MAN TO MAN MAN TO MAN

Summary: Gene and Evan talk Alexes… G/A implied – might lead into another, more G/A-centred story. Spoilers for Episode 8 – heck, the whole first series.

This is my first A2A story. Hope you like – but do let me know either way.

Rated T for Gene's language. The man has no manners.

Huge thanks to GenesGilly for splendid beta reading and wise suggestions.

xxxxxx

"Ow – shit!"

"Evan?"

Evan White swallowed another curse as Alex trotted into the kitchen, a worried frown creasing her forehead. "It's all right, darling –" he raised his index finger to show her "- I just burned myself."

"You should run cold water on it."

"You're absolutely right," he said brightly as he stepped up to the sink and turned the cold water on. The relief was instantaneous. "Gosh, that's better already." After a few more moments he turned the tap off and twisted around to show her his finger again. "See – done."

Alex nodded but she didn't look convinced. Evan had to fight the urge to turn away from her but in the split second that it took it must have showed, because she flinched. And now here comes the self-loathing, he thought.

He forced a smile on his face. "Dinner will be ready soon. Have you washed your hands?" She shook her head. He waited for her to head to the bathroom but she didn't move. "Alex?"

"It's really painful when you burn yourself, isn't it?" she asked.

"Well, that depends," Evan said, confused by the question. "Sometimes it hardly hurts at all –"

"Would it have hurt for Mum and Dad?"

He would put this day on the list of the days when he thought he really couldn't do this. Or wanted to, for that matter. He swallowed quickly so his voice wouldn't sound too croaky and knelt down in front of Alex, taking her hands in his.

"No, it wouldn't have done, darling. When something like that happens, it's so strong, so quick, that you don't have the time to feel anything at all. They wouldn't even have known it had happened."

"So they just died?"

"Yes. They just died."

"What's it like being dead?"

What he wouldn't give to have to explain the birds and the bees instead of this. How could he begin to explain something he didn't understand himself? Honesty is the best policy, Caroline had told him once as they talked about explaining Uncle Angus' homosexuality to Alex. He could see the sense in that. Apart from anything else Alex always knew when he was lying, even if it was about something as innocuous as whether the chocolate he'd brought back from Switzerland had actually been bought there or at the airport. Would Caroline still advise honesty now? Would she want Alex to know what her father had done?

"I don't know, Alex. Perhaps it's like being asleep. You know how you don't know you're asleep when you're asleep?"

She mulled it over. "Do you dream, too?"

Honesty be damned. "Perhaps you do."

"But you never wake up." He shook his head. "Maybe it's because they don't know they're asleep, or dreaming."

"Perhaps, yes."

Her clear, green eyes (not obviously from either of her parents, which he'd decided was a good thing) looked straight into his and seemed satisfied by what they saw there for now. Evan pulled her to him and she put her arms around his neck with an ease he found comforting. Whatever could be said about Caroline and Tim – especially Tim – Alex had been loved. She still was.

"And you know," he added, trying to put as much love into his embrace as he could, "if they are dreaming, I bet they are dreaming about you."

Alex's arms tightened their hold briefly, and he could tell she was trying not to cry. At her parents' funeral he had told her it was all right to cry (he certainly had) and she had a little, but she'd also told him she hated crying. She was such a serious child; he would have to work doubly hard at making her laugh.

The doorbell made both of them jump. They looked at each other and giggled – perhaps that bit wouldn't be so hard after all, he thought – then Evan stood and turned Alex in the direction of the bathroom.

"Come on – that'll be our guest. Get those hands clean."

He watched her scamper off then quickly turned the heat down on the Bolognese sauce, which had been the cause of his injury, and drained the spaghetti. That done, he took a deep breath and headed for the front door, which he opened as the doorbell rang again.

"Sorry about that, Mr Hunt –"

"What's the matter, White?" DCI Gene Hunt cut him off. He gave Evan a withering look as he took the last drag of his cigarette. "You lost your butler? Not sure how a door works any more?"

Evan gritted his teeth. Remember who you're doing this for, he told himself. You need him. "Something like that," he replied. He stepped aside. "Please, come in."

