You have no idea how sorry I am. Not only did I totally abandon this story for months, I left you on a very mean cliffy, didn't I? I am so ashamed. But it wasn't for a lack of trying - I swear, I wrote this darn thing over at least 10 times, because I thought you guys deserved the very best ending I could give you. Finally, finally, finally I think I got it right.

Disclaimer: Elle is mine. If you say otherwise, I will lug you into court and beat you over the head with the judge's nice gavel thingy. Once you're properly subdued, we can talk copyright.

The alley is dim, plastered with wet leaves and trash that has decomposed into a clumpy brown substance that smells of rot. There is a peeling blue dumpster in one corner and a prone figure in the other.

The man is motionless except for the nearly imperceptible rise and fall of his chest, which corresponds with the little white clouds of mist that accompany his exhale. He is alive, and seemingly unhurt, though there will no doubt be a gruesome bruise on his temple, where he was pistol-whipped into submission.

In that moment, in the darkness, Agent David looks not quite human - her hair and eyes wild, her face deadly calm. The hands that hold the gun aimed down at the unconscious man never waver.

That is when the smell hits me - not of the rotting leaves or the grimy dumpster, but something rich and sharp and coppery that fills the air like the swirls of misty breath.

There is a wavery depiction of a swastika blooming blood-red on the white of Ziva's shirt, thickening and running until the twisted symbol is little more than a blur of red darkness.

The breath catches in my throat, the mist thickening until I cannot swallow.

"Ziva," Tony whispers, and the spell cast by the wild, bloodied beauty dissipates with the fog that accompanies his words. The silence, too, melts into a heated swirl of panic and copper and wailing sirens that does nothing to warm the chill that has settled on my gut.

...

There is such a thing as family, and as friendly as Tony and I have become, I am not a member of such an exclusive club. I have no credentials, know no secret handshake, and so I am forced to lurk on the sidelines, pacing restlessly in bare feet so cold they burn, peeking in on a world I am not worthy of partaking.

Gibbs is angry. His spine is stiff, his words sharp, like icicles, as he promises a fate more terrible than death to the poor, defenseless 911 operator on the other side of the phone line. He shakes his head and growls in disgust - terrible, inhuman - even as he throws concerned looks over his shoulder at the figures that crouch in the rotting, damp darkness.

McGee is very white and he wipes bloodied hands convulsively on his pant legs until I am sure he will contract painful fabric burns as he reports to his snarling, pacing thorn bush of a boss.

"She said he threw her up against a wall," he says, and the horror in his face transforms him into little more than a schoolboy. "The stitches tore all the way up her stomach." McGee's gulp is audible even from where I stand, a detached figure on the island of the sidewalk. "Boss, she's really bleeding-"

"That's what happens when stitches rip, McGee," the silver-haired leader retorts. His threats increase in both morbid creativity and fervency, and I begin to wonder if it is still the operator he is bargaining with.

Tony is little more than a huddled figure in the distance, his clothes fading like shadows in the dingy alleyway. Really, all that is visible is a blur of astonishing red on white, like a banner or a flag or a burning sun in a barren sky.

His words hitch-hike on the icy wind, traveling out of the darkness and into the harsh illumination of the streetlights, as he pleads with the dark-haired woman in his arms.

She is not allowed to cop out like this, because he hasn't won their argument yet, and because she owes him money for that DVD she spilled coffee on, and because he needs her, and because this is the absolute stupidest, lamest way that somebody could possibly choose to die, and he doesn't think she'll ever live it down if this is the death of her choice.

But the words themselves are not so important, I find, as I watch Tony's hand travel up and down the contours of his partner's face, brushing back her hair, playing along the delicate skin of her eyelids, as the tone with which they are delivered, and the way green eyes are zeroed in on brown.

She says something that I cannot hear, because her voice is choked with something a bit more gruesome than emotion. The blouse she wears has been reduced to little more than a rag, fit only for the set of a cheap horror movie of the chainsaw variety.

Tony heaves a long sigh that swirls like a cloud before being whisked away by the wind, and answers the unheard question. "When? I don't know. Maybe that time you flipped out about the cockroach? Right after we moved in? Or when I walked in on you singing Sound of Music in the shower?"

She says something else and he laughs a little bit - a real laugh despite the circumstances - and lets his fingers trace the shape of Ziva's lips.

"I'm serious. I don't think it was one moment so much as a bunch of really small, really stupid ones, you know? It just felt . . . right."

"St. Pierre!"

I am jolted out of my eavesdropping as the taut, crackling ball of fury that was once Leroy Jethro Gibbs cradles his cell phone between his shoulder and cheek and stops cursing at the elevator music playing over the phone line long enough to toss me a pair of NCIS sweats and a balled-up pair of socks. "Get changed," he says gruffly, "before you freeze your butt off out here."

I hate to leave, but a protest would be dangerous right now, because Gibbs' eyes have already frozen over once more and he has already stormed away.

If not for the gnarled lump of knobby socks in my hands, the entire moment could have been nothing but a figment of my non-alcoholic drunkenness.

I hurry inside to change before the warm fabric in my hands can fade away like the mist of my breath in the air.

...

I am absent all of thirty seconds, but it appears that a lot can happen in half a minute, when a life teeters so dangerously on the brink of icy mist.

The sirens wail onto the scene as I step out of the bar's restroom and dash for the door in my socked feet. Paramedics are scurrying about like the busy little rodents in Disney's Cinderella, shouting out unintelligible statements that supposedly pertain to the status of Agent David.

The Israeli is hustled onto a stretcher and wheeled into the ambulance as the EMTs form a mini-parade around her, dancing about with blood-pressure monitors and I.V. tubes to the throbbing tune of the wailing ambulance.

