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A New Normal

Chapter Text

“Where to, sir?”

“Sandbrook”, he grumbled, and he smoothed at his hopelessly-wrinkled suit as he ducked into the back of the cab.

It was warm—the sort of thick and stagnant warmth that could only come from having spent the day baking in the end-of-summer sun. It was the sort of warmth that embodied Broadchurch, he thought: endlessly cheery and overbearing. Suffocating.

“Anywhere in particular?”

Alec rolled the window down, and propped his elbow on the ledge. “I’ll let you know when we’re close.”

He was sure the driver’d rolled his eyes; he could read it in the way the man gripped the wheel. He wasn’t doing it now, but it was clear from the faded leather that he gripped it often, and the bits of fluff bursting from localized cracks suggested he did it with force. The man had a temper, then, with a tendency toward the passive-aggressive.

Because of course it would be his luck to get stuck with some grumpy bastard of a cab driver for the lengthy ride to Sandbrook.

Alec settled his chin in his palm, the rugged breeze tickling at his beard while it tugged his just-trimmed hair. The scent of salt hung heavy—as it always did, in Broadchurch—but it smelled of something else, too. Something he knew, without needing a word for it; a storm was brewing, somewhere far beyond the pristine blue of sea-and-sky, and it would rain tonight.

He’d be long gone by then.

Chapter Text

With one last gulp of calm before the storm, Alec cranked the window closed and rummaged through his pocket for his mobile. He hated the thing, hadn’t quite got used to the one with buttons before Daisy pushed this one on him.

He sighed as he swiped through his contacts; he’d have worn Miller’s awful orange anorak, if Daisy’d asked, though, so getting some fancier, ‘smarter’ phone was nothing. Especially if it meant seeing her smile.

He pressed the little picture near her name, sent a quick text: ‘On my way. Make sure your mum knows, and I’ll see you soon, darlin’. Love, dad.’

Her response took less than ten seconds: ‘Da, u dont have to say its you, I already kno’.

‘Did you write your essays for university like that? Tell your mum!’

Still, in under ten seconds: ‘Forsooth, father dear, it is within mine faculty to grant thine will: to call upon that most wretched beast which wrought me from her loins; to temper her violent rage with quick wit and careful pass, honeyed words.’

He stared, and his pride swelled like the little ellipses in her grey speech bubble. But before he could type a response—or even figure out how to respond—she sent another.

‘aye da, ill tell her. Love u.’

And he kept staring, clutching that stupid phone like it was the only light in the world, not just the growing night.

“Mind shutting that off, mate?”, the driver asked, honeyed words on a viper’s tongue, forsooth. “The light makes it hard to focus.”

Alec clicked the lock, wondering if maybe he should be more worried than proud: had she and Tess had an argument?

He didn’t think she’d tell him, anyway. Their relationship was tenuous, despite the increasingly-frequent phone calls, the occasional Skype sessions, and recently, the visits. Daisy didn’t mind laughing, talking about school or friends, her plans for university. But it didn’t take a detective to see that she was still holding back: the way she avoided sensitive topics with all the grace of a teenager, the way she picked her words, the things she didn’t say, didn’t share. It was like she’d let him into just a tiny sliver of her beautiful world, allowed him entrance into only that which was carefully curated.

And it hurt, if he was honest. But they had time. He had time. ‘No more broken heart’, he’d half-lied.

It was raining in Sandbrook, too.

“There”, he told the driver, “take that left, and you can leave me at the end of this street here.”

“Sure?”

He didn’t dignify that with an answer, and when the cab stopped, he paid, stretched out of the car, and grabbed his bag from the boot.

The cab splashed him as it pulled away, soaking his shoes in filth, wetting his socks with sludgy run-off from the street. He could feel it, but he didn’t bother looking, because his attention was already focused on his mobile. Raindrops scattered the colors on the screen like a kaleidoscope, and made it hard to type.

Still, he managed: ‘I’m in Sandbrook.’

Chapter Text

Ellie startled when her mobile chirped. It wasn’t late, but compared to the rest of the day, it was deafeningly quiet. Oppressively quiet, even, with a feel of finality she couldn’t quite comprehend. It was over: the trial, her marriage, her life as she knew it—all of it, done.

And yet, here she was. Sitting on the couch with a cup of tea, a heavy knit blanket draped over her, as if everything was normal.

It was, she supposed, ‘a new normal’.

More like a shitty platitude.

Ellie swiped her mobile from the table with a grumble.

Hardy. And he was in Sandbrook?

‘Why?’, she typed, and when she watched him attempt and erase multiple responses, she clarified, ‘why are you telling me?’

His answer was slow. ‘Isn’t that what people do?’

Took him that long to figure it out, and still he missed a crucial piece: ‘Friends do that, Hardy.’

More ellipses: apparently he wasn’t sure which reply would be the most awkward and knob-like.

She huffed a little laugh.

‘I thought you should know', he wrote, and that was it.

A new normal.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t like she was holding a torch for him or anything. The trust, and love, and respect, and everything she’d felt for Joe had dissolved in an instant.

Well, maybe not an instant. But she certainly wasn’t holding out any hope for him; she didn’t love him.

She loved who he’d been, what he’d been: her boys’ father, her best friend, their very own live-in chef, the big spoon, the voice at the end of the line on a rough day. She missed the way Tom looked at him, like he was a hero, and she missed the way he made Fred laugh like she never could.

Daddy was funny, he was special, and now he’s gone. And all that’s left is her.

She knew it was for the best: she recognized the danger he posed—physically, emotionally, mentally—to all of them. Even Fred, who wouldn’t remember any of this. She knew that there was no treatment, no cure, no salvation for him, nor for their family. They couldn’t go back—and neither, for that matter, could Beth or Mark, poor Chloe, little Liz, Jack Marshall, the whole of Broadchurch—even Hardy was different.

And so, she supposed, they’d have to go forward. Hence the ‘new normal’: the same freaking conclusion she’d reached a million times since Hardy told her it was Joe, and somehow, every time she realized it, it felt new. And always, it was a wave of panic through the numb.

It’d been hours since Hardy texted her; she couldn’t recall them, apart from that overwhelming silence. This was her new normal: awake at half ten, cold tea untouched on the table, still dressed in the suit she’d worn to court, except now it had Fred’s dinner crusted to it, and she wasn’t sure if she had the energy to change or shower, but she wasn’t sure she’d sleep either.

Joe had been gone for a while. Months. It wasn’t the first time she was sleeping alone—but it wouldn’t be the last, either.

This was her new normal.

Chapter Text

Alec sheltered under the awning covering the front door.

‘I thought you should know’, he told her, and he slipped his mobile in his pocket, smoothing futilely at his wet and wrinkled suit. For good measure, he combed his damp hair back, too, and then he knocked and waited.

Waited outside a home that used to be his. Uncomfortable, he shifted on his feet, and before he could resettle, the bright red door swung open, its wreath of summer flowers hanging on for dear life.

“Da!”

“Dais”, he grinned, with an “oof” as she clapped her arms around him like a wee child, holding tight and tucking herself safely against him.

It was automatic to press a loud kiss into her cinnamon hair and give a comforting squeeze.

“What’s this for, then?”, he asked.

But Tess denied him whatever answer Daisy’d meant to give.

“Daisy”, she said, and she wrung the cloth she’d taken from the kitchen as she planted herself firmly in the foyer. “Go make your dad something warm to drink, and watch the stove. We’ll just be a mo.”

And there it was: the calm had passed, and this was the storm.

Daisy offered him a look of solidarity. It didn’t make him feel any better about whatever was coming, especially after she’d gone in and Tess stepped out, onto the narrow stairs beside him, and shut the door behind her.

For a minute, they stared in silence; it was as much a battle of wills as it was a game of observation. Tess had lost weight: her cheeks were sharper, the skin across her collar bone pulled taut, and she was using a new hole on her belt. And maybe it was just the wan glow of the street lamps, or the backdrop of murky, starless sky, but she didn’t look healthy—she wasn’t dieting for pleasure. She’d also dyed her hair, so that instead of the rich brown it’d been, there was all sorts of color in it: golds and reds and lighter…chunks. She wore make-up, even though it was easily after 8 o’clock on a weeknight, and he couldn’t imagine she’d planned for any other company to join her in his presence.

Maybe he should reconsider that last point.

“I need you to take Daisy to uni.”

“That’s why I came.”

“On your own”, Tess snapped. She was off her game, if sarcasm was all it took to rattle her.

“I’ve got a case”, she amended, adding, “you know how it is”, with unconcealed venom.

“Does Daisy know?”

She tugged the dishcloth between her manicured nails. “No.”

“Don’t you think—”

“—just, shut it, okay? Alec, please. Just do it”, she pled, and the look she turned on him was so desperate, so pathetic, he couldn’t help but watch the windows to make sure Daisy hadn’t caught it.

“Right”, he said.

“Thank you.”

She balled the dishcloth in one hand, used the other to open the door, and led him inside without another word or a backward glance.

Chapter Text

And it didn’t get any more comfortable. The noodles were undercooked, the sauce was bland, the wine was cheap. Really, he would have preferred the tea that Dais had set aside for him, but Tess had poured him a glass with the meal, and the peace was fragile, so he drank it.

The tension was heavier than the steady downpour outside; no one spoke.

At last, Daisy scooped her dishes up and brought them to the sink. She rinsed them quickly, loaded them into the dishwasher, and wove back around the table to wrap her arms around him from behind.

“I’m gonna have a shower”, she said, and she pressed her cheek to the top of his head with a little hum. “See you tomorrow, Da.”

“Night, darlin’.” He patted the arm that crossed his throat before she swept away, and when she’d hit the threshold from the room he called, “Dais?”

She stopped.

“Did you thank your mum?”

Tess dropped her fork; he’d stepped on a landmine.

“Thanks, mum”, Daisy whispered, and she left them.

She left him, with Tess, whose shiny pink lips were wobbling dangerously, and bloody hell, this wasn’t his responsibility. Not anymore. But what was he supposed to do? He couldn’t very well just get up and go, much as he’d like to.

Her shoulders matched the rhythm of her lips; tears dropped from her chin to her untouched spaghetti. He was suddenly very grateful for the table that separated them, protected him.

It wasn’t enough, though, because at the first solid sob she heaved, Tess breached the gap and snatched his hand over the table.

It felt like a violation.

“Tess”, he murmured, and when his hand twitched with the instinct to flee, she gripped it tighter, her delicate fingers curled against his palm as she cried.

And when she quieted, without question or consolation, he slipped his hand free.

