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Ellie doesn’t quite know how it’s happening, but suddenly she and DI Hardy are friends. Or, rather, she knows exactly how it’s happening, because it is by sheer bloody-mindedness that she has convinced Alec to join her on innumerable park walks and drinks down the pub, terrible school plays and amateur art openings. It started as something between pity and desperation, though she’s not sure which was for herself and which was for him. But now, Ellie finds herself looking strangely, bizarrely forward to these nights, to watching Hardy thaw little by little. It’s not easy - he’s still at heart a weird, picky arsehole and a snippy little bugger, but in some way that Ellie can’t quite bring herself to name, it’s good.

So of course, Ellie can’t resist prodding just a little harder. It all starts when Mrs. Vickers, the chippie, announces that her niece is coming to town. The niece is freshly graduated from a dance programme, and before long there are photocopied adverts posted all over town. Learn Argentine Tango, the flyers say. Beginner class for health and happiness.

Ellie drops the flyer on Hardy’s desk at end of day on a dreary Thursday in late summer. It’s unseasonably cold, windy with a bite to the air that makes the incessant rain chill Ellie to the bone. She’s in three lumpy sweaters and thick wooly socks, but she still can’t quite get warm. She tells herself that that’s why she can’t stop shifting weight as she watches Hardy read the paper, waiting for his reaction.

“Bloody wasteful, it is,” Hardy says, flicking disdainfully at the photocopied paper, and well, that’s consistent, she supposes.

“Yes well,” she replies impatiently. “Not like most of the old timers here would see it on Instagram, would they?”

“Instagram,” Hardy replies, with a tone of loathing that is as Scottish as anything Ellie could possibly imagine. Weirdly, this helps with her wrong footedness.

“It’s a nice idea,” she says, trying not to sound too worked up about it. “Very social. You could use more social activities, you know. Might be you’d meet a nice person. Nice people,” she amends, when his eyebrows shoot up.

“I don’t want to meet nice people,” Hardy says, a little plaintively. “I know too many people already. Can’t hardly stop them from talking to me.”

“Good for public relations then,” Ellie tries, a little desperately. “Besides, I don’t want to go alone, and I’ve already promised her old Auntie I’d go. I can’t lose my chips, Hardy. I need my chips.”

He rolls his eyes at that. “Haven’t you any actual work to do, Miller?”

“Finished that ages ago,” she says archly, and flounces off. Hardy can stuff it.

She thinks that’ll be the end of it, but the next day she comes back from lunch early to find Hardy perched uncomfortably on her desk. The office is still deserted - Ellie had been hoping to sneak back in and bask in the quiet.

“Yes?” she says, elbowing his knobby knees out of the way so she can swivel her chair out and sit down. She expects a tart reply, but none is forthcoming, which is her first hint that Hardy is distracted by something.

“Good for public relations, you said,” Hardy says uncomfortably. He won’t make eye contact with her, which is a sure sign that whatever he’s discussing is much more important to him than he wants to let on.

She’s taken aback at first, but it sinks in after a moment. “Ah, yeah. The dancing. Absolutely, Sir.”

She can read in the twitch of his brow that he caught her carefully inserted term of respect. It’s been a long time since she felt any imbalance of power between them, and generally she only bothers to deploy it when she knows it’ll needle him good and proper.

This time is no exception. Hardy makes a face like he’s just bitten a lemon. Ellie really shouldn’t enjoy that as much as she does.

“Don’t--,” Hardy starts, then cuts off with a sigh, shoving his hands into his already frightfully mussed hair “--I’d make a right bloody fool of myself. Don’t know how to dance, or anything.”

“Nor I,” Ellie replies cheerfully. “Suppose that’s the point of a beginner lesson, innit? Anyway, can’t imagine loads of people around here can dance, not properly anyhow.” She shoots him a grin, all toothy and pleased with herself, and not even bothering to hide it. “Besides, you could hardly look like more of a wanker than usual, could you?”

Hardy squeezes his eyes closed, rocks once, then launches off her desk in the general direction of his office. “Fair point,” he says, and slams the door behind him.

Ellie feels something bubbling up inside her, and clamps it firmly, firmly down.

**

So that’s how she finds herself at a dance studio with a deeply uncomfortable Alec Hardy, the following Tuesday evening.

Mrs. Vickers’ niece is a young, posh thing named Taylor, all yoga pants and little strappy top and sleek, pretty hair. Ellie feels something of a pang about her, so young and innocent and full of excitement for this new venture. The residents of Broadchurch are a motley crew, joined by a handful of retirees, a few middle aged singles with anticipatory expressions, and a gaggle of late twenties’ women, all laughing and chatting together. Ellie waves at Mrs. Vickers, and again at Maggie, who looks, as always, incredibly poised beside an equally well turned out Jocelyn. Everyone looks pleased, curious, and reasonably excited about what is to come. Everyone, that is, except Alec Hardy.

