When Ellie wakes up, the confusion is so strong she has to categorize things. The light is bright, so she closes her eyes and just feels it on her skin. Not sunlight. There's no movement to the air either. She's indoors. There's a weight on her chest. Heavy and sprawling, centered on her right breast but moving down to her hips, up to her left shoulder. It a warm weight, and soft. Concentrating on it, mapping all the spots where it meets her body, she realizes it's vaguely human-shaped.
Using all her energy, she turns her head and feels the soft exhale of breath.
Fred, Ellie thinks. Fred's come to snuggle. Was there a thunderstorm last night?
She can't recall.
Ellie goes back to categorizing. Light from a bulb. No breeze, so no open windows. Fred on her chest. The burning in her nose is startling though. She doesn't remember cleaning the house yesterday, despite the chemical taste in the back of her throat.
She probably forgot.
No, she wouldn't use so much that the smell lingered overnight.
Forcing herself to look for more clues to place her, Ellie wrenches open her eyes.
There's David, sitting on a chair next to her. A big window behind him looking to a grey morning.
Not her bedroom then.
Where she is instead, she doesn't quite care to figure out at the moment. She sleeps instead.
Ellie forces herself to wake up fast. Tom wouldn't disturb her sleep for trivial matters.
The light's bright, there's a scent in the air that makes her nauseous, but she still wakes up for her son.
"Yeah, Tom?" she mumbles, eyes open to slits.
"Oh," Tom sobs, and there's suddenly a weight over her chest and shoulders as Tom leans into to hug her while she's still in bed.
Ellie lifts an arm to pat his back. "It's okay, baby."
"It's not! Dad, Dad, he almost killed you."
Ellie's awareness of her location snaps into place – hospital. But there's nothing in her memories about why she's there. What happened, who happened.
"Joe was here?"
Tom pulls away, wiping at his eyes. "The doctor said you might not remember, but yeah. I'm so glad you woke up, Mum. We were worried. Don't go anywhere, kay? I'll let someone know you're awake."
He gives her a brief hug and steps outside the room, leaving Ellie frantically trying to figure out what happened. Trying to remember if Joe still posed a threat. There's no officer outside the door, so maybe not, and… is that a set of raisin boxes next to the bed? Immediately she thinks of Hardy, if only because normal people would get her flowers.
As if summoning the devil, Hardy walks in with Tom and the doctor. He looks unkempt, which makes Ellie frown. Is he on a case without her? Is it Joe? She glares at him, searching for answers.
"Did you not like the raisins?" he asks.
Ellie laughs. "I figured they were from you. But it's not that, you look like shit. What's happened?"
His voice sounds weird, saying her name. She realizes it’s cuz he hadn’t said the ‘M’, instead saying Elli-r. Ellie shakes her head, she must be hearing things wrong. The motion makes the room spin.
“Miller?” Hardy asks. It sounds normal again.
"How are you feeling, Ellie?" the doctor asks, and so begins a series of tests and explanations of what had happened. Joe had come, to the house, and when Ellie told him to sign divorce papers he refused and things turned violent. She'd managed to call Hardy, who in turn called an ambulance, and the police captured Joe later that night. He is awaiting trial for assault and battery.
Some of her injuries, her wrists and her face, are halfway healed after being asleep for five days. Her two blows to the head, including the skull fracture that had eventually required surgery to drain the slow seepage of blood into her brain, resulted in a few side effects the doctor noted after tests. Light sensitivity. A disrupted sense of balance, discovered when Ellie tried to sit up. Memory loss, that encompassed not just the day of the attack but the entire week. And when she'd been instructed to walk across the room, she found the task difficult because her legs kept wobbling. A result of her poor balance, or damage in the connection between her legs and brain, the doctor couldn't pinpoint. He also couldn't say if any of the effects would fade or stay permanent.
"Time will tell," the doctor gives Ellie an apologetic shrug from the other side of the room. Ellie, leaning on Tom for support from the other side of it, scowls at him.
