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“Speak softly, but carry a big can of paint"

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“Go on,” says Rebecca, waving her champagne flute across the extravagant gallery space, “Admit it- you love this.”

Aaron grunts In response. In his head, he’s already forming an escape strategy.

Rebecca doesn’t get it. She rarely does.

Granted, there are a few bonuses to being the star guest at your own art show- nobody bats an eye at your color stained hoodie or your bitter face. He’s pretty sure half the people here are anticipating a him to go through a mental breakdown or a drunkard onslaught. Probably both.

Rebecca’s off to mingle, or whatever it is she does and Aaron takes another swig of his beer. He'd hate to disappoint.

His drawings hang like corpses on the wall and the need for a smoke becomes almost desperate. He scratches the inside of his wrist, then shoves his free hand into his pocket avoiding temptation.

 He’s busy searching for the nearest exit, one where he'll have to go through as few art-people as possible to get to, when a voice breaks through.

“What was that?” Aaron has to turn his head to fully see the bloke.

Aaron doubts he’s an art person, he had seen enough of those. No. The guy’s three tiered suit hints to something along the lines of an investment banker or a broker.

A hot broker.

“I was wondering,” hot broker nods at Aaron’s bottle “when they started serving beer at art shows.” His expression is a confusing mix of eagerness at getting Aaron’s attention and arrogance of knowing he’s captivated it.

Aaron schools his features, liking the idea of chipping at the latter to reveal the first, “been to many of these then?”

“Enough to grow sick of this cheap bubbly.” His face pulls in disgust over the rim of his own glass.

Aaron’s pretending to survey the crowd,“You some sort of an alcohol snob?”

Hot broker waits until he’s captured Aaron’s gaze again then smiles mischievously, “Only when I’m sober. “

There’s promise in his eyes and any pretence Aaron had at coolness is shot out the window. It’s as if Hot broker has managed to mentally project images of himself drunk and for the taking directly into Aaron’s retinas. It’s a hook, line and sinker and by the smug look on his face, Hot broker’s well aware of it.

Aaron bites his lips unconsciously, “I guess I could be persuaded to reveal my beer stash.”

Hot broker extends his hand for a shake. Aaron gets the once over and a quick glimpse at the wedding band.

“Robert.” He introduces himself and goes on to hold Aaron's hand a little longer than necessary.

The heat pooling in Aaron’s nether region gets a sudden icing from Rebecca's voice behind him
“I see you two met, then.”

Robert isn’t happy about it, to go by the small twitch of his mouth. It’s a squint-and-you’ll-miss-it, and it appears that Rebecca does, as betrayed by the hungry look In her eyes. Robert reluctantly lets go of Aaron’s warm, if slightly clammy hand, to exchange amiable kisses with her.

 “Two years worth of invitations and he finally decides to grace us with his presence.” She scolds flirtatiously. She touches Robert's arm then gestures at the art on the wall.

“So what do you think?”

Robert shrugs, his eyes still firmly on Aaron. “To be honest, I was too busy checking the price tags.”
Rebecca seems mildly outraged, but Aaron barely manages to hide his amusement behind his beer bottle.

Well played Hot broker. Well played.

“Robert heads the Fairchild fund,they’ve just purchased a few original Dingles”. Rebecca unnecessarily excuses Robert’s last words. For whose benefit, Aaron's not entirely certain.

Robert’s stares at him unabashedly above the rim of his glass, checking for Aaron’s reaction. Aaron finishes his drink in one gulp, faking disinterest. Probably not too successfully, considering how Rebecca looks between them.

It hits him suddenly, “Wait. Robert?? As in Chrissie's Robert?”

Rebecca eyes narrow in puzzlement over Aaron's apparent thickness. Robert seems completely nonplussed by the revelation- the amused smile on his face unwavered.

 The air buzzes with tension, a weird triangle of lust, unrequited desires, and a metaphorical elephant in the room in the form of a ring.

It’s doing Aaron's head in.

He doesn’t bother making an excuse, slipping away towards the back exit.

*

“I heard those will slowly kill you.” A voice comes behind him as he blows out a ring shaped cloud on the Fire escape by the dumpsters.

Aaron doesn’t need to turn to know it’s Robert. He was half expecting him.

“Heard the same about marriages.” He answers before inhaling again.

“Fair point.” Robert smirks as he sits down beside him, reaching for Aaron’s fag. Somewhere along the way, Robert has discarded his tie and jacket. His collar's unbuttoned, creating a vee Aaron finds himself wanting the lick into. Their fingers brush, shooting a shockwave straight to Aaron’s groin, distracting him from his cigarette being pulled away.

