word count: 27,000 in total, 11,100 for this chapter
chapter one: past.
comments & feedback: Very much appreciated.
Like other types of pupae, the chrysalis stage in most butterflies is one in which there is little movement. Within the chrysalis, growth and differentiation occur.
She tried to sleep in because she could now and because she was on the verge of nursing a hangover and most of all because getting up didn't seem like a desirable option. She ended up tossing and turning instead, always just drifting off for a short while and then jerking awake again to strangely physical dreams, intermingled with half-remembered, but very real sensations. She turned her head and stared at the clock that seemed to be stuck five minutes away from her usual time. The busy second hand crept forward, around, around, but not making real progress. Her thoughts suddenly felt the same -- ticking away while not gaining any real ground.
She wasn't sure why, but one story kept running through her busy head. A bedtime story, of all things -- one her mother had read to her often because little Ziva had asked for it again and again, eternally hungry for it like the little caterpillar in the book itself. That had been before Tali was born, and it could very well be one of her earliest childhood memories.
She hadn't thought about this story in years. Just sometimes. Whenever she'd felt that same kind of all-consuming hunger.
Eventually, she gave up to try and calm her whirling thoughts. Five minutes after the alarm would have woken her on any other day, she swung her legs over the edge of the bed. She stared at her naked feet and flexed her toes while she tried to decide what to do now. In the end, she opted for a morning that would start out like any other, simply because a part of her needed the routines and the firm structure her habits gave her much more than she cared to admit.
Maybe she would take the long round for her morning run. Two miles more meant more time to think about what to do when she had to face the fact that she wouldn't drive to work like any other day, after all.
For long years, she had spent her morning runs pushing herself hard because she had always needed to squeeze too much into too short a time. That one hour before work had been enough to keep her body in shape, yes. But her thoughts had always been too busy then, already filling up with paperwork and interrogations and all the other stuff she'd always taken such great care to leave behind at the doorstep when she came home in the evening. But all that baggage never went away completely, and so it usually just sat there over night, patiently waiting for her right where she had left it, only to cling to her once more as soon as she set a foot out of the house.
Now, though, she suddenly didn't have to prepare. She didn't have to think about whom to call and which lead to follow or what report to type first. She didn't even have to watch the time, and so she found herself, quite unexpectedly, at a much slower pace than usual: breathing deeper and enjoying the reverberations of her shoes hitting the ground steadily. Her skin tightened in the chill of an early morning, and her lungs filled with air that seemed fresher and cleaner than usual.
She was well aware of the haphazard symbolism, of course. And yet, she couldn't help but enjoy the unexpected clarity this new morning brought. She had forgotten how it felt to run just for the sake of it. For the first time in years this was a mere physical thing for her -- not something that would prepare her for the tensions of the day, but something that loosened her muscles instead and eased the strain in her neck.
Slow, steady. Step after step, her strides gained more ground than usual, and eventually her whole perception narrowed down to just the grass underneath her shoes, the spray of dew on her bare legs, and the drunken, joyful song of early birds. Children's laughter. For a heartbeat, her concentration wavered, and she blinked when she realized that she had almost doubled her usual route without meaning to. She breathed out, and a slight smile tugged at the corners of her mouth while she began to make her way back home.
The smile came to full bloom when she answered the phone and said his name, hoping the affection she felt all of a sudden wouldn't show too clearly. There was a pause at the other end, though, and she could hear the gears in his head grind while he listened to her heavier than usual breathing.
"Am I interrupting something?"
The question was a cold shower, and she hated the hesitancy in his voice. Hated the fact that he wondered right now if she was with someone else. Hated how carefully guarded he sounded in response. And yes, part of her hated the simple fact that was the core of their current problems: that her actions suddenly affected him as well. That she no longer had to handle just her own emotions, but someone else's. Someone who, in turn, mattered enough that she had to take great care to not hurt him again.
"I rarely answer the phone when I have that kind of company. I focus," she replied with a teasing lilt that was intended to ease his tension. And it seemed to work, because he gave her a soft chuckle in return.
"I thought you were a perfect little multitasker?"
"I'm running and talking to you. Isn't that enough multitasking for you?"
"I don't know. Can you squeeze in a few naughty thoughts that go along with the heavy breathing?"
She laughed, and for some reason it came out a little throatier than she had originally intended. Almost as if she was going along with his suggestion.
"Is that the only reason you're calling me this early, Tony?" Her question was meant to be easy and playful, but the sudden silence on his end told her the easy part of their conversation had just come to a screeching halt.
"I thought hearing you grunt was a pretty good incentive," he offered weakly, but she could almost hear him fidget over the phone, and so she remained quiet until he sighed heavily. "Listen. I don't remember every stupid thing I said last night, but I woke up with the overwhelming feeling that I made a royal ass out of myself."
"Really? I do remember some pretty red light behavior up against a wall."
"That..." She closed her mouth around the first unfiltered answer that wanted out. It probably wasn't a good idea to admit that last night, she wouldn't have minded crossing that line and a few more, maybe. That part of her would have even welcomed it. It wasn't something she could admit just like that -- as a fleeting mention over the phone -- and so she found herself stuck with no good answer.
Silence on the other end while he waited for her reaction, patiently, because it had probably cost him a lot to make this phone call in the first place. He knew, much like her, that despite the lighthearted words they had some heavy issues to touch here. Issues that wouldn't just crumble to dust in the bright light of morning. Issues she couldn't really run away from, no matter how hard she might try... especially when she rounded the corner and saw him parked in front of her apartment building.
"Okay, I think this would be a good moment for you to give me a witty and politically incorrect reply and then you laugh at me and we forget this ever happened," he hinted just then. His voice was soft over the phone, playful even, but now that she had almost reached the rental car and got a good look at his face, she could see the tension around his narrowed eyes and the tight set of his mouth. Yes, this mattered a great deal indeed. "Ziva? You still there?"
She knocked softly on the driver's side window, and he turned his head, confused. His charming boy's reflexes still worked perfectly, though, and so his irritation was soon covered up by the brilliant smile he gave her so often. The one that hid so much.
