Dad For a Day
by Ann Rivers

Rating: G
Spoilers: Slippidy doo dah
Summary: Gary may have thought his problems would be over after he and Henry leave Roke Chemicals… oh, poor innocent soul…

Disclaimer: Gary and co don’t belong to me but to those inspired people at Columbia Tristar.  I’ve not made any profit from this fanfic (honest !)  If you enjoy it, please tell me ! Feedback always welcome at

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Dad for a Day
by Ann Rivers

Working with kids and animals.

No matter how cute those kids and animals were, actors the world over avoided it at all costs.

Gary Hobson wasn’t an actor. But, faced as he currently was - sitting at the bar in McGinty’s with a hungrily expectant cat on one side and an overly curious eight year old on the other, he almost wished that he’d followed Chuck’s advice and followed his friend to Hollywood.  Even now, he could hear Chuck’s excited sales pitch as he’d tried to convince Gary to join him.

“You wouldn’t regret it, Gar…! I mean, with your looks and my talent, we’d knock ‘em dead…!”

But no. Gary had stayed in Chicago, honour bound to keep to his commitments to the paper.  And as the song went - regrets, he’d had a few. But then again, too few to mention.  There’d been times that day when he’d regretted his offer to step in as Henry’s surrogate babysitter.  He hated to admit it, but Marissa had had a point. He wasn’t particularly comfortable around kids, not so much because he didn’t like them but because he’d had no experience of dealing with them.

One good thing, he mused in bittersweet sadness, that he and Marcia hadn’t had children - their divorce had left him shellshocked enough as it was, without child custody to fight over too.

In hindsight, he knew he’d been tempting Fate that morning, however nobly the intent.

After all, that slightly peeved challenge to Marissa… “One kid - how complicated can that be ?”   Well, he’d just been asking for trouble.  And trouble there’d came - by the proverbial bucketload, flying at him all day, from all angles.

Jeez, no wonder he had such a headache.

And now the cat - yes, the cat, of all things, had designs on his well earned, much needed pizza. Well, that cat had another thought coming…

“Oh no, you don’t…” Gary muttered, scooping the animal out of harm’s way with one hand while shoving the box away with the other. “Not unless you want to be up with the gas all night, like you were last time… now, go on, get outta here… go find a mouse or something…”

“I didn’t know cats got gas…” Henry piped up, about to sneak the sulking animal some of his meal but persuaded by a stern glance that that was not a good idea.

“Oh believe me, Henry, they do…” Gary told him with a martyred sigh, shuddering at the memory. It had taken two showers and days worth of cleaning to rid the loft of that pizza’s repercussions.  Well, he’d never owned a cat before. How was he to know that cats and calamari didn’t mix ?

If he wasn’t so hungry, the thought of that fateful experience would have put him off his pizza.

As it was, famished but now thankfully feline free, Gary tucked back in with renewed good humour -noting in quiet amusement that Henry was matching him bite for bite.  He’d never known an appetite like it. Well, except for himself, maybe, when he’d been that age - happily devouring as much of that good old home cooking as his mother could throw at him.

A gentle tug on his sleeve broke into happy visions of stews, steaks and home made apple pie.

“I’ve finished now, Gary… can I get down and get a drink, please…?”

“Huh ?” Gary blinked, his thoughts still halfway between Hickory and Chicago. Recovering himself, he nodded and waved vaguely towards the refrigerator before returning to that last, luscious slice.

The sound of rummaging and rattling from behind him didn’t concern him that much.

Until, that is, a tub of chocolate ice cream, chocolate chip cookies, a full pint of milk and - well, what else - chocolate syrup suddenly materialised beside him.

Gary almost choked, staring in turn between an innocently expectant Henry and enough calories to make any food nutritionist swoon in despair.  “You - you’ve got to be kidding…” he finally managed to say - in the naïve hope that Henry would put it all back again and opt instead for a far more sensible glass of orange juice.

