Hardy doesn’t make tea. He assaults tea. He does awful things to tea. At work, he stews it until it’s strong enough to make Ellie’s tongue tingle, until the film on the top is thick enough to reflect the fluorescent lights that slash across the ceiling. He stirs it with whatever he can find, or not at all if there’s nothing about, just leaves the bag in, sulking at the bottom of the mug.
At least he makes her tea now. And she drinks every cup he does, until she actually starts to like it.
The first time she can remember him touching her is one she does not like to. She’d been on the floor in that interrogation room and he’d been so gentle. He’d called her Ellie. He’d held her arm, as though he could hold her together, hold her up, but really what it was doing was tugging the last pieces of her shell away.
The first time she remembers touching him was before that. Before the betrayal, though it was still a whole betrayal of another kind. He was on the floor, he was dying, and she was holding his life in with her hands, trying to push it into his lungs and through his arteries.
They don’t touch now. As a rule. It’s often silently discussed by a hand pausing in mid-air, or a shoulder being steered last-second away from contact. A conversation and agreement made by arresting motion and withdrawal. Once or twice it’s even been put into words. A mistake she made long ago, and regrets daily.
They don’t touch. Until they do.
Somehow they’ve ended up as friends, close friends. Considering everything they’ve been through, it follows. But if you’d said to her that first day, that first week, possibly even the first months, that she would answer the phone to him with a smile in her voice and a warmth in her belly, she would have laughed herself silly.
He’s not called for a chat. As if he ever does, or would. Hardy and chat do not go in the same sentence. Hardy and talk barely do.
“Miller, I need… would you mind... Ugh, shit.”
Ellie is actually worried for a minute. He’s beyond terse. He’s into anxious snapping. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know. It’s Daisy. I’d say not serious, but I honestly don’t know, and she won’t tell... Could you…?”
“I’ll be right over.”
She is. She leaves Tom a note on the fridge that simply says ‘ Gone to Hardy’s ’, convinces Fred he does need a jacket, and slips out of the back gate. Hardy and Daisy’s small house (new-build, tiny rooms but nice big windows) is two minutes away. She’d been so pleased when they’d moved in there; she can see their roof from her own bedroom window. The kids are constantly to and fro between the houses, as are the adults, to be fair.
Daisy obviously sees them coming and is at the top of the stairs when Ellie shoves open the front door. Fred has his shoes off and his jacket hanging on by one arm before she’s even closed it behind them.
“Go and find Hardy, he’s skulking around somewhere, and he’ll have biscuits." She nudges him away towards the living room so Daisy can come down. She does, with a blotchy face and tears welling insistently in the rims of her eyes. “Oh, my sweet,” Ellie exclaims, and gathers her in her arms immediately.
Daisy goes limp, rubs her face against Ellie’s soft scarf, creeps her arms around Ellie’s waist and hangs on. Ellie catches sight of Hardy over his daughter’s shoulder, and the concern and gratitude warring on his face make her chest hurt. She wishes she could hug him too.
So she does. When she’s talked things through with Daisy, comforted and reassured her, solved her myriad of minor problems by just discussing them, letting her voice them and sort herself out, she slips back down the stairs and flicks the kettle on. Hardy comes into the kitchen and she can’t stop herself. He doesn’t stop her either, but watches her approach with an odd sort of relief. She pulls him in and squeezes him tight, just for a second, not even long enough for his shoulders to lower. She daren’t. Because it’s too right, and if she holds on any longer she’ll have to wonder why it is.
Hardy is tired the next day, Ellie can tell. He’s pale; the tan he’s been cultivating that summer seeming to fade under the harsh station lights. His hair isn’t fluffy now, so much as wild - he’s run his hands through it a lot in the last twenty four hours, and even more the last three they’ve been sat here together. He looks… wrong. The blue of his veins, lavender moons under his eyes, brown of his eyes darkened black in exhaustion and stress. She hasn’t seen him like this since he had his pacemaker fitted. The longer she looks at him, the more her skin starts to crawl.
Before the thought has even crossed her mind, her body has decided to do it for her thoughtlessly, and reached out. Her hand fastens around his arm, fingers pressing flatly at the pulse point of his wrist. He’s warm, solid in her grip, real.