He follows it all the way to Robert’s mouth.

He takes the time to silently study Robert’s features as he’s blowing smoke. He lets himself dwell in it because any pretence is long gone, and because Robert allows it. In fact leaning back against the railing, Robert's practically basking in the attention. The expression on Robert's face can be summed up as a defiant interest, and it’s only when Aaron examines the tilt of his mouth that something suddenly rings familiar, “have we met before tonight?”

There’s a slight shift In Robert's eyes, a tiny change In the angle of his chin. Aaron probably wouldn't even have noticed, had he not been actively searching for it. Before he has any grasp on it, though, it already morphs back to the previous cocky, If disingenuous, grin “I think you would have remembered me.”

Aaron scoffs, of course, the predictable smart-mouth response. By the quickness it left Robert's mouth, Aaron guesses it’s almost pavlovian. Obviously, there’s some innate truth to it. Robert is many things, immemorable isn’t one of them, but something irks Aaron the wrong way, and he has a sudden urge to rub this thing thin. Whatever this thing is. “It’s weird, is all.” he reaches for his cigarette again. “I’ve heard about the elusive Robert Sugden for over two years now. “ A content smile breaks on Robert's face, “when he does show up, he spends the entire evening shamelessly flirting with me. In the presence of his sister In law, no less.”

Robert shrugs nonchalantly, “is there a question In there, somewhere?”

Aaron searches for the right spot to sink his talons in. “Why tonight?”

Robert pretends to think it through, then raising his brow says, “the reviews said the artist’s hot”

Aaron accepts defeat. Against his better judgement, he decides to play along, “and? What’s the verdict?”

Robert shrugs,”all I’ll say, is that it’s good to see that journalistic integrity has been restored to its former glory.”

“That is good.” He finds himself grinning.

“Besides, “ Robert leans in conspiratorially, “That’s not what you really wanted to know.”

“It isn’t?” Aaron narrows his eyes in interest while sucking on the fag.

“Nope.” Robert licks his lips and stares squarely at Aaron. “You wanted to know whether the carpet matches the drapes.”

Aaron chokes on his puff, coughing wildly. He shakes his head while calming himself down. “If anything,” he says when his voice goes back to a recognisable register, “I was wondering if there’s any way your performances could match up with your bravado.”

Robert wiggles his eyebrows in way that should ridiculous but still manages to look sexy. “Guess there’s only one way to find out.”

 Seconds later their tongues are fighting for dominance and Robert has his hand down Aaron’s pants.

“My flat’s just a few blocks over.” Aaron manages to say in between panting.

Robert’s up In seconds pulling on Aaron's hand.

“Let’s go!”

*

It’s no small feat, surmounting the short distance between the gallery and Aaron’s London flat. It’s a treacherous road that offers unimaginable obstacles in the form of Robert's soft lips, smart fingers and too many walls to knock each other into. Unlocking the entrance door, with Robert's very distracting breath on his neck proves almost impossible. So when, finally, they’ve all but spilled in, it catches Aaron by complete surprise that Robert takes a respite to check out the place.

“I see you haven’t bothered to decorate.” he takes in the stark walls and the lonely sofa in the living room.

Aaron shakes his head In disbelief, “I don’t think I’ve invited you here for an interior design commentary.”

Robert’s retort- snarky one no doubt - gets lost in his throat as Aaron drops to his knees.

*

Ok.

So the short version is that they have sex. The longer version is that it happens more than once. Honestly, It happens more than once that night and somewhat often after that.

The whole story is this: It’s Robert texting that he’s coming over, or calling to make sure Aaron’s there. Sometimes not even that, just Robert waiting on Aaron doorstep when he gets home. No appointments or arrangements made. No small talks, no catching up.

He doesn’t know about the lies Robert tells Chrissie. Doesn’t want to know how he excuses his time away. Lies and excuses have no place between them. They’re uninvited.

Robert doesn’t bullshit him, which Aaron appreciates, if nothing but for the sheer novelty of it.

It’s not easy, this thing between them. Not uncomplicated. But it’s weightless. It’s Robert against the wall. It’s rutting against each other on the floor. It’s quick handjobs in the kitchen. It’s hungry and consuming, but weightless.

The sex is great. amazing. All teeth and tongues and fingers deep enough to ache but careful enough not to bruise. They don’t mark each other. It’s a given.

