Author's Note: Sequel to Smoke in the Wind, because apparently I just don't know when to leave well enough alone. ;)
If you haven't read Smoke, you might miss out on some of the little references and backstory. Your call, really. In the spirit of new beginnings, we're moving away from all the angsting and into something slightly lighter. Not to imply that everything is a-okay. Just... more casefic, more Team Gibbs, less constant self-flagellation. And, um... Tiva. (Like there was ever any doubt)

Summary: It's all well and good to have your questions answered, but what do you do when the answers just bring about more questions? Ziva has abandoned her past and now has to find her place in an uncertain future. Tony's found his feet in the present but is about to be hit with a blast from his past. Everyone else is trying to deal with the fallout as best they can.

Disclaimer: The trained monke- uh, writers... over at Bellisario et al (or whoever's running the show these days) own the characters and settings, and most likely a few of the references. Though sometimes I'm sorely tempted to confiscate the lot for gross misuse of canon and reverse character development. Yeah, SB, I'm lookin' at you and your 'shocking development' anvils of doooom.



They wait on the glistening tarmac as the plane roars overhead, beginning its descent in a scream of engines that cuts through the cold Washington morning like a knife. Abby shifts her weight in nervous anticipation and turns to McGee with a worried frown.

"We should have bought flowers or something," she says, biting her black-stained lip. Her voice wavers slowly up through the registers into something approaching a whine. "Timmy, why didn't you remind me about the flowers? I told you to text me! I was going to stop by the florist, but I forgot, and now we have nothing to give Ziva…"

McGee shades his eyes against the muted glare and studies her. "Tony said she didn't want us to make a fuss, Abs. You know Ziva. She's not… I think she'd just be embarrassed if we made a big deal out of this." Abby twists a pigtail fiercely, unconvinced.

He tries again, casting a helpless glance toward Ducky. "We're here," he says gently, pulling her hand away from her hair. "I'm pretty sure that will be enough. Just… relax, okay?"

She glares at him. Oops. Wrong thing to say to someone who's probably been mainlining Caf-Pow since the early hours of the morning.

"Abigail," Ducky cuts in reassuringly, "I believe what Tim is trying to say is that our presence here will be enough. Ziva has never been one for demonstrative gestures, or gifts, and it is likely that she is still somewhat fragile after her ordeal, not to mention the hours of travelling."

McGee tries not to frown as Ducky repeats everything he just said… but far more eloquently. An award winning writer who can't even string a sentence together. If his adoring fans could see him now, his publisher would be flooded with refund requests.

Abby stops her nervous bouncing with concerted effort as the private plane touches down and begins the slow taxi towards them. The runway is deserted save for the small white plane approaching their ragged little group. McGee can't help but be a little nervous.

Gibbs hasn't said much in their few brief conversations, but from what he can gather Ziva is still very much at the beginning of the long road to full recovery. If it hadn't been for Director David's insistence that they leave Egypt as soon as possible, the doctor at the North Base Camp probably never would have cleared her to travel in the first place.

There's something to be said for Mossad-style intimidation, he thinks idly as the plane shudders to a stop in front of them and the pilot cuts the engines. After a beat, during which Abby tries unsuccessfully to suppress a squeak of excitement and Ducky's face spreads in a slow smile, the main door slides smoothly downwards and a silver-haired figure appears in the opening.

"Gibbs!" Abby says eagerly, moving forward faster than anyone wearing such ridiculously high boots should move. He steps onto the tarmac and braces himself for the inevitable. "Permission to hug?" she asks, a split-second before launching herself at him.

"What'd I tell you about asking permission, Abs?" he says gruffly, squeezing her and then stepping back to look at them. "McGee. Heard you've been making yourself useful down in the sub-basement. Hope you're not considering a transfer."

In an odd Gibbs-like way, it's a compliment. Or… that's how he's choosing to take it, anyway.

"Boss," McGee says by way of greeting, wondering if it's just the long flight or the past few weeks that have carved deeper lines on Gibbs' newly tanned face. "It was just a temporary arrangement."

"Good," Gibbs replies. "Gonna need all hands on deck. We're one short, and I hear we already have a case."

"Uh…we do?" Off Gibbs' look, "Oh – the Michaelson investigation. Right. Well, Agent Yates is here for a few more days. I told her to handle it."

"You told her," Gibbs says with a shade of approval. "Better un-tell her, Elf Lord. Expect to see you in the squadroom by 1100. Clear?"

