Mhalachai\'s Writing
"Agent Afloat Atlantis"
Story Information
Summary:
Ziva's new assignment certainly isn't what she expected.
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The Wraith attacks around the galaxy become unpredictable, with Michael growing bolder as the other Wraith Hives move in more conservative patterns. Atlantis focuses on protecting the humans and trying to gather information on Michael, pulling on all ties from the Genii and the other races, and Ziva is once again struck by how enemies can set aside differences in the face of a stronger enemy. She wonders if anyone else notices how humans repeat their history unknowingly.

Weeks turn into months and suddenly it is the middle of August and Ziva's ordered on a two-day Earth-side working vacation. She protests to Woolsey's deaf ears and finds herself standing in the Gateroom beside an equally disgruntled Sheppard and McKay. Ronon and Teyla watch from the steps.

"Have fun," Ronon says, grinning when Sheppard flips him off. Teyla shifts her son higher on her shoulder and frowns at Sheppard's antics.

"You could come with us," Sheppard tells them.

"Why would I do that?" Ronon tosses his dreads over his shoulder, nearly smacking Torrin in the face. "Bring back popcorn or something."

"What's taking so long?" McKay calls up at the control room. "Do I need to come up there?"

Beside Woolsey, Lorne leans over the railing to give the group a wide smile. "We've got it under control, Dr. McKay. Have fun at the Pentagon."

"Yes, Washington in August, what a pleasant place for a trip," McKay grouses. Sheppard cuffs him on the side of the head and Ziva laughs out loud.

"You could just pull on his pigtails," Ziva tells Sheppard in an undertone, and he glares at her but no one else heard, so Ziva's happy as the Stargate activates and they walk through to the Midway station and then back to Earth and from there it's a whirlwind to Washington.

Ziva offers to drive the rental car around town, but McKay was along for the ride when Ziva first flew a Jumper after she received the ATA gene therapy and refuses to get in the car until Ziva is as far away as possible from the steering wheel without sitting in the trunk. They compromise by Ziva riding shotgun. Sheppard listens to Ziva and McKay bitch about Washington traffic and Americans in general until they're on the middle of the freeway and going eighty miles an hour. Then he turns to look at McKay in the backseat and asks if McKay wants to drive, and McKay starts screaming about the car not driving itself are you trying to kill us all? and Ziva loses it.

Galaxies away from Atlantis, and some things never change.

At the Pentagon, Ziva meets some very nice Air Force officers involved in the Stargate program, a Brigadier General Jack O'Neill who reminds her strangely of Gibbs and the legendary Colonel Samantha Carter. They're both hesitant around Ziva until McKay makes some crack about Carter's scientific chops and Ziva retorts about McKay's babysitting skills and things calm down a little. The first day's debrief doesn't take long; Ziva's contribution as the international contingent is over quickly and, ignoring the sad eyes from Sheppard, she's excused from the rest of the day. It's not yet noon on a Thursday and before Ziva realizes what she's doing, she has found a taxi and is directing the driver to the Navy Yard and NCIS headquarters.

The security guards in charge of guest admittance haven't changed, and they greet her as an old friend as they log her in and badge her and assign a young agent to escort her into the building. When he asks where she's going and she tells him, to the squad room, his steps slow.

"Um, ma'am..."

Cold fear stabs into Ziva's chest. Someone is dead. Someone on Gibbs' team is dead and no one told her and it's only with remarkable restraint that Ziva manages to not physically accost the man to stop his stuttering.

"It's just that Special Agent Gibbs' team is in West Virginia. Ma'am."

Relief washes over Ziva but she does not let her body give away her thoughts. "Very well then, I will go see Abby in the forensics lab." The man still won't move. "What? Did he take Abby with him?"

"No, ma'am, it's just that..." He coughs. "Ms. Sciuto isn't in the mood for company, most days."

Ziva draws herself up to her full height and gives the man the Gibbs stare. He quickly wilts and leads her, albeit reluctantly, to the elevator. She manages to rid herself of the man before she goes in the door of the lab, to which he acquiesces easily. He will never make full field agent, Ziva thinks in disgust.

The music pumps loudly from the lab as Ziva lets herself in the door. Abby is bent over the microscope, as familiar as ever with pigtails and black schoolgirl skirt. Ziva's breath catches in her chest as she stares, drinking in the familiarity of this room and this woman.

"Whoever's standing there better make some noise quick," Abby said, never turning around. "There's a strict no-lurking policy on Thursdays."

"You would not believe the time zone I have just come from," Ziva starts, and Abby's spinning around before the sentence is complete. Green eyes wide, Abby stares for a moment before dashing over to Ziva and engulfing her in a bone-crushing hug.

