Author's Notes: This fic is entirely dedicated to aqiran, even though it's not quite what was promised. I'm sorry it took me so long!
readiness and wanting
this is a story of burning bridges
and allowing time to pass
this is a story of forgiveness, and
breaking things in my hands
- chris pureka, burning bridges
"So," the woman behind the counter at Starbucks says cheerfully, adding a dollop of whipped cream to her coffee, "what did you do this summer?"
She drives back to her apartment, forgetting. Of all the things she remembered during her three-month stay with Hamas, needing a new toaster wasn't on the list. She stands outside on the curb for a long time, looking up at the ruined place she used to live, and then climbs back into her car. The radio is playing, some new rap song she doesn't know, and when it shuts off three words early the host says, "Sorry, Kanye; I'mma let you finish, but I just wanted to say that Taylor Swift has the best interruption story of all time—of all time!"
There's recorded laughter, and she doesn't get it.
Ziva closes her eyes. She tries to hear herself breathing, but there must be water in her ears because it's all hazy and thick, like she's listening through a pillow covering her face.
She thinks about calling Tony, or Abby, or McGee, but she isn't ready for the company, so she just crawls into the backseat and drapes her dirty jacket over herself like a blanket and goes to sleep to the sound of cars passing.
In the morning she drives to her Aunt Nell's empty apartment and gets the key from under the mat. The shower is hot, and cleansing, and Ziva doesn't open her eyes until the water runs cold. Then she steps out and looks at her face in the mirror: her bruises are already fading, but there is a scar just beneath her chin that is still red and angry, and no amount of makeup will lessen its sting.
She curls up in her Aunt's bed and sleeps until three; for dinner she orders in and doesn't move other than to go to the bathroom.
She's afraid of what's outside, and she hates herself for it.
She goes out. Washington is loud and crowded on Friday nights: there are people everywhere, everywhere, shouting and laughing and jostling and honking their horns. The hairs on her arms stand up and she feels her joints lock into place; there is a breeze around her face, biting into her cheek and knotting her hair, and three months ago this place would have been beautiful, to her, would have felt like home, but now she has goosebumps and she shivers.
She stands beneath a streetlight and makes herself close her eyes. The darkness behind her eyelids is burnt orange, and she can acutely feel every passing stranger, can feel all the bodies pressed up against her when all she wants is space.
Her fingers twitch toward the hip where her gun is holstered, but she doesn't let herself move. Fear is an unwelcome and unfamiliar sensation: she must let it burn through her, as fast or as slow as it pleases. She must let it lick against her insides like fire, must let its smoke fill her lungs until she chokes. There is no fighting fear, Ziva knows; there is only the breaths you take until it passes.
Her cell had been too small to lie down in. Some nights, when the pain of her bruises and sores had been too great, she sat awake in the total darkness and felt the walls closing in on her, like that scene in one of Tony's movies when the heroes had been trapped in the garbage disposal. Then the claustrophobia hadn't signaled fear, it had signaled despair, it had signaled anger, it had signaled a craving for popcorn that she could not explain.
She does not reach out to steady herself against the lamppost. She does not soothe herself by placing a hand on her gun. Ziva looks at the burnt orange of her eyelids until the rattle of her own shaking knocks her off balance and she has to sit down.
Then it is gone. The flame of fear, filling her from her toes to her chin, wisps away in its own smoke as she sinks into her bath. Steam rises and in it she can see her own aching, terrified nausea. Tonight the fear is gone. Tomorrow who knows, but tonight she closes her eyes and sleeps.
Two weeks after she goes back to work, Tony calls her an ignorant nerf herder, and she blinks slowly at him. "Star Wars," she realizes at last, and thinks of garbage disposals, of too-crowded streets, of a cell that she couldn't lay down in.
He grins at her, impressed and pleased. "Well done, sweet cheeks," he compliments proudly. "With a learning curve like that, all I need is another four years and I'll have you using contractions like a native."
