Hardy's voice was loud and grating in the empty office, and Ellie groaned, tipping her head back to glare mutinously at the ceiling for a long moment before yelling, "What?" in reply.
There was no response.
"What?" she repeated, louder, and his office remained silent. "Ugh," she mumbled under her breath as she shoved her chair back and stood, stalking to his door. "If you’re going to yell at me,” she said, leaning heavily against the doorframe, “at least have the decency to let me know what about.”
"What're you still doing here?" He blinked up at her owlishly from behind his glasses. "You're not working anything pressing. "
"Neither are you," she pointed out. "What are you doing here?"
He took off the glasses and rubbed at his eyes. "Go. See your kids."
"That's not an answer."
He sighed. "I'm working, Miller. What do you want from me?"
"Well, I'm working too."
"Fine, then. Go back to work." He looked at her like a challenge, and there was a part of her that wanted to turn on her heel and stalk back to her desk, to grind away until he was forced to admit defeat and sulk out ahead of her. But there was a bigger part of her that was simply exhausted, and that part finally won out.
"You first," she said, and crossed the room to shut his desk lamp off, leaving the office illuminated only by the hall lights outside.
"Oi!" he objected, reaching to turn it back on, but she swatted his hand away.
"If I have to go home, you do too," she said severely. "I'm not the only one with kids to see."
"Kid," he reminded her.
"I know how many Daisies you have, thank you. And I also know you haven't been doing any actual work in here for at least an hour. Come on." She offered him a hand up, and he ignored it, unfolding from his chair to join her in the dim light of the doorway.
"You don't know that," he said. "I could have been working."
She looked at him challengingly. "Were you?"
He made a face. “No.” He grabbed his coat from the hook. "Come on, then." He shooed her toward the door.
She expected him to peel off from her as soon as they reached the street, but instead he kept step beside her, walking in companionable silence through town until they reached the turnoff for his house.
"Night," she offered, and he stood there for a minute, hands stuffed into the pockets of his coat, looking at her like he was going to say something. Eventually, though, he gave himself a little shake and turned for his house.
"Night, Miller," he said gruffly, and stalked off down the road.
She stood there watching until he'd faded into the shadows, and then, feeling as if her shoes were made of lead, she turned and slowly made her way towards home.
The light in the pub was low, and it took his eyes long enough to adjust that by the time he saw Miller sitting at the far end of the bar, it was too late to make a sneaky exit without her noticing. She'd already turned, and her eyebrows had shot up at the sight of him.
He cursed under his breath, gave her a helpless wave, and twisted back toward the door.
"Oh, for crying out loud, sir," he heard her say, "you don't have to leave."
"And you haven't needed to call me 'sir' for years," he pointed out, turning back.
"And this?" He nodded at the glass in front of her. "New habit?"
"Not particularly." There was something dark in her expression for a moment, but it disappeared quickly as she quirked an eyebrow at him. "New for you, though. Don't see you in here...ever, really."
He rolled his eyes. "I drink, Miller."
"In a pub? Where people can see you?"
"Well," he said, "ideally not people I know," but when she kicked out the seat next to her in offering, he settled into it.
He eyed the glass in front of her. It was still half full, but damp with condensation, rings spotting the bartop beneath it, so it seemed that she'd been sitting here with it for a while. She tucked her phone away as he settled down.
"Thought you'd be home," he said mildly.
"Thought wrong," she said, too casual, and he could see the way her expression tightened at the words, so he turned instead to order himself a drink, not wanting to delve further into whatever was going on there.
It was part of a pattern, one he'd been noticing for months, and it was professionally embarrassing that he hadn't picked up on it long before that. The late nights at work, the volunteering for weekend projects, now finding her here at the pub on a weeknight, nursing a drink for longer than she needed to.
In another lifetime, even another year working with her, he might have turned to her with the accusation - Ellie Miller, you don't want to go home - just to see her reaction, to jump to conclusions based on what she said or didn't say in response. Instead, he accepted his whiskey, tossed back a sip, and said nothing.
"So about the stolen art," she said finally, and he let her draw him almost easily into conversation, speculation, the two of them huddled close together in the corner of the bar, keeping their voices low, the conversation confidential. He found himself enjoying it, puzzling things out with Miller, this time over a glass, her smile coming a little easier than usual when he brought up the bizarre antics of the neighbor to the crime scene.
His phone went off, and it took him longer than it probably should have to recognize the ringtone. "Oh." He blinked. "That's mine." He fished his phone out of his pocket and held it very far away to focus on the screen. "Sorry, Miller," he said, "I have to - " and when she waved him towards it, he answered. "Hi, darlin'. How's holiday?"
"Dad, we have got to come back here sometime. You'd - well." Daisy paused. "You'd probably hate it. But I love it."
"Then I'd love it, too," he assured her. "Look, Dais, I can't go into too many details right now - " he could see Miller eyeing him, intensely curious, "but you know that thing we were talking about the other night?"
"The house?" she asked warily.
"That's the one. I've got it sorted."
"Oh!" she sounded surprised. "You rented a new place already!"
"I didn't see pictures. You said you were going to send pictures," she was saying, his words not processing for a moment, but then she paused. "Wait, what do you mean? You didn't rent a place?"
"Then…" he could hear her shift. "Wait, dad, did you buy something?"
"I." He winced. "Maybe."
“It was the first place you looked at, wasn’t it?”
He sighed, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Yes.”
"It's nice," he said. "You'll like it."
"Pictures!" she insisted.
"'kay, yeah, I think I got some. I'll send them. And you send some pictures of this remarkable part of France that I'm apparently going to visit."
"I will," she promised. "I've taken loads. Now, I'll let you get back to whatever it is that has you unable to talk details. Say hi to her for me."
He had been lifting his glass for another sip, and practically choked on it. "Daisy!"
"What? Either it's Miller or you're on a date. Or both. So, you know. Either way, say hi. Love you, dad!"
She'd hung up before he had a chance to mumble, "Love you," in return, but he did anyway before hanging up.
"Oooh, aren't you mysterious," Miller said, leaning in. "Making secret plans, are we?"
He groaned. "It's not secret, Miller, it's just private. Is it possible for things to be that?”
"Not really," she said breezily, but something about his expression must have convinced her, because instead of prying further, she pivoted to asking about where Daisy was going to drag him on holiday, and he felt a wave of relief at just being able to drink his whiskey and not think for a little while about how hectic his next few weeks were going to be.
She left before he did, checking her phone and swallowing down the last of her gin. "Best be off," she said, tossing some money onto the bar. He stood, thinking to walk her home, but she was already breezing out the door, giving him a wave over her shoulder. "Night, Hardy!"
"Night," he said quietly to the already closing door.
He settled back down, and he ordered another drink.
"Tea?" Ellie offered, not waiting for Hardy's reply before she breezed into his office, setting a cup beside him. "Disgustingly strong, just how you like it.” He grunted in response, looking like he was practically asleep on his desk. "You look like shit," she told him.
"Thanks," he said dryly.
"I'd say you've been working too hard, but you took off at an almost reasonable hour last night," she said. She eyed him. "Daisy hasn't gotten you back into dating again, has she?" The thought of teasing him about it was tempting, but she felt more relief than she wanted to admit when he shook his head.
"God, no, Miller. I've just...been a bit busy."
"Busy with what?" Ellie pried. "Your secret mission?"
"Well." He shifted uncomfortably. "If you must know, I'm moving house."
"Moving house? You? Why didn't you say? I'd've been happy to help you pack up your things, if you needed - "
"And that’s why I didn’t say," he said flatly. "Don't have that many things, do I?"
"Well, Daisy must. She's a teenager, isn't she?"
"A teenager who's relocated more times than one has any right to," he reminded her. "I've got it sorted."
"What happened with the beach house?" she asked. "Such a lovely little place, shame you couldn't hang onto it."
"Lease came up," he said flatly.
She stared at him. "What, unexpectedly? You...do know how leases work, don't you? You must have signed the last one in the fall."
"I forgot!" He groaned and rubbed at his eyes. "Honestly, who pays attention to what month something happens?"
"Grown-ups?" she suggested. "With bills to pay and leases to keep up?"
"Yes, well. Turns out I'm not so good at that, I lost track, and now I'm clearing out in a rush, while Daisy's off on holiday. So yes. Forgive me for being a bit peaked." His words were sharp, but his fingers curled gratefully around his cup of tea, and he seemed to relax a bit as he took a sip.
"You should take the day," she told him, knowing as she formed the words that he wouldn't.
"I've taken Friday," he said. "That's when the removers come. I've just been...boxing. You have no idea how much nonsense you have until you’ve got to fit it all into a box."
"I can't even imagine," she murmured, trying to think of how many boxes it would take to hold her house. "Well, where's the new flat?"
His nose wrinkled up in the way it did when he was going to say something he very much did not want to. "'t's not a flat," he said.
"Another beach bungalow, then?" she guessed. "That blue one you had was nice, if a bit small for you and Daisy both."
He sighed, staring into his tea as if it would answer her questions for him, and when it didn't, he scowled into it. "B'a'hs," he mumbled.
"What was that?"
"I bought," he repeated, "a house."
She could feel her face light up, half with mockery, the other half...well, she didn't have a word to put to it, and didn't quite feel the need to find one at this moment. "A house! Here?"
"Here," he muttered. "Let's not make a big deal of this, shall we, it's just - "
"It's just a house!" she said delightedly. "That you own. Here in Broadchurch. Like you're staying or something."
"I've been here for years," he pointed out.
"Yes, but. 's a bit permanent, isn't it, for you? Buying?"
He groaned. "Look, Miller, thank you for the tea. But I do have work to do, especially seeing how I won't be in on Friday, so - " he waved her at the door. "If there's nothing more?"
"Oh, there's more," she said, grinning at his discomfort. "There’s loads more. But sure, yes, get to work. I'll grill you later."
"Looking forward to it," he said dryly.
"We could even meet up at the pub," she said cheekily, "have a drink?"
"Don't push your luck," he muttered, but instead of setting her on edge, he could hear her laughing to herself as she ducked back out into the bullpen.
The doorbell rang twice before he recognized it, and he groaned, running a dusty hand back through his hair. It took what felt like hours to unfold himself from the floor, extract himself from the maze of boxes, and pick his way gingerly to the door. He flung it open with a scowl, and wasn't the least bit surprised to find Miller standing there, shopping bags bundled onto her arms and a potted plant tucked against her side.
"Housewarming present," she said without preamble, stuffing the plant into his hands and brushing by him into the house. "Texted Arnav for the new address," she said. "Figured you wouldn't mind. He's been doing real estate in this town so long we bought our house from him." She winced a little at the we, and turned to inspect the entryway instead of lingering with that between them. "You bought this?"
He stared blankly at the plant, then turned, kicking the door closed. "Alright, there," he said, feeling an unexpected flare of defensiveness, "it could use some work, but - "
"I've been eyeing the houses on this block my whole life," she continued, not even hearing him as she juggled her bags into the kitchen, clattering them busily onto the counter. "And you just lucked into one."
"Wasn't luck," he muttered, placing the plant by an east-facing window. He waved a hand at the bags. "What's…?"
"Well, I didn't expect you'd've thought to get yourself any groceries. Figured I'd pick you up some essentials, make some dinner."
He blinked and reached for the whiskey bottle sticking out of the nearest bag. "Essentials," he repeated dryly.
She nodded, grinning. "I know you've moved house before. You know what essentials are." She looked around at the piles of boxes. "Have you stopped moving about for one second all day?"
"I just had," he pointed out, "before my doorbell started ringing."
She didn't look the slightest bit repentant, instead turning for the living room and letting out a low whistle. "What a view!"
"Hard not to have one, around here," he pointed out, but when she pushed open the glass door and stepped out onto the patio, he followed, standing there beside her with the low rush of the sea below echoing around them.
She leaned against the fence at the edge of the patio, looking out over the water, and he stayed back near the shelter of the house, watching the way the wind whipped her hair around her face and brought color to her cheeks. When she turned back to him, she was beaming.
"Oh," she said, "this is lovely."
"Yeah," he agreed vaguely, not entirely sure what he was agreeing to.
He settled into unpacking some boxes in the living room while she started dinner, and it was not too long into the process that he lifted his head, sniffing warily. "Is something - "
"Oh! Burning!" He heard her yelp from the kitchen. "I knew I'd forgotten something!" She was reaching for the spatula when he reached the doorway, but his arms were longer and he beat her to it, stepping in front of the stove.
"Here," he said, "I've got this." He turned down the heat and stirred the vegetables about, picking out the worst of the burned bits. He took a tiny bite of what remained and winced. "Get that box, would you?" He nodded over his shoulder at a pile in the corner. "Third from the left. Should be some spices in there."
She sighed as she sliced the box open and started to rummage through it. "Doesn't seem right, you doing the work," she said, "when I'd intended to make you dinner. Give you a break from unpacking."
"Yes, but you're no good at it," he pointed out.
"I - !" she whirled on him, but paused, taking in the ruined vegetables and the mess she had made of the chicken on the counter. She withered, and let out a low laugh. "I'm not," she agreed. "Here you could have had a nice takeaway, and I've gone and made a disaster in your lovely new kitchen instead."
He shrugged. "Start making it up by pouring a bit of that." He nodded toward the whiskey.
"Ah. Right, then," she agreed, and found herself instantly flummoxed by the lack of glasses.
"Er." He considered. "I think the mugs are in this one," he offered, toeing at a box, and she knelt down to rummage through it, emerging triumphantly with two mugs - one with the Wessex Police logo on it, the other printed with the name of some Italian hotel.
She sloshed some whiskey into each of them, then looked dubiously at his fridge. "Don't suppose you've made ice," she said.
"The refrigerator should've."
"Ooh, posh," she said, and went to clink some into her glass. She held his up in offering, and he shook his head, reaching for it.
She handed it over, then scrutinized her own mug. "In the habit of nicking mugs on holiday?"
He winced. "Tess was."
"Ah." She let it be awkward for a moment, then grinned. "Well, in that case, Daisy better come home with a nice new one from wherever they're being put up."
He smiled. "I thought the idea was not to pass the worst of our habits on to the next generation."
"If nicking mugs is the worst you've got to pass on," she said, "I'd say you're not doing half bad." She eyed him. "For example, I think must be just sheer dumb luck that Daisy didn't inherit your sour disposition."
"Sour!" he repeated sourly, and she grinned. "Well, clearly you've never seen her in the morning."
She laughed. "I bet she and Tom could have a real grump-off," she said. She leaned back against the counter, looking around as he cooked, and it should have felt invasive, her inspecting his house, but instead he felt himself relaxing a little as she prattled on a bit about the neighborhood, the windows, the floors.
"So," she said eventually, when he was nearly done, in the kind of tone that made him look up warily at her from the food, “when did you decide you were staying?”
“Didn’t, really.” He poked at the chicken, willing it to cook faster.
"Didn't?" she repeated. "Seems like a decision to me, buying a place."
He sighed. "It's not a life sentence, Miller. It's an investment."
"An investment, right." She crossed back to the box the mugs had been in, causing a few alarming clanking noises before emerging triumphantly with two plates. "In this town. In having a life here."
"Come off it," he muttered. "It's a place to live, Miller. Nothing more than that."
"'kay," she said agreeably, setting the plates down on the counter. He eyed her, waiting for the next jab, the next prod at something he didn't want to talk about, but instead she looked around at the boxes. "I don't suppose you have any idea where the silver is?"
He looked too, and groaned. "Not the slightest," he said.
"This was a terrible plan."
"I told you that," he pointed out.
"You didn't," she objected.
"Well, I thought it."
She sighed and settled down in front of the pile. "Alright, I'm going in. Wish me luck."
He looked at her there for a long moment, as she pulled down the first box, ripped off the tape, and started rummaging through it. He felt a smile begin to creep across his face at the absurdity of it, the strange domesticity of the moment.
He turned back to the stove, and listened as she started to hum some tune he didn't know as she set to work making some kind of order from the chaos of his belongings.
Ellie had been at the shore with Fred for nearly an hour, building castles in the sand and stomping them back into oblivion, when she turned to see a long figure making his way gingerly across the sand.
"I think…" she said, shading her eyes, and Fred followed her gaze, "that might be - "
"Alec," he said definitively, and turned back to his castle, completely disinterested.
Hardy had been turning along the coast, but when he caught sight of them, he paused for a long moment before redirecting toward them.
"You can keep on your walk," Ellie called as he drew close enough to hear her. "You don't have to be sociable," but he kept stalking their way with almost grim determination.
"Miller," he said when he was closer, and nodded down to the small figure industriously putting together a sand city at her feet. "Fred. Fine civilization you've got there."
"Godzilla's coming," Fred said ominously, and Ellie saw the corner of Hardy's lips curve up into a smile.
"Oh?" he asked, and Fred nodded gravely.
"Smash!" he said.
"Shame," Hardy replied, and turned to Ellie. "Bit chilly for a beach day, isn't it?"
She shrugged. "Got to take advantage of them while we have them," she said. "What about you? Tired of working on the house?"
"If I unpacked one more box, I was going to burn the place down," he said.
"Well, that'd be a waste of all the work you've already put in," she replied. She settled into the sand and patted the ground beside her in invitation, knowing that he'd shake his head and go on his way, but he surprised her by folding up to sit beside her. He looked cozy and rumpled in a soft blue jumper, hair mussed by the wind and falling into his eyes as they watched Fred build.
They talked about nothing - town gossip, vague discussions of their ongoing cases, Daisy's adventures in France - while the sand city grew in front of and around them, until Fred stood up, shaking the sand off himself and declaring, "Godzilla!"