Plaintive brown eyes stared back at him - leaving Gary with the sinking realisation that there was about as much chance of that as the cat not taking yowling revenge on him the next morning.  “It’s not on mom’s list… and it’s got milk in it, so mom won’t mind…” Henry supplied helpfully, with the expert bargaining power unique to eight year olds.

Needless to say, Gary checked anyway - finally meeting Henry’s sweetly triumphant grin with a groan unique to long suffering parents.

“Tomorrow, Patrick…” he muttered to himself, “…you and I are gonna have a little chat…”

He had to admit, though, that as the glorious creation began to take shape, Patrick may be spared.  Even with all that pizza inside him, the sight of all that chocolate was making his mouth water.  “So this is Patrick’s famous cookie milkshake…?” he said, casting it a smile of grudging approval.

“Yep…” Henry nodded happily, grinning while offering him a big glass - and even bigger spoon. “Want me to show you how to make one…?”

He was going to regret this. From Erica or his already crammed digestive system or his waistline, Gary knew he was going to regret this. Still, he’d burn it all off tomorrow…

Grinning very much like the eight year old beside him, Gary took the offered spoon and dived in.  Perhaps it was the influence of having Henry around him. Or maybe it was all that chocolate. But as they traded suggestions and sprinkles, Gary felt a warm contentment grow within him.  It had been a good - no, make that great day. Chicago was heading for another safe and secure night.

He was well fed, about to be even more so - and still in one piece. More amazingly, so was Henry.

Funnily enough, Erica Paget’s thoughts were following very similar lines as her cab pulled up outside McGinty’s. The bar was still standing, all the lights still on. All the windows still intact.  Well, that was a relief. She’d half expected to see a harassed Gary fly out the door to meet her, or maybe find him banging his head against the doorframe under Henry’s politely curious scrutiny.
It wasn’t that Henry was a difficult child, but Erica would be the first to admit that he could  still be quite a handful. Just as she knew that Gary, for all his chivalrous willingness to help out, hadn’t really known what he was letting himself in for.

Grateful as she’d been to him, Erica knew there was far more to the intriguingly waylaid Mrs Patterson than met the eye. She may have believed Gary’s hastily flustered account of how that snake had gotten into the old lady’s bingo hall had he not looked so adorably defensive about it, or if she hadn’t noticed Marissa’s knowingly amused smile. And then he’d offered to look after Henry, which had left both women totally stunned.

Then again, she thought fondly, Gary Hobson was just full of intriguing surprises.

And although they’d grown closer of late, there was still much about him that remained a mystery  - all of which only added to that shyly awkward charm.  Maybe later, if they got the chance to be alone, she’d try and wheedle some answers out of him, starting with his intriguing, not to mention frustratingly hectic lifestyle.  Dubious circumstances aside, Erica felt herself smile as she gathered up her bag to find her fare.  No, if anyone could keep Henry out of trouble and mischief, it was Gary.

Once on the pavement she stood for a moment and felt her proud smile widen.  McGinty’s was still in one piece. Whether the same went for her babysitter remained to be seen.

Things inside looked reassuringly normal too. Some of the regulars were already in - no doubt to guarantee the best seats for that night’s ball game.  Returning their smiles and nods of greeting, Erica continued to glance round in happy satisfaction.
Someone - she’d already guessed who - had certainly been busy. Chairs neatly ringed their tables, freshly filled bowls of pretzels sat on the bar, the TV already tuned in for the big game build up.

So far so good, but no sign of either son or sitter. Just Patrick’s typically ebullient greeting.  “Hey, Miss Paget, how’d the seminar go…? Did you enjoy it…? Can I get you some coffee…?”

“Fine thanks… yes… and yes again…” Erica replied, fondly hoping that she was replying to this typically rapid fire volley in the right order.

