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Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

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He turns his head before the door to his room actually opens, and Rachel's gaze is suddenly heavy on him, like she's trying to figure out how he did that. She doesn't ask out loud, though, so he doesn't have to explain, and that's good because he can't. It's just this thing they do.

Ziva stands in the doorway for a second, frozen, just staring at him. Her lips, pressed together tightly, form a thin line, and he wants to reach out and touch her mouth and smooth out the tenseness with the pad of his thumb. (God, his brain is even more rattled than he'd thought if he has urges like that all of a sudden.) Then the moment passes, and Ziva takes a strained little breath, steps into the room and closes the door behind her.

He watches her carefully and waits for her to say something, but it doesn't look like she's ready to do any talking just yet. She's still silent while she throws a sports bag on the bed. Even with his jumbled memory he recognizes it. He forgot it in her trunk that one night they'd gone jogging, two months ago. And he never got around to picking it up because the next day he was already gone.

Rachel shoots him another curious glance, and he sees how her brows furrow, but he can't concentrate on that now, he's too busy with focusing on his partner. He still sees how she turns her eyes towards Ziva, though, and yeah, he has noticed before how Rachel seems weirdly... protective, when it comes to him. Maybe it's showing even more now because Ziva still looks at him like she wants to strangle him with her bare hands.

He's pretty sure Ziva isn't even aware of the rollercoaster of emotions her face shows him right now. Usually, she's a lot better at pokerfacing him, but tonight her expression is all over the place, and he can't figure out what it means. Besides, thinking is still hard.

"Get dressed," she finally says, and that's when her face closes down after all. "I'll take you home."

'Drive,' he wants to correct her, because there's no way in hell she'll take him home the way he'd like her to right now -- the way that would end with her arms around him and his head in her lap and then, maybe, some letting go of... things. But he can't even form a complete thought out of these whirling impressions of want and need, much less voice them, and so he just keeps staring at her.

And Rachel, who still keeps a tight watch on him, chooses that moment to interfere. "I think we should wait for Gibbs."

Ziva's eyes never leave his face, and for a moment he thinks she'll ignore the comment altogether. Then she says, "Gibbs has a lead to check out." Her voice is strangely tight, as if she tries very hard to keep whatever goes on in her head carefully hidden from either of them. "That's why he called me."

Rachel takes a step forward, and out of the corner of his eye Tony sees something flash across her face. Faint traces of annoyance, mixed with a hint of suspicion.

"He wants to punish me," he throws in with a crooked grin, and for some reason that takes some of the nervous tension out of his partner's stance. She even gives him a tiny baby smile in return.

"It is possible," she replies, and there's the slightest touch of affection in her voice all of a sudden. He's not sure she even notices it herself, but he does, and it shocks the hell out of him. He stares at her, dumbfounded, speechless, until Rachel clears her throat.

"Well," she says and carefully puts her half-empty cup of coffee down on the windowsill. "Guess that means I can go home and get some sleep." She grimaces and glances at the coffee. "At least I can try."

There's no reply from either of them, and after a moment Rachel shakes her head slightly. Tony feels vaguely sorry about that, and he even makes a mental note to call her later and apologize. Right now, he can't, though, he's still busy with holding Ziva's stare and trying to get through the anger he sees in her eyes. And oh yes, she's angry, he can see that one clearly. He just isn't sure why.

This is when Rachel does leave the room, finally. She doesn't waste any more words on the two people lost in their own thing, she just starts moving, and some part of Tony's rattled brain thinks it's interesting how she carefully steps around Ziva, not interrupting their eye wrestling.

And then, just like that, they're alone.

The silence grows heavy for a few more seconds, and he feels close to bursting with tension when Ziva finally takes a deep breath. A soft shudder runs through her, and that's when she breaks eye contact and gives him a quick once-over to make sure he's okay. He is, mostly, except for his heart, and that's easily hidden. But she still stares at the bruise on his temple, and there's a weird expression on her face suddenly. Like she's the one beaten up here.

"Get dressed," she repeats. Her voice is the slightest bit shaky, and to his own surprise he finds that it kills him to hear her like that -- worried.

This time he obeys the command and reaches for the hem of his hospital gown, but before he lifts it, his brain kicks back in and he blinks. A crooked smile twists his mouth. If it looks like it feels, he's pretty sure it doesn't speak of humor, but of him no longer being used to the expression. "Do I get some privacy?"

She gives that thought some consideration, then tilts her head and asks, "Are you naked under there?"

For a moment he's tempted to say yes, just to mess with her, but in the end he's too tired to try her patience tonight, and so he just shakes his head.

