?”

“And then on that same day on our hotel room balcony, shoving me against the railing, taking me right there? Knowing anyone could see? And it started raining but you kept me pinned right there, soaked and rock hard, kept biting at me, kept on thrusting. Remember that, Robert?”

“Stop”, Robert said barely audibly, but the resistance in his voice was getting swiftly replaced by something else entirely.

 

Aaron could hear that tiny moan he knew so well.

Robert was turned on. 

Feeling a hint of smugness whilst battling the chaos and being very much aware of his own painfully growing erection, Aaron continued: 

“Isn’t that what you want to do now? Like on the night when we got married for the first time and I got on my knees in that hallway? Your wedding ring leaving that painful mark on my skull when you gripped my head? You wanted the whole world to see it, didn’t you? Show every bloke on the planet that I’m yours, that you own me, that you’re the only one I want doing that to me?”

“Aaron”-

Robert’s voice was so strained it sounded like the sky before a heavy thunder; pinned and dark, the current zipping about, the thick air choking on its own anticipation.

“Remember that first night in the garage? I knew I made you hard at our lay-by, I felt it when I pushed you against that truck. And you came after me because you wanted to mark me already back then. And you just walked in, and you had me. And ever since you’ve always had me, because I only want you, Robert, just you and your gorgeous skillful hands and that mouth of yours that I’d do anything for.”

Aaron was reliving their entire history now, the way Robert’s scent was all around him, the rattle and hum of the dark and light, his breath on his skin, his beautiful skin, under Aaron’s palms, thrumming and begging to be touched, just them right there, wherever, moving together, Robert pulling his hair, kissing his mouth, devouring him with only a few tiny flicks.

He knew Robert was right there with him, thinking of it, all those times, all those moments, those sounds, touches and words, much like these that were flying all over the room, right out of them, into them.

“Aaron.”

Apparently it was all Robert could say now, with increasing desperation, wanting, twitching, just like he was.

“And on our second honeymoon, in that pub restroom, dragging me into that cubicle, stroking me like you couldn’t breathe without having me, wanting someone to hear what you do to me? How your fingers rule me, put me on the edge of sanity?”

Fuck”, Robert choked out with a needy moan, making the twitch in Aaron’s trousers so intense he couldn’t not let out an expletive of his own.

The words along with their accelerated breathing were breaking through the heavy frustration, the mighty chandelier of the unresolved swaying, creaking, and crashing into the ground, its contents spilling into every direction along with their self-restraint. 

“Yeah, that is what you want to do, isn’t it?”, Aaron breathed, “to fuck away everyone and everything else? To make me never forget that it’s just you and always you? It is, Robert, just you and always you. And I want you to remind me. Just throw me onto hay again and fuck me senseless with every drop of that rage.”

“Aaron”-

“I know you want to. You’re sitting there all riled up and hard, desperate to brand me and make sure that I’ll never forget who I belong to.”

Robert’s ragged breathing spurring him on Aaron felt the desperate need to let his fingers wander, but he held his free hand tightly into a fist, placing it under his thigh.

If Robert couldn’t do it, he wouldn’t either. It was only fair.

“Like in the garage again when we took a trip down memory lane? Shoving me against a car and just tearing off my jeans, not caring about anything but showing me that I’ll never know a thing better than you fucking into me?”

“You like that, don’t you? Letting everyone see how only you can ruin me?”

“Aaron…”

“Yeah, you love to show off that power you have over me. You want them all to know that no one can have that effect on me. You know what, Robert? No one can. No one could make me as hard as you can. No one could make me come as hard as you can.”

Aaron recognized the whimper he heard.

Robert was about to become undone.

“No one has had me since you. I’m never giving that part of me to anyone else. I want you to be the only one. Always.”

“I”-

Robert’s voice rough and broken now, in the moment they were just vocalising, only managing to repeat each other’s names, spinning through the lust-driven air, crashing into one another, fighting the losing battle against the inevitability of them.

Feeling the stinging burn build in himself too, Aaron said, barely, huskily;

“That’s it, Robert, let it happen. I know how you like it, knowing it’s me doing this to you, everyone knowing I’m getting you off like this, that’s how you like it. Just let go, I know you want me to do this to ya, just me. You’re so fucking gorgeous, so gorgeous when you’re all over me, all around me, so hard and demanding. You feel so good, Robert, so good.”  

“Aaron..”

“Come on Robert, let me hear it. I want to hear you come. Come for me, husband.” Robert groaned.

Fuck, Aaron”, he whispered, breathless, his voice pulsing along the orgasm he was definitely spasming through, right then and there.

That was all it took, Aaron felt himself tense and explode, waves of electricity bursting through him, blood humming in his veins.

Everything stilled, light crashing into his eyes and exhaustion sweeping over him, body still jolting in the afterquakes. 

They stayed quiet, breathing through it together.

 The only thing on the line now was both of their heavy presence floating, slowing down, becoming lighter, becoming the mutual bliss that had followed.

Once the silence was taking over, Robert blew out a breath along with a “Fuck.”

“I think we just did”, Aaron said, still breathless.

Concepts still thrown around the air like sheets of paper, not getting his bearings just yet, Robert said “I can’t believe you did that.”

“And I can’t believe you thought I wouldn’t get you off when you need to fuck away your anger.”

Robert hummed - or purred, obviously pleased and absolutely less tense now.

“You know me so well, don’t ya?”

“I know us, Robert. That’s never gonna change.”

Suddenly Aaron heard voices from the background.

“Taking a coffee break now, are we?” he asked casually, grinning at the thought of Robert’s horrified face.

“It’s not funny, Aaron, there’s people here now and my trousers are ruined”, Robert hissed.

“Please, you’re proud of me, not embarrassed”, Aaron said smugly.

“I have to go”, Robert replied with a surrender to his tone clear as day, a tone that came with a bit of panic of how to handle the situation currently occupying his pants.

“Yeah you do, you dirty filthy beautiful man. I’ll see you Saturday and don’t bother arguing.”

“I wouldn’t have the brainpower”, Robert said weakly.

“See you soon then?”

“Yeah. See you soon.”

“Robert?”

“What?”

“Good meeting, thanks for coming.”

They were both still chuckling in a haze of disbelief and the post-coital bliss as they hung up.

 

HMP Manchester was looming above him as Aaron parked his car, hesitating instead of getting out. He took a sip of the coffee in his thermos (stupid expensive posh ridiculousness, Robert would love it and ask for its phone number). Very much aware he was stalling, Aaron took his bag, checked its contents like the paranoid prison (husband) visitor that he was and lit a cigarette once he’d hopped out, just to have an excuse to try and compose himself quickly.

The glittering snow felt calming, having wrapped its white stillness all around.

For a ridiculous second, Aaron felt like it was Christmas.

Walking around in uneven circles, enjoying the crunch of snow under his shoes he tried to land his mind somewhere between his pretend- after -the -fact worldly holiday and the harsh reality, and what that might entail.

He knew if Robert were to break up with him now, he’d shatter into the tiniest of pieces, vanishing into lights and winds without reason or destination.

What exactly would he be breaking up from, it’s not like we are officially together?

It was a weak argument at best.

They had never needed labels to be entwined like perpetual tides waving into one another.

There was one label that Aaron did like though. One he was now adamant to make theirs again.

Mine.

He’d never think of Robert as anything else.

Robert wouldn’t leave him now.

Leave them now.

He just wouldn’t.

And the thought of seeing Robert’s face in a minute almost made him leave his cigarette halfway and head towards the gate.

But he had a phone call to make first.

Quickly scrolling through his contacts and finding the right number, Aaron tapped it.

“Cain, I need you to come to Manchester next week. After I’ve been to see Robert, we’re going to put our thinking caps on and start brainstorming.”

“What’s this about, Aaron? You’re not in trouble are ya? You can’t get into bother now, you have so much to lose.”

“It won’t come to that. At least not my part in it.”

“So why am I coming to Manchester?” Cain asked.

Aaron paused, stumping his cigarette.

“Because you and I are gonna find Luke Posner, that’s why. I want my husband back for good.”

 

“Oi, get your arse over here.”

You really need to teach your colleague some new words,Tim.

Not that you know how to talk either.

And indeed he didn’t, Tim just stood there flipping through a magazine like he was waiting at the hair dresser’s to get trimmed whilst Bored guard number one was waving his hand about like a – well, bored – traffic officer trying to guide school kids (or drunk adults) across the road.

Aaron felt like a bit of both, sniggering evilly in his mind at the traffic man’s chagrin.

Another day to give a guidance counselor at the job center a chance, innit mate?

Realizing he was going into an unknown part of the prison, Aaron froze for a second.

Why was he being taken into some corridor, in the exact opposite direction from the visitation room?

Was Robert hurt?

A flush of panic moved against his heart.

No. I can’t do this. If he’s okay and just blocked me again I can live with that.

Begrudgingly to say the least, but”-

“Aaron.”

There he was, in the corridor, at least seemingly unscathed, smiling a little smile that looked almost shy which went against every horrible thought Aaron had managed to build in about seventeen seconds.

It was the best thing he had ever seen, much like every time he’d seen Robert.

“Hiya.”

Robert practically lunged at Aaron, pulling him into his arms, his grip tight.

“God, I missed you”, he said, pulling away just a little to run his fingers on Aaron’s face, looking at him like they hadn’t seen each other for years.

In a way they hadn’t.

His face was tired.

He looked like he had in the beginning of his fatherhood.

Exhausted, sleep deprived, scared.

And gorgeous.

Like only Robert could.

“I’m here”, Aaron said, “always.”

“I love you so fuckin much”, Robert said, arms around him tightly, those intense eyes looking at him, quietly asking for reciprocation, “I’m so sorry”- Aaron put his finger on his lips.

Robert kissed it immediately.

Aaron looked at his banged-up blond, with his little smile, eyes brighter now, that ridiculous hair that was definitely growing on Aaron now, not that he’d admit to it.

“Don’t be sorry, Robert. This is the way things are now, but we’ll get through it. I’m not letting you leg it. Or myself, for that matter.”

 “Oi, keep moving.”

So now you’ve decided to pipe in. Way to ruin the moment, Tim.

Robert took Aaron’s hand, lifting it to briefly kiss the knuckles. 

He was all soft touches and brushes of lips.

Not that Aaron was complaining.

They walked into a room that looked like a home office, plants and books, computer and papers, dark green wallpaper, a gentle light.

Something that looked a lot like Aaron’s counselor’s office.

He saw the words psychiatric evaluation on the door and realized it was exactly that, more or less.

A woman in her sixties walked in, sharp features, grey suit and perfectly combed short black hair, the sort of woman who easily pulled off wearing pearls and looked like she belonged in any room she’d decide to step into.

“Hello Robert, good to see you. This must be Aaron.”

They shook hands, her grip firm and friendly and dark eyes warm.

She sat down on a chair as he sat down on the sofa with Robert, side by side.

Robert took his hand again, giving it a little squeeze before he let go.

Bored guard number one closed the door, muttering a “fifteen minutes late” as he went.

Aaron turned towards Robert.

“Was I late? I’m sorry, I thought”-

“No, I told you half five but it was really a quarter past.” Aaron frowned.

“On purpose? Did you think I would be late?”

Robert stared at his hands and stayed silent for a minute before he said quietly:

“I came from another building, and I didn’t want you to see me in cuffs”.

“Okay”, Aaron replied, leaning into Robert a little to confirm he wasn’t there to question him further on any of it, yet heart twisting at his words.

“Aaron, Robert told me you haven’t had time to prepare for this meeting as it was so last minute. So I suggest we just go over what the idea here is and take it from there, is that alright with you?”

“Of course.”

“Robert, would you like to tell him?”

Robert seemed to hesitate a little before he spoke.

“I wanted you to meet my counselor. I thought we could talk about things here. You know, the things that are hard for me to talk about.”

Aaron wanted to melt and explode simultaneously, not knowing which he’d opt for.

He did this for me. He’s trying so hard.

He wiped at his eyes.

“I’m sorry”, he mumbled.

Robert smiled, stroking at his cheek a little.

“She knows you don’t have difficulty to show your emotions. And I’m sure you won’t be the only doing that here.” His voice was gentle.

That voice he only spoke to Aaron with.

The woman – Rose – looked between them and said:

“Robert tells me you’ve been to counseling, so I don’t have to tell you the works, just the frames we have here. I’ll steer the conversation but you two decide what we talk about. And what we don’t talk about.”

Aaron nodded. “Sounds good to me.”

Rose stood up, smiling.

“Why don’t we start in ten minutes, I’ll give you a chance to talk amongst yourselves first.”

“Thank you”, Robert said warmly.

Rose stepped into the corridor, closing the door behind her.

Things to cross of my unplanned bucket list: couples’ counseling in prison.

Aaron choked out a broken sob with a confused smile, gripping Robert’s jumper as if to emphasize his presence, the room and the world whirling around and his heart at the center of it, feeling its beat finding its way closer Robert’s.

“I can’t believe you did this for us”, he said, voice tilting.

Robert pulled him into his arms, grabbing his chin to lift his face.

“And I can’t believe you didn’t think I would when you’re worried and need to talk away the anger.”

They shared a grin that was nothing if not silly and sincere.

Robert’s hands found their place on his neck, thumbs stroking at his cheeks as he leaned in.

Feeling their lips connect, mouths sliding open, tongues curling around each other, Aaron sunk into the kiss, the pain gliding away and the day standing still, letting them be.

As they pulled apart reluctantly, knowing that time was running away, foreheads pressed together, Aaron laughed.

“What?”

“If I had known that phone sex would do the trick I would’ve done it much sooner.”

“God, I hope that wasn’t the last of it”, Robert said, sounding thoroughly horrified at the thought.

“You know it wasn’t”, Aaron replied, running his fingers up and down Robert’s neck, “we’ll just have to pray for your sake they don’t listen to those recordings.”

Robert gasped.

“I didn’t even think of that.”

“Yeah well, I’m just that good.”

“Don’t I know it.”

“Mind you, it might also give Tim a good incentive to enjoy his job more.”

“Who’s Tim?”

“Enough questions, Sugden, just kiss me again already.”

And Sugden obliged.

Aaron gazed at that beautiful face he loved so much, overwhelmed and feeling something shift. Those eyes flickering across his face, watching him, grounding him again.

“Thank you for doing this for me, for the both of us. I reckon we can make it this time, but we definitely need something like this now. And I’m not going anywhere, Robert. I need you to believe that.”

“Most days I do believe that. And for the record I’m not going anywhere either.”

“You’d better not.”

Robert kissed him one more time, with an increasing greed, grip resolute, mouth hungry.

Aaron pulled away, fighting for air.

“Stop that, I’ll never be able to leave.”

Robert stared at him, gaze bare, eyes demanding, fingers roaming.

“Just reminding you of who you belong to”, he said smugly, smirking.

“Oh I know who that is”, Aaron said, planting little pecks on Robert’s mouth, humming contently.

Robert chuckled against his lips.

“And I can always call you to remind again. We can set up a meeting, I promise I’ll always come.”

“Shut up.”

“You love it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“So, we got a lead on Luke Posner.”

Cain pulled out his phone as Aaron sat down next to him at the pub table, almost knocking and spilling the pints he was carrying all over the floor upon hearing his uncle’s words.

“What sort of lead?”

Cain took a sip of his lager, scrolling on his phone.

“Scum seems to have been underground until November when he stayed at a hostel in London and went to some rowdy club during that same week. The card transactions gave him away, no sightings from before. There’s traces of him the next day, one at St Pancras, name popped up when he used the card at some nearby shop, Sando - you know the one that sells them weird fizzy drinks and candy sandwiches from Japan. Nice little video of the bloke doing his rat dance at the station. Contact’s pulling out the rest of the footage now, we’ll get some of it tonight.”

Aaron simply nodded, because questions like how’d you get the CCTV material wasn’t in the vocabulary between them. 

Japanese candy sandwich sounded like something Robert would love tho. How Cain was aware of the ins and outs of such was a whole puzzle of its own.

Then again, having kids grew your knowledge in directions that were surprising to say the least. Seb had proved that on more than one occasion.

“Anything else from the station? No-one goes there for a casual sandwich shop nip-by”, Aaron said, pulling off his coat, enjoying the warmth glowing from the pub’s fireplace beside them.

Cain scrolled a bit further.

“There’s no material as of yet about which train he might have taken so we’ll have to wait. Rat seemed to be in a hurry tho, had no luggage on him either. “

“As if the scum has luggage. Baggage, more like. So which trains operated that day?”

Cain handed over his phone.

“Here’s the list.”

Aaron took the phone, feeling a rush of excitement that came with a twisted tingle; being in process of getting Robert out of prison was one thing, but there was a small part in the exultation of it all that involved only seeing Luke’s two-timing face and wiping that sociopathic smile off for good.

Wiping it against the floor, more like. 

But that was a thing of the past, wiping floors with faces.

It was that for Cain too.

Aaron knew they were both slightly saddened by it, if one were to be completely and morbidly honest.

“Paris, Blackfriars, Luton, Margate, Sheffield and then some. Coulda gone anywhere. Maybe he went to Luton and buggered off to Glasgow, now that would be ironic if he’d be hiding somewhere in the Highlands at this point.”

Cain sniffed, in that way of his that resonated both the contempt and the calm of the upper hand.

“That little sunshine’s got another thing coming if he reckons he can scarper after we’ve found him.”

 Aaron smirked.

“So he probably thinks as no one came after him for four months, no one would. He’s really not the brightest bulb on the chandelier, not that it’s a surprise. Always seemed proper thick. More than anything, Robert would hate that a stupid person got him sent down with an unbelievably long sentence.”

“Too right. We can see what the CCTV’s good for tonight and we’ll take it from there.”

“Good. So we’ll meet at the hotel after I’ve seen Robert and you’re done with buying prezzies for Moira.”

Cain scoffed.

“Who says I’m going around for prezzies?”

“Your face does.”

They sat there, both momentarily pretending they hadn’t gone from bruised knuckles and burning barns to marriage counseling and surprise gifts, yet with a sense of inner Dingle compensation coming from the fact that they were hunting down a bastard, one whose reckoning day they’d make sure to happen, just with different ammo this time.

“Wish we could’ve leaned on Wendy, that bloody excuse for a woman knows something. But she’d give out nothing and just tip off that son of hers, and it ain’t worth the hassle in the first place.”

“It isn’t. Even if she knew nothing, she’d blab, that would rile Vic up and we could do  without the chinwagging. There’s no reason good enough to include her even for a second in anything.”

Cain ran a hand through his hair, sleet turned into droplets dripping from the steel grey strands.

“Moira still keeps her around, because of Adam obviously. Otherwise I’d never let her near us, but it’s what Moira needs to do.”

His piercing eyes softened just a little whenever he mentioned Moira, but Aaron didn’t want to be the one to bring it up.

Perhaps that was something for only Moira herself to mention.

“I’m just glad you managed to buy that land off her.”

Cain nodded.

“Does Sugden know what’s been going on?” he asked, leaning his palms against his knees, cracking his neck.

“I haven’t told him any of it for now. He’s done some inquiries of his own tho because he knew about Ben.”

Cain huffed.

“There’s a conversation no one wants to have.”

“Tell me about it. But it’s better we had it anyway, not that there won’t be plenty to come still.”

“A lot to take in. And Sugden tends to know everything.” 

Much like you, thankfully.

“I haven’t asked him about the coppers dropping everything, but I don’t think he’d talk about it anyway.”

Cain shook his head, eyes hard, softness no longer lingering on his features.

“Still can’t get my head around it. You’d think nothing’d surprise me at this point.”

There was no way of getting one’s head around the fact that there was no police investigation whatsoever. Luke hadn’t admitted to anything besides the things he’d told Wendy and Vic.

Wendy had gone back on her word, telling people she knew nothing.

Vic hadn’t.

But it didn’t help.

Aaron thought of her mascara-smeared eyes and exhausted tone strained by vodka and home truths.

Wanting to understand her wasn’t something he could feel.

Needing to still try was a different story.

Cain cleared his throat, continuing: “the contact in London will be at the ready if St Pancras turns out to be a dead end. And you won’t be going around to find out by yourself, Aaron, I’ll just say that now. You can’t do that to Sugden, or any of us. Or yourself.”

Cain paused, leaning forward, his eyes sending the quiet Dingle scowl towards the wall, as if he was scanning the room for Luke and waiting in  position to stare him down.

“We’ll find him, Aaron. Whatever it takes, yeah?”

“Yeah. If, however, we need to take a trip of some sort I just need to make sure it doesn’t clash with the visitations because if I cancel it’ll be bad for the both of us and I don’t want to miss out on seeing him. Not to mention it’d look proper suss. And I’m definitely not telling Robert anything.”

Cain smirked into his pint.

“Why not? You two could talk about that in couples’ counseling.”

“Shut up.”

 

 

As they parted ways for the evening, Cain heading off to meet his contact and Aaron going into his hotel room for a quick kip, the dark Manchester sky reflecting its crestfallen light pollution and the wind picking up for a change, Aaron felt the anticipation giving him a whole new kick to make things happen.

A lot had been happening already on every possible front, but this, a concrete push towards having his family become whole again – it was better than anything.

Stumping his cigarette, only the second one that day - his mind kept on reprimanding him in Robert’s voice and taking some of the fun out of it all.

He went into his room, throwing his winter jacket onto the armchair and kicking his shoes off, anxious to have a shower and talk to Seb before bedtime. 

The twinge of guilt was always there but being a parent that came with the territory, and it was the sort of guilt that for once didn’t come from a place unhealthy.

 

Fresh from the shower and having eaten a takeaway, Aaron made himself a cup of coffee (Robert would call this the beans plucked by a moron from hell pretending to offer something drinkable) and flipped through the files Cain had forwarded to him.

If Luke had taken the Eurostar from St Pancras to Paris and stayed in France, their joint contacts might find him in no time.

Aaron thought back to those haunting days when all he had cared about was making the remaining Posner’s’ life in the village as miserable as possible. 

Back then he had felt like he had a purpose through the grim intoxication he had dived into determinedly, with a satisfyingly sick pride he had stood behind walls and sat on benches, taken the miserable job of a stalking ghost lingering, emerged from the endless and irreversible heartbreak that was pressing through his chest every single moment.

Seeing the village just go about things as if it didn’t matter had been hard.

Seeing his own family do the same had been harder.

Seeing his former bezzie slip into a symbiosis with the wailing nursemaid and her quietly murderous case of a son had been the worst.

Between the three of them those people were stomping on Robert’s heart and seeming to not give it a passing thought, their step light and laughter malevolent, echoing right through the walls of Rightworth prison, whether they knew it or not.

Have a cuppa whilst ruining your neighbors, was that the Posner motto?

Robert still hadn’t mentioned Vic.

Aaron was certain he already knew about her vulgar nuclear family.

Robert wouldn’t not get his hands on every single bit of information and devour its contents if given the opportunity.

They hadn’t talked about Aaron’s particular dealings after their fight-turned-into— phone sex, but that was truly something to save for the counseling hour.

Counseling.

Aaron felt the familiar rush of affection, thinking that they did, in fact, have the opportunity for such.

Robert must’ve pulled some mighty impressive strings to make that happen.

Or perhaps he hadn’t needed to.

But he would’ve, and it was a thought of comfort, knowing that the same limitless determination in him was as alive as ever all the same.

And Aaron knew Robert needed it, he needed to take that mad energy of his and use it for something concrete.

Something that challenged him and served a purpose but wouldn’t ruin him Home Farm style.

Once submerged in his past tornadoes of a seductively gripping and pure mania fueled by revenge, Robert hadn’t needed much to go gloriously overboard and make the puppets dance until they were slip-sliding off the ship deck, tumbling into one another whilst reaching for the lifeboats that were few and far between.

And Robert himself, often so wound up and sucked into the scheming symphony, waving his baton about and not managing to notice his boots were filling up with water too.

 But that wasn’t what it had really been about, was it?

And there had been the countless times when it was all done for the rainy days’ benefit. Times when it had saved everything.

Everyone.

Saved Aaron.

Robert stepping up and grabbing the reins, his heart going after what was needed to make it right, that fire in his eyes, merciless and piercing, his words sharp and steep, masterfully and with endless sly patience cutting through the maze and always flying across the finish line with his head held high and his smile dazzling, Aaron could never say it didn’t make him burst with pride.

It did make him proud.

It made him happy.

Safe.

Doting.

Hard.

Post-scheme sex was always frantic, fast, and incredibly loud.

Aaron shivered; he missed Robert’s touch so much.

But going from nothing to being able to kiss him on a weekly basis was nothing short of incredible.

He’d gladly wait for the rest of it.

In the meanwhile, he’d think about it plenty and then some.

What he’d do to Robert once they’d shut themselves into a room for a week and never get dressed.

Aaron stood up, shaking his limbs as if to physically will his eager half-hardness to go away as this was not the time to indulge in the most wanted hits from his Robert wankbank, this was the time to make sure he wouldn’t have to resort solely to said imagery for the rest of time.

His phone pinged and thankfully took away the thoughts.

There was a message from Cain.

We’ve got something. On my way.

Temporarily assuaged with more information coming through, Aaron called Liv and they shared the screen with Seb, whose toddler-titter took up most of the airtime. He’d been nibbling away at the sugar when no one had been looking.

For a nanosecond perhaps, but Seb could just about inhale an entire box of candy in that time.

The boy was clearly marshmallow-drunk, overtired and absolutely not willing to admit to either.

Aaron sniggered as the call ended, because sometimes it’s nice to give one’s little sister the gift of attempting to put sugar-crazy Seb to bed on time.

Good luck with that, it’s like trying to shut Robert up after he’s been on the donuts and triple espressos all day; the outcome is identical, a pouting frecklehead shooting attention-seeking glances towards the stupid adult who took away his toys.

Aaron flipped through the files again, scarfing down the scarce contents, wanting to memorize every detail, impatient for getting the world’s least interesting ginger off the streets.

As his phone rang again, Aaron was hoping it just might be his favourite person.

And it was.

His favorite person had a bit of an accusatory tone.

