The penultimate chapter! Sorry this has been a while coming. It's loose-ends time and this has been sitting three-quarters written for ages while I ponder them.
Mature content alert/advert. Major series nine spoilers. The usual disclaimers apply.
Not Close Enough
'Having a bath together is nice, in theory.'
'But I bet you like the water really hot.'
'Mmmm, lovely. And?'
'I don't. I can't stand it. It hurts enough to be classed as torture.'
Ruth fought the disappointment that began to well up as one of her fantasies started to shrivel. 'A hot bath certainly puts the comfy chair and the cushion into a different perspective.'
Harry smiled. 'Perhaps there's some sort of unacknowledged male agreement about publicised methods of inducing pain. If secret services were female dominated, I think the techniques would have branched out more.'
'What else would they include?'
'High street Christmas shopping, for one. And that film of Mama Mia could reduce the strongest male agent to tears.'
'I'll bear that in mind.'
'I know you will. Which is why I'm not volunteering any more titbits on how to manipulate me.'
'Damn. I'll just have to do my own research.'
They smiled at each other across their corner of the dinner table and ate the last of their pasta and pesto midnight feast.
'You're sure about the bath thing?' Ruth said, putting her fork down and sitting back.
'Yes. Sorry. We could try having the water at my temperature, but unless it's the middle of the summer, I think you'll end up getting all shivery and uncomfortable.'
'That sounds like the voice of experience.'
'It doesn't sound like much fun.'
Harry shook his head, took stock of her expression and immediately set his mind to work on the negotiation of terms. 'How about I load the dishwasher and then come and scrub your back? I can jump in after you.'
She had to catch her breath before agreeing. It was really happening. She was actually going out with Harry Pearce.
'It's two in the morning...'
He pulled her flush against him, trying to feel as much warm, clean, cocoa buttery skin as possible. There was a short silence as both of them inwardly whimpered their pleasure and instinctively sought a kiss.
'It's Saturday now,' he murmured, one hand sliding along the back of her thigh. 'No field ops planned.' His hand made the return trip, easing her legs apart. 'No meetings,' he continued, stroking her bottom and dipping exploratory fingers between her thighs from behind to see if she would respond. 'No need to go into the office.' His voice broke on the last word. Oh, yes. That worked.
'Do you mean we can have a bit of a lie-in?' Ruth enquired, faux-innocence belied by heavy eyelids and delightfully naughty hands of her own.
'Uh-huh.' He eased her onto her back and wiggled down the bed in happy preparation, peppering her with kisses en route.
'Where are you going?' she asked lightly. Knowingly.
'Where do you think?' he replied, a smile apparent in his voice. 'It's bye-bye, Jameson's, hello, Evershed's. The finest specimen I've ever encountered. Aged for forty years and absolutely ready for tasting.'
'Harry. Now. Now. Please?'
He wiped his face on the duvet and looked up. God almighty, she was glorious. 'How?'
'Like your dream? You know?'
He helped her turn over, was inside her as quick as they could manage. He rested his face against her spine for a moment, tasting her skin. Breathing her in. Holy fucking hell, he couldn't slow down if his life depended on it. She pushed back against him, apparently feeling the same; face hidden, shoulders gleaming in the light from the bedside lamp, cunt unbelievably hot. His dreams never came true, but sometimes reality completely bloody trounced them.
At nine o'clock on Saturday morning, Mike, Beth and Ruth sat in the front of the van and planned their strategy. Inside, Harry was practicing his aftermath basking and was still fast asleep.
'Not IKEA,' Ruth said firmly. 'John Lewis.'
'Have you had a pay rise?' Beth replied.
She ignored the question. 'I want proper bookshelves that will last forever. Solid wooden ones that I have to stand on tip-toe for to reach the top shelf.'
'Do they have to be new ones?' Mike asked shyly. 'Or would second-hand stuff do? Antique stuff?'
'I don't know much about it,' Ruth admitted. 'I'd love some antique bookshelves, but in London I wouldn't know where to look without getting ripped off.'
'A mate of mine works for a house clearance company. They've got a warehouse down near Gatwick. I could give him a call, and we could go and have a look, if you like.'
'Really? I wouldn't want to put you out.'
'It's no bother. He might be able to tell me if it's worth driving over or not. Hang on.' He pulled his phone out of his pocket, jumped out of the van and started dialling. A couple of minutes later, he climbed back in, asked Ruth to get the portable Sat-Nav out of the glove compartment and set about entering an address. 'It looks like an hour's drive,' he told them. 'What do you think?'