"You're back!" Abby exclaims, pulling away for a moment to look at Ziva before diving back for another hug. "You came back!"

Ziva lets herself relax into the embrace. Abby smells of gunpowder and roses and acetone, the silver spikes of her collar sharp against Ziva's throat, and Ziva's mind flashes through a few non-professional thoughts before Abby pulls back again, still grinning. "Of course I came to see you," Ziva says with a voice surprisingly solid. "I have a few days' leave and Washington is the first place I came."

Abby's smile fades slightly, but she rallies and slips her arm around Ziva's elbow. "Gibbs isn't here."

"I know." Feeling rather daring, Ziva squeezes Abby's hand. "I did not only work with Gibbs at NCIS."

It is just the right thing to say. Abby turns off her machines and makes a quick quiet phone call, then locks the lab behind her and pulls Ziva down the stairs to the morgue.

Ducky and Palmer are elbow-deep in an autopsy when the door whooshes open. Palmer spots Ziva first and grins behind his plastic shield; Ducky continues talking about the body and Abby can't keep herself from bouncing on the toes of her platform boots.

"Um, Dr. Mallard," Palmer tries.

"In a minute, Mr. Palmer. There is some fascinating scarring on the pancreas that we'll have to explain before we can continue to the toxicology reports," Ducky says.

Before Abby can say anything, the door again opens. "Abby, what's so important that you need to see me--" McGee's voice stops suddenly when he sees Ziva in the room. His face lights up. "Ziva!"

The next few minutes are a rush of hugs and handshakes and questions. Yes, Ziva is doing well, as is everyone at NCIS, and it's not even strange to have this conversation in the morgue with a half-dissected body fifteen feet away.

Ducky ends the huddle by announcing that he is taking everyone to lunch. Palmer has to decline as he has a performance review in under an hour. Ziva gives him a quick hug and wishes him the best. He blushes behind his glasses as he waves them all off.

Somehow, they manage to squeeze four people into McGee's Porsche and drive to an expensive restaurant. The maitre'd knows Ducky by name and seats them at a table by the window. After the waiter takes drink orders, Abby breaks the awkwardness by saying to Ziva, "You're been out in the sun, haven't you?"

Ziva touches her hair self-consciously. Atlantis floats near enough to the equator that the summer weather is always perfect, and Ziva has taken to spending most of her free time outside on north pier. "Yes, a little," she admits, wondering how much of her life now is supposed to be secret.

"Yeah, Tony said you were stationed somewhere with water," Abby goes on, blithely unaware of the shock her words are to Ziva. "He forwarded that picture you sent, it's really pretty."

Ziva fights to speak, to say anything. In the months she has been stationed on Atlantis, Tony has never once sent her a message of any kind. "Do you speak with Tony often?"

"Not really," Abby says through a mouthful of bread. She swallows before she continues. "He sent in some evidence a while ago, and I usually get an email a week. The Reagan's a big ship and he's pretty busy, from the sounds of things. But they're going to be back in dock in a few days, he said in his last email, but you probably know that."

Ziva blinks and tries very hard not to take this as a betrayal. She was Tony's partner for only three years. The man has known Abby for much longer, and Abby at least was able to be contacted at any time.

Still. Ziva's stomach twists under the weight of it all. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see McGee looking away and Ducky shaking his head, and Ziva forces herself to push Anthony DiNozzo from her mind. She places her attention on Abby. The woman's hair is longer, pigtails swinging over her shoulders. Below her spiked collar, a small blue and silver pendant dangles from a delicate silver chain.

In spite of herself, Ziva smiles, because Abby had no way of knowing that Ziva would be in that day to plan to wear the chain. "Tell me, how are you all really?" Ziva asks.

McGee shrugs. He is thinner and more angular, his joints looser under his stylish clothing, and underlying his quick smile is a cynicism that sits ill on him. "Cyber crimes is dull," he says. His fingers straighten the utensils by his plate, moving quickly over the metal. "But I've had a lot of time to finish my next book. It's coming out on shelves in a few months."

"And it's not going to get him fired," Abby interjects. She scowls at Tim. "He keeps saying that."

"I said it once," McGee reminds her. "But so what if I do get fired?"

Ziva stops scanning the room and stares at McGee. Ever since she met him, his whole life has been NCIS. He loves being a field agent, at solving crimes. Had loved it, Ziva corrects herself. Cyber crimes isn't anywhere near being a field agent, not in the least.

Abby looks as if McGee has just told her the sun isn't going to rise tomorrow. "You stop that right now, Timothy McGee!" she whispers harshly. She takes his hand in hers and squeezes tight. "You don't get to walk away from this any more than I do!"

McGee stares at Abby's hand on his for a long moment before lifting her hand to his lips and kissing her knuckles. It's an oddly mature gesture, coming from McGee. "I'm not going anywhere," he says quietly, more to Abby than to anyone else.

