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fix this broken mind (and make it brand new)

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‘You can do this, Sugden. Get a grip.’

Robert Sugden may be twenty-five years old, but it would appear you’re never too old to give yourself a pep talk in the mirror before you start a new job. The thing is though, Robert shouldn’t be phased by this. In another life, or so it seems, Robert would schmooze and smooth talk his way around anyone, never one to shy away from a challenge, and never one to back down until he got what he wanted. But that was then and this is now, and he’s no longer Robert Sugden the sales executive making it big in London under the tutelage of Lawrence White, he’s Robert Sugden the job coach, working for Hotten Council, helping ex-offenders get jobs, and get back on their feet.

Nothing like a near-death experience to really put things in perspective. Robert has the scar to prove it, a stab wound to the stomach on a wet February night, an act of senseless violence just so some little scrote could rid him of his watch, wallet and phone. And while recovering alone in a hospital bed, Robert had some kind of epiphany - both parents dead, an estranged adopted brother, and a sister in Paris attending cookery school, Robert had no one, not a friend in the world, no girlfriend, no boyfriend, not one single visitor, in fact if it weren’t for the flowers sent so kindly by Miranda, Lawrence’s PA, Robert would be convinced that he didn’t exist at all. What good is money, Robert had come to realise, if that’s all you’ve got.

So, fast forward nine months, and here he is. Long gone is Robert’s fancy Chelsea flat, opting for something small and unassuming in the centre of Hotten, a new build of flats, a mere stone’s throw from where he grew up, and Robert still can’t quite get over how fucking small everything feels after London, especially when Hotten had seemed like the height of sophistication when he’d come here with his mates as a teenager. It’s achingly familiar, but much like London, it doesn’t really feel like home. But maybe home isn’t a place, and maybe Robert is still searching for home, wherever that may be. This new job is a step in the right direction, though, a step towards doing something good in his life, and maybe, hopefully everything else will fall into place.

Robert takes a deep breath and straightens his tie, glad that he at least looks calm and composed on the outside, because on the inside he’s a nervous bloody wreck. Stuffy, upper-class businessmen are one thing, ex-cons are another, and while Robert had been assured in his interview that the people he’d be dealing with had all been incarcerated for minor offences, it doesn’t stop Robert from feeling like he’s about to throw up his cornflakes at any given moment. He’s spent the last two weeks shadowing a guy called Ian who’s probably been doing the job for longer than Robert’s been alive, and while Robert hadn’t witnessed any major disasters (some had been grateful, but most had not), it hadn’t stopped Ian from regaling him with job related horror stories at every available opportunity.

’If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were trying to put me off the job.’

‘Forewarned is forearmed, my friend, and you best avoid them shirts with the elbow patches if you want a chance of surviving in here.’

Robert chances a glance out the window, and groans when he takes in the rain coming down in what appears like sheets, battering against the windows, and if that’s not some kind of pathetic fallacy, then Robert doesn’t know what is. The weather always just seems to be more in Yorkshire, as opposed to London. It’s always wetter, colder, windier, greyer, and as the days go by, and December creeps closer, Robert resigns himself to not seeing the sunshine until at least March.

Even though Robert’s new office is barely a fifteen minute walk away from his flat, the weather forces him to opt for grabbing the keys to his Audi from the fruit bowl on the kitchen table. While his life has taken a somewhat drastic directional change in the last nine months, Robert could never give up his car, his car is his baby, his pride and joy thank you very much. He’s also endlessly glad that his new flat has underground parking, because while Hotten is hardly the dodgiest place in the world, he doesn’t fancy the idea of leaving his baby down some side street where fuck knows what might happen to her.

And yes, Robert’s car is a ‘her’, shut up.

With renewed fervour, deciding to go for the ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ approach, Robert grabs his packed lunch from the fridge (leftover chilli from the night before), and heads to work. At first he thinks the chatter of morning radio will soothe his nerves, but it just ends up putting him on edge, so he jabs the off button like it’s personally offended him, deciding to be alone with his thoughts as he joins the morning traffic for his short commute. He’s under no illusion that this is going to be easy, but that’s kind of the whole point. Yes, he worked hard at his previous job, he worked long hours and reaped the benefits for all they were worth, but this is a new challenge. A job wherein the sole focus is helping other people, not helping to line his own pockets.

The pounding November rain rattles off the roof of the car, and Robert cranks the heating up to hastily dispel the condensation on the windows, his hand tapping nervously on the steering wheel. Before he’d left his last day of training on Friday, his first three case files had been dumped in his inbox, and all weekend those three names were rattling around his head like caged birds wanting to be freed.

Miles Adler, Sean Fallon, Aaron Livesy.

Miles Adler, Sean Fallon, Aaron Livesy.

Miles Adler, Sean Fallon, Aaron Livesy.

All unassuming names, and Robert hadn’t had time to look into any of them, not at their crimes or anything at all, but the names had stuck, and Robert can only hope that he doesn’t monumentally fuck this up.

Just like you always do, his dad’s voice so helpfully reminds him. You only care about yourself. You ruin everything you touch.

Robert manages to grab a parking space as near to the office as possible, grateful for once that you can take the man out of the farm but not the farm out of the man, his Barbour coat doing wonders at keeping him as dry during the short dash inside.

It’s 8:33 when Robert finally sits down at his desk, a steaming cup of coffee in hand. Everything is just as he left it on Friday evening, and he’s glad that no one else is around so that he can prepare himself properly without any interruptions. He’s still not learnt the names of everyone in his team, but as he’s logging in a woman who Robert’s pretty sure is called Lauren gives him a slightly shy wave and seats herself a few desks away from him. Robert raises his coffee cup in acknowledgement as he opens his inbox, and there are those three names again.

Miles Adler, Sean Fallon, Aaron Livesy.

Robert clicks open the first name.

Miles Adler. There’s no picture of him, but Robert can see from his file that he’s twenty-one, and just done a six month stint at HMP Hotten for possession of cannabis, a first offence, so Robert heaves a sigh of relief, nothing too dangerous there, then. The same goes for Sean Fallon - twenty-three years old, and six months in prison for drunk driving, nothing Robert can’t handle, he decides.

However, the third name garners Robert’s attention fully.

Aaron Livesy.

Nineteen years old, served nine months at HMP Hotten on a GBH charge with the victim, Adam Barton sustaining concussion, a broken nose, three broken ribs and substantial bruising. Robert reads further to find that the initial sentence was a year, but parole was granted after nine months due to good behaviour.

‘Ooh, tough luck, mate, they’ve given you a violent one right off the bat!’

Robert startles, and blinks to see Ian peering over Robert’s shoulder reading Aaron’s information on the screen, having appeared seemingly from nowhere.

‘I can handle it,’ Robert says with a lot more confidence than he feels, a wave of irritation hitting him when Ian scoffs and pats him on the shoulder with an air of condescension that Robert really doesn’t appreciate right now.

From what Robert could gather from his training, the main point of the meetings is to build a rapport with the clients first and foremost, to try and understand them and their needs over anything else, and to provide support in an environment where they don’t feel judged. During his interview, they’d explained that there’s a fine line between counsellor and coach, and that Robert would be very much the latter, not the former. He’d watched Ian for two weeks, and decided on pretty much day one, that Ian’s approach to this job would definitely not be his own approach. Ian appeared jaded and uninterested, treating the whole thing like nothing but a box-ticking exercise, asking the right questions and making the right noises, but ultimately not caring. Robert wants to care, no matter how challenging the situation, because ultimately everyone deserves a second chance, a clean slate.

That’s why Robert’s here himself after all.

Luckily, Robert has an hour before his first meeting, allowing himself time to familiarise fully with Miles’ case, because if working for Lawrence White had taught him anything, it’s that you can never be too prepared. Well, that and that sucking up to the boss gets you everywhere, but Robert feels like that’s not going to be possible in this job.

By the time lunch rolls around, Robert can’t help the niggling feeling that he’s being lulled into a false sense of security. Both Miles and Sean’s meetings had gone way better than Robert could have ever imagined for his first go, both amiable and for the most part, sorry for what they’d done. Robert had listened to Miles’ gripes about going to prison for what he’d done, correctly stating that, I’m hardly fuckin’ dangerous, am I? It was just a bit of weed! And he’d listened to Sean explain his bitterness that being in prison lost him six months of seeing his daughter growing up, I’m just not gonna get that time back, mate. I’m so angry with myself, you know? And all in all, Robert feels like a pat on the back is well deserved, but as he sits in the staff room and eats last night’s reheated leftovers, he can’t help but worry about what’s to come next.

‘First morning went well then?’

Robert looks up to see Lauren from earlier smiling down at him, a mug of soup in her hand, and when she sips it he notes that the steam makes her glasses fog up a little bit. He smiles.

‘Yeah… better than I could have hoped. It's a bit scary and that, but I’m sure it gets easier.’

‘First one is always the hardest,’ Lauren says with a knowing nod. ‘I’ve been here almost a year, and you just learn to take it as it comes.’

Lauren has a head of blonde curls, and a slight gap between her two front teeth - she’s not Robert’s usual taste, but she’s pretty, and she’s making an effort to be friendly, and friends are something that Robert’s in pretty short supply of recently.

‘Well, I know who to come to if I need any advice then. You certainly can’t be any worse than Ian, and you’re a lot easier on the eyes.’

Robert flashes her a grin, and internally congratulates himself when he watches her cheeks pinken ever so slightly.

Still got it, Sugden. Still got it.

‘Think I just heard his heart breaking from here,’ Lauren laughs, and then with a wink, she turns and walks away, and if his gaze lingers on her arse for a moment or two as she walks away then that’s his business, he’s only human after all.

~*~

The clock ticks over a minute closer to 2pm, and Robert taps his pen nervously on his notepad in front of him, a few preliminary notes jotted down in case he struggles at all. He tries to rationalise that Aaron Livesy is just a kid, nothing but a troubled teenager, but it doesn’t do much to stop the anxious tugging pull in his stomach.

‘Aaron Livesy? Yes, right this way. Robert’s going to be your coach, if you can just follow me.’

Robert hears the name over the incessant background chatter of the office, and he sits up straighter in his chair, directing his eyes towards his computer screen so as to make it look like he wasn’t having a mild existential crisis about this meeting.

‘Please, sit down, I’ll be with you in a second,’ Robert says with what he hopes is a tone of some authority as he senses someone approaching, not taking his eyes off the screen, pretending to type something for a few seconds before he allows himself to look.

It’s safe to say that what Robert sees, is a far cry from what he expected to. Sure, Aaron looks a little rough around the edges, and his face is etched in a wary scowl, but his eyes are sad and guarded. He’s smaller than Robert had expected him to be too, skinnier and shorter, no tattoos or muscles, or anything that belies the damage he did to his victim with just his fists.

‘Thank you for coming, Aaron,’ he says calmly, giving Aaron what he hopes in an encouraging smile.

‘Not like I have a choice, do I?’

Aaron’s voice is low, quiet, and that scowl is still ever present, and Robert can’t help but wonder if Aaron’s trying to put on a bit of a front, because despite everything, Aaron still just looks troubled.

‘Of course you do, we all make choices, good and bad, and you chose to come today, and that’s a good sign, Aaron.’

Aaron scoffs and shakes his head.

‘Part of my parole, innit. If I don’t show up here each week then it’s straight back inside.’

‘Right, yes, of course, I apologise, Aaron,’ Robert says quickly, feeling stupid because he should have known that, it’s written in front of him in black and white.

‘I do know my own name.’

‘I’m sorry?’ Robert asks, startled.

‘You keep saying my name every time you talk to me, like I don’t know what my name is. It’s weird.’

The burst of laughter that spills from Robert’s lips obviously takes Aaron by surprise, but not as much as it takes Robert by surprise, because it would appear that Aaron is far more astute than he looks. Usually, this business tactic goes largely unnoticed, a sales ploy to win people over, because rumour has it, if you say someone’s name enough times then they start to trust you.

Apparently this doesn’t work on Aaron Livesy.

‘Why are you laughing at me?’ Aaron asks indignantly, his arms now tightly folded across his chest, his defences going up instantly at the mere idea of someone daring to laugh at him.

Robert stops immediately, trying to reign himself back into professionalism.

‘Sorry, sorry. It’s not usually something that people notice. I won’t do it if it makes you uncomfortable, okay? And I wasn’t laughing at you, really, I wasn’t.’

Robert hopes he sounds sincere, because he is - Aaron’s already managed to surprise him twice in the short amount of time he’s been here, and he gets the impression that there’s more to Aaron than meets the eye. Aaron’s demeanour softens a little at that, and he unfolds his arms, and his expression gets perhaps 5% less scowly than it was when he arrived, which Robert counts as a bonus, and he takes Aaron’s thaw as an opportunity to steer the conversation back towards what they should be talking about.

‘So, how have things been since you got parole?’ Robert asks, putting down his pen, and giving Aaron an encouraging smile.

‘S’alright,’ Aaron says with a shrug. ‘Ain’t got a job or anything yet, though.’

‘That’s okay. You’ve only been out a week, give it time. What did you do before you– before?’ Robert stumbles a little over his words, unsure if Aaron is comfortable talking about the incident that landed him inside for nine months.

‘Was training to be a mechanic,’ Aaron says quietly, biting at the skin on the side of his thumb as he looks down at his lap. ‘At my uncle’s garage… don’t think he wants me back though, not after I– well, yeah.’

‘Well that’s a start,’ Robert says with a smile, jotting it down on his pad of paper. ‘It’s something to work with, leave it with me and I’ll see what I can do. We have a number of companies that work with us, so I’m sure we can get something sorted.’

Aaron blinks at him, looking equal parts confused and distrustful.

‘Don’t look so surprised,’ Robert says with a chuckle. ‘I am here to help you, you know.’

Aaron stays quiet, but nods, then goes back to chewing on his thumb, his brows knitted as if he’s deep in thought.

‘What’s your support network like? Where are you living at the moment?’ Robert asks, after a few moments of silence when it becomes more than clear that Aaron isn’t one for talking unless prompted.

‘Live with me mam and her boyfriend Paddy,’ Aaron explains, chancing a glance up and meeting Robert’s eyes properly for the first time in a few minutes. ‘Got a big family, but they don’t like me much ‘cos of everything… because of what I did.’

Robert nods, glad that at least Aaron has a stable roof over his head.

‘And what about your dad?’

A muscle in Aaron’s jaw visibly twitches at Robert’s question, and it’s like he’s watching the shutters come down right before his eyes. Aaron’s fists ball up in his lap, and Robert can hear that Aaron’s fighting something underneath the surface when he next speaks.

‘Don’t wanna talk about him.’

Robert just nods, and gives Aaron a small smile, not wanting the younger man to feel like he’s being interrogated at all, he just makes a mental note to avoid the topic in future.

The rest of the meeting goes smoothly, even if Aaron is almost monosyllabic at times, he’s also twitchy, often looking down at his hands or his lap. But when he does look up and briefly meets Robert’s eye, there’s something there that Robert can’t place, sincerity perhaps, and he’s finding it hard to reconcile the boy he sees before him with the crimes he’s committed.

Their allocated time comes to an end quicker than Robert would have liked, finding that there’s a lot he wants to ask Aaron, getting the impression that if he can get Aaron to open up then it might really help him in the long run. When Aaron stands, it looks like he’s struggling with something, so Robert speaks first, giving Aaron a smile and a nod.

‘It was nice to meet you, Aaron. I’ll see you at the same time next week, okay?’

‘Yeah. See you, and… thanks, Robert.’

Aaron ducks his head a little awkwardly, and gives Robert the barest of smiles, a quick upturn of his lips that’s gone quicker than it arrived, but it alights something in Robert as he watches Aaron slope off. He’s got his joggers tucked in his socks, and there’s mud splattered up the back of them, and it makes something tug in Robert’s chest as he vows to crack the enigma that is Aaron Livesy.

Chapter Text

‘Aaron, is that you, love?’

Aaron takes a slow, steady breath as he clicks the door to Smithy Cottage closed behind him, Chas’ voice wafting in from the living room, grating on his nerves a little after mere seconds of being home.

‘No, it’s Simon Cowell,’ Aaron shouts back with a roll of his eyes, toeing off his muddy trainers and leaving them by the front door.

‘Oi, you cheeky beggar, come here,’ Chas calls out again, and Aaron has to grit his teeth, trying his best to remind himself that she’s being like this because she cares, and she’s finally trying.

After so many years of not giving a fuck, Aaron’s brain adds. He knows Chas blames herself for what happened, for being an absent mother for so many years, but quite frankly, she doesn’t even know the half of it, and she never can, because if she found out then his life would be over, and he’d rather be locked up for the rest of his life than for anyone to ever know that about him.

Aaron decides to appease his mum, so he heads through to the living room where his mum has her feet up and a brew in hand, Bargain Hunt playing inanely in the background.

‘What do you want?’ Aaron asks, tugging at the stubborn bit of skin hanging at the corner of his nail.

Chas looks at him expectantly, like she just expects him to be able to read her mind or something.

‘Well, how did it go? Your meeting?’

‘Was alright, I suppose,’ Aaron shrugs noncommittally, the briefest flash of Robert’s blonde hair and green eyes dancing unbidden across a synapse as Chas gives him a smile over the rim of her mug.

‘See, worrying over nothing, right? Told you it’d all come good.’

‘Weren’t worried anyway,’ Aaron mutters, hissing as he tugs too hard at the bit of skin he’d been worrying with his teeth, the coppery taste of blood filling his mouth.

Chas just gives him a knowing smile, placing her mug down, she then stands and pulls him into a not entirely unwelcome hug, her manicured hand resting at the back of his head gently. Aaron closes his eyes momentarily, the smell of her perfume, and the feel of her holding him managing to calm the constant tide of emotion swirling around inside him just for a moment.

‘Proud of you, kid,’ she says softly.

The trouble is, Aaron struggles to believe her. How can she be proud of him after everything he’s done, after what he did to Adam? So far, since his return, the rest of the village have treated him like some kind of pariah, and he’s had to avoid the Woolie altogether because he just knows that something will kick off, and if he gets involved in anything then it’s straight back inside he goes.

‘Thanks, mum.’

‘I mean it,’ Chas says, pulling away to look at him properly. ‘You did a bad thing, and you did the time for it, and you’re gonna make it right, and this is the first step.’

Chas long gave up asking him why he did what he did to Adam, every advance met with stony silence on Aaron’s part.

She can’t know. No one can know.

‘Rob– my coach… he uh– he said he might be able to sort something for me, about a job if Cain won’t-‘ Aaron trails off, unable to look his mum in the eye.

Chas had been so proud when Cain had taken Aaron under his wing at the garage, she’d seen it as him being Cain’s protege or something, but that had all gone tits up when he’d gone inside.

‘Leave Cain to me, love,’ Chas reassures, giving him a confident smile. ‘He’d be silly to let you go, you were dead good at your job.’

Aaron feels like it’s probably not the best time to bring up just how ludicrous it is that his uncle has never been in prison himself given all the dodgy stuff he gets up to, but that’s a conversation for another day.

‘Thanks.’

Unease settles in Aaron’s stomach at the idea of Chas having a word with Cain. On one hand, the idea of going back to his old job is a good thing, he doesn’t need to learn to work alongside new people, and his commute to work is a short 2 minute walk. On the other hand, having to see the villagers every day, walking past, whispering behind their hands about him and what he did, and how that poor Adam lad didn’t deserve what Aaron did to him. Maybe a clean break is what he needs, a job in Hotten where he can have a clean slate, of sorts anyway, and Robert did say he’d try and sort him out…

Chas pats his cheek, and gives him a smile, and not so long ago, Aaron would have batted her hand away with a scowl, but not anymore. This is all part of his new plan, to be better, to try, to be normal. And it works, because Chas’ face softens even further, and Aaron really is glad he has her in his corner.

‘Paddy’s out on a call but he won’t be long, I can do you bangers and mash for tea, or there might be some fish fingers in the freezer.’

‘Bangers and mash is good,’ he nods, feeling inexplicably fond towards Chas in that moment because sure, her culinary skills are basic at best, but much like him, she really is trying, and maybe it’s too little too late, but maybe it isn’t.

‘Go on up and get ready for your tea, I’ll call you when it’s ready.’

Aaron doesn’t miss the look of amazement on Chas’ face when he actually does as she tells him to.

Better late than never, as they say.

~*~

Dinner goes well, even if Chas did manage to annihilate the sausages, and the mash is also a little bit lumpy, but it’s better than Aaron could do himself, and beggars can’t be choosers. Paddy had only lightly scolded him about leaving his trainers by the front door for him to trip over, which Aaron also counts as a win.

Given the nature of Chas and Paddy’s on again, off again relationship, they’re surprisingly yet disgustingly loved up, so Aaron doesn’t hang around too long after finishing his tea, leaving them to make eyes at each other over the table, and probably footsie under it, knowing them.

‘Get a room,’ he grumbles, putting his dirty crockery in the sink.

‘We’ve got one, not our fault you’re in it,’ Paddy laughs in that infectiously good-natured way of his that makes Chas giggle into her glass of wine.

Aaron huffs a disgruntled laugh and shakes his head, grabbing his phone from his place at the kitchen table. This would usually be the time he’d make his way to the Woolie for a pint or two, but those days are long gone, he’d dared show his face the day after he’d been released, and the dirty looks shot at him by Moira and John had been enough to make him recoil and decide to avoid the pub like the plague for the foreseeable future. Apparently the nine months he did inside did nothing to quell the anger they feel towards him, and he honestly can’t even really blame them.