Seemingly she had, since the coffee was already there. Hot and strong, just as she liked it.  Just as impressive was the discovery that Patrick appeared to have turned psychic. “Henry and Mr Hobson are out back…” he said, helpfully nodding her in the right direction - his next words causing her to stare at him in utter surprise. “I think they’re cooking…”

“Cooking…” she echoed, glancing suspiciously into her half drained mug. Hm, maybe too strong…

Further intrigued by the young barman’s curious smile, Erica headed for the kitchens - still not entirely sure that she heard correctly.  No, it couldn’t be. Gary Hobson, cooking ?  The most she’d ever seen Gary make was one of his towering sandwiches, a meal in itself.  Apart from that, everything came boxed, delivered to his door - and cooked by someone else.
Still, she’d once doubted that he could dance - and she’d been totally wrong on that point too.  Enjoying the memory, Erica’s smile widened as she finally caught sight of them, huddled companionably at the far end of the food counter; whatever they’d created between them still intriguingly hidden from view.  It had to be good, she thought wryly, if that contented silence was anything to go by. Besides which, neither of them had noticed she was there.

“Hey guys, what’s cooking…?” she asked, highly amused to watch two totally different reactions.

Henry, needless to say, was thrilled to see her and came running across for the obligatory hug.  He also had chocolate smeared all over his face, melting along with his most cherubic smile. Gary, on the other hand, while just as fetchingly daubed in chocolate and ice cream, wasn’t smiling. In fact, he looked as though he was about to keel clear off his stool.

“Erica…!” Hastily wiping ice cream from his mouth, he was still trying to work out a half decent explanation when Henry, keen as always to oblige, stepped in to help.

“I’m showing Gary how to make one of Patrick’s special milkshakes…”

“So I see…” his mother nodded, eyeing the sizeable pile of empty pizza boxes, tubs and bottles with considerable amusement before turning to where Gary now sat with his face buried in his hands.

“And from the debris, I’d guess you needed quite a bit of practice…?” she asked mildly, gently picking some errant sprinkles from cream spattered dark hair.

The head nodded, shielding fingers gradually peeling away to reveal a smile that could melt a glacier.  “No papaya…” Gary said at last, with the look he’d so often practised on his long suffering mother.  “No papaya, I - I made sure of that…”

Erica nodded, finding it impossible not to laugh now as she studied that striking, cream streaked face.  And was she imagining it, or did the dark eyes betray just the tiniest hint of relief ?

“Good…” she said at last - not entirely sure whether she wanted a reply to her next question.  “So, apart from raiding half the dessert kitchen, and both of you wearing it more than eating it, have you guys had a good day…?”

A ripple of amused suspicion rose into an all out tidal wave at Henry’s bright, beaming smile.  She’d seen that butter wouldn’t melt expression far too often in the past to be fooled by it now.  Come to that, she wasn’t buying it from a thirty two year old kid, either - puppy dog eyes regardless.  When no reply came, however, Erica raised a quizzical eyebrow at her surrogate babysitter -  causing him to visibly cringe. Jeez, she even glared at him the same way mom had !

“We… um… well, just did stuff, you know - and we got to the historical society…” he said at last, inspired by sheer desperation to hold up the book which Henry had been reading. “See…?”

Off the hook, at least for the moment, Gary closed his eyes and breathed a silent sigh of relief - wisely deciding that the rest of the day’s events would come in for some very careful editing.   Otherwise, he’d most likely end up in his second home - Cook County General’s emergency room.  Erica nodded, thankfully too absorbed in studying Henry’s book to notice the glance of silent conspiracy that had passed between son and sitter.

“Interesting choice…” she said, still not entirely convinced as she looked from one to the other.  “Knights of the Round Table…?”

“Yeah, they were really neat…” Henry enthused, clearly eager to tell his mother all about it.  “They had all this armour and swords and shields, but they weren’t bad or anything like that…they went round helping poor people and protecting them and making sure no one hurt them…”

His mother just nodded, having to stifle a smile as she noticed that Gary’s expression had grown somewhat pained.   Clearly he’d already been given the full low down on every aspect of Arthurian legend - something that would only have really interested him if a baseball had somehow been involved.

