Let it snow, Let it snow, Let it snowBeta:
Many thanks Alaidh for the beta.Pairing:
Continuing on from “The Loganising of Tony” – this one even has a plot! CHAPTER 1
Tony pressed the red button on the remote he’d picked up from the passenger seat of the car and waited for the tall metal gates to open before driving through. He stopped a moment, and looked up at the house through a light drizzle – the gray end of a gray day. The façade of the mock-Tudor mansion was just as he remembered it – six steps up to the front door, a well-lit conservatory to the left, currently only occupied by plants, as far as he could tell. The driveway ran around to the right in the direction of a pair of electronically operated garage doors.
Tony frowned at the steps, noting that there wasn’t a ramp or any other means of access on this side of the building. He slowly drove around to the garages, hit the green button, and waited for the door to open. The vacant space revealed by the ascending right hand door was the one closest to the exit at the back of the house, and next to his mother’s silver Mercedes sedan, so he knew she was home. Once again, the internal door leading directly into the house was inaccessible to him. However, there was another door, and it only had a small lip to negotiate onto the path that led round to the back patio.
A few minutes later, Tony was knocking on a panel of one of the glass patio doors. He had a sports bag balanced on his lap, a jacket slung across the top, and his backpack suspended from the back of the chair.
“C’mon, c’mon,” he said, hugging his arms. He regretted not putting on the jacket after getting out of the car. He hammered on the glass again, wondering if he should make his way around to the kitchen, even if that meant leaving the shelter of the polycarbonate roof of the patio. Looking out from the shelter of the patio, that idea instantly lost its appeal as it was starting to rain again. He cupped his hands around his face and peered through the glass, just able to make out the scene through a gap in the gauze curtains. He could see part of what appeared to be a huge, tastefully decorated Christmas tree in one corner of the room, but not much else. He was just searching in the top of the backpack for his cell phone – Plan C – when a uniformed maid entered the room. Tony knocked again, and found it hard to restrain a laugh when the girl jumped out of her skin. “I’m Tony,” he said loudly. “Can you let me in?”
The girl pulled back the curtain and unlocked the door from the inside, stepping back to let him pass, before closing and locking it again.
“I’m terribly sorry, sir. Mrs. DiNozzo wasn’t expecting you until much later,” the girl said.
“That’s okay,” Tony said, rubbing his cold nose, feeling it tingle in the heat of the room. “What’s your name?” he asked with a tentative smile.
“Brittany,” she replied.
“Is my mother at home, Brittany?”
“Yes, sir,” she replied.
Tony turned on a dazzling smile. “Can you tell her I’m here?”
“I’ll just go and…” The girl fled, visibly flustered now.
Tony kept grinning as she left, then turned his attention elsewhere. He put the sports bag and his jacket down on the floor and moved further into the room, noting how little it had changed in the three years or more since he’d last been there. There was a pile of glittering packages under the tree he’d noticed earlier. A multitude of colorful cards adorned the mantelpiece in the sunken, more intimate section of the room in front of a fake-log fire. He noted with pleasure that a gently sloped ramp had been installed over the stairs, and grinned at the thought that he was considered worthy of one of his mother’s “fireside tête-à-têtes.”
He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, scenting pine and furniture polish and then catching a whiff of his mother’s expensive perfume as she entered the room behind him.
Tony swiveled the chair in the direction of the voice. Irene DiNozzo's smile slipped slightly as her son turned to face her, although she quickly recovered. Tony, seeing the little hesitation, flashed one of his million-megawatt smiles. "Hi, Mom." He dutifully presented his cheek to be kissed. "You're looking well."
"So are you."
"This place hasn't changed much," he said, gesturing at the room.
Tony's mother shrugged. "You probably want to freshen up after the journey," she said, changing the subject. "We…I've converted your father's office to a bedroom for you. It has a…"
"Private bathroom. Yes, I know," Tony finished for her. "Thanks." Wonder what he thought about handing his office over to the black sheep of the family,
he mused. Something of his thoughts must have communicated itself to his mother.
"Your father has an office upstairs," she said. "Much bigger room."
