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 7
Kate handed back the knife then banged the vent back into position. She accepted a hand from Tony to step down from the chair with a slightly surprised, “Thanks.”
She sat down on the chair beside him and peered over curiously as Tony played back the start of the recording using the video recorder’s miniscreen, only to find that the picture quality was too dark to see anything much. From the sound, however, it was obvious that there was an argument happening.
Tony shrugged and shut down the camera. Kate reached out a hand for the film package. She looked inside but didn’t comment and Tony didn’t ask.
Tony pulled an evidence bag out of McGee’s backpack and Kate dumped the package in. The camera went into a second bag before he handed both to Kate.
“Whatcha got?” Gibbs asked, walking back into the living room. Kate held up the two packets for him to see. “Good work, Kate.”
“Actually, it was…”
“Thanks, boss,” Kate said and grinned at Tony’s expression. As Gibbs turned away, she stuck her tongue out at Tony.
“What about the cat?” Tony asked, stopping Gibbs in his tracks. “I mean, we can’t leave it here.” Tony blushed as Gibbs turned stony eyes on him. “There’s no one to…”
“He’s right, Gibbs,” Kate interjected. “We can’t leave it here to starve to death.”
“There’s a pet carrier in the bedroom, boss…” McGee said, somewhat hesitantly.
Tony leaned forward as he looked up at Gibbs, his hand stroking the friendly feline as she wound her body around the side of his chair. Gibbs nodded his assent, sending McGee back to the bedroom.
“Never would have picked you for a cat-lover,” Kate commented as Tony picked up the animal and cradled her on his lap.
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me, Katy,” Tony grinned. McGee was back a moment later. While he held the carrier, Tony carefully persuaded the cat to enter and shut the door after her, knowing full well that most felines resent being caged and bolt at the first opportunity.
“…including what you intend to do with the cat,” Kate continued.
“Ah, Kate, if nothing else, my mom can look after her for now.”
Kate looked at him reflectively. “And she’ll do this?”
“Yeah, she will.”
“Let’s go, Kate,” Gibbs said impatiently waiting at the door.
McGee checked the cage one more time before lumbering down the hallway to the top of the stairs. He waited there for the rest of them to catch up. Handing the cat to Kate to carry down, he turned and offered his back once more to Tony.
“McGee, what the hell are you doing?” Gibbs asked.
“I was gonna piggyback him down the stairs, boss,” McGee looked startled at Gibbs’ reaction.
“He can get down the stairs under his own power, McGee.”
“But I thought…”
Gibbs glared at McGee. “You thought what, McGee?”
“Never mind, boss.”
“What have you been doing to him?” Kate hissed quietly in Tony’s ear, bending down to put the pet carrier on the floor so she could pull on her gloves.
Tony gave her a wide-eyed, mock-innocent look as if to say, “Who, me?”
“McGee, is this a trash-covered, outside staircase?”
“So he won’t be risking typhoid if he goes down it on his ass.”
“Aww, boss, it’s so much faster if he carries me,” Tony whined, only to receive a sharp clout to the back of the head. “Ow!” he yelped in surprise.
Gibbs bristled with impatience. “Let’s go. DiNozzo?”
“I got it, boss,” Tony sighed, easing himself onto the floor. He could safely bump down two or so steps, but three floors worth were beyond his ability for the time being – even he admitted to still being a novice wheeler. “Can you take the chair downstairs for me, at least?”
“Nice try,” murmured Kate, picking up the pet carrier again.
Tony grinned up at her, game over, while he pulled on his wheelchair gloves, not relishing the thought of crawling down the soiled stair carpet with his bare hands - up close it looked considerably dirtier than it had before.
Gibbs had taken hold of the wheelchair and moved it around to the top of the stairs while Tony prepared for the descent. “We’ll see you at your place.”
“Bye,” Kate said, lightly, following Gibbs and McGee down.
Tony sighed again, suddenly finding himself alone at the top of the steps, the voices of his co-workers disappearing around the first bend slowly fading out. He looked at the stairs sourly, hating what he had to do. It was humiliating to have to crawl down like a bug. For once, he wished for the restrictive KAFO leg braces Anne had made him use for a while in order to add some weight bearing exercise to his routine, slowly shuffling his way around, initially with a walking frame, and later a pair of elbow-grip crutches. Feeling hellishly unbalanced on unfeeling legs, he had tottered around the room, one shuffling step at a time. He remembered the shocked look on Gibbs’ face when he had walked in on one of these sessions. It didn’t take Gibbs long after that to talk human resources into investing in an FES bike for the gym and the torture had ended. All the same, he would have felt a whole lot better using them to go down the stairs than he did on his backside, to say nothing of the fact that he was going to have to be extra diligent when he next checked his skin for lesions. Funny how I never used to give my legs a thought when they worked, but now they don’t
…With a grimace at that thought, he started to make his way down the stairs.
“Damn!” Tony, poised at the top of the last flight of stairs noticed that, instead of leaving the wheelchair at the bottom of the stairs, it had been left on the far side of the entrance, near the doors, as far from the stairs as possible. Would Gibbs or Kate do that?
he considered, then spoke out loud. “Probie…” Oh well, here goes nothing...
He sighed and started down the final section. He was soon at floor level, dragging himself across to the wheelchair.
“Hey there,” said a voice from the stairs.
Tony looked up to see the guy who’d passed by twice earlier, once with his girlfriend going down while Tony was waiting for McGee, and a second time when he was being piggybacked up the stairs. “Hey,” Tony replied, edging himself across the floor.
The guy looked back and forth from the chair to Tony. “Oh, I get it, now. How did you get yourself in this predicament?”
“You don’t wanna know,” Tony replied, and gave a short laugh, setting himself up to move again.
“You must have pissed someone off big-time,” he grinned.
“Something like that.” Tony gave him a slightly sheepish grin.
The guy finished coming down the stairs and pushed the wheelchair over to the point Tony had reached on the floor. “There you go,” he said.
“Thanks.” Tony pulled the chair into position and snapped the brakes on, still speaking. “Crawling across the floor like this is definitely not cool.”
