a/n: Thanks as ever for your thoughts and encouragements on this little adventure. An especial thanks for this chapter goes out to AnotherStupidNickname, whose comment on the last installment of the story got me thinking. As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts - particularly if you spot loose ends to be addressed!

Chapter 8: Monsters

Ziva: There is always another monster.

Tony: Yep.

Ziva: . . . we just keep making targets of ourselves. I don't think I can take anymore.

- From NCIS Swan Song

x x x x x x

He shook himself back to the present and walked over to the work bench to look over what was there. Not really seeing any of it.

He didn't understand what she was talking about, what she was asking.

And he understood too well, more than he wanted to. Just from the edge in her voice.

Gibbs set his hands on the counter, gathered the will. When he'd found enough he turned around and leaned against the work bench, the weight of the wood solid at his back. Facing her, meeting her gaze. Silent permission, really, to go on.

She went for it alright.

Her eyes were burning, resting on him like dark coals. "You live in this house," she looked over his shoulders, soaking in the walls. "You bought this with your first wife."

Her gaze wandered up to the ceiling, as if in wonder, and then back at him. "So that you could raise a family here."

He met her eyes and was startled by how familiar they seemed. The painkillers had stripped away her masks, all the pretense and bravado that protected her from . . . this. Ziva looked at him like his mother used to, when she knew time was running out. With the awful knowledge that she would never see him grown, never know him as a man. That life could be cruel.

"You lost them, yet you are living here still. In this house."

She watched him, the question in her eyes, but his face, his body, said nothing at all.

"You must see them everywhere."

Nothing. Nothing from him.

"And Kate. She was special to you, wasn't she? More than a teammate. Ari could see things like that."

Her eyes landed on one of the small windows and stayed there, even though they were pitch black. As if she could escape this room and the things in it, and in her own mind, if she only kept her eyes busy enough elsewhere.

"Ari was perceptive, even when very young. He used to startle my father. It was the only time I ever saw Eli surprised. Ari was . . . the word is eerie. I have always believed that is why he killed her first. And waited to do it in front of you. It wasn't just that she was a woman. He saw something more."

And then Gibbs wasn't looking at Ziva anymore. He was looking through her.

Because Kate, she hadn't been . . but she might have. He didn't see how Ari could have known that, though. He wasn't exactly sure that Kate had known it.

Except Ari spoke to Kate several times when Gibbs wasn't there, hadn't he. It was Ducky who'd seen them together, observed them interacting. And Duck had pointed out their odd connection, been concerned about it.

No one would ever know, now, what she might have said to that bastard. About Gibbs, and about herself . . .

"And Jenny. You - cared for her."

Gibbs straightened the smallest bit. Took a subtle breath.

He'd answered Ducky's challenge, he reminded himself. He couldn't run away.

So he let his thoughts run instead, far behind his eyes, from a basement that felt like a cemetery - choked with ghosts.

Not the ghosts of Hollywood or the Disney movies that little girls watch. These were the real ones, that hit harder than any living man ever could, and cut more than you thought it possible to bleed.

Jenny had . . . she'd felt something for him. He would never know what the two of them might have been. It didn't matter now . . .

"She was glad, you know. That she did not act on what was between you. She felt very deeply for you, Gibbs." Ziva kept her eyes on the window. Letting him take this alone.

"Jenny cared enough to be glad that she spared you from losing another."

So. That was a confidence, alright. Jenny confided near the end. But not in him. One secret down. Or was that two? Losing another . . . love.

Gibbs decided that knowing wasn't any better. There was no better, really. Only loss. Vengeance. And then time. Maybe moving on. Learning to accept it. To live with it.

"And Mike now. There must be others as well. People with names I do not know. Will never know."

His gaze refocused, came back to her. And he thought, with a little laugh that never found voice, small mercies.

She was a hell of an interrogator when she wanted to be.

Ziva's eyes left the tiny dark window to find his.

He just looked back at her, totally bland. As if she'd read him a grocery list. Anything he might feel for any of the people he lost was buried far away, something she would never touch. That and the drugs were what made her able to say this. To do this to him.

Because Ari was wrong. Gibbs wasn't cold like their father. When his people were in trouble he threw himself after them, body and soul. When they were in danger he agonized for them. And when they were lost he grieved.

Privately, yes, but she recognized at least that it was there.

Her father - well, he was not so brave. He did not have Gibbs' raw courage. Eli protected himself from the hurt. From making connections. From holding onto them.

Ziva had done the same in her life so far, hadn't she? What did she have that was permanent? Had she allowed anything at all in close - into her heart - after Tali died?

