A/N: I know, I know, this is still not the multi-chapter piece I keep mentioning... Just a short DiNozzo childhood piece, to prove that I'm still alive and writing (2k + words a day, at the moment). =)

(Warning: I wrote this only a day or two after getting MY wisdom teeth out, and while under the influence of pain-killers. What can I say? I like to share my angst with the characters I write, while the pain is still fresh in my mind. XD)

***

The man had a gap between his teeth. Even at age thirteen, though, Tony was polite enough not to point out to the man the irony of it. An "oral/facial surgeon" with gapped teeth? Maybe it was the prospect of nitrous oxide that was making him want to snicker. Proving, he thought, just how good he was at etiquette, he swallowed the snickering urge, and nodded that he understood the pre-surgery information the man was imparting.

Gapped-tooth Surgeon had all sorts of nasty stuff to tell him about "dry sockets" and infections, and all the other complications he might or might not have to look forward to. Yup, he had loads of fun in store for him. Whole buckets full.

Tony's dentist had already smilingly congratulated him on being an "early bloomer" when it had been discovered that the source of a persisting tooth-ache was the arrival of his wisdom teeth. Early bloomer—yeah, right. More like freak of nature. Thirteen wasn't the earliest anyone had ever been known to have their wisdom teeth come in, but all the same Tony didn't enjoy being pointed out as an anomaly. Still, he was generous enough not to contradict the pretty assistant who'd called his name and brought him back to begin the prep. She'd called him "special," and he'd given her a charming smile. He liked Valerie.

Surgeon's little pep talk over, Valerie started the laughing gas, and less than a minute of deep breaths through his nose later Tony was undergoing the rather embarrassing urge to not just snicker, but out-'n-out laugh. The question "Do you have siblings?" (small talk created by Valerie) was something he was fairly sure did not merit a feeling of bubbling hysteria, but Tony felt a smile stretch broadly across his face, even as he took another deep lung-full out of the hissing triangle mask-thingy over his nose.

"Nope," he tried to tame the smile as he answered her question, "just me."

Tony couldn't stop thinking about Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther Strikes again. He'd always thought that one scene with Clouseau—in the guise of a dentist—getting himself and Dreyfus into giggle fits over the nitrous oxide was one of the more ridiculous moments in all the Pink Panther series. "Yeah, right," had been his thoughts then. Now he was thinking maybe the scene had only been a little over the top. It was a little frightening to feel your expressions and responses to simple questions slip out of your control, but that was the point: he couldn't control himself.

Next thing he knew, he felt little concern as Valerie—at least he assumed it was still her—inserted a needle into the vein on the back of his hand. He slurred something about not liking needles, but actually found himself not caring that much. It was just a needle. It stung the same as usual, but he was too busy stifling his loopy reaction to the laughing gas.

"Hey, it's okay, hun," Valerie was saying, "just let it work. Relax."

"But…" Tony trailed off, then remembered what he'd wanted to tell her, "but I don't want to laugh like Drayfus. Or…or…You could take out the wrong tooth."

A hand—again, presumably Valerie's—was on his shoulder. "It's okay," she repeated. "Keep on breathing through your nose. You'll be out in a minute."

Even as he closed his eyes, an alarming though came to him. Surprisingly, the alarm was but a distant concern, though, and his voice sounded far off and not nearly worried enough even as he voiced the problem: "My face'll…'ll melt."

A warm hand on his shoulder, and amused, "Your face is going to be just fine," were the last things he remembered before crawling under the fathomless blanket of fuzzy unconsciousness.

***

When he woke up, it was again to the sound of Valerie. He really liked Valerie. He wondered if that was her hand on his shoulder again. She couldn't have had her hand on his shoulder the whole time he was out, could she?

There was another hand under his elbow, and he let the gentle voices and hands guide to him to his feet, and then sit him down in a wheelchair. He'd never been in a wheelchair before.

Someone was saying, "Well, he's smiling. That's a good sign." And he realized he was, and even the nagging question he had at the tip of his tongue, about whether or not his face had melted like Clouseau's, didn't put a damper on his giddiness.