Hardy is so wound up that Ellie fears, suddenly and protectively, that his heart might give out right there, all that vibrating tension bursting out of him and taking whatever’s left of Alec along with it. He’s visibly trying to control his breathing, and he can’t stop nervously smoothing out imaginary wrinkles in his, as ever, effortlessly posh button-down. Ellie says a brief, fervent prayer to whoever might be listening, and smacks a hand over his own. “Breathe.”

His eyes dart to meet hers, panic painfully obvious in his inordinately pretty eyes. “I don’t think I can do this,” he mutters, through gritted teeth.

“Chin up,” Ellie says, but her voice is gentle somewhat in spite of herself. “I’ll let you keep me in salads for a week. And besides,” she adds, lowering her voice so it’s just for him. “I don’t care if you can dance, Alec. I just, you know.” She shrugs, helplessly. “I couldn’t stand to be here alone.”

Hardy meets her eyes again, and god, she could drown in those eyes. He nods once, sharply, and his hands still.

“Right,” niece Taylor says, and claps her hands. “First off, this is a social dance, so decide if you’d like to stick with your current partner for the class, or rotate as you learn.”

“Nice to get to know everyone--” Ellie starts, then follows Hardy’s panicked gaze across the room to Becca Fisher. “--Right. Suppose we’ll stick together then. Don’t worry, first lesson’s bound to be all music theory or some such, nothing to offend your delicate sensibilities.”

Hardy makes an offended and extremely Scottish noise, but before he can say any more, little Taylor is clapping her hands again.

“Let’s get started, then,” Taylor says brightly. “Tango is a dance of connection, so we’ll spend tonight learning how to connect with our partners. Let’s start off with a good, long hug.”

“Well,” Ellie says fervently, “Bugger.”

The first thing that Ellie learns about Hardy at dance class is that he’s absolutely terrible at hugs. She’d been half afraid that he’d feel birdlike and fragile against her, but he’s not that at all. To be sure, Hardy is narrow, all bones, but there is a strength in his frame, something vital in his coiled, pent up energy. It thrums against her, alive with potential, to the rhythm of his restless pulse.

Hardy is tense, really bloody tense, though. Ellie can feel his reluctance as a tangible, palpable thing. But then Hardy lets out a great sigh and relaxes infinitesimally, and all of a sudden he’s so, so close. The proximity makes Ellie hyper aware of their height difference, of the delicate skin at Hardy’s throat, the sound of his short, sharp breaths. Ellie wonders, for a moment, why Hardy would do something that he is clearly hating so much, then decides to put that thought away and never touch it again. Anyway, Hardy seems to get off on miserable penance.

Hardy shifts again, draws Ellie a little closer. His palms drag on her shoulder-blades, and she leans in in spite of herself, finding the curve of his neck with her forehead. Hardy sighs once more, and this time there’s an acceptance in it. Ellie feels his inhale against her sternum, mirrors it back for him. The next breath, they take together.

The second thing Ellie learns about Hardy is that he smells absolutely bloody amazing. Ellie tries everything in her power to ignore it, but he’s so-- so there, so all around her, and Ellie can’t help but drink him in. Christ. She really needs to find someone to shag.

By the end of the first class, they can just barely totter around the room to the general beat of the music. Ellie’s fingers have been squeezed half to death, but Hardy’s fitful lurching has calmed somewhat, and it’s, well, honestly, it’s nice. They don’t talk much, but Ellie thinks that despite it all, Hardy likes it too. Paul Coates accidentally steers Becca right into Chloe and Dean, and they all go down in a giggling heap. Maggie and Jocelyn prove ridiculously, easily good at this, moving with a smooth confidence that can only come from years of carefully listening to one another’s bodies, minds, selves. There are a few new people as well, a reasonably fit bloke named Charlie who winks at Ellie when he catches her eye, a pair of adorable retirees up from the continuing care home. Even the mirthful twentysomethings find a focused energy and unleash it on one another, cheering when they get something right. Hardy is doing that almost smile of his, and Ellie can feel her own, threatening to break free. Ellie tries very hard not to think about why, but her traitorous brain can’t help but mull over the realization that Hardy also hasn’t been touched by anyone in a very long time.

Afterward, they walk home quietly, in the dark, and before Ellie steps into the warm light of her open door, she says, “Not so bad, then?”

Hardy gazes at her, eyes unreadable. The light from the foyer catches and illuminates his milk-white skin, and the wind lifts his hair. He looks wild, in that moment, something fey and strange. It’s no wonder he doesn’t fit in in this world, when he’s so clearly of another.

Hardy sets his brow, purses his lips, and the moment is, if not gone, then put away somewhere for later perusal. “No,” he says finally. “Not so bad, after all.”

