Triptych (HP, Vorkosigan saga, A2A)
SUMMARY: Three scenes, three women, three relationships.
FANDOMS/PAIRINGS: Harry Potter (Ginny/Harry); Vorkosigan saga (Ekaterin/Miles); Ashes to Ashes (Alex/Gene)
WORD COUNT: 5,670
NOTES: Written as a birthday gift for katieay, with whom I have shared many happy hours of squee and discussion over these 3 'verses. You are my fandom, babe. I am especially grateful to to jennifergale and lyras for taking on the challenge of beta-reading a multifandom fic.
A triptych is a work of art presented in three painted or carved panels, often hinged together so the smaller outer panels fold in on the larger central scene. While the following isn’t as balanced as a true triptych would be, each of its three “panels” illustrates a female character both as an individual in her own right and in relation to her male counterpart. Thus each panel, like the character it depicts, stands on its own, but joined together they create a whole.
DISCLAIMER: J.K. Rowling, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Kudos Productions/BBC own their respective ‘verses and everything they encompass. This is a work of fan fiction, and thus derives no profit or material benefit therefrom.
The door swung inward before Ginny had even made contact, leaving her standing before Harry with her fist hanging in the air. Recovering quickly, she spread her fingers in a wave. "Hi."
Delight shone in his face. "Hi."
She hugged him then, her jumper riding up as her arms went around him. His hands felt warm against her skin. "What's with the apron?" she asked when they separated.
His mouth quirked up. "I decided to cook dinner for you tonight." He stepped aside to let her in and closed the door, leaning against it with a blitzed, goofy look on his face as though he'd just been hit with a Confundus Charm. "You're really here."
Ginny grinned. "I'm really here. Do I get a tour?"
He led her down a short hallway that opened on a large, high-ceilinged room encompassing living area, kitchen, and, evidenced by the messily-made bed tucked into a corner, sleeping area. The décor was that of the typical single young wizard--she could probably have swapped Harry's furnishings for Ron's without either noticing any change--but the overall effect, once one looked past the general jumble sale shabbiness, was homey and welcoming. Clean, too, unlike Ron's flat; Harry obviously knew a domestic charm or two, or at least how to pick up after himself. "Nice digs," she said once she'd finished looking around.
"Thanks," he called from the kitchen. Intrigued by the enticing smells wafting from that direction, she joined him. "Kingsley found it for me. A friend of his--former Auror, in fact--retired to Malta last November, just as I was finishing up basic training. The timing was perfect."
She lifted the lid on the nearest pot and inhaled. "Yeah, you mentioned that in one of your owls. Harry, what is this? It smells heavenly." She reached a finger towards the pale, creamy mixture.
He captured her hand and pulled it free of the pot before she could make contact. "Later," he said, placing a promissory kiss on the tip of her finger. "I want it to be a surprise."
Despite her shiver of pleasure, she managed a grin. "You should know that after growing up with six older brothers, I'm not too keen on surprises. Especially those involving things you eat."
He laughed in appreciative sympathy. "No Puking Pastilles, I promise."
"Or Nosebleed Nougats, or Fainting Fancies?" She reached up to give him a quick kiss.
"Or Belching Bonbons, or Trumpet-Nose Truffles." He pulled her close and cut off her giggle with a deep kiss.
When they parted, Harry's hair was even more mussed than usual. Ginny tried to smooth it without success. "So what's with all the fuss here?" She claimed a spot on a nearby sofa that had seen better days, judging from the faded upholstery and tufts of batting trying to make a break for freedom wherever seams had frayed and split. She toed off her trainers and pulled her knees up beneath her, then folded her arms over the back so she could watch Harry at work. "I've never known you to cook before. It's so domestic of you."
"I couldn't very well live on take-away tandoori and your mum's hospitality for the past year, could I?" He charmed a knife to chop a pile of mushrooms and poured a liberal splash of red wine into one of the pots. "I had to fix breakfast for the Dursleys when I was growing up, but it wasn't until I was living on my own that I really got into cooking." He gestured towards a shelf lined with cookbooks, many of them with cracked bindings, as proof. "Usually it's a lot simpler, though, more basic, even with magic to make everything easier. Meat and potatoes and the like. Today I wanted to make something special, to welcome you home."
