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Chapter Five

Tuesday December 2, 2008

His head was pounding. A night of poor sleep, a morning of high stress and foul temper -- and sadly as the morning wasn’t over, Tony could only see things as getting worse. Bent over his desk, one elbow propped on the table so his hand could support his aching head, the other holding the phone to his ears.

It had taken, Ziva’s interruption notwithstanding, far too long for him to track down the original NCIS agent who had handled the cold case he was now reviewing. And that irritated him.

“Regardless.” Tony barked authoritatively, “The evidence box contains NO tape, nor a CD or DVD, not even a cassette.” He’d only said those words something around a thousand times. Clearly, this idiot had retention problems. “Your signature was the first and last for when the box was last sealed, and that was just before it was submitted to the archives. The seal was intact when I pulled it out, and that means, you were the last to touch it. So, go find your case notes, and tell me what happened to the video feed from the ship’s storage hold.

Gibbs had Ziva and McGee holed up in Conference Room 3. Ostentiously the junior agents being reamed for their lack discipline in the chain of command. Though really, he thought waspishly, they were probably going over the profiles of prospective replacements for him. He had no idea if McGee would assume the role of SFA -- but boy, if he did, he was he in for a world of surprise -- the paperwork alone would drown the computer nerd. Finding time to do the paperwork, maintain his physical training, earn a freaking Masters, as well as investigate cases as they happened was going to boggle his mind.

He really hoped McGee liked getting by with four hours of sleep a night.

“Uh huh. Yes, I’m serious. Look -- do you want to be accused of being in collusion for the theft, because that’s what will happen if you don’t find those notes, so help me find the damn surveillance tape.” Tony drawled. “No. You’re totally right. I really don’t care if we work for the same agency, because this isn’t a club, buddy, this is you having screwed up on evidence…. Uh huh. That’s what I’m saying. Yes. Now work with me to fix it.” He closed his eyes, and fought for some patience. Just a little bit. A tiny smidgen of patience. The kind of patience he showed to people like -- like Ducky’s mother!

‘Ha! How’s that, buddy.’ He thought scornfully of the Team Lead based in Norfolk. ‘I just equated you with a ninety-seven year old woman who suffers alzheimer's.’ Though, truthfully, Mrs. Mallard was probably more with it than this idiot.

“Yes, that’s right. I’m not being sarcastic… look, if you have a problem with me, that’s fine… I’ll take this up with the Director…ah, now you’re getting it. That’s great. Uh huh. Okay. Call me back in two hours. I’m not waiting longer than that In two hours if you don’t have your case-notes and can definitively tell me where the surveillance tape is, then I go to IA.” He hung up the phone, and folded his head into his arms. “Oh, just kill me.” He muttered.

“Agent DiNozzo?” The voice of the Director coming above him was not what he wanted to hear at this precise moment.

Lifting his head, he winced. Yeah. The man was standing right in front of him. Perfect.

“Problems?” Vance asked, pulling a toothpick from an inside jacket pocket, popping it from the wrapper and sticking it in his mouth. Truthfully, Tony was convinced the Director was a former smoker, and his nervous habit had manifested into this after quitting.

He wasn’t going to ask, though.

“We have a cold case regarding a large crate of armament that went missing two years ago off of the USS Arizona. I was going through the file yesterday, and noticed that no one processed the video surveillance of the room -- which I thought odd. So, I had the box pulled from storage, and went through it. There’s a tape listed on the evidence forms, but no tape in the box.” Tony rubbed a hand through his hair. It wasn’t easing the headache at all.

He prodded the box with a toe, causing the Director to look down at it. “I called the Agent Afloat, who is now a SAC out of Norfolk. Greg Manderly.” He tapped a blunt finger on his notepad. “Greg doesn’t think it’s a big deal. Greg can’t remember two years back, am I a fool or what? Greg doesn’t have time to go digging through his notes, he’s a busy man with active cases. Greg thinks it doesn’t matter. Greg isn’t worried about the fact his signature was the last on the box before it went into storage -- and I can confirm, it was sealed when I opened it.”

Vance sighed, twisting the toothpick in his mouth. “You gave him two hours to find his notes?”

“Yeah.” Tony wondered if there was time to find some Tylenol 2s before he had to speak to Greg again.

“If you have time now, let’s talk about your transfer request.” The Director offered. He turned, and made for the stairs, when Tony nodded and rose to his own feet. “I have some options for you to consider.” Vance continued, almost conversationally. “And, having had a long discussion with SecNav, and another rather open conversation with Gibbs, I think you’ll be somewhat surprised by the possibilities.”

Tony sighed inside his head. Right now, he just wanted something better in his life. A workplace where he didn't feel like he was a salmon swimming upstream, being stalked by bears. Oddly, on the MCRT, it wasn’t Gibbs who was the bear, he was the stream. Ziva and McGee, though, made for some formidable bears when it came to getting some respect.

He had to admit though, it was partially a consequence of his own choices. He had deliberately played prankster and clown when Cait and TIm had come on board, mostly to rub off that sharp brittle edge on Cait, and to toughen Tim up. Cait was abrasive, judgemental and hard when she arrived from the secret service. NCIS was a lesser recognized federal agency in the US, and that meant they had to be more accommodating, working with other agencies or police forces when necessary. And when working with naval officers and personnel, you couldn’t afford to be narrow-minded. His manner had been designed to rouse her temper, force her to recognize her own prejudices, and keep her ire on him, not the LEOs that they encountered. Tim, on the other hand, was so blindingly green at field work, Tony had to work desperately fast or else he was going to be walked all over -- and that just by his lead agent. TIm would have shattered within six months, had Tony not hazed him in his gentle way, and warned off the other agents not to touch his probie.

