A/N: This fic opens a couple of weeks after Harry has been suspended at the end of 9.08.
"Why do you bother?"
"You see, Harry, outside my family members – aside from a couple of miscreants – you and Ruth are two of the people I care about most. It would warm my heart to see you get beyond this …. this ….."
"I have my fears that whatever `this' is, it's impossible to navigate – maybe not for me, but it seems so for her."
"And this other woman?"
"You make it sound like I've been unfaithful to Ruth, Malcolm."
"Ruth would see it that way."
"But Ruth and I …. we've never …... you know."
"Never? Never, not even once?"
"No, not ever. I'm sure I'd remember it if we had."
"Quite. And this woman?"
"Meryl. Her name's Meryl. We did, but only the one time."
"Why only once?"
"Because she's not Ruth."
"So you're not in love with her ….. this …... Meryl."
"No, Malcolm, I'm not in love with her. It's Ruth I love."
"So …... why Meryl? If you love Ruth,surely ….."
"What would you have done if, when, as a favour to your hosts, you took a woman home after a dinner party, and on her doorstep she opened your zip and put her hand on it?"
"I'd have asked her to remove her hand."
"It only happened the once."
"That sentence has been spoken often in courts of law, and you know Ruth …... she'll want details. She will want to know why." Malcolm looked down at his drink, and slid his thumb up and down the bottle of Carlsberg, diverting the rivulets of moisture which ran down, like rain on a windowpane. The pub was beginning to fill with the lunchtime crowd. "I have an idea. I don't know if it's a good one, but it should bring things out in the open for you and Ruth."
"Go on. I'm listening."
"It will involve you getting to my house without being seen."
"I'm sure I can manage that."
Malcolm's house – a week later:
"Harry, good to see you. I trust you managed to get here without …... difficulty."
"I was followed, but I lost them. Public transport has its advantages."
"Good, good. Tea and biscuits are in the dining room. I'll be in my bedroom if you need me for anything. I'm reading a good book about hacking into mainframes, written by a 21 year-old from Finland. Can you believe that? Kids these days."
Harry went through to the dining room. A large shiny oval-shaped walnut table stood under a wide window overlooking the back yard. Sitting at the table, her attention drawn to the neat flower beds bordering the lawn, was Ruth. When she turned to face him, he noticed the dark circles under her eyes, the layers of clothing she wore which covered her body, hiding her curves from prying eyes. From eyes like mine, he thought.
"Hello Harry," she said. "Would you like tea?"
"Thank you." He would have preferred a whiskey, something to loosen his tongue and his thoughts, something to give him false courage. He sat down opposite her and watched as she poured tea into his cup.
"How are you filling your time?"
"While on suspension, you mean?"
"Yes. What else would I mean?"
"I'm bored, Ruth, and I miss my job, and I miss everyone at work. I even miss the terrorists."
"You're very missed on the Grid. You know we're not meant to be meeting until after the inquiry."
"I have faith in Malcolm's ingenuity. I read about a Columbian drug which wipes people's memories. I wouldn't put it past Malcolm to slip some into the coffee cups of the members of the inquiry panel."
Ruth smiled at him, and in that smile lay his future.
"Ruth," he began, "Malcolm brought us here so we could talk about us."
"There is no `us', Harry. There can't be. Not now."
"You gave away a dangerous weapon to save my life. Were we to be …... together now …... they'd gaol you."
"The weapon didn't work, Ruth. Albany was a fake."
"I know that."
"You knew? How?"
"Malcolm told me."
"Ah." He saw, but he didn't fully understand. There was a long moment of awkwardness, during which neither looked at the other, but each were very aware of the presence of the other, the heat which emanated from another body. "Be that as it may," Harry began again, "I want us to be …... honest about how we feel."
"Why? What can possibly be gained?"
"Two people who love each other – and I'm assuming you love me, although I can't be sure …."
"Harry, loving you isn't easy, but I do. What is the point of us ….."
"Talking about this? Ruth …... I can't bear this. I can't bear ….. loving you, and not being able to be with you. We belong together."
Ruth's head was down, and she was concentrating on her tea cup, sliding a finger around the rim.
"Ruth …... say something. Tell me I'm a stupid, romantic old fool."
"You're a stupid, romantic old fool, Harry." She looked up at him, her eyes tear-filled, and frightened. "We …... can't, Harry. It would never work."
"You don't know that. I don't know that, either, but I'd like to try. I don't want to give up on us without having ever tried."
Ruth looked as though she was battling hard with an urge to run from the room. He needed to keep her there, for just a little longer. He got up from his chair, and moved to sit in the chair next to hers. Very gently, he took her hand and held it in his. Then he drew it to his lips and kissed it.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm kissing your hand, Ruth."
She drew her hand away and placed it in her lap, out of sight. Harry sighed heavily, wondering if this was simply too hard. Then he decided it was time to bite the bullet.
"Ruth, I know you don't exactly want to be here …."
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't want to be."
