Wow, would you look at the time! Getting late...
Sorry about that. I was derailed again and again. But this is it and then it's back to "A Village Life" and "Holy Land." Thank you all so much. You make this universe a lovely place to live.
. . . .
Liana DiNozzo danced around Benjamina and her daughter Anna, breathless. She was a pretty kid, with wide hazel eyes and long dark hair, but her pixie face was pinched with anxiety. Her fingers flew as she jabbed them first at herself, then around the room, then beyond.
"I'm Liana," she rushed. "This is the living room, and that's the kitchen, and I made you some Russian Tea Cakes and my mom brewed coffee and tea. Can I take your bag?" Anna handed her knapsack over. Liana hung it on a low hook. "It will be here when you need it," she said formally. "You can change into your suit before we go swimming. There is a guest bath in the pool room and another down the hall." She pointed again. A white tile room was open to her left. "See? Right there. Can I get you something to drink?"
Benjamina had to smile; Liana was a sweet little thing. "I'd love a cup of coffee, thanks."
"How do you take it?"
How old was this kid—forty? "Milk, no sugar. Thank you."
"Careful, Lia," someone said from behind them, and she and Anna both jumped. The woman, straight-backed and confident in her wheelchair, stuck out her hand. Her eyes were darker than her daughter's, but her small features and narrow shoulders were the same. "I am Ziva," she said evenly. "Liana's mother. Welcome to our home."
Her grip was warm and light, her palm callused. "Benjamina and Anna. Your daughter is quite hospitable. Thank you for having us."
She smiled. "Our pleasure. Come sit down. Liana prepared a snack for everyone and she's eager to share."
Liana brought a plate of cookies to the table and poured glasses of milk for her and Anna. "They're called Russian Tea Cakes," she said seriously. "But they're not really Russian. Real Russian cookies are called pryaniki and they're spicy, like gingerbread. These are just sweet. The recipe called for walnuts, but I didn't put them in." She twisted her fingers together. "I wasn't sure if Anna had allergies. A lot of children have nut allergies. Soy and dairy are other common allergens, but I used those because—"
Ziva smoothed Liana's hair away from her face. "It's ok, Lia," she said quietly.
Liana looked at her shame-faced. "Sorry."
"It's ok," she said again. "Thank you for the cookies." She wrapped a thin arm around her daughter's shoulders. "You are fine," she said firmly. "Sit with us and have a snack before you change."
The dynamic changed. Liana sat and ate obediently, gaze wandering occasionally to Anna's face. "I didn't finish camp," she said after a brief silence.
Anna only shrugged. "Natasha put your kachina and your drawing of the lion fetish in the art show on the last day. She said she would mail them to you when the show was over. It's traveling to all the schools."
Her eyebrows went up. "Even ours?"
Ziva rubbed her back. "Fantastic work, my Lia-girl. I am very proud of you."
Liana ducked her dark head. "I bet some of the older kids' work is better. They've had more time to—"
"All you have to say is thank you."
"Thank you," she said to her plate.
The cookies were good. Benjamina helped herself to another and Liana's eyes lit up. "Do you like them?"
"They're fantastic. May I have the recipe?"
She dashed to the pantry, where she climbed two shelves and pulled down an orange box. "Here," she said, handing her a card. "I can make another one. The recipe is online but I like to write them out by hand. It's how Ma Ingalls would have done it."
"We're reading Little House, too," Anna piped up. Finally. She'd never been so shy in all her life. "Which one are you on?"
"Little House on the Prairie. We just started this summer."
"Us, too. Chapter five."
"Four," Liana lamented. "We didn't read much when Ema was sick."
Sick? Was that why she was so nervous? "Anna and I have a few minutes set aside each day for reading," she said. "We have a big family, so that time is special for just the two of us."
Liana eyed her mother. "It's just my parents and me. And my grandfather. He stays here occasionally to help because—"
"Because sometimes we need him," Ziva finished for her. "Why don't you show Anna your room? Then you can change and we'll swim."
"Let me clean—"
"I will do it. Go with Anna and show her your room. Show her the drawings you did for me."
She nodded, chewing her lip, and slid out of her chair. "C'mon," she said to Anna. "My room is this way." She held out her hand.
Anna took it. "You are really good at art," she said.
Benjamina heard Ziva suck in a breath, but Liana smiled a tiny smile. "Thanks. I really like to draw."
"Me, too," Anna agreed. "I brought my supplies. Maybe we can do that when we're done swimming."
They turned, still holding hands, and went down the hallway. Ziva exhaled once they were out of earshot. "Liana is very excited to have a friend over."
