Author's Note: This is my first "NCIS" fanfic, but not my first fanfic. Once upon a time, I was fairly prolific in the "SG1" fandom. Alas, real life came a callin', and I answered the call. That being said, real life is a classroom roster of 167, freshmen honors English, so if this story and its chapters aren't as rapid fire as you'd like, blame my students… Okay, let's just put it out there: This is WIP at its best, and it may take a while before it's complete, but I have it all finished. Unfortunately, it's all finished in my noodle.
A note of thanks to Secretchild who inspired me to want to write again. Her story, "Fine Is a Four-Letter Word," is brilliant. You should go read it!
And should Sazz ever read this—whumping is a thing to share. Don't you agree? And I shall do so with an inward attempt towards perfection. I miss you! Look for our word! I place it there in honor of all the words we've shared!
Oh, and don't own the characters, nor the original conception of the idea. Much like my own children, I only pay attention to them when I have time and it's fun, and I never expect repayment.
"Grab your gear."
Ziva David rose, retrieved her gun and badge from her desk, and holstered them both. Checking his email one last time, Tim McGee reached for his backpack.
His head balanced in the palm of his bent hand, his mouth slung open, Anthony DiNozzo remained oblivious to it all. Jethro Gibbs stood motionless in front of his senior agent's desk, waiting for the man to wake up. When it became clear that Tony was deep in sleep, Gibbs removed the files from under his arm and swatted the back of Tony's head.
"Probie!" squawked Tony, groping his desk to gain balance. McGee glanced at DiNozzo, blinked, and threw his bag over his shoulder.
Tossing the files onto his desk and grabbing his own backpack, Gibbs said, "Dead male in Dismal Swamp."
"Pretty big place, Boss," McGee said. "Which entrance?"
"Couple of 'em," said Gibbs, and Ziva and Tim shared a look, knowing it would be a messy recovery. "McGee, you're with me to the Feeder Ditch. David, DiNozzo, take the Washington Ditch. Meet the local LEOs at the ranger station," he said, exiting the bullpen. "Today would be nice, DiNozzo."
In Gibbs' wake, Tony DiNozzo rubbed the sleep out of his eye and found he had also rubbed spit into his eye, which he tried to wipe away with his tie. Ziva smirked and shook her head. "Perhaps I should drive," she said.
Tony stared at her, and Ziva's brow furrowed. About to defend her opinion, Ziva stopped short when Tony suddenly blurted out, "What?"
"I told you I will drive," she said, speaking slow, as much to shame him as to ascertain his actual condition. "Like Gibbs said, today would be nice."
Tony smacked his lips several times, closed one eye, and nodded. "Yeah. Okay." He stood, stretched his neck, and said, "Where are we going?"
Ziva rounded the side of her desk, her gear slung over her shoulder, and prepared to lay into him. However, within three feet of her partner, she took in the haggard appearance, the dark, smudged eyes, and his gaunt, pinched features, and Ziva stopped short. "Tony? Are you feeling well?"
Again, DiNozzo simply blinked. "Why would you ask that?"
"Because you look like you've been on a three-day binder," she told him. When had he lost so much weight?
"Bender, Ziva. A three-day bender."
"Now, how does that make anymore sense than binder?" Ziva demanded, her fists anchored into her hips.
"It, uh…" Tony began, but for the life of him, couldn't come up with an answer.
Which was disconcerting. Lately, it seemed his mind wasn't fully engaged. It bothered him tremendously that it was taking him longer to comprehend the easiest concepts. But in whom could he confide? You didn't walk up to Gibbs and say, "Hey, boss, my head's not quite hitting on all cylinders these days," unless you wanted a quick smack to the cylinders. So he muddled on, as always, hoping he could cover his feelings of ineptitude with bluster and charm.
Even those seemed diminished recently.
"Tony?" Ziva said again, her hand on his arm. When Tony looked up from the spot on his desk where he'd been staring, and when he realized just how long he'd been staring at the spot, he found another awful example of how his life had changed—that ever-present concern in Ziva's eyes, guarded as it was. He hated it. He was supposed to be the one in charge; he was supposed to be the strong, capable one. Ziva's eyes told him he was weak and getting weaker, and that tore at him.
On with the bluster and charm.
Tony plastered on a high-wattage smile, laughed, and threw open his desk drawer. "You try not to show how much you care, Officer David. And ya know," he said, retrieving his gun, his badge, and his cell phone from the compartment, "usually I totally believe it, but once in a while, that big, ol' heart of yours can't help but be taken in by the DiNozzo."
She didn't buy it, but if Tony was going to go all out to mask whatever it was that he didn't want her to know, then she'd respect his attempt. "Yes," she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm, "you are irresistible. Can we go?"
