word count: 27,000 in total, 9,700 for this chapter
chapter one: past. chapter two
comments & feedback: Very much appreciated.
Although this sudden and rapid change from pupa to imago is often called metamorphosis, metamorphosis is really the whole series of changes.
"Hi," she greeted Tony when he opened the door.
She tried her best to just smile at him. Tried to ignore the guarded expression on his face and not let her own nervousness show. Tried not to wonder if her choice of clothes had been appropriate.
It was embarrassing enough that for the first time in her life Ziva David had spent almost an hour dressing and undressing again to figure out what to wear. Less revealing, more, less again. Dress, pants, blouse, sweater, dress again. She simply hadn't been able to make up her mind, and that had left her unsettled in a way she wasn't familiar with.
Eventually she had settled for an eggshell-colored sweater dress without any frills or fancy elements to it, just a clean, straightforward cut with a round neckline. It was just short enough to render it unfit for work... which also made it the right mix between casual and revealing: mostly harmless with its lack of cleavage, until he'd notice her legs. Which he would, eventually.
It was such a silly thing to think this kind of choice could actually tip scales. And yet...
"What are you doing here?"
"I told you on the phone. I want to take you to dinner. And I'd like to talk." She brushed past him and into the apartment before he could close the door in her face because for a heartbeat he looked like he wanted to do just that.
"Yeah, and I told you I wasn't in the mood."
She turned and just stared at him, her jaw set, her posture conveying as clearly as possible that she had made up her mind about this until he gave up and closed the door with a sigh. But the way he leaned back against it and crossed his arms with a stubborn frown told her this would not be one of their easy talks.
With a sigh of her own, she slipped out of her jacket and threw it on the seat by the couch table, and yeah, his eyes flicked down now; she could tell the exact moment where he did notice her legs. He didn't really have a choice, with these shoes.
It didn't soften his expression, though, and much like last night, she was suddenly hit by the overwhelming sensation that this felt simply... wrong. She couldn't deal with a Tony who was like this, distant and withdrawn. Not letting her in. Without noticing it, she'd gotten too used to the one who shared.
She blinked, looked to the side. Out of the corner of her eye she caught a scene flickering across the screen on his wall, and she turned and watched a couple of scenes to better deal with the pressure of Tony's gaze. Some old TV show, muted. Tall, dark man who looked oddly familiar. She felt like she should know him, and the urge to remember distracted her long enough that Tony sighed once more and gave up his post at the door to walk towards her. No, towards the couch. She just happened to be in the way.
"You were wrong," she blurted out, and that unexpected breech in their protocol stopped him dead in his tracks, right behind her.
Her fingers wrapped around each other, kneading her own hands, and she couldn't seem to stop. Her eyes were suddenly glued to the TV screen because that was easier than facing him right now. Silly, really, but he was simply too close. She could feel his presence in her back, loud and clear. Looking at him now...
"When you suggested that I just want you for... for comfort. I don't."
The reaction that seemed so crucial to her didn't come, though. He was silent for a few moments longer than she could bear; then he simply touched her shoulder and moved her out of the way so he could sit down on the couch after all.
"Goody," he murmured, then concentrated hard on his silent TV and did his best to ignore her.
Ziva turned to frown at him, even more confused now.
"I don't understand," she finally admitted, and he blinked, but still didn't meet her eyes. "You made it clear that you want a... a relationship. I decided that I am not averse to that. Isn't that..."
Her words trailed off because she didn't know how to phrase it without sounding desperate. Somehow that eased up the unhealthy tension in him a little, but he still sighed and ran a hand through his hair in a way that reeked of frustration.
"It's not that easy, Ziva."
"Of course it's not." She took a step towards him, watching him intently. "I know that. But it's supposed to be a start, and you... don't seem to want that after all."
She tilted her head curiously. Frowned harder when he didn't reply and kept his lips tightly shut, and that was an answer in its own way. He lowered his head and jerked his fingers through his hair again, elbows resting on his knees, staring at the floor.
For what felt like hours he refused to look at her, and so she made a step towards him and went down on her knees in front of him, so she was at eye level with him and he'd have no choice but to at least acknowledge her presence. When he still didn't react, she reached out and touched his wrist carefully, and he took a slow breath, as if that touch had stirred him out of a deep sleep.
"Tony, listen to me," she said quietly. "I have thought about this for a long time. And the only thing I really understand about what's going on between us now is this: it's not good the way it is." She paused, her lips trembling when he didn't react because this was what she'd been afraid of. That she'd have to spell out things neither of them was ready to spell out yet.
God, it shouldn't be this hard. It had never been when they'd talked on the phone.
And that thought kind of did the trick: she breathed out slowly and closed her eyes for a second. Tried to pretend she heard his voice over the phone and didn't have to look at the tense, tired lines around his eyes that hadn't been there a night ago.
"Last night..."She blinked, broke off. Fought with the words and reforged them before parting with them. "I have already lost one friend to these new... circumstances. And the thought of losing you as well..." She breathed out. He didn't reply, just stared at the hand grasping his, her fingers digging into his skin, clinging to him in a way she'd never allowed herself before. And suddenly the words tumbled out of her as if she'd reached the edge of a cliff. "I hate the thought. I can't have you gone. I need you here, with me."
She waited for him to react while seconds ticked away and stretched into small eternities. But Ziva David had never mastered the art of patience herself (at least not when it came to things that mattered), and so she soon clutched his hands tighter, almost as if she were trying to force a reaction out of him.
