A/N: Well, we're finally here. Thanks to everyone who reviewed, favorited, alerted and read along. I hope you enjoy the final installment.
Part 18: The Epilogue
Six months later
They'd had plans for McGee's birthday. Proper plans that involved tickets to a seminar by some big wig poet (if such a thing existed) who only McGee and Cassie had heard of and were excited to see (there was a reason those two had ended up as two close peas in a pod). Tony had been looking forward to the night like he did to root canal surgery, but he, Ziva and Abby were bound by the laws of friendship to just shut up and go along with it.
As it turned out, they didn't make it to the seminar. A dead sailor had thrown a spanner (actually, a .45 caliber bullet) in the works, and as the seminar began Team Gibbs was crowded around a plasma screen looking at a driver's license, credit card statements and phone records of the sailor's not-so-grieving widow. Gibbs had shown them mercy when the clock hit 2100 and sent them home with instructions to return by 0700. McGee had started making 'see you tomorrow' noises when Cassie appeared and shot down his attempts at having a quiet night. She'd insisted that the cancellation of a seminar shouldn't mean the cancellation of birthday celebrations altogether, and then named a bar downtown that they should all be at in 30 minutes…or else.
They'd been at that bar for an hour now, drinking to relax and toast the McBirthday instead of to get drunk and disorderly. But even two drinks on an empty stomach at that time of night had the potential to turn merry into messy. Ziva wasn't keen on the thought of dragging a drunk and heavy Tony up to her apartment later any more than she wanted to go to work tomorrow with a hangover. It was time to get some food into their stomachs.
"Who would like a very nutritious plate of nachos for dinner?" she asked.
Abby's hand shot up. "Me! I do! They do this really great version here with organic tortillas and kidney beans and this gourmet vegan cheese. It's so delicious."
Ziva glanced at Tony and saw his face fall. She squeezed his knee reassuringly. "I believe they also do a version that is three-quarters meat and dripping with regular cheese, salsa, sour cream, guacamole and perhaps even bacon bits."
His eyes lit up again. "Can you please get me that kind?"
"And me," McGee said, raising two fingers.
"McGee," Abby started to admonish. "I thought you were trying to give up meat."
"Cut down," McGee corrected. "Not give up. And it's my birthday so I can have whatever I want."
Abby looked like she was going to argue the point, so Ziva distracted her by standing up and touching her shoulder. "Abby, come with me?"
"Cassie? You'll have the meat," Ziva guessed.
Cassie winked and tipped her glass towards her. "The meatier the better."
Ziva grabbed Abby's arm and turned her around before Cassie or McGee could see her wrinkled nose, and then nudged her towards the bar. They were three tables away before Abby made a comment.
"I know you and Tony get cranky when I say anything about her, but I really think her bad habits are rubbing off on him," she threw over her shoulder.
Ziva sighed quietly and put her hand on the back of Abby's shoulder. "It is only one meal, Abby," she said evenly.
"And she could do well to cut back too," Abby went on, wagging a lecturing finger. "She eats almost as much as Tony and Gibbs, and you know Ducky's always telling them to cut back." She stopped between two tables to twirl and face Ziva. "Are you really going to order bacon for him?"
Ziva shrugged a yes. "Few things make him as happy as bacon."
Abby sighed and turned around again. "Cute little baby piglets should make him happier," she replied, but Ziva had tuned her out.
She was making a visual sweep of the room, checking the shadows and corners for trouble like she always did, when her eyes fell on a woman at the back of the room. Ziva's skin prickled as she tried to place the face, and when she did her fists clenched and her heartbeat rocketed up. The woman sitting at the table no more than 20 feet from Tony was goddamn Jill Montgomery.
She looked better than she had in her beaten down driver's license photo. She'd clearly started taking better care of herself, and she'd gained some much-needed fullness to her face that made her look less desperate and pained. She was wearing good quality, tailored clothes and she'd put effort into her hair and make up. But the harshness of prison life still stuck to her eyes and rounded shoulders. Her smile that she was aiming at her friend wasn't as bright as it should have been, and there was a skittishness about her as she sat in a bar crammed with strangers.