No wonder he now reached so eagerly for the coffee pot and his beloved paper…

Trying to shake the surreal image of King Arthur skidding into first base out of her head, Erica smiled her thanks for a typically courteous refill before turning back to her expectant son.  “So these knights were good guys, then…?” she asked, amused to note that Gary had already sought refuge in the sports section.

Clearly appreciative of an interested audience, her son nodded eagerly.   “Oh yeah, they went round helping people and being kind and… and…”

“Chivalrous, Henry…” Gary supplied, still engrossed in the sports scores but still prepared to help - reasoning that made the favours round about even.

Sadly, Henry didn’t seem too interested in keeping score. No, he had something much better in mind. “Oh yeah, and the lady that guided us round kept saying she could just take Gary home…” he said, happily innocent over why this should cause his babysitter’s face to turn so intriguingly red.

“Oh, really…?” Erica fought to keep her face straight as she watched Gary cringe in embarrassment.   So, she had a rival, did she ?

Henry, needless to say, was as anxious to supply his mother with all the juicy details as Gary was  that he didn’t.

“Yeah, but you don’t have to worry, mom - she was way too old to want to marry him…” he said, thinking hard for a moment before beaming in triumph at his now helplessly laughing mother.  “No, I think she just wanted to adopt him…”

His embarrassment complete, Gary groaned out loud and dropped his head into his arms -  convinced that things couldn’t possibly get any worse.  He was wrong, of course. Intrigued by the sound of Erica’s laughter, Marissa had appeared - prompting another comically plaintive groan. What was this, gang up on Gary day ?

If she hadn’t known him so well, she may have been insulted at such an odd greeting.  As it was, guessing that whatever the joke was, it had to be at Gary’s expense, she just smiled.  “Hey, what’s so funny…?” she asked, frowning slightly as she sniffed the air for a moment.  “And why does it smell like a sweet factory in here…?”

“Henry’s been showing Gary how to make a cookie and ice cream milkshake…”   Erica explained, admirably straight faced as she studied her somewhat bedaubed babysitter.

“Oh…” Marissa nodded - her mouth twitching as her imagination set the scene for sightless eyes.  Unable to resist, she added mildly, “And somehow he’s made Gary into a cookie and ice cream milkshake instead…?”

“Complete with sprinkles…” Erica sighed, joining son and friend in the inevitable fit of giggles.

Feeling that three against one was just a tad unfair, Gary closed his eyes and silently counted to ten - then, when that didn’t quite work, on to twenty. Good humour more or less restored, he raised his head and favoured the still helplessly laughing women with a look of plaintive appeal.  “Aw, come on - give me a break…!” he muttered, although he too was finding it hard not to smile as he caught sight of himself in a nearby mirror. He had to admit, he did look slightly… decorated.  Jeez, he thought, rubbing absently at his cream smeared cheek, what a waste of chocolate…

A washcloth had appeared beside him, conjured not by Merlin but a still wickedly grinning Erica.  Accepting it with all due meekness, Gary returned his attention to the relative sanctuary of the paper, pointedly ignoring the continued amusement around him.

With the day’s emergencies and his babysitting duties now over, he could afford to relax a little -  always, he found, best done with a full pot of extra strong coffee and the sports section.

Engrossed in the build up to the play offs, he was soon oblivious to everything around him - that is, until Henry’s voice piped up from beside him.



“Thanks for being my dad for the day… it was really neat…”

Still nose deep in the sports pages, Gary raised a vaguely acknowledging hand in reply -  a hand which then froze, along with his expression, as he realised what Henry had said.  Dad…? Had he just said…?

“I… um, well… I - I mean, you’re welcome and… well, I had a neat time too…” he said at last, meeting Erica’s delighted eyes with open surprise in his own, before they dropped once more,  studying the contents of his half drained mug of coffee in deep suspicion.  This was clearly part of a conspiracy to get him to get him to cut down on the caffeine.  Yes, that had to be it, he decided - either that, or he’d picked up the decaffeinated by mistake.  How else could he explain the totally illogical smile which he could feel spreading across his face ? The smile soon faded, however, as Henry treated Marissa to a brief but still mortifying recap.