"I understand that you're scared. I am, too," she admitted, and with her words, the softest shudder ran underneath his skin. "You scare me. I have never had a man with so many... emotions in my life." She bit her lip, shook her head. "And I honestly have no idea what to do with all of this. But I would like to get a chance to figure it out."
The words fell from her lips, and she didn't even try to contain them. She hadn't planned on their talk to be like this -- blunt and open, without any... foreplay, so to speak. All she'd wanted was a nice, uncomplicated dinner, and then maybe flirt with him a little, and at one point she would have tried to hint at what she really wanted to say. And yes, it would have probably been awkward that way as well because they were both bad at this kind of thing, but eventually, he would have laughed and been good about it, and maybe he'd even kissed her. Which would have been nice.
But of course, things never happened the way she planned them.
He still refused to look at her directly, and part of her trembled with the overwhelming urge to run and forget this whole thing had ever happened. But she'd gone too far already; she couldn't stop now. Not until they had resolved this, one way or the other.
She inched closer until her forehead almost touched his and she was close enough to kiss him, if she'd only dared. Both her hands held his now, wrapped around fingers clenched tight, refusing to let her in, much like his whole posture. She needed to get in so badly. She'd never in her life been more desperate for a connection than right now.
"Tony," she urged him quietly, rubbing her palm against his skin, slowly, until his death grip eased up the tiniest bit and she thought she may have a chance to be heard after all. "You were right. You are a part of my family." Her lips quivered, and suddenly her pulse stomped in her throat painfully, because this was the hard part. The part that crossed lines, the part she could never take back because it would finally, irrevocably, change things between them. "But you know we're not like siblings, yes? We're something else."
He laughed, a short, rough bark that didn't hold much amusement. Raised his head, not to look at her, but to stare blindly over her shoulder, his eyes fixed on the muted TV heroes again. She stared at the curve of his jaw, the unhealthy tension clearly visible there, and she had no idea what else to do to get a reaction out of him.
"You told CI-Ray I'm like a brother to you," he said eventually, his voice flat, and Ziva shook her head, not quite sure what to make of his tone.
"Oh, Tony. That was such a lon--"
And then her voice gave because suddenly things came together in a way she'd never seen before. Her heart missed a few beats this time because yes, that had been so long ago, and he couldn't possibly mean what she thought she'd heard in between those words... except that his jaw muscles were clenched hard now, jumping in his cheek, and every single fiber of his body screamed the truth at her: that, maybe, even back then...
She let go of him as if his skin had turned scalding hot. Sat back hard, her hand clamped over her mouth. Her eyes widened even more, and she was suddenly out of air, choking on the enormity of this secret.
He'd never said a word. Never let it show. He'd even--
"You would have let me marry him," she whispered, shocked, and there was that rough bite of his laughter again, scarring her.
"Yeah, well. I always thought that would have been one of my best movie references ever," he muttered. When she didn't reply, he finally glanced at her. Shrugged casually when he saw her lost expression. "'Love, Actually'? The guy who tapes his best friend's wedding?" He laughed and shook his head when she just kept staring blankly at him. "Nevermind."
"You would have let me marry him!" she repeated accusingly, one hand still raised as if to cover her mouth again, the other pointing aimlessly off into the distance. And she wasn't really sure what she'd said differently this time, but it was finally enough for him to break, for his emotions to spill over and erupt out of the tight confines he had forced them into for such a long time.
"Well, it wouldn't have changed anything!" he yelled, and yes, she flinched.
Part of her wanted to cower before his anger and the emotions it brought out of her in turn. Except that she couldn't, because she was too shocked by her own instinctive reaction. The gut feeling that he was wrong. That knowing it would have changed... something.
And eventually, she found that she had to admit at least that much.
"How can you say that?" she asked, quietly, frozen. Shocked. "How can you say that when I'm not even sure it's true?"
She almost choked on that confession, but Tony didn't even realize what she'd just admitted. He was still too angry and too lost in his own emotions to be aware of hers, and so he spit more words at her that made her flinch and then angry in return.
"Because I still wouldn't have been the kind of guy you need."
"Oh, and what kind of guy is that?"
"The kind who's good enough."
The sharp crack of the slap rang loudly between them. She stared at Tony, wide-eyed and shocked, both by his words and her own act. Shocked by the red mark now blossoming on his cheek and the painful sting in her palm. And shocked by the way he suddenly looked at her, because she'd rarely seen him this... tired. Defeated.
He looked like he was about to let go of her.
She reached for him then, because that was the one thing she couldn't allow. She reached for his face and put her hands to his cheeks before he could pull away and shut her out completely, and he tensed, just for a heartbeat, because this was not the kind of touch he had expected right now. The kind of touch that wasn't punishment, wasn't painful -- at least not physically.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, and it was a shock to suddenly feel him as close as this: her lips against his, breathing her plea into his mouth, messily. Because she needed him to listen now. Because she needed him to give her a chance to make this right.
By the time the tears came, she'd climbed into his lap, and he'd tensed for a heartbeat. But then he'd put his arms around her and kissed her back, and now she could taste the same kind of shock and overwhelming despair she felt herself in his mouth. And god, no, she hadn't expected this either, that much was clear. Not like this. Never like this.
And yet, later, whenever Ziva thought back to this night, she would concede that in a way, this was the only way it could have happened.
