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Chapter Eight - Lions and Tigers and Bears


Friday December 5th - 7am

Pulling into the security checkpoint to the agency’s secure parking lot, Tony knew instantly that it was going to be an epic circus of a day. He brow furrowed in consternation, watching as he cleared the checkpoint, the guard practically a giraffe craning his neck to peer into the backseat of Tony’s car. His curiosity so rampantly on display that Tony had no doubt said security guard had pounced on his phone the second Tony’s window rolled back up, and he pulled into the lot.

It didn’t take a professional detective to figure out who the guard was calling, or what the subject was about. After all, it wasn’t everyday that Special Agent DiNozzo, Senior Field Agent of the MCRT, playboy extraordinaire, showed up with a little boy happily singing away in a child’s car seat mounted in his car. Well, that and the fact that Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo was actually singing with the kid, teaching children’s poems to the munchkin.

“And the itsy bitsy spider went up the…” Tony decided stubbornly to ignore what he knew was going on in the building, and continued to sing, pausing every so often to give Christopher encouraging to fill the blank spots.

“WARER SPOUT!” Christopher merrily shouted out.

“And down came the rain, and…”

“WASHDED DA SPIDER OUT!”

He was, Tony thought with a grin, getting really good at these games. His retention for the rhymes was terrific. “Out came the sun, and dried…”

“ALL DA RAIN!”

Tony pulled to his usual spot and turned the car in, shutting off the engine once he was parked, and turning to finish the rhyme. “And the itsy bitsy spider….”

“WHEN UP DA SPOUD AGAN!”

Okay, so Christopher’s enunciation wasn’t perfect, and his ability to carry a tune needed a lot of work, but his little heart and soul poured the words out. “Good show, Christopher! We’re here.”

The kid peered up, and tried to see more from the window. “Hewe?”

“This is where I work, buddy.”

The child blinked. Work, Tony knew, was a new concept. Most of the things Chris was being exposed to were terribly new, but like any curious child, he rolled, with only a few hiccups, at the new opportunity for exploration. Opening the passenger door of his two-door Cadillac ATS-V, he sourly considered getting rid of the two door and going for a four-door sedan seeing as he now had a child to care for folding the seat forward all the time would likely get vexing, especially as Christopher became more independent. Tony sighed, putting the thought on his mental to-do list even as he reached to undo the buckles holding Chris in the child-safe seat. “Do you have your backpack?” He asked, easily spotting the vibrant and shiny Cars backpack sitting beside Chris.

Truthfully, considering they were only here today to register Christopher and give him a tour of the day-care, neither he or Tony really needed to bring their backpacks today. But, Tony thought it best to start teaching Christopher to be in the habit of being prepared for daycare, and eventually, school.

“Yup!” The bag, fisted in the boy’s hand by the long straps would drag on the ground, and since Pooh was stuffed in there with his indoor running shoes and spare mitts, Tony took it from Christopher’s hands, and carefully helped the child put the bag on his back properly. Fetching his own bag, he deliberately and exaggeratedly did the same, Christopher’s hazel eyes watching him avidly. Much like with training the probies, it was easier to demonstrate and teach, rather than to simply lecture on how to wear a backpack on properly.

The crowd at the door was growing, Tony spared them a brief scowl, reaching for Christopher’s hand, and shut the car door. He set the alarm as he and the little boy walked away from the vehicle. “Did you like the strawberries this morning?” He asked Christopher, hoping to distract the child from the crowd gathering at the entrance. Rubberneckers. The lot of them.

The boy nodded, wide-eyed. “Yeth!”

“And is your tummy full?” He goaded, patting his own tummy. “Mine is very, very full.”

“Me vewy full too!” Christopher told him. “Cwistofer liked the scambled eggs in a sandwich too.” The poor kid had struggled mightily through the toasted breakfast sandwich, only able to eat half of it, plus his small fruit salad that made up his breakfast. His appetite was improving, as was his ability to eat, but it was by inches, not leaps.

“Good!” Tony cheered. “I really liked it too. Maybe we’ll have that again on the weekend.”

Christopher beamed. “Yay!”

“And tonight you get my very special lasagna to try.” Tony told him.

“La-sung-ga?” Christopher repeated carefully.

“Close. La-s-on-ya. You liked the spaghetti we had on Wednesday, right? The long string noodles and the red sauce?” Tony eyed the doors, very unhappy with what he was seeing.

“Yup. Getti! Me liked getti lots!” Tony helped Christopher navigate the curb, and pulled open the glass doors to the main entrance of the Agency.

“Well, lasagna is kind of like that.” He told the boy, even as he sent a scowl, worthy of Gibbs in a temper, searing around the room with the goal of lighting people on fire . “If you people don’t have work to do, I can find something incredibly smelly, ugly and strongly resembling a dumpster for you to do.” He stated sternly to the gathered crowd, some blatantly risking his ire as the took pictures via cellphones. .

There was a mad scurry, and most vanished. A few, those mad brave few, lingered but kept out of his way. His wrath couldn’t touch them, seeing as they held positions of Agent in Charge, or security roles, and Tony had no power over them.

Unfortunately, the scattering didn't’ happen fast enough, or well enough to ease Christopher’s growing tension. For whatever reason, perhaps it was the number of people still around, or the unfamiliar environment, or the sudden scramble of bodies fleeing Tony’s potential wrath, but Tony’s arm was practically wrenched behind himself from the moment they had stepped through the doors, a small whimper suddenly escaping the little boy huddled behind him.

