Welcome back, Mecha! Not to be self-congratulatory, but I have been away for a long time and have missed you all very much. I hope you're well. I hope, if you're in the Northern Hemi, that you're enjoying summer.
Apologies; I know this is not what you're expecting, but I needed to give Team Gibbs a gift before I could carry on with "Treading Water." I dug myself into a very deep ditch, emotionally speaking, with the last chapters, and I needed some hope before I could climb out. I hope you find hope in this, too, because I love you and want you to feel welcome in my world. There will be more of my longer stories to come. They haven't been forgotten or abandoned, it's just taking a while for the upcoming transitions to happen. xo and a coffee, Mecha.
Saba: "grandpa." Hebrew.
Everybody wants to pass as cats.
-Counting Crows, "Mr. Jones."
Liana was a big girl, six years old already, Miss Rachel said as they stood on the tram in the Miami airport. Being Six Years Old Already meant Liana had to fly by herself from Florida to Maryland. A flight attendant had been assigned to care for her. Sherrie, read her name tag (Liana could read just fine, thank you.), had to say Have a nice day! to the other people on the flight before she could walk Liana up the jet way to the gate. Liana had to wait while she did that. It was hard to wait because it got hot fast in the cabin, and then the strap on her old backpack got stuck on the aisle seat armrest, and she had to get it loose while Sherrie kept saying, Hurry up now, dear. Let's not keep them waiting.
Them, were a man and a woman and she knew they were married because Miss Rachel said so. He was handsome and tall and he smiled big and held a sign that said Welcome Home Liana in red letters. His shirt was pink and his jeans were a little ripped. The woman next to him had to look up to see his face—way up. Liana blinked; the woman sat in a wheelchair, and she remembered a book her old teacher read about a fairy who got knocked down in a storm and couldn't fly anymore. This lady kind of looked like a fairy, with her long, dark hair and thin fingers. Maybe she was a kind of fairy who didn't walk. Liana planned a secret way to look for wings.
She approached slowly, feet dragging in her scuffed moccasins. It took fifteen johnny-may-I-cross-your-golden-river steps to get to them, and she said, hello, I'm Liana, with as much confidence as she could muster.
The woman leaned forward and grabbed her in a hug. It was a soft embrace, one Liana could break easily, but she didn't want to. There was a possessiveness in it that both startled and soothed.
"I am Ziva," she said in Liana's ear. "I have waited a very time for you." She let go and pointed up. "That's Tony."
He crouched and winked, still holding the sign. "Hi."
Liana let him hug her, too, even though she felt a little bad because his shirt got wrinkled. He took the bag from her shoulder and said, "Let's go home, ok?"
She nodded and walked with them—Ziva was fast in her wheelchair—out to the parking garage and their shiny red car. Ziva swung herself into the backseat and scooped her legs up with her forearm. It was weird, watching her do that, but then Tony came back around for her wheelchair and lifted the whole thing right up with one hand. He put it in the trunk and Liana stood on the pavement, unsure of what to do.
Ziva patted her legs. "Climb over, motek. You can't hurt me."
Liana doubted that very much. Ziva seemed soft and a little fragile—like Louis, the baby back at her group home in Florida—but did as she was told because she decided that she was going to be very, very good for them. Maybe the best ever.
The drive was short and the sun was out. Their house was red brick and the yard was lush and green and there were trees—big ones. She knew that Ziva was for sure a fairy because that's who had to live in that house. Maybe Tony was actually a knight. She'd have to see if he had a sword or a shiny helmet.
Inside was airy and clean and the floors were smooth golden wood. There was no clutter, no strange smell, just big, soft furniture and a dining table and chairs the color of wet cypress roots. Ziva went straight to the kitchen, announcing that she would make a snack while Tony showed Liana to her room.
Her "space," as he called it, was as sunny as the living room. The walls were pale blue and the quilt was colorful and there was another welcome home sign on the closet door. There were names on it she didn't recognize. There was also a long desk under one of the windows. Tony rested his hip on it while she walked in a circle, taking in the school supplies and the winter coat on a peg, the snow boots, the warm sweater hung on the bedpost.