"Oh, hi," he said, and Ziva couldn't help a smile of her own when he met her eyes but kept talking to his phone. "This isn't as stalkery as it looks."
"Really?" She cocked her head at him, and the corners of her mouth twitched. Sometimes he was just like a big puppy. And this one had been caught in the act of being naughty.
He didn't reply, just stared at her cautiously, and so she tucked her phone away, leaned against the side of the car and waited patiently for him. He'd been right after all, they had some things they needed to talk about. Because from now on they would no longer be able to brush these things away under the pretense of professionalism and work and rules, and so there was a good chance they could fester and turn into something ugly if they didn't tend to them right away.
Eventually he lowered the window, and the look he gave her touched her in a weird way and left her in a strangely gentle mood. "Would you like to come up?" she asked him softly. "You take care of breakfast while I take a shower?"
He blinked and thought about it. It took him a small eternity to make up his mind, and on any other day she would have rolled her eyes at him, grabbed his collar and then simply dragged him out of the car. Today, though, was the day after last night, and last night had made things complicated. And even though she wasn't entirely sure what was going on in his head right now, she understood on a gut level why he was so torn up about this.
It shouldn't be a hard question to answer -- not really. Not between them, not after the last few months. And yet, the answer wasn't easy these days, and it would hold too many implications, one way or the other.
The tiniest spark of nervousness fluttered in her stomach when he nodded eventually and got out of the car; suddenly she was very aware of her skimpy running gear and the way he looked at her, and she was no longer sure this was such a good idea. Especially when his gaze strayed to her mouth and came to rest there.
She felt the overwhelming urge to turn around and run a few more miles before she faced this... faced him.
The hint of uneasiness was hard to shake once it had reared its ugly head, and even the long, hot shower didn't help. Her shoulder muscles tensed up little by little, and soon she found herself stuck somewhere between overwhelming hunger and stomachache. Every bit of emotional ground she had gained on her run seemed to crumble away and slosh down the drain along with sweat and soapy water, and the turmoil in her head came down to one simple fact: that she wasn't sure having him here, now, was such a good idea. Not when she felt so confused and raw about all of this. All of them. But it had been her own choice, and the reasoning behind it was still solid: they had to start somewhere.
She dressed quickly and pondered about makeup while she brushed out her hair so it could dry on its own. In the end, she decided against it and ignored the persistent little voice that told her she was doing this on purpose and just because she knew he liked her face better bare.
The tantalizing scent of fresh pancakes hit her as soon as she left the bathroom, and even though her stomach rumbled loudly in response, she froze in her tracks, horrified for a second. Her mind came up with too many scenarios that weren't pleasant, simply because Tony was much like a big, messy child at times. His own kitchen was spanking clean, yes, but he never cooked at home. She'd seen the junk piled high on his work table, though, the one spot in his apartment that had felt busily frequented, and it had mirrored the insides of his office drawers a little too well. So, yes, despite the need for nourishment she suddenly hesitated to step into her own kitchen because she wasn't entirely sure what to expect.
To her surprise, though, it wasn't chaos she found. He'd put all the ingredients back to where he'd found them, and there were no oil spatters or flour strewn about. In fact, it looked like he had been painstakingly careful not to make a mess.
She watched him while he concentrated on pouring batter and flipping pancakes, and it was strange, really, but the restless hunger deep in her belly curled up and settled down while she gorged herself on his sight.
"You did not have to cook," she said eventually, and he turned his head and gave her a smile that got to her even more than the way his expression softened at her sight.
"You had eggs. You had blueberries," he shrugged. "Seemed like a natural choice." His gaze lingered on her, and the warmth in his eyes tickled her skin and left her weirdly uncertain all of a sudden. "And you look good."
She blinked, then looked away and tucked a damp strand of hair behind her ear. Stupid nervous tingle in her belly. Stupid Ziva, really. When had she begun to react to his charms like that?
"I would have expected worse on your end, after last night," she replied eventually and sat down at the kitchen table while he flipped the last pancake. "Did you get enough sleep?"
He grimaced and ducked his head. "Some. Not enough." By which he probably meant a couple of hours, followed by a copious amount of tossing and turning. Which sounded oddly familiar. "You?"
"Not as much as I would have liked," she admitted, and he glanced at her again. There was a strange flicker in his eyes that told her he was tempted to say something, but then suppressed the remark.
She understood the silence, of course. There were so many things sharing the room with them lately, ghosts that needed to be addressed and dealt with at one point, but much like him she just wasn't sure how to do this. How much to tell him or how to say it, even. They had shared a lot over the past few weeks, so many things she wouldn't have thought possible even at the beginning of this very year. And yet, despite the fact that there was this new, liberating ease between them now, there were still all those years between them where they hadn't talked. Hadn't even tried. And sometimes she wasn't sure if they had a real chance to ever break that pattern of habit and neglect.
Her nervousness came crawling back, clawed its way up her neck and made her fidget. Her caterpillar skin itched-itched-itched suddenly, too small, too tight, too--
"I had many thoughts," she blurted out while her fingertips traced the grain of the kitchen table, "about the things you said last night."
He slipped the last pancake onto the pile and pretended he hadn't heard her while Ziva watched him curiously, waiting for a reaction. She didn't get one, but she saw the minute tension in his jaw that a casual watcher probably would have missed. No, he didn't seem to be ready yet to talk about this.
"I said a lot of stuff last night," he shrugged eventually, and she knew that tone of voice. It was the one he always used when he wanted to make his actions appear less important than they were. There was a weird softness to his voice, though, and it left her just as unsure as he appeared. "I was drunk, okay?"
"I noticed." Her dry remark didn't win her the usual fake-innocent grin he used to cover up his messes; this time, he just shot her a carefully guarded glance. And all of a sudden, she felt a bone-deep tiredness.
"Tony," she sighed and rubbed the tense spot between her eyebrows, wondering if they would ever get this right.
