Aaron sat by the bar swilling the last of his pint.
His lips were set in a hard line and the crinkle in his brow growing ever more permanent as her words ticked over in his mind.
He had tried so hard, so hard, not to let it all get to him, to ignore all the whispers in his ear and the behaviours that he tried to brush off as being that of the concerned friend.
He defended him, rolled his eyes at every ‘cheaters never change’ and ‘you know what he’s really like’. Now he sat trying to cool the anger that seethed in him as he thought about what a mug he’s been made into.
He’d never been good at that.
He had a short fuse and an even shorter temper.
As the images flashed through his mind he dragged his nail across his knuckle and his nostrils flared. He was just feeling worse and worse.
The pub door opened and he turned his head to see Robert walking in with a smile.
He dug his nail in deeper and swallowed slowly, the beating of his heart making his skin flush hot.
“Hey, what you doing out here? Thought we were going out?” he said and Aaron grabbed his glass, staring down at the dregs in the bottom.
“Changed my mind,” he said with a shrug.
“Alright, you just want to get a bite here then?” he said, pulling up a stool beside him. “Just thought you might like a bit of a change of scenery.”
“I don’t get bored easily,” he said and Robert’s brow furrowed as he noticed that Aaron wouldn’t look up at him.
“Well, you want another pint then?”
Aaron downed the last of it and put it down roughly on the bar.
“Already had a few,” he said. “You know how it goes, one’s never enough.”
He gave him a cold look and shoved himself back from the bar and got up to walk through to the back.
“Aaron!” Robert called as he followed him through. “Aaron, what’s wrong?”
Aaron shook his head as he felt the rest of his body shake with it.
“Aaron…” Robert said a little softer.
“You must think me a right muppet,” he said, turning to face him and finally Robert could see the real anger in his eyes. “What? You thought ‘got away with it once, why not again’?”
“What are you on about?”
“Don’t play that game with me,” he said. “Might’a worked once but if you think I’m buying that innocent act you can forget it.”
“Aaron, I mean it,” he said. “What’s going on?”
“I asked you to stay away from her but you just couldn’t manage it,” he said. “I let you convince me there was nothing going on―”
“This is about Rebecca?”
Aaron scoffed again, biting down on his bottom lip as he shook his head.
“Figured it out did you?” he snapped.
“I told you there’s nothing going on there, she’s a mate―”
“Snog all your mates do you?” he said and Roberts face dropped little and Aaron could see the guilt in his eyes. “What? Not even going to deny it?”
Robert opened his mouth to say something but there was only silence as he found the words.
“It happened, weeks ago, but I pushed her away,” he said.
“Worried about getting caught?” Aaron said. “Or is a shabby sofa a bit of a mood killer? Yeah, she told me that part.”
“Okay! It happened but she’s blown it all out of proportion,” he said.
“You don’t even know what she told me and you know what? None of it matters,” he said. “You said nothing. You said nothing and then you kept going round with her and coming back to me.”
“That what you did with Chrissie was it? Get what you needed from me and then crawl back into her bed like you weren’t lying to her face?” he said. “I watched you lie to her over and over so what kind of an idiot does that make me for trusting anything that comes out your mouth?”
“Aaron, please, let me explain,” he said. “It wasn’t like that! She kissed me and that was the end of it!”
“Only that’s never the end of it with you is it? She tried it on once before, you know what you’re like, eventually she’ll get what she wants,” he said.
“You don’t really believe that?” he said. “Aaron, I love you, I want you.”
He shook his head and crossed his arms across his chest.
“It’s what you keep saying,” he said. “But you couldn’t even stay away from her when I told you she couldn’t be trusted.”
“You said that because you were jealous I’d been spending time with her,” he said. “You know why she’s here and you know that I wouldn’t do anything like that to hurt you. I meant what I said.”
He tried to take a step towards him but Aaron just took a step back and looked away.
He stood there for a moment without saying anything, finally looking up with glassy eyes. “You love me, maybe, but Rebecca’s almost got her hands on Home Farm and everyone knows how much you want to get your hands on that. You’d do anything.”
“You honestly believe that?” Robert said, his face falling at the coldness to Aaron’s words.
