AN1: A certain scene in this chapter was completely and totally inspired by the wonderful Deans Addiction, who triggered my muse and helped create a great addition to the chapter. Thanks a million, DA, you rock! And a super special thank you to someone who has done so much for me, possibly without even knowing it. This person has left some of the longest and most creative reviews and PMs in my inbox, and deserves a lot of credit for the impact she's had. A wonderful person and friend, thank you so much to JaneDoe19291915.
AN2: The final chapter…Hard for me to believe that this point has been reached. A bittersweet moment indeed, one that never could've occurred without your encouragement. Honestly, all of you deserve so much more than I can give you. This story was so fueled and inspired you all of you. My readers, my reviewers.
I know a lot of people get upset when 'lurkers' don't review, but to me, if you're reading the story, that's all that matters. I don't play a numbers game, and hate when people do because in a sense, it takes away the natural beauty of writing. Writing is meant to inspire. That is the author's payment. Anything beyond that is nothing short of a gift. So if Cadence has made you crack a smile, or flash a frown…if it has entertained you, amused you, given you a few minutes of escape…Then I've been paid more than I can ask for.
So thank you all, those I've talked to and those who've been with me from afar. All of your support is appreciated, every single one of you. If you're reading this right now, regardless of what you do at the end of the chapter, know that I'm more than thankful for you and what you've given me. I'm truly blessed; thank you.
A final shout-out to my reviewers:
BlueEyes444, xenascully, diana teo, vanishingp2000, scousemuz1k, Tacpebs, shirik, HPSmallCharm29, sterno, Madances, Meilea2010, WinglessBird, Kermitty, Long Live BRUCAS, Tango Eight, smush68, julie250, JaneDoe19291915 (aka Steve Tabernackle), Jackilee, Writing For The Wall, combatcrazy, Belker, sarahsrr, mamamia1964, Alisa123, dbd823, princessesmeralda, Lidil, Candy77, tansysam, Callisto-HK, Deans Addiction, FlowerCrazy, TinTin11, Nancy, luzma, suejacken, DarkRose4u, Marianna Morgan, elfzena, Tiva lovah, melraemorgan, mstictac, Natalie, and the 3 nameless anonymous reviewers
Oh, and to Smush: With the end of this story, I leave you a lifetime supply of un-soggable cereal.
"You still awake, DiNozzo?"
Tony's eyes shot open.
It wasn't his fault, not really. After about 25 minutes past the time when Gibbs said he'd be back, Cadence had started humming this slow, sad melody, in a smooth, entrancing tone that lowered Tony's head to his desk and weighted his eyelids against his will.
After 10 minutes, Tony had gotten worried, but Abby calmed his nerves when she explained that the bridge the team normally took to go out to the area of their current case had been temporarily shut for repairs. But she forgot to tell Gibbs before they left, so he was undoubtedly trying to find another route. Tony had hung up the phone and Cadence had begun humming, and a nap didn't sound half bad, so there they were.
"Had to take a detour," Gibbs explained. "Didn't plan on being late."
"Apology accepted, Boss," Tony said with a cheeky grin.
Gibbs ignored the comment. "Ready to go?"
Tony nodded, picking up his jacket and slipping it on himself. If Gibbs was impressed, he didn't let on.
"Y'know, I was thinking…Let's take the stairs today," Tony said.
Gibbs opened his mouth to oppose the idea, but Tony looked so confident and eager and hopeful that he couldn't bring himself to say a word against it. With a shrug of Sure, I don't care, and a glance of You'd better be damn careful, Gibbs led the way.
The first set was easy. Tony's feet glided from step to step with ease, a little hop accompanying the motion.
After that, things went downhill.
About halfway down the next set, Tony started feeling fatigued, his coordination a little less spot-on than he would've liked. He slowed his pace and hoped that Gibbs, who was right behind him, wouldn't notice.
Two-thirds of the way down the next set, Tony's foot caught on the edge of one of the steps. "Tony!" Cadence called out, her voice a small squeak of surprise.
He quickly tried to compensate with the other, but not fast enough. Gibbs made a grab at him, managing to curb his velocity a bit, but couldn't stop his agent's momentum from sending him right on his butt, sliding like a kid, bumping on each stair.
After about a second, Tony was landed at the bottom, a disappointed look on his face, and Gibbs was at his side, along with Cadence.