And yet here was Gibbs. Pulling her close. Onto his team, and his porch. Into his home. Somehow . . .

She took a breath.

"How do you stand it? There's always another monster . . and they keep . . . taking . . . Why are you still here?"

It wasn't just some rhetorical question. She was honestly asking him.

He looked at her without any compassion at all, and when he finally spoke, the words were terse.

"Are you asking me why I didn't eat my gun?"

Because if she didn't have her own answer for that he was pretty sure he didn't have one to give her. And she was in worse shape than he'd thought.

She jerked and looked at him sharply, suddenly, as if she'd never seen him before. There was pin-drop stillness around them.

"N-No! I am asking why you are not on a beach, in Mexico. Or teaching at FLETC. Building boats!"

She was yelling now, as if what he'd said frightened her. Her voice strained around the words, like she was trying to bring the anger under control. Or –

"You're still here. And they keep –"

He kept his face still. He'd watched thousands of women cry on the job. But never Ziva. Gibbs had never actually seen it. He'd heard her, over a phone, patched through satellites. And he'd sat close, felt it as he held her hand. But even that one time on the porch it'd been silent, hidden. A controlled release.

This was different. It must have been the drugs.

Gibbs resisted the urge to move. Closer or farther away, he wasn't sure. He just wanted to move. To avert his eyes.

"They keep coming. It could have been me, today." She fought hard for control, breathing past hitches that threatened to grow into something impossible to swallow.

The words came hard and fast instead. "I know Ari shot into Abby's lab. He missed her head by inches. By chance."

She stared at him, beseeching. "You love her. But if she had died Gibbs, you would still be here. You would be in her lab, everyday, you would see her. How can you – "

She raised her hands to her eyes. Bent over her knees, shuddering. And was gone.

His instincts pushed at him to go to her, but still he didn't move. She'd thrown the people he lost at him like bricks through windows, and they surrounded him now. It would cut to the bone if he tried to move through that.

She quieted quickly anyway, grabbing up the emotions choking her and throttling them down, he was sure. When she spoke again her voice was no longer hoarse with feeling. Exhaustion had set in.

"I am sorry, Gibbs. I do not know if I can take anymore."

She was done.

He turned away finally, wooden, pouring a finger of bourbon and drinking it down. Feeling like he had failed that, somehow. But there were limits to what he could take. His team, his agents, they didn't see them. He didn't let them. But they were there.

He looked at the spot where Ari died, so sweetly, and it suddenly occurred to him that bringing her down here to sleep may not have been the smartest move he ever made.

He'd forgotten. Not that the man died here. Just that it meant something so different to her.

"Do you want to go upstairs?"

She started, surprised to hear his voice. "What?"

He shook his head, letting it go. He hadn't wanted her to go home alone, but he should have slept before this. He was tired. Making mistakes. And he still didn't -

Gibbs cut himself off. Second-guessing was beyond useless, and they were here now anyway, no matter what he should have done.

He searched back over what she'd said, looking for something he could actually . . . touch.

"I didn't live here with my," he grimaced, "first ex-wife."

She snuffled wetly and ran her hands down her face. When she looked at him, finally, her eyes were red and confused. Totally lost.

"I was traveling a lot," he explained patiently. "Living abroad. I didn't stay here after they died. Not for a long time."

And you didn't go back to Israel after Ari. Not, he understood now, because she needed to protect herself from Mossad. It was her brother's memory that chased her so far away from home. And onto his team.

"You were good for us, after Kate died," he continued. "You were different. Kept us from looking at an empty chair."

Was that a cruel thing to say? He wasn't sure. But it was true.

He crossing his arms over his chest and studied her face. Groping for what to say.

"Ziva - "

It was still between them. All that loss. All around him, like a bed of nails. Or - the irony - the walls of a city under siege. His own this time.

But she was leaving, the day after tomorrow, and it couldn't be like this.

Suck it up, Marine. He grit his teeth, picked up feet made of lead, and slowly crossed the basement to her. Sat on the floor, leaning back again the cot. Looked at the tools hung up on the pegboard behind his workbench.

He wouldn't touch anything else she'd said. It wasn't relevant anyway.

"Risk is part of the job, Ziva," he said firmly. "Always has been. Losing people, that's a part of life. Always will be. So why don't you tell me what's really going on?"

She didn't respond.

There's always another monster . . . They keep coming . . .

"Is it Cobb, Ziva? What he could have done, even though he didn't?"