Hunt did as he was requested, and again when Evan asked to take his coat. By the time he'd hung it and turned around, Hunt was gone, having found the living room by himself. Evan found him standing by the fireplace, his eyes scanning the space around him, only to stop dead at the pictures of Caroline, Tim and Alex on the mantelpiece. His expression was unreadable.

"Drink?"

"As long as it's not water."

Evan opened his drinks cabinet. Having poured Hunt a measure of whisky, he was going to put the bottle away – then decided to pour himself some, and to keep the bottle out.

"What's that smell?" Hunt asked, sniffing the air.

"Dinner."

"If Italian's what you fancied, we could have met at Luigi's."

Evan was starting to wish they had, but it wasn't easy for him these days to do anything past the time Alex finished school. He'd have to arrange an au pair or nanny or some kind of babysitter soon but he hadn't wanted Alex to have to deal with a stranger at the moment. He was tempted to ask Hunt why he had agreed to this if the idea was that unpleasant to him, but he didn't want to push his luck. Besides, a man like Hunt lived for conflict, and Evan wasn't prepared to be dragged onto that particular playing field. And this – this evening – was something he felt he had to do.

"Two men having dinner in a candlelit restaurant? Don't you know what that'd look like, Chief Inspector?"

Hunt grunted, and then smiled – so softly that Evan found himself blinking at him and suddenly wondering who the man in front of him was. He'd come to think that Hunt was only capable of two expressions – anger and indifference – but this was a new one on him. 'Warm' and 'gentle' were not words he would ever have associated with Gene Hunt before.

"Hey little lady," Hunt murmured over Evan's shoulder. "How are you?"

Evan turned around to find Alex standing behind him, leaning against the doorframe. She, at least, didn't seem surprised in the least by Hunt's demeanour. She murmured back her own greeting and smiled, if a little shyly.

"So, Alex," Hunt continued, his eyes twinkling slightly (twinkling? Evan thought. Will wonders never cease?). "I need to ask you a question, and you have to tell me the truth, all right?"

"Okay."

"You promise?" She nodded. "His cooking. Is it really awful?"

Alex trotted to Evan's side and hugged his waist, giggling. "No, it's really good. And spaghetti Bolognese is my favourite."

"Good to hear it, kiddo. Good to hear it."

"Speaking of my cooking," Evan interrupted, "I think it's all about ready. Let's have some dinner, shall we?"

Evan had expected dinner, like the whole of the night, to be an awkward affair, but Hunt was turning out to be a man of further surprises. He spoke little to Evan directly, which was fine with him, but engaged Alex with a great deal of seriousness, asking her about school, complimenting her on her cleverness when Evan proudly told him about the As she got in most subjects – although he could not resist suggesting that, with brains like that, she should join the police force rather than become a lawyer like Evan.

Why are you in my head?

Good bloody question, Evan had told himself many nights since his abortive drink with Alex Drake. As a bucket of cold water on one's amorous ambitions, to have a woman you're on a semi-date with talk about another man had to rank as highly as 'let's be friends', if not above. And for that other man to be Gene Hunt really didn't help, either.

Evan thought himself as much of a feminist as a man could ever be. He believed in equality between the genders, in women's rights over their bodies – in women's rights, full stop, and their abilities and their ambitions. You couldn't fall in love with Caroline Price and not believe these things. And if Evan was honest with himself, he would have to admit that it was those qualities he'd seen in DI Drake that had attracted him to her: she reminded him of Caroline.

He suddenly felt tired and tense, and then a little angry, because he knew that's how he felt every time he thought about Caroline and he was fed up with it. It was strange to think that he'd coped better with his feelings for her when she was alive than when she was dead. But she wasn't just dead, was she? She'd been murdered. Murdered by that bastard Tim –

Silence really could be louder than words. He felt startled and looked up from his plate to see Alex staring at him; Hunt, for his part, seemed too busy eating to notice if a train crashed into the living room. Evan gave Alex what he hoped was a reassuring smile and offered her more juice to drink. When she smiled back, he decided he needed more to drink as well and reached for the bottle of red – only to find it virtually empty. He looked at Hunt's glass, which was empty also.

