Thanks so much for the brillaint response - you're all wonderful!
Syrae: That's my favourite book! I'm glad someone picked up on it. For all of you out there, I suggest you read 'My best friend's girl' by Dorothy Koomson - this story is based on it.
Anonymous NCIS Fan: Tony's got lots in store for him, and it's gonna make you laugh and cry the whole way through! (hopefully!)
Vampgirl16: I've got some chapters written so some more should be up before the weekend. If not, bug me.
Jimmy-barnes-13: So faithful a reviewer! If you weren't so lovely I'd make you a minion!
Chapter Two: I'll Think About It
"One man's life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of knowledge which I sought." Walton, Frankenstein.
She was wearing mascara.
Even now, at what was probably one of the darkest hours of her life, Alicia was wearing make up. She always did have more style than sense.
At one time, he would've just come out and told her that - callously uttered the mild insult because he knew she'd take it with a smile and know he was messing around. He couldn't today. Things had drastically changed between them. Firstly, he hadn't seen her in four years. Secondly, the last time he'd seen her, she'd had her fingers buried in her mousy hair as if on the verge of pulling it out and all the make up she was wearing was running down her face amid her tears. She was talking, stumbling over her every word, saying so many things that Tony didn't care to hear. He, on the other hand, had been grabbing his jacket, pulling on his abandoned shirt and shoes, and holding back a thousand angry words whilst she collapsed into tears on the bed. Things don't go back to being normal after you part on those terms.
And thirdly, she was ill.
Neither of them spoke as a nurse fussed around Alicia, noting the readings on the machines, checking the lines on the drips, plumping up the pillows behind her. The nurse looked at Tony almost as if she knew him, and then warned Alicia not to talk for too long and left the pair to it.
Still, they didn't speak. 'Hi' seemed like an insufficient way to greet someone he'd sworn to cut out of his life and never speak to again, but it was also because he couldn't bring himself to talk. He just couldn't. This wasn't the Alicia he'd come to see. This wasn't the Alicia he'd braced himself to talk to after all this time.
He hadn't known what he expected, and he hadn't really thought about it on his drive from the NCIS base to the hospice after a mumbled fake excusal to Gibbs, but he hadn't expected her to look like this. He wanted to close his eyes and see the Alicia he expected to see. That mass of mousy-blonde hair would be there, as would that smooth healthy glow on her flawless skin. What would be the clearest thing about her? Those eyes. Eyes which were the blue-grey colour of highly polished steel. Or her smile, which would always light up the room around her. Whichever it was behind his eyelids, the real Alicia would be there, so perfect and three-dimensional that he could almost reach out and touch her.
With his eyes open, Alicia Ryan was different. Altered.
The Alicia who was propped up in the bed had skin that was a blotched patchwork of grey, white and yellow. Her face was hollowed out from weight-loss and under her sunken eyes, conspicuously missing their eyebrows, deep dark circles were permanently etched. Around her head was a tied red scarf, probably to hide the lack of hair. Tony's body went cold. Her beautiful hair, her gorgeous long locks that she'd always been so proud of, were gone. Stripped away by the drugs that were supposed to make her better.
He didn't know she'd look like this. Frail, and so fragile that one touch would crumble her into a thousand pieces.
"It's good to see you," she said, her voice a low rasp that was probably as painful to create as it was to hear. "I'm glad you came."
"What's with the voice?" he asked, wincing inside as he realised how cruel his tone sounded.
"It's the treatment," she explained. "It makes my mouth dry and my tongue feels like its grown a carpet on top."
He half-smiled. "Remember when we'd feel like that because we'd gotten so drunk the night before?" he commented, before mentally slapping himself. I was trying to express sympathy and even that was going wrong.
However, Alicia's cracked lips pulled up into a smile. "Trust you, Tony," she laughed weakly. "No one else has dared to say anything like that to me. Too scared of making me cry, I suppose. Trust you to break the taboo."
"It wasn't intentional," he muttered shamefully. "Just being myself, I guess."
"I wouldn't want you any other way," she smiled.
"What's wrong with you, Alicia?" he asked her. That sounded wrong, too. Admittedly, part of him was still that man who was gathering his belongings and leaving her apartment as quickly as he could, but most of him was broken hearted at the sight of the woman before him. He was used to solving problems with action, and there he was, staring at a woman who was in pain, knowing that he couldn't do a thing about it.
"Leukaemia," she replied.
"I thought only kids got that," he replied before he could stop himself.
"That's what I said," she smirked. "When the doctor first told me, I said those exact words. Didn't go down to well, I can tell you."
"Glad to know it's not only me who says inappropriate things," he muttered loudly.
"Yeah, even when I'm at deaths door."
