Actions

Work Header

Me and You and the Ladies' Loo

Work Text:

. . .

1

. . .

(alec)

“It’s occupied!”

Hardy rolls his eyes. Of course it’s bloody occupied; it’s locked. He’s a sodding DI, he can certainly identify an occupied loo stall. “I know. Come out, Miller.”

“Go away! It’s the ladies’! You can’t come in the ladies’!”

It’s as if seven months away have let her forget how much value he places on social norms. “What’re you doing in there, you’ve been ages.” There’s a rustle from the direction of the entrance and a woman appears. He points. “Oi! There’s a sign, cleaning in progress. Out. Out!”

Ellie appears in the open doorway to the stall, red-eyed and sniffling. She brushes past him to the row of sinks and braces herself against the lip of the counter for a beat before turning and leaning against it.

In the face of her tears, he’s wrong-footed. Furious Miller, sarcastic Miller, indignant Miller, these are all Millers he’s equipped to handle. Crying Miller just takes him back to that interrogation room, his partner—friend, he’d begrudgingly admit to no one but himself—sobbing and doubled over in disbelief and anguish because of the terrible truth with which he’d had to blindside her. “Don’t let it get to you,” he says finally, and he’s relieved when she rolls her eyes.

“Oh, thanks for that, brilliant advice.” She presses fingertips to her eyes. “God, you caught Joe…he had Danny’s phone, you brought him in, you interviewed him. He didn’t resist. He is guilty.”

“And the case against him is strong,” Hardy replies, still off-balance. This—reassurance—this is how he talks to the families of victims. Which, he supposes, she is, in a way. “The CPS never had any doubt about

prosecuting.”

“Doesn’t he know what it’s gonna do to Beth and Mark? To all of us?” She’s still talking about Joe like he’s a logical human being, not a man who would murder an eleven-year-old boy in some terrible mockery of a crime of passion. Like he’s her husband, the man she knew. Hardy wonders how long it will take for that to fade. For the detective in her to outpace the wife. “Who will tell Tom?” she carries on. “He’s at school. If his friends find out before him…” It occurs to him that perhaps this is how women like Miller handle things like this. They think about everyone else first. 

“I spoke to your sister,” he replies, because he can do this bit. He can do logistics. “She and Olly are going to take him out at lunchtime.”

“I could go with them. I could see him.” Hope and desperation war behind her eyes, and there’s an unexpected and unfamiliar twist in his chest, far different from the one he’s used to.

“You know he doesn’t want that.” He tries to make his voice gentle, but he’s never been very good at gentle. Not with anyone but Daisy.

“I’m his mother,” she snaps, another flash of fire, but it fades as quickly as it had appeared. Spark, flare…gone. “He’s only gonna blame me more. How am I ever gonna get him back if there’s a trial?” He has nothing to say to that. At times like this, he wishes he was better at this. “How is this my life now?”

“I’m sorry,” he says finally, shifting his weight, overcome by the unfamiliar desire to reach out. To...steady her somehow. “Do you want a…hug?”

“What? No!” She looks utterly horrified, and while he’s relieved and amused, he’s surprised to find he’s also a wee bit affronted.

“Right, no.”

“What’s the matter with you?”

Embarrassment heats his neck as he slides his hands back into his trouser pockets. “I’m just trying to help.” 

“’You want hugs,’ what hug it out?”

“People do that.”

“Well, not you,” she says, making a move to leave. She’s not wrong.

“Just…try not to be alone today, Miller.”

“I am alone, sir.” The word is like a punch.

“You don’t have to call me sir anymore,” he says to her retreating back.

“I know,” she snaps, but the reply is overrun by a clattering sound as she trips over the cleaning sign, and he winces. “Chrissake! Did you put that there?”

After she’s gone, the silence echoes off the tiled walls of the ladies’, and he runs a hand through his hair. Well. Bollocksed that up, hadn’t he? When he turns, there’s another woman standing in the doorway, staring at him.

“Right. All finished.” He nods, once, attempting authority, and follows the escape route Miller had taken out of the ladies’ loo.

. . .

(ellie)

She doesn’t know what she’s meant to be getting from three hours of therapy every week, but she goes because she can’t think what else to do instead. She leaves every time feeling hollowed out, though if anyone had asked before, she’d have said there was nothing left in her to take.

She doesn’t recognize her own life. She recognizes it even less standing here, in a strange bedroom in a strange cottage with a strange woman somewhere beyond the door.

Identify what you’re feeling and give it a name. Bloody therapist.

Lost.

Confused.

Angry. (So bloody angry.)

Scared.

Lonely. (So, so bloody lonely.)

…jealous?

Yes. She’s jealous of the look she sees in Claire’s eyes when she looks at Hardy. Not a besottedness or an attraction or even a lust. A trust. An unwavering faith that she’s safe beneath the umbrella of his protection, unofficial and ill-advised though it may be. She remembers what it was like, that feeling. Even a detective likes to feel like someone’s there, taking care of her, whether she needs it or not. It’s reassuring to know it’s on offer. But now…

She pushes away the thought of Joe, sitting in that dock. The thought of him in a prison cell. Pushes away any thought of him at all.

What the bloody hell was Hardy thinking, hiding a woman—a witness —in the arse-end of nowhere? All this time.

She shakes her head.

It takes this to realize that she really hadn’t known anything about him, prior to the implosion of her own personal life. She’d had him round for dinner once, and what? She thought that made them friends? She didn’t know he was keeping a woman—a beautiful one, a scared one, a vulnerable one—holed up in a cottage just up the road. Didn’t know he was still so caught up, logistically and emotionally, in the case that had earned him the “Worst Cop in Britain” designation.

She looks at the twin bed pressed up against the wall and the alternate reality opens up in front of her like a map: Her, finding out the truth about Joe before anyone else. Confiding in Hardy. Joe getting off and her running into Hardy’s protection, her two boys in tow.

She shakes the thoughts away. Stupid .

But the reality—her new reality—is even bleaker. She’d had nowhere to run, when all was said and done. (There’s an American country lyric in there somewhere, and the thought makes her even more depressed.) She can’t quite believe she’s here, sleeping under the same roof as Hardy and his erstwhile witness, with only her toddler for company. It’s so absurd as to be laughable, and she feels like she’s caught in a fever dream.

(She wishes that was what this was.)

Fred’s deep, even breaths are the only sound in the small room, and the degree of comfort she gets from the presence of an unconscious two-year-old can’t possibly be healthy. She wonders if that’s something else to lay at the feet of her bloody therapist. No need; she can just picture the response. And what do you think that means?

Bollocks to it.

The soft knock at the door startles her from her thoughts, the rough voice just behind it making her jolt. “You all right in there, Miller?”

“Don’t come in!” she yelps, tugging at the hem of her nightie. Why hadn’t she brought pajamas? There’s the strange not-quite-intimacy of Alec Hardy being the only person she can talk to about her murdering bastard of a husband and the entirely different sort of letting him see her half-undressed.

“’Course I’m not coming in, I’m on the sofa.” The scorn in his voice is oddly comforting.

“Goodnight,” she says.

“Fine. Night.”

At the sound of his retreating footsteps she glances toward the travel cot, where Fred’s steady breaths carry on, undisturbed. She pictures Hardy’s lanky frame sprawled over the sofa in the living room and tries not to feel guilty. It’s his own bloody fault, after all.

Sliding into the bed, she shivers slightly as the cool sheets brush against the bare skin of her legs. It takes her a long time to fall asleep, and when she does, she dreams of the dock at the court, but instead of Joe behind the glass it’s her, staring out at the angry, tear-stained faces of all the people who once loved her.

. . .

2

. . .

(ellie)

An affair . With Hardy , of all people. If she wasn’t so blindsided and furious, she might laugh. Hardy, who is allergic to civil behavior and human interaction. Hardy, who at any given moment is one spike in blood pressure away from full-on cardiac arrest. Hardy, who’s…watching her with wide, wary eyes.

“Why would they even think it?” she erupts as she paces around what passes for his living room, restless and cornered.

“They likely don’t,” Hardy says bluntly, and she whirls on him.

“You what?”

“They likely don’t think it,” he says. “Just…trying to plant the seeds of doubt wherever they can.”

“Well, at least one person believed them,” she says, thinking back to the way she could feel Joe’s ice-blue eyes swing to her face, even though she has refused to even look at him since the moment he’d pled not guilty.

“Only people who matter are the jurors,” Hardy reminds her, jerking her back to the present.

“Right,” she says. Only, it’s not true, is it? She can feel the weight of the opinions that bear down on her every time she walks along the high street. The eyes. The speculation. The Lattimers, Becca Fisher, Paul Coates, Maggie Radcliffe. Her own nephew. Her own sister. And…yes. Joe.

A shudder works its way through her at the thought. As if he has any right to be…what? Jealous? Possessive? Betrayed ? She snorts out a half-laugh, and Hardy’s eyebrow arches.