Tony's eyes widened for an instant, then he shrugged.
"He didn't really mind, you know," Irene DiNozzo stated, although she seemed to lack conviction. "Come. I'm afraid you caught us on the hop a little. We didn't expect you to arrive so early."
"Got away earlier than I expected," Tony replied, picking up the sports bag and following her into the short hallway. A moment later, she swung open the timber door into the side room that had formerly been Tony's father's domain.
Instead of the heavy wooden desk, book case and various other tables holding computer, fax machine and so on, a pair of overstuffed chairs and a coffee table, the room now only held a timber-framed bed, bedside table and a low chest of drawers. The thick pile floor rug had been removed to reveal the honey-colored floorboards beneath. The bed, he noted with pleasure, was actually his own from his former bedroom upstairs, which he rightly guessed had been handed over to his father as an office now. It was a little higher than he was used to, but that had been taken care of by the installation of a trapeze – a little piece of overkill on the part of his mother, but he let it pass without comment. Tony moved further into the room and placed his two bags on top of the drawers before opening the bathroom door to peer in curiously.
He became aware that his mother was still standing anxiously in the doorway of the room. Having cast his eyes over the flip-up shower bench, raised toilet and grab-rails, he turned back and gave her a beaming smile.
"Is it okay?" she asked.
"Great. Looks kinda permanent to me. You hoping for repeat visits?"
Tony gave her a cheeky grin, and she relaxed, knowing she'd been had.
"Thanks, Mom. It's perfect," he said. "Can you give me a few minutes to freshen up…"
"Sure. I'll be in the TV room," she said.
Tony raised an eyebrow. "Okay. Won't be long," he said, closing the door after her. Tony exhaled a sigh of relief when she was gone. He was more tense than he'd pretended to her face. He stripped off the heavy sweater and gloves he'd worn for seven or so hours in the car and pulled a lighter sweater out of his bag, leaving it on the bed while he visited the bathroom to splash water on his face. It amused him somewhat to have displaced the father who had all but disowned him. He paused for a moment to reflect on this – Mr. Perfect handing over “his” space to his somewhat less than perfect son – a son so flawed that he had cut him from his life more than three years before – there had to be some sort of poetic justice in that. Tony now had no chance of ever fitting into his father’s scheme of how things should be in a perfect world – a terrorist’s gunshot nearly seven months before had irrevocably ended any thought of that. Not that he really cared. He would never fit in with his father’s plans and had taken great pleasure in doing exactly the opposite for most of his adult life. Indeed, he wore his imperfection for the world to see like a medal of honor – injured in the line of duty, but still in the saddle. He took a certain amount of pride in the fact that he was now back to working his normal 16 to 17 hour days – albeit in modified form, making time for therapy and gym work around his working hours as best he could. Anne, his therapist and friend, fitted him in whenever and wherever it was possible – at his apartment before or after hours, and even during one memorable all-nighter, in the bedroom of a safe-house, having talked Gibbs into letting him help out, while a red-faced McGee manned a surveillance camera in the next room. He had no idea what McGee thought he was doing with the attractive Australian girl who had slipped in unobtrusively through the back door of the house as instructed by Gibbs, but Tony teased the young man mercilessly about it.
Tony grinned to himself as he pulled the lightweight sweater over his head. He quickly ran a hand through his tousled hair and was ready to go. His hand loomed for a moment over the phone he’d left on the dresser beside the bag, then he resolutely left it there, and headed out into the passage in the direction of the TV room. He stopped outside the door for a moment, surprised to hear two voices coming from the room – one his mother’s and another, older female voice responding. The rustle of clothing and a couple of metallic clicks carried into the hallway before a snatch of canned laughter from a sitcom on the TV drowned out all other sound.
He took a couple of deep breaths before pushing the door open wider, while still trying to identify the other voice. CHAPTER 2
The wheelchair gave a loud creak as Tony propelled himself into the room, causing his mother, who was standing at the sideboard pouring coffee, to look up. It was the other occupant of the room, however, who brought a broad grin to Tony’s face. He looked into a pair of faded blue eyes behind steel-framed glasses, and the pleasantly wrinkled visage of one of the few family members he actually cared about. “Hi, Gran,” he said.
