Chapter Thirty-Five

She doesn't accept Gibbs' offer.

When the older man visits them the weekend after their fight, she firmly—if haltingly—tells him that she is refusing his help. Gibbs nods and accepts her choice without question; Tony feels a pang run through him because it seems like the setback in her progress is his own fault, but he holds his tongue and respects her decision.

That night, she sits him down after dinner, and they talk about everything and nothing in particular. She asks him about work; he tells her about the sixteen new McNicknames he's come up with and Abby's brand new lab equipment (which doesn't outrank only Major Mass Spec because of the latter's tenure status). She laughs when he describes Abby's wild bowling nights with the nuns, and wistfully tells him that she misses the team.

So, he brings up the idea of a get-together.

She enthusiastically agrees, and there their conversation ends.

The next night, they repeat the process.

It is only on the third night that she starts to talk about herself. He learns the general details of what she shares in therapy and she tells him what life had been like pre-Somalia but post-Rivkin, and he thinks that somewhere in her narration might be his key to true forgiveness towards himself for the part he had played in the entire ordeal.

Two weeks into their little ritual, he realizes that it is the longest they have gone without worrying about the next step. The previous six-and-a-half months had been filled with moment after moment of pain and uncertainty and the want to move on and the lack of tangible ability to do so … and he appreciates, for the first time, that the balance between trying to create a new life and accepting the old one for what it had been is not something to be trifled with. He appreciates, too, that he and Ziva still have a long way to go, but that he needs to think beyond helping her get better and then letting her go and then hoping that she still wants him in her life—and that she needs to plan in ways that go beyond 'percentage of self that has been fixed.' They have been focused on healing her for so long that they had lost sight of why they'd striven to do so in the first place: It is not so that she can eat properly or step outside or get past what she had gone through in Somalia, but so that she can enjoy food and see the world and make best friends and fall in love.

And as they say, it is not about the destination, but the journey.

So, they make a pledge to each other never to forget that again.

When she tells him two days later that she'd like to host a dinner party for their friends, he jumps right into planning alongside her, and they lose themselves in the beauty of a moment which goes far beyond Somalia.

xoxo

The group of them is gathered for the first time in many months, and Ziva has never looked happier at that. Standing at the fringes of the merry-making and observing his friends' interactions, Tony had noted earlier that they were louder and more boisterous than they had been in years—the team is finally one again, and he is indescribably happy for that.

He and Gibbs are now in the kitchen, his boss leaning against the counter and regarding him carefully while he waits for the percolator to finish making coffee. The older man jerks his head towards the living room. "Good job out there."

"Thanks, Boss." Tony grins. "It was all Ziva's idea, actually."

"Oh, no. I don't just mean the gathering."

Tony pauses midway through retrieving a cup from the overhead cabinet. "Ziva's not a job to me, y'know. She's a friend. My best friend."

"Yeah, I know."

The senior field agent lowers the cup onto the counter. "You gonna start talking to me about rules again?"

"Nah. I think the time for that has long passed." Gibbs adjusts the cups (rather pointlessly) into a line. "Just wanted to make sure you know what you're doing."

"What do you mean?"

"Don't want you to get too involved."

Tony frowns. "Don't you think it's a little too late for that?"

"There's no need to get so defensive, DiNozzo," Gibbs retorts. "What I meant is I don't wanna see you get burnt twice."

"Boss, what are you really trying to tell me by that?"

Gibbs regards Tony quietly again for a few moments. Finally, the silver-haired man tilts his head and asks, "Have you and Ziva thought about where things to go from here?"

Tony nods, not bothering to pretend he doesn't know what 'things' is. "We talked about it."

"What did she say?"

"With all due respect, Boss, I don't think that's any of your business."

Gibbs nods and glances at the percolator. "Fair enough. Your coffee's done." He moves forwards, clapping Tony on the shoulder and leaning in to whisper, "I'm not saying 'Don't go for it.' I'm saying you might wanna make sure she's in it for the long haul, because frankly, Tony? I don't think you could settle for anything less."

And then the boss strides out of the kitchen, leaving Tony feeling bewildered and more than a little conflicted.

xoxo

Tony is not a fool.

He would wish for 'long haul' with Ziva—of course he would. But he knows that despite her semi-promise at a chance between them someday, he is not necessarily the guy she will fall in love with.

Strangely, though, he feels he might be okay with that. He often thinks long and hard about everything he's done since she stayed back in Israel and always comes to the conclusion that she is the only woman on Earth for whom he would risk his life and then give up his lifestyle just so she could be safe, alive, and happy again, and he has no intention of having—by sheer chance and then hard work—rescued her and helped her get a second chance only to curtail her freedom and place conditions upon his presence in her life.

If her being happy means her being with another man, then so be it—all he needs is to see her smile.

xoxo

"You're wrong," Tony murmurs as he and Gibbs stand in a corner, watching the others play a rather intense Monopoly game.