“I’m going mad,” she says in response.

He doesn’t argue the point, and she considers for a moment whether she should be insulted, but she doesn’t have the energy. Instead, she collapses onto his little settee beneath the window. Beneath the disbelief that the thought had even occurred to someone, the fury that they’re using this cheap trick to discredit her and Hardy’s work, the fear that this ludicrous accusation could actually work in her murdering husband’s favor, is a snarl of embarrassment that she’s too wound up to unpick. His matter-of-factness is only serving to amp up her emotion.

. . .

(alec)

“Why doesn’t this bother you more?” she demands, crossing her arms over her chest. He shrugs. Thinks about all of the unflattering, untrue things that have been said about him in the court of public opinion in the recent past— “The Worst Cop in Britain,” “Cop Loses Key Evidence; Killer Set Free,” “No Justice for Pippa Gillespie.” Frankly, the accusation that he’s shagging his DS is the least offensive thing anyone’s said about him in months. Being honest, there might even be a part of him that’s a wee bit flattered that anyone thinks he’s up to it, all medical evidence to the contrary.

“It’ll blow over,” he says eventually, and she frowns, arms tightening as she hugs herself.

“Never would have pegged you for the shitty platitude type,” she grumbles. “But that’s twice now.”

“This, too, shall pass.”

“Wanker.”

“Time heals all wounds.”

“Mmm. Not heart conditions, though.”

The faint flicker of amusement dies on his face. “No.” He looks away, oddly stung. “No, you’re right, there.”

“Sorry,” she says after a minute, shaking her head. “Uncalled for.”

They lapse into silence, punctuated only by the ticking of the clock on his wall. Finally, she uncrosses her arms and leans forward. “How bad is this?”

His eyes find her again, and he shakes his head. “Everyone loves a bit of intrigue,” he says. “It’ll blow over.” She gives him a warning look, but behind it he can see the despair at the thought that yet another thing she’s done has had a negative impact on the likelihood that Joe will be found guilty.

“I keep telling myself that I didn’t do anything wrong,” she says softly. “But look at all the mistakes I made. Look at all the ways I’ve made it more difficult for Danny to get any justice. I gave Lucy money. I went to my boss’s hotel room the night my husband was arrested. I kicked the living shit out of the suspect. I…” she trails off. “They were right, not to make me DI.”

“Miller—”

“They were. Bloody disaster, that would have been.”

“It wouldn’t.”

She blows out a breath. She’d made it clear, weeks ago, that comfort wasn’t something she wanted from him. He reminds himself of this, here, now, and makes sure everything he says is coming from his experience as a DI. His knowledge of court cases, juries, barristers. But he also has knowledge of her , if not in the way everyone in Broadchurch is now assuming, and he can’t not let that bleed into his responses.

“You’re human, Miller. You’re not a robot.”

Surprise colors her expression. “Thought that was exactly what you’ve been trying to get me to be. First thing you ever told me to do was to shut off my emotions.”

“Aye. Well. Best advice there is for someone who’s staring down at the body of a dead child. Didn’t mean for you to short-circuit them completely.” He thinks, fleetingly, of Pippa. The weight of her in his arms. The rotted flesh of her face when he’d laid her, gently, on the wet grass.

“Might have been better if I had,” she replies. “Easier, at any rate.”

“Aye, well.” She’s not wrong there, but he can’t imagine a Miller who was devoid of emotion. It’s one of the things he likes about her, though he’d never admit to it, even under threat of death.

Even if it is the very thing that’s making all the rest of it so bloody hard.

. . .

3

. . .

(ellie)

“What sort of person leaves a child like that?”

She grips the wheel at his words, the thickness in his voice, and blinks against the sting in her own eyes. All this time, she’d thought it was ego that wouldn’t let him let it go. It hadn’t occurred to her that it could be something far more tender and, dare she even think it, vulnerable. There have been flickers of it—Alec Hardy’s vulnerability—but mostly with regard to his physical health. It occurs to her, perhaps for the first time, that it’s possible his grouchy exterior and general unpleasantness are an attempt at deflecting from a surprising underlying fragility.

Then, he criticizes her use of her turn signal, and any fleeting kind thought toward him is eclipsed by the more familiar—and more comfortable—exasperation.

When they check in and stand before the lone double bed in the room, she feels that same swell of embarrassment rise in her chest before she allows her ruthless practicality to shove it back down. By the time they’re in bed—her beneath the covers, him on top of them—she can admit to being grateful for his presence, however terribly awkward the circumstances.

The room is dark, and occasional sweeps of headlights from passing cars slide over the ceiling. She stares out into the darkness, only partly regretting her last words to him before he rolled away from her. Did you ever have sex with Claire Ripley? The funny thing is, she knows he didn’t. She doesn’t know how she knows, but she knows. But then, she thought she knew Joe. She just wanted him to say it aloud, because for all she doesn’t know about bloody Alec Hardy, the one thing she does know—the one thing she counts on to be true—is that he’d never lie to her.

She doesn’t blame him for rolling away, really—it was a hell of a question to ask. Not the sort of thing they  

ever broach with each other, and not the sort of thing she’s ever imagined discussing with him. But she feels like every little bit of her personal life is being rolled out before him, picked over and sifted through like a crime scene, all the tiny little nuances she’d thought private shoved to center stage and illuminated by a spotlight. She hadn’t thought she had any sordid secrets—still doesn’t think she has—but she also hadn’t imagined the man she’d loved, married, had children with could turn out to be such a stranger to her, either, so what does she know? It feels like she and Hardy are on unequal footing, just as it had when he first turned up, shrugging into the title she’d expected would be hers.

As the weeks had gone on and they’d buried themselves in the case, it felt like they were becoming a team, and now—with her life and marriage and home and everything under intense scrutiny—it feels like they’re back to square one. She doesn’t really have any interest in his sexual history—at least, she doesn’t think she does—but she wants something . Some awful, grown-up, emotional equivalent of, “I’ve shown you mine, now show me yours.” Though, being honest, it’s less “I’ve shown you mine” and more “I’ve been pantsed in the middle of a crowd and you just happened to be standing beside me,” but the end result is the same. It’s as if nothing can be hidden from him, and he’s such a closed book about his own life that she’s suddenly, oddly, unreasonably greedy for at least one tiny morsel of something personal. All of the questions she could ask him slide across her mind, a one-woman interrogation of a man who’s guilty of nothing but being more guarded and enigmatic than she can bear.

What happened in your marriage?

What’s your daughter like, and why doesn’t she visit?

Why is your heart failing?

Where’s home, to you?

Does loneliness get easier?

Did we look as happy as I thought we were, when you came to dinner?

Are we friends?

She knows, though, from his absolute stillness, that he’s surrendered to the exhaustion that seems to constantly drag him down, like sandbags hanging from his very shoulders.

He doesn’t snore. Joe used to snore like a table saw, but Hardy’s steady in-and-out breaths are soothing, like the ebb and flow of the tide that has always been in the background of her life. For the first time in months, she feels like she could drop off to sleep with something almost like ease, but she nearly doesn’t want to. She wants to relax into this, just for a few moments, this once-familiar sensation of having company in the darkness.

. . .

(alec)

Her voice plays over in his mind as he stumbles across the uneven terrain.

“We could take Uncle Alec!”

His chest lurches, and he glares at the rainbow rows of exposed bulbs overhead and the zings and beeps of the carnival games. Uncle Alec .

Not bloody likely, he’d grunt, but beneath it, there’s an ache. He misses Daisy. He misses the man he was,

as a father: the type to hoist her onto his shoulders, the type to read a bedtime story, the type to hold her hand crossing the road and triple-check her seat belt and hug her until she was the one who pulled free. He misses having a reason to be that soft.

He misses being able to take care of people: his wife, his daughter, the people who looked to him to bring them justice. There are faces floating around in his periphery—Pippa’s and Lisa’s and Danny’s and Beth’s and Mark’s and Chloe’s and Kate’s and Ricky’s and Claire’s—but in the middle is Miller’s, and it makes no sense. There’s no justice to be served, for her. Sure, she’s been victimized, but it isn’t the same thing.

It doesn’t even feel like the same thing, not exactly, but he can’t pinpoint what it does feel like.

Listening to her question Ricky Gillespie, a swell of pride had risen in his chest that left him wrong-footed: she’s bloody good at her job, and for perhaps the first time, he’s cross with himself for taking the job that should have been hers. He’d never tell her. She’d have been a brilliant DI, though. Light years better than a bedraggled copper one on-foot chase away from cardiac arrest. He can’t imagine why they didn’t give it to her. Why they brought him on, instead. He hadn’t asked at the time. Hadn’t cared, really, just wanted somewhere else to be, somewhere else to work. Had almost found humor in her naked irritation, her bald-faced confrontation. She’d said exactly what she thought about him, and he liked that about her. Respected it. Related to it. She’s tough, Miller is, even if she doesn’t feel like it at the moment. She doesn’t need him to take care of her, or to get justice for her. He wants to, though, and not understanding where it’s coming from is making him more irritable than usual. More irritable and possibly more fatalistic.

