"Is that noise coming from your end?"

Vance looked over his shoulder. "Unfortunately. It sounds like Gibbs doesn't like being locked out of MTAC."

"He did not strike me as a man who makes compromises." On-screen, Eli David leaned back in his chair. "Should I be expecting him back in my country soon?"

"I'm not signing off on his vacation time, not that it'll stop him. Take care, Eli."

"Shalom, my friend."

Vance ended the call and cued up the digitized video footage he had been sent. With a sigh, he released the lockdown of MTAC. DiNozzo was the first to burst through the door, in a manner that suggested he had been trying to employ his shoulder as a battering ram, followed by Gibbs and McGee. "Insurance isn't going to cover you for a shoulder dislocated breaking down an agency door, Agent DiNozzo. You should really be more careful, seeing as you're already short one arm. Tell me, which technician do I have to remind that loose lips sink ships?"

"Good thing we're not here to talk naval operations, Director." Gibbs stepped in front of DiNozzo, deliberately taking a long sip of his coffee.

"Right. Maybe part of Danielle's punishment will be to make a sign for the door reminding everyone that beverages are no longer allowed in MTAC."

"Um, it was actually Susan who…"

"Thank you, McGee."

Vance was about to order Gibbs not to headslap McGee when he quietly asked, "Where is she, Leon?"

He frowned at the coffee cup Gibbs placed in one of the built-in cup holders – the rule about beverages was going to be easier to enforce once he got those damn things removed – and said, "The SEALs took her from Somalia to a field hospital along with their casualties and they sent her on to Landstuhl. Once she's stable, she'll go to Tel Aviv."

"How bad?"

"I don't have a medical report, but judging by this," he pressed a button to begin the video, "bad."

Vance sat down in the second row of seats, allowing Gibbs, McGee and DiNozzo to partially block his view as they stood in front of the screen, transfixed. All three jumped back at the exact moment Vance recalled having had the same reaction when he had watched it. David's subsequent rambling would probably not be as disturbing if it didn't have to be viewed through a spatter of blood droplets slowly trickling down the camera lens. He made his way to the console and stopped the video just as Lt. West caught David when another SEAL untangled her wrists from the chains above her head.

Vance didn't wait to find out what the agents' reactions would be, although it was hard not to notice that McGee's eyes were squeezed shut. He made his way to his office quickly, wanting to avoid the inevitable occurring in a public space. Gibbs entered a few moments later, but did not start shouting, instead making his way to the small bar. He swallowed one drink and poured himself a second before turning. "Wouldn't have thought you'd stick your neck out for her."

"I didn't."

"Like I said…" Gibbs pulled out a chair at the conference table but didn't sit. "Why were the SEALs there?"

"The cell managed to grab one of theirs during a skirmish northeast of Mogadishu a couple days ago. They found David by accident when they went to get their man back. She got lucky."

"Yup." Gibbs nodded slowly. "Who's the interrogator?"

"Kamil ibn Isma'il." The man was dead; it wasn't much of a disclosure to share his name.

"He been on our radar?"

Gibbs' self-possession was starting to make Vance uncomfortable, but there was no reason he couldn't return the bewildering civility. "Five days ago he contacted us with a trade offer – simple exchange, one of our prisoners for his. Apparently he has two younger brothers who share his political views." He picked up a file from his desk and placed a photo on the table. "The Marines captured him during a raid on a suspected terrorist hideout. You know we don't make those kinds of trades."

"What about the other?"

"Moussad picked up him up after a botched suicide bombing."

"Kamil was trying to get a two-for-one?"

"I think he was just hedging his bets, grabbing one hostage he could use on two potential objectives. Obviously, Moussad refused to trade either."


"Is there anything you'd like to say, Agent Gibbs?"

"Not to you, Leon." Gibbs finished his drink and set the glass on the table. "Not to you."

Still somewhat taken aback by his composure, Vance called through the closing door, "Try not to piss off anyone in Germany."

McGee tried to follow Gibbs out of MTAC, but his sleeve caught on something. "Tony, let go of me."