"Then no," she says, and it looks weird because she nods firmly while she says it. "I'm not letting you out of my sight again."

His throat is tight suddenly, and he feels, in parts, as numb as his painkiller-flooded body. (They're a gift of God, really. Except they sometimes make him careless, just like now, when he keeps holding Ziva's gaze while he strips out of the hospital gown.)

He moves slowly, and her vaguely annoyed expression says she thinks it's because he wants to tease her, to distract her from her anger. But then he's down to his boxers, and her face is suddenly pale while she stares at the angry bruise on his chest.

It's the size of his palm and already a dark purple, and he grimaces when he thinks about how it will look in a day or two. It's too bad the damn kevlar only took the bullet and not the force of the impact.

Ziva's stare is glued to his chest now, and there's something going on in her face again. It's weird, but for some reason it makes him straighten his back and look at her with his jaw all tense and his chin raised. Like he wants her to get a good look.

She's quiet, stares at the mark of the bullet's impact, and her eyes widen a bit more. He can see the exact moment where she realizes how close to the edge of the vest the bullet actually hit him. How lucky he was.

"Do you need help?" she asks eventually, and her voice is weirdly shaky and too soft. It makes him want to curl up in her lap, again, and it's really too bad that'll never happen.

"I'm good," he lies and opens the sports bag, treasuring the relief of not having to meet her eyes for a moment.

He gets distracted by how soft his old OSU sweater feels, and before he can control the impulse he brings it up to his nose. It confirms that she washed it for him. Recently.

Her head is turned to the side when he looks at her in vague surprise. The wall seems to hold all her attention now, but he knows she noticed his look because she shrugs. It's a slightly awkward gesture.

"I figured you'd need it at one point," she says. Her voice still sounds strange, and he desperately wants to ask what's going on with her right now. But he doesn't, of course. It's the same old fucked-up thing they have, this mix of seeming privacy and emotional self-preservation and behavioral rituals. They've always had that between them, bringing them closer at the most unexpected moments, but most of the time keeping them apart rather effectively.

He moves slowly, and he can tell she's still watching him out of the corner of her eye. The pants work out fine, but he almost asks for help after all when it comes to the sweater. Getting his arms up high enough to pull it over his head hurts like hell, and he breaks into cold sweat before he's finished. Ziva's mouth does that strange tension thing again, and he can see she wants to say something. He's just not sure what.

He breathes out slowly when he's done, and while he's still busy staring down at the sheets and getting a grip, Ziva suddenly cracks, and he has no idea how that happened. If it was something he did.

"I was worried," she presses out, and he stares at her, fidgeting while he tries to figure out if that's just a reflection shining in her eyes.

"You know me," he says eventually, because the mere idea that she could start crying over him right here, right now, freaks him out badly. "I'm worse than weed. I always muddle through."

Her eyes narrow at that. She turns towards him, and before he can say something that would really reassure her, she crosses the distance between them and hits her fist against his bruised shoulder. He winces because it's not hard enough to do more damage, but it sure as hell is more than enough to get his attention.

"No," she hisses, and he can tell she wants to grab him and shake him right now, probably just as badly as he wants to grab her and cling to her. "I don't know you. I didn't even know you were alive, you idiot."

Her voice is choked, and Tony blinks and stares at her and tries to make sense of the barely throttled emotion in her words. "Gibbs knew," he says, as if that justifies everything. But it doesn't. It only brings up more agitation in Ziva.

"Well, he certainly didn't tell me. And you never answered my emails, so how could I--" She bites back the next word and takes a deep breath, as if she had just reminded herself that this isn't the kind of thing they usually say to each other. Then she turns her head away sharply, and he feels stupid again, like there's something he missed the whole time even while it was slapping him in the face hard.

'You wrote me,' he wants to say. Wants to, but in the end he's glad he doesn't get the words out because he's not sure how embarrassing they would sound. He's torn between awe and excitement and something else fluttering in his stomach. Something that isn't the best thing to feel in his current state of rattled mind.

Then Ziva shakes her head and moves to the box with his stuff that Gibbs brought in earlier. "Let's get you home," she says while she grabs the clothes he was shot in and stuffs them into the sports bag.

He watches her quietly while she zips up the bag. He isn't even aware that he reaches out to touch her elbow while he does it, but when she suddenly freezes in mid-movement, he has to fight the urge to snatch his hand back as if he burned it. And that's when he slips up and doesn't tell her what is on his mind, but rather what's on his heart.

"I guess it sucks having two guys not answer your emails."

She blinks, and her lips part. "Just one, actually," she says when she's done searching for words.

