There’s not really anything to do, for the first minute or so, but stare.
“That’s my bedroom,” Peter points out, with a rather obsolete, futile gesture at the sight capturing their attention rather fully.
“Hmm,” Alex agrees. They lapse into stunned silence once more. Ruth cannot fault them for it; they hadn’t expected to return home from an evening meeting with Mr Acton, battling back through the foul weather, to this.
“I did say it was a bit windy,” Peter says, startling an incredulous snort from Ruth. She finally manages to get her eyes away from the sight of their cottage with an enormous oak tree lodged through one entire second floor room and turns to him with a grin. He looks at her out of the corner of his eye, not quite laughing, and Ruth is tremendously glad he’s seeing the funny side of the carnage. Laughing is about all they can do about it presently.
Ruth combs her hair out of her mouth, tucking the loose strands behind her ear only to have them blown right back again. Her skirts are flapping and cracking like sailcloth in need of reefing and if any particularly strong gusts blast through she fears she’s liable to fall over. Alex is clinging to his hat, apparently unwilling to risk the need to chase it down and snatch it from the wind’s grasping fingers - again - and it is ever so tempting to just think on these little effects, standing in the wild and furious weather, and not on the destruction of half their home. But perhaps there is more to be done than stare, and then laugh, and then stare some more. “Shall we assess the damage, chaps?” she calls with deliberate brightness over the howling gale, leaning slightly into the lee of Alex’s body in the hopes of being heard upwind.
Alex is frowning rather sternly in the direction of the cottage but at her words relaxes into a shrug and tucks her hand into his elbow. Ruth is glad of the contact for more reasons than she ought, but elects to focus on ducking her head into his shoulder to protect her streaming eyes from the wind and holding tight to the arm that keeps her tethered tightly to the ground. It does no good to anyone, her fussing over the unsettled, desperate yearning such idle and meaningless comfort tends to bring.
Inside, the kitchen appears relatively unscathed; the walls are quite whole and the only disruption comes from the gust of wind they carry in with them and which Peter rapidly shuts out. Ruth breathes out a sigh of relief into the oasis of calm. The farmhouse belongs first to the Actons, of course, and then to all three of them as tenants, but despite all this the kitchen belongs to Ruth: the coiling sense of mine! that lives deep within her chest is deeply relieved to find her domain exactly as she had left it.
“Well, this is a fine start,” Peter says, eyes flicking attentively over the ceiling but otherwise quite calm.
“Discounting the first gaze over your room, are we?” Alex points out dryly, opening the side door into his own room - below Peter’s and thus also the tree - and glancing about. The man is all tension, fretful from the first, only Ruth cannot fathom how to calm him. He is, of course, quite right to be upset: the Actons ought to rebuild without too much trouble, but how much of the bill will be theirs to foot? what will they do in the meantime? how much have they lost already, never to have again? “Not that there was much there to gaze upon.”
Peter shrugs, spreading his empty hands to smile at Ruth. “If I were not Alexander the Great, I would like to be Diogenes,” he proclaims. Ruth can’t help but smile back, swaying slightly into his aura of strange calm in hopes of stealing a little for herself.
Even Alex smiles briefly, stepping back into the kitchen. “And you certainly are no Alexander.”
“There, then. Find me a barrel and I shall be quite content.” Peter slaps his palm into Alex’s shoulder and shakes him gently until his frown comes a little loose. “Material possessions would only ever slow me down.”
Ruth attempts to tuck her blown-wild hair away again, hand brushing against a smile she hadn’t known she was wearing. She clears her throat and shakes it away. “I should like to see if you’ve any remaining clothes, though. I shall support your career in philosophy, Peter, but not if you start to smell.”
Peter laughs, giving Alex’s shoulder one last shake before ambling over towards Ruth and the stairs. “We’ll rig up a toga out of an old sheet, how’s that?”
Ruth turns smartly and trots up the stairs, fast enough to keep the blush rising high on her cheeks at the very idea out of their view. “I really don’t think the Actons would approve,” she says, pressing the backs of her cold hands to her face as they follow her up.
