Disclaimer: I own nothing related to NCIS, just the thoughts in my head.
Summary: Just where is Tony going every Thursday night?
Spoilers: Inspired by 'Road Kill', but no real spoilers to worry about.
Author's Notes: My first NCIS fanfic, but not my first fanfic by any means. These are fun characters to play with, so I imagine this won't be my last NCIS fanfic. This entire story was built upon one line that was overheard at a night out with friends by my partner in crime and editor extraordinaire. We immediately decided that it would be something Ziva would say and the rest was born from that.
* Again, a big thanks as always to my dear friend and editor Joy. Thank you for being the Toby to my Sam and pushing me to not take the easy way out.
Something was very definitely amiss.
For the third week in a row, she watched as Tony slunk out of the office, with barely a goodbye to anyone. On most days, Tony's departures were accompanied by some sort of narrative. Usually it took the form of a preview to his evening: either a description of his date that was designed to make McGee jealous, an invitation to join him at the multiplex or the giddy anticipation of some sort of movie marathon on television. But, for the last three Thursdays it had been different. He'd switch off his computer, sling his backpack over his shoulder and disappear into the elevator sometimes before he was even missed.
It was driving Ziva crazy.
When she'd first joined NCIS, her partner's seemingly endless stories and movie quotes had threatened to push her over the edge. Ziva had never met anyone before him who could talk so much about nothing. At the time, she'd longed for the silent presence of her fellow Mossad officers. Now, four years later, she took comfort in his constant ramblings, though she would never admit it out loud. She'd learned the hard way that a silent Tony was never a good thing.
The ferocity with which she'd missed him while they'd been reassigned had surprised her. She had found herself making movie references at the strangest moments in an effort to recapture that elusive 'thing', which had made her time in DC some of the best years of her life. However, all it ever accomplished was to lead her fellow Mossad operatives to accuse her of letting her time in America make her 'soft'.
She wasn't soft.
She was just ... different. In many ways she was stronger, strong enough to let her heart out of her chest every now and then and strong enough to endure the heartache that usually came with it.
Ziva's heart twisted in her chest now as she glanced at her partner's empty desk. He was hiding from her again. Over a year later, they were still recovering from the mess that was Jeanne Benoit and Ziva couldn't stand the thought of going through it again. It was that fear which propelled her out of her chair and over to his desk. With a quick scan of the bullpen, she slipped into his seat and turned on the monitor in front of her. Getting into his Day-Timer was simple. She'd figured out his password a long time ago. Unfortunately her efforts yielded very little. The last three Thursdays only had one entry listed: Drop-in, 6:30.
This was obviously going to require more sophisticated investigative methods
The following Thursday found her freezing her ass off as she stood across the street from the Belleview Community Center trying to talk herself out of going inside. This wasn't her first visit to the center. She had been there over a month ago with Tony as part of an investigation into a young sailor's death. Petty Officer Sinclair had volunteered with the center's daycare and drop-in programs and Gibbs had sent them to get some background.
The interviews had yielded little useful information and Ziva had been more than ready to head back to base when they'd been approached by a little boy, no more than six years old. Apparently the child had not yet understood the concept of not talking to strangers and had wanted to show off his toys. Despite her overwhelming desire to get back to the office so they could call it a day, there was something in the little boy's face which had drawn her in. Before she'd realized it, she had let herself be led over to a kid's-sized table in the corner of the room. Looking back on it now, Ziva had to admit that the child had reminded her of what she'd always imagined a young Tony would be like, full of energy and confidence, always ready to discuss the finer points of one toy versus another.
The boy had just handed her what looked like a potato with legs when she'd sensed his older counterpart standing behind her. He must have registered her confusion, because she'd suddenly felt his voice against her neck.
"Pull off the hat."
Doing as she was told, Ziva realized that all the parts were interchangeable. Understanding dawning over her features, she'd turned to Tony.
"Oh, so it is an interactive toy, yes?"
Tony had laughed quietly, taking the toy from her hand. "It's Mister Potatohead. He's a classic!" Off her furrowed brow, he'd replied, "How is it possible that you've never been exposed to the wonder that is the 'Man of Potato'?"