The bedroom door closes behind him with a quiet click, and he can only just about hear the gentle hum of Chas and Paddy’s conversation coming from the kitchen, and it’s only then that Aaron allows himself to let out a breath he didn’t really know he’d been holding. He collapses down on his creaky single bed, rolls onto his side, and stares at the photo still sitting on his nightstand, even after everything that happened.

Two bright smiles beam out at him - his own, and Adam’s. It had been taken on Adam’s eighteenth birthday, he hadn’t even known Adam a year then, but fuck, he was the best friend Aaron had ever had. For a long time, it was Adam’s smiling face that Aaron used to see before he went to sleep, but ever since that day Aaron is haunted by Adam’s bloody face, the sound of him coughing blood, wheezing in pain and begging Aaron to just stop.

Aaron had tried to apologise afterwards, of course he had, he just didn’t know what came over him, gripped with a fear so acute, he’d just wanted Adam to stop talking, to shut up for just a second, and the only way Aaron knew how to achieve this was to beat him to a pulp, it would seem.

Adam had called the police, because of course he had, the state Aaron had left him in, there wasn’t really anything else he could do. It was a seemingly unprovoked attack that Aaron hadn’t denied, but honestly he’s just glad that Adam never told them why he did it, he’d take being seen as a thug over one of them any day of the week.

Aaron grabs his phone from his pocket and flips it open, a pang of sadness - no messages, not a single text while he was inside, and the only person who’d visited him had been his mum. He’s alone, truly and utterly alone, and while he does his utmost to give off the impression that he’s fine, he’s tough, he’s better off alone, it couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, his conversation with Robert today had been the first conversation he’d had properly with anyone other than his mum and Paddy since he got released, and it had felt… nice. Even though he realistically knows that Robert is just doing his job, he’s paid to be friendly and helpful, it had still been refreshing to speak to someone who wasn’t related to him, or adjacently related at least.

As soon as he’d seen Robert sitting there behind his desk, Aaron had quickly quashed down that thing inside him, lest it rear its ugly head again. The thing that made his skin tingle, and his heart flutter, that thing he’d felt for Adam that had ended up with him locked in a cell for nine painstakingly long months. If he didn’t pay attention to it, if he didn’t give in and think about it then he could pretend it didn’t exist - he’d been surrounded by nothing but blokes for nine solid months, and he hadn’t thought about it once, which Aaron had been using as some kind of proof that Adam was a fluke, the feelings he’d had for Adam were just a blip on the radar, they were just best mates, nothing more. He wasn’t like that, he’d even slept with Holly that one time, and he wouldn’t have been able to manage that if he was like that, would he?

Best mates don’t try to kiss each other though, do they? That spiteful little voice in his head whispers. Best mates don’t think about each other like that, do they?

Aaron squeezes his eyes shut and rolls over, not wanting to see Adam’s bright, cheerful face smiling at him, reminding him of everything that he’s fucked up, The first real friendship he’d ever had, gone just like that. Gone in a flash of fists, and blood, and Aaron’s panicked, terrified tears.

His fingers tremble on the buttons of his phone, Adam’s name right at the top of his embarrassingly short list of contacts. He’s not seen Adam once since he came home, and he’s under no illusion that Adam will want to be his friend again, but he knows they need to talk at least. He opens up a new text, and with fear churning in his stomach, he begins to type.

we need 2 talk

Never one to mince his words, Aaron flips his phone shut and waits for a reply.

By the time Aaron is showered and getting ready for bed, his phone is still silent on his nightstand, the picture of him and Adam almost mocking him.

And well, it’s the least Aaron deserves really, isn’t it?

~*~

There’s still no word from Adam the following morning, not that Aaron really thought there would be, but he’d been hoping on the off chance that his former best mate might give him the time of day, even if it’s just to say sorry. He ponders what to do over his burnt toast, quickly deciding against just going up to Butler’s Farm and surprising him, knowing full well that Adam won’t be alone up there, John and Moira will be there too, maybe Holly too, and Aaron really just doesn’t want to deal with any of it. But he can’t stay inside forever, and it’s better he at least try and clear the air sooner rather than later.

Aaron has the house to himself, his mum at work at the factory, and Paddy out on call, but the idea of staying home when he feels like this, all pent up and antsy, doesn’t sit right with him, especially after being in prison, so he decides to brave the weather and go for a walk. At least it’s not raining like yesterday, Aaron thinks to himself, trying his best to find a silver lining, even though the sky is dark, morose and threatening rain, and the wind is so cold it quickly permeates through Aaron’s hoodie and t-shirt, making him wish he’d grabbed a proper coat before leaving.

The pub is an obvious no-go, plus it’s still way too early, so Aron decides his safest bet is the caff. Bob is harmless, friendly enough, and hopefully he won’t see anyone that’ll give him too much grief. He’d discarded his incinerated toast after a few mouthfuls, so after a few moments of deliberating outside, the thought of a bacon sarnie and a hot brew is what eventually propels Aaron into the admittedly very inviting warmth of the cafe.

Aaron’s eyes scan for potential conflict as he goes inside, but seeing none, he lets himself relax. Bob is wiping down a table, a pen balanced precariously behind his ear as he whistles to himself, and there’s a few people inside, but mercifully none he actually knows.

‘Oh, Aaron! Hi, hello, uh…’ Bob startles, his eyes going wide for a second before settling into something a little less alarmed.

‘Bob,’ Aaron says with a nod, determined to act as normal as possible. If he’s going to convince the locals that he’s not a mindless thug then he needs to start acting like it. ‘Bacon sarnie and a tea to have in, please.’

It’s almost comical the way Bob goes on a facial journey from wary, to confused, to smiling in the space of a few seconds, but Aaron keeps his face neutral as he settles down into the soft sofa in the corner.

‘Bacon sarnie and a brew, coming right up!’

Once Bob is out of sight, Aaron allows himself to smile a little, retrieving his phone from his pocket. He worries his bottom lip between his teeth as he opens up the text he sent Adam last night, the text did send, and Aaron counts it as a minor win that Adam at least hasn’t blocked his number completely. He remembers when he first got Adam’s number, they would just text each other stupid shit, mostly just taking the piss out of each other as lads do, but it hadn’t stopped Aaron from feeling downright giddy every time his phone vibrated with a new message. He would text Holly too, but the way he felt when she’d text him paled in comparison to how he felt when her younger brother did.

‘Stop it,’ he mutters to himself, rubbing at his temples with fingers that have only just warmed up from the November chill.

A few moments later, Bob comes back with his tea and food, and Aaron passes him a fiver and nods in thanks, the smell of bacon wafting and making his stomach rumble in response. He’s midway through his first bite when he hears the bell above the door chime, and he looks up from his plate, freezing in place when he hears a very familiar voice.

Adam.

‘I’m tellin’ ya, Hol, she was making eyes at me and everything!’

‘She needs her head checking!’

Aaron stays very still, hoping that if he doesn’t draw attention to himself that they’ll just order what they want and leave, all the bravado of wanting to speak to Adam completely gone now he’s actually faced with him.

‘Who wouldn’t want--’ Adam’s voice falters, and Aaron can tell without looking that Adam has clocked him sitting there.

‘Aaron?’

It’s Holly who speaks, not Adam, and Aaron is forced to look up, his sarnie left forgotten on the plate as he feels the bottom drop out of his stomach, and all he feels is sick. He doesn’t want to do it here, it’s hardly an audience, but this is all wrong, and he just wants the ground to open up and swallow him whole.

Holly looks uncertain, but Adam looks livid, and Aaron is at a complete loss of what to say.

‘Can we talk, please?’ Aaron manages to get out, completely ignoring Holly, his eyes trained only on Adam, looking at him imploringly.

‘I ignored your text for a reason, I’ve not nothing to say to ya,’ Adam grits out. ‘They should’ve locked you up and thrown away the key, mate.’

‘I’ll leave you boys to it,’ Holly says diplomatically, but Aaron doesn’t miss the reassuring hand she rests on Adam’s arm before she turns towards the counter, no doubt going to distract Bob from whatever she thinks is about to happen between him and Adam.

‘Please,’ Aaron tries again, feeling completely unmoored, unable to place his emotions. It had been easy when he hadn’t been confronted with Adam on a daily basis, but now he’s here, standing in front of Aaron for the first time in nine months, Aaron just wants his best friend back. He knows it’s his own fault, all of this is his fault, Adam owes him nothing, and Aaron could cry with how badly he wants to rewind time, digging his nails into the palms of his hands to stop himself from doing something rash and stupid like getting on his knees and fucking begging.

Adam keeps looking at him, his expression softened a little, picking up on Aaron’s obvious distress as his fingers pick at a stray hem on the sleeve of his maroon jumper that hangs a little longer than his coat sleeves.

‘Pavillion later, I’ll text you when.’

Adam’s voice is clipped and tight, and Aaron feels all the fight rush out of his body at those five words, and then, before Aaron can say anything, Adam turns on his heel and leaves the cafe, leaving Holly standing there, blinking and shocked.

~*~

It’s almost 4pm by the time Adam finally texts him, it’s getting dark, and there’s no one about, as no doubt everyone is sensibly warm inside as bitterly cold sleet begins to descend on the village. Aaron remembers a coat this time, well actually it’s Paddy’s coat, and it drowns him, coming half way down his thighs, but it’s dark so what if it looks a little silly.

By the time Aaron gets to the pavilion, it’s past 5pm, and Adam is already waiting for him, a bottle of whiskey balanced precariously on the step next to his feet. If he’s cold then he doesn’t show it, years spent working on the farm will have done that to him, but sadly Aaron feels the cold down to his bones, despite Paddy’s coat.

‘Thought you’d pussied out,’ Adam mutters, picking up the bottle and taking a sip, not even shuddering at the taste like he used to when they were younger.

Aaron shakes his head, unsure where he stands, but luckily Adam budges up on the step and gives Aaron space to sit down, the bottle of whiskey resting between them like some sort of invisible barrier. There’s so much that Aaron wants to say, but the words are lodged in his throat, and he’s shaking hard as an icy gust of wind buffets them. He curls in on himself, tucking his knees up under his chin in an effort to protect himself from the cold.

‘I’m sorry,’ Aaron manages to get out, at the same time as Adam asks, ‘Why did you do it?’

They both fall silent, and there’s an ache inside Aaron that radiates outwards and it’s so visceral that he wonders if Adam can feel it too. He knows Adam means why did you hurt me and not why did you kiss me, he doesn’t even need to clarify.

Why did he do it? Fear. Fear of what he knows he is deep down, fear of Adam telling everyone, fear of everyone hating him, of looking at him like he’s one of them, a freak show. Not just fear though, hatred, but not hatred towards Adam, never towards Adam but towards himself. For giving in, for letting his feelings get the better of him, and for giving in, for taking what he wanted for just a moment, regardless of consequences or what was to follow. Tears prick the corners of Aaron’s eyes, and he sniffs quietly, hoping Adam doesn’t hear him, but with the silence between them it would be impossible for him not to.

‘I don’t know,’ is all Aaron can manage, digging his nails into his palms again, struggling to keep it all inside, and he knows Adam is looking at him now.

Fuck. Why is this so fucking hard?

‘I deserve more than that, Aaron,’ Adam spits.

All Aaron can do is nod again, and suddenly Adam is on his feet, grabbing the bottle of whiskey as he readies himself to leave.

‘I was scared,’ Aaron says quickly, looking up at Adam from where he’s huddled in on himself on the step.

Scared of what I am.

‘Scared of what I did, scared of what you’d do… it’s not an excuse, and I’m so shit at this, but I’m trying to not be. You didn’t deserve what I did to you.’

Adam stills, turns, then looks at Aaron, obviously not expecting the burst of honesty that Aaron’s apparently offering him up on a plate.

‘You were my best mate,’ Adam says quietly after a few moments of resounding silence, and it sounds like it hurts him to say it. ‘Wouldn’t have mattered to me what you were, it wouldn’t have made a difference, Aaron. You didn’t give me a chance to even tell you that, you just went in with your fucking fists like you always do.’

‘I’m not anything,’ Aaron says quickly, defensively.

‘Right.’

Adam doesn’t look convinced.

‘I didn’t tell anyone what you did, you know? Wouldn’t out you like that, and it hurts that you think I ever would.'

And just like that, fighting against it seems pointless. Adam was there, there was no mistaking what Aaron did, and in that moment it couldn’t even be passed off as a joke, it was entirely deliberate.

Aaron had kissed Adam because he’d wanted to, pure and simple.

‘I know you wouldn’t,’ Aaron says thickly, the sleet falling faster and harder now, and Aaron is shaking so hard that Adam must notice because he slowly hands the bottle of whiskey out to him.

‘Cheers.’

There are tears making tracks down Aaron’s face as he drinks deeply, and he can’t stand the newfound pity on Adam’s face.

‘You are, aren’t you?’ Adam asks quietly as Aaron stares down at the whiskey bottle in his hands like it holds the answers to all of the universe’s questions. ‘Gay, I mean.’

Aaron lets out a slow, shaky breath, and allows himself to nod once. It’s as much of an admission as he’s ever really allowed himself, but he trusts Adam, they were best friends once, maybe they could even be again. And anyway, just because he’s admitted it doesn’t mean he has to act on it, he’d rather die than give into it again.

‘That’s okay, mate. Really. And I won’t tell anyone…’ Adam pauses, taking the bottle of whiskey out of Aaron’s hands. ‘And for what it’s worth, I never called the police on ya, that was all dad.’

‘Don’t deserve you being nice to me like this, not after what I did to you,’ Aaron says with a shake of his head, thankful for the warmth of the whiskey as Adam offers him the bottle back after taking a swig.

‘You might be right,’ Adam agrees. ‘Mum always says I’m too soft for my own good, but I know you, Aaron. You’re not a bad lad, just a bloody idiot sometimes.’

Aaron feels uneasy as Adam talks. It can’t be this easy, to just slip back into the roles they had before. The universe has never been kind to Aaron, so why would it suddenly start now?

‘Really, Adam. I don’t deserve this. Why would you want someone like me knocking about?’

Aaron hates how small his voice sounds, but what he hates more is that the pity is back on Adam’s face, and Aaron is all the way back to wishing he’d never admitted anything at all.

‘You’re alright… when you’re not kissing me, or beating me up.’

Adam tries for a jokey tone, but it falls completely flat, and the whiskey churns in his stomach as Aaron stumbles to his feet, suddenly desperate to get as much space between him and Adam as possible. He should never have told him, he thinks he can trust Adam, but can he really? If life has taught Aaron anything it’s that you can’t trust anyone, you have to be able to rely on yourself, and self-preservation is everything.

‘This was a mistake,’ Aaron chokes out, the tears starting up again, and watching blearily as Adam’s face morphs into concern then panic as he realises he’s said the wrong thing.

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it— I just… I just meant it’s fine. I-I have a cousin who’s gay! I told you, I don’t mind, you’re still the same Aaron to me.’

Adam’s words come out jumbled and hurried, like he’s trying to diffuse a bomb that’s about to go off at any second.

‘Shut up!’ Aaron sobs. ‘Shut up, just shut up!’

And then he’s running, he’s running but he can barely see through the tears, sleet hitting his face as he runs so fast his lungs feel fit to burst. All he can hear is Adam’s voice calling his name, following him home, mocking him all the way, until he’s collapsing at the front door to Smithy Cottage, dry heaving, and riddled with panic.

We all make choices, good and bad.

Robert’s voice from yesterday echoes in Aaron’s pounding skull, and he closes his eyes, unable to shake the feeling that, in telling Adam his secret, he’s made the worst choice he could ever possibly make.

Chapter Text

As far as first weeks on the job go, Robert’s first week working for Hotten Council is a pretty good one. It just solidifies in his mind the idea that he’s finally ended up where he’s supposed to be. He was never going to follow in his dad and Andy’s footsteps by being a farmer, he knew that from as far back as he can remember. No, Robert’s skills lay with people, whether it be selling overpriced farm machinery or helping ex-cons find work. He’s a people person through and through, a problem-solver, and it turns out that these two skills really lend themselves to his new career path.

Robert knows that trying to impress a dead man is pointless, especially a dead man who wiped his hands of him so long ago, but he can’t help but feel like Jack might be proud of what he’s doing now. Okay, it’s not the farm, in fact it’s still as far removed from farming as he can get, but he’s helping people now, he’s doing something worthwhile, and for once in his life, Robert thinks that yes, this is something his dad could be proud of. He’ll never know, of course, but it doesn’t stop Robert from hoping.

On Friday, as Robert’s first proper week draws to a close, he gets cornered in the kitchen by Ian as he’s putting his dirty coffee mug in the dishwasher. He places an unwelcome hand on Robert’s shoulder, and he can feel the clammy warmth of it through his shirt.

‘Me and a couple of the guys are going to the pub in a bit, you’re welcome to join us,’ Ian says with an air of bonhomie that seems a little strange to Robert seeing as Ian keeps shooting him disapproving glances every time Robert has success with a client.

Robert knows that ‘a couple of guys’ means Glen and Stewart from IT, two of the least interesting people he’s ever had the displeasure of working with. He wishes the stereotype of IT being useless wasn’t true, but when he’d called through to Glen on Wednesday after lunch with a broken monitor, the guy had really asked Robert if he’d tried turning it off and on again, and he’d had to resist the urge to throw his stapler at Glen’s head. Stewart isn’t as bad as Glen, but he has a penchant for egg and cress sandwiches which turn Robert’s stomach and make him feel nauseous. But on the upside he’d made some comment about needing to fumigate the kitchen whenever Stewart leaves, and it made Lauren laugh, so Robert guesses there’s a silver lining to every cloud and all that.

‘Think I’ll pass, Ian, thanks for the invite though,’ Robert says with as much congeniality as he can muster, jabbing at random buttons on the dishwasher in an attempt to make it work.

‘Oh, come on. It’ll be a laugh.’

Robert highly doubts that.

‘Really, mate. I’ve got plans, another time maybe?’

Robert doesn’t have plans, not really, but he isn’t sure he has the energy to sit around and listen to them make boring small talk for hours on end. If Lauren was going though, then he might consider it. Lauren is sweet, she’s pretty, she laughs at his jokes, and she’s also excellent at her job, and has given Robert some useful tips regarding how to deal with difficult clients. The thing is though, mixing business and pleasure never ends well, which Robert had almost learnt the hard way when he’d been screwing Chrissie White in the gents loos at the office Christmas party the previous year. They’d been interrupted by Lawrence, obviously looking for some respite from the obnoxiously loud Christmas music to make a call, while Robert was mid-orgasm. Not his finest hour, and something he never wants to relive again if he can help it, so sadly Lauren is off limits, but it’s nice to have a friend to sit and chat with at lunch, and if she laughs at his jokes, Robert just views it as a nice little ego boost that makes his day a little brighter.

‘Suit yourself,’ Ian mutters as he walks away, and once he’s out of earshot, Robert lets out a relieved sigh at having dodged a very tedious bullet.

~*~

Robert’s half way through his sad Tesco macaroni cheese ready meal for one when he starts to regret saying no to Ian’s offer of drinks. There’s nothing sadder, he thinks, than being in his mid-twenties and at home, alone on on Friday night with nothing but Midsomer Murders repeats on TV to keep him company. Robert swirls his glass of red wine slowly, the dim ‘arty’ lighting of his flat making the liquid appear darker than it is in reality; there was a time he’d be out every Friday night, dining with potential clients, making connections, and more often than not he would end up taking some pretty thing home with him. The girls would always taste of some fruity cocktail, and Robert wouldn’t even have to try, he knew he looked good, well tailored suits, and expensive cologne, in fact Robert would very rarely spend a Friday night alone, which is why this stark contrast of very abject alone-ness isn’t sitting right with him at all.

Sometimes, though not too often, Robert would bring men back too. He’d have to shove Jack Sugden’s disapproving face to the back of his mind every time he did, but Robert’s too old to pretend that he doesn’t want to fuck men as much as he wants to fuck women, and it’s been that way for a long time. Robert’s loathe to put a label on his sexuality, not wanting to be boxed in, and he’s never actually admitted his sexual preference out loud to anyone, so as far as he’s concerned he’ll shag anyone he deems attractive enough, and leave it at that. He can go months where he’ll exclusively fuck women, he likes their femininity, their curves, he likes the feeling of soft breasts pressed up against his chest while he’s fucking them, the smell of their perfume, and how wet they get under his fingers. But sometimes, none of that scratches the itch, and Robert would find himself seeking out the pleasure that only men can bring him, the craving not satisfied until he could feel hard muscle under his finger tips, the scratch of stubble against his skin, and the taste of cum in his mouth. He’d always be left wondering how he could have denied himself something so good for so long, and fuck Jack fucking Sugden and his archaic opinions on what it means to be a real man.

And in fact it’s this trail of thinking that brings Robert to Bar West, braving the wind and the bitter cold just to say fuck you to his dead dad who’s been in the ground for almost three years. The younger version of himself wouldn’t have dared step foot in a place like Bar West, despite the curiosity he’d felt at eighteen when he’d heard whisperings at college about that new gay place in town. He’d even stood outside a few times, but he’d never found the courage to go in, not today though, today he walks straight in, and it feels normal. It’s just a bar, and while it’s a far cry from the somewhat extravagant gay bars he’d been to in London, it feels comfortable enough, and he lets himself relax.

Robert hadn’t felt much like random one night stands in the aftermath of his attack, but since moving back to Yorkshire, he’s had a couple of hook-ups with a few women, but no one of any significance, and as he stands at the bar waiting to be served, he realises that it’s been nearly a year since he’s been with a man.