"Are you ok?"
"You all right, DiNozzo?"
Tony took a moment to breathe, still a little shaken up from his tumble. Granted, it'd only been a handful of steps, but he hadn't been expecting it and his butt was sore already.
"I'm good," he said. "Just a little winded."
"I'd imagine," Gibbs replied with a small smirk.
Tony shot him a glare and began to push himself up. It pulled at his abdomen a little, mostly because he was working with one arm, the other cradled loosely to his side. Damn cast.
"Whoa, slow down," Gibbs said, grabbing Tony's arm and slowly hoisting him all the way up. "You gotta learn to pace yourself, Tony."
It was dismissed with a shrug. "Guess I'm a slow learner."
An indiscernible grunt was the only response.
The two made their way slowly down the rest of the stairs and to the car.
"You gonna be all right?" Gibbs asked, eyeing Tony's uncomfortable shifting.
"A little sore," Tony replied honestly. "Those stairs are actually meant for feet, if you can believe it."
"Oh, I believe it," Gibbs replied.
The rest of the ride was bathed in silence and thought, and when the car was parked in front of Tony's building, both men seemed surprised. They unbuckled, the simultaneous clicks echoing through the confined space.
After a moment, Tony opened his door and gingerly got out of the car. His left hand rubbed his backside gently, though it didn't really hurt anymore.
Next thing he knew, a supportive hand was on his shoulder, guiding him toward the entrance of his apartment building. It was stronger than the soft, small hand he was accustomed to.
"I'm fine, Boss," he said, shooing off the hand. "I think I can handle the ten-yard walk."
The look Gibbs gave him was wise, knowing, with perhaps a hint of disappointment. Or hurt. Tony couldn't tell which, but he immediately regretted the sharpness of his tone.
"Y'know, DiNozzo, it's ok to accept help once in awhile," Gibbs said, and his words were heavy in truth.
Tony inwardly sighed.
"I know, Boss." And he did. "Slow learner, remember?"
Gibbs said nothing, but Tony tried to put enough smile in his gaze that the disappointment or hurt or whatever it was left Gibbs's icy blue eyes.
After a second of scrutiny, the boss seemed satiated.
The two entered the building, and when they went directly to the elevator, neither said a word.
Gibbs walked Tony to the door, watching as the agent snatched the key from his pocket and unlocked it.
"Pardon the mess," Tony said, but he was too tired to be truly embarrassed.
Old leftovers sat on the table, and he grabbed them, quickly depositing them in the garbage. A few sweatshirts and warm pants lay crumpled on the couch. Tony snatched those as well, tossing them toward his bedroom.
Truth be told, most of his time at home was spent in comfy clothes, on the couch, thinking, eating, and occasionally talking to Cadence. Though Ducky had him on the strictest of diets, so he didn't eat as much as he normally would. And most of the time, he didn't talk to Cadence as much as he did look at her and think about her.
Then there was the in-between, when Cadence wasn't there, but he knew she'd be back, and Tony couldn't decide how he felt about it. About any of it.
But he was always glad when she came back, and that knot inside him swelled with both happiness and sadness, a strange and sometimes painful combination.
"Do you need food?" Gibbs asked, glancing around the apartment.
Tony shook his head. "No, I think I still have that healthy chicken breast thing that Ducky brought over."
"That was 2 days ago, Tony."
"Oh." And he really was surprised. "Well, I think I have other stuff anyway."
Gibbs didn't really listen, marching over to the refrigerator and examining the contents inside. Mildly satisfied, he narrowed his eyes at Tony. "You're off the hook this time, but this thing had better be fully stocked next time I check, even if it means sending me on a grocery run, got it?"
"Just don't wait till quarter to midnight. Deal?"
Smiling, Tony replied. "Deal."
He walked Gibbs back to the door, and realized that he was still smiling, but couldn't tell if he wanted to be or not.
"Rest up and eat up, DiNozzo. Don't make me come back and force-feed you; that'd be uncomfortable for both of us." Gibbs was outside the door now, still looking at Tony with shrewd eyes. "You think I'm kidding? Try me. You need to take care of yourself."
Tony rolled his eyes, but knew the words were more caring than threatening, which would normally scare him, but didn't this time. He moved to close the door gently.
"I mean it," Gibbs said, hand stopping the door. His eyes pierced Tony's with knowing intensity. "All of it."
