Title: Snakes in the Grass Title: Snakes in the Grass
Spoilers: Judgment Day, Shalom, and anything else is fair game.
A/N: This is the follow up to 'The Last Unspoken Summer' and 'The Short Walk to the Long Goodbye'. It includes original characters met in those stories, so I suggest you read them before you start on this one. I mean, you don't have to if you don't want to, but it is advisable. If you have already read them, congratulations for making your way through the deluge, and thank you for taking the time.
This fic picks up 2-3 months (approx) after the end of TSWTTLG. It is written in a slightly different style to the others, as I was aiming for a more 'case-fic/episodic' ambiance. This means more of the other characters, though do not fear, there is still plenty of TIVA. I have not strayed that far from my usual modis operandi.
All my thanks as always to G – my own personal cheerleader, and also to Cath who really stepped up to the plate on this one. Cheers ladies.
Comments and constructive criticism are always welcome.
Summary: He feels his heartbeat race, hammering his ribs. There is a long pause, where everything seems to fade into nothingness. " I think…I think I killed him."
Snakes in the Grass
Her heart pounds in her chest. Against her ribs, its tattoo feels hard enough to leave bruises, and she can hardly catch her breath. She stumbles onto the darkened street, leaning against a rough brick wall, and as she reaches up to wipe the tears from her cheeks, her hands shake. She grasps for the phone in her pocket and her trembling fingers misdial, the beeping loud despite the noises of the traffic. Fumbling, she takes a deep breath and dials again. Then she presses the phone to her ear and listens to it ring.
Ring. She crosses her fingers, praying someone will answer.
Ring. The tears begin to flow again, and she brushes her pale wrist against her cheek to move them away.
Ring. He has to pick up, he has to, he has to, he has to.
He's confused, when he wakes up. Blinking away the haze of sleep, he rolls over, and as usual, is met with empty, cold blankets. The neon red light of the clock blinks back at him – 6am – and for a moment he wonders what woke him up. There hasn't been a sudden noise or sound; the apartment is still quiet. In fact, it takes him a moment to realise that this is what is strange. Normally, when he wakes at 6, it is to the sound of the shower running in the adjoining bathroom, and he drags his body out of bed to go and start the morning in the best possible way: with company, and under the pelting spray. This morning, he cannot hear water at all.
Pulling himself up, he rubs at his eyes with the back of his fist. Kicking off the blankets, he swings his feet to the floor, still listening for sounds of her moving around the apartment. Maybe she is just late back from her run. The route from his apartment is different from her usual one, and despite the fact that she has been running it now, most mornings, for almost two months, maybe today she decided to try something new…
He picks a t-shirt up from the floor, pulling it on to ward off the creeping autumn crispness. He pushes open the bathroom door, but the room is definitely empty and free from steam. He catches sight of her green toothbrush laying idly on the side of the sink, and something prickles up the back of his neck, making him quicken his pace just slightly as he moves out of the bedroom.
His voice echoes through the apartment, through the space that they have shared fairly constantly for the last few months. Her black sweater is still draped over the back of the kitchen chair, and two wine glasses still stand by the sink, stained crimson with last night's libations.
The floor is solid, smooth and cool under his feet, and he shuffles quickly over the polished floorboards. As he continues wandering, calling her name over and over, he wishes for a moment that he hadn't left his gun on the nightstand. He knows for a fact that Ziva has been moving her weapon collection over to his apartment, piece by piece, for the last few weeks, but he never seems to be able to find them when he means to. When he isn't looking for them, when he is simply going about his routine or chores, they always seem to pop out at him – like when he was looking for his spare Egyptian cotton sheets and he had almost been knocked out cold by a falling heavy-handled revolver.
As he walks past the linen closet, he recalls the blazing argument that had followed that incident, when he had still been clutching a bag of frozen peas to his head, and she had scoffed and told him not to be childish – the safety had been on. They had yelled at each other until they were hoarse and the neighbours banged on the walls. The argument had finished in the bedroom, and within an hour, he had totally forgotten about his head. Then, the neighbours had been banging on the walls for an entirely different reason.
His mind is racing – call her cell, call the police, call the hospitals, call Gibbs – when he turns into the living room and his heart stops momentarily.
She is standing, still dressed in her bright yellow windbreaker, hair pulled back from her face and cheeks tinged pink from the wind. This, at least, is usual for this time of the morning. What is not usual is the way she stands, her arms loose by her sides, the rest of her face pale, staring at the television.