"Hey, I know Zi's wheelchair was a shock. I guess no one told you, huh?" His voice was kind and low and there was still a smile on his face, but it was a little sadder than the smile he had at the airport.
"No, no one told me." Her voice was as low as his. "But I'm not Judge Mental," she added quickly. Simon taught her about being Judge Mental; it meant saying something mean about someone without knowing the whole story. Being Judge Mental was a bunk play, Simon would say. He always said that when Liana messed up. If she dropped a cup after dinner or tripped on her shoelaces he would laugh and say, Bunk play, Li. She didn't want to mess up for this tall, smiling man and his fairy-wife.
"It's ok. I would be shocked, too. But we're really happy you're here. We waited so long." He stared out the window. Liana could see a glass building out there. She told herself not to wonder what it was.
"C'mon," Tony said suddenly. "I'll show you the rest of this joint."
He lead her back up the hall, past her the bedroom he shared with Ziva, a big TV room, a gym, and an office, then the kitchen, dining and living room. It wasn't a huge house, but she suspected it was mansion anyway because there was another, tiny hall off the kitchen and a door opened into the glass room where there was a swimming pool. A real one. The kind in the ground with a picnic table and two big plastic containers full of supplies.
"Don't come out here without an adult," Tony said firmly. "It isn't safe. There's a lock on the door, but…just in case…don't. Wait for me or Gibbs."
"I will," she agreed, because she was being really, really good. She didn't ask why he didn't say, wait for me or Ziva. She knew the answer to that question; fairies didn't swim.
. . . .
Liana followed Gibbs down to the basement. It was his space, even though it was in Tony and Ziva's house. There was a workshop down there—Abby said he had one in his house, too—and a small bedroom and a bathroom with a stand-up shower for the nights he had to sleep over.
Gibbs was standing by the workbench with a rag in one hand. With the other, he pulled small tools out of a drawer, then polished them and stood them in a straight line on the work surface. It was busy work—there was nothing wrong with those tools, they were clean and shiny—but he was doing it because it was suddenly very, very stressful in the fairy house.
Liana stood anxiously in front of him, shifting from foot to foot in her new soft boots. It was a little hard to breathe, still, and there was a tingly feeling in the back of her neck.
Gibbs finally put all the tools back in the drawer and tossed the rag down. "Ziva wasn't always like this, you know."
"Like what?" she replied. She kept her voice light as if she didn't know what he meant.
"You mean disabled," she corrected, and took a step back.
"Maybe," he conceded. "But not just the wheelchair. What you just saw…did it scare you?"
Liana couldn't deny it. "Yes. But only a little bit."
"Scared me, too," he admitted. "It scares me every time. You know what seizures are, right?"
She shook her head, thinking. "But Ziva didn't fall down on the ground and shake all over."
"I know." Gibbs opened another drawer and began to polish those tools. "Sometimes it happens like that, but she has a kind of epilepsy that mostly means she just blanks out. Like when the TV goes on the fritz."
"Does it hurt?"
"Nope, she doesn't even remember afterward."
Liana's scalp prickled. "Then why did she cry like that?"
He cleaned a whole bunch of tools before he spoke again. Pointing to a high barstool next to the workbench, he asked her to sit and grabbed a can of ginger ale from a mini-fridge under the stairs.
"Drink this, kid."
She popped the tab and took a small sip.
He picked up his rag again. "Ziva wasn't always in a wheelchair and she didn't have seizures. She used to be really strong, and tough, and a little mean."
She tried not to gape; Ziva was so soft and sweet. She was affectionate with Liana, generous with kisses and hugs, always ready with something to eat or read or do. How could she ever be mean?
Gibbs could sense what she was thinking. "She had to be mean; she used to put criminals in jail. We all did. We all used to work together, but after Ziva's accident we became more like a family than colleagues. So one day we were all on a case—Ziva, me, Tony, and Tim—and a bad guy crept up behind her and hit her with a pipe. He hit her on the back of her head and neck and hurt her very badly. She was in the hospital for almost three months."
Liana had to take another sip of soda; her mouth was dry.
"The first few days in the hospital were really hard. Ziva had to be sedated and it took a few days for her to wake up. But when she did, she couldn't do anything. She couldn't eat, or talk, or walk, or even roll over on her own. Nurses and doctors and the rest of us had to do everything for her. And she started to have seizures after that, too."
