Summer is dying a cool death around her and the wind picking up, with an absence of heat in its touch. All around the country, temperatures shimmer lower until the map on the weather report, in the morning, tells Ruth that autumn has arrived. As she steps out into the blustery London street, she can see it for herself.
The world around her is changing. The sky is darker in the mornings, than what it had been, just a few weeks ago. The days start later and the sun does not quite reach the apex of the sky, at noon. There is this smell in the air, also, she thinks, as she walks down the solitary street to her bus stop. London is not much for greenery, in the grand scheme of cities, but the scent of autumn pervades, even here. She can smell the city's trees begin to shed their leaves. She can smell the perennial death that sparks rebirth. Winter is coming.
Despite the turn of the year, the day continues much as it ever does. The bus takes her into work. Work takes her out the other side of the river, to visit a visiting foreign dignitary, then back in to headquarters. She spends the rest of the morning on the phone, at her desk, making calls – arguing gently with her boss, over some minor point which is quickly forgotten – and then leaves the building to buy lunch along the embankment.
She eats on one of the benches there then moves to stand at the railing, watching the grey water shift and sway beneath Lambeth bridge. Some small leaves dancing around the road beside her. They come from the plane-trees lining the embankment, she knows. When she first came to the city, Ruth can remember thinking it odd that trees from the American continent should have been chosen to decorate their nation's capital – along the river, in the parks. Over the years, however, they have grown in her appreciation. Their gnarled trunks and delicate leaves are linked inextricably in her mind to the many times she has walked along this path and remind her of all the moments she has made here. There are a hundred stories behind their dancing leaves. A hundred thousand songs.
Battles won. Battles lost. Love won. Love lost... Love reborn.
The first time she stood here, she thinks, she was thirty three years old and the whole world had been a different place. She had known its trials, but never to the same extent. She had felt betrayal and loss and love, but not even an inkling of what she knows those feelings to be now. Now, the world is darker but infinitely brighter, at the same time. And the contrast it creates changes everything. Her old world was just a pale shadow of this one.
The wind cools as the sun disappears behind clouds and Ruth turns on her heel, walking back along the embankment to return to work. She goes the long way, along Horseferry road, so that she walks past the great stone building that sits to the left of the bridge. For many years, that building had been her workplace and her sanctuary. Now, she visits it only a few times a week. It is no longer her first port of call, in the morning. It is no longer where she returns home from, for the night. The Home Office buildings further down the street should be her place, now. As she passes Thames House, however, there is always a faint feeling of belonging that she cannot quash.
It will always be her place, in a way. It is the place where her greatest stories were written, in blood and in tears, and that means that they are irreversibly connected. Much terror had happened, behind those stone walls, but much good as well. Ruth still misses the Grid, sometimes, despite not missing the long hours and the ever-present danger. She misses the team, though she still gets to see them some days. She misses being one of them. Underneath the nostalgia, however, there is no regret in her having left. It was time for her to go. The part of her story that took place in Thames House is now done and it is time to move on. She passes the building and heads back to work, to the great glass-fronted Home Office.
The afternoon passes quickly. She argues on the phone with a Branch Chief, of the SIS, she argues gently with her boss and gets him to agree to a stay of extradition of Five's latest suspect for an attempted car-bombing in South London, she argues with her secretary over the inadequate filing system. Then, it is suddenly five o' clock and time to leave.
In the past, Ruth would often work late, sometimes until nine or ten o' clock in the evening. Nowadays, however – unless there was some great and terrible emergency – she always leaves between five and six. An eight hour working day. It makes her feel silly for having spent so much time at work, in the past. Then again, her presence there was never wasted. And, of course, her reason for working late, then, is the same as her reason for heading home, now. Someone to see.
Bidding her colleagues goodbye for the weekend and placating William Towers with a thick report on a current threat, she pulls her coat on and leaves the building. She takes the lift down to the car lot and passes back out through security, driving the sleek black SUV the government subsidises for her weekend commute. (There are some perks, after all, to being a civil servant). Driving north-west, up to St John's Wood, she stops by a townhouse to collect a few bits and pieces. A bag of clothes; a few perishable food items that won't last until next week; another box of things she wants to move down to the house in the country; and a present for the man who waits for her there. It is a strange arrangement, her part-life here, part-life in the country, but it pleases Ruth and it works for now. It gives her a little bit of everything she needs; a career, a lover, her own space, the house in the city and the seafront cottage, a future that opens out rather than closing in... It gives her choice, which is all she ever really needed.
