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[personal profile] evilgoddss
Chapter Seven


December 4, 2008

There was a huge blue glob of paint in Christopher’s hair, nearly three inches above his left eye, dripping down on his forehead. It was a navy blue, but quite startling in the kid’s soft hair.

“How did you do that?” Tony laughed, tilting Christopher’s face up to admire the blob. Carefully taking a paper-towel, he removed the paint from the kid’s head, laughing all the while at the damage done to the kids light brown hair. There was going to be a good scrub in the bath tonight, that was sure. “Were you helping Uncle Steve and Izzy paint?”

“Ya huh!” Christopher’s head bobbed. “I did good!” He said. “Unca Steve showed me how to put the paint on the brush, and where to put it on the wall.” He beamed happily. “And… Izzy put Pooh and Tigger and Eeyore and Cwistofer Wobin on my wall!”

“He has!” Tony exclaimed with a grin. “Well, I bet your room is gonna be awesome when it’s all done!” Tony pushed the boy towards the kitchen. A new booster seat was hooked into one of the kitchen chairs, the latest addition to the DiNozzo household. Tony lifted Christopher up with flourishing sound effects of an airplane, and plopped him into it, pleased at Christopher’s happy demeanor. Sliding the prepared plate with a chicken, lettuce and mustard sandwich as well as the vegetable sticks in front of the boy. “Eat your lunch.” He instructed.

The young boy fell onto his food like a ravenous beast, much to Tony’s delight. Tony grinned at the happy sounds Christopher made as he chomped on his sandwich, and turned away to pour the child a glass of almond milk. The container was getting low, he noted, and after putting a glass in front of the child, he made a note on the grocery list on the fridge to buy another bag of whole unblanched almonds.

That done, he quickly made up six more sandwiches, these ones roast beef and montreal smoked meat with tomato, avocado, mustard, mayo and lettuce for Steve and Izzy, his slave laborers for the day. Setting them on the kitchen table, he pulled out a prepared salad, vinaigrette, a few bowls, tongs and forks and set the mess beside the plate of sandwiches. That done, he leaned out of the kitchen and bellowed, “LUNCH, GUYS!”

Christopher giggled, and impishly bounced in his seat, “You yelled in the house!” He chortled. “You gotta pay the piper!”

The house rules were the first thing he and Chris had laid down, seeing as Christopher was a permanent member. They were fairly simple, given the boy was so young.

1) Dirty clothes go in your hamper;
2) Toys are laid away in the toy box;
3) No climbing on tables, counters or standing on chairs;
4) No shouting in the house;
5) Unless playing a game with an adult, involving running there will be no running in the house;
6) If you are hungry, ask for a snack, if you are thirsty, ask for a drink;
8) Do not talk or go with strangers; and
9) If Tony leaves work things out they are not to be touched. Ever.

Christopher had shown a great understanding of the last two rules, to Tony’s relief. They had talked about bad men and good guys. That Tony was a Federal Agent was too hard for the child to grasp, that Tony was a policeman was easy.

Christopher also understood Tony’s guns and knives were not toys, they were for work, and were never to be touched. Even if he was curious, he was not to touch them. Hopefully, the need for the rule would never come up. Tony was rather digilent about laying such weapons securely away. He’d just be more so in near future.

“Yeah, I did shout, didn’t I? Bad me.” Tony agreed, ruffling the boy’s hair. “Good job, Christopher. A dollar goes into the penalty jar!” He pulled a dollar out of his pocket, and shoved it into the big glass jar with the sticky note reading “movie fund / penalty jar” on the counter.

The sound of a toilet flushing, and a sink running preceded Steve’s arrival. “Hey, squirt’s already eating? How is that fair when me and Izz did all the work?” He griped, winking at Christopher.

“Shut it.” Tony ordered. He wanted Christopher to eat regular full meals, and he needed no negativity about the boy’s eating habits. “Where’s….”

Izzy trailed in, scratching at paint on his hands that hadn’t come off with soap and water. “You got a scrub brush in this place, DiNo?” He grumbled. “I got a date tonight, and can’t look paint splattered.”

“Should have worn the gloves I provided.” Tony said calmly, opening the fridge to pull out three beers. He twisted off the caps, and set a beer down in front of his two friends. “Look at this way, women love a guy that’s a do it himself type.”

The sour glare spoke volumes. “DiNo… despite my artistic leanings, I am an investment banker -- not a grunt -- I have minions.”

Tony served himself up a roast beef, and sat across from Christopher, beside Steve. “Relax, Izz..I have a small bottle of cleaner we use for crime-scene… stuff. It’ll clean anything. I’ll pull it out when we’re done. What do we have left?”

“Baseboard, and trim around window.” Steve answered. “Then clean-up. Walls should be dry enough by later this afternoon that a brush contact won’t damage them or cause transfer.”

“I need to finish a few finer details in the mural.” Izzy added. “But, no more than an hour more.”

“Cool.” Tony smiled, absently noticing Christopher was playing with the carrots on his plate. He rose quickly and dug into his fridge for some cherry tomatoes he’d bought at Whole Foods. “Try these, Christopher.” He said, scattering a few on his plate.

Experimentally, the boy took one, popped it in his mouth, and bit down. The sudden “Eeew” look, gave way to a ‘hmmm’, and then a final approval. Tentatively, he tried a second.