Ziva's eyes, astonishingly, as wide open and surprisingly lucid - very, very dark in the white, blood-drained canvas of her face. Her features paint a picture of serenity.

Tony half turns back, catches Gibbs' nod of approval, and disappears into the belly of the obnoxiously loud beast, clutching a slender, tan hand until the fingertips are white.

As the ambulance screams away, the silence it leaves behind is nearly as stunning as the noise had been.

...

I toss and turn that night, mentally disputing the boundaries of acquaintances and friends, and wondering if it would be intolerably cheesy to send a store-bought card emblazoned, no doubt, with pastel-colored cartoon flowers and poetic well-wishes.

I want to visit, because Tony is my friend and because my hands itch as if submerged in a liquid thicker than water, but the circular pilgrimage around and around the white-tiled floor of the waiting room is reserved only for those who have weathered the years and suffered the times.

I am unworthy to sit in one of those dreadfully uncomfortable plastic chunks of a chair and leaf blindly through the pages of an out-of-date housekeeping magazine. The blood is not mine, and the pain I feel is for others. Empathy is not this exclusive club's secret password.

Instead I wander in and out of bed - to the bathroom to wash my hands free of nonexistent blood, to the kitchen to swallow down Tylenol between gulps of the evening's cold tea for my elephant of a migraine, to the living room to flip channels until the wall opposite the television has been transformed into a movie screen of disjointed colors and lights that blur and wash together.

The ringing of the telephone shatters the silence and jolts me out a comatose state brought on by mass exhaustion.

I answer hesitantly, unsure what to expect, whether to expect anything at all. After all, I am little more than an acquaintance - a coworker at best - and I suppose I can always bribe Fornell into giving me an update.

"Hello?"

My words are so sleep-blurred that they are barely coherent. The voice on the other end of the line is just as weighted with sheer exhaustion. "Elle? . . . It's Tony."

I don't know whether to be surprised or relieved, and settle for toppling my mug of cold tea instead. "Tony! Hi!" I say, struggling to keep the sleepiness out of my voice and the tea away from my rug. "How are you holding up? How's Ziva?"

"Still in surgery," he says flatly. "She . . . was in pretty bad shape. Blood-loss and all that."

I wince and try to imagine what could be running through Tony's head right now. I truly have no idea. "And you? Are you okay?"

There is a long pause, and then he says honestly, "I won't know until we find out if- if she's okay or not."

"Oh, Tony . . . " I know he will hate the sympathy in my voice, so I collect myself by swigging what remains of the ice-cold tea in my mug. "Well, I appreciate the update. Let me know if I can do anything. I can pick up breakfast or spare clothes-"

"I told her I loved her," he interrupts. I choke on my tea and nearly spurt it out my nose, the way my older brother used to do when he was trying to gross me out. "I told her, in the alleyway."

"I- Good for you," I say finally, firmly placing my mug a safe distance away from me to avoid further crisis.

"She pulled a Hans Solo. Said she knew."

"Are you glad you told her?" I ask, hoping it doesn't sound like an I-told-you-so.

"Yes. No. I don't know. Maybe." He sighs. "Damn, there was a lot of blood."

I wait, because I sense this is what he called for - the sympathetic, listening ear of a virtual stranger who will make no judgments.

"It was everywhere. I couldn't breathe. I didn't know what I was saying - I was just trying to stop myself from thinking. She was dying, Elle-"

"Tony," I say sharply. I recognize the despairing note of panic in his voice. "Tony. Do you love her?"

He breathes in sharply, then sighs. "I- yes. Damnit, yes."

"Then there's nothing to regret," I state. "She loves you, Tony. She does. And you two are going to get married some day, and you'll name your kid after moi, and you'll all live happily ever after. Okay?"

There is a long silence. Then- "Remind me again why you're wasting away your days as a cop when you're so clearly destined for the life of a motivational speaker?"

I laugh despite myself. "Gee, I don't know. Maybe I'll quit and write a book."

I can almost see him grinning. "Just as long as I get a shout-out in the dedication."

"There'll be a whole chapter dedicated to you and your crazy partner," I promise.

He laughs. "Thanks, Elle."

We both know he is not referring to my generous offer of a Tiva chapter.

...

The surgery goes off without complications, and life moves on with tons of them. Vance's letter of commendation joins the others, framed on the wall of a new office, thanks to my promotion.

I friend Abby and Agent McGee on Facebook, smile and chat for a couple of minutes when I run into Doctor Mallard at the supermarket, and find a package on my door one day that, upon opening, reveals the most exquisitely carved birdhouse I have ever seen.

Tony calls me several times throughout the following months, to inform me that his chapter is gonna have one hell of a happy ending, if the newfound ring on Ziva David's browned hand has anything to say about it.

He laughs when I tell him that I'd had one planned all along.

Hooooly crap! I just officially finished my first ever multi-chapter fic on this website! Eeeeeee! I am so absurdly happy right now!

Ahem. I would like to take the time to thank each and every single one of you awesome people - both those who've been there since chapter one, and those who just joined the party. I am soooo sorry for leaving you hanging for so long. In an effort to make things up to you, I am going to be extra diligent, and reply to each and every one of you who reviews this chapter. Thank you all so much for your support!

Somebody asked me for a sequel a while back, and while I've got nothing in mind right now, I can recommend you head over to my profile and take a look at my newest baby - Dear Diary, DiNozzo Style, which is another outsider's perspective of Tiva from a unique angle - their daughter's point of view! It was originally fluff, just like this, but obviously my mind does not work that way for very long.

So thank you all. Sorry for being a lazy bum with massive writer's block. Review, even if you just yell at me for my long departure. Pleeeeeeease?

Love, hugs, and cute shoes to all of you. 3 - Styx