The sat nav on the dashboard reports that the journey to her destination should take two hours and eight minutes but, in reality, it can vary greatly depending on traffic. Today, she is lucky and it is just over one and a half before she swings off the A12 at a place called Woodbridge. From there she knows it is not far. She travels east a little, through now-familiar rolling country. Scrubby deciduous forests, grassy moorland and farmer's fields. Wind that gusts rather than blusters.
Wide spaces. Wild places.
The roads narrow as she approaches the coast and all memory of the haste of the City is soon left behind her. It is just grass and wind out here. And sky. You cannot see the sky properly in London but here, as the land slopes down towards the sea, it is immense. It is the one of the reasons Ruth chose this place, to settle herself. On a good, clear day up here, you could see for miles. Even today, when the sky is tumultuously cloudy, the effect is still impressive. Towering anvil clouds, stratus interwoven, wisps of cirrus high above and all grey, down to where they touch the sea. They are powerful, untouchable and, in Ruth's eyes, indefinably beautiful.
A side road leads to the driveway up to her sanctuary, not more than half a mile from the rugged sloping cliffs. The land around the property is devalued, a lower one of the six acres falling fast into the sea, but Ruth is not particularly interested in longevity. She has nobody to pass it on to and it suits her, for now. The house suits her too – a three bedroom cottage with a door that is not quite as pretty as that of the little house she had been intending to buy, but it situated further from the village. Ruth does not regret them having changed their mind and bought somewhere larger, closer to the sea. As an old friend used to say, things crinkle out the way they do. And on a day like this, with the autumn air whipping around her, she cannot imagine a more perfect place to be.
The car's wheels crackle across gravel as she pulls into the driveway and slots into place behind a haphazardly parked Landrover. Her partner would not be expecting her back until tomorrow, she reminds herself, gathering what she needs from the back of the car and slamming its black doors behind her. She has been away for the past week – her work taking her to a conference in Paris, hosted by the French Domestic Intelligence Agency and a few other European counterparts – and was not meant to be back until at least tomorrow afternoon. She is not usually gone for so long, but time apart had its advantages.
Ruth smiles as she crunches across the gravel to the front door.
Absence makes her lover more affectionate.
Affectionate as he might be, however, he is absent from the downstairs of the cottage. She makes her quiet way around, checking all the rooms, calling out his name softly but gets no reply. Walking upstairs, she pops her head into each of the bedrooms in turn, to see if he's fallen asleep somewhere or is plugged into headphones. He is in none of them, however. Neither is he in the office, or anywhere in the garden, from what she can see from the upstairs window. Heading back downstairs to the kitchen, however, the heels of her boots making loud remark against the stone floor, Ruth finds a note sitting on the table.
A smile tickles her lips.
She knows that phrase.
Padding through to the utility room, she switches her suit skirt for jeans, her boots for wellies, and pulls a thick coat on over the top, wrapping a scarf around her neck for good measure. Ready to go. Returning to her bags on the table, then, Ruth roots through one of them to find the gift she came bearing. It is at the bottom, triple wrapped in bubble wrap and inside a padded crate – precautions proportionate to its value. Slipping it free, she uses a nearby pair of scissors to prise free the top of the box and slide free what was inside. A bottle. Turning it over in her hand, she marvels at how innocuous something she had spent the two whole days searching for can look; just a bottle, with dark printed label. Breathing out slowly, she hopes it lives up to expectations.
Shaking herself, she reiterates that it has to – that it could not possibly not. After all, she had never been quite able to pull off 'sexy' but sweet, soppy and romantic are right up her ally and this is definitely that sort of gesture.
Stowing the bottle carefully back in a rucksack, she packs another few bits and bobs around it and heads out through the back kitchen door, not bothering to lock it behind her. Nobody knows where this place is. The SatNav is turned off twenty miles away from here, as she leaves the A roads, to keep her exact location secret. Her mobile is switched off for privacy, her encrypted satellite phone remaining her only source of contact, in case of emergency. Erin, Dimitri, Calum, Malcolm and William Towers are the only people who have the landline number, apart from Catherine Townsend. They are safe out here. Nobody comes. Nobody knows. It is just theirs.
