Hello! Welcome to the final chapter of the story! Thank you to everyone who has read, favourited and followed the story :) I hope you enjoy this last chapter.
Stella woke, still tangled with Mac, to the sound of sobs. Dazed with sleep, she untangled herself to hit the light switch by the bed. Through sheer luck she succeeded and blinked in the brightness, seeing a small figure in the doorway, crying pitifully.
'Sweetie, what's wrong?' After dragging the sheet up to cover herself, she held out her arms to Holly, who stumbled over and threw herself onto the bed. Beside her, Mac shifted and woke. 'What's happened, baby?' Stella asked again.
'I had a b-bad dream,' Holly whimpered. 'A m-mouse was-was chasing me, mommy, and it was big and-and wanted to eat me…' She buried her face in the comforter and sobbed.
Stella glanced at Mac, the same thought occurring to both of them – someone had a guilty conscience. Quickly, Mac grabbed his pyjama pants, pulled them on and threw Stella her tank top and shorts.
'Give daddy a hug and tell him all about it,' Stella said as she lifted Holly across to Mac, before she dragged her shorts and top on. When both she and Mac were decently covered, they settled Holly between them and helped dry her eyes and nose. The tears soon diminished to sniffles and hiccups, and with another glance at Mac, Stella decided it was time for some questioning.
'So you had a bad dream huh, baby?' She smoothed the bewildered curls.
'Y-yes,' Holly gulped, wiped her nose and looked up at Stella through tear-trimmed eyelashes. 'The mouse was pretty and small and brown, but then it wanted to eat me and it got super big and chased me…'
'A pretty brown mouse, hey?' Mac said, looking hard at Holly who dropped her eyes. 'It sounds like the mouse we saw today at the cathedral.' There was no reply forthcoming, but the brief look Holly gave her father, before dropping her gaze again, was unmistakeably guilty. 'That's quite the coincidence, isn't it?' Mac added and looked at Stella.
The two of them fixed their daughter with their parental version of the look they gave suspects; the 'we know what you've done so you may as well confess' look. As used to it as she was, Holly was not impervious. She wriggled nervously.
'Is there anything you want to tell us about, baby?' Stella asked her meaningfully. In a moment, Holly crumbled. And crumb by crumb, the confession was given.
It left both Stella and Mac nonplussed.
Looking incredulous, Mac asked, 'Let me get this straight… you left us without telling us where you were going, snuck through the barrier, took the mouse, put it in your kit and snuck back again?'
'Yes, daddy,' Holly mumbled, head drooping. 'But-but the mouse said it was okay.'
Stella's eyebrows shot up. 'Oh, it did, did it?'
Holly moved her head up and down.
'Yes, 'cause he said he wanted to come home with me to live here, 'cause I wanted him to.' Those beseeching blue eyes, so often the reason Holly got what she wanted, gazed at her parents. Parents who were now feeling pangs of guilt. Stella glanced at Mac, and the two of them looked back at Holly in consternation.
Further questions revealed that Holly had, somehow, managed to slip over and under the barriers while no one was looking (Stella winced at that - how had no one seen her?) using some unusual skills.
'I got a bit stucked, but I did a wiggle like a cat-y-pillar, like Uncle Flack taught me, and then I wasn't stucked anymore, and then you came and found me,' Holly told them, and another eloquent glance passed between Stella and Mac – they would be speaking to Uncle Flack about that.
'Wow,' Stella said weakly.
'Are you mad at me?' Holly asked in a small voice.
Stella sighed. 'No, sweetie, we're not mad at you. We're just… sad and disappointed that you didn't tell us what you'd done.'
'I think you know, don't you, honey, that taking the mouse wasn't the right thing to do?' Mac asked gently and Holly's lips wobbled.
'But-but he's pretty and I love him… can't I keep him, mommy?'
Stella shook her head, answering firmly. 'No baby you can't. He has to go back. I know you love him, but sometimes you can't have what you want, even if you want it really bad. And,' she continued in a soft voice, glancing at a grave-faced, Mac, 'even we can't give you everything you want. Sometimes it's just not possible.'
Still clinging limpet-like to her, Holly looked up at Stella with sad eyes. 'He really, really can't stay with me?'
'No, honey. Do you know why?'
Holly thought for a moment. ''Cause daddy doesn't like mice?'
A strange sound came from Mac which turned quickly into a cough. 'That… is not the reason,' he said, clearing his throat.
After shooting him a look, Stella continued. 'You can't keep the mouse because he belongs to someone else.'
'To baby Jesus?'
'Yes… to him, but you know what, he also belongs to the cathedral and to Monseigneur Michael. See, he's a very special mouse and there are a lot of people who like him almost as much as you do.' Stella smoothed Holly's curls and gave them a quick kiss. 'You can't keep him here because if you did that, no one else would be able to visit him at Christmas, and that would be very sad.'
A profound sigh came from Holly as she mulled over what Stella had said. Finally, she dropped her chin into her hands and sighed again.
