I'd like to say I waited so long to post this final chapter so that I could post it the day before Valentine's Day, but the truth is I just kind of got lazy.
Hope you like it. Thank you for supporting this story. I'm sad it's over.
This was a coma.
People moved about him, around him, by him. His movement were minimally reactive and autonomic. Survival instincts, not much more.
Friends put food in front of him, but he didn't remember eating. He drank, but wasn't thirsty.
He'd been involved in conversations, but had no recollection of his contributions.
When the team migrated between locations, he went with them, more a product of drafting or being pulled by their wake than his own volition.
In the silence of the night, he'd stir with a remembrance of something warm, like sunshine, like brandy. His hand would reach out for that part of him which was missing. He did not leave his bed, nor did he excavate the memory from its soporific layers. He would slide back into sleep, a phlegmatic thing to do when his life was in stagnation.
It was all dull. It was all muted. Numb.
Those around him were patient, caring for him, keeping him apprised of "the situation," giving him updates on "her condition." They catered to him- "Can I get you anything?"-squeezed his shoulders- "How ya doin', DiNozzo?"-But even so, their patience was wearing thin.
Coma has a way of eroding the spirit of everyone involved.
Give it a few weeks, he wanted to tell them. It only gets worse...
Abby hated divorce. It was hard on the divorcees, harder still on the kids. It was even hard on the friends because inevitably they had to choose between the husband and the wife. To try to retain both friendships generally ended up making the friend a telegraph line of hate and conspiracy.
If anyone could do it, Abby was determined it would be her. At work, she tried to cheer Tony without divulging any of Ziva's secrets; at night, she listened to Ziva's anger, both at her recovery and at Tony, without burdening her further with Tony's stoic, yet visible pain.
Even still, be it the constancy of being pulled from here to there, and back to here, Abby was growing tired of maintaining an equilibrium for those who most surely had toppled over the edge.
"You're going back to work part time next week," Abby reminded Ziva one evening over carryout Thai food. "You'll have to see Tony then."
"Then I will see him when I see him," Ziva flatly remarked, popping a peanut into her mouth.
"Yeah, but," Abby said, stirring her noodles with her chopsticks, "wouldn't it be easier to, like, break the ice, as it were. You know-get all the awkward out before it gets too, um, awkward?"
"There is nothing awkward," she said. Ziva pushed her plate away, dabbed at her lips with a napkin.
"I bet he'd like to see you," Abby told her, trying to press the subject without forcing the fact down Ziva's throat that this ice-out had gone on too long. "I think he really, really misses you."
"Yes, well," Ziva said, unwinding her legs from beneath her to carry her plate to the kitchen. She hoped Abby would take her unspoken words for what they were, that she did not wish to even think about Tony DiNozzo.
Abby, however, would not be so easily curtailed. She believed in the gentle, the quiet, and above all else the preservation of dignity. She also believed that a first meeting, post-volcanic disruption, at work, in the middle of the squad room, was the perfect way to completely sever whatever was left of Tony and Ziva's relationship. No. She wouldn't let that happen. It was time to heal, gently, quietly and with dignity.
"Hey, Ziva," she began, sliding her plate onto the counter with as little noise as possible, lest it rattle the relative calm in Ziva's demeanor, "don't ya think it's time you, um, kind of...well, thought about forgiving Tony?"
"There is nothing to forgive," Ziva said, rinsing off her plate.
"Oh," Abby said, her eyes blinking in surprise.
"Abby," Ziva began, smoothing out her hands, displaying her precarious grip on placidity, "I know what you are trying to do. It is...kind. Misguided, but kind. What is done is done. It is time for me to move on."
"Well, good. So, then you're not angry with him?"
"Why should I be angry?" Ziva asked, not even attempting to hide the sarcasm in her voice. She jammed one plate and then the next into the dishwasher racks, and Abby winced. "It is part of his DNA, this inclination of his to lie to me."
"You don't mean that," Ziva said, shaking her head. "Tony would never-"
"Lie to me? Hmm? I am beginning to wonder if he has ever told me the truth. About anything!" Ziva slammed shut the dishwasher, and Abby jumped back. Grabbing the edge of the counter, Ziva closed her eyes and tried to calm herself. "Abby. I know you think this is helping, but... I do not wish to discuss it."
