Part 10: Ashes
Ziva had questions—they extended for miles in her head. Gibbs obliged her with the date, the last Sunday of March, and that she'd slept for 13 hours on his couch, but anything else she wanted to know had to wait, apparently, as he grumbled about breakfast again and disappeared into the kitchen.
Sensing he didn't want help, she wandered into the dining room and propped her knee up onto a chair at the table, sliding into the seat as she took in the last vestiges of the sunrise streaming through the picture-pane windows. Golden light refracted off the geometric stain-glass inlays and threw colored fragments onto the wooden surface. After months of wearing a cloak of sun and sand, seeing the natural world through a glass barrier was a strange separation, and even now the forsythia bushes lining the driveway below were to her dry, straw-like tumble weeds, their prickly ends snaring in the tents, tearing the homes to shreds…
The aroma of oil and sausage sizzling in a pan flavored the air, transporting her back from the desert. If her stomach flipping at the smell was any indicator, it was going to be a breakfast for one.
Through the swinging door, Gibbs emerged with two plates piled high. He slid one onto the table in front of her before circling around her chair to take his own seat. "Eat up," he instructed, already stacking fluffy eggs onto his fork. "We've got stuff to do."
The breakfast was quintessentially American. Crisp bacon, buttered toast, and eggs done sunny side up. A poke of her fork pierced the filmy surface of the eye and gooey yolk spilled out over the platter. Even if she had been hungry, her appetite would be gone now.
Subtly, she pushed her plate forward, offering an apologetic smile. "Perhaps I should begin with something less…potent. The provisions in Domiz are not as rich as all this."
"I thought you were a volunteer in a refugee camp, David, not one of them."
His comments, tossed out between bites of sausage, drew her eyes, sober and narrowed. "Do not pretend to know what it's like there."
Gibbs wiped his mouth with a napkin and leaned back until the chair creaked under the stress. "We get reports. Can't turn the news on these days without hearing about Syria."
"It is not the same as being there," she bit out, feeling the hairs at the back of her neck rise, like a cat ready to pounce.
"You're right. It's not." Gibbs folded his arms over the v-neck sweater—layered over a white undershirt, of course—that stretched across his burly chest. "But you're not there anymore."
Silence pervaded in the wake of his firm assertion, interrupted only by the playful chirping from birds hiding outside in the returning foliage. Her eyes switched from his stoic gaze to the sustenance he'd provided for her. There'd been many a time when Sana smacked both hands over her mouth, one atop the other, and angled her body away, effectively ending all negotiations concerning a final spoonful of a meal Ziva knew she needed to finish. She had never backed down with Sana, and neither would Gibbs with her.
Warily, Ziva took a bite of toast, though by that point, she'd lost track of whether it served as an act of defiance or surrender. Perhaps it didn't matter.
A shrug of his shoulders caught her eye. "We can get you some broth."
"This is fine," she said, noting his attempt with a gentle wavering of her lips, "for now."
"When you're done, why don't you get cleaned up?"
Ziva glanced down at the black long-sleeve shirt and cargo pants that she'd essentially lived and slept in from Dubai to D.C. "It does not get much better than this, Gibbs. I guarantee everything I brought with me is full of sand as well. Could we stop by my apartment before—" His frown sidetracked her. "What is it?"
"Lease on your apartment came up. Landlord couldn't get a hold of you. Evicted you after the first of the year."
Shock delayed its onslaught, giving her enough time to remark, "You have never been one to chop words, Gibbs."
"Mince words, Ziva," he corrected, and then leaned forward and placed joined hands on the table, setting her in his cool line of sight. "You didn't count on being gone so long."
Actually, she hadn't. Sana extended her stay.
Only then did the full weight of implication come down on her, the dense reality mingling with the gulp of air she dragged in on her next inhale. She pressed a hand to her forehead to stifle the ache forming above her eyes. Material possessions had never carried the highest worth for her, but this was everything she had to her name. Everything that gave her a place to come back to. Her home.
Gibbs was mistaken. She was indeed displaced, a woman without home or country. A refugee in her own right.
Swiping a strand of loose curls behind her ear, she sat up a little straighter, cleared her throat. "I have nothing left, then. It is all gone." These were not questions seeking answers; they were rather affirmations of yet another loss.