"Got it, Boss," Tony said with a nod. He was halfway between irritated and touched.
That seemed like enough for Gibbs, who turned back toward the elevator and allowed the door to shut.
"He needs you," Cadence said, and her head cocked in the same way it had so many times before. "As much as you need him?"
The touched feeling of being cared for and cared about was still with him, so Tony answered in the only way he could.
"Doubtful," he replied quietly.
It wasn't bitter or wistful. Just truthful, and that felt good.
"But then again," he said, a small smile quirking his lips. "I'm a slow learner."
. . .
Firm knocking awoke Tony from his afternoon doze. He shook his head a bit to clear it from the sleep muddling his mind.
As the sharp bangs continued, Tony rolled his eyes.
"Go away, Gibbs, I'm fine," he called out to the door.
The knocking persisted.
"I don't need a babysitter; you don't need to check on me."
Still, the incessant knocking didn't stop, causing Tony to jump up in frustration. The movement pulled on his abdomen uncomfortably, but he was too annoyed to care.
"Jesus, Boss!" Tony said heatedly, grabbing the doorknob. "I told you, I'm-"
He found himself looking slightly down at the portly woman standing at his door. A pair of wrinkled green eyes greeted him.
"Lesley," Tony breathed. It was the last person he expected to see, but stirred such warmth inside him that he couldn't help but smile. After a few moments, he snapped out of his shocked state enough to form coherent words. "Sorry, come in," he said quickly, opening the door wider and moving to the side.
"You look better," the woman said coyly, stepping inside the apartment. She put a hand on his shoulder, looking him up and down. "Though still not enough meat on your bones for my liking."
Tony gave a light laugh, but his heart wasn't really in it. Somehow, he felt like Lesley could tell.
"Can I get you anything?" Tony said, fumbling a bit. "I don't have much, since I'm on a pretty strict diet, but I'm sure I could scrounge up something if you-"
"I'm fine, thank you, Tony," she said soothingly. "Why don't we just have a seat?"
Tony nodded, and the two sat on the couch, just enough space between them for Cadence to squeeze in the middle.
"I missed her," Cadence said, smiling. "I like her a lot."
"Sorry to show up unexpected like this," Lesley began. "I wanted to give you some time before seeing you, but I couldn't go for too long. I spoke with Gibbs a few days ago, then talked to the doorman. Both were very accommodating."
"Sure, no problem," Tony said, feeling a little jittery. "So, you've been good I hope?"
"Thanks to you," Lesley replied calmly, a small smile still playing on her face.
Tony shrugged off the comment, letting quiet fill the air.
Not surprisingly, the older woman broke the silence.
"I heard, Tony. I know what happened to Cadence."
Tony's bitter laugh was hardly audible. "Yeah," he responded. Then, more quietly, "Thanks to me."
The sarcastic twist made both of them flinch.
"I'm sorry," he recovered apologetically. "I-"
"You blame yourself," she said, examining him curiously. "For letting her go."
Tony's eyes didn't quite meet hers. "I should've told her to hold on. I should've made her hold on."
Lesley sighed, a deep understanding exhalation, full of patience and thought, and maybe a flash of sadness.
"For awhile, I blamed myself, too," she explained. "For letting her stay."
Tony was silent as he listened because he hadn't really thought of that.
"For what felt like the longest time, I told myself that I should've grabbed her arm and dragged her out. That I should've been the adult, and not let a child dictate my actions, because there's a reason children and adults are different, and that's because we're supposed to be the responsible ones. We're supposed to take care of them, no matter what they say or want. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of those beautiful brown eyes, and wished I'd found a way to resist."
She looked back up at Tony, and though a hint of regret still permeated her gaze, it didn't even touch the resolution and strength.
"You blame yourself for letting her go, Tony. I blame myself for letting her stay."
Tony's heart hurt, mostly because he knew she was right.
"But after a little while, you know what I realized? All that blame and guilt added up to nothing but a cycle of regret and sadness and pain that wasn't doing me or anybody any good. Because if you blame yourself for letting her go, then you'd have to blame me for letting her stay. You'd have to blame her for wanting to stay, the woman with the gun for causing it all, and her husband for fooling around in the first place." Lesley softened her gaze, looking at him with those gentle green eyes that somehow knew everything. "And in the end, there's just regret and sadness and pain. That doesn't get us anywhere, honey. Doesn't get us anywhere at all."