The other thing Ziva noticed was where Jill's attention was. While she was listening to her friend talk and nodding and laughing, her eyes kept wandering past her friend's right shoulder. Ziva would bet everything she had that she knew what Jill was looking at.
"What's wrong?" Abby asked, having backtracked when she realized Ziva wasn't behind her anymore. "You've got that look on your face."
"What look?" Ziva asked, not taking her eyes off the table as Jill's friend's cell phone rang.
"The look you get when you're trying to remember that you're not an assassin anymore."
Ziva pursed her lips and grunted in response. Abby was so close to the mark and she didn't even know it. Her adrenaline was surging through her now as she weighed up her options. She wanted to go over there and punch her in her face, at a bare minimum. But she had promised Tony several times that she wouldn't go after the woman who'd been responsible for him being beaten beyond recognition. He'd made it clear over and over that he didn't want her to get involved or track Jill down. But what if Jill just happened to fall into their laps?
Beside her, Abby had followed her gaze and was now staring at the woman that they were both so keen to sink their claws into—literally. "Oh, my God," she breathed. "Is that who I think it is?"
Ziva swallowed hard to make sure her voice was even. "Yes. I believe so."
"Ziva, she keeps looking at Tony," Abby said, anger creeping into her tone. "She knows he's here."
"Well, what are we going to do?"
The question hung in the air as Ziva debated the intelligence of doing what she was leaning towards doing. She understood where Tony was coming from, but they'd had these conversations before Jill was literally sitting right in front of them. Ziva had been angry enough when she'd found out that Jill had moved from Philadelphia to a place 20 minutes from Tony's apartment. She'd been livid when she found out she had a job just four blocks from his place. And when the thought occurred to her that there was a good chance they might actually run into each other at the grocery store between her work and his house, she'd been infuriated. Now that they were at the same bar, Ziva wouldn't be surprised if Abby told her there was steam coming out of her ears. The woman was getting way too close, and Ziva was not going to allow her to get any closer.
She watched Jill's friend slide off her stool and gesture at the phone held up to her ear, and then out the door. Jill nodded and smiled, and as soon as her friend's back was turned, Jill's eyes immediately went to Tony. She had a look on her face like she was trying to make a decision, and that was the face that ended up making up Ziva's mind. She brushed past Abby and strode over to Jill's table wearing her hardest, scariest expression.
Ziva watched with sadistic glee the expression of shock that crossed Jill's face when she slid onto the vacant stool at the table. A moment later the shock turned to recognition, and then fear. Ziva abused the power for all it was worth.
"Oh, look!" she said to Abby, who was hovering by her right shoulder. "She seems to know me, and that is not good news for her. Do you know why? Because it means that she has been watching people who she should not have been. What is that saying? Caught with your hand in the honey pot?"
"Cookie jar," Abby corrected, and despite the actual words, Ziva didn't think she'd ever heard her friend's tone so intimidating.
Jill shrank back from them as tears appeared in her eyes. "Look, I was just here with my friend when I noticed him," she said. "It's a coincidence. I didn't follow him here."
"Well, that is good news," Ziva said, leaning over the table and slowly sliding her hand towards Jill's discarded dinner fork. "But you have this look on your face, Jill, that suggests to me that you are thinking about going over to my partner and having a chat with him. And I have to say that I think that would be a very bad idea."
"Because we'll mess you up," Abby shot in. "Well, mostly she will, but I'll totally go Momma Bear if I have to. Or Little Sister Bear. Actually, I'm more of a terrier dog. Usually placid but totally vicious when—"
"Abby," Ziva said sharply, shutting her friend up before she completely ruined the fear that she could see growing in Jill's face. She picked up the fork and twirled it between her fingertips before pointing it at Jill. "I don't want to make threats here," she lied. "I left job as an assassin for the Mossad behind. But if there is something that will make me return to my kill-without-conscience roots, it is seeing you go anywhere near that man you have been staring at all night." She leaned even closer and affected the voice that she knew made even Gibbs a little uncomfortable. "In fact, I would probably make more than threats. I would probably take this fork and plunge it deeply into the side of your neck."
