Actions

Work Header

Stranger Than Friction.

Chapter Text

The first time he sees her again, she smells different.

Sitting at the bar in the hotel, surrounded by the stench of lager and smothered by the omnipresent sea air, he shouldn't even notice, but he does. Because Ellie Miller is sliding on to the stool next to him, and she smells like oranges.

His copper's brain flips through details, memories, a case file assembled during two months of long nights and close, rumpled quarters. There, scrawled in the margins between the shirts she wears most often and the way she takes her tea, is the generic shampoo and washing powder smell of her, and it's nothing like this.

"Miller," he says, and then chases after it with a wince. "Or is it —?"

She shakes him off. "Still Miller," she says.

He wants to push it a little bit, and tries to tell himself it's for insight into victims and the grieving process, but it's not his job anymore, and the aftermath wasn't his strong suit even with a badge. It's more than that, concern or care, but he won't give it a name and he won't let himself ask.

She offers it up anyway. "I have two Miller boys," she says. "Didn't want it to seem like I was abandoning them."

If he takes a step back, if this were just a conversation on a regular day, about regular things, he'd ask another question, and he has a feeling Miller would appreciate that — normalcy, or his version of it.

"You didn't want to change theirs, too?"

His ex-wife couldn't file the paperwork fast enough, back to her maiden name for both herself and their daughter. Fresh starts and bullshit, piled on a lie.

Miller shakes her head. "No. It was — it seemed like a step backward, I just want to go forward."

It's spoken like a line from a handbook, some horrifying guidelines for dealing with this sort of thing, and he feels a flash of pride. Miller, and the strength she's always had. Miller, and the different sort of strength she's discovering.

"And yet you're back here?" His hand lifts in gesture at the bar, the hotel, the whole bloody town.

She shrugs, raising a finger toward Becca to order a pint. "You are, too."

He looks away in time to see Becca's eyes skitter back and forth between the two of them. Her face, though, is carefully neutral, sympathy masked by customer service and a living that depends, in part, on bypassing judgment and renting rooms instead.

It's been almost two months, almost as long as the case itself, and there's no use arguing it — he is back here, but it's not like he can explain it.

"Yeah," he confirms. "Relaxation in a seaside town, just what the doctor ordered." He taps at his chest, over his heart, but the movement feels disgusted, and it is. Disgusted that he can't fix himself, disgusted that it's keeping him from doing anything else either.

"The seaside town where you were assigned to a murder that your DS' husband committed," she says, and there's disgust in her, too, he can feel it. Hate yourself for long enough and it starts manifesting to the outside world.

She tips her head to the side briefly. "Sounds like a proper holiday. Well done, Hardy. You'll be back on your death bed in no time."

His eyebrows raise as he tries to parse through her voice. There's a vein of something running right through it, the old Ellie Miller, teasing him like he wasn't in on the joke, even if he feels — he hopes — they both knew he was.

"Well, that's the goal, isn't it? Life gone to shit, so you work yourself into the ground?"

Miller winces, and he wants to smack himself for being such a bastard.

"I didn't mean..." he tries to recover. "I meant me."

She nods, as Becca sets down a pint in front of each of them. He probably shouldn't drink it, should keep nursing the club soda that tastes like ash sitting in front of him, but it's been two months of very few flare ups, two months where the only stress in his life was that there wasn't any.

"I know what you meant," Miller says, and he lifts his pint.

She moves to clink her glass against his.

"Here's to the second meeting of the former detectives club," she says.

They both take a long drink, and it tastes like it should, like cold lager next to a mate, and he lets himself remember what that's like for only a moment.

"Still former, then? Thought you might have gone back," he says. "You didn't do anything wrong, the leave was just...it was..."

She sets her glass back down, twisting it a few times on the bar top. "I know what it was," she says. "But I can't go back there. Some detective I was, couldn't even find the murderer lying next to me. This town — it's not going to trust me after that. I don't trust me."

His hand tightens uselessly around his glass, they've had this conversation before, and he has a feeling she's had it with herself a million times since.

"The clues weren't there, Miller," he says, pausing to string the next bit together carefully. "And I trust you."

She exhales on a short laugh. "Wonderful," she says. "Do you have a job for me? Some sort of nursemaid? Give you your pills and check your temperature?"

He sidesteps the comment. If it makes her feel better to lash out, he'll certainly let her, but he doesn't need to paint himself up as a target just yet.

"What are you doing back, Miller?"

She shrugs. "You were right, my life is here. And Tom — Tom wants to stay. This week anyway. Last week, he wanted to stay in London. The week before that he wanted to move to America. I can't...how can I tell him no? He lost his best mate and his dad in a matter of months."

Hardy nods, the rhythm of the words like she's thought all this through countless times, like she's been waiting for someone to say them to.

"We're staying here for a bit, in the hotel. He's back in school. If he makes up his mind, we'll, I don't know, buy a new house, make new friends."

She turns to look at him. "What are you doing back?"

He shrugs, because he doesn't actually know, because he's been asking himself the same question since he got his room key this morning.

"My daughter..." Miller's eyebrows lift in surprise and he nods, confirming she heard him right. The story's been out for a month now, and there's no way she hasn't read it, no way she doesn't know about his family, but clearly she didn't expect him to address it.

He continues, "She still needs some time. Said I shouldn't have kept it from her in the first place. Things are...difficult."

Miller nods. "Sorry about your wife," she says, voice sympathetic, like those tiny flashes during the case when they were human to each other. Or, well, she was always human, wasn't she? It was him and his misery, and now he's got a part to play, and the least he can do is play it.

"Sorry about your husband," he parrots back, even if it's not the same.

"Yeah," she says, and takes another sip of her beer.

He follows along, matching her sip for sip, silence and survivor's guilt dancing through the air with the dust particles.

"How's your heart?" She finally asks.

"Beating," he says, something like warmth spreading in his veins when she gives him a half smile in response.

They've criss-crossed the same tired territory twice now, and he sees it laid out in front of him — they'll finish their drinks, go their separate ways, maybe see each other around town sometimes. But that still-beating heart of his could use a friend, and for reasons he can't explain, it's picked out Miller. Maybe he does have a job for her after all, mate to a miserable ex-copper with a bum ticker. Or maybe it's her that needs a friend, and him that's got a new job. Either way, the words tumble out.

