A/N: This starts off a post S2 fic that I have been writing when the Sandbrook case was driving me nuts and I needed to escape somewhere ahead in the timeline. You might want to consider reading "A Million Holes Poked In The Soul" (which is nearing its completion) and my other shorter stories to get a better idea of where this version of Alec Hardy is coming from. There are some spoilers and cross references to most of my other writing and we'll encounter OCs that have been established earlier. It's all the same AU, same Alec, just at different points in his life. Hope you like it.
The Ocean Breathes Salty
The ocean breathes salty, won't you carry it in?
In your head, in your mouth, in your soul.
And maybe we'll get lucky and we'll both grow old.
Well I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. I hope so.
- Modest Mouse -
Prologue – The Letters
Jocelyn spotted him sitting on the wall looking out over the harbor. He was staring at the horizon, not noticing anything around him. She noted Ellie Miller a few hundred yards away, getting into Beth Latimer's car. She hesitated a moment, debating with herself, if she should approach him. He was engulfed in a cocoon of loneliness, looking more forlorn than usual. When she came closer, he was ran his hands over his face, wiping stealthily at his eyes. His body was still otherwise, not moving.
She had noted that he had missed a couple days in court, but was back for the final arguments and the final verdict. The color in his face had mildly improved from ashen to merely pale and he seemed to be a tad springier than before. He must have gotten his pacemaker then and contrary to his fears made it through. She smiled. Good for him.
There was something else though that had happened at court. After the jury's ridiculous verdict, he had dragged a woman out of the room who subsequently was taken away by uniformed police officers. She heard through the grapevine - bless the small town mentality, no secrets - that this arrest was related to the old case that was still haunting him. Remembering the picture he was carrying in his wallet, her curiosity was sufficiently tickled for her to walk up to him.
He startled when she sat down and started talking. "Hi there, how's the heart? I see you're still around."
His eyes were dark and had that feral quality she noted that night he came to her to make his will. He rubbed a spot right under his left collarbone.
"It's all right, I guess. Still getting used to it," he replied quietly.
She got the impression that 'getting used to it' meant more than just the actual pacemaker sitting in his chest. She put a hand on his arm. He flinched, but didn't pull away. She leaned closer, not wanting anybody else to hear.
"I'm sorry about Joe Miller. I failed you and everyone else." Her voice was somber, resonating with her dismay over the outcome of the trial.
He snorted. "It's not really your fault, is it now? If I had done my job correctly, this would not have happened again. If anyone failed this town, it's me." His self-loathe made his voice sharp.
"I couldn't run the investigation properly and I let Ellie beat up her husband, like I couldn't handle Sandbrook and let my wife lose the evidence. Error of judgement, you could put that on my grave," he sneered.
Jocelyn felt for him. This man was still just as broken as he had been before his surgery. But then why assume that fixing the physical ailment would fix the mind as well. He was staring out over the harbor again, showing no signs of any intention to continue the conversation. Maybe he simply wanted to be left alone. Or maybe he needed someone to break through that shell of his.
On a whim she asked, "Do you want those letters back, the ones you gave me in case you wouldn't make it through the surgery? Because you're still around, so maybe you would want to share them with the people they are intended for?"
His head snapped up. He opened his mouth to say something and then didn't. Instead he took in a deep breath, and buried his face in his shaking hands, trying to hide the sudden emotional outburst. She was taken by surprise, but was able to hide her reaction. She quickly looked around if anyone was watching and then put her arm around his shoulders, the other hand rubbing his arm.
"It's all right, it's all right. Sorry, didn't want to throw you off. Tell you what, why don't we go to my house and have tea and maybe some food. I bet you haven't eaten anything today, right?"
He pulled himself together, and nodded with his mouth open as he often did. "I think I'd like that," he admitted barely audible, more to himself than to her.
"Are you up for the walk up the hill?" She had no idea how much physical stress he could handle considering his underlying condition and recent surgery.
His lips curled up slightly. "I've walked this whole bloody town without the damn thing in my chest, I sure can do it with it." His defiance had an almost endearing quality to it.
She smiled back at him. "Right. And you also collapsed in the boat yard and in my house, so forgive me if I have my doubts."
"Why does everyone insist I'm an invalid?" She laughed at his pouting scowl.
