All the usual disclaimers apply: I don't own any of the characters, and I certainly don't own the show.

Lateral thinking

Ziva David looked around the office, from Tony's empty desk to McGee's spotlessly ordered domain. McGee didn't even grace her with a return glance. He'd been radiating icy displeasure at her since she'd arrived this morning. She really felt that was an over-reaction to what she'd done. A quick glance in Gibbs' direction showed the ex-Marine watching her, his gaze distant and considering. He shifted his gaze from her face as soon as she looked in his direction. He hadn't looked at her like that since before she'd killed Ari, as though he weren't sure that she deserved a place on his team. It seemed that he shared McGee's views on her recent actions.

Feeling the need to escape from the two cold, assessing looks, Ziva decided to go downstairs to check on some evidence she needed to include in the report she was completing. Perhaps Abby or Ducky would be more welcoming. Not to mention, maybe one of them would be able to tell her where Tony was this morning. She knew his arm would be hurting from the gunshot wound he'd sustained the day before, when they'd been locked in the shipping container together, but she hadn't thought it was serious enough to require sick leave. If she'd thought that, she would never have told McGee that Tony had only cut his arm on a crate. Her training had never included making light of an injury sustained as part of the job. But the cold atmosphere in the bullpen prevented her from asking about Tony. She'd never been afraid to speak her mind, but something told her that keeping quiet was the better option at the moment.

Neither man had seemed upset about what she'd said the night before. Thinking back, she realised that things had only started to change after Abby had mentioned her cooking, and the others had agreed that she cooked well. Ziva smiled slightly at the memory; she'd never had much time or cause to cook back home in Israel, and she enjoyed it. The time taken to produce a good meal, and the preparation of all the ingredients, was therapeutic and helped her to deal with the daily stresses of her job. Her father had always felt that learning to cook well was a waste of time; he'd planned her future when she'd still been a child. A career in Mossad, permanently at his beck and call, had been his plan. But she had ruined it all by choosing to end Ari's personal vendetta against Gibbs.

A fleeting look on Tony's face last night had seemed to indicate that he was upset that she'd cooked a meal for everyone but him, but when she'd turned to look at him again, whatever she thought she'd seen was gone. Obviously, Tony was not someone to play poker with in the near future. She would need to understand him much better before she'd have a chance of reading whatever signals he might give off.

Then Tony had disappeared before she could take him home as she'd offered to do. He'd said he was just going to give Ducky a copy of the medical report on his injury before he went home. She'd waited at his desk for fifteen minutes, and then she'd spent ten minutes searching all the logical places for him. Eventually she'd headed down towards Ducky's office, only to run into the older man just outside the autopsy room. He'd seemed unhappy to see her, and had been quick to tell her that Tony had already left for the evening. Ducky had shepherded her back to her desk, as he'd been on his way to speak to Gibbs before leaving for the night himself. She'd collected her bag and then headed home herself. The others had still been in the office when she left, milling around Tony's desk. Thinking about it now, she remembered that they'd all seemed anxious about something, and relieved when Ducky appeared. Suddenly she was sure that whatever was wrong now, had something to do with whatever Ducky had wanted to speak to Gibbs about last night.

Perhaps that was why the two men were being so cool towards her. Ducky must have told them all the truth about Tony's injury. McGee was inclined to take the smallest things too personally, in her opinion. It was the reason he would never make a good spy or undercover agent; his feelings were too open and too easy to read. That was a short road to a quick death in the field she had worked in with Mossad. Of course, it also made him the ideal partner in an organisation like NCIS; he was honest and reliable, and so loyal that you'd never have to worry about guarding your own back in a tricky situation. The only thing he expected from you in return, was that you return the favour. And he would consider her not telling the truth about Tony's injury to be a serious breach of his own personal code of ethics.

She hadn't expected Gibbs to be so upset about what she'd said about the injury, though. She'd thought that her understanding of Gibbs was solid, that she knew how he'd react in any given situation. Reflecting on things now, she realised that she only understood how Gibbs would react in certain types of work situations. She actually had no idea how he would react in most personal situations. Although she knew about his first wife and child, and how he'd reacted to that, she knew very well that an extreme situation like that wasn't the best basis for her understanding of the man behind the Marine.

