Ruth was rooted to the spot, just outside the door. Her heart pounded loudly in her ears as she stared at Harry, greedily drinking in every detail of his appearance. He'd lost weight and there were a few more worry lines than she remembered, she noticed with a lurch of the heart. But the brown eyes still burned for her, and once she met their intense gaze she couldn't look away. In that gaze was everything he felt for her; he made no effort to hide it. She was only vaguely aware that he began to move forward, and was even more surprised when she met him halfway, her feet moving of their own accord. Up close she could see just how nervous he was, and it dispelled the butterflies in her own stomach. It was Harry standing in front of her, real and not imagined. In the flesh. She expelled a batch of air, half-sob, half-laugh and reached out to touch his hand. Tears welled in his eyes the moment her skin made contact with his, and then his fingers wrapped around hers and squeezed.
"Ruth," he murmured in wonderment, looking somewhat shell-shocked.
"Harry," she said, her voice shaking. "You're really here."
He took a few deep breaths in an attempt to quell the overwhelming emotion flooding through him.
"Ruth," he said again, years' worth of yearning and the torment of the last three months encapsulated in her name, his thumb stroking over the back of her hand.
They stood staring at each other, lost for words, until Harry cleared his throat and asked, "Are you all right?"
"Yes," she smiled, her free hand automatically going to her left side. "The stab wound healed well and Marks never touched me."
"You've been seen by a doctor?" he insisted, and she understood what he was doing: seeking refuge in practicalities. It's what they'd always done.
She began to shake her head and anger immediately flared in his eyes. "I told Tom, for God's sake-"
The soft utterance of his name stopped his diatribe in its tracks and he looked at her. She could see his all-consuming fear that he would lose her again, and finally appreciated what he must have lived through these last three months, thinking her dead. They had each, in their different ways, been through hell.
"I don't need to see a doctor. Really."
He searched her face for any flicker of evasion but found none, and closed his eyes in relief. When he opened them again, they were filled with anguish.
"I thought you were dead," he blurted, "otherwise I would have come for you sooner."
"I know, Harry. Tom explained everything," she assured him, and he relaxed a fraction.
His right hand rose towards her face, but before his fingers could touch her cheek he was overcome by reticence, and his hand dropped away again. The uncertainty in his eyes pierced her heart, and she murmured, "Harry…", filling his name with the boundless love she felt for him.
It gave him the courage he needed, and he said, "Do you remember what we talked about before Sasha stabbed you?"
Ruth blinked in surprise at the sudden conversation shift; she wasn't sure what she had expected him to say, but that wasn't it.
"I do," she responded cautiously. "I asked you to leave the Service, with me."
Harry nodded solemnly, his eyes never leaving her face. "And I agreed," he said. His hand slid up her arm as he added, "That hasn't changed, if the offer still stands…"
He petered out uncertainly when she didn't react immediately, worried that his worst fears had been realised. But then a wonderful smile blossomed on her face and she nodded, too overcome to speak, and Harry let go of his self-control. He pulled her into a tight embrace and buried his face in her hair, and finally let himself feel for the first time in years. She clutched at him and pressed herself against him, wanting to get inside his skin if possible. He sighed into her hair, perhaps another whisper of her name, perhaps a declaration of love, but she wasn't sure and it didn't really matter. He was here, he was solid and warm and he held her like he never intended to let her go again, and she was just fine with that. Long minutes passed as they held each other, learnt for the first time the feel of the other's body, and marvelled in the fact that they had been granted yet another chance. Harry pulled away, his face alight with joy and love as he leant in and kissed her gently on the lips.
And then he said, "Let's go home."
- 0 –
One week later
Thames House, London
It was Harry's last day on the Grid, and Ruth had accompanied him for moral support. She understood how hard this was for him – that no matter how much he loved her and wanted to build a life with her, the Service had been his whole world for most of his adult life. It had shaped him and was ingrained in every fibre of his being, and she knew that he was struggling to envision his future without its demands and rewards. She waited outside on the Grid, chatting with Erin, Calum and Dimitri whilst he went into his office to clear his desk. In truth, though, she didn't take in a single word they said. Her total focus was on the man in the office. She watched as he sat down behind his desk for the last time. He sat immobile, his eyes wandering over every object in the office and then to the Grid beyond. She suspected that he wasn't really seeing what was before him, but was remembering all the officers who had once walked this floor and had been sacrificed to the cause. He breathed deeply and she had to blink away tears, right there with him in her mind's eye. Eventually Harry shook himself and began to clear his desk, and her thoughts drifted to the developments of the last week.
Things had moved swiftly since the standoff in the Andes. They had flown home together with Tom and Malcolm, and the Home Secretary had awaited them on their arrival. He had spontaneously enveloped Ruth in a hug and had clapped Harry on the back before handing over a set of keys to Ruth.
"For your cottage in Suffolk," he had explained.
Ruth had looked between Harry and Towers in confusion. "But… I never got a chance to buy it."
"Harry asked me to purchase it on your behalf as soon as he knew you were alive," Towers had explained.
Ruth had been moved beyond words by the gesture, before reality had set in. "Harry," she'd murmured, "I'm not sure we can afford it. Neither of us will have a job come next week."