"More wine, Mr. Hunt?"

"Don't mind if I do, Mr. White."

Evan fetched another bottle and was glad to see that by the time he'd returned to the table, conversation had resumed between Alex and Hunt, this time about Doctor Who.

So it was back to this - Gene Hunt and Alex Drake's question. Overweight, a heavy drinker, a heavy smoker, and a crude, brutal man. Evan felt angry again, but this time about Gil Hollis and what had been done to him. What on earth did Alex – a smart, independent woman - see in that… troglodyte? Did she fancy a bit of rough? Did she think she could change him? He couldn't quite believe it. Alex was smart; he struggled to picture her waiting for any man to change. And yet… Even when Alex had come to him with her concerns over Hunt's behaviour, she'd thought herself a traitor for it and clearly felt loyalty to him, while Hunt's disastrous television appeal – not even Hunt deserved that kind of humiliation, Evan had thought at the time – had been her idea; he obviously listened to her. Evan also remembered picking up Hollis at the station – Caroline's stinging words to Hunt – and Hunt still slapping down his sergeant for calling Alex names. And when Evan had asked both of them to destroy Tim's tape, to hide the truth of what had happened, Hunt had barely hesitated. He'd understood. A policeman more mindful of the law – like Alex, for instance – would never done that. When it came down to it, Evan had been grateful for Hunt's near-vigilante ways. To complain about them now would make him something of a hypocrite.

Evan had never imagined he would ever be in debt to someone like Gene Hunt, but it could be far worse. Alex – his Alex - liked him, and he respected her judgment. Alex Drake – Hunt's Alex – clearly valued him. Evan was certain he would get a chance to repay his debt sometime and made a solemn vow to himself that he would do so at the first opportunity.

Still. To be young, reasonably handsome and well off, and yet be passed over for a near middle-aged man with a beer gut and the manners of a Neanderthal stung a little. So much for women's lib.

Not to worry. Swallowing his pride was something he'd always been good at, and he had a feeling he would have to do a lot of that to raise his Alex properly.

He knew it was the wine and the pressure of the custody hearing that were making him maudlin. He poured himself another glass anyway. When he topped Hunt's glass, the older man didn't stop him.

xxxxxxxx

The alcohol was helping, Gene decided while White was putting Alex to bed, but it still wasn't helping quite enough. He'd had misgivings about this from the moment he'd agreed to it. He wasn't comfortable around kids for a start, and plum-mouthed solicitors even less. He had agreed to help White get custody of Alex because the little girl seemed attached to him, and although Gene knew next to nothing about children, even he knew she would be better off with someone like him than in some God-forsaken foster home. But the set-up was dubious – Christ on a tricycle, it stank. One of the many things he'd learned in his years as a copper was that secrets never stayed that way. Sooner or later, they found a way out, and there was always hell to pay. Bollyknickers had given him quite a look when he'd destroyed that tape but she needn't have bothered: he felt bad enough about the whole thing as it was, and his part in it. One other thing he'd learned: there was hardly ever a right and wrong choice in this world – only the lesser of two evils. It was always the part he found the most difficult. When he'd started out in the force, an older officer had promised him it would get easier.

What a load of bollocks. It had never got easier. If anything, it was getting harder.

He had a feeling Bolly would know all about that but it gave him no comfort. The opposite, to be truthful about it. The woman wasn't just trouble – something told him she'd seen plenty of it. He snorted to himself. Alex Drake needed protection like a leper needed a rash.

Then, obviously, there was the fact that Gene didn't like White and never had. He was a lawyer, which was bad enough, and when he wasn't trying to teach Gene how to suck eggs, he was snivelling around his boss or busy shagging her – or, rather, she was shagging him; if those pictures were anything to go by, White didn't seem to do much. Gene was no saint and he really didn't know much about kids, but trust was one thing he couldn't bear to see broken - and a child's trust, absolute as it was, was sacred. It was why he'd never really wanted children himself: he didn't think he could have handled that kind of pressure.Gene could forgive White his adulterous behaviour given the kind of loony that Tim Price had turned out to be, but there was little Alex to think of, and how could White claim to love her and then betray her by nearly destroying her family?