**

Three weeks into the class, reasonably fit Charlie buttonholes Ellie after class and very matter-of-factly asks her out. He’s jovial, easy-going, and he dances rather well. In fact, he’s taking the class just to introduce some friends to tango. He himself has been dancing for years, and it shows. Charlie’s got a manbun, which is weird, but he also has a nice, delighted laugh, and he deploys it often and loudly. He seems like the kind of man who’s had a totally ordinary life, not marred by any sort of tragedy. Ellie can’t figure out if she craves that or hates it.

“That lad’s your husband, then?” Charlie asks, as they’re putting their street shoes back on. Hardy is trapped in the opposite corner of the room making pained small talk with Maggie, who can’t contain a wicked smirk and who keeps brushing Jocelyn’s arm in delight when she says something probably very sharp and witty. Those two escalate each other, really.

“What, ‘im?” Ellie squawks. “Lord no, if he could only hear you say that. No, we work together.”

“Well golly,” Charlie says, because he is most certainly a person who would say something like that. “Awfully good of you to partner with that one. Has he ever had a good time, in his entire life, do you think?”

Ellie laughs, uncomfortably. The truth is, she’s rather enjoying dancing with Hardy, even though he is, objectively, terrible at it. In fact, that somehow makes it even more absurdly likeable, his helpless grumbling, his furrowed brow, the little pleased noises he makes when he finally gets something right. He’s improving a little, too. Most of his problems are just down to his general discomfort with other human beings, and his pathological inability to relax. Ellie can hardly say that to the man who’s flirting with her, though. After all, it has been ages.

“We put up with each other,” she settles on, then gives him one of her brightest grins and spends some time remembering how to chat someone up. It’s easy; he doesn’t seem to have any spiny edges at all. It seems like that should feel better than it does.

**

“You weren’t half bad tonight,” she tells Hardy, as they’re walking home.

“Bollocks,” Hardy replies, but there’s no heat to it, and Ellie thinks he might even look a little pleased. “Fancy bringing the lads round for supper tomorrow? Someone’s got to keep you lot from developing scurvy.”

Ellie shoots a glance at Hardy but he’s looking carefully down now, and his features are obscured in shadow, unreadable.

“Sounds lovely, but I’ve got a date tomorrow. Charlie from class, he’s just asked me out.”

“Oh,” Hardy says, and his tone is clipped. “Right, good on you.” He shoves his hands in his pockets, a gesture that isn’t nearly as casual as Hardy seems to think it is.

“Sounds really nice though,” Ellie says, a little desperately. “Another time soon?”

“Yeah,” Hardy says quietly. “Yeah, another time.” They don’t say any more, after that.

**

Charlie is nice enough, friendly and genial and good at small-talk. He tells her little funny stories about his work as a web developer, asks easy and uncomplicated questions about her own life and work, and lets her split the check without a fight. At the end of the night he kisses her, soft but solid, and it’s all fine, all nice, nothing wrong with it at all. After they say goodnight, Ellie kicks off her shoes and stockings in the doorway and, shoving off from the door as it closes, flops down on the couch, half unzipping her stupid, uncomfortable date dress and sighing deeply at the freedom. She makes it ten minutes before she’s texting Hardy.

How do normal people do this dating thing?

Her phone pings almost immediately.

How should I know?

Fair point, silly of me to ask you.

Thanks for that. How’d it go, then?

Oh, it was fine.

Well that’s a ringing endorsement. Seeing him again?

Might do, yeah. Nothing wrong with him. Ellie stares down at her phone, considering, then adds,

Does the offer for dinner still stand?

She squeezes her eyes shut, tries not to think about why she’s clutching her mobile like a lifeline. Her phone vibrates in her hands again, and she opens her eyes to look.

Course it does. Tomorrow? Come round at seven.

Ellie taps her phone against her chin, thoughtfully. She doesn’t know why she’s suddenly grinning so hard. She doesn’t, she doesn’t, she can’t.

**

Ellie has such plans for dinner, plans of the best laid variety. She wears a stretchy jumper with a saucy dipped neck, because sometimes she likes to see if Hardy has a pulse after all, if she can make him squirm and gulp. Nobody’s cooked for Ellie in a bloody long time, and Ellie’s feeling weirdly fluttery about it. She can’t resist making a bit of an effort, making it into a bit of a thing. She digs out a skirt and knee-high boots, and even spends a moment trying to tame her flyaway curls. Of course, Fred immediately drags a paw through them, and stretches out her top in his desire to be picked up immediately, and so Ellie feels absurdly disheveled by the time she makes it to Hardy’s door.

