Chapter 1: September
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.
Chapter 2: October
Ellie is a toucher by nature. Hasn’t always been that way; she’s always been up for a hug, you know, but she’s English, it’s not how they do things. But since having kids, affection is shown easily - a palm to hair, a cheek to a cheek, a nose nestled in the baby soft down at the back of a head. There are times she’s sat beside Tom on the sofa and can’t resist leaning over to press her lips against the curve of his cheek. He used to tolerate it, then went through a few years of pulling away, “UGH, MUUUM!”, but now, late in his teenage, he seems to savour it as much as she, as if he too knows he won’t regularly receive it for much longer.
Fred will take any and all touch she gives. A hug, a squeeze, a smoochy smack of lips on his head, a snuggle under the duvet on a Sunday morning. Her soft squishy baby, even now he wears a uniform and goes to school for hours each day.
Hardy though, it’s hard to judge. He doesn’t shy away, but he doesn’t offer either. Ah, but the only times he’s ever offered (few though they are, his offers are rarely verbal, for anything), she’s pushed him away, hasn’t she?
Ellie wonders if he takes comfort, pleasure from touch the way that she does now. She still wants to punch him in the face when he’s ridiculously rude (fairly often), or kick him in the shins when he’s purposefully a knob (also often), but sometimes she wants to pull him into a huge hug, squeeze him until her arms ache and he can’t breathe properly. She wants his hands on her back, the weight of his arms on her shoulders. She wants his body curved around her.
Oh God, he smells delicious. It’s awful. She must be hormonal or something. He’s been at work now for two days straight, staying after she’d left yesterday and being there far too early to have actually been anywhere else at all. Ellie has ducked around behind his desk to look over the email he’s ranting about, leaned over him a little. Hardy is all stale aftershave and fabric conditioner, an undercurrent of old sweat. It should be disgusting. She breathes him in, somehow still managing to make her words make sense when she points out the names in the email, the updated information he’s been too tired to notice.
“Brilliant, Miller, this is brilliant! Outstanding! Look at the--”
“Lovely, now go home please, sir.”
Hardy, for some reason, looks a little hurt. Unconsciously pouts his bottom lip out a little, furrows his brow. So Ellie quickly and automatically presses a tiny kiss to his bristly cheek in apology, or reassurance, or something. Something. The effect is instant and his eyebrows disappear up beneath his floofed fringe, his mouth opening in surprise.
Ellie flees. What the fuck was that?
She does it again though. When she pops round later to drop off the leftovers of the huge lasagne she cooked, knowing he won’t have made anything for himself and Daisy. He’s shuffling about, crumpled shirt untucked and tie loosened to chest level. He’s been passed out on the sofa, she can tell. She puts the lasagne in his oven, a mug of tea in his hand and a kiss on his pointy cheekbone. He still smells stale and unwashed. It’s still far too nice.
“There’s food, Daisy,” she calls up the stairs, “In the oven, twenty mins or so.” And she leaves, only later realising she hadn’t said a word to him the whole time.
He accustoms himself to the contact, within that couple of days and the next. Leans into her hand on the small of his back as she squeezes past him in his kitchen, lets her pat him patronisingly on the head when she tells him not to get up, she’ll wash the dishes. When they are leaving, he dips his head a little as she approaches for a cheek peck. She tries not to grin. There is something odd going on on his face, a look she can’t quite place. None of the kids react at all.
Her car goes in for its MOT. Hardy gives her a lift from work. Ellie hadn’t been bothered by the walk, had left time to pick Fred up from after school club and was going to pick up some bits for tea on the way home. Instead, Hardy leaves the building with her, nods her into his car. Talks at her the whole time, firing questions about one of their current cases. He waits while she nips in for Fred, though likely carried on talking the whole five minutes she was gone. She tells him she wants dropping at Asda instead of home, and he nods. He parks though, instead of pulling into the pick-up/drop-off bay. Still waffling on gruffly about motives and whose fault it is that there is so much drug crime going on.
Asda is chaos, as it usually is at that time, and he hushes while they wander round. In his head, his own little world, making links and rerunning evidence through his head. Fred wants apple pie, passes it to Hardy, who drops it into the trolley automatically, absent-mindedly. Same with bananas. He vetoes the donuts though, silently shakes his head, takes them from Fred and puts them back on the rack. Probably without losing the train of thought in his head at all. Ellie smiles at his back.
“Do you need anything?” She prompts as they head to the tills. He ignores her. Why she even bothers is a mystery.
He follows them into the house with a few bags of shopping, grunting as he trips over the shoes in the hall, and starts unpacking it into cupboards. Ellie wonders, sometimes, why they don’t just all live together in one big Miller-Hardy family commune. Ah yes, because Hardy is a bastard and she’d strangle him within a week. And he trips over the Miller shoe mountain in the hallway every time he comes over, gives pointed looks to the overflowing recycling box, rearranges the tins in her cupboards. It would never work: she’s too chaotic and he’s rude. And now she’ll have to put all the tins back in the right place.
Hardy apparently used up his daily quota of words earlier, but he catches Ellie’s arm as she stuffs empty carrier bags in the cupboard under the stairs. Grazes his lips across her cheek, over the join of her nose and forehead, the slightly frizzed hair on the top of her head. And then he is gone.
Two minutes later she is still stood there looking out the door.
“So when are you moving in together?”
“Oh my God, Lucy. Will you stop? Never. He’s a dickhead, I’m a mess and We. Are. Not. Shagging! Never have been. Never will be.”
“Sure about that, are we?” Lucy smirks and sips her tea. She pulls a face at it. “Did you put any sugar in this?”
“Rot your teeth, you will. And I’m not your maid.” But Ellie takes it into the kitchen anyway. She doesn’t answer the first question.
A few weeks back she was sure, she’s not sure of anything now. Because he kissed her. Not like that, not one of those. But his mouth made contact with her skin, and not by accident. That’s not something Hardy does. But it felt so natural and right and like it should have been happening for years and will keep on happening for years and Ellie is concerned she might be going slightly insane.
“Bring us some biscuits in as well,” Lucy calls.
Simmons is a really nice person, it seems. Youngish, but not naive, pretty but not caring about it, happy to work hard and do her fair share, funny and kind and Ellie really thinks she might have finally hit the jackpot when it comes to team mates assigned to her. Gradually Simmons becomes Hannah to her, and then they are chatting over a cuppa in the kitchenette at work and Hannah asks that question that can never be taken back.
“Are you and Hardy… together?”
“Nope.” Ellie replies immediately, openly, hoping to get this curiosity out of the way. It’s always there, and it always leads to annoyance and comments and awkwardness at work and Ellie is really trying for that not to happen with this one. She takes a sip of her tea and hopes, really hopes, that that’s that, all done, straight question straight answer. She likes this woman, she wants to keep liking her.
“Is he single then? Do you think I might… he would… I might ask him for a drink.”
Ellie doesn’t like her anymore. There is a truly awkward silence, where she desperately tries to claw her thoughts into some kind of order. The first thing that pops out is, “Bit inappropriate though, the boss.”
Simmons eyes her shrewdly. Not cruelly, but with deep thought. “I just want someone who gets it. This job. This life. What we see. And he’s pretty fit, if we’re honest. Tall, slim but with well-rounded… parts.”
Ellie follows Simmons’s line of sight, sees Hardy in his office, his tall form visible through the open blinds. He’s on the phone, pacing, one shirt-clad arm waving bad-temperedly through the air. He runs a hand through his mess of hair, scritches at the stubble along his jaw, rubs across his mouth. Ellie knows those hands, has felt them, she knows how those thorn-sharp whiskers feel on her lips, knows how that mouth feels pressing against the skin of her face. He’s all long lean limbs flailing, seemingly strung together only by the tight, harsh anger of him.
He hangs up on his phone, kicks pettily at a chair, stalks to the door and flings it open. Bellows, “Miller!” and glances around crossly, glaring at her empty desk as if it might help her appear there. He looks accusingly at any inhabitants of the room. “Bloody hell, where is she now? Miller?!”
Ellie defeatedly puts her cup in the sink, gives Simmons a tight smile and makes herself known with a shuffle and a wave, “I’m here, sir.”
“Well, get in here. Jesus!”
They don’t finish the case by that weekend. They both know who it is, but evidence is circumstantial at best.