Ziva sits back in her chair. "What has been happening since I left?" she demands.

Ducky is the one to answer. "Sometimes, Ziva, things don't work out the way we'd like them to."

"What is happening with Gibbs?" Ziva asks, because no one has mentioned the man since she left Abby's lab and that is not normal. For three years, almost every conversation her team had touched on Gibbs at some point, because that's just the way things were.

"His new team is competent," Ducky begins.

"But they're not you guys," Abby interrupts. "I mean, Tony was all... Tony, you know?" In spite of the lack of explanation, Ziva suspects she understands Abby's meaning. Tony DiNozzo is tenacious and hyperactive and absolutely brilliant at solving cases and to put him on a ship is insanity. "And McGee could do anything--"

"Abs, stop it."

"I'm serious! Gibbs would give you that glare or smack you around and you'd get things done that no one else could do!" Abby crosses her arms over her chest and gives McGee a glare of her own. "And Ziva was no slouch either."

"What does my posture have to do with anything?" Ziva must ask.

"She means, my dear, that you were very competent in your position," Ducky tells her. He pats Abby's shoulder. "Abigail, perhaps this is not the best venue for this."

Abby tugs on the end of one of her ponytails, and Ziva is struck with the mental image of Sheppard yanking on McKay's hair to get his attention. "I just miss things the way things used to be."

"Things change, Abby." McGee's fingers move in angular patterns on the table's edge. "You got to go with it."

Abby's glare grows icier. "That's very Zen coming from a man who drop-kicked a computer across the lab when it stopped working."

Ziva throws up her hands. This is worse than listening to McKay and Woolsey going head to head over the briefing table on Atlantis. "Can we please not do this?" she asks. "Please?"

"I agree," Ducky adds. "Let us take this opportunity to catch up on what has been happening since Ziva left."

Mercifully, the salad course arrives and the conversation turns to Abby's newest batch of abstract forensic photography (on display in a small gallery in Georgetown) and McGee's continuing adventures as a published author (and the rumors of a movie deal for his first book which he thinks may be the excuse Gibbs needs to finally kill him) and Ducky's upcoming presentation at a forensics conference in London. Ziva contributes a few anecdotes about working with Marines and Air Force officers, all minus any identifying details.

During dessert, a tinny rendition of a familiar song starts trilling from Ziva's pocket. She makes a grab at her cell phone, wondering when someone had time and access to change her ring tone to a song from the eighties. "Hello?"

"Hey, it's Sheppard," says the Colonel over the line. He sounds annoyingly smug. "How's DC?"

Ziva turns slightly away from her companions. "Did you change my ring tone?" she demands.

"Would I do something like that?"

"You--" She stabs at the air with a finger. "You Rickrolled my phone!"

"I have no idea what you mean."

"Sheppard!"

Everyone at the table flinches when Ziva spits out that name, and she doesn't have a chance to explain because Sheppard keeps talking. "So there's this thing tonight and you're supposed to come."

How had this man ever been promoted beyond Captain? "What are you talking about?"

"There's going to be some kind of dinner and award ceremony at the White House and we're all going and you have to come too. Can you be ready by five?"

Ziva says the first thing that comes to mind. "Are you sure I should come?" She's not sure the White House will welcome a Mossad officer into a dinner with the president, regardless of her latest affiliation with Atlantis.

"Yeah, of course. McKay's going to wear a suit. You should dress, too." A muffled voice on the other end of the line tells Ziva that McKay is in the room with Sheppard. It sounds like he's saying, why wouldn't she dress? and then oh god.

"Is McKay picturing me naked?" Ziva hisses. Sheppard's laughing too hard to answer for a moment. "Make him stop!"

"McKay, Ziva wants you to stop picturing her naked. Why? Probably because she can kill you with her brain." Sheppard laughs again. "There, David. I can guarantee you that McKay will never picture you naked again."

"Stop saying that!"

"Be ready to go at the hotel by five," Sheppard says, all business again. "And no armament, it's the White House."

"I am aware of the protocol for State dinners."

"Good. See you at the hotel." The line goes dead and Ziva is so irritated it takes her two tries to get her phone into her pocket. When she looks up, she is confronted with three curious sets of eyes.

"Who's Sheppard?" McGee asks.

"Air Force Lt. Colonel John Sheppard," Ziva says, because while she's had four months to get used to working for another Sheppard after Jenny died, this is the first her former co-workers have heard of it and it must be jarring. "He is the commanding officer of the project I am working with."

"Because that's not at all weird," Abby says, going back to her chocolate cake.

Ziva picks up her coffee cup and swirls the dregs around the porcelain. "It is," she admits. "He even has green eyes."