She'd answered him with a pointed glare, a quick reminder of their very different upbringings.
"Right, forgot," he'd replied. "You had to grow up fast."
For some reason his words had struck a hollow note within her heart and she'd suddenly needed escape, to get away from the blatant reminders of the childhood she'd never really had. Giving the kid a quick pat on the head goodbye, Ziva had beat a hasty retreat out of the daycare.
She'd never expected to return, but here she was, just over a month later, having followed Tony until he'd disappeared through the doors thirty-four minutes ago. She was fighting a fierce internal battle. Her overwhelming curiosity was drawing her in, but she just couldn't bring herself to follow him inside. This was a part of his life he obviously didn't want to share and despite all of their poking and prying into each other's secrets, Ziva felt like she was interfering.
By minute forty-two, however, her body made her decision for her. Four years under her belt, and she still had a hard time acclimatizing to the damp cold of DC winters. Sucking in a deep breath, Ziva pushed through the doors of the community center, seeking the closest source of warmth.
She tried to stay in the lobby, she really did. She tried to curb her curiosity and just let herself warm up enough to feel her extremities and then head back to the Yard to get her car before Tony discovered her spying. However, she found herself inexorably drawn to the sound of children playing. The laughs and delighted shrieks were interspersed with the unmistakable sound of Tony's voice calling out over the din.
Curiosity finally winning the battle, Ziva edged slowly out of the lobby and slipped down the hall, following the source of the sound. The center was mostly empty and she passed the darkened daycare room as she made her way toward the shaft of light that spilled into the hallway from the door to the gym. The sound of sneakers on polished wood floors drifted out of the room and the voices became clearer. Reaching the threshold, Ziva stopped short, entranced by the sight in front of her.
A basketball game was in full swing, a dozen or so kids running helter-skelter all over the gym, passing the ball between them. Presiding over the controlled chaos and seeming very much in his element was one Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo.
It was an adorable scene, really, and Ziva couldn't help the smile that tugged at the corner of her lips. Tony towered over the youngsters, who appeared to range in age from about seven to twelve or thirteen years old. Still, despite the obvious age and size difference, Tony was as much a child at that moment as they were. His eyes were bright and his smile truly earnest as he chased the kids down the court, ostensibly playing the part of referee to this obviously informal game. As she looked on, the game quickly morphed from basketball to 'Tackle Tony' and it took all her will to stifle a giggle at the sight of her partner wading through a sea of children with a kid or two dangling from each arm.
His ease with children surprised her. Sure, she'd frequently accused him of being childish, but she'd never pegged him for the type of guy who would play well with others, let alone want to take on the job of role model. Still, watching him now, Ziva couldn't deny the effortless way he related with the kids. However, what struck her more than anything was how happy he seemed. She marvelled at his open and unburdened expression, realizing that after all their years working side by side, she was seeing Tony for the first time, without all the masks they wore to get through the day.
With that realization, came a wave of longing so powerful that it nearly physically knocked her back into the wall. Taking in Tony's unguarded expression, Ziva couldn't help but wonder when the last time was that anyone had truly seen her? When was the last time she'd let someone past her defences? She couldn't remember a time she'd let her guard down completely. In fact, she wasn't entirely sure she'd know how.
'Guard your secrets close, Zivalah. Never let them see weakness.' Her father's words had been her mantra for as long as she could remember, well before Mossad had reinforced them.
She struggled to recall a moment when she'd just been Ziva, the woman, stripped of her training, her sense of duty, her masks. She tried to recapture the freedom of her childhood, when she'd allowed herself to just live, to trust and enjoy life for life's sake. Watching Tony, she suddenly found herself longing for days spent free of pain and worry, of responsibility and regrets.
She was drawn from her musings by the unnerving sense that she was being watched. Blinking away the fog, Ziva was startled to find herself face to face with her partner. His eyes twinkled with mirth and a grin was quickly spreading across his features. Around them, the children scattered, presumably heading home with parting shouts of 'Bye, Tony! See you next week!' Tony broke eye contact long enough to bid them goodnight before returning his attention to her. She latched onto that split second of reprieve to hastily rebuild her walls, desperately hoping he hadn't managed to read the yearning that had coloured her eyes moments before.
