CHAPTER 2 – Telling Ziva

Tony waited until he saw Ziva rise from her desk and grab her bag before standing to follow her.

When he and Gibbs had emerged from the bathroom, Ziva had already left the gym and Tony had not seen her again until he returned to his desk. When he'd walked in, she'd looked up and given him a small smile. He had winced at the sight of the swelling around her mouth, and had taken his seat without speaking to her.

He had been uncharacteristically subdued all morning, and she was not surprised to see him follow her into the lift when she went to lunch.

"Hey Zi, wait up," he called, sliding through the lift doors behind her. "Wanna grab a sandwich?" he asked. "My buy, least I can do."

"Sure Tony," she responded, just as lightly.

As usual, Tony inhaled his sandwich in record time, and then sat tapping his hands on the table top as Ziva ate. They made small talk and then finally fell silent. Ziva concentrated on her food, trying to give Tony the space he needed. A sharp piece of carrot initiated the conversation.

"Ouch!" Ziva winced as it poked into the gash in her lip.

She dropped her sandwich onto the plate, and grabbed a paper napkin to catch the bead of blood that appeared in the corner of her mouth. Tony stared fixedly at the stain that spread through the napkin's thin fibres, then frowned and dropped his eyes.

"Tony," Ziva began.

"Ziva," he said simultaneously.

She stopped and looked at him, and sat back in her seat.

"Ziva," Tony began quietly, "I really am sorry about that." He gestured with one hand towards her face.

"I know Tony. You don't have to apologise again."

He sighed heavily. "There is something else."

Ziva stayed leaning back, her face neutral. She carefully folded her hands in her lap.

"I um..." Tony blew out a slow breath. "Zi, the fact is I'm not much use when it comes to hitting women."

You did a pretty good job of it this morning, she thought automatically, but she bit back the comment, sensing that Tony was not looking to make light of the event. So she said nothing, but just looked at him, eyebrows slightly raised.

"If we're ever in a situation where, you know, I have to hit one, well, you're my partner so you need to know..."

"Tony," she said calmly, "Do I understand you say that if there is a woman to be hit, I will need to be the one to hit her?"

He sighed, and nodded. "Yeah," he said softly.

"No problem."

He finally met her eyes, and she saw that, despite her acceptance of his words, he had more to say.

"I've never had to hit a woman before, and today, when I hit you, it kinda freaked me out. I don't think I could do it again."

She leaned forward and folded her hands on the table. "Its fine, Tony. I do not have any problems hitting women – I have done it before, and will do it again if necessary." She paused, and decided to push, just a little. "You were very strange this morning." The question was unspoken.

"Not the first time I've heard that line," Tony's eyes flicked away, and his mouth crooked up at the corner.

She smiled a little, but it was a gentle, small smile. "Are you going to tell me why?"

He blew a breath out between his lips, and began drumming his fingers on the table. She reached over and put her hands over his. "You do not have to tell me if you do not want to," she reassured him. She wanted him to know that she understood that this conversation was not easy or simple for him.

"No," he responded, meeting her eyes, his face serious now. "No, I should tell you. I, aah..."

He turned his hands over, so that her hands rested in his palms. He gently rubbed his thumbs across her knuckles. Looking down, he did not see her eyes soften or her lips part, and she was too good an agent to let him hear her breathing change.

"When I told Gibbs," he began quietly, "he suggested I start with "when I was a kid"." He looked up at her face, and gently squeezed her hands. "When I was a kid..." . He stopped. He had thought that the second time would be easier, but he was wrong. Telling Ziva, this ferocious, kill-you-with-a-paperclip, "ninja-chick", so strong, so indomitable, felt like admitting a personal weakness. This would never have happened to Ziva, he thought bitterly, she would never have let it. She wouldn't have crouched there in the corner crying, covering her ears against the sounds, turning her eyes from the sight of blood. She would have acted. She would have done something. He closed his eyes and looked away.

She saw the change on his face, saw him shut down and turn away from her, and felt her throat catch. "Tony," she asked quietly. "Please, I ..."

Tony knew that he had fallen back into a pattern of thinking that he hoped he had left behind – blaming himself, ignoring the fact that he had been a child, trying to make sense of what had happened through a prism of guilt and shame. He knew he was doing it, because he had struggled for years to stop those feelings controlling his actions.

He looked back at her and saw no reproach or accusations in her eyes. He heard Gibbs' words in his head - don't underestimate her. Was that what he was doing? He had never underestimated her skills as an agent. But was he underestimating her as a person? Didn't he know her well enough to know her capacity for compassion and kindness?

"When I was a kid my father used to hit my mother. I saw it. When I hit you, it made me remember."

She was silent. Completely still, she sat with her hands resting in his. She felt that she should speak, but she had no idea what to say. Instead, she squeezed his hands gently.

"I'm glad you told me," she said finally. "I understand."

The words were so simple, so right. He met her eyes, and gave her a quiet smile, a real one, a rare one. Her breath caught in her throat, and she had to look away.

After a few moments, she spoke again.

"This morning," she said, her tone light as she withdrew her hands from his, "you just got lucky. I could still take you out with a paperclip. Or without one." She picked up her sandwich and took a large bite.

He snorted. "I dunno Zi-va," he retorted, dragging her name out. "I've been working out." The cocky grin was back.

"Bench pressing pizza from the box into your mouth is not working out." She looked at him over the sandwich and raised her eyebrows.

"Climbing wall challenge, then," he shot back. "Tomorrow morning, before work."

"Your butt is mine."

"My ass, Zi," he correct. "My ass is yours."

"So you admit it?"

He threw a napkin at her.

The next morning, she let him win.