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Box Steps 1: Opening the Box

Chapter Text

Opening the Box
by ksl

part one

Finding out Ziva had excluded him completely from her party while inviting everyone else hurt had more than he thought it would. In a way, he could understand her leaving him out. It wasn't as if she liked him all that much anyway or that they were great friends. But for the others not to have noticed or commented on his absence, that was like getting sucker punched. They knew how much he hated being left out.

With a skill he'd learned through years of practice, Tony left the office with no one noticing he was gone. He mentally saluted his uncle Sal for taking time to teach to show him how to do it the the first time. All he had to do was wait for them to get side-tracked, wrapped up in something else. Be sure he had an excuse at the ready, `Just going to the men's room', if any one asked where he was going, knowing full well no one would. Slip out the door to the stairwell. Then down one flight and catch the elevator the rest of the way.

He ditched the sling as soon as he stepped off the elevator. It didn't matter that Ziva said it was a scratch from a box rather than a graze from a bullet. He'd have played up the injury for sympathy out of habit more than any real need. It wasn't like this was the first bullet wound. And given the nature of the job it probably wouldn't be his last.

Driving a stick shift was like riding a bike. He'd been doing it for so long it was nearly instinctive. Uncle Sal had taught him how to do that too. The old man had used his cane to run the clutch when he'd had the lower half of his left leg removed because of Diabetes. Driving with a bullet burn was a piece of cake in comparison.

Tony smiled sadly thinking about Sal. He'd learned a lot from that man. At the moment something his uncle's often said to him kept running through his mind. `Don't expect too much from people, Anthony, they will only disappoint you."

"Amen, Sal, amen." Tony wished the old man hadn't always right.

Tony made it home without incident, just like he knew he would. His arm hurt like hell, but it had before he'd left the office so it wasn't a big deal. Nothing a little scotch wouldn't cure.

He tossed his house keys into the bowl on the small table by the door. Tony kicked off his shoes. He headed for the liquor cabinet and poured a healthy shot of scotch into an expensive cut crystal glass. He downed it before pouring another. Sal would be appalled. Good scotch should be savored.

He smirked when he heard a knock at the door. He knew he wouldn't make a completely clean escape. Although, he had hoped no one would actually bother follow him. But then his luck all day had sort of been a mixture of good and bad. No reason for it to be any different now.

He tossed a mental coin, wondering which of them it was. Not that it mattered. He didn't have any thing to say to whoever it was. Not right now. He wasn't in the mood.

A second knock came, louder than the first. Tony sighed. It was too much to hope for whoever it was would just go away. He counted silently, heading for the couch. Tony sat so he could have a clear view of the door.

Another knock. His name was called, the sound muffled by the door. He sipped his drink and waited, still counting. He could afford to wait. It was warm in his apartment and cold outside. He wasn't overly surprised to see Ziva walk through the door exactly one minute later.

He sipped his scotch before commenting casually, "Could have sworn I'd locked that."

She had the good grace to look embarrassed. He knew she'd picked the lock; he'd heard the faint scratching of metal on metal that couldn't be anything else. Although, he half thought it might be Gibbs since he knew the former Marine possessed that skill. But then Gibbs had a key to his place, and the former Marine wasn't even on the list of possible visitors. Gibbs didn't apologize, and sure as hell wouldn't go out if his way to see if Tony was all right. No amount of wishing or dreaming was going to change that.

It was good to have proof Gibbs wasn't the only one on the team who could pick locks. Ziva's little skill might come in handy some day.

"I was...worried." She offered by way of an explanation for her presence. She stepped closer, hands moving in a gesture he'd come to recognize as a sign of nervousness.

"Worried?" He arched an eyebrow. "Why?"

"You were shot, Tony."

"Hmm...no, it was just a cut from a crate." He sipped his drink, green eyes meeting dark brown easily. "No cause for concern."

"Damn it, Tony, we both knowâ€""

"Then why tell McGee differently?"