Aaron loves the moment Robert’s cologne starts to fade. Doesn’t like the pretence of perfume, of cleanliness. There’s nothing clean about this. Loves it when he can smell Robert’s sweat and cum and then another thing, completely Robert.

Robert is loud, demanding. He doesn’t beg, doesn’t say please. He says “fuck me”. He says “harder”. He says “faster”. Pulling on Aaron’s hair, he says “get here” “hold on!” “come!”

And Aaron does. Every time. Multiple times even.

Later they’ll lie in bed, share a cigarette. The smoke fading against the whiteness of the walls, weightless and unpretentious.

It’s honest in a way only emaciated relationships like these can be.

Although he never thinks to ask Robert to stay, sometimes Robert does so unasked. A little longer each time. At first just for a second or a third round. After a few weeks, for post coital sleep. A month in, he’s there for breakfast. One morning Aaron opens one of the kitchen cabinets to find an expensive brand of coffee he has no recollection of buying.

“You should start respecting your palate” Robert says, turning on the coffee machine. “I couldn't subject myself anymore to that muddied water you were brewing.”

Robert stays for an entire weekend. Monday morning Aaron finds a new towel in the shower and a second tooth brush by the sink.

They fight about it. Or rather, Aaron picks up a fight and Robert ends it by getting naked.
Aaron says: “this is not my home, and it’s most definitely not yours.”

But truth is, recently, Aaron finds himself spending a lot more time in London, than in the country side cottage he normally calls home.

 *

He probably should have noticed earlier when Robert started getting his morning paper at Aaron's, but by then, they have already settled into an easy wordless routine of swapping sections and reading in comfortable silence.

“Dingle is a generation Y Keith Haring. The parallels are almost uncanny…” Robert reads aloud from the art section, his mouth in a lopsided smile.

Aaron grunts, he had heard that one before. “What parallels? Both of us gay graffiti artists? Trust me, mate, we come a dime a dozen.”

 In a way, it’s true, he started like the rest of them: A messed up teen, with no adult supervision and a can of spray. Testing his signature on bridges, and bus stations, perfecting his style on council housing and governmental offices. Feeding on the rush that came with near escapes, and chance encounters with law officials.

A critic once told him you could see the exact point where his art was transformed from the idling of a teen misadventure into pieces of social commentary. And, honestly, Aaron could mark the point to the day. He can also mark the point where the thrill of the chase was replaced by the release of the cut. But that’s nothing he’ll ever say out loud, never mind a stranger

 "..'sides”, He gulps his coffee and goes back to reading the sports section “if you’re looking to die, there are faster ways of going about it than perishing away from AIDS” . He side glances to see Robert’s reaction to his dark humour, noticing him looking at Aaron’s wrists. There is softness in his eyes that resembles concern. Aaron smile fades.

It’s unnerving and it’s heavy.

Aaron didn’t sign up to any of that.

*

 Jeff Murphy writes for Art Monthly. Beside harassing Aaron for an interview for the better part of a year, he’s also been quite clear about his desires to get into Aaron’s pants.

If Aaron happens to invite him for an exclusive in his flat at a time he knows Robert will probably still be there. Well, that’s neither here nor there.

There is something to be said about the dumbfounded looks on Robert's face when he opens the door to find Jeff standing there. Robert in his dark tailored suit, Jeff in jeans and soft sweater, Robert’s tense shoulders and Jeff’s easy lazy smiles. All the pieces that assemble this image are like stitching to Aaron’s frayed edges.

 Jeff’s is a good looking guy in that effortless cocky way Aaron often finds attractive. He once had spent an entire night with him at a pub, after a shitty theatre show they’ve both had to attend. Aaron doesn’t remember the last time he laughed so much. Jeff’s witty and quick and knows everything about anything. Aaron still not sure why they’ve never fucked.

“Jeff, Robert, Robert, Jeff.” He introduces them then leads Jeff in. Robert follows.

He settles on the sofa next to Jeff. Overtly ignoring Robert.

“So,” says Jeff, probably sensing the tension “should we start?” a proceeds to takes a tape recorder out of his pocket, presses it and puts it on the coffee table.

“You’re a journalist” Robert states, his posture relaxes. “Never seen one of these done before.” he points at the recorder as a way of explaining, and sits himself down on a chair in the corner, crossing his hands

Jeff smirks, obviously amused by the scene unfolding before him. He looks at Aaron speculatively “I usually prefer to do this without the boyfriend around. It tends to affect the dynamics.”

“Not my boyfriend.” Aaron responds quickly, looking at Jeff but meaning it for Robert’s ears. It has the desired effect, if Robert’s deflated shoulders are anything to go by.

