Thank you so much for your amazing reviews! They really do mean a lot. I'm so sorry for the ridiculously long wait for this chapter...my first term at university left me with no time for writing! I hope you enjoy it :)
Alex Drake is in a bubble. She is submerged in warm water, cheeks puffed with air and eyes closed, face held beneath the surface as though it will protect her from the mad chaos of her life. The roar of traffic is only the faintest hum under here, the whole world shrunk down and tucked away, so that she floats in an aura of the most fragile, untainted peace.
When she feels the oxygen start to run out, she opens her eyes. The dying sun is low, shining through the window to dazzle her even underwater, and she is aware of her hair, dark curls suspended like roots beneath the bubbles.
She sits up with a gasp. Everything seems so loud without this aquatic insulation and she tips her head back against the lip of the bath, takes a deep breath to clear the dizziness behind her eyes. Alone and unashamed, she looks down at her body, at the peaks and falls, the miniscule imperfections, the signs of her age, her sex, her lifestyle. She has the tiniest pair of stretch-marks around her bellybutton, a remnant of her last pregnancy, of the child she bore in another lifetime. Will they get worse, with the growth of this new baby? Will they expand, silvery memories bursting into angry red scars? Her hips, too, are marked with the fine threads of her pregnancy and she runs her fingers over the broken skin, wonders if he noticed when he held her there, when his hands stroked so smoothly over her body.
She can see her reflection in the mirror she has propped against the end of the tub. Wet hair clinging to her face, clear skin, chapped lips, hazel eyes enormous against the pale complexion. Hazel eyes. Not blue, not like Molly's, not like Gene's. She got her eyes from her mother like so much of herself, the metabolism, the sharp jaw, the fierce independence. From her father she took tolerance, height and a taste for the opera. What would her child receive from its parents? Would it have those Gene Hunt eyes, his defensiveness, his staunch sense of right and wrong? Or would it be like her, intelligent, intellectual, yet somehow lost, afraid of messing up? Would their child still be like him, even if he declined to be involved? Suddenly, the question of nature versus nurture seems vitally important. Does she even want their child to be like him?
She ponders this question as she gets out of the bath. While she towels herself dry she considers all she hates about him – his arrogance, his prejudice, his brutality, the way he is changeable as mercury and just as indefinable. Then she dries her hair, curls it carefully although there is no one to impress, not tonight, and she remembers the qualities she admires, the fundamental elements of his character. His principles, his passion, the trust he has in his job and his team. His basic decency. The way he makes her feel safe. The glint of his eyes when he laughs. That secret smile.
When she is ready, skin moisturised, hair perfected, she wipes her face clean again, pulls on some old pyjama bottoms and a shirt that is probably his, and flops in front of the television with a bottle of wine, her way of giving two fingers to the ritual of dating. She doesn't need his help, and she certainly doesn't need him. She has done this before. She remembers the way she went to pieces after Pete left, a whole night spent sobbing into the darkness, and then the way she got up the next morning, calmly tended to Molly, got dressed and went on with her life. People used to remark on how well she was coping, holding down a researcher position while managing a baby, and she just smiled and shrugged and didn't tell them about that one dreadful night or the many nights that followed. And then, within a year, the placement at the CIA came up and she and Molly spent eighteen months in the America and when she came back, everyone had forgotten the custody battle and the divorce. A new lease of life, except she couldn't forget the past.
And now here she is, about to embark on the whole thing again, and although she is trying to be strong, dread drags at her heart and she is filled with a fierce injustice that she has been dealt the same hand. A single mother, in a time which is so much less accepting. Another baby born into a broken home. And Molly, so far away and needing a parent, the job she was truly born to do and which she is being denied.
Alex falls asleep there, with the half-empty wine bottle leaking white wine onto the sofa and Rocky playing on in the background, and she doesn't awake until she hears him at the door, two short, tentative knocks on wood. For a moment she lies still. Molly? Evan?
But it is 1982 and dreams don't come true and so it must be Gene, the one man she knows she must talk to but whom she can hardly bear to look at. Slowly, she gets to her feet, throws off the blanket and rights the wine bottle. She is wearing no make-up and her hair is in disarray and she has probably been crying, but to Alex Drake, none of these things matter anymore. They are no longer lovers and she is no longer a seductress. She swings back the door.
"Alex." She nods. She doesn't say his name back because she doesn't think she can. "Can I come in?"
She pauses for a moment. The absurd thought what would my mother say? runs through her mind and then she shakes it off. She has lived too long in the shadow of her parents' death and now they are alive, she will not be dominated by them any longer.
When she steps back to allow him through, she sees, curiously, that there is fear in his eyes. His whole body language is taut and she feels suddenly, miraculously powerful. Bizarrely, she thinks that to speak would only splinter this aura of authority so she remains silent, cold, a stranger to him.
He sits down suddenly and heavily. The air rushes out of the cushions with a hiss.