“I’m not going to sit here and let you mess me around,” Aaron said. “When it gets old or boring you find something else. I’m not waiting around to figure out I’m the sad sack second choice while you’re off with her.”
He reached down to pull the ring off his finger, closing the distance between them and forcing it into his hand.
“No one’s ever going to be enough for you,” he said, walking past him and out the door.
Robert waited for Aaron to come back, knowing he had a hot temper and that he had to be back sooner or later.
His words still stung but a part of him felt like he deserved them. Yes he’d kissed Bex, but he didn’t love her, he didn’t want her back. He didn’t know why it happened, why he’d let it.
He’d waited up for him to come back once he’d had some time to cool off, but he never showed and Robert fell asleep waiting.
When the morning came round he woke as he heard Chas moving about in the kitchen and the squeal of the kettle as it boiled.
“You look a little worse for wear,” she said as he got sleepily up and wandered over to the table. “You’ve barely been engaged a month and already sleeping on the couch, god help you once you’re actually married.”
She chuckled to herself and offered him a coffee.
“Want to tell me what you’ve done?” she said and he just shook his head. “Don’t worry love, you know what he’s like when he’s in a mood. Unless you’ve really put your foot in it.”
“Got a habit of doing that though haven’t I?” he said and she gave him a grin.
“Your words love, not mine.”
The door swung open behind them and they both looked over to see Aaron walk in with a scowl on his face.
“Still here are you?” he grunted and Chas grabbed her coffee mug.
“I’ll just be setting up out front,” she said, walking past and kissing Aaron on the cheek as she did.
Robert turned around to face him, the expanse of the room somehow wider between them.
“Where else would I be?” he said and Aaron shrugged.
“Guess that’s the question isn’t it?” he said.
Robert sighed. “Okay, I guess maybe I deserved that.”
Aaron had his arms folded across his chest, chewing the inside of his cheek as he glared over at him.
“Can we talk?” Robert said. “Properly?”
“What’s there to talk about?”
“Come on Aaron,” he said. “I know you’ve got more to say so just… say it, so we can get past it.”
“Get past it?” Aaron said with a scoff. “You want to sit down have a cup of tea and ‘get past it’?”
“It wasn’t like I was out going out on the pull, it was one kiss and it should never have happened!” he said.
“So why did it?” Aaron asked and for the first time Robert could see the hurt in his eyes pushing past the anger. “Why are we standing here yelling about it?”
“I don’t know!” Robert said. “It was like I told you, I was just trying to keep her on side. I still needed her to get the truth out about Andy.”
“I know,” Aaron said, softer this time. “Doesn’t help knowing how far you’d go to clear his name.”
“Not that,” he said. “Aaron, you know I―”
“I know,” he nodded. “Doesn’t mean I believe the rest of it. Nothing has changed.”
“Everything’s changed,” he said. “Everything we’ve been through―”
“You still can’t keep your lips to yourself!” Aaron said. “Why’d you say it? Why’d you say any of it if you didn’t mean it? No one asked you to say it, would have made it a lot easier if―”
“I meant it!” he said. “Of course I meant it! You think I’d be standing here fighting for you if I didn’t mean it? You think I would have bought you a ring, asked you to marry me if I didn’t mean it?”
Aaron’s eyes were glassy, he’d worked out all the anger and underneath it was the self-depreciation and hurt that made Robert’s chest ache to know that he caused.
“You married Chrissie, gave her a ring,” he said. “You know how many times I’d see that thing on your finger and just wish that you’d take the bloody thing off, for one night. Then I wouldn’t have to be reminded that you chose her, that you were always choosing her. I could pretend, I could pretend that for one night it was just us.”
Robert started to close the distance between them and he could see Aaron turning himself away already.
“Aaron, me and Rebecca, it’s nothing,” he said. “She means nothing. I need her to clear Andy’s name but that’s it!”
“I know it’s what you told Chrissie, about me,” he said, teary eyed and frustrated. “That it was nothing.”