"Yeah?"

"I've been living with 'less' all along. And I didn't 'settle' for it: I rose up to its challenge."

Gibbs takes a sip of his coffee. "A month ago, you came to ask me if I could fund Ziva's visits to a rape trauma therapist."

Tony matches Gibbs for his movements. "Yeah."

"Why?"

"'Cause I wanted to give her every chance of recovery I could."

"Is that all?"

Tony wrinkles his nose. "I'm not thinking of having sex with her, if that's what you're saying. Besides, even if I were, I don't think you could handle me telling you."

Gibbs heaves a long-suffering sigh. "I'm just saying, don't get too involved."

"I'm not too involved."

"You're always too involved."

Tony raises his eyebrows. "Funny, you didn't say anything when she moved into my place."

"Told ya one of you was gonna need more support sometimes."

"That, and you're a freaking bastard who likes to get his own way," Tony supplies, and Gibbs smirks in acknowledgement of the insult. "I guess you think I need some coddling now, huh?"

The older man ignores the sarcastic jab. "Ziva can stand on her own, more or less. You still flounder without her."

"That's true."

"But…?"

"You ever get over Shannon, Boss?"

"What does that have to do with anything?" Gibbs asks in return, his eyes narrowed and his voice lowered.

Tony holds his hands up in a peace-making gesture. "I'm just saying, you're still standing. And I'm never gonna get over Ziva, but … you know what the difference is from the Damocles? Back then, the last memory I had of her was her jamming a gun into my chest because I'd shot Michael Rivkin and she couldn't trust me anymore. Even before that, everything we had was … messy and sticky and just overall not-nice. It's not like that now. I know we still argue, but she comes after me or I go after her, and we don't leave things like we once used to. We're trying to make things work, and—we'll be fine, Boss. Even if she chooses someone else in the end, she's given me seven months of her time. I know it's not exactly been a romantic seven months, but God, do you even know what it's like these days when she smiles at you and you realize you played some part in making her happy again? That you did something good, something awesome, for once in your life?"

Gibbs raises his eyebrows in amusement, and Tony clears his throat sheepishly. "I'm just saying," the senior field agent concludes meekly, "that I'll still be standing, no matter what. Maybe with some constant figurative leg pains, but y'know … we have some good memories now. Memories of how we make things work, just me and her, and … those memories will keep me going if I ever need them to someday."

"Okay."

"'Okay'?" Tony asks, caught off-guard by Gibbs' single word to his entire lengthy speech.

"Yup." Gibbs shrugs. "Just wanted to make sure you knew what you were doing, and you do."

"You were making a big deal about this just to make sure I knew what I was doing?" Tony splutters in disbelief.

"You said it yourself—I'm a bastard." The older man smirks again before holding his coffee cup out to Tony, who takes it out of reflex. Indicating his coffee cup, Gibbs adds, "You know how I like it."

Tony can't help it. He chuckles, shakes his head, and leaves to do as Gibbs wants, because at least the bastard cares.

xoxo

Later that evening, Tony finds himself watching mellow light play across Ziva's hair and features as she cleans up the apartment with him. Dirty dishes have been piled into one stack and mismatched cushions have been put away, but he has paused in the middle of stuffing various pieces of board game back into their boxes to observe the chocolate-haired beauty across the room from him.

It's been a long seven-and-one-quarter months, but Tony wouldn't have missed out on a single day of it for all the world.

His partner peers over the blanket she's in the midst of folding to gaze questioningly at him. "What are you looking at, Tony?" she asks, her voice teasing and with just a hint of fondness.

He grins at her. "Nothing, babe."

Ziva snorts hard and returns to folding the blanket in a slightly exaggerated fashion, but he can see the tiniest smile curling the edges of her lips.

And oh, it's a smile to always be remembered, indeed.


Aaaand ... end scene!

So, that's it :P I know there are a number of issues left unaddressed, including if/when Ziva moves out of Tony's apartment, but the reason for that is more practical than psychological: Ziva is in the States illegally, sort of, since she had no Visa (or passport, for that matter) on her at her point of entry. She can probably apply for asylum to avoid deportation buttt ... that's a long process, and I have no wish to write 30 more chapters of, "Every day, they wait for her application to go through." So, she can't get a job—legally, at least :P (say what you will; I've no doubt Vance pulled a lot of strings to get her a work visa for a job at NCIS). And if she can't get a job then she wouldn't be able to afford rent.

Which is why I stop at this point XD I feel that most of the emotional issues have already been addressed, which was the purpose of this story in the first place; thus, I bid you adieu, and leave the rest of Tony's and Ziva's lives to your kind imagination.

Go ahead and run with it!

And thank you so very much for reading and reviewing, and favouriting, and putting out alerts for this story. It's been a long 35 chapters, and you have my gratitude for all of your support and encouragement. Thank you. Here! *Gigantic bouquet of flowers*

-Sophie