He thinks of Jocelyn, penning his will. Thinks about taking care of people. Gazes out over the cliff at the crashing waves: it feels inevitable, somehow, for his life to end here, in this place. If he could just sort out these last few things, he thinks he could almost go, if not peacefully, as close as a man with the life he’s led is likely to get.

Daisy will be all right. She’s got her mother. She’s got every bit of what he has to leave her.

Tess will be fine; she hasn’t wanted or needed anything from him in what feels like years.

Get justice for Pippa and the Gillespies, get justice for Danny and the Latimers, and he thinks he’d be nearly finished.

He just can’t quite peg what there is to leave behind for the closest thing he’s had to a mate in a long, long time.

. . .

4

. . .

(alec)

He’ll admit to feeling mildly guilty for not telling Miller. Her own declaration, delivered matter-of-factly to one of the people who has perhaps messed him about more than any other, pops up in his mind unbidden from time to time, and a warmth he’d thought long extinguished in him flickers somewhere deep in his chest every time he remembers it.

There are no secrets between him and me.

How long has it been since he felt like that was true with anyone? He doesn’t know. He’d been blindsided by his wife’s own secret. He’s kept secrets from his own daughter in the aftermath. His entire life, the past few years, has felt cloaked in secrets, both his own and other people’s. Miller’s certainty, about him of all people, leaves him a bit off-center. It rattles him slightly, the thought that somehow betraying her trust, even indirectly, could be the last thing he ever did to her. That he was honest instead with Tess, whose lies have cost him so much. 

His mind flits back to his ex-wife, sitting across a cafe table from him, hard edges softening slightly as he told her about the pacemaker, about his will, about leaving everything he has to give to his daughter. Hears his own unexpected words replaying in his mind. “Wish we could go back. Still be a family.”

He does, but he doesn’t.

He wishes he could go back to that version of himself. To the man who didn’t wake up every morning in pain. To the cop who didn’t have so much to prove. To the father whose daughter didn’t ignore his calls. To the husband whose wife wasn’t in a hotel bed with someone else. 

In a weird way, he feels like he owes it to Miller, to try. To attempt to fix his family. She doesn’t have that luxury; it seems selfish and foolish for him not to at least put it out there. Since he was a wee lad, he’s always been driven. Determined. If he wanted something, and was willing to put his weight into it, there was little that could stop him from eventually getting it. All the more reason a bloody heart condition had been such a bitter pill to swallow.

And yet, when he imagines dedicating himself to mending his broken family, he can’t quite bring the picture into focus in his mind. He can’t see Tess back in their kitchen, feet bare, one of his old washworn tops hanging loose from her shoulders, the neckline gaping to show her collarbones. That Tess feels like a ghost, replaced by the new, colder, distant version that doesn’t love him anymore.

Similarly, he can’t envision himself back in their house, curled up behind her in bed, sprawled out on the settee beside her, pretending to watch whatever rubbish program she’d chosen. He has a vague, hazy, imagined picture of the three of them—him, her, and Daisy—sitting on a blanket beneath a bright spring sunshine, eating food from a basket, but it’s ridiculous, and not only because they’d never, in all the years they’d been a family, been on a picnic. It’s idealistic, and he’s never, even in the best of times, been an idealist.

He finds comfort in pragmatism, and there’s nothing realistic about imagining any scenario of the three of them, living happily ever after beneath one roof. The far more likely state of affairs is that he’s about to come to an early demise on a cold operating table, leaving behind a lot of unfinished paperwork (both literal and figurative) and perhaps a handful of people who may spare a fond thought for him now and again.

Bleak, even by his own standards. And yet, oddly comforting. The idea of a knot of people sobbing before his coffin makes him squirm. Unbidden, the image of Miller folding at the waist and near-crumpling on the floor of the interrogation room appears before his eyes, and he blinks.

No. Far better to leave little behind.

Joe Miller was an utter wanker to do what he did, not only because he murdered a child, but because he had everything to lose, and everyone to hurt.

Hardy, by contrast, finds comfort in the idea that few, if any, will mourn him. A tiny, selfish corner of his heart hopes Daisy will miss him, but the even stronger selfless father part hopes that she’s so utterly disappointed in him that it will make the loss more bearable.

Again. Grim, even by his standards.

Honest, though.

For all his flaws, let no one say Alec Hardy was ever anything other than painfully honest.

There’s his epitaph, he thinks wryly, shrugging into his coat and grabbing the small bag he’d packed off the table.

And yet, by the time he’s wearing nothing but a hospital gown, he finds himself succumbing to uncharacteristically hopeful thoughts. Finds himself imagining what it will be like to wake up with a heart that beats properly. Or, at least, that has something right there beside it, reminding it of its proper rhythm. What would life be like, if everything were that simple?

The lights above him are blinding, and then…there’s nothing.

. . .

(ellie)

She can’t bloody believe him. Bastard. A text. A sodding text .

Pacemaker in.

Wanker.

She considers him, lean frame beneath a thin sheet, dark hair a scarecrow-mess against the starched white pillowcase. The neck of the sky blue hospital gown dips in the front and she can see his collarbone and the jugular notch at the base of his throat, and stupidly it’s this, and not the tubes going into his veins or the hospital bracelet around his wrist, that makes him look fragile.

She has to fight the ridiculous urge to brush his hair off his forehead. “Wanker,” she murmurs aloud, just to remind herself that she’s furious with him.

God, what if he’d died ? What if she’d been called into the Chief Super’s office and told that her one-time partner’s heart had given out on an operating table? She imagines that’s exactly how he’d want news of his demise to spread: matter-of-factly, with no fanfare. She wonders if he told anyone , but considering she’s the only person here, she imagines not. Jesus, what kind of emotionally stunted man doesn’t even tell his wife and daughter he’s having heart surgery?

“Bastard,” she whispers, refusing to allow her anger to be subsumed by the prickly ball of worry she can feel hovering just behind it. Twice now, she’s found herself sitting beside his hospital bed. This time, at least, she can acknowledge that while she’s furious with him, she’s relieved beyond measure that there’s still a person here for her to be furious with.

His dark lashes sweep his cheeks as his eyelids flutter, and she swallows, pushing the relief back where it belongs and allowing the well-worn exasperation that characterizes their friendship to come to the forefront.

“A text?” she demands, and she’s proud of herself for how sharp her voice is.

“Don’t start, Miller,” he protests weakly, but his voice is familiar, the rough rumble its own source of comfort. He’s still here. When he says, “I made it through,” a chuckle in his voice, it’s the first time she knows, without a doubt, that despite his grumbling and seeming acceptance of his likely demise, Hardy doesn’t actually want to die. The realization is surprisingly reassuring. She’d had her doubts, there.

Tess arrives, and takes her rightful place beside his bed, and the last thing Ellie hears as she rounds the curtain and walks away from him is his voice, soft and vulnerable and pleading in a way she’s never heard it: Take me home.

When she gets to her own home and recruits Tom to help her paint, she forces herself to be as cheerful as she can manage, but beneath the determinedly upbeat exterior is a defiant, furious edge. Every roll of bright, happy, sunshiny yellow paint over the stripped wall of their— her —bedroom is a streak of resolve, covering up every trace of Joe and their marriage and his betrayal and their history and his lies and…everything. She can feel Tom watching her from the corner of his eye, and she doesn’t know if it’s because he’s still slightly stunned by the way she’d snapped at him at the court or whether he’s picked up on the desperation beneath her thin veneer of composure, but he dutifully picks up a roller and joins her.

She will be happy, damn it all, or at least her bedroom décor will be. When the walls are covered and the

once-soothing combined scents of his aftershave and her perfume and his deodorant and her shampoo and his soap and her hand cream is erased and overwritten by the industrial smell of paint, she finally feels like she can take a deep breath without flinching.

Standing in the middle of the room, she tries to picture where to go from here, what their life might look like: a single mum and her two boys, and the ex-husband and ex-father they never speak of. She can’t quite bring it into focus yet, but it also feels like the home they’d shared is farther and farther away, and she supposes that’s a sort of progress. Her thoughts turn to Hardy, and the possibility that there’s healing in his future, too. What would he be like, if he didn’t have a broken heart? What will he be like?

When she calls and Tess answers, there’s a friendliness in the woman’s voice and Ellie lets herself imagine it. Hardy, fixing his family. Her and her boys, being their friends. She can’t quite picture him staying in Broadchurch—certainly can’t imagine his wife and daughter here—but perhaps, from a distance. Perhaps bank holiday weekends, Tom and Daisy playing with Fred in the garden, Tess and Ellie sipping wine while Alec cooks something on the grill. But there’s an empty chair beside her, and even in the fantasy, she can’t imagine anyone in it. It doesn’t occur to her to wonder why there’s only one.

