Title: Practice Imperfect

Summary: You've dealt with this loss before. (Tony's reaction to the greatly exaggerated reports of Ziva's death)

Warnings: Some profanity. (Sorry, the Tony in my head cusses.) Unabashed angst. Second-person voice. Set during 7.1: Truth of Consequences, at the bit when things go fuzzy.

Disclaimer: I don't own them, I just play. No infringement intended.

The really shitty thing about Ziva being dead is that you've had practice. You've done this before. You've lost your beautiful, sarcastic, maddening, dark-haired partner, twice.

It's different, of course. Kate was a shock, a shot, a terrible instant of your world being one thing, then another.

Ziva goes slowly. She stops talking and trusting, starts spinning half-truths and covering for others. She leaves you before she leaves the team. She leaves the team before she really leaves the country.

And then somewhere on the opposite side of earth, where you left her, she leaves the world entirely.

There's no terrible instant this time around, just a slow suffocating tangle of sneaking suspicions and phone calls that never come.

Of course, when you come right down to it, there's not much difference at all between the instant of a gunshot and the instant when you hear a freighter went down in an ocean. They both feel like twenty tons of water on top of you, crushing your chest and making you cold all over, like you were there beside her as it happened and the sea closed over both your heads.

You should have been beside her, because your place is at her side, talking, and teasing, and protecting her. You're certain that if you'd been there you could have beaten the ocean, conquered the storm of her father's disapproval, turned back time altogether and stopped it all from happening in the first place.

Maybe you could have. If you hadn't turned your back on her first.

You've had practice with this loss, but just like every woman is different, every death is too. There are no trappings of a funeral this time. No grave and sympathetic words from the director. Just a sort of shocked silence amongst your teammates for days on end and the familiar stab of pain whenever you look at the empty chair across from you. You'd forgotten about that part from before.

The guilt is entirely new, belonging only to this death, and the part you know you played in it. You do your best to ignore it.

Still, you've got practice. You know the steps of this dance, even if you haven't had cause to walk them in a while. You go to church and light a candle. You work out twice as long and eat half as much. You let Abby weep on your shoulder every afternoon, and you call McGee probie like always and wait for his retorts to regain their usual vigor. Your rapport with Gibbs uses the same language, but your tone is always just on the wrong side of too sharp, because that too is familiar, wanting to blame this other man and knowing you really can't. He walked away only after she chose to stay.

Your beautiful dark-haired partners, they always bring it on themselves.

So you shut down the smile, the banter, anything that distracts you from your job. You turn crime into white noise and solving it into meditation. Being the best investigator ever might not bring her back, but it sure makes for a good distraction.

And then something slips through the armor. You're raiding Abby's stash of mini-snickers in the cabinet where you know she keeps a picture of Kate. She thinks no one knows, and you don't mind because you like to pull aside the extra lab coat and steal a glance at your old partner's smiling face. You like to remember how she always knew you were going pillaging and without even looking up from her keyboard would ask you to bring back a bite-sized hershey while you were at it.

You're human, you're weak, and you can't resist twitching aside the lab coat for a masochistic peek.

And then you see double, because Abby's tacked up Ziva's picture too.

The white polyester slips through your fingers, swings back over the amused mouth, laughing eyes, the sharp point of hair that cuts through all the barriers you've erected.

You run into Gibbs in the hall, chocolate and caramel making a lump in your throat, and you cough a couple times while he waits patiently like he knows what's coming. Then you maybe tell your boss to make the next agent blonde, and promise, in return, to never fall in love with her.

It would take a lot more than such an obvious admission to rattle Gibbs, but he does look you up and down a couple times, before saying only that Abby has to deal with these things in her own way and you should stay out of the candy for a little while.

You know exactly what he means, but perversely decide to take it at face value. So you don't eat any more chocolate when you get home, but you do get completely shit-faced.

The next day, you don't pick up your gear.

(The really, really shitty thing about Ziva dying is that you have absolutely no idea what to do when it turns out she's alive.)

((I'm working on a companion bit for Ziva as a separate story, so review and let me know what you think of this format!))