Except not nearly, Gene thought. Completely. Stupid sod.

But what he hadn't expected this evening, and what alcohol was failing to save him from, was discovering that Evan White wasn't just a twat, but that he was perfect, too.

It had started in the car, as Gene took in the quiet leafiness of the square and the neat rows of immaculate houses. Once inside White's place, the clichés had been abundant. Like the Prices' house, the décor was tastefully neutral. Cream carpets throughout, except in the kitchen where wooden floorboards, a large oak table and old-fashioned cupboards and drawers gave it an air of the country. In the living room, he had found a mix of original canvases covered in dubious modernist patterns that looked liked multicolour blood spray to Gene, and several shelves groaning under the weight of books and pictures of young people in academic gowns and rowing blues. On the mantelpiece, several family pictures boasted of the fine health, lovely bone structure and general silver-spoon business of the White clan – and a photo of the Prices, in pride of place.

He was staring at it again now. Caroline and Tim Price, who'd never met a leftie cause they didn't like but had utterly fucked up as far as their own child was concerned. Weren't the first, wouldn't be the last, and it drove him nuts. Maybe Alex would be better off like this, looked after by someone who was one set of nails away from being Jesus bloody Christ. Oh yeah. Oxford graduate, successful professional, handsome, young, great cook (Gene really couldn't lie to himself about that one) and now, busy as he was reading her a bedtime story, clearly the perfect dad to an orphaned girl who obviously adored him.

Gene wasn't stupid. He wasn't as smart as Evan White, or as Alex Drake – or even, he thought fondly, as Sam Tyler – but he wasn't stupid. He knew his place in the world and he was going to hang on to it for as long as effing possible, but he knew it was coming to an end and that the world belonged to men like Evan. And not just the world: Alex, too. His Alex, that is - except she was only 'his' in the sense that she worked for him…

Sitting at White's kitchen table tonight, talking to the little girl, Gene had felt like an interloper. Although Alex had chatted happily enough (and she really was a smart kid: their conversation had turned out a lot more diverting than he'd ever thought it could be), Gene had noted her many glances in White's direction. Her would-be father had been quiet for most of the meal, seemingly lost in his thoughts – which was fine with Gene but had left Alex increasingly disturbed. White had snapped out of it eventually, when Gene had run out of things to ask Alex about and silence had fallen over the table. It should have been Bolly here instead of him, really. She was great with kids; she loved them, too. And all this – the books, the soft furnishings, the art – that was Bolly all over. When White had turned up at the station with Donny Dane in tow, Gene had seen the easy rapport between him and Alex, the beaming smile on her face. If he was honest with himself, the image of that wonderful smile directed at the younger man had never really left him, even when she had agreed to dinner soon after. As for 'easy' – well, it really wasn't the word to describe Gene's relationship with her.

Yeah. Gene wasn't stupid. He'd had his chance and he'd blown it. She liked him, she'd admitted as such, but that's as far as it went. There was a time when he might have pushed it, tried his luck again, but that time was gone.

Some people don't know they're bloody born, he thought, and gritted his teeth as a headache started to gnaw at his temples. If White didn't get his act together soon, Gene would make him eat his beard.

Speaking of the ponce… Gene heard soft steps down the stairs outside the living room and turned around as White stepped in.

"Thanks for that," he started. "She fell asleep rather quickly, actually. There've been times –"

"So she finds your conversation as exciting as I do, then," Gene cut him off. "Right – shall we get this over with? What do I need to say? And will I need to doff my cap and tug at my forelock?"

White sighed. "Let me make some coffee first. Would you like a cup?"

"If you'll make it an Irish one."

White, who was halfway out of the room, stopped and turned to look at Gene. "I don't think so. You've had enough –"

"I beg your bloody pardon?!"

"- as far as my drinks cabinet can stand," he finished, raising his hands in a conciliatory fashion. "Leave me some for the weekend, would you?"

"Never realised youwere such a tight bastard, White. That how your family made its money? By not spending it?"