Striding down the corridor to Abby's lab, Ziva was struck by the silence. Any visitor to Abby's little world usually needed ear plugs in order to save their hearing, not to mention their sanity. But today the silence was deafening. Slipping into the lab, Ziva was stunned to realise that the Goth was actually there, sitting quietly at her desk, working on some highly complicated test. Some indefinable sixth sense told Ziva that Abby was depressed, but the feeling disappeared before Ziva could find a rational basis for it. As the door closed quietly behind Ziva, Abby looked up at her. Ziva bit back a slight gasp; Abby was wearing pale pink under her white lab coat! All traces of burgeoning friendship were gone from Abby's voice when she spoke, "May I help you with something, Officer David?"

"I just wanted to ask about the evidence for the Burgess case, but …" Ziva's voice trailed off. Abby was being icily polite, and she'd pronounced Ziva's name correctly. There was no trace of the slightly odd personality that Abby normally showed to the world. The absence suddenly made Ziva realise how much she'd come to expect some sort of strangeness when dealing with Abby. It certainly made life more interesting. Perhaps talking about something unrelated to work would bring out Abby's typical personality. "Abby, would you perhaps know where Tony is this morning?" The answer was glacial, "I would."

"And …" Ziva prompted, hoping to make a little more headway. "I don't believe that anything outside the ambit of our working lives is of interest to you, Officer David. Therefore, please understand that I don't feel obliged to answer your question." Abby's look of total disinterest proved to Ziva that something was radically wrong. Everyone seemed to know what was going on, from Gibbs on down, and they'd obviously taken a united front on the issue. "If this is about Tony getting hurt in that container, I can explain what I said."

A slashing motion of Abby's hand cut off her half-formed explanation. "If you really think that what you said last night is the problem, then nothing I can say will help you. In the meantime, I'm very busy. The evidence you need will be available in about two hours, if you would like to come back then." Turning her back on Ziva, Abby went back to her silent work. Feeling as though she'd stepped into the Twilight Zone, Ziva left the lab, glancing back once at the silent figure sitting at the spotless desk.

Heading for the autopsy room, she hoped that Ducky would be able to shed some light on her problem. Abby had made it very clear that no-one had a problem with what she'd said about Tony's wound. So that meant that there was another problem here that she wasn't able to grasp. Perhaps it had something to do with her understanding of American customs or work habits. Privately, she would admit that she often felt left out of rituals and running jokes that the others seemed to take for granted. Tony's pranks and wisecracks would never have been tolerated in Mossad, but she could see how they made the serious business of national security a little easier to cope with. She wasn't sure about the head slaps that Gibbs dealt out, either, and yet they seemed to motivate the team more than she would have expected. Oddly enough, though the slaps motivated everyone, Tony was the one who seemed to receive most of them. Yet she could almost swear that the younger man deliberately did things to attract a slap. The relationship between Gibbs and his senior agent was obviously more complex than she'd been led to believe from her Mossad briefing, and whatever she had done had obviously offended Gibbs on some basic level.

Stepping just inside the autopsy room doors, Ziva waited until they had closed behind before stepping forward. Ducky was wielding a large scalpel and starting an autopsy on what looked like a badly mutilated male body. Clearing her throat quietly, Ziva spoke, "Ducky, could you perhaps help me with a problem?" Turning towards her, scalpel out in front of him, Ducky's appraising gaze swept over her face, and settled on a spot just above her left ear. "Certainly, Miss David. What might the problem be?"

Ziva's patience, never legendary, snapped with a suddenness that surprised even her. "This!" She waved a hand at the air between them, and struggled to find the words to make her thoughts plain. "Everyone is treating me so politely today, but no-one will look at me. No-one calls me by my name, and no-one will tell me what I've done wrong!" The real anguish in her voice brought Ducky's gaze to her face. "You really don't know what you've done, do you?" he wondered, searching her eyes for the truth. Ziva held his gaze, hoping desperately that whatever he saw would be enough to make him explain the situation to her.

