Disclaimer: Yeah, I'm getting really tired of coming up with ways to tell the world I don't own NCIS :P

Spoilers: 10x10 "You Better Watch Out" … and everything leading up to it, really. It's a gigantic spoiler to the show, especially Tony's character, so…. And yes, it has Kate. And I don't bash Kate. Just so you know, in case you don't like Kate. (I'm not talking about the goldfish here, in case it isn't obvious.)

Setting: A few days post-Christmas, after Tony Sr. has returned to New York (for good this time, I mean. Not for good for good, just until the next time he visits).

Enjoy; please review!

-Soph


Admission

"Okay: Before you enter, I need you to promise me one thing."

She stood in front of him, looking extremely affronted at being denied entry to his apartment. And to be honest, he couldn't blame her; he had invited her over after a half-day at work to help him move a mattress and a bed frame out of his apartment—a favour she hadn't seemed keen on granting in the first place, since she had come up with half a dozen reasons why he could do it himself—only to stop her from going inside.

"You are serious? I need to give you a promise before I cross the threshold?" she asked disbelievingly, and he flinched at her incredulous tone.

"Please, Ziva. Just humour me."

She rolled her eyes and made a noise of impatience. "Fine.'

"Promise me you won't judge."

"What is there to judge about an apartment?" A beat passed, and her eyes widened theatrically. As he expected, she started proposing, "You live like a hobo! Or you and your father went … ah, what is the phrase? You and your father went all out and decorated the whole place in green. Or—"

"Zee-vah," he interrupted.

"Fine." She rolled her eyes once more. "Show me. I will not judge."

He hesitated at her words. He wanted to show her his apartment. He honestly did—after all, she was right, and he could just disassemble the bed frame and carry everything to the curb himself. The fact that he had invited her along seemed unnecessary, and he didn't really have a reason for it other than that he did, perhaps, honestly want to show her a part of himself that was normally closed off to the rest of the world.

But the thought of insults and borderline-hurtful jokes flung by his beautiful partner who had way too much control over his heart suddenly flashed through his mind, and for a moment he felt robbed of air. Before him, Ziva loomed larger than life, bewildering and terrifying—

"Tony." Her voice snapped him out of thoughts, and he breathed in deeply to try and cover up his insanity.

As he calmed down, he realized that she had a hand pressed lightly against his chest. It was … nice. It was something he hadn't really gotten used to yet, even though she had done it more than once. It was something that always made his heart skip a beat or three.

She reiterated, "I promise I will not judge."

This time, her words were firm and quiet, and they made him relax the tiniest bit. Behind him, his hand twisted to turn the key in its lock; he moved aside and leant back against the door to let her in, not quite able to stop his motions at the same time that he really wished to. She stepped inside, all practicality and no ceremony, and his stomach twisted horribly because he'd hoped that she at least knew how to act like it was a big deal for him to be letting her in.

"Wow," she said, looking around at the decorations and the unlit Christmas tree. "It's … very colourful."

He shrugged. "Dad did all of it. My style is minimalist. Very minimalist."

"So, the tree … the ornaments?"

"Dad."

"Oh," she murmured softly.

"Well, you've seen my apartment now."

She turned to him with a smile. "Yes."

"Let's get down to business, then." He clapped his hands together and pointed to his bedroom door. "Bed's in there. Let's go."

He pushed off the front door, not bothering to shut it or remove his coat because they were going to shove a bed frame out of the apartment in five minutes' time, anyway, and led her towards his bedroom.

The humour-loving part of him found much irony in that. Here she was—the woman of his dreams, both literal and figurative—and he taking her to his bedroom not because he wanted her in it (though he would never deny wanting to be in a bed with her), but because he wanted to get rid of the memory of his father with another woman in his apartment.

Maybe his dad was right, after all. Maybe there was no room left in his soul, former Lost Child and once-engaged, for closeness anymore.

Clearing his throat and straightening his shoulders so that Ziva wouldn't notice his suddenly broken demeanour, he was about to turn the doorknob when he heard her exclaim in a voice so happy it startled him, "Goldfish!"

He turned warily and saw that his partner was staring at the fish bowl, her entire face lit up. He hesitated before telling Ziva, "Her name's Kate."

