Hello everyone! I'm back with what I hope will be a fun AU fic. Warning: This is VERY AU! This is essentially a "what if Gibbs didn't exist?" universe. As you can see, the characters I've chosen to include all have very different trajectories from what we saw on screen. Frankly, a few wormed their way in because I wanted to play with them, perhaps a bit out of bitterness for the way that their arcs ended on the show. This story is an ode to strong women. We'll deal with some heavier topics as time goes on so if subjects/themes start to creep up that make you uncomfortable, please do not be afraid to click yourself out of the story. That said, this is meant to be an action/adventure/romance story so things won't get too dark. I wanted to start posting to keep my butt moving along as I write. It's about 60% written and I have every intention of posting on a weekly basis when possible. This is my first long fic since Tangled Up and my first fic in quite awhile- I hope I'm not too rusty and that you enjoy!
Disclaimer: I don't own them, but I do own all the new characters within and this new sort of world I've created. So ha! But, really, not mine... Sigh.
A pattering of footsteps could be heard in response to Ziva David's knock on the door. From the outside, it was easy to imagine pink-socked feet hurrying across the maple floors inside the old colonial, slipping and sliding in their eagerness to greet a guest.
"Emma! Ziva's here!" An adult female voice rang out from inside the house, though the declaration was redundant.
Waiting patiently outside the front door, the smile on Ziva's face wasn't forced. She didn't mind the wait. It was a mild early spring afternoon in D.C. The promise of warmth, sunshine, and light jacket weather hung in the air; cold and ice seemed like a distant memory, an impossibility, even as tufts of snow still littered the lawn, the last remnants of a long winter. Ziva bit down on her grin as her student could be heard struggling with the heavy door. A few seconds later, a breathless six year-old girl won the battle; the door swung open with a force that nearly toppled the child. Rebounding easily, Emma's face lit up when she registered that her visitor had really, truly arrived.
"I missed you so much!" Emma swooned into Ziva's arms. Ziva could do little more than laugh and scoop up the girl, hugging her close.
"What a greeting, my love!" Ziva gave the girl's mess of strawberry-blonde hair a stroke before easing her back down to the ground. Emma wouldn't have it, though, and remained attached to Ziva's leg. Ziva good-naturedly dragged her across the threshold, not caring that her grey slacks would surely be good and wrinkled as a result.
"Such a drama queen," Jenny Shepard, Emma's mother, came into view, giving her daughter's enthusiasm a skeptical eye. Ziva ignored the barnacle on her leg for a moment to give her close friend a kiss on the cheek.
Entering Jenny's home was always was always an experience for Ziva, something that had happily never become routine despite her frequent visits. There was something about Jenny's large colonial—its stateliness, its elegance, maybe, though it never felt stuffy or cold. The home was just that—a home. From the outside, the colonial looked like any other on the block. It was the so-called American dream: nestled on a quiet, tree-lined street, just blocks away from a prestigious university, it spoke of comfortable wealth and a picture-perfect life within. Ziva knew well enough that a façade of perfection rarely told the full story but, in Jenny's case, life behind the home's blue door was close to it.
For every lush carpet and designer armchair in the home, there was a piece of artwork adorning the wall that Jenny had bought from a local coffee shop or an eccentric vase from a far-flung marketplace. Emma's art stations and elaborate block cities littered the floors. Yesterday's dishes still rested in the sink and muddy rain boots were left to dry in the foyer. The home felt lived in, comfortable, and brought to Ziva's mind memories of those few perfect summers at her family's beach house in Haifa, when no one scolded her for tracking sand into kitchen and poorly glued shell sculptures served as centerpieces for lazy dinners. She had so few yellow-tinted memories of her past; no, her childhood had quickly darkened to black, blue, and red...so much red.
