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The Trials of Fatherhood

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In retrospect, taking a toddler to Paris is not the best idea Tony’s ever had.

 

He didn’t find many answers in Israel. Ziva lived alone with Talia, and while she’d been friendly with her neighbors, no one seemed to know her well. The only thing Tony discovers is that Ziva was as much of a mystery in death as she’d been in life.

 

Tony had hoped to feel closer to Ziva while in Israel, but he feels further from her than ever. He wonders if he’d left NCIS sooner, had gone to Ziva sooner, maybe they would have been able to make it work. They could have been a real family.

 

Or maybe they would have come to hate each other. Tony just doesn’t know.

 

After three weeks, Tony leaves Israel for Paris, thinking he can at least reconnect with his memories of Ziva there, but he doesn’t reckon on having to drag a two-year-old along.

 

Maybe she’d sensed the familiarity of Israel, because Talia had slept through the night and had been relatively well behaved for a child her age. Paris is another story altogether.

 

She has screaming terrors the first night they’re in Paris, which means that neither of them get much sleep. Tony pulls her into his arms and walks her up and down the room, humming softly, murmuring reassurances.

 

Tali cries against his shoulder, her sobs interrupted by hiccups as she wears herself out. When Tony tries to put her down so he can get some sleep, she starts wailing, and he begins pacing the room again.

 

Eventually, Tony sits on the bed, propped up against the headboard, as Tali sleeps against his chest.

 

She wakes again around five, immediately starting to cry, and Tony repeats the same steps as before.

 

Tony’s plans for the day—talking Talia around to see the sights that Ziva loved—are completely disrupted. She’s fussy and impossible to please, wanting to be held, and then wanting to walk, in an endless cycle.

 

He can see people staring at him when she melts down midafternoon and promises himself that he’s never going to stare at other parents whose children are crying in public ever again.

 

Tony takes her back to the hotel room and feeds her, hoping that she’ll settle enough for a nap. She does, but Tony’s too keyed up to join her. Instead, he checks his email, finding a message from Abby, who’s full of news about the office. Tim’s also emailed him, although it’s short and a little stilted, focusing on a couple of questions about paperwork.

 

Bishop’s only sent him a couple of emails, but he hasn’t heard from Gibbs—not that he’s surprised by that.

 

He also does a bit of research on night terrors, and checks a few parenting blogs, which quickly send him running. Judging by the advice he sees there, he’s already fucking this up.

 

“I can’t believe you did this to me, Ziva,” he mutters, although he feels guilty as soon as the thought forms.

 

She’d done the best she could, but she’s dead, and Tony has zero experience being a parent, and if Ziva had just contacted him, he might not be a total novice.

 

“And if wishes were horses,” Tony reminds himself.

 

The next few days pass in a blur of sleep deprivation and frustration. Talia, who up until now has been a relatively cheerful little girl, refuses to sleep for more than an hour or two at a time. She wakes up screaming, she refuses to settle, and fusses when they go out.

 

After five days, Tony’s ready to call it quits. Maybe he can come back to Paris when Talia is old enough to ask questions about her mom and want to see the places Ziva loved.

 

He has enough money saved up to travel for a few months, but when he reads about how to deal with night terrors, most of the experts seem to agree that stability is key—stability and structure.

 

Tony is going to have a hard time finding a job in Israel, and D.C. is familiar territory. It’s also the place Ziva chose for her home, at least for a time. D.C. is also headquarters to a variety of defense contractors, as well as Quantico and FLETC. Tony thinks he can find a job that will still let him be at home every night for Talia.

 

By the time he buys the tickets, though, Tony’s beyond exhausted. He hasn’t had more than a couple of hours of sleep at a time for over a week, and while he can remember being this exhausted a few times, he didn’t have a child to worry about.

 

He packs their things, and just manages to get them to the airport in time. He’s never been so grateful in his life that parents with small children get to board first, and he gets Talia settled.

 

Tony wonders what it says about him that he thought about drugging his daughter for this flight. Or that he’d considered doing so several times over the last few days.

 

He pulls out a book and quietly reads a book that had been with her things. The story is about a girl who lost her shoes, and Talia loves it. “’gan!” she says as soon as Tony finishes, while people are still filing onto the plane.

 

Tony starts again, grateful that he’s read it so often at this point that he could literally read it in his sleep. An older woman sits down on Talia’s other side, and she smiles benignly. “Is this your daughter?”

 

“Yeah, this is Talia,” Tony replies.

 

“How old is she?” she asks in a British accent.

 

“She’s two,” Tony says.

 

Talia looks at Tony imperiously. “’gan!”

 

“Oh, right, your royal highness,” Tony says, turning the page.

 

The woman glances around. “Would your wife like to sit next to you two? I can switch places with her if you’d like.”

 

Tony clenches his jaw on the retort he’d like to make. “She recently passed away.”

 

Her face goes soft with sympathy. “Oh, my dear, I’m so sorry. I lost my husband two years ago, and I still miss him terribly.” She glances at the book. “Perhaps I can read for a bit?”