"You got it, Boss," McGee replies quickly, his eyes straying to the door of the plane where Tony has appeared, looking tanned and slightly… frayed around the edges. Dream vacation destination, Egypt is obviously not. Or at least, not the part of Egypt the rest of his team were visiting.

Visiting is really not the right word.

"Mind giving me a hand here, McGiggle?"

McGee doesn't get the chance to answer, as a backpack comes hurtling from the top of the steps. He only barely manages to catch it, planting his feet to avoid knocking Ducky and Gibbs over. Tony smirks a little at him from the doorway. "Guess you were too busy running one-boy tactical assault teams online to play much catch as a kid."

It's kind of comforting to think that some things never change.

He's barely finished the thought when Tony moves to the side and Ziva steps out gingerly into the grey light of the morning, waving off Tony's offered hand and making her way slowly down the steps.

Beside him, Abby draws in a ragged breath, and Ziva looks up warily, hesitating on the second to last step. McGee's eyes flick to Tony, who is watching Ziva with an expression that is tender, worried and fiercely protective all at the same time.

Her skin is paler than normal underneath the blue and purple bruising that covers most of the left side of her face and blooms under both of her eyes like smudged mascara. The hand not gripping the railing is encased in plaster and more or less immobile, swollen and equally bruised fingers poking out above the bone-white cast.

He knows there are probably other injuries hidden under the clothes she wears to cover her too-thin body, but he doesn't want to think about them just now in what should be a joyous moment. Just like he chooses to ignore the implications of her wearing what is obviously Tony's Ohio State t-shirt.

And yet…

McGee can't help but stare at her cropped hair, a few stray curls whipping wildly around her face in the wind. She looks young and shy and suddenly not at all intimidating. No longer the regal White Witch, she is Aslan the lion; stripped of his great and glorious mane and tied to the sacrificial stone, waiting to accept whatever fate throws at her.

The comparison makes him shiver, and Ziva's eyes meet his slowly at the involuntary movement. He smiles in what he hopes is a welcoming way, because really, he couldn't be happier to have her back. Even if he doesn't quite know how to show it without making the fuss she didn't want.

Perhaps he should have thought to remind Abby about the flowers after all.

"Ziva!" Abby says in a bright voice, rushing forward and then stopping inches away from the ex-Mossad Officer. "Can I… I mean, will it hurt you if I…" she falters. Ziva smiles slightly and steps down onto solid ground, Tony close behind her but not close enough to crowd. McGee watches Ziva's face soften as Abby folds her into a tentative hug, babbling all the while about Egypt and missing her and oddly, something about an Aunt Barbara.

He's not sure what that's about, but Ziva seems to understand, as does Tony who snorts less than subtly.

She bears the affection with her usual grace, though for a moment he thinks he sees her eyes shine a little too brightly. Blinking rapidly, she pulls back and meets his eyes with a clear gaze. He puts it down to his overactive imagination.

"Hey, Ziva," Tim says, unable to hide the grin that splits his face. "Good to have you back. Both of you," he adds after a minute. "It's just not a normal day at the office without the threat of being glued to something."

It's a lame attempt, but it does the trick, and they bask in the shared laughter for a long moment before Tony slips an arm casually around Ziva's shoulders. She tenses at the contact, but doesn't move away.

"C'mon, sweet cheeks," he says easily, "Your chariot awaits."

Ducky is suddenly at her side, a wheelchair at the ready. Ziva frowns at it silently, the bruises on her face twisting and melding in a way that must hurt like a –

"I am not an invalid," she says in a way that tells McGee they've had this argument before. He fights to hide his grin, because that tone generally means that she's getting ready to hurt something and despite her currently unclear status as a gun-happyfederal agent, he doesn't doubt for a minute that she has a knife concealed on her person somewhere.

"My dear, I am afraid it is quite a trek to the car and you look exhausted from your trip, so we had thought that – " Ducky starts, and she sighs resignedly and sits down with a scowl. Tony looks on with a triumphant expression on his face which fades quickly as she kicks him in the shin.

"Uncalled for," he yelps, "especially since I let you sleep sprawled all over me on the plane without once kicking you out of my personal space or complaining about the snoring. Next time I'll take the bed all for myself."

"There's a bed in there?" Abby asks, eyeing the plane with interest.

"Didn't quite live up to the Austin Powers standard of cabin décor, but yeah, there is something that could be classed as a bed." Tony says with a wistful sigh. "One step up from a hospital bed, at least. Six steps from a lumpy mattress on the floor."

"You are just disappointed that it did not rotate when you sprawled on it," she shoots back. Abby hovers close by, almost close enough to touch her, as though she's worried that if she can't anchor Ziva to the earth she'll disappear off the face of it.