The old lady put down her knitting and held out her hands to him. “Ah, here’s my favorite grandson come to give his gran a kiss,” she said, a warm smile on her face. Tony moved forward into his grandmother’s embrace, scenting powder and old person, comforting odors he’d known most of his life, and feeling her bony hands shake slightly as she pulled him close. “Dear boy. Let me look at you.” Tony’s grandmother looked at him, a very Tony-like smile on her face. “You’re looking well.”
“So are you, Gran.”
“Nonsense, boy, you need to borrow my glasses for a closer look,” she said, tapping the frame. “Now, come sit beside me, and humor an old lady.”
“Sure, Gran.” Tony backed up and moved around to the other side of the sofa. He transferred into the other end of the two-and-a-half-seater, an awkward maneuver due to the close proximity of the coffee table and the softness of the chair. Even with his back turned, he could sense his mother’s nervousness as she fussed with the coffee, pretending not to watch.
“Can I get you anything? Coffee?”
“Coffee would be nice, Mom. You remember how I like it?”
“Yes, sweetheart, of course I do.” She looked at him in some alarm as he settled himself more comfortably on the sofa. She hadn’t expected him to move so readily from the wheelchair to the couch, and the ease with which he lifted himself across took her by surprise.
While Tony was settling himself on the couch, his grandmother packed away her knitting in a plastic bag, which she tucked neatly into the corner between the sofa cushion and arm before reaching out a hand to take his. “Now, tell me every little thing,” she said.
“Gran, I can’t tell you everything. Guy’s gotta have some secrets,” Tony grinned. He looked up as his mother noisily rattled two coffee cups together.
“For goodness sake, Irene, calm down.” Martha Lily O’Rourke spoke sharply to her daughter, who jumped a little at the words.
“Sorry,” she said, her manner somewhat distracted. “I just…”
“Irene, make the coffee, and sit down. You’re making me nervous.” Tony looked at his grandmother sharply, hearing an unaccustomed edge in her voice. She turned back to him and smiled. “How are you coping, dear? I remember when all those beautiful broken boys came home from the war – how hard it was for them and their families.” Her face took on a wistful expression, while Tony was slightly taken aback by the directness of the question. He was more accustomed to people hedging around the issue. “I’m allowed to be direct – I’m old,” she said with a little grin as Irene set the two coffees down on the table.
“You’re not old,” he responded, taking a tentative sip of the hot brew, and giving his mom an appreciative nod.
“Ah, don’t lie to me, Anthony. I turn 82 this year, you know.”
“82…wow,” he grinned. “And I’m doin’ fine, Gran. Things are a lot better these days.”
She released his hand and gave his thigh a pat. “That’s good,” she said.
Tony looked down at the hand he couldn’t feel as it rested on his leg – the prominent knuckles and veins showing through skin so thin it was almost transparent, and covered it with his own. “And you, Gran. How are you…coping?”
“I’d cope a lot better if she,” she said with an imperious wave at her daughter, “would stop mollycoddling me.”
Irene gave her mother a warning look. “Now, Mother…”
“Growing old, Anthony, it’s a terrible thing.”
“As is growing shorter,” Tony responded with an ironic grin. “You have no idea how hard it is to reach the cereal on the top shelf of the supermarket.”
Tony’s grandmother smiled faintly. “Keepin’ the Cap’n Crunch out of your reach, are they?”
Tony laughed and blushed a little. “You know how it is, Gran. You can take the man out of the boy, but you can’t take the boy outta the man.” Irene DiNozzo dignified the response with a small smile as she sat in one of the pair of armchairs opposite the couch. “I’d forgotten you were living here, Gran.”
“You haven’t visited for more than three years, Anthony,” Irene reminded him. Tony looked at his mother. She seemed different somehow – subdued – almost like she was trying a little too hard.
Tony gave her a nervous smile. “Well…you know how it is…”
“Between you and your father? Yes, I do.” Irene sighed deeply. “He’ll be home later,” she continued, flashing him a warning look. “Sometime around midnight, I think he said.”
