I will be happy.
Although New Year's was two weeks ago, Christmas lights still adorn the two-bedroom rental house Tony and Ziva moved into while the twins were in the NICU. He sighs when he steps out of his car and is visually assaulted with glowing color. I'll take them down this weekend, he decides grudgingly as he makes his way up the driveway. Cords are all over their front porch. Rightfully cautious (he has face-planted into the concrete three different times since Thanksgiving), he sidesteps them, moving slowly in case something gets attached to his foot. He pauses with his finger six inches from the doorbell. It isn't that late, only seven-thirty, but if the babies are already down for the night and he wakes them, he won't live to see tomorrow.
The living room and kitchen are dark. When he turns into the unlit hallway, the sound of soft humming reaches his ears. He walks past the master bedroom, past the bathroom and laundry closet, stopping only when he arrives at the doorway of the nursery. There are no lights on in here, either, but the red and green and blues of the Christmas lights filter through the window and land on Ziva. She sits in one of their two rocking chairs, next to one of their two cribs, with a baby at each breast. Rarely is she able to feed them both at the same time; their daughter is already a bit rambunctious, and she has whacked her brother with her flailing limbs more than once when they were in close proximity to each other. But the scene before him now is peaceful: both of the twins suckle happily while Ziva ceases her humming in favor of greeting him.
"Hey." Tony kisses her before moving behind the chair and beginning to massage her shoulders. "Miss Esther's behaving herself today, huh?"
"For once," Ziva says. She rests the back of her head against his stomach. "How was your day?"
"Dead petty officer had an affair. Wife stabbed him in the gut the way he stabbed her in the heart. That's a direct quote, by the way."
She chuckles softly. "Open and shut, then?"
"Open and shut," Tony confirms. He glances down in time to see Esther pull away and glance around the room as if waiting for something exciting to happen. "Want me to burp her?"
He grabs a nearby rag and drapes it over his shoulder before hoisting Esther up to rest against him. Ziva repositions Levi, cuddles him closer to her chest. Tony methodically pats Esther's back as he steps out to stand in front of the rocking chair. "So, last day home. How're you feeling?"
Ziva considers. "A little sad. Nervous. But ready."
He nods understandingly. This is about how he felt when he went back to work just before Thanksgiving. Ziva's return to school full-time involves a bit more stress and a tighter schedule, though; starting tomorrow and extending through June, he is barely going to see her during the week. Most days, he will arrive home at five o'clock exactly, and she will immediately depart for her evening classes. They've been lucky enough to locate Janine, an experienced nanny in her early sixties who is technically retired but looking for a bit of extra cash. She will take care of the twins on Tuesdays, when Ziva has a couple of morning classes, and will also be available on short notice if they are ever in a pinch. (Really, they ought to buy the woman a fruit basket. This whole balancing act would probably fall apart without her.) It isn't going to be easy, but they are determined.
"It'll be okay," he tells her. "We'll just have to get used to the new routine."
They have a good plan. Everything is going to work out. Their kids will not be neglected. Even so, Tony still finds himself wishing the foreseeable future held more time for all four of them to be together.
Esther releases a warm, milky breath into his ear. Tony kisses the side of her face. "Good girl," he coos. Noticing that Levi has finished with his meal as well and Ziva is now buttoning up her blouse with one hand, he asks, "You wanna switch me?"
They make the trade effortlessly- he wonders, do all parents of multiples have this mastered the way they do?- and as Ziva carries Esther over to the changing table, Tony positions Levi against his shoulder. Both babies are prepared for bed, then peppered with kisses and settled carefully into their cribs. After making sure the monitors are turned on, Ziva leads the way out of the nursery. Tony grabs her hand as they walk down the hall toward their bedroom, and she raises her eyebrows at him.
"Just thinking," he says, "about how much I love being your partner. Doesn't matter if it's bad guys or babies. We make a good team."
Ziva grins. "We do, don't we?"
"Oh yeah," he confirms, pushing the door open and waiting for her to slip past him before turning on the overhead light. "The best."
This is the third time in five minutes Ziva has been summoned from the other side of the kitchen, where her twins sit in their little plastic chairs at their little plastic table, eating sandwiches and sliced apples. Through gritted teeth, she grounds out, "Yes?"
What follows is an unintelligible monologue that Esther seems very passionate about. Levi eats quietly, sits still, and watches his sister with wide, observant eyes. Ziva turns off the sink. She should have known from the beginning that trying to get the dishes done before naptime was a pointless endeavor.
Crouching beside Esther, Ziva grabs a piece of apple and takes a small bite off the end. "Yum," she drawls exaggeratedly. "Here, can you eat the rest for me?"
