Summary: She knows she's pretty. She knows she's charming; she knows how to flirt the information out of a suspect. But what if she's never known she's beautiful?
Disclaimer: Bellisario says I can own the separate letters N, C, I, and S. I'm so happy!^^
Spoilers: Season 3 references and Jeanne Benoit. Though set around season 8, this fic ignores the presence of Ray and EJ.
Um. Okay, okay, I'll go to bed! Enjoy, and please review!
Not Just a Pretty Thing
He can see how tense she is from across the bar; he's sitting in the shadows pretending to be minding his own business while she flirts with the suspect. He can't hear the conversation that passes between the two, but he observes as she leans forward and eyes the guy in much the same way that she'd eyed him all those years ago when she'd come to NCIS because of Ari. And of course the half-drunken mess that sits in front of her almost drools into her lap. The suspect is smitten with her, he can tell, and yet she seems to be getting increasingly repulsed. He frowns, puzzled. The objective of their mission is to get the suspect to talk; Ziva, however, looks like she would rather down a dozen shots of vodka than complete the mission, which, really, is complete uncharacteristic of her. Especially when her repulsion doesn't seem particularly related to the suspect's drunkenness.
They finally get the information that they want and return to the NCIS headquarters, whereupon Ziva immediately excuses herself and heads to the ladies' room. He follows her after securing a nod from Gibbs, and ignores McGee's curious gaze as he leaves the bullpen.
He doesn't expect her to be leaning against the wall by the basins with her eyes shut, her arms wrapped around herself as if seeking comfort. She opens her eyes and watches him quietly as he takes a few tentative steps forward. Remains quiet as he stops a few feet from her.
"You alright?" he asks, because he has no idea what he's really supposed to say.
"Yes," she breathes out, and then silently watches him again. And what on earth can he ask now?
"Ziva, what happened out there?"
"What do you mean?"
"You seemed…tense. Like you were ready to split any minute."
"Zi…" He closes the rest of the distance between them and comes to a stop right in front of her, gazing down at her. "It's me."
She looks away, and he feels her breath tickle his neck as she sighs. "I know."
"Then talk to me."
"This is not something you will be interested in, Tony."
"I've never not been interested in anything you have had to say."
"It is not something I can easily explain, either."
"Then don't explain it easily. Explain it difficultly, or whatever. Just tell me what's wrong so that I can help you."
Her lips twitch, and he swears that she almost laughs aloud. "Not everything in the world can be fixed, Tony. Some things just have to remain the way they are."
"And what things are those?"
She blinks several times, ruminating. "I am good…at going undercover, yes? I am good at putting on a dress and covering my face in makeup, and flirting with suspects and witnesses to get information. Would you agree?"
Her eyes meet his enquiringly, as if she actually expects him to answer. "Yeah," he says warily, because he's not sure what she's getting at.
"It is a logical conclusion, then, that I have to do so when the situation requires it. Yes?"
She beams at him, and that sets off the alarm bells in his mind, because he can't see the joy in what he's just said. "So you see, some things have to remain the way they are. I have to go undercover if I have to go undercover, and there is nothing…that you can do about it." She pushes off the wall before he has collected his thoughts enough to react, and strides towards the door.
"Zi." She turns around slowly. "What did the suspect do to you?"
Her eyes dim. "He called me 'beautiful'," she answers lowly, and it confounds him that such a simple answer can be so inexplicably cryptic. She whirls and leaves the ladies' room, the door closing with a gentle click behind her.
She acts like she's back to normal by the time he returns to the bullpen, and so he acts like he thinks she's back to normal. They have a case to solve. Heart-to-heart talks can wait till later.
It's nearing midnight before Gibbs lets them leave – case still unsolved – and all he wants to do is fall into bed, but he remembers that he has a far more important job to do.
He heads back to his apartment first. Lets her blow off some steam on her own, in her own apartment, before he heads over to her place, lest she decides to beat him up for not knowing when to butt out of her affairs. He takes a late dinner and a shower, and then slowly drives there, his only worry being that she falls asleep before he arrives.
"Hey," he greets her when she answers the door, and she steps aside with a short nod. It's then that he realizes she'd been expecting him to show up all along.
He settles on her couch and looks up expectantly at her, and she rolls her eyes before going to sit beside him, although the upward quirk of her mouth and the way she leans into him betray her.
"So what's so bad about being called 'beautiful'?" he asks her after a few moments of companionable silence.
Her lip curls. "You mean by a drunken man?"
"Okay, wrong question, maybe. Uh…"
"It was not the drunkenness I minded," she admits. "I think I am just sick of going undercover."
"What does that have to do with being called 'beautiful'?"
"It gets nauseating if you hear it only when you are under a false identity," she replies wryly.
"Huh. I thought women like being told that they look nice."
"Would you have liked it if Jeanne had called you a good professor?" she counters, and his frown tells her that she's overstepped the line. "Sorry. It is different, I know."