Ginny felt her face warm in appreciation. "Really?"
He smiled shyly, not quite meeting her eyes. "Really." He scooped up the chopped mushrooms and dumped them into the same pot where he'd poured the wine, then filled two glasses--juice glasses, she observed with amusement--with the same wine and came to sit by her. "How was your trip, by the way?" he asked, handing her a glass.
"Blissfully uneventful," she said after taking a sip. "Morag MacDougal and I played Exploding Snap most of the afternoon. My hands still smell like smoke." She held her hand up to his nose to demonstrate. "Then Bill fetched me from the station and took me to Shell Cottage so I could meet the baby. Oh, she's so adorable! And so tiny." She laughed. "I guess I'll have to get used to being 'Auntie Ginny' now."
She shifted around to snuggle up against Harry, leaning forward a little so he could drape his arm behind her shoulders. His fingers combed lightly through her hair. "I can't believe I'm finally done with Hogwarts," she said with a sigh of contentment, leaning her head on his shoulder. Her hand lay lightly on his thigh, her fingers tapping a gentle tattoo on the firm muscle. "I think those were the seven longest years of my life. Now I have the rest of it to do with as I wish."
He pressed his lips against her temple. "When do you start work at the joke shop?"
Ginny's hand stilled above the canvas of his trousers. She'd known they would have to have this conversation, and soon. She just hadn't expected it to happen this soon. "Erm."
"Erm... Er..." She took a deep breath. "I'mnotgoingtoworkatthejokeshop," she said in a torrent of words, before her courage failed her.
His brows drew down in puzzlement. "You're not?"
She shook her head. "I--" She leaned forward to set her glass on the table, then took Harry's hand and entwined her fingers with his. "A scout from the Holyhead Harpies came to see me play two months ago, and they offered me a contract last week, and I signed it three days ago. I'm going to play professional Quidditch, Harry. Starting Monday."
As her initial nervousness gave way to eagerness now that she finally had someone to share the secret she'd been hoarding for weeks with, she began to babble. "I'm to be a reserve Seeker at first, but the scout says I have a good chance at making the starting squad by the end of summer if I practice hard enough and keep up with the conditioning regimen. Even if I don't though, it's still just so amazing. I can hardly believe it's for real."
Harry's mouth hung open for a moment, then he snapped it shut. "I see."
"Aren't you happy for me?" she asked, her excitement deflating as he dropped her hand and got to his feet. "I mean, professional Quidditch! For Holyhead! They play against some of the best all-women's squads in the world. I'll be teammates with Gwenog Jones, Harry. You know how long I've been a fan of hers. It's like you being an Auror alongside Kingsley Shacklebolt."
"Yeah," he said absently as he headed for the kitchen area. "'S great news, Ginny. Congrats." He might as well have said it while under the Imperius Curse, for all the sincerity he put into it.
Ginny stood up, the brief pleasure she'd felt at sharing her news boiled away by hot temper. She hadn't expected Harry to be thrilled, exactly, but his aloof non-response was even more infuriating than if he'd openly objected. "Wow. Here I was, thinking how proud my boyfriend would be because I'd been invited to join the only all-women's professional Quidditch team in Britain straight out of school. Most blokes would think it was really fantastic. I don't know where I came up with the crazy idea that you'd feel the same way. Must be Nargles on the brain or something."
His head jerked up sharply at her harsh words, but his eyes had grown cold. "I said it was great news. What more do you want me to say?"
"I'll settle for you telling me why you suddenly turned into such a bloody great cold fish," she snapped.
"I just thought we had everything already all worked out, is all," was his frosty reply, though he focused his attention on stirring his pots with more force than was probably necessary. "You would work at the joke shop, I'd finish Auror training--"
"So I decided to do something different. Things change. Plans change. New plans come up. My working at the joke shop was hardly fixed in stone." Her voice was getting louder and shriller, like Mum's when she wanted to hex Dad, but Ginny couldn't help it. "Besides, it's my bloody life, you know. Maybe I didn't really want to work there anyway? Maybe I just said I would because--because I couldn't think of something else I'd rather do at the time and I was tired of everyone badgering me about my 'future plans,' so I said the first thing I could think of to shut them up. It didn't mean it was my life's ambition or anything."