They hadn’t seen that. They never made the connection, and by the time Cait died, and Ziva came into the game, McGee hadn’t been ready for Tony to ease off. And Tony had never trusted Ziva. There was no way he was showing his true face -- she had an agenda.

He nodded politely to Shelly, manning her desk as the Director’s EA, as they walked by.

Vance had eschewed using his desk, and was sitting at the round conference table in his office, a stack of files already positioned on it. He nodded to a chair adjacent to his. “As I said, I had some long conversations over the past two days, SecNav chewed my ear off with his take of the situation; and Gibbs was sitting in my office waiting for me at 5am.”

Vance shook his head. “I’ve spent some time since then going through your jacket in detail. I owe you an apology, Agent DiNozzo. I saw only what was on the surface, much like your junior team mates, and didn’t care to look deeper.” He shook his head. “It’s taught me a lesson, and one I won’t soon forget.”

“Sir, you saw only what I wanted people to see.” Tony closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out. “I was disowned at eleven, and thrown into boarding schools. Hazing is a mild word to describe what happened to me. I learned quickly -- studious nerds get beaten. They have few friends. About the only skill my father demonstrated to me that I understood or respected was his ability to network. As a nerd, in some elite boarding schools -- I wasn’t going to achieve that. So, I started quoting movies, and became a jock. That worked. By the time I got to college, a college I chose because I had earned a double sports scholarship which would pay for my tuition… the jock frat-boy was the safest routine I could go with. As a cop, with the surname DiNozzo, my captain assumed I was a rich kid playing at cop, and his attitude funnelled down. The jock saved my ass there. The frat-boy convinced them I was harmless, and because of that I was able to bring to light the corruption in Peoria PD’s narcotics division. That’s why I left that PD. Philadelphia saw me begin my career in undercover operations. I was eight months inside the mob. By the time I had everything to destroy the Macaluso empire, I was practically engaged to Mike’s daughter, and the heir-apparent to his throne.”

Vance shook his head. “You were twenty-five when you ran that op. At twenty-five -- I was a probationary agent... I couldn’t even imagine being in a short-term undercover operation at that point in my career. Eight months would have gotten me dead.”

Tony shrugged. “I’ve been undercover, I think, since I was twelve. It was just a different role with higher stakes.”

“Regardless. I owe you a serious apology, DiNozzo. Yes, much of the details of the Philadelphia operation are red-taped, but that doesn’t mean some of it isn’t in your file. If I had read it before…” He shook his head with a sigh, letting go of that line. It was fruitless. You couldn’t undo the past, you could only move forward. “I… ah… noticed that you’re finishing your masters in Psychology.” He said, changing gears.

“Should be done shortly after the new year.” Tony nodded. “Technically, my thesis is based in criminal psychology, but not narrowed to just that specific subject in my overall course load. I have a Masters in Criminology already, but this was a case of feathering my nest in case I needed another line of work. That, sir, is a reflection of sports training, where you have to plan for a second career after an injury or age benches you, it is not a reflection of this agency or my career in law enforcement.”

Vance frowned. “Do you intend to go for your Ph.D in either Criminology or Psychology?”

“Not at this time. Maybe never.” Tony shrugged. “That… degree of academica doesn’t interest me. I can’t explain why, I just don’t know. If anything, I may start on a forensics course or two.”

Vance played with the toothpick, and continued flipping through the file, he ran his finger through the commendations and awards, shook his head and closed the file. “Talk to me about your involvement with the YMCA?”

Tony snorted. “I’m not involved in the YMCA program. I got roped into the SCULPT program by one of my frat-brothers; it’s his brainchild. SCULPT is a federally sponsored program for youth initiatives. Nationally, the YMCA donates space. Here in DC, three nights a week, kids between nine years and twelve meet at the YMCA from 6:30pm to 8:30pm, and we run drills and play basketball. The program is designed to break down social barriers, improve a sense of teamwork, and of fair play, to encourage the idea that everyone is equal. Get kids thinking as a community, rather than running around streets.” He rubbed the back of neck, wishing his headache would just please go away. “I handle the Thursday night drills. I can’t commit to more nights because of my schedule. Mine is modified to run 7pm to 9pm. But the kids and parents don’t seem to mind. Been doing that for four years, excusing the six months I was Agent Afloat.”

Vance winced. “Right. Should I apologize for that, too? I honestly felt it would be a good move for you, break you from the habit of being Gibbs second. From what I saw, your career had stalled at that point.”

Tony shrugged, indifferent to how his career appeared to other eyes. “My last PD... I found out my partner was a dirty cop. That made two of three PDs, and dirty-cops apparently everywhere. I was… disillusioned. Gibbs offered me the guarantee he’d never play dirty. That he’d always have my back.” There was heartbreak in his voice, but it was hard to detect. The way Vance pursed his lips, Tony was pretty sure he’d caught the strain of it. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted, to do my job to the best of my ability, taking the risks all the while knowing my partner has my back.”

“You told me you believe that your team wants you gone.” Vance levelled him a sober look. “That’s not what I heard from Agent Gibbs, DiNozzo. He’d do anything to keep you. Seriously, he surprised me this morning with the lengths he’d go to. Maybe he hasn’t communicated things well, God knows, Gibbs is a functional mute in many ways, but he does recognize your skills and contributions, and appreciates them.”

Tony made a soft sound, hands fluttering as if to politely disagree.

