Tel Aviv is hot in the summer, all moisture sucked from the air by the blazing sun. Washington during July is so humid that Ziva sees water pearl on her windows and has trouble drawing breath while she runs. The early mornings are better, before the on-marching day creates a steam bath, so Ziva sets her alarm to blare before dawn and learns to navigate the paths through Rock Creek Park in low light. The bridges spanning the road where cars zoom north and south look like they were built by giants.

Sometimes Ziva grows fanciful as she runs and imagines a golem tall as the Washington Monument rampaging across the city, crushing buildings and trees alike. She wonders if she would be caught under his boot heels or spared.

When she pulled the trigger, Ari in her sights and her father's voice echoing in her head, Ziva felt as if her soul would be exiled from all that was good and familiar.

She is determined that she will make a new life for herself here, no matter the initial reason for her stranding.

xxx

It still surprises Ziva that the lifts in her apartment building operate on Friday nights and Saturdays. Having a place to call home, no matter how far from Israel, means she slips back into patterns and expectations that never aligned with her travels for Mossad. Before she began to wander, she had been used to climbing stairs on the Shabbat, to resting and rejoicing as she was taught by her mother.

Gibbs doesn't care if it's Shabbat or Thanksgiving or the day after tomorrow: he wants his team around him when a new case breaks. Ziva prefers the work. If she were idle, she'd only reflect on the metaphorical stains of her brother's blood on her hands.

Ziva has read Shakespeare. She will not become Lady MacBeth, crazed with guilt and displaying a hand-washing fetish that would put Ducky's persnickety insistence on sterile conditions to shame.

Friday nights, when she leaves the office late, she takes the stairs for old time's sake.

xxx

More of her adult life than not, Ziva has been a stranger on unfamiliar streets, striving to make her way without getting lost. She touched down for a week, a month, did what she was sent to do and slipped away, unnoticed.

The difference is that now she can be herself, rather than the agent defined for the mission, all extraneous details stripped away. For so long, she was an arrow aimed at the enemies of Israel, and glad to protect her people.

Driving to the NCIS offices at the Navy Yard, cursing the wretched timing of DC's traffic lights and thinking that cars in Cairo were less frustrating, Ziva obeys the silent prompting of her instructors, who stressed that routine would get her killed. Vehicle bombs were endemic in Europe back then.

She takes different roads through the District, navigates roundabouts better than natives but still can't remember which streets are one way.

Tony grabs, white-knuckled, at the dash whenever she claims the driver seat first. Speed and nerve are the ways to survive, and if she smirks at his hysterics, she's the only one who knows.

Her sense of humor always was vile. She just gets to indulge it now.

xxx

McGee is scared of her, Ziva knows. So is Palmer. They both try to hide it, but their nervousness comes through in too-loud voices, tight eyes, and broad gestures.

To amuse herself, she plays with them. One day grim and saying outrageous things, the next displaying compassion to the victim of a crime - they don't how to react. This pleases Ziva.

Gibbs obviously knows what she's doing - but, then, he projects his own disparate images for unknown reasons.

xxx

When a suspect attempts to strike Ziva, she punches back. Hard.

Part of it is instinct, reflexes drilled and drilled again until she could fight without thought. Part of it is philosophy, though. Ziva does not understand those who say that mercy and friendship should always be extended to enemies. Once hostilities have been initiated, she is wary, on alert.

Better to shield or attack first than reel from a blow landed without warning.

Investigators must wait, and watch, and allow suspects to do what they will until the moment sufficient proof has been gathered. Ziva does not particularly like this aspect of her new job, but she can admit to satisfaction once a perpetrator has been apprehended.

The day that Gibbs claps a hand of silent praise on her shoulder, she stands just a bit taller.

xxx

Ziva makes a point to explore her new city. She searches for a falafel stand to rival her favorites, although she acknowledges it may be a hopeless quest. She visits art galleries and history museums and neighborhoods known for their nightlife. She attends ballet at the Kennedy Center, admiring the dancers who demonstrate gorgeous turn-out and crisp relev├ęs. She never mastered pointe shoes.

Nowhere in her travels has she seen a place go so mad for an animal. The birth of a panda at the National Zoo causes a frenzy that baffles her.

When Ziva visits Abby's lab, there's a monitor showing the webcam constantly surveilling the cub. When Ziva manages to sneak in undetected, she sees Abby cooing at the screen.