“Christopher, it’s okay, buddy.” He laughed lightly, pulling the child back to front. He crouched down, ignoring the spectators still gawking -- the obnoxious bunch -- and instead focussed only on scared hazel eyes. “Do you remember meeting Director Vance and Mrs. Vance yesterday?”

Christopher nodded.

“Well, this is where Director Vance works. This is where I work, too. In this building. And do you remember what it is I do?”

“Powice-man.” Christopher whispered. “You fine bad guys.”

“That’s right. The Director, and I, and all the other the men and women who work here, we all work to FIND the bad guys and make sure only bad guys go to jail. That means everyone here is one of the good guys. So since only good guys are allowed to work here, no one here will ever hurt you.” Tony rubbed the kid’s head.

“Good guys?” The child’s thumb was creeping towards his mouth. Wearily, Tony pulled it away, and firmly held the hand, shaking his head ‘no’ as he did so. “All o’ dem?” The child gave a visual tour of the people around him, suspicion of wrongdoing in his expression.

“Yes, buddy. All of them.” He assured the boy. “Now, come on. Next week I go back to work, and that means you’ll be at the daycare here while I’m working. Remember what we talked about yesterday? After the sun comes up in the morning, we come here. I’ll be in this building working, and you’ll be nearby at daycare where you’ll be playing, making stuff and learning all sorts of new things. When the sun goes down I pick you up and we go home, talk about what you did and learned, read books, watch movies, have dinner and go to bed. So, since all that starts soon, I thought we’d come in today and meet the people in the daycare, and see what kind of fun things you’ll be doing there while I’m working.”

The uncertainty in the child’s eyes was a little heart-breaking, but Tony forged on. Trust would come in time, he reminded himself. “After we finish at daycare, we are going to meet a very special friend of mine,” Tony continued. “And then, we’re going home for lunch. This afternoon, I have a couple of very important phone calls to make while you have your nap. And after nap, we’re going to explore the wonderful world of play-doh.”

Seriously, playtime for Christopher meant playtime for Tony. He was so glad there was only Christopher to bear witness to how excited he was to play with some of the toys out there. No way in hell would Elizabeth Paddington-DiNozzo have allowed her son to play with something so plebeian as ‘Play-Doh’.

“You no leave Cwistofer? Pwomise?” Christopher moved closer, pressing up against Tony’s inside thigh.

“Hey buddy, I won’t be with you all the time, but I will always come back for you. I might leave you at daycare while I work, but it’s only for a little while, and I’ll always, ALWAYS come back to get you before going home. You’ll always come home with me at night. And if we go away anywhere, you’ll be with me.” Tony assured him, standing up from the crouch. He captured Christopher’s left hand. “Now come on. Big day, buddy. Lots to do.”

Christopher still wasn’t happy being stared at by so many strangers, and seemed dubiously sold on Tony’s promise, but accepted he had to get moving, sticking very close to Tony’s side.

“You got a new partner there, Agent DiNozzo? MCRT’s starting ‘em awfully young, now?” Ralph, the morning guard, chuckled as the little boy watched Tony take his Cars backpack and put it in a grey bin for scanning. Standing on tip-toes, until Tony granted him mercy and lifted him up to watch from the heightened position of Tony’s hip, Christopher scrutinized the route of the bag, inside the big grey ‘box’, and then out the other side. Ralph was kind of enough to tilt his monitor so the boy could “see” inside the bag on the screen.

“I don’t know, Ralph. Might work out better if we train the probies up as soon as they get out of diapers. Less bad habits to deal with.” Tony replied, setting Christopher down as the bag emerged safely on the other side, and put his own bag through the scanner. He also unloaded his primary and backup weapons, his belt knife, and the other knife tagged to his right ankle. Every time he put something into the tray, each morning, he couldn’t help but think it was ridiculous how much weaponry he carried. But then, of course, mentally comparing his few arms to the bloody armory that Ziva packed on her body daily -- he felt instantly better. She’d required two bins just for her private collection, and a third for her own bag.

His little ward had leaned up against his leg, left arm loosely wrapped around his knee. Tony ran his hand over the kid’s head, “Okay, so this little man here is Christopher, guys.” He said to the security team in general -- and any wayward audience that was still lurking. “I’m his new guardian, and that means Chris is going to be starting at the daycare here at the Yard -- we’re just visiting and taking a quick tour today.”

“Ah.” Ralph nodded. “Well, hey there Chris! Welcome to NCIS.” Ralph, prior to his joining NCIS, had been a marine. He’d served a very long time in the marines, and it showed in a repeatedly broken nose, missing teeth, and a grizzly appearance. Thusly, his smile just made Christopher cling a little bit tighter to Tony.

Ralph chuckled, aware that the child was too young, and likely very unnerved by the strangeness around him. “Well, yer and Chris’ gear is clear, Agent DiNozzo. Better get moving before you get trampled by the morning rush. Gibbs’ already in-house. So’s McGee. David’s not yet.” He reported, as if it was a regular workday. “If you’ll just walk through the metal detector, one at a time, please.”

Tony gently prodded Christopher towards the metal detectors. “Okay, Buddy. I need you to walk right through that arch to the guy on the other side.”

Apparently, that was a mistake. Christopher’s eyes shot huge, and lower lip wobbled. “Noooo.” He moaned, tears starting. “Noo… wanna stay with you. You pmoised”

Tony blew out a breath, his agile mind making the connection to how Chris misread the instructions. The kid was a little hypersensitive about Tony leaving him. It was definitely a subject that requiring more work. But, here and now, waterworks were about to explode.