 

“Tali?” Tony asks. “Would you like—I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”

 

“That’s because I didn’t tell you,” she replies with a smile. “I’m Louisa.”

 

“Would you like Louisa to read to you?” Tony asks.

 

Talia glances at Louisa, then hides her face in Tony’s sleeve.

 

“She’s a bit shy,” Tony says apologetically.

 

“No worries,” Louisa replies cheerfully. “We’ll have the entire flight to get used to each other.”

 

Eventually, Talia grows tired of the story, and Tony pulls out her two favorite stuffed animals and begins to act out a story of daring-do. He gets quieter and quieter until she falls asleep, and then he shifts her to his lap, hoping to ward off any bad dreams.

 

“She’s very well behaved,” Louisa says quietly. “You should be proud.”

 

“Her mom is mostly responsible for that,” Tony replies. “But yes, I am proud.”

 

Tony doesn’t sleep during the flight, sensitive to the possibility of Talia having a nightmare and disturbing the other passengers. His luck may finally be turning, because she sleeps until they bring the lights up and start the final beverage service.

 

Tony hums softly, rocking her a bit, and she pops her thumb in her mouth and snuggles up to his chest. Moments like this, when it’s quiet and she clings to him, Tony remembers that he’s her entire world, and he’s grateful, in spite of his exhaustion.

 

“Good luck,” Louisa says when they begin to deplane. “Enjoy your time with her while she’s young.”

 

Tony manages a smile. “Thanks, I will. Enjoy your time in D.C.”

 

It’s not until Tony’s collecting their baggage that he realizes he has a problem. He’d given up his apartment, which means they have nowhere to stay, and his cell phone still has the SIM card he picked up in Paris, so he can’t just call.

 

If he hadn’t been so sleep deprived, Tony wouldn’t have a problem finding a solution, but Talia’s getting fussy. He knows she needs to be fed, and he doesn’t want a public meltdown in an airport.

 

Tony gives into instinct, wrestling Talia and their bags into a taxi and giving Gibbs’ address, since he knows it off the top of his head, and Gibbs doesn’t lock his door.

 

Worst-case scenario, Tony calls a hotel from Gibbs’ landline and leaves a note to let Gibbs know he’s in town. It’s late on a Wednesday, so it’s even odds that Gibbs will be in the office or out on a case.

 

The taxi lets them off in front of Gibbs’ house, and the driver is nice enough to help Tony to the front porch with their bags. Tony makes sure to give him an extra-large tip, and then knocks out of courtesy.

 

He’s not expecting anyone to answer, let alone Fornell, who’s wearing an old hoodie that Tony’s pretty sure belongs to Gibbs, and jeans. “DiNutso,” Fornell says. “What are you doing here?”

 

Tony’s too tired to come up with a quip, and then Talia begins to fuss.

 

“And who’s this little beauty?” Fornell asks. “Good thing you take after your mom, sweetheart.”

 

Talia stops fussing and buries her face in Tony’s shirt. “She’s shy.”

 

“That’s all right,” Fornell replies. “She’ll have plenty of time to get used to me. Come in, Tony, I recognize that look on your face.”

 

Tony follows him inside. “What look is that?”

 

“The look of a man who hasn’t slept in way too long,” Fornell replies. “I’d offer to help with your bags, but I’m not allowed to lift anything over five pounds yet. Gibbs! Your boy is home.”

 

“I heard him,” Gibbs says mildly, emerging from the kitchen. “I’m just cleaning up, but there are leftovers if you’re hungry.”

 

Tony blinks. “I just wanted to use your phone, actually. I need a hotel room, but—”

 

Gibbs ignores him, stroking Talia’s hair. “Hey, there, Tali.”

 

Talia, who seems to live to prove Tony wrong, stretches out her arms to Gibbs, who chuckles in pure delight. “Well, someone has good taste,” Gibbs says, glancing at Fornell with a smug expression.

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Fornell grumbles. “Tony, you hungry?”

 

Tony honestly has no idea. He’s too tired to be hungry. “Talia needs to eat. I have a pouch for her in the bag. Somewhere. I think.”

 

Fornell is rummaging in the diaper bag and comes up with the pouch that’s essentially a smoothie made for babies. “Here we are. Quinoa and beets? She seriously eats this? Emily refused all vegetables when she was that age.”

 

“She seems to like them,” Tony says. “And I have a hard time getting her to eat otherwise.”

 

“Tony, the guest room is available,” Gibbs says, bouncing Talia a bit.

 

Tony has to think about that for a minute. “I was going to get a hotel room.”

 

“Yeah, and I have a guestroom,” Gibbs says patiently. “If you’re not hungry, go on up.”

 

“Tali—” Tony begins.

 

“We’re okay here,” Gibbs replies. “Fornell and I both have experience with little girls.”

 

Tony knows that’s true, and the idea of a full night’s sleep—or even several uninterrupted hours—is incredibly tempting. “She’s been having night terrors,” he tries, although he gives the stairs a longing look.

 

“Obviously,” Fornell says sharply. “You’re running on fumes.”

