Title: Sawdust and Sandalwood
Summary: Ziva. Gibbs. Basement, bourbon, boat. A load of questions and answers that don't look like answers. Tiva.
A/N: Written in response to my observations of the last couple of episodes, the rumours about the spin off, and the fact that I am insanely interested in Ziva and can't help but compulsively write her history. Also, I've been watching S6 on youtube and I can't figure it out – it's making me crazy. In a good way. I just have NO idea where they're going with it.
Also – to 'dress without sleeves' – I guess this really does prove that great minds think alike, lol!
As always, thanks go to G.
The basement is sawdust and sandalwood as she walks down the stairs. She hasn't let her feet follow that path in years, and tries not to imagine her brother's body lying spread-eagled between them.
" Is Tony leaving?" she asks, and her voice pierces through the sound of the scraping sandpaper.
" Are you?" is the response.
In the last few months she has found herself moving further away, which is strange, because for a while she felt like she was moving closer, like she was moving so close that she could barely tell where she ended, and he began. She caught the scent of him on her clothes and found her mouth curling into what she was sure was his smile. In her sleep, she dreamt of movies she was sure she had never seen.
Sawdust drifts around her ankles, and cocoa curls fall around her shoulders. " I heard that a team is opening in San Diego. That he is the first choice. That he has been asked to go."
Another scrape of the sandpaper, another hull manipulated under strong, seductive hands. " He dived into a frozen river to save an already lost cause. You think he does what he's told?"
It's not an answer, but she knows it's all that she's getting. She drops to sitting on the creaky wooden steps, pushes her hair from her face. " He has never been good at following orders."
In the IDF she carries a gun that's too long for her eighteen-year-old body, so lithe and petite. She wouldn't complain if the very sky was falling down, but the way she compensates by resting it against her collarbone as she fires has left her with a permanent bruise and a slew of bad habits. Still, she is a sharper shooter than anyone in the class, and her tutor watches her with narrowed, eager eyes.
" You're a natural," he says, placing a hand on her shoulder and giving it a squeeze. The fierce linen uniform yields to his grip.
She pulls away from his meaty palms. " Just lucky I suppose," she recants, but shoots six bulls-eyes in a row. She doesn't miss how his eyes light up, and a shudder works along her spine. No one should look that turned on by an unplanned precision shot.
" No such thing as luck," he argues, placing a hand on her back. " Eyesight, reactions, instinct. You father will be proud."
She doesn't bother mentioning the fact that her father already knows she can shoot. How he has raised her to see danger lurking behind the curtains. How he promises her it's for the good of the children she doesn't yet have, and can't yet imagine. Instead, she shoots another six bullets into the target, and then ducks out of the way of her tutor's wandering hands.
By the time she leaves the IDF she is trained in weaponry, manipulation and sex, which she has learnt are not now, and have never been, mutually exclusive. She wonders if it's strange that orgasm sounds the same to her as rifle fire and dynamite – an overwhelming, ear-splitting explosion outside of her control. Sometimes she swears her bed sheets smell like gunpowder, but she wonders if that's simply from the Sig Sauer she hides under he pillow.
When she is twenty-one she gets engaged to a man who she has often liked but seldom loved. Her newly appointed Mossad duties keep her from travelling with her family to Haifa that summer, and she spends her time instead wrapped in sheets and sweat and her fiancé's arms. When she hears about the bombing, her blood turns to ice and all she can see are Tali's big brown eyes and curling smile. She sleeps for three months with the smell of burning flesh in her nose. She wonders what her sister's last words were, and if she felt any pain. She wonders why her brother wasn't there: the doctor who saves lives.
By November she breaks up with her fiancé, and writes Ari a long angry letter in Edinburgh that leaves no question as to where her blame lies. By December, she has received a reply, and cried, and realised that there is no one to blame save Hamas. She wishes she could see Ari, but he can't afford the flight home even to grieve, and his days are spent saving the living, rather than morning the dead.
She signs up for a mission that takes her far from home, to Russia, France and Spain. She revels in the places that Tali has never been, in places where she can't imagine her face or her smile or her laugh. Undercover she meets men, and makes them fall in love with her, even though she's not really sure who they are falling in love with anymore. She leaves them as fast as she finds them, and files their midnight dark kisses in the back of her mind, as though evidence that she still exists. Sometimes she's amazed that it wasn't her flesh that seared and burned that evening on the coast. As she lies in bed with anonymous men – anonymous herself – she can smell the salty brine of the sea and the acrid burning of flesh coming from her skin. She's amazed sometimes that she can walk out of there in the early hours and disappear.
None of the men know her, and none knew her sister. In the sweet non-existance of undercover, the loss of Tali seems careless. Like somehow, if she had tried harder, she could have prevented it.
