People, "Treading Water" has 900 reviews. I've never had 900 of anything in my life, except for maybe cat hairs on my sweater. Thank you. Thank you so, so much. Every single comment means the world to me.
And sorry this was late. It was hard. Writing is hard and life is hard. So eat chocolate and read this and be happy. Stay warm, you US Northeasterners!
. . . .
And so it goes: 'this, too, shall pass.'
It cuts so strange.
The only thing that stays the same is change.
-Melissa Etheridge, "Change."
Gibbs put Sara down on the table and brushed her wild hair away from her face. She was naked except for the cast and diaper. The overhead lighting turned her eyes deep green.
"Daddy?" she asked softly.
"I don't want them to take my big cast off."
He wasn't surprised and stroked her cheek. Her skin was soft and warm. "You can't keep it forever, sweet pea."
She nodded, not convinced, and held out her hand. "Paci?"
He gave it to her. She put it in her mouth and sighed.
The tech was a tall woman in green scrubs. "I want to do this quick," she said. Gibbs detected an island accent—Trinidadian, maybe, or Grenadian. "And then you can take her straight downstairs for x-rays. Dr. Minton will see you when the films come back. Sara, are you ready?"
She nodded again, face turned away.
"Ok, then. I am going to ask Daddy to hold your hands out of the way so the saw does not cut you."
Gibbs moved to the head of the table and took Sara's entire upper body in his big hands. She fit; the wings of her shoulder blades rested easily in his palms. Her head lolled between his forearms. She sucked the pacifier hard, nervous.
"I got you," he whispered.
"Kay," she slurred.
The saw was loud but Sara wasn't afraid. She watched, interested, as the tech cut around the entire perimeter, beginning under her right arm and working down to her ankle, then between her legs and up the other side. The tech widened the cut with a spreading tool—Gibbs thought it looked like pliers in reverse—and sheared through the padding and stockinet with a pair of medical scissors.
"Ok," she said, "I'm going to take the whole front off in one piece. She might be scared when I hold it up. A lot of kids don't realize what they went through until it's done."
"She knows," he said mildly.
The two halves of the spica split with a crack and there lay his baby, scaly and atrophied amidst the soiled padding and fiberglass. Yellowish, dotted with rashes, she looked like a pale specimen pinned down for dissection. Gibbs' gut tumbled. He brushed away a stray hunk of cotton batting. "How ya doin', Sar?"
She scowled. "Cold."
"I'm running water in the sink for you, little one," the tech said. "Daddy is going to give you a warm bath."
"Ok," she said vaguely. Gibbs rubbed a small rashy-looking patch on her right side. The surgical incisions still bore protective adhesive patches.
The taps were turned off. "Go ahead," she said. "Pick her up. Her legs might stick out like toothpicks, so support her the way you did when she was in the cast."
Gibbs bent low and scooped Sara into his arms. She was light and spindly. Her head rolled on his bicep. He steadied it with his opposite hand. "Ok, baby girl?" She was limp and breathing heavily. Worry seized his heart. "Sar? Ya' ok?"
"Yeah," she replied unsteadily. "Sore, Daddy."
He cursed under his breath. "I'm sorry, sweet pea. Let's ask the doctor if I can give you more medicine for it."
"Ok," she said. He lowered her into the wide steel sink and she sighed in relief.
"Daddy is going to wash off all the yuck," the tech said. "Tell him if anything hurts, ok?"
Gibbs bathed her slowly, sluicing away dead skin and bits of cotton padding. Sara was quiet—eerily so—until he lifted her out of the tub and onto a bed of folded towels. He wrapped two of them around her. Goosebumps formed on her skin.
"Cold," she mumbled again.
He dried her off. "I brought a warm dress for you." Her stare was green and vacant. He brushed a finger over her knee and she blinked but didn't protest.
The tech handed him her clothes—the softest, warmest dress he could find and her favorite legwarmers—and motioned at the cast still lying on the table. "You want that?"
"No," he said flatly.
She tossed it in the trashcan, smiling. "Your little girl is very cute. Enjoy holding her."
Gibbs thanked her and dressed Sara delicately before lifting her into his arms again. "I'm proud of you, baby girl."
She smiled against his collar. "I'm proud of you too, Daddy."
. . . .
