You are all too lovely. I am all too writing. Here. Warning: may Trigger. Please take care of yourselves. X and O, the Mecha.
. . . .
So it goes, though no one knows you like they used to do.
Have a drink; the sky is sinking toward a deeper blue.
And you're still all right.
Step out into twilight.
-The Weepies, "Living in Twilight."
. . . .
He woke her with a cuff to the head. "Get up."
Ziva stumbled from her bed and stood before her father in faded pajamas. The tile floor was cold under her bare feet. He dragged her into the kitchen. The overhead bulbs blazed bright. She squinted, confused and fearful.
"Papa? Papa, I cleaned up like you said. I did what you said." He shoved her into a kitchen chair. "I did what you said," she repeated. Her eyes ached. "I did what you said. I cleaned everything up just like you said."
He slapped her face. The noise rung out, clear and true. "Shut up!" he snapped. "I do not care about that. I need to know something—what are you learning in school?"
Ziva searched his face for the right answer. "We have Judaics in the morning," she said slowly. "And-"
"Judaics," he mused, pacing. "Torah. What is this week's parasha?" He meant the portion to be read aloud in the synagogue on Saturday morning.
Ziva blinked; they did not go to services. "Yitro," she said quietly.
Eli looked out the window over the sink. "And what is important about Yitro, Ziva?"
She thought of her Chumash teacher, Morah Rina, and how she swayed when she taught. She swayed like an old rabbi in a beit midrash. The old rabbis her father spurned. "We learn the Ten Commandments from Yitro, Papa."
"What are they?"
"There is no God but Hashem."
"No idol worship."
"No oaths. That means we can't swear on Hashem's name."
"Your father forgets that one often, Ziva. What else?"
"We have to remember Shabbat and keep it holy."
She could see the smile spreading on Eli's face. "Your mother is an excellent cook. How hard does she work to make such beautiful meals and take care of the baby?"
"Very hard," she agreed automatically. Tali had something called 'colic' that made her cry all the time. Ima was often tired, but the Friday night at Saturday afternoon meals were always delicious. The silver candlesticks shone in the window for all of Tel Aviv to see.
"Yes, she does. Now go on, please. What is the next one?"
"Honor your mother and father."
Eli spun and pinned her with a glare but he spoke mildly. "What was that?"
Her pulse banged in her neck. She spoke a little louder. "Honor your father and mother."
He came toward her slowly. Ziva shrank back. Fear tightened its fingers around her heart. Eli reached into the pocket of his sport coat and withdrew an envelope. He slid it across the table toward her.
"Kibud av v'eim," he said slowly. "Our holy Torah commands you to honor your mother and father. Yet I find this, Ziva. What does that mean?"
Before her lay a letter she'd written to Doda Ayelet, who was sweet and kind and lived far away in the Golan. It was open. There were promises inside—to be good, to earn good grades, to do exactly as she was told—if she and her big bear husband Dod Romi would let Ziva come live with them forever. Eli read those promises and now Ziva was burning hot with shame and humiliation.
"What does it mean?" he repeated slowly.
"Nothing," she replied meekly.
"Nothing?" His voice rose. "It means nothing? You write a letter to your aunt and uncle—my brother—begging to come live with them and you expect me to believe that it means nothing? You are lying to me, Ziva."
Silence. The only sound was her ragged breathing.
"Kibud av!" he roared. "What does it mean?"
"It means," she stammered, heart hammering furiously in her chest. What could she say to make him stop shouting? "It means I am foolish, Papa. I am sorry. I will throw it away."
She reached for it and he crushed her small hand beneath his enormous fist. She squeaked, surprised, and that incensed him further. "Do not touch that," he said lowly. He ground his hand on hers. "Do you understand that once something is written it is forever?"
She dipped her head. He hadn't lifted his hand from hers. "Yes, Papa. I understand."
He put his mouth near her ear. She flinched. "You didn't think before you wrote this, did you?"
"You did not consider anyone but yourself, did you?"