Tony's throat tightens, and yeah, he should have guessed it, sort of, but it still doesn't feel too good to know Ray's back in her life. "So his assignment is over?" he forces himself to say. His fingers still cling to her elbow, and it's weird that he can't seem to let go. "Or did he break radio silence after all?"

She's quiet for too long, and he wonders what that means. She's thinking hard, he can feel it, can see it in the tension that keeps her back straight and her shoulders tight.

"Neither," she replies after what feels like a minor eternity. "I stopped writing him."

"Why?" He can't help the question. He knows it's none of his business, that she probably has good reasons and heck, even if she doesn't, it's good enough for him. But there's still that curious part of his mind that wants to know, and so he keeps touching her and keeps waiting for an answer he's not sure he'll get.

She shrugs eventually and tries to be casual, and while his hand falls away from her arm after all and she picks up his bag, she says, "I just realized I didn't miss him as m--"

And she freezes again, both in words and posture. It's just a minute tension rippling through her, then she's all back to business and striding out of the room. But Tony heard it and saw it, and he's not exactly sure he got it right, but he could swear she was just about to say something she hadn't planned on letting slip.

*** *** ***

"I never logged on while I was doing my job," he says when he's sitting beside her in the car. He's not exactly sure why. He just feels the sudden need to state that he didn't even know she tried to contact him.

He's not sure he could have replied even if he had known. Maybe it would have only made some things harder for him. But the truth is, he didn't mean to hurt her. He just didn't know.

For two blocks, she's as tightly wound as she was in that hospital room. Then she breathes out and says "I know" and actually stops at a red light while Tony turns his head in confusion.

"How?" he asks, and he's not sure if that's a blush on her cheeks or the remnants of the red light.

"I forced McGee to check," she says and turns left.

*** *** ***
She's not amused when he tells her he needs to pick up some stuff first before he can go home, but he doesn't cave. He doesn't feel comfortable with leaving his files and surveillance reports in the dinky apartment. They're probably safe there, since not even SecNav knows about the place, but he can't fight the feeling that he needs to close this chapter of his life as soon as possible, and retrieving his files and delivering his final report first thing in the morning -- that's part of his own need for closure.

"Okay," Ziva sighs after she gets a good look at his face. Then she asks him where to, and when he doesn't reply right away, lost in his whirling thoughts, she turns her head and frowns at him and says, "I swear, if you were hiding in Gibbs's basement all that time--"

"No," he interrupts her while he keeps looking out of the window, just so he doesn't have to meet her eyes. Too dangerous to stay with any of you. He wants to say it out loud, and he knows she wants to ask for more, but in the end he just tells her the address and she just drives on.

*** *** ***
She closes the door of the apartment behind her and leans against it, her palms pressed against the smooth surface. Her eyes dart all over the place, and he's glad there isn't any trash to hide, just a lot of paperwork spread out all over the table and a bunch of surveillance photos. He breathes out and walks across the room to collect them.

Ziva's eyes come to rest on his back again, and that brings the itching weight of her gaze back, too. She takes a few tentative steps into the apartment, just enough so she can glance into the bathroom and the tiny bedroom that's barely big enough for a single bed. "You spent two months here?" she asks, and there's a hint of disbelief in her voice. "Alone?"

His jaw tenses, and he stuffs the first pile of paper into a folder while he tries to rein in the rising anger. It leaves a funny taste in his mouth. "I didn't bring EJ here, if that's what you're asking."

She's quiet in his back, and when almost a minute passes without a reply, he turns and looks at her.

"It's not," she says just then, but her voice is weirdly small. She has her arms wrapped around herself, though, and he's no longer sure what to believe. "She is... your business, and I--"

"She's dead," he says, and her eyes widen. He sighs and raises a hand to rub his tired eyes. "At least we think she is, her body wasn't found yet. And no, she's not the one in the folder, but she lied to me just the same, Ziva."

She blinks and stares at him quietly for a long time. Her expression wanders all over the place again, and he's confused when, in the end, she settles for sympathy and says, "I'm sorry."

He takes another deep breath and then walks around the table to pick up the stack of DVDs and the small portable player that have kept him company during the worst of it. "Yeah, well," he says and thinks of that one night where he was this close to calling her. "The things that seem too easy never are, right?"

She's quiet in his back, and when he looks at her over his shoulder, he sees her pretty face scrunched up while her teeth worry her thumb. She's adorable when she's lost in thought. He's not sure how he managed to forget that.

"You mean the hard things could be the really easy ones?" she asks, and he stares at her, blinking and returning her confusion with some of his own while he tries to figure out if she's on to something here or just completely brainfailing.

