Title: Play Me Home
Genre: gen, alternate universe, genderbend
Warnings: past character death, mentions of child abandonment and abuse.
Word Count: 1683
Prompt: The Writer’s Table Thursday Vignettes, February 7, 2019
Summary: It was the most beautiful piano Toni had ever seen.
She was tired and her head ached from all the crying she’d done lately, most recently in the airplane bathroom just hours ago. Her uncle had hovered worriedly outside making her cry harder. A flight attendant had shooed him away and offered her a cold compress and calm words without any cloying sympathy. She hadn’t made eye contact with Uncle Clive since; it had made for a very long trip.
The house was ridiculous and beautiful. It felt welcoming in a way her parent’s Long Island house, with it’s carefully decorated rooms, never had. Maybe it was all the gleaming wood instead of stark white and gilt but this house felt warm, if a little intimidating.
“Nina?” Uncle Clive spoke gently, as he had since he’d first arrived in Hawaii. Her mother’s stories about her uncle had made him sound like a too-serious boy, not an adult, so she hadn’t known what to expect when the police called him. Her mum had always talked about visiting her family in England when it was ‘convenient’ which even back then, Toni had known had little to do with vacation days and everything to do with her mum’s drinking.
“Yes?” She looked out from under her bangs, not quite making eye contact. Her uncle had set the suitcases down further inside the entrance. Another man was beside him, both of them watching her as she lingered by the door.
“You can leave your bag with Marcus,” Uncle Clive said. “He’ll take it to your room.”
Marcus didn’t look like the butlers she’d seen in the movies. His suit was nice but it wasn’t black and he wasn’t wearing white gloves. He was only a few years older than Uncle Clive, as well. But he had a nice smile when Toni glanced at his face. “Okay.” She took off her backpack and tried not to wince at the thud it made against the floor. “Sorry.”
Marcus swept the bag up. “The floor has endured worse, luv. Like being an emergency shelter during the war — and Clive as a child.”
“Very funny,” Clive grumbled. Toni waited for him to say something cutting or dismiss Marcus — her father didn’t tolerate any humour at his expense unless someone was richer than he was — but none came.
It wasn’t the first time Uncle Clive had surprised her since he’d appeared in Honolulu. The first, and biggest, surprise being he’d come at all instead of sending someone in his place. It was a terribly long trip from England to Hawaii and her father had said repeatedly that Paddingtons were too hoity-toity to care about anyone but themselves. Toni was old enough to understand that meant they didn’t like her father and, more importantly in his mind, weren’t willing to give him money.
“Very accurate,” Marcus said. “Your father was persuaded to wait until tomorrow to descend in all his glory while the rest of the family has the sense to wait for an invitation. Ms Rose called and left a message for you to call her when you’re settled. She also offered any assistance you might need.”
“Who’s Rose?” Toni asked. Uncle Clive had straightened when Marcus said her name.
“She’s . . . a friend.”
“Your girlfriend, you mean.” It was a little weird to think of her uncle having a girlfriend but he wasn’t married so it made sense. It was worrying, though. Her father’s girlfriends could be problematic, ignoring Toni completely or treating her like a little girl or some kind of doll. Worst of all were the ones who saw her as an enemy. The last had resulted in Toni being sent to boarding school.
She had no idea what was going to happen now. Clive had come to Hawaii and told her she was coming to England with him. Detective McGarrett, the police officer who had taken care of her when she could no longer pretend her father would return to the hotel any minute, had promised she’d be taken care of. Toni had overheard enough conversations in the last week to know there were lawyers involved. She’d even had to speak to a judge, who had taken her for shaved ice instead of interviewing her in an office. Toni had humiliated herself by crying when asked if she wanted to talk to her father — but no one had asked her about him again and her uncle had gotten permission to take her to England.
Toni wanted to believe the adults who said everything would be alright, but twelve was plenty old enough to know that adults lied and men broke promises.
“Rose isn’t — she’s — it’s complicated,” Clive managed. “Would you like a nap? Or something to eat? It was a long flight — you must be hungry.”