" Is he going?" she asks again, tilting her head into the dim, orange light. It lights up half of her face, leaving the rest in shadow. It seems almost fitting.
Gibbs doesn't look at her, but stops his sanding and gently blows the dust from the wooden struts. His silent pause is more piercing than a gaze could ever be. " Do you care?"
" Yes." Because she does, she has done, and she doesn't know when that happened, but it's in her skin and burning her very nerves. " He deserves it."
There's a cough that would be a laugh if it came from anybody else. " He deserves a lot of things."
" We all do."
Without answering, Gibbs leans back on his workbench, and picks up a two mugs and a bottle of bourbon. Pouring three fingers in each, he hands her one of the cups and stares at her over the rim as he drinks. The scent permeates the room and mixes with the sawdust and sandalwood. " Why aren't you asking DiNozzo about this?"
There are many answers, and none, and as the warming liquid splashes against her lips, it steals her explanation. Gibbs hears it anyways.
If she starts talking to him, she's honestly not sure she'll be able to stop.
Before she turns twenty-two she has become such a success that she is sent on a mission to seduce a member of the Republican Guard. The man is barely thirty, and responsible for shepherding money and weapons to enemies of her country. As he trails hot wet kisses along her skin, she imagines the faces of everyone lost because of him. As she allows him to touch her, to exclaim with delight over the precise, perfect form that is her tanned body, she feels herself coil up inside. She's wound tighter and tighter, but bides her time for the perfect release.
In the early hours of the morning wrapped in hairy, treacherous arms and opulent, silky sheets, she studies her own skin and feels somehow detached from it. She can no longer sense the man's unconscious, leaden touch, or the balmy sweat cooling on her body. The pulse of her heartbeat feels like the rhythm of someone else's life. The skin of his throat doesn't register with her fingers, and his choking, spluttering cough barely sounds in her ears. His flailing legs buck up against her thighs, but she doesn't feel any pain.
She redresses in moonlight. Clement air sweeps in from the open window and caresses her body, and the gentle, tender touch is the only thing that she recalls as she slips out of the building.
She is wind, and shadow. She is ineffable, invisible.
The cooling body of the man upstairs is simply a job done.
" Is this why I have been partnered with McGee for the last month? You are preparing Tony to follow in your footsteps?" She knows that idiom, knows most of them actually, and uses her lack of understanding as both amusement and misdirection. Mastering seven languages in not-quite thirty years has left no room for a lack of talent and verbal dexterity.
Gibbs takes another long drink, and runs his rough, callused hands over the skeleton of his boat. For a moment, Ziva wonders if it is the same boat he had been building that night she first descended his steps, or if that too had been destroyed and reduced to ashes. " Do you think that's why?"
The liquor bathes her tongue and warms her throat, but the heat doesn't get any further than her mouth. Inside, she harbours icy memories that leave her as cold as her first winter in Washington. " No. You have prepared him well enough to lead his own team. You know he will perform his duties in the way you have taught him."
The whole room stretches between them, and years, and words that have never been spoken.
" Then why are you here Ziva?"
Pesach has been over for three days the first time she meets Jenny Shepherd, and four of her ribs are broken. In the harsh desert sun she shields her eyes with her wrist, and wonders how anyone with such hair could ever expect to move without being seen. There is nothing understated about Agent Shepherd, but Ziva quickly learns that she has traded subtly in for admirable manipulation, and so is not to be underestimated.
In typical American fashion, Shepherd assumes that they will become friends, working together. Ziva, who has spent her life and career among men, isn't so sure.
Ziva is brusque and caustic, and six months through her twenty-third year. She drives too fast around the winding roads of Eastern Europe collecting information and calling in favours from people who recoil at the sight of her. Shepherd keeps up a litany of conversation that Ziva responds to with curt, pain-induced terseness, and tries to ignore the nausea that radiates from her broken ribs. Eventually, Shepherd desists, and rests her head back against the battered leather headrest.
" And I thought Gibbs was bad," she mutters to herself, closing her eyes.
It's not until a weekend stranded in the middle-of-nowhere in Lithuania that the silence finally breaks. Shepherd walks in on Ziva re-wrapping her wounds, and is so shocked that she finally can say nothing. It is this silence more than anything else that gets Ziva talking. That, and the wish to stop the stare Shepherd gives the purpling expanse of skin across her skinny ribcage. Ziva's lips start moving as she hides away the marks in that dimly lit back bedroom, and for some reason, they don't stop as she wind her way through crowds and streets and unseemly congregations. The conversations between her and Jenny carry them, just like time and air and their weary feet, across the globe.
In Dubrovnik their cover is blown and Ziva misses taking a bullet by an inch. In Cairo, she isn't so lucky.
She is shot in the thigh, and Jenny disappears.
