A bottle of red, a bottle of white,
Whatever kind of mood you're in tonight.
I'll meet you anytime you want
In our Italian Restaurant.
Even draped as she is by the thick wool of her oversized coat, Alex feels cold. There's an ice lump in her throat, both sharp and numb as she struggles to swallow the truth. After everything, after all they have been through, everything they have shared and hidden and confessed and fought for, he is sending her away. None of this – not the team, not this life, not him, not them – was ever meant to be permanent. But oh she wants it to be.
"Please, Gene. Please, you can't send me in there, you- you need me, Gene." She is clutching the lapels of his coat, fingers shaking with her words. There are tears in her eyes and in her pleas and she is well aware that her voice is that of a small child's – small, broken and so terribly scared. She can feel the weight of Keats' scornful gaze, but she doesn't care. He can't understand what this is, what she is clinging to. He will never understand, and she feels sorry for him.
Her gaze hangs onto Gene's the way she is hanging onto his coat, like a child at bedtime. It's dark and it's late but she doesn't want to go. But this – this is worth fighting for. This is about all the tiny broken pieces of her heart and the memory of her daughter and the way he is the only man to ever make her feel alive.
"Please, Gene," she whispers again, imploring his silence. "Don't make me leave."
The tears spill from her eyes now, amber bleeding saltwater diamonds that glisten bronze and silver in the glow of the streetlamps and in the heavenly light of the Railway Arms behind them. Her lip is trembling in a way that makes Gene want to kiss her, but he says nothing, the knowledge of the inevitable clawing his insides. He can feel truth's black fingers scratching through his ribcage, clutching his heart and holding it against his will. Its firm grip cannot be denied.
She falls into him, face buried against his neck as though the familiar cigarette smoke and soap scent of him will dissolve reality. His arms wrap themselves around her, holding her as close as he can bear as he realises no body has ever fit against his so well as hers does. When he does eventually speak, the whisper of his voice is hoarse, regret scraping the gravel of the single syllable he utters.
Taking her gently by the shoulders, he holds her back from him so he can meet her gaze. He tells her that she has to go, that she was never meant to stay here for so long, that he never meant to trap her in his world for all this time – he was not supposed to fall in love with her, he had never intended… The words all blur into a painful tangle of apologies and regrets but in their shared heartbeats between each word, all Alex can hear is the desperate plea in his eyes, the words he will never say, only feel. He is begging her: please don't leave me here alone in the dark.
For a few moments they stand in silence, communicating with wordless gazes. His hands hold her shoulders, her own hands slumped uselessly against his chest. The breeze sweeps dust along the pavement; it flits abound their feet and swirls around the corner. Above their heads the stars are playing out their endless tragedy, constellations of hopeless love and mythical destinies embroiling themselves in the velvet sky, paying no heed to the ceaseless beating of the two human hearts below, the agonised contractions of their lungs as they contemplate breathing without the other.
"What's it like?" Alex whispers eventually. "In there, Gene. What's it like?"
Gene's gaze wanders for just a moment and he looks at the Railway Arms the way a banished man looks upon the home from which he is exiled. Inside, he can't help but envy her fate.
"I think, Bols, that it can be anywhere and anything you want it to be." He shrugs and tries to lift the corners of his lips ever so slightly. "It is heaven, Bolly. Yer not being sentenced to Dante's inferno."
She laughs, just a little, if only at the reference to Dante coming from him, this remarkable man with his claims to ignorance of the classical and cultural. She wets her lips. "Anywhere I want it to be?"
He only nods.
A small, tentative smile quivers on her lips. "Even Luigi's?"
His hands move from her shoulders to brush the sides of her jaw, fingertips caressing her temples. As though magnetically, they tilt their foreheads closer, so that they appear for all the world like the silhouettes of two young lovers, whispering sweet nothings to each other in the dead of night. Except these aren't sweet nothings. These are everythings, and they are all Alex is clinging to with broken fingertips and tearstained words.
"Yes, Bols. Even Luigi's."
His eyes trace the slight trembling of her lip, the fear of the unknown in her eyes and the way she looks so young, so utterly lost in the face of the glittering abyss he is exiling her to. He aches for the fire he fell in love with – and he is sure now that he loved that fire, if not yet her, from the very first day – and he aches for the usual determined set of her jaw and strong, cut glass sound of her voice.
"Come on, Bolly," he murmurs, tilting her chin up towards him. "I can't have you putting me off my stride. I'll end up wondering if I'm not completely right all the time and we can't have that…" he trails off at the hint of a smile, at the glimmer of her old fire. They share a sigh and each feels the other giving in to the order of the universe, to the words that fate has engraved into their stones, solid and immutable.
"Weren't bad though, were we?" he whispers, and there is an edge in his voice that cuts her in two.
She shakes her head. "No. No, we weren't."
She knows. He knows. They were bold and brash and foolish and ridiculous and they fought with cruel tongues and clawing fingers and made love with open eyes and reverent whispers, and they were incredible.
"But you'll come too…eventually? You'll come and join me, one day?"
