It is dark by the time they conclude the day’s investigative work. Hardy is barrelling ahead of her, his brow furrowed, firing numerous questions that he expects no answer to as he takes the stairs two at a time to reach the station, but Ellie does not follow. He keeps walking for almost fifteen metres before he realises she’s not with him.
‘Miller?’ he says, turning.
She looks at the station, lit up against the black sky, and shakes her head with a sigh. ‘I can’t. I’m done for the day.’
He tries to say something about suspects to mark off, but she stomps her foot.
‘It’s late. I’m tired. And we’ve got an early start tomorrow. I’ve got to go home.’
Her orange coat is slung over her arm. She shakes it out, pulls it on and zips it up.
‘I’m not staying, Hardy,’ she says, throwing up her hand and turning away. ‘‘You keep working if you want, but I’ve got to go. I’ll see you tomorrow.’
‘Miller,’ he says again, and she stops, rolls her eyes and turns to look at him. His brows are pulled tight together. ‘Are you walking home?’ he asks.
‘I’ll walk with you.’ He surges forward and is at her side in a few long strides. ‘We can keep discussing the suspects,’ he explains lamely. ‘Which ones to cross off.’
She conceals a smile. They stride into the night together, their arms swinging in tandem.
‘I know why you’re really walking me home,’ she says. ‘You don’t need to hide it.’
‘You’re worried about me.’ She says it in a light, teasing way, but Hardy does not rise to the bait.
‘S’not safe for any woman to walk home alone right now.’
Her jocular tone slips and she nods gloomily. ‘I know. This case has made me so paranoid. Going home last night, I saw a neighbour walking his dog and – God, it nearly made me jump out of my skin. It just - hit something primal. Fight or flight, straight away.’
He flinches to hear it.
‘I hope dad’s left out some dinner for me,’ she continues, changing the subject. She heaves a sigh and stretches, rolling her neck side to side. ‘He’s a terrible cook, but it’s still better than having to heat up a tin of baked beans for tea.’
The mention of food sets off a spark in Hardy's head. 'Bollocks. I forgot. I bought something for you.’
He reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out something. His fingers uncurl to reveal a Kit Kat.
‘Got it when we stopped for fuel,' he explains. 'Then I took that phone call and I forgot about it.’ He pushes it gingerly with his thumb and it squishes unnaturally ‘I think I sat on it.’
Ellie swipes it out of his hand and greedily tears into it.
‘You’re not really going to eat that, are you?’ he says incredulously.
‘Well I’m not gonna let it go to waste,’ Ellie says through a mouthful, spraying wafer crumbs into the air. ‘Ooh, it’s all melted. Want half?’
‘No thank you.'
‘One of these days,’ Ellie says, licking the melted chocolate from her thumb, ‘you’re just going to keel over. I’ll come into work and I’ll find you dead at your desk, still propped up as if you’re about to bark orders at me.’
She demolishes it in two more bites and crumples the wrapper.
‘Thanks,’ she says, smacking her lips. ‘That hit the spot. Would’ve been nicer if you’d given it to me this morning, but still good.’
Hardy looks at her in a quizzical way, as if she is a puzzle or a riddle that he simply cannot work out. He shakes his head wryly, then turns away.
It starts to rain, at first lightly. Ellie squints at the sky, then fumbles in her brown Mum Bag. She produces a compact umbrella.
‘Is there anything you don’t have in that bag?’ Hardy complains as Miller pops it open. It is bright orange with white polka dots. ‘You’re like Mary bloody Poppins.’
‘I’m a mum. Have to be prepared for everything.’ She watches Hardy as he obstinately forges ahead, even as the rain gets heavier. ‘Oy, are you getting under or not?’
He looks at her as if she’s just spoken in French.
‘We can share,’ she explains patiently. ‘Come on, the last thing you need is to catch cold. That’ll really finish you off.’
Hardy approaches her slowly. He stoops to get under the umbrella and ends up comically hunched.
‘Here,’ Ellie laughs, proffering the handle. ‘You can hold it.’
He takes it and stands up straight. The umbrella is small, and they have to stay close. Ellie is just ahead of him and to one side. They walk in perfect sync. Hardy's black coat swishes against her orange jacket, but they never actually touch.
Ellie takes out the blue scarf that’s folded up in her large coat pocket and wraps it around her neck. ‘You’re still getting rained on, she complains to Hardy. Part of his back and hair is getting soused. Grabbing the umbrella just above his hand, she forces it back so it covers him, even though this means the water hits her instead.
He grunts, and moves it forward again.
‘Stop it,’ she orders.
‘It’s your umbrella, you shouldn’t be getting wet.’
‘Don’t be an idiot,’ she snaps, and moves it again. It now covers both of them equally, so one arm each is getting drenched.
He obstinately grips the umbrella with both hands, holds it in place, and positions it so it covers her again.
‘For God's - fine,’ Ellie huffs. She still has the Kit Kat wrapper in her hand, so she retaliates by shoving it in Hardy’s coat pocket.
'Oy,' he growls, and she starts laughing.
She could swear some of her good humour has affected him, just a little bit, but then he suddenly grows rigid.
A fraction of a second later, Ellie sees what startled him, and she stiffens too. Coming towards them is a tall man with a dark hoodie on, the hood pulled over his head to protect from the rain and his hands in his pockets. In the failing light, Ellie cannot make out his features. She has no idea who he is – friend, neighbour, stranger, suspect or otherwise. All she knows is that he is big, and it is dark.
She feels her heart flutter, as it did the previous night when she saw a masculine figure coming towards her, but this time a hand settles on her shoulder and squeezes, quieting her nerves and calming her at once. Hardy pulls her closer towards him, then guides her so that she moves to the left of the path, with himself on her right side. The man in front of them moves to the other side of the path, and she sees that Hardy has surreptitiously placed himself between her and the stranger.