Valerie—he could focus enough now to actually recognize her face, hovering over him—helped him settle onto a bed.

"We're in recovery."

"Oh." She was spreading a blanket over him. He reminded her, "I'm special."

"You certainly are."

"You have really nice teeth," he pointed out, gazing up at her smile in wonder.

"You do too, kiddo. Though I think that smile of yours is going to be suffering for a few days once the Novocain wears off."

"Novo…" He gave up quickly; the word just wasn't coming. "Numb-y stuff, right?"

"Yup."

"My face didn't melt, did it?"

She had a nice laugh, too, though she kept it to a soft chuckle as she very gently patted the side of his face. "Your very nice face is perfectly intact, hun. You having any nausea from the anesthesia?"

"Nope…"

"All right. You look pretty tired, so just rest. I'll be back to check on you in a few minutes."

"M'kay Val'rie…" She was right about the tiredness, but he couldn't rest until he'd patted his own face gingerly. From chin all the way up to his temples the skin was as numb on the outside of his face as his teeth were on the inside. It felt strange, and he didn't like it. "Wow…" he mumbled under his breath, in awe at the chubby feel of his cheeks. Whatever Valerie had said, with that kind of swelling his looks had to be suffering as much as his smile. His mouth was sorta hanging open, too, but he had something stuffed inside his mouth that wouldn't let him close it.

By the time Valerie returned, he was feeling a bit more in control of himself, even if his head was still caught in a groggy mire of sleepiness.

"You ready to try sitting up?" Valerie was asking.

"Sure."

"Still no nausea?"

"Nuh uh." With her help, he propped himself up against the wall, cushioned by a pillow.

"You said before surgery that your father would be picking you up, right?"

"Oh…yeah. Have to call 'im. Gave the mumber…" Had he just said "mumber?"

Valerie must've been used to translating for patients, because she seemed to understand just fine. "I'll get the number from your contact info, and let him know you're waiting."

"You're th' best, Val'rie…"

The second time she returned, Valerie was frowning. She sat down on the edge of his bed. "Hey, I tried that number you wrote down; I'm not getting your father."

"Ah…secretary, right?"

"Yeah. And not a very helpful secretary when it comes to getting in contact with your father, I must say."

Tony snorted. "'Course isn't helpful." He was having trouble talking around the stuff in his mouth. "Not s'ppost to help you find 'im."

She patted his knee. "I'm going to keep trying, Tony."

Tony shrugged and tilted his head back against the wall. His father had assured Tony that he'd be there to pick him up. But, then, Tony had quit placing too much stock in such promises from his father a long time ago.

***

"How long's been?"

The kid slurred tiredly at her, and Valerie wished she didn't have to say it: "An hour and a half." That secretary… Oh was she getting tired of the woman on the other end of the line, so full of polite phrases that were nothing more than thinly veiled put-offs. Apparently, DiNozzo Senior was a Big Man, and the secretary seemed confident that she, Valerie, was blowing the situation with little drugged-up DiNozzo Junior all out of proportion, because "Excuse me, ma'am, but if Anthony's in recovery, and showing no signs of an ill-reaction to the surgery or medication, then surely there's no pressing need…" etcetera, etcetera.

"Don't worry, Tony." He'd introduced himself as "Tony" not "Anthony" and she made a point of remembering the preference. "I'm going to keep on this until we get things straightened out."

Tony didn't seem all that concerned. "Ah…he'll remember. He jus' gets kind of…preoccupied. Big show to run, you know…"

Valerie didn't know, but she could hardly think of an excuse for Tony's father that made this delay pardonable in her book. The man should've been here to pick his kid up, "big show" to run, or not. Or, if it really were impossible for Mister DiNozzo to be here for his son, he should've sent someone. The Novocain would wear off eventually, and the kid needed to get something in his stomach so he could take something for the pain.

"You just keep…"

"Resting," Tony supplied, with an arch look that was muddled, but made no less winning, by his sleepiness. "I'm good at that."