"Oh, no!" Ellie said dramatically, pretending to try to block Fred's way. "Godzilla, no! The builder has spent so much time on this town! You can't possibly - "
"Smash!" Fred insisted, and darted around her, his tiny feet pounding into the piles of sand, sending them flying up around him.
Ellie looked at Hardy, half expecting him to be watching this with something like disdain on his face, but instead, he was actually laughing, and as she watched, he pointed out a few castle bits that still needed a stomp. Fred followed his direction eagerly, smashing the whole city to bits, then fell laughing into the space where it had been, reaching out to start piling up sand again.
"Oh, Freddo," Ellie said, reaching out. "I think we're done for the day. We have to go home and get supper started before Tom gets home from football."
"Again!" Fred insisted, and she sighed.
"Not right now, Fred. Come on, then. Gather up your buckets, and - "
Fred's face crumpled, and Ellie braced herself for the explosion of tears. Instead, she saw Hardy kneel forward, leaning towards him.
"Come on, then," he said, "can't have that," and he scooped Fred up effortlessly, tossing him over his shoulder. "You heard your mum. Time to get home." Fred shrieked gleefully, wiggling around, and Hardy winced, laughing. "Careful with your pointy bits, there, lad," he cautioned, and stood, reaching up to resettle Fred so he was sitting fully upright on his shoulders.
Fred beamed, clinging to his hair. "Tall!" he announced.
Ellie beamed back. "So tall!" she agreed, standing and brushing the sand off her trousers. "Even taller than Uncle Alec!"
She let her smile drop from Fred to Hardy, and found that his expression was unexpectedly soft as he clapped his hands to Fred's legs, steadying him. He caught her watching and gave her a lopsided smile. "Used to do this with Daisy," he said. "Parades, bonfires." He jostled Fred, who whooped in delight. "Been a few years."
"Oh, you're going to be sore tomorrow," Ellie said delightedly.
"I'm sore right now," he said. He looked upward. "C'mon, then, Fred. Let's get you home so these old bones get a break, what say you?"
"Home!" Fred repeated, and Hardy turned back up the beach toward town.
"You don't have to keep him there," Ellie pointed out as she gathered up Fred's toys and followed, but Hardy seemed not to hear her at all, taking off at a lope across the sand, with Fred cheering him on delightedly from his shoulders. She shook her head, laughing, and when she caught up, Hardy was breathless. "Hey," she said, concerned, reaching out to put a hand on his arm. "Be careful - "
"I am." He stayed still for a long moment, looking down at her hand until she drew it back self-consciously. "I'm...this is fine." He looked up at Fred. "You're good up there, yeah?"
"Yeah!" Fred agreed, and pointed down the street toward home. "That way!"
"Thanks, pal," Hardy replied. He arched an eyebrow at Ellie as he turned toward her house.
She settled into step beside him, and felt a pang of nostalgia, of something like longing, at the feeling of walking alongside someone, both of them focused on Fred, but also on each other, companionable and comfortable. It was something she hadn't felt in years, and she stepped close enough to let their arms bump against each other.
She almost pulled back, but the smile he gave her kept her there by his side, too close, as they turned onto her street and made their way to her house, Fred keeping up a running commentary above them.
The first thing Daisy insisted on after a full tour of the house was settling in with an app to decide what color her room was going to be. It had been a hard week of unpacking, and he was glad to have her there, to have her approval on the space, her extra hands for work, but instead of setting to any of the projects on his very extensive to-do list, he found himself going to the store with her to pick out paint, and slathering a very deep blue on the walls of her room.
"You're sure this is the color you want to go with?" He wrinkled his nose as he rolled another smear along the blank wall.
"Dad." Daisy made a face at him. "We've already done two walls. A little late, isn't it?"
"Not as bad as if we finish all of them," he pointed out.
"I like the blue."
"It'll be a bit dark," he said.
She sighed. "I'm leaving the trim white," she reminded him. "And I have so many lights. You never saw my room back at mum's. Fairy lights everywhere."
He wrinkled his nose. "Those aren't a fire hazard, are they?"
"Ugh." She splattered the back of his shirt with paint, and he laughed.
"Alright, alright," he relented. "Decorate how you like." He turned back to the wall so he wasn't looking at her as he said gruffly, "Just glad you're here."
She was silent for a long moment, and he almost thought she wasn't going to reply, but when she did, it wasn't with the teasing he expected.
“Dad, when you had the surgery...you were really sick, weren't you?"
He flinched, but he nodded, not wanting to lie to her. “I was.”
“So all those times you tried to call me around then, it was because…?”
“It was because I wanted to talk to you, Dais. Because I missed you.”
"Not because you thought you were going to die?"
He sighed. "It was a little bit because that, aye. If I'd've keeled over some day, I didn't want you to have to struggle to think of the last time you'd heard from me. Just because I didn't live near you anymore didn't mean I wasn't thinking of you. Didn't mean I didn't love you."
"Ugh, dad." But she'd stopped painting, her roller forgotten in the tray as she looked at him. "Bit soppy."
"Bit," he agreed. "Almost dying will do that." He saw her expression darken, and he almost regretted it, but she looked at him seriously for a long moment before nodding slowly.
"Glad you didn't," she said.
He breathed out a laugh. "Yeah," he agreed. "As am I." He turned back to painting, wanting to move on, but something made him ask, "What brought this on?"
She was quiet for a long while, long enough that he thought she might answer, but eventually she asked, "Why'd you do it?"
"Why'd you buy this place? You could have rented again. I'll be off to uni soon - "
"Ugh, don't remind me."
"It’s happening, whether I say it or not.”
"I know," he said, resigned.
"So. You could've just gotten a flat. Another beach house. Something for a few years, until you decided what you wanted to do with yourself. Only…" She eyed him. "You have decided what you want to do with yourself, haven't you?"
"You like it here. In this stupid town with its stupid cliffs and its stupid people."
He sighed. "I think I do, yeah. Awful, isn't it?"
"Miserable," she agreed, but when he turned to look at her, she was grinning. "I'm glad," she said simply, and turned back to her wall.
"Yeah," he said in a voice that may have been too quiet for her to hear. "Think I am, too."
"Have plans for dinner?" Ellie asked as they got into her car at the end of the day. "I've got to pick Tom up from football, and we're going to get fish and chips at the pier."
Hardy made a face, and she expected him to decline, but instead he shrugged.
"Got to eat something, haven't I?" he asked, which was how they both ended up sitting at a table with the sea wind whipping through their hair, Tom showing off with his football beside them.
"Never could do that," Hardy said, sounding impressed.
"I'm not very good," Tom said, but he looked gratified.
"Come on and eat," Ellie said, patting the seat beside her. "We've got to go pick up Fred soon."
Tom kicked the football under the table and settled down, tucking into his meal as if he'd never seen food before in his life. Ellie turned her attention to Hardy, who was staring off down the coast in the direction of his house.
"Got a lot to do this weekend?" she asked him.
"Some," he said.
He hadn't started looking any less exhausted since moving, the circles dark under his eyes, so something made her say, "You can borrow Tom sometime, if you like. He's learned to do loads of stuff around the house - " she cut herself off, not wanting to go into the reasoning, and finished weakly, "...in the last few years."
"Mum!" Tom objected. "You can't just rent me out as free labor! I have a life, you know."
"Oh?" she said. "Funny, because I haven't heard a word about any friends of yours recently. You never talk to your old mum about your 'life,' and you expect me to believe that you have one?"
To her surprise, Hardy turned to Tom. "Wouldn't have to be free labor either," he said. "I'd be happy to toss a few quid your way. And I'd like your opinion on the garret even if you don't want to help out with the construction, actually. Daisy wants to set up the Playstation up there, so I'm not 'hovering' all the time. Do I hover?" he asked, looking at Ellie, then made a face. "Never mind, don't answer that. But I don't have the slightest idea what kind of furniture to get that would fit up there and be good for. Y'know. Games."
Tom's eyes lit up. "A whole gaming room?" he asked. "That's brilliant! Daisy's the luckiest. Yeah, I could - I mean, I wouldn't mind helping you out with that." He paused, his eyes flicking toward Ellie. "If...I could use it sometimes, maybe?"
"You have a Playstation," Ellie pointed out.
"Sure, yeah," he agreed, "but the only telly's in the living room, and you and Fred are always there."
"We live there!" she replied. "You can't just go impose on the Hardys whenever you like."
"Why not? You do!" Tom replied.
It was Hardy who held up a hand between them to stop them. "Oi!" he said sharply, cutting them both off. "That could be part of the deal," he said smoothly, looking at Tom. "Of course you could stop by and use it, if you work it out with Daisy."
Tom turned to Ellie, his eyes shining in a way she hadn't seen in years. "Mum?" he said almost wheedlingly. "Hardy says it's alright."
"Hardy just wants to get you to do his house work for him," she said, but she was smiling fondly at both of them. "Of course I don't mind, love. As long as you're not bothering Hardy, or Daisy."
"He won't be," Hardy said.
"I won't be," Tom repeated, and Ellie looked between them.
"Well," she said, "there you go, then. An arrangement that benefits everyone. You two work that out for yourselves, then." She stood. "Come on, Tom. We've got to go get Fred." She looked to Hardy. "Lift home?" she offered.
He shook his head. "I'll walk." He turned to Tom. "Thanks, Tom," he said.
"Thank my mum," Tom muttered. "She's the one who volunteered me," but as he and Ellie made their way back to the car, he was listing off all the different home improvement projects they had worked on together at home, and trying to figure out what Hardy might need from him, sounding more engaged than he had with anything around her in a very long time.
The silence in the garret was almost enough to make Hardy wish he was the kind of person who listened to music.
They'd talked when Tom had first arrived, a very thorough and practical conversation about the work they'd be doing - patching some of the walls, replacing some floorboards - but since then, it had been complete silence other than the racket of hammers and the scrape of tools against the wall, and Hardy was about to go out of his mind with it.
"You need anything?" he asked finally, just for something to say, and Tom didn't look up at him.
"Water?" Hardy pressed. "A snack?"
"No, I'm good."
Hardy sighed under his breath. "'kay." He let the silence stretch for another few minutes before saying reluctantly, "Your mum mentioned you'd gotten handy around the house."
Tom shrugged. "Guess so. Had to, didn't I?"
Hardy winced. "Right. Sorry."
"Don't be. Better just being us, y'know? The three of us."
"Sure," Hardy agreed. "I imagine it would be."
Tom gave him a hard look. “I’m not talking to you about it.”
“Yeah, no, good, please don’t."
To his surprise, Tom snorted a tiny laugh at that. "You're real shit at this, aren't you?"
"Oh, I don't know, I've changed a floorboard or two before," he said, just to see the wry smile Tom gave him.
"Talking to people."
"Real shit, yeah," Hardy agreed.
"Not my favorite thing either," Tom said. "Get it from m'dad." He seemed to rethink saying it as soon as the words were out of his mouth. "I mean, he wasn't rude like you, but you know my mum. She'd chat up a fencepost."
"I've seen her do it," Hardy said lightly, to avoid both the comment about Joe and the one about himself.
"Yeah." Tom looked back down at his work. "'m not much like her. And I know, I know," he said before Hardy could even think of replying, "you're going to say the same thing everyone says."
"I don't know that I am," Hardy objected, not really having the slightest idea what he was going to say.
"That I'm not a thing like him," Tom continued. "That I must be like her, when we all know it's not true. I am like him. I've always been like him. And that means that maybe - "
"That means bollocks," Hardy interrupted him, and Tom blinked big eyes up at him.
"What?" he looked nonplussed, so Hardy took advantage of his temporary pause to keep going.
"So you've got some things in common with your old man. Who hasn't? Quite honestly, we haven't any need of a clone of your mother running about. One of her is exactly enough." The corner of Tom's mouth started to curl up into something that might have been a smile. "Just because you inherited some things from your dad doesn't mean you're him. You're you, Tom Miller. And Tom Miller's going to make a whole new set of mistakes from the ones Joe Miller made."
Tom swallowed. "Do you think it was?" he asked. "A mistake?" He didn't say killing Danny, but they both understood it.
Hardy breathed out, slow and contemplative. "No." He leaned back against the wall behind him. "Maybe, ultimately. But everything that led up to it? No, those were choices. There were so many times that your dad could have made a choice that made everything end up differently, for everyone, and...he didn't. He kept doing what he wanted because he wanted to, damn the consequences. Does that sound like you?"
Tom's face wrinkled up in thought. "No…" he said carefully. "Maybe sometimes. I don't know."
"Well, sure, maybe sometimes because you're - " he scrutinized Tom, then waved a hand. "However old you are. But you think about things. I bet, given everything that's gone on the past few years, you think about things too much sometimes. So that's you. Making different mistakes."
"Yeah," Tom said, slow and thoughtful. "Guess so." He turned back to his work, and this time Hardy was almost relieved for silence to fall around them.
They worked companionably, quietly, and somehow the silence began to feel less strained the longer it went on. It felt like almost no time had passed at all before he heard Miller calling their names from the entryway.
"Up here, mum!" Tom called. "Come see what we've done!" and there was a note of satisfaction in his voice that Hardy wasn't sure he had ever heard from him before.
She was drinking her tea on the balcony of the station when the pack of kids roamed by. She'd checked for Tom at first glance, but not seeing him, she had turned back to her mug without much interest until she heard his name. She leaned forward, listening closer.
" - hanging about that Tom Miller!"
"We've not been 'hanging about,'" she heard a girl's voice respond, and it wasn't until the rest of the reply came out that Ellie realized who the girl was. "His mum works with my dad, is all."
"Better watch out," one of the boys replied. "Nothin' good comes to anyone within twenty feet of that kid."
"Oi!" She saw Daisy spin on her heel, walking backwards, facing the boys. "You can fuck right off about him!"
"Oooh," one of them said, "Daisy's - "
"If you finish that sentence," she said, "my boot is going so far up your arse you'll taste it for a week. Tom Miller's a little shit, same as the rest of you. He's no bloody different, got it?"
"His dad - " began one of the boys, and Daisy gave him a withering look.
"Your dad got pinched for hocking pills outside the grade school," she pointed out. "You really want to talk about dads?"
"But his best mate last year - " said another.
"And your best mate," she replied, "is that one." She pointed to his left. "What's that say about you?" She looked them all over. "Yeah," she said, when no one replied. "'s what I thought. Just lay off Tom, why don't you? He's harmless. Useless and harmless, like all you lot."
She turned on her heel and stalked off.
"You coming in to do work," Ellie heard behind her, "or you just going to contemplate existence out here all day?"
She turned. "I just heard," she said as she retreated into the station to join Hardy, "your kid defending my kid from some little shits."
"Yeah?" he asked, looking intrigued.
"She called him useless." Ellie grinned, and Hardy looked horrified.
"I'll talk to her," he said.
"Oh, don't you dare," Ellie said. "She was perfect."
Hardy chuckled. "Yeah, alright," he said. "Ready to get out and interview some witnesses?"
"Oh, not remotely," Ellie said, but she clutched her tea and followed him back off the balcony.
Beth was crossing the street as they left the station, and she waved cheerily, pausing until they caught up to her on the sidewalk.
"Morning!" she said. Ellie responded. Hardy didn't. "Expecting to see you at the benefit tomorrow night," she said, and Ellie smiled.
"Wouldn't miss it," she promised.
When Hardy didn't reply, she gave him a sharp elbow to the side.
"Oh, she didn't mean me, did she?" he asked as if Beth weren't still standing right in front of them.
"She did," Beth replied.
"Oh! Well. I."
"Have plans?" Ellie supplied. "A date? A very important engagement?" She turned to Beth, rolling her eyes. "He'll be there. Daisy will make him."
"Thanks!" Beth said. She turned to Hardy. "You could just make a donation to the cause now and save yourself the trouble."
He brightened. "I can get out of this by giving you money?"
"No," Ellie said, taking him by the arm and dragging him away. "You can't."
"See you tomorrow!" Beth called after them.
"What's this, then?" he asked, turning to Ellie.
She rolled her eyes. "You have heard of this. You just haven't paid any attention." He kept looking at her blankly until she sighed and continued. "Some of the social aid organizations coming together for a fundraiser? Including Beth's? This Friday?" He shrugged, still looking blank. "Well, they've been planning it for months, and we're going."
"We?" he repeated, making a face. "I certainly never agreed to this."
"It's a good cause, Hardy."
"Plenty of good causes about," he muttered, "doesn't mean I'm turning up for some dreadful fundraiser. I'm no good at all that - " he waved a hand.
"Being a human being in society?" she supplied. "No, I've noticed. You're going anyway. It'll be good for the department, to show that we're in the habit of supporting small local organizations that are closer to the work of - "
"Alright, yeah," he cut her off. "If I say I'll go, will you stop bloody talking about it?"
She beamed at him. "Probably not, no." He grumbled, turning away. "Come on, then," she said, "those witnesses aren't going to question themselves."
"Oh," he said in mock surprise, "we're going to do some actual work, then? Instead of spending all morning on town gossip?"
She rolled her eyes. "Gossip is information, Hardy," she pointed out. "That's kind of what we do."
"Ugh," he muttered. "Go start a blog, if that's what you want to do with your time," and he huffed off down the street.
He could have easily gotten well ahead of her with his long legs, but she noted that he let her catch up easily, and when she started going down the list of their suspects, he seemed to visibly relax, settling into their comfortable routine, matching her steps as they made their way out of the center of town.
"I've just got to pop home," Miller said at the end of the day on Friday, looking him over. "You're wearing that, aren't you?"
He looked down at his suit. "Something wrong with it?"