For some reason, that tired mutter of his name got her what she had been looking for, though: a shift in his posture that said maybe they could be okay, for now. Maybe they weren't quite all right yet, but at least they were verging on functional.
He put the plate of pancakes on the table, then sat down at the other end of it, handed her a fork and beamed at her, as if he knew exactly how easily that smile of his would distract her.
"Syrup?" he asked in his best conspirator's voice, and she pointed at the cupboard, watching him quietly while he got up again and rummaged through her cupboard as if it were his. Weird, but she didn't even mind. Instead, her skin tingled with a sudden rush of anticipation.
He insisted on doing the dishes, even though she tried to tell him it was fine if he left that for later. Maybe because it gave his hands and brain something other to do than worry. The mood between them was strangely playful and relaxed, and she wasn't entirely sure how that had happened. She just knew that at one point, possibly during the fight over the last pancake that he'd let her win, they'd set aside their shared unease and the looming shadows of last night.
Now... for now they were back to the comfortable display of friendship she was used from him, with just a hint of deeper emotions tucked away, somewhere, just out of reach. And it was weird, but that tiny, whispered possibility of a maybe suddenly left her itchy and greedy for more.
She'd gotten so much from him over the years. His support and his trust, gained long ago, had been her rock in a stormy sea and the very foundation of their partnership... and yet, it had never seemed enough. Then, at one point she could no longer name, he had given her true friendship, willingly, as if it were no sacrifice at all. But for some reason that also hadn't been enough to quench a need she couldn't quite define. She was like that tiny caterpillar in her once-favorite bedtime story when it came to their partnership: gobbling up more and more of what he had to offer each day... and yet, each day she found herself with an even bigger craving.
Last night, he had offered her love, of all things. And now, in the bright light of morning, she couldn't help but wonder if that would finally be enough or if it would leave her aching instead.
She stared at his hands and bare forearms with the rolled-up sleeves while he cleaned the last plate and then handed it to her to dry. He had good hands. Huge, but well-shaped, and strong. She'd always liked his hands. She'd felt their strength before, numerous times. But never more strongly than when he'd grasped her hand and tried to ground her, that one night when she'd dreamed--
"Hey," he murmured, and she stirred and met his gaze with wide eyes and her heart pounding in her throat, because that night, he had looked at her in a certain way, and she hadn't even realized it. "You okay?"
His voice was so gentle all of a sudden, matching his smile. When she didn't reply right away, he reached out and brushed a stubborn strand of hair behind her ear. His touch to her cheek was brief, just a quick tap of his thumb, but suddenly she wanted him to make more out of this so badly. Wanted him to look at her that way again, just so she could notice it this time and react properly and not shove him away. Wanted him to slip that big hand of his to her neck and then pull her closer and put a firm end to the nervous tiptoeing.
She'd let him, in a heartbeat. Encourage him, even, because she still wasn't sure she could take this step on her own.
He blinked when she raised her own hand and covered his before he could pull away again, and crippling need roared up inside her. Something in his face shifted, too, and some of last night's conflict resurfaced. Only this time neither of them was drunk, and it wasn't dark, and his face showed too many of his emotions. She wasn't sure about her own expression, but she had a feeling it mirrored his. And maybe that was the true root of his struggle.
There wasn't much ground she needed to cover to invade his personal space. It had always been like that between them, from the very beginning, but now... now they had grown so much closer emotionally, and these days it often seemed to her as if the physical distance between them had accommodated that and shrunk to merely a flimsy barrier of modesty.
She didn't even have to step forward this time. She just had to turn a bit and shift towards him, and because he anticipated that, like he always did, he moved with her. And so she suddenly found herself with her back against the counter and Tony leaning into her, and oh, that barely hidden strength of his and the sudden heat radiating from him, it was so incredibly tempting... She stared at his mouth just as his lips parted, and the mere tingle low in her belly turned into a hot rush, just like that. Her weakness would have been embarrassing, if he hadn't returned her gaze with the same kind of need he drew from her.
Her pulse pounded harshly in her ears. His breath was so warm on her mouth that she thought for a heartbeat he had bridged the last of the gap between them already. Just a little tilt of her head was all she'd need now, just the slightest brush of her lips against his...
He breathed out slowly and murmured her name against her mouth before he drew back, not completely, just enough to avoid a kiss.
"I'm sorry," he muttered and leaned his forehead against hers, and she laughed, the tense sound speaking loudly of her disbelief. "I'm so goddamn sorry, you have no idea," he repeated, the words falling heavily between them, "But I don't think this is a good idea right now. Not with Gibbs, who has run off to god knows where, and the job--"
"There is no more job and no more Gibbs," she interrupted him harshly, the first tendrils of anger sneaking into her voice. Of all the poor excuses to use...
But the strangely intimate softness in his voice never wavered, and now he raised his head enough to meet her eyes and make his point. "Exactly." His gaze, in stark contrast to his tone, was all steel and firm decision; his fingertips though, on a much more instinctual level, defied that resolve and snuck into her hair to press gently against the base of her neck. She wasn't sure if he did that without noticing it or maybe on purpose, just because he knew how easily it would distract her. He looked at her for a few endless moments, and eventually his expression softened along with his tone. She wasn't sure how he could do this: touch her and lean into her and look at her like that... and then not take this any further. "You're losing family right now. Again."
She frowned at him and let his words sink in, and it took her a while until they made sense. Then they stirred a hot rush of anger in her, and she pressed it out through gritted teeth. "You think I'm just offering myself to keep my family together?"
He sighed and shook his head and gave her the kind of look that said it wasn't what he'd meant, not really. He even ran his hand down her arm, soothing, calming, because he knew her. Knew how close she was to erupting. But for the briefest moment she saw something else flicker in his eyes -- suppressed before it came to full bloom, but still, it had been there for a heartbeat. She'd seen that kind of look from him before. The kind of look that told her the question came pretty close to hitting the mark.
She knew the mere thought alone hurt him. And yet, she suddenly felt like baring her teeth and snarling at him for insinuating it. No, for even thinking it.