Of course it was, Gibbs thought. Another had come for her. Taken her.

But it felt like - like that wasn't all. She'd been better after they began talking. Facing Somalia, all the things about her captivity, and her father's betrayal, that had chased her to him. Gibbs knew that she'd been better, had seen it day to day on the job. Now he wondered if all that had been lost. Because of Cobb.

He felt the anger burning low in him, again, though he knew it was pointless. Cobb was dead.

Ziva clenched her hands. There was no hiding from Gibbs. But she knew he would never stumble or grope or guess his way to this. She would have to tell him if he was ever going to drop it. She sighed.

"What Cobb could have done. That he could have assaulted me, more than he did? He took Mike from us," she said listlessly. "Isn't that enough?"

Gibbs shook his head. It didn't add up. And he could feel it in his bones when his agents tried to dodge him. "Not following you, Ziva. Mike was a good man. But you weren't that close."

She shifted and he turned a little to look at her. She really was woozy now, her head swaying a little even with her body slumped on the cot.

Come on, Ziva.

"Tell me."

Someone who wasn't a bastard might feel bad, pressing her when she was vulnerable. But Gibbs was a bastard.

"No," she said finally. "Not to Mike. But I am to you."

He frowned, waiting for her to make sense of that. "Still not - "

"Gibbs," she groaned quietly, frustrated, then seemed to reign herself in with a deep breath. "How can you - is it not obvious? Mike Franks goaded Cobb into killing him. He wanted to die as he lived - fighting." She looked at him pointedly and he looked back, still waiting.

That was all true about Mike. But he was no closer to understanding what the hell she was talking about.

"Yeah?"

She turned her face away and closed her eyes and tried her hardest to bury it all before she spoke, like he did. To tap into that emptiness somehow. It was too much to feel, too much to lose, and she couldn't anymore.

Things had changed. She'd let him in - well, he'd pounded his way in, really. She'd resisted, tried to run that first night. Tried to stay away after it. But he kept coming, and now it was done.

She looked at the silvery ring on her finger. They were close, connected. Like family. It was . . . permanent.

Which is what she had wanted.

Ziva felt a swell of panic rise up from her gut. It gripped her throat and squeezed.

She had felt fear in her life, many times. And despair. But she'd never been prone to panic before. Not until now. In the past few days she had come to know it all too well. Since she first heard that Mike had been killed at Gibbs' house, chasing yet another monster.

Like a premonition.

"That will be you one day, Gibbs. Of course it will. You on that autopsy table. You are the same," she hissed. Her hands came up and pressed into her head, as if to keep it from flying apart. "Actually, I think you are worse," she said dully. "You are healthy, but already you chase it. You dared Ari to kill you. Dared me to save you. You did not think I would, did you? You knew he was family."

He pulled back a little in surprise and stared at that spot on the floor. Where Ari fell. Thrown back to that day.

He'd suspected. And yes, he'd been prepared. To die.

Not to face questions like this.

"I wasn't sure," he admitted.

"You have been goading death for twenty years. You must be the luckiest man alive. Or the unluckiest."

He couldn't exactly deny that. "I didn't know he was your brother, but I suspected you were close," he said quietly. "I am sorry that you had to do it - to kill him, Ziva." He hesitated. "That I asked it of you."

Like your father. Gibbs hadn't known the extent of the relationship between Ziva and Ari. But he'd known something was there. Of course he had. The way she'd defended him, so desperate to believe he was innocent . . .

Gibbs asked her to be the one to take Ari down anyway.

Maybe she was right. Maybe he'd been tempting fate.

Ziva snorted. "I was determined to rescue him. If you killed Ari I never would have believed he turned on Mossad. I would have killed you in retaliation. Then you would both be dead."

"Yeah. Maybe."

"I do not want to live to see that day, Gibbs. I do not want to be so close . . . to watch Ducky - in front of my eyes."

He nodded. He knew her background. He should have seen this coming. Ziva was a ping-pong ball before she came to NCIS, a lot like Dinozzo. She hadn't let anyone close, not really. She'd never needed to before.

And he understood now. There was pain, where there was love. And fear. Anyone who had lost, really lost someone, knew that. It was a part of it.

"But that is how you bear it, isn't it?" she said coldly. "All of what they take from us, and the risk. Whatever they will take in the future. You have embraced your own death."

The betrayal was clear in her voice. That he had brought her close, and would leave her one day. Was willing to leave.

Daddy, don't go.

He backed away from that.