She sighed deeply. "No," she said. "Nothing. Drive me by mine?"
He paced the kitchen while he waited, not wanting to go into the living room. The memory of Tom curled there in the corner, eyes wide and alarmed as he took in Hardy standing in the doorway had dulled with the years, but it still stung. The dining room was out too, because he'd laughed with Joe there, over a bottle of wine he shouldn't have been drinking. But even the kitchen was still full of moments and memories he didn't feel he had a right to be witnessing, the fridge covered in drawings and schoolwork from the kids. The collection seemed to stop abruptly on a very particular date, though, nothing recent, nothing since Fred had actually learned how limbs connected to bodies, hardly anything since Tom had started secondary school. The room was a time capsule, and when Hardy heard a crash and clatter from upstairs, it was almost a relief to have an excuse to walk out to the stairwell and call up, "Miller? You alright up there?"
There was a faint grumble of what was probably profanity, then a rather panicked sounding, "Fine! I'm fine."
He hesitated with his hand on the banister, not wanting to intrude, but also not wanting to spend any more time than necessary alone in this unfortunate museum of a house, so he took a careful first step up the stairs, making sure to make the floorboards creak, to let his shoes thud awkwardly loudly. "I'm coming up," he called, and heard another burst of definite swearing.
"I'm fine," Miller repeated, and the door to the washroom flew open as he reached the top of the stairs, revealing a disheveled Miller and a shattered medicine cabinet spilling its contents all over the sink and the floor. "It just...fell off the wall. It's been nearly falling off the wall for years, and Joe was going to fix it, and I was going to fix it, and - " Her words were tangling together in her fury and frustration. "That's everything in this house, isn't it? We were always going to. Tom and I painted, and it's not enough. It's never enough. It's a new coat of paint over the same bullshit!" Tears were starting to gather in the corners of her eyes, and she reached up to swipe them away harshly. He took a step toward her, but she waved him off. "I'm fine," she repeated.
"I see that," he said mildly. "D'you need some help?"
"No!" she said immediately, defensively, then crumpled. "Yes," she choked out through tears. "No. I just want to burn the whole thing down. I want - " she turned, grabbed the cabinet door where it was lying against the sink, and spun to bash it against the wall. He hovered in the hallway, letting her expend her energy crashing the flimsy wooden door into the drywall, sending chips of it flying out at her and the room, until her hands were so tired that the door slipped from them to land among the shattered bits of mirror at her feet.
She was trembling, sobs wracking her body, and he didn't want her to go to her knees there in the middle of the broken glass, so he finally stepped forward, holding his hands out but not quite touching her. "Miller," he said softly, as gently as he knew how to. "C'mere," and when his hands finally made contact with her arms, she didn't flinch away. Instead, she let him steer her out into the hallway, then collapsed against him, burying her face in his chest and clinging to him.
It was familiar and new all at once. He had been so careful not to think about it happening before, the night of Joe's arrest, but here she was again, in his arms, wracked with sobs, and the comparison was inevitable. He had opened his door to find her standing there outside his hotel room with silent tears streaming down her face. He'd bundled her against him, holding her as tightly as he could, her ridiculous orange coat a barrier like armor between them. She had pressed her face into his shoulder and held him until she stopped shaking, and by the time she pulled away, her tears had dried and he knew that neither of them would speak a single word of it ever again.
This time, he brought a hand to her hair, brushing through the curls, his other arm tight around her, and he let his head tip back against the wall, staring blankly at the ceiling, wishing for any way to make this hurt her less. Eventually she sniffled, lifting her head, and she shifted away from him, leaving him leaning there against the wall, all uncomfortable limbs and concerned expression.
"Sorry," she muttered, swiping fiercely at her eyes. "I'm sorry. I should be used to it now, shouldn't I? Things falling apart?"
"You never get used to it," he said, and finally managed to unstick himself from the wall, slipping around her to kneel down in the doorway and start carefully gathering bits of mirror onto a towel.
"Here, no I'll - " she said, trying to push by him, but he reached out an arm, blocking the way.
"Go get dressed." The words came out gruffer than he meant them to, but it seemed to steady her, and she nodded. "I'll see what I can salvage here." He looked her over - her feet, which had been among the bits of shattered mirror, her hands, which had held the splintered door, her face, in the path of flying drywall. "You're not hurt, are you?" He couldn't see any blood, any scrapes, and she shook her head, looking down to examine her fingers.
"No," she said, "just stupid."
"You're not." It was gruff again, blunt, and he stopped looking at her, dragging his eyes back to the task at hand. "It's just not good for you, being here."
She was silent for a long moment, and he didn't look up at her, busying himself with gathering pill bottles from the floor, searching for the last bits of glass.
"This is my home," she said finally, in a choked voice full of pain, and practically fled down the hallway.
He cursed himself silently under his breath, and swept up the glass carelessly, knowing that he'd deserve any nicks he received. Instead, he cleaned up the loo without incident, piling the salvageable medicine on the edge of the sink and binning everything else, and he was waiting downstairs when she finally emerged in a dress he hadn't seen before, her eyebrows still knit with tension.
"Sorry," they both mumbled at the same time, and her eyes sparked up to his first.
"Oh, don't you dare," she warned him. "Don't you even think of apologizing to me, after I've made a complete beast of myself."
"Shouldn't have said it," he said. "About the house."
"It's no less than the truth," she said. "We both know it. I shouldn't be here. Tom shouldn't be here. Fred probably hasn't any memories that aren't just just the three of us, but he shouldn't be around us being here, all the same. Don't think I don't know it. I've always known it. I just...can't."
He nodded wordlessly.
"Shall we?" she asked, turning on the fake cheer and offering him an arm.
"We could not," he suggested, and the glare she gave him was so practiced that he almost felt pleased about giving her a reason to fall back into such a comfortable old routine after her breakdown.
"We absolutely are going to," she said, and grabbed his hand, tucking it into the crook of her elbow.
He breathed out a laugh. "You know no one wants me there."
"Of course I know that," she said. "I don't want you there." The smile she gave him set aside any vague worry he may have had that her words held any truth. "But you're part of this community, so you're going."
He groaned. "This is what buying a house here means, is it?"
"Welcome to being a Broadchurch homeowner, Hardy," she said, and she turned for the door, hauling him along with her in her wake, not nearly as reluctant as he pretended to be.
She was sitting on the boot of the car when Hardy finally disentangled himself from the very animated story Maggie had been telling him and emerged from the function hall. One of her feet was kicked up as she rubbed her ankle, and she didn't need to look up to recognize the sound of him approaching. He tossed her coat at her, and she let it land with a heavy thud beside her, without even trying to catch it. "Thanks," she said, dropping her feet down, but not moving from her seat. "Didn't pick the most practical of shoes, I suppose. Haven't had occasion to wear these in a bit."
He tapped the top of the car. "C'mon, Miller," he said, but she didn't move, leaning back to look at the stars instead. "You can see the stars at home," he pointed out. When she didn't answer, he sighed, and there was a pause before she felt him lean against the bumper beside her.
She snorted out a breath that might have been a laugh. "Home," she repeated. "Right."
"Gave Paul Coates a ring last week."
She felt him shift in surprise beside her. "The vicar?" He turned to look at her, and she nodded wordlessly. "Why - " he cut himself off abruptly. "Oh."
"Yeah. Needed him to get in touch with my solicitor. To get some papers delivered."
"'m sorry, Miller." He lifted a hand like he was going to pat her comfortingly, but he let it drop back to his side ineffectually instead.
"Going to have to decide if I want to keep that," she said. "Miller." She repeated the name like it was foreign in her mouth.
"Could go back to - " he paused, and she realized there was no reason for him to know her maiden name.
"Barrett," she supplied.
"Barrett," he repeated, trying it out. He looked at her, said it slower. "Barrett." He wrinkled his nose. "Nah."
She laughed, tilting her knee to knock him lightly in the side. "After all this time, is that what it's going to take to get you to call me Ellie?"
"Prob'ly not." He eyed her. "Think you're going to do it?"
She shrugged. "I don't know yet. I think I'll talk it over with Tom. If he wants to stay a Miller, I will too. It'll just be keeping the name of my boys, not my - " she dropped off, the word husband choking her. "Not him."
Hardy nodded. "Makes sense." He elbowed her knee and said gruffly, "Good on you, Miller. 'f you need anything, you let me know." He pushed up off the car, not looking at her. "C'mon, then. 't's late."
She was silent for a long moment, not following until he'd nearly settled himself into the driver's seat. She tipped her head to the side to watch him folding his absurd length into the car, then sighed, hoisting herself off the boot. "That's why, though," she said as she let herself into the car beside Hardy. "Why I behaved so abominably, at the house. Everything is just so…"
"Y'don't have to explain," he said, starting the car.
"I do, though. You shouldn't have had to put up with that."
"Right, because you've never had to put up with any nonsense from me," he said dryly. He slung an arm around the back of her seat to reverse, but when his eyes traced over her on the way to the back window, they caught there. He sighed, turning back a little, looking at her straight on. "Miller. Stuff your apologies. You're doing the right thing, and it's going to make everything a bit more stressful for the next while. But then you'll be shut of him. That's worth - well, it's worth some dents in your loo walls, isn't it?"
She startled herself with a laugh. "I suppose it is."
"Right, then." His arm was still tucked behind her seat, and he hovered there for longer than he needed to, as if he was trying to figure out how to put something into words. Instead, he shook his head, pulled out of the parking space, and steered them towards home.
"So the thing is," Miller said, walking through his front door without preamble, "oh, hello, Daisy. The thing is," she continued, pulling a pile of folders out from under her arm. "I can't stop thinking about this robbery, and I need you to make sense of it with me, or I'm never going to get any sleep."
Daisy smiled bemusedly up from where she was sprawled on the couch. "Hi, El. I'll clear out."
"No, no, this is your house," Miller said, waving her off. "I'll just set up here," and she dropped the folders onto the dining room table in front of where Hardy was sitting with his feet kicked up onto the chair across from him.
"Did I give you a key?" he asked.
"Do you lock your doors?" she shot back. "You really should, you know." She waved one of the pictures at him. "People are getting robbed."
"This wasn't a robbery," he said dismissively. "It was retaliation."
"That's what I've been thinking, yes!" she said. "The fact that it only happened in the garage, and just after the redundancies were announced - "
He'd planned to at least perform annoyance at her just barging in on them, but instead, he found himself immediately drawn in, shuffling pictures around with her, laying out the list of suspects, and before he knew it, Daisy was leaning over, pressing a kiss to the top of his head.
"Night, dad. Have fun with your puzzle."
"Thanks, darling," he said, leaning back to look up at her. "'Night."
"Don't let him stay up too late," she said to Miller, who made a face.
"Small chance of that," Miller replied, and he didn't like the smile they shared a single bit.
They relocated to the couch with a bottle of wine once Daisy was gone, spreading out the most pertinent information on the coffee table, and Hardy was halfway through reading a deposition from one of the garage's mechanics when he looked up to realize that Miller had nodded off against the pillows.
He probably should have woken her right then, but she looked so peaceful there, curled against the back of the couch, some of the worried furrows on her face smoothing out, so instead he finished his reading before he leaned forward to nudge her gently.
"Miller." She stirred slightly. "You're asleep."
"N'm not," she mumbled.
"'kay," he agreed amiably, and pulled the blanket off the back of the couch, tucking it around her. Her fingers curled into it, pulling it closer and burrowing into the couch cushions.
Her curls were falling into her eyes, and he wanted to brush them back, but the thought of making her actually wake up was suddenly unbearable, so instead he picked up her phone from the table and snapped a photo of her, then thumbed through her contacts until he found 'Dad.' He sent the picture, and laughed quietly at the reply of a matching photo of Tom in exactly the same position in front of the telly.
He left the phone in front of her, open to the picture of Tom, and he gathered up his glass and the bottle. The sea air was cold and sharp when he opened the patio door. The weather had been turning, and it was decidedly on the cooler end of autumn crisp as he settled down into one of the chairs there and poured himself another glass. He drank it slowly, tilted back in one of the chairs, looking up at the stars and trying to imagine connecting the dots of the case, trying to think of the one piece of evidence that would bring everything into sharper clarity for both of them.
He didn't remember falling asleep.
Instead, he remembered the sea, pressing up the cliffs until it was lapping at the legs of his chair, swelling around him and pushing against the door to the house. He reached behind him, trying to brush the water away, to push it hard enough that it backed off from the glass of the patio door, away from where Miller and Daisy were sleeping, but it flowed around him instead, his movements useless as the patio was engulfed, the waves lapping against the siding of the house with loud slaps.
"No," he felt himself gasp out, "wait," but the sea didn't listen. The sea never listened, inexorable and so unbearably cold, sweeping over him, submerging him, until only his face was peeking out from under the waves. He flailed, all his limbs moving, getting him nowhere, and he heard the plate glass shattering behind him, the sea rushing into the house to swallow up Miller on the couch, Daisy in her room -
He could hear Miller calling out to him, her last word before she was swallowed under, and he cried out in response, reaching toward her, straining to get to her, not able to move a single inch in her direction.
"Hardy! Alec? Breathe, alright? Stay with me. I swear to god, Hardy, if you die on me - "
Warmth bloomed along his jaw, his throat, spreading outward, and he reached up to touch the point of origin, his fingers coming into contact with a hand, so soft and warm that he needed to cling to it, to try to drag himself from the freezing sea -
His eyes flew open, and she was there, leaning over him, her hand cupped against his face, his fingers grasping desperately at her wrist. He was dry, and safe, and the surging of the sea was distant below them. He felt himself let out a sound that might have been a sob, his fingers tangling into her shirt, dragging her down against him, feeling the warmth of her as she wrapped him up in her arms.
"Hey," she said, her voice equally ragged, "there you are." She held him for a long moment, until he stiffened, and then she immediately pulled back, perching lightly at the edge of his patio chair, looking down at him. "You were dreaming," she said unnecessarily, and he nodded.
"Yeah," he said roughly, "I know." He shuddered, looking behind him to see the patio doors still intact, and he managed to choke out, "Daisy?"
"Still sleeping," Miller assured him. "I only heard you because I was right here."
He nodded, feeling his pounding heart subsiding a little. He pressed a hand to it, feeling his pulse, and was surprised when Miller's hand landed on top of it, her fingers tangling into his.
She gave his hand a little squeeze. "Here," she said, "You sit, and I'll go make us a cup - "
"No!" He shook her off. She startled away from him, holding up her hands non-threateningly.
"Okay," she said carefully, "no tea," and he choked out a broken laugh.
"For Christ's sake. Make the tea, Miller." He shoved himself up, swinging his legs off the chair. "I'm not staying here. I'll come with you."
She blinked at him, uncomprehending, and then seemed to take in the sight of him. "Oh!" she said, and he felt a hot wave of shame wash over him. "Hardy, why on earth did you buy a cliffside property? You're afraid of the water!"
"'m not afraid," he muttered mutinously, and the skeptical eyebrow she raised at him said volumes. "I'm not," he insisted. "It's just got...bad associations."
"I know," she replied, too softly, and he suddenly hated how gentle she was being with him, how there was probably nothing he could say right now that would make her snap at him, like he was something fragile.
"Come on, then," he grumbled, standing and turning his back on the sea. "Tea."
"'Course," she murmured in reply, following and closing the patio door very securely behind them.
He could feel some of the tension drain out of him as soon as the stillness of the house engulfed him. The sound of the sea was barely audible, the heater was humming pleasantly, and Miller was a steady presence by his side as they made their way through the darkened living room to the kitchen.
"Oh," she said as he turned on the light. "You've kept it alive!" and she crossed immediately to the plant, which was thriving on the windowsill.
"Don't have to sound so surprised," he said, still trying to gather his thoughts, and it came out sharper than he meant it to. "You left the tag in there, said exactly how to care for it. Bit hard to kill, at that point."
She looked pleased anyway. She turned for the kettle, and he watched her for a long moment before settling himself onto the kitchen counter as she bustled around the kitchen as if she lived there.
"Thanks," he muttered finally, a little resentfully, and she looked up at him.
"It's just tea," she said, and gave him the kind of smile that would have made him want to kick her straight out of the house a few minutes before.
"'t's not," he mumbled, and she knocked her elbow companionably against his leg as the kettle announced itself.
"Anyhow," she said, making herself busy again, "I can't believe you just left me sleeping there on your couch like that. Could've woken me!"
"Couldn't," he objected. "You might've slapped me."
"I would never! Well." She considered. "I suppose maybe if you woke me very suddenly, and I was having a particularly unpleasant dream - "
"See?" he asked, and toasted her with the warm mug she pressed into his hand. "Ta. I was right to worry." He brightened a little. "You see the picture of Tom?"
"Oh." He winced. "No, I don't suppose you had the time to check your phone. Go fetch it, why don't you? I let your dad know you were running late."
"Oh, you didn't," she said, and darted out to the living room. A moment later, her laugh filled the room. "He gets all his best qualities from me," she said as she came back in, and Hardy smiled at her against the toasty rim of his mug.
"Undoubtedly," he said, then sobered. "Oh, do the boy a favor and don't say that around him, though, would you? He's a bit bothered by the whole idea of, y'know." He waved his other hand around ineffectually. "Needing to be a carbon copy of you to keep from comparisons to his dad."
"He what?" She stared at him. "He said that to you?"
"Oh, yeah," Hardy said dismissively. "One of the times he was over here helping me with the house. Don't make a thing of it."