“I should go”, he said. “Thanks for the meal.”

He waited outside for his cab.

Chapter Text

Sidling into the cab was nothing short of a reprieve. He released the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, and he didn’t care that the first breath after that was filled with stale smoke and the smell of rain.

He smelled oregano too, and it made him shudder. What the hell had happened? Was it a tough case? Was she just overworked, emotionally spent?

He doubted that. For all she’d told him to let Sandbrook go, for all her judgment about his ‘obsession’, he knew the truth. He’d worked with her: he knew that she was just as focused as he’d ever been, the only difference was that she never connected with the case. She worked tirelessly—and she was good at it, for the most part—she just didn’t care. Not like he did.

But he supposed that could change. Maybe whatever case she was working had hit close to home. Or maybe she was finally repenting.

He didn’t care. He was just glad to be gone. And if he was taking Daisy to university alone, he might not need to see Tess again for a considerable length of time, which was a relief in and of itself.

The cab dropped him in front of his hotel, and he was quick to get in, check in, and get up to the seclusion of his room, where he abandoned his bag in the corner and promptly shucked his jacket, chucked his shoes.

The rest of his clothes he dumped in the cushy armchair by the window, and then he showered.

It was half ten by the time he dropped onto the bed beside his phone and wallet, and as he moved them to the bedside table, his phone buzzed.

‘Thank you’, from Miller.

He wondered how she was. He could guess, of course, but a nagging feeling made him wish he knew. Maybe that was why he’d needed to tell her he’d left Broadchurch: so that she’d know where he was in case she needed him. He couldn’t fathom why she would, but just in case.

That’s what he’d told himself, ‘just in case’. He’d be back in a few days, anyway; he’d check on the Millers then.

And in the meantime: ‘Go to sleep, Miller’, he typed. ‘You’re not on duty, so sleep while you can.’

He erased it though. He knew she wouldn’t sleep, and as much as he wished it would, a joke probably wouldn’t help anything.

He set the phone back down on the table, and turned out the light.

Chapter Text

Ellie must have fallen asleep at some point, because Fred woke her up as the first waves of morning color washed away the rain clouds.

She stretched, but it didn’t ease her exhaustion, and it didn’t even come close to soothing the crick in her neck from where she’d laid it on the arm of the sofa. She worked the muscle with her fingers as she climbed the stairs, ducking her head into Tom’s room for just a second, before heading into Fred’s.

“Hello”, she cooed. “Hello, love.”

Fred grinned madly and bounced in his cot, his little fingers twisting ‘round the rails, curly mop set ablaze by the copper sunrise.

“Mumma!” He drawled her name like she’d done something silly, and laughed when the last vowel lost its appeal.

He was perfect, she thought—at least until she gave him breakfast, which he was kind enough to share with the floor.

It was nearly eleven by the time she saw Tom amble into the kitchen for breakfast. He was still in pajamas, hair stuck up in every direction as he fixed himself a sandwich with peanut butter, deli ham, and pickles, and washed it down with orange juice.

She grimaced, but didn’t say anything. What was there to be said? More importantly, was it worth the risk? She’d only just got him back, and though she was resolute that it was her decision, not his, she couldn’t help the fear that it might not be enough. Maybe keeping them all together under the same roof wouldn’t be enough to keep them together as a family. Maybe her love wouldn’t be enough.

Beth smiled gently when she mentioned it later, placing a hand lightly over Ellie’s. “Have you talked to him about it?”

She shook her head. “Not yet. I mean, what am I supposed to say?”

She watched her tea, as if it had the answers, and when it refused to share them, she abandoned it to check on Fred, who was pulling grass beside her feet, and Tom, who was playing in the field beyond their yard.

“Elle”, Beth said, and her attention returned to her friend. “You’re a good mum, and Tom’s a good kid--”

“I know.”

“—but that’s just it: he’s a kid. And I don’t…” Beth shifted Lizzie in her arms; she looked nervous.

“I think we’re past the point of mincing words, Beth”, she reassured.

“I think…it’s easy for us to get so caught up in the evil of the situation, that we forget the pure. We’re so worried about them abandoning us or hating us or getting hurt, we forget that their needs are sometimes so much simpler.”

She was quiet for a moment, lost in the late-summer sun. “What I mean is that I don’t think he wants to leave you, and I don’t think he wants to hate you. I think he’s just a kid, and he doesn’t understand what’s happening, and whether he knows it or not, you’re right: he needs his mum to help him through this. Trust yourself, Elle.”

A warm breeze rippled through the clothes Beth had hung out on the line. Fred jumped to his feet to race between waving pantlegs and flapping sheets and towels, sunshine drawing his happiness in shadow.

Ellie rubbed her eyes.

Chapter Text

Alec woke when the sun laid its claim on him, a swath of golden heat that filtered through the flimsy curtains.

He scrubbed his face with an open palm, but the motion did less to wake him than the memory of Tess’s hand on his, the smell of her lotion on his skin, and with that, he was well-and-truly up.

It was early, and even after cleaning up and dressing, he figured he had a couple hours before Daisy’d be up and ready for company. But maybe not: it was her last day at home before going off to university—his stomach tied itself in knots at the thought—so maybe she was up and waiting. Maybe she was nervous.

He was.

He’d text her then, he decided. At least then he’d know if she was up.

‘Dais, let me know when you’d like me over’, he wrote, and he tucked his phone securely in his pocket before heading out the door to find some breakfast.

In fact, maybe he’d stop by the café on Elm, and pick up a coffee for her, along with one of those pastries she liked so much. It wasn’t far from the hotel, anyway, and since the weather was nice, he could walk from there to Tess and Daisy’s. It’d be good for his heart, too.

The bells above the door sang when he walked through, passing the rack of daily papers and the corkboard collaged with local business cards and flyers advertising community events. It was little more than a hole-in-the-wall sort of place, but it was a cornerstone of life in Sandbrook—his life in Sandbrook: from not-a-date coffee dates with Tess, to morning-after breakfasts, pick-me-ups for stake-outs, pregnancy cravings, then father-daughter dates.

Dais had always loved the bright colors and the constant din when she was a baby; loved the sweets as a kid, the fancy teas and cocoa after that, and now coffee. It was strange how such a little place could represent so much of his life, he thought; in a way, it felt a lot like home.

And as he placed his order, he wondered how Miller and the boys were settling back in to theirs.

He took a seat in one of the old vinyl booths while he waited, and checked his phone: ‘im up. Come whenever ur ready, da’.

‘Be there in two ticks, darlin’. See you soon.’

Chapter Text

It felt much more like autumn than it had the day before. Maybe the rain had cooled it down, or maybe it was because the sidewalk was slicked with glistening leaves, a mottled path of not-yet-reds and -yellows and -oranges. Alec picked his way carefully over the patchwork, balanced their tray of drinks in one hand, and used the hand holding the pastry bag to knock.

Birds called as they passed overhead, the balding trees rustled with the wind, feet pattered, unmistakably, across the hardwood floor on the other side of that garish red door, and then it creaked open.

“Da! Oh, is that for me?” She didn’t even offer him a hug or wave him in; she blinked her big doe eyes at him and reached for the bag in his hand.

He pulled it back with a grin.

“Mornin’ darlin’”, he greeted, and when he stepped through the door, she snagged the bag and coffee, and danced away, settling joyously on the couch as she sniffed her treats.

“D’you know how much I love you?”, she asked.

He laughed. “Mum doesn’t bring you breakfast?”

There was a stony silence, filled with the sound of gulping coffee, the drop of his shoes as he left them on the mat to dry. And even when he waved her stockinged feet so she’d make room for him to sit beside her, she simply nibbled her apple turnover with wary eyes.

He slugged his tea, it burned his throat, he coughed. “Look, Dais—”

“No, Da—”

“I know I’m not good at this”, he gestured weakly, “this whole, dad thing—”

“No—"

“—And I know that you an’ me—”

“Da, listen!”, she said. She wasn’t much for yelling, but she spoke with authority when she wanted; he was proud of her.

“I know”, was all she offered in explanation, and his stomach swooped. Rationally, he knew the non-sequitur could mean a lot of things—but all the same he worried: was she agreeing that he was an awful dad?

She must have recognized his fear, because she set her coffee on the table—directly beside a coaster, in what he could only guess was a slight to her mum—and uncurled herself. “I know what happened. With mum.”

Oh.

He waited for the fallout.

But Daisy only picked at her fluffy pajama pants. “Everyone knows. Small town, yeah?”

He nodded.

“Once word got ‘round”, she shrugged. “Everyone read the article, and Mum said they knew who it was pretty quick.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you knew?”

“I was gonna. I just wanted to do it in person, but mum, last night…”

“That’s what that hug was for.”

“Yeah”, she said, and she scooted closer on the couch, catching him in another. “Thank you. For breakfast, for everything, Da.”

He kissed her head, and she sniffled.

“I’m sorry.”

“Dais, you’ve nothing to be sorry for.”

Her fingers bunched in his jumper, and her breath caught in another ragged sniffle before she sobbed. “I thought you left us, me an’ mum, and I—”

Alec rubbed her back and shushed her softly, like he’d done when she was little.

“I was awful. I hated you”, she confessed. “I didn’t want you to be my dad, and—”

“Dais”, he brushed her hair back and pulled away, and when he was far enough to see her rosy face clearly, she swiped it with her hands, drying tears and smudging snot. He was struck both by how grown up she was, in worrying about him after learning of her mother’s affair, and how young she was, stuck on the idea that his love was conditional.

“Daisy, darling, listen: I’m your ‘Da’, and I love you no matter what.”

“You didn’t deserve that.”

“No”, he said, kissing her forehead when her lip started trembling again. “And neither does your mum, you know.”

She tensed against him.

“Dais, she loves you.”

She didn’t relax, and the way she stared at the floor told him all he needed to know.

“Hey—”

“—I’m gonna get changed, then we can pack.”

Chapter Text

Ellie fixed them dinner, best she could. She’d learned to lower her standards after Joe’s arrest: was it safe to eat? Was it burned beyond recognition? Did it crunch when it wasn’t supposed to crunch?

Tom set the table, without having been asked, and he even offered Fred a cup of water while they waited.

“Tom”, she said, poking at what was supposed to be a stir-fry. The vegetables—all in ragged bits and mushy pieces by now—screamed when she pressed them against the bottom of the pan in hopes of cooking them properly.

“Yeah?”

“Thank you; you’re a big help, you know.”

He gave a little smile, and jumped when Fred’s toy dinosaur pressed against his arm. “Fred!”

