Disclaimer; I own nothing; for fun, not profit; etc. Characters are nabbed from CBS and Shane Brennan et al; and the title is nabbed (again) from T.S. Eliot's Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
Spoilers: Truth or Consequences through Good Cop, Bad Cop.
Notes: This can, but doesn't have to, be read as a companion fic to my earlier and briefer Trust is a Threadbare Thing, as there are a few subtle references to it in here.
It begins again like this:
He watches her eyes go wide and uncomprehending when Salim reels back, his blood and brains spattering onto her soiled clothes, a delayed image of not-Tony with not-Kate, morphed and warped by memory, heat, and stress.
(But this is not the time for that.)
"What was she like?" Ziva had asked him, only once.
It had been late at night at the end of the summer, and she'd been living in America just shy of a month. They'd been the only two left in the squad room, and she'd been sitting at the desk of a dead woman that she wouldn't think of as strictly hers for years to come.
Gibbs answered just when she though he was going to ignore her.
He'd said it quietly, remembering Kate quick-tempered and good-hearted, empathetic and tough as nails, a little too sanctimonious at times and all too protective of them all to the very end, the back of her head blown away on an anonymous rooftop, and her limp fingers grasping a rosary in her coffin as best as they were able.
It wouldn't be until years later that she would call up that memory again, alone in a cell with her mind scattering to all its far recesses under the pressure of pain both physical and mental, conjuring the memory into pseudo-sight, and it would feel like a dream, or a former life. She would think back to the not-so-long-ago of her own easy indomitability, a dark specter hovering cloudlike over the back of her mind, lurking in her self-confidence and blazing from her eyes, heavy and close and inescapable.
And this she would feel die within her, slowly and unremittingly. Spirited, she would think,and wouldn't be able to bring herself to care.
Ziva sobs once when she feels the midafternoon heat of the desert hit her like a wave; and Gibbs motions to Tony and Tim to let him take her so that they only have to be responsible for supporting each other. She's half hysterical when Gibbs finally gets her arm around his shoulders, half dragging her until she finds her legs in the sand.
"Don't," she chokes out. "I do not – "
But that's as far as she gets.
Two years before the summer everything went to hell, he'd lurked in the shadows of the squad room and watched as Ziva snuck up on DiNozzo playing Bing Ball on his phone. Between the two of them, Gibbs figured they'd keep him honest.
She whispered something that was probably either seductive or threatening or some mixture of both breathily in his ear, and he jumped about a mile. Gibbs couldn't repress a smirk.
"God, woman!" Tony asked as he craned his neck to see a similarly smirking Ziva. "Are the rules of office manners different in Israel, or did your mother never teach you how to play nice with others?"
"Evidently yours didn't," she snarked, and gave him a soft slap on his cheek.
"I don't deserve this," Tony whined as Ziva slunk around to sit behind her own desk.
Ziva had just shrugged. "How many of us are deserving of anything we get?"
Two birds with one bullet, Gibbs thinks again on the plane back to D.C., because it's tortured him for the months before the rage over her death pushed it aside. Two birds with one bullet, and he'd never told another soul, first because of doubt, then because of nonrelevance, and finally because it was an insult to the memory of a woman they'd all loved, and Gibbs refused to take that away from them. It was easier to remember Ziva abusing staplers and hugging Abby and amusing herself at Tony's expense, in all her abrasive glory, than to remember Ziva aiding and abetting, and doing it from the very beginning.
I am a stranger and a sojourner, she'd said once; and maybe she was right; but he's stroking back her matted hair with all the unspoken gentleness he'd ever used in untangling his daughter's hair more than twenty years before.
There is, Ziva thinks, a difference between accepting death and wishing for it; and though she feels that difference so keenly, so viscerally in her heart and in her veins, she cannot bring herself to enunciate it.
(It was that same gap between definitions that had brought the others grief, she discovered later, and though it pained her, she tried and failed to put into words exactly what it felt like, even with such a great distance of time between her and Somalia. It had felt like the end of the road. It had felt like an end that she knew, suddenly, irrevocably, that her whole life had been stretching toward, thinner and tauter with each year passed, like a piece of elastic she had dared pull too tightly and too long. And this, if nothing else, had always been inevitable.
But these pithy descriptions could not come close to saying what she'd felt so terribly, so instinctively, so surely, and so she never attempted to verbalize them.)
It's autumn in Washington when she staggers off the plane, the transition from the embryonic warmth of the dark belly of the plane to the cool bright space around her skewering her senses and leaving her blind and cold. The sun is setting behind the clouds. She brings up a hand instinctively to shield her eyes from the evening sky.