"--we'd get married," Harry finished.
Now it was Ginny's turn to stare open-mouthed, the head of steam she'd worked up rapidly dissipating. "What?"
In response, he took out a small box from his trousers pocket and set it on the countertop. Ginny was afraid to reach for it, though her curiosity made her fingers itch. "Harry, what is this?" She cautiously extended a hand towards the box, her fingertips brushing across its top.
"I was going to ask you to marry me today. That's what all this was for." He indicated the meal preparations with a sweep of his hand. "I hadn't planned on just blurting it out like that, I was going to do it properly, over pudding, but then I hadn't planned on you saying you were going off to play Quidditch for the rest of your life."
"I--But.... Who said anything about the rest of my life?" She drew her hand back and came around to lean against the counter. "I'm not even eighteen, for Merlin's sake. I don't know what I'll be doing at twenty-seven, much less eighty-seven. It's a fair bet I won't still be chasing Quaffles at that age, though. Except maybe in some grandma league." Even Harry smiled at that.
"As for--" She couldn't quite bring herself to say "marriage" yet. "--the other thing, I'll say it again: I'm not even eighteen yet. I'm not ready for--that." For kids, and a household, and a husband. Not even a Harry-shaped husband, as appealing as the fantasy version might be. The idea almost made her want to cry. She rubbed at her eyes, but they remained dry for now. "Not yet, not now."
His next question came so quietly she almost didn't hear it: "Ever?"
"'Ever'?" she repeated stupidly.
With a flick of his wand he extinguished all the burners. "Do you think there'll ever be a time when you might want... that?" He might as well have said, "me?" for the way his question stabbed at her heart. He opened his hand in the direction of the box, but didn't reach for it. "Or am I wasting my time hoping for something that'll never happen?"
Now the tears came. Ginny couldn't decide if she wanted to hug him or hex him. She settled for a sighed, slightly teary, "Dammit, Harry."
He still couldn't quite bring himself to look at her. "Is that a good, 'Dammit, Harry,' or a bad, 'Dammit, Harry'?"
"I don't know," she moaned, flinging herself on to the sofa. "It's a why-are-you-doing-this-to-me, 'Dammit, Harry.'" She buried her face in her hands.
The sofa springs creaked as he sat cautiously beside her, though he did not touch her. "This wasn't at all how I planned this to go," he said after a moment, sounding more bewildered than contrite.
Ginny barked a hoarse laugh. "When do things ever go the way we plan them?" Slowly she lifted her face and turned to look at him. "This wasn't how I planned it to go, either." He smiled thinly in acknowledgement.
She took a deep breath and plunged in. "Ever is a very long time, Harry. Ever scares the hell out of me. I can't make any promises about ever, only about right now."
His hands, resting on his thighs, clenched into fists. "What can you promise for right now?"
"Right now? Right now I want to play Quidditch for the Harpies, and maybe share a flat with some friends, and figure out what I want to do with my life. I still want to be your girlfriend, if that's okay, but not your wife. I can't be a wife, yours or anyone else's, not right now. I'm just--I'm not ready." She dared to look at him, to see his reaction.
Harry sucked on his lower lip, then nodded. "You can't say yes, but you won't say never." He seemed unhappy, but resigned.
"Yeah," she breathed. "Yeah. Not now doesn't mean not ever."
The box, Summoned, landed on the table before him with a small thump. He gazed at it for a moment while Ginny watched him in tense silence. His shoulders slumped, then he waved his wand and Banished the box to the far corner of the room, where it disappeared inside a dresser drawer. "Okay," he said finally. "I can wait."
She let out the breath she'd been holding through pursed lips. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you for understanding, and giving me time, and, well, y'know, for--for asking me in the first place." She shifted closer, then carefully hugged him. "I can't tell you how much it means to me."