“The new furniture arrives sometime between fifteen hundred and eighteen hundred hours.” Tony carried on. “I paid for assembly.” He added. If the furniture showed up towards the later end of the window, he sure didn’t want to be frantically putting things together long after Christopher should have been abed.

Izzy blinked, doing the mental math. “Why can’t you tell time like a normal guy?” He asked plaintively. “So, between three and six. Got it. And those guys doing the assembly are the people we professionals call minions -- labourers to do the grunt work for you at a fee.” Izzy tipped his fork at him, a spear of red-pepper on the end, “That is the process by which the modern metrosexual male handles life. He hires minions.”

Tony glared. “Ixnay exualsay stuff.”

Izzy’s brown eyes went wide. “Seriously, DiNo? Seriously? You of all people, YOU are telling me to… Oh God… What has this kid done to you? Christopher, you broke Tony of all his super-bachelor stuff. He was the true living GOD of the single male, Christopher -- what have you done?” The tone was teasing, words light, but the confusion shone in Chris’ eyes.

Tony rolled his eyes, “Christopher, do you remember when I introduced you to Izzy this morning? What did I tell you?”

“He’s gonna say weird things, and to ignore the weird things, cause weird things won’t make any sense. Izzy just says weird things.” Chris parroted back. The kids memory was awesome.

“Very good.” Tony grinned cheekily at Izzy, “This was him being weird, Christopher. Izzy is just jealous that I have an awesome little boy living with me.” Tony finished serenely. “A little boy who's getting a new bed, and a new toy box, and a new bookcase today after his new bedroom is painted.”

Those three things reawakened Christopher’s excitement for his new room, and Izzy was promptly forgotten. “An I can put all my toys and books in them?”

“Yes, you can.” Tony reached across to nudge the plate. “But, first we have to finish painting and cleaning up. And we can’t do that if you don’t finish your carrot sticks.”

The little nose scrunched up in distaste, but like a good boy, especially one who had clearly been deprived food for much of his young life, he ate his carrot sticks, making faces the entire time.

“Good work.” Tony praised, standing up and going to the new cookie jar on his countertop. He lifted the shiny aluminium lid, and reached in the clear jar for a cookie. A quick glance at Christopher, and he could see wide-eyed hope. “Yeah, you little monkey…” He affirmed, bringing the cookie over and depositing it on Christopher’s plate. “That’s your reward for eating all your lunch.”

If he thought the kid had fallen on the sandwich with enthusiasm, he was a veritable cookie monster with the way he devoured his chocolate chip treat. Steve and Izzy were finishing up their own meals, and carrying beers with them as they retreated back to the second bedroom of Tony’s apartment.

Tony detoured to the washroom to help Christopher wash his hands and brush his teeth, before joining them. Three of the four walls were painted a very vibrant “Athens Blue”, softened by a soft grey area rug over dark stained walnut floors. The white trim around the windows and on the baseboards really made the walls pop. On the fourth wall, a mural emerged from the top of the wall, where the blue was dominant, down. Give Izzy his due, but the man was a skilled painter. He’d paid for college as a painter, and specialized in murals like this.

Those days were long in the past, but the skills clearly lasted.

Winnie the Pooh rode on an ark, on sunshine filled waters, with all his friends. Pooh held a spyglass and appeared to be looking towards the bedroom as if it was land a-hoy.

Christopher had been kept out of his bedroom for most of the morning, and had only seen the emerging image an hour ago, when he and Tony had gotten back from their errands. He’d been utterly gobsmacked, but Steve, showing the deft skills of an Uncle, had gotten the little boy a small brush, and set him to work immediately.

The room was going to be perfect for a young child. Not so good for an adolescent, but they had years before that time came. Realistically, Tony expected to be moving before then, but for now, this apartment and this room was all that was needed to create a haven for the little boy.

“Looks great, guys.” He said, as Christopher, not quite running, hustled over to the carefully covered paint trays, eager to start again. Mercifully, Steve got to the tray before Chris could uncover it.

“Uh huh, short-stuff. We’re done painting the walls.” He laughed at the boy. “Why don’t you get Tony to put a movie on. You can’t reach the things we need to paint now, so I guess that means you get to sit in the living room and listen for the delivery guys.”

The pout was epic, but Tony had a way to squash that. “I think there’s a new movie in my bag, you know. It might be another movie about Christopher Robin and Pooh…”

The pout vanished, and Christopher bounced. “Really?” Eyes were lit with shining excitement.

“Really.” Tony nodded. “But, if you aren’t in the living room, you can’t watch…”

It wasn’t quite a run, but it wasn’t far off.

“I’se here! I’se here! I see the tv now!” Christopher called out.

Steve chuckled. “You better get that movie on, bud. Or he’s likely to run back in here and drag you out there.”

Snickering, Tony made his way to the living room, finding his new ward sitting on his knees, bouncing on the middle cushion of his sofa. Pooh, which Christopher had wisely relocated there so he wouldn’t get covered in paint, was already firmly wrapped in his arms.

“Ready?” Tony teased.

Big eyes accompanied a big nod. “I is!” He affirmed.

“Okay, then….” Tony turned on the TV, and queued the DVD he’d inserted that morning before Christopher had woken up. “Here we go.” And just like that, the boy was sucked into the wonderful world of animation. Tony grinned, and stuck the DVD controller on top of the TV, safely out of the child’s reach.