Fred giggled between the chomping, chewing sounds he voiced for his toy, which were quickly drowned when the noodles bubbled over, starch and water burning to the stovetop before Ellie pulled the pot and strained it, only remembering afterward to turn the heat off.

“Tom”, she said again, and she mixed the noodles with the vegetables, leaving a bit of each in separate piles to cut up for Fred.

“Yeah?”

“I know you might not know it, or maybe you don’t think it, or maybe you’re just worried or—shit!” She spilled a clump of stir-fry onto the counter, which in turn flopped over the edge and onto the floor, and she sighed, meeting Tom’s gaze properly, for what felt like the first time since he’d come back.

“It’s okay, you know, if you want to talk to me about your dad, about what’s happened.”

His face turned pink.

“And it’s okay if you don’t; I won’t push you. But I want you to know I’m here”, her voice broke, “and I love you.”

“Even more than chocolate”, he finished.

Fred roared.

“Even more than chocolate”, she agreed, and she was amazed at how something as simple as burnt-and-mushy stir-fry with her boys could fill her with so much hope.

“Now help me get this on the table; we wouldn’t want the dinosaur to get hungry and gobble us up instead!” The warble in her voice made it sound like she was singing, and she wiggled her fingers at Fred, who screamed with peals of laughter.

*************************************************************************************************************

Tom didn’t talk to her, though. And Ellie wasn’t surprised—she knew it’d take time, that she’d have to be patient. But patience had never been a strong suit, given she’d effectively paid off her sister for information on Danny when time was running short, and she’d sabotaged their entire case by acting on impulse in that interrogation room.

On the other hand, she’d curled up on the couch for yet another night she couldn’t spend in the bed they’d shared. That must count for patience—or some cross between patience and stupidity, at least.

She just couldn’t bring herself to sleep there. Reclaiming the house was one thing: it’d been hers before Joe moved in, before they started a family, and once they had, the house became theirs. All of theirs.

So there really wasn’t much to change through most of it. They weren’t ‘taking it back’, because it already belonged to them—Joe was just a tiny part of that. And once Tom was back in school, she’d start the process of cleaning up those little touches that were distinctly his: his favorite set of cooking knives, his dressing gown still hanging in the bathroom, the calendar that only he used—if SOCO hadn’t taken it, that was; she hadn’t checked.

But the bedroom was different. While the rest of the house was theirs, and filled with as many memories of her alone, or with Tom or Fred or all of them together, the bedroom was hers and Joe’s in equal part. Any memories from her bachelorette life before him faded under the intensity of them, of him, in that room.

It was silly, really. He’d already been gone for so long, lost to them in so many ways other than just his physical absence. He wasn’t her husband anymore, and he sure as hell wasn’t the man she’d fallen in love with, shared a home with, raised her children with… What did it matter if she moved his things to prove it—to prove he was gone for good?

Because she wasn’t keeping his shit for nostalgia’s sake. If anything, she wondered if maybe she was hesitant to let herself move on, like his memory—his ghostly grip on her life—was her self-imposed penance for letting him go free.

God, she sounded like Hardy.

Speaking of which… She fished under her gran’s knit blanket, pulling her phone from the fuzzy, yellow depths, and drew her lock pattern.

‘Beth Latimer asked me to thank you’, she wrote, but she didn’t send it. Instead, her thumb hovered over the half-truth; Beth had said she was grateful, for everything Hardy’d done for them, sacrificed for them, in order to find Joe. But she hadn’t asked Ellie to pass the message on.

Why, then, did she feel like it was so important to do so?

Chapter Text

Alec waited, sipped his cooling tea, and tried not to passively inspect the living room while Daisy got ready. It wouldn’t be long now anyway; he could hear the clatter of her teenaged war-paint against the bathroom counter, which meant he only had another…ten minutes?...with which to pointedly not focus on the excessive cleanliness of the room.

Because it was pristine, like a picture out of a magazine, with everything in perfect order, right down to the angle of the useless little pillows on the couch and chair—which matched, of course. Framed photos stood in a careful arc along the mantel; plants flowered on swirly metal stools, for no apparent reason. But there were no dry leaves or limp petals on the floor.

In fact, the only challenge to the perfection of the space, was the dust that sparkled in the sunlight and coated everything. Maybe that was why it looked like a picture: not because it was so precisely decorated, but because it didn’t look lived in. The living room didn’t look lived in.

He frowned, and fiddled with the cardboard jacket on his takeaway mug. Did Dais and Tess go out a lot? Did they not care for this room? Or did they not spend any time together? Was it because Tess had been so busy with her case, or—

“Mum says it’s something you can’t turn off.”

He would have jumped, if not for how gently she spoke.

“Not you, you”, she amended, twirling her hands in explanation, “detectives. Once you know what to look for, you see it everywhere, all the time.”

“Not always”, he said. He thought of Miller. “But aye, often.”

For a second, he thought she might ask what he’d seen. She didn’t.

“I’ve got most of it packed, just need to get it into the car.”

“You left all the lugging for your old man, then?”

She looked almost stricken: “I made sure they weren’t heavy, the boxes. And I can carry anything that’s—”

“Dais.” He should have anticipated that, should have known it was too soon to joke when she felt so guilty. “It’s okay. You finish up packing, and I’ll get started on loading, yeah?”

“Yeah. Teamwork”, she said, and she gave a timid grin.

“Teamwork. D’you know where Mum keeps her keys?”

“On the pegboard in the kitchen.”

****************************************************************************************************************

It didn’t take long to pack and load, but talking, teasing, and an impromptu Nerf battle extended the chore into late afternoon, well past lunch.

“D’you want dinner, Dais?”

Her messy bun bobbed from the other side of her bedroom, which she’d decided to clean after having finished with the bathroom; she didn’t want to leave her mum with a mess, she’d said.

“Are you cooking? Please, Da: Mum always cooks when you come to visit, but you’re way better at it than she is. Oh!” Her sparkling eyes blinked into view. “Will you make chicken soup, please?”

“That’s what you want?”

“Yes.”

And that’s what she got, even though it took a while to make. It wasn’t so bad though, because once he’d got back from the grocer and she’d finished cleaning her room, she sat in the kitchen with him, chattering away, dancing as she chopped the celery, humming when she dried the dishes he’d washed.

And for a little while, that empty house felt like a home again.

Chapter Text

Another night on the couch, another crick in her neck—and a new one, in her elbow. Ellie blinked her dry eyes in question: she’d fallen asleep with it outstretched, apparently, her fingers wrapped tight around her mobile in unresolved conflict.

“Mumma”, Fred howled, “down!”

And that was it. Problem solved. She groaned and rubbed her face, releasing her phone to the wild mess of blanket bunched at the end of the couch, and trudged upstairs, grabbing Fred first, then checking on Tom before heading downstairs to make breakfast.

Without pickles.

She called when it was ready, Tom slunk down, and the three of them ate in peace until Fred demanded he be let down to play.

Please”, Ellie modelled.

“Peas”, he repeated, as best he could, and it sounded so sarcastic she laughed as she set his little feet on the floor.

Tom didn’t laugh though. He shoveled the last of his scrambled eggs across his plate, blonde brow furrowed in concentration.

“Mum”, he asked.

“Yes, Tom?”

“What ‘m I gonna do about school?”

“School?”

He nodded slowly, but he still didn’t look at her. “Everyone knows what happened.”

“Right.” Something else Joe ruined. And damn it, she didn’t have an answer for him, so they sat in as much silence as was possible in the presence of a toddler.

Finally, Tom scooched back, grabbed his plate and hers, and took them to the sink. It broke her heart a little.

“Can I go to the skatepark?”

“Sure”, she said, at a loss for anything else. “Take your mobile.”

He ran upstairs, and she was left to contemplate the words she hadn’t said: take your mobile, so I know you’re safe. But Danny had died with his mobile, hadn’t he? Joe had just taken it off his body before he dumped it on the beach.

And then he’d returned home, to their bed, to sleep.

She decided she’d clean her room while Tom was at the skatepark; she’d have to talk to him before she cleaned the rest of the house.

Chapter Text

Alec thought he might be sick. He rolled off the too-soft bed, and trundled to the shower.

His Daisy—his wee bairn, who couldn’t sleep unless he rocked her, who came downstairs to snuggle into him on Sunday mornings while he watched the news, who cried when she learned that milk came from cows, and cried even more when her class lost the school sports day in year 3—was all grown up. A woman, off to university, and in no time she’d be getting married and having kids of her own and he’d be a granddad and—

When did he get so old?

It wasn’t a mystery, he supposed, and he thought of Lisa and Pippa and Danny—none of whom would ever go to university or get married or have kids of their own.

What was a mystery was how Tess hadn’t seemed to grow up at all. But maybe that wasn’t a mystery so much as it was endlessly infuriating.

She wasn’t there when he got to the house, bearing breakfast for Daisy’s big day. And apparently, at least from what he could understand through Daisy’s barely-coherent whines and hiccups, Tess had woken her up before she left for work—only to tell her then that she wasn’t coming.

As if she hadn’t known for days.

He gripped the steering wheel while Daisy cried beside him, and he wondered if maybe the angry cabbie was divorced, too. It would explain a lot—even more if he were also forced to co-parent with a ‘wretched beast’ who for some, mystical, godforsaken reason had not one, but three—THREE—air fresheners dangling from the rear-view mirror of her car.

What on Earth could she have done to that car to warrant three fucking air fresheners?

He didn’t want to know, he didn’t care; he threw them all, illegally, out the window, and for the first time that day, Daisy laughed.

****************************************************************************************************************

And she only laughed more as the day wore on—though he was sure that some of it was just an act, particularly when they pulled up to her hall of residence and started unloading.

They’d only been fifteen minutes when a few returning students offered to help; Daisy laughed and flashed a winning grin, introducing herself, and completely ignoring him. He’d never felt so proud and so desperately abandoned at the same time.

But Daisy didn’t notice, and that was okay. It made it easier for him to flash his badge at anyone who gave her eyes.

And after mustering as much judicial authority as he could, to terrorize as many randy teenagers as he could, his work was done. Eighteen years, and he was dismissed when some smug bastard smiled.

“Dais—can I call you ‘Dais’?”

“Yeah”, Daisy drawled, and she—God help him—fluttered her eyelashes.

Alec groaned; Smug Bastard eyed him.

“Yah, erm. We’re gonna go get lunch, if you wanna—?“ He gestured with his thumbs.

Daisy blushed.

“Right”, Alec intervened, before he lost the will to live. “She’ll just be a tick.”