The people in radiology were fast. Sara got through six films in less than ten minutes and was rewarded with a fistful of stickers and a lollipop. Gibbs tucked her into the stroller—she was growing too tired and limp to carry easily—and buckled the harness around her. He had to tighten it. She dozed, exhausted and medicated, as he bumped her into the elevator and up to the ninth floor, where all three doctors met him in the quiet hallway.
Dr. Minton stuck out his hand. "How is she?"
Gibbs lowered the sunshade further. "Fine," he said tightly.
He was ushered into a large exam room with a view of McMillan Reservoir. The water's surface was flat black under the weak sun.
Dr. Nevins, the geneticist, crouched before the stroller and smiled. "Quite a setup."
"She's got places to go," he acknowledged.
"I hate to wake her, but I'd like to do an exam on the table. I spoke to Dr. Sheehan and we have some concerns."
Gibbs unbuckled the harness and scooped her up, possessive; she was his fragile thing. "Careful," he said lowly, cradling her head in his hand. "She's stiff."
"We'll be very gentle," Dr. Nevins said. "Hi, Sara," she greeted softly. "How are you feeling?"
She stared, silent.
The doctor rested her hands gingerly on Sara's chest and frowned. She tugged on Sara's arms and the frown deepened. "Floppy."
"She spent two months in a body cast," Gibbs said tightly.
"This isn't typical," Dr. Minton interrupted. "Most children aren't this weak, even after so many weeks in a double hip spica. Some are walking within days. For Sara, we can assume months, I think." He tickled her under the chin. "Can you lift your head up for me, kiddo? She raised her head, pressing her chin to her chest. "Hold it up for me," he coached. "Hold it up for as long as you can."
Ten seconds ticked by before her face turned red and she fell back, breathless. "Was that enough?" she asked, looking around. Gibbs took her hand in his.
Minton glanced at Nevins, who shook her head and made a note in the chart. He put his hands in front of Sara's face. "Push against my hands. Show everyone how strong you are."
She pushed, grunting, and Nevins shook her head again, making notes.
Minton felt her hips and legs. "Can you bend you knees?"
Sara's eyes filled. "No."
"Try for me, please."
She pushed and her toes pointed, but her froggy legs didn't budge and she burst into tears of frustration. Her arms went up; she wanted her Daddy.
Guilt and anger jammed their fists against Gibbs' solar plexus. He stroked her cheek and chest and had to take a breath before he could speak. "We put her through this so she would be better," he snarled, "and now she's worse."
"We treated a very serious case of hip dysplasia and now she's stiff from the prolonged immobilization," Dr. Minton replied evenly. "Sara was in tremendous pain. She might be sore now, but the x-ray images look very good—her acetabula and femoral heads are beautiful. I'm positive she'll be mobile once her muscles relax."
Gibbs hovered at the head of the table, eyeing Sara's pale legs and prominent collarbones. "I was told hot baths would help."
"Yes," he said. "And don't be afraid to use those pre-op meds. They'll go a long way toward keeping her comfortable."
"Can we talk about her weight?" Dr. Nevins asked gently. "I have her growth records."
Dr. Sheehan handed Gibbs a chart. On it was a curve for the typical growing child. Plotted beneath were Sara's measurements in a single straight line. Only a tiny spike indicated the nocturnal feedings she'd received before her operation. He was unimpressed.
"She has OI," he deadpanned. "You said she'd be small."
"Not like this," Dr. Nevins said hurriedly. "Sara is the size of a twelve-month-old infant but she's five-and-a-half and not making gains. We need to intervene."
"No ya don't," he said dangerously.
"I want to do some blood work," she insisted. "I want values on her growth hormones. After that we can do an absorption review and feeding assessment."
She counted Sara's ribs. "I wonder if malabsorption is the problem. She might not be getting the nutrients she needs from food. Those tests will help us figure it out."
"I feed her all the time. She doesn't need an assessment."
Sara sighed and looked around, dazed and drugged. "Daddy?"
"What, sweet pea?"
"C'n we go now?"
Gibbs glared at the doctors, who all exchanged glances and nodded. Good. He wanted to intimidate them.
"I know you're frustrated," Dr. Sheehan said. "Come by my office in two weeks for a check-in and we'll go from there."
He nodded and lifted his daughter off the table; she was feather-light without the cast. Her head drooped against his neck. She sighed again and shivered as he put her in the stroller and tucked her coat and blanket around her.
Dr. Nevins looked fondly at Sara. Gibbs saw his own worry reflected in her dark eyes. "Sara's hypotonia and bell-shaped ribcage make me wonder if her OI is worse than we thought."