Returning to the room where work was in progress, Tony grabbed a pair of neoprene gloves, and snapped them on.

“Brush and the paint is ready for ya, T.” Steve said, pointing to a clean brush sitting on the bed of a small paint-tray. “I’ll finish the window trim, if you’ll start on the baseboards.”

The baseboards had been pried off, and set on three workhorses. Taking brush, and paint, Tony got to work. They weren’t in bad condition, but it’d been a long time since they’d been painted, and a touch up never hurt.

“So, the squirt is settling in good, it seems.” Steve commented, moving from the right side of the window to left, and reaching to the top.

“He… is.” Tony agreed. “I’m actually surprised how well he’s adjusting. He was hysterical just two days ago, Steve. Like, seriously, freaked out terrified and screaming bloody murder. And yet, today…” His voice trailed off.

Steve grunted. “Kids can be like that. He slept okay last two nights?”

Tony carefully loaded his brush. “Yeah, well.” He frowned. “Nightmare the first night. I let him sleep with me.”

“And last night?” Steve prodded.

“Fine. Stayed in here, quiet as a mouse.” Tony shrugged. As he was only on the fifth chapter on his Ages and Stages book, and desperately trying not to use it like it was an encyclopedia to refer to, but rather read the whole book.

“You think he had a nightmare and didn’t tell you.” Izzy guessed.

Tony stayed quiet, not really sure how to answer. The truth was, he didn’t know. He was pretty sure he’d handled Christopher well enough the first night… but what if he hadn’t?

“You’re overthinking things.” Steve decided. “You do this too much, Tony. Geezus.” He folded his arms, and glared at him, the look ruined by the white tipped paintbrush in his hand, and the paint-splattered sweatshirt he was wearing. “You overthought the plays during your college ball days. Overthought your future, when you were laid up in hospital. Overthought the whole Daytona trip -- which on reading week is supposed to be impulse!” He shook his head. “Remember when Wendy dumped you? Three months you over-analyzed what went wrong. We all told you, she went nuts, but oh no -- it was something about you, or something you said, and then tried to analyze what it could be. Thirty-seven times you called me between two and four in the morning…”

“What Steve is trying to say here is… kids are literal creatures. If he’s upset, he’ll let you know.” Izzy concluded, his tone the same one used on a spooked dog. Carefully he painted fine lines in brown-black hue on the Ark, making the brown of the boat into wood planks. “You keep your emotions in, we all know that. He’s too young; he hasn’t learned to use that tactic yet.”

“Says the Investment Banker.” Tony muttered.

“So says the Investment Banker.” He agreed. “And lo, one should always follow a wise Investor Banker’s advice.” He changed brushes, and went for a fine yellow, and added some highlights along one side of his work. “You do know,” He added absently, “When he’s grown out of this phase, you know you’re gonna have to sand the wall down to paint over it.”

“No, I hire minions to do it.” Tony argued. “I didn’t hire this time, because I couldn’t get minions within the week. But, I could get you two.”

“Ahh, so nice to be needed.” Steve drawled.

It took the hour, but they got the painting done. Tarps were carefully rolled, paint was carefully drained back into cans, and taken out of the room lest there be accidents. And though the baseboards had to dry, and were still sitting on easels, Tony was impressed with the end product.

“I’ll leave the hammer and white nails on the kitchen table.” Steve told him. “You do know how to put up baseboards, right?”

“Sure.” Tony shrugged. “I’ve got Youtube, if I should be in doubt.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “I’ll come over next Saturday with the woodfill, and fix your mess.” He decided.

Tony beamed. “It’ll be flawless.”

“HA!” Steve took the used paint brushes to the kitchen sink, and began cleaning them, the white paint drenching out from the brush to cloud the stainless steel basin. He separated the bristles, and worked more of the paint out from top to bottom. “If it’s flawless, I owe you a case of beer. If I have to fix it, you owe me.” He gambled.

“You’re on.” Tony grinned, evilly anticipating the outcome of this bet. Eight weeks with Habitat for Humanity -- he knew how to put up baseboards that would make Home Makeover envious.

Izzy joined them, his collection of art brushes already cleaned in the bathroom sink. The paint he’d used wasn’t quite like the typical interior eggshell, and thus, with the paint cleaner he had, took less time to clean up. “You have something to remove the paint from my personage?” He poked with one of the clean brushes at Tony.

Tony opened the small cupboard above his stove, and pulled down the two plain containers of cleaner that Abby had gifted him with so many moons ago. Finding a fresh roll of paper towels, and the nail brush he kept in the kitchen, he set the cleansers, nail brush and towels on the counter. “Just dab a little bit on the towel or brush, and rub it gently on your skin.” He instructed. “It’s really powerful, so you won’t need much.”

Leaving them to their cleaning, he poured a glass of water for Christopher, and quickly diced an apple, tossing the apple bits into a bowl. His ward was firmly enraptured in the feature length film, and barely noticed when his guardian set the drink and snack down. Tony laughed quietly to himself, watching Christopher’s rosebud little mouth open and make silent “Ohhhs” as things happened on the screen.

The kid was just way too funny.