Toni was always hungry, which annoyed her father; ‘eating him out of house and home’ as he said. It was puberty and her rapid growth, according to her health class, as were the other changes to her body and the nagging aches in her limbs at night. Her father didn’t like to hear about that, either, since growing pains were something people made up for attention.
But so far, Clive hadn’t said anything about her appetite. “I could eat.”
He looked so relieved Toni felt a little guilty. He was trying really hard — but she didn’t know if it would last or if she’d grow troublesome for him just as for her dad and his various girlfriends. And her mom.
“Good. Marcus —”
“I’ll take care of it,” Marcus said. “Tea now and an early supper so you can both go to bed and adjust to the time. Twenty minutes?”
“That’s fine.” Marcus vanished with her bag and two of the suitcases, leaving Toni and her uncle alone in the lovely entranceway of the beautiful house that was thousands of miles from everything Toni knew and even further from the place her father had abandoned her.
He didn’t forget her. You had to know someone existed before you forgot them.
“I — can I show you your room?”
Toni nodded, staring down at her sneakers. They were dirty against the polished floor, stained with grass and dirt from the soccer field. Except it was called football here. Not even her favourite sport, a refuge from loneliness since her mother died, was the same.
“This way, then.”
Uncle Clive lead the way upstairs, past antiques and stately clocks and gilded frames of people in stiff clothes. He stopped to point out a few ancestors with names she recognized from some of her mum’s stories.
“That room is set up as the television room,” Uncle Clive said, catching Toni’s attention. She loved movies and tv. “I’ll show you how to work everything tomorrow. The music room is here,” a door was open on a room full of light from windows. There were several instruments on stands, including a real harp, and a shelf of music books. But the focus of the room was the piano.
It was beautiful, even more so than her mother’s baby grand. It wasn’t lacquered black or white but varnished so you could see the wood grain. The lid was raised, as was the fallboard.
“You can try it out.”
Toni realized he’d taken a step forward and quickly drew back. “What?”
Uncle Clive nodded to the piano. “You can play it whenever you like. Your mother mentioned you played. The piano is in tune but isn’t played often enough. I’m only competent — my sister got all the musical talent.”
The piano was the only thing Toni and her mum had shared other than their trips to the movies. When Clare DiNozzo was teaching her to play or listening to Toni’s recitals, she had been attentive, encouraging and even playful — and sober. Most of her best memories of her mother involved the sleek baby grand piano in the Long Island house. Since her death, Toni could only play when her father was out; he always told her it was distracting while he was working.
“It’s too beautiful to play.”
Clive gave her an odd look. “What’s the point of an instrument that isn’t played, Nina?”
She should object. There was no point in getting comfortable, something she’d learned by her second new school and third potential stepmother in three years. If Toni told him she was hungry, he would drop it and forget.
Instead, she asked, abruptly: “Why do you call me Nina?”
“It was what your mother always called you in her letters.”
“Mum is the only one who called me that. Everyone else calls me Toni.”
“I can stop if you like.”
“No!” she said abruptly before drawing in on herself. She stepped back, out of reach and wrapped her arms around her chest. Even before her mum died, her dad hadn’t tolerated any defiance.
“Nina.” His voice was soft and he looked, when Toni dared to peek, very sad. “It’s alright now, darling. I promise.”
He really did mean it, but grownups always did. At least until the next drink or girlfriend or deal came along to distract them. But they didn’t like it when kids said that; they never like it when kids told the truth.
“I need to wash my hands. To play the piano,” was what Toni said instead.
“The last door at the end of the hall,” Uncle Clive said, quietly. “We’ll finish the tour after tea, alright?”
“Alright.” She headed for the bathroom and paused after a few steps. “You can call me Nina. It reminds me of Mum, a little.” Without waiting for a response, she bolted.
Thirty minutes later, Marcus came looking for them both. He found Clive Paddington, widely regarded by business rivals and fortune seekers to be a bloody-minded bastard, leaning against the wall outside the music room. His eyes were closed as he listened. Inside, the fragile teenager with heartbreaking eyes he’d brought home with him was sitting at the piano, coaxing glorious notes from the instrument.
Marcus withdrew, discreetly, and went to start dinner.