His hands rested lightly at her hips at first, but when she didn't pull back they slowly slid around her waist until he was hugging her back, his face pressed where her neck met her shoulder. "Just don't make me wait forever, okay?" His breath was hot and damp against her skin.
She hugged him more tightly. "Okay, Harry," she promised. "I won't."
Ekaterin looked up from her workbench at the sound of voices. Though her view was distorted through the glass that covered the greenhouse, she could see her daughter speaking to a group of people over the paddock fence. They weren't wearing any House livery that she could recognize, nor had she heard any approaching vehicles. Had they come up from the village by the lake? How had they got past the Armsman at the gate? Curious, Ekaterin washed the soil from her hands, shaking off the excess moisture, and stepped outside.
Helen waved to her mother, startling the young horse beside her, causing it to toss its head and snort. Ekaterin watched as Helen stroked the filly's muzzle, calming it with low murmurs and placating it with a treat from her pocket. In return, the horse butted against her arm, begging for more.
Ekaterin smiled proudly. Miles would be amazed at how much progress Helen had made in training the foal he'd presented as a Winterfair gift to her nearly two years ago. Helen had spent practically every waking moment since Midsummer with the filly, feeding it, grooming its coat to a gloss that outshone even Pym's mirror-polished boots, and, under the stable manager's watchful eyes, introducing it first to a soft halter, then a lunge line. By now the two were virtually inseparable; Ekaterin feared which of them would suffer the greater loss when Helen had to return to Vorbarr Sultana, and school, in three weeks' time.
As she approached the paddock fence Ekaterin could see about a dozen men, their ages ranging from early-twenties to probably around Uncle Vorthys' age, standing there with Helen. They were dressed in simple homemade clothes that one still occasionally saw on the residents of the more remote regions of the Dendarii Mountains, though some wore boots that were clearly machine-made. "Good afternoon, gentlemen," Ekaterin said to them upon approach. "Is there something we can help you with?"
One of the older men stepped forward and looked her up and down, no doubt taking in her grubby appearance--well, she had been working in the greenhouse since lunch, a little dirt beneath her fingernails was to be expected--but his gaze was curious, not critical. "Begging your pardon for the intrusion, m'lady. We've come to see Count Vorkosigan. The man at the gate said he won't here, but told us to come up this way anyway."
Ekaterin hesitated only a moment before answering, "My husband is away on business at present." It had been less than a year since Viceroy Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan passed away, his name and legacy now in the hands of the historians and myth-makers. Ekaterin had yet to grow accustomed to wearing the mantle of Countess Vorkosigan. Her predecessor had left some tremendous shoes to fill.
The man dipped his head in acknowledgement of her status, an unspoken apology for not recognizing her before. "Is there someone who speaks with the Count's Voice here? Lord Vorkosigan, perhaps?"
She smiled thinly. "Aral is with his father. I speak with the Count's Voice, however," she continued, straightening in response to the low mutters that arose from the assembled men. "I would be pleased to hear your petition."
The man's bushy eyebrows went up. "You, m'lady?" She nodded. "Hm."
"Mama, perhaps they'd like some tea?" Helen interjected. "They've come a long way."
Judging from the look on his face, the man hadn't realized that the teenage girl he and his companions had first approached was his Count's eldest daughter. Given the grass- and manure-stained riding breeches Helen wore, with battered, knee-high boots to match, it was understandable that he might have taken her for an ordinary stablehand.
"Helen, please ask the cook to prepare something for our guests. Bring it down to the gazebo when it's ready." Obediently, Helen freed the filly of her halter, clambered over the fence--Ekaterin refrained from pointing out the paddock gate was only a few meters away--and trotted up the hill, her long auburn ponytail swinging from side to side. Though she was nearly fifteen, her figure remained slim and boyish, only a slight curvature at the hips to hint at the budding woman within.
Ekaterin led the men towards a vine-draped pergola with a table and several chairs beneath it; she and Helen had often taken meals out here during their summer stay, joined at times by friends seeking escape from the crowds, noise, and heat of Vorbarr Sultana. Ivan was a regular guest. She directed the apparent spokesman of the group to sit opposite her, which he did stiffly, then took her own seat. The other men arranged themselves behind their companion, giving Ekaterin the unsettling sensation that she was facing down a review board.