"It is a thing, Hardy!" she objected. "He doesn't talk to me. Fred's too little to listen to him, and dad's too old and grumpy. I barely see him with friends. He still texts with Lucy, but god knows what kind of nonsense she's filling his head with. Of all the people I thought he'd open up to, I didn't think it would be you."
"Oh, now let's not go that far with it," he said. "I'd hardly say he was 'opening up.' It's just a thing that came up, is all." He took in her troubled expression, and it made him add, "He does have mates, though. Daisy said. It's a normal teenage thing, not wanting your parents to know who your friends are. I haven't the slightest clue who she spends her time with, now Chloe's off at uni."
"Daisy said?" she repeated.
He shrugged. "Sure, they were working together a bit, around here. And she sees him at school. She said something about him and his friends a while back. I don't remember what, but she did say he had them."
"That's something, I guess." She looked relieved, leaning back against the counter beside him. "Thanks."
He nodded. "He's a good kid, Miller."
"I know," she said defensively.
"I know you know. Just make sure he knows you know."
"You're giving me parenting advice?"
He held up a hand. "Nope. I'm not. Just...there are some particular things that come from being a kid with a rotten dad, is all, and sometimes...well. Sometimes you've got to be reminded that the rottenness doesn't have to pass down."
He could see her very deliberately not looking at him, waiting to see if he was going to go on. When he didn't, she leaned lightly against his leg and sipped her tea. "I'll remember that," she said mildly. "Thanks."
They stayed there drinking companionably for a few more minutes, until Miller sighed and set her mug onto the counter.
"I should get going," she said. "Make sure that dad did eventually get Tom to go to bed."
"And go to bed yourself," Hardy pointed out.
"That, too." She turned to give him a hard look. "What about you?" she asked. "Will you sleep?"
"I'll be out before I hit the pillow," he promised. She looked skeptical. "Honestly. I hardly even get the nightmares anymore."
He slid down from the counter and hovered by the front door as she gathered her things, watching her shrug into her coat. He shifted on his feet as she reached for the door. "Miller?" he said, and she paused with her hand on the doorknob, looking up at him. They were close, and he couldn't remember what he'd been planning to say, because her hair was falling into her eyes the same way it had when she'd been asleep, soft and relaxed and trusting on his couch, and he suddenly wanted nothing more than to reach to brush it back, to lean in and press his lips to hers and forget about trying to put anything into words.
She blinked up at him. "Yes?" she prompted, and he shook himself, stepping back.
"Um. Just." He swallowed. "Thanks."
"You said that," she reminded him. "And you didn't need to, either time." She reached out to pat his arm, awkwardly, hesitantly. "Sleep well," she said, and couldn't seem to get out the door fast enough.
He closed it behind her and let his head fall against it with a dull thud. It was a very long time before he finally managed to lift it again and drag himself upstairs to bed.
"Knock knock!" Ellie called, pushing open the Hardys' door, arms full of the large box she'd found on their front porch. "Well, when you asked me to pick you up this morning, I didn't expect to be playing Santa Claus. Bit early, isn't it?"
"What in the - ?" she heard Hardy muttering as she bundled the box into the kitchen, but by the time she had set it onto the counter, he was already handing her a mug of coffee with a splash of milk in it.
"Oh! Thank you." She took it gratefully, then turned back to the box. "This is one of those meal services, isn't it?"
"It was advertised on some 'podcast' Daisy listens to. It sends you food, and you cook it? Dunno, sounds suspect."
"Say 'podcast' like more of an old man, dad," Daisy said, pushing past him and crossing the kitchen to slice open the box, peering inside.
"I think it sounds like fun," said Ellie.
"See?" Daisy asked. "El's got the right idea." She turned to Ellie. "You should come over tonight and cook it with us! You and the boys. It's only meant to feed four, but Fred doesn't eat much, does he? We can add some extra rice or something to stretch it."
Ellie turned to Hardy, raising her eyebrows questioningly.
"Oh, no," he said to Daisy. "I'm not letting that woman within thirty feet of my kitchen ever again."
"I'm in your kitchen right now," she pointed out. "And I promise to keep my hands off the food. I'll bring wine and do the washing up. The boys can help, if you'll let them."
"Anyhow," Daisy said wheedlingly, "it's not your kitchen. It's our kitchen, and I've invited them."
Hardy grumbled, but Ellie knew there was nothing in the world that would make him say no to Daisy looking like that. "Aye," he acknowledged. "Tom's capable enough. And wee Fred can...well. We'll figure it out." Daisy had set to putting the food away, but she glanced over her shoulder just long enough to beam at him. "Yeh, alright," he muttered.
"Well, now that we have that settled," Ellie said, and waved her watch at Hardy. "Thank you, Daisy!"
"I'm coming, I'm coming," Hardy muttered, wrapping a hand around her wrist and pressing it down from his face. He dropped a kiss on the top of Daisy's head on their way out the door. "Have a good day, Dais."
He didn't mention dinner on their way to work, or during their very long day, but on the way home, he gestured into the market.
"You promised wine," he reminded her.
"I did," she agreed amiably, and was utterly unsurprised when he refused to offer any opinions on the bottles she selected.
Daisy was unpacking the groceries from the fridge when they arrived, Tom playing on the floor with Fred, and Ellie dropped the wine on the counter before swooping in to give them both kisses.
"Ugh, mum," Tom objected, pulling away, but Fred wrapped his little arms around her shoulders and clung to her like he hadn't seen her in weeks.
"Hello, darling," she said to him. "All right picking him up?" she asked Tom.
"Yeah, got your text," he said. He looked at Daisy piling produce onto the counter. "Bit weird," he said.
"Bit," Ellie agreed cheerfully. "Wine?" She stood and crossed to the cabinet, pulling out glasses and lining them up by the bottles. "Daisy," she offered, filling one of them. She looked to Tom. "And Tom?" she let her hand hover, not quite pouring.
"I don't like reds," he muttered, but he stood to take the glass and tip it toward her anyway, waiting for her to fill it.
"And Fred!" Fred announced.
Daisy laughed. "None for Fred!" she said. "It tastes icky." She scooped Fred up like an airplane. "Let's get you some juice." She swept him away toward the fridge.
"Hardy," Ellie said, pouring some wine into the last two glasses, and she turned to hand one to him. His fingers brushed hers as he took the glass, and the smile on his face was still for Daisy and Fred, but when he turned it towards her, it didn't dim at all.
"Thanks," he said, his voice low, and he leaned against the counter beside her, watching as Tom started reading the instructions aloud while Daisy carefully oversaw Fred carrying his juice to the counter.
Tom and Daisy set about distributing tasks to all of them, and the cooking went surprisingly smoothly, even if Hardy was paying far too much attention to whether Ellie was completing her tasks correctly and not nearly enough attention to what he was supposed to be doing. By the time they all got settled around the dining room table, Ellie was starving, and Daisy was looking intensely pleased with herself.
"Oh, I am ordering more of these," she announced as they all dug in.
"Mm's'good," Tom mumbled with his mouth full. He swallowed. "Didn't think it'd be good."
"Tom," Ellie admonished, and he looked at her blankly.
"What?" he asked. "I didn't."
Halfway through dinner, Daisy's phone chimed, and she fished it out of her pocket, muting it. Hardy eyed her until she tucked it back away. “It’s Chloe,” she said. “I’ll text her later.”
“Oh, say hi for me!” Ellie said, and Daisy grinned at her.
“I will,” she promised. “She’ll be back on holiday soon - oh!” she turned to Hardy, interrupting herself. “Dad, she’s invited us to their Christmas Eve party this year. I can tell her we’ll go, can’t I?”
“'Course you can go,” he replied. "So you'll be...here, then? Over the holiday?"
"What, you thought I'd go to mum's?" she made a face. "No thanks. But I didn't mean just me, anyway. Chloe's invited both of us. You shouldn't be here alone on the holiday."
Hardy’s eyes went to Ellie. “I don’t think - “ he started, but she interrupted him.
“Oh, it’s a big do,” she assured him. “They must invite half the town.”
“That’s not a selling point,” he muttered.
“Oh, don’t be a grinch,” she said. “We’ll be there! And it’s good they’re having it. They stopped for a few years, of course, but they started it up again last year, now that Lizzie’s old enough to have a bit of fun. I’m glad they decided to throw it again.”
“I think Chloe made them,” Daisy put in. “She misses being here something awful.”
“Good old Chlo,” Ellie said fondly.
"She's thinking of going out for journalism." Daisy said, and Hardy made a face. "Come on, dad. If there's anyone who'd know how to not be a complete twat about it, it's Chloe." Tom snorted a laugh, and Daisy startled, looking over at Fred, who was completely ignoring the conversation. "Oh. Sorry. But you know what I mean."
"Don't know that there's a way to do it without being a twat about it," Ellie said mildly, and reached to pour more wine.
"Ollie does it," Tom objected, and Ellie was half surprised that the look she and Hardy shot each other didn't shatter all the wine glasses with the force of it.
Ellie cleared up after dinner, leaving Hardy trying to beg off playing a card game that Daisy was dealing out, and she settled in to washing up to the sounds of them all enjoying themselves in the dining room.
It was a while later that she heard his footsteps by the door, but she kept washing, not turning to face him until he spoke.
“You don’t have to do that, you know.”
"I know." She was up to her elbows in suds, but managed to nudge the wine bottle toward Hardy as he entered the kitchen anyway, only dripping a little. "Do mine too, would you?" She nodded at her empty glass sitting beside the sink.
He gave her a lopsided smile and refilled her glass, emptying the bottle into his, and leaning against the counter beside her.
"Went alright, didn't it?" she asked, "after all your whinging this morning."
"Wasn't whinging," he objected. He looked toward the door, where they could hear the kids dealing out another round of the card game. "'s nice," he muttered, sounding almost put out by it, and he drank heavily from his wine glass.
"It is, she agreed, reaching out a foot to nudge his.
He didn't look at her. "Should do it again," he mumbled instead. "Sometime," and she beamed at him.
"Who are you?" she asked, "and what have you done with Hardy?" She set a dish into the rack, and as she rinsed the suds off her hands and arms to reach for her wine, she turned to look at him. Instead of finding him smiling back, though, he was looking at her intently, his brow furrowed with the same expression he'd had just before she'd left, that night he had fallen asleep on the patio. "What - ?" she began, but the rest of her words were lost in the press of his lips against hers.
He swept in with incredible speed, catching the gasp she might have let out between them, so instead she found herself with nothing to do but let one hand come up to cup the rough stubble of his jaw, holding him there against her, parting her lips against his, melting back against the counter.
"Dad!" she dimly heard Daisy call from the living room, and Ellie let her hand fall from his face, but Hardy didn't pull back nearly as quickly as Ellie expected him to.
"Yeah," he eventually called back, his voice gravelly.
"Tom's dealt, it's your go."
Ellie raised her eyebrows at him, his face still so impossibly close to hers. “It’s your go,” she repeated, and he let out a shuddering laugh.
He swallowed, pulling the tiniest fraction away from her, still crowding her against the counter. "I - " he began, and didn't seem to know how to finish the sentence.
"Better not be an apology," she warned him, and after looking at her for a long moment, he shook his head carefully.
"Not unless you'd like one."
He peeled himself away from her. "Right," he said, clearing his throat. "I should…"
"And we - " he gestured between them, his eyes shining, lips parted like it was taking most of the energy he had to keep himself from reaching for her again.
"Yes," she agreed. "That too. But possibly...some other time."
"Yeah," he agreed roughly. He nodded toward the dishes. "You. Um. You good in here?"
"I am," she said. "This is much harder to bollocks up than the cooking part.”
"Mm," he agreed wordlessly. He scooped up his wine glass and hovered awkwardly in the doorway for a moment, looking back at her.
Go, she mouthed, shooing him out the door, and it wasn't until he disappeared into the dining room that she let herself sag back against the counter, a hand lifting to press to her mouth, her skin still tingling from the brush of his stubble, the unbearably soft touch of his lips.
She finished the dishes to the sound of him getting increasingly bewildered by the game the kids were trying to play, Fred trying to explain the rules earnestly, Tom and Daisy doing exactly the opposite, and by the time she emerged to lean against the doorframe and watch them, Hardy had his head in his hands, fingers scrubbing dejectedly through his hair, as Tom tried to peek at his cards.
"Should I just play for you?" he was asking, and Daisy was laughing. Fred, meanwhile, was stretched out with his head on the table, blinking big sleepy eyes up at Ellie.
"Alright," she said, "why don't I put you all out of your misery?" She took the cards from Hardy's hand, looked at them briefly, and dealt them out across the other cards on the table. "Game over, Hardy wins."
"But mum!" Tom objected, "that's not how it works at all!"
Ellie scooped Fred up. "That's how we always played it when I was growing up," she said blithely. "Come on, Freddo. Let's find your jacket!"
"This game only came out like three years ago," Tom was muttering, but he helped Daisy scoop the cards away into the box as Hardy gathered up the last of the glasses from the table.
Tom was still grumbling as he pulled on his coat and joined Ellie and Fred in the hallway, and then Hardy was there too, appearing in the doorway behind her.
"Night, then." He was so close, and her hands twitched, wanting to reach out for him, but Fred was burrowing his sleepy face into her collar, Tom bustling out beside her with two of Daisy's Playstation games tucked under his arm, so instead she gave him a big cheerful smile that she hoped hid all of the tension between them.
"Night!" she said brightly, but just as she turned to leave, one of his hands darted out, his fingers catching the sleeve of her coat just briefly, like he couldn't quite let her go yet.
He nodded at her, his eyes deep and expressive, and she swallowed, but she was saved from trying to figure out some kind of response by Daisy appearing, tucking herself against his side. Hardy's face cleared, and he smiled down at her so uncomplicatedly that it made Ellie's heart hurt.
"So the next time I order one of these, you're making it with us," Daisy said decisively. "Yeah?"
"Yeah?" Ellie repeated hesitantly, looking from Tom to Hardy.
Tom shrugged. "Sure," he said. "Can we get home, though? I want to play this." He waved one of the games at her.
Hardy held her eyes for a long moment. "Well," he said finally. "If Dais says so."
"She did," Ellie pointed out.
"Then I guess you're invited." There was just the faintest hint of a smile on his lips, and for a moment she couldn't think of anything but what those lips felt like, of getting to kiss them again. Then Fred mumbled sleepily, and Tom started down the stairs, and the moment was broken, Ellie shifting Fred against her side and waving at the Hardys.
"Say night-night," she said to Fred, who did no such thing.
"Night!" Daisy called, and ducked out from under her father's arm, disappearing back into the house.
Hardy stayed at the doorway, though, and when Ellie reached the end of his street, she turned back, not at all surprised to find him still there, silhouetted in the warm glow of his house around him.
He was restless.
There were projects left incomplete around the house, but nothing he felt driven to take care of immediately. He could go into work, but none of the cases he was working were quite compelling enough to drag him in on a weekend. He'd read through the morning news, and Daisy was flat on the couch, scrolling idly on her phone.
"Walk?" he proposed.
She looked up at him. "What, just...because?" she asked.
"Yeah," she agreed. "Alright."
They bundled up and set off toward the beach, the wind brisk on their cheeks, a scarf flapping along behind Daisy.
"Well?" she said finally, eventually, the sand soft under their feet. "What is it?"
"What?" he asked, looking at her.
"You don't just want to go for walks with me, dad. You've got something to say, just say it, because otherwise I'm just here thinking you're dying again."
"What? No! I'm not - why would you think - ?"
"Kind of my default state, isn't it? Thinking you're going to keel over on me."
"Daisy." He stopped walking, catching her sleeve until she stopped too. He waited until she turned to him. "I'm well. I wasn't, for a while, and I'm sorry you were too young for me to talk to you about it. But I am now. My heart…" he tapped at his chest lightly. "It's no more fragile than anyone else's now, alright?"
She eyed him. "You're sure?"
She nodded, and he wanted to reach to fold her into a hug, but instead she shifted back on her heels. "So, then? What is it?"
"It's not - "
"Don't tell me it's nothing, dad."
"I was going to say, it's not...anything dramatic. It's just that...I feel I should say - well, I...I think you should know...that Miller and I might be…"
"What, seeing each other? I mean, yeah," Daisy replied. "You've been for, what? Years? I know."
He blinked. "No! No, we're not. I mean, we haven't...Years?"
"No, but we've only just...um."
"Ugh, dad!" She made a face. "I really don't want to know."
"No! No, I mean, we haven't even - uh."
"Oh my god, dad!"
He groaned, rubbing a hand over his face. "It just...it isn't like that. I mean, it hasn't been. Until now, maybe?" He winced. "I don't know."
"You don't know?" Daisy repeated. "Oh, no. You better know." She turned, pointing a finger at him. "Do not fuck this up. I'll never forgive you."
He stared at her. "Wait, you're not...upset?"
"Dad." She stared back, and he was struck all over again by how sometimes she was very demonstrably his daughter. "A, I basically thought this was happening since we moved here. B, what do you expect? That I think you're getting back with mum? None of us wants that. C," she sighed dramatically, but tucked herself against his side, looping an arm around him, "she makes you happy." He looked down at her in time to catch her making a face. "Ugh. Gross. Can't believe I said that." She looked up at him, sobering a little. "But she does. I can tell."
"I don't really do 'happy,'" he pointed out, but with just an edge of humor to it, and she grinned at him. "Wait." He paused, considering. "If you thought I was with Miller, why'd you sign me up for those dating apps?"
"Thought it might make you admit to it."
"You thought I was lying to you?"
She shrugged, pulling away from him. "You've been lying about mum for years."
"That's a completely different - " he began, but cut himself off at the slight lift of her eyebrows. "Wait, what about your mum?"