Sighing, Tony dropped into an instant crouch, aware he was doing this way too much these last few days. His thighs were killing him from all this squatting. Gathering the small boy close into a hug, he pressed a soft comforting kiss to boy’s forehead. “Christopher, believe me, buddy… you’re not going to live anywhere else, ever, but with me. I swear it!”

He rubbed the small back, as Chris burrowed into his jacket, sniffling. Beyond any doubt of Tony’s mind, his dry-cleaning bill was going to seriously escalate now that Chris was with him. “I’ll never send you forever away, Christopher. But, I do have to go to work most days, and that means while I’m at work, you have to be somewhere safe to learn and play. After you’re done learning and playing for the day, and once I’m done working for the day, we -- you and I -- go home together. No one else will ever take you away from me, and I will never abandon you. Honest. Right now, all I want you to do is walk through the arch. Then I walk through, right behind you. We each have to go by ourselves, one at a time. Honestly, I’ll be right behind you.”

Rational logic held no sway with the kid, he wasn’t really listening, he was too busy crying. He fisted little hands on Tony’s shirt and latched on, sobbing. Helpless, Tony stroked his back, from crown of his head to mid-back and back up. “Easy, buddy,” He said, “You’re okay. You are.”

It was, Tony realized, too much too soon for Christopher to handle. In less than a week, his world had gone topsy-turvey, and the kid had finally hit his limit. Tony sighed silently, maybe he needed to re-think this daycare thing right now. Maybe he needed to rethink coming back to work on Monday.

Casting a helpless look at Ralph, he got an empty shrug back. The rules were rules, and in a federal agency, rules were not to be bent.

“Come, on Chris.” He murmured, lifting the boy up and walking away from the arch a bit. “Hey, come on, buddy -- look at me.” He bounced the kid a bit, trying to distract him from his misery.

Not watching a clock, it felt like an hour before the kid eased up, sniffling and casting pathetic puppy eyes everywhere. It was actually less than five minutes. Tony rifled through his pocket and pulled out a kleenex. This, he had learned from the movies. Though, really, it was the most disgusting parental thing he’d ever seen, short of changing diapers --- and thank the Mother, the Son and the Holy Ghost he didn’t have to do that!. “Blow.” He instructed, setting the kleenex up at the boy’s snotty nose.

Christopher blew. And the kleenex was promptly disposed of. Tony made mental note to start carrying hand sanitizer everywhere he went, too. ‘Oh hell… “ He groaned silently. ‘I’m turning into Nikki and her OCD hand sterilizer fixation.’ Man, when they said having kids changed a person, they weren’t kidding.

“Let’s try this again.” He muttered to himself. He marched over to the arch. Setting Chris down, Tony carefully extricated the child’s grip, and once free, promptly walked through the detector in two long steps. He spun around on heel, and dropped into another damn squat. “Come here, champ.” He called, opening his arms wide.

Chris’ chest heaved on two silent sobs, and his face started to crumple when suddenly, with a strangled sob, he bolted in a full sprint straight into Tony’s open arms.

“Attaboy.” Tony pressed another light kiss to the top of the boy’s head. “See? You did it. And no little boys, bears, or very Special Agents were hurt in the process.” Christopher truly didn’t care, he just clung tightly to Tony, shuddering gulps of air making his thin little body shake.

“I’m not sure we scanned anything at that speed.” Frank Miller, the second guard, muttered, as Tony gathered Christopher's weight and lifted the child up. “He mighta hit warp, there.”

Tony cast a wry smile. “Aww, come on, Miller. He’s scared. Cut the kid some slack.” He had no idea how he was going to put his gear back on. Chris wasn’t going to be letting go anytime soon.

Frank raised and spread his hands. “Not complaining, DiNozzo. Doubt I ever moved that fast in my entire damn life.” Frank gave him a slanted smile. “You’re in for one helluva surprise first time you leave him for the day in daycare.”

That, precisely, was what Tony hoped to avoid. He positioned Chris so that he was standing on the table bench, and carefully re-holstered his gun with one free hand. The belt-knife back slipped easily back in his belt. But his backup weapon required a bit of contortion to slide it into his ankle holster, without removing Christopher’s clinging grip. It took a great deal more contortion to put the other knife, something he had started carrying after the whole thing with Jeffrey White. Somehow he managed, pushing it into the holster on his other ankle. Carelessly tossing his backpack over his shoulder, he pulled Christopher back onto his hip, and then reached for Christopher’s cars backpack last.

“Here.” A gruff voice came out of nowhere, and suddenly, Christopher’s bag and his own was lifted from his arm. Gibbs glanced at the teary face on Tony’s shoulder and stifled whatever he was about to say, amending it to something a little less… volatile. “I’ll carry those, you just carry the little guy. Maybe this way you can get through the building before it’s closing time.” The tone was rather mild, which Tony appreciated. There was no way finding his SFA holding a kid wasn’t a surprise. Vance hadn’t told the team what Tony’s emergency was about, only that there had been an emergency requiring DiNozzo’s leave.

Christopher, however, chose to give a dramatic sigh at that moment, and raised his hand to his mouth.

“No, Christopher,” Tony sighed himself, reaching for the wayward hand and intercepting it before it could enter the child’s mouth. He curled the small hand inside his own, giving it a gentle squeeze. “We don’t suck our thumb. You’ll ruin your teeth.” It had only been four days since he’d been a defacto parent to the kid, and already he had a whole slew of automatic reactions to the little quirks the child had developed.

Christopher typically reacted to the auto-correction with another incredibly dramatic and tragic sigh.