"My learning curve is steeper then the heeled shoe I am wearing," she responds tightly, dropping her foot onto her desk in display. "I do not think you can imagine what it might feel like to have it shoved through your spine."
Tony leans back in his chair, jaw loose on its hinges, and his eyes narrow slightly as he studies her. Ziva is just as surprised by the ferocity of her own voice; once, this conversation would have come and gone painlessly. Now she feels wounded and eager to wound: she wants to reach across with her words and dig into him, into his skin, make him bleed. She wants her thoughts to bite and drain like needles. She wants his words to lodge in his throat and make him choke. She wants to make him stand until he begs to lie down, until his legs give out, and when that happens she wants to force him only to sit. And when everything is cramped and aching and miserable, she wants him to look at her again and see if he still says i can't when she demands he live without her.
Gibbs walks through the bullpen as Tony opens his mouth to reply, barking at them both to grab their gear. Ziva doesn't look at anyone as she complies, but she feels Tony's gaze on the back of her head, burning.
She stops by the shooting range before she goes back to her Aunt Nell's apartment. She has her proficiency test in three days and her shoulder is still sore and weak from her captivity. She loads three guns and fires through all of them until her muscles are screaming, weeping, begging for her to stop. Then she pulls out her personal firearm and shoots bullet holes through pre-existing bullet holes.
The noise is sudden and angry and welcome. She never closes her eyes when she shoots, not even to blink, so they itch and ache with every shot.
Her arm is useless, after, so she leaves her car in the parking lot and takes a taxi.
The day after a particularly nasty case in which a young Naval officer is raped, murdered, and left carelessly discarded on the side of the road (Duckie explains that they must have shoved her out of the moving car's door, or perhaps off the back of a truck bed), Ziva breaks six pencils. She refuses to use pens unless it is lawfully required, because she finds them unreliable, always running out of ink at the most inopportune times. But her grip is too tight, and she learns to recognize that moment before the wood snaps and the shrapnel goes flying. This moment never sees her let up on the pressure; she keeps pushing, she just looks away to shield her eyes from splinters.
At last McGee throws a pen at her and gives her a pleading look, so she quietly uncaps it and gets through the rest of her paperwork.
It's not until she's writing a thank-you card to her Aunt Nell that she feels her grip tightening, her arm leaning too heavily on the plastic ballpoint, and she knows that if this breaks she will have to explain, she will have to tell Tony and McGee and Gibbs that she is breaking them, not on purpose but not by accident, just to see them shatter and become useless.
Shatter and become useless. Those are the words her captors had said to her, their mouths close to her face. You will shatter and become useless, they had murmured. It does not matter what you tell us. Keep your silence: either you will shatter with a bang or with a whisper, and it doesn't matter which.
The pen cracks quietly, not explosive like the number twos had been, and the ink bleeds out onto the card, thick like blood, thick like dirty water. It stains her hands. It seeps through the paper and pools on the desk. It gets on everything and no amount of scrubbing can get it off until it simply seeps into her skin and disappears as poison in her bloodstream.
Abby startles her with her music, loud angry drums thundering through her lab without preamble or warning, and Ziva doesn't even realize that she's moved until she hears Abby screaming.
Her mind takes a few seconds to catch up, panting and breathless, as she processes the scene: her gun is in her hand, hot and tired, and there are six holes in Abby's CD player, which makes a pathetic whining sound before going completely silent and falling off its stand.
Abby has her hands over her ears, and Ziva drops her gun. She stares at it, and then at Abby, and runs her hands over her face. "I am sorry," she murmurs lamely, casting around for something to make sense of. She does not know what she is supposed to say. "I do not . . . I did not mean to do that."
Abby slowly removes her hands but stays rooted. "Are you . . . feeling okay?" she asks after a moment. "I mean, do you think you might, uh, want to talk to somebody?"
Ziva shakes her head and presses her mouth together. She does not want to talk to anybody, not ever, about anything. "I will buy you a new stereo," she offers, and walks to the elevator. When it comes, she turns back around, hesitates. But there doesn't seem to be anything else to say.