"Okay, don't hate me," she said, twisting the end of one ponytail, "but I think we really need to."
"Then you are wrong," Ziva said, trying to move past Abby, but the woman suddenly became a wall, her long arm span barricading the way.
"I have listened to everything you've had to say about Tony for the last two weeks, some of which is true, and some of which is, like, total BS."
"I am sorry you feel that way."
"So," Abby continued, "I think it's only fair that you now listen to me."
Ziva let loose a dark, humorless guffaw and again tried to slide by her unmovable friend. "I do not wish to hear-"
"Well, I you're gonna hear it!" Abby asserted, her tight fists bolted to her hips. Taken aback by Abby's uncharacteristic aggression, Ziva stood nonplussed. "Number one: Tony did not lie to you!"
Ziva gasped, her eyes large with incredulity and ire. "Of course he did, when he let me believe we were married!"
"That, Ziva, was not a lie!" Abby pointed out with her words and one firmly pointed finger. "That was protection."
Ziva huffed, and said, "Protection. I do not need...protection. Least of all the protection offered by Tony."
"Number two: Tony only realized you thought you were married a couple days before you left the hospital," Abby reminded her, and when Ziva tried to interject, Abby stopped her with a stomp of her booted foot. "No! Let me finish! And if you think about it, even if he did keep the truth from you-"
"Ha! So you agree he lied!"
"Even if he DID keep the truth from you, he did it out of love!"
Ziva crowed out loud at that. "Love like this, I do not need!"
"Yes, you do!" Abby cried, her pony tails flailing next to her red face. "You need love like that! You need Tony's love!"
"Why? Why do I need a love like that? One based in lies and deception!" Ziva spat out. "Is my self-worth that...diminished that I can only be loved by a man who would let me live a lie just so he could continue to play-out his...his adolescent fantasy of being a loving husband?"
"You keep missing the point! God!"
Ziva threw her hands in the air, and yelled, "Then what is the point?"
"That he could have let you go on believing you were married!"
"He DID let me go on believing that!"
"Oh, my god!" Abby growled, grabbing hold of the sides of her head, digging her black nails into her scalp. "Have you lost your mind?"
"Yes!" Ziva barked, glaring at Abby. "A little, yes!"
Abby stared at Ziva, undone by her own anger and frustration. She tossed her hands in front of her and stomped away. "You are the most stubborn, ungrateful, hard-headed-"
"Apparently, not hard-headed enough," Ziva called back.
Abby spun around at that, pinched her eyes down and pointed hard at Ziva. "Hard-hearted, unforgiving, stubborn-"
"You have already said that!" Ziva yelled back at her.
"Well, I'll say it again, 'cause obviously you're not hearing it!" Abby shot back at her. "You are stubborn, Ziva David! Tony loves you, and you're too stubborn to realize how hard it was for him!"
"I am the one with the brain injury!" Ziva countered. "You cannot possibly equate what Tony might have endured to what I have endured!"
"You were in a coma! YOU don't even know what YOU endured!" Abby growled. "But Tony knows! For two weeks he stayed by your side. He talked himself hoarse all those days, and he never, NEVER left you. And he didn't do that, Ziva, because he was lying to you. He did it because he wanted to be there. Because that's what he does! He stays!" Ziva opened her mouth to speak, and Abby clapped her hands over her ears and crushed her eyes shut. "No! I'm talking! You have to listen to me, Ziva! And then when I'm done, then you can talk. Or kill me. Whichever, but for now, just listen to me!" Shocked, Ziva backed down. "You're right, Tony didn't tell you the truth, but that's not the same as lying. It's not! He kept the truth from you to let you heal! He hated not telling you the truth!" There was no stopping Abby, and Ziva braced herself against the gale-force of Abby's words. "My god, Ziva! He pulled you out of Somalia AND a coma! What more does he have to do to prove how much he loves you?"
Ziva could hardly breathe, so undone by Abby's caustic, cutting words. And when she saw the bloom of shame on Ziva's cheek, Abby transformed from a bellowing, gesticulating force to the source of compassion and maternal goodness they all relied upon.
"God, Ziva, I'm sorry I had to be so harsh," she said, descending upon Ziva with arms stretched wide.