"I need you for a second, Probie."

"For what?"

"I need a copy of this."

McGee made the mistake of looking up to confirm that Tony was pointing at the screen. "Why?"

"Can you just do this for me?"

"What, are you planning to put it on your iPod? Maybe email it to your friends?" He finally pulled his arm free from Tony's grasp and turned his whole body to face the back wall, quickly wiping his eyes on the pretense of fixing his hair. "What's wrong with you?" The room was very quiet for a minute or more. McGee didn't leave, remaining poised to deflect whatever insult or accusation was flung at him.

He was at the point of turning to face Tony when Ziva spoke, "Go 'way, Tony."

"Stop it," he begged.

"She's not talking to you."

McGee tried to block out her quavering voice, but it flowed from the speakers all around him. "You never could have."

"Turn it off, Tony."

"I didn't hear your name on that tape."

"Even if…" McGee decided he could think about why Ziva hadn't imagined a conversation with him later – not that he would have to think too hard. He risked turning around and found that the image on the screen had been replaced by MTAC's usual test-pattern. Tony stared at him expectantly, without blinking. "She wasn't really talking to you, you know."

"Yes she was. She thought she was. I have to figure out what I said to her."

"You didn't say anything. You weren't there and you couldn't have…"

"Will you just stop it, McGee? I need to know what she thinks I said!"

"But it doesn't…"

Tony hit a button, bringing the video back up on the screen. When had he become so familiar with the controls in MTAC? McGee focused on that question, keeping his attention on the console until Tony grabbed his head and forcibly turned it. "You see that, McGee? Do you see that?"

He wanted to close his eyes again, to deny that he could see it, but he couldn't look away. He felt sick. "You can't want to watch this again."

Tony continued to hold his head. "It's not about what I want. What's happening to her is my fault. I did that. And if I'm gonna figure out how to fix things, I need to know everything I can about what she thinks of me because of it. Just do something so I can…so I can listen to her. I have to fill in the blanks."

McGee swallowed hard, beginning to understand that Tony was not displaying some macabre fetish. "I could just copy the audio, if that's what you want."

"Really?" Tony released his head and moved toward the screen, reaching toward it with his good arm. "Maybe…yeah. I don't know how many times I could watch this." His hand created shadows around Ziva's waist on the projection. "Just the part where she's talking to me…"

"I can do that." McGee sat down at the console, glad to finally have a concrete task. He just needed to make a ninety-second or so audio recording and… "This is going to be a pain up here. Let me send it to the lab and I'll…" His head snapped forward with the impact of a headslap. "I said I'd do it! What was that for?"

Gibbs was suddenly pulling him out of his seat by his collar. "Do not let Abby see this!"

"Boss, I just…"

"We didn't hear you come back in," Tony finished for him.

"Hurry up and finish up in here. Wheels go up in just under an hour."

"Am I…"

"I don't know, McGee, are you?"

"I…I'd like to. Would Ziva care if I…?" He accepted headslaps from both Gibbs and Tony with silent self-reproach. "Right."

"Meet us downstairs," Gibbs ordered.

As McGee quickly recorded the audio component of the video to a separate file and sent it to his computer in the bullpen, he found he was by himself in MTAC, surrounded by Ziva at the most vulnerable he had ever seen her. It was the first time he had ever been scared to be alone with her.

"I said…I did not want to see you."

But here I am.

"Go 'way, Tony."

You think I would just leave you here?

"You never could have."

You don't think I could save you?

"Not what I mean." She paused as she coughed. "My decisions, my life…"

We're friends. Partners. I was worried about you. Is it so wrong that I want to be involved with your life?

"So I could hate you…up close?"

Do you really hate me?

"No. It is a lot harder…to hate you…where I am now."

I should be there. I should be letting you hate me as I rip that guy's face off. I should have had your six.

"Do not apologize. This is…not your fault. You should forget, Tony. Go back to rescuing victims. You do it well. They need you."

Why should they be more important to me than you?

"It doesn't matter anymore."

