The Substitute.

Ziva was the first to recognize the call of an ending; she was, after all, the most experienced in such things. So, as the minutes passed, making him officially late, she did not join the nervous joking about a long night with a jar of bourbon and a chisel. She sat perfectly still, waiting for everyone to grow strong enough to consider what she already knew.

Gibbs being late and Gibbs being okay were mutually exclusive.

When calls went unanswered and dread settled over the office that had always been more like home, she knew it was time. She would be the one to go; she was, after all, the best suited for such things. She faltered at the elevator, realizing that she could not go alone. Before she could speak, Tony was by her side. She could not go alone. She would not have to.

The drive was brief and filled with the silence of those who had seen this film before.

Before they opened the door, Ziva instinctively reached out her hand, trusting Tony would be there to take it. In this, at least, she was not disappointed. They found him on the couch, having gone to sleep the night before and failed to awake this morning. They worked in tandem, verifying the absence of a heartbeat and of apparent violence.

A peaceful ending was a welcomed shock.

Ziva broke the silence, announcing her belief that it was a heart attack. She took her partner's hand again, realizing that words were failing him. They did not stand that way for long, holding on to each other, looking down at the man who'd seemed invincible just yesterday.

There were things to do.

Tony would return to the office that, from now on, would seem a little less like home. He would tell the others- a task for which Ziva was particularly ill-suited. She would stay. She would handle practicalities. She would do only what she could do well.

They pretended it did not hurt to part.

She made calls and arrangements with a voice that did not quiver. She pushed away thoughts of the heartbreak Abby would be unable to hide. She made a note to hug McGee, sweet McGee, whose grief might easily be overlooked. She vowed not to allow Tony to drink himself into oblivion; she would help him face this one head on.

And they would be fine.

She said this out loud to her boss, her surrogate father. "We will be fine." She said it because, though she was not one to ruminate on souls, she had grown up with the tradition that the souls of the recently deceased hover around the body for three days after death. These souls, according to tradition, were confused.

She would not leave Gibbs alone and confused.

She closed his eyes and took his hand and spoke to him. She told him she knew they would be doing this again soon, with Ducky. She assured him that Palmer would do fine in the doctor's shoes. Just as Tony would do fine in his. They had all been taught well, this new generation.

They would not let him down.

She told him, this confused soul in which she did not really believe, that he had saved her life in many ways and that she would live a life worthy of his effort. She promised to place pebbles on his grave, so everyone would know he had mattered. She promised to take care of them- Tony, Abby and McGee. She would fight for them always.

Just as he had always fought for her.

She whispered that his soul should not be upset, because he would finally get to be with his girls. She whispered, because that is what one does when saying things which one does not believe.

Or which one does believe, but only deep down and only when it matters.

She could hear the rumble of voices outside. She assured his soul it would be okay. She would not leave him. She would stay with him until his body was safely in the ground and his soul was safe with those who loved him most. His real daughter would welcome him in the next world.

But Ziva, for whom standing in had been the pleasure of her life, would remain by his side until then.