She feels it before she can see any sign or warning. It's the tingle at the base of her neck, a tightening down her spine that she hasn't felt in months and months. She reaches slowly for the spade beside her, her fingers curling around the well-worn handle when she hears a low chuckle.
"Gonna garden me to death?"
The tool falls away as shock rolls over her, and she turns then to see Gibbs standing twenty feet behind her wearing an amused expression.
She wants to stand, to embrace him, to breathe in the smell of sawdust and sweat that she associates with her adoptive father. But instead she can only stare dumbly.
"It's the wrong time of year to be planting Lantana," he observes, frowning at the delicate flowers beside her. "Nights are too cold."
The criticism finally unfreezes her. "They're not as fragile as they appear," she says, finding her voice. "They will be okay."
Gibbs just nods, dropping his bag on the path and moving towards her. She watches, bewildered, as he kneels beside her, picking up the discarded tool and begins turning over the dark soil. It isn't until he's got the first plant in the flowerbed and has started another hole that she states the obvious.
"Gibbs, what are you doing here?" she asks incredulously.
He just shrugs, not looking up from his task. "Came to see you."
"How did you even find me? No one knows I am here!"
He chuckles again, the sound so warm and familiar. "You're good, kid. I'll give you that. But you're also predictable. Don't know why it took DiNozzo so damn long to find you last summer."
She hides the flinch at hearing Tony's name, but barely. "Ok, but why do you want to see me?"
She purses her lips. "To convince me to come back with you. To come back to NCIS."
"Nope," he disagrees, shaking his head. "We filled your place on the team. Bishop. Quirky girl, but good instincts."
He says it so matter-of-factly, no malice or blame in his voice and yet she recoils as if the words had been a physical blow. She knows, she knows she has no right to feel jealousy or anger. She wanted them all to move on - to start a fresh chapter without her - just as she had chosen to do. But it doesn't take the sting away, the knowledge that someone new now sat across the bullpen from…
She pushes the thought aside, sitting back in the cool soil and resting her forearms on her knees. "So what do you want to talk about?"
"I am fine Gibbs, all settled in," she says immediately and almost believes it herself.
"Fine and settled," he repeats with a nod, and she knows she hasn't fooled him. "It is beautiful here."
"Yes, it is."
"Quiet. Peaceful. Safe."
She hesitates before answering the blunt question. She knows she won't fool him with a lie, so she answers as truthfully as she can. "I'm still working on that. But I feel that will come with time."
He doesn't acknowledge the answer past a simple grunt, and no further questions come. She waits until they've got the rest of the plants in the ground before breaking the silence.
"You don't believe me, do you?"
Gibbs sighs, leaning back against his heels and squinting up at the bright sun. "Tony got a new goldfish."
Of all the things - the criticisms, the arguments - she expects to hear, this is the last. She leans forward, wondering if she has gotten so used to Hebrew again that she is losing her grip on English. "Did you say…"
"Goldfish," he nods, still not looking at her. "To go with Kate. Named it Ziva."
It takes her several long moments to digest this information - to try and figure out how she feels to be immortalized in a small, slimy little creature that she frankly has never liked or understood why people keep as pets. "That is... strange," she says at last. "Even for Tony. Let's hope McGee stays on the team; I don't think there's room in that little bowl for a Tim-fish as well."
She expects a smirk from him or an eye-roll, but she does not anticipate the disappointed sigh as he stabs the spade back into the ground and stands.
"Gibbs?" she sputters as he stomps off towards the house, grabbing his bag on the way. She follows closely behind.
"Gibbs!" she all but yells as she trails after him into the kitchen, but he has his back to her, washing his dirty hands at the sink. "Did you really just fly 6,000 miles to tell me that Tony got a new fish? How did you expect me to react to that information? Should I be flattered? Angry?" she exclaims loudly, throwing her hands up in the air.
He smacks a hand down on the counter and turns towards her. "Do you have any idea how tired I am of you two?" he roars suddenly, and Ziva takes a step back. She has rarely heard him yell like that, and certainly never directed at her. "There is a reason I invented rule twelve and you two are the damn poster children for it! You turned my team upside down the first day you stepped foot in the squad room and it has been total chaos ever since!"