Liana's skin was tingling all over. "Did she cry like that at the hospital?"
"Every night. Ziva has a small place in her brain that doesn't work right. She gets tired, forgets words, cries once in a while. When she would have a meltdown, the nurses would call me to do what you just saw—hold her, calm her down, help her go to sleep. It was hardest on Tony and me, but everyone was tired all the time."
"And then she learned how to do everything but walk?" She felt a little sick to her stomach. Maybe it was because she was drinking soda in the morning. Soda was a rare treat; when she was allowed to have it, Tony and Ziva made her wait until after lunch.
Gibbs nodded without looking at her. "She gets dizzy spells and those seizures make it unsafe for her to be alone. That's why I'm here so much."
"Then why did the judge say they could have me?" Liana blurted. "If Ziva is like a kid and needs someone to take care of her, why did she get to adopt a kid? Kids can't adopt kids. It isn't safe."
"Tony and Ziva fought really hard for you. They wanted to be parents, and they thought that if any person can have a kid on their own, then why couldn't they adopt a kid that needed a family? They felt it was a double standard. Do you know what that is?"
Was a double standard like a bunk play? A kind of mistake? She shrugged.
"It means that the rule for one person doesn't hold for the next. It's unfair. So they hired a lawyer and went before a judge who said they could have you."
She sipped her soda again. "So do you come here to take care of me or Ziva?"
He shrugged and handed her a rag. "Both, I guess."
The can was too cold for her hands so she set it down on the bench. "Can I go upstairs?"
Gibbs gave her a tiny smile. "It's your house, kid. Ziva will probably sleep for another hour. Watch TV or something."
Liana went to the bedroom instead, where Ziva was sleeping peacefully beneath the heavy duvet. The electric blanket clicked on and she held her breath, thinking Ziva would wake. But she didn't, and her breath came out with a soft whoosh. Backing against the chaise under the window, she sat, folded her hands, and waited.
It was precisely an hour later that Ziva woke, sniffing and sighing, one hand brushing her face.
Liana sat up straight and unfolded her hands. "Hi," she said softly. She waited again while Ziva blinked her eyes open and gave her a tiny smile. "Are you…um…feeling better?"
Ziva frowned and pushed herself up. "What? I am…oh. I must have…"
"Gibbs said you had a seizure," Liana explained bravely. "He said you have them sometimes. And then you cried."
Ziva pinched the bridge of her nose with her right hand and used the left to keep herself up. "I am sorry, sweet girl. I did not mean to scare you."
You didn't, she wanted to reply, but what came out was, "It's ok. Gibbs took care of you."
Ziva shook her head. "I ruined our plans for the day, motek. You must be very disappointed."
She was; the museum and pizza for lunch had sounded like fun. Liana shook her head again. "No, it's ok." She grew hesitant, but pressed on. "Do you have pain?"
Ziva gave her another tiny smile. "I have a headache, but that happens anytime I have a seizure." She patted the mattress next to her. "Come, my girl. Come up with me."
Liana slid onto the mattress and took another deep breath. "Gibbs told me about your accident. How someone hit you on the head and you were sick for a long time and now you can't walk. He said you have damage in your brain and seizures."
"I do," Ziva replied, voice small. "But that doesn't mean I can't take care of you."
She nodded. "I know that. Those people were being Judge Mental when they said you couldn't adopt me."
Ziva laughed then, a giggle that Liana supposed was a fairy-noise. "Oh, my little lioness. My little levi'yah," she said through her laughter. "How did I get so lucky to have you?"
Liana let herself be pulled closer. Ziva smelled clean and a little medicine-y, but that was ok.
"Are you ok, my Lia-girl?" she said in her ear.
"I'm ok," Liana mumbled back. She pulled back and Ziva's arm gave out. They flopped together onto the pillows and shared sighs.
Ziva glanced out the window. "It is raining. We should stay in today and be cozy. Tomorrow is another day. Perhaps we will have a picnic in the park. Should I call the Shiltons to join us?"
Liana had to think hard; Idan and Tal were nice boys. She really liked to play with them, but a day with just Tony and Ziva (and maybe Gibbs, because he was always around) sounded better.
