Part 9: Exodus

When Ziva first arrived at Domiz, it was beneath the glare of a suspicious sun. Testing her strength. Her reasons for being there. She rose to the challenge, and then surpassed it. Back then, she regarded the day of her eventual departure as not a date, but rather a clear and bright morning to match her cleansed soul, at long last.

It seemed only fitting that the hours leading up to her rushed, unexpected leave would come under a sky unsure, with darkness unwilling to relinquish its reign to morning's first breath. It mirrored the struggle warring within her: one moment certain, the next doubtful again. Indecision didn't stop her from staying up through the night, sustained by a raw need to set everything in order.

What few belongings she had were packed into the same duffel that towed it all into the camp. A request fulfilled by Dunham patched her through to D.C. when the rest of the camp's inhabitants, including Sana, slept on, unaware of the necessary words and stipulations she forced out and the binding contact of a curt nod she received from Gibbs in return. But even as she called through the canvas of Gray's tent until he woke and joined her in the purple-tinted world of pre-dawn, she was still on the hedge. (Wasn't that how the saying went?)

"What the bloody hell, Ziva?" Gray croaked, running a hand through his disheveled hair and down over bleary eyelids, massaging them to life with forefinger and thumb. "I know you're an early bird, but this is—"

Ziva held up a firm palm. "Please, there is only so much time." And she wasted none of it getting to the point. She revealed what was essential for the lead aid organizer to know, the most basic of reasons for her upcoming extended absence. Nothing more.

Gray listened with his forearms resting one atop the other, folded across his chest. He was fully awake as her continuous stream of explanation came to an end. "Does this have to do with you being a Navy cop? Your pal Dunham's quite chatty," he elaborated at her questioning look.

If the Texan weren't her friend, she would have cut out his tongue by now.

"I would prefer not to discuss it," Ziva replied. "What are the steps to be taken that I may—"

His disbelieving laugh interrupted her. "Secretive to the end, aren't you? At least explain to me why you're agreeing to your old boss's demands if you're so unhappy about it?"

Hazelnut eyes darted up to meet his calm gaze—the one that always gave her more than she felt comfortable reciprocating. But everyone had a limit. That she knew for a fact. His discretion all this time, his help and influence…it could all be repaid in a single moment of truth.

Her lips parted, a breath of suspense passing through them before she confessed, "I came here to repent for my sins and to move on. But, I cannot begin a new life if I do not find peace with my past. NCIS is a part of that past, and I must make amends." It was as much fact as the selfish reasons fueling her decision.

His brow furrowed a crease between his eyes. "My wife left me," he choked out in his thick Australian accent. "Afterwards, I quit my firm and surfed every day for a month straight. Then I came here, because I couldn't get back to who I used to be while hiding in the waves." His smile of relief—how normal people felt after unfurling their burdens—worked to defuse the tension whipped up by their secrets.

Ziva exhaled a hum of understanding as her I Will list flashed in her mind's eye. Perhaps everyone had one. Regardless of whether it was written on a piece of paper and ceremoniously buried in an orange grove, everyone sought redemption, betterment, and solace for their mistakes, and they did it by their own means. Working in Domiz served as one of hers; returning to D.C. would be another.

The first slice of the magenta sunrise peered over the horizon as Gray patted her on the shoulder, giving it a friendly squeeze. "It's not like you need my blessing, Desert Rat," he teased. "You're a volunteer, so I can't make you stay, but I'm surprised you're willing to risk being away from Sana at all."

Her rueful glare apparently amused him, because his smile brightened ten-fold. "Watch out for her," she implored.

"As if you even had to ask. That girl is as much mine now as she is yours."

Ziva doubted that. Informing him of her intent to adopt Sana, though, was a conversation for a time when she had more to spare.