She almost did, he reminds himself bluntly.

"You two keep this up, I'll give you something to rotate on," Gibbs says from a few feet away. "McGee, did I make myself clear what time you were required at NCIS today?"

"Uh, 1100, Boss, but it's only…"

"My watch might not be set to Washington time, McGee, but that doesn't mean I can't see yours. Stock prices improve in the last few weeks?"

McGee pulls his jacket down over his latest indulgence awkwardly. His publisher is negotiating a movie deal, but he's not quite ready to reveal that piece of information yet… if only to spare them all Tony's inevitable musing over his top casting choices for Agent Tommy.

Tommy… Tony grabs his arm with a grin, pushing up his sleeve and studying the timepiece. "Tag Heuer Aquaracer. Not a big fan of the blue face, but whatever works for you, McGemcity. The Continuing Adventures of LJ Tibbs are in fact continuing then?"

"Actually, the next one's all about Agent Tommy," McGee replies as they head for the parking lot, biting the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing at Tony's sudden hopeful look. "Tired of his fast-paced crime fighting life, he joins a religious sect in Tibet and sets about healing himself through quiet contemplation and goat-tending."

Ziva sputters out a laugh at the expression on Tony's face, wincing at the jarring of her ribs. "I do not like goats," she says quickly, and they all pretend to ignore the ragged edge to her voice. "Perhaps sheep would be a better choice?"

"Agent Tommy in the Australian outback; wearing an Akubra with corks dangling from the brim," McGee muses, more to distract from her discomfort than for any other reason. "The idea has merit."

"He'll need a bigger knife," Gibbs cuts in, and they blink at him. "What?"

"You don't know who Magneto is, but you've seen Crocodile Dundee?" Tony says disbelievingly. "You cut me deep, Boss."

"You'll recover, DiNozzo. Or at least, you better, and damn quick." He tosses Tony the keys to the Charger and McGee frowns, wondering when Gibbs took them from his jacket pocket. "0700 Monday, and be grateful you're getting the weekend."

"Got it, Boss," Tony says smartly, popping the trunk and tossing their bags inside carelessly. McGee figures they must have discussed Ziva's temporary accommodation on the plane, because she pushes herself up from the wheelchair slowly, her teeth sinking into her lip.

"Ziva," Gibbs says as she pushes past Tony firmly and opens the door herself. She turns her battered face to them and McGee forces himself not to wince. "He pisses you off too much with his movie rambling, my offer still stands." She nods and folds herself awkwardly into the passenger seat, her hand hovering near her ribs protectively.

It's easy to ignore the events of the last few weeks in the face of all the banter. McGee suspects that that's what Gibbs and Tony were aiming for, and while he's glad of the hint that things might go back to how they were, a little voice whispers in his ear that it's all just a bit too easy, it should be harder than this to fall back into their old patterns.

It should be harder than this to forget.

Relieved of her Ziva duty, Abby steps closer to Gibbs instead, signing something that makes his mouth tighten in what McGee thinks might be contemplative displeasure. Or maybe it's just the writer in him putting complicated words to simple things.

Loss. Grief. Pain. Love.

Simple words for complicated things.

Ziva's eyes meet his as the car roars to life – perceptive as always – and her careful measured gaze is shaded with something dark and infinitely sad. Her lips curl slightly but the smile doesn't touch her eyes, as though she's exhausted her ability to make believe this is the happy ending rather than the beginning of a whole new journey.

McGee wonders idly if little Israeli children (especially children named David) hear fairytales at bedtime, or if she grew up hearing stories of missions and weapons and loyalty to ones country. Somehow, he doubts that her father told her fanciful stories about princesses and mermaids and love conquers all.

"Uh, Boss?" he says as something occurs to him. "Tony just drove off in our one car. How are we getting back to the office?"

He's almost disappointed that he doesn't feel a palm on the back of his head. He's a creature of habit, after all, and he thinks he understands now what Tony meant in the wake of Kate's death about the unreality of Gibbs being nice.

Half-wanting it and expecting it are two different things, and though McGee can't help but flinch at the delayed smack, he still has to turn away to hide his smile.

In hindsight, it probably wasn't a bad idea to 'forget' about the flowers.

Hope you can forgive me for posting what is essentially an epilogue as the start of a new story. The next chapter will pick up a good few weeks down the track, but we needed a bridging scene between the two periods. Hence the faux-prologue.

As always, reviews and anything else you might feel the need to send my way are very much appreciated. Thanks for reading! ;)