“Oh yeah, Marissa, it was a really neat day - I got to help Gary and learned about knights and things, and this lady at the historical society wanted to take Gary home and adopt him…”

“Really…?” To her credit, Marissa kept her face more or less straight as she pictured the scene - a startled, feebly protesting Gary being dragged along the street by a lovestruck woman who was probably old enough to be his mother. That restraint was under serious threat though as she added,  “Well, that must have been… interesting…”

Gary, needless to say, was keeping his head down - knowing better than to try and intervene.  Unfortunately, he was getting the distinct impression that Henry hadn’t even hit his stride yet.  In fact, the more he thought about what else he’d find to talk about, the more worried Gary became.  “Hey, Henry, isn’t it way past your bedtime…?” he asked suddenly, trying not to sound too frantic - guessing by Erica’s surprised look that he hadn’t quite managed it.

“Gary, it’s only quarter past seven…” she said, puzzled for a moment, before she smiled and nodded.

“Oh, that’s so sweet - you’re concerned that he must be tired, right…?”

“Right…!” Gary agreed, his hopes dashed as he glanced towards a still stubbornly bright eyed Henry.   Oh no, he thought sourly, this kid’s going to be up for hours yet, with the entire day to talk about.  Worse still, the coffee pot was running low…
Strongly tempted to grab the pot and make a run for it, Gary settled instead for a very generous refill, almost choking in surprise as Henry’s innocent quest to embarrass the hell out of his babysitter took a new and unexpected twist.

“Sir Galahad was the neatest knight, though…” Henry said brightly, casting Gary an idolising smile.  “He was always kind and doing good things and trying to help people in trouble… just like Gary…”

Gary blinked, genuinely surprised and touched by the little boy’s obvious admiration of him.

Even more surprising was that neither Erica nor Marissa were taking advantage of it to tease him.  Instead both were looking at him in total seriousness, smiling in their own proud agreement.  Still embarrassed, but this time for all the right reasons, Gary grinned back at his young admirer.

“Yeah, and I can ride horses too…” he said, hard put not to laugh as Henry gaped at him.

“Wow…!” Henry was clearly impressed, his eyes wide and bright with delighted excitement.  “You - You mean, a real one…? Like we saw at the racetrack when you helped my dad…?”

“Yes, Henry, a real one…” Gary nodded, wishing he could get so excited over something so simple.  Then he remembered that he had - when he’d been around Henry’s age, back home in Hickory, when his father had taken him out to the local stables for his first riding lesson.

Wryly wondering when he’d become so cynical, Gary’s thoughts were broken by Henry’s somewhat plaintive voice.  “I wish I weren’t so little… I want to be big, like Gary… then I could ride and be a knight too…”

Gary was already glancing towards Erica for approval - finding it in a gratefully admiring smile.  Smiling too in anticipation, he turned back to the still disconsolate Henry and gently ruffled his hair.

“Tell you what, buddy…” he said, again seeing himself as that excited, ecstatic eight year old.  “If it’s okay with your mother, I know a place where they have ponies for big and little people…and it’s been a while since I went riding too, so… well, what say you and me learn together…?  We could even play at being knights with me as a big knight and… well, you as a little knight…”

Henry’s eyes lit up, his entire face following suit in a magically restored smile.

“Really…?” he breathed, looking for all the world as though all his Christmases had come at once.  After a few moments’ thought, the world of fantasy changed into something much more exciting.  Already wide and eager eyes suddenly grew even wider and brighter as a new hope took hold.  “You really mean it…? Real riding ? On real ponies…? Like real cowboys…?”
“Yep, you bet… real riding on real ponies… just like real cowboys…” Gary chuckled -  finding himself almost knocked clear off his stool as Henry scrambled into his lap and threw his arms around his neck in an exuberant hug.