Stepping out into the wind again, Ruth draws her coat tighter around her and starts to walk down the path, through the back garden, then through the fence and on across the windswept autumn land beyond. The few trees that dot their landscape have already begun to shed their leaves in earnest. Those which remain are curled orange and brown, with only traces of their former green splendour. Ruth watches them and steps on, following the winding path towards the sea.
Some might consider theirs a desolate place, she thinks – patched with scrubby grassland and ragged cliffs, as it was, and facing the grey churning maw of the North Sea – but Ruth likes it. It is like the places she read about, in the books of her youth, and she is determined that this part of her life, at least, should have some atmospheric backdrop. Besides, her partner likes it too. He was born further north than she and wild empty places seem to have a calming effect on his scarred soul. He seems more at peace, out here, than back in the city, although he alternates his time almost as evenly as she does. Retirement does not a spook break, after all. He has his projects, of which Ruth dutifully does not ask about. He sees Malcolm a lot. The two have become a lot closer, since the Service was out of their lives.
Stepping through grass, she walks for almost five minutes then over a rise in the grass and she sees him, sitting on the ground near the edge of one of the more craggy cliffs. Tugging the bag more firmly over her shoulder, she walks over, her footsteps muffled by the sound of the wind and the crashing waves below. Some days, this place is peaceful, but today it looks to storm later and Ruth knows her lover will not hear her until she is nearly upon him. Not wanting to alarm, then, she calls out his name as she is ten feet away.
Harry turns, a look of delight washing over his face, rather than surprise. He did expect her back, then, Ruth thinks. The note on the table had not been 'just in case'. Not for the first time, she wonders how he always seemed to know things that no other person could.
Taking the last few steps towards him, she removes the bag and gently sets it down against a rock a few feet away, then drops to sit beside him on the ground. The grass is not even damp – a testament to the surprisingly dry autumn they have been experiencing, thus far – winter is coming, however, if the clouds overhead have anything to say. The dry spell would be broken by tonight. For now, however, Ruth enjoys the feeling of the dry ground beneath her as she leans in and accepts a half-hug from her partner.
"You're supposed to be in London," he murmurs against her neck, his breath the only warm thing about him.
He must have been out here for a while, Ruth thinks, because his cheeks and lips are cool to the touch. His ear, as it brushes her cheek mid-embrace, is freezing.
"I got away," she replies, digging her fingers in a little deeper to the jacket he is wearing, tugging him close. After the first few seconds pass, she feels the warmth begin to grow between them. Another human body is all it takes, to warm her own. Even through the layers of clothing, they can feel each other, they can change each other. It is a strangely comforting thought. "I worked today after getting back late, last night," she tells him, revelling in touch after their week apart, "so that I could take my weekend early." Drawing back, she pauses a few inches away from her lover's face. "But you already knew that, didn't you?"
A tiny smile twitches the corner of his mouth.
"Calum mentioned it on the phone earlier - not that I was checking up on you," he assures her. "I only called concerning some business I'm looking into for him. Apparently, Section C have a leak and-,"
"Oh, please don't tell me," Ruth interrupts, leaning forwards and placing a soft kiss against Harry's slightly-parted lips. "I don't want to hear any of what you two get up to. If you tell me, then I'll know, and, if I know, then I am duty bound to tell William and god knows where that will take us."
Harry gives a soft chuckle.
She leans in and kisses him again – a proper kiss, this time, taking her time – letting his cold lips warm, against hers. When they break apart, she turns and looks out over the water.
"Not a good day for swimming."
"No..." He follows her gaze, looking out over the thrashing grey North Sea. "I'm working up to it."
Ruth glances sideways at him. His eyes are laughing, despite the forced seriousness of his face.
"If you ever actually do try one day and you drown," she warns him, "I will never speak to you again."
Harry's smile stretches to his lips. "I'll keep that in mind."
They sit for a while longer, drinking in the wind and the sea, Ruth battling with some internal nerves. Then, she takes a deep breath and parts herself from her lover.
"Harry?" she asks.
"I brought something for you."
His eyes light with delight and, interestingly enough, not even a hint of confusion.