Tony nodded, accepting the inevitable. “Didn’t figure I could avoid the pleasure of his company,” he said, grimacing.
His mother gave him a slightly shocked look at that comment, but then nodded her understanding. They all silently sipped the hot coffee for a few minutes. Eventually, Tony’s grandmother eased forward on the seat and fumbled for her cane. “I’m going to go to bed,” she said. “Tired…”
“’Night, Gran,” Tony said, offering a steadying hand as she wavered unsteadily on her feet. Irene stood to escort her out.
“I can manage the stairs on my own, Irene,” Martha snapped.
“I know you can, Mother,” she said, but accompanied her anyway. Tony heard them talking in the hallway for a moment, then the shuffle of feet on the wooden stairs. Irene was back a few minutes later and took up her seat in the armchair again, kicking off her shoes to curl her feet up under her and staring into space.
“Mom? You okay?” Tony asked, concerned at her unusual manner.
“Yes, just a little tired,” she said.
“Actually,” Tony admitted, stretching expansively, “so am I. I think I might as well turn in.” He reached for the wheelchair, pulling it back from behind the sofa where he’d pushed it back out of the way and locking the brakes once more. He caught the alarmed look on his mother’s face as he positioned himself to make the transfer. “Mom, it’s okay. I do this all the time.”
She nodded, although her expression was still concerned as he made his move and positioned his feet on the footplate. “I’m sorry, sweetheart,” she said softly. “This is all new to me.”
Tony looked at her with a half grin on his face, the dimples deeply shadowed in the soft lighting of the room. He pushed forward the couple of feet to where she was sitting, and leaned forward. “Mom, I’ll let you know if I need help, okay?”
Irene gave a half smile in response and nodded, then she leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. “Goodnight, Anthony,” she said. “I’m…glad you came.”
He looked reflective for a moment, then the cocky grin appeared. “So am I, Mom. ‘Night.”
Immediately on entering the bedroom, Tony opened his backpack to extract the phone charger, which he set up using the most accessible power outlet, namely, the one in the bathroom. He paused on opening the sports bag, trying to decide whether to unpack or not. He really didn't know how long he'd stay. The top layer, underneath where the lightweight sweater he was now wearing had been, consisted of three neatly wrapped packages tied with red and green ribbon. Pursing his lips, he took them out one by one and placed them on his lap. Making a decision, he left the room again and went back to the living room, making for the Christmas tree. He pushed himself up close to the tree's fragrant branches, reaching under to place the first of the packages – the largest of the three – underneath.
Tony jerked back, and felt himself falling. He hit the floor with a thud, the chair half on top of him.
"Oh, my God. Anthony?! Are you all right?" Irene DiNozzo almost ran in her haste to get to him.
"Oww!" He shoved the chair roughly back off his body and looked up at his mother, at the worry on her face.
"I'm so sorry. Are you hurt? What do I do?"
"Mom, I'm fine." He pushed up into a sitting position, rubbing his elbow ruefully. "You startled me, that's all." He carefully extracted his feet from the pile of gifts they'd landed in and added the other two smaller parcels to the pile before turning back to right the chair, thumping the seat cushion back into position. "Mom, can you step back a bit please?" He positioned himself and closed his eyes briefly in a silent prayer to the muscle gods that he could do it first go, then taking a firm grip on the frame, with a grunt and a heave, transferred up off the floor in one smooth movement. He settled himself, and looked up at his mother wearing a grin of triumph as he positioned his feet. "'Night, Mom," he said. He swiveled the chair and pushed off in the direction of his room once more. Stopping at the hallway door, he turned and gave her a big grin. She hadn’t moved except to watch him go, her expression stunned. CHAPTER 3
Tony stripped down to his t-shirt and boxer shorts, checked that the curtains were open and climbed up into the bed. He settled himself comfortably and covered himself with the thick comforter. He had thought briefly about actually investing in some pajamas for the visit, but eventually elected to wear a light t-shirt and boxer shorts. There was no way he was going to sleep nude in the family home. It was bad enough when Kate looked him up and down, but to have his mother…Don’t go there, Tony.
