A/N: I've been kind of dying to post this, but also a little nervous. Now that votes have been cast and counted, I actually can post it. And in addition? I won, which also means that I'm a finalist. The finals are this week, so I ask/urge/beg you to follow the link in my profile, read the two stories (usually posted on Thursday/Friday) and vote. Voting ends on Monday at 9pm EST. :)

The ncis_lfws challenge this round was to write an AU story: What if (your chosen character) never joined NCIS?

Disclaimer: Ziva's alternate life might be of my devising, but her character is no more mine than her canon one.

It begins with an order.

"Haswari is a threat," her father says, his gaze closed tight as hurricane shutters. "The threat must be eliminated." He is as distant and cold as she has ever seen him; a foreign entity. The kind of man who drives away from the treeline in a spray of dirt as his three children wander cold and hungry within the forest. The kind of man who ignores blue-cast lips in favour of his stopwatch, holds blankets ransom in exchange for promises to do better next time.

Ziva is frozen in place as he details his plan. The allies they seek to gain. Why the Director of Mossad wishes to curry favour with a small-time American agency, she cannot guess. The words penetrate each layer of her defenses slowly, diamond hard and aimed to wound.

Just like her, the sharp end of the spear.

Anyone listening to this conversation would never guess that Eli David is talking about his son; talking to his daughter.

Perhaps that is the intent.

Ziva is prepared to dislike Agent Gibbs' team right from the go-get. Or however that expression goes.

Stupid English and its stupid non-finite rules.

She prepared the dossiers for Ari, after all, has inside information about all of them – Anthony the womanizer, McGee the computer geek, and the unknown entity that is Gibbs. The Scottish doctor and his student. The laboratory technician who dresses like she is flirting with death. Her research does not prepare her for what she finds. Blood has nothing and everything to do with it. You cannot choose what you are born into, after all, you simply make do with what you have – much like being assigned to a desk, a team, a city.

And yet.

Agent Todd's absence is something raw and palpable, a black hole of grief centred over one corner of the shared work space. The level of grief takes her by surprise. It makes her wonder whether those she works with would mourn her loss like these American agents do; protect an empty desk like a shrine to what is missing.

She suspects that they would simply slot someone else into her place and carry on, and something inside her stomach reaches out with icy fingers and begins to twist.

She drives through the rain-slicked streets to her hotel carefully, precise in the face of the whirlwind.

Ziva believes that Ari is innocent, right up until the moment she hears the way he talks to Gibbs.

Such naked contempt seems foreign spewing from the lips that kissed her wounds as a child, and it is then that she realises – if Ari, teacher of letters and spinner of stories, can hold within him such a well of dark despair and keep it hidden even from her, there is no telling what he can hide.

Ziva wants to scream like a petulant child. She wants to beat her fists on concrete and wail for what she now knows she will have to do. She does not. She steels herself and sends a silent winged plea to someone she is no longer sure is even listening. She takes aim.

The sharp retort of the shot is covered only by the sound of Ari's body crumpling to the floor.

She has never questioned her life before. Perhaps it is what makes her so valuable to Eli – the last ragged fragments of a child's trust in her father still remains despite everything she has seen and done, everything she has seen him do and had done to her.

Ari is warm in her arms, and his beloved face still carries a hint of surprise. The anger and malice flow out of him, spilling red onto the concrete floor. It is this, and the look in Gibbs' eyes as he stands over them, that truly makes Ziva want to howl.

She sings to him as his body cools, thinking all the while that were he still here, he would mock her attempt at carrying on traditions neither of them still believe in. It is probably for the best. She doubts he has a place allotted in between his half-sister and stepmother.

Gibbs waits at the top of the stairs, a glass reflecting amber and honey light in each hand. His face is neutral in the half-light, but beneath the stone-set she detects a hint of something – not pity, which she is thankful for, but… understanding. Thanks?

She who is the master of reading people cannot decipher him. It frustrates and intrigues her all at once. The world is crumbling; she is crumbling.

She never forgets the feel of his soft-worn shirt against her tear-streaked face.