He was so warm against her. The weight of his arm around her shoulders, his chest moving under her cheek in the slow rhythm of his breathing... it all seemed weirdly familiar, and that was strange because they'd never lain quite like this before. She wasn't sure how long they'd been like this: on his couch, with her face buried in his neck while she soaked up his warmth surrounded her. It seemed easier than looking at each other. Easier than facing... whatever this had turned into.
She felt vaguely naked because her skirt was still hunched up, but she couldn't bring herself to move and tug it down. She remembered straddling him, grabbing his face, and she remembered that he hadn't objected when she'd clung to him like that. He'd kissed her back instead. Had touched her face and brushed her hair out of her face and looked at her with so much emotion in his eyes that at times she hadn't been sure if she was really the one crying.
She'd never made out with someone like that -- drowning in emotions she couldn't control. Not for sex, but simply to quench a desperate hunger, to touch and cling and feel. Too tight, too much, too little, until she could no longer breathe. Until she was no longer sure if that reaction was physical or emotional.
He hadn't even tried to undress her or take this any further. He'd just kissed her, over and over, and held her, until their ragged breaths had calmed down, and the tears had dried (mostly), and they'd ended up wrapped around each other the way they still lay now.
The pulse in his neck suddenly jumped against her lips. "So what now?" he asked, and Ziva blinked, at a loss for words.
"I don't know. I did not plan for this."
"So what did you plan?" His voice was low and, for the first time today, so gentle that Ziva had to close her eyes because for a heartbeat this felt too much like one of their phone conversations again. Too intimate to handle right now.
"Dinner, and some talking. Mostly just dinner, for a start." She raised a hand to wipe at her sticky cheek and grimaced. "But I think that is no longer an option."
He turned to his side, and for a second she was afraid he'd pull away from her now. He didn't, though, just looked at her with a strange expression she couldn't quite decipher. Then he reached out and brushed away another tear-and-makeup stain with his thumb, very gently, until her heart fluttered strangely and she forgot what she'd wanted to say in the first place. "We could order takeout," he offered.
"We could do that." She hesitated, lips parting, closing again, eyes flicking up to meet his, then back to his mouth. He'd kissed her with that mouth. Her heart jumped to a jackhammer's pace while she wrestled with the question that wanted out just as desperately as she wanted it buried in a deep dark hole. She lost the fight when she watched his face, watched him withdraw before her very eyes. "Can I stay?"
A soft smile played around his mouth, the tiniest trace of sadness hidden underneath the playful mockery. "You think I'm gonna send you home with your takeout?"
"No, I mean tonight." Her words were hardly more than a breath, rushed because she was now sure how he would react and not sure if this was too much to ask. She still had to, though. "You said that one of the things you want is spend the night with me. Wake up with me and... and know that I was there, and I... I'd like that. I think."
And that was close enough to skirt around the true reason for her plea: that she couldn't fight the dread that overwhelmed her when she thought of leaving now, simply because she knew how he'd spend this night: he'd be stuck in his own thoughts for hours, and he'd end up backing away from her even harder, and so they'd be back to square one in the morning. No, worse. It would undo everything they had accomplished.
In the end, he never really answered her question. He just looked at her quietly and ran his thumb along the curve of her cheekbone. Back, forth, back again. Touched her gently like that while he seemed to try and make up his mind. But he never told her no, and that was some kind of answer.
He was fussing with the sheets when she came out of the bathroom, hair open, teeth brushed, her face freshly scrubbed and bare. His nervousness radiated loudly, and for some reason that reflected back to her. Suddenly she felt incredibly naked in the shirt she had borrowed from him. It reached her thighs, yes. Still...
It was too late to reconsider her choice now, though, because he'd heard her and already turned around to look at her. His eyes danced over her for a heartbeat, and he watched her quietly while he sat down at the foot of the bed. A strange mix of emotions flickered in his gaze, and she licked her lips nervously. She couldn't remember him ever looking at her quite like that.
"For a girl who doesn't do clichés," he said eventually, "you handle them pretty well."
She blinked, confused, and a slight smile tugged at his pretty mouth when he explained, "That's my favorite shirt."
"Oh," she said, and her fingers twisted the hem of the shirt until his expression softened the tiniest bit. Strangely, that didn't help much; it just left her feeling even more self-conscious.
Oh, this was ridiculous. Yes, it was uncharted territory for both of them, but they were adults and even somewhat reasonable at times. And they had known each other for so many years. It simply shouldn't be this hard.
And then he asked, "Are you sure about this?", and her stomach tingled at the softly voiced question because it shouldn't be, true. And yet, things had gotten complicated.
"I have slept here before."
"Yeah, but you had the bed to yourself."
And, just like that, he'd said the words to make this all frighteningly real.
God, they really had no idea what they were doing here. Both of them. Children, really. Fumbling along and playing with things that weren't exactly forbidden anymore, but still felt like they were.
She met his eyes and fought her own anxiety while she tried to listen to her feelings, just so she could answer him truthfully. Was she truly okay with this? Or would she, in the bright light of morning, regret whatever happened tonight?
She breathed out eventually and walked over to him. Reached out and touched his face gently, and then moved closer still. Close enough that he had to tilt his head back so he could meet her eyes. Close enough that she could feel his warmth.
The urge to kiss him again tugged at her insides, and for a heartbeat she thought about giving in, just so they could move on. Except that she couldn't. Not when he looked at her like that -- all vulnerable and unsure and spreading himself wide open by leaving her the lead. She had to be sure, for him. She could not simply force this along, just to get it over with.