“How many have you had today?”

“Filthy thoughts about you? Plenty.”

Robert sighed.

“I don’t appreciate you saying that when I’m trying to tell you off about smoking.”

“And here I thought you’d wanna get me off instead of telling me off.”

“I think you if anyone knows they can easily be the same thing.”

Robert’s voice was gravelly and syrupy, with a thickness to it, the vibration running through Aaron with its distracting hum. His semi had definitely heard it as it was perking up again.

“As much as I’m up for it, quite literally, I’ve got Cain nipping by in about fifteen minutes.”

“I can make that work, Aaron. You’ll even have time for the after-cigarette I don’t want you to have.”

“If we were in Italy, you’d stop whingeing on about that.”

“If we were in Italy, Aaron, you’d be stood in a nice no-smoking garden and I’d be on my knees there, definitely not pulling weeds but pulling something else entirely.”

“Stop it before it gets too hard to stop.”

“Too hard already? Blimey, I’m good.”

“Robert.”

The arrogant, turned-on laughter down the line didn’t do Aaron’s attempts to once again kill the mood any favors at all. 

“So are we on for tonight?” he asked, hating that he couldn’t just give into the deep voice on the line, the voice that could strip him to the core with just one word, the word usually being his name, Robert saying it like no one else could.

“Yeah, we’re on. Unless Tim gives me a better offer. Reckon he’s giving me the eye”, Robert sniggered.

Aaron scoffed.

“The evil eye, maybe. What time is Rose expecting us?”

“Half five.”

Aaron knew it might really be another fifteen minutes gone awol on purpose, and it broke his heart to know that Robert was trying to hide prison from him, but he wouldn’t go off on one.

This was Robert’s time now. 

And it would continue to be just that.

“So how’s Cain?”

“He’s Cain.”

“Finally, someone who hasn’t had a personality transplant.”

Aaron stayed silent, thoughts stilling.

“Aaron”-

“I know what you meant, Robert. And yeah, it is comforting to know that Cain is still very Cain.”

“Hopefully you can say the same about our son.”

Aaron could never stop floating a little, the ground feeling slightly too light to the touch whenever Robert said our son.

“Our son isn’t very Cain, but that will be fixed soon enough.”

“Thanks, I wasn’t quite worried enough about him living with an entire clan.”

Aaron laughed.

“He’s sorta half Dingle, get used to it.”

“I’m sorta half Dingle too, I am used to it.”

“You, sorta half Dingle? Is this your way of saying we’re related?”

“No, but even if ”-

“Please don’t finish that sentence.”

“What I meant to say was that I’m half Dingle because my other half is a Dingle.”

“That makes no sense, but it does sound good.”

“It does, doesn’t it?”

Aaron enjoyed the idiotic grin on his face right up to the moment he saw Cain walk in and scoff at his expression, mouthing “ten minutes” as he went.

“I have to go soon, Robert.”

“Already?”

That sounded very much like the triple espresso swirling about and icing sugar on his cheeks - pout.

“I’ll make it up to you when we meet.”

“Yeah, you will.”

Aaron wanted to crawl through the phone line and just tear at every piece of clothing blocking his way. 

Or just sleep next to him.

Sleeping next to Robert was something he missed so madly it took an auger to his heart.

Laying there in the yellow light, listening to the rain tapping away on every surface its restless droplets could reach. Drinking an herbal tea because his husband forced him. Feeling a strong arm around his waist, lips pecking at the neck.

Turning around and stroking at the blond hair, kissing his cheek, hearing the quiet snuffling that seemed to be very similar to Seb’s.

“I’m so lucky to have you”, he said, getting overwhelmed suddenly by the thoughts of brushing teeth together by the sink, watching Robert in bed as he read, snuggling up to him in the safe twilight.

“I hate being away from you too”, Robert said, clearly reading his thoughts.

And that was what hurt the most; despite still being so in tune yet getting blocked from the sonar that always navigated them to each other at the end of the day, denied by circumstances still out of their control.

 

 

As he saw Aaron, Cain gestured him to come in as he stood there with a phone to his ear. There were numerous shopping bags on the floor from Arndale, which meant Cain had been subjecting himself to a monster of a shopping centre for more than just a quick turn.

Aaron made a mental note to pester Cain about it later.

Now he was waiting for his uncle to get off the phone, whose words came out so driven and forceful one would imagine the person saying them to walk about gesturing wildly and making a blur of cartoon limbs at the very least.

 But as it was Cain Dingle, there was simply a man standing and talking, because cartoon blurs were not in his itinerary, now or ever.

He was the one putting the cartoon blurs in their rightful place.

“Right, we’ll sort it”, Cain said, taking a sip of his tea, “we’ve got someone near there. It’s not. If I say it’s not then it ain’t. How’s about they just mind their own business? Right. Paid cash? Thought so. Okay. Later.”

He hung up and sat down next to Aaron in the armchair, tapping on his phone.

“Here’s little sunshine.”

Aaron pushed violently against his own thoughts upon seeing Luke Posner walk about on screen, as if he hadn’t created a hell with his secrecy.

Luke just stood there.

As if it were any ole Tuesday.

The insouciance was what irked him the most.

Luke just living, as he pleased.

Someone else behind a locked door living as he didn’t.

It seemed unreal in all its vile incomprehensibility.

There was Luke, standing on a platform at St Pancras train station, next to a big statue of a man and woman embracing.

Luke standing next to the lie that had come with a price beyond end for everyone.

 

As it turned out, he had got on the Eurostar to Paris.

“Any footage from Gare du Nord?” Aaron asked, sipping his tea. The rain outside was quickly getting rid of the snow, and the draft it brought along could penetrate anyone’s bones.
Cain wiped at his jumper’s sleeves, pulling them down.

“No CCTV from Paris, but we’ll get it if there is any.”

Cain’s phone rang.

“Yeah? Did he? Nice one. Ta.”

Cain offered Aaron a smile that held a powerful promise.

“So what’s the update?” Aaron asked impatiently.

“Someone bought a ticket a couple of weeks ago to Montpellier with his name on it, literally.”

“Done one into Southern wine country, proper posh.”

Cain raised an eyebrow.

Wine country, eh? That tidbit has Sugden written all over it.”

“It does, and it is.”

“So we go for France now.”

“We go for France.”

“Cain. Thanks.”

Aaron put a hand on Cain’s shoulder, not being able to resist the urge to physically express the gratitude, the one he felt for Cain and his daughter in such vast amounts it was impossible to convey.

Cain looked at him. Aaron didn’t have the time to read a reaction from his eyes – not to the gratitude anyway, as Cain was smirking widely.

Aaron had been hoping Cain wouldn’t notice the mess his hair had become. Trying to work gel into it and get sleet-slathered, and then stupidly repeating it had resulted into something that was a bird’s nest, if one was being kind.

Cain was laughing now.

“Jesus, Aaron, what’s happening on your head? Your bloke’s not gonna recognize you.”

“Robert has a man bun.”

“Point taken.”

 

 

Aaron’s heart was swimming about with the energy from still feeling Robert’s kiss on his lips from the previous day, from the way they’d managed to talk through so many things in just an hour.

Rose, a woman of intuition, had steered them gently and purposefully.

The conversation was nothing if not encouraging.

Robert’s kiss was nothing if not intoxicating.

Their relationship hoisting itself from the cold cobble stones, perhaps wobbly on its feet having slept rough for so long but pulling on its coat anyway, moving through the streets and taking in the view of a day without clouds.

“I think we need a bedtime story”, Aaron said, holding his phone to his ear as he laid on his hotel room bed.

The blue morning light was lingering outside the windows, it had a softness to it that a fleetingly slumbering city didn’t get much of.

It was soothing, in the present quiet, but the promise of another intensely ticking day and its buzzing promises added to it, like the glass walls and worn-out streets were swimming in possibilities to come, old and new in unison.

Aaron felt himself smile, shaken out of his distraction, his boiling resentment towards Luke Posner boxed away to deny him of any chance to ruin his morning phone call with Robert including story hour. 

They had done that sometimes in the past, telling each other ridiculous stories which usually resulted into laughing fits, pillow fights or getting naked instead of helping to slip into slumber.

In other words, the best kind.

“So it’s a morning story now, is it? I like that. How about “All the girls in the kingdom cried because the beautiful prince was gay?” Robert offered, audibly grinning, rather suggestively.

Aaron scoffed, with a chuckle.

“How’s about we just skip to the sequel “Gay prince rolled his eyes because his concubine was an idiot?”

“Why am I the concubine?”

“Because I’m the prince and I say so.”

“I actually have a story at the ready. But the gorgeous gay in this one is a mechanic, not a prince.”

“Thank God for that. Cain just texted something about meeting up in an hour and there’s an emoji at the end of it but it must be a mistake.”

“I hope so. Right, I got my coffee and your voice, so I’m better than good. You comfortable now?”

Aaron snuggled up to the pillow, hand running on its lumpy surface, fingertips aching to find smooth skin and patterns of freckles instead.

In the moment though, he was happy all the same.

 ”I’ve got you and a coffee too, not wanting for anything right now, so go ahead.”

“Once upon a time, Adam Barton lost his phone.”

“Well, this is new.”

“It’s actually very old – yeah, like me, let’s just get that out of the way. As the wise man was saying, Adam Barton lost his phone at the Woolpack watering hole because he was getting mullered with Ross Barton.”

“Idiot.”

“I believe that’s called a superfluous comment, Aaron. Anyway, Adam put the damned thing in the wrong coat’s pocket and that phone travelled a long way across the village, because the expensive and undeniably stylish merino wool pocket it was slumming in was living in the house on the hill. It beeped and whined for a good while, poor thing. Stop breathing like that, Aaron, I know you’re about to interrupt me.”

“Soz. Just – don’t talk about yourself in the third person, it’s creepy.”

“Will you shut up if I don’t?”

“Yes. Sorry, yes. Go on, my gorgeous concubine.”

Aaron could hear Robert’s pleased smile as he continued:

“Well then, I, my very self, the stylish coat owner, was quite inebriated at the time, or proper hammered as they say, possibly because of having to see Ross’s pathetic mug all day. I was halfway through demolishing the whiskey and listening to quality music and dancing – stop giggling and shut up, you promised – listening to underrated quality tunes and dancing superbly in the infamously ugly living room at Home Farm when I finally heard the phone go off. Picking up after I had knocked over the most hideous vase ever, I realized it was my equally trollied sister calling and asking if I had seen Adam’s phone- yeah, the very same phone she had just called.”

Aaron chuckled.

“After a very laborious five minutes of drunk chit chat that was more out than within the lines of the zig and zag of it, she managed to inform me that there were some files on that phone I should send to her. “

Aaron heard Robert take a sip of his coffee with a glorious moan-like hum of approval, a sound that would have anyone adjusting their kecks.

“As expected, the process of her and yours truly in a state of Just been to the Woollie since lunch hour with no lunch but a lot of happy hour, discussing the process of sending a file from one device to another was one hell of an accomplishment, not to mention us actually succeeding to follow through.”

Aaron laughed. “I’m impressed.”

“You should be. So, the files were sent and not much later after that, I passed out on the sofa during What a feeling with a ham sandwich operating as a pillow.”

“Charming.”

“I always am. The next morning, I woke up with a murderous hangover, the vaguest of memories, post-sandwich mustard face and some strange arrangement of pillows and blankets which I still haven’t been able to decipher.”

“Drunk fort?”

Robert laughed.

“Probably. Adam’s phone was on the floor and as I had the passcode now having sent those files and currently not having much to do - nor the energy to make a further effort, I flipped through it to nose around for proof he wasn’t good enough for Vic.”

“He was too good for her”, Aaron said before he could stop himself.

“In present light, agreed.”

That was a lot of information in four words.

“So, I was lurking about his phone and found his photos.”

“Oh no.”

“Thankfully nothing that would make me want to bleach my eyes, but not much to go by either. Until I found a folder entitled “Aaron.”

“Oh God, not the chav years.”

Robert chuckled, very much amused.

“Some of that too, I’m afraid. But there were some nice ones, the last five photos in that file particularly. They were actually proper good, pics from the garage of you scowling, laughing, working. You just being you.”

“I remember that. Adam was proper proud of them photos.”

“Well, they were of quality. I scrolled them back and forth for a good five minutes before I realized.”

“Realized what?”

“That I had never wanted anyone as much as you in my entire life.”

Aaron swallowed.

“Is that so?”

His voice came out rough.

“Yeah. There was one photo particularly great where you had your purple hoodie on, halfway turned away, looking over your shoulder towards the camera with that could kill you with my eyes-gaze. You used to look at me like that all the time.”

“Still do.”

“It always turned me on. When you were all thunder and anger. Shoving me against the wall, putting me in my place. You have no idea how many times I thought about you back then. And finding those photos was a godsend as I had the visual now to take the edge off. But it wasn’t enough, was it? So I took the edge off again. And again. And the edge just got bigger and bigger.” 

“But more than that, you were the most sincerely loyal to the bone person I had ever known. As much time as I spent just trying to wind you up, I always respected you, and what you thought of me mattered.”

Aaron swallowed around the pulsating need to hug him.

 “And I knew I was already in love with you. Seeing those photos made me more or less admit that to myself, however unwillingly at that point.”

Aaron heard the words echoing from a moment at a not so random lay-by.

You were all I wanted, all I could think about, I was just petrified of what that meant.

“In hindsight, it really wasn’t as much about sexuality or keeping it in the closet as I thought back then. It was about you seeing me at my worst and still falling in love with me, because you saw me beyond the mess that I was.”

“I did see you, Robert. And I loved what I saw. That hasn’t changed.”

“I hope so.”

It came out so raw and vulnerable.

Aaron wanted to take that and seal it somewhere safe where the cruel serendipity of lost days couldn’t get its indifferent claws to it.

“It hasn’t, Robert. If anything, it’s there stronger than ever.”

“Aaron, what you’re doing now – with the centre, with Seb, with Liv, not to mention yourself – that’s you, Aaron. This is who you really are. The bloke I fell in love with so madly.”

The slight quiver and evident pride in Robert’s words had Aaron’s heart reeling.

“I’m so proud of you too, Robert.”

“I know, and I love you for that too, amongst various other reasons.”

“And to be fair, seeing that pic also reminded me that you were the most beautiful bloke on the planet. Still are. I’ve stared at the evidence long enough to establish that as a fact.”

Aaron felt a rattle in his bones, weakness turning him into water.

“Are you saying you spent all morning just looking at those photos back then?”

“No, Aaron. I’m saying I spent an entire weekend looking at those photos. And again during weekdays. Nights. Afternoons. So many times. I still think about those photos. It’s one of my favorite things in the universe, drawing a strength from just seeing them, seeing you. They’re still on my laptop if that thing is still around.”

“It is.”

“Well good, ‘cause I want those printed and sent to me as soon as.”

“You do?”

“I don’t have a scowling Aaron on my wall, it seems rather unfortunate.”

Aaron sat up, his urge to hug Robert increasing.

“You never told me about this, Robert.”

“I wanted to keep that memory to myself. And still you’re the only one I wanna tell. Because it’s just for us, you know.”

“I know.”

Aaron got up, filling his coffee mug (paid myself ill for this chestnut blend but I like it, Robert would be proud so I just might tell him.)

As he sat down on the bed and took a sip, Robert continued.

“And what you said yesterday when we were with Rose makes a lot of sense to me too, Aaron.”

“Which part?”

“When you said you feel sometimes like we’re having an affair again, except this time prison is the third person.”

“Robert”-

“No, I mean it. It feels like that to me sometimes too. And I do want us to be just us. I do want to tell you things. It’s just hard to ration.”

“We’ll figure it out, Robert. I’m not saying it won’t be hard and continue to be that in some regard, but it’ll be worth it. You need it, and I need it for you and for us.”

“I’ll have bad days in the future too and I can’t promise I won’t be an idiot because of it.”

Robert sounded like he was afraid of Aaron fading away if he spoke too loud.

“Oi, I can’t swear to not be an idiot either. But I can swear that I’ll try to be better. When something matters to me, I do whatever it takes. And you matter to me. And I’ll keep trying to change, for the better, for you.”

“Sounds like something a wise man would say.”

“Stop smirking.”

“You know I won’t.”

 

 

 

 As Aaron arrived at the hotel lobby, Cain came up to him looking so calm and pleased it seemed like he had just casually solved the universe’s problems whilst doing the crossword and shoving marmalade toast towards his laughing gear.

Turns out, he had, sans the crossword.

“Aaron. We found Luke.”

The world wasn’t spinning.

It seemed to finally start detaching from its sickening bipolar tempo.

“Was he in Montpellier?”

Cain nodded.

“Was. But he’s gonna have to bugger off back here now ‘cause he’s been arrested for a barney he had at that club in London. No wonder the rat scarpered to France the next day. Saw the CCTV footage this morning. I do wonder who tipped the coppers.”

“As do I”, Aaron said, laughing a little, still not quite taking it in.

“He’ll be back in no time. How does a trip to London to witness a double assault charge sound?”

Chapter Text

 

”It’s like watching the world’s weirdest family reality show.”

“You could have just stopped at family.”

Aaron and Ally stood in the middle of the field on Zak’s land, watching Cain, Debbie and Zak all huddled up together, walking towards them.

Debbie was doing most of the talking, or judging by the look on her face, the telling off.

Lisa would be so proud. Debs is the only one who can shut this lot up the way she did.

As the three of them approached, their spectators heard Debbie say “and for the last time, Dad, you are not giving Moira that axe as a prezzie. It’s wrong in so many ways I can’t even begin to tell ya.”

“It’s not like it’s a birthday present Debs, it’s just a flamin’ axe and she needs one.”

“You don’t give a woman an axe, Cain, unless you’ve bought it along with some other random tools during a normal garden shop nip-by, it’s not a gift you buy separately on purpose. Might as well not give her anything at all”, Aaron piped in.

Cain scoffed, shooting an annoyed glance towards his nephew.

“Listen to mister poncy miniature Audi here, reckons he’s the wise one.”

“He is the wise one, dad, you should listen to mister poncy miniature Audi, exactly because he’s married to mister Will make anyone sob with the gifts I choose.”

Ally was biting on her lip, clearly holding back an incredulous laughing fit.

Aaron was momentarily zoned out just because Debbie had said is married to.

It did of course feel that way to him, but hearing people talk about them as if it were a fact for everyone- as well as in the world of legalities - made him just that much happier.

Apparently, Cain’s shopping expedition in Manchester had resulted to getting Isaac things that would be met with excitement, but his wife was a different story altogether.

“Just make her something yourself, something that reminds her of a meaningful event. You could just buy her that Aztec Camera album, too.”

Debbie patted Aaron on the shoulder.

“Robert would be proud, oh wise one.”

Cain looked like he was ready to flip the bird, but he only did it with his eyes as he said “I’ll sort me own prezzies, ta, and that subject is closed now so stop going on about it or do one.”

“Do one!” a little voice squealed.

Seb was running towards them in his little wellies, holding a stack of hair scrunchies in his left hand and a ladle in the other for God knows what toddler reason, waving his arms about as if in attempt to hug them all simultaneously, but kept running past them anyway, taking his hug and his noise with him as he went.

Aaron scowled at Cain.

“Cheers for that, I can’t wait having to explain when he starts saying that to strangers.”

Cain smirked.

“Maybe you can just give them poncy little presents in compensation.”

“No, seriously, now you can do one.”

Debbie took a now openly laughing Ally inside to recover from the things she had seen.

Great idea to bring your co-director to meet your family, but then again, if she survives this lot we just might be able to survive anything.

Zak looked between Aaron and Cain.

“So when are you two heading off?”

“In the morning. Straight to London, might take a bit longer than we planned as this one here is stopping in Manchester on the way back to see his, what was it Liv said?”

“Banged-up blonde.”

“Right.”

“You two be careful now”, Zak said, “ya tell yerself you’ve got the reins but seeing a scum like that might change that.”

Aaron nodded.

“Trust me, that is taken into consideration. And I’m not about to risk everything. Neither is Cain.”

Zak smiled, mischievously.

“Look at you two family men, going to get revenge and not being stupid about it for once.”

“Oi, do one.”

This time it came from Aaron and Cain in unison.

 

“I reckon we’ll take the M6”, Cain said as he sat on the bonnet of his car next to his nephew who was fiddling with his cigarette case, pulling out one and then putting it back in, fighting against the cravings.

“Yeah, that’ll be good. It’s only four hours anyway, give or take. Plenty of time for lunch on the way.”

Aaron turned towards Cain, raising an eyebrow.

“And plenty of time to get a matching saw to go with that axe for Moira.”

“Will you stop going on about it?”

Aaron grinned.

“Not until you admit it was a stupid idea.”

“If you want to see a stupid idea, check the mirror.”

“That’s not news, mate. And I’m not the one shopping for my wife at the gardening section.”

“You could always get Sugden a new shovel.”

“Too soon, Cain.”

“About time, more like.”

After hugging Seb a little too tight as he tended to do these days (much like the hugs Seb’s dad received), Aaron took his rucksack, gave Debbie a pleading look, cocking his head towards Cain.

“Can you tell him off in advance, so I won’t have to?”

Debbie shook her head as she stood at the front door, one hand on her hip whilst clutching a coffee cup with the other.

“It’s hard enough to tell normal parents off, Aaron. Tell you what tho, you go tell Chas off and see how that turns out and I might just do the same with this one.”

“Say no more.”

 

As they were approaching Carlisle, Aaron felt a lump in his throat as he opened an email from Peter.

The contents were just about the worst news on the Liverpool front he could’ve imagined.

“Cain, pull over.”

As the car had stopped, Aaron hopped out and lit up a smoke.

It wasn’t as much a craving as it was a necessity in the moment, no matter how much of an excuse it may have seemed.

Cain looked at him impatiently, standing in front of Aaron with his hands in his pockets.

“What’s up?”

Aaron sighed, trying to work through his chaotic thoughts.

“We’re gonna have to nip to Liverpool. Rebecca’s situation is getting worse. I need to speak to her trustee, and phone’s not gonna cut it now.”

Rebecca’s trustee was just that, someone they could trust, a woman who had her wits about, looking after her friend to the best of her ability.

And her abilities were numerous.

But this was something none of them could fight against, the things happening in Rebecca’s brain, the unpredictable changes that frightened everyone involved.

Cain nodded, a worried frown on his face.

“You reckon it’s really bad this time?”

“It’s always been bad every time, but it seems she has been more out of it lately.”

Cain delivered as always, cutting to the chase.

“What happens to Seb if it comes to it?”

That was the million quid question, wasn’t it?

Aaron shook his head, feeling grateful for the rain whipping about, keeping him in the reality of it all and somehow having a slightly calming effect as his eyes roamed around the layby, one that indeed was a random one.

“I don’t know, do I? Me and Diane are his temporary guardians, but as long as Rebecca hasn’t been officially announced unfit she could legally change that. And the paranoia combined with her hatred towards me might do just that. Wouldn’t be the first time.”

Cain rolled his shoulders, waving his hands in his pockets, the leather jacket flapping on his sides like some sort of Dingle wings.

He took a breath, as if preparing to find an answer that could solve everything.

Often enough, he was able to do just that.

“Right. I reckon you should ask to see Rebecca yourself. It might wind her up, but right now it might show her Seb’s just fine as long as you’re looking after him. Not going might seem like you’re doing everything behind her back.”

He paused, tilting his head.

“And it gives her a chance to have a go if she’s okay enough to do that. It’ll tell ya she’s not that bad yet.”

Aaron grinned.

“Can’t argue with that.”

Cain gave him the assuaging look Aaron really needed right now, as were the words that followed.

“Aaron, you’re doing everything you can. And if it’s not enough in this case, you need to remember no one else could do better.”

Aaron nodded.

“I’ll just have to hope it will be enough.”

 

The Walton Centre’s red brick walls looming ahead, Aaron’s mind drifted to Robert, this time bouncing between unexpected similarities to his current location.

It held no significant resemblance to HMP Manchester building wise, but it did make him think how Seb’s biological parents were both in a prison as a result from situations beyond their control.

Aaron felt a slightly forced calm settle in, the one that a parent knew, the lucid sense that kicked in, overpowering everything to serve the purpose of making sure one’s child would be safe.

Its companion was, of course, a constant worry that never really shut down.

But the love he had for Seb was the flipside, still the driving force, making it all worthy of everything.

The force he wouldn’t change for anything.

Much like his love for Robert.

 

Peter greeted them in his typical way, with a calm smile and a demeanor that had the ability to make even the worst situation just a tad better, whether everyone involved could appreciate or even acknowledge it at present.

Smoothing down the hem of his jacket, Peter ushered Aaron and Cain into his workspace.

As they sat down, he offered them tea which they both took up on gladly.

As refreshing as the rain could be for the fevered mind, it did no favors for the body.

Aaron fiddled his hands like he was holding a lighter.

“Just tell me, Peter. Tell me as it is, there’s no need to sugarcoat it.”

Peter’s big brown eyes showed no hesitation.

“She had a seizure and was out of it for days. The brain scan showed some new damage. Diane’s been, I told her these things in the morning. She was about to call you in the afternoon, but I think it’s good you’re here.”

Aaron scoffed internally.

As if I wouldn’t be here in person.

“I want to see Rebecca, if she’ll agree to it”, he said, with a little hesitance, as seeing Rebecca was something that always came with that.

Peter nodded, pouring water into a mug with World’s best husband written on the side.

Aaron was saddened but also a little amused at the sight, memories splitting in different directions, the irony of it all almost making him chuckle.

“I’ll ask her now. She’s been sedated, but she’s not too drowsy. But if she gets riled up we’ll have to cut the visit short, you know that”, Peter said, offering the memory-provoking mug to Cain. Aaron felt relieved at the words as much as the gesture.

He just wished he could’ve snapped a picture of Cain with that mug.

Moira would get a kick out of it.

“’Course. Trust me, neither of us is looking forward to seeing each other, no matter how much time and more important things come along.”

Cain tapped him on the arm as Peter excused himself.