 

“We know where to find you,” Gibbs says. “Talia and I can get reacquainted.” He bounces her. “Isn’t that right?”

 

“Right!” Talia shouts.

 

Tony gives her a look. “I see someone got their second wind after sleeping most of the flight.”

 

She giggles in response.

 

“Right,” Tony says. “If you’re sure…”

 

“Go upstairs, Tony,” Gibbs insists. “I know where to find you.”

 

“She has some books,” Tony says. “In her bag. And a few toys. We’ve been traveling pretty light.”

 

Gibbs gives him a look that Tony knows all too well. “DiNozzo. Sleep.”

 

Pride alone prevents Tony from literally crawling up the stairs, he’s that tired, and the bed is made up and waiting for him. If he’d had the capacity to think, he might have realized that the room doesn’t even smell musty, like Gibbs recently aired it out.

 

He’s not thinking about that, though, and he strips down to his boxers and falls into bed. He wakes briefly once when the door creaks, and he hears Gibbs say, “There’s your dad, Tali. He’s right there, but he needs his sleep now. What do you say you and me ditch Tobias and spend some time with the boat?”

 

He wakes again when the bed creaks, and Gibbs puts a sleeping Talia down next to him. “Sleep as long as you want,” Gibbs whispers.

 

Talia shifts so she’s spread across Tony’s chest, and he goes right back to sleep.

 

He wakes for good when she starts to fuss, and he’s up and moving before he has time to think about it. Talia needs her diaper changed, and he makes a game out of it, blowing raspberries on her stomach until she shrieks with laughter.

 

They’re both running out of clean clothing, so he puts her in a t-shirt and decides that it’s warm enough to dispense with pants. Tony finds a pair of jeans and a t-shirt that don’t stink, which is about as much as he can do at the moment.

 

He feels clear headed for the first time in days, and he throws Talia over his shoulder, racing down the stairs, her laughter ringing. Tony swings her around and tosses her into the air, and she says, “’gan! Da! ‘gan!”

 

Tony laughs and breathes out a sigh of relief. He’d been wondering if he’d done the wrong thing, if he could hack being a parent. Now that the worst of his exhaustion has passed, he remembers why he decided to take on parenthood in the first place. Talia is a delight when she’s not having night terrors, and he’s not exhausted.

 

“You’re looking a lot better,” Gibbs says. “You want breakfast?”

 

Tony glances at the clock, realizing that it’s mid-morning. “I didn’t mean to keep you from work.”

 

“They’ll live,” Gibbs replies. “You hungry?”

 

Tony realizes that he’s ravenous, and that he can’t quite remember when he’d eaten last. And airplane food doesn’t count. “Starving.”

 

“I’ll make eggs,” Gibbs says and holds out his arms. “Talia?”

 

She goes right to him, and Gibbs shifts her so that she’s clinging to his back. Tony follows them into the kitchen and asks, “Where’s Fornell?”

 

“Physical therapy,” Gibbs replies. “They haven’t cleared him to go back into the field yet.”

 

“Sucks,” Tony says.

 

Gibbs nods. “How do you like your eggs, Miss Talia? Wet or dry?”

 

Talia giggles and says something Tony can’t understand.

 

“Good choice,” Gibbs agrees gravely. “The middle ground is good.”

 

Tony pours himself a cup of coffee. “I can get out of your hair shortly.”

 

Gibbs gives him a sharp look. “Where are you going to go?”

 

“A hotel, at least until I can find a place for us,” Tony replies.

 

“Don’t be an idiot, Tony,” Gibbs orders. “You’ll stay here until you find a place. Are you going to be looking for a job?”

 

“Something nine to five,” Tony admits.

 

Gibbs nods. “Last I heard, there was an instructor’s position opening up at FLETC. You’d be ideal.”

 

Tony pauses. “Thanks. I—that’s, thank you.”

 

“That’s what family does,” Gibbs says. “Isn’t that right, Talia?”

 

“Yes!” she shouts, and Tony grins helplessly.

 

Paris has nothing on being home. At some point, Tony thinks, he’d forgotten that he has more family than just Talia, but seeing her clinging like a monkey to Gibbs’ back, having a full night’s sleep behind him, he feels a deep contentment.

 

He thinks maybe he needed to leave in order to really feel like he could come home. Plus, here Tony has ready-made babysitters.

 

He’s not sure why he thought he had to leave, or why he’d been so intent on getting out of D.C. Tony has enough sleep for the first time in a week, and Talia is happy as a clam.

 

“I can watch her any time,” Gibbs offers. “At least when I’m not working.”

 

He’d loved Ziva, too, and Talia doesn’t have a lot of family. “I’m going to take you up on that,” Tony threatens.

 

“Good,” Gibbs replies. “We can put Tobias to work, too. He needs something to do.”

 

Tony laughs. “Sounds good.”

 

Gibbs swings Talia around to sit on the counter and hands her the spatula. “Let’s stir, shall we?” he says, and puts his hand over hers.

 

And Tony leans back and watches, relaxed for the first time since he got Talia. He begins to think he might not be a total failure as a father.