A/N: Huge thank you to everyone who has reviewed and followed and read up to this point. It's been fun. You are the wind beneath my wings and all that jazz.
Standing outside of the hospital, Ellie checked her phone and saw she had another missed call from a few minutes ago. This time it was only the one and from Lucy. She called back while she waited for Tom and Hardy to come out. Apparently they'd both needed the toilet for a while, but hadn't wanted to risk losing their place in the queue.
"Is he okay? I'm so sorry - I've had the volume off on this thing."
"Keep getting these calls from British Gas," she replied offhandedly. "I've told them I get paid on Friday, but-"
"Are you in trouble?"
"Nah, just underestimated how much the leccy was going to be. I'll be fine after I get paid."
"Yes! Forget that - how's Tom?"
Ellie had known her sister long enough to know when a subject was being changed on purpose. Since Joe's arrest, Lucy really had been making an effort, actually attending the financial help workshops Ellie and Olly had been recommending for years. She hoped she was telling the truth this time, but it was something she could deal with another day.
"Few stitches in his lip, some impressive bruises, including one hell of a black eye, and three cracked ribs. Nothing too serious though and he should be fine in a month," she replied as she saw Tom and Hardy walking across the reception area. She hadn't noticed before, but Tom appeared to be walking with a bit of a limp.
"Tell me the other boy came off worse."
"Probably not, seeing as there were three of them."
There was silence on the other end of the phone. Ellie found that sharing the news that had shocked her so much made her feel better. The more she heard it, the less immediate it became.
"Get down that school first thing tomorrow and demand to see the head," Lucy demanded. "Don't settle for some deputy. Those little shits need-"
"I know, Luce, already planning on it."
"Do you want me to come with you?"
"I'm a police officer. I think I can handle this," sighed Ellie. It didn't seem to matter how old they were to Lucy. If her little sister was in trouble she was still determined to do her best to help, regardless of whether it was a good idea or not. "How's Fred?"
"Bit grumpy. No temperature though and I think he's less snotty. Hard to tell. He's been asleep for about an hour."
Ellie breathed a sigh of relief. Seeing the missed call, she'd straight away thought that something had happened to her youngest. When Lucy hadn't began the conversation with that she knew that wasn't the case.
"Thanks for looking after him."
"Any time, El."
"I can pick him up on my way back. We're just leaving now."
Tom and Hardy approached her and she smiled at them in greeting. Tom smiled back, while Hardy nodded.
"I can have him for the night, if you want? Let Tom have a decent night's sleep."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, it's fine. Tell him I said hi and to make sure he makes the most of that black eye. The girls will love it."
Ellie rolled her eyes. "Will do," she replied, having no intention of repeating the last part to him.
"And tell DI Hardy-"
"-that his arse is crying out for a decent pair of jeans."
With Hardy scowling at her impatiently, Ellie couldn't help but laugh. "No chance."
"No, it isn't."
"I'm hanging up now."
"Oh come on, El, you can't tell me you haven't noticed!"
"You're no fun-"
Ellie hung up and dropped the phone into her bag, before smiling brightly. "Lucy says hi. Fred's fine and she'll take him for the night so you can get some sleep."
Tom looked relieved, while Hardy was looking at her suspiciously.
"Were you talking about me?"
"Don't be ridiculous."
"Can we go home now?" asked Tom, screwing his face up. He'd been told to take painkillers regularly until his ribs were fully healed and it looked as though the ones the hospital had given him were wearing off.
"'Course, love," replied Ellie, putting her arm around his shoulder. "What about you?" she asked Hardy.
He shoved his hands into the pockets of his coat. "I'll probably start driving back."
"You're invited to dinner, you know," she told him.
"Dinner. A thank you for looking after my son. It's called being polite."
Hardy blinked at her. "At yours?"
"No, I was thinking about the Ritz, maybe?"
He bristled at her sarcasm. "I could just go home and eat."
It was times like this that Ellie wondered if Tess had kept him in a cupboard for the whole of their marriage, only letting him out to go to work, create Daisy and appear at any social functions she needed him for.