In a rare moment of cooperation, Esther does as she is asked. Then she attempts to get up and leave all but that one slice of apple and a corner of her bologna sandwich. Ziva grabs her. Esther bursts into noisy tears.
"I need you to eat, motek." She manages to sound patient even though her frustration is rapidly building. If it were Levi who was refusing to eat, she would be worried. Esther, however, has been a difficult child since she was taken out of her incubator. She just likes to fuss. And so there is nothing for Ziva to do but deal with it.
Sniffling loudly, Esther moodily crosses her arms over her chest and slumps down in her seat. Ziva tries to calm down before launching back into the conflict. Then, by some miracle, she hears the front door open. Familiar footsteps enter the house. "Hey," Tony calls.
"Thank God," she mutters, straightening up. He appears in the kitchen a moment later. It is Saturday; he only went into work for a couple of hours, so he is dressed casually, in jeans and a polo that Ziva definitely appreciates on him. She rises onto her toes to kiss him briefly. Without preamble, she resorts to begging. "Please, would you try getting Esther to finish her lunch?"
Tony chuckles as he disentangles himself from her. "I'll see what I can do." Ziva watches him ruffle Levi's dark hair before assuming position next to Esther. He may be laughing now, but he won't be in a couple of minutes.
She turns toward the pile of mail he had dumped on the counter and starts sifting through it. Bill, catalog, bill, spam, bill, bill. At the very bottom of the pile is a small envelope; beneath the forwarding label, Ziva sees the address of Tony's old apartment written in neat, familiar handwriting.
She instantly knows who it is from.
The third anniversary of Ziva's return to Washington came and went about a month ago, meaning that it has also been three full years since she left the orphanage in Kenya. So much has changed since then: she is now a student, a mother, and a fiancée. At the time she knew Hasina, she was merely lost and struggling to find her way in the world.
Back when she first started at the University of Maryland, she did write to tell the little girl that her passion for education was what nudged Ziva toward continuing hers. Hasina never replied. Ziva figured she did not have the time or the will, though she also had a nagging fear that disease had taken her former charge as a casualty.
But here is proof that this is not the case. She is confused by the Royal Mail stamp in the top right hand corner- perhaps, for some reason, the letter had to be processed in the UK before being sent to the United States?- but the handwriting clearly belongs to Hasina. Ziva carefully slides her thumbnail through the top and takes out the lone piece of notebook paper inside.
The first thing she notices is that, oddly, the letter is written in English.
Dear Miss Ziva, I am sorry I've not written you in so long. Soon after your letter to me arrived, a man and woman from England came to visit. They spent the day walking around and talking to some of us. Then they came to talk to me. I liked them. They were nice. The next day, my teacher Femi asked if I wanted to go live with them in England. I was scared to leave and go somewhere I never had been before, but I said yes because I missed having family. I cried when I said goodbye to my friends and teachers. But now I get to live in a big house with my new mum and dad. I have a new older sister, too. Her name is Mary. She has been teaching English to me ever since I got here. Below she will write our address if you want to write to me.
Sometimes I miss Kenya but mostly I am happy. I read your letter yesterday again. It is good you decided to go to school. Also, tell your boyfriend hi from me. I hope you and him still love each other.
Levi is tugging at her pant leg. Stunned by what she just read, she blinks a couple of times before she is able to turn her attention to him. "Hmm? Are you finished?"
He nods. Tony, still supervising Esther, glances over at her. "What is that?" he asks.
Settling Levi on her hip, Ziva grabs the letter with her free hand and carries it over to him. "Hasina," she says by way of explanation.
Recognition instantly flares in his eyes. He scans the words quickly, eyebrows shooting up halfway through. "Wow."
"I know." Blinking quickly to keep her tears at bay, she presses her lips against the top of Levi's head. Tony reaches up to squeeze her side in a gesture of comfort. "I'm just so happy for her," she murmurs. "She's such a sweet little girl. She deserves this."
Ziva finds her weepiness over Hasina's good news hard to understand and even harder to justify out loud, but Tony seems to get it. He presses a light kiss against her temple. "Yeah."
That's all he says. Somehow, though, as he continues to hold her; as Levi tugs at her Star of David; as Esther finally picks up an apple slice, she understands his double meaning.
Sprawled out on the driveway with the sun beating down on him, Tony lazily raises a hand to wipe sweat off of his face. "Ziva," he whines.
"Will you bring me a popsicle?"
"Get it yourself."
"Levi's sitting on me."
At that, Ziva looks over from her spot three feet away. She smiles when she sees their son perched on Tony's stomach, digging through a container of chalk. "Oh, you poor, helpless thing," she calls sarcastically. Moving Esther off of her lap, Ziva stands. "Fine. I will rescue you. As usual."