Ruth is surprised by this. She had been willing to bet her years' salary that he did not know the importance of today – it was not in his nature, after all, to remember things like when they first decided to make a life together – but Harry continually surprises her. And she supposes he has a lot more room in his short term memory to remember things like this now, than when he was Section Head... despite whatever it was he was doing, freelancing for Calum Reid and Erin Watts.
"I know its silly," she blusters, put a little off-guard, "and it's not a real anniversary but-,"
He slides his hand over hers, on top of the grass, gloved fingers curling around her mittened ones. "It's not silly," he tells her softly. "We are as real as anyone."
Ruth's chest and belly warm with gratitude.
Her lover reaches out his other hand and strokes windswept strands of her hair back under her scarf.
A few moments pass in silence.
Then, Ruth remembers the bag and its contents.
"Here," she says, pulling the bag towards them. "It's not really a gift, just something to celebrate with." Reaching inside, she delicately withdraws the bottle from inside its wrappings and hands it over to him.
Harry's eyebrows move about an inch closer to where his hairline used to be.
"Bloody hell, Ruth, how much did you pay for this?" he asks, in a tone of mild reverence. "Actually, scratch that, where did you even get hold of it?"
"One of William's friends has a place down in Côte de Beaune, who I got talking to, at the conference. Turns out, he knows the owner of the vineyard and I was interested, so he arranged for me to meet him." She gives a little smile.
"Friend in high places."
"Friends of friends," Ruth corrects.
A moment passes, as Harry examines the bottle.
"This is an incredibly expensive vintage..."
"It doesn't matter," she dismisses, quickly. "It's nothing."
"You are the most ridiculous human being I have ever met," he mumbles fondly, then turns and gives her a shy smile. "You cannot buy someone a Montrachet this good and call it 'nothing'."
Ruth holds her tongue. She has nothing to say, nothing to explain how very much this means to her.
"I wanted to celebrate," she tries, eventually, her tongue tripping over her words. "I thought white burgundy was appropriate."
Harry's eyes remain unfathomable.
"It's what we drank-," she begins, but the sudden change in his gaze – the sudden warmth – stops her mid-sentence.
"-on our first date." He finishes, smiling slightly. There is such explicit adoration in his voice that Ruth's cheeks would have flushed, but for the cold. "Yes, I picked up on that."
Things seem to hang in limbo, for a moment, each lover regarding the other and reminiscing about the journey they had taken to get here. The sea air roars and claps around them and it is only their closeness which protects Ruth's cheeks from its sting. Their faces are only a few inches away and their bodies are closer still. The turbulent air picks its way around them, however, rather than through them, swirling like eddies around rocks in a river. The wind moves past, time moves past, but they stay frozen together. Just watching. Raptly.
"It's just a silly thing, really..." Ruth eventually murmurs.
These little moments of nervousness rarely happen between them, any more, but she is no more able to deal with them now as she was a year ago, when she had tentatively asked him to leave the Service with her. Then, she was just so terrified, so utterly terrified, of losing him. Now, though she is sure Harry wants to be here – though she knows that they were happy together in this life they have fashioned – the cautious nature of her personality will still not let her rest completely at ease. She worries. She always has done. It is one of her worst habits.
"I just wanted to mark the day – to give you something," she tells her lover, in a voice so small it is almost lost in the sea wind.
Harry continues to watch her steadily, for a minute, then he reaches out, laying the bottle gently on the ground between them.
"You already give me everything I need, Ruth," he tells her, raising one arm and wrapping it around the back of her shoulder, curling his fingers gently into the dip in her neck, just below her ear. "Truly," he whispers, drawing her in to a tight embrace, "you make me incredibly happy."
It is a simple statement, but Ruth has found that it is the simplest statements that can mean the most.
"You make me happy too," she whispers back, against his neck, feeling butterflies race through her stomach. They are very good at impromptu statements of love in the heart-racing, post-sex/post-disaster, adrenaline-fuelled moments. They are not quite so good, however, the rest of the time. They are just not used to it, not yet. She supposes they will get there, eventually. "I just wanted to do something special," she mumbles, for now.
Harry gives a little groan and presses a kiss into the side of her head.
"Thank you... but please know you never have to." He kisses her again. "Okay?" he asks, nudging his forehead against the side of hers, coaxing her face around.