"Fine. Drive three hours to eat a pile of leaves on your own," she snapped. "Or come back with us, have a takeaway and try to come to terms with the concept that some people enjoy spending time with you."
The look he gave her made her realise that Tess had definitely had the right idea with the cupboard.
"I'll just - I'm parked over there."
"I'm on the other side. You know the way?"
They looked at each other, unsure of whether they had finished a conversation or an argument. Should she just say goodbye and walk away? A hug seemed a bit much considering they would be seeing each other in a few minutes. Not that they ever hugged anyway.
Bloody hell, Ellie thought, one hug and you've lost the plot.
Hardy cleared his throat and turned to Tom. "Put the top strap of your seatbelt behind you," he advised. "You'll be fine as long as your mother doesn't crash."
"Thanks," Tom replied uncertainly. His eyes flicked to her as though worried she was about to announce she'd always wanted to be a rally driver and now was as good a time as any to start training.
"See you in a bit, Miller," he said, then turned to walk away.
Subconsciously Ellie's eyes dropped before she caught herself and headed towards her own car. She had to admit that while Lucy might have been terrible with money, she'd always had a good eye when it came to other things.
Five minutes later, they were on the road back to Broadchurch. Even though he was in the back and engrossed in his mobile, Ellie still saw Tom constantly shifting, trying to alleviate the pain in his side. She reminded herself that there was nothing she could do, not until they got home, but it grated against her instincts to help him. If she wouldn't lose her job if she was caught, she'd be very tempting to ignore the speed limit.
Before she could put any serious consideration into her plan, Tom's phone rang.
"Hey. Nah, I'm fine. Only three of them."
Ellie gripped the steering wheel as she stopped at a junction. Why was it children were incapable of understanding how serious broken bones were and how they should be avoided at all costs?
"Don't worry about it. Hardy came down anyway. Yeah, that Hardy. Not really. I mean, he visits some weekends with his daughter but- No, they stay at the Traders."
"Who is it, Tom?" Ellie asked. She had a feeling she already knew, judging by how the conversation was going.
"Olly," Tom replied and Ellie congratulated herself and knowing what a prick her nephew could be. "He says hi."
"Does he say where he was this afternoon?"
Tom relayed the question. It took a while for him to get an answer. "Says he was busy."
"Put him on speaker."
"Auntie Ellie, I'm-"
"What's her name, Olly?" she called over her shoulder while Tom smirked.
She heard Olly sigh. "Jessica. Look, Auntie Ellie, I'm really sorry. You know I'd have been there straight away if I knew."
"I know," Ellie said. Even though he only called her 'Auntie' when he needed something or was apologising which annoyed her no end, she could hear how sincere he was. It wasn't like she couldn't understand. The family had always been there for one another, especially after recent events, and it was just a horrible coincidence that the one time they all couldn't reach the phone, one of them was in need. "I honestly never thought I'd see the day you put your phone down for five minutes."
"It was definitely longer than five minutes."
"Grow up, Oliver."
"One day," Olly replied and she could practically hear his grin. "I'll make it up you, Tom. Let me know when you're up for it and we can go paintballing, yeah? Or there's that laser game they've opened up at the bowling?"
"Can we at least get him home from A and E before we arrange to injury him again?" Ellie cut in.
Tom, however, was smiling. "Definitely."
The conversation turned to a new game that was coming out and Ellie soon phased out. She'd listened enough to learn the name of the game so she could research whether or not she would actually want her son to play it (a lesson she had learnt after Olly had assured her GTA:IV was fine for a nine year old and she'd later caught Tom and Danny messing about with toy guns and pretending to 'kill bitches') but couldn't stay interested in the rest of it if she tried.
A quick look in her rear view mirror showed her that Hardy was still directly behind. It was odd seeing him driving. It must have been years since he was last behind the wheel - excluding the time he borrowed her car - but he didn't seem too out of practise, a few dodgy looking gear changes aside.
He'd let her know that he was back on the road in typical Hardy fashion by casually mentioning he'd be picking Daisy up from Tess' the next day and was baffled when she latched onto it. After months of being his personal taxi, Ellie felt she had the right to tease him a little.