Then she drains her cup, fearing she has given too much away.

McGee clears his throat. "I have to get back to work," he says apologetically.

"Me too." Abby stands up slowly. "If you can come back again, Ziva, you should." Ziva stands and gives Abby a hug goodbye. The woman clings to Ziva a little too long, but finally pulls back. She touches the shining pendant at her throat. "And thanks for this."

Ziva smiles. "It looks beautiful on you."

McGee is next and Ziva hugs him as well, because now that they no longer work together she can do whatever she wishes. He's stronger than she remembers. "It's been really good to see you again, Ziva," he says. He reaches into an inner pocket of his suit jacket and pulls out a small USB drive. "Um, I'd like you to have this. It's the final draft for my next book, External Affairs. From the way things sound, it might be a while before you get a chance to see the final version."

Ziva holds the drive tight as she kisses McGee on the cheek. "Thank you," is all she can say. She knows how much his books mean to him.

McGee and Abby wander off, and Ziva resumes her seat at the table with Ducky. The man watches McGee hold the door for Abby. "Those two," he says under his breath.

"How are they doing?" Ziva asks.

Ducky's gaze is far away. "It is one of the peculiarities of this situation, that young Timothy and Abigail grow closer. As friends," he adds, a necessary clarity when speaking of any former lovers. "It was a criminal waste to remove an agent of Timothy's caliber from the field."

"Do you not also have to return to the office?" Ziva asks, signaling the waiter for more coffee.

Ducky give Ziva a look. "Not to rest on my laurels, but NCIS needs me. If Director Vance presses it, I suppose I could always go work for the FBI." The distaste in his voice gives lie to that idea.

"Ducky, will you ever retire?"

"I doubt it," the man says. "Staying home all day with Mother would not be the most exciting way to spend the best years of my life."

Ziva laughs, because she has met Mrs. Mallard. More coffee arrives and Ducky declines an offer for a second cup.

"Now, my dear, tell me the truth. How are you doing?"

Ziva takes the time to stir cream into her cup, the swirling liquid a welcome excuse for her to think. "I am... well," she says, surprising herself. "My new position is not as..." She's not sure how to say what she means without hurting anyone, but Ducky knows her and he's always been one to value truth in all things. "I believe I am happier in my new position than McGee is in his."

"That is because McGee and DiNozzo are being punished by the new regime," Ducky says. "While you sound as if you have been moved into a star new assignment. The Air Force was quick to snatch you up."

"I suppose." Ziva rests her chin on her hand. "I have been thinking much about the nature of change, in recent weeks."

"What about it?"

"There is an English saying, 'you can never go back to your house,' yes?"

"It's 'you can never go home again', but yes, I know the one you mean."

"And I think, even if I could change things back, it would not be the same. We all change and it is either better or worse, but that is the nature of change." She shakes her head. "I am not even making sense to me."

"What underlies all of this?" Ducky asks, as always getting around the confusion of language and sensing what Ziva does not say.

"I... I have been asked to make a choice," Ziva says, her stomach clenching with the memory of darkness and Ari's voice in her ear. "And I do not know what I should do."

Ducky regards her for a full minute without speaking. Then he says, "I suspect this has to do with the secret project you are involved with." Ziva nods. "If I may offer some advice, don't make a choice out of fear or out of what might have been. Think about what is and what is best for you."

Ziva knows that, really she does. In that instant, she also knows that the best thing for her and for her people and for humanity is to continue in Atlantis, working with everything she has to help the people of the expedition and of the Pegasus galaxy.

She just does not know how to say 'yes', when to do so will be to remove her last chance to return to NCIS.

Not that her father would allow her to return, she knows this. Her position as Mossad's eyes and ears within Atlantis are far too valuable to take any consideration of her personal feelings into the matter.

Ziva breathes deeply and tries to push down the feelings of loss at admitting that she can never go back. Ducky pats her hand, and it's so him that she smiles. "Thank you," she says.

"You are quite welcome, Ziva."

Ziva recalls herself to the situation at hand. "And thank you for giving that necklace to Abby. It looks good on her."

"She was rather upset at your departure," Ducky says.

"She wrote me several letters to that effect."

"But she wears that necklace at least twice a week."

Ziva smiles. "I... I bought that necklace for someone else," she admits. Judaism has no such ritual as the confession, but her people do know the value of a good cathartic conversation. "Someone I... cared for. In the past."

Ducky gives her that all-knowing stare. "For Jenny."

Ziva feels the blood rush to her cheeks. She has never spoken of such things with Ducky, and she's certain Jenny would never have mentioned it. "How..."

Ducky sighs. "I do wish you young people would stop imagining that you invented the ways of the world," he says. "I am a trained observer of human nature, and I knew Jenny for a very long time."

