Tony has started to think of his life as “before Talia” and “after Talia.” Before Talia, Tony could roll out of bed and be ready to go in fifteen minutes—but he also had the luxury of taking an hour to get ready when he wanted to look really good.
After Talia, Tony has neither the luxury of taking his time, nor the ability to get out of the house in fifteen minutes.
Before Talia, Tony has had bad mornings—even bad days or bad weeks—but he could always go home, put on a movie, and unwind. After Talia, Tony still has to make sure Talia is fed and entertained and happy, and he’s lucky if he can fall into bed and get a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.
And as a single parent—and a novice at that—if things start to go wrong first thing, Tony has a hard time pulling out of the nosedive.
Gibbs offered to put them up, but Tony didn’t want to impose. He’s highly motivated to get Talia on a regular schedule, and a week after arriving in D.C., Tony has an apartment in a good neighborhood, a used sedan with low mileage and excellent safety ratings, and a teaching job at FLETC.
He also has a daycare lined up, and he really needs to drop Talia off and get to his first day of teaching on time, but things go wrong from the time he rolls out of bed to get Talia ready.
By now, Tony has some idea of just how long it’s going to take to get out the door, so he rouses Talia around seven. His day starts at nine, so he just has to get them both dressed, fed, and drop Talia off at the daycare in time for his first class.
He tries to keep things low key and not let on that he needs to be somewhere at a particular time—because toddlers are sneaky, and if Talia figures out he needs to be punctual, she’ll do her best to put paid to those plans.
She’s fairly cheerful while he’s changing her diaper and blowing raspberries on her stomach, but Talia isn’t at all interested in eating breakfast. She throws her peanut butter toast on the floor and at him, and closes her mouth tightly when Tony tries to get her to eat some applesauce.
Somehow, in just twenty minutes, Talia manages to smear peanut butter and applesauce everywhere, which necessitates a clean up. She hates having her face cleaned, and she squirms and starts fussing before Tony gets close.
Tony casts an anxious eye on the clock, and says, “Hey, Tali, why don’t you wash Daddy’s face, and then I can wash yours?”
That’s enough to have her giggling again, and Tony makes a little game of it, letting Talia swipe at his face a few times before Tony returns the favor.
He’s pretty sure there’s still a little peanut butter in her hair, but Tony really needs to get moving if he’s going to be on time. He plops her down in front of a DVD of Yo Gabba Gabba and gets dressed as quickly as possible, putting on a sharp suit, shirt, and tie.
Tony hopes that his hair looks more artfully mussed than disheveled, because he doesn’t even have time to look in the mirror.
By the time he’s out of the bedroom, Talia’s fussing again, and Tony quickly realizes that she needs a diaper change. He glances at the clock again. “Oh, hell,” he mutters.
“Hell!” Talia shouts.
Tony closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and pastes on a smile. He strips off his suit jacket and rolls up his sleeves. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
The diaper is apocalyptic, and after a moment’s hesitation, Tony declares it a total loss. “Okay, let’s get you hosed off.”
Getting her cleaned up takes time Tony doesn’t have, and he’s rushing a bit when he puts a new diaper on her and puts her in a clean outfit. Talia senses his hurry and she fusses a bit again, but Tony can’t be late for his first day.
The daycare comes highly recommended, and the woman who runs the place greets him personally. “Mr. DiNozzo, it’s a pleasure to have your daughter here with us,” Linda says. “Can I take Talia?”
He has her in his arms, her diaper bag thrown over a shoulder, and Talia wraps her arms more tightly around his neck. “She doesn’t want to let go.”
“That’s perfectly normal,” Linda assures him. “Most children have an adjustment period, and you’re welcome to stay for a bit to get her settled.”
Tony glances at his watch. He’s already pushing it as it is, and traffic is going to be a bitch this time of the morning. “I can’t, I’m sorry. I have to get to work—”
“Don’t worry about it,” Linda says. “You can just put her down inside, and we’ll distract her while you leave.”
Talia, much like her mother, is not easily distracted. She clings like a limpet, wailing, and Tony has to peel her off him, apologizing profusely as he does so. “I’m sorry, baby,” he says. “I’m so sorry, but I have to go.”
Her face is red, and her breath hitches, and Linda gives Tony a nudge towards the door. “Go on,” she urges. “Once you’re gone, she’ll calm down.”