. . .

5

. . .

(alec)

No more broken heart.

A shaft of white sunlight hits his closed eyelids, dragging him from the depths of drug-induced sleep. He blinks, momentarily blinded, and shifts slightly so that the light falls to the pillow beside his head. The sound of water lapping at the bulkhead just beyond the window is comforting, proof that the bright beam that has roused him isn’t otherworldly.

He presses a hand to his chest, taking the moment to revel in the novel sensation of a normal, steady heartbeat. The slight pressure hurts, but it’s a different kind of hurt. He wonders, idly, if this is what healing pain feels like: closer to the surface than before, and more localized.

Yesterday morning, it had hurt more. Yesterday, when he’d awoken in his small not-quite-bedroom to find Miller and Tess both staring at him with wide, expectant eyes. He’d faltered momentarily, thinking about all of the things that could perhaps be stitched together, if not without leaving their marks behind: his chest. The friendship he’d once had with Tess. Sandbrook.

Miller.

Sitting in the small armchair, listening to Miller talk about the pendant, hearing the once-familiar sounds of Tess making tea in the small kitchenette behind him, feeling the warm weight of Tess’s hand on his shoulder blade as she set his tea down in front of him, he’d had to force himself to focus.

The night before, he’d heard Tess moving around in the kitchen, in front of Miller’s makeshift evidence wall, and in the hazy recesses of his painkiller-blurred mind, he’d thought it was Miller and was confused by the tiny prickle of disappointment he’d felt when he realized it wasn’t. A week earlier, he’d have liked the thought of Tess there in that ridiculous little shack, nursing him back to something approximating health. In the haze of drugs, he’d been able to acknowledge a truth he’d ignored earlier: he’d have preferred it to be Miller. Somehow, he finds his ex-partner—with her killer husband and her angry teenager and her funny little toddler and her impatience with his moods and her unwillingness to let him wallow and her determination, even in the face of everything, to believe in good—easier to handle than his ex-wife and the minefield they’ve made of their marriage.

I loved you for that.

But not enough.

It’s true, he can finally admit. They hadn’t loved each other enough. Sure, enough to make a baby, enough to get married, but not enough to prioritize each other. Not enough for her to resist infidelity, not enough for him to pull her back toward him when he felt her drifting away. Not enough to not fuck it all up.

Gingerly pulling his softest blue jumper over his head with one arm as he emerges into the sitting room, he eyes the evidence wall Miller’s constructed, the red yarn a haphazard web linking bits of information, possibilities, connections. Momentarily, he’s grateful for the case that has taken so very much from so very many, himself not the least of which.

No more broken heart, he’d told his daughter over the phone the day before.

For the first time in years, he can almost believe it to be true.

Yanked from his silent rumination by the sound of a knock on his door, he opens it to Miller in her eyesore of an orange coat, particularly offensive in the harsh morning sunlight bouncing off the water’s surface.

“You look good,” she says, eyeing his face from the doorstep. “When I say good, of course, I mean less like you’re about to keel over. Not good in the normal human sense.”

“Thanks for that,” he replies, still staring at her expectantly. She raises her eyebrows and gestures to the empty hut behind him, and he hesitates only momentarily before stepping back and letting the door swing open in silent invitation.

She brushes past and drops a shopping bag on the counter; he eyes it warily. “What’s that?”

“Dynamite.” Off his look, she rolls her eyes. “For God’s sake, it’s tea bags, bread, and milk. Never seen you subsist on anything else, so. Best guess.”

He scratches at the back of his head. Even after everything, he’s still not quite used to the kindnesses she doles out like she does sweets to wee Fred. “Ta.”

Her eyes narrow. “Did they implant manners when they put that pacemaker in, then? Two for the price of one?”

This time, it’s him who rolls his eyes. “Shove off, Miller.”

Her face clears. “Oh. So, no, then. Still the same wanker.”

“Aye. Same wanker. Just…significantly less likely to ‘keel over.’”

“Brilliant.” She peeks around, at the empty inside of his home. “Tess?”

“Gone. Back home.”

“Oh.” She shifts her weight. “Tea, then?”

“Aye. Tea.”

. . .

(ellie)

She’d never say it to him out loud, but she feels more at home in his impractical little blue shack than she does anywhere else on Earth. The hotel was the worst kind of reminder of how adrift they are. Lucy’s house was cramped and awkward and brimming with unspoken things she couldn’t begin to number. Her own home is a minefield of awful memories, not to mention a SOCO scene that even fresh coats of paint can’t quite erase from her detective’s eye.

Hardy’s little blue hut on the water – despite its first appearances – is cozy, almost in spite of itself. She can just imagine him finding it and deciding to live in it in some bizarre, utterly Hardy-esque act of defiance, as if selecting the least practical accommodations – beside the water he seems to hate, with too many windows that don’t quite keep out the drafts and a tiny stall shower that he can’t possibly fit in without banging his elbows against its sides and a tiny bed she won’t admit to imagining him squeezing into – was sticking two fingers up to…someone, somewhere. And yet somehow, it fits him. And she likes it. Perhaps because it’s quiet, and somehow removed from everything else. And perhaps because it’s so very unlikely (and, yes, more than a little bit impractical).

She doesn’t let herself consider how much of the reason she likes it is because he’s in it. She finds comfort in keeping an eye on him, she can admit. Possibly because two-thirds of her former mother-hen beneficiaries have stepped so far beyond the sphere of her influence as to be unreachable: Joe, farther away than even prison can make him, and Tom completely voluntarily shut off from her. Despite the fact that Hardy would fight tooth and nail against any implication that he needs anything even remotely approaching coddling, she’s not so daft as to not know that he came close to dying on more than one occasion in recent months.

She couldn’t save Danny.

She apparently couldn’t save Joe.

She can’t fix anything for Tom.

But tea and toast? Tea and toast, she can do.

“Eat,” she says, slapping the small plate down on the rough wooden table by the window. In the harsh sunlight, he still looks wan and frail, and she wonders how he can tell if the pacemaker is doing what it’s supposed to. She didn’t miss the way he winced as he gingerly lowered himself into the chair, or the fact that his normally loping steps were more like shuffles across the weathered floorboards. She fights the sudden, absurd urge to press her hand to his chest to feel the rhythm for herself.

“Ta,” he mumbles, lifting the slice to his mouth with his right hand, while his left arm stays tucked against his torso. For a fleeting moment, she thinks of a baby bird with a broken wing, and the vulnerability of it—of him—strikes her. She turns away. Tea. They need tea.

. . .

6

. . .

(alec)

As he stomps away from Lee Ashworth, feels the heat of the man’s glare on his back like summer sunshine, he lengthens his stride. It feels good, the anger. The freedom to let himself feel what he wants to feel, not to try to keep a rein on every emotion – joy, rage, despair, desire – in case it turned out to be the straw that broke his heart. The one that made it beat once too strongly and brought the whole thing crashing down. He imagines being free to be at the mercy of his emotions, and it’s entirely liberating.

He thinks of all the things he’s carefully boxed away since his diagnosis—greasy food and booze and

running and caffeine—and imagines a life if not entirely unhindered, at least considerably less so. Imagines running along the cliffs, feeling the cold wind sweeping in off the sea. Imagines sitting in a pub beside a mate—even if Miller is the only one who even comes close to fitting the bill at the moment—drinking a pint and watching the football on the telly behind the bar. Imagines not just one pint but several, getting completely rat-arsed and waking up in the morning feeling like death for an entirely different reason. Imagines not having to leash his emotions, not worrying every time he gets angry or stressed or the soul-deep kind of sad he gets when he thinks about Daisy avoiding his phone calls.

Imagines getting on a plane. Putting salt on his chips. Drinking more than one cup of coffee in a morning. Having sex.

Imagines doing whatever the bloody hell he wants to do, without worrying that it will be the very last thing he does. (Though, in the deepest recesses of his mind, he’d imagine that if a man could choose the very last thing he was going to do in this life, a good shag would have to be pretty bloody near the top of the list.) Still. Hard to find a woman who might be game. The memory of Becca Fisher’s less-than-tactful rejection of his proposition still makes his neck heat with remembered humiliation.

The freedom he finds in just imagining being able to do as he bloody well pleases makes him as close to giddy as he is likely to get.

He wants to get Pippa’s killer.

He wants to see his daughter.

He wants to see Joe Miller behind bars forever.

And he wants to live the rest of his life like a man with nothing to lose.

. . .

(ellie)

She can feel it, the nearness, like a plane humming just above the cloud floor, invisible but only just out of sight. They’re close. They’re so bloody close, she can taste it. Hardy was right: Lee, Claire, Ricky -- they’re all panicking, and it’s making them sloppy. Making them turn on each other.

They’re panicking, and it’s giving Miller and Hardy the advantage.

