Actions

Work Header

Complexity

Chapter Text

Barring mention of Yigal Allon, Meir Dagan, Erwin Rommel, George Shultz, and Mivtza REGEL ETZ/Operation WOODEN LEG, all characters and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. Any further resemblance to real events and actual individuals, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Names, events, and opinions expressed are either property of Belisarius Productions, CBS-Paramount, and Universal Pictures, or are products of the writer's imagination; neither are to be construed as real. The views and actions contained herein should not be interpreted as representative of the policies (official or otherwise), activities (official or otherwise), or personnel of any department or agency of any governmental body based in the US, Israel, China, or any other country.

__________

COMPLEXITY

ONE

Washington D.C.

At some point since she'd been shot, Ziva had lost all patience with most things that she considered 'girly.' Those 'girly' things just took too much time.

She still wore makeup but these days if it took longer than about five minutes to apply, she termed it too much. In any case, she preferred a minimalist look when it came to makeup. These days not being able to wash-dry-run meant that washing and drying her hair took a certain amount of careful planning, else she ended up pissed off at herself for being late. If she didn't know that she looked... odd with short hair, she'd have had her long fall cut to a length more easily managed (and if she cut her hair Jen would probably mourn its loss, a fact of which Ziva was well-aware).

Ziva didn't consider skirts 'girly' at all, but in this area her injured leg dictated in a more direct manner. Even though she was finally rid of the hated cane, her physiotherapist had said 'No!' to any shoe with a heel over one inch, for a full year post-op. With that in mind, Ziva had, with almost evil joy, placed several pairs of heels in a bag destined for Goodwill. Heels weren't 'girly'; they were, however, devices of fiendish torture. A bullet through her thigh had given her an excellent excuse to never willingly wear heels again. With the heels gone, she'd sorted through her wardrobe and had kept only the casual kind of summer skirt or dress that looked okay when paired with flat sandals. She'd found new homes for every other skirt or dress in her wardrobe (some now resided in Jen's closets).

Good riddance, it seemed, to 'girly' stuff.

However, the future held all sorts of possibilities. There was always a chance that she'd end up made up to the nines, wearing heels and a small sexy dress, but that would be a professional situation, one of those where Ziva would leave her Star of David at home and don the appearance and personality of Someone Else, someone other than Ziva David. In short, the necessary 'girly' evils of those future occasions didn't count.

For those who'd known her for two or three years, but didn't know her well, it seemed that getting shot had caused Ziva to change a lot more than her wardrobe. Those closer to her knew that it was the other way around: Ziva wasn't changing so much as she was allowing more of herself to come to the fore.

The pain in her 'Israeli leg' (as she insisted on calling it) kept reminding her of who she was, and who she was not. Other reminders lay in having a lover who spoke Hebrew, and her PA Todd regularly encouraged her to help him improve his Hebrew. Gibbs, Tony, McGee, Abby, and Ducky had a varied but definite grasp on certain words and phrases, enabling her to pepper her English with Hebrew without having to translate, and if she did translate it served to add a new word or phrase to their vocabularies. And there was also her job. As a full-time liaison officer, she made umpteen phone calls and wrote scores of emails to Israelis throughout her work week. Language alone was bringing Ziva home to herself, even while she remained in the States.

But none of this was easy. Coming home to herself involved acknowledging just how many adjustments she'd made to fit in here. Those who knew her well were simply welcoming (or regretting) what they thought of as a more relaxed Ziva. Only Jen had been privy to 'Ziva at one-hundred percent,' as she put it, for the better part of three years, because Jen had been the only person Ziva had trusted enough. Now it wasn't about trust.

"When I am fit enough for fieldwork, this liaison job will revert back to part-time," Ziva told Jen one night. "But I am not going to 'revert back.' I cannot. Israel is my home and it always will be, but if I am to be happy here with you then I am going to be myself, even outside of this house. I am going to be direct and speak my mind. I am going to call people by their first names, unless I hate them—"

"Notable exceptions being Gibbs and McGee," Jen said.

"Using their last names is a habit I cannot seem to break," Ziva agreed. "As I was saying... I must wear suits at work, but if I am not at work then I am going to wear clothes that are comfortable, and not what other people would expect me to wear."

"There'll be objections," Jen pointed out. "Especially to the first names bit."

"So far I have had the most problems with people who do not wear uniforms. You would think it would be the opposite, but no. I have found that if I address the military people by their ranks and they notice that I call other people, like Jimmy and Robert, by their first names, those military people want to know why I am, quote, 'not being friendly.'"

"It's probably a refreshing change for some of them. They get 'General' and 'Sir' or 'Ma'am' out of habit, not necessarily out of respect. But that's the military types. You have to occasionally deal with politicians—"

"I hate most politicians," Ziva said. "I always use 'Sir' or 'Ma'am' for them. And then people like SECNAV Holder and Senator Crowley tell anyone listening to mind their own business if I get funny looks for calling those two Ben and Lauren."

Jen snorted a laugh. She remembered a recent incident where Sen. Lauren Crowley had told a Republican congressman, who'd eavesdropped on a private conversation in which Ziva had addressed Crowley by her first name, that no, Ziva was not a 'special snowflake.' Crowley said that the only person acting like a special snowflake was the Republican congressman practically throwing a fit. That had, of course, prompted the man to throw a second fit, and he had to have his say: he'd heard all about Ziva's 'special snowflake' habit of calling important people by their first names. A third fit had rapidly followed the second when Ziva had refused to translate what she'd said to him in Hebrew. Just as well. She'd said that he should grow up. He was nearing sixty. It would not have gone down well.

