A/N: I've been picking at this for days and have finally decided to share. It's as good as it's gonna get.
Those of you who have read the play or seen the movie adaptation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (they're both incredible – I can't recommend either one enough), you might catch the references that I make to it in this story, and you might catch my very blatant homage to Guildenstern's "There must have been a moment" speech.
The rating is mostly for violence, and the violence is mostly not that bad. No real pairings, but maybe some hints of pairings if you look hard enough.
And you ought to know that I'm kind of crappy with exposition, so this is all pretty abrupt stuff in here…I wrote it, as usual, in fragments, and when I went to piece it together at the end I realized that half of it is descriptive realism and half of it is merely "wisp" writing; you'll have to forgive the fact that forming segways between the two is nearly impossible.
Lastly, as always, reviews are reciprocated. Thanks.
Of Fate and Fortinbras
In her sleep, she could hear the sounds of a blade piercing the waters; could see a trail of smoke where the tide had burned the sword to the hilt; and still she swung and tried to splay it, and wondered in the haze-framed ether of the dream what right she had to wrestle with the sea; what right she had to deny it the sweet, simple reprisal of consuming her alive.
She could see her own breath in the cold air of the basement, billowing out in thin, papery wisps. A light at the center of the ceiling made it possible for her to see her own shadow projected on the floor, but there was little else to see; the basement was largely empty, but for two or three low shelves in the wall. She took aim at the corners, then lowered her gun.
Behind her, Tony was rifling through a shelf at the bottom of the stairwell.
"These jars are all empty," he said. "Why would anyone keep a bunch of dirty jars in their basement?"
She shrugged. Her attention was still drawn to the wide corners of the room, though she had little interest. "It doesn't look like there was much of anything else to keep down here," she muttered.
Tony replaced the jar.
He was moving further into the basement, towards the other shelves, when a voice came over his radio and he quickly picked it up.
"Yeah?" he said.
McGee's voice on the other end was obscured by a cloud of static, and Ziva turned, looking at Tony. He furrowed his brow towards the radio.
"Can't hear you," he said, "There's too much static."
"It must be the basement," Ziva said.
"I'm gonna take this upstairs."
She nodded, and turned away as he fled up the stairs and out of the basement.
She felt no real need to stay behind; there was nothing to find down there. But as she turned, something glinted from the corner and she paused, narrowing her eyes.
Gun firmly in hand, she inched closer, carefully watching the corners of the basement and wondering suddenly if it had been booby-trapped, somehow; but as she came to the one corner and crouched, she found only a broken jar, its jagged edges dark as if they'd been scorched.
She felt something shifting to her right, and immediately the hairs along the base of her skull were bristling. There was not time for noise, no time to look, but she was suddenly and keenly aware of something treacherous rushing towards her. She fell to one knee and pivoted in the dust – something went sailing just above her head and slammed against the stone wall with a deafening crack. Before she could even register what the threat was or where it had come from, she had drawn her gun and taken aim.
He lurched to the side just as she fired, and the bullet disappeared into the darkness behind him; a long, pale wooden handle swung above her again and she saw the light hit the blade and realized that it was an axe, someone was swinging an axe at her. It swung at a narrow arc in front of her. She didn't have time to fire again – there was only time to get away, to throw herself backwards and out of the path of the blade, and she barely managed to miss it as it hit a low shelf beside her, cutting it from the wall and sending several empty mason jars to the floor, where they shattered.
Immediately, she was pulling her gun up again, but he was swinging, swearing, and she was knocked off balance and the gun fell from her grip.
She hit the ground hard, landing one her back and shoulder. Pieces of glass rolled beneath her sleeves, tore the fabric, prickled painfully against her skin, but she had no time to register any of it; she caught the shadow of the axe blazing over her head and rolled away from it. Particles of stone and glass sprayed against her cheek as the axe-head imbedded itself in the ground and inch from her face. She took a sharp breath and felt the dust scratching at her throat. She watched, from her periphery, as the blade jiggled with its wielders efforts to free it, and she took the opportunity to act; bolting upright and twisting simultaneously towards the axe, she reached out, grasped the lower portion of its handle and threw her weight against it. Instantly, the axe was torn from the hands of the shocked assailant, and the far end of the handle smacked loudly against the ground. Ziva fell on top of it. She tightened her grip on the handle – she was not going to let him have it back.
He pitched himself forward to wrestle the weapon back from her, and as he did, she wrenched her arm back and elbowed him hard in the face. He cursed loudly and put a hand to his nose, blood running smoothly between his fingers and down the back of his wrist. He staggered, cursing. Ziva lifted her boot and slammed it against his knee; he went down gurgling with pain and blood and outrage, and she rolled onto her back, lifted the axe and hoisted herself to her feet. Thinking that perhaps she'd finally gained the upper hand, but trained enough not to let it compromise her abilities, she hopped back a bit and searched carefully for the gun she'd dropped. The ground was littered with glass and blood, but if the gun was there she should have seen it.
Where was Tony? Where was Gibbs?
Somehow, through his blood and his panic, he managed to find the gun first.
