Imagining you, imagining me

A bit of fluff (with a sombre twist, of course), set in the few days, and especially the evening, before episode 7, suggesting reasons for several people's behaviour during that episode. M for language, and for Gene being Gene.

Chapter 1

Swinging his feet onto the desk and settling back in his chair with a glass of whisky to drink and a knotty problem to digest, DCI Gene Hunt (nicely-mature, properly-mellowed, well-padded all over) was just beginning to relax into a promising train of thought when his door was flung open and DI Alex Drake (definitely not mature, keen as a razor, padded in all the best places) streamed in, a runaway kite in a summer storm. Smirking like the cat who got the cream, she looked at his face, his feet, and his face again, before leaning conspiratorially over the desk and treating him to a most unprofessional view of her tempting, unavailable cleavage.

He tore his eyes away from all-his-dreams-come-true and focussed on her face. "DI Drake – do come in!" His voice was veined with sarcasm. "Oh, you already have. What can I do for you, since you're here?"

He wondered why he always had to be combative with her, why he couldn't just say, "Morning, Alex – can I help?" Because the Gene Genie was a sharp boy, that was why. Because she had set the agenda by never conceding an inch and now, when perhaps – he hoped – they might want to be a little softer with each other, he wasn't going to be the first to unbend.

She leaned further across his outstretched legs, brushing them with her breasts. He sat motionless, a rabbit trapped in killer headlights, wondering what she would do next. She waved some papers at him and grinned in such a lip-lickingly lascivious fashion that he soon stopped wondering about anything much at all. "I," she said softly, drawing out the vowel in ways that were almost animal, "am taking you," she ran the tip of her tongue over the inside of her top lip, and he was helpless, "to the theatre, Mr Hunt!" It was the way she said his name, the way she closed her eyes lazily on the word, the way she left her mouth just open enough to frame her tongue when the word was finished, that destroyed him.

He blinked and swallowed, opening his mouth in the unequal hope of framing a reply. And then she was gone, sashaying out of the room with a wicked smile on her face and skin-tight jeans on her something-else, knowing exactly what she had done to him. He sat up straight and shoved his legs beneath his desk so no-one else would.

For the next three days, Gene was like a small boy outside a soon-to-be-opened sweet shop. Every time he saw Alex – across the room, in the car, striding towards a crime scene – his stomach turned over with the thought and the heat and the nearness of her. He had never realised that simply looking forward to something could be so completely physical. Which meant, he reflected with rare chagrin, that he hadn't been entirely wrong to say that he was getting old. Getting old wasn't clocking up the years; it was forgetting what it was like to be young.

She looked up and caught his eye, and he felt himself flush like the spotty youth he had once been. Her smile was small, subtle, and complicated – it confused him, being gentle and knowing and innocent all at once. The women he was used to were like seaside rock, one thing all the way through: wife, prozzie, dyke, posh-totty. Alex was a mixture he'd never encountered before, and the mystery both floored and thrilled him. Perhaps this was what modern women were like – his wife hadn't exactly been a 'modern woman', after all – and he couldn't make up his mind if he liked the type or not. She certainly didn't make him feel comfortable – but who always wanted to feel comfortable?

His thoughts drifted away from the svelte figure in the outside office doing a man's job better than most of his men, and moved to his ex-wife. Although she had filled out in later years, she'd been small and bird-like when they'd first met, the perfect complement to his solid physicality, and they had been happy for a while. He could acknowledge that now, so long after the mess and pain of their inevitable parting. He hadn't been able to give her what she wanted, and he had got too used to what she could give him. But there had been moments of passion, and he remembered them with affection – at least she had found happiness, and at least their occasional telephone conversations were now cordial rather than hostile. Though he pretended a convenient ignorance, he knew exactly who he'd been left for; it had to be more than sex, and he felt real regret that ultimately he had let her down.