There was something about Jenny's house, though, and maybe just the presence of her friend in general, that allowed Ziva to let her guard down, made her feel like she was slipping into one of those sun-soaked moments of long ago. It was one of the few places Ziva didn't feel like she was putting on a show, adapting to foreign surroundings, or fulfilling a role. She was just Ziva here and that was enough. Especially to the little girl wrapped around her leg like her life depended on it.
Taking in her daughter's behavior, Jenny let out a sigh. She shook her head, rolling her icy blue eyes skyward. Ziva chuckled. Sensing what was about to happen, Emma gripped Ziva even tighter. Squatting down to her daughter's level, Jenny made a show of rolling up the sleeves on her crisply tailored shirt before physically removing her child from Ziva's leg.
"If you want Ziva to keep giving you piano lessons, free for Mommy piano lessons, then you shouldn't smother her," Jenny chided, as Emma moved into her embrace.
"Okay, Mommy," Emma sing-songed, apologies in her voice. Mother and daughter shared a look, scrunching up their matching noses at the same time. All was forgiven and love was assured. Emma wriggled out of Jenny's arms, smoothed down her polka-dot dress, and presented herself as ready to learn.
The trio made their way into the living room and to the piano as Jenny rattled off a list of directions in rapid fire. It was typical of the woman who not only chaired American University's Women's Studies program but also sat on the boards of a number of charities in town. Ziva listened carefully.
"If you don't mind, while you give Emma her lesson, I need to run back up to my office. This meeting is important, very important, and was rescheduled at the last minute," Jenny paused, eyes scanning the ceiling in the absence of her actual calendar. "It's for…well, long story, but you know I wouldn't ask otherwise. I have just been so busy and with all my work and Emma's activities... I hate to put you out, Ziva—
"It is fine," Ziva assured Jenny, putting a stop to her rambling with a hand in the air and an easy smile. She turned to her student, raising an eyebrow. "If Emma does well with her lesson, perhaps I will treat her to some Disney songs? Yes?"
Emma let out a cry of ecstasy. Jenny and Ziva laughed. So predictable was the girl in all obsessions princess-related. Ziva had taken some time to learn a few of her student's favorite songs on the piano as after-lesson treats. Emma liked to sing along with the confidence only a child could have.
"Oh, Em," Jenny shook her head as she pulled on her coat and grabbed her purse. "If my colleagues only knew…" She shared a look with Ziva, who winked in understanding. "Be good for Ziva!" But she needn't have warned Emma, as she was already perfectly poised at the piano and ready to go.
"Do not worry, Jen," Ziva waved Jenny out the door. "Emma is always a delight."
Jenny's argument to the contrary was cut off by Ziva closing and locking the door behind her. She turned back to the living room. "Now, Emma, show me what you have been practicing this week."
Ziva began to zone out as Emma stumbled through the chords of "Alouette" for the third time. She hummed along to keep the tempo up but Emma was struggling to make her fingers remember which keys to travel to next. Ziva gave her time to figure it out; the girl was a quick learner and only needed a little practice to create the muscle memory. Her eyes wandered around the room. Of all the rooms in the house, the living room was the coldest. The walls were a light grey, nearly pale violet. Jenny tended to favor warmer, brighter colors through the rest of her home. The grey was a trendy, elegant color and, true enough, looked lovely contrasted with the dark wood and lush fabrics throughout the room. Still, it wasn't as inviting as the rest of the spaces, didn't seem to reflect the vibrancy of the two women whose laughter and personalities abounded.
In a pause between notes, Ziva heard a clunk from the depths of the house. She sat up straighter, straining to hear. Of course, it was a big, old house and prone to creeks and groans. But this felt different. Calculated. The air of comfort, of safety, had evaporated from the room, leaving the hair on the back of Ziva's neck standing up. She listened closely in the dense silence between the plunks on the keyboard. But it remained quiet.
And then: footsteps.
Ziva's heart raced. Surely she was being paranoid. Too many years of being on high alert followed by too many years of monotony had made her jumpy, prone to hearing footsteps in the settling of an old foundation.