Her hand was pounding. Her head was pounding. "No, Papa."
"Obviously," he whispered. "Selfishness is the mark of a stupid child, Ziva."
She blinked back tears. "Yes, Papa."
He lifted his fist and turned away to pace. Blood rushed back into her hand and it burned like acid. "Kibud av. Kibud av and you want to run away? Kibud av and you're begging the epikoros Romi to live with him? Who raised you, Ziva? Who trained you? Who will teach you to be righteous and fight for your country? Certainly not your hedonist uncle and his wayward wife." His eyes were on her. She kept her head down. He grabbed her throat and made her look at him. "And to assume, Ziva. To assume they would want you—more selfishness and stupidity. I am ashamed to have such a daughter."
She swallowed and looked timidly into his narrowed eyes. "Papa," she whispered. "I am sor—"
His fist slammed against her face, cutting off her words, tightening his opposite hand around her small neck. She gagged and began to cry. "Papa, I am sorry. Please—"
Eli yanked her out of her chair. The room banked and heaved. He spun her by the upper arm and then his belt landed on her shoulders, on her back, on her legs and behind. She cried out wordlessly and he stopped. She could hear him panting.
"Get in the car," he ordered.
She was already trotting to the front door. "Yes, Papa."
His government-issue sedan was parked in the garage below. She crawled into the backseat and Eli drove and drove in the night. It was silent save for the hum of the engine. Tel Aviv faded away. Ziva recognized the highway along the coast—Hertzaliya, Netanya, Hadera, Zichron Ya'akov—and then they left the freeway.
She closed her throbbing eyes. The car slowed and then stopped. She looked around—a newly paved road, some low-lying scrub, emptiness. There were no lights on the horizon.
Eli turned in the driver's seat and slapped her leg. "Get out."
She stiffened, terrified. "Please, Papa," she begged, crying again. "Please, no. I am so sorry. Please, no."
"Out!" he ordered.
She got out of the car barefoot and still in pajamas. It was cold. She had no coat. She closed the door and he sped away, taillights disappearing into the desert night. Ziva sobbed and sobbed with her thumb in her mouth, plugging the sound in case an enemy was listening. What would they do with a little Israeli girl? A little Jew-child?
Her tears tapered off. She sucked in a breath, taking stock. There hadn't been any buildings in a long while. Perhaps they were in-between places. Had they been almost to a town when he'd made her get out? A base? A border? She set off in the opposite direction from which they'd come. Her small bare feet slapped on the cold macadam. Perhaps this was a test. Perhaps she only needed to figure it all out and apologize and Papa would come to take her home. She counted her steps first in Hebrew, then in English, but she got to sixty and couldn't go any higher. What came after that?
She stopped and looked around, confused. There was a narrow drive off to the left. Suspicion set in, then familiarity. She knew where she was, even though she could not read the sign under the fancy light. Ziva did not read well. Eli did not hide his disappointment in her mediocre school marks.
She skipped up the long, rocky driveway but stopped on the front porch. It was early. Too early. There would be no one at the front desk at this hour. Should she wait? The air was colder with the approaching dawn and she shivered.
Ziva tiptoed around to the back of the building, where a smaller porch and red door lead to Dod and Doda's living quarters. Steeling herself, she tapped shyly on the door. There was no noise from inside. She tapped again—louder, more insistent—and Ayelet opened the door in her long white nightgown. Ziva sucked in a breath, awash in relief and happiness.
"Doda!" she breathed. "Hi. I am happy to see you!" She reached for her. Ayelet stepped away, brows drawn over her pale blue eyes.
"What are you doing here?"
Ziva cowered, stung. "Papa left me on the road."
"He did what?"
"He left me on the road." Her tears returned. "He was angry and he left me on the road. May I come in, please? I am cold."
Ayelet shoved her away. "No, you can't. Get out of here. And stop writing me those letters. If I find another one in my post box I will burn it up." She slammed the door and Ziva, heartbroken, began to cry.
. . . .