He returned to the kitchen after a few moments, content with Christopher’s distraction. “All good in here?” He asked, sauntering in, hands fisted in the pockets of his worn old jeans.

“Done.” Izzy announced. “Damn good stuff, DiNo.”

“It gets blood, decomposed body fluids and gunshot residue out.” He said in agreement.

Izzy shook his head, even as Steve groaned. “Man, seriously, you overshare all the wrong things.” It was proclaimed.

----

He’d scarcely gotten the baseboards up in time.

The furniture was delivered by three guys. Three big guys. Three huge giant black men who looked like they bench pressed cars for hobbies -- Tony had instinctively wanted to point out, he had no issue about ethnicity, but figured that announcement would fall flat and defensive. Still, what really freaked him out was that he knew, instinctively, these three guys would slaughter him on a basketball course. They were huge! Giants! The hoop had to be beneath their chins!

They were polite, and super efficient. His new mattress and box spring was brought up in one trip. The old mattress and box spring (Steves) was taken down and out. Another trip up saw Chris’ new bed-frame and dresser surface. All that was left was the Tony’s new bed frame, Christopher’s new bedside tables, toy box, children’s table and chair set, and bookcase.

So, of course, it was in the middle of all this chaos of new deliveries that Director Vance and Mrs. Vance would come knocking at his door. Tony stared blankly as his uber-boss tucked tight against the wall as Hulk 1 barrelled past with the bookcase. Hulk 2 followed with two of the three bedside tables, one tucked under each arm.

“Redecorating, DiNozzo?” Vance asked with an eyebrow raised. His wife, the far more prettier Vance in the room elbowed her husband, and pushed past. The Director rolled his eyes, but followed his spouse.

“Oh wow, Agent DiNozzo -- you’ve got something growing out of your leg? It’s big! Have you seen a doctor? I think I’ve heard about these things… these little things growing out of people’s legs… it’s called… oh, let me think… Christopher?” Jackie Vance asked with a smile.

Tony looked down at his leg in askance. From the moment the delivery guys showed up with the new furniture, Christopher had glommed onto him, hesitantly peeking out from behind the shelter of his leg as each man came in, left and entered again. Each time one of the men so much as glanced towards the little peeping Tom, the child ‘eeped’ and hid his head behind Tony. “Fraid so.” The child’s guardian laughed. “It’s a really recent condition. But I don’t think I need a doctor just yet.” Tony jiggled his leg, and got a soft giggle.

Jackie tsked, her eyes dancing in amusement. “You sure about that? You might need surgery to get that growth off.”

Tony grinned. “Nah.” He scoffed, reaching down with one hand to grab the back of Christopher’s jeans. He heaved, and the child flew up in the air, to be caught, carefully, but caught all the same, and came to rest on Tony’s hip. The heavy yellow cast falling behind Tony, and the child now upright and facing their guests. “It’s like velcro, you know. Just got to rip the growth off. Hey, Christopher,” He bounced the child in his arms, “This is my boss, Director Vance. And, the nice lady is his wife, Mrs. Vance.”

There was no mistaking the wariness in Christopher’s eyes, even after two full days back in Tony’s care, the fear he’d be sent away was still present.

Mercifully, Jackie was a well experienced mama. “Hi Christopher! it’s so nice to meet you!” She began with a smile and a little wave. “When I learned that Agent DiNozzo had a little boy living with him, I told my little boy… And when my little boy, whose name is Jared, heard that you were moving in with Agent DiNozzo, he thought you might like some of the toys that he says he’s too grown up to play with anymore.” Her smile was warm and engaging, and she gave him that secretive look, one hand to the side of her mouth as she fake-whispered, “He’s very silly like that.”

Christopher’s thumb went straight for his mouth, and Tony huffed. “No.” He patiently told the child, pulling the hand away. “We don’t suck on our fingers. You’ll ruin your teeth.”

This made the Director bark a laugh, and drew Christopher’s attention to the man. Again, going shy, he tucked his head against Tony’s chest, and let the hand that Tony had removed from his mouth, instead reach to fist at Tony’s shirt.

Jackie’s smile softened at the shy child’s response, and she pushed forward one of the two big bags that the Vances had brought with them. Opening the bag wide, she pulled out a large Fisher Price firehouse toy, and then the figures and vehicles that went with it. “Jared thought you might like this, Christopher.”

The child was leaning forward, his balance precarious in Tony’s arm, because he was nearly in a free-fall trying to look at the new toy. As it was, Tony was grateful he was still wearing an older t-shirt -- the fabric was straining under Chris’ grip. He lowered the boy to the ground, giving his bum a light tap. “Say thank you,” He reminded the child. “And maybe Mrs. Vance will show you how that works.”

There was a half step forward. “Tank you.” He nearly whispered, but his gaze was in the right place, up at Mrs. Vance and Director Vance respectively.

“You’re very welcome, Christopher.” Mrs. Vance assured him, before administering a sharp elbow into Director Vance’s gut. “Isn’t he, Leon?” She asked somewhat archly.

“Uh.. yeah. You’re welcome. And, um..” Leon looked in askance at his wife. “We, have some other things for you, Christopher. But I’ll have your….” His gaze settled on Tony, even if he was seeking some answer. Tony had no idea what he was looking for, truthfully. “Guardian,” He finally decided. “Go through the bags with you later.”

