One morning in the summer of 1998, two girls went to the amusement park. To get from their home to the park by public transportation they would need three bus lines: one from their little town to the bigger one, a second from the bigger town to the city where the park was, and a third to get to the park. They were lucky, though, and their neighbor who worked a mile from the park gave them a ride. They still had to get up with the sun, but they would only need to do the three-hour bus trip on the way home. The girls were young, though, the older sixteen and the younger ten, and they thought it was a wonderful adventure.
The older sister was responsible, and had packed them sunscreen, plenty of water and some light snacks. Four hours of daylight were more than enough to get dehydrated and sun burnt, in Israeli summer; the girls were to leave home at six and the park would not open until ten.
They had left home at six, and were at the park's gate by a quarter to eight. The cashiers opened at half past eight, and the two girls queued with everyone else who was waiting to buy their tickets.
At five minutes to nine, the queues to the cashiers and the front gate were both full and a nineteen-year-old girl in the crowd had triggered the bomb she had carried in her backpack.
Eighteen people were killed, of whom thirteen were minors. Three children were siblings, killed alongside with their father; their mother survived. Explosions were like that: the person standing next to you would die, and you would walk away with minor injuries only.
That was what had happened to the sisters. The older sister had busted eardrums, and the nails from the shrapnel had missed the big artery in her thigh by centimeters. Her younger was not so lucky.
That was what the newspapers reported. They didn't tell that Tali David, daughter of Eli and Shlomit David, had not died immediately. She was breathing still when her older sister Ziva ran across blown-apart body parts, finding Tali by her bright pink My Little Pony backpack. Tali was breathing, and Ziva put pressure on the gaping wound in her abdomen and told her that it would be all right, help was coming, they would take her to the hospital and everything would be all right.
When the first ambulance got to the scene Ziva was still talking to her sister, but Tali was already dead, bled out and her intestines shredded. The paramedics put an IV in her and performed CPR anyway, because otherwise Tali's sister would have torn them apart.
The first day of Ziva's junior year was the first day after the Shiva'a. Ziva's classmates quickly learned to not ask her of Tali, or of her own state.
Was Ziva to confide in someone, she would have said that the wrong sister had died.
The town Ziva had grown up in had many people employed in Mossad and, by extension, many of their spouses and children. Living in a community made it easier, for Mossad and civilians alike. It was not enough for Shlomit David, though. Shlomit Mualem had married a man, Eli, and he had been eaten away by Operative David. Shlomit and Eli divorced when their first-born daughter was twelve. The divorce was bitter, on Eli's part, but ultimately he conceded the house in the town that was good for raising kids to his wife and daughters, and moved to an apartment in the city where he worked.
Eli's daughters met their half-brother Ari for the first time that year. That had caused the first post-divorce fight between Eli and Shlomit. Eli had leaned on ops-sec to prevent Shlomit from taking it to court and denying him visitation rights.
Tali's death had mended things, somewhat, but that did not last very long. Ziva's Tzav Rishon, her pre-draft assessment orders, came three months after that and in the portfolio of positions she had been found eligible for, Ziva also ticked the box that said "Mossad soldier."
To all but Ziva, that would have been a desk job. Ziva was Department Head David's daughter, though, as well as a two-time black belt, fluent in six foreign languages and certified in CPR and orienteering.
Ziva had told her mother that the extensive interviews were for an intelligence analyst's placement, and Ziva was a good liar. Shlomit was the divorceé of a better liar, though, and she knew who to ask and how to pressure.
Shlomit found out, like Ziva knew she would. I was merely buying time, Ziva had said, and This is why I didn’t tell you when her mother screamed at her that she was her father's daughter, that she was a liar, that she had no heart with which to care for other people's feelings.
They had screamed at each other for all of that afternoon and most of that evening. Ziva had only not moved to her father's out of stubbornness, to not prove her mother right. Shlomit had made a point of making her phone calls, demanding to cancel Ziva's putative assignment due to the Bereaved Families clause, when Ziva was home to hear them. In retaliation, Ziva had moved between several friends' houses for several months. She had never once asked for her mother to speak to her, nor had she made any effort to speak to her mother.
