It began with the way she moved.
Well, with him watching the way she moved, to be precise.
And she was nothing if not precise, his Ziver – a quality he loved and admired about her when it wasn't making him crazy.
Despite the circumstances, from the very first moment they met he was struck by the way she carried herself, the impact of her mere presence in a room, her economy of movement.
She did not lift a finger or roll a hip without a specific purpose.
At the same time, she was poetry in motion … Smooth. Flowing. Elegant. Beautiful.
Even with a gun in her hands.
Perhaps especially then.
She was so guarded around even him at first, but she still moved like silk unfurling.
The woman who arrived in his bullpen unexpectedly one day moved confidently, sexually, in control.
She was still that woman – and so much more.
He couldn't take his eyes off her at times, even from the beginning. He tried to hide it, but she knew.
After they'd become lovers years after their initial meeting, she'd admitted to the same, but she'd done a better job of hiding it because he hadn't known.
Or hadn't let himself know.
Sometimes he wished he could find the perfect words to describe the way she moved, but, hell, he had trouble saying the simplest of things sometimes, let alone trying to verbally capture those graceful movements that could morph into dangerous in a heartbeat, as beautifully, powerfully lethal as a tigress protecting her young.
If he watched her work out or caught her dancing when she thought no one was looking, she mesmerized him.
When she moved over him, beneath him, drew him in, wrapped around him she filled empty places inside him he'd forgotten were there.
Mere words could not fully do her justice.
But words could be important.
And some words were too important not to find.
Which is why he was now watching her move around his house collecting her things that had slowly, casually become mixed in with his over the last six months, instantaneously rendering the place into something that no longer felt like home … watching her move away from him.
She hadn't asked for much – just to know how he felt about her, how he saw them together … Did he think he wanted them to be together a year from now? Five years from now?
She'd paused, giving him space to answer, her movements suspended in time as she waited. Hoped. Feared. Broke.
A sad understanding had crossed her face before it went carefully blank. She turned away, fluid, graceful even in that.
She had not yelled or screamed or thrown anything. He almost wished she had. He would have known what to do with that – he'd had plenty of practice with his ex-wives.
But this … she was still poised and purposeful in her actions, still elegant and beautiful even in her pain. She wouldn't let him see it, but he knew it was there.
It was the same gut-wrenching ache that was cleaving his own heart into two jagged pieces.
She loved him, he knew she did. She'd taken to whispering it after she thought he'd fallen asleep.
And he'd allowed her to think he had.
The yellow-bellied coward that he was.
But after she really had fallen asleep, he would tighten his grip on her, never wanting to let go … so grateful, his own heart so full he half-expected it to burst open.
Yet, he'd stayed characteristically silent.
He hadn't always been that way. He'd once been freer with his emotions, sometimes rash, unguarded, even ... not so bottled up. But twenty years ago, he'd retreated behind a rigid wall of near silence in a desperate attempt to protect himself from ever feeling again the devastation that had nearly crushed him beyond all recognition when Shannon and Kelly had been ripped from his world.
He refused to consider how little protection that wall would really provide if anything ever happened to Ziva.
He tried to show her how much she meant to him and he thought she knew he cared – an insipid word that did not do justice to the depth of his feelings for her. But, like him, she didn't live in the gray very well. She'd reached a point where she simply wanted some definition to whatever this was between them. She hadn't asked for promises, just for some clarity.
He'd watched her gather her courage to speak, her movements unexpectedly fidgety until she intentionally, visibly stilled herself. The emotion she was struggling to keep caged moved through her brown eyes, calling to him even as it was almost painful to watch … she was never uncertain, but now she was. She never willingly left herself vulnerable, but now she was about to.
She'd stepped off an emotional ledge without a net, hoping he would catch her.
So, she did what she'd done her whole life: she picked herself up from where she'd crashed and she moved … withdrew into herself … remembered that she wasn't really worthy of him anyway.
But oh how she'd longed to be.
There was no recrimination in her movements, just a sense of control that had an edge like a knife, an air of knowing resignation that cut him to the bone.
It had not taken her long to pack her things and now she stopped moving, stood near him, silently begging him to answer her, to understand her, to stop her … to want her.
She made not a sound, though her throat worked as if there were more words fighting to break free.