Jill looked between the fork and Ziva's creepy smile, and then swallowed hard. Ziva was sure she believed her. Finally Jill's eyes dropped and she crossed her arms tightly around herself. "I don't want to cause him trouble," she said weakly. "I just want to go and tell him that I'm sorry. The protection order has expired, so technically—"
"Technically nothing," Abby cut in. "Aren't you listening to her? You're not going to go near him. Not tonight, not ever."
Jill looked between them and Ziva didn't like what she saw in her face. She was going to put up a fight. Her eyes left them to look over at Tony again, and Ziva purposely moved herself so that she blocked Jill's view.
"I think you should leave," Ziva told her firmly. "And I think if you ever run into him again, you should walk the other way. Because if you don't?" She paused to twirl to fork and draw Jill's attention back. "The things I will do to you will make his injuries look like a paper cut. Do you understand me?"
Jill watched to fork, bit her lip and then nodded as a tear spilled down her cheek.
Ziva had no mercy. "Do not test me on this," she warned.
"Okay," Jill said softly.
Ziva nodded and dropped the fork against Jill's empty plate with a loud clang. She shot her a sweet smile as she slid off the stool. "Great. Have a nice evening."
Her heart was hammering in her chest as she and Abby turned to walk away. The effort of keeping control, of stopping herself from leaning over and really jamming the fork into the woman's hand, was beginning to make her shake. But she would have to calm down before she returned to their table.
"I really did love him, you know."
Ziva's head snapped around to look back at Jill. She was looking at Ziva with regret and sadness that Ziva truly understood, but if she was looking for sympathy, she was pleading with the wrong ex-assassin.
"Things got out of control really fast, and my brother went way overboard when he saw I was hurt. But I didn't want…" She broke off to swallow tears and then tried again. "I really wanted to fix things. I loved him so much. I wanted to marry him."
Ziva ignored the irrational stab of jealousy she felt and gave her a hard look. "Well, you screwed up." She turned her back and nudged Abby, and the two of them left Jill alone at the table with her regrets.
One look at Tony when she returned to their table sent a stab of protectiveness through Ziva's body that almost dropped her with its strength. She resisted the urge to sit on his lap, pull out her gun and aim it at Jill, and instead just touched his cheek gently and gave him a brief kiss.
"Hey! Did you order me the nachos with bacon?" Tony asked.
She smiled at him. "Of course."
He smiled back, but then looked at her like he knew something was up and he was trying to work out what it was. He glanced at the others to make sure no one was paying attention to them before sliding his arm around her shoulders and pulling her a little closer. "You okay?"
Ziva nodded and gave him another quick kiss. She didn't want to tell him what had happened yet. Not until they were at home. "I'm great."
He didn't look convinced, but he let go of the conversation with little more than a look that promised he'd ask her again later. But two minutes later, he worked it out for himself. In the middle of Cassie's story about her apprehension of a grabby 20-year-old kid the day before, Jill walked right past their table and stared straight at Tony. Ziva felt his entire body stiffen and his mood switch from light to dark, and if they weren't in public with a hundred witnesses, she would have vaulted the table and thrown Jill through the plate glass window behind her.
She dropped her hand from the table to rest on Tony's thigh as he and Jill stared at each other. She didn't know if she was supporting him, stopping him from getting up and punching the woman himself, or giving herself an anchor to keep her in her chair. She thought a combination of all three was likely.
Jill's eyes briefly flicked to Ziva before returning to the man whose jaw was so tight he was in danger of cracking teeth. "I'm really sorry, Tony," she said softly.
Her friend from before seemed irritated that Jill hadn't kept her mouth shut, and Ziva had to wonder how much she knew. She grabbed Jill's elbow and pulled her towards the door. "Jill, let's go," she said through gritted teeth. "Don't do this."