Christopher checked with Mrs. Vance and got the nod that yes, her doofus husband was correct. And yes everything was for Christopher. “Tank you.” He repeated.

“You’re very welcome. Would you like to play with the firehouse?” Jackie crouched down, one hand reaching out to delicately touch the toy. Her expression was inviting, encouraging the boy to approach the toy himself.

Christopher looked up at Tony, who nodded. “Go ahead.” Tony encouraged the child.

Mercifully, the child’s curiosity could bear no more. And he did move closer, keeping on the far side of the toy away from Mrs. Vance, but still able to reach long and touch the toy.

“This is Eddy.” She told the child, showing him the fireman. “He is a fireman, and this is his dog Spot.” Then, carefully, she showed him the car, and how the emergency elevator worked. Chris, by this time, was on his bum, inching forward in little bumps, and taking it all in.

Vance, meanwhile, slid over to where Tony was indulgently watching. “While Jackie and Christopher play, could we talk for a few minutes.”

Tony arched an eyebrow, “Sure. But, if it’s confidential, wait until the delivery guys go. They are doing set-up to, so…”

The Director nodded, eyes straying towards where the sound of adults at work could be heard. “Never paid for assembly myself.” He admitted.

Tony shrugged. “I’m a spoiled rich kid.” He admitted. “I don’t see the point of not paying for a service if it's offered, when my time could be better spent keeping Christopher occupied. Far better option than going nuts trying to follow poorly written directions.”

Vance nodded, “Good point.” He nodded over to the piano, “Let’s talk a little ways towards the windows, then.” He suggested. “It’s not confidential, but since you’re off this week, I thought you might use the time to think about the opportunities and decide what you want to do.”

Tony nodded, turned and walked over towards the baby grand, nestled beside the eastern facing window, his fingers gently skimming the wood as he walked up to it, the swelling warmth of fond memories filling him for a moment, before turning to face the Director.

The older man’s eyes roamed over the piano, no doubt noting small details that denoted it’s age and value. It was a rosewood victorian Steinway, a beautiful old piano that his mother, a skilled concert pianist, had trained on. It was one of the few of her possessions that had survived his father’s financial demise. And, it was one of her possessions she had earmarked in her will for her son.

“You play?” Director Vance asked absently.

Tony nodded. “Yeah. I… didn’t have a healthy relationship with my parents, Director. But, one memory I do have of my mother, before she became ill, is of her and I sitting down at this piano, and my mother teaching me to play. I kept up with lessons after she died, and made a point of hiring a piano teacher through my tour of boarding schools and college.”

“Nice.” The Director’s eyes swept over the piano again, possibly seeing a young boy with his mother beside him on the bench, learning scales. “A good memory to keep. I suppose you’ll be teaching Christopher how to play?”

The slanted smile, and the fond look Tony tossed the boy was answer enough. But, still, “Once his arm is out of that cast. It’ll actually be good exercise for the arm as the muscles strengthen.”

“Hmm.” The Director nodded. “Well… as interesting as a discussion on pianos and pianists would be, before my wife decides to run off with your boy, let’s get to business. I spoke to you about the three teams you could take over in Spain, Hawaii and Miami. And I mentioned Gibbs offer to you of the expanded MCRT.”

Tony nodded. “I don’t know that the expanded MCRT is a good idea, now that I’m responsible for a child. If I were injured in the line of duty -- Chris falls back into the system.”

“Understood.” Leon nodded, grimacing. “Gibbs won't like that, but it is a pragmatic reality to concern you. And one of the leading reasons why I went the political root. I was injured once, after Kayla was born. That was it. I wasn’t putting my family through that grief when I was the primary breadwinner. But before you toss it out altogether, if it is of any interest to you, talk to Gibbs about what you perceive as the problems, and see what answers you both might come up with.”

“Okay. But, that same argument can’t be applied to the team lead positions. I don’t have a potential option to alleviate the concern there.” Tony sighed, shaking his head as he went through his options. “And I don’t know that CAS would be impressed if I tried to move Christopher to Hawaii or Miami. I definitely couldn’t take him to a US military base in a foreign country, like Spain.”

“Agreed.” Vance smiled slightly. “So, that brings me to my last offers, which has grown since we spoke on Tuesday. First: over the past six years the West Coast OSP has been handling all the SI work for all of continental US. We never expected, when the office of special investigations was formed that their caseload volume would run as high as it does. They’ve recently had a flurry of work that has sent the team into Hawaii, Singapore, and the Middle East. After budget considerations, the SecNav and I are prepared to set up a East Coast OSP, and given your experience, expertise and knowledge of the east coast, and undercover work, you are being offered the position of Operations Manager, reporting into Assistant Director Granger.” Vance drummed his fingers lightly on the rosewood top of the baby grand. “Two more teams are being formed for the West coast OSP, and I’d like to see four teams formed on the East coast. As the Ops Manager, you would remain in-office, except in situations of meetings with me, an Assistant Director or SecNav.”

Tony rubbed his jaw. “There would be long-hours there. Where would it be located? I have to consider daycare arrangements for Christopher until he’s school-age, and then possibly a nanny once he’s in primary.”

