It’s spring by the time Gordon’s trial ends.
Not just those early days of spring, where frost can still manage to creep along the earth over night and the faraway landscape is still brown-gray and barren. But proper spring, with song birds and baby sheep creating a soundtrack to life in Emmerdale.
Aaron had missed the transition from winter to warmth. Missed those first tender buds, those first subtle pops of purple and yellow and green that herald the change of the season. His focus had been singular. Narrowed only on proving his allegations of Gordon’s abuse true and he had succeeded.
Is it wrong to celebrate the life-long incarceration of your own father so heartily?
As Aaron takes a long breath in, tasting the approaching-summer sweetness still hanging to the nighttime air, he really just can’t be bothered to care one way or another.
Gordon got what was coming to him and Aaron is finally rid of him.
Happiness flows at Woolpack that night, just as freely as the ale on tap. Aaron can hear the party continue on without him through the open windows. Everyone feels the relief of justice having been served, at a long ordeal finally coming to an end. It is palatable and heartwarming for Aaron to see. See that liberation in Cain’s subtle, but never wavering look of pride, hear it in Chas’s bright laugh and feel it in his own chest.
He’d not realized how tightly wound he’d been since Gordon’s return. Not noticed the immense pressure twisted around his heart, clenched into a painful, physical mass until it finally started to relent, uncurling as the sentence was read and Gordon, cuffed, was lead away. All the stress has left, in its wake, hollow places for other emotions, more complicated but far more serene to drift into.
As if on cue, the door from the pub opens and Robert walks through. His tie hangs loose around his neck, his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He’d been at Aaron’s side at the sentencing, just has he had been most days of the trial. He smiles when he sees Aaron, sitting against the low stone wall. And Aaron cannot help but share the happy look.
“You alright?” He asks, walking over to join him.
“Yeah, I just needed a minute on my own.”
“I figured. Thought you might need one of these too,” Robert says, offering up one of the two fresh pints he’s carrying. Aaron takes it with a short thanks, not failing to notice the way Robert’s eyes linger on Aaron’s face, heavy and hopeful.
“I can leave if you like, though.” Robert pivots back towards the door he had just come through when Aaron falls silent, a movement that is both flirtatious and courteous at once.
“No,” Aaron says, quickly. “Stay.”
Robert looks pleased as he sits, not so close that anyone passing by might not be suspicious of their proximity, but close enough that that empty space in Aaron’s chest brims with warmth.
“So what are we drinking to?” Robert asks, offering up a toast.
“Me?” Robert laughs, noiselessly.
Aaron bites at is lips for a moment. “This is all thanks to you, Robert. You know that right?”
“Aaron…” he baulks, glass dropping.
They have had this discussion before after all, and Robert seems just as ready this time around to deflect all the congratulations back on Aaron. But it’s different now that the story is finished. The ends having justified the means. Aaron can look back to see the steps he’d taken to get to this moment and he can see Robert’s steady presence across the whole journey.
“I’m serious, Robert,” Aaron insists. He turns to face him and the other man sits up a little straighter, reacting without even meaning to to Aaron’s minute movement closer. “You were the one who got me to open up about what happened to me in the first place. You convinced me to tell my mum, to go to the police.” Robert looks down at his pint glass, his thumb tapping a nervous rhythm on the side. “You found Sandra,” Aaron continues with quiet intensity. “Helped me keep my head on when all that went down with Liv, stayed with by my side in court. You never let me give up.”
“Well, I wasn’t about to let Gordon get away with what he did to you.” His voice is laden with that protective anger that was always there when Gordon was mentioned. It flares quickly, almost as if he’s forgotten that the battle is won.
Then almost as quickly, the anger abates as Aaron presses on in a fiercely intimate tone, “The fact that I can close the door on this part of my life for once and for all, is all thanks to you. You kept me going.”
Robert’s left silent, his chest rising and falling in shallow breaths. He looks at Aaron with patient tenderness, clearly unprepared for Aaron’s flood of sincerity. He nods gently, clinking the bottom of Aaron’s glass with his.
Aaron watches Robert take a slow drink, his lashes falling against his cheeks in the rising moonlight.
“It’s not the first time, either,” Aaron says, wiping at his beer laden lip with his hand.
“How do you mean?”