No wonder the itch has been getting so bad.

Robert orders a glass of red wine, and leans against the bar, eyes scanning the room for any available talent. The relaxed atmosphere of Bar West has a calming effect on Robert, the music isn’t half bad, and he doesn’t feel out of place here. He’s dressed down, just jeans, a t-shirt and his leather jacket because despite the biting cold, sadly no one wants to shag you if you’re bundled up like the michelin man. He looks good in an understated way, he’s not trying too hard, but he’s trying hard enough that it’ll more than likely get him at least some eagerly anticipated attention.

It doesn’t take long for Robert to spot someone, a guy in his early twenties, tall with copper hair and a blinding smile. Robert watches as he finishes up a game of pool with some of his mates, and he readjusts his position, cocking his hips out a little as he leans against the bar, and doesn’t let his gaze waver while he waits for the handsome stranger to look his way. He sips his wine, and when they finally make eye contact, Robert smiles a little behind his wine glass, a familiar warmth bubbling in the pit of his stomach at the delicious possibility of it all. The stranger nods in his direction, a smile ghosting across his face, and Robert smirks back, cocking an eyebrow as he raises his wine glass to his lips.

Game on.

~*~

Roughly an hour later, and Robert is in his element, he’s absolutely not thinking about anything else, and he’s being pinned to the wall in some secluded corner by the handsome stranger, who Robert’s pretty sure is called Connor. The wine is clouding his brain, but it feels so good to be kissed, and Connor’s hands keep straying up and under his shirt. Robert drags his fingers through Connor’s thick hair, and lets out what can only really be described as a giggle when Connor finally pulls away. God, Robert thinks he really should have finished his dinner before coming out, because that’s just embarrassing.

‘My car is parked round the back, if you wanna…’ he trails off, biting his bottom lip around a smirk, and up this close Robert can see that he has freckles on his lips. He wants to bite them, kiss them off and make Connor moan.

‘I wanna,’ Robert breathes, pushing his hips forwards so Connor can feel that he’s at least half hard in his jeans. ‘Lead the way.’

Connor’s car is far from fancy, an old, slightly beaten up Golf, nothing compared to the comfortable luxury of his own Audi, but Robert doesn’t care, there’s room enough in the back for him to be spread out in Connor’s lap, and that’s all he wants.

‘You’re eager,’ Connor pants, laughing breathlessly as Robert grinds down in his lap, running his fingers through Connor’s hair again because he’s a little bit obsessed with how soft it is. It’s like a kind of sensory overload, and the wine is not helping, but every point of contact between him and Connor just feels so good, and it’s been so long that he’s been with a man that he’s honestly forgotten how exciting the whole thing is. And Connor is really fit which definitely helps.

‘Doesn’t feel like you have a problem with that,’ Robert murmurs, leaning down and burying his face in Connor’s neck, thrilling at the scratch of stubble against his face as he slowly starts to suck against the thrumming pulse point against his tongue.

This is just what Robert wanted when he came out tonight, and he almost wants to give himself a pat on the back for not having lost his touch at all, even though it’s been so long since he’d tried to pick up a bloke. Nothing but hands, and heavy breathing, and absolutely no pretence that either of them are in this for anything other than to feel good and get off.

Connor’s fingers feel like heaven when they finally stretch him open. Robert’s jeans and boxers are discarded somewhere in the car, and somehow Connor produced lube from his wallet, and his fingers are so long and slender, and wonderfully skilled. Robert rocks his hips against the intrusion, and closes his eyes, Connor is panting beneath him even though he’s not being touched, and it sounds so fucking loud in the quiet car, but it’s so sexy. The windows are starting to steam up, and Robert has to grip Connor’s shoulder to steady himself when his fingers nudge that tight bundle of nerves.

‘Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me,’ Robert chants, tripping over his words with how good it feels. He crashes his lips against Connor’s, sucking on his bottom lip, and Robert is so glad that Connor is just going along with everything, though his hands are gripping Robert’s hips so tightly that he really hopes he has bruises in the morning.

‘I’ll fuck you,’ Connor gasps, nodding quickly, pulling his fingers out a little bit too quickly for Robert’s liking, given how long he’s gone with nothing inside him.

‘There’s a-- fuck-- there’s a condom in my wallet,’ Connor says hurriedly, tilting his head back, his hips twitching as Robert rubs his hard cock throuh his jeans. Connor leans in, and licks a slow stripe up Robert’s neck, before attaching his lips and starting to suck at the juncture between his neck and his jaw, and Robert knows he should tell Connor not to mark him, unsure how work will take it, but it feels way too good, and Robert decides to allow himself to give into the pleasure and enjoy it.

After a few moments Robert then abandons rubbing Connor in favour or rummaging in his wallet, retrieving the foil packet and unwrapping it quickly, his fingers far more steady than he’s feeling right now. He’s pent up, a little drunk, and so horny that he feels like he could fuck for hours. Connor unzips his jeans, and pulls his cock out, and Robert smirks a little.

‘No underwear?’ Robert quips, his own cock throbbing because Connor is pretty big, big enough that he’ll stretch Robert out and allow him to feel it for a few days.

Connor shrugs, grinning, and Robert can’t help but lean down to kiss the grin off his face, managing to get a hand between them as he does so, rolling the condom down onto Connor’s cock, loving the feeling of the hot, almost silky skin under his fingertips.

Robert’s eyes almost roll back when he sinks down into Connor’s lap, there’s not really enough slick, and it sends a thrill up his spine. His fingers are digging into Connor’s shoulders through his shirt, and his eyes slip shut as he bottoms out, fully spread open on Connor’s cock. Connor’s thighs are trembling underneath him, and it’s a good job that Robert’s got to do the majority of the work because he’s not sure Connor would be able to hold himself up.

‘Robert,’ Connor moans, his fingers finding their way up Robert’s shirt again, nails scraping over skin, and it makes Robert grunt, his hips jerking. It’s cold outside, but the heat between their bodies is causing sweat to bead on Robert’s skin, and he’s hardly moving, he’s just rolling his body down against Connor’s cock, and loving the way Connor tenses as he does so.

Robert braces one hand on Connor’s chest, the other on the headrest behind him as he slowly starts to fuck himself on Connor’s cock, the car creaking a little with every movement. He opens his eyes and moans when he sees that Connor’s mouth is hanging open a little in pleasure, his own eyes closed seemingly in bliss as Robert works himself slowly up and down. It’s been a while since Robert’s been fucked in this position, and he’s going slowly just to get used to it once again. In fact, it’s very rare that Robert bottoms at all, but it’s been so long, and the wine has loosened him up, and it all just feels so risky and filthy that he can’t help but really start to get into it.

The pressure inside him feels incredible as he speeds up, he feels so full, and it twinges in his lower back, but he just loves it, and he can tell that Connor is gaining in confidence a little bit because he drags his hands down to grip hold of Robert’s hips, holding him in places as he starts to bounce his hips, meaning that Robert hardly has to move at all.

‘Oh, fuck,’ Robert cries out as Connor starts to fuck into him in earnest, he’s moaning below him, a low, growling noise, and Robert can’t help but wrap a hand around himself to ease off some of the quickly impending pleasure that starts at his toes and works its way up his entire body.

‘Shit, m’gonna cum,’ Connor gasps out below him, and Robert moans in response, bouncing his hips as Connor fucks up into him.

Robert clenches around Connor’s cock, and Connor freezes below him, but then he curses and cums. Robert can feel his cock twitching as he fills up the condom, and all it takes is a few more strokes before Robert is cumming too, shuddering, and getting cum all over both of them. He’s trembling, heart pounding erratically as he opens his eyes, and Connor is looking at him like he hung the bloody moon or something.

After the perfunctory, awkward post-sex scramble, Connor looks a little bashful as they climb out of the car, the windows still fogged up from the inside, and Robert can tell what’s coming before Connor even speaks.

‘Uhh, I don’t really do this very often but, do-- do you wanna exchange numbers?’ Connor asks, his voice a little uncertain but his face a picture of hope.

Robert feels a twinge of annoyance, the whole point of picking up a stranger in a club is for there to be no complications, no strings attached, but Connor is looking at him so hopefully that he doesn’t really have the heart to say no to him.

‘Sure, give us your phone.’

Connor’s face lights up, and he fishes his phone out of his pocket, handing it to Robert who hastily keys his number in and hands it back. He briefly considers entering a fake number, but quickly changes his mind. All part of being the new and improved Robert Sugden, it also can’t hurt to have a fit guy’s number in his phone if he ever wants to do something like this again, he supposes.

‘I’ll call you,’ Connor says with a wink, then he quickly leans in and brushes his lips against Robert’s cheek. ‘I should probably get back inside, my mates will be wondering what I’ve been up to.’

And with that, Connor turns to leave, and Robert watches him go, wrapping his jacket tightly around him as the first spots of icy rain start to fall. Robert hadn’t driven to Bar West, having anticipated drinking, and he now sees this as a bit of an oversight as he suddenly feels very sober, and the ache in his arse is definitely going to make sitting down for the next few days a decidedly uncomfortable experience. Robert presses his thumbs to his forehead, rubbing to alleviate the beginnings of a headache, then rummages in his pocket for his wallet. He doesn’t quite fancy the chilly walk home, so he’s relieved to find a tenner there, so with a tired sigh he walks round to the front of Bar West to wait for a taxi, wincing each step of the way.

~*~

Robert spends the weekend finally getting round to sorting stuff out in his flat, relieved to fix up the spare bedroom at last, it having previously been a home for all the boxes he’d accumulated during his move up from London. He’s proud of how it finally looks, although it’s not a very big space, there’d been room for a few small arty pieces on the wall, a twin bed, and a small wardrobe to complete it off.

After being cut off from everyone for so long, Robert made the decision to try and reach out to Vic, he’s not seen her since before their dad died, and being back in his old stomping ground has really hit home to Robert just how much he misses her. When she’d moved to Paris to do her cookery school, she’d asked him to come and see her on many occasions, and he’d made some half hearted promises to go and visit when he had a spare weekend, but he’d never got around to it, and after a while she’d stopped asking, essentially cutting off all communication between them completely.

Which is why, after giving his newly furnished spare room the thumbs up, Robert opens up Facebook on his laptop and types out a message to his (not so) baby sister. The night of his attack, they’d taken his phone, and he’d lost Vic’s number, so even though it had been months prior to that night since he’d last heard from her, he couldn’t have called or texted her even if he’d wanted to. But Facebook is the next best thing even though he hardly uses it himself, and Robert is almost annoyed at himself that it’s taken so long to finally pluck up the courage to do this.

Hi Vic, long time no speak. I hope Paris is treating you well, and I’m so sorry I’ve been radio silence for such a long time. A lot has happened, and I would love to see you soon. Christmas maybe? Speak soon hopefully. Love Rob x

It’s short and to the point, and Robert is plenty aware that there’s every chance Vic could just read it and completely blank him, because it’s what he deserves for being an utterly shit brother, but it’s an olive branch, and he has everything crossed that she’ll accept it.

~*~

Monday rolls around far too quickly for Robert’s liking, not least because the hickey Connor had left on his neck on Friday night is still painfully obvious, so obvious that he almost considers popping to Boots to buy some concealer. Luckily, his shirt collar just about hides it, only a slight purple mark visible just above the line of his collar, and it’s not that he’s ashamed of having it, or even ashamed of who gave it to him, but the nature of his job means anything that alludes to his personal life needs to stay private, and Robert really wants to keep this job.

‘Looks like someone had a good time this weekend,’ Ian crows, dumping his stuff on his desk and making himself comfortable at his desk with barely a minute to spare before 9am. ‘Now I get why you didn’t wanna come out with me and the boys on Friday… So who's the lucky lady? Is it anyone here?’

Robert has to restrain himself from wrinkling his nose in disgust at the lecherous tone in Ian’s voice, whilst considering begging Lauren if she can borrow some makeup to cover up the apparently more than obvious love bite on his neck.

‘No one you know, Ian,’ Robert mutters, clicking open his schedule for the day, and feeling a little jump of something when he sees that he’s got his meeting with Aaron that afternoon. He’d made good headway the previous week on gathering together a list of potential garages that might be able to take Aaron on as a mechanic on a trial basis, and Robert has high hopes that one of them has to be a good fit for him.

‘Someone’s on their period,’ Ian scoffs, and Robert shakes his head at the display of blatant sexism and ignorance, and lets just say Robert isn’t surprised that Ian’s wedding ring finger is unsurprisingly ring-less. He’s also got toothpaste all down his tie. Knob.

Robert catches Lauren’s eye, and she gives him a long-suffering eye roll, making Robert grin, grateful that at least someone in the office finds Ian as insufferable as he does.

Robert logs into Facebook on his lunch break, just quickly while Ian’s away from his desk, to check if Vic’s replied, and he tries to ignore the ache of disappointment when he sees that she read his message over five hours ago, and is yet to respond. Robert reminds himself that it’s what he deserves after acting so flippant and uncaring in the past, and he feels inexplicably sad when he clicks on her profile. Vic’s display picture shows her, beaming at the camera, posing in front of the Eiffel Tower, a red beret perched atop her head in typical French style, her thick, brown hair framing her face, and Robert’s heart gives a squeeze when he sees just how much like their mum she’s becoming as she gets older. She looks happy though, and that’s all Robert really cares about, and if she replies, Robert vows to be better for her.

Robert vows to be better.

~*~

2pm rolls around, and Robert wouldn’t say he’s excited to see Aaron, more eager to give him the good news. He’d seen potential in Aaron, and he’d been strangely impressed by the younger man’s ability to surprise him at every turn, and if Robert’s turned Aaron into somewhat of a ‘project’ in his head then that’s his business. Robert has the names and contact details of the garages written out in front of him, and he plans to show Aaron as soon as he arrives. Aaron hadn’t been the chattiest client, but he’d certainly been the most intriguing with his crime being so opposed to his demeanour and attitude. But then again maybe Robert’s just blinkered, assuming, incorrectly it would appear, that all violent criminals have to be 6’4 and built like a brick shithouse.

When Aaron eventually sits down, Robert notices immediately that Aaron’s expression is possibly even more guarded than he had been at their first meeting. He gives Aaron a friendly smile, and Aaron’s furrowed brow loosens a little as he looks directly at Robert, before his eyes drop down to Robert’s neck, and Robert can feel the flush in his cheeks as he knows Aaron must have clocked his hickey.

‘How are you, Aaron?’ Robert asks, trying not to get flustered as Aaron’s gaze is unwavering now, his blue eyes glinting for the briefest of flashes before he breaks their gaze and looks down at his hands.

‘M’alright,’ Aaron says, but he’s betrayed by his left knee shaking, and the way he’s chewing on the inside of his cheek, eyes troubled and shut off.

‘How’s your week been?’ Robert asks, deciding it’s best to try and get Aaron to talk a little bit before launching into the news he has about the potential garages.

‘Not as good as yours, clearly,’ Aaron quips. ‘Nice hickey.’

‘We’re not talking about me, stop deflecting,’ Robert laughs with a shake of his head.

Aaron huffs a sigh, like Robert’s just asked him to do the most arduous task imaginable.

‘Got my old job back… my mum put a word in with my uncle,’ he says eventually, uncrossing his arms from across his chest, a physical indication of him opening up a little to Robert, and it makes Robert smile. He can’t even bring himself to be annoyed that he spent time searching for potential work for Aaron, because if he got his old job back then it’s an indicator that he’s building bridges with his family, which can only be a good thing.

‘That’s fantastic,’ Robert says, genuinely happy for Aaron even though he’s had no personal input, he feels a strange rush of pride.

‘He wasn’t happy about me having time off today to come here to see you, but I told him to do one. I’m not going back inside just because he can’t spare me for an hour a week,’ Aaron says belligerently, a muscle working in his jaw, obviously annoyed.

‘Do you not get on with your uncle?’

‘He’s alright,’ Aaron mumbles. ‘He just winds me up.’

Robert can tell there’s something else there, bubbling under the surface, something that’s making Aaron uncomfortable, and he’s determined to get to the bottom of it for the sake of his own curiosity if not anything else.

‘Is there anything else you want to talk to me about, Aaron?’ Robert asks, leaning his elbows on his desk to move a little closer. ‘I might not be able to do much, but I’m here to listen if it’ll help.’

‘Anything?’ Aaron asks. ‘Not just work stuff?’

‘Anything,’ Robert repeats with a smile. ‘Like I said, I might not be able to do anything, but sometimes it can help to get things off your chest. Consider me an impartial ear if that makes things easier.’

Aaron nods like he’s considering it, wrapping a stray bit of cotton from the sleeve of his hoodie around his thumb, and tugging until the skin underneath it goes white from lack of blood. Robert can tell how tightly wound Aaron is, and he’s hit by a sudden urge to lean over and place a calming hand on Aaron’s to try and soothe the apparent agitation.

‘The guy I beat up, his name is Adam… he used to be my best mate…’ Aaron starts quietly, though just loud enough for Robert to hear over the steady hum of office noise.

‘Last week I apologised to him… and I told him some stuff about– about me… he actually took it really well, way better than I deserve…’ Aaron’s voice trails off, and there’s a very prominent wobble to his bottom lip that has Robert scrambling for what to say, keen to avoid actual waterworks if he can.

‘Hey, it’s alright, you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t wan-’

‘I panicked, I nearly lashed out again, and Adam… he looked so freaked out, and now he won’t look at me… it’s so much worse, I should have kept my fucking mouth shut. I ruined it, I was doing so well, and I fucking ruined it,’ Aaron spits, angrily wiping away the tears that are tracking their way down his face.

Robert is at a loss of what to say, he’s never had a best friend, he doesn’t understand how the dynamic works, but he’s sure that the relationship between Aaron and this Adam must be a fairly strong one if Adam accepted Aaron’s apology so readily.

‘I’m sure he just needs time,’ Robert tries to advise, glad that Aaron seems to have stemmed the tears, although he looks drained, like he hasn’t slept properly in days. ‘Whatever you said to him, it probably just needs to sink in. He accepted your apology though, Aaron, and that’s a big thing, okay? Don’t be so tough on yourself.’

‘Stop therapisin’ me, you can’t help me, no one can,’ Aaron mutters, and Robert can’t help but notice how fucking blue Aaron’s eyes are, even though they’re red-rimmed and watery after his little outburst.

‘I’m not,’ Robert says quickly, knowing he’s out of his depth a little here. ‘Look… if you’re struggling I can put you in touch with some local mental health services, I’m sure they’ll be able to give you some proper advice in a far more private setting than this.’ His eyes dart over to Ian who’s typing away at his computer, hopefully engrossed in what he’s working on and not eavesdropping on their conversation.

‘Don’t need your help, just fucking forget it,’ Aaron snaps. He’s shaking, visibly shaking as he gets to his feet, and Robert is powerless to stop him as he storms out.

‘Can’t win them all,’ Ian says smugly, his face still trained on his screen as Robert rips his notes from his notebook and tosses them in the waste paper bin in frustration.

~*~

By the time the end of the day rolls around, Robert is exhausted, unable to unsee Aaron’s anguished, upset face, and completely at a loss for what to do for the best. Aaron’s words keep circling around his head, and a sick feeling settles in his stomach as he replays them again and again.

You can’t help me, no one can.

Robert checks his phone as he’s shutting down his computer, and groans quietly to himself as he sees one unread text message pop up.

+44 7742 997126: Hi Robert it’s Connor do u fancy a repeat of the other night? Can’t stop thinking about u x

Great, Robert thinks, that’s the last thing he bloody needs.

Chapter Text

The next few weeks go by at what seems like a snail's pace to Aaron, and as November slips into December, it brings with it snow, and winds so bitter that Aaron finds himself wearing at least four layers when he goes to work each morning. He remembers loving the snow when he’d been a kid, frequent snow days being the obvious perk, but he used to love just sitting there by his bedroom window and watching it fall, watching everything gradually turn into something so picturesque and befitting of a Christmas card scene. It had always felt magical, and he’d loved, even from a young age, how it would feel like a blanket had been laid over the ground, making everything soft, and quiet, and calm. Nothing stays magic for long though, and now, more often than not, Aaron curses the winter weather, and returns to Smithy Cottage at the end of the day, frostbitten and shivery from long days working at the garage.

Before Aaron’s even really aware of it, he finds himself back into the same routine he was in before prison, consisting of long days at the garage, sometimes followed by a pint at the Woolie if he’s feeling brave enough. News always does travel fast in a village as small as Emmerdale, and somehow the locals know about Aaron and Adam’s reconciliation of sorts, so mostly people leave him alone, bar the odd dirty look from any member of the Barton clan, or Edna, or Betty.

The only slight difference to his routine now is his weekly meeting with Robert. They’ve managed to build up a weird kind of rapport with each other, which, after their disastrous second meeting where Aaron had stormed out, has taken Aaron by surprise. Seeing Robert is the highlight of his week, not least because it’s an excuse to get out of the goldfish bowl that is Emmerdale, but because Robert is nice, Robert doesn’t treat him like an unexploded bomb about to go off at any second, and despite the circumstances of Aaron being there in the first place, it’s a chance for him to feel normal.

Aaron had sheepishly loitered outside the council offices the day after his little outburst, eager to catch Robert, and apologise. He’d been agitated, his head all over the place, and it had only been exacerbated by Robert being so fucking rational, and calm, reminding Aaron so glaringly of Adam, how Adam had been when he’d spilled his deepest, darkest secret, and how he’d just ruined everything.