"What brings you to Vorkosigan Surleau?" she asked once her interlocutor was as settled as seemed possible. "What matter requires the Count's authority?"
The man glanced over his shoulder at his companions, perhaps for fortitude. He then leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees with his hands clasped between them, and cleared his throat. "Y'see, m'lady," he began hesitantly, "it's a matter of some delicacy."
"Naturally. Otherwise you would not be petitioning the Count directly."
His lips thinned in a tense smile. "Just so, m'lady."
Ekaterin leaned back, trying to give the appearance of ease, and draped her hands over the arms of her chair, a position she'd adopted from Cordelia. "You have my word, I will treat your petition with the gravity it requires. Go on."
"Well," he said, then cleared his throat again. "It's about these new-fangled uterine replicators."
Ekaterin schooled her features to camouflage her surprise. Uterine replicators were still something of a novelty among Barrayar's lower classes, though they had been making inroads in recent years. Upon his induction as Count, as a token of the type of progressive rule his father had demonstrated and he intended to continue, Miles had founded several obstetrical clinics, each equipped with the latest generation of uterine replicators and experienced technicians to service them, throughout the ridges and hollows of the Dendarii Mountains. "First we'll free those mountain women from the shackles of body birth," he'd declared, his eyes bright with the fever of conviction, "then we'll introduce them to the miracle of gene therapy. I want the fear of mutation completely wiped out by the end of the decade."
"Are they malfunctioning?" Ekaterin asked the man. "Do you need a replacement? Another technician? Whatever you need, the Count has authorized me to grant. Those new clinics are his--our--highest priority."
"No, no, m'lady." He sat upright and held up his hands, palms facing her, as if to ward her off. "We've got two allotted for our village, and as far as I can tell they work just fine. Several families have used them to add to their numbers since they first arrived. My new granddaughter came out of one last spring, and she's as healthy as anyone can imagine." He leaned forward again. "The problem is that they work a little too well, if you catch my meaning."
"I'm afraid I don't, er--?"
"Dmitri Giorgos, m'lady. 'M Speaker for the village of Shady Hollow."
She smiled. "Speaker Dmitri, I'm afraid I don't understand what you're implying. How are your village's uterine replicators working too well, as you say, if they're functioning as promised?"
"It's our womenfolk," one of Dmitri's companions blurted. A young man who'd been hanging at the back of the group, leaned against one of the gazebo's support columns, came forward. "Ever since those damn machines came to our village, well, our wives have got some mighty strange ideas into their heads."
She couldn't help raising her eyebrows. "What kind of strange ideas?"
"They won't--" He paused at a cough from Dmitri, then forged ahead. "They won't--They won't lie with us, m'lady. The way men and women are supposed to do."
Ekaterin blinked. "Oh."
Dmitri reclaimed his role as designated speaker. "Thing is, m'lady, now that t'womenfolk have these replicators to do all t'work of having babies and whatnot, well, they seem to have got this silly notion in their heads that there's no point to having sex at all." His hands twisted between his knees. "Some of us haven't--" His hands made a gesture that might have been construed as obscene, but clearly indicated the level of his frustration. "--in nearly a year."
"It's not proper," another man muttered to a chorus of agreement. "Unnatural."
"Oh my." She hid a smile behind her hand. "What do they--" She considered how to phrase her question. "Did your wives give you any particular reason for why they think it's not necessary or worthwhile to have sexual relations with you?"
"My Hilde says she don't need to be doin' her wifely duties no more, since she got a machine to do it for her," said one. Several of his companions muttered in agreement. "Says if we got a machine to make babies, then what's the point in goin' through the motions? She says it's like mixin' up a cake and tossin' it into t'woods."
"Mine just rolls over and goes to sleep," said another. "Or pretends to."
Added a third, "Petra has taken to sleeping in another bed entirely."
"Lucky you!" complained his neighbor. "My Lenore makes me sleep in the barn!"