"Yes, Ziiiiiiva, we can." He bent to pick up his backpack and clutched at the side of his desk, hoping Ziva wasn't watching him. If she were, then she'd question him again, ask him why he seemed to be taking so long, why he was holding the side of his desk so tightly, why he had his eyes screwed shut, why he could hardly catch his breath, why, when he would stand up in the next seconds, did he list so, wobble…
"Tony!" came Ziva's bark halfway down the hall. Relieved, Tony took his time to stand, to breathe deep, to wait for the room to stop its tilt and oscillation.
Tony flipped his backpack over his shoulder, and threw on his sunglasses. One more breath, hardly as much air as he was hoping to get, and he followed Ziva's lead out to the car.
She didn't say anything when he turned up at the car out of breath. She didn't say anything when he finally poured himself into the passenger side, hunkered down, and fell asleep. She didn't say anything when she noticed the sheen of sweat on his forehead, above his lip, and on his neck.
But, Ziva would say something. With another twenty minutes or so before they reached the swamp, there would be time to ask all sorts of questions. Yes, she would ask. It was her responsibility to ask, she rationalized. I am his partner, and as such, it would be irresponsible of me to not know his condition before reporting to a potentially dangerous crime scene. Trust your partner—that was the first rule in the law enforcement book, and how could she trust a partner who might be compromised? It was incumbent upon her, truly, to find out if she could rely on him, if she could trust him if things turned ugly. Actually, it was selfish of Tony to keep pertinent information like his health from her. Typical Tony, she mused, and clenched the steering wheel more tightly than necessary. Oh, yes, she would ask. She would ask what, exactly, his problem was.
She would ask why he thought it was okay to keep your partner in the dark. She would ask questions like why did he make her look so bad by being so forgetful? She would ask questions like "Did you sleep in that suit?" Like, why did he constantly cough, a dry, hacking cough that caused him pain; that caused him to grasp the front of his shirt or the side of his chair? Why did he seem to be thin, emaciated, with pale skin that seemed to be pulled against his bones like a silk sail against rigging lines? Why did he stop in the middle of the hall when he thought no one was looking and brace himself, one hand on his hip, one against the wall, just for a moment, just until he could plaster the veneer of "happy-go-lucky Tony" on his face?
And then she would ask herself questions, like why did she worry about him? Why did she find herself at night, long past the time she should be asleep, trying to fit the discordant pieces together? Why was her day so utterly disjointed with concern? And why didn't anyone else seem to notice what she saw?
"Take the next exit."
Jarred out of her thoughts, Ziva glanced at Tony, and asked, "How long have you been awake?"
"Long enough to know we're about to miss our exit," he said gesturing to the impending exit ramp.
Ziva jerked the wheel; Tony grasped for the dashboard. She thought it was almost a relief that with this one exchange she had been diverted from her raw emotions to her more manageable annoyance with Tony. "I think I know where I'm going, thank you very much."
"Yeah, I can see that," he said, adjusting his sunglasses. "We tryin' to establish some land-speed record, David?"
"What is your problem?" There. She had asked. And it hadn't been as hard as she thought it would be.
"Well, aside from the fact that we're in a 55 zone, and you're going approximately the speed of a MiG, I'm fine."
He could be so evasive, she thought. She would try again. "I have noticed lately that you look like you are at death's stoop."
Tony began to correct her, thought better of it, and coughed. "I can't die, not yet," he said, purposefully, if not awkwardly, changing the subject. "I bought a new Armani last week."
"I'm serious, Tony," she said.
"So am I, Ziva. Charcoal grey. Three-piece. Windowpane. Gorgeous. It's at the tailor's. Plus, it'll take me three more months to pay it off, but if I do show up at…death's door, I'll look good."
"I am not making myself clear," she said, easing off the gas, coming to a stop along the side of the highway. "I have noticed that you…do not…look well. And I believe," she continued, finding she was too uncomfortable with that much sincerity, "it is affecting your work."
"Has Gibbs said anything to you?" Tony asked, worried.
"No, but…" This was intolerable, she thought, so she threw her hands in the air, and said, "I am concerned about you, okay? There. Are you happy?"
Taken aback, Tony said, "Okay, well. First off, I'm fine. Second, um, thank you?"
"You're not fine. You haven't been fine for months."
It bothered him that his personal challenges were so readily visible, and he supposed it was time for a modicum of truth. "Okay, fine. Here's the deal."
"Do not attempt to buffalo me."
"You get buffalo idioms, but not death idioms. Fascinating."
"Fine!" Of all people, Ziva should have known how much he hated personal talks, but here he was, boxed in, and he was going to offer her some insight. A little. "You know when I had the flu a couple months ago?"
"Yes, I remember."
"I just…it just feels like I haven't been able to shake it, that's all. Can we go now?"
"Have you seen your physician?"
"And waste time and money for him to tell me it's a virus?" Tony said, and Ziva eyed him, trying on the thought, weighing the truth of it. It felt honest. "No, I have other ways to spend my money."