“I rather doubt that there is much about this that Mr Acton is going to enjoy,” Alex mutters rather miserably, glaring at the wreckage visible from the landing. Peter’s door has been blown open and a small trail of splinters and plaster shards has seeped into the hall, but beyond it there is simply - void. And yet not: the room is full of bits of wardrobe and bed and washbasin, there are sections of wall and ceiling strewn across everything, and of course in the middle of it all is an old, dead oak tree, almost fantastically huge in the ruins. But everything about the room that had once made it a room is simply gone, and so it registers in Ruth’s mind as an absence, and nothing more.
“It was hardly our fault, old man,” Peter points out, nudging Alex with an elbow. “Not a thing we could have done.”
Alex harrumphs and does not shake his poor mood. Ruth steps forward tentatively, easing through the door on light feet. The feeling of being inside and out at once is curious and unsettling, a feeling of wrongness permeating at the vision of the wind ripping at a loosened scrap of wallpaper and her unruly hair. But there, just half a step further, is a shirt of Peter’s; perhaps not all has been lost, after all. Perhaps in the morning, when the wind drops and the sun rises, they might pick through the rubble and rescue the shreds of normalcy. Peter has hardly said as much, and is not greatly likely to, given his present attempts to be all things bright and cheering for Alex’s sake, but Ruth is rather worried that he’s more upset about the loss than he is willing to let on. They’ve farmed together for almost a year and a half, now, and she is rather more aware of Alex and Peter’s moods than she can easily explain, and the effort that Peter is putting into his calm at present worries her somewhat, for all that he’s talking happily with Alex behind her.
Her fingers curl around white cotton and pull, winding the sheet into her palm and shaking off fragments of lime plaster. The tiny pieces roll like pebbles down a hill, picking up speed and leaping off ruins like the beginnings of a miniature landslide, encouraging other, larger pieces of detritus-
And then there is a swoop in her stomach as the floor shifts beneath her with a groan, like a great and terrible beast dying, and someone is calling her name but her feet are no longer stable and her legs will not answer her desperate commands to flee-
And then there is a grip, tighter than iron, wrapped around her arms and she is half-lifted, half-dragged away from the tree and the great sagging reverse dome forming around it in the middle of the room-
And then they are, all three of them, standing on the landing, watching with wide eyes as the tree settles a little deeper into the cradle of the wreckage with a noise like a sigh. The floor does not fall in, however, and Ruth is rather tremendously glad of it; if it had done, it would have collapsed in the place she had been standing, and would probably not have gone down overly well with Peter and Alex. Ruth becomes aware rather gradually, as her heart rate slows to something vaguely resembling reasonable, that she is presently encased within Alex’s arms and that Peter has a tremendously firm grip on him in turn, and that she is still clinging to Peter’s shirt.
She extends it towards Peter, her white flag trembling slightly in her shaking hands. “Shirt for you,” she manages.
Peter takes in a deep, seething breath and lets go of Alex as if it is an effort to remember how. He stalks away to the other end of the hall, shaking nervous energy out through his hands and breathing furiously like a bull kept tied to a stake. But then he stops, waits, and turns, having made an effort to calm himself, and walks slowly back to them. “Thank you,” he says with tense politeness. He takes the shirt from her hands very gently, but his knuckles go whiter than the fabric itself once he has a grip on it. “Do not ever do that again.”
Ruth nods quickly. Alex’s arms are still tightly banded around her, one pinning her arms and the other her waist, as if he hasn’t quite realised he might now let go. She wriggles slightly in his grip to twist her head and look in his eyes. “Alex? It’s alright.”
He looks rather blankly at her for a moment, and then blinks, remembers himself, and jumps back as if burned. “Right. Yes. My apologies.” Ruth has to resist the strange desire to reach out and wind him back in; to wrap her arms about him in turn and rest her face against his chest until the tension leeches from him and he goes gentle. Instead, she reaches out to press his hand and Alex dances backwards and out of reach, her fingers trailing against nothing. “We ought to speak to the Actons,” he says, folding his hands behind his back to keep far from her reach and Ruth winces ever so slightly.
“In the morning, Alex,” Ruth says calmly. “Mr Acton will be in bed, now, and there’s nothing to be done tonight. Sleep on it. We shall speak with the Actons in the morning.”