Hardy is, as usual, stupidly put together. He greets them at the door in his usual pressed button-down, his rolled up sleeves the only concession to domesticity. He’s wiping his hands on a dishtowel while bickering good-naturedly over his shoulder to Daisy, who is sacked out on the couch behind him. Without missing a beat, Hardy reaches out for Fred in a distracted, parental sort of way, tousling Fred’s mop of tawny hair. He raises his eyebrows at Ellie in a sort of well, what can you do expression, and clears the doorway so Ellie and Tom can come in. Ellie makes for the kitchen counter, depositing a bottle of wine there and reaching for the corkscrew. Hardy bustles by, already focused on the pots boiling away on the hob, and hands it to her.

“Thanks,” Ellie says, and doesn’t think at all about the warm brush of Hardy’s fingers, so rough and capable against her own.

“Drink?” She asks. She’s already pouring herself one. She has a feeling she’s going to need it.

Tom has joined Daisy on the couch and they’re already chattering happily about some videogame they both play, which apparently, Daisy is absolutely crushing at. Tom has lugged his laptop over in the hopes that they might play after dinner, and Ellie is charmed by this, by how warm and simple it all feels. Daisy hollers a hello, makes waggly, what in the world has got into him eyes at her unsuspecting father, and grins warmly at Ellie. Ellie makes a sort of I have no idea, who could? face back at her and shrugs.

“Smells good,” Ellie says, redirecting her attention to Hardy. He’s at the range now, standing with one hip cocked to support Fred, who’s clinging limpet-like as Hardy stirs a pot of pasta sauce.

“Ach, isn’t much,” Hardy says, but he’s smiling a little, in spite of himself. He shifts, jogs Fred up a bit.

“I can take him,” Ellie says, “Little barnacle.”

“Ah, no trouble,” Hardy says, and he rocks Fred as he stirs, slow and hypnotic. Hardy is staring very intently at his own hand on the stirring spoon, carefully casual.

Ellie watches, and sips her wine, and lets herself accept, just for a moment, that this feels very much like home.

She goes on a few more dates with Charlie the reasonably fit web developer. They go for drinks, to the pictures, and then to see a show, and Ellie thinks of Hardy’s outrage at the quality of local musical theatre, from when they saw Pirates of Penzance in back in March. She’d ended up throwing popcorn at him and telling him to stuff it in a much too loud whisper, and they’d gotten dirty looks from all around. They’d gone out for chips after, and Hardy had watched her eat them with an odd, soft, indulgent smile that didn’t fade the entire rest of the evening. But the show with Charlie is nice, too.

It turns out that Charlie is the sort of person who likes to meet the cast after, to give out firm handshakes and clap people on the back, and say, “well done!” Ellie smiles and says hello too, then finds a bench and texts Hardy.

Charlie’s bloody social. He’s said hello to everyone in the cast now. Can’t even figure out if he knows them already or not.

What’s he doing that for?

Ellie smothers a snort of laughter, because she knows exactly the pinched, ridiculous face that Hardy is making, can see it without even trying.

I don’t know, being nice or something.

Bit weird, if you ask me.

You would think that about people being nice.

And yet I’m the one you’re talking to, rather than the illustrious Charlie.

Fair point, Ellie replies, and puts away her mobile, feeling oddly chastened. She finds Charlie in the throng of people and tucks a hand into the crook of his elbow. She resolutely does not look at her phone again.

That night, Charlie asks her if she’d like to come up for a nightcap. Ellie knows what this means; it’s not a very original way of asking to shag, but it’s clear, and Charlie does seem to like doing things by the book. She agrees, and they snog on the couch for a bit, until her neck cricks and she has to take a breather. Charlie laughs, light and easy, and puts a hand on her collarbone, traces it downward toward the curve of her breast. He pauses, asking permission, and it’s all very safe, very nice, very kind, but suddenly Ellie can’t do it.

“God, Charlie, I’m so sorry,” she starts. “I just, you’re great, but I just don’t think I’m feeling it.”

“Oh, good lord,” Charlie says. “Have I done something wrong?”

“No, no,” Ellie says. “You’re lovely. I just think-- well I think I’ve got to sort some things out. And I don’t think I’m meant to sort them out with you, if that makes any sense at all. I hope we can still be friendly, at class and all?”

“Of course,” Charlie says, and he already seems to be over the sting of it. “But come on, tell me.” He leans in conspiratorially. “Is it the consumptive bloke, your not-husband?”

“No comment,” Ellie says firmly, and sees herself home.

The following weekend, Hardy brings Daisy over and they all lounge on the sofa, eating takeaway curry and watching a film. After that it becomes an unnamed but very definite thing, weekends together. One week Hardy cooks for them all, the next Ellie orders something delicious and very bad for them, and that settles into a rhythm. Hardy complains about eating trash, and Ellie complains about eating green things, and one night she realizes he’s not Hardy in her head anymore, he’s just Alec. She knows he doesn’t like it much, but Ellie thinks it’s rather nice, as names go. He still usually calls her Miller, but Daisy likes to call her “El,” and every now and then Alec says it too, always looking a little surprised afterward, but not in a bad way. Just, thoughtful.