And the overwhelming truth in her words made Tony feel sorrowful yet free at the same time.
He felt the brush of a small hand against his, and for the first time, he pulled away. It was a subtle motion, just barely a twitch. But he did it and he knew he did it and he wasn't quite sure how to feel about that.
Unable to form a response, Tony nodded at Lesley's words. He didn't have to say thank you, and she didn't expect him to. But she still looked at him, a softness in her gaze that burrowed carefully into his chest, nestling next to his heart, and rubbing a touch of warmth that wasn't there before.
And even though he knew she was a woman he barely knew, a stranger for all intents and purposes, he couldn't help but look at those emerald eyes and see a woman thirty years younger, with tumbling dark hair and the brightest smile he'd ever seen. He couldn't help but feel thirty years younger himself, looking up at the same eyes and hair and smile, and thinking he had the best mama in the world.
He could hear the "Listen to your mama, Anthony" as clearly as he could feel the loving emerald eyes on him, and was shocked that something from so long ago could be brought back with the simple softness of a gaze.
He missed her. He missed a lot of people.
"I should go," Lesley said, rising to her feet. Tony stood up as well. She pulled a slip of paper out of her coat pocket and handed it to him. "This is my contact information. Don't you dare be a stranger, Tony DiNozzo."
Taking the slip with his good hand, Tony smiled. "Wouldn't dream of it."
Without warning, the woman reach up, wrapping her arms around him in a warm embrace, so motherly that Tony was thrust back into his four-year-old self, leaving for his first day of school, comforted only by his warm new jacket and his mother's embrace.
Naturally, his arms fell into place, holding the pose for a few seconds, willing to stay for infinitely longer.
"Take care, Tony," Lesley said.
He nodded, and with a soft smile, the woman walked out the door, closing it carefully behind her.
A small voice registered in the back of his mind, but for a moment, he just wanted to sit quietly with his thoughts. And in that suspended moment, maybe his mind could find a piece of the catharsis it was grasping for.
. . .
Tony pinched his eyes shut at the sound of the small voice. He couldn't acknowledge it. He wouldn't.
The drawn-out syllable was full of desperation, so acutely real and present that Tony had to take a deep, steady breath to draw himself back into reality.
Please, just go away. I'm sorry…Please…
"Why do you want me to go away, Tony? You told me we were friends. You said we were bestest friends for life. Why did you change your mind, Tony? Did I do something bad?"
"No…" Tony found himself breathing. "No, sweetheart, you didn't do anything bad."
Her small voice quivered with gentle emotion, and Tony turned around to face her. She was standing before him, not four feet tall, clad in the same white flowing dress she was always wearing. Tony was surprised to see that the habitual stains of blood were faded from the material, imperceptible. Her bare feet angled in a touch, and her toes scrunched uncomfortably against the carpet.
She was beautiful. God, she was the most precious thing Tony had laid eyes on. Yet he wanted nothing more than to turn away, close his eyes. But he couldn't. His eyes were drawn to her long brown hair, her pleading chestnut eyes. Through a power beyond explanation, he couldn't look away.
She was just a little girl. A small light of innocence that never got the chance to truly shine. The world never gave her the chance. She was ripped away from life for the sake of a stranger's crusade. And the cold reality was that the majority of the population remained unaffected. Unthinking, uncaring….indifferent.
The world had a cruel fixation of carrying on and moving forward. Cadence was merely another victim of circumstance, another sufferer of fate. She was just another loss. No better, no worse, not even different. Death did not discriminate. Fate did not discriminate. Such was life.
Her head was cocked slightly to the side, small brows tilted and furrowed. She was just a little girl, just another victim, just another damn statistic. She didn't understand. In her naivety and confusion and fear and innocence, she didn't understand.
She was just a little girl.
A little girl.
And she didn't understand. How could she, when even Tony was having trouble staying anchored to reality?
"Tony," Cadence said forcefully. A pause. Then, her tiny voice cracked.
Tony walked softly over to her, not breaking eye contact. He watched as the rim of moisture in her eyes overflowed, and tears began to stream silently down her cheeks. The flow pulsed in time with Tony's heavily beating heart, and he swore he could feel the cracks of the organ's surface spread with each painful throb.