His eyelids fluttered when she ran her fingers through his hair, and she couldn't help but smile at his reaction. Touch was good, it seemed. Touch made him mellow. So she kept touching him, kept running her fingers through his hair, and in the end, when she put an arm around his neck, he sighed and leaned into her, his cheek against her chest, his arms around her waist, pulling her closer.
For a long time they stood like that, lost in holding each other, each to their own thoughts. And slowly, while they relaxed into the other's presence and got used to the new sensations of intimacy, Ziva found that touching him had a good effect on her as well: it grounded her. Comforted her.
In the end, she was sure about at least one thing: this was not a part she would ever feel regret over.
Warmth, again, so much of it. His steady heartbeat underneath her cheek. His arm around her, as if they had slept like that a hundred times before, keeping her close even while he was asleep. Her naked leg -- and that was the part that let sudden heat rush through her -- was stuck halfway between his in a way that rendered it just this side of friendship.
She knew all of this was mostly because his bed didn't allow for much space between them. She knew it. And yet, her pulse suddenly jumped in her throat, because he smelled so good, and he felt good against her, too. And he wore just his shorts. He'd even asked her if he should put on a shirt, and she'd said she was okay with it, but now... right now all she could feel was the urge to run her mouth over that warm, naked skin.
She listened to his breathing while she tried to sort through her whirling emotions, but it wasn't easy. She was still stuck somewhere in that half-state between waking and dreaming, and that didn't help with the way she reacted to his presence: instinctively, burrowing deeper and deeper into his warmth and trying to soak up more of it because she just couldn't seem to get enough. As if she were drunk, from his presence, from being surrounded by him. And like any drug one wasn't used to, she found herself overwhelmed by the effect.
Her fingers spread on his skin, drew together again, exploring gently, and at first Ziva didn't even notice the way she touched him. Her fingertips ran down his chest with a will of their own, pressing against his skin, and his breathing quickened in response. She felt his heartbeat thud and jump, and her lips parted because suddenly she was anxious to see how much of a reaction she could get out of him before he--
"You do realize I'm awake, yes?" he asked quietly, with his eyes still closed, but his heartbeat thumped away harshly. He clearly wasn't as confused by the novelty of the sensations as she was. Or at least his body wasn't.
He smelled so good. She'd never had the chance to enjoy him this close before -- not like this anyway. Her skin itched because she couldn't seem to get enough of this scary new closeness, and so she turned her head, pressed her face into his neck and breathed in his scent while her hand continued its interrupted exploration down his body.
"It was hard to miss," she murmured, cupping him through his shorts, and he took a sharp breath at her bold touch. She felt him twitch against her palm, harden more, and that sensation sobered her up instantly because his instinctive reaction was so far from simple and mere comfort of touch. It was blunt and to the point, and, god, this was sex. With her best friend.
"I'm sorry," she muttered and pulled her hand back awkwardly. "That was too--" Too much, too fast, too soon.
She tensed involuntarily, and he knew her well enough to tighten his arm around her and keep her right where she was. With a sigh he took her hand and pulled it up to his mouth, and she trembled slightly when he pressed his lips to her palm.
"Don't worry. We're still good." His lips moved against her palm, and maybe it was just because he was so close this time or because there were so few clothes between them, but her eyelids fluttered nervously all of a sudden, and her body rushed to keep up with the sensations flooding her.
"I want to move this forward," she whispered against his neck heatedly, and he fell very still. "But I don't know how, and that's silly because I used to know how to do these things, you know?"
He chuckled then, and she pressed her lips shut to contain the next wave of useless, stupid words. For a few seconds neither of them spoke. She could hear him think this through, loud and clear, and it drove her crazy that she had no idea where his thoughts were headed. What kind of reaction to brace herself for.
Eventually, he turned to his side to face her, and the way he shifted brought him a lot closer and his thigh between hers, and that sent mad heat through her, setting her cheeks on fire. It didn't help that he still had her hand in his and now tugged gently to drape her arm across his waist. If anything, the simple gesture made this a lot more distracting. Intimate.
He sighed suddenly and reached up to brush a wayward strand of hair out of her face. "That show I watched last night," he murmured, and Ziva tried to concentrate even though her insides fluttered stupidly simply from the way he touched her face. "'Remington Steele' rerun. Fun show. Grew up with it, but haven't seen it in ages."
She breathed out, her eyes fluttering shut for a heartbeat. "Does this have a point? Or will this be like your movie references?"
He snorted. His other hand, the one he still had around her back to keep her close, strayed down to pinch her side, and for a second she forgot the grave thoughts and the nervousness and just squirmed against him, laughing.
"Yes, it does have a point, little Miss Impatient." He fell silent again, though, and Ziva's trepidation returned. She watched him quietly; this time he seemed to be the one struggling to find a good way to go about things. "They have this secretary, Mildred."
"Hey, don't mock the Mildred. She's kickass. She's what Abby will be like when she's sixty." More silence, more touching. And more confusion in the wake of it. "Last night, Mildred said a pretty smart thing. She said it's easy to let yourself go with someone you don't care about."
She blinked, and her gaze skittered all over the place because yes, this did have a point. And it struck home, so hard that she suddenly felt a little dizzy.
"Abby would never say such a thing," she finally replied weakly, and he chuckled.
"Give her twenty years."
"Tony..." She wanted to say more, but she couldn't because she was all out of useful words, and so she just looked at him and met his eyes and tried not to drown in the way his body suddenly strummed with tension. And no, no... there was really nothing friend-like in the way he felt against her now.