"Do you wanna —"

She looks up. "What?"

"I don't know, Miller," he sounds exasperated, he feels exasperated. "Eat? Or something? What is it you said people do?"

She smiles, and it makes him sit up straighter.

"Are we still people?"

His posture deflates again. "Never mind, forget it, it was —"

She cuts him off, "Let's eat. Dinner, tonight. Only, I'll have the boys again, my sister's watching Fred now, but Tom'll be out of school by then, and..."

"It's fine," he says.

They exchange room numbers, and Hardy can't decide how he feels when they discover they're only across the hall from each other. It makes him wonder who checked in first, and it makes the slightly less neutral way Becca has begun watching them seem all the more suspect.

Regardless, he makes plans to stop over that evening, and they'll let Tom pick the place.

&&.

It's a small town and they're living in an even smaller version of it, the circle of people who don't blame Miller — who don't blame Ellie — and the circle of people that don't dislike him, too, intersecting and carving up the streets. Pockets of safety and pockets of risk, and they get dinner at a chippy just down the block from the hotel.

His wallet is out and he's paid for all of them before he can stop and examine the impulse to do it.

Miller gives him a look, nose faintly scrunched, and eyes squinting, and that alone is worth the cost of dinner for four. He's not quite used to the idea of a friend again, but he's sure you're supposed to entertain them, and Miller, above everything else, definitely looks entertained.

Confused, but entertained.

It lasts all the way until they're seated at a booth in the back, Fred buckled into a high chair at the head of the table, and Miller and Tom across from Hardy.

If he's going to eat a meal like this, he might as well embrace it, and he grabs the vinegar to shake out over his chips. Tom looks annoyed with him as he's doing it, and it's so familiar, so eerily familiar, every non-adult in his life constantly annoyed with him (and more than half of the adults, too), that he has to laugh.

"Would you like the vinegar, Tom?" He exaggerates the sentence, syrupy and obnoxious, and Tom's eyes widen at being caught out.

"Yeah," Tom says and Miller cuts him a look, the same one Hardy himself has been on the receiving end of. "Please," he adds.

Hardy hands it over with a dose of sympathy.

There's supposed to be conversation, he's sure of that much, but he can't settle on a topic. Everything he thinks up seems wrapped in explosives, just one wrong turn into uncomfortable at best, and emotionally devastating at worst. It's a lot of work, minding other people's feelings, and he's out of practice at it. He could be there for Miller in the moment, when there was no time to mind the bad habits he'd formed, left only to run on the impulse to comfort her, but now, with a bit of distance, he's floundering.

He looks at Fred at the head of the table, happily smashing chips in his chubby baby fingers. "Does that one talk yet?" He says, gesturing at the boy.

Miller stares at him, the sort of unbelieving, aghast amusement he'd gotten used to unfolding across her face. There, now, that's a bit of a step in the right direction.

"He'll babble," Miller says. "Sometimes repeat things. Try, Fred, say 'Hardy. Say Har-dy.'"

Fred stops his chip smashing, staring at his mother for only a moment before returning to it.

Tom jumps in. "That's not your real name though, is it? It's Alec, I read it online."

Before Miller can ask the question plainly on her lips, the one that probably has to do with why Tom's looking up that sort of stuff in the first place, and before he can correct Tom that he prefers Hardy, Tom's leaning across the table. He pulls the mangled potatoes from Fred's hands gently, getting the baby's attention.

"Freddy, say 'Alec,' go 'Alec! Alec!'"

Fred's still staring at the potatoes in his brother's hand, but opens his mouth all the same.

"Alec!" It's missing most of the consonant at the end, swallowed up like oatmeal in a numb mouth, but it's a valiant effort for a baby, and he seems delighted with himself, repeating it immediately. "Alec!"

Miller's laugh rings clear through the entire shop, and even Tom's smiling, as Hardy drops his head into his hands on the table.

"Fantastic," he groans, lifting his head back up. "Thanks for that, Tom."

Miller's laugh tapers into a snicker, as she nudges Tom and nods in approval.

It's easier after that, when he remembers that sometimes jokes can just be for fun, that there was a time in his life when he wasn't so serious.

He doesn't smile, not exactly, but watching Miller as a mum, outside the limits of a police investigation, it's nice, and he takes it in.

There's Tom talking about going out for the football team, the year round one that travels. There's Miller snatching a chip from his plate and trying to get Fred to try one with vinegar. There's even him, right in the middle, a story of how one of the first words his daughter could say clearly was, "bloody."

Bloody dada, bloody nappy, bloody biscuit, repeated and reinforced with loads of laughter from his wife.

He was happy once, and it doesn't hurt to remember that, too, at least not as much as it used to.

They pack it in shortly after, Miller handing off Fred to him as she moves to throw away the rubbish. Fred swipes a hand, a greasy, dirty hand across Hardy's face, giggling at the feel of stubble as he does it again and again.

Hardy doesn't smile, not yet, but when Fred presses his head to scratch against the stubble this time, his lips turn up, buried in the boy's hair.

&&.

He's not used to free time, and apparently Miller isn't either.

He sees her every morning for a week at the coffee shop down the street from the hotel, and it's only a moment's hesitation on that very first day before he joins her.

Sometimes Fred is with her, sometimes he's not, and he finds out she's enrolled him in daycare, but can't always bring herself to take him.

On Friday, he beats her there, making sure to get the table they keep sitting at, and dragging over a high chair just in case.

Fred isn't with her today, but she's clutching a thick stack of paperwork, and looking anxious.

He points at the cup of tea he'd already purchased for her and she collapses in the seat across from him, looking grateful as she shoves the papers aside and takes a long sip.

"What's all this?"

Miller sets the cup down, looking at the papers like they might spit on her.

"A panic attack," she says, and he lifts his eyebrows in sympathy.

"Do you want me to have a look?" He moves the top of the pile so he can read it.

There's a court case coming up, but the papers are something different, finances and forms, and, oh, Ellie.

"I'm gonna need a job again soon," she says, still eyeing the mess warily. "And Tom wants to stay, said so this morning, so we'll need a place to live. And then there's —"

He cuts her off, the way she's winding herself up already apparent.

"Miller."