“We were thinking New York.” Leon laid his hands flat on the piano top, even as DiNozzo walked around the other side of the piano and slid out the bench before sitting. “But, before you give much more thought there, here’s my personal counter-proposal, and your second option outside of the team leads. I’ve run this past SecNav and he has approved this too. We both agree, your undercover experience is exceptional, but beyond that what I’ve notice having reviewed your files is your ability juggle multiple balls, and the clarity of your reports. You have an excellent relationship with all teams in the DC, Los Angeles, and international offices, and I’ve had several Senior Field Officers or Senior Agents in Charge come to me concerned for your future in wake of what all have seen as fallout on the MCRT.” Vance shook his head. “Frankly, I never want to be in the position where Hetty Lange calls me to discuss your future. Christ, I felt like my mother was calling me on the carpet. God awful. So. Before Hetty can reach you with whatever plan SHE comes up with -- I want to bring you in as Chief Operations Officer. That would have you reporting into me, and overseeing the investigative division, and leave the administration and political landscape in my hands. I liken the position to that of a Homicide Captain reporting into the Chief of Police.”

Tony blinked. “A paper pusher?”

Vance shook his head. “Not really. If I want paper pushed, I have The Assistant Directors like Granger for that. That man is as anal as they get. No. What I want is someone to handle the teams. Ensure their caseloads are fair, give them extra manpower, or find them the vetted specialists they need if the case warrants it. I need someone to keep an eye on the field offices and their case reports. Honestly, I’m not sure we need an office in Paris. They averaged five cases in the past six months. Rota could expand and handle that.”

Tony frowned, reaching out to the piano absently and running his left hand through a series of scales. “How involved in investigations would I get?”

“Very.” Vance leaned forward. “Essentially, while you wouldn’t be out in the field, and could structure your working hours as you see fit, meeting the minimum requirements of a 35 hour work week, and not to exceed a 60 hour work week, what I need someone who can keep tab of multiple cases and prioritizing to keep the high profile cases at the top of their tracking, and develop a better investigative operation, moving cases or people to a different team if need be. To see the problems in teams, and get it fixed. I can't spend the time scrutinizing the individuals on teams, and sometimes the Senior Agent is too close to see a problem in dynamics. Also, currently, I sign off on all final case reports -- and in some cases, I wish I hadn’t. Some of the reports are in desperate need of re-write -- they won’t hold up in court. And perhaps it’s because I can’t give the due diligence on everything the way they require, that things like what you found with the US Arizona case, and the missing surveillance footage wouldn’t happen.”

Tony frowned, his brow furrowing as he considered what the director was saying. “Okay.” He ran few more scales, more unconscious than conscious of what he was physically doing, as his mind worked. “Dispatch then falls under the bailiwick of the Chief Operations Officer, I’m guessing?”

Vance nodded, fascinated with watching the process of DiNozzo’s thought processing. Actually, truth be told, the entire visit to DiNozzo’s apartment was an eye-opening experience. It wasn’t the Playboy Pad he’d always envisioned. Rather, the Special Agent had designed for himself a rather elegant and refined space, with high walls, ornate crown moulding, elegant light fixtures, and walls painted in neutral but warm colors.

The furniture couldn’t be mistaken for anything but high end, with quality being the preference over fashion. The sofa, a well tailored leather piece, with two loveseats cornering it, and a large 70” screen mounted on the wall, framed by custom mahogany cabinetry with glass doors. Reams of movies were on display behind the doors, but so too were books. Many of the books intellectual and academic materials.

The flooring wasn’t the usual parque found in most apartments, but hardwood -- maple if Vance wasn't mistaken. It harmonized well with the rest of the decor, and held a shine that spoke of care and attention to not damaging his floors. The piano occupied the space a dining table might have been placed, but given a relatively small kitchen, he didn't see entertaining for dinners being a priority in DiNozzo's home.

"What about investigations run by the Assistant Directors?" Tony asked, falling into playing a few notes on his piano, absently, and gradually drifting into playing a sonata… Chopin sonata no. 2, Vance thought. He wasn’t an expert on piano, but his daughter was in lessons, and so… his repertoire was growing. DiNozzo was good. His fingering, and sense of dramatic timing was perfect, which was disgusting seeing as the man wasn't giving any mind to what he was playing.

"You would be read in. Any teams they need would need your ok. I need them to take on more administrative duties at the field offices, and I have some big picture projects I want them to handle."

"Hmm. And the East Coast OSP? What would my responsibilities be there?"

"Same as Hetty Lange’s duties. I'd send you to her for three months training, but...." Vance folded his arms, and glared down at his agent. "You aren’t paying a lick of attention to what your playing, are you?" He finally burst out grumpily.

Tony looked down at his hands, and stilled, earning a loud and sudden chorus of disappointed shouts from Jackie, and the three Hulks assembling the furniture in Christopher’s room. Cringing, Tony quickly resumed playing, switching up to ragtime tunes and mixing them up. "Nope." He flashed a grin. "I wasn't."

Vance rolled his eyes.

----

The beaming smile, and pure glee dancing in Rachel Cranston’s eyes was, oddly enough, terrifying to him. She looked the most like her sister in that moment. Her lower lip was sucked under her front teeth, as she tried to quell the wide smile, and her head shook with suppressed laughter.

“What?” Tony asked plaintively, as he walked back into the kitchen, the bedtime book read, and one little boy tucked into his bed for the night. He tilted his head forward and gave his his t-shirt and jeans a once-over, looking for some sign of mess or mishap. “Do I have something on me?”