It takes three days to find her. Three days of focus, and threats, and sweat dripping down her limbs from pain. When Ziva finally enters the cramped, backstreet shop where they have Jenny held, she doesn't think. She simply acts. Her blade is sharp and her aim precise.
As she unties the ropes around the elder woman's wrists she notices the blood splatter across the staring alabaster figurines.
She will only remember the bodies in dreams.
They don't see each other again for three years. She exists in Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Gaza, Russia, Iraq, Jordan and London, but never for long, and never as the same person in more than one city. Ziva David is left in Israel, shed like a skin, like the sheets she lets fall from her body when she leaves her men in their beds and walks out into the night. The women she becomes wrap around her like smoke.
She takes two more bullets and almost doesn't come back from the second.
Her brother, on a rare surfacing from a long-term undercover, visits her in the hospital. He studies her medical notes and shakes his head. " You could have died."
" I didn't," she reminds him, though sometimes when the pain is at its worst, she almost wishes she had.
Ari brushes her curls back from her face, presses a kiss there, which feels cool and soothing against her feverish skin. " What has he turned you into Ziva?" he murmurs against her forehead, and she can hear the anger that always simmers beneath his words when they speak of their shared paternity.
Perhaps she hasn't been turned into anything, she thinks. Perhaps this is who she has always been: torn from the womb, a bringer of death.
When she arrives in Washington it's raining, and Ari is still angry, though she only realises just how angry when it is already too late. For the first time she can feel the gun in her hand, the weight of the grip, and see his face and the blood as the bullet rips through his skull.
Jen had kissed her on the cheek and smiled, and bid her 'shalom'. She had believed in Ziva when she swore that Ari had been framed. Jenny trusted her friend's instincts.
As Ziva makes arrangements to ship her brother's body back to the land of her birth, she wonders if her judgement has been impaired.
Two years later, when she walks into a diner three hours too late and finds Jen's sunset red hair streaked crimson, she stops wondering.
" Vance was right to terminate my position and send me back to Israel. He was right to think I could no longer do the job I came here to do." She aims her words at Gibbs, but stares into the murky swirls of bourbon left inside her chipped mug. He will either agree, or disagree, and knowing Gibbs as she does he will do either one with vehemence. She can't quite bare to look until he speaks.
" You know that wasn't why he sent you away," he argues, but his voice is slightly softer than usual, because they don't speak of this. Ziva and Gibbs are people of actions, not words.
Ziva lifts her head up, catches his bright blue eyes. " It should have been. I did not do my duty. I allowed myself to become distracted." She remembers Tony's eyes when he saw her in that bikini, and the sunshine, and the way his face lit up when they slid into the bright red car. She can still smell the suntan lotion on his skin.
" She was dying anyways." The words are stilted and brusque and she knows that should indicate that he's done talking about this, but she pushes on anyways, because this has been building up in her for far too long and if she doesn't get it out now she thinks it may eat away at her like the same dreadful disease that eventually came for Jen.
Dark curls are pushed back from her face and she sets the mug down so that some of the liquid sloshes over the side. " I allowed myself to become distracted," she repeats.
This time he has no reply.
Tony is not the first partner she's slept with. He's not even the second or third. A life around men, and a life using sex to get what she wants has meant usually, at some point, she has fallen into bed with the men she works with. Often it's to relieve boredom, or to get her way, or simply because of convenience. She has never felt the pity that she feels that night.
It's a year since Ari died, and Gibbs is gone, and Tony is staring at her with wide, lost eyes and a hungry mouth. Before she even finds her voice he either reads permission in her eyes or stops caring to wait for it. His fingers thread through her hair and hold tight, and he presses his lips to hers so hard she wonders he doesn't draw blood.
The arch of her spine seals her body to his, and her touch makes his mind blank. He thinks of nothing but his pain and feeling of abandonment, and the touch of her slick skin and silken hair. He whispers in her ear and chokes out pleas to God in the darkness.
She stays silent and prays she never has to see his severed head sent overnight delivery.
Ziva doesn't fall in love that summer, but she becomes used to his presence.
In the year that follows, she doesn't fall out of love, but his absence feels like losing a limb.
When she finally meets Jeanne Benoit, she wonders if they are both mourning a man who never existed.
She is taken from Washington, still dressed in mourning black, and delivered back to Israel without time to take a breath. She thinks of Tony at sea, as her toes sink into the midday warm sand, and the desert warms her skin. Her father studies her on her return and shakes his head like an old clucking woman.
" Ziva," he sighs. " What have they turned you into?"
She has always been a step ahead of everyone else. Someone who can see an act before it happens, hear a breath before it's taken. She is someone who can feel the rain before it starts to fall. She doesn't exist in the same world as other people, because if she does, if she allows herself to do so, she fears she will become just like them. If she is back in the natural world's rhythm, she won't be special anymore.
