A/N: I had reservations about writing this. I adored 7.01 and 7.02 and at first I thought, why mess with them?
But as I pondered further, I had little quibbles about the way it all went down, mostly with the space between the two episodes. Maybe it was covered and I missed it, but where did Ziva stay? She didn't live in the States anymore, so she didn't have an apartment yet; she didn't have any of her belongings with her and Gibbs wouldn't have wanted her to be alone, at least not right away. So what happened there?
And that's why I put my reservations aside and wrote this fic – because I decided to answer those questions the Zay way and see how the alternate version went. Just because the challenge of taking on two of the best episodes in the series history would be interesting, to say the very least.
Beta-ed by the epic Wilhelmina Willoughby, who always tells it like it is and makes me think and squeezes polished writing out of me. Thanks, dear, for everything.
I begin with the journey home and go from there. Hope you like it.
For considerably longer than thirty seconds, the jet standing in the swimming desert air was like a mirage – too modern, too normal for this strange primal place, too good to be true. Ziva couldn't stop staring it through her numbness, as though any second she would blink and it would reveal itself to be empty air.
But the steps that Tony and McGee gingerly led her up were real and the seat Gibbs pointed at was real too. All her senses confirmed it, and yet she still half expected to wake up to heat and madness.
She tried to buckle in her seatbelt, but she found her hands were shaking too hard. Gibbs, missing nothing, appeared over her and buckled it for her. He smelled of sweat and musk and coffee and she almost hugged him where he stood, so ravenous was she for the scent of Familiar. Of Safe.
She rested her head against the plane wall and closed her eyes; and she was asleep so quickly, so effortlessly, that to an untrained eye she could have keeled over and fainted.
When she woke up, the first thing she was cognizant of was the seatbelt, smooth like a tightened sash across her torso. For half a second, it felt like rope holding her back, and she primed herself to strike through her exhaustion as she'd learned how to do – until she heard Gibbs's voice distantly across the jet.
Hearing his low confident voice in such close proximity to her pacified the vast panic that threatened to burst within her – because though they were still in the air, and she hadn't the faintest idea what time it was, the sound of that voice meant everything would be okay.
She wanted to open her eyes, wanted to maybe open her mouth and announce her consciousness, but every cell in her body was tired and dry and her tongue was a wadded-up sock wrung for water sitting heavily, uselessly, adamantly, in the middle of her mouth.
Besides, even if she could have spoken, she wasn't sure what to say: language seemed a foreign concept that had flown out of her wilted brain.
More voices besides Gibbs's were audible in the plane, but they were hazy, muted, talking fast. She thought she heard her name a few times. But the sweet darkness of sleep reclaimed her before she could even muster the curiosity to wonder what they were saying about her.
Someone touched her knee and Ziva awoke again with a jolt, eyes snapping open, hands automatically coming up in a defensive position. She would have stood, if not for the infernally tight seatbelt. But it was only McGee above her, concern written all over his face.
"We're here," he told her.
She tried to speak, but her throat seemed to have closed up. McGee opened her seatbelt and handed her a bottle of water, which she opened and ravaged, trying to wash out the thickness, the stickiness, the bitterness, of the desert. McGee held his hand out to her and she tried to stand, but she buckled, let herself fall back in the seat because she wasn't shaking anymore – she was just limp.
McGee beckoned for Tony and the two of them together brought her back to her feet, one on either side of her. Behind the scent of desert sweat, they smelled as she remembered them – Tony like sharp cologne, McGee like soft powder. Somehow, remembering that made her a little stronger. The summer had felt like eternity stretched painfully thin, and she had been half-afraid that the captivity and the mission and the terrorist camp would drive America from her memory. Now, she knew she was wrong and she had never been so glad she was wrong.
When they got to the stairs, she shrugged McGee off and held Tony's hand, determined to be independent again. She squeezed his hand hard and he let her, let her need him. McGee followed close behind them as they stepped off. Nobody spoke.