She stood up and beckoned him to come along. "We'll take it slow."
And so they did. Hardy had to take several breaks, but he made it there. When he slumped down on her sofa, panting, he muttered under his breath, "Told you so."
She was rather stricken by how much his victorious and equally gorgeous smile transformed his face and made him look decades younger. Jocelyn was glad she hadn't left him behind.
Hardy sat on Jocelyn's sofa, panting. It had cost him a lot to walk all the way from the harbor up to her house, but he'd never admit it. His heart rate was up but not too much and there was no pain in his chest. He had no stamina from two years of inability to exert himself, but that was something he could work on. That part was easy.
Enjoying the small victory, he smiled and muttered, "Told you so."
Jocelyn smiled back at him. "Going to put on the kettle. How do you feel about having some soup or salad to start with and then maybe some pasta?"
Surprisingly, he was hungry. "Sounds fine. Thanks."
He leaned back on the sofa, closing his eyes, trying to shut out the world. This day had sucked away whatever energy he had gathered after the pacemaker surgery. He felt drained, physically and emotionally. He had nothing left. Nothing to give and nothing to keep him going. Sorrow had filled in the burning anger that had driven him ever since he was lying next to Pippa's dead body at the bank of the river. It was threatening to overwhelm him like it had only a little while ago in the interrogation room.
"You all right?" Jocelyn's quiet question jerked him back into the real world.
He was about to utter his usual answer of being fine, when he stopped himself. Maybe it was time to try something different. If not now, then when? So he changed his tune.
"Dunno." That was all he could manage. Because he really didn't know. He had woken up after the surgery, but that didn't fix all the many things that were wrong in his life. It gave him a chance, but that was about it.
He looked at her puzzled expression, feeling equally confused. He rubbed the back of his head, casting his eyes downward.
"I see," she said with an amused tone. "Pacemaker didn't quite fix the broken heart then?"
He laughed. It was timid, something he wasn't used to any more. "No. Not quite."
She handed him a mug with tea. He eyed it suspiciously. "It's not by any chance decaf?"
"No, of course not. Wouldn't touch the stuff." She sounded rather disgusted. Then she realized what she'd said. Her expression changed, looking chagrined.
His lips curled up in a wry smile. "It's not that bad. You get used to it. No coffee or chocolate is worse actually." He put down the mug, gently. He was so used to having to turn down simple gestures of kindness without being able to explain why, forever offending the people around him, that this was rather refreshing. No more lies.
"I'm sorry. Should have thought of it. Got some chamomile tea somewhere, if you want." She made it sound even worse than the decaf.
He sniffed and scrunched up his nose. "Na, thanks though. For trying."
"Wanna come to the kitchen? Talk a little?" she invited him.
He stared at her as if she had made an indecent proposal. He couldn't even remember the last time someone asked him to talk, someone being genuinely interested. Even his conversations with Ellie were all revolving around the case or the trial, never more personal than that. At least not on his part, mostly because he didn't let it go there.
And all they did was bicker at each other anyway. Like an old married couple. He frowned. Where had that thought come from? He shook off the odd feeling coming with it and followed Jocelyn into the kitchen. He lingered at the door, unsure what to do, chewing on his bottom lip. She was rinsing off some lettuce.
"I could do that, I guess," he offered insecurely.
She cast a sideways glance at him. "Hm... at least you won't be able to break anything this time."
He huffed in exasperation. "I'll try my best not to disappoint expectations. Miller hated my salad. She didn't say anything, but I could tell, being a detective and such." He smiled shyly. This was almost funny, he thought.
She chuckled at his sorry attempt at a joke and handed him a bowl with cucumbers, tomatoes and carrots. "Let's see what you can do with those."
He shrugged and contently focused on this pleasantly normal task at hand. It was going well, until she asked him about the arrest at the court. His body tensed up and he cut himself. His blood was dripping onto the wooden board. At a loss of what to do, paralyzed by his emotions crashing down on him, he simply stared at his hand, vaguely aware of the pain.
"Jesus, Hardy, what is it with you and kitchens? Next time you're going to set fire to it, if I'd let you," she growled at him while she pressed a cloth against his maimed fingers.
"Maybe you shouldn't poke your nose into things that are none of your business," he snapped back at her.