He knelt down in front of her, crouching comfortably as a father would when speaking to his daughter. He thumbed away the line of wetness trailing down her face, and was enveloped by how fragile, how childlike, how real she felt. And not for the first time, he wished she could be.
Tony took her small hand in both of his, breaking eye contact and looking down.
He wished he could give her an answer, a reason. He wished he had some philosophical explanation to comfort her, something, anything to justify the reality that the two of them were trapped in.
But reality isn't logical. It's not fair. It just is.
"I don't know." He looked into her eyes as he said it. "I'm sorry…I don't know."
The disappointment in the chestnut orbs cut through Tony's core. He saw it, he felt it burn through every fiber in his body. He looked into Cadence's eyes, and suddenly he was a twelve-year-old boy, bags in hand, waiting for a father that would never show up. He was an eight-year-old son, waiting for his mom to sit beside him at the piano, but knowing she never would again.
Cadence wasn't crying anymore. Tony wished she would.
"But what I do know," Tony continued, tucking a strand of hair behind Cadence's ear. "Is that I can't change what's happened. I want to. For you, for your mom, for everyone." He swallowed down the lump in his throat. "But I can't. And neither can you."
"That doesn't seem fair," Cadence said quietly, eyes downcast.
Tony's lips curled into a small, sad smile. "It never is."
"I thought we were gonna be bestest friends for life," she said mournfully.
Tony fought back tears. "I thought so, too."
He blinked hard, unashamed when a few drops of moisture leaked from beneath his lids. And God help him, he really did. He thought he was going to watch Cadence grow into a young woman, go to her school plays, catch a few of her basketball games. He could see himself in the stands on Senior Night, watching Cadence walk gracefully to the center of the floor. He could see himself in an auditorium, full of parents and grandparents, yet not feeling even slightly out-of-place. He thought all that could, would happen.
He thought he could be that guy, and that she could grow up. That she would live.
But she didn't.
He thought he could get them out. He thought he could save her.
But he didn't.
"I thought so, too," Tony repeated. "But sometimes things don't work out the way we want them to."
A look of understanding settled upon Cadence's face. "Kinda like you and your pretty friend? The one with the silly name?"
Part of Tony wanted to laugh, and would have, had his heart not been breaking.
"Yeah, sweetheart, kinda like that. When things don't work out, there are times when you can't go back…There are things that happen that make it impossible to make it the same again, to make it what you want it to be. It's not easy. It hurts." He choked on his words. "…It hurts really bad sometimes."
"Like a paper cut?" Cadence questioned seriously.
Another slice of pain and memory made its way through his heart.
"No," he said, his voice thick. "A little different than that, sweetheart."
"Worse?" Her brown eyes were curious and questioning and he wanted to fall into them and never come back.
There was a short pause. Tony was torn between savoring the silence and missing the sound of Cadence's voice.
"But you can't change the things that happen. No one can. Even when it seems like you could have what you wanted to begin with, you can't go back. You can only move forward. You can only move on."
He reached up and traced a gentle finger along her cheek. His voice was rough with emotion as he spoke.
"You have to move on, sweetheart. I know it's scary, but you have to move on. You have to move forward."
For fuck's sake, DiNozzo…You're trying to play ghost whisperer to the illusion of a girl you knew for a matter of hours…
But he didn't care. Because real or not, Cadence was there, standing right in front of him, with eyes so vivid and clear and sad that they saw right through him, inside him, seeing places he'd never let anyone know existed. Cadence was there, and he'd be damned if he was going to ignore her. She was just a little girl, for God's sake. A little girl…
Tony peered at Cadence curiously, not comprehending what the small child meant.
She stared at him sympathetically, and suddenly Tony felt like the child, confused and wondering. The look in her eyes was that of a mother explaining something to her son. Kind, loving, understanding. The swift role reversal hit Tony with such force that he once again had to remind himself that none of it was real.
But maybe it was. Tony couldn't figure out which he preferred.
"You have to move on, Tony," Cadence said. Her voice was serious, sobered by wisdom far beyond her years.
Hopelessness, brokenness crept through his veins, pumping in and out of his heart, making it that much harder to breathe.
"I can't." The bitter sting of loss seeped into his voice, but he didn't care.
"Of course you can, silly. You just need to try." Cadence extracted her hand from his grip, and for a beat, Tony was terrified that she was leaving. But not a moment later, Cadence stepped closer. And with a touch too tender to come from anyone but a child, she rested her arms around Tony in a gentle embrace. She placed her head softly on his shoulder, and Jesus, he could smell the delicate aroma of flowers in her hair.