She said that so calmly that it shocked him. He had the urge to reach out, take hold of her by the shoulders and shake her. Violently. So violently that she was reminded of what was going on. How could she be so laid back about this? So comfortable with the notion? He was struggling to understand how someone who was his age, who went to the gym, who ate relatively healthily, who had never smoked, never drank quite as much as he did, woke up one day to find there was a clock ticking over her head. How does someone like Alicia discover she was one step closer to knowing when she'd meet her end? It was the one thought that had been plaguing him since the second he'd opened that card this morning.
"It's alright, you know. I've accepted what's going to happen to me," Alicia assured him, as though reading his thoughts. "It took me a while, but I'm here. I know it's going to take you a while to catch up."
"Only a little while?" he asked sarcastically.
"I had to get to this point quickly," she continued, ignoring what he'd said and how he'd said it. "I had to make plans. It's not just about me. So no matter how much I wanted to pretend it wasn't happening, I had to remember the most important person that needs taking care of."
"Penny," he whispered.
She was talking about her daughter, Penelope. How was she taking this? If Tony was having problems dealing with it, how was a little three year old coping?
"She's why I've asked you here," Alicia whispered. "She's yours, Tony."
Tony's eyes widened and for a moment he realised that, yes, it was completely possible to choke on nothing more than air. He found his chest constricting and breathing became an unfamiliar action as he looked helplessly at Alicia.
"…excuse me?" he spluttered out after a long silence.
"Penelope's your daughter, Tony," Alicia said simply.
"She-she-she can't be!" he coughed out desperately. "You told me you'd slept with someone else and that it was his baby," Tony reminded her, once again picturing her covered in running make up as she begged him not to leave her. "That's why I left. You said it wasn't my baby."
"Well, at the time, I didn't think you could handle it," she explained, much calmer than he was.
"I can't handle it now!" he exploded back, standing up from his chair and starting to pace the room at the end of her bed. "Jesus, Alicia. I can't be Penny's dad."
"You are," she confirmed.
"I'm not the daddy type,"
"Which is why I told you she wasn't yours in the first place."
"I can't be her father," he whispered, more to himself than Alicia, but she answered him none the less.
"Unfortunately, you don't have much of a choice, Tony," she whispered, "because I'm not going to be around much longer to be her mother."
And then Tony realised why, exactly, she'd asked him to come.
"What?" he whispered.
"After I'm gone, I want you to Penny to be with you."
"What?" he repeated.
"I want…no, I need Penny to be with you after I die."
Tony could feel the frown creasing his forehead and his face twisting into an 'are you mad?' expression. Alicia just stared back at him as if she expected an answer to what she'd just told him.
"You're joking, right?" he stammered.
"I'm dying, Tony," she replied, exasperated. "If I was joking it'd be funny. Of course I'm not joking. This is my little girl's future I'm talking about here, and I need to know you'll be the one to take care of her when I die."
"I can't," he said, shaking his head.
"You haven't even thought about it," she protested.
"There's nothing to think about," he explained. "I'm an NCIS special agent, Alicia. I work all hours of the day, most of the time all hours of the night. My apartment hasn't been cleaned in six weeks and I consider that a good thing. I could get killed any day with what I do. I'm not father material."
"Well, the difference there is that while you could die, I actually am going to die," she said simply, but the bluntness cut into him, softening his gaze. "Look, I've done all the hard stuff…morning sickness, losing my figure, twenty-six hours in labour…you just have to look after her. Be her father. Love her."
Like it was that easy.
"Alicia, we haven't even spoken in four years and now you're telling me that you're dying and I need to take in our daughter? Can you see what's wrong with this picture? Can you understand why I'm having problems with this?" he asked her, using so many hand gestures that Abby would be proud of him.
"She's your daughter, Tony," she said, a determination in her voice that sounded rather threatening considering its hoarseness.
He couldn't argue with that. He stopped, glancing at the photo on her nightstand. It was a plain frame, but a close up of Alicia and who must be Penelope. He knew of her, of course, but he'd never actually laid eyes upon her. Penny had her arms linked around her mother's neck, holding her mother as close as possible to her. They were both grinning at the camera. Penny really did look like the both of them, he noticed, although more like him than Alicia.
"Tony," Alicia whispered softly, indicating for him to sit on the end of the bed when she realised how the photo had strangely calmed him. He sat down silently. "I'm sorry to lay this all on you in one day, but I don't know how long I've got left. I can't afford to mess about. If you don't take her, what will happen to her? There's no one…" the whites of her eyes darkened with red and her chest started to heave. "I can't even cry," she whispered between heaves, "because I'm not producing enough tears." Instead of crying, she started to choke, each couch convulsing her thinned body.
This affected Tony more than anything else, and he put his hand over hers. "Please don't," he whispered, desperate to stop her. "Look, I'll think about it, okay?"