"Touché." She didn't look at him while she inspected his fingers.
He sighed. He had accepted her invitation to talk so maybe he shouldn't be fussy then.
"The woman was my key witness in the Sandbrook case. Turns out she was way more than that."
She looked at him, clearly surprised. "How come you arrested her now after, what? Two years?"
He squirmed and moaned while she was washing the wounds, drying them and putting a few bandages on them. The cuts had been deeper than he thought. He contemplated his answer to the question. She made two years sound like quite a long time, and in the world of crime it probably was. In his world, it was an eternity, his former life farther away than ever. It hadn't taken two years to shatter everything though. One didn't need much to accomplish that. In the end, all that it took to destroy somebody's life is the briefest of moments and a few words.
'It was Joe' – that was what he had said to make Ellie Miller's life go to shit.
'But I don't love you anymore' – that was what Tess had said to make his life go to shit.
He realized that he had thought of Miller before he even thought of himself and his miserable existence. He wasn't surprised. Miller had become the only person in his life that resembled a friend. And contrary to common belief, he actually cared about his friends, or at least used to. If they let him, and Miller sure didn't. He would keep on trying though.
Jocelyn wasn't ready to give up yet. "So, was your reason to come to Broadchurch related to your old case? Because you made it clear last time we talked, it wasn't the ocean."
"Are you interrogating me now?" He eyed her suspiciously.
"No, Hardy, I'm not. I'm trying to make conversation with you, but I might as well talk to a wall. Are you always this difficult?" she sighed and let go of his hand.
He folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the counter, looking down and studying his feet with undeserving interest.
"'M not difficult. Not my fault. If nobody wants to talk to you, you forget how to," he mumbled defiantly before he could stop himself.
Jocelyn voice was warm. "I want to. You can practice with me, if you like. Just don't be so defensive."
He snorted. "It's hard not to be defensive, if everyone thinks you're a fucked up failure and let a child murderer walk free. Twice now, to be precise."
She glared at him. His ears were turning hot and his cheeks followed.
"Sorry. I guess that didn't really qualify as not defensive," he conceded.
She smiled. "No, not really. But I'll let it go for now. You better sit down while I'll finish. Don't trust you to not make more of a mess."
He plopped on a kitchen chair. He placed his hands on the table and stared at them. And then he simply started to talk. About how he found Pippa. About Lisa who everybody always seemed to forget and who ended up being the key to everything. About the investigation and how everyone was playing games with him, even more so than he realized back then. About his wife's betrayal and how that almost killed him. How Claire manipulated him and how he had been too wounded and ill to fight her off. About his shit plan of keeping her under his control to lure out Lee. About the nightmares and the slow self-destruction. And about how Ellie Miller had saved him from drowning for good.
Jocelyn listened to everything, not interrupting, letting him talk. She had opened the floodgates and now it was all spilling out of him. He clearly had no recourse to holding back, now that he had started. She wondered if he'd ever spoken to someone about even part of this. She strongly suspected the answer was no.
She was horrified by the tale. And she felt sorry for all the lives that had been destroyed in the wake of this case. Not the least his. When he was finished, she sat down next to him, putting her hand on his. There was one question she needed to have an answer to. A question about the one thing that had really worried her when he had stayed that night.
"Do you still carry her picture around with you?"
And that was when he completely broke down, right there in front of her. He stared at her with dark and wild eyes. But only for a few heart beats. Then his face turned grey. A guttural sound escaped his throat. He buried his face in his trembling hands and cried, so hard he was gasping for air in between the sobs coming from deep inside him.
At first, she wasn't sure what to do. She hadn't quite expected a reaction like this. Remembering his first visit at her house, she worried, if his body was going to be able to take such an emotional outburst. Hoping the pacemaker had at least taken care of that part of his broken heart, she stood up and walked around the table to sit down next to him. She gently placed her hand on his back and started rubbing it in circles. She could feel his tense muscles and shuddering breaths.
Soothingly, she whispered in his ear, "It's all right, let it go. You're not alone. I'm here." If at all possible her words seemed to make him cry even harder.