She told herself that, anyway. Really, she knew it was more of defence mechanism, born of the fact that she honestly felt proud of him for putting his life back together. The feeling shouldn't have startled her as much as it did, seeing as he was a fully-grown man, but she'd seen him just about ready to give up on ever having a future. Now he had a home, a relationship with his daughter and was seriously looking at getting his career back on track.
Maybe he'd even learn to shave some day?
By the time they'd pulled up to the Millers' house, Tom was hardly talking and only taking shallow breaths. Ellie rushed him inside and had couple of painkillers and a glass of water ready for him as Hardy closed the front door behind him.
"Remember what the doctor said," she reminded him as she rubbed his back. "Try to breathe normally or you'll do more damage."
"Easy for you to say," Tom grumbled, still wincing with every breath.
"Still want pizza? Your normal one?" she added when he nodded. "I'll order while you get out of your uniform, yeah?"
"Thanks, Mum," Tom said as she kissed his cheek.
"Will you be all right getting your shirt off or do you want a hand?" she asked.
The parts of Tom's face that weren't covered with bruises flushed as he glanced at Hardy who was looking too intently at his phone to really be paying attention to it. "Mum, I can get undressed myself."
"Fine, but if you hurt yourself because you were too stupid to ask for help then I'll have no sympathy."
Tom rolled his eyes as he walked towards the stairs. "I'll remember that."
Hardy put his phone away and sighed heavily.
"What's up with you?" Ellie asked, routing around for the pizza menu they kept in a drawer.
"Tess says my daughter's acting up," he said, running a hand over his face. "Daisy's only ever my daughter when she's acting up."
"Mouthing off to teachers," he shrugged. "Could be worse."
Ellie found the menu and slid it across the table to Hardy. "Yeah, at least she's in one piece."
"Wanna swap?" he suggested. "I'd rather go to the school to give someone a bollocking than sit there, looking contrite and telling them that everything is 'okay at home.'" He went to pull the menu towards him, but paused. "Not that I want Daisy getting into a fight, obviously, but-"
"I know what you mean," Ellie assured him as she sat down. "What are you having?"
He looked down at the menu, the furrow in his brow becoming gradually more pronounced. "You might as well inject shite right into your veins."
"Oh, live a little. Go all out and get extra cheese."
Hardy looked horrified by the thought and Ellie grinned at him.
It took an inordinately long time for Hardy to settle on pepperoni, during which Ellie took great pleasure in mocking his inability to make a decision. Years of picking meals based on his doctor's advice had left Hardy almost unable to pick something based on whether or not he simply liked it. As ever, he gave as good as he got, and she found herself smiling more than she had all day at how comfortable it all was.
Eventually she was able to place the order and Tom was back downstairs, now wearing a button up shirt that Ellie raised her eyebrows at. His replying scowl was enough to tell her that putting a normal t-shirt on had been too much for him and she ruffled his hair to let him know she was sympathetic anyway.
The evening passed by without much drama. Conversation flowed freely enough, even with a couple of elephants in the room. Ellie was dying to ask more about the fight and how it had started, but didn't want to spoil what was otherwise a pleasant dinner. Hardy whinged about how much grease was on his pizza while Ellie and Tom ignored him and loudly complimented their own. Halfway through, Lucy phoned because Fred had woken up and wanted to say goodnight to his mum. He'd mastered the words 'mummy' and 'bye', but the rest of the conversation was complete nonsense that only made sense to the babbling toddler. Ellie appreciated it nonetheless.
All in all, it was a normal family dinner, even if they weren't a normal family.
Or a family at all, Ellie reminded herself.
Not long after they'd finished eating, Tom announced that he was shattered and was sent to bed with more painkillers and a drink just in case. Ellie and Hardy cleared away the empty boxes as the light outside slowly faded from orange to pink.
"I should probably start back soon," Hardy said, squinting out of the kitchen window.
"You remember how to use your headlights, don't you?"
"Are you ever going to stop taking the piss?"
Ellie considered this for a moment. "I drove you around for… three months? Three months payback seems fair."
She grinned at his dumbfounded expression as she passed him to empty the bin. Once she was done and the kitchen was relatively tidy, Ellie began filling the kettle. Hardy fidgeted on the edge of her vision, clearly unsure of whether he was staying for another drink or if he was allowed to leave.
