Author's Note: This is it! It is finally done! A thousand thank yous to all of the readers, reviewers and well-wishers, and a special thank you to my beta, Tallulah. I hope you all enjoyed!
"Babe, are you ready?" I poke my head out of the bathroom to glance at my husband. He is standing in front of our floor-length mirror, looking like he might be sick.
"Hell no," he grunts at me. I have to agree with him: his shirt is unbuttoned, his tie is lying haphazardly on the edge of our bed and his brunette hair is in desperate need of a comb. I repress my sigh.
"You'll do fine," I say as I shove my chandelier earrings and Christian Louboutin gold sandals on hastily and walk towards him. "Tell me what you're going to say," I instruct calmly.
"I don't know. I hate these goddamn things," he says, taking a shaky breath.
"They don't expect you to talk long," I say. I begin buttoning his shirt, starting at the bottom and working my way upward to his chin.
"I don't want to talk at all," he sounds as petulant as one of our sons. I tell him so. "Where are the kids?" he asks. "They've been quiet too long."
The words have scarcely left his mouth when we hear a bang from down the hall that sounds like something heavy has fallen. We exchange eye contact, silently counting to ten, exercising a tried and true parenting method.
I barely make it to 7 before I am yelling.
"Eddie! Nick!" My feet slide across our floor as I make for the door. I hear my sons scrambling, no doubt trying to get away.
"Nicole," Tommy grabs my arm, gently pulling me back. "I've got it," he tells me. He stomps off down the hall, sounding like the big bad wolf. I know that once he gets to their room it will be a completely different story. I strain my ears to listen.
"What'd your mom say about fighting in here, huh?" His voice is as loud and deep as ever, but there is no anger in it. "Eddie, get off your brother, man."
"Daddy!" I hear Nick's young, plaintive wail, "Eddie put me in a choke hold!"
"Did not!" Eddie's voice is so loud it can be clearly heard. "Stop being a baby!"
"It hurt!" Nick whines again. I begin moving toward the door with the intent of defusing the situation.
"Ed!" Tommy only calls our eldest that when he means business. The boys both immediately snap to attention. "What'd I say? Didn't we talk about this?"
"Yes," I hear Eddie sounding shameful as I come down the hall.
"Why are you beating on your little brother?"
"I just wanted to show him how to do one," Eddie complains.
"Na-uh!" Nick begins to protest but Tommy cuts him off.
"Stop lying Ed. I already told you two that when you want to fight, you come to the gym with me and do it like men. Only cowards pick on people smaller than them."
I think my husband is being too harsh, but I wait anyway, suspenseful for what he will say next.
"You guys are brothers. You have each other's back. You don't fight up here."
"You fought Uncle Brendan," Eddie has the stones to sound accusatory. He inherited a lot from his father, including his brass balled courage.
"In the ring," Tommy says. We have yet to tell the kids the complex details of their father's childhood. It is a subject we are in no hurry to broach.
I push the bedroom door open and am greeted by the sight of my two sons standing sheepishly in front of Tommy. Their dress shirts are wrinkled, but I am happy to see they are still clean. There is no time to iron again though. My irritation ratchets up.
"Button your shirt boys," Tommy tells them, noticing my annoyance. They both immediately comply.
"You look pretty mommy," Nick tells me shyly. He is almost me in miniature, even down to his nature. But his eyes and mouth are the same shape as his father's, almond and plump, and his hair has soft waves to it that mine could never manage.
"Yeah, you do," Eddie adds. Standing next to Tommy, I am struck by how similar they are. With the exception of his darker skin, Eddie is Tommy in child form, even down to his occasional sullenness. He has a wild streak that has gotten us in the ER more times than I care to count, but he can be incredibly sweet when the mood strikes.
"Nick, go get Tina," Tommy instructs. My baby boy runs off gladly, socked feet sliding. I sense that Tommy has something to say to his oldest.
"Ed," he kneels in front of him, coming eye to eye with our 7 year old. "You gotta stop picking on Nick. You ever see your uncle pick on me?"
"No," Eddie pouts, refusing to make eye contact.
"And he's a good big brother. The best," Tommy says. I smile a little. "You want to be like him?"
"I want to be like you," Eddie even stomps his foot to drive his point home. I am struck by the sweetness of this sentiment and I wonder what Tommy will say.