Ziva jolted herself awake—jolted them both awake—and cried out a low sound. Lamenting. The sound of a child woken and forgotten. Ayelet spooned her close, smiling a little, and whispered sha, my baby.
Was she gleeful? Perhaps. No more Eli. No more waiting in the cook's pantry for him to come and tear Ziva from her arms. No more desperate letters—please let me come live with you doda I will be so good I promise—no more plans made in the dead of night, no more black market passports and plane tickets, no more introducing her to hotel guests as my niece, Ziva. No more. Eli was dead and buried like a common soldier at Har Hertzl Cemetery. Would his soul have an aliyah? Maybe not. He'd desecrated God's name. A chillul Hashem. May he lose his share in the World To Come.
The air changed and there was Tony, peeking in. The door no longer creaked when it opened; good, kind, gruff Gibbs had oiled the hinges, having seen how badly the noise startled Ziva. He oiled it while he wore his daughter in a pouch on his chest. Ayelet watched and was seized by a sudden wash of jealousy; she would've loved to wear Ziva like that.
"Thank you," she whispered, taking the needleless syringe he offered. "You are going to work now?"
"Yeah," he whispered back. He gazed at Ziva in love and worry. "You'll call if you need anything, right?"
"Yes," she confirmed confidently. "I suspect the fever will break sometime today. I may need you to help give her a bath later."
He stepped back and she noticed what a handsome man he was. Handsome and forlorn; Ziva jumped a mile and moaned every time he touched her. "Um," he fumbled. "Maybe it's better if we call Abby to help. Or maybe she'll feel up to taking care of it herself by then—never know, right?"
"Right," she agreed. "She loves you, Tony. Please don't forget that."
"I don't want to scare her anymore," he said quietly.
She glanced down. Ziva had fallen deep asleep with her head pillowed on Ayelet's soft shoulder. "She's not afraid of you," she assured. "It's the PTSD—her body can't stop responding like it's under attack. Give her time."
He nodded. "Give her kisses for me," he whispered, and slipped out the door.
Ayelet jostled Ziva and gave her the meds, then sat up so she could speak and be understood. "I want you to sit up," she said firmly. "You have been lying down for so long that you got sick. I will help you, but you must sit up and take deep breaths." She stacked pillows. So many pillows—had Ziva ever been allowed such comfort before? Likely not. "Up you go," she said.
Ziva blinked and levered herself up, only to flop back down.
"Oy," Ayelet uttered. "So chalash. Let me help you." She pulled and pushed. Ziva's skin was hot beneath her hands but the pillows were cool and soft and then she was seated, eyes wide and blinking.
"See?" she prodded. "Now you can look out the window. It's overcast, but your friend Tim said we should see some sunbreaks by this afternoon. Do you miss the sun? Maybe we should open the windows for some fresh air." She cocked her head. "No, too cold for you. Oh, that reminds me—Tim brought over some gifts for Sara and one of them is this thing to keep her warm in the stroller. It looks like a sleeping bag with a hood, but it has slots in the back so she can be buckled in safely and it's just so adorable. She looks like a little bug when she's inside. That's what Tony calls her, isn't it—Bug?"
Ziva only blinked. Ayelet's smile faded. "Why won't you talk to me, Ziv'keh? Are you angry at me?"
Something flashed across her face—fear, regret, anxiety—and she shook her head.
"Are you having pain?"
She looked down at the blankets.
Ayelet gasped aloud, appalled and embarrassed. "Ziv'keh! Why didn't you tell me, motek? Should I go right now and get you some Percocet? It's time for your other medications, too. I can get them for you, but I'll have to leave the room. Are you ok with that?"
She shook her head without lifting it.
"No? Do you want to come with me?"
Another head shake.
"Well we're at a real machloket here, Zivaleh. I can't be in two places at once. You have ten seconds to make your decision or I will make it for you."
Gibbs knocked on the doorframe before time was up. Ziva jumped. He gave her a soft look and held out three syringes to Ayelet—Percocet, Xanax, Lexapro. "Thought you might need these."