Ziva's face fell. "Oh."

He glanced back towards the door, taking a deep breath. Bad idea, his mind chided him. It was a bad idea that he thought he could put a goldfish whose namesake was his former partner in the same room as his current partner, who was very alive but very lethal and, coincidentally, too quiet right now. Dead silence (no pun intended) rang loudly though the room as he slowly looked up at her. It took him aback when, instead of looking immensely hurt, she simply looked at him with understanding.

And her voice was warm and soft when she said, "Tony, are you sure you want me here? Perhaps you would prefer McGee, or Abby, or even Gibbs to see this part of you that was … formed before we even crossed paths."

His hand twitched.

She couldn't know.

She couldn't possibly know that this apartment had seen minimal changes since he first moved in; that the television was the last thing he had replaced and that Kate the Goldfish was the last personal touch he had added. Kate the Goldfish was a relatively new addition, a pet he had acquired barely a year ago. But Ziva had hit the nail on the head: The part of him that still mourned his fallen colleague, the part that had wanted—yearned for—a living, breathing reminder of the impact Kate had made in his life had been created before Ziva ever made a home for herself in the bullpen at the desk across from his. Ziva would never know the man he had been while Kate was still alive, and it seemed grossly inappropriate all of a sudden that she should be there to watch him try and reconcile those two sides of himself.

But when he wondered about how many years it would have taken for him to get up the courage to acquire a reminder of what she—Ziva—was to him had he not gotten her back, he was reminded of how completely indispensable she had been, and still was, to him. There was a reason he was trying to put the jumbled-up pieces of the puzzle that was his life back together in front of her; there was a reason he wanted her, of all people, to be there to witness the overwhelming emptiness of his apartment and to reach conclusions about what it meant to be him.

The thought slammed into him and stole his breath, and gave him the impetus to shake his head vehemently.

"No," he told her, and his tongue struggled to find excuses as to where their other teammates were. In the end, he simply settled for an honest, "I would rather it was you."

Her chocolate eyes softened a smidge—enough to make him have to bite back the urge to cry. "Okay," she murmured, and she indicated for him to open the door. "Lead the way."

And on his third attempt, he finally managed to swing open the door to his room. Walking inside, and he could hear the surprise in her voice as she said, "Single bed!"

"Yup." He leant against the mirror on his closet door this time and braced himself for it. "Let the mocking begin."

Her forehead puckered into a bewildered frown. "Why would I mock you?"

"C'mon, it's me. The Great Anthony DiNozzo, the Italian Stallion, Casanova, Don Juan—"

"Liar," she supplied.

"'Scuse me?"

"Tony, the image that you tried to create for yourself as a ladies' man fell through somewhere between … Jeanne Benoit and EJ Barrett. And I'm assuming that you think I would mock you for having a single bed because it would probably mean you did not invite women over on a regular basis. But I am not." She gazed at him steadily, making him ponder how much she actually knew about his life. "Jeanne broke you."

He stared at her long and hard, trying to determine if she were stringing the moment out so that her final insult would be all the more powerful.

But in the end, he knew that Ziva would never be capable of something so underhanded, even at her meanest. So, he shook his head and admitted reluctantly, "Wendy first."

Ziva nodded; seemed to accept that without comment. "Okay. So, why are you throwing this bed away? It seems in perfect working condition from where I am standing."

"Aw, my dad had sex in it!"

The repulsion in his voice must've made her laugh. Her forehead crinkled and her cheeks pulled upwards, and her hand flew to her mouth as a snort, and then another, escaped her lips.

"What's funny about this?" he demanded crossly.

"You sound," she gasped, "like a teenager. Your father had sex in your bed? Tony, you could just wash the sheets, you know."

"But he's my dad! He's—I need to burn my sheets. I caught him in my bed with a woman. That is wrong on so many lev—he wasn't even there to catch me when I was a kid!"

"Did you want him to catch you?" she asked with amusement.

"Of course not, but that's the way it should be! You're supposed to catch your kid making out with some girl you don't approve of, not tell yourself that you're free from your parents and then come home to find this!"

"Okay, okay!" Ziva held up her hands, her lips still twitching. "I get your point."