Gibbs pursed his lips, watching Tony as he frowned, looked down and pressed the same button he'd pressed after frowning and looking down every two minutes since they'd climbed into the C-130. "I should have just dragged them both out of MTAC."

"What is he listening to?"

Gibbs glanced to his right at Ducky, who had been standing in the parking lot with a traveling bag when he, Tony and McGee had left NCIS after a brief confrontation with Abby. "Ziva was a little out of it on the tape they sent us."

"'They' being the SEALs or the terrorists?"

"Bad guys made it, good guys sent it. They needed an ID and I guess she asked them to call us."

"She couldn't just tell them who she is?"

"Like I said…" He closed his eyes, but all he could see was Ziva through a haze of blood droplets.

"Forgive me, Jethro. I believe you were going to tell me what, exactly, Tony is listening to with such grim intent."

He looked down at the floor of the cabin, counting the attachment sites along the edge of a panel. "She sounded like she was having a conversation with him. She was hallucinating or something."

"And he wants to understand his part. I see."

"You think that's healthy, Duck?"

"No less so than staring at the walls for ten hours. I happen to have some extra reading material, if you'd like something to…"


"Very well. You go back to torturing yourself in your way and leave Tony to his."

Gibbs stiffened at the casually flung but meticulously aimed barb. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Ducky looked up, keeping his finger on a point in the photo he was studying; Gibbs wondered if all the reading material he'd brought contained such pathologically significant pictures. Following his gaze, Ducky said, "The human heart is an amazing organ. Or course, I could say that about viscera in general. I'm a particular fan of the liver…"

"You goin' somewhere with this?"

"Yes, well…the heart." He indicated something lumpy in the picture he had been examining. "I'm sure even you can tell that this particular feature does not belong."

"The yellowy thing?"

"It's bacterial vegetation that has built up on a mitral valve damaged by a previous bout of rheumatic fever. Would you like to venture a guess as to what precipitated this poor individual's demise?"

"It's a heart. Heart attack?"

"Cardiac failure after long-term infection, but I'm asking about the root cause. What began the chain of events that led to his left ventricle's inability to function properly?"

"Didn't realize there'd be a test."

"Do try to make an effort, Jethro."

Gibbs rolled his eyes. "That fever thing you said?"

"Ah-ha. That was the cause of the valvular damage, yes, but the real question is, how did the bacteria come to be in the heart at all?"

"I don't know. He didn't wash his hands?"

"Though I could provide you with some very convincing data on that subject, let us focus on the topic at hand. This man had a tooth extracted."

Gibbs waited for a moment before prompting, "And?"

"And that was why this defect in his heart, which had been benign since childhood, proved to be his undoing."

"I don't get it."

"Well, it's really quite simple. The patient failed to take the antibiotics prescribed by his dentist, the tooth extraction then caused a bacteremia, which ultimately led to cardiac failure."

Gibbs wondered for a moment if the point was about cause and effect, but said, "If you're trying to make a point about the heart and feelings, Duck, it's goin' way over my head, here."

"Nonsense, Jethro. The heart is a glorified pump. If I wanted to lecture you about the limbic system, I'd have to dig all the way to the bottom of my bag."

"Then what is all this about?"

"It distracted you for five minutes from blaming yourself for what's happened to Ziva, did it not?"

Gibbs sighed. "I left her there. I abandoned her."

"I thought you said that she made the decision."

"She couldn't have known what would happen."

"Neither could you. You cannot possibly deconstruct all of the factors at play and determine fault."

"Would that guy have lived if he'd taken the antibiotics?"

"Possibly. His chances certainly would have been vastly improved…" Ducky suddenly straightened and pulled his book back into his own lap. "I believe I shall return to my reading if you are going to insist on being difficult."

Gibbs glanced across the cabin at Tony as he frowned, looked down and pressed his button again. The flight was going to last another five hours, at least. "What's that limbo system you mentioned, Duck?"

"I said…I did not want to see you."

Do you want to see me now?

"Go 'way, Tony."

I won't disappear just because you tell me to.

"You never could have."

I do have a habit of hanging around when I'm not wanted.