"I'm so sorry." His bald apology startles her and she looks up sharply, unprepared for such frankness, such honesty. "I'm a bastard, Bolls, a big, ugly bastard who can't do anything right." He leans forward and rubs his hands down his face, a gesture which makes him look, absurdly, like a chastened little boy. "I don't know what to say. I didn't mean any of...what I said. I just...it was a shock, a massive bloody shock, that's all." He looks up at her imploringly. "Say something."
She sits down too, but more carefully than him, as though to move suddenly would fracture her poise. She folds her hands neatly in her lap. She knows he is expecting her to shout and scream and throw things, but the truth is she's tired and it's late and she doesn't want to cry in front of him.
"This..." she trails off, horrified to find tears burning the backs of her eyes. "Christ." She takes a shaky breath. "This is such a mess."
He bows his head in acquiescence. "I know. What do we do?"
She laughs bitterly, a laugh that is heavy with tears, tips her head back so they don't fall. "I have no idea. When Pete left me...I had no choice. I just had to get on with it." She looks at him now, spreads her hands in her lap. "I don't have the answers."
There is a pause. "Do you want me to marry you?"
"No!" She gets abruptly to her feet, still clinging to those last threads of self-control. "Jesus, we can't even work together, how the hell would we live together? I'm not out to trap you into some sham marriage that will leave us more even more screwed up than we already are!" She shakes her head as though it will clear this whole situation, like a dog with a flea in its ear. "You humiliated me today, Gene." It is the first time she's said his name. It quivers on her tongue. "You called me a whore in front of the whole team, degraded me. You can't do that!"
"I know, I know." She doesn't understand why he isn't angry, why he isn't shouting like Gene Hunt does, but then she realises he's wound as tightly as she is, emotions kept in check by willpower of steel. "I'm sorry, I am. Kneejerk reaction and that." He sighs. "I don't know what I'm supposed to say."
"There's not a script." She turns away from him, arms folded across her body. Why is it so difficult, being a grown-up? Why is everything so complicated? "Do you even want to be involved? If not, I can tell the others it's someone else's, get a transfer, bring it up on my-"
"Yes." He cuts across her. "I want to be involved, Alex. That's my child and I'll be damned if I let you pass it off as some fatherless bastard."
"Nicely put." She can't help the sarcasm.
He lets out a strangled cry and gets to his feet, paces once, twice around the coffee table. She watches him like a cat, unsure whether to flee or pounce, and then quite suddenly he stops in front of her. When he touches her, it is like an electric shock. It flips a switch but she's not sure what for; all she knows is that she is alive, vitally alive.
"I'm trying to do the right thing. I don't know how any of this works but I'll be there for everything you want me for, and then when it's born I'll have him for weekends, take him to the park, show him to my mam. And we'll be civil to each other because I am not having my child brought up in a warzone."
There is something in his tone which catches at her heart. This is the real Gene Hunt, painfully exposed, a little boy hiding from his father's shadow, a child longing for the day when he is big enough to stop the beatings and protect his family, and she feels an absurd connection to this strange new man.
"I grew up not knowing what I'd find when I got home." He is facing away from her now and his tone is rough as a fingernail snagged on wool. "This is why I've never had kids – because I didn't want them having the same shit-awful childhood as I did."
She is drawn to him. Her fingers reach out, map the broad planes of his shoulders through the cotton of his shirt, trail down his back and then back up to his neck. He shivers.
"What are you doing?"
She turns him slowly to face her as her hands begin the unhurried process of unbuttoning his shirt. "Does it need a label?"
He watches her for seconds that turn into minutes, until he stands bare-chested before her. She doesn't know what she's doing, doesn't want to think, to reason; she just knows that she needs him tonight, needs him as a tether to this earth because right now she feels like she's free-falling.
She shrugs out of her shirt, peels off her pyjama trousers. She stands before him clad only in her underwear, wondering if she has ever felt so vulnerable as this, but then he reaches out and she thinks he is going to touch her, but he only picks up the shirt and drapes it over her shoulders. There is something resolute in his expression.
"Not tonight, Alex." His voice is low. "Not like this."
And then she breaks. All the anger, all the confusion, it pours out in a torrent of incomprehensible words and she's sobbing and she's hitting him and he stops trying to fend her off and just holds her until she's stopped fighting.
"You are not going to reject me, Gene!" she cries, and she pounds her fist once more against his chest. "You are not going to bloody leave me here alone!"
"Shh." He pulls the shirt away from her body again and walks her backwards into the bedroom. She falls onto the bed and he crawls towards her, wraps her in his arms and kisses her shoulder, her throat, her cheek and her hair, hands stroking, soothing, reassuring her in the darkness. He holds her until she's cried herself out and then they both sleep the sleep of the troubled, while deep inside, their baby grows steadily on.
When she awakes, it is to swollen eyes and nausea and to Gene, watching her with an expression of haggard exhaustion. This is not romance or perfection or a pledge, and it is hesitant and they are both so afraid of saying the wrong thing, but he's stayed.
And for now, that has to be enough.