Not that Gary minded. He never did, no matter what he had to go through to achieve such outright happiness as this.  Feeling more appreciated than he had in a long time, Gary hugged him very happily back -  just as his own father had done, all those years ago.   He may have been in danger of strangulation, though, had Patrick not appeared to call them in  for the ballgame.
Henry was already off his lap and running for the door, eager to tell Patrick his exciting news.  Gary watched him go before, catching Erica’s amused glance, he sighed and smiled back at her.

“That kid is something else…” he said softly, laughing with her as Erica nodded in wry agreement.

“You’ve got that right…” she agreed, adding dryly, “Maybe one of these days I’ll figure out what…”

Turning back to Gary, she studied him intently for a moment - very thoroughly, from head to toe, with such a mischievous grin on her face that Gary was instantly wary.

“What…?” he asked worriedly - uneasily wondering where else those sprinkles had gotten into.

“Oh, nothing…” Erica assured him, still grinning as she continued her playful appraisal.  “No, I was just thinking how cute and amazingly dashing you’d look in a suit of armour…”

Not knowing whether to be flattered or insulted, Gary just raised his eyes heavenward - as if in prayer that Marissa would defend him like the good and loyal friend that she was.  Normally she would, of course. Unless she and Erica were in one of their mischievous moods.  Such as now - with guess who as their target.

Marissa was shaking her head, and for a moment Gary thought he was going to get away with it.  But then she smiled a wickedly predatory smile - and he winced, bracing himself for the inevitable.  “Never happen, Erica…” she sighed, shaking her head while placing her hand on Gary’s shoulder.  “Believe me, he has enough trouble getting into a dinner suit, let alone one made out of tin…”

Erica had to smile at that. Having seen him in a dinner suit (and what a revelation that had been), she could personally vouch that whatever trouble it took to get him into one was well worth taking.  Still enjoying the memory of that somewhat eventful evening, Erica moved to his other shoulder - effectively blocking his last avenue of escape.  “Oh, but he’d have us both to help him…” she declared, more than happy to take up Marissa’s lead. Enjoying too this chance to be close to him - even if she was making his life hell while doing it. “And I’m sure between us, some waiters to hold him down and a couple of good sized tin openers
we could manage to squeeze him into one…”

“You’d have to catch me first…” Gary muttered - a look of comical horror spreading over his face as he realised that hadn’t exactly been the wisest thing to say.   Enough was enough. Chivalry or no chivalry, and manners regardless, he had to make a stand here.  Especially when he thought of those industrial strength tin openers in the cutlery drawers…

Edging himself off his stool, Gary drew himself to his full height then turned to face his sweetly smiling tormentors as the perfect study of knight like calmness and dignity.

“I’m missing the game…” he said at last, with what he hoped was some degree of manly authority.

Stand made, he then grabbed both pot and paper - and bolted.  He could still hear them laughing as he flung himself through the doors that led into the bar area, meeting the curious stares that greeted him with the now familiar smile of complete embarrassment.  “Oh way to go, Hobson…” he muttered peevishly. “Sir Galahad couldn’t have handled that better…”

Still, at least the Bears were already leading the Dolphins. He knew that already, of course - and he knew they’d go on to enjoy a comfortable victory that would see them into the play offs. But that never stopped him from joining the happily unenlightened in cheering their home team on.

A possible touchdown pass had everyone on their feet, on tenterhooks for the score to be confirmed. Ten seconds later, with another six points safely in the bag, the whole bar erupted.

As half time approached, even the unenlightened knew that the Bears were home and dry.

In the relatively quieter lull that followed, Erica glimpsed Henry and Gary huddled at the bar -  the former perched happily on top of the counter, one of Gary’s baseball caps dipped over his eyes, its real owner pressed into apparently willing service as a ruefully amused back rest.

Still watching them, she could feel herself smile in wistful amusement. For all her earlier scepticism, she’d have to ask Gary to babysit more often. And if that progressed to something more permanent…

Deep in very happy thought, it took her a few moments to realise that Gary was watching her too - wary brown eyes then creasing with laughter as Erica moved down the bar to join him, waving a white towel in front of her in playful truce.
“Make it a coffee and we’ll call it quits…” he grinned, his eyes widening in surprise as Erica took the proffered mug and happily obliged.