Alex gentles with each soothing, firm statement, seeming to deflate from his nervous energy. He nods, running a hand through his hair, and rocks on his feet rather than stand on his toes in preparation for flight.
Peter clears his throat awkwardly. “Um. Chaps, I don’t have anywhere to sleep.”
It is quite possible that not one of them is pleased about their sleeping arrangements. Alex would have Peter with him downstairs so as to leave Ruth’s sleep (and possibly honour, she is not entirely sure) entirely undisturbed, whereas Peter would have Alex far clear of the bedroom beneath his own and, therefore, beneath the oak tree and sagging floorboards. Where they ought to be instead, Peter doesn’t seem to know: the kitchen, perhaps, but slumber on the cold flagstones would be impossible and Ruth has disallowed it. She would have them all, all three of them, upstairs in her bigger bed, clear of the wreckage and within reach of her empty hands.
But she cannot say exactly why she would have this, and so she does not press it. She is glad enough to have Peter with her, to fret over Alex and the tree in good company.
Peter had got ready for bed first whilst Ruth found little things to fuss with in the kitchen and attempted to continue debating through a closed door with Alex over the sense, or lack thereof, in his sleeping downstairs. When she is permitted back upstairs Peter is already under the covers, tucked in up to his shoulders as if in an attempt to preserve his modesty. She smiles at him for it and the edge eases out of him, but he continues to pick at a thread in her blanket and keep his eyes firmly on that.
“Don’t ruin my bedcovers, please,” Ruth says, and his hands fold up and vanish guiltily beneath the sheets with such speed that she laughs. “Besides, I’m only going to brush my hair now, so you needn’t fret so much already.”
Peter looks up under thick, dark lashes, almost disbelieving, but settles when he sees her unpinning her hair. “Never seen you with your hair down, though,” he points out.
“Here’s your moment, then,” Ruth says easily. Your only moment, she thinks but does not say; not for fear of offending him, but simply because - perhaps if she does not say it, it need not be so. The repeated, familiar action of drawing the brush through her hair is grounding and it is easier, almost, to sit before her looking glass and count brushstrokes than to look at Peter, tucked up in her bed, and want.
Almost, because looking at Alex and Peter is very nearly the easiest thing in the world.
She can spy Peter looking back in the corner of the mirror, watching avidly each long, slow movement. He’s taken her words to heart, apparently; Ruth has the strange feeling that another tree could come crashing down about their ears and Peter would spare it just the briefest glance, if only Ruth would keep brushing her hair.
She’s not sure how to feel about that, and so attempts simply - not to. But she could get used to this: preparing for the night together, sitting quietly in peaceful sleepy calm, watching Peter watch her brush her hair. She must not get used to it.
“We shall have to borrow some manpower to shift the tree,” Ruth says somewhere around stroke seventy-two, casting about for a subject that might shore up the heavy weight of Peter’s gaze.
He blinks, and then nods. “I suppose.” Peter makes a face, both guilty and cross. “Ought to have done it earlier. I knew the thing was dead, only-”
“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” Ruth says, almost stern with the force of her drive to keep blame from Peter’s shoulders. “Nothing to be done about that now, and no harm done - except to the cottage.” Ruth winds her hair into a braid and gets up, pushing away from the glass and the mirrored world within, in which those she loves lie within reach of her arms. “I wish Alex weren’t sleeping in the room beneath the bleedin’ tree,” she adds, dry enough to make Peter huff a little laugh and gentle out of his frown, “but we are all safe and well, so I shall have no more of your fussing. Now, eyes closed.”
Peter blinks at her, confused by the non-sequitur, and then flushes bright red and slams his eyes shut with alacrity. Ruth can’t help a little amused, fond laugh, but that just makes Peter fold his hands over his eyes as well. “Alright,” she murmurs soothingly, fussing with her buttons and hauling her blouse over her head. It isn’t enormously easy to undress with speed, encased as she is in several layers of cotton and calico and corset, but Ruth battles on as well as she can.
“Do you really think Alex will be alright?” Peter says, voice made small by his hands and some other painful worry.