He shrugged into his heavy work coat. "You said she had type one."
"Which is highly variable. We should wait and see."
"You mean wait until she breaks."
Her gaze dropped. "I wish it could be different. I think we should look into some positioning aids for her once her legs release. She could probably use some help sitting and moving. I'll speak to Sara's PT."
Positioning. Malabsorption. Hypotonia. OI. Worse than we thought. He whirled the stroller toward the door and paused—the doctors were not the enemy; the disease was. "Thanks," he said sincerely.
They all nodded with small, tentative smiles on their faces. "Two weeks," Sheehan reminded him. She held up two fingers. To Gibbs, it looked like the sign for victory.
. . . .
Sara slept a fitful sleep while Gibbs drove. Sleet pinged on the windshield. Traffic was sluggish, but he wasn't ready to go back to Ziva's small, hot apartment. He doubled back on Potomac Parkway, crossed the river, and pulled into the civilian parking lot at Arlington National Cemetery. Sara woke when he yanked the back door open. She smiled at him and he damn near melted into his boots. He unbuckled the harness.
"You know I was a daddy before, right?"
"Yeah," she slurred around the pacifier.
"You know my little girl and her mommy died, right?"
She nodded. "My mommy died."
He kissed her head. "I know and I am sorry. You must miss her."
She nodded again and held her arms up. "I wanna be on your shirt."
He strapped the carrier around his waist and shifted her delicately into the pouch. Her weak, floppy limbs drooped a bit, but she sighed and pressed her cheek against his shirt when he tightened the straps above her shoulders.
"I like this," she said absently.
He hugged her around the carrier. "Me, too. Are you ok with being in a cemetery?"
"It's where dead people live. Are we by Zeeba's house?"
"Nope. My little girl and her mom are here. Want to meet them?"
Gibbs buttoned his heavy work coat around both of them, tugged a warm knit cap over his daughter's curls, and walked uphill past the amphitheater, around the Miles Mausoleum, and across the icy grass to Kelly and Shannon's plots. He had no flowers.
"Shannon is there," he said, pointing. "She was my wife. Kelly is there; she was my daughter. She died when she was eight."
Sara looked troubled. "Did someone hurt her?"
"Yeah," he said roughly. "Someone killed her while I was fighting in a war in another country."
She blinked at the headstones, resting her small, round chin on the carrier's shoulder strap. Then she pressed her face against his shirt and cried. Gibbs soothed her, though his own eyes were wet. "It's ok," he rumbled.
She sucked in a big, hiccuppy breath and threw her head back. He caught it, worried she'd hurt herself. "No it isn't!" she wailed skyward. "Your family got tooken away!"
"Yeah," he replied, rubbing her back through the pouch. "They did. And that's not fair, but I know that they be proud that we found each other. The would have loved you very much, sweet pea."
She cried a little more and then snuggled back into his coat. "Your family got stolen," she sniffled. "You got pictures?"
His neck prickled. "I do. I have them in storage with our beds and my tools. Maybe we should hang some up in our new house."
"Yes," she said slowly. She gave him a fisheye. "Why you didn't have them before?"
"Because looking at them made me feel bad." She pressed his sides with her hands in an approximation of a hug and he swallowed, moved. "You have been really brave today," he said softly. "I think you deserve a new toy. Would you like to go to the store and pick one out?"
Sara put her face back against his shirt. "Too sore, Daddy. A different day?" His heavy coat muffled her words and she shivered, pale skin rippling with the cold wind.
Gibbs turned and picked his way back across the frozen grass to the paved footpath. The sleet was turning to rain. Traffic would be a mess. He was a little glad she wanted to head back to Ziva's. "Of course, sweet pea. You gettin' hungry?"
"No." She cocked her head. "Maybe."
The car was still warm. He buckled her into the car seat and wrapped her coat and blanket back around her. He would have to buy something heavier for winter.
"People shouldn't hurt kids," she blurted angrily.
"Nope, they shouldn't."
She fixed him with a pointed green stare. "People shouldn't hurt kids because then families get tooken away. Your family got stolen, Daddy."
"I have you," he said lightly, cupping her small cheek with his big hand. "You're my family."
"Mr. Godwin hurt me," she said. She balled the blanket in her fists. "He hurt me and now my bones are all bad."