Compassion filled Ducky's eyes as he saw the genuine confusion on Ziva's face. It was almost a mirror image of the look he'd seen on Tony's face the night before, when the younger man had brought the medical report to him. Most of the people at NCIS didn't know that Ducky was Tony's personal physician, but those who knew any of the details of Tony's past understood the reasons behind the arrangement. After all, Tony's father had too much influence in the civilian world to let Tony feel comfortable with any sort of medical professional outside the military world. Ducky had made it clear to Tony, after Baltimore, that Tony's father had no chance of wielding any influence over Ducky. And Ducky's actions had borne out his statement, earning Tony's eternal trust.

Tony had looked so off-balance the night before that Ducky had taken him into his private office and dragged the whole story out of him. Tony had discovered that the

whole team had obviously been invited to a dinner party at Ziva's, and had all attended. And not one of them had questioned Tony about his absence. Ducky had felt a certain satisfaction at knowing that he'd turned down Ziva's invitation. He'd made it clear to Tony immediately that he'd not been present. Tony's answer had humbled Ducky, and still made him shake his head in wonder.

"I know you weren't there, Ducky. You wouldn't do that to me. You couldn't do something that cruel if your life depended on it." The small smile accompanying those words still shone in Ducky's memory. Unfortunately, he also remembered the slow fade to a look of pained puzzlement. "I just didn't think that the others would be able to do something like this to me. I know I play the fool, Duck, but I thought they knew me better by now." Behind the sad words, Ducky could hear the words unspoken, 'I didn't think Gibbs could do this.' Tony understood something about the team dynamic that Ziva might never fully grasp; Gibbs was the lodestone in all their lives. His actions were the measure for all those around him, and if Tony lost his trust in Gibbs' basic goodness, then he would lose his trust in everyone else as well. And then he would leave, move on to some other area and type of law enforcement. And that was unacceptable.

Ducky had taken the medical report from Tony, read the details and recommendations, and then offered Tony his own opinion. "Anthony, I think you should take tomorrow off. Consider it sick leave; I'll clear it with Jethro myself." Tony had started to argue, but Ducky had gently cut him off, "I know you think you're fine, but trust me on this. You will feel worse tomorrow. I am the medical expert, after all." A gentle smile took the sting from the words. "Take one day and you'll feel much better for it. This whole situation will look better after a good night's sleep." Tony groaned at that, and sighed as he gathered himself to stand. "Sorry, Ducky, but I think I'll have to delay the sleep. Ziva wants to take me home and cook me dinner tonight. Although, I must admit I don't know if I'll be able to eat anything when we get there. Her driving's even worse than Gibbs'." Tony sighed quietly, then admitted, "I'm not sure I even want her to cook me dinner, now that I know she's only doing it because I found out about the party."

Ducky shook his head sharply. "No, dear boy, you are not going to dinner tonight. I'll handle this and clear your sick leave with Jethro. Just relax here for a few minutes, and then I'll take you home myself." Tony was ready to object; to remind Ducky that his mother needed his attention more than Tony did. Ducky pre-empted his concerns. "Don't worry about mother, Anthony; she'll be fine when I tell her all about what you got up to in that container today. She loves to hear stories about you; she adores real-life crime stories. And she's actually very fond of you too, my lad."

Dragging his mind back to the present, Ducky considered how much he should say to Ziva. He liked the young woman, but he'd expected better from her. She'd seemed like a real lady, but her behaviour was sorely lacking. Her confusion did seem genuine, however. "I believe that you like to cook, Ziva." She nodded, the look of confusion simply deepening at Ducky's tangential statement. "And I believe that you invited your colleagues to a dinner recently." She nodded again, still unenlightened by Ducky's mild tone of voice. "But you didn't invite everyone, did you, my dear?" The suddenly pointed and sharp tone question caused Ziva to shake her head before she'd even thought to lie.

Comprehension dawned quickly. "This, all this strangeness this morning, is because I did not invite Tony to dinner?" Ziva was amazed at how unprofessional this was. Everyone was acting like she'd committed some sort of federal crime by not inviting Tony. She'd had her reasons for the omission. But she'd apparently misjudged these people again. And Tony's place in their lives. Every time she thought she had them figured out, she found she'd missed something vital. And this time, she had limited options; if she couldn't fix this problem, she would have to go back to Israel and her father's control. That was not an acceptable choice, which meant that she had to find a way to make things right again.