She can see her own hunger reflected in the spark in Hardy’s eyes, an anticipatory gleam she’s never seen in them before. Only realizes now that he’d never looked like that when they were tracking Danny’s killer, because by the time they’d gotten this close, he’d known. Known it was someone in her orbit, then known it was someone in her home. By the time he’d known it was the man in her bed, he’d looked like a man who’d just run over her puppy in the road and had to carry its lifeless body to her doorstep.

But this -- the gleam, the energy, the fiery righteousness -- it’s new, and it’s fascinating, it’s electric and it’s utterly contagious.

“That’s the wee lie!” he all but exclaims, and she can feel it, the threads weaving together, puzzle pieces slotting into place. She sees in him the same dogged focus she knows herself from past cases, the way everything narrows to a single, pinprick focus the closer you get to the solution. She feels the adrenaline that accompanies that final sprint, the last tying together of all the dangling threads, and she welcomes the swell of relief at this familiar, triumphant feeling she’d worried was lost to her.

There’s an energy in his small living room, an electric buzz of anticipation and determination, and she can see his awareness of it too, in the bright sharpness of his eyes behind his glasses and the determined set of his mouth. 

They’re gonna do it. They’re gonna crack the case that damn near cracked him.

She feels a sudden stab of renewed determination, tinged with fury toward all of them: Claire, Lee, Ricky. All of them, who did this to him. Ruined his career, his health, possibly his whole personal life. 

She was living a lie, and he exposed it for her. Hurt like hell, but in the long run, he saved her.

She’s going to help him save himself, damn it all. Even if it’s the last case she ever works.

.  .  .

7

. . .

(ellie)

“You bribed a witness to implicate your husband so that you could fix a failing investigation and continue your affair with DI Hardy.”

She needs a verdict. Twice now, she’s thought they had one, and twice she’s been disappointed. First, the request for clarification about Mark’s questioning. Then, the jury coming back without a verdict. She needs this to end , she realizes, in the same moment she realizes it might never end. 

She didn’t realize it, but until that last one Hardy had been there sitting between her and Joe, a shield between them more solid and there than any pane of glass could possibly be. But when the jury foreperson admitted there was no unanimous decision, she’d felt the absence of Hardy between her and Joe keenly, and suddenly, immediately, she’d felt the nearness of him, of her husband . The realization of how close he was paired with the possibility of him being free of it...she can’t.

You feel like you’re in that marriage alone, you’re not , she’d told Beth. She should know.

The swell of grief and fear and panic rises in her like a tide, and she slips away from her friend to the lesser-used loo at the far end of the courthouse, pacing in front of the dual sinks, unable to look at her own frazzled self in the mirror.

She hears the door open behind her and tries to calm herself for the brief second before she realizes who has followed her. Again.

“We’ve got to stop meeting like this, Miller,” he says, foregoing the cleaning ruse this time and instead simply closing and locking the loo door.

At another time, she might have taken a moment to marvel at the fact that he was attempting humor, but here, now, it’s utterly lost on her. “He thinks he’s going to get off,” she says, an edge of panic in her voice. “He thinks he’s going to get off, and he’s going to come home, and we’re going to pick up where we left off.”

Hardy’s trademark frown deepens. “What?”

“I sent papers. Divorce papers. He won’t sign them.”

He shakes his head. “That doesn’t matter. You’ll be able to get a divorce without his consent.”

“Will I? Even if he’s found not guilty?”

His rubber-soled shoes squeak on the tile as he shifts his weight. “On grounds of unreasonable behavior.”

“Provable based on what?”

Hardy comes up short. He’d consented when Tess asked him because he knew he’d already lost her. What kind of man would want to stay married to a woman who didn’t want him? Then again, what kind of man falls in “love” with an eleven-year-old boy and then strangles him to death? He sighs, glancing around. Christ, whoever’d been tasked with designing the ladies’ toilets in the Crown Court Wessex had gone all in on the pink and beige. It looks…vaguely pornographic in here. He shakes his head, forces focus back to Miller’s panicked face.

“Worst case, Miller, after five years’ separation, there’s no consent required.”

Her eyes fall closed, and she tries to keep the bolt of pain-laced desperation that spears through her from showing on her face. “I can’t be his for another four years.”

“You’re not his now.”

Her eyes open, and she can see from the rare concern in his eyes that she didn’t hide it quite well enough. “We believe in the law, you and I. Law says I’m still his wife.” She shudders—at the word, at its implication. When they’d been newlyweds, it had been a small thrill every time she’d used the word in relation to herself—an even bigger one when Joe said it. Now, her reaction to it is visceral in an entirely different way, making her feel like she could crawl out of her own skin. Skin he’s mapped with his mouth and hands more times than she can begin to count. She shudders again.

“You’re not his wife.” Hardy’s eyes are dark, darker than she’s used to seeing them, with an edge that’s entirely new. The edge she’s seen in flashes since his heart was mended. He’s stepped closer, closer than the minimum radius of personal space he generally likes to maintain, and she’s reminded of just how big he is. Perhaps because of his frailness, his illness, he’d always been slighter in her mind’s eye than he really is with regard to his stature. This close, though, there’s no denying his height, the breadth of his shoulders, the sturdiness of him. “You’re not his , you’re yours. You’re not his. You’re not anyone’s, unless you decide to be.” It’s a heady thing, to be sheltered beneath the protective wing of his fire and his fury and his righteous indignation. In a sudden burst of blinding clarity, she understands why Claire Ripley followed him to a cottage in a tiny Dorset town far removed from anything else she knew. She’s staring at the third button of his shirt front, thinking about the heart that beats beneath it, and how it’s no wonder it got tired, with this type of fire banked inside it all the time, just waiting to be unleashed. When she looks back up into his face, his eyes are still locked on her. “Right?” he asks, jaw set. It’s the same Alec she first met on that windswept beach, above the dead body of her best friend’s son, her son’s best friend. The Alec telling her to shut off her emotions. She can no more shut them off here than she could there, but she can do what she always does: redirect them.

“Right,” she whispers, but the word gets stuck somewhere in her throat and she nearly chokes on it.

“You’re yours , Miller. You can give bits of yourself to your boys and whomever else, but you’re yours . Always.” He reaches out and curls fingers around her arm between her bicep and shoulder, eyes still boring into her. His hand is warm and strong and his eyes are sharp and fierce and before she can think twice about it, she lifts up to her toes and presses her mouth to his. He tastes like coffee and peppermint, and she falls immediately in love with the prickle of his beard against the edges of her lips, and with how different it is from the last man she kissed. She realizes he’s not really reciprocating and pulls back, a hot sweep of embarrassment rolling through her.

“Bollocks,” she mutters, pressing the back of her hand to her mouth. When she looks up, though, his eyes are comically wide, and her humiliation is tempered only slightly by amusement.

“Miller—”

“Leave it,” she says quickly, knowing that a rejection is the very last thing she can shoulder at the present moment. He says nothing, face still frozen with surprise, and she takes a step back. It’s not lost on her, the role reversal, how she’s now the one uncomfortable being too close. “Sorry. All at sixes and sevens. Dunno where that came from.”

“No?” He’s so good at that, at one-word inquiries that make you second-guess everything you’ve just said. It’s brilliant as an interrogation tactic. It’s unnerving in this context. When she doesn’t say anything, he steps closer once again. “You sure?”

She’s lying, she realizes, and realizes in the same moment that he knows it already. She’s lying to herself, and to him. She knows exactly where it came from. “I hate the way he looks at me,” she nearly whispers. “You know that look that you get after a while in a relationship? That look where you’re saying things without saying them? He still looks at me like that. I hate it. Because I still know what he’s saying when he does it. He’s asking me to forgive him, and to love him still, and the fact that he even thinks he has the right to look at me like that makes me feel sick. And helpless. And like I’m somehow…complicit.” She swallows in an attempt to dislodge the lump in her throat. “He looks at me like I’m still his, and it makes my skin crawl. I needed…not to feel like that when I go back in there.”

His eyes are dark and bottomless. He watches her face for a long moment, searching for clues, before

nodding once, ducking his head, and pressing a firm kiss to her mouth. Despite being the one who first struck the match, she’s surprised, and after a beat she feels his kiss gentle, as if he’s making to pull away. Before he can, she reaches up and cups the back of his neck, keeping him in place, deepening the kiss, and after a moment his tongue traces the seam of her lips.

Her hesitation is a mere flicker before she parts them, a hot, unexpected swell of arousal accompanying his tongue as it curls into her mouth, and she lifts her other hand to join the first, fingers sliding into his hair and gripping the soft strands. She nips his bottom lip and he groans, the noise a whip-crack that bounces off the beige tiles, and she hums in response as his hands clutch at her hips, fingers digging into her hip bones.

She’s surprised by the immediacy of it all, by how completely he’s acquiesced, by how utterly caught up in it they both are. There are a million things she could unravel here – motivations and justifications and a thorough excavation of past behavior looking for clues to the possibility that this attraction somehow predates this moment -- but for a change, she doesn’t want to do any of that. She just wants to feel him. Feel this . This, instead of everything else.