Tony grins up at her as she comes closer. "Thanks."
"You are welcome." Bending over at the waist, she kisses him lightly on the mouth. "Do you want cherry or orange?"
He is about to make a suggestive comment about popsicles possibly making an appearance in their bedroom tonight when Levi bounces on top of him and takes the air right out of his lungs. "Gots the blue!" he announces. "Daddy, I gots the blue."
"Awesome," Tony wheezes out. Ziva laughs. They both observe as he slides onto the concrete and begins work on his latest masterpiece. Levi does not possess the same fiery spirit as Esther; he is a mellow, pensive little boy who would sooner bake cookies with his mother than accompany his sister on her boisterous adventures. The intense focus he devotes to every task he takes on never ceases to amaze Tony- it makes him seem twenty years older, no joke.
"Okay, I will be right back with your popsicle," Ziva says at the same moment Esther suddenly screeches, "My chalk!"
Tony lifts his head lazily, as Esther screeching is nothing new. When he catches sight of her, running after a piece of chalk that is rolling rapidly toward the street, he bolts upright. "Esther! Stop!"
Ziva takes off, her natural agility and speed propelling her across the inclined driveway much quicker than he could ever hope to travel. In a flash, she plucks Esther off of the curb, two feet from where an approaching car has slammed on its brakes.
Everything happens so fast that Tony doesn't digest the extent of the danger until it has already passed. He sits on the ground, trying to calm his racing heart. The driver of the car rolls down the window and apologizes. Ziva waves her off. As soon as the woman has continued on down the road, Ziva scolds Esther loudly and harshly enough that Levi breaks his concentration to stare at them curiously. Tony nudges him. "Hey, buddy, wanna show me what you're drawing?"
His attempt at redirecting his son's attention works, but he keeps one eye on Ziva. She stomps over to the porch and plunks Esther down on the bottom step. "You are in timeout," she declares. Esther begins to cry. For the first time, Ziva meets Tony's gaze, and he sees that the rage has seeped out of her expression. All that remains is raw fear.
Getting to his feet, he extends his arms, and she walks right into them. He pulls her close as warm tears roll down his neck. "It's okay," he murmurs. "You got her. She's okay."
Ziva takes a shaky breath. "That car-"
"I yelled at her."
"Well, she needs to know not to run out in the street." As he kisses her hair, he stares at their daughter, trying to reassure himself, too. "She's fine, Ziva."
She lifts her head. Tony squeezes her waist; she smiles, wipes her tears, and then breaks out of his grasp. He watches her sink down beside Esther and is amazed by how she gains the little girl's forgiveness with just a few strokes of her auburn hair. She goes on to grab a pink piece of chalk and scribes a large E on the driveway.
Levi taps his arm then. Tony turns his attention to his son as he asks how to draw a butterfly; when he looks back up a minute later, Esther's first and middle name have been written, and both of his girls are giggling.
"You know," Tony says, leaning against the bathroom doorway as Ziva brushes her teeth, "I'm proud of you."
She spits into the sink. "Why?"
"For the way you handled that whole thing with Esther."
At that, she freezes, brush in the air. Only a couple of hours ago did she finally manage to stop replaying the image of her baby nearly running out in front of a moving car; now, panic seizes her heart once again. She grabs her water glass and rinses out her mouth before turning toward him. "What do you mean?"
"You were scared shitless, Ziva, but you didn't let it swallow you up the way you used to. Remember, like… like when Bodnar T-boned us? We'd been holding hands, and you were about to tell me something. It was very… very intimate. More intimate than I think we'd ever been. Then that happened and you closed yourself off. You barely spoke to me. Retreating into yourself was your defense mechanism."
Ziva raises her eyebrows at him. "Are you going somewhere with this, Tony? This trip down remembrance lane is not very flattering for me."
"Yeah, my point is- you didn't do that today. That could have easily turned into a tragedy, and we both knew it. But you just let me hold you for a minute, and then you made nice with Esther, and we all moved on." He tucks a strand of hair behind her ear; she leans into his touch, her annoyance melting away. "As much as I hated it back then, I think that time you spent on your own probably did you a lot of good."
"It did," she agrees. She thinks back to that afternoon, and then to that night they returned from Berlin. Five years have come and gone, but she still recalls how her thirst for Ilan Bodnar's blood grew ever stronger after his latest attack on her and yet another person she cared for.
Today, she had one moment of terror-fueled indignation directed toward her child, and that was that.
Tony is right. She has changed. And for the better.
Resting both hands on his chest, she tilts her face up to his. "While we're on the subject, I do not believe I ever told you what I meant to say in the car."