It also hadn’t helped that he’d clocked the love bite on Robert’s neck as soon as he’d sat down, turning his cloudy, irate mood into something positively tempestuous. A stark reminder that Robert is normal, he probably has a girlfriend, they probably go on cute weekend trips away, he probably buys her flowers, and cooks her breakfast on a Sunday morning. Or, failing that, he’s at least normal enough to go out at the weekend, pick up a girl, and fuck her. Robert is a shining example of everything Aaron wants to be but isn’t, and probably never will be.

Robert, of course, had graciously accepted his apology, even patting Aaron reassuringly on the shoulder as they’d parted ways, flashing him a smile so bright that Aaron could feel it all over his body, warming him up and casting out the chill that has nothing to do with the bitter winter weather.

Of course, Aaron’s meetings are now little more than a box ticking exercise, merely so that Robert can say that Aaron’s showing up, making an effort, and is managing to integrate himself back into work. An eight week programme that’s due to come to an end in early January, but seeing as how Aaron has a job now through no effort on Robert’s part, they just use it as an excuse to chat. Aaron knows he’s lucky, there’s not many people that have a family business that they can fall back on, and for all of Cain’s ribbing and piss-taking, he is actually grateful. It’s the garage that Aaron mainly talks about, about how Cain pecks his head at the slightest little thing, and how he keeps begging Cain to get a portable heater for the cold winter months but he’s just met with Cain’s trademark stony glare. He also talks about his mum and Paddy, and how horrendous their PDA is. Robert asks about Adam too, but tentatively, aware that it’s a bit of a sore topic for Aaron, and during the meeting that marked exactly one month since his meetings started, Aaron had sat down in front of Robert, and told Robert with a small smile that Adam had waved at him that morning when he was leaving the cafe. It’s tiny, an insignificant thing really, but in Aaron’s small world consisting of home, work, and seeing Robert, it feels monumental.

‘Probably don’t mean nothin’,’ Aaron had muttered, though the small smile on his face surely gave away how he really feels, and Robert is becoming quite good at dissecting his Aaronisms even after such a short period of time.

‘Don’t keep putting yourself down, it’s a big thing, and it’s better than him completely ignoring you. Whatever you said to him can’t have been so bad after all. It’s a small step, but you’ll get there, I’m sure of it.’

‘You don’t know that.’

‘Call it intuition,’ Robert had said with a wink. ‘You’re a good kid, Adam will remember that, just give him time.’

Aaron has started to notice though, that Robert never talks about himself, he swiftly dodges all probing questions aimed his way, and it’s frustrating Aaron no end, especially considering that Aaron knows that he himself is a closed book, but Robert makes him look positively chatty by comparison. Aaron doesn’t even know where Robert is from, doesn’t know what age he is either, though Aaron suspects he’s got to be somewhere in his mid-twenties at the oldest, and judging by his accent he’s local… though he sounds far more posh than anyone from Emmerdale, definitely more posh than he is himself, so maybe he’s from a ways down south or something. The thing is, Aaron wants to know Robert, he wants to know everything about him, he can’t help it. He can’t help himself. And the problem is that Aaron is finding himself wanting to spend more time with Robert than his allotted thirty minute slot once a week, and that’s a slippery fucking slope, he keeps trying to remind himself.

That’s how it started with Adam, after all.

~*~

Aaron stares out of his bedroom window, that same childish joy racing through him as he watches thick flakes of snow drift through the slowly darkening evening sky. It’s a Sunday evening, it’s just him and Paddy at home as his mum’s off out on a girly day with Charity which will probably culminate in a few glasses of wine at the Woolie, so Aaron lets himself indulge in this weird sort of calmness, as if he’s in his own little bubble.

His room is warm, cast in a soft orange glow from the lamp by his bed, and Aaron finds himself thinking about Robert. Does he like the snow? Is he sitting at home watching it fall just like he is? It’s stupid, Aaron knows it is, to indulge in how he feels, but in his little bubble, he feels like these thoughts can’t hurt him, so he just enjoys the giddy feeling that surfaces whenever he thinks about Robert smiling at him from the other side of his desk.

It’s harmless, Aaron tells himself. He tells himself it doesn’t count when he’s in the shower, and he’s trying desperately to think about girls, any girl, a pair of tits, anything feminine to give him a bit of release, but then a flash of a smile, of long, slender fingers, and blonde hair have him cumming hard across his knuckles with a hand clamped over his mouth. It doesn’t count, he tells himself, it could be anyone. It’s okay if he doesn’t think about it, it’s okay if no one else knows. He’s already made the mistake of telling Adam, but as long as it goes no further then it’s okay. The fact that Aaron’s secret is still firmly a secret is proof enough to Aaron that Adam is trustworthy, and that his secret is safe.

The sound of Paddy pottering around downstairs is a comfort, and as bumbling and awkward as he is, he’s good for his mum, he calms her down, makes her happy, and Aaron is grateful that Paddy stuck by her while he was inside. Aaron can smell Paddy’s trademark chilli cooking away, and it makes Aaron’s stomach rumble. So, keen for some company, Aaron decides to go downstairs. While on the surface, he and Paddy have nothing in common with the exception of video games, they rub along quite well, and Paddy is the first of his mum’s boyfriends that Aaron can actually say is halfway decent.

The luring smell of cooking dinner gets stronger as he reaches the kitchen, and Aaron can’t even hide his snort of laughter when he sees Paddy standing at the stove with his mum’s ‘kiss the cook’ pinny on. An ironic Christmas present he’d bought her the previous Christmas because Chas really can’t cook to save her life, but Paddy on the other hand is actually pretty good.

‘Alright, Padders. Nice pinny,’ he says, grinning ruefully as Paddy jumps where he stands, looking flustered… well, more flustered than usual anyway.

‘I’ll have you know your mum loves me in this,’ Paddy laughs, a little high pitched like he does whenever he says something and is unsure of the reaction it’ll get out of Aaron.

‘Too much info, mate,’ Aaron says with a shake of his head, leaning against the fridge as he watches Paddy sprinkle something into the chilli with an exaggerated little flourish, obviously intending to make Aaron laugh, and it works.

‘Calm down, masterchef.’

‘You’re just jealous because the ladies can’t resist me in this pinny.’

‘Yeah right,’ Aaron scoffs, ignoring the ache in his chest that tugs every time anyone mentions the idea of girls or him getting a girlfriend. ‘That’s me mam you’re talking about!’

Paddy turns then, absentmindedly stirring the sauce while he looks at Aaron, an unreadable expression on his face, his eyes troubled behind his thick glasses. Aaron watches as he carefully rests the wooden spoon against the side of the pan, every movement careful and calculated as if to not spook some frightened animal.

‘Look… um, Aaron. I’ve been meaning to– to talk to you about… about something of a– of a personal nature…’

‘I’m not a doctor, Padders, can’t help you there,’ Aaron jokes, his automatic defence mechanism coming into play, trying his best to deflect whatever is about to come next, keen to avoid any heavy conversations if he can help it. His relationship with Paddy is best left to joking around and congenially taking the piss out of each other, not whatever this is about to be.

Do you ever take anything seriously?

Not if I can help it, mate.

Paddy laughs nervously and wipes his hands on the front of his pinny, turning to face Aaron properly now.

‘Oh, very droll.’

‘What’s this about, Paddy?’ Aaron asks seriously, deciding to approach this much like he would ripping off a plaster, quick and hopefully painless, though probably not knowing his luck.

Paddy clears his throat.

‘I was up at Butlers on Friday, doing some routine checks on the herd and whatnot, and… well I heard John and Adam talking…’

Aaron freezes momentarily, tries his utmost to calm his heart that feels like it’s ricocheting around his chest all of a sudden. They could have been talking about anything. Why would they be talking about him? Adam’s stayed quiet about him all this time, why would he suddenly start talking?

‘Not a crime, is it?’ Aaron says evasively, ducking his head and looking away as he opens the fridge to grab a can of beer, needing something to do with his increasingly tremulous hands.

The hiss of him opening the can sounds too loud in the quiet kitchen. Aaron can barely bring himself to look at Paddy now, and he knows Paddy must be struggling to word what he wants to say with the way the silence stretches on, and on, and on, only serving to make Aaron feel more and more sick with every passing second.

‘Now… you know I’m not one for eavesdropping on people– you know that, I just heard your name… and what with– with everything that went on between you and Adam, I just wanted to… well– I just wanted to hear what he had to say about you…’ Paddy waffles, obviously getting flustered.

‘Just spit it out, Paddy,’ Aaron snaps, his grip on the can of beer slippery with sweat and condensation.

‘Adam… well, he was telling his dad that you– well that you sort of… that you came out to him… as gay…’

All the blood in Aaron’s body is roaring in his ears, and he hears rather than feels the can of beer clutched in his hands slip and fall to the floor with a resounding clunk of tin on wood.

No. No, no, no, no, no.

This can’t be happening. Adam wouldn’t betray him like this, he’d promised. He’d fucking promised he wouldn’t out him. Aaron had only just started to come to terms with the idea of Adam knowing at all, and now it’s all fucked up because not only does John know, but now Paddy does too, and he just knows that Paddy will tell his mum, she’ll tell Cain, and before he knows it, all the fucking Dingles will know, and it’ll be all over for him.

No. No, no, no, no, no.

‘Don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Aaron just about manages to get out, his voice sounding choked, and like it’s not coming from his own mouth, echoey and distorted as what he’s certain are the beginnings of a panic attack start to take over his body.

Aaron’s vision goes cloudy, and he has to grab hold of the edge of the kitchen table just to keep himself upright. He shakes his head, trying to clear it, aware that Paddy’s saying his name, but it sounds far off, like he’s saying it from another room instead of right in front of him.

‘Aaron, Aaron, look at me. Look at me, do what I do, yeah? Breathe. Breathe with me.’

Aaron blinks away hot tears, trying to follow Paddy’s instructions, gasping for air and squeezing his eyes shut. He wants to be anywhere else, anywhere else but here. He can’t do this. He can’t cope with anyone else knowing, he just can’t. And as everything comes back into focus, Aaron decides that the only course of action is absolute flat out denial, Paddy can’t make him tell the truth, and he hopes Paddy now knows him well enough not to push.

Inhale.

Count to three.

Exhale.

‘Adam’s lying, I said nothing,’ Aaron mumbles once he’s got his breathing mostly under control.

There’s beer leaking all over the floor from where he dropped his mostly full can, and it’s seeping through into his socks. Aaron tries to focus on this feeling, rather that than anything else that’s happening, the way it spreads through the thin material, dampening his toes in a way that would be unpleasant if Aaron weren’t already in a state of sheer panic.

‘Why would Adam lie about something like that?’ Paddy asks.

And really, it’s a fair enough question, but it’s one that Aaron would rather die than answer honestly. There are tears making tracks down his face now, and Paddy reaches out as if to comfort Aaron, but he flinches away, shaking his head quickly.

‘Don’t touch me.’

‘You can talk to me, Aaron. Really, about anything, I promise.’

Paddy’s voice is so gentle, as if the strength of his sentiment enables him to speak clearly, no longer stuttering and bumbling as he usually is, and it only causes the tears to fall faster. Aaron collapses down at the kitchen table, burying his face in his hands, rubbing harshly at his flushed, tear-stained skin, hoping that if he rubs hard enough, he can just erase himself and start again. A different Aaron in a different body, a different brain with normal feelings, not this crying, broken, self-loathing mess that he’s turned into.

‘Not about this,’ Aaron says, his voice cracking at the end, but it’s muffled by his shaking hands.

‘So… there is something then? Some truth in what I heard Adam say?’

Aaron doesn’t reply, but he does lower his hands, blinking up at Paddy through teary, stinging eyes. He doesn’t know what to say, there’s no real point in denying it, because surely his reaction to Paddy’s questioning has given it away more than anything else ever could have. He knows that most lads would just laugh it off, and that having a full blown panic attack is not normal behaviour, he knows this, but he can’t help it because the fear is so acute and all consuming, and he doesn’t think he can cope with any of this for much longer. Paddy’s expression is perpetually kind, though, and for that Aaron is grateful.

‘Please don’t tell anyone, Paddy,’ he whispers eventually, his voice taking on a pleading tone that he hates, but he doesn’t know how else to communicate the urgency of Paddy’s total and utter silence on the issue. ‘Please, Paddy. No one can know, not even me mam, okay? No one.’

‘She’d be okay with it, you know? She loves you.’

Aaron knows that, and that’s why she can’t know. He’s already a disappointment in so many ways, he can’t add being gay to the list, he just can’t do it. Chas is trying, and she deserves a nice normal son, she deserves better than him.

‘I mean it, Paddy. You tell anyone and you’re a dead man. You saw what happened to Adam, right?’

Paddy seems undeterred by Aaron’s half-hearted threat, his brow furrowed in want of understanding.

‘What really happened between the two of you?’ Paddy asks, taking a seat opposite Aaron at the kitchen table. ‘You don’t have to tell me, but it might– I dunno, it might help.’

It’s the earnestness in Paddy’s voice breaks something in Aaron, and that’s how he ends up telling Paddy everything, all the way up to his outburst with Adam a few weeks ago. He has to stop several times, his voice wavering and cracking as it turns out retelling it is like reliving it, and he just feels sick to his stomach.

‘He said he wouldn’t tell anyone,’ Aaron says eventually, his voice small, defeated and weary.

‘Maybe he’s struggling with this as much as you are,’ Paddy says reasonably. ‘He can’t talk to you about it, so he’s gone to his dad, and I know John, he’s not one to talk, I’m sure it won’t go any further, you know. I really don’t think Adam’s about to go and tell the whole village.’

‘He better not,’ Aaron mutters, nausea rising up in him at the mere thought of the whole village knowing.

‘Is Adam… is he the first boy you’ve ever– the first boy you’ve liked… like that?’ Paddy asks, a little clumsily.

Aaron shakes his head slowly, unable to shake thoughts of Robert from his head as he does so. He’s not going to tell Paddy about Robert, eager to keep those two things completely separate.

‘There was Kyle… he lived down the road from me when I lived with me dad,’ Aaron says quietly, a small smile quirking his lips a little as he recalls warm summer days as an awkward thirteen year old, watching Kyle and his mates play footie down the park. He remembers watching Kyle score a goal, and he’d whipped his shirt off in celebration, twirling it around his head while his blonde curls glinted in the sun. Aaron had been transfixed, but too young to truly understand what he was feeling, but old enough to know that he was feeling something, and that it wasn’t normal.

‘And did you ever…?’

‘God no! He would have killed me… him and his mates.’

‘So Adam’s the first lad you’ve ever…’ Paddy trails off, and Aaron nods abruptly, not wanting to dwell on his past feelings for Adam.

‘Yeah, and the last. Look where it fucking got me, Paddy. Never again.’

‘What do you mean, never again? Just because it didn’t work with Adam doesn’t mean it won’t with another bloke! It’s not your fault Adam’s not gay, is it?’

Paddy makes it sound so simple, and easy, and Aaron wishes that it could be, but as far as he’s concerned, what happened with Adam is proof enough of why he can never do anything like that again.

‘You don’t get it, Paddy,’ Aaron says exasperatedly, getting to his feet now, the chair clattering loudly behind him as he moves too fast, the movement jerky and stilted. ‘I’d rather live a lonely life than a gay one.’

‘Don’t be so flipping stupid,’ Paddy says, his voice loud and obviously angry. It makes Aaron jump, a little shocked as he’s not sure he’s ever really heard Paddy raise his voice properly before, even when he’s arguing with his mum, Paddy’s always the calm one while she goes off screeching like a banshee.

‘One day, you’re going to fall in love, Aaron, and there’s nothing you’ll be able to do to stop it.’

‘I’m nineteen, I don’t want to fall in love… I just want to have a laugh.’

It sounds hollow even to Aaron’s own ears, because that’s not what he’s doing here, he’s not having a laugh. He’s young, twenty next month, but he’s not living the life of a normal nineteen year old, he doesn’t have mates, and he doesn’t go out, so he knows Paddy’s going to be able to see through him instantly. It’s a poor, transparent excuse at best.

‘Oh, so what you felt for Adam was just sexual then, was it?’

‘Don’t be sick… are you getting off on this or something?’

Paddy looks affronted, getting to his feet and taking a step towards Aaron so that he can place a hand on Aaron’s shoulder, holding him in place like he’s about to scold a naughty child. It makes anger bubble to the surface, because Aaron just hates that everyone treats him with kid gloves, the only two people who don’t are Cain who’s too busy calling him ‘budgie’ and moaning about how Aaron can’t make a good cup of tea to save his life, and of course there’s Robert…

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Aaron. Calm down. I’m just trying to understand, you stupid lad.’

‘Don’t call me stupid,’ Aaron spits, jerking his shoulder away from Paddy’s grip, all the emotion of the last ten minutes rising to the surface again, but this time not in the form of tears, but in the form of anger, blazing hot and so visceral that Aaron just wants to scream. ‘You don’t know nothin’ about me, you’re nothing to me, you’re nothing, you know nothing about me!’

‘Calm down, will you?’ Paddy repeats, reaching out again, but Aaron’s quicker, pushing his hand away while he tries his best to calm his almost out of control breathing.

‘Don’t touch me! I mean it, don’t make me hurt you.’

Aaron’s heavy breathing is whistling through his teeth, his fists clenched at his sides while Paddy looks at him, a mix of pity and wariness in his eyes. Paddy knows him, he knows him well enough when to leave Aaron alone, because he knows exactly what he’s capable of, hell, the entire bloody village knows what he’s capable of if he’s pushed too far. Paddy’s words are ringing in his ears, because he’s right, of course there’s been more to his feelings for Adam than sexual ones. He’d tried really hard not to dwell on any of it too much, acting on pure instinct when he’d kissed Adam, but of course Adam meant more to him than that. The best mate he’d ever had, all loud laughs, and beaming smiles, Adam was like a puppy, boundless energy and always able to put a smile on his face, and fuck, Aaron had just wanted to spend all his time with him. He’d always found it easier to breathe and he was with Adam, and to have it so cruelly snatched away because of his own stupidity is the world’s worst cosmic joke.

‘You can’t keep going in with your fists every time someone says something you don’t like,’ Paddy says sadly, his mouth downturned, and Aaron notes how ridiculous he looks, practically pouting at him while still wearing his mum’s pinny, he’d probably laugh in any other situation than this.

‘Look at you, you’re shaking.’

And he is, he’s trembling all over, and there are hot, angry tears stinging his eyes, and as he tries to blink them away, it only causes them to spill over as a sob hitches in his throat. All Aaron can feel is despair, and all he knows is he needs to get out of here, as far away from Paddy and this cursed fucking village as he possibly can. It’s futile really, he has nowhere to go, but his fight or flight instincts are kicking in now, and his body, acting on autopilot has decided on the latter.

Turning, as if to run, eager to just get out, Aaron moves quickly, but this time Paddy grabs hold of his arm, and Aaron moves on pure instinct, yanking it out of his grip and shoving him back hard, mustering up all of his strength to get Paddy to move. Paddy has a height and weight advantage on him, but Aaron is quicker, pushes him again when Paddy goes to stop him from moving.

‘Get off me!’

It happens before Aaron can really register it, but Paddy stumbles backwards, obviously knocked off balance by Aaron shoving him, his feet slipping in the spilt beer, and it’s all Aaron can do to watch him fall heavily to the floor, his head making a sickening ‘thud’ against the side of the kitchen counter and then the wooden kitchen floor. Paddy makes a guttural groaning sound as he crumples, and Aaron is just frozen in place, his eyes wide in panicked shock.

‘Paddy,’ Aaron says shakily, unblinking as he waits for Paddy to move, to get up and laugh it off like everything’s okay, but he doesn’t. He lays still, the only noise in the kitchen is Aaron’s own rapid breathing, and suddenly he spots it, the small trickle of blood staining the wooden floor by Paddy’s head.

‘Paddy!’ Aaron says, louder now, his legs threatening to buckle from how hard he’s shaking now, but Paddy stays unmoving, his face rapidly draining of any colour, his glasses askew on his face.

Aaron bolts then, legging it up the stairs, unable to stand there staring at Paddy’s unmoving form any longer. Without paying attention to what he’s doing he grabs clothes that were previously strewn on his bedroom floor, shoving them into his backpack, along with his phone charger and his wallet. He can’t stay here, he knew this from the moment Paddy started talking, but now he definitely can’t, Paddy could be dead and it’s all his fault. He grabs his mobile phone from the nightstand and goes back downstairs, clinging to the minuscule piece of hope he has that when he goes back in, Paddy will be conscious, but he’s not, the puddle of blood is larger now, and Aaron sobs out, grasping his phone with sweaty, trembling fingers as he drops to his knees beside Paddy.

‘I never meant to do this. I’m so sorry, Paddy.’ Aaron’s voice is thick with tears, but he tries his best to keep it together as he dials 999.

‘H-hello, hello. Um, ambulance please. It’s– it’s my– Paddy, my step-dad he’s fallen… hit his head, please, hurry, there’s blood, please,’ Aaron stammers out as the calm voice down the phone asks him what his emergency is, and where he is. ‘Smithy Cottage, Emmerdale… please, he can’t— my mum… she won’t– please, help me.’

Aaron ends the call and gets to his feet, focusing on inhaling and exhaling as evenly as he can. Tugging on Paddy’s thick winter coat, he toes on his battered old trainers, and slings his backpack over his shoulder.

‘I’m sorry,’ he whispers, sniffing and wiping his eyes with the sleeves of Paddy’s coat, the rough material scratching at his raw, tear-stained cheeks. ‘I’m so sorry.’