However, it was that reference to 'special snowflakes' that worried Jen. A good many people were going to apply that 'special snowflake' label to Ziva, but Jen knew better. Ziva was not, in any way, asking for or expecting special treatment or consideration. She submitted professionally to her superiors, usually without question. If ever she did question the orders or suggestions of people like Robert Grace, the SECNAV, CIA Director James Marden, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, she engaged those people in direct conversation. The end result was either a solution arrived at in short order, or the identification of a list of issues in need of resolution. In both instances, progress was made. Ziva's approach stemmed from the idea that dealing with any problem or question immediately and head-on was the best way to get things done properly and efficiently. 'Efficient' was the word most commonly used to describe Ziva, professionally, but people who called her efficient often failed to link that trait to her general use of first names instead of ranks or titles. Ziva's philosophy was simple, but it hardly ever occurred to Americans that small things, like doing away with titles and making eye-contact, brought a higher aspect of personal commitment to whichever task. Ziva's personal commitment was the root of her level of efficiency.

"Maybe you should start out with an explanation," Jen suggested. "I mean, if you know that you'll be dealing with whomever repeatedly for a set period, you always say, 'May I call you So'n'so?' Right?"

"Yes," Ziva said. "So you are saying that maybe I should explain first, then ask?"

"I think you might end up with fewer people growling No."

~ ~ ~

Ziva didn't have much time to think about Jen's idea. The very next day she ended up meeting with someone she admired, but that she sincerely hoped she wouldn't have to work with too often.

As a member of a team of expert analysts working for the JCS (Joint Chiefs of Staff), Ziva had been instrumental in identifying eleven terrorist training camps along the Chinese border as a clear and present threat. The next step involved deciding what to do about those camps. The NSC (National Security Council) had been briefed, because inevitably the next step would involve the Secretary of State approaching her Chinese counterpart directly.

Ordinarily, a State Department official would be required to talk to the Chinese ambassador to the US, but this issue demanded that several regular liaison steps be skipped. This was made easier in one way: the Chinese Foreign Minister was in the US already, on a state visit.

"At least I don't have to fly to China," the SECSTATE said. "But Foreign Minister Chen is leaving in just two days... Let's go take a seat so you can get on with it, please."

James Marden and Ziva followed the SECSTATE to a small conference table. Ziva was going to give Marden hell when this meeting was over. He'd asked her to collate and summarize all their available intel, and she'd known that she'd be briefing the NSC, but he hadn't told her who would be getting that document wallet full of collated intel. He also hadn't told her that she'd be giving an in-person in-depth briefing to the SECSTATE. And if Marden dared to remind her that several entry-grade analysts occasionally briefed people as high up as the President, Ziva was going to introduce him to a special level of hell, one that started out something like this: But they are told first, you bastard! and went on to make guesses at his ancestry that involved matings between a variety of poisonous animals.

As she sat down, Ziva cleared her throat and hoped that her face wasn't too red.

"You're hoping for a joint op, James?" the SECSTATE asked.

"Yes, ma'am. It's the cleanest way forward, but the Chinese may tell us no."

"Agreed. The odds are stacked against a positive answer. Now. If I have to suggest to Foreign Minister Chen that our countries work together on this, I definitely need more than that abbreviated briefing you two and Lauren Crowley gave the NSC."

"That's why we're here," Marden said.

"Good. So line up the ducks." The SECSTATE looked Ziva in the eye. "Start at the top."

"At first there were three camps, and three was already a number to take note of," Ziva said.

"That was why we put men on the ground as soon as we could," Marden said.

"You've had 'men on the ground' for four years, and during that time three camps became eleven."

"Yes, ma'am," Marden said.

"Why wasn't the NSC informed when three became four?"

"It was and still is impossible to get close to the camps," Ziva said. "We are almost certain that some of the men in those camps are Muslim—"

"Almost certain?" the SECSTATE said. "That sounds like a presumption to me."

"I am not one of those crazy kitzonim," Ziva chuckled.

"Zionist extremists," Marden filled in.

"Uh-huh. I figured. Go on, Officer David."

"I would not have mentioned their religion at all, except that we have noticed an interesting division in the camps."

Ziva opened a file and took out photographs that showed several men praying. In the background or foreground of all the pictures, other men stood around smoking; a closeup of one showed an iPod in his hand and bud-type headphones in his ears; in one photograph a man was walking a large dog on a leash. Ziva tapped that photo with a pen.

"You will notice that he is keeping his distance from the men who are praying, and they are most certainly Muslim. But dogs are considered unclean by devout Muslims. The dog's handler is either not as devout as the men praying—"

"Even if he couldn't quote the Qur'an line-and-verse, he'd still be praying," the SECSTATE said.

"Correct, which means that he and other dog handlers are not Muslim. That dog and several others at each camp, are the reason why our men cannot get close. That means that even after four years we still do not know what this group calls themselves."

"But we do know that they have an inside line in the Chinese military machine," Marden said. "They know the flight-paths of Chinese helicopter border patrol units. Our men have seen two camps packed up and moved within ninety minutes. The goats, Ziva?"

She produced several photos of small herds of goats being driven behind trains of donkeys bearing packed tents and other camp gear.

"They go for about five-hundred meters, like that. Then they stop following the donkey train, and they drive the goats back, and around and around where the camp was, masking all signs on the ground. And in the end, this..." Ziva produced a long range shot of a goatherd waving at a military helicopter. "This is all that those airborne patrols see."

"By then the donkey train is three or four kilometers away," Marden added. "The herders and the goats eventually catch up."

"They are careful to camp in hilly areas," Ziva said. "So when they are on-the-move and they hear a helicopter, it is easy to quickly lead a donkey train around the side of a hill. And the use of that tactic means that I can tell you where at least some of them are from: Northern Afghanistan."

