Author's Note: My first foray into NCIS fanfic had me playing nicer than Eli David than I probably ever will again. I suppose I'm feeling generous...
Fairytales were no longer a part of his life. Neither were trips outside of Israel. Or dinner parties. But tonight, it appeared, was a night apart and unlike all the rest.
He was the Director of Mossad, but to the little girl who had managed to overtake the gathering in the precocious manner tolerated by American parents, he was simply her daddy's friend. A new grown-up sent to please her. And in order to be pleased, she required a story.
Once upon a time, he had known stories. Once upon a time, he had been the father of three children. Once upon a time, bedtime had been the best part of his day- often the only time he would have to spend with his boy and his girls. Once upon a time, they had laughed and dreamed of happily ever after.
But that was long ago, in a land far, far away- a land that was not known for happy endings. The tragic ever afters of his oldest and his youngest were unsurprising in ways that only seemed to amplify, rather than mitigate, the pain.
Only the one in the middle had survived to watch him warily across this table, an attendee at this party only to prove a point. That she was tough. That she was untouchable. That she could not be broken. She was surrounded by a protective flock of others who had chosen to attend only because she had. They were there, just in case any of her points faltered.
Once upon a time, he had been her protector. Once upon a time, adoration had brightened the eyes now shaded in caution. Once upon a time, he had been her hero.
And he had squandered it. All of it. He had spent the last week with an old friend, laying the past to rest. He had no idea how to do the same with the only child that remained.
"A story, Mr. Eli. You promised."
He had done no such thing, for he had learned long ago to never make promises to children...to never make promises at all; he was ill-equipped to keep them. Still, the small girl beside him was the only member of this unlikely party that harbored goodwill towards his presence. Even her father, the old friend, was tacitly counting down the hours until he took his leave. So, he decided in an instant, he could not disappoint this child, his only remaining ally.
"Once upon a time," he began, "there was a Papa bird and a Daughter bird, and they lived in a very dangerous land."
"Were there monsters?" It was the question of a child who had not yet learned that the scariest things in this world were as human as she.
"Yes," he indulged her, "there were many monsters."
"Did the Papa bird save the Daughter bird?"
"Who is telling this story, me or you? To answer your question, he tried, but he mostly failed."
"Did the monsters kill her?" The question was a whisper.
"No, they did not kill her. Daughter bird was very smart and very brave and very lucky. But even birds who are very lucky are not always lucky. The monsters did not kill her, but they did hurt her. Badly."
"So Papa bird saved her."
"No. No, he did not." He knew now that he had the attention of every person at the table; this was no longer a story only for Leon's daughter. "He could not. Papa bird was responsible for taking care of all the other birds in the land, and Daughter was very special- she was the best at fighting monsters. As long as she was with him, he had to keep sending her into danger...for the sake of all the other birds."
The little girl, who was really too old for this story, nevertheless grew agitated. "Did they at least kill all the monsters?"
Eli shook his head grimly. "No. They tried, but there were too many. When one was gone, another would take his place."
"So Papa bird just kept sending the Daughter bird to fight? But...that's not right." She looked back at her own father, needing his reassurance.
"It was not right," he agreed. "It was not right, but Papa bird was not able to make the right choice. Finally, Daughter bird also realized that it was not right; she made the choice for him."
"What did she do?"
"She flew away- to a new land with fewer monsters. Or different monsters, at least. Ones not as dangerous to her."
"But no Papa bird?"
"But wasn't she sad?"
He risked a glance at his own daughter, braving the daggers shooting from the stares of her friends. "I do not know...but she was safe."
"Wasn't he sad?"
And maybe this was his chance. His opportunity to say what he needed to say...what his Ziva needed to hear. "He was very, very sad, but also happy because Daughter bird had a chance to live away from the monsters."
"But also away from him!" And even though she was too old, she climbed into her father's lap. "Why didn't he go with her? Did he at least call her?"
"He could not go with her. He could not call- he was a bird after all, and how would a bird dial a telephone? No, he let her go. It was the only way he knew to save her."