Benjamina nodded. "She has a grownup head on those little shoulders."
She weighed her next question and decided to go for it. "Is she...neuro-typical?" Ziva's gaze darkened. "I'm sorry," she backtracked. "But she is just so bright and so...mature." And so anxious.
"I do not know," she admitted slowly. "But we accept Liana for who she is. There is a powder room to the right of the laundry. Would you like to head for the pool?"
The half-bath was pristine, tiled in the same white as the main bathroom. The mirror had no watermarks, the door no grubby fingerprints, and flip-flops in different sizes sat on a low shelf. For guest use was printed on a small sign. Benjamina slid into a pair. They fit perfectly.
The pool, too, was beautiful and spotless. The windows were polished, the skylights free of fog. Two plastic storage bins stood at the other end. They were likely full of supplies. Or the elves that kept this place so spotless.
Ziva was already perched on the deck. She unrolled a purple yoga mat and spread it before her. A few inches of mat hung in the water like a glorified Slip n' Slide. She seemed so delicate with her thin limbs and soft grip, but she slid out of her chair swam an entire length of the pool underwater, popped up for a breath, and doubled back to where Benjamina sat with her legs dangling.
She blinked water from her lashes and smiled. "Tell me about yourself."
It wasn't a question. Benjamina gaped for a moment, put on the spot, but recovered quickly. "I'm...a mom," she said. Was that it? "I have five children—four older boys and then Anna. Our home is never as tidy as yours, nor as quiet."
Ziva slid a foam noodle behind her shoulders and leaned back. "Sounds like fun."
She laughed. "Anna might disagree. All she wants is her own space to draw and read."
She got a small, wry smile. "Well, she is always welcome here. It is only the three of us. Four when my father is around, but he is a quiet soul, also." Her feet fluttered at the surface. Benjamina's face must have registered her shock, because Ziva laughed. "My injury is incomplete. I have some sensation and some movement, but not much. Weightlessness makes everything easier."
She thought of her big, active boys. Their sports practices on muddy, rutted fields, their second-floor karate studio with no elevator, the bulk of their general being. How they filled every space with noise and crumbs. Weightlessness. Not with them around.
The girls appeared. Anna looked happy and sturdy in her new suit, and Liana's face no longer held that pinched, anxious look. She waved at her mother and went to one of the storage bins at the other end of the pool. Benjamina imagined they were as neat as the rest of the place.
"I have diving rings," she said. "And diving sticks. And a treasure chest game and floating bean bag toss and a basketball hoop."
Anna pawed through it. "All this stuff is still in the packages."
Benjamina bit her tongue. Liana did one of her twitchy little dances. "I don't have friends over, usually."
She held her breath. Anna didn't make a thing of it. "Well I'm here now," she said gently. "Which one do you want to play first?" Liana hemmed. A brief faceoff ensued; who would cave first? Anna, of course. She was never one to hold back an opinion. "Let's do this one," she said, holding up a beanbag.
Liana nodded. "That's good for two people. See how it says O-S-U? That's where my dad went."
Anna set the boards afloat. "Where is he? Work?"
"Yeah, but he said he might come home early to play with us. You go first."
They were a surprisingly good match. Liana didn't have four older brothers to compete with but she held her own, even sending a few shots off-course so Anna could win the first round.
"Nice job," she praised, and Benjamina laughed when she extended her hand for a shake.
"She's so sweet," she complimented softly.
Ziva smiled. "Thank you. Liana likes to do everything right."
The girls reset for a second round, but the door swished open and out walked a tall, smiling man. He had to be Liana's father—she'd inherited his kind green eyes. "I'm Tony," he said. "The king of this castle."
"The king who does everything the queen says," Liana piped.
He play-scowled. "Hey, wildcat. No giving away the royal secrets."
"This is Benjamina, King Tony," Ziva said dryly. "She is Anna's mother."
They shook. His hands were large but gentle. "Nice to meet you."
"Likewise. How's the playdate?"
There was giggling. All three adults exchanged smiles. "It's going well," Ziva said confidently, but her eyes looked droopy. Was she ok? Did Benjamina need to say something?
No. Tony looped his arm where the noodle had been and gave a tug. "C'mon, Ema," he joked. "Timeout."
An older man came in and took over. He hauled Ziva from the pool, helped her towel off, got her back into her wheelchair. He was not a large man, but looked like he'd known a good days work. But there was something tender in the way he directed her into the house.
"Liana?" she called over her shoulder.