But Ziva sidestepped Abby's advances. Held out her hand to tell Abby to wait before saying another word, or moving, or even looking at her as she was. She went to her room, threw on a pair of shoes, grabbed her coat, her phone and her purse.
"Where are you going?" Abby asked.
Ziva pulled on her coat, shook her head, and said, "I am not sure."
"Do you want me to-I don't know-drive you there?"
She opened her mouth to speak, but Ziva had no idea what to say. "I need to think, Abby."
"Okay," Abby said, biting her lip. "You'll call when you figure out where you're going, right?"
Ziva smiled, touched Abby's hand, and walked into the night.
Writing up personnel evaluations was almost as bad as sitting through marriage counseling, Gibbs thought. He always evaluated his team on the spot, not months later. Like marriage counseling, it was a waste of time to dredge up things that had gone wrong in the past. It was a damn inconvenience to quantify and qualify how he "felt" about his people. Hell, they knew how he felt, and if their "relationship" wasn't working, evaluating it wasn't going to help.
So it was with a kind of joy (or as close to joy as LJ Gibbs could muster) that he swung his truck into the driveway of his suburban home.
Until he saw two small feet awaiting him at the base of his front stoop.
They were quite a pair, Tony and Ziva, Gibbs thought. For all their manufactured bluster and, at times, marrow-deep acrimony, they functioned best together. How often had he seen their tandem lives carry on through the good and bad, as long as they were a team? How often had they refused to acknowledge their need for each other, only to be tripped up by their own stubbornness or pain?
And during those dark days, they'd always drop in, like shoes dropping to the floor after a long day. First one, then the other. Sometimes the other shoe took a little longer to come undone, but it, too, would drop.
Sitting on his front stoop was the other shoe. He almost felt sorry for them.
Rounding the side of the hedges where Ziva sat like a single book between massive bookends, Gibbs slid by her, saying, "You coulda gone inside. Didn't have to wait out here in the cold."
"I really didn't mind," Ziva said. "I needed a bit of fresh air." When Gibbs stopped from pulling his mail from the box and looked down on Ziva, she went on. "Abby and I had words. Well, Abby had words. I had to listen. And now, I suppose, I am feeling rather...sheepish, yes?"
"If she did her job right, yup," Gibbs said, shoving the mail under his arm.
With the front door open, and Gibbs on the other side holding it for her, Ziva pushed up from the cold concrete steps and padded her way into his home. Lights were flicked on, keys and the mail were tossed to the side table, the door clicked softly behind her, and Ziva waited, her hands held tight in her coat pocket and her breath in her lungs, for Gibbs to welcome her into his home.
For his part, Gibbs unclipped his gun and his badge, and realized Ziva hadn't moved from the vestibule. He stopped, glanced her way, and said, "Want a cup of coffee?"
"No," she said, examining her shoes for no other reason than they weren't his eyes. "Thank you, though."
It annoyed him that some of those people who ought to know best that they were always welcome in his house didn't believe it, or continued to await his formal invitation. His inclination was to snap at her, ask her what the hell she was waiting for? But, the fact that she was in his living room, wearing what could only be described as a desperate pair of decades-old jeans, told him to bite his tongue.
"I got a steak I could throw on the grill," he said, placing his sidearm and his badge in the small shelf safe.
"I am not hungry," she said.
"You won't mind if I eat then?" he asked.
"No. Please, go ahead."
"Then," he said, ambling toward the dark kitchen, "come on. Not gonna talk to you between rooms."
That was all she needed, his approval to enter his home. She wasn't at all sure what she was going to say to him, but she was sure it, whatever it was, had to be said. There was a gnawing ache inside her, nameless and keening. She was hoping Gibbs, with his diving rod of intuition, would be able to suss out that ache, and then, perhaps, then she could go on.
Folding herself into one of the turquoise vinyl chairs of the forty-year-old dinette set, Ziva watched as Gibbs went about his dinner preparation-two hotdogs from the refrigerator, which he smelled for freshness, wrapped in pieces of bread and tossed in the microwave. Thirty seconds later, they were slathered with ketchup. Twenty seconds after that, half of one was already gone.
Mid-chew, Gibbs looked up to find Ziva watching him with humored disgust, and said, pushing the food to the corner of his mouth, "You want one?"