The gesture was so simple and childlike and beautiful that it made Tony want to forget everything he'd said. He wanted to throw his arms around the girl, pick her up, spin her around. Like she deserved. Like any little girl deserved. He wanted to hug her so tightly that bombs could explode, buildings could collapse, the world could fall apart, and she'd never slip away.
But she was right.
He had to move on, move forward.
He didn't want to, and God, if he could see Cadence every moment of every day for the rest of his life, it wouldn't be enough.
But Cadence was dead. She was crushed by debris, her lungs collapsed, she stopped breathing, her heart stopped beating, and she died. No amount of pretending could make this Cadence real, and even as an illusion, she deserved to move on. She couldn't grow up, but she could move on.
They both could.
"Ok," Tony said hoarsely, hugging the young child close and leaking salty tears into her hair. "I'll try."
Cadence pulled away just enough to bring them face to face, untouched skin a breath away from tired, scarred skin, hardened from experience. The deep brown eyes looked intently into Tony's darkened hazel.
She held out her pinky expectantly.
He doesn't know how long he looked at the tiny finger. He swears it must've been a lifetime, but something tells him it wasn't. Doesn't really matter.
Tony hooked his own pinky, crooked and dirty, with the small one in front of him, faultless and smooth. The contrast was just as striking as it had been in the bank.
Then, he nodded, because that was just the proper way to do these things.
Cadence smiled that brilliant, dazzling smile, and in that moment, Tony knew he would never forget how beautiful her smile really was. Thinking of it, his heart beat with a little less pain and a little more love.
He swallowed back the last of his tears, and allowed the grief in his face to fade into acceptance. The brokenness receded, if only a bit.
. . .
When he showed up at Gibbs's door not an hour later, he wasn't sure exactly how he got there. But he was there, and he figured there was no sense in turning back.
Trying to clear his head enough to work out what to say, Tony took a deep, unsteady breath.
Fuck it. He raised his hand to knock on the door.
It opened before he got the chance.
Gibbs didn't ask any questions, just guided him into the living room gently, like a father helping his son through his first heartbreak, like a friend helping a friend after a reprehensible case. Gibbs got him settled on the couch, and went to the kitchen. A few minutes later, he emerged with two plates, steak on each, utensils in hand.
He had prepared a meal for two.
Somehow, Tony wasn't surprised.
. . .
"How're you feeling?" a voice asked from somewhere above Tony.
Groggy eyes blinked, slowly focusing on Gibbs's face above. Tony sat up with a stifled yawn.
"Better," he said. And he really meant it.
"Good," Gibbs replied, tossing a bag of clothes on the bed. "Because you've got some unexpected company downstairs. I can entertain long enough for a quick shower and change, but don't think I can manage past that."
"What're you talking about, Boss? You're a social butterfly. Just gotta test your wings a bit." A shy, cheeky grin accompanied the remark.
"Fifteen minutes, DiNozzo." With a sharp glare, a headslap, and what looked to Tony like a small grin, Gibbs left the room, shutting the door behind him.
Tony sighed, but not as heavily as he had for the past weeks. He picked up the bag and transferred it to his lap. He slid the clothes out, wrapping the bag around his casted arm. The plastic crinkled as he tightened it and tied it off. Then, he rested his arm on his lap again, atop the shirt, pants, and undergarments.
And just for a moment, all was quiet. Tony's eyes scanned the room, not really sure what he was looking for, but at the same time, knowing exactly what he was looking for. The hazel orbs moved slowly from one side to the other, catching all the details, absorbing them. He saw an empty dresser, a small table, a window, a door to the hallway, another door to the room's small bathroom. He saw a lamp, a fan, and the very bed he was sitting on.
He saw nothing else. He was alone. And instead of crashing upon him with the force of the ocean, crushing him, forcing the breath from his constricted lungs, it came softly, like the mist of a gentle wave. It drifted toward him, opening his lungs, letting him breathe, letting him be.
He breathed the gentle mist in, standing up and making his way to the shower. He was alone. But suddenly, it didn't hurt to be.
