Spoilers: None really.
Disclaimer: Not mine, obviously.
Author's Note: This just kinda came to me from out of nowhere. I'm thinking about keeping it a oneshot, but I've left it open so that I can continue it if another good idea comes to me. Let me know what you guys think!
Tony had given up on subtlety a long time ago.
He made no attempt to disguise his scrutiny – instead, he watched her every movement openly, unreservedly. Not that she noticed; that was the point, really. She had been uncharacteristically withdrawn today, quiet and aloof in a way that was definitely unusual. He had been unsure at first, willing to write it off as a lack of sleep or some other nonsense, but by lunchtime he knew that he was wrong. She had not responded to any of his quips, jokes or movie lines. She had not gotten a single figure of speech wrong, because she had not used any. Now, as the bullpen shut down around them and he watched her packing her stuff, Tony knew without a doubt that something was bothering his favorite ninja.
He had learned long ago that if he had an antithesis, it was Ziva's pain.
Tony stood and crossed the space that separated their desks; only when he had stopped and was standing right next to her did Ziva seem to take note of his proximity. She trained her wide, dark eyes on his face; her pain was like a song, the lyrics playing out over the panes of her countenance.
"Dinner's on me." It wasn't a question, but he steeled himself for a fight anyway. When one wasn't forthcoming, he didn't know whether to feel triumphant or alarmed. Ziva always fought – didn't she? When was the last time they'd done anything together outside of work?
"Thank you." She sounded so quiet, so unlike herself that for just a moment Tony wondered how he ever could have written this off as anything less than what it was.
He retrieved his backpack and keys just as she was stepping away from her desk. They fell into step automatically as they headed for the elevator. Tony tried not to think about how, despite the fact that they were just a few inches away from each other, his partner felt like she was hundreds of miles away.
They agreed – wordlessly – on taking his car rather than hers, and in a rare moment of shameless chivalry, Tony opened her door for her. The unexpected act drew her from whatever thoughts had been keeping her occupied; she gave him an almost teasing smile, the first he had seen all day. He found himself hoping for some sort of joke, but she said nothing, only slipping into the passenger's seat.
"In the mood for anything special?" He asked conversationally as he started the car and backed out of the parking space.
He grinned. "Well it is Taco Tuesday."
"Taco Tuesday?" She repeated, confused, "There are certain days to eat certain foods?"
Tony couldn't resist chuckling as he pulled the car into the flow of traffic. "Officially, no. I just like calling it that because I like the alliteration."
"That is a very big word for you, Tony."
He gave her a lopsided grin – her first joke of the day! That sounded more like his usual Ziva. He wanted to ask her what was bothering her, and usually he would – but right now, something was telling him to wait.
The drive did not take long. Maria's Taco Corner was a small restaurant a few blocks from Tony's apartment; he'd found it on accident about two years ago after a late night at work. Small and unassuming as it was, he had been a little hesitant that first trip. To his surprise, the little taco joint was very clean and inviting – Maria herself had been on shift. She was small but fierce little woman with curling black hair and a wide smile – he'd liked her immediately.
It was a perfect place for two people who wanted a quiet meal.
Ziva said nothing as he parked – he was really beginning to worry. Complete silence was not something he would have thought his Israeli was capable of, all threats to life and limb aside.
He walked closer to her than he normally would, but if she noticed she chose to let it go. He could not say why, but something about this sadder, quieter side of Ziva made him feel strangely protective.
Tony would never tell her that, though.
He opened the door for her again and let her pick their table. A young girl brought them menus before they'd even finished taking off their coats and then disappeared just as quickly. He loved that about this place.
He had just picked up his menu when the sound of her voice – a voice he would know anywhere in the world – drew his attention.
"I am fine, Tony."
"I know. So – wanna tell me what's up?"
She held his gaze for some moments, weighing the idea of whether or not to tell him. Tony was the class clown, the first person to crack a joke or lighten the mood. Now, however, in this small moment in a little restaurant, he was perfectly serious. Blue eyes watched her intently, waiting ever so patiently for her answer.