'Do we got to take him back to his house?'
'Absolutely.' Stella nodded.
It was Holly's turn to nod, her chin bumping on her clasped hands. 'Okay.' She sighed and made a move to extricate herself from Stella's hold and the comforter.
'Hey, where are you going?' Mac asked and Holly turned wide eyes to him.
'To go get the mouse, to take him back.'
'Not right now, sweetie,' Stella said, tugging gently at Holly's pyjama top. 'In the morning, after we've had some more sleep.'
Holly agreed and, worn out with tears and confessions, she was soon asleep between her parents, who found themselves wide awake.
Staring at the ceiling, a thought struck Stella.
'You know something,' she said in a low voice, 'all these parenting manuals, magazines, websites, whatever; they've got it all wrong.'
Even in the dim light, she could see Mac frown. 'They have?'
'Yeah.' Shifting onto her side, Stella expanded on her theory. 'All the usual stuff, you know, changing diapers, breastfeeding, potty training… pfft, easy.' She flicked her hand dismissing those minor trials of child-rearing.
'Right.' Mac was sceptical. Stella pushed her point.
'What we need are manuals that deal with the really difficult stuff – like how to stop your two year old from climbing the Christmas tree; what to do when your child gets herself stuck in her Barbie Dream House…'
'How to repair a teddy bear that's been autopsied with scissors.' Mac caught on and Stella nodded.
'You got it. Now if we had advice on those matters, plus how to proceed when your four year old daughter has stolen a mouse from a famous religious institution, parenting would be a lot easier.'
Mac grunted. 'We should write our own manual.'
Stella giggled, suddenly seeing the funny side. 'It'd be a New York Times bestseller. We could have a whole new career… ' She sighed, her head dropping onto the pillow. 'But after we get some more sleep. Tomorrow's going to be a busy day.'
Mac grunted again before silence settled over the room and Stella's thoughts roamed away into sleep at last.
It still didn't feel like nearly enough rest when she woke again, this time to find herself being tugged by the ankle from under the covers.
'Mommy, wake up!' came the far too enthusiastic demand, just as a shadowy-eyed Mac came into sight, a very welcome sight as he carried two steaming mugs – coffee, judging by the aroma.
'Your mom is not a sack of potatoes,' he told Holly after ordering her to stop pulling at Stella.
Holly gave him a withering look. 'I know that, daddy. I was helping mommy get up.'
'I don't think mommy appreciates the help.' Mac gave Stella a sly grin.
'She certainly does not,' Stella responded in a highly dignified manner as she accepted the coffee and sipped it with a sigh.
Mug hugged in her hands, Stella leaned back against the pillows and closed her eyes, only half-listening as Mac ordered Holly to go and pack the mouse up in her kit, ready for its journey back to the cathedral.
'I called Monseigneur Michael already,' Mac said once Holly was out of earshot. Stella cracked open her eyes, her attention caught.
'And?' she asked apprehensively.
'He's not going to call the papers.' Mac grinned. 'He was pretty understanding and said he was looking forward to seeing us and hearing the full story.'
It was a relief to Stella and she smiled her thanks at her husband before draining the last of her coffee and swinging her legs out of the bed. She turned to Mac with a wry grin.
'At least we can console ourselves with the thought that we've likely given him one of his more interesting confessions.'
Mac set his mug down. 'Let's hope it's the last one we have to make and from now on, Holly's behaviour will be as angelic as she appears…'
They stared at each other, sharing the thought: some things were beyond even a miracle.
In the end, the experience of taking Holly to confess her sins was not as bad as Stella had feared – a fear that had expanded during the journey back to the cathedral. Even so, facing Msgr. Michael, a hand each on Holly's shoulder, Stella felt as guilty as if she and Mac had taken the mouse themselves.
Far more self-possessed than her parents, holding the mouse she had carefully wrapped in Christmas paper, Holly explained while gentle Msgr. Michael listened, nodding every so often and asking an occasional question. As Holly told him how she had wanted the mouse, the Msgr. looked up at Stella and Mac.
It blurted out of Stella. 'Holly was - is - a… a very wanted child.' With the barest of details, she told him about what had happened the Christmas before Holly's birth.
Understanding was warm in Msgr. Michael's eyes. 'You don't need to explain any more. You have a daughter obviously very confident and secure in your love for her, which is a joy to see.'
Stella felt Mac's hand gripping hers as they both thanked the Msgr. Then, with the well-travelled mouse unwrapped and safe in one hand, he offered his other hand to Holly.
'If it's okay with mom and dad, perhaps you'd like to help me put him back?'
After a glance at Stella and Mac, who readily gave their permission, Holly took the Msgr's hand and clambered up onto the Nativity platform among the straw and the figures. Backing up what they had explained to Holly earlier, Msgr. Michael explained how lots of visitors, and lots of children like her, came to see the mouse; he added that the mouse himself did an important job looking after the baby Jesus. Holly listened, rapt, before she nestled the mouse back into his place, while Stella, still holding Mac's hand, watched their daughter learning a lesson in life, taught with kindness and generosity.