"So who's next? McGee? Abby? How can you even--" She took a deep breath and shut her mouth hard before she'd start yelling. It wasn't fair. She couldn't blame the whole fallacy of their relationship on him, and this was not the time for fighting. And despite the nauseating anger he'd just drawn out of her, he was still too close, and still her best friend, and she still longed for that stupid man.
He knew all that; she could feel it. He knew that she didn't pour her anger into his face right now because there wasn't enough distance between them and because he kept stroking her arm, and it seemed like a reflex for him to take this just a little further. Let his fingertips run down to her wrist and mingle with hers. Her body reacted with just as much confusion as her mind, and she knew they should back off now, really. This wasn't a lover's quarrel, and the physical intimacy wasn't helping. But neither of them seemed to be able to break the contact, now that it had been established, and so he kept touching her gently instead, until it was hard not to drown in a dozen different emotions at once.
"Ziva," he sighed quietly, and she shook her head against his cheek, frustrated.
"I just don't understand. I thought--" She bit off her own words again, because this was too much, and too fast, and too vocal, and they never did the talking thing. Especially when she suddenly found herself fumbling with a question she wasn't sure she actually wanted answered.
Not that her silence made any difference. He'd always understood her on a disturbingly non-vocal level, and of course he heard this unspoken query as well. And so he answered, eventually.
"As tempting as it is to have a few rounds of incredible sex with you," he muttered, and his voice, like his body, was stuck halfway between rational and intimate, "I'd like it to happen for all the right reasons. And you being vulnerable is not a good enough reason in my book."
"Yes, you are." There was a strange firmness to his voice, and she reacted weirdly to it: stuck somewhere between rebellion and submission. She'd always been one to make her own decisions and not let others handle them for her. But a tiny part of her had to admit grudgingly that he was right about one thing: sex for the sake of taking her mind off bad things, that wasn't a new concept for her. It had helped before, even though in the end it had always meant little and she had rarely looked back, except with embarrassment at her own weakness.
And so she gave in, defeated, and her shoulders sagged when a simple word punched a hole into her defenses: "Maybe."
He chuckled and squeezed the hand he still held, and it confused her how he could do that -- catch her every time she dropped the ball, just like that, as if it was the easiest thing in the world.
"That must have been painful," he teased, and she turned her head to meet his eyes. He looked at her all chipper and amused on the outside, but there was something else still lingering underneath that expression. Something that told her he wouldn't have resisted too hard if she'd urged him just a little more. And that little hint of regret in his eyes sparked her own longing once more.
For a heartbeat she felt so incredibly tempted again, by his pretty mouth and his warmth and his strength. But if she did this now... no. It wouldn't be fair to him. Not as long as she couldn't rule out completely that he may have a point. Because if it did turn out to be something she wanted just for comfort and not love... oh god, he probably did not have a good opinion of Adam.
She blinked and tried not to let the sudden rush of emotion show. Which wasn't easy, since he was still close enough to share her breath. And it didn't look like he would be the one to back off any time soon.
"How do you know the sex would be incredible?" she asked, and it was strange, but for some reason that did the trick and made him laugh. So odd. Talking about this kind of thing -- the kind that was intimate for everyone else -- had always served pretty well to keep the distance between them. This moment, intense as it may have been, turned out to be no different from all the years they had piled up between them. The way he drew back now and raised his chin to look at her with a thoughtful expression -- it told her loud and clear that the moment had shifted, away from the swirling sea of possibilities and back to... normal. Whatever that was for them these days.
"Observation and deduction," he said, and she snorted at the rude little twinkle in his eyes. "I know what I can do. And I certainly watched enough of you over the years to know a thing or two about your flexibility."
For a moment she returned his smile out of reflex, because this kind of teasing was so very familiar. That was their old thing, their natural behavior around each other. Except these days it didn't mean as much as it used to, and at times it even interfered with what they had become. Right now, it frustrated her to no end.
She sighed and squeezed his hand in response. "Then why do you have to be such a disgustingly noble person?" she murmured, and while the question rolled off her lips, she couldn't fight the annoying urge to raise her free hand and put it to his chest. It had become such a habit between them, this touching thing. There had been a time when she had looked pointedly at his intrusive hand whenever he did that because it had always crossed a line. These days, though, the same lines had become blurry, and she hardly noticed his touches as something outside the norm anymore. She wasn't surprised when he didn't even look at her hand, just gave her a shaky little laugh and leaned into her once more to press his lips to her temple briefly.
"I'm not that noble," he said, and she turned her head so she could rub her cheek against his for a second, ensnared by the undercurrent of longing in his voice that dragged her down a little deeper into her own maelstrom.
Oh, that man. He really had no idea.
For a long time Ziva David had not been particularly observant about Shabbath traditions. She had, in fact, done her best to avoid most of the Jewish rituals.
Years ago, back in Israel, things had been different. Her father had made things different then. He, the man who never hesitated to defy every custom of his people if it ensured a successful mission, had transformed into one of the most traditional men she had ever met in the confines of his own home. And for the longest time Ziva hadn't even realized that there were two sides to Eli David. Two faces. One she had loved her whole life -- the other she couldn't live with.
Things had changed, long before he'd been killed. That one summer, when she'd gone back because he had demanded it of her... that summer had destroyed many things. Masks had slipped then, traditions had become meaningless, and the ways of her father had suddenly turned into a mockery of the values she'd grown up with.
She'd made her own weekend traditions, later, once she'd begun to transform into an American citizen. She still focused on the weekends, if she wasn't on duty, and on resting and setting work aside. But unlike the religious traditions she had grown up with, Ziva David's own traditions were solely there for her few friends and the things she loved to do. She always took great care to settle all her mundane chores during the week. Grocery shopping, laundry, even the gym, all of that came to a screeching halt once she got off work on Fridays. She wasn't too meticulous about sunset, because more often than not she didn't get to leave the office before that, but once she walked into her apartment, she pushed aside the things she needed to do and made room for what she wanted to do instead.