Tony didn't say a word as she left the bar. As soon as she was out of sight, Ziva looked up at him and tried to gauge how he was going to deal with this. Although he'd been calm enough all those months ago when he'd told her what happened in Philly, there was a difference between telling the story and coming face-to-face with the villain. His jaw was still tight and he looked a little rattled, but more than anything he looked surprised. Cops didn't like surprises, and Ziva kicked herself for not remembering that earlier. She realized she should have told him she'd seen Jill as soon as she'd returned to the table.
"What's going on?" McGee asked. "Who was that?"
"No one important," Abby replied dismissively, before turning to Cassie. "So, what were you saying about that suspect who tried to grab your butt?"
Cassie resumed her story, but neither Ziva nor Tony were listening. She was still watching him worriedly half a minute later when Tony finally tore his eyes from the front door of the bar and looked at her. Ziva gave him an apologetic look, but he shook his head and dropped his hand to his thigh to thread his fingers with hers. Ziva held his hand tightly as she arched an eyebrow, asking if he was all right, and Tony let out a long breath before he gave her a nod. They'd talk it over tonight when they got home, but for now he was okay.
Still, he didn't let go of her hand for the rest of the night.
A little over an hour later, Tony stood behind Ziva in her bathroom as she took off her make up. The encounter with Jill had left him feeling antsy and generally oogie, and while he didn't have the gut feeling that she was going to try to see him again, there was a big chunk of him that was worried about Ziva being involved.
He wasn't stupid. When she'd returned to the table after ordering their food she was clearly (to him) shaken about something. Seeing Jill walk past just minutes later had saved him from having to grill Ziva later about what had bothered her. But he could tell that wasn't all of it. While he believed that even just seeing Jill nearby would have put his partner in a foul mood, there was something else going on. He could see it in her face. There was something there under the surface that she hadn't told him yet, and Tony reckoned he had a pretty good idea of what it was.
"So, what did you say to her?" he asked.
Ziva looked at him in the mirror, and she pursed her lips in that way she did when he knew she was weighing up how much to tell him. He cocked his head to the side, his expression telling her that she better not deny it, and Ziva sighed in defeat. "I just told her that it would be a very bad idea to approach you, and that she should leave and never go near you again."
Her succinct recap had him eyeing her with suspicion. "Is that all?"
Her eyes flicked to his in the mirror and he read the no in her eyes. "I am paraphrasing."
"Did she even know I was there before you—"
"She was staring at you, Tony," Ziva cut in, raising her chin defiantly. "She knew. That is why I approached her, and I am not going to apologize for it."
Tony shook his head and pushed off the doorframe to go and stand behind her. He pressed his chest to her back as he put his arms around her and kissed her temple. "I'm not asking you to," he told her without a hint of a fight in his voice. "I just wanted to know how it happened."
Ziva nodded and reached for her moisturizer. "I also may have threatened her with a fork," she mumbled.
He should have been annoyed that she'd poured fuel onto what had been little more than smoking embers, but it was such a Ziva thing to do that Tony had to drop his face to her shoulder and laugh. "A fork?"
"It was that or a spoon," Ziva explained. "I think she had risotto for dinner, so there was no knife."
He chuckled again and kissed her neck. "Thank you."
"I have your back."
He knew she did. And honestly, he couldn't blame her for tonight. If he put himself in her shoes and had seen an ex of Ziva's who had beaten her up and wasn't supposed to come near her, it would have taken everyone in the bar to pull him off the guy before he ripped his head off with his bare hands. And yeah, even if Ziva had told him to stay away from the guy, Tony knew he would have gone after him anyway. He couldn't begrudge Ziva for taking a shot when the target was right in front of her.
As Ziva continued with her routine, Tony brushed his lips back and forth across the back of her shoulder and thought about Jill. He'd recognized her right away, but at the same time she'd looked so different. She was older, of course. But she carried herself differently. Once, she'd carried herself with confidence. She'd swung her hips and stomped like a catwalk model. Tonight she'd seemed to curl in on herself. Once, there had always been a smile lighting up her stunning face, but tonight she'd looked grey and drawn. Once, she'd been the centre of the party, but tonight she'd looked like too much attention would make her run.