“Oi, it’ll still be better than Sugden ringing her, given the circumstances.”

Aaron couldn’t pick the exact ways that would’ve been worse, knowing they were very much there, but deciphering that wasn’t on his list of things to do now.

Deciphering Rebecca had never been something he felt keen on doing, nor had he really ever found it possible.

As Cain took a sip of his tea, Aaron did pull out his phone and took a quick photo.

Cain grimaced and tried to reach for the phone, but a swoosh told them the image was already on its way to his wife.

“Cheers for that.”

“You should be thanking me, mate. That will soften the blow that will come your way because of the prezzies.”

“Don’t start.”

Aaron laughed.

“Dream on, mate.”

Cain went to sort out a place for lunch, or that’s what he said to Peter anyway, Aaron knowing it had nothing to do with cafeterias and everything to do with things waiting in London.

Peter took Aaron to see Rebecca, who had agreed to the surprise visit.

Standing outside the beige wooden door, hand hesitating on the chrome handle, Aaron battled the instinct that told him to flight instead of fight.

His feet seemed to be made of lead, his heart not doing much better in its heavy weight.

Peter put a hand on his arm.

“Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be.”

They stepped inside.

The yellow room had dim lighting, a stillness attempting to balance out the chaos holding the room’s occupant in its grip. The generic watercolour painting on the wall, cheap striped curtains, white cupboards, the ugly halogen lights on the ceiling, luckily now switched off.

The room suddenly reminded Aaron of being at Hotten General after Robert had saved him at the scrapyard.

Saved his life.

Waiting patiently, taking rejection after another, hearing the worst of the worst and still appearing at his side, especially when Aaron himself hadn’t known it was exactly what he’d needed.

Aaron wondered where he’d be if it wasn’t for Robert.

If the past two years were any indication, “lost” would be a fitting understatement.

Peter leaned down towards Rebecca, quietly checking if she was asleep.

Her eyes opened.

She looked like someone who’d been on a massive bender and had been picked up from the ditch after sleeping rough for a while and then some.

Her hair was short and uneven, skin clammy, eyes cloudy, motions unsure.

But as soon as she saw Aaron, she perked and sat up.

“Aaron”, she said in a tone that asked for confirmation.

“Hiya”, Aaron replied, sitting down on the chair next to her bed.

Rebecca put on a cardigan, the same colour as the yellow of her embroidered blanket.

Rebecca White doesn’t clash with the décor, does she?

“What are you doing here?” she asked, eyes grown wider, scratching at her arm, and looking at Aaron with a restless gaze that bounced and twirled like Tetris.

“He came to talk to you about Seb”, Peter said gently, as if this was new information to all of them.

Rebecca nodded nervously.

“Of course, I remember that.”

She offered Aaron a reluctant smile.

Aaron tried to keep his as soothing as possible.

“How you feeling?” he asked carefully, taking his coat off, shifting on the uncomfortable chair.

“I’m just fine. What’s wrong with Seb?” Rebecca asked with a brush off regarding herself, worry for her son washing over her features.

“Nothing”, Aaron said, “Seb is fine. Just misses you a lot, of course.”

Rebecca smiled and frowned at that simultaneously, pleased and displeased.

That had been her go-to expression most days before the accident too, mind you.

“Can we have some privacy?”, she asked, looking at Peter, “I need to talk to Aaron alone.”

Aaron felt a twinge of fear, trying not to expect her to refuse contact with Seb again - or just randomly lunge at him, throw heavy objects in his direction.

Either option was a justified fear, but he’d just have to find out.

Peter looked at him, and he nodded in confirmation.

As Peter had stepped outside, Rebecca’s first question both surprised and didn’t surprise Aaron.

“How’s Robert?”

That flash of jealousy in her face is never going away, is it?

“As well as he can be. He appealed his sentence.”

Aaron paused, checking if it rang any bells with her.

Discovering it clearly didn’t, he continued:

“He wasn’t the only one who clonked that scum that day. We’re working on finding him.”

Rebecca was puzzled, but nodding all the same, considering the news.

“Really? That’s good.”

She looked around absentmindedly, detached for a minute before her eyes focused on Aaron again.

“Where’s Seb?”

“He’s in Scotland with Debbie and the kids.”

Luckily, that didn’t make Rebecca nervous, but just that much more present.

“Can I see him?” she asked, but it sounded a bit more like I better see him or else.

“Course you can. I’ll bring him here next week if you’d like. Is that okay?”

Rebecca seemed to ponder on it, her hand running back on forth on the blanket, fingers restless.

Aaron wasn’t sure if she was just drifting.

Thinking of Seb seeing her like that – and Aaron not being able to prepare him again for it no matter how much he tried – was a thought he couldn’t handle right that minute so he continued:

“I will bring him to Liverpool next week and we’ll sort a visit. I can stay here for a couple of days so you can spend more time with him. You reckon that’d be something we can agree to?”

Rebecca was nodding again, but something in her seemed to argue.

“How have you been?”, Aaron asked again, wanting to find out how much she was taking in from the conversation.

Rebecca shrugged.

“I’m fine.”

She was looking at his hands, as if scanning for the ring.

Or perhaps that was just Aaron, missing the weight of it.

Rebecca shook her head a little, as if to shake herself out of the daze. Her arms were laid out on the blanket, sleeves pulled up, her arms exposed and skinny.

Robert wasn’t the only one losing a couple stone because of an incarceration diet.

One that had very little do with food.

Aaron wanted to ask about Ross but decided that would probably be the easiest trigger right now and opted for skipping the subject.

There were two books, a bottle of some – undoubtedly expensive – hand cream and an unfinished crochet on Rebecca’s nightstand.

A crochet but no needles, an obvious safety regulation.

Rebecca looked like she was trying to crochet at her thoughts, but she didn’t have the proper tools at the ready for that either.

“I really am fine, Aaron, Peter is just overeager. Must be his age, trying to impress everyone with still very little to go by”.

Hello, Rebecca White, thought you’d never show up.

And although she was completely in the wrong, pointing that out wouldn’t have amounted to much hence Aaron let it go, slightly to his own chagrin.

Perhaps Rebecca knew that.

That almost made him smile.

“Are you working?” she asked suddenly, still fiddling with her blanket, shifting into a better position.

“I’m building a youth center in Scotland with my partner Ally. We’ll open in March if all goes well.”

The old Rebecca took complete charge of the current Rebecca’s features then as she said:

“Well isn’t that something, Robert must be proud.”

She said it like old times, cooing through her teeth, with that tone that was attempting to seduce her entire surroundings whilst still channeling an air of contempt and arrogance to her counterpart, enunciating like a little girl pretending to be a posh adult. For a moment it seemed like she was lording about at the Woolpack, in her crazy hat and sixties fortune teller clothing, digging into her favourite hobby, winding people up.

For a moment she looked like she could.

Aaron was more surprised at the relief it gave him.

He smiled at her. It was mostly genuine.

“It’s rewarding. Robert knows I like to keep busy.”

It was neutral, but the look he got from Rebecca stated that he sounded more or less patronizing.

“Right”, she said, “I’m sure.”

“So why isn’t Seb here now?” she asked, lying down again.

“He went camping with Debbie and the kids.”

She bit her lip.

“Okay.”

That was the current Rebecca talking, more defeated, more relenting.

Yet again surprised, Aaron felt saddened by the fact that her fleeting smugness had vanished so quickly again.

“Are you coming here next week?”

“Yeah.”

Aaron took a piece of paper out of his pocket, handing it to her.

“I wrote down the things we’ve talked about.”

Rebecca took it, wiping at her face, wrapping her cardigan tighter around her. She looked a lot more tired suddenly.

She skimmed the information, clearly used to checking it but fed up with having to do it in the first place, deciding halfway through reading it properly could wait.

Simply because she’d have to do it multiple times.

“Thanks”, she said, meaning it at least a little.

Aaron nodded.

“I really am fine”, she said stubbornly, looking at Aaron with something that lingered on the outskirts of a challenge.

“Good”, Aaron said, “and you’ll be even better when Seb gets here.”

“Well, he is my son”, Rebecca said, pressing her point.

Aaron looked at her firmly, nodding.

“He most certainly is”, he said.

It was confirmation and a bit of a dig rolled into one.

They both knew it, and the calming familiarity of the slightly passive aggressive back and forth they’d mastered with each other over the years was exactly what they both needed.

Rebecca seemed to be afloat again, scanning the room for something that she had no expectations of finding, but searching all the same.

She took a sip of water, smoothing down her hair.

She probably hated how it looked and would have someone professional sent there for her to order around.

Aaron was hoping she would, just to hold onto those parts that everyone recognized, herself just as much, keeping the status quo a bit more acceptable.

The illusion of his mom not deteriorating so fast preserved for Seb just a little longer.

“I need to sleep”, Rebecca said suddenly, pulling the blanket over herself and shifting about, like someone would before having a kip.

“Okay. I’ll leave you to it. I’ll see you next week.”

Aaron went to stand up.

Suddenly there was a hand on his arm.

Rebecca looked at him intently, cloudy eyes sharpening and softening at the same time.

Like Aaron was exactly the person that should be there.

“Can you wait until I fall asleep? I don’t like doing it alone”, she said, voice small but clear and resonate, like a distant flute sounding from an empty auditorium.

Aaron nodded.

As Rebecca’s eyes closed, her fingers slid down Aaron’s arm and took his hand in their feeble grip.

It seemed to calm her immediately, the quiet voices carrying through from the corridor adding to its soothing effect.

Aaron had known life would continue to take him into the weirdest of places but holding Rebecca White’s hand to help her sleep wasn’t one he would’ve banked on.

 

Aaron emailed with Peter a couple of times as they began to drive towards London, trying to push away the twinge of sadness and dread of the future, Seb seeing his mum alternate between the person he knew and the person she was before, both parts of her sharpening and fading simultaneously, with precipitous alterations brought upon by her condition and its inexorable progress, denying Seb of seeing who she might have become in addition to her two fickle options.

If anything, it made Aaron even more unyielding in his decision to give Seb everything he could, in any form he could.

Well, everything apart from putting on circus clothing, even if Seb’s other two parents weren’t able to resort to their questionable wardrobes right now.

Aaron loved Seb more than anything, but hats and floral print was where he drew the line.

 

They stopped in Solihull for a quick petrol fill for the car and a quick bite for themselves at a café.

Cain was shoving lasagna into his mouth, glancing at Aaron, waiting for the information.

They had skipped the Walton Centre’s eatery and now that they had something other than news stand sandwiches to go by, both were just scarfing away.

Tiredness and hunger had struck them out of the blue.

The complimentary coffee that came with the meal was kicking in (the taste grows on you, Robert would sip it judgmentally at first and then take absolutely no pleasure in admitting it was drinkable).

Aaron wiped his mouth, putting the napkin on his empty plate.

Cain put down his glass, tilting his head a little.

“You’ve been proper quiet and glued to that phone of yours. What’s up with the Abba reject?” he asked, sensitive as ever.

“There’s some new damage for sure, but her behaviour hasn’t changed that much. Well, she does seem a tad more scared so I s’pose it has, actually. Hard to tell from a quick visit anyway.”

“Did she tell you off?”

Aaron shook his head, giving out a little smile.

“Not exactly. She did ask me about Robert tho, looking like she would get up and try it on with him as soon as.”

Cain nodded.

“That woman would, you know.”

“Yeah. It’s still hard to feel sorry for her but the weirdest part is, as long as there’s the selfish opportunist sloshing about in her mind, she’s still herself and in a fit enough state to see Seb so it’s a relief if anything.”

“All of Seb’s parents fancy Sugden, that’s not news. Especially Sugden himself.”

“Shut up.”

Cain huffed out a laugh.

“You tellin me Sugden doesn’t fancy himself?”

“Didn’t say that, did I?”

“In other words, he’s in a fit enough state, too.”

Robert’s fit, period. Not saying that to you tho, I’d just get a “too much information” as a reply.

Aaron shook himself out of his thoughts, grabbing his phone and with a click of the shutter revealing he’d taken a photo.

“What the hell was that?” Cain asked, annoyed, his coffee mug still waiting to be hoisted to his mouth from mid-air.

Aaron scoffed, with a hint of a look that suggested the question had been totally unnecessary.

“As it says on that cup of yours, place is called Two Mugs. I’m seeing just that, so it’s only fair I get to take further visual proof for Moira.”

“Oi, pack it in will ya.”

Cain scrolled on his phone, eyes flickering through something that clearly had gone from annoyance about having the piss taken out of him by his nephew to a matter of a more serious nature.

Leaning closer, he gave Aaron a pointed look.

“Contact’s been on, the rat will arrive tonight. The club scrap he was involved in seems to have been a proper one, five other people were arrested.”

Aaron considered it, worry bubbling in his mind.

“That better not take any weight off what he’s got coming.”

Cain seemed unfazed, crossing his arms on the table.

“It won’t. The others were just randomly going at it, more interested in nicking people’s pints, pretending they were involved in some riot, prats waving their fists just for the atmosphere. It’ll land Luke just deeper in it, him being the idiot who started it and the others the sheep that went into it just for the sake of chance for a kick- off.”

“What’s the damage like then?”

Cain skimmed through the file.

“The bloke Luke battered is mates with the guy who runs the club. The place is well popular and the punters have taken to the owner, so there’s a ton of more than willing witnesses eager to have the rat strung up.”

Aaron pretended he wasn’t itching to ask Cain for a private party of two, just so he could be the one to string Luke up and leave him to his own pathetic devices.

“Aaron, he’s the one that needs to be banged up, not you.”

Aaron met his uncle’s alert gaze, the chagrin of being denied the chance of teaching Luke a Dingle lesson losing its edge by just being pleased that they knew each other so well.

“I’ll be more convinced once he’s been charged. For all of it.”

Cain nodded, tapping his fingers for emphasis as he said:

“You’re gonna have to tell Sugden as soon as, Aaron.”

“The appeal is not exactly moving fast now, is it? Getting Luke to confess is what matters now, that’ll drag Robert into this soon enough.”

Cain scoffed, tapping his fingers slightly louder now.

“Yeah, cause doing stuff behind each other’s backs worked so well for the two of you in the past.”

He leaned a bit closer, the chisel of his gaze chipping away at Aaron’s denial, working its way fast through towards the things that needed to be said.

“Aaron, just bloody listen, right? Tomorrow you’re seeing Sugden and you’re telling him everything he needs to know at this point. And you know he might be onto us already, it’s not like it’d be a surprise.”

Aaron nodded, relenting, yet squirming internally. Wanting to keep his bubble with Robert separate from having to deal with everything involving this was too strong.

Better than ever, he understood why Robert was opting for the same thing.

Their bubble wasn’t as fragile as it had been.

And it was the best thing there was, being in that bubble.

Especially the ten minutes alone that Rose gave them each time.

As they got into the car again and drove off, he sat there, torn between the pull towards keeping his Shangri-la with Robert and the need to finish off the rat that kept him from living there every day.

 

“Look at this place.”

Cain’s face was scrunched up into a displeased grimace of suspicion as he took in the hotel lobby.

Aaron didn’t ask what was wrong with the place.

It wasn’t about it being too shabby.

It was about not being that.

“It’s not exactly easy to find a place with the notice we’ve had. It might be if we’d like to stay somewhere two miles to the left from Bromley, but this is what we have now.”

Cain remained unconvinced, because he was Cain.

“A hundred and fifty quid for one night is flippin’ ridiculous, Aaron.”

“Sleeping rough at our age is ridiculous, Cain, this is just a hotel room. Trust me, that price in central London is nothing short of a bargain.”

Cain shot him a look with a scowl to match.

“You’ve been with Sugden for too long, mate.”

“Take a look, it’s not that bad.”

Aaron gestured at the pictures on the brochure. The hotel had the vibe of a standard chain hotel, the main attraction being that its rooms were clean, the furniture were in one piece and the breakfast included didn’t consist of just weak tea and steamed sausages.

But as the standard rooms were taken, theirs would be premium, which meant a bit more space and a bit more knick-knacks about. Perhaps two sowing kits and Bibles instead of one.

Maybe it was the prospect of a sofa without stains, the shower with legit water pressure, or the complimentary fizzy drink that was doing Cain’s head in.

Cain shrugged.

“Given that you are something Sugden chose on purpose does make me question him anyway.”

The receptionist arrived, giving them their key.

As they arrived to the seventh floor and at their room door, Aaron was just about to ask Cain what he fancied for dinner when his uncle turned towards him, scoffing with disbelief.

“It’s a flippin’ suite, Aaron.”

“I know. They had to upgrade us because the standard, executive and deluxe rooms were all taken, they messed up the reservation.”

“Right. I’m taking the living room and you can upgrade yourself into the other one all you like.”

Aaron wasn’t sure, but it seemed like Cain had closed the door between their chosen rooms a tad louder than would’ve been necessary.

 

“Say that again.”

“I’m sharing a hotel suite with Cain.”

“That is all kinds of wrong.”

Aaron was looking out the window towards the pretentious little garden with everything growing too evenly and representing the least natural and definitely not eye-pleasing colour choices, much like an artsy eighties music video turned into plants. The grin on his face had nothing to do with the sight but rather the sincere horror in Robert’s voice coming through the speaker on his phone.

Aaron put the call on mute as he lit up a cigarette, because he was twelve years old.

“If there was any justice in the world, Cain would be on the farm cozying up with Moira in a tractor like he’d prefer to and we’d be in that suite, very busy being very naked and very loud.”

“I like the sound of that”, Aaron said, a little flustered by the thought.

“So why exactly are you in Glasgow?” Robert asked.

Aaron didn’t hesitate with his answer.

“It’s something Cain needs getting done, and I’m here to see to it.”

“Difficult staff at the garage?”

Robert, if anyone, knew how to talk Dingle, but he was great at talking Dingle in code, too.

“Fraid so. But we’ll sort it.”

“I know you will. Can’t wait to see you tomorrow.”

“Same. I’ve missed you so much, feels like it’s been ages since I could touch you.”

“We get to touch once a week, Aaron. After that I spend six days fantasizing about getting to do that again. So, considering today is day six of dreaming about domestic-like situations and having a good wank with some very pleasurable Aaron pics from my mind’s gallery, it doesn’t feel like it’s been ages, it has been ages.”

Robert sounded just as frustrated, homesick, and horny as Aaron felt.

“Agreed”, he said, wanting to tell Robert he was struggling with being apart more and more – he wouldn’t, but he wanted to.

Aaron gulped, the familiar selfish contradiction in him stirring.

Getting to see Robert every week was a luxury and easily the most wonderful thing in the world.

Seeing him every week made it that much harder to settle for once a week.

He wanted to tell about the moments at a shopping centre in Leeds where he’d started sniping at a random couple just because they’d looked happy stood there free and spoiled with their everyday choices, lost in each other snogging in front of canned corn, bags of sage and Aaron’s envious heartache; he wanted to tell about the times he told Seb stories of daddy Robert and how the boy just devoured every word, often ending the conversation with the words “daddy should be home”, words Aaron couldn’t always bear to hear but wouldn’t have coped without; he wanted to tell about the nights he didn’t sleep a wink but sat outside just staring into the nothing, missing Robert so much he wondered if he could just leave his heart in the bedroom for the night, to get away from the brutal force of loving him just a tad too intense on the painful side.

Yet he wouldn’t have given the intensity of it away.

Not for one second.

So he said all the same: “I’m beyond happy that I get to see you, let alone kiss you.”

And he meant every word.

“I know. Me too.”

The brief silence that followed was comfortable; the anticipation vibrating between them always making them both feel that much more alive, that much happier, gratitude flashing a bright smile.

 

Aaron was sat at the pub with Cain, both of them drying off the worst of the rain that they’d encountered on the way.

Cain’s contact had given them the location for the police station where Luke had been taken to. There he was, practically around the corner, being held in a custody cell, waiting for being charged.

Aaron thought about him in there.

Luke pacing about the small space, feeling the dread of the uncertain, floating between being caught and becoming officially imprisoned.

Becoming part of the system he’d gotten away from long enough.

The gray outfit turning maroon inevitably.

Robert’s pain turning into relief eventually.

Aaron’s pain already turning into a smug and malicious smile, one which Cain reacted to.

“Oi, pack it in and listen.”

Aaron turned towards his uncle, forcing his face to go for nonchalance.

“I’ve got a little surprise for ya”, Cain said, the light from his phone screen showing his pleased face in the darkened corner they were sat in.

Aaron knew that Cain’s surprises weren’t about a nice coffee break or a pair of sensible shoes, so he perked up at that.

“What?”

“Wouldn’t be a surprise then, would it? Finish that pint, we’re off in ten minutes.

“Fine.”

They left in exactly ten minutes, relieved to leave the upscale pub gabble and its rising level in volume as well as stupidity.

The streets were always restless, but those sounds were the sort of noises they preferred.

The sort that put everyone on uncertain hence even ground, where the advantage usually came from oneself alone, privileges stripped.

Where the unpredictability was what they knew how to predict best.

Cain took them around the corner, towards where the police station was. He walked to the side of the building, posture perfect, streetlight dancing on his leather jacket.

Aaron followed.

Upon seeing that they were simply standing at the side door, he became aware of what this meant.

He almost asked if this was the boxing match his mind had been silently requesting, but Cain got there first, giving him a stern look, leaving nothing unclear.

“Keep your fists in your pockets, Aaron.”

“Right.”

Feeling less and less disappointed by such opportunities denied was one the best feelings he’d had in ages.

The wind whipped his face and his heart took on a different rhythm as the door opened.

Two police officers were escorting a man into a van.

He’d been charged with GBH with intent for a club incident.

Arrested on suspicion of GBH with an incident involving a family member.

One of the officers gave Cain a nod.

There was Luke Posner, gawping at Aaron Dingle with so much surprise in his scared eyes that they seem to disappear from blue to white.

Aaron felt history wash over him, a situation familiar taking new shape, without any other weapons than his eyes this time round.

First, he gave Luke a Dingle death stare, making him flinch a bit.

That’s for Victoria.

His face broke into a smug smile next, with pure contempt as the finishing touch.

That’s for Robert.

Aaron pulled his hand out of his pocket.

But this…this is just for me.

He lifted his hand and waved, a little, perpetual and patronizing wave, a gesture much like one an adult gives a child when they’re attempting to get away from their over enthusiastic existence.

Luke stared at him, fear evident, saying nothing, but there was nothing left to say for either of them.

So, Aaron waved.

Under Cain’s openly proud gaze, surrounded by relief and a block of cars, London pulsing around him, a quiet victory with the litter on the breeze, he waved Luke off, brushing him off.

Finishing him off.

 

On their way back to the hotel, Cain spoke.

“So there’s going to be a trial for the GBH charge, but we need to get more info on how the other thing is moving along.”

Aaron scratched his beard, shrugging.

“As long as there’s no confession, there’s no trial. No charge either, but we’ll figure it out.”

“If there’s a witness there will be a development soon enough.”

“What witness? There were no witnesses.”

Cain looked at him as if he were the thickest of them all.

“A witness to his confession.”

Now it was Aaron’s turn to give out an incredulous look indicating the other person’s intellectual capabilities were leaving a lot to be desired.

“Like Wendy or Vic, right.”

“Like a bloke he was seeing on the quiet.”

Aaron stopped, annoyed by Cain’s inability to run with the impatience of his thoughts.

“What bloke?”

Aaron wanted to jump for the joy of it, but he felt an even stronger need to distance himself from the turmoil of it all.

“There was a bloke he’d been seeing while he was with Victoria, a bloke no one knew about. Apparently the rat left him high and dry after they’d had words. This chap came forward just to get back at him.”

Aaron considered it.

It seemed odd how much it made sense.

He wasn’t one to believe in such justice, but he wasn’t one to turn away from it either.

“So there’s actually a case now.”

“Yep. We’ll go through the details tonight.”

They stood there, suddenly a bit drained, the adrenaline of the initial chase evaporating and giving a sense of calm, one that was necessary in order to get ready for the next step.

Aaron wanted to hug Cain.

But he wanted to please him by not giving one even more.

“It’s called love”, he said suddenly, grinning.

Cain huffed.

“Hardly.”

Aaron cocked his head to the side, towards the window of a record shop.

“The album, Cain, it is called Love. The one with Moira’s favourite song on it. Go ask, I’ll wait.”

“What is it with you and the obsession about me prezzies?”

“Are you saying you’re not going inside?”

“Shut up.”

Back at the hotel, after they’d checked out the details for Luke’s random and found out that he was indeed willing to give evidence, they drank some whiskey in Aaron’s side of the room, Cain getting surprisingly hammered from a few glasses. He was just about to go a bit soft, leaning towards Aaron with heavy eyes and an alarmingly gentle smile at his own thoughts, starting the sentence with” D’ya know what, my Moira is”-

And that was that, because he fell asleep on the too posh of a sofa to his liking, with his half finished whiskey in a mug that said Missing you in Ole Blighty.

With the photo Aaron got to send from that moment, he decided the Triptych of the two mugs was now officially finished.

The things people did for love, especially the kind that was safely packed in a record shop bag on its way to the receiver was the kind that could take charge of anyone, and that included Cain Dingle, too.

 

“Oi, this way.”

Ah Tim, how little I have missed you.

Bored guard number one was awol, replaced by Bored guard number two who seemed to be fittingly fed up, tapping a pen against his clipboard, rolling his eyes at just about anything his gaze landed on.

Doing his predecessor proud, surely.

Aaron walked through the corridor to Rose’s office.

The tempestuous, tiring vibe of the past days fell into a sweet and lullaby-like rhythm that gave the heart a little jump though as he saw Robert’s dazzling smile, the bright eyes flickering on him, caressing him with their gaze.

Being pulled into those arms added the finishing touch.

Robert’s touch.

The warmth and scent of Robert, the strength of his arms, the breath against his cheek.

After Robert had stolen a little impatient kiss from him, the gentle press of his lips making him weak, they sat down.

Aaron frowned.

“Where’s Rose?”

Robert’s hand wrapped around his arm, pulling him closer, eyes travelling on Aaron, grip demanding.

