September 15, 2006: My apologies for the long Author's Note. It feels necessary so I appreciate your patience. This idea won't leave me alone. I tried to let it go but to no avail. 'Contemplations' had a similar affect on me but wasn't nearly as demanding as this story has been. Argh.

I gather that the new season of NCIS is set not long after the last season, timeline-wise. This story is set before the start of Season 4.

No doubt, this is AU for many reasons, not the least of which the team probably didn't even have time to go home 'between seasons'. This is part character study, part conversation, part humour and part angst and part 'what if', naturally. Just exploring…

I will be posting another chapter of 'Tin Star' soon. My thanks to all who continue to be encouraging when it comes to my writing. Your thoughts and comments are greatly appreciated.

I own none of these characters and no infringement is intended. This hasn't been Betaed so any errors are my own darned fault.

And now, I have to try to get this story out before I explode. It haunts me, it does. I lay partial blame for the inspiration at the feet of a video by ramoniciu and ideas that came to me from communications with celestial1. I thank you and curse you, simultaneously, and depending upon the reaction to this little piece, others may either be thanking or cursing you, too… ;)

Or cursing me, of course, for letting it out, lol! Enjoy!

Almost

By lilmouse

"Love laughs at locksmiths."

- Proverb, Early Nineteenth Century

"There is truth in wine."

- Proverb, Mid Sixteenth Century

Special Agent Tony DiNozzo slouches on his leather couch and stares at the bottle of white wine on his coffee table. It isn't a special bottle. He has a temperature-controlled wine cabinet in the breakfast area of the kitchen that is about half-full at the moment of wines he has selected for various occasions, should they arise. This bottle isn't from his collection. It wasn't chosen over any other options that were available for any particular reason, but it is a good bottle of wine. Something from Chile: a nice Chardonnay, elegant and rich with tropical fruit flavours. Something the girl at the store recommended between blushes.

Tony comes from money and learned to appreciate the finer things in life at an early age, like good wine, aged cheddar and beautiful women.

He looks around his living room, double-checking the shadows to see if anything has changed while he was distracted by the movie.

Let's see… Wine? Check. Aged cheddar? Check. Beautiful woman?

He snorts and sits forward. He pours himself another glass, draining the bottle, spilling a few drops onto the fine teak coffee table.

Well, two out of three ain't bad.

His 30" Flat screen TV, embraced by a high-quality entertainment centre with the latest in audio-visual hardware, is showing the ten o'clock news, but he doesn't really care what is happening in Washington, D.C. right now, or in any other part of the world. He just wants to sit in his apartment, surrounded by the things he has managed to acquire despite his years of moving around the country. These are things that matter to him. They represent the stable part of his life, something he used to also associate with his current place of employment.

The death of his partner, Special Agent Caitlin Todd, altered his perception of 'stable', but he'd made it through that level of Hell to the other side and was beginning to feel the ground under his feet again.

The sudden departure of his boss, Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, has shifted his world once more.

"You'll do. It's your team now."

With those words, Tony became the team leader - a position he wasn't expecting. He figured he'd hold down the fort while Gibbs was recovering in hospital, like the supporting character in a John Wayne movie, and wait for the lead to return, only to find the lead actor was walking off the set.

Even though it hasn't been twenty-four hours, Director Shepard has yet to contradict his appointment and he hopes he isn't a pretender to the throne. Maybe she's still in shock, like everyone else seems to be. Maybe she'll wake up tomorrow and realise he isn't suitable and bring in a more experienced agent to take over.

Maybe she'll do nothing and see if he sinks or swims.

"Gibbs," he says quietly, as if saying his name will summon the man in question. He isn't sure if he applauds his boss's choice to leave or if he wants to hunt him down and duke it out until he agrees to return.

He sighs and finishes his wine, tipping his head back to ensure he gets every last drop.

Like I could take Gibbs in a fight.

Despite his age and level of physical fitness, these advantages are minimal when compared with the skill and experience of the former Marine. Tony knows this and doesn't fault himself for not being at that level. He'll be there, someday - maybe sooner, now, rather than later - then he'll see how well he can hold his own against Gibbs.

Assuming I can find him when that day arrives.

"Mental note to self," he murmurs. "Add a few extra miles to the morning run and devote more time to building muscle." He already does weight training but increasing his fitness regime a bit won't hurt. If he does it now, he'll be better off in his later years. He decides that's a lot of forethought for someone in his early thirties and gives himself a mental pat on the back. "Good idea, DiNozzo."

