Disclaimer: If I owned them, there would be a lot more Tony and Ziva happening. That is all I'm saying. Title, and references to it within, is stolen from Emily Dickinson poem of the same name. I don't own that, either. Also, there's a line cribbed from Casablanca in here. Bonus points to anyone who spots it; hey, I can't help that Tony thinks in movie quotes sometimes!
A.N.: This has been languishing on my hard drive for a while. Hope everyone is in the mood for a little pre-Turkey Day angst fest (for those in the States, otherwise just an angsty Thursday!). It's yet another fic that explains what our favorite duo went through over the summer. Spoilers up through Truth or Consequences. Big hugs and thanks and dreams of MW to Ana for offering help and encouragement on this!
Hope is the thing with feathers
She holds out for a long time. This does not surprise her.
What was it that one of her Mossad instructors said? Stubborn as a bull? There was a time when she would outlast all of her teammates because there is no worse pain than the sharp sting of failure. Israel above all else, her father always said. What is a little blood, sweat, agony in comparison to the survival of your people?
You only have one life to sacrifice, my daughter, he'd said. Make sure you are worthy.
A thought strikes her suddenly, more violently than the pistol whipped across her face: This is it. This is what you've been doing your whole life. You haven't been living; you've been preparing to die.
The revelation is a reprieve from the pain. On the strength of its wings, she is lifted high above her dusty prison, far away from sickening crunch of breaking bone and tearing skin. It is loneliness. It is freedom. She is a good soldier, always has been.
Be worthy of this sacrifice.
She is thousands of miles away from those who would beg her to live.
Her last memories are of those who would send her to die and their eyes shine with approval.
Her absence hovers around the edge of his awareness. Consciously, minute-to-minute, he reminds himself, Ziva is gone.
Ziva is gone. Ziva made her choice. Ziva left us. She left me.
The words loop through his mind so he never really forgets.
But, no, that's not entirely true. I do forget. But then he turns to tell her a joke or show-off a sketch or just take in the confident way she stands down danger, and she isn't there and he remembers all over again.
It's like being knocked off-balance. Each time it hits him, the concept throws him for a loop. She's really gone. You can look for her all you want, DiNozzo, but she won't be there. Hours pass where he feels like he's just scrambling for the right footing, those thoughts buzzing through his mind and sending him reeling. Like he's just trying not to fall down.
So, he goes about his days trying to ignore the dull ache in his chest. It's a minor annoyance, really. He tells himself she'll call when she's ready and then he can get himself good and mad about the way she left him. Them.
He smiles because they expect him to smile. He laughs because that's what he does. And if his jokes fall flat, no one seems to notice because they are too busy actively ignoring the big, gaping hole in their team.
Every day when he wakes up, he hopes that today will be the day Ziva David realizes what she left behind. He hopes that today will be the day he won't be surprised that she's gone.
They rip her body apart, but what of it? Her mind remains strong, focused, even as she forgets what it means to feel whole. She is here, there, and everywhere but at the mercy of the ones who will try and break her. They try to call her back to her present, where her eyes water against the burn of their cigarettes, their sunlight, their clawing hands, but she forges her own reality instead.
It is surprising how much pain the body can tolerate if one knows how to take it. They don't want her dead, not before they get their answers. They…he…knows just how much blood can be shed before the bliss takes over and how little water is needed to sustain life. Torture is an art form and Saleem is a true artist. His methods are sound, predictable but stylish. She respects this about him.
Respect is a passive emotion; it requires so little energy.
Fear. Hatred. Regret. Longing. Anger. Guilt. Love.
Now those are the ones that take work. States of being that scatter the soul and wound the heart.
Respect is better. Dignity. Acceptance.
She can't bring herself to feel much more than that.
It's only her body that they are stealing. Only flesh and bone and muscle that will die, turn to dust, and remain here, in this dark place. Let them have it.