"You can stay, you know," she said, hiding her exasperation by keeping her back to him.
"Oh. So… on the sofa?"
"What?" Ellie turned to face him, forgetting that she was holding the kettle under the tap and splashing water everywhere.
Hardy's eyes went wide. "You meant-"
"For a drink," she clarified. Somehow it did nothing to ease the tension that had filled the room. "What did you think I was on about?"
If it wasn't for his chest rising and falling, Ellie could've been convinced that he had been frozen solid until he eventually replied. "I thought you meant… stay. Here."
"Oh." Ellie turned the tap off and placed the kettle on its stand. "It is getting late, I guess."
"You can stay if you don't want to drive back tonight."
"You want me to?"
"I'd rather that than you fall asleep and crash. It's up to you, though. That sofa isn't the comfiest."
The twitchy nod Hardy gave her reminded her of the toy dog she had put in her first car before she'd even driven it. She blamed the sudden rush of affection she felt on the memory.
"Right. I'll get some of the spare bedding out for you," she said, pointing in the general direction of the stairs. She hurried towards the kitchen door but was too quick for Hardy to realise he had to move out of the way and bumped into him. They shuffled around each other, his hand on her elbow, until she could pass. By the time Ellie had made it to the hallway she could feel her face had heated up.
"Idiot," she hissed at herself as she climbed the stairs. Had it really been that long since she'd been around an adult male that she started acting like an infuriatingly naive character from a teen rom-com? Just the mention of a sleepover and she was tripping over herself.
Ellie pulled a couple of blankets and a pillow out of the airing cupboard and paused to take a steadying breath. It'd been a long and emotional day. It was always times like this that she missed being married. The knowledge that there would always be someone there when she got home kept her going until she got there. Now when she walked through the front door, she knew she'd be going to an empty bed where any nightmares would have to be fought alone.
Before she went back downstairs, Ellie popped her head around Tom's door to see he was already fast asleep. She watched him for a moment to see if he was showing any signs of discomfort but it seemed the painkillers were doing their job. In the dark she could barely see his swollen eye and tried to lose herself in the fantasy that this had been an average day in her happy life with her normal family.
Bracing herself, she left the fantasy to give the bedding she was holding to the man who arrested her husband for the murder of her son's best friend.
She honestly didn't know if she was dreading or hoping for the day that didn't feel like being punched in the stomach.
Ellie dumped the blankets onto the sofa on the way to join Hardy in the kitchen. She was shocked to see that he was placing various bowls and plates in a bowl of soapy water in the sink.
"Are you… are you doing my washing up?" she asked from the doorway.
Hardy glanced over his shoulder briefly. "Aye."
"You don't have to," she said. "That's not even stuff from tonight."
"So? I don't mind."
Moving to stand next him, Ellie tried to pull him away. "I can do my own housework."
"I know that. I'm just helping."
Ellie pulled the plate he was holding out of his hands and dropped it on the counter. She recognised it as one she'd used for dinner two nights previously and felt a flash of embarrassment. Between work, looking after Fred and Tom as well as everything else, she knew she'd let the house get a bit messy. It didn't mean she needed help with it. She was perfectly capable of keeping on top of things.
"Miller, you're being ridiculous," sighed Hardy, making a grab for the plate but she pushed it away from him. "You bought me dinner-"
"You looked after Tom. That's it. Debt paid."
Hardy stared at her for moment, eyebrows disappearing under his fringe. "Debt- We're not the bloody mafia."
"Let me do my own washing up."
"Why are you making such a big thing out of this? Just let me help!"
Ellie held her breath, closed her eyes and counted to five. It was no use. Something inside her that had been gradually winding up all week had finally snapped. It wasn't Hardy's fault - he was just the only person there she had to unload onto - but the voice in her head telling her that was being drowned out by all of her insecurities.
"I don't need help!" she told him through gritted teeth. "It's my house. My kids. My mess. I will deal with it."
Recognising her tone as the one she used when she was trying to remain calm, Hardy levelled her with that searching look of his. "Fine," he said without any heat in his voice and rolled up his sleeves. "You wash. I dry."