She kept them inside.
She slowly reached out a slim, deceptively delicate hand, intending to squeeze his forearm in wordless understanding … and possible farewell to this part of their lives.
She hoped they hadn't come to that, but knew she needed a little time at the very least to calm the maelstrom of emotions whirling inside her, get them back under control.
However, her hand halted just centimeters from touching him, as though she wasn't sure what would come next if she did.
Her lips attempted a slight, sad excuse for a smile and then she moved again.
Out his front door.
Of its own volition, his body followed. He soundlessly reopened the door she'd just carefully closed and watched as she lifted the back hatch on her Mini and placed her bag inside.
His heart was pounding on his chest from the inside, yelling at him to do something, say anything, but years of reticence were hard to overcome.
She closed the car and braced her hands against it, hanging her head as though losing the battle for strength in that moment.
With a deep breath, she straightened and moved to the driver's door. As her fingers touched the metal handle, his rigid wall shattered.
No! clawed free from someplace deep inside him.
He was unaware he uttered it out loud as he stepped onto his porch, but she stopped as though frozen in place. Her acute sense of hearing had picked up that word, but she was afraid her ears were playing tricks on her.
Her heart pounded. That had sounded real.
She cautiously turned her head to see him striding purposely toward her, more than a hint of the desperation he was feeling inside showing in his movements.
Her breath caught.
His eyes pleaded with her to stay, to comprehend all that he felt for her, to see his remorse at not having words for her when she'd needed them most.
And by the grace of a God he'd stopped believing in, she did.
She took one hesitant step toward him, then another.
And then she was running.
Watching her move toward him rather than away was the most beautiful sight he'd ever seen.
He met her more than halfway, caught her in his arms as she flew through the air, not failing her this time.
"I thought you were going to let me leave."
They spoke overtop one another, neither able to stay silent any longer.
"Don't leave. Stay."
"I do not want to go."
Again, their words tumbled together, both talking at the same time.
With the ghost of a smile born of relief and thanksgiving, Ziva rested her forehead against Jethro's as her arms tightened around his neck and her eyes blinked against unshed tears.
"Perhaps we should try talking one at a time," she suggested softly, pushing the words past the lump of emotion in her throat. "I -"
"No," he interrupted gently, tilting his head back far enough to trace her lovely features with a brilliant blue gaze. "Me first."
A wry look passed over his face as surprise crossed hers.
"Well, kinda second, really. You already went first."
Her eyes warmed. Her smile grew. Hope bloomed.
"You're stronger than me that way. In a lot of ways," he started. She shook her head as though to disagree, but he squeezed her into silence. Then he looked directly, assuredly into her eyes. "Love that about you. Love everything about you."
Once more her chest tightened and she felt like she couldn't breathe, but in the best way possible. Happy tears overflowed their banks to bead down her cheeks like delicate strands of tiny diamonds. One of her hands moved to gently cup the side of his face.
"I love you, too," she husked. "So much."
"I know." He allowed her to see a tinge of regret. "Heard you at night. Shoulda said it back to you then. Can you forgive me for not?"
Her expression gentled and she pressed a soft kiss to his lips.
"There is nothing to forgive," she informed him with certainty.
"You wanted to know how I felt, how I saw the future for us." He released an audible sigh. "Couldn't get the words out ... 'm sorry about that."
"Apology is a sign of –"
He cut her off with a shake of his head. "Not between us."
He gently set her feet on the ground, but he didn't let her go. If anything, he held her closer. Slowly, he said more.
"How I feel is that I love you in a way I thought I'd never feel again. And as for the future …" He paused for a heartbeat, then plunged ahead. "Don't want one that doesn't include you, even though you deserve better than a stubborn old bastard who doesn't talk much."
The relief and joy and love that brightened her face threw light on all the shadows that lived in his heart, dispelling any lingering notion that he ever needed to be anything other than who he was for her.
"I do not usually talk much either," she pointed out with a tiny smile, brushing her fingertips through his hair.
He buried his face in her throat.
"Thank God," he mumbled against her skin. Then he grimaced at how that sounded. "I mean –"
Her lips twitched.
"I know what you meant," she assured him warmly, rubbing her cheek against his.
His relief was palpable.
