They had been engaged for exactly two weeks and Ziva was still getting used to the huge change it had brought. Every time she looked at her ring she thought of Tony and the child that would now be theirs. But even more she still wondered how it was possible that this was real, that this relationship with Tony had actually happened. Not that he ever thought differently, he was prepared to wait fifty years for her to be ready if that's what it took.
A relationship. Against all odds, that's what they had now. When Ziva accepted Tony's proposal and his ring, when their hearts were finally free to let the words 'I love you' leave their lips, the world had tilted and all of a sudden everything was different.
Even though Tony was being careful not to push her, Ziva knew that sooner or later she would have to get used to a greater level of intimacy between them. Her current struggle was with the desire Tony's kisses stirred in her. It wasn't anything she was prepared to even think about yet, being intimate with him even though he had her love and a decent chunk of her trust. But just the gentle touches and brief kisses were something so normal, so tender and beautiful that it make her want to enjoy this time.
Still, it was always Tony initiating and her reciprocating. She tried hard not to outright reject his physical expressions of love, but Ziva knew his self-esteem was fragile, his hold on hope that they could really be together tenuous. So after a great deal of thought, she decided to surprise him when he came over. Ever since Duke had banned her from the gym, they'd been spending every evening together and occasionally with Abby and McGee.
So tonight when Tony's familiar knock sounded on her front door, Ziva smiled and moved to answer it, leaning up to put both hands on his face and kiss him lightly before he could even get the words out to say 'Hello beautiful', his new catch phrase for her.
When she pulled away, Tony blinked and swallowed. "Uh...hi." She bit back a smile and just looked at him. Tony glanced over his shoulder and back at her. "If I go out and come back in, would that happen again?" Eyes shining, Ziva shook her head slowly and Tony pushed her hair back. "Too bad," he whispered, "I could get used to that."
Settling for a hug instead of giving into the desire she saw in his gaze for more, Ziva rested her head on his chest as Tony's arms came around her. "Maybe someday it will be a habit."
Tony held her tightly and kissed her hair. "Works for me." If she could just get comfortable with loving him and expressing that with her touch, it would be a huge step towards where he wanted them to be.
On Friday Gibbs left work early and without warning or explanation. Tim and Tony barely even looked up at the grunted order to have their reports on his desk before they even dreamed of heading home for the night. It was nothing less than the agents expected from their boss.
Gibbs grabbed his keys, tugged on his jacket and drove back to his neighbourhood, parking in a now familiar driveway. Because it was such a nice sunny day, he didn't even bother to knock on the door. Instead Gibbs walked around to the back of the house and found Celeste sitting on the porch swing, watching flowers grow. That's what she always said she was doing when he caught her outside, not doing anything. She had never been able to stay inside when the sun was out.
Celeste didn't seem the least bit surprised to see him. "Hello Jethro."
He nodded at her, crouching down to inspect the fragrant blooms. It had been a long time since he'd had a garden. "These yours?" She had always loved the colourful ones.
The red haired woman tiled her head to look at him closely, then leaned back and set the swing in motion again. "They will be, someday."
Gibbs stood slowly but made no move to join her yet. "How so?" Celeste was only renting the house and she rarely stayed in one place longer than a couple years.
Celeste opened one eye and patted the seat beside her. "Come sit Jethro, I feel like I'm being interrogated." With a sigh he complied and waited to hear her answer. She was silent several moments and then stared across the yard, watching a squirrel scramble up the tree in the back left corner.
"The couple who used to live here are older and have more money than they know what to do with. They're moving south and made me an offer I couldn't refuse." Celeste still wasn't looking at him and Gibbs wondered if it was because even after a decade and a half he still knew her too well.
"Rent to buy," she finished at last, "for a very reasonable price." Turning her head, she tried to gauge his reaction. "I'm ready to be done with the nomad lifestyle. And I've fallen in love with DC all over again." Gibbs heard extra significance in her words, but chose not to read into it.
"What about LA?" he asked gruffly.
Celeste shrugged. "It survived without me all those years, I think it will be fine."
He rolled his eyes at her deflection. "Clients?" Gibbs questioned with a raised eyebrow.
"I'll still fly out occasionally to meet them. But Jenna thinks I shouldn't have any trouble keeping up business here."
Jenna Monroe, who had been her boss several times and kept tabs on Celeste even when she was freelancing. Jenna still hoped to entice his ex-wife into accepting a permanent editor's job at her company. And while Celeste hadn't ruled it out, she still preferred the freedom she enjoyed working freelance and being her own boss.
"So, you're sticking around this time." It was a statement that could be taken as a question.
"That depends," was her vague answer.
Gibbs huffed, tired of the non-specifics. "On what?"