"Yes," she answered gratefully. "She does." She gave them to Ziva one by one and knew what made him such a good father. "Where's the little one?"
"Beanbag," he answered, eyes on Ziva. "Lookin' better, Ziver."
Ziva's eyes flitted. Ayelet withheld the urge to nudge her—Say thank you, Ziv'keh—and pushed a swath of curls behind her good ear. "She does. I'm grateful. Perhaps she'll be up and about later."
He took Ziva's hand. "I gotta find Sar and me a place to live. You have any special requests?" Ayelet pressed the tablet into her hands, but she only stared, vacant.
Gibbs palmed Ziva's good cheek and kissed her head. "She'll speak up when she's ready. Text if you need me."
Ziva jumped again as if startled. She took the tablet, switched it on, and tapped unsteadily before holding it out to him. I want to see Sara in the stroller thing.
He smiled. "Be right back."
Ayelet smoothed Ziva's hands in her own. The right one was curled in a half-fist. "Good, my baby. I am proud of you." Ziva coiled against her and sighed.
Gibbs returned with her in the stroller. Sara was zipped inside a colorful, child-sized sleeping bag. The hood was up and loose around her wild curls. Only her face was visible, and she was smiley and pink-cheeked after a good night's sleep.
"Hi, Zeeba," she said brightly. "This is my new blanket. Tim bought it for me 'cause my big cast fell off and I was cold." She paused and fished a wooden horse out of the folds. "But now I'm not. Here. This is for you." She gave the toy to Ayelet who passed it to Ziva.
A tiny smile lit her greenish, healing face. Thank you, she tapped. When will you be home?
Gibbs smirked. "When we find a house. Ready, sweet pea?"
"Yeah. Be good, Zeeba."
Gibbs kissed Ziva's head again and left. She blinked at the empty room for a second and then typed more on the tablet and handed it to Ayelet. Would you have one of those for me?
Ayelet laughed and bathed Ziva's face and hands with a damp cloth. "I would if we needed one but we live in the desert, Ziv'keh. It is hot."
She nodded. What did you have for me?
"All kinds of things. A stroller, a bassinet, a crib and layette we ordered from Europe. And the clothes, Zivaleh—so many you can't even imagine. I had so many sleepers and bodysuits that you outgrew before you could wear them. I donated bags of items to a gemach with the tags still attached. As you got bigger I had lots of separates—tops and pants and skirts with little frilly bloomers to go underneath—and I had a bunch of cute little bathing suits for you. One was printed with cherries all over—it must've come from Europe, too—and another was blue with stars on it. You were brave in the water even as a little baby."
She shook her head, thinking. When did Papa take me?
"Just before your first birthday. You took your first steps in the morning and he came in the afternoon."
Sadness drew around Ayelet like a shroud. "He did not say. I was so sad, Zivaleh. You were my baby. You can't understand how it felt to lose you."
She stared, brow furrowed. When did you get me back?
"A month later. You stayed for two weeks and then he took you again." Tears blurred her vision. Was that how Ziva saw things now? "I hid with you when he came back. I carried you into the pantry and hoped he would forget or give up. I did not want to let you go."
Was he hurting me then?
"I didn't find bruises that time, but..." she paused to take a breath. "But the second time you came—you were about eighteen months old—you ran to me as soon as you were out of the car and wouldn't let go. There were bruises on your neck and legs. It took two days for anyone to be able to touch you but me."
You could not stop him.
"We did everything we could think of, Zivaleh."
Her eyes darkened and her shoulders tensed. She looked away, blinking. Her breath quickened. Ayelet put her hand to her cheek but Ziva yelped and drew back sharply.
"Sha, baby," she soothed, but to no avail. Ziva panted and gripped the quit in weak, sweaty fists. "Sha," Ayelet said again. "You are fine. You are here with me and you're safe. Take a breath now, Ziv'keh."