Stepping closer, Tony grinned down at her, forcing her to look up and prompting her to quirk an eyebrow in question.
"I finally did it," he gloated. "I finally snuck up on the super ninja."
Relieved that he apparently hadn't noticed her state of mind, Ziva was more than happy to play his game. "You did not sneak up on me, Tony," she argued. "I knew you were there. In fact, if we are to be specific, I snuck up on you."
"No," he replied quickly, his grin becoming impossibly wider. "You didn't sneak up on me, you followed me - completely different thing."
Ziva scrambled to change the subject before his mind leapt to the obvious next question. Unfortunately, she wasn't quick enough.
"Come to think of it, why were you following me?" His expression sobered and she could practically see the wheels turning behind his eyes, trying to sort out her motives. Her mind was spinning just as quickly, trying frantically to come up with an answer that made some sort of sense. Problem was, she couldn't even explain her behaviour to herself. She had no idea why she'd followed him, only that she'd needed to ... needed to know that everything was still okay. That answer definitely wasn't going to fly with Tony.
"I, uh ... I ..." she rambled helplessly, completely unable to come up with a plausible answer, or at least one that she was willing to share.
Sensing her discomfort, Tony dropped all pretence and came to her rescue. He stepped even further into her, his warmth chasing away the chill that still lingered as he whispered into her hair, "No more covert ops without telling you, David, I promise."
Startled by his sudden intuition and even more alarmed by his candour, Ziva tried to back away, tried to break the tension that was stringing like a live wire between them, but managed to only gain a few inches before she was captured by his intense gaze. All she could do was stare back, her eyes wide with an almost equal mixture of wonder and fear. When had he suddenly become so damn perceptive?
Ziva opened her mouth to answer, unsure of what she was actually going to say when Tony broke their emotional game of chicken and saved her from having to figure it out.
Leaning back into her, he gently nudged her shoulder with his own, muttering, "C'mon, let's head home."
His gentle push spurred her into motion and she mutely fell into step beside him as Tony guided her out of the building with his hand settled in the small of her back. Neither spoke until they'd cleared the doors to the community centre, bristling momentarily against the sudden drop in temperature outside. Pulling her incrementally closer, Tony glanced down with a smile.
"I suppose since you followed me, I'll be walking you back to the Navy Yard for our cars?"
Ziva fervently hoped that he would write off the blush she felt colouring her cheeks as an effect of the cold breeze that buffeted them softly. Turning away from his knowing gaze, she nodded.
"Okay, then," he answered, gallantly sweeping his arm in front of them, like the leading man of one of those old movies he loved so much. "Shall we?"
They once again fell into step side-by-side as they made their way along the snow-covered streets to their waiting cars. A light snowfall had started while they had been inside and the fluffy flakes danced around them, coating all available surfaces in a white blanket which sparkled in the light of the streetlamps. Tony's hand still nestled in the folds of her coat, his warmth a constant presence against her back. It was both completely unlike them and overwhelmingly comforting at the same time and Ziva couldn't bring herself to put their regular distance between them.
The streets were quiet, the only sound the rhythmic crunch of snow under their boots. The silence between them was a little unnerving. Ziva was so used to Tony filling any available moment with words that his sudden reserve left her a bit unsettled. Without their usual banter to fill the void, her brain took over, her thoughts whirling with questions. She'd never been able to find an off switch for her overactive mind, but she'd learned long ago that it was often best to keep her thoughts to herself. So instead of asking questions, she forced herself to relax, to accept things as they were and enjoy the peaceful winter's night and the simple comfort that came with the closeness of a friend.
"You can say it, y'know."
Ziva had apparently done a better job relaxing than she'd realised. Somewhere over the last few blocks, Tony's arm had found its way around her waist and her head was dangerously close to dropping to his shoulder.
"You can go ahead and say it."
She was completely alert now and painfully aware of their situation. She tried to subtly extricate herself from his embrace, but he held her firm. Still, something had changed within him in the last moment. His body was strung tight, like he was expecting a blow and it made her nervous.
"You can say what you're thinking ... that I was being childish again."