"Bit too late for that, dad. I stopped in at the Echo after we moved here and had a talk with Maggie."
Hardy growled. "She shouldn't have - "
"I only got her to confirm what I already knew," Daisy pointed out. "There aren't that many people in the world that you have any interest in protecting from their own shit choices. I was too young to be involved, and you didn’t know Miller yet. That pretty much just left mum."
"I didn't do it to protect your mother," he said. "I did it to protect you."
"I know. And I was a kid, I get it. But I'm not anymore."
He looked at her for a long moment. "No," he agreed. "You're not." He cleared his throat, and focused on his feet in the sand. "So, given that. If there's anything you want to ask about." He waved a hand. "About your mum. Miller. Whatever. I think I probably owe you some answers."
"Wow." She turned to look at him, keeping step with him. "That's...big. I should have been keeping a list."
"You don't have to ask now," he pointed out. "Just. I spent a long time thinking I needed to protect you, and I'm always going to do that to some extent, because I'm your dad. But I don't think I need to protect you from knowing things anymore. So." He held his hands out.
She stopped, and when she didn't start up again, he came to a halt too, dreading what he was going to find in her face. Instead of the reproach he was expecting, she just looked faintly concerned, a small furrow appearing in her brow as she asked, "You're going to be alright here, aren't you? When I go off to uni?"
"'Course I am," he answered automatically, but when the furrow deepened, he shifted in the sand, looking at her seriously. "I am, I think. Job is good. I've got…" he didn't say Miller, but he knew they both heard it. "People here. You're going to have to answer when I call, though. Or call me back. Or maybe we can work out that video chat thing…"
"Oh my god, dad. Okay, I'll FaceTime you. Just…" She pulled him into a hug. "I worry."
He hugged her back, but winced. "You shouldn't have to. I'm sorry I made you - "
"You didn't make me! You didn't let me. So now that I'm old enough, I'm damn well going to." She pulled back and stuck a finger in his face. "And you're not going to fuck it all up with Ellie."
"Ugh." He pulled away. "Daisy. Please, let us deal with that?"
"Oh, I will. But I will also know if you're a giant fuckup. You know I'll hear it. She'll say, or Tom will say, or Beth will say to Chloe, who will say to me."
"All right!" He held up his hands. "Can't say I'm fond of being on this side of the interrogation."
"You asked for it."
He wrinkled his nose. "I did," he admitted.
"So. About mum." He suppressed a groan, and she grinned at him. "Nah, I'm taking the piss. I've lived with her, I know everything I need to there."
He sighed. "Your mum loves you, Dais."
"I know," she said. "She'd never have done what you did for her, though."
He thought for a moment, and slowly shook his head. "No," he agreed, "she wouldn't have. And I probably shouldn't've either."
"Probably not," Daisy agreed lightly, and looped her arm into his, dragging him into walking again. "Don't do anything of the sort ever again, and we can call it even."
He chuckled. "Trust me," he said, "I have no intention of it."
He settled into pace alongside her, their shoes leaving a trail of footprints across the sand behind them as they circled back up off the beach, and toward home.
This time, she was the one to arrive at the pub and find that he was already there, and after a moment of gathering her wits in the doorway, she headed straight for him.
He hadn't lifted his head yet, hadn't noticed her, so she had a moment of observing him as she crossed the room, hunched over a glass in a corner of the bar, thumbing through his phone, head resting against a hand, looking moody.
"This seat taken?" she asked settling a hand against the stool beside him.
"It's not," he said, "but there's a whole - " and he looked up to catch her starting to smile. "Oh." His eyes went just a bit wider. "Miller."
"Hi," she said mildly.
"Hi." He swallowed. "Didn't know you were coming here, or I'd've - "
"You'd be doing anything else in the world, I know," she said, leaning against the back of the chair.
He looked taken aback. "No, I - oh," he gestured her into the seat, realizing she was waiting for permission. "Actually, I considered asking, when I left, if you felt like joining me, but I wasn't sure…" he trailed off. "Well."
"That I wouldn't think it was a cheeky little date?" she offered.
He winced. "Pretty much, yeah."
"Oh," she said flatly. "Well, if you're that opposed to the idea - "
"Miller," he said, drawing the word out, and one of his hands dropped to hers against the bar, squeezing light and warm before pulling back and gesturing at the bartender to bring her a drink. She did a complicated little 'the usual?' ritual down the bar, and when she turned back to Hardy, he was looking at her intently. "It's the opposite, really. If I'm going to take you on a date, it's not going to be for just a drink at the pub, alright?"
She blinked. "My, aren't we old fashioned," she said teasingly, trying to keep her voice light, but the thought of it was making her insides feel like they were tying themselves in knots. Hardy picking her up, nervous and awkward. A nice dinner, maybe a bit strained, but no more than any conversation with him ever was. And after, when he walked her home…she flushed, and she could feel his eyes still on her. "Well," she said blandly, "I suppose I wouldn't know what it'd be like, since you haven't asked."
He kept looking at her steadily as her drink was delivered. "No," he said finally, as she took a sip from it. "I haven't." He sighed, rubbing a hand over his eyes. "It just hasn't seemed the time, is all. I've only been seeing you at work, and that's not…" He shook his head. "It's separate. It has to stay separate."
"I know that," she said. "But it's not as if you're a stranger to - " she couldn't put words to it, couldn't compare whatever it was that they were starting to have to what he'd had with Tess. "Well. It doesn't seem to have stopped you before, working together."
He flinched. "That was different," he said flatly.
"I know," she said. She sighed, taking a sip of her drink. "I know," she repeated. "Just for the record, though, if you were to want to have a date, well. I wouldn't say no."
"Ah," he said, his voice a little teasing. "So you'd do that for me, would you? How magnanimous. What a giving person you are."
"Hardy - " she began, and cut herself off. “Should I be...calling you Alec now, do you think?”
“No,” he said flatly. She expected him to expand on it, but he just stared into his glass before taking a long sip from it.
"All right, then," she allowed.
He sighed. "It feels fake, is all," he said. "I know I said this before, and I know I bollocksed it up, but…I feel like everyone who calls me 'Alec' has always been trying too hard. Like they want to be close to me, but aren't."
"Your parents must have called you that," Ellie objected. "And I know Tess - " she cut herself off. "Ah."
"It's not about her," Hardy said quickly.
"No," she allowed, "maybe not, but if your family didn't quite get you, and your wife didn't, well."
He winced. "Miller," he said almost warningly, like he was trying to ward off her pity.
"Hardy," she said, distinctly, and she saw some of the tension drain from him. "I don't care what I call you. I just wanted to ask, is all. In case you'd changed your mind."
"Haven't," he said flatly.
"Good to know," she said, and turned the conversation to something else entirely.
He walked her home, once their drinks were finished, and she spent most of the way there wondering if they had reached some kind of defined stage in whatever this was where he would kiss her good night at the door. She was in such a state of turmoil over it that she barely even noticed when they reached her drive, and he paused awkwardly, shifting from foot to foot.
"I - " he said.
"It wasn't a date," she replied.
"Uh," he said. "No. It wasn't."
"So you don't have to kiss me."
He blinked. "I. Well. I didn't think I had to."
"Good, then," she said, and was turning for the door when she felt his fingers on her arm.
She turned back, and he leaned in to capture her mouth with his. It was light, but slow, thorough, and left her whole body feeling heated when he pulled away.
"I was thinking I want to," he explained, and stepped out of her space.
"Ah," she said, a little dazed. "Alright, then."
"Night," she said faintly, and she stood there on the sidewalk watching him go, her face still tingling from the brush of his beard against her skin.
Hardy blinked blearily up at the ceiling. "Miller. It's - " he rolled to look at the clock and groaned. "It's early. It's Sunday. What - "
"Paul," she said, choking a little on the word, and he was upright before she even finished getting it out, suddenly painfully awake. "He wants to meet me, and I - "
"Alright," he said, "I can be there in...twenty?"
"I'll pick you up," she said, "if you'll make coffee."
She was silent for long enough that he thought she might have hung up, before she said, barely audible and sounding unbearably fragile, "You don't have to…"
"Yeah," he said. "I do."
"Th - " she began, but he cut her off.
"You're not doing this alone. I'll see you in a few." He hung up before she could try to thank him again.
He set the coffee and the kettle, then showered under water so hot that his back was pink when he got out. He dressed simply, casually, no jacket, and by the time she pulled up into his drive, he was sitting on the front steps with two thermoses warming his hands.
He handed her the coffee through the window of her car, and she smiled thinly up at him. "I won't try to thank you," she said as he settled in beside her. "But I'm not sure I would have done this alone."
They were quiet as they drove, Hardy turning to take in the early morning fields around them as he drank his tea, Miller focusing on the road, and by the time they pulled into the parking lot at Paul Coates's current parish, Hardy was caffeinated enough that he took in the way Miller's fingers were trembling against the steering wheel.
He wanted to reach out, to curl his fingers around hers, but instead he turned to her, folding a leg under him in the cramped space of the car. "Whatever happens," he said, "you're protecting your boys. He'll not get near them."
"You don't know - " she said in a broken voice, but he cut her off.
"We'll see to it," he promised. She finally peeled her fingers off the steering wheel, then, and she was the one to reach out for him, one of her hands searching blindly until he tangled his fingers into it and squeezed. "C'mon."
She nodded solidly, holding on tightly for another moment before pulling away, and when she stood from the car, she was strong and determined, not a hint of her indecision in sight. He stepped out to join her, and matched his pace to hers as they crossed to the parsonage, and she was the one who knocked on the door.
It opened almost immediately. Paul looked the same as he had in Broadchurch, except that he'd let his hair and beard grow out a little, wilder around his face as he looked them both over. Hardy saw Miller's jaw go tight, her expression carefully blank, and his hand found hers almost without him meaning to. Her eyes didn't shift from Paul at all, but her fingers dug into Hardy's, desperately seeking reassurance.
"Ellie," Paul said, and the breath left her all in a rush.
"He didn't sign it, did he?" she demanded. "What does he want? Visitation? He'll get it over his own dead body! If he thinks that I am letting my boys within - "
"Ellie!" Paul repeated, holding up one hand to calm her while the other rifled frantically through his shoulder bag. It emerged clutching a packet of documents, which he thrust at her. "He signed it."
Her mouth dropped open, outrage fading into silence, and her fingers slipped from Hardy's to grab the packet with both hands. "He just...signed it?" she repeated faintly.
Paul nodded. "I thought I'd say something...comforting before I gave it to you. But yes. He signed the petition, Ellie. You'll have your divorce."
"Bastard!" Ellie burst out.
Paul looked shocked. "You wanted him to contest it?"
"Of course I didn't!" she replied heatedly, still hugging the folder to her chest. "But…" her face crumpled. "He didn't even want to fight. For the boys. For - " her words choked off and she turned away from them both. Hardy hesitated, but when her shoulders started to shake, he placed a hand on her back and she didn't pull away.
He looked up at Paul. "Thanks," he said roughly, and Paul nodded, looking strained.
"If you need anything…" he said uselessly to Ellie.
"I have what I need," she said, her voice choked and hoarse.
"Of course," Paul allowed. He shared a look with Hardy, who nodded sharply at him, and then he retreated, closing the door behind him with a "You'll be in my prayers," that might have been too quiet for Ellie to hear him.
It wasn't until the door closed that she turned, pressing her face to Hardy’s chest and letting his arms come around her. She was still hugging the folder to herself, not wanting to let it go for a second, so he folded her against him and held her as she sobbed uncontrollably.
They stood there for a long time, and he let his face lean against her hair, staring off into the distance and imagining end after horrible end for Joe Miller. Finally, she shifted away from him, sniffling but composed, and she reached out to brush a hand over his shirt.
"Sorry," she said, "got you damp."
He caught her hand, pressing his fingers to it lightly before letting it go. "It'll dry," he said. He nodded toward the car. "Shall we?" he asked. She nodded, sniffling again, and turned to make her way down the steps toward the road. "More coffee?" he asked as he followed.
"What?" she asked.
"There was a diner, on our way."
"Yes," she said definitively. "I would kill a man for some coffee." Her eyes darted over to him. "A very specific man."
He gave a low laugh. "Can't imagine who," he said. They reached the car and settled into it, and he could feel her eyes on him as he started it up. "Coffee," he said decisively. "Then home."
She nodded, looking out the window, and he didn't comment as he saw her start to cry again. Instead, he shifted into gear, and he steered them back towards town.
"Mum?" Tom was still rubbing his eyes when she had finally gathered herself together enough to enter the house, but she could see that he had managed to at least set Fred up in the kitchen with peanut butter toast.
"Hi, love," she said, trying to make herself busy, unpacking her bag, taking off her coat, storing the folder carefully on the coffee table, but when she looked up, he was leaning against the doorframe, watching her intently.
"What's wrong?" he asked flatly.
She felt herself wither a little, some of the drive to maintain a fiction of normalcy draining out of her. "Freddo, I'm going to talk to Tom in here for a minute," she called, and heard him yell back something incoherent around a mouthful of toast. She sagged onto the couch and patted the seat next to her, and after a moment's hesitation, Tom joined her.
"You left early," he said.
She nodded. "I needed to go pick something up."
His eyes fell on the folder, which she'd been handling as carefully as glass. "That?"
His face was grim. "It's to do with dad," he said. "That's the only thing that gets you like this."
She winced at that being something he needed to know, but she nodded. "I've filed a petition to divorce your father," she said, and was trying to figure out how to word the rest of it when he cut her off.
"About time," he said.
She stared at him. "Tom…"
"I mean, you are divorced," he said. "Happened a long time ago. Might as well get the paperwork, right?" She could see him steeling himself. "If I'll need to go to court again - "
"No!" she said, and suddenly she was overcome with a wave of gratitude that Joe had done what he had, that he had signed the papers with no mess, no drawing this out for the boys. "You won't need to. He's signed what he has to, my solicitor will just have to finish off the legal bits. But it's done, Tom, more or less."
He nodded carefully. "Alright," he said, and she mourned how much he'd grown in the past few years, because his response was so careful, so measured, clearly trying to gauge her reaction before deciding on his own.
She wanted to apologize, but wouldn't let herself. This wasn't her doing, and they both knew it. Instead, she looked around them, and she said, "What would you say to a new start?"
His whole face went pale. "Mum, I know you're having a crisis here, but can't it wait 'til I'm at uni?"
She couldn't hold back the laugh that burst out of her. "Tom!"
"I'm sorry, but I don't want to leave Broadchurch. Not now. I mean, everyone's a shit here, but they're shits that I know, right? I've got to learn how to deal with all new shits soon enough anyway, don't make me do it sooner."
"Oh, darling." She leaned forward, and half expected that he wouldn't let her fold him into a hug, but he did, letting his head rest heavily against her shoulder. "I don't mean leaving town. I just meant leaving the house."
He was still and silent for a long moment. "Oh," he said finally, quietly.
"I really thought we could do it, Tom. Take this place and make it something that was just ours. But I don't know that we can. I don't know that I even want to."
He pulled back and sat up, and she could see him considering. "What if I want to?"
She studied him closely. "Do you?"
He took a long time to answer, and she could see from his expression that he was picturing the same memories she was. The weekend breakfasts, the prepping for football matches, the early morning cartoons and late night storytimes, the firsts and the lasts and every one of the random middle bits that hadn't seemed important enough to commit to memory at the time, but had become so significant in their absence.
"No," he said finally. "But I want to want to."
She wrapped him up in her arms again. "Me too, darling."
He sniffed against her shoulder. "You know," he said finally, "Fred doesn't remember Dad."
"Good," she said fiercely, and she felt him flinch. "Oh Tom. I'm sorry."
"No." He sighed against her. "You're prob'ly right. It's good he doesn't. I just…" he trailed off, and she thought he wasn't going to continue until he said mutinously, "Sometimes I wish I didn't."
"Oh," she said. "Tom…"
"It'd've been easier if he was shit, y'know?" Tom said. "Or, I don't know, if the shit parts of dad and Mark could've been fused together into one person, and there was one good dad between us." He sighed. "I just remember him being a good dad, is all. To me. And to Fred."
"I know," Ellie said, holding him close to her. "And I'm glad. I'm glad he never hurt you, or Fred. But I know it makes it harder to believe he'd hurt Danny."
"I believe it," he said darkly. "I saw him in court."
She pulled back far enough to look at him. "Tom," she said carefully. "I know I wasn't there when you testified, but - "
"He didn't do anything," Tom said quickly. "He didn't even say anything. He just…" He looked at her, and his face crumpled. "He did it, mum. He killed Danny."
"I know," she said.
"I thought maybe he didn't," he said, "until then. I thought maybe you and Hardy had made a mistake."
"I know." He sniffled. "I know." When he straightened, he looked like someone new, like someone she was familiar with but hadn't met in person before, and it hurt to see him growing up like that right before her eyes. "Where will we go?" he asked.
"Wherever we like. Plenty of houses going up for sale in town." She smiled through her tears. "And it can't be too tough to buy one of them. After all, Hardy did it."
Tom gave a watery half smile.
"Well," he said, "it's got to be easy, then."
That was when Fred trundled in, fed and ready for entertainment, and it was Tom who pulled himself away from the couch, scooped him up, and plonked him down in front of the telly. "Come on," he said, "you're going to help me beat this Mario level," and the smile he gave Ellie over Fred's head nearly broke her heart.
She levered herself up off the couch. "I'm going to make some breakfast for us," she said to Tom, who nodded, only half paying attention. "And then, I'm going to look at some houses."
He looked up at her. "Yeah?" he asked.