"Okay," she agrees.
Their lips meet. They kiss. Warm mouths and soft tongues brushing.
Everything feels right again. The nerves are gone again.
As they part, a minute later, Ruth gives a little sigh and tells him;
"I have plastic cups in that bag, if you fancy that celebratory drink."
Harry looks affronted.
"Are you mad, woman? You cannot drink a two hundred and fifty pound wine out of plastic cups!"
She laughs out loud because the way he says it makes him sound like the most insufferable snob. What her lover does not know, of course, is that she would drink the wine out of an old tin can if it meant drinking it with him.
"Probably not," she grants him, however, leaning back in to lay her head against his shoulder.
"We'll have it back at the house, then?" he asks, sounding slightly relieved.
"That would probably be safer. We are not supposed to drink it like red anyway, not 'presque gelé, comme dans l'un de vos restaurants britanniques'." Beside her, Harry smiles, his limited grasp of French serving well enough to understand her impersonation of the the vendor. "Le vigneron was very specific. He even interrogated me, as to whether I had a proper wine cellar, before he let me take it home. I assured him that the average temperature in my pantry was the same as his cellar."
"And what did he say to that?"
"Something mildly unpleasant about our country."
Ruth wriggles a little closer against him.
"Inside is better," she confirms again, her lips twitching into a smile. "Your fingers are probably too cold to handle the corkscrew anyway."
"I don't know. I think you'd be surprised by what I can do with frozen fingers."
"I think I'll resist the temptation to find out, thank you."
"Suit yourself. You're missing out."
She receives silence and a smile.
. . .
They sit by the sea a while longer and watch the storm brewing. Then, when the moisture in the air builds and droplets of water begin to fall, they walk back towards the cottage hand in hand. As they head indoors for the night, the sun falls into the sea over the horizon and the world around them falls to shadow.
Around the countryside, lights spring up in the windows of cottages and farmhouses. The light inside their little house is switched on too, as they step inside, soaking wet as the droplets of rain turn to downpour. Tripping through the back door, they shake themselves free of wet outer clothes and Harry switches on the heating while Ruth goes to stand at the kitchen window. From this place, she can see the dark land slipping away down to the cliffs and the water beyond them. Out on that dark water, she can see the distant pinprick light of a boat. She watches it as it seemingly floats across the night sky, for a while, but soon finds better ways to occupy herself. As Harry roots around in the bag for the corkscrew, at the kitchen counter, she slips off upstairs and turns the hot water tap of the bath.
By the time he comes upstairs to find her, it is already half full and Ruth is attending to herself. Standing by the mirror, she removes the trappings of her day as her lover watches wordlessly, from the doorway. One piece at a time. First to go are the tangles in her hair, worked free with a soft bristled brush. Then it the shirt she has been wearing since that morning, which smells faintly of London, the Office and still a little of her perfume. She slides out of the jeans and kicks them daintily to one side while Harry slowly steps further into the room, still watching her, and sets the now uncorked bottle and two delicate flute glasses on the small table next to the bath.
They stand for a little longer, Ruth slipping hair pins from her hair, then - as she slowly unclasps the necklace from around her neck, watching him all the time in the mirror - Harry loses patience with voyeurism.
Taking the room in just a few strides, he arrives smoothly at her side, stroking his hands down her shoulders, ghosting fingertips across her skin. They kiss again. No words are spoken. Everything is just about presence and feel – and they are good at that. Words fail them, sometimes, but they have never fallen short in creating moments together. Her lover unpicks the necklace from around her neck then lets his fingers fall to her vest. As he pulls it free over her head and drops it to the floor, what she is wearing underneath is on view for the first time and he gives a tiny little groan of approval. Black lace, from Paris; it is their anniversary, after all.
"If you tell me you put that on your expenses tab," he whispers, leaning in and kissing the soft skin at the side of her neck, "I might just die inside with pleasure."
She just laughs and arches back into him and they sway for a little, wrapped in each other.