He focuses on the empty bottle. One down. It isn't enough. He has always been able to drink his friends under the table. If he's going to get completely 'skunk drunk', he has a lot of ground to cover yet.

Tony snags another piece of cheese from the cutting board and slowly stands. He lets the cheddar melt on his tongue as he moves towards the kitchen, a small smile on his face as he looks at the things he has gathered that have come to provide some measure of comfort when the rest of his life has shattered like crystal and left him to bleed.

His furniture is wood and leather, not the more modern glass and chrome that some might imagine goes well with his urban, playboy façade. The rugs are richly coloured and cover the boring, beige broadloom that came with the place. Predictably, there are movie posters and shelves full of videos and DVDs and CDs, but the posters are all tastefully framed and his media collection - from 'Ozzie and Harriet' to 'Goldfinger', 'The Best of Abba' to the operas of Verdi, Puccini and Rossini - is organized and easily accessible.

There is a clock on the wall framed by curls of wrought iron with a white face and black Roman numerals. It is a gift from a college friend who decided that Tony needed all the help he could get when it comes to punctuality. It reminds Tony of his trip to Paris. A photograph of himself posing at the base of the Eiffel Tower with two of his fraternity brothers hangs beneath it and is one of the few personal photographs in the apartment.

That was a summer to remember.

His kitchen isn't used much but he keeps it clean, having discovered the hard way in the college dormitories of America that creatures can emerge when the dirty dishes are left unattended for too long. He isn't anal about the cutlery drawer nor does he require an even number of matching plates for when he entertains - which is rare, these days, anyway. He is a bachelor and he is human but he has his pride.

The wine glass sounds loud when he places it on the counter and he winces. Some degradation in fine motor skills but it isn't like he's going to be driving anywhere until the morning.

No problem.

He pulls another bottle of wine from the paper bag on the kitchen table - also a Chardonnay, Australian this time - retrieves the corkscrew from a drawer and carefully works on the cork. He stops when he has it out halfway. Either his apartment is warm or the exertion of simply opening a bottle of wine is too much for him. It doesn't really matter. All he knows is that he's too hot. He pulls his top over his head, tossing it onto a kitchen chair. His undershirt needs changing but he'll have a shower soon and it's only him in the apartment anyway so who cares?

Tongue pressed against his top lip in concentration, he wrestles the rest of the cork free, pours some wine into his glass and takes the bottle and his glass back to the living room.

As an extra test of coordination, he decides to remove his socks by stepping on the toes with the other foot and pulling. He stumbles once but manages to liberate his feet without falling over. The rug feels luxurious against his skin. He leaves the socks on the carpet and returns to the sanctuary of his couch. He empties his glass, pours some more wine and wonders what he should do next.

Sleep comes to mind but he dismisses it quickly. The only way he'll sleep tonight is when he passes out from the alcohol. Using the toes of his left foot, he tentatively lifts the lid of a cardboard box that lurks under his coffee table and peers at the contents, debating the merits of ordering another pizza. Maybe he should have that shower first…

The video finished rewinding about fifteen minutes ago and he should probably retrieve it and put it back where it belongs but he only just sat down again and he's comfortable. It does no harm to leave it in the machine. He really should get it on DVD, anyway, as it has always been one of his favourite movies.

Maybe tonight, however, wasn't the best night for 'Rio Bravo'.

If Gibbs is John Wayne's character of Sheriff Chance then right now he is Dean Martin's alcoholic deputy, Dude, not doing a very good job of staying sober. He smiles. That'll make McGee Ricky Nelson and Angie Dickinson's sexy lady will have to be played by -

He tries not to think about Ziva David. Tony almost wishes she were here.

Almost.

It is just as well that she isn't, as he doesn't need that temptation to add to his complicated day. He stands and moves towards his movie collection.

His cell phone rings. It takes him a moment to identify the sound then his eyes cast about trying to remember where he put it. After coming home, he'd tossed his keys at the hall table - and missed - thrown his NCIS cap angrily towards his bedroom, and he'd sent his phone -

It stops ringing. He sighs. Let it be.

His apartment phone rings just as he reaches the DVD shelf.

Tony looks over at it, looks up at the wrought iron clock – twenty-six minutes passed ten - then back to the phone again. After six rings it goes to voice mail. He thinks about walking over and listening to the message but he doesn't move. After a minute, he continues his search for a movie. Maybe a comedy…

His cell rings again but he ignores it.

He finally selects 'How to Marry a Millionaire' - Monroe, Bacall and Grable will drag his mind away from the angst - and is bending over to eject 'Rio Bravo' when someone knocks on his door.

His home telephone rings at the same time.