It wasn't until her friend Hannah canceled their weekend trip to an art exhibition that Ziva realized just how much time she suddenly had on her hands. For a brief moment she thought about going alone, but in the end she just wasn't in the mood. Not if there wasn't someone around she could talk to, even if it was just about mundane things. And Hannah... yes, their talks would have been mundane. Hannah was one of those astonishingly normal girls, after all, despite the fact that she worked for NCIS. She was one of "Fred's Angels", as they jokingly called themselves, down in accounting, which seemed oddly fitting because Hannah became easily confused whenever she had to deal with people instead of numbers. Maybe that was one of the reasons Ziva liked her: the fact that Hannah was one of the few people who would never lie to her, simply because she didn't know how.
She sighed and deleted Hannah's text message. Then she made new plans for the weekend. Oddly enough, for the first time in years, these plans meant dealing with all the mundane chores she had put aside for the past few days.
It was almost time for Monday's lunch, and Ziva had been just about to put the finishing touches to a spanking clean bathroom when her doorbell rang. (At least that was what Tony had called it once. For some reason she had ended up adopting the phrase, even though he'd reacted weirdly to her question what bathrooms had to do with discipline.) She didn't expect anyone, and so she hesitated for a moment; then she put the fresh towels aside for later.
Her unannounced visitor jumped slightly when she opened the door, as if he'd just been about to give up and leave because he didn't want to be here in the first place. At least that was what his whole posture said. His face wasn't too far behind.
"Ned! What are you doing here?"
Dorneget squirmed even more and seemed to be willing to squeeze into the nearest hole, just to avoid answering that question. "Agent David..." he replied and then promptly ran out of words again when she gave him a short-lived smile.
"I'm no longer an agent, Dorneget," she said, and the tall man lowered his head. He looked really guilty all of a sudden.
"Yeah. That's... kind of why I'm here."
She hadn't noticed the box in his hands until he handed it to her, awkwardly, like a child who had broken something and now tried to confess to his mother. Only it hadn't been Ned Dorneget who'd done the damage.
"Director Vance asked me to... to, uhm..."
She blinked, then reached for the box. "To clean out our desks?" she offered quietly, and he started fidgeting so hard that he almost dropped his delivery before she could take it from him.
"I'm sorry," he muttered, and Ziva's mouth twisted into a sad smile.
"It's all right, Ned. This is not your fault." He looked at her with wide eyes that turned him into the world's biggest puppy, and she sighed and patted his arm. "Do not worry."
"I don't. I mean, I know you guys will probably fall on your feet and find new jobs in a heartbeat, because you're good." He hesitated, but then apparently decided that this would be his last chance to say it anyway. "I'll just miss you around, I guess."
She tried to reply, but found that she couldn't because her throat was suddenly tight. The words she wanted to use weren't the ones that threatened to pour out, so in the end she just nodded. Cleared her throat. Looked down, at the box that contained the things that inevitably piled up over the years in someone's desk.
"Me too, Ned. Me too."
He nodded, not quite as awkward this time. "Okay, I'll just-- oh, hang on, Hannah said to tell you she's sorry she had to cancel."
Ziva tilted her head, surprised, and waited for more of an explanation. When none came, she asked, "Do you know if she's all right? I tried to call her, but she hasn't answered yet."
"Yeah, I think so," Dorneget shrugged. "She was just a bit rattled after that talk with Parsons..." His voice drifted off and his eyes widened when he saw something in her face shift. "You don't think she--"
... was afraid to see me after he told her it would be unwise...? She shook her head, quietly, and this time it was him who reached out to touch her elbow cautiously, hesitantly.
"It's fine," she said, and for a heartbeat she was confused because the words didn't feel fine. She gave Ned a decisive nod. "It is not unexpected of him to threaten the people connected to us." The briefest of pauses, then she added, "And Hannah does love her job."
He looked at her as if his bottom lip would start to quiver any second now, and she shook her head again, resolutely this time. "She will call me when she's ready," she stated firmly, as if there wasn't even a chance of that not happening. "Thank you for bringing me... this."
Later, when he had apologized about five more times and she had assured him just as often that she would be okay, when she finally got the chance to go back into her apartment and close the door and lean against it, the simple cardboard box suddenly felt very heavy in her arms.
Sighing, she sat down on her couch and balanced the box gingerly on her knees. It seemed to mock her, with its flaps not completely closed, just gaping enough so she could see a bit of the mess inside. The mess that had still been in her desk just a few hours ago. The mess of almost eight years.
Weird how such a small thing could make it all so much more... final.
She put the box down on the couch beside her and pulled the flaps open, and the first thing she saw was something she had looked at almost every day for a long time now: the picture of a teenage Tony, smiling awkwardly for the camera. Her heart stuttered for a moment, and she reached for the photo and brushed her thumb along the edge carefully. She hadn't even realized before that what had seemed like a mere career decision might not just affect her job after all, but her friendships as well. Her private life.
Young Tony smiled at her in a way adult Tony rarely did, and her heart stuttered once more when she realized she'd have to give the picture back now.
Sorting through the contents of the box left Ziva in a weirdly melancholy state, and even though she was more than aware of the symbolism in it, she suddenly had the next project in her belated spring cleaning spree: sort through the contents of her closet. Throw away old stuff, make room for new, and pack away the things she could no longer bear to look at simply because she had worn them at the wrong time, in the wrong place.
She'd made her way halfway through her wardrobe when her phone began to ring frantically, already foreshadowing Abby's voice tripping all over itself while she spurted out apologies and reassurances. It took Ziva a few minutes to figure out that apparently she had heard about both Dorneget's visit and Hannah walking out on her, and now Abby drowned in guilt and felt the overwhelming need to reassure Ziva that she didn't care what Parsons threatened them with professionally. Her job wasn't the same anyway, now that her whole family had up and left, and so she would stick to her friends like gum on a shoe, no matter what came out of it.