"I would say that it is you who deserve better and there is no one better for me than you," she disagreed with him lovingly. "I want forever with you, too, but I am not asking that you decide that today. I do not wish to push you. I just needed to know …"
Her voice trailed off.
"Where we stood," he finished. She nodded slowly. "Together. That's where we stand. If you'll still have me."
"I do not want anyone else," she whispered emotionally, brown eyes locked on blue.
"Me either." His voice had no room for doubt and a welcome sense of belonging curled through her, pushing aside the uncertainty that had poked at her insidiously more often than she cared to admit.
"Stay. Move in with me." He rested his forehead against hers in supplication. "Marry me."
She gasped and pulled back to see his face more fully, plainly astounded but with a banked longing that fairly glowed in her eyes.
"Jethro?" she breathed hesitantly, her stomach flip-flopping crazily.
His smile was tender, understanding that she was afraid to believe, allowing her to see that he was worried she might say no ... that he'd been cavalier about marriage the last three times he'd done it because it hadn't mattered then, but it mattered now. She mattered.
"I was not trying to make you … Please do not say that unless you mean it." A desperate hope was struggling to break free from her attempts to keep it in check.
"Mean it," he advised her, smoothing his hands up and down her back, encouraging the muscles that had stiffened to mold against him once more. "Not asking because I think you want me to; asking because I want to. Want you." He dropped a swift but knee-buckling kiss onto her upturned lips, then bared his soul a little further. "Need you. Always will."
She opened her mouth, then closed it without saying a word, clearly trying to find her emotional footing again.
He told himself not to panic, that she was just worried she'd pressured him.
In reality, he felt free and unencumbered in a way he hadn't felt for decades.
And he let her see that, too.
Bending his head, his lips roamed over her face pressing tiny kisses to her skin, needing that connection with her and trying to reassure her with every weapon in his arsenal that he meant exactly what he'd said. Instinctively, she nuzzled her face against him, her lips parting as desire cascaded through her.
His mouth came to hover just a breath away from hers. "Say yes."
Allowing the last of her own reflexive, protective walls to crumble, Ziva breathed out on a sigh the only answer she could.
She caught the full-blown grin that curved his lips just before he lowered them completely to hers. For an instant, they both smiled as their mouths connected, simply allowing the moment to wash over them. Then, they moved together, the kiss deepening, mouths opening, tongues searching, finding, teasing, sliding … saying more with that one kiss than most people could meaningfully say in a lifetime.
At long last they came up for air. Happiness bubbled up and he swung her around in a circle, her feet off the ground, her body resting completely, trustingly on his, their combined joyful noise bursting around them like a thousand points of sparkling light.
When the world stopped spinning, she wriggled to be put down. Taking his hand, she led him wordlessly to her car. As always, he was captivated by her movements – smooth, purposeful, gliding on air.
"I can feel you staring as though you are afraid I will disappear," she teased him lightly, gracing him with a warmly humorous look back over her shoulder.
"Just love watching you move," he revealed, his eyes darkening with heat as they traveled over her.
"I know," she returned in a sultry voice that skittered up his spine. She tossed him that knowing, impish wink of hers that never failed to go straight to his groin, her sexy confidence back in place. Then she whispered provocatively, "I like it."
His characteristic grin tugged at his mouth.
"I like you," he flirted in return. His expression gentled, warmed; turned serious, but without a doubt in sight. "Love you."
Her heart melted and her response came through loud and clear in those big brown eyes.
Unable to resist, he tugged her against him with the hand he held. This time the kiss went deep and ravenous and breathtaking in a heartbeat. Her arms twined about his neck like silken ropes as her fingers thrust into the short, silver hair at the back of his neck. His own hands were far from idle as they smoothed over her back and hips, tangled in her long, dark hair.
When he finally lifted his head, he felt a kick of satisfaction at the dazed look in her eyes as she swayed on her feet. In more ways than one, she gave up trying to stand on her own and nestled back against him.
Once she'd steadied, he removed her bag from the car and curved one arm around her shoulders as she wrapped one of hers tightly around his waist. They walked back into the house, stepping into their future.
It began with the way she moved.
It flowed endlessly forward because now he would move with her in a dance that would last a lifetime.
~ The End ~