Gibbs snorted a laugh. He hit the call button for the elevator with a hard punch. “Yer good with him.” The older agent noted quietly, an apology in his face and tone, even if not said aloud. “Real good. Can see yer already on his wavelength.” The Senior Agent glanced skittishly at Christopher, and then away. “So, I guess the little guy was the fire you had to race to put out, then?”

It was unusual, the way Gibbs was avoiding Chris’ direct line of sight and deliberately not engaging the kid. Gibbs usually forged an instant rapport with children, but he seemed hesitant to, or sensed it would be unwelcome with Christopher.

Tony merely took the compliment at face value. “Yeah. Mr. Christopher, here, didn’t have a very good time at his first foster home. It was a bit of a kerfuffle. Long and short, I’m his legal guardian now.” He bounced Christopher, making the child smile slightly. He was still being very sulky, head lowering to rest on Tony’s shoulder.

With his eyes on Chris, he didn’t quite catch Gibb’s immediate reaction, but the tightened jaw was hard to miss.

The elevator gave a ‘ding’ and doors opened to the bullpen level. Christopher tensed slightly, but relaxed when Tony didn’t put him down. With long strides, Tony stepped into the main floor of the office, and headed straight towards the stairs to the Director's office, ignoring the startled look McGee gave him, or the number of people that suddenly stopped to openly stare.

Ziva wasn’t in, as Ralph had said. What did that mean, though? Was she off the team, or just busy elsewhere? Vance had wanted to send her to FLETC, but the next session didn’t start until the new year. It was hard to guess -- it wasn’t like anyone called him with the outcome of Gibbs meeting their junior teammates. And, as curious as he was, he wasn’t about to ask right now.

Gibbs walked silently along his right side, close to the windows. The backpacks swayed like pendulums in his hand, while sharp blue eyes swept around and noted all the movement around him.

Strangely, Tony likened the bullpen to some bizarre version of the carnival whack-a-mole game. Heads were popping up all over the bullpen, some people coming to their feet to openly gape.

“Yer setting the rumor mill on fire.” Gibbs noted wryly.

Tony shrugged, “I do that often enough. You’d think they’d ignore my antics by now.” Christopher was tensing, as more and more people openingly gawked at the sight of their own version of Peter Pan carrying a small child off to Nevernever land. Christopher’s head shifted slightly to bury his face into shoulder, hiding in the childishly simple way of “If I can’t see you, you can’t see me”.

“You got a meeting with Vance?” Gibbs asked, his face tense and jaw growing even more rigid. He was clearly nervous about the answer, which didn’t surprise Tony much. Change never suited Gibbs temper, and his soon to be former SFA announcing he was now a parent another layer to changes that upset Gibb’s apple cart.

Tony glanced at the older man, frowning at other signs of stress. Maybe there was more going on than just the changes to the team. There was exhaustion written in the lines of Gibb’s tired face. The older man looked haggard, eyes slightly bloodshot, and his coloring was off.

“No.” Tony replied slowly, wondering if the team had an active priority case which would explain the boss’s state. Not that it mattered. If they had a case, he was off on leave, and he couldn’t change that on a whim. It wasn’t like he could put Christopher on a shelf until the case was solved, and then resume taking care of the kid.

Besides, it was best the team started working without him now. It wouldn’t be long before he left the MCRT for good. So, did it matter if they learned how that goes now, rather than later?

Regardless of whether it was a case, or some other cause to the Boss’s stress levels running high, this really wasn’t the time or place for any sort of conversations. Christopher didn’t need to be exposed to their arguments, and the rest of the bullpen didn’t need to learn just how fractured the MCRT had become.

“I have to sit down with my HR rep and sign a few papers to add Christopher to my medical coverage, and update my jacket. Vance offered the conference room off of his office to do that. After that, Christopher and I are taking a tour of the daycare here at Navy Yard.”

“Oh.” Gibbs paused at the bottom of the stairs, looking up to Tony as Tony took the first step. “So yer back on Monday, then?”

Tony turned, and took back the offered backpacks. “Thanks.” He smiled blandly. “Yeah, should be, at least, that’s the plan.” He arched one eyebrow. “I trust if I’m a few minutes late it won’t be a problem? I do have to drop Christopher off at daycare before I come in, and everyone and their cousin has warned me about that. I’m to expect a nuclear meltdown.”

Gibbs frowned, rubbing his head. “Oh. Yeah.” He looked at the little boy, huddling in Tony’s arms. “You will. So, then the little guy is a permanent arrangement? You adopting him?”

There was a slight warning frost in Tony’s eyes as he stared back at his team lead. “I’ve got custodial guardianship right now. Don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but yeah, Christopher is now a permanent fixture in my life.”

“Oh. Well. That’s… good.” Gibbs finished, faintly. “Yeah,’ He verbally stumbled, and then forced shoulders to straighten and voice to firm up. “That’s real good. Should I.. do you want...“ Gibbs heaved a breath. “Aww, hell… do you want me to just go shoot the rumor mill and tell people straight up about ‘im?”

Tony frowned, looking down at the child who was resting his head on his shoulder, fingers of his left hand playing with buttons on his jacket, before turning his green eyes back on Gibbs. Part of him screamed for privacy, to keep his private life outside the awareness of everyone. Even the wild stories he told his coworkers were mostly exaggerated, just to keep them from examining his life closely. It was none of their business. They didn't need to know the real Anthony DiNozzo. No one did. But, Christopher needed a bigger network than just him, and if he chose to take the OSP or COO position, it might help people understand why he had left the field, and grant acceptance when he didn’t work late nights or come in on weekends like he used to. Additionally, if NCIS personnel knew of Christopher, they’d watch out for the kid if they encountered him in public. “Yeah.” He finally decided.

