"Ouch," Tony said in sympathy, slipping into a seat across from Ziva and trying to not let the grimace that was creeping up into his expression show on his face. Swallowing hard, he reached over to take a crouton from her salad, murmuring, "McGee told me what happened."
It was actually worse than what McGee had told him, but Tony had steeled himself before he stepped into her view. He had an irking suspicion that McGee intentionally left out how bad she was hurt to avoid an ultimatum. Thinking about it, Tony didn't blame the probie's choice because in the heat of the moment, he probably would have started a shouting match with him. His temper wasn't something he could always control, and the fact that he wasn't there to have her back made him more angry than anything. While it would be foolish to think that he could have changed anything, it wouldn't stop his initial fury, so he understood why McGee kept it vague.
An injured Ziva made Tony angry at the world in general.
He waited for her to reply.
She stabbed her food in irritation, saying, "I had three two-hundred pound Marines on me. McGee was taking care of two of them himself and could hardly give me back up. I almost got them, too, but one swing to the face and bang." She gestured to her wrapped up, broken nose with her fork.
He took in the black eye as well, sighing heavily. Half-heartedly, he told her, complete with a half-smile that didn't really reach his eyes, "Well, if it makes you feel any better, I still think you're the prettiest thing in the room."
She dead-panned, looking around the break room very pointedly, "You and I are the only ones here."
"Maybe except for me," he winked. With a tight-lipped smile, he reached over to squeeze her left hand with an emotional expression flooding his features, hoping that she understood what he was trying to do.
Of course, she did, and Ziva laughed softly, her mood lightening considerably, much to Tony's relief. She squeezed his hand in return with a shimmering in her good eye that he couldn't get the full feeling of. Eventually, she returned to her salad, but she didn't release his hand from her grasp. He ran his thumb against her smooth skin.
She murmured, "Thank you for not making a big deal out of this."
"You've had worse," Tony shrugged.
She saw right through it. "It bothers you."
"Of course it does," he admitted. "Why wouldn't it?"
"It is part of the job."
"Which is why I'm not making a big deal out of it, Ziva."
"But it still bothers you."
"Like I said, of course it does."
She gave him a doubtful look.
"I'm not making a big deal out of it because you don't want me to. Do I have to spell it out?" Tony said lightly. He leaned forward onto the table to tap her chin with his finger. The action evoked a small smile and a sigh from her, and it was enough for him. While he was at it, he took her fork from her hand and picked at her food. He was hungry enough that he would willingly eat salad. It didn't happen often. Handing it back to her, he said with a full mouth, "I've got to get back to work if I want to get home at a reasonable time. I just wanted to see how you're doing."
"I have orders to go home for the rest of the day in fear of -"
"Your nose bleeding more or something, and you're doped up on drugs." Tony finished, standing from his chair. "I know. McGee told me, remember? Do you need a ride home, or can you manage?" He knew the answer, but he thought he should ask for pleasantry's sake.
"I live fifteen minutes away. I will be fine."
Giving her a smile that he saved for when they were alone, he went over to her, swooping down to place a light kiss at the crown of her head. Tony squeezed her shoulder once. "I'll see you tonight, okay?"
Tony smiled into his phone at the sound of her voice, an involuntary action, while turning away from the rest of the team and speaking in a low murmur. Stuffing his free hand into his pocket, he asked, "I wasn't expecting a call. Anything wrong?"
"No, but I have dinner."
He chuckled appreciatively, a rush of affection for her taking him by surprise. It leaked out into his voice. "Do you really?"
"Yes, I do," she answered him. He could tell that she had a smile on her face as well, and the image of its glow made his grow wider without him realizing it. Though, she explained by saying in an exasperation that wasn't directed at him, "I am bored at home and definitely not crippled like the doctor believes. I thought that I might as well do something useful."
"I'm starving," he reassured her. He added quietly, "You'll be back tomorrow."
A soft sigh rung in his ears. "I know."
He gazed out the window at the Navy Yard, watching the swell of the sea. He watched until his eyes glazed over, and he rubbed them tiredly while saying, "I was going to grab something on the way over, but I guess that's not necessary."
Taking a breath, he paused. "All right, well, I just finished up here, so I'll head right over. Oh, but I'm going to swing by my place first. Maybe in an hour or two?"
"Sounds great. Bye, Tony."