He gazed in the direction of the darkened windows, comforted by the slight lightening in the darkness indicating the opening. The difference was almost imperceptible, but comforting all the same.
He hadn’t lied when he said he was tired, but he wasn’t really ready for sleep either…just...it was the first time he’d been in this house in more than three years. He felt some trepidation at the coming confrontation with the father he hadn’t seen in all that time. And then there was his mother and her fussing. Tony beat the pillow into a comfortable shape with his fist and closed his eyes, determined to sleep.
“Is he here?” the male voice came from the hall, almost outside his door, waking him from the early stages of sleep.
“Shh, Joe,” replied a female voice. “He’s asleep.”
There was a murmured response, too quiet for Tony to pick up, footsteps, and then the voices were gone. He smiled to himself, and drifted off to sleep once more.
The door opened softly and Irene DiNozzo padded into the room on stockinged feet, her shoes dangling from one hand. The light from the open door caught her son’s face in profile against the pillows, mouth partly open as he gently snored. The comforter had slid down, leaving his shoulders uncovered. She took a moment to study the smooth contours of his upper body as they showed under the t-shirt – more developed now than they’d ever been in his life. Pity it had to come at such a cost, she reflected. Her eyes drifted to the wheelchair and filled with pain. Tony had always been a puzzle to her – this son she’d borne and raised. He’d always been contrary – a maverick. He’d always chosen his own path, no matter the consequences – taking the good and the bad with grace, equanimity and boundless good humor. There’d been conflict between him and his father all his life. A throwback.
That’s what his grandmother called him. A distant echo of some pioneer ancestor, forging a path across the prairies…the only thing they’d agreed on was sports. She reached across and pulled the covers up over his shoulders, closed the curtains that she’d noticed were open and quietly left, pulling the door to after her. She paused outside for a moment to replace her shoes. “Sleep well, son.”
-------------------------- Tony and Kate huddled together with Gibbs in the back of the van, peering at the surveillance tape.
“And where is he now?” Gibbs asked into the cell phone, watching the image on the screen.
“Shopping precinct,” a metallic voice replied, distorted by static.
“Come on, boss. I can do this!” DiNozzo twitched with excitement.
Gibbs looked over his shoulder at the junior agent. “All right.”
Tony was out of the van a moment later, closely followed by Gibbs and Kate, who watched him go. He sauntered jauntily in the direction of the house, hands in his pockets, seemingly all innocence as he crossed the street…
Tony woke up with a groan and rubbed a hand across his face, the vivid dream fresh in his head. He squinted at the clock on the bedside table, groaned again at the hour, and flopped back, staring up into the darkness above him. A feeling that something was different pervaded his thoughts, and he looked around the room, trying to penetrate the gloom with his eyes. They finally fixed on the section of windows where he’d left the curtains open when he went to sleep, to find that they had been closed. Puzzled, he debated with himself whether it was worth the trouble of getting up to open them again, wondering if he’d get any sleep with them closed.
Feeling a little annoyed, he lay back on the pillows, half turning his upper body to more or less lie on his back, and noticed a little wedge of light filtering through the doorway where one of the hall lights had been left on. He was sure he’d left the door shut when he went to bed. “Mom,” he said out loud. Bet she came in and checked on me.
Tony sighed, not wanting to get out of bed. Gees, Mom, I’m not a kid any more.
He looked up at the ceiling for a moment, thinking. Hmm…maybe if I turn over, I can forget the curtains…yeah.
He grinned to himself and tugged at a recalcitrant leg, trying to move it. Okay…what gives? What am I caught on?
He pushed up into a sitting position and, propped on one hand, felt around with the other for the side edge of the comforter, immediately encountering a warm, furry body. “Ack…what’s that?!” He quickly withdrew his hand, startled, as his fingers brushed a cold, wet nose and a loud, “Mrr,” came from the whatever-it-was on his bed.