Alicia kept inhaling deeply until she'd calmed down. "You'll really think about it?" she asked when she was calm enough to speak.
"That's all I ask," she smiled weakly. "Thank you."
They lapsed into silence. He knew he should be going. Gibbs had given him an hour for his 'personal business', and he was running dangerously close to the end of his time limit. Alicia had done the deed, had asked the unthinkable of him, so what was there to do but for him to leave, retreat back to his birthday, and think about it as he had promised?
But the haunted look in her eyes was what kept him there at her side. Everything she did, even on her deathbed, was for her daughter. Nothing and no one came before Penny. The idea of leaving her must be more than she could bear. And how do you explain to a child that you're leaving them? How do you tell your child you're dying?
"Where is she?" he asked in attempt to diffuse the tension and guilt that hung over him.
"With my father and step-mother."
Tony's heart actually jumped it's next beat. Were things really that bad that she'd left Penny with them? "And how's that been?" he asked her, rather than jumping up and screaming 'are you mad?' at her.
"Awful," Alicia replied, the whites of her eyes reddening even more. "They don't let me see her. Since I've been here they've brought her to see me once. Once in three weeks. They say its too far so they only bring her when it's convenient. I speak to her on the phone every day but it's not that same." She took a deep breath. "I miss her so much, and I can tell every time I speak to her that she's becoming more and more withdrawn. She can't understand why she can't be with me when I need her the most. But they don't want her there and she knows it. Tony, I want to be with my daughter. I've only got a little while, and I want to spend it with her," she looked at her, her eyes beseeching him, asking him to solve this problem for her. "I just want to see her."
"Is there anyone else she can stay with?" he asked her. I knew that she had no other family, but surely she had some friends? Anyone that Penny could stay with but her Alicia's father and step-mother.
"No," she shook her head. "When I first got seriously sick, I wrote to you to ask if you could take care of Penny for a while, but you never replied."
"I never opened the letter," he replied honestly, rubbing the back of his neck in shame. I still had it, he was sure, kicked to the back of a drawer like all other correspondence from her. I was too indignant to open them but to cowardly to throw them away.
"I guessed you didn't," she nodded. "I tried a couple of other people but they couldn't take on such a big responsibility, so it had to be my father."
"Do they still live in the same place in Riverdale?" he asked her.
She nodded. "Yes.
"Okay," he nodded. "Maybe I could go in and see her on my lunch hour tomorrow if we're not working a big case."
Alicia's eyes lit up a little. "You'd do that?"
He nodded. "I'm not saying I'll take her in or anything, but I'll just go and see if she's all right, okay? Just a visit."
"Thank you, Tony," she smiled.
But there was one flaw.
"She won't know who I am," he realised.
"She might do," Alicia corrected him. "She's seen photographs."
"Where does she think I am?" he asked, considering she'd never been part of his life.
"She thinks you've been on holiday. It's only recently she started asking, so…" she trailed off, leaving him to draw his own conclusions. Her eyes closed, and this time they remained closed.
Tony froze, anxiety twisting in his stomach as time ticked by but she didn't open her eyes. The machines were still rhythmically beeping so he knew that she wasn't…but what if this was the start of it? What if this was the beginning of it?
Her eyelids crept apart into thin slits her sallow skin greyer than it had been when first arrived. He was tiring her out. He should leave. Gibbs was going to kill him as it was. But he didn't want to go. He wanted to stay with her. Be with her. Just in case…he wanted to sit there all day. All night. If it would help.
"I better go," he forced himself to say. He wouldn't do any good there. "If I'm going to see Penny tomorrow I better not piss my boss off by getting back late today."
He stood up, placing a gentle, almost brotherly kiss, to her forehead.
"Tell her mommy loves her?" she said, her voice as weak as tissue paper.
"I will," he replied. "Of course I will."
He paused in the doorway, waiting for Alicia's reply. He got nothing, so he turned to look at her. She was asleep, that was clear from the slow rise and fall of her chest. He watched her for a few seconds, fancying himself as soon kind of guardian angel watching over her and keeping safe, but reality reminded him that no one could do that for her now. She was beyond being kept safe. She was beyond his help.
Sighing, he left the room, and headed out to the car. It wasn't until he had parked back outside NCIS, spotting McGee returning to the building with three coffee's in a Styrofoam holder and a Caf-Pow in his other hand, that another coherent thought, and perhaps the bravest moment in his life, occurred.
There had been a time when he'd promised Alicia he'd been her knight in shining armour. But he couldn't do that anymore. He couldn't be there to protect her from shadows and nightmares. He couldn't hold her and promise her that everything was going to be okay. She was beyond his help.
But Penelope wasn't.
He turned his car around, and headed out to Riverdale, and Alicia's parents house.