Her eyes snap to his.

"One step at a time, eh? Let's go through this."

They spend most of the morning in a blizzard of red tape and numbers, but by the end of it, they've established a nice, tidy schedule for everything.

Two more weeks, at most, for the Miller family in the hotel, then into a rental property while they sell the old house. There's a brief conversation about moving back into it, but it ends with Miller's jaw clamped shut tightly, and Hardy's eyes darting away for a good look at the rest of the customers.

If she goes back to having an income by the time a month has passed, she should be able all right.

He needs to figure out his own situation, but there are fewer variables, and it's easier to keep his head down and focused on this instead.

At the same time, it's incredibly personal, the closed door business of someone else's life laid bare on a coffee shop table.

He's not sure what they're doing, what they're playing at with all this, but he does know, when he's not with her, his eyes fixate on orange windbreakers.

&&.

It's Saturday afternoon when he opens the door to his hotel room to see her again, standing behind Tom in the hallway. 

There'd been a knock moments ago, breaking him out of the staring at his phone he'd spent the last hour doing. A text from his daughter had chimed around lunch, a picture of a half-built science fair project lying on a kitchen table he remembers buying.

There'd been no words, no context, and he'd run himself in circles about it. Was it a mistake? Was he supposed to be encouraging? Helpful? Couldn't she have gotten in the picture herself? Surely his ex-wife is somewhere and could've taken the photo.

He'd settled on: 'Looks good xoxo' after 20 minutes, sent it after another 10, and spent the remaining half hour trying to will a response into existence.

But now there's Tom, standing in his doorway, shuffling his feet and holding a football under one arm.

"Hello," Tom says, and turns back to Miller with pleading eyes, mouthing something Hardy can't make out. Miller shakes her head and points at Hardy, urging Tom to do...something.

"Hello, Tom," Hardy says, trying to ease him into it.

"Hello," Tom says again. "I mean, I have to practice," he holds up the football, "But I don't want anyone to know I'm practicing. I just want to show up at the try outs and be really good, you know?"

Hardy lifts his eyes to Miller, eyebrows raised — is he supposed to be able to make sense of that? — but Miller just shakes her head and nods at Tom.

"Right," Hardy says. "You have to practice. Did you want to do it in here? Because my room is any bigger than yours, and it seems like it's a nice day outside."

Tom's trainer twists into the carpeting, getting increasingly irritated at not being understood.

"No, I need a defender," he says. "And Mum's rubbish at football, plus Fred just gets in the way. Do you want to — do you want to play?" He holds up the football in front of him.

Behind Tom, Miller smiles, and he's agreed before he can stop himself.

&&.

It's a long walk to the area Tom wants to practice in, and Hardy doesn't question it, following along as Miller pushes Fred in a buggy and Tom skateboards alongside them. It is a nice day, sunny and warmer than it should be this of year, and he can't remember a time when he was outside to enjoy the weather just for the sake of it.

There's a bit of teasing from Miller about the t-shirt Hardy's wearing. It's dark green, and without a logo or adornment, but apparently the fact that it's not collared is enough to get her laughing.

"You have a neck!" She crows, "There's not just a void where your tie ought to go! And jeans, too! You look like a...like a..."

He raises his eyebrows, curious to see where this sentence is going.

"Well, I don't know what you look like, but it's definitely a switch."

He's sure she could've come up with a hundred words for what he looks like — actually human, ridiculous, a bit too skinny, but there's something to the conversations they've been having lately, something there'd been glimpses of months ago, during late nights in the break room. It's civil and friendly and teasing and he wants so much more of it.

"What about you? Finally took that orange jacket off, might not mistake you for a traffic cone anymore. How ever will I know when to merge?"

He points at the yellow shirt she's wearing. "At least I'll still know when to yield."

It's nice, actually, the yellow shirt she's wearing, and he lets himself think about it while Miller jogs ahead to catch Tom, who's skateboarded farther ahead of them.

It's made of something vaguely clingy, and really is properly, brightly yellow — it makes her look healthy. It makes her look pretty, too, or, well, really hammers home that she is pretty. Something he's been doing his best to ignore. Ellie Miller in her clingy yellow shirt, smelling of oranges, and being pretty.

Because that's the last thing he needs.

And the last thing she needs.

And he certainly doesn't spend any time at all thinking more about it as she chases Fred around the grass at the park, as she laughs at Hardy when he falls diving to save a goal, as she squints into the sun and smiles.

Except he does.

&&.

Sunday night, and he's somehow been roped into dinner at Miller's sister's house.

He's not even sure how it happened really, one minute he'd been heading downstairs for some dinner at the hotel, and the next he was being dragged from the hotel by the arm, Miller's hand warm through the material of his (collared, again) shirt.

"I can't be the only person you talk to, Hardy," Miller's saying, as she unlocks the car and bundles Fred into his car seat, Tom piling in next to it.

"You're hardly the only person I talk to," Hardy grumbles, tucking himself into the passenger seat anyway. "There's Tom." He gestures at the backseat, where Tom is already thumbing at his mobile, completely disinterested in their conversation. "And Fred, talk to Fred, don't I? Fred, say 'Alec."

Miller finishes with the buckles on the car seat in time for Fred to screech in her ear, "Alec!"

"See?" Hardy nods as Miller makes her way to the driver's seat.

She starts the car and manuevers into traffic, picking the thread right back up.

"Talking to different members of the Miller family doesn't count. We're all one unit," she says, and then her face clouds over. They're doing a bang up job of not speaking about Joe, and Hardy's following Miller's own lead on it most of the time.

He waits a moment to see if she'll pursue it this time, and when she doesn't, he dives back in.

"And Becca Fisher," he says. "I talk to Becca Fisher."

Miller's eyes dart sideways, lingering longer than he would like for someone driving a car, but traffic is light.

"Do you?" She draws the question out, implications hanging in the air.

"Oh, come off it," he says. "Not like that. For...hotel stuff. Telly's broken, hot water's gone. You — you talk to Becca Fisher, too, I know you do."

Miller shrugs and nods, exagerrated and smirking. "Of course I do," she says. "But she's never been my wife."

Hardy scrubs at the back of his neck. "You heard about that then? This bloody town! You know there are — privacy laws and, and, and propriety!"