Ziva struggled to catch up to his side of the conversation. Childish? They had barely spoken two words since he'd found her at the centre. She couldn't for the life of her figure out what he thought he could've done that she'd deem childish. However, it was obvious he was expecting her to pass some sort of judgement. Tony was bracing himself against her and studiously avoiding her face. She tried to turn and catch his eye, anything to get a read on his state of mind, but he held her firmly to his side, preventing her from meeting his gaze.
Suddenly it dawned on her -the drop-in program, the basketball game - for some reason Tony thought that she would think his behaviour at the center immature, childish, like the assortment of antics he pulled at work on a regular basis. It was strange; he'd never seemed to care about what she thought of him before. However, the tone of his voice and the line of his body against her screamed that he was seeking her approval on this, or more accurately, expecting her disapproval.
The thing is, playing with those kids, volunteering at the centre, was probably the least childish thing she'd ever known him to do and it was suddenly important to her that he knew that. They were still walking, so Ziva stopped in her tracks, forcing him to pivot around the axis of her body, bringing them face to face in the dim light of the streetlamps.
"Tony," she began, ducking her head to look up into his eyes. He was still avoiding her, so she gave him no choice and cupped his chin, bringing his gaze level with hers. It bothered her to see him so unsure of himself and she could only gather that his expectation of reproach was rooted in some past hurt. Choosing her words carefully, she ventured, "What you do for those kids isn't childish at all." His eyes began to clear with her words, so she continued, "You're giving them an outlet and a safe place to go; it's something you should be proud of, really."
The change in Tony in response to her approval was remarkable to witness. His body relaxed and he straightened up to his full height. His whole countenance lightened and his eyes cleared and warmed with what Ziva could only think of as gratitude. It both drew her in and unsettled her deeply. She was having a hard time reconciling this newfound vulnerability in her partner with the brash and cocky Tony who had occupied the desk opposite her for the last four years. She silently cursed his father, assuming only he could have bred such uncertainty into the man standing before her. Then again, her father wasn't exactly a prize either.
"Thanks, Ziva." His words pulled her from her musings, but before she could respond, the switch was flipped and the old Tony was back, settling his hand once again against her spine and setting them back on course towards the Yard.
When her thoughts had finally caught up with the roller coaster that was Tony's moods, Ziva asked, "How did you get involved with the drop-in?"
She could still feel the residual tension rolling off of him as he kept pace beside her. "I saw a notice when we were there last month. Thought it might be a good thing to do."
Ziva held her breath, afraid to break the spell. It was a rare moment of honesty between them and she was loath to accidentally destroy it with the wrong word.
"It's ... I uh, I really enjoy it," he continued. "The kids are great and it's fun. I mean, with all the crap we deal with at work it's nice to go somewhere and forget about it for a while ... to, you know, be a kid again."
Ziva couldn't hold back the sigh that escaped at his words. She knew what it was to want to escape. The desire to forget her world from time to time had fuelled her voracious appetite for books from a very early age. Losing herself in the pages of someone else's world had allowed her to forget the fear, uncertainty and disappointment that had dogged her much of her life.
Misreading her intent, Tony was quick to add, "Yeah, I know, you grew up a long time ago."
Ziva stopped suddenly again, momentum pulling Tony back against her. Her chest ached with the need to get the words out, to make him understand.
"No, Tony, you don't know." His eyes were wide, startled by her sudden intensity. "You don't .... It may have been a long time ago, but I was still a child once and there have been many moments where I've wished I could go back to that time."
She held his gaze almost defiantly as his eyes bored into hers, as though trying to divine the secrets of her childhood. She felt naked under his scrutiny, but refused to shy away this time. She wanted him to know her, to know her past ... at least some of her past. Still, it frightened her to leave herself vulnerable like this. They were apparently both covering new ground tonight.
Finally after what felt like an eternity, but was likely not more than a minute, Tony smiled and with a muttered 'okay' started walking again.
Silence stretched between them as they continued along the sidewalk, turning onto a quiet side street that served as a shortcut back to the Navy Yard. Suddenly, Tony voiced a question into the darkness.
"So, what was your game?"
It took her a minute to figure out what he was asking, then a smile crept across her lips.