Her attention immediately shifted fully towards him, sharp and calculating, but the balance had shifted in that one fragment of a second and he pointed the gun her way.
She was close. Close enough to swing. Instinct demanded that she do it and she knew she would have easily done it a year ago – one strong swing and she could have lopped his head clean from his shoulders, could have caught him above the mandible and halved his skull, spilled it out across the floor of the basement; but the image pervaded her mind and she suddenly felt ill.
For the first time in her life, she hesitated.
The surreal feeling of the axe in her hands and the moaning, bloody man with the gun made her heart race, put her back, somehow, to a time and place where blood could be spilled without sacrificing even a second for hesitation and she thought, wildly, that it wasn't in her anymore, she had left that animal in Somalia, in Israel, and in the moment that passed she came to this realization, and the subsequent, dreadful knowledge that whoever she was now, it was about to get her killed.
Lilting forward, he bit his lip hard and fired the gun.
She noticed how much blood there was on his face – in his eyes.
And there came no pain, no wound, no darkness; something snapped on the wall behind her. She realized that he had fired and he had missed.
The moment was gone.
Instantly, she came forward. She made the sudden, conscious effort to empty her head of the new, nagging sensation that this was wrong and felt that indecisive voice fall away from her; she was cold. It was a horrifyingly familiar place for her to find herself.
She swung the axe out in a wide arc and it struck his shoulder with a horrible thump; the gun in his hands was jolted sideways and discharged against the far wall; he was screaming and falling and she grit her teeth and thought that she should drop the axe – it burned – but couldn't risk it again. She wrenched it out of his body – the blade had gone deep into his underarm, moving upward. She pulled back and looked again for the gun, finding it several feet away from him. She leaned down, not daring to take her eyes off of the shrieking man who lay writhing on the floor in his own blood, and lifted the gun.
She turned quickly towards the voice, lifting the gun to take aim – but it was only Tony, standing in the shadow of the stairway. He caught her eye. There was no need for him to raise his hands or calm her or try to move out of her sights – he was clearly not concerned that she would shoot. Taking a long breath, she lowered her gun.
There was a pain in her shoulder from the weight of the axe, and the skin all along her arms was burning with fragments of broken glass, stone, and the friction burns she'd sustained in her struggle. She knew that she was bleeding, but as a whole, did not feel that she had been grievously injured and felt no need to seek immediate help.
She licked her lips, swaying a bit on her feet.
"Where were you?" she asked, and her voice was thick with adrenaline.
He didn't answer; he was looking to her left.
She followed his gaze, turning towards the form of her attacker.
Her stomach churned.
There was too much blood masking his wound, staining his clothes, but she could see the strange gap between his arm and his shoulder and there was something gleaming and white, there, and she felt suddenly ill to realize that she had at least partially severed his arm. He was curling into himself on the ground, moaning and gurgling; retching in the dust and gasping for air through the vomit and blood.
Oh, God, she thought.
She dropped the axe. Its wooden handle reverberated against the stone floor.
Tony was calling for an ambulance.
A dark grey expanse of clouds had overwhelmed the sky, and in their wake came a series of gusts that sent litter and leaves fluttering down the gutters. The streets were empty; the parking lot quiet, but for the sound of paper rustling, and one metal clasp clanging dully against an aluminum flagpole stationed near the main entrance; the flag at the top billowing, folding over itself in a frenzy, its pattern lost in a blur of red and blue. She stood with her back to the doors. She had not had the foresight to tie her hair back that morning, and it was repeatedly tossed across her face and around her cheeks by the wind until her vision became obscured by it. She made no attempt to tuck the stray strands back behind her ears. She knew the wind would only disengage them once again.
She heard him quietly approach and stand at her side; waited for him to speak first.
"He's in surgery."
She said nothing.
"Doctor says he lost a lot of blood…but they expect him to live."
She forced herself to mutter, "Good."
"What about you?" he asked, and she looked down at her feet.
"I am fine. Just a few cuts, some bruises. They will heal."
She couldn't see him, but knew that he had not moved and she sensed very vaguely that he was actually looking at her. Some wave of dread came over her as she realized that she knew what he was about to say, before he said it, because they'd been here before and he hadn't changed.
"Go home, Ziver."
This time, she did.
There was a time when she had killed for her father, without question, and without remorse. She had thought it was for her country and had thusly justified it on some level of her mind; for her country. That pride betrayed the simply fact that her father had really been at the heart of it all along.
She had thought, once, in Somalia, that there might have been a time when she could have denied all of it; she could have said no. She had stayed in the darkness of the cell for an unclaimed stretch of time, considering this possibility. But she couldn't remember being called to duty. She couldn't remember being asked or what the question had been, all those years ago – can you fight? – or the answer she might have given; conceded, or comforted herself in her solitude that there might have been a chance to say no, near the start of it all, a chance to deny it, to save herself the sins and the trouble and to spare those many lives; a moment, and she missed it – but she couldn't remember the moment and it was too far gone, by then. And in the endless expanse of that one lost summer, they cut her open in the dirt and it turned red with the rust of her sins. She tried to forget that feeling, that helpless sense that all of her life had been ultimately inescapable, but it followed her out.
