Disclaimer: NCIS is not mine. The show and the original characters belong to Don Bellisario, Gary Glasberg, and CBS. The new characters, however, do belong to me. This was written strictly for fun, not for profit.
A/N: Hi there! I must be crazy to start a multi-chapter story, but here it is, a heavily Ziva-centric piece that came to me right after 11.02 aired. It's obviously very AU. You're gonna need to have some patience with this one, but hopefully you'll think it's worth it in the end. :-) Drop a note and let me know yea or nay!
Salam | Peace
Once when I was running, from all that haunted me;
To the dark I was succumbing-
To what hurt unbearably.
Searching for the one thing,
that would set my sad soul free.
In time I stumbled upon it,
an inner calm and peace;
and now I am beginning,
to see and to believe,
in who I am becoming-
and all I've to be.
—Lang Leav, "Self Love"
Part 1: Refuge
Ziva awoke, a precious few hours after collapsing exhausted on the spot, to the sound of pattering feet outside her tent. Before her deep-rooted instincts sent her reaching for the empty space under her pillow, musical giggles and the graze of fingertips over the cloth sidetracked her foggy mind. Through the haze of sleepiness, she spied the source of her unconventional alarm clock: three small forms silhouetted against the closed flaps.
It is only the children…
"I know you are out there," she called to them in Arabic, holding onto the slippery language along with consciousness. "Amari, Lina, Yusef…" Her educated guesses shocked the trio motionless. "You would not want me to tell your—" She bit her tongue; some of the children in the camp did not have mothers anymore. Or fathers. Or both.
"The plane is coming," one of the children announced in a rush, and then there was more giggling and the outlines of all three loped away.
Smiling to herself, the tired woman stretched out beneath the tattered blanket that offered little but the illusion of warmth, lengthening muscles stiff from her final overnight shift in the infirmary for the week. Her hands met the back of the tent as she unfolded like a cat, pushing fists into the burlap. It was still early, and the promise of daylight tinted her close quarters a dusky shade of violet, but she rose to sitting, blinking through her fatigue.
What the child had called a plane was actually a helicopter, and helicopters meant supplies. But she had another reason for forcing herself awake. These early morning moments, prior to the start of her long, arduous days, were the most susceptible to the invasion of memories that rang up out of her price range.
She'd calculated an Abby smile to be worth a day; the echo of Gibbs' already rare voice cost her two, sometimes three for a "Ziver"; and though priceless, one of Ducky's reminiscences nevertheless set her back too far. When she thought of them all—her team and her family—it was as if she never left, and that was unacceptable.
It was difficult enough that it did not feel that long ago. The desert, even one that was not her own, had a way of siphoning time like the sifting of ashes between one's fingers. Had it really been two months since that night at the airport? Since she sent…him back where he belonged? She couldn't bring herself to say his name, for that came with the highest price tag of all, one she could never afford, not on any day.
Heavy eyelids fluttered open again. Ziva stared through the darkness of her tent, willing the chills running a marathon the length of her spine—that had nothing to do with the temperature of the morning—to subside. She did not come here to remember.
With every act done at this refugee camp, in the service of those who needed it most, she balanced further the uneven tip of her soul's scale. Here, she was not an assassin who killed her half-brother. Not an investigator who sought revenge. Not an orphan, a teammate, a woman who left behind everyone who still loved her for this solo journey. Here, she was simply one of the many doing her part.
The chopper blades stirred sand into a gritty soup, their incessant thwak-thwak-thwaking erupting small volcanoes of pain in her eardrums. Ziva chose to hold the scarf over her eyes and mouth instead of plugging her ears; she would be plagued by ringing deep in the canals for the rest of the day, but it was preferable to sandy eyeballs.
Along with a dozen of her fellow volunteers, she crouched over, maintaining the requisite distance from the makeshift landing pad—a cleared square of land, free of bushes. As the aircraft descended, she turned her face and did not look again until the blades had ended their terror.
Transports like this arrived with mysterious cargo. It was a game the aid workers played, taking bets on the type of supplies that might be allocated to their camp that week. Or every other week, as was often the case now. Opening the fuselage doors revealed stacks of stark white boxes—so clean and alien against the third-world conditions the goods were entering. Blocky words were stamped on the cardboard: Hygiene. Medicine. Non-perishable. Ziva smiled; there was a reason everyone had stopped betting against her.
Two weeks of waiting, and it took only minutes to transfer the load of supplies onto the waiting truck. As there was never room on the vehicle for the workers to ride back to camp, they instead set off on foot for the 60km journey home. Behind them, the helicopter roared to life once again.