"How about just us?" she ventured.
She got a gentle smile in return. "I would love that. You are sure you will not be bored with only adults?"
"No," she said softly, though there was definite confidence in her posture. "I like when it's just my family."
. . . .
Tony and Ziva startled at the soft cry from Liana's room and blinked at each other in the dark. She rarely had nightmares, but those she did experience were bloody and violent, the therapist said, as her brain worked out the transitions from her abusive, addicted mother's care, to that of the group home in central Florida, to the foster-to-adopt placement with the David-DiNozzos.
Tony shifted on the mattress and reached for a shirt, but Ziva's hand on his arm made him pause.
"No," she whispered. "Let me." She was out of bed and swinging into the hallway before he could respond.
Liana was trembling beneath the heavy blankets, sniffling, both hands cupped over the top of her head. Ziva clucked maternally and patted the blanket without touching her.
"Lia-levi'yah?" she sang softly. "Did you have a scary dream?"
She nodded but didn't move her hands away from her head.
Ziva walked her fingers beneath the blanket and rubbed her shoulder delicately. "You are very warm under all those covers. Want to come out?"
Liana slowly and carefully folded back the comforter, blanket, and sheet. Even in the subtle glow of the nightlight, Ziva could see her face was red and wet with tears. She clucked again. "Come, motek. Let me hold you."
Liana shook her head. "I'm ok," she sniffled.
"I am your ema," Ziva replied gently. "It is my job to hold you when you're scared."
Liana bit her lip and shook her head, looking everywhere but at her mother. "I'm ok," she said again, but her voice trembled on the cusp of another sob.
Ziva clucked again and transferred onto the bed. "Come," she repeated. "Let me hold you. You are safe with your ema."
She didn't expect her daughter to scoot over and make space for her in the narrow twin bed, but she did and adjusted the blankets so there were enough for both of them. Ziva lay down and propped her head on her palm.
"Tell me about your dream, motek."
Liana lay down, too, and curled like a kitten against her side. Ziva's heart melted and she had to swallow back tears of her own; she'd never trusted her or Tony beyond basic affection. While she didn't move away from kisses and returned hugs, she hadn't been overtly needy or cuddly. The way she snuggled up to Ziva's side came with a thrill of victory and a desperate need to soothe.
"I…" she started hesitantly. "I had a dream from when…when I was Lyuda's."
Lyuda was Liana's biological mother. The shining star of her immigrant parents, she'd resorted to drugs and alcohol in high school to deal with the pressure of their high expectations. Marijuana and cheap wine turned into harder, heavier things. It was a fairly common story—kicked out of the house, she turned to prostitution to feed her habit. She'd gotten pregnant with Liana at nineteen and cleaned up her act for a few years, but the old monster reared his ugly head and she started using again when Liana was two. They shuffled from housing project to housing project, shelter to shelter, eating in churches and soup kitchens until one day Lyuda left her daughter, then four, on the front steps of a volunteer fire station in Ochopee and disappeared into the muggy, buggy night. She was never seen again, and the social worker told Tony, privately, that she suspected Lyuda was killed by a john and dumped in the swamp. He'd asked if anyone was investigating, and she'd simply shrugged and said, there's no DNA in the Everglades, Mr. DiNozzo.
Ziva shook her head to clear it of alligators and banana spiders. "Tell me more, my lioness."
Liana grabbed a handful of her mother's nightshirt. "We were walking one night because there was no room for us anywhere. We were…late for everything. Nobody had a bed." Her voice had grown small, soft, as her baby-self went back into the nightmare. "And so we walked for a long time on the highway and it was dark and there were 'skeetos and I could hear the animals in the water. I didn't want to fall in the water 'cause they would eat me up. I didn't want them to eat me up."
Ziva shushed her gently and stroked her thick, straight, dark hair away from her face. It was damp with sweat.
"I didn't wanna walk anymore. It was too hot and my shirt was wet. I wanted to sleep on the road but Mommy said I would go to jail if I did that." She began to cry. "I'm not a bad kid! I didn't want to go to jail!"
"You are not a bad kid," Ziva whispered. "That was a very unkind thing to say. I am so sorry that happened to you. It must have been so scary to walk in the dark like that. There was water?"