Tony hopes so, because he doesn’t have much choice. He has to earn a living, and this is the best option he has. “I’ll see you later, Tali,” he says a little desperately. “Be good.”
He flees at that point, and drives to the facility at Cheltenham. Tony parks and has to move at a fast clip just to walk into his classroom at nine on the dot.
His first class, on building a viable cover, seems to go well, although he’s still feeling rattled by the memory of Tali’s desperate sobs.
A couple of students approach him after class, and Tony does his best to answer their questions. One of them, a woman who reminds him a bit of Bishop, is the last to leave the classroom. “Uh, Agent DiNozzo,” she says in a whisper.
Tony braces himself for an invitation to go out, which he’ll have to turn down. “Yes?”
“I think you have some peanut butter in your hair,” she says, pointing to her right temple. “Just there.”
Tony freezes. “Ah. Yes. Thanks. I—I have a toddler at home.”
She smiles brightly. “How wonderful! Isn’t being a parent great?”
“Really great,” he manages to say.
Tony has just enough time to get to the bathroom and get the peanut butter out of his hair before his next class, which means—
“Aw, shit,” he says, feeling a headache build between his eyes. “I can’t believe I actually forgot to get coffee.”
There’s no time now, so he goes back to his class, knowing that he’s not at his best, and also knowing that he needs to give these people his best. He’s training them to go out in the field, and if he doesn’t do his job, he’s shortchanging them.
Tony makes an effort to pull his head together over lunch, grabbing a sandwich and a cup of coffee.
“How are you settling in?” Director Cooper asks, sitting down next to Tony as he’s staring at the bottom of his empty coffee cup.
Tony forces a smile. “Just fine.”
They’d bonded over having a toddler at home during his interview when she’d asked why he wanted to teach at FLETC, and Tony told her he was a single parent. Meredith Cooper had also been a single parent at one point, and while Tony knows his qualifications speak for him, their rapport hadn’t hurt his chances.
Now, Director Cooper gives him a sympathetic look. “How did your daughter react to her first experience with daycare?”
“She screamed like I was killing her,” Tony confesses in a rush.
Cooper grimaces. “You just never know with kids. My oldest ran off without a second look at me, and my youngest screamed bloody murder for weeks. Funny thing, they’re exact opposites now, and both very well adjusted.”
“Thanks,” Tony replies.
“You’ll be fine,” she says. “It will take some time to get into a rhythm, but then you’ll both adjust.”
Tony appreciates the encouragement. “I appreciate the words of wisdom.”
“And these really are the most wonderful years,” Cooper says. “Treasure this time when she’s little.”
Tony knows that Cooper’s probably right. He’ll look back on this time nostalgically at some point, but that’s not right now. “I’ll try.”
He somehow powers through the rest of the day and shows up promptly at 5:30 pm to pick Talia up from daycare. She’s playing with a couple of other kids when he peeks in the room, clutching a fat marker in her hand, her tongue poking out in an adorable frown of concentration.
Tony grins and steps inside. “Hey, Tali.”
She drops the marker immediately. “Da!”
He sweeps her up when she runs to him and kisses the top of her head. “Did you have fun today?”
Tony smiles, having picked up a few Hebrew words, knowing that Talia sometimes gets confused.
And really, that’s one more thing to think about. He’s going to have to make sure she doesn’t lose her ability to speak her mother’s native tongue.
“You did? That’s great!” Tony replies.
Linda approaches with a smile. “Once she calmed down, she was a joy. She’s a little shy with the other kids, but she got over that fairly quickly.”
“Did she eat anything?” Tony asks. “She mostly threw her breakfast around.”
Linda nods. “She had lunch with the others, and juice and graham crackers a little bit ago.”
Tony let’s out a breath in relief. “Great. That’s great news. Thank you.”
“I’ve seen this a lot,” Linda says. “As she gets used to the schedule, dropping her off will probably be painless.”
“Probably?” Tony asks.
Linda shrugs. “Or she might cry every time and calm down eventually.”
Tony really isn’t looking forward to that prospect. “We’ll help for the best, then.”
Traffic is stop and go on the way home, and he hears Talia whimper. Tony glances in the rearview mirror. “Tali? Are you okay?”
