DINNER AT THE WHITE HOUSE

As predicted, the chicken was like rubber. However, the indifferent meal was more than made up for by the excellent company. Ziva sat back in her chair and watched as the various couples around the table swapped stories and experiences. It was all very amiable; so amiable in fact, she could almost lose sight of the mission. She smiled quietly at Ardilles. So far, he'd paid little attention to her, or his date – he seemed more interested in listening to AJ and Webb. AJ had little patience with the CIA spook and quite frankly, Webb was intimidated. He wasn't a man who frightened easily but AJ's temper was well known around the Hill and those who knew also knew it wasn't wise to tangle with him. Despite the 50 years, he was still extremely fit and his right hook was legendary.

Ziva was taken by surprise when Ardilles suddenly asked her about Israel. She got the distinct impression that he was testing her, so when he commented unfavourably on the latest tension in the area, rather than rising to the obvious bait, Ziva batted his comments off with a standard reply. Although Eli David was Head of Mossad, and she was a trained agent, politics were ingrained in her – but, luckily, stupidity wasn't. She knew that voicing an opinion, especially in the White House itself, could cause serious problems, so she demurred with a standard response of wishing for peace in her lifetime. Whether it would be an achievable peace was not up to her. Ardilles settled back in his chair and took stock of the woman sitting next to him. There were various points in her favour that attracted him – she was beautiful, she dressed well, she switched easily from one language to another and he was captivated by her charming mis-pronunciations, her manners were flawless and she seemed to be a good listener. AJ and Ziva decided to keep things simple – if asked they'd tell the truth about their work; well, they'd tell most of it. So, when Ardilles did ask, Ziva was ready:

"I work for NCIS – Naval Criminal Investigative Service. We deal with problems regarding Navy and Marine Corps personnel. AJ is the JAG – that's the Judge Advocate General. So, I suppose you could say that I arrest the bad guys, and AJ prosecutes them."

There was a murmur of appreciation around the table and Ziva's stock, already riding high, rose a little higher. AJ smiled briefly into his wine glass. She'd summed up their careers in barely two sentences and was accurate. His instinct about Ziva was right – she was exactly the person he needed for this job, and he wouldn't mind seeing her again, outwith the office. However, he ruefully thought that she'd have men lining up to take her out. A 50 year old Admiral wouldn't be high on her priority list. Sighing quietly he put his wine glass down as the orchestra struck up the first dance of the night.

Two of the couples excused themselves and got up to dance; Webb stared morosely at his wineglass and ignored the attempts of his lady friend to entice him to the dancefloor. He hadn't wanted to come here, but Ardilles was a target and getting close to him was a priority. His eyes flicked towards Ardilles and his partner – maybe she could be persuaded to talk. Without further ado, he rose, walked round the table and asked her to dance. Webb's partner stared at him as he moved the chair back and escorted his partner to the floor. Ziva glanced at AJ and then nodded in the direction of Webb's date. He took the hint and asked her to dance and she accepted. AJ led Sally to the floor and that left Ardilles and Ziva alone at the table.

He swirled the remnants of his wine in the glass and watched his prey from under heavy lids. Finding out she was a federal agent has surprised him, but he was also intrigued. His current squeeze, Elizabeth, was barely out of her teens and although pretty, was neither a witty conversationalist nor varied enough in bed for his tastes. She was merely there tonight until he could find someone more … amenable to his needs and he felt that Ziva would fit the bill. Despite being escorted by a two-star Admiral, Ardilles had designs on her. Well, actually, all he had designs on was getting her into bed. Conversation was felt to be the appetiser, but sex was definitely the main course as far as he was concerned and when he looked again at Ziva his libido kicked up a notch. A Federal agent, used to taking orders, used to carrying a gun, used to being in charge - he couldn't resist. He wanted to take that agent and break her down, make her compliant and subservient, she'd bend to his will, do as he pleased – and thank him for it in the morning. It never crossed his mind that Ziva would be anything less than co-operative; his psyche was not hot-wired that way. He got what he wanted – always. There was never any doubt about it, at least in his mind. Elizabeth knew the rules – always be available, do as you're told, look good – and after he was finished with her, she'd go back to her University with a new car, a fat cheque and collection of designer clothes. However, if she said "no", if she didn't please him, if she rebelled or pouted or played the spoiled brat – he'd break her neck and dump her body where it couldn't be found. It wasn't the first time he'd done it – it probably wouldn't be the last. And, looking at Ziva once again, he certainly hoped it wouldn't be how this relationship ended.

He leaned towards her and quietly asked her to dance.

Nodding a quiet acceptance, she stood and walked ahead of him to the dance floor. In heels she was of equal height, and as she placed her hand on his shoulder, she felt the solid muscle under the well-cut tuxedo. His hands were soft with well-manicured nails; the tuxedo undoubtedly expensive and beautifully cut and his shirt was silk. As the band softly swung into Glen Miller's "Moonlight Seranade" Ziva remembered exactly why she was here and smiled at her companion. Now, to get the keycard out of his pocket and to AJ. She hoped this bit was as well-planned as he said. AJ deftly moved Sally towards Ardilles's back and deliberately had her bump him. Letting go of Ziva, all 4 people stumbled out apologies and, luckily, some still seated guests just thought another dance floor crash had occurred. No-one noticed Ziva's hand slip inside Ardilles's jacket and check for his wallet; they never noticed it being removed either. As the 4 dancers stood together making small talk about the silly accident no-one noticed Ziva slip a wallet into AJ's trouser pocket. The partners then resumed their dancing, each moving away to the opposite side of the busy floor.

Ardilles was a good dancer; indeed, thought Ziva, he was excellent. He was oddly attractive – dark hair swept back off his forehead, olive-toned skin, and the most amazing blue eyes. He was undoubtedly fit – the well-muscled shoulders and strong legs indicated his workout routine was frequent and rigorous. But, she also noticed something else. In front of each ear were small scars which indicated facial surgery. He'd had a facelift. And, every time they danced past the glazed doors or a mirror he looked at his reflection. "Vain should also be added to the profile", thought Ziva, "he really can't resist his own image," She revised her opinion of him – attractive, but a definite non-starter.

The music ended and the couples began to drift back to their tables. Ziva chatted amiably to Ardilles and wasn't aware she was now being watched from the edge of the dance floor. Meredith Cavanagh had witnessed the little scene. She'd noted how friendly and relaxed both AJ and Ziva were; relaxed enough for him to allow his date to dance with someone else. Alessandro's face briefly appeared in front of her eyes, and she bowed her head before anyone could see the tears. Damn, that man had hurt her. Finding him in bed with one of his students was more than she could stand. She raised her eyes at the same time as AJ looked in her direction and their eyes met. Suddenly she realised what she'd done - betraying AJ was foolish. He'd loved her with all his heart and she'd treated him appallingly. Staring across the room she mouthed the words "I am so sorry" towards him. AJ's shoulders tensed and, still staring at Meredith, he dropped his hand possessively onto Ziva's waist as a bitter smile escaped his lips. This quick gesture spoke loudly to Meredith – AJ was not available – but her predatory nature would just not let this go. As Ziva leaned back into AJ's embrace, Meredith downed the remnants of her wine and called on the nearest waiter for a refill.