Miller laughs. "In Broadchurch? Come on now, you've been here long enough to know that's not true."

He grunts in acknowledgment, watching the road for a few quiet moments before Miller speaks again.

"Heard about that one months ago," she says. "But I may have heard about something else recently...Something around the same time? With the same woman?"

Hardy's stomach drops to floor, the back of his neck going hot. No, she couldn't be talking about — Becca wouldn't have said — no. No, no.

No.

Miller's eyes cut back to him and he tries to reign in all the physical signs of his discomfort, but it's no use, she's seen.

"Why, DI Hardy, did you try to pull the proprietor of our very own Broadchurch hotel?"

He shrinks back into his seat, making a smaller target of himself, and if his heart's been good lately, it's making up for it now, embarrassment thick as it rushes through his veins.

She smacks the steering wheel. "You did, didn't you? Ha!"

Hardy shoves his face into his hands, muffling the words with his fingers. "I can't believe she told you."

Miller stops behind a line of cars queued at a light, turning to face Hardy more fully.

"A couple of days ago," Miller says. "More of a laugh than anything, I don't think she meant anything by it."

Hardy rolls his eyes. "Fantastic."

The light has changed and Miller accelerates, turning away from him again.

"It's fine, don't worry about it," she says. "Wasn't even sure you had those sorts of impulses, actually. Well done you on hiding them so well."

Somehow that's worse than any of it, that he's apparently walking around like some sort of metaphorical eunuch. So much so that Miller can't even imagine he has a sex drive.

He shifts in his seat, until nearly his entire body is facing her.

"I do," he says, quiet and low and more than a little irritated.  

"Oh," she says.

And they spend the rest of the drive in silence.

&&.

Dinner at Miller's sister's house is even more interminable than the car ride to get there, which is saying something.

But here, there's more people, and there's all sorts of nervous glances between everyone, there's a roast that's far too dry, and wine that inexplicably tastes like plastic.

Olly keeps looking at him and Miller like he's thinking of starting a gossip column, eyes carefully trained on the placement of their hands, and bloody journalists, always picking up on things that aren't even there.

Much. That aren't even there much. Because now that he knows it's in question, he's certainly not going to deny the existence of his sex drive to himself.

"I was surprised to see you back here, DI Hardy," Lucy says. "When that story came out," she pauses to look at Olly with a smile, "I thought you might be back on the force in a bigger city somewhere. Exonerrated and all that."

He reaches for his wine, taking a large sip, plastic taste or not. "It's just Hardy now. I''ve got some medical...challenges. The brass don't like those."

Fred chooses that moment to let out a very high-pitched squeal, for no reason at all.

Hardy couldn't be more grateful.

&&.

The next week passes like the week before it, meetings at the coffee shop, idle banter and idle silences.

This time Miller comes equipped with the rental listings and they spend the early afternoons walking and driving the town to check them out.

There's a two level house that backs up to one of the cliffs and it's the best thing they've seen —choices are limited in a town this size — but it's out of Miller's price range.

The second floor is more of a finished attic. There's a bathroom, a bedroom, and a small living space, but it's enough to knock the cost up into unmanagable.

"Maybe you could get a flatmate or something," Hardy says as they drive by it again. It's far enough from the center of town that it feels untouched, fresh air and grass, and he understands why she likes it. Even if the sound of the waves is making him a little mental.

Miller eyes him from the driver's seat. "Maybe," she says, pausing. "How much do you think it would be, that top floor?"

Hardy shrugs. "400 quid? 350? Miller, I haven't the faintest idea."

She turns away from the house, Tom will be getting off of school soon, and Miller usually meets him.

"Do you think it would be less than staying in a hotel for a month?" She asks, and why is she looking at him like that?

He nods. "We've been over this, you've only got one more week in the hotel, you've got to find a place."

She's still looking at him, and it unnerves him, the way she doesn't mind taking her eyes from the road. His ex-wife used to do that and it drove him spare every time.

"I know," she says. "Wasn't talking about me."

"Well, who were you talking abou— oh, no. Miller, no, no, no. You don't want to live with me, I'm...I'm a mess."

She shakes her head. "You're not, I've seen your hotel room. Not so bad, just a little clutter."

There's something warring in him, things that think it would be a bad idea, and things that think it would be a brilliant one, and he can't figure out what to give voice to.

How did he even end up here? Him, Alec Hardy, a conversation away from playing house with his DS.

Again.

"I don't even know if I'm staying," he says.

"You don't know that you're not," she shoots back. "What's the harm in taking it month by month, instead of weekly?"

He tries again. "I don't even have a job."

"Neither do I."

They sign the papers the next week. 

&&.

tbc.

Chapter Text

He doesn't have much stuff, most of it got left in his old house, the one his ex-wife and his daughter still live in, and it suits him just fine, slotting into this place like it's an extended-stay hotel. 

Because this is all just temporary, that's what he keeps telling himself. Miller is still, understandably, in some sort of grieving period, and he...he's trying to stay alive. 

But he's not lived with anyone in years now, and it's an adjustment, seeing Miller in the kitchen, hearing a baby crying at two in the morning. There are television programs he would never have picked, and meals he never eats entirely alone anymore. 

There's Miller, smelling like oranges, and he knows why now, has used the loo on the first floor and seen the citrus bath products lining the shower shelves, in nearly new bottles. And when he thinks about it, leading Joe to the station, he'd smelled like Miller used to, or Miller had smelled like him, and there's a story there, a thousand stories, little adjustments she's had to make, or wanted to make, and he can't possibly imagine all of them. 

It's disconcerting, thinking about all of it. When she leaves half-empty cups of water on every single table, he finds himself wondering if that drove Joe mental, and whether bringing it up, after accidentally knocking over his fifth one that week, will set off some sort of emotional trauma. 

Instead he keeps his mouth shut and tries not to wonder if, to her, those cups are half full

They probably used to be. 

&&.

The first time someone mistakes him for Tom’s dad is an overcast Tuesday. 

They’ve been living together for six weeks, both working on a contract with the police force that he knows they were offered more out of respect for Miller than himself. 

It’s mostly formulaic work, digitizing the department’s old files and creating a smarter, searchable database. 