Ekaterin raised her hand to restore order and waited for the uproar to quiet down. "I see," she finally said. "And what have you done to communicate to your wives why you believe they're mistaken?" She was met with a wall of blank looks. "Why is it so important that your wives lie with you?"
"It's t'natural order of things!" spluttered Dmitri.
Ekaterin wondered if he was more indignant at her apparent ignorance--after all, the Vor had their own way of doing things, or so their critics were known to assert, and she wouldn't be surprised if Dmitri and his compatriots believed they'd given up sex entirely as an activity for the lower classes--or at her maneuvering him into explaining himself.
"Why get married at all if you can't lie with your woman?" Dmitri continued. His fists clenched atop his knees. "M'lady, these replicators are going to be the ruin of Barrayar."
"If t'women think that having replicators means they don't have to lie wi' us, then how much longer before they stop marrying us entirely? Then what are we s'posed to do? Bugger t'livestock?"
"Oh, I doubt it'll come to that," Ekaterin said soothingly while trying not to laugh as one of her brother Will's adolescent jokes about sheep and men from Vorrutyer's District bubbled up to the surface of her memory. "After all, they've had replicators on Beta Colony since the Time of Isolation, and people there still get married all the time. Same for Escobar and Komarr. Even Emperor Gregor and Empress Laisa used a replicator to produce the Crown Prince."
"Yeah, but do they ever have sex?" one man asked.
Ekaterin hoped they couldn't see the flush she felt creeping up the sides of her neck. "I can't provide any first-hand witness accounts, but I think it's a safe assumption they do. They do love each other, after all." She wasn't about to say, Miles and I certainly do, and we used replicators for our children.
She leaned back and folded her hands before her. "Have any of you ever thought to--has it even occurred to you--to raise the subject of love to your wives?"
"Love?" Dmitri asked. "Why? What's love got to do with anything?"
Only everything that matters. "Surely you understand that sexual relations aren't only about producing the next generation, or preserving your herds from... unwelcome advances. It's not just your needs that count, your pleasure that sex serves." She fixed him with a firm look. "Have you even tried to show your wife how much you appreciate her as more than the mother of your children?" He opened his mouth as if to reply, but fell silent at her querying look. "I mean in bed. Do you pay attention to whether or not she's enjoying herself?"
"Um." His weathered face had turned quite dark. Several of the other men became suddenly fascinated by their footwear as Ekaterin's gaze flicked over them.
"I thought not." Did Cordelia ever have to deal with situations like this? If she had, Ekaterin had no doubt how she'd have resolved them: directly, almost surgically, without worrying about social niceties. Even on Barrayar, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.
"The uterine replicators are not to blame for your marital troubles," Ekaterin began, keeping her voice firm. "You are." She lifted the first two fingers on her right hand to quash Dmitri's retort. "You have treated your wives as if they were little more than replicators themselves, concerning yourselves only with passing on your genes and satisfying only your desires. Little wonder that when the machines arrived, women began to act as though nothing else was expected or required of them from the marriage bed."
"What do you suggest we do, Countess?" asked the younger man.
A smile played about Ekaterin's lips as she imagined telling Miles about today. Should she record a message to be sent to him on Sergyar, where he was investigating complaints of corruption against the new Viceroy, or wait until he returned?
Wait. This is something he deserves to hear face to face, body to body, skin against skin. She'd have to time it just right, for maximum effect.
She leaned back, once more copying Cordelia's regal posture. She wondered if the pose would ever come to feel as natural for her as it seemed to look for Miles' mother. "My order to you, in the Count's Voice, is this: return home, and make love to your wives. Show them that they are desirable and valuable in ways no machine can ever duplicate. Help them to understand that uterine replicators are tools, meant to make their lives easier by freeing them from the risks inherent to pregnancy and childbirth. Let them know there's more to sex than procreation. Share a little of that pleasure you've been hoarding for yourselves."
"What if they still won't lie with us?" Dmitri wanted to know.
"Then send them to me. Tell them not to even ask for the Count, but to speak to me personally." A chorus of "Yes, m'ladys" acknowledged her instructions.