The thought of sex made him glance across at Alex again, but now she was deeply engrossed in her work: paperwork, the side of policing he hated. He reckoned she didn't enjoy it either, but she tackled it head-on, just like she tackled everything. Her beautiful face, half-hidden by the hand that kept the dark hair out of her enormous eyes, was gently creased in concentration, and she sucked the end of her pen absently. The sight brought back his physical excitement, and he turned away, feeling obscurely ashamed as well as ridiculously happy. He wanted her – oh yes, he wanted her – but he wanted her as a friend as well, and he had no idea how to make both things happen. Women were mothers, or sisters, or lovers, or wives, or – nowadays – colleagues, but friends? At this moment he wanted that almost more than he wanted her body, compliant under his insistently seeking hands, and the impulse was so alien that he had no idea how to cope with it. He whispered her name, the loveliest sound in the world.

"Big sigh, Sir!"

Shaz had come in without a sound, and he stood with his back to her for a few seconds, grateful that it was only a sigh she had heard. Then he turned, his equanimity restored, and when he spoke it was with the Manc Lion's words. "Big everything, constable – big everything."

On the evening of their date – in spite of all his efforts, Ray had found out and everyone in the station now knew it and was calling it 'their date' – Alex slipped into the crowded room and the phrase 'like a million dollars' took on fresh meaning as the men fell uncertainly silent. She looked as if she had stepped out of a dream, and he found himself walking round her in frank admiration before regaining control and sniffing in what no-one mistook for disinterest. Her flowing hair, free of its frantic curls and the lacquer that usually kept it in check, was softly swept away from her face, although she had left a long schoolgirl fringe that made her seem grown-up and child-like all at once, framing and highlighting her features and giving them a sophistication and naiveté all their own. Her eyes and mouth looked undressed, and he realised that although she was wearing makeup it was almost the same colour as her skin, accenting rather than colouring it. Her dress and shawl – what the bloody hell was she wearing a shawl for? – were black and spun through with threads of subtle glitter, and a delicate silver necklace plunged down to gently-swelling breasts, demure and tantalisingly half-hidden and everything he had ever wanted.

If Alex was discomfited by the open male mouths that greeted her entrance, he saw no sign. He watched her look him up and down, and suddenly felt shabby, but she seemed satisfied enough with his mundane black suit, grey shirt and polished boots. She winked at Shaz, fluttered her eyelids at him and, turning on her heel, sauntered towards the door.

"Coming, Guv?"

"Oh yes!" he mouthed, blew his breath out through pursed lips and, cocking a triumphant eyebrow in Ray's direction, chased after her.

He had cudgelled his brains about what they might be going to see. He'd even looked at the theatre pages of the Evening Standard and discovered a whole new artistic – and therefore poncey – vocabulary. Not that he would have shared such stuff with his mates, but it was curiously interesting. Daisy pulls it off had sounded promising, and even when he found out that it wasn't a strip show but a play about hockey-playing schoolgirls, he thought it still might have some salacious merit. Schoolboy memories of Dickens put him off the idea of Nicholas Nickleby and he wasn't sure that he wanted to see No sex please, we're British with a bird, even a sophisticated bird like Bolly who wouldn't be offended by the humour – no, especially a sophisticated bird like Bolly.

He wished he'd thought up the idea himself. He nervously fiddled with his shirt buttons in the taxi (his idea, the taxi was) and hoped he wouldn't disgrace himself by showing his ignorance. Next to her he knew nothing, however annoying it was to acknowledge the fact – what were a handful of O-Levels, even if they were good grades, beside her degree in whatever-it-was? What if it was Shakespeare, and she wanted to talk about it afterwards? He felt panicked, and grinned inanely at her. She must think he was pretty poor company this evening – he had either talked without pausing for breath or remained silent as if having nothing to say – but she didn't seem to mind. It was almost as if she was elsewhere, and he used the time to try and get his bearings, breathing deeply. It's only a bloody show, not Chinese water torture, he thought.