It seems the world can't live without Anthony DiNozzo and at the moment, he can't recall being so pissed off. He ignores the phone. He finishes pulling the video out and sets it on top of the entertainment centre. DVD in hand, he manages to stride to his front door without tripping over anything and quietly leans in to press his right eye against the peephole. The lens distorts his view but the person standing there is easily identified.

Officer Ziva David stares back at him.

Tony knows a friend of a friend who rents out his condo in Buenos Aires. The telephone number is on his PDA. If he called now, he might be able to book it for a week next month and get away from this mess. The Director might let him take some of his holiday time - not - or maybe he'll just follow the example Gibbs has set and resign and let somebody else assume the responsibility.

It wouldn't be the first time he's chosen to leave.

A brown eye suddenly moves closer to the peephole and he jumps back, startled. He isn't going to give her the satisfaction of knowing that, however.

"What?" he growls through the door. It isn't brilliant and as an opening line it is more hostile than he intended.

"Are you going to let me in?" Her voice is muffled but he can hear her just fine.

"Why should I?"

She makes an impatient noise. "Because I'm standing outside your apartment?"

"All kinds of people stand outside my apartment," Tony counters abrasively. "That doesn't mean I have to let them in."

"Who stands outside your apartment?"

"Door to door salesmen, Jehovah's Witnesses, women who can't live without me."

There is a pause that makes Tony wonder, for just a moment, if she might have decided to go away. He peers through the peephole again. Ziva is still there, apparently looking at the worn carpeting, but he suspects her mind is elsewhere. She seems uncertain and a part of him is pleased he can keep her off balance like that. Another part of him declares he's a jerk and that if he really is the team leader now it might be a good idea to demonstrate he is worthy of such a position.

There goes his solitary night of private anguish.

"Officer David?"

She glances at the door. The expression on her face tells him that she doesn't know why she came and that she probably did so only because she couldn't think of anyone else to go to.

Damn.

"Yes?"

"If I don't open the door, are you gonna huff, and puff and blow my house down?"

A small smile starts at the corners of her mouth. Ah, so she knows this reference. He has played it correctly and she's responding to their familiar rapport. Perfect.

"You do realize that would make me the big, bad wolf and you one of the little pigs?"

"I knew the job was dangerous when I took it," he replies smoothly and finds a smile before throwing his deadbolts and opening the door. "Good evening, Zee-vah, so nice of you to stop by." He waves an arm towards his living room. "Please, come in."

She hesitates. He notes that she is quickly assessing his condition from head to toe. He is only wearing a thin cotton undershirt, jeans, and the sweat and grime of one of the most stressful days of his life. He needs a shower so badly he's embarrassed, though he hopes it doesn't show. He has consumed a bottle of wine by himself and has opened another with full intention of finishing it within the next hour. No doubt, she can smell it on his breath.

She hasn't caught him at his best.

Tony chuckles quietly once she crosses the threshold. He closes the door and locks it behind her. She has seen him naked whilst pretending to be his wife and been exposed to his close proximity during a forty-eight-hour surveillance in the confines of an un-air-conditioned car in the heat of summer. He figures she can handle his appearance.

He doesn't notice the flush to her cheeks or her temporary inability to look him in the eye. The alcohol has affected him more than he knows.

He turns towards her and leans against the door. Her eyes are huge as she returns his gaze. If he strikes up a conversation, perhaps it will help her work out why she's here and that's as good a place to start as any.

"I was just about to watch a movie," he says, waving the DVD in his hand. She stands rooted to the spot. He sighs and pushes away from the door too quickly, steadying himself on the wall across from him. No doubt, she's noticed this but he doesn't care. He favours her with 'DiNozzo Smile # 87', which is friendly without being predatory. "You might as well come all the way in, Zee-vah. Take off your… shoes." He delivers that line with intentional innuendo, hoping she'll roll her eyes, make a face, do or say something at his mild flirtation.

Instead, she looks away. Damn. "Would you like some wine? I was about to have a glass myself."

He walks slowly passed her, his bare arm brushing against her jacket, and enters his living room. She shivers and he wonders if it is cold outside.

"Wine would be nice," she finally says, the inflection in her voice indicating that she isn't really sure she wants wine at all, but she removes her boots and slides her jacket off.

"Closet," Tony says as he slips into the kitchen, hoping she understands that he's telling her where to put her jacket. He lifts another glass from the cupboard and returns to the living room.

