Author's Note: A very, very beloved member of my family passed away at the beginning of January, and I think I wrote this story as a way of coping. It is inspired by a line in the Reform Jewish prayerbook, Something of us can never die. I don't usually write family or fluff stories, nor am I very good at them, so please don't judge too harshly.
Or, A Girl and Her Dog
But I don't tell the grown-ups because it is sad
And I want them to laugh like I do
Because they grew up and forgot what they knew
And they are sure I will forget some day, too
— From "Cherry Alive," by Delmore Schwartz
Every few years, Gibbs opened his hall closet and looked at the golden stuffed dog on the floor beneath the bottom shelf. He wasn't sure why he kept it for so many years... but there were still a few things that he couldn't bear to throw out or donate to charity, and Daffodil, after all, had been Kelly's favorite toy. He had wanted to bury her with it. As much as it had killed him to see his baby lying in a coffin, it might've been a little easier if she'd had Daffodil in her arms — a loyal guard dog watching over her. He never knew why he didn't object when Joann said she wanted Kelly to be buried with her doll of Ariel from The Little Mermaid...
But he didn't. And instead, Daffodil was buried in the hall closet. Gibbs shoved it from sight beneath the bottom shelf, because for the first few years after losing Shannon and Kelly, it hurt so much to even look at that dog that Gibbs was sure he would never want to see it again. So Daffodil lay there for years in the dark, a lonely guard dog with nothing to guard, dust gathering on the soft, golden ears that Kelly used to pet. He lay there for a very long time before Gibbs finally understood why he didn't object, why he didn't insist that Kelly be buried with Daffodil.
Daffodil, as it turned out, still had work to do.
As he approaches the hall closet, for one wild moment, he's afraid the dog won't be there. It's a ridiculous fear - nothing could've happened to it, since no one but Gibbs ever opens that closet. But still, as he turns the knob, he's gripped by the possibility that Daffodil might have somehow disappeared. Gibbs would have never known. He's left the dog hidden beneath the bottom shelf for years now. He racks his brain — when was the last time he looked under that shelf and saw Daffodil with his own eyes? He can't even remember when that was.
But the dog is still there, of course. Gibbs drops to his knees on the closet floor, ignoring the ache in his knees, and slowly pulls it out of the corner with one hand. A strange thought occurs to him as he looks at Daffodil.
We're gettin' old, boy.
It's not so hard for Gibbs to believe that the dog bears the same heavy weight of years that he does. Gibbs's hair is completely silver now, and more wrinkles are settling in around his blue eyes. Daffodil's fur, now coated in a thick layer of dust, is not as golden as it once was, and his plastic black eyes have lost their shine.
So much time has passed since the two of them were Kelly's dog and Kelly's dad. Gibbs is older, now, than his own father was when he gave Daffodil to Kelly on her birthday all those years ago.
She climbs into Gibbs's lap and wraps her arms around his neck after unwrapping his gift, her lips bright red and sticky with Kool-Aid as she kisses him on the cheek. And even though she's done this with him before, this time it blindsides him. Maybe seeing another little girl hold that dog was the trigger. He was happy to give it to her, but still, when she first hugged Daffodil to her chest, the memories suddenly rushed at him, so hard and fast that Gibbs had no time to push them away.
Fortunately, his reflexes kick in before he even understands what's happening — one arm instictively slides under her legs, which are wrapped around his waist now, while his other arm presses against her back, returning her hug.
For a moment, he just holds her against him, rubbing her back, and savoring the light, familiar weight of a little girl in his arms. For a moment, the years lift from him, as he goes back in time some twenty-odd years, to the last time that he held Kelly like this. For a moment, he doesn't fight the memories, which are so vivid, so strong, that it's not until she puts her lips against his ear and whispers, "Thank you, Grandpa," that he remembers where he is, when he is, whose daughter he's holding.
This little girl has brightened his life, but still, she is not his little girl.
He smiles against her cheek and whispers, "You're welcome, sweet pea." As she climbs out of his lap, all the years that were momentarily lifted from him suddenly crash back down, hard. His heart grows heavy as an anchor with their return, but still, when she looks up at him — with her mother's dark, curly hair, her father's light eyes, and her own ridiculously bright red lips — he has the strange sensation of something inside him bursting into joyous song.
