Author's Note: A short follow-up to "A Merry Little Christmas." This could be considered a prequel to my other story, "Midnight Clear," but can also be considered a stand-alone.
Disclaimer: Characters/places belong to DPB, not me.
Harm dropped Mattie's suitcase on the floor and stepped aside to let her into the apartment.
"Here we are," he said. He smiled, a little uncertainly. "Home sweet home."
"Yes," Mattie said cautiously. She stuffed her fists into her coat pockets. "I can't believe this is actually happening."
"Well, for better or for worse, we're stuck with each other." Harm removed his overcoat and then reached out to take Mattie's. "I can hang that up for you."
"Thanks." She wandered towards the window. "I didn't tell you before, but I really like your place. It's cool." She turned to face him. "Mac said you fixed it up yourself."
"Yup. Every inch of this place is my own blood, sweat and tears." He offered her another smile. "We'll have to figure out how to make you your own private space here, but for now, you get the bedroom."
"You can," Harm said firmly. He picked up Mattie's duffel and placed it decisively on the other side of the glass brick wall separating the sleeping area from the rest of the apartment. "And as soon as the holidays are over, we'll figure things out about getting you back into school."
Mattie tipped her head to the side, but remained standing by the window. "You really have no idea what you've gotten yourself into, have you?"
Harm had the grace to blush. "Now that you mention it..."
"It's okay. I'm an easy kid."
He pointed a finger in her direction. "I'm counting on it." He headed into the kitchen. "Something to eat? Drink?" What the hell did a fourteen-year old girl eat anyway? He opened the refrigerator. Lots of beer and wine, and half a container of milk. There were some fruits and vegetables as well and a couple of day-old slices of pizza. At least, he hoped the pizza was only a couple days old. After his stint with the CIA came to an end, he'd returned home to find a container of something -- he suspected cottage cheese -- that had morphed into a new life form; he'd half expected the green-hued substance to get up and walk right out of the fridge.
"No, I'm fine," Mattie said. "Still full from dinner." She narrowed her eyes suspiciously in the direction of the refrigerator. "You don't eat a lot, do you?"
"Tomorrow, we'll go shopping," Harm said, shutting the fridge firmly. "We'll get the stuff you like to eat. As long as it's nutritious. And vegetarian."
"Yeah, I know." Mattie came to stand next to the kitchen counter, propping her elbows on the surface. "Mac told me."
"Told you what?"
"That you're allergic to grease and fat and don't like to eat animals."
"Sounds like you and Mac talked quite a lot." Harm arched an eyebrow suspiciously. Maybe a little too much, he thought.
Mattie shrugged in response. "It was a thirty-minute drive to the Wall from the church," she said. She leaned forward, her gaze intense. "She was great with my dad. She really knew how to talk to him about letting me come live with you." Mattie took a deep breath. "I asked her about it in the car and she said she's an alcoholic, just like my dad, and so she knows what he's going through and how he feels." Mattie shook her head thoughtfully. "I'd never think of someone like Mac as an alcoholic."
"It was a long time ago," Harm said shortly. He reached for a glass and poured himself some ice-cold water. After the rollercoaster events of the last few days -- the fight with Mac over whether she'd vouch for him at the custody hearing, Mac's surprise appearance in the courtroom, the news Mattie would be put into foster care and of course, the final result when Mattie was released into his custody -- had him longing for a beer, but not now, not tonight.
"It didn't sound like it," Mattie said slowly. "She talks about it like she's still an alcoholic."
"Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic."
"That's not what I mean," Mattie said. She tipped her head for the moment, looking at Harm thoughtfully. "Anyway, we talked a lot. Mostly about you."
Harm gulped down some more water. Just what he needed -- the two women in his life talking about him. "Ah." He tried to keep his curiosity under wraps.
"Aren't you going to ask us what we talked about?"
Harm took another drink. A beer would taste *really* good about now. "I assume that conversation was between you and Mac," he said carefully. "And probably not meant for my ears."
"You're probably right," Mattie said, "but you might want to know anyway."
Harm licked his lips. "No, no, I don't think so." He pointed a finger in Mattie's direction. "I'm pretty sure whatever she had to say wasn't positive." Harm pressed his lips in a thin line. "Mac and I, we've kind hit a slick spot, still trying to figure it out." He shook his head. "In the meantime, we haven't got a whole lot of things to say about each other."
Mattie gave him a long and searching glance before clearing her throat. "I think you're wrong."
"She cares about you, you know," Mattie said. "A lot."
"We've been friends for a long time," Harm said. "Eight years."
"That's almost half my life."
"So it is." He smiled and finished off his water, dumping the empty glass into the sink. "It's after midnight. Maybe you should think about getting to bed."
"I can take the sofa, Harm."
"No," he said, leading the way into the bedroom. "Okay, um, clean towels are in the linen closet here, and um, bathroom's that way. And I'll make up the bed for you while you're in there."