Ziva is standing with her back to him, staring at the clock and the framed photo beneath it. She hasn't changed her clothes since he last saw her at the office and he wonders if she's had anything to eat. He walks to the coffee table, his bare feet silent on the rug, and pours each of them some wine. When he straightens, she still hasn't moved. He tosses the DVD onto the couch and is beside her seconds later. He offers her wine at arms length, gradually introducing it into her line of sight. She pulls herself away from her reverie and accepts the glass with a nod.

"Thank you," she says, and stands there, holding it in her hand.

"A quarter for your thoughts?"

She starts at this and frowns slightly. "I thought it was 'A penny for your thoughts?'"

He shrugs and sips his wine. "The rates have gone up."

The frown deepens. "I don't think I have any thoughts," she begins, "or rather, I do have thoughts, just too many of them." She glances over at him then away again. "You can keep your quarter."

"Oh-kay."

"You didn't answer your cell phone."

Ah. Now we might be getting somewhere. "No."

"Why not?"

"I… don't actually know where it is right now." She turns to him, looking sceptical. "Well, I don't. I threw it… somewhere." He feels warm and nicely buzzed. He smiles at her again, this time increasing the wattage and definitely adding a predatory edge, though he doesn't realize it. He glances at her lips then back to her eyes, and he doesn't realize that, either.

Ziva, however, does.

Her gaze flickers to something behind him then back to his face. "Was that other bottle full when you started?"

"Maybe."

"Why didn't you answer your home number?"

"That was you?"

"Yes."

"Why were you calling?"

"I asked you first."

"I didn't reach the phone in time."

"Did you try?"

"No." He takes a step towards her and looks down at her as she tilts her head back to look up at him. "Did you know," he murmurs, "that you have one of the most beautiful faces I have ever seen?"

Ziva takes a step back. "You're drunk," she finally says, looking concerned.

He laughs and turns away, having felt the heat from her body and realising he is too close for comfort. "Not yet, but I'm making tremendous progress."

"Why?"

He drops to the couch and holds a finger up at her. "Ah-ah, you have to answer my question first."

"What question?" She sips her wine, as if she needs something to keep herself occupied. He notes she doesn't follow him to the couch.

"Why were you trying to reach me?"

She sighs and starts to pace. "I wanted to see if you were okay."

"Really?"

"Yes."

"You called my cell and my home to find out if I was okay?"

"Yes! Is that so difficult to believe?"

"There are days when I wonder -"

Ziva stops pacing to stare at him again. "Wonder what?"

"Why it matters to you, one way or another, if I'm okay or not?"

She swallows. "How can you say that? You're my partner." Her tone is trying for indignant but he can tell he's struck a nerve of some kind.

"Have you called McGee?" he asks casually, coolly. "Is he okay? Maybe you should check."

"Tim left with Abby and Jimmy," she informs him tightly, and as he drains his glass she steps forward to pluck it from his hand.

"Hey!"

He stands abruptly and reaches to retrieve it.

"Why did you want to get drunk?" Ziva demands. "And why alone, Tony?"

She moves swiftly away. Somehow he manages to negotiate the coffee table and closes in on her. Unfamiliar with the apartment, her back hits the wall. He places both hands on either side of her head and leans in until she can feel his warm breath on her cheeks. She has a wine glass in each hand and nowhere to put them. She swallows again.

Tony knows that Ziva can kick his ass so he isn't doing anything that will keep her here if she wants to go. He can tell by the emotions flickering across her face that she almost resolves to leave.

Almost.

They both notice their breathing has changed. Neither one is oblivious to the chemistry that exists between them. There are times when the sparks fly so high they're surprised it doesn't set off the office smoke detectors. Despite anything else, they are co-workers and even without the rules, which Gibbs has set before them, they know that becoming romantically involved would be a bad idea. They both think - hope - that they're smart enough not to act on it.

And they haven't for almost a year now.

For it isn't just the primal reaction of two people wrestling with hormones, though that is obviously an element of their relationship. He looks into her eyes and sees something he feared he would never see. His stomach flips when he recognizes it, even slightly inebriated as he is, for she is off limits and it isn't fair.

She stares at him and sees the same thing in his eyes; a desire and longing that aren't just about having sex to ease the pain. She can feel a headache starting. He's her partner - her boss, now - and he is off-limits.

And it isn't fair.

Ziva does nothing to stop him when he kisses her gently on the lips. When he pulls back, she lets him take the glasses from her hands and watches as he sets them on top of the entertainment centre. As he turns his attention back to her, she whispers, "This is a bad idea."

Tony pulls her into his arms and nods in agreement. "A very bad idea."

The next kiss is so fierce and passionate that they each wonder that their clothes haven't dissolved due to spontaneous combustion.