Ruth pauses for a moment, folding a petticoat in her hands and draping it over the back of her chair. “Yes, I do,” she says, with more confidence than she feels. Much more. In truth, she’s about as worried as Peter; but Alex has made himself immovable, and Peter is asking her for comfort more than he is for the truth. And she does think he will probably be alright: the idea of him not being so is unfathomable. Her heart shies away from the sheer edges of that terrible thought. Alex will be fine; he has to be.
Ruth blows out the candle on the nightstand and scrambles at speed beneath the bedcovers. It really isn’t warm in the room, with the wind whipped in through the void where Peter’s room used to be and encroaching under and around the doorframe, but Peter has pleasantly warmed the pocket of air beneath the covers and it is a delight to snuggle beneath their warm weight and listen to the wind tear at their peace. “It’s safe to open your eyes. Ooh, lovely great bed pan, you are.”
Ruth fancies she can hear Peter smile at that. “Ruddy freezing in your room,” he grouses and she laughs. “If you wanted a new blanket you could have just said. No need for all this just to prove your point.”
She grins, turning onto her side to face him in the dark. There is just enough moonlight bleeding through the curtains to limn his profile in quicksilver, like the face of a coin only so infinitely more valuable, and she can see when he turns his head to smile at her. So friendly and familiar are her beloved boys; Ruth is almost glad that they remain so, even in the potential awkwardness and uncertainty of a situation such as this. Almost, for how well would she like them to love her instead. “Next time, I promise, I shan’t drop a tree through your bedroom in protest of this room’s chill.”
Peter’s eyebrow raises. “Do you so swear?” he intones.
“Most solemnly,” Ruth replies, attempting to match his earnestness whilst battling a grin.
Peter turns his smile back on the ceiling and Ruth curls up, knees to her chest, in an effort to pin more of Peter’s warmth to herself without pressing too close. She wants to mould herself to his side, wind her thin arms around him, find Alex just as close at her back or on Peter’s other side. She wants it so much she almost expects it to happen, to fall naturally into the space between and around them with the inevitability of a celestial orbit and the ease of gravity.
She would never have invited Alex and Peter into her bed if she had known it would be so easy, or so hard.
“What if we had been at home?”
Peter’s quiet statement does not so much derail Ruth’s train of thought so much as remove the track from beneath it and leave it lurching horribly into a void. Somehow, in all the chaos of returning to three-quarters of a cottage, it had not occurred to her to think of the possible chaos of being inside it when the levelling took place. They would have supposed themselves safe, listening to the howling wind as they had done these last few stormy nights within the sanctuary of the kitchen, and not once considered that something might break their peace. Fear, choking and paralysing, claws up into Ruth’s throat.
“Alex was up in my room just the other day because of the gutters,” Peter says, almost matter-of-fact. “You’re always up and down with laundry and cleaning. I should - should hate to think of anything happening to either of you.”
There is, at the edges of you, an unsteadiness. Ruth’s hand shoots out, smacking into arm and then sternum until it is secured within Peter’s hands and pinned against his chest. His rising and falling, wonderfully warm chest, because he is lying within her bed and not within the splinters and shards of where his bed had once been, and where he had lain every night of the storm til now. “Peter,” Ruth manages, barely a whisper.
He turns his head to face her, and for a moment Ruth thinks she will say it. I love you. That was your room, Peter, and if you had been asleep in it you might have died; and maybe I’ve used up all my luck in just knowing you and Alex, and living here with you, and getting to keep you both after a tree fell on your room, but I love you. Perhaps I’m lucky enough that you might love me, too.
And then there is a great and terrible shudder that runs through the whole house, tremors rushing up the bed frame and shaking their hands apart because the house has just groaned and sighed and settled a little deeper into its ruin - just above Alex’s head.
Ruth is out of bed and running before the noise has fully stopped, bare feet slapping against cold floorboards, and she’s calling for Alex without even thinking about it. It is simply an instinct, as easy as breathing, and Peter is charging and shouting at her heels with apparently similar levels of forethought.
Ruth takes the stairs at speed but Peter gets only halfway before vaulting the bannister, fairly throwing a chair out of his path in his rush to the door. Wrenched open, Ruth can see behind it the oak tree wedged through a good two thirds of the wall with pieces of ceiling scattered over the floor like giant snowflakes two feet in diameter. Dust covers everything in a thin layer of white, choking the air of life, and Ruth’s lungs burn with her inability to breathe until she has seen-
“Alex!” Peter yells, rushing in before Ruth’s fingers can catch on his shirt and hold him safe and away.