“You’re welcome,” the guy said, smiled and headed out the door, swinging a large umbrella lightly as he walked.
Tony glared out the doors at the weather, which had taken a definite turn for the worse while they had been inside the deceased’s apartment. The rain had turned into heavy, wet snow, which obscured the view of the street. He pulled his hood closer around his head and pulled the zipper on his jacket infinitesimally higher, not relishing the thought of having to go outside again. Someone up there really hates me, he thought. He shoved the door open wide, done procrastinating, almost knocking it back into the wall, and pushed through onto the outside lip, where he found his rescuer from before still standing under the light. “Hey again. Nice night,” he said ironically, turning towards the ramp to the right, finding it heavy going.
“Yeah,” the guy replied. He watched Tony for a moment. “Be careful. The ramp’s kinda slippery.”
Tony nodded. Concentrating hard on the task at hand he moved onto the ramp, feeling how slippery the surface had become. He tentatively pushed forward, feeling one wheel spin then grip, skidding slightly sideways.
“Hey, you need a hand?”
“Thanks, but I got it…I think.” He cautiously made it to the bottom, across the sidewalk and pulled up beside the car. He looked up as the other guy stepped passed, apparently on his way to another car that had pulled up on the other side of the Mustang.
“Nice car,” he said, and walked past as quickly as he could.
The regulation, government issue, dark colored Dodge Stratus was waiting outside the gates with the engine running when Tony pulled up. He caught the brief, peripheral image of the three occupants in the glare of the security lamps and flashed his lights once to let them know to follow as the gates swung open.
He looked into the rear view mirror once to check that the car had followed him through then turned towards the garage, figuring they’d wait for him at the front door as McGee had previously.
In the few hours he had been away, the path around the back of the house had become a treacherous no man’s land that had him cursing and sliding every which way but towards the back door as the slope defeated his shallow-treaded everyday tires.
“Hey, can I help?”
Tony jumped and turned his head to look where the voice had come from, frustration etched into his every feature. “Kate,” he said.
“Ah, yeah. Can I help?” she asked again, more insistently.
“I can do it.” He set his jaw stubbornly and pushed forward up the slope again, slewing slightly as one wheel bit and held and the other didn’t.
“Stop it! All right? Let me help you. I promise I won’t tell Gibbs. Scout’s honor.”
“You weren’t a scout, Kate,” Tony pointed out, but all the same, his shoulders relaxed as she took up a position behind him, holding the frame on either side and helping from behind as he grabbed the handrims and pushed forward.
“Neither were you.”
“I was a cub…”
“For about five minutes,” she added. “And that’s not quite the same thing, DiNozzo.” She let go as he hit the flat on the patio and was able to take control.
“Thanks, Kate,” he gave her a brief smile of thanks before preceding her in the door. He grinned briefly at his mother, who was pouring coffee at a side table for a group gathered on the various couches in the room, before heading for the front door once more. He heard Kate enter behind him and shut the door. She followed him into the hall.
“Kate, where did Gibbs leave my chair?” Tony asked once they were alone again.
“At the bottom of the stairs. Why? Wasn’t that where you…”
“McGee,” they both said together.
“Let ‘em in, Kate.” He nodded at the front door thoughtfully, pondering his revenge. “I gotta change into some dry clothes.”
“Right.” CHAPTER 8
“Tony?” The tentative knock only slightly preceded the voice at the door.
“Yeah?” Tony rummaged in his bag looking for another pair of pants to wear, having almost exhausted his supply of jeans and cargos.
“It’s me, Pete. Can I come in?”
“I guess so.” He pulled out a pair of jeans as Pete entered the room. He tossed them over to the bed, where the wet jeans were already piled on one end, and dropped the bag back on the drawers.
Pete cast a quick glance at Tony’s bare legs then looked away, embarrassed. “Your dad’s really pissed. You’re lucky he wasn’t in the room when you arrived,” he stated, walking over to the windows and pretending to look out.
“And this is unusual?” Tony leaned forward on his knees a moment and looked up at Pete. He sighed heavily.
“Look, I can’t remember any important event in all my life where he actually managed to show up. He was never there. Today…it was my turn.” Tony said, starting to work his way into the jeans.
“True,” Pete agreed. Curiosity getting the better of him, he looked down as Tony started to wriggle the pants up over his hips, lifting himself on each side alternately. He looked away again when Tony caught him watching.
They were interrupted by another knock at the door followed by a head coming around the door. “Come in, Kate,” Tony said, sitting up straight to do up the button on the jeans.
She entered and gave him an assessing up and down look, casually flicking her eyes over him before giving a cheeky grin of approval. Pete, picking up on some sort of bi-play, cleared his throat noisily. “Sorry, Tony, didn’t know you had someone with you,” Kate said.
“Kate, this is my cousin, Petey.”
Kate accepted the hand Pete offered in a firm shake. “Ah, right,” she said. “You’re the button guy.”
Pete gave Tony an odd look. “Yeah,” he said uncomfortably.
She turned her attention back to Tony, who was putting on his shoes. “Tony, Gibbs is waiting…”
“I’ll be there in a few minutes,” he stated.
“And your mother has the cat.”
Pete waited for Kate to go before he spoke again, raising a curious eyebrow. “A cat, Tony? This reminds me of when we were kids and that kitten followed us home…under your sweater.”
Tony grinned at the memory. “Hey, we kept that cat – had it for 15 years.” His expression turned serious. “The owner was murdered, Pete. I couldn’t leave her there to starve if no one came.” Tony busied himself tying his other shoelace to avoid Pete’s amused look, and to hide his own dawning realization that he identified, at some level, with the orphaned kitty.
“What’s with you and Kate?”
Tony looked up at Pete, horror written all over his face, not sure if he was reading the tone right.
“Ugh…that’d be like sleeping with my sister!”
Pete grinned at the bite. “You don’t have a sister.”
“Tony!” Abby’s raspy exclamation came from McGee’s computer. He could see her miniature image in one corner of the screen as she grinned impishly in the webcam at her end.