“She’ll be here in exactly seventeen minutes and not a second later, so stop talking.”

Aaron felt the breath on his neck, Robert’s mouth pressing against it.

He shivered at the familiar slide of lips up and down his skin, a cheeky little touch of tongue adding to the mix.

“Stop that, I can’t face Rose with a stiffy.”

Robert chuckled, pecking at his neck.

“Shut up, Dingle, I’m taking what’s mine here.”

He raised his head, looking into Aaron’s eyes, smile a bit crooked, teasing.

Aaron took in his features, fingers skating on the freckles, eyes locking.

“God, you look so good”, Robert mumbled, leaning in.

Then it was all lips and tongue, sliding against each other’s mouths, deepening and intensifying, Robert’s hand pulling at his hair, the other one climbing its fingers on his leg.

Aaron tried to think unsexy thoughts, but Robert’s hand on his thigh felt too good and really wasn’t helping the task.

Relenting, he let his hands roam on the solid warm back, enjoying the feel of their tongues exploring each other, gasping into Robert’s mouth as he felt the hand inching dangerously close to his crotch.

“Stop”, he hissed against Robert’s eager lips, “I’m not ruining my trousers or getting kicked out of here.

“I’d make sure to ruin those trousers before you get kicked out”, Robert purred, the roam of his fingers that much more determined.

Moving his lips to Aaron’s ear, he said: “Are you gonna tell me where you really were?”

He sounded amused if anything - of course Robert knew he hadn’t been in Glasgow but somewhere else entirely.

He was just good at knowing.

Knowing things overall but knowing Aaron in particular.

“I might”, Aaron said, “depends on what you know.”

“I know you’re up to something”, Robert breathed, his fingers quickly brushing over the bulge in Aaron’s jeans, “you’ve been scheming. You’ve been doing something you shouldn’t.”

Reprimanding or disappointed, not the words to describe his tone.

Proud and turned on, yes, absolutely.

“Yeah”, Aaron replied, “and I did it in a suit.”

Robert took a sharp intake of breath.

“Are you trying to end me, Aaron? Oh God, please tell me it was the suit I saw you wearing the other week.”

“It was. I put some stupid people in their place.”

He paused, enjoying Robert’s accelerated breathing against his face, even if it made his hard-on that much more painful.

“It was a little on the dodgy side n’all.”

Robert let out a sound somewhere between a hiss and a moan.

“I know this might sound weird considering my whereabouts, but I really wish we could lock ourselves into this room”, he said, sighing a little.

“But it’s better like this. Knowing we could get caught”, Aaron replied, letting his hand slide under Robert’s shirt, feeling hot skin against his palm, the goose bumps appearing on the surface immediately.

For both of them, clearly.

“You need to stop that”, Robert hissed, “I can’t handle it.”

His hands were roaming in an increasingly careless manner too.

“Seriously Aaron, stop.”

Robert didn’t stop either, but his hand moved from Aaron’s thighs to his waist, pulling him just a bit closer again.

“I hate this”, Robert sighed, pecking at Aaron’s throat.

“Thanks”, Aaron quipped, pulling Robert’s face upwards, biting at the lower lip with his teeth, getting a delicious sigh out of it.

“Very funny. I meant I hate that I can’t touch you properly.”

“This feels proper to me”, Aaron said, running his tongue on those lips, getting a sigh mixed with a little swallowed moan this time, the fingers on his waist tightening.

“Okay, I’ll rephrase that. I hate that I can’t touch you improperly.”

Aaron seriously considered pulling down Robert’s pants and just blowing him right then and there, but the urge didn’t reach its greatest heights as the threat of being kicked out and possibly banned from seeing the gorgeous man currently scraping his teeth against his collarbone, making him hiss.

That didn’t stop him from voicing his urge, though.

Bringing his lips to Robert’s ear, letting his hand skim the inside of his thigh, he sighed “I’d get on my knees right now if I could.”

“You’re killing me”, Robert groaned, pulling away a little, adjusting his trousers.

They pulled apart a bit more, just to calm themselves down.

Aaron leaned his head on Robert’s shoulder, reaching for his hand.

“It gets harder and harder”, he said, slightly crestfallen.

Hearing Robert’s delighted gasp, he quickly added “I meant leaving this place after seeing you, idiot, not that.”

“I bet you meant both”, Robert said, kissing his cheek, pressing his nose against it.

Aaron sighed, more out of pleasure than annoyance.

“Fine, it was both. Happy now?”

Robert snuggled closer, kissing his forehead gently.

“More than.”

The warmth around them, between them was deceitfully sweet.

They both closed their eyes, lulling in the fantasy that they were sitting in the Mill, in that wonderful state of not being in a hurry to leave their cocoon.

At the end of their meeting with Rose, she winked at Aaron, bringing out a tray with a pot of coffee and some pastries.

Robert was puzzled to say the least.

Looking between his prison therapist and his husband, he asked “What is going on here? Is it bad news?”

Aaron laughed, shaking his head, pressing a kiss to his cheek.

“Happy Valentine’s Day.”

Robert seemed to grow even more puzzled at that.

“No it’s not.”

“It isn’t. It’s not even February anymore. But we should celebrate now anyway.”

Course I’ll come home with ya.

“So it’s Valentine’s, our first anniversary and our, well, an anniversary.”

Robert, you’re doing a great job. I’m proud of ya.

“I reckon we’ve earned this. And then some.”

The smile Aaron got in reply was blinding.

It’s just that I love you so much, I don’t know what to do with it sometimes.

The emotions that needed a physical outlet were far greater than the opportunity to express them in Rose’s presence, but taking Robert’s hand and holding it for a moment felt like a promise of a better opportunity to come, sooner than he could’ve hoped for.

And the sound Robert made as he tasted the coffee was absolutely obscene.

As if realizing he wasn’t alone with the beverage and the questionable soundtrack he was adding to the experience of consuming it, he opened his eyes, staring at Aaron, expression alternating between on the verge of orgasm to how the hell did this happen.

They could easily mean the same thing, mind you.

“This is – I haven’t had this in so long.”

Aaron smirked.

“Rose and I made a little deal”, he said casually, “I may have offered to do a full check on her car.”

Robert's eyes showed nothing but pride and gratitude, a smirk expressing the rest of it.

He paused, wanting to tell Robert about Luke, or at least the parts he might not know because as Cain had said, he did tend to know everything.

But Aaron had more important news first.

“Seb was eavesdropping on Cain and Debbie in the kitchen the other day. Things were being said about Ross, and Seb took it to himself to barge in and announce that Ross isn’t his dad, because his dad’s name is Robert and that his dad is the best whereas Ross isn’t.”

Looking at the validated dad with his favourite coffee and tears in his eyes, clearly overwhelmed, Aaron felt exactly what Robert said next.

“Just when I thought I couldn’t love you two more than I already do.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

" I can’t believe we actually made it.”

Aaron kept his eyes on Ally, not letting himself look around just yet.

He felt as though their surroundings would disappear if he did, the space evaporating and leaving behind just smoke from where some gleeful demon-like messenger would materialize, sharpening its horns and flashing about its cape, laughing like a villain from an old film, laughing in a way that says you didn’t actually think that things would work out for you, did you?

Luckily the space seemed to remain demon-free and all he saw was his co-director stood beside him, taking in the atmosphere as the opening of their youth center was in full swing.

They had made it.

And what was most impressive about it was that they were exactly on schedule.

Ally’s green ankle-length dress was floating about her figure as she took a swift turn towards Aaron, giving him a pointed look.

“You do realize that you’ll have to talk to people now?”

Aaron scoffed.

“I’m aware of that.”

“Well then you need to stop hiding here and go make the rounds.”

“M not hiding.”

Aaron was, of course, very much hiding - from the crowd as well as his own anxiety, doing his best to look so busy that no one would feel the need to approach him.

He didn’t mind talking to people as much as he had in the past.

He was proud and happy.

He just needed a minute to gather his wits about him.

Ally put a hand on his shoulder, leaning closer, a whiff of her perfume lingering.

“Talking to people will offer a nice distraction from the moping.”

Aaron raised an eyebrow at that.

“Who says I’m moping?”

Ally squeezed his shoulder, tilting her head.

“I know you hate that he’s not here. I hate that too.”

Aaron swallowed, just nodding.

This was one of the proudest moments of his life, not having Robert there to share it with felt all kinds of wrong.

“Did you talk to him?”

Aaron nodded, taking a sip of his coffee (too bitter because of the weak roast degree, Robert would give a lecture about it and proceed to drink it just for the theatrical facial expressions he’d get to channel).

“We talked this morning. Hopefully we’ll get the chance to again later.”

Ally smiled.

“He’s bursting with pride, isn’t he?”

Aaron tried to stop the grin on his face, quite unsuccessfully.

It took him longer than usual to get back to scowling, but he made it and gave Ally a bit of a glare just to make a point.

“Oi, what’s with the moping?”

Ally gave Aaron a triumphant smile upon hearing the words from Debbie who had appeared to their side.

The women in his life had been ganging up on him for a while now.

Not that he wasn’t happy, but feigning annoyance was the trait he and Liv shared to a point of ridiculousness.

Speaking of, his sister walked over, smile so wide it was slightly unnerving.

Must be something dodgy in the coffee if we’re both showing a weird face tonight.

“I’ve just been to your office, and I can’t believe this one” – she pointed at Ally – “let you put that Vespa in there. Not that I don’t love seeing it on display again, ‘cause I do.”

Aaron grinned.

He indeed had put that monumentally stupid fuckin’ Vespa there.

Not to mention half of the rest of the fixtures from the Mill.

He had feared it might make him feel sad of times he’d lost, but if anything, it made him feel grounded.

He looked at Debbie and Liv, wanting to say such mushy things to them that he was now convinced the coffee was indeed dodgy.

“Aaron!”

Before he knew it, he was being pulled into a tight Moira Dingle hug.

Here was a woman he’d very much missed; one he was also banking on not to gang up on him.

“Glad you came”, Aaron said.

“As if I wouldn’t”, Moira replied, letting go of the hug slightly reluctantly.

She looked stunning with her wavy shoulder-length hairdo and her black pant suit, just oozing the sort of effortless ability to make heads bow at her sheer presence, as if she’d just been sorting out her regal business at the castle and was now ready to cut charity ribbons and break subjects’ hearts with her eyes alone.

“Adam would be so proud”, she said melancholically, the words adding a vibration of vulnerability to her tone.

Aaron nodded, looking at her apologetically.

“I feel like an idiot”, he said, “what with all this happening and all I can think about is Adam and Robert not being here.”

Moira shook her head, glacier-like crystal earrings dancing as she did so.

“Aaron, I’d be both offended and worried if you weren’t thinking of them tonight.”

They shared a smile.

“So, where’s big sunshine?” Aaron asked, putting down his coffee cup and picking up a bottle of beer; the formalities of the evening were mostly done and dusted, the young people whose presence had been the point of the day had left (probably to hang out somewhere cooler) and he felt it appropriate to sneak in a cheeky sip.

The place had been chock full of people, now it was mostly occupied by staff and their own guests.

Moira smirked.

“I’m quite sure big sunshine’s still busy” – she made airquotes – “checking your office for security risks.

“Ah, that old line.”

“The very first one in his handbook, I think.”

She gestured around them.

“I love what you’ve done with the place. The renovation is astounding.”

Aaron, now completely free of his demon-related fears, let his eyes roam in the room.

Moira was right, it was astounding. The brick interior with comfortable lighting and dimmers to go with it, the gorgeous blue ceiling, and the mural on the back wall in addition to the artwork hung and placed all around, each piece made by local teens and young adults.

The kids had worked hard, and none of them had given much grief but then again, their motivation as well as work morale had been kept under the tight supervising grip of one Liv Flaherty.

Aaron couldn’t quite believe the young woman he saw standing there, talking to their social worker (yes, they found one, a glorious eight days before opening), engaged in conversation, smiling and so at peace that her brother found it all kinds of unreal.

Moira was right there with him.

“Look at little Liv, she really came to her own, didn’t she?”

“She did. And she never would’ve even began to adjust if it hadn’t been for Robert.”

Moira nodded.

“That poor lad never got the recognition he deserved. Everything he did for you and Liv, not to mention those ungrateful blood relatives of his.”

Aaron raised an eyebrow at that.

Moira scoffed. “I know what they’re like, Aaron. I will always have a soft spot for Victoria, but it’s not a blind spot, I can guarantee that.”

“Tell you the truth I’ll always have a soft spot for her too, but it’s been inactive for a good few years now.”

Moira nudged him suddenly, a tad too sharply in his side.

“You reckon we summoned them?”

Aaron turned around and saw Diane and Vic standing there in the front doorway, clearly looking pleased with themselves and just fleetingly guilty, like two highly spoilt dogs of expensive breed who had been going about unsupervised and were now just casually entering the house they assumed was built around them.

“Did you invite them?” Moira asked quietly.

“I invited Diane. Didn’t even think she might bring Vic as her plus one.”

Moira looked at him with a bit of a mischievous grin.

One that resembled a lot like one her husband sometimes broke into.

“Just go over there and be the bigger person, if it fails you can always just guilt Diane into babysitting Seb while I keep Victoria busy.”

“You are too good for my uncle, Moira.”

“I like to think we’re just good for each other”, Moira said, smiling warmly.

“I agree”, Liv said, matching her expression as she passed by.

Right, she had the personality warping coffee too, I’m officially now throwing it out.

Aaron blew out a breath, giving Moira a nod.

“Right, I’m going in.”

She smiled and turned, walking towards the offices, towards her man, presumably about to drag him out by the proverbial ear soon, like only she could.

Aaron approached the women who had taken off their coats and were now walking around, chatting and gesturing.

Vic clocked him and flung herself at him.

The hug was a bit too enthusiastic, like an apology decorated with too many props of the material kind.

Not to mention the clouds of perfume he’d been subjected to all evening. Vic wasn’t an exception, and his eyes were beginning to sting.

I better be reeking of ciggies and the guilt that comes with it by the end of the night.

“Hiya”, he said, giving Diane a quick hug too.

Vic waved her arms around, her eyes were sparkling with it as she said: “this looks amazing, Aaron. Everyone is so proud of ya.”

“Chas would’ve come, pet, very unfortunate there was that emergency at the pub”, Diane piped in, overdoing her bit as well.

Aaron hadn’t really been surprised, nor had he truly been upset about his mother’s unimaginative excuse for skipping the opening.

Yet somehow, he wished Diane would’ve offered a better faux reason upon arrival.

“Well, she has to keep the place running, doesn’t she?” he said, hoping the tone of finality in his words would bring the subject to a halt.

It did.

“I reckon no one is as proud as Rob though”, Vic said, grinning.

He nodded, giving it a bit of a smile, biting back the less civil comebacks that were urging to come out.

He made some small talk with them, excusing himself to go “make the rounds” which, in his case, meant finding a better corner to retreat to where he could just take in the moment but as their social worker was now heading his way, he relented and let another conversation distract him.

The thought of working full time the following week was slowly sinking in, as was the fact that his life truly was something he looked forward to living each morning.

His mind kept drifting towards Robert, imagining the cheesy things he’d say, things he would’ve given anything to hear right now, feeling a protective and in the best of ways, slightly possessive arm around his shoulders, that smile that made his knees give out, the presence that tended to make sense out of everything.

Aaron snuck a look at his phone.

There were no missed calls.

He wished they could text.

He missed Robert’s silly texts a lot.

The mushy ones that said miss you, husband, those that read I don’t care how soft you are, Aaron, do not let Liv and Seb do their rain dance in the garden whilst there’s no proper tarp over the sprouts, and the classic frustrated business ones that spelled I’ve been stuck in this meeting for an hour and no one has said anything even vaguely interesting and they have no understanding nor appreciation towards sarcasm either – I just commented on someone’s holiday in Marbella as “a lovely thing that us Brits love to explore new territory” and they just fucking smiled so pleased that I want to call the IQ police five minutes ago.

Aaron chuckled to himself, with a side of sadness from their six-day separation that made each week a tad too difficult to bear.

Yet the seventh day always reminded him of how little he had to bear to get to the good stuff.

And his worry over Robert’s ability to cope – not to mention his ability to let on just how much he struggled – was always strongest.

Along with the guilt of Aaron worrying about himself in the first place, when his selfless husband was just getting on with it.

Robert had never let him be the strong one, but Aaron would make sure that wouldn’t be the case once prison was no longer keeping them apart.

It would continue to do that sometimes after the time done ended, but Aaron didn’t care.

Not about his own strength.

All he cared about now was the strength of others.

These days, most of them, Aaron felt like he had more than plenty of that to go around.

And he wanted to pass it forward. Mostly to Robert.

Diane appeared, holding a very partied out Seb in her arms.

“I think it’s time I took this one to sleep, pet.”

Aaron nodded, giving Seb a big kiss on his head.

“Nana will take you home, okay? I’ll be there later.”

“Sprouts”, Seb mumbled sleepily, drifting already.

The boy had obviously been listening in on some discussion concerning plants and unconsciously saving bits of it into his mind, but moreover he might have just been reading Aaron’s Robert and garden – related thoughts.

He wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest.

Diane left and took Vic with her.

Aaron waved, mainly to Seb.

 

 

It was around eight o’clock when Aaron went outside.

Sneaking a cigarette - once all of those he was trying to impress with his mostly true but in all honesty, partly overdone wholesomeness, had left - was something he could allow himself now.

He’d cut down to three cigarettes per day.

It wouldn’t take long to phase out oft it completely, but for now he could just give himself a break.

And that is exactly what he did, standing outside with the nippy spring evening around him, the time of year he had always loved; the in-between of hibernation and the scent of a lush season, promising its verdancy through little buds and sprouts, ready to bring the clear mornings and the days of less shadow along with it.

The door opened; Ally stood there with a glass of something that was probably expensive to the point of ridiculousness.

Oddly enough, it felt like the right time for such.

Not that Ally appreciated him gulping it down quickly after she’d clinked it with her own glass.

“You’re something else, you know that?”, he said, looking at Ally, simply taking in her royal awesomeness as Liv put it, feeling overwhelmed again.

She gave him a big smile.

“And you’re Aaron, which is the best thing I could’ve hoped for in this place.”

The shared look between them before Ally went back inside was made of the mushiest of ingredients.

Can’t always blame the coffee, can I?

Aaron had taken a little walk and was just about to head back to the guests when he saw them.

Two lads coming into view, in their late teens or early twenties, laughing and lost, clearly in each other. They’d been at the opening too.

They stopped a few feet from Aaron, not noticing him any more than anything else around them.

“Did you tell them yet?” one of them – a lanky brunette with gangly limbs and an intense gaze – asked from his companion, a pink-haired bloke with an expensive looking jacket and probably just as pricy pair of glasses, a perpetual little smile absolutely radiating bright young things. A happy posh boy, if one was going about with stereotypes.

Happy posh boy was currently shaking his head.

“Not yet, Lewis, but I will tell them soon.”

Lewis seems a bit odd for a young bloke, it’s not a popular name anymore. Wait, how do I even know that? I really need to stop listening to Liv’s quiz facts she memorized out of boredom from her rehab mates.

The lanky boy- Lewis apparently – took his companion’s hand.

“It will be okay, Knox. Your mum loves ya. She’ll understand, and she’ll be happy that we’re happy.”

Knox for posh boy, now that’s ironic, sounds more like someone who keeps his knuckles busier than he does his mind. Oh thank goodness, less Liv and more me in that sentiment.

Happy posh boy nodded.

“I’ve got you, I know it’ll be okay.”

Lanky boy leaned in for a kiss, making them turn into an embrace of all things posh and lanky in unison, with a yellow spring moon lingering around them gently.

Aaron stood there, smiling, soon turning his head away to not ruin their moment.

He had just taken the lager bottle in his hand when he heard it, a melody carrying through from inside.

Aaron froze. Yet he was melting a little. Much like the spring surrounding him, along with the melody. 

Something he hadn’t heard in such a long time – on occasion, yes, when he was alone and sunken into reminisce, but rarely amongst people, the sound coming through the air, arriving in spontaneity. He hadn’t heard it like this for a decade.

Aaron’s eyes filled up at the song and the sight of the two young boys stood there in a tight hug that probably held a meaning beyond everything.

He didn’t get the usual flood of actual memories this time, but rather felt it like muscle memory kicking into gear, just saw a face in his mind, along with things he couldn’t quite grasp any longer, but the bridge built on his emotions walked him to them - always meeting them slightly differently yet just like before, but always understanding a bit better, often meeting them with less hurt and more gratitude.

He leaned his head against the feel of those thoughts, fell into the song, knowing every note and nuance so vividly.

Just say yes

Just say there’s nothing holding you back

It’s not a test…

Aaron sang it silently in his mind with the voice of his memories, sang it to himself, sang it to all the lanky and posh boys made of adoration and inner battles, and especially those who loved the sour taste of flying saucer candy. Someone who would appreciate tonight, and had helped in many ways make it happen.

He raised his bottle towards the woods in front of him, his eighteen-year-old self lifting it right with him.

“Thank you”, he said, with a voice quivering of old and new, “for everything.”

He took a sip, finding a ghost of sadness settling next to peace, settling into one another.

 

 

 

The clean-up had been done when Aaron went back inside. The majority of his family was standing there, waiting.

Aaron smirked, reveling in the joy that he was about to get in a second.

“Time for the photos”, he said, ignoring the groans that came with the announcement.

They posed together, all of the Dingles present, side by side.

All of them wearing suits.

Even Cain, as Moira had worked her magic on him.

Aaron had laughed openly, Cain walking away from him with a mutter of “I don’t wanna talk about it, Aaron, so don’t start.”

But the suits were a must.

It was the Dingle dress code Aaron had insisted on.

The photos taken during that evening had turned out perfect in general, but this one was the best of them all, a picture of a group of suit-wearing family with Aaron standing in the middle, holding up a sign that said The Robert Sugden appreciation suitciety. 

The person being honoured would come to love the pun just as much as the gesture itself.

 

As Aaron arrived home, took a quick shower and brushed his teeth, he was saddened by the fact that Robert hadn’t been able to call after all, but he had the person bonding them together and bringing his husband closer right there, little limbs climbing next to him as he slipped into bed.

He had been worried about missing the moments at the opening, but he hadn’t – and truthfully, this was the moment that always mattered the most on any given day.

The soft little sniffle against his ear, the sleepy wiggle before finding the right position, and Seb was off the dreamland.

Aaron laid there, under the covers with Robert in his heart, Seb sleeping against it, the three of them cradled together.

 

 

 

“What have you done?”

It wasn’t an accusation, but more of a flabbergasted and impatient burst that came through the line as soon as Aaron had picked up the phone.

It was 7.36 in the morning, as it often was during their morning talks.

“And a good morning to you too. I’m half asleep still so I’ll need context, Robert.”

There was a pause after which Robert said: “The context being I was given a message about a call I apparently need to return 36 minutes ago (you and your scary punctuality) and it clearly doesn’t concern the catastrophic outcome of someone else handling the paperwork during my absence - yes, there was an absence as I was given a non-welcome time off from my duties, I believe the word holiday may have been thrown around.

“Seriously? I swear, that person-“

Robert cut him off.

“We’ll discuss the incompetence of my replacement and the person of ” - Aaron could hear the air quotes –“authority , one with zero concrete authority to his name in a minute. Yes, along with the possible ways they could and should be humiliated, ways that leave them hanging by the end of the year with nothing but their monumental stupidity for lunch and their own atrocious interpretations of what constitutes as doing the accounts as work credit.”

Aaron skipped the classic retort of a lot of words for an interlude and simply replied:

“What’s up?”

Robert sighed.

“The call was from some solicitor named Gloria who, upon googling, has an intimidating history of success, a lot of impressive things under her belt, and I can only imagine how impressive her hourly rate is. Aaron, did you actually hire someone who will bankrupt you? Because I’m not having it.”

Aaron took a moment before saying anything as he realized with a vast sense of surprise that he had completely, quite simply forgotten to tell Robert about London – which seemed like the most ridiculous outcome of it all, as it should’ve been the first thing on his mind, but he gave himself a tiny break after being so caught up in the opening of his place of work, after the initial lure of procrastination over telling Robert in the first place had evaporated.

“I didn’t mean to blindside you, Robert. I just – well. I should’ve told you sooner about this-“

Robert was cutting him off again, his tone tumbling through with concern which was just barely overpowered by curiosity.

“It’s insane, Aaron. Why would you get me a new solicitor?”

Aaron felt offended, and he found it more than rightful.

“Why wouldn’t I?”, he scoffed, “you need someone like Gloria and her intimidating power and impressive hourly rates. Especially now that there’s going to be an investigation and a trial.”

Robert went silent for a minute.

Aaron heard a little shudder on the line. Robert sounded like he’d just received the all - clear from a doctor after being severely ill for years.

In a way, he had.

“This definitely has something to do with your faux Glasgow expedition, doesn’t it?”

“We found Luke”, Aaron blurted out - because there was no longer need, nor was there time for finesse, “Cain and I tracked him to France, and once the cops got tipped off, he was arrested for a barney in London. After that, some bloke he’d been seeing came forward and told the coppers Luke had drunkenly admitted what he did to that scum of a brother of his. So, there’s a trial for the barney at the club and they’re reopening the other case too. Which means- “

“Aaron.”

Robert sounded upset. At him.

“Aaron, why on earth would you put yourself and everything you have at risk?”

“You’re the everything I have, Robert, and I didn’t put anything at risk, I stayed out of the actual tracking, and no incriminating material went through my hands, Cain made sure of it.”

 “Of course he did.”

The sarcasm in Robert’s tone wasn’t as convincing as it usually might have been.

“Robert, did you not hear what I said about Luke? And more than that, are you crossed with me?”

“No. I’m just…” Robert’s voice faltered.

“Surprised?” Aaron offered.

Robert’s voice returned, pulsing with warmth.

“Am I surprised that you two made it happen? Course not. I wouldn’t expect anything less from Cain Dingle, or you.”

Aaron bit his lip.