“Will do.” Gibbs seemed relieved to have something to do. “Can… look, you’ve prob’ly got yer hands full at home. Is there sometime we can talk? LIke… really talk?””

Tony exhaled slowly. “Is there a point to it, Gibbs? I said everything I thought I needed to on Monday night.” He didn’t want to beat a dead horse, but, looking at the almost defeated look on Gibbs face, he shook his head. Regardless of anything, and even respecting the fact he might never respect Gibbs enough to work for him again, Gibbs had been a friend at an important time in his life. Losing that friendship would suck, and in future, they might have to collaborate on things. It was for the best they clear the air. “Okay. Christopher goes to bed at 8pm. If you want to come over, after that point, fine. I won’t have dinner for you, because obviously we have to eat earlier than that, but... “

“I’m there.” Gibbs promised.

“There’s no beer in my place. Or bourbon” Tony warned. The redecorating of Christopher’s room had seen Izzy and Steve clean him out of beer. And he hadn’t felt the need to stock bourbon for Gibb’s spontaneous visits in the past couple of years, there hadn’t been any visits to stock for.

Gibbs blinked. “Geezus… I forgot about that part of being a parent. Took some getting used to. Kelly musta been six before Shannon let me keep beer in the fridge.” He reminisced absently. “S’okay though. Coffee’s good enough for me.”

“Okay then.” Tony turned, and made his way up the stairs, feeling the laser blue eyes on his back as he went. Yeah. Circus really described his life right now, didn’t it?.

----

The Navy Yard Daycare was located in a separate building from where Tony worked, yet lay still inside the perimeters of Navy Yard, just off Tingey Street. It was a short walk, but despite the seasonal weather of early December, there was bright sun, and very little cloud cover leaving crisp cool air in it’s wake, but lacking the bitterness it could have been.

Together, Special Agent and ward stepped hand in hand into yet another security checkpoint just inside the doors to the building the daycare was located in. Fortunately, this was a less stringent checkpoint from what the agency utilized. For this building, Tony was required to sign and show his badge. Security matched his name and ID to what was recorded on their system, and cleared him to continue on.

Located on the second floor, the daycare was accessible by stairs and by elevator. It took up most of the floor in it’s entirety, but was designed as a large, open, and airy space, with large ceiling-to-floor windows that allowed tremendous amounts of natural light to shine into the room. The walls were neutral, but bright primary color bulletin boards were liberally displayed all over the room. Hardwood floors were underfoot for the most part, with a few areas tiled or carpeted. What caught Tony’s eye the most though was an eye-popping bright circular carpet, with little circles forming a perimeter around the outer edge of the carpet, located beside bookcases filled with children’s books and a rocking chair.

“Wow.” Tony jiggled Christopher’s arm with a shake of his wrist. “This looks awesome, doesn’t it, buddy?”

His gaze swept under the windows where he could see a solid bank of low bookcases, filled with clear faced bins. The bins contained a myriad of toys. At the east end of the room was a series of art-easels all set low to the ground for little people, and with splash guards on ground and at mid-height of the easel. Tony, being taller than Christopher, could see the low level sinks that ran against the interior wall at the very back. “Look,” Tony pointed to the other side of the easels and a large sand-table. “You can build sand-castles!”

“And lot more!” A cheerful faintly Irish voice interjected. “Crocodiles, and lions, and anything you can imagine!” The voice was followed by a freckle faced red-headed woman with wide brown eyes and a huge smile. “Hi! I’m Fanny… and who might you be?” She popped into a crouch and addressed Christopher directly.

The shy-boy routine kicked in immediately, and Christopher resorted to hugging Tony’s leg, his little face burying into his guardian’s leg.

Fanny tossed Tony a wink, unphased by the reception. “And, gee… who’s your little fuzzy friend? He’s a real cutie!”

Christopher swayed back and forth, his head hidden against Tony’s leg. His grip, the Special Agent noted, had tightened on his bear though.

Fanny laughed at the silent treatment, moving along easily to shake Tony’s hand and compete the parental side of the introductions. “Well, you’re in perfect time for a visit, my friends. Most of the kids are outside playing right now. With the weather getting colder, we only go out for fifteen or so minutes. Enough to run off some energy.”

Tony nodded, understanding completely. Truthfully, he went for morning runs just to burn off some of his energy too.

“If you and your little buddy can come over here… you can see the play-ground.” Fanny pointed to one of the windows. Tony disentangled Christopher from his leg, instead catching his boy’s arm and leading him gently over. At the window, he lifted Chris up so he could see from Tony’s vantage what was outside.

It was a yard split between sand and grass. There were half buried tires, stepping stones painted vibrant colors, a climber unit with a lot of safety netting. Tony could see a “fort” and a set of swings. There was also tree stumps, the stump top painted the same types of colors as the stones. And there were children milling all over the place, skipping, running and laughing.

What really pleased Tony, though, was the paved paths quietly laying around the grounds -- and two children, both in wheelchairs, happily keeping up with other mobile friends.

“Wow. Looks fun.” He whispered loudly to Christopher. “Do you think you’d like to play out there?”

The child huffed a breath, looking at Tony is askance.

Tony laughed at the boy. “Maybe when we’re done looking around here, we can go down and look around there. Sound good?”