He closed his eyes, and Valerie lingered, trying not to let her rather renowned temper get the better of her as regarded the kid's father. After all, she didn't know what extenuating circumstances might be stalling him. The thing was, even if she didn't know about the dad, she was forming a pretty good picture of the son—and she couldn't keep the sympathy she was feeling for Tony from getting the better of her. It wasn't as if Mister DiNozzo would've been the first parent to do a botched job of prioritizing the "important" things in his life. But, come on, this wasn't some sports event he was sending to the bottom of his to-do list; this was a medical procedure, the kid was only thirteen, and shortly he was going to be in pain.

Unfortunately, Tony wasn't her only responsibility, and there was only so much playing favorites she could get away with, without doing it to the detriment of other patients equally in need of care. Well…maybe not equally.

Then Mister Saunders across the way tried sitting up without help, moaning, and looking ominously pale.

"Hold in there, Tony," she murmured, and was at Mister Saunders' assistance.

By the time the drama was over (thankfully, the man hadn't had anything in his stomach to throw up, but listening to gagging was always fun), a glance in Tony's direction showed the kid asleep. The last call to Mister DiNozzo's office had garnered her a promise from the secretary that she'd contact her employer and let him know his son was waiting. That had been twenty minutes ago.

Valerie discharged another groggy patient into the care of her mother, giving them both the run down of instructions and answering questions, before helping guide the girl out to a waiting car.

"Val?"

"Hmm?" Valerie turned at her friend's voice. "Oh…you off already, Nancy?"

Nancy raised an eyebrow. "It's only another two hours until you're off."

Valerie looked at her own watch, surprised at the time—then frustrated at it. Two hours. Tony had been waiting two hours.

"Woah. Woah, there," Nancy made a two-handed steadying motion, "You've got your redhead look on, there, girl. Don't go off half-cocked on me, now."

"I am a redhead," Valerie reminded her tersely. She gave a jerky nod in Tony's direction. "His father was supposed to come pick him up, and—"

"Hey, I know. Believe me, he has my sympathy, too." Nancy shrugged. "I was thinking maybe I could, you know…swing by Target when I leave here. Pick up that prescription for him, and maybe some yogurt. His father can pay the bill when he gets here."

It was good to know she wasn't the only sucker for a cute face. She smiled knowingly at her friend, but didn't tease her—Nancy had a thing about being "accused" of too much kindness. Still, she allowed a quick hug from Valerie before she was out the door, shrugging into her coat with a shake of her head, as if she herself couldn't believe she'd let herself be sucked into the problem. Doubtless she'd later chalk it all up to self-preservation instincts, and not wanting to see a certain redhead go flying off the handle.

Turning back to the recovery room, a scan of the bed's occupants showed that Mister Saunders was still looking a bit green around the gills.

"Um, Val?" Teresa stopped her with a hand to her shoulder. The blond had been on work as long as Valerie, but was looking as maddeningly ready to bounce off walls as ever. Her source of energy was a mystery; the woman didn't even like coffee.

"Hmm?"

Teresa nodded in the direction of Saunders. "I'll take care of him, if you want." Her eyes slid surreptitiously towards the corner Tony occupied. "I think maybe someone else could use ya at the moment."

A weary smile spread across Valerie's face. "You're a veritable saint, Mother Teresa."

A not-so-weary grin spread across Teresa's face at the nickname. "Don't I know it." Under her breath: "Lunch tomorrow—restaurant of my choice."

"Conniving little saint." Valerie rolled her eyes good-humoredly, gratefully turning her attention back on Tony. "How you doing, kiddo?"

"Mm'f…" he mumbled unintelligibly, eyes blinking open. "Hur's a lil'."

"Well, don't you worry. Nancy—you know, the mean-lookin' one? She's so smitten with that face of yours, she volunteered to go get that prescription filled for you. We'll get something in your stomach, and then give you some happy medicine. How's that sound?"

Tony considered. "Soun's good… But, mmm…father?"

Valerie knew her expression had turned brittle. She stowed her temper as best she could. "Still working on getting him. The secretary should be getting back to me soon. If she doesn't, believe me, I'll be getting back to her."

"You're really kinda…scary when y' look like that, Val'rie…" Tony commented drowsily, watching her not-fearfully.