She then knew what she needed to do. The only thing she would have wanted for herself if being faced with this kind of overwhelming anguish. She put her arm around his shaking shoulders and pulled him close. She expected him to resist but he didn't. He slumped against her chest, clinging on to her arms like a drowning person desperately holding on to the one thing that might save them. Eventually, after what seemed like a long time, his sobs slowed down, his breathing was more measured and the tears dried up. He didn't move for a few more minutes, before he started pulling away from her embrace.
"Better?" she asked quietly.
He nodded. His hair was sticking up in all directions and his eyes were red and puffy. There was snot on his nose, like a little child would have. She reached over to the paper towels and handed him one. He took it and tried to clean himself up a little, still sniffling.
"The bathroom is down the hall, second door to the right. Why don't you wash your face and I'll finish cooking." She gently nudged him towards the door. He wordlessly stood up and left the kitchen.
When he came back, he looked marginally better, his hair slicked back with water and no more tears and snot staining his face. He leaned against the door frame, hands shoved in his pockets.
"The answer is no. About the picture. I put it back with the file. The only one that I have now is Daisy's." His Scottish accent was strong and his voice gravelly from crying.
"Good." She didn't need to say more, they both knew what it meant to him. It was finally over.
Hardy felt rather awkward having lost control like that in front of Jocelyn. He sat back down at the table, not sure what to talk about now. His heart was lighter and slowly, very slowly he began to realize that the burden that had been weighing him down for the past two years might have been lifted from his shoulders. The one thing that had kept him going despite everything else.
It made him sick to think that his only reason to exist had been his questionable obsession with finding who killed Pippa and Lisa. When Tess told him to let the case go, she had no idea how much he really couldn't. Because if he had, nothing would have been left. His life was adrift, clinging on to the hope that he might get it right in the end.
Miller told him he did it, but that's not how it felt. Sure, it turned out that it was Lee who had murdered Pippa, but Hardy had missed basically everything else. It was Miller who figured it out. God, she was brilliant. He smiled at the memory of her gorgeous face when Tess handed her the picture of the wood floor.
Tess had been wounded by how much he was in awe of Ellie Miller. She always had a hard time sharing his attention with someone else, even while she was shagging another man right under his nose. He never understood that odd twisted jealousy of hers and sometimes he wondered if his close relationship with Daisy was part of the reason why in the end he and Tess couldn't make it work. She couldn't share him with the one other important person in his life.
She'd said she loved him for taking the blame. How ironic was that? She loved him for something that he wouldn't have had to do in the first place, if she had loved him enough to begin with. Was it a mistake to tell her, he missed her? Because he did. He missed what they used to be, a family, a happy couple, companions and together in so many aspects of life. And then things changed and he didn't notice until it was too late. His desire of being able to go back in time, go back to being in this blissful state of not knowing what a pile of shit his future would be, was rather childish, but truth be told, he would give anything for it.
When he woke up from the surgery, astonished that he was still alive, his mind wasn't able to process all the overwhelming feelings. Miller was there, and it was wonderful that it was her grouchy face he woke up to, that it was her who he could tell that he made it through. Because if he could make it through, then she could as well, and things were going to be all right for her. And that's all he wanted.
She had called him a wanker and bickered at him and it was utterly enjoyable. Maybe the pain medication had something to do with that. Maybe not. He had been disappointed when she said she couldn't give him a ride back, but when she said it was because she was going to pick up Fred and Tom, he was very much happy for her.
And then Tess had barged in, taking possession over him as she used to do. He had seen Miller's skeptical expression, but sadly she still had left. He believed Tess that she was worried about him. Oddly enough, she began to worry more about him after he had found out about the affair. Maybe she had realized that he wasn't the only one who had been looking away. Or maybe she felt guilty that he basically died right after she told him.
'Take me home,' he had asked her. Three words that meant so much more and so little at the same time. He didn't have a home to be taken to. It was long gone and he had never been able to find another one. And over time, he became more and more disconnected with life and people around him, lost in the all-encompassing solitude, especially after he was forced out of his job. He truly believed what he had said in the interrogation room, that ultimately they were all alone. Miller's attempt at consoling him had been kind. He very much wanted her to change his mind, but then she immediately left him behind to go pick up the pieces of her life, proving his point, that in the end, there wasn't really anybody for him any more.