But then some of the dust moves and there before them, with nothing worse than plaster in his hair, is a rather stunned Alex, and Ruth is altogether too relieved to do anything except remember how to breathe as Peter drags him back into the kitchen. Alex looks like he might say something, but Ruth never gets to hear what it is because as soon as he is within reach she has him crushed within her arms. She might be crying, or simply breathing too harsh and too loud, and one of her hands is fisted in his dusty, chalky hair, but he is here and alive and stroking her back gently, and quite possibly telling her all that as well, if only she could calm down enough to listen.
“-sh, hush,” she eventually hears around her own gasping, hiccupping breath. “It’s alright, now.” Ruth hears his voice move away from her ear slightly and point at Peter. “What - what happened-”
“Bloody hell, man,” Peter swears emphatically, and then she and Alex are swaying on their feet against the solid wall of Peter that now has them both embraced tightly to his chest. “You could have - could - Christ.”
Ruth can’t do much after that, except cling to Alex and wholeheartedly agree.
Peter has very effectively bullied Alex into the middle and of this Ruth is very glad. Neither she nor Peter are quite convinced that, even now, Alex won’t attempt to run off in the night to sleep somewhere he oughtn’t out of some deep, misjudged idea about chivalry. Ruth would rather have him never leave her sight again.
This will do, for a start: the three of them laid out under Ruth’s cold covers, fidgeting against shivers, and so close that even with Ruth at the very edge of the mattress Alex is only an extended little finger away. She can hear them both breathing, steady and slow - not slow enough to be asleep, she thinks, but then, Ruth can’t sleep either. Her blood is still buzzing with useless adrenaline and fear and it is all she can do to keep from turning and pressing her face into Alex’s shoulder, clinging to him with hands like claws and sharp enough to draw blood. She could rip him to shreds with her awesome, dreadful worry: for frightening her, for placing himself in danger, for making her love him when she cannot have him. How very bloody dare you! This was to be temporary - a placement of the displaced, together in one cottage for the convenience of the Actons - and you weren’t supposed to make me want otherwise! It was your job, yours and Peter’s, to be perfectly civil and absolutely nothing more, so that this might be tolerable until we all went our inevitably separate ways. How dare you let me fall in love, and how dare you almost die, and how dare you not be mine.
“You know,” Peter says, conversationally, into the darkness, “we’d be rather upset, Ruth and I, if you’d died.”
“Would you,” Alex says, a little amused at the understated tone. Ruth squeezes her eyes shut against the desire to sit on his chest and shake him by the ears until he understands that this is not a joke! “Well, at least it didn’t come down on the grain store, else we’d be going rather hungry next winter.”
“I’d rather lose every barn on the estate than see you hurt,” Ruth snaps, too fast to consider it properly. She can feel the laden mattress shift as the boys turn to look at her, but her eyes remain closed as if there was a chance they’d think her asleep and leave that statement be.
“Ruth?” Alex says, all genuine confusion, and that has Ruth open eyed and facing him and abruptly absolutely furious.
“Why won’t you see that? Why do you seem to think that your life is of no importance, or - or of less importance than keeping out of my bed? Is it so abhorrent here?”
“I didn’t want to presume,” Alex says apologetically, cringing slightly from her rage. Good! He had better be very bloody sorry!
“I asked you to presume!” Ruth says, voice very nearly shrill. It feels, sometimes, as though Ruth is the pillar of their farm. She has never been so hysterical, so fretful and tense, in front of Alex and Peter before; she has always been the strength and resilience, in the face of Alex’s worrisome moods and Peter’s desire for direction. Perhaps that, then, is why Alex and Peter are watching her with such wide eyes and she almost wishes to calm herself for their sake - but she is tired and frightened and angry, and so she shall be weak, for once. “You great selfish git, I asked! Don’t you care? ”
There is a pause, and then Alex reaches out very slowly and carefully and folds one of her hands within his own. “Of course,” he says softly. “Of course I care, for both of you, only - I left you alone because I care for you, and would see you comfortable; I should hate to put you in an - awkward position.”
