A/N My dear and faithful readers:After subjecting you to another long time between updates, I have decided it is time to bring When You're Not Looking to an end. Between a new job, out-right busy-ness, and, admittedly, some cluelessness over where to go next, I feel it is only right to walk away before I do Don, Noelle, Katie or Tony any disservice. Perhaps one day there will be a sequel. And you cannot stop a writer from writing, so I'll be around.
Thank you to everyone who has supported my story along the way. This epic has been three years in the making, and it has only endured this long because of all of you! Don, Noelle, Katie, Tony – and Rocco – also wish to say thank you for tagging along on their adventures.
With that said, I give you the finale...
"Hey, babe, mail's here," Don announced as he walked into the kitchen. He sat down at the table next to Noelle, who was typing away on her laptop.
Even though her latest deadline had long since passed and her new chapters had not yet been forwarded to her editor, she stopped her work as Don gently tossed the pile of mail onto the table, a large envelope deliberately set on the top of the stack. She just stared at it for a moment before looking over at her husband. "So it's official."
"Considering the envelope is even thicker than the ones that came from Florida State and Virginia, I'd say, yeah, it's pretty official."
She blinked a couple times as if willing the envelope to disappear. Finally, she pushed back from the table and walked over to the counter, pouring herself another cup of coffee. However, she did not take a sip of the strong, black liquid. Instead, she set the mug down forcefully and looked back over at her husband. "Damn it! What are we going to do now?"
"He – He can't go, Donnie."
"Look, I know you're not exactly thrilled about this but –"
"You think?" Noelle shot back.
Don quirked an eyebrow, a half-smile tugging at his mouth. "Babe..."
She furrowed her brow. "You're right. I'm not happy about it, because I'm thinking about how disappointed Danny's going to be. I mean, a miserable Danny Messer is just not fun to be around," she rebuked.
Don's grin broadened at his wife's attempt to sidestep how disappointed she was. Well, disappointed was not the right word. Worried. Scared. All of those adjectives that describe a mother's concern over her child's well-being. "C'mon, sweetheart, do you have any idea how damn proud we should be right now?" he pointed out.
"I know. I am proud," she admitted softly.
"Messer'll get over it. Besides, Tony's still gonna be playing ball. If nine Black Knights have been drafted into the Majors over the years, there's nothing sayin' the same can't happen for him. Just 'cause they're not a top ten team right now..."
"It's sunny in Florida," Noelle argued pointlessly.
"Sure, but he'd be a thousand miles away. Now he's less than a half-day's drive."
She shook her head. "I don't get how you can be so okay with this."
"Look, Nol, I ain't exactly thrilled here, and don't think I don't have all the same concerns. But, babe, despite all the crap our kid had thrown at him early on, Tony gettin' in here just reinforces what we already knew: our son has grown into this intelligent, strong and honourable young man. And you know this wasn't something that just happened overnight. He's been working for this for almost two years." He reached out his hand to her, and when she finally relented and walked back over to him, he took her hand and pulled her down onto his lap.
Noelle took a deep breath, unable to deny her husband's point. "Florida State and UV were never more than just back-ups, were they?"
"Unless he's changed his mind, yeah." Don leaned over and kissed her gently. "It's gonna be okay. But as much as we don't want to, it's time we gotta let him go."
"You make it sound easy."
"You kiddin' me? Driving him down to Annapolis in July is gonna be the hardest thing I've ever had to do. But he's almost eighteen. We can't keep him locked up here in this house. We gotta stand back and let him find his own way now. But I'm pretty damn sure that with the choice he's making, he ain't gonna get lost out there."
"I'm not ready to let him go, Donnie," she whispered, her emotions threatening to get the best of her.
"We still got some time. But I don't think we've got a choice in this one." He brushed her hair off her face, then kissed her again, this time languidly. "You gonna be okay? I gotta go pick up Katie."
"Yeah, I'll be fine. I better send off these pages or Abigail's going to be all over me. You'd think after two books, she'd clue into the fact that if it's not at least a little late, it's not going to be any good."