Rain slid down Gibbs' neck. "I'm sorry he did that, but you're bones aren't bad, Sar, they're fragile. It's my job to protect you and keep you from getting hurt again. Do you trust me to do that?"
"Yeah," she sighed, rubbing her eyes. "He put me in a closet. He said I was bad and I stole but I didn't."
"I know you didn't. You're a very good girl, Sara."
She stared at the plastic buckle he was fastening across her chest. "He said I was stupid."
"You're not stupid at all."
"I don't know my words."
A gust of wind blew cold rain against the backs of his legs. Gibbs tugged her hat down further. "You can learn. That's why you go to therapy, and why you'll go to school next fall." He kissed her head and let his face linger close to hers. "I love you."
Sara reached up and wrapped both scrawny arms around his neck to draw him down to her. She kissed his cheek. "I love you too, Daddy."
. . . .
Ziva's condo was silent when Gibbs slid through the front door with Sara in his arms. Tony was out—his car wasn't in the parking lot—and he guessed Ziva was asleep, as she had been for the bulk of the past few days. Ducky had assured him it was better that way.
He put Sara down in a beanbag and positioned it so she could see the kitchen, where he pulled out a frying pan and the ingredients for a grilled cheese sandwich. The pain medications did a number on her appetite; he hoped she would eat at least part of it. She was quiet as he spread butter on white bread and added a slice of muenster, but he knew better than to assume it meant she was asleep.
"Kiddo?" he asked softly.
"You know we need to find a house soon because ours sold. Is there anything special we should look for?"
"A pool," she said right away. "And a pony."
He smiled. "We don't need a pony. We have Yitzi."
"We need a pool," she insisted.
"I don't know that we can afford that, but what if we looked for a house near a pool we could use?"
She nodded, tangling her hair against the beanbag. "Ok. I want a house with smooth floors."
"Hard wood? But what if you slip and fall?"
She looked out the window. "I won't."
They fell silent. He flipped her sandwich—golden-brown, just as she liked. "What color should we paint your bedroom?"
She looked at him. "Same as before."
"You want everything the same?" He slid her sandwich onto a plate and squirted a dollop of ketchup on the side.
"Yeah, but I want a big window in my room. Bigger than the one in my old room. And I like the big tree outside. I want another tree by my room."
"We'll work on it." He scooped her up and froze; how was she supposed to eat? She couldn't fit in her spica seat, couldn't sit in a proper dining chair, and he worried she'd choke if he let her eat semi-reclined in the beanbag.
"Put her in your lap," Ayelet said from behind him. "I'll help."
He sat and she looked at him, smiling and sleepy-eyed. "I just woke up. Ziv'keh is still sleeping." She pulled a knife out of a drawer and cut Sara's sandwich into small, even rectangles. "Her fever is very high so I called your kind doctor friend. I hope it doesn't mind coming over again."
Gibbs tucked his daughter's curls behind her ears. Ducky had probably never treated so many live patients in his entire career as he had in the past four months. "I'm sure it's fine," he said gently.
She held out a small piece of sandwich. Sara took it with her mouth and hummed happily. Ayelet grinned. "You are a cute little bird. Here, try the next one yourself." She put another piece in Sara's outstretched hand and laughed when she jammed it in her mouth. "So hungry. Who knew a child so small could have such an appetite?"
Sara grabbed another piece. "S'good," she said, mouth full.
"Slow down," Gibbs coached her gently. To Ayelet he said, "Sara is small because of her disease. It has nothing to do with her appetite."
She cocked her head, watching Sara chew and swallow with some difficulty. "She is not ok."
"They don't know what's wrong."
She blew out a long-suffering sigh. "The worry, Gibbs. Knowing you can't do enough..."
He kissed his daughter's curly head, chest aching. "Yeah."
Sara stuffed more sandwich in her mouth and asked for water. Ayelet furnished her with a sip-cup of juice instead. "I know what it's like," she said softly.
"No ya don't."
"Yes, I do," she argued. "I know how it is when you know your child will get hurt no matter what measures you put in place to protect her."
He swallowed and thought about Ziva's broken, swollen face. "I put Sara through an eight-hour surgery and two months in a body cast because they said it would fix her. Then they cut her out early because the cast was making her weak. Now she can't even hold her head up. We're starting from Square One. Again."
"Frustrating," she mused.
Sara sighed. "M'done."
Gibbs wiped her face and hands with a napkin. "You ready for a nap?"