Any hope Ellie had of not flipping completely evaporated on the spot.
"Oh piss off, you patronising twat," she spat at him. "I know what you're doing. Giving Tom your number, visiting all the time… I'm not a bloody charity case! Just because you haven't got Claire hidden away to make you feel useful anymore doesn't mean you can use me instead!"
Infuriatingly, Hardy didn't say a word back to her diatribe. Other than blinking, he didn't move at all. It only served to anger Ellie more. Right now she needed a sparring partner and he was being woefully unhelpful with his indifferent expression.
"Where the hell do you get off judging me?" she carried on. "A few months ago, you were living in a shack!"
"You're going to wake Tom up," Hardy said quietly.
"Stop telling me how to look after my kids!"
Hardy scrubbed a hand over his beard and shook his head. "Okay." And without so much as a glance in her direction, he turned on his heel and walked out of the kitchen.
Her anger rising to a whole new level, Ellie followed him into the living room, hissing at him as she went. "Now you won't even look at me when I'm talking to you! You actually get ruder with age."
Clearly trying to ignore her, Hardy picked up one of the blankets and unfolded it.
"You're a fucking arsehole and you don't even care!"
Rather than doing the polite thing and yelling back, Hardy kept his back to her and carefully laid the blanket over the sofa.
"No wonder you ended up divorced."
Ellie knew she'd hit her mark when she saw Hardy's back tense. It had been a low blow and she felt a prickle of guilt, but she was too far gone to apologise. Slowly, he turned to face her and she met his patient eyes defiantly, willing him to fight back.
Instead, he was staring at her, all rolled-up sleeves and forearms and fingers curled around his narrow hips, clearly still holding back. He ran his tounge over his upper lip and breathed out heavily through his nose to calm himself.
"Is this helping?" he asked softly, his left eyebrow arched.
It was obvious now that he knew exactly what she was aiming for. The fact he wasn't taking the bait, but taking everything she threw at him was more frustrating than anything else that had happened since she'd tried to start this stupid argument. Just this once, couldn't he defend himself?
Unable to articulate any of this, Ellie screamed through her teeth.
Then, without thinking about consequences or meaning, she pulled him down by the collar and pressed her mouth to his.
It was less of a kiss, more of an assault, if she was honest. They must've looked ridiculous, him bent over and her clinging to the front of his shirt, but then his stance shifted. His arms were wrapped around her, pulling her closer, while her hands moved to his hair as he began kissing her back.
Alec Hardy was kissing her.
It was like a bucket of cold water over her head and Ellie pulled away, nearly tripping over one of Fred's toys on the floor.
"What are you doing?" she gasped, trying to ignore the way her lips felt like they were burning.
"What?" he panted. The sight of the back of his hair sticking up made something give way in Ellie's abdomen.
"Why were you kissing me?"
Hardy blinked at her reasonable question. She could see him going over the last few seconds, trying to work out if he'd remembered them correctly. "You... kissed me."
"Why did you kiss back?"
"Because you kiss-" He frowned. "Why did you kiss me?"
Ellie folded her arms. "I asked first."
Choking out a laugh, Hardy shook his head. "You are... astounding."
"Simple question," she shrugged.
The pair of them stared at each other and Ellie tried to figure out the answers to her own supposedly simple questions. Well, she knew the answers, but admitting them - even to herself - was another thing entirely.
"You started this!" accused Hardy.
"Stop being such a cock!"
Unable to look at his baffled expression any more, Ellie stormed out and back into the kitchen. Without thinking, she swiped at the light switch, realising too late that the light had already been on and she was now standing in the dark.
Feeling stupid and still reeling from the shock of her actions, she leant against the counter and stared blindly at the closed blinds. She'd kissed Hardy. She had no idea if she wanted to be kissing anyone at the minute, let alone him. Her family had just been through hell and was still recovering. It would be selfish of her to throw her love life into the mix of things her kids had to deal with. Relationships were hard enough without all of the baggage she was dragging along.