She shrugged. "If you're with me?"
He seemed to consider it a while, setting the game to go and placing the controller in Fred's hands. "Yeah," he said. "You can look."
She nodded. "Eggs?" she offered.
"And toast," he agreed, and turned to the game, dismissing her, but she stood in the doorway for a long moment to watch them, until Fred did something absurd, burst into laughter, and Tom joined him. Only then did she turn for the kitchen to start making food.
It was too cold to be out, especially without having thought to grab a coat, but Hardy sat on her front steps for a long time anyway, twirling the bottle in his hand and watching it catch the reflected light of the streetlamps. It wasn't until most of the lights had gone out on the street that he finally called her, leaning back against the front door.
"You can tell me to sod off, if you like," he said, "but I've brought whiskey."
"Sod off," she said, but a moment later the porch light flickered on and the front door opened, nearly hitting him in the back. He stood too abruptly, thrusting out the bottle in front of him like an offering, and the laugh she let out was choked but genuine.
"You can just take it," he offered, "if you'd rather. I don't have to come in - "
"Oh, get in here," she said, reaching out to grab the whiskey from him as he followed her through the door. "They're asleep," she said in an undertone, gesturing toward the stairs, and he nodded as she waved him into the living room. She shuddered at the wind blowing in after him. "It's freezing out there! You must be half an icicle!"
"Just half," he agreed, but when she grabbed a blanket off the armchair and tossed it at him, he didn't object.
"Warm up," she said. "I'll deal with this." She waved the bottle.
She appeared a few moments later with two glasses unreasonably full of whiskey, one full of ice, the other without. It wasn't until she'd closed the living room door behind her that she crumpled, sagging against it and seeming to forget entirely that she was still holding their drinks. He stood, the blanket tangling around him, not sure if he should reach out, but the movement seemed to shake her out of it, and she pushed herself up, thrusting the glass at him before collapsing onto the other side of the couch, splashing some whiskey across her top.
He folded himself back down carefully, and when she tossed her legs across his lap and dragged the blanket back over them, he swallowed tightly, but let a hand fall over her knee.
"I've had worse days," she said. "But not many of them."
"'m sorry, Miller," he said, lacking anything else to say, and he half expected her to snap at him, but she just leaned against the back of the couch, sipped her drink, and said nothing. "You talked to the boys?" he said finally, and she nodded.
"Tom took it well," she said. "Fred...well, he doesn't understand, but I talked to him too, because I felt like I had to." He nodded. "We're going to move."
He raised his eyebrows. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. You were right. You know you were right, and there's no need for you to be smug about it, but none of us needs to be here. None of us should be here. And if that means putting every damn thing we own in boxes, then that's what we're going to do."
"If you need help," he said, and her laugh cut him off.
"Oh, don't you dare offer that," she said. "I'm not like you, I will take you up on it."
"I mean it," he said seriously. "There's probably things here you and the boys shouldn't have to deal with anymore.”
She went pale. "You don't think - "
He flinched. "Oh, I don't know, Miller," he said. "I just meant his things, is all. I know he didn't clear out, after, not entirely. He's got to still have stuff here, and you and Tom shouldn't need to - "
"You shouldn't either," she pointed out.
"I don't care," he said bluntly. "I've got no personal connection to Joe." He said the name like a curse. "You let me know what you need cleared out, and I'll take care of it. I'll even drag Daisy in if needed."
The smile she gave him was thin but genuine. "You don't - "
"I know I don't have to," he interrupted her. "I will."
She dropped her hand over his on her leg, squeezing it. "Thanks."
"Don't," he said, gruff and final.
She nodded. "I can't…" she looked to the folder lying innocently on the coffee table in front of them. "I can't quite believe that it's over. That he's not...he's not going to be part of our lives anymore."
"He hasn't been," he said. "Not since this town gave him the sendoff he quite frankly did not deserve."
She laughed, choking on it. "He could have been, though," she said. "If he chose to. If he wanted to make this difficult…"
"Just be glad he didn't," he said flatly. "You owe him nothing for this."
Her eyes met his. "I know," she said. "But I look at Tom, and Fred, and think about how much worse this could have been for them…"
"That's not down to him," he said. "He didn't do it for them, or for you."
"I know," she said, almost reluctantly. "I know," she said stronger, when he looked at her. "He's...I'm well shut of him. I know that."
"But?" he offered.
"There's no 'but,'" she said. She seemed to fold in on herself in front of him, and he tightened his fingers against her leg, steadying her.
"He never wanted me." Her voice broke on the words. "I believed for so long that he did that I'm not sure I've ever even known what it's like, to be with someone who actually…" She gestured down at herself, looking miserable. "I don't know that anyone even could."
"Ellie." He wanted so desperately to shatter the tension between them, to reach for her and pull her close to him and show her with his lips and his hands and his entire existence how possible it was to desire her, but there were still tears on her cheeks, and the house was oppressive around them, and he couldn't. He let out a low, quiet groan of, "Not like this."
"No," she said, her voice unfamiliarly flat. "Of course. You wouldn't want - "
"Oh, I want," Hardy interrupted her, voice rough. "I want like you wouldn't believe, and if you haven't figured that out by now, well. You're a shit detective."
A tiny laugh sobbed out of her. "Well, that's been proven time and again, hasn't it?"
He let himself breathe out the ghost of a laugh, too. "Hey, now, there's only one worst cop in Britain in this room." He reached for her hands, and he lifted her fingers to his lips, pressing a kiss to them. She drew in a breath. "Ellie. Don't you ever for one second let Joe fucking Miller make you feel like you're not worth - " he couldn't bring himself to say being desired, or even being loved, so instead what came out was, "everything." Her eyes welled up again. "And I intend to do whatever I can to prove that to you. However you'd like, for as long as you will let me. But not here. Not now. Not because of him." He held her gaze. "Will that do?"
She looked back at him for a long time, and he thought that maybe she was going to refuse him, or that she was going to lean in and claim his lips right there, pushing away any restraint he might have been clinging to. Instead, she nodded slowly. “Daisy’s at her mum’s next weekend, yeah?” she asked, and it took him a moment to figure out the connection. When he did, he felt his eyes go a little wide.
“Then I’m going to call my dad. Have him stay with the boys.” Hardy nodded wordlessly. “And I’m coming to stay at yours. All weekend.” Her legs were still across his lap, and he swallowed at the way her body was tensing at the thought of it.
"Yeah," he breathed out, letting one of his hands splay out across her leg, feeling the warmth of her skin through her soft trousers. "That sounds...like a great plan."
She let her head tilt against the back of the couch, looking at him steadily for a long moment before her lips twisted into a wry smile. "Imagine," she said, "telling us of a few years ago that we'd end up here."
"What, drinking on your couch?" he asked. "I don't know, I might have believed it."
"I wouldn't've! We hated each other."
"Well." He echoed her smile. "Maybe you did."
"Oh, don't give me that," she said, reaching out to give him a light smack. "You couldn't stand me."
"I thought you were - " he broke off, realizing there was no way to finish the sentence that wouldn't insult her, but she raised her eyebrows at him until he sighed and continued. "I thought you'd be weak," he finished. "I thought your connections to the community would make you ineffective."
She snorted. "Oh, and how right you were."
"No," he said fiercely, his fingers going tight against her leg. "I was wrong." He shook his head. "I think it took me about two and a half minutes to realize that 'weak' was never going to be a word to describe you."
He saw her cheeks go faintly pink. "Specific, that," she said. "Two and a half minutes."
He shrugged. "You were rattled, but you had the answers to all my questions, you had the wits to needle me about the job, and you had the sense to try to keep Beth back, as soon as you saw her. Your first instinct was to protect her, and whether that came from being a copper or being her friend, it didn't really matter just then. I'd summed you up wrong. Recalibrating took some time."
She breathed out a laugh. "Not as long as it took me."
"Only because you'd summed me up entirely right," he said. "I'm still every bit the ornery bastard you thought I was."
"True," she said, but there was a note of fondness in her voice, and she let her hand fall over his on the blanket.
They stayed there quietly for a long while, drinking together, lost in their own thoughts, and when he finally looked up at her, it was because he felt her go tense. She was looking at the coffee table.
"You realize what that is," she asked, nodding to the folder. There were a lot of answers to that question, most of them too complicated for him to voice, so he shook his head, letting her give her own answer. "It's a confession."
He winced. "I heard his confession," he said. "I don't need another."
"I saw his confession. I saw it in his face, before I beat the shit out of him. But for him to admit right here, on paper, that I have valid reason for not wanting him in my life, in my kids' lives…" she shook her head. "He knows, Hardy. I thought for a while, during the trial, that maybe he actually had deluded himself about it. That he'd convinced himself that he was some kind of victim in all of this. But this proves that he knows, and he's living with that. With the guilt of it. With the knowledge he's never going to see the boys again."
"Good," Hardy replied flatly, and the smile she gave him in return was sharp.
"Good," she agreed. She reached out to shuffle things around on the table, burying the folder under a pile of books, remotes, and game controllers. "I don't want to think about him."
"No," Hardy agreed. "Don't blame you." He nodded at the remote beside her hand. "Put something on?" he offered.
She did, flipping channels for a while before settling on a baking show, and he didn't quite doze, but he zoned out for a while, half listening to the canned patter from the telly, most of his attention on Ellie, on the warmth of her draped against him, the way the tension slowly drained out of her until she was curled there looking utterly exhausted.
Her eyes had drifted closed before the first episode was over, but when he reached for the remote, her fingers caught his, tangling into them sleepily.
"Not yet?" she asked, and he let the remote fall, tucking the blanket more firmly around her.
"Not yet," he agreed, and let himself relax back into the sofa, settling in for as long as she needed him.
"I didn't bring flowers," she said when he opened the door, "or chocolates. But I did bring wine." She held it up with a flourish.
He hovered there in the doorway, unsmiling, looking utterly at a loss. "You - " he said finally, creakily, as if he hadn't spoken in years, "uh. You brought you."
He stepped back to wave her in, and she stood there blinking for a moment, not sure if she should have taken that as some sort of bizarre compliment or just a statement of fact. When she followed him through the door, he pulled it closed behind her, then stood there against it like he could decide to whip it open and bolt from it at any moment. Instead, he reached out for the wine.
"Here," he said. "I'll…" and he managed to duck around her toward the kitchen without touching her.
"Yes," she said to his quiet entryway, "alright." She set her bag in the corner, shedding her coat and draping it over one of the dining room chairs. The house felt oddly empty and echoey, even though she'd been in it alone with him before, and it was almost a relief when he reappeared in the kitchen doorway, holding a glass out to her.
"Ah," she said, taking it, and leaned in to clink it against his. "Cheers, then."
He nodded soberly, and lifted his glass to his lips, eyes still on her.
"Well," she said brightly, taking a great sip from her own glass. "Lucky this isn't awkward at all!"
He sighed, setting his glass onto the table. "Miller - " he began, and she felt herself go cold.
"Oh." She set her glass down too, abruptly enough that she was faintly relieved it didn't shatter. "Right." She backed away, already reaching for her things. "Of course," she felt herself starting to babble, "you're right, we really shouldn't - "
He looked stricken. "We shouldn't?"
She paused, hand on her coat. "Was that...not what you were going to say?"
He huffed out something that might have been a laugh if it hadn't been so choked. "I was...I was just going to say that it's been a while. Since I…" he waved a hand helplessly. "And I really don't know how to…" he swallowed. "Start?"
"Oh! Right, well. I mean, I suppose we're both a bit out of practice, yeah. But…" she looked at him carefully. "You're not...you haven't changed your mind?"
His eyes left hers, sweeping down her body and seeming to heat all of her up before flickering back up again. "No," he said, his voice strained. "I haven't."
"Oh." The word was tiny as it came out of her mouth, and she couldn't bring herself to step toward him, but she didn't need to, because suddenly he was in her space.
He was so close, so deliberately not touching her. "Have you?" he asked, very quietly, and it took her an incredibly long moment to think of anything but his eyes - his hands, his hair, his body so unreasonably close to hers - to try and remember what the last thing she had asked was.
"Changed my mind?" she finally asked, and he nodded.
She shook her head wordlessly, and she wasn't sure which of them moved first, but suddenly every part of them was reaching for each other, their lips colliding, his arms going warm and solid around her back while she clung to him.
She had no concept of how long they had kissed in the kitchen, or outside her house, but in comparison, this felt like it went on for years, long luxurious years in which she learned exactly what to do with her tongue to make him let out a shuddery breath into her mouth, and exactly what his fingers felt like cupping the base of her neck, holding her steady against him, and exactly how long it took for him to pull away and say breathlessly, "There's a...couch?"
"There's also a bed," she said, and his eyes went wide. "I mean," she said, "if it's not too - "
"We could…" he swallowed. "Go there. If you'd like."
"I'd like," she said. She paused, looking at him frozen there. "Or," she said carefully, "we could have a snog on the couch like we're some kind of young people." She grinned at him. "I'm good with either, really."
"No," he said vaguely, "bed is good. It's just...well, it's very far away, isn't it?" he asked, and reached out for her again, dragging her in for another heated kiss.
She wasn't sure what she had expected from the thought of sex with Alec Hardy, in the brief moments when she'd let herself consider it, but she had supposed it would be all awkward pauses, hesitant movements, weird angles. Instead, she was finding herself the focus of all his intense energy, and there was something utterly intoxicating about it. When they finally broke apart again, they were both gasping, and she took a moment to cling to him, breathing out a laugh against the soft knit of his sweater.
"Something funny?" he asked, and she tilted her head to look up at him.
"Just...us," she tried to explain. "This. It's all...well, we're a bit of a mess, aren't we?"
"A bit," he agreed.
"A whole weekend before us, and we couldn't make it through a glass of wine before - " she waved a hand.
He blinked down at her. "You can finish your wine, if you - "
"For fuck's sake, Hardy! We can have wine later. We can have it tomorrow. I want this."
"As do I."
He proved it by letting his hands slide downward, feeling out the shape of her before trailing down to her hands, wrapping his fingers up in hers. He tugged her into the hallway, and she let him, following easily. He paused at the stairs, and she took that moment to crowd him up against the wall, enthralled by the way his lips parted easily for her, the way he let himself go pliant and responsive under her hands. If having him focused on her was heady, this was an entirely different situation, feeling the way that her touch could turn him loose and easy in a way she had never associated with him.
"This," he said finally, his hands spread hot against her waist, "is not the bed."
"No," she agreed. "Don't know that I mind all that much."
He made a low noise in his throat and bent to kiss her again. His fingers were against her skin now, her shirt riding up under them, and she found that it suddenly wasn't nearly enough, his touch warm but light, holding her against him, his lips against hers, the scrape of his beard against her skin.
"C'mon," she said, reaching to wrap her fingers around one of his wrists, and it took more effort than she'd thought it would to peel herself off of him, to start up the stairs, dragging him behind her.
"Miller," he gasped out, a laugh in his voice, but he followed easily.
She knew from process of elimination which room must be his - Daisy had shown off the color of hers, and she'd helped unpack some of the books in his study - but the door had always been closed, and it felt almost like trespassing to be anticipating a peek inside. When she paused in front of it, he turned her, backing her up against the door and kissing her thoroughly before letting his lips trail down her neck. She let out a moan at the warmth of his mouth, the roughness of his beard, and she felt her hips arch toward him a little, her whole body wanting to get involved.
"Fuck," he breathed against her throat with feeling, and he reached for the handle with her still leaning back against the door, both of them stumbling into the room.
She clung to his neck to keep her balance for a moment, and when she righted herself against the bureau and looked around, the room was nothing like she'd expected. She'd anticipated something stark, minimal and functional, but the furnishings were practically cozy, all dark colors and solid wood tones.
"Oh," she said, leaning back and taking it in as he switched on the bedside lamp. "This is nice."
"A surprise, is it?" he said, and she grinned at him.
"I've seen how you live."
"When I'm living alone," he muttered.
"Well, then, give Daisy my compliments."
"Is that really - "
"No," she interrupted, "it's not what we're talking about now, okay, I'm nervous, and I'm talking through it, and that is just something you're going to have to - "
He kissed her again, cutting off her words. When they pulled apart again, she'd utterly lost track of them. "Don't be," he said, low and steady.
"Don't be...what now?" she asked vaguely.
"Nervous." He kissed her again.
"Oh, easy for you to say," she objected. "You're all - " she waved a hand at him, and he raised his eyebrows at her.
"All what?" he asked.
"Y'know." He looked utterly bewildered, so she groaned. "Hot, Hardy! And it probably hasn't been next to a million years since you've slept with someone who was actually attracted to you, and - "
"And I've only just very recently gotten to a point where I am physically able to even consider doing this," he finished, and she froze.
"Oh," she said in a small voice. "I - "
"I know you didn't think of it," he said. "And quite honestly, I'd rather you didn't. But it's not as if I've been out there shagging my way through town the past few years." She could see his face twist up just at the thought. "And even if I had been…" she felt his hands slide down her body again, and she closed her eyes, wanting to just feel his touch, hear his voice, feel the warmth of his breath against her hair. "I want this. I want you." She felt his hands insistent against her hips, turning her away from the dresser and toward the bed, and she let him guide her, sinking backward when she felt it hit the back of her knees. "Let me…?" His hands slid down her legs, and she knew that when she opened her eyes, she'd see him on his knees for her, so instead she kept them closed and let her fingers sink into his hair.
