A/N: Okay, so… I'm not entirely sure what happened here. I was trying to write something with plot. That failed and it turned into shouty angst/fluff (flangst?) instead. Hopefully it's clear what's going on, but just in case I'm imagining things: it's set following series 9, Harry is back at work following a suspension after the inquiry and everything's a bit tense… Totally not sure if it works, so your thoughts would be greatly appreciated! Thank you! X
The central heating pipe that ran near her desk was ticking as it cooled; the timer on the system had kicked in to switch the radiators to their night time energy saving mode. It was how Ruth usually knew it was long past time to go home and if she didn't get a move on, she'd miss the last bus.
But tonight the bus was the last thing on her mind. She stayed at her desk, staring at her computer screen for another half an hour until she could feel a slight chill begin to seep into the air and she couldn't come up with any more valid excuses to put off what she had stayed behind to do.
Harry called it 'pastoral care'; Beth had referred to it the other week as 'suicide watch'. Ruth preferred 'compassion', but she thought that sounded a bit high and mighty and so tended to call it 'a duty of care' whenever the subject came up, which wasn't often. It was just something they all took part in from time to time and, by unspoken agreement, the rest of the team had sodded off home hours ago, leaving her to take care of it this time.
Feeling the need for a little extra protection, Ruth buttoned up her cardigan and then grabbed the file she needed, hugging it close to her chest. She stood and went over to Harry's office, hoping she looked more confident than she felt. It was still strange to have him back at work after his rather conspicuous absence following the result of the inquiry. Only a week – he'd only been back for a week.
And to have something like this happen so soon after his return. It was no wonder he'd been hiding in his office since early afternoon.
She knocked once on the door and then went in without waiting for an answer, finding him standing by the side of his desk, phone held to his ear and jaw set in a line so tense it suggested he was only moments away from flying off the handle.
He didn't look at her when she entered and then shut the door behind her, but she knew he knew she was there by the way his posture changed ever so slightly.
"I understand that," he said to the person on the phone, "but there was seriously no way of knowing that – " Whoever he was speaking to cut him off and Harry covered his face with one hand, clutching his phone so hard with his other hand, his knuckles turned white.
Ruth wondered if she should leave him to it and come back later, but then Harry said, "Good night, Home Secretary." He hung up the phone and she knew it would be ridiculous to leave without saying anything.
He acknowledged her with the slightest inclination of his head and a quick glance in her direction. She watched him, not really knowing how or where to start.
He started for her. "The death toll has gone up to seven," he said, speaking to his desk, phone still gripped in his hand. "Nine more are in hospital, three of them children."
She felt a cold wave wash over her. They hadn't known about the children before. When she spoke, her voice sounded rusty. "Are they..?"
"They think the kids will be fine."
She nodded and then fell silent. She couldn't say what she wanted to say – it's not your fault, Harry – because she knew he wouldn't hear it, would probably chide her for trying to be sympathetic and make her feel like an idiot. Not that she needed much help in that department. Instead, she gathered her reserves of courage and said, "Are you okay?"
He laughed as though it were a great joke. Then he stopped abruptly and swung round to face her, a stinging expression in his eyes. "Don't pity me, Ruth."
"I'm not." She sounded more defensive than she would've liked. "Harry, I – "
"Four days," he said, cutting her off. "I've been back in this office for four days and this happens." He gestured to the heap of paper on his desk, the bureaucratic result of the bomb that had gone off earlier that day, on his watch. Killing people. "I don't know whether that's an indictment of how things were run in my absence or an indictment of me. Not that I need another one."
She didn't take the bait, biting at the inside of her cheek to stop the cutting remark that threatened to escape and make things worse. He could rage perfectly well, it seemed, without her input. Beth's comment about 'suicide watch' wasn't seeming quite so outrageous now, as Harry slammed his phone down on the desk so hard, Ruth was fairly certain the screen would be cracked.
"Just what is the point?" he asked, every word pushed out bitingly. "When we work so hard and then all we get is this?" He was glaring at the paperwork again, his voice getting louder by the second. "I hate it, Ruth! I don't know any more why we bother. Do you?"
She wanted to hold him, but she held her ground instead. "Harry," she said quietly, hoping it might calm him.
Apparently it was the wrong response. "I told you, I don't want your pity!" He said it so loudly, it was almost a shout. "I don't want pity and I don't want this." He sent the pile of papers flying off his desk and onto the floor, his phone going with them. It clunked loudly against the glass wall. The sound seemed to knock the fight out of him. He finished quietly, "And I don't want any more people to die and have it be my fault."
He stood behind the desk, looking at the floor, shoulders heaving with the force of each breath.
"It's not pity," she said. "It's not."
He looked at her briefly and then away again. "I know," he replied.
