Part 17: Storm
Ziva was snapping the ends of the top sheet crisp when Gibbs barreled down the stairs, emerging in the foyer of morning sun wearing a suit and tie.
"You are dressed to the tens!"
"It's nines, Ziver."
"Ten is higher than nine, yes? It is a compliment," she argued lightly, fluffing the cushions of her makeshift bed, returning it to its primary function of sofa. She'd still yet to sleep upstairs. "What is the occasion?"
Gibbs rolled glacial eyes and yanked at his collar, already uncomfortable. "Court. And you won't be far behind."
Following the scent of fresh-brewed cinnamon roast toward the kitchen, he passed the dining room table, on which sat her open laptop. In-depth ZNN coverage of the Parsa trial streamed on the small screen. Bishop's post-testimony interview to the press, given by the NCIS probationary agent on the steps of the courthouse, was playing again. It was part of the endless loop of reporting for the high-profile case.
Ziva snapped the lid shut, saturated for the day before 0730. "I can only hope," she muttered, looking forward to having her obligation completed. All she knew was waiting. Waiting on the trial, waiting on the results of the team's side investigation into Sana's history; she hadn't even heard from Dunham, and his check-in date had come and gone.
Since the team meeting two days prior, she'd channeled all her anxious energy into sorting her material possessions, donating what no longer proved relevant to her lifestyle, and setting up the spare room for Sana. With Gibbs' blessing, she'd taken to sprucing up additional rooms as well, in an effort to make the house more inviting as a whole. The initial residence visit for the home study was scheduled a week from Tuesday and she didn't want to give Marsha ammunition to discount the arrangement.
Gibbs emerged from the kitchen through the swinging door, travel mug of coffee in one hand, his cell in the other. The phone shut with a click in his palm. "Duck's got something on Sana. Wants you to come in."
Ziva perked. "Now?"
"Well yeah, now. I'll be in the car," he told her, striding out the front door as she grabbed a jacket, slipped into shoes, and flew after him.
Her wait was over.
"Adoption is an ancient tradition. Many people don't realize that it was practiced by the Greeks and Romans when acquiring male heirs to manage estates; foundlings were regularly adopted as slaves to work in the fields. It was a surprisingly modern process they followed and quite common, even prestigious. Perhaps the most notable adoptee of that time—"
"…was Augustus Caesar, taken in by his great-uncle, Julius."
Normally, Ziva wasn't one to interrupt his history lessons; she often found them interesting and informative, like a live-action documentary with a captivating narrator. But nothing about this situation was normal.
The medical examiner startled and glanced up from the task of pouring tea, spilling some over the lip of the cup and onto the silver tray beneath. "Oh goodness, I must be more careful…"
The former agent softened, reaching across the desk and dabbing up the stray droplets with a napkin. "No, I am sorry. I am just a bit…eager."
"Say no more, my dear." A hand, withered by age but steadied by years in the profession of dissection, passed her a fine, almost dainty, china cup and saucer. While brewing in the kettle, she'd detected Earl Grey, its distinct aroma enough to momentarily mask autopsy's antiseptic odor. "Let's get down to business, shall we?"
Past experiences sharing 'a spot of tea' in the silvery tomb with Ducky tainted the gesture for her. The first time was after she was accused, wrongfully, of killing a suspect during her first year as NCIS' Mossad liaison. The most recent was following her return from Somalia; unpleasant, violent memories from her stay on the USS Damocles had left a bitter aftertaste with the dredges of her tea. Now, she wondered if it would do her well to expect the worst—and drink fast.
"Gibbs said you wanted to see me regarding Sana," she prompted.
"Correct. After a thorough perusal of her file, I found nothing to suggest any dire medical condition beyond the usual issues for a displaced child with no access to fresh water and regular healthcare—all standard amenities she will receive once out of the camp. This is good news for your Sana, but not terribly helpful for the cause."
As disappointment deflated Ziva's hopes, her impatience spiked. "Then why am I here?"
Ducky held a single digit up in the air, denoting arrival at the main course. "What did intrigue me was her psychological well-being. I created a quick profile…"
"I would not think it that difficult to understand a child who has lost her parents."
The Scotsman paused in his rummaging of papers, turning a thoughtful gaze on her. "Are you speaking from experience?"
Her lips stilled on the rim of the teacup, curls of steam heating the tip of her nose. This was what she'd feared. "The visiting Red Cross doctor informed me Sana's reaction was normal," she said, deferring attention off herself.
"For a young child who experienced great trauma, yes. I would suggest psychotherapy once she settles in here. Perhaps...you could join her." His hesitation was proof of the reaction he anticipated; like Gibbs, she'd only submitted to psychologists when mandated for work. Never voluntarily.
Ziva sidestepped the suggestion and issued a reminder, "We are here to discuss Sana, not me."