If she stops seeing things before they happen, then she will be blind until it is too late.
" I should have known there was a mole. I should have suspected long before my reassignment." She stands, finally, unwinding her body from the narrow staircase, but doesn't move towards him. " People died, and I should have known."
" I didn't see it either Ziva," he admits with a half shrug, and her eyes are drawn to the newest scar bisecting his eyebrow.
" I was too pleased to be back," is her response. " If I had stayed in Israel - "
" It still would have happened," he tells her, and his voice leaves no room for argument. " Sometimes we miss things."
If she was anyone else she might have stomped her foot then, or thrown the mug still in her grip. Like a bullet from her gun, her aim would be precise and the shattered pieces sharp and brutal.
" I do not miss things."
When she returns from Israel, her father's goodbye kiss still lingers on her forehead. She is marked, branded, owned. She is his weapon, being sent out again for another tour of battle. When he looks into her eyes, it is as though he is searching for deceit, duplicity, for any warning that she too may be leaving him.
Gibbs' arms are warm, and gentle, and he holds her as though she could break at any moment. As though the wound still present on her forehead is a symptom of deeper cracks.
Michelle Lee's eye burn in her mind, and Ziva can feel the other woman's spirit at her desk long after she has disappeared into the elevator. It feels strange to have another presence so strongly alongside her, especially when all she can focus on is the empty desk across the room.
In the forgotten locked drawer of her desk she finds a pink post-it note that is empty save for a tally that covers both sides of the paper in orderly, miniscule writing. For a brief moment she wonders what the tiny lines might represent, but then her phone starts ringing and she forgets the paper, crumpling it in a ball in her fist.
She later finds out that each mark is a day Michelle Lee has gone without seeing her sister.
Her own tally is kept in bodies and blood.
When it is too late and all that is left of Michelle is riddled flesh and regrets, Ziva holds Amanda Lee in her arms and imagines the sister she has lost, and the daughters she will never have. As she watches Gibbs try to explain to the young girl things that can never be explained, she tastes salt in her mouth and realises that tears have started to slip down her cheeks.
From across the room Tony watches her. She wonders if he imagines his daughters too.
That night she dreams of Tali and Ari, and in dreams they stand over her bed, looking down upon her with bullet wounds and fire-seared skin. They hold their hands out towards her and beckon her from her sleep. A shadowed figure lurks in the background and calls her name. In the darkness, the room smells of salt and tequila, and regret.
When she wakes, she wonders why she doesn't consider it a nightmare.
" He's not leaving." Gibbs' hand is on her shoulder, and she hasn't even heard him step up to her side. " He's not being re-assigned, and I'm not sending him away."
She's more relieved than she understands, and she lets out a breath that is silent and warm against her lips. " Then why have I not been partnered with him in months? I thought it was to prepare him for leaving."
There is another pause from Gibbs, and his fingers flex against her shirt. " He's got to know he can do it on his own," he explains, and it's far more explanation that she expected to get from him. For a moment, her mind goes straight to Mexico, to the idea of Gibbs finally tiring of it all, but his focused eyes and callused fingers say something different, and she finds herself confused.
" You just said he is not leaving."
" He's not."
The inflection is pointed, and she finally realises what he is implying. " Gibbs, I am not going anywhere," she attempts to assure, but she can hear the words are hollow. They echo around the basement and in her ears.
Gibbs raises his broken eyebrow, and his icy eyes stare into her. She feels the shudder straight through her bones and his voice is penetrating. " We both know you can't promise that," he says, and though it seems harsh, his voice is surprisingly soft. He doesn't want to think about her leaving, but they are both people who deal in reality, not in fantasy. Both have too much blood on their hands and death in their pasts to allow themselves even a moment of desirous pretence.
" Do you know how many years I have left as a field agent Ziver?" he asks, drawing her name out in the nickname that has stuck over the last few months.
She does, but she's not foolish enough to answer the question.
" In a few years, it's going to be Tony's team. He's going to be in charge, and you know you can't promise that you'll be here. He has to know he can do it without you. You're the only one who might not be able to make that choice on your own."
He turns back to the boat, and his fingers almost seem to dance along the fragile ribs. " Whatever happens, he has to be okay."
Ziva has always been defined by men. By her father who raised her to be whatever it is she has become, her brother who she still loves even when such love is inexplicable, by this man who is her boss but feels like something much greater, and by the man who should be simply her partner, but has always been impossible to define.
As she steps out of the basement she is met with the sight of an idling Mustang and a mouth finally ready to speak.
As she slips into the passenger seat she realises that she is defined by nothing more permanent than the passing of time, the scent of sandalwood, and the shifting grains of sand beneath her feet.