"Ziva?" Emma paused mid-song, sensing she'd lost her teacher's attention. Taking a deep breath, Ziva pushed down her fear and focused on keeping Emma on-task.
"Good. That was enough for now. Let's study the next piece." She flipped the page on the piano book and directed Emma's attention to the sheet music.
In the quiet, Ziva concentrated hard. She filtered out the little puffs of breath Emma took as she read, the hum of the electronics in the kitchen, the tick of a grandfather clock in the hall. Nothing unusual. No more clunks, no more footsteps.
It was her mind playing tricks on her. That was all. It wouldn't be the first time she saw something sinister in an otherwise normal situation. She'd been born and bred to be suspicious, after all, and old habits were the hardest to break. She shook her head, trying to clear it.
Thomp. Swish. Breath. Thomp. Thomp. Swish.
No. Not paranoid.
Someone was in the basement.
Ziva allowed herself a quick inhale, a mere heartbeat, before standing up from the piano bench. She tried to hide her panic, but Emma was too much like her mother, too adept at reading the room, to miss the rapid change in mood. The little girl's blue eyes went wide and her mouth dropped open in concern.
"Nothing, love," she spoke loudly, "keep working on the music."
Emma remained unconvinced, a furrow marring her ivory brow. Ziva framed the little girl's face with her hands, stroking her cheeks lightly.
"Emma, listen to me," Ziva whispered, trying her best to keep her voice light despite the sudden tension in her muscles. "I need you to listen to me very closely. We are going to play a game. I need you to find a very good place to hide."
"We're playing hide and seek?" Emma's lip trembled. Her eyes darted around the room, hesitant.
"Yes." Ziva nodded, hoping her understanding of the game was the same as the child's. Ziva followed Emma's gaze to the ottoman in the middle of the room. She remembered it opened for extra storage in which Jenny kept a few throw blankets they'd last used lounging with glasses of chardonnay, gossiping about a faculty meeting. "Is that a good spot?"
Emma nodded slowly. Ziva heard more shuffled steps in the basement. She willed her young student to understand that this wasn't a typical game and, thankfully, Emma seemed to get it.
"Perfect. You need to hide right now. Stay there until I find you. Quietly." Ziva gave the little girl a kiss on her head and ushered her to the ottoman, helping her climb inside. There was exactly enough space for Emma to curl up in the makeshift nest of blankets. Ziva frowned at the thought of enclosing the girl in a box. Sensing her worry, Emma smiled and pulled aside a blanket.
"It's safe, see," she assured, revealing a circular hole cut into the bottom of the box. Probably a safety measure for other children who realized what a good hiding spot it made.
"Smart girl," Ziva murmured, voice stern. "I will be back soon. Do not come out until I say so. Remember—quiet." She gave Emma one last smile before closing her in. As soon as she was out of sight, Ziva's mind switched tracks, following an automatic path—possible exits, the likely route the intruder was taking, available weapons, potential pitfalls. Survival.
Ziva knew her best bet was the kitchen. The alarm console was there; she could notify the police. Plus, the intruder had to pass through the kitchen if he was coming up the basement stairs. The kitchen had the most weapons.
More footfalls. Then silence. He was waiting. Listening. Perhaps he had not expected anyone to be home. And yet he did not retreat when he had the chance. Ziva closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and forced her body into action. Once she was moving, the steps felt familiar, an old choreography that was ingrained in the fibers of her muscles.
A few light strides and Ziva was in the kitchen. She passed a wooden block of knives on the counter and quickly armed herself with two. One, a light chopping knife that would be easily and accurately thrown. In her left hand, she opted for a larger knife, ideal for hand-to-hand combat. A few more steps and she hit the panic button on the alarm console. Another touch and the system went into silent mode. She had no intention of scaring off this intruder.
With an electronic whimper, the power cut out in the house. Ziva clutched her knives harder, positioned herself by the stairs. She waited. Breathed.