They do finish bake-off that weekend. They both know who won, it was in the news months ago.
It’s impossible to keep up-to-date on TV though, with their jobs. The blooming of casual catch-up TV has been a godsend. Hardy pretends he’s only watching it for Ellie, but she’s not fooled. He finds it soothing, she knows, therapeutic. It’s a program you can get lost in, invested in, without worrying you’ll be surprised by a sudden twist or complication or character death. It’s happy and innocent. Mustn’t watch it when hungry though.
Ellie is putting her shoes on to walk and pick Fred and Tom up from football when she decides to bring it up, against all good judgment and reason. “Simmons asked me if she should ask you for a drink.”
He pulls that fierce, confused, sneering face he does so well and helps her put her coat on, tugging it up her arms. “Simmons, Simmons… oh! Simmons. Why’d she ask you ?”
She tries not to read into the interested quirk of his eyebrows he’d given when he remembered who Hannah Simmons is. “She wanted to make sure we weren’t, you know,” Ellie gestures between them pointedly.
“Why does everyone think that?” He grumbles, zipping her into the jacket.
“Probably because of this kind of thing,” she points out, pushing his hand from her zip and finishing it herself. Then she leans up on tiptoe (infuriatingly tall man), steadies herself with a hand on his neck and kisses the offered cheek. “And that sort of thing.”
He gives a small smile of defeat, tips his head from side to side as if considering, and shrugs. He’s suddenly all shoulders and curved into himself. “Aye.” Hardy looks worried for a minute that she might be saying they should stop it. But Ellie has only just started it, and she will fight not to lose these points of contact and affection between them. She will fight savagely for them.
He clears his throat. “What did you say to her? When she asked?”
“Um. Don’t think I really gave her an answer, to be honest. Wasn’t sure I should encourage it, if you did that sort of thing, you know.” Ellie is trying desperately not to be awkward. Alas, it seems to be a lifelong affliction. She stamps down on the weird tingling flowing down into her hands, writes it off as tiredness. She’s still got her hand on the side of his neck, so soft and warm beneath her fingertips. It’s an effort to pull away. His shoulder is an easy step on the way though, and she pushes it down on the way past. He obediently relaxes.
“If I do what sort of thing?”
Dating, relationships, getting tangled with colleagues. Except Ellie knows the answers to all of those, doesn’t she? He’s quite clearly done all of them. “I just didn’t want to encourage her to bother you if you weren’t interested in looking for that sort of thing. If that’s what you, um, want. You’ve just got settled in this place, and Daisy will be going off to university soon, and you’re…” She runs out of reasons as she realises she just doesn’t want to share him. That’s it.
“I might want that sort of thing.” He offers quietly, his face gone dark.
There is a long silence, during which time Ellie wonders if she's having a heart attack and how she would know if she was. He’d know, wouldn’t he. Bloody wanker. She can’t stop the hesitant stammer in her voice. “With, with Simmons ?”
Hardy growls in disbelief or frustration or something and moves forward into Ellie, pushes her over the threshold with his presence and his body, and out the door. “No, not with bloody Simmons. Good night, Ellie.”
He is still leant in the doorway watching her when she rounds the corner to cross the green. Illuminated by the hallway light from behind, like a long shadow at sunset.
Chapter 3: November
It’s awfully hard to get out of bed. Ellie has that scratchy sharp feeling at the top of her throat, aches in places she didn’t even know existed. Her head is so heavy she feels like she might tip over just standing up. It’s almost seven though, so she has to wake the boys, put dinner in the slow cooker, get ready for work, get Fred ready for school, get Fred to school, fill up the tank in the car, pick up something for her own lunch and then be at work. In an hour.
It’s torture, everything takes twice as much effort and Ellie doesn’t even make it to the station before she just turns the car around and goes home again. She calls and leaves a message with the desk sergeant before trying to find the energy to get out of the car. Eventually the warmth of the house calls her loudly enough and she staggers inside to collapse onto the sofa, kicking off her shoes and pulling the blanket on the back down to cover herself. Should set an alarm, she thinks, to make sure she doesn’t sleep through the whole day and end up late for Fred. Sleeping through the whole day feels like a likelihood right now.
Ellie is woken by the front door opening, with no idea what the time is. She’s pretty certain she dropped the latch though (habit), so the intruder must be someone with a key.
Oh yes, that someone with a key. “Get out, you can’t be here.”
Hardy appears in the doorway with a takeout coffee cup in hand. “I brought you— Jesus, you look like shit.”
“Thanks.” Ellie rolls her eyes and immediately wishes she hadn’t as the room seems to sort of clench around her. Definitely not just a cold. “I’ve got the flu or something.”
She starts coughing then and he’s beside her, helping her sit up, encouraging her to drink some of the coffee to soothe her throat. He has a hand on each of her shoulders, looking into her face. She’s burning up, she can feel it, everywhere is damp and sweaty, the room chilly on her skin. When she can finally take a breath again, she pushes him gently away (not because she feels gentle, but because any bigger a movement feels impossible).
“You can not be here, Hardy. You can’t get the flu with your condition.”
He clearly swallows back the ‘condition’ argument he apparently loves to have and lays her back down again. “I’ve had me jabs. Anyway, I knew I’d be passing so I picked you up a cappuccino, you ungrateful bastard, thought it might make you feel better. Do you need me to call Tom or something? Want me to send Daisy round?”
“Might not be that sort. They only jab you for one, don’t they? This might be a different… branch? Strand? Whatever, please don’t get flu, you’d get so sick and it’s too dangerous and I couldn’t bear it.”
“Shut up about me, Miller. I said: do you want me to call someone to look after you?”
For some reason that fills her eyes with tears. No, she doesn’t want him to call someone. She wants him to stay and look after her, but he has to go to work doesn’t he? Or wherever he was off to when he dropped in on his way past. He’s going in a minute, any minute. “No,” she rasps out and closes her traitorous eyes.
Why is she like this?
“Have you taken anything?” Hardy asks, standing up with a creak and click of his knees. Ellie doesn’t even have to shake her head before he’s off to rummage through the cupboards for medicine. Paracetamol is shoved in her face. “Take this and get that fever down. Do you want the TV on before I go?”
Ellie shakes her head again, keeps her eyes closed. Why is he being so kind? He’s never this kind, even when he is. Maybe she’s delirious, that would make sense, with the tears and the kiss she can feel on her sweaty brow.
“Fuck off.” She swats at him. “No flu for you. M’not sharing. Anyway, you’re mean, you don’t deserve it.”
“Neither do you,” he murmurs, taking no notice of her nonsense, and kisses her again, stroking her hair back from her forehead with a blessedly cool hand. Ellie thinks she must already be asleep, because he’s still there and so gentle with her and that’s not fair.
She wakes with a start what could be ten minutes or several hours later. The clock tells her it’s the latter. It’s just after lunchtime and she feels NO better. There’s a note on the coffee table beside her and she flaps a hand about like a suffocating fish trying to retrieve it. The scrawled writing swims about a bit in front of her, which is quite inconsiderate and really rather nauseating.
Take the tablets.
Drink the water.
I’ll get Fred and pick up tea.
We’ll be home by 6.
Knobend. But she does as she’s told before turning over and conking out again.
He called it home.
Tom takes Ellie to the movies. They have to go into town, but he drives, proud of his new license. It’s her first big outing since she was ill and it’s a bit of a relief to get out and about. She’s still got a chesty sort of cough that wipes her out in the evenings, but she’s been back at work for a couple of days.
It’s the new Avengers film, and while she has a basic knowledge of what’s going on, she’s lost about half an hour in. But she’s quite content to sit and watch the explosions and laugh at Paul Rudd being the comedy relief. They do Pizza Hut afterwards, which has always been a tradition for them. Movies and pizza, perfection.
“Did you like it?” Tom asks, chasing stringy cheese with his tongue.
Ellie stops herself from telling him not to talk with his mouth full, he’s too old for that now. If he wants to look like an ignorant savage, that’s his choice. “It was great.”
“You have no idea what it was even about, have you?”
“Yes!” She protests. “It was about Iron Man and Captain America secretly being in love and the end of the world getting in the way, again. The one decent person dying, again .”
Tom snorts into his Pepsi. “Tony Stark was married to Pepper Potts, mum. They had a kid.”