Then he smiles and raises his hand to wag his finger at her. "Oh no. Don't go using ninja logic on me, sweetheart," he says, and his grin hides some things and still manages to bring others out into the open. "Not tonight when I'm all concussed and vulnerable."

Her chin comes up in amused response, and a smile that feels like old times ghosts around her mouth as she replies, "Well, then, start healing already, so we can talk."

There's a twinkle in her eyes, and he knows she's mostly joking, but it still freaks the crap out of him for a second. His pulse suddenly does weird things, and to hide it, he grimaces and states dramatically, "I feel a looong sick leave coming up..."

Ziva does the same thing he does, falls back into their old, safe patterns, and so she just rolls her eyes at him and turns to wait for him outside.

*** *** ***
Strangely, it's coming back to his own apartment that turns out to be the real kick in the gut, the ball that hits him squarely out of left field and leaves him reeling for a moment. He manages to cover it up by going through the rooms and opening windows and flipping switches to have some light, and he's pretty sure Ziva hasn't noticed his hesitation, but it was there nonetheless. It's weird to come home to a place that doesn't feel like it's been all that desperate to have him back.

He powers up his laptop while Ziva is in his bedroom and unpacks the sports bag. He's not entirely sure why she does that. (He's a big boy, after all, he can do it himself, right?) But he gladly takes the few extra minutes of her company. If Rachel's prodding and meddling has taught him one thing tonight it's that he's thoroughly sick of being on his own.

He has pulled up his emails by the time she comes back into the living room, and it takes him a moment to recall the reason she's suddenly fidgety and doesn't look too comfortable. Right.

For a heartbeat he contemplates not doing this now, while she's still here. Wonders if it wouldn't be better to just talk to her for a little longer until she wanders off again, to her own apartment and to her own, hopefully, empty bed, so he can read her emails later and then forget they ever reached him because that's most likely the safer approach to whatever she told him in these letters.

But then her eyes skirt all over the place, and he thinks that if she's like that, there's a good chance she's embarrassed by what she wrote, and if he doesn't look at it now and react right away, there's an even better chance he never will. React, that is.

He glances at the mails that have been sent in irregular intervals. Not the precise, once-a-week update mails she used to send CI-Ray, more like something she just had to get off her chest every now and then. He opens the last one. Two weeks old, nothing since then, and yeah, he expects something unexpected, something they don't usually say or do. But he still isn't prepared to read 'I miss you'.

Just that, just these three words. His head spins suddenly, and there's a weird throbbing in his temples that has nothing to do with him getting knocked around.

"Well," Ziva says, and he turns his head to look at her. She looks even more fidgety all of a sudden, like she wants to run. Deer in the headlights. He can't blame her. "Goodnight, Tony."

She has reached the door by the time he gets up on his feet and says her name, and it roots her to the spot, with her shoulders all tense and the door halfway open. He takes a deep breath, and the slightest shudder runs through her while she turns her head to glance back at him. She's scared suddenly. He can see it in her face. And yet, there's also the slightest bit of anticipation going on.

"It was... hard," he finally presses out, and Ziva meets his eyes and stares at him. And then her shoulders relax the tiniest bit.

"It's never easy to investigate one of your own," she says, very softly, and that's the Ziva he doesn't just like, that's the one who is dangerous for his heart. The one who is compassionate.

"Not that," he hears himself say before he can censor the words, and part of him is horrified about the sensation of splitting his chest open and letting her see what's going on and being honest about it for a change. But some tiny part of him, deep inside, also trembles with a strange sense of relief, and he suspects she must have felt something similar when she sent him those short notes. "Being alone. Without you... guys."

He reins the wayward words back in line just in time, with just the hint of a pause before he turns it into something more general and more safe. Something that encompasses the whole team and not just the woman who missed him. But it seems like she still heard it, because her face softens, just like that. And after a few more heartbeats, she tilts her head in question.

"Do you want me to stay? For a little while?"

Her voice is quiet and almost drowned out by the buzzing in his ears, and so it takes him a while to process the question. When he gets it, he feels a weird rush, and it makes him grin and duck his head and shrug awkwardly.

"Doc said someone should wake me every few hours and ask me silly questions, so..." His voice trails off, and he's not sure what else to say to make her understand it's not just someone he needs around tonight.

It turns out it doesn't really need more words or more persuasion, because yeah, she sort of gets him, like she always does, and so he watches her close the door again and lean back against it and smile at him, softly, while she crosses her arms.

"I can do that," she says. And it's weird, but yeah, something eases up in his chest at those simple words.

*** *** ***
He doesn't end up with his head in her lap. But when he falls asleep, he's curled up on the couch beside her and her hand rubs slow circles on his back, and that's close enough. At least for tonight.