"Today is Tali's birthday," She said quietly, her voice heavy, "She would have been twenty two."
Tony couldn't immediately think of a reply. Tali was not a subject open for discussion – Ziva had only mentioned her sister to him once, many years ago. Of all the things his partner kept close to the vest, this was perhaps the one she kept closest. What was he supposed to say? Somehow, he didn't think there was any way to lighten this mood; in fact – and he couldn't say exactly how – he knew that to even attempt to do so would be an egregious error.
"What was she like?" He asked.
"She was beautiful." The pride in her tone was evident, the hurt a layer that hid just below the surface. "Very smart. Kind. More caring than Ari, more sensible than myself."
"She sounds great." He hoped his sincerity came through in his tone. Ziva's little sister did sound great, and he wanted to hear more about her. He wanted to hear whatever Ziva was willing to share with him.
Their waitress reappeared then with two glasses of water, ready to take their order. He was about to ask for more time when Ziva beat him to the punch, ordering one of the meals he usually got. Damn – he hadn't even seen her look at the menu. He ordered one of his favorites, and two beers to go along with their meals.
Ziva subconsciously noted the way his attention focused on her as soon as the waitress had gone, and the way he leaned slightly toward her as he waited for her to continue. Both observations made her feel slightly better, made the knot in her chest loosen ever so slightly.
"After Tali died, I was so angry; I threw myself into Mossad, into training to be the weapon I knew my father wanted. My mother was already gone, Ari was never around … Tali was the only one who made me feel like I could be a better person. She was the only one who knew I could do something more with my life. Without her …"
"You lost yourself," Tony finished for her, when she seemed unable to continue. She just nodded and looked down at the table for a while. He did not need to see her eyes to know that there were tears in them. Without realizing what he intended to do, he reached one hand across the table and laid it softly over her smaller hand.
The feel of his hand on hers grounded her. She gathered herself and brought her gaze to meet his once again; she left her hand where it sat, under his. "When I was in Somalia, I thought about many things. I thought about how I had never really stopped being angry – angry with my parents, my brother, even my sister. But mostly, I'd never stopped being angry with myself. When I thought that I was going to die, all I could think about was how I'd wasted my life. What would my sister think of the lives I had taken?"
He wanted to say something – to reassure her somehow, lessen her burden. But there was nothing he could say; Ziva's demons were her own, and he could not fight them for her. Even if he wanted to.
"It took me a long time to realize that Tali was my … safety net, yes? I knew that, even if I had no one else, I had my little sister. She loved me – she held me accountable for my actions."
"She was your parachute," Tony said softly, squeezing the hand of hers that was still blanketed by his own.
The arrival of their food made Tony pull away then. The waitress set their food before them with a flourish, finishing off the placement with their beers. She smiled brightly, dark hair streaming over one shoulder, and suddenly Tony thought he could imagine Ziva as a young girl: wild, unburdened by the loss of her family. Fun.
That's when the idea came to him.
"C'mon, my ninja. Eat up."
He grinned at her, and something about his grin must have tipped her off because she narrowed those big bambi eyes at him in suspicion. He just winked in response.
Ziva had not been in Tony's apartment in a long time. Everything was mostly the same as she remembered, and she was once again hit with the surprise of how orderly and clean it all looked. The living room showed signs of frequent use: the television remote was tossed on one of the couch cushions, an empty coffee mug still on the coffee table.
Tony, who had moved passed where she had stopped in the living room, reappeared from the kitchen holding two shot glasses and a bottle of dark liquor. Ziva arched one eyebrow at the rakish smile on his face – she knew that smile.
That smile meant trouble.
"Tonight, we celebrate Tali's memory. Twenty two shots."
"Tony, it is a school night." She folded her arms over her chest, fixing him with her best glare.
"It's still early," He countered easily. "Everyone needs to let go every once in a while, Ziva."
She couldn't say if it was his words that got her, or that stubborn weight that had settled over her heart, but she felt the moment her resolve left her. She smiled, just the barest upward twitch of her lips, and then she was joining him on the couch as he poured their first shot.