"Yes," she whispered. He breathed out shakily, letting his head sink to her lap for a moment, just breathing, but then his fingers were at the button of her trousers, and she tilted her hips to help, letting him slide them off her. She kept her eyes closed, focused on the feeling of his fingers trailing up her thighs, his head resting there, his beard prickly but gentle, and there was part of her that wanted to drag him up to kiss her, to slide her hand down his body, make things more reciprocal, but when she finally let herself open her eyes, his were on her with such intensity and such desperate wanting that she couldn't process it. Instead, she let them fall closed again and shuddered as she felt him press a kiss high on her thigh.
"Could I…?" he asked, and she laughed, echoing and abrupt in the stillness of the room.
"If you don't," she said, "I might kick you."
He breathed out his own laugh against her skin, and she'd been expecting his fingers against the waistband of her pants, so she startled at the touch of his lips to her through the fabric instead.
"Oh!" she gasped, but she let her legs fall apart, which he took as the encouragement it was, his mouth going more hot and insistent against her. "I…"
"Yes?" he asked, licking a wide stripe against her, and she let out a shameless moan.
"Yes. Fuck, Hardy, yes," and the words were barely off her lips before he was pulling her pants from her, baring her, and by this point all thought of shame had fled her, and all she could think about was getting his mouth on her again. He didn't make her wait long, dropping the fabric to the floor and leaning in, but this time his touch was slower, more hesitant, his tongue swiping slowly upwards, his lips making a low noise against her as he felt how wet she was. She let her hips rock against his touch, just a little, just enough to encourage him, but he didn't need it, his hands finding her hips, gathering her close as he swept his tongue up to find her clit.
She cried out, her whole body arching at the sensation, and he held her steady, his hands wide and warm, his mouth against her, letting out a low noise of approval as she plunged her hand into his hair again, holding him there against her. She flung her other arm over her face, wanting to bite down on it to stifle her sounds, but instead she just let it drape over her eyes, letting him hear her as she panted and gasped at the touch of his mouth.
It was too much, too fast, and she felt herself on the edge almost immediately. It had been so long since she'd come from anything but her own hand, and even longer since there had been this delicious suction, the softness of a tongue curling against her, and when she felt his fingers begin to probe at her as his tongue worked her clit, she couldn't hold back any more, her hips bucking up off the bed, shameless noises spilling from her lips as she came.
She kept her face covered with her arm, curling over to bury it further, and she felt him draw back, his hands rubbing warm and soothing down her legs. When she finally peeked up at him, he was wiping his beard off on his sleeve, and the moment was so ridiculous that she burst out laughing.
He looked up at her, a little sheepish, but also definitely with a hint of smugness in his smile. "Alright, there?" he asked.
"You're still wearing all your clothes!" she said.
"Oh." He looked down at himself, as if he hadn't noticed. "Guess I am." He rocked back onto his heels and looked her over. "You're still wearing your top," he pointed out.
"Well, we should fix that," she said. "All of it."
He made a low hum of agreement and reached for his shirt. By the time she had pulled her own off and undone her bra, he had joined her on the bed, his clothes discarded, kneeling gingerly beside her, his arousal evident as his eyes traveled every inch of her. She felt exposed, but there was a heat to his gaze that made her want to show off, to curl toward him and stretch luxuriously, and she saw his eyes go wide as she gave in to the impulse.
"Miller," he breathed, and she wanted to laugh at him calling her that in bed, but instead it just felt real, honest, like them, so she reached up for him and pulled him down to kiss her, enjoying the long warm stretch of his body against hers.
He was hard against her hip, but hardly seemed to process it, instead seeming to be utterly consumed by her mouth against his, and when his hand reached up to find one of her breasts, she arched against him, her whole body electric with the feeling of his thumb brushing over her nipple.
"Oh," he breathed against her lips, and then he was ducking down, his beard brushing the skin of her neck and chest as he kissed downward before taking one of her nipples into his mouth.
She cried out, curling against him, and she let out a sobbing breath when his teeth scraped over her sensitized skin. He kept going until she was a writhing mess in his arms, desperate for him to touch her again.
"If you don't - " she finally gasped out, "do something useful with yourself in the next ten seconds - "
He huffed out a laugh against her skin. "Is this not useful?" he asked, but then he took her words as the challenge they were, and she felt his fingers against her, just barely touching her until she lifted her hips against him and practically drew him into her.
"Oh," he said against her nipple, and then his fingers were curling into her, filling her, long and dextrous, and she lost all sense of anything but the stretch of him inside her, the scrape and heat of his mouth and whiskers against her chest.
She felt trapped there beneath him, in the best way possible, caught between his mouth against her nipple, his fingers inside her, the length of him stretched along her, holding her into the bed, and she let her hips come up off the bed, feeling herself fucking his hand, using him, bringing herself to an unbearable orgasm between his fingers and his mouth.
He held her through it, kissing up from her chest to her neck, her lips, until they were making out languidly on the bed as she came down.
"I want…" she said against his lips, and she reached for him, gratified by the gasp he let out into her mouth as her fingers closed on him.
"Oh - " he breathed out. "Ellie, I - " He lowered his forehead to her shoulder, gasping for breath. "It's been a while," he said ruefully. "I don't think I'm going to be - "
"I think it's my turn," she said, "to give you what you'd like."
He groaned, burying his face against her skin. "Then you ought to stop that," he said roughly. She stopped moving immediately, and the groan he let out against her held so much promise.
"Oh," she said, and he kept his face buried into her skin as she continued, "I could keep you like this for hours, couldn't I?" His teeth sunk into her shoulder almost involuntarily, and she grinned at the ceiling.
"Miller..." he said, the word broken and muffled against her skin.
"C'mon, then," she said, and that was enough to get him to peel himself away from her, to roll for the nightstand and fumble in it for a condom. When he turned back, she was kneeling, and he looked up at her with wide eyes. "I was thinking," she said, and he was already nodding his assent as he smoothed the condom onto himself and laid out against the bed. His fingers curled over her waist, pulling her toward him, and it was the easiest thing in the world to sling a leg over him and settle down against him.
It was something she had done so rarely, and that wasn't the only reason she'd wanted it, but it made some of the tension drain out of the moment, not having much to compare this to, and the broken sound Hardy let out when she lowered herself onto him was one she would commit to memory for the rest of her life. His hands came up to her hips, gripping there, pulling her against him, and she braced herself on the bed, rocking down, learning exactly what he liked, what made his head drop back against the pillow, his lips part in a gasp, his fingers tighten against her skin.
"Oh," he gasped out, so soon, "please, Ellie, I can't - " and his fingers were going tight and desperate against her skin.
"Yes," she told him, curling against him, reaching down with one hand to find her clit, touching herself as she felt him losing control. Tell me you love me, she opened her mouth to say, but the words choked her.
She didn't want to make him say it, to beg it of him when he wasn't prepared, so instead she bit her lips until she tasted blood, and felt the breath utterly leave her when he choked out, "God, Miller. Love you." He came in her nearly instantly, his hips bucking up, sharp and helpless, his head tossing to the side against the pillow, gasping out his release.
She touched herself, not hurrying, feeling him still inside her, and his whole body twitching at her tightening around his oversensitized cock. She moved to pull off him, but he tightened his fingers against her hips, holding her there, marveling up at her, and she came for the third time with her fingers against her clit, his cock softening inside her, his hands holding her so tight against him.
She rolled off him, afterward, sprawling onto the bed beside him, and skimmed a hand over his warm skin, his hair, keeping him close to her, almost certain that he'd try to eject himself from the bed immediately. Instead, he seemed utterly drained, folding neatly onto his side of the bed, but letting one arm drape across her waist, the rest of him powering down, his eyes heavy lidded as they swept over her.
He burrowed into the pillow. "Ellie," he said, tired and drawn out, the way he would have said it mockingly years before, but now it just felt like every part of him was giving in to exhaustion. He let a hand skate down her side, pressing to her skin. "I know we've got all weekend," he said, "but I...I've gotta…" his eyes drifted closed.
"Yeah," she agreed, and curled herself close to him, feeling his warm skin against hers. "Me too."
"You're..." he said vaguely, and seemed too exhausted to finish the idea, letting his eyes travel over her articulately instead.
She breathed out a laugh, and he may have said something else, but she was asleep before she made any sense of it. She slept deep and dreamless, and when she opened her eyes, he was still there.
The time passed too quickly, their brief doze broken into by Ellie's ravenous hunger in the middle of the night, which led to them sharing snacks and wine while the rest of the town slept. The wine led to them trading lazy kisses on the couch, which led them back to bed, back to sleep, and into a Saturday that was cozy, domestic, and over far too fast.
They cooked together Saturday night, an involved and complicated meal that Hardy took complete charge of, but also managed to keep Ellie busy, always having something for her to chop, to clean, until they were settled in at the dining room table, utterly sated, Ellie looking pleasantly dazed as she swirled her drink around in its glass, staring into it.
"I don't want it to be tomorrow," she said.
"Well," he replied. "Lucky for you, then, it's still today."
Her eyes shifted to his. "You know what I mean," she said, and he did. Tomorrow was reality, Ellie returning home to her kids, Daisy returning from Sandbrook, and the two of them...maybe not returning to what they'd been before, but becoming something other than what they were together in this lost weekend, away from life and responsibilities.
"I do," he said.
They shifted to the couch, and curled up there together, drinking their wine and talking about nothing, until finally Ellie went quiet, her head tipped against the cushion, her legs folded under her, eyes on him. He waited her out.
"You…" her voice was very quiet, and once she'd started, the words all came out in a rush. "You said you love me."
He swallowed. "I did," he said carefully.
"The last time I…" she winced, but continued. "The last time I was with someone, I made him say it, even though I knew he didn't."
"Well." Hardy shrugged. "Didn't need to make me."
She looked at him intently. "You...meant it, then?" she asked carefully.
"Miller." He returned her look seriously. "You know that I do."
"I…" she said faintly. "I didn't know that, no."
He stared at her. "What? Of course I - " he broke off. "What do you think I came back to this bloody town for? My health?"
"Daisy?" she offered.
"Aye, Daisy," he allowed. "And you. Christ's sake, Miller. All this - " he waved a hand around them, "everything we've been through, and you think what? I'm being polite? You know I don't do polite, and I certainly don't just go around saying I love people."
She snorted a laugh. "No," she agreed, "you very much don't." She sighed, sobering. "I didn't want to presume…"
"Presume!" he repeated. "You? You presume all over the place. You presume yourself into my life, my house, and this is where you draw the line?" He shook his head. "You're unbelievable, Miller."
"Me!" she objected. "You're the one who wouldn't recognize a human emotion if it kicked you in the teeth. Is it so hard to believe that I'd think you might be having me on, saying something like that?"
He sighed. "Look, yeah, I'm no good at. Y'know." He waved a hand. "People. This. But you think that's the sort of thing I'd just say?"
She looked away, and her voice was low as she said, "I don't know."
He sighed and reached for her. He half expected her to pull away, but instead, she leaned into his touch as his fingers brushed her jaw, sliding up to cup her face. Her eyes flickered to his and he said, intently and sincerely, "I love you, Ellie Miller. I have for a very long time. And I'm going to fuck this up in so many ways, but do not ever doubt that I mean that."
She breathed out a laugh, and when he pulled away, her expression went a little sly. "A very long time?" she repeated. "Have you?"
He could see that she'd said it to tease him, to lighten the heaviness between them, but he could feel a hot wave of shame wash over him, and he looked away from her. "Don't," he said flatly. "That was...I shouldn't have said it."
He could feel her stiffen a little. "You did, though," she said, her voice going a little sharp. "And you meant it. So why - "
"Leave it?" he asked, practically pleading, and he thought for a moment that she might, but instead her fingers tangled into his.
"When was it?" she asked, her voice low and soft. "When did you know?"
He sighed. "Miller. Ellie. I'm not telling you that."
"I want to know."
"You don't. You think that you do, but..."
"I'll guess, then." She tilted to look up at him, her face shining in the low light. "It wasn't love at first sight, was it?" she asked. "On the beach - "
"No!" He shook his head vehemently. "For Christ's sake, Miller."
"Well, what else would - oh." Her words cut off with a strangled sound. "Joe. It was when you knew it was Joe."
He winced. "Not...exactly." He sighed, rubbing a hand over his eyes. "I don't want to do this. I need you to know that."
"But you're going to." There was steel in her voice.
He sighed. "I am," he allowed. He looked away from her, out the door, over the water. "It was before that. Before I knew for sure. But I was starting to suspect...that in order for us to solve this case, you were going to lose your family as you knew it. And I realized - " he choked on the words, and only the warmth of her fingers tangled against his gave him the nerve to go on. "I realized that I wanted to protect you from what we were going to find. That I wanted to protect you from everything. And I couldn't. Nothing could."
"I was furious, you know. When you sent me back to the station to question Nige."
"I thought it was about your reputation. About getting the story in the paper, Alec Hardy singlehandedly catching the Broadchurch killer, somehow making up for all his past misdeeds."
"Nothing could do that," he said miserably. "But that's what I wanted you to think, yeah. Better to be angry at me than - "
"Than at Joe."
He shook his head. He could keep this part to himself, but something about their closeness, the warmth of her beside him, the way that she hadn't run screaming into the night at the thought of him falling for her when she was still married, still blissfully oblivious of everything that was going to rip her life to pieces, something about this moment made him want to admit the truth. "At Tom."
She blinked, her head tilting. "Tom?"
"I thought Joe was involved, yes, but…" He sighed, finally letting the truth come out. "I thought the boys had gotten in a fight - "
"And Joe covered it up." Ellie's hand lifted to her lips, her eyes welling up with tears. "You thought - "
"I was wrong," he said quickly. "And I realized it as soon as I got to your house, and saw Tom, saw Joe, but - yeah. The whole time the case was wrapping up, I thought I was going to have to tell you that - "
"And instead - "
"And instead," he agreed. "Not better."
"Not worse," she said, with a sick little crying laugh. He gathered her close to him and held her, not knowing what else to do.
"I'm sorry," he said finally, helplessly, "that I thought - "
"That's an apology you owe Tom, not me," she said. "And you're never going to give it to him."
"He'll never know," Hardy promised. "But that's when I knew. I knew when I realized that I had been right to tell you never to trust anyone. I half wanted - well. No. I never want to be wrong." She breathed out a laugh. "But I feel like there might've been some kind of poetic justice to the whole thing, if I'd been proven wrong for not trusting people. And instead…"
"Instead, the cynical arse was right about everything."
"Everything?" he asked lightly, lifting his eyebrows, and some of the haunted look was leaving her eyes as he made her laugh again. "No one's ever said I was right about everything before."
"All right, now," she said, swatting at him, "let's not get too full of ourselves here," but there was a faint smile on her lips. He let himself smile back, just a little, but it dropped away almost immediately in surprise as she said, "I love you, too, you know."
He couldn't think of a reply.
"I don't know that I've said it," she continued. "In fact, I'm certain I haven't, because I wasn't sure you'd let me. But I do. And I have for…" her smile went a little sad. "Well, not quite as long as you. But a while."
"You can say it," he said uncomfortably. "May take some time for me to believe it."
She nodded. "You know when I realized it?" She asked. He shook his head. "You left."
He frowned. "After Sandbrook?"
"After Sandbrook, after the surgery. I thought that maybe...you just wouldn't. That you'd put it off for so long that you just...stayed. And instead, we wrapped everything up, and you were gone in seconds."
"Daisy…" he began, but she cut him off.
"It wasn't about Daisy. It was about Tess." He winced. "It took me a long time," she continued, "to realize I was jealous. But seeing you and Tess together, all the history you had, the way you looked at her…"
"I wasn't in love with her," he said. It felt important to clarify. "I hadn't been for years. It was just, after the surgery...I didn't expect her to stay. It was...nice, having her around again. Messed me up a bit, I think."
"You were messed up about her long before that," she said, not letting him off the hook, but her expression was gentle, understanding.
He smiled ruefully. "Aye," he agreed. "Prob'ly always will be. But I wasn't in town more than two days before I knew it wouldn't work."
"You stayed for two years."
"I don't know if you know this about me," he said dryly, "but I don't like admitting defeat. Anyhow, I stayed for Daisy. It was only when things started getting tough there for her that I started to think...maybe it'd be good for both of us..."
"You never thought about it?" Ellie asked in a small voice. "Before that?"
He sighed. "I did," he objected, "for myself. But the thought of bringing her with me...that was what brought me around to it. Otherwise, it'd've been selfish, wouldn't it? Leaving her there having a tough time of it, just because - " he broke off. He felt her eyes on him and made himself continue, "because I'd rather be here with you."
"You didn't say anything," she objected, "when you came back. You could have told me - "
"Could I have?" he asked. "Was that something you wanted to hear just then?"
"Yes!" she said vehemently, but as he held her gaze for a moment, she seemed to wither. "I...I don't know."
"And neither did I," he said. "So no, I didn't say anything. I came back, and tried to get back to what we'd had before I left. Anything more than that…" he shrugged. "I didn't think about it. Not then."
She swallowed. "And now?" she asked.
"Now? I'm thinking about it." He looked steadily at her as he leaned in. "Thinking about nothing else, really."
Her lips against his were frantic, her hands pulling him in, and the last coherent thought he managed before he lost himself entirely in the feeling of her body against his was that they were going to have that juvenile snog on the couch after all.
Things were unbearably normal.
They bantered, they worked, and they kept their hands to themselves. The cold weather seemed to encourage the town to become the worst version of itself, and they were busier than they'd been in months. By the time she made it home at night, she could barely gather the energy to help the boys with whatever they needed from her, let alone think of doing anything else. So she found herself dozing off most nights making a mental note to talk to Hardy, to see him outside of the station, but never managed to follow through.