"No!" she whined, close to tears. "I need milk."
Ayelet was out of her chair and pouring milk into a clean sipper before Gibbs could open his mouth. "Here," she said, pushing it into his hand. "Sit on the sofa and hold your baby. She needs you."
Ziva's couch was soft. He sank into the cushions and draped a chenille afghan around his daughter's shoulders. She sighed and drank, one hand clutching a swath of his polo.
Ayelet settled beside him and put two mugs of black coffee on the table. "Do you wish you could go back?"
The sip-cup gurgled. Sara sighed again and her eyes rolled; she was exhausted. "Back where?"
He brushed his daughter's cheek with his fingertips. "I tried to keep this from happening."
"Her disease? You said it was genetic."
"I met Sara in a volunteer program. We were reading partners. I knew she was being abused, but the channels to get her out of that house took too long. When she didn't show up one morning I new something was up. I called my team in as backup and went to her foster home."
Ayelet made a small noise in the back of her throat. "What happened?"
"She'd been beaten half to death and tossed in the trash." He frowned, thinking. "Ziver found her."
Sara fell asleep. Gibbs put the cup aside and wrapped the blanket tighter around her narrow shoulders, but didn't put her in the beanbag. "She was bleeding internally. Doc said she would've died if we'd come five minutes later."
A tear slipped down her cheek. She didn't wipe it away. "Where is the man who hurt her?"
"One dead, one in prison."
"We found evidence of sexual assault that matched one guy's DNA, and the other..."
Another tear fell, unbidden. "One to rape her, one to beat her. A baby, Gibbs. A little, tiny baby girl."
"Yeah," he agreed softly. He held Sara tighter and she blinked awake.
"Sh," he soothed. "Sorry I woke you."
She grunted. "Wanna see Zeeba."
"She's sick, sweet pea. She's resting."
She began to cry. "I don't want her to be sick!"
He rose immediately. "No one is taking Ziva away, sweet pea. We'll go see her, but you have to be quiet."
The tears stopped. "Her eye is hurt."
"And her ear. Don't touch it."
He pushed the door open. Surprisingly, Ziva was awake and peering out of her blanket fortress with shadowy blinking eyes. Ayelet gasped and rushed to the bedside, chortling happily in Hebrew. She switched to English when she saw Sara's small frown.
"Well hello, cholmani, I didn't expect you up so soon. How are you?" She brushed a hand down Ziva's arm, mottled green and yellow with fading bruises, and laid the back of it on her brow. "Still warm. How about some tea and more fever reducer?"
One of her shoulders rose in a shrug. Gibbs stepped into her line of sight. "Hey," he said, smiling. "How ya doing?"
Another shrug, but her good eye widened and one finger rose in Sara's direction.
"Yeah, it's gone. She's pretty wobbly, though, so we need to be careful." He looked at his daughter, who had her thumb in her mouth—a sure sign she was nervous. He kissed her cheek. "Want to lie down with Ziva while Doda Ayelet and I get her some medicine?"
She nodded. "Zeeba is a sleepyhead."
"She is," he agreed.
Ayelet laughed. "That's what I just called her, sweet shaifeleh."
Gibbs put Sara in the bed and she promptly put her hand on Ziva's unbruised cheek. "She is hot," she announced. "She has a fever."
Gibbs bolstered her with a pillow. "So keep her company while I get the medicine. Do you need more, too?"
"No. No, thank you."
Ayelet kissed Ziva's brow and went to follow him, but there was a small, scared noise and she shrugged, helpless. "She has trouble with me leaving," she whispered.
"So stay," he countered. "I know what she needs."
She sat on the foot of the bed and rubbed Ziva's ankle. "I am staying, motek. Gibbs will be right back."
He measured out a dose of liquid acetaminophen, brewed some strong Earl Grey tea, and added plenty of milk and honey. Sara was quiet in the other room while Ayelet told a story, presumably a happy one from Ziva's childhood.
Her blue eyes lit up when he returned. "Ah, yes. We must do this slowly. Ziv'keh? Doda is going to help you sit up so you can have tea and tarofeh, ken?"
Gibbs watched with a heavy heart as Ziva struggled to sit up. She was nearly as feeble as his own daughter, and moved as though her joints ached very badly. She propped her head on Ayelet's narrow shoulder and took the tube in her mouth. She was healing; it no longer needed to be stuffed back in her cheek. She slurped meds and tea, good eye blinking and fixed on him.