"By the road. There's always water by the road in Florida. That's where the alligators live. They came out and they were chasing us, those 'gators."
"There are no alligators in Maryland." She pushed Liana's hair back again. "And you will never be chased by anyone. You are safe here. There is no more walking on roads in the dark. The night is for sleeping, and you will do it in your own bed, in your room, in your house. And your ema and Daddy will be right next door."
"Ema," Liana echoed, trying out the word.
"Your ema," Ziva amplified.
She hummed in agreement and the first two fingers of her right hand work their way into her mouth. She sucks with soft noises, eyelids heavy. "Ema," she slurred around her hand.
"Your ema," Ziva whispered, and watched her daughter drop off to sleep.
. . . .
There was a roar of laughter from the dining room and Liana hid her face against the wall. It seemed that Ema was telling the story again of the man at the museum today, and now not just Saba, but Tim and Abby and Daddy thought it was funny. Liana thought it was embarrassing. She ate her dinner fast and asked to go read in her room so she didn't have to hear it for a fourth time.
She and Ema liked to go to the museum together-the one with the elephant in the lobby and the squid in the big long box. Saba dropped them off at the special entrance on Constitution Avenue, and Ema would take the ramp as fast as she could, rising on one wheel around the tight curve and making people stare. Liana always walked alongside, giving Hard Looks to the starers that meant Stay away; she's mine.
But today a man ran up behind them, grabbed the handles of Ema's wheelchair and said, let me give you a hand. Liana was so furious she forgot about her sock sliding down her heel. She pushed that man's hands away.
Don't you do that, she snapped. My mother does not like it when people touch her wheelchair. If she needs help she will ask for it! She hadn't meant to yell so loud, but there was a boy with a Mohawk waiting for a bus and he'd set her a little on edge.
The man backed off immediately, smiling in surprise. He held his hands up in front of him and said. It's alright. I didn't mean anything by it.
Liana's face was red and hot. You should ask first, she replied angrily, and pointedly turned her back on him. That was when she noticed that Ema had her face in her hands and her shoulders were shaking. Liana forgot about the man and her heart dropped into her quivering belly.
Ema? She asked. Ema? Are you ok? I'm sorry I let him do that. I stopped because my sock was falling down. She put a tentative hand on Ziva's arm.
But Ema wasn't crying; she was laughing. In fact, she was laughing so hard she had to prop her elbows on her knees. It took a minute for her to catch her breath, and when she looked up she was smiling so big it make her pixie face look round and open and so, so beautiful.
Liana Levi'yah, she'd cooed. Come here please. Come so I can hold you. It's ok, my little lioness. I am not upset.
Liana stepped close and waited for her mother to set the brakes so she could climb into her lap. She was a big girl, almost seven years old, and she worried about knocking them both backwards onto the granite ramp below.
Ziva pulled her close and kissed her temple. I am sorry, she said to the man. My daughter is protective. She does not understand that most people are trying to be kind. Liana, embarrassed and still angry, said nothing.
I would be protective, too, the man said. Are you sure you don't need help?
Ziva held her daughter in her arms and said, if you don't mind, I could use a push. Liana is still quite upset and I don't want to put her down.
So the man pushed them both up the rest of the way and they waited outside while Liana calmed herself. It only took a minute, and then they went inside and looked at the squid and the dinosaurs, the Native American weapons and the Egyptian mummies. But Liana's face was hot for the whole day, even after Ema bought her a ginger ale and a cookie at their favorite coffee shop.
She felt embarrassed again when she heard Ema put her plate in the sink and say, you should have heard her voice, Abba. She was just so fierce.
And Saba laughed and said, And you worry that you can't teach her anything, Ziver.
Daddy came around the corner and saw her hiding there. He smiled and rubbed her head. He'd had to work even though it was the weekend and she realized she'd missed him a little. Sometimes it was lonely in the house, with Saba working in the basement and Ema taking her afternoon nap. She and Daddy needed to cuddle and watch Night at the Museum again.
"Heard you gave some Good Samaritan a run for his money this morning," he said fondly. He had a butterscotch candy in his mouth. She could smell it.
"He put his hands on her chair," she sniffed "You know she doesn't like that."