Fanny clapped her hands. “An excellent idear!” She declared. “Well, now… I suppose I ought to start your tour. Let’s go by the entrance you came in, okay?”

She walked them through the little coat room, where every child had labelled cubby for their shoes and coats. From there, she took them to the little boys loo… which Tony was quite impressed with. Everything was carefully scaled down for a child’s easy reach. No step stools were used. And the floors were a rubber composite, so little feet running wouldn’t skid or trip..

Fanny led them through the secondary entrance to the boys bathroom, which found them in the arts and crafts area. Here, Tony spotted the easels again, and the sinks.. but also two long tables with benches, and a big roll of paper mounted the table top. Pots of crayons, glues, and children’s safety scissors sat on a small shelf behind the table. “We do our crafts here. We make special cards for Father’s Day, Christmas, Easter, the usual. Cut and paste crafts happen at least three times a week, to help with dexterity and physical manipulation of small tools.”

“What about kids who don’t have… a M-U-M or D-A-D…” Tony asked carefully.

“There are always ways around that.” She smiled softly. “Sometimes, it’s their favorite babysitter, or someone like you standing in lieu.”

Tony nodded. “Okay.” And it was okay. The concept of the nuclear family that was present in the 50s wasn’t the same as today. Something Christopher would have to learn and understand as he grew older.

“Coloring can happen any time. hence, the big roll of paper. We have no limits on that if a child wants to draw instead of playing with toys. Painting is at least once a week for each child. It’s limited not because of the mess it generates, we’re good with mess here, but because currently we have twenty-three children -- and only so many paint stations. With six easels, the paint centre is open for four days a week for each child at that ratio.”

Tony nodded, Christopher peered curiously at pictures drying on the easels. “Christopher here has had very limited exposure to paint. What if he tries to eat it?”

“Non toxic, to start with. We make our own paint, and other than the risk of children who might be allergic to eggs -- mercifully, we’ve had none of that come up -- it’s completely safe for snacking.” She grinned. “Same goes for our glue. Perfectly edible.”

“And it’s all water soluable?” He continued.

“Comes out in the wash brilliantly.” She nodded, pointing to her own clothes, which were practical and serviceable, something needed when crawling around on the ground with children.

“Okay, then. Sounds fun.” Tony gave a jiggle on Christopher’s arm. “What do you think, Buddy?”

Christopher looked confused, staring first at the easel, and then Tony.

“I think,” Fanny said, “That our little friend here needs to try painting while we talk about grown up silly things.” She moved to the easel and clipped a new length of paper on it.

Tony smiled, understanding the distraction would pull Christopher out of his funk, somewhat, and give them space too.. “Hey, that sounds good… wanna try, Christopher?”

Christopher was reluctant, but under the influence of Fanny, Pooh was soon entrusted into Tony’s care, and the little boy was smocked up, and standing front of an easel. A selection of paints in the baby-food jars at the bottom trough of the easel, and a pile of chubby brushes were given to him. Christopher wasn’t a self-starter, having no idea what he was doing and having been too long groomed not to instigate actions, but Tony solved that. He set Winnie up on another stool just out of Christopher’s reach. “Here’s what you’ll do…” he coached the boy, “See Pooh?” I want you to draw him in paint, and color him. Just as you see him! Once the picture is done, we’ll put it up at home.”

Together, they drew the outline. And from there, Christopher was off -- and Pooh, at least on the paper, would never be the same colors again.

“Poor kid… those are nasty bruises.” Fanny clucked her tongue quietly, eying the fading yellow and green marks on the boy’s neck..

“Yeah. He’s getting a lot better though. Don’t know what you know, but he was abandoned, I found him with signs of being choked, a broken arm, way underweight -- we’re working on that, but it's early days. He’s had very little social exposure, and hasn’t been growing up with a television handy to teach him his letters and numbers. Seriously, I doubt he’s had any toys, so don’t be surprised if he doesn’t know how to play with something. He had no clue what to do with Duplo until I showed him. He’s never seen playdoh before, but that’s on tonight’s agenda. Had pizza for the first time with me this last week.” Tony rubbed his head. “The reason I need daycare is…”

“Same reason all federal agents do -- their jobs get in the way!” Fanny waved his concern off. “There are always five staff on during the busiest hours… that’s 6am through to 6pm. After 6, there’s three on staff from 6 to midnight, and then two from midnight to 6 am. It’s a lot of people, but because several divisions pay into the daycare, including NCIS, we’re able to have the higher levels of staff.” Fanny grinned. “Altogether, we’ve got eighteen on staff, which allows us for a better time work balance, and the schedule rotates monthly so we’re all handle the midnight shift in due course, best of all, the kids get to know all of us. We each have something to teach them.”

Tony nodded.

“Children range in ages. We have three babies in the creche -- I haven’t shown you that. You won’t need it. Mandy is in there all day. We’ve got eight kids ages one to two, and another ten kids aged three to four. We’ve only got three four year olds, because most of them start Junior Kindergarten, and there are whole day programs for those kids now. Our four year olds are the ones that come after school, and are only really here for an hour or so, though depending on the parent, we’ve had kids who are here for three hours some evenings..”

That was good to know. He’d still have to come up with a plan for Christopher when he hit primary, after all, his workday sure didn’t end at 4pm.

“Now, kids have to come with a clean pair of indoor shoes, appropriate outdoor shoes and coats for the weather. We’d also prefer they come in practical clothes for crawling around or doing crafts.” Fanny grinned impishly. “You won't have a problem there, it’s the little girls that we have issues with when they show up in really pretty little frocks. No so good for crawling about.”