Her secrets stay safe, wrapped in her disposable tissue, tucked in the darkest corners of her mind, ready to be carried off in the wind.
You are here to die, Ziva.
What else is there to do but accept it? Who will come for her now?
It's just not normal.
It's been too long.
If before missing Ziva was an ache now it's positively a pain and he doesn't know how to deal with it.
She wouldn't just leave us like this. Even if she hates me, fine, but she wouldn't just leave everyone else.
It doesn't feel right.
Nothing feels right.
He missed her those months he was afloat; he worried about her. But even in his emotional hole, he could pretend that everything would work out in the end. He talked to her picture at night, considered the arch of her eyebrow as she condemned his behavior with little more than a frozen look, and had faith that he'd see her again.
Now he isn't so sure.
He dreams about her all the time. He wakes up with fire pouring through his veins, clutching at the memory of her thighs pressed so tightly against his in a fact act of love. He finds his sheets soaked through with sweat. His heart pounds out her name and he curses her betrayal in the darkness. He feels her looming over him, gun bruising his chest, and doesn't understand the electricity that courses through that memory.
He hates her at the same time he longs for her, craves her.
Bourbon helps to dull his memories and regret. He pretends he still cares about movies and girls and fast cars but really he finds he spends most nights nursing a bottle of booze and staring at the white walls of his apartment. He thinks maybe he should learn how to build something.
Guilt is his constant companion; its strings are easily plucked at the slightest reminder of his partner, emotion resonating through his body for days.
He picks up the phone to call her a dozen times and he can't decide if he's more afraid that she can't answer or that she won't.
Every time he closes his eyes he's graced with the perfect curve of her smile.
That Saleem lets her have hope is perhaps the cruelest torture of all.
Hope is the thing with feathers.
She remembers learning that line once, so many years ago. The rest of the poem is lost to her now. She tries to retrieve it from the recesses of her mind. She contemplates words and tries to make them fit, tries to recreate the rhythm of the poem and the image it painted in her mind but none of them ever feel quite right.
Hope is the thing with feathers.
Brittle fingers trace the dirt wall of her cell. One lone beam of sunlight keeps time for her and gives her a hint of the outside world. She stares at that thin line until it means nothing to her. She waits for the light to flicker, to show any sign of life outside, that someone or something has interrupted the unimaginable distance between her and the sun. But she remains alone.
She pictures a blue sky. Birds and clouds. Sunshine that warms her skin.
There are no birds here.
No hope either.
I am ready to die.
There were no survivors, Gibbs says, and Tony's world folds in on itself.
He thinks the feeling should be more cataclysmic than this. He expects to feel his heart being torn from his chest, air being punched from his lungs. But, no, Gibbs pronounces her dead and his reaction is no more complex than the flick of a switch.
There were no survivors.
There is no sound, no color. No power to see beyond this single moment in time.
Abby's arms encircle him; her tears wet his shoulder. McGee's eyes speak lines of sympathy. And then there is Ducky and Palmer, trying their best. Their hands proclaim solidarity on his back and urge solace in a glass.
Gibbs just gives him a knowing look and it's that exchange that nearly sends Tony to his knees.
It's no use, guys. I'm already drowning. I'm not worth saving. Just let me be.
The day-to-day tedium of life seems so far removed from him. He brushes his teeth, drops his suits off at the dry cleaners, solves cases, and yet can hardly remember if or when he ate breakfast.
There is no color in his life. No sound save a constant humming that no one else seems to hear.
He hates himself for not realizing it before. He hates himself for letting her get away so easily, not doing more to protect her from those who would make her a pawn in some stupid spy game.
He wonders how he could keep her so distant when she fit so well against him.
The fever dreams begin. The end is near.
Hope, that damned bird, takes flight in her mind. But no…. that's not hope, that's regret and guilt for the choices she has made, for the things she tossed aside so carelessly. She tries to feel nothing again, but she has lost all resolve and, unleashed, the emotions crash over her like waves.