He did kiss her then. Put his big hand to the back of her neck like she'd wanted him to and pulled her close, and then he simply leaned over her and put his mouth to hers, just like that. As if it hadn't been hard at all and this was something they did all day, every day.
His hands were even softer than his mouth, cautious, but firm on her skin at the same time, and her throat was suddenly tight. There was nothing simple about the way he touched her. How he held her and dug his fingers into her skin and slipped them under her shirt eventually... his shirt, really. How he traced the fault lines of her cocoon and coaxed them open, gently, gently... and yet, at the same time, not.
She'd never been kissed like that before, with such clear, palpable... intent. And never once while so many emotions curled up inside her own belly, threatening to burst out of her with every heartbeat. Her pulse raced, and oh, he tasted so good. She didn't even have a choice now. She couldn't think, couldn't stop, and so, soon enough, she clung to him in return, desperate, drowning in too much desire and too many sensations at once. Heat and lust and that other feeling, too. The new one. The one that made her head spin and left her all weak in the wake of its potency.
Any second now.
She could feel it: the restraints of a whole life rippling, weakening, and, eventually, bursting apart at the worn seams.
Any second now, she'd spread her wings.
She thought about breakfast when she came out of the shower, and maybe a kiss -- maybe one that would be slightly awkward, because whatever this was between them, it clearly wasn't dealt with properly. Maybe, though, it would be a nice, warm, welcoming kiss instead. Like the one he'd brushed to her mouth just before he'd left to get croissants and... well, the things he actually needed for a proper breakfast. (His fridge was still mostly empty, after all.)
She hadn't expected to hear McGee's voice from the living room, stumbling over words excitedly while he poured them at Tony in rapid succession. Ziva blinked, then tied the robe she had borrowed from Tony.
"I'm telling you, Tony, this is the perfect solution! Come on, let's call Ziva and see what she thinks about it!"
McGee's mouth fell open when he turned his head at the sound of her voice and saw her standing in the bedroom door, toweling her wet curls. Tony's eyes, on the other hand, widened with a slightly panicked expression, and for a second she wasn't sure what to make of that.
"Ziva," McGee stuttered. "I... ah. I had no idea you're here."
She shrugged. "It got late last night, so I crashed on Tony."
McGee blinked. Opened his mouth. Shut it again. Thought hard. "You mean on his couch?"
"No." Two pairs of eyes followed her while she strode over to the couch and sat down. McGee looked slightly puzzled, as if he were waiting for an explanation that took its sweet time, while Tony... Tony, underneath the vaguely cornered expression, seemed to fight a smile all of a sudden. "What was it you wanted to talk about?"
"Probie woke up with the bright idea of making us private investigators," he replied while McGee still looked as if he'd lost his train of thought.
With a smile Tony sauntered over to the couch as well and sat down beside her, and for a second she had to fight the urge to lean into him out of reflex. His scent was still so good and strong. Distracting, really. His hand, low in her back now, didn't help, and she blinked and tried to concentrate.
In the meantime, McGee had jumped on his cue excitedly and rattled down his thoughts fast, as if he was afraid he'd lose their attention any second. So fast, in fact, that Ziva was afraid any second now he'd pull out a spreadsheet and show them cold, hard numbers to support his idea.
In the end, though, he said the one thing that made more sense than all the logical facts in the world. "Look, we've worked together for, what, eight years? Nine? And yes, sometimes we hate each other, but that doesn't change the fact that we do a good job together, right?"
She looked at Tony, and a tiny jolt went through her when he met her gaze. Yes. They did a good job together, indeed. And it surprised her to realize that this had been her biggest problem over the last week: she simply couldn't imagine doing that job with anyone else.
He was so massive and solid. A heavy presence against her back; she liked feeling him like that. His arm was also heavy around her waist, and his limbs tangled with hers in a way that was almost silly... and yet, she enjoyed the sensation very much. His fingertips traced slow patterns up and down her hand and forearm, and Ziva's head rolled back against his chest. Her eyelids fluttered in time with the sensations he drew out of her. She liked how he'd begun to touch her suddenly -- all tender and just for the sake of contact alone. She hadn't expected him to be like that after sex. So... personal.
She threaded her fingers with his, turning things a notch more intimate, and he held her a little tighter in response. Pressed his lips to her temple. She could feel him thrumming all of a sudden, and she tried not to hold her breath because she knew the words that clawed their way out of him right now would be hard for her to hear as well.
And yet, despite the way she braced herself, she didn't see it coming.
"Don't go back to Israel."
Her fingers tightened around his and her pulse thundered in her ears, but it wasn't just her who was suddenly scared to death: she could feel the fear coiling in his muscles as well, freezing him in place.
For a heartbeat she wondered how he could be so unsure about her. How he could truly believe that she would fight with him like she had, sleep with him like she had, and then go away, as if it all meant nothing.
But then it tightened her throat painfully when she realized that she couldn't even be upset with him. She'd never given him a good reason to be sure, after all.
Her own mistake. Hers alone.
"Last night," she pressed out slowly and found that this, too, was a lot easier to say while he just held her and she wasn't looking at him, "before I came over, I deposited the rent for my apartment. Six months in advance." His heart thundered against her back, but he didn't say anything, and so she felt the need to elaborate. Make him understand. "I never paid for more than a month in my entire life because I never knew where I'd be the next day."
He didn't say anything for a long time, just tightened his arm around her waist for a heartbeat. Then, suddenly, the tiniest shudder ran through him, and he turned his head and pressed his face into her hair.
