"Abby, can I ask you something? You know... personal?" Kate didn't look up from where her index finger was tracing circles on the surface of Abby's computer command centre.
"Sure Kate," the forensic tech chirped happily, going about the business of tidying up the day's work.
The way Abby's pig tails bobbed innocently as she walked and the guileless smile on her face made Kate's stomach flip with guilt and unease. She was more than a little out of line to stick her nose into something so private; something which was not, never would, and which she had made abundantly clear she did not want to ever be her business. She told herself she didn't know why her suspicions rattled her so much, told herself it was simply the new-found investigative spirit Gibbs had awakened in her. Professional curiosity. Need to know what the situation was so she could rely completely on her team mates in any crisis.
"You consider Tony a friend, right?"
Abby grinned and answered automatically, her voice settling back into her trademark rasp, conveying her total conviction in her answer, "The best."
Kate wound a ring around her finger, feeling foolish, "Really?"
Abby's eyes narrowed and she stopped to lean against her desk, pulling her latex gloves off and flicking them across the lab like rubber bands. She braced a hand against her hip and studied the Special Agent with a frown. "For over three years now, why would you have to ask me that, Kate?"
"Well, remember that stupid argument Tony and I were having a couple cases ago? About whether or not men and women can just be friends?" she looked her friend in the eye for the first time since the conversation had begun.
"Yeah," Abby drawled, a little impatiently, not seeing the significance.
Kate's hair had fallen over her face, she pushed it behind her ear with the sigh of a mark facing the firing squad. "You agreed that they could, but that they'd still... and with this total casualness and... Well, you're a man and a woman. And you're good friends."
Silence ruled in the lab, the only noise a faint hum from the forensic equipment.
"You were totally blasé about it, that they would have sex and I just..." Kate felt her cheeks heat and reminded herself, not for the first time, that she was turning into a prude. It was pretty hypocritical of her, but she couldn't seem to help it.
As she looked up to see Abby's reaction, the Goth's eyes had glazed over and her expression was far-away.
Her gaze suddenly bore into Kate's, suspicion pinching her mouth, her green eyes intent and serious, "Are you actually asking me if I've slept with Tony?"
Kate's mouth twitched downwards and she looked away, "Pretty much."
Abby drew herself up, her body language evasive, "Kate, you're probably the best girlfriend I've ever had and all, but I don't really think you need to know that."
The profiler in Kate, the one she kept turned off in the office because there was enough to deal with without trying to figure out her eccentric co-workers, finally went into action, "Oh my God, you did."
The Agent turned and headed for the elevator at a crisp walk, her heels clicking loudly on the tile. How had she ever entertained the notion that Tony could be innocent in any relationship with a woman, no matter how sweet and platonic it seemed on the surface. If he wasn't related he tried his luck and, disgustingly, he was usually successful. She had been blind not to see it, a joke of a profiler, a bad investigator, and a clueless friend.
Why did it bother her so much? She felt almost betrayed. Was it because of the small, ridiculous part of her with a crush on Tony? It was impossible not to have one no matter how much of an ass he was, because damn him, he was charming. You wanted to hate him, but you just couldn't; there was something in his charisma, in his smile, that made you want to smile back. The fact that he actually was as good-looking as he thought he was made him that much more frustrating. That, and his skills as an agent and an investigator were such that his behaviour would never get him fired.
She didn't think that was it. She had acknowledged the small rebellious crush and she had ruthlessly suppressed it by picking a fight with him over every single thing that came out of his mouth before she could laugh. Before he could charm her. After that, she had been able to live with it and him without needing therapy. She wasn't jealous of his flirting or his conquests, had never felt betrayed because he wasn't with her.
She stepped from the elevator and walked quickly to her desk. She didn't sit, instead she hesitated a moment before crossing the floor to stand behind him. He was typing up a report, his fingers moving more fluidly over the keys than usual.
Kate decided thinking was overrated and thwacked him upside the head.
"Hey!" he spun to face her, his grey-green eyes wide with shock and outrage. "What did I tell you about that, Kate? You're not..."
He stopped to study her, taking in her tight lips and rigid stance. She could see he knew she was fuming; honestly mad, not just pissy or annoyed or indignant. She could also see him wondering what on earth had he done to provoke her.
His phone rang. He allowed it to ring twice as the staring contest continued, before he turned to pick it up with a heavy sigh. "DiNozzo."
"Hi, Abby what...?" his eyes flicked up to hers again, "Okay, I'll be right down."
He stood, forcing Kate to angle her jaw way up to meet his eyes. Sometimes, in these moments when she wanted to maintain intimidation in all seriousness, she really resented his height. He usually played along with her, slouched for her, humoured her, but that was all it was. She was trained, she was tough, she could protect, but he was genuinely hardened by the life he had led. When he let it show (almost never), it frightened her down in the depths of her being, wrapped a cold finger of doubt around all of her safest assumptions.
In those moments, she understood why it was that when they were in the shit, it was he who gave the orders and she who followed. She'd never admit it back in the less real world of the squad room, but out there... it was nice to have a partner who honestly lived his life according to death before dishonour.
Tony gave her a strange, narrow-eyed look before he disappeared around the corner and into the elevator.
She watched him go, wondering why she always seemed to get in over her head.
"Abby?" Tony called ahead as he jogged into the lab, an uneasy weight in his chest, just above his heart. Something was very weird today and he wasn't certain he wanted to find out what.
A small hand clamped around his arm like a vice, "Tony!"
"Gah!" He jumped and clutched his chest, knowing Abby enjoyed a good melodrama before a conversation. "Abs! Why are you lurking?"