Summer gives way to Autumn, and Ellie and Hardy-- Alec, take to sitting out by the water together, after their family dinners. Warm light from the windows dapples Alec’s skin in shadowy patterns, and Ellie is struck by the line of his profile, its sharpness so familiar, so solid. She savours it, delights in his nearness, in the absolute and vital life of him.

“You’re all right then?” she asks, a little hesitantly. She gestures vaguely at his chest, already regretting that she’s broken the easy silence between them.

Alec looks down at his chest, drops a hand to where Ellie knows the pacemaker lives. “Yeah,” he says finally, “Yes, I’m really good.”

“Can I feel it?” Ellie asks. She doesn’t know why she says it, doesn’t know what to make of the leap in Alec’s pulse as she shifts closer, waiting for his permission before stretching out a hand.

Alec nods heavily, dropping his head. He unbuttons the neck of his shirt, revealing a soft undershirt, and nods again, as though deciding something that he doesn’t see fit to share with Ellie. Ellie gulps a breath, suddenly unsure of the exact mechanics of breathing. She dips her fingertips into the vee of his shirt, finds the warmth of Alec’s skin, follows the pull and tension to its source. Hardy very carefully doesn’t look at her as Ellie traces the line of it, the scar and the ridge of that little magical something that has given Alec his life back. She pulls back, and it feels-- it feels not right, to leave the warmth and life and feel of him, to go back to being just Ellie, just herself. She looks away, suddenly embarrassed, as Alec does up his button again. Hardy clears his throat, suddenly awkward. He drains his glass of wine, makes to go back inside. He offers Ellie a hand up, and Ellie doesn’t look at him, but she takes it. Of course she does.

The next week, they’re having their usual curry and film, and Ellie notices Alec’s eyes drifting closed. They’re working a new case, and as usual it’s completely consuming him. She can tell he’s not sleeping, and having already forced him to eat what for him was an unholy amount of food, Ellie is determined that Alec Hardy will not wake up on her account. Tom and Daisy are on opposite armchairs, and Fred is wedged in beside Daisy, already snoring away. Tom catches Ellie’s eye, makes a face at Ellie, goes to startle Alec awake. Ellie swats at him, careful not to dislodge Alec. He’s blatantly sleeping on her shoulder now, mouth hanging open rather endearingly, brow all mushed up against her collarbone. Ellie wonders how much of this is by design, though she knows Hardy would never, on pain of death, admit to actually seeking out human contact. She sighs, stroking absentmindedly at Alec’s ridiculous hair, and carefully looks over at Daisy. She’s grinning, and taking bloody photographs on her mobile. Ellie makes a face at her, and Daisy makes it back, and that’s that sorted, then.

Alec doesn’t stir until the credits are running, and then only because the kids are up and moving, clearing up the takeaway debris and quietly chatting about school. Ellie feels him wake, feels the tension find its way back into his body, the exact opposite of relaxation. Alec blinks, scrubs the heels of his hands into his eyes. “God. Must’ve drifted off.” He shifts away, and Ellie’s side goes cold. She has to resist the urge to reach for him, to beg him to come back, to stay. She watches him for a moment, and he watches her back, his eyes so soft and open. “I--” she starts, but there’s Tom loading the dishwasher with a clatter, and Fred tugging her hand, and Daisy yanking her shoes on in preparation for the walk home. “No bother,” she says instead, lamely.

“Right,” Alec says quietly, and a few moments later, everyone is gone, either to home or to their beds. Ellie sits quietly on the couch for what seems like an eternity, remembering Alec’s hair against her skin.

They keep taking dance classes. They finish the beginner series, then take it again, and by the end of the second go they can move about the room in a semi-sophisticated fashion, generally not stepping on any feet or bumping into any other dancers. Ellie grows used to the feel of Alec’s hand against her own, the way his thumb brushes her knuckles, the way his breath skirts against her cheek. She grows accustomed to tapping him on the delicate inside angle of his elbow, when Hardy starts to hunch back into himself, to try to hide. She learns to take big, beautiful, expansive breaths that lift both of their chests as one. Somehow, they learn to dance.

Alec isn’t satisfied, of course. He’s jealous of everyone he perceives to be a better dancer than himself, which is almost everyone in the room. He’s bossy, has fits when things don’t work. Ellie doesn’t mind. It’s no different than how they communicate in everything else they do, and Ellie is starting to see past the impatience to the fear, to the deep self-loathing that she wants so badly to smooth away from Hardy. She can’t find the words to say it, so instead she snugs close to him, breathes in that heady smell of him. She lets the tip of her nose brush the soft shell of Alec’s ear, and she drinks up the way that makes him shiver. She presses into the pressure of his fingertips against the back of her hand, and it’s as though she can feel him touching every part of her, all at once. It’s electric. It’s terrifying. She doesn’t say anything.