“Hey, Abs,” Tony replied and waved. Kate and Gibbs, who had not heard him enter, turned to see him stop behind them, unable to get closer as they crowded around the table.
“McGee, what’s happening with that file transfer?” she asked.
“Couple of minutes, Abs,” he responded. He had the victim’s video camera hooked up to his computer converting the tape into a file for sending to her. The required section had turned out to only be a few minutes at the beginning, the rest consisting of video of an empty room or, at least, from what he could tell. “Sending it now, Abby.” McGee clicked a few keys to send the file on its way.
Tony pushed up to the other end of the table and picked up the sealed evidence package. He shook it experimentally and was surprised when a small, flat key fell out and lodged itself near the top of the bag. “Looks like a locker key, boss,” he commented. “You want this printed? Cuz that could be a problem. It shouldn’t have been bagged.”
“Why?” Kate looked at Tony in surprise.
“Well, Kate,” he turned his head to look at her, “because you shouldn’t place an object you suspect of having fingerprints in plastic as it may damage the prints. If it’s not going to be printed at the scene, it needs to be wedged into a box so that the surface isn’t touched by the packing. The film packet was pretty squashed up…probably wouldn’t be able to get anything useful from it anyway, but the contents…”
“I’m impressed, DiNozzo,” commented his boss, somewhat sarcastically. “Too late to worry about that now, though.” Gibbs directed a pointed look at Kate, who spread her hands in a gesture of supplication.
“No reason to think anyone other than Johnson put it there.” Tony shrugged and scratched the back of his head while he squinted at the number finely stamped into the key. “27B.” He flipped it over to look at the other side. There was no indication as to its origin, not even a brand name - just the single number.
“What do you think?” Kate asked, looking over at what Tony was doing. “Any indication of what it opens?”
“Nope,” he replied, examining it carefully, “Not even a maker’s brand name. Could be anything – railway station, gym, mailbox...” Gym. “Hmmm…” he put the packet back on the table and leaned slightly forward and to the side, one bent arm resting on the backrest of his chair comfortably, and thoughtfully rubbed the back of his head with the other hand. “Gym,” he said the word out loud. “There was a membership card for a gym in the dead guy’s wallet,” he said.
Gibbs ears pricked and he turned and fixed Tony with a glittering gaze. “You don’t happen to remember which one, DiNozzo?”
“Cold Harbor Gym and Health Club,” he replied. “There was a name on the back of the card – Nataliya. I wondered if she worked there.” Tony caught Gibbs look. “What?”
“And when were you planning on sharing this with us, DiNozzo?”
“It’s in my notes, Gibbs.”
“You call these chicken scratches ‘notes’?” Kate asked flipping through the notepad.
“Hey, I can read it!”
Kate snickered at Tony’s hurt expression.
“Kate, I want you and DiNozzo to…”
“Not open today, boss. It’s Christmas.”
Gibbs drew a breath. “I was about to say, I want you and Kate to head out to the gym in the morning – see if you can track down this Nataliya and check for lockers. McGee, get on the phone – see if you can find us all a hotel.”
“Right, boss. Boss…what should we do with this?” He gestured at the key.
“Repackage it…properly. We’ll get it to the lab tomorrow.” He looked at his watch and then at the window, although the world outside was lost to glare. “And DiNozzo, use McGee’s computer and start typing up those notes so we can all read them.”
McGee looked aghast at Gibbs. “But boss…”
“Nothing.” He glared at Tony and vacated his seat at the table. Kate pulled the chair out of the way, but Tony hesitated before gliding into place.
“By the way, boss.”
“Crawling down the stairs like that today…”
Gibbs raised a curious eyebrow.
“It really sucks.”
“And your point is?”
“Nothing, it just sucks, boss. You oughta try it sometime.”
“C’mon, Tony, it’s not like you were going up the stairs. Coming down is nothin’.”
“You ever tried it, probie? Coz it isn’t.” Tony gave his co-worker a speculative look. “McGee, bend down here for a second.”
“Oh no, I’m not falling for that!”
There was a loud thwap and McGee’s head jerked forward. He turned to see Kate grinning at him. “What was that for?!”
“For making Tony crawl across the floor today,” she said.
“Thanks, Kate.” Tony grinned and caught a similar grin on Gibbs’ face.
“You’re welcome,” she replied, dusting off her stinging hand and smiling back.
A startled gasp from the doorway had all four of them turning to look. “I thought you might like some coffee,” Tony’s mother said, a shocked look on her face.
“Thanks, Mom,” Tony said, turning to face her. She pushed a trolley laden with coffee, cream, sugar, cups and a plate of cookies into the room. Tony followed his mother back out into the hallway.
“There’s more of your father in you than you think,” she commented.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you may not have brought your work home, but it sure seems to have found you anyway.”
Tony gave a wry grin. “I guess.”
“What was that all about anyway?” she asked. “I mean…she hit him. What did he do that was so bad?”
“Ah, just keeping the probie in line.” She looked at him expecting more of an explanation. Her usually talkative son was being unusually taciturn. “Just a little payback, Mom. I not only had to crawl down three flights of stairs, but he left my chair as far from the bottom as possible so I had to crawl across the lobby floor. He got what he deserved.”
Tony’s ears pricked as he heard McGee’s voice talking to Gibbs. “I’ve called three places so far, boss. One didn’t answer and the other two were fully…”
“Tell your boss that you’re all welcome to stay here, Tony,” his mother said. “We have plenty of room.”
“Thanks, Mom, I’ll tell him.”
“DiNozzo!” Gibbs called.
“Go on, I’ll talk to you later.”
An hour later and Tony had finished with his notes. Kate was helping his mother arrange some extra bedding for herself and Gibbs upstairs while McGee had been given the job of getting a mattress out of the storage locker in the garage and dragging it up to the room he was going to be sharing with Gibbs. It was a job that really sucked – dragging a futon upstairs was like arguing with an octopus, as Tony was well aware, having done it a few times himself. He could hear McGee cursing just on the short trip from the garage. Gibbs had gone out to the car to retrieve their bags from the trunk. Alone for a few minutes, he yawned expansively, gave a push on the table-top to roll back a few feet and proceeded to stretch, grimacing at the twinge of pain he felt in one shoulder – the result of wrenching it in the course of his earlier adventures outside.