"She just wants to make sure she keeps gettin' to work with the star of the publishing house."
Noli sighed. "I think what I'd rather do is take Rocco out for a run and try to get myself together before you guys get home. You're going to get the cake, right?"
"Yeah, you got it." He stood up, dropping a kiss on top of his wife's head before he headed out to pick up their daughter from school.
A couple hours later, Noelle was assembling a lasagne for dinner when she heard the front door open and close.
"Hey, Ma, did, uh – Did anything come in the mail for me today?" Tony asked hopefully as he bounded into the kitchen after dropping his backpack and kicking off his shoes in the foyer – uttering the first words that had escaped his lips every day for the past week.
Noelle glanced up from her spot at the counter. She nodded towards the kitchen table sternly. She was not sure if she was chastising her son or trying to put off the inevitable just a little bit longer.
Tony looked over at the table, where Katie sat colouring, a pout on her face at being ignored. He furrowed his brow. He looked at his mother apologetically, then walked over and pulled out a chair, sitting down next to his little sister. "Hey, princess."
"Hi," she replied, not looking up at him.
"So, what'd ya do in pre-K today?"
Katie just shrugged.
Tony looked over his shoulder at Noelle for some help, but she just quirked an eyebrow and went back to working on dinner. He sighed, reaching over and smoothing a hand down over his little sister's curls. "You feel any different? It's a big deal being five."
At that, the little girl ventured a peek sideways through her long eyelashes.
He offered a lop-sided grin. "You think I'd forget such a big day? Ah, c'mon, Katie-bear. I've been tellin' everyone all over school that it's my little sister's fifth birthday today. I even had to catch myself a few times, 'cause I can't say 'baby sister' anymore. I mean, five's big. It's huge! You're like all grown up now, right?"
Katie nodded proudly with a big, toothy smile, forgetting that she had been mad at her brother only moments before.
"Yeah, you are." He leaned over and kissed her temple before ruffling her hair. "Soon kindergarten, then I got my money on Harvard..." he kidded.
"Bite your tongue," Noelle muttered quietly.
However, Tony heard her. He looked over at his mother, and from the expression on her face, he had the answer to his original question. He hesitated for a moment before planting another kiss on top of his sister's head, then pushing his chair away from the table. "Ma..."
Noli took a deep breath, then wiped her hands off on a towel before reaching across the sink to the other counter top where she had left the mail. She handed him the large envelope. "Congratulations, sweetheart."
His eyes widened as he took it from her. He turned it over in his hands a few times as if making sure it was real. Finally, he looked back at the front of the envelope. Up in the left corner, the unmistakeable insignia. And sure enough, it was addressed to him – his name, Antonio Flack, was staring right back at him. "It's official, Ma. I'm in!"
Despite her reservations, Noelle had a hard time fighting back a proud smile. "Of course you got in."
He quickly ripped open the envelope and pulled out the letter inside, his grin getting bigger as he read it through. He then shuffled through the extra material enclosed, his excitement growing.
"Congratulations, kid!" Don said from the doorway, a big grin on his own face. "We'll definitely have to celebrate."
"Some other night," Tony relented, looking at his sister with a wink. "Tonight's all about you, princess. What kind of cake did you finally decide on?"
Katie hopped down off her chair and walked over to Tony, looking up at him sadly. "You're going away?"
Tony crouched down in front of her, furrowing his brow at the look on her face. "Yeah, but you don't gotta worry about it for a while, okay? It's not for a couple months. We still got a while to hang out, and now that you're five, we're gonna be able to do all sorts of cool stuff."
"But I don't want you to go."
"It'll be okay, Katie-bear. I promise. And have I ever broken a promise to you?"
She shook her head slowly.
"Then you really think I would start now?"
The little girl shook her head once again. She then wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly. "Love you, Tony."
"Ah, I love you, too. Happy Birthday."
Hours later, the Flack house was full of relatives and friends, all gathered to celebrate Katie's fifth birthday. After a buffet dinner and cake and ice cream, and the opening of presents, the guests had scattered throughout the living and dining rooms and the kitchen. Katie had basked in the attention for much of the evening before finally heading up to her room with Matteo, Olivia, Lucy and her cousins to break in her new toys.