The legs of the chair squeaked against the wood floor as Gibbs pushed away from the table and stood to full height. With two crooked fingers, he gestured for her to follow him, and his swift stride gave her no choice but to do just that. Leaving the remnants of their tense breakfast behind, she caught up with him in the kitchen.
"Where are we going?" Ziva demanded, but there was no response, just as there was no glance over his shoulder to ensure that she was keeping up. That wasn't how the legendary Gibbs operated.
Through the backdoor off the kitchen, he led them down the three stone steps into the backyard. The square parchment of land was manicured into the shape of a postcard. A swing set perched along the far wall of the white-washed fence. Dirty rain water and dried leaves left over from autumn pooled at the base of the single slide. One swing hung on by rusty hinges; the other was missing altogether. She had to wonder why he'd never taken it down in all these years after Kelly's death…but perhaps there was no simple answer to a question such as that.
Ziva aimed to ignore the wayward chills that found exposed patches of skin at the junction of her shirt hem and the belt keeping her pants slung along her hips. It was colder outside than it appeared from inside the house. Window weather, her former partner had dubbed it, and she smiled to herself at the memory of his teasing over the embarrassingly long time it took for her to understand that particular colloquialism. She was contemplating whether or not he knew she was in Washington again, or if she wanted him to know yet, when a lucky glance up and a quick sidestep was all that prevented her from running into Gibbs' back.
His abrupt stop brought them to the detached, single-car garage that sat to the left of the grassy lawn. It was covered in the same hunter green siding as the house, but there was evidence of wear-and-tear that she assumed he just hadn't gotten around to repairing yet. The garage door itself was manual, and Gibbs yanked the wood plank up with only a grunt for the exertion.
Whatever she thought this errand would lead to, and she hadn't had time to consider much, would have been wrong anyway. The wall of boxes stood imposing, but in between the cracks of the cardboard jigsaw puzzle were snippets of the burgundy upholstery she'd picked out custom for her living room furniture…and the glossy black reflection of her upright piano. The longer she investigated, the more her familiar belongings emerged in the fissures. Unadorned picture frames, the curved bodies of lamps, even what she guessed was her mattress beneath a large tarp. Soon, it was fairly obvious that the contents of her apartment were contained within her former boss' garage.
"Gibbs," she breathed, spinning around to face him. "This is—"
A wave of his hand dispersed her gratitude. "Don't look at me. McGee and Abby made it their project. Showed up with a U-Haul one morning and left me no choice."
Ziva hummed her acknowledgement, but she knew better than to believe he hadn't made sure the ever-caring Abby heard about the eviction and then stayed up late into the night clearing space in his garage for the incoming delivery.
A smile, uninhibited and painful to sustain, spread her lips. "I owe you—and Abby and McGee—great thanks," she insisted with more tears in her voice than dared make themselves known in the crooks of her eyes. "I did nothing to deserve you all going to so much trouble."
Gibbs bounced his shoulders. "It's what you do for family, Ziva."
All she could manage was a shaky nod, in part because words failed to arrive on her tongue and in part because she had not planned for any of this or expected it to ripple so far and include so many, and the pressure of it all made it impossible to lift her eyes from the blurring concrete beneath her shoes…
A strong hand, speckled with calluses, roughed the skin of her neck as he pulled her close against his chest. "You're okay," he whispered into her ear, pressing a fleeting kiss to her temple. "Breathe."
For a few long moments, they stood in his driveway that way, a chilled breeze swaying the bare oak tree branches canopied over the garage. The human contact was centering, giving her a chance to do as she was ordered and catch her breath along with her composure. Tears never did fall to her cheeks, though the back of her hands still swiped self-consciously at the splotches of skin before she risked facing him again.
But Gibbs was already pulling away and on his way back inside, mounting the steps with an ease that belied the silver in his hair. "The rest is upstairs in the spare bedroom." A flick of his hand over his shoulder beckoned her along. "Let's go."
Ziva took one more calming breath, one more glance over the ashes of her previous existence, now neatly packed up and out of the way, and then followed his lead.
