The voice on the intercom was politely commanding passengers to turn off all portable electronic devices, prompting a pointed glance at Tony and his headphones from the woman to his left. He popped the plastic shade and leaned his head against the window, ignoring her. He'd made her for a conversationalist as soon as he'd taken his seat. He'd immediately put on the headphones. They were connected to nothing. The Washington Monument came into view and his jaw unclenched- slightly, but enough to make a difference.
It was over. He was almost home.
Four days with the entire extended DiNozzo clan had pushed him to the point of breaking. He hadn't been around them all together like that- every aunt, every cousin, his dad- since the holidays of his childhood. It was enough to make him understand that it wasn't a matter of "you can't go home again," but really a question of why anyone would want to.
He, like many men of his age, had made the journey back only because there was a goodbye to be said. His Nonna. It had crushed him. Imagine that, being 41-years-old and devastated by the death of your grandmother. She'd been nearly 100, and she managed to take him by surprise. He wasn't sure he'd ever forgive her, but he had flown to New York to take his place on a pew in a church, dressed in a tie like a nice young man, to honor his Nonna. He owed it to her to be there. When he was a kid, and everyone else skipped out on him, she was there. She had loved him when all else failed.
He'd missed her from the moment he'd gotten the phone call.
He had wanted to make it a hit-and-run: hit the church, run back to JFK. That's not how things worked in his family, and there wasn't a single one of his Zias that would allow it. The DiNozzos wallowed in death for a while. They considered it a matter of respect.
It had taken three days for the talk in the family kitchen to turn to him. Zia Rosa and Zia Francesca- neither had ever learn to whisper. Every cousin at the dining table, waiting patiently to be served their gnocchi, heard the lament that Junior had ended up just like Senior.
Every cousin at the dining table looked sad for him. The Zias, when they arrived on the scene, looked merely disappointed. They had expected better.
They weren't the only ones.
It had all been enough to make him desperate to answer "gin" to the flight attendant's request for his drink order. He'd settled for water and counted it a victory in his ongoing battle with self-fulfilling prophecies.
He startled at the first bump of the landing, then rested his head against the seat as the plane rushed to a stop. An oxymoron, that. What else rushed to a stop? It felt like the beginning of a riddle. He'd use it to confuse McGee when he returned to work tomorrow.
His jaw relaxed a little further at the thought.
They made it to the gate, and his fellow passengers became frenetic- unbuckling seat belts, pulling out cell phones, pushing their way into the narrow aisle. Tony kept still. He was near the rear of the plane, and he'd given up on magical thinking long ago. Why stand hunched over under the overhead bin, when you could remain seated? Either way, you were going to have to wait.
His turn to disembark came in its own time, and not a moment before. He slipped the strap of his carry-on over his shoulder, blinking when the first blast of air conditioning hit his face. He followed the crowd to baggage claim, holding his breath. He never really believed his bags would make it home with him. They always did, so his lack of belief must be good luck. He pulled the familiar black suitcase off the carousel and wove his way back through those still waiting.
A woman with a toddler swished past him, nearly making him trip. He didn't get angry, because he saw who she was running to. An elderly lady, probably her mother, with tears already in her eyes. He let himself spy on someone else's reunion for a few moments.
That's why she was able to sneak up on him.
Her gentle tap made him jump. She laughed at him, and he was getting even closer to home.
"What are you doing here?" Did they have a case? It would be just like Gibbs to send her for him as soon as the plane touched down.
But her gaze went to the floor, and she started worrying her lower lip, and she even flushed a little. These were her tells, and she gave herself away. No one had sent her.
"Perhaps I was simply in the neighborhood" was her quiet reply.
Another time, under different circumstances, he would have teased her mercilessly.
Today she had remembered when his flight arrived, driven in rush hour to Reagan National, and paid to park her car, all so she could greet him at baggage claim.
So he wrapped his arms around her.
She stiffened at his touch, unused to hugs coming out of nowhere. He felt her relax a little, even manage to give the nape of his neck a reassuring squeeze. He released her, and she transferred the carry-on from his shoulder to hers, lightening his load.
It had been a long week, but now he was home. And not at all alone.