"No," Ziva said. "No. Not even if it were the last meal on earth. But, thank you."
"Suit yourself," he said, retrieving two beers from the refrigerator. Taking a seat kitty-corner from her, Gibbs offered Ziva one of the bottles.
"I cannot, not yet," she said, tapping the side of her head. "But, in a few weeks, I might take you up on the offer."
Gibbs nodded, opened one of the bottles, and took a swig. And while he finished his dog and the first beer, he watched her, silent and troubled, her hands pinned under her legs, her long hair shielding a portion of her face,
"What's on your mind, Ziva?" he asked, opening the second bottle.
"That is the problem," she said, tucking her hair behind her ear. "I am not sure."
"A boat without a rudder."
"Something like that, yes."
"This about you and Tony?"
The mention of his name pinched her heart. "It is..." Shaking her head, Ziva thought about what it truly was about, and the truth was difficult to voice. "It is about me." She could feel his eyes upon her, appraising her, and it would have been easier if he were angry, she thought. This was worse, this compassion in his squinted eyes, so she did not look up. Still, she needed him to hear her and hopefully help her connect better to her confusing world. "As foolish as this may sound, I think I am in mourning."
Ziva shook her head. "A life I never had. Which, I realize, sounds highly melodramatic, and that is part of my..."
She knew his coined word was meant to alleviate some of the pain that was clearly emanating from her soul, and so she did smile, but it lasted only a second or two. "I feel very...childish, Gibbs, mourning the loss of something that never was. I suppose I was hoping you could help me make sense of it."
Gibbs sipped his beer and considered her words. Tricky area, he thought. Consider her feelings, his team, his rules, his own insulated life. Tricky. "You came out of a coma thinking you were married to Tony."
Gibbs adjusted his position in his seat while he sipped his beer and thought about what he wanted to say. He lowered the bottle, and said, "The mind knows what it knows."
It was so close to what Tony had once said. So close that it felt like molten wax sluicing over her skin. "It was real to me, Gibbs. It was as real to me as...as breathing. And...and, yes, I will admit that I was happy. It, thinking I was...married to Tony, was a comfort to me. And now that I know... Now that I know the truth, I..." She would not cry. She had made a promise to herself that, yes, she would go to Gibbs, but she would not cry. So she breathed, nodded her head to affirm the promise she had made, and waited until her voice would not betray her sadness. "Now that I remember the truth, I..." But it was a futile attempt, masking her utter and unrelenting sorrow. "How can I miss what I never truly had? Why do I mourn that which I never wanted, which I never asked for?"
"Still," he said, as quiet as grief, "you mourn."
Ziva tangled her fingers together atop the table. Her brow knotted, and, yet, she would not cry. "The lives we lead... Perhaps we are not afforded such luxuries. Perhaps family, companionship... Love. Perhaps I have chosen a path that is incompatible to such things."
It was a good try, he thought, narrowing his eyes. "You really believe that?"
And when she lay her sad eyes on him, and when her broken and willowy voice fell from her trembling lips, Gibbs tipped his head in sympathy. "Do I have a choice?" she asked. "Have I ever?"
There it was. Gibbs scooted his chair next to hers, wrapped his arm around her shoulders, and asked, "What is it you really want to know, Ziva?"
Her jaws were a vice torqued against her anguish. She pressed her fingers into her eyes. But when she could no longer contain her heartache, Ziva buried her face in his shoulder and wept.
It was odd enough that McGee had asked him to go have a beer after work. Odder still that he accepted. But once at the bar, once surrounded by loud, brash business types trying to impress each other with the latest catch phrases and with supercilious appraisals of gallery openings they had not actually attended, Tony paid for his drink, clapped Tim on the shoulder, and drove home.
The irony hadn't been lost on Tony that only months earlier he had been one of those loud, brash people in a bar, but that was before...before...
Each time he tried to put words to what "before" was, Tony felt his chest tighten. So, he tried not to think about it. He had been doing a pretty good job of it, too, until he opened the door to his apartment and heard dishes clacking together.
One hand on his sidearm, Tony closed the door behind him and peered around the corner of his kitchen.