Daddy scooped her up then and held her high in the air. "My wildcat," he said with his face turned up toward hers. "You are so ferocious. No wonder Ema calls you her lioness." He lowered her to his shoulder but didn't put her down.
Liana was suddenly very sad. She held on tight when he tried to put her back on the floor.
"Can we watch our movie tonight?" she asked lowly.
"Sure thing, my little cub. You ok?"
"I'm ok," she agreed. "I just…I just don't want people to hurt Ema."
"They can't," he said against her hair. "Not with you around."
When she got home from school the next day, there was a stuffed cougar on her bed and a t-shirt embellished with the University of Kentucky basketball logo. For my wildcat, a note read, and there were x-s and o-s by where it said Daddy.
Liana carried that note in her pocket for a long, long time. It was useful when reading group was too hard, or when recess was too hot or too noisy; she would put her hand in her pocket and feel the edges of that slip of paper. She didn't need to read it; knowing it was there and that it meant forever was all she needed on Bad Days.
But one day she forgot her note in the pocket of a pair of jeans and tossed them in the hamper. She felt sick all the next day; reading group was too hard, and bossy Amanda Williams giggled when Liana mispronounced courage in their Ready Reader book. Miss Patterson had hushed Amanda and given her a lecture on kindness and tolerance, but Liana's eyes got wet anyway. It was too cold to play at recess, too hot in the classroom to concentrate on math, and dismissal was too crowded. Saba picked her up in his big, black, SUV and her heart sank further; that meant Ema has having a bad day and needed an extra-long rest. They drove home in silence.
But Ema wasn't asleep when they got there. She swung around the kitchen island and grabbed Liana in a hug, smiling and offering her favorite snack of cheese, crackers, and tiny sweet tomatoes. There was even a glass of ginger ale to go with it. She ate slowly, half-listening to Saba and Ema ask about her day, about homework, about how Daddy would be late for dinner, but it was Friday so that was fine and Abby and Tim were coming for pizza. Liana didn't care; she wanted her note back.
Putting her plate and cup in the dishwasher, she carried her backpack to her room and flipped open the hamper lid to find it was empty. Her clothes were washed, the note disintegrated in the washing machine. She flopped on the bed, sad. She closed her eyes, counted down from ten, and opened them again. Liana loved her room. She loved it more when there was a note from Daddy in her pocket.
But something was off. She looked around, skimming top to bottom with her eyes the way Saba taught her, and thought hard about what was on the desk. Her papers and lamp were there, the copy of Ivy and Bean she was reading with her parents, and a wood carving of her name shaped like a locomotive and train cars.
But there was something else, too; next to the cougar from Daddy was a new picture frame. Behind the glass was the note from Daddy with the x-s and o-s, but there were more names—Ema's, Saba's, Tim's and Abby's. Under it was a photocopy of the same paper, this one laminated like the front of Liana's phonics workbook. She stared at both for a long time and the heaviness in her head lifted like the kite she'd flown once, on a picnic.
"I found it when I was washing your clothes," Ema said from behind her. She was in the doorway, one hand on the frame. "I have found it a few times, and decided that if you were going to keep it, we should make it safe. Do you like it, motek?"
"Yes," she replied quickly, blushing.
Ziva rolled in slowly, head cocked. "You should not be embarrassed. It is perfectly reasonable to need a physical reminder of how much we love you." Her cheeks reddened to match her daughter's. "When I was sick, Abby brought me a small stuffed owl. It is blue—you have seen it, yes? I grew very attached to that owl. One day I was transferred from one floor to another and it got lost in the move. I was very upset. I thought Abby would be angry with me and I was worried that I would not be able to sleep without it. But Petra, my speech therapist, found it and brought back. I never lost it again. In fact, I slept with it for a long time, even after I came home. But then I adjusted to being here with your Daddy and sometimes Saba and I did not need it anymore." She swept Liana into a hug. "And now I have you. You were the best gift I have ever gotten. I would not be able to sleep ever again if I lost you."
Liana blushed deeper and crawled into Ziva's lap to wrap her arms tight around her neck. "I love you, Ema," she declared. "I love you."
"I love you, too," Ziva murmured in her ear. "Very, very much."