"I'm recommending physical therapy," the doctor continues. "I should help with your balance and walking. Sessions twice a week."
"When can I go back to work?"
"We'll see, Miller."
She scowls at Hardy. "I wasn't asking you, sir."
"It'll depend on the therapy," the doctor says. His face is blank and Ellie catches what he's not saying. It'll depend on if you ever recover.
A detective who can't walk, or keep her balance? Who'd wince into the noon sun? She'd be forced to retire. She's too young for that.
Tom helps her back across the room and into bed. She sinks into the mattress, glad for the stability of the bed beneath her.
"Give us a moment?" Hardy asks.
The doctor nods, but Tom looks unsure, gaze flicking between Ellie and Hardy. She can tell he wants to stay, she's scared him, but Ellie's desire to be something more than a body in a bed, especially now that she's awake, is rising. She's not someone to be coddled. She can get an update from her boss, and in twenty minutes Tom can come in and bring his grandfather and brother.
"Go on, love," Ellie tells Tom. "Find the rest of the bunch and come back in a bit."
Once it's just the two of them in the room, Hardy surprises her by sitting in the chair next to the bed. He leans forward, reaching out a hand, and Ellie watches it till it rests on the bed next to her own. When she gives him a questioning look, he turns away and pulls his hands back.
"You gonna tell me why you look like shit?"
"You do too."
"I have an excuse. What's yours?"
"The same – Joe."
"What's he doing?"
"Nothing, actually. I don't think you can give a statement-"
"Don't remember a thing – "
"But we might not need it. He's confessed. To several crimes, actually. Breaking into your house, assaulting you, and then sneaking into the hospital to see you."
"He did what?"
"We had an officer on the door. And I was here. We took him to the station and he's been there since. Your statement isn't necessary to charge him, but we want the medical records. If that's okay."
"If it puts the bastard behind bars, do it."
"Done." He gives her a shark grin Ellie hadn't thought him capable of. She's not sure she likes it, she prefers his soft, open face when they tell a victim they've caught the bad guy.
Bad guys, in Ellie's experience, are rarely rotten all the way through. They have family, community, and often connections to those they hurt. Catching them is also not the end of the problem, it's often the beginning. Arresting the perpetrator can give Ellie a rush of joy, of righteousness, but usually it's a quieter emotion in the cocktail of post-caseness. Relief that the criminal is off the street, that the victim can move on is more likely to take center stage. Satisfaction of a job well done. Sometimes dread, because the nightmares only hit after the case ends.
She feels anger in some capacity for all the cases she's worked these past five years and knows Hardy does too. But this glimpse of glee at someone's punishment she sees in his face is new. Ellie isn't sure she likes it.
"There's also this." Hardy pulls out a small leather satchel she's never seen him carry. He opens it and pulls out a familiar manila envelope.
She reaches out her hands. "You got Joe to sign it? It's not going to affect the court case, will it?"
Hardy shakes his head. "He did it of his own free will. Asked for it even. When he snuck in here, saw what he did, I think he realized divorce was the right choice. I don't think he even read the terms."
He places the packet of paper in Ellie's hands. Their fingertips brush, a jolt of contact she didn't expect, but more than that the papers capture her attention. She brings the packet to her lap, trails her fingers over it, before carefully undoing the string that ties it closed. Ellie pulls them all out together but quickly flips to all the pages she's marked with a paperclip.
Joe's signature is stark on the paperwork. A deep navy blue. Her hands tremble as she looks at it.
Hardy's hand covers her own.
Ellie jumps and stares at him, wide-eyed. He's moved the chair closer too.
They don't touch. It's not a rule, per say, and it's not like they haven't bumped shoulders or fingers over the years. But all physical contact, aside from handshakes, between them have been accidental. She feels awkward, giving Hardy anything else. It's not appropriate. And the idea of receiving anything, well, she'd long ago dismissed as something that shouldn't happen. Women detectives can't be seen as soft and being seen crying or in need of comfort in any manner would have harmed her career as a DC.
She doesn't want comfort from anyone at the station, least of all her boss. It ruins her image, and she's been doing fine on her own anyway.