In his basement that night, Gibbs sits at his work bench for a long time, looking at the old polaroid picture of Kelly holding Daffodil. He had taken the picture himself, at her fifth birthday party, right after she had unwrapped the dog. It was a gift from her Grandpa Jackson, who had come all the way from Stillwater for her birthday, and Kelly was so delighted with it that she climbed into his lap, kissed him on the cheek, and squealed, "Thank you, Grandpa!"
"Time for five-year-old girls to be in bed," Shannon said, turning the sheets down on her daughter's bed. Kelly yawned hugely — she was exhausted after the big day of her birthday party — and grabbed her new stuffed dog up off the floor by its ear.
"Mommy, I wanna sleep with the doggie Grandpa gave me," she said sleepily, and as she was climbing into bed with it, that's when she first noticed the tiny white flower painted in the middle of her dog's shiny black nose. Kelly gave a little gasp of delight and held it up to show her mother. "Mommy, look, my doggie has a flower on his nose! I'm gonna name him Daffodil, 'cause he has a flower and he's yellow like a daffodil is."
But Daffodil wasn't yellow a week later, when Kelly took him to the park — "So he can run around and play like a real dog," she told her mother — and dropped him in a mud puddle. Kelly cried like her heart was broken, thinking that her beautiful golden dog would be forever stained black, but Shannon promised that Daffodil would be as good as new after he had a bath.
Sure enough, after he went through the washer and drier, he was clean again — but the little white flower painted in the center of his nose, the flower that had earned him his name, was gone.
Her actual birthday falls on a Monday this year — a wet, foggy, gray Monday. Drizzling rain splatters the car windows, but Liora doesn't care because her parents are taking her to Burger King for a kids meal with a toy and a cardboard crown. She's going to ask for extra pickles on her cheeseburger, and just the thought of it makes her mouth water. Her parents don't let her have fast food very often, so this is a treat. She holds her new stuffed golden dog — the one her grandpa gave her at her birthday party on Saturday, when the weather was sunny — in her lap as she sits in her carseat.
If only she wasn't still stuck in this carseat. She was sure that when she turned five, she would be big enough not to need it anymore. But her mother tells her firmly that she has to keep using the carseat until she weighs forty pounds.
"Actually, given the way your mom drives," says Tony, who happens to be driving today, "maybe we should keep you in it until you're sixteen." He shoots a mischevious, sideways smile at Ziva, who laughs drily.
"I like it when Mama drives," Liora's little voice pipes up from the back seat. "It's exciting."
"That's my girl," Ziva says proudly. Liora's green eyes find her mother's dark ones in the rear-view mirror, and she smiles.
"Daffodil likes it too," she adds, petting the dog in her lap.
"Daffodil?" Tony asks. Liora has barely put that dog down since Gibbs gave it to her, but this is the first time that he's heard her refer to it as anything other than my puppy. "Is that what you named the dog your grandpa gave you?"
"That's the name he came with," Liora explains. "He told me. He said his name's Daffodil 'cause he's yellow, and he yusta have a flower on his nose." She taps her dog's plastic black nose with one finger. "See right here? There was a flower there, a long time ago."
Ziva looks over her shoulder into the back seat to see where Liora is pointing. The dog's nose is solid black. She smiles at her daughter and asks, "How do you know there used to be a flower there, Liora?"
"He told me," Liora says again. She matter-of-factly nods her head towards her dog, and her black curls flounce over her shoulders. "He told me Kelly named him Daffodil. He was Kelly's favorite stuffed animal."
Tony is so startled that he almost hits the brake. But Liora just continues petting her dog's ears, humming to herself, and swinging her legs in her carseat. She doesn't notice the look that her parents exchange in the front of the car. Ever since Liora was old enough to understand what they were saying, talking with their eyes has become second nature for them. There are too many conversations about their work that they can't have in front of her.
Woah, did she just say...?
Yes. Did you...?
No, did you?
For a moment, the only sound is the patter of the gentle rain on the car roof. Their little family sits in silence — which is rare when all three of them are in the car — as Liora continues humming and petting Daffodil's ears, oblivious, and Tony and Ziva try to work out the mystery of what she's just said. If neither one of them told Liora about Kelly...