He didn't know whether White had heard him because the younger man had disappeared down the hall and into the kitchen. Gene was about to call after him when he remembered the little girl upstairs and bit his tongue. A few minutes later White was back with a tray carrying a cafetière, two cups on saucers, sugar and cream, which he put down on the coffee table in front of the sofa. White poured him a cup and sat down, leaving him to choose how to have his coffee. That done, and cup in hand, Gene decided to stay on his feet.

Bastard. Even his coffee is good.

"I don't want you to say anything specific, Mr. Hunt. You'll be there as a character witness – they will ask you questions about my general salubriousness, whether you think I can raise Alex – that's all."

Gene had just spent too much time thinking about White's 'salubriousness.' Even as he could picture Bolly giving him a dirty look, he couldn't stop himself. "Don't you have friends, White?"

"What do you mean?"

"Friends," he articulated, waggling his fingers the way Bolly liked to do. "People who like you. People you like. 'Cause I'm kinda wondering why you'd ask me to do this for you."

"Well…" White paused. "You're a respectable and respected member of society -"

He rolled his eyes. "I don't like you, White, and you don't like me. So why ask me? Why not ask DI Drake? Because the only thing I'd recommend you to is a pool-full of hungry sharks."

White stood up, anger flashing in his eyes. He looked about to retort something but stopped himself. "I'm starting to wonder why myself. But if that's how you feel, why did you agree in the first place?"

Bloody lawyers. "I'm doing it for Alex."

"Yours, or mine?" Gene stared at him, which White mistook for confusion. "DI Drake, or Alex Price?"

"I know what you bloody meant," he snapped. "It's just that –" Floundering, looking for something to do to cover it up, he lifted the cup of coffee to his mouth and took a long gulp.

He'd forgotten he was drinking coffee and not whisky. The hot liquid scalded his tongue, the back of his throat and then his stomach in quick succession and Gene, cursing, let out an undignified yelp of pain. White's expression turned concerned but not for long. Gene glared at him as the lawyer's frown turned upside down and he seemed to struggle not to laugh.

"Thanks very bloody much, White."

"Sorry," he said, not looking very sorry. "I won't tell anyone, I promise."

Gene put down his now near-empty cup. "Thanks really bloody much."

"So what was it this time? What did I say now?"

It was getting dangerously close to his reason for being here. He shuffled on his feet, itching to leave, then reminded himself he was the Manc Lion and not about to be cowed by smarmy lawyers or – worse - feelings.

"Alex. Yours or mine," he managed. He paused to fish for the packet of cigarettes in his pocket. White looked annoyed for a moment, but when Gene offered him a cigarette, he didn't hesitate long before taking one.

"This is my first since I stopped nearly a year ago, you know," he said wistfully, sitting back down.

"These are stressful times," Gene offered, lighting his before handing his lighter to White.

He took a long, happy drag. "I can't smoke around Alex – it's not good for children. Well, anyone, really."

"Hippy."

"Fascist."

Gene, quite against his will, felt himself smile a little. They sucked silently on their sticks of tobacco for a moment.

"So," White continued when Gene finally sat down, in a chair on the other side of the coffee table. "Alex. Yours or mine. What do you mean?"

He shrugged. "That's how I think of them, too. Your Alex, my Alex."

"Really?" Gene nodded. "Well, we do need to tell them apart, don't we?"

"You're telling me!"

"Your Alex wouldn't like it if she knew, would she? That it's what we both call her."

"She'd tear our heads off."

Another smile threatened. He could just see her – hands on hips, eyes blazing, getting right in his face – she was bloody gorgeous when she got mad –

"You didn't answer my question," White said, lifting his cup and pushing the saucer forward, indicating to Gene that it had become an ashtray. "Who are you doing it for?"

"I asked first," he replied, suddenly not sure of his answer, or whether he was glad White had interrupted his train of thought.

"Because DI Drake is a friend, and it's easy for friends to say nice things about each other and to lie for them. Because I barely know you, Mr. Hunt, but I can tell you are probably the worst liar I've ever met, and the Judge will see that. So if you say that you think I can do a decent job of raising Alex, they will believe you. The question is: do you?"