It doesn't change the fact that she likes the heavy warmth of his hand on hers. Or that it feels familiar.
He also looks very used to sitting in that chair.
She pulls her hand away and narrows her eyes at him. "Have you been-"
Fred's squeal has Hardy pulling back, but not a whole lot. The chair stays put, his hand is in his lap, but he doesn't look embarrassed. Doesn't try to hide his action.
"Fred!" Ellie puts the divorce papers down and opens her arms. Her youngest son climbs into the bed with her, planting kisses on her face, and while she's preoccupied with that the arrangement in the hospital room shifts. When Fred settles next to her, it's her father that's in the chair next to the bed, Tom standing next to him, and Hardy standing just behind it. They're all standing a little too close for people who are essentially strangers, and Ellie wonders just what has happened in the past five days she's been asleep.
"Is that the divorce papers?" Tom asks.
"Can I see?"
"Sure." She gathers them and hands them over. If he's asking, he's old enough to get answers in Ellie's book. If he has questions, he'll ask and she'll answer. The terms aren't severe, but she does wonder if some of them, child support in particular, is an option once Joe is in jail.
"Are you changing your name back?" David asks.
"First chance I get," Ellie tells her father. Ellie Barret sounds weird in her mind after so long being a Miller, but she's eager to shed Joe's name.
"Us too?" Tom asks. "Can I switch from Miller to Barret?"
"If you want."
"Barret doesn't roll off the tongue quite like Miller," Hardy says.
It's true. She's gotten used to, and perhaps even come to love hearing that Scottish ending 'R' in relationship to herself.
"Most people call her Ellie."
She chokes at David's cheek. It's true, most people do call her Ellie. She told Hardy himself to call her that when they first meet. But "Miller" has become the norm at the station now, and Ellie has to admit it does sound a touch more professional. Even if most people in town still use her first name. Yet having Hardy call her "Ellie" feels too personal. And too presumptuous on her father's part.
"You can only call me Ellie if I call you Alec."
She delivers the option with snark, fully anticipating Hardy to scrunch up his nose and object. Except, he doesn't.
She gapes at him, wants to take the offer back, but David speaks first. "There. Decided. It's about time you use first names. You've known each other five years."
"Not in the office, though," Ellie quickly throws out. She's worked hard to be a DS, and she doesn't need tongue wagging when her first day back Hardy calls her Ellie instead of Miller. "Barret is better."
"Okay," Hardy agrees.
There's something in his tone, something placating and accommodating she's not sure she would like if she could pinpoint it. But now is not the time to pursue it. Fred demands to listen to her heartbeat, Tom's got a question on the divorce papers, David snatches her hand to hold it, and Hardy has her medical records to input into evidence and Joe's transfer from jail to prison to oversee.
But something's going on with her boss and once her head feels a little more solid she'll give some attention to figuring it out. In the meantime, she'll hold on to what she has right now. Life, family, and freedom from Joe.
"Why don't you ask Alec to help?" Tom asks as Ellie stares at a pile of boxes.
"I'm not asking my boss to help us move."
"I'll do it."
"Tom, no. It's not worth it."
"He'll do it, you know. Help."
There is something going on, between her family and Alec Hardy. She hasn't put all her attention toward figuring it out yet. Other things had taken priority. Physical therapy, for one, and her reintroduction to work. She is confined to a desk, but she's useful and coordinating which makes her feel better. There's also been the matter of moving.
She hadn't been able to sleep in her bed, her first day home.
The bedroom had first been theirs, and when Joe had ruined them she turned the room into hers. Joe had ruined that too. Ellie found herself nervous in the space, it was too small, too easy to be trapped it, and despite doing all she could to make the room, the house a sanctuary for her and the kids, Joe had walked right in and nearly destroyed it all.
It didn't feel safe. It felt like a thing Joe broke. So it was time to move. Still in Broadchurch, but across town. Closer to the water. She needs a different view than she'd had before.