"Okay," he muttered, and there was her pulse again, pounding away while his calmed down all of a sudden. He breathed out, and Ziva blinked, confused because with that one breath, he'd let go of more than just air.
He felt different against her all of a sudden. As if a certain tension had left him. And it was weird, because it was the kind of tension she'd never even known was there, simply because he'd carried it around with him for so long. She'd known it was there, but she'd always believed it was simply a part of him.
His arms were still tight around her, refusing to let go of her, but even that felt different now, and suddenly she was the one who was overwhelmed.
He sensed it, of course. Kissed her temple again, then buried his face into her neck with a satisfied hum. Drew her back against his body until she could feel him from head to toe, and that sensation distracted her easily -- too easily, and she knew she should be embarrassed about this. But she had to admit, he'd been right about one thing: the sex was highly satisfying.
"You think you could get some of it back?" he murmured against her skin, and she blinked, confused.
"Would be a shame to pay for a place you don't use, since I don't plan on allowing you to leave this bed any time soon..."
She laughed, the sound just bubbling up inside her. Strange, but she couldn't remember the last time it had felt like that. Natural.
"You'll need a bigger bed then."
"Not if we spend as much time as possible on top of each other."
And yes, that was the exact moment she felt his intent come back. Loud and clear.
Her body, already adjusting to the new dynamic between them, went with the flow easily. Forgotten was the mere comfort of touch: just like that, they reached a non-verbal agreement, favorable for both sides. And so -- for the time being -- they abandoned snuggling in favor of lust.
Ziva found him at the dinner table that was still no dinner table, but a mess of work-related things instead. She wasn't entirely sure what had woken her. Maybe the absence of his warmth, so familiar after such a short time, or maybe the light from the living room. Maybe it had been the soft ding of his laptop, though, when Tony clicked away yet another pop-up window with a muttered curse.
"What are you doing?" She slipped her arms around his neck from behind and glanced at his screen. Not porn, so why did he seem embarrassed?
"Research," he muttered and shrugged awkwardly. He ran his hand up her arm, stroking her skin softly, and just like that her attention scattered away. It was embarrassing, really -- to be so distracted by a simple touch.
"What kind of research?"
"Uhm," he said, and now it was his turn to be distracted because she leaned into him and pressed her lips to his temple. "Requirements for getting a private investigator's license in DC." His voice was low, hushed, as if he had just admitted something embarrassing. "Just... you know. Checking up on the probie's facts..." He closed his eyes and leaned back against her and into her embrace. "... 'cause checking facts is important..."
She touched his cheek, and he complied and tilted his head back to look at her. "Come back to bed," she murmured, and her heart stuttered a little when a brilliant smile spread on his face.
Oh, that man. He would be so good for her, yes -- but oh so dangerous as well. She could feel it already.
"You're really getting into this, aren't you?" he asked, and now it was Ziva's turn to smile because he looked so ridiculously sweet all of a sudden. Happy, even.
She stroked his cheek, and her thumb brushed the corner of his smug, talented mouth.
"Wasn't that the whole point?"
For a second he just stared at her quietly, and his eyes flickered with an unexpected rush of emotions she couldn't quite decipher. And yes, Ziva felt weird herself: she could feel her stomach knot with something halfway between nervousness and joy.
She was tempted to step back and bring some distance between them, but just then he suddenly reached up and put his hand to her neck. Tugged gently, until she bent down to meet him halfway.
His kiss wasn't quite as gentle as his hand. It was feverish and too emotional instead, and she almost choked on the intensity of it. But it didn't take long until she forgot the anxiety tugging at her insides and kissed him back just as heatedly, simply because she couldn't resist him. Couldn't resist his urgency, and his lips, and the way he pulled her closer...
Oh, yes. One day, he would be her downfall. That, she knew already.
This time she was sure she had woken from the sensation of his absence, and she blinked and rolled to her stomach, confused.
Maybe it was just because she'd spent so many hours now pressed to him tightly, limbs tangled with his in a too-small bed out of necessity. It was still disconcerting to realize that in no more than two nights her body had gotten so used to his presence that Tony not being there had turned into an alarm signal.
She heard him in the living room again, talking quietly on the phone. A quick glance showed her that it was nearing her former work hours, and that surprised her. She couldn't remember the last time she'd slept that long, even without an alarm set.
"No, I really don't feel like going through security," he said just then. "And since it's off the record, for now..."
Ziva frowned at his choice of words just when he turned and saw that she was awake. His eyes lit up, and he gave her a smile that tickled her skin even from afar.
"Okay. Nine's fine, I'll be there. Thank you."
He snapped his phone shut and came back into the bedroom, and she rolled to her side and watched him curiously. "You're up," she remarked as he squatted down beside the bed. How had she slept through him showering and getting dressed?
"Yeah," he said and reached out to brush a curl out of her face. "Figured you could use a bit more sleep. Listen, I need to run off for a bit."
"I heard. Is this for a job?"
The corners of his mouth twitched, and she wasn't quite sure what to make of that reaction. "Sort of. I'll tell you when I get back, okay?" He leaned towards her as if to kiss her goodbye and then get up, and she suddenly found herself reaching for him, grasping his wrist so he couldn't leave yet.
"I think we should do it," she said, and that was strange, because she couldn't remember consciously making the decision.
Predictably, his soft smile turned into a vaguely lewd smirk. "We did it all night."
"Not that," she snorted, and he chuckled, but sobered up soon because he knew there was something going on inside her head now. "The detective agency."