Now it all made sense. The invitation to dinner, anyway. "Based on tonight? Yeah - full marks as far as playing happy families is concerned. But this isn't The Generation Game. If you do this, you're in it for the long haul."

"Yes." White looked unhappy enough that Gene could only believe him. "I know."

"And guilt's a waste of time, so if you're doing this because you feel guilty about what you did, you can forget it."

"Well, what do you know. We have something in common after all. We both think it was my fault."

"Don't give me that crap, White. I'm not interested in how sorry you feel for yourself."

"It was a statement of fact."

A few minutes ago he'd had almost the very same thought. Now… "And what are you going to do about it?" he resumed, not wanting to dwell on it.

White blinked. "I don't think there's anything I can do about it."

Gene relaxed. That was the answer he'd been looking for. "Exactly. So forget about feeling guilty, and get on with loving and raising that kid. Doesn't matter what you did, or how you feel. It's about what you do now."

He stared at him for a moment, looking a little bewildered, but eventually he nodded, smiling softly. "Yes. Yes, of course. You're quite right." He grew serious again. "I owe you a great deal, Mr. Hunt. First, for the tape. Now this – all this. Thank you. I don't really know how to repay –"

"I do."

"Crikey," he laughed. "All right. What is it?"

This was it. Come on, Gene Genie, do it quick. Like taking off a plaster. "It's about Alex. My Alex." Bloody hell, he liked the sound of that. My Alex.

"Right…"

"I want you to talk to her. Take her out to dinner, maybe – I don't know. You two were getting pretty cosy at one point, weren't you?" White laughed again. "Have I said something funny?"

"Well, no – but –" He stopped, still chuckling, then gathered himself together. "Sorry. It's just that I was thinking about that earlier, actually."

"I was talking to her about tonight the other day. I hear you've not been in touch with her."

"In case you haven't noticed, I've had my hands full of one Alex already."

"You could have let her know that."

"Why are you telling me this? I thought you'd be glad to see the back of me, since you yourself –"

"Since I what?"

White's eyes narrowed dangerously, and Gene realised too late the man might have a sharp, mean streak after all. Which should have been obvious, since he was a bloody lawyer.

"Since you," the bloody lawyer continued calmly, "clearly fancy the pants off of her."

"Watch it, White," he growled back, only just stopping himself from leaping over the coffee table. "I can do a bruise-free groin-slap so don't think I can't punch your lights out very quietly."

"Oh for God's sake," the younger man muttered, rubbing his hands over his face. For a brief moment he suddenly reminded Gene of Sam. "I've spent a great part of this evening thinking about the fact that Alex Drake isn't remotely interested in me – and that's at least in part because she's rather more interested in you."

It was Gene's turn to blink. He made himself ignore the last part of what White had just said. He was pretty sure he'd imagined it, anyway. "But I've seen you together. I can see she likes you – that she trusts you. You're comfortable together."

"She thinks of me as a friend." He shook his head. "Worse. As some kind of… uncle. She's come to me for advice, yes, but that's it. And I have been in touch since having Alex here. Once, and it was enough to know she wasn't really even that comfortable with me any more."

Gene put his cup down and stubbed out the remains of his cigarette. He badly wanted another one but remembered little Alex, so instead he ran a hand on the back of his neck. It wasn't going the way he'd hoped.

"What is it, Mr. Hunt? Is something wrong with Alex?"

"I don't know." Bollocks. He did know. "Well, yeah. Ever since what happened to the Prices. She's been kinda out of sorts."

"How so?"

"Different. Distant. Unhappy. And I know it's not women's troubles, because that never lasts for bloody weeks."

"And she's not said anything to you?"

"She won't talk to me. Not even in her usual sphinx-like riddles, which, hands on a Bible, I never thought I'd actually miss."

"Do you ever think she might be… "

Gene looked up at White as he paused. "Crazy?" he suggested. There probably was a more polite word for it – the embarrassed look on White's face confirmed it - but that's what it boiled down to at the end. Again, he thought of Sam. He really missed that twat Tyler, especially at times like these. Sam would have understood, he was sure of that. Found it bloody hilarious, too, no doubt, but without ever saying so to Gene. Yeah, he missed Sam.

