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A New Normal

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She set a place for him this time. She would have done yesterday, too, had he bothered to let her know he was about to show up on her doorstep at dinner time. But he hadn’t. Nor had he bothered to change out of his suit, and she supposed he probably wouldn’t today, either. Didn’t matter though: he cleaned up nice, and after all, they were working.

“There’s four bowls on the table, mum”, Tom noted carefully.

She stepped around Fred, who was feeding his dinosaur a piece of carrot that she’d dropped. “I know. Alec’s joining us.”

“Alec?”

“Detective Hardy”, she translated.

“Oh, right.” He stood there for a moment, then awkwardly ducked away, Fred tagging at his heels a second later.

She smiled as she listened to their play: Fred’s barking laughter, simple sentences strained by his excitement; Tom’s patient questions, conspiratorial whispers.

They were perfect, they were hers, and she was proud.

She dipped a spoon in the pot of soup burbling on the stove—she was proud of that, too. It was good. Not just ‘edible’, but actually good. Seemed that was the trick: soup was harder to burn, and the overcooked bits all just sort of blended in, so no one’d ever notice.

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Ellie heard Fred’s welcome first: a long “hi”, that rumbled in such a way she knew he’d pressed his little face to the window in the living room.

“Tom—"

“I’ll get it!”, he answered.

She heard him dash to the door, soft murmurs of conversation before Fred whinged at feeling left out.

“Come on,” she said, collecting her warm lump of a toddler, “let’s get ready to eat. Would you like soup?”

“No!”, he cheered.

He ate it all, though. Even used a spoon, which was more than she could say for Tom, who’d used a fork to separate all the chicken and noodles from anything that looked remotely like a vegetable. Luckily, half the carrots had disintegrated, and she could only assume they’d boiled into the chicken and noodles, which meant she’d won that battle, ultimately.

And Hardy: he was quiet. No whoops of meat-gathering, spoon-using triumph from him—though he did smile, inexplicably, into his bowl. His copper fringe kissed his brow when he did, and the corners of his eyes crinkled just the slightest bit above cheeks flushed from the steam wafting off his soup.

“It’s good”, he said.

Really good”, Tom qualified, and that was it until he offered to clear the table.

But Hardy rose instead, and when he offered, she accepted, thanking Tom before he slunk off to the living room.

Strange that it’d become his haunt, all of a sudden. He’d always been partial to his room, and she’d only expected that preference to become stronger as adolescence wore on. Instead, he’d taken to the living room, particularly the last few days. It did have the larger television, though. Maybe that was it.

She wiped Fred’s face while Hardy gathered the dishes, unbuckled him from his seat while the water ran and bubbles inched up the sides of the sink. But when she went to set Fred’s polka-dot-socked feet on the tiled floor, he pulled them up.

“Mumma, no; up, please?”, he pled, all pouty lip and big doe eyes.

She checked the room: Hardy’d cleared it quick, and now stood beside the sink, working at the buttons on his cuffs. His watch lay belly-up on the counter, glinting in the warm kitchen light—but not nearly so much as the red in his beard, the gold in his eyes.

He smiled. “Wee Fred looks knackered.”

“He is.” She brushed her fingers through Fred’s curls until he swatted her away and tucked his head into her neck as she settled back into her chair.

Tom flicked the channels in the other room; the dishes in the sink bumped softly under the suds as Hardy washed; Fred’s back rose and fell, soft and steady beneath her fingertips.

“Miller.”

It wasn’t Hardy’s whisper that woke her, so much as it was his hand: lavender-scented and still warm from doing the washing when he closed it gently over her shoulder.

He didn’t want to wake the baby, she figured, and she smiled at the effort.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean—“, she croaked, and she cleared her throat and licked her lips as if it’d make a difference. “Fred didn’t sleep last night, so—”

“—you didn’t sleep last night”, he finished, with his dulcet brogue and a knowing smile. “Quite right.”

She nodded. Didn’t seem right to tell him Fred’s night terrors weren’t the only thing that kept her up, not when it was so late, and she needed to check on Tom, and put Fred to bed properly, and Hardy—

His phone buzzed from his pocket.

He must have things to do, too.

“We’ll catch up on the case tomorrow, Miller?”

“Yeah.”

“Lunch? I think tea is a little too close to bedtime.”

“Knob.” She smiled. “Let’s meet on the pier: it’s closer to the station, and I bet Fred would love a last hurrah with the beach before it gets too cold.”