On its best days, it’s good for keeping them both sharp — picking up relevant notes in case files, deciding what to index, and what to discard. It’s a bit like working a case as a researcher, only the cases are sometimes half a century old. 

On its worst days, it’s a reminder that what happened to the woman sitting next to him, perched on a box of printer paper, is the most horrific thing the town has ever seen. 

But it pays their rent and buys them food, and he was able to do it right through the recovery of his pacemaker surgery. 

It had been only a fortnight in the new house when he’d collapsed changing a lightbulb. He’d woken up in hospital, Miller at his side, mobile clutched in her hand. She’d played a voicemail from his daughter, asking him to get the surgery. When it ended, Miller had looked at him with steel in her eyes, and asked if she should play it again. 

He’d gotten the surgery the next day. 

The wound is healed now, the weight in his chest barely noticeable, and he’d spent the afternoon today getting cleared for physical activity. Miller was still at the station, Freddy over his aunt’s house, and Hardy had volunteered to get Tom from school. 

He’s idling the car in the pick-up lane when a ginger bloke with broad shoulders knocks on the window. 

“Excuse me,” the man says, his voice muted through the glass. 

Hardy rolls the window down cautiously, all of his senses on alert, still, always. The bloke looks familiar, but he can’t quite place him. “Yeah?”

“Will Tom be playing in the tournament in Brighton this weekend?” 

“Um…what?”

The bloke laughs, sticking his big, meaty hand through the open window. “Sorry, sorry, I’m Coach Howard, or, well, Mr. Howard until the bell rings. I coach the Sharks.”

Recognition dawns and Hardy shakes his hand, uneasy with Howard’s…affable-ness. “Right.”

“Anyway,” Howard says. “Tom’s our best forward, we could really use him. I know he’s not been allowed to travel with the team yet, but I thought…”

The bloke trails off, clearly waiting for Hardy to say something. 

“You thought what?”

Howard shrugs, laughs a little, like they’re mates or something. Not bloody likely. “Well, I thought, you know how mums get, all overprotective, thought I’d appeal to Dad.”

His heart stumbles, prodded back on path quickly, but it’s enough to leave him feeling short of breath, unable to speak.

“Your boy’s a real football star,” Howard says.

Before Hardy’s tongue can swell back down to normal size, the boy himself is running out of the school gate.

Howard turns to him with a broad smile. “Tommy! Looking forward to seeing you in Brighton this weekend, eh?” He shoots Hardy a wink. “Talk it over with the missus.”

Tom slides into the passenger seat, buckling in quickly, eyes fixed straight ahead. 

With a half-hearted wave toward Howard, Hardy puts the car in motion, maneuvering back onto the road. 

“Is that your coach?” he finally says.

“Yeah.”

“Is he new in town?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you want to go to Brighton?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll talk to your mum.”

“Thanks.”

&&.

Getting Miller to agree to let Tom go is challenging, but she eventually relents, and they drop Tom off together before the sun’s even risen Saturday morning. 

What’s more challenging is the light the conversation casts on this weird, ersatz marriage they’ve found themselves in. He's good at assessing situations from the outside, and from the outside, all piled into the car like this, they look like a family. 

But they’re not in a marriage and they’re not a family.

It feels like they're a table missing a leg, leaning precariously as they try to cobble together the final piece -- the label that holds it together. He wouldn't have thought he'd need it, used to dealing in murky waters, but without something to call it, he's having a hard time tailoring his behavior.

Friends, former coworkers, potential romantic partners, he can't get his footing, and nothing seems to fit.

Certainly they're mates by this point, were probably mates months ago, solidified in an interrogation room, or a hotel room, or a seaside bench -- actions and a script he wouldn't follow if they weren't. No businesslike distance, no sense of decorum, just a person he'd grown to like, in need of comfort.

But it doesn't seem right to call it that, or just that, and it doesn't seem right to dismiss everything around it either. He doesn't want to romance her, not exactly, but only because he doesn't want to romance anyone. He enjoys her company though, and he's certainly thought about shagging her.

Actually, he thinks he might want to shag her.

And that, the wanting, is the biggest challenge of all. 

&&.

Fred’s asleep by half past 7 that night, but not before wreaking a suitable amount of havoc. There’s a milk spill on the far end of the sofa, a Timmy Time episode Hardy’s already somehow seen four times, and a thoroughly put-out-looking Miller as Fred reaches his little chubby arms to Hardy for the trip to his cot.

It’s not entirely surprising, in that he’d already spent part of the evening drowsing on Hardy’s chest, his round face nuzzling into the white cotton of Hardy’s t-shirt — 

(he’d taken his jumper off because he was hot, not because he thought it might be scratchy to the boy…is exactly what he’d insist to anyone who asked.)

— but it’s obvious by the way Miller sets her shoulders and brushes a kiss and her hand over Fred’s hair that she’s straining not to sweep the boy from Hardy’s arms and cuddle him close. 

“If you’re sure you don’t mind,” she says. 

“It’s no trouble.” He keeps his voice low, quiet, swaying side-to-side and stroking his hand down Fred’s back. 

The fabric of the boy’s pajamas is pilling slightly, and he wonders if they’d been Tom’s or if they’d been bought new. There’s a rubber bin in the cupboard under the stairs, full of things Fred’s already outgrown, and he can imagine a time when that bin would have been earmarked for the Latimers as soon as Beth started to show. Some distant part of him hopes it still will be, that maybe Miller can get that back someday, however unlikely. 

“All right, well…you’ll have to turn his monitor on, and make sure the curtains are shut. I always put him down on his back, he’ll roll right away, but —”

Miller,” he says, cutting her off. “You can come with.”

“Oh. Oh, right, yeah.” She nods and gestures for Hardy to precede her down the hallway, following as he does.

He walks carefully, shouldering open the door to the nursery and suppressing a smile when Miller bustles by him. She smoothes her hand down the sheet in Fred’s cot, plumps the pillow in the rocking chair, straightens the curtains — a gauntlet of unnecessary tasks clearly designed to make her feel useful. 

When he moves to set Fred in the cot, she’s right at his side, hands coming up in fits and starts as if making to take over. He pretends to stumble, raising his arms like he’s going to end up flinging Fred across the room, and laughing to himself when it makes Miller flail. 