Gibbs' driving was just as she remembered it, so she gripped the armrest and lodged her knee against the passenger side door, and enjoyed the Charger's growl of acceleration out of Dupont Circle and on up Connecticut Ave. It was now becoming apparent to her how much she had missed driving over the past few months.
"How're you feeling?" he prompted her, shooting a pointed glance from the corner of his eye.
When he'd told her that morning that they had "stuff to do," she hadn't anticipated the very first errand to be Washington General. Her protests fell on the deafest and most stubborn of ears, and for the next two hours she was poked and prodded for confirmation of good health after her months' long visit to a third-world country.
"I am perfectly fine," she had assured both the nurses and her overprotective companion. And they seemed to believe her until a booster for the Typhoid vaccine resulted in a brief blackout.
"Oh sure, you're fine alright," Gibbs snarked as he braced her limp frame against his shoulder and shook consciousness back into her bones.
Now, with her blood sugar sufficiently spiked courtesy of juice and cookies from the hospital, and a few more stops under their belt—including one to the grocery for chicken broth, just as he'd promised—she hesitated to reply for fear of what another fine would earn for herself.
"Better," was her eventual response, and she was relieved when he switched subjects to fill her in on the Parsa trial. It was the most she'd ever heard him talk about the lawyers without invoking Rule #13.
"Prosecution got underway Wednesday, but they were still talking in circles over his sabotage of that French cargo ship back in '08 when they recessed for the weekend. You've got time to prepare what you're gonna say on the stand."
"Which is very little," she reminded him as they flew by The Normandy. It was no secret the court case was the secondary reason for her trip. Gibbs already received an earful about Sana as they perused the aisles of Safeway. If this visit went her way, she would fulfill her side of the bargain and earn her compensation before the current week was out.
"It'll be something." It was a reminder of his own.
Ziva fiddled with the button on the cuff of her cargo jacket; it was the first coat she came across that morning, packed with care in one of the boxes of her possessions piled high in Gibbs' late daughter's bedroom. The box itself was labeled FANCY ZIVA JACKETS, leaving no doubt that Abby had commandeered the marker on moving day.
"To be honest," she broached. "I am more…apprehensive right now about seeing everyone again."
Prior to departing Domiz, she'd been so focused on those she was leaving behind that she'd given little thought in comparison to those who awaited her in the very near future. Time in transit, or waiting on paperwork to sanction transit, from Iraq to Dubai to D.C. made up for the loss, giving her almost too much space to consider what loomed on the other side of the world. She had a feeling her time for speculation was running out.
"Aside from you and To—" Her voice dropped away, as if the volume dial was twisted to zero in one smooth motion.
Gibbs slapped on the brakes to obey a red light, testing the reflexes of their seat belts in the process. He used the opportunity to flip his knowing smirk over the console at her. "You mean Tony?"
The brunette jerked back into her seat, eyes wide. "Yes! Aside from both of you, I did not even say goodbye to the rest of the team, so forgive me for worrying how they will react to me showing up after all this time."
Silence reigned in the wake of her outburst, and it held court in the cramped quarters until they pulled up to the curb in front of his house. Gibbs threw it into park and shut the engine off, but didn't get out of the car. Instead, he sat back with a sigh and scratched at an itch on his jaw. When he finally spoke, it was so quiet, she had to hold her breath to catch every word.
"You want the truth?"
"Of course," she replied, for it would be easier to hear it from him and be prepared when she saw them all again, whenever that might be.
Gibbs turned towards her, his face a mixture of determination and whim, as if he was at a complete loss and yet had nothing to lose. "My team hasn't been the same since you left. Something broke, and I haven't found a way to fix it yet."
It wasn't what she was expecting, and her mouth popped open in surprise, but it was another second before she found her voice. "I am sor—"
With the type of patient smile she might offer a small, tired child, Ziva angled her head to the side. "Your rules no longer apply to me, remember? And you said it yourself, Gibbs. Since I left. At the time, I did what was best for me, but I did not consider what that meant to all of you here."
"Hey," the agent interrupted, gathering every ounce of her gaze into his glacial stare. "Don't you take it on. You hear me? It's not your responsibility to hold this team together, Ziva. That's my job. Mine."
And then Gibbs was the one leaving, slapping the door shut behind him and striding up the brick path to the house.