She’s very close to him now, with her back and right arm flush against his chest, his hand on her left shoulder, their legs moving in tandem. The umbrella covers both of them now, save for the tips of their feet when they walk.
She glances up at Hardy, and sees that all his attention is fixed on the stranger, watching intensely.
‘Goodnight,’ the man says as he walks past. Ellie still cannot see his face, and nor does she recognise his voice, but she instinctively replies in a cheery voice.
They keep walking. Once he is gone, Hardy relaxes imperceptibly, and his hand falls from her shoulder before Ellie can shrug it off.
‘You didn’t have to squeeze so tight,’ Ellie mutters when the stranger’s out of earshot.
He doesn’t say anything. She wants to tell him off, state that she doesn’t need him to baby her, but after her scare she’s honestly just glad he’s with her. Their net was so wide - there were so many suspects – so many men out there who might turn out to be monsters. She should know – she’d already married one of them.
She never thought she’d be able to trust a man again after Joe, and she's profoundly grateful to find that she can trust Hardy implicitly, instinctively, that there's at least one man out there she doesn't have to fear. Thin and grouchy as he was, she knew he would never hurt her, never try anything with her unless she asked him to.
Not that she would ask him, of course...
She finds herself blushing and she edges away from him. The walls between them are raised once more, and they split apart so that both are slightly exposed to the rain. Hardy smoothly gives her some more space and insists on sheltering her with the umbrella again, even at his own expense.
She wonders if she is special, or if he’d do this for any woman. Certainly, he seemed to consider it his duty as a detective to protect all citizens – particularly the female population, who were more vulnerable at this point in time – and she does not doubt that if he were escorting any woman home he’d offer them the umbrella, and walk so that he was between them and a stranger.
But what about more than that? He’d move mountains for his daughter, she knows that. She smiles tenderly at the thought. There's nothing he wouldn't do for her.
All women were entitled to his general protection; but she cannot think of anyone besides Daisy and herself who had the privilege of his love and care.
She can't imagine him buying coffee and Kit Kats for anyone else.
Smitten with a sudden rush of affection, she adjusts her pace slightly so she’s nestled up to him once more. He grunts in surprise and shifts the umbrella.
‘So what do you think of Roberts and Stevenson, then?’ she asks. ‘Reckon we’re safe to cross them off?’
He hums, and she can feel the pleasant rumble as it begins, deep in his chest. ‘Roberts is a yes. But I think we should get DC Harford to confirm Stevenson’s alibi before we definitely clear him of suspicion.’
‘All right. What about Cath’s cousins?’
They continue in this manner, pressed close to one another beneath the shelter of her orange umbrella, until they complete the climb to her house.
They make it to her front door and stand under the small porch, shivering and shaking the droplets from their clothes. Hardy lowers the umbrella and rattles it vigorously.
‘Careful!’ Ellie says when some of the water hits her. He grunts an apology.
She looks in her pocket for her keys. Hardy stands patiently by, and Ellie is suddenly filled with the sensation that she is on a date, and has just been walked home by her prospective lover. Yet, as she looks at him, she can see no hint of hope, entitlement or expectation that she would associate with a date. He is all mildness, demanding nothing from her, wanting nothing but to ensure her safety.
The same fondness overcomes her, and she turns to him with a small smile.
‘Thanks for walking me home.’
‘S'fine. Will the boys still be up?’
‘Freddy’ll be asleep by now. As for Tom… well, I’ll be able to say goodnight to him, but not much else.’
She looks gloomy. ‘Teenagers,’ says Hardy with a shrug, and Ellie smiles again.
She thrusts the key into the lock and turns the handle. Hardy tries to give her the umbrella, but she deflects the offer.
‘Keep it for the walk back. You can return it tomorrow.’
He’s not pleased by the suggestion, but as the dark scene is perfumed with the smell of wet earth and permeated with the symphony of rain, it does not take much convincing for him to assent.
‘And here,’ she adds. She unwinds the blue scarf from around her neck and throws it around him. He makes a noise of surprise.
‘It’s cold,’ she explains.
He tries to take it off. ‘I don’t need -’
‘Just shut up and take it,’ she sighs. ‘For my own peace of mind.’
She wraps it around his neck several times and knots it tight. He frowns at her with that grouchy expression of his.
‘You can get as sick as a dog after we solve the case,’ she says. ‘But for now, you need to dress warmer. And you need to start eating.’
‘Again with that,’ Hardy groans, but he doesn’t try to take the scarf off.
‘You’re heading for another breakdown,’ she chides.
‘Will you stop nagging.’
‘I’ll stop nagging when you start looking after yourself,’ she snaps.
'I’m leaving,’ he says, throwing up his hand. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’
He stomps off, still clutching her orange umbrella. He pops it open.
He turns back to her as he rests the umbrella on his shoulder.
‘Don’t go back to the station,’ she implores. ‘You should go home. Get some rest.’
He opens his mouth to make another complaint, but she speaks over him.
‘I’m sure Daisy’s missing you,’ she continues, and that shuts him up. Several moments pass. She bites her lip, and swishes from side to side in her coat. ‘It can be nice for us girls,' she explains, 'to have a man like you around.’
He still says nothing, so she bids him goodnight, and he murmurs after her:
She goes inside but doesn’t close the door straight away, instead peeping out at him as he trudges down the path. He stands at the end of her garden, stares at the ground with thoughtful fixity, and adjusts the scarf so that it covers his nose. He breathes deeply for several seconds, tapping his foot.
Then he turns left, onto the path that leads towards his house, away from the station. Ellie smiles, and quietly closes the door.