What happens between her and Agent DiNozzo that night is less about comfort than it is about staving off mutual grief. His hot eager mouth blazes trails down her spine and for moments – minutes, even – she forgets all but what is happening right here, right now. Tangled sheets and rough caresses, the way her mouth is kiss-bruised and pulpy afterwards beneath her fingertips.

She does not meet his searching eyes, afterwards.

Her careful research turned up nothing about the way this inexplicable man cuts through her defences. There have been many men that she can have and does not want. She, the Pied Piper of men, has shaken out her dark curls for others and drawn them off the edge of the cliff with her without looking back. The thought that Tony could be the one that she wants but cannot have scares her.

He leaves in the early hours, but not before a pause and a backward glance. "Probie's gonna love this."

She knows he is teasing, but she bites anyway. "If you tell anybody about tonight, I will return while you sleep and set you on fire." She is only half-joking.

"Don't worry, Zee-vah," he says with a slightly sickened smile, "Mom's the word."

She does not see what his mother could possibly have to do with this.

After it is done, she is ordered back to Tel Aviv for de-briefing.

The tension in the air is palpable as she sits stiffly before her father, spinning sticky lies concocted between her and Gibbs. She could not tell him that there was no need for the deception. It is done – that is enough. It does not matter who did it, she thinks. Eli either knows she killed Ari and cannot fathom why she is lying about it, or thinks she could not carry out the order and so does not trust her to serve her country above all others. She, who has bled out white and blue in countless dank alleys for most of her young life, is no longer trusted.

It is easier somehow to be untrusted than to reveal the deep black hole eating away at her insides.

Eli keeps her as close as he has ever kept her – she goes almost eight months without leaving Israel, save for one quick trip to Paris to clean up someone else's mess. It is less about keeping his one remaining child safe and more about determining what she saw in Washington that makes her jaw tick with barely-visible tension when she stands before him.

She is almost certain her father has her under surveillance – at least twice she hears the familiar crackle at the end of a phone call, sees shadows slip-sliding behind her as she runs out her anger in the half-light between afternoon and night. Eventually she figures she has passed the test – her shadows disappear, random sweeps of her apartment turn up nothing more than dust and crumpled paper.

One of the few photos she keeps in the hallway remains permanently turned to the wall.

There are no watercoolers at Mossad – casual conversation is unofficially discouraged. Still, the equivalent gossip network runs rife when news comes in that the Americans are seeking a Mossad liaison.

Hope blooms briefly, silently.

Hadar is the one that tells her the news that Elisheva Barak has been appointed to the position. If he is hoping for a reaction, he is to be sadly disappointed. Ziva merely murmurs something positive about Barak's track record (she has never killed her brother, as far as Ziva knows) and continues their interrupted conversation.

She cannot help but smile to herself, late that night as she runs in the deserted gym, at the thought of Barak being… reprimanded… by Gibbs.

She hopes he doesn't lose a hand trying.

As if making up for lost time, Eli sends her on assignment after assignment. She barely sees him other than in an official capacity, which she suspects is fine with both of them. She loses herself in the disguises she puts on, one small fragment at a time. Some days she cannot tell where Carla or Svetlana or Lisa end and Ziva begins.

That summer she earns herself an official commendation from the Director of Mossad and a bullet in the fleshy part of her upper arm. She is not sure what stings more, her father's impassive handshake or the raw empty space where the hot metal burned through her flesh.

Out of the blue, Agent McGee emails her one day.

It is short and sweet, a hint of his real-life clumsiness coming across in the email. He gives her some story about researching for a project he's working on, one that apparently includes information about the working life of a Mossad operative.

She does not ask why he cannot ask Officer Barak for the information, simply tells him what she can, and more importantly, what she knows he wants to hear.

Ziva never asks about the team – she tells herself that the past is the past, and for whatever reason hearing about their lives is akin to pouring acid on a graze. Despite this, McGee provides small snippets of information as though she was one of them. It puzzles her – the short time she was in America she had little to do with the probationary agent, and yet he occasionally asks for her advice.