The statement left Ziva smiling, even though it wasn't the most flattering picture to paint. But it was a very Abby thing to say, and she already missed the Abby things. By the end of the phone call she was exhausted, though -- drowning in heaps of reassurance of friendship and loyalty and forced to confirm at least half a dozen times that, yes, she would most certainly make it to this Friday's Get-Drunk-Together-On-A-Regular-Basis meeting, and no, there was no further need to talk about this. No, really.
She had barely put down her phone when it rang again -- McGee this time, who apologized just as profusely because apparently he had been the one to slip Abby the news about Dorneget's visit. More reassurances followed, this time from Ziva. Thankfully, it didn't take quite as long to 'talk McGee down', as Tony would have put it, and he didn't offer to listen if she wanted to talk about it quite as insistently as Abby had done, but by the end of that call she still swore that she wouldn't pick up any others for at least the rest the day. Except, maybe, if there were one from Tony. Because she liked how his voice sounded when he thought he was just talking to her, and because at times he had a talent to not exhaust her.
And that was when she suddenly realized Tony wouldn't call. Because he was just that kind of guy. Because now that things were settled between them for the time being, he would step back, and he would give her all the space he believed she needed. And he would wait until maybe she were to call him, but would never complain if she didn't, because he thought this was the right thing to do.
It certainly wouldn't be the first summer like that.
She did end up talking to someone else, later, after she had spent a couple of hours on the internet and came out of it completely frustrated. It was difficult to just casually browse for possible new career options (a thing she'd never had to do in her entire life) without getting redirected to numerous sites that wanted her profile and credentials and then ship her off to the next employer right away.
Ziva couldn't help thinking that all of this was comparable to ending a relationship: she wasn't ready yet to commit again or even enter the 'actively looking' stage. She was far from coming to terms with what she had left behind, and right now she didn't have the slightest idea what to look for anyway, simply because she had liked her job. It had made her happy, most of the time.
A notification popped up and informed her that one of her chat contacts had signed on, and she was tempted to close the program just to avoid any further questions or pep talks. But something in the way the user icon glared at her in the fruitless attempt to smile for the camera let her reconsider, and to her own surprise she even opened a chat window herself.
'Hey, Ziva. What's wrong?'
She shook her head and bit back a smile. Yes, there was a reason she liked that man. He was a lot smarter than he had seemed at first. Certainly a lot smarter than Tony believed him to be.
'Why does something have to be wrong for me to say hello, Damon?'
'Well, for one this isn't our bimonthly what-have-you-been-up-to and are-you-married-yet checkup...'
She laughed out loud this time. Chuckled some more when he added that she'd just sounded like there was something going on.
'You get that from one word?'
'Have to. You don't use that many.'
She told him, eventually -- as much as she could, at least. And thankfully, he just listened. He also didn't shower her in fake condolences. All he said was, 'Well, that sucks', and the simple statement left her smiling once more. Trust Damon Werth to cut to the core.
'You have any idea what you want to do now?'
'Not yet,' she replied, and she was sure he could hear the heavy sigh even through type chat. He knew her long enough, after all. 'To be honest, I never thought I would have to think about that.'
'Don't I know that one...' This time it was Ziva who sensed the sudden wave of sadness that engulfed her friend at the other end of the chat. He had lived for being a Marine. She often felt like he still hadn't completely dealt with the hole that loss had left behind in his life. She wondered how she would do. 'Have you decided if you want to stick around yet?'
She blinked, confused. 'What?'
'Just a thought. I mean, what's keeping you in DC now?'
'Do you want to get rid of me?' she typed, and this time she almost wished they had made this a video chat just so she could look at him sternly.
'Ha. What makes you think I'm not about to ask you to move to Pittsburgh?'
'Because the last time I looked you were dating a very lovely Budō trainer, and you were very smitten with her.'
He sent her a huge smilie that seemed pretty smug, so she assumed the dating was still going well. Then he started typing again, and from the time it took him to finish the message, she could tell that he was back to serious again and struggled with words he didn't handle all day.
'Look, I'm just talking about me here, okay. You know that I would still give my right arm to do my duty for my country again. But you're different than me. Sort of.'
She frowned, then read the text again, but couldn't figure out what he wanted to tell her. 'What do you mean?'
'I think before you decide what to do, you need to figure out if this will stay your country.'
She stared at the line until it blurred before her eyes and only snapped out of it when he typed, 'Did I lose you?'
'No, just confused me. I thought I already made that decision when I became an American citizen.'
'Yeah, but didn't you make that decision for your team?'
And this time, she had no idea what to say. She simply had no good answer.
"Hey." His voice was soft, relaxed, and Ziva couldn't help the smile when she heard the pleased note that told her he was glad she'd called.
"Hey yourself," she replied and stretched out on her couch. It wasn't the first time she had talked to Tony this week, and the past few calls had shown her that sometimes it was weirdly easy to forget the time with him, so it didn't seem like the worst idea to get comfortable right away. She heard something slam shut at the other end. "Am I calling at a bad time?"
"No, it's fine, I can go back to practice later."
"Mhmm. What are you practicing?"
For a second his hesitation was palpable, and she was just about to gloss over the question and steer the talk somewhere else when he replied after all. "Piano."
She blinked, then closed her eyes, concentrating on the unusual tone to his voice she couldn't quite decipher. "I didn't know you still played."
"Ziva, I have a piano in my living room."
She chuckled. "Having one does not mean using it, Tony."
"I will throw that one right back at you the next time we talk about your pink friend in your nightstand..."
This time she laughed out loud, and his chuckle against her ear left her suddenly all warm and fuzzy. Strange how they had settled into these talks -- much more easily than she would have expected.
"You didn't tell me you played."
"Yeah, well, I'm not good enough to brag."
"Like that stopped you in every other area?" He sighed, fake-exasperated, and she chuckled and snuggled more comfortably into her pillow. "When did you start playing again?"
"Few months ago. Had a piano tuner come over one day, been slowly getting my groove back." He fell silent for a heartbeat, and she could feel him wrestling with the words that wanted out. Losing, apparently, because he quietly added, "I think that was when you were in Israel."