“You can fall in love with more than one person in your life,” Ellie points out airily.
They eat their pizza quietly for a while, but she can feel his eyes heavy on her. The topics of love and relationships often end up like this between them, silent but weighty. She refuses to shy away from them though, not anymore. Not talking about things is what always leads to problems with her family. This could end up a heavy conversation, but she thinks the pizza can carry it.
“Mum…” Tom gives a little smile, a gift of acceptance and understanding. He’s so big now, so old. She’s so proud of him. “You know I don’t mind, that you love Hardy now?”
Pepsi is suddenly a choking hazard and it gets her, the bubbles propelled up into her nose and burning. He’s laughing at her, Tom, passing her paper napkins and giggling so hard he has as many tears in his eyes as she does in hers. Finally she regains control over her lungs.
“Do I?” Is the only thing that she manages to say.
Yes. She does. She loves him to absolute pieces.
Ellie drops Daisy home, even though it’d probably be quicker to walk, but it’s late and she’s been babysitting Fred, and Ellie is a soft touch, alright? She nips in to pick up Fred’s wellies that he’d left the other day. Hardy is asleep in the living room, his face pressed into the back cushion like he’s trying to suffocate himself, and his long long legs folded to fit on the small couch. His gentle snores are muffled. Daisy makes eye contact with Ellie, their giggling failing to stay quite silent.
“Where’s the blanket?” Ellie mouths, exaggeratedly miming a big square.
Daisy wanders off and returns a few seconds later with the throw that usually lives on the back of the sofa, for exactly times like this. Instead of covering her father, for some reason she hands the blanket to Ellie, and for some reason Ellie takes it, shakes it out and lays it over him before even thinking to question why it’s her job.
The stairs creak in an obnoxious way, as those in new build houses that have been rather half-heartedly constructed tend to do - Daisy disappearing upstairs. The noise disturbs Hardy, and he turns over slightly, giving a graceless, twitching kick and a snort, before blinking his eyes open sleepily. "Hey love, you have a good time?”
Love. She’s not sure who his sleep-addled brain has decided she is, so she strokes his hair back from his forehead. Watches it flop disobediently straight back down again. “Go back to sleep.”
“Aye. Night Ellie, get home safe.”
In complete contrast to that softness, he’s back to explosive at work the next day. Flying off the handle at a loss of evidence, and while Ellie understands his reaction given his past history and the fact that they still haven’t closed this bloody case and it’s getting shoved back and down under others while they watch in despair, she can’t sit back and let him rip her colleagues to pieces. Hardy laying into people is harsh and cruel and she has weathered it enough times to know how humiliating it can be. She slams her hand down on her desk, half in anger and half to gain his attention.
Hardy seems to realise his door is open and the whole floor can hear his tirade, but it only trips him up for a moment.
Ellie slips into his office. “Sir, you need to—”
“What I need right now, Miller—”
She interrupts him right back, “What you need is to calm down.” She tacks on a quick “Sir” to lessen the insubordination.
Standing up against him on this is possibly perceived as some kind of disloyalty by Hardy, some betrayal. She can see the disbelief and then the resignation in his eyes as she stands firm between the uniformed officer that has been taking the brunt of his rage, and her boss. The silence is awkward. He breaks it.
“Get out, Collinson,” he seethes, waving the uniform away, waiting for him to close the door on the way out. Hardy leans both hands on his desk and practically snarls at Ellie. “How dare you? How absolutely dare you even… I can’t…”
“To be fair, sir, you were laying into him too hard. It was unlucky, it was an awful mistake at a stressful time and we don’t even know where it happened and—”
“Stop making fucking excuses! Bloody useless, the lot of you. What is even the point of this force if none of you can keep your mouths shut and evidence locked up? Fucking ridiculous, Jesus. I don’t know why I’m even here.”
Ellie hates when he says this kind of thing, segregates himself from the rest of the team, like he hasn’t been here for years, like he isn’t one of them.
“Neither do I,” she spits, finally losing her rag with him. It’s been a few weeks this time, some sort of record. She can feel the attention of everyone outside on them, speculating, entertained.
“And then you come in here, all righteous avenging angel…” Hardy’s volume is wince-worthy. The closed door is probably making no difference. “Undermining me with your soppy soft-hearted bullshit. Don’t do that, don’t.”
“With all due respect, Sir—” Her own volume is not far off.
“You bloody people wouldn’t know respect if it kicked you up the arse!” He flings an arm in a wild gesture at her and the rest of the station.
Ellie’s body tracks the movement, and she flinches as his hand passes her. There is a good half a metre between his fingers and her face, but she shrinks back in a reflex she can’t quite source. He freezes, frowns at her, confused. Then realisation. Then hurt.
“Well, that’s quite enough of that then,” she grits out, with the fakest smile she owns. It feels so stiff and brittle that her face could crack at any moment. She walks out of his office, picks up her jacket and handbag and heads for the lift. It’s nearly the end of the day anyway, and Fred will be delighted to see her early. Maybe they could nip to the coffee shop before it closes and get a hot chocolate with marshmallows. It’s Friday, she deserves an early finish.
She doesn’t look back.
Ellie’s got her pyjamas on and is halfway through a packet of fruit shortcakes when there is a gentle rapping on the front door. It’s gone ten o’clock, and she hesitates a minute before going to answer it. But Joe is far far away now, it won’t be him, it can’t be him. In the shine of the porch light she flicks on, the rain is visible pouring down outside the window. She pulls her cardigan tighter around her body before cracking the door open. She must remember to lock and bolt it after, it’s getting late.
“Hardy! Why are you knocking, you dick?”
He looks tired and miserable, sopping wet and pale. The shine on his coat tells her he’s been standing out there quite a while. What had he been waiting for? Why hadn’t he just walked in as usual? She grabs him by the arm and tugs him into the porch, looking up at him, feeling the rain dripping from the bottom hem of his coat onto her bare feet.
“Are you ok? What’s the matter?” Ellie looks him up and down, tries to find some sign of injury. Instinctively places her hand on his chest, waits for the steady thump of his heart under her palm and feels the light ridge of scar tissue through his damp shirt with her fingertips, just below his collarbone. He doesn’t shy away. In fact, he wraps his own huge hand over hers, pushes it in more firmly to his pectoral muscle.
“I’d never hurt you, Miller, not on purpose, and not like that.”
Oh God. Oh Christ. Had he spent this whole time thinking he’d done something awful? Thinking she was afraid of him, hating himself for frightening her. “Oh, I know, you bloody great fool,” she rushes to tell him, assure him. He’d stood outside in the cold rain, unsure of his welcome. She flings her free arm around him and pulls him into her, like she can fit around him and his stupid lanky body. She’s pulling him in like he’s one her boys, like she can comfort him. And, somehow, he does fit into her, folds down around her, tucks his wet head into her neck and breathes her in. Like they’ve always done this, like they’ve been hugging from the start.
She sniffles, a little humourless laugh. “I do know. I’m sorry for my reaction. I don’t even know what it was, some weird reflex.” She can’t not tell him, she can’t keep it all in. “I’ve never not felt safe with you, Hardy. You are my safety.”
“I’d never hurt you, never,” he murmurs again, and he pulls back to look her in the face. There’s something there, in the sadness of his eyes, in the downward drag of his mouth. Something she’s seen for a long time, but never quite understood. She thinks she understands now, as his gaze flicks to her mouth and back up. He closes his eyes, almost in defeat, and steels himself to pull back further, stand away from her. She feels the muscle beneath her hand tense in preparation for the movement, and she will not allow it to happen. Not this time.
The movement to reach him is smooth and almost automatic. Almost. She tips forward onto her toes and rises up. His eyebrows shoot up in surprise and then her mouth is on his, gentle but determined. He makes a light sort of oomph sound at the contact, but his hand is immediately up, cupping her cheek, fingers long enough that the tips are sinking into the hair above her ear. It’s just one kiss, just a press, a breath and release. He gives an inch of chase at the separation, not quite willing to lose the contact so soon, but still lets her go.
There’s only just breathing space between them, Hardy following as she sinks back down onto the soles of her feet, tipping his head to maintain the closeness and distance between them. He’s watching her carefully, so carefully. It makes her belly burn even more than the kiss, the deep dark pools of his eyes, focussed so diligently on her. This close, she can see his freckles, smattered about across his cheekbones, cradled in his laughter lines.