He leaves the front door slightly ajar so the paramedics can get in when they arrive, and Aaron’s never been one for religion or anything that Ashley spouts on a Sunday, but he prays they get here quick, that the weather doesn’t stop them from reaching Paddy before it’s too late, unless it’s already too late, and Paddy’s laying dead on his kitchen floor because of him, because he tried to help him.

The icy wind bites at Aaron’s face, so he shrugs the hood up, there’s no one around but he’s glad it mostly obscures him as he walks down Main Street. He stops at the top of the road by the bus stop, knowing that staying around for the fallout of his actions would be akin to suicide, but also knowing that the next bus to Hotten isn’t due until the following morning, so he does all he can do, and starts walking, taking what little comfort he can in the approaching ambulance sirens.

Aaron knows too late for him, he’s a dead man walking, but he just hopes it’s not too late for Paddy.

Chapter Text

Hi Robert, nice to hear from ya, was starting to think you might be dead! Andy’s coming over to spend Christmas with me, you’re welcome to join him if you want x

Robert stares at Vic’s reply to his message in two minds; firstly relieved that she’s finally replied after over two weeks of nothing, but also the idea of seeing Andy again makes something twist in his gut because he knows how Andy feels about him, and he’d rather not dredge all of that ill feeling up over Christmas dinner. Quite frankly, he doesn’t have the energy, and Andy is definitely not worth the hassle.

Thinking about Andy never fails to put Robert in a negative frame of mind, and his mood hadn’t exactly been cheery to start with. He’d never really understood people who hated Mondays, another work day just used to mean another day of making more money, but he gets it now. The drudge of it all, the Mondayness of it all, it’s starting to weigh heavily on Robert, and not at all helped by the weather, the snow, the cold, the grey slush accumulating at the side of the road making everything look bleak and dreary, like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. He’s also being pestered by Connor, and if he’s being honest, the sex had been good, it really had, but not that good, not good enough to keep Robert going back for more, not really, especially not if he’s going to hang on like this.

The only bright spot on Robert’s horizon today is his 2pm meeting with Aaron in just under an hour’s time. Their unlikely friendship is something that Robert could have never predicted, he’d thought he’d ruined everything by pushing too much on him too fast, trying to get him some mental health support when all Aaron needed, it turns out, was a friend. A friend he’d found in Robert of all people. Aaron had been self-deprecating and endlessly apologetic the day after his outburst, and the fact that Aaron had even made the effort to come back and say sorry indicated that Robert had been correct to trust his instincts. There is so much more to Aaron than his crime, and while he’s reluctant to talk about what happened and the circumstances why he ended up in prison, he’s opened up about a lot of other things, and it’s definite progress from the closed off, sullen lad that showed up to his first meeting over a month ago.

And the thing is, Aaron is funny, if a little sarcastic and dry, and probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but Robert likes it. Robert likes him. And it may sound crazy, after hardly spending any time with Aaron at all, but Robert feels like he knows him, the one and only client that Robert has that kind of connection with. He couldn’t tell you the names or the crimes of any of his other clients, but Aaron had stuck out from the very beginning, and it sits heavily on Robert’s chest. Aaron is a troubled kid, there are obviously so many things that he’s working through that Robert isn’t anywhere near qualified to comment on, but he likes to think that he helps a little bit, and it’s almost sweet the way he can physically see Aaron’s guard coming down a little when they talk.

There’s been a winter bug going round the office recently, so thankfully Ian has been off since the previous week, his desk empty and vacant, with his clients being divvied up between the remaining staff. He’s avoided it so far, and while Robert would never wish ill health on anyone, he’s glad Ian isn’t here today. He’s nosy, a complete busybody, and Robert always feels like he has to watch what he says, especially when he’s with Aaron, for fear of Ian spreading it around the office. He’s hardly divulged any of his own life to Aaron, which feels a little unfair considering Robert feels like he knows Aaron so well now, and he wishes he could be more open. He knows that in another life, they wouldn’t be friends at all, Aaron is the kind of guy that Robert once would have looked down his nose at, nothing but a thug and all that, but not now. Aaron is different, and still proving him wrong at every turn.

Robert clicks out of Facebook, deciding to deal with Victoria’s message later when he’s had time to formulate a response in which he can let her down gently, maybe with the promise of going over to see her in the new year. He glances out of the window, and groans quietly to himself when he sees that it’s started to snow again, and he prays to any deity listening that it stops before he has to go home, not fancying having to abandon his car and walk home. It was bad enough that morning, his Audi is good for many things, but driving on precarious ice and snow is not one of them, and he’d rather not end up wrapped around a lamppost.

The phone rings just as Robert’s about to stand up to go and make himself a cup of coffee, there are a few people milling about, but he grabs it without thinking.

‘Hotten Council, Robert speaking, how can I help you today?’

Robert hates his ‘salesman voice’, he knows he sounds smarmy, but he can’t seem to turn it off, even though he’s not that guy anymore.

Old habits die hard, isn’t that what they say?

‘Ah, Robert. Just the man I’m after,’ comes Julia from reception’s cheery voice down the line. ‘I’ve got an Aaron Livesy here for you. He says he’s early but…’ she drops the tone of her voice when she continues speaking. ‘Between you and me, he’s not in a good way. Would you like me to send him through?’

Aaron is precisely thirty-seven minutes early, but that is insignificant when coupled with the shock of worry that rushes through Robert at Julia’s words. He’s not in a good way, could mean anything, sick, injured, angry? Robert has no idea, and he finds himself nodding even though Julia can’t see him through the phone.

‘Of course, of course. Send him through, please.’

All thoughts of coffee forgotten, Robert pulls up Aaron’s case file on the screen, his heart hammering against his ribs as his brain rapidly concocts countless scenarios that could have transpired to make Aaron not in a good way. Absolutely nothing could have prepared him for the sight that greets him when Aaron shuffles towards him, though, his head hung low, a coat about three sizes too big almost drowning him, and a tatty rucksack slung over his shoulder. He’s shaking all over, and his face looks pale and drawn, like he hasn’t slept for days.

‘Aaron, are you okay?’ Is the first question Robert asks, it comes out urgent, and he indicates to the chair, urging him to sit down, and he looks so bad that Robert is wringing his hands together already, unsure about how to deal with this.

‘Sorry I’m early,’ he mumbles, rubbing at his face with the sleeves of his too-big coat. ‘Didn’t know where else to go.’

Robert’s face creases in a frown, leaning forward to survey Aaron a little closer. His eyes are red as if he’s been crying, he looks smaller than Robert has ever seen him, and it makes his heart ache.

‘Don’t worry about all of that. What’s happened? You’re shaking, Aaron. You can talk to me, you know that, don’t you?’

Robert watches as a tear runs slowly down Aaron’s cheek, and despite his face looking colourless, his eyes are the bluest he’s ever seen them, and it doesn’t do much to calm Robert’s already rapid heartbeat.

‘Ain’t got no place to go… couldn’t stay at home… I can’t go back, I can’t, I can’t…’ Aaron rambles, and he sounds half-way to delirious.

Robert shouldn’t get involved, he should call the relevant people and go through the official channels, because it’s abundantly clear that Aaron needs help, and possibly not help that Robert can give him, but he finds himself getting sucked in, an irrational need to help the boy sitting, fucking shaking in front of him. He’s never seen someone who looks so lost, so completely hopeless before, and it tugs at Robert’s heart, because maybe this is his chance, to do something, to redeem himself. He’s ended up here for a reason, he’s here, in this place, at this time, to help Aaron.

Aaron’s phone rings shrilly from his pocket, and Robert watches as he struggles with shaky hands to retrieve it and kill the call, his phone clattering to the floor, sounding much louder than it should in the quiet office.

‘She won’t stop fucking ringing,’ Aaron mutters, sniffing away the tears that are slowly making tracks down his gaunt cheeks. ‘I can’t do it… I can’t face her, I can’t go back, Robert. I can’t.’

‘When…’ Robert starts, debating how far he should dig into Aaron’s given situation, not wanting to provoke or upset him further. ‘How long since you’ve been home, Aaron?’

‘Last night.’

It’s quiet, but defiant, and Robert wants to tell Aaron that he doesn’t have to hide anything from him, sure that whatever has happened can’t be so bad that it can’t be fixed, an argument with his mum perhaps? Or Cain. Aaron talks about Cain a lot, and Robert thinks he sounds like a real piece of work, and someone Aaron could quite easily butt heads with.

‘Where did you sleep last night?’ Robert asks, not sure if he entirely wants to hear the answer.

‘Dunno, a bus shelter between here and home,’ Aaron mumbles.

It makes Robert’s heart almost seize with worry. No wonder he’s shaking, no wonder he looks like he hasn’t had a wink of sleep, and Robert really should be directing Aaron in the direction of the local homeless shelter, but instead he grabs a pad of post it notes from his desk and starts to scribble his address down, his own hands shaking almost as much as Aaron’s were earlier. He pushes it over the desk towards Aaron, eyes darting around the office, relief washing over him when he sees that no one is paying them any attention.

‘What’s that?’

‘My address,’ Robert says quietly, a little endeared by the way Aaron blinks over at him, as if he’s not used to kindness. ‘I usually get home just before six… do you think you’ll be okay until then?’

‘I can’t…’ Aaron starts, shaking his head, his voice small. ‘You don’t know me, I’m– well, you know what I am…’

‘I trust you’re not going to murder me in my sleep, you need a bed to sleep in, and it turns out I have a perfectly good spare one,’ Robert says as reasonably as he can, because he knows it’s crazy, and impulsive, and probably not the best decision he’s ever made, but he can’t let Aaron sleep on the streets again, not when it’s so cold, he wouldn’t be able to sleep for worrying.

‘You don’t know me, how do you know you can trust me?’ Aaron asks, his mouth downturned.

He looks so sad, and the urge to hug Aaron hits Robert out of absolutely nowhere.

‘I trust you.’

It’s mad, it’s foolish, Aaron is a criminal, he beat his best friend up so badly that he went to prison for it, and yet, Robert trusts him, as crazy as it sounds. Aaron is looking at him, his expression slightly less guarded now, though his eyes are still bright with tears, and Robert can’t help but notice a smattering of stubble, a five o’clock shadow on a face that’s usually clean shaven, borne from a night on the streets. It suits him, Robert thinks.

‘You’re a fucking idiot.’

Robert barks out a laugh, and it catches Lauren’s attention from across the office, she looks up and gives Robert a bemused smile, her eyes flitting from Robert, to Aaron, then back again.

‘Maybe so… but I’m an idiot that’s offering you a bed, might even be able to run to feeding you if you’re lucky.’

Aaron’s expression turns stony once more, and Robert should find this whole walking on eggshells around him thing tiresome, but he doesn’t.

‘I’m not a charity case.’

‘Never said you were, but I need to eat, and I always make too much for just me, and between you and me, there’s no room in my freezer for anymore leftovers, so actually you’re doing me a favour rather than the other way around,’ Robert says with a smile, not entirely sure why he’s trying so hard to convince Aaron to stay, but he really does seem to be trying, and judging by the slight shift in Aaron’s expression, it seems to be working.

Robert takes it as a personal achievement when Aaron reaches out and takes the post it note from the desk, folding it up and putting it in his coat pocket. His fingers have stopped shaking, and Robert has never been so grateful for central heating before in his life. There’s also a little more colour returning to Aaron’s cheeks which does wonders for Robert’s nerves, and he’s struck for just a moment by how pretty Aaron is. Not conventionally so, and Robert would rather walk barefoot on broken glass than ever admit this for fear of a smack round the face, but Aaron really is pretty, his blue eyes, straight nose and sharp jaw have a habit of drawing Robert in and stop him acting rationally. Case in point being inviting Aaron to come and stay with him after barely knowing him all of five minutes based on nothing but a hunch.

‘Thank you, Robert. Really. This means— I’m not used to… I’m really bad at this, but thank you.’

There’s a sincerity to Aaron’s voice that Robert hasn’t heard before, and the vulnerability that accompanies sincerity makes Aaron’s face soften into something resembling a half smile. It makes something bloom and grow leaves inside Robert’s chest, and if he were a braver man, he’d reach out and touch Aaron’s hand where is resting on the edge of the desk, a tiny demonstration of solidarity, to show Aaron that thanks are not needed.

‘It’s the least I can do,’ Robert says gently. ‘You’ll catch your death if you spend another night out there, and I can’t have that on my conscience.’

The image of Aaron huddled in a bus shelter, cold and alone is almost too much for Robert to bear, and he’ll do anything he can to prevent that from happening. He very briefly considers giving Aaron his keys so he can just go there now rather than waiting, but that really would be lunacy, so instead he opts for another smile before asking, ‘You’ve got some money, yeah?’

Aaron nods, bringing a hand up to his mouth to chew on his nail.

‘Little bit, yeah.’

‘Okay, please go and find somewhere to keep warm… my place isn’t far, and like I said, I get home about six-ish. Just ring the buzzer and I’ll let you in.’

Aaron nods again and stands up, his eyes blinking rapidly against obvious threatening tears.

‘Thank you, Robert.’

Robert has never heard his name said that softly in a long time, not since his mum was alive, and it makes a sort of peace wash over him as he gives Aaron a small smile and a nod.

‘Go, I’ll see you at home later.’

So Aaron goes.

Robert will see him at home later.

~*~

The next few hours are some of the slowest of Robert’s life, despite him being busy due to his extra work load courtesy of poorly Ian. He can’t stop thinking about Aaron, and he hopes that he’s managed to find somewhere warm and dry to go, there’s a Starbucks a few minutes from his flat, and he wonders if Aaron’s had the good sense to go there for a few hours at least.

By the time Robert leaves, the weather has got exponentially worse, and Robert resigns himself to the fact that he’s going to have to brave walking home, he’ll never get his car back in one piece if he attempts to drive in this. He’s glad he had the foresight to substitute his usual work shoes for some boots reminiscent of his upbringing, sturdy walking boots with grippy soles to stop him going arse over tit on the walk back. It’s dark and cold and miserable, and there’s something twisting in his gut because he’s not sure how he’ll feel if Aaron doesn’t show up. They don’t know each other well enough for him to go out looking for Aaron if he doesn’t take up his invitation, nor does he have his mobile number to get in contact, so he’s just going to have to wait. He swings by the Tesco Metro down the road and picks up two frozen pizzas in hopeful preparation for Aaron’s arrival, along with a few cans of beer, deciding that Aaron is probably a Meat Feast kind of guy, while Robert (embarrassingly) prefers a Hawaiian.

Robert keeps an eye out for Aaron on his walk home, though he’s mostly concerned with staying upright as the snow continues to fall with no sign of it letting up any time soon. There’s no sign of Aaron loitering outside his flat when he gets home, which Robert is a little glad of because if Aaron is going to stay, he wants to make sure that he has everything Aaron could possibly need while he’s there. Robert’s never had anyone stay with him since moving to Hotten, in fact with exception of a few one night stands, no one else has even been inside his flat at all. Once inside he cranks the heating up to max, discards himself of his shoes and coat, dumps the pizza and beer on the kitchen counter. Robert’s quite proud of the little space he’s created for himself here, it’s clean, and cosy, and just the right size for him, it has everything he could possibly need, and while he’s grabbing some clean towels from the cupboard, a sort of peace settles over him at the thought of having Aaron coming to stay with him, sharing his space and having someone to talk to. He’s only young, he knows that, he knows that the idea of settling down, marriage and everything that comes with it is a long way away, but he still feels lonely sometimes, and it looks like Aaron might be able to help him out just as much as he’s helping Aaron.

Robert changes into a pair of joggers and his favourite cosy blue jumper with the holes in it, it’s never seen the light of day but it’s the comfiest thing he owns, even if he wouldn’t be caught dead in it outside, then heads into the spare room, and smooths his hands over the sheets on the spare bed, setting the towels at the foot and smiling a little to himself as he makes sure everything is in order. He turns the TV on low in the living room, switches on the lamps and shuts the curtains to create what he hopes is an inviting space, warm and homely, before putting the beers and pizza in the fridge. Robert chances a quick glance at the clock on the wall, it’s almost a quarter past six, and the jittery, on-edge feeling that’s been lingering since Aaron left earlier is only getting worse, and he’s just about to admit defeat and give up on the idea of Aaron coming over when the intercom buzzes loudly, making Robert start suddenly.

In a rather embarrassing show of over-eagerness, Robert rushes over to the door and buzzes Aaron in, twisting the baggy sleeves of his jumpers around his fingers in a weird kind of nervousness that’s come from absolutely nowhere. Robert doesn’t do nerves, he especially shouldn’t be feeling nervous over this, he invited Aaron after all, he knows how to be a charming host, but he gets the feeling that his usual charm offensive won’t work on someone like Aaron, or at least it hasn’t so far.

When Robert opens his front door, Aaron stands there, looking smaller, possibly even smaller than he had done when Robert had seen him earlier. The coat really does drown him, and the bottoms of his grey jogger bottoms are soaked through from the snow, he’s holding a bar of chocolate in his hand, and he looks up at Robert before handing the chocolate out to him, a small, uncertain smile on his face as he waits for Robert to take it.

‘For you… to say thanks… I couldn’t afford much else, Cain ain’t paid me for last month yet.’

Robert takes the chocolate and tries to ignore the way his heart lurches in his chest at the kind gesture. Aaron hardly has anything, yet he wants to spend his money on Robert, and it takes a lot to render Robert speechless, but here he is, so he just stands back to let Aaron in, feeling wrong-footed and touched by the selfless display of thanks from the younger man.

‘Your place is really nice,’ Aaron says, awed, and Robert feels a flush of pride at that, especially considering it's such a downgrade from his place in London, yet Aaron still seems to like it, it makes Robert feel weirdly vindicated in his most recent life decisions.

‘Thanks, only moved in here back in August, so it’s still pretty new… you’re my first proper guest.’

Aaron awkwardly toes off his sodden trainers and leaves them by the door, and Robert watches as his eyes scan the room, obviously looking for something as he shrugs off the massive coat and leaves it draped over the back of one of the kitchen chairs.

‘Come with me, let me show you to your room,’ Robert says with an only slightly forced air of cheerfulness.

Aaron doesn’t say anything, he just looks at Robert and Robert has this overwhelming need to fill the silence as he leads Aaron towards the room about to be his for the foreseeable future.

‘It’s only small, just a single bed, but there’s some towels for you there, the shower is just next door, and my room is on the other side in case you need anything…’ he trails off, and Aaron is still just staring at him, not saying anything.

‘Just wait here, I might have something you can change into, I’ll put your wet things by the radiator in the living room and see if they can be salvaged from the snow.’

Robert is waffling now, but once he starts he can’t stop, pushing past Aaron who’s still just standing there in his tiny spare room. He knows Aaron is hardly the most talkative person he’s ever met, but he’s basically gone non-verbal at this point, and it’s unnerving Robert a little. He rummages in his wardrobe, retrieving a spare pair of joggers for Aaron, they’ll be a little big on him, but it’s not the end of the world, he also grabs some clean socks and a hoodie just in case Aaron is still cold. Robert folds the clothes up then and goes back to the spare room, stopping still in the doorway when he sees that Aaron is now sitting on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands, his shoulders shaking with sobs.

‘Aaron? Aaron, hey… what’s the matter?’

Aaron doesn’t answer, he just continues to cry, and Robert doesn’t know what to do, so he sets the folded laundry on the bed beside Aaron and places a tentative hand on the young man’s shoulder, squeezing lightly, offering what comfort he can without overstepping any boundaries. At Robert’s touch, Aaron looks up, his face red from crying, his eyes watery while his bottom lip trembles, and he just shakes his head, as if speaking is too much of an effort, so Robert just keeps rubbing at his shoulder and just hopes its enough.

After a few moments of Aaron choking down tears, using his sleeves to wipe at his face, he rises to his feet, then he’s on his tip-toes, and his arms are around Robert’s neck, and Robert can’t not hug back. He wraps his arms around Aaron’s back and holds him close like he’s wanted to do since Aaron showed up earlier, shaking, and cold, and lost.

‘It’s okay, I’ve got you. You’re okay,’ he whispers, cupping the back of Aaron’s head with one hand and stroking over the short strands of hair gently in what he hopes is a soothing manner.

Robert can’t remember the last time he hugged someone, but he closes his eyes and savours the feeling of Aaron in his arms, trying to convey as much comfort as he can in that one embrace. They stand there, hugging as Aaron’s sobs eventually peter out, and Robert finds that by the time they finally part, he doesn’t want to let Aaron go.

Chapter Text

‘You do know that liking pineapple on pizza is a criminal offence… I’d know. Prison was full of them.’

Robert is sitting on the sofa next to him, and has half a slice of pizza hanging out of his mouth, but he laughs, loud and bright, and it makes Aaron feel a weird sort of accomplishment at the way Robert’s face lights up. Aaron has long finished his own pizza, but it seems like Robert might be the world’s slowest eater, so as a result Aaron is sat watching Robert eat his abomination pizza with amusement.

‘Did you know that Hawaiian pizza is actually Canadian?’ Robert says, popping the last piece of crust into his mouth, looking smug like he’s just revealed some great universal truth.

‘Why ain’t it called a Canadian pizza then?’

Robert just shrugs and drains the dregs of his beer, leaning back on the sofa and propping his socked feet up on the coffee table. And Aaron really can’t get over how homely it feels here in Robert’s cosy little flat. It makes him feel calm and relaxed, like the events of the past twenty-four hours never actually happened, and after fourteen missed calls from his mum, he’d finally turned his phone off and shoved it to the bottom of his bag, making it even easier to pretend.