"And I want to be like Uncle Brendan, so really, it's the same thing," Tommy tells him.
I make a mental note to tell Tess. It is the only way Brendan will ever hear about this moment.
Eddie seems to contemplate this for a moment. "Ok," he says at last. It is the most Tommy will get out of him, but it is still an agreement. My husband is pleased.
"Get your shoes on. We're leaving soon." Tommy stands up and turns to me. I smile at him.
"You need to get ready too, come on," I say and take his hand to pull him back to our room.
A half hour later our little family is packed into the car. Tina, our three year old, wears a dress in the same shade of gold as mine, though hers is more reminiscent of a Disney princess gown. She sits in her car seat, babbling happily to Nick who is holding her hand. Tina came out with wild, sand colored hair in the same shade as her uncle's and dark brown eyes that match mine. Her lips have the same plump pout as her father's and he is quick to cave every time she starts to wobble them and cry. Nick and Eddie, only a year apart, are wearing matching black vests over silver dress shirts, and their thick mats of hair have been combed into a respectable style. And Tommy finally has his black tie on, but has declined wearing a jacket. The first and last time he ever wore a tuxedo was our wedding 8 years ago.
"You let Bubba out?" I ask as we pull onto the freeway.
"Yeah, the big guy's outside," Tommy says.
One of the many dangers of living in a male dominated household is letting your sons and husband select the family pet. Two years ago we went to the pound with every intention of adopting an older, medium sized family dog. Instead we returned home with a wriggling, drooling, chubby St. Bernard puppy that has now evolved into something that resembles more horse than canine. But the boys and Tommy love him, and he has grown on me as well. I still am not strong enough to walk him though. That job still falls to Tommy and probably always will.
"Brendan's already there," I check my phone while Tommy drives.
"We'll get there," Tommy reassures me.
"We'd be there by now if someone hadn't spilled her apple juice all over the floor," I shoot my daughter a look in the rearview mirror.
She promptly explodes into giggles. Tommy smirks at me and I cannot keep the smile off my face.
Some things are just not worth getting upset over.
"Eddie, hold my hand," Tommy snags our son as we roll out of our car and begin rushing inside. A few people are still milling around outside the banquet hall. A few fighters wave, most notably Quinton Jackson. He is standing with his own family. Most of the rage has gone out of him by now and he and Tommy even have a friendly relationship. "Better get in there, Conlons. They're trying to get started," he tells us.
Eddie and Nick are already trying to make motions to go play with Jackson's boys but we pull them back.
"Let's go guys," hand in hand in hand in hand, we drag our children inside. Tommy is ushered away almost the moment we get through the door and we are shuffled over to where Brendan, Tess, Paddy and the girls sit. Tina rushes towards Emily and Rosie. The teen girls sweep their cousin up into their laps eagerly. My parents and oldest brother are stationed at the table right next to ours. Michael gives me a kiss on the cheek while Luke, now a college student and nearly a grown man, sportingly ruffles Eddie's hair.
"Thanks for coming," I kiss my parents as they fawn over their grandchildren. My dad is leaning over talking with Paddy in familiar tones.
"You guys barely made it," Brendan remarks easily, sipping his beer.
"The boys had a fight," I explain, sitting next to Tess.
Brendan shrugs, "When don't they?" I laugh a little. It is true that life at our house can be…rambunctious.
"Does Tommy know what he is going to say?" Tess asks me quietly as the MC calls for silence.
All I can do is shrug my shoulders. I honestly have no idea.
"All right guys, let's get this started," UFC President Dana White begins the ceremony. "This man coming up, he doesn't need any introduction. You know him as the best that's been ripping through fight after fight for years now. He's the two time winner of the Sparta tournament, the former Light Heavyweight champ, and just an all-around bad ass."
My sons giggle a little at the word "ass." I make a mental note to make sure they do not add it to their budding vocabulary.
"Tommy is also a hero; he is a Marine through and through. He fought for his country, returning from Iraq wounded from a bomb, but he still didn't quit. After recovering, he won Sparta and rose to be the biggest star in the UFC."
The crowd, a mixture of Tommy's fans, UFC insiders, fighters and their families hoot their appreciation.