“Stop blushing and talk to me. What? And how?”

“Everything is in process as far as I know. But if you’d return Gloria’s call, she’d be able to keep you updated.”

Robert scoffed.

“As if a solicitor would know more than a dodgy Dingle.”

“Are you calling me dodgy?”

“I didn’t say it was a bad thing, did I? But for the record, that is exactly what you are sometimes.”

Robert’s voice dipped lower.

“Very, very bad.”

Aaron chuckled.

“You’ve always had a soft spot for me scheming, haven’t ya?”

“Aaron, that spot is anything but soft.”

Too overwhelmed by the news to elaborate on his own double entendre, Robert continued:

“We do have to be prepared, Aaron.”

“What for?”

“That the outcome won’t be what we’re hoping for.”

Something they hadn’t talked about had now been voiced.

The possibility that Robert’s sentence could still remain substantial, or even just as hefty as it was.

Even two weeks apart seemed unbearable, or the six days they didn’t get to see each other for an hour.

Four hours a month seemed more than completely unfair.

Doing it for twelve years seemed impossible.

They both knew it, but saying it would make it true, and that wasn’t something they were ready for.

Or ever would be.

“Aaron, if you decide-“

Aaron cut him off immediately.

“Yeah, I have already decided. And you’re not changing my mind whatever the outcome will be. And if you even try to block me again, I swear I-“

“I wouldn’t do that”, Robert said quickly, “not now.”

“Well, then it is settled. Whatever happens, happens. And we’ll just deal with things as they happen.”

Aaron paused, the thought of their life together grounding him, however that life might turn out.

“And I know you’re mad at me at least a little, because you hate being unprepared for meetings.”

Robert was chuckling, but it sounded a lot like a bit of a sob too.

“I do hate that in general.”

He paused, breathing out.

“But I wasn’t prepared for meeting you, was I? And that turned out to be the best and most important meeting of my life.”

“That’s a bit soppy for before eight a.m.”

“Shut up, you love it. When can I see you? Next week?”

“No, Robert, this week. I’ll be visiting every week as usual.”

“You have a job.”

“The job understands.”

“I would too.”

“The job doesn’t want you to, and neither do I.”

Robert’s laughter had a carefree tint to it, one Aaron hadn’t heard in a while.

“Okay, boss. As many questions as I still have, I do have to go humiliate incompetent people now, I’ll see you soon.”

He paused, the silence with its familiar embrace of anticipation flowing through.

Robert’s voice quivered with it as he spoke.

God, I love you”, he said, stealing Aaron’s line.

 

 

“Oi, you’re late”.

Bored guard number one was very much in the wrong, but Aaron couldn’t have cared less about pointing it out, or the sour bloke’s general existence for that matter. He was too busy buzzing with the news he had received and seeing Robert again.

Seeing his gorgeous husband and the look in his face when he could deliver his news.

As he made his way through to Rose’s office, he didn’t get a chance to sort his rattled mind even a little bit as a hand was pulling at his arm.

Robert had him cornered on the corridor in a flash, coming at him with his heat- radiating body and the attack of his lips.

He didn’t give their surroundings even a fleeting thought as hands pushed him up against the wall, chest to chest, mouth working Aaron’s lips apart, tongue swiping his hungrily, making his pulse race.

The hands were grabbing his face, body pushing against him, perhaps grinding just a little, and Aaron nearly went for his belt to get his fingers closer to the hardness he felt there, brushing his through their clothing.

Robert could’ve had him right there, setting be damned.

Aaron pulled away from the kiss, Robert whimpering at it.

“As much as I want this, I still don’t want to get kicked out”, Aaron breathed, moan mixing into it.

Robert was just staring at him, the lust flaming in his eyes, hands around his waist now, mouth chasing after his.

“My beautiful, brilliant, scheming husband”, he breathed out, grasp tight, lips travelling on his jaw with an appreciative hum.

Aaron hadn’t heard that word from Robert for two and a half years and it made his eyes water, but he fought it and let his husband kiss him again, slower and with more composure this time, with more distance to their bodies which Aaron deemed as a big loss, but he would keep waiting gladly even though the want between them was running its current mercilessly, crackling, caressing.

Pulling apart - reluctantly being the proper understatement, they took a beat to calm down.

Robert took his hand, smiling weakly.

“God, you’re amazing”, he said, squeezing Aaron’s hand with his, the other hand stroking his face, fingers light.

“It’s you who is the amazing one here”, Aaron said, returning the squeeze he felt at his hand.

Robert shook his head, concepts lost and motions trembling, his eyes roaming on the walls, a trait he showed whenever he was having difficulty to reign in his emotions.

“I just spoke to Gloria”, he said, voice gone so rough it was mostly inaudible, “and she said”-

Robert was crying silently as Aaron pulled at his hand, guiding him through the door, knowing Robert wasn’t about to crumble in front of other people, least of all Tim who had apparently been a witness to their halfway- to-a-dry hump and judging by the look on his face was, once again, thoroughly unimpressed.

As he closed the door behind him, muttering something very much sounding like at it like animals in the morning for God’s sake with an extremely judgy shake of his head, they were alone for their ten minutes again.

Aaron waited patiently, stroking at Robert’s hand as they sat on the green sofa, one of the many features that made Rose’s office so home-like.

Most of her things were broken in, a bit of a mix and match, looking cozy and welcoming.

It reminded Aaron of Wishing Well, and he was certain that Robert had thought of the same thing.

Right now though, he knew Robert wasn’t thinking about that in the slightest.

Aaron knew what Gloria had said.

That Luke’s comeuppance in court was coming up and Robert’s involvement in the incident that had stolen their life, had been revisited.

That his sentence would be reevaluated.

That Luke had confessed.

To everything.

Pleading guilty.

And a prolonged, tedious, brutal trial that would’ve dug up so much pain wasn’t needed any longer.

Robert was leaning his forehead against Aaron’s, the sobs quieted down now.

“I’m sorry”, he said quietly, his hands on Aaron’s shoulders, holding on like he would slump onto the floor if he didn’t.

Aaron pulled away a little, placing a hand on Robert’s face, nudging it upwards to lock their eyes.

“Whatever it is you’re about to apologize for I know it won’t be necessary”, he said, thumb gently stroking at his husband’s cheek.

Robert shook his head.

“You have no idea”, he choked out, “no idea.”

“I think I do”, Aaron protested, smiling.

Robert’s eyes were roaming again, but Aaron let him, knowing he needed that pick a spot and stare – moment, just to remain present.

“I can’t believe it’s happening”, Robert said, seemingly to the spathiphyllum on top of Rose’s bookshelf.

“I know”, Aaron agreed, keeping his hand steady on Robert’s cheek.

Shuddering a little, gaze moving, Robert continued, talking to the table now “I hate that I’m so angry now.”

Aaron kept touching his face as he replied “Robert, it would be weird if you weren’t. Thinking it took this long for that scum to own up whilst you’ve had to go through this. And if anyone should apologize here it’s me. If I had just”-

“Don’t”, Robert said to the painting of lilies on the wall to their left, “please stop blaming yourself. You did all of this for me. You did everything for me and Seb, you came through for everyone. Maybe you needed to drown a little to find your way. And saying you found it would be an atrocious understatement.”

Robert’s tour of finding places to stare at had come to an end now as he was looking at Aaron again.

“Gloria is pretty amazing too”, Aaron said, dodging the praise a little, even if his face showed nothing but appreciation for it.

But truly, being stood in Gloria’s office the previous day Aaron had felt an intense need to just fall on his knees in front of her and bow at her feet upon hearing just how effectively she had moved everything along.

Robert was looking at him now in a disarming and demanding way that suggested he too would’ve gladly fell on his knees right now, but that kneeling would’ve had an entirely different outcome than that involving Aaron and Gloria.

“You filthy little schemer”, Robert said, tone entering dangerous territory again, “not only did you set all of this in motion but you had your hand in me waking up today having a lot more privileges here – and moreover, in the interesting events that led up to the people responsible for my unwanted holiday suddenly caught up with the culprit of making a mess of the paperwork, and me getting an apology out of it. Not a public apology as one might hope, but an apology all the same.”

Robert paused, his fingers finding Aaron’s neck and running their touch there, making Aaron close his eyes against it for a moment, drinking it in.

Feeling Robert’s breath closer now, he heard his husband say “you called someone, didn’t you, Aaron? You made sure that particular someone would tell another particular someone, and that someone would make it happen. That I would get that apology.”

Aaron opened his eyes, smirking.

“I can’t touch you now, but I’ll bet by that look on your face alone that you’re very much up for it. And you did all the graft anyway, so feel proud and be as smug as you want to. See, I know feeling superior makes you hard, I know it does.”

Robert leaned in, kissing at his neck and chuckled, that aroused, cocky and low laugh of his that was sweeping at Aaron’s skin with the sound, making him shiver and writhe, whimper impatiently, the sound that Robert made whenever he was slowly teasing Aaron towards the pulsating horizon, the sweetly painful release that always made him thrash around violently.

You make me hard”, Robert hummed, his mouth against Aaron’s throat, “always.”

Aaron let himself feel it for a moment completely, to sink and be shaken, and he easily could’ve replied to Robert’s words with a breathless likewise and then some, but he was just too busy being melted by the touch of lips on his skin and everything he wanted to say came through as breathless sighs of contentment, with only a tiny, moan-like Robert forming into a word.

Then again, it was the only word that mattered.

 

 

Aaron hated ties just as much as Robert did, but he was wearing one anyway.

Because, no matter how unfairly, Robert wouldn’t wear one but liked seeing him do so and it was an enough justified reason for Aaron to comply.

He was sat on the bench at the gallery, looking around the courtroom, incredulous, exhausted.

He’d been running on adrenaline since December.

It was mid-March now, and knowing they had officially made it this far was unreal of all sorts.

As Robert appeared and walked towards his seat next to Gloria, he turned around, finding Aaron immediately.

They locked eyes, emotions swimming there exchanged through looks of astonishment.

Aaron smiled, mouthing you know as he looked at his favourite person.

Robert returned his smile and his words with a silent I know forming on his lips.

He turned towards the judge, his shoulders so much less stiff as the last time he had stood there, Aaron’s heart with just a fraction of the weight it had held during that previous time, the dread still scratching at his soul but mostly silenced by the relief he had been floating on for a few days now.

He kept his eyes on Robert, who stole one more quick glance at him.

He didn’t look like a prisoner.

He didn’t look defeated.

Nor did he look like a man who had lost everything.

He looked like Robert Sugden.

And Aaron Dingle loved him more than anything.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Aaron sat there, his hands gripping at his knees.

He knew he should’ve got up, should’ve moved by now, and it was only when a guard asked him to leave that he forced his limbs to cooperate, put himself in motion.

He walked away from the courtroom, walked out of the building, ignoring people calling after him.

He didn’t stop for a good while, just kept on walking, feeling the tears behind his eyes paddling desperately, screaming to surface, pleading for a release along with the emotions that he knew he could let out now.

He wasn’t ready for it.

Any of it.

He stopped when he realized he had reached Great Moor Park, looked around, not really seeing the park but still seeing the glass wall and white pillar exterior of Manchester Crown Court in his mind, the images deceiving his eyes.

He had to physically pat himself down a little, checking to see he was still more or less intact.

He had a cigarette, consuming it in approximately three manic drags, making himself nauseous in the process.

He gulped down the bottle of water he had in his bag, the plastic bag he’d been gripping so tightly that the yellow-blue Aldi logo had indentations on it, the material about to rip at any moment.

When exactly did I go to the shop anyway? Where did the bag come from?

The blood rushing in his ears had drowned out every possible noise emerging from his surroundings, but when his phone rang, he felt the merciless spring wind flow through his lungs, giving them a cold and clearing sweep, his mind crawling out of the dovecote it had been crouched in, hiding, denying.

He pulled out his phone, almost dropping it from his trembling hand, fingers freezing.

“Hello?”

It was difficult to manage even a five-letter word in an audible form.

“Aaron.”

“Hiya.”

It was a sob; one he wasn’t even trying to mask now.

“I can’t….”

Robert was crying too and certainly not attempting to reign it in.

God, Robert.”

Aaron”.

For a moment, it was just sobbing and sighing.

Their hearts on the line, just pouring out, into one another.

Aaron sat down on a bench, fearing his knees might give out.

The blur of a morning ran amok through his mind, only split pieces of shattered imagery and sounds of cacophony emerging, muffled words, bright lights and people dressed in dark colours, absolutely none of it sinking in yet.

He knew similar snapshots were floating about Robert’s mind too.

The words ran on repeat in his ears.

…GBH with a sentence of five years, reduced to two years and six months.

Five years, reduced to two years and six months.

Two years and six months.

Robert would be released in five weeks.

From twelve long years circling above their heads with their black tendrils and hollow presence to five little weeks, with five opportunities for them to see each other and attempt to do the impossible; prepare for the life they had now, ten minutes at a time morphing into a lifetime.

“I’m not gonna do anything stupid”, Robert said suddenly, having his voice back now.

Aaron envied him; he was rather sure he’d not be able to become vocal for a while yet.

And because Robert knew him so well, he knew that was the case and continued.

“You’re officially allowed to stop worrying so much, Aaron. I’m not going to do anything stupid now, I’m coming home soon.”

Another wave of sobs hit Aaron.

Hearing Robert say I’m coming home was the most beautiful thing he had heard in, well, two and a half years to be exact.

“And speaking of, I assume we’ll be living in the Highlands now, as your job is very much there and telecommuting seems like an idea destined to fail, unless you’re able to hologram your way back and forth. Mind you, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if you could, considering all the magic you’ve been up to recently.”

Robert paused, a shudder of a breath escaping.

“You know, you’ve always been magic, Aaron. A bit too unreal for me to understand fully. And a bit too wonderful to believe you’re actually mine.”

“Right back at ya”, Aaron croaked, feeling the strength in the words despite the weakness in his limbs.

“I don’t want anyone else to visit”, Robert said after a beat, voice firm,” it seems completely pointless now.”

“I get that. And it means I get you all to myself for the next five visits so I’m not apologizing for being selfishly happy and not the least bit sorry.”

“The last five visits, you mean.”

The weight of it was a little bit closer to them suddenly, pushing them towards the future they indeed had now.

“When is the next visit?” Aaron asked.

“Next week.”

“I can’t believe we have to wait that long. Which, I know, is a really stupid thing to say, considering.”

“I know. I hate that too.”

“Gloria really came through, didn’t she?”

“Only because you came through, Aaron.”

Robert’s tone was nothing if not full of adoration, but Aaron wasn’t ready to agree.
“I wish I would’ve-“

“No, we’re not doing that”, Robert cut in, “not ever again. I have my life and my husband back and I really don’t care about anything else now.”

“Seb will be so happy to see ya. And before you start fretting about him thinking you’re a stranger now, remember that didn’t happen with me and it won’t happen with you either. If you have a wobble, just remember what he said about Ross and go back to being smug.”

“You say the nicest things”, Robert replied, a watery chuckle following his words.

He sounded relieved more than anything.

Aaron knew very well that he was afraid of not being able to connect with Seb, he’d been through it recently himself.

Considering how inseparable they had become, it just proved further how unnecessary Robert’s fear was, but Aaron knew it wasn’t that simple.

Robert seemed to hesitate slightly before he said:

“Does Seb..does he call you..”

“He calls me Aaron.”

“I just thought he might, you know.”

“I thought that was something we’d talk about first. His mum didn’t object to it the last three times I saw her, so that’s pretty much confirmation on her part but I didn’t want to start messing with Seb’s head before his actual dad is back.”

“You’re his actual dad just as much, Aaron, right now his only actual dad and I can’t believe we have to establish that again.”

Hearing Robert become slightly peeved made Aaron smile. He’d missed that frustrated determination.

“I know that, but I reckon it might be something Seb himself will want to talk about and having both of us there will be better for him.”

“You really thought of everything, didn’t you?”, Robert asked, making Aaron blush with the pride in his voice.

“Considering you are my everything, yes, I have thought of everything, and very little else.”

“You do know you’ll never be able to live down this soppiness, Aaron Dingle.”

“Well maybe I don’t want to, Robert Sugden.”

Robert sighed in contentment.

“Love you so much”, he breathed.

“Love you more, husband.”

“I really don’t think that’s possible, husband.”

After they had bickered over who loves whom more and not reaching an agreement on the matter, they - very reluctantly - ended the call, both groaning at the thought of not seeing one another for five more days, Aaron walked back to his hotel and felt all kinds of relief at the sight of Cain and Zak sitting in the lobby with cups of tea in front of them, chatting quietly, looking content, mirroring Aaron’s thoughts.

He went up to his room, packed his things quickly and returned to the lobby, leaving his key at the front desk.

Zak got up as he clocked Aaron and pulled him into a hug.

“Well done, son. About time that scum got his.”

He had got his. Fourteen years of it. 

The same sentence as Robert, which was irony of the sweetest kind.

Cain was nodding beside him, patting Aaron on the back.

Aaron knew Cain had never been one to hug upon good news, he tended to opt for it when things were desolate and seemingly impossible to bear.

Aaron had always thought of it as a good thing.

A Cain Dingle hug in its rarity was something that was needed just like that.

“We’re off to the village now”, Zak said, “ya coming with us?”

Aaron nodded.

“I’ll pick up Seb from Diane when they get back tomorrow, but I might as well go now. Ally and Liv are at the center all week and they made it very clear I’m not needed.”

Cain and Zak grinned at that.

“That’s women for ya, we can moan about it all we like but usually they know better”, Zak said.

“Could say the same about Robert, so it’s not just women”, Aaron smiled.

“Did you talk to Sugden yet?” Cain asked as they brought their things to the car and hopped in.

“I did, just now. He’s good, obviously in shock, just like all of us.”

“About time something made him speechless”, Cain smirked, “that bloke can talk.”

Aaron laughed.

“Didn’t say he was speechless, did I?”

 

 

Aaron left his things at Butler’s, and after they were halfway to the village, he decided to walk the rest of the way, clear his mind, however impossible it seemed.

He walked slowly, letting his eyes wander, his feet getting the much-needed exercise they’d been screaming for after being sat in cars, hallways, courtrooms, benches, offices.

Aaron thought about the amount of the just sitting still Robert had been forced to do.

The two and a half years of he’d had to just grit his teeth through.

Aaron was scared.

The unresolved anger Robert felt now, the bitterness caused by injustice, the two-year abandonments he’d been subjected to.

Aaron feared it would backfire.

No, he knew it would.

He wanted nothing more than to help Robert through it.

But he was afraid it wouldn’t be enough.

That he wouldn’t be enough, and Robert would come to the same conclusion.

I’m really acing this, aren’t I? Getting the best news ever and now it’s back to catastrophizing in just a few hours.

Aaron shook himself out of the stupor and picked up his pace.

He desperately wanted to go for a run, and he would do just that right after he’d get back to Cain’s later.

He passed an abandoned barn.

Did we do it in that one too?

Aaron felt a rush of heat crashing into his veins.

Thinking of the places he’d had secret rendezvous a-plenty with Robert made him realize that he’d get to wake up next to him very soon.

To fall asleep in his arms.

To see his favourite face.

To undress him.

To love him.

And no one would limit their possibilities.

Aaron walked faster, as if he could walk away from the tears in his eyes, the overwhelming happiness that had become foreign to him, now reeling him in and looking so bright and vivid it almost made him double over.

Being happy had always been intimidating to him, and he knew Robert wasn’t any different in that regard.

Well, that needs to change.

Making his way across the fields, Aaron decided that the first thing he and Robert would learn together now would be to believe that they deserved this feeling, without the tint of shadow and doubt it had always been laced with.

I think we deserve it. Happy ending.

He’d said that to Robert, only a few moments before Robert had turned himself in.

He hadn’t really believed it then. Neither of them had.

But he believed it now.

Having Robert back.

Having Robert back.

The thought was too wonderful to take in, but Aaron let himself sink into the ground a little with it gladly, his heart tilting but steady on his feet, the fields and the sun watching him as he went, dust dancing with his feet.

For a minute, he felt like a teenager, looking at the world hungrily and believing it was all happening just for him.

But this truly was, wasn't it?

 

 

For the first time in six weeks, he was stood outside the pub.

That seemed to be the time gap between his visits nowadays.

He wasn’t fretting it that much because nothing could ruin his buzz now.

But if he was being quite honest with himself, he did want to go inside and announce his news with the utmost arrogance.

He wouldn’t though, he didn’t care about their opinions enough to construct a petty revenge.

No matter how tempting a part of him found the idea, he was done with such.

Stepping inside, he had barely made his way to the bar when someone more or less attacked him, covering his nostrils with Pinot Grigio and an Eau de perfume of superbly oversweet vanilla.

“Aaron luv, so good to see you! Shame you couldn’t bring blondie with you, we’ve not had much eye candy around here since he left.”

Aaron rolled his eyes but returned the hug all the same.

“I really wish you’d stop calling my husband eye candy, Gran”, he said, knowing it was a losing battle.

Faith shook her head, tutting.

“Oh come on luv, it’s not news that his moves are greatly appreciated here. Sex on legs, that boy.”

“Gran.”

Faith feigned innocence, monumentally failing at that but it had never stopped her, had it?

“Wouldn’t kick him out of bed is all I’m saying, Aaron.”

“That’s way more than you should be saying, Gran.”

Faith waved a carefree hand at his frustration, grinning, the cat-like make up lining her eyes accentuating the mischief.

“Right, we need to get you a pint. Those two started without you”, she said, pointing at Zak and Cain who were sat by the fireplace.

“Seems like you did too, Gran”, Aaron smirked.

Faith huffed, adjusting her colourful scarf.

“I am merely medicating my little back spasm, which seems to be gone now.”

Aaron watched his Gran walk towards the table where her son and her ex-husband were sat.
So much for that run later on, then.

Aaron followed her to the table.

A pint appeared in front of him, along with something that looked intimidatingly like vodka.

He almost asked “are we celebrating something” which wasn’t a shocking reaction.

He had grown so used to hiding his life from the villagers in public that it was more than understandable, the need to pretend running so deep.

Now though, that wasn’t the case.

Cain lifted his shotglass.

“To Sugden”, he said, “and this one here”, his eyes landing on Aaron.

“Yes, to blondie! May he always look like se-“

“Enough Gran, just drink already.”

They clinked their glasses, grimacing and laughing.

Aaron was just about to give a rundown on the events from the morning to Faith when saw the red shirt in his periphery.

He didn’t flinch as much as he thought he might, although flinch he did.

“Well, what’s all this then?”

His mother was standing in front of their table, most likely pretending she hadn’t heard the toasts, probably because she wanted someone to tell her the whole story - which would mean her getting as many scoffs and digs injected into the listening task as she liked, hence challenging the concept of listening in general.

“Haven’t you heard?”, Faith asked, “Aaron here received the best news this morning.”

Chas looked between her mother and her son, the potential comebacks running in her gaze like bullet trains - undoubtedly about to stop at the very same stations as before.

Her tone was flat and set into a carefully tuned boredom as she said:

“No, I haven’t heard. What’s going on?”

Aaron looked her straight in the eyes, smiling sincerely.

“Robert is being released in five weeks.”

Chas fell silent. Aaron realised she really hadn’t heard yet, which meant she must’ve been awol for the past few hours because gossip tended to travel anywhere in less than fifteen seconds in this village.

Chas wiped down her apron with her hands, giving out a forced smile.

“That’s great for Seb”, she said, no longer looking at her son.

Not asking anything in the likes of how or why, because of course she didn’t.

“Great for Seb and great for Aaron”, Faith said, her eyes piercing at her daughter, digging into her shield.

Chas smiled her most passive aggressive smile.

“Well, we all make our choices”, she said, keeping the smile going, ruffling her hair, head held a little too high.

“Yes, we do, and you’ve made some great ones”, Faith said, matching her cold smile.

Aaron was about to cut in, but his mum beat him to it, scoffing.

“You’re one to talk about great choices, especially as a parent.”

Making this about her in half a minute, most be some sort of record.

“Aaron hasn’t been this happy in years, that’s all I know”, Faith replied, brushing a loose strand of hair from her face, brushing off her daughter’s attempt to rile her up along with the gesture.

Aaron flashed her a grateful smile.

Faith winked at him, her kindness and life-sized persistence running the show.

He could see the fire flaring out of his mum’s nostrils. She didn’t get the chance to voice her draconian opinions though because Faith continued:

“Why don’t you join us, Chas, have a drink to celebrate Robert’s freedom.”

Chas locked eyes with her, although judging by the look she gave, it seemed more like locking horns.

“I have customers”, she said smugly, as if she was on a secret mission for Her Majesty and national security was resting on her over-sized shoulder pads alone.

“Oh luv, that excuse went out of style when that blouse of yours did, which was a long time ago. You have staff, I’m sure someone can take care of the bar for a moment.”

Chas was hesitating, shifting on her feet. Not having an immediate comeback was something she had always hated.

Aaron wasn’t about to make it easier on her because he was having a much too good of a time witnessing it, how Faith was not backing down any time soon. Aaron was amused by the sight, an equally stubborn woman on each end of the standoff, but in his Gran’s case, the purpose came from a place unselfish.

“Come one luv, sit down, I’ll get someone to cover.”

Chas smiled unpleasantly.

“I can sort my own staff, thanks. And right now, I am the staff as the pub doesn’t run itself, although that must be what you think when all you do here is drink. But it’s not a hobby for the rest of us.”

Faith didn’t even blink at that.

“Of course not. But speaking of, a hobby is exactly what you need, Chastity. I can help you find one if you’re fresh out of ideas. Perhaps a book club, or a cheeky little wine tasting. Maybe crocheting might do the trick. But it would be so good for you to get out more and meet new people. It does wonders for your perspective. Ordering your husband about isn’t really a hobby, luv.”

Aaron stayed silent, but he was high fiving his Gran in his mind.

“Paddy is very happy”, Chas said, a bit weaker now.

Overdoing her enunciation, Faith replied: ”Course he is, you’ve made sure of it.”

Aaron wasn’t sure, but he thought he might have heard Cain coughing into his pint just a bit.