She expects him to pull away, to yank free and swear at her. What the fuck, Miller?! They don’t touch, and she has no right to grab at any part of him, certainly not suddenly and without consent. He seems to give it retrospectively though, and just carries on flipping through the plastic-sheathed papers in the file, now one-handedly, while she feels his life beat regularly beneath her fingertips and feels the spikes in her skin sink back down.
He has nice hands, she muses, looking at them, studying the sweep of sparse dark hair across the back, the elegant ink-stained fingers, the strong knuckles. Good hands for holding. His fingers would curl all the way around hers, cradle her safe. Eventually she lets go, reaching instead for the mouse of her computer, ready to flip back into the images. She sees the long look he gives her, without turning his head, peering discreetly over the arm of his reading glasses.
“We’ll have them by tomorrow, Miller,” he murmurs. “The pieces are slotting.”
She’s tired too. They should go home, but it feels just there, the end of this, the one thing that will appear in front of them and solve the whole damn thing, he’s right about that. “Slotting pieces doesn’t always mean the end, you know that.”
“Aye. Thought I was supposed to be the pessimist here.”
They get them tomorrow.
Hardy is soft, which is nice. Ellie likes him soft. It happens more and more often these days. And it’s nice right now, because she’s half asleep and if he was shouting at her it would be a bit horrid.
“Yup,” she says, hoping it makes her sound more awake than she is.
“Fuck’s sake, Miller, thought we were going to get this done tonight.”
“It’s too hard,” she mumbles. “I’m so tired.”
The TV is switched off abruptly, plunging the room into actual darkness. Hardy stands up from the sofa and the movement tips her over, but the cushions are soft and Ellie’s now more than half asleep, so she really doesn’t care.
“Do you want a bed?”
“Aye. Right.” Hardy sighs.
He touches her then. He lifts her feet gently, steering the bottom half of her body more securely onto the couch, tugs off her shoes and drops them, one and two she counts sleepily, onto the floor. The woolen throw from the back of the sofa makes a flapping wind as he settles it over her, but he tucks it in around her legs, which is nice. She half expects a stroke on her forehead, or a kiss of her cheek, but she gets neither, just the sound of his retreat. But maybe she dreams of it.
She wakes slowly, and uncomfortably, drifting in and out to the sound of someone moving around. Her body assumes it’s just Tom, and so doesn’t jolt her out of the doze. It’s the warm waft of coffee that finishes her off, the pungent steam of a mug placed only a foot or so from her face that pries her eyelids open and connects the images they receive to her brain.
Ah. Not Tom.
“Get up Miller, I’ve things to be doing today. Up, up, come ooorn.”
But the boys! Ellie is bolt upright, throwing the blanket from her in a frantic sort of tangled, kicking mess. The panic pounds in her belly. Daisy and Tom were with Fred last night, but she hadn’t said she wasn’t coming home.
“Kids are all at yours,” Hardy reassures, instantly knowing what the problem is. He plonks himself down onto the sofa beside her and pulls the blanket back down over her legs. “They’re fine, I’ve already checked in while you snored and drooled all over my furniture.”
“I did not,” Ellie protests, and definitely does not check around her mouth for traces of saliva. Much. His lips curve a little as he sips his drink and she hates him for a minute, before remembering he’s made her coffee and then instantly forgives him for being a dick. It’s perfect; hot and sweet and just the right amount of milk. The bugger. “Sorry I flaked out.”
“We were going to get that done. You promised!” He accuses. He puts on a mockery of her accent and pitches his voice a bit higher, “We’ll finish it, Hardy, I swear, we will. Trust me, Hardy.”
Ellie points a finger at him. “Never, ever, do that voice again. I didn’t say any of that. And I’ve said sorry.”
“You let me down.”
“It’s the fucking bake off!” But she’s laughing. He’s happy. Happy grumpy. And it’s quite infectious. She stretches her legs out a bit, pushes them into his space and doesn’t pull back. There’s a minor moment of hurt when he moves, lifting his thigh, until she realises he’s making space for her, and not moving away from her. Her toes creep a little closer and his leg settles back down over them, presses them down into the cushion. He’s warm.