His eyes flickered closed at her light, playful voice, and three words took him by surprise and threatened to slip off his tongue of their own accord. They choked him with their sudden ambush, and he said with difficulty, "Bye. See you in a bit."
Snapping his phone shut, Tony exhaled hard, running a hand through his hair and letting his shoulder slump momentarily. He murmured a low curse because without him even realizing it, the three little words had prepared themselves for an appearance. He thought that maybe it would have taken longer, but a beat later, he realized that he was fooling himself. It was nonsense. He could have told her years ago. Could have, but didn't.
He had always known, in a subliminal way, at least.
The words had always been lingering in him, just out of reach, just beneath the surface.
He has loved her for a long time but never really allowed himself to admit it.
It was a stupid idea in itself. After everything that they went through, he should have been able to admit it. The both of them should have - but neither could because they both had issues with the idea of being dependent on someone else. They were so used to not getting attached, in keeping their guards up, that they were comfortable with leaving it unsaid, and for awhile, it worked. It was a well-oiled machine, familiar and very unlikely to break down.
Neither really could ever admit how dependent they were to each other.
At least until recently.
That's why it felt so strange for the words to be so clear and very honest in his head. He was so used to knowing but not knowing - or rather, not saying - and it felt like he just recalled a lost, blissful memory that he never should have forgotten in the first place. It was almost nostalgic and numbing but not by much. It was more enlightening than anything.
It was uncomfortable as well, definitely, but he almost felt relieved because it was like he was shedding his old skin for a better fit, like he was trying to start anew.
The realization made him jittery, but after dragging more air into his lungs, he felt better because he knew all along. He reassured himself that it was nothing new, and his pounding heart seemed to accept that answer without argument.
Straightening his posture, he took another breath in preparation for facing the world again with a tired expression that he couldn't fix. God, he needed sleep.
He turned back to the bullpen with a tingling sensation going down his spine, and he raised an eyebrow at the sight of Ducky, McGee, Palmer, and Abby in a tight circle, huddled together and whispering. Very pointedly, they averted their gazes from him upon realizing that he was looking at them, and he sauntered over with an unamused expression.
He should have ducked out of sight when he got the call.
"Scuttlebutt, team?" he asked, crossing his arms and leaning on his desk.
"No idea what you're talking about, Tony," Abby exclaimed at little too quickly.
"You never could lie, Abs," Tony shrugged while his head tilted slightly. Looking them dead-straight, he told them, "If you don't want solid answers to whatever speculation," he waggled his fingers at them, "you've got going on, that's fine with me. Keep speculating. I'm sure it's fun." He took a seat at his chair, folding his hands in his lap with a self-satisfied smirk.
Ducky, taking the bait, took a step toward him. "Have you got yourself a new girlfriend, Tony?"
He wasn't exactly prepared for such a straight-forward question, but then again, he wasn't prepared for a question in the first place. In reality, he had not thought that they'd actually bite the bait and call the bluff.
Nonetheless, he tilted his head nonchalantly, shrugging. Keeping his face clean, he told them, "Testing the waters."
"See! I told you, Palmer!" Abby slapped the spectacle-clad man with the back of her hand.
He winced while rubbed his arm gingerly, mumbling, "Okay, okay, Abby."
McGee, wearing a devilish grin that could have only been learnt from the master himself, took a step forward as well. "Must be special girl, if you're telling us, Tony."
"Sure, McGoo. Real special." He flashed him a grin for show but took note of the fact that McGee was starting to use his own tricks against him. It was an amusing thing, yeah, but Tony couldn't help but feel slightly irritated by it.
"Does the girl have a name, Tony?" McGee pressed on. He brought up a hand to cut Tony off when he opened his mouth to speak. "No, no, wait. I have better question. Does Ziva know? I'm sure she's more interested in it than the rest of us are."
Tony barked a laugh despite himself. The whole situation felt like it was out of a movie, and god, he shouldn't enjoy it as much as he was. They were simply begging for him have fun with it. Unable to resist, he winked at McGee, saying, "What she doesn't know won't hurt her."
"Tony!" Abby half-barked, half-gasped, pushing past McGee and Ducky and marching toward him with a furious expression on her face.
She hit his arm hard, making him jump to his feet and demand through gritted teeth, "Hey, what was that for?"
Abby didn't recoil or step back, but glared up at him with a tight jaw.