The SECSTATE picked up various photos one-by-one and looked at them carefully. Eventually she looked Ziva in the eye.

"Northern Afghanistan?"

"Yes."

"You're certain they're a problem?"

Ziva took out several more photographs.

"In this sequence I think you can figure out what is going on."

"That's a bomb vest, or a mockup of a bomb vest," the SECSTATE said.

"Correct, and so we know that suicide bombings are part of their plan, whatever it is. And these are pictures that are not very clear, but why would several men be standing on one side of a folding table, and only one man on the other?"

"Instruction of some sort."

"Yes. And then this is a very clear picture, taken the next day. Same table, same men, and what does that look like?"

"If I was an idiot, I'd say blocks of Play-Doh and an alarm clock. C-4?"

"Explosives, yes. But it gets worse..."

Ziva laid out more photos that needed no comment. They showed men taking target practice with a variety of automatic and semiautomatic weapons. There was also a photo of someone lying prone with a state-of-the-art sniper system; next to him was a man with a pair of binoculars and an open book on his knee.

"That book is a spotter's log," Marden explained. "It contains formulae that make it easier to calculate distance, windage, bullet-drop—the whole nine."

"This picture alone means that that word 'problem' is too small," Ziva said, her tone grave, her expression worried. "These camps are an evident threat."

"Now I'm convinced," the SECSTATE said. "And what are we probably dealing with– ex Taliban?"

"This level of organization?" Ziva said. "Some Taliban, yes, and possibly some ETIM jihadi."

"ETIM is ringing only vague bells."

"Eastern Turkestan Independence Movement," Marden said.

"The bells are loud and clear now. They're the ones who allied themselves to Al Quaeda, and threatened to attack our embassy in Bishkek?"

"Yes. They also took responsibility for the Kunming bus bombing," Ziva said.

"But instead of using thirty-year-old Russian grenades and machetes, they're training with plastic explosives and modern weapon systems," Marden said.

"Which, if we have correctly identified these people, is definitely of concern," Ziva said. "And besides regular ETIM jihadi, I would say that general separatist Uyghur involvement is also a very strong possibility. But my instincts say that we cannot limit involvement only to those three groups."

"'Taliban,' 'ETIM,' and 'separatist Uyghur' are the ace up my sleeve. They're what the Chinese will not like to hear, so that's what I'll tell them... They also won't like the fact that we've had spies in their backyard for four years."

"But our men have had no contact at all with Chinese nationals," Marden said. "Better yet, our four men have had no contact with each other, but they all say the same thing: these people probably won't strike in China."

"Explain that."

"Their numbers," Ziva said. "If numbers have changed, that has been an increase, and never a decrease in the number of people and camps. They are working on something big."

"Now, it may be that the something big will go down in China," Marden said. "We cannot rule that out. We can however say that if their target is not China, after four years of prep, their target is really big. That's something in Europe, or North America."

"Okay, that's the second ace up my sleeve. Can I push for another ace, or at least a face card?"

"Four years is the total span of the operation," Ziva said. "But our men have been there for a total of only twenty-one months."

"That's my face card. What's the reason for the stop-start observation?"

"Blame the weather," Marden said. "They're at the edge of the Takla Makan Desert, but it's still murder in winter, and at that latitude winter lasts nearly a full six months. So our people—none of whom could risk using even a pup tent—pulled out whenever it became too cold."

"And when they went back..." Ziva said. "Bear in mind that our men tracked those camps and approached their observation posts on foot. Not even horses or mules could be risked."

"Too easy to notice a man on a horse. And Madam Secretary, it's becoming too cold again. We've had freelancers on this, ma'am. We had to make it a volunteer-only operation."

"I'm not a fan of the spy game, as you well know, James, but this time round I don't care how much those men were paid, it's worth it: I'll take my hat off to them. You pass that on. You also tell at least two of them to get the hell out of China."

"Three," Marden said. "We'll leave the best. If the Chinese decide to lone-gun it, he'll get collection orders. He'll grab someone from a camp and make him talk."

"I heard that, and I also didn't," the SECSTATE said. "I hope to God he gets out alive... I take it you've prepared a package for me?"

"Yes," Ziva said.

She lifted a thick plastic document wallet from a chair and placed it on the table. The SECSTATE arched an eyebrow at it.

"That looks like reading material for a month."

"Most of it is photographs, satellite images, and maps," Ziva said. "I prepared the written summaries myself. They number less than twenty pages."

"I like her," the SECSTATE told Marden.

"Yet another name added to the fan club," Marden chortled.

"Tishtok ata," Ziva muttered, her face reddening.

"She told me to shut up," Marden supplied, his grin positively piratical.

"Uh-huh. I gathered," the SECSTATE chuckled.

Later, on the way to Marden's car, Ziva cussed him thoroughly in several languages. Marden's only response was unrepentant laughter, and Ziva ended up cussing herself, because she might've guessed at that response.

"The Fox. Dammit, but I always forget that they call you that."

"I'll make you a deal," Marden said seriously. "You trust me, and I will always tell you who we're going to talk to."

"I do trust you," Ziva protested. She didn't invite just anyone into her home.

"You don't trust me enough to agree that you were the best person to brief the SECSTATE. You would've told me no."

"You could have told her everything yourself, alone," Ziva said.

"Ziva, I'm sixty-two," Marden said. "When last I was in the field, I was double-dealing with the KGB. That was thirty-four years ago. How old are you?"

"I turned thirty-four last week."

"Right. And the SECSTATE has viewed a dossier on you. She knows that you've dealt directly with people like the men in those eleven camps. She needed to hear that word 'threat' from you, my friend, not from me."