"Not what I mean." She coughed again. "My decisions, my life…"

I can still be upset you screwed up your own life. You should have come back to DC.

"So I could hate you…up close?"

Better that than this.

"No. It is a lot harder…to hate you…where I am now."

Sorry I made you hate me. I was just trying to help.

"Do not apologize. This is…not your fault. You should forget, Tony. Go back to rescuing victims. You do it well. They need you."

What about you?

"It doesn't matter anymore."

Shane Duncan was getting sick of arguing with the snippy nurse. "I'm not some psycho stalker or something. I just want to know where she went and if she's gonna be okay."

"And as I keep telling you, I cannot share that information with proper…"

She was interrupted by a man standing in the doorway, with a small group of men in suits behind him, "This room 314?"

"Can I help you, sir?"

He held up a badge and ID. "Special Agent Gibbs, NCIS. They told us downstairs that we could find Officer Ziva David here."

Seeing his opening, Duncan said, "Not anymore, Agent Gibbs. Nurse Ratched here won't tell me where they took her."

A man with a sling on his arm standing behind Gibbs chuckled, but Gibbs eyed him carefully, prompting him to adjust his fatigues self-consciously. "You one of the SEALs from the op in Somalia?"

"Yes, sir. Petty Officer Shane Duncan."

"Don't call me sir." Gibbs gestured him into the hallway, where he was surrounded by the men in suits. "What's your interest in Ziva?"

"I…" Duncan stopped. He was still a little ashamed of the fact that he had escaped his internment unscathed while failing to protect someone he'd known only as 'the girl' for two days.

Gibbs rested a hand on his shoulder. "It's off the record."

These guys were NCIS and they were here for their…friend? He leaned forward and lowered his voice, "I was captured by a splinter group of Hamas terrorists and taken to their base. Ziva was already there. There was…there was nothing I could do to help her but promise that someone was coming." He swallowed, still feeling that his contributions were inadequate. "My Lieutenant let me fly up here with her. I just…I want to know that she's all right."

Gibbs looked at him searchingly for a few moments before releasing his shoulder after a final squeeze. He turned and called, "Nurse Ratched?"

Duncan joined the man with a sling in a laugh this time. The nurse just frowned. "It's Nurse Conway, Agent…Tibbs, was it?"

It was the older man in a bowtie who laughed with the man in the sling this time as Gibbs corrected her.

"I supposed I'm thinking of that terrible Deep Six novel."

This drew further laughter from the two men, which Gibbs and a blushing fourth man ignored. Gibbs said, "Nurse Conway, sorry. Can you tell me when Officer David left for Tel Aviv?"

She glanced down at the chart in her hands, "She was transferred two hours ago."

"You couldn't have told me that?" Duncan demanded. He would have stayed to annoy her longer, but he noticed that Gibbs and his agents were already walking down the hall. He jogged to catch them. "Agent Gibbs!"

"Something we can do for you, Petty Officer?"

"Well…I was kind of hoping…if there's any way…I have to get back to my unit and…"

"Gimme your address. I'll pass it on to her."

He let out a breath. "I don't want to seem like…I'd just like to know that she's okay, si…Agent Gibbs."

Gibbs nearly smiled. "Just write it down, Duncan."

The man in the bowtie handed him a notepad. "Thanks." As he jotted down his information, he said, "I talked to her on the flight up here, just to keep her company so she'd know someone was there with her. She wasn't too clear, but I definitely heard your name."

Gibbs nodded as he tucked the paper into his pocket. "What'd she say about me?"

"Oh, I just asked her if there was anyone she wanted me to tell…anything. She just kinda gave me a list of people's names." He fumbled in his breast pocket for a piece of paper and read from the notes he'd jotted down the first chance he'd gotten, "Gibbs, Tony, Maggie, Abby, something about a duck…"

Everyone but the fourth man was giving him something resembling a smile now. Gibbs shook his hand. "We'll make sure you get some news."

"Thank you." Duncan watched the group walk away a second time.