Liana looked up, worried, and Ziva said something in a language only the two of them understood. She blushed. "Ok, Ema," she agreed lightly, and climbed aboard the noodle Ziva had previously occupied. She watched her mother disappear with a concerned face, but looked knowingly at Benjamina. "She's fine," she said gravely. "Just tired. She has to work a lot harder than we do."
Is that why Liana had baked the cookies? "I can only imagine," she fumbled. Tony got back in the water. "Was that your father-in-law?" she asked him.
He looked confused for only a split-second, but laughed and nodded. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, that's him. He won't talk much about himself but he's a good guy. Heart of gold."
Well that apple hadn't fallen far. "Seems to be a family trait."
He laughed again and leaned back, paddling with his big hands. "Yeah, you could say that. Watch this."
He swam underwater and came up on Anna silently, surprising her and making her squeal. Liana looked shocked, but burst into peals of laughter when basket-tossed her over his shoulder. She landed with a splash and came up giggling so hard she snorted.
"Again!" she demanded. He did, and threw her farther this time. She had to paddle back. "Liana's turn!"
Benjamina winced; Liana didn't seem like the kind of kid who roughhoused.
Tony scooped her off the noodle, bridal-style, and dunked her backwards. She flipped out of his arms and doubled back to grab on, but he stroked away and put one hand on his head, wrist flexed, fingers up. "Daaaaa-dun," he sang, and Liana laughed.
"Shark!" she cried, and dragged Anna by the wrist to the opposite end of the pool.
He chased, singing the Jaws theme. The girls squealed and giggled as little girls did. Around and around they went, churning up the water, singing and chattering and splashing.
A whirlpool formed and Benjamina laughed; the metaphor wasn't lost on her. She and Anna had been drawn in, propelled toward the DiNozzo family by the forces of nature. She looked at Liana, who was side-stroking along the wall, grinning, holding a raft between herself and her father. "You can't get me!" she cried.
He cackled playfully. Anna rode his shoulders. "Oh, yes I will!" he said, reaching for her across the whitecaps. "Oh yes I will."
. . . .
Three Weeks Later
Liana was waiting for him, perched on the sofa in her school clothes. She'd taken her shoes off, though. He did, too, and threw his go-bag on the bench. "Hey, sweetheart," he greeted.
She gave him a hug and kiss. He smelled her hair and smiled; he'd become a real thing to her, rather than a piece of space debris floating in Ziva's orbit. She was openly affectionate, seldom hesitating to snuggle in while they watched television or show off a new drawing. He didn't need to drag things out of her anymore, either.
"I got two pieces of mail today," she announced.
"Yeah. Papa in Israel sent me a postcard. See?"
She held out a stock photo of Tel Aviv—the beaches, the high-rises, the promenade. On the back was Eli's scratchy handwriting. Dear Liana, your mother tells me you are a brilliant and brave girl. I am already proud. Tel Aviv and I wait for you. Love, Papa in Israel.
"Wow," he mused. "How do you feel about that?"
She fanned the air with it. "Ema is worried."
I'll bet. "How ya think, kiddo?"
"I could tell by her face. I told her I was fine. She said someday I can Skype with him."
"I'm down with that."
She regarded him seriously. "She loves Saba better than him."
Tony poured himself a glass of water. There were steaks marinating in a covered dish. He was probably expected to grill them. "You'll have to talk to her about that. Where is she, Li?"
"TV room. Her new stander came and she's trying it out. I helped set it up. Saba's eating with us. He said he'll make the meat."
Off the hook. "So I talked to Abby today."
She looked up, interested. "I finished the book she got me."
The Encyclopedia of Native Tribes of North America was over a thousand pages long. Tony's soda bubbled up his nose and he coughed. "Already?"
"It has a lot of pictures. I drew some of them."
Of course she had. "You'll have to show me later."
"I will. I got something else in the mail, too—a birthday party invitation."
"From Anna?" They'd had a playdate every week.
"No, from Leya Moskowitz. She went to camp with me, but I didn't know we were friends."
"Was she in your drawing class?" With all the other punks who hurt your feelings?
"No, she sat with me at lunch."
She shrugged and opened the little card. "Every day."
Right over your head, kiddo. "Oh, Lee-lee," he groaned. "What am I going to do with you?"
He wanted her to laugh. She didn't. "I'm trying," she said quietly.
"And you're doing really well." How much of that was the new medication? "I got something for you."
"A pony," she deadpanned.
Tony laughed. "Yes. And fifty acres to graze it on. No, Abby gave me your lab results. Want to see?"
He held out an envelope. She took it gingerly and tore the seal, but reconsidered. "Let's take it to Ema. I want her to see, too."