Vance shoved three files across his desk. “You have a few choices in the way of traditional transfers, and I have some other offers I want to put to you that wouldn’t be on the table for anyone else.” The director said, pulling out two more folders and setting them in a different pile. “I have two teams with leaders on the way out, they’ve reached the maximum age for field agents. I’m sure the current leads believe their SFA’s are expected to take over, but in both cases, the SFA’s are only a year or two in the job. I’d prefer a more experienced agent given the political aspects of the roles. Those teams are in ROTA and Pearl Harbor, respectively. I can see pros and cons for each position where you're concerned. The most significant factor, however, is that you are multilingual, and can fluently speak Spanish. That makes you ideal for ROTA. But, it’s as much a political post as an investigative. Pearl means you’re going to step on the Governor’s toes in reclaiming our jurisdiction. His task force has been mightily involved in cases involving the Naval base there. And, the field office frankly needs beefing up.”

Tony nodded, but could see the Director wasn’t done.

“The third opportunity,” Vance pulled a file from his second pile, “I also have an OSP position for Miami starting up. The field office there is being expanded, given the amount of naval activity in the area. I had considered sending the Assistant Director there, but you could take that. Certainly your lungs might thank you for a warmer climate, and all of three posts guarantee that.” He stacked the three files and pushed them towards DiNozzo.

Tony took them thoughtfully, flipping each open for a quick glance and the office summary report on top. Rota, Hawaii, and Miami… part of him swooned at the thought. Leaving DC hadn’t been part of his plans, wasn’t what he wanted to do, truthfully, but maybe....

“Or,” Leon continued. “We could go with what Gibbs wants to offer you. He wants you promoted to co-lead, bring in a new SFA to whip McGee and David in shape, and start training up probies.”

Tony dropped the folder for the Pearl team, it wasn’t the MCRT, it was a catch-all, fielding primarily drug trafficking cases, the few odd assaults, and a couple UAs. 5-0 would hate him for being a jurisdiction jackass. He looked up in shock. “He what?”

“Co-Team Lead. The way he sees it, David desperately needs FLETC. I’ve reviewed her file, and agree. Jen Shepard letting her on the team without the procedural classes of the Federal Law Enforcement Training was the biggest mistake that I can see. The woman has caused several procedural issues in court cases with her habit of picking locks, something I can see you’ve filed disciplinary reports on time and time again. And her driving -- our insurance rates for fleet have doubled since she came onboard. Between herself and Gibbs…” Vance shook his head, “I’m tempted to restrict them from driving any vehicle licensed to the Agency. It would save a tremendous amount of money per annum.”

Tony winced, in sympathetic understanding. “I’m usually able to stop her from making a B&E on our cases. But, I’m not always partnered with her.”

“You shouldn’t have to force her to wait.” The Director growled. “It’s on her, DiNozzo. We have laws, rules and procedures for a reason, and if you’ve told her no once then it means no EVERY time.” He shook his head. “I’m seconding Gibb’s recommendation of FLETC for her too. She’ll be off the team for four months while she completes the full program, beginning in the new year. I’m citing the procedural violations as my reason why.”

Tony knew that was going to go over like a lead balloon. Of course, it all hinged on whether Gibbs was seriously about kicking her off the team. Tony had his doubts. Geezus, the more he thought about it, the more Hawaii and ROTA were looking better and better. At least there would be a significant bodies of water between him and her temper.

"McGee has, I confess, disappointed me in light of what I have recently learned. A BA in Phys.Ed is practically pre-med, plus a Master in Criminology, and a second Masters expected next year? How did he miss that?"

"He had no reason to look, Sir." Tony rubbed his temples. "McGee came in so shiny new... I had to scuff that blinding brilliance off. He would have been eaten by suspects, assuming he survived Gibbs." Tony watched the Director walk to his credenza. He poured a cup of coffee, spooning sugar and milk in. He returned to the table dropping a blister pack of Tylenol, and pushed the coffee at him.

"Take it."

The painkillers he chewed to break down faster, ignoring the way Vance winced at the sound. He took a generous swill of coffee to chase the mess of chewed painkiller down. "Thank you."

"So, you hazed him to break him then build him?" Vance surmised.

Tony shrugged. "It worked. Maybe too well."

The director hummed under his breath. "Maybe, maybe not."

A sharp rap at his door, cut the Director off, and Shelly popped her head around. “I’m so sorry, Director. Special Agent DiNozzo? Patty Smythe of CAS is urgently trying to get ahold of you. She’s called three times already, and from the background noise, I believe there’s a crisis. I have her on line one, if you don’t mind. I think you better take it -- you can take it at my desk if you wish.”

“It’s fine. The call can be taken in here. Thank you.” Vance rose, and went to his desk. He hit the speaker on his desk phone, turning the microphone towards Tony, and then tapped line 1. The shrill scream of a terrified child filled the line.

“Patty?” Tony spoke out, rising to his feet, and walking over the desk, recognizing instantly the sound of Christopher’s screaming, even if he’d never heard the child scream before.

“Oh, thank god… Tony, I’m sorry. I need your help. We can’t get Christopher to calm down, we’re going to have to take him to the hospital, I think… he’s completely freaking out. He was fine yesterday afternoon, I swear, but when his foster-father Gord returned home, he lost it. He's been hysterical all night. Was he like this at all for you? You had him out at friends...did he have any negative reactions?"

Tony closed his eyes, hands fisting. “God, no. He was fine. Shy, but curious. Warmed up quickly with positive reinforcement. What the hell happened?”