He pulled out his phone, and after a quick scan through the names, hit the dial out button. It rang for a moment before a cheeky, “Merry Christmas, bozo,” greeted him.
“Merry Christmas yourself,” he replied.
“How’s it all going in the wilds of wherever the hell you are?”
Tony could feel the grin through the phone. “Okay, I guess.”
“You don’t sound too sure.” Anne’s keen ear had picked up an undertone. “What’s the problem?”
“Nothing,” Tony replied, amazed that the PT could always tell when he wasn’t being completely truthful. Am I that transparent? he wondered. “Hey, can’t I just…”
Anne chuckled. “Tony, I know you better than that. Spill. What’s the problem?”
“Mother Nature,” he replied, grimacing, “…and…you know…didn’t get the all terrain wheels, did I?”
“Snowed in, huh?”
“Tires were slipping like mad on the ice. I couldn’t get any grip.”
“Okay, best suggestion for a quick fix – see if you can find a bike shop and get some mountain bike tires to fit your rims. If you can get them, there’s something called…argh what was that dinosaur from Jurassic Park – the one with the claws...”
“Velociraptor,” Tony answered without hesitation, his encyclopedic knowledge of movies coming to the fore.
“That’s the one. You should be able to get them to fit your rims, I think.”
“Is that the best you can do?”
“Hey, I’m not driving up there to hold your hand, DiNozzo. It’s a quick fix.”
“Okay, I’ll give it a try.”
“No guarantees, of course.”
“We’ll sort you out with some street wheels when you get back. Just bear in mind that they’ll track in mud like crazy. Your mom may not be too happy.”
“Whatever.” He shrugged. “I guess I can wipe down when I come in.”
Tony heard a muffled voice in the background of the call and Anne said, “Look, I gotta go. Take care, all right?”
“Tony, enjoy the party, it’s only once a year!”
“Oh, I will.”
“How ya doing there, McGee?” Kate’s voice carried clearly down the stairs.
Tony was amusing himself by watching McGee wrestle the large and slippery futon around the bend in the stairs. He didn’t hear the footsteps until a measured voice spoke a single word. “Anthony.”
Tony’s hands clenched convulsively on the hand-rims, but he felt he had control of his voice when he spoke, half looking over his shoulder first to check he wasn’t hearing things. “Hello, Dad.” He turned slowly, pivoting on the spot, to face the man he hadn’t spoken to in over three years, and found himself doing something he hadn’t had to do since he’d started the growth spurt in his early teens – looking up at his father. Up close, it was obvious how his father had aged in three years. He had given up coloring his hair, which was now completely gray, and there were more lines on his face. The once trim body was running to fat around the middle and there was a pronounced stoop in his posture. He also seemed to have shrunk over time. He had been five-ten when Tony was in his mid-teens, but his son had gone on to add a few more inches on top of that and his athletic posture had often made him seem taller than the six feet two proclaimed on all his official documents.
“I see you’re still with the boy scouts.”
Tony gave a mock salute.
“You know, you could still take up that job I offered you. We’re always looking for someone competent on the investigative side of the paper chase.”
Tony picked up the note of sarcasm in his father’s voice. “And I’m…still not interested.” When did you ever think I was competent to do anything?
Joe DiNozzo snorted derisively. He had never approved of his son’s chosen occupation, which seemed to be, and indeed was, a deliberate rebellion against the path his parents would have chosen for him – a nice safe job as a corporate high flyer coupled with marriage to a “suitable” girl of their choosing. Golf, tennis and country club.
“I’d look real good traveling down the corridors of power in this thing.” Tony touched one wheel for emphasis. This was the mark of Cain, the sign of his ultimate failure in his father’s eyes.
“You can’t be too much of an asset where you are now. No gun, no field work…”
“There’s more to it than that, Dad,” Tony snapped back. He was working hard to control his temper, although he wasn’t really surprised at his father’s knowledge. Joe DiNozzo prided himself on his knowledge of the people with whom he had to deal.
“I could see to it that you were in charge of your own section…” Where I’d be under your thumb for life. No, thank you.
“I haven’t changed my mind, Dad.” And never will.
Tony decided on a change of tack. “What’s up with the pressure? They tell you to employ more crips?” Tony took some satisfaction in seeing his father’s brow cloud over with anger as the barb took and stung.
“DiNozzo!” Gibbs voice came to his rescue.
“Excuse me, Dad. Duty calls,” he said with some irony and turned again to head into the temporary NCIS office in the breakfast room.
“What’s this, DiNozzo?” Gibbs asked, peering at the computer screen.
Tony slowly read the line Gibbs was pointing to and grimaced. “Ah, sorry, boss,” he said, “guess I left a line out.”
“Fix it,” Gibbs replied testily, reaching for his phone. “And it wouldn’t hurt to run a spellcheck while you’re at it.”
“Right, boss, I’m on it.” Tony flicked through a few pages of his notes until he found the spot he was looking for. “Boss, what do you suppose he could have hidden in a locker? Assuming he has hidden…”
Gibbs looked at Tony. “Assuming, DiNozzo? When do I ever assume?”
“You don’t…I was just thinking…”
Gibbs raised an eyebrow.
“Drugs…money…gems…Boss, did you bring the ALS?” Gibbs was on his feet a moment later, digging through a bag he’d brought in from the car. “Get the lights,” he said. CHAPTER 9
Tony couldn’t help smiling at the tiny flecks of fluorescence that glowed along one side of the key, rimming the top arc of the key’s grip roughly where the inside edge of an index finger would be when the key is in the lock. Tony turned the lights back on, re-illuminating the room.
“Gibbs, you there?” the speaker on the computer came to life again and Abby’s face came into focus as she moved back in front of the camera.