She laughed. “No. Oh, Tony, he’s adorable!” She crooned, speaking obviously of Christopher who she had met for the first time tonight. “But, the Daddy Tony routine? Thomas the Train, done with proper English voices… I want you to know, my sister is SPINNING like a top in her grave! I swear it!”

“Hush you!” He scolded with mock annoyance. “How can you speak of your sister like that? She’s not spinning, there’s nothing to spin about!” Truthfully, Caitlin was probably in heaven, pissing herself with laughter.

She nodded, but her grin said she disagreed. “Oh, right. Sure. Nothing at all. Her partner, the eternal X-rated Peter Pan having transformed into a super-daddy for the most adorable munchkin… nothing at all for her to spin about.”

Tony rolled his eyes heavenward, and turned to walk into his kitchen. Fetching two mugs down from the upper cabinet, he poured two cups of coffee, seasoning Rachel’s the way he remembered she liked, before doing his own. “Here. Have some caffeine, and get your blood to caffeine levels back to even keel. Maybe then you’ll be rational and tell me what Dr. Cranston thinks of Christopher.”

She’d arrived a little after dinner had been finished, when Tony had been in the head with Christopher, working on teaching the kid to brush his teeth. Christopher had the mechanics down, but was too impatient to do it thoroughly. It was clearly something he’d have to work on with the kid.

Teeth brushed, and Rachel prowling around his living-room, and Christopher prepped for bed in his jammies with the book of the night picked, Tony then introduced Rachel to Christopher before making himself scarce so that Rachel could do her thing. He didn't leave the apartment, but rather, he’d opted to finish cleaning the dishes and starting a pot of coffee, he’d put new linens on both the two new beds, and put Christopher’s clothing away neatly and with some thought to organization in the new chest of drawers. Lastly, he’d started laying away some of Christopher’s books on his bookshelf. The new toys and bags of clothes that the Vance family had donated were tossed in Tony’s room, waiting for him to go through it all.

Christopher’s bedroom was an entirely different world now, so far removed from the bachelor’s ‘office’ as it could be. The incredible mural Izzy had carefully painted was the highlight of the space, but Tony was very pleased with the quality of the stained oak furniture he’d selected for the little boy. It gave the space a more welcoming feel than just a mattress on a metal frame, and the trundle bed built into the new bed-frame meant that in a few years, when Christopher was older, he could have sleepovers in his room. Just looking over the furniture, he was glad that he’d chosen to spend more on quality, rather than on some funky “toy” bed that Christopher would quickly outgrow.

Like with the bed, he’d eschewed getting a cute Winnie-the-Pooh bed-spreads for the bed, or a lamp to sit on the bedside table, and instead, a sensible microfibre duvet with a simple blue case lay on the bed. Beside the bed, on the small child-height bedside table, a Groclock glowed softly. Thus far, Christopher waited until Tony called him in the morning, but he was sure that as Christopher embraced his new circumstances more and more, having him understand he couldn’t get out of bed until the clock was at the proper time was important. The Groclock didn’t teach time, per se, but it would certainly teach “day” and “night” to the little boy. Teaching Christopher to read time could happen gradually, later. The kid would have to learn numbers first.

But, what made Tony happiest about the room he’d hastily provided to the little boy was that it looked nothing like what the ostentatious 17th century canopied horror of his childhood bedroom. There were no monsters lurking under beds or in closets here.

At 8pm, he began to poke his head around the corner periodically, waiting until Rachel gave him the high sign that she was done before crossing Christopher’s line of sight. It was just a few minutes after his first head-pop-in that she gave him a smile and a wave.

His sleepy little boy was coloring a picture, awkwardly with his left hand, but Tony rightly read the tired eyes and slumping body for what it was. Tired as the kid was, it still took nearly forty minutes to put Christopher to bed.

Which was what brought him full circle to his unwanted personal session with Dr. Cranston.

“Uh huh. Oh, master-of-deflection -- how about you tell me how you feel about this big change in your life?” She countered.

He shrugged. “Not really that big a change,” He admitted. “I mean, to hear my teammates talk about things, Chris and I are about the same mental age.”

“HA!” She argued. “Because every emotional 3-year old sees someone in trouble, and changes their entire life to help that someone.” Sipping her coffee, she paused, and sipped again before giving a sigh of bliss. “I love how you only stock gourmet coffee. I’ll definitely do house-visits here.”

He frowned at her over his cup. “I only ever saw Cait drink tea…”

Rachel shrugged. “That was all part of her hyper healthy eating kick. I’m not to blame for that silliness. In college she drank coffee like any other self-respecting American.” Rachel took another indulgent sip, and set her mug down. “Okay, so, as you probably are very aware Christopher is a very shy little boy, with very understandable lacking experience in terms family dynamics. I can say beyond a doubt he was living without male presence in his life, and his mother was either severely postpartum, or deliberately neglectful.”

“She was probably sixteen when he was born.” He scratched his head. “Ran away at fourteen, and had been classified as missing for five years.”

Rachel winced, realizing the mother was as much a victim of things as the child. “Whatever the case may be, we agree that Christopher has not had any healthy parental experience. I’m pretty sure he self-taught many skills by way of observation. For example, he learned how to use a toilet, but didn’t know how to brush teeth. My guess is that he either wasn’t being diapered, or his diapers weren’t being changed regularly enough, so as he grew more cognizant of his world around him, he forced himself to find a solution. Were he an an older child, he would be less likely to rely on any adult for guidance or help.”