"You'll be missed," Gray told her with manufactured casualness. Hanging down at his sides, his hands didn't know what to do with themselves. "By everyone here…"

Her wan smile was of acknowledgement—not encouragement. "I will be gone a week, at the most. All of you will find it barely enough time to notice my absence."

Gray chuckled, likely for her benefit, though Ziva was already several long strides away from his tent. She'd often sensed his interest, but never any of her own. If nothing else, she parted with the aid coordinator more convinced of her plans to leave Domiz than she'd been all night. However, there was one last loose end that needed tying off before all her efforts over the past few hours came to fruition.

(/)(/)(/)

Sana dangled out her arm, allowing the tips of her naturally sun-tanned fingers to graze along the chain-link fence. Her other hand was hidden within her guardian's secure grip. They walked the perimeter of the camp side-by-side, hand-in-hand; their matching footsteps wore a path that led nowhere but back to the start in an endless circle. Somehow, Ziva had to explain that she was stepping off and carving a trail out—and doing it alone, for now.

To make the young girl aware of her imminent departure was a task she thought best conducted away from the judging glares of the general population. There was no place more shunned in the afternoon, with the sun at its peak overhead, than the outskirts of Domiz, where there was no protection from the blunt rays. Now she only had to generate the courage, along with the words, to do and say what needed to be—

Ziva recoiled from an abrupt tug on their joined hands. A glance behind her revealed the disturbance. The tiny fingers that previously skimmed the fence had latched on tight, bringing the friends' aimless stroll to a sudden stop. Sana peered out through the loose diamond weave. Aside from miles of blonde desert, all that fell in her line of sight was a lax trickle of refugees filtering towards the camp from the checkpoint center.

The golden-haired child pointed out through the fence, looking to her guardian with eyes lit with excitement and…unmistakable hope. "Onzori! Baba! Om!"

Heart sinking fast, Ziva cast her gaze out beyond the confines, adjusting her vision to that of an orphan who had only nightmares to explain her parents' disappearance from her daily life. She spied the pair of random refugees. It was a man and women—perhaps they were a couple, perhaps not—approaching on foot from a few meters away. They were as good as anyone else to fill the places of ghosts.

"No, Sana," she said in a voice whisper-thin, a sliver of the wind. Her thumb glided over bony knuckles. "They are not who you think. They are not your mother and father."

Sana tilted her head up. Confusion scrunched her delicate features and disappointment clouded midnight eyes. How could Ziva add herself to the list of abandonments this girl had suffered? Had she not been dealt more than one's fair share of loss? Of unspeakable tragedy? At least their parting would be temporary.

With a sigh of resignation, Ziva sank down to one knee and situated the sprite in front of her. They were eye-level then, and she couldn't help but be struck by how far Sana had come since the night that changed both of their lives. That shivering, traumatized waif stood before her now, evidence of resurrection visible in the rosy color of health on her cheeks; in the restoration of her once brittle and fallen away fingernails; and in her full head of hair, the naturally wavy ends curling to rest on the shelf of her shoulders.

Care and love were at home on her.

There was no right or better way to break the news, so Ziva held onto the girl's hands, supporting them both, and began. "I'm sorry I have to tell you this, but your new friend Chad is leaving today. He is returning to his home. And I am…going with him."

The gravity of the statement failed to take hold. Sana bounced on her toes. "Where? I want to come, Zee-va. I want to come, too," she pleadedin a rapid flare of her native tongue.

"It is much too far for you to go." Ziva proffered a gentle smile, a cushion for the blow she was delivering. "You will stay here with Janan. Jada has made a special spot for you in her tent, and you will still go with her to see your friends every day. Do you understand what I am telling you?"

Squinting in thought, Sana sought tentative clarification. "Ma'a salama?"

"Yes, we must say goodbye. That is what we are doing right now."

Relief flooded through the Israeli, for the message was getting across. But the relief turned cold in her veins, coinciding with the crumple of Sana's face and the clear shimmer that sprung to the edges of her eyelids, a dam ready to break.