Fifteen minutes later, Tony took another deep breath, his steps short against the carpet. He began to wonder about this 'unexpected visitor', who it could be, what they might want. But he wasn't scared; in fact, he felt ready. His head was high, mind prepared. A leash of control was placed around his emotions, just enough that it wasn't choking him, simply keeping him in check. He could still feel the soft mist with each inhale.
As he turned the corner into the living room, he steeled himself for whatever was awaiting him.
And just like that, the leash was gone and warmth bubbled in his chest at the sight of a man and woman seated on the couch, a tiny bundle in tow.
Gibbs was seated across from the Conrads, smiling softly. He raised his head as Tony entered the room.
Tony said nothing as he drew closer to Marianna and Daniel and that bundle of blankets and life. Just standing before them, he found himself smiling, too.
Next thing he knew, Daniel and Marianna were on their feet, grinning at him. Their faces were tired, but somehow glowing at the same time. He would've analyzed it further, but couldn't tear his eyes from the fold of the bundle in Marianna's arms.
"We were going to meet you at your apartment," Daniel said. "But when we called Agent Gibbs and he said you were here, we thought this might be just as easy."
Tony thought he said something in response, but couldn't be sure as his eyes remained transfixed on the bundle. His heart both raced and calmed as he stared.
"Tony," Marianna said. Her voice was gentle, as if she was breathing on a flower petal. And it was so full of care, of affection. It was the kind of voice Tony wished his mom had used when he was little, the kind that made him feel special and wanted and loved.
Marianna pushed back the blanket the tiniest bit, to reveal closed eyes with dark lashes, a tiny nose, and sealed lips too small to describe. There was a tint of pink on the cheeks, and peach fuzz hair, almost too fair to see.
Marianna was beaming as she looked back up at Tony.
"Meet Cadence Conrad."
There were no words as Tony's eyes skated over the tiny face, taking in every curve and detail. There were no words as he looked and saw and connected Cadence with the sleeping eyes and lips too small to describe.
"She's beautiful," he breathed. A breeze could carry the voice away, and it was so much like Cadence that it made him smile.
Marianna smiled back with understanding. "Would you like to hold her?"
Tony's heart beat hard against his chest and he blinked in hesitation. "Oh, I don't-"
But in an instant, the tiny—so damn tiny, so beautifully tiny—bundle was placed in his arms, and on instinct he held the baby close.
The changing of hands was just enough to wake little Cadence up. She yawned, her mouth making a little O.
And then she opened her eyes.
They were brown, not light and not dark, just somewhere in between. They were wide, almost unblinking, so full that Tony could swim in them. With a startled breath, Tony realized that the eyes were locked solely on him, looking at him, looking through him, saying so much by saying so little.
"Hi, Cadence Conrad," he said gently. He was still smiling, and wondered if he'd ever stop.
Tony gazed into the eyes gazing at him, and he knew in that moment that Marianna had been right. It doesn't matter how long you've known someone or whether or not you deserve it. Love did not discriminate, just as death did not discriminate. Just as fate did not discriminate. Such was life.
You're very special, Cadence Conrad, he said without words, eyes still locked with Cadence's. You're more special than anyone knows, and one day, you'll grow up.
And that was enough. One day, she would grow up.
That was enough.
But not too fast, he emphasized. Otherwise, you'll make people like me feel old.
The baby—Cadence—let out a tiny bubble of sound, and though it wasn't the conventional type, Tony thought it was the closest thing he'd get to a giggle.
When you grow up, and damnit, the thought alone was enough to make his heart leap, you're going to do anything you want. The world is yours for the taking, beautiful girl, and it's just waiting.
Tiny fingers brushed against his, and it wasn't the Cadence he knew, but it was Cadence all the same. And it made him want to cry, but not in the way it used to.
The baby's eyes were starting to droop again, but he needed to get one more thought across before she drifted back into sleep. Before he let the fingers go, he locked hazel eyes with brown, neither set blinking.
You are loved, Cadence Conrad. The eyes began to close. You always will be.
He handed the bundle gently back to Marianna, glancing around at the faces in the room. And he knew without a doubt, it was a promise that would never be broken.
. . .
After the Conrads left, with vehement assurances to return and keep in touch, Gibbs and Tony decided that it was a nice night for a family dinner. Gibbs made the arrangements and the grocery run, and Tony did the cooking, granted with a little help—cooking one-handed isn't easy.