The car was waiting for them, Gibbs in the driver's seat already. A few steps towards the car and Ziva let go of Tony's hand, shuffled unevenly but steadily to the door. McGee sat on the left side of the back seat, Ziva in the middle and Tony on the right. They were knee to knee and the scent of unwashed human in the small car was pervasive; Tony almost remarked on it, but thought better of it.
McGee passed water bottles to Gibbs, Tony and Ziva and took one for himself as well. Though no one spoke the whole ride home, they uncapped the water bottles, raised them slightly, and drank at the same time, quietly congratulating themselves on being alive.
The NCIS building through the foggy car window had never looked so grand, gleaming in the sun. The flowers and leaves and sidewalk hues had changed slightly since the last time she had been here, but it was the same place, the same wonderful place she had come to work and solved cases and laughed and felt like a part of something. She had missed it terribly.
She had been between varying states of consciousness with the cadence of the moving car, the exhaustion and the jet lag, but she stayed awake to see this – the main event.
She was still numb as Abby hugged her inside, though it certainly felt good, the pokes of her pointy outfit digging into her thin shirt, the scent of Abby's shampoo and her hairspray and the perfume she liked a cocktail to Ziva's nose. She had been taught long ago that smell was one of the greatest evokers of memory and indeed, the lab, the evidence bags, the death metal music, came flooding back to her with clarity that almost astonished her.
She had worked hard to stay sturdy and standing in the elevator, worked hard not to hold anyone's hand, but she let herself fall helplessly in Abby's arms.
And Abby, for once, was not bubbly, not intrusive, not inquisitive. She was silent, bracing, almost motherly, stroking Ziva's dirty hair and telling her without saying anything that she was beyond relieved to see her friend alive. Abby was the only thing she could feel, even as the applause unfolded around her.
When Abby let go, Ziva swayed slightly on the spot, bemused. She didn't live here anymore; her things were in Israel, and even there, she wasn't sure what had happened to them when she left; she had no place to stay. She was supposed to be dead but instead she was here, in the office, with the air conditioning and the cool tube lights and the people in suits.
The rescue had been touching, heroic, but they had brought her here and there was nothing for her here. The hum of computers, the ring of the telephone and the lullaby of murmuring voices, the applause fading out as people went back to their lives – it was surreal. She felt as though she was returning to her old life a ghost – an orphaned ghost, awkward, tethered nowhere.
She could feel Tony's eyes on her as she slowly padded towards her old desk and sat in her old chair. She could smell him as pungently here as she could in the car. But she didn't have the energy to return his gaze; she didn't have the energy to think about him at all. So she just sat, drinking in the view she'd had everyday, seeing it yet not seeing it for the mushy wrung-out haze her brain had become.
It was maybe seconds, maybe minutes, maybe hours, later when McGee approached her, shy as anything, and touched her shoulder. She jumped violently, startling them both, but McGee took it in stride and asked her if she wanted to stay the night at his place.
She had the distinct impression that he made this offer on Gibbs's instructions – Gibbs wouldn't want her to be alone tonight – but the offer stood nonetheless and numbly, gratefully, she took it.
"Yes. Thank you."
A flicker of surprise ignited in McGee's soft brown eyes, but it vanished as quickly as it had come and he nodded.
"You probably want to wash up," he said. "Do you want to go now?"
She answered with a nod before her brain could think of any other response to his query. Yes, she wanted to wash up. She wanted to rest. Maybe sleep some more. And McGee – sweet, gentle, considerate McGee who had enough courtesy to give space where it was necessary – seemed the best candidate to oversee this.
McGee held out his hand and Ziva took it, accepted his help to hoist her to her feet and lead her out to the elevator they had just come out of. And, in spite of herself, she glanced – just once, briefly – Tony's direction on her way out.
His expression was difficult to decipher. He looked as displaced as she did, with his grimy hair and dirt-caked face in this impeccable office setting. But his eyes never left her as McGee led her to the elevator.
She wondered vaguely what Tony was thinking about, staring at her the way he was, no trace of humor in his usually humor-laced features. But then the elevator came and she focused on McGee, just as dirty, just as grimy, but with his hand firmly on the small of her back – protective, firm, non-intrusive. Friendly.