"Yes, but you must've already realized the similarities between you and this girl, a fellow orphan, as well as…" On his fingers, he ticked them off: "Victims of loss; both raised in countries of notorious strife and violence, suffering from the psychological ramifications of—"
"You have just described nearly every child of Israel," she interrupted with a scoff, "and all the children of our neighbors."
"That only further supports my claim."
Her gaze fell downward, away from his steady conviction, landing in the vicinity of the warm cup clutched between her palms. Silence settled with unease until the shuffling of the folder against steel resounded like thunder in a turbulent sky, jarring her.
Ducky peered into the file. "The event that stuck out to me was the night you discovered young Sana in the wilderness. You spoke of it briefly the other day and there are few details recorded." Light blue eyes, swimming in curiosity, found hers. "What happened out there, Ziva?"
Under the clinical glare of autopsy, a cold desert night slipped in. Coils of cigarette smoke wafted up from their tea, her nose crinkling at the sharp stench as a shiver tip-toed the vertebras of her spine, winter sinking into her bones. The shrill cries and foreign commands echoed down the sparse room, ricocheting off the vaults of preserved death, filtering back to her anew.
Ziva blinked against the flashes of recollection, beating them back. "I did what I had to do," she stated numbly.
"You engaged the men responsible for killing Sana's parents."
"You did not kill them."
"But you might have, had it come to it," Ducky said, disguising a challenge in a statement. He must have recalled the lengths she'd been willing to go for her colleagues and friends, the devotion she'd once displayed—and then multiplied it endlessly to get the possible sum of her sacrifice as a future mother.
Her eyes flicked up, adrift in that night, seeing shadows on the cliff face rather than the medical examiner sitting two feet away. Had it come to it…
"You would've done a lot to save this little girl." His words continued to pursue from far away. "A girl who'd just witnessed the death of her father, the brutal violation and slaughter of her mother. Who'd had all her power taken away—"
"You have made your point, Ducky." Her voice came back forcefully, clipping words short.
"The bond between you and Sana was strong from the beginning. Almost…inexplicable, wasn't it?"
She couldn't deny it, and her return to silence was affirmation.
"Not unlike the ancients, Ziva, there is always a reason for taking in one who is not your own." His hand extended, hesitated against touching her, and fell to his knee instead. "I am on your side, my dear. For that reason, I feel it my duty to warn you of transferring your own emotional scars onto Sana. Healing her will not heal the child still suffering inside yourself."
Who said there is? The spiteful thought was replaced with another. Who says I will?
Ziva wasn't sure what question she was trying to answer anymore, but one thing was certain. "That is not why I am adopting her," she maintained, offering no further explanation. The back of her hand dodged at her cheekbone, ridding evidence of wayward salt.
"I believe you," Ducky granted, yielding like a grandfather who realized he pushed too hard. "All the same, proceed with caution. If one is not whole themselves, they stand little chance of taking care of another."
He remembered his tea then and lifted the cup to his lips.
For the remainder of the day, a storm churned in Ziva, gloom lurking like ground fog in her eyes; restlessness came in fits and bursts, bright lightening in an otherwise dreary façade. Even when Palmer used his lunch hour to drive her out to his home in Falls Church, she was a distracted guest and spent too much time apologizing to Breena for it.
Gibbs swung by after his testimony.
"I cannot wait until I am no longer required to be driven around like a child," she grumbled from the passenger seat, calculating when she would have time to retrieve her car from storage and renew her license. Her petulance went ignored.
"Probably should think about trading in that convertible of yours." The Charger's engine turned over with a growl, and Gibbs glanced between the headrests while backing out of the cozy bungalow's driveway. "You'll need something more practical for hauling your kid around."
"Yes, I am aware."
"Ok," he conceded. "What'd'ya got there?"
Ziva nudged the tote bags with her knee, tucking them further into the foot well. She almost forgot to answer him. "It is nothing," was her terse, belated response.
Gibbs heaved a sigh; daughters were fickle creatures. It was late afternoon, less than an hour left of the work day. He pointed them home.
After dinner, Tony stopped by the house and coaxed her out onto the porch, where they sat together in the two-seater swing, twilight eerie-green around them, and watched an April drizzle coat the sidewalks dark. His arm found its way around her shoulders, the side of his body warming her through her jacket, and for the first time since her visit to autopsy that morning, she relaxed, cocooned in the dewy air.
When he changed the subject from the innocuous to her employment, or lack thereof, it didn't matter that his suggestions were well-meaning, ideal even. Her tolerance depleted within minutes.
"What about your job, Tony? Long ago, you confided in me that you coveted more responsibility. Why have you not demanded it by now?"
It was a pity her former partner could recognize the difference between her authentic anger and her baiting-anger. Confronted with the latter, he was too calm to fan the flame.