“Da—”

He ushered Daisy’s friends out of the room, shut the door in their faces, and leaned against it, closing his eyes and tugging his tie while he composed himself.

“Da”, she said, and when he looked again, she was the daughter he knew.

“Dais.”

They stood in silence.

“Can I come visit on break?”

“You can come visit whenever you like, darlin’.”

She shuffled over and hugged him tight. “Will you call me?”

He laughed, rocking her gently. “You’re not gonna want to hear from me, you’ll be so busy with school and friends. But tell you what—”

“What?”

“Whenever you do, you can call me. Anytime.” He kissed her perfect ginger hair. “You know I can’t always answer right away, but I will get back to you as soon as I possibly can, I promise.”

She sniffled, and it wasn’t lost on him that in the midst of such a big, scary change, she felt like she’d lost a parent.

“You can call your mum, too; I know she misses you, and she’ll want to know how today went. And every day, for that matter. She loves you.”

Daisy let him go and wiped her face. “I love you, Da.”

“I love you too, Daisy.”

And then he left, as if it was normal. Got in that awful car and drove back to Sandbrook, of all places. To return the car to Tess, who was waiting in the drive, in an unmarked squad car.

Chapter Text

Tess slid out of her car, and leaned against it as he parked—crooked, because his nerves were getting the best of him.

“Alec.”

He sighed and slapped the door closed behind him. “Tess.”

The rain, which had held out all morning, finally gave in, splattering in pinpricks of cold as he passed her the keys.

“D’you fancy a coffee, before you head back?”, she asked.

No.

But the way she smiled told him declining wasn’t an option; she wasn’t offering out of useless social custom, she needed something. And he knew the moment she realized he’d figured it out, because relief washed her weary features quicker than the growing downpour.

Tess motioned toward the car, and he conceded, wrapping around to take the passenger seat.
If she noticed the missing air fresheners, she didn’t mention it. In fact, she didn’t say a word while she drove them to the same café he’d visited the last two mornings, and she was even silent as she passed the clinking bells and led them to the booth at the back. The booth that used to be theirs.

He wondered, as Tess shook her multicolored hair and left to place her order, if this was how Miller felt being back in that house again. He hoped not.

It felt lonelier than being alone.

“So, how’d it go?”, Tess asked, sidling into the booth and setting a cardboard cup in front of him.

“Why don’t you ask Daisy, Tess?”

Her lacquered lips pulled tight, tighter than her shoulders, and she worried at the rim of her cup.

“Why didn’t you go today?”

“I told you”, she defended, “I had a case.”

“’S that why you’re here, and not at the station?”

“Alec”, she pled, but he didn’t understand why, so he stayed quiet.

Raindrops counted the distance between them.

“D’you remember”, she said at last, “we used to come here all the time, when Daisy was little. It was our place.”

She sniffed, and stilled her hands around her cup as she scanned the room. Her face was flushed, the shadows exaggerated under the hanging lights, which sparkled in her eyes. She looked like she might cry.

He focused on a spot out the window.

“Even before Daisy, yeah? Before everything: before the pendant, before the Gillespies, before we tried for another baby, before your promotion, before Daisy, before we had a place to call our own, together. Back when we were just us, and we young, and in—”

“Tess.” He rubbed his face, and she dropped hers, taking a trembling hand from her cup and bringing it to wipe her cheeks.

“I just wanted to know how it went.”

“Ask her, Tess. She missed you today.”

Tess nodded. “I’ve got to get back to the station; I’ll drop you at your hotel, if you like.”

She was hiding something. He wondered what could possibly be worth hiding at this point; he wasn’t a part of her life anymore, apart from Daisy, and nothing else she did mattered. It was her life, and she didn’t want him in it.

She’d been rather clear about that.

Chapter Text

It’d been both easier and harder than Ellie expected, cleansing her room of Joe. She didn’t cry: not when she pulled his shirts from their hangers in the closet, nor when she rounded up his shoes, balled up the ties he’d never worn, emptied his half of the dresser drawers, and not even when she looked at it all—souvenirs from a forfeit life, strewn in a modest pile atop her bed.

She’d been ready, she realized, probably for even longer than she’d known, and in that sense, it was easy.

She just didn’t know what to do with it all. Was she supposed to save his things; pack them away like skeletons in her closet? Or was she supposed to find a way to send it to him? Should she donate some of it, any of it, all of it? Or offer it to Tom? Trash it? Burn it? Bury it, in place of the husband she’d lost?

No—that was a little too morbid.

But if she were honest, there was a certain appeal to it—not in the macabre, but in the sense of closure, of being able to say good-bye to the man she’d loved. Because the man she’d seen in that interrogation room, the man behind the docket, the man who’d returned after it all—with a new lease on life, no less—to the place he’d ended Danny’s: that wasn’t her husband, that was a monster.

But when had he become that, she wondered. And if she looked through his things, could she really separate what’d belonged to her husband, and what was tainted by the evil in him?

Yes, she knew she could, because the truth was that not one bit of it had escaped his perverse mind. It all belonged to the monster, because Joe was the monster; the husband she’d known was nothing more than an imaginary friend.

The problem was that while her husband had never been real, her children’s father was very much so. And Tom and Fred—they weren’t letting go of an image, or a little bit of ribbon tied to a balloon: they were letting go of their dad, the man whose hand had guided their first steps, and tucked them in at night, and held them—

Ellie’s stomach turned: it could, so easily, have been Tom or Fred, instead of Danny. She wondered if Tom ever thought about that. She wondered if it scared him as much as it did her. And she wondered, as they sat around the dinner table, both poking at their pork chops while Fred sang to his mashed banana, if he’d ever talk to her about it.

Maybe her impatience was instinct, she thought. But when she looked at Tom, she knew it wasn’t; she knew, because when his doleful green eyes settled on her from across the kitchen, his hand skimming the staircase rail as he waited for her permission, she felt motherly instinct well up inside her—and it told her to leave him alone, to wait.

Damn it.

She smiled. “Go on up. I love you, Tom.”

“Love you too, mum.”

Chapter Text

Ellie used the next morning to move Joe’s things outdoors. She’d picked the shed to put them in, because as soon as she’d had them all boxed up the day before, she knew she couldn’t keep them in the house. But Tom had come home, and she couldn’t move them with him there; it was her choice whether she wanted them in her room or not, but Tom deserved an explanation before he saw her dump his father’s things outside like rubbish.

So she’d waited for Luce and Olly to take the kids for the day. Tom was looking forward to it, she knew; he missed having his dad around to play with, and he looked up to Oliver.

She’d worry about that, later.

Ellie wiped her brow and brushed away the curls that’d stuck to her forehead, settling on the wooden steps outside the shed to catch her breath in the tepid morning sun. And as she did, she heard the rhythmic crunch of gravel announcing company.

Beth?

“Miller?”

She swung the heavy doors closed behind her and snapped the padlock, twirling the dial away from the last number in the combination, then wove her way through the unkept yard and through the house.

“Miller!”

“For God’s sake, I’m coming!”, she shouted, and she cursed when she stubbed a toe on her way to open the door. “Why are you here?”

“We have a case”, he said, as if it were obvious.

“You know I’m on leave right?”

Hardy snorted.

She glared.

“You’re serious?”

“I don’t know, maybe. What’s the case?”

He took that as an invitation to come in, and she sighed.

“D’you have tea on, Miller?”

“Oh, you want tea now?”

He looked up from where he was rearranging her living room. “We’ll need it if we’re gonna get any work done.”

“I haven’t even agreed yet!”

“Didn’t you?”

“Git”, she hissed, and she felt lighter than she had since mushy stir-fry.

****************************************************************************************************************

Ellie supervised from the kitchen; there was nothing else to do while she waited for the kettle to boil, the tea to steep. So she kept an eye on him.

He seemed distant—more distant than usual, if that were possible. He kept getting distracted, like he’d lay a file out, and look at it, but only for a second. Then he’d stare at one of Fred’s drawings like he were an art critic, or he’d watch the kids age through their photos on the wall, or he’d touch something; she’d looked away to add milk to their mugs, but she was almost certain she hadn’t folded her gran’s afghan. Yet there it was, laying neatly along the back of the couch while Alec Hardy squinted at a piece of paper.

“Thought I would’ve known if there was a case around here”, she said, and she passed him a mug before settling next to him.

It was oddly reassuring. She could almost feel his warmth through the gap between them—even though he wore a full suit—and she could smell whatever it was he wore: soap, deodorant, cologne, hair product. She wasn’t sure what is was, but it smelled a bit like home, like ragged wind and sun-scorched sand, cold tide and endless night, and it was almost as soothing as his physical presence.

Everyone else kept their distance—even Beth, who was prone to taking her hand or squeezing her arm in show of comfort. Somehow though, there was always a space, like they were touching, but they weren’t. Like the sun that warmed the earth, from a million miles away.

But Hardy, he was like the cliffs. She didn’t need to touch him to know that he was there, and he was real, and he’d buffer the merciless ocean winds until he crumbled into the sea.

“It’s not one of ours”, he explained, and he raised his mug in thanks before having a drink.

“What does that even mean?”

“We’re consulting. Apparently Jenkinson owes someone a favor.” He smirked.

“No! Dirty Jenkinson?”

“Miller, that is a superior officer you’re talking about!”

“You said it first!”

“You’ll have a hard time proving that in court”, he snorted, and his eyes went wide for the briefest moment when he realized. “Sorry, er…”

“No, it’s—it’s okay.”

They drank their tea in silence.

“I picked it up when I got in last night. Back from Sandbrook”, he clarified.

“Visiting your daughter?”

“Daisy”, he said. "I brought her to university."

“University! Oh, wow. What’s she studying?”

“Literature.” His lips quirked in a smile, and he quickly redirected, in what she presumed was an effort to disguise his humanity, “it’s not really consulting, so much as reviewing.”

Ellie plucked a sheet from the array. “Don’t they have people for that?”

“Not like this. We’re overseeing in real-time: we’ll get all their documents, have access to all their evidence, and have all the same authority granted our respective titles.”

“But that sounds like consulting. So what’s different?”

His smile spoke volumes, almost like he was disgusted with himself. “Whoever it is we’re watching over—and Jenkinson won’t tell me who—they don’t know we’re doing it.”

“And you’re okay with that?”

“They don’t want to put their DI on leave to review their work, especially since their Chief Super doesn’t think there’s anything to worry about in the first place. So if we can keep can a good cop from being put on leave for a stupid reason…”

He didn’t look at her, but he didn’t have to.

“Yeah”, she said.

It hung between them in place of a hundred other words, and he must have felt it, because he straightened his jacket for no reason and cleared his throat.