She crowds into him, brushing against his front, and startles when she realizes she can feel him, already hard behind the fly of his trousers. A bolt of power arcs through her. That she has brought stoic, unflappable DI Hardy to this point—hard in his trousers and snogging her in the ladies’ at the Crown Court—is a heady thrill. He attempts to arch his hips back but she presses herself into him again, and one of his hands slides around her waist to the small of her back while the other slides up her spine and into her hair. The arm around her holds her tight, holds her up, and for the briefest flash of a moment, she allows herself to feel something she’d thought lost to her in this context: safe. She feels safe in his arms, she is stunned to realize. Comforted, even, in the unexpected and vice-tight grip of grumpy bloody Alec Hardy. Will wonders never cease.

She sighs into it, seeing in her mind’s eye the picture they must make: hair disheveled, pressed against each other, moaning and gasping in the empty public toilets. There’s a part of her that wants to pull back, to look into those eyes, to see what he looks like here, now, lost in this maelstrom of haste and recklessness and surrender. There’s a bigger part of her, though, that doesn’t want to pull back for anything, doesn’t want to run even the smallest risk of him coming to his senses, realizing that shagging her in a public restroom is actually quite a bad idea, doubting that she’s doing this for any reason that might be a good one. Instead, she pictures him, and finds that all of the images that come to mind are ones outside their daily lives as detective partners.

Alec, lying supine in his tiny bed in his little blue shack, peering at her through the heavy-lidded eyes of the drugged. Alec, standing on her doorstep with chocolates and flowers and wine, face tense with an uncertainty he couldn’t hide from her. Alec, sitting on the edge of a hotel bed, voice thick, telling her how badly he’d wanted to be wrong. Alec, offering her a hug inside this very ladies’ room. Alec, not Hardy. In those moments, she realizes now, he’d been Alec . Only ever to her.

She’s pulled from the memories by his nimble fingers finding the button of her own slacks and slipping it

free before tugging the zipper down and pressing his warm palm to the skin beneath her belly button. After only a moment’s hesitation, he slides his hand down, pressing fingertips to the damp silk of her knickers. She gasps and breaks away from his mouth.

He pulls back, eyes dark and bottomless. “All right?” he murmurs, voice rough and familiar, and she nods.

“Yes.” Her own voice is breathless and husky, and his lips are parted, pink and soft, breaths coming out quick as he peers down into her face. “Please,” she adds, because somehow she knows that who he is at his core, the detective and the divorcee and the dad, needs the reassurance that it’s more than mere consent; it’s a plea.

Nodding, he pushes her slacks and knickers gently off her hips to fall to the floor as she kicks off her shoes, her own fingers finding the button of his dark trousers and slipping it free. She reaches for his zipper, but before she can drag it down he lifts her onto the ledge of the sinks and slides her forward, fingers finding where she’s already wet and slick and pushing inside without hesitation. She gasps, bracing her arms against the ledge and glancing down to watch him touch her. His fingers curl as they slide in and out, and she lifts her head to see his face, watching her intently. His lips are parted and his eyes are hooded and somewhere along the line she’s gone from simply wanting this to wanting him.

“Miller,” he gasps as she slips a hand into his pants and wraps her fingers around his erection, and she feels like laughing at the fact that she’s still Miller to him, even here, even like this. She pulls him gently out of his pants and cants her hips forward.

“Go on,” she urges, guiding the head of him to her slick folds, and he doesn’t falter, sliding into her on a low groan, his dark eyes dropping from her face to where he’s now buried inside her. Her breath catches as she adjusts—it’s been long enough to have been awhile, and she can’t help the comparison: he’s longer, and thicker, and he feels bloody fantastic. He’s holding still, though she can feel the tremble in his shoulders even through the fabric of his suit coat and his dress shirt—and probably an undershirt, if she had to guess at how many layers of armor he dons on any given morning—and it occurs to her to wonder if it hasn’t been awhile for him, too, what with his divorce and his heart condition and his surgery and his recovery and—

“Miller?” he mumbles into her hair, jerking her out of her thoughts and back into the moment.

“Yep,” she says, a familiar shorthand in this unfamiliar context, sliding her hand up from his shoulder to his neck and clutching at his hair. He rolls his hips once, and something bursts to light behind her eyes, a hot spike of unexpected pleasure.

There’s a fluid roll to his hips, and she’s faintly surprised that he’s actually good at this. Given how utterly rubbish he is with human interaction in general, it wouldn’t have surprised her to find he was also a rubbish shag. And yet, he’s playing her body with a proficiency that would make her pity Tess the loss, if she could spare a thought for it. One of his hands is pressed to the ledge behind her bare arse for balance, and the thumb of the other is circling her clit, and she could come like this, she knows she could, but there’s also a surreal quality to it that’s taking her out of the moment. She’s DS Ellie Miller, she doesn’t do cheeky shags in the courtroom toilets. She doesn’t do cheeky shags, period, and she certainly doesn’t do them with a superior, and even more certainly not with DI Alec Hardy.

“Wait,” she pants, pressing a hand to the middle of his chest, and to his credit, he stops mid-thrust and rears back, meeting her gaze. His eyes are unclear and lust-glazed, but they sharpen as he focuses on her.

“Miller?”

“I want to watch,” she says, hitching her hips away from him slightly, and he takes the hint, stepping back and sliding out of her in the process. His cock glistens in the bright lights, and the sheer obscenity of it makes another heavy rush of arousal surge through her. She slips off the counter and lands on the puddle of her slacks, turning and bracing her hands on the ledge as she meets his eye in the mirror. “Like this. I want to see.”

His eyebrows jump but almost immediately he nods, sliding one hand around her waist and laying his warm palm flat against her lower belly, the other pressing gently between her shoulder blades. Following his unspoken directive, she leans forward, tilting her hips back, and he doesn’t break their gaze in the glass as he takes hold of himself and pushes back inside. The angle is even better like this, and she cries out as he bottoms out, hitting her even deeper and just right. The sound echoes off the tile, reverberating back to her as his bony hips come to press against her buttocks, the hair on his thighs brushing against the backs of her own.

“Shhh,” he murmurs, the hand that had pressed between her shoulder blades sliding up to cup her shoulder so he can pull her into his thrusts. With the movement, her blazer and shirt slide up, baring the small of her back, and as he curls forward, she can feel the soft drag of the bottom point of his tie against her skin. There’s something to that, to the novelty of having something she’s become so familiar with—a scrap of fabric that is in its very nature professional and impersonal—brushing against her so intimately, that sends an illicit sense of pleasure surging through her and heating her blood.

She watches in the mirror as his eyes focus on her face, occasionally flicking downward to watch himself slide in and out of her, the wet slip-slide sounds of sex audible in the tiled space. She rolls her hips and pushes back to meet his thrusts and he groans, the sound ricocheting off the tile just as hers had done, and she’s surprised by the eroticism of it, of him. It had never occurred to her to think of Alec Hardy in the sexual sense, but fuck her if she hadn’t been missing out. 

Meeting her eye in the glass again, he bows forward, chin pressing into the join between neck and shoulder as the fingers on her belly slide down to cup between her legs as he continues to thrust. “You’re not his,” he says, voice a low, fierce rumble right into her ear, Scottish burr thick, fingers sliding against her clit. He doesn’t say anything more, but she hears it all the same, on a loop, emphasis shifting like the tide. You’re not his. NOT his. Not HIS.

Then, she feels the sting of his teeth in the side of her neck, followed by the tug of him sucking at her skin, and she knows he’s leaving a mark, too high on her neck for her collar to cover, and she shudders all over as she realizes that it’s on the side facing the dock. The side facing Joe. She raises a hand and threads her fingers through his hair, holding his head in place and pressing slightly, urging him to make that mark as dark as he possibly can, as brazen and as bold as it can be, so that there’s no way Joe can miss it when he turns those pleading cow’s eyes in her direction.

When Hardy’s tongue laves the spot, the gentleness a counterpoint to the sting of his teeth, she tips over the edge, crying out as she shudders around the length of him, hot surges of pleasure curling around her spine and out through her limbs, legs shaking and arms quivering, and she’s worrying her legs will give out when she feels Alec’s hand leave her crotch and his arm wrap around her waist, bracing her weight on his forearm as he fucks in and out of her in sharp, deep thrusts.

His other hand slides from her shoulder and along the length of her arm to where her own is braced against the countertop and twines their fingers together, squeezing hers so tightly as his movements grow erratic. “Miller,” he gasps, pace faltering, and as he goes still she feels him throb and spurt, the warmth of his release pooling inside her. His breath leaves him in a groan and she tightens her grip on his fingers, staring at where they’re laced together, knuckles white, atop the sink counter.