In December, their instructor Taylor comes to class bouncing with enthusiasm. A nearby tango community is going to co-host a holiday dance, a milonga they call it, and she hopes that everybody will attend. She explains the structure of the event: sets of music, soft lighting, eyes meeting across the room. Taylor fairly sparkles for it. Alec Hardy most definitely does not sparkle.

He shows up at Ellie’s door the following night, pushing past her before she even has time to ask what he’s doing there. It’s half eleven, and he’s uncharacteristically dressed down in a soft, fitted jumper that Ellie immediately wants to run her fingers over. He’s carrying a bottle of red wine and wearing what Ellie has come to think of as his even more than usually crazy face. It’s snowing a little, and Alec’s hair is wet and spiky from it, snowflakes catching in his fringe. It’s ridiculous how good he looks, like some kind of sexy ethereal being, summoned in from the night.

“We’ve got to practice,” Alec says, and yes, of course that’s what he’s so worked up about. Ellie bites back her grin.

“What’re you on about? It’s nearly midnight.” She follows him into the kitchen where he’s pulling open drawers in search of her corkscrew. “Hush, you’ll wake the kids.” She finds it and hands it over. “Here, just quietly.”

“The dancing,” Alec says, as though it should be obvious. It is, but only because Ellie knows him so well at this point, and isn’t surprised that this is eating away at him.

“Well, all right then,” Ellie says obligingly. She follows Alec into the sitting room, shuts the door to dampen the noise, and connects her mobile to the speakers. She scrolls through her music collection for something suitable, and puts it on quietly, just enough so that they’re not dancing in silence.

“You know I hate being bad at things, Miller,” Alec says. He’s already reaching out for her, already pulling her into the dance embrace.

“Oh, it’s Miller again, is it?” Ellie says. “Can’t barely stand to say my name but you’ll dance bloody Argentine tango with me?”

Alec stills, halfway to leading a cross step. “I-- no. It’s not like that. No.”

Ellie groans and back leads him through the step, planting her feet. “I know. Just taking the piss.”

Alec makes a frustrated noise and leads the step again, irritatingly slowly. “Is that what you like, then?” he says, apropos of nothing. “Men who call you pretty names and take you dancing and that? Men who like to go down to pub for a pint and some chips?”

“Well, now you mention it,” Ellie says brightly, but deflates when she sees Alec’s pained expression. “No, I suppose none of that really matters. Remember Charlie? He was all of that and it didn’t make me want him.”

“Charlie’s a wanker,” Alec says sullenly. He bites his lip and leads a neat turn, and Ellie can’t help her little pleased intake of breath. She knows that Alec senses it, feels him pull her just a tiny bit closer.

“Charlie is a very nice man, and you are an arsehole,” Ellie says evenly.

“No,” Alec argues. “Well yes, but.” He makes a put-upon noise, squeezes his eyes closed. “He got you and he didn’t know how to keep you. I think he took you for granted.”

“Well,” Ellie says, feeling unaccountably pleased. “Truly, that’s adorable, but it’s not what happened at all. It had nothing to do with Charlie. It just wasn’t what I wanted, that’s all. Who I wanted, maybe.”

Alec groans. “Look. I know--” he’s stopped even pretending to dance now, is just holding her and trying very hard to avoid looking her in the eye. “I know I’m not easy to be around.”

Ellie snorts, and Alec glares at her. “Honestly, Miller. Ellie. I’m not like that. I have really bloody tried, but I’ll never be suave.” He looks pained, but pushes on. “I wish I could be like that, but I just can’t.”

Ellie pulls away from the embrace, grabs Alec’s chin in her hand, forces him to meet her gaze. Something is welling up in her, something that’s been there for a very long time, quietly growing. She scans Alec’s stupid, beautiful face, the curve of his nose, the whisper of freckles across his cheekbones, his ridiculous furrowed brow. His face is very open right now, his eyes very wide.

Ellie sighs, drags in a great heaving breath. “Nobody’s asking you to be that, Alec. Least of all me.”

“I just, if I were,” Alec stammers, and he’s going terribly red. “If I were any sort of man I’d, I’d do something. But I can’t, Ellie. I’d never forgive myself if I tried to ask for something you didn’t feel, if you--” he cuts off, breaks free of her hand, drops his gaze.

“Right,” Ellie says thoughtfully, and then again, “Oh, right. Okay.”

She thinks for a moment. “You’re worried.”

“‘Of course I bloody am,” Alec shoots back, still not meeting her gaze. “Have you ever known me to be otherwise?”

