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Better Than Before

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Hardy tore off his glasses and tossed them onto the haphazard stack of files heaped to his right. Before him, scattered across the tabletop, lay countless other papers, all awaiting his attention, but the words and figures had all started to blur, to blend into indecipherable scrawl.

Dropping his head into his hands, Hardy scrubbed hard, trying to coax his brain back into gear. When it refused to cooperate, he changed tactic, pinching the bridge of his nose between finger and thumb in an effort to combat the pressure building behind his eyes, the dull ache long experience told him would be a pounding throb before long. Propping his elbow on the table, he gave the mess of files a sneer before pressing his eyes closed.

They might have been out of sight, but they remained firmly in mind, a niggling taunt.

Suddenly, there were hands on his shoulders, jolting him from his torment with a start. But he knew those hands, and he immediately relaxed as clever, familiar fingers began to knead tense muscles. So distracted had he been, he hadn’t heard Paul arrive home, and only now did he realise it must be later than he’d thought.

Letting his head tip forward, he gave a quiet groan as strong thumbs worked the muscles at his nape, heard a soft chuckle in response.

“Bringing work home again?”

There was no censure in Paul’s tone, but Hardy felt guilty nonetheless. He’d hoped to be done with it all by the time Paul got back, but he hadn’t bargained on just how tedious and time consuming it would prove to be.

“Sorry.” Lifting his head again, he let it drop back against Paul’s tummy. “I’ll put it away.”

“No, it’s fine.” Paul gave his shoulders a gentle squeeze, fortifying. “You do what you need to do. I’ll be here when you’re done." He let his hands slide down Hardy’s chest as he bent forward, pressed a kiss to his crown. “Just don’t go giving yourself a headache.”

It was Hardy’s turn to snort a laugh, Paul reading him all too easily. Another kiss to the scruff at his jaw, then Paul straightened. Hardy caught his hand before it could slip away, tangling their fingers for a moment.

“Thank you.”

* * * *

It was no more than five minutes later that Hardy appeared in the lounge doorway. Paul had been watching the television, volume turned low so as not to disturb Hardy, but now he looked up with surprise.

“Finished already?”

Hardy shook his head, hitched a shrug. “It’s nothing that cannae wait ’til tomorrow. Right now I wantae be here.” His gaze found Paul’s from beneath the flop of his fringe, oddly bashful. “Wi’ you.”

He continued to hover in the doorway, as if there was a chance Paul was going to turn him away. Instead, his smile grew into a grin, and he swept an arm wide in invitation. Hardy accepted, sitting down beside him, Paul’s arm curling instantly around his shoulders. He’d spent far too many years letting work intrude on his home life, and it had only brought more misery down on him and his family. Paul understood the importance of the work he did, but Hardy was determined not to ever make him second choice.

“What’re you watching?”

Midsomer Murders.”


Paul laughed. “Oh, hush. I know how much you love ranting about how they’re getting it all wrong.”

Hardy grunted. It wasn’t a denial. He curled himself a little more against Paul’s side, let his cheek come to rest on a warm, jumper-clad shoulder.

“Have you eaten?” Paul asked, concern rather than accusation. Another example of how Paul had come to know him so well, but instead of condemning him for his faults, he looked for ways to help with the little things. It was more than Hardy deserved.

Hardy’s hesitation answered the question eloquently enough, but he made himself shake his head; he wasn’t going to hide or evade any more.

“I’ll make us some dinner.” Paul made to rise, but an arm sneaking around his waist held him in place.

“No’ yet,” Hardy grumbled, cuddling in a little closer. “At least wait until Barnaby has fumbled his way to an arrest.”

It was a fair compromise if it meant enjoying Alec’s softer side for a while longer. It showed itself more often now, but was still something of a revelation. Turning his head, Paul pressed his lips to Hardy’s temple, smiling at the huff he received even as the arm around him tucked itself a little tighter.