Overhead, the clouds parted, revealing the sky's pre-dawn blush that warmed the rippling Mosul Dam Lake running alongside their path. A stale breeze snatched at her over-shirt, billowing the threadbare fabric away from her body; the camisole underneath was already damp with her exertion. Ziva lifted her hand as she walked, using it to dab sweat off her forehead. That was when she spotted them.
Forty-paces ahead, with the yawning horizon at their backs, the morning's first wave of Syrian travelers crossed the river on the rickety pontoon bridge that was newly constructed to facilitate their evacuation. Closer and closer, they trudged away from the hands of oppression and violence that seized their homeland and towards the safety that the Peshkhabour border point offered.
A few carried bags of possessions; others were in possession of only what they wore on their person. The wounded limped alongside the broken-spirited. Children ran underfoot. The sea was vast and deep and endless, a jostling mass of desperate bodies flowing on a collective tide. They barely acknowledged the abrupt switch from plastic to sand beneath their weary feet as they staggered onto Iraqi-Kurdish soil.
This was how it had been since she arrived at Domiz via a Jeep out of Dohuk, riding along with a handful of other new volunteers for the international aid organization stationed at the camp. None of them, save for her, had made it through the month. The tangible image of thousands upon thousands of displaced human beings emptying out of one country and into another like gushing water forcing its way through a narrow sieve was a reality too foreign for their hearts.
At least they are alive, Ziva thought of the refugees. At least they are not among the dead who did not get the opportunity to make this journey at all, to escape and start over.
She did not know where this newest group would go, where they would be put within the camp; the term the aid workers used was severely overcrowded. It meant that there were already two families to every tent and not enough food and supplies to accommodate the influx. For the new arrivals, other arrangements would have to be made. Some would set up temporary shelters on the outskirts of the wire fences. Others, the able-bodied, would be sent into the neighboring towns to seek both lodging and work, if they were lucky enough to be granted a residency permit.
Receiving and placement was not part of her responsibilities that week, so she continued on the serpentine stretch of desert that would eventually lead back to the rows of faded red and tan tents. Her boots found the beaten trail, one after the other, following in the multitude of footsteps that'd come before her.
Into the satchel Ziva nestled the jug of water—filled to the brim, the lid sealed tight—with fresh water obtained from the tank trucked in not long after she returned to camp. Weighted down by the container, the bag's strap tugged at the thin skin over her collarbone, the spot as worn as the leather itself. She adjusted the strap, and then set out.
Domiz was a labyrinth, a small, one-story city of dirt roads and many, many occupants that walked the pathways with determination, as though the paths would lead somewhere beyond the circle of the encampment. Since her arrival, it had grown, almost doubled, and still it was insufficient to meet demand. Nothing ever came completely clean in Domiz and there were few amenities, but it was not Homs, Al-Hasakah, Damascus—a war zone. The inhabitants did not live in fear of awakening to the whistle of bombs dropping into their villages or to clouds of poison filling the air.
Despite the size of the camp, her destinations within the boundaries that afternoon were engrained in her muscle memory. At each stop were one or two children, confined to their tents by illness or injuries for which the infirmary could no longer spare beds. Besides, no child, anywhere in the world, cared for hospitals.
"Little Ones," Ziva called out in their native tongue, lowering down to her knees at the opening of the first tent on her route. "I have a surprise you will like very much."
The flap pulled back and two olive-shaped faces peeked out. Ziva could not recall the exact moment when all the children she'd cared for during her brief stint working in the infirmary had become infinitely dear to her, but the pair of siblings was no exception. Imani and her little brother, Abdo, shared prolonged cases of dysentery along with hair the color of chestnuts and naturally tan skin. They had escaped one terror only to be claimed by another. Their eyes were wide and somber, and her chanted name moistened their chapped lips.
"As-salam alaykom," she greeted them.
They replied in tandem, "Wa alykom as-salam."
"You are both thirsty, yes?" At their fervent nods, she exaggerated a conspiratorial tone. "Quick, while it is still cold."
They did not leave their tent, instead presenting toothy grins and their cups for her to fill, which she did—twice—while rattling off the only appropriate-for-children joke she knew in their language. The perpetually dehydrated and fatigued children giggled as they drank, never mind that they had heard the silly pun from her several times before.