"Are you all right?"
He lifted his eyes to meet Ziva's in the mirror. "She looked sad."
Ziva watched him quietly for a moment, trying to read his mood. "It is not your fault, Tony," she said gently. "Don't feel guilty."
He shook his head. "I don't."
She didn't look convinced. "You are not to blame. Stop punishing yourself with what ifs."
"That's not what I'm doing," he said. "I'm just thinking."
"Well, don't do that either," she said with a smirk."
He smiled back at her, but now that she'd brought it up his head started filling with what ifs. What if his fights with Jill hadn't gotten so out of hand? What if they'd both held their tongues and calmed down? Would they have stayed together? He didn't want to marry her then, but maybe if they'd given it another shot he would have decided to go through with it. Then they would have stayed in Philadelphia, he would've stayed a cop, he'd probably have kids by now and…
He sighed and kissed the back of Ziva's shoulder. No, he never would have gone through with it. He knew back then, back before things got out of control, back before Jill started talking about marriage, that she wasn't a long-term partner. He'd had strong feelings for her, but it had always been clear to him that the relationship was going to end. He didn't want to give up his lifestyle for her. He didn't want to change and make room for her and her needs. He never thought about what their kids would look like, or considered what they'd be doing in ten, fifteen, twenty years' time.
But with Ziva, he remembered the exact moment he started thinking about all that. He'd had hopes and made assumptions throughout almost all of their partnership, but there was one moment when it all changed. One moment where he knew for sure that in ten years' time they'd be watching their kids' school plays. It was the moment almost two years ago when she stood in his kitchen and ate peanut butter straight from the jar, and casually mentioned that she was thinking about quitting Mossad and applying for US citizenship. The official decision to do it hadn't come until months later after her father and his henchmen had spooked the crap out of her and spurred her into action, but on that night when she first floated the idea with him, he knew his future was sewn up. Call him cocky, but he didn't have a single doubt that he'd be able to convince her to do it. Sure, he had plenty of doubts about whether Uncle Sam would actually welcome her into the family, but he didn't doubt that they were going to commit to each other.
In that moment, when she'd resumed licking peanut butter off her spoon as she watched him with curious eyes, Tony had visions of kids with dark curls playing basketball and dancing. Of houses full of kindergarteners' drawings and family photos. He thought of Ziva still being beside him when he was 70 and still arguing with him about her driving. And it all just felt…right.
At the time, getting her citizenship sorted out seemed like the big bad that they needed to defeat to make all those visions become a reality. It had certainly helped their situation, but since then they'd been standing still. They'd been spending all their time getting comfortable with the new rules and boundaries of their relationship and, to be frank, Tony hadn't enjoyed his life this much since, well, ever. A little more time in this stage of the relationship was okay with him, but unless they started growing, all those visions of his (and whatever was lurking in the back of her head) were going to stay out of reach. If they were going to move forward, they needed to focus on the next thing to defeat.
He raised his eyes to look at her in the mirror, and Ziva returned the gaze when she caught the movement. She narrowed her eyes slightly and cocked her head to the side as she tried to read him, but she gave up almost immediately and just asked him instead.
"What is that look on your face right now?"
Tony didn't bother checking his reflection. "I love you."
Ziva wiped her hands on a towel and turned around in the circle of his arms. She held his face between her hands as she gave him a soft, warm kiss. "I know," she assured him. "I love you, too."
The words still had the ability to bring a big, happy smile to his face, and he hoped they always would. He kissed her again, a little more deeply, and then held her hips between his hands as he looked at her seriously. "I'm not the guy I was," he told her.
He felt her fingertips press into the small of his back as she shot him a small frown. "When?"
"Back then," he said, cocking his head in the invisible direction of the past. "There was all this stuff that Jill wanted and I didn't, and I never really understood where she was coming from. She was done with the musical chairs of relationships, but I wasn't. I just wanted to live my life and see what was out there for me. But now?" He held her gaze and smiles. "Now I'm done. Now I want all that stuff she did, but I want it with you."
