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It’s weekly dinner at Tess’s, that night he gets to be ignored in person by his daughter, told off by his ex-wife. She’s preparing it now as Daisy hides in her room, post nuclear argument regarding her latest school report.

Alec Hardy sighs to himself, wonders how it has all turned out so poorly. He had gone back full of hope. Back home, back to his family. Both cases over, his penance done.

He’d even had a plan. Tess had fallen for him through the work, seen him for who he was under the rough bristle. Though he hadn’t been as bad then, he supposes. And he had found he could be a softer person. For her, for Daisy.

So the plan. He’d go back, they’d work together. Start again and then he could have his family back.

Sounded so easy.

Of course he knew it would be hard. Just didn’t think it would be impossible. That he couldn’t look at Tess without remembering the betrayal, the hurt. That he still couldn’t be the man she wanted to be with. That the comforts of home could seem so foreign.

Tess is still going on at the school report, Daisy’s lack of effort. Hardy wonders when he became the understanding parent, the one that sees it’s impossible to do well when you’re that unhappy.

He doesn’t contribute to her tirade, the anger will just turn his way if he tries to contradict her. Instead he stews in the questions he keeps asking himself. Why can he not feel settled anymore. Why can he not feel at home.

“Did you know that Ellie Miller came looking for you?”

That snaps him to, he looks at Tess sharply.

She has a knowing smirk on her face, as if she just caught him out.

“What? When? Why didn’t you tell me?” he asks, unable to maintain his poise.

“It was only a day or two ago and I haven’t properly spoken to you in weeks,” Tess replies in her usual tone of exasperation. “You’re getting worse, Alec. You never say anything.”

“Was she alright? Why did she come?” he asks, rapid fire.

He knows it’s the wrong thing to ask, that Tess already calls him a martyr, tells him not everyone needs saving. But he can’t contain himself, the irrational worry that’s already flooded his veins just thinking through the possibilities.

Tess scowls but he can tell she’s amused by the power she holds over him at the moment.

“She didn’t say, seemed fine. Just looking for some sad sod she used to know, I suppose,” she says with a smirk.

Fuck, Hardy thinks to himself. Internally groans. This is why he separates himself. He can’t even manage one interpersonal relationship at a time. Much less the complications of caring about yet another person.

He runs through the list of possibilities. She’s in trouble. She needs something. She’s angry with him. She misses him.

Or…

Maybe it’s about the job.

“Do you think it has something to do with the open DI position in Broadchurch?” Tess asks.

Fuck he hates that she sometimes seems to be inside his head. Of course he’s seen the email too. It’s been on his mind ever since.

Neither here nor there, he thinks again. Unsettled, torn.

“Have you kept in touch?”

She’s just trying to irritate him now, because they both know the answer to that.

“Of course not,” she answers for him, smugly.

Hardy groans, rubs his face tiredly.

“Can we not talk about this?” he pleads.

“Why, so you can go back to brooding and ignoring me?” Tess counters.

He doesn’t deny it, grunts his disapproval.

“God, Alec. She cared about you, why wouldn’t you call?” Tess continues, as if he could possible answer that question.

Hardy sighs, reaches for some explanation that doesn’t sound daft. But it’s an impossible task. There is just no good reason.

He had told himself it was for the best, that he had to focus on his plan. To be there for Daisy, try to fix things with Tess. When really he just didn’t know what to do about her. Miller. Ellie. Who had maybe been his one friend in the world. Well, ex-friend now he supposes.

“I’m not good at that sort of thing,” he finally says, states the obvious.

“You’re getting worse,” she repeats, shaking her head.

That’s true too, he supposes. He’s more irascible than ever, alone except for his daughter who barely acknowledges him and an ex wife who was done with him years ago.

Why didn’t he call? A million reasons and none. She had enough going on with her boys, restarting her life after the trial. Reconnecting with her friends, her town. She didn’t need him around and he had nothing to be there for anymore.

He says these things to Tess, maybe hoping for absolution. But that’s not Tess’s way and truthfully he doesn’t want it to be. Right now he likes the pain of cutting himself on her harsh edge.

“Excuses, excuses,” she says. “You were just afraid.”

Again she’s right and they both know it. He’s accepted that long ago though. That he lost something, someone that he cared about because he was scared, a failure at personal communication.

“You really think she cared?”

It slips out a crack he didn’t even know was there, escapes before he’s able to reel it back in.

Tess looks at him oddly, frowns.

“You really don’t know?”

Well. It was a difficult question. For Miller, caring was default mode. He thought of it as more of an emotional disability on her part. A spout of kindness she couldn’t turn off, even for him.

But for it to hold after everything. The case, having to tell her it was Joe. The trial, how he bullied her into Sandbrook reborn. At the time he had felt like he was exploiting her, then he’d felt increasingly worse when she jumped in all the way.

So no. He was never entirely clear on why she did all those things for him. Vestigial obligation? Pity? A mental distraction from the trial? Or because they were friends and she really did care.

Of course he knows what he’d like to believe, hang onto. It’s why he hadn’t called, texted, connected. He was too afraid to find out if it was still wanted.

He’s been quiet a long time, chewing on his thoughts.

Finally he looks up, shakes his head tiredly.

“No,” he says. “I don’t know.”

Tess nearly chokes on the wine in her mouth as she laughs, has to take a few sputtering moments to gather herself together before responding.

“Oh god, Alec. You truly are hopeless.”

He thinks this is a good sign, Tess being significantly better than him at reading emotional states, intentions. Exhales a lungful of nerves, hates this type of discussion.

Tess is still snickering to herself as she puts dinner on the table, amused by his failings as always.

He thinks it’s a dangerous time to ask her anything, much less what he’s considering. But Daisy is still in her room, about to get called to dinner. So he hasn’t much time, has to just brave it. He’s sick of being afraid, stuck in the mire of his ex-life.

“Erm. Tess,” he says, unable to keep the distress out of his voice.

She looks at him, the question in her eyes.

“Daisy keeps saying she wants to leave here. Do you think she might want to come live in Broadchurch with me?”

The look on Tess’s face is somewhere between resignation and amusement, suggests she knew this was coming all along.

She raises her eyebrows, gives him a pointed look.

“I don’t know, Alec. Maybe you should talk to her.”

That smirk again. It’s so hard. Even with Tess, Daisy. His own family.

But as much as he hates for her to be right, he knows he’s going back. Can no longer be in between, neither here nor there. He’ll go back. Back to the bloody big cliffs and the churning sea. The relentless wind, the sand and the salt.

Back to Ellie Miller, her incessant caring, sharp tongue, good cheer.

See if she’ll forgive him, if he can manage to find a friend again.