"You know, Harm, you're really good at this parental thing."
Harm knew she was teasing him and simply pointed towards the bathroom. "It's late. Go. That's an order."
Mattie giggled, but obeyed. Quickly, Harm got clean sheets out of the linen closet and stripped the bed. He could hear the running water and as he made up the bed, he couldn't help but think that perhaps this parental thing was a piece of cake. He had just finished stuffing a pillow into its case when Mattie emerged in her pajamas, her hair loose around her face.
"Um, I'm done here," Harm said, scooping up the old sheets. "Make yourself comfortable. If you need something, um, I'm out there." Harm went back into the living room, dropped the blankets on the sofa and then paused as he remembered he still had to change and get ready for bed.
Mattie had still left the light on when he came back into the room.
"Sorry," he said sheepishly. "I'm afraid it's going to be like this for a while, until we can figure out how exactly this is going to work."
Mattie sat up in bed, drawing her knees up to her chest. "It's okay, Harm." She offered him a shy smile. "I guess we're family now, right? We're gonna be in each other's way."
He considered her statement and then nodded. "Good point."
"Besides, I kinda like having you around."
"Well, it's gonna hard, isn't it? Because we've both been alone for so long? Well, you longer than me--"
"Thanks for the reminder." Harm leaned against the door jamb, his arms crossed against his chest.
"But, I wanted to say thank you," Mattie said. The soft glow of the lamp cast shadows across the room and the lower half of Mattie's face. "For doing this. I appreciate it."
Harm considered and then he said gently, "No, thank you, for allowing me to do it."
"No one else would put up with you."
He was silent for a moment, realizing the truth behind her words. Somehow, he'd managed to drive everyone whom he cared about away -- Annie, Jordan, Renee, and now Mac. Harm took a deep breath. "I don't 'put up' with you, Mattie."
A comfortable silence descended on them. And then finally Mattie said, "I'm just a kid, you're a guy with a career, a life, and maybe you could have something more."
"What do you mean by that?"
She shrugged. "Maybe you need to talk to Mac."
Harm felt immediately defensive. "You talk to her for thirty minutes and suddenly you're an expert on me?"
"We women have a connection."
"Oh, is that what you call it?" Harm's lips curled up.
"Yeah, you should talk to Mac," Mattie said. She rested her chin on her knees. "Maybe this thing with this other guy isn't as serious as you think it is."
Harm shook his head. "I'm not having this conversation with you."
Mattie shrugged again. "Fine." She slipped down below the sheets. "But you'll see I'm right."
"Are you always this argumentative?"
"Worse." Mattie grinned at him. "And I'm usually right, by the way."
"Great." Harm went into the bathroom and shut the door. For a moment, he leaned up against it, wondering what he'd gotten himself into. Asking for custody of Mattie was the right thing to do, he knew, and he knew he certainly didn't regret it. But he hadn't really *thought* the matter through. Even sleeping arrangements were difficult and what about if he was assigned TAD? In the past, he would have considered asking Mac for help, but now? Their relationship had been nothing short of tense lately and even though she'd come through for him tonight, the knowledge she was going to have dinner with Webb had rankled at him. He hated the way his jealousy made him feel, he hated the way Mac refused -- absolutely refused -- to acknowledge his actions in Paraguay for what they truly meant. What the hell did she want -- *need* -- from him?
Mattie, on the other hand, was just a kid, and it was easy to figure out what *she* needed. Food, clothes, someone to check her homework, and companionship. Yes, there were things they definitely had to figure out, but those were *logical* things. No mixed signals here, no uncertainty, no gray areas.
Harm splashed water on his face and then, in sweats and a t-shirt, stepped back into the bedroom.
*Talk to Mac*, Mattie had urged him.
He stared at the girl; she was sleeping on her side, curled up in a fetal position, one arm close to her body, the other stretching across the bed. Quietly, Harm walked across the room and turned off the nightstand. And then he gently tugged the sheets loose, and covered Mattie carefully. He stared down at the girl for a long moment and then turned to go back into the living room. As he settled himself on the sofa, he felt a curious comfort come over him. So maybe he hadn't thought this thing through entirely, but perhaps it didn't really matter.
He'd take care of Mattie the same way he flew -- instinctively and with heart.
He smiled. Maybe he had taken custody of Mattie for purely selfish reasons. He just knew that it felt right, that a sense of peace came over him when he looked in the direction of the bedroom, knowing he had responsibility for another person.
For the first time in his life, Harmon Rabb truly appreciated the joy of that responsibility and accepted it completely. He would do this on his own, he thought as he tried to find a comfortable position on the couch. He would not ask for help, not from Mac, not from Bud, not from anyone.
This was one relationship he was determined not to mess up.
~ the end or read
the sequel: Midnight Clear
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