Ducky watched as she ran options through her head, discarding each one almost as quickly as she thought of it. Finally, he could see she'd come to some sort of decision. "I don't want to take up any more of your valuable time, Ducky, but could you answer one more question for me, please?" Ducky nodded, "If I can. I won't break any confidences." Ziva nodded, and thought about how best to ask what she needed to know. "I believe that I may have misunderstood Tony's position in this office; and not just in terms of work. Would I be correct in assuming that others will follow where he leads?"

Waiting for Ducky's answer, Ziva realised that she actually felt nervous. If he said no, then she had no idea how to solve this problem. If he said yes, then it meant that she would need to find Tony as soon as possible and discuss things with him. Perhaps he would understand her reasoning, if she could find some way to put it into words. Ducky nodded, a pleased smile on his face. "I believe that you have put your finger on the solution, Ziva. I can assure you that your assumption is correct in this instance." A long considering look made Ziva squirm, "And, if I may be so bold, my dear, I suggest you head for Tony's apartment immediately. I'll speak to Gibbs for you."

Ziva turned on her heel, immediately heading for the door. As she headed for the elevator, she turned one last look on Ducky, smiling gently as she waved her thanks. Arriving in the parking garage, she requested one of the agency's cars. She knew that Gibbs wouldn't take any cases outside the office without Tony by his side. Her conversation with Ducky had made one thing crystal clear; she was trying to understand her current colleagues based on the thinking she had used in Mossad. There, even friends could only be trusted so far, and paranoia became a way of life. Here, apparently, the opposite was true. You could trust friends with both your physical and emotional well-being, and she had damaged that trust. She had deliberately excluded someone from her life and now she was on the receiving end of the same type of behaviour. As an object lesson, she had to admit that what it lacked in subtlety, it more than made up for in visceral impact.

Driving on her own, Ziva bore no resemblance to the person she was when Tony or McGee was in the car. Her driving was actually very good, and mostly law-abiding, but their reactions made it fun to pretend to drive badly. She realised that she and Tony had something in common; she pretended to drive badly and he pretended to play the idiot in the office. Perhaps he hid insecurities behind his façade, as she did behind hers? An interesting thought, and one that she would be sure to consider in more depth after she had sorted out this situation with Tony. Arriving outside Tony's apartment complex, she sat in the car for several minutes, trying to decide how to explain her actions to Tony. What she said was going to be vitally important, as Tony's response would determine how the rest of her time in NCIS would play out.

Finally, she headed for the main door to the complex. Pushing her long, dark hair behind her ear, she checked the listing to see which apartment was Tony's. Deciding not to ring the bell, she headed directly to his door and knocked sharply on the wood. After a few minutes passed, she knocked again and this time she heard footsteps heading to the door.

Tony looked through the spy-hole of his front door, taking in Ziva's unaccustomed look of agitation. He considered simply pretending that he wasn't home and waiting for her to leave. But somehow, he didn't think that was going to happen. After what had happened in Ducky's office last night, he knew he should have been expecting a visit from at least one of the team today. He just hadn't expected it to be her.

Ducky had promised the night before that he would take Tony home, but it was Gibbs who had shown up outside the door with Tony's jacket and backpack in his hands. The rest of the team had followed only steps behind him. Abby had wasted no time in making it clear why they were all there. She'd rushed over to him, pigtails bouncing wildly. Plopping herself on the arm of the chair he'd been sitting in, she'd hugged him hard enough to make him gasp for air. "Tony, how could you ever think we'd do something like that to you? I would never have set foot in her place if I'd known you weren't invited! I don't care how good her cooking is." Her pained expression showed that she felt the lack of trust keenly.

Tony realised that he'd let his past experiences colour his expectations of his friends yet again. Sighing deeply, he tipped his head against Abby's, and admitted it. "Sorry, Abbs. You're right, I probably should have known better. I'm just tired and I hurt; I'm not thinking straight." Abby had nodded in agreement, and looking around, Tony had seen similar responses from McGee and Gibbs as well. Feeling his cheeks redden in shame at his earlier thoughts, he'd ducked his head, only to find Gibbs reaching out to raise his chin with a gentle hand. "C'mon, DiNozzo. It's time you went home. Your car'll be safe enough here, and you can always get a lift in with one of us when you come back to work. And that won't be tomorrow!"