These weren't the sorts of things he asked himself. But Gibbs sat on his basement floor and forced himself to think it over now. Sending her off to Spain in the footsteps of a suicidal assassin, her mentor "embracing death" in her mind - well, not a good idea.

"I don't fear it, if that's what you're getting at. I accepted the risk, Ziva. There's a difference. I'd be happy to die in my bed of old age. I did try to retire, if you remember."

Ziva swiped at her eyes. "Yes. For a distressingly brief time. Why did you come back?"

He looked at her. "Well, someone called me up for help. Someone hunted by NCIS, the FBI, rogue Iranians, and Mossad. All at the same time. That takes a 'special' kind of talent."

Ziva didn't blink an eye. "Well, she sounds like a total idiot to me. You should have left her to her fate." She took a breath and continued quietly, sadly. "Or at least gone back to retirement after you saved her."

"Hm." Gibbs massaged his bad knee absently. "Well, I owed her my life," he said. "So I had to come back. And I was already starting to remember."

She threw him a puzzled, muzzy look.

And then she sort of flopped over, hitting the cot with a rattle and a groan. It wasn't exactly as soft as a bed.

She scrunched the pillow he'd thrown at the end of the cot up under her head, clear of the sore bump just above her neck, and looking at him with droopy eyes.

"I didn't remember much after coming out of that coma, Ziva. Didn't really remember the team, beyond the basics. It came back in pieces."

Not the memories. The feeling. Who he was, and the things that mattered to him. That had taken time to come back, and even longer to accept. But it had come. In great big pieces, once he returned to DC and started working with them again.

"Wait. You came back . . . because of the team?"

He laughed for the second time that night at her disbelief. "The team is good, Ziva. Better than any I've ever had before, anywhere. That's not something to throw away."

Because the monsters would take their share anyway. You had to hold onto the good with both hands.

"You came back because of the team?"

"Yeah," he seemed surprised at her surprise. "But don't ever tell Dinozzo I said that."

"Do not worry," she said faintly. "He would not believe me."

"You could try to leave the job behind, find something else. But I think you're gonna run into the same problem I did, Ziva. You're too good to quit. And if you do - it's just another thing you've let them take from you."

She looked at him tiredly.

"You fight back by minimizing the risks," he pressed. "You watch our backs. Let us watch yours."

Her eyes were closing, so he leaned in close. She didn't seem to notice. He lifted an unnaturally slow hand, and when she allowed it, smoothed back her hair once, ghosting over the tender spots.

It must have been the drugs.

"I'll give you an example. Next time we're hunting down a psychopath, you don't go into an unknown situation without back-up. Never again, you got me Ziver? Or you won't have to worry about retirement. I'll retire you myself."

She fell asleep before his eyes.

x x x x x x

He pushed open the screen door the next morning and found her on the porch, sitting on the stone ledge, watching the world go by. When she turned to face him she looked startled, as if he'd just goosed her.

"I told you about my mission." Her tone carried the And I can't believe it.

"Hm," he kept the door open and leaned lightly on it, half in and half out of the house. "Well, I am an excellent interrogator."

She looked affronted. "You cheated. I was doped!"

He grinned. "If you say so."

Ziva shook her head and he stepped farther out onto the porch, letting the door swing closed behind him. She looked like she'd lost her anchor and her compass, all in one go.

Private confidences were one thing, he supposed. Work was something else.

And Gibbs wasn't known for being discreet. Lord knows he was tempted to call Vance last night. He climbed the stairs after he'd left her passed out in his basement determined to do just that. Screw the fact that it was 0200. He'd had the phone in his hand, the Director's home number glowing up at him.

"Look at it this way," he said, leaning against the wood railing across from her. "You can always fall back on being doped. If Vance ever finds out."

She scoffed even as she searched his face for the truth. "You mean to tell me he does not already know? You have not -" she waved a knowing hand at him, " - called him up and berated him for sending me on a mission you have not approved?" She continued darkly, "Endangering your fragile probationary agent?"

"Nope," he said. As if he hadn't come close. "He's the Director. You're a big girl. And none of my agents are fragile."

"Huh," she said. She looked him over like she saw straight through his bluff. Like she knew it had been a close thing. Ziva was as good at reading him these days as Dinozzo was.

Gibbs grimaced. All that talking, the getting-to-know-you thing. It cut both ways.

"Why are you looking at me like that?"

Gibbs crossed his arms. "Like what?"

"Like you are confused." She drew herself up into a suspicious posture. "Like you are trying to figure something out. I have done nothing confusing this morning. Last night, yes." She put her nose up into the air a little, and he didn't bother holding back a smile. "But that was because you cheated."