“Because I couldn’t admit it! Not because it was the truth,” he said, taking a step forward and reaching out for Aaron but he just pulled himself out of his reach. “Aaron, don’t―”
“I can’t…” he said, backing off as he tried to hold back his emotions. “Just leave it, Robert.”
He watched as Aaron turned towards the stairs and headed out of sight.
He didn’t follow.
Aaron lay in bed that afternoon, he’d spent most of the day at the scrap yard where he’d ignored Adam’s prodding questions and probably snapped at him a little too much but Adam knew how far to push and when to stop.
His head was pounding and he wished that for once in his life this could be easy.
His thumb moved habitually to the empty space on his finger, the indentation already there even though the ring wasn’t. It hadn’t been there for long but somehow he felt strange without it, like it had become the new normal to see it there on his finger.
He heard footsteps in the hall, looking up as the door squeaked at the angle it always did when Robert edged it open.
“Hiya,” he said quietly and Aaron replied with a small upturn of his lips.
Neither of them said anything for a moment, Aaron sitting himself up on the edge of the bed, fingers still gripping the fabric and Robert standing with his hands in pockets.
“I uh, I picked Liv up from school,” Robert said and Aaron nodded.
“Surprised she was even there a full day,” he said finally.
“Got to say, not sure she’s planning on making it a regular thing,” he said with a smile. “Should have seen her face.”
Aaron just nodded again, looking down at the fabric between his fingers.
“Can we talk about it?” Robert asked and Aaron just shrugged.
“Been talking about it haven’t we?”
“Well not really,” he said.
Aaron didn’t respond so Robert shut the door behind him and walked over to stand by his side. He didn’t look up so Robert knelt down, now looking up at him as he avoided his gaze.
“Please Aaron,” he said. “I promise it meant nothing. I love you, I told you, I can't lose you.”
“You got a funny way of showing it then haven’t you?” he said, finally looking at him with a heavy furrow in his brow.
“I know,” Robert said, hand reaching for Aaron’s knee and surprisingly he didn’t flinch away. “I’m sorry. All I wanted to do was get justice for Andy and I wasn’t thinking.”
“Is this what it’s going to be like?” Aaron said. “Me, sat around worried you’re not thinking right and off with someone else?”
“No,” Robert said. “No, I don’t want anyone else, I want you. Rebecca tried it on and I wasn’t thinking, for a moment. And that’s all, and I know, I shouldn’t have even had to think about it but it’s not going to be a problem anymore. I promise, I’m done with her. I’m going to stay away from her.”
“Don’t trust yourself?” Aaron said, his defences high.
“Course I do,” Robert said, never taking his eyes off him. “But you asked me to stay away from her, and I should have listened in the first place. Not because I think I’ll cheat, because you asked.”
Aaron shook his head and the corner of his mouth twitched like it always did when he was angry or upset.
“I want to be able to trust you,” he said.
“You can,” he said. “I meant everything I said, you know me, I wouldn’t have said any of it if I didn’t mean it. You’re enough, more than enough. You make me a better person, when I’m with you… I know what kind of person I want to be.”
“Shut up,” Aaron said without any malice behind his words.
“I mean it,” Robert said. “I love you, we’re finally in a good place, I’m not going to ruin it.”
This time Aaron’s lip turned and his nose scrunched up in a different way.
“You do have a habit of doing that,” he said.
Robert let out a short laugh and nodded.
“I’m working on it,” he said and he though the saw the hint of a smile on Aaron’s lips.
“I mean it Rob,” Aaron said, and this time he could really see the insecurity in his eyes. “I’m not going to be messed around.”
“You won't be,” he said. “I promise, no more secrets.”
“You’ve always got secrets,” Aaron said in his usual argumentative way.
“Like I said, I’m working on it,” he said, reaching into his pocket to fish out the ring and then hold it out to Aaron.
Aaron scoffed, shaking his head with a soft smile.
“If you’re planning on proposing every time you do something stupid you’re going to be on your knees a lot,” he said, letting Robert slip it onto his finger.
“Was planning on doing that anyway,” he shrugged and this time Aaron managed a laugh.
He let his fingers caress Robert’s jaw as he pulled him in for a gentle kiss, they weren't perfect but somehow they seemed to make it work.