Gibbs had guided Tony to his car and driven him home. The trip had been quiet, until Tony had remembered the look he'd seen in Abby's eyes as he'd left Ducky's office. "Gibbs, please don't let Abby do anything to Ziva tomorrow. You know what she's like, and she had that look in her eye when we left. It's not worth damaging the team over something like this." Gibbs' grip on the steering wheel tightened fractionally, then the older man spoke, "Don't sell yourself short, Tony. You're worth it to us. To me. You're irreplaceable, remember?" The calm tone belied the anger in Gibbs' heart. He would stop Abby from doing anything permanently damaging or potentially fatal to Ziva, but something had to be done. Ziva couldn't be allowed to split Gibbs' team apart. "Besides, Ziva's already damaged the team, even if it was only for half an hour. And I won't let her do that again."

A third knock on the door brought Tony back to reality. Knowing Ziva would probably pick the lock soon, he opened the door, looking less than thrilled to see her on his doorstep. Breaking the silence, Ziva offered, "I came to see how you are, Tony." Tony shook his head in amusement at her unconvincing lie. Opening the door wider, he waved her inside, "Forgive me if I don't believe you, Ziva, but I've recently come to understand how little interest you have in me. But my mother always told me not to be rude if I could help it, so I won't leave you standing in the hallway."

Walking into Tony's apartment, Ziva immediately realised how badly off-base her understanding of Tony was. The entertainment centre and the pile of DVDs lying next to it was exactly what she expected to see, but the wide variety of books filling the huge bookcase was not. It revealed a side of Tony she hadn't expected; one that showed a keen intellect and wide-ranging interests. And the apartment was much neater than she had thought it would be, given Tony's workplace habits. The façade he showed to the world was more extensive than she'd believed it could be, and showed that Tony was an expert at misdirection and undercover work. And the loyalty he inspired from his co-workers was obviously linked to the fact that they had all seen the real Tony hidden behind the smokescreen.

Tony led the way to the sofa opposite the entertainment centre and waved Ziva to a seat. "Would you like some coffee?" Ziva nodded and then offered, "I could get it, if you would show me where everything is. You should not be using your arm much, no?" Tony shrugged slightly, and then led the way to the kitchen. Pointing out where everything was, he watched as Ziva set about making the coffee. She moved with a deftness that implied that she probably felt as much at home in a kitchen as she did on the shooting range. Ziva lifted both mugs and tilted her head towards the sofa. "Could we talk, please? I need to explain something to you."

She'd always figured that facing things head on was the best approach, but as she sat on Tony's sofa, surrounded by evidence of how wrong her assumptions had been, she felt unsure of herself. It was an odd feeling, one she hadn't experienced in many years. Tony's politely enquiring expression encouraged her to begin. "About the dinner party … I just wanted you to know that it was never my intention to hurt you."

Tony laughed at that. "You want to see everyone but me, and for some reason this shouldn't bother me. I know what you think of me, but I honestly didn't think you'd make it so plain to everyone else as well." The bitterness in his voice surprised him as much as it did Ziva. Once more, Tony realised just how smart Ducky was. The older man had told him to take the sick leave, and now he realised that he'd needed this day just to let the hurt fade away into an emotion he could ignore when he came back to work.

Ziva's voice suddenly dragged him back to reality. "No. That is not how it was." Ziva was adamant. "I don't know how much you know about me, but my father was a … difficult … man to know. And harder to please." Tony nodded for her to continue. "I was never sure what he expected, and most often, I discovered too late that I had not managed to meet his expectations." Tony sighed deeply, "I know what that's like."

Ziva took a deep breath, and started again. "He expected me to know what drove the people I met, what they wanted and how they would react in any situation. Life was like an intelligence briefing: what happened and what can you infer from it? What conclusions can you draw from the situation and people's reactions?" A small noise from Tony made Ziva glance his way, and the sudden compassion in his gaze made her look away again.

"I learned to do things his way, and to hope for his approval. It took me years to understand that I would most likely never have it." After a few seconds of silence, she spoke again, her voice slow as she fought to put her thoughts into words. "Things have been very different since I came to NCIS. You all do things differently, and I knew that I didn't understand any of you. I was never sure of what any of you would do, or what you expected from me. And so, I fell back on the only training I knew would produce results." Tony's raised eyebrow questioned her. "I observed interactions, observed behaviour and drew conclusions. But this time, it failed."