They drew up outside the New London Theatre and, as she got out and arranged her skirts, he paid the cabbie, over-tipping him outrageously in his nervousness. As the vehicle pulled away, he tried to take the control she was always on about; if he didn't get a grip he'd be in danger of going soft on her, and that he would not do, no matter how hard she worked him. He turned and looked up at the enormous billboards above the theatre entrance, but could see nothing save blackness and great yellow eyes. Confused, he looked around for other signs, and finally saw the four-letter word scrawled up on a neighbouring hoarding, ill-written and uneven, as though daubed by a near-sighted ten-year-old.

Cats. She'd brought him to see a bloody musical about cats.

Chapter 2

He ducked his head and hurried her into the theatre, his arm on her elbow for all the world as if he cared. He kept his eyes to the floor, not wanting to risk seeing anyone he might know; if any of his snouts saw him here he'd never live it down.

Once inside he relaxed a little, beginning to reflect that the sort of people he used as informants were about as likely to be here as he was, and looked at his surroundings. From everywhere those great yellow eyes stared down at him, and there was an air of suppressed excitement in his fellow theatre-goers, as if something quite new was happening here. Alex wore that anticipatory look, too. Her own brilliant eyes – warming his heart as their rich colour reminded him of his beloved old Cortina – shone brightly in the foyer lights, setting off the eagerness of her mouth and the tension in her body as she stared around her, taking everything in with an almost desperate thirst.

"Let's get a drink," he said, hoping that was what one did in these places. She turned to him, breath quickening, and he wondered if he'd suggested something inappropriate, but she just nodded, a little wildly.

"That's a great idea, Gene! Let's!" She dragged him out of the foyer, apparently knowing exactly which way to go.

Installed in a corner of the plush, velvet-lined bar with a full wine glass, she seemed to glitter even more, and he began to think that something might actually be wrong. He watched as she feverishly scanned everyone entering the room, her eyes sweeping over chairs, floor and ceiling, flicking through the program he had managed to snatch from an usher as he followed her headlong flight across the hall. He kept his own face very still; he knew she would have no qualms about making a scene if he said the wrong thing, but he was beginning to sense that this evening was disproportionately important to her – far more important than merely a night out with him. That could have made him angry, but he didn't let it. She was untamed, wayward, but still a little girl, and despite the fact that he was never going to let her get the better of him, he certainly wasn't going to deliberately hurt her, either.

"Alex." The word tasted strange in his mouth, in this situation so far out of his experience with her. "Er – tell me about these – er – cats, then. What's so special about these particular ones? I can show you a dozen mangy toms behind the station if you want!" It was a cheap, silly thing to say, and he knew even as he spoke that he was only talking for the sake of it.

But, as before, she simply didn't seem to notice. "It's perfect, Gene!" she breathed. "It's just as I knew it would be! I didn't know about it till years later, but it's just as I imagined!"

Not reacting to the odder part of her speech, he again tried to make a joke. "Of course it's perfect, Bols: you've got me, a glass of wine that's cost an arm and a leg, and we're about to see some show about tom cats that's obviously really got you going!"

She looked at him then, focussing for what seemed like the first time that night. "Oh no, anyone would have done – but it's being here – here at the beginning, back in 1981 with this cast – tonight! I didn't imagine I ever could have done this!"

She'd lost him now, but her first sentence he did understand. He leaned towards her, the anger he had previously suppressed welling up inside him again. "Well, if 'anyone would have done', why didn't you just bring Ray? Or that div Chris? Or even Granger for a girls' night out?" He said the last three words in an unpleasantly high-pitched voice. "I thought you chose me!" He couldn't believe how hurt he felt, just because this mouthy little tart had admitted he was no different from the next man. He couldn't believe how much he wanted to be very different from the next man, just for her.

He had her attention now all right – she'd opened her mouth to answer and he could have sworn he saw, with a certain malicious pleasure, a slight quivering at its corner – but before she could speak an announcement informed them that the performance would begin in fifteen minutes, and the moment was broken. But she slipped a hesitant hand through his arm as they squeezed along the narrow corridors towards the auditorium, and in his pride he took it as an apology.