“We shouldn’t have a problem then, should we..” Jeff checks for Aaron response. Aaron answers with a shrug.

Then next hour is a mix of sexual innuendos and occasional touches- mostly initiated by Aaron- and with Robert nervously looking at his watch and jerking his knees.

Finally Robert gets up. Rubbing his hands on his thighs. “Aaron,” he says, “can I have a word?”

“Sure.” He answers flatly and stays planted on the sofa. His entire body still focused on Jeff.

“In private?”

Aaron rolls his eyes in mock exasperation but follows him to the entrance hall.

“What?” Aaron says shortly, like this is a challenge he’s expecting Robert to fail. Hoping he does. Robert doesn’t bite. He searches Aaron eyes for something, seemingly failings to find it.

He leaves wordlessly, resignation on his face.

*

It’s an hour later, that Jeff leaves.

“I think I have enough here.” And gets abruptly from the sofa picking his recorder on the way out.

“You’re sure?” Aaron says, the question devoid of any hidden meaning.

“Yeah,” Jeff smirks, “no hard feelings, yeah? But I know when I’m a pawn.”

 *

Robert shows up again that night. Aaron should resent the assumption he’s invited, or that Aaron is alone. He should resent the presumptuous way Robert slams him against the wall. Wordlessly. He should resent the desperation with which Robert tears at his clothes, or the force he uses to push Aaron, face first, against the mattress. He should maybe resent the teeth that bite at his back, or the tongue that delves in. He should resent the noises that his own mouth produces, the moans and the grunts. He should resent Robert for pushing in, in one go with so little preparation. He should resent how quickly he comes.
But he doesn’t. Not even a little bit. It's an honesty he’s been missing.

Later, Robert turns him around with something of a reverence. He traces the lines on his forearms with the tips of his fingers. Then kisses lightly the criss crosses that adorn Aaron’s abdomen with a tenderness that’s almost unbearable. It makes it hard to breath. Like there are cracks in the walls allowing deceit in.

Robert rests his hand on Aaron's heart and says, “I want you to invite me to your home.”

*

 Rebecca is the only non-family member who’s ever been to the cottage. She’s been his agent for a year by then, and he figured he owed her as much, if not so much more.

She thought it was hilarious- The mix of 70s wallpaper and the woodchip on the wall, the dainty flowers on the sofa, the old wood stove.

“This looks like my gran’s house.”

But Aaron loved it, the wear and tear of a house well lived in. He hasn’t changed a thing after he purchased it from the previous owners- an old retired couple who decided to spend their last days in warmer weather.

He lied when they asked if he was buying to start a family. Made some story about a surprise for a fiance, and the need for space for future childrens. “We always dreamt of raising them in a small village,” he got swept away when he saw the excited teary-eyed way the owner responded. “Bless you.” she held his hand. “We have great memories from this place,” she said and her husband nodded emphatically. “All our wee ones grew up here. All left the nest. I’m sure you’ll make fantastic new memories all on your own.”

And for a few aching moments Aaron actually believed her.

The London flat was completely different- spacious with beautiful crown mouldings and huge bay windows. It looked like a proper space for an artist. Aaron hated it on sight.

He bought it several months ago, because he was spending so much time In London and hated hotels. Rebecca assured him it was a wise investment. She said she got it from a friend of a friend who was desperate for the money, and that he would be an idiot to pass this one up. He let her take care of the transaction, even let her choose the sofa and the bed.

It was all about bare essentials and purpose served, and somehow a fitting backdrop to the entire Robert ordeal.

Except.

Well, except, over there, was one of Robert's t-shirts folded on a pillow, on a side of the bed that at some point turned his own, and next to it was plugged a charger that Robert left just In case. There was a fancy gel In the shower, a second razor by the sink, Roberts journals on the coffee table, a large mug, Robert brought one day,was on the dish-rack.

 It felt invaded to. Aaron needed to get away.

*

To an innocent bystander it might look like hiding, but Aaron manages to convince himself he’s just taking a break to sort his head out.

Either way, he really owes no one excuses.

He leaves London one tuesday morning and spends the next three weeks doing maintenance work on the cottage: Strengthening screws and hinges. cleaning the chimney and gutters, putting new tiles on the roof, applying another coat of lacquer on the hardwood floor. Ignoring the endless messages on his phone.

It’s wednesday noon, when he braces himself to read one of Rebecca’s.

'Isn’t Jeff Murphy the one we met at that east-end show?'