He looked at her, very quiet all of a sudden, and she had no idea what that look meant. But then he took her hand and wove his fingers into hers, and for a heartbeat Ziva felt overwhelmed by the simple intimacy of that gesture. She stared at their joined hands, and he must have seen her struggle because he suddenly smiled at her -- a brief twist to his lips that was barely there.
"You know I love you, right?"
Her stomach dropped out on her right then. She hadn't expected those words -- not now, not from him -- and her eyes widened in something that wasn't quite shock and not quite surprise either. Awe, maybe. Because he, of all people, made it suddenly sound so easy.
She blinked, not sure what to say or even what he expected her to say. Deep down inside, she knew that she would have liked to return the sentiment, but that wasn't an option. Not yet. Because unlike him, she'd only had a few days to grow accustomed to the feeling.
Her skin prickled, but he didn't let go of her hand despite her silence. He just kept smiling at her, content, and once again she wondered how she'd never noticed all of his emotions before.
It was so weird, how this was at the same time the Tony she'd always known... and yet, he wasn't. This Tony was at ease. Happy, even.
Maybe it was that simple? Could it hurt to try?
She returned his smile and tightened her grip on his hand. "I was... recently made aware of it..." she replied, her own lips twitching, and warmth spread through her at the way he suddenly looked at her. His smile deepened into something blindingly brilliant, and he tugged her hand up to his lips to press a kiss to the back of it.
It hadn't been a "me, too" -- she couldn't do that yet, and he knew it. But apparently it had been enough for him, and the grin he gave her when he took out his phone again was so dazzling that it went straight to her nerve endings. Oh, it was too bad his appointment would be so soon.
"McGee?" he bellowed into his phone. "We're doing it!" He listened to the reply, all excited, still holding her hand, and she fought with the silly chuckle that threatened to trickle out of her mouth.
So yes, maybe he did turn into a giant man child at times. But there was no denying the fact that his enthusiasm was infectious.
And then she had to clamp her hand over her mouth after all, just so she wouldn't laugh out loud, because his eyebrows narrowed when wrong conclusions were drawn at the other end of the line.
"No, not that. The detective agency."
They met at Tuscany's for lunch, which, according to Tony, served the world's best pizza... in DC. Ziva was inclined to disagree, but never voiced the objection because the pizza was good enough, and so was the mood.
Lunch meetings, it seemed, were despite a lack of alcohol more relaxed than their drunken Friday meetings, and there was a lot less melancholy at play.
Then again, maybe that was simply because they had come to talk about a future that didn't involve parting ways.
The actual business talk was carefully set aside until after lunch, and even then they barely scratched the surface of things that needed to be considered for this. They did the verbal equivalent of pulling each other's hair, to lighten the burden of such a big decision, with Tony joking that Ziva already had the cool car for a P.I. job and Ziva shooting back that he could bring his own car, she'd bring the bank contacts instead to help with financing. (She was Jewish, after all, and yes, sometimes even Ziva worked clichés for all they were worth.)
They'd have a long road of contracts and licenses and hunting for clients ahead of them, they were all very aware of that. But in the end they all agreed on the fact that they couldn't think of better partners to work with. Each of them knew what the others were capable of, and they had worked so well together over the years that in the end, when all arguments had been spread out on the table, they couldn't find a single one that spoke against the idea.
It wouldn't be the same, that much was clear. But it would be good, and it would be a fresh start.
As if he'd heard that thought, McGee now scratched his nose and said, "No more boss. And no more rules. Gonna be weird."
Ziva breathed out slowly, and she felt like something rippled and cracked inside her. This was it: the moment where an unseen weight, one she hadn't even been aware of, tilted to slip off her own shoulders.
"We can make our own rules, if we need them," she suggested, and Tony turned his head to meet her eyes with a curious expression.
"I think there's only one rule we need," he said eventually. "No secrets, no lies." He glanced at McGee, then Ziva, and in the end he lowered his eyes and watched his own fingers drum a nervous rhythm on the table. "At least not between us."
And that line, as simple as it was, clawed at her heart because she suddenly remembered that, yes, not too long ago she had still kept many things from him. She had lied to him, and omitted, and the last time she had even dragged McGee into it.
And yet, he still loved her. She wasn't entirely sure how that was possible or how she deserved it, but he did.
She glanced at McGee, who seemed vaguely uncomfortable all of a sudden, because he remembered what had happened just a few weeks ago as well, and that was when she realized that they were on the verge of keeping yet another secret from each other -- a huge one, which could possibly affect their partnership for years. McGee deserved to know before they went in the deep end. And Tony... Tony deserved honesty about this as well.
So she leaned forward and reached for his hand, and when he turned his palm up, she laced her fingers with his. "It's a good rule," she said, grasping his hand tightly, and he looked up, meeting her gaze with slight surprise because he hadn't quite expected that sort of openness. Not yet. But then he broke into a smile and raised her hand to his lips, pressing a soft kiss to the back in a gesture that had already become eerily familiar.
McGee suddenly said, "oh" and then once more, "Oh!", as if he'd only now realized what all of this meant. Which, well, was probably not far from the truth.
Tony ignored McGee's stutter, just kept looking at her in a way that left her thrumming inside. "My secret is this," he smiled, and yes, she tried to concentrate on his words, but it was suddenly hard. "I met Vance this morning."
Shocked silence followed his words, and he shook his head and added quickly, "Not to go back. But I may have found a solution for how to survive for a while without clients lining up."
"Now I'm confused."
