A/N: So this is the last chapter. The story just seems finished to me. You have been an amazing bunch of readers and I've been so grateful to read all of your reviews. I'm so glad I touched you all. I'm going to try and write happier stories. TRY being the operative word. You're all very lucky I got this finished before Huckstable had to go away. Happy reading!
Disclaimer: I do not own nor am I affiliated with NCIS in anyway. I also don't own the lyrics. Dido does. This is one of the most heart-breaking songs ever written but I love it so.
Chapter Seven: Where the Family Celebrates Christmas
'My lover's gone
No earthly ship will ever bring him home again.'
'My Lover's Gone.' Dido.
There was a moment where Ziva found herself absolutely incapacitated by her grief. Tony had been gone for less than two weeks and Ziva had tried not think about it too much. But there had to come a time where she felt the full extent of her loss. A moment where she found herself utterly alone in the world. A moment where she knew beyond a doubt that her soul mate was gone and that he would not be replaced.
All the moments that he wouldn't see flashed before her. Birthdays, graduations, anniversaries. Ava in a wedding gown, Ethan in a tux. Seeing their grandchildren for the first-time and smelling the top of their heads. All these things that Tony wouldn't be there for. All these things she would have to do herself.
She had lost her partner in-crime, her reason for living, her best friend. Who would she ring now when things got too overwhelming? Who would keep her warm in winter as they slept? Who would bring her water and aspirin when she was sick? Who would tell her which movies were worth watching and which were better off being used as coasters?
Even as Ziva found herself paralysed by her realisation, there was one thing she was grateful for. At least they had had a nice goodbye. It was a familiar goodbye, the kind they had every morning. It wasn't overly mushy or romantic but there had been no yelling or harsh words either. She knew things would have been so much worse if they had been in a fight or had just been generally grumpy. But when Tony had walked out that door one last time, he had known he was loved. And there was one small piece of comfort in an otherwise desolate situation.
The woman staring back at her was unfamiliar. The woman staring back at her did not look the same as she remembered. Her once black hair was peppered with grey. She had lines around her eyes and across her forehead. Her eyes were the same but murkier through the pain. She sighed wistfully and used her fingers to push the wrinkles away. If only it were that easy.
"You're still beautiful, Mama," her daughter said from the doorway of the bedroom. "I'm glad I look like you."
"I do not see me in you at all," Ziva sighed. "I only see your father."
"Oh Mama," her daughter sighed. She came into the bedroom and stood behind Ziva, wrapping her arms around her. She rested her cheek on Ziva's shoulder a little awkwardly since they were roughly the same height. Ziva kissed her forehead and rested her hands on Ava's arms. "You see my father in everyone."
"You have his smile," Ziva answered. "You and Ethan both have his smile."
"And Ethan has his eyes but I have yours," Ava replied.
"Yes, you do," Ziva said. She studied her daughters face in the mirror and she smiled warmly. "Maybe you look more like me than I realised."
"We're practically identical," Ava sighed dramatically. It wasn't quite true but they did look alike except she had her fathers strong chin and his almost sandy coloured hair. She kissed her mother on the cheek and then went to sit on the bed. "Can I wear your pearls, Mama?"
"I suppose so," Ziva answered. She rifled through her well-stocked jewelery box and pulled out a strand of perfectly matched pearls. She tossed them at Ava who, although she looked aghast, caught them easily.
"Mama, you have the most cavalier attitude towards jewelery," Ava huffed as she fastened them around her neck.
"They are just things, Ava. They can be replaced," Ziva shrugged. She moved back to her mirror and brushed some blush onto her pale cheek. "I wish I did not have so many wrinkles. Skin cannot be replaced."
"You're sixty-five, Mama. I only hope I look like you at sixty-five," Ava replied. She stood back up and went over to stand next to her mother. "Look at me. I'm only thirty-three and I already have-"
"No wrinkles whatsoever. You have laugh lines," Ziva said with a roll of her eyes. She smiled fondly at her child and lightly smacked the back of her head. "I am so proud of you, little one."
"I'm proud of you," Ava told her mother.
"I did nothing. I just lived my life," Ziva shrugged. "And I raised two beautiful children."
"You didn't have the easiest life," Ava reminded her.
"Yes but I would not change a second of it," she said.
"Not a second of it?" Ava asked.
"Not a second," Ziva said decisively.
"You wouldn't even bring Daddy back?"