Not wanting to steal his daughter's thunder, but bursting at the seams with pride, Don took advantage when the opportunity presented itself. He managed a loud enough whistle to get everyone's attention and corralled the guests into the living room.
"If this is your way of saying the bar is closed, I'm outta here," Danny joked as the room quieted.
Everyone laughed, though Lindsay rolled her eyes at her husband before settling against his side as he threw an arm around her.
"No worries, Messer. In fact, if you don't have a drink in your hand, make sure you get one. Because we got a lot to celebrate tonight," Don announced.
Noelle, who was standing next to Tony across the room, put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it gently.
"I believe Noli and I have done enough bragging for you all to know that Florida State and UV have been banging down our doors trying to get our kid to play ball for them this Fall. But what you don't know is that neither school is gettin' the honour." With a proud grin, Don pointed his beer bottle at his son. "Tony has decided to turn down the Florida sunshine and the chance to play for the current number one team to accept the official appointment he received this afternoon to the United States Naval Academy!"
A somewhat surprised silence momentarily passed over the assembled crowd. Only one other person apart from his parents had known about Tony seeking admission to the USNA. It had been a very long process, and the Academy was very difficult to get into, so he had not wanted to broadcast his attempt in case he didn't make it. Even after he had received their Letter of Assurance back in the Fall, he had not wanted to jinx things, knowing he still had to get through his senior year without letting his grades drop or his strength out on the field diminish.
Mac walked over to Tony with a broad smile on his face, his hand extended to the young man. "Congratulations, Tony. I am very proud of you, son."
Tony looked away a little sheepishly, before finally shaking the outstretched hand. "Thank you, Mac. You have no idea how much I have appreciated all of your help and support through all of this."
"You knew about this, Mac?" Danny asked a little incredulously. He clapped Tony on the back then. "Congrats, man. But I guess I just lost all hope of ever gettin' season's tickets for the Mets, huh?"
Tony chuckled. "Well, not any time soon. But I'm determined to kick the Black Knights' asses at the next Army-Navy game. I've already been given a place on the team, so don't count it out completely. It's just no longer my priority. And it's your fault, you know."
Danny raised his eyebrows. "How's that, kid?"
"'Cause I've been watching you and Lindsay, and Mac and Stella. Add to that carrying the Flack name, and you kind of get the importance of the whole protect and serve thing. I want to do my part."
Offers of congratulations, hugs and handshakes followed, everyone impressed with the choice he was making.
"So, are we going Navy or Marine?" Mark asked his nephew.
"Hopefully Marine. But time will tell. A smaller number of graduates get the second lieutenant commission in the Corps than commissions in the Navy. Although, I haven't completely ruled out the SEALS," Tony explained.
A couple hours later, the guests having all gone home, Don finished reading the birthday girl her bedtime story and tucked her in.
"Did you have fun at your birthday party, cutie?" he asked as he brushed her curls off her face and kissed her forehead.
Katie nodded with a big grin.
"I'm glad, baby girl. Okay, you all set? You got your glass of water, and Rocco's already on watch...You have sweet dreams." He tweaked her nose, then went to stand up from his spot on the edge of her bed.
"Auntie Stella say that Tony will get a un'form like Uncle Mac has in those picsures in his office!"
Don sat back down with a nod. "Yep, she's right."
"I don't want him to go away. But Uncle Will said we should be really proud of him. That means he's doing something 'portant, right?" she asked.
Flack smiled. "Yeah, he is. And I know you're really gonna miss him, cutie. So are me and your ma. But he's gonna call and email whenever he can, and I bet he's gonna have all sorts of cool stories to tell ya when he comes home."
"Maybe Rocco can go with him and make sure he doesn't get lonely."
Don glanced over at the sleeping dog. "That's a really nice idea, but I think Rocco would miss you too much. And I have a feeling that your brother is probably not allowed to have a German shepherd in the barracks with him."