“I have done this before, you know,” he says, voice low, as he situates Fred on the mattress, allowing himself to brush a lock of hair out of the boy’s face. 

He reaches to switch on the monitor and then turns back to where Miller is standing over the cot, staring down at the slumbering Fred. 

“I know,” she finally says. “Just sort of…prepared myself for doing everything alone.”

Her hands grip the rail of the cot, fingers tense around it, and he stands next to her, mirroring her position.

“I know,” he says, echoing her words. “I’m here for now though, and I don’t mind.”

She snorts a breath, but there’s no heat behind it, and he lets it go. 

“Anyway, thanks,” she says. She sweeps the pinky finger of the hand nearest him out, nudging his thumb.  

“Miller, honestly, it was carrying him fifteen feet, I hardly — ”

She cuts him off by placing her hand over top of his where it rests on the rail. 

No,” she says. “Thank. You.” Her hand squeezes his twice, in time with the words. 

“Yeah,” he says.

They stand like that a few moments more, her hand over his, in the dark of the nursery. Fred’s breathing is soft and rhythmic, matched by the rise and fall of his chest, and the space between them — around them — feels intimate. 

When he looks at her, from the corner of his eye, he can see her gaze skitter back to Fred, and it occurs to him for all the thought he’s given to his own…feelings…he hasn’t thought much about hers. 

Does she have…feelings? Or is he being presumptuous? That’s pretty typical him — presumption. Or, well, outside of work; he’s better at work. 

But in his personal life — presumption, misreading signals, making a knob of himself, those are all things he’s brilliant at. 

He looks once more, as if suddenly she’ll have it painted up across her face. It’s happened before, on cases — confessions writ clear as day. 

Not in this town though, and when he sees her face, it’s the same one he’s been passing each morning in the kitchen. 

And it’s looking right at him.

He can’t look away now, it’ll be obvious that he’s uncomfortable, and for whatever fucked up read he has on their situation in his head, one thing has been clear from the start — it’s his job to be a person that doesn’t treat her like a leper. 

He holds her gaze, trying to remember what his tells are, the things his ex-wife used to tease him about, but he licks his lips before he remembers any. 

It could just be that his lips are dry, that’s…reasonable. And just last week Fred had come down with a cough and Miller had mentioned the humidifier in here was broken. Without a humidifier, he can hardly be expected not to lick his lips, it’d be suspicious if he hadn’t, and oh, for fuck’s sake, why is he always so bloody terrible with women? 

Miller smiles, that soft little laughing smile that’s different from the ones she used to give him. Fonder now, somehow. “Something troubling you?”

“What?”

“You’ve got that face on, the one like you’re confused by societal norm—” her gaze snaps down to where her hand is resting over his and she seems to panic for a moment before snatching it back. 

“I, um…” She brushes a quick final pass over Fred’s head and then flutters out of the room in a bubble of movement. 

He follows, just in time to see her standing at her bedroom door, hand on the knob as she mutters to herself. She catches his eye for a second and opens her mouth, like she’s going to say something, but instead she shakes her head and opens the door. 

She ducks into her room and he lingers, curious to see if she’ll change her mind, but instead of exiting back into the hall, she shuts the door, the sound discordant and loud. 

Scrubbing a hand down his face, he heads toward the stairs and his own room. Maybe he’ll put on some pajamas, make a snack. If there’s something else to be said for finally getting his heart fixed, beyond eradicating the omnipresent fear of death, it’s that he can finally stop eating like a bloody goldfish. 

&&.

When he makes it back downstairs, the house is still quiet, and for the first time since moving in, he can hear the squeak of the floorboards under his bare feet. 

There’s a light on out the back door, over the patio, and that, too, is a first, and surprising enough that he goes to investigate.

The door is half window and instead of opening it, he moves aside the curtain, half-heartedly wondering when Miller found the motivation to put up door curtains. It’s not really that surprising, but feeling the slightest bit exasperated by her is a good, safe space for him. 

Much safer than the thing his heart does when he catches sight of her out the window, orange windbreaker on, cigarette in one hand, and a lighter she’s bumbling in the other. 

He pulls the door open, ready to have a little bit of a go at her, when he sees her face. There’s something tight and cracking there, a slipping grip, and instead he crosses quickly to her, gently prying the lighter from her fingers. 

I’ll get it,” he says, and flicks it on. She lets out a long, shaky breath in the other direction before putting the cigarette between her lips and turning toward the flame.

She takes a long, slow pull and then exhales, not much smoother for the addition of smoke. 

He turns around to put down the lighter and there’s the pack, a crinkled, old-looking thing that he places from at least 10 years ago just as Miller starts coughing. 

Pinching the cigarette from her fingers, he uses his free hand to pat her back, easing her through the coughing fit. “It’s all right, you’re all right.”

After a few long moments, she quiets, chest rising and falling a few times as she gets her breath back. 

“Sorry,” she says, sheepish. “Never was any good at that.”

Because it’s in his fingers and his muscles remember the movement, he brings the cigarette to his lips, taking a drag and trying to pretend he wasn’t thinking about her mouth having been in the same spot. 

It’s a rough, harsh smoke. He manages not to match her coughing, exhaling only slightly unsteadily, but it’s still enough to make his throat burn.

“Jesus,” he scratches out. “Doesn’t help that you’re smoking 20-year-old cigarettes. Where’d do you even find those?”

Twelve-year-old,” she says, taking the cigarette back from him and dropping it into a Pepsi can sitting near the door. She snags the pack off the ground, making the plastic crinkle in her grip and not meeting his eye.

“That’s…precise,” he says, trying not to shiver. He’s only got on track bottoms and a jumper — Miller’s got a coat and boots. 

“Beth had Chloe really young,” she says after a long moment. “By the time she’d given birth, all her friends had moved on. I was a little older, going through the academy, a bit…lonely, probably. Didn’t have much in common with my own mates anymore. I knew her from around, but then…well, that was when we became…friends.”

He nods, unsure if she wants his input, or just to speak. If Joe’s the thing they avoid mentioning the most, the Latimers are a strong second. 

“She took me out when I graduated, bought me some drinks and…” Miller trails off. 

“And that pack of cigarettes,” he finishes. 

“Yeah, had them in a box,” she says. “I was looking for something when I saw them. It…seemed like a good idea.”