"Did your grandpa tell you that, baby?" Tony asks.
"No, Daffodil told me."
"Are you sure, Liora?" Ziva presses gently, and she looks into the back seat again to see her daughter's face. Liora has a very active imagination. She'd once told her parents that tiny elves lived inside the stoplights and made them change from red to green.
"Uh-huh," Liora nods earnestly, and Ziva knows that this time, it isn't her imagination. "He told me he yusta belong to Kelly, a long time ago. She was Grandpa's little girl." She's quiet for a moment, still petting the dog's soft golden ears, but now with a sad, serious look that seems out-of-place on her young face. Tony and Ziva almost don't hear her when she adds softly, "But she's in heaven now, and so's her mommy."
Then she turns abruptly to the window, cups her chin in one hand, and stares out at the slate-gray sky, the raindrops pelting the glass. She continues swinging her legs nonchalantly, but she stops humming. Ziva's brow furrows as she turns back to Tony beside her.
How does she know...?
You don't think...?
And neither his eyes nor hers have any answers. Ziva opens her mouth a little, then closes it. Tony frowns and bites the inside of his cheek, like he always does when he's thinking hard.
"Huh," he murmurs.
"You do not honestly think the dog told her, Tony?" Ziva asks for the second time. It's late that night, and she sits, a bit tensely, on the edge of their bed. She had been brushing her hair, still damp from the shower, but now she just twirls a few strands of it through her fingers, a nervous habit. Liora is fast asleep in her bedroom down the hall, with Daffodil in her arms.
"I'm just saying that I'd sooner expect the dog to tell her than Gibbs," Tony answers. He's standing on the other side of their unmade bed, picking up a button-down shirt that he'd thrown on the sheets this morning. He shakes it out and goes to the closet.
"I mean, you know how tight-lipped the boss is," he adds, and Ziva has to chuckle in agreement.
"But he's so different with Liora," she puts in quickly.
"I know... but to bring up his murdered family to a five-year-old? I don't think I've heard Gibbs talk about his family once, in all the years I've known him." Tony pauses, flicks through some of the shirts on his clothes bar, searching for an empty hanger. "Have you?"
"No, never," Ziva answers quietly. "I do not think Gibbs told her, either. I do not think Gibbs would even give something of Kelly's to Liora." It seems a bit morbid, she thinks to herself. She picks up her hairbrush again, searching for a reasonable explanation. "She has such a wild imagination. I would write it off to that, but..."
"I know," Tony finishes for her. He's still rummaging in their closet. "She got Kelly's name right." Tony pauses for a moment, looking at the shirt in his hands without seeing it. He's thought about Kelly several times since Liora was born. He wonders how it must feel for Gibbs - but he can't even begin to imagine. He pushes the thought away and asks, "Babe, where's the wrinkle release?" But Ziva doesn't seem to hear him.
"Liora must have heard Gibbs mention Kelly in passing once," Ziva says slowly, almost to herself. "Or maybe she found something of hers at his house one day. Something with her name on it. And when Gibbs gave her the dog, she made up this story around it. Or maybe..." Her voice fades out, and she gets the distinct feeling that she's grasping at straws.
"Oh, I know! Ziva, I got it. Let's just ask Gibbs if he told her." Tony's face breaks out into a broad grin, and he hangs up his shirt in the closet with a flourish. Ziva stops brushing her hair, her hand dropping into her lap, and she smiles at him in amusement. "Come on, I dare you to ask Gibbs!"
"I am fairly certain Gibbs would answer that question with a smack to the head."
Tony smiles at that, but quickly grows more thoughtful as he walks back to the bed and begins tidying up the rumpled bedclothes.
"It's just... your toys are so real when you're a kid, you know?" Ziva doesn't answer him. She never had many toys when she was a little girl. Eli certainly didn't approve of stuffed animals.
"I mean, look at Toy Story," Tony goes on as he straightens the comforter and plumps the pillows. The cotton sheets rustle almost in time with his voice. "Let's say that dog really was Kelly's, and she really loved it. Let's say Gibbs saved it for all these years and gave it to Liora. I think when we really love something that much, it can have an effect on that object."