Thus, the upcoming moving day. A decision that results in lots of tossing, lots of packing, and a re-evaluation of her decision to move them herself. Mark and Beth had promised to help, but Mark had caught the flu and Beth by herself wouldn't be enough.
"Call Alec, Mum."
Call Alec, call Alec, call Alec. Either her son or her father makes the suggestion frequently, and she's not sure why. They have actual friends in Broadchurch, others who are more appropriate beach partners or barbeque assistants or second opinions on houses. There are other acquaintances that can come over, but three times in the last month David has called and invited Hardy and Daisy to dinner without Ellie knowing. And once, when Tom shly asked if he could invite Daisy to the weekly Latimer-Barret dinner, her father had come along too.
Beth had raised an eyebrow at that, but who was Ellie to tell her son it was wrong to crush on an older girl. Plus, Daisy bringing her father prevented him from moping about at home.
"I don't want to call Hardy," Ellie snaps. "Why do you and your grandfather always insist I call him. It's not proper to ask your boss to help you move."
"It's him or movers." Tom crosses his arms. He looks so adult it hurts, and Ellie knows it's because of Joe. Joe used to take care of the family and while David had moved in eventually to help, Tom had done a lot in that first year. The thing he still clings to is looking out for his mum. "You can't drive yet, doctor's orders, and you can't tell me you honestly think you're capable of moving all these boxes yourself."
She pouts. She doesn't like this role reversal, never has, she's supposed to look after Tom, but her son shares her stubbornness. He and Hardy together are hyper-villigant about her health, Tom at home and Hardy in the office. Tom makes sure she does her exercises and used to monitor her medication while she took them. Hardy is constantly checking her energy levels, bringing her tea, and sneakily installed a program on her computer to reduce eyestrain.
Some days, she feels cared for and loved. Most, she feels a strong desire for personal space and independence. She doesn't need men checking up on her, she can manage herself just fine. Tom's hovering she has a better chance of forgiving because she understands – you look out for family. She doesn't know why Hardy has become so attentive.
In this case, she knows Tom is right. Her balance is mostly back, but it can suddenly disappear and her left leg has a habit of going wobbly every so often. Her brain just turns the connection off. Forgets it's there. It's getting better, less frequent, but early on she'd fallen down the stairs a few times when it had given out. It's a miracle the only thing that came of those falls was bruises and a sore tailbone.
Their new house has two bedrooms on the first floor, Ellie's and David's. It made her feel like an invalid and old, not being able to have a bedroom on the second story, but she might be the former and she'd be the latter eventually.
She hates thinking about it, but she must. Without the help of Mark, she knows she physically cannot rely on herself to get everything she needs to be done.
Ellie dials Hardy and asks if he's free to help. He says yes before she's finished asking.
In the office, Hardy is always Hardy or Sir or DI Hardy. In Ellie's head, he's Hardy too. But her son and father call him Alec, and sometimes she can't help but see him that way too.
Alec is different from Hardy. He's still well dressed, still serious, but he doesn't wear suits. He kisses Daisy's head and shakes Tom's hand. He helps, in small ways, as if he's not sure of his boundaries or if he's doing something right. Hardy barks at her to think, Alec knows where her spoons are in the kitchen.
It's Alec that shows up, in the oldest clothes Ellie has ever seen him wear. Jeans with frayed cuffs, a tee with a faded blue pattern, a zipped hoodie she's never seen before but has paint stains on it. He looks ready to do physical labor and the idea jolts her. She's never actually seen him do anything strenuous. At the office the most weight he'll move is a tall stack of paper. She's only seen him run after suspects, and then she's running too. He only walks the beach for clues.
Seeing him like this is…unnatural.
"You look odd."
Alec looks down at his clothing. "Don't fit right. Borrowed 'em from a neighbor."
"Why would you do that?"
"I couldn't help you move in a suit now, could it?"
"I wouldn't stop you." She steps aside and Alec walks in. She pays attention to his movements. He still walks like he's in nice clothing, but the common wear hides the shape of his shoulders and the taper to his waist.