He invited her over for drinks. Willing herself to ignore all of her hesitations, she said yes, before she'd even been able to consider saying no.
The alcohol did not weaken her reflexes. Inebriated, her eyes were clean and sharp, her posture stiff; some look swimming in her eyes like calculation or the ghost of paranoia; her entire body screamed alertness.
Tony sat across from her, his fingers dancing along the outer rim of his glass; he stared at her and let her speak because, really, he was the only one who could listen, and the whiskey was the only thing that could make her talk.
"I have never hesitated before."
He said nothing. They both knew that if he spoke then, she would never finish it.
"Even in the beginning, in Mossad, I knew what had to be done and I did it. There was no room for question. I never hesitated."
He shifted, swirled his glass.
"Everybody makes mistakes. You did this before, remember? With Hoffman. Beating yourself up over it didn't help you then, and it's not gonna help you now. Just have a drink, let it out, and move on."
"This is not the same," she said.
"No. Before, with Hoffman…I didn't have options. There was a gun on me, and I panicked. This…I had the upper hand, Tony. I had the upper hand and I still hesitated."
"It didn't feel right. I cannot kill the way that I used to."
It bothered her that there wasn't even the shadow of a tremble in her voice; that the words came clean and confident.
"So you're not a cold-blooded killer," he said. "That's supposed to be a good thing."
"Except when it almost gets you killed." She paused. Some part of her was willing herself to let this go, to give into Tony's suggestion and simply sleep it off. But something more unsettling was bothering her, and the alcohol had dredged it to the surface; made it easier to share the feeling she would have otherwise longed to ignore. Finally, she said, "I could not act because I was afraid of it. Afraid of what killing would do to me, after everything. I gave that up. I do not want to go back."
Tony sighed, swishing the whiskey in his glass. She suddenly realized how full it was, and wondered if he'd even had any at all.
"Look. You were following orders before, and I get it. That was you. But you don't have to worry about reverting. And this thing," he looked down at his glass, "in the basement…you're the decisive type, Ziva; you just made a mistake. It happens. In the end, you think with your gun and your gut and that's a good thing."
She looked sadly down at her hands.
"Never with my heart?"
He smiled very briefly, and finally took a long sip of his drink.
"You shouldn't think with your heart," he said. "It gets you into all kinds of trouble."
A pause, and then, still troubled, she whispered, "I've killed many people, Tony."
"But you don't. Not really."
"No, not really."
"I do not regret any of it," she said.
"I was following orders, I did what I was told to do. I was a soldier."
"An assassin," he added, and shadowed her comment with, "You did what you were told."
"I thought it was the right thing to do. I thought it was all justified."
"Past-tense?" he asked.
She turned in her sleep and regarded the corner of the room.
Even the soft, smooth surface of the sheets made her arms burn where they'd been scraped; her muscles were still sore from the scuffle in the basement, but it wasn't the physical discomfort that kept her awake.
All tolled, Hamlet had dug a grave for six by the time the curtain fell, and he laid himself down in the soil among them. Death made everyone equal; murderers and the murdered all rotted the same, and the earth would see no difference between them.
There might have been a time when she could have turned away from it, keenly avoided the demons that seemed constantly at her heels. It may have been her fate or her simple misfortune, or it may have been a flaw in her character and a series of faulted decisions that she'd made in her youth; and she may have forsaken that life and absolved herself – but her curse of a past was inescapable. There was a grief, for her mistakes and her crimes, which seemed only to double every day as she grew older.
She knew she was building a better future for herself, and was successfully excising the evils from her life. She knew, too, that she would always bear the burden of her crimes on her shoulders, and that in the end, she would have to dig a grave not just for herself, but for the many souls which marched in the shadows of her heels. They were her responsibility.
Even if she never admitted it and never fully understood it, she was a walking tether to the sins of the world, and her new life required that she face that fact. It required that she learn from it. It required hesitation.
She was horrified by the thought that after everything, after she had been betrayed and then killed and then rescued and transformed, there was always the possibility that she could go back to it; that she could become a weapon again. She was done with killing. It needed to be done, she knew; but she would have to find a balance between hesitating and acting rashly, because she'd never been able to find it before, and the days of shooting first and asking questions later were too far behind her.
She rolled onto her back.
She had worn herself down with the question of whether or not she had ever made the conscious decision to kill, or if someone else had made it for her, but she came to the decision, sitting up and leaning against the headboard, that it would be her choice. She could suffer the horrors of severing a man's arm if it saved her life, and she could risk her safety if it meant saving someone else's.
She'd never had the option before.
A/N: Not my best, I know. Tell me how bad it was.
By the way, students of the zoology department at Harvard University recently released the results of a ten-year study which indicates, strikingly, that lack of fanfiction feedback is the leading cause of extinction among small, cuddly animals. They suggest that this trend be combated by plentiful reviews – and fast.
Otherwise, sadly, kittens will be the first to go.