What would you do, he writes, if

I could kill you eighteen ways with a paperclip!, she writes one day in a fit of frustration. She has just returned from an assignment that necessitated the use of close physical contact, followed by close physical violence. She feels dirty, and the pedestal McGee has apparently placed her on is just a little too high for her liking.

It doesn't dissuade him.

Officer Elisheva Barak lasts three months in Washington before returning to the Institute. She curses the white devil openly when she returns. "You worked with him once," she spits at Ziva, and her tone is enough to reveal exactly who she is talking about. "How did you stand it?"

Ziva levels her with a gaze that makes the older woman stop in her tracks. "I did not," she says simply, and walks away from the lie without looking back.

Talia's birthday arrives, the signal of another year creeping by. Ziva lights a candle for her little sister in the confines of her apartment, allows herself a moment of bitter regret. Regret for Tali's too-short life, for all the things she could not protect her from.

She takes the turned-over photograph in the hallway down from its moorings and stares at their happy faces, tears blurring the faces of her brother and sister until they seem intangible, faded like smoke in the wind.

She wipes her face and breathes slowly until she feels like herself again.

On one of the rare occasions she is in the office, Amit Hadar sweeps past her full of righteous indignation, clutching a novel by an American author, Thom E Gemcity.

"Eighteen ways with a stapler," Hadar snorts as he passes. "Ridiculous."

Ziva smiles to herself and makes a note to pick up a copy on her way home.

Years pass. Men come and go. She meets Michael Rivkin while on assignment – they are posing as a married couple, a pair of assassins, which makes her laugh because sometimes things are exactly what they are.

He looks at her in wonder and tells her that if she will have him, she will never be alone again.

She has never felt more lonely in her life.

She has never believed in luck. Life is what you make it, and occasionally things swing your way. Sometimes they do not. The tables turn eventually and her cover is blown one winter morning as she moves lithe and ghost-like through the snowy streets of the Czech Republic. She is hiding in a barn, the faint smell of sawdust scenting the air. Inexplicably she thinks of Gibbs. Fear is not an emotion Ziva allows herself to feel, but the twisting in her gut is something akin to panic, or as close as she'll ever get. Panic makes her sloppy, and she moves just a fraction too soon.

In truth, it is less because of the emotion and more because the man who enters the barn first bears stunning resemblance to Ari, and the thought flashes into her head that once was enough. She hesitates, and for her trouble leaves with two black eyes and a bullet in the meat of her thigh.

The wound festers slowly over the course of the week as she limps through the streets of Prague, hunted and unable to contact her handler to let him know she is wounded and awaiting extraction. It reminds her of the danger of caring. Each ice-white flash of pain freezes a little more of her heart.

She eventually loses consciousness in a rented room and wakes with a start hours later. Warm hands grasp hers.

"Tony?" she mumbles, delirious.

"It is not," he answers from far away. "It is I, Michael." He is puzzled, she can feel it in the air through the fog of painkillers and infection. She lets herself drift away rather than trying to explain – she owes Michael nothing, and the other even less.

And yet…

She wakes again in an unnamed hospital, alone.

Ziva has never been able to regret the loss of her childhood, because she never knew differently. Everyone she knew grew up with passion and fire in their hearts. Israel breeds loyalty like America breeds obesity – one bite at a time – and she has eaten danger for breakfast most of her life.

Danger comes this morning in the form of congealed porridge, borne by her father who looks as though someone has shot his dog. He sits by her bed and inexplicably – she will later blame it on the painkillers – tears prick her eyes. If he notices, he does not let on.

"The doctor tells me you will be cleared for travel in a few days," he says evenly, though his tone is coloured with regret. Their eyes meet. "I have another assignment for you."

Six days later, she is on a plane to America, an encrypted dossier on Saleem Ulman and his Los Angeles terrorist cell tucked securely in her flight bag.

She does not spare a thought for what lies across the country in Washington, only the mission at hand.

Orders, after all, are orders.

Thanks for reading - hope you enjoyed it, and feel free not to crucify me for whatever may or may not have happened at Ziva's hotel room in her alternate life.