"Oh. Can he take Mr Monkey then?"
Don chuckled at the thought of his macho son showing up for Plebe Summer at the Naval Academy with a stuffed monkey in hand. "You know somethin', cutie? Tony's gonna be staying with a lot of other guys. I don't think he'll need Mr Monkey. But that doesn't mean that he's not gonna miss his little sister like crazy." He leaned down and kissed her cheek. "Now why don't you close your eyes and get some sleep, okay? Tomorrow, you, me, Tony and your mom will do something fun together. How's that sound?"
"Yay! Okay, I go to sleep now. Love you, Daddy."
"I love you, too. Happy Birthday, cutie."
Downstairs, Tony helped his mother clean up the kitchen, furrowing his brow as he noticed how distant she looked as she loaded the dishwasher. "Ma?"
"You're not mad, are you?" he asked warily.
Noelle stopped what she was doing and straightened up, turning to look at her son. "No, of course not."
"But you're not happy that I'm accepting the appointment to the Academy, right?"
"Here, come sit for a second." She put an arm around him and led him over to the kitchen table, both sitting down together. She hesitated for a moment, knowing there was no way she was going to get through this without getting all weepy, and already bemoaning the fact. She looked at Tony, almost in disbelief at how grown up he was. He was taller than Don now, and in pique physical shape – strong and muscular. His thick, black hair was cut short, and there was usually some scruff on his face. His voice was deep, an unmistakeable Queens accent buried in the timbre. Aside from the physical, he had become a mature, self-assured young man. He and Candice had stayed together most of two years, but had broken up earlier in the year when she decided she couldn't handle her boyfriend committing himself to the Armed Forces for the next nine years. He had remained single since, and was still deciding which of the myriad of interested girls at Fillmore High he was going to ask to prom. It was definitely a man, not a boy, who was looking back at Noli now. He was worlds away from the kid who had come to live there three years earlier.
"Mom, you're staring," he cut into her thoughts, a lop-sided smile on his face.
She shook her head with a sheepish smile. "Sorry. I just – God, I can't get over how much you've changed. I still remember the shy boy Don brought home that day. And in some ways, it feels like it was just yesterday, while in others..."
"Feels like forever, huh?"
She nodded. She took a deep breath. "I'm about to get all mushy, so brace yourself."
He laughed softly. "Yeah, kinda figured."
Noli rolled her eyes. "Honey, it's not that I'm unhappy. I'm just – I'm a mom. I'm your mom. And the thought of my son going away to school is difficult enough to wrap my head around. But when that school's preparing you for the Marines? It's a little overwhelming."
"The war's over, Ma. And even if it wasn't, it's not like I'd be shipping out to Kandahar or someplace like that tomorrow."
"I know, baby. But you'll still be shipped off somewhere at some point. And it could be Boise, Idaho, and I'd still worry. That's my job. You have to understand, Antonio, that there is no way I could love you any more if I had carried you inside of me for nine months, or if you had come to live with us one second before you did. You're my son in every way that matters. So no matter what, this is going to be hard."
"I get it. But I gotta do this."
She nodded. "I know you do. You have this sense of honour and this work ethic that just amazes me. Between everything you went through, and then being the kid of a cop, you had the foundation laid to be the kind of teenager that rebelled and got your father and I called at crazy hours of the morning to pick you up from hospitals or police stations..."
He chewed on his lip, looking away.
Noelle shook her head with a roll of her eyes. "Yeah, well, your dad and I didn't find out about you disassembling that squad car with John and Sonny until well after the fact – for which you should be very grateful."
"You're just lucky you re-assembled it correctly and didn't get caught, or your father would have locked you up himself."
Tony just grinned. He had figured that if his old man could hotwire a squad car in his youth, than he should be able to take one apart. He did put it back together – after leaving it running with the lights and sirens on all night in the school yard, homage to the pranksters at MIT. "It's your fault for takin' me and Katie to Boston last year."