Their hands explore one another with incredible tenderness as he moves tiny kisses down her throat. Neither one tries to manoeuvre the other towards the couch or the bedroom. Neither one speaks because they know what words need to be said and they don't want to hear them. They simply share a few precious moments, standing in Tony's living room, indulging themselves in what it feels like to be touched by someone they love.

Ziva's cell phone rings. Instinctively, she pulls it from her back pocket. Tony's eyes lock with hers as he takes it from her and tosses it onto the couch.

"Not yet," he says huskily. The outside world will intervene eventually but this is his apartment and his rules now.

"It might be important," she protests weakly.

"Then they'll call back." He focuses on her left earlobe and nibbles gently.

Her fingernails dig into his back. "What about Rule # 12?"

"Do I look like Gibbs to you?"

"No, but -"

"I'm not Gibbs. Get used to it."

They kiss once more and don't come up for air until the room is filled with the shrill sound of three telephones ringing. Tony pulls back and growls with frustration. He exchanges a look with Ziva and they silently agree to try to answer the calls. They move in separate directions.

"I can't find my cell," Tony states and picks up his home phone.

Ziva picks up her cell from the couch and answers it.

"DiNozzo."

"David."

They share a look across the room, their voices only seconds apart. She walks towards him and holds out her hand. He clasps it and pulls her to his side then tries to focus on the voice calling for his attention.

"Sorry, what was that?"

"I said, are you alright?"

"I'm fine, Abbs."

"Are you sure? You sound a little funny."

"Yeah. I'm sure. You?"

Ziva smiles and says into her phone, "Hello, Tim. Yes, I'm here. Sorry, I must have missed your call."

Abby still sounds perky and awake. Tony shakes his head in amazement. "We're at a bar having chicken wings and shots. Wanna come?"

"Who is this 'we'?"

"Tim, Jimmy and me - and I think Tim has finally reached Ziva. With any luck, she'll be able to come down, too. I really don't hate her, you know, I've just been stressed lately. We've called Ducky but his phone is off. Say you'll come over? Please, Tony? I don't think the team should be apart at a time like this."

At a time like this. He almost says 'no'.

Almost.

"I don't know, Abbs -"

"Voices?" Ziva is saying. She darts a look at Tony and gives his hand a squeeze. "I have the radio on, Tim. No, Tony isn't here -"

"Is that Ziva? Tim says he thinks he can hear you on Ziva's phone…" Her suspicion is clearly evident.

"Really?" He can play innocent for only so long. Abby is too perceptive.

"Tony -"

"Where are you?"

"At the Fizbin, but Tony -"

"I'll see you in fifteen, Abbs," he says, and ends the call.

"You're where? The Fizbin?" Ziva smiles and winks at Tony. "I'll see you soon." She flips her phone shut and returns it to her pant's pocket.

"You'll have to drive," he says, grinning.

"I agree, though I never thought I'd live to hear -"

Tony's face darkens and he quickly places a hand over her mouth. "Stop." She looks at him, alarmed. She doesn't know, doesn't understand, couldn't know that the words she just spoke are almost an exact copy of Kate's last words. He doesn't know how to explain it to her and decides not to try. He removes his hand and kisses her quickly.

"Get your jacket and we'll go." He hurries down the hall to his bathroom. He takes care of business, rinses his face and applies fresh deodorant then darts into his bedroom and grabs a clean undershirt, shirt and a pair of socks. He emerges to find Ziva already in her jacket and boots, waiting.

"Nice shirt," she says. He grins. He knows he looks good in dark green silk.

"You didn't leave without me," he says. He leans against the wall and pulls on his socks and shoes.

"Why would I do that?"

"I don't know." He laughs. "I'm a bit drunk."

A demon skitters across her features and she tenses. "That isn't why you -"

"No." He speaks firmly, his face serious, and takes hold of her hand again, massaging her palm with his thumb. "I don't know what we're going to do, Ziva, but I'm not going to use alcohol as an excuse and I'm not going to tell you we should pretend this never happened."

She takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, visibly relaxing. He doesn't know what most of her demons are but he knows he'll be there for her if she needs him. He sighs. If nothing else, I'll be the comic relief.

She smiles. "One day at a time, then, yes?"

He returns her smile and happens to spot his keys on the rug. He stoops down to grab them with his free hand. As he unbolts the door, he says very clearly, so there can be no mistaking his intentions: "One day at a time."

They both know they almost went too far. They both know they almost missed the chance to act on their emotions.

Almost.

As it is now, they can wait to see how tomorrow will unfold.