Disclaimer: I never did get his dog.
Aaand welcome to the Tiva chapter! ... Okay, so it's not really that Tiva, because Ziva's still with Ray here and it's not their time yet. But it's very tender :P and on that note, it ought to be put to attention that this chapter is a little different from the first one (because I'm more used to writing Tiva and because they do have more 'moments' together). So, it is mushier. :P
The drinking establishment was dark and surprisingly empty when she arrived; it didn't take Ziva long to spot her partner seated at the bar, his head lowered and his forearms pressed tightly to his chest.
"Tony," she greeted him as she walked up to him, and he came to life with a surprised flurry of activity.
"Ziva," he returned, his grin not quite covering the storm in his eyes.
"I hope you were not waiting long for me." She settled herself onto the stool next to him, and he shook his head.
"No, I—thank you for coming, Zi. I know it's a weird hour of the night…"
"You're upset," she observed as he trailed off. I could never not have come.
"Well…" He took a deep breath. "Well, okay. You know John Smith?"
"The boy you … bullied?"
He flinched. "Not exactly. It turns out he-… I went to apologize to him, and he … he told me he didn't understand why I was the one apologizing."
"Oh," she supplied, unsure of where this was going.
"I um, apparently I was this runt of a guy in school, without a mother and going through this awkward phase of being not quite at puberty and smaller than a lot of the guys in my class…" Tony took another deep breath. "And it made me an easy target."
Ziva stared blankly. "What do you mean?"
"John Smith strung me up on the flagpole." His words all came in a rush. "And it was all embarrassing, I mean, but whatever; I'm over it—"
The single mention of his name stopped him, and his gaze fixed steadily in the direction of the floor.
"Are you … pulling my leg?" she asked.
"No, I'm not," he answered hoarsely. "I genuinely thought I had been a bully until he told me that I had just been a wimp."
"You are anything but a wimp, Tony DiNozzo," she replied fiercely, and he seemed startled by the abrupt onset of her anger. "And do not let anyone ever tell you otherwise."
He gave her a rather lacklustre smirk. "I paraphrased."
"Well, don't." She grabbed his hand and squeezed it tightly, willing him to look at her.
And then he did, but he spoke up—his eyes a glossy sheen—before she could: "Maybe I deserved to be bullied, Ziva."
For some reason, that made all the tenseness leave her. The sentence, spoken with such earnest and wrongful belief, tore her heart into a million different pieces.
"No one ever deserves to be bullied, Tony," she answered softly, and he looked away.
"I was so easy a target. I mean, I cried, a lot, after my mother passed away, and then I was just away from Dad and home—and I remember all of that, but somehow my brain keeps convincing me that I got over it soon and that I became top-dog at the boarding school when, in fact, I was just somebody everyone else found convenient to tread over."
"I should've been tougher, shouldn't I?"
She bit her lip, studying him intently.
It was still so hard to wrap her head around the idea that he'd been bullied rather than been the bully. Tony had such a loud personality; he was always just there, teasing and mocking his colleagues and wanting to be the focal point of a room.
Yet, in retrospect, it seemed to make sense: The senior field agent had always been gentler and more easily hurt than he let on. And he had a good heart—that, more than anything else, convinced her that he would never have taken the sport of embarrassing someone to so far a point as to decorate a flagpole with that someone.
If Young Tony had been tougher, then perhaps he might not have been bullied—but such a tough Young Tony would never have grown up to be the man who had her back far above and beyond the call of duty.
So, she touched his cheek and said, "You are already as tough as you need to be, Tony."
He laughed bitterly. "Not as a preteen."
"You had had a rough life."
"This rough life got me-… you know."
She merely squeezed his hand again, at a loss for words.
"It's coming back to me in bits and pieces," he continued. "Cockroaches in my food, lizards in my bed, having me take the fall for things I didn't do—and there's the highlight of hanging me up on the flagpole, of course. I think lovely ol' John got expelled for that, but what d'you know? I don't remember."
"Oh, Tony," she breathed, and it made his eyes snap to hers.
"And that's my life," he concluded, his lips pressing into a hard line. "Turned out to be more tragic than we imagined, huh? Guess my autobiography will be a bestseller, after all."
She frowned at the dismissive joke, shaking her head. "Tony…" she began, "I am … sorry about what I said and did this afternoon."
"And what did you say and do?" he asked casually, the barest hint of grimness in his features.
"I … I called you out on something you did not do—even though I did not know it at the time—which had nothing to do with me. I should have stayed out of your business—"
"Nah," Tony cut in. "I call you out on your crap and you call me out on mine; that's the way we roll."
"But I think things should change…"
"I think…" Tony started, "that we are full of sharp jibes, but at the end of the day that's … what we are. And if things were to change after this, then I wouldn't know where we stand anymore."
She paused with her brow furrowed, trying to figure out what he meant by his words, when she took notice of his pained expression. The conclusion came to her in a flash.
He was worried that she would pity him; would think less of him now that he had revealed some of the demons he had long repressed. He was worried that she would treat him like a victim after this.
And that, in turn, pained her immensely because he was so much more of her hero than he would ever know.
Inhaling deeply, she said, "I think I want things to change." She saw him open his mouth to speak, but stopped him with a raised hand and continued, "I want them to change, so that I could acknowledge freely the good man you are. You do not deserve to wonder, DiNozzo. You deserve … to know that I would not have you any other way."
He looked at her, his expression inscrutable, as she waited with bated breath for the response her honesty would result in.
In the end, she thought he surprised them both when he tightened his grip on her hand and pleaded, "Promise me you won't let me lose myself again, Ziva."
And she found herself blinking furiously as she leant forwards to press a light kiss to his forehead.
"I swear," she promised.