I'm so sorry this chapter is nearly six weeks late; lots of stuff happened, I went back to school, etc… everything sort of got backlogged. :/ Anyway, thank you so much for your patience and support, and enjoy the chapter. :)
Disclaimer – I don't own Ashes to Ashes.
Letting out a frustrated sigh, Alex turned onto her back and stared upwards into the darkness of Gene's living room. The curtains had been pulled tight over the window, so the blackness was absolute.
It was almost too dark. Alex felt like it was smothering her, closing in on her from all sides, no-one to hold it at bay. It left her with only her thoughts for company, and her brain had been running in circles for hours as she shifted, tossed and turned, trying desperately to get to sleep. It was no use. As loath as she was to admit it, Alex just didn't feel right sleeping downstairs alone. She ached to be able to reach out her hand and brush it against his, to reassure herself. She missed the sound of his deep breathing, the occasional shift of the sheets as he moved beside her. And once she'd allowed these thoughts to take root in her mind, they refused to be removed and grew, stretching with long fingers to clasp around her heart.
She let out a final sigh and sat up, pushing back the duvet and getting up from her makeshift bed on the floor. Feeling her way through the dark, she moved towards the kitchen. She remembered how when Molly used to have trouble sleeping, in what felt to her like once upon a dream ago, Alex used to make them both warm milk, with a little honey stirred in.
For what felt like the hundredth time that night, Gene tried to punch his pillow into shape and ignore the fact that it wasn't the shape of the pillow that felt wrong, but the shape of the mattress. There was no dip to the right of him where her body usually curled around her half of the duvet, no warmth just a few inches away – so comforting, so lovely, and oh so tempting.
He sat up with a huff, abandoning the pillow as a lost battle. It wasn't the reason he couldn't sleep.
To Gene's surprise, there was already a glow spilling from the kitchen into the hall as he quietly walked downstairs, ears pricked to pick up the sounds of padding feet and the soft sound of cupboard doors being shut gently.
For a split second, Alex froze in the act of stirring the honey into her warmed milk and just managed to stop herself from jumping at the sound of his voice. She turned to face him, mug cradled close to her chest with both hands, and smiled softly, leaning back against the countertop.
"I couldn't sleep," she said quietly, bringing the mug of warm, honeyed milk to her lips.
Gene cleared his throat. "Me neither. Too much t' think about." He moved forward, retrieving a mug for himself from the cupboard as he glanced sideways at Alex, gaze sweeping over her checked flannel pyjamas (how did she manage to still look so gorgeous, even in baggy nightwear?) before he nodded to the mug in her hands. "What have yer got there anyway, Bolly?"
Alex watched as he filled the kettle up and allowed her eyes to wander appreciatively for a moment over the plains of broad shoulders, usually so well disguised but now only hidden beneath the old rugby shirt she presumed he'd only pulled on to come downstairs in. He usually just slept in pyjama bottoms.
"Warm milk with honey," she told him eventually, taking another sip. "It always used to work f-for…for Molly, whenever she couldn't sleep."
"Thought it looked girly," Gene said, but Alex didn't miss the kind glance he gave her as he turned to reach for a teabag, pausing for just a moment to meet her gaze and let her know that he understood, even if he didn't know how to articulate that understanding out loud.
A few minutes later, a long, relaxed sigh came from Gene as he leant back against the countertop opposite Alex, a freshly steaming mug of tea in his hands.
"That'll keep you awake more than anything," Alex murmured, sipping her warm milk. "There's caffeine in tea."
Rolling his eyes, Gene took a deep gulp from his mug. "Never quit nagging do yer, woman?"
She looked up at him and smiled; there was no real disdain to his words. There never seemed to be these days. "No. But if I didn't, who else would keep you in check?"
Gene chuckled – a deep, genuine sound from his lungs that caused the smile on Alex's face to linger. "True, Bols. Very true."
They both drank in companionable silence for what felt like a lifetime, each quietly comfortable in the familiarity of the other's company. Chris, Ray and Shaz would have laughed to see their Guv and the Ma'am like this – sharing a night-time drink in the cosy, soft light of the kitchen. No fights, no bickering. Just a drifting sort of peace that floated amongst words unsaid and emotions misconstrued as something less than they were, sometimes deliberately.