"Thank you."

"But it is a waste regardless, Tony. The bed still looks like it has a good many years to it."

"You take it, then."

She made a face at him. "I already have a bed."

"Well, I don't want this one."

"Is the idea of your father having sex in your room really so abhorrent that you feel the need to purge everything of his presence?"

Tony opened and then shut his mouth. And then, he sighed. "I … don't know. Probably not, but I just really don't wanna remember."

"So, wash the sheets and pretend you didn't see anything."

"How 'm I supposed to do that? That was the first time in years that I'd had someone over. And then I find out that it's my dad with the bloodhound from opposite—"

"So, break the pattern," she answered impatiently. "You have me here now."

His eyes darted from her to the bed.

Ziva clucked her tongue. "Not like that. I just meant you could invite me over sometimes. Or Abby. Or McGee. Or one of your neighbours. Someone to talk to, man or woman."

"In case you haven't noticed, I'm not fond of talking," he pointed out. She raised her eyebrows, and he elaborated, "About personal stuff."

"So, break the pattern," she repeated softly, shrugging, and he wondered when the hell their conversation had taken this left turn.

"It's not easy. And I'm trying."

He watched as she chewed on her bottom lip, undoubtedly thinking about his words. He hoped that she would get it; that she would understand how he was trying to let her in but still found it incredibly hard.

She raised a hand and left the room abruptly, and his heart sank. In the distance, he could hear the click of the front door shutting.

She'd left.

He'd said too much, and she'd left.

When she brushed a hand down his coat sleeve, he jumped. Looking up, he found her opposite him leaning against the door frame, a tiny smile curling the corners of her lips. His heart stuttered wildly. "The front door is now shut," she informed him. "I thought you would not want any audiences or interruptions to this. So, talk."

"What, now?" he squeaked, not yet quite caught up to the fact that she was, in actual fact, still there. Still close by him.

"Yes, now." She waved her hand at the portion of his living room that they could see from the doorway. "Tell me something I do not know about your apartment."

He gazed at her, feeling strongly tempted to tell her about his spotless kitchen or the problems he had had with electrical wiring when he first moved in. Something insignificant. It would be a brush off from him and an effective one at that, because Ziva would stop pushing him to speak and the apartment would return to being his sanctuary; his very own private world—a world that even she didn't have permission to access.

Except, ever since his dad left five days ago, his apartment had felt cold and bare. There was a part of him which really wanted Ziva to grace his apartment with her constant presence, as foolish a notion as it was.

It was stupid, utterly stupid, considering how he had not wanted anyone to enter his space to begin with.

But he took a deep breath and tried, "I'll probably get another single bed once I've thrown this one out."

She looked nearly as surprised at the titbit he chose to share as he felt. "Oh."

"Yeah." He bit his lip and pushed through. "'Cause, y'know … I'd be driving down to IKEA or some other goddamn furniture store or something—I don't know—and I'd be standing there trying to pick a bed when I'd realize that there ain't no fun in furniture-shoppin' alone. Which is just crazy, because plenty of other people—"

"Tony."

"I'm lonely."

She stared at him. He threw out a bitter laugh and rested his head against the mirror. "God, something's wrong with me," he told the ceiling. "I've spent twelve years here alone without any problems, and then my father visits for a week, and now I'm looking for company?"

"It is understandable," Ziva answered. "A week with somebody else around the apartment—it must have been different, yes?"

"Yeah, if 'different' meant too much noise and too many lights and all my crap being moved from their places."

"I don't really buy that."

"My stuff was moved, believe me," he retorted convincingly.

"Yes, but I'm assuming you liked the lights. You still haven't removed them."

He glanced out at the miserable tree, its needles dark and its ornaments drab without the flickering lights on. "Can't bring myself to put them away," he mumbled quietly, and he started when he felt her fingertips press around his wrist.

"Come on," she urged softly, tugging at his hand, and he really couldn't fight her when she was holding him so gently. So, he let her lead him to the tree; let her entwine her fingers with his while she searched around the fir, presumably to find where the string of lights ended so that she could remove them. But then a switch clicked and the tree lit up, and he stepped back in surprise.