She blinked. Curled up tight and just listened to his quiet breathing for a while. Her stomach fluttered around the unspoken concession in his words: that he'd had his own demons to deal with back then.
The silence stretched between them for a few heartbeats more, and just last week it would have soon turned awkward. But they'd had a few talks since then, and they had gotten a lot better at handling the other's words... and the not-words. Weird that it had taken not seeing each other every day to reach that point.
"Will you play something for me?"
And just like that, the other end of the line plummeted into a bottomless hole of silence.
"I'm still out of practice, Ziva," he replied eventually. There was a cautious tone to his voice suddenly, and she could feel him back away word by word, as if he had allowed her an unplanned peek he already regretted.
And yet, she needed to know.
It seemed so silly. Girly. Like something out of a cheap romance movie, only there wasn't any romance involved. And yet... and yet, she was suddenly deeply curious about his approach to music.
"Please?" His sigh was heavy, and she knew he was almost ready to give in. And maybe it wasn't entirely fair, but she did the one thing that had worked with him before -- lowered her voice until it held just enough intimacy to get his attention. "You were the one who came up with this whole sharing thing, remember?"
"Ouch! Nasty rhetorical tricks up your sleeve, milady!"
The complaint was half-hearted, though, and she heard him adjust his seat and put the fall back up even while he was still busy grumbling. "Okay, I'll put the phone up, one second." He paused for a heartbeat, then added, "If you laugh, this conversation is over. Forever."
"I won't laugh, Tony."
"That's what they all say."
She smiled and rolled to her back, suddenly curious what piece he would choose. She genuinely had no idea what to expect. She wasn't even sure if he was more the type for classical pieces or experimental jazz. She heard him fiddle with the phone, and his sudden anxiety reverberated so loudly that Ziva would have loved to reach out to him now and touch him until his nerves settled.
The first notes, when they came, were so soft that she hardly heard them at first. His choice of song surprised her: a very quiet, simple piece that didn't really feel like something Tony would even know. At least that was how it seemed at first. Soon enough, though, she closed her eyes and pressed the phone to her ear because there was a lot more to this song than just quiet melancholy. Note by note it grew a little more intense, a little more urgent, dragging her along and luring her over the edge of the cliff until her heart stuttered because she was more than ready to jump with him.
The way he handled music was not what she'd expected at all. So very different from his photography, and so much more emotional. She hadn't known he could touch music like this -- quietly, patiently, like he had all the time in the world. He'd never seemed like the type of man who could handle a piece like this and have the patience to just let it unfold naturally, heartbeat by heartbeat, until it was laid out just right. Until his emotions poured out of him and into the music, infusing it with the same intensity he sometimes had about him when they fought. A soft shudder ran through Ziva, and her eyelids fluttered when the same fingertips that had struck the keys so softly at first suddenly chased the notes, pulling, drawing, stirring her own emotions along with the melody, until her heart raced in her throat and she had to press her mouth tightly shut so she wouldn't make a sound.
Silence fell between them after the last note rang out, and for a while neither of them said a word. It wasn't for lack of trying, at least on Ziva's side. She just couldn't. And she had a feeling that Tony wasn't too sure what to say either.
"Nuvole Bianche," he murmured eventually, and she blinked, confused by the sudden urge to wipe her face. She hadn't cried. Not really.
"White Clouds. That's what it's called." His voice was a soft caress against her cheek. She'd rarely heard him this tentative in all the years she'd known him. "But you know that. You speak Italian."
"Yes," she murmured back, still fighting the raw emotion that threatened to burst out of her if she chose just one wrong word now. In the end, she laughed weakly, and for some reason that helped and eased the strain on her heart a little. "This is how you sound when you're out of practice...?"
He chuckled, and she had a very vivid image in her mind of how he'd probably run his hand through his hair right now and looked down with shifty eyes, like a boy who hadn't expected to be told he'd actually done well.
"No mocking. I like that."
She snorted, and he laughed some more, and somehow that settled things between them in a way that made anything more unnecessary.
"Now then," he said, and she could hear him stretch while he moved over to his own couch, "since I was a good fairy and granted your wish, you will now have to indulge me and one of my all-time favorite small talk classics. I'll even let you pick which one. It's either 'how was your day?'..."
"What are you wearing?"
Get-drunk-together Friday was barely a couple of hours old, but had already lived up to its name completely. Palmer had been giddy before he'd even had his first sip. Abby was a happy puppy from the minute the last of them had arrived, especially once Tony joined them, and he... well, Tony looked almost radiant. Happy to see his friends and former team mates. McGee was affected by all of that soon enough; at one point he was so far removed from his usual self that he even broke into a short, messy duet with Ducky. The older man was mostly sober due to health reasons. A good mood, though, didn't necessarily need an alcohol solvent to spill over.
Ziva herself was nearing a high level of intoxication very soon, and she had to concentrate on not letting it show. When Abby had called her last night, to make sure she would show up, Ziva had suddenly gotten nervous for numerous reasons -- a heady mix of emotions, too many memories, and anxieties based on lack of a clear path for her future. Most of all, though, she'd suddenly realized she'd see Tony again, and that had left her restless.
She simply hadn't been sure what to expect. It had all seemed so much easier when they'd simply worked together. But since then, many things had happened, and they had talked so much over the past week. Sometimes just about casual, everyday things, and sometimes... sometimes they had touched a more personal level, not because one of them had been nosy or needled the other, like they'd used to do at work. Some things had simply come up between them, just like that. Had been touched briefly, opened, closed and put aside again, and then brought back, until they had finally begun to actually talk about them.
Granted, all of this had been a lot easier over the phone than in person. Easier to not look at Tony while she told him stories of her sister or what her mother's hair had smelled like. And he had seemed to feel the same way, because gradually his words had gotten less superficial as well. Ziva liked that. He was the last person she would have ever expected to touch her this way, but yes -- she liked talking to him this way, a lot. And she liked that he knew how to listen. And now, she'd see him again, and she hadn't figured out yet how their newfound intimacy would translate once he was right there in front of her, real and tangible and not just a disembodied voice.