"You could have made that argument earlier," Ziva pointed out.

"Seeing is believing. But in that meeting you made it all happen, and that is religion. Tell me I'm wrong."

"Okay, okay... But I hate all this... politicking and desk job stuff."

"Don't rush that leg," Marden said. "Take me as an example. I permanently damaged my back at age thirty, and I've been desk-bound ever since, because I didn't listen to my doctors. Do not rush it."

"I will be careful," Ziva said seriously.

~ ~ ~

A few days after Jen had suggested that she should 'start out with an explanation,' Ziva had occasion to try out that idea. She also had to wonder who'd decided that her life should become so busy.

The SECSTATE's meeting with Foreign Minister Chen had ended with the man boarding a plane a day early. He had said that the matter couldn't wait, and that, in light of highly probable Taliban, ETIM, and Uyghur involvement, he was sure that certain facts would be overlooked. The Chinese government blamed the Taliban for a thriving opium market in China, and they were constantly at odds with ETIM and groups of separatist Uyghur. Within twenty-four hours of his return home, Foreign Minister Chen had contacted the SECSTATE. His government had decided that, as the Americans had 'kindly' discovered those terrorist training camps within China's borders, it might be worthwhile to mount joint intelligence-gathering operations against the camps.

But that wasn't as simple a business as both parties shaking hands and getting on with the proposed job.

Joint military and/or intelligence operations between two or more countries require the identification of several baseline security protocols (basically: we can do this, but they may not do that, and we can both do this). These are collected into a single protocol, and each country presents their protocols for comparison. The joint operations then proceed, or are abandoned, depending on whether compromises can be reached.

The person Ziva was about to meet was a congressman who headed a special subcommittee working with both the JCS and the NSC. Their joint focus was to draw up the US collected security protocol to be presented to their Chinese counterparts. Ziva was going to have to deal with Congressman Galloway two days a week for as many as three weeks, but perhaps less. She was already well-acquainted with his counterpart on the NSC, as well as the Chairman of the JCS, neither of whom were present at this meeting.

"Officer David—Did I pronounce that correctly?" he said, offering his hand.

"Yes," she said, shaking his hand. "And my name is Ziva, please."

"Titles are fine," Galloway said curtly.

Perfect, Ziva thought.

"If I may, I would like to tell you why titles are terrible," she said with a disarming smile.

Galloway laughed, surprised. Her tone had been nothing short of respectful.

"Okay, but we don't have much time here."

"This never takes long," Ziva said. "Only five words: titles do not inspire responsibility."

Galloway rubbed at his chin for a moment before putting out his hand a second time.

"Ziva, my name's Alex."

Ziva shook his hand again and took the seat he gestured to.

~ ~ ~

Ziva's office door was open but, as he always did, FBI Director Grace knocked before entering. She held up a hand, not looking away from a monitor while she finished a sentence in an email to a Mossad branch head. This email was a day overdue, but the right people at Glilot knew that her regular schedule had recently been trashed, and replaced with one that was literally twice as busy.

Eventually she swiveled her chair around and gave Grace a smile and an inquiring look.

"How was your meeting with Galloway?"

"Alex is a pro, thank goodness."

"First name basis, and he got a compliment: good meeting."

"Yeah," Ziva said. She gave Grace a suspicious look. "I can always tell when you are trying not to smile. What now?"

He wordlessly handed over a letter. While she read he rubbed an amused grin off his face, the fourth time he'd done so since reading that letter.

"Is... Henry Felton the Republican old fart who threw a tantrum because I called Senator Crowley by her first name?"

"He doesn't say anything about that, but yeah, it's him."

"Aah," Ziva said. She gave back the letter and her smile turned mischievous. "So, Robert. How are you going to deal with my, quote, 'blatant disrespect' for so-called 'betters and superiors'?"

"I think I'll write you up for a raise," Grace said.

"I do not think that that is what Felton had in mind."

"Right. And he'll probably decide to do something stupid, like come here in person to yell at me."

"The other day I saw something online that might be a perfect birthday gift for you," Ziva drawled. "It is a giant wooden spoon, and painted on the handle there is this: 'For the World's Biggest Shit-stirrer.'"

"I could put that on a wall in my den," Grace chortled.

"Hmph. Be careful, okay?" Ziva said. "Find out who Felton knows, what influence he has. You will feel really bad if he happens to know someone with enough influence to get me sent back to Israel."

"My bubble just got burst," Grace muttered. "Ziva, there's no way I'm going to indulge Felton here. He's making a mountain out of a molehill, and he's meddling where he's got no right."

"I agree, and I am not suggesting that you indulge him. Call Victor in Legal and ask his advice on how to say to Felton what you have just said to me, without causing Felton's pride to get even more knotted... And I am sorry for this. I will remember it and be a little more diplomatic next time."

"I'd like to see you manage that if Lauren Crowley's involved again," Grace drawled. "She'd be just as amused as I would to get one of those giant spoons. And you know what's funny?"

"Tell me."

"The last person I'd ever give one of those spoons to, is you," Grace said.

Grace took the letter back and walked out, and Ziva got back to her work.

That night she told Jen about the situation, and related Grace's comment regarding the spoon.

"He's right," Jen said. "The only time you're inclined towards setting the cat amongst the pigeons is when that would cause a suspect or a mark to make a mistake. That's very different to this first names thing."

"But this is America, and maybe I must—"

"No," Jen said firmly. "Don't even think about changing tack now. People like Felton will see that as a victory, but besides that, Ziva, your approach is the right one. 'When in Rome' only applies when you're there for a short visit. If you have to stay longer, the figurative Romans should expect to find themselves learning about another culture. If they don't, that's their problem, one born of arrogance. This country is notorious for pushing its culture on everyone. It's only fair that you push back and create a little breathing room for yourself. It's not like you're expecting anyone else to join you in that space."