The next one says.

'Next time you want the attention of someone you fancy, remember there are easier ways than unprompted interviews. '

Finally

'Even though I’m still mad at you, I’m glad you’re getting yourself out there'

He chuckles at his phone, appreciating the irony of the last message, considering he barely set foot out of the house for the past three weeks.

There's a knock on the door, and Aaron wonders if Rebecca actually drove all the way down to reprimand him in person. It wouldn’t be a first. It’s kind of a ritual really.

He opens the door, apology on his lips, when he sees Robert standing there.

 *

There are countless questions on Aaron’s mind. Like, why are you here? How did you find me? Who told you, you could come? Why aren’t you saying anything? But they get lost between the hammering in his throat and the dryness of his mouths, like he was somehow robbed of the ability to express words, stunned mute.

Robert pushes past him, striding in confidently, taking in Aaron’s living room with a calmness that’s reserved to an inspector doing his regular checkup, surveying the walls, touching the textile of the cushions, observing the light filtering in between the blinds. A small smug smile tugging at his lips. At least, Aaron assumes it’s smugness, that's the only recognizable feature in this entire picture. Maybe it’s Robert, all sleek and done up against the backdrop this quaint, kitsch interiors, or the juxtaposition of his fitted leather jacket against this homeliness. But it feels as if, just by being there, Robert has managed to make Aaron’s own home unfamiliar, foreign, turned it on its head

Robert takes off his jacket, putting it on an armchair, revealing a soft blue sweater in its wake, an act that resembles shedding skin or losing part of his protective shell, he stands there like an open invitation. A ray of sun breaks against Robert’s back enveloping him in a blindingly white Halo. Suddenly it strikes Aaron just how beautiful Robert is. It’s jarring. It’s confusing. It’s irritating.

Irritating. That's what it is. Aaron is angry with Robert. He has to remind himself of that. Robert is an unwelcomed interruption. A disturbance in the view.

He’s about to tell Robert just that, when leaning against the staircase, Robert asks: “So where is your bedroom? “

*

By the time they’ve passed the threshold, the blue sweater is long gone, so are Aaron’s stained shirt and both their trousers.

This time, the desperation is gone, leaving room for something else, new, raw and just as intense, just as urgent.

It’s mind wracking how the room has been narrowed down to Robert, how space and time have been diminished to the mole on Robert’s neck, to the scent of his shower gel, to the taste of his skin, the touch of lips. So much so, that when Robert detaches himself, abruptly, walking backwards, Aaron feels like the floor has been pulled from under his feet.

Robert stands back, demanding to be watched. The broadness of his shoulders, the slope of his waist, the stretch of his legs, his body- a reflective mirror exposing Aaron to himself, Robert’s face bare, transparent like a window.

Robert says, “how do you want me?”

A loaded question if ever there was one.

Here. Everywhere. Now. Never.

Aaron composes himself.

“On your knees. Blow me.”

Robert nods, a small smile tugging at his lips, as if he deciphered this hidden language between them. He’s closing the gap torturously slow, creating a vacuum that doesn’t allow for air. His hands on Aaron’s shoulders, pushing, until the back of Aaron’s knees hit the bed, and he is forced to sit. Their eyes are locked, a gravitational pull that shifts his center and throws Aaron out of balance. Robert is down, caressing Aaron’s thighs, carefully pulling them apart, creating a vee, an arrowhead leading to Aaron’s pulsating cock. Robert skips it, favouring instead to run his tongue over Aaron’s nipples, his navel, his collar bones, alternating between fingers and lips.

Aaron moans in frustration, his body humming with need.

Robert looks up at him smirking “say please.”

Aaron fails to find the humour in that. His body feels explosive and only Robert can defuse it. “Robert,” he gasps, his voice cracking, “please..”.

Robert’s eyes turn soft, and in one fell swoop he takes Aaron down to the hilt. Aaron collapses forward, his fingers find purchase in Robert’s back, craving to leave their prints. Robert sucks, hungrily burying himself further in Aaron’s lap, grabbing at Aaron’s waist, gulping air around Aaron’s cock.

Aaron manages to somehow summon enough energy to push Robert back. He doesn’t want to come, not yet.

Robert’s lips are blood red and wet, his irises blown wide.

“How do you want me now?” He asks, as if Aaron's still in charge of the situation, as if he didn’t forgo all semblance of control when they entered this room. Sooner probably.

As if Aaron wasn’t standing on the edge of a cliff looking down, and Robert wasn’t behind asking how he prefered to jump.