He let his eyes run over her. She was definitely looking better this morning, and from the sound of it, feeling better too. Back to sharp and demanding. Back to Ziva.

"Hey, you've got nothing to worry about," he said lightly. "I'm not gonna pass your confidences on to Ray." He raised his eyebrows. "Or Tony."

"I did not confide in you about either one of them," she sniffed. Clearly not buying it.

He rolled his shoulders and met her eyes again, considering what to say.

And decided just to say it, because he believed what he had said to her. She wasn't fragile.

"I thought Cobb would be a bigger issue," he admitted. "But you didn't talk about him."

She kept looking at him, eyes calm and steady. He scratched his chin and turned to study his shaggier than usual grass. He should cut it before he brought Leyla and Amira back here.

"I'm not Ducky, Ziva. I don't know if I'm missing something, or just not understanding what's happening here. What I know is that Cobb attacked from behind, knocked you unconscious, and confined your movements. I thought those were surefire triggers."

He looked at her again. Waited for her to respond.

"Yes," she said finally.

Gibbs turned back to his grass, feeling his way. She was leaving tomorrow - he had to be sure before he let that happen. "But they weren't this time?"

He almost held his breath.

"No."

"Sure about that?"

He saw her shrug out of the corner of his eye. "It did not affect me in the same way."

He relaxed. Somewhat. He was pretty sure that Ducky, or some professionally trained shrink, wouldn't just ask out right.

Oh well. "Why not?"

He could feel it as she turned her eyes from him, went back to watching the world go by.

"It was the beginning of all my nightmares. That is true. But Cobb changed the ending," she paused. "Instead of waking up to find those - the monsters above me, I found you. The team." She rubbed her hands down the thighs of her sleep rumpled jeans.

He waited and she smiled a little. He always knew. When there was something more.

"And I think I found me too, Gibbs," her voice held wonder, and not a little pride. "The nightmare came true, but I - " she stopped again, searching for the words to match the feeling.

"You fought. And won."

He understood then. That Cobb had overpowered her wasn't the point. The fight Ziva won that day was the bigger one. The harder one.

She nodded slowly. "My fear did not overwhelm me. My focus stayed on the job. All the monsters - " she waved a hand at the world. "It is like . . . that part of my mind that broke away in Somalia, and would not come back . . . it understands, now. A little anyway. That they are not so powerful as it feared."

He looked at her thoughtfully, thinking back to that barn, to finding her. She hadn't pulled away when he'd come in close to look at the wound.

He'd thought it was because she had a concussion. But maybe -

"You didn't notice," he said aloud. It was falling into place.

She frowned at him, but he didn't bother to explain. Gibbs didn't think she'd ever realized she was doing it. Or maybe she just didn't think he detected it - Ziva had great self-control, and the changes had been minute.

But Gibbs saw them. And he always backed away. He hadn't come too close in almost two years.

He pushed himself up off the railing and walked toward her slowly, crooking a finger at her. "C'mere."

Ziva put aside her confusion and slid off her favorite bench, standing before him promptly, back straight and eyes alert. An agent reporting for duty.

He grinned a little. Did she think he was going to send her on a breakfast mission?

He stepped forward slowly, put his arms up gently, watching her. But she didn't lean away. Didn't drop her eyes. Didn't tense up as he folded her into him.

She relaxed when he put a hand up to her hair, and something inside him that had been wary since the day he spotted her in that dusty hellhole unclenched.

"I'm glad, Ziver," he whispered.

She turned her cheek to rest on his shoulder and hugged back hard enough to make Abby proud.

"But there is something else now," she said.

"I know."

He pulled back a little and held her in front of him, looking into her face closely. "But we're gonna have your back. If you let us."

He rolled his eyes at her frown, and the impatient little Ziva-sigh. The that's not the point sigh. Gibbs tilted his head in acknowledgement. "And you'll have mine."

She nodded solemnly. "I will. For the team. For Amira." And she tossed her head. A very I don't care if you let me or not, toss.

He studied her. So they were striking a deal?

"Hm. You call me if it gets hinky in Spain. Not Vance. Me. And you stay safe - no stunts, Ziva."

She closed her eyes and nodded, firm. Strong.

"And you," she said.

He kissed her cheek, and then he let her go.


a/n part deux: Hope you liked it, readers. I'm marking this story complete now as it has somewhat of an arc at this point, but I may come back to fiddle with it from time to time, particularly when the new season starts up.

In the meantime, I feel Gibbs has been neglecting his other agents!