“He settled down on the car ride, yesterday. I went into the office, and by the time we got there he’d stopped crying. I had the usual paperwork done. You know, getting his fingerprints, taking a oral swab for DNA… he received a banana popsicle for that. He wasn’t happy, to be honest, but he was calm. It was early afternoon when I brought him to his placement. Sally Hooper is a fabulous foster mom. She and her husband Gord have cared for a number of kids we’ve brought our way, and done a stellar job. Chris wasn't happy, but he was calm all afternoon, until Gord came home that evening, then he just lost it.”

“Jesus. Where is he now….” The sound of a child screaming suddenly gave way to hysterical gasps for air. “Oh.” Tony sighed, heart-breaking. The kid was utterly terrified.. They could here Sally, trying desperately to calm Chris down. He wasn’t having any of it. “Patty… give him the phone.”

The screaming was awful, but the sound of the child hyperventilating was utterly distressful. Tony looked at the Director, whose gaze was focused on the phone. but mercifully, the Director didn’t seem annoyed. “Christopher! What are you doing!” Tony said firmly once he as certain Chris would hear him. The sudden hitch, and hiccup said the sound of Tony’s voice was working. “Hey, now… what’s going on, Buddy. You’re scaring Patty and Sally.

“No. No. No. No. No. No.” Chris cried, albeit quieter than before. “No. No stay. No. No. Bad, bad. Hurt Chwistofr… Hurt Boy! Toneeeee, pleaaaaase… want Toneeee.”

“Aww, squirt…no one’s going to hurt you there, I promise you you’re safe. it's a nice place." Tony explained. "You need a Mommy and a Daddy, buddy. Give Sally and Gord a chance, please.” Tony said gently. “Try, Christopher, I’ll give Sally my phone number, and she can call me anytime, if you want to talk to me. And I can come over on Saturday, we’ll do something fun together. How does that sound?”

“Nooooooo.” The tears came back in a flood. "Want Toneeeeee! Want Toneeeeee! Me want Toneeeee!"

Screams rose again.

“Go.” Vance urged, coming around his desk, and turning Tony physically towards the door. “He’s going to make himself very sick. Get going. That kid needs you, now.”

“And do what? Jesus... I don't even know where he is.” Tony admitted, feeling torn. On one hand, he wanted to go to Christopher, but on the other, was that helping the kid? The child needed to let go of his attachment to him, if he was to grow in foster care.

“You head out. You do whatever you have to. I’ll get the address from Ms. Smythe and text it to you.” The Director urged, more with the mindset of a father than the mindset of a director of a federal agency. But, like most men, he donned whichever hat he needed in a moment. “And Agent DiNozzo… I haven't finished with your options. Call me with an update on the boy."

Tony left the Director’s office at a run, ignoring his still active computer, and grabbing his bag at a fly before racing for the stairs. His car was just pulling out of the parking lot with tires squealing when the text message from the Director came through with an address.

It was possibly the only time he whispered a grateful blessing to Leon Vance.

Sally and Gord Hooper lived in Alexandria, on the other side of town from Gibbs home. Under optimal conditions, it was a 40 minute drive. Tony had, against policy, and completely unconcerned about the infraction, put on the emergency blue lights he kept in his glove box, and raced through the highways. He pulled into a residential neighborhood and only minimally eased on the gas, cutting his time down to a tidy 22 minutes.

The houses were much like Gibbs, older craftsman styles. Some had been added to, others were in traditional keeping. Neat lawns, bright colours, and there was a park abutting the row of houses that Sally and Frank Hooper lived on. It was a nice place for a kid to grow up, in Tony’s mind. Very open area, clearly family oriented. He’d seen five neighborhood watch signs already.

And there ahead, was Patty’s car. And an EMT bus. Fabulous.

Tony parked illegally -- he so didn’t care -- and ran up to the door. It was open, and ignoring social niceties, he walked right in and went to where he could hear a hysterical child. Christopher was red-faced, hysterical, and backed into a corner -- the kid did have good defensive instincts, Tony thought absently -- he was practically in fetal position, head tucked down and arms up to protect his head. .

“Oh, Chris.” Tony sighed. He waded through the crowd of people, including Patty, who was talking to one of the EMTs. A woman he guessed was Sally, the foster mom, was buried in her husband's arms (assumed by the fact the wedding rings, Tony glimpsed, were matching). Patty was practically in tears, her voice choked as she spoke, though she quickly announced who he was to everyone else in the room. One of the EMT’s was crouched by the boy, perhaps a foot away, speaking urgently on the phone with a pediatrician to get the okay to administer a sedative. Tony ignored all that, nudged the EMT out of his way, and swooped in to scoop up the struggling kid up into his arms, just hugging him.

He knew this pain. He knew the comfort of strong arms would make the difference.

A long, long time ago, on the day of his mother’s funeral, there had been a little eight year old boy named Anthony DiNozzo, who had holed up in his horribly 17th century decorated bedroom, and cried himself sick for two days. The one thing he had desperately wanted, the one thing he had desperately needed, was someone who cared. Someone to hold him, reassure him everything would be alright. To scare away the monsters and terrors and the feeling of being so alone and lost. He just needed someone to assure him everything would be alright, even when it was clear as mud that nothing would never be the same in his life. It was the one lie he wanted. And the one lie no one told.

There were sensory factors that would calm down Christopher, Tony understood. The sound of his voice --- which was why he kept murmuring to the child. His scent -- which was why he’d lifted Christopher into his arms. The way he hugged the kid - because he’d carried Christopher so much in those three days, and had him sitting on his lap to watch movies, there was no way the kid wouldn’t recognize his touch. The feeling of him breathing, because maybe he could calm his own breathing down to a nice sedate pace.