There she was, stirring a sauce pan at the stove, face to face with him for the first time in eleven days, nine hours and two bottles of Johnny Walker. When she casually looked up from her work, Ziva's black eyes were a blank canvas. Only the tight line of her lips broadcast the truer disruption within. It frightened him. And thrilled him, having her in his home.
But there were rules to this type of game, one that they had played so often. He knew he had hurt her, but he was recovering, too. Whatever would happen would happen begrudgingly. Pride and self-protection of a fragile heart, then, dictated the rules.
So he locked eyes with her for a moment, to prove that he could, blinked and looked away. Tossed the mail on the ledge. He hung up his coat, and asked, "You pick that lock?"
"No," she said, grinding pepper into the sauce. "But I could have."
"Uh-huh." Tony crossed his arms over his chest and stared at her while she chopped parsley. The audacity, he thought. God, how he missed this woman... "So. You're here."
"I am here."
"It would seem so."
"What's the occasion?"
"I...felt like cooking."
"And you couldn't have done that in your own apartment?"
"No!" she said, slamming the knife onto the cutting board, and Tony quirked a smile. One point DiNozzo. Closing her eyes to diffuse her anger, Ziva splayed her fingers out across the counter and calmed herself. "No. I mean, yes, I could have, but I decided to come here."
"Uh-huh." Tony sauntered into his bedroom where he stored his gun and his badge. Loosened his tie, and hoped to god Ziva couldn't see the sweat forming on his body. He ran a shaking hand across his face and willed his heart to stop racing. Then he sauntered back into his living room. He picked up his mail and feigned interest in its contents. If she wanted to pretend this was how to pick up again, he'd let her. When the charade ended with acrimonious words and hurtful, acrid testimony about their nonexistent relationship, as he knew it would, Tony would throw this moment of his acquiescence in her face. But for now, he'd pretend.
"How've you been?" he asked, looking over his electric bill. Or maybe it was his water bill. Didn't really matter.
"I am feeling clearer every day," she said, sprinkling parsley into the sauce. "I am still dizzy, but the doctors said that is to be expected. Something about calcium crystals floating around my inner ear."
Tony folded the bill and slid it back into its envelope. "Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo."
"Yes," she said, surprised by his knowledge. "You remember."
"I remember a lot of things."
Their eyes met in a flash, and just as quickly looked away, like fingers flying from a burned down match. Her skin began to prickle, and Ziva had the need to lash out. She shook her head, wiped her hands on a dish towel, and turned to the cupboard where he kept his plates.
"How are the headaches?" he asked, blindly flipping through the pages of a magazine.
If he wanted to continue this cold, stubborn falsehood, then fine, Ziva would let him. She pulled two plates from the cupboard, and said, "Manageable."
"And the memory?" he asked, eyeing her carefully.
"If you are asking if I remember that we are not married," she said, walking the plates to his tiny dining table, "then, yes, I remember."
"Well, it was fun while it lasted."
"Was it?" she asked, her eyes afire with combustible rage.
Tony stared her down for a moment, tossed the magazine aside, and breezed by her. He ambled into the kitchen where he poured himself a drink. Ziva needed to turn down the temperature on the sauce, but she would not enter the small space while Tony was standing there. She opened her lips to speak, but thought better of it. Tony finished his drink, and grabbed two place settings of silverware. Ziva would not move, he felt sure of that, and he would not be intimidated by her anger, so he stepped just to the side of her, enough for her to feel the heat of his skin and for him to smell the spices in her hair.
While he set the silverware on the table next to the plates, Ziva stared hard at his carefully relaxed features, which further wound her tight coil. "Tell me."
"Well, the fork goes on the left side," he said, lifting one eyebrow to glance at her, which he knew would piss her off.
"No," she bit back. "Tell me why you allowed me to believe we were married?"
Tony straightened and walked away from her, deciding to put some space between him and the knives he had just placed on the table. "Tell you the truth, when you woke up, I didn't realize you thought we were married for a couple days." He poured himself another drink, drank it in one quick gulp, and then turned back to her, leaning against the edge of the counter. "When I did realize it, I was... Well, you can imagine I was a little stunned. And flattered. But mostly stunned."
"So you let me believe it because you were enjoying the farce."
Her disregard for his true reaction chewed at his ability to maintain his nonchalance. "No, because the doctors told me not to upset you, that you needed to keep your blood pressure low. They told me over time you'd remember."