"True," Ziva said. "I do not scoff when other people stick to titles and ranks. I do not even hint that others should try my approach... In the letter Felton suggested that my behavior would perhaps breed general dissension."

"Oh, bullshit," Jen muttered. "You worked for NCIS for three years and people like Tim—who is my friend—still call me Director during office hours. That's something I've never insisted on. Several agents call me Jen, and others just don't, and either way is fine by me."

"Yeah, but you spent those three years in Israel."

"Which is where the fine-by-me attitude comes from, yes, but my point is that if your approach is the kind to encourage dissension, that influence would be strongly and broadly felt by now at NCIS, and it's not."

Ziva looked at Jen thoughtfully for a moment before picking up her phone. She called Robert Grace. He said that he hadn't finalized his reply to Felton yet, and she detailed Jen's example.

"Perfect..." Grace said, and Ziva could hear the scratching of a pen on paper. "I was going to say that if he was right, I'd be addressed as Rob by your PA and every other analyst and agent you work with."

"That is also a good example," Ziva said. "Anyway, as I said to you earlier, I am going to apply some discretion in future. Hopefully this will be the last time you have to diplomatically respond to a politician throwing a tantrum."

"Ziva, I end up writing responses like that three and four times a week, and usually you have nothing to do with them. Have a good evening."

"You, too."

Ziva hung up and found Jen glaring at her.

"Ma?" What?

"I just said that you shouldn't change tack," Jen said.

"Applying a bit of discretion is not changing tack," Ziva said. "I mean, already I assess and analyze and decide if it is worth it to suggest to someone that titles are a bad idea. If I will only have to deal with someone for a couple of hours and no more, then I just leave it as is, call them 'Ma'am' or 'Sir' or whatever. It is when I have to work with people repeatedly that I say, 'Hey, titles are not my thing.' But I do not say that if my instincts say that this person will react like Felton did."

"Nosy bastard..." Jen muttered. "If Felton hadn't barged into that conversation in the first place, Rob Grace wouldn't be writing that letter."

Ziva didn't argue with that.

Grace had finalized the letter by ten a.m the next day. He called Ziva into his office to read it, that instead of taking it to her. Ziva's mention of discretion last night had caused him to rethink a few things. There were two other people in this building who knew about Felton's letter, one being his PA who also knew that Grace had laughed about it before taking the letter to Ziva. If word of that got back to Felton, he might have a go at making real trouble for Ziva.

Grace's response was carefully worded, and basically said to Felton 'Mind your own' without being offensive. It wasn't at all friendly, but it was polite.

"If he says so much as 'Hello' to you from now on," Grace said. "I wanna know about it."

"Of course," Ziva said. "But we should not have cause to meet again. He is not involved in anything related to defense, intelligence, or law enforcement. As Jen said last night, he barged in on my conversation with Lauren."

"Wait. I thought he was talking to Crowley—"

"No. Lauren and I had a meeting with someone in the Attorney General's office, and afterwards we were talking outside, while she waited for her car. Felton was standing there, also waiting for a car. He greeted Lauren and she said hi, but went back to talking to me. Next thing he is saying 'Excuse me!' and he starts his little tantrum."

"This—" Grace gestured with his reply to Felton's letter. "—is the wrong response to what you've just told me."

"Yes, but it is a perfect reply to his letter," Ziva said pointedly. "That letter does not refer directly to the incident I described, does it?"

"Fucking politicians..." Grace muttered, only half under his breath.

"He did not describe what happened that day, for a reason: it puts him in the wrong."

"Huh..."

Grace took a memo sheet and wrote something on it, taking care to be neat and precise. He handed the sheet to Ziva:

I know the details you omitted from your letter. I believe you to be an intelligent individual, one who will agree with me when I say that this matter is closed. –Robert Grace

Ziva handed the sheet back with a nod. Grace paper-clipped it to the letter and placed both in an envelope that had 'Private & Confidential' stamped on it in red ink.

Ziva had an idea that they wouldn't hear back from Felton.

~ ~ ~

Jen yawned and scowled at the clock on her desk: three-twenty a.m. She yawned again and answered the secure line.

"Yes?"

"Umm, if I say I'm on the other side of the world?"

"Aah. I'll go get her."

"Thanks, and sorry for waking you up."

"No problem."

Despite the horrendous hour, Jen managed a jog up the stairs and down the hall. The man on the phone was a friend of Ziva's, and he was also the last US freelance operative on the ground in China.

"Ziva, wake up. That's Freddy on the secure line."

"Fuck..." Ziva said, while scrambling out of bed.

"Don't even try to run," Jen muttered, getting back into bed.

"I could not, even if I wanted to, and I do not."

Knowing that she might be on the phone for a while, Ziva pulled on a robe. She made her way downstairs, and hoped that the carefully-paced walk would serve in lieu of the stretches she usually did before attempting to walk any further than their en-suite bathroom. She eventually parked herself in the chair at Jen's desk.

"Sorry. I cannot walk fast."

"Been less than two minutes since your gal answered the phone. Don't sweat it," Freddy Bergen said. He got straight down to business. "The Fox told me a few things earlier. I wouldn't hope too hard on those discussions tomorrow."

"Me neither," Ziva said. Her every instinct told her that if the Chinese did not back out of the joint operation talks tomorrow, they would by Monday. "It is not an issue of trust."

"Yeah, they trust us just fine, but they're not interested in having to explain shit to us. And they'll have to explain, if they go in all guns blazing, after both sides have conducted a nice civilized intel collection op."