"Football, or as you would call it, soccer."
Tony came alive beside her. "Reeeally. You mean to tell me, Little Ziva David used to 'bend it like Beckham'?"
Ziva chuckled. "I had some moves."
Tony slid his hand from her back and came around in front of her, his grin in full force. "Show me." He dropped the basketball he'd been carrying home from the centre to the ground, stilling its movements with his foot before nudging it toward her. "Well, let's see'em."
"That's a basketball, Tony."
He seemed completely unfazed. "It's a ball, it's round. It's about the same size as a soccer ball." He nudged it a little closer to her feet. "Humour me. Think of it as payback for stalking me."
Ziva rose to the bait. "I wasn't stalking you. I was looking out for you."
She furrowed her brow in confusion. "What does a toy have to do with any of this?"
Tony couldn't hold back a bark of laughter. "Just take the damn ball."
Ziva reached out with her right foot, rolling the ball towards her. "What exactly do you want me to do?"
Tony glanced around the empty street, making up a plan on the fly. He was having too much fun and didn't want to risk losing the moment by taking too long. "Over there," he pointed towards a pair of streetlights that graced the curb where the road bent to the right a few hundred yards away. "That'll be goal. I'll be goalkeeper."
Ziva eyed him dubiously.
Tony feigned annoyance. "I can play soccer. C'mon, let's see what you've got, David." With that, he jogged down the street to set himself up in 'goal'.
Chuckling at the ridiculousness of the situation, Ziva set off toward the streetlights, deftly juggling the ball between her two feet. It took a moment to get used to the unusual weight and the snow-packed street, but soon she was flying down the road, happily manoeuvring the ball along with her. For just a moment the cold, dark Washington street faded from her consciousness and she could've sworn she could feel the hot Israeli sun and hear the shouts of her friends as she raced towards her target.
Tony watched in awe as she zigzagged through the darkened alley, nimbly bringing his basketball along with her. She dodged and weaved, never once losing control of the ball, as she ducked around invisible linesmen. The tightly-controlled Mossad officer transformed before him into the young girl he knew she'd once been. He was sure he could see her masks and armour slip from her one by one, shattering on the frozen pavement as she ran. A smile bloomed unabashed across her face and Tony was struck with the realization.
'This is Ziva. This is who she really is.'
It was breathtaking.
So breathtaking, in fact, that he almost didn't notice her bearing down on him until she was right in his face and making a move to duck around him. Reacting on instinct, Tony reached out and circled his arms around her waist. Ziva tried to make a break from him, pulling in the opposite direction before overbalancing and taking him with her as she fell sideways into the snow banks that lined the street corner.
The snow had been packed down over time, so the landing wasn't especially soft. Still, the freshly fallen flakes from that evening blew up around them, settling over the couple like someone had tossed them inside a snow globe.
Despite having some of the wind knocked out of her, Ziva laughed, giggling nearly uncontrollably and Tony couldn't help but join her as he struggled for purchase in the snow to lift himself off of her. He finally managed to push himself up, supporting his weight with his left hand and his knees. Before he could stop himself, Tony reached out with his right hand and gently pushed an errant curl away from her face, momentarily fascinated by the contrast between the crisp white snowflakes and her dark chestnut hair. Fascinated that is, until her gaze snagged his and he realized that neither of them were laughing anymore.
Her eyes were wide and infinitely dark in the dim light of the streetlamps. The smile had slipped from her face, replaced with an expression he couldn't quite read. Her breath came in short puffs against his neck and it was taking all of his willpower not to dip his head and kiss her till she smiled again. Then again, he wasn't entirely sure if kissing him was something she would smile about.
"Why do I suddenly feel like I'm in the middle of a Sandra Bullock movie?"
Tony's sense of self-preservation had kicked in, forcing the first words to cross his mind out of his mouth, effectively shattering the tension between them. Carefully, he pushed himself off of her, feeling strangely cold without the warmth of her nearness. Still, he was sure he'd done the right thing; sure that is, until he caught the wave of sadness and disappointment that marred Ziva's features for a split second before she schooled her expression into one of polite amusement.