Settling into their seats, it crossed his mind that she must have spent a small fortune on something this near the stage. He would have to repay her in kind – if she'd still have him after tonight. A sense of foreboding hung over him like a spring rain cloud: everyone else seemed happy and sunny, while he was glowering in his own private storm. Why couldn't birds be uncomplicated and just say when they wanted a shag? Why when he looked at this particular bird did he know in his soul that a shag would never be enough? Then she was talking to him, and in the lilt of her voice the clouds all washed away.

"I wanted someone I could trust tonight," she said simply. "I wanted to be myself, to be just me. I can only do that with you. A safe pair of hands."

"Oh yes?" he replied, rubbing his own together. "Why's that then? Got something planned for afterwards? Shall I warm them up for you?" She sighed, and once again he regretted his stupid attempt at humour. "Sorry," he said, before she could respond, and retreated into the mock-formality he used as a defence whenever his emotions threatened to breach the surface. "It seems to me that there's a lot more going on than you are sharing with me, DI Drake. Would you care to enlighten me now, or do I have to wait till the moggies have finished their caterwauling?"

She seemed to struggle to find the right words, and against all his Gene Genie instincts, he gave her the space she needed. Within the hustle and bustle of people finding places all around them, they occupied a very private bubble of silence. "There was someone I loved," she began, "a while ago. An – an aunt, my mother's sister. I hardly knew her, not as much as I wanted to, and after she – died, I found all her diaries. They'd been bundled up and left in a box, and everyone had forgotten about them. When I found them I read them – yes, I know it was wrong, but – well I read them and she came to see this. The original cast – when it first opened. I wanted to see what she had seen. She came here, tonight…" her voice had been getting softer and was now little more than a whisper.

He tried to process this stream of conflicting information into something coherent, and failed. She'd got her timings all wrong – if someone was here tonight they couldn't be dead, could they? And if this old girl had so recently popped her clogs, how had Alex already got her diaries? He shook his head and huffed in the fashion that those who did not know him took for dismissal. "You're making about as much sense as usual, Bolly," he said, "that is, precisely none. Are we supposed to be looking for someone?"

Her eyes went wide. "No! Oh no – it's just really important, Gene – I can't explain. I'm sorry – can you go with me, just this once?"

"When do I ever not?" he grumped, slightly mollified by her fingers lacing into his as she settled back and the house lights dimmed. "They're good then are they, these singing cats?"

"You have no idea."

It was like nothing he had ever seen before. Lithe actors leapt across a moving stage, crouching on car bonnets and open dustbins, dancing around dressed in nothing but leotards and leg-warmers and covered in cat-faced grease paint. They bared their souls in their human-sized rubbish heap, tearing at his heart-strings in words and ways that surprised and confused and amazed him. As Elaine Page's voice trembled on the closing notes of Memory and the lights brightened for the interval, he found himself frozen in deeply-felt empathy and, glancing across at Alex's face, saw the tears that hung in his eyes mirrored in her own. For a second she met his gaze and it was as if they stood, naked to each other, capable of hiding and wishing to hide nothing. The feeling went through him like an electric shock, and it was one of the most beautiful things he had ever experienced. Then the moment passed, and they both jumped back nervously from whatever cliff-edge they had inadvertently found. Once again he was bathed in the noises of the theatre, and life moved clumsily on. If they had been alone, he would have taken her face in gentle hands and kissed her with all the tenderness he could muster, and he knew she would have responded in kind. But they were not, and instead he just wriggled in his seat to hide his embarrassment.

"Good stuff, Bols," he said. "Can't make head or tail of it, but it's good stuff. Here – " he handed her his handkerchief " – you'll spoil your makeup." Her eyes were deep and still, and he realised with something like fear that he would do anything for her. Anything at all.