"Shh, shh, Little One, I am still here," Ziva soothed, practiced as she was at calming her down. The cause of the tears, though, had never before been of her doing. It was soon evident that no matter the sincerity or abundance of reassurances combating the onslaught, the battle was fated to a single outcome.

When Sana cried at long last, the salty droplets rolled down Ziva's cheeks; when she drew in a shaky breath, it was her guardian's chest that lost air. They were inextricably linked, woven together by time, place, and history, making the attempt of disentanglement that much more excruciating.

In an effort to salvage a good memory to give and sustain Sana during her absence, Ziva fished out the slim box of Crayons from the back pocket of her jeans. The 8-pack was brand new, given to her by Dr. Verma before the psychologist left the camp. She'd been saving it for when the budding artist wore down her current set, but this was a special circumstance.

"Look what I have here, Sana. Onzori, min fadhlik."

The yellow-and-green box was magic, possessing the power to sidetrack the crying girl with the promise of its contents. Sana clutched the present, pointing to and naming the colors she could see through the cutout in the cardboard.

"Laylaki, ṣafrā, zarqā…"

Ziva watched the tear stains dry on her cheeks. "Would you do something for me while I'm gone?"

Absently, Sana nodded, and it was a wonder if she was listening at all. That's how children were, sometimes.

"Every morning you wake and I am not yet here with you again," she continued, failing to disguise the emotion in her tone, "I want you to draw me one of your beautiful pictures. And when I do come home, you will show them all to me. How does that sound, hm?"

A question glinted in the dark eyes that rose from the crayon box to meet her caregiver's waiting gaze. It asked what kind of pictures?

"Draw me anything you'd like, my love."

"Kalb?" Sana giggled. Ever since a lost pup stumbled upon Domiz and led the children on a race through camp, dogs had become her favorite animal.

"I will love anything you make for me." Ziva swallowed, washing a rush of emotion back down her throat, clearing the path for a single truth: "Just as I love you."

No sooner had the words left her lips did Sana lean into Ziva's always waiting embrace and collapse, though her weight was only significant enough to sway them in the afternoon heat. A small hand burrowed into the tail of her ponytail, tangling in the frizzled curls.

"Ana behibek, Zee-va," the sweet voice mumbled into her ear.

"Mm, I love you, too," she hummed, cherishing the warmth of life rippling off the child enfolded in her arms and doing all she could to memorize the scope and sequence of their unique bond; a treasure hidden in the enclosure of her palm, she would take it with her to D.C. in lieu of the girl herself.

Holding on as long as Sana needed her, Ziva pulled back only when the girl was ready to let go, too. Even then, she did not allow her to go far. Nestling the little olive-shaped face between twin palms, she guided her to see one open expression, one kind albeit sad pair of eyes, and nothing else.

"I will come back to you," she intoned, fierce in her sincerity to honor the promise. "I will always come back."

It was a vow not unlike the one she'd made to another young girl on the eve of a similar departure too many lifetimes ago to count. Oh, Tali, you do not need to worry about me. I will come back. It is only my IDF training…you will not have a chance to miss me before I have returned to you. Tragically, the worry was misplaced, for it was a mere few weeks later when the unimaginable was realized and her little sister was gone forever.

As capable a woman as she was, Ziva had no power to stop the past from repeating itself. Leaving now, as hard as it was—as much as it involved risk, like anything else worth losing—it would also make it so this journey would be the first and last she would ever take without...her daughter, if all went according to her plan.

So she made more promises—muttered under her breath, into Sana's wispy hair, silently in her mind—and willed their combined substance to protect the child until she returned to pick up the reigns once again. She wasn't normally the type to believe in such fancy, but she would cast any spell, pray to any God, if it granted her this one request.

A pack of clouds drifted overhead, affording an interruption in the harsh, unfiltered blanket of sunlight. Sana was wilting, her hand pressed to her slick forehead, her eyelids drooping. The fleeting moment of reprieve would not be enough to revitalize her. Water from the filtered tanks and scraps of shade in the shadows of tents would be her salvation.