She averts her face and concentrates intensely on a painting hanging on her wall, like she's never seen it before.
"How is it different?" he asks tiredly, because there should already be too many years between them for Jeanne Benoit to matter anymore.
"You were in love," she answers without taking her eyes from the painting. "I know you did not lie to her, apart from those details that were in the identity Jenny had set up for you. You were being you, and she loved you, and whatever compliments she paid were directed towards you."
He scrunches up his nose as he tries to process what she's telling him. She's always been an enigma at best.
He must have taken too long, because she turns to him with a thin smile on her face. "I told you this is not something I can explain easily. You should go home; it is late."
And suddenly it clicks. "You're someone else when you're undercover," he says carefully.
"Men pay you compliments while you're undercover."
"You don't like when they compliment your personas, because then it feels like you're living a lie. Is that it?"
"If it were just that, I would have found it very easy to explain."
"Ziva!" His voice is sharp with frustration. Why is she so damn hard to read? "Will you just tell me what the hell the problem is?"
Her face closes down, and he knows that the flash of pain that crosses it before it does will haunt his nightmares for a long time to come. "I did not ask you to come here, Tony," she tells him, her voice so soft that he practically has to strain his ears to hear it.
He breaths in deeply and shuts his eyes. "I know," he sighs in a tone very similar to the one she'd employed on him in the ladies' room. His hand finds its way onto hers, and he presses down gently as she tries to pull away. He looks into her eyes, willing her to focus on him, and him alone. "Please just tell me what's bugging you."
"I tried," she whispers sadly.
"Yeah, but…" He bites back a gasp as something falls into place. His eyes search hers, seeking confirmation; he thinks that somewhere deep in the chocolate browns he finds it, almost beseeching in her need for him to understand her. He runs his hand along her face gently, soothingly. "Ziva, it's not just your undercover identities that are beautiful. You are beautiful too."
She smiles bitterly, and he isn't sure if the tears that well up are in stark contrast to it, or a heart-wrenching emphasis of it. "Tony, you do not have to say it just to make me happier."
"No, I mean it. You. Are. Beautiful. You don't just look beautiful, you have a beautiful heart. Just because you happen to be undercover when people tell you you're beautiful doesn't mean that you're not beautiful when you're not undercover."
She shakes her head. "No one could ever call me anything like that. I am a liar and a killer. I do not mind if you do not call me it; I just wish that – that others would not say it to me when I am undercover. I do not need a reminder that the people I pretend to be are better than the person I am. And yes, I know that I look well enough to dress up and flirt around to get the intel Mossad or NCIS needs but I am tired of doing that. I mean…no woman wants to know that the only thing her body is good for is obtaining enemy secrets."
He sits still, speechless; and her expression gets increasingly frightened as time passes. "I should not have told you that," she starts again, her voice wavering the tiniest bit. "I know it is my job to do just what I have talked about, and I am selfish for having said those things because I am not the only woman who has to do them. You-"
She is shut up when he cups her face in his hands and covers her mouth with his.
"What was that for?" she asks breathlessly when they break apart, a tinge of blush creeping up her cheeks. She looks surprisingly close to crying again.
He tenderly sweeps a wayward strand of hair from her face. "Didn't know how else to convince you of how precious you are." He studies her sombrely. "To me."
Her moist eyes widen fractionally. "W-what?" she manages to choke out.
"You're not just a pretty thing, Zi. You're not just good for undercover work or missions or whatever it is that makes you think your fake identities are better than your real one. Because they're not, and I don't know how to tell you about just how awesome you are. You're Ziva David. Kickass Ninja who's damn good at what she does, yeah, but who also tries to sing the Sound of Music at the most inappropriate of places and steals my food and gets all her idioms messed up. Who'd probably be the best babysitter in the damn county and the person who knows the most languages in the whole country. Who drives like a lunatic and snores like a sailor." He caresses her face again. "Who's the most beautiful woman I've ever met. Cause no fake identity can ever compare with that. Cause where else am I going to meet someone who would drive me as half as crazy as you do?"
She looks at him, shell-shocked; and he shifts uncomfortably, dropping his hands from her face.
"I just…" He stops and clears his throat. Comes to his senses. "Just want you to know that you don't have to worry about whatever people say to you when you're undercover cause…yeah. Yeah, I'll um, go now. Er, nigh-"
He vacillates, and nearly freaks out when she abruptly buries her face into his chest. And then her arms come up to wrap around his torso, and he feels oddly contented to have her delicate figure hugging him for all she's worth. He puts his own arms around her, pulling her closer, and he thinks he feels her smile against him.
"You'll be the death of me yet," he tells her as he presses a soft kiss into her hair.
She lifts her face up to meet his. "Why?"
"Cause we've been partners for six years and I still have no idea how you think."
She laughs. "You will get there someday."
"I hope so."
"I think you are three-quarters of the way there. Which is not so bad."
"Yeah." He ponders that. "Not bad at all."