It occurred to her that this was the first time they'd been properly alone in months, probably since Lucas chucked himself off that building and Harry walked away miraculously unscathed. She'd lost her nerve with him then, and it turned out she'd lost her chance as well, when Harry was suspended from duty not too long after. She was determined not to lose either nerve or chance this time around, but she wasn't quite sure of where they stood. She never was. "What do you want, Harry?" she asked him, hoping he'd hear the invitation in her voice. "If you don't want pity, what do you want?"
He lifted his head and looked at her properly for the first time since she'd come in. "Don't tempt me right now," he said.
Something in the way he said it made her want to backtrack. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean…"
"What do you mean?" he asked, clearly still only just in control of his temper. "Because I never know what you mean anymore, Ruth, and I'm tired. Just give me a straight answer, please. Why are you here?"
He spoke with such finality, Ruth had a sudden horrible sense that this was the endgame. They may have been ostensibly talking about work and an operation gone horribly wrong, but under that… under that was everything they never said, the subtext of a thousand conversations never examined in the light. From the look on Harry's face, it was clear that something had flipped inside him to make obfuscation no longer an option.
Part of her, the cowardly part, was tempted to just give him the file she was still holding – probably horribly crumpled now – and then leave, but the larger part of her, the part that loved him madly no matter what, made her stay. She dropped her arms to her sides and tossed the cardboard file onto the mess of paperwork that Harry had scattered across the floor. "I'm here because I wanted to see you," she said and the brief flash of pleased surprise that passed across Harry's face told her that she had at least managed to buy them a bit of time.
He didn't know what he'd been expecting her to say. That she needed her file signed, probably, or that she was there because of duty. What she actually said sparked a jolt inside him of the sort he hadn't felt in far too long.
She wanted to see him. He tried not to think too hard about how much he'd wanted to see her over the past months, sitting alone at home on suspension and missing her face, even though he'd been fairly certain she hated him and wouldn't want to see him. Her words and the look on her face right now suggested that the opposite might have been true.
He sighed, not knowing what to do with all the emotions churning inside him. "I need a drink." He turned to his little cabinet to find his decanter empty of whisky, only the slightest trail of amber liquid left in the bottom. He turned back to Ruth, still holding the empty container. "Did my replacement get thirsty while I was away?" He sounded bitter, but he didn't care. He thought he deserved a little selfishness.
"Oh," she said softly, watching him swing the decanter from side to side so it caught and glinted in the light. "Hold on." She held up one finger to tell him she'd only be a moment and then hurried back out onto the Grid, going to her desk and using a small key to unlock the bottom drawer.
Harry watched through the glass partition as she pulled out a half-empty bottle of Laphroaig before locking the drawer again and walking back to his office. He thought she looked uncertain, but determined. He wanted to know what she was thinking, but wasn't quite ready to put himself out there just yet, not when he was still feeling enough residual anger, guilt and frustration that he was tempted to chuck a glass against the wall, just to see it shatter.
There are children in hospital tonight, he told himself. Think about them.
"I couldn't rescue the stuff in the decanter but I hid this for you." Ruth was back in his office, handing him the bottle.
He reached out for it, daring himself to brush her fingers as he took it from her. He did. She let her hand slide against his as she gave him the bottle, watching him carefully, something that looked like tenderness in her eyes. Interesting.
Harry waited until the last possible moment before turning away and pouring two large-ish glasses of the single malt. He handed one to Ruth, a silent invitation to stay a while, and this time it was her hand that enclosed his for a moment as she accepted the glass. Her skin was soft and cool and Harry wondered exactly what they were doing.
"Thanks," she said and took a sip of whisky.
He smiled at the flush the alcohol bought to her face almost immediately, then sat down on his leather sofa with his own glass, stretching one arm along the backrest. He didn't even feel guilty for the slightly reckless, obvious game-playing. He'd meant what he said. He wanted her to be straight with him. Actions would tell him what she meant much more clearly than words ever would.
Ruth hesitated for a moment, her gaze flicking between the other chairs in the office. Then she came and sat beside him, close enough that he felt the little rush of air as she sat down, close enough that he could just about feel her shoulders against the arm that lay behind her and the tension she was so obviously trying to hide.
In the end, he was the one to break first, opting to open with the most neutral topic they currently had available. "Was that your report?" he asked, nodding in the general direction of the scattered papers on the floor.
She swallowed a mouthful of whisky and nodded. "Yes. Although I'll need to update it now we have revised figures."
"What's your conclusion?"
"About the bomb?"
His turn to nod.
"We should've seen it coming, but there were lots of reasons we didn't."