Tony winced. He was that older child. His saving grace? The staff of his parents house had instilled most of his lessons, but at eleven with such high turnovers in staff, Tony hadn’t trusted any adult in his father’s pay that crossed his path.

“Fortunately,” Rachel continued, “Christopher is only three. Most of his earlier memories are severely blunted. By the time he’s five, he won’t remember being ignored, or being hungry for days, or crying because his bum hurt from a dirty diaper. His memories of the night he was hurt will fade, and at best, he’ll remember feeling choked, but not being choked. Or that he broke his arm, but not how. All that he’ll recall will be impressions, things like perhaps as an adult, he’ll dislike having a tie around his neck because of that experience being choked.” She sipped her coffee, and put her thoughts back in order. “Instinctively he knows and accepts you as his protector, and defines you as the alpha in his world which is excellent, because if he couldn’t trust someone, we wouldn’t have a place to start from. My conclusion, we can get him past what he’s afraid of, and make him a very normal little boy in a very reasonable amount of time.”

“What about that fit he had at the foster-parents?” Tony asked, a finger stroking over the rim of his cup, as he listened and considered everything Rachel was saying. “I’m worried about daycare, or nannies, and having the same reactions. I understand the trigger can be a variable or nebulous factor. A smell. A color. A time of day.”

She waffled her head back and forth, considering the matter. “I don’t know, Tony. He’s currently shy, and overly cautious which is very unusual in a three year old. Like you said on the phone, he finds it hard to trust, but once trust is given, if not broken, it will be solid. That’s the connection you’re building right now.” Rachel chewed her lip thoughtfully. “Okay, so I do know it was a male that broke is arm, and tried to strangle him. I did try talking about how his arm got hurt, but like it was for you, it’s too painful a subject for him. He would, however, draw how it happened.” She rotated her cup. “The picture I had him draw was of a big blond man, a veritable giant to his eyes. There is a woman on the floor, and a man’s back and a little boys front facing him.”

Tony’s eyebrow arched. He’d seen the picture Christopher had been working on. Okay, maybe not ‘seen’, but certainly glanced at. “You got all that out of the scribbles?” He asked, somewhat incredulously. As far as he’d seen, it was a series of circles and sticks and funky colors.

Her eyes sparkled, “Yup. I’m a professional. Psychiatrist compared to you clumsy psychologists.”

“Dear god… it’s a Masters in Psychology. Don’t go giving me a doctorate. And, you’re a big fan of Picasso too, aren’t you?” He retorted.

“I’d be a big fan of owning a Picasso, but prefer Renoir…” She grinned cheekily. “Seriously, I have two girls. And after years of my fridge being plastered in those scribbles, yes, I can understand their art -- especially when they explain it to me.”

Tony huffed. “You could have said he explained it from the start.”

“Where’s the mystique of the psychiatrist in that?”” She retorted. “You have to learn, padawan, if you wish to compete with me.”

Tony rolled his eyes heavenwards. Sisters? Really? Couldn’t Cait have been an only child? God help him, Cait had pushed every button he had, did Rachel have to do the same?

“Next steps?” He pushed.

“Keep doing what you’re doing. Sure, it’s not the traditional nuclear family, but really, that tradition has fallen by the wayside in modern society. Give him attention, care, fun, teach him new things, make sure he’s fed and getting enough sleep. Talk to him. Listen to him.” She ticked things off on her right hand, “Encourage him. If he cries, comfort him. Empower him.”

“And if he faces what terrified him?”

“That’s going to naturally disappear from active memory.” She reassured. “As long as he associates you with safety and protection, you’ll be his knight in shining armor when faced with what he fears.”

Tony rubbed his forehead. He had a headache coming on. Shrinks did that to him. “Are you sure?”

Rachel’s head tilted forward, eyes earnest. “I have proof.” She told him. “Did he not calm down when you picked him up on Wednesday morning?”

Tony frowned. “Yeah, but...”

“He was in the middle of a huge episode. He was surrounded by EMTs, the foster parents, and the CAS agent. And you walked in and he settled down immediately. In his little mind, you can slay the dragon.”

Tony’s lip curled, thinking about that morning. Christopher’s sheer terror, his screams, had haunted his dreams since then. And Rachel thought that his memories of what had terrified him would disappear? It boggled his mind.

“So, maintain status quo.”

“Pretty much.” She agreed. “You’re going to have challenges -- every parent does. Daycare, for example. He’s not going to like being separated, but make sure you are patient with him, set boundaries and realistic goals, and he’ll be okay.”

“Okay then.”

“And I’ll have a session with him every Wednesday.” She finished.

He frowned, “I thought you said to maintain the status quo and he’d be fine in time. Now you’re saying he needs sessions?”

She rolled her eyes. “My girls are teens now, Tony. They aren’t cute anymore. I love them, but really… I can’t wait for them to grow up and go to college. Christopher is cute. I’ll babysit him on Wednesday nights so you can do you Coach thing. I’ll get little boy cuddles and watch kiddy movies, and work out his issues. You can go throw balls around. It’s perfect.”

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