With the mouse reinstated, Holly bounced back to her parents and hugged them, her face turned up to them, bright with excitement.
'Mommy! Daddy! Mr Michael says I can come help pack the mouse away in his special box when it's time for him to sleep. Can I? Please, please, please?' Little hands pressed together, she implored, and once again, neither Mac nor Stella could resist. Holly danced around, loud and exuberant with joy; Stella sent a glance at Mac. He dipped his chin in agreement. Time to leave before Holly bubbled over with exhilaration.
Out on 5th Avenue, treading carefully through the starting to become slushy snow, Mac breathed a sigh of relief and gave Stella a rueful smile. 'Let's hope that's the last time we have to do anything like that.'
Stella nodded grimly, a thought striking her. 'And no one, including Flack and Sid, must ever hear about this. Especially not Flack. God only knows what he'd do with the information that the heads of the crime lab's own daughter committed theft in front of their very eyes.'
'After telling Danny, he'd likely buy Holly her own real live mouse complete with miniature nativity and crime scene kit.' Mac grinned and Stella glared.
'That is not even funny, Mac.'
By the end of the following week, having remained vigilant every day at work, Stella felt able to let her guard down. She, Mac and Flack had caught several scenes together since the mouse incident, but each time she had kept a close eye on the two men and was confident Flack had heard nothing of the mouse-napping in the cathedral. Not that she did not trust Mac - far from it – but there was always the possibility that something could slip accidentally.
Flack was her chief concern, but no one else seemed to know about Holly's latest misdemeanour either: no secret smiles; no hastily-ended conversations as she passed co-workers in the lab; no curious stares... Stella was optimistic that no one ever would know. With a lightness in her step, she left the lab.
Mac and Holly, and dinner, were waiting for her when she got home; Holly wearing a Batgirl costume, one of her many Christmas gifts. Having spent the day with her Uncle Flack, she was bursting with things to tell her parents. They listened, in between reminders for Holly to eat dinner. By dessert, she had calmed down enough to dive into her fruit and ice-cream, giving Stella and Mac the chance to talk to each other about their day.
'Mommy, guess what Uncle Flack's gonna buy me!' Holly said suddenly, spoon half-way to her ice-cream smeared mouth, interrupting her parents' quiet conversation.
'A unicorn?' Stella offered, keeping her face serious.
'Nuh uh.' Holly shook her head.
'A dinosaur?' Mac guessed.
Again Holly shook her head. 'Nope, 'cause that'd be way too big to fit in my room.'
'Good point.' Mac nodded.
A few more guesses – a pony, a purple car, a snowman – and they were both out of inspiration.
'Okay, we give up.' Stella lifted her hands as Holly stared expectantly at them. 'You're going to have to tell us what Uncle Flack's going to get you.' A crime scene kit, she suspected, recalling their conversation on Christmas Eve.
Holly sucked the last drop of ice-cream off her spoon. 'A mouse!'
Stella froze. 'A what?'
'A real mouse for a pet, mommy! And it's gonna live at his apartment and I can go see it whenever I want to and feed it and hold it, and it'll be really mine!' Holly was jigging in her seat, her face one huge beam of excitement.
Struck dumb, Stella could only listen as Mac spoke.
'That's a nice thing for your Uncle Flack to offer, but I hope you didn't ask him to buy you a mouse?'
'No daddy! I didn't ask him, he said it all by himself,' Holly insisted.
Mac glanced at Stella, who with a growing suspicion in her mind, questioned her daughter.
''Cause we were talking about mice.' Tiring of the explanations, Holly clattered her spoon into her dish and began to climb down from her chair. Mac told her to wait to be excused and reluctantly she half wriggled back into her seat, keeping one foot on the ground.
'Why were you talking about mice, baby?' Stella asked with a sinking feeling.
''Cause I like mice.' Holly shrugged.
'Did you tell Uncle Flack about the mouse from the cathedral?' Mac asked, and Stella's shoulders slumped as Holly told them that yes, she had; she had told Flack about taking the mouse home, and then taking him back to the cathedral, and talking to Monseigneur Michael, and how he had talked to her, and to mommy and daddy…
'She told him everything,' Stella said despondently, a couple of hours later as she and Mac sat on the couch. 'Everything.'
'She certainly did.'
Foreseeing Missing Mouse files, mouse traps, mouse food and other rodent-related paraphernalia appearing everywhere, Stella looked at Mac dejectedly. 'We're never going to hear the end of this, are we?'
'He'll get tired of it. Eventually,' Mac said, his expression resigned. 'Just as soon as Holly finds the next heap of trouble to get into.'
Stella dropped her head into her hands and groaned.
Thank you for reading! Do leave me a review - I love to know what you think. Another story coming soon! Many thanks, Lily x