"She knows, Tony! You know I didn't tell her, no matter what she told you, because I wouldn't tell her whatever she thinks she's been told that I didn't actually tell her. It's just that I couldn't keep her from knowing without lying right to her face, Tony, and I knew you wouldn't want me to lie to Kate even if it's really, really, profoundly none of her bee's wax and it's only ours, really." Abby's small, round face was squished up with tension and her wild gesticulations along with the pitch of her voice meant she'd either overloaded on one CafPow too many or something was terribly amiss. "You agree, right? What are we going to do, Tony?"
He put his hands on her shoulders and pressed her down from her tip toes. Her platforms put her head almost level with his, so he leaned his forehead against hers, and forced her to meet his eyes, radiating calm. "Abby. We're okay here. Just tell me what happened between you and Kate."
"Kate!" she complained, her eyes screwing up as she drew breath for another diatribe.
"No, no, no!" he gave her a quick peck on the mouth to induce quiet. "Calm."
Abby wrapped her arms around him and tucked her head under his chin. "She's hurt that we've done the deed, Tony. I think maybe... I don't know."
"The deed? Abs...," he trailed off, staring at the ceiling in misery. "Why does she know that? No one is supposed to know that."
"I didn't tell her, she figured it out when I couldn't answer her question; you know, about men and women being friends?" Abby squeezed him, pouting into his shoulder, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said anything."
He hugged back, feeling apathetic now that his death warrant was signed, "You didn't think she'd take it seriously. She never has before. I'm just wondering what I should have for my last meal before she tells Gibbs."
"Oh, Tony!" she sounded so genuinely sympathetic. He would miss that.
"Not your fault, Abs."
"Not yours, either!" She pulled away to swat him on the chest. "It takes two to tango, DiNozzo!"
He smiled for her, "I don't think Bossman will see it that way. Not when it comes to you."
Abby lay her head on his shoulder, smiling wistfully herself, "I can't say I regret anything, can you? Had to get it over with anyway if we wanted to be friends."
"Is that all it was?"
Abby's eyes flashed. His hair had been longer then, darker, and it was before he put on that extra muscle; his body had been lankier, his cheekbones sharp as cut glass. His long, slender fingers were startlingly dark against the whiteness of her thighs.
His smile was predatory, a wicked curve, his eyes shuttered as he remembered too. "Good. Got a last kiss for a dead man?"
She licked her lips, the black lipstick shimmering with moisture, "I'm glad you bribed me for those test results, I'm glad Viv never paid enough attention to me to notice my rumpled dress clothes and hangover the next day, and I'm really glad I'm not a snob. You don't need any tats for me to love you, hun, if you were wondering whether to call after Rule 12 is lifted."
He kissed her, the first thorough and completely unplatonic kiss they had shared since Kate had joined the team. "I got your number, now I've gotta talk to my soon-to-be ex-partner." He tapped her nose and turned to leave, grabbing a tissue to wipe the Goth make-up from his mouth.
Abby smirked in satisfaction that he had not lost the habit.
"Kate?" he spoke from her elbow and she nearly dumped her tea in her lap.
Her head whipped around and she gave him her fiercest stare.
He beckoned with his finger, his face expressionless. "C'mon. Need a word."
She followed him out of the building and into his car, watching the backs of his heels as he walked. She didn't stop to wonder why he was taking her away from any witnesses, he was probably going to try something stupid.
When they were settled in the car he turned to look at her, his expression one of summing up her parts and her past in attempt to determine her next move. "So, what are you going to do about it?"
"What?" she was taken completely by surprise. What she had been expecting, she was uncertain now that it hadn't come, but it definitely wasn't this wary guardedness, this sense of his protecting something.
Tony raised an eyebrow, "Come on, Katie, we're all adults here, we can use our words. You know that Abby and I have... are close friends of opposite genders and aligning orientations. It's never gotten in our way before, is it going to now?" His voice was so even and casual she could barely process it.
"You slept with Abby."
"Yeah, I think we've established that."
She snorted, "I guess I should have figured, I just had this bizarre notion there was a single decent bone in your body, though why I..."
"Kate," he interrupted curtly, "Abby is a grown woman and she can make her own choices. She made this one before she ever met you. I know it's really hard for you to accept, but every woman in the world does not find me repulsive."
Her mouth bobbed open and shut at that. "Tony, I don't..." she thought better of that and changed tack, "It's just that she's so vulnerable and naïve..."
He smiled, but it lacked his usual carelessness, "She's not what she seems, Kate. You should know that, I thought you two were close. She lives a more dangerous life than we do and she shares it with a lot of different and frankly weird people. Abby has raised the casual affair to a way of life." The muscles in his jaw clenched reflexively, "I shouldn't really tell you this, but you're deep in it anyway and it's my pride. Abby is the one who set the rules, the one who decided it wasn't going to be anything more than... she's the one who kept her distance."
They stared at each other for a moment.
"The guy isn't always the one who doesn't want something more. She got the inevitable out of the way so she could be friends without worrying about tension or hurt feelings." His mouth compressed into a thin line. "At least, that was the plan."
Kate felt a drop in her stomach as if the car had free-fallen sixty feet. "Tony..."
He grinned at her and it scared her that she wouldn't have known it wasn't real if she hadn't been here the whole time, "I'm not really who you think I am, Kate."
She pulled him into a hug. "I know that, Tony. I do. I'm sorry."
It's just my damn defence mechanism. I'm sorry I'm too uptight to admit that I like you, you juvenile, ridiculous, nigh-indestructible man. Some day, I'll be able to tell you what you mean to me, what I've learned from you, that I respect your abilities even when I pretend I don't.
I've got time yet.