"It was over before I came to Washington," she feels the need to state. "Jenny was always very careful of her career."

"Yes, she was." Ducky smiles, but softly. "I do miss her," he admits.

Ziva swallows the lump in her throat. Life changes, people live and they die, and there is no going back, no way to change the past. "As do I."

They sit in silence as Ziva finishes her coffee.

~~~


Ziva sits in the hotel lounge with McKay and Sheppard and she cannot stop her attack of the giggles.

"I hate you," Sheppard grumbles as he nurses his drink.

"You always were special," Ziva teases. McKay ignores them both as he reads an academic paper, making notations with a big red pen. "How many officers in your military have received the Silver Star and still do not have a Good Conduct medal?"

"They discontinued that medal in 2006!"

"You have been in the Air Force for longer than two years, yes?" Ziva reaches out to touch the new addition to Sheppard's uniform, the real reason for the award ceremony at the White House that evening. "It is funny."

Sheppard bats her hand away. "I wouldn't have to put up with this from Lorne."

"Then next time, bring him." Ziva raises her glass. "To Lt. Colonel John Sheppard."

"To everyone back home," Sheppard corrects, raising his glass to toast. "Come on, Rodney."

Without looking up, McKay raises his glass and waves it about, nearly tipping the liquid onto Shepard's lap. Sheppard grabs the wayward glass and sets it down.

"What the hell are you doing that's so important?"

"Madison starts grade one next month and Jeannie's finally going back to get her doctorate and she wanted me to review with her thesis proposal." McKay scratches red lines through a whole page and goes onto the next. "And since I have to pay attention at the Pentagon tomorrow, tonight's the only chance to look at it."

Sheppard looks at the paper. "You do realize she's going to kill you when she sees that."

"She'll have to find me first."

Ziva settles back in her chair, watching the two men interact. Sheppard is in his dress blues, looking crisp and professional for the first time in Ziva's memory. Even his hair is tamed. By contrast, McKay is flying apart, his tie loosened and his top button undone and his attention in every direction.

Ziva, too, is different. Her expensive dress is luxurious against her skin, stockings covering her legs and her feet in high heels for the first time in months. She is gorgeous, she knows, and Sheppard didn't really notice and after an initial choking on his drink before dinner, McKay managed to pick his jaw off the ground and ignore her too, and that's fine with her.

A flicker of familiar motion near the door grabs Ziva's attention away from McKay and Sheppard. She jerks her head around, telling herself that she could not have seen what she just saw, but by the time her glass is on the table, she's staring directly at the very last person she expected to see in Washington.

Tony DiNozzo.

All Ziva can do is stare as Tony walks across the room. He's more tanned than she remembers, his hair longer, but it's him and her heart is doing strange things in her chest. He stops by the table, hands in his pockets and something Ziva is not sure she can identify in his expression.

Sheppard kicks McKay under the table to shut the man up. "David?" Sheppard asks, hidden questions in her name.

"Tony," Ziva says, greeting the man while at the same time giving Sheppard all the information he needs. "What are you doing here?"

"The Reagan docked early," Tony says, his voice lower than Ziva remembers it. A shiver runs through her whole body because this is the first time she's seen him since everything changed. "Abby told me you were in town and which hotel you were staying at, and I thought I'd come by and say hi."

His words are innocent but his eyes are not, and Ziva is having a hard time breathing.

Sheppard stands, the dim light of the bar catching on his uniform. McKay's just watching. "John Sheppard," the Colonel says, holding out his hand to Tony.

"Hey," Tony says, putting on his friendliest smile. The expression doesn't reach his eyes. "Tony DiNozzo."

They shake and McKay rolls his eyes. "Would you care to join us for a drink?" Sheppard offers.

"Actually, I came to see if Ziva might like to go grab some coffee, to catch up." Tony looks at her as he speaks, his gaze sliding down over her body, just for a moment.

"That sounds like a good idea," Ziva says quickly. She picks up her shawl and her purse before she can change her mind. "I shall see you tomorrow," she says to Sheppard and McKay.

"Have fun," Sheppard says with an easy smile, one Ziva knows is to indicate to Tony that no one is stepping on anyone's toes and one she will remember for the next time they spar.

Tony rests his hand on Ziva's lower back for a moment as they exit the lounge and leaves it there until they are out of the front door. "I've got my car," he says, leading her to the familiar automobile. "Just got her out of the garage an hour ago."

He opens the passenger door for her, which he has never, ever done. Ziva stops and stares. They have not spoken since that day in Vance's office and that silence means something. That Ziva has tried and Tony never responded, that means something. "What are we doing?" she asks him.

The easy expression on Tony's face never changes, and she hates it because she knows it is his way of lying. "I don't know, Ziva, I thought we might want to catch up. You had lunch with Abs and Ducky and the Pro-- McGee."