“And anyway, Jenkinson seems to think it’s a good idea to keep me busy. I don’t disagree.”

She laughed.

“So, Miller: d’you want the job?”

“Oh my god. Did you just offer me a job?”

She thought he might drop his tea. “That’s not—”

“A job? You are…such an arrogant twit! I should be offering you that job!”

They both knew it wasn’t true, that it was an oversimplification.

Hardy played along anyway.

Chapter Text

Alec's office was exactly as he’d left it, down to the calendar hanging on the wall. He’d never actually used it, but all the same, he’d dutifully flipped the page with each passing month. Sometimes it’d felt like a celebration, other times a countdown—but he’d always mustered the courage to do it, even when it’d meant he hadn’t spoken to Daisy in weeks, or the Latimer’s had gone a month without answers; the Gillespie’s and Newbury’s, years.

It wasn’t really a surprise, then, that in his absence, the calendar hadn’t been touched. He thought maybe if Miller’d been there, she might have done—but she hadn’t been, and neither had he, and Jenkinson hadn’t bothered to fill his position, knowing he’d be back as soon as medical cleared him for work after getting his pacemaker.

So the calendar had stayed, as if no time had passed at all. And as he sat behind his desk, cast in the same burnt orange tones he remembered from that day, it almost felt real—like he’d get a text from Miller any minute, agreeing to meet him on the beach, where he’d have to tell her his suspicion, watch her perfect life crumble at his words. He’d had no choice in that. But he’d had a choice in how he told her, where he told her. So as much as he’d come to resent those massive orange cliffs, he’d picked that spot because he’d hoped she’d draw strength from them.

And maybe even from him.

He slumped over his desk, debating whether he should correct the calendar, or just throw the bloody thing out and get a new one.

“Good to know you had a legitimate reason for skiving off your own committee meeting.”

Jenkinson closed the door behind her, then took a seat across from him, folding her hands on top her knees in what he supposed was a show of authority. It didn’t come naturally to her, he thought, always looked awkward despite her sharp eyes and perfectly-coiffed hair, her raised chin, immaculate uniform.

He didn’t doubt that Jenkinson was an exceptional officer, with years of experience and a reputation that spelled integrity—her office walls were a testament to that, decorated floor-to-ceiling with awards and accolades, accomplishments. She just wasn’t built for the isolation that came with authority. She was like Miller in that way: a reluctant leader. Not because she wasn’t perfectly suited for it, but because she liked being ordinary, equal; a partner, a friend, a member of the community, a part of something greater than herself.

And he respected that, so he straightened just a bit. “Aye, I did.”

She raised her pointed brows; he waved vaguely in the direction he'd been staring. “It wasn’t on my calendar.”

“Hardy, you’ve been back two days, surely—”

“Oh—it’s not even my department!”

She didn’t so much as blink. “Yes, I can see that CID is absolutely inundated at the moment.”

He matched her stare; he swore he saw her smirk.

“Right”, she mumbled, then conceded, “fine. But someone has to plan and coordinate police staffing for Bonfire Night, which means you need to delegate. So pick someone.”

She drummed her fingers on her knee as he leaned back in his chair, arched his neck to get a good look out the glass panels of his office, past Miller’s empty desk, and pointed. “Him.”

“You don’t even know his name, do you?”

He sniffed. Was it…Jones?

“It’s Craig.”

He scrunched his nose. “Not him. ‘Craig’.”

“Craig’s an outstanding officer; you’d do well to give this task to him”, she chided. And even though her tone was far more matronizing than authoritative, her intent was the same, so he nodded.

“I’ll do that, then, Ma’am.”

“Good”, she said, almost softly, and she eyed the file folder at the edge of his desk—the one she’d left for him the night he returned from Sandbrook. “Now, tell me: which unlucky sod got stuck helping you with that case?”

“DS Miller.”

Ellie? And she said ‘yes’?”

“Why wouldn’t she?”

“I can’t imagine”, she murmured, and though she played it as a joke, her eyes flicked to the bullpen, where they lingered a bit too long.

****************************************************************************************************************

Had Jenkinson meant something by that? If she had, was the significance in the fact that she’d looked away from him, or into the bullpen? Did she know something she wasn’t saying, or was it really just…nothing? Just strange and nothing more, just the product of a detective’s mind?

Mum says you can’t turn it off ’, Daisy’d told him—but could it really be that simple? And if it were, then why did Jenkinson’s answer bother him so much?

He didn’t check the clock before he scooped his things together, pulled his coat from the hook and tugged it on, tucked the file under his arm, and closed his office door behind him.

“I’ve got my mobile”, he announced.

The eyes that watched him were weary, but they didn’t offer any hint of whatever Jenkinson had seen that half-hour ago, so he did his best to ignore it as he walked to Miller’s in the cool of dusk.

Tom answered the door. “Sir.”

Alec grimaced. “’S your mum home, Tom?”

The teen glanced down the hall behind him, then edged out onto the doorstep, standing like a sentry in the dim porch light, and Alec noted how much he’d grown; he wasn’t the same kid he’d been a year ago, huddled into Joe’s side in that interview room, surrounded by toys he hadn’t long outgrown.

Tom stood taller now, not just in height, but in his presence—stronger. His eyes were wary well-beyond his years, his face thinned of childhood innocence, his anxiety worn in the clench of his jaw and the grown-up watch on his wrist.

“Is this about my dad?”

“No”, Alec reassured. “I just came to see your mum.”

Tom nodded, and his shoulders loosened when he turned to lead them inside. “She’s in the kitchen with Fred.”

Alec showed himself there. He felt Tom’s eyes on his back until he pulled a chair at the table—the only one without a place setting before it. It must’ve been Joe’s once, he realized. Maybe it still was, even if that just meant an empty space they’d never fill.

“Did you come over just to brood?”, Miller asked. She didn’t turn from whatever she was burning on the stove, not even when Fred, who balanced heavily on her hip, threw his cup in welcome.

Maybe it was instinct born from years of practice, but he was on his feet to grab a towel, then crouched before the spill of milk before he’d even thought about it.

“I brought today’s updates on the case”, he said.

She held her answer while he soaked the spill and collected the cup, wrung and rinsed the cloth.

“Great. Thanks. I’ll read them later.”

And she clicked off the stove. She still didn’t turn though, just settled Fred to the ground despite his clinging hands and grumbled protests, her curls bouncing as she swooped to plant a kiss on wee Fred’s forehead before he scrambled off, toward the sounds of whatever Tom was watching in the living room.

Then they were left alone, he and Miller, in the warmth of the kitchen, between the deep red walls with half-cleaned crayon accent. There was a football waiting in the corner, a plastic dinosaur having a kip under the table, a basket of confiscated items atop the fridge, which was decorated with photos, drawings, appointment reminders, alphabet magnets spelling out profanities.

He thought of the house in Sandbrook; he didn’t think it’d ever felt quite like this.

“What are you doing just standing there, then? Grab a plate, dinner’s on.”

Chapter Text

Ellie read the file once she’d put Fred to sleep. But since Tom had stayed with her, watching telly on the opposite end of the couch, she’d barely been able to focus. So when he’d said good-night and ambled to his room, she read it again.

It was perfect: all reports were completed promptly, evidence processed thoroughly, tasks delegated efficiently, conflicts managed with precision and compassion. She’d seen examples at academy with more flaws than this. So what were they doing? What was the point in consulting on a case that’d be solved within a week, reviewing work that was already so well done?

If she were a cynic, she might have thought it was all some sort of elaborate punishment. But she wasn’t, not even after everything that’d happened, so instead she wondered what she’d missed.

She read the file one last time, and with no new observations, she grabbed her mobile: ‘Have you got time for a working lunch, tomorrow?’, she asked Hardy.

There was no response, at least not before she heard Fred’s wobbly voice call ‘Mumma?’ between unmistakable sniffs and whimpers.

****************************************************************************************************************

She spent the morning at Beth’s. Tom was benched on account of the rain—hunkered in front of the telly, rather than playing outside—and Fred refused to let her go with an adamance that was really rather remarkable, given how tired he must be. Even his little curls seemed to sag from the exhaustion of a sleepless night.

“You don’t look much better than him”, Beth pointed out.

It almost made her glad Hardy’d turned her down for lunch. But not quite.

“As if you’ve slept since Lizzie came.”

Beth smiled. “Mark’s not so bad, though. Does his fair share.”

“You’re doing alright, then, the two of you?”, she asked, avoiding the ghost of Joe with practiced skill.

“Yeah. It’s amazing what just talking can do.” Beth laughed softly, but it didn’t ease the awkward as much as the smile that followed. “Reminds me: have you heard there’s gonna be a celebration for Bonfire Night this year?”

Ellie shook her head.

“Whole town’s in on it, I heard. They’ll have all sorts of things happening on Main Street, and they’ll even do fireworks over the beach.”

It was meant to draw in tourists, no doubt. The town had suffered after Danny, then Jack, then Joe—probably Lee Ashworth, too, thanks to Oliver. This was just another means of adapting. Still, it was a nice idea.

“Anyway, Me an’ Mark, we were thinkin’ maybe we’d do something too. A bonfire in the backyard, maybe some food and drinks for friends. We’d love you and the boys to come.”

“Yeah. We’d like that”, Ellie said.

Her mobile chirped, and she felt Tom’s eyes on her as she sifted carefully through her bag with one hand to retrieve it.

‘It’s just that Daisy wanted to talk, and she’s got an hour between lectures this afternoon. But I’m free later.’

‘Dinner, then?’, she offered.

‘Aye. See you then.’

She tucked her phone away.

“Invite Mr. Hardy, too”, Beth added quietly—and far too casually.

Chapter Text

She set a place for him this time. She would have done yesterday, too, had he bothered to let her know he was about to show up on her doorstep at dinner time. But he hadn’t. Nor had he bothered to change out of his suit, and she supposed he probably wouldn’t today, either. Didn’t matter though: he cleaned up nice, and after all, they were working.

“There’s four bowls on the table, mum”, Tom noted carefully.

She stepped around Fred, who was feeding his dinosaur a piece of carrot that she’d dropped. “I know. Alec’s joining us.”

“Alec?”

“Detective Hardy”, she translated.

“Oh, right.” He stood there for a moment, then awkwardly ducked away, Fred tagging at his heels a second later.

She smiled as she listened to their play: Fred’s barking laughter, simple sentences strained by his excitement; Tom’s patient questions, conspiratorial whispers.

They were perfect, they were hers, and she was proud.