In three days he’d stayed with Tony, Christopher had demonstrated a profound craving for physical contact. If they were on the couch watching a movie, Chris would lean into him, or crawl into his lap. He liked being hugged, though wouldn’t initiate a hug. He would reach out to touch Tony’s leg or hand if Tony was talking to someone else, not to draw attention, but just to have contact. He wouldn't instigate a hug, but would the simpler touches.

It worked…the child kicked and swung with his good arm initially, and then froze, hearing Tony’s voice in his ear. When Tony’s hand smoothed up and down his back, Christopher responded instantly his one good arm suddenly snaked under Tony’s jacket, found a fistful of shirt, and latched on tightly, even as his little body relaxed completely. His tiny wet face curled into Tony’s neck, tears drenching the collar as he sobbed, relief and terror mingling.

Mercifully, after a few minutes, with Tony softly speaking in his ear, and rocking his body side to side, the sobs soon hiccupped, dissolving from the body shuddering wails to big hiccuping gulps of air strangled, mingled with scattered tears. “Hey, hey buddy. Easy.” Tony cooed gently to the child, softly stroking his hair. Christopher’s head was dreadfully hot, and disgustingly sweaty from hours spent crying. “Come on, Christopher… I’m here. Tony’s here. No one is going to hurt you. Breathe, squirt. You’re okay. Come on, you can do it.”

In ten minutes, Christopher was done sobbing, and mercifully other than one single kick, which Tony was sure had left a wicked bruise on his abdomen, he was utterly still and compliant. He had curled his little body into Tony’s, holding on with a death-grip for certain, but was conscious and calmer. So long as Tony didn’t try to let him go, he was zen.

“He couldn’t have gotten that attached to me.” Tony made the statement more of a plea for confirmation.

Patty frowned. “No. This was, in my professional opinion, a terror response. Something, and I can only speculate, it was something about Gord that reminded him of something he’s utterly terrified of.” She looked at Sally and her clearly devastated husband, “And I mean nothing negative about you or your home, Sally, Gord It’s more something in little Christopher’s background. He’s too young to articulate what it is that he’s scared of. He sees Agent DiNozzo as his rescuer, so as far as he’s concerned, if Agent DiNozzo is with him, he is safe. ”

“It means, though,” Sally said, voice choked with tears. “We can’t help him. That he can’t stay here. I know. It’s… the poor guy. I don’t know where he’s come from, but clearly he needs a lot of love right now. And, I wish we could help him. I want to, but we can't, Patty.... he won’t let us, and the other kids..."

“Hmm.” Patty’s brown eyes studied the shuddering little boy still wrapped in Tony’s arms. The yellow cast, featuring a few colourful doodles on it now, hung over Tony’s shoulder, and the left hand was hidden under Tony’s tailored suit jacket. It was a miracle, that Chris hadn’t peed himself while screaming himself silly.

Two of the three EMT’s were hovering around the pair. One using his stethoscope deftly to check Chris’ heartrate, the other just watching Chris’ reactions closely.

“I think we can go.” The EMT with the stethoscope smiled, relaxing at the reading he was getting. “I’m a lot happier this was resolved without a drug intervention or hospitalization.”

“Me too.” Patty admitted. “I’m a little worried, though. This was extreme… does he need medical supervision or psychological exam?”

Tony gave her a quick hard look, lips pressed firmly together to avoid saying something inappropriate, and instead took Christopher outside, walking up and down the sidewalk as the EMT’s answered her question before packing up. The strange people surrounding him only added to Chris’ anxiety. And, though he wasn’t dressed for the cold weather, Tony was. He didn’t mind the kid leaching warmth from him. “You missed me that much, huh?” Tony teased him.

He got a little huff for that.

The ambulance was pulling away, when Tony had reached the end of the street. He turned around, giving the driver of the vehicle a nod of gratitude, and walked back to the house. It was interesting, Chris’ eyes were facing the houses now, and he physically stiffened in Tony’s arms as they approached the Hooper home. Tony made a point to examine the house colours, plants in the gardens, the type of car in the driveway, talking aloud about everything he spotted to Chris as if studying a portrait. There was something in this picture had Chris incredibly tense, and he wasn't sure it could be pinned all on Gord Hooper.

He noted the dolphins etched into the mailbox. The types of lights above the garage. Unfortunately, at three, and probably a young three, Chris wasn’t a credible witness. Add to his youth, his exposure to much that infants and toddlers should be exposed to seemed limited. His ability to speak sentences, brief as they were, was a miracle, it seemed.

Whatever it was that scared him about Gord, could have been the colour of his shirt, goatee, his hairstyle. It could be his height, or weight. The types of shoes he wore. Gord was a tall man, his build and demeanor striking Tony as former military. He had a head full of blond hair, and a trimmed beard. He wore jeans and a simple striped shirt. There was no distinctive marks on the man, and he looked rather average, when all was said and done. Still, whatever freaked Christopher out didn’t have to be rational. For all Tony knew, it was the bushes in front of the house, the shape of the mailbox, or the way the doorbell sounded. Fear was an instinctive response, and not usually rational.

At Chris’ young age, and with his limited experiences, Tony couldn’t begin to fathom what it was about this cheery home that scared him so badly.

Patty was waiting for them when he arrived in front of the house, her smile sad. “What now?” Tony asked, coming to stand in front of her, but still rocking his body. Chris gave a soft shaky sigh, and closed his eyes.