The man with the sling put his good arm around the fourth man's shoulders as the group walked away. "Cheer up, Maggie May. I'm sure she doesn't wish she'd never seen your face."

"I said…I did not want to see you."

I want to see you.

"Go 'way, Tony."

I won't. I'm your partner and I won't leave you.

"You never could have."

I know you wouldn't have done anything if you didn't have a good reason.

"Not what I mean." Her cough was becoming more and more upsetting. "My decisions, my life…"

I'm part of your life. You made this decision because of me. I won't ever push you away like that again.

"So I could hate you…up close?"

Please don't hate me.

"No. It is a lot harder…to hate you…where I am now."

You shouldn't be here. I should have done more. I should have dragged you back where you could be angry but not hurt. Not like this. I'm so sorry.

"Do not apologize. This is…not your fault. You should forget, Tony. Go back to rescuing victims. You do it well. They need you."

I need my partner.

"It doesn't matter anymore."

Yes. It does.

Tony popped out his earbuds as he stepped onto the hot tarmac in Tel Aviv. He could still make things up to her. He had to.

The slightly creepy guy who had also met them at the airport on their previous trip was wearing a different vest. He gruffly mumbled, "Welcome back," before leading them to a black SUV. He didn't speak again until they were caught in deadlocked traffic. "I am afraid your arrival is premature. Ziva was immediately taken to surgery after transport and you will not be able to see her for some time."

Gibbs cleared his throat. "We'll wait."

"I am sure."

Tony shifted his broken arm away from McGee, who was stuck in the middle seat. Ducky turned from the front. "Do you have enough legroom? I think I could manage to scoot forward a few more inches if necessary."

"We're fine, Ducky." Tony glanced into his sling, but felt no compulsion to replay his iPod's new most popular track. "Hey, Officer…" he stopped himself from saying 'vest-guy' and left it at simply the title, "I was wondering about this last time but forgot to ask. How come you guys drive Mercedes?"

Several hours later, in spite of glaring, whining and begging, the staff at the Israeli hospital had been adamant – only one visitor would be allowed into the ICU to see Ziva. McGee sat back down in one of the waiting room chairs with only the briefest complaint. Ducky disappeared to see if an administrator might do him a courtesy and list him as a treating physician. Tony stood eye to eye with Gibbs in the hallway. "I have to see her."

Gibbs didn't back down from what Tony thought was his most intimidating glare. "I'm sure she'd rather see you. Which is why I need to see her."

"That's…" Tony knitted his brow. "That doesn't make sense."

"I left her in Israel. It's my fault she's here."

"Wouldn't have happened in the first place if not for me."

Tony wasn't sure how long the argument lasted, just that he wasn't sure if he'd won or lost when he stood in the doorway of Ziva's room in the ICU. He found the he was walking on tiptoe as he approached her. The chair positioned several feet from her bedside scraped against the tile floor as he pulled it closer. Before seeing the video footage in MTAC, he had dreamed up all kinds of scenarios in which he and Ziva met and resolved things. There were fights, both verbal and physical, challenges, promises, apologies, and reconciliations, both verbal and… He sank into the chair. Seeing her bandaged and IV'd in person was almost as bad as seeing her beaten on the video in…no. No, it wasn't.

"I was planning to hold your hand and tell you everything was gonna be okay." As both of her hands were both heavily wrapped in gauze, he gently grasped her elbow. "This doesn't seem like it would be quite as comforting, but, uh, I'm doing my best."

He waited, but the only response he received was a continuous thumping sound. He took deep breaths to slow his heart rate. "I wanted to be mad at you. Maybe we can still argue later. Now I just…I never wanted this to happen. I wouldn't wish this on someone I hated, much less…you."

He tightened his grip. "Ziva, you…I'm so sorry. Gibbs is gonna try to tell you the same thing, but it's not his fault. This is on me. If you want to wake up and shoot me…please don't make it fatal?"

He fell silent, but never let go. Eventually, her eyes fluttered open. "Tony?"

"Hey." He relaxed his hold on her elbow as she met his gaze. "We're gonna be okay."

She smiled and closed her eyes again.

The End