He knew she'd meant it as a way to put him in his place, to make the injury seem insignificant. It was also her way of getting even for him getting them locked in the shipping container. He still thought getting in the box was the right move. Caught in the crossfire, there was no where else to go. It was get in the damn box or die. She was never going to see it that way, so there was no point in arguing about it.

She made a helpless hand gesture, unwilling or unable to admit she'd lied to McGee out of spite. It was oddly painful to watch her struggle for words. He preferred her sharp and mean. At least that he knew how to deal with. It had been way too long a day for him to willingly put up with any more.

"I am assuming you broke in here for a reason."

"I did not break in." She snapped back at him.

Defensive was good. He could work with that.

"Most guests don't need to pick the lock to get in. Doors are usually left open for welcomed company." He pointed out nonchalantly, settling back a bit more into the couch, enjoying the flush of embarrassment that rose to color her cheeks.

"How about you get to the point, Officer David." He didn't say, `and then get out' but it was implied nonetheless.

She swallowed, clearing her throat. "I said I'd make you dinner."

"Some other time." Tony finished his drink, wondering it would be worth it to get up and get another. "I'm not really hungry."

She fidgeted again. It was interesting to so her so uncertain. Any other time, he'd have capitalized on it. Right now he just wanted her to go away.

"You shouldn't drink when you're on medication."

"No, you shouldn't." Tony agreed, rolling his eyes. Like Ziva actually gave a damn that he might be stupid enough to put himself into a coma. "I'm not on any medication."

"They gave you pain pills."

"Doesn't mean I took them." Tony hated pills. The ER doc who had looked him over had given him the pills without asking if he wanted them. Tony tossed them before he'd left the office.

He stood up, leaving his empty glass on the coffee table. "You let yourself in. You can let yourself out. Be sure to lock it, will ya?" He gave her a hard look. "I'm not interested in entertaining any more uninvited guests."

She flinched. "Tony...I am sorry I didn'tâ€""

"Yeah, whatever." Tony decided it didn't matter. She wasn't sorry she hadn't invited him. She hadn't wanted him there. What bothered him was that not even Abby seemed to mind or care that he wasn't included. He expected better of people he considered friends. Sal was right. Tony should have listened to him more closely.

Seeing her still standing in the same spot, Tony sighed. "Was there something else you wanted?"

"I didn't think you'd wantâ€""

"You should not be forced to endure the presence of someone in your home that you really don't want there." Tony smiled tightly, his voice unconsciously mimicking the overly polite tones his mother had used when she was pissed. "I'd appreciate it if you'd extend me the same courtesy."

"It wasn't like that!" Ziva protested hotly. "I justâ€""

"I really don't care." Tony turned way. "It's late." Way too late for any sort of lie or story she and the others might have come up with. Assuming they'd even bothered. He wasn't interested.

His breath hissed out in pain when she grabbed his injured arm. He stopped himself from lashing out at her, but only just barely. It was shamefully gratifying to see her flinch away from him in fear. He'd never raised a hand to a woman before, and now didn't seem the time to start.

"I'm sorry." She backed away immediately. "I'm sorry. I forgotâ€""

Tony sighed. He should have had a third scotch. "Go home, Ziva."

"I need to make this right." It wasn't quite a plea but it was close.

"Make what right?" He looked at Ziva squarely, schooling his features into something blandly polite. "You didn't do anything wrong." She hadn't. It was her party, her home. She could invite or exclude anyone she wanted.

"You're angry with me."

"I'm not mad at you." No, he wasn't angry. He was disappointed, in himself, in his teammates. It was his mistake. He never should have assumed that because he liked them, thought well of them, and wanted them to be a part of his life that they would feel the same way about him.

"You are mad at me," she countered, "I can tell." A small frown formed between her eyebrows.

"Why does it matter to you?" He smiled, looking down at her, deliberately not agreeing or disagreeing with her statement. It wasn't like she'd given a damn before, so why be bothered by it now.