"But everything has to come to an end," White continues. "Even the Mean Marine has to retire sometime. It's been a joy watching Tommy fight these past eight years and it is an honor for me to induct him into the UFC Hall of Fame. So without further ado," he gestures behind him to where Tommy is standing, "Tommy Conlon!"
Tommy swaggers to the podium with the expression on his face that won him his nickname over the last 8 years. He avoids the ESPN and SPIKE TV cameramen and blinks at the camera flashes coming from the crowd. He approaches the mic to the sound of loud cheering. Brendan is hooting and hollering, our kids are shouting in childish tones and even Paddy is yelling loudly. Tommy looks directly at us. I can tell he is nervous. I send him a telepathic message and blow him a kiss, hoping he remembers everything I coached him on.
He takes a deep breath and begins speaking.
"You guys know I don't like talking much," he rumbles in his deep voice, gripping the podium's sides. The response to this is instantaneous laughter. "My wife," he continues, nodding his head in my direction, "has been coaching me through this since the beginning. She tells me stuff like enunciate, don't scowl, try not to cuss." The laughter continues and I watch Tommy visibly relax.
"So I'm gonna make it quick. I just wanna say it's been a great time. You know, I came back from overseas, and it could've easily gone to hell for me. But fighting, it's gotten me through some tough times. For both me and my brother," Tommy pauses, collecting himself. Brendan raises his glass from our table. The two exchange small nods.
"You guys and my fans, you've been great. It's been a helluva ride. But it's time for the next thing, you know? I've got boys now and a little girl. So I'm thinking it's time to be a dad. But I'll always be around. I just won't be in the ring anymore." The applause begins, but it appears that Tommy is not finished.
"Nicole, thank you sweetheart, for being my anchor and putting up with my crap. I love you. And thanks to Pop, Brendan and Tess, and the rest of my family. Really, I couldn't have done it without you," he says. I feel my eyes begin to well up. I am aware my children are staring hard at me with looks of confusion. I bite back my emotion, resolving not to cry, despite the pride I feel.
Tommy walks off the stage the same way he used to walk out of the ring, silently, with long strides. He beelines straight for me, pulling me to him and laying a kiss on my lips that makes me flush from the roots of my hair down to my toes. When he finally relinquishes me, the crowd is hooting and whistling. He does not seem to notice.
"How'd I do?" he leans over to ask me as the waiters come around with dishes of food.
The tables are all mixed up now. Eddie, Nick and Tina are dodging around people's ankles, playing with cousins and talking to fighters they have become familiar with over the past few years. Angela, Michael's wife, and Tess are chatting amicably about some book they have both read, Emily is talking about SAT prep courses with a friend of hers and Rosie is relating her fears about high school to her grandpa. Brendan and Mike banter back and forth, teasing like they do at every family gathering.
"You did amazing," I tell him, kissing him gently over our plates.
"Champagne?" a waiter asks, brandishing a bottle.
Tommy holds out his glass, but I decline. "C'mon, sweetheart. I'm driving," he tells me, attempting to hand me his.
"I can't," I say simply. For a moment there is silence, and then Tommy begins laughing.
Brendan and Mike have overheard the last part of our conversation.
"Seriously?" Brendan laughs, looking at his nephews and niece across the room, "Again?"
Our table waits for my response.
"Again," I grin in Tommy's direction, looking nowhere but him.
"Does ESPN just count on you taking maternity leave every 18 months?" Mike jokes, pushing my shoulder lightly.
"Hey now, Tommy's part of the problem," Tess giggles, coming to my defense.
"Can't keep her off of me," Tommy shrugs. I shake my head at his joke, but he grabs my hand.
"That's great, sweetheart. Seriously," he whispers into my ear.
I cannot stop smiling. The night whirls by and a carousel of faces approach our table, offering congratulations, recounting fights, taking pictures. Tommy shines, as usual, but refuses to walk more than three feet away from me.
"So," a reporter asks Tommy as the night wraps up, "what's next for Tommy Conlon?"
Tommy looks at me over his microphone, with that crooked smile playing on his lips.
"Whatever I want," he tells him simply.
"Are you ready?" I ask him later, Nick asleep in my arms. Tina is nodding off in Paddy's lap. Only Eddie is still buzzing with excitement.
"Yeah, Nicole," Tommy swoops Eddie up, "Let's go home."
Our little family exits together, ready for whatever comes next.