As it turned out, there had been no need for nervousness, and they were more or less the same they'd ever been. Except that maybe he smiled at her a little more often that night, and it wasn't the broad, arrogant smile he sometimes hid behind, but one that was a lot softer and a lot more genuine.
And maybe their hands strayed a little more than usual, too. Just a little, here and there, with hers running down his arm or his brushing a strand of hair back and tucking it behind her ear. There were also the flutters in her stomach, which stubbornly refused to calm down completely. Probably because he kept smiling at her. And she kept touching him.
"I had a job interview today," McGee admitted somewhere during his careful maintenance of a pleasant buzz. "With an IT security company. But I think I botched it on purpose."
Abby cooed and rubbed his back, and then she said it was good because that meant he could come back as soon as Director Vance had cleared up things and they were all back to normal. Ziva blinked and exchanged a glance with McGee, who suddenly looked like he wanted to die. She couldn't blame him. She had no idea either how they could convey to Abby that this time it was permanent. That they would have to move on and find new jobs eventually, because this time the team was dismantled for good. They'd accepted full responsibility for many things that had gone wrong over the years. They had walked away to keep Gibbs out of jail, and it had been a minor miracle that they hadn't been thrown in on the spot. There was no reality in which Vance could simply wave this away, re-hire them and pretend it had never happened.
"How are you guys doing with the job market?"
Tony shrugged in response to McGee's question, and Ziva turned her head and looked at him because she'd felt that shrug against her side. Weird. She hadn't even realized before how close he kept to her tonight, but now, as his arm brushed hers on the table, it was suddenly hard to ignore. She felt funny, and she had to fight the urge to lean into him. Touch him. It seemed like the natural thing to do, and that made it so much harder not to give in. They hadn't crossed that particular line, after all. Not officially.
"I have given the matter some thought," he replied, slurring the words, but still managing to convey a certain grandeur, "and have come to the conclusion that I will fill the only position fit for the last of the DiNozzos: I'll be a lion tamer." He blinked and scrunched up his nose, thinking hard for a moment. "Or a bra designer. Whichever has an opening first. I'm flexible."
He raised his glass, grinned, then knocked it back in one gulp. Ziva blinked slowly and stared at her own hands that played with her half-empty glass on the table. McGee snorted and Tony laughed out loud when Abby glared because that hadn't been what she'd wanted to hear.
"I thought about going back to Israel."
Such a simple statement. And yet, it tore through the relaxed mood like a gunshot.
"No! You can't do that!" Abby yelled over the murmurs of the men, all wide eyes and panic-stricken face, and Ziva rubbed the tight spot between her eyebrows to chase the sudden tiredness away.
"I'm not saying I will, Abby," she stated quietly. It took an effort not to panic because a moment ago she had felt Tony all warm and pliant beside her, and now he... wasn't. He was still there, physically. But even though he hadn't really backed away from her, she suddenly felt a wall between them that hadn't been there for a long time. You can never be a butterfly, my Ziva. She swallowed hard. Shook her head. "It was just a thought."
"But why? You can't--"
Ziva spread her fingers against the table's surface, flexing them slowly. "Because it's not that easy to get a job in our line of work without a security clearance, Abby. And this will stick to me for a while." She hesitated, all too aware of Abby's watering eyes.
She shouldn't have said it. Shouldn't even have mentioned it unless it were about to turn into an actual thing. But these thoughts had followed her around for a few days now, and now she'd finally reached the point where she couldn't keep them hidden away any longer. And she was just too damn used to answering truthfully these days. "Doesn't mean I will," she added quietly, but even she had to admit it sounded lame.
The rest of the night would end up being a blur, mostly. Except that Tony was all tense and quiet beside her now, and his smiles were a lot less frequent. And he didn't touch her when they said goodbye.
It was disconcerting to realize that she had hoped for more.
She would always remember her mother's voice as gentle as it was back when she'd told Ziva the story of the little caterpillar, who had gorged himself on so much food that he ended up with a stomachache. The first time her mother had read the story to her, the little girl who couldn't read for herself yet had burst into tears and felt so sorry for the sick caterpillar. But her mother had found the right words to soothe her, and by the time they'd reached the end of the story, little Ziva had fallen in love with it. And it had taught her one very important lesson: sometimes things had to hurt so you could grow. Sometimes, getting to where you were supposed to be was a painful process. But in the end, you'd get to spread your wings.
That one night, when father came home early enough to say goodnight to his daughter, little Ziva was fidgety and could hardly wait for her mother to finish the story of the very hungry caterpillar. Because father watched them quietly, standing in the door frame, and she knew that once their story was done, he would come over and tuck her in and kiss her goodnight, and he hadn't done that in such a long time.
"That's the story you love so much?" he laughed softly when he finally sat down on the edge of her bed, and she nodded excitedly.
"Yes! Because he gets beauuutiful butterfly wings!" she said and spread her arms wide before she snuggled into her father's arms happily. "When will I be a butterfly, abba?"
"Ah, but you can never be a butterfly, my Ziva," he said, and it was strange, because she had rarely heard him so gentle, yet so determined at the same time. It wasn't childish stubbornness that filled her eyes with tears now but the realization that he was simply speaking a cruel truth in that moment.
"But I want to!" she protested anyway, because that was the truth as well: she had never in her young life longed for anything more than this. To spread her wings. To tumble through the air and up into the sun.
He drew back and looked at her sternly. Brushed her unruly curls out of her frowning face and then put his huge hands to her cheeks and scrutinized her as if he tried to look straight into her soul.
"You cannot be," he said eventually and kissed her forehead. "Because you will be my wasp. Deadly and beautiful."
Her face was damp when she opened her eyes, and she blinked, confused, struggling with ragged emotions clawing at her. She took a deep breath and grabbed her pillow, drew her knees up and curled up around it.
For a long time she stared at the other half of her bed, and for the first time in many years she was too aware of how big it was. How empty.
on to chapter three
(I apologize profusely for the sappiness of the piano scene. And for Eli breaking her heart.)