He understood her reaction a beat later and couldn't keep up his persona. The look of disappointment on Abby's face was too heartbreaking for him to handle. In that moment, he understood why Abby had such a tight hold over Gibbs. Hell, she had a grip over all of them. She was so sincere, so honest, and it was endearing, magnetic, and irresistible. Tony couldn't stand to see her disappointed in him, and really, he'd do anything for her too.
Taking a bullet for the lovely Abby?
He'd do it without hesitation.
He had to admit that he was touched the she would stand up for Ziva the way she did. The two of them had gotten close since the summer in Somalia, and Tony was glad for that. The two emotionally head-strong women needed to stick together, and they got along well. He's been watching them.
Letting the tension in his body disperse and sighing at the younger woman, he touched her hand. Softly, he leaned in and whispered in her ear with sincerity, "I'm kidding, Abby. You know I wouldn't do anything like that to her."
She eased but not by much. Eventually, though, she gave him a hug, right there behind his desk and in front of the rest of the team. He returned it just as tightly, momentarily being comforted by the smell of her fruity shampoo. Standing on her toes, she mumbled in his ear, "I know. Your mystery girl is Ziva, isn't it, Tony? I've been watching you two, and it's the only explanation."
He chortled and breathed in her ear, "Nothing can ever deceive you, Abs."
"How long?" she demanded.
"A month, tomorrow."
Releasing him, there was a glint of surprise on her face. She hissed, still quiet enough to keep the conversation between them, "What? That long? I didn't think that."
Tony shrugged, stuffing his hands into his pockets and saying in a normal voice, "Like I said, testing the water."
Abby stepped on his foot, huffing. She went back to McGee's desk, saying over her shoulder, "You could have said something."
"Nah," Tony chortled, putting his hands into his pockets. "You know how I work."
"It's different, though," Abby told him with narrowed eyes. She jerked her head toward Gibbs' empty desk, and Tony sighed and gave her an "I know" with his expression. It was an issue that they were putting off more and more each day.
Truthfully, it was an issue he had no intention of dealing with in the near future.
He noticed that they were being sent confused looks from the three other men who were left out of the loop.
"You mind filling us in?" Palmer asked, perched casually on Ziva's desk. His legs dangled off the side.
"I do mind, thanks, Autopsy Gremlin. All in good time," Tony replied, reaching down to grab his gear. He slung it over his shoulder and started out toward the elevators but paused in the center of the bullpen. "We're still on for tomorrow night, right?"
Palmer cleaned his glasses on his scrubs. "Drinks? Yeah. Still want me to bring Breena?"
"Of course, Palmer. Last time I checked, you were were still engaged, and unless that's changed within the last twenty-four hours, of course you have to bring her."
The younger man ignored him. "Is Ziva still up for it? I hear she's hurt pretty bad."
Tony snorted, "Ziva makes a lion look tame, Palmer. I'll ask her, but we're still on, then."
"Definitely, definitely," he turned to the others, "You guys sure you don't want to go?"
The other three shook their heads at him in turn, all explaining that they had plans. Tony took the opportunity to attempt to tiptoe out of the bullpen, but McGee spotted him and groaned, "Tony - You're seriously not leaving, are you? We've still got paperwork."
"Speak for yourself because I don't know about you, McGoo," Tony called as he walked out, "but I worked through lunch to get it done. I have plans tonight, thanks. Have fun." He made a waving motion over his shoulder without looking at them. "Later, team."
The elevators closed just as he heard McGee demand to no one in particular, "Since when did Tony get anything done early?"
Ziva said from behind her book, "We have to let them know soon."
Tony had just explained what happened in the bullpen earlier in the day, and he sighed in defeat, "I know, but a part of me wants to prolong Gibbs' lecture for a little longer." Her feet were propped up onto his lap, and he rubbed them idly as he spoke. His eyes occasionally flickered up to the television, but for the most part, his attention was focused on Ziva.
She set her book down on her stomach and said, "The longer we wait, the worse the lecture. They deserve to know."
"I know that. We'll tell them - given if Abby hasn't blabbed yet."
"I doubt it."
He pursed his lips.
"You never know - Gibbs may realize that it's working and that it's working well and leave us alone," he offered. Immediately, though, Tony shook his head at the sound of his over-the-top optimism. They were talking about Gibbs here. Somehow, he thought that the Director would be more lenient about the situation than their boss, and that was definitely saying something.