He was the one to break the tension, finally, chasing after her as she plodded out of the building one night when it was already dark. "Miller!" she heard him calling after her. "Ellie!"
She paused in the street, turning, and he caught up to her in a few strides, trying to catch his breath. "I keep meaning to say it," he said, "but I can't at work, so…" he waved his hands. "We're not at work now, alright?"
"We're not," she agreed, her throat going tight.
"I'd like…" he said. "That is, if you'd still…" He groaned. "This is ridiculous. A date, Miller. This Saturday?"
"I…" she said. "Yes." She swallowed. "A proper date?"
"A proper one," he agreed. "Dinner, at least. Is that…?"
"It's perfect," she said.
"If there's anywhere in particular you'd like to - "
"I don't care," she said. He looked nonplussed. "Hardy, we can sit on your couch again for all I care. We can go to the pub. We can eat chips on the pier. It doesn't matter. I…" she swallowed, but gathered herself enough to continue. "I miss you. I know I see you every day, but you were right, it is separate, at work, it has to be. And I miss…" she glanced around them, but the street seemed deserted, so she stepped into his space and leaned up to press her lips to his. His arms went around her, holding her close as they kissed. "That," she said when they pulled apart. "I miss that."
"You're not alone," he said, his eyes a little unfocused. "I thought...you might've…" He scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Changed your mind?"
"I haven't," she said.
"No," he agreed. "Good. Alright, then. Saturday."
"Saturday," she agreed, and peeled herself away from him. "A date," she said with emphasis, just to see him shift uncomfortably.
"Alright, now, Miller, don't go making it weird."
"Oh, it's going to be weird," she told him. "Prepare for that."
He made a face, but she couldn't help but see that he looked utterly pleased with himself as he turned away and tossed her a wave as he headed home.
Somehow, it wasn't weird.
He'd expected to feel off balance all night, for their conversations to be stilted and awkward, but Ellie had met him at the door with a kiss, calling good night to the boys over her shoulder, and had somehow managed to set him almost completely at ease with how normal it was.
"You look…" he said as they settled in at the restaurant, "...nice." Her eyebrows rose a little, her eyes meeting his, and he was afraid for a moment that he'd ruined things, that he'd tipped the balance too far toward being a real date, an uncomfortable one, but instead she smiled, looking pleased.
"Well, you look the same as you always do," she said, looking pointedly at his suit. She reached to touch the hem of her dress. "You've seen this one, anyway," she said. "I wore it to that benefit a while back."
"Looked nice then, too," he said.
"Oh, like you noticed."
He'd hovered close by her for most of that night, concerned after what had happened at the house, but also just unwilling to be anywhere she wasn't, uncomfortable with the press of people, preferring to keep his attention on her. She'd been beautiful, compelling in a way he hadn't quite been allowing himself to acknowledge yet, but he'd still been unable to keep his eyes off her.
"I did," he said gruffly, and she looked at him speculatively for a long moment before her lips curved up into a smile.
"You did, didn't you?" she said, light and teasing. "Who could have pictured it? Alec Hardy having a little crush..."
"Agh, come on, now," he muttered, and she laughed. "Wouldn't call it that."
"'Course you wouldn't," she said, and steered the conversation effortlessly off in another direction, but he found it hard to focus for a few minutes, distracted by the way her cheeks were still a little flushed from the compliment.
"It's not as easy as you made it look, you know," she said, a long time later as they were lingering over a last glass of wine, neither of them quite ready to call an end to the night yet, "buying a house around here. It's been a while since I had to go through it. Bit of a nightmare, isn't it?"
"A bit, yeah," he agreed. She sighed, looking dejected, and it was that defeated look that made him say, "You know, you could...do something else."
She deflated. "I know," she said, "I could stick it out, at least until Tom finishes school, but - "
"Not," he said, "what I meant." He winced, not wanting to continue, but the wide expectant look she was giving him made him want to cave into himself. "I'm saying, you do need to get out of the house. But you could…I mean, there's plenty of space at mine," he said, "especially once Daisy heads off to uni, it'd just be me, and - "
Her laugh was loud and startling. "You want me to move in with you?" she said. "You? Alec Hardy, who can't handle socializing with a human for more than thirty seconds a day!"
"Alright, steady on - "
"You want me to move into your house. With my teenager and my toddler, and - oh!" She cut herself off, staring at him in a way that made him want to crawl directly under the table to be out of her scrutiny. "You bought the house...you bought it thinking that…"
"I didn't!" he objected. "We weren't even - "
"I know we weren't!"
He winced. "I..." her gaze went even more focused on him, and he couldn't look at her. "It might be that I wanted you to have somewhere else to be, is all. To be able to escape, when you wanted to, to be comfortable someplace that wasn't the house you'd shared with him. But I never thought of you wanting to...I never thought we'd…" He sighed. "This was...unexpected."
"Was it?" she asked. "I feel like everyone else around us expected it."
"Yes, well, everyone around us is an insufferable know-it-all," he muttered.
He could feel her looking at him, until finally he let his eyes flicker up to meet hers. “You knew, didn’t you?" she asked. "You knew before I did that I couldn’t stand to be there anymore.”
He nodded. "You didn't want to go home," he said. "You worked too late. You went to the pub, and barely even drank."
"So you bought a house."
"Not because!" he objected. "Just after!" But the tiniest raise of her eyebrow made him sigh and admit, "Yes. You didn't want to go home, and then I bought a house. Those things happened, in that order."
She laughed. "You're unbelievable. Here we are, on our first date, and you're asking me to move in with you."
He groaned. "That is wildly mischaracterizing everything that is happening here."
"Is it?" she asked, but even as she said the words, her face was losing its teasing expression, sobering a little. "I...I'm going to need to think about this."
"Of course," he agreed. "It wasn't meant to put pressure on - " he waved his hand between them. "Anything. I think all of this is quite enough pressure to be getting on with. Just...if it would make things easier, to not have to look for a place…" he shrugged. "It's an option."
"I'd have to talk to Tom."
"Of course," he agreed.
"I did tell him," she said. "About this. Tonight. Why I needed him to watch Fred."
"Yeah?" Hardy asked. "What did he have to say about it?"
"He said, and this is a direct quote, 's'about time.'"
Hardy smiled. "Daisy said more or less the same thing."
She laughed, shaking her head, but sobered quickly. "Do you think they're right?" she asked. "Everyone who thinks we should have done this earlier? Have we wasted too much time?"
"No," he said simply.
"No?" she repeated, raising an eyebrow. "Just no?"
He shrugged. "It happened when it happened, Miller. It wasn't a waste, it was just...time. Sometimes people need time."
It was cold when they left the restaurant, but they walked anyway, Ellie tucking her hand against his arm, keeping a slow pace like they were still trying to draw the night out. He stopped to kiss her at the edge of town, once they'd passed out from under the streetlights, and he couldn't get enough of the way she pressed herself against him, the feeling of her fingers against the back of his neck as she held him close.
They were at her house far too soon, and they both hesitated there, looking up at it. Holiday lights had begun to appear on some of the other houses on the street, casting a flickering multicolored glow across it.
"I'd invite you in," she said, "but I think Tom's still up." There was still a light on in the living room, the telly casting shadows against the curtains.
"'s'alright," he said. "Not tonight."
They kissed endlessly, there in the shadow of the house, and when they finally broke apart, her eyes were shining, her face pink in the cold.
"So," she said, "we've managed it. A real proper date, without bollocksing everything up."
"We have," he agreed, still a little breathless.
"Could we go back to casual evenings on the couch now, do you think?"
He breathed out a laugh. "I'd like that, yeah," he said. "This weekend?" he offered.
"It's a date," she said, and leaned up to give him one more soft kiss before disappearing inside.
He stood there for a long moment with the warmth of her still on his lips before he turned and made his way toward home, the lights casting strange shadows on the ground under his feet.
The Latimer house was bright and jolly, and felt like a place that hadn't existed in years. Chloe was the one to open the door, a red cap perched jauntily on her head, and she dove forward to sweep Daisy up in a giant hug before acknowledging any of the rest of them. She walked them in with her arm looped through Daisy's, and Ellie found herself swept up almost immediately into a bustle of coats and gifts and food.
Once things had settled down, and she had a moment to look around for Hardy, he had disappeared. It didn't take her long to find him, making himself busy in the kitchen, and she lingered in the doorway for a long moment, watching him putter at the stove. It wasn't until he turned to reach for his wine glass that he noticed her hovering there, his expression softening into something that wasn't quite a smile.
"Are you hiding?" she asked him, crossing the room to lean against the counter beside him.
"Yes," he said. "Is it working?"
"No," she said cheerfully, "everyone's out there talking about how they hadn't taken you for the domestic type." He groaned. "You don't have to do that, you know."
"I know," he said tetchily. "But if I stay in here, I don’t have to talk to people.”
“Beth's in and out."
“Beth doesn’t like me," he pointed out. "Makes for a minimum of talking."
“Well, you’re not very likable," she said, and liked the way he shot her a sidelong glance without cracking even the tiniest smile.
"They're not actually talking about me, are they?" he asked, craning his neck toward the living room, and Ellie laughed, letting a hand fall on his arm.
"No one's mentioned you even once," she said. He looked relieved.
"It's not weird, then? Me being here?"
She shrugged. "It's a little weird. But Daisy's glad of it." She leaned against him for just a moment. "So'm I."
He let an arm fall around her, tucking her against his side, and pressed a kiss to the top of her head. "Go on," he said, giving her a nudge back toward the door. "Let me hide in peace."
She leaned up on her toes before she left, giving him a kiss that was both quick and heated, and she could feel his eyes on her as she made her way back out to the party.
She settled onto the sofa, not joining in on any of the conversations going on, just observing, taking in the relaxed atmosphere, the mingling of her family and her friends and her community, until Beth settled against the arm of the couch beside her. Ellie looked up, overcome with an intense wave of gratitude that they could be this familiar with each other again.
"So," Beth said, sliding her eyes between Ellie the kitchen door, clearly indicating Hardy. She raised an eyebrow. Ellie could feel her cheeks go hot.
"So?" she repeated.
"Oh, come off it," Beth said, elbowing her. "How long?"
Ellie felt herself flush harder. "A few weeks?" she offered. "A month? I don't know, it's all been kind of...complicated."
Beth eyed her. "He better be good enough for you," she said. Ellie couldn't think of anything to say to that that didn't reference her previous marriage, and Beth's mind seemed to go there too, because a faint haunted look swept across her face. "I don't want to see you getting hurt," she said. The again remained unspoken, but they both heard it.
"Thanks," Ellie said, "but it turns out he's a great big marshmallow under all that grumpy."
Beth's laugh was loud and real. "That," she said, "I will never believe."
Ellie laughed. "You shouldn't," she said. She sobered a little. "We're...good, though," she said. "For each other. We fit, weirdly."
Beth shrugged. "I see that, I guess," she said. "But I'm never going to understand it."
"You don't have to," Ellie told her. "I'll never understand you and Mark, either."
Beth's eyes went to Mark, earnestly building lego houses on the floor with Lizzie, Fred, and the daughter of one of Beth's work friends. "We're family," she said, shrugging. "With everything that comes with that."
Ellie nodded, and let herself lean a little tipsily against Beth's side. Beth's arm went around her. "I'm glad you have that," she said. Beth felt a little stiff beside her, so she looked up to catch her eyes. "I am," she said. "And...I'm - "
"Don't!" Beth cut her off. She swallowed, tears gathering in her eyes. "Not tonight, El. We're happy. We're getting there, at least. Chlo's loving school, and Lizzie's the best thing that's ever happened to us, and Mark is...he's here, and he's invested, and...we're being happy tonight, alright? None of your melancholy bullshit." The finger she stuck in Ellie's face was half humorous, but held a fierce determination behind it, so Ellie nodded obediently.
"Happy Christmas, then," she said, and saw Beth's expression melt into relief.
"Happy Christmas," Beth agreed, and leaned down to fold Ellie into a hug.
It was late by the time they left, Fred a sleepy bundle leaning against Tom's leg, Daisy buzzing with wine and friendship, and Beth pulled Ellie into a hug at the door.
"You have a good holiday," she said.
"You too," Ellie said, full of feeling, and squeezed Beth tight. "Enjoy your family."
"Yeah." Beth let her eyes flicker between the boys and the Hardys, and gave Ellie a lopsided smile. "You too." Ellie pulled away with a laugh and reached down to shoo Fred out the door ahead of her, waving to Mark and Chloe and dozing Lizzie as she went.
Hardy and Daisy walked along with them back across the field, Daisy enthusing about the complicated breakfast she was planning for the morning. “What about you all?” she paused to ask, looking at Ellie. “What will you be doing tomorrow?”
Ellie shrugged, looking to Tom. “I don’t rightly know. Opening our gifts, I suppose. Cooking ourselves a nice supper.”
"They had a good tree," Tom said, looking back over his shoulder at the Latimers'. "Maybe we could put one up next year."
"You don't put up a tree?" Daisy asked, walking backwards in front of them, and Ellie shrugged.
"We haven't," she said, and didn't finish with since Danny, but she knew it would be understood. "In a few years."
"Oh, you should come over to ours, then," Daisy said, and Ellie let her eyes flicker to Hardy's, expecting him to object. Instead, he was looking back at her expectantly. "Bring your presents," Daisy continued. "We can all make breakfast and open them."
"You have a tree?" Ellie asked, feeling a grin begin to spread across her face as she looked at Hardy.
"I made him," Daisy said. "It's my last Christmas at home, after all - "
"Hey, now," Hardy said. "You'll be home from uni for the holidays."
"I will, but it's not the same, is it? I won't be around to decorate. You'll all have to manage without me." Ellie shifted her eyes to Hardy, who looked just as startled as she felt at the way Daisy seemed to take it as a given that they'd be planning holidays together in a year. "You'll come over tomorrow, then?" Daisy asked, turning to Ellie.
"Oh, I don't know that the boys - " Ellie began, but when she looked over at Tom, he had perked up.
"Bet Daisy would play the new FIFA with me," he said pleadingly, looking between them.
"Sure," Daisy agreed.
“Oh?” Ellie asked, grinning cheekily at him. “And who says you’re getting the new FIFA?”
He gave her a scathing look. "Mum, I asked for one thing."
She looked down to ask Fred what he thought, but he had paused, staring upward, eyes wide. "Mum," he said. "Look!" Before she even lifted her head, though, she could see fat wet flakes starting to land in his hair and on the grass around him.
"Oh!" She looked up into the darkness as the snow started to settle gently around them. "A white Christmas!"
"Don't start singing," Tom warned.
"I'm - " Ellie warbled, and Tom groaned. She broke off, laughing. "I won't," she relented.
Daisy held up her palms, spinning in the falling snow, and Hardy chuckled.
"Think you've had a bit too much of the old Christmas spirits," he said.
She beamed back at him. "Just enough, thank you," she said primly, and leaned down to catch Fred's hands before returning to her spinning. Tom laughed, leaning down to try to scoop up a pitiful snowball, and when Ellie turned to Hardy, she found that he'd paused in the middle of the field, staring upwards.
She backtracked to stand beside him, and he didn't look down at her, but his lips curved into a smile, one of his arms reaching out to pull her to him. She tucked herself against his side, looking at the way the flakes were clinging to his eyelashes and the edges of his hair.
"Don't like the snow," he said, peering up into it.
"You don't like anything," she said dismissively. "Admit it, it makes everything feel a bit magical."
"There's no such thing as magic, Miller," he said absently, but he looked pleased and peaceful, standing there with her wrapped up in his arms, the sound of their kids' laughter echoing around them.
"Probably not," she agreed, "but this is almost as good."
"It's better," he said, and when she looked up at him, he leaned in to press his lips to hers, soft and warm against the chill of the air and the snow. "Come on, then," he said when they broke apart, letting an arm fall around her shoulders. "We've apparently got a Christmas to plan for in the morning."
"Ooh, you forgot to get me a present, didn't you?" she asked, elbowing him lightly in the ribs as she turned to follow the kids. "You didn't think you'd see me, and you didn't get me anything, and now - "
"I didn't forget," he mumbled.
"What's that?" she asked, looking up at him.
"I got you a present."
"You did!" she said delightedly. "What is it?"
"Open it tomorrow, Miller, for Christ's sake."
"Is it...pretty?" she asked. He groaned. "Is it...useful? Is it something utterly boring? It probably is, isn't it? You're probably shit at presents."
"He is," Daisy agreed as they caught up. "But don't worry, I helped him with it."
Ellie beamed at her. "Good work, you."
Hardy gave a frustrated sigh beside her, but he kept his arm around her as they made their way across the field, Daisy carrying Fred piggyback as she and Tom chattered amiably, the snow falling thick and peaceful around them.
"Oh," Hardy said, seeming to remember something. His hand slipped into her pocket and dropped something there. "Here. It's not a present," he said before she could reach in to feel what it was. "Just...come over whenever you feel like tomorrow." Her fingers felt the metal, warm from having been tucked in his own pocket, and slid across the ridges of the key. "Tomorrow, or whenever."
She stopped, feeling her throat tighten, and she looked up at him. His eyes were bright and sharp in the low light, and she stood there for a long moment, holding the key in her hand.
"You - " she said, her voice a little choked, and he swallowed.
"Don't make a thing of it, Miller," he said. "It's just a key," but his eyes were intense on hers, and she felt him breathe out with what felt like relief when she leaned in to kiss him thoroughly. The sounds of the kids faded into the distance, and she didn't even feel the cold anymore, the dampness of the snow gathering in her collar.
Instead, he folded her into his arms, and for the first time in longer than she could remember, she felt at home.