'Let's do it,' Beth said immediately.
Ruth was in the middle of yawning widely. She waved an apologetic hand. 'Sorry! I didn't get to sleep until late. Yes, let's go.'
Mike started the engine and eased the van into the road. Beth stared determinedly out of the windscreen. When they got to the turning, two pairs of laughing eyes met briefly.
'How late did you get to sleep?' Beth asked casually.
Instantly beetroot, Ruth covered her face with her hands. 'Shut up.'
'Was it very late?'
'We could stop for some coffee, if you like,' Mike suggested.
She peered through her fingers at him disbelievingly. 'Oh, don't you start as well!'
They got back at half past twelve. Ruth charged triumphantly into the flat and found Harry with his feet on the coffee table, Scarlet on his lap and Football Focus on the telly.
'You've been home!' she said.
'And came back. I thought you might expect me to still be here.'
'Can you give us a hand unloading the van?'
'Mike and Beth are downstairs, but we could do with another bloke. They weigh a ton!'
She bent over and gave Scarlet a hello scratch behind the ears. 'I've got bookcases! Proper ones! I can get the rest of my stuff out of storage at last! Bless Malcolm for convincing Mum to let him sort it all out for her.'
Bless me for threatening Malcolm with GCHQ if he didn't. 'Oh. Wow. Okay. I'll put some shoes on.'
He met Beth on the stairs. She was lovingly carrying an art deco mirror and smiling in greeting. 'Hiya! Mike's waiting for you. God knows how you're going to get them inside.'
Mike was wearing jeans and a jumper, too. He and Harry looked at each other for a moment and wisely decided not to mention how weird they felt being off-duty together after more than ten years of strictly professional friendliness. Harry looked in the back of the van and swore quietly.
They managed it. Just. With lots of creative language and one dent in the staircase wall.
'Do you need some help at your house?' Ruth asked, handing Mike a mug of tea. 'Loading up for the tip?'
'No, it's okay. I can manage,' he replied, dragging his sleeve across his forehead in an attempt to mop up the sweat.
'But would it help?' Harry said suddenly. 'I can come, if you like.'
'Oh, I don't know... The Missus isn't expecting anyone.'
'Give her a call, then. Tell her I don't bite.'
'That's not what Ruth says!' Beth called from the kitchen.
Mike very nearly inhaled tea. Ruth turned outraged eyes on Harry and pointed in the direction of the kitchen door. 'Imagine what the Grid will be like when people find out!'
'Don't be ridiculous,' Beth scoffed as she walked towards them. She passed Harry a mug and sipped from her own. 'I did some very, very careful asking around this week. Everybody on the Grid does know. Everybody knows there's something going on. Everybody knows that the subject is completely and utterly off-limits. The word is that the last person who started some gossip about you disappeared three days later and hasn't been heard from since.
'Well that's true,' Harry admitted as Mike nodded in agreement.
'But you've done nothing but laugh at me,' Ruth said to Beth. 'And now you're even starting on Harry!'
'Er, yeah. Of course! It's the single housemate's prerogative to make the happy couple feel awkward. It's designed to stop you canoodling on the sofa while I'm trying to watch CSI.'
'Heaven forbid,' Harry said dryly. 'I rather like CSI.'
Monday morning found Harry back in his office and Ruth back at her desk. The Australians had tracked down the last thermobaric grenade, the FBI had torn two more churches in Oklahoma apart, and BBC News 24 were having a lovely time finding various "security experts" for interviews.
Around mid-morning, he called her into a meeting with the lawyers. They checked through all the surveillance warrants and signed one case over to the Crime Operations Unit in Belfast and the other over to Serious and Organised Crime.
'You can update the handover document,' he told her, once they were alone. 'And then you hand it over to me again.'
'The official end of my stint as acting Section Head.'
'I think I'll keep a version as a little memento.'
They were trying to think of excuses to keep talking when Harry's phone rang. He glanced at the internal extension number, grimaced and picked up the call. 'Sir Richard? Oh? Yes, hang on.' He cocked his head. 'The DG. For you. Should I be jealous?'
Ruth smirked and held out a hand for the phone. She perched on the edge of Harry's desk and met his eye. 'Hello? Oh, hi there. A lovely weekend, thank you. And you? Ooh, very nice.'
Harry covered his face with his hands and moaned theatrically. 'I'm just not important enough for her any more. I should have known this would happen!'