Celeste locked eyes with him for a split second. "If what I'm hoping for pans out. If not," she shrugged, "it will still be nice to have some place to come home to."
He absorbed the news without a hint of emotion showing, but inside he was pleased at the prospect of having her as a permanent part of his life again. She was his best friend, but more than that too because of what they'd shared in the past. Somehow this felt like a new beginning for them, a chance to make right what went wrong before.
"Planning to stay out here for awhile?"
If she was surprised that his thought had nothing to do with her announcement, Celeste hid it. "No, time to go in." She patted his knee and stood up. "Come help me with dinner Jethro, and I'll let you play with my BBQ."
He considered the offer for all of a second before following her inside. "Deal." Celeste had always been an excellent cook. Gibbs had no intention of turning down a free meal that came from her kitchen, even if it required him to play sous chef for an hour. The reward was worth the price he paid.
Friday night as they were getting ready to leave, Abby turned to Tami. "So, how was your first half week?"
Tami leaned against the table and smiled slightly. "I think I'll have a better idea once I've been here longer, but it was certainly eventful."
Matt's infamous lab encounter still wasn't being spoken of, though he'd faithfully found creative and unexpected ways of delivering No Caf-Pow to Abby three times a day since it happened. Either enlisting other people as his vessels, using the patented knock and run away technique children applied when pranking neighbours or Tami's personal favourite - sending a cup in on the back of a remote controlled truck while he hid in the hallway.
She could tell that Abby wasn't ready to forgive him yet, but Tami thought he might slowly be working his way out of the hole. Though with her boss being pregnant, she wondered if the grudge might last for the next four months. It seemed possible.
Abby didn't react to Tami's hint about Wednesday and chuckled. "Life is rarely boring around here." She tilted her head to the side. "Any insights about NCIS?"
Having learned the hard way that the team leader appeared when one least expected him, Tami glanced around cautiously. "Well, I think the stories about Agent Gibbs are true."
Abby grinned. "There's a reason he's a legend." She put on her coat and grabbed her bag. "Got any plans this weekend?"
Tami lit up. "Actually, yes. Trevor, my brother, is coming to visit. I haven't seen him in over a month. It's a long drive from Michigan." She shrugged. "We're really close, I guess it's a twin thing."
Abby looked interested. "Is it just the two of you?"
The girl shook her head. "No, I have an older brother too, Tristan. But he lives in California, we don't get to see him much. And my baby sister is Tori."
"All T's, huh?"
Tami rolled her eyes. "Our parents were going for a theme. It's a good thing there's only four of us or people would get really confused. Tristan, Trevor, Tami, Tori - we could make our own tongue-twister." She changed the subject. "What about you and Agent McGee?"
"You can call him Tim, Tami. The agent titles are only necessary when we're introducing them to someone," Abby explained. "I don't think we have any plans. He'll probably work on his book and I'll play video games once the laundry is done."
Tami raised an eyebrow. "Tim writes?"
Abby froze. "Uh...you didn't hear that. And even if you did, you don't have clearance to know about it. Forget I said anything. See you Monday."
The forensic scientist flew out the door leaving Tami more than a little confused. But she'd accepted that around Abby, she often wouldn't know what was going on. With one last look to make sure she hadn't forgotten anything, Tami grabbed her things and headed out the door, making sure lights were off and the lab was locked. Trevor would be at her place in time for supper and she wanted to have everything ready.
Tony made it to Ziva's place just after five-thirty pm. He was a little late because he'd stopped to pick up some banker's boxes and packing tape. She was sitting on the couch reading when Tony let himself in and Ziva smiled at her fiancé, but it fell as soon as she saw the boxes.
"Tony, I do not want to do this," she said quietly.
He sat down on the coffee table in front of her. "Why not?" It was never safe to assume he knew what she was thinking.
Ziva closed the book and looked down, tracing her finger over the cover. "I have been here only five months. It was finally starting to feel like home." She sighed. "I am so tired of pulling up all the roots I try to put down."
Tony put his hands over hers and waited for her to look at him. "This is the last time, I promise Zi. Five years and that house is paid for, it'll be ours and we'll never have to move again." He reached up to touch her cheek. "Can you handle once more honey, so you can come home with me for good?"
She leaned into his hand and tried not to cry about something so silly as packing. Finally she nodded once. "This is the last time," Ziva whispered, and let Tony help her to her feet.
When he hugged her, Tony wasn't sure if it was because he needed it or he thought she did, but Ziva clung to him for a long time before she rested her forehead on his collarbone and breathed out. "Okay."
Tony slid his fingers through her hair. "Where do you want to start?"