Their mother, a skinny, dark-haired woman, younger than Ziva, emerged from the depths of the tent, watching with crossed arms and cautious eyes the scene between her son and daughter and the worker, a stranger, a Jew. Her Star of David necklace was with her former partner for safekeeping, but in these parts, it took only her accent to give her away. This woman was like so many of the Syrians who passed through Domiz's gates, learning to receive mercy from whoever offered it.
Ziva regarded her with a stoic but not unkind expression, and the gesture was returned. Survival, it seemed, meant more than a centuries-old feud.
The mother told her children to come back inside.
"Shukran, Zee-va," Imani chimed, water dribbling down her chin from a too-big gulp, before she and her brother gave their guardian angel final smiles and disappeared into their home.
"Afwan," she replied, her own smile lingering as, in one swift movement, she rose to full height and swiveled around to—
Her body collided with another, jostling both participants of the crash. Precious water from the container sloshed onto the leg of her cargo pants.
"Whoa, sorry—oh, hey there."
She knew to whom the Australian accent belonged even before glancing up at the lead aid organizer in Domiz. Blue eyes, set within a pale face that always appeared as if on fire, his fair skin unaccustomed to the rays of unfiltered sunlight, served as confirmation. Some people were not made for the desert: Thomas Gray was one of them.
Ziva pressed firmly on the lid of the container, and then swiped at her forehead, coming away with sweat-prints on her forearm. "It is fine," she assured with a reflexive twitch of her mouth, and moved to pass him.
Gray followed after her. Their shadows were even when silhouetted on the dirt road; when face-to-face, her eyes fell level with the dimple in his chin. If he caught her taut sigh, he ignored it.
"You should slow down, David. Take a break."
"I do not need one."
Unlike many of her fellow aid workers, Ziva loved most when the work was hard. When the transports needed unloading, the crush of each cargo box that she shouldered defining sinew. When trenches demanded digging, splinters from the crude, wooden tools spearing to unreachable depths beneath the skin of her hands. Even when the wounded in the infirmary required her restraint until they didn't anymore, and she smelled of their death for days afterwards.
When it was hard, repenting was easy. And she still had much to make up for.
"Suit yourself," the Aussie said, breaking into a jog to keep up with her. "Just so you know, everybody will be calling you the Energizer Bunny if you don't."
"I thought I was...Desert Rat?" Her accent wrapped each word in a question.
They reached the end of the row of tents and banked onto the main thoroughfare, the path widening enough for the trucks to drive through.
His laugh was hearty, resounding from his chest. "You caught that? At orientation?"
Ziva shrugged. "I have the hearing of a horse."
They stopped walking, causing the refugees at their heels to flow out around them. The memory of her first day was easy to call up. That it had been the end of October had no bearing on the gusty winds and sweltering heat. While her fellow probies were dripping with sweat after only minutes of digging a trench, the sabra wore the desert climate like a tailored suit. Gray was directing her group, and upon observing this, dubbed her with the apt moniker, though not to her face.
Now, the fair-haired man rested his hands on his knobby hips as he regarded her, squinting through the overhead glare, stymied. "You say some strange things sometimes."
"And a bunny that is energized is rational?" Her expectant look challenged his steady gaze.
"Just…take a bit of your own medicine. Don't need my best worker passing out, now do we?" With a pat to her shoulder and the flash of a smile, Gray walked on, leaving her to her self-appointed rounds.
Watching him glide back into the flow of human traffic clogging the thoroughfare, Ziva realized she did not know much about him, despite their close proximity for weeks, but she did not need to know, either. She was not here to make friends. Not when there were more tents to visit, more thirsty children waiting for their cups to be filled.
Her work was never done.
Shiny gold garland tacked up around the inside perimeter of the workers' tent. Watered-down, creamy broth that passed for eggnog. The artificial tree, no taller than a toddling child, placed on the center table, and the twinkling lights that adorned it, blinking on and off sporadically—not for effect, but rather due to the unreliable power supply.
All because they claimed it was Christmas Eve.
Ziva willingly admitted to losing track of the date. Time was irrelevant in the camp, measured in new tents, trenches dug, and refugees admitted, instead of minutes and traditions. Though she did not celebrate the particular holiday, there had been a time when she enjoyed Christmas for the festive mood it drew out of people, and out of herself. That was not the case this holiday season, the first away from the States and her NCIS family in eight years. The first since her father died.
She was in no mood for a party.
Amidst the jolly festivities, Ziva managed a few bites of dinner, far fewer than her body needed after the work she'd done that day. Then it was all too much. Ducking her head, she pushed through the flaps out of the tent as if breaking the surface of a lake. Twilight, like a cold compress, lay across the smooth forehead of the land, bringing down the day's fever. Cool air expanded her chest on a deep inhale.