“Right,” Ellie says again. “You must know I always want to touch you. It can’t be a secret. There’s no way it’s still a secret, after all this time.”

“I couldn’t--” Alec starts, “I would never presume--”

“It’s my turn to play detective now,” Ellie chides him. “Hush up and let me be brilliant.” She feels something akin to power welling up in her, heady and thrilling. “You would never try anything with me. You wouldn’t dream of it. You’d never feel totally sure it was reciprocal. You’d worry about taking advantage, about having power over me. Of course you would, you’re ridiculously honorable and you think everything’s your fault like a great bloody wanker.”

“Always kind and gentle, you are,” Alec mutters sarcastically, but Ellie brushes it aside.

“Oh, I understand now. You took dancing lessons with me. You went to the children’s theatre. You sat through that documentary about sloths - no, wait. That one I sat through for you, but the point stands. You, you fell asleep on my shoulder. You cooked for me. You want me, Alec.”

She pushes directly into Alec’s space, breathes him in, feels every inch of him against her. “I want to kiss you right now, do you hear me? Is that all right? Can I kiss you?”

“God, Miller, yes," he says, and then his hands are in her hair and they’re kissing, and why in the bloody Hell did it take Ellie so long to do this? How could she possibly have been doing anything else? Alec is all red wine and sharp angles, twisting in her arms. His pulse is skittering, rabbitlike, but he feels sturdy around her, fingers flexing against her scalp, body flush against hers. He’s hard already, and god but that feels good, knowing that she could do that to him, that Ellie could make him that turned on, that easily. It makes her feel so sexy, so powerful. It makes her feel wanted, needed. She wants to take Alec Hardy apart in every possible way, wants to unravel him with her hands, her mouth, her everything. She can imagine his face, the elegant lines of it as she makes him gasp. God, it makes her so wet to think about it.

“I, Christ,” Alec gasps, and he’s twisting them about, aiming them at the couch. They tumble unceremoniously, Ellie laughing breathlessly as they land in a pile of limbs. Alec’s sweater is as soft as she imagined, and it feels unbearably good to run her hands over it and feel the heat of him beneath, to watch how it makes him shudder to be touched.

Ellie’s own top is hopelessly twisted, half rucked up and loose at the shoulder. Alec fits his mouth to the curve of her neck and Ellie can’t help but buck up her hips at the slick sweetness of his mouth. He grazes the tender spot just behind her jaw, nuzzles down the delicate line of her throat until Ellie gasps into his touch. Alec likes that; he barks out a short, joyous laugh, and then his hands are on the hem of her top and he’s asking, “Can I, Can I please?” and Ellie says “Bloody do it,” and his hands are at her breasts, so good, so right, and Ellie thinks she might not survive this. Honestly, though. What a way to go.

Alec is still fully clothed, and Ellie thinks, well that’s just ridiculous,” and so she grabs a handful of his jumper and urges him out of it, then goes for his belt buckle because why not? It’s all she can think about, anyway. “All right?” she asks, and at his sharp, desperate nod she plunges a hand past his waistband, finds the smooth hard heat of him, and takes him in hand.

Alec’s reaction is sudden, dramatic. He goes boneless against her, something between terror and adoration in his expression. “I--” he starts. “It’s been a really long time, El. I don’t know how long--”

“Shut up, now,” Ellie tells him, and brings him off with her hand as Alec groans, and shivers, and comes so prettily, just for her.

“I wanted it to be better for you,” Alec says into her neck, a moment later. “I wanted to see to you first, not me.” It sounds a little plaintive, and Ellie can’t resist running her fingertips over Alec’s hairline, brushing aside his sweaty fringe.

“That was bloody brilliant,” she admits. “I felt like some kind of goddess. Anyway, no law says we’re done yet. I think we’ve got loads left to try. Besides, it’s not even half one. I know you weren’t planning to sleep, anyway.”

Ellie,” he says helplessly, and he’s kissing her again, shifting around to straddle her. The look in his eyes is adoring, needful, something she can barely put into words but doesn’t ever want to stop seeing.

“Yeah, I know,” she manages, between kisses. “I’m right there with you.”

Alec finds the curve of her ear, tugs it with his teeth, swallows her moan in another kiss. He’s cupping her arse in his hands, and Ellie can feel him absolutely everywhere, so good, so tender, so electric. “God, El,” he says, sudden and fervent. “Can I put my mouth on you? I want to, please, can I?”

“God yes,” Ellie tries to say, but loses it half on a moan, because Alec Hardy is dragging her trousers down. Alec Hardy is tonguing her through her knickers, and now Alec Hardy is spreading her open for him, finding her clit, stroking his fingers where she needs them most.

“You’re ridiculous,” Ellie tells him, and doesn’t even try to stop the rolling of her hips. “You’re so good at this, and you’re not doing it, like, all the time.”