"But there was a chance that I may have never remembered," she said, and when she caught him eyeing the bubbling sauce, she marched into the small kitchen, spun the knob to off, and fully faced him. One hand anchored to her hip, one to the edge of the counter, Ziva assaulted him with her dark, hooded eyes, and said, "Certainly there was a point that you had to make the choice to tell me."
"Yes, there was a point," he said, winding his arms across his chest, his ankles one over the other. He, too, narrowed his eyes, saying, "It was when I brought you home."
"What made you finally tell me the truth?"
"Why did I tell you the truth," he repeated, scratching his cheek with his hand, a carefully crafted show of indifference. "Well, that's an interesting question, Ziva. Self-preservation, really. I thought if I didn't tell you, if I let you go on believing we were in the...matrimonial way, one night you'd wake up and remember I wasn't your husband, and you'd kill me in my sleep."
"I am not allowed to carry my sidearm!"
"Then you'd kill me with your mascara brush," he snapped back, teeth bared, "but not before slicing off my other Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo. The third!"
She charged toward Tony, stopping mere inches from him. "So, you did it out of fear!"
"No! I did it out of..." He slammed his mouth closed. Glared at her. She had gotten the best of him, and he wouldn't, couldn't allow that to happen. His jaws still impermeably fastened, Tony forced out an acerbic chuckle, a caustic smile, shook his finger at Ziva, and slid past her.
"How's your latest cat-scan?" he asked, drawing two glasses from the shelf, which he brought to the table, as if his hands weren't shaking, as if his heart wasn't pounding.
Having not moved, Ziva reached for the counter, her fingers tapping nervously on the formica top. He was right to change the subject. For now. "It is fine. I can... They say I will..." she started, but her brain injury was not the reason she came. There was a different pain that warranted her attention, and it could not begin to heal until she had some answers, so she spun around, and tried, really tried, to remain calm as she said, "I need to understand why you did what you did. Why you stayed with me." When her words had the required affect on him, his head bowed down, his hand to his brow, she went one step further. "Why you...let me love you."
Tony grabbed the back of the dining room chair and rounded out his aching shoulders. "Because you needed me."
It felt like vinegar in her mouth, these words of his, and so she demanded, "Is that the only reason?"
"Do you need another?"
"I am having a difficult time believing if any of this is true," she said, throwing her hands in the air.
"You're going to believe what you want."
"You bathed me!"
"Yeah!" he barked, and shoved the chair into the table. Dishes rattled, glasses tumbled. Suddenly upon her, his expression reflecting all those days of fear, of frustration and pain, he spat out, "Yeah, I did! I did a lot of things while you were in a coma. Saw a lot of things, things I don't particularly care to remember, but I was there. And I'd do it all again, because you had two holes drilled in your skull," he said, motioning to the side of her skull, his words clipped, "and there was nothing else I could do, so, yeah, I took you into that bathroom, and I washed your hair, and I held you when you were too dizzy to sit up straight, and I'd do it again, every day, for the rest of my life if you'd let me." He stopped then, to breathe, to realize she had been stunned into silence, but there was more. "So, there, you got it out of me, Ziva. That's the truth of my deep, dark secret. That I did it all because you needed me, and because I needed you, too. How's that for the truth?"
When she didn't offer anything in return, but stood visibly shaken, Tony pressed his advantage further. "Now let me ask you something-Why are you here? We could have had this conversation over the phone. Hell, you could have emailed me your list of questions, but you didn't. You came here. To my home. To cook for me. Why? What's your deep, dark little secret, Miss David?" he demanded, veins popping in stark relief against his ruddy skin.
"That I cannot live without you."
It was said so quietly, so devoid of anger. And upon searching her eyes, he felt certain the words surprised her as well, and had more than likely cost her dearly. The game, he realized, was over. He had won. A Pyrrhic victory.
But he would not allow her to suffer for her honesty, so he said, "Well, you could, but I wouldn't suggest it." He knew that subtle cast of her eye, the one that silently begged him to step lightly near her, to show her kindness that she wasn't sure she deserved, the one that so few people ever saw. He softened his voice and his expression, and whispered, "I need to hear you say it, Ziva."
Scanning his tired eyes, exhausted herself by the abrasion of their words, she whispered back, "I am not your wife," which pained her more than she was prepared for.