Alone in the now excessively silent car, she inhaled a calming breath and exhaled a mumbled, "This is going well." She opened her door and stepped out.
No sooner had she ascended the walk and crossed over the threshold of the front door did Gibbs brush past her on his way back out again.
"Where are you going?"
"Out. Be back soon." After descending the porch steps, he whirled on his heels and waved his cell phone out for her to see. "Same number. My spare's—"
"Under the sink," she finished for him, though was still confused by his leaving at all. "I have not forgotten."
Ziva thought she saw a faint smile hook the corner of his mouth as he unlatched the gate, but she was more inclined to blame it on a trick of the sunlight.
"Make sure you eat something," he called out before ducking back into the Charger.
As the vehicle roared up the street, Ziva was left on the porch, perplexed about much more than she was even aware of when she woke up that morning and feeling just as abandoned as Sana no doubt felt when she watched her guardian vanish from sight.
From the corner of 17th St., Tony spotted his boss—an imposing figure in midnight blue waiting for him outside M.E. Swing Co., guzzling from a tall to-go cup. It was just like the low-frills coffee aficionado to choose the old-school shop for their meeting place; it was as close as it got to the coffee cart on the Yard over the weekend. Which begged the question: If not for a crime scene, what brought about this oh-so-special rendezvous during off-hours?
"I find it unsettling that our 16-hour days together are no longer enough to satisfy you, Boss." Strolling up with hands tucked in the pockets of his tan leather jacket, Tony had a secret hope of catching the retired Marine off-guard, but at the same time, he knew better than that. "Going through DiNozzo withdrawal, are ya?"
Gibbs exhaled a muted scoff. "Whadda you think, DiNozzo?"
"You're the one who called me down here on a Sunday afternoon." Interrupting a lazy morning marathon of Jack Nicholson's finest and some particularly heady Ziva vibes, I might add, he thought. "You tell me what to think, Gibbs."
Tony slowed to a stop in front of the team leader on the sidewalk. A blend of carefree D.C. tourists and natives streamed in and out of the coffee house entrance and down the busy thoroughfare, each one blissfully unaware of the Clash of the Titans reenactment that took place out at the cabin only a few days earlier between the two agents they passed now without a second glance. That the crux of their quarrel was still unresolved meant that the tension between them crackled on.
A glance to the side was not enough to disguise the emergence of Gibbs' amused smirk. "Know all those times I asked you to come by, help me out with a project."
Leaning back on his heels, Tony feigned a moment of memory loss. "Oh yeah, see. I didn't know how to tell you this before, but I'm not a 'build your own boat/coffin/cabin' kind of guy. Hashtag—" He mimed the accompanying hand gesture. "Sorry. Hashtag: Sorrynotsorry. Hashtag: Howdidyougetthatboatoutofyourbasement?" It was his turn to smirk; it felt more like issuing a dare. "Aren't you going to smack me?"
"Nope." The elder agent took a large gulp of his coffee before adding, "You should come this time."
"And why is that?"
"Oh, well…" Gibbs exhaled a hearty chuckle, flashed a bright smile.
Tony chuckled along, though he wasn't sure what the hell was so funny. "That good, huh?"
Tossing his drained cup in the nearest trash can, Gibbs stuffed his fists in the pockets of his coat and started off down the sidewalk. "Your choice, DiNozzo."
The senior field agent squinted at Gibbs' retreating figure in the glare of the cold sunlight and gnawed at his lower lip as if it was the decision laid out before him. When it came to forks in the road, he hadn't had the best intuition as of late.
But after the incident in MTAC and now this interruption to his weekend…
"What do you think you are, for Chrissake, crazy or somethin'?" Tony sucked in a breath and murmured under his breath, "I really must be, Jack," as he jogged off in pursuit of whatever his boss had up his tapered sleeve.
For a moment she had doubts, but once her feet were hitting the pavement and the familiar sound of her elevated pulse rose to a rabbit's heartbeat in her ears, Ziva required no further convincing. A run was what she needed, and if not for the exercise, for the power it had always possessed to clear her congested thoughts.
McGee had another name for it.