He had to admit that he had grown close to her. He had let her in, more than anyone in the past two years. Others might not consider his awkward moves at comforting her or trying to support her throughout the trial as any passable form of friendship. Certainly dragging her into his personal nightmare didn't qualify as fun weekend activity, but to him it had been a big step. He wanted to be there for her, he just didn't know how. Especially as she didn't let him. Something that he understood more than anyone else in this town.
He had no idea how long he had been sitting at the kitchen table in utter silence, his thoughts wandering. He looked up from the spot that he had been staring at. Jocelyn was sitting opposite of him, watching. She was munching on her pasta and he realized there was a bowl in front of him as well.
"Eat," she ordered, pushing the bowl closer. He picked up the fork and started nibbling at the food. It was flavorful and for the first time in many months he was able to appreciate the comfort one can get from having a proper meal in company. They didn't talk much, until she asked him another loaded question.
"What are you going to do now? Are you going to stay?"
He stared at her, then dragged his hands over his face. Indeed, what the hell was he going to do now?
"Honestly, I have no fucking idea," he blurted out, his voice heavy with the distress that he felt over the non-existing answer.
Jocelyn raised her eyebrows but didn't say anything. She stood up and left the kitchen. When she came back, she had two familiar envelopes in her hand. She placed them carefully in front of him.
"How about you start with these? Share what's in those letters, don't just carry it around with you. Take the advice you gave me and tell those two what they mean to you. Make them part of your life," she encouraged him gently, placing a hand on his slumped shoulders.
He brushed the letters with his trembling fingers. He didn't think he would see them again. They were part of his life when he was sure he would die. Now things seemed to have changed. Possibly so, he didn't know. The sentiments expressed in his writing though, were still the same, even now that he survived the surgery. If anything they had grown stronger. He had spoken to his daughter, albeit only briefly, but it was a start. He folded Daisy's letter and put it in his shirt pocket, close to his heart. Then he picked up Ellie Miller's, holding it at each end, staring at her name printed in his best handwriting. Did he dare tell her? Tell her how much she meant to him, how much he appreciated what she had done for him? Was he ready to make that leap, to really put himself out there again to get hurt? Yet again, he didn't know.
Maybe it was time to come back from the river, where he had left so much behind, to take back that part of him that liked being around the people he cared for. Maybe he could start with a hug, he used to be good at that better than with words. One step at a time. He took Ellie's letter and placed it carefully next to Daisy's. He couldn't help but think that these two pieces of paper might do more to mend his broken heart than all the hardware that was hiding in his chest. He was smiling at the soppiness of the sentiment, when he was getting up.
"Thanks for dinner and..." He trailed off, struggling for the right words to express his gratitude further, but didn't quite know how to. He shuffled his feet, shoving his hands in his pockets. He could feel himself blush with his awkwardness, which only made things worse. At least his bum heart seemed to drag along just fine.
Hardy awkwardly thanked her for having him over but didn't make any move to walk out of the kitchen, still leaning against the counter. Jocelyn sighed inwardly. Not for the first time, she wondered if he had been like this before his life fell apart.
She looked at the man in front of her. He blushed easily over his pale complexion. His gaze was fixed on his feet. His clothes were hanging loose on him and his shaggy hair fell into his face, almost covering those sad hazel eyes. It was puzzling how his body language made you want to run away and hug him at the same time. The latter won.
She quickly crossed the distance between them and put her arm around his shoulders, squeezing him tightly in a somewhat sideways hug. He stiffened up under her touch, but didn't move away. His eyes were darting back and forth, panicking. Blimey, he really didn't know what to do with himself.
"For heaven's sake, would you relax already? You sobbed through my shirt and now you're being shy. One would think I'm doing something naughty to you. And I don't even fancy men," she sighed.
That earned her a wry smile. He eased up a bit and went as far as putting his arm around her shoulder, while they were both leaning against the counter, standing side by side. Eventually he spoke, voice soft and quiet.
"Thanks for inviting me to talk. It's been a while. That somebody wanted to listen." He paused and fumbled the letters in his shirt pocket. "And thanks for encouraging me to deliver these."
He tugged on her shoulder one last time before he pushed off the counter. When she watched him walk down the hill, shoulders straight and a bounce in his step, she smiled and knew she had made the right decision. He didn't need her any longer to take care of the letters. He had found the courage to do it himself.