“Yeah, Abs, I’m here. Whatcha got for me?”
“Where was this thing recorded?” she asked facetiously. “The Batcave? It’s gonna take me a while to clean it up.”
“Might as well call it a night, Abs.”
Abby frowned into the camera. “You all right, Gibbs? You’re not making any sense.”
“Yeah. Merry Christmas. Go home. I’ll be sending you some more things in the morning – weather’s closed the airport for now.”
“Okay, Gibbs,” she said, grinning. “Merry Christmas. You too, Tony.”
“Merry Christmas, Abs.”
“Get outta there before I change my mind.”
She shut down the webcam program from her end. Tony could imagine her dancing a little jig around the lab at getting some downtime.
“Boss?” Tony asked.
“Yeah, DiNozzo. You can go, too.”
Tony sniffed the air in the hallway appreciatively. A delicious aroma of roasting meat wafted from the kitchen and set his digestive juices flowing with a loud rumble. Having missed most of lunch, he was hungry.
The living room was a lot quieter than it had been earlier. Dinner was always a smaller group – just close family and, often, one or two of his father’s business associates – dry bankers and financiers and their over-dressed, surgically enhanced wives and girlfriends.
Pete was still there with his girlfriend, but his sister and her brawling brats of children were gone. Looking at the group gathered on the sofas and chairs, Tony was assailed by a kind of social weariness. These were his people, but he wasn’t part of them and it wasn’t really his idea of a good time.
His stomach rumbled again, noisily this time, and in an effort to forget his complaining inner workings, he shifted his position in the chair, lifting himself with a grip on the wheels and adjusting himself slightly as he did regularly throughout the day, having been warned about the horror of decubitus ulcers. Anne had even shown him a video of a paralyzed patient with severe pressure sores. He scrupulously obeyed her instructions to change his position throughout the day, and especially when he wore pants with bulky seams such as the jeans he had on. Settled again, he looked up into Pete’s face. “Thought you could do with a drink,” he said, handing Tony a glass of beer.
Glancing quickly over at his mother to gauge her reaction, he accepted the glass. “Thanks, Pete. You are so right.” He grabbed a handful of peanuts and tossed the first one up in the air, catching it neatly in his mouth, eliciting a grin from Pete, then followed it up with a long draught of beer.
“What kept you so long?” Pete asked.
Tony pulled a wry face. “Duty called.”
Pete chuckled, “Ever yearn for a nice, safe nine to five office job?”
“Nope,” Tony replied flatly.
Pete’s grinned broadened as Tony tossed back another peanut. “Interesting life you lead.”
“Beats banking any day.” Tony looked around as there was a stir from the other side of the room and Emma joined them.
“Come on, guys, dinnertime,” she said, wrapping an arm around Pete.
Loud Italian seeped in from the hallway and Tony instantly cringed. Pete saw his reaction and laughed, “Guess you can’t hide in that thing.”
Tony gave him a sour look in reply. “There’re some things about Christmas that really suck.”
“Yeah, big time.”
“Anthony, aren’t you going to greet your aunt?” Joe DiNozzo asked from behind his son’s back.
Tony jumped at the voice then swung around in a slow semi-circle. “Hello, Aunt Rosa,” he said.
“Anthony, you poor boy. Can I help you?” The pitying look on Aunt Rosa’s face already had him backing away as she leaned forward and enveloped him in a crushing embrace that had him scrabbling fruitlessly with pinned arms for his wheels to avoid tipping over backwards. Pete and his father came to the rescue, each reaching out a hand for the chair back and stopping the coming fall.
“Rosa, careful,” Joe DiNozzo’s words spoken in Italian caught Tony somewhat by surprise, although in retrospect his father wasn’t going to let him be tipped on the floor by an over-enthusiastic relative who didn’t know her own strength.
Tony was spared any further ministrations from his aunt by his mother’s voice announcing that dinner was ready.
Dinner was a marathon. Tony found himself having to be social with a boring banker’s wife on one side and Pete on the other, though the meal itself was something else – each course beautifully prepared, served with military precision and accompanied by just the right wine, from the turkey with oyster stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans and yams to the apple pie with fresh cream. It was all to be appreciated and savored, sweetened by hunger.
Once the guests had left, the family retired to the living room where there was a small gift-giving ceremony – adults only – the children having been dealt with earlier in the day. Tony had transferred to the sofa to sit with his grandmother at this juncture, where she had hugged him with delight at the NCIS baseball cap he had given her. She still wore it, planted firmly on her gray-haired head, two hours later.
It was then that Aunt Rosa noticed him again. “Oh, you poor boy, you must be cold, sitting there and not being able to move at all. Let me get you a blanket!” she gushed.
Tony cringed at the effusion. “I’m fine, Aunt Rosa, really,” he stated, and if he could have run away, he would have.
“No, no, let me get you a blanket,” she pushed. “Can I get you a hot cup of tea?”
“Rosa, leave the boy alone.” Martha O’Rourke, Tony’s grandmother, spoke up, finally.
“It’s okay, Gran,” Tony said, patting the fine-boned, blue-veined hand that he found resting on his thigh. Unknown to his aunt, he gave his grandmother a lopsided grin and resigned himself to his aunt’s ministrations as she covered him with a heavy afghan.
“There, that’s much better, I’m sure,” Rosa said, standing back to survey her work. “You must have been cold, I’m sure.”
“No, actually, I wasn’t,” Tony managed to say, feeling himself starting to perspire as a result of his entombment in the warm afghan. His aunt had wrapped him firmly from neck to feet in the brightly colored blanket.
“Rosa, let him be. He can take care of himself,” Irene DiNozzo interrupted, taking Rosa’s arm and directing her to another sofa.
Tony gave his mother a look of gratitude as she distracted Rosa’s attention away from him.
Petey, getting ready to leave, came in with Emma on his arm to say his goodbyes. “Hey, it’s a Tony burrito!” he couldn’t help exclaiming.
Tony glared at his cousin then shrugged, surreptitiously loosening the blanket. He could feel his temperature rising nicely – and he hadn’t been cold to start with.