There's an edge to his words and she cannot understand. "Because they were at NCIS and you were not."

"And now I'm here."

Ziva steps closer to Tony, close enough to kiss him. She has known him for so long and there are still times when she cannot understand what he is thinking. This is one of those times. "Do you really wish to take me for coffee?"

He runs his tongue over his lower lip as he considers. "We could if you want. Or ice cream? We could get ice cream."

She wishes she could read what is hidden in his eyes. "Did they not have ice cream and coffee on the ship?"

"Yeah, they did," he says slowly.

"Then," she says, and it takes everything she has to keep her spine straight. "Perhaps we could go somewhere more private to talk."

Tony's breath hitches in his throat, but he flashes a brilliant smile to cover up his nervousness. "I've still got my apartment. We could yank the dust covers from the furniture."

"Did you cover your furniture with dust covers?"

Tony shakes his head. "Nah. I got McGee to help me dump the perishables and lock up after me." He lets go of the door and walks around to the driver's side of the car. "Abby and Gibbs were dealing with your place."

And there it is, the bitterness underlying his movements that makes Ziva hesitate before she gets into the car. In the back of her mind is part of her conversation with Ducky, that some things can never be the same, but she takes a deep breath and closes the door and Tony pulls the car into traffic.

She's not sure what to say, so she watches the Washington streets go by in silence. The seat is far enough back that she can cross one leg over the other, and as she does so, her dress slides down to bare her thigh. Tony clears his throat. "So, you cleaned up real nice," he blurts out. His words sound out of place in the soft air of the car. "I mean, you're always nice and, um, clean, it's just tonight you're nicer than usual."

"It was a dinner," Ziva says, cutting him off. "Colonel Sheppard received a medal."

"Fancy dinner, huh?"

"Yes." Then, because if she does not say anything, it will be as if she is hiding something from him, she adds, "At the White House."

Tony whistles. "Someone's moving up in the world."

She's not sure if his words are a jab or honesty. It has been too long since she has needed to translate the words of Tony DiNozzo. "The dinner was not to honor me. I was merely there."

"Not sure it works that way," Tony says. The light from passing street lamps passes over his skin like a pulse, and Ziva wonders what she is doing. "So what else have you been up to since May?"

Ziva smoothes out a wrinkle in the fabric of her shawl. "I have been involved in an international project, mostly with the Air Force and Marines." She does not want to say the words top secret, but she is not sure how else to avoid telling Tony the details. "My English continues to improve." Where had that come from?

"You speak fine, Ziva." Tony keeps his eyes on the road. "Or is it you talk fine? I can never keep those straight."

Ziva's stomach turns over and she wonders if this is what Gibbs means when he says something does not feel right. She pushes down the thoughts that this is a bad idea and taps out a small beat on her knee. "How is it, on the Reagan?"

She does not miss how his hands tighten on the steering wheel. When he speaks, she can hear the lies in his voice. "A little of this and that. Had some fights, some disciplinary problems. Stuff a dead monkey could handle."

His tone of voice sends Ziva's stomach into another twist. This is not the Tony DiNozzo she knew, this is a very unhappy man.

"But hey, sounds like you got a good deal out of the shuffle." The car pulls up outside Tony's building and as the parking garage grate closes after the car, Ziva wonders if she's missed her last change to fix this. "I got your email. Pretty picture. Where was that, again?"

As questions went, it was crudely obvious and not worthy of Tony's interrogation skills. Ziva runs her thumb over her purse and thinks of the cell phone she has hidden inside. This isn't like being on Atlantis or off-world in the Pegasus galaxy. She is on her own here, and she has to fix the situation or leave as quickly as possible. As much as she doubts she can fix this problem, four months in the brewing, she isn't sure she is brave enough to leave. "The exact location is classified."

Tony pulls into his parking spot and turns off the engine. Stillness engulfs the car interior. "It's classified but they let you send a picture?"

"It is the Air Force," Ziva shoots back, well-versed in the rivalry between military branches after four months on Atlantis and three years under Gibbs. "Why did you not reply to me?"

Tony's hand freezes on his keys, but only for an instant. He yanks his keys free of the ignition and exits the car in a series of overly loud moves. Ziva remains in place, wondering how she always manages to mess things up with Tony.

He jerks open the passenger door, startling Ziva, but she ignores his hand and stands under her own power. He's too close for propriety, but Ziva will not be the one to back down.

The sound of car door closing is loud in the deserted parking garage. Only a few inches separate Tony and Ziva and in spite of all the logical reasons crowding in Ziva's head about how this is a very bad decision, her body aches for touch. She has slept alone for a very long time and the heat between her and Tony has been building for years.