Ziva wiped at her eyes. "My room first." He nodded and followed her into the small bedroom, staying near the door until he knew if she was comfortable having him invade her space. Ziva looked at Tony and smiled. "You may come in."
Walking over to her bed, Tony deposited one package of boxes on it and started putting them together. Ziva left for a moment and came back with a black marker which she left beside him. She opened the top drawer in her dresser and started sorting through clothes, checking what she'd written on the tag and setting it aside or putting it back. After a few minutes she handed him a pile.
"That one you can label five months."
So Tony did and put in whatever Ziva handed him. They did a box for six months as well, but left the rest because even at thirty-three weeks she wasn't big enough to be in eight month sizes yet. The next box was winter pyjamas and other cold weather articles of clothing. Then extra blankets, flannel sheets and some of what was kept in her wardrobe. When she had run out of possessions that could be packed, Tony stacked the boxes in one corner and they moved out to the kitchen.
At this point Ziva put some music on to fill the silence and began sorting through what she did and did not need for the remaining twenty-three days before the wedding. Once that was done, she took a step back. "We have done enough for today." It was a final statement that Tony had no intention of arguing with. He was not going to push her to make this okay. Considering everything that had happened in the last year, Ziva was allowed to hate even the thought of more change.
She went for a notepad and sharpie and began meticulously detailing what was in each box, while Tony stood and observed, waiting to be needed. The list she made was taped to the lids so she would know exactly where to find things when they unpacked. At last Ziva put everything away and Tony checked his watch.
"Okay Ninja, time for supper." She smiled faintly and he saw the fatigue settle into her eyes. "So, what sounds good?" Tony wrapped his arm around her waist, partially supporting her weight as they walked out to the car.
"Pasta salad," Ziva decided once she was buckled in. "And garlic fingers with cheese."
He chuckled. "Feeding the cravings tonight, are we?"
She ignored him. "Do you have jello?"
"Lime and strawberry," Tony answered immediately, then gave her a doubtful look. "What are you putting in it this time?" He should've learned to stop asking by now, but Ziva had been doing some weird things with food recently and he found himself morbidly curious about tonight's fare.
Ziva crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes at him, daring Tony to comment. "Mini M&Ms."
He nodded as if that made perfect sense. "Of course, why didn't I think about that?" Tony wondered how far he could push his luck. "Can I share those with you? I'll put them on my ice cream."
She lifted one eyebrow. "Tony, your ice cream already has smarties in it."
Tony grinned. "Chocolate crackle tonight."
She thought about it for a moment. "Fine, you may have some."
"Alright then," he reached over and squeezed her hand. "Let's go home." He wanted her to get used to that word and know it meant them.
Somehow or other in the course of getting comfortable on the couch after their late, strange dinner and interesting dessert, Ziva's feet had ended up in Tony's lap and he was now gently massaging them while she watched the end of a new show on TV. He'd read that expectant women usually had sore feet from the extra weight they were carrying around and the changes in their body, and he wanted to help. From the way Ziva laid her head back and closed her eyes like she'd suddenly found herself in paradise, he guessed what he was doing felt pretty good.
Once Tony had done both of her feet thoroughly, he let out a breath and prepared to push rather forcefully against one of her barriers, hoping it didn't backfire completely. He let his fingers idly wander up to her ankle and slowly slid them into her sock, slipping it off in one quick motion.
Ziva jerked, her eyes flying open and she struggled to sit up while the heat from his palm sank into the top of her foot. He didn't once look down, keeping his eyes focused on hers. Ziva's voice wobbled. "Tony, what are you doing?"
Tenderness filled his gaze. "You used to love being in bare feet Zi, but you've worn socks constantly since you came home. Why?"
She tore her eyes from his to stare at the floor. "You know why," she said very quietly.
Tony tapped her foot, needing her to look at him. "Do you trust me Ziva?"
Like she knew what was coming, she made a great effort to sound like she believed the word she was about to say. "Yes."
He reached over and tipped her chin up. "Can you trust me with this?" He didn't want the scars to always come between them.
Ziva trembled, wrapping her arms around herself before finally giving a barely perceptible dip of her head. Tony turned his gaze to her uncovered feet, tracing the thin lines that had faded but were still visible. When he got to the sole though, his breath caught and his head whipped around to meet her eyes.
"Zi?" he asked, dreading the explanation. Jagged scars and multiple lacerations, plus several puncture marks marred the sensitive skin, along with patches that looked like burns and round dark circles obviously left by cigarettes. Her expression was pained as she opened her mouth.
"I tried to get out once," Ziva whispered. "My punishment was the methodical, routine mutilation of my feet." She shrugged. "You cannot run if you are unable to even stand." She sighed. "They did that until I was too weak to walk on my own."
Tony closed his eyes, fighting the nausea that washed over him. Then he looked back at her. "I hate what they did."