He nods. "One day, Bolly. When you need me, I'll be there."
She kisses him one last time, lips touching his in a caress that feels more like a goodnight than a goodbye. As she pulls away, she can feel now the light behind her calling, tugging on something at the base of her spine, in the wells of her lungs, telling her that it is time. For one ephemeral moment she becomes aware of the movement of the earth beneath her feet, the orbit of every moon and sun about the stars and the journey of each dust particle about their feet. She reaches for his hand just once more, fingers slipping through his like water.
He whispers to her, "Go," and as she turns from him, he wishes, just for one fleeting moment, that she would do as she always has done and defy his orders, just to see the anger flare in his eyes, just to be able to kiss it away.
But she goes, as she must, and he watches with a heavy heart, lungs filled like wells of darkness inside his chest, as she slips through the door of the Railway Arms, disappearing to where he cannot yet follow.
Something about pink wine reminds Alex of Spring. It bubbles delicately on her tongue and slips down her throat all too easily as she sits in the corner of an effigy of Luigi's that heaven dreamt up when she arrived here, countless days ago. The passage of time is different here, and she misses the reliable coming and passing of each season, the cold oppression of winter and the liquid warmth of summer.
Her friends, one by one, have moved on. In the beginning, they were all here – Shaz, Chris, Ray… She even saw her mother once. They hadn't spoken, only met each other's gaze across the room, smiled and understood. But now the restaurant is empty, chairs filled with the ghosts of memories and tables bearing only rings of the glasses that once graced their surfaces. She has been alone for some time.
But now, Luigi's is not just empty, but lonely. She feels it in her heart – an ache, a longing that has until now been dulled by hope, by the conviction that he will come, one day. He promised.
The door is constantly in her sights, the white light behind its glass pane never changing, never altering. She longs for his shadow to darken it, for her eyes to finally drink in each familiar line of his silhouette. She plays it over and over in her mind and now she is waiting. Her skin has grown cold, fingers numb with the neglect of that which she so ardently adored. It tortures her, this loneliness, so that she cannot understand this heaven. She knows she must whisper his name over and over in her sleep, wherever she sleeps, and she longs for that world and wonders what is beyond this facsimile of Luigi's in which she holds herself prisoner.
And then one day, he is there.
It does not happen as she expects. There is no darkening of his shadow in the doorway, no sound to announce his presence. One day, she looks up from her empty glass, and he is there.
He hasn't changed. There is not one extra line on his face, not a hair out of place or item of clothing changed. He looks the same as he did on that cold London street when she kissed him goodnight and left him there alone in the dark.
Very slowly, she stands, still clutching the table as though afraid of falling. In all her imaginings of this moment, she says a million words, tells him a thousand things and whispers a hundred secrets. But now, now that he is here before her, all that escapes her lips is his name.
He smiles a little wryly. "Well you could at least look happy t' see me, Bolly."
And with that, the silence, her reverie, is broken. Her face splits into the widest smile he has ever seen, the morning sun in her eyes as she moves around the table and towards him, hands going to cradle his face, gravitating towards him, fingertips yearning for the feel of his rough skin beneath hers, to convince herself that he is here – he is here and he is staying and she doesn't have to be alone anymore. He gathers her to him, drowning her in his embrace as he runs fingers through her hair, across her lips, over her eyelids, reacquainting himself with every tiny part of her.
"I am," she finally whispers against his lips. "I am so happy to see you, Gene."
He smiles then – one of the small, rare smiles she has only seen a few times and that she wishes she could treasure somewhere, between the pages of a book or in the glass jar store of her memories. Kissing her, he luxuriates in everything he has been missing, in the subtle taste of her – all pink wine in springtime – and the warmth of human contact from which he has withdrawn. When they separate, he nods towards the bar.
"So what will it be, Bols - red or white?"
She smiles, taking his hand. This time, her fingers are solid and constant in his and he holds onto her instinctively.
"Neither, Gene." Looking behind them, she bites her lip and then says, "There are stairs, just like the ones to my old flat, with a door at the top. I've never been up them, I always figured… I just always knew that they were for when you arrived, and now you're here. Everyone else is gone, moved on… I couldn't go yet."
He understands. They climb the stairs together and find the home they have both been seeking beyond the door at the top. Alex lies entangled in white sheets and his arms hours, perhaps days, later, the whole world constructing itself out of their fantasies, some kind of divinity connecting the dots of their dreams and wishes so that their life now is built on constellations of their own making. Everything glitters. Alex knows that nothing lasts forever, but this – the sound of his heartbeat beneath her hand, just like on that very first day, and the comfort of his presence so close to her, the brilliancy of the life they lead now and their unspeakable I love yous – perhaps this does.
It took me quite a while to write this and I pondered a lot of it for a long time. I've tried to communicate something of the ephemeral, unknown sort of dreamlike nature of what could be their afterlife in the last scene, but I've no idea if it comes off well or not. Please let me know your thoughts! Thank you so much for reading, and I apologise for the delay in the arrival of this final chapter.
~ all usual disclaimers apply.