In the end, he's the one to move first, with one hand on her waist and the other on the car behind her, steadying them, he lowers his head those last few inches and kisses her.

They've done this before, faking it in a hotel under FBI surveillance, but even as they pretended they established a rhythm. In the part of Ziva's brain still functioning, she's a little stunned that this feels so familiar, the sweep of Tony's tongue on her lip, the way his fingers clutch at her dress and the way she wants to fall into him.

They make it to his apartment without scandalizing the neighbors. The door closes behind them and Ziva scans the room for threats while Tony kisses her neck, his hands tugging at the zipper of her dress. The place feels deserted and cold in spite of a half-unpacked suitcase on the coffee table. Then Tony spins her around and presses her against the wall. She delays him in pulling off her dress right there in the hall by grabbing his shirt collar and dragging him upright.

His face is flushed, his hair a mess and she wonders if she looks equally disheveled. "What?" he pants as his hands tighten on her hips.

"I--" She has to stop and swallow before she can finish the sentence. "I was not expecting to see anyone in Washington."

He dips his mouth back to her neck. "I've got condoms, if that's what you're worried about." Ziva's back arches as he bites down on a particularly sensitive spot. "Is that it?"

She makes some noise meant to be agreement, and then Tony spins them into the bedroom and any other words Ziva wants to say are lost in a rush of skin and sheets and touch.

Some time later, Ziva's too exhausted to fight her way out of the tangle of sheets and limbs. She lies on her back and stares at the ceiling and listens to Tony breathing in her ear. After a while, Tony rolls away from her and sprawls across the mattress. He does not say anything.

Ziva turns her head to see his profile. He's looking at the ceiling, his face as blank as she's ever seen. Ziva pushes down several was it good for you jokes and turns onto her side. "Tony?"

He still will not look at her. "Yeah?"

Ziva forces herself to take a deep breath, then another. She's well-trained in pulling herself into a particular mindset while needed, and it takes very little effort to remove herself from the post-coital fog and return to alertness. "You never answered my question."

"And which question was that?" he asks the ceiling.

Ziva sits up, pulling the sheet with her to cover her breasts. It is easier to have this conversation if she does not feel so vulnerable. "Why did you never reply to my message?"

When he finally does shift his gaze to her, she's not ready for the conflicting emotions she sees in his face. "Did you ever consider that maybe I had nothing to say to you?"

She's out of the bed in an instant, reaching for her underwear and dress and shoes. Rather than spend any more time in this place than she absolutely has to, she shoves her stockings and jewelry into her bag. She's out the door in under a minute.

Tony does not come after her.

The apartment hallway is silent and the elevator does not come quickly, leaving Ziva with the forced inactivity of waiting. She stares at the illuminated down arrow and she cannot think. Her body's still vibrating with combination of the fading afterglow and the emotional blow to the stomach. Not just her body. Her fingers are shaking as she reaches up to press the elevator call button again and again.

She knew this was a mistake going in, but she let her emotions run over the logic in her head. She missed Tony so much that she hadn't thought before falling into his bed.

The elevator doors open and Ziva hurries inside. The elevator's mirrored interior shows her what a mess she is. She manages to restore order to her makeup and hair by the time the elevator arrives in the lobby, and she is outside on the front step before she realizes that she left her shawl in Tony's apartment.

Because nothing in the world could force her to speak with Tony for any reason, Ziva raises her hand to flag down a passing taxi. The driver takes one look at Ziva and turns up the radio as he points the cab towards the hotel.

The Indian pop music is just noise in Ziva's head. She wishes she could feel numb or think logically about the situation, but she cannot. In the claustrophobia of the taxi, the emotional kick to her stomach coalesces in her torso and moves up to her chest, gripping hard around her heart and throat.

Three years of working with Tony, four months of missing him so much, and it took less than an hour for all of her hopes to be dashed to pieces on the rocks of her own bad judgment.

Did you ever consider that maybe I had nothing to say to you?

Tears rise in Ziva's eyes and she presses a hand over her mouth to keep from crying. She knows that Tony has spent the last four months in purgatory, being miserable and waking every day to the memory that he had been ripped away from the place he belongs. She knows that Tony's whole life was being an NCIS field agent with Gibbs and the team in Washington, and that he must be hurting.

But absolutely nothing in that knowledge can ease her humiliation at the way he pulled away from her, at his words.

She manages to calm herself slightly by the time the cab pulls up in front of the hotel. She pays the driver more than double the fare for keeping his thoughts to himself and holds her head high as she enters the hotel, heading straight for the lounge.