“Was it?”

“Not even a little.”

“Come on inside, Miller. I’ll not freeze my bollocks off for your existential crisis.”

Her face freezes, morphs into shock and then that same teasing, laughing smile, a little bit of gratitude around the edges. 

“Yes, sir.”

&&. 

They make their way to the living room, Miller grabbing a packet of chocolate biscuits for them to split on the way. There’s only the sofa to sit on — the chair was apparently where Joe always sat and Miller hadn’t wanted to bring it in the move. 

Unfortunately, the spot where Fred spilled his milk on the sofa is still too damp to sit on, which leaves Miller on the middle cushion, right next to him at the end. 

Once she’d taken her jacket and boots off, she’d been just as casually dressed as him, only her bottoms were…tighter. Leggings or yoga pants or something. Does Miller do yoga? 

Yoga had been one of the initial suggestions for his heart, before it became the equivalent of putting a plaster on a bullet wound. 

“You all right?” Miller’s not quite looking at him, clearly aware of how close they’re sitting.

“Yeah,” he says. “We, uh. We match.”

He gestures back and forth between their legs, both pairs stretched out on the coffee table. His bottoms are black and loose and adorned with three white stripes down either side, hers are just plain black and still…tight. 

Plus, his jumper is warm and sort of knobbly, where her t-shirt is thin and v-necked. 

But it’s navy. 

So technically, black bottoms, navy tops…they match. 

“Oh,” she says, glancing down. “Yeah, I guess we do.” She waits a beat, probably to see if he was going anywhere with that observation, but when he doesn’t speak, she continues. “If you’d told me months ago, I’d be sitting next to you on my sofa, wearing track bottoms, I’d never have believed it.”

He laughs out a breath. “Can’t be the biggest surprise you’ve had though.”

Her face shifts and he realizes what he’s said. 

“Sorry. Oh, fuck, sorry.” He pushes a hand through his hair, clenching at the strands so they pull against his scalp. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“It’s all right,” she says. “Anyway, just for that, you can sit through Bake Off.”

He groans, but it’s only because she expects him to. In truth, he’s sort of become invested in all the programs Ellie Miller watches, and even a few of Tom’s. He’d be worried about that — the ways she’s rubbing off on him — except he’s doing the same thing to her. 

Last month he’d come home from a doctor’s appointment (and isn’t that the biggest kick in the bloody arse — that this is home) and Miller had been sat at the kitchen table, in the middle of the afternoon, listening to a Leonard Cohen CD. 

His Leonard Cohen CD, the one he hadn’t even realized had been in his suitcase until he’d unpacked here. He remembers buying it during Sandbrooke, desperate for something to listen to that wasn’t likely to be interrupted with a news update. 

That afternoon, with Miller at the table, “Famous Blue Raincoat” had played three times in a row, before she’d left to pick up the boys. He’d listened to each rotation in a chair across from her, pretending he wasn’t picturing an orange windbreaker instead. 

But now, she settles down further in the cushions next to him, and flips the telly on. 

They watch the program in silence for a while, finishing off the biscuits, until one ad break when she nudges his foot with her own. 

“Your toes are hairy,” she says. 

He flexes them a few times, trying to look at them objectively. “I suppose they are. Yours are black.”

“Dark purple actually,” she says. “Did them last week.”

“Hm,” he says, and ‘they look nice’ is on the tip of his tongue. “I’m more interested in that.” He taps his toe against her ankle, the little hint of black peeking out from the bottom of her legging. “Miller, do you have a tattoo?”

She rolls her eyes, but indulges him, bending her knee until her foot rests on the cushion and she tugs the material up. 

It’s an anchor.

“Another, um…another Beth thing. She’s got a flower in about the same spot.”

He fumbles to assess the mood, trying to decide if it’d be digging at a wound, or a scar. 

“What’s the anchor for then?”

She shrugs. “Always lived on the water…something about staying grounded, I guess. Truthfully I think we both did it just to say we had.”

“My wife, my ex-wife, she had a heart right around here,” he says, raising his hips a little to point at the side nearest Miller. “Mentioned once or twice getting my name added on — bet she’s bloody glad she didn’t follow through.”

Miller chuckles. “Yeah. Would that’ve been…what? Hardy? Or Alec?”

“Alec,” he says. “Maybe just ‘bastard’ toward the end there.”

Her brow furrows. “I thought…I thought it was the evidence, the case, that split you up.”

He taps her knee where it still sits bent beside him. “People in happy marriages don’t have affairs, Miller.”

“Right,” she says, and the flat, dull tone points out what he’d failed to notice. 

Before he can apologize, again, she continues. “Did you ever think about it? An affair?”

He shakes his head, rolling it back and forth against the sofa cushion. “No, I’m sort of…singularly focused. Can’t even keep one woman happy, let alone two.”

“Yeah, that’s my trouble, too. Haven’t even got a husband anymore, and still can’t find time for that sort of thing.”

His stomach flips, settling heavy and hot on the landing. “Oh?”

“No, no, I just meant…we were happy, I think. But sometimes I wonder…maybe it was my fault…maybe if I’d paid more attention or —”

“Stop,” he says, turning his body until he’s looking at her more fully. “This — this scandal has nothing to do with you, it’s not your fault.”

“Is that what we are? A scandal?”

“A tragedy. But not one you caused.”

She pauses, like she’s considering arguing, and he forces himself to look open and willing. If she wants to spend all night hearing reassurances, he’ll be here. He’ll do that for her. 

“Well, whatever it is, that Coach Howard hadn’t heard of it.”

“What?”

“Asked me out at practice a few weeks ago.”

There’s a trail of indignation blazing right up Hardy’s spine, a hot zing of irritation. Howard had thought they were married, what business did he have asking Miller out? It’s like SOCO Brian all over again.

“When was this?”

“I don’t know, like I said, a few weeks ago. You dropped off the juice boxes though, and he immediately apologized. Think he thought we were married.”

Oh. 

Well.

That’s a little better then. 

It was before his presumption that they were married. 

His incorrect presumption. 

Miller hasn’t stretched her leg back out, instead she’s shifted so that her bent knee rests on the sofa, pressing into his thigh. It’s a light touch, but it feels almost…deliberate, and instead of responding, he glances down at it. 