He had smiled softly, lovingly at her. "We can sell my house," he'd offered, before Malcolm had cleared his throat to draw their attention.
"Actually, you can afford it," he had told them smugly.
Everyone had looked at him, waiting for an explanation, and Malcolm had obliged. "I transferred the money that was left in Marks' account into Harry's."
After a stunned silence, Harry had shaken his head. "We can't take it, Malcolm. Marks stole that money from the state."
"Oh, for heaven's sake," Towers had grumbled affectionately. "Take the damn money, Harry. See it as a generous bonus, a thank you from your country for a job well done. God knows you deserve it. Both of you."
Ruth smiled at the recollection; Towers had refused to take no for an answer and in the end they had to give in. Which is how they came to own a cottage in Suffolk, Harry's house in London and almost five million pounds in the bank. They had subsequently decided to move to the cottage, but there was something they wanted to do first. Her eyes lifted back to Harry and met his, and the soft look in them made her wonder whether he was thinking about their immediate future as well – their planned trip to the great capitals of Europe. Her heart melted when she thought back to his bashful expression when he'd asked whether she wanted to join him on the Grand Tour he'd dreamed of for so long.
Before she'd had a chance to answer, he'd said out of the blue, "We could get married in Paris?" before hastening to add, "That is if you'd like to, of course. Marry me, I mean. Oh, shag…"
She'd laughed and wrapped her arms around him. "I'd love to join you on the Grand Tour. And to marry you," she'd said and had pretended not to notice his glistening eyes when he'd kissed her.
Now their gazes held across the expanse of the Grid, he ensconced in his glass tower, and she perched on her old desk, and it brought back untold memories of the moments they had shared in this place. She thought about wrestling with lamps, tea spills and preparing for interviews; about chocolates as a birthday present and scratches on floors. She remembered cricketing expressions and comments about that time of the month, and nervous dinner invitations accompanied by impromptu Chaplin impersonations. Not to mention the many late nights when it had only been the two of them, content to be in the same workspace, eager to breathe the same air for a little while longer. Yes, they had experienced untold heartache within these walls, but it had also brought them together, and there were many things she would remember fondly. Harry smiled at her, a genuine smile, and in that moment she knew; he would be all right – they would be all right. The future would take care of itself.
Harry stood and gathered the box with his belongings in his arms. The conversation out on the Grid died down immediately, and Ruth realised that hers wasn't the only attention that had been focussed elsewhere. They all stood as he walked towards them, and there was an awkward pause before Harry said, "That's the lot, I think." He put the box down on a nearby desk and Ruth noticed the bottle of Ardbeg with amusement. Harry was not about to donate his precious whisky to his successor, apparently.
He looked at each of them for a moment, and nodded almost to himself. "I leave this place in safe hands," he declared. "Keep up the good work, and don't let the politicians have it all their own way."
Erin laughed and shook his hand. "I'll do my best, Harry. I'll strive to be more like you," she added, only partly in jest.
But he shook his head emphatically. "No. Follow your own conscience, and you'll be fine. If you don't, the job will eat you alive."
He turned to Dimitri and the younger officer gripped his hand firmly. "It's been an honour, Harry. Don't do too much gardening, eh?"
Harry laughed. "I won't."
Calum didn't wait for a handshake, but stepped forward and hugged Harry hard. "Goodbye, you magnificent bastard," he said, making the others smile, and Harry nodded, for once in his life lost for words.
Ruth moved forward and said her own goodbyes, and they left the Grid for the last time, side by side.
- 0 -
Outside Thames House Harry stowed his belongings in the car and suggested, "Let's go for a walk."
They wandered to the river, arm in arm, each lost in their own thoughts.
"You okay?" Ruth asked with a squeeze of his arm, and he looked at her.
"Yes," he said firmly as he leant in to press a kiss to her temple. "It's time. I've had enough of death."
He watched the river for a moment, and she got the impression that he was gathering his courage to tell her something important.
"I thought I'd look into joining SSAFA Forces Help," he said somewhat hesitantly. "Use my skills towards a good cause."
He watched her anxiously, worried that she might not approve. "I know it won't bring in any money, but I don't want to sit around watching daytime television until I become a feeble-minded couch potato-"
She shushed him with a hand to his mouth. "I think it's a terrific idea, Harry. They have an office in Suffolk, not far from the cottage. Besides, I don't think we need to worry about money."
It took a moment for the realisation to set in and Harry grinned sheepishly. "No, I guess not."
They walked in contented silence for a while before he spoke again. "I hear the local university has a respected Classics programme," he prodded with a raised eyebrow, and she smiled guiltily.
"I've already sent them my CV and received an enthusiastic response. I was going to tell you later."
He enveloped her in a hug. "That's wonderful, Ruth."
They stood in their embrace, revelling in the fact that they could finally hold each other whenever they wanted, until Harry pulled back slightly and asked meaningfully, "To Paris then?"
Ruth lifted a hand to his cheek as her love for him surged through her, and said happily, "Yes, Harry. To Paris."
- X –
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
- Winston Churchill
A/N: Dear Readers, I have greatly enjoyed reading all your comments. Thank you for the kind and sometimes highly amusing reviews!