She bit her lip, once more struggling for to find words. "We work together."

"Yeah, so?" Tony rolled his eyes. "You think I wouldn't back you up or something?" Jesus. Did she really seem that shallow? Did she think him so poor an agent that he might leave her high and dry for hurting his feelings? No wonder she didn't invite him to her party.

"No!" She shook her head, one hand reaching out to him before drawing back. "It's not...Look, I just don't want things to be awkward between us."

Bingo. It wasn't about him at all. It never had been. It didn't matter to her how he felt as long as he didn't make it difficult for her. Tony shook his head. How the hell did she ever make it as a spy if she couldn't lie any better than that? And why the hell did his father have to be right? Son of bitch had called it the first time when he told Tony he didn't matter to anyone but himself.

"Yours is not the first party I wasn't invited to, Officer David." He leaned down and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. It was just the first one where people he thought of as friends made a point of making sure he knew he'd been left out.

"Don't beat yourself up over it."

"I am sorry."

"Yeah, I know." Tony shrugged one shoulder. She just wasn't sorry for the right reason. But, he could afford to cut her some slack; the others weren't sorry at all, for any reason. And it wasn't like he really considered Ziva a friend; certainly not now, and definitely not in the future. They were coworkers. Nothing more, nothing less. He could handle that.

Mentally relegating Abby and McGee to the same category would take a little doing, but wasn't impossible. And anything more he might have wanted from Gibbs was nothing more than a pipe dream anyway. They obviously didn't want more from Tony, so there was no reason to give it. Sal had been fond of saying, `never give anyone anything that they obviously don't want'. At the time he was talking about a second helping of sauerkraut, but Tony figured it worked equally well in other areas.

"I could still make you dinner." The offer was hesitant. Tony recognized an olive branch being offered when he saw one.

"Some other time." Like right after Satan learned to ice skate. She might well be the type to leave him high and dry in the next fire fight, so it wouldn't do to give her reason to feel justified in doing so. No reason to alienate her completely. He'd been the peacemaker for too long to really stop now. "I'm tired, Ziva, and my arm hurts."

"Oh...of course." She nodded, looking genuinely disappointed. She was a better actress than he gave her credit for.

"You'll be able to get to work okay tomorrow?" Ziva brushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "I could--"

"I got home just fine." Tony cut her off. He wasn't going to owe her any favors. Not if he could help it. "Getting to work will not be a problem."

Not that he was going to work tomorrow. No. He still had a week's worth of sick leave coming to him from the whole Y. Pestris thing. Now seemed like a good time to take it. He wanted a little time. Get a little perspective on his life, the job and his `friends'.

He'd put in the request with the director via e-mail before he left the office. She hadn't turned him down, just like he knew she wouldn't. The injury report from this last case would be more than reason enough to give him the sick leave. Assigning him on desk duty just gave him free rein to annoy half the building. Whatever else she might be, Sheppard was no fool. It was better for everyone for her to just grant the leave request.

He'd leave a voice mail message and an e-mail for Gibbs. He had to type up his report for the case anyway. By the time he got that done, Gibbs would have left the office and he wouldn't have to risk the former Marine denying his request. Neat and simple.

Gibbs could let everyone else know Tony would be out for a week if he wanted. Ordinarily he'd have sent Abby an e-mail or left a note for McGee, but he didn't really see the need to do that any more. He'd call Ducky if he got a chance, but wasn't in any real hurry to do that either. Maybe when he got back.

Tony smiled easily. He'd mastered the ability to look warm and friendly when he felt anything but years ago. "Good night, Ziva."

She smiled back, looking relieved. Hell if she thought everything was good with them, more so the better.

"Good night, Tony."

After she left, he set the deadbolt and the chain. He headed back to his antique desk and powered up his laptop. Waiting for the computer to warm up, Tony poured himself another scotch. He'd finish his report, then grab the bag that was always packed and head out. He could be where he was going before the sun rose. After that, he'd play it by ear.

 

end this part