She closed her eyes and let him take her out of the building.
Ziva had been to McGee's place several times before and it hadn't changed – the computers, the typewriter, the smell of him, like powder and a little laundry soap. Though he clearly needed a shower, he sent her into the bathroom with a towel, an old t-shirt of his, a pair of sweatpants and apologies that this was really all he could offer her in terms of clothing.
She didn't mind, though; they were warm and they, too, smelled like him. The familiarity comforted her. She wanted to tell him that, but words wouldn't come and he had already closed the door when her lips found the strength to part.
With a small sigh, she turned on the shower, letting the water rain down into the tub. It was so dependable – the handle was turned, the water came, and that was that. A shower. She slipped out of her clothes and her underwear, letting them flutter to the floor like leaves, a puddle of earth colors on McGee's off-white tile. Already, she felt cleaner, more herself, with those sticky clothes off of her.
She stepped into the shower now, the water like a heavy hug. It was lukewarm, but she couldn't decide if she wanted it to be hot or cold. She couldn't decide if she wanted to be alive or dead. Tears built behind her eyes and threatened to burst and they stung the lining of her eyes, clinging to her eyelashes like poison.
She hated crying. She never cried. But tonight, she sank to her knees and then to her bum in McGee's tub and she cried.
She shook and cried and shook and cried and trembled all over, the water still falling on her, steady and dependable and overwhelming. She was so alive that she couldn't stand it. She looked down at herself, at her nakedness – her long legs, small curves, her tiny round breasts and her hair, dark and sticking to her neck, her shoulders – and she could feel her heart throbbing inside of her, obdurately pumping without reprieve; and she was aware of every limb, every voluntary muscle, every part of her that still worked when she should be destroyed, should be under desert sand, never to be heard from again.
They had rescued her, and she knew they had gone through hell just for her, but how could she continue to live when for all intents and purposes, she had already died in that dingy prison cell? Living was a burden – feeling was a burden – and this was one screwed mission too many.
They had rescued her, but they hadn't saved her: no one could do that.
She could have been a hundred years old for all the sins she had been a part of, whether ordered to or not. She had lied, cheated, stolen; she had had each of these things done to her; she had seen and done horrible things, unspeakable things; and she was done, she was exhausted, she had finally been broken and her life had finally caught up with her and she couldn't go on like this. She couldn't.
So she cried herself out, lay her head back and let the tears roll down, indulging her weakness, her hurt. She hated doing that – she was well-trained in the art of reviling emotion and keeping it out of sight, out of mind – but she was stripped down to nothing: she had no choice.
She was still quivering from the after-effect of her outburst, but she began to pull herself together, bring herself back into reality. She sat up then stood up, borrowed McGee's shampoo and dug deep into the roots of her hair with the foam dribbling through her fingers. She scrubbed down every inch of her skin, running the soap over every scar, every story and its reminder seared on her body. She kept the water at lukewarm and washed the shampoo out of her hair, watching the streaks of brown water trickle down the length of the tub and then fall victim to the ravenous drain. When she turned the water off and stepped out of the tub, she felt a little more like herself.
Ziva buried her face into the soft fluffy towel, pleased to find there were no brown streaks on it, which meant she was clean now. She dried herself off – slowly, deliberately – and turned the towel into a make-shift bathrobe, which kept her covered as she fished her underwear off the floor and began to hand-wash them in the sink with a bar of soap.
She was all right with wearing McGee's clothes to sleep tonight, but she wasn't okay with going underwear-less.
Once the garments were sufficiently clean, she let them dry as she towel-dried her hair. It was curly as it always was when left to its own devices – the kind of feminine she took day by day, sometimes straightening it and other times leaving it wild. Tonight, she chose to do the latter, leaving it soft and free around her shoulders. Then she toweled off her underwear until it was tolerably dry. The cold material was bracing to her water-warmed skin, and it suited her just fine. McGee's shirt and sweatpants went on next and when she looked in the mirror now, the sight wasn't as painful as it was before she washed up.