McKay is gone but Sheppard is leaning on the bar, digging his way through a bowl of bar mix while ice melts in his glass. He glances up when Ziva sits next to him. His surprise at seeing her quickly fades to anger.

"Do not," Ziva says before he can open his mouth. "Do not say anything."

Sheppard knocks back the rest of his drink. "What am I not supposed to say?"

Ziva drops her purse on the counter. The catch goes as it hits the hard wood, her golden necklace spilling out into the light. It takes her two tries before she can speak. "Do not ask me how I am, or what happened. I know..." Speaking without crying is difficult and Ziva hates feeling so weak because it brings back the crushing memory of Did you ever consider that maybe I had nothing to say to you? "I know I appear at... less than my best."

Sheppard crumples a napkin in his fist. "Ziva, you're under my command," he says in an undertone. "If something happened--"

"What do you think happened?" Ziva demands, her control near to snapping. It would probably be frowned upon by the American legal system if she were to kill the military's newest Silver Star recipient, but she's this close to not caring. "Tell me, Colonel Sheppard, what do you think happened this evening?"

Sheppard tosses the napkin down, catching the attention of the bartender. "What the hell am I supposed to think? You left here with some guy you used to work with and you come back--"

Ziva slaps her palm on the wooden surface of the bar, the sting doing nothing to ease her inner turmoil. "I come back like what?"

Sheppard stares at her, his green eyes dark, and while she can recognize his concern, it makes her feel even worse. "You look like things didn't go the way you wanted." He turns to the bartender and says, "How about a bottle of your most moderately priced scotch and two glasses?"

The man melts away into the dim clatter of the room. "Where is Dr. McKay?" Ziva asks, because while she is upset she is not totally destroyed, and if she must be sober to rescue the man from whatever trouble he is in, she would like to know now.

"He's up in his room on the phone with his sister." Sheppard accepts the bottle from the bartender and pours a generous amount into each glass. "It's only eight o'clock in Vancouver. We’ll probably be able to hear the shouting from here. Drink up." He pushes one glass in Ziva's direction.

"Are you going to tell me this will make everything better?"

Sheppard snorts as he picks up his own glass. "When do you believe what I tell you?" He tips his glass in a toast. "To making things worse."

It's possibly the least helpful thing he could have said, but it's so true that Ziva lifts her own glass. "To making things worse."

The scotch burns on the way down but she doesn't care. The heat of the liquor eases the knot of tension in her stomach. She sets the glass back on the counter and reaches for the bottle.

"You sure that's a good idea?" Sheppard asks from behind his glass.

"No, I am not." Ziva pours until she's satisfied that her glass really is half-full. "But I have a presentation tomorrow at the Pentagon and since I will most likely be unable to sleep, I may as well be hung-over as well."

"So you've dealt with Pentagon briefings before?"

Ziva kicks the leg of Sheppard's chair. "You are the one drinking alone in the dark."

"It's not that dark in here." Sheppard tops up his drink. "Your turn to make a toast."

Ziva lifts her glass and thinks. After a pause, she says, "To Rule Number Twelve."

"To Rule Number Twelve," Sheppard echoes. They drink, and after Sheppard's done cringing at the burn, he asks, "What's Rule Twelve?"

"Never date a co-worker."

"Hear, hear." Sheppard signals for more nuts. "But it's not really a date. You weren't even gone for two hours."

The alcohol seems to be going straight to Ziva's head. "And that is the other thing!" she exclaims. "You would think three years of sexual tension would at least manage more than thirty minutes of sex."

Sheppard chokes on a cashew. "You should ask for your money back," he says once he can breathe.

"And I left my new shawl there," Ziva adds, reaching over Sheppard's hand into the bowl.

"I wouldn't worry about it, it's not his color." Sheppard's face is solemn, but there's a smile hidden in his eyes and Ziva finds herself smiling back, just a little.

It hurts, but it is not the end of the world.

They (well, mostly Ziva) finish the bottle before the bartender discreetly calls McKay to come get them. The scientist berates them both as he hauls them gently into the elevator, managing to get everyone to their own rooms with a minimum of stumbling. Ziva closes the door behind her and doesn't bother with the light, clothes hitting the floor as she strips on her way to the bed. Sheppard is right, she thinks as she crawls naked between the covers. Sometimes the only way to deal with a messed-up situation is alcohol. She will not feel bad about Tony DiNozzo's mental deficiencies and she will certainly not think about his physical attributes. Ever again.

That sentiment lasts until she wakes to the shrill bell of the alarm clock. It's too early and she's hung over and various parts of her ache and as she stumbles into the bathroom to throw up, the previous day seems like a very bad dream.

Somehow, she survives the day's briefings without embarrassing herself. After everything is over, Sheppard drives them to the airport for their return flight to Colorado and from there, to Atlantis.

Ziva's cell phone does not ring all day.

to be continued
 
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