"I would not even bring Daddy back," Ziva answered a little shakily. Ziva had struggled with that question for so long. What she had said to Ainslee Cook on that day so many years ago still rang true. She couldn't sacrifice one life for another, even if it was Tony's. And there was no telling how things would have turned out if he had lived.
"Why?" Ava asked curiously. She was a little bit shocked.
"I cannot change what happened. He can never come back. What is the point of even thinking about it? Besides, there is no reason for things to change here. We are happy," Ziva answered diplomatically.
"I miss them," Ava sighed. "Mostly around the holidays but I miss them everyday."
"Me too," Ziva said, but her voice could barely be heard.
"I was so young when he first died. I used to imagine that it was all a bad dream and that any day he would come back. Or maybe it was one of his practical jokes. I would've been so mad but so relieved," Ava said. "I used to wish on every shooting star that I saw that he would come back."
"You did what every other child would have done," Ziva replied. She tugged Ava's hair lightly. "This is a day for celebration. No more sad talk. Let's go and get a drink."
The two women made their way downstairs. Ziva found herself being swept off the bottom-step by a pair of strong arms. She was twirled around and although she protested loudly, it took a full two minutes before she was set on the ground.
"Hey Mama," her son after setting her down. He gave her a kiss on the cheek and stood grinning at her.
"Ethan, can you ever just give me a hug hello?" she admonished him. She was smiling, though, and her eyes glittered. His brown hair was unruly and curly, just like hers. She reached over and ruffled it.
"Aww, Mama," he said trying futilely to smooth it. "Do you have to do that every time you see me?"
"Do you have to throw me over your shoulder every time you see me?" she reiterated. "You will probably break my hip one of these days."
"Our Mama thinks she's getting old," Ava said conspiratorially. She whacked her little brother over the back of the head. "It's good to see you, little brother."
"You too, sis," he answered. He grabbed Ziva's arm and dragged her into the living room. "Look who I bought with me."
He pointed to his wife, Simone, who held a small infant in her arms. She smiled warmly at Ziva and held her arms out.
"Do you want to hold her?" Simone asked.
"Of course," Ziva answered. She went over and took the little girl from her mothers arms. "She's so light."
"No she isn't," Ethan answered proudly. He leaned over his mother and kissed his little girl on her tiny nose. "She's so heavy. My arms ache when I hold her."
"Because he picks her up as soon as he gets home from work and doesn't put her down until bedtime," Simone shot-back. "I'm worried she's not going to be able to sleep without someone holding her soon."
"She will get over it," Ziva replied. "Tony and I went through the same thing with Ava and Ethan. They cry a little but they get over it."
"Well, you didn't do a very good job with Ethan," Simone joked. "He still cries and wants me to hold him before bed."
"Simone! Not in front of Michaela," Ethan huffed. "She's only two months old. She doesn't need to hear that."
"Where are Brent and
"Here," the eleven year-old announced. He set down a large nappy-bag. "Dad made me get the stuff out of the car."
"It's character-building," Ethan shrugged as Ziva and Ava gave him matching glares.
"Brent, you are so big now!" Ava exclaimed. She gave him a hug and then looked him up and down. "Do you think he looks more like a DiNozzo or a March?"
"What do you care? You're neither anymore," Ethan pointed out.
"I'm only a Gildan by name," Ava disagreed. "I'm still a DiNozzo."
"True," their mother agreed. "Ava, when did you become so obsessed with who looks like who anyway?"
"Ever since I spent last night with Hank's family. It's all the talk about. Which kid looks more like which side of the family. It rubs off on you," she explained.
"You're husband is a nutcase," Ethan replied. He was unable to dodge Ava's fist. "Okay, okay. I take it back! He isn't a nutcase but his family is."
"I don't disagree. Speaking of family. Mama, what time are Aunty Abby and Uncle Tim coming over?" Ava asked.
"They should be here in about twenty minutes. They were just waiting for Lainey to get to their place," Ziva answered.
Christmas was the big holiday for their family. Ava, Ziva and the McGee's all took turns hosting it at their house. Ducky and Gibbs had had their fair share of Christmases before they had passed away and if Simone and Ethan didn't live so far away, they would have too. Ziva still celebrated Hanukkah with her children but with Ethan living in another state and Ava having a family of her own, it was hard. Ava would bring one or more of her children over each night to watch Ziva light the candles while Ethan would join in over the phone and light his own candles. Occasionally Abby and McGee came too. Ava always went home with a container of latkes and occasionally sufganiyots, the jelly doughnuts that her children favoured. Ziva almost never had the chance to cook them and besides it was fun, she said.