"We're not talking about me right now." Tony released a sigh that sounded alarmingly like the one from Gibbs in the car: neither man cared to fight this losing battle with her. "Do you want some space tonight?"
Sinewy arms crisscrossed her chest, giving the appearance of hugging herself. She was suddenly cold and he hadn't left her side yet. "Perhaps that is best," she agreed, still as brusque, though all obstinacy had dissolved. "I do not want to say something I will regret."
He smiled. "I don't want that, either. Call me when you're ready." The special agent bounced to his feet and leaned over, capturing her mouth in a brief but ardent ownership, the intensity new to their days-old romance. Regret for sending him away fluttered within the bars of her ribcage. Judging by the satisfied sideways grin he flashed when they pulled apart, that had been the desired effect.
She was inside again before his car pulled away from the curb.
Standing in the middle of the dim front room, Ziva listened to the house breathe, a rattling inhale-exhale from the old walls, the squeaky floorboards. She listened for Gibbs in the basement and detected the swoosh-swoosh of the hand-sander gliding with the grain. Swoosh-swoosh, swoosh—
She would not inflict her gloom on his sanctuary. Her gaze slanted down at the couch, the borrowed pillow, sheet, and blanket still on the arm closest to the fire place. It was not late enough to sleep, nor was she tired, so she grabbed the totes off the coffee table and treaded agilely up the narrow staircase.
"Just some things we got for the baby," Breena had explained that afternoon, handing over the bags. "Maybe your little one will be able to use them?"
The gifts, like broken shards of a dream, came into Ziva's possession. "Thank you, this is very generous, but won't you need them for—"
"We're taking a break." Her voice was small, the words bittersweet. "The last time was such a disappointment, especially to Jimmy. It might be awhile before we try for another placement."
Ziva nodded, watching the oft bubbly blonde fold inward and rock on her feet in the sunny-walled nursery, mourning the loss of an unnamed child that had never been hers.
Now, in the growing dusk of her future daughter's bedroom, the brunette unpacked each item: two unnaturally soft chenille baby blankets, both large enough to swaddle Sana's tiny frame; a baby monitor and hand set that would still be useful during bedtime and occasional naps; and several toys, including an adorable plush puppy.
Settling the stuffed animal atop the flower-print bedspread, Ziva sensed that the gesture hadn't been about the gifts at all, but rather the transfer of a role Breena could not fulfill herself. Just as Ducky had insinuated Ziva was doing to Sana with her supposedly damaged inner-child, the one orphaned long before she was parentless.
Outside, heavy, silent rain continued to fall, tiny droplets splattering the glass pane, blurring the view of gray sky beyond. Perhaps it was human, to see one's self in others, to want to fix them where one could not fix themselves. To mend another's wound while one's own festered, untreated, all to avoid the pain of healing. The difference between her and Breena, though, was that Ziva was not grieving or giving up.
She was fighting for the child who could still be saved.
And then, like rays of sun after a storm, there was hope.
The next morning, McGee pulled her out of Vance's office, where she'd been updating the Director on the adoption proceedings, and brought her to MTAC. "Incoming communication from Domiz," he announced with an elfin grin, positioning her in front of the wall-to-wall display.
Her eyes sparked gold in the darkened room. "Who is it, McGee?"
"If he'd told you, it wouldn't have been a surprise." If not the Texas drawl alone, one glance up at the tawny lion's mane encircling an easy smile left no doubt.
"Howdy, tiger." He tipped a non-existent hat. Behind him were the drab features of the security tent in the East quadrant of camp. "I've got an update on Operation Retrieval."
"It is days late. Where have you been?"
"Aw, did ya' miss me?"
Ziva delivered a hard look, but the connection cut in and out, sending McGee darting from her side to the consul to adjust the feed. Fear of losing this opportunity reminded her just how much she wanted whatever news Dunham had to give.
"Thing is," he continued, the signal stabilizing again, "the region got whacked with a shamal, so me and my team hunkered down with everyone in camp until the worst of it passed. Once we were able to get the chopper out, we followed your coordinates north of Tall Kūjik up to the mountains…"
Her mouth dry, she rasped out a single plea, "Yes?"
Dunham beamed beneath scruff and shiny sweat. "We found them, just where you said they'd be. Careful, it's pretty gruesome."
Up to the screen, he held a series of glossy photographs that bore witness to the successful mission. Decomposed bodies, she'd seen before—and in person, without thousands of miles and a video screen of separation. She recognized the paper-thin skin, skeletal outlines peering through; pocked eyeballs were indication that wild animals had feasted on any soft flesh they could scavenge. Years before, she wouldn't have batted an eyelash at such a degradation of the human body. She'd seen worse, after all. But she wasn't that person anymore, and whoever she was now winced against the images.
"It's always tougher when you knew the victims," the field agent said, defending her moment of weakness.
Ziva shook her head, shook off the effects of the photos. "I did not know them." The first and only time she'd encountered Sana's parents, they were already dead.