"Mmm. I have been there before. We just refused to explain."

"Uh-huh, but you guys have got more at stake, in that friggin' postage stamp-sized country. This country? They could let this whole province go and not feel it a bit. Thing is, like I keep saying, the people I've been watching aren't interested in the politics here. They've learned that striking at home just gets them whacked... They lined up another few and shot 'em last week, a little way outside the city nearest me."

"Yes, I know," Ziva muttered. Eli had sent her a secure email detailing the state-ordered execution of seven Uyghur militants. "What was strange about it was that it was not made public."

"But what'll happen here, and in ten other places, will be," Bergen said, certain. "They'll smear it all over the fuckin' news, cos they've got guns and bombs in those camps."

"Guns and bombs are pretty good justification," Ziva had to say. "Still, I wish that our problem was not being solved this way."

"Yeah... Anyhow, I'm just calling to say that I'll be getting a call as soon we know how those discussions pan out. The way I see it, that's probably tomorrow."

"Probably. Be careful, okay?"

"I got a plan, but yeah, I'll do my best. I'll be calling you directly afterwards."

"Okay," Ziva said.

There was a click and silence, until the disconnect tone beeped monotonously. Ziva put the phone down, and remained at the desk for a while, thinking about a man whom she'd met face-to-face just seven times in the eight years that she'd known him. She couldn't remember the number of letters they'd written to each other; couldn't remember the number of times that they'd talked on the phone. Very few of those calls had been like this one.

When she'd moved to the States, and Bergen had found out that she was living in D.C., he'd sent her the replacement number for a key to the apartment he kept here. At the time she hadn't known where he was, and the joke was that when the job was done she could use that key, open up and air his place, and take everything she needed to cook him a meal at home.

Now she knew where he was, where he'd been even when she'd used the replacement number to get that key cut. Given the risks Bergen would soon take, Ziva dared not think about cooking that meal, no matter how much she wanted to.

~ ~ ~

The week from hell just had to include a physiotherapy session. As was her habit, Ziva hardly said a word while being put through range-of-motion tests. Paul, her physiotherapist, knew that she didn't like to talk during sessions, and kept his questions to the bare minimum. He didn't have to ask what hurt and when: he could see it plainly on her face. He had no new exercises to give her this week, which meant that the session ended early.

"Stressful week?" Paul asked.

"You could say that," she drawled, pulling formal trousers over bike shorts.

"How bad?"

"Where do I start? This week decided it must be Israeli: it began on Sunday. I had to brief the NSC, and then I walked into another room and realized that now I am going to be briefing the SECSTATE—"

"Whoa..." Paul chuckled.

"You do not know the half of the 'whoa.' I swore in six languages at the Boss Who Does Not Pay Me. Monday and Tuesday were the usual kind of Washington crazy, but with extra: all the paperwork resulting from the meetings and briefings on Sunday. On Wednesday I got a call to say I must go talk with the Joint Chiefs again, and I also met with someone new, because now I am the consulting analyst for a special subcommittee. Todd is my PA, who got his own PA as of Thursday, and Todd, New PA, and me are all three trying to decide if everyone except us was mainlining speed on Thursday. Today has been quieter, but not by much. Oh. And did I forget to say that the Boss Who Does Pay Me had to deal with a tantrum-throwing politician on my behalf? There was that, too."

"If you didn't have a sense of humor..."

"A sense of humor has got nothing to do with it," Ziva said. "It is just... Gam zeh ya'avor—This, too, shall pass... and hopefully soon. So you can tell I had a stressful week– how?"

"The strap muscles in your neck are showing more definition, but you haven't lost any weight."

Ziva cracked her neck and ignored Paul's scowl. She had to get to a meeting with the JCS, definitely the last of the day, and hopefully the last of this crazy week, but if she was forced to be honest, she wasn't pinning much hope on that. If she wasn't in a rush she'd talk Paul into giving her neck and shoulders an ultrasound massage.

"I suppose it's useless telling you to try and reduce the stress," Paul said.

"I could reduce some of it by being less myself and more American—"

"And that would just cause a different kind of stress."

"Right. When is our next appointment?"

"Just before you go away for Thanksgiving should be fine, as long as you keep doing your stretches and exercises, and Jen keeps up with the massage."

"But of course," Ziva said with a cheeky grin. "That is a precursor to other, much more pleasant activities."

"And that's also a great stress-reliever," Paul chuckled. "If I only had adult patients, I'd get a sign made that says: Please Have More Sex."

Ziva snorted a laugh. She could just imagine Jen's expression if she went home and said, 'Paul says we must have more sex.' She put her grin away before getting into her car.

"You're early," Todd said and put his laptop on the backseat. "You needn't have rushed. The JCS canceled the meeting, so I guess we get to go home early."

"Be'emet?" Ziva asked. Really?

"I know how you feel. Doesn't seem real to me either, but yeah, really."

"No complaints here," Ziva said firmly, buckling her safety belt. "Were you given a reason?"

"The Chinese backed out of the joint op idea. They've asked for whatever intel we're prepared to hand over, and they'll add their own before they move on the camps."

"Fuck," Ziva muttered, frowning. "If they bother to interrogate anyone in those camps, it is not likely that they will share the information they get."

"You don't think they'll interrogate anyone, do you?" Todd asked, backing out of the parking space.

"No," Ziva said, remembering her conversation with Bergen last night. "I think they have abandoned any intention of collecting intel first. Instead they will just coordinate simultaneous airstrikes against all eleven camps, and they will have infantry on the ground, waiting to move in for cleanup. They will not bother with prisoners. But they will make big announcements, public announcements about what they did. After that? It is not likely that foreign terrorist groups will embed camps within China's borders again."