Eventually, Gene's voice broke apprehensively through the silence.
"I talked to Caroline earlier today."
Alex looked up in surprise, stirring from her thoughts. "Oh?"
"Yeah, she err…well, we 'ad a discussion, and decided it's best if Scarlett does stay down 'ere with me in the long term. She told me to go ahead with enrolling 'er at school."
"And did she speak with Scarlett too?"
Shaking his head a little grimly, Gene set his now empty mug down on the counter next to him. "She asked t' talk to her, but Scarlett was having none of it. Refused t' take the phone when I tried to hand it to her."
"I can't say I'm surprised," Alex mused, voice low and grey. She chewed her lower lip for a few seconds, thinking. "She's just doing what most overwhelmed teenagers try to do – she's isolating herself from anyone or anything that upsets her. Anything that makes her feel like she's not in control. First you, and her friends at home, and now her Mum, for sending her here."
She let out a long sigh, sad eyes meeting Gene's. "She must feel so lost, Gene," she murmured, her heart aching for the teenage girl asleep upstairs. "So alone. Like everyone's giving up on her."
The words that fell from between Gene's lips next were quiet, but carried a strength of sincerity that pierced and punctuated the air, leaving its mark.
"I won't give up on her, Alex. Not again. Not ever."
A short silence lingered before Alex brought her gaze up to meet his, and a small, morosely tentative smile lifted the corners of her lips.
"I know," she whispered, staring into the storm of his eyes as though seeing through the clouds of grey right to his very soul. "I know you won't."
She was letting him know, the same way as he had let her know earlier, that she understood.
Halfway down the stairs, Scarlett froze. Her hand had been resting lightly on the banister, but now she gripped it tight, her fingers suddenly closing around it in shock as her breath hitched and caught in her throat.
She knew she shouldn't eavesdrop; it had never got her anywhere pleasant. But she hadn't been meaning to. Her throat was dry, a painful lump forming there that she could barely swallow past. With its juddering, staccato beats, she could feel her heart pounding in her chest. She'd only been coming down for a glass of water; she hadn't realised that her Dad or Alex was awake.
But now the overheard words were tearing through her head, ripping her up inside until she didn't know what to feel. Letting out a low, shaky breath, Scarlett began to back up as quietly as she could, retreating upstairs again. She wanted to run, flee, but then they'd hear, would know that she'd heard.
Tears were swimming in her eyes when she slipped back into her room and collapsed down onto the bed, breathless. He really meant it. With every fibre of his being he had meant it. A tear dropped down from between Scarlett's eyelashes onto her cheek, and she brushed it away carelessly. She'd never heard anyone speak about her like that before – she'd never given them a reason to. And now…now those words, that warmth of honesty, the fiery determination to protect, to love… It all came from her Dad, of all people.
How many nights had she spent as a little girl, fighting hard not to cry herself to sleep because she wanted to know how to make her Daddy love her? How many times had she watched her friends being picked up from the playground by the their Dads – Dads who asked them about their day and grinned proudly when they heard the results of their spelling tests – and wished her Dad would do the same?
And now, Scarlett cried, because every tear she had tried to suppress as a little girl, every lip tremble and shaky breath, came spilling out of her as if from a reservoir, and the dam had finally broken. The words she had heard her Dad murmur to Alex, imbued with faithful ferocity, echoed in her mind as tears swam silently down her cheeks.
'I won't give up on her… Not again. Not ever'.
Scarlett hardly knew whether to feel happy or sad. She suddenly felt like a little girl again – like the little girl who had loved her Daddy so much, no matter how late he was or how long he stayed away – and her heart felt bruised in the most bittersweet way possible. It seemed like such a simple, childish wish to make, but she just wanted, all of a sudden, for everything to be better again.
He had said he wouldn't give up on her. Not again. Not ever.
And amazingly, Scarlett found herself aching to believe him.
I know this chapter should probably be longer, but I wanted to get at least something posted. :) If it's any consolation, I have a little short oneshot piece to post a little later too. :P Hope it was okay anyway, and sorry again about the delay. :/