The families which seemed to grow larger every year would turn up with husbands, wives, children and grand-children and cram into the living rooms and kitchen. This year twenty-three people, not including Ziva, would be having Christmas at Ziva's. Ava would be there with her husband Hank and their children ten year-old Charlotte (sometimes known as 'Charlie'), seven year-old Tyson and four year-old Mia. Ethan was there with Simone, newborn Michaela, two year-old Max and Brent. Abby and Tim would be there with their brood. Emmeline with her husband James and their children nine year-old year-old Nathan, seven year-old Katie and five year-old Cora. Lainey with her husband Josh and their six year-old twins Joseph and Marley. Jethro and his fiancee Margot rounded the numbers out.
"Hank's going to be here with the kids in a minute. Do you need help setting anything else up?" Ava asked.
"I think everything is pretty much set-up," Ziva answered. "Aunty Abby came over last night and helped me finish decorating."
"The place looks gorgeous, Ziva," Simone said. "I think you really outdid yourself this year."
They had moved into the lounge-room. Ziva was sitting on the couch with Michaela as Ava and Simone looked around.
"Thank you, Simone," Ziva replied.
"Mama, this is amazing. It looks so pretty," Ava cooed.
It seemed there wasn't an inch of space that wasn't decorated. The tree was dripping with gold tinsel, fairy lights and white glass balls. A nativity scene was set-up on the mantel and a bowl of poinsettias and holly sat on the coffee table. The dining room table had a white tablecloth and a red and green table runner. Two rows of tea-light candles ran down the edge of the table-runner. It was a large table and could seat twenty. Ziva, Abby, McGee, Emmeline, James, Hank, Lainey, Josh, Ethan and Margot had been the lucky ten to pick their names out of the hat to sit at the adult table that year. An extra table had been set-up in the kitchen along with the one that was always there. They too had white tablecloths and matching table runners but instead of tea-light candles there were small bowls of holly berries. In previous years Ziva had learnt that children and candles didn't always mix, no matter how old the children were. Ethan and Jethro were the main culprits including the tablecloth burning incident of 2037 (aged twenty-five and twenty respectively at the time).
The front-door opened and soon a small girl was running inside and throwing her arms around Ava's legs.
"Mummy, Mummy, Mummy," she cried. "Tyson hit me over the head with my dolly."
"That wasn't very nice of him, was it?" Ava murmured. She bent down and picked Mia up. "Did you do something to annoy him?"
"No!" Mia protested. She shook her head furiously.
"Mum, she hit me first," Tyson said coming into the room. His father and older sister came in behind him.
"Did not," Mia protested.
"Mia, come here to Grandma and see who I have," Ziva called out.
"Is that Michaela?" Charlotte asked. She went over and squished onto the couch between her aunt and her grandmother. "Aunty Simone, she's so cute."
"Do you want a nurse?" Ziva asked.
"Can I?" Charlotte asked Simone.
"Sure. Just watch her head," Simone replied as Ziva handed her newest grand-daughter over. "I should probably go check on Max. We put him in the rumpus room."
"Do you want to move him upstairs?" Ziva asked. "We can put him in Ethan's old room."
"He'll probably be awake anyway," Simone replied.
"I will go and get him. You go and get yourself a drink," Ziva ordered.
"Are you sure?" Simone asked.
"Go, Simone. We will be opening presents soon and then it will be lunchtime. This is your last chance to get a few minutes to yourself," Ziva replied.
"Thanks Ziva," Simone said. She gave Ziva a grateful smile and then followed Ava out of the room.
Ziva went into the rumpus room and found Max stirring on the brown faux-suede couch. She knelt down next to him and smiled gently at him. He looked confused and scared for a second but when she talked to him he relaxed.
"Hello, tateleh," she cooed. "Did you have a good sleep?"
"Juice," he answered proudly.
"Aren't you a clever boy?" she laughed. She gave him a kiss on the cheek and scooped him up. "Shall we go get you some juice?"
"Juice," he repeated. According to Ethan 'juice' was the answer to every question and the question to every answer. Ziva remembered when Ethan had been three and he had walked around repeating everything Tony said, even if it was inappropriate for him. He had adored his dad and his dad had adored him.
"Mama?" Ethan called from the doorway. "Is everything okay in here?"
"Sure. We were just about to get Max some juice," she replied.