“Mill-Ell-errrrmmhhmm,” is the noise that comes from his mouth. It’s a disbelieving sort of sound, not an unhappy one.
“Come inside,” Ellie invites, not quite sure what the invitation extends to, but knowing it’s not happening in the porch.
Tea. It’s a perfect time to make tea.
It’s not; it’s an awful time to make tea, but that’s what people do, don’t they? That’s what tea is for. She leads the way into the kitchen and flicks the kettle on. Hardy stares at her like she’s grown a second head.
“Are you making tea?!”
“You just snogged me on the doorstep and now you’re making tea ?!”
“It was hardly a snog, Alec. And it was in the porch.”
It’s not a productive conversation, so she reaches up for a mug. Hesitates. “Do you want one?”
“No, I bloody don’t!”
“Alright, no need to get sniffy about it.”
He whirls around and stalks from the room. Ellie is thankful, she has no idea how to deal with this, and him being there while she freaks out is not ideal. Unless, he’s… he’s not leaving, is he? Oh shit. She dashes out to the hallway, just in time to see him hanging his coat on the hooks and bending down to unlace his shoes. With a sigh of relief, Ellie takes the chance to eye the taut length of thigh and curve of backside she is treated to and leans heavily against the wall.
“I don’t know how to do this,” she admits. He doesn’t turn around, but he grunts in response as he straightens everyone else’s shoes into a line of pairs. Ellie closes her eyes. She’s tired. Of everything. “I don’t even know what it is. Do you? Everybody thinks we’re a couple and sometimes I can’t help but wonder if maybe we are, and we’ve just never noticed.”
Hardy does, in fact, drink a cup of tea. Ellie sits at the opposite end of the sofa from him, her feet tucked under his thigh and watches him. He loosens his tie, pulls it off over his head and chucks it on the coffee table. Undoes the top two buttons of his shirt.
“Wit woo,” she teases and sips at her drink. It’s still too hot. She smiles at the arch of eyebrow directed her way. “So….”
“This is gonna be awful,” he groans. “Can’t we just put the telly on and never talk about it?”
She throws the remote at him, a little bit viciously.
Chapter 4: December
That week, the house is cleaned from top to bottom, the floors hoovered and the shelves dusted, kitchen floor swept and mopped and all the DVDs put back in their cases. She’d taken Fred to the park yesterday, done a bit of shopping, gone for a coffee and hot chocolate with him and Tom after football. It’s an odd sort of mania, but Ellie can’t make herself sit still, because then she’ll look at her phone and see how many messages there aren’t from Hardy.
“You alright, Mum?” Tom asks when he finds her pulling all the towels and bedlinen out from the airing cupboard to be sorted out. She gives him an absent-minded ‘mmhmm’ and he crouches down beside her. “Do I need to punch someone?”
Ellie laughs. She laughs and laughs and she has to stop because it’s going to become crying any second and she won’t do that, not in front of Tom. She takes in a big breath, keeps taking it in until her lungs ache. “I’m ok, darling, just trying to get this house sorted out a bit.”
“That’s why I’m asking.”
Ellie sees his point, gives up on the sorting idea and just crams it all back in the cupboard. “Let’s order a takeaway and watch an old Dr. Who.”
She and Hardy slip back into work without a hitch. They’ve always managed to do that. It’s quite impressive, but also somehow deeply annoying. There are a few moments of awkwardness when they first get into Hardy’s car to go out on some enquiries. It feels uncomfortable, it feels like he’s going to accidentally touch her when he changes gear, it feels like they’re going to have to talk stuck so close. But then he stalls the car at the station car park barrier and she laughs at him and they’re back to normal again, with her chuckling and him grumbling.
“Do you remember what happiness feels like?”
Hardy looks at her, long and hard. He has his sad eyes again. “Sometimes.”
“How do you find it again? Like sometimes there are little snippets and I think ‘ooh, happy’ and then it’s gone again, like I’ve chased it off by noticing it. Maybe you get to the stage where you don’t register each one, and then they blend in and just become… you being happy. You think?”
“Shut up and drink your stupid poncy coffee, Miller.”
Ellie rolls her eyes and rocks the cup, watching the bubbles sway to and fro on top.
“I paid nearly four pounds for that bloody monstrosity,” he mumbles.
She grins, feels that familiar warmth in her chest. Pats his hand. “That’s what made me happy.”
It’s the middle of the night when Ellie starts to doze off. It’s one of those times she only notices because she loses track of the BBC4 documentary about British Castles and starts learning things about cereal and owls that are definitely not included in the original narrative. She shakes herself out of a semi-dream and stretches, long and satisfying, the rushing in her ears deafening.
Hardy is at the other end of the sofa, looking barely more awake than she is.
“I’ve got to go to bed. Or sleep anyway. Are you staying?” She yawns, and only just manages not to miss the shock that sweeps across his face before he hides it carefully behind a frown and sniff. It makes her snort. She hadn’t meant it like that, which he seems to realise when she shuffles down to lie slightly more horizontally.
Ah, the ever faithful ‘Hardy Nah’. He makes no move to leave though. Ellie adjusts the throw pillow under her head and extends her legs across his lap. The sudden chill on her feet is cruel and she wriggles them fruitlessly, trying to tuck them under something. Bed seems so far away, and it’ll be cold upstairs - the heating went off a while back. Maybe she could just doze here a little while. She flaps a hand around for a blanket, but there’s no joy.
“Cold,” she whines.
“Where’s the… fluffy thing?”
“I don’t knoooow,” Ellie cries mournfully. A few seconds later it’s over her though. Most of their life seems to be covering each other with blankets on sofas. It makes her smile.
Ellie wakes up a bit uncomfortable, chilly around the edges, with a dead arm and someone snoring in her ear. It’s lovely. There is no moment of who, what, where? She can feel the bones of a skinny elbow over her waist and smell the scrumptious stale sweetness of faint sweat and old cologne. No doubt who it is. She snuggles back into the warmth of him and lets herself drift off again. Holds onto his arm and nuzzles her head up against his prickly chin. Hardy shifts to press a sleepy kiss to the top of her head.
This, this is far closer than they’ve ever been. This is more than a stroke of hair or a kiss on a cheek. This is sleeping together, in the literal sense, both under the covers this time. This is vulnerability and intimacy and, good god, the man smells delicious. Ellie breathes him in deep. Her backside fits perfectly in the cradle of his hips, her shoulders in the cradle of his chest, her whole self in the cradle of him.
It’s a few minutes nicely spent imagining how they got in this position. Perhaps he dozed off sitting up, naturally sank down beside her. Or he could have made the decision consciously, watched her sleep, levered himself gently down behind her, snuggled up close and held her.
She doesn’t remember falling asleep again, but the next time she opens her eyes all she can see is the back of Fred’s head where he’s planted himself on the floor in front of them and put the TV on. Justin’s House is on, quietly, bless him, and he’s helping himself to the packet of biscuits Ellie left out on the table. It’s a nice chilled out sort of morning, nobody is running late yet, and Ellie has no desire to move. She’s pretending she doesn’t need the toilet. She’s pretending the man behind her being behind her like this is not a big deal.
Hardy makes a contended sort of rumbling noise in her ear, slips his arm under her head and nuzzles sleepily at the back of her neck.
“Mum, did you wash my kit socks?” Tom crashes chaotically into the living room, half dressed in his football kit and shoving toast into his mouth. Lowers his voice to a comically loud whisper. “Oh, sorry!”
Ellie wriggles as Hardy grumbles grumpily and shoves his face further into her nape. It’s scratchy. “I put them in the basket for you to put away. The one you never put away. Stick the kettle on, darling.”
It’s her voice that finally wakes Hardy properly and she feels the moment he places exactly where he is and what’s going on around him. She feels it because he is suddenly like a board behind her, tense and still, his lax angles becoming sharp and pointed. He’s going to ruin it now, make it awkward and painful. Ellie sighs and forces herself to sit up, runs a hand through Fred’s dark curls. She’s not hanging around for it.
It’s too much of an effort to not look back to him as she leaves the room. Her glance finds him soft and sleep crumpled, his hair a total disaster, his eyes half-closed. His pale blue shirt is untucked, buttons skewed to the side of his chest. He’s frowning at the back of Fred’s head.