They made their way to the bar to collect the half-time – interval, he reminded himself, interval – drinks she had ordered. Again he was ashamed that he hadn't known this was a job he should have done. In the crush of happy people they stood very close, her body fitting sideways into his as he tried to make himself smaller to let others squeeze by. In the end, he had no choice but to put his arm around her – there simply wasn't room to do anything else. She smiled up at him and leaned her head on his shoulder, just as she had when they thought they might be sharing their last moments on earth. "Thank you."

He glowed inside. He wanted to shout out to all the posh pricky punters standing around, "Look! The most gorgeous bird in the room, and she's with me!" Instead, he turned his head and breathed in through her hair, trying to hold on to something so ephemeral that he knew in his heart it wouldn't last. He was as richly contented as he could ever remember being: he felt that combination of security and power that only much-loved children too small to know the world's reality feel. He sighed in a soft happiness that would have rendered him unrecognisable to his colleagues who – fortunately – were not here to see their Guv melting, like chocolate in the sun.

"What do you want to do afterwards?" he asked quietly, using his bulk to protect her from the crush. "We could get something to eat, or go back to mine – or yours. Whatever you want, Bols – whatever you want." He was surprised at himself – on any 'normal' date, his services as companion, escort and drinks-buyer would have been automatically rewarded with a quick shag-in-a-sack – no question. Here, it was all up to her, and that seemed entirely as it should be. He sighed. What the hell was wrong with him? Was he losing his mind – or his manhood, come to that? He should have taken her long ago, when she first turned those come-to-bed eyes on him across the room, asking for it as she was. But what he imagined when he was alone never quite matched what he felt when faced with reality. Why was she so damned different?

"That would be nice," she said, and he felt the very slightest snuggle as she moved closer. But he'd lost the conversation's thread, and just harrumphed, uncertain what to say.

The most unsettling thing was not her nearness, or her openness, or her apparent willingness to consider spending a night with him, but his own response to her – lusting one minute, protective the next. Was this what love was really like? After all these empty years, and all those peripheral women, was this what love was really like at last?

The second half – no, the second act – moved him even more than the first, with its unbelievable sadness and inevitable tragedy. The music lodged itself in his brain and wouldn't let go, while Alex's grip on his hand in the final scene threatened to cut off the blood flow, making him grimace silently with the pain. Cathartic – that was the posh word the Standard had used – cathartic. It had sounded like hospitals when he first read it, but he was an intelligent man and understood what the critics meant. Never mind what happened between him and Bolly tonight, he was glad he'd come.

He stood and helped her pull her shawl around her, brushing her breasts with his hands as he did so. He felt the electricity pass between them, and knew that she had felt it too. She reached a warm and gentle hand. and briefly touched his face, so close to hers. "Let's go home, Gene," she said, and he felt as if his heart might burst.

And it was then that he saw them, and the evening shattered like glass in a car crash. Across the aisle, helping that Caroline woman on with her coat, stood Evan White, smooth, suave and utterly vile in his eyes. He loathed that man. He loathed him for being witty, clever and young, but most of all he loathed him for being Alex's friend – for having some sort of claim on this wonderful, infuriating, unique woman that Gene's own lack of self-worth denied him. He was everything Gene hated and everything Gene thought she wanted him to be.

"Yes, come on – let's go," he said gruffly, putting his body between Alex and Evan as he guided her peremptorily away. There was no hailing shout from behind them, so he reckoned they hadn't been seen, but the mood had been soured, and he was sullen on the journey back. Alex seemed to think he was still affected by the show, and mercifully left him to the company of his lonely, bitter thoughts.

Chapter 3

By the time they'd reached Luigi's and her flat he had recovered himself, and a potential disaster had turned into a lucky escape. As if by magic, Luigi himself appeared with a tray, glasses, and opened wine, and silently handed it to Gene to carry upstairs. Gene nodded curt thanks, vaguely embarrassed at being second-guessed so neatly, but he caught a wetness in Luigi's eyes and knew that the man was happy for them both. Hell, he'd seen them through enough angst in the past few weeks – he deserved his small moment of triumph.