“What about nutrition and snacks?” Tony asked, everything else sounding good to him thus far.

“We do have a breakfast program, but that’s for kids that overnight, or come in before six am. Morning snack is at ten hundred Lunch at twelve-thirty, afternoon snack at fifteen hundred. We will provide an evening snack around seventeen hundred, but that’s pretty light. The evening kids are fed at eighteen thirty. Drinks of water and dairy milk are available at any time, but only in the cafeteria area under supervision. We don’t have any nut milks, I’m afraid, due to the risk of nut allergies.”

Tony nodded agreeably. “Okay, now what about academics?”

Fanny laughed. “Daycare is about training our puppies to play well with one another… that said, we do work on motor skills, basic cognitive functions, numerals to ten, colours, basic patterns and their abcs.”

All that pleased Tony immensely. “So, play, socialization, motor skills and basic academic building blocks.” He summarized. “That’s everything I want for him right now.”

Fanny clapped her hands once. “Then we as a daycare, and you as a parent are both on the same page.”

Tony rubbed his head, critically examining Christopher’s blue-green Pooh. Time spent with coloring books was definitely needed. Chris lacked a sense of ‘line’. “I’m worried he’s going to react badly to my being separated from him during the workday.” He admitted.

“We are veterans in that field, here.” Fanny assured him. “Yes, he will, but it’s how you reinforce the reunion, and make the night a balance of your attention and normalcy that helps him learn you will be there at the end of the day.” She wandered over to a higher set of shelves, and pulled down a coil notebook. “We ask parents to write, at the end of the year comments, good and bad, about the daycare. I want you to see this one comment in particular.”

Tony took the book, and notice the page was dated for three months ago,

‘Elizabeth has experienced a lot of problems in the last six months. The death of her grandmother, who has been her primary caretaker during the workday, was nothing short of traumatic. We found Elizabeth sitting on the floor beside her Granny’s body. Moving her to the Navy Yard daycare was a hard decision, but the best we could do. Elizabeth screamed horribly the first time we left her, and in fact, for the first four days, every day, she had a bit of a fit. But, what we discovered after getting past that hurdle, she soon became eager to go… she made friends, amazing for a two year old… she had fun… spent more time exploring her world. learned more about people, colors, things, places, crafts -- she’s a leftie we learned, just like her Granny was. We can’t credit the staff enough for giving her the ‘push’ she needed to blossom. And we are so grateful for that. Our Elizabeth has grown greatly since joining your daycare, and it’s become one of the best decisions we have made for her.’

“This is normal. Every child experiences some separation.” Fanny assured him kindly. “And we’ll work with you to make it not a trauma, but a learning experience - he’ll learn trust. That you’ll always come back for him.”

-----------------------------

Smuggling Christopher back into NCIS, and down into Ducky’s lair went easier the second go around. Firstly, Christopher was a lot more confident about going through security. Sure, he still moved like the wind, but at least he moved, happily babbling about painting at daycare and the story-time they’d participated in with the other children.

Secondly, after explaining how elevators work, and encouraging Christopher push the appropriate buttons, they only went down, not up. And down had less spectator traffic by far.

But, the third thing to go far better this time: Ducky was waiting for them -- and that meant no one in their right or wrong mind was going to get in the elderly coroner’s way. “Anthony, my dear boy!” Ducky beamed as the doors to the elevator opened. He rocked back on his heels, hands tucked into his suspenders, and glasses perched low on his nose. “And, the most famous young Master Christopher! How splendid!”

Christopher, of course, defaulted to his ‘new person’ routine, and glommed immediately onto Tony’s leg. Shy hazel eyes hesitantly peeked out from behind the fabric of Tony’s khakis. Tony smiled ruefully, dropping a hand to ruffle Christopher’s hair. “Come on, Chris… I want to introduce you to a good friend of mine.” Carefully, he pried Christopher’s fingers off the pants, and scooped the boy up onto his hip.

“Ducky, this is Christopher Robert Paddington.” Tony chucked under Christopher’s chin to get a small smile out of the boy. “Christopher, this is Dr. Donald Mallard, but we all know him as Ducky.”

“Welcome to my offices, young Master Paddington. It’s a very great pleasure to meet you!” Ducky cast a sideways glance at the young man holding the child. “I’ve heard a great many wonderful things about young Christopher from our dear Rachel Cranston.”

Tony laughed silently. It didn’t surprise him a bit -- the mere idea he, Tony DiNozzo, would be in the role of parent to a young child was likely causing earthquakes and hurricanes all over the Earth. So, Rachel calling Ducky to gossip was hardly a surprise.

“Shall we step into my parlor for a bit of tea?” Ducky pushed open the doors that led down the long corridor away from the autopsy lab, steering them away from that sterile cold environment, and opting for the alternative entrance which was rarely used that would lead in behind the autopsy tables and more directly to Ducky’s office. “I’ve brought in some juice, apple and orange, for the lad…. I hope that’s alright, Anthony.”

“It’s fine.” Tony assured him. Thus far, despite the higher sugar content of juices, Christopher had manifested no allergies. “Christopher likes orange juice, don’t you?” He glanced towards the child.

A shy nod, from the small head resting on his shoulder was the only confirmation received. Eyes were half lowered, and the thumb was perilously close to the mouth. It seemed the steam engine had run out of coal, and the bouncy little boy who had left the daycare full of vim and vigor was done in. He’d had a very busy morning, Tony accepted, one full of singing at the top of his lungs, tears, painting, exploring, and meeting of quite a few new people. “Tired, bud? Go to sleep if you want to, Chris. I’ve got you.” He murmured quietly to the child.