 Aaron’s voice sounds like it travelled through hot charcoals. “On the bed, on all four, face down. “

“No” Robert responds coolly, his lips in a hard line, “If you’re gonna fuck me,” 'over’ hangs in the air, “you’re gonna have to face me.”

Aaron’s mind is telling him to cut his loses and run, but Robert is already lying back, resting on his elbows, and Aaron is at least honest enough with himself to know that his runaway chances are slim to none.

 He wishes he could be rougher, but Robert’s muscles are constricting around his fingers, so responsive, that he finds himself taking the time, exploring the push and pull of it. His mouth covers Robert’s dick, while his fingers still buried inside, revealing the inner workings of Robert’s pleasure points, discovering his buttons and pushing as many of them as possible.

It feels impossible, somehow, that he should have so much power in his hands, that he should watch the undoing of this man by his own hands. To watch Robert breaking at the seams with every suck and twist. It’s mesmerising.

By the time he pushes in, the oxygen in the room is so scarce, they are panting into each others mouth. They share hungry kisses, their eyes wide open. Aaron’s body shaking with it, breaking into million tiny pieces with every hard push inside, assembling himself with every pull.

It’s horrible. It’s wonderful.
Robert tightens around him, spilling his load between them, and Aaron world goes white.

*

“Why are you here?” Aaron asks, staring at the ceiling.

Robert’s lying on his stomach, one eye buried in the pillow, the other on Aaron.

“I wouldn't have to, if you hadn't gone into flight mode.”

“I’m at home. “ Aaron bites back, “That’s the opposite of flight.”

“You just proved the exception to that rule, then.”

“You shouldn’t have come.”

Robert smiles, “Your dick made me.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I know what you meant.” Robert sighs, “tomorrow, ok? You can kick me out tomorrow. In the meantime, though,” He rubs circles into Aaron’s arm “I’m gonna kiss you good night, then we are going to sleep.” His smile mirroring Aaron's own “I have to warn you though, I’m a kicker and a cuddler, but you can repay me tomorrow with the awful coffee you undoubtedly keep in this place.”

*

Morning coffee waits to two more rounds of sex, one in the shower, one on the staircase on their way down.

In the end Robert decides he likes his tastes buds too much to punish them with Aaron’s coffee, and they opt, instead, to go out to the only coffee place/bnb/shop in town.

It’s weird. Aaron has been with a few married men before. Knows the paranoia they walk around with, when in public. Knows the guarded looks, the turn of heads, the search for familiar faces on every street corner. Knows the businesslike fashion they carry themselves outside, the seriousness they adopt, the lack of affection.

It’s nothing like that with Robert, though. Not with the way he leans in to whisper something in Aaron’s ear as they’re waiting for their drinks, the way he puts his hand on Aaron’s to stop him from paying, “this one’s on me”, the way he sits a little too close, or smiles a little too intimately at Aaron. Not with the way he occasionally brushes his fingers against Aaron’s, later, as they walk down main street.

It throws Aaron off balance. He keeps expecting the other shoe to drops.

It occurs to him that this is a thursday and Robert hasn’t shown any signs of leaving. He’s doesn’t go off to have private talks with the mrs., no hushed conversations on the phone, no hidden texts.

They’re laying about in his kitchen, when the thoughts of it begin swarming in.

 He wants to ask, doesn’t she mind?

Instead He asks “won’t they mind at work?”

Robert smiles,“The perks of being my own boss. I can make up my own schedule.”

Aaron nods, mindlessly scraping at a piece of dirt on the table “Do you like it? your Job that is?”

“Yeah,” Robert pauses to think, then with certainty, “yeah I guess I do.” He leans closer, suddenly excited by the prospects of this conversation “How about you?”

Aaron shrugs, “Well with art you sort of have to love it to do it, don't ya?”

Robert eyes him speculatively, “that’s not an answer.”

Aaron sighs, “I’m good at it,” then on further thought, “or, the very least, reasonably successful at it. I can’t really complain, can I?”

Robert smirks, “A roaring endorsement for the art profession, if ever I heard one”

Aaron grunts, getting a little riled up“ If you’re after some soulful speeches about callings and undying passions, you’re knocking on the wrong doors, mate.”

Robert narrows his eyes, “See, I don’t think I am.”

Aaron's suddenly feeling exposed “What you on about?”

Robert takes his time, crossing his fingers on his lap, selecting his words carefully . “A curator I’ve consulted, when I was looking to buy your work,” he explains, checking for Aaron’s response the entire time, ”said it has changed dramatically over the last year,” Aaron’s already readying himself for what’s to come, but still manages to find himself rattled when Robert says, “and not for the better.”