White leaned forward and stubbed out his cigarette, too. "Have you actually tried talking to her?"

"'Course I haven't."

"Well – why should she talk to you if you won't talk to her?"

"Because I know why she won't talk to me, all right?"

The lawyer sighed. "And that would be because…?"

"Because I released the Prices from the station. Because she kept telling me they were in danger, and I didn't believe her. If it weren't for me, they might still be alive. Caroline Price, anyway. Tim Price – couldn't care less if that little scrote fell over a cliff."

"My God…" White stared at him for a moment, looking pale and giving Gene a good view of his open mouth. "You can't possibly think… For God's sake, Hunt – I got Layton out of jail! I knew it was wrong – but I did it anyway! Not to mention the business with Caroline. How on earth could it be your fault? I saw you there – with Alex – both of them! You did your best, I know you did. So did DI Drake, and even she couldn't save them."

"So what?" he snapped. "You saying they were always going to die? That it was fated somehow?"

"No, no…" His face was getting some colour back. "I don't know. But there's only one person responsible for all this and it's Tim Price."

"You can bloody talk. I can almost see the flagellation scars on your back."

Definitely getting red now. "It's different. It would never have happened if Caroline and I hadn't…"

"Bollocks."

"Bollocks to you."

Gene sat back in his chair, itching for that second cigarette more than ever. "Looks like we're stuck."

"Looks like it."

They were silent again, for quite a while, until Gene couldn't bear it anymore. "I'd better go," he said, standing up. "But I still want you to talk to her."

He looked about to protest so Gene gave him a warning glare. "All right, all right. I will. I owe you that much."

"You owe me a bloody lot more, White."

He headed for the hall and his coat, lighting the longed-for cigarette as soon as he was out on White's doorstep.

"How the social workers been?" he asked, a little unsure how to say good-bye after everything they'd talked about.

White made a face. "They mean well."

"Strewth. That bad?"

"They don't think a single man can manage. I have a feeling they believe me a little strange for wanting to try."

"That's ridiculous. You're strange for a lot of better reasons than that."

He burst out laughing. "There's nothing I want you to say, Mr. Hunt, but let's put that thought on the list of things I don't want you to say."

"Fair enough. I'll see you next week in court." White gave him his hand. Gene took it. He was going to go but he could see there was something else on the younger man's mind. "Go on, then. Spit it out, whatever it is."

"What I said earlier. It's true, you know. Your Alex. She likes you. A lot."

"What's this? Bloody primary school? You're going to offer to pass her a note for me next?" Too late he realised he'd said more than he wanted to, but White didn't react. Gene watched him take a deep breath.

"You're in her head."

"We all are. Imaginary constructs, apparently. One of these days I'll show her something she can't imagine. I just haven't worked out what yet."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," White said, looking, once more, rather baffled. "It's just something she told me during the Gill Hollis case. There I was, feeling like a knight in shining armour after I'd ridden to her rescue. Drinks, music, you know the drill. And she was thinking about you. You behaved like a pig – no pun intended - and still she tells me you're in her head."

Gene's throat tightened. Ever since Bolly had come into his life, he'd come to feel a lot of things, most of them contradictory. She was witty, strong, bloody-minded and absolutely drop-dead beautiful and it made him feel both incredibly young and incredibly old; the more reasons he found for wanting her, the more he realised he surely could never have her. But right now, listening to White telling her that maybe – just maybe – Alex Drake might want him, too, he felt young. Borderline teenager-like, in fact. Tongue-tied and slightly unsteady on his feet.

"Oh," he managed eventually.

"Yes. Rather. And if you tell anyone, I'll tell them how you shrieked like a girl when you burned yourself with that coffee."

"Harsh but fair."

With one nod of the head, they said good-bye again. Back in the Quattro, Gene slowly finished his cigarette. A look at his watch showed that it was not even ten o'clock. He thought about heading to Luigi's but decided against it: Alex would be upstairs already, if she'd bothered having a drink at all – which she rarely did these days.

You're in her head.

He started his car. Drinks, music, you know the drill. That'd never do for his Alex. Plonker, Gene thought happily.