"You need a defrag," the tech-savvy agent had declared on a late evening at the office too many years back to estimate with any precision. The advice came after she'd complained that there was so much swirling around in her head that she couldn't think straight. "You know how you can perform a disk defragmentation on your computer to condense information and open up space on the hard drive?"
"Yes," she had replied uneasily. She knew computers had hard drives, at least.
"Well, I think the same is true for our brains. Sometimes—" The computer genius tapped his noggin with a satisfied grin. "We just need a good brain defrag."
Ziva thought she could use one of those now, as the events of the past few days clogged her head with enough information and emotions to back up a sink drain. So she ran. It was even more necessary after adding research on international adoption to the pile that afternoon.
Gibbs' departure, although abrupt and unexplained, was a blessing. Aside from the twenty minutes she spent in the shower that morning, he'd been attached to her side ever since she woke up. She was a team-player, but she did her best work alone.
A quick rummage through the mountain of boxes in the garage produced her personal laptop, and she set it up charging on the dining room table while she scrounged together a simple turkey sandwich to appease the appetite worked up from all the digging and lifting and re-packing. She left the knife and cutting board out on the counter for Gibbs to notice, evidence she had eaten.
Typing adoption into the search window felt so pedestrian, as if she could look up this life-changing process just as easily as how to tie her shoe laces. As uncomplicated as it was to pursue, the results were far from straightforward. One website led to another, which referred back to the first; there were forms to fill out to allow her to fill out other forms. Whenever she thought the trail was gaining warmth, there was another bout of fine print that caused her eyes to cross. The run-around was the American government at its finest.
An hour later, the final quarter of her sandwich sat, forgotten, on the plate at her elbow, and the only information of value that she'd discovered was less than encouraging. Because it was not party to The Hague Adoption Convention, Syria was one of the worst countries with which to enter into an intercountry adoption. There was little to no protection for the child and less guarantee that the adoption itself was kosher. And then there was her involvement. Without current steady employment or housing, she was an unlikely candidate to be Sana's mother.
The odds were stacked against her dream, but it was not impossible. She knew this would not be achievable on her own. That was why she'd agreed to provide a testimony she didn't have to give.
When the words started to swim together on the computer screen, Ziva shut the lid. But she could already sense that stretching her legs with a walk around the house wouldn't be enough to shake loose the coils of tension in her neck and back. More digging through boxes, this time upstairs, yielded an all black workout outfit she'd bought a year earlier. It was tight then, but now the Neoprene fabric hung baggy around her hips and thighs and through the circle of her waist. It would have to do. Considering his current over-protective behavior, she left Gibbs a note to her whereabouts before heading out.
The chill, carried more on the breeze than in the temperature, sliced past her as she ran. It was practically a pleasant breeze to her after keeping an even pace over the half-hour exploration of the quaint neighborhood. Strict cardio hadn't been on the agenda at Domiz, and she was feeling the deficiency in her routine. She could not go as far, for as long, or as fast as she once had.
It was a relief to turn onto Gibbs' street, but she came back down the other side, so as the green siding and white fence came into view, she looked both ways out of habit and left the sidewalk, crossing the road at a jog. One moment her eyes were adjusting to the shadow of a figure sitting on the porch swing, and the next her surroundings were a blur of light and movement.
All it took was a loosened shoe lace to trip her and the pavement wasted no time coming up to swiftly claim her grace and vertical statue. The bases of her palms absorbed most of the rough fall, but the angle at which she collided with the road dictated that her right knee and then hip caught some of the brunt force impact as well. After the momentum ran out and her body finally stopped moving downward, a strangled moan wielded its way up her throat and escaped through the shocked split of her lips.
Another voice rose above her cry.
"Hey, you okay?"
If a glance up from the ground hadn't corroborated what her ears wanted her to believe, Ziva might have thought it a trick her jetlagged brain was playing on her. But the over-coiffed hair, the leather jacket she helped him pick out, the familiar worry lines around his mouth—it was most certainly her former partner leaping off the porch and landing rapid strides towards the gate. Trying to reach her.
Nothing less than seeing him would have warranted lifting the almost six month moratorium on a single name. It came back into her existence as a question, an exhale of disbelief.
A/N: Yes, I ended it there. Hashtag: Sorrynotsorry. ;)
Thanks for stopping by; hope you enjoyed your stay; see you next time!