Ellie adores him. How unfair.
It’s not until she’s in the bathroom, staring at herself in the mirror that she lets herself think about it properly. Are they… a thing? It’s a long time since she’s been a thing, she’s not sure how it works. He could do so much better than her though, he’s handsome and clever and really out of her league. What is she even thinking?
It would be far too easy to have a mini breakdown in the loo, so she brushes her teeth instead, tries to remember those moments where she doesn’t feel guilty and out of control, where life almost makes sense, where she isn’t a failure. She spits the foam into the sink and watches it rinse down.
She’s still in her pyjamas and cardigan when Hardy leaves, her curls askew and a mug of coffee in her hand. She sees him to the door and he looks at her while he shrugs his coat on, flicks his collar straight. He’s searching for some sort of clue, she thinks, a pointer on how to act. Eventually he settles on sliding his arms around her shoulders and pulling her in to his chest. Her own arms lock around his slender waist. The hug goes on a bit too long for a simple goodbye. He smells of coffee and sleep and she wants him, she wants all of him. He rests his chin on top of her head for a beat or two before he releases her.
They don’t say anything, but he looks back at her when he reaches the gate.
It feels like one step forwards and two back. While the closeness between them doesn’t disappear, there is an odd stiffness about it. Like Hardy has become used to physical contact between them, but can’t stop himself hesitating when he initiates it. Thankfully, Ellie truly is thankful, he doesn’t stop. He doesn’t shy away from her hand on his back, he doesn’t restrain himself from placing a hand on her shoulder as he leans over her at her desk to see the monitor. He still offers his cheek for a peck of a kiss when he drops her home sometimes after work. But there is a split second of thought each time.
Ellie hates that moment.
“Thank you, darling,” she chirps, wondering when exactly she’d started calling him darling. God they really are an old married couple, aren’t they?
Hardy leans a little towards her, his cheek open and inviting. Ellie’s hand finds his thigh, taking her weight while she reaches over to kiss him goodbye, a little peck on the cheek, a little sneaky inhale of his scent, just to keep her going. Except somehow she takes a bit too long on the sneaky inhale and he turns towards her, enquiringly, curiously, seeing what the hold up is. Her lips land on his.
They both freeze. It’s not the first contact between their mouths, but it’s the first time he makes that sound, a surprised little moan, somehow gravelly in his throat and light and whining at the same time. Then it’s over and Ellie can’t quite look him in the eye. Their second kiss and she still can’t look at him.
“Right,” she says brightly, “I’ll see you Monday, if not before.” And gets out of the car, not bothering to tangle herself up in her handbag, because she’ll be inside in a moment. She doesn’t look back.
Somehow, mercifully, her shaking hands do not drop the keys, and she gets inside, switches the lights on and closes the door without mishap. Then she collapses back to lean on the door, lets the wood hold her up while she falls apart a little. Oh god, oh christ, what is she doing, why is she doing it? She’s going to ruin it all. Hardy is going to tell her no, he’s going to be all shy and awkward and say he’s flattered, but not here for this. She’s not for him, she’s not enough or she’s too much or she’s something wrong. And it’s going to break her heart.
Ellie nearly screams at the knock on the door behind her, has to take a few deep breaths before whipping it open. It’s Hardy, of course it is. Here to talk, here to break it to her as gently as he can, but break her to rough, jagged pieces all the same.
There’s a moment of silence, not awkward, just heavy. And Ellie steels herself for what’s coming to her, opens her mouth to apologise, tell him not to worry, she’ll stop, she’ll sort herself out. But instead what comes to her is him , stepping into the porch, reaching for her. His mouth is on hers a second later, a hot crash of lips, a ragged breath, a scratch of beard on her cheek. She steadies herself, grabbing hold of his suit jacket, the fabric stiff and crisp in her hand.
He pulls back before it’s a proper snog, and she can feel him looking at her. His hand brushes hair from her forehead, tucks it behind her ear. Ellie’s eyes open slowly, already knowing what she’ll see. Hardy is serious, silent. He leans in again, slowly, giving her every chance to stop him. She does not.
His lips are damp and the way they press plumply into hers is delicious, sending goosebumps skittering down her arms. Ellie feels a thump in her chest at the connection; it sinks down through her belly. He comes back for another sweep, mouth slightly parted, closing gently over her bottom lip, a light caressing grip. Oh he’s so soft; all sharp angles and harsh anger, but so soft with her. His hand shifts to her neck, tips her up to him, pulls her into him. Ellie’s hands glide of their own accord, up over his firm shoulders, linking behind his head.
It’s like magic, this kiss, that same shiver of amazement you get from watching something amazing and impossible happen right in front of you. Anticipation and adrenaline and thrill and it’s all wound up and tangled so wonderfully that Ellie can’t quite catch her breath.
Alec Hardy is kissing her. Tall, dark, mysterious, knobend Alec Hardy. Bane of her life, her saviour, her best friend and sometimes enemy Alec Hardy. Scottish madman, Alec Hardy, with the worst temper and the best laugh and she bloody loves him. She loves him.
“Miller,” he mumbles, kisses at her mouth, her chin, her jaw, her neck. It’s so good. “Ellie. This is such a bad idea.”
“Yep.” She agrees. Bad idea, dreadful, could ruin everything. But somehow it’s also the best idea they’ve ever had. “We’ll stop. Just one more minute please.”
Hardy chuckles into the curve of her neck, tickles her with his breath and makes her clutch at him. He trails the sharp point of his nose up to her ear, nudges at the lobe, scratches purposefully at her skin with his stubbley beard until she moans and Hardy takes advantage of her open mouth to kiss her again.
It deepens on both of their sides, Hardy tipping his head to adjust the angle and Ellie leaning up into him. His hand flies to her back to support her, and she gives him a grateful graze of teeth in response, taking pleasure in the indecent moan that follows, practically feeling it in her bones. He kisses like a demon: furious lips, a swipe of tongue hot against the underside of her top lip, sneaking into her mouth. She’s wanted this for such a long time, she realises, quite a lot longer than she should have. His hair is wild silk and she digs her fingers into the heat of the roots and tugs.
Good move, she muses, as she is shoved fully inside the house, her back pushed against the wall. Hardy has desperate hands at her hips and he’s gasping in breath. Ellie pulls again, smiles into his mouth at the growling noise he makes. The door is carelessly kicked shut behind them.
They don’t stop in a minute. Instead, she wrestles his coat off, and lets it drop to the floor with a scoosh and a thump. Her own orange monstrosity follows it, his hands capable and eager. Her suit jacket joins the heap and then he pulls her in again, his flat chest to her heaving breasts, his thin lips on her fuller pair and his hands at the base of her back, rucking up her blouse to find her skin. She’s trying to lead him to the stairs without separating the two of them, or tripping over the outerwear on the floor, conscious of the kids, of getting caught or traumatising one of them. The things she wants to do to this man, with this man, are not things she ever wants her boys to see.
“Miller.” He pants a little and it is far too sexy for her to be able to deal with. How dare he? “This is not stopping.”
“Good spotting there,” she teases, steps onto the first riser, levels herself with him. “Come upstairs with me, Hardy.”
He looks at her, hard. The deep brown of his eyes focussed on her entirely, somehow seeing right inside, it feels like. Not quite the same probing gaze he turns on suspects, it’s too gentle, but it sees just as much, if not more. He shrugs, as if he doesn’t care, as if he isn’t quaking about this as much as she is. Ellie doesn’t believe it for a second. She sniffs a laugh at his, “Aye, yeh’lright.”
She takes him by the hand and he lets her lead him up the stairs. She pauses on the way to look in on Fred, who is dead to the world, Hardy patient behind her. Tom’s door is closed and she can hear muffled music and keyboard tapping from within.
It should be awkward, when they get to the top floor. Ellie sort of expects it to grind to a halt, for him to go back to being stiff and grumpy and hesitant about everything. Except it isn’t and he doesn’t. He steps up to her on the landing, yanks her back to him and gets right back to it. It’s like he’s been starving for her, and now he’s had a taste he can’t stop. Which, to be fair, is exactly how she feels about him. She can’t stop smiling against, into, his mouth.
Happy, happy, happy, she thinks.