“I have a job, Miller,” Alec says, right against the hot, wet apex of her, and she shivers and presses into him, moans at the drag of his fingers. She can feel his knuckles pressing inside her, so nicely.

“Well that’s so stupid,” Ellie tells him, and threads her fingers into his hair, desperate for yet more contact. “You should only do this, just, all the time.”

Alec chuckles, dark and happy, right against her. “Show me how to get you off,” he says, and Ellie guides him, shows him just how she likes to be touched. She swallows her scream when she feels it coming up on her, the orgasm sharp and tight and delicious, squeezing around Alec’s fingers, coming against his mouth. “You’re so good,” she manages dazedly. “So good for me, Alec. Now get inside me, please.”

She feels him jolt against her, at that. “A condom?” He asks, half gasping. He’s stroking her sides, her thighs, spasmodically, rutting fitfully against her.

“On the pill,” she replies, “And been tested since my last time. You?”

“Clean,” Alec says. “I, er,” I checked after I found out about Tess. Just to be sure. I can show you the documents, if you like.”

“Oh god, Alec,” she groans. “I bloody trust you, you wanker. Just get inside me now, before I go insane.”

He obliges, the first slow press solid and hot, filling her up so good. He groans against her skin, presses deeper, gets his hand to the base of her skull and lifts her up to kiss him, deep and wet, as he finds her rhythm and matches it, dragging in and out of Ellie so unbearably slow and delicious. He feels so good inside her, like she’s electrified, just covered in nerves. Ellie can’t get enough of the feel of him, of Alec, of Alec Hardy fucking her like the world will end if he stops. He looks wild, eyes blown and hair a mess. His mouth is kiss swollen, and his cheeks are flushed with deep, vital color. He’s never looked more alive.

“Can you, again?” he asks, and Ellie isn’t sure, but she gets a hand between them and touches herself, her knuckles hard against the taut skin of his belly as she works her clit, shifting into his thrusts with a groan. She can feel that he’s close, and suddenly she is too, high on the frantic, desperate need of him. She writhes against him, muscles clenching, and comes hard, wringing it out of herself with a groan. Her hips snap up somewhat without her permission, and Alec groans too, leans into it. He’s almost there himself.

Ellie finds the line of Alec’s spine, cups his sides, passes feverish hands over his chest and ribcage. She feels as though she can’t stop trying to touch all of him, trying to get her hands on as much of him as possible. “Go on then,” she gasps. “Come for me, you’ve done so well. Go ahead. Let go for me, my darling.” Alec makes a wounded, beautiful noise and comes, and god, it’s so good.

The couch is really too small for them to have a proper after-sex cuddle. Ellie sees the panic starting to flare up behind Alec’s eyes, but she can’t bring herself to be bothered when she’s feeling this good. She gives Alec a lazy whack, the back of her arm against his torso. “Come on, we can sneak up to the bedroom,” she says. “Text your daughter, let her know you’re safe.”

“What, er,” Alec tries awkwardly. “What should I tell her? Only, I don’t want to stress her out, if this was just a-- a whatever.”

“Oh Alec,” Ellie says fondly. “Just tell her you’ve got your head out of your arse and snogged me finally. This isn’t a whatever, it’s us. We’re already a family, you and me. You know we are.”

“I didn’t want to assume,” Alec says snippily, but there’s no real malice in it, and he’s stroking Ellie’s hair as he says says it, all easy and soft.

“There’s such a sweetness in you,” Ellie says honestly, and then she sneaks him into her bedroom like a teenager, and snogs him like one, too, watching the snow fall quietly outside the window, blanketing the field. They’re exhausted at work the next morning, and Ellie doesn’t mind at all. Someone asks if Alec has finally lost his mind, because he can’t stop grinning at everyone. Ellie doesn’t mind that either.

They go to the holiday milonga together. Ellie wears a nice velvety dress, and Alec rubs up against her incessantly, and tries to get a hand under her stockings and gets a bit tangled up there, and then there’s a lot of laughing and snogging and Ellie clambers into Alec’s lap and fucks him just like that, right on the bedroom floor, and they have to get dressed all over again, snickering all the while.

The dance really is beautiful, all twinkly lights and happy people dancing together. There’s a magic in it, but Ellie mostly sticks with Alec, though she lets Chloe lead her for a set, and spares a dance for Paul Coates as well. Mostly though, it’s Alec, warm and solid with his arms around her, eyes like nothing she’s ever seen before, mouth like a dream, Alec who smells like home, and want, and them.

 

**

“I thought we might have Christmas together,” Alec says quietly, as they’re undressing together after the dance.

“I thought you and Daisy might move in,” Ellie replies, and then Alec’s beautiful, sharp, sweet mouth is on hers, and Ellie is so thankful that they are home.