After what was effectively crying on Robert’s shoulder for an embarrassingly extended amount of time, Aaron had been worried that Robert was going to treat him differently, though it’s obviously not the first display of vulnerability he’s shown him. However, Robert’s been nothing but gracious since his outburst, an excellent host, and while Aaron had showered and changed into the clean clothes Robert had lent him, Robert had put their pizzas in the oven and found a Die Hard rerun on some obscure Sky channel. It’s the most relaxed Aaron has felt in weeks, and he thinks that has something to do with Robert’s presence more than anything else. He really had been loathe to let go after their hug earlier because he’s not sure he’s ever been hugged like that in his life, not even as a small child. There’s always so much noise in his head, but it had all ceased for a moment when Robert held him, and Aaron doesn’t know what to do with that.

Aaron grabs his half-full can and takes a sip, watching Robert carefully as his eyes are trained on the TV. The pull he feels towards the older man is impossibly stronger now he’s here in his house, and this is his chance to find out a little bit about him, now their no longer confined by the bounds of their client/coach roles, they can be friends here, and maybe it’ll help Robert open up. Aaron had never particularly put in any effort to get to someone properly until he’d met Adam, but that familiar stirring is starting all over again, and he feels utterly powerless to stop it.

‘How’d ya end up here then? You don’t sound local,’ Aaron finally asks after a stretch of silence that should feel awkward, but for some reason it doesn’t.

Robert looks like he’s deliberating over an answer, and he leans forward so he can rest his elbows on his knees, his fingers twisted in the baggy sleeves of his well-worn jumper as he turns his head to look at Aaron.

‘I am actually a local… grew up a few miles from here, but moved down to London when I was nineteen,’ Robert starts slowly, and Aaron can’t fathom the idea of moving to London at such a young age. London is so big, and so very not Yorkshire, even Leeds feels too big for Aaron.

‘What made you move back?’ Aaron asks.

‘Well, I worked in sales, was pretty damn good at my job, it made me a lot of money, but then this happened…’ Robert trails off, slowly getting to his feet and lifting the hem of his jumper up.

A pink jagged scar runs from just above his belly button, about an inch wide, and Aaron has to swallow hard at the sudden exposure of soft, pale skin, and the faint trail of hair leading down to the waistband of Robert’s joggers.

‘What… I mean, how– how did you get that?’

‘Got mugged walking home from the pub one night… they tried to grab my phone off me, but when they realised I wasn’t going to just hand it over… they got me with a knife, right there… took my phone, wallet and watch…’

Aaron looks at Robert, wide-eyed in disbelief, eyes flicking up from where they’re trained on Robert’s scar then back up to his face. Robert doesn’t even look phased, like he’s accepted that it happened a long time ago.

‘What the fuck– how– I’m so sorry…’ Aaron’s really bad at this, apparently.

‘It’s okay… I– well, let's put it this way, I didn’t have anyone in London, and I realised the money wasn’t making me happy, I’ve got some family but I don’t see them, so there’s no one else– I was alone… so I came back here, wanted to something new, wanted to try and help people, which is how I ended up at the council…’ Robert stops, lets out a slow breath and lowers his jumper, sitting down again, and Aaron can’t help but notice that his cheeks have gone a little flushed. ‘Your first meeting with me… that was actually my first day, you know?’

Aaron actually gawps at him, struggling to comprehend what Robert’s telling him. Robert’s a natural, and Aaron really can’t fathom that he’s not been doing this his whole life.

‘Would never have guessed… you’re good at your job, I mean… I’m not very good at talking to people, and you got me to open up, so…’

‘I’m a people person,’ Robert says with a shrug.

And Aaron doesn’t doubt that.

‘When you said you’ve got no one… so no girlfriend or anything?’

Aaron can’t quite reconcile this idea with the preconceived notion he had of Robert in his head when he first met him. Robert’s young, successful, and attractive, that last point provided by the nagging voice in his mind that won’t shut up, so the fact that Robert is single is just ludicrous.

Robert clears his throat.

‘No. No girlfriend.’

There’s something in the way that Robert’s eyes dip down as he speaks that has Aaron asking his next question.

‘No boyfriend?’

He doesn’t even know why he’s asking, in any other scenario other than this, he wouldn’t have dreamt of asking, but he feels safe here, he feels like he can trust Robert, so he hopes that feeling of trust is reciprocated.

‘No boyfriend,’ Robert says softly, he doesn’t sound offended or disgusted by the fact that Aaron asked, which makes something akin to hope alight in Aaron’s chest.

Aaron thinks of Emmerdale then, about how much of a goldfish bowl it is, and how it’s impossible to have secrets because everyone always finds out in the end, but it feels different here. No one here knows him, he can be anonymous, he can be whatever he wants to be, and he knows that anything he tells Robert will go no further. Adam and Paddy knowing his secret back home had made it feel like Aaron’s world was collapsing in on itself, but the idea of spilling his deepest, darkest secret to Robert doesn’t scare him one bit. Robert knows the worst of him, it’s his job to know the worst of him, he knows the absolute worst of him, and he’s still let Aaron into his home, and it has to mean something.

Robert breaks the silence with, ‘Can I ask you something?’ And Aaron is nodding before his brain even registers what he’s doing.

‘Why did you do it?’

And if Aaron had been looking for an in, a way to breach the topic with Robert then this is it, Robert’s just handed it to him on a plate.

‘Why did I do what?’ Aaron asks, playing dumb for all the good it’ll probably do him.

‘You know what… Why did you beat up your best friend like that? Your file said you didn’t disclose the reason in court, but there’s got to be a reason, I don’t believe that you’re just this thug that goes around beating people up, okay? You can tell me.’

Aaron’s eyes sting with impending tears at Robert’s words; it really is now or never.

‘Adam moved to the village when I was seventeen,’ Aaron starts off quietly, not wanting to break the fragile mood by speaking too loudly. ‘Didn’t like each other too much at first, not really important why… but then we just started to get on, I started to make an effort with him… I told myself it was because I fancied his sister Holly, and that it would be easier to get into her knickers if her brother liked me…’

Robert laughs quietly and nods, like he gets it, like he’s been there himself.

‘The thing is though… it wasn’t Holly I wanted,’ Aaron whispers thickly, dropping his eyes to his lap, his heart pounding in his chest and making him feel dizzy all over again.

‘You wanted Adam?’

Robert asks the question casually, like it it hasn’t taken every ounce of strength Aaron has in his body to tell Robert that.

‘Yeah. I’d– I’d never felt about anyone the way I felt about Adam, but it was a secret, I couldn’t let anyone know because I don’t wanna be this way, Robert. I don’t want it, but I can’t do anything about it, so for so long I thought that if I just kept trying with girls then it would one day fix me. I just wanted to be normal.’

‘You are normal,’ Robert murmurs quietly, and Aaron takes this opportunity to look up even though his eyes are swimming with tears. ‘It’s normal to like boys, Aaron. If that’s who you are, then that’s normal.’

‘No… no, please don’t be nice to me. I need to get this out,’ Aaron says shakily before continuing. ‘I used to help Adam up on his farm when I could, if Cain didn’t need me, and one day I was up on the top field helping Adam fix this wall that had started to crumble. It was so cold, and wet… I slipped and I just– I reached out to grab Adam to stop myself from falling over, but I pulled him down with me… he was so close…’ Aaron lets out a slow shaky breath, wiping furiously at his teary cheeks with the sleeves of Robert’s hoodie. ‘He was so close, and I’d wanted him for so fucking long, and I just wanted to kiss him… so I did.’

‘And he didn’t take it too well?’ Robert prompts.

‘He didn’t say anything… I laid into him before he really could.’

Aaron’s admission of guilt sounds so much worse now he’s saying it to Robert because Robert has given him the benefit of the doubt, and he knows it sounds bad, it makes him sound like the worst kind of human being.

‘You were scared?’

‘I was so scared he’d tell, I just wanted to shut him up… a-and the worst thing is, he didn’t even tell anyone why I did it, he kept my fucking secret for me even after I did that to him…’

A sob bubbles up in Aaron’s chest, and then Robert’s large, warm hand is rubbing at his back slowly, soothingly, and Aaron just wants to melt into it. Aaron’s never considered himself a needy person before, but right now he just wants to curl into Robert and never let go, despite how mad it sounds. He hardly knows Robert, but Robert listens, and he’s kind, and Aaron craves it, whatever it is.

‘Shhh, it’s okay,’ Robert soothes for the second time in the space of the last few hours, and Aaron has to screw his eyes shut, willing the tears to stop for just five fucking minutes. He doesn’t even know why Robert’s bothering with him, he gave up on himself years ago.

‘Is that why you ran away?’ Robert asks once Aaron’s sobs finally dissolve into teary sniffing. ‘Because it all blew up with Adam?’

‘No… no, me and Adam haven’t spoken for weeks, but it’s worse, it’s so much worse, Robert.’

‘You might feel better for getting it off your chest,’ Robert suggests so logically and calmly that Aaron finds himself talking despite the desire to keep it all bottled up inside.

‘It’s Paddy… my mum’s… well, he’s more like my dad and he found out… about me being– you know…’ Aaron gestures vaguely, imploring Robert with his eyes, not feeling strong enough to say the words out loud at that moment in time. ‘He– he found out and we fought… I didn’t hit him or nothing, I promise, I don’t– I’m not like that anymore, but I pushed him… and he fell. Hit his head… There was blood, Robert, but I called an ambulance. I couldn’t just leave him alone, but I couldn’t stay either, so I ran…’

‘Paddy could be dead for all I know,’ Aaron finishes miserably.

He finally braves a look up at Robert, expecting to find judgement and anger on his face, but he sees instead is a mixture of understanding and worry, and it knocks Aaron for six. Robert still has a hand on his back, and Aaron is struck then with the thought of what it might be like to kiss Robert, he wishes more than anything that his desire weren’t so wrapped up in fear and shame, but he can’t fathom it being any other way.

‘You did the right thing,’ Robert murmurs kindly, the dim, calming light causing the shadows to bounce off his handsome face, his eyes shining with warmth. ‘You called for help, you didn’t leave him even though you could have done. I’m proud of you, Aaron.’

It would be so easy, Aaron thinks, to kiss Robert now, he wants to kiss someone and have them want to kiss him back, he wants it more than anything. He’d kissed Holly, and it had been nice, but that was it, there was nothing else underneath it, no burning passion or anything to write home about. It had simply felt like going through the motions, and while Aaron doesn’t profess to know much, he knows that intimacy with someone you actually want is meant to make you feel good, not empty and hollow.

‘I’m sorry to lay all of this on you, it’s not fair,’ Aaron mumbles, breaking his gaze from Robert’s face to look blankly at the TV screen, Bruce Willis’ stony face with his chiselled jaw staring back at him almost mockingly, as if to say this is what a real man looks like.

‘I want to help you if I can,’ Robert says, dropping his hand from Aaron’s back to land against his knee, giving it a squeeze that makes Aaron’s heart leap into his throat. ‘And I meant what I said… you are normal, and anyone else who ever tells you otherwise is an arse, and not worth your time.’

Aaron just stays very still, his eyes trained on Robert’s hand still lightly gripping his knee, his fingers are long and slender, his nails neatly trimmed, and the words he wants to say next feel like they’re getting stuck in his throat.

‘How can you be so sure?’

‘Well… because I’m like you.’

Aaron focuses on breathing evenly, and it feels like his blood is roaring in his ears as he tries to digest this piece of information.

‘You’re… you’re gay too?’ It feels like a monumental admission just to merely say the word gay, even when it’s not in relation to himself, and Aaron takes it as a win.

Aaron’s only ever met one other gay person before, a kid called Ben in the year below him at school who Aaron had taken great delight in mercilessly bullying simply because he’d dared come out as the only gay kid at the age of fourteen. Now, looking back on it, Aaron recognises that as an act of bravery, foolish, but brave nonetheless, and really he’s the fucking coward.

Robert shakes his head slowly, his thumb now rubbing back and forth against Aaron’s knee slowly, almost absentmindedly, and Aaron’s stomach drops before Robert starts to speak. ‘No, but I’m– I like both. I’ve never really felt comfortable putting a label on myself, but I guess if I like both then I’m bisexual.’

Robert is bisexual.

Robert likes women, but he likes men too. It’s not a hard concept to grasp, and Aaron is no idiot, but he’s struggling to wrap his head around it, not quite sure how you can like both equally.

‘Do you have– do you have a favourite?’

The question sounds juvenile and stupid as soon as it leaves his mouth, and Aaron’s fists clench tightly in his lap, almost certain that Robert is about to scoff at him, and call him a stupid kid. Robert’s cheeks go a little pink, quickly withdrawing his hand from Aaron’s knee, and Aaron feels the loss of warmth almost immediately. He watches as Robert rubs the back of his neck with his hand, and suddenly Aaron gets the impression that Robert is just in the dark about all of this as he is - he’s certainly more accepting of who he is and what he likes than Aaron is, but the last thing Robert looks right now is comfortable.

‘I’ve only ever had relationships with women, but sometimes I like to sleep with men.’

Robert’s reply is short and to the point, like he doesn’t really want to divulge much more about his preference, but that’s plenty for Aaron’s runaway imagination to work with because Robert has sex with men. Robert who Aaron’s been (unwillingly) fantasising about for the last few weeks likes to sleep with men.

‘What’s it like?’ Aaron blurts out, causing Robert’s eyes to dart up to Aaron’s face, a slight deer-in-the-headlights look gracing his features.

He instantly regrets the question, because Robert looks, for the first time since Aaron’s known him, completely lost for words. He looks like he’s fighting something, and Aaron doesn’t know what compels him to do what he does next, but he leans in and presses his mouth clumsily to Robert’s. It feels like his whole body is vibrating, he’s got a hand fisted in the front of Robert’s jumper, and he’s so caught up with the feeling of Robert’s lips pressed against his own that it takes him a moment to realise that Robert isn’t kissing him back.

Aaron pulls away, shaking his head quickly, muttering his apology and not looking at Robert’s face. He can’t do this again, he can’t go through the pain of being rebuffed, especially when Robert has shown him so much unerring kindness and warmth. He’s just about to leap to his feet, wanting to make a quick escape before he can say or do anything else stupid, but then Robert is surging forward, and kissing him back. Robert’s hands are warm on his flushed cheeks, and Aaron feels like he’s drowning, surrendering to the onslaught of emotion and sensation and want rushing through his body. A simple kiss has never felt like this before, and it feels incredible, like this is what Aaron’s been missing out on his whole life, as Robert coaxes Aaron’s mouth open with his tongue, it’s all the proof he needs that this is what he really wants, and somehow, with Robert kissing him like he is, Aaron is okay with that for the very first time.

‘Robert,’ he breathes heavily when they part for air, his clammy hand still fisted in the front of Robert’s jumper.

‘Sorry, sorry… I shouldn’t have done that,’ Robert says thickly, sitting back and putting way too much distance between their bodies. ‘That was inappropriate, I’m so sorry, Aaron.’

Aaron just blinks, his breathing still ragged, residual warmth still settling in his stomach that he fully understands as arousal.

‘You’re upset, you’re just a kid– fuck, I really am sorry, Aaron.’

‘Not a kid,’ Aaron says vehemently, flushed and embarrassed that Robert sees him like that. ‘And I kissed you first.’

Robert runs a hand over his face, and Aaron notices the tremor there, he’s still breathing heavily too, and suddenly it’s too much. Aaron stumbles to his feet and doesn’t let out the breath he’s been holding until he’s safely inside his room, slamming the door closed behind him and squeezing his eyes shut as the gravity of what just happened settles like a millstone around his neck.

~*~

Aaron can’t sleep. He’s been holed up in his room now for over two hours and he can’t sleep. After he stormed out, Robert had tried knocking, but Aaron had steadfastly ignored him, awash with confusion, shame and need mixing up in his head until he’s not sure what he’s really feeling at all. It seems, to Aaron at least, that he’s either apathetic to the point of not caring, or so overwhelmed with everything he’s feeling that he can’t think straight. All he wants is a happy medium, he just wants to feel normal, he just wants peace, he wants the kind of peace and acceptance he felt when he had Robert’s lips pressed against his own.

He’s got no idea what the time is, but he’s so wide awake he knows that sleep is going to be an elusive thing, despite having barely slept over the last two days. It turns out sleeping in a bus shelter while it’s snowing isn’t conducive to sleep, but apparently neither is a comfortable, soft bed. Robert stopped moving around about half an hour ago, so for a lack of anything better to do, Aaron rummages in the bottom of his bag for his phone. He’d turned it off to stop his mum from barraging him with calls, hopefully waiting for her to calm down a bit before he spoke to her. He needs to have a clear head for that conversation, but he can’t see that happening anytime soon. His phone lights up the dark room, it’s just gone midnight, and he can see the notifications for all the missed calls, but a new one pops up.

1 new voicemail.

With his heart in his mouth, he presses play and raises his phone to his ear, closing his eyes as his mum’s shrill voice plays out.

‘You bloody stupid kid! How could you do this, Aaron? And don’t even flaming try telling me this wasn’t you because why else would you have packed up your stuff and just left?! Paddy is in a coma because of you! What has he ever done to you that’s so bad that you have to hurt him too?! I wash my hands of you, if he doesn’t wake up then you best believe I never want to see your face again. I’ve made some mistakes in my time, and I really didn’t want you to be one of them. I thought we’d turned a corner, but you’re nothing but a thug and I want nothing more to do with ya.’

The beep of Chas’ voicemail echoes in his ear, and Aaron is gripping his phone so tightly he fears he’ll crack the screen.

Paddy is in a coma because of you.

The words swirl around Aaron’s foggy, panicked mind, and suddenly he’s on his feet, stumbling towards Robert’s room, not even bothering to knock, bursting in to find Robert sitting up in bed with his bedside lamp on, a book in his lap, and a shocked look on his face.

‘Aaron? What’s the matter?’

Aaron feels so small standing there, in nothing but his boxers and Robert’s hoodie that comes down and covers his hands, he’s shaking but he manages to gasp out the words, ‘paddy’, and ‘coma’, and Robert gets the message, hastily placing his book to the side as he gets up and gathers Aaron into his arms. He carefully pulls Aaron with him, leading him towards the bed, and Aaron finds himself going willingly, the bed warm from the heat of Robert’s body as he lets himself sink down under the covers, and Robert turns out the light.

‘You didn’t do anything wrong,’ Robert says softly, echoing his words from earlier as he slots himself in behind Aaron. ‘You need to speak to your mum, I’m sure she’ll understand if you tell her what happened.’

But the thing is, he can’t, it would mean telling her everything, and he can’t cope with another person knowing, especially not Chas. Aaron doesn't say anything though, he stays quiet, focusing on the fact that he can feel the warmth of Robert’s body radiating against his back, even though Robert isn’t touching him.

‘Can I sleep here?’ Aaron whispers eventually after a few moments of silence, nothing but his own and Robert’s quiet breathing.

‘Whatever you need,’ is what Robert comes back with.

I need you to hold me.

Aaron doesn’t say it out loud, he just closes his eyes, trying to push everything out of his mind, and it’s amazing what being close to Robert does for him, because he feels himself slipping into sleep before he knows it.

The last thing he’s aware of as sleep takes hold is the warmth of Robert’s hand slipping onto his waist, holding him steady, and keeping him safe.

Chapter Text

Robert wakes up slowly, blinking into awareness, then freezing when he realises that, for the first time in months, he’s not alone in his bed. Aaron is sleeping soundly next to him, his soft puffs of breath the only other sound in Robert’s quiet flat. It’s still dark outside, but the faint glow of his clock tells him that he’s got about twenty minutes until his alarm is supposed to go off. As carefully as he can, Robert reaches over Aaron’s slumbering form and turns his alarm off, content to just lay here in peace for a few quiet moments before he has to get up.

The very last thing Robert wants is to go to work, he doesn’t want to battle the snow, having left his car behind the night before, and he doesn’t want to leave Aaron in such a vulnerable state. A flash to last night, kissing Aaron, heavy breathing, Aaron’s fist clenched in his jumper, and Robert had felt so guilty.

It’s safe to say that Aaron’s admission of his sexuality had come as a bit of a surprise, though Robert had tried his best to hide it. Robert knows there’s a gay stereotype, and Aaron is so far away from that it’s almost laughable, but now he knows, Aaron’s behaviour has all started to slot into place. His anger, his fear, his denial, everything eventually boiling down to Aaron being nothing but a scared kid, unable to cope with his own emotions, and no healthy outlet to express what he feels.

Aaron is still in the same position he fell asleep in, curled up on his left side, and the rhythmic pattern of his breathing is calming, the rise and fall of his body only just visible in the dim, early-morning light just permeating his too-thin curtains. The urge to cuddle the crying boy last night had been overwhelming, especially after their kiss, but Robert had held his ground, settling on a gentle touch, just to reassure Aaron that he’s not alone in all of this, not anymore.

7am rolls around too quickly for Robert’s liking, and as slowly as he can, he slides out of bed, leaving Aaron to sleep while he goes about his morning routine. He showers and dresses, and still Aaron sleeps on, he doesn’t even wake when Robert turns on the bedside light to look for matching socks, and he’s incredibly taken with the peaceful, boylike look on Aaron’s sleeping face. All traces of worry lines are gone, his mouth a little slack, buried in the hoodie he borrowed from Robert, and Robert really has to fight against the screaming want he has to just climb back into the warmth and relish the feeling of holding someone for the first time in way too long.