After a moment, his chest presses against her back as he bends over her again, and she finds herself wishing they were somewhere else, somewhere they’d had the time to shed the layers between them so that she could feel the heat of his skin and the furious thrumming of his just-fixed heart and the slide of his sweat against her own. The hot puffs of his breath ruffle the sweat-dampened hair at the nape of her neck, and she shivers. She thinks he presses a kiss to the space right between her shoulder blades, but she can’t be sure with the blazer and shirt still between them.

As he withdraws, wetness runs down the inside of her thigh, and she imagines it suddenly, sitting in the courtroom with the evidence of Alec Hardy seeping into her knickers as her so-called husband stares at another man’s love bite on the side of her neck.

She reaches for a paper towel from the dispenser near her elbow as Hardy takes a step back.

After a furtive swipe at her thighs and between her legs, she crumples the paper towel, chucks it in the bin, and turns, watching as Hardy tucks himself back into his trousers, his eyes glued to her face. Then, perhaps the most surprising part of all, he squats to retrieve her knickers from her pool of pants and holds them out so that she can step into them. He slides them up her legs, rising with the movement, and she watches his face, struck by how utterly familiar he is to her, even in this most foreign of moments. That Alec Hardy has become more recognizable to her than her husband—she doesn’t even know what to do with that. “Thank you,” she says, and grins. “Not just for the knickers.”

One of his rare smiles breaks over his face, and she’s taken aback by how beautiful he is when he smiles, really smiles, all soft and vulnerable and crinkly-eyed. “Aye,” he says, voice a low, intimate murmur, and she lets herself imagine hearing it in his tiny bed in his little blue hut on the water. “Here to serve.” He kisses her softly before stepping back to let her retrieve her slacks. When she finds his eyes again, his focus is on the side of her neck. “That all right?” he murmurs, pressing a gentle fingertip to it, and she half-turns, glancing at it in the mirror.

“Oh, yes,” she says, and his eyes are knowing when they meet hers in the glass.

Back in the lobby of the courthouse, she feels like she’s been taken out of her own body, and wired directly into Hardy’s. All of the physical is there -- the slow trickle of him into her knickers, the low throb of his bruise at the side of her neck, the pleasant ache from the stretch of him -- but there’s something more, something deeper, and she sees it reflected in him as he not-so-stealthily meets her eyes from where he sits perched on the edge of one of the benches on the ground level.

She’s trying valiantly to keep her face neutral as she plays cards with Tom and Lucy on the upper promenade, collar popped to hide the love bite from her son and her nosy sister, and she sees the struggle reflected in his face as he tears his gaze away and focuses on the mobile phone in his hand. Her focus is forcibly redirected by a streak of motion at the entrance, and she recognizes Claire’s dark head moving in.

Ellie sees Claire’s eyes land on Hardy, oblivious as he frowns down at the screen of his phone, and she dashes toward the stairs and down them, tracking Claire’s movement toward Hardy as she unzips the rucksack in her hand and reaches inside.

For what? A knife? A gun?

No. She’d have protected Hardy before, but now...now it is something entirely different. 

Stupidly, she thinks of his gentle fingers as he’d slid her knickers back up her legs, and she knows in a second that she will tackle Claire to the marble floor of this courtroom in front of absolutely everyone in her life to keep him safe. To keep him from being that vulnerable to anyone, ever again.

But what Claire slaps against his chest is perhaps the only thing that might hurt him more than a knife wound to the same spot. 

“No.” The disbelief in his voice breaks her heart.

When Ben appears to tell them the verdict is in, she reaches for Tom’s hand and forces herself to breathe as they climb the stairs together.

. . .

8

. . .

(alec)

When he spies her orange jacket through the windowpane in his door, his heart kicks up in his chest; he presses a hand to it without thinking. In the years he spent hiding his weakness, he’d made it a point not to do that very thing. Ironic then, that now that it’s fixed, he can’t seem to stop himself. Where once he worried about it stopping, now it feels as though it could gallop clear out of the protective cage of his ribs. 

What had he been thinking, earlier? She’s vulnerable, and hurting, and his partner – his friend , for God’s sake. She’s Miller . And now he knows what she sounds like when she comes, and that the skin of her neck smells like peaches.

She arches an eyebrow at him through the glass, but it’s not as sardonic as he’s used to. As if she’s trying for normal, but they both know that they left it behind in the ladies’ toilets at the Wessex Crown Courts.

“Hiya,” she says when he finally pulls the door open, and this, too, is different. Normally, she launches right into a conversation, as if she’s already started it in her head and is just expecting him to pick up the dangling tail and run with her.

“Miller,” he says, and something in her face flickers with uncertainty. Shit. Should he have called her Ellie? Has he ever called her Ellie? Yes. One time, when she immediately recoiled from the intimacy of it. Don’t call me Ellie.

“Hardy,” she returns, and fuck, could this get any more awkward? He hasn’t done this in years. The first time he shagged Tess, it’d been in a haze of celebratory booze after solving a case. Prior to that…he can’t even remember. He’s certainly never shagged a woman who could, by most counts, be considered his best mate.

Her chin lifts suddenly. “So even after I shag you, you’re still not going to invite me in?”

The surprised smile stretches his mouth before he can think about it. “I was under the impression that I was the one who shagged you.”

The bravado vanishes, eclipsed by a blush that he finds far too endearing. Ducking his own head, he steps back, letting the door swing open. She steps inside. As she passes he gets a whiff of peaches, and he has to swallow against the tightness that grips his throat. When she unzips her jacket and shrugs out of it he sees the dark purple blotch on the side of her neck, and something hot and electric zips up his spine.

The door clicks quietly as he pushes it closed behind her. When she turns, bundle of orange draped over her forearm, her eyes are sharp. “I don’t know why I’m here.”

“Okay.”

“But it felt weird…not to come here.”

“Right.”

“You’re the only grumpy bastard I talk to in this town these days.”

“Sad,” is the only thing he can think to say, and she shifts her weight, uncertain. He doesn’t know who he is to her, right now. Why she’s here. Is she here because her murdering bastard of a husband is free, making his way to Sheffield as they speak? Is she here because he shagged her in a public toilet a matter of hours ago, and she’s trying to work out how to tell him it was a rubbish idea? Is he Hardy, her erstwhile partner? Hardy, her courthouse loo shag? Something else altogether?

With sudden clarity, he knows what he wants to be. But he can’t tell, looking at her, what she wants, and he’ll be damned if he’s another man taking what he wants and leaving Ellie Miller out in the cold alone.

He feels lighter than he has in years. The combined effects of his stronger heart, the cathartic release of tears in the interrogation room, the shag...he feels free. Light. Unburdened, despite everything. And he knows that he would be able to handle anything that happened with Miller, except losing her altogether. 

Standing in the warm yellow light of his ridiculous house, he remembers the fire in her eyes when he’d found her out on the balcony at the courthouse after the verdict, the defiant set of her jaw, the clench of her fist around the strap of her handbag. The undeniable rage that he’d been faced with when a good part of him was expecting despair and tears. In that moment, when she’d spat fire at him, when she’d matched his own rage and he’d then watched her direct that fire at Lee and Claire to burn down their whole card house, he’d known. 

If he’d had any lingering doubt after their interlude in the toilets, that had sealed it: Ellie Miller was a woman who could match his own fire. In more ways than one.

The memory of it heats his neck.

. . .

(ellie)

Alec Hardy is blushing . She never could have imagined it, but even if she could have, no doubt the reality is a better thing by yards. It’s the faintest lick of pink that climbs up the side of his face, flooding the tips of his ears and the freckled skin of his cheeks and disappearing behind his beard.

He’s opening and closing his left hand where it hangs by his side, and her copper’s brain clocks the tell: he’s nervous . She’s never seen him nervous before. Uncertain, furious, indignant, subdued, wary, snide, worried, dismissive...all of these things, countless times. But nervous? Never. His wide, dark eyes are trained on her face and his hand opens and closes, opens and closes. Rhythmic, like a heartbeat.

Endeared, she steps forward. He’s back in the clothes she remembers from the morning after his surgery – a pair of thin sleep trousers and a blue jumper – but his shoulders are back, arms by his sides, the bird with the broken wing a distant memory.

Gathering her courage, she lifts a hand and presses her palm to the space where a piece of manmade metal keeps his heart in rhythm. “How’s this?”

There’s the tiniest twitch at the corner of his mouth. “Only slightly elevated.”

“Probably should have asked before…”

“Exercise is good for it,” he replies with the faintest suggestion of a smirk. Cheeky bugger.

Pulling her hand away, she tucks it back beneath the lump of her coat. “I don’t know…” She falters, glancing around at his little home, at the sparse minimalism that is so very Hardy. She doesn’t know much of anything, really, including how she was going to finish that very sentence. Hardy, bless him, saves her from her own distress.

“Doesn’t have to be anything you don’t want it to be, Miller.”