Although she was big enough to walk on her own, Ziva scooped Sana into her arms for the short trek back to the heart of camp. Immediately, the small bundle snuggled into her guardian's embrace, pulling her skinny arms in close to her body and curling loose fists up under her chin, making it so only the cheek that came to rest below Ziva's collarbone was supporting her weight. Everything else was turned over to an implicit trust, not just to be carried but that she would never be allowed to fall.

(/)(/)(/)

"You okay back there?"

Dunham's voice traveled to her as if through layers of fog: distorted and with an echo courtesy of her imagination. The agent was two feet away from her in the front passenger-side seat of the Jeep, but he might as well have been miles off for his ability to reach her.

Ziva slowly turned her blank gaze away from the tan landscape blurring by the window, flashes of dark flesh and color indicating wandering refugees along the way, and affixed it on him instead. Silence spoke loudly from her glazed-over eyes, but there was no hiding the red rings around the lids, or the puffy, gloomy pillows beneath.

When his question went long unanswered, his forehead crinkled in concern and he prompted again, "You sure you're up to this, Ziva?"

She'd said her goodbyes to those who mattered, so her final exodus was quiet. A flawless extraction, just as she'd planned it. Why would she change her mind now? If his worry was sincere, he would have asked her that question before he brought Gibbs back into her life. Or, at the very least, before he watched her pass Sana over to Janan, and then force her feet to turn and walk, walk, walk away, despite the little girl's agonizing cries to come back, Zee-va, come back

Her answer, no doubt, would have been different then.

"You will do well not to ask me that, Agent Dunham," she finally replied. "I would hate to have to lie to you." A sword of a sharper tongue, unsheathed and swinging, was the first weapon of survival to return from her former life.

Dunham nodded, though out of understanding or helplessness, it was uncertain. Her melancholy was an unpredictable wild bird.

The Jeep was halfway to the makeshift helipad where the chopper slept, awaiting their arrival. Stuffy quiet in the cabin amplified each bump and skid of tires over the sandy terrain. Ziva held on to the metal headrest in front of her, riding out the worse of it. She hoped Dunham's pilot was better skilled at flying aircraft than he was manning four-wheel drive.

All along for the ride were relieved when the hunter camouflage of the chopper crested into view. It took several moments for the pilot to run diagnostics on the engine and electrical system before popping his thumb, the universal signal for "good to go."

As she had in the Jeep, Ziva chose the solitude of the backseat, adjusting the belt across her waist, restraining herself. Then the gradual thwacking began overhead and it felt as though the floor shifted underneath her feet as they became airborne, the change of pressure setting off firecrackers in her eardrums. There was a reason she usually chewed gum on flights. They glided up and up, until a glance out the Plexiglas to her right revealed an ever shrinking world below.

Accustomed as she was now to distances measured in footsteps, she was taken back when mere minutes into the ride, the chopper banked over the same low mountain ridge that'd taken hours for her and Gray to conquer on that black Christmas Eve night. They entered the wilderness as a pair and came away a trio. She wondered, idly, what had happened to those they left behind, and those they could not take with them…

Lurching through her fog and past the point of resistance on her safety belt, Ziva seized a handful of Dunham's jacket and tugged forcibly to garner his attention from the cockpit. When his head whirled her way, the arrangement of his features told her he was expecting a demand to turn the chopper around; she'd changed her mind after all, and wanted to go back. But he didn't know her as well as he thought.

Dunham peeled off one headphone and shouted over the noise, "What is it?"

"Once we land, I have a favor to ask of you. I know I have not done anything to deserve it, but—"

"Name it, tiger." His expression was not completely relaxed, but his previous willingness and affection were back. "I'll get it done, don't you worry."