Ziva felt comfortable enough in this truth that she could continue their trek. She put the car into drive, and said, "Yes, like wasting it on over-priced suits."
"See, now, if you knew what a fine piece of cloth felt like—"
"I know what fine cloth feels like!"
"Then you'd know—"
"I'll have YOU know that I just bought a…fine piece of cloth," Ziva stated, eyeing her partner sidelong. This piqued Tony's interest. He shifted his position, smiled, and waited for her further explanation. Ziva rolled her eyes, and began. "I recently purchased a Vera Wang gown. Long, silk, plunging neckline and back."
Tony closed his eyes, held up his finger, and said, "Wait. Give me a minute." He pulled one face after another, finally resting on a scandalous smile. "Okay. Color?"
"It is…um, oh, I cannot remember the English," she said, waggling her fingers before her face. "Xatzeel in Hebrew; aubergine in French. What is that color?!"
"I don't remember xatzeel being one of the crayons in my 64 box," Tony kidded. "Basic hue?"
"How is yellow like purple?" she asked, and in her frustration, Tony knew the conversation about his health was long over.
"Okay, forget the color. Let's get back to the plunging neckline," he said, which elicited a quick jab from Ziva. She glared at him, then laughed. "Here's what I'm thinking—I don't know that Gibbs will find it office-appropriate, so you should probably wear it over to my apartment so I can give it a look-see. Call it a professional courtesy."
"Professional courtesy," Ziva laughed. Would she ever tell him that his obnoxious, sophomoric, inappropriate comments sent a thrum of excitement through her? Never. Their taunts, their razor-thin margin between chemistry and carnage was something she enjoyed. Why ruin it with honesty? "Oh, you would like that, wouldn't you?"
"More than life itself," Tony stated, imagining her in this dress, sitting next to him, her long, black hair pooling on her shoulders, the drape of the fabric hardly able to conceal a soft—
"Stop dressing me with your eyes," she scolded him, and for the first time, Tony knew she had not confused the saying.
He smiled and returned his view out the front window, amused that she was able to predict him so well. "So, what's the occasion?"
"The Israeli embassy is having a state dinner. I have been invited."
"Oh, yeah? Who you going with?"
"Just me and Vera," she said, flirting with him.
Tony rounded out his lips, and whispered, "Girl on girl action. Very hot."
"I'm glad you approve," Ziva said.
"Oh, I more than approve, I…" But before he could answer, he felt a thump, a pressure in his veins, one that he was becoming more familiar with. He threw two fingers to his carotid artery, and breathed deep.
"I often have this affect on men," Ziva laughed.
His heart raced like a roulette wheel, ticking off place markers in quick succession. Tickticktickticktick… Breathe, he told himself. Breathe…
When no salacious remark came back, when Ziva realized that Tony was not exaggerating his reaction, she turned to him, taking only quick glances at the road now and again. "Tony?"
He held up one finger to her. Wait, he meant to say. He closed his eyes. Forced himself to remain calm. Breathe. Tickticktickticktick…
Ziva pulled over again on the side of the highway, tires crunching the gravel. "Tony?"
"Hold on," he managed. Lifting his chin, Tony expanded his chest, and inhaled slowly. And still his heart fluttered by—Ticktickticktick...
"Tell me what's happening, Tony."
He balled up one hand—ticktickticktick—lifted it in the air—ticktick tickticktick—and let it—ticktick ticktick ticktick—unfurl, open. And that was it; the roulette wheel had come to a stop.
"There," he said, inhaling sharply. He shrugged his shoulder, as if nothing had happened, offered up a ubiquitous smile, and really hoped Ziva would let it go.
"What was that all about?" she asked, eyeing him carefully.
"It's no big deal. Every once in a while my heart kind of goes…vriiingggg!" he said. He didn't really know a better way of explaining it.
"Do I need to call an ambulance?"
"Do I look like you need to call an ambulance?" he asked, and when he was pretty sure she'd answer in the affirmative, he waved off his question and her concern. "I'm fine. It's over."
"This happens often?"
"Every now and then," he said, a sin of omission, he knew. "Listen, it's no big deal. I checked with Ducky. He said…well, he said a lot, including a riveting tale about a time on a Ugandan—"
"Bottom line—it's nothing to worry about. He said it's probably too much caffeine." Ziva didn't believe it, not for a minute. For his part, Tony only barely thought it was plausible. However, much of his life was based on plausibility, including plausible deniability. Did he drink enough coffee to cause his heart to peel out of control? Probably not. But when a doctor offers it up as a reason for such a symptom, who was DiNozzo to scoff at a diagnosis? "Look, I appreciate the concern. I do. But if we don't get to the scene, Gibbs will—"
"Yes, I agree," she said. She eyed him one last time before easing off the shoulder and back into traffic. "I will be talking to Ducky, you understand."
"I have no doubt."
A couple more miles to the Dismal swamp, and Tony knew he'd need it to rest. When had talking become so exhausting?