Tony looked down into a pair of large, luminous eyes and caught the vague outline of upright ears in the light from the doorway. “Hey, Emily! Where did you come from?” he asked, stroking a soft head. There was an immediate answering rumble of noise from deep within the compact body. The little cat stood up and licked its shoulder. Tony, now that he was free of the extra weight, adjusted his position while the interloper moved up the bed, turned a complete circle and curled up in a ball again, leaning against his body and purring loudly. He grinned at the cheek of the little fur-ball and lay back on the pillow, one hand gently stroking a warm back.
Tony woke to the distant sounds of an awakening household. The warm spot where Emily had slept was vacant and cooling. Somewhere in the background, a vacuum hummed and there was some desultory chatter as various staff went about their affairs. Eventually, the chink of silverware and the faint aroma of coffee wafting through the door had him sitting up and reaching for the wheelchair.
He had showered, shaved and was on the bed dressed in boxers and t-shirt once more, in the middle of doing some modified stretches, when his mother hesitantly knocked at the slightly open door. “May I come in?” she asked.
“Sure, Mom,” he looked across at her with what he thought was an encouraging smile and stopped what he was doing. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, sweetheart.”
Tony gave her a brief grin and reached for his other leg, intent on going through as much of the full routine as he could on his own, despite location and intrusions and whatever else the day held. “I see you still have Emily. How old is she now?”
“Sixteen, but still thinks she’s a kitten.”
“She…appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the night, decided I needed some company.”
Irene watched what Tony was doing for a moment. “What are you doing?”
“Modified range of motion exercises.” He looked at her expectantly. “The PT normally does them with me, but since I’m here and she’s not…gotta make do.”
Irene nodded and hesitated a moment. “Can I…help at all?”
This time, it was Tony who hesitated, then gave her a smile. “Sure, sure you can help."
Tony helped himself to a couple of slices of toast from the rack on the sideboard and liberally coated them with peanut butter. After placing his plate on the table, he poured himself some coffee as well, wedging the cup carefully between his legs to transport it to the table. He pulled a chair out of the way and sat facing the big picture windows that looked out over the lawn. Despite a watery winter sun breaking through the clouds, the garden looked gray and desolate at this time of year, the flowerbeds bare, most of the trees stripped of leaves.
He was the only occupant of the small family room that had been used for breakfast ever since he was a small child. After his mother had left him in his room, he had dressed and come here to quell the rumbling of his stomach. For now, he had solitude, while knowing full well that later in the day the house would be full of people – DiNozzos, O’Rourkes, Johannsens and others - family members and hangers-on of every kind. This had also been the same since he was a child, an unchanging ritual of the season. He heard his mother’s voice in the background talking to one of the staff. He knew better than to expect to see his father downstairs before lunch. He would be in his office upstairs, doing whatever had to be done for the next day, and would only appear for the meal. The sound of the vacuum drew closer.
Tony heard a muffled exclamation – the sound of someone tripping - and Emily appeared in the doorway, a stolen Christmas decoration held in her mouth. She dropped it on the floor and pounced on it, gripping it in her forepaws and kicking with the back.
“Mom will skin you alive if she catches you,” Tony observed to the cat. He pushed back on the table with one hand to swing around in a semi-circle and watch her.
Emily paused and regarded him with calculating green eyes, still holding the bauble between delicate grey paws, her teeth clamped on the ribbon that had once held it on of the lower branches of the Christmas tree. She dropped her prize and sauntered over, rubbing her body against the leg guard of the wheelchair then reared up on her hind legs to rub her head against the edge of the seat. "Merrroowwwww." She paused for an instant before springing into Tony’s lap, kneading his legs with sharp claws and settling into a purring ball.
Tony scratched the cat’s head, feeling at a loss as to what to do now. He was bored and feeling out of place. This house was no longer his home – hadn’t been his home for many years – and he had been persona non gratis for so long that it felt a little odd just being there. A maid came in and looked at him curiously. She picked up the Christmas ornament from the floor and threw a disapproving glance at the cat. Tony nodded to her, indicating that she should start cleaning up the breakfast dishes. Poor thing. Imagine having to work on Christmas Day
, he thought, not for the first time. He looked at his watch and pushed off in the direction of the hall. “Going for a ride, Emily.” Emily flicked an ear back at his words, but otherwise didn’t move.