"Something that other people can sense?" Ziva asks quietly.
"Something like that, yeah. Maybe Kelly was like Christopher Robin, and Daffodil was her Winnie-the-Pooh." Daffodil. It's the first time that either one of them has called the dog by its name.
Ziva swings her legs onto the bed and leans back against the pillows. As Tony slips in between the sheets next to her, she turns to him, looking just a little confused.
"Who is Winnie-the-Pooh?"
It's a lazy Sunday morning, and Liora opens her eyes slowly and rolls over in bed. Daffodil is close beside her, his black eyes already open. They were still open when she fell asleep too, and Liora understands that Daffodil doesn't need to sleep because he's a guard dog. He stays awake all night, watching over her. For a moment, she just lays in bed, still half-asleep, listening to the faint voices down the hall.
"...you do to this cabinet door, DiNozzo?" her grandpa's gruff voice asks.
"...wanted to call a home repairman, but no, Ziva said..." her daddy's voice answers.
"...should be more than this. Go outside and check."
"...acting like this is a crime scene, boss," her daddy says, but his voice sounds farther away now.
Liora climbs out of bed and pads down the hall, dragging Daffodil along behind her by his ear. In the kitchen, she finds her grandpa on the floor in front of the cabinet beneath the sink. One of the cabinet doors has been taken off its hinges and leans against the dishwasher. His toolbox is beside him, and he looks frustrated.
"Grandpa?" Liora asks sleepily.
Gibbs turns, and as soon as he sees her, his blue soften and his grimace turns into a smile. "Hey, sweet pea," he answers. Liora crosses the floor and turns her face towards him so that he can kiss her cheek. Then, since he's already sitting in the floor, right at her level, she climbs into his lap and snuggles up against him. He has on a worn red pullover that smells like coffee and sawdust, and Liora is so comfortable in his lap that she could almost fall back asleep.
"Hey, you got your dog with you," Gibbs says, noticing Daffodil for the first time. "You give him a name yet?"
He feels Liora's little head nod on his chest. "Uh-huh," she answers, her voice slightly muffled against him. "His name's Daffodil."
For a second, he wonders if he misheard her... but what else sounds like daffodil? Gibbs runs a hand through her sleep-tousled curls as possibilities race through his mind. She can't know — how could she possibly know? He's never spoken about that dog, never told Tony, Ziva, or anyone else who it used to belong to. He had just given it to Liora like it was any other toy. So how does she know Daffodil's name?
He looks down at the dog in Liora's arms, as if it might have answers. As he looks at it, through the windows of time and memory, he can hear Kelly's voice again. Daffodil isn't ready to come in yet. Can we stay out and play a little longer? Mommy, Daffodil wants a cookie too, so can you give me another? Daddy, Daffodil can't sleep. Will you come read to us? That dog had always been so real to her. Maybe he shouldn't be surprised that Liora knows its name.
"Daffodil? That's pretty," he says casually. Then, trying not to sound too curious, "Why'd you name him that?"
"Just 'cause," Liora shrugs. She knows now that even though grown-ups are very smart, there are some things they can't understand. Then there are things they don't want to understand. Daffodil told her one night, after her mama put her to bed, that talking about his little girl still makes her grandpa sad. She doesn't want him to be sad, so she pulls back from his chest, smiles at him, and says, "He likes you, Grandpa." Her dark head moves in closer to his gray one, and then she adds in a conspiratory whisper, as if sharing a great secret, "And he likes having his ears petted."
Gibbs blinks at her, puzzled, but then he just smiles and shakes his head. "Yeah," he answers softly, as he reaches out and pets Daffodil's ear, just like Kelly always used to. "Yeah, I know."
And just then, one of Daffodil's black plastic eyes shines in the light and seems to wink at him.
P.S. I had a VERY hard time picking a name for Tony and Ziva's daughter. In fact, I tried to write this story without giving her a name, but I just couldn't. Liora wasn't my first choice - it's too frilly for my taste - but I thought it made the most sense. 1) It's a Hebrew name that means "light," and I feel certain Ziva would want her child to have a Hebrew name. 2) It sounds kinda like Leroy. ;)