"Good?" he asked.
She nodded hazily.
"Good. You ok with Sar being in bed with you? She's missed you."
She turned and tugged off Sara's legwarmers. Her forehead creased. Sara gave a sleepy sigh and Ziva burst into tears.
"Zivi," Ayelet cooed, cuddling her close. "Why are you so upset?"
She shook her head and sniffled.
Gibbs reached down for Sara, but she put a hand out to stop him.
No, it meant. She stays.
He pulled back. "You sure?"
She took a gasping, shuddering breath and nodded, but didn't move from where she'd curled herself into Ayelet's side. Her hand closed possessively around Sara's left calf. The red rash turned white with pressure.
"Careful," he said softly. She looked chastened and he felt bad. "We're still figuring out how fragile she is," he said apologetically.
Ayelet's drew Ziva closer and kissed her temple. "Are you going to stay awake for a bit, Zivaleh?"
Ziva glanced at Sara, already asleep among the quilts and pillows and shook her head. Gibbs helped her slide deeper beneath the blankets and she sighed. One finger traced a narrow purple stripe on Sara's dress. She sighed again and closed her eyes.
Ayelet pushed Ziva's curls back and dabbed some ointment on a healing gash near her hairline. "I stay until she's asleep," she whispered, and began to hum a lullaby.
His arms felt empty without Sara, but she was fine, he told himself. She was safely swaddled in Ziva's baby duvet and comfortably asleep for the first time in months. Gibbs scowled at himself and dropped kisses on both dark heads before sliding out the door.
He no sooner settled on the couch than Tony came banging through the front door, struggling under a heavy load of grocery sacks. "Boss," he said through his teeth. He had the handles of a canvas shopping bag between them. "Help."
Gibbs rose and shouldered four of the dozen bags he carried. Each bore the name of either a high-end grocer or the kosher supermarket in Chevy Chase. Ziva loved the grape leaves from their deli. "The hell is all this, DiNozzo?"
"Ayelet has meals planned for the next like, month. She's cooking all of them tonight or something because of Shabbat when she can't cook but she doesn't want us to starve..." he trailed off, sorting packages. "Can I really eat two steaks in one meal? Because that's what the note she gave me says."
"I've seen you eat an entire day-old pizza. I'm sure you can handle two Delmonicos." He held out a gallon jug of kosher grape juice. "Where does this go?"
Tony shrugged. "Fridge?"
Gibbs opened the door and stacked containers to make room. "Sara got her cast off this morning."
He gasped and dropped a bag of noodles into a drawer packed with other bags of noodles. "That's great! How's she doing? Happy? Sleepy? Is she stiff from being stuck in one position for too long, like when I do wall sits at the gym and my quads tighten up like taffy?"
"She's weak and sore," he said slowly. "They think something's wrong because she's not growing." Gibbs shrugged. "She's in with Ziver if you want to take a look."
Tony's face fell. "Uh, that's alright, Boss. I'll wait til she's up. Want coffee?"
He folded reusable bags into tight rectangles. "What's up, DiNozzo?"
DiNozzo was quiet for a long time while he brewed a pot of coffee and dug some cold cuts out of the fridge. "She won't let me touch her. She flinches like I'm going to hit her anytime I try." He put his hands up in surrender. "I've never laid a hand on her, Boss. I promise."
"I know," he said mildly, thinking about the delicate kiss he'd just placed on her brow. "She's not in a good place."
"She clings to Ayelet the way Sara clings to you."
He thought about the doctors; how they'd all encouraged him to let her regress. Let her be a baby, they'd chorused. Meet her needs. Let her heal. Bond with her. "Maybe Ziver just needs her mom," he said gently.
Tony snorted. "How can she need a woman she's never told me about?"
A gust of wind blew rain against the window. "How could Sara trust me to be her father?" Tony nodded and looked down. Gibbs saw tears gather in his eyes. "She's sick, DiNozzo," he said softly. "Doesn't mean she stopped loving you."
He nodded again. "I can't lose her."
"You won't." Gibbs put a hand on his slumped shoulder. "Go take a shower. Shave. Put clean clothes on. I want you to look presentable at the dinner table, even if it's only for me and Ayelet." He gave him a gentle push. "Go. You'll feel better."
Tony nodded, gathered his duffle, and disappeared into the guest bath. Water ran a second later. Soft singing followed—Sinatra. Gibbs smirked and settled on the couch once again with the TV remote.