Ruth could weep with frustration; might, in fact, to see if it might shock some sense into Alex or some words out of Peter. But she doesn’t, because instead she opens her mouth and cannot help what comes out of it. “I love you,” she begs, desperate for understanding. “Both of you, more than I can say - and you think I would prefer you in peril than in my bed? That, even if I was uncomfortable, I would put that above your life?” She clings to Alex’s hand, afraid it may be ripped from her; she has, despite her words, imperilled herself, and to some extent them all, and certainly the winding, thin thread of friendship that has them bound to one another. What she might lose she cannot contemplate - what she might gain, she cannot dream to hope for - she can only now lie still and hold tight to what she still has, and wait.
“Truly?” Alex whispers into the night, voice barely audible over the whistling wind. Ruth nods, once, and closes her eyes. There is nothing, now, to be done.
It is, therefore, a surprise when an arm wraps tightly about her and pulls her into Alex’s chest. He gasps at the impact and Ruth’s eyes are shocked open, abruptly very close to the faces of those she loves best. Peter’s face is buried in the nape of Alex’s neck and his arms are crushing them together against him - in fact, Ruth cannot quite open her lungs as much as she’d like, as if she had once again accidentally laced her corset much too tightly. But on top of that, she is still waiting, breathlessly, for confirmation that this is the answer she so greatly desires.
“Peter?” she says quietly, reaching out the hand not still pinned between Alex’s palm and his chest to comb gently through his curls.
“I love you,” he pronounces, voice somewhat muffled. “Ruth and Alex. I would stay here with the two of you forever, exactly as we are.”
“Exactly?” Ruth says, a smile sneaking cautiously into her voice as happiness dawns like slow, sticky sunlight. “With the wind coming in because half our house is rubble?”
“It’d be mighty chilly,” Alex points out absently, as if his mind is still stuck on some other detail and his mouth merely opening and answering by rote. He hasn’t pulled away. Ruth hopes it is safe to hope.
“I come well recommended as a replacement bed pan,” Peter says seriously, and Ruth squeezes Alex’s hand with a helpless little laugh.
Alex tips his head forward to meet Ruth’s forehead. “You do talk some tremendous rubbish, Peter,” he says. “But I love you ever so well. I love you too, Ruth, though you say rather less stupid things.”
“Full of good ideas, is Ruth,” Peter says, his face finally appearing over Alex’s shoulder to smile at them. So well-beloved and charming. Ruth’s hand slides to cup his face, smoothing a thumb over his cheek, and he presses a soft kiss to the heel of her palm. The contact tingles through her and she shivers, pressing a little closer to Alex. She can’t quite believe it; that they are here, together, and apparently quite prepared and content to love one another as all society says they oughtn’t. There is an odd, dreamlike quality to suddenly getting all that she desires, lying in bed in half of a house lit only by ragged moonlight partially obscured by racing clouds, but Peter’s face is warm and slightly stubbled under her palm, and Alex is holding tightly to her hand, and Ruth has no need to go disbelieving what she can, presently, enjoy. But then she has to duck her head into Alex’s chest to yawn enormously and he laughs softly. “Sleep certainly doesn’t sound like a bad idea,” Peter says. His voice is so fond that Ruth has to just pause for a moment and feel the echoes of it in her heart. She would hear it always.
“I can stay awake,” she objects anyway, rather childishly, and Alex lifts their joined hands to press his lips against her knuckles.
“Go to sleep, dearest Ruth,” he tells her gently, smiling at the face she pulls even as she struggles to keep her eyes open. It is late, and her night has been fraught with worries and nervous energy, and now, in this peace at last, she finds she cannot quite go on. “We are home and safe; all shall still be here in the morning.”
Something calms, deep inside, at that; the pea removed from her mountain of mattresses. Ruth presses her forehead into Alex’s chest, his chin resting against her hair, and pulls Peter’s arm a little tighter around her. Alex’s breath is gentle, warm and regular against her skin, and Peter a heavy weight around her waist. She closes her eyes against the dregs of moonlight and breathes in the smell of sleep and peace coiling and curling around them, even as Alex and Peter continue murmuring to one another softly, and with the weight of their presence and the wash of their voices, Ruth allows herself to slide gently into sleep.