Robert supposes that a night of sleeping rough in the cold must really knock it out of you, and that’s why Aaron hasn’t stirred. He ponders what to do as he sips his coffee and eats his toast, expecting Aaron to emerge at any moment, but he doesn’t. So, with toast hanging out of his mouth, Robert grabs a notebook and scribbles a note out for Aaron so that he doesn’t worry when he finally wakes up.

Had to go to work but didn’t want to wake you. Feel free to treat my home as your own, help yourself to any food you want. I’ll be back by 6.

R x

He deliberates over the kiss for a long time, before eventually deciding fuck it, because they kissed last night, and Aaron is gay, and there’s just too much going on at the moment for Robert to be losing his mind over one tiny single scribbled kiss. The thing is, Robert can’t shake the awful, sinking feeling in his stomach that Aaron will be gone by the time he gets home. He also doesn’t like the idea of Aaron not being able to get hold of him if he needs him, so he quickly adds his mobile number to the bottom of the note and props it up by the kettle, assuming a brew will be Aaron’s first point of call once he wakes up.

Robert ducks his head around his bedroom door one last time before he leaves, smiling a little to see Aaron still getting some obviously much needed sleep, then closing the door behind him quietly when he leaves. He takes one last look around his flat, then spots the bar of chocolate Aaron bought him the day before when he’d shown up soaked and half frozen to death on his doorstep, and he grabs it and shoves it into his bag without a second thought

~*~

Robert is on edge all day, he sees his clients on autopilot, and he knows he must be acting strangely because Lauren corners him in the kitchen and asks him what’s wrong while he’s munching on the bar of chocolate that Aaron bought him. He shakes his head and denies everything because it’s not like he can say, ’oh yeah, I’m going out of my mind with worry because my homeless client Aaron that has just got out of prison on a GBH charge who I kissed last night is staying at my house and I haven’t heard from him all day’. He even debates calling his landline, but he doesn’t want to come across as weird, and who’s to say Aaron would answer anyway, and if he called and Aaron didn’t answer then that would only add to his worry. And that’s the mad thing, he’s not even sure what he’s worried about, but there’s something niggling at him, and he can’t shake it.

It’s also clear that someone, overnight came and Christmasified the office after he left the night before, there’s a shabbily decorated Christmas tree in the corner near the door, and tinsel has been stuck to the edges of all the desks. It’s not that Robert is specifically anti-Christmas, it’s just that he doesn't really celebrate it, hasn’t had anyone to celebrate it with since he left home, and the reminder that Christmas is a mere two weeks away just makes him think of Vic, and how upset she’ll be that he’s not replied to her offer of him going over to spend Christmas with her in Paris. If it weren’t for fucking Andy then he’d be there in a heartbeat.

The only saving grace to Robert’s mood is that the weather has started to thaw, meaning he can at least take his car back with him when he leaves, and Robert smiles when he remembers the look on Aaron’s face from the night before when he’d told him what car he drove. Because Aaron is a mechanic, he’s obviously a car guy, and while he’d called Robert a ‘flash bastard’, it had been said with humour, and Robert hadn’t missed the excitement in his eyes. The first thing he vows to do when he gets home, if Aaron is still there, is show him his Audi, and if he’s feeling generous, he might even let Aaron drive it at some point.

There’s one more client left for the day, and Robert’s just typing up some notes when he feels his mobile vibrate in his jacket pocket. Phones are prohibited on the office floor, so Robert makes a quick exit to the bathroom, knowing he only has minutes before his next client arrives. He fishes his phone out with shaky (shaky!) hands and basks in the relief that washes over him when he sees the text from an unknown number waiting for him.

ate all ur bread soz :)

For some reason, the only thought swirling around Robert’s head as he reads the text, and that’s that Aaron used a smiley in his text.

Aaron Livesy texts with smiley faces, and Robert doesn’t know why he finds that so endearing, but he really does. Because yes, Robert may have put a stupidly placed kiss at the end of the note he’d left Aaron this morning, but Aaron had put a smiley at the end of his text. The very same Aaron that’s all scowls, and jogging bottoms, and muddy trainers, yes that Aaron.

Robert types out a quick reply, probably riddled with errors due to the speed that his thumbs are tapping across the screen, then shoves his phone back in his pocket, but not before he adds Aaron’s number to his contacts simply under ‘Aaron :)’.

He almost trips on his feet on the way back to his desk, the light feeling caused by Aaron’s text at war with the tight knot of apprehension in his chest. Robert’s last client of the day is a young woman named Jen, this is only his second meeting with her, but it’s safe to say that from the get-go, Jen had taken a strong disliking to him, calling him ‘snobby cunt’ and flat out refusing to talk to him, saying ‘no comment’ to every single question he asked like they were in some cheesy police drama. She’s not a violent offender, but she has the temper of one, having served a year for possession of ketamine and public indecency, and as she sits in front of Robert now, she looks like she hasn’t had a wash since the last time he saw her.

‘Look, Jen. I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me… and that is why I’m here,’ he tries, proud of himself for remaining so calm when all he wants to do is tell her to learn some manners and buy some soap.

‘I’m sick of people like you lookin’ down on me and tellin’ me what to do,’ Jen says with a sneer.

‘Nobody is looking down on you, Jen. It’s a really good thing that you’re here, and I promise, I’m going to do my best to help you.’

Robert knows Jen is a lost cause just by looking at her, she doesn’t seem to be showing any remorse, and he reckons there’s a high chance she’ll be banged up again before the new year. He’s paid to sit here and talk to her, though, and that’s what he’s going to do. He watches as she bites at the skin on the edge of her thumb, it’s a trait that Aaron has, but he tries to push that thought out of his head as soon as it arrives, not wanting to associate anything Aaron with the woman currently sitting in front of him.

‘You are, you all are! Preferred it back inside, at least you know where ya stand with people in there, no jumped up, snotty little kids like you judging me in there!’

Robert almost scoffs at that, because he can see from her file that she’s barely older than he is, but she has the nerve to call him a kid.

‘Jen, do you mind me asking what your home situation is like? I can see from your file that you were formerly living with your partner, a Mr Ashley Russell, is that still the case?’

Robert can see her eyes darken, her face twisting into something ugly and angry, and he tries to swallow as calmly as he can.

‘None of your fuckin’ business, ya nosy little cunt,’ she spits, and before Robert has time to really take in what’s happening, she’s grabbing the stapler from his desk and throwing it at his head.

Luckily her aim is off, but it still hits him in the mouth, and pain blooms across his bottom lip as he feels his mouth fill with blood, that thick, coppery taste coating his teeth and making him feel queasy. He’s vaguely aware of Jen screaming as she’s escorted away, and then Lauren is next to him, and he blinks against the fug of shock as he turns his face to look up at her.

‘Shit, are you okay? Let me get you something to clean up your mouth,’ she says, concern lacing her voice.

‘No, no. It’s okay, I just… I just need a minute,’ he mumbles, his heart slamming hard against his ribs as he gets clumsily to his feet and pushes past her, trying to calm his rapid heartbeat as he stumbles towards the bathroom.

The mens is mercifully empty as Robert steadies himself against one of the sinks, the cold porcelain on his clammy hands making him shiver. He blinks at his own reflection then, wincing as he prods his swollen, bloody bottom lip with his tongue, his teeth are stained pink with blood, and he spits harshly into the sink, saliva and blood trickling down the drain as he tries to calm himself down.

He was warned when he started this job that there was the possibility of this sort of thing happening, he remembers Ian telling him, but Robert never once for a single second thought it would happen to him… but then he thought that about being stabbed, and look what happened there. He turns on the tap and cups his hands under the cool water, bringing them up to his mouth so he can swill it around and spit, eager to rid his mouth of the metallic taste of blood. Still shaking, he splashes more water on his face, not caring about how it soaks his hair and shirt, he knows that this offence will more than likely get Jen back in court as its a violent offence, but to be honest Robert doesn’t care what happens, as long a he doesn’t have to deal with her anymore. He grabs a bunch of toilet roll and dabs it to his mouth, doing the best he can to clear himself up so he can properly assess the damage to his lip - it looks worse than it is, it’s split in two places, a little swollen, and he’ll probably have a bruised mouth for a few days, but no permanent damage to his teeth, and nothing that’ll need stitches.

There’s only an hour left until the end of the day, but he gets sent home anyway, he knows he looks rough, pale, shaken up, and Lauren promises to cover anything of his that comes up for the rest of the day, and for that he’s grateful. He fills out an accident at work form, trying his best to keep his hands steady as he recounts what happened on paper. He pulls Lauren into a hug as he leaves, and her cheeks go a little pink when he pecks her cheek in thanks.

‘Look after yourself, Robert,' she says softly and Robert nods, a sort of warmth bubbling up inside his chest as he’s struck with the reminder that Aaron is waiting for him at home, and he needs to buy more bread.

~*~

Robert parks up, a loaf of bread under his arm, giving his car another quick once over to make sure that leaving it in a public car park all night didn’t render any damage, but his baby is as good as ever, and he pats the bonnet lightly, feeling like a bit of an idiot as he does so. He has to pay an extra £90 a month for his parking space in his apartment block’s secure underground car park, but he doesn’t really begrudge the extra expense if it means he can keep his car in good nick.

Despite the throbbing coming from his mouth, and the lingering, residual panic still lurking at the back of his mind regarding the fact that he just got violently attacked at work, Robert is in a pretty good mood when he fishes his keys out of his bag and lets himself into the flat. He’s an hour earlier than he should be, and he starts to think that maybe he should have let Aaron know that he was coming home early, but he needn’t have worried, because Aaron is sitting on the sofa, with a cup of tea in hand, a crumb covered plate balancing on his knee, and a surprised but pleased expression on his face when he sees Robert come in.

‘You’re home ea– fuck, what happened to your lip?!’ Aaron’s expression goes from relaxed and open to panicked as he gets up, the plate clattering to the floor, tea sloshing all over his joggers, his eyes wide.

‘It’s okay, don’t worry,’ Robert says quickly, dumping everything on the coffee table and going over to Aaron, eager to assuage his worry. ‘Some horrible client threw my stapler at me, just caught my lip, it looks much worse than it is, really.’

Aaron does something surprising then, he places his mug down on the coffee table and he raises his hand, reaching out slowly so he can gently brush his thumb over Robert’s sore lip. It’s tender and soft, and a complete deviation from the outward image that Aaron gives out, it makes Robert’s breath hitch in his throat, and he can’t help but close his eyes as Aaron’s warm hand cups his cheek.

‘Are you sure you’re okay?’ Aaron asks quietly.

The real answer is no, he’s still shaken from what happened, but he doesn’t want to put that burden on Aaron’s shoulders, and suddenly Robert finds himself wanting to give in to whatever this is. He’d pushed Aaron away last night because he’d been upset, and he didn’t want Aaron to do anything he’d regret afterwards, but the thing is, Robert has been where Aaron is before, at odds with who he is and who he so desperately wants to be. He knows what it’s like to repress everything, to internalise it and push it down and pretend it’s not there, but there’s only so long you can do that to yourself before it starts to drive you crazy, until you just can’t anymore.

‘I’m okay,’ Robert whispers, not wanting to spoil the delicate balance between them, and almost shamefully enjoying how soft Aaron is being with him. ‘I promise, Aaron.’

There’s emotion in his voice as he speaks, because it’s been so long since someone has been so tender with him, Aaron doesn’t require anything from him, and it means more than Robert could possibly put into words, which is why he tugs Aaron forwards and brings him into a tight embrace. He presses his face into Aaron’s neck, wincing at the pressure on his bruised lip but it doesn’t deter him from holding on as tightly as he can. Robert hasn’t even taken his jacket off, and Aaron’s in nothing but a vest. It's warm in the flat, there’s warmth radiating off Aaron like a furnace, and all Robert wants to do is bury himself inside it and stay there.

Aaron exhales shakily against his neck, warm puffs of breath hitting his skin, then suddenly Aaron’s lips are on his neck and warmth builds in Robert’s fingers and toes, spreading inwards until it’s all he can feel. He murmurs Aaron’s name, but Aaron’s mouth continues to move over his skin, and Robert is struck by how much courage this must take for Aaron, to go for something he wants after so long of denying himself.

‘We really shouldn’t,’ Robert says feebly, though unable to deny the pull himself, and when Aaron pulls out of the embrace, his eyes are bright, full of a clarity that hadn’t been there when they’d kissed the night before.

‘Please,’ Aaron whispers, pleading with his eyes, his hands fisted in the lapels of Robert’s jacket.

And well, Robert is only so strong, and he can’t deny that he’d felt something between them the last time, even though, at the time, all Robert could think about was how he’d definitely lose his job if anyone ever found out what they were doing.

‘Fuck… okay, okay,’ Robert breathes, his mouth dry because Aaron is looking at him, and it’s so intense, his blue eyes almost piercing through him, almost winding Robert and shaking him to his very core.

And then they’re kissing, and it hurts, because Robert’s lip is tender and swollen, but that’s not going to stop him, not when he has Aaron’s pliant, soft mouth against his, and this is every kind of wrong, but Robert can’t bring himself to care. Especially not when Aaron makes this noise and it ignites a whole fucking forest fire inside Robert. He tugs Aaron backwards and falls against the sofa, pulling Aaron with him so that he has no choice but to straddle his lap and Robert has to break the kiss for a moment just so he can breathe. For someone who has no sexual experience with men, Aaron is into it, with a sort of reckless want that’s borne of bottling everything up for far too long, and the fact that he can feel Aaron’s desire pressed up against him when he goes in for another kiss only adds fuel to the raging fire.

‘Get this stupid jacket off,’ Aaron pants, pawing at Robert’s shoulders, and really, Robert can’t help but laugh breathlessly at Aaron’s eagerness, but he sits up anyway, shrugging his jacket off and letting it fall carelessly to the floor.

‘Hate this tie, get it off too,’ Aaron laughs, his fingers fiddling with the knot, and almost choking Robert in the process as he tightens it rather than loosening it.

‘Hey, hey,’ Robert says softly, resting a hand on Aaron’s heaving chest, feeling the rapid thud of Aaron’s heart under his fingertips. ‘Calm down, yeah? I’m not going anywhere.’

Aaron’s face creases up a little, his face going pink and he kneels away from Robert, rubbing his knuckles against his kiss-swollen lips, and Robert realises with sudden clarity that Aaron looks shy of all things.

‘Sorry,’ he mumbles, quickly glancing down to where his straining erection is more than obvious in his joggers. ‘I just…’ he starts, swallowing, his eyes darting to meet Robert’s before he continues, ‘...I’m scared, I-I want it but… but I don’t know how any of this goes s-so I thought if I just went for it…’

Robert rests his hands gently on Aaron’s thighs, rubbing them slowly in what he hopes is a comforting gesture.

‘It’s okay,’ he says softly, his heart going out to Aaron because he knows how that feels, to be scared and unsure of your own desires. ‘I’m not going to pressure you into doing anything because you feel like you need to prove yourself or anything, I promise.’

Aaron looks reassured at that and he smiles shyly, his fingers reaching out to play with the end of Robert’s tie.

‘Was I doing okay?’

‘More than okay,’ Robert admits, endeared by the question, his eyes glancing down to his own obvious arousal in his suit trousers that leave very little to the imagination.

‘Oh,’ Aaron laughs softly.

It’s a beautiful sound, infectious, and Robert laughs too, reaching up to kiss Aaron gently on the mouth just once before pulling away.

‘You’re not… you’re not alone in whatever this is, okay?’ Robert says seriously, needing Aaron to know that what he’s feeling isn’t one sided. ‘I want you too… but we need to take this slow.’

Aaron nods earnestly, and he looks a little relieved, which is what Robert suspected all along. He’s not that person anymore, he’s not going to fuck up here, he’s not going to do anything without Aaron’s express permission, even if it’s at the detriment of his own wants and needs.

Aaron climbs out of his lap then, settling next to Robert on the sofa. He looks like he wants to say something but Robert doesn’t want to push if Aaron isn’t ready to speak.

When he does eventually speak, his voice is small.

‘Would it be okay if I slept in your bed tonight? I’ve not slept that well since before prison.’

And how can Robert say no to that?

‘It would be my pleasure,’ Robert replies, dropping a kiss to Aaron’s temple before standing up, not missing the bashful smile on Aaron’s face as he tucks his feet up on the sofa.

Robert heads into the kitchen rummaging around in one of the drawers until he finds the pile of takeaway menus stashed there, he grabs them and heads back over to Aaron, holding them out with a grin.

‘I don’t normally live off pizza and takeaway, but I feel like living dangerously, so pick one.’

Aaron prods at Robert’s thigh with his socked feet, a smile on his face as he shakes his head.

‘For someone who doesn’t have a lot of takeaways, you sure do have a lot of takeaway menus, Robert.’

‘Just pick one,’ Robert snorts, grinning, his expression changing into one of mock outrage when Aaron throws the menu for his local Indian takeaway at his head.

‘Chicken Balti, egg rice, garlic naan,’ Aaron says smugly.

‘Not you as well, already had a stapler thrown at my head today!’

‘It’s a piece of paper, you muppet!’

‘It’s the principle,’ Robert states, grabbing his phone from his discarded suit jacket on the floor, hiding his smile from Aaron as he dials the number on the takeaway menu.

He knows he’s flushed in the face, because he and Aaron have somehow slipped into this exchange so easily after such a heavy conversation, and as he’s ordering their food, he keeps catching Aaron’s eye and smiling.

And when Aaron smiles back at him, his bottom lip tucked between his teeth like he’s trying not to, Robert knows that he’s completely and utterly fucked.

Chapter Text

‘That’ll be five pounds please, love.’

The kind lady at the hospital shop gives Aaron a smile as he hands her a five pound note, and in return she hands him the small bunch of flowers that honestly look in dire need of water, but Aaron only has a fiver left, and they’re all he can afford.

It’s taken Aaron nearly five days of living with Robert to pluck up the courage to try and visit Paddy in the hospital. Hell, he doesn’t even know if Paddy’s here, he doesn’t know what’s happened to him at all other than he’s in a coma. The previous day, Robert had come home from work to find Aaron in floods of tears, clutching his mobile in his hand, desperately wanting to ring his mum and explain everything, but he just couldn’t do it. And despite Robert soothing him and telling him that these things take time, he couldn’t just sit around and do nothing, which is why he’s here, on a rainy Friday afternoon in December, with a cheap bunch of flowers clutched in his hands, feet shuffling nervously as he waits at the front desk to be seen by the frazzled looking receptionist.

‘How can I help, love?’

‘I’m here to see Paddy Kirk, could you tell me what ward he’s on, please?’

Extra polite, his mum would be proud of him… or at least once upon a time, she would have been.

‘What’s your relation to Mr Kirk?’ She asks, and Aaron glances down to read her name tag, declaring her name as Rachel.

‘He’s my… well, he’s like my dad,’ Aaron states, tripping over his words a little, and it’s only now that it strikes him that there’s a very strong possibility that his mum might actually be here, or Marlon, or Pearl, or any number of well-wishing villagers who want to support the local vet.

Rachel nods, as if satisfied with this answer, then types away with her long, shiny pink nails until she looks up at him with a smile.

‘Mr Kirk is still in ICU, you can go and see him but I will advise you that we only let two visitors in at a time… if there’s anyone else up there then you’ll have to wait until they leave before you go in.’

Aaron swallows, partially relieved that at least this means that Paddy is still alive, but he’s also terrified of seeing someone he knows, he just can’t deal with it right now, and he’s starting to wish he’d asked Robert to come with him.

‘First floor, up the stairs, turn right, then it’s the first ward on your left.’

Rachel gives him a genuine smile as Aaron says his thanks, his grip on the flowers now slippery with sweat from apprehension and nerves. He follows her directions to the ward almost on a weird kind of autopilot, despite never having been here before in his life, apart from that time he’d broken his wrist as a kid. He hates it, and while it’s obvious that no one actually likes being in hospitals, it doesn’t stop him from feeling sick from the clinical smell, the beeping of machines making his heart pound so fast he feels dizzy.

He stares blearily around the ward, looking for someone to ask, not feeling comfortable to go looking for Paddy for fear of intruding on the wrong person.

‘Who are you looking for, love?’ A nurse in blue scrubs asks him, and Aaron wonders if it’s mandatory that all hospital staff call all visitors love, or something.

‘Paddy Kirk,’ he mumbles, raising a hand to fiddle with a piece of dry skin at the corner of his mouth, fingers still wrapped tightly around the sad bunch of flowers hanging down by his side.

‘Ah yes, lovely Paddy. Have you been to see him yet?’

Aaron shakes his head, feeling sicker and sicker with every passing second, because if this kind nurse knew that he was the reason Paddy was here in the first place then there’s no way she’d be so nice to him.

‘Well, please don’t be alarmed by all the wires and machines that he’s hooked up to, we just need to monitor everything, they’re nothing to be worried about.’

The nurse leads him a little way down the corridor then indicates a door on the left.

‘Just in there… and if you want to leave the flowers on the side, I’m sure the duty nurse will pop them in some water for you when she has a minute.’

He’s left alone after that, his trembling hand turning the door handle, relieved at least that there’s no one else in there with him. There’s a steady beep of the heart monitor whirring away in the background, and Aaron’s heart shatters when he sees Paddy, eyes shut, his normally ruddy cheeks pale under the harsh hospital lighting. A few stray tears escape as he lays the flowers on the side for the nurse to deal with later, and he hastily wipes them away, wishing he had Robert here so he could take strength from the older man, because this is all just too much for him to deal with on his own.