Ellie had always thought he was a right skinny fuck, skinny and grouchy. But actually, he’s just lean. When she finally gets all his shirt buttons undone, she can see and feel him - solid and muscular, nice planes of chest, gentle curve of rib, concave swerve below, beautiful dashes of shadow above his hips. Dark hair is smattered and silked across his chest, slowing at the bottom of the rainbow-arc ridge of his ribcage, thinning into a trail down to his navel, widening a little again as it dips below the waistband of his trousers. It’s an absolute pleasure to look at him, drink him in. She wants to touch all of him, and she starts with her palms on his torso, feels the life thumping beneath his ribcage, carefully not poking at the bump in his chest or the line of tissue hiding alongside his clavicle, though they both know she wants to.
“Your shoulders should be illegal,” Ellie tells him, holding onto them as he lowers her to the mattress. It makes him laugh, huff into the side of her neck. Then she wraps a leg around his hips and grinds them together and he’s biting down, full-on teeth into the skin of her neck. She lets out a little squeal, and moans low and long.
She can feel his cock against her, hard and promising. He’s hard, for her. It’s a bloody lovely feeling. Even more lovely as he gives another couple of good rolls and rubs and lets her feel his rhythm, the natural kick of his hips.
She’s never really done sex like this, rushed unclothing and biting desperation. Even early on in her other relationships, sex was a thing of concentration: shaved legs and nice underwear, getting completely naked and under the duvet. But right now, she’s still got her shoes on when Hardy gets a hand inside her trousers and shoves his face into her cleavage. She doesn’t bother trying to get her bra off, just finishes unbuttoning, yanks the lace cups down under her breasts and greedily guides his mouth to a nipple with a clenched fist in his hair.
He loves it, her command and demand. Seals his lips and sucks, tongue flicking until she’s writhing under him and then he grazes with his teeth, tugs gently, just as his fingers finally conquer the barriers of her trousers and cotton knickers and find the wet heat of her waiting for him. They both make a noise, a heavy grunt of satisfaction as he slips down her swollen slit. She wants his clothes off, wants hers off, but instead she’s trapped there, quite happily actually, while he finds the right position for his fingertips to access her clit, slides one down either side and back up, making her toes curl and her body arch up into him.
He wriggles over to lie across one of her legs. “Fuck, you’re so wet, Ellie. For me?”
Oh he would be great at this, wouldn’t he? Bloody awkward bugger. Ellie whines as he grazes her clit just right , skims down the centre of her, sinking deep between her labia so he can push one gorgeous long and agile finger inside her. He nips at her earlobe, breath hot and perfect against her ear.
“Yeah,” she manages on a staggered breath out. Another finger makes it’s slick way inside her and Ellie cries out at the artful undulation they make inside. Oh god, she needs this so bad.
“I’ve got no condoms, love,” Hardy says, sounding far too sensible and reasonable, considering he’s completely disabled her ability to breathe properly. “We can just do this, if you like. Maybe you‘d let me go down on you?”
Oh shit, oh Christ, he’s going to kill her. Is this man even real?
“There’s some in the bathroom,” she manages to grit out. They’re not Ellie’s, she bought them for Tom, hoped if she just shoved them in the cupboard on his shelf, next to his razor that he’d get the idea. He’d been brave and mentioned them the day after, looking somehow embarrassed and amused at the same time. She doesn’t want to think about Tom now, though, so she doesn’t explain all that to Hardy. “Give me a minute, just a minute, I’ll get them, hang on.”
“Aye in a minute,” he agrees, but also disagrees, “ I’ll go in a minute.”
Then Hardy is fucking her with his fingers; a curved slide in, a crook of fingertips, a long draw out and Ellie has never been so turned on in her life, she can feel the roots of an orgasm starting to build already, those little juddery shocks radiating through her pelvis. She’s aware she’s letting him know quite how brilliantly he’s doing, with the little exclamations on her exhalations and the way her fingers are digging into his arm, like she’ll rip it off if he dares to stop what he’s doing. Then his fingers pull out and he finds her clitoris again, sets up an addictive pace that builds the heat almost immediately.
“Get them, Alec, get them now .” She pushes at his arm, pleased when he halts all movement instantly. "Cupboard over the sink.”
Ellie watches him strip off his shirt as he goes, admires the solid lines of his back and the way the black of his trousers slash dark against the pale skin of him.
Ellie has wrestled off her boots when he gets back, her socks gone with them. Hardy is ripping into the cellophane wrapping around the box with his sharp teeth, but gets distracted trying to mirror her, toeing off his shoes, falling over in his attempt to remove a sock and tear into the packaging at the same time. He lands sideways on the bed, pretends to frown at her giggling at him, but then somehow manages both his tasks, kicking socks across the room and ripping the box open carelessly.
Her laughter is happy, not cruel, and she knows he doesn’t really mind; he never really minds. In fact sometimes she thinks he only frowns at her because it makes her laugh harder. It doesn’t stop even as she pulls him over her, tugging at his belt, freeing strap from buckle and having a cheeky grope while she’s down there. He feels big, he feels bloody solid.
“Get yurr goddamn trousers off, Miller,” he grumbles, rolling his eyes, but also rolling his hips to push himself harder into her palm.
Ellie does as she’s told, but only manages to get them halfway down and off one leg because then she stops to watch him shove his own trousers and boxers down his thighs and his cock is out, in the open, looking awfully fucking delicious. Thick and uncut and Ellie wants to sit on it, take it inside her and ride his bony hips until he can’t breathe. He’s rolling a condom on, his bottom lip caught between his teeth and his eyes heavy half closed.
“Oh God, get that in me now,” Ellie says, accidentally out loud. She’d blush at his hard bark of laughter, but her blood is busy elsewhere, nurturing the electric tingles between her legs. Then he’s between her legs too, his mouth on hers while he guides his surprisingly fat erection to press up against her, rubs it up and down once or twice teasingly, until she bites at his mouth in frustration. Then, finally, he dips the head just inside her and sinks home.
“Yessss,” Ellie hisses, “Please, Alec.” Her voice breaks on his name.
The way he snarls at hearing her makes her skin tingle; she’s going to come, she’s chasing it already, her hips rocking up to meet him in an unmistakable rhythm and he’s not even all the way in yet. She lets her voice bounce off each pant she lets out, pulls his body down against her, so he has to slip his arm under her back, hook his hand over her shoulder from beneath. She feels cradled and cared for, like it’s a hug just as much as it’s a fuck. And then he pulls out a little, testing the slickness of his movement, before plunging right back in as far as he can.
Shit, he is big, he is solid, she can feel her body adjusting around him, but it’s a happy adjusting. It’s a fully eager sort of stretch and clench and she practically keens, scratching her nails down his back and making him squirm. Then he starts moving, pushing into her carefully but gaining speed and strength the more she urges him on. She’s never been loud before, but this feels so joyful and so damn good.
“Jesus, woman, the neighbours are going to call the police,” he grumbles, breathlessly, but then a few moments later when she’s quieted, he rears back and frowns crossly at her. “Don’t stop, why are you stopping?”
Ellie laughs at his belligerence. She loves this fierce creature so much. “Ssssh, stop whining.”
It doesn’t last too long. In fact, it’s only a handful of minutes. And it’s furious, chaotic fucking the whole way through. When he gets a hand down between them, he gets her off pretty much instantly. She’s a screamer, apparently, when she comes for Hardy. And he’s a biter. He sinks his teeth into her shoulder, taking hold of skin and flesh and grunting into it. Ellie loves it. That twinge of pain fires her pleasure, the glow of satisfaction knowing that Hardy is losing his control, his mind, losing himself in her.
She’s going to have bruises from his hips, as well as his teeth, she can’t help thinking smugly, as he shifts angle, fighting the clothes they are still wearing to bend his leg up against her backside for better leverage as he smacks his pelvis into her again and again. He’s glorious, bloody fucking gorgeous, all sweat and straining muscles and gritted teeth as he rises up above her on his arms. She pulls her leg up, grins breathlessly as he palms her thigh and bends it higher, opens her wider, tips her hips back.
Ellie is calling out again, head tipped back into the rucked up duvet. She could actually orgasm again, with just a little more, just a little. But then he’s coming, his cock swelling inside her and his rhythm stuttering. Ellie opens her eyes quickly to catch him, meets his desperate gaze, his wide eyes. He mouths her name, shoves in deep one, two, three times before staying there and letting his hips jolt his movements and his voice rumble deep in his chest.