She looked up to see Helen headed down from the house, followed by Mistress Roic and two of the kitchen staff, all of them carrying trays laden with tea and sandwiches. "Ah, gentlemen," Ekaterin said with a smile, "please make yourselves comfortable and refresh yourselves before your long journey home. It would do me and your Count great honor to have you as our guests for tea."
Alex found Gene on the roof, looking out over the city. She was surprised at how much of a view there was from here; even accounting for the lack of skyscrapers that distinguished the London she knew from before, this part of the city must rest on a low hill. Mentally, she located some of the edifices she remembered, structures that wouldn't even be imagined for another couple of decades. It was strange how empty London seemed without them clogging the skyline.
"Hot enough for ya, Bolls?" Gene said as she came to stand beside him.
She paused, debating which way to go with his deliberate double entendre. It was a warm night, the tar used to cover the roof still sticking to her shoes from the midday heat. She turned to lean against the low brick parapet, facing Gene. "Not as warm as it is downstairs." She jerked her chin in the direction of the stairway that led to the apartments below.
He grunted a laugh. "Have they dispensed with the niceties, then?"
"They're not shagging on the sofas yet, if that's what you mean, though Chris and Shaz might have taken the next step since I left. Last I saw they were giving each other a thorough tonsil examination." The giggle that bubbled up within her escaped on the wave of a beer-soaked burp.
"Bloody hell." He tossed his cigarette down and ground out the still-glowing embers with his foot. "Can't take those two anywhere these days."
"Ah, young love," Alex sighed.
A gentle breeze caressed her face as she propped her hands on the parapet and tilted her head back. The beer she'd drunk earlier had gone to her head, making her feel slightly dizzy; when she lowered her chin, she had to shake away the colors that swam in her vision. She caught Gene watching her, though, just before his gaze shifted away.
"Can't hold your booze, Bolly?" he asked, lifting his own glass to his mouth and draining it.
One side of her mouth curled up. "Maybe it's you, Gene. Maybe being around you makes me light-headed."
"Soft in the head, maybe."
He glanced at her, then away; lifted his glass to drink from it, noticed it was empty, and set it down. "Need a lift 'ome?" he asked, kicking the toe of his boot against the parapet.
"That'd be great. Thanks."
She followed him down the stairs, pausing only briefly at the door to Chris and Ray's flat; the soft light, suggestive music, and lack of conversation coming from within was all she needed to know to keep going. Young love, indeed.
Gene was waiting in his car, the engine already running, when she came outside. "Hurry up, Bolls," he called.
"Got a hot date?"
The Audi peeled away from the kerb before she'd completely shut the door. "Too hot for you to handle."
"You have no idea how hot I can take it, Gene."
The lights on the dash illuminated his craggy face, revealing his pursed lips. "That a challenge?"
She ignored him, rolling down her window to let the warm breeze in. She leaned her head back against the rest and closed her eyes.
It seemed as if only seconds had passed before Gene was pulling up beneath the streetlight across from Luigi's. "Wake up, Bolly," he said, his normally gruff voice almost kind.
Alex blinked herself to alertness. "I must have had more to drink than I thought," she murmured, her tongue already starting to feel thick in her mouth. She needed to remember to take a couple paracetamol before passing out for real.
She turned to Gene, who was watching her, his gaze fixed on her mouth. "Thanks for the lift home." She reached over and rested her hand on his arm, two of her fingers making contact with his skin below the rolled-up shirt sleeve. His skin was so warm she could almost, almost, believe he was real. "I appreciate it."
He looked down at her hand. "Someone's got to look out for you. You've not got but two brain cells to rub together in that pretty little 'ead of yours."
She smiled. "See you on Monday. Try not to beat up too many villains before then, eh?"
This won a responding smile, or at least a smirk. "'S me purpose in life, Bolls. Keepin' the streets clear of scums and villains by stampin' their 'eads in."
"Try to keep those urges under control for another day." Quickly, before she could second-guess herself, Alex leaned over and kissed his cheek. "Thanks again for the lift."
She was out of the car and halfway across the street before he could respond or, God forbid, return her kiss. At the sound of his window coming down she caught her breath, but kept going. After what seemed like forever he said, "Sweet dreams, Alex."