" God Ziva, did you not hear me calling?"
It is only when he steps up level to her, and she still has not spoken, that he finally looks at the TV. The sound is low, but he can read the blaring headline at the bottom of the pictures of tangled metal and crying people: 'SUICIDE BOMB EXPLODES IN JERUSALEM MARKET'.
" The third in as many weeks," she finally says, and he can't help but notice the brittle quality of her voice. Her eyes have not moved from the screen.
Reaching out, he wraps his hand around hers, interlacing their fingers, and is relieved when she doesn't pull away. He knows there is nothing he can say – there has been an uptake in chatter that they were both aware of - and he feels unease settle in his stomach as they stand and watch the images of a young woman cradling the blackened body of a child on the screen. With the extent of the damage and burns it is impossible to even tell if the child is a boy or a girl.
Her hand stiffens in his, and he squeezes her fingers, trying to remind her that he is there. But she seems miles away, and he can guess exactly how many. Tugging at her hand slightly, he speaks. " Come on. Get in the shower. You don't need to watch this right now."
For a moment he expects her to argue, and braces himself for her ire, but all he gets is a weary relent. Following, she allows him to unzip her windbreaker, and gently peel her sweat-damp running clothes from her body, all the time murmuring soft nonsense whispers into her ear. Turning on the shower, he holds a hand underneath the water until the temperature settles, and then gently helps her in. She stands under the spray for a long time without moving, and he doesn't move to join her either.
" I'm gonna' call Gibbs. Tell him we'll be late in."
She cocks an eyebrow, and for the first time that morning, she looks more like her regular self. " Tony - "
" It's only paperwork. Don't argue."
With a deep sigh, she nods, and then turns her face into the spray. Walking towards the door, he watches her for a long moment, and wonders how much of the water coursing down her cheeks is from shower.
Entering the bedroom he picks up the phone, and makes the call. It is liberally shot through with Gibbs' displeasure, but Tony doesn't back down. Instead, he ends the conversation with a sharp snapping closed of his cell and tosses it on the bed, ignoring when it starts to ring again.
He sheds his clothes in a trail, piece-by-piece, as he re-enters the bathroom and watches her. Her shoulders hitch, and she reaches up to slowly push her dripping hair from her face. Stepping under the running water, he allows the steam to envelop them both as he wraps his arms around her. Pressing a kiss to her shoulder, he is relieved when she relaxes against his body, and he breathes in deeply the scent of jasmine from her skin. " It's going to be okay," he promises, lips murmuring against her skin.
Turning in his arms, she presses her lips against his almost brutally, and the kiss has a taste of desperation. She stays there until they are both dizzy, and then pulls back, resting her forehead against his. Her eyes are shot through with something dark and foreboding. " No," she says simply, " it won't."
He knows better than to argue, knows there would be no point. He has read the same reports she has, heard the same chatter, watched the same news. He has seen her stare at the phone in the early hours when she isn't sleeping, afraid that at any moment it will start ringing, and will bring the news that she has lost someone else she cares about. No, instead of arguing, he grabs her upper arms hard enough to bruise, and presses her back against the cool bathroom tiles, crashing his lips against hers. She kisses back just as hungrily, gripping his shoulders, pulling him closer until there is nothing between them save rivulets of water between stretches of slick skin.
Later, as they slide into the car, finally on their way to work, she will not meet his eye. She stares out of the window as the DC suburbs rush by, and he wonders if it made any difference at all.
He has been sitting at his desk all morning, but has yet to finish a report. His fingers hover above the keys, occasionally making attempts at typing in a strictly laconic, hunt-and-peck fashion. In truth, he has been distracted, because from the moment they got in that morning (after being met with the obligatory Gibbs-glare and head-slap), Ziva's phone has been ringing off the hook, and she has spent the last couple hours entrenched in a multitude of low, murmured conversations in a variety of languages. He worries, though, because every time he looks over at her, she has wound the phone cord tighter around her finger, and her face looks even more taut.
He tries to catch her eye, to check how she's doing, but she studiously avoids his gaze. So he goes back to typing with a pause and jab, pause and jab. His fingers hit the keyboard almost venomously.
For a moment he thinks it is typical of McGee to not be there when he needs a distraction – fear of teasing or super-glued appendages, he assumes - but the younger agent has finished all his paperwork, and, as often happens on days such as this one, has found a convenient excuse to escape to Abby's lab. In the back of Tony's mind, a more complex reason for McGee's frequent trips downstairs twists and tumbles, but he generally ignores it. He figures he is probably better off not knowing.