Oh he is spectacular .
Chapter 5: Still December
They’re definitely both expecting awkwardness and regret, but neither seem to be feeling it. They’re lying on their backs, still wearing the remnants of their clothing. Hardy’s trousers and boxers down around his knees; Ellie with a bra, open shirt and one leg still tangled in her own work trousers. They must look ridiculous. In fact, she starts laughing. He looks at her, concerned, a little confused possibly.
“I need a fucking drink,” she says, and sits up. She steers her breasts back into the cups of her bra, kicks her trousers and knickers off completely. Tries the whole time not to watch him grip and slide the condom from his softening prick, fumble and knot it. Fails at not watching and ends up taking it from him to fling it in the bin under her bedside table.
“If you go and make a bloody cup of tea right now, Miller, God help me I will—” He’s interrupted by her kissing him, the remainder of his words emerging as ‘ mmhmmff hmm mmhmm ’ but then he’s kissing her back, tugging her over to grope at her backside, dip his fingertips into the crack of her arse. He tucks a long leg over hers and rolls towards her.
It’s so lovely to be touched by him like this; it feels like she’s been waiting her whole life for it, on the edge, just waiting. His hands are hungry for her, skating over her skin and trying to get her closer, underneath him, around him. He shuffles down a little, so he can slip his hand between her legs from behind.
“Insatiable,” she teases, but doesn’t stop him.
“Only for you,” he mumbles, digging his hand harder, at what must be an uncomfortable angle, to get his fingers hooked just inside her, tucking them eagerly into her vagina. “I’ve wanted you for such a long time.”
“I know, darling,” Ellie soothes, petting at his hair, kissing at his forehead. Then she pauses, “Hang on, what? You’ve what ?”
He shushes her, and she lets him, just this once, mainly because he’s got his other hand around her thigh and is pulling her on top of him. Their skin is damp and a bit sticky and while Ellie would love to ride him into oblivion, she’s not sure there’s enough energy between them to make that work.
“You can’t possibly want to go again,” she scoffs.
“Hmm, getting it up again right now might be a bit of a challenge, love, even if it’s for you.” He still bites at her chest, scrapes his teeth at the top curve of her breast and sucks soft flesh into his mouth.
“Oh, you are a bitey one,” Ellie laughs, then moans. He’s going to leave marks all over her and, if she’s honest, she fucking loves it. She spreads her legs wide and pushes back onto his hand, sinking his fingers deep inside her. It’s feeling a little tender down there, but his contact is a nice sort of pressure, quite soothing. He shows no signs of wanting to stop, bending his leg up to encourage her to rock back and forth, fuck herself on his digits. She’s not quite surprised by this, by him ready to pleasure her and take nothing for himself. “You don’t have to, you can, oh Christ Alec, what are you doing?”
“Thought you were a detective.” He flips her, crawling down her body, kissing and biting at all the parts she’d quite like to hide from him: the dip of her belly that pudges when she sits down, the muffin tops of her hips, the ugly white scar across her bikini line. “I’m gonna taste you now, if that’s ok.”
Well, apparently he’s bloody good at this too. Ellie is panting, lying on her back, feeling like she’s sinking into the mattress. Her second orgasm is a slow build-up, full body affair, burning hot shocks of nerves and jerking muscles and thank God she is lying down else she’d be flat on her face and possibly unable to breathe. Alec has two fingers curved up inside her and a sure, sucking grip of lips around her clit. Ellie is swearing and pulling his hair, which he’s quite happy with. But it’s when he involves his second hand, squeezes at her buttock, slides a wet thumb in, down between her cheeks and grazes over the tight sensitive skin of her arse that she has never let anyone else near but holy hell that feels so good, that she absolutely explodes .
He knows what he’s doing, and he holds nice and still and lets her ride it out against his face, use his hands and mouth as she needs. Then he slides gently free and comes up to lie beside her, wipes his wet hand discreetly on his trousers as he yanks them up his legs. Ellie has stopped floating and is now sinking steadily into the bed. Her voice croaks a little as she groans, lord, she might have been screaming.
“It’s definitely time for a cup of tea.”
“It’s nearly one o’clock in the morning, Miller.”
“Never stopped me before, Hardy .”
He looks at her, long and deep, serious and sober. She wonders what he’s thinking. Wonders if he’s regretting all this, now it’s done, now she’s back to herself and bickering with him. Finally, Hardy sighs, glancing away.
“I’m going for a piss.” He grumbles, and rolls off the bed.
Ellie goes downstairs to make tea, of course she does. Her legs are shaking as she’s waiting for the kettle to boil. It’s a little bit stressful, feeling quite this wrung out, exhausted from tiredness and pleasure, and still not knowing what’s going to happen. Is he going to go all weird on her, grumpy and sharp? Is he going to leave? Ellie can’t quite bring herself to regret what’s just happened, but it won’t take long if it’s fucked all this up. Sometimes it feels like he’s the only person she’s actually got left properly, apart from her boys. The only person who doesn’t look at her and see the fuck up she’s been and sometimes still is.
She’s crying, she realises, her tears dripping from her chin onto the pale blue shirt she’d nicked from the bedroom floor. No way she wasn’t wearing that; even the idea of it was sexy. She’d taken her own wrecked clothes off, put this shirt on, and admired the way it only just closed up to the swell of her breasts like she was some wanton harlot. She looked good in the dressing table mirror as she snuck out of the bedroom. She smelled even better, aftershave and Hardy, yum. But now she is crying all over it, wiping her soggy face on the flapping cuff.
“I can’t believe you were actually serious about tea.” Hardy comes up behind her.
She’s not expecting it when he slides his hands around her waist, stands against her and kisses at the back of her neck. She’s not sure what she’s expecting. Certainly not this, with him being all snuggly and gorgeous and half-naked (though she did steal his shirt, so really that bit should have been predictable). He hesitates, obviously noticing something is amiss, turns her round.
“Miller?” He’s all earnest concern, cupping her tear-wet face in his hands, making her look at him.
“For…? For the whole thing… or the…what are you sorry for?”
The sob pushes out before she even knows it’s going to, but Alec, bless him, just pulls her in, cradles her head against his warm chest (still smells good, damn him) and holds her close.
“For being such a mess,” she hiccups. She’s stopped now, mostly. “I don’t even know what the matter is.”
“The matter is that you’ve dragged yourself out of bed and down two flights of stairs to make a cup of tea at stupid fucking o’clock in the morning.”
“Will you shut up about the tea?!”
Hardy sighs, squeezes his arms tight around her, the best sort of hug. Ellie slips her cuff-covered hands around his hips and squashes her face into the surprisingly soft hair on his chest. She’s not kissing him, she tells herself, just resting her mouth against his skin, moving it a bit. She is, however, definitely cheekily feeling up his backside a bit. There is a light exhale of laughter and then he leans her back against the counter so he can reach and pour the just boiled kettle into the teabag-loaded mug for her.
“You just making one for yurrself?” He questions.
Ellie snorts at the taunt, also at the bulge she can feel against her lower abdomen where he has her pinned. “You seemed so against the idea.”
“Are you…” Well, there’s no polite way to put it, so Ellie just wriggles against him, feeling his prick stir.
“You’re more than half-naked, your tits busting out of my shirt, you smell like sweat and shagging and me, Miller. So yes, I’m popping a hard-on for you.”
He’s so damn cheeky and vulgar, and she loves it. Joe never would have said tits, or hard-on. Hardy swears like it’s half his vocabulary, and Ellie thinks the burrs and rolls of his accent are perfection itself. She heaves herself up on the kitchen counter, pulling him in between her legs. She’s higher than him now, and he’ll have to tip his head back to kiss her.
“Let’s fool around while the tea brews.” She suggests, though it’s clearly a demand rather than a question. It’s still pleasing, though, when he goes straight in for it, tipping his head back as she’d imagined and kissing her hard. She pulls back with a giggle, “You taste of me.”
“I had my tongue inside you not five minutes ago, Ellie. M’not apologising.”
“Please don’t,” she agrees and bites at his lips, moans at the decadent slide of his tongue alongside hers.
Ellie is awoken by the creak of the bedroom door. She blearily cracks open an eye just in time to see Tom poke his head in, take one look at the pair of sleeping, naked adults tangled up in the duvet and each other, and whip himself right back out of the room again. He may be nearly an adult, but that is quite enough, too much in fact, for him to be dealing with.