"Uncle Tim and Aunty Abby just got here," he said. He walked over to them and ruffled Max's mousy brown hair. "Hey little man. Did you have a good sleep?"
"Da-da," Max cooed, his face dripping in a gooey smile. "Juice."
"Yeah, Grandma will get you some juice," Ethan answered. "See what I mean? Single-minded and stubborn."
"Reminds me of someone else I know," she murmured.
"Ava?" he asked.
"And you," she replied. The DiNozzo clan were a single-minded and stubborn bunch which had resulted in some fairly heavy fights over the years. When no-one was willing to relent, what did you do?
"Mama?" Ethan asked.
"Are you giving the blessing this year?" he asked.
"I do it every year. You know that. Why? Do you want to do it this year?" she asked proudly.
"I might want to add a few words, if that's okay," he answered.
"You can say anything you want too," she replied. She leaned over and kissed him on the temple. She held her lips there for a few seconds. "It is good to see you. I wish you and Simone didn't live in Chicago."
"I wish we didn't either but her family is there," Ethan said with a shrug. "I promise we'll try and visit more, okay?"
"Like I believe you," she joked. "Come. I bet the children are itching to open their presents."
"Just the children?" Ethan asked. "I can't wait to see what you got me this year."
The living room was ruined. Discarded toys lay in piles of carefully chosen wrapping paper and matching ribbons. Pieces of plastic and cardboard boxes littered the remaining floorspace. A glass ornament had been smashed in the children's rush to unwrap their gifts. No-one was disappointed and everyone had something, no matter how small or trivial the gift was. Ethan was thrilled with his new PDA. He'd been complaining about his old one for so long and Ziva had grown tired of it.
The group had moved into the dining areas and were sitting down gorging themselves on meat, salad, bread, potato latkes (Ziva's concession to Hanukkah) and roast vegetables. The wine flowed freely between the adults while the children squabbled over bottles of soft drink and juice. Before anyone was allowed to eat, Ziva had insisted on saying a blessing. Everyone politely bowed their heads and listened. She said it first in Hebrew and then in English for everybody else's benefit. As soon as her voice stopped it was game on! Of course the men insisted on competing with each other and trying to eat more than the person sitting next to them. The mothers in turn competed for the wine circulating the table. It wasn't so much a competition to see who could get the drunkest as in who would be the most relaxed but Ava and Emmeline were often well on their way before dinner had even been served.
Dinner was eaten, dessert was served and Ziva stood-up to give the annual Christmas toast. The duty fell to the host or the hostess every year. Ziva didn't mind so much. It was already expected that she would mention Tony and Ducky and Gibbs. She always did. Abby always did. McGee always did. Even their children did. The holes the three men had left behind would never be filled.
Ziva stood-up and carefully tapped her spoon against her crystal glass. She waited patiently and after a few moments the group was as quiet as a group of twenty-three could be.
"Thirty-four years ago," Ziva started. "Six people sat around this table and enjoyed their first Christmas together. For five of them, it was their first Christmas as a family but for one of them, it was their first Christmas ever. The whole spectacle seemed a bit stupid to me. Why go to all of the trouble for one day when you could celebrate for eight days? The birth of Jesus may be a miracle but so is the miracle of the oil that we celebrate at Hanukkah. That first Christmas changed things for me. What I saw was a day full of love and friendship, a day to take time out and be thankful not just for the birth of your Jesus but for the people that you have around you. It is a day to show people how much you care for them. I look around at you all and I marvel at how much things have changed. We couldn't even fill the dinner table that first year but look at us now. Soon we'll be eating outside on picnic blankets in the snow or sitting on the living room floor eating off our laps."
"Here's to extendable tables!" Ethan called out. The adults laughed and the children took the opportunity to whisper and giggle between each other.
"Always the comedian," Ziva chuckled. She waited until everyone was calm before she spoke again. "I am so proud to call you all my family. I do not think we could have done a better job raising such beautiful children and grand-children. Gibbs, Ducky and Tony would have been proud also. Just as they would have been honoured to know you, it is an honour to us that we knew them. They helped us create this legacy and they were the founding members of this family. We will always miss them, we will always love them and we will always remember them. If it were not for these three amazing men, we would not be sitting here today. So first, a toast to them. To the men we loved and the men we miss."
"To the men we miss," the adults chorused. The older children raised their glasses and sipped Coke while the younger ones wondered if the speech would ever end.
"And a second toast," Ziva began to wind-down. "To a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I love you all."
"Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!" everybody thundered. This was one even the children could join in on.