She doesn't have nightmares. Ziva has seen too much for nightmares. But sometimes her sleep is listless, uneasy, and she wakes in the middle of the night. Sometimes she cannot fall asleep again on her bed, and has to move to the floor, sitting up against the wall, knees drawn to her chest and back twisted uncomfortably. Only when that familiar ache sets in can she drift back off to sleep, where she dreams of sand and blood and water dripping, somewhere offstage.
The fear comes at moments when she is not afraid. Driving alone in her car; sitting on her aunt's couch watching television; listening to Duckie talk about the War of 1812. These are the times when it creeps up her neck and cheeks like a blush, staining her face and seeping heat into her clothes. In times of pursuit or stand off she is numb as ever, cool and ready and loaded (always loaded, she triple checks now), but when the birds are chirping and the sun is shining and there are no other cars on the road, suddenly she is afraid.
Idleness is her enemy, the crack where fear drips through, so she stays late at the office and goes on late-night runs in dangerous areas, half-hoping someone will try something so that she can fight back. She wants to be provoked, she wants to be attacked, she wants to be backed into a corner so that she can get herself out of it. This will be proof, she thinks; this will be proof that she can still save herself, that she can still be the best. This will be proof that she is not helpless.
She stops at the river. It's miles from her Aunt Nell's apartment. The water is dark and it glints at her. She kicks hard at the ground, all the fury in her chest encasing herself in her foot as the dirt showers upward and lodges in her hair and on her clothes.
She walks back to her Aunt Nell's.
At last Gibbs knocks, at midnight, and she lets him in as if she has been expecting him. Maybe she has, somewhere, in the back of her mind. Maybe she has known all along that this is what she was waiting for, that this was what she was pushing for.
"Abby says you shot up her stereo," he says, handing her a cup of coffee. She considers motioning to the clock but just takes a sip instead.
"It was an accident," she replies. They sit on the couch, and Ziva is tired, suddenly, tired and enraged, so that the anger has nothing to do but boil within her because her bones are too heavy to move. "I was startled."
"Been getting startled a lot, recently."
She doesn't bother equivocating: "Yes."
Gibbs lies back against the couch and looks at the ceiling. "Do you know why I build boats?" he asks after a pause, taking a long sip of coffee. He turns his eyes to her and doesn't wait for an answer. "When you're building a boat, you're not thinking about anything else. Everything else just fades out."
He reaches into his back and pulls out a sander tool. "I go straight home after work," he says as he stands. "I don't lock the door."
He lets himself out, and Ziva remains on the couch, staring down at the cool metal in her hand. She hears his car start and fade away, until it becomes just another engine on the highway.
The first time she goes to Gibbs' they don't say much. He lets her in and wordlessly hands her a beer; then they go downstairs and work. The only sounds are his murmured instructions. When she leaves, her back aches from leaning over and her sore arm muscles bite petulantly, but when she goes to her Aunt Nell's apartment, she sleeps.
The second time, she knows what she has to do and doesn't need him to tell her; she works on the bow and he on the stern, and they don't speak except when she has a question or to offer refills of beer. Gibbs doesn't listen to music when he works. The soft murmur of the sander scratching against the wood sounds like the ocean, and it is enough.
He never kicks her out; he never finishes before she does. They work until she can't work anymore, and then he quietly lets her out. He doesn't tell her to drive safe-x-he doesn't even say goodbye. At work, nothing changes. No one mentions anything about boats or the steady rhythm of sandpaper, soft and fierce like waves.
Tony is driving. Tony always drives, because he is afraid to let her do it. He's talking about some new movie, one she doesn't care about, and she has her eyes closed against the headrest.
He falls silent after a minute and then says quietly, "So at the end of this movie, the hero has to choose between saving the world and saving his girlfriend, right, and he lets her die. I never understood that."
She opens her eyes and looks at him hard, fingers tightening on her seatbelt strap. "What do you mean?"