Ziva straightened and beamed at him. "Found the switch," she announced proudly.

He scowled at her. "It's not Christmas anymore."

"No, but look!" She jerked her head towards the tree.

"At what?" he asked cluelessly.

"Your father's handiwork." She turned to him, waiting for him to return her gaze before she spoke. "Tony, he got you a tree. And then he hung up ornaments on it. Perfectly spaced, well-balanced, and ooh—those mini-Santa-Clauses are adorable. And he strung up lights on the tree, Tony."

"'Hooray'?" he suggested sceptically.

"Yes." Ziva pulled him over to the glossy black piano. "And here, we have you and your mother."

"She's … y'know…"

"Passed on, I know," Ziva finished quietly. "But you have this picture: Proof that she loved you very much; proof that she wanted to give to you something which she enjoyed."

He touched the picture frame lightly, memories of the old movie theatre and popcorn and his mother's laughter running through his mind.

"And in that corner," Ziva pointed towards the bedroom wall, "you have Kate. I … may not have had the privilege of knowing the real Kate—something which I regret very much—but I do know that her team must've been greatly important to her."

"How d'you know?"

"Faith." His partner's teary eyes met his. "I saw the devastation that was left in her wake in all of you. And only a person who was well-loved and who loved fiercely in return would have so many to grieve for her."

He looked around the apartment silently. But it's just a fish, he wanted to tell her. A fish, and a picture, and some lights—I don't have them anymore. Not even Dad, who's back in New York.

"And you have me," she told him, and he wondered if she'd read his thoughts somehow. "I may make a poor substitute for a lot of things, Tony, but I do hope that I am doing an adequate job as your friend."

"Best friend," he corrected automatically, and a shy smile grew on her face.

"Yes," she agreed, squeezing his hand. "Best friend. This apartment will never be lonely unless you want it to be, Tony. Because you have Gibbs and Abby and McGee and Ducky, and even me. And … Jimmy, if you should ever choose to invite him to your home."

"You do all have your own lives, y'know."

"Yes, and our lives include you."

"Really?" He arched an eyebrow at her. "So, if I were to invite you here on perfectly good Sunday morning to watch football with me instead of doing your usual 'Pilates' sessions, you'd say 'yes'?"

She laughed and slung an arm around his waist. "In a heartbeat," she replied, and his breath caught in his throat. "Although you would have to be prepared for me to carry out my … Pilates session … on your very nice wooden floor rather than for me to pay attention to your American football game."

He chuckled thickly and laid a hand on her back, thankful that from her current vantage point, she wouldn't be able to see the tears he was blinking back.

'In a heartbeat.'

It was nice hearing those words from her lips.

"Thanks," he whispered.

"You are well-loved, Tony," she said. Even through his coat, he could feel her warm palm rub his side. "I just wish you could accept that."

He swallowed. "I will. Eventually."

And she finally disentangled herself from him. Smiling up at him, she continued, "Good. Shall we get rid of your bed now?"

He hesitated, thinking about it. What Ziva told him made no absolutely difference to what his father had done, of course, and Tony still loathed to imagine his dad—someone he had not been close to in years—and a stranger in a bed that he had associated only with safety and total control of his surroundings thus far. But Ziva was right (again). Throwing out the perfectly good bed would be a bit of a drastic action, even with its retina-peeling memories.

And somehow … somehow, with his miracle of a partner standing right in front of him, ceding the tiniest bit of control didn't seem that bad. Not as long as she was there to catch him.

It didn't seem like so much of a catastrophe for someone other than him to have inhabited his space, after all.

"Nah, I think I'll live," he told her. "But you gotta help me with the laundry."

She wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Your dad left five days ago, and you have not yet done your laundry?"

"I really didn't wanna touch that … thing! I'd rather just sleep on the couch and get backache."

She huffed. "Fine, I'll do it."

"Wash it twice. No, no, more than that."

"We will wash it however many times you want, as long as you pay for it and the detergent."

She started towards the bedroom, but stopped and turned back to him when she realized he wasn't following. "Come on. You may be excused from touching your sheets, but you still need to show me where your building's laundry room is."

Chuckling, he stepped up to her side.

Yeah, he could really get used to letting Ziva in.