Ziva snorted in reply, probably thinking the same thing.
Tony continued to talk, "Okay, okay. Maybe not. But you have to admit that it's working."
"It is working better than I ever thought possible."
"What? You thought this would blow up in our faces?" The question was a serious one, but he felt the need to lighten it, so he lightly ran his nail up the length of her foot. She squirmed away, giggling.
Tony allowed himself a grin because the only way to evoke a giggle from her, though it was always half-hearted, was by tickling her. The sound was light and soft and very Ziva, despite the fact that she didn't giggle. Or so he thought. Upon realizing it, he was left speechless. He could clearly remember the dumb-struck, what-the-fuck feeling in him when he realized that yes, Ziva David was capable of giggling.
She kicked him with her heel before flipping positions so that her head was resting on his thigh.
Gazing up at him, she admitted, "It was a possibility, yes."
His fingers wove themselves through her curls, and he massaged the top of her head with a clawing motion. His eyes travelled up to the television momentarily before returning to her face. "I guess that I have to agree with that. Hell, between the two of us, we've probably thought up every damn outcome to this."
"It would not surprise me," she laughed softly.
"We overanalyze situations, and while it's great because we're cops, it fucks with our personal lives, but you already know that."
She sighed, taking his free hand in hers and letting her eyes flicker closed. "Yes. Though, I do not think it has interfered thus far."
He stared at her for a long moment before he started choking with laughter. It made his body rumble, and Ziva felt the vibrations from her spot in his lap. She frowned up at him, waiting for an explanation. Rubbing his eyes that were brimming with tears, he said, "Ziva - Are you kidding me? It's caused so many problems for us. It's caused hundreds - no, thousands - of fights and more issues than I can possibly recall. Hell, I bet that if we weren't cops and I met you in a grocery store or something, we'd be married with two kids by now."
She sat up and rolled her eyes at him. "But the fact of the matter is that we are cops and that we didn't meet in a grocery store."
He didn't fail to spot the pinkish tinge to her cheeks, but he decided not to comment on them. "Okay, I'll give you that one, and I guess you're right about it not interfering since this," he motioned between them with his finger, "happened. It's surprising, really."
Thoughtfully, she nibbled on her lip. "I think that we may have questioned each other so much in the past that it may be impossible for us to do so anymore."
He thought it over and knew that she was right as usual. At this point, it would take a pair of industrial-strength pliers to sever the trust between them, and hell, if they were being truthful, even that wouldn't be enough to break the bond. The level of trust had been broken and repaired so many times that it had grown virtually indestructible, in theory, anyway.
"That's a reasonable claim, I think," Tony finally agreed. With a tender expression on his face, he reached over to brush the hair from her face and sighed again at her broken nose and black eye. It irritated him that this was a part of their job and that it happened often enough that he wasn't that bothered by it.
He told her quietly, "You should probably get some rest."
"As should you."
"You're the one with the broken nose!" he retorted.
Patiently, she said, "You have been tired, lately, Tony. I have noticed."
"What can I say? I can only keep up with a ninja for so long," he joked, but when he saw the expression on his face, he subdued and reassured her, "We've had a heavy case load these past couple weeks. A nice weekend to relax, and I'll be as good as new."
Carefully, she pressed on, "Does it have anything to do with the undercover operation?"
"I'm not allowed to tell you that, Ziva," he sighed, leaning back on her couch. Inhaling deeply, he murmured, "But yes and no. It's not stressful, but it's frustrating. I'm not getting any leads, and SecNav won't take no for an answer. It's nothing, really."
He was thankful for her simple answer. "Okay."
"Okay. Let's get you into bed before you pass out on me. You're heavier than you look, you know."
Ziva hit him hard enough to make him yelp and jump from his spot on the couch.
He gave her an annoyed expression before he broke out into a small smile and offered a hand to pull her to her feet while asking, "What's up with you women and not being able to take a joke?"
A/N: Fillers, fillers everywhere! Hope it wasn't too unpleasant. I just want to take a moment to say that I appreciate all the feedback and read each and every review. This has been more than I expected and imagined, and I'm still really bewildered by all of it.
Also, I'm going to be abroad for awhile, so don't expect another chapter until the beginning to mid August. I know I normally update every week or so, give or take, so your patience is appreciated.
Thanks for reading, all!