The story had not pleased its primary listener. "It's too sad."
He could concede that she was right, but he could not help it. "It is the only story I know."
"Abba." He turned sharply to the sound of his daughter's voice. It was the first time he had heard it since he had told her that he would not beg. She gestured to the little girl. "She is an American child. You have to make it end happily, otherwise they cannot bear it."
He remembered how the once upon a times used to end. "Ah, well," he returned his attention to the child, "like you are an American girl, Daughter bird became an American bird, and she lived happily ever after."
But the little girl was far too savvy for that. "But why? Just because of America? She was all alone. How could she live happily ever after?"
And he really did not know the answer for that.
Luckily, Agent DiNozzo had reached his limit for silence. In a move that had the potential to become a pattern, he jumped in to rescue what Eli could not save. "Don't worry, kid. As soon as she landed in America, she made all sorts of friends. Like McGoof, an elfin little bird who was always available to hang out whenever she wanted, because he played computer games instead of going on dates. Then there was Jibbs, a gruff-but-fair old owl who lived on coffee and handed out head slaps when he meant hugs-"
"No, that's a lie. He never meant hugs." Eli chuckled a bit to himself when Jethro joined in; it seemed even Gibbs could be won over by the little girl.
Said girl twinkled her eyes at him, catching onto the Agent's game. "Did they have a boss named Lance?" she asked sweetly.
"Oh, yeah," the DiNozzo continued. "And there was this extremely-"
"Tony," Ziva jumped in once again. "It is just a story. Not an allegory."
"Oh, Ziva. It is so an allegory. Besides, I was just taking a page out of the Gemcity guide to storytelling."
"What's an allegory?" The child did not like to be forgotten. "Was there a witch?"
And America was softening his daughter, because it was she who answered. "Yes." He was an observer now, as his part in this tale had long since come to an end. He did not miss the coy look Ziva sent to her partner. "There was a witch- a bat named Gabby. She only came out at night."
The child was laughing now, pointing at the oddly dressed scientist beside her at the table. Ziva continued, "She was not an evil witch, but she was very powerful. And she talked too quickly. Oh! And there was also a wizard. All of the other birds lived high up, but the wizard was a duck, and he lived in a pond down below, and he had seen a lot, so he had many stories."
His Ziva was laughing. She was excited...about a silly story for a small child. He would hold onto this, because while it was not absolution, it still seemed to be proof of something.
"Was there a prince?"
He smiled when his daughter said "No," at the same time her partner said, "Of course."
The little girl turned out her bottom lip; that look, at least, had always been a familiar one. "Please. Please let there be a prince."
Ziva crossed her arms and pursed her lips- another look he remembered well. "Why does she need a prince? She is a bird."
And yes, this was no longer his story, but he could not resist teasing his daughter. "Go on, Zivaleh, let her have a prince."
"Named Tony." It appeared that Agent DiNozzo also could not resist teasing his daughter.
She rolled her eyes, but continued. "Fine. There was also a prince."
Ziva smiled in a way that Eli had learned long ago meant that there was danger ahead. "Yes. The prince's name was Tony. He was a peacock."
The Agent gasped in offense. The others laughed. Ziva carried on. "Prince Tony the Peacock spent his days prancing and squawking and shedding and generally annoying everyone else."
His daughter's partner was not the only one unpleased with this turn of events. Once again, the child's eyes narrowed, insistent upon her happy ending. "But won't the princess ever love the prince?"
"She is a bird, not a princess."
"But she'll love the prince, right?"
The Ziva he had raised would not have given in to a little girl. The Ziva he had raised was untouchable. A posturing peacock would have been no match for her.
But he saw no trace of the Ziva he had raised in the way she looked at Agent DiNozzo when she thought no one was paying attention
And he heard no trace of the Ziva who had survived in spite of him when she answered the impatient American child.
"I do not see how." She sighed. "But this is an American fairytale, so I suppose anything is possible."
And he hoped so. He really did.