She finds him in the kitchen when she goes down to make coffee. She’s pulled on her pyjamas and slippers and feels remarkably lazy when she sees her teenage son fully dressed and making toast. She’s not quite sure how to broach the subject she needs to, but is sure, however, that it will be easier to do without Hardy there. She’s left him snoozing. A lovely image that, Hardy on his front, with one long, hairy leg bent out from the covers. It was difficult to leave him without kissing at least one part of him, but if she’d started she might not have been able to stop.
“Coffee?” Tom offers, already filling the kettle.
“Ooh yes please!” She could get used to this - sitting down at the kitchen table and putting her feet up on the seat beside her. “Everything ok last night? I take it you were both up late if Fred’s still asleep now?”
“Yuh,” he shrugs, eloquent as always. “Shall I do one for Hardy too?”
Ellie freezes. Panics for a moment. Too soon, too soon. She hasn’t decided what to say yet. “Um…”
Tom nods to the black coat she’d picked up and slung over the back of a chair in her hasty tidy-up in the early hours, at the wallet and keys that must have fallen out that Tom’s rescued and put on the table. “Guessing he’s here. And I thought I saw his car outside.”
Ellie knows then that Tom doesn’t know that she knows that he knows that she… this is confusing, but he’s trying to give her an easy way out and she loves him for it. Loves him so hard; he can be an arsehole, but he’s also such a sweetheart. She stares at him, his nearly six foot frame, broad shoulders and muscular curve of back barely contained in his t-shirt. He’s going to make someone a great partner one day, and she’s so ridiculously proud of him. There’d been a few blips in the last few years, but really he is so brilliant.
“I love you so much, darling. And yes, better make him one as well, because he’s a total bear without one.”
“He’s a total bear all the time,” Tom mumbles, but reaches for another mug. “Does he have sugar?”
“Because he’s sweet enough?” He quips.
They both laugh at the very idea.
Hardy’s still asleep, doesn’t even shift position when Ellie puts a mug of coffee on the bedside table beside his face. She goes for a glass of water and rifles through his abandoned trouser pockets for his medication too, puts them with the coffee for when he does wake. There is a painful moment of hesitation, although it’s not so much painful as wracked with anticipation bordering on anxiety. How have they got this far? A few weeks ago she was introducing small moments of contact between them and now she’s about to climb into a bed beside him.
Right on cue, Hardy ruins the peaceful, perfect image of him with a rumbling snore that catches in his throat and makes him cough. The anxiety loses its edge and welcomes in a little humour, allows her to lift the edge of the duvet and slide underneath. The bed smells of him, of them, of sex, of overnight sweating and snuggling and Ellie realises it’s lovely, it tingles her a bit inside. So she wriggles closer, slides a hand over the sharp angles of his ribs, so warm and welcoming. Pushing her face up against the back of his shoulder is delightful. She breathes him in, opening her mouth to graze her bottom lip over his skin - a half kiss, half-taste, a whole wonder.
Hardy rolls his neck, extends his long legs in a shuddering stretch and leans back into her a little. His grunt cruises into a moan. A long-fingered hand finds hers and tugs it over, nestling it into the centre of his fuzzy chest.
“I brought coffee,” Ellie whispers, hoping she doesn’t actually wake him, in case he does something awful like move or, Lordy forbid, get up and leave. But she really has to let him know what’s going on, doesn’t she? “It’s nearly nine.”
Ellie snorts. “You can’t change the time just by disagreeing with it.”
“I’ll give it a bloody good go.” His voice is dry and gravelly with sleep, with relaxation. He rolls onto his back, carefully letting her move out of the way and curl back over his shoulder. “Why have you got clothes on?”
“Because I have children.”
Hardy’s growl is frustration and defeat and realisation that the real world is back. Ellie completely agrees.
Ellie comes out of the shower feeling a little fresher, but still aching in all the good places. She was right about the bruises. The inside of her thighs are tender and she has little purpley-brown kisses across the tops of her breasts. Hardy’s teeth have marked her shoulder and it’s beautifully savage.
When the bedroom is empty on her return, the bed made, her clothes in the laundry basket, she knows he’s left, he’s dressed and fled. She tells herself it’s fine, it doesn’t mean anything bad, he has his own life to live and things to do and he’s never been the sort for goodbyes, or discussing difficult situations, or talking much at all really.
But he hasn’t gone. He’s sprawled on the sofa beside a sleepy-looking Fred, with his long bare feet up on the coffee table, slurping a fresh cup of coffee and scrolling on his phone. He’s slipped back into his shirt and trousers, but they’ve clearly spent a night on the floor. The shadowed triangle of skin at the base of his throat looks decadently delicious from where she’s standing, gormlessly in the doorway.
“We’ll be off out to the shops soon.” Ellie says, pretending she’s not fighting the urge to just drag him back upstairs for another round. Hardy just grunts in acceptance. Very helpful, she frowns. “Are you staying?”
Hardy finally looks up, all brown eyes and tousled hair and, crikey, he really is gorgeous, isn’t he? Ellie curls her fingers into her palms in an effort not to stomp in there and thrust her hands into his hair.
“M’off after this coffee. Shower, clothes, shit to do.” He winces, eyes flicking to Fred, to check if he heard. Fred just grins.
Ellie manages to nod. Avoids Tom’s curious look, he’s clearly confused at how awkward they’re suddenly being. Slips into the kitchen to hide and not have a breakdown.
Alec catches her by the back door, of course he does. Takes hold around her waist and pulls her right up against him. His face is deadly serious as he tips down to kiss her, softly then firmly then fiercely, until she’s clutching at his arms and that furious fluttering has taken over her entire belly. His inhale is stuttered, his nose pressed into her face, breath sucked in across her skin. Ellie lets out a little sigh, voice catching in her throat.
“So I’m thinking, do you have a minute, we should talk a minute,” he mumbles, finally pulling away. His lips are swollen and damp.
“Ooh, that must have been painful,” she mocks gently when he finishes forcing the sentence out. Reassuring him with humour when inside she’s crumbing. “Ok. What are we saying?”
“I just need to know we’re... on the same page.” He’s clearly having trouble opening up here; his defences are up, high like his shoulders.
“Ok.” This is it, she thinks. Ouch. This is where he says it’s just sex. Two friends helping each other out. Just a casual thing. Or something that can’t go on. Or that he’s leaving. She’s too much for him, too ruined, too broken, too many things - kids, history, temper - attached. Or not enough for him, not young enough or pretty enough or good enough or… enough. She’s never enough, is she? Not for anyone.
“I’m. I… Fuck.”
“It’s ok,” she says, though it’s really not. She’s telling herself as much as him. Her lip is quivering, she can feel it, the traitor.
“I love you.” He snaps out, almost angrily. Then he watches her, carefully, as if he’s counting her blinks. There are a few. He takes a breath. “I mean, I’m in love with you. Have been, for a very long time, long before I should have been, long before I cared to admit it, even to myself. I don’t know if I can do this, if I can… invest myself into this, and come out in one piece if I’m just… like a convenient… friend. For you.”
There is a long silence. Ellie isn’t even sure what her brain is doing, it’s not cooperating whatever it is. It’s going round in circles, dancing and spinning around “I’m in love with you”, around and around until she’s dizzy with it.
“Ok.” She manages finally. Alec looks like he can’t breathe. She wants to hold him. So tight, so hard. So she slides her hands up to meet around the back of his neck, feels him relax a little on her way. Blimey, he’s tall.
“Do… you. I. What do you… Miller…” And then he makes one of those lovely long jumbley vowel occasional consonant sounds that doesn’t ever evolve into an actual word.
“Hardy. Alec. You can’t tell someone you love them like that and then not snog the life out of them.”
“It’s so alright I can’t even… I love you too, I’m in love with you too. I thought you knew, I thought everyone knew.” She’s not going to cry, she’s not. She’s going to kiss him and smile like a normal person. Except her face is wet and he’s kissing the tears from her cheeks and laughing gently.
“If you so much as mention a cup of tea right now,” he threatens, but he can’t keep a straight face, and the flash of his teeth and huff of his laughter is dazzling. He’s still chuckling when he leans down to press his mouth to hers.