“Well, I can see you’re otherwise engaged in a suitably chivalrous task…” she replied dryly - loving the comically rueful face which he pulled in reply.

“Tell me about it…” he muttered, smiling though as he slipped easily into a broad deep south drawl.  “Actually, we’re off the knight thing and we’re gettin’ ready to hit the trail… ain’t that so, Tex…?”

The would be cowboy nodded in lazy agreement, seemingly in practise already for life in the saddle.

“Yep…” he sighed, with a laconic indifference that did John Wayne proud.

“See…? He’s got the lingo down already…” Gary chuckled, back now in his soft native Indiana.

“Not to mention the slouch…” Erica agreed, eyeing her snugly laid back son in amused disapproval.  She had to admit, though, that she couldn’t blame him for getting so cosy and comfortable.  Given half the chance, she wouldn’t mind snuggling up in those arms herself.  True, she’d stolen a quick hug and kiss from him that morning, but that had been different.  Besides, they’d been alone then. They were far from alone now.

A familiar if rather drowsy voice broke into her thoughts, widening an already rueful smile.  “It’s called a siesta, mom…” Henry yawned from somewhere beneath Gary’s cap.

Laughing too much to argue the point further, mother and sitter traded a glance of martyred empathy.  “Whatever…” Erica said at last, still laughing as she gently tugged the brim of Gary’s hijacked cap.  “And as for hitting the trail… well, I think someone needs to hit the sack instead…”

Silence for a moment, before a sleepily contented sigh confirmed their amused suspicions.

“I think he already has…” Gary whispered, grinning back at her while carefully lifting his cap.

Sure enough, Henry was now soundly asleep, curled up snugly against Gary’s chest -  leaving both his mother and Gary with a rather tricky problem.

“Well, no matter how comfy he looks, he can’t stay there all night…” Erica said softly -her turn to pull the rueful face as Gary raised a quizzically amused eyebrow.

“You think…?” he asked mildly, carefully sliding Henry around so that he could lift him properly. “Come on, Tex… time to hit the hay…”

“Now all I have to do is get him into a cab, home and into bed without waking him…” Erica went on, her expression suggesting she had yet to manage it.

Of course, that had been before she’d met Gary Hobson.

“No, you don’t… I - I mean, he can stay here with me tonight, so… well, you don’t need to go…”  he explained, blushing slightly as he realised how that last part might have sounded.

Erica didn’t seem to mind. In fact, if the smile of surprised delight on her face was anything to go by,
she seemed thrilled by the idea. “You know, Marissa was right - you really are a knight in shining armour…” she said at last,
finding it impossible not to laugh as Gary groaned and rolled his eyes.

“Oh no, enough with the armour already…” he pleaded, his plaintive expression turning more strained still as he discovered just how deceptively heavy a sleeping eight year old could be.   Shaking his head at her offer of help, he then nodded towards the approaching Marissa.

“Look, you two can fight over the tin openers later. Right now I need to get Henry upstairs and  into my place before my back gives out…”

Marissa’s eyes widened, with a playfulness that could only mean one thing to Gary - trouble.  “Don’t tell me you’ve made a start on those riding lessons already, Gary…” she said at last - guessing from Erica’s splutter of laughter that Gary’s reaction was all she’d hoped it would be.  Even denied sight of it, she could imagine the look of indignation on that apple pie face -
returned sarcasm betrayed, as always, by the smile which she could hear in his voice.

“Very funny… which reminds me, have I told you that… that you’re being funny today…?”

Oh yeah, Gary thought peevishly, that’s really telling her…

“Yes, thank you…” Marissa smiled sweetly - knowing the less she said, the more flustered he’d get. Enjoying the exasperated silence that followed, she turned to Erica. “So, if it isn’t riding lessons, what’s going on…?”

“Henry’s crashed out so Gary’s kindly offered to let him stay here tonight…” Erica explained, amused and amazed that Henry had spent this entire exchange totally out for the count.