Ayelet bustled out of the bedroom and crowed happily. "Oh, Tony got everything. He's such a good man." She counted the steaks stacked in the refrigerator shelf, the parsnips and carrots in the crisper drawers, and flipped through a battered cookbook, murmuring to herself in Hebrew. No, Gibbs realized, not Hebrew—something else.
"You speak German?"
She looked up, surprised, and dripped coffee on the countertop. "A little," she admitted. "I think what you heard was Yiddish. It sounds like German and looks like Hebrew. It's my first language. I tend to code-switch when I'm planning."
"You speak it to Ziver?"
She grinned. "Of course. Ziva's aptitude for language is amazing. She was speaking in full sentences by the time she was two. In Yiddish, in Hebrew, and some in Russian."
She sat next to him. "The housekeeper."
He harrumphed and nodded. "Sara didn't speak in full sentences until a month ago. I doubt a second or third language is in the cards for her."
"Ah-ah," she chastised, waving a finger at him. "Let her surprise you."
"She's still in diapers and sucks her thumb and a pacifier. She'd probably take a bottle if I gave her one."
"Ziva sucked her thumb until she was seven years old and slept with that sheep until she was in the army, yet she speaks ten languages."
Gibbs stared at the television. "Doesn't have her high school diploma."
She made an angry sound. "No, because her bastard father sabotaged her. She was devastated, Gibbs. But that was Eli—he took away the only chance she had of a life away from him." She muttered something in Hebrew and threw her hands up. Coffee sloshed over her hand and wrist and down her sleeve. "But I should not speak ill of the dead."
"Ziver was working on her GED when he got to her."
"An American diploma? That must have infuriated him."
"She never took the final exam."
Ayelet cocked her head. The gesture was Ziva-like. "She will. She hates to leave things unfinished."
"Wants to go to college."
"Good. Get her away from all this shooting and fighting. Ziv'keh needs to sit quietly in the library and read important books. Maybe she will write or translate."
"For who?" Tony asked, rubbing his wet head with a towel. He looked better. Gibbs guessed he felt better.
"I don't know," she chuckled. "A literary magazine or a publisher. Or maybe she'll translate tax forms for poor immigrant women. I don't care so long as she isn't chasing after criminals with a gun in her hand. I want her to find the peace Eli never let her have."
Tony collapsed beside Ayelet. The couch bounced under his weight and her coffee sloshed again. "Easy, DiNozzo," Gibbs complained, but she only tugged Tony into a big hug.
"I know you're worried," she soothed, patting his neck and back. "I know you think Zivi is going to leave you, but she isn't, motek. She loves you very much. She just can't cope right now."
He sniffled. "I know."
She sat back but didn't let go of his shoulders. "I have been thinking—would it be all right if I stayed for a while?"
"Yes," he replied automatically. Desperately, Gibbs thought. "I'd love that."
"It might be time for you to go back to work," she said gently.
"Yeah," he admitted begrudgingly. "I should. Vance has been breathing down my neck about paperwork."
"So go to the office tomorrow," she commanded. "Do your important work. Keep people safe I will care for Ziva while you're away. Then you can come home to a hot meal."
"He has his own place," Gibbs groused good-naturedly.
She was stunned. "Where? Why? I wondered why none of your clothes were in the closet. I figured they were in the guest room. Ziva needs her own space to get ready in the morning."
He agreed. "I have a condo in Georgetown. Bought it years ago, kept it because I wasn't ready to give in. Now the market's tanked and it wouldn't make sense to sell."
"I understand. I am sorry to be so forward, but you're so comfortable here that I assumed and I shouldn't have."
Tony shook his head. "Ziva is good at making a space her home. I like her place better than mine. It's cozier."
"Heimish," she mused, and rose. "I should start dinner. Ducky will be here shortly and I promised him a proper chicken souvlaki." She lifted an eyebrow when Tony followed. "No," she said firmly. "Sit. Rest. Watch sports. This is an easy dish and a small kitchen."
He flopped back on the sofa and switched on a basketball game. "Glad she's here," he muttered.
"I know," Gibbs said.
"You going out looking tomorrow?"
"Need someone to watch the Bug?"
He grimaced. Hell no. "Nope."
"Do me a favor?"
"Stay close by." He paused and watched Miami score again. "And make sure there's room for all of us."