Silence lingered for a few minutes before Tony spoke, "So tell me, what went wrong this time?" He sounded sincerely interested. Ziva shook her head, and finally looked him in the eye. "You. I cannot understand you, no matter how much I try. Just when I think I know what you will do, you confuse me." Tony smiled and offered, "It's not intentional, Ziva. Let's just say I learned a long time ago that being predictable was a bad idea." Having a variety of ways to avoid his father's bad temper had been a basic survival tactic in Tony's childhood, and the habit had proved hard to break. Although he hadn't tried very hard, as unpredictability was a good way to keep criminals off-balance as well.

Ziva looked hopeful at the idea that Tony was not deliberately trying to make her life more difficult. "So, I decided to gather some information on you, so that I could try to understand you. The best place to get that information was your friends, so I invited them to dinner. I led them to believe that you weren't able to make it, but they all thought that you were invited. I hoped to get them to talk about you, but none of them would tell me anything useful." Her look of frustration was comical, and Tony couldn't help laughing at her. "Of course they wouldn't tell you anything, Ziva. I wouldn't talk about any of them without them being in the room either. Not the important stuff, anyway. It's just not something friends do to each other." Tony nodded, satisfied at having settled that lingering worry in his mind; his team were still his friends and it was nice to know that they felt as strongly about him as he did about them. "If you want to know something about me, try asking me yourself. You'd be amazed at what people will tell you if you just ask nicely." He met Ziva's sceptical look with one of utter serenity. "You know, I wouldn't tell anyone anything about you, either."

Ziva considered that statement for a minute. It meant that Tony considered her a friend; it was an interesting feeling, especially seeing as how he had no reason to care about her at all after what she had done. She hadn't had many friends in her life; at least, not friends who didn't want something from her. "But now, no-one will speak to me. They are all polite, but cold. They wouldn't even tell me where you were today." Ziva's look turned angry as she realised that Tony was shaking with silent laughter at her expense. "This is not funny, Tony!" Catching his breath, Tony smiled at her. "Yes, it is. I knew Abby was planning something as payback, but I didn't think she'd come up with something like this. I thought you might be locked out of your computer, or that she'd programme it to crash every time you hit the space bar."

Ziva started to laugh herself as she realised how easily Abby had upset her. There was something to be said for thinking at a tangent to what was expected. Perhaps her relationships with her colleagues could still be saved, if they cared enough to punish her for hurting one of their own. But how could she make it clear that she understood what she had done wrong? And that she had no intention of doing anything like that again? Picking up her cold mug of coffee, she gestured to Tony's mug as well. "Could I get you some more coffee, Tony? Maybe this time we should drink it before it goes cold, yes?" Tony nodded and moved to get up. Ziva shook her head at him and headed to the kitchen, soon coming back with fresh coffee.

Biting her lip, she offered, "Perhaps I could give you a lift to work tomorrow? I see your car is still at the office." Tony nodded immediately. "Thanks. Gibbs offered to collect me on his way in, but my place is a bit out of the way for him. More traffic, and you've seen how patient he can be." Tony's smile offered a shared commiseration for their boss's moods. Ziva basked in the sense of well-being created by the knowledge that she was part of the team again. "I'll call him later and tell him I'm organised for the morning. And I'll have a chat with Abby too. Things will be better tomorrow. Trust me."

"Back to normal?" Ziva questioned hopefully, with a smile. Tony tipped his head to one side, considering. "As normal as it ever gets for us, at least." They both laughed at that, before Ziva stood to leave. "Thank you, Tony. Perhaps the others will be able to forgive me one day, as well?" Walking her to the door, Tony laid a hand on her shoulder. "It's forgotten, Ziva." She shook her head, "It's that simple? They will let it go just because you say to let it go." Disbelief coloured her tone.

Tony simply nodded, so sure of himself that Ziva let herself be convinced. "They want to be your friends, Ziva. Friends make mistakes. They hurt each other sometimes. But friends also give each other second chances." Holding on to that sentiment, and the memory of Tony's parting smile, was enough to get Ziva through the afternoon. That, and the plans for the dinner party she planned to host as soon as they all had a weekend off. The party to which Tony would receive the first official invitation.