Tony brushed his fingers against her cheek, cooled her feverish skin, and said, "And I am not your husband."
They both sighed, wondering if the loss was too great to overcome.
No, she would not give up so easily. Tentative at first, her fingers fluttering over his heart before settling there, Ziva swallowed against a voice that seemed at first paralyzed. "But," she said, before the pins of tears began to obscure her vision, "even so, you love me. Right?"
Breath came to him then, as if for the first time. He breathed deep, lay his palm to her hair, and said, "Is that gonna be a problem?"
"No. No, not for me," she said, shaking her head, unable to release her hold on his eyes, sheltering and warm. "It may be for my father."
"I think they call that a value-added benefit," he chuckled, and so did she. Tony smoothed back the hair from her forehead, thumbed away a tear he knew she wished hadn't fallen, and when his hand came to cup her cheek once again, she closed her eyes and pressed into it. The poignancy of this moment, a moment he could not even bare dreaming about in her absence, drove a velvet spike into his heart. Her hand came to join his, clinging to his fingers, and he brought himself to ask the hardest question of all. "What about you? Do you love me, Ziva?"
Her eyes, bright with tears, met his, and she said, "Yes. Yes. I think it would be easier if I did not, but yes. I love you."
His arms ached with the desire to encircle her; his chest burned with the need for her body next to his, but his heart... His timid heart needed more. "How do you know?" he asked, the sight of her oscillating.
"Because with you," she whispered, her chin trembling with the fear that he might still turn away from her, "because with you I am safe. And I am home."
He nodded, and he smiled. And he sniffed back those tears. And he nodded again. Cleared his throat, and brought her hand to his lips where he kissed her warm palm. "No more pretending."
"No more pretending." Her vision trailed along his features, his creased brow, his glistening eyes, his blushing skin. "No more. It is an exhausting thing."
"Yes, it is," he whispered back.
"Tell me you love me," she begged, knotting her fingers in his shirt. "I need...I need-"
"I love you, Ziva," he said, sparing her the agony of exposing her already scoured heart. "I love you. I love you. I love-"
Then her lips were on his, her arms spooled around his neck. Shocked, Tony's eyes flew open. In the next moment, he was lost in their kiss, his hand woven into her hair, the other pulling her closer to him.
A first kiss. For the second time.
When they were dizzy for air, from the release, Tony kissed her eyes, the soft apples of her cheeks, her hair, a languid bridge of kisses across her brow.
And she laughed, waited for his lips to return to hers so she could place the words I love you directly into his mouth, onto his tongue, press it into his lips, in English, in Arabic, in Hebrew. He devoured her words of love and fed her starving mouth with the same.
"Ani L'Dodi v'Dodi Li," she whispered breathlessly, her tongue touching his on each forward syllable, and his tongue finding hers in response- "Ani ohev otakh."
She pulled away from him, panting, and rested her forehead to his lips. "When did you learn to speak Hebrew?"
"I didn't. I read to you, transliterated poems I found on the internet. I was running out of material there in the second week," he said, lifting her face to be able to gaze into her eyes. "Like I said, I remember things."
She looped her arms under his and hooked her hands to his shoulders. "Someday, you will tell me the entire story, what you did for me," she said, searching his face for answers she knew were there, and knew there would be time now to find. "Tell me this: Why? Why did you stay with me all those days?"
He found trails for his fingers that he had only once dreamed of, and said, "I didn't know where else to go, Ziva. I didn't have a choice."
"That is not true," she said, and nestled in close to him, rubbed her cheek against his unshaven face. And he closed his eyes, still quite unsure how it was that Ziva was in his arms at last, fully conscious of her actions. "We have choices. Too often we are afraid to risk taking a chance."
"So," he said, pressing kisses to the base of her neck, "what happens next?"
The soft blades of her fingers crept down the side of his spine and gathered above his hips. "So, we begin."
Tony drew back from her, framed her face with his hands, soaked in the radiance of her beauty, and asked, "Begin what?"
She searched his clear eyes, the color of spring and life, and said, "I do not know, but I do not wish to continue along another moment without you."
He kissed her supple lips again, and said, "We'll figure it out as we go."
And she wove her arms around him. "Yes, as we go."