A nod conveyed her thanks, but she couldn't have worried, or scrounged up any other strong emotion, at the moment. The build-up of tension and fatigue and vigilance was distracting her mind from all that haunted her, that she could not fix, and that she would never be able to control. It pressed down on her, insisting to be felt. She fell back in her seat, as if exhausted from a full day of labor. Before she could convince herself that a quick bat nap was all she needed, darkness dragged her from the present like a ruthless kidnapper. All the while, the chopper continued its charted course out of the desert and back into a civilization of concrete and memories.

(/)(/)(/)

Smell returned first.

Throughout her career as a soldier, assassin, and investigator, the few times an adversary or surprise attacker had gained the upper hand with the result of knocking her unconscious, scent had always been the first of her five senses to return. Her sensitive nose would detect the copper of blood oozing from a head wound before the pain registered, or pick up the distinctive odor of gunpowder still lingering in the air, or catch the stench of smoke from Saleem's cigarette as he crouched down low to her sprawled figure on the dirty cell floor…

While the blackness rested heavy and oppressive over her, stirring up a mixture of ancient panic in her chest, it was once again her sense of smell—more specifically, the foreign aroma of hazelnut—that stopped her spiral into a familiar descent. Nothing in Domiz, let alone Somalia, ever smelled as good as the fragrant brew cutting through her current haze of sleep.

One by one, all her faculties came back to her like old friends, and she heard the stillness of an enclosed space—walls instead of canvas or aluminum—and she felt softness beneath her and warmth around her, rather than the cold stiffness of ground or unrelenting cot. Her eyelids flicked back, revealing to her bleary eyes what she sensed to be true. The surroundings were domestic, far from the desert, and not new to her sight; in fact, the arrangement of sparse, dated furnishings in the front room was exactly as she remembered it.

It didn't, however, explain how she got from the chopper flying out of Iraq to the couch in Gibbs' living room.

With her mind still fogged by sleep, Ziva tried to piece together the past 36 hours with the shaky dexterity of a young child. It was all a blur of arrivals and departures, waiting and swirling thoughts. It rushed back to her in flashes. The blazing sierra sunset that greeted her in Dubai; the handful of hours spent at the NCIS Middle East HQ; the second military flight in as many days, this one taken without Dunham at her side, that delivered her Stateside.

More recent memories continued their onslaught as she elbowed her way to sitting on the supple cushions: Gibbs standing at the gate when she departed; their quiet ride from Dulles, through the city, to the final destination of his home; and then, the last snapshot in the queue, her former boss draping an afghan blanket over her and whispering, "Sleep well, kid," before jetlag tugged her away again.

The same knitted blanket slipped from her shoulders now, forcing her to believe the dream-like series of events. Tossing it over the back of the couch, she kicked creaky legs off the side and found solid wood underneath them. She'd made it back.

A rustling in the kitchen beyond the dining room chased away any remaining residue of sleep from her system. A second later, the swinging door partitioning the kitchen and dining rooms opened, allowing Gibbs to stride through. Curls of steam danced up from the mug he clutched in one hand. A fresh wave of hazelnut reached her as he crossed the distance between them.

An old instinct compelled her tired legs to standing just before he slowed to a stop near the dial television. She searched for words to stretch across the remaining expanse, so insignificant now in relation to what it had been for almost a year. Her effort was ultimately for naught.

Gibbs took a swig of hot coffee, as he would a shot of whiskey from the bottle he kept stashed in the workbench down in the basement. That was unlikely to have changed, either. He gave a subtle nod of his head in her direction.

"'Bout time, Ziver. You hungry?"

A/N: It's been a long, stressful two weeks for me, but I hope this update made your week/day a little better. It might be awhile before the next update. Not only is my student teaching experience reaching the final stretch, but I'm also interviewing for (real) jobs and wrapping up assignments and getting ready to graduate…you know, good 'ol adulting. ;) Thanks for reading, everyone!