"Tell me something," He said as he handed her the little glass.
"Anything. A memory; a hope; a fear. One for each shot."
She scanned his face, watched the sparkle of his pale eyes in the soft lighting of the apartment as she cast back into her memories.
"I promised Tali that when she was eighteen, we would get matching tattoos."
They clinked glasses and tossed the burning liquid down their throats. Ziva handed her glass back to her partner to refill, determined not to over analyze it all. She was safe here, in Tony's apartment; tonight, the memories could not hurt her. Tonight, the shadows would not come calling.
Tony held the shot glass out to her, full once again. She took it, already ready with another memory.
"I was fourteen when I kissed a boy for the first time – Tali was the first person I told. She laughed, and asked why anyone would ever want to kiss a boy."
Shot number two went down a little easier.
"I want to be the kind of person my mother and sister would be proud of."
By the time they got to their tenth shot, Ziva knew the alcohol had worked its way through her body. Her toes had started to tingle around the eighth shot, and she could feel the dizziness just waiting to take over. She was not a regular drinker, and twenty-two shots was a lofty goal. She wasn't so sure they would make their goal; across from her, Tony looked as though he felt the same.
"Eleven," He reminded her, passing her the glass.
She hadn't intended to take the glass, but it was in her hand before she knew it. She stared at the liquid – Jim Beam, the bottle told her – and she was speaking before she was even aware of what she meant to say.
"When Salim pulled that bag off my head in Somalia and I saw you, I thought you were a mirage. I thought that they had finally killed me."
She drank her shot quickly, completely missing the way Tony's hand faltered ever so slightly on its path towards his mouth. Ziva, his usually tight lipped, private partner had not only opened up to him about her sister, but also her childhood memories and her time in Somalia – all in the same night. His head would have been spinning even if he hadn't been drinking.
They had shifted positions some time in the last forty- five minutes; they had started off turned towards one another, but that had somehow translated into them sitting side –by- side, close enough that their shoulders and knees touched. The bottle of Jim Beam, which they had put a sizeable dent in, sat in front of them on the coffee table.
She poured them both another shot.
"Twelve." He picked up his shot glass.
"After all the things I have done in my life … all the people I have hurt and the lives I have taken … I do not think anyone can love me."
The word love stuck in her throat, coming out thicker and more layered than she had meant for it to. In the semi-drunken haze that had started to jumble her thoughts, she couldn't immediately figure out why; it was only when the first fat tear drop crashed silently to the back of her hand that she realized she had started to cry.
"Ziva …" Tony didn't finish the sentence. Instead, he took her shot glass from her and set both of them down on the table still full. On impulse, because it was what his gut told him to do, he wrapped an arm around his partner's shoulders and pulled her into his side. She didn't fight him – he pulled her down with him as he leaned back into the couch cushions, tucking her in between his side and the cushions. Her head came to rest on his chest, just over his heartbeat, and he could smell her shampoo.
"Everyone has demons, Ziva," He said softly, tucking his cheek against the crown of her head. "That does not mean you don't deserve love."
"I am tired of always being hurt, Tony." Her voice was so soft that he almost couldn't hear it over the sound of his own heart beating. There was so much pain there, so much open vulnerability that he didn't know how to respond. On top of that, he was having a hard time telling himself not to think about the feel of her body pressed against his, or the sweet smell of her hair under his nose; he hoped she didn't notice the way his heart was racing, or that she would at least chalk it up to the alcohol.
"You can't give up. Not yet. Not when you're so close."
"Close to what?"
The answer was right there, on the tip of his tongue; such a simple answer, and yet he could not give it voice. The alcohol, his fears and insecurities … all of it conspired to keep him from saying the first thing that came to mind. Why couldn't he say it? What would happen if he did? So much hinged on his answer, on the words that he knew she would never expect to hear. Would it really be so terrible to admit?
His inner battle must have been raging for just long enough, because she murmured (such a small and quiet sound) and curled into the warmth of his chest. He knew then that she had fallen asleep, and he was saved from having to answer.
He dropped a feather light kiss on her forehead and answered anyway. "Close to me."