She searched McGee's drawers until she found an unopened toothbrush, presumably bought to replace the one he was already using. Making a mental note to buy him a new one later, she opened the toothbrush and borrowed the toothpaste, ferociously replacing the desert gumminess with fresh peppermint.
When she spat into the sink, she did so as if expulsing something toxic out of her. But it didn't work entirely: as she opened the bathroom door and peered out to see where McGee was, a dull ache still sat like an anvil over her stomach, refusing even now to let her be.
It turned out that in the time it took Ziva to clean up, McGee had borrowed the shower at the community pool and picked up Chinese. The time wasn't quite right for a meal – it was past lunchtime but too early for dinner – but he figured Ziva could use some sustenance. He was just setting it out when she arrived outside; he smiled genuinely when he saw her, though worry was still evident in the way his eyes raked her over.
"Hey," he said. "Hungry?"
Standing there, smelling it, yes she was. She gave her answer in an appreciative smile and pulled herself a chair. McGee handed her a plate and took one for himself; forks already stood like victory flags in each take-out dish and he gestured hospitably to them: "Dig in."
Ziva began with the noodles; McGee began with the fried rice. Together, they filled their plates and then ate in silence, the only sounds in the tiny apartment the hum of the computers, the clinks of cutlery on plate, two mouths chewing and swallowing.
Ziva didn't take much and ate even this haltingly, delicately, her posture unnaturally upright and her eyes not often venturing to McGee's face. And McGee could see this – he could see her hesitation, all the things she wouldn't tell him – and he knew it was too soon to press her, too soon to ask any questions, but it was difficult for him to sit there with her, close to her and yet as far away from her as he'd been all summer.
What made it especially difficult was the obvious grief she exuded – he didn't know how to deal with it. He had never been this close to her tragedies. He had worked with her long enough to know that she preferred to have her own space, but it didn't sit well with him, making her go through this alone.
Her hand lay on the table, limp and still, as the other one maneuvered her fork. On an impulse, McGee lay his hand over it, his hand hot from handling the take-out boxes.
She started a little and of course he could feel it; her eyes searched him out and he was there to meet her gaze, every bit as earnest and sincere and determined as she remembered him. When he looked at her like that, she felt guilty for wishing they had left her in the desert.
Whatever she thought of herself, McGee cared – and sweet as he was, she resolved that she would get through this night, at least, for him.
He squeezed her hand slightly and then withdrew it, unsure of his reception. Ziva could be so hard to read sometimes, her face static and hard. But when he took his hand away, something broke, leaked, in her irises, like an egg yolk poked dead center. He almost didn't know what to make of it.
"Are you all right?" He was alight with concern.
She nodded, for the first time believing the sentiment she expressed.
"Yes," she said. "Thank you."
After they had eaten their fill of Chinese, Ziva was warm and full and more than ready to sleep the rest of the night. Her jet lag told her she should stay awake, but her exhaustion begged to differ, and it was all she could do to keep her eyes open, help McGee clear away the remnants of their dinner. He insisted he could handle it himself, but she hated being treated like an invalid, even if she was one.
McGee offered to let Ziva sleep in his room – he got to the point of getting blankets to make up a spot for himself on the couch – but Ziva wouldn't have it. She shook her head, curled up on the couch, and was asleep within minutes, rendering his generosity unnecessary.
Happy to see her peaceful again, the creases between her eyebrows smooth in sleep, McGee fetched her a pillow and a blanket – he tucked the pillow beneath her curls and cocooned her in the blanket, tucking her in properly. She barely stirred, so he let her stay there, where she was comfortable.
She did indeed sleep well, out cold for several hours. The next time she was half-aware of her surroundings, golden lamplight stopped short of her eyelids, meaning it was dark out, and she could hear McGee pacing in the kitchen, talking quickly but quietly on the phone so as not to wake her.
"No, Tony, she's been sleeping straight since we ate. I don't want to wake her up." Pause. "I know you're worried; I've been worried too. But she needs to sleep. You can talk to her tomorrow, all right?"