"To visit Don's sister. Not so you could get some crazy ideas from MIT. Anyway, back to my point: besides one questionable prank – which, admittedly, you had to be some kind of genius to pull off – you've become this incredible young man, and I am so very proud of you. But you have to understand that doesn't mean that I'm ready to let you go yet. But I do realize that's mine to deal with, and that I do need to let you go," she confessed. She reached over and took his hand. "You know, the night before my hysterectomy, I told Jen that it was okay, because I knew it meant there was a child out there that needed me more than any I could give birth to. But I never guessed I would end up with two amazing kids. And being your mom is a gift. But it's a mother's prerogative to worry, Tony. Especially when her son does something crazy like joining the Armed Forces. Doesn't mean I won't be bragging about you just the same."
"I wouldn't have ever gotten into the Academy if it weren't for you and Dad. Katie and I are the lucky ones in this, Ma."
"Now who's getting mushy?" she teased him in response.
"You started it. I'm goin' to bed. But we're cool, right?" he asked as he stood up.
"Of course. Just make sure there's lots of Kleenex available the day we take you to Annapolis, and steal some of your granddad's blood pressure pills and spike my drink with them whenever you have to tell me you're being shipped out somewhere. Then it'll be fine."
He fired her off his trademark grin. "Night, Ma."
Don walked into the en suite a while later as Noelle was brushing her teeth. He leaned against the counter and just watched her as she finished. Four years together and she still took his breath away.
"What are you looking at?" she asked as she caught his eye in the mirror.
She blushed. She grabbed the bottle of moisturizer off the counter and rubbed some into her hands as she turned and looked at him. She bit her lip, taking in his long, lean form standing there in front of her, only a pair of sweats slung low on his hips.
"See something you like, Mrs Flack?" he asked with a quire of his eyebrow.
"Maybe," she said nonchalantly, slowly closing the distance between them.
"This mean you're feeling better about everything?" he asked as he wrapped her in his arms.
"It means I'm looking for a distraction. Got any ideas?"
"See babe, that's why you married me. 'Cause I've always got your back. You need a distraction, I'm your man."
Noelle laughed softly. "So very altruistic of you."
He flashed his dimples before he leaned down and captured her lips in a searing kiss. "Everything's gonna be okay."
"I know." She slid her arms around his neck, her hands playing with the short hair at the nape of his neck. "As long as I've had you, everything's been okay. Even when it hasn't."
Don nodded with a smile. "He's just growin' up, Nol."
"Funny thing is, neither of us is gettin' any older," he quipped. He pulled her even closer. "I love you. I love our kids. And I love the life we've made together. Tony goin' away to school – isn't it some kinda validation that the life we got here is pretty damn good? He had opportunities he might not've had otherwise, right? Now he's goin' to the USNA. Not every parent out there can say that about their kid."
"Maybe we could just brag about the fact that he got in and not that he's actually going there?" she suggested hopefully.
"You know somethin', I think I'd be worried if you were pushin' him out the door. So I'll take this whole holdin' on as tight as you can thing."
"You know me well."
Flack smirked. "I know you very well. Fact is, I'm pretty sure I know how to keep your mind of all of this for most of the night. You game?"
"Are you going to be losing what clothes you have on?"
"A distinct possibility. And as hot as you look in my shirt there, turn about's fair play."
"Well, if it involves a locked bedroom door, both of us naked and you doing that thing that makes me forget my own name..."
"Wow, and here I thought solving homicides was my best skill."
"Oh, rest assured, Detective, you are a man of many talents. I love you."
Don fired off a wink. "Bed?"
Noelle grinned. "Or dresser. Maybe the floor..." She took his hand and led him into the bedroom.
"So this is what happens when you're not looking. A hot chick picks you up in a bar and decides to never let go."
"Who picked up who?" she asked with a quirk of her eyebrow.
"Ah, c'mon, you couldn't resist my charm."
"Yeah, you keep telling yourself that."
He smirked. "It makes a good story, ya gotta admit. And seriously, Nol, isn't it time you cop to the fact that you nearly spilled that drink on me on purpose?"
"Oh, God, here we go again..."