"Yeah, well. I like to see patients under my care get properly pampered."

"Ice cream 'n stuff?"

"Whole gallons of the stuff. But," she held up a finger, "for now, let's switch out that gauze and see how the bleeding's doing, huh?"

"Le's not…" Tony griped, turning his head to the side in petulantly futile resistance.

"C'mon, open your mouth for me, 'k?"

"Jus' for you, Val'rie."

"Good sport."

***

Mister DiNozzo arrived fifteen minutes before Valerie's shift would've been up.

She led him in to recovery. "Your son is over here." Drugged up. Exhausted. Ready to go home several hours ago. Instead of saying any of that, she kept it to a very professional: "One of the staff ran and got his prescription filled; the narcotics are making him quite sleepy. I've already gone over the list of dos and don'ts for Tony, but I've got the list to send home—and I should go over it with you, as well."

Mister DiNozzo nodded. He wore an odd expression on his face while he listened to the post-op information, not saying a word, grunting in a few places that he understood, and at the end saying, "I see. Thank you."

She wanted an explanation from him so bad she was on the verge of demanding one, professionalism or not.

Apparently, though, he felt the need to offer an explanation, and so she didn't have to risk her job. "Miss…" he began.

"Pace."

"Miss Pace." He cleared his throat. "I know my delay in picking up my son was…"

Inexcusable? She set her jaw against putting words into the man's mouth for him.

"Irresponsible of me," he said at last. "I just want you to know how sorry I am I couldn't get here sooner…"

She kept her tone quiet, polite, clipped. "I do not think I am the one who deserves an apology. Sir."

Mister DiNozzo's glaze flickered uneasily between her, and his sleeping son. "Quite…right. I just want you to know, I had no intention of leaving him this long. There was a mix-up. I left a note for Mrs. Romes—my secretary, that is—but she was sick at the last minute, and my fill-in secretary wasn't aware…"

"Mister DiNozzo," Valerie said softly, "I don't need an explanation." She suddenly ealized she didn't. It wasn't hard to come up with an idea of what had happened. She wouldn't say she understood, or that it was all right, but she didn't need an explanation.

Tony stirred from his drug-induced rest, then, looking blurrily, without comment at his father.

"Hey, son…" Mister DiNozzo leaned in, ruffling his hair lightly. "You ready for some ice cream?"

Tony had been all dopy smiles and ingenuous flattery since the moment he arrived—but now Valerie saw a sort of stiffness descend on his features. It gave way after a moment to a grudging half-smile that was a fraud if Valerie was any judge.

"No than's. Nancy got me a whole bucket of Blue Bunny." Tony's smile became loopy, if not entirely genuine again. "Banana Slipt." He frowned over his pronunciation. "Split."

"Good…good." Mister DiNozzo straightened, speaking in an aside to Valerie, "I will, of course, pay for whatever was purchased for Anthony, in addition to the prescription, and for any time…"

"The time and the ice cream are on the house," Valerie smiled stiffly. "You can pay for the prescription on the way out."

"I'll…go do that, and pull the car up."

Mister DiNozzo gone, Valerie squatted down by the bed. "You've been a real model patient, you know that, Tony?"

"Model…tha's me." Tony hadn't seemed to mind the pat here, or the comforting touch there, but Valerie was surprised when he reciprocated not with a smile, but with affectionate if clumsy pat on her shoulder. "You've been a real model…baby-sitter, Val'rie. Will you marry me?"

She had to stifle her laughter to keep it from disrupting the other patients in the room. "As tempting as the offer is, I'm already engaged. Sorry, hun."

"You're the firs' girl I ever asked, Val'rie," he said proudly.

"And I'm very honored." She planted a quick, impulsive kiss on his cheek—careful to make it a gentle one. "You watch out for yourself, kid."

"Val'rie…?"

"Hmm?"

"You're gonna forget me, right? I mean, you get lotsa patients. Lots 'n lots…"

"Yeah, I do get lots of patients." She paused in helping him stand, giving him a wink. "But you're an unforgettable one, Tony."

"You sure you won' marry me?"

***

The End