“What’d he say?” Aaron tries to sound as uninterested as possible.

“Called it 'cerebral’, if I remember correctly.”

“Cerebral?” Aaron gapes at him, “That’s supposed be a bad thing?”

Robert rubs his chin, “His exact words were 'cerebral and heartless’”

It hits like a fist to the chest, but Aaron tries to compose himself, to even out his voice, “Have you come here to insult my work?”

Robert shakes his head,“You’re many things, Aaron,” his voice turns soft, “heartless isn’t one of them. “

Aaron crosses his arms, distancing himself. His head is already a million miles away, “Just my work, then?”

“Have I hit nerve here?” Robert leans forward trying to close the gap. When he realizes it’s unpassable, he leans back in resignation, “I thought this was a no- bullshit -territory?”

“It is.” Aaron huffs in annoyance at having his own words used against him. “You’re not hitting any nerves, just getting on them.”

Robert’s voice remains annoyingly even, “What happened then?”

Aaron decides to stop participating in this line questioning, “just because I haven’t kicked you out of my home, yet, doesn’t mean you're invited into my brain.”

Robert smiles knowingly. He leans back in his chair, taking Aaron's raised tone with a stride“I like it, by the way.” The sudden shift of conversation throws Aaron for a loop “Like what?”

“Your home.” Robert gestures at the space around them, “Meant to tell you earlier, but I was otherwise occupied. “ He lifts his eyebrows suggestively. “I’m still waiting for the grand tour.”

Aaron guesses that’s as good distraction as any.

*

“You genuinely like this. Don’t ya?” Aaron asks mid-tour.

Robert takes his eyes away from pastoral maritime reproductions on the corridor’s walls. “I do. Why so surprised?”

“I guess I shouldn't be anymore.”

“Maybe it’s nostalgia. I grew up in a house just like this.”

“You did?” Aaron's forehead creases in disbelief.

Robert nods, “Grew up a farmer.”

“Robert Sugden a farmer?” an image of him in overalls and wellies pops into Aaron’s mind, and he can’t seem to stop the laughter that bubbles up his throat.

“If I’d known this would get this kind of reaction from you.” Robert’s face lights up, “I would have told you much sooner.”

Aaron’s cheeks are burning and Robert wraps his arms around him. “Have I ever told you how horny boat paintings make me?”

The rest of the tour is forsaken to later.

*

It’s late afternoon when Robert points at the door that leads to the garage. Aaron positions himself in front of it protectively.
Robert smirks, “is that where you store the bodies?”

“That's where I make my cerebral and heartless work”.

“You’re gonna show me inside?” he lifts his chin towards the door.

“Nope.”

“Could have guessed that.” Robert shrugs, “Couldn't blame a bloke for trying, though.”

“Could blame a bloke for overstaying his welcome.” Aaron points out

“You kicking me out already?” he asks amusedly.

Aaron’s sighs, “I guess I could feed you first. “ Then remembering, “Though we should probably go get provisions. Unless of course, you’re into beans on toast.Without the toast.”

“Or I could take you out.” Robert suggests

“What did you have in mind?”

“I hadn’t had proper pub food for ages.”

“Oh by all means then,” Aaron declares theatrically, “who am I to stand in the way of your plebeian dreams.”

*

It’s nice seeing Robert like this, grease on his fingertips, a smear of ketchup on the corner of his mouth, spoonfuls of pudding, quickly disappearing. Aaron finds himself wanting to lick the sticky toffee off of his lips.

“I have a surprise for you.” Robert says when they’re back in his car.

“Another one then..” be turns his face towards the window to hide his excitement.

Robert puts the car into gear, “You’ll like this one. I promise.”

“You’re a gift that keeps on giving, Sugden.”

He presses the paddle,“Damn right.”

It’s twenty minutes later that they reach what seems to be an abandoned barn.

“Saw it on the way over to yours.” Robert says as he parks his car.

Aaron’s turns to Robert as he unbuckles his seat-belt,“And you thought you’d impress me with your mad farming skills?”

“So impatient.” Robert scolds as he pulls himself out, “You must be a joy to be around, Christmas time.”

He pops the boot of his car and pulls out a large carton box that rattles as he leads Aaron in.

Aaron takes all of it in, the bales of hay, the stone walls, the large wooden beams, the light filtering in between the tin panels on the roof. “This has the making of a horror film.” he comments, as he watches Robert crouching down to open the box.