"But if they wipe out those camps it might set China up as a target– attacks from whichever group the camps belong to."

"I would say the chance of that is about one-in-ten," Ziva said, while texting a message to Jen. "Having all eleven camps wiped out in one night... Embarrassing, and also very damaging to morale. We must also consider that those camps house most, if not all of the group's 'soldiers.' If that is the case, then who will mount a revenge attack?"

"Fair enough. Still, it would be really nice to find out who they are," Todd said.

"We still have one man on the ground," Ziva said, trying not to worry about Bergen. "If he can, he will grab someone. But we were hoping that we would not need him to do that."

"If the Chinese are gonna bomb those places... I hope he gets out in one piece."

"He has gotten out of worse situations."

"Worse? Jesus, what's worse than that?"

"I was sent to kill him once," Ziva said dryly.

"So he's really well-trained, huh?" Todd mumbled.

"And also a very good person. If he was here, he would have said what I did just now, about worse situations."

"You spooks and military people have got really whack senses of humor."

"We have to cope somehow," Ziva said quietly.

And Jen knew how to help Ziva cope. She came home with rented DVDs, the only distraction—other than work—that Ziva could tolerate while playing the waiting game. Ziva didn't have to call James Marden to know that Bergen had been sent those grab orders. He had to move before the Chinese did, and his aim would be to snatch one of the terrorists, drag him a safe distance from the camp, and make him talk. Ziva checked her watch yet again.

"What's the time there?" Jen asked.

"About noon," Ziva said. Bergen was probably already on the move from his own tiny camp. "We should not hear anything before eight a.m our time tomorrow. And he will call me, not Jimmy."

"Will you be able to sleep?"

"After two or three movies, one after the other? Yeah, probably."

"Well, if you can't sleep," Jen said. "Please forgive me for fading out on you."

"Tsk! Nothing to forgive."

They were both asleep at around six a.m, when the phone rang in the study. Jen started awake.

"Secure line," she muttered.

"Yes," Ziva said, already out of bed. She looked at the alarm clock and worked out the time in China: just after midnight. Under her breath she muttered, "Too early. Dammit, Freddy..."

Jen watched Ziva leave the room, and when the doorway was empty she shut her eyes. It had been situations like this one that had caused her to become an atheist. She'd been a good Irish Catholic girl once, but that upbringing hadn't stood up to several situations just like this, where she'd prayed, but bad things had happened anyway. Jen didn't bother with prayer anymore. She just tried to stay positive, and gave it all up for a few moments to simple hope.

Downstairs Ziva already knew it was bad beyond help. She'd known that as soon as she'd picked up the phone, and Bergen had called her by name. She was currently in the middle of writing the report he was dictating via satellite phone. He was running. Every now and then he stopped and panted out more information.

"That's it," he said at last. "You got it all."

"Get out of there, Freddy," Ziva said urgently.

"Nah, sweetheart. I'm done. They got those dogs after me."

"Fuck..."

"Hold on just a little bit for me. Write this down..."

Ziva rubbed tears out of her eyes and scribbled down four email addresses and their passwords.

"I'm the only person who sent mail to those addresses, nineteen mails total. You won't have any problems decoding the stuff in those emails. I sent my safety deposit details to the four-eight-seven address. My will's in that box. The key is in the broken clock on the dresser in my bedroom, in the D.C. apartment. You still got the key?"

"I have the key, and I have this all written down," Ziva said. She swallowed hard before saying, "Do not let them get you, Freddy."

"Won't. Gonna hang up and make a call to nowhere: that number's the one that'll make this phone go boom. It'll be quick. You tell Jimmy from me, no hard feelings."

"I will," Ziva said, and she could hear dogs baying now, somewhere in the distance. She steeled herself and said what he needed to hear: "Do it now. Hang the fuck up."

The line went silent immediately, until the disconnect tone started up. Ziva dropped the phone on its cradle and covered her face with her hands.

"Yitgadal ve'yitkadash shmeh rabah..."

In the study doorway, Jen whispered Kaddish, too, even though she didn't believe in God. Bergen was Jewish. Saying the Mourner's Kaddish was respectful. It was also as close as she dared come to Ziva right now. When Ziva's mumbles ceased and the sobs welled up, Jen crept away to the kitchen.

She set up the drip machine and left it. She went upstairs to set out clothes for Ziva to wear. It wasn't fair that she had to go out while torn with grief, but Jen wouldn't say anything of the sort. Not much later she didn't say anything at all, while Ziva wept in the shower. Jen combed and dried her hair and bound it back in a severe braid when asked to. Jen's first words were regarding an empty tissue box, and by then Ziva had left the house.

Only then did Jen cry. She called Empathy a bitch, and she wept for Ziva.

~ ~ ~

Ziva was dry-eyed and stoic when she spoke first with CIA Director James Marden, and later gave a formal report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She also formally requested to be distanced from any operations that would arise from the intelligence gathered by Bergen.

"Due respect," said the Vice Chairman. He was newly appointed; his predecessor had resigned suddenly due to ill health. "If there's a conflict of interest, you need to state that in writing."

Ziva looked around the table. The rest of the Chiefs were looking at the Vice Chairman like he was something from another planet. She might have laughed, but that would have sent her into sobs next.

"Do you really want it in writing that I practically ordered my friend to kill himself?" Ziva said quietly.

The Vice Chairman was about to respond, but the Chairman cleared his throat and shook his head.

"I'll walk you out," said the Chief of Naval Operations.

"Thanks, Peter, but stay. If anyone is too nice to me now, I will have to go and rob the nearest Kleenex factory. Again. I think Jen is still picking up tissues."