“Oh…” Marissa nodded, seemingly impressed by this latest act of Hobsonesque chivalry.  Then the mischievous smile returned, prompting another pointed, regretfully unseen glare.  Well, if she was going to get glared at, she might as well make the most of it.  “You mean an all night nappy noodle…?” she added, deadpan through years and years of practice.

Erica, on the other hand, was finding it impossible to keep from laughing as Gary’s face turned almost as bright a shade of red as Henry’s hair.  Reasoning that he’d suffered enough, and seeing that Henry’s deadweight was really starting to tell, she rested her chin in the crook of Gary’s shoulder while slipping her arms lightly around his waist.  “I… um… well, I know how heavy he is when he’s asleep, so I thought I’d help…” she explained,  meeting startled but not objecting eyes with a slightly uncertain smile.

Something else in his eyes suggested he was perhaps hoping there was more to it than that.

Before either could decide what that something was, Henry stirred and mumbled in his sleep - reminding both of more pressing matters at hand.

“No… I - I mean, no, I can manage…” Gary said at last, nodding towards the back office door.  “No, if you could just get the door for me I’ll get him settled… I’ll be back in a minute…”

Smiling his thanks for an already opened door, and before Marissa could torment him further, Gary headed for the stairs and the tease free safety of his loft.

Erica watched him go - finally meeting Marissa’s gently knowing smile with a wistful sigh. “He really is something very special, isn’t he…?” she said at last, admiration clear in her voice.

“Yes, he is…” Marissa agreed  - unable to resist one last playful jibe before she moved away.   “And like you said yourself, Erica… one of these days we might work out what…”

While enjoying the joke, Erica’s eyes remained thoughtful as they strayed towards Gary’s loft - voicing that and many other hopes to a now deserted office as she waited for Gary to return.  “I sure hope so…”

That minute stretched into several - which, allowing time for Henry to settle, didn’t bother her.  With half hour gone, however, and still no sign of Gary, Erica felt compelled to find out why. Climbing the stairs to the loft, finding the door slightly open, she padded cautiously inside -concern giving way to hastily stifled laughter at the scene that met her eyes.  What Gary had seen as a simple task of settling Henry to bed had clearly not gone according to plan.  She could only imagine that Gary must have sat down at some point to get his breath back -  or maybe his head had accidentally come into contact with the pillows while tucking Henry in.

Either way, Gary now lay stretched out on his bed, happily and completely lost to the world -  a still soundly asleep Henry tucked under one arm, a contentedly purring cat curled under the other.   Beyond her amusement, Erica could feel a lump come into her throat as she sat carefully beside them,  happy just to sit quietly and enjoy this charmingly harmonious scene.  He looked so adorable, too soundly asleep to care that he was more out of the duvet than under it.  So did Henry, of course. Then again, she was used to watching him sleep.  Watching Gary Hobson was another matter. For one thing, he was forever dashing out all day,  on what she’d resignedly started to call his mysterious little errands.

Even when she did get him to herself, any excessive show of interest seemed to unsettle him -  a still painful legacy, she imagined, of having your wife throw you out on your anniversary.  The woman must have been crazy, she thought, more serious now as she continued to watch him.  No one with eyes that gentle or a heart that generous deserved to be hurt so badly.
Gently brushing back his hair, Erica’s smile returned as his eyelids twitched in response - a drowsy smile reflecting what was clearly a most enjoyable dream.

Tempted as she was to stay, Erica knew that if he were to wake now and find her beside him… well, all joking aside, this new closeness between them would be under serious threat.  Hell, even having his mother staying with him had given Gary a severe case of the heebie-jeebies.  Smiling at the memory, Erica bent carefully over him to gently kiss her sleeping son goodnight - waiting until she was absolutely sure that Gary was still soundly asleep before kissing his cheek.

“Sweet dreams, Sir Galahad…” she said softly - enjoying one last glance as she rose from the bed, before leaving them to sleep in peace.

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