“You remember that night I fell in the woods, ended up stuck out there overnight?”
“Course, I do,” Robert says, clearly unsure of where this trip down memory lane is taking them.
“Well, it was you wasn’t it? Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, when I was freezing cold and in pain, I’d think of you. Imagine getting to be with you again, seeing you…it was what kept me going.”
Robert is stunned, pale. “Why didn’t you tell me that then?” He asks when he is finally able to find his voice.
Aaron shrugs. “Didn’t think you’d’ve cared then.”
“Of course I would have cared,” He says emphatically. “I was terrified for you. I was so worried that I’d...” His voice breaks, his eyes bright with emotion. His brow furrows as his thoughts are inundated with memories of mistakes past. “I always cared about you, Aaron. Always. Even if I didn’t always show it.”
“Well you have done, now.”
Aaron’s eyes linger on Robert’s smile of gratitude, small but important. And beautiful. He’s so insanely beautiful when he looks at Aaron like that. Like Aaron is the only thing in the world that matters.
Mates, Aaron had said. He’d said that was all they should be. And mates they had been. But ‘best of’. ‘More than’. That was their destiny. No matter how many times Aaron tried to deny it, there was no version of reality where he and Robert would ever be satisfied with just ‘mates’?
Quickly, Aaron stands and takes a few steps away, his feet crunching across the graveled ground. He takes another sip of his beer, steeling himself for he knows he has to do next. He’s poured his heart out easily, but not entirely. When he turns back around, Robert is on his feet too, clearly sensing the intensity of Aaron’s thoughts.
Aaron sets his pint glass on the wall, then takes Robert’s carefully from his fingers and balances it between the uneven rocks.
“I’m going to say something,” Aaron says, just managing to keep his voice steady. “Just to...see how it feels.”
Robert nods, his hair catching in the evening breeze.
“I love you, Robert.”
The minute the words are out, the furious pounding of his heart abates, levels off into it’s usual rhythm. He’s left feeling him warmed and calm, from head to foot. Robert tries to hide a smile as he toes at a rock on the path.
“So,” Robert clears his throat. “How’d that feel then?”
Aaron considers, enjoying the edge of concern in Robert’s voice. He knows just how long Robert has been waiting to hear those words again. So he slips his hands into his trouser pockets and takes a step closer.
Because it is. He loves Robert Sugden. After everything they have been through, they should have no right to these kinds of feelings anymore. Yet they have borne the brunt of what they world could throw at them, weathered their darkest days only to come alive, together, once more.
Robert’s eyes flash up to meet his, brimming with cautious elation. “Well then in that case, I love you, too.”
They lean in slowly, eyes locked, giddy and bright, until the very last moment when their lips meet. They kiss gently, sweet brushes, connecting and reconnecting with soft sighs. Then the angle changes, deepens. Robert steps in close, his hips swaying. He cups Aaron’s jaw in both hands and delves in, possessing his mouth.
It’s all so much better than Aaron remembers, feeling alive and wanted again. Robert doesn’t hold back, doesn’t treat him like something delicate or broken. He kisses him like the man he’s wanted for so long and can finally have. But it is different, too. More intense, more sincere. This is a kiss that will launch a thousand more. It really will be different this time and this kiss proves it.
He’s met with a long, low groan as he places his hands on Robert’s waist and gently pushes pushes him away.
“We should back inside,” he says, looking over Robert’s shoulder and pub behind.
“‘Should’,” he grumbles. “‘Wanting to’, on the other hand?”
“You can stay at mine tonight.” Aaron licks his lips. “If you’d like.”
“What do you think?” Robert says with a sly cock to his head.
“I think it’s a good thing I did laundry yesterday and have fresh towels for the morning.”
Aaron grins at Robert growing frustration. He grabs his pint glass and with a happy spring to his step, starts walking back towards the pub and his family and friends who wait inside. He stops once, looking back over his shoulder to see Robert begrudgingly doing to same.
“Come on then,” he says, with zealous encouragement. He’ll make it all worth Robert’s while later, there is no doubt about that.
Then because the night is still so beautiful, his heart so full, his life - for this precious moment - seemingly so perfect, he extends his hand behind him, reaching for Robert. Without a moment’s hesitation, Robert takes that hand, entwining their fingers together with a smile and doesn’t let go.