Tony winked at McGee and made a hush gesture. "He'll pull some strings and redirect it back and forth and you'll probably understand a lot better what he talked about. But if we go ahead with this, he'll... outsource, sort of. He'll give us the cold cases."
"Can he do that?" Ziva asked. "Pull enough strings, I mean?"
Tony's mouth tightened for a heartbeat, and his grip on her hand echoed the fleeting tension. "He pulled them for Gibbs. And I made it pretty clear that he owes us. For getting pulled.
"It can't be official in any way. But it'll help, right?"
She smiled at him, and he grinned back, and oh, this was ridiculous, really -- to feel this happy simply because he was.
McGee slouched back in his seat, and he looked exhausted all of a sudden. "Man, that makes my secret almost lame."
Tony's head whipped around sharply, and his eyes narrowed in the way they did whenever he'd stumbled across something unexpectedly interesting. "Oh, I smell something good here. Spill it, McMildred! Is it juicy? Scandalous? Gossipy?"
"It's helpful," McGee replied with a bite to his voice, but even while he said it, a hint of uncertainty crept back. "At least I hope so. Remember my friend Terry? We talked this morning, and she told me they're moving offices, so the old ones are up for grabs. Good location, pretty affordable, and they come partly furnished."
Silence met his words, until Tony cleared his throat. "I dunno, McGee. The last affordable joint you rented as a base of operations wasn't quite what I had in mind..."
"It's not like that apartment!" McGee protested. "And it's not like I signed anything yet."
"But I bet you have allll the necessary paperwork lined up already...?"
Ziva chuckled at the way McGee squirmed under Tony's accusation and then raised his chin stubbornly. "I see nothing wrong with being prepared."
"It is not the worst trait to have," she agreed. Tony squeezed her hand, and for a second she couldn't breathe because this was happening, fast. Too fast? Then she glanced at both her partners, and the tension in her chest eased up to a bearable level. "I'd like to take a look."
And it was funny, really: despite his mocking, Tony suddenly radiated a content happiness she'd never felt from him before. Never quite like this.
"Now all we need is a snazzy name," he said. And there it was again: the grin that always went straight to her gut.
She could tell that Tony liked the part of Georgetown even before they'd set a foot into the building, and she could see why: it wasn't one of those shiny new office complexes with lots of glass and steel. Instead, historical brick houses were huddled together close to the Potomac. It was not a new neighborhood by any means -- it was old-style and classy in its own way. And dear god, if they'd go for this place, Tony's references to long-forgotten movie detectives would surely grow out of hand soon...
But truth be told, she liked it, too. It felt like a good place to be in.
While they walked to the address his friend had given him, McGee listed the pros excitedly. Strangely enough, he always came back to the well-maintained high-speed internet access and other technical details that made his geek heart jump with joy.
It wasn't surprising that Tony only paid a minimum of attention to his friend's rambling and looked for their goal instead.
"That's it, over there," he said suddenly, pointing, and she could feel how hard he tried to appear indifferent, but still failed miserably. His excitement was seeping through the cracks, and when he realized it as well, he gave up pretending: he struck a pose instead and stretched out his hand towards McGee, palm up. His voice fell into the same tone he always used for both Nicholson and Pacino, so Ziva wasn't entirely sure which one he was going for this time. "Hand me the keys, you fucking cocksucker!"
Ziva groaned and raised a hand to rub her forehead. McGee, speechless for a second, turned to look at Tony with shock-widened eyes.
"That... was that a movie quote...?"
"Yes, it was," she replied in Tony's stead. "'The Usual Suspects', nineteen-ninety... something. I forgot."
"Nineteen-ninety five." Tony, already poised halfway to answer the question, turned to her and closed his mouth hard. "You know that movie."
"But it's a man movie. Since when do you watch man movies?"
She shrugged and tried to hide the smile that wanted to grow in direct relation to his outrage. "It has Gabriel Byrne in it, I like Gabriel Byrne," she explained. "He's Jewish."
Another shrug of hers, followed by more glaring from him. "Close enough."
McGee groaned then, shook his head, and marched on while he dug through his pockets for the office keys. He didn't look back to see if the others followed him, and for a while they stood like that -- Tony radiating childish jealousy while Ziva had her chin raised high and returned his stare decidedly smug.
He shook his head in exasperation eventually, but before he could turn away and follow McGee, Ziva reached out and touched his arm, holding him back.
"'Unusual Suspects'," she said, and he frowned. "You wanted a name for our agency. Is that one snazzy enough?"
He blinked, then broke into a huge grin. "I like it! Come on, let's outvote McGee..."
He wanted to run after the other man, but she kept her hand on his arm, kept holding him in place until he turned back to her and looked at her curiously.
"Just for the record," she said then and stepped up close to him, until she could feel his warmth and his breath on her face and the way he suddenly struggled not to lean into her while others were watching. "I like you a lot better than Gabriel Byrne."
And again, it wasn't a love declaration. Not yet. But from the way he suddenly looked at her, all warm and mellow and with such infectious happiness radiating off him... yeah. He'd understood.
This is the end of this story, obviously, but only the beginning of a whole universe. It began as a joke after last season's finale, when I said that I'd love to see them do a remix of "Hart to Hart" and "Simon and Simon". Then, with the woes of Ziva's departure and the travesty that is season 11, it became more and more apparent I had to write this.
I apologize that it took me so long to finish -- the campaign to get Cote back on the show ate a lot of my time lately. But I promise this is not the last you've seen of this universe. And there are so many, many stories that are still left to be told.... I'll be busy for a few more years, I guess. ;)