But then Hardy knew all of this. He knew all of this before she did and had been doing his admittedly flawed best to help since he realised what was going to happen. That day on the beach, he'd as good as told her that he'd have her back in the aftermath. Everything he'd done from that point on had been to protect her, to remind her that she wasn't to blame.
He'd definitely kissed her back, as well.
Had she spotted when he'd started looking at her differently? Or had she buried the knowledge along with everything else? It could have been during the trial, or maybe the day he'd left Broadchurch, but she'd been deliberately ignoring it since he'd started visiting. His wide-eyed stares of admiration that had gradually become more frequent and less hidden had scared her if she were honest. Whatever it was he was feeling, he'd come to terms with it way before she was even willing to acknowledge it.
There was no way she dealing with her emotions worse than Hardy. That couldn't be possible, could it?
Ellie was so caught up in her thoughts that she didn't notice that the subject of them had joined her in the kitchen.
The soft noise of his socked feet on the floor made her spin around, a shaking hand over her heart. "Sorry," she started, saying the first thing that came to mind. "I shouldn't have shouted. I - it's been… And I've just..."
It didn't look as though he was listening to the words falling out of her mouth. Instead, he met her gaze unflinchingly and, with each slow step towards her, Ellie became more desperate to fill the silence.
"I didn't mean - back there - it was just - I'm sorry."
He stopped directly in front of her and whatever it was Ellie was still managing to say was coming out as a whisper. She'd lost track of the actual words.
With the moonlight that had made its way through the cracks in the blinds illuminating strips of his calm face, Hardy reached out and touched her shoulder with his fingertips. Ellie wasn't sure how she didn't flinch, especially when he slowly moved them down her arm until their fingers tangled together.
She had a flashback to another life, when they'd stood here, her with another man's ring on her finger and him with a different girl's picture in his wallet, and he talked about creating false intimacy. As she stood before him now, his eyes asking for permission, acceptance and a million other things she was scared to name, there was nothing false about the intimacy he'd created.
He leant forward a fraction and her eyes flickered to his parted lips. It was only then that Ellie regained control of her own words.
He didn't hesitate.
It was so delicate, yet she it felt as though every one of her cells was vibrating and she could break into a thousand pieces at any minute. Unlike the first time, she had time to pay attention to the details, like how his beard was a lot softer than she'd expected while still scratching her slightly as he moved.
It lasted forever yet no time at all and she was just glad she could stop thinking long enough to just exist in the moment.
He broke the kiss and rested his forehead against hers. Ellie kept her eyes closed and, though she had no way of knowing, was sure he was doing the same. If she could've just stayed here, Hardy's heart beating under her palm, the sound of her own blood rushing in her ears, if she could've just stayed in this moment for a little while longer...
"You should get some sleep," he murmured as she gradually opened her eyes. "We can - talk - in the morning."
As Ellie nodded, she realised how close they were still standing. Somehow he'd ended up with one hand cupping her cheek and one of hers was caught up in his shirt just above his hip.
With words still well beyond her reach, Ellie kissed him again just to make sure it had been real. When she tried to pull away, he followed her and it took three more soft kisses before either of them could stand back.
When there was some space between them once more, Ellie wondered how kisses so chaste could have her so wound up. Then again, it had been well over a decade since she'd felt this kind of first time thrill.
"'Night, then," she said, unable to speak much louder than a whisper and taking a step backwards.
Ellie nodded awkwardly and hurried from the room as casually as she could. It felt odd, she realised halfway up the stairs, being sent to bed this early by her ex-boss while in her own house, but she doubted her limbs could respond to her own commands.
Once in bed, she couldn't fail to catalogue the parts of the evening she'd missed as they were happening. Everything from Hardy's concern for Tom to the way he'd smiled at her when she'd teased him and, finally, how tense his muscles had been under her hands when they'd kissed were replaying in her mind. It was clear he had been holding himself back in the kitchen. If she were honest with herself for the first time today, then she had been as well.
She couldn't pinpoint when all of this had started, or even what it was, but it had. Now she just had to decide if she wanted to stop - if she even could.
Thanks so much for reading! Hope you all enjoyed at least some of this.
There is going to be a follow up story to this from Hardy's POV. At some point. Hopefully. I just have to y'know... write it.