Ellie blinks. She's not going to analyze how these clothes fit her boss. The important part is that he can lift things in them.
"Thanks again for helping."
"I'll always help you, Ellie."
Hearing Alec say her first name doesn't startle her anymore, she's grown used to it. She hasn't grown used to the new helpfulness he's displayed since Joe attacked her.
Admittedly, they'd been approaching friendship. Getting to know one another, looking out for each other's well-being. Her days in the hospital, however, resulted in Hardy barreling through the steps of friendship, ripping apart the ropes lining the course into uncharted territory. Where they are now, she's not sure. Where they're going is even more uncertain, though everyone around her seems to have an idea.
"Morning!" Beth calls as she approaches the house.
Hardy slips away upstairs and Ellie greets her friend.
"Who was that?"
"In normal clothes?"
Ellie laughs. "Suits aren't proper for moving day."
Beth gives her a look, demanding more information.
"Well, Mark's sick. I had to call someone."
"And you call him."
There's more to it, she thinks, than Alec having already learned her house. David encourages her to call Alec. Tom encourages her to call Alec. Tom likes Alec. And when she called asking for last-minute help, Alec came.
She doesn't have the mental capacity to analyze that right now.
David holds doors and tells them how to pack the lorry. Alec and Tom work carrying out the larger pieces of furniture. Beth and Ellie take the boxes, though Ellie moves more slowly and Beth insists on taking the heavier ones. Help comes and goes: a neighbor with a free hour, passing uniforms helping Alec with large items like beds. It's Broadchurch. Everyone has their own lives, but everyone has some awareness of everyone else's too. Most know Ellie had been attacked by her soon to be ex-husband and that it damaged her brain. They try to help in the small ways she allows them. Help with three heavy boxes of crockery is the type she allows.
When her left leg starts to feel funny, Beth has her sit in one of the chairs not loaded and goes to ask the neighbors for a glass of water. It gives her a prime view of Hardy walking down the stairs carrying an end table. He's got it gripped on both sides and held in front of him, like a heavy laundry basket. He stares down, watching his feet on the stairs, and part of his hair flops against his temple.
Ellie has seen Alec Hardy many ways. In a suit in the office, in a sheet at the hospital, in cashmere sweaters and dark jeans. But he's still been DI Hardy. Her boss first and foremost, and then secondarily a friend.
He looks different like this, dressed in clothes that aren't his. Clothes meant for this. Not dining or working, but living. He feels more approachable, closer, dressed like and doing manual labor in her house. She wonders what it would feel like, to brush that stray bit of hair away.
Beth returning breaks her out of her thoughts.
"If you invited him to dinner at a restaurant, instead of at your house all the time, he'd say yes you know."
Ellie chokes on her water.
"Do you not want to?" Beth asks.
Ellie frowns. "I don't know. I haven't… I've been focused on…"
"Other things," Beth finishes, sitting in a chair.
They'd talked about it, before. How Beth and Mark almost got a divorce, but changed their minds before it got finalized. When things like Danny happen, when trauma hits you hard and in the heart, you can't always think of others. You think of you first. Your needs.
For a while, Beth and Mark had had different ones. They still do, but they had recentered themselves and realized they once again had the capacity to turn attention to someone else's needs, to work on their marriage properly.
Ellie? Well, she'd taken a long, long time to recenter herself. Tom and Fred came first, and then work. Therapy had helped, but she hadn't anticipated how long it would take to get through the anger. More than two years. She had finally thought, maybe I could look, think about someone else, when Joe's first check arrived.
She hadn't had the time to revisit the thought till now, with Joe in jail and Alec…
Alec standing frozen on the stairs, looking at her, while she looked back and just how long had that been happening??
She pulled her gaze away and swallowed a too-large gulp of water. Beth laughed, pounding her back.
"If you don't ask him on a date in a month," Beth warns, "I'm locking you in a closet."
As Ellie couldn't drive, nor could Tom, David drove himself, Beth, and Tom in Ellie's beat-up car while Alec drove the lorry to the new house. Ellie sat beside him, giving directions.