As time draws them on, arms fall from shoulders to waists and faces press into the hollows created by the other's bodies. They fit so perfectly together that this could not possibly just be coincidence, thinks Ruth, letting her romantic persuasions run riot, just for a moment. They were meant to find each other. They are like the great love stories, she tells herself, only their stage has been slightly different. Instead of ancient manors, temples and castles and pantheons, they have had the modern world to contend with – the rush, where days feel like seconds and there is no time for love, amongst the terror. But the stage is not quite as important as the story, she tells herself. And theirs is one that will last.
She likes to classify things, (she's an analyst, it's what she does) and she likes best to classify love by when it is set, in her favourite novels. The first type of love is set in spring and, like spring, it is all of love blossoming from youth – all tender shoots which can, all too soon, grow into something unfamiliar and dangerous. The second type, she thinks, is like a summer – hot and heady and full of plenty, but quick to fade when autumn comes. The third type is like autumn itself. Things are slower here, still with some of the heat of summer, but with the taste of trials ahead never far from mind. The harvest is plentiful, that which had grown all year is now ripe and ready to pick, but the feeling in the air is always bittersweet. The glory of the summer leaves is fading all around, but the strong trunk and roots of those same trees will remain and they will outlast the winter. Autumn love is love of lasting, of endurance of what matters, despite the death all around. If their love was any story, Ruth thinks, if it was any song, it would be an autumn song.
They lay themselves down in the water and bathe each other carefully, their movements more an exercise in extended foreplay than in cleanliness. He touches her softly, running his fingers over her as reverently as the first time they were together. She kisses him fully and without reserve. And they both thank whatever people designed their enormous bathtub to be large enough for two people, to curl into one another. Slow, enduring love, Ruth thinks, pressing her lips to her lover's chest as he rubs the back of her neck. This is definitely their time of year. Cold enough to seek warmth in one another, warm enough to sit and watch the sea as the sun falls into darkness, behind it.
He sighs, running one finger down the rise of her shoulder.
She smiles against him.
"Feels like more, does it? Sick of me already?"
"Feels like an instant."
She shifts her cheek to look up at him.
He looks a lot happier than he did a year ago. A lot healthier too. A little weight lost, a little muscle tone gained from wandering the countryside rather than sitting behind a desk. He has a habit of disappearing off for entire days, to lose himself in solitude. After her initial worries, Ruth had figured out that it was nothing personal, his seeking aloneness. She supposes that, after years of being alone, it is hard to adjust to sharing space with another human being again. So, she makes sure to give him the time. She never asks where he goes on his walks or what projects he takes on, when he is back in London, for his old contacts in intelligence circles. She's happy just to share moments like this.
After a few minutes, Harry reaches over her and, leaning slightly out of the bath to rescue the white from its ice bath and pour a little into each of the glasses. As he picks his up, he rests the base of it against her back, momentarily, chuckling as she squirms and reprimands him for the cold.
"Chilled enough," she tells him, with a soft frown, as she accepts her own glass.
They sit for a minute.
The water settles around them, the sound of the occasional drip echoing around the room.
Ruth looks down at her drink and sighs too.
"One year..." she whispers.
"Did you ever believe we'd make it here?"
He shakes his head.
"Me neither," she admits.
But here they were. Here they had. Here they had survived and not become the tragedy both had thought to be their fate. Drinking white burgundy, in the bathtub, together and naked; if there was ever a time for celebration, this was it.
Lifting the glass, Ruth offers it to her partner in a toast.
"Happy anniversary, then."
He smiles, slightly.
"And to you."
Their glasses clink softly.
Outside, the wind picks up, lashing the rain against the window panes. The world beyond the glass is completely black, now. The night had fallen and it was a moonless one. Night falling, autumn calling, through the air. Ruth is glad that their house is a sturdy one and their foundations are strong. She is glad that, in the next room, there is a fireplace and a warm bed where they could curl up together and wait out the storm. They are only temporary. If there is anything that she has learned, from their time together, it is that. Human beings are fragile and the threads that bind them to the world and to each other are delicate, so each one is precious. Her connection to Harry is most precious of all, so she will guard it with corresponding vehemence.
Tilting the glass back, her wine catches the light, glimmering a soft golden yellow. As the first taste reaches her lips, her eyes flutter close to revel in it. It is beautiful. The night is beautiful and wild. She has a beautiful bathtub, a beautiful bed and a beautiful lover to keep her company. For now, thinks Ruth with a smile to herself, the world is a very pleasant place to be.
. . .