'James Hackett,' Ruth continued, louder, sticking her tongue out at him while Sir Richard spoke to her. 'No, I haven't found anything specific, I'm afraid. Do you think we could try the thing I suggested? You can this evening? That's great! Let me make a few calls and then I'll confirm with you this afternoon. I'll call at three. Bye for now.'
She handed the receiver back to Harry and was rewarded with a glower worthy of an injured teddy bear. 'You shameless hussy! There I was thinking I was all special and things, and it turns out you're just very good at charming the boss!'
'He's a happily married man, I'll have you know. You may have masterminded my departure from the Grid, but you're not going to get rid of me that easily.'
'Gosh, that's annoying.'
'I'm going for a drink in one of the House of Commons bars tonight. Will you come with me?'
'Will the D-bloody-G be there?'
'Not exactly. Not at first, anyway. But I do owe him a couple, and I'll buy them if he wants to drink them. He's my new boss, and unlike you, I can't just see him at the club if need be!'
The Traveller's Club, unfailingly popular with security services officers above a certain pay grade, remained stalwartly men-only. He had the sense to look apologetic. 'I suppose you've got a point. Just tell me when we need to leave and how straight my tie has to be.'
During the noughties, the Strangers Bar, so called because MPs could entertain their guests there, became something of a Labour back-bench bastion. It got to the point where members of the political press snidely opined that no regular Strangers drinker would ever amount to anything, and ambitious MPs avoided it like the plague. Since the general election, and the forming of the "glorious coalition" of which the Home Secretary was an important part, the bar had managed to reinvent itself somewhat. The uneasy truce between Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs extended as far as their preferred pints (but not often as far as sharing tables); they all had to be much more careful about their expenses than their predecessors; the booze was subsidised.
Thus it was that William Towers found himself plonking a pint of London Pride down on a table at which Ruth Evershed and Sir Harry Pearce were already sat, sharing the side that faced the room and conversing in inaudible tones.
'I'm still not sure about this place, you know,' he told them a little querulously as he lowered his bulk onto the opposite chair. 'You'd better not be making me look foolish.'
'Aren't you're more likely to start a trend?' Harry replied lightly. 'Where the holder of one of the three great offices of state chooses to quaff his ale, others must surely follow.'
'You'd think. More likely they'll be taking the piss out of me in the political columns tomorrow. Someone will Tweet, and then it will be blogged, and then my Monday evening drinkies will be News.'
'Perhaps it's best to Tweet about it first, and say you are indulging the new girlfriend of a friend of yours,' Ruth said.
The Home Secretary looked at his Blackberry thoughtfully. 'Would that work, I wonder?'
Harry slid his arm around Ruth's shoulders and she settled comfortably against him. Towers blinked at them and then chortled appreciatively. 'You spooks. Frustrated actors the lot of you, I reckon. Still, you do look the part.'
Ruth smiled. 'Thank you for coming at such short notice. I thought you'd like to be here because it means you can perpetuate or suppress the rumours to the extent you want.'
'What rumours? Harry, what is she talking about?'
'I don't know what she's got planned either,' Harry told him. 'She doesn't work for me any more.'
'No! I hear congratulations are in order. Any ideas where the new section will be?'
'Hopefully somewhere outside London but not far. The less structural work, the more I've got to spend on technology, but there has to be flexibility to develop – we don't know what priorities will be like in another five years.'
Harry winced. 'Shhh! We're not supposed to admit that to the politicians.'
'Not all of us are completely daft, however,' Towers retorted. 'There's trouble brewing in North Africa. The Foreign Office are extremely worried. Six may well be on the rise again, but they'll need all the support they can get.'
'Wonderful.' Harry promptly gulped his whiskey. 'Ready for another, Ruth?'
She lifted a hand to the thumb that was rubbing her shoulder and arrested its movement, interlacing their fingers and effectively holding him in place. 'Hang on for a bit,' she said quietly. 'It's show time.'
The Home Secretary raised his eyebrows, squeaked his chair sideways and stretched his legs out in front of him: a man desirous of more room to relax. It meant that he could watch out of one eye. James Hackett, wearing his one good suit and carefully drinking lager, was sat on a tall stool at the bar, chatting to an earnest Lib Dem lady about student tuition fees.
Parliamentary researchers usually frequented the Sports and Social Bar downstairs. Hackett looked a little bit self-conscious, but so far, he had done an admirable job of not staring at Harry and Ruth – something she had been very firm about on the phone that afternoon. When the Director General of MI5 leaned on the bar next to him, performed a creditable double-take and exclaimed, 'James! Good to see you! How are you?' his eyes darted in their direction for only the briefest of moments.