McGee fell silent for a moment or two, evidently listening to something Tony was saying on the other line. Then he said, "She took a shower and we ate Chinese. Then she fell asleep on the couch. She hasn't said anything yet."
So Tony was worried about her. This much she could glean as McGee insisted once more that she was sleeping and hung up the phone. His exasperation suggested that perhaps this wasn't the first time Tony had called to check up on her. In the haze between consciousness and proper sleep, she wasn't sure what to make of his persistence.
She couldn't deny she had been, despite everything else, happy to see Tony in that Somalian prison. Happy just to see him in the flesh, to know that he was alive and, prior to this encounter, well. It was instinct; it was always her instinct to make sure he was okay. She was his partner after all.
The memories of him on the floor with a gun pointed to her face, Rivkin dead by his hand beside him, were bitter but they were eclipsed by that instinct of hers, which clung to him in a strange, desperate sort of way.
Because when she got down to the core of it, he was Tony – goofy, movie-obsessed Tony who got trapped with her in a storage box, who spent a night with her undercover, who teased her and cared what became of her and defended justice with her everyday. He had genuinely hurt her with his role in the Michael Rivkin debacle, because of the way he was, because of the way her guard loosened when she was around him. More than her mourning for Michael's passing, she mourned Tony's betrayal, her own disillusionment, her naivety for believing that she could trust anyone at all.
Over the lonely nights and the long months, Ziva had eventually come to terms with the fact that Tony had been acting in her best interests, albeit clumsily, and that she shouldn't have been so fast to dismiss him. But even this realization, therapeutic as it proved to be as she tried to grapple with the sharp reality of things, still hadn't diminished the blistering confusion that gripped her when she thought of him.
He was monumental to her: she had come to love him, in her own way, and he had struck her a deadly blow, however well-intentioned it might have been. And she had been away from him for so long that all she had of him were the unreliable products of her overheated memory.
Ziva squeezed her eyes shut against wakefulness, against running to the phone and dialing Tony's number, which she knew off the top of her head even now. She curled up tighter on the couch and tried to fight the sickness gripping her stomach.
Conflicted as she remained about her feelings for Tony, one thing was certain – that she had to see him tomorrow. She had to talk to him. She had to reacquaint herself with his humanity and be rational as she made her way forward.
Already, her fractured heart was beginning to bind itself again. She was here, back in the world of NCIS. Her friends had taken great pains to bring her back, proving to her that they cared, that she wasn't dispensable.
She had been right when she felt like part of her had died in Somalia – because part of her had died there: the part of her that was cold, ruthless, unrepentant, alone. She was still private, still guarded, but even in this uneasy state of sleep she knew that she wasn't going to go back to her life in Israel.
Ziva had entertained hopes of becoming an NCIS agent before her dramatic flight back to Mossad; and now, at this natural crossroad, becoming an NCIS agent sounded like the perfect place to start again.
McGee was moving again; she could hear him go to his bedroom, presumably to rest for the night. An immense wave of fondness broke over her, like sea water licking her toes on the beach. Tomorrow, she would begin pursuing his old role as "Probie." She would go back to NCIS to debrief, to explain her ambition to Vance and Gibbs and get their blessing. She would begin drafting the message to her father to resign from Mossad officially.
She would begin again. She would live this second life she wasn't meant to have. She wasn't dead yet; she had always been a survivor, after all.
True sleep came more easily after that, drawing her under and keeping her there. Her breathing slowed, as did her pulse, but she was still adamantly alive, her heart still beating, her cells still reacting within her, her brain still firing neuron after neuron after neuron.
She was still here. And damn it, she would make the most of that.
A/N: And there you have it – my version of set-up for "Reunion." Maybe this wasn't as fluffy/fun as a piece posted on Christmas should be, but my muse spoke and I had to listen. I like to think the hopeful ending there will work as a high note to leave off on.
And since it's Christmas and all – season of love, kindness and giving – I'm hoping you'll find it in you to leave me a review before you exit out of the browser. I am anxious to know what you think.