Ducky gave a glance over his shoulder, and his expression softened in a gentle smile.

The soft sigh stood as preamble to acceptance, and tired eyes closed. The thumb strayed closer, and Tony swept it away. By the time Ducky had ushered the two into his office, pulled out a chair for Tony, and plugged the kettle in, Christopher was out like a light.

“Puir wee bairn. You’ve run him fair ragged, Anthony.” Ducky smiled down at the child.

“It’s been a busy day, yeah.” Tony agreed, moving Christopher’s limbs, and repositioning the child’s body so he lay across Tony’s lap and against his chest. “We had a bit of a meltdown this morning, and I bet that’s the big drain on his energy.”

“Ah. At the daycare?” Ducky set out two cups, and brought over creamer in deference to Tony’s preference for a spot of cream in his tea.

Tony shook his head, reaching with his right hand to drop a tiny dollop of the cream into the bottom of his cup, in true British fashion. “Security. He’s got separation issues.” Tony snorted. “Already.”

Ducky tutted. “Well, now, put yourself in his shoes, having suffered for all of his known life, would you not be terribly attached to the first adult to show you kindness?”

Tony grinned. “Oh, I did. Gibbs slapped me upside the head, promised me a workplace where someone would always have my back, and I glommed on.”

Ducky laughed. “Ah, well, to hear it, you’ve lost that attachment in recent weeks.”

Tony’s smile faded. “Yeah.” He said softly. “I’m afraid I have. I… don’t want to really get into it Ducky, but I just…. You can only beat a horse dead once. And really, the fact they keep kicking me….”

“Enough said, Anthony.” Ducky told him sternly. “I’m not so out of touch of what has been happening on the team. In fact, I’ve told Jethro many times since your return from the USS Reagan, that he must pull both Ms. David and Timothy into line.”

Tony gave a one armed shrug. “Yeah. Well. They aren’t the only ones in need of a kick.”

Ducky deftly lifted the teapot, having waited the required 3 minutes for steeping, and poured. “I do believe you’ve well administered one kick, Anthony. Jethro is quite beside himself right now. I warned him that black temper of his would one day extract a price he could not afford to pay, and that day has come.”

“So you know?” Tony thoughtfully stirred his cup.

The shrewd look over the rim of a cup was answer enough. For all his easygoing manners, and affable ways, no one interrogated a suspect quite like Ducky. He was so skilled at cheery chatting at getting details out of people, and when he spoke to anyone on the team, it was amazing how Ducky pulled secrets out of them without their realization that they’d lost the plot.

“It’s neither here nor there a matter of what I know.” Ducky counselled. “What’s done is done, and it’s how YOU feel about it, and see the road ahead, that is the matter at hand, my boy. For the record, however, I do believe that you have stayed in Gibbs’ shadow far longer than anyone could anticipate, and if now is your time, then so be it.” He glanced down at the sleeping boy resting in Tony’s arms, and softened his voice. “Beyond that, the MCRT’s needs would quarrel fiercely with that lad’s needs, and you must rightly guess as to who I feel should be the victor. Were you not to put the lad first, I’d be most vexed.”

Tony sipped at his tea, and let the subject die. “Well.. speaking of putting Christopher first -- I need a big favor.”

An eyebrow arched over the wire rim of the older man’s glasses. “Indeed?”

Tony nudged his chin to his backpack, which he had shrugged to the floor as he had taken his chair. “Not the kids pack, mine… front zipper, there’s a gray file.”

Nimble fingers quickly found the file, and Ducky returned to his seat, folding it open to the case report. “Ah. Am I to assume this woman is young Christopher’s natural parent?”

Tony nodded.

“Hmm.” Ducky continued perusing. “Her time of death precedes your finding of young Christopher by three days, does it not?” Ducky noted, finger placed mid the second page.

“Yup.” Tony agreed, shifting Christopher slightly as he reached for the teapot to pour a half cup more. “But, the bruising on Christopher predates her death.” He made a face. “I need you to examine the body, Ducky. I need to know if she was the abuser, or if there’s someone out there gunning for this kid.”

The coroner hummed under his breath, reading on. He came to the end of whatever paragraph he was on and looked up startled. “Well, of course I will examine… my word, is that your big favor? Please, my boy…. I’m most pleased to put my meager skills to your assistance.”

“Hardly meager, Ducky.” Tony disagreed. “I filled out the transfer request. You’d just need to sign it and put it into the DCPD.” He stirred his cup with a small jostle of his wrist. “I’m not sure what kind of condition she’s in, but knowing anything is better than nothing, and I can trust your results.”

“Very well.” Ducky closed the folder. “Now, our dear Dr. Cranston told me that you were in need of some recommendations, for pediatricians as it were. Is this true?”

Tony flashed a quick grin. Ducks intelligence network was awesome. “Yup.”

“Well, I’ve reached out to a few of my cronies, and we all conjecture that Dr. Janice Conroy is your best bet. She’s in her late forties, and was head of the neonatal unit at Children’s Hospital in Boston. Her husband ran for congress, and she followed him out to DC, opening a private practice. Now, normally, Dr. Conroy has a six week waiting list, but you have an appointment with her tomorrow at 3. I told Janice that you’d probably like a recommendation for nutritionist.”

Tony laughed. “You’re awesome, Ducky.”

“Pshaw.” Ducky scoffed, pouring himself more tea. Suddenly, he froze. “Oh! Oh, my… I forgot the biscuits!”

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