Alex was already curled up on the sofa, shawl discarded, when Gene came into the room, and he carefully pushed the door closed behind him before placing the tray on the nearby table and slipping off his jacket. He felt awkward and gawky, but strangely at home, as if this was where he had always belonged. As if his whole life had been leading to this – this sharing an evening, a sofa, a bed together.

He sat down and gently pulled her to him. She willingly came, leaning against his warmth with deep contentment and total trust. So this was what love was, he mused, as he played with her long, soft hair.

"Happy, Alex?"

She turned so that she was lying along the length of the sofa, cradled in his tender grasp. "Mmmm – happy, Gene." He began to brush his fingers across the thin silk covering her breasts, so softly that he barely touched them, but he felt their buds rise up to meet his touch, and her breathing quicken to match his own. Slowly, slowly, he thought to himself – they had hours to explore this passion, and he was going to take his time. He shifted his weight under her, sitting up to pour them both a glass of wine, and she folded her legs as she moved even closer, nothing between them now except anticipation and desire. She sipped the glowing liquid, lazily running her middle finger up and down the inside of his thigh, higher and higher and higher... He held himself in, savouring every delicious moment, not wanting any of it to end, yet desperate to possess her completely, to make her utterly and irrevocably his.

She rested her head on his chest, not meeting his eyes. "You are very beautiful, Gene Hunt," she whispered and he wanted to weep. Not since he was perhaps four years old – before the fighting and the hurting and the falling apart of his family – had anyone called him beautiful, and certainly not after the teenage acne had kicked in. But to hear it from her – from someone who never lied, never compromised, who had to be telling the truth… The joy that filled him was unique, unknown to anyone in the history of the world but him.

Gently, he took her half-finished glass and set it down beside him. He raised her to her feet, marvelling at the soft, open face that looked up into his. He'd never been one for conversation in these situations, and always felt that he should have been, but this time it didn't seem to matter. This time negated all the other times. This time was the only time.

She reached up to his face again – a gesture that he was coming to see as characteristic – and her delicate fingers were subtle and feather-like on his skin. They drifted down his cheek, smoothing and soothing him. She traced her thumb lightly around his mouth, gently following the shape of his lips as he opened them to her touch. His eyes half-closed, he was aware of Luigi shutting up shop downstairs, closing the outside door and leaving him safe inside. His body screamed out with the urgency of desire, but he slowly brought his hands up to her face, pushing back her wild, dark hair and exposing her beautiful, flushed face. He was going to take all night over this, the most glorious experience of his life. He cupped her face in his hands and brought his mouth to hers, brushing his parted lips against hers, eager and open to receive him. He closed his eyes and began to sink into her, all sense of separateness starting to dissolve, all identity merged with hers, all aloneness lost for ever.

His eyes flew open as the moment was shattered by a loud knock, and then an insistent voice, calling her name. "Alex! Alex, are you in there?" He looked down at her, but she was as bewildered as he. Slowly, as he came back to himself, he realised that someone was at the door.

"What?" he whispered, to himself as much as to the woman in his arms. "What – Luigi?" He raised his voice. "What's going on? Who's that?"

"Hunt, is that you?" The voice was unmistakeable.

"That's not Luigi. That's – "

"Evan!" exclaimed Alex, and then she was gone and there was nothing in his arms but the coldness of the empty space where she had been. He didn't turn round, but he heard her run to the door, open it and gasp in recognition and disbelief. He heard the other man push past the woman he had been about to make love to, and clap a hand on his shoulder.