“Merry Christmas, Gran!” Tony called up the stairs to where his mother and grandmother were slowly making their way down. Tony wondered why his parents hadn’t installed a stair-climber for the old lady…and for him, for that matter…or even given her the use of a room downstairs. His mother was holding her mother’s arm securely for support as she stiffly made her way down, her arthritis obviously worse in the morning than it had been the night before.
“Merry Christmas, Anthony.” She concentrated on the next step. “Did you sleep well?” she asked.
“Fine, Gran. You know me – I can sleep anywhere.”
The buzzer sounded from near the front door indicating that someone was at the front gate. All three of them looked in the direction of the noise. “I’ll get it,” Tony said, quickly turning. He knew that the button to answer the buzzer was well within his reach. “Hello? Who is it?” he asked, pressing the button to answer as the buzzer sounded again.
“Heya, Tony. Long time no see. It’s Petey. Can you let us in? It’s f-f-freezing out here.”
“Sure, Pete,” he said, grinning to himself. He waited to let them in once they had driven up to the house, sitting in position behind the heavy, wooden door until he heard footsteps outside. He opened it to a gust of cold air and quickly scooted back out of the way to let in the first batch of visitors for the day as his cousin Petey, Aunt Marie, cousin Nicole and two boys, aged about eight and ten came in.
“Anthony, how nice to see you again,” said his aunt – his mother's sister, bending down to air-kiss his cheek.
“Aunt Marie, you’re looking well,” he said, natural charm overcoming his aunt’s fake sincerity. He knew that her comparatively youthful appearance owed a lot to the skill of her plastic surgeon.
Nicole offered him a vague pat on the shoulder as she took off in pursuit of the two boys, who had made a beeline for the living room, while Pete took off his coat and leaned back against the door. He folded his arms under the coat, suspending it down his front, and considered his cousin gravely. “What the hell happened, Tony? You piss off the wrong person? Did some irate husband come after you with a 12-guage?”
“No, actually, it was a not-so-irate terrorist,” Tony responded with a wry grin, matching his tone to his cousin’s.
“I’m sorry, man.”
Tony shrugged. “Just part of the job.”
“Your mom told us you’d been hurt…”
Tony sized up his tall cousin. They were physically very similar, although Tony was the fairer of the two. He also held himself straighter – his good posture a remnant of his jock training, whereas Petey tended to slouch. “Bet I can still kick your ass at pool,” he grinned, “Figuratively speaking…”
“You wish…” Petey snorted, straightening up as Tony started to turn.
“You game?” Tony glanced back over his shoulder at his cousin, ready to push off. He jerked his body, startled, as Emily decided now was the moment to leap off his lap onto the floor.
“Rrrp,” the little cat said as she vanished lithely into the living room.
“I am if you are,” he said.
“So where’s…Robert? James? Ah, what was his name?” Tony asked, referring to Nicole’s absent significant other. His aunt had been widowed more than ten years before, but he was surprised not to see Nicole’s spouse in the group.
“Richard. They’ve been divorced for a coupl’a’ years.”
“Really? Huh, how ‘bout that.” Tony nodded and executed a sharp turn into the games room.
“And before you ask, Emma’s flight was delayed.”
“Emma? Weren’t you going out with…Christie? Was that her name?”
“Uh huh. I am soooo out of touch.”
“And Christie,” said Petey, leaning over the pool table to rack the balls, “Was about three girlfriends ago.”
“Wow,” Tony said, selecting a cue from the rack on the wall. He peered along its length to see whether it was straight.
Tony grinned. “You know me…”
Pete gave him a knowing leer. “Yeah.” He selected a cue and followed Tony’s lead by checking how straight it was. “Mind if I break?”
Pete placed the cue and lined up his shot, sending balls caroming all over the table. “So how bad is it?” he asked.
“How bad is what?” Tony asked, puzzled.
Petey tapped the wheelchair with the cue as they both scanned the table, Petey looking for his next shot. “This.”
“Oh.” Tony shrugged and made a cutting motion across his body at about hip level. “’Bout there.”
Pete winced. “Ouch. What’s that? About T11? T12?”