He nodded again and drank some more to stop himself asking what he wanted to ask – was it my fault? He told himself to give Ruth more credit than that; if it had been anyone's fault in particular, she would've said up front. He felt the slightest bit better, but still didn't really know what to say to her.
"I missed you," she blurted suddenly. "While you were away. I missed you." She looked down at her glass and became very interested in studying the liquid that lapped gently up the sides.
He had to stop himself from saying I'm glad and tried a different approach instead. "When I saw you at the inquiry, you cried," he said in a measured tone, referring to the last time he had seen her before coming back to work. "Why?"
"Oh, Harry," she said, "that's a big question." She took another sip of her drink. Harry thought it was to stall for time more than it was for Dutch courage. "I was relieved," she eventually said. "That you were going to be okay, that it was just a suspension. And I felt guilty." She swallowed heavily.
"Because it was my fault you were there."
If he'd been in a better frame of mind, he would have contradicted her. As it was, he sat quietly and watched her, enjoying the ability to stare as brazenly as he liked. "Albany was a fake," he said, as casually as he could. He didn't know if she knew.
Ruth nodded, not at all taken aback by his statement. "Yes. I felt guilty because of that, too. Because of what I said to you before I knew it was a fake. And for other things. Regrets and mistakes."
He didn't ask her how she found out about Albany and he didn't need to ask what the 'other things' might be. He could guess.
"But mainly I cried because I thought I'd blown it with you and I felt sorry for myself," she said, looking like she might cry again now.
"Yes, I've been doing a lot of that, too," he agreed. "Feeling sorry for myself."
She glanced at him. "You had a better reason than I did." She caught his gaze and held it. "Harry…"
He tried to act impassive, as though whatever she might say had no impact on him.
Apparently he was successful, because she lost her nerve and looked away. "I really am glad you're back." It obviously wasn't what she had been planning to say.
Harry watched her twisting the glass in her hands. He felt the barely suppressed urge to throw his own glass at the wall resurfacing, an impatience building in him that made him feel like throwing caution to the wind and consequences be damned. It had been building for a while – months, years even, but coming back to work and the day's events had cast things in a particularly harsh light. "What the hell are we doing here?"
The threat of an ultimatum was back in his voice and Ruth didn't know what to do. She knew what she wanted to do, what she had been thinking about ever since Lucas told her to go after what she wanted, but now she was faced with the immediate choice, she found herself hesitating, although she couldn't say why. She considered that she had three options: do nothing and live with the end of whatever might be between her and Harry; leave now and take a chance that his mood would be better in the morning; or give up keeping him at arm's length and jump straight in, despite the hard shell he was currently exhibiting and take whatever she could get.
He was staring at her, probably waiting for her to answer his question with some inane statement – fighting for Queen and country, protecting the people as best we know how, defending the realm for what it's worth, drinking in the office when we should be at home…
She made her decision. "I'm not entirely sure but I'm glad we're doing it together," she said, forcing herself to look at him again.
His eyes were dark and strangely unreadable.
"You didn't answer my question properly earlier."
She swallowed to dampen her suddenly dry mouth. She fancied that she could see the air quivering between them. "What do you want, Harry?" She hoped he could hear the renewed invitation. "You told me not to tempt you, but you didn't tell me what you want."
He turned and put his glass down on the cabinet with a loud clatter before turning back to her and regarding her with what she thought looked like muted hope.
She put a hand on his leg, feeling the warmth of him and solid muscles in his thigh that twitched when she squeezed lightly. "I know what I want." If he couldn't see the love in her eyes, then he must be blind, but she didn't want to say too much more without a sign from him.
The arm that had been resting behind her dropped down slightly and his fingers curled around her shoulder, lightly enough that he could deny the intent if he had to. She didn't want him to.
"Be tempted, Harry." She shifted closer, leaning across him to put her glass down next to his. She heard the hitch in his breath as she brushed against him. She sat back down and felt his arm move lower, around her waist, hand cupping her hip, intent clear this time. She turned his face to hers and kissed him once, briefly, then again for longer, at his insistence. "Everything will be okay," she said when they broke apart, one hand still holding his face. "Tomorrow's another day."
His response was to smile at her softly, his first genuine smile since she came into the room. And then he took his chance. "Come home with me."
The last vestiges of heat were leaving the central heating system as they left not long later, the air turning chill as Ruth pulled on her coat and then turned to find Harry waiting close behind her, his damaged phone held in one hand. He reached out and wrapped his free hand around her fingers, feeling her return the gesture before he turned and led her towards the exit, stopping only to turn off the lights before they went, saving everything else for another day.
A/N: Thanks for reading! Also apologies for the rather abrupt (and random) ending; I was determined to get it all into one chapter so I fear I may have broken it somewhat in the process. Oops. But yes. Thank you! :)