Everyone was there. McGee, Ziva, Abby, Ducky. Even Palmer had hopped on board, for which Tony was even more grateful. He hadn't seen his Autopsy Gremlin in awhile, and though he might never admit it, he missed the guy. He missed all of them.
And as Abby wasn't shy at all about admitting, they'd all missed him as well.
"I must say, this dinner is quite excellent, Anthony," Ducky admired, taking another bite.
Palmer nodded in agreement. "Yeah, Tony, what is this anyway?"
Tony grinned shyly. "Just some ricotta and spinach Tortelloni."
"I am not familiar with many Italian dishes, but I must agree," Ziva said. "And I will be even more impressed if you have managed to restrain yourself from poisoning McGee's plate with some kind of laxative."
McGee's head shot up in fear, eyes wide, making Tony laugh heartily.
"Don't worry, McGullible, no milk of magnesia for you. Not tonight, anyway," he said, and McGee sagged in relief.
"You should've seen your face, Timmy," Abby giggled.
Everyone was smiling as they continued to eat, and Tony's eyes drifted from person to person. Each was relaxed, happy. Even Gibbs was cracking a grin, taking a small sip of wine. They were all under one roof, together, and Tony felt like he was part of it, maybe even part of something bigger than he could wrap his mind around.
But the point was that they were there. In front of him, where he could see them, hear them, feel them. They were there and he was there and the feeling filled Tony's chest, even the tiny Cadence-shaped hole. He could still feel it, but now he knew how to fill it…with his family, with what he had, with what was there.
Gibbs eyed Tony carefully, noticing the distance in his gaze.
"You with us, DiNozzo?"
And for the first time in longer than he could remember, Tony felt like that was exactly where he was, and exactly where he was meant to be.
. . .
"Each human life is like a new symphony heard for the first time.
It can't be understood or fully appreciated until after the final cadence."
Tony still sees Cadence. Not in the way he used to, but he sees her.
Tony sees Cadence in every child's face. Every dimpled cheek and toothy smile. Every set of bright eyes and each button nose. He sees her in Daniel and Marianna's baby…he sees her in that baby's future, and the future of every child he has the blessing of coming into contact with. Because now he sees every child as just that. A blessing. A gift. Something given to everyone as a reminder of what can still be beautiful in the world. Given to everyone. Whether a parent of five or a mentor to one's next-door neighbor. Whether a childless father with a broken heart or someone beginning to consider parenthood.
Even just a screw-up cop with nothing to show for himself but an apartment full of movies and a bullpen full of friends. Even he can have that gift. Even he can lose it. But to see is to never forget, and to never forget is to make immortal. Tony still sees Cadence.
He hears her, too. Sometimes it's the same small voice, stubborn yet sweet, strong yet gentle. But most of the time, it's just the idea of her, and that's enough. He hears her in every light, airy laugh. The soft sound floats around his ears and seeps into his brain, drawing a picture of a carefree countenance and smiling eyes. He feels it dive into his chest and beat its cadence painfully against his heart.
And every day, without fail, Tony can feel Cadence. Her presence resides in more ways than one, around Tony, within him.
He feels her every time he twists the wrong way and gets a little twinge from his abdomen. Each time he traces his finger across the faint scar on his arm, he feels the ethereal hand of a little girl doing the same.
He feels her in every warm embrace. And there's really nothing else to say about that.
Though Tony is never sure just when or where it'll hit him, Tony thinks of Cadence with sweeping frequency. Whether in the grocery store or at work or when helping his elderly neighbor or times where he's just sitting in his apartment, allowing the emptiness to consume him. Doesn't matter where, doesn't matter when; it hits him without reason or pattern, continually and immeasurably.
He thinks that maybe it'll never stop hitting him.
He thinks that maybe he doesn't want it to.
Tony thinks of Cadence every time he prays, and hopes she can somehow hear him. Though he's not sure who he's praying to, he has a feeling he doesn't do it enough. He's going to try to do better. Pray more, help old ladies carry their groceries, maybe give a chunk of his paycheck to some charity for some cause he doesn't know but thinks is noble. He's going to smile and laugh more. He's going to immerse himself in the memories without drowning in them.
Tony is going to move on, move forward. Because he promised Cadence he would.
And not all the agony and heartbreak in the world could make him break his word. Not again.
"Pinky promise?" Memory breathes its life into words that Tony can almost hear.
Tony allows his lips to curl into a small smile.
And he nods.