This is her punishment.
Her blood, her sweat, her tears, and the constant, stabbing, throbbing ache of life that refuses to abandon her is her penance.
Let me die, let me die.
But Gibbs comes to her, eyes the color of summer, and passes a calloused hand over her brow. She closes her eyes against the touch, against the warmth on her clammy skin. She does not deserve it and yet something in the air around him (a hint of sawdust, the power of his posture) makes her body shake with barren sobs.
Live, dammit! Abby's voice rises to the top of her dusty cell and, for once, the jingle of chains doesn't make her flinch. Abby's arms are firm and comforting as they pull her close. And then Tali's there, too, and Ziva remembers what it's like to feel loved unconditionally. No, that's not true. Ziva regrets not accepting what it feels like to be loved unconditionally.
I'm sorry, Ziva whispers into the stifling night air. I deserve this.
Ducky's grin slants at her, an awkward angle. And there's Palmer, too, with his eager eyes. Their skilled fingers tend to her wounds, clinical words assure her that life will go on. That Saleem's keeping her just alive enough to suffer. Just alive enough to think.
Please let me die, she asks of them. And for nights and nights the only sound in the dark is her shallow breath. Surely each one will be her last. Hopefully.
McGee wakes her up one morning with the weight of his stare. His smile is easy, open, and she confesses her sins starting all the way back at the beginning. He listens. When her voice finally abandons her, she presses her body flat against her cell wall and tries to remain perfectly still.
She has nothing more to give. There is so little left. Let them have it. Let me die here in peace.
Hope is the thing with feathers.
She laughs. What a silly thing to say.
One day the buzzing stops. It's then he realizes that he won't accept this reality.
She cannot be dead. She can't be.
Because if she were dead, well and truly gone, he is sure he'd know. He is sure he would feel it somehow. Isn't that how it works? Wouldn't Ziva David, of all people, find someway to sway her spiritual ass in his direction?
He's half crazy with grief. He hasn't slept in weeks. He's probably semi-drunk, maybe only halfway sober.
He tries to lose himself in the creamy skin of another woman because, after all, isn't sex Anthony DiNozzo's drug of choice? But the hair that tangles in his fingers is the wrong color and the chuckle in his ear isn't throaty enough. Another woman's body pulls him in, warm with comfort and slick with desire, but it isn't enough.
Will anyone ever be enough?
Home before the sun rises, he finds himself laughing in the shower. The phantom hands of a lover he's never truly known caress his skin and when he turns to her, when he loses himself in Ziva's eyes (alive, like always, and brimming with secrets), he knows then that there is no him without her anymore.
He wishes he could remember what it felt like to fall in love with her.
She doesn't forget Tony. Doesn't block him out of her mind, though not for lack of trying.
He is her constant.
He is there, watching, when they bruise her skin. She holds his gaze; she tries to measure the weight of it as Saleem pokes and prods her. Some days she cries out for him; his name on her lips always a surprise when it returns to her ears. It is weeks before he takes her hand and traces her scars with reverent, healing fingers. His lips part in such a way that makes her tremble. She doesn't have the strength to fight, but in his eyes she finds a material that fuels her.
He is there, so close, but always too far. She reaches out to him, but then in a glimmer, in a trick of light, he is gone.
She wants to die. She spends days, weeks, contemplating suicide, but Saleem gives her no means or opportunity. And she won't give him the satisfaction of asking for his mercy.
Live for me, are the only words Tony ever says to her.
She will not lie to him ever again, she decides. I would live for you Tony. I did live for you. But not any longer.
It hurts too much. Please let me die. I am ready.
And then her eyes flutter closed as he wraps his arms around her and brings her home. Her body goes slack with relief.
I love you, she whispers into the dust, and I don't think you ever realized that.
Forgive me. I was wrong. I am sorry.