There is a difference. And with her life flying free and untethered before her in the autumn wind, she's bewildered by it.
There's a sea of uncertainty she tries to dispel with a disbelief she patents and projects carefully. It's a temporary measure.
It is an interlude.
And she floats; for what else is there to do with a life so unexpected? How many times in three months had her memory come back to these places, these people; and how many times had it judged her unworthy? How many times had she struggled to make her peace with them so that she could make peace with herself? She has passed the end, or what was meant to be the end, and she continues as she is because there is nothing else to do, and no other direction offered.
She finds herself sitting alone at the desk of a dead woman when Gibbs comes into the squad room and looks at her; and she cannot read his expression.
There's a difference between losing trust and questioning it that lies mostly in the way you can – or can't – regain it.
He was my brother, she is saying. And you were nothing.
Ziva's been taught to hide a lie or build one up, depending on the situation; and she does it well. Gibbs knows this. But there's something about her stance and her voice, and the way she invokes a family she no longer has, that convinces him that this is for real.
She's been his for years now, but only on loan; and they've both always been excruciatingly aware of this. (He remembers holding her tight as she sobbed over a shared memory almost lost and rendered meaningless, Ari killed Kate and I killed Ari and he – was – my – brother. This had been the beginning of the end of everything; and neither had been aware of this.)
How could you even think? she's asking, not quite crying and not quite broken because all that is so far behind her now, and there is so much more now to consider. There is severance and self-disinheritance and drifting in the open ocean waiting to be saved or claimed by something, someone.
She's saying, The closest thing I have to a father is accusing me.
And there's that.
"Americans throw around the word home very callously," Ziva had once told him on a hot summer day in a parking lot. The pavement had sent up illusory waves of heat. She'd been wearing an NCIS had with a 9mm hole in the bill ("For ventilation," he'd told her years and years before) and her hair pulled severely back into a bun.
Today, she sits silently with her eyes downcast because she is so fundamentally changed, and she cannot concretely know if any home will accept her now in her entirety, for both what she was, and for what she has become. She's predicated on a person she no longer is. She is floating.
(There were no survivors, he hears his voice echo back across two and a half months, and thinks he was half right.)
Gibbs thinks of her hanging scarecrow-like over DiNozzo and McGee's shoulders, her fingers dangling limp and skeletal and clutching all the nothing that wasn't there to clutch; and he thinks of the hollow look in her eyes when she'd caught sight of him; and he cannot play with chances with a man who would do this so callously to his own daughter.
But she's been his for years; and this isn't a callous thing, at least, because he's almost shaking with anger and snarling, She is off limits.
And there's that too.
"Do you ever regret it?" he asked her, only once.
It was a late night, after a hard case, and she'd been drawn to his basement. She'd started sanding the curve of one rib, and he'd reluctantly poured her two fingers of bourbon into a mason jar he'd first had to empty of nails.
She thought about it – had she not tortured herself over countless fitful days and nights over the same question? – and considered telling him that killing Ari had been the first, irrevocable step in losing her very world and definition. Everything came back to that one, terrible act.
"It is what it is," she had replied, her words echoing through time and space to wait for her months from now, when she'll be so very tired of herself and life as it had become, with the heavy Mogadishu sun beating down on her weary body, and nothing to do but carry on.
At any cost, her father will say.
(At every cost, she will come to find.)
But speaking then in the basement, she had been only a quarter so desperate, and only half so confused, and not despairing at all; for all that was still then yet to come.
And it begins again like this:
She watches him with apprehension as he comes around to her side of the table in interrogation, two birds, one bullet, and nothing but death in my heart. She shivers, and refuses to look at him as he bends down to speak in her ear.
"This is your home, Ziva," he says, "if you want it to be."
This time, she does not flinch from its meaning, but only nods and cries with all the loss and relief she can no longer contain.
He kisses her hairline, and backs away to give her space. It is wide and forgiving, and she feels her very life fill the silence around her. It is thick and concentrated in the air she breathes, and speaks of a not-so-distant future of an unbridged chasm between them all, I am a stranger but no longer a sojourner, the loss of both of her worlds and all her identity weighing heavily on her soul.
But you're here now, their actions will object; and although everything will seem to be much like it always was, it won't be, and they'll be all too aware of this. But you're here; and it will never be spoken aloud, but she will hear it in all of their timbres in a thousand different inflections and a million subsequent meanings.
She will wonder:
I am here, and…
(But this, of course, is not the time for that.