Then footsteps. Slowly. Up the stairs. Thomp swish. Thomp swish. Thomp swish.
Ziva felt adrenaline wash through her body; a buzzing in her head started. The corner of her lip curled up in anticipation, a slightly sick thrill, because she hadn't seen any real action in years and all her training, all her confidence, was still there like a second skin.
Her heart held steady. Her jaw clenched. Her fingers twitched on her knife. The whole kitchen stilled, suspended in silence like a wave about to crash.
Hold. Breathe. Twitch.
A flash of black clothing was all it took for Ziva to let her knife fly. As the intruder staggered into the room, he let out cry of pain, clutching at his shoulder. He threw the knife to the ground; it scratched and clattered across the slate floor.
Wildly, the man searched for his attacker. Dark eyes filled with surprise and panic as he took her in. In that moment, Ziva impressed every detail of his face into her memory—white skin, stubble, jagged scar on his cheek, green tattoo slithering up his neck.
She readied her stance for a fight. Held his gaze as he adjusted to the unanticipated adversary.
He raised a gun at her. Its shining barrel was mere feet from her face, but that was hardly a new sight. While she still had the element of surprise on her side, Ziva leapt at the intruder. Her other knife clanged to the floor as she chopped at his wrist with her right hand and swiped the gun with her left. She heard his trigger finger snap. But he was a trained fighter, too, and came back at her swiftly. She couldn't get the gun secured in her own hand before he had his hands on her, twisting her into a hold. Instinct kicked in and Ziva turned into the hold, gripping the attacker's arms hard and using his size and momentum against him, flipping him onto the floor. Every muscle in her body screamed in protest. The gun skidded across the slate and wedged itself under the oven. Blood, thick and dark, smeared across the grey stone as the intruder rolled to stand; her first throw had done significant damage to his flesh.
Their eyes met as they both lunged for the fallen weapons. Sirens wailed in the distance.
Ziva beat the man to a knife but as she bent down to grab it; he managed to sweep her onto the ground with his leg. Ziva groaned as her head caught the edge of the white marble countertop on the way down. Blood began running down the side of her face.
The attacker found a knife and advanced on her with a menacing smile. But Ziva wasn't done yet. Her fall had put her in grabbing distance of the gun. In one swift roll, she had herself propped up, gun pointed at the man's face, confidence in her eyes. She would shoot. Fear blossomed on his face. He leapt for the safety of the stairwell. Scrambling to her feet, Ziva gave chase.
The intruder moved down the stairs with surprising agility given his size. Ziva didn't have enough the time or coordination to line up a shot and maneuver the obstacle as well. She settled for following him, hoping she would get her chance once they descended into the basement. But her head was already swimming and the stairs were steep, shallow, and surprisingly difficult to manage. By the time she made it to the basement, the gunman was nearly out the basement door. Ziva saw her chance and took it.
Without hesitation, she steadied her grip on the gun and pulled the trigger. A howl from the man in black told her she'd hit something. But he was undeterred and escaped out the door.
Ziva took a step to follow him but the floor rushed up at her. Her vision blurred. The purple glow of dusk beyond the door suddenly looked miles away. She swallowed back the bile that crept up her throat.
The sirens were closer, nearly as loud as the sound of the gunshot still echoing in the basement, and so Ziva clicked the safety on the gun and lowered it to the floor. Her hands went to her knees as the room tilted and swayed. The blood thundering in her ears became deafening, drowning out the sirens. Her body rejected the swell of adrenaline in her system; her stomach pitched and heaved.
Ziva fought to take in air, even and slow. She kept her body bent, head down so that blood kept flowing to her brain. She closed her eyes and saw nothing but shadows, flashes of black and grey. The monsters from her past awake, howling, and nipping at her heels.
Thoughts and feelings? We're just getting started... Next chapter will be up in a few days! Thanks for reading!