“Never mind, Tony, it’s only once a year,” Pete said, an amused grin on his face.
“Right,” Tony replied, resigned.
“Anyway, we’re outta here. I’ll give you a call next time I’m in DC – maybe we can get together sometime.”
“Maybe.” Tony extracted his hand from the cocoon and shook his cousin’s hand warmly. “Take care, Emma. And if you ever get tired of Pete…”
Emma smiled. “Aww…don’t think that’s gonna happen in a hurry, but I’ll keep you in mind,” she replied with a good-natured smile.
Tony peered through the patio door out at the garden. He rubbed his sleeve against the glass where his breath had fogged it over, and when that didn’t help, he opened the door and craned his neck to peer down the path to the garage, shivering at the icy wind that blew through. As suspected, it was uncleared and impassible to him. Resigned to taking the stairs down to the garage, he closed the door and turned away in the direction of the hall. He stopped briefly at the door to the temporary NCIS office.
“Kate! Are you ready to go?” he called.
“Coming, Tony.” She was there a moment later, a regulation backpack dangling from one shoulder. She automatically turned back in the direction from which he had come.
“This way,” he said, impatiently pushing towards the other end of the hall in the direction of the garage.
“Oh,” she replied, realizing the problem. “Sorry. I forgot.”
He shrugged phlegmatically. “Not your fault,” he said.
“Right…all the same, I should have thought ahead.”
He shrugged again and stopped at the door McGee had used to bring the futon in the previous night. “Too late to worry about that now.”
Kate regarded Tony’s back as he opened the door with the kind of lop-sided grin she’d often seen Gibbs bestow on one or the other of the team who had done something clever. She had nothing but respect for the way her co-worker had handled himself since his return to work. If nothing else, his injury had steadied him and given him a quiet, uncomplaining dignity that he had lacked before. Certainly he could still drive her crazy with his inappropriate, chauvinistic remarks and avid skirt chasing – although even that had lessened to an extent – but he now applied himself to his work in a more steady manner. The thwaps on the back of the head from Gibbs had become less common.
Tony allowed Kate to pass through first where she found herself on a small landing at the top of a flight of concrete stairs that obviously led to the garage. The contrast to the rest of the house was sharp – these were definitely unadorned and completely functional. Tony followed her through and allowed the door to shut behind him. “We’re doing this the hard way,” he said somewhat grimly and rubbed the shoulder that had been aching since the previous evening.
“Okay, what do you want me to do?” she asked.
He gave her a lascivious grin, earning a glare in response. “Honestly, Tony.”
“You go down first. I need you to hold the door open at the bottom.”
Tony took a moment to center his concentration before he reversed to the top of the stairs and took hold of the railing with one hand before pushing off backwards to bump down the half dozen steps slowly. Once he was in motion, he held on with a hand on each rail of the narrow stairs, ignoring the jolt this sent through his injured shoulder. This was a trick he had worked on for quite some time with Anne as being a necessary skill – good for shorter flights of stairs, but not so easy if you had to traverse three floors. Kate held the door open, standing well back out of the way to allow him to back through the opening in an arc without having to try to stop and turn in the confined space in front of the door.
The Mustang nosed out into the street and turned left. “Ah, Tony, isn’t the gym in the other direction?” Kate asked, looking up from the map she had spread over her knees.
“Gotta do something else first,” he said. “And put the map away, Kate. We’re in my backyard here.”
“Heard that one before.”
“Kate, I’m hurt,” he said, and would have placed a hand over his heart had he not required both for driving in the slippery conditions. A few minutes later, they pulled into an angled handicapped parking spot in front of a line of old but carefully renovated shops.
“Tony, this isn’t the gym,” Kate said, stating the obvious.
“I know,” he replied smugly, opened the car door and started to assemble his chair. “What?!” he asked, catching the look she was giving him.
“What are we doing here?”
“You’ll see,” he said, somewhat enigmatically as he prepared for the transfer. When she didn’t move from her seat, he continued, “You coming?”
“Coming where?” she asked, still suspicious.
He nodded at the shop in front of them, the one with the garish red “sale” sign plastered across the front window. “There.”
“Tony, that’s a bike shop.”
“Top of the class for observation, Katy.”
“Why are we going to a bike shop?” she asked, still suspicious. “And does Gibbs know what you’re up to?”
“Kate, this is me, right?” Tired of dallying, he made his move into the chair, again wincing at the pain in his shoulder.
“Yeah, which is why I’m worried.”
“Are you coming or not?” he asked again.
Kate rolled her eyes, shrugged and swung her feet out of the car.
Kate walked up to the door of the shop but stopped short of the door when she realized she wasn’t being followed. Tony was still on the street struggling with an inadequate curb-cut and the slippery conditions. She also noticed that he was definitely favoring one shoulder. He had frustration written all over his face as he tipped into a small wheelie only to clip a broken chunk of concrete on the curb and slide back.
“Hey, you okay there?”
“I’m fine,” he replied testily, making another attempt, only to pull up short rubbing his shoulder.
“Tony, stop it!” She walked back to stand in front of him.
“Stop what?” he asked.
“The macho crap.”
“I don’t need help.”
“Oh, for the love of…” She gave an exasperated sigh. “There’s no one around to see…again.”
He gave her a somewhat sheepish look. “Okay, you win.”
“It’s not about winning or losing, Tony. I just want to get out of the cold sometime today.”
As Kate made as if to step back out onto the roadway, Tony grinned and said, “Stay there. Give me your hand.” He took her forearm in a firm grip, and with her assistance, popped a neat one-handed wheelie to pull himself up and over the hump and onto the sidewalk. He didn’t stop. Immediately moving up to the entrance of the shop, he stopped at the door to say, “Coming, Kate?” before throwing her a cocky grin and entering the shop.
“No riding bikes in the shop,” a voice from behind the counter said, hearing the thrum of wheels on the linoleum floor.
“I’ll try to keep that in mind,” Tony replied dryly.
“Just give me a minute,” the voice said.