He can feel Miller’s body tense, like she’s preparing to pull away, and he quickly moves his hand onto her thigh, keeping her in place. 

His palm rests there, feeling the warmth of her body through her leggings, and he can’t help but tighten his grip a bit, his fingertips pushing softly into her skin. 

Next to him, Miller has gone completely still. 

In the background, Bake Off starts back up, the judges prattling uselessly on the edge of his awareness, but he’s still looking at her leg, at where his pale, dry hand sits on her thigh. 

“I…uh,” he starts to say, but Miller cuts him off by placing her own hand on top of his. 

It could be platonic, his hand is up a little high, but…it could be platonic. 

It doesn’t feel like that though. 

Slowly, he pulls his gaze away from their hands, meeting Miller’s eye. 

There’s something resolved there, something fearless, and he spares a thought for the things in her blood that made her want to become a detective, that had her in position for a job he eventually took, that saw her stay on while her husband stayed home. 

For all the brightness in her, all the lightness, she’s not lacking for nerve, not timid and in need of direction. 

Ellie Miller is a woman who knows her own mind, who once threatened to piss in a cup and throw it at him. If she didn’t want his hand there, it wouldn’t be there. 

And it’s with that thought that he raises his free hand, cupping her cheek. He feels the pressure as she leans into his palm the slightest bit, and he worries for a second that it’s not him at all, it’s just somebody she needs, some warmth, some affection, but she’s meeting his gaze so steadily that he knows that’s not the case.

Moving his hand back slightly, so his fingertips push into the waves of her hair, he leans in and pauses.

Miller’s keeping eye contact, but she’s not moving, not responding beyond that faint nuzzle a few moments ago. 

He swallows. “Is this…?” 

“Yeah,” she says.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

He nods his head, using the movement to bring his mouth closer to hers before stopping again.

“Still…?”

Miller huffs out a breath he feels across his lips and he only just catches sight of her rolling her eyes before her mouth is pressed to his. 

Taking charge — that’s another thing detectives do. They take charge.

He lets Miller kiss him a moment before he remembers he’s made of the same stuff, and meets the pressure of her mouth with his own. It’s dry for a few seconds, a press of lips with equal force as they get used to it, but then he’s prodding her mouth open, slipping his tongue by her lips and into her mouth. 

He hasn’t kissed a woman in what feels like ages, and even then, it was his wife for years, so this — this is something else entirely. 

She tastes like chocolate biscuits and her tongue is wet and hot, slipping by his in slow passes that leave him chasing after her. He turns more fully toward her at the same time she pulls her leg back from the coffee table to kneels beside him. 

He brings his other hand up, cradling her head in his hands as she wraps her arms around his shoulders, pressing them together, her chest soft and warm against his own. His heart is hammering against his ribcage, but it’s a good feeling, an anxious, hot, welcome feeling, and it floods heat and light into every corner of his body. 

She makes a noise against mouth, something from the back of her throat that he hears in a gap in the kiss, and it’s enough to make him drop one of his hands, curling it around her waist until it settles against the top of her arse, pressing her into him as he propels her back toward the opposite end of the sofa. 

She follows, but pulls her mouth from his as she scoots back, arranging her limbs so that he can settle between her legs while he busies himself kissing and nipping down her throat and onto the skin left bare by the v-neck of her t-shirt. He’s nosing the collar away, find more skin to press his lips to, to run his tongue against, when her hands bury themselves in his hair, scratching against his scalp. The feeling bolts low in his abdomen, making him arch his hips into her and his hand finds her breast, massaging it, squeezing it, until her own hips answer the same way. 

It feels amazing, this back and forth, and when he gets the shirt down enough to suck the top of her breast, she moans, a soft, slow moan that turns into…laughter?

He props himself up on his hands, pulling back from her chest with a nip. “Something funny?”

She shakes her head, her hair catching on the sofa upholstery. “No, no, just — what the hell am I supposed to call you now? Hardy? Alec?”

“Sir?” he asks hopefully. 

“Wanker,” she says, and cuffs the back of his head. 

He’s grateful for this exchange, the way it ratchets down the intensity, and he pulls at the moment like taffy, trying to stretch it out. 

“I’ll call you ma’am if you like,” he says, nudging his nose against her collarbone, pressing kisses in a line across her chest. 

“Oh, now there’s a thought,” she says, ruffling his hair in encouragement. “Might like that.”

“Someone’s still mad I got their job then.”

She scoffs above him. “Not like either of us got to keep it.”

The way she says it, it feels like the last domino falling, like whatever ride they were just on, it’s come to a stop. For now, at least.

He pushes up off of her, shifting back to his original spot on the other end of the sofa as she seats herself beside him once more. 

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“No,” she says. “Don’t be. This was…good. A bit unexpected, but…good.”

“You hadn’t thought about it?” He feels blood rushing in his ears at the thought that she’d just gotten caught up, that this wasn’t something she’d been…considering. 

“No, I had, it’s been…well, it’s been like playing house, in a way, all of this. I just…didn’t think that was you.”

He takes a deep breath, eyes darting to the furniture store ad playing on the telly, the happy, smiling family cloaked in white linens. 

“I think it could be,” he says. “Maybe. Some parts.”

She raises an eyebrow at him. 

“I heard that moan, Miller. I’m not rubbish at everything.”

She shrugs. “Suppose not. You do have nice penmanship.”

“What?” He barks out a laugh. 

“I used to try to think up things not to hate about you. Your penmanship, on all those forms, it was quite nice.”

He shakes his head. “What else made the list?”

She swipes a finger down his cheek, rasping the stubble there. “You smelled surprisingly good for someone who looked they hadn’t seen a comb or a razor in months.”

“What else?”

“That was it.” She grins. 

“Ah, shall I tell you my list?”

He looks at her, catching a flash of hesitation in her eyes, and he wonders at what kind of monster he’d been when he first arrived here. 

“Yeah,” she says finally. “Go on.”

He thinks of her compassion, of her loyalty, of her strength and her bravery, her tenacity as a detective, a partner, a mother — 

“I liked your orange jacket,” he says and she laughs. 

&&. 

Three weeks later he tells her the real list, cheek pressed against her stomach and the words spoken into her skin. 

He calls her Ellie.