“And just as the two of you are happy, Aaron and Robert are very happy too. That is why we are celebrating. God knows those two deserve sunshine in their lives after what they’ve been through.”

Cain and Zak looked exactly like Aaron felt, mesmerized by the mother-daughter Wimbledon of digs happening before them.

Faith was looking at her daughter, a silent dare in the air.

Chas had the perfect opportunity for a we’ve all been through a lot, but she didn’t take it, much to Aaron’s surprise.

"I think I'll sit this one out and do my job", she said stubbornly.

"Your son is happy, this is your job."

Chas opened her mouth to speak, then closing it. 

Faith patted the empty chair next to her.

“Sit down, luv. I’ll comb your hair and tell you stories.”

Chas knew very well that the longer she refused to join them the more she looked like the bad guy, but in the path of her thoughts she managed to turn it around.

“I think there wouldn’t be much to celebrate if I lost my livelihood, would there?”

Faith was clearly rolling her eyes in her mind as she replied:

“Half an hour won’t go amiss.”

“Yeah, come on mum, I’d really love it if you’d sit down”, Aaron heard himself say.

He didn’t pay attention to the part inside which had actually meant it.

Chas’s smile had gone from spiteful to simply rehearsed, her arms crossed and heels shiny, a landlady made of questionable choices and untamed hair.

“Come on sis, I’ll buy you a pint”, Cain piped in, getting a murderous scowl from said sister in return.

“Would be nice for all of us to catch up”, Zak agreed, not getting a nice glance either.

Aaron wasn’t one for group hugs, but his mind very much went there in the moment, gathering these people in his arms, minus one.

“Another time”, Chas said finally, picking up the empties.

“Oh well, we can all celebrate properly when Robert is here”, Faith said, and this time Aaron knew the snigger he heard from Cain and Zak’s direction wasn’t a figment of his imagination.

Chas simply nodded and went about her way, her step stiff.

She left the glasses at the bar and disappeared into the back.

Perhaps she heard the burst of laughter at the table, perhaps she did not.

Perhaps that tiny part of Aaron that liked petty revenge was the one lifting his shotglass for a minute there.

 

 

 

After Faith had attempted to dance on the table, pouting when her son didn’t let her, and Zak had started spontaneously yodelling for the third time, Cain and Aaron decided it was time to move. They walked Faith to her house, tuck her in and made sure she was asleep – or, snoring on her sofa in heels with a pillow full of mascara, but anyway – they were currently stood on the street, contemplating how to get to Butler’s because none of them where fit to drive when Paddy appeared to their side.

“Where are you off to?”, he asked, adjusting his vet bag on his shoulder with one hand and his glasses with the other.

“I reckon we should ask you that, a late-night cat rendezvous?” Aaron replied, gesturing towards the bag.

“I just did a favour to someone whose dog was sick”, Paddy said defensively.

You really should tell my mother you want that sense of humour of yours back. She’s been holding it hostage long enough, mate.

“That’s good of you, son”, Zak said diplomatically.

Paddy nodded.

He looked relieved, as if he had needed the validation.

Often enough, it was exactly the case when it came to Paddy.

“We’re heading back to Cain’s”, Aaron explained.

“I can drive you, it’s no bother”, Paddy said, looking between them.

“Cheers”, Cain said, and they made their way to the car.

Aaron was sitting in the front with Paddy, both clearly attempting to start a conversation but not actually getting there.

Aaron stared at the headlights sweeping the road, the restless spring moving around them.

He was just about to close his eyes for a moment when his phone rang.

Seeing the number, his heart jumped.

“Robert?”

“Hiya.”

“I’m so glad you called”, Aaron said, the love flooding through him drowning out the surroundings.

“Well I only have a couple of minutes but I wanted to hear your voice.”

“That makes two of us”, Aaron replied, the reality of it all crashing through again, realizing how monumentally everything had changed for the better now.

Aaron couldn’t really feel gravity that day, a constant float to his step.

“You wouldn’t believe the amount of paperwork involved when you’re getting released. Now I understand why so many add on to their sentence, they just want to avoid this hassle.”

“Lucky for me you love the paperwork.”

“I love the fact that the paperwork means I’m that much closer to being with you, Aaron.”

“Soft.”

“Yeah, I am. Everything okay?”

“More than. We’re just on our way to Cain’s. We were at the pub. Gran tried to dance on the tables and made inappropriate comments about you.”

Robert laughed.

“She just has good taste.”

“Can’t argue with that. So what’s new on your end?”

“I called Liv”, Robert said, sounding emotional.

“That’s great, Robert. How was it?”

“She called me a muppet and gave me hell. Then I called her a brat and gave her hell, and we talked about everything. At the end of it we both may have cried a bit but don’t ask her, she’ll just deny it.”

“Don’t I know it. I’m so glad you talked to her, she’s missed you like crazy.”

“Well, according to her I just am crazy, but what else is new.”

“Like you didn’t miss her.”

“I have, like the crazy person I am.”

Aaron laughed.

“Can’t wait to see ya, my favourite crazy person.”

“Weird how it seems so much harder now, isn’t it? Like it’s a lifetime away.”

“Yeah, when it’s actually a lifetime we’ll have, just a few weeks away.”

They stayed silent for a moment, just feeling it.

Aaron felt Paddy's eyes on him, but he didn't turn.

“I’ll call again in the morning, Aaron. And I’ll see you soon.”

“See you soon, husband. You know.”

“I know. Good night, husband.”

As they hung up, Aaron saw the abandoned barn pass them by, a light coming through the window.

Maybe there’s a couple of fucked up people in there, finding each other right now.

The thought made him float just a little more.

 

Cain and Zak went inside as they arrived, with Aaron and Paddy standing outside, the wind fighting off the moonlight. The night was moving in at an anomalous pace, it seemed as if it was still having words with the day, a sort of tempest between the hours, time warped off its tracks.

The disturbed becoming of spring had always been something Aaron loved, and this particular spring would be the greatest one yet.

In all honesty, it was that already.

He wanted to cry again suddenly but doing it in front of Paddy wasn’t a thought he was fond of, especially knowing how it would be interpreted and gossiped forward like a cruel game of the broken telephone.

And the things he wanted to say were things he couldn’t say.

I’m sad that we can’t understand each other anymore.

I’m sad that you let my mother make all your decisions.

And that includes turning against me.

You were once my dad, and it seems unfair you just took that away from me.

But all those things were lodged tight somewhere in a place beyond reach, trapped with too much pressure, too much chances passed by, failed expectations colliding on them, making it impossible to release them from the grip of the time that was.

Aaron stood there, missing the dad he had had but could not see in front of him now.

He wondered if life would continue to do that, make him mourn for people who were still around but no longer alive.

Paddy was looking at him intently.

Perhaps likewise harbouring words that were covered in rust, like the metal watering pot on the steps behind him.

After the standing around was getting too obviously laborious, he finally spoke.

“I’m happy for you, Aaron.”

“Cheers.”

Their eyes met briefly, they both nodded.

Paddy got in his car and drove off.

Aaron watched Paddy go, his mind already going towards other places.

Sometimes conversations happened underneath the rhythm of words.

 

 

 

Seb and Isaac were running around the yard with Diane and Aaron sitting on the veranda, shaking their heads at the sight.

“They’ve been doing that for hours now, you’d think they would’ve thrown up by now.”

Diane chuckled at Aaron’s words.

“They just might, love.”

“At least they’ll be out for the count tonight.” Aaron stretched his arms, shaking them. Playing with Seb in a way that involved lifting and carrying him around had left its evidence on his shoulders.

Diane sipped her tea, turning towards Aaron.

“I spoke to Robert yesterday. I haven’t heard that boy sound so happy in years.”

“That’s because he hasn’t been happy in years”, Aaron replied honestly.

Diane simply nodded.

“I’m glad I won’t have to worry so much anymore, knowing he’ll be here with you.”

Aaron had pushed away the digs and the barbs, because he was too happy to get into all that.

It just didn’t matter, not right now.

“I’m going to Manchester on Tuesday, can you take Seb to Liverpool on Wednesday? I would, but I should be at the center, there’s –“

Diane cut him off, patting his leg.

“Of course.”

She paused, her eyes studying his face.

“You should look after yourself now, Aaron. I know you’re strong but when Robert is adjusting to life on the outside, there are many things Seb will not understand, and you will have to be the one to make them both comfortable. That is a lot for the strongest of us too.”

Aaron nodded.

“I don’t mind. I just hope it’ll be enough.”

It has to be.

“Robert and Seb trust you with their life. I think it tells you everything you need to know.”

Aaron smiled at that.

It was a nice thing to say, a little reassurance, a light breeze.

He knew it was far from the vastness of it all, but in the moment, it didn’t feel at all bad to hear.

And he might have hugged Diane a bit tighter than usual when she left.

Mainly because she hadn’t called him pet even once.

 

 

 

 

 

“I think I might need carpal tunnel surgery after all this pen pushing.”

“I think you’re a drama queen.”

“I think you’re mean.”

“I think we should stop talking like this.”

“I think you owe me an apology.”

“I think you should shut up and kiss me.”

Well, that proved to be still a very much valid way to shut Robert Sugden up.

Aaron let his husband turn him into a puddle of sighs as their lips connected, hands stroking at his sides, a warm breath against his.

The tongue slipping into his mouth made a groan rise from within his chest.

The morning was quiet, sunlight filtering through the blinds as they sat on the sofa, kissing slowly, holding onto each other, making the most of their ten minutes again.

It was more in the lines of twenty, as the first ten minutes they'd been just sobbing into each other, grasping, squeezing, clutching. 

The relief truly hitting them both.

Staring at one another, knowing soon they could do so whenever.

And now, they had this, the peace of Rose's office, a green sofa, their arms around each other, a sweet, lingering kiss, touching, tasting, savoring.

After a thorough snog, they settled into an embrace on the sofa, Robert wrapping his arms around him, hand running lazily in his hair.

“Four weeks to go”, he sighed, “I can’t believe it’s happening.”

“I know.”

They laid there, holding each other a bit tighter.

“I think we should celebrate your birthday properly when you get out. I hate that it’s a few days after the fact, seems mean”, Aaron said, laying his head on Robert’s chest.

Robert huffed.

“Yeah, because that’s the issue here”, he said, his deep voice resonating against Aaron, making him quiver.

“Shut up, idiot, you know what I mean.”

“Don’t pout, Aaron. I do know what you mean, but I really don’t care about my birthday.”

Aaron lifted his head to look at him.

“I think you’d care a great deal more if you knew what kind of presents I have in store for you.”

Robert’s eyes lit up.

“Well, when you put it like that.”

“That’s exactly how I will be putting it.”

“Can’t wait to go home with ya.”

Aaron smiled, laying a hand on Robert’s chest, on his heart, whilst pulling a photo from his pocket with the other.

“I brought this. What’ya reckon?”

Robert took the photo, looking at the little green cottage in it.

“Looks nice. What is it?”

Aaron bit his lip, shrugging.

“Ours. Just rented for now, but we have the option of buying it if we like.”

Robert turned to look at him, his heart against Aaron’s hand seeming to pulse a little stronger now.

“Have I ever told you how amazing you are?”

“Once or twice.”

Robert pressed his lips against his forehead, making a pleased sound.

“I’m so happy right now. It scares the hell out of me.”

“Same.”

They kissed, letting the warmth melt into it.

“You know, maybe we should make this a thing”, Aaron said, smiling, fingers drawing circles on his husband’s arm.

“Cuddling in prison? Not really keen on the idea.”

Aaron pinched Robert’s side, making him squirm.

“I meant the 10 minutes alone. No matter what kind of day or week we’re having in the future, we’ll make time for our 10-minute breaks often enough. In addition to the others we’ll have.”

Robert’s eyes seemed to fill up a bit at that.

Aaron got up, leaning on his elbow.

“What’s wrong?”

Robert shook his head, swallowing, his gorgeous eyes studying Aaron’s face.

“Nothing. Just..you. My Aaron. Making everything so much better.”

Aaron felt himself melt a bit further, and he couldn’t not kiss his husband again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“Aaron. Can you hear me?”

He wanted to say yes, but his mouth was dry and his lips felt like they’d been sewn shut.

He could hear, but it was coming through so quietly, muffled by the whooshing sound layered in his ears, coming and going like there was a forceful wind passing through, but the air was still, a rare windless day was what they were having now.

He was doubled over, sitting  – where exactly?

Aaron straightened his spine, shuffled his arms and legs a bit, to both feel them moving and to somehow express that he was, in fact, there.

He opened his eyes, blinking like he’d been asleep.

Liv’s face came into focus.

She was kneeling in front of him, looking at him intently.

Her hands were on Aaron’s knees now, holding on to them gently, as if stopping him from floating away with the wind in his head.

He nodded, licked his lips, and pulled his voice back from wherever it was it had been hiding.

“Yeah”, he croaked out, breath shallow, “I can hear ya.”

Liv handed him a glass. He downed its contents in one big gulp.

It was that awful raspberry juice that Seb loved. Right now though, it tasted amazing and the sugar seemed to settle something in him straight away.

He breathed in and out slowly a couple of times and then gave Liv a reassuring smile.

She didn’t match it, her heart-shaped face in full frown as she was taking the glass and putting it down.

“I’m okay, just tired.”

Liv sat down, legs crossed, hands still holding on to him.

“You had a panic attack”, she said quietly, cautiously, yet firmly.

Aaron knew that was what had indeed happened, yet his mind was gearing up for denial as a reflex.

But Liv knew him and would stop that from happening.

Her big eyes were soft and cautious, but her movements and her tone unhesitant as her hands kept squeezing his knees gently, keeping him in the moment.

“Just breathe, Aaron.”

Aaron’s phone rang somewhere on the veranda – Aaron realised they were sitting on one, the one that belonged to the cottage he had been renovating for the past seven weeks.

Liv got up, looking around for the phone. He held his hand out, but Liv shook her head.

“Wait here, I’ll tell them to call back.”

She found the phone under the chair on the opposite side of the wooden floor and picked it up, hopped down the steps (be careful, they’re wobbly) and determinedly walked out of earshot before answering.

Aaron looked at her, stretching his arms above his head, feeling a bit more present now.

Liv was talking to someone quietly; Aaron was anxious for her to come back so he could check the time.

He gulped down another glass of Seb’s horrible juice and felt he had enough energy to get up. The familiar wobble to his step and the woosh still slightly swimming in his ears was something he knew to expect.

He stretched his limbs, put his glass down and yawned.

Liv came back, handing him his phone with a pointed look.

“You should take a holiday from that thing.”

“Who was it?”

“Diane. She can’t go to Liverpool tomorrow, her ankle’s broken.”

Aaron cursed silently. He didn’t want to - nor would he - cancel Seb’s visits with his mum, but this was a major time issue now.

Liv’s ahead of him already.

“I’ll take him”, she said, “just confirm it with Rebecca, me and Seb will make a proper trip of it, go by train. We could nip to the shelter again; you know the one where they teach kids how to care for animals. Major opportunity to have something to hold over Rob’s head when he goes against getting a dog again.”

“He can do one, we are getting a dog as soon as.”

Liv smiled a little at that.

“Better?” she asked, eyeing Aaron’s phone as if it were a bomb, one she had only halfway defused.

Aaron nodded.

“I’m fine, Liv.”

She scoffed, arms crossed, her unyielding gaze fixed on her brother as she said; “you need to go home, Aaron.”

“I will go home, as soon as I’ve done the things I’ve planned for this day.”

“Like have a panic attack? You really need to reconsider the contents of your itinerary.”

Aaron patted Liv on her shoulder, giving her his most reassuring smile.

Well, the best one he could muster in that moment.

“I’m just a bit tired, Liv. I’ll be home soon enough. Why don’t you call Diane and tell her you’ll be taking Seb to Liverpool, she can talk to Rebecca and Peter and have them call me soon as. Okay?”

Liv chewed on her lip, unconvinced.

She’d been irreplaceable at the centre, handling their social media, running an art therapy group for teens with substance abuse issues twice a week and taking care of running errands from mailing leaflets and keeping their cupboards organized to proofreading Aaron’s reports and making a sculpture for their yard just for fun, still having a time slot for stocking up on their coffee (nothing horrifying like at the opening, Robert would kill me if I didn’t provide my staff and everyone else with something decent to drink, hence the dark Italian roast).

Liv’s days were carefully planned, the job never overlapping with her own therapy or her breaks.

She was so organized and confident with a no-nonsense approach to it all that one was left with no doubt which brother she took after.

Not to mention she was constantly looking after Seb, who spent time at The Layby frequently, happy to be surrounded by various adults and teens and having kids of his own age come around all the time, just toddling about with endless energy, never failing to charm at least three people per day.

So much like his dad, an attention-loving beautiful rascal just quietly scheming and flashing a disarming smile at everyone.

Aaron had been worried about him attending kindergarten just twice a week, but it seemed to work out great for all of them, especially Seb himself.

And he loved spending time with his aunt/sister/other mum – or, just Liv, as she preferred to be called.

Now though, the woman with many titles was staring her brother down, letting out a frustrated huff.

“Aaron, I need to get back to the centre but if you’re not okay to drive”-

Liv.”

She relented, sighing.

“Okay, let’s go. But if you start huffing and puffing again, I swear I’ll throw you in the boot and keep you there until I’ve managed to fetch Cain and make him put you in your place. Don’t think for a second I wouldn’t - or couldn’t.

Aaron had to laugh at that.

“Well that’s me told.”

Liv nodded, a proud grin on her face, the sun dancing around her features.

Aaron looked at his sister, amused.

“God, you’re such a Dingle.”

“And I’m also a Sugden, so you really don’t stand a chance.”

 

 

After driving Liv back to the centre and having lunch with her and Ally (Seb was awol, having taken a trip to the moors with their social worker and his two kids) Aaron called Peter and was told that their change of plan for the next day had been approved by Rebecca. Relieved, he drove back to the cottage, knowing he’d have to talk to someone from the city council in the afternoon, and it was a call he was not looking forward to as it would consist of the sort of facts and figures that made Aaron question his career choices.

He wouldn’t, of course, change it for anything, but at moments like these he truly missed working around an engine because he knew exactly how to handle them, and the engines never asked him for seven different sort of permits he needed to be allowed to just get on with the graft.

Luckily, as the call ended - after a mind-numbing twenty minutes, made up of exactly the sort of things he had feared – getting on with his graft was what he was able to do.

After a quick stroll to stretch his legs and get some air, Aaron went back into the house, looking around.

He felt a strange sort of reluctance to the work suddenly, somehow picking up the tools seeming overly laborious now, like he was about to come down with something.

He went through the list in his head and decided on getting the walls spackled, as he had finally been able to strip away the wallpaper.

The kitchen fixtures were in their place – in fact, the kitchen was done.

Somehow Aaron had felt that it should be finished first.

He couldn’t wait to watch Robert cook there.

The bedroom wasn’t done, but if he just picked up the damned tools now, he could get this flippin’ living room done and they could bunk there.

The living room is not exactly a good substitute tho, is it? God, what was I thinking, I should’ve done the bedroom first.

But then the kitchen would be just half done.

And we can sleep here.

But it’s still not a bedroom.

I’m an idiot. Where the hell did I put the spackle? Oh, right, over there.

I need coffee.

Even though the ants are crawling on me already.

Why did I have the triple espresso? I can’t handle the mad stuff, I’m not Robert.

And it seemed his mind was being brazenly read again, because his phone rang and he knew it was the person being able to handle those espressos who was calling him.

“Hiya.”

“I just spent half an hour chinwagging with a bloke whose interests, according to him, include Premier League, cookery and world leaders, but he knows absolutely nothing about any of those subjects, he just wanted to ramble on about the size of the pay checks in said groups”, Robert said, sounding thoroughly annoyed.

“You deserve a medal”, Aaron replied with a chuckle, feeling the energy climb back into his veins upon hearing his husband’s voice.

“I would appreciate that medal, Aaron, if the whole thing didn’t sound all sarky”, Robert scoffed.

” Well, I just had a meeting on the phone and listened to someone going on about spreadsheets and figures, that should earn me a medal n’all at the very least.”

“First of all, I reckon you were only half listening, and no, you’re not getting a medal ‘cause we all have to deal with that and by the way, that stuff is important.”

“That’s what delegating was invented for. I don’t do Excels, mate.”

“Why not, you’d excel at it.”

Aaron would never admit to it but hearing Robert’s stupid puns was still one of his favourite things.

He was still stood in the living room, knowing he’d moving on to the facing next. He had, after all, been just about to water the walls in order to make the spackle stick better when his phone had rung.

“What’s with the echo?” Robert asked.

“I’m at the house, getting the walls done.”

“I thought you’d be at the centre.”

“I was there from six till ten, then Liv and I nipped by here. We went back for lunch and I came back.  Seb’s having a little kid hike with our social and his lot, then a play date at theirs’ and he won’t be back until this evening. So I’ve got plenty of time now.”

“Aaron, you need to slow down.”

Aaron stepped outside, zipping up his hoodie, taking a sip of his soda.

“There’s no time for slow, Robert, I wanted this place done by the time you’re out and it needs work. The fiberglass wallpaper alone took me forever to remove and I have to get a move on if I’m going to finish on time. Well, obviously by finish I mean making this place sort of habitable, just enough so we don’t have to go camping as soon as we arrive. So I’m just putting this place in its place.”

He glanced around as he spoke, because he was saying it to the house just as much as his husband.

“That’s impossible, you have enough going on as it is without laborious renovation related removal issues in the equation”, Robert said, putting a bit more volume into his words.

“I can take it.”

“Aaron.”

“I’m serious, I know how to juggle.”

“Aaron, you’re not listening to me.”

Robert was getting increasingly frustrated with him now and it didn’t come out as the flirty sort, the tone that was a bit too much of a hum, the sort of frustration they tended to channel whenever Robert was alone in that office and they had managed to sneak in a little bit of phone sex during a morning phone call- a shared orgasm tended to clear things up and leave them both in that dreamy sort of flow, giving everything a touch of relaxation.

But that was truly not the case during this particular call.

Aaron shifted on his feet, walking back and forth on the veranda, now slightly saddened by the fact that this wouldn’t be a replay of Robert making those delicious sounds he did when the conversation took a turn for the naughtier things.

He did, of course, realise that Robert had a point and he said as much as he was kicking his shoes off and wiggling his toes.

“Okay, I’m listening now.”

“The house can wait, and you should just stop going there all the time. Actually, I would prefer it if you just didn’t go there at all for now. We will hire someone to finish that renovation, end of.”

“The idea of getting a house on the cheap is just that, you get one because it’s cheap. A paid renovation will put the price right up there with the ones we didn’t go for”, Aaron grumbled.

“It’s still not worth you burning yourself out.”

Robert paused, sighing a little.

“I spoke to Liv. She told me that you’ve been overdoing everything.”

Aaron felt his defences go up.

“She had no right to worry you like that.”

“She has every right; she did the right thing and you know it. And I’m your husband, Aaron. Being in prison doesn’t make me stop worrying. You reckon I haven’t been worried about you for the past two and a half years?”

Aaron swallowed. He looked around the veranda for an answer, but his surroundings were looking at him just as judgmentally as he had feared, like the wobbly construction on the railings and the peeled off paint on the pillars were saying if you even attempt to fix us, we’ll tell on you. And then we’ll fall apart anyway just to prove a point.

“I was hoping you’d let me do the worrying this time around.”

Robert scoffed.

“You’ve done plenty of that in the past. And I told you we’re not going down the it was harder for you path or the let me make it up to you – route, and even if we were, do you really think this would be the way to go? That you’re having a breakdown by the time I do get out?”

Aaron felt the words pierce him, and he sat down, his heart shattering at the thought of Robert worrying over him again.

“I’m sorry”, he said, swallowing hard, “I feel like I’m still doing this all wrong.”

Robert was silent.

It made the desperation in Aaron’s mind rear its ugly head.

“Robert, I promise I’ll slow down. Seriously. I hate that I made you worry. I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, just – “ Robert seemed to search for words as he paused and continued then, with that much more firmness to his voice – “just don’t push yourself. I know you have the strength of a village in you – a better village than the one we came from, mind you – but you can’t push yourself like that. You’re an adrenaline addict in recovery, and I’m not having you hurt yourself.”

“Hurting yourself because of me.”

The way Robert said it made Aaron’s heart twist.

“Now who’s going down the route? Robert, this isn’t self - harm, this is our future and there’s nothing harmful about that, it’s-“

Robert cut in, voice clipped.

“We talked about this, Aaron. So many times. That you push yourself especially when you’re doing it for someone else’s benefit and at the expense of your own sanity. Well, I’m asking you now to not do that for my benefit. I’m asking you to put the brakes on. For me.”

“And we’ve talked about you not talking so many times. You’re not the only one here who’s worried, Robert.”

“Aaron, you have the option of not doing that. I don’t.”

“Robert-“

“And I’m not getting into that now. I need to know you’re okay. I need you, Aaron. But I don’t feel like I should if you’re out of capacity already.”

“Robert, I’m not out of capacity. And I will slow down. Please don’t worry about me, I’m fine, mainly because I have an amazing day ahead in two weeks’ time. You can and should need me.”

“Promise me you’ll stop renovating and just get more sleep. And remember that I can tell if you’re hiding nocturnal fiberglass removals from me.”

Robert’s voice was firm and non-negotiable, but mostly just filled with vulnerability.

“I promise”, Aaron said and meant it.

“Good.”

And to make good on his promise, Aaron sipped the last of his soda, pulled out the keys from his pocket and picked up his rucksack after he’d locked the door.

“Hear that?”, he asked, “it’s the sound of a closing cottage door and me walking to my car.”

Robert hummed.

“It better be, Aaron.”

“It is, Robert.”

Aaron got in his car, turned the key and began to drive towards Glasgow, putting the call on speaker.

“I do love you for wanting to do all that, I hope you know that”, Robert said, his tone much softer now.

“I know. And thanks, you know, for pointing out that I’m an idiot.”

Robert was laughing now.