She made some crack about him and chick flicks as he helped her to her feet, but Tony was too busy to notice, too busy trying to process everything he'd just witnessed, images and emotions whirling like a maelstrom in his mind. Suddenly, it all crystallized down into a single moment in an elevator months ago.
'I'm tired of pretending.'
Well, damn. Tony'd always prided himself on his observational skills, but somehow he'd managed to miss what had been staring him in the face, for how long now, weeks, months ... years? The realisation was both startling and strangely reassuring. It was as though he'd finally learned the words to a song that had been stuck in his head forever, niggling at his mind at the most inopportune moments, colouring every interaction they had. It was a melody they both shared and he was only now coming to understand that.
The attraction had been there from the beginning. It was something he was used to. Tony had an affinity for beautiful women, and one would have to be blind not to notice Ziva's beauty. Still, he'd always tried to leave it at that ... attraction, a simple manifestation of his very healthy libido. His heart though, apparently had other ideas. It had taken tonight, however, for him to realise just how tangled up in Ziva he'd become. The discovery should have terrified him, but it didn't. Call it maturity or the wisdom that comes with age, but Tony found himself thrilled by the knowledge that this 'thing' that had been simmering between them seemed to be mutual.
Tonight, though, was not the time or place to explore it. They'd managed to ease themselves out from behind their walls, but both were wary and uncertain about being out in the open. He wasn't even sure they were even on the same page. Yet, he allowed himself to carry a small grain of hope, holding it close to his heart.
The rest of the walk back to the Navy Yard passed in a silence that wasn't awkward, but wasn't exactly comfortable either. Ziva was so wrapped up in mentally berating herself for wearing her weaknesses on her sleeve, yet again, that she almost didn't notice them coming to a stop next to her vehicles.
Tony must have noticed however, because he had the gall to ask, "You gonna be okay getting home?"
She fixed him with a steely glare, a look that would have warned him off not all that long ago. Now, however, it fell flat, deflected by his suddenly gentle smile.
"What? You can look out for me, but I can't look out for you? Hardly seems fair, does it?"
Her defensive posture eased up somewhat and Tony took courage in the dim flicker of hope, that echoed his own. He could see it clearly, burning behind the layers of masks that were now firmly back in place. Still, he couldn't seem to gather up the guts to do more than beat around the bush.
"Y'know," he began, digging the toe of his boot into the soft snow that covered the lot. "They're always looking for help at the centre. I mean, I know I could sure use a hand keeping that mob of hooligans in line, y'know if you're into that kinda thing."
As the words left his lips, it suddenly occurred to Tony that he had no idea how Ziva felt about kids. He was about to backpedal when her eyes cut to his and all doubt was instantly blown from his mind. The hope that had only been a mere flicker before now shone brightly, lighting up her whole face, and Tony found himself smiling in return. His idea now gaining momentum, he continued almost cheekily, "Yeah, you could teach them the finer points of soccer ... or self-defence."
Ziva laughed and answered shyly, "I'd like that." Then, before things could get too weird, she continued, "Besides, you could use all the help you can get."
Tony feigned offence, "Hey! I was holding my own pretty good in there."
Ziva took the break in the tension as an opportunity to make her escape. Her shields were weak and while she was thrilled by these new steps in this dance they called a friendship, she was also terrified and needed some time alone to regroup.
Before he could make a move to stop her, Ziva slipped into her car and started the engine, the windshield wipers stirring soft snow into a cloud around him as he stood next to her door. He glared back indignantly as he brushed flakes from his hair. Laughing, Ziva rolled down the window and threw him a lifeline.
"You held yourself admirably in there this evening. You have a talent with children." Then, feeling braver with her hand hovering over the gearshift, she continued, "You also have a talent for finding the child in all of us." Her voice dropped to near a whisper over the hum of the engine. "Thank you, Tony. I thought she was lost a long time ago."
Before she could lift her foot off the brake and take off, Tony ducked his head in the window.
"You're welcome, Ziva," he answered, his eyes holding her to her seat. "I look forward to seeing her again soon." He ghosted a kiss across her forehead before retreating into the darkness.
Heart hammering in her chest and a gentle smile tugging on her lips, Ziva set a course for home, already looking forward to their next 'play date.'