Eventually, Ziva had only moved back with her mother so as to not give her mother grounds to appeal for the re-evaluation of Ziva's vetting.
Neither parent escorted Ziva on her drafting day. Her father came for oath-taking when she graduated boot-camp, though, and his was the house Ziva returned to after.
Before that, Eli and Shlomit both came to Ziva's high school graduation. They had not acknowledged each other's presence then, or since, and neither did Ziva and Shlomit.
She really did love Ari. It's something she thinks no one quite understands.
She did not meet Ari or know he existed until she was twelve, yet it felt as if Ari had always been there, just out of sight somehow. There was something, between Ari and her: they had both known it when they’d first looked at each other. It hadn't been in what they did or spoke of (or didn't): it was in how they did all these things.
Ari had been born and raised in East Jerusalem, which made it easier and actually legal for him to enter Israel. When he had returned from college, from Scotland, Ari had gone to the Gaza Strip. Ari was a Palestinian man under 30 and suspected Hamas, and so the border was closed to him. The Shin-Beit did not need to know who Operative David sought in Gaza, and whenever she'd been to Israel she'd go to Ari.
Who else knew who and what she was, and wasn't in her command chain?
She and Ari shared two languages and needed none, not for the things that mattered. Not for what each of them inherited from the man who fathered asset asset and groomed a handler. Ziva had taught Ari how to play his handler, and Ari had told Ziva what his handler did not know. Ari smuggled in medicine, food, and construction equipment; Mossad would have allowed it as part of his cover, but Ari preferred to do that part on his own.
Ziva understood. Ari was Palestinian, not Israeli. Secular, he'd joined with the Israelis against the extremists among his people. Ari-the-asset and Ari-the-physician were separate, much like Ziva-the-handler and Ziva-the-sister were.
Ziva had understood. What she had failed to see was that while she sanded the edges, Ari whetted them.
Ari was supposed to be the first asset she'd gotten out, not another one she'd disposed of. She had taken that job with the explicit, declared intent of disobeying orders that nobody else could, or had cared to.
She loved Ari; no one quite understands. Not Eli, who fathered an asset, not a son; not Gibbs, to whom Ari-Ziva's-brother is abstract and separate of Ari-Kate's-killer; and not the team, who do not and cannot grasp how Ziva and Ari were siblings.
They had always been two parts of the same, Ari and Ziva. Bastard and beloved, Palestinian and Israeli, asset and handler: killers both, but only one a healer. In mad moments she thinks that's what destroyed Ari; at other times she knows what it's like to be born and bred for a purpose, not a life. She cannot fault him for wanting to choose his own, but she may never forgive him for forcing her choice through it.
To love Ari was to love life, family, purpose. The woman who had loved Ari should have died or been driven mad in Gibbs' basement.
To cease to love Ari was a mercy kill, but what's purpose without love?
Later, it would remind her of falling on a sand dune from a great height. You didn’t feel the shock, not at first, not if the sand was deep enough; often you wouldn’t even bruise. But the aches would stay with you for a long time, like phantoms.
She was used to disasters that fell swiftly, with the aftermath rolling across days, months and sometimes years. This, though, this unfolded over days, a week - a year, in retrospect - and then came like a tree-trunk falling down with a crack that would echo for a while. Michael had been a comforting weight in the back of her head and then a warning like an acetone peroxide charge in the other room. Then the Mother of Satan blew up.
She should have remembered Kate, should have understood the case significance in the context of Tony's psyche. Four years before, even three, she would have. It had been instinct, before she had shed that skin. Before Tony became something else, not someone she thought to doubt, and she forgot to remember that to Tony, this was not doubt.
Gibbs’ Team forgot, too: forgot that she was homesick, forgot that she was an ally and not a member, forgot that she and they used the same words to speak of different things.
She wasn’t angry with Tony for who and what he was. She was furious with who and what Tony was.
She’d done her best to protect everyone she had an obligation to, to the degree that they each needed her specific assistance. Then she saw the struggling figures and knew, and with the hindsight of months she knows that whoever came out on top, she would’ve pointed her gun at him.