“I want it to be what it already is,” she replies. “Just…”

“With shagging?” She’s never seen the light that’s in his eyes, sparking with provocation and humor and another, new spark she can’t name. It’s as if the Alec Hardy she’d known – gruff, bristly, allergic to human interaction – was a shell that he’s cracked open to pull her inside. She has no doubt that it will seal back up the moment they’re back out in the world, but the thought of still being inside it with him makes her shiver, and a warmth spreads through her chest.

“With...more,” she acknowledges, because yes, she’d very much like more of what she’s only just discovered he can do, but also, she wants more of him . More time with him when they’re not at work. She wants to know if he’s as grumpy when he wakes up as she suspects he must be, and what type of thing he watches on telly on his days off, and what he fancies for dinner when he does, in fact, eat. She’s staring at him, trying to convey all of this nuance without actually having to say it aloud, and he sobers slightly.

“I…” He falters, hand opening and closing again. 

“What?” she presses, voice deliberately gentle.

She sees his throat bob as he swallows. Tearing his gaze away, he looks out the window into the darkness. “You’re my best mate.”

She thinks she might be even more flattered by this than anything else he could have said to her, recently shagged or not. “I am?”

At her surprise, he meets her gaze again and rolls his eyes; his dismissiveness is familiar ground, and she’s grateful for it. “Don’t be daft.”

“I...didn’t actually think you liked me all that much.” He’s incredulous, and she actually giggles. “Before today, at any rate.” He blushes again, and oh, she’s going to have so much fun with this. But she can see that he’s serious, and she forces herself to match it. “You’re mine as well,” she says, realizing the truth of it only as the words leave her lips. A short while ago, it wasn’t even true. Her life had been populated by friends, by people who loved her. As those relationships she’d thought were lifelong crumbled like sand, he’d been there. Steady and steadfast, if ever-so-slightly interpersonally inept.

He looks doubtful. “Sorry.”

“‘M not.”

He still looks dubious, but also the tiniest bit pleased. He gazes at her for a minute before shaking his head. “Don’t wanna bollocks it up.”

“Oh, I’m sure you will.”

“Oi.” But he’s smiling, a small, secret smile that she finds fascinating. Then, the smile melts back into seriousness, and he stares intently down into her face. “I will. Probably. Nearly certainly.” He pauses and then sighs, a heavy thing. “I won’t hurt you. I’ll screw it up, and I’ll get things wrong, and sometimes you’ll be exasperated by me and I won’t even know why. You’ll probably have to tell me when I’ve been an arsehole. But I’ll never hurt you. Not like that.” 

Not like him , he doesn’t even need to say.

And he doesn’t. Need to say it. “I know,” she whispers, eyes misting. “I know you won’t.”

“Couldn’t,” he murmurs, and once again she places a hand over his heart. Me neither , she says without speaking. “You or your boys.”

And it’s this that brings the tears, swelling over the lids of her eyes and slipping over her cheeks. He lifts a hand but hesitates, and she tilts her head, resting her wet cheek in his warm palm.

Funny thing is, once upon a time she’d have rolled her eyes at the very thought of entertaining a romantic relationship with someone like Alec Hardy. He’d never have ticked all the boxes she’d once thought to be her “type.” Charming. Friendly. Easygoing. Outgoing. Funny.

All things that seem so ridiculous to her now. All things that have yielded to this one, non negotiable thing. 

Briefly she wonders if she’d ever have known him, really known him, if her life hadn’t taken the nosedive it did. If she’d stayed the slightly smug DS playing happy families she’d been when he came round to dinner and she’d actually pitied him, and his awkwardness and blatant discomfort. If she’d stayed that version of herself, would he ever have shown her his soft underbelly the way he has since Joe’s arrest? That part of her wonders if it’s possible that this is really him, this soft-eyed, gentle-lipped man who’s been so steadfast. Can it be, when the people she’d thought were her concrete pillars turned out to be nothing but sandcastles?

But then there’s a part of her that knows that his presence in her life when virtually everyone else deserted her in some fashion or another might make this the realest thing she’s ever known.

After a moment, he steps closer and slides his arms around her, pressing her body to his and caging her in with his arms, the ball of her orange coat rustling as it gets crushed between them. She feels the point of his chin rest against the top of her head, and the strange hard lump against her temple where his pacemaker sits, hidden beneath his jumper and shirt and his thin skin. 

She closes her eyes, revels in the comforting warmth of him, and lets herself be soothed by the rhythmic, steady beat of his heart.

Not too very long later, as she lies beneath him against his soft blue sheets, feeling the prickle of his beard against the curve of her stomach, hearing the water outside lapping against the bulkhead, it is the first time in ages that she feels cocooned away from the world without feeling like she’s hiding from it.

His hand finds hers amid the sheets, clasping tightly as his mouth works against her, and she feels grounded, tethered by something completely separate from herself. His fingers are warm and strong where they lace with hers, and she runs her thumb over his knuckle unthinkingly as his tongue slides between her legs, matching his rhythm as she lets her eyes fall closed. As he nudges her higher and higher up the hill of her own pleasure, she gasps into the darkness and tugs gently at his hand.

Alec .”

Releasing her hands and rising, he brushes her hair off her forehead with gentle fingertips that then trace down to the bruise on the side of her neck. Dropping a gentle kiss to it, he lowers himself to cover her, pressing them together from torso to toes. The warmth and weight of him is the perfect blend of comfort and arousal that she’d never have imagined could exist until years into a thing. Through the darkness she can see his wide eyes, his shining mouth, the chaos of his hair, and she doesn’t realize she’s smiling until his lips quirk. 

“Alec?” he murmurs, voice sandpaper and silk.

“Mmm,” is all she can say, feeling the peak of her orgasm receding like a fizzy drink shaken up and then set to rest on the counter. 

He bends and kisses her, gently, and then retreats to rest the point of his chin on her chest. “And Ellie?”

It feels like they’re having a bigger conversation than one about names. She reaches out and drags a barely-there touch over the whiskers covering his jaw. “Ellie,” she confirms, as if in introduction. She likes the way it softens at the end as he says it, a contradiction to the barked MillAH! she’s grown so used to, emphasis on the end like a cattle prod. ELLie , he says instead, now, and it’s like a secret, tapers off like a sigh. It’s softer, and she thinks he might like being soft with her as much as she likes him being soft with her. Thinks maybe it’s been awhile, since “soft” was something Alec Hardy wanted anything to do with. In a way, she’s glad he refused to call her Ellie, before. She’s glad it can be something new, now. Something theirs, here. Like this.

He stares at her in the dim light.

“You can still be Hardy,” she says into his silence, fingers still stroking his cheek. “You are still Hardy.”

He peers at her for a long moment before breaking their gaze and pressing his forehead to her chest. “Tend to bollocks it up as Alec,” he mumbles into the skin between her breasts, pressing a kiss to the curve of the left one in a rather transparent  effort to distract her. It takes her a moment to follow the thread of the thought, but when she does, the possessive, protective thing she’s only just begun to acknowledge she has for him flares. 

“No,” she says simply, wondering how much about his family she doesn’t know, but knowing all the same that he’s not the one who let them down. Done my penance , he’d said sitting on that wall earlier, and she’d thought he meant to Pippa and Lisa, but there’s more, she can tell. 

Finding his other cheek with her other hand, she forcibly pulls his face back up to hers. “’S all you,” she says, unsure of how else to say it. From the sharp focus of his eyes, she suspects she doesn’t need to say much more.

“Bit shite for pillow talk,” he deflects, and she doesn’t know if he means both of them or just one of them, but she lets him out from under the weight of it.

“Mmm,” she murmurs again, running her hands through his chaotic hair. “Just wanted to make sure I was screaming the right name, when the time came.”

He looks stunned, then delighted, then helplessly aroused. “In that case, call me whatever the bloody hell ye want to.”

She laughs, all seriousness chased away. Thinks, for a second, about making a Shitface joke, but it doesn’t feel right, to bring work here when he’s all soft and vulnerable and half-lying between her legs. Enjoys the way his already-thick accent becomes even thicker when he’s turned on. “Alec, then,” she says softly, carding a hand through his hair, his eyes going half-lidded with pleasure.

Ellie,” he says, shifting upward slightly, mouth soft and breath warm as it washes over her chin.

The peace in his eyes is belied by the urgency against her thigh, and she shifts slightly, bringing him higher into the cradle of her hips. When he pushes into her, watching her face intently all the while, mouth falling open slightly, she knows it with sudden, immediate surety: he loves her.

Neither of them will say it for weeks, months maybe, but she doesn’t need that.

Doesn’t need so many of the things she’d once been so sure she needed.

She just needs this.

The way he clutches her hand, the way he never takes his eyes off her face, the way he sees her, even through the blue-tinted darkness.

The way he sees her.

“Alec,” she whispers into his mouth. Because yes, she knows who he is.

“Ellie,” he gasps a few breathless moments later. 

And with it, he gives her back to herself.

. . .