Feeling self conscious, Ziva curled her toes and sighed. "All of the stories will be hard Tony, some I may not even be able to tell."
"I can handle it," he insisted hoarsely.
She looked tired and sad. "Maybe I cannot."
Tony shook his head. "Don't bury them Ziva. If you share the memories, they're out in the open and we can lay them to rest. Please, please be willing to work through this with me."
The acceptance in her brown eyes was the only answer she could give. And as soon as she relaxed, Tony took off her other sock, gently running his fingers over every inch of the soft skin, hoping his touch could somehow heal what had so long been hurt. Two tears escaped to slip down her cheeks but he pretended not to notice. What a long road they still had to walk! The only comfort he found was that they would walk it together, every step of the way. Tony just hoped that in doing so, the journey would not push them apart when it hurt.
"It's been hours," Celeste said finally, breaking the silence between them as they walked slowly down the quiet street, "are you going to tell me what's bothering you?" Obviously it was something big, he usually didn't stay this long.
Her hand brushed against his, the non-verbal support something he needed tonight even more than her words. Gibbs sighed. "There's a lot going on with the team. Wish we could have a little peace for awhile."
She surveyed him thoughtfully. "You carry a lot for them - father, confidant, friend and protector. Do you need to solve all their problems now too?"
He raised an eyebrow. "Father?"
Celeste laughed. "Come on Jethro! Look me in the eye and tell me you don't seem them as your kids. You call the girls daughters and look out for and love Tim and Tony as if they were blood to you. Face it, you're the dad of the group."
"Didn't ask for this," he said gruffly, almost wishing he could've stayed in the solitary shell he'd created for himself after Shannon and Kelly died. But over the years it began to crack and slowly but surely each member of the team found their way inside, closer than he thought he'd ever let anyone again.
She bumped his shoulder lightly and smiled. "But I bet you wouldn't trade them for anything." Gibbs didn't answer, wanting to stay away from looking like he'd gone soft, but Celeste could see right through him. "So, what's going on?"
He dragged a hand down his face. "Ziva. She's ours for good after taking that oath and she's safe, like we wanted. Her father can't touch her now."
"Do you think he would try to?" Celeste questioned, hearing the tension in his tone.
Gibbs shrugged. "I don't know. He sent her on a suicide mission to prove her loyalty. In the past Eli ordered Ziva to kill her own brother. The man doesn't seem to have great attachments to his children."
"But?" she knew there was more.
"But he's a proud man and she was the best. I wouldn't put it past him to try something, even after all this."
Celeste touched his arm. "Even Eli David couldn't get through Vance and you and Tony and McGee and Abby. She's got lots of protectors Jethro, it doesn't fall only to you to take care of her."
"Feels like it," he argued, then waited for her to change the subject. He hated worrying.
She could take a hint. "Abby and McGee?"
Gibbs tried to relax his shoulders, but tension had the muscles coiled too tightly. "They finally made the announcement, told Tony and Ziva last weekend."
Celeste's tone was careful. "How did that go?"
Gibbs thought about the last week. "Hard to say. Things are normal at work, but I don't think they've really talked about it. Ziva and Abby especially need to sit down and deal with the issue, because they're going through the same thing even if their situations are light years apart."
Celeste's fingers caught his casually. "It doesn't sound like you need to play mediator just yet. Give them a chance, and the time, to work through it on their own."
He was frustrated by her calm approach. "Fountain of wisdom now, are you?"
She shook her head lightly "I know you Jethro and what you need to hear sometimes." Celeste squeezed his hand gently. "You carry the burdens for all of them. Who helps carry yours?"
Gibbs glanced at the woman walking by his side. "You looking for a second job?" It was very rare that he could admit to being vulnerable or needing someone, but tonight he was ready to share the weight of caring for the team.
"Hmm..." Celeste pretended to think about it. "That might be right up my alley."
Gibbs swallowed hard. "Thanks."
"Anytime," she smiled, stars reflected in her blue eyes. "Anything else you want to tell me?"
He shook his head. "Enough for tonight."
They'd circles the block many times, finally ending up back at her front door. She faced him and Gibbs missed the warmth of her fingers on his. "I'll say goodnight then." Celeste turned to go inside and looked back over her shoulder. "Don't be a stranger Jethro."
He stared after her and shoved his hands in his pockets. It seemed like such an abrupt ending when he'd just poured out his thoughts and feelings to her, but the current label of friendship they lived under didn't allow for much more. Gibbs got into his car and backed out, wondering how much longer before friends wouldn't be enough anymore and one of them wanted a change. If that happened, he needed to be ready. Second chances only came around once. His, it seemed, were coming all at the same time.