It is just as he is about to crack and send Ziva a text message across the bullpen that he is distracted by a large cup being placed down in front of him. The sweet, saccharine smell of his usual four sugars mixed with the rich bitterness of the coffee assaults his senses, and he breathes in deeply as he picks it up. Taking a sip, he looks up to see the mildly bemused expression of Gibbs bearing down upon him. " Thanks Boss," he murmurs as his fingers grip the warming Styrofoam.
He is met with simply a nod and a sharp flick of a finger towards his computer, a tacit indication for him to get on with his work. He would, except the minute he turns his head, his ears instantly prick up at the sound of Ziva's weary voice mumbling, " Toda."
Again, he looks over, but this time is met with her eyes over the top of her coffee cup. He knows she drinks it rich and dark and plain, and as he thinks about it he can almost taste the bitter flavour on his lips. Quirking an eyebrow, his expression is one of concern, but she ignores it in favour of clicking her mouse, her gaze shifting to firmly attach to her screen. He sighs.
Suddenly, three different things seem to happen at once: the elevator doors ping, the phone on Gibbs' desk starts ringing, and there is a muted 'thunk', followed by the sound of Ziva's vehement cursing in Hebrew.
It is this sound that draws Tony's attention first, and as he looks over he for a split-second beat thinks it is blood spreading out over her white shirt, and his heart freezes its rhythm. Then, he realises the dark stain is coffee, slowly running a river across the desk and dripping onto her midriff, and his heart staggers to its regular beat. Grabbing tissues from his desk, he crosses the bullpen and holds them out to her.
" Need a hand?" he asks, and it is tinged partly with their usual banter, but also with something more genuine.
Slowly, her movements purposeful, she looks up at him and then back down at her ruined shirt. Then standing up from her desk, she pushes his hand away with an almost audible smack. " Do you really think a Kleenex will help, Tony?" Her tone is hard and laced with frustration, and she brushes past him without another word, heading towards the men's room. He watches her leave, arm still outstretched, and he can't help but notice the tension in her body. She does not turn around when he calls her name after her.
" What's wrong with her?" McGee's voice is honestly curious, a little concerned, and a fraction afraid. He steps into the bullpen from the elevator, eyebrows as questions, high up on his forehead.
Dropping the tissues back on his desk, Tony shakes his head and sighs. " Don't ask."
He is saved from any further queries by two simple words: " Gear up." Gibbs places his telephone back in the cradle, standing and already reaching for his weapon. " Naval Officer's been attacked at Norfolk. Secretary found him unconscious in the office and he's on his way to Bethesda."
" How do they know he was attacked Boss?"
Clipping his gun to his belt, Gibbs looks over. " Besides the fractured skull?"
" Right." McGee picks up his hat, straightening it on his head with both hands.
Without any further details, Gibbs points towards to corridor. " McGee, go find Ziva, tell her to grab her gear. Meet us at the truck." He zips up his jacket, already walking around his desk.
He doesn't miss the slight paling of McGee's face as he clears his voice. " Uh, Boss, wouldn't Tony be better - " He stops talking when his words are met with a stern glare, and then, hustling round the desk with his chin tucked into his chest adds, " On it Boss."
Tony watches as McGee takes off, and the leans down to pick up his own backpack. When he stands, he almost jumps out of his skin, because Gibbs is less than a foot in front of him, and he hasn't heard him approach. " Boss, you almost scared me half to - " He is cut short by a swift head-slap, which catches him by surprise. His eyes open wide. " Boss?"
" So help me DiNozzo if you've knocked her up…" he trails off, and the unspoken threat lingers, palpable between them.
But Gibbs' stony façade almost cracks at the look of panic that washes across his subordinate's face. " No Boss! I mean…we haven't…we don't…" Tony stammers, and then in response to Gibbs' incredulous expression, he ducks his head and mutters, with a slight blush, " We're careful."
Rolling his eyes, Gibbs brushes past, heading towards the elevator. " Then you fix whatever you did to piss her off."
Grabbing his backpack, Tony hurries to catch up. As he slides into the elevator with the older man, his tone is weary, and his face wears an unreadable expression that Gibbs is not used to. He shrugs one shoulder. " Wish I could Boss, but it isn't me this time."
Incredulous, Gibbs raises an eyebrow. " Then what is it DiNozzo?"
Tony's voice is heavy, and laced with something ineffable as he replies.