There are a couple of dozen of spray cans inside, and Robert looks up expectantly at him, as if Aaron was supposed to figure it out already.

“What’s that for?”

“Do I need to draw you a chart?”

Out of all the things he could have imagined Robert surprising him with, that one wasn’t there, “You brought me here to work?”

“Well, you have to earn your dinner somehow.” Robert smirks.

Aaron rubs his neck, thinking on how to get himself out of this,“I could have come up with several more creative ways.”

“Come on,” Robert holds a random can up. “When was the last time you did an actual, non-commissioned graffiti?”

 Aaron stalls “Someone could walk in.”

“That’s half the fun now, isn’t it?” Robert is up and approaching.

“I don’t even know where to start.” he realises he’s quickly running out of excuses.

Robert shoves the can into his hand.

“Start with a line.”

 He tries to rekindle that feeling in his hand from back then. From way before. The weight of a new can, most likely nicked as he shook it, keeping his ears peeled, while the rest if them were on the lookout, the rush of not knowing if he’ll get to finish it. The unparalleled excitement when he did.

His fingers are shaking with it. “This is stupid.”

Robert doesn’t budge, patiently watching, completely tacit.

“You’re just gonna sit there, then?”

Robert just smiles in return and nods.

“Fine.” Aaron says. Then, channelling all of his aggravation for being put in this position into his hand, he makes the first splash. His entire body thrumming with the rush of it, like it was a natural extension of the can, shaken with it. After that, everything blurs but the wall, the intoxicating smell of fresh paint, and the sharp colors that make everything else a little dull.

At some point, Robert goes to his car to bring in a few emergency lights he must have bought specifically for this
He projects then on to the wall, revealing a patch of work at a time. Aaron’s sweating, his arms straining with it, but his body’s in ecstasy, pulling every each way on it’s own volition.

*

He’s exhausted by the time he looks back around at Robert, “You happy now?”

“Very,” Robert answers sleepily, “granted, I was pretty pleased with it two hours ago.”

“What time is it?” Aaron’s stirs.

Robert looks blearily at his watch, trying to decipher the numbers there. “Two..no three.”

“Can’t be..”

Robert stands up on shaky legs, flexes them as he walks past Aaron to closely inspect the wall. Aaron stands next to him, shoulders brushing, and follows Robert’s gaze back to his own work. It’s like seeing it for the first time (and maybe he didn’t really look). He feels something that can only be construed as pride.

“I take it back,” Robert says “the last two hours were definitely worth it.”

Aaron finds himself nodding “Yes, they were.”

Next thing he knows, they’re naked on a heap of rumpled clothes, moving slowly against each other, trading lazy kisses. Too tired for anything more demanding.

“Aaron”, Robert says against his neck, all warm and drawn out, “it’s perfect.”

*

It’s past noon when he wakes up in bed alone. It’s disappointment laced with relief until he saunters down to find Robert at the kitchen table deep in thought.

“Rebecca sent a message two hours ago to say she’s coming over.” Aaron says.

Robert looks up at him calmly.

“Shouldn't you, you know-” Aaron motions at the door, surprised by the non-reaction.

“Makes you wonder..” Robert says, inscrutable look on his face, resembling sadness.

“What?”

“What if I’d shown up without a ring that night in the gallery? What if I had told you straight away I’d never had sex with Rebecca.”

“Right..” Aaron shakes his head incredulously.

Robert looks directly at him “No bullshit territory, right?”

It takes a few seconds for the truth In Robert's words to sink In, when it does, it rattles him to his core and he finds himself angrier than he probably should be “Why’d you let me think you have?”

Robert looks up evenly at him. “Why didn’t you sleep with Jeff that day?”

Aaron unsure where this is going, “who says I haven't?”

“Don’t worry,” Robert smiles bitterly, “I’m under no delusion it was for my benefit.” He looks up at Aaron unexpectedly “Come on, indulge me, why didn’t you?”

Aaron frowns, “You seem to know everything, why’d you reckon then?”

“I think you haven’t slept with him that day, for the same reason you never did before that,” Aaron looks up In surprise, “because he’s single, because he’s emotionally available, because it might have meant something. “

Aaron feels the blood pumping hot in his veins. “I’m not the one with wedding ring on here, mate.”

“No,” Robert shakes his head, “you’re the one with the running shoes on”

Aaron is shaken out of his reverie by the sound of the car pulling in outside. He balls his hands at his sides,“You should probably go now.”

“yeah,” Robert says, getting up. “I probably should.”