He shakes his head. "No, you haven't."
"I remember the exact words I had chosen," she chuckles. For whatever reason, she feels lighter, as if a weight has been taken off of her shoulders. Perhaps it is because of the reality she finds herself in. After all, Bodnar is not here. Esther and Levi are asleep down the hall. Tony has her in his arms. She is not invincible, but that is okay. She can handle being vulnerable.
"I made a split-second decision. It was… very unlike me. But I honestly was going to say, 'Tony, we should give this a try.'"
Tony smiles sadly. "I wish you'd had the chance to finish your sentence."
"It used to be the biggest regret of my life," she admits. Her arms snake up to wind themselves around his neck. "But you are correct- the more I consider it, the more I think that my time alone was very worthwhile. Our relationship is stronger as is than it would have been had we begun it back then."
"I don't think," she says, moving her lips against his, "I know."
She is not sure whether he recognizes her reference, but he must appreciate her words on some level, because he closes the miniscule gap between them and kisses her until she is dizzy.
Ziva's last final exam- which, with her thesis already done, is the lone hurtle she has to jump before receiving her degree in women's studies- takes place on a Friday in early June. The weather is beautiful, thank God; it makes Tony's task of waiting outside the school building with the kids much more pleasant than it would be otherwise.
"Stop it!" Levi wails as Esther blows dandelion fluff at him. He covers his face the best he can with a balloon clenched tightly in one fist. "Go away!"
"Esther," Tony calls as she starts to bound in the other direction, "come here."
"I wanna dandy-lin."
"Later. We're here to surprise Mommy, remember?"
At that, she turns on her heel and runs back to the bench they've commandeered. He catches her before she can catapult herself right into his gut, as she often does, and lifts her onto the knee not already occupied by Levi. "Okay, guys. Your mom could be out any time now. We need to be ready. Can I have the balloon, buddy?" Levi hands it over obediently. "Thanks. Alright, Ninja Petite, listen up. Your job is to hold the balloon." Placing the string in her palm, he gently closes her little fingers over it. "Just like that. Really tight, okay?"
"Okay, okay." Esther brings both hands protectively to her chest. The cheerful yellow balloon bobs above them.
"As soon as you see Mommy, walk- walk- up to her and give her the balloon. Then give her a hug and a kiss and tell her good job. Okay?"
Tony kisses Esther's forehead before turning to his son. "Ready?"
Levi nods solemnly.
Reaching one hand into his pocket, he lowers his voice and leans in conspiratorially. "Your job is really, really important. Here we go. I'm gonna show you exactly what to do."
It winds up being about fifteen more minutes before Ziva emerges. She is walking quickly, purposefully, until she sees them and stops in her tracks. "Tony?" she asks, confused.
"Go, go," he whispers to his daughter.
Esther's execution is flawless. When Ziva bends over to take the balloon, she locks her arms around her mother's neck and squeezes. Ziva's school bag slips off her shoulder; it takes her a moment to hike it back up, and then she is preoccupied by whatever Esther is saying. Her distraction gives Levi plenty of time to sneak up next to her. By the time she turns to greet him, he has already opened the box and lifted it up.
Tony hears her breath catch in her throat as she sees the ring inside. She stares for a moment, then looks over Levi's head. "Tony?"
He feigns nonchalance as he comes closer, even though his heart is definitely racing. "The deal was that we would wait until you were done with school."
Her soft laugh makes him smile. "You are so impatient."
"Maybe." Stopping beside Levi, he grabs her hand and brings it to his lips. There is nothing rushed about the way he kisses each of her fingers individually and then leaves a lingering one on the base of her thumb. Ziva watches with wide eyes that are just beginning to water.
At long last, he puts his greatest wish into words.
"Ziva, will you marry me?"
And there is no guilt, no shame, no hesitation- no doubt- in her resounding, "Yes."
Firstly- I'm really not sure how colleges on the East Coast operate, schedule-wise, because I live in the smack dab middle of the United States. If that's wrong at any point in this chapter, sorry.
Also, there is a LOT of time-jumping in here. I hope I did it in a way that didn't leave you too confused. If you are looking for clarification: in the first section, the twins are a few months old; in the last, they are two months shy of their fourth birthday.
OH, and there was really no good place to put this, but I want everybody to know that their full names are Levi Anthony and Esther Elizabeth :P
ALSO, in case anybody was wondering if that was a typo- YES, Esther has red hair. Well, I imagine it more brownish-red, but with a definite reddish hue. Recessive gene on Tony's side. Yep yep.
Hope you enjoyed the last chapter. Thank you so, so, SO much for reading this story! : )