Standing on the DC pavement watching her window had been her last moment of feeling solid. Not a last moment of lucidity, no: this was the intensity she was conditioned for. Her ability to track, react and initiate had not been compromised.
Right up until that moment on the Somalia shore, when she told Malachi to walk away. Then the sun on her skin was hot, her backpack heavy on her shoulders and her nape sweaty and scratching. Then she was solid again.
She was dead, too, but that was all right. She’d been dead for a while. She'd stopped fearing her own mortality the day she committed her life as an instrument for a cause and accepted the balance of losing everything else. She reserved her mortal terror for jobs left unfinished.
That should have been a job she could finish, she’d thought; and when she couldn’t, there was nothing more they could do to her.
Who did Tony and Tim come to rescue? Someone who has never existed. All they brought back was a ghost, she thought, as she watched the squad room stand still in a manner of respect Israel accorded only to the fallen.
She'd fallen months before, but phantom pains took time to show.
She should be angry, she supposes: betrayed and ashamed. Instead she feels light, as if made of air, as if nothing is left of her that can be or feel hurt. That part is done. It had all already happened.
She had not expected an extraction, when she chose to continue on her own, and later she did not expect a rescue. These were not the rules of the life. She'd known that; anyone who mattered had known that.
The rules are different, here, because this is a country that can afford that; but from everyone else she knows that what Gibbs and Tony and Tim and Abby had done was well beyond that. She knows that she had walked away, and they did what they thought was due regardless.
It's an utterly novel experience for her: to have been fought over. She'd been covered by teammates and rescued by backup, before, but this does not feel at all similar. Because of the drive behind it, perhaps: a willing choice where none had been called for. She sees Tony's face and hears Gibbs' voice, feels Abby's arms around her, as much as she can smell sand, sweat and gun oil and taste blood and her own vomit in a mouth that had not had water in far too long.
She feels light, not just with dizzying weightlessness but also with such warmth and brightness, like sunlight through white curtains.
They had fought for it, and she lets them have it. She resigns from Mossad, applies for NCIS; leaves behind a war where every civilian is a participant by default and a fighting vocation she'd sworn into, and applies for citizenship where there aren't enemies at every border. This is the decision that threw the blackout drapes wide open, and let the sunshine in.
She feels obliged to give them the person they had come for, or the closest simulacra of her that Ziva is capable of enacting. That person had come from somewhere, had a context in which she made sense, the image of which place she had carried within her and displayed on her skin; her behavior, her traits, like anyone else's they were made from memories and adaptation.
Were. It's something she does not quite have words for, the way she feels that she has no right to act like that person when she is deliberately sloughing off her allegiance. It's a constant effort to remember. She is tired, they worry, and this is the opposite of what she has set out to achieve.
It feels good, this sunlight. It passes through the curtains of her skin with nothing like the burning weight of August in Israel, comforting like the rainy winters of a childhood that's been mostly forgotten for years.
It's something she is given, though, not something that is truly hers. That's all she has that isn't the empty weightlessness of loss, though, so the dead woman keeps walking lest she lose this too.
A woman exits the elevator. She's a little short, a little plump; in her fifties, hair dyed black; and wearing a bright turquoise shirt that highlights skin two shades darker than olive. Tony doesn't quite pay attention to her until she stops halfway between his and Ziva's desks, and then steps closer to his and says: "Excuse me."
She sounds hesitant in the manner of a person who is rather used to confidence. Her accent is heavy, vowels flat and consonants harsh. Tony is certainly that he's heard that accent before, but not quite this heavy, so much that the words barely sound like English. There's something faintly foreign about her appearance, now that he's given her a closer look, but Tony can't place that, either.
"Yes?" he asks.
"I am looking for Ziva David?"
The accent and the dress click into place – Israeli – and Tony's stomach drops, adrenaline spiking. Israelis looking for Ziva are never good news.
Tim and Ziva are on their way up from the garage. Gibbs is god knows where. Tony can either stall or attack.
He plasters on a smile and offers his hand. "I'm Special Agent Tony DiNozzo, one of her teammates. And you are…?"