Her chest hitched and she coughed a broken, hitching sob. Her left hand covered her face, but she bumped her chapped lower lip and pulled back, hissing. A tiny pinprick of blood appeared. Ayelet dabbed at it with a tissue. "Ziv'keh," she repeated. "You're ok."
Ziva began to pant. Her hand found her broken ribs and stayed there. Ayelet reached for her again, but she reeled back and made a high, fearful sound. A feral sound. One heard only once before, when Ziva was six and came to them in the wee hours of the morning with both eyes blackened and her back lashed and bleeding. Worse was the haunted, hunted look on her little face and the sound she'd made the first time Ayelet tried to sweep her into a hug. That sound.
Ayelet shushed her. "Motek?"
Ziva's eyes roamed. She gulped and moaned.
"Motek? You're home. You're safe. Take a breath."
She sucked in a big, shaky lungful and blew it out. Her lips pursed. Ayelet hoped it meant she was healing. Healing and present. "Zivaleh, do you know where you are?"
She gulped and nodded.
"Good. May I lie with you now?"
Ziva nodded again. Ayelet curled up on the mattress and put her hand on her brow. Hot. Still. How many hours ago had Ducky diagnosed her with bronchitis and prescribed antibiotics? Twenty-four hours, he'd promised. And the fever should break. Then I recommend a warm bath. Ziva coughed and caught her breath.
"Zivaleh?" she began quietly. "Did Papa hurt you often?"
She nodded, eyes downcast. Every day, she tapped.
Ziva rolled off her bank of pillows and curled on her side. The tablet computer landed text to her. She tapped on it for a moment, sniffling, and then slid it across the blankets to Ayelet. The cursor blinked. He found a letter I wrote once. He was angry. He got me out of bed late and told me I had broken the Commandments. He told me you did not want me.
Ayelet grabbed her hand. "I wanted you more than anything in the world, Zivaleh. More than anything. And he should talk about Commandments—when he hurt you he made a chillul Hashem, Zivi. We don't even need to mention the other terrible aveirot he committed. He has given up his place in Olam haBa." She shifted onto one hip and wrapped an arm around her. "Let me hold you."
Ziva snuggled in and sighed. Ayelet kissed her head. "My brave girl. I hate what he did to you, but can we think about this as starting over?"
Ziva blinked and shrugged.
Ayelet kissed her temple delicately. "I wanted all those years to be able to hold you and now I can." Ziva teared up again, but Ayelet shook her head. "No, motek. That is enough crying. Breathe and let Doda hold you. After your rest we will make the Shabbat meals. Ok?"
Ziva exhaled. Her shoulders stopped shaking and she gulped.
"That is a good girl. Shall I sing to you?" She nodded, and Ayelet began:
Laila, laila. Itzmi et einayich.
Laila, laila. b'derech elayich.
The horsemen are coming, my child.
. . . .
Ziva slept and woke again to sun on her face. Her pulse picked up—Doda Ayla was gone—but Gibbs stood at the bedside with Sara drooping in his arms. "Hey," he said softly. "Ayelet wants you to get up."
She sat. Her back hurt. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and rested her weight on her palms.
He put out a hand. "C'mon, Ziver."
His palm was rough in hers, but steady. She got to her feet and swayed. The rug was soft.
"Good," he praised. "Aylet's making soup. She said she wants you to help." He offered his arm. "Ready?"
No, she wasn't. She needed to use the restroom. She wanted to freshen up. She pointed at the ensuite and gave a little shrug.
He smirked. "I'll wait."
A single, shy glance in the mirror revealed that she didn't look nearly as monstrous as she felt. Her face was puffy but not unrecognizable. She'd long since stopped wearing the cover over her bad ear, though the packing remained. A pair of sunglasses would go a long way to conceal the eye shield. The bruises were shadows. Bad light would hide most of them.
She poked at the appliance in her mouth. It didn't so much as wiggle. She peeled her cheek back and poked at the tube-and-piston setup on one side, then the other. Her molars didn't meet because of the acrylic glued over them. She frowned; she didn't have molars on the left side. A space maintainer kept her other teeth from moving around before she could get more implants. That would make five total. She was putting her oral surgeon's kids through college.