"Fine, then can I tell you some things I've been wanting to tell you for a while?"
Her eyes met his, and she nodded, the ghost of a smile around her lips.
"Ruth, I didn't fall in love with you right away. It took a while for me to realise how I felt about you. There were signs early on, but I missed them at the time. Before I met you I was, shall we say, quite sexually active, and even promiscuous ….."
"Harry, you don't have to tell me this."
"I think I do. Once I met you, I stopped meeting women in bars. I even stopped going to bars. I didn't notice it at the time, but the very idea of that kind of encounter felt grubby to me. And then more and more I found you occupying my private thoughts. Ruth, when you went into exile, it was the most difficult time in my life, along with the year or so after my divorce. It was only after you'd gone that I admitted to myself how much you meant to me. I can't turn that off." He took a deep breath, and slowly let it out. "I have something I need to tell you, something I'm not proud of."
"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to."
"But I do. I want us to be honest with one another. Ruth, we've always been close. As friends we've been close. A few weeks go, I was invited to a dinner party by one of my old army friends. It wasn't until I sat at the dinner table that I realised I was the token single male, and I was being paired off with the token divorced woman."
Ruth was looking down at her teacup, and he could see tears on her cheeks.
"I ….. my host asked me to drive the woman home. I thought I'd drop her off at the door, and that would be it. Then she ….. made a pass at me, and I took it. I had sex with her that night, Ruth. I hadn't made love to a woman for almost eight years – because I was saving myself for you – and then I blew it by screwing someone who meant nothing to me."
He had felt Ruth look up as he recounted his story of breaking his sexual drought. "What sort of pass did she make at you?"
"She opened my zip and grabbed me and then began stroking me. I thought to myself, Ruth doesn't want me, so why not? I didn't stay the night. After it was over, I dressed and left. I felt dirty and weak."
"So you're confessing to me? Why would you do that? Why tell me this? I would have had no way of knowing that had happened had you not told me. I don't understand you sometimes, Harry."
"Ruth, do you love me?"
"Yes. Even now, after that story you told me about …... your …... indiscretion. It shows your weakness, and strangely, I love all facets of you, no matter how flawed. Even with your flaws, I know the sort of man you are." Ruth had lifted her hand on to the table, and her finger was nervously tracing a pattern on the table top. Tears were rolling slowly down her cheeks. She quickly wiped her tears before she continued. "I came here today to tell you that I loved you, but it wouldn't work between us, and here you are, offloading your dirty laundry on to me. That's not fair, Harry. We may have to work together, and how can ….."
"Ruth – please. Will you hear me out?"
She rose from her chair, and began to gather her things. "I was hoping for an honest discussion, and what do you do? You launch into true confessions." By the time she'd finished speaking, her voice was loud, hurt, and on the edge of breaking.
"Ruth," he said, following her to the door. "Ruth, please." He put his hand on her shoulder.
The door was open in front of her, and her hand was on the door knob, when she turned to look at him. With her eyes blazing, she said, "Take. Your. Hand. Off. Me." Then she left.
From his bedroom, Malcolm heard the raised voices, and through his window, which overlooked the street, he saw Ruth march down the path to the road. She didn't once look back.
By the time Malcolm reached the dining room, Harry was again sitting down, staring unseeing through the window to the garden beyond.
"That went well, then," Malcolm said, before he sat down opposite Harry.
"I blew it, Malcolm," Harry said quietly, his eyes still staring through the window past Malcolm. "I'm not sure that we can ever come back from here."
"It can't be that bad, surely. You know Ruth. She's sensitive, and she can be volatile, but she's not altogether unreasonable. Nothing is irretrievable, not unless you mentioned your little fling with Meryl."
Harry focused his eyes on Malcolm, his face a picture of guilt.
"Harry, you didn't! Why?"
"I wanted to begin with a clean slate."
"Are you sure it wasn't more to do with her being in a relationship with another man while she was in Cyprus? Tit-for-tat, and all that? You were hurt by her being with George, and so you wanted to inflict just a little hurt on her. Let her see how it feels, you thought. Is that what you were thinking when you were shagging that ….."
"Meryl. Her name is Meryl. I don't think I've ever heard you use the term `shagging', Malcolm."
"A grubby reality requires grubby words."
"I'd call it a colloquialism, not a grubby word."
"Semantics. Mere semantics. So …. am I right? What were you thinking when you were shagging …... Meryl?"
Harry sighed heavily. Malcolm's words were measured and punishing, and Harry considered he was deserving of punishment. Would the enquiry panel feel the same way? "You're right," he said at last. "When I was ….. shagging Meryl, I was thinking: If Ruth could do this, then why not me?"
"Was the sex worth it, Harry?"
Harry shook his head slowly. He had never felt more sad, more self-hating.
"I'll speak to her, if you like, but I don't hold out much hope."
"No, Malcolm. Thank you, but I'll handle it from here. If I'm gaoled or sacked, I may never see her again. I've been considering something, something which may solve everyone's problems."
And so Malcolm listened.