She was still in her standing frame. The instruction manual lay on the tray before her and the television was tuned to evening news, volume low. She looked up happily when he kissed her cheek. He'd never forgotten what it felt like to stand next to her. "Hi, baby," he whispered just for her. "How are ya?"
She let her head fall to his chest. "Very well. Abby called. She said you had news."
Right to the chase. "Lee-lee does."
Liana wasted no time on ceremony. She studied the results, squinted at the graph, and looked up at them, surprised. "That man is my father."
Ziva came down from the stander and transferred quickly. She took Liana's hands. "Did you know him?"
Silence. Finally she nodded. "He was awful."
"I'm sorry," he and Ziva chorused.
She shrugged. "We didn't see him that much. Only when things got...bad."
Bad? He didn't know things could get worse than what he'd already heard. He wanted to ask, but she moved on quickly.
"I'm not Belarusian; I'm Lithuanian and Polish." She frowned. "Huh. But I am Jewish. It says matri-"
"Matrilinear," Ziva finished for her. "That means your mother was Jewish, which means you are Jewish according to halacha. And the Jews were expelled many times from their homes in Europe. Your ancestors may have been Poles or Litvaks who settled in Minsk because of that."
"Jewish like you, Ema," Liana said, eyes bright green and happy.
Jackpot, Tony thought.
"Yes, like me. What else does it say, motek?
"That I'm...likely Cuban. The computer said I'm a mix of Spanish and...Tay -no?"
"Taíno. Native tribe of the Caribbean," Ziva supplied.
Liana shook her head. "I didn't read about that tribe in my encyclopedia."
"I'll buy you another book," Tony offered. He'd buy her a hundred books if it meant she was ok.
"I want to see their artwork. Maybe that's why I like to draw."
Ziva inched closer and pushed Liana's hair away from her face. "Bernal was a famous painter from Cuba, and Chagall was from Belarus. Both Modernists. I have a books of their work if you'd like to see them."
Liana nodded. "I would. That guy who's my bio-dad—where is he?"
"Prison," Tony said quietly.
She scoffed. "The people who made me are rotten."
Ziva shot Tony a look, set her jaw, and pulled Liana into her lap. "It is ok to be angry, Lia-leviyah, but you are my light. Please do not call names."
She didn't apologize. Tony smirked to himself. It was time for her to stop being so damned sorry. "Can I keep this?" she asked, waving the paper.
"It's yours, kiddo. Of course you can keep it."
"Thanks. Ema, why didn't you tell Anna's mom that I'm adopted?"
She put her chin on Liana's shoulder. "I love you and I am proud of you, but that is not my story to tell, Lia. It is yours."
"Then I'm going to," she said resolutely. "But I'm not going to tell about Lyuda. I'm not ready." She folded the paper back into a neat rectangle. "And I thought I wanted to cut my hair, but I don't."
Tony exhaled. He loved Liana's thick, dark hair. He loved it long and straight, or braided over her shoulder. He loved to watch Ziva brush it at night, after Liana had bathed and put on her pajamas. He bit it back, though. "You can do whatever you'd like with your hair, Liana."
Her golden gaze sharpened. "Please don't call me that anymore. You can call me Lee-lee or Lia, but not Liana."
Ziva shifted. Was she ok with that? "Shall we change it legally, then?"
"No," Liana—Lia —sighed. "I want to keep it, but I don't want to use it. Not even at school. I'm just going to write Lia DiNozzo on my papers this year."
Tony didn't have time to form an opinion about that; Gibbs pounded up the steps and shuffled by with something heavy in his arms. "Sounds all right by me," he said lightly, and turned the corner.
Lian—Lia—frowned. "Is he going to my room?" She didn't wait for an answer, but slid out of Ziva's lap and followed silently. Tony listened. Ziva did, too; eyes narrowed. They heard Gibbs speaking softly, and then Lia's soft, Oh, thank you, Saba!
"Ema! Daddy! Come see!"
She tore back in the room, grabbed his hand and one of Ziva's push handles. "Come! Saba made it for me."
In the corner of her bedroom—beneath the window, next to the goose-necked reading lamp—was a perfect little Lee-lee sized rocking chair. It had broad arms for resting heavy books, a drawer under the apron for her sketching supplies, and her name carved in the back. Gibbs had painted it pale pink and carved her name in the back.
Tony whistled long and low. "Nice work, Boss."
He nodded and said nothing.
Ziva ran her hands along the arms, gave it a push to test the rockers. "Sit, Lia-leviyah," she ordered.
"I will," she replied vaguely, and traced her name with her fingers: