A/N: Following that tender, beautifully-crafted episode of NCIS, "Freedom," (significant spoilers for that episode, don't read on if you haven't seen it) I bring you this how-I-wish-that-were-the-case companion to the episode.
I don't know how to write a short story. There is so much that goes into every big decision we make, even if it feels like instinct, that I feel like I don't do a story justice unless I delve into those implicit motivations we have as human beings. Hence the length here.
The title came from the song "Use Somebody" by Kings of Leon. The song quoted is "Colorblind" by The Counting Crows. Those two songs inspired me a lot in the writing of this piece, so I quoted them to share them with you, not to step on any copyright toes.
I tried to make this one special. I really did. And now it's in your hands. Please treat it kindly.
you know that i could use somebody
I am colorblind
Coffee black and egg white
Pull me out from inside
I am ready
I am covered in skin
No one gets to come in
Pull me out from inside
I am folded and unfolded and unfolding
I am colorblind
Coffee black and egg white
Pull me out from inside
I am ready
I am fine
- Colorblind, The Counting Crows
The office is quiet once Tony, McGee and McGee's tormentor are gone.
McGee left behind paperwork in an attempt to go out, make a change in his daily routine; but of course that means someone else will have to do it and Ziva, sitting alone now in the office, figures she will finish it and get it out of the way. After all, Tony and McGee will probably pull rank on her tomorrow and make her do it anyway.
She takes the folder McGee abandoned and brings it to her desk. She tries to tell herself that it's easier to focus when the boys aren't around to distract her, but their absence feels wrong somehow. Empty – almost lonely. Because she has learned to work only with their distractions and when they are gone, she has only her own thoughts for company, and her thoughts tend to leave a lot to be desired.
While she works on the report, Gibbs returns to his desk to gather his things for the night. She feels his eyes on her and looks up. He is, indeed, watching her closely.
"Not going home yet?" he asks.
"I am just finishing up," she tells him.
She gives him a sideways glance, but he isn't looking at her anymore, so she continues working. And even though she is used to Gibbs and the way he sneaks up on people, she still jumps slightly when he suddenly appears by her side, his wood-and-coffee smell strong in her nose, his breath warm against her ear, his gruff voice as soft and intimate as it knows how to be, "Have a good night."
He withdraws; something painful knots in Ziva's chest. She catches his eye and he gives her that look of his, the shrewd and empathetic one that so obviously means he knows more than he's letting on.
It only lasts for a few seconds before Gibbs leaves for the elevator, but it has wormed its way under her skin and there is a lump in her throat and her thoughts are whizzing dangerously around her head.
Because she knows that the previous exchange has everything to do with Georgia Wooten – the way Gibbs let her try to break Georgia, the way she had failed miserably and Gibbs had had to break her down himself instead.
Her stomach turns at the thought. She hadn't wanted that job. She hadn't wanted to talk to this woman. She hadn't wanted to get close to her or her tragedies; she hadn't wanted to force it.
But she had gone and she had been honest – troubling memories bubbled to the surface even as she stood there – yet it had come to nothing. I know what it's like to be under the control of a man, to feel like you have no power, and the only way to get that power back is to shut down. The words, earnestly spoken then, now make her feel sick.
Something in her throat stings. Old wounds inflame. There is pressure behind her eyes, and her humanity, the physical limit of her body and the infinite amount of thought she is capable of, threatens to overwhelm her.
It's familiar, this restlessness, this quiet, shameful distress; she has been here before. And her response is familiar too – the deep breaths, the mental reprimands, the determined numbing of every sensation currently plaguing her.
You tell yourself, you must shut down. You tell yourself to never show any emotion, to anybody. I know what that's like. It's the only way you can survive.
Another wave of nausea grips her stomach.
There was a time, Ziva knows, that this was the law to live by. Mouth shut; head down; move on. No time for thinking, no time for anything. Flee; run; do something crazy if necessary but don't be soft, never be soft. But she also knows that she has changed fundamentally from the time when this was the law to live by.
Before, she had always felt alone, and that had made her reckless. Now, she knows she isn't alone – her coworkers have proved it to her time and time again – and that complicates matters. Complicates them so that she's sitting here in her desk at work, blindly typing a report and being more introspective than she's ever really cared to be.
So, because she is raw and a little tender tonight, and she isn't quite sure what she needs, Ziva stops the report mid-sentence, tosses the folder back to McGee's desk, and pulls out her cell phone, goes straight to message composition.
Hey, what are you up to?
She scrolls through her alphabetical list of contacts and slows when she gets to the first of the R's: Ray.
She inhales, slow and steadying, and selects his name. Two more screens and the message has been sent to him. She exhales and now she waits, turning her computer off and reaching for her jacket as she does so.
Her phone vibrates within thirty seconds.
Nothin much, u?
Just leaving work.
Rlly? What time is it there?
Late. I am a workaholic.
Where are you?
It takes him some time to respond, but already, something in her relaxes with this easy banter. Talking to Ray has always been enjoyable and rather effortless; it's one of the reasons she decided to continue seeing him after her first trip to Miami.
It's not intense with him; he doesn't demand much of her. The sex is good. He doesn't know her secrets, doesn't know the truth about her – and that's probably his most valuable asset.
All he really knows about her is that she is a pretty, able-bodied woman who can keep up her end of the conversation. And that's enough for him. He makes her feel wonderfully normal and well-adjusted and she likes that; it gives her something to strive for.
Her phone buzzes and she opens the text probably more enthusiastically than she should.
Hey I gotta go will talk tmrrow kay? xx
She responds – Ok good night – but something in her sinks when, a minute later, her phone still has not vibrated. She hates being selfish – she knows he has a life, he has things to do, like she does – but at the same time, the pleasure he had so recently inspired in her has already begun to shrivel away. Georgia Wooten's painfully wooden expression at her door flares back into her consciousness.
Ziva grabs her jacket, turns off the lamp on her desk and heads to the elevator, the blood in her head rushing as though she is being dangled upside down. She arrives at her car and gets in, turns the key in the ignition and backs out of her spot and she's already speeding on her way out of the garage, but her brain is going numb and the world has taken on that surreal glaze it gets when something unexpected happens and her thoughts are allowed to wander.
Her instinct says to go home, make some tea, and toss and turn in bed until the morning. But upon second thought, as she waits for the light to turn, she opens up her cell phone and goes through the address book again, looking at the little black pixels spelling out their names and feeling her heart constrict at the thought of seeing them in her current state.
Abby, Ducky, Gibbs, McGee, Ray, Tony: she sees their names on the screen and their faces in her mind's eye as the light turns, and her car leaps ahead with a screech of tires.
She knows each of them would want her to trust them, would want her to let them inside her head and help her. But a thread of shame and stubbornness renders her reluctant to reach them. Slowly, she is allowing herself to be reached, if the mood and the moment and the person is right, but she still has trouble asking. She still has trouble needing.
You tell yourself to never show any emotion, to anybody. It's the only way you can survive. But it's not the only way to survive, is it? And that's the problem. Shutting down is what is comfortable and natural to her, but that has never been her only option. And those people in her address book, who she needs and shoves away so often, have been the ones to show her this.
Ziva reaches her apartment building and even though the ride had not been very long, she is exhausted. She is muddled. There are feelings in her that refuse to go away, but she doesn't know what exactly they are or what they want her to do about them. All she knows is that she wants them to go away, wants to get out of her own head and rest awhile. This case has been unexpectedly difficult for her.
She lets herself into the apartment, puts on the water for some tea, and leans against the kitchen counter, sighing into the dark.
Tony had been in the midst of a very deep, very peaceful sleep when his doorbell shatters the silence.
For the first couple of rings, the sound doesn't even register; he continues to snore through it. But the next few manage to penetrate his defenses and stir him from sleep. He groans, pulls the pillow over his head, and wonders who would choose – he glances at his alarm clock – three fourteen AM to visit. But as he tries to go back to sleep, the doorbell rings twice more and, resigned, he stretches out his limbs, yawns profusely, and pads out to the hall, his feet cold against the wood of his apartment.
Tony opens the door and the first thing he sees is light; he cringes, arm over his eyes, until his pupils may adjust. When they do, he sees a cascade of dark hair, a small round rear end, and a familiar face turning to catch his eye.
For a moment, he is sure he is seeing things. He blinks a couple of times, trying to clear the sleep from his vision. But when he refocuses on the woman in the hall, he still sees Ziva. His mouth goes slack with shock and he is sure the confusion registers on every inch of his face.
"Ziva?" he calls, just to be sure.
"I'm sorry," she says quickly, her eyes averted to the floor. "I did not mean to wake you."
She turns now so that she is facing him. He notices that her fingers are clutching a movie-sized box half-obscured by her coat. When she sees his eyes there, she shifts uncomfortably and reveals a James Bond movie.
"I thought you would be awake," she clarifies in a murmur, still not looking at him.
This is too much to take in at three in the morning. Tony leans against the doorframe, gaping at her, mouth still slack, arms crossed due to the drop in temperature outside of his comforter. He is now more awake, but no less baffled, seeing his partner there in the hallway – because contrary to popular belief, they don't do that. Ever. They don't hang out unless it's somewhere neutral, like work after hours, and they certainly don't turn up in each other's company at strange obscure hours like this.
Something must be wrong, if she is here tonight. Or this morning. Whatever it is. So Tony just watches, trying to catch some hint, some sign, of what might be going on in Ziva's head.
She is still standing there with the box in her hand. Her hair is loose and windswept; her make-up is perhaps not as composed as it had been at work, but still present; her cheeks are a little pinker than usual but that could be due to lighting or a simple misread on his part. She is wearing the same clothes she had worn in the office. He isn't sure what to make of that.
She stares at every detail the hallway has to offer before her eyes finally rest on his face. Her irises – dark and usually playful – are soft, embarrassed, a bit desperate; her features are tightly controlled, though the cracks are visible in the lines around her mouth. He finds himself softening at the sight.
Without a word, he moves aside and leaves the door wide open for her. A brief flicker of thanks in her eyes and she steps inside, still holding the box. He closes the door behind her and puts on a few lights.
Mostly to give himself something to do, he moves into his tiny kitchen and opens the fridge. He takes out a bottle of beer and holds it up for her, the question in his eyes instead of on his lips.
She shakes her head, though, so he closes the fridge, pops the top on the beer and takes a swig. The rush of cold liquid is good for him, clears his head. So now he leans against the counter, the bottle in his hand, eyes on her again, waiting to take her lead.
Very precisely, almost experimentally, Ziva steps into the kitchen and leans against the counter opposite the one Tony is leaning against. She is still holding the movie box in her hand. He wants to ask her about it – it's obviously her lame version of a lead-in – but somehow he can feel instinctively that she didn't come here to get questioned by him. So he chooses to say nothing and simply watches her.
She watches him too, drinks him in, everything about him. She feels strangely exposed, here in his kitchen, even though she is still wearing her coat. When she got into her car, finally tired of pretending she will get any sleep tonight, she didn't have a particular route in mind; but when she was next aware of her surroundings, she was at Tony's building.
Unwilling to go in without some kind of excuse, she drove home again, picked up the first movie she could reach on her shelf – ironically, a James Bond film – and then drove back to his place.
She wasn't sure why she did that; just that it felt right. Out of everyone in her contacts list, he was the one who tended to understand her best, in his obtuse, clumsy way. Somehow, he was the only one that made any sense at all. She had honestly thought he would be awake.
Now that she is here in his presence, though, seeing him with his sweatpants and his bare feet and his general air of scruffiness, she wants to dismiss him and leave. What had she been thinking? He is Tony Dinozzo, her partner who doesn't have a serious bone in his body. He smiles too big, quotes too many movies; he is too American, his face too classically handsome, soft and sweet and rounded and innocent and everything she reviles in a personality, everything she mocks and teases and shoves and runs away from.
But on second glance, in his kitchen with the light hitting all the angles his facial bones make, watching her so intelligently for three AM, he's Tony Dinozzo – the guy who is smart and brave and funny, who cares about her, who got trapped in a storage box with her and went to Paris with her and went undercover with her and saved her from Somalia, who killed her boyfriend but only because he was worried about her and got caught in a bad situation because of it, who gets jealous of any halfway decent-looking guy she shows even a vague interest in, who has proven to her time and time again that she matters, that he really does care, that she is worth every effort he exerts for her.
He is standing there in the semi-darkness, tired with his hair sticking up in five different directions but watching her closely, and something gives and the two images she has of him smash together and he, he suddenly becomes everything.
She knows she has made the right decision.
The air is thick and a little electrified, but she chooses now to say, "I was not sure who else to go to."
"About what?" His voice is soft, but as always, he asks the right questions, eyes never leaving her.
A lump rises for the second time tonight in her throat. "About…not shutting down," she says.
Understanding flickers in him.
"What's bothering you?" he asks.
She shifts in a way that looks a lot like squirming. "I don't know," she admits.
His mouth opens, tongue poised to make sound, but he hesitates. "Do you…want to talk about it?"
The lump threatens to choke her; she catches his eye and says, "No. But I should."
Automatically, his feet guide him forward, across the length of the kitchen, across the vast expanse of distance they have between them, towards her. He wants to be there for her, simple as that, and it feels wrong, timidly hanging back on the other side of the room, almost on the other side of the world.
"You can talk to me, Ziva," he tells her, leaning on the counter beside her, their elbows touching.
She gets a whiff of laundry and the cologne he likes; it's so familiar, so his, reminding her overwhelmingly of him and his humanity, that she gives in. He is Tony Dinozzo after all.
"Gibbs told me to talk to Georgia Wooten," she says, fighting to remain cool and steady. "He wanted me to…connect with her. Get her to trust me and confess to killing her husband."
She pauses, half-expecting him to interrupt, ask a question, say something. But he doesn't. He waits, still watching her attentively, waiting for her to continue.
"I tried," she says. "I…told her I had been in her position. Had been under the control of a man. Had felt like there was no other option but to…shut down, never tell anyone anything. And for a second, I thought she understood me." She swallows thickly. "But she realized I was accusing her of murder and she got upset. She told me to leave her alone and slammed the door in my face."
Her mouth is suddenly very dry. And, as though this thought has fluttered directly into Tony's head, he offers her his beer, which she accepts and takes a sip out of, the sting as it goes down her throat oddly satisfying. He takes the beer back and takes a sip himself, apparently contemplative, eyes now on the ceiling, his hazel irises catching the light.
"She had been scared and angry for a long time," he says at last. "That's just…how she deals with things."
"Gibbs got her to talk," Ziva shoots back. "In interrogation. He got the whole story out of her."
Tony considers this one.
"Her doorstep and the interrogation room were two very different settings," he says. "It's not your fault she reacted the way she did. I mean, I'm no psychologist, no Ducky or anything, but I figure in her own house, it was a lot easier to push you out. In interrogation, she was easier to break.
"But she did have to break," Tony continues quietly. "She couldn't stay stoic forever. It was just a matter of time before she had to face everything. And her time happened to be with Gibbs. It doesn't mean you did anything wrong."
Ziva is silent now, mulling this over. Already, something had relaxed in her chest, left her more room to breathe, but something else still nagged her, wouldn't let her go.
"I tried to touch her, when we went to corner the bartender and I led her out," she says. "She wouldn't let me. She shook me off and walked ahead of me."
Tony shrugs, working hard to stifle an unconscious yawn. "Like I said, she was scared and angry. She didn't know what else to do. She thought she was alone." Ziva can feel his eyes on the side of her face now, boring into her.
"But she didn't know she wasn't alone," he says. "And that was the whole thing with her. She had had friends and family who could have been there for her. She chose not to say anything to them. She almost didn't survive that experience because of it."
"She did survive, though."
"Only because she told someone else, who acted for her. He didn't do a perfect job, but he saved her." Tony takes a breath. "It's okay to trust someone, you know. It's okay to let people know when something isn't right."
She purses her lips until they hurt. "I know."
His eyes are on her again. She feels them, but she doesn't have the energy to return his gaze. Without warning, exhaustion hits her like a mallet to every cell in her body, all the sleep that never came tonight finally catching up with her. She nods heavily.
"I do," Ziva confirms to the floor. "I am…trying to."
Her feet are like lead, but she rotates so that her body is facing Tony, and Tony rotates himself accordingly to face her too. It takes a lot out of her, but she does catch his eye – and it's so achingly tender that she is deeply embarrassed for both of them.
Carefully, he lifts his hands and cups her face in his hands and suddenly, she seems smaller, elemental somehow, her skin warm on his with the bone strong and evident underneath. She is his partner, someone he works with everyday; but in his kitchen, the label falls away and she is just a woman, so human he almost can't stand it.
His hands move down from her jaw to her neck, following the curve down to her shoulders, which are delicate and kind of beautiful, round and fitting perfectly in his palms, encompassing the width of her frame, all the physical space in the world she takes up. Something in her relaxes but something else tenses, as her eyes close and his hands move to pull back her hair, exposing her neck to the chill of the air-conditioning and the soft warmth of his breathing. Goosebumps erupt; the fine hairs stand erect. He can feel them in blazing detail, in her and a little in him too.
Tony is well aware of his non-boyfriend status, but it doesn't escape his notice that Ziva chose him tonight for comfort. And it doesn't escape his notice either that she let him touch her in a way that will make both of them blush like beetroots when the light of day brings them back to their senses.
But on this strange, strange night in his kitchen, it stands to fact that she let him in; she chose him and he, he was willing to be there for her.
He was. And it isn't something either of them will forget very easily, he muses, as he stumbles back to bed, fast asleep almost the moment his head sinks into the pillow.