She jumped; how long had it been?
"Ziver, my native is restless. You comin' out of there, or what?"
She stepped out, blinking in the sunlight; he'd opened the rest of the blinds. "C'mon," he said, offering his arm again. She took it and he guided her out the door, down the hallway, into the main living area, where Doda Ayla was stirring Ziva's biggest stockpot on a back burner.
"Well hello, cholmani. I'm happy to see you. Come—help me put the kneidlach together."
Ziva stepped forward and pressed her fingers into a bowl of matzo meal, egg, water, and salt. No—she couldn't do this. Her splint would get full of dough. She held it up to Doda, who frowned, took it off, and put it on the windowsill.
"Dig in," she said. "Do the best you can. The eggs were large so you shouldn't have to squeeze tight."
She scooped up a handful with her left hand and used the right to form a ball. Or sort of a ball—for rugby, maybe?
"In the broth," Doda prodded.
There was a second, smaller pot of chicken broth simmering on the stove. Ziva dropped it in. A splash sizzled on the burner grate.
Doda slid the bowl at her. "Yallah, Ziv'keh. You can do it."
Slowly, tentatively, as though diffusing a bomb, she rolled sixteen kneidlach and put the lid on the pot. The timer was set for twenty minutes and she stepped back, sighing.
Gibbs shifted into her line of sight, still with his daughter in his arms, but now she wore a little pink swimsuit rather than a colorful playdress. Ziva nearly gasped aloud; Sara looked wasted, like she'd been held captive for months. She dangled in his arms like a puppet but smiled around the pacifier, which she pulled out of her mouth.
"We are going swimming," she announced. "You should come."
Ziva had purchased her condo because of the pool but rarely used it. A swim sounded pleasant, though.
"Go," Doda ordered from behind her. She had Ziva's sheets in her arms. "Change into a suit and go swim. You need to move, Ziv'keh."
She ducked her head, ashamed; never in her life had she been so inert. Doda started the washer and took Ziva's hands in hers. "Go change your clothes. I will walk you downstairs when you're ready. Go ahead, Gibbs—the baby is getting impatient."
She looked; Sara had begun to wheedle and pout. Ziva hadn't heard it. Irritation pulled at her—she was beginning to hate how disconnected she felt—and she spun around to the bedroom. Dizziness did not stop her; she would swim, dammit, even if it meant she slept for a month afterward.
Ziva tugged on a modest one-piece while Doda fished out the matzo balls and turned the soup down to a simmer. A hunk of brisket rested on the counter. Cloves of garlic had been peeled; she could smell them.
Doda Ayla took her arm. "Let's go. Sara is probably dying for you to join her."
Ziva ignored her arm and took her hand instead. Together they took the elevator to the mezzanine level, where a lap pool, a hot tub, and a sauna lay beyond a green glass door. She could hear Sara's little voice echoing off the travertine walls.
"Zeeba!" she cheered. "I can blow bubbles! Watch." Gibbs held her belly-down. She dipped her lower face in the water and blew, then popped up, grinning. "See?"
Ziva gave her two thumbs up and lowered herself to the edge. The water was warm. She eased in and...oh. That was nice. Her ribs stopped their persistent aching. Some of the tension leeched from her battered muscles.
Doda sat, rolled up her pants, and plunked her legs in the water. "So warm," she mused. "As warm as home."
Gibbs smirk turned into a genuine smile. "Consider the audience," he mused, swirling Sara around. He held her out to Ziva mid-swish. "Here, take her."
She shook her head. Was he crazy, handing his feeble, fragile little girl over to someone who hadn't put proper clothes on in weeks?
"Take her," he said again. It wasn't negotiable. "Swim with her. She missed you, Ziver."
Sara came easily into her arms. "My Zeeba," she sighed, patting gently. Her pale, froggish legs floated bonelessly on the surface.