She knows it's not really his scent that she's inhaling or the sweep of his hands on her heated skin. She knows she is all alone here. There is no Tony, no McGee, no Gibbs, or Abby, or Ducky, or Palmer. She is alone and she will die alone. It's only fitting.
Tony whispers nonsense into her ear and she curls into his phantom embrace.
A breath and then he is gone.
Something flutters in her chest, takes flight, and then there is acceptance.
His life is all forward momentum now. He's headed for one spectacular crash, but honestly—fuck it.
Somewhere inside he should care that he's drawn McGee into this. Tony doesn't much care anymore if he lives or dies, but Tim is his friend and deserves better. After making the arrangements for their trip to Africa, he spends the rest of the morning putting his affairs in order. If McSidekick survives, he gets the bulk of his movie collection plus his home theater equipment. Also some porn, because how else will the Probie learn?
Feeling strangely happy, he finds himself whistling as he packs. He tucks one of his well-worn bikini photos of Ziva in his pocket. Before he folds her image in two, his finger traces the shape of her body.
Later, when he tastes the desert sand in his mouth, there is no fear. When Saleem's men manhandle him into his cell, there is only relief.
Finally, this is what it feels like to be alive.
This is it. This is the end.
Saleem shoves a cloth sack over her head and drags her from the room. Anger radiates from him, a heat that simmers on his skin, and it's the first time she's felt him lose control. She closes her eyes, not that it makes a difference in the darkness, and offers up a silent prayer for forgiveness. She asks that no one will ever have to know of her time here or of the horrors she's endured. She welcomes the sweet release of death.
But then the sack is wrenched from her head, and she's rendered nearly blind by the unforgiving light, but she swears, swears it is Tony sitting in front of her.
I am dreaming. I am hallucinating.
Tony lights up at the sight of her, eyes the sultry color of foreign seas. His lips curl up and his shoulder falls just so. Beads of sweat traverse the rocky terrain of his features and she has to blink to be sure he isn't a mirage.
I am dead and this is my hell.
Pain flares in her chest and she can't tell if it's her body or her heart that is more broken. She chokes on her breath.
Tony is here. Real Tony or her Tony? Her Tony is not dirty and sweaty and sarcastic. Her Tony never looks at her with such disbelief, with such amazement, that she swears she can see straight through the ocean of his eyes and into his soul.
Why must you torture me so, Tony? She wants to scream. You are not real!
But he is real. Wonderfully, beautifully real and his lips are chapped and his face is bloody and she cannot breathe because he is here and this was not how it was supposed to happen.
Hope blossoms in her chest; life unfolds its promises before her. She was ready to die but now Tony is sitting, a prisoner, before her. This is not her angel of death, but a cruel reminder of life. Or perhaps some cosmic form of punishment, her worst nightmare come true: Tony (and, oh god, she can smell him and see his pulse throbbing in his neck and remember all too well the solid strength of his body) will die before her eyes, before her, and then McGee, who came here for her, too, and if she had any will left in her at all…
Can you fight, Ziva? He asks her, the man who cannot live without her and would allow himself to be captured and tortured and put to death just to avenge her name…
Surely it is the only tear she has to spare that escapes down her cheek. Her heart constricts in protest. I cannot, I cannot, is all she thinks, please let me die. But that fluttering thing roots in her chest and makes her strong. For one brief, glorious moment she thinks it will be enough to carry them up and out of this hell.
The blade against her flesh is familiar; the look of horror on Tony's face is not.
It's okay, she wants to say, I forgive you. Please forgive me.
We will die together now. She blinks her acceptance of this. Of what she never wanted to happen, not ever. She both hates him and loves him so much that she thinks the power of the emotions will kill her first.
Why did you have to come here? Have I not done enough? Do I need your blood on my hands, too?
She locks eyes with him, determined that his face be the last thing she sees before she dies. She couldn't ask for anything more, except: let him live, please, let him live.