'Hello, Sir Richard! I'm good, thank you. And yourself?'
'Pretty well, James, pretty well. Bit busy at the moment. You know how it is.'
The captured Antrim grenade, and suspected links with a man arrested on terror charges in London, had been wall-to-wall news all day. Everybody in the Strangers Bar knew it. The vast majority of people knew who Sir Richard was, as well, and those who didn't were currently being quietly informed. He wasn't one of those people whose picture appeared in the papers; he didn't have a Facebook page. He was one of those people who walked past you in a Whitehall corridor and elicited knowing smiles and "you know who that is" whispers from your companions.
James Hackett grinned appreciatively at being honoured with an oblique reference to work of National Importance. 'I can imagine things are a bit hectic. How's Alex?'
'He's fine. Still living up north. I never thought that sending a son to Durham meant he wouldn't come back.'
'It's a lovely city. We had a fantastic time at Uni.'
'I know, I know. His mother misses him, though. He doesn't come down to visit as much as he ought to.'
'My Mum always says the same. I'll have to get in touch with him and see if he fancies a night out.'
'You do that. Tell him we've asked you over for Sunday lunch and you're too shy to come without moral support.'
That elicited a genuine laugh from Hackett. The eyes of the Lib Dem lady positively bulged with gossip. Harry and the Home Secretary both turned to stare at Ruth.
'It'll be all over Westminster by tomorrow lunchtime,' Towers murmured. 'Bloody hell, Ruth.'
'Never mind the Prime Minister, nobody will dare try to nobble a personal friend of the DG,' Ruth replied smugly. 'His son and James were at Durham together. Graduated the same year. They do actually know each other slightly, but James didn't realise who Alex's dad was.'
'And here he is,' Harry added, removing his arm from Ruth's vicinity far, far too late. 'Good evening, Sir Richard.'
'Harry. Ruth. Fancy seeing you here. Together.'
'Richard!' Towers said brightly, hooking a foot around the leg of a nearby chair and pulling it closer. 'Sit here and pretend to brief me. You'll do wonders for my credibility.'
Sir Richard sat. 'Billy, old chap, are you having a vain day?'
'Image is important,' Towers replied primly. 'As you well know.'
Ruth caught Harry's eye. Billy, eh? his expression said. I dare you.
'We should be going,' he declared.
'Yes,' Ruth said. 'It's lovely to meet you, Billy,' she added loudly for the benefit of the room.
The Home Secretary grinned and stood up as she did, followed swiftly by Harry and Sir Richard. He made a show of helping her into her coat and enquiring about her plans for the evening.
Sir Richard took the opportunity to speak to Harry. 'I know how these things spread, and you'll probably get asked about it by your team. There was a touch of unpleasantness in Human Resources today. Someone got caught with their fingers in the till and we had to let them go.'
'Chap called Stephen Owen from Section C. Level Seven access.'
'I know him. He's the infant prodigy.'
'I beg your pardon?'
'Recruited due to his compulsive computer hacking skills at the age of fourteen. We taught him Arabic, put him through a history degree at Manchester, and had him keeping an electronic eye on all the internet cafes he could manage. When he graduated, Section C took him on here.'
'Well he paid himself £24,000 that we know about, and goodness knows what else. We found the transfer after the mainframe crash the other day.'
'Quite. Anyway, he's been charged with fraud. Should you get any enquiries.'
'Of course. Thanks for letting me know.'
The Home Secretary and the Director General swallowed beer in sync. 'How long have they been an item?' Towers asked casually.
'He's been besotted with her for years, thank God,' Sir Richard replied. 'I've given him a free rein on the strict understanding that he leaves the Nightingale fall-out to me. He was on the verge of expelling every CIA operative in London after Ros Meyers and Andrew Lawrence were killed.'
'Good grief. That would have caused a stir.'
'It would have been a disaster. Our troops in Afghanistan are absolutely reliant on American air support. It was made very clear to me that the more noise we made about Nightingale, the slower the helicopters would get.'
'So we like Ruth, then?'
'And Section G?'
'We actually need that.'
'Good. Because a billion pounds is a lot of money to pay just to get Harry Pearce a decent love-life.'
Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Comfy chair and cushion courtesy of Monty Python.
For the international audience, going out = going steady/dating exclusively. It's a slightly teenaged term.
Check out Stephen Owens' employee information. Series 9, episode 4, about 34 minutes 58 seconds in. Age 22, higher access than a section chief, eight years agent experience. WTF? I want to know his story!
The security budget has indeed increased by a billion ;-)