“I’ll always tell you that, it’s a promise.”

“Right back at ya.”

Robert had changed his tone, and he did that with the topic as well.

“So, are we staying with Zak for now?”

Aaron bit his lip, the feeling of failure still not quite gone.

“Yeah, there’s more space.”

“Okay, sounds good.”

Aaron chuckled at that.

“Staying with the clan as you put it sounding good to you is something I never thought I’d hear.”

“Trust me, I didn’t exactly plan on thinking it either. But being with you anywhere sounds good to me.”

Aaron had a strong urge to snog him silly at that.

He turned the car to the left, leaving the smaller country road and entering a highway now.

He was going to just quickly nip by the garden shop because that didn’t count as overdoing, did it?

He stared at the car in front of him, a red Ford with a bumper sticker on the back window that said Baby on board.

He remembered Adam joking about those, always pointing at them and saying oh, a baby on board? Well, baby, I’m bored.

Later on, it had turned into a bitter stare and some frustrated comment about babies being everywhere.

After he’d found out he could never board babies of his own into any car.

Aaron felt the sadness of both that opportunity taken away from his best friend, as well as missing said best friend and worrying about him so deeply it always punched him in the gut a little.

Robert’s voice cut through his thoughts.

“We’ll meet up with Rose before I am officially out of this place. I reckon she just wants to see us because she’s gonna miss us.”

“I reckon we’ll miss her too”, Aaron said.

Robert agreed.

And it was true, even if not seeing her meant Robert having his life back.

Because Rose was a wonderful person – and she had been an anchor when they desperately had needed one – that need wouldn’t just evaporate after the doors of HMP Manchester would close behind them for good.

Aaron had a plan for that already.

The youth centre’s part-time therapist Craig was one of those quietly wise people, a man in his late fifties with steel grey hair and a kind presence that seemed to tower over anyone despite him being just barely the same height as Aaron.

Just one of those people who could solve things simply by walking into a room.

Aaron knew he’d be able to help them find a great counsellor.

That could turn out to be costly, but he had already planned that into their budget.

Which is why he’d been dead set against paying a pretty penny for the renovation. He hated the idea of spending money on something that wasn’t for Robert. The house was for Robert too, of course, but he’d wanted to do it himself.

Two panic attacks later, he was beginning to see the point of not doing so, even if the considerable savings he’d mapped out would take a serious dent to them.

The savings could’ve been a lot more considerable if Aaron hadn’t bought Robert’s share of the haulage back - he didn’t know whether Robert even wanted it but giving him that option felt right.

Seeing Robert roll his eyes at Jimmy was a sight he had greatly missed, and Jimmy himself had said as much when they’d done the paperwork.

Living in the village would not be happening, but Robert going there all business and having yet another reason to just do a quick fuck you-dance in front of the gossipers and general idiots was something Aaron wanted to see - and something Robert most definitely would want to do, whatever the outcome would turn out to be.

After his call with Robert had ended, Aaron spent fifteen minutes wandering around aimlessly at the garden shop, just staring at the rows of perennials and not having the faintest idea what he was actually doing there in the first place.

His mind was beginning to draw a blank too frequently now.

He left without buying anything, driving back to Zak’s, resisting the urge to nip by the cottage.

 

 

 

 

The haze of his energy-draining previous day was still lingering around, but Aaron kept pushing away the thoughts that came with it as he got out of his car, shooting a text to Liv to check on her and Seb - as he hadn’t had the chance to talk to them in the evening or that morning - and then he was heading towards the grey building across the street from the car park.

His hands felt cold yet clammy; the brutal chill of a spring day, a spring that was hiding behind a cloak of sweet promises for warmth yet still behaving like the backlash of winter that it was, it was the sort of cold that went straight into one’s bones and stayed there, and no amount of hot showers could exile it properly.

The Glasgow skies were cloudy and restless, dropping the occasional threat of rain in random drops ripping through the grey, the green of the trees still half asleep, the few plus degrees still not offering much to latch onto.

Aaron approached the tall walls in front of him, read the chipped sign that said No offence and pressed the buzzer.

The heavy door made a clicking sound, he pulled at it and stepped into a corridor of bright lights and light blue walls.

He found the information desk and was escorted into a room.

There was a bloke in his mid-forties with tall features and a confident smile, eyes clear blue, dressed in all black.

He stood up from his chair, walked to Aaron and held out his hand. Aaron took it, they shook.

“Gareth.”

“Aaron.”

“Have a seat, Aaron.”

They sat down on the suspiciously comfortable chairs, with a round little Ikea table in between.

A box of tissues on the table, as could be expected anywhere that had anything to do with people who came through the door holding a cracked part of themselves, a part they couldn’t hide, be it externally visible or not.

“So, Aaron, you came to No offence for advice on rehabilitation?” Gareth began, sitting in a relaxed position with his hands on the arms of his chair, which deflated Aaron immediately. Having a tight-lipped, crossed-armed person on the receiving end of his hidden vulnerabilities had always made his hackles raise.

“Yeah”, he said, “mostly I just want to find ways…how to deal.”

Gareth nodded.

“Are you familiar with any of the ex-offender support units?”

Aaron half nodded, half shrugged.

“A little.”

He had studied them endlessly, usually in the evenings after reading a story to Seb and waiting for him to nod off, reluctantly untangling himself from his son’s octopus-like grip, a trait that Seb had clearly inherited from his other dad.

He had found out that there was a whole variety of programs and units.

No offence had stood out mainly because of its location and its name, but further exploration had convinced him to contact them.

He had looked through others.

Bounce back, Step together, Criminon, No going back.

Aaron had memorized most of the names just by browsing through the websites again and again.

“I just wanted to hear things from someone who has been there”, Aaron said quietly, a bit too conscious of himself, feeling apologetic already.

“Understandable. I had some support meetings back when I was in your position, and it made a world of difference.” Gareth’s hands gestured frequently as he spoke.

It reminded him of Robert.

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all type of solution, Aaron, but there are plenty of things we can do in order to deal with it”, Gareth said, keeping a steady gaze on Aaron.

It being having a spouse released from prison after a long time and not having a clue what to expect.

Even though he knew what it was like, he had never been the spouse on this side of the bars. And the things Aaron of 2017 wanted weren’t the same as Aaron of 2022 would have - most certainly that would be the case with Robert, too.

Aaron swallowed, sorting the thoughts in his head.

“I got us a counsellor”, he said randomly, putting off the more difficult details a bit, but went on to tell about the house, then taking his foot off the break paddle and talked about Liv, and Seb, then moving on to the Layby, his family, his panic attacks, blurting out most of the contents of the chaotic nutshell his life fit into.

After rambling on for fifteen minutes, he stopped, biting his lips.

“Sorry about that.”

Gareth waved his hand, smiling.

“I think people need to move at their own pace. And as often is the case, we tend to move in spurts when we’re on unknown territory.”

Aaron nodded.

“Where is your husband located?”

“Strangeways.”

“And he’s being released in two weeks?”

“Yeah.”

The thought hit Aaron with its overwhelming waves, making him flinch internally.

He ran a hand through his hair, shaking his head.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet. A month ago, he had twelve years to go in his sentence. And now that it’s happening so soon, I just feel like I have…” Aaron trailed off.

“Too many questions?” Gareth offered, smiling reassuringly.

Aaron nodded, returning the smile a little. The air in the room seemed a little less thick and demanding now.

“He hasn’t told me much about his time at Rightworth where he spent the first two years into his sentence. Just bits and pieces, and mostly about the routines and things like that. Not really anything about the hard parts.”

The worry was stirring in his chest as he spoke the words.

“I haven’t pushed him to talk and I won’t, but I just want to try and be a bit more prepared for it when it does happen.”

Gareth nodded, placing his hands on his knees.

“How about I tell you what it was like for me, and you can stop me whenever you have a question at the ready. Okay?”

“Yeah, that would be good.”

Aaron learned that Gareth’s boyfriend had been at HMP Low Moss for four years and had been released in 2018. He’d been living temporarily at a halfway house for a few weeks and then they’d moved together into a resident unit for ex-offenders and their families, followed by various guest rooms of their friends and families.

They hadn’t been able to get their own place for six months, and it had taken its toll on both of them, on top of everything else.

Aaron immediately felt ridiculous about his worries concerning the renovation.

“Much like your Robert, my partner didn’t tell me a lot about the goings-on of his incarceration”, Gareth said, “and as he said himself, he had felt the need to separate prison and home. It never really works out, but I suppose for most inmates it’s the least bad one out of the limited unpleasant options available.”

“Sounds familiar.”

“And the pretence is challenging to shake off.”

Gareth took a sip of water, smoothing down his shirt, his voice gentle as he continued:

“I won’t lie to you, Aaron, it was tough when he got out. We had to become reacquainted and accept that the life we had before prison wouldn’t return in its previous form. And neither would we as individuals.”

“Shitty growth spurt, innit?”

Gareth gave that a knowing smirk that came with a side of sad memories.

“Being apart is hard. But being together after being apart can be just as hard in the beginning, even in a situation without prison as a factor. And like you said so well, prison is the third person in the relationship, and it can seem like you’re indeed having an affair behind a correctional facility’s back. But the real relationship wins if you both decide it to. It often does require assistance from outside, and that’s why we’re here, doing what we do.”

“It’s him I’m worried about, not me.”

“Would Robert say the same about you?”

“He always does, even when he shouldn’t. Especially then.”

“You need to tell each other that. Learn to worry about each other and yourselves in a way that doesn’t give you the opportunity to be secretive about how you’re actually coping. Because that is easy to slip into, and it’s a pattern that starts when one of you is still locked up and is tricky to get rid of, but it’s more than possible.”

Gareth paused, giving Aaron a pointed look.

“This is not me saying everything will be resolved at a pace to your liking. There will be wobbles, and you might, with all probability, backtrack.”

“We never really had that part down as it is. You know, the not being secretive about how we’re really coping”, Aaron said, feeling the truth of it, fear holding out its hand to him in a way that was much too appealing.

“Many patterns of the past are hard to be rid of, but not impossible. It’s a lot of work, but as the cliché goes, honesty tends to a vast part of it. You can look at it as on opportunity to change your way of communication. As it often goes, we tend to  change these things only when we have to.”

“Robert has never been good at letting me look after him, and he’ll hate that now it’ll be the only option at times.”

Gareth smiled.

“He’ll love you even more for doing it, especially when it seems impossible.”

“Is that how it was for you?”

“According to my partner, it was.”

Aaron hesitated, Gareth waiting patiently.

“I just don’t want to lose him again.”

“You should tell him that too. Even if you feel like you have no right to express any sort of emotions now but giving him too much space won’t do either of you any favours.”

Aaron felt helpless, looking at Gareth and quietly pleading, as if searching for an answer that would put his mind at rest once and for all yet knowing there simply wouldn’t be one on offer.

Gareth was clearly following his train of thought, pulling away at the black curtains threatening to close in on Aaron’s mind.

“We make arrangements in the general sense in order to be prepared, but in the end being prepared means just being there, Aaron. Believe me, that will be more than enough in the beginning.”

“I hope so.”

They talked for another thirty minutes Aaron thanked Gareth profusely, and they agreed to stay in touch.

Aaron felt that much lighter upon leaving Glasgow.

 

Aaron arrived home in the evening, Liv had cooked him supper and put a thoroughly worn-out Seb to bed already.

Aaron was a little sad that he hadn’t been able to read him his bedtime story.

He looked forward to it every day, just like anything that involved his son.

Missing Seb when he was somewhere else, even in another room was something he had now grown accustomed to.

A fundamental trait of a parent, missing his kid even when he was right there.

Liv sat down next to Aaron at the table, biting into an apple as her brother scarfed down his meal.

“Don’t swallow the cutlery”, Liv sniggered, folding her sleeves as she spoke.

The house was a bit too warm now, they would need to stop heating it twice a day.

Aaron finished his plateful, giving Liv a smile that was both grateful and reprimanding.

“Thank you. Oh, and thanks for ratting me out to Robert.”

Liv smiled smugly.

“I bet he told you off.”

“Not the point, Liv.”

She grinned.

“I can’t believe that muppet is actually showing his stupid face again around here.”

Aaron returned her smile.

“How was Liverpool?”

Liv smiled.

“We had a great time. After we saw Rebecca, we went to the animal shelter. Seb would’ve come home with seventeen dogs, but I told him he would need seventeen arms to be able to walk them all at the same time. He giggled so hard at the thought that he peed in his pants, thank God I packed extra clothes. And he was so happy anyway that he didn’t even cry, he just giggled more. Then we went swimming because he insisted. And snuck in a bit of junk food.”

“And you tell me I’m soft”, Aaron laughed.

Liv scoffed.

“Aaron, you would’ve let him bring home the seventeen dogs so let’s not go there, hm?”

Aaron said nothing, perhaps just pouted a little at that.

Neither of them mentioned Rebecca any futher, because they didn’t have the energy.

It was a topic they could discuss later, and Liv not saying anything more on the subject meant there hadn’t been any major hiccups.

“Liv, are you enjoying being at the centre?”, Aaron asked suddenly, wiping at his mouth and sipping his water.

Liv sighed, laying her arms on the table, hair falling on her face.

“You need to stop asking me that, Aaron. Tell you what, I’ll let you know if I stop enjoying it, and until then you can just chill. If I get really bored, I’ll just sniff the spray cans.”

“Liv.”

“Aaron, does it look like I’m not okay?”

“No.”

“Well then. Let it go. I know it’s hard for you to let me look after you, but you’ll just have to lump it, won’t ya.”

“But if there’s-“

Liv cut him off.

“Yeah, yeah. Message received.”

She took on a bit more serious expression.

“Aaron, you know that Rob just needs us, not a five-year plan and all the world’s problems solved.”

Her words mirrored those of Gareth’s in so many ways.

And those of Robert’s.

Yet Aaron hadn’t succumbed to the truth in them entirely.

“If it were the other way around, he would have a ten-year plan and all the problems solved in five minutes”, he said, still keeping denial on speed dial against his better judgement.

Liv though, she was not one to let it fool her.

She crossed her arms, giving him a hard stare.

“If Rob were the one with his typical day consisting of getting up at dawn to go for a run, make us breakfast, go to work, renovate, write a thousand emails and google God knows what, then put Seb to bed and still stay up afterwards in front of the telly yet snoring through Mock the week, you’d be on his case in a matter of days. Or hours, more like.”

“I only fell asleep at the end, I saw half of Scenes we’d like to see”, Aaron said defensively.

Liv shook her head.

“That was a rerun, and you watched it online last Saturday in the afternoon. Yesterday you fell asleep during If this is the answer, what is the question and that, as we know, means it was within the first three minutes.”

Stupid Liv and her stupid perceptiveness.

She was sitting there with nothing if not the same adamancy as Robert had when he had called Aaron out on his looming burnouts, and as much as Aaron was annoyed by being caught three times in the last 24 hours, he was mostly just grateful.

Liv’s phone went off.

“Not at the table, Liv”, Aaron said.

“You’re one to talk”, Liv scoffed and then picking up, “hello to you too, idiot giraffe.”

Aaron sighed.

“Put Robert on speaker.”

She obliged, smirking.

Robert sounded breathless.

“Hiya, I’ve only got two seconds here, just wanted to check in.”

“He’s fine, I’ve fed him and given him a speech about running with scissors and behaving like a brat. Oh, and Seb’s good too.”

Aaron elbowed her into the ribs.

“OW!”

“Stop elbowing her, Aaron. Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I am. Just miss ya, husband.”

He paused, laughing at his sister who had her face scrunched up, gesturing with disgust.

“Liv misses you too, she’s just busy doing her mock-vom-routine here.”

Robert laughed.

“I hate to admit that I miss seeing that.”

“Course you do”, Liv said, huffing in fake annoyance yet sounding much too pleased to fool anyone.

“Are you okay?”, Aaron asked, not letting Robert avert the question.

“How could I not be? I’m gonna be with my family soon.”

They all fell silent at Robert’s words, Liv and Aaron sharing a look that made them both swallow.

After a beat, Robert’s voice came through again.

“I have to go, just wanted to talk to ya both.”

“See you soon, stupid muppet”, Liv said, thrown by her own emotions.

“Can’t wait, annoying brat”, Robert retorted affectionately.

“Love ya”, Aaron said, his voice about to explode, “see you soon.”

“See you soon, husband. Love you more”, Robert replied, his tone possibly doing some bursting of its own.

Aaron turned to look at his sister, smiling at the sight of her openly emotional expression.

Liv wiped at her eyes, scowling.

“Shut up.”

As they stood up to clear away their plates, Aaron pulled Liv into the tightest hug, ignoring her squirming.

“Thanks sis.”

“You’re welcome, now stop crushing me.”

 

After brushing his teeth, Aaron didn’t even attempt to watch the telly or open his laptop as his sister’s narrowed eyes were watching him, so he picked up a glass and filled it with water, washing down two tablets of aspirin to be rid of the headache the weight of the day had inflicted upon him.

He walked into his bedroom, put on his pyjamas, and slipped under the covers next to a quietly snuffling Seb, who upon Aaron’s arrival opened his eyes, staring at him, sleepy and alert at the same time, like children often did.

“Go back to sleep, mate, I’m right here”, Aaron said, stroking Seb’s back and pressing a kiss to his head.

Seb snuggled up to him, Aaron putting an arm around him.

“Liv says I’m really good at jumping”, Seb announced, gazing at him, blinking with heavy eyelids.

Aaron smiled.

“That you are, Seb. The best jumper there is. A prime jumper. In fact, you’re such a great jumper I could wear you to keep warm.”

Seb giggled.

“Did you have a good day?” Aaron asked, running his fingers through Seb’s wild hair, overwhelmed by the way the little boy’s presence could make him so quickly at ease.

You have no idea just how much I love you, Seb.

“I played with mummy. I like the dinosaurs Liv can draw”, Seb explained, “and I had a big toast and juice. And so many dogs.”

To Aaron this confirmed that his son’s day had indeed been good.

“Toast is the best”, Seb continued.

Aaron nodded.

“It is, mate.”

Toast is not a meal, Aaron, and I would prefer it if you cut down on it.

Aaron felt a scoff mix with a laugh in his mind.

Shut up, Sugden, you’re outnumbered.

There was one thing Aaron couldn’t wait to say to Seb, and just the sheer thought of being able to say it soon was enough to make his very being flood with the sort of happiness he wasn’t sure he had ever felt in his life.

Daddy Robert is coming home.

He kept repeating it in his mind in between Seb’s further babblings about the magic of toast, dinosaurs, and jumpers of various sort.

He squeezed Seb a little tighter in his arms, the boy hugging him back a bit firmer too.

As the moon was giving its gentle light through the blinds and warmth settled into him, sleep already sweeping over him, Aaron found himself being pulled back awake, feeling a burst of love watering behind his closed eyes and his heart pulsing with it as he heard a half-asleep Seb mumble one more thing before the boy was drifting into dreams again.

“Good night, dad.”

Dad.

Now that Seb had said it, Aaron felt the absolute truth in it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

” Juice!”

The squeal made Aaron’s ears ring, and he would’ve snapped at it if it hadn’t been his son making the noise, munching at his breakfast and announcing his morning menu by lifting up his slice of bread, thus making sure the entire population of Scotland would be aware of things being consumed in their kitchen.

Not that the entire population was keen on hearing such announcements at 7.47 in the morning.

Zak appeared, ruffling Seb’s hair.

“Toast!” Seb squealed.

“A bit wee for making toasts, aren’t you Seb?” he smiled, yawning as headed for the kettle and rubbed at his eyes.

“At least he wasn’t yelling for the welly”, Aaron grinned.

“Toast!” Seb replied, picking up another piece before Aaron could stop him.

Seb held out his hand towards Zak who gratefully accepted, winking at the boy as he picked up his teacup, biting into the bread Seb had given him.

Aaron pushed the breadbasket along with the jar of juice further away from Seb who immediately began pouting, making a little scowl into his glass like a proper Dingle being cut off from his beverage of choice.

Aaron looked at Zak apologetically.

“It’s not even eight a.m., Zak, I’m sorry. I know you were meant to be sleeping in today.”

Zak waved a hand at that and smiled at Seb, shaking his head for the next piece of toast that was being offered, Seb’s own this time. “Don’t you worry son, it’s a big day for ya. Worth getting a little loud over.”

“Big day!” Seb confirmed.

Aaron looked from Zak to Seb, itching to elaborate.

Per request he still hadn’t told Seb, but he would soon enough.

Today at exactly three p.m. he would be walking out of HMP Manchester, and Robert would walk out with him.

He’d been going through various horror scenarios in his head for the past week, imagining all sorts, including an actual nightmare in which Robert dumped him as soon as he was released, left him standing on the street outside the prison, on a street surrounded by heat, palm trees and colourful booths selling drinks, with strong spices and gorgeous street music lingering about, making it seem like a postcard dream version of the likes of Havanna, rather than anything even remotely close to the rainy and pouty April of Northwest England. Perhaps his mind was offering him a wonderful make-believe trip abroad first only to give the dumping itself an even more brutal contrast to his expectations.

He’d been thrashing around so much that Seb had been kipping in Liv’s room for two nights in a row.

Now that the day had actually arrived though, he hadn’t had any nightmares but simply fallen into a deep, dreamless sleep and woken up suspiciously calm.

It made the whole thing all the more unreal, as he had been expecting a storm of emotions but now - he just felt, well, calm.

The renovation crew who had done the work at the youth centre had lent a couple of their workers to him as there had been a lull for them in their current project, and Aaron had – begrudgingly still – agreed to them picking up where he’d left off.

Two weeks in, and their bedroom was well on its way. Had it not been such an old house where the materials being used needed such a long time to dry and settle, they would’ve been able to move even quicker.

Aaron shuddered at the state he’d been in, frantically trying to speed through preparations every day, the sort of preparations that would normally take weeks.

Well, a little nervous breakdown before Robert’s release was probably inevitable, wasn’t it?

He ushered Seb away from the table as the boy was now just making silly faces at Zak and no longer paying attention to his beloved toast. After his son had run to Liv’s room, making all sorts of weird noises and definitely waking her up, Aaron made his way to take a shower, followed by standing in front of his closet and flipping through the clothes there.

He found the leather jacket. Holding it against his chest, Aaron breathed in the familiar scent of the expensive material, the scent of Robert still there, at least to him it was.

He thought back to the early days, the countless of times he’d seen Robert wear it, and as much as Aaron had loved seeing him in it he had torn that jacket off in a matter of seconds whenever he’d had the chance.

At Home Farm, at the pub, in a car.

In a certain garage.

It’s a one-off.

One hell of a one-off it turned out to be, didn’t it?

He put the jacket back into the cupboard, not convinced it would be a good option for the fickle weather but also not being entirely sure Robert would want to wear it in the first place. So he opted for a plain black wool coat - one that might look plain on other people but not on Robert Sugden.

Because prison time under his now slightly too big a belt or not, there was nothing plain about Robert Sugden.

Aaron picked out some shirts and trousers, knowing they might not fit as Robert’s weight loss had been quite substantial, but as long as the clothes didn’t fall off, they would do for now.

He would take Robert shopping as soon as he’d be up for it.

He had booked them three nights at a B&B just on the outskirts of Manchester city centre, and there they could shut the world out and just be.

After packing clothes and toiletries for the both of them - including the ponciest shower gel he could find for Robert, Aaron zipped up the bags and carried them to the living room, leaving them by the door.

Seeing the two bags next to one another made his heart skip.

Perhaps there were some butterflies involved as well.

Liv emerged from her room, looking murderous.

“You know, you could remove the extra batteries out of your son when he goes to sleep.”

“If only”, Aaron laughed.

Liv made a fresh put of coffee, filling two mugs and they sat down at the table, sipping their drinks.

“So, the idiot is finally getting out”, she said, sounding relieved and simply happy now, despite her sleeping hours cut short by the four-year-old currently running around after Zak, talking a mile a minute.

“Yeah. Weird, innit?”

Liv shrugged.

“If I’ve learned anything from living with you it’s that life can always get weirder.”

“Point taken.”

Aaron got up to fetch the coffee pot as his phone rang.

“Who is it?” he asked over his shoulder.

“Unknown number”, Liv replied.

“Answer, it’s probably Robert.”

Liv put the call on speaker.

“Rob?”

“Hello Liv.”

The siblings looked at each other.

It wasn’t Robert.

It was Chas.

“Hi”, Liv said after a beat of the most awkward silence known to man.

“Is Aaron around?” Chas asked in that certain tone of hers that sounded like someone calling about repossession, and just introducing themselves gave the person on the receiving end a vast desire to simply hand over their entire belongings just so they could hang up immediately.

“Yeah, I’m here”, Aaron said.

Unfortunately, as it’s always too early for this. Nice job hiding your number tho, making sure I pick up because I think it might be Robert.

“I’m just calling to let you know that some stuff that was clearly meant to be delivered to you has ended up at Ben’s and he needs to be rid of them soon as.”

“Right.”

Aaron had to gather his thoughts for a moment.

“So, when are you picking them up?”, Chas asked impatiently.

Aaron could just see her drumming her nails against the bar at the Woollie, tapping away all her self-inflicted frustration on the surface that had done absolutely nothing to deserve such.

Although everything in the Woolpack seemed to come with a side of sigh these days.

Perhaps it always had.

“I can’t say for sure right now, I’m going to Manchester for the weekend”, Aaron said to his mum, sipping his coffee and mentally rolling his eyes.

“Surely that can wait”, Chas scoffed.

Sure, I’ll just call the prison and tell them that they can postpone my husband’s release just so I can pick up some random stuff from my questionable sort of an ex-boyfriend.

“No, it can’t wait, mum. And why are you calling me, I could just sort this out with Ben meself.”

“After the way you treated him, I don’t think he’d be keen on talking to you”, Chas said, clearly meaning to dig up the guilt Aaron was indeed feeling now.

Aaron looked at Liv. She was rolling her eyes and making gestures towards the phone, the sort of hand gestures that wouldn’t be suitable for neither a chat with Chas in person nor for Seb’s eyes to see in general.