She dipped a spoon in the pot of soup burbling on the stove—she was proud of that, too. It was good. Not just ‘edible’, but actually good. Seemed that was the trick: soup was harder to burn, and the overcooked bits all just sort of blended in, so no one’d ever notice.

****************************************************************************************************************

Ellie heard Fred’s welcome first: a long “hi”, that rumbled in such a way she knew he’d pressed his little face to the window in the living room.

“Tom—"

“I’ll get it!”, he answered.

She heard him dash to the door, soft murmurs of conversation before Fred whinged at feeling left out.

“Come on,” she said, collecting her warm lump of a toddler, “let’s get ready to eat. Would you like soup?”

“No!”, he cheered.

He ate it all, though. Even used a spoon, which was more than she could say for Tom, who’d used a fork to separate all the chicken and noodles from anything that looked remotely like a vegetable. Luckily, half the carrots had disintegrated, and she could only assume they’d boiled into the chicken and noodles, which meant she’d won that battle, ultimately.

And Hardy: he was quiet. No whoops of meat-gathering, spoon-using triumph from him—though he did smile, inexplicably, into his bowl. His copper fringe kissed his brow when he did, and the corners of his eyes crinkled just the slightest bit above cheeks flushed from the steam wafting off his soup.

“It’s good”, he said.

Really good”, Tom qualified, and that was it until he offered to clear the table.

But Hardy rose instead, and when he offered, she accepted, thanking Tom before he slunk off to the living room.

Strange that it’d become his haunt, all of a sudden. He’d always been partial to his room, and she’d only expected that preference to become stronger as adolescence wore on. Instead, he’d taken to the living room, particularly the last few days. It did have the larger television, though. Maybe that was it.

She wiped Fred’s face while Hardy gathered the dishes, unbuckled him from his seat while the water ran and bubbles inched up the sides of the sink. But when she went to set Fred’s polka-dot-socked feet on the tiled floor, he pulled them up.

“Mumma, no; up, please?”, he pled, all pouty lip and big doe eyes.

She checked the room: Hardy’d cleared it quick, and now stood beside the sink, working at the buttons on his cuffs. His watch lay belly-up on the counter, glinting in the warm kitchen light—but not nearly so much as the red in his beard, the gold in his eyes.

He smiled. “Wee Fred looks knackered.”

“He is.” She brushed her fingers through Fred’s curls until he swatted her away and tucked his head into her neck as she settled back into her chair.

Tom flicked the channels in the other room; the dishes in the sink bumped softly under the suds as Hardy washed; Fred’s back rose and fell, soft and steady beneath her fingertips.

“Miller.”

It wasn’t Hardy’s whisper that woke her, so much as it was his hand: lavender-scented and still warm from doing the washing when he closed it gently over her shoulder.

He didn’t want to wake the baby, she figured, and she smiled at the effort.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean—“, she croaked, and she cleared her throat and licked her lips as if it’d make a difference. “Fred didn’t sleep last night, so—”

“—you didn’t sleep last night”, he finished, with his dulcet brogue and a knowing smile. “Quite right.”

She nodded. Didn’t seem right to tell him Fred’s night terrors weren’t the only thing that kept her up, not when it was so late, and she needed to check on Tom, and put Fred to bed properly, and Hardy—

His phone buzzed from his pocket.

He must have things to do, too.

“We’ll catch up on the case tomorrow, Miller?”

“Yeah.”

“Lunch? I think tea is a little too close to bedtime.”

“Knob.” She smiled. “Let’s meet on the pier: it’s closer to the station, and I bet Fred would love a last hurrah with the beach before it gets too cold.”

Chapter Text

He walked to work in the gloaming of the morning, when the light was neither sun- nor moon-, and the only warmth was found in the rusted clouds, the hint of saffron staining the milky slate of dawn with shades of autumn.

It made him think of home.

And though he wasn’t sure what that meant, exactly, he knew what it felt like—at least well enough to know he missed it.

Whatever it was.

Maybe it was just the gloaming, making him think. Or maybe it was the lack of sleep—because the dreams hadn’t stopped after his surgery, after the trial, after solving Sandbrook; they’d just changed.

Except for the drowning. He was always drowning, and he always woke coughing, drenched in cold sweat, craving a cigarette and home.

Whatever that meant.

So he filled the space with a cup of tea, and the ‘hush’ of crashing waves as he cracked the door and settled in the jamb, set his feet on the sea-sprayed concrete steps. They were always cool against his bare skin, and the breeze was always thick with salt, and the steady rhythm of the ocean was always soothing. He wasn’t sure why—or even how, after everything that’d happened. There was just something about the sea.

And he thought on that, some mornings—especially when the moon was bright, like it’d been on the night that Danny died, and the night he’d spent awake after finding Pippa. But mostly he thought of Daisy, and Tess; work, and—

Miller. Had they decided on a time to meet for lunch? He remembered her slow grin, sleep-softened voice, and the way her curls brushed against his hand when he laid it on her shoulder—but he didn’t remember deciding on a time to meet.

So he slipped his mobile from his pocket. The sun had only just begun to squint above the endless horizon; he hoped he wouldn’t wake her.

‘Is noon alright for lunch?’

‘Perfect.’

****************************************************************************************************************

It was nearly six when he hung his coat on the rack in his office, and went to make toast in the kitchenette.

But the only bread was white, there was no margarine, and someone had left a passive-aggressive note explaining that they’d had enough of cleaning everyone else’s mess. He’d thought that was someone’s job. Didn’t know whose, but he didn’t care, because it didn’t change the fact that there were no clean knives, and the communal sponge was marinating in a bowl of oatmeal and spent coffee.

Maybe he could find a spoon or something…

“There’s been a call.”

He looked up from silverware divider he’d dumped on the dirty countertop.

“Sorry”, Nish mumbled, “it’s just I saw you come in, and thought you should know we got a call.”

“For CID?”

“It’s a reported theft, sir.”

Theft. Which meant it was just as likely to be a simple dispute with a quick resolution, as it was an actual crime scene with reportable damage and significant financial loss—meaning paperwork, interviews, time.

He stuffed his toast in a napkin. “Right: no time to waste. Tell me on the way.”

Chapter Text

It was half-six when they arrived at a dilapidated farmhouse on the outskirts of town, well-past seven o’clock before the complainant—one Mr. Norrell—had detailed his account of a stolen tractor over a cup of weak tea, and nearly eight when Alec and Nish started down the drive, toward the barn where the tractor was kept.

It was empty, of course, corroborating the man’s account of early-morning activity outside his home, and massive ruts marked the tractor’s path away from it.

Alec checked his watch again.

And once more before he trudged through thick, clay-colored muck in his pursuit. Wheat stubble caught in his trousers, pricked through his socks and scratched at his skin as he climbed a harvested rise, and spotted the tractor in the valley below.

"It's over here", he called to Nish. But when he made to turn, he must have miscalculated: the mud that squelched beneath his oxfords gave, and he made his descent through the claggy field on his arse.

It hurt, and by the time he’d staggered to his feet, his hair was slicked with grime, suit soiled, skin spattered, and he was sure he’d bruised from shin to sternum—but he supposed he was lucky: he’d got back up, after all. The tractor had sunk.

And it must’ve taken the joy-riders by surprise, because there was an open can of beer wedged between the seats, an abandoned rucksack—filled with more beer, and lessons on history, language, and maths—in the footwell.

He rubbed the crusted mud from the face of his watch: they’d close the case before the end of the day. But not before lunch.

‘Something’s come up’, he texted Miller, after setting the evidence bags in the backseat of the patrol car, and laying an empty one in the passenger seat to sit on.

‘Tell me at dinner?’, she suggested.

‘Aye. Dinner.’

But that was postponed, too.

He’d stopped checking his watch after that, so he wasn’t sure how late it was by the time he dragged himself through his front door, the last of his paperwork done. He’d showered earlier—couldn’t very well conduct interviews with mud sculpting his hair and padding his suit—so he stripped to his vest and pants and crumbled onto his bed, too exhausted to eat, or even pull the blanket from where he’d kicked it to the floor the night before.

****************************************************************************************************************

He woke up coughing, again. Made tea like he did every morning, then settled on his front steps to join the still of pre-dawn morning. He wouldn’t go in to work early, he decided.

He did it anyway.

“Hardy.”

He didn’t bother to set his things down before following Jenkinson’s voice to the kitchenette.

“I knew it was you”, she said, and she plunked a just-cleaned mug in front of him with a grin that was far too bright for Friday morning. “Take note, Detective: leadership means knowing when it’s your turn to wash the dishes.”

He turned the mug in his hands: still warm. He could almost smell a hint of remembered lavender.

“There’s tea in the pot”, Jenkinson added, pointing with a soapy rag down the spotless counter.

And as he made himself a cup, she finished washing.

“It’s not Glasgow, is it? Not Sandbrook, either. But just the same, the work we do matters.”

He nodded—slowly, because he couldn’t quite figure out where she was going with this, and it made him suspicious.

“Mr. Norrell was impressed with your work. Said he’d never known a ‘copper’ to go the extra mile for someone like him—but you did, he claimed, and through the mud, at that.”

He sipped his tea to avoid her gaze.

“I think he’s right: I’ve seen the pictures—”

Pictures?

“Nish”, she explained. “Don’t let Brian get ahold of them; you’ll never live it down, covered in mud like that.”

Shitface.

He sighed.

“You know, I had my doubts about you at first: ‘city cop’, and all that. But you never cease to prove me wrong. Well done, Detective. Excellent work.”

She smiled with far less ease than she had before. It was genuine, he was sure, but there was something else there: a hint of that same, strange expression from that day in his office. Still, he returned the gesture.

“Thank you, Ma’am.”

“No need. Follow up with Mr. Norrell, check in with Craig on committee progress, and then go home, Hardy.”

He went to meet Miller instead.

Chapter Text

Alec crossed his arms over the rail on the pier. The weather was bloody awful—dreich and cold, even for autumn—so the pier and shore were empty, but for the foam that rolled off sharp, grey waves. His fingers stung from the chill, and he wondered if, before he lost feeling in them completely, he should ask Miller to meet somewhere else.

Then he saw her. Wee Fred skipped and stumbled at her side, pink cheeks and sandy fingers, wet knees. And Miller, she moved like the water: smooth and strong, unerring as she crossed the sand and urged Fred onward. Her curls were wild in the wind that rippled off the sea and tugged her orange coat, stole her greeting—and his breath.

She grinned; he waved.

And Fred, once he’d climbed the wooden steps, toddled across the pier shouting “look!”, until his bright red wellies bumped Alec’s bull-polished oxfords.