“Well.” She sighed. “I don’t really know. I’ve started an investigation on his circumstances. I rushed the DNA and should have results soon. But, in the immediate present, I need to get him placed. Obviously he can’t stay at the centre. There’s no accommodation for long-term stays.” She rubbed her forehead. “I’ll need to network with my people, and find a foster family he’ll be okay with.” She frowned. "This one was the best option. Gord works as an intake counselor at the rape clinic. Somehow, that skill transfers to children. He's so good with traumatized children. Sally and Gord are our go-to for abuse cases, truthfully."

Tony heaved a breath, aware that Christopher was still listening, and by tension of the little body in his arms, he could tell Christopher was not happy with what he was hearing.

Instinctively, Tony knew that if he didn’t step up, he’d regret it for the rest of his life. Somehow, over the past weekend, Christopher had become an important part of his life. There was a gibbering voice of terror shrieking in his mind that he was blatantly ignoring. And certainly, his common sense was absence when he opened his mouth and said, “Is there any way he can stay with me?”

It was a huge commitment. He had to be insane. Transferring off the MCRT, giving Gibb's hell, and now looking to take over guardianship for a clearly messed up kid. Nuts. Utterly snapped. He was five years too early for his midlife crisis.

Taking on a child meant there would be no more weekend escapes to tropical shores, no more trolling bars and clubs for cheap hookups, no awesome nights of casual sex. If he was raising Christopher, he couldn’t take Hawaii or Rota… he couldn’t leave DC… it would mean leaving Christopher behind. And that was something his gut said he just couldn’t do.

Maybe this really was a mid-life crisis.

And shit -- if he kept Christopher, he’d have to figure a way for NCIS daycare to cover a foster-child while he was at work, or find private day-care. Maybe a nanny? The costs of such didn’t bother him, it just… it just wasn’t ideal from Tony’s perspective. A parent taking care of their kid was of far more value, in his mind, than some daycare or a stranger. Maybe it was his own childhood experiences coloring his view, God knew, he had craved any parental attention he had gotten for the longest time. Both healthy, and unhealthy attention. Any type of contact was all he wanted. Instead, he’d had indifference nannies, and received more affection from the gardener and maid than he did his mother and father.

The NCIS daycare had extended hours, it ran practically 24/7 which was a major plus for it. If he had to source out a private day-care, it absolutely had to have really good security; and he’d probably still need a nanny for evenings that ran late. Maybe he could find a retired marine… given his position as a Federal Agent there would always be some idiot trying to use his kid as a get-away card, and that meant Christopher’s protection had to be a first priority.

Of course, this all depended on what Patty thought of his proposal. And strangely, he was desperately hoping she’d agree, even as he was thinking he was nuts.

Patty’s squinty eye wasn’t a good start for agreement.. “Are you SURE you want that, Special Agent DiNozzo? Taking on the role of a parent is a lot of responsibility.” The skepticism in her voice was nearly insulting.

But, despite everything he’d end up sacrificing, and just how dramatic a life-change this would be, his gut knew this was the right decision and he wouldn’t regret it. “I know.” He agreed. “Oh boy, do I know. And the little voice in my head is screaming… but, this isn’t about me… foster parenting is not about the parents… it’s really got to be about what is best for the kids, Patty. Maybe I’m not the best option for Christopher, I don’t know if I am or am not, but I do know right now, I may be the only option you might have for him. He trusts me, he feels safe with me. And if he trusts me to keep him safe, then we can get him past the hurdles he’s facing right now without remanding him into a psychiatric facility. He’s not nuts, Pats. He’s just a very little boy who has been through an awful experience, and was scared.”

What he wanted to say was that there couldn’t be scenes like what had happened this morning again. He’d bet bottom dollar, given how lethargic Chris was right now, having calmed down, that the kid had spent the night prior screaming and puking. For a child already underweight, and healing with cracked ribs, it was simply too dangerous for his physical health. Why hadn’t Gord and Sally called Patty sooner? Just how many hours was Chris left to feel terrified.

The kid needed attention, and for his mental health, couldn’t be flung through the foster system going from house to house until they found one that might work -- it would destroy his sense of belonging. And really, these terrible terrifying fits were hard on the adults witnessing them. Besides, if Tony had to come again and again to his rescue, his wardrobe would suffer awful. Already, his jacket and shirt plastered in tears and snot, and in desperate need of dry-cleaning. Yeah, one incident like this was plenty damage done in terms of his wardrobe alone.

Patty hummed. She walked around them slowly, as if examining a prize stallion, her finger tapping her jaw as she thought about the situation. “I suppose we should ask Christopher what he wants, but I think he’s made his choice and wants abundantly clear already.” She rolled her eyes. “The problem is, Tony, you’re not a vetted foster parent. It was fine for the weekend on an emergency basis, and given your standing as a federal law enforcement agent… but to name you as his official foster parent, well, I know some stuffed shirts will be difficult.” She clucked her tongue, clearly thinking. “I think we need a court order. Maybe something pro tem.”

“Fine. Whatever” Tony agreed, still moving in a rocking motion on his feet, he knew the moment Chris fell asleep, his tiny fisted hand somewhat relaxing it’s grip on Tony’s shirt. The kid sure slept a lot, it seemed, but then, Tony had no idea if it was normal or not. Other than keeping the kid’s attention engaged, feeding him, and making sure he slept, he knew little to nothing about three year olds.

Oh, God -- he was going to need some books. This learning curve was getting awfully steep!

“Is there anyone you need to call before we do this, Tony?” Patty asked with a sigh. “A significant other, or anyone? I hate that… well, I rather feel like you’re being forced into this. It’s a big change to your life. If this works, you need to take time off just to get Christopher on even keel. You might need my help to get Gibbs to agree with that.”