"Your leg okay?" he asked.
Ellie rubbed the heel of her hand down the thigh. "Yeah, I sat before it went numb."
It'd gone wobbly at the station a few times, walking from the kitchen or into Hardy's office.
She has a sudden sense memory of Alec's grip under both her elbows the first time it wobbled in his office. Ellie hadn't realized he could move so fast, out from his seat and around the desk in the half-second she'd started to fall. His hands had been warm. Supportive. And then she'd forgotten it all as he'd started chastising her for not using the cane the doctor had given her.
But the memory comes back to her now. Not just his sure grip, but his rush to help her. Set her down. The concern in his eyes. It'd been there a lot, recently, but it didn't bother her as much as she expected it to. Probably because, as concerned as Alec might be, he hadn't done what she'd feared – isolate her and wrap her in protection.
She still worked at the office, even if it was only at her desk, and she had a suspicion Hardy was the reason for that. He asked if she needed to sit, not directed her too. Didn't try to get her off her feet while she made dinner, hadn't taken boxes out of her hands.
Hardy is her boss, Alec is her friend, and it hadn't felt right to think of either side of him as anything more than that. But now, after that shared gaze of undetermined time earlier, she can't help but wonder.
It's not Alec's looks that stick in her head. Sure, he's good looking. But he's gruff. A knob. Difficult to be with on most days. But not today. Not most days for the past few months, now that she thinks about it.
He's a man who might not know how to meet Ellie's needs, but he tries. He's the one bringing her tea, more often than not, at the office. They buy each other lunch at equal rates. They don't talk about emotions, but they recognize them, and when there's something that needs to be done they can count on each other.
It's already a partnership, a relationship, she realizes. It just needs to move. It's gone from office to dining room to kitchen. Could it take one more step into a bedroom?
Ellie tries to be subtle and looks at Alec out of the corner of her eye. She's not sure she succeeds. Slowly, she's realizing that last threshold is something a lot of people are expecting them to cross. Beth, her father, even Tom.
The most important person to ask is herself.
Honestly, Ellie's not sure. Would it be days like this, Alec in loose-fitting clothes and moving through a house? Or would it be days lost to the office, swallowed up by a case on their desk and the dining room table? Perhaps the neighborly get-togethers; Barrets and Latimers and Hardys all around a table and laughing. Maybe all three. Maybe none.
She thinks, one day, she wants to find out.
Not today. Her head is full of moving, of where to place her furniture and how to wash away Joe for the second time in her life. She needs her leg to work all the time. She needs to drive again, work again. But after that? After her life is where she wants it to be? The day that happens, she thinks she'll make that invite. Ask Hardy if he'd like to eat out, just the two of them. Do it proper, like a real date, so they both understand and don't think of it as an alternative to the dinners they already have.
"What are you thinking about, Ellie?" Alec asks.
A lot of things. How she suddenly likes hearing him say her name. Beth's sly smile, David's grin, Tom's about-time sigh. Potential reactions, potential days.
"The day my brain's better," she answers.
"Have plans for then, eh?"
"Some. If the course stays true."
"And which course is that?"
Feeling bold, she covers his hand on the gear shaft.
Ellie wants him to know she notices him. Notices what he does for her, what he does to her. She feels seen, and in control, and listened to with Alec. He puts her needs first, not his own life desires, and being first in someone's life is…well, scary might be the term. Certainly new, because Joe had never done that. Not really.
Alec lets go of the gear shaft to lace their fingers together. "Ellie?"
She squeezes his hand gently. "My brain's resetting, literally and figuratively, but when it's done, I'll let you know. And then..."
"I'll have several questions I'll want you to answer."
"I can answer some now."
Ellie gets the sense she could ask anything she wanted, from what's your favorite color to how did you fall in love with Tess to do you love me? But she doesn't want those answers, not now at least. She wants to learn them while walking down a beach, or over candle-lit pasta. But she supposes she can ask one question now.
"What's your favorite restaurant in town?"