Ziva gave him a rare wide, free smile. "I do too."
"I think we need to keep moving things along," he continued. "I mean, I love how things are now, but I want more."
Her smile faltered and he saw a little bit of tension enter her eyes. "What are you talking about?"
He hesitated a moment before deciding that if there was ever anything they had to be honest about, it was this. "Do you want kids?"
Ziva's eyes widened and he felt her go tense against him. "Right now?" she squeaked.
He smiled broadly when he realized why she'd just started to panic. "Let me rephrase that. Do you ever want kids?"
She relaxed again and pressed her chest harder against his as her arms circled his waist. "With you?" She paused to gaze up at him, and the look in her eyes made his whole body warm. "Yes. I think I would love that. In a year or two. Or three."
His smile stretched from ear to ear. "Two," he negotiated. "With a caveat that we start talking more seriously about it in a year."
"Talking," she emphasized. "Yes, we can talk."
He grinned and started kissing her neck. "And then maybe by McGee's birthday in two years, we might have a—"
"Tony," she said, not quite firmly, as she pushed him back a little. "I am getting the feeling right now that you are quite keen to get started. But I just need a little time." She held up her thumb and index finger with barely any space between them. "Just a little. Please?"
He'd mostly been messing with her with his previous comment, and now that he saw that she was slightly panicked about getting started so soon, it was easy for him to nod and reassure her. "Okay. Talk next year and see where we're at, and then keep talking after that."
She actually slumped a little with her sigh of relief. "Yes. I can agree to that."
"Good," he said, and started kissing her neck again. He had something else he wanted to talk about, and he couldn't believe he was going to do it to her now. But since they were already talking about the future, he decided to go for it. "And in the meantime—"
It was as far as he got before Ziva started laughing nervously. "Oh, God, Tony. What else are you going to surprise me with?"
He laughed against her but kept holding her tight and kissing her. "I was just going to mention that my lease is up in the summer," he said against her neck.
"Oh," Ziva drew out. "So where are you going to live after that?"
He knew her joke was payback for dumping both babies and co-habitation on her in the space of five minutes when they hadn't talked about either scenario even in passing before now. But the fact that she was still holding onto him and rubbing her hands over his back in that way she did when she was looking for some quality naked time told him that she could probably handle resolving the housing issue right now.
"I don't know," he played along. "Probably in a cardboard box somewhere down near the Potomac. Do you mind looking after my TV and my DVD collection?"
"They take up a lot of room," she returned.
He gave her neck a final kiss and then pulled his head back to look at her. "I'd like to move in here," he told her.
"Maybe," she replied, deflating his hope just a little before she continued. "Or maybe we could find a place that is a little bigger."
He smiled at her going along with the idea and brushed his thumbs over her cheekbones. "Maybe somewhere a little closer to the Navy Yard."
She nodded. "If I say yes to that, will you promise not to ask me any more big questions about houses and children and other big relationship things for a little while?"
He chuckled. "Yes, I promise."
"Then yes, that sounds like a good idea."
He started to smile before he eyed her warily. "Do you really mean that? Or are you just saying it to make me shut up?"
She smirked. "Can't it be both?"
He pursed his lips. "It can be so long as you really do want to live together."
Tony's smile returned full force, and he took her face between his hands to kiss her adoringly. He doubted she would ever have any idea how happy she made him, but he was determined to spend the next 30 or 40 years trying to show her. Ziva pressed herself into the kiss as it heated up and deepened, and soon Tony started pulling her out of the bathroom.
"Come to bed with me," he murmured. "I have a very strong urge to get naked and snuggly with you."
Ziva snorted. "Snuggly? Can't we just have sex?"
He grinned as he stripped off her top and pulled her into the bedroom. "Ziva," he sighed, "I swear to God that you and I were made for each other."
And I'm done! With two days to spare before the finale, too.
So long, and thanks for all the fish.
(P.S. This does not mean that you can all now start hassling me about finishing Blush, okay? I know I promised I'd finish it. I still intend to. But everybody just chill for a while. Please. Thank you.)