Dunham set the stack of pictures aside, turning them face-down. "Being the good investigator that I am, I collected as much evidence as possible. Tissue, bone, and teeth samples are on their way to Dubai, and then they'll be sent on to your guys' lab. Photos from the scene are already in an email to Miss Sciuto."
Ziva wasn't sure the value of the evidence, as months out in the desert elements would be corrupting. Neither was she trying to solve their murders. With the retrieval of the bodies from the wilderness, it was her intent to provide the deceased with proper burial and their orphaned daughter with closure of their deaths. But now, it felt like something more, too, something she couldn't place yet. That did not diminish her gratitude.
"Thank you, Dunham," she intoned. "I could not have accomplished this without you."
"You're gonna make me blush, David. So, where am I transporting these bodies next?"
"I will work on that." Another thing to discuss with Vance. As far as she knew, they were Syrian citizens, and she was unclear on the procedure to take them out of country.
"Take your time. The dust storms have us grounded, probably for a few days. We'll stay here until I hear from you."
"I will get back to you…soon." Distracting her was a rustling off-screen in Domiz. "What is going on?"
His gaze wandered. "Hold on a sec. I think we have a visitor." There was a smile in his voice as he maneuvered away from the camera.
Her body sensed what was coming, a shiver raising the fine hairs on her arms, even as her mind culled doubts. It couldn't be…could it?
Just in case, she spun on McGee. "Get Tony for me, please."
McGee was rummaging for his cell as her attention snapped back to the screen.
"Someone wants to say 'Salam' to you." Dunham lowered into view again, this time sharing the spotlight with a gangly bundle that he plopped on his knee.
Her breath caught. Could it? Yes.
"Right there, see her," he coached in Arabic, directing her focus into the laptop with a thick, pointed finger. "Talk right into there, darling. She can see you, too."
From within a halo of curly harvest-gold, dark eyes squinted at the screen. Then, a tentative chirping: "Zee-va?"
"I am here, Little One," she exhaled, barely hearing herself over the waves of relief and longing and joy pulsing in her ears. More chills prickled her skin. "I have not seen you in so long. Kaif haluki?"
Sana glowed as she detailed events from the week Ziva was absent from her life: adventures in play at the children's building and the big, scary winds and Janan saying they had to stay in their tent. "Or I would blow away," she finished sagely, no doubt reciting her Jada's words.
"I would miss you if that happened. I am glad Janan kept you safe."
"Na'am." Sana scratched at the tanned skin under her jaw, suddenly sorrowful, and squinted again. Perhaps she would need glasses. "When are you coming home, Zee-va? I want you here."
A well opened in Ziva's chest, emptying the flood of emotions and leaving her with only the dark residue of uncertainty. What could she say that the small child would understand? The unknown was almost as frightening as the tangible wind storms, threatening what was solid in Sana's isolated existence. All Ziva could do was press out a wan smile and—
A door at the back of the room slammed open, through it tumbling an out-of-breath Tony. "Is that her?" he called, stabbing a wild arm at the screen.
"Na'am." It was then that the polyglot realized she'd permanently switched to Arabic without realizing it. "Yes," she amended, steadying his stumbling body beside her. "This is Sana."
There was no time for further introductions. The feed crackled, static distorting the cherubic face on the other side of the world.
"Zee-va?" Sana reached out, her fingertips colliding with the laptop. From overhead, Dunham boomed his amusement and grabbed her hand away.
But there was nothing to laugh about. Sensing the unraveling of her chance, Ziva lurched forward and renewed her promise, "I will come back for you, neshomeleh. I am coming." The Yiddish endearment, one of her Savta's favorites for her granddaughters, suited Sana as well. She was the sweetest of souls, and Ziva was going back to her, just as soon as she could.
"Ma'a salama," Dunham instructed his little friend, waving her arm up and down in the fuzzy picture.
With her bottom lip puffed out—the prelude to a full-out tantrum—Sana mimicked the farewell sadly. "Ma'a salama, Zee-"
Sudden blackness stole her away. The clicks and whirs of MTAC rose up, filling the silence left behind. From somewhere, a voice explained that the satellite moved too far out of position…
Ziva swayed as if released from a powerful magnet. Clamminess gripped her forehead, but she breathed deep and reached out, just like Sana had for her, finding him, firm and steady.
"Did you see her?"—desperation and disbelief and demand.
There was light in his hazel eyes, his fast grin. "Couldn't miss her," Tony said with a chuckle, moving his hands to her shoulders, neck, cheeks. Calloused thumbs brushed away the overflow streaking her olive skin. "She's beautiful, Ziva."
Beneath his awed gaze, a smile nudged at her lips, and her fingers curled further into his suit, holding them in that moment, neither aware of anyone else in the room besides each other and the little girl dancing around their feet.