He keeps his eyes on the road. "I'm just saying. When the people that I love are in danger, there isn't a choice. When it boils down to save the girl or save the world, I'll save the girl every time."
"What if she does not want you to?" she asks tightly, still looking at him, maybe glaring. "What if she just wants you to leave her where she is because she knows that there are more important things at stake?"
He stops at a red light and meets her gaze with eyes as angry as her own. "That's too damn bad," he tells her fiercely. "As long as it's me making the decisions, that's what I'm going to do, every time."
As long as the light is red, it is clear that they are not talking about whatever stupid movie Tony is talking about. It is clear that they are talking about her, and Hamas, and the way he had whispered couldn't live without you, I guess when she asked him why he had come. It is as close as they have ever come to being honest with one another, but as Ziva opens her mouth to reply, the light turns green.
Three months after her return to DC, there is a message on her phone from her father. It leaves a number and asks her to call back.
She and Gibbs build Abby a bulletproof stereo stand for Christmas. Well, she builds it, but Gibbs designs it, and she works on it in his basement as he continues with his boat. She likes fitting the shelf together, piece-by-piece, everything in its place. She likes being in control of this, the creator of this.
Abby laughs when she gives it to her, and then cries, throwing her arms around Ziva's shoulders. "When you were gone," she breathes into the fabric of Ziva's shirt, "I thought . . . but it doesn't matter now. Okay?"
She pulls away and takes Ziva's head between her hands. "It doesn't matter now."
A lump grows in Ziva's throat. Sometimes it still creeps up on her, the fear, the hate, the blind rage, but standing here, with Abby, it seems small and pointless and far away.
She thinks of Tony's words: I'll save the girl every time.
"Abby," she says croakily, "you are my friend. I do not have many."
Abby shakes her head. "You do," she promises sweetly. "You just don't know it."
There is a car in her parking spot when she gets back to her Aunt Nell's. McGee is waiting nervously in front of her door, pacing.
"McGee?" she asks, puzzled. "What are you doing here?"
"The thing is," he says quickly, "I knew Tony would make fun of me if I gave this to you at work, so I thought I'd just . . . uh, do it here. Which is maybe a little creepier in practice than it was in theory."
She cocks her head at him but smiles. "Would you like to come in?"
He shakes his head. "No. No. I just. Okay, here." He shoves a small package at her and then kisses her cheek, fiercely, and whispers, "I'm glad you're back."
He rocks back on his heels and waits. Ziva stares bewilderedly down at the small package and unwraps it, then blinks hard at the ground because her vision blurs. "McGee," she tries to say, but her voice shakes, and her hands, and her whole body, and she has never been one for hugging but the next thing she knows he's got his arms around her and she is clutching his shirt.
He laughs a little. "It's just that I noticed you didn't have it when you came back, and you always used to wear it before, so. I thought it might, I don't know. Bring you comfort. Or something."
She nods against him and pulls away. "Yes," she says, voice choked. "Yes. Thank you."
She kisses him once, chastely but fiercely, and then goes inside. As he drives away, she pulls the Star of David necklace out of its case and loops it around its neck, where it belongs.
After, with its familiar weight around her neck, Ziva goes to Gibbs'. They work in silence until—brave with the Star on her chest—she takes a deep breath and says, "I was ready to die, in Israel." Gibbs doesn't stop working, but she can see his head turn to look at her. "After, I think that I mistook that readiness for wanting."
He hums his agreement and the rhythm of his hands on the wood slows. "It wouldn't have mattered what you wanted," he says at last. "We were coming to get you the moment we realized you needed getting."
She nods. Looks down at her hands. "I do not mistake it anymore," she says.
She goes apartment hunting. Her Aunt Nell's had always seemed like a way station, a pause, and she is ready for home.
Two days later, she steals all of Tony's pens and signs his email account up to receive updates from a porn website. When he calls her a dirty ninja terrorist, she throws a balled up piece of paper at him and says he is a hairy womanizing Neanderthal.
He beams at her across his desk and says quietly, "It's good to have you back."