He crouched, and his jacket skimmed the bloated boards beneath them as Fred blinked up, and pressed a sandy fist toward his button-downed chest in offering.

“What’ve you got, then?”, he asked.

Fred beamed—with a decidedly Miller-esque glint in his massive eyes—and slowly peeled his toty fingers back, revealing a single, brown periwinkle. The shell was empty, but still wet from the sea, and as he picked it from the boy’s open palm, Fred watched him carefully.

So he put it to his ear, raised his brows as if he were listening closely, then popped his lips in mock surprise. “Well done, lad, a fair find!”, he praised.

Fred bounced with pride as Miller, like the tide after the moon, swept up the steps and onto the pier behind him.

The wind pulled her curls across her face when she smiled—and all he could think was how still they’d been as she’d slept in that chair in her kitchen. How her lips had parted just slightly, her eyelashes fanned against her cheeks in perfect exhaustion. She’d looked so peaceful, beautiful. And even with the bitter chill blowing off the ocean, he could still feel the warmth of her skin beneath his fingers.

It was enough to make him shiver.

“Are you cold? How can you be cold? Aren’t you from Scotland?”, she asked, and she laughed.

He hoped it was because he’d pulled a face, and not because she’d noticed the warmth that crossed his cheeks and capped his ears. But maybe she had; maybe she’d thought he’d taken offense, rather than…

“We could go back to mine, if you’ve got time?”, she offered.

He rose. “Aye. Jenkinson’s let me off for the day.”

“A whole two hours before evening shift change? How generous of her.” She smirked, and wiggled her fingers toward Fred. “Let’s have another walk on the beach, eh?”

Fred raised his hands dutifully—one to Miller, one to him.

And when he didn’t take it, Fred wiggled his fingers, just as Miller had. “Beach, eh?”

“Aye, okay. Beach”, he agreed, and he closed Fred’s tiny hand within his own, focusing on the harmony their three sets of footsteps made as they crossed over sodden wood, then graveled sand.

It was easier to focus on that, than—

“Is takeaway okay?”, Miller asked.

Fred pulled them toward the foam of rising tide.

“It’s just Tom’s gone out with Olly…And I don’t feel like cooking”, she confessed.

“Takeaway’s—yeah. Good, fine.” He cringed, then tried to recover. “Thanks. For dinner, the other night.”

“’Course.”

“It was good—great, actually—really erm…” He cleared his throat.

“Is that why I caught you smiling into your bowl, ‘bout halfway through? You looked a bit daft, really. It was—”

She cleared her throat, too.

And for a moment, they both watched Fred, who jumped when a wave washed in, pulling up his legs so that he dangled between their arms, giggling.

“It’s Daisy’s favorite, chicken soup.”

“I’ll have to remember that, then. How's she liking uni?"

“Good—so far.”

“Has she made friends?”

He thought of Smug Bastard, kicked a rock, regretted it, then conceded: “aye. A few friends. Met ‘em on the first day.”

“Boys”, Miller deduced. The breeze took her hair from where she’d tucked it behind a reddened ear, and if not for Fred’s solid weight at the end of his arm, he thought he would’ve brushed it back into place.

“Boys”, he confirmed. And after a sigh, he added, “she’s a bit homesick, though.”

Miller looked thoughtful, but she didn’t comment. Instead, she lifted Fred in her arms so they could climb the rocky path from the beach to the field behind her house, in the growing twilight.

And once she'd let them in, he made tea while she ordered dinner, changed wee Fred, and offered the lad something he might actually eat. It was dark by the time they settled on the sofa, two cups of tea and the mystery case spread out before them; Fred beside them, playing happily.

“So, what’s your theory, then?”, Miller asked, wrapping her hands around her mug as she leaned back.

“Theory?”

She sipped, and nodded. “Well, it’s perfect, isn’t it?”

It was. Perfect and simple: a robbery gone bad, but not bad enough that the victim couldn’t give a first-hand account. Reports by the DI detailed the process of identifying and interviewing suspects, collecting evidence, considering motives, determining links… And all of it was so technically-proficient, so by-the-book, so perfect, he almost wondered if it was some sort of joke.

But of course he couldn’t admit that, because Miller’d only laugh at him for being such a cynic.

So he hedged: “it’s suspicious.”

“Insightful.”

“Well, let’s hear your theory, then.” He dropped the record he’d been holding, exchanged it for his mug with feigned impatience; her eyes lit like an arsonist’s dream.

“What if they’re in on it? The DI, I mean.”

“That’s what you’ve got to contribute to this investigation, Miller: conspiracy theories?”

“But you only stated the obvious; at least mine was an actual theory!” She screwed her face in the most winsome show of indignation; he smiled—and they both knew she was right.

“Unless there’s nothing amiss at all.”

Miller snorted, rolled her eyes, and rose at the knock on the door. “Yeah, right. Have you ever seen work so perfect before—apart from academy?”

And though she raised her brows like she’d just found incontrovertible evidence, the truth was, he had : Tess had always excelled at that type of thing. She’d never been the sort to sit with families in their grief, or simply listen to their pain when there was nothing more that she could do for them. But what she’d lacked in expressive compassion, she’d easily made up for in meticulous, dedicated efficiency. It was her way of caring—and she was bloody brilliant at it.

In fact, he’d always thought she should have got the job instead of him; always thought that she’d have made the better DI, that hers would be the career to make headlines, save lives, change the world.

But he’d been naïve. He’d been stupid. And maybe that was why he always said he’d taken the fall for Daisy’s sake alone: it was admirable, and more palatable than the truth. Because the truth was that he hadn’t sacrificed his career for his beautiful, innocent daughter—he’d sacrificed it for the woman he loved, because even after everything, he’d thought…

Didn’t matter; he’d thought a lot of things back then, and not many of them had turned out to make much sense.

“Are you alright?”, Miller asked. “You look like shit.”

“Thanks.”

“What have you eaten today?”

Had he eaten today?

She shoved a steaming tray into his hands, then disappeared to retrieve forks, refill mugs, grab napkins. And once she had, she reclaimed her place by his side. They didn’t talk while they ate, and he rather thought that the comfortable silence enhanced the sweet taste of curried mango, jasmine rice.

Miller set her tray aside once she’d finished, then stretched, and smiled at her sleepy weeun.

“Good job I fed him earlier”, she said, and when she stood, Fred blinked at her with heavy lids and glassy eyes.

He smiled as she scooped the lad up.

“I’m just gonna put him to bed”, she whispered.

And he gestured at the table, covered in trays and papers. “I’ll clean this up.”

At least, he’d meant to.

Instead, he woke up coughing. His neck ached—but even more than that, he ached for a fag and home. It was worse this morning, and the dark didn’t help, and he could practically smell Ellie, almost as if she’d—

A light switched on.

“Sorry, did I wake you?”

He groaned. “Miller?”

“I do live here, in case you’ve forgotten that along with your promise to clear the table.”

Useless sod he was. He sat up.

“Kink in your neck?”

“No.”

“Liar. D’you want a cup of chamomile?”

He scrubbed his face with a tingly hand, then tugged his tie off, shucked his jacket.

“Please”, he said, and when she’d set his mug on the table, he added, “sorry.”

“We’ll call it even”, she whispered. “Budge up.”

He’d barely managed to shift his leaden body before she sat, and pulled the sunrise-yellow afghan so it covered her lap just as well as his—which meant that they were close. Close enough that her body—pressed against his from folded knees, to hips, to shoulders—offered far more warmth than the blanket had.

“Or should I sit on top?”, she joked.

He knew what she meant, but even so, he rubbed his face again, and carded his fingers through his hair, and fretted with the buttons on his cuffs, his neck. “No, it’s—”

“Only kidding. You’re wearing an entire set of linens as it is. Don’t know how you managed to fall asleep in all that…”

And at a loss for coherent thought, he tried his tea. It didn’t wake him, though—at least, not enough. Because he could see the ocean breeze in her hair even then, as she fixed him with earthen eyes, her easy grin fading into something else when she asked:

“You still have the dreams, then?”

He ducked his head, and traced the rim of his mug with lagging fingers; he didn’t know she knew about that.

“We’ve slept together, remember?”, she teased, and when he sniffed, she laughed, then stilled. “You had them in hospital, too. How come you never talk about it?”

“About the dreams?”

“About the pacemaker. You could have said you were having surgery; I’d have gone, you know.”

He set his mug on the table, smoothed his hands down moonlit thighs, gripped his bony knees above the blanket.

And as he sat there, soaked in Miller’s warmth and soothed by her soft breaths, he realized that this time, there was nothing else to focus on: no cool concrete, no footsteps in the sand, no idle chatter—not even the distant 'hush' of the ocean to fill the empty space.

There were words, he knew. Words that could fill the space. He could apologize; he could thank her. He could joke or snap or gripe—about what, he didn’t know. But he could.

Or he could tell her the truth. He could tell her that he’d cried—sobbed—before the surgery, because he’d been scared. So bloody scared, and all alone.

And he could tell her how small he’d felt—all knobby knees and sunken ribs; gaunt and pale, with nothing more than the doctors’ pity to cover his broken heart as he laid there, on the cold metal table, all hooked up to lines and gas, and waiting to go under.

Waiting to die.

He could tell her how he’d wanted her, then: selfishly, and more than almost anything. How he’d wanted hers to be the hand that held his as he faded; hers to be the voice that promised he’d be back soon, and she’d be waiting; hers to be the fingers that wiped his shameless tears and stilled his trembling lips, and held him tight when he woke up, against all odds.

He knew there were words for that, words to sum it all up, words to answer her question as well as her confession—he just didn’t know what they were.

He’d never been good with words.

So he pried his fingers from his knee, and hoped they weren’t sweaty as he picked past trough and crest of knitted blanket. He stopped just shy of Miller’s hand, just far enough that he could brush his trembling fingers down her arm and past her wrist, over the rise of her knuckles and toward the hollows of her fingers, seeking—what? Permission, validation, comfort, home? He wasn’t sure. He just knew he wanted—

She rolled her hand under his, brought her palm up, and wove their fingers together like they’d done it a thousand times before.

He wanted that.

Chapter Text

Ellie wasn’t sure how long they sat there, on her old, beat-up sofa, silent. It was long enough, though, that she’d had time to notice how the moonlight caught the feeble wisps of steam rising from their mugs—which wasn’t so much a testament to the warmth of their tea, long-since abandoned, as it was to the nagging autumn chill.

Had it really been so long, since Danny?

A year.

More than a year.