Tony rolled his eyes. “Sure, got all day.”
Kate wandered around the store examining the displays of bikes grouped randomly on stands or hanging from overhead racks – everything from a tiny pink BMX with training wheels and a beribboned basket hanging from the handlebars to top of the line road and mountain bikes. There were stands devoted to helmets and other accessories as well, and a rack of tires behind the counter. This was what Tony was studying intently when a head popped up from behind the counter, closely followed by a pair of hands holding a rag and a bottle of cleaning spray. “Sorry about that,” the guy said sheepishly. “Knocked over my coffee and thought I’d better clean it up.”
“What can I do for you people?” The clerk was young – somewhere in his twenties – with hair so short it was almost shaved. He was clean-shaven and neatly dressed in a sweater and jeans. A nametag designated him as “Chris.”
“I need some tires,” Tony said, casting a surreptitious glance in Kate’s direction as she intently studied a stand of helmets while pretending not to listen. He caught a peripheral image of her nodding at his words.
“What kind of tires?”
“Something with a bit more grip than these,” he replied, dropping his left hand to one wheel. “Mountain bike tires…something like that. You got any Velociraptors?”
“Sorry, don’t stock ‘em.”
Tony grimaced. “Well…what have you got?”
“What size rims are you using?”
“26 by 1 3/8,” Tony stated by rote.
It was Chris’s turn to grimace this time. “Don’t have much in that size right now. Let’s see.” He turned and faced the wall of tires, looking at the display. “Hmm…37-590. How knobby do you want to go? Real knobby ones’ll bring in a lot of mud.”
Tony sighed, considering. “As long as I get some extra traction…I’m kinda stuck with having to stay indoors right now.”
“Cramping your style, is it?”
“Yeah, I’d like to leave the figure eights to the figure skaters,” Tony laughed.
Chris thought for a moment. “I got some Kendas that might do. Got a customer swears by them for his wheelchair – says he wouldn’t use anything else.” Chris pointed at a cutaway sample tread on the display.
“Can I see that?” Tony asked.
“Sure.” Chris unhooked the board to which the sample was fixed and handed it across the counter.
Tony took the piece of wood, ran an experimental finger across the tread and grinned. “Yeah, okay,” he said. “I think that’ll do.”
“I know I got a set of these in your size,” Chris smiled.
“There’re some seats down the back. Pop your wheels and I’ll be with you shortly.”
Kate was picking through a stand of lurid cycle clothing as Tony passed. “The purple is sooo you,” he purred.
“Yeah, fluorescent spandex is such a fashion statement,” she responded, restraining herself from clouting him across the back of the head. She followed him with her eyes as he found the group of seats clustered in a semi circle beside a padded bench seat that wouldn’t have been out of place in a roadside café. An expression of compassion briefly crossed her face at his awkward, grunting transfer onto the bench seat. Over the several months since his return to work, she had seen him complete this maneuver many times, some better than others, but all the time growing stronger and more confident. She hadn’t seen him this clumsy in quite some time. Looking up after popping off the wheels, Tony caught her eye and gave a grim smile. Kate found herself saying, “Take your jacket off.”
“Take my jacket off?” Tony asked, puzzled.
“Yeah. I’m probably gonna regret this for the rest of my life, but I’m gonna give you a shoulder massage.”
Tony’s eyes enlarged briefly in mock surprise. “Wow, Kate, I don’t know what to say.”
“’Thank you’ would be nice.”
“Thanks,” he said, handing Chris his wheels, but in such a way that Kate wasn’t quite sure who was being addressed. Nevertheless, she helped him remove his jacket, assailed with the sudden memory of a freezing DC night and two cold agents watching an apartment from the car. “Wake up,” Kate said.
“I am awake,” Tony groaned, eyes closed.
“Could you turn the heat up, please?” she pleaded. “I’m freezing.”
“Can’t,” he replied. “Smoke from the tailpipe will give away our position.”
“Great. I can’t feel my legs here,” she stated, feeling frustrated at being out of her bed on an icy Washington night.
“We can do what the Eskimos do to keep warm,” Tony suggested.
“They press their bodies together.” Tony’s eyes opened a slit as he pressed his hands together to demonstrate and he leaned towards her as he continued, “ Of course, the effect is greatly improved if you’re naked.”
“There’s not enough liquor on the planet to make that happen, Tony,” Kate smiled at him.
“I wasn’t suggesting the naked part. But if you want to freeze…” Tony placed a warm hand on Kate’s shoulder and massaged it gently while giving her a knowing look, “…freeze.”
Kate shook her head and looked away. “Oh, I need a vacation.”
“Where would you go?” Tony asked, a grin crossing his face and he leaned back in his seat, although his interest was genuine enough.
“Ooh, someplace warm, somewhere there’s no cell phone reception…”
Tony closed his eyes again. “The tropics.”
“Oh, yes, the tropics would be nice...”
“Hey, what’s up? You stopped!” Tony turned his head to look at her.
She suppressed the memory with a particularly hard dig of her thumbs into the smooth flesh of Tony’s shoulder.
“Ow!” he yelped, pulling away from her. “Hey, flesh and blood, remember?”
“Sorry,” she said dragging her attention back to the task at hand. “Say, how’d you hurt yourself anyway?” she asked, continuing in a more gentle manner. Tony now understood Abby’s frequent demands for Kate to give her a massage.
“Who said I’m hurt?”
“Tony!” she exclaimed in an exasperated tone. She pulled Tony’s sweater back into position and reached for his jacket, helping him pull it back on. She noted with some approval that it fit more snugly than it had the previous winter when, if anything, he’d lacked a bit of muscle tone.
He gave an exaggerated sigh. “Think I pulled a muscle trying not to be Brian Boitano on the ice last night.”
“I’m impressed. You actually know the name of a figure skater.”
“Dated a skater once…”
“Tony!” Kate exclaimed. “Well, that’ll teach you, anyway…or maybe it won’t.”
“Thanks for the sympathy, Kate. Remind me to go somewhere warm where there’s no cell phone reception next Christmas.”