“Da,” she whimpers, and then throws up all over her front. Clearly, she’d had grape juice, because the vomit is purple.
And it smells awful.
“Crap,” Tony mutters, mindful of his language. “Just hang in there for me, Tali. We’re almost home.”
She throws up again before he finally is able to park, and Tony realizes that he has a bit of a dilemma. He has to get her inside and cleaned up, and he needs to figure out if he should call the doctor or take her to the ER. He also has to clean up the car, because he figures the smell of sick will just exacerbate matters tomorrow.
And he really can’t afford to take a day off already, plus the daycare won’t allow her to attend if she’s sick…
Talia’s whimpers get Tony moving, and he contemplates the range of the baby monitor, and how to figure out if Talia’s really sick.
Tony pulls Talia into his arms, getting vomit on his suit in the process, and he sighs. “The next person who talks about the ‘joys of parenthood’ is going to get punched in the face,” Tony mutters.
He gets Talia in the tub for the second time that day, gets her cleaned up, and by the time she gets done splashing, she seems back to her normal self. She’s not running a fever, and she’s not showing any other signs of illness, and he has no idea what to do.
“What am I going to do with you?” he asks.
Tony isn’t sure whether he should try to feed her dinner or not, but she seems okay, so he makes dinner, and she eats just fine. He reads her a story after dinner, she goes to sleep, he quickly cleans the car with a nervous ear on the baby monitor, and the next day Tony gets up and does it all again.
In fact, events are pretty much exactly the same, so much so that Tony wonders if he’s living the same day all over again.
Talia doesn’t eat breakfast again, Tony drops her off at daycare with her wails ringing in his ears, he muddles through his classes, he picks her up again, and she pukes on the car ride home. This time, it’s not purple, so he’s probably not stuck in a Groundhog Day situation, but he’s starting to get worried.
When it happens again on Wednesday, Tony’s tired. He hadn’t slept well the night before because he’s worried, and he has another evening of cleaning to do. He’s pretty sure that his car is going to smell of puke permanently.
He’s a little surprised to see Gibbs standing outside his apartment building. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Gibbs looks him up and down. “Having some problems?”
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Tony says. “It’s like clockwork. She throws up on our way home every single day.”
Gibbs raises his eyebrows, as though Tony just said something really stupid.
“You’d better come in,” Tony says. “I’m too tired to figure out what you’re trying to tell me in your subtle way.”
Gibbs’ eyes narrow. “All right. You take the six-pack, I’ll take the kid.”
“You’re going to get vomit on you,” Tony objects.
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Gibbs replies and plucks Talia out of Tony’s arms. “Call for pizza.”
Tony allows Gibbs to take over as he puts the beer in the fridge and calls for pizza, thinking about what Gibbs said. It’s always on the way home, after she’s had a snack and juice at daycare, and she never eats much for breakfast.
“Oh, hell,” Tony mutters.
“Hell!” Talia shouts from behind him.
Gibbs chuckles. “I see she’s been learning some of your vocabulary.”
Tony runs a hand through his hair. “Yeah, I’m trying to watch it, but apparently not very well. She’s getting motion sickness.”
“There you go,” Gibbs says. “Might want to have a word with the daycare. She might do better if she doesn’t eat or drink anything right before. Kelly used to get carsick, too.”
Tony sighs. “What did you do?”
“Make sure she didn’t eat or drink right before we got in the car if possible,” Gibbs replies. “Distracted her, had her look out the window, that sort of thing.” He hands Talia over, wearing nothing but a diaper and a clean t-shirt, and she goes to Tony easily, resting her head on his shoulder.
“Thanks,” Tony says. “It’s been a tough transition for both of us.”
Gibbs has an expression, like he wants to head slap Tony but doesn’t dare when he’s holding Talia. “Give yourself a break, DiNozzo. It’s been three days since you got back, and only a few months since becoming a parent.”
Tony smiles crookedly. “Is that all?”
Gibbs’ expression softens, and he claps Tony on the shoulder. “Believe it or not, yeah, that’s all.”
“Does it get any easier?” Tony asks.
A complicated series of emotions crosses Gibbs’ face, and he shakes his head. But then he says, “Yeah, it gets easier.”
Tony isn’t sure he believes it, but he’ll take what he can get.