And still, it made her shiver. ‘Cause even now, she could feel it: the sticky summer heat; suit plastered to her skin; the beads of sweat gathered in her just-washed hair—because of course she hadn’t showered after the flight. She’d done it in the morning, while Joe made breakfast: oatmeal, cooled and overly-sweet, and laced with the brine of sea.

No, that wasn’t right…

But it all sort of jumbled together, that day. Sometimes she couldn’t even separate the sound of Joe, laughing at the kitchen table as she left that morning, from Beth’s desperate pleas, inhuman wailing, as she thrashed and beat and kicked up sand.

Ellie remembered that—the painful bruises Beth left, the sun-baked sand spilling into her shoes. But she couldn’t remember much afterward, couldn’t remember Danny. There was just this vague impression, the feeling of…fear, maybe? Panic, dread, denial? She wasn’t sure.

Maybe it was a mercy. Finding Pippa haunted Hardy; she’d heard it in his voice that day they drove to Sandbrook.

But she was haunted, too. Because what she remembered most from that day wasn’t the image of Danny sprawled on the beach, or sitting in the Latimer’s living room, or even taking Mark to the morgue, like it should have been—it was the memory of stumbling.

That’s what she remembered most. ‘Cause she’d been born in Broadchurch, raised here. She’d been broken by the waves, and weathered by the sun, scarred by scraggly rocks, anointed with salt from the sea—and she’d run across that beach since before she could properly walk.

But that day, she’d stumbled.

And Alec Hardy’d turned.

She didn’t think she’d fallen in love at first sight, or anything so daft as that. But then, she wasn’t a little girl, and it didn’t take anything quite so grand as love to change her life—just a single thought: ‘isn’t he pretty?’

She’d fancied him, that’s all. And she’d felt so guilty for it, she’d told herself she’d make it up to Joe—so she overcompensated; she flirted hopelessly, rang home just to talk, told everyone how perfectly happy they were.

It wasn’t a lie, exactly.

But it wasn’t entirely true, either.

And it did nothing to change how she felt about Hardy—least, not like she’d hoped it would. For that matter, neither did late nights with him at the office. Should’ve been that his endless, brooding silence would’ve grated on her, but it didn’t. Days were filled with constant noise—lies, threats, grief, demands—such that those moments, marked by nothing but the tap of her fingers, the scratch of his pen, soft ‘huff’ of his sighs, were soothing.

His presence was soothing. Sometimes he’d bring her tea, after a particularly-tough call-out. Or he’d stand with her in the hall after a challenging interview, head dipped toward the floor, hers tipped to the sky, both slumped against the wall beyond the bullpen. And sometimes, after everyone else left, she’d find her way to his office.

They didn’t always talk. In fact, most of the time, they didn’t ; it wasn’t about that. Not on those awful days which brought her to his office, and not on the very worst day, which brought her to the Trader’s in the dead of night.

Empty branches creaked outside the window, sliced the moonlight into pieces; the bitter draught pulled at the waning tendrils of steam from their mugs.

A year, already.

Carefully, Ellie unlaced their fingers, shuffled closer to Hardy, and tugged the afghan tighter ‘round them. Not that she much needed it, once he wrapped his arms around her.

He’d held her then, too—that night in his hotel room—firm and close, and safe within the sanctuary of his body, safe from the hell she’d been dropped in. And god, she’d cried—and he never said a word to judge her, never tried to fix it, fix her. He’d just stayed with her, together, present as her life all burned to ashes at her feet.

And he never left; never asked anything in return.

He hadn’t even asked for her to go with him for his surgery.

Why?

Had he worried he’d bother her? Worried she couldn’t spare the time to wish him luck, to sit with him, to be there just in case—

She gulped a breath to steady herself, smoothed a shaking hand across his chest. Clumsy fingers caught the buttons of his oxford, passed the loose ends of his collar, stretched in the space below his left shoulder, splayed across his scar.

It wasn’t long, wasn’t large, wasn’t ticked with scabs or stitches... Just the same, her stomach dropped: hadn’t he been scared?

Hadn’t the doctors said that he might—?

Hadn’t he worried—?

And still—?

Sod being a ‘grown man’, sod ‘didn’t want to bother you’, sod his bloody stoic, brooding ‘bravery’ bullshit—he could have died.

Alone.

With no one to scream at the staff or cry; no one to kiss him goodbye before his warmth faded.

Why hadn’t he asked her?

She’d wanted to be with him.

She wanted to be with him.

She ducked her head, curled her fingers into his chest, drew a shuddering breath—and choked, when he tucked her closer. His hand closed gently over hers, then pressed it flat over his heart; he whispered…something. She didn’t know what; she couldn’t make out the words, just felt the way his lips moved against her temple, pausing only for the sake of dropping kisses to her hair.

She closed her eyes.

Chapter Text

Ellie woke when the ruddy glow of sunrise stained her dreams in rose. She didn’t get up, though; didn’t even open her eyes, ‘cause she wasn’t ready.

Not yet.

So she kept her eyes shut tight, and buried her face in Hardy’s chest: warm and safe and solid.

He sighed, and his hand curled deep in her hair. And as she lay there, soothed by the depth of his breaths, she counted his heartbeat.

One.

Two.

Three.

Four…

Rose became red became rust—and it was then that she opened her eyes; blinked into the sea of morning sun.

She shifted.

He mumbled.

And when he stilled, she loosed the blanket that’d bound them together, and peeled away from the warmth of his body—slowly. Carefully unknotting the fingers he’d laced in her hair, and guiding them so that they wouldn’t fall.

He hardly moved as she settled his hand beside the buttons on his wrinkled shirt.

She had to get up.

Make tea, breakfast, dress before Fred...

And yet.

Molten sunlight washed the carpet, traced the toes she’d dropped in compromise, and painted Hardy with perfect strokes of Broadchurch-orange. Deeper tones of sea-kissed sand etched shadows on his face; feathered gold, like sun-sparked foam, rolled softly past his brow, into his eyes.

Without a second thought, she combed it back, off his freckled face and past his temple. And as the last, brilliant strands slipped like sand between her fingers, she curled them ‘round his ear and followed the line of his jaw to his hopelessly-chapped lips.

Because of course he wouldn’t be the type to remember something as menial as lip balm.

She rolled her eyes and eased up off the sofa, straightened the blanket over Hardy. She was sure she had an extra tube of lip balm somewhere… bathroom, maybe?

She decided she’d check, once she’d made the tea and left it to steep.

But no sooner had she tossed a towel over the pot, then Fred called her attention.

****************************************************************************************************************

It seemed that having gone down quick after his night terrors had allowed him a good night’s sleep, because his smile was absolutely radiant when she entered his room. And it didn’t let up: he dribbled toothpaste on the bathroom floor in his dramatic reenactment of falling leaves, offered to help her wash her face—and even followed through, for a whole ten seconds, before scurrying out of the room to pick his clothes.

He chose a “yellow!” shirt—which he promptly put on backwards—and “bluuue” socks, with “spots?”.

“Good choice!” She tugged at his unruly hair while he struggled, tongue stuck out the corner of his mouth, to pull on his socks. “Are they rough, or soft, your socks?”

He swung his head back. “Soft!”

“They are, aren’t they?”, she laughed. “What else is soft?”

“Sand!”

“Like at the beach?”

He abandoned his second sock in favor of hopping to his feet, little arms whipping out like wings, with fingers wiggling—just like they had yesterday. “Beach, eh?”

She smiled, and caught his hands and squeezed them gently. And as she did, she thought of Hardy: the look on his face as they’d walked across the beach.

“Love. Put on your other sock, please.”

She pointed, and waited ‘til he’d dropped to his bum before she left to change.

Fred finished first.

And wiggled his way into her room, and begged—with big, doe-eyes—for ‘chocolate’ for breakfast.

He got toast, and yoghurt; water, not ‘juuuuuice’. And he seemed just as happy as if she’d complied with his requests, scooping little bits of bread into his bowl with delighted hums and slimy fingers, while she made her tea and settled at the table.

A little nervously, if she were honest.

What was she supposed to say?

She hadn’t quite figured it out before Hardy shuffled into her kitchen, a rumpled mess of a man.

And oh, she wanted to touch him: to straighten his collar and fix his buttons, to smooth the lines across his chest, and—

“Mornin’”, he drawled.

“Morning.”

He mussed the hair she’d tidied. “Sorry.”

‘Sorry’?

She blinked in place of the beats her heart forgot.

“For falling asleep on your sofa”, he clarified. “For forgetting the cleaning up.”

Oh.

“’S okay”, she answered, a little breathless from the sudden dizziness that took her. “Really, it’s… Tea. D’you want a cuppa?”

“Aye, I’ll take one—if it’s no trouble.”

“No, none, it’s—I made a pot.” She gestured stupidly, nearly knocking her mug in the process, then scooted her chair back.

But Hardy gave a quick touch to her shoulder. “Have your tea, Miller; I’ve got it.”

“Right.”

She didn’t dare watch him, so she listened as he ‘clinked’ through the cupboard, and rummaged through the fridge. And when at last he took the seat across from hers, he set his mug down first, then squinted through the hazy band of sunshine to pluck a piece of toast from the plate at the center of the table.

Lemon curd.

Fred watched him shamelessly, and Hardy—without a second’s hesitation—ripped his toast in half. He set a piece on the napkin scrunched below his mug; tore the other into bits, with practiced fingers.

A parent’s fingers: undeterred by sticky sweets and messes.

Fred even thanked him.

And Hardy smiled like it was nothing; like they did this every day; like it was normal.

“Hardy.”

He blinked his cider eyes over the rim of her favorite mug. “Miller.”

“Bonfire Night.”

“What about it?”

“It’s just—Beth. She and Mark, they’re having a do.”

His hair swooped across his face, scattered the autumn sun as he tipped his head in a blank stare.

You’re invited.

“Oh!” He scrunched his nose.

And set his mug beside his sticky, crumpled napkin.

And watched the window.

“Are you?”, he asked. “Going?”

“Was thinking, yeah.”

He nodded, and that was it—because before he’d got the chance to answer, his mobile buzzed.

He pushed his sleeve up to check the time. “I’ll erm—d’you want me to wash this?”

“What?”

“I’ve got to—”

Already?

“No. No, it’s just a mug; it’s fine.”

He set it in the sink, pushed in his chair, and collected his coat from where he’d hung it, on top of Tom’s old football shirt.

He paused with a hand on the doorknob. “Thanks, Miller. For breakfast.”

“Anytime.”

“I’d like that”, he confessed. And with a timid grin, he added “see you soon”, and let himself into the cool morning air.