“Not a problem.” Tony sighed. “I’ve already put in a transfer request, Patty. I'm leaving the MCRT. I’ll call my Director from the car and get the vacation time approved. Where do you want to meet?”

Her eyes were wide and jaw dropped. “You’re leaving the team? Why?”

He smiled a crooked grin that wasn’t echoed in his eyes. “It’s time, Pats. Where do we meet?”

She shook her head, as if that would put her thoughts back in order. “Ah...Judiciary Square, Moultrie Courthouse, Tony. You know where it is.” She smiled. “Though you’ve never been in the family division before, have you? I’ll call ahead to see who's in that can see us en route, and get the background established. You take Christopher with you, and I’ll text you with who we are meeting. Just wait for me outside the Judge’s offices, and we’ll get this done fast.”

Tony nodded, and made for his car. “What about Christopher’s stuff?” He called over his shoulder.

“Already loaded in my car. We’ll trade later.” Patty called out.

It was almost deja vu, strapping Christopher into the car-seat, the little guy sound asleep. Gently he ran a hand over the kid’s messy head. “I hope you know what you’re getting into, squirt!” He said softly, uncertain if he was talking to himself or Chris. “This isn’t going to be easy for either of us, but we’ll make the best of it.”

Since he was clad only in a pair of jeans and a rumpled t-shirt, the kid had to be feeling the chill. Tony dug through the trunk for his go-bag and pulled a blanket from the emergency kit. Returning to Chris in his back-seat, he carefully tucked the blanket around the child.

Patty was long gone by the time he got the car started. He took his time, letting the engine warm up after turning the heater on as the late fall air having drained the warmth from the car in the brief time it was off, He tucked the unneeded emergency beacon back in his glove-box, and hooked his cellphone into the car’s Bluetooth system. Finally, after perhaps fifteen minutes, Tony gave Chris a last glance in the rearview, and put the car in drive.

With Christopher now in his car, Tony drove far more sedate back to DC. It gave him time to think, to really make the mental adjustments needed. His life were really changing in ways he had never anticipated. The kind of big changes, the kind most guys had nearly a year to adjust to before they hit.

Tony drummed his fingers on his steering wheel, mentally building his to-do list.

Assuming the judge assigned custody pro tem to him, there was the short-term items that needed to be taken care of. Grocery shopping being foremost. The pantry was a little bare, post-weekend. And they’d need to eat even while everything else came together.

Tonight, once he had Christopher settled, and tucked into bed, he would order a new mattress to replace the piece of shit Steve gave him. Crap, even a feather-bed on top didn’t make that spring-wracked monster comfortable. And, he’d outfit Christopher’s room with proper furniture for a little boy.

On the toy and clothing front, they were good for the short-term. And Christmas was fast approaching. He’d need a book on a child’s development to figure out what was age appropriate for Christopher. Maybe a trip to the library. That would be far more cost effective than buying mountains of books.

Oh boy. This was going to be a lot of work. The next biggest consideration - work. What was he going to do now that he couldn’t go to Miami, Hawaii or Spain? Stay on an expanded MCRT? The hours they worked weren’t good for a kid, that Tony knew for certain. He couldn’t stay overnights on hot cases, or come in at two in the morning if he was responsible for Christopher.

It was of course, at this point, that his phone rang. He jumped on it quickly, less the persistent sound woke Christopher. “DiNozzo.” He answered, checking the kid in his rearview again. Still asleep.

“It’s Vance, DiNozzo,” The Director’s voice came through the line. “Checking up on the situation.”

“Uh… well, we got the child calmed down, he’s sleeping peacefully now. I understand he had a bad reaction to the foster-father, and cried hysterically throughout the night.” Tony replied, signalling a left turn and pulling onto the freeway.

“We didn’t receive a call from Ms. Smythe until 1030 hours. Does that mean they left a child screaming for upwards of twelve hours?” Vance asked incredulously.

“It does look that way.” Tony agreed darkly. “I was able to calm him down, but I’ll eat my hat if he hadn’t throwing up all night in his hysteria. Given he was abused, malnourished, and recovering for injuries, that’s the last thing he needed.” He took a breath to calm down his rising fury. “Regardless, he’s calm now. But, we have no idea what his trigger was. He was scared shitless of the foster dad, I think. From what Patty said, he was fine with the foster-mother and didn’t flip out until her husband walked in the door."

"Damn. I hate shit like that, no child should be that scared of any adult, ever.” The Direction growled. “Where is he now? What does CAS plan to do?" It wasn’t the voice of a Director of a Federal Agency speaking right now, but rather the voice of a father. If there was one redeemable value for the director in Tony's eyes, it was how great a Dad Vance was to his kids.

"My back seat." Tony answered falsely cheerfully, green eyes again checking his rear-view mirror and the reflection of Chris’ slumped head. Still sound asleep. It was a skill he envied of the kid. Himself? He woke at the slightest new noise.

The impact of his statement brought a smirk to his mouth. For the second time in less than one week, he heard a toothpick snap. "Ah, your car? Dare I ask why?" The Director choked out.

Tony barked a sudden laugh, "Well, the only logical reason I can give is that I have finally lost my ever-loving simple mind." And, really that did best explain the situation. This kind of fell alongside the idea of base-jumping. Might be fun, but wow, you really weren’t the most mentally stable on the planet to fling yourself towards death so foolishly.

"The reality is that he was fine when he was with me. And, I didn’t have him caged all weekend. I had him out in the Smithsonian on Sunday, I took him to a friends home for dinner on that same day. We went to Toys R Us, and Borders. He was fine that entire time. Logically, placing him with me makes the mosts sense if it gives him a sense of security."