Ziva coughed; the chlorine was irritating. She took a breath and swallowed, nervous. "Kick," she said softly. A pleasant surprise—her speech was not nearly as garbled as she thought it would be. "Kick," she said again.
But Sara clung to her shoulders. "No, Zeeba."
"Kick," she said again, firmly. "You can."
Her tiny brow furrowed in concentration. "I can't."
"You can," Ziva repeated. "Kick, shaifeleh. Move your legs."
The furrow grew deeper. Sara peered over Ziva's shoulder at her pale legs and wiggled her toes.
Ziva flipped her around to face away from her and pushed off the floor. They drifted backward together. "Kick," she commanded. "You can."
Sara tensed. Her right knee bent and flexed. The movement was minute—imperceptible to a bystander, even—but it was there. She did it again and switched legs. Her left side was weaker, but she kicked nonetheless.
Ziva changed directions and pushed off again, but Sara was already tired and simply bobbed along. She shifted her over to Gibbs, who kissed her wet cheek and grinned. "Feel good to be finally moving, sweet pea?"
She put her head on his chest. "Yeah."
He scooped her out of the pool and headed for the hot tub. Doda Ayla gasped. "Gibbs, you can't put a baby in there! It's too hot for her. She'll get scalded."
"She's fine," he argued evenly. "Doc said hot baths will help."
He turned on the jets and took five shallow steps down, then bent his knees and dipped Sara to her shoulders. She went limp. "Nice," she mused. He sat and she sighed.
Ziva joined them and was blissful in the heat. Doda Ayla sat on the edge near her and rubbed her shoulders. "After this, a bath, Ziv'keh. And moisturizer. I brought extra from Israel. I'll leave a few bottles with you."
Gibbs stood and wrapped a towel around Sara before getting out. "Time to go," he announced gently. She was nearly asleep on his chest. Before he could put on a shirt, though, the glass door swung open and there was Tony, still in a suit and carrying his go-bag. He held his arms out wide.
"Hey, get back in there. A DiNozzo never misses a party."
He shook his head. "Nope; she's almost out. See you upstairs."
Doda Ayla jumped up and stepped back into a confiscated pair of Ziva's flip-flops. "I should check the brisket. Bring her up when she's ready, Tony. I have salads and spreads to prepare."
She scurried away—Doda never moved at less than a hustle—and they were alone. Ziva stared, nearly naked and vulnerable.
"Hi," Tony said quietly.
She blinked at him and would've ground her teeth in guilt and shame at the sight of his shy smile. Was she the reason he looked so scared?
"Haven't seen you in a while," he said. "Not like, awake, anyway. Or not crying."
She looked down. The timer ran out and the jets switched off. She felt even more naked; if she stood up he would see the boot-prints still etched on her side and back.
He held out a towel. "Wanna get out, or do I need to join you in there?"
She rose and went to him. He wrapped the towel tenderly around her shoulders and was careful to keep his hands where she could see them. She jumped, regardless, and tears pricked behind her eyes; she was being horrible to him.
"It's ok," he said softly. "I know you can't help it."
Ziva cried. She hated herself, but she hated what Eli had done to her—what he'd had done to her—even more. "I am sorry," she said, striving for clarity. "I am so sorry, Tony."
She didn't expect him to grin so widely and duck his head so she could see. "It's not your fault," he replied. He sounded so sure that she only cried harder. "It's not your fault. It's Eli's fault, and Saleem Ulman's fault, and his men's fault, but it's not your fault. Do me a favor and stop feeling guilty."
She snorted—was it really so simple? No. Was she willing to try for him? For his sweet, earnest face and chlorine-wet dress shirt? Yes. She let her head fall against his chest and still he did not touch her. That was ok, though. It was safe.
The stood together for a long moment, Ziva only breathing, Tony humming an old song under his breath, until he cleared his throat. "Should we go upstairs?"
His voice resonated in his broad chest. She heard a smile in it. "Yes," she slurred, suddenly exhausted.