Aaron bit back a laugh.

“Mum, I will call Ben and”-

“No, you won’t, Aaron”, Chas cut in, with the sort of tone that made the average January temperature of Antarctica seem like mid-summer California, “you can pass messages through me.”

Oh for fuck’s sake, for the sake of all the fucks I couldn’t possibly give.

“Well okay then”, Aaron said overly calmly, knowing it wound his mum up gloriously, “I will do just that. You can tell Ben that if I can’t make it, I will send someone else soon as. But it won’t be today. Robert is coming home and obviously I’ve cleared my schedule for it, and that’s how it’s gonna stay.”

“I see.”

No, you really do not.

“How did the stuff even end up there?” Aaron asked, humouring his mother, knowing she’d get a kick out of digging just a bit deeper.

“It seems that there was a mix up with the home address.”

Chas took her dramatic pause and continued; “it’s understandable, considering you were living together.”

Yeah, for two seconds.

“Right. That makes sense.”

It absolutely didn’t, but Aaron wanted to agree with her just to throw her off, because this was his turn to get a kick out of the phone call, one that offered very few kicks for him to begin with.

He cleared his throat.

“I’ll let you know, mum. I need to get a move on now.”

“Just don’t wait too long, Aaron. Ben doesn’t need the reminder with your things sitting around Mulberry Cottage while he’s moving in.”

That annoying and startling sound? That was her loud silence smugly savouring the trump card she had been hiding just for maximum effect.

“Okay”, Aaron simply said, not giving her the satisfaction of expressing his shock.

“You’re not the only one who’s busy today, so I’ll need to go now”, Chas said, sounding overall pleased at the chaos she had managed to inflict in mere minutes, knowing it even if her son wasn’t letting on that was the case.

“Yeah, bye”, Aaron replied, not bothering to listen to her parting words.

He put the phone on the table, staring at it.

“God, that was a lot of passive aggressive fuck yous in five minutes”, Liv said, sipping her coffee.

“I can’t believe he stayed in the village”, Aaron replied, meeting her gaze, both of them stunned.

Liv put her mug down and hopped onto the kitchen counter, sitting there with her head tilted as she waved her feet, the hem of her lemon-yellow skirt flapping about.

Her lips were pursed, and her eyes seemed to pierce through the walls as if she was shooting daggers to the general direction of Yorkshire.

“I’ll bet Chas put him up to it”, she muttered, “and I’ll bet even further that she arranged the stuff getting moved to the wrong place.”

Aaron frowned.

“You really think she”-

“Could be that petty? Of course I think that, and so do you. Blimey, she just manages to reach a whole new level of unbelievable every single time. And exactly how transparent can she be, it wouldn’t be that big of an effort to store that stuff at the scrapyard.”

Liv was shaking her head, a look of disgust taking over her features.

“Well, tough”, she huffed, “we’re not taking that bait. You’ll arrange someone to pick up those things. Chas might still have her claws in him now, but Ben will thank you later for not showing up yourself. Okay, maybe not thank you, but it’ll be better if we just delegate this one.”

“Trust me, that is exactly what I’m gonna do. I’m not having this. This is not happening.”

Liv smirked.

“Or you could just show up with Rob.”

Aaron gave her a serious case of side-eye as he picked up their washing up.

“Not funny. It’d be the crappiest thing I could possibly do. To both of them.”

“I was kidding.”

“Yeah, and it wasn’t funny.”

Liv held out her arms, as if to say come off it.

“It was a little funny. And failed or not, its’ my joke and I’m allowed to make one, Aaron.”

Aaron saw something darkening in her eyes.

“Course you are.”

Liv cleared her throat.

Her smile was tight all of a sudden.

“Right then.”

Aaron stepped closer to her.

“What is it, Liv?”

She hesitated for a moment and then said:

“Just him and Chas. It’s beyond weird.”

“It is, but that’s just my mum, innit? She’s messing with him.”

“I know it is, I’m just having a hard time feeling sorry for him, Aaron, that’s all.”

“That’s on me, Liv. I let it all happen.”

Liv shook her head.

“No, Aaron. Last year Ben made it pretty clear I was just a burden to ya both”, she said quietly, “and I was never allowed to be pissed about that after he found me at the graveyard because apparently his previous behaviour didn’t count anymore, or the stuff he did after that.”

Aaron swallowed.

“I wish”-

“Yeah”, Liv interrupted, “we both do, for a lot of things. I was a nightmare, you were one too, end of. But we were heartbroken over Rob and then Ben just walked in and made himself at home.”

Liv stopped, glancing at Aaron who looked at her reassuringly, nodding for her to continue.

“I feel like he kinda guilt-tripped you into everything with the past, Aaron. Honestly, he just showed up with the world’s biggest grudge but then just fancied you all of a sudden? I’m not gonna even get into the weirdness of that. But he knew you were all over the place and he chose to be with you anyway. It was wrong of him to get with ya when you were so broken.”

She took a breath, keeping her eyes on Aaron.

“He took advantage of you, Aaron. That’s how I see it, and I’m not gonna pretend otherwise. And Rob would never have done that, you know. He would’ve made sure that you’re okay, that we both are. He would’ve waited for you. Like he did when you first found me after…” she trailed off, leaving out the events and especially the name neither of them really spoke out loud these days.

“The whole thing with Ben was messed up, I’m not about claim otherwise. And he treated you badly, but again, that was on me.”

The light from the window sparkled on Liv’s hair as she pushed it away from her face, crossing her arms, eyes wandering around the room.

Another trait that was so Robert, needing to let her gaze roam about to find her words.

“We were both so lost after Rob was taken away from us, Aaron”, she said, “but you know, we needed him a little too much, didn’t we? In the beginning especially, we needed him just to keep us both sane. We folded like paper without him even if it was for five minutes. He’s always had too much responsibility when it comes to you and me. And it’s not right.”

“It isn’t. But you are right. About all of it.”

Aaron leaned against the quietly whirring refrigerator, the wasted years dancing around in his head.

Liv pushed herself off the counter, walking to the sink and picking up a glass as she spoke.

“I know you feel guilty about the things that went on at school with Ben, and it would be all kinds of weird if you didn’t but besides that I’m just mad at that tosser now. I s’pose I knew you’d never actually do yourself the biggest disfavour and move away with him, just as I knew you’d try to get Rob back eventually. Ben didn’t care about how we really were, Aaron, because he was living with the version of us Chas had been feeding him. He openly hated me and messed with your head constantly, he just managed to hide that with his random heroism. I’m not surprised Chas and Paddy were lapping it all up without hesitating even a little, but there’s not a way in hell I ever would’ve let him stick around in the end. I would’ve found a better way than vodka to frisbee him out of our lives and onwards to becoming someone else’s rooftop problem. I probably would’ve taken a leaf out of Rob’s book. That would’ve done the trick if nothing else.”

Aaron gave that a little chuckle.

“Yeah.”

Liv filled a glass with orange juice and turned towards her brother, leaning against the sink, her gaze raw.

“And now Chas is just so into scheming her way through him. I know she’s great at that and we’ve all gone along with it one way or another but it’s just disgusting. Especially after the way she treated Rob.”

Seeing Liv defend Robert so determinedly made Aaron grow even more impatient for their soon-to-be family reunion, just as he felt a considerable portion of the lead weights of their past being thrown overboard.

“I know”, he said, “with mum it’s always all about her, and even if it might feel wrong for me to lay the blame on Ben when it comes to me and him, he treated you terribly. And so did I. I can’t believe I let that happen. In fact, I can’t believe I let the past two years happen.”

“Likewise. And you have no idea how many times I wished I would’ve called Rob.”

“I know. I wish you had. I wish I had called him, if not for myself then for him and for Seb, and for you, Liv.”

Liv smiled sadly.

“Guess he saved us again in the end, even if he didn’t know it.”

“He always does, doesn’t he? About time we do that for him.”

They fell silent, just letting it surround them.

“We’ll make sure no one treats him like that again, Liv. He deserves the world and I don’t wanna give him anything less. And where the village is concerned, well it’s a good thing we don’t have to see them faces every day, innit? And when we do have to see them, we’ll not go off on one. That’ll irk them a lot more than giving proper hell.”

“Aaron, you say the nicest things.”

“Thought you might like that.”

Liv’s expression softened, a little smile breaking through.

“I’m glad we finally learned to do this now, just us.”

Aaron returned her smile.

“Me too, sis.”

Living together had never been this effortless between just the two of them.

“I think it’s kinda amazing, isn’t it?”, Liv said, smiling with a child-like happiness, “that you and I got a chance to make things right with each other. And Seb. I know Rob’s beside himself, fretting he’s not gonna feel a part of it. But I reckon he’s just gonna be surprised at how easily that will happen.”

Aaron felt his heart do an impressive backflip, one that would qualify for the Olympics.

Perfect score for United Kingdom.

“I know we’re done with our apologies for now, but I hope you know that those kinds of situations we had last year are not something I would put you through ever again.”

Liv nodded. “I know that, Aaron. You won’t, and I won’t either.”

“We just have to make sure Robert knows that too. That we won’t give up on him.”

“He’ll know. I reckon you’ve proven plenty already.”

Aaron nodded, knowing his eyes had gone soft.

“I’m just so happy we can talk like this now. Don’t ever hesitate to talk to me, Liv.”

“That won’t be a problem. Not anymore. If you promise that you’ll let me look after you and Rob. Stop looking at me like that, you either agree or you get a punch and then agree.”

Aaron ran a hand on her arm, squeezing it.

“Understood. And I reckon we’ll just enjoy having Robert back now. We’ll deal with everything when it comes to it. It’s what we all need, Robert especially.”

Liv put her glass down, ruffling his hair, smiling.

“You’ve done well for yourself, bro. Proud of ya.”

“Right back at ya.”

Aaron was about to go for a hug, but then she suddenly scrunched up her nose.

“And seriously, you made the right choice if only for the hair on Ben, for God’s sake. Would it kill him to let someone introduce him to a comb?”

“If that’s how you feel I don’t know how you’ll take in Robert’s man bun, Liv.”

“Yeah, it does sound gross. But I’ll bet he combs it thoroughly every single day.”’

Aaron smirked.

“He hasn’t changed that much, has he?” , she asked, with genuine concern over Robert’s day-to-day habits regarding his appearance.

“No, absolutely not. He’s still a ponce. No-one should be able to pull that off with a prison uniform, but you know he could, and he does.”

Liv grinned proudly, waving her coffeemug about.

“I’m gonna tell him just how superior to Ben he is.”

“Thanks for outshining all of my birthday presents, then.”

 

After Seb insisted on staying home with Zak – to which Zak happily agreed as he was about to teach Seb stuff about farm life again, and the little boy had established that as his favourite thing – Aaron dropped Liv off to their place of work and then headed towards Manchester. He would reach his destination at noon, which meant he would have time to take their bags to the B&B and still have about an hour to go monumentally anticipation crazy and still another thirty minutes to ease himself to come down from said crazy.

He stopped at Arndale, buying groceries and for a fleeting moment, considered buying flowers but that would just give Robert another reason to take the piss out of him.

Not that he wasn’t looking forward to Robert doing so, because he certainly was.

Aaron decided to buy some new clothes for Robert just in case. As he entered the posh menswear store, he felt strangely out of place yet at home at the same time as he picked up shirts, jackets and belts, his fingers lingering on the fancy material, pressing his touch on them firmly, imagining the feel of a familiar body underneath the smooth fabric.

“That would look great on you, but the size is all wrong.”

Aaron flinched a little, shaken out of the midday fantasy as he came back to earth, a young saleswoman with long shiny black hair and big green eyes looking at him curiously.

“Oh, it’s not for me, it’s a present”, he stammered.

“What size should it be?” the woman asked, taking the blue shirt from Aaron and giving it an approving glance.

“Well that one woulda been but he’s lost a couple stone, so it’s probably too big now.”

“I’ll be right back.”

Aaron flipped through a pile of jeans, picking up a pair.

“Those you should try on.”

The saleswoman – Lila, according to her nametag – had returned with a couple of shirts, including a smaller size for the blue one.

Aaron raised an eyebrow.

“You reckon?”

“Yeah. Go on, they’ll look amazing on you.”

Aaron relented and went to a fitting booth. He put on the jeans and a black button-down shirt.

He knew Robert would love the shirt.

They both would love Robert getting to take it off n’all.

As he stepped out, Lila made an approving sound, smiling widely.

Perfect. They’re on sale, too.”

She stood there, head tilted and looking at Aaron so intently that he felt like he’d be a massive knob if he left the store without buying the damned clothes.

And he did look kinda alright in them, didn’t he? Hopefully.

“I’ll leave them on then.”

Lila nodded, removing the price tags and the colour-dye alarm, her hand accidentally brushing at Aaron’s arse in the process.

“Sorry”, she laughed, “that we do not include in the service here.”

Aaron chuckled.

“I’m sure that’s not expected from the customers in a ponc- sorry, classy place like this.”

Lila grinned.

“You wouldn’t believe the things we hear in this occupation. But poncy and classy tend to go hand in hand, so you’re absolutely right about that. Okay, all done, take a look.”

Aaron looked in the mirror, trying to give the outfit a Robert Sugden-once over.

Okay, not bad.

He was pretty sure it would get that approval from the real one, too.

As Aaron had payed his shopping and chatted with Lila for a few more minutes, sharing stories about weird customers at shops and garages, she pulled out a card and handed it to him.

“Here go you, in case you have any questions about poncy and classy menswear.”

Aaron nodded, smiling, pulling out his own card.

“Here, in case you need engine advice or want to visit the weirdest youth centre in Scotland.”

Lila took the card, reading its contents.

“Well then, Aaron the co-director, hope to see you again soon.”

“Thank you, Lila the sales manager, see ya.”

“Those clothes have already paid for themselves”, Lila said, winking at him, “you made my day, Aaron.”

“Likewise, Lila. Thank you”, Aaron replied warmly.

As he exited, two blokes by the door were grinning at him shamelessly.

“Nice one, mate”, one of them said.

“Yeah, really nice”, the other smirked.

“Oh, cheers. They were on sale.”

The blokes were laughing by the time he walked away.

Aaron wasn’t sure if they had been flirting or taking the piss.

Then again, he was rusty with the first one.

Except when it came to his favourite person.

Aaron looked around him as he walked towards the exit of the shopping center, watching the people wander about and could feel the smugness just radiating from him; the knowledge of having the love of his life back and ultimately thinking his life was far better than anyone else’s allowed him to feel significantly superior to just about everything under and around the sun.

And according to the weather forecast, there would be sun during the weekend.

It had been Robert’s 36th birthday four days earlier, and it seemed more than fair to have the weather acknowledge that when the belated celebration would take place.

Robert might have not cared about his birthday, but Aaron did.

And he’d make sure it’d be the best one yet.

The sun seemed to agree, giving his face a gentle sweep as he walked through the sliding doors, entering the streets, walking amongst the tall buildings and cars, the longing stirring in him.

He shivered, as if he could already feel Robert’s eyes on him.

After opting for dropping off their things at the B&B, Aaron made his way towards the prison, not really feeling himself quiet yet grounded into the moment, his thoughts flitting about, the seeming fictionality of it all warping the sights in front of him into a quivering misshape, like the air bending at fire.

The fear and regret were tucked away to the back of his mind as he walked, all that was left for him to feel was the chaotic beauty of the day, the change in himself, the shift towards being himself.

As the happiness he was finally letting properly surface was taking him over, Aaron smiled at random strangers passing him by as he crossed the street, the familiar towers made of red brick and grey cinder block looming ahead.

He may have been transforming into his former self, the one he wanted to become, but the part that smiled at strangers was definitely a piece of the new Aaron Dingle thrown into the mix.

Aaron picked up his pace, his feet undoing the distance, the Robert-shaped void in his heart beginning to diminish entirely.

 

He had checked his pockets approximately eleven times as always, but right before stepping through the gate he went through them again.

Still zero bombs and drugs, that’s nice.

That didn’t mean his pulse didn’t pick up as Bored guard number one rummaged through his things.

Aaron turned his eyes on Tim, who cocked his head towards the corridor impatiently and went about his way in such a tired manner that he seemed to have reached a whole new level of boredom, one which surpassed that of his colleague’s.

Well, Tim, I’d say I’ll miss ya, but.

He glanced around the area, taking in the bare walls and the stiff shoulders, the stifled air and the steel of the gates, the steel of faces, those around him and the 700 of those away from his view, going about their day within the building.

He thought of the long days Robert had been sat here, not knowing if he’d walk out for another twelve years, not quite believing anyone would help him make that happen sooner.

Spending his days just waiting, never knowing what it was exactly, or if it would ever arrive.

A silent sob escaped him.

He knew freedom would take away the bitter safety of incarceration from Robert, that freedom would be a prison of its own in so many ways.

So many times, Robert had uttered the words “I don’t deserve you”.

And so many more times Aaron had thought how differently he saw those words, how it should’ve been said in a way that meant because I deserve so much better.

Yet there was Robert, waiting there with the door open, his heart open, trusting it into Aaron’s hands again.

He’d rather die than let anything happen to it ever again.

“Oi, keep moving.”

Tim, mate, can’t you just be happy for us?

Aaron followed Tim into the corridor that led to Rose’s office, feeling a wave of heat crashing against him as he stepped through the door.

Robert was stood by the window, looking absent-minded.

Looking nervous and a bit on edge.

And looking devastatingly gorgeous in the dark blue jeans and the white shirt Aaron had left for him at the door upon arrival.

It was the first time since 2019 that Aaron had seen him out of that prison uniform.

Upon seeing it, he just realised.

He couldn’t help it, he was crying now, the reality and its magnitude now truly hitting him.

Tim closed the door as Aaron began to sob.

Robert turned to see him; his eyes were watering too, and he matched Aaron’s idiotic smile.

A few steps and they were holding each other, shuddering with relief at the touch.

Robert kissed him impatiently, lips rough and crushing, tongue demanding, tearing his way into Aaron’s mouth.

The hunger mixing into the little sobs and hums was pure and renewed, clawing at their insides.

Aaron ran his hands on Robert’s back, sighing.

“You look so good”, he said, happiness overflowing.

“And you look amazing”, Robert said, pulling back a little to take in the sight again, “so fucking amazing.”

“Well, fucking amazing was exactly the look I was going for”, Aaron chuckled through his tears, “and Lila said as much.”

“Who’s Lila?”

Aaron ended up telling about his shopping expedition, especially about how nice Lila had been - and then frowning as Robert began laughing at the comments he’d received from the blokes at the door.

“What?”, he grumbled, “yeah, they were probably just taking the piss but is it that hard to believe I might get some random flirt on my way out? I thought you said I looked good. Fucking amazing were your exact words, I believe.”

Robert was still cackling as he ran his hands on Aaron’s hips.

“No, Aaron, it is not hard to believe, but. God, you’re so oblivious sometimes.”

“What??”

Robert smirked, raising an eyebrow. He was having way too much fun at Aaron’s expense now.

“Spit it out, Sugden.”

“They weren’t trying it on, Aaron, she was. The blokes were just congratulating you for getting her number.”

Aaron shook his head.

“No, that’s not – wait, are you serious?”

Robert’s grip on his hips tightened.

“Who could blame her? Although, poor Lila. You’re gonna have to break her heart now, husband, if – no, when she texts you with a very transparent youth centre/menswear related excuse that might lead up to her accidentally having a hand on your arse again.”

Lips were brushing at Aaron’s neck, making his skin tingle.

“My gorgeous heartbreaker”, Robert sighed, letting his teeth scrape a little at the skin.

One of his hands landed on Aaron’s bum, giving it a firm squeeze, humming contently.

“Who wouldn’t want some of this”, he said, breath slightly accelerated, “this arse is perfect.”

“And all yours”, Aaron said, attempting to fight the arousal spiking up in his gut upon the touch.

“Yeah”, Robert said, looking into his eyes, “all mine.”

All yours, Robert. I always have been.

 

“Well then, boys.”

Rose stood up, giving them both a tight hug instead of a handshake.

It seemed a lot more natural that way between the three of them.

Their last conversation had been emotional to say the least.

“Rose, you have no idea”, Robert said warmly, “no idea how much you’ve helped us.”

“Seeing you two like this is the best kind of feedback a therapist can have”, Rose replied, her dark eyes flickering softly, “and as much as I am selfishly going to miss you lads, I’m still glad to see the back of you.”

Aaron scoffed.

“Please, I’ll still be doing the six-month check on your car from now on. We’ve got a bad enough case of insomnia in our family, we think about too many things too often, especially at night, and I don’t need the hassle of having to think about that dodgy old mobile of yours being taken to the hands of some twelve-year-old lay-about who only knows about dealer service.”

Robert smiled proudly.

“Well that’s you told, Rose.”

She nodded.

“Apparently so. But you’re not doing my paperwork anymore, Robert, that’s where I draw the line.”

Robert seemed to actually pout a little at that, but everyone in the room knew it was a case of the leaving blues more than anything.

Rose handed them a business card.

“This man is the best counsellor in Glasgow. Go see him. That’s an order, not a suggestion.”

Aaron nodded.

“We wouldn’t dare question that, Rose.”

She looked at them once more, nodding.

“Go on, boys. Be happy. You deserve it.”

 

Robert and Aaron stepped into the corridor, gravitating towards one another, lips locking immediately.

“Oi, move it along.”

Tim was stood in front of them, thoroughly pleased to be rid of them if the look on his face was anything to go by – and it was.

Robert signed a few forms, took the plastic bag that had his scarce belongings, not looking at the contents. Aaron took it from him, stashing it away.

There was pain packed in there, and they didn’t need to see such now.

The heavy steel gate opened, and they stepped outside, stopping to hear the gate close behind them, sealing that time of their life and pushing them towards the April sun, towards the world that indeed was theirs to have now.

Robert took Aaron’s hand, lacing their fingers.

“Lead the way.”

They walked away from the prison area, moving in a fast pace to leave the red towers and long walls further into the horizon.

Aaron looked at his husband, his wind-swept hair and his beautiful eyes, clear and soft, dancing on Aaron, making him warm.

They seemed to relax slowly, perhaps realising there would be no sound of a buzzer to signal their time being up, not another six-day-wait before they could see each other.

No Tim to complain about their PDA.

Tim, who definitely had been checking Robert out, giving him a rather obvious once-over before they’d left.

Robert had been right, the guard had been giving him the eye, and not the evil eye as Aaron had suspected.

He wouldn’t mention it to Robert though, his head was still big enough as it was.

Robert pulled Aaron against him suddenly, making them both stumble a little as they hit a wall.

“What?”

“Just this.”

Robert put his arms around Aaron, and they fell into an embrace, clutching at each other, letting out quiet sniffles and chuckles, submerging into a devouring kiss, lips and limbs sliding against one another, Robert’s hands on his face just as they belonged, his grip tight as their mouths met again and again, hungry and shameless.

“Get a room, lads”, someone called out as they passed by.

Robert pulled away from the kiss, shouting over his shoulder, breathless: “we’ve got one, mate, this is simply frisky el fresco, deal with it.”

Aaron rolled his eyes.

“God, your puns are even worse now.”

The freckled face broke into a self-satisfied grin, eyes flickering over Aaron, carefree and disarming.

“You love it”, Robert said, slotting their mouths together again, smiling into it as he stifled Aaron’s half-hearted scoff.

As they came up for air, Aaron’s phone pinged.

Robert smirked.

In a way that his husband knew was way too pleased.

“What?”

Robert nodded towards Aaron’s pocket.

“Check the message.”

Aaron shook his head.

“You really think I’m about to start texting now?”

Robert tilted his head, fingers climbing on Aaron’s face.

“Just check it, husband. If it’s Lila, I was right and I get a snog.”

“And if you’re wrong?”, Aaron asked, pushing Robert against the wall a bit further, their hips brushing with a sweet friction.

They both hissed a little at the contact.

“If I’m wrong – which I’m not, but if I’m wrong then you get a snog”, Robert said like the gambler with a five-year-old’s maturity that he was.

Aaron sighed, keeping his hand on Robert’s back, thumb brushing at the bare skin underneath the hem of his shirt, Robert humming at it.

Fine, but just to shut you up.”

Aaron pulled out his phone.

Robert snatched it immediately, Aaron groaning at that but letting his idiot husband scroll through the messages anyway.

“Nice lockscreen, by the way, who’s the handsome blonde? Okay, let’s see.. you know Aaron, I don’t trust you to tell me what it really says…oh look, it’s Lila!”

His smirk was infuriating.

Although mainly it made Aaron just feel a twitch in his pants.

“Hello Aaron, it’s Lila from Hugo Boss”, Robert read aloud smugly, “it was so nice to meet you, I hope you enjoy the clothes – yeah, his husband will – I hope you enjoy the clothes, here’s a link to some other outfits you might like. If you need assistance with picking out stuff, just nip by the shop or give me a call, even if just for a chat.”

Robert paused, his expression turning impossibly cockier.

“Signed with a smiley face that has heart-eyes.”

Aaron scowled. “That proves nothing.”

“Right, she’s not into you at all. I’m surprised she didn’t ask you to fix her engine.”

“Not everyone thinks like you, muppet.”

“When it comes to you, I reckon they do.”

It was the stupidest and softest thing to say.

The things Aaron had missed the most.

He gazed at the gorgeous face with the stupid arrogant smile and twinkling eyes that seemed to never leave Aaron’s features, hand on his hip, grip possessive.

Aaron realised they would fall asleep together that night, he could feel his eyes water at the thought.

He couldn’t wait to feel his shins getting kicked.

Robert claimed his winner’s snog, but Aaron wanted one of his own and it might have taken them another ten minutes before they – reluctantly- pulled apart.

Manchester was buzzing around them, chatter and car horns and constant pinging sounds from mobile devices, but they felt and heard and breathed just each other, because it was them.

The inevitability of Robert and Aaron.

Their eyes met, Aaron smiled and took his husband’s hand, squeezing it tight.

“Come on, mr Dingle”, he said, “let’s go home.”