No-one touched the Gene Genie like that. No-one took liberties with him like that. He whirled round, and struck the younger man such a blow to the chest that Evan staggered away, falling back against the sofa as his legs buckled under him. He strode across to stand over the cowering solicitor. "Get out!" he hissed, the words scarcely human in his white-hot fury. "Get out, you snivelling little runt, get back to your best friend's wife – she went straight home from the theatre did she, didn't bother to come up here on your little detour, too ashamed to be seen with you was she, Evan?"

The man on the sofa whimpered slightly, earning himself another cuff from Gene.

"Shut up! I saw you. How many of them have you got on the go, Evan – how many other men's wives are you shagging on the side, eh? Well you're not having this one, you total shit – she's safe! She's mine!" He knew he had lost her for tonight – perhaps for ever – and if his anger had been any less, he would have cried with impotent rage and frustration. But he couldn't stop himself. The thought of her and this – this total utter little creep – was like drinking slime, like wading through blood. He leaned over and grabbed Evan's jacket. "Out!" he shouted, shoving him violently away from Alex. "OUT!"

Kicking the door shut behind him, he turned to see Alex standing in the centre of the room, quivering with fury. He clenched his fists to stop the shaking that threatened to overtake him, and tried to control his breathing. Her eyes were on fire, and her face was dark with unreleased anger. Oh God, he was losing her – he couldn't stand to lose her, not now. "Bolly." He took a step forward, reaching out a hesitant hand. The moment he had waited so long for, had anticipated so keenly and with such sharp longing, had gone, but he wanted to salvage that other thing he so desperately needed: her friendship. Throwing Evan out wasn't the best way of achieving that, but what else could he have done?

He pointed behind him, devastation blossoming into words. "Is he why we went tonight? No, don't you shake your head at me, Alex – there was another reason we were there, wasn't there – was it him? I may be a thick manky git to you, but I happen to be a detective in my spare time and one thing I am not is stupid! You knew he was going to be there, didn't you? I saw you watching the door! You and your dead aunty! And I fell for it! And what was he doing with your precious Caroline Price, eh? Don't tell me you didn't know that either! You betrayed me – you betrayed me, Alex, and what am I supposed to do about that? What did you want to do, just lust from afar? Or – my God, even you wouldn't – you just took me there to make him jealous? Jealous – of me? No wonder you didn't want Ray or Chris – you'd have ended up a laughing stock – so you pretended – and bloody fool that I am I fell for it! I wanted this evening – I really wanted this evening, you know that? What a bloody prat I am! Not the first and not the last, eh? Chalk me up as another success, Bolly – another victory for the monstrous regiment of sodding women!" He was brutally articulate with emotion, the carefully-crafted world of their friendship exploded and collapsed into rubble around him.

Her eyes were baleful, accusing, and resentful, but she was still in control. "I wanted to go out with you tonight, Gene – God knows why, but I wanted to be with you. I did not expect him to be there – he was the last person I expected to meet! And I'm glad we didn't – I just wanted to spend the evening with you, somewhere special. You do not – you could never – understand, but all I wanted was you! You idiot! Now you've ruined everything! 'Stupid Manc git'? You said it!"

A part of him believed her, she was so distraught, but his anger was too strong to let her go. "Look, I'm sorry, good enough? But what was he doing here, Alex? Why – did he follow us? What is he doing trying to get into your flat – trying to get into your knickers as well, is that it? Can't you see what he's like? Can't you see what a total little – "

The slap would have floored Henry Cooper, and had floored better men than him, but Gene was made of stern stuff, and for the third – fourth? – time in their fiery relationship he somehow kept his footing. "How dare you speak about my friends like that! How dare you prance in here expecting to – to sleep with me as a thank you for a night out – what, did you think I was going to let you? Did you really think that, Gene?"