Vance grunted.

"I feel like someone has tossed me into the ocean without a life-preserver." Tony admitted. “What do I know about raising kids?” He collected his thoughts, and continued. "I'm currently enroute to Judiciary Square. Patty wants me named his foster parent, but can’t because I’m not a vetted foster parent. So, she wants to do something pro tem. Which brings a thought to mind, Sir -- maybe we should have some Agents vetted? We’ve had, as an agency, multiple cases where minors were kept as material witnesses or needed protection.”

Again, the Director grunted. But, in the background, Tony could hear the keys of a computer keyboard clicking. “That’s not a bad idea, DiNozzo. Not a bad idea at all. It would save us having to make allowances for a CAS rep, that we haven’t been able to vet on our end is clean.” He agreed. “I’ll have Shelly cross-references for cases where we had to pull CAS in, I think.” Vance shifted gears. “What can I do to help you with this situation, Agent DiNozzo?”

“Book me with the office shrink?” Tony quipped. “Ah, could you check with HR and see if there’s any way I can get my future foster-son into the daycare on site?”

"Alright, that shouldn’t be too difficult.." Vance decreed. "Anything else?"

Tony sighed. "Yeah, if I can have him on site, that’d be fantastic. I'll come in and register him after we’re done with the Judge. Ah. Sir, I know this isn't the greatest time to do this, but....I need a week off? There’s a lot to get set up and done, and not enough hours in my day to do it all. Besides, I think if I place him in daycare tomorrow, he’ll flip.”

Short laugh answered him. "He’ll flip in a week, too, DiNozzo. All kids do. Still, I think giving him a week to acclimatize would be the best thing you can do. HR will likely celebrate you taking time off… they hate coming to year end and finding vacation time still sitting on the books, DiNozzo. And we're quickly getting to that time of year where I have HR banging at my door to bitch.” The sound of another toothpick being popped from a paper wrapper echoed on the phone line. “If the judge needs employer input, have him speak to me. Don’t bother coming back in today. If anything, I think you’re underestimating how much time you really need. Take the kid home -- he does have a name, right? And get him settled. Call me later in the week with a status update. if you need more time, take it."

Tony blinked, checked Christopher in the rear view mirror, and shrugged. “Thank you, Sir. I don’t think we’ve given him a surname yet, but tentatively he’s named Christopher. He picked it, I guess he’s a fan of Winnie the Pooh.”

The Director choked on laughter. “Christopher Robin, DiNozzo? He’s named for a fictional character? Geezus, don’t blame the kid, DiNozzo. I know that’s all on you.”

“He’s a Pooh fan.” Tony defended. “He totally picked his own name. I suggested Brutus, but no… he wanted no part of that. Besides, he and I totally bonded over Pooh.” He had a sneaking suspicion the story of Christopher’s naming would be one blamed on him for the rest of his life.

Mercifully, Vance had other calls to deal with, and ended the call shortly thereafter, which was fortunate, seeing as Tony was turning the car into Judiciary Square. Patty’s car was already there, but the woman was long gone.

Parking the car a little away from others, but under the visibility of clearly marked cameras, Tony took a moment to lean back on the headrest and just… breathe. This, his gut said, was the right decision. The right road to take. Now, he just needed his panicking brain to agree. Eyes closed, he went through a hasty list of pros and cons.

Pro -- good karma. And really, with his life, he could use all the good karma counters. He’d have a good reason to get up in the morning, a better reason to go home, and Christopher would have a much better life than the one he obviously had come from. He had a good income, and independent funds -- Chris would have the best schooling possible. They’d go to all the sites in DC and area -- and come late Spring, he could take the kid to Disney World. That would be a treat for them both. This was his chance to have a son, because he didn’t think nature was in a mind to provide one any other way.

Con -- he was worse than a single parent. He was a single confirmed bachelor of a Federal Agent playing at Foster Parenting. His working hours were (presently) atrocious. There wasn’t even the guarantee that he’d be working Monday through Friday in the future. He was hospitalized at least three times a year, based on stats of the past decade. Shit -- the kid wouldn’t know if he was coming or going. As a rule, kids didn’t like him -- well, the kids NCIS ran into on cases. The kids he coached thought he was cool, but he was just a coach there. He’d never had siblings, or even cousins his own age, and his parental role model, that being Senior, could be graded at best as ‘piss-poor’. Actually, Tony’s general rule of thumb for life was: if Senior thought it was a good idea, or had done it, then don’t do it, ‘cause it was very bad idea. Which might explain, now that he considered it, his commitment issues.

Oh God -- Patty had to be out of her mind considering him a viable caretaker for a minor child!

Christopher made a small huff in his sleep, and Tony turned to check on him. Okay, maybe his upbringing was actually a factor for the “Pro” list -- he knew precisely what NOT to do. You didn’t hit a kid, you didn’t forget to feed a kid. You didn’t get piss drunk when there was a kid around. You didn’t treat a kid like the star attraction of the dog and pony show, and you didn’t forget your child in a hotel in a different state. Suddenly, it hit him, as his mind listed all the outrageous things he’d NEVER do, things that were done to him -- he would be okay. “I guess I’m really doing this.’ He swallowed with a suddenly dry mouth. ‘I really am. And there is no do-over. No oops, I need to give him back.’

Okay, yeah, in foster parenting there was the possibility of returning a child. But, Tony honestly saw that as damaging to a kid. At eleven, disowned, he had desperately been in need of stability. He didn’t find that stability until he was nearly sixteen.

Like it or not, Chris was his responsibility from here on out.


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