She relaxes a bit, which surprises him. Her handshake is firm. "I'm Shlomit Mualem."
"Nice to meet your, Ms. Moo…" The sequence of two thick, throaty vowels gets stuck in his throat.
She smiles and says, "Shooly."
"Like 'shoe' and 'li'. Got it." He smiles and then blinks, because there are Tim and Gibbs but no Ziva.
"DiNozzo," Gibbs snaps.
"Yes, Boss. We have a guest."
"I can see that."
"I am Shlomit Mualem," the woman repeats. She looks straights at Gibbs and says the name like it ought to mean something.
"You're here for Agent David."
"I am here to see Ziva, yes." She pauses, considers the circle of them – taught and suspicious – and asks: "Is she all right?"
"She is," Gibbs says. The now is implicit. "And you are?"
The woman's shoulders drop as the hesitation returns, then square again. "I'm her mother."
"Oh," Tim blurts. "So that's w…" Then he stops, quelling under Gibbs' glare.
So that's what happened: Ziva saw her mother, and bolted.
The woman – Ziva's mother – does the math too, because she all but wilts as she says, very quietly: "I came here to congratulate her."
"Congratulate her on what?" Gibbs demands.
The woman straightens with a sudden inner fire and snaps: "On the first thing in ten years that she's done for herself."
This is Ziva's mother.
She and Gibbs lock gazes for a long moment and then Gibbs nods, less curtly than Tony expected.
"DiNozzo," he says. "Show Ms. Mu…"
"…to the conference room."
It's the last thing Tony expects, but he stands, acknowledges and does as requested.
"What happened ten years ago?" he asks as they walk.
"She was drafted," Shooly says quietly. "Straight into Mossad. We… haven't spoken since."
She's maybe the first genuinely civilian Israeli that he's met. It's a different kind of strength.
"How is she?" she asks again as he pushes the conference room's door open.
Gibbs is risking Ziva with her, so Tony gives her an honest answer: "Better."
She doesn't sit down. She's still standing when the door opens again and it's Ziva, Gibbs behind her with his hand on the back of her shoulder.
Ziva looks like she might as well be made of glass, and Gibbs has to all but push her into the room. Tony wants to leave her there as much as he wants to put her on a plane back to Israel.
Gibbs closes the door behind them.
"What now, Boss?" Tony asks once they put five feet between them and the door. What he means is, Is this the right thing?
"What happened ten years ago?"
Tony tells him.
Gibbs huffs. "So that's why she divorced him." And, after a pause: "She's her mother's daughter too, Tony."
Tony repeats that sentence to himself over and over again while he sits at his desk and pretends to work, exchanging nervous looks with Tim. That, and Ziva's mother's words: The first thing she's done for herself.
When Ziva and her mother return to the squad room they're walking slowly, side by side, not quite touching but very close. Ziva walks her mother to the elevator. They speak too quietly for Tony to hear properly and in Hebrew on top, but he can see very clearly as Ziva's mom reaches up to hold her daughter's face between her hands before she steps into the elevator, and the slight downwards turn of Ziva's chin as her eyes shut tight.
It isn't until Ziva starts to walk away – brittle and unmoored as he'd ever seen her – that he realizes Tim has disappeared (probably to Abby's) and Gibbs is gone, too.
Tony gets up and, quickly, blocks her way. "Oh, no, you don't," he says. "I'm not going into the ladies' room after you."
She doesn't smile and her eyes are fixed on the floor. "Tony." Her voice is flat: go away.
"Are you okay?" he asks. He absolutely hates when his voice sounds like that, but it makes Ziva look up at him.
"I don't know when I last was," she says, which is maybe the most honest thing he's ever heard her say, and then she looks down again. "But it had been years before we have ever met."
The more Ziva tries to push him away the more he pushes in. He's learned his lesson with tsabarim: that's a hell of a lot of nasty thorns to work through, but the sweetness inside is worth it.
"Ziva," he says, and it's a question and a plea.
She looks up for a split second, but does not quite meet his eyes. "I think I will be," she says.
Her voice says maybe, but she doesn't flinch at all as, very carefully and just as slow, he wraps his fingers around her shoulder.