On the exhale, she set off toward her own tent, seeking the illusion of privacy it afforded. Snippets of promises, lullabies, and arguments snatched at her ears as she passed the refugees' canvas dwellings. Knowing more than one language was like having a translator in her mind, deciphering in real time any of the nine verbal texts in her repertoire. The only downfall was that it didn't come with a filter that spared her from what she wished not to hear.
Pausing in her stride, Ziva listened closely, isolating the shrill slew of Arabic words filtering out from behind the next bank of tents.
"They are out there!" The woman's voice repeated the plea over and over again. "Save them, besora'a!"
"I'm sorry, but I don't understand what you're saying." The reply came in English—and in an Australian accent that was equally familiar.
Ziva toed around the corner, placing Gray and a Syrian woman in her sights. They stood in the glow of the infirmary tent; the strain of getting nowhere with each other played out in their frustrated arm gestures. It was becoming quite a scene. She was not the only one to take notice of the woman's screams. Other refugees stepped out of their tents, searching for the source of the disturbance.
Before she fully decided to involve herself in the situation, about which nothing felt right, the lead aid organizer's voice rose above the clamor.
"David? Come help me with this, would you?"
Caught. Ziva told the onlookers to go back inside their homes as she left the anonymity of the shadows and approached the pair.
Gray ran a hand through his mess of hair. "The docs couldn't calm her down. I don't know what's wrong, either. The only thing I'm getting is—"
"I can translate," Ziva cut in, turning to the refugee. "Ana afham al-Arabiah. A'eedi men fadleki?"
The Syrian's eyes alighted at the prospect of being understood. It was hard to tell how old the woman was, for prolonged anxiety and fear had etched deep grooves into her face. Her features crumpled when she began speaking again, this time aiming all her rushed imploring towards the newcomer.
Gray asked, "What's she saying?"
"She says there is a family that did not make it across the border this morning."
"There are lots of those."
Ziva sent a glare flying at her superior, and it landed with the intended effect. The moment of inattention caused the Syrian to reach out and take Ziva's hands, wringing them in her own calloused grip.
"Please, you have to find them," she begged.
"The camp is full. Perhaps they went on into town—"
The woman gave a vehement dispute of her head. "Laa! I cannot find them. I have looked. The father was injured. They were slow, always slow in our group because of him. They had a child, very small. Min fadhlik…" The desperation in her eyes was her final appeal.
Ziva found herself nodding, making the most brutal of promises. The kind that offered hope.
After leading the Syrian back into the infirmary tent, she returned and quickly informed an impatient Gray of the circumstances.
"Where was it she last saw them?" he asked when she'd finished.
"Before the river." Ziva pointed west—toward the mountains. "Beyond the final ridge into the hills." One look at the determination glazing over his expression and she didn't have to guess what he was planning. She stepped closer and lowered her voice. "I know what you are thinking, but you cannot go out there, especially not alone and at night."
"For one thing, you do not know the language."
Gray swore. In Arabic.
"That will not get you very far," she said tightly.
His feet paced one, two, three steps away from her. Then he swiveled around, refreshed with a new idea. "So come with me. You're fluent, right? And then there'll be two of us."
"That is not the only consideration."
More than darkness lurked over the border. Regime soldiers and militia fighters haunted the territory with rifles at their sides. They'd been known to prevent refugees fleeing the country with bullets. For her former Mossad assassin or NCIS agent personas, such a mission would be routine. But she was no longer those people, and that was how she wanted it.
She need not remind him of the stakes. He'd been there longer than her and knew the dangers of the region.
Gray slammed his hands to his hips, but they flew up again in exasperation. "Damn it, we can't just leave them out there. One's injured, there's a child, for God's sake! If you don't want to go, it's not going to stop me."
Ziva watched him stalk in the direction of the supply tent; she wished she could walk away in the other. Whether she wanted to be or not, she was involved now. She'd made a promise, and she still believed in those.
If the aid organizer went out alone, he would not make it back. Her presence was his—and the family's—best bet of being alive on Christmas morning. If they died now, after she knew of them and refused to answer their plight, their deaths would add to her lifetime tally. The blood of countless men and women already covered her hands. She worked every day to lighten the crimson shade. Reversing the process would do her efforts no favor.
Tilting her head up, Ziva appraised the starless evening sky and in response, it whispered down to her an invitation back into the dark.