People began to leave the table and retire to different rooms. The younger children took naps while others watched TV or chatted amongst themselves. Ziva excused herself once the clean-up was done. She went upstairs to her room and closed the door behind her. She sat on the bed and let a single tear roll down her face. The door opened and Abby stepped in. She walked over to Ziva and sat next to her on the bed.
"I wondered where you went," she said softly.
"Sorry, Abs," Ziva replied, wiping the tear from her cheek. "I just needed a minute."
"Christmas is the hardest time of the year, hey," she said.
"I try to only think of them occasionally. It took me such a long time to begin to heal. I do not want to undo it all," Ziva explained.
"If its any consolation, I feel the same way," Abby agreed. "It's sort of like they've been gone for longer than we knew them but the Universe doesn't seem to care about that. There are some days when it still hurts as much as when they first died. Sometimes I'll be having a good day and things will be wonderful and then all of a sudden, it all falls apart. I remember them and it hurts so much."
"Those moments are few and far in between now," Ziva admitted.
They were silent for a moment, both caught up in their memories. Eventually Ziva sighed and stood-up. She composed herself and held out her hand to Abby.
"Maybe we should concentrate on what we have instead of what we do not have," she said. "We have a beautiful family down there who need us."
"You're right," Abby agreed. She let Ziva help her up. She caught her reflection in the mirror and she groaned. "Look at all my wrinkles."
"What wrinkles?" Ziva asked. She pointed to her face. "Look at mine."
"Oh please. You have no wrinkles. I have valleys in my face," Abby shot-back.
"Again I say where?" Ziva asked. She was right. Abby had never given up her vigilance about skincare and it showed. Her face was almost as baby smooth as it had been when she was young. She had a few small lines around her eyes but that was it. "You are the most skin-conscious person I know. You are never going to get wrinkles."
"My hair is getting thinner," she said in reply. "And I'm pretty sure its going grey."
"How do you know? You still dye it black," Ziva laughed. "You look exactly the same as you did when I met you except you do not wear black lipstick anymore, your hemlines are a little longer and you wear flat boots."
"My feet don't like platforms anymore," Abby admitted. She grinned at Ziva in the mirror. "We still look hot though."
"Of course we do," Ziva replied. She winked at Abby. "Let's get our hot selves downstairs. I think it's time we taught our sons a lesson or two in video games."
"I'm right behind you, sister," Abby agreed.
They went downstairs together ready to face what the rest of the evening would bring. Ready to face what the rest of their lives would bring.
And it was true. Sometimes Ziva would be having a great day. She would be happy and the sun would be shining. But then she'd hear a song or she'd catch a glimpse of someone who looked like Tony. For a few minutes all her hard work would be undone. She would clutch her stomach and try not to double over in pain. Sometimes she cried. It didn't hurt until it hurt and then it HURT. The pain had dulled somewhat but when it was there, it was there.
Sometimes she dreamed about him, about how their lives would have turned out if he had lived. But what she said to Ava was true too. She would not change her life for anything. Ava was happy. Ethan was happy. For the most part Ziva was happy.
It was close to four in the morning. They were lying in bed, exhausted but happy. The last guests had left Tony's New Year's Eve bash only half an hour before.
"I should be getting up to go for a jog in an hour," Ziva groaned. She reached for her bottle of water and took a long sip. "Remind me next time that champagne goes right to my head."
"I like it when you drink champagne. Besides, you should always drink champagne on NYE. It's just what you do," Tony replied. He took the water from her and took a large gulp. "I have a feeling that you will be absolutely fine in the morning."
"What makes you say that?" she asked curiously. "Some special New Year's Day hang-over cure that I do not know about?"
"Because I asked you to marry me and you said yes," he amended.
"There is that," she said. A lazy smile grew across her face and it soon turned into a huge grin that Tony couldn't help but mirror. "Do you think we are crazy for getting engaged after only seven months?"
"No," Tony replied with a firm shake of his head. "When you know, you know. And we know. At least, I know."
"I know too," she said. "I never thought I would be this happy. Especially not over a guy."
"A guy?" Tony scoffed. "A guy? I'm not just a guy."
"No, you are not," Ziva agreed with a laugh. "You are everything."
"Now that's more like it," he replied. He yawned and Ziva's wasn't far behind. He wound his arms around Ziva and pulled her close. "Love you, Ziva. Happy New Year."
"I love you too, Tony. Happy New Year," she whispered back.
And it would be a very happy year.
- The End -