Work is hard at the moment, the case is difficult and it’s been hard-going for more than a week now. People are awful, and it hurts Ellie, deep in her chest. She’d like to go back to solving sheep rustling and red diesel syphoning, but Broadchurch has grown too much - new housing estates and a generation of youths that care not for the small town values they were brought up with. It’s drugs now, domestic abuse and child neglect, and this - a burglary spate and an old lady beaten in the night while her house is ransacked. The small team Ellie clings to have to cover it all.
All she sees when she looks at people is the darkness, the horridness of it all. Margaret, the elderly lady she is with, is broken; bruises spread beneath the translucence of her silky paper-thin skin. Ellie holds the chilled knobbles of her hand while Simmons takes notes. It takes so long to make sense of her warbley words, her voice as weak as her bony arms, that Ellie is running late. Far too late. She rifles for her phone as soon as they leave the room, hospital rules be damned.
“What?” Hardy demands in lieu of a greeting.
“I need… a favour.” She takes a long breath, trying to smother the anxiety with oxygen. “I’m late, stuck at the hospital, and after school club will be finished, Fred’ll be waiting for me, but the traffic and it’s raining and I can’t get fined again--”
“I’ll pick him up.”
“Oh thank you, I’ll be as quick as I can.”
Hardy is already moving, she can hear the shush of his coat, the jerks of his movements in his voice. “You need to call them though, tell them it’s me, right? Do I need a code or a password or anything?”
The security has been raised at school. He’s quite right, they’d never let a strange man pick up a small boy now, except, “Your name is down, it’s fine.”
He stops moving then. “Down as what?”
Ellie is waving an arm at Simmons, trying to get her to hurry up. “A guardian.”
There is silence at the end of the line. She doesn’t notice for a minute, not until they’re in the car and she’s jamming her seatbelt plug into the socket. “Har- oh, is that, sorry, I should have asked, I know, just the forms wanted so many contacts and I never got round to talking--”
She’s very conscious of Simmons in the passenger seat and shifts her phone to the other ear so she’s less likely to hear his voice. This is an entirely unprofessional situation and she will not have it reflecting badly on him.
“Nay, it’s fine. It’s.... fine. I’ll bring him back to work. How long will you be?”
He’s out of sorts, Ellie can tell. He’s normally moaning about kids in the workplace; it’s not suitable, they get in the way, he says, there’s too much around for them to mess up. What he’s actually bothered by is the fact that they might see something they shouldn’t, that a photo of a dead child or a beaten old lady might traumatise them.
“Don’t know what the traffic’s like yet, I’ve still got to get out of the car park. Half an hour, forty five minutes maybe? I’m so sorry.”
“I’ll take him into my office. We’ll be fine. See you soon.” And he hangs up on her.
That’s exactly where she finds them, almost an hour later. Fred is on the floor, drawing what appears to be the nine hundredth picture on printer paper with an array of different coloured biros. Hardy is at the low table, working. They are silent. They are oddly content.
“Hi mum,” Fred chirps. “Can Hardy get me from school tomorrow? He bought me an ice cream on the way. From the van.”
Ellie bends to kiss him on the head. He smells of school: plastic and cleaning chemicals and school dinners. His uniform is a state, smears of stickiness down the front of his polo shirt. “I can see that, you’re still wearing half of it. Sorry I wasn’t there.”
She shakes her head. Fred doesn’t look too upset, just a little disappointed. She looks up at Hardy to see his response, but he’s taking no notice, he’s lost in whatever he’s reading. Ellie and Fred gather up his stuff, return the biros to the pen pot on the desk and retrieve his reading book from under the edge of the sofa.
Hardy glances up when she says goodbye, but looks straight back down and just grunts vaguely in her direction.
“Thank you, Hardy, my life saver.” She says with feeling, reaches out a hand to affectionately stroke down the soft fluff on the back of his head and slips out of the door. Fred is already at the doorway to the stairwell, ready to go home for his tea.
It’s not until she’s halfway down the first flight that she realises what she’s done. She can still feel the silken tufts between her fingers. Shit.