The moment Ziva reveals her presence, Abby snaps straight and drops her smile, still resenting that Ziva is not Caitlin Todd. All Ziva knew about Todd when she first arrived was a dry recitation of facts from a dossier: name, date and place of birth, schools, jobs. Now, she knows Kate was valued - and mourned - by her colleagues.

More often than not, Ziva has worked alone, or with agents newly met and barely trusted for the duration of their partnership. If she'd been killed on assignment, only her mother and father would have sat shiva and truly remembered her. There would have been friends from her school days, but she's so far outgrown the girl she once was that they'd grieve a stranger.

The hostility Abby displays is probably deserved. Ari was the responsibility of the David family, and his actions reflect on them.

On a rare day that is both cool and free of work, Ziva walks down the hill inside the National Zoo. She observes the children with their parents and stuffed pandas, the signs blaring "Asia Trail coming soon," the animals in their enclosures. They all look carefree and happy.

She cannot help but pick out the best vantage points for sniper fire, the places where a bomb could be hidden to cause the most damage when it detonates.

xxx

Director Shepard - Jenny - provides a few moments of ease a week. They managed to forge a convivial relationship under threat, and then extended it beyond the professional. But Jenny is occupied with her position running NCIS, with the political games of Washington, and more often than not their plans to meet for coffee or a late-night drink fall to the demands of work.

Sometimes they make the time and venture out to one of the Navy Yard's cafeterias for lunch. They would talk about cases and ongoing business as they eat the terrible food, but there might be curious ears nearby. Instead, they discuss minor annoyances or veiled allusions to past adventures and listen to NAVSEA action officers complain about rats running up and down supplementary electrical wiring laid down behind the filing cabinets. Most buildings in the Yard are old, built before every desk needed a power strip.

Ziva does not like rats. She would escalate to chemical warfare very quickly were they to infest her space.

xxx

A string of cases arise and Ziva is glad for the repetition: practice is the only way she will become easy in her new role. She could do without the ones where Tony and McGee are the main suspects, but supermodel murders and kidnapped commanders and frozen Marines and troubled students holding classmates hostage engage her interest.

It is a much more varied palette of activities than she'd been used to as an agent. Then, she lived and breathed surveillance, suborned officials, infiltrated terrorist groups.

Now she gets to pore through lists of car records, or interview witnesses, or watch Tony and McGee squabble about who will go for takeout.

She does not let them see her grin when their antics veer into the absurd.

They encounter death regularly, for the most banal and profound of reasons. Jealousy, money, favors - all can spark a crime.

Her brother's obsession begins to seem more sad than terrible.

xxx

At Yom Kippur that October, Ziva seeks atonement with more dedication than usual.

xxx

Gibbs survives a bomb blast in body, but in memory and spirit he might as well have been splattered over the Cape Fear.

Ziva remembers that when her sister was killed, her mother and father could no longer hold together. Gibbs's departure for Mexico makes her feel like she is once again young and untried and incapable of healing her family as it splinters into pieces.

She is on assignment, though. Still. Her orders have not changed, so she smoothes her face in the mornings and prepares to endure.

Tony surprises her. So does McGee, and Abby, and Ducky. Despite Gibbs palpable absence, they pull together. Tony demands team nights, and brings Abby her Caf-Pow when she demonstrates her forensic genius. McGee casts his technological magic. Ducky regales them all with long digressions into past experiences while determining cause of death. Ziva uncovers leads and follows them until the mystery unravels before their joint effort.

She finds herself humming as she races against red lights. She makes note when, during her morning runs, she sees deer in the park, so she can tell Abby later. Problems with bureaucracy find Ziva approaching Jenny for advice and guidance off the record.

xxx

Browsing through a Dupont Circle shop, Ziva's eye catches on a ceramic platter. It is bright and colorful and has a pattern that pleases her. She cannot think of a particular use for it, yet she buys it anyway.

Her apartment, formerly stark, begins to fill with things she finds as she wanders the city. A painting from a street fair hangs above her sofa. An interestingly-twisted wrought iron lamp illuminates her bedside table. A tin of Old Bay seasoning resides in her pantry, perfect for adding spice to an otherwise bland meal.