‘Padders, mate, I’m so sorry,’ Aaron says, voice thick with tears as he pulls up a chair close enough to the bed so he can clasp Paddy’s hand in his. ‘You didn’t deserve any of this, I’m a fucking idiot, and I’m sorry– I need you to wake up, not for me but for me mam. She needs ya. She hates me, but she needs ya. Please, Paddy. Please wake up.’

A sob rattles around in his chest before it breaks free, his grip on Paddy’s hand tightening, and for a moment, Aaron thinks that Paddy will wake, like he’s just asleep, and not in a fucking coma. He doesn’t though, his breathing stays steady, the beeping machine persistent but strangely comforting as it’s proof at least that Paddy is still alive in there somewhere.

Aaron’s phone vibrating in his pocket makes him start, and he sniffs, wiping his face with the sleeve of his hoodie as he checks to see who it is, giving a watery smile to himself when he sees that it’s from Robert. It’s not even anything that important, just Robert asking him if he prefers spaghetti bolognese or spaghetti with meatballs for dinner, to which Aaron replies, ’same thing innit?’, and a few seconds later getting a one word answer back that simply says ’HEATHEN’.

Letting out a slow, shaky breath, glad his tears have stopped for now, Aaron looks over at Paddy, taking hold of his hand again.

‘I think I’ve met someone, Paddy,’ he admits quietly, looking away and down at his lap at his admission. ‘He’s so good, and kind, and I’m so scared. I have no idea why he likes me, but he’s taking care of me, and I like him a lot… I think you’d like him…’

The mere idea of a future existing where Aaron can proudly introduce Paddy to someone he likes like that, like a boyfriend, feels so far out of reach, but Aaron can’t help but feel that freely admitting that there’s someone he likes is at least the first step. It doesn’t matter that Paddy can’t hear him, Aaron has said the words now, and that makes it real.

~*~

The persistent rain of earlier has petered out into a fine drizzle by the time Aaron leaves the hospital an hour later, night has descended and a bitter wind has picked up that makes Aaron’s fingers go numb as he walks back towards Robert’s flat. He has Robert’s spare key to the flat now, and Aaron can’t help but marvel at the weird domesticity of his newfound life with Robert. He knows it’s not permanent, and they’ve discussed that Aaron needs to at least keep up the pretence of coming to his meetings for the next few weeks to not arouse any suspicion, but Aaron is starting to fall into a routine with Robert, and the idea of having to go back to Emmerdale at some point ties his stomach in knots. He feels like a different Aaron when he’s with Robert, Robert doesn’t treat him like a child, and they rarely, if ever, bring up Aaron’s past, they barely even bring up Robert’s job, unless he has any funny anecdotes or stories to tell him when he comes home at the end of the day.

Aaron’s shivering by the time he gets home. The only coat he has with him is the one he stole from Paddy when he ran away, and for some reason he can’t quite bring himself to put it on again, but equally he feels bad asking to wear something of Robert’s when Robert has helped him out so much already. Which is silly really considering that he’s pretty sure he’s wearing a pair of Robert’s socks, and the plain white t-shirt under his soaked hoodie is also Robert’s, not to mention the hoodie of Robert’s that he sleeps in each night - it turns out he did a pretty poor job of packing to run away in the grand scheme of things.

Robert isn’t back when Aaron lets himself in, but it doesn’t worry him, judging by Robert’s text, he’s probably grabbing some ingredients for dinner. Aaron, is freezing however, so he toes off his trainers, leaves them by the door and grabs his towel from the back of the door of the bedroom that’s supposedly his, though he sleeps every night in Robert’s bed. And that’s what Aaron thinks about when he steps under the warm spray of the shower, letting the water wash over him, and warm him up.

They haven’t done anything since Aaron’s second night of staying over, when Robert came home with his bruised mouth, for which Aaron is grateful. He knows that Robert could push for it if he wanted to, but he’s being slow and patient with him, and Aaron appreciates it more than he knows how to articulate. A mere thank you isn’t enough for everything Robert’s done for him over the last week, for the way Robert holds him at night, and Robert probably has no idea just how much he’s helping Aaron come to terms with everything. He never thought he’d feel so safe and secure with a man’s arms around him, and it just puts into perspective and solidifies how wrong it had felt when he used to cuddle up with Holly, and no amount of trying was ever going to change that.

Aaron’s hand strays down to his semi-hard cock, resting against his thigh, stirring at the thought of Robert’s sturdy, strong body against his own. There’s nothing feminine about Robert, even his neatly trimmed nails and soft hands manage to be manly, and the urge to have those hands touch him properly is getting stronger with each passing day that he spends in Robert’s company. The desire no longer makes him feel sick, it no longer sits heavily on his chest, warring with his desire to be whatever fucked up idea of normal he used to have, he just accepts that it’s what he wants, and he can only hope that Robert wants him in exactly the same way.

With the water running down his back, Aaron rests a hand against the shower tile, the other now wrapped around his cock, stroking himself to full hardness as he closes his eyes. He imagines Robert’s lips on the back of his neck, Robert’s hands roaming all over his chest, and the thoughts are so vivid that he can’t help the choked off moan that spills from his mouth when he swipes his thumb over the leaky head of his cock. He murmurs Robert’s name, pleasure sparking through his entire body, and it’s as much an admission of something as telling Paddy about Robert in the hospital earlier. It feels like a weight has been lifted, and his legs go weak and shaky under him when his orgasm hits, cum splattering against the wall then trickling down the drain as he tries to regain control of his breathing.

Aaron hears the front door closing as he’s wrapping a towel around his waist, his entire body still flushed and tingling from his orgasm, and he realises with a flash of panic that there’s no way of him getting from the bathroom to the bedroom without Robert seeing him essentially naked.

‘Aaron, are you home?’ Robert calls out, muffled through the bathroom door.

Home, Aaron thinks with a small smile.

‘Just in the shower, won’t be a sec!’ Aaron calls back, knowing logically that there’s no way Robert will be able to tell that he just had a wank in the shower thinking about him, and he can attribute the flush on his skin to the heat of the water, but it doesn’t stop him worrying.

He secures his towel tightly around his waist, worrying his lip nervously between his teeth as he opens the bathroom door, an inexplicable happiness flooding his chest when he sees Robert unloading a bag of shopping into the fridge. Robert stops what he’s doing when he sees Aaron standing there, hair still wet and dripping all over his chest, and Aaron’s never really felt self-conscious about his body, but his heart is in his throat at the blindingly obvious way Robert’s eyes rake down his chest before snapping up to meet his eyes.

Robert coughs, looks away, then lifts up a pack of meatballs from the counter, waving them at Aaron like the massive nerd that he is.

‘Went for meatballs in the end… and I’ll have you know that meatballs and bolognese are not the same, you philistine.’

‘Phili-what?’ Aaron asks, his brow furrowing in confusion.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ Robert laughs, shaking his head with amusement.

‘Git,’ Aaron mutters in faux annoyance, rolling his eyes and turning on his heel to go and put some clothes on, warmth prickling his skin as he can feel Robert’s eyes on him, watching him as he retreats to his room.

~*~

‘I went to see Paddy today.’

Aaron’s words hang in the silence of the bedroom where they’re laying facing each other, and Aaron can just about make out the small smile on Robert’s face in the dark room.

‘That’s a big step. How is he?’

‘Still in a coma,’ Aaron says softly. ‘No change… I was so scared I’d run into my mum or someone there, but it was just me. I just– I had to see for myself, and he’s hooked up to all these machines which looked really scary but, well, they show that he’s still alive… it could still all be okay.’

A few stray tears escape and make their way down Aaron’s cheeks, and he buries his face in the collar of Robert’s hoodie that now might as well be his by this point.

‘I still think you should try and call your mum, Aaron,’ Robert suggests, but his voice isn’t judgemental or pushy which Aaron appreciates.

‘Not yet,’ Aaron mumbles.

‘Why not?’

Because then you’ll make me leave you.

‘Don’t push me, Robert, please.’

Aaron knows he sounds desperate, but he wants to stay like this with Robert for just a little bit longer, and if he makes contact with his mum, then he knows he’ll have to go home to her, Robert will insist upon it. And it’s like Robert can read his mind, really, when he speaks next, and it soothes Aaron’s soul.

‘You can stay here for as long as you want.’

Every impulse in Aaron’s body is screaming at him to reach out, he needs it more than he needs oxygen at this point, but he keeps his hands tucked in his sleeves under his head, and simply gazes at Robert, unspeaking, just looking at him through the dim light.

‘My sister wants me to spend Christmas in Paris with her,’ Robert says after a few minutes of them just looking at each other, cocooned in their own little bubble of whatever it is between them.

‘Oh,’ is all Aaron can think to say in response, his stomach sinking as he assumes that, despite his previous statement, this means Robert wants Aaron out of his hair by Christmas.

‘I told her no. She’s not very happy with me.’

Rather selfishly, relief washes over Aaron, but he doesn’t let himself enjoy it because the sad look on Robert’s face makes something in his chest ache.

‘How come you said no? Christmas in Paris has got to be better than Hotten.’

Robert shuffles imperceptibly closer, and Aaron holds his breath for a second, then lets it out in one long rush when he feels Robert’s hand clasp at his in the darkness.

‘My brother Andy is going to be there… we don’t get on. There’s a lot of bad blood between us, and I think they’ll have a better Christmas if I’m not there,’ Robert says quietly, a sadness lacing his voice that Aaron doesn’t know what to do with.

Robert doesn’t elaborate further, so Aaron just squeezes his fingers and moves a little closer. He can feel the warmth radiating off his body that somehow manages to settle in Aaron’s bones and tether him in a way he’s never experienced before.

‘I told Paddy about you,’ Aaron admits, somehow knowing that Robert will understand what a big deal this is. ‘I mean… I know he’s not awake n’that, but I was talking to him, and I told him about you. Not about how we met, and what you do… but just what you’ve done for me, how good you are, how kind you–’

‘Can I kiss you?’

Robert cuts Aaron off with a question that simultaneously stills him and causes his heart to jackknife in his chest, his mouth going dry, but he’s nodding before he can really register anything. And then Robert’s mouth is on his in the darkness, and Robert’s hands are cupping his face, and Aaron just lets himself get lost in it because Robert’s mouth is so warm, and his lips are soft, he tastes like toothpaste and ever so faintly of the glass of wine he’d had with dinner, and it’s everything.

It feels like Robert is everywhere, hovering above him, hands sliding up to slowly drag his fingers through Aaron’s closely cropped hair. Every inch of Aaron’s body feels like it’s vibrating, and he gasps for breath when Robert pulls away, pressing their foreheads together, their breath mingling.

‘Thank you for seeing the good in me,’ Robert whispers, heart-achingly sincere, then brushes his nose gently over Aaron’s.

‘Soft,’ Aaron murmurs, his tongue feeling too big for his mouth, and his heart pounding in his chest.

‘I haven’t always been like this,’ Robert admits while Aaron tentatively brings a hand up to brush over the hair at the back of Robert’s head. ‘Didn’t used to be very nice at all, actually.’

‘Sounds like neither of us are a fan of our past selves then, dun’it?’ Aaron murmurs.

Robert nods, and kisses him again, slower this time, deeper, and Aaron doesn’t think he’s ever been kissed like this before, like the air is being stolen from his lungs. When Robert’s tongue nudges against his bottom lip, Aaron has nothing left to do but open his mouth and moan when he starts to lick inside his mouth.

‘Is this okay?’ Robert breathes when they break apart again, and it’s like Robert has stolen Aaron’s capacity to speak, so he just nods feverishly, and this time loops his arms around Robert’s neck to tug him closer, lips seeking Robert’s desperately in the dark.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Robert, stop talking,’ Aaron pants, suddenly feeling way too hot in all the layers he’s got on, combined with the warmth radiating from Robert’s body, he feels like he’s fucking melting.

‘Received and understood,’ Robert laughs breathlessly, and it jolts Aaron out of his kiss-drunk haze and makes him laugh because Robert really is a huge nerd.

Robert pins him to the bed, and while Aaron would usually feel trapped and crowded, he lets him, he lets Robert cover his body and kiss him. He can feel Robert’s excitement through the thin material of his boxers, and it shoots a pulse of want straight to his cock, flashes of himself in the shower, rubbing one out to the thought of Robert’s mouth and hands all over him. It’s intoxicating, and he can’t help the embarrassing whimper when Robert’s cock rubs against his own, and he blinks up at Robert because this is something completely new altogether, undiscovered territory that both excites and terrifies Aaron in equal measure.

Everything becomes hazy when Robert starts to kiss at Aaron’s neck, the barest hint of stubble rubbing against the sensitive skin and making heat curl in his stomach at how it feels to have someone older and more experienced take care of him. Aaron writhes under Robert and struggles to pull his hoodie off, tossing it to the floor, breathing hard like he’s run a marathon, then shivering as the cool air hits his overheated skin. They’re both now clad in nothing but t-shirts and boxers, and it feels monumental when Robert pulls him in, their legs sliding together under the covers. The kiss gets sloppier, messier, and when Robert moans, Aaron can’t help but moan back in response. It never felt like this with Holly, even having actual, proper sex with Holly didn’t feel this good, and he and Robert aren’t even naked.

‘Tell me to stop and I will,’ Robert breathes, betrayed by his shaky breathing, and the fact that his lips are dragging up and down Aaron’s jaw like he can’t bear to not have his mouth on Aaron for even a second.

‘Don’t stop,’ Aaron whispers, screwing his eyes shut and groaning when Robert reaches down between them, resting a hand on Aaron’s hip to anchor him to the bed before slowly, purposefully grinding against him in a way that makes Aaron’s toes curl.

Aaron can feel the thickness of Robert, the weight of him, and he feels like he’s in some kind of haze. He’s never known lust like this, and it knocks him for six because he’d always assumed that if he ever mustered up enough courage to go after what he wants, that he’d be nervous or worse still, wouldn’t be able to go through with it properly. This calm acceptance is something he could have never predicted, but with Robert thrusting against him and moaning in his ear, Aaron feels completely at peace with who, and what he is.

‘Fuck, Aaron– you feel so fucking good,’ Robert pants, his lips brushing over any part of Aaron he can reach, his lips, his cheeks, his jaw. And Aaron thinks it’s utter madness because they’re still clothed, they’re not even having sex, they’re just rubbing up against each other like two horny teenagers, and it’s perfect.

Aaron just rolls his hips up in response, struggling to find the words to tell Robert that he’s close, he’s teetering on the edge, his cock aching and leaking in his boxers, and he knows without a shadow of a doubt that if Robert were to touch his cock for real then it would be game over. But then, it’s as if Robert reads his mind, because he moves faster, hips snapping against Aaron’s, and Aaron can only hold on, allowing his hands to slide up the back of Robert’s t-shirt, his fingers slipping a little in the sweat as he drags his fingers down the damp, smooth skin. He doesn’t miss the way Robert shudders at the touch, so he does it again.

‘Christ, Aaron!’

Robert’s words trail off on a whine, his hips losing all rhythm as he starts to cum, tipping Aaron over the edge too from the mere idea of what they’ve just done. And when Robert’s hips eventually slow, he buries his face in Aaron’s neck, hot puffs of breath against his sweaty skin. It feels intimate, and Aaron feels like he’s having an out of body experience as he lets his fingers card through the sweaty strands of hair at the base of Robert’s neck, both of them breathing slowly and relishing in the feeling of being in each other’s arms as they come down together.

~*~

‘If you think I’m going to be impressed by your private apartment car park then you’ve got another thing coming,’ Aaron says with an eye roll, but a playful tone in his voice.

Aaron’s definitely not going to let Robert know it, but he really is kind of impressed, and not to mention the excitement at finally getting to see Robert’s car that he won’t shut up about.

The lift dings to announce its arrival and they step inside, Robert has a smug look on his face but he stays silent, like he already knows that the minute they get down to the car park, Aaron is going to be dribbling over his car. Aaron kicks at Robert’s smart brogues playfully with his dirty trainer which earns him an elbow to the ribs in return.

‘Where are we even going?’ Aaron asks, wrapping his arms around himself, cold even though Robert’s lent him a coat.

‘We’re off to the garden centre… there’s this one on the outskirts of town, got some bits I need to get.’

‘Alright, grandad,’ Aaron scoffs. ‘Why do you want plants n’that? You don’t have a garden or even a balcony.’

‘You’ll see.’

Robert’s smugness is infuriating, but at the same time Aaron doesn’t mind. He's been floating on a cloud since last night, and he swears he can still feel the ghost of Robert’s body all over him, kissing him, touching him…

Robert doesn’t say anything else as the lift opens and he leads Aaron through the car park, and Aaron is still a little incredulous that Robert actually pays to park his car in the place that he lives.

Flash git.

God fucking damnit, is what Aaron thinks to himself when Robert stops in front of his shiny, sleek, amdittedly completely gorgeous Audi. It’s white bodywork practically gleams, and Aaron is impressed that Robert has managed to keep it so clean given the dismal winter weather.

‘Admit it, you’re impressed,’ Robert smirks, folding his arms over his chest and joining Aaron in his admiration.

‘S’alright,’ Aaron shrugs, all the while itching to grab the keys from Robert’s hand just so he can sit behind the wheel of something so gorgeous.

‘You are such a wind up, Livesy. Just shut up and get in.’

Aaron sort of hates how Robert can see right through him sometimes, okay, all the time, but he does as he’s told, getting into the front passenger seat, and basically drooling at the soft black leather with red trim that adorns the inside. It smells expensive, and he knows it cost more than Aaron could make in a year, five times over. The ride is smooth, but that’s not really what Aaron is focussing on during the drive, he’s more taken by Robert’s side profile, the relaxed smile on his face as he navigates the out of town traffic, the way his fingers tap at the steering wheel, and he mouths the words when ‘You Belong With Me’ by Taylor Swift comes on the radio.

‘Sure you’re twenty-five and not a fifteen year old girl?’ Aaron remarks, trying to push down the butterflies when Robert raises an eyebrow at him, then reaches down and gently squeezes his knee before returning his hand to the wheel.

When they finally get to the garden centre, Aaron can’t help but wonder how they must look together to the outside world. Robert’s wearing smart jeans and a blue button down under his expensive looking coat, and even though this is Robert’s ‘dressed down' look, Aaron still feels shabby by comparison in his joggers, and hoodie, even with a coat of Robert’s thrown over the top of it.

The garden centre is in full Christmas mode, trees, decorations, and boxes of cards absolutely everywhere, and with just under two tweeks to go until the big day, it’s understandably packed.

‘You still haven’t told me why we’re actually here?’ Aaron grumbles, narrowly avoiding getting ram raided by a distressed looking mum with three children trailing behind her, and an out of control shopping trolley.

Robert is walking with purpose, a knowing look on his face, and all Aaron can do is follow him, getting increasingly more irritated as Band Aid starts to play through the overly tinny speakers. They stop eventually in front of an array of different sized artificial Christmas trees, and Robert does a sort of ‘ta da’ motion with his hands towards them.

‘Christmas trees?’

‘Christmas trees,’ Robert repeats, grinning like he’s just told the world’s funniest joke. ‘We’re here to buy my first Christmas tree, and you’ve got the privilege of helping me choose!’

Aaron’s eyes scan the selection of trees in front of them, and he settles on a medium sized one, it’s got colourful twinkly lights already attached and it looks about the right size for Robert’s apartment, in fact he can already visualise where he thinks Robert will put it.

‘That one,’ he says, pointing.

‘Great minds think alike,’ Robert grins, his eyes then quickly dart around their surroundings before he reaches down and gives Aaron’s hand a quick squeeze, and fuck there are the butterflies again. He knows Robert checking to see if they’re alone is entirely for his own benefit, and it just makes Aaron want to kiss Robert stupid.

‘I was thinking of putting it in the corner by the window, near the telly… look, grab that box of baubles from over there will you?’ Robert asks him while he grabs one of the boxed trees and rests it on his hip, carefully avoiding whacking an old lady with the cumbersome object.

Aaron grabs a box of red and gold baubles, grinning like a fool now he knows Robert isn’t looking at him. He feels giddy, almost delirious with something akin to pure happiness as he turns to see Robert smiling at him. Happiness isn’t something Aaron is well acquainted with, but if this is what it really feels like then Aaron wants to grab hold of it, run with it, and never let it go.

When everything is paid for, they go back to the car, and Aaron just blinks at Robert when Robert tosses him the car keys.

‘I trust you,’ Robert smiles, popping the boot and sliding the tree and the bag full of decorations inside.

‘You’re kidding?’

‘Nope, just don’t rev the engine like a boy racer, yeah?’

Aaron clutches the Audi’s keys in his hands, blinking down at them like they’re about to disappear from his grasp at any second. He slides behind the wheel, feeling disproportionately nervous at having a car worth over a hundred grand at his disposal.

‘You have got a licence, right?’

‘Yes, Robert,’ Aaron snorts, patting his pocket where his wallet is.

‘Just checking,’ Robert says, raising his hands defensively.

And as Aaron’s driving home, a grin on his face the entire time, Robert rests a hand on Aaron’s knee, and this time, he keeps it there.

Chapter Text

Hi everyone.

Just a quick note, I wanted to say thank you to everyone who's left comments and kudos on this little story of mine, they all mean so, so much to me and I've loved writing this for you.
However, I'm really sorry to say that I'm going to be abandoning this fic for personal reasons.
I will not be deleting it but there will be no more chapters going forward.

I hope you understand <3

Much love always x

Please come say hi to me on Tumblr - my Emmerdale blog is 'grahamfoster' and my main blog is 'healybedford' 🥺❤️