Kate chuckled at having her own words more or less thrown back at her. She wondered if Tony had somehow read her thoughts. “Someplace warm,” Kate echoed, rubbing her hands together. “Got anywhere in mind?”
“Not really.” Tony gave a lascivious grin. “Girls love a gimp who can bong a beer in…”
This time, Kate couldn’t hold back. She clouted him firmly across the back of the head. He was reaching back to rub the spot when his phone started to ring. He pulled it out and glanced at the caller ID before answering, a smile in his voice.
“Hey, Abs, whatcha got for me?”
“Hey, Tony,” she responded cheerfully. “The only prints on the key were a couple of partials from the victim.”
“Right, that makes sense,” he replied thoughtfully. Tony leaned back against the desk, long legs crossed in front of him, arms folded as he watched Abby, pigtails bobbing, as she leaned over to remove the shard of glass from its packing. She looked up and gave him a lopsided grin. “Where’d you find this?” she asked, writing out a card with the relevant information.
“Under a table,” Tony replied.
She uncapped a small container of black powder. Brow furrowed in concentration, she tipped a small quantity into the cap. “Tony, don’t you have anything better to do?”
“Don’t you want my company, Abs?”
“You’re looming. That makes me nervous.”
“Gibbs told me to wait.”
She sighed. “Can you wait over there?” She gestured vaguely at the computer desk on the other side of the room.
“But, Abs, I wanna watch.”
“Okay, just don’t distract me.”
“Right.” She sighed and took up a soft bristled brush. She dipped the bristles lightly into the black powder in the lid and tapped the excess off against the lip then twirled it between two fingers gently across the surface, smiling as a clear, partial print was revealed. She added a scale and took a photo, then tore off a small strip of fingerprint tape and smoothed it from right to left so there were no bubbles, carefully pulled it back up and attached it to the card. Turning the shard over, she repeated the whole process while Tony watched. “What’s Gibbs expecting?”
Tony shrugged. “We found it under a table in the kitchen. Anyone could have handled...smashed that glass...”
“But I think Gibbs is hoping it was the killer…”
“Uh-huh.” She scanned the prints into the computer and brought them up on the screen, comparing them quickly to prints of other family members. “Looks like the victim’s wife was the last one to…”
“I found traces of cocaine on the key and in the film packet.”
Tony quickly jerked back to the present. “Okay, thanks for letting me know Abs. What about the video?”
“I’m sending the cleaned up copy to Gibbs right now.”
“Okay. Later, Abs.”
Kate looked at him expectantly as he put the phone away. “Well?”
“Sshhh…” He looked across at Chris who was starting to remove the second tire – the first wheel, the tire already changed and inflated, was leaning against the side of the repair counter on the opposite side of the shop.
Looking across at Chris herself, who briefly looked back at her and smiled, Kate nodded, “Sure.”
Tony lowered his voice and turned away from Chris to face Kate, their heads almost touching. “The only prints belonged to Wilson.”
“And there were traces of cocaine.”
“So this is about drugs,” Kate stated.
“That’s different from the two in Norfolk, then. No traces of any drugs there.”
“Think we got us a copycat.”
She nodded in reply.
They were both distracted by the noise as Chris inflated the second tire. Realizing they’d be leaving shortly, Tony looked at Kate with liquid, pale green eyes. “Thanks, Kate,” he said in a low voice.
“Well…for not telling Gibbs I’ve been needing help.”
“You’re welcome, Tony.” She stretched her legs out and crossing them neatly at the ankles.
“Tony, you can be an irritating jerk, but I got your back, ‘kay? I’d like to think you’d do the same for me.”
“I know, but, well…this is different, you know what I’m saying?”
“Anyway, you told Gibbs about this little side trip, didn’t you.”
“I told him I had to do something first. Didn’t say what.” He couldn’t help a grin at having successfully yanked Kate’s chain yet again.
Kate shrugged, a gesture that could have meant, “Too late to worry about it now,” or “He wouldn’t mind anyway,” or a dozen other things.
Tony looked up as Chris approached with his wheels. “There you go,” he said, handing them over. Tony examined them and grinned widely. He was still smiling as he assembled the chair.
“You may find it’s a bit harder to keep your momentum going,” Chris cautioned, “but I think you’ll find your traction is much better.”
Tony completed the transfer and looked up. “Gotta be worth it,” he said.
“Those are actually street tires – not as knobby as mountain bike wheels.”
“What do you want to do with the old tires?”
“I’ll take ‘em with me. They’ve only had a couple of months’ wear.” Tony grimaced slightly as he gave an experimental push on the left rim. His shoulder caught, but Kate’s massage had obviously done some good. Satisfied, he turned and looked at Kate. “Coming, Kate?”
“Sure.” She gathered up her handbag and followed both men to the front of the shop, Chris detouring to collect Tony’s other tires on the way.
“I suppose you realized I’m new to all this,” Tony said to Chris.
“The thought had crossed my mind. When did it…happen?”
“I was shot in the back about eight and a half months ago.”
“I’m sorry, man.”
“Not as sorry as the guy that did it,” Tony replied in an unreadable tone.
Chris dumped the tires on the counter. “I think your wife might need to carry these.”
Kate and Tony spoke in unison. “I’m not his/She’s not my wife.” Both wore identical expressions of absolute horror.
“Sorry, my mistake.”
“We’re just work colleagues,” Kate stated.
“Right,” Tony agreed.
“Okay. Where do you work?”
“NCIS,” Kate answered.
Chris handed Tony the receipt and a pen.
“Naval Criminal Investigative Service,” he expanded.
“Oh, okay. I know what you guys do. Got a brother in the navy. So what are you doing in Long Island?”
“Long story,” answered Tony. “Don’t want to go into that.” He handed back the pen and receipt and was given his copy.
“Thanks for your help.”
“You’re welcome. Have a nice day.”
“Oh, bound to,” Tony replied cheerily, turning to head for the door. “Come on, Kate.”Chapters 1-3Chapters 4-6Chapters 10-12Chapters 13-14