"Prance? I do not 'prance'! And yes, Bolly-toffee-knickers, you were going to let me, and you know it, and you would have enjoyed it too, every last second!" His voice cracked with passion, but he kept going. "It would have been the best thing we'd ever done – better than anything you'd have got from that lily-livered milksop out there. What – think he's gone, do you? Oh no, he's lurking, waiting for me to leave so he can get into your drawers, that's what he's doing, 'cause he's not man enough for anything else!" He flung the door open and, just as he'd predicted, Evan was there, leaning against the opposite wall, dabbing at a split lip with a pale, well-manicured hand and watching them with pale, emotionless eyes. "Well you're not taking anyone's leftovers, d'you hear me? She belongs to me, and you're not taking what's mine!" He was roaring now, and it was perhaps only Luigi's timely appearance at the top of the stairs that spared Evan another beating.

"Mr Hunt!" the portly Italian implored. "Mr Hunt – you want to wake the whole neighbourhood? You want I should call the police, ha ha? I think you better leave now, before someone get hurt." He glanced at Evan, into whose eyes a gleam of triumph had crept. "No, you first, signore – I don't have fighting in my house. No – you go now!" He firmly ushered a reluctant Evan down the stairs, and Gene turned back to Alex, framed in the doorway, eyes and mouth wide with shock. With the light behind haloing her hair, she looked as lovely in her awful distress as Gene had ever seen her.

He took a step towards her and she shrank back. He stopped, appalled. "Alex – God, Alex – don't – "

She held up a wavering hand. "You'd better go now." He noticed she didn't use his name. "Just go – just pretend tonight never happened." She laughed nervously, her eyes everywhere but meeting his. "I can't handle this – just leave, please."

He opened his mouth, but now the words wouldn't come. He daren't move for fear of losing sight of her: he had never felt so wretched, so defeated, so elated and so blessed simply by being in her presence. He screwed his eyes shut to prevent the tears that seemed to be becoming a habit with him, and without thinking mouthed the silent words that cried to be set free because at this moment they were everything he was. I love you. Panicking, looking at her again, desperate to know if she had seen and hoping that she had and had not, he saw that she had already turned away. "Alex," he whispered, and as she glanced at him one last time before finally closing the door, he caught her dim sorrow for the forever-lost beauty of the evening.

"She is worth fighting for, Mr Hunt," Luigi said into his ear, "but not in my restaurant, please? Go home now – she will come round tomorrow, you will see. She and you – no, you don't frighten me, I know you for a big pussy cat inside – she and you are meant for each other. You know that, I know that – she has forgotten right now, but tomorrow she will remember again. Si?"

Gene smiled small half-smile, tight and ill-humoured. "Yeah, right – thanks, Luigi." He left the restaurant, walking through the cold night to clear his head. The only good thing about the evening was that he had got rid of that predator Evan. At least he wasn't with her. The thought of her with anyone, but especially with Evan, made his stomach wind itself into a tight ball, and he clenched his fists in physical pain, knowing he had no rights, no power to prevent her seeing whom she chose, wanting to keep her caged but knowing a cage would destroy her. Had she seen the words he'd mouthed? Had she understood them? Would she ever understand how much it had cost him to say them – him, the Manc Lion, the Gene Genie who gave no quarter, never let anyone in, never relinquished his defences? Even now, if he thought she might have accepted him, he would have turned and grovelled at her door. Him, the great Gene Hunt, reduced to this by a mouthy southern tart.

He'd have to apologise tomorrow. Shit, he'd have to do something amazing to win her back. She'd probably ignore him, or shout at him or – oh God, she might even tell everyone what had happened. What if she told them he was crap in bed? What if she said he was a rubbish shag? No, she wouldn't do that, and he was furious with himself for even thinking it. She'd be annoyed, angry, hurt – but she was better than that. She was always better than that, damn her. Damn her beautiful eyes, welcoming mouth, soft hair… It had all been his, just for a few seconds, and he had glimpsed the glory of what the night would have brought without Evan's interruption. She would have been magnificent, and he would have been magnificent too, the man he had always meant to be. For her.

At last he reached his own front door, unwelcoming and chill in the dead small hours. He opened it softly, and vanished into the blackness of his lonely home, a home that neither Alex nor Sam had ever thought to imagine.