“Something like that.” Tony looked at him sharply as he took his shot and missed.
It was Pete’s turn to shrug. “I did some research...”
Tony gave him a wry smile. “Yeah.”
“Hey, you’re family, man.”
“I guess.” Tony leaned into the table, lining up the cue ball. He struck it firmly and was pleased to see the red ball drop into the pocket. He found the angle he was working from to be unusual, but not too hard, all things considered. He moved around the table and lined up his next shot. "You still collecting buttons?" he asked, looking over the pool cue briefly.
Tony gave the cue ball a substantial hit and watched as the colored ball dropped into a corner pocket. "No reason."
"You still working for that agency? N…C…?"
"NCIS. And yes, still working there."
"They got you tied to a desk. Who could imagine the day…"
"Not tied to a desk." Tony frowned, studying the table. "I can still do field work."
"Yeah…as long as the field is accessible," Tony grinned at his cousin. "Mind you, climbing stairs on my ass isn't elegant…"
"What's new about you climbing stairs on your ass?"
"Hey, I told you, I slipped when I was going down!"
“Yeah…right…” Petey looked at him in mock disbelief.
Tony gave him a good-humored grin and lined up his next shot, only to skew it badly. He looked up at Petey hopefully. “Gimp rules?” he asked coyly, only to see his cousin already moving around the table to line up his shot.
“Not on your life,” Petey grinned at him. “I aim to even the score between us, cousin.”
Tony sighed, and gripping his cue loosely, backed up out of the way. He balanced the cue across his lap, and hoping it wouldn’t fall, placed a hand on each wheel and lifted himself up in order to change position slightly. “Where’d you meet Emma?”
“She works for the company – traveling rep,” he replied. “Been there about a year.” Petey watched in satisfaction as another ball dropped into its assigned pocket. He ignored the impatient tattoo he could hear Tony beating on one of his wheel rims and took his time lining up the next shot. “You…ah…spoken to him yet?” he asked, leaning over the table for a long shot, his body stretched full length along the edge.
Tony gave his cousin a puzzled look. “Who?”
“Your dad, of course.”
“Nope,” Tony responded, his expression unreadable.
“He is here, though…?”
“Got in very late last night, I believe…and I didn’t exactly lay out the red carpet or do the ass-stairs thing for him this morning.”
Pete harrumphed a barking laugh. “Can’t say I blame you. The old…he wouldn’t let your mother put in a stair climber for Gran. And apparently everyone from Cold Spring Harbor to Queens heard the arguments when she threw him out of the office and had the alterations done.”
“I didn’t know that.” Tony’s expression barely changed, but he felt a kind of glow at knowing she did that for him. Maybe she’s changed
, he thought.
“Do you remember the shooting?”
Tony looked up at Petey as he stepped back to let him take his turn at the pool table. It was a rare thing for anyone to quiz him about the shooting as directly as this – most people avoided the issue. Not that he minded. It was a fact of his life that he now lived with every minute of every day. He and his cousin had been close, back in the day, and Petey’s ability to speak to him on such a personal matter was evidence in itself of this former closeness. He took his time responding, sank a couple more balls before he stopped and looked up at his cousin. “Not really,” he said finally. “One minute I was crossing the street, and the next…I woke up in the hospital several days later and all I could see was my boss’s shoe,” he grinned.
“Your dad/my dad…” they both spoke together then stopped.
“Go on,” said Petey.
Tony gave a sigh and an uncomfortable shrug. “My dad always said I’d end up in the gutter. He was almost right.” Tony sank the last ball with a satisfying clunk. He grinned at Petey. “I still got it.”
“Two outta three?” Petey asked, starting to retrieve and rack the balls again.
“If you two children have finished playing games, we have a houseful of guests, Anthony.” Irene’s tone managed to be both amused and disapproving at the same time.
Tony and Petey exchanged glances. Sprung again! Tony turned to face her, his expression apologetic. “Sorry, mom. We’re coming.”
“I’ll get you later,” Petey murmured. “Sorry, Aunt Irene.”Chapters 4-6Chapters 7-9Chapters 10-12Chapters 13-14