He is clearly furious, but she isn't far behind; for sharing no DNA, she is more like him than either of them will admit. "No one asked you to come and find me!" she yells right back. "I am out of your lives and you are out of mine, so why are you here now, in my home, screaming at me?"
"He named a fish after you, Ziva," Gibbs bellows. "He went out, bought a damn goldfish, and named it after you just so he'd have an excuse to say your name every day!"
Her anger drains away and all she can do is stare at him with her mouth opening and closing, unable to find any words in response.
"Well now you look like a damn fish too," Gibbs growls quietly, placing a hand on her arm and leading her over to the kitchen table.
"That's ridiculous, Gibbs," she whispers finally, brushing angrily at her eye and hoping he won't notice.
He does. "Told me so himself. That he missed having a reason to say your name out loud. Could still talk to you without feeling like he was crazy."
She laughs, and it comes out as half a sob. "That's the most absurd thing I've ever heard."
Gibbs rubs a hand over his face, and she's struck suddenly by how much he's aged in the past six months. "What does it tell you that a fish was my breaking point? After all these years and all the crap you and DiNozzo have put me through, that this is what finally snapped me?" She has no good answer for that, and so she just waits for him to continue. "He's not going to get over you, Ziver. He's never going to move on and have a good life with someone else. He's too far gone."
"That just proves my point," she whispers miserably, looking out the window. "His is another life I've ruined. Another future I've destroyed. I'm poison to those around me."
"You two," he sighed. "And Tim and Abby, are the closest thing I have to kids. And I've always tried to let you find your own way - make your own choices - but I can't sit by any longer and wait for you and Tony to figure it out on your own. I can't watch you two hurt anymore."
She bites her lip and shakes her head. "It can't be helped, Gibbs. Some things just aren't meant to be. I have to let him go; let all of you go."
He turns his chair, leaning in to her and placing a finger under her chin. "You wanna know what I think?"
She looks down, unable to meet his eyes, but nods.
"I think you were telling the truth. It's quiet and peaceful and safe here. And those are all fine things to want, but you want them for all the wrong reasons." She opens her mouth but he cuts her off. "You wanted to leave the job. I respect that. And if you're here now because you truly want to be - because you're happier and you see a future here - then that's that and I'll leave you alone. But if you're here because it's easier, or to punish yourself for the past, or to run away from being happy, then that's not brave, Ziva. That's cowardly. I should know," he adds as a quiet afterthought.
"You make it sound so easy," she whispers stubbornly even as a tear breaks free and trickles down her cheek.
"Course it isn't easy," Gibbs says simply, reaching out to swipe a thumb across the wayward tear. "Nothing worth having is easy. But you have to ask yourself if you're still letting your past ruin your future by running away. And not just yours anymore, but Tony's too."
He's made the argument he knows she can't ignore by bringing Tony's happiness into the mix, and she feels her shoulders slump wearily against the weight of holding up the facade. He taps her chin again and she looks up to see soft but steely eyes probing into hers. Seemingly satisfied by what he sees there, he stands and stretches as several joints pop. "Got any meat in this place? I could go for a steak." He opens the fridge, rooting around.
She laughs despite herself and shakes her head. "I can offer you soup or roast lamb."
He nods at the challenge, "Never learned how to cook lamb, let's give it a go."
She sets him to chopping root vegetables as she prepares the meat, working side-by-side in comfortable silence for an immeasurable space of time before she finally turns to him.
"Gibbs?" He looks at her, and her face is heavy but hopeful, timid but resolute.
"What about all of my Lantana that we just planted? It won't survive the winters in DC."
She can see the smile in his eyes even as he gives a small shrug. "I've heard it's not as fragile as it looks. This land here may be an easier fit for it, but it can thrive just as well at home with a little hard work."
She smiles at him, the unguarded smile of one who is, for the first time, allowing herself to hope. "And a little help?"
He just nods, once, leaning over to kiss the top of her head. "That's why I'm here."
I think, like Gibbs, this strange little tidbit about the fish was what finally broke me too. So, naturally, I had to find some way of making it canon that I could accept. :) Still deciding whether to take this one and run with a second chapter or "If you Had". Thanks for reading!