Then, a miracle from the sky.
For a long moment, he forgets how to breathe. In brilliant Technicolor, Ziva appears before him: purple bruises, ashen skin, and despair so black it nearly suffocates him. The gasp that escapes her lips reminds him that air is a necessity and slowly his world begins to turn again.
You should not have come, she says in a voice without life.
He wants to laugh. He wants to cry. Truths threaten to spill from his lips.
And isn't this what he wanted? Ziva, his Ziva, beautiful, alive and with a flame still burning somewhere underneath all that apathy and grime.
He defaults to sarcasm and is elated at her response. There's the fire, the strength, of this astounding woman. Whatever hell he's found Ziva in, he knows that it has to be okay now because she is alert enough to sense McGee, wise enough to call his bullshit, and wicked enough to press him for answers.
I love you, he wants to say but because those three little words can hardly encompass the significance of this moment, and all of the ones that have come before it, they are easily suppressed.
I couldn't live without you, he tells her. It's the truth. But now he has no reason to die, not when he's been given a gift he never dared to ask for. He can't let her down now. He won't.
I need you, Ziva. Please, fight for me. Fight for us.
He tells Saleem he's not afraid and it's true. Ziva tries to cut him down with sharp words and pieces of her heart tossed at his feet. He doesn't care if she's lost all hope because he has enough for the both of them. Though the panic that flares her nostrils when he tells her tales of their rescue and the horror that explodes in her eyes as Saleem threatens her life are a sick comfort to him because it means she still wants to live. Somewhere, deep down, there are promises to be made.
He's not afraid because failure is not a possible outcome now. There is life and there is death. Either they make it out alive, or he dies. Simple as that. There is a future now with Ziva in it, or there is no future.
You have 30 seconds to live, Saleem, he promises and sits back and waits for fate to take a hand.
Time was irrelevant for so long. There was no before or after, no ribbon of moments unfurling its promises and regrets. There was just the impossible weight of now, nothing and everything surrounding her: nights and hours and breaths blending together, a static existence in a field of white.
Now, the constraint of linear time collapses on her and snaps life back into order: guns flashing, men falling, freedom at last, and steady arms supporting weakened limbs.
It is with disbelief that she allows Tony and McGee to lead her away from her death sentence. Tony's hand comes up to close over hers; one second explodes into a lifetime as he brushes his thumb across her skin. She finds she has more tears after all. And then it's the beat, beat, beat of her heart that marks the forward march of reality. The earth groans as it begins to turn beneath her again.
How long has it been? How fast can time pass?
She's been here forever, but as she sags against her partners, she feels her time in the desert filter through her mind like so much sand.
Then Gibbs is there, her savior as always.
The last thing she remembers before the blackness takes over is the lovely sound of her name on Tony's lips.
High in the sky, he watches her sleep.
His heart chooses now to beat uncontrollably, anxiety the most pedestrian emotion he's felt in awhile.
What happens now? Where do we go from here?
Questions about an unpredictable future run rampant in his mind.
He quiets them by choosing to focus on the steady rise and fall of her chest. Proof of life. He's supposed to be strapped into a seat now, protecting himself from turbulence. Instead, he's standing guard over a sleeping Ziva and hoping his heavy gaze will chase her nightmares away.
His hand hovers over hers and it takes all of his willpower not to test the solid presence of her skin. Though she allowed him to carry her out of that prison, it was hard to miss the caged look in her eyes or the way she recoiled at the slightest perceived threat.
I know you're broken, Ziva, but I will spend the rest of my life putting you back together if that's what you need.
Satisfied with this unspoken vow, he settles into the nearest seat to maintain his vigil. But not before he gives in and allows himself to brush a limp curl from her face. For the barest second, Ziva stiffens at his touch but when he murmurs words of comfort, she settles again.
Her mouth forms a sound and, as he watches her sleep, he pretends it's his name.
It gives him hope.