They took the elevator. Ziva's apartment smelled like food. Like Shabbat food. Her stomach growled.
Doda Ayla had showered; her curls were still damp. Ziva knew she treated her hair with Moroccan oil to keep it from getting frizzy. Maybe she would use some, too, after her bath. "I laid out fresh towels," she said, lifting the brisket from the oven. "Put them in the wash when you're finished, Ziv'keh. Tony, she will need help to wash her hair. I'm giving you that job."
"You ok with that?" he asked gently.
She nodded. "Careful. My head is still...sore."
He smirked. "You sound like Sara."
She ran the water herself and made him wait until she'd peeled off her wet suit before letting him in. Some steam escaped the open door. She stepped quickly into the tub and slid beneath the surface. "Ok," she said.
He inched in like Frankenstein, eyes closed, hands out before him. "You ok? Can I like, squint? Are you ok with that?"
"You can look," Ziva allowed heavily. She wet a washcloth and applied some of the gentle soap Doda left for her, but her arms grew tired and her right wrist began to ache sharply. She'd need some acetaminophen with her night meds, probably.
Tony sat on the closed toilet lid. "May I?" he asked.
Shame clouded her vision but she handed the cloth over. He took it and washed her neck, shoulders, and back, hissing at some of the deeper bruises that hadn't yet faded. He grazed the one on her throat and apologized.
She nodded. "Keep going."
"Yeah," he agreed. "You've been a little jumpy lately."
She swallowed. "My body thinks...that everything is a threat. Worse if I lie down."
"So we'll buy one of those La-Z-Boy recliners and you can sleep in that," he joked.
She smiled, indulging him. "Perhaps we will buy two."
"One for you, one for Ayelet?"
She stilled his hand and took a breath. "I love you."
He smiled and hung his head. "I love you, too. I missed you. I still kinda miss you."
"I am sorry."
"Stop. It's not your fault." He wiped his hands on a towel. "How should we wash your hair?"
She looked around and pointed at the vanity.
He pulled a towel down for her. "You gonna be ok with me standing over you like that?"
"I cannot lift my arms," she replied sullenly.
"I can get Ayelet to do it."
She mustered her courage. It would be difficult, but she could get through it. "No, you. She is happy cooking."
He draped a second towel over her head. "She's happy taking care of you."
He left. She got out, dried off, and wrapped a heavy terrycloth robe around herself. Tony returned with a chair and she sank into it, grateful. She would not make it through dinner.
He helped her lean back. The edge of the sink dug into the tendons in her neck. "Tell me to stop if it's too much."
She counted breaths while he wet her hair and counted strokes as he washed it. Anxiety ebbed and flowed. Another towel appeared. She was going to run out of them soon. He turbaned it around her head and gave a tiny smile. "Ok."
Ziva sat up. "Ok."
He'd laid out clothes for her—yoga pants, a t-shirt, a sweater—and turned away while she dressed herself. He held up the eye shield she'd picked off before her bath. "We should do this now," he said apologetically.
"Ok," she agreed lowly, feeling more self-conscious than she had in the bathtub. Her damaged left eye was the only injury that made her worry about the long term. She couldn't open it; whoever applied the prescription eye drops had to peel it open with their fingers. When they did, she only saw indistinct shapes and shadows. Headaches persisted. The ophthalmologist recommended she keep it covered until the swelling went down.
She stepped close to Tony and tilted her head back, silently granting permission to tend to her. He did, and chanced a kiss to her brow.
Ziva sighed and leaned into him, but he pulled back before she could get comfortable. "I know you're beat, but Ayelet will have my ass if you don't eat something."
"I know," she whispered. "The Friday night meal is important to her."
He smiled and pulled her close again. "She wants to share it with her daughter."
"Stay here for a moment? Please?" She tucked her head under his chin. The blinds were still open. Night was coming, but for now the sunset was enough.
Tony exhaled and his chest collapsed. His arms tightened but it did not hurt her broken ribs. "Yeah," he said roughly. "Yeah. I want to stay here with you."