She finds two sets of dishes to replace the plain white and plain blue ones she previously used to keep kosher. One set is square and the other is round, one seafoam green and the other chocolate brown. She enjoys the line of both styles of teacups when she drinks her morning coffee, sometimes with cream, sometimes not.

She buys a bookcase and invites Abby over to help her assemble it. Hummus eaten, incomprehensible diagrammatic instructions vanquished, bookshelf in place against the wall, they sit on the sofa sipping wine. They exchange tales from their childhood, and Ziva finally gets the nerve to talk, if only a little, about Ari. Abby listens, grave for once, and hugs Ziva once she finishes. Ziva rests her cheek against Abby's shoulder and does not cry. They hold on.

Before she leaves, Abby makes Ziva promise she'll come along on a trip to see the panda cub. He has a name now, and Ziva does not understand why Abby is so incensed that it is not "Butterstick." Silly as they look, pandas must have their own sort of dignity, and being compared to butter does nothing to maintain it.

When they walk out of the zoo enclosure, Ziva is forced to admit he is adorable in person, no matter what his name.

xxx

A scuffle with a rogue pilot accused of stealing technical data on the Joint Strike Fighter breaks Ziva's mobile phone into pieces. McGee pronounces it beyond repair, and is horrified at how basic it was. Ziva tries to explain that she does not need shells and whistles, but McGee is adamant.

He takes her to the Verizon store and extols the virtue of the Blackberry - "Text messages and email and a camera, Ziva" - so well that Ziva hands over her credit card without a shred of regret.

She enjoys being in on the tech geek text circle of McGee, Abby, and Palmer, even if she can't decipher most of what they send.

xxx

Summer arrives again, after a winter almost mild enough to suit Ziva's desert-bred preferences.

Ducky tells her foreign diplomats used to receive hardship pay while they were posted to DC, back before air conditioning was invented. Given the diplomats Ziva has known, she can believe it.

The search for a missing, possibly kidnapped, child - daughter of a Marine - prompts Ziva to climb a metal ladder into a cubby hole half-hidden from the floor. The building is abandoned, windows smashed and walls decrepit. The air is close and smells musty. She finds Melissa tied to a chair, hair damp against her forehead and skin clammy when Ziva removes the gag.

McGee was following her up the ladder, but Ziva calls out to him to wait, and call 911. Her knife is sharp enough to slice through rope quickly and neatly, and the girl is so dazed from the heat that she is docile. Ziva identifies herself, just in case, and then lifts the tiny body and lowers her down to McGee.

The bars of the ladder are slick from humidity as Ziva begins to climb down.

She swears later that she is fine, but Tony - fresh from arresting the cheating mother's boyfriend - insists on taking her home. Her ankle, Ducky judges, is not broken or sprained, just strained a bit. The slight knock on her head doesn't bear mentioning.

Tony installs Ziva on her couch and brings her an ice pack for her ankle. Then he brings her cold ginger ale. Then, after asking if she has anything edible around (she does not. Melissa's safety was more important than grocery shopping), he goes to fetch dinner from her favorite kebob place. He only snickers a little at "Moby Dick House of Kebob," and Ziva is punchy enough to smirk when he intones "Call me Ishmael" as he hands over her chicken kebob and rice.

The freshly-made flatbread, they both agree, is delicious.

Well-fed, Tony steals a book from her shelves after complaining about the lack of a television. Ziva might even let him drag her to Screen on the Green to see Bullitt. Tony fancies himself akin to Steve McQueen, and they have a raucous disagreement over the unlikelihood of that.

It ends when Tony's phone rings; the girl, Melissa, is doing well in the hospital, reunited with her shaken father.

xxx

Gibbs returns, and after the moustache is shaved off, they slip back into familiar roles. They are moved slightly, stronger, Ziva thinks. She knows that McGee or Tony will be at her back, that Abby will find the vital clue, that Gibbs will direct them along the trail and look out for ambush.

They work together. They support each other. They push and pull and squirm against sharp edges and Ziva realizes, for the first time, that she has found the place where she wants to make her home.

- end -

Notes: For Arsenic, on her birthday in July 2010. With thanks to Octette for the beta; all remaining mistakes are mine own. Fills the "homesickness" prompt for hurt/comfort bingo. The title is from Ray LaMontagne's song Empty. NAVSEA = Naval Sea Systems Command. The story about rats in the Navy Yard is true, or at least was a few years back when it was told to me.