"Somewhere, Freddy's laughing at that joke, even though it's corny," Marden said, but his smile was tight and he didn't make eye-contact with anyone. "There's a driver for you, Ziva, and the lawyer you asked for. By now those emails have been decoded."

"Thanks, Jimmy."

Ziva walked to a door, and the Vice Chairman was about to be a gentleman and stand, but he looked around and copied his colleagues instead. None of them had gotten up. The door closed and the Chairman reached for his coffee mug.

"The goddamn Chinese could have asked us if we still had anyone on the ground," he muttered.

"Wasn't the Chinese who got him, Joe," said the Commandant of the Marines. "They haven't moved yet."

"So it was this... Shamshir group?"

"Why would they have had dogs?" the Vice Chairman asked. "They're Muslims."

"Wasn't only Muslims in that camp, and they needed dogs as something of an alarm system."

"The dogs were the reason why Bergen hadn't been able to get close. He probably grabbed someone who'd left camp to take a leak."

"And then the bastards in camp figured one of their pals was missing..."

"So do we tell the Chinese about Bergen, Jimmy?" the Chairman asked.

"No. He was a deniable asset," Marden said woodenly. "You will all receive orders, before you leave this room, to say that Freddy—that Bergen never existed."

"I take it Officer David has those orders already?" the Vice Chairman asked.

"No, not yet," Marden almost whispered. "She's gone out to hand Bergen's estate over to the lawyer I mentioned. Tomorrow is soon enough to issue those orders to her."

Technically, Marden's consideration was a gross breach of security, but not a man at that table would turn him in for it.

Across town at Bergen's apartment, Ziva donned two pairs of surgical gloves and employed that key. She found the broken clock without trouble. She found the safety deposit key taped under the clock's dead batteries. Ziva put the clock back in place, and was careful not to touch anything else, even though the two pairs of gloves were nigh guaranteed not to leave glove prints. She gave both the apartment key and the box key to the lawyer, along with Bergen's bank details.

"You only contact me if I am mentioned in the will," she told the lawyer.

"Yes, ma'am. I contact you through Director Marden?"

"No. Call my office at the Hoover Building; my PA's cell number is on the answering machine. But I do not think you will have to contact me. Thank you, and goodbye."

She walked away. He followed but didn't try to catch her up, and as she'd guessed, he didn't have to call her.

~ ~ ~

Jen stood looking out a kitchen window, waiting. The day was grey and cold, the sky threatened rain, and the only brightness lay in gold and red leaves that decorated the back lawn. She always delayed in raking them up, but it was about time to do that, because she could see only small patches of faded green through the leaves.

Jen didn't move when she heard Ziva come in, and eventually a pair of arms slipped around her waist, and hugged tight, pulling her back. She let herself soften into Ziva's body, and turned her head to rub her temple softly against Ziva's cheek.

"He had no family. Essentially, I was 'family,'" Ziva whispered.

Jen turned in Ziva's arms and hugged her neck. She knew better than to say anything, least of all 'I'm sorry,' even though she was.

"It does not help to know the risks," Ziva mumbled.

"Never helps, no," Jen said and gently kissed Ziva's ear. "But we accept them anyway."

"Have to. Must accept them. Someone has to do this work, even though it kills the best of us."

Jen's reply was a small nod, one that Ziva could feel. Jen pushed away her fear, and filled that space with the here-and-now: Ziva was right here, now, her heart beating against Jen's right breast, arms tight around her waist. This was Ziva's way, too, Jen knew. To think of the future, to think of the real possibilities of loss, was to open the door to depression. Instead they stayed grounded in the present.

"No-one told me anything, but I am going to get orders of absolute denial soon."

"I'm sorry," Jen said.

It was right to say that now. She could apologize for the heartless application of red tape. Apologizing for Bergen's death, for Ziva's grief, was not right; apologizing for sacrifices made willingly and honestly was never right. It was dishonorable.

"I want to take you upstairs," Ziva murmured against skin, nuzzling at Jen's neck. "I want you to help me forget, just for a while. I have to cry more, but I cannot get there by myself."

Jen's answer was a kiss, brief but deep, before she took Ziva's hand and led her away.

~ ~ ~

Ziva was alone at home a week later. Jen was at a conference in Cincinnati, and this soon after Bergen's death Ziva did not want to be alone. Gibbs didn't know anything about Bergen, but over the last week he'd guessed that something bad had happened. He'd guessed as well that Ziva was bound by orders, meaning that even if he asked she wouldn't be able to say a thing. When she called him, instead of asking about what had happened, Gibbs did the best he could, and said he'd be around.

He took a bag up to one of Jen's guestrooms and headed back to the kitchen, where Ziva was cooking. He liked simple food, most of the time, and that's what he was getting tonight.

All the ingredients for a Greek salad were laid out, and Gibbs tackled that himself, mostly because this put him first in line to steal a cube or two of feta cheese. Ziva had two pans going at once. It wasn't Chanukah, but there were potato latkes in one pan; aged porterhouse steaks were sizzling in the other.

"You want me to change the music?" Ziva asked.

At background volume, Gibbs had to focus on the tune to realize that it wasn't anything he knew. It also wasn't unpleasant.

"It's okay. What is it?"

"A mix up of all Jen's Israeli favorites. This one is 'Tapuchim uTmarim' – 'Apples and Dates,' by Rami Kleinstein. It is about a girl who loves someone who does not love her."

"Kinda depressing... but the tune doesn't sound that way."

"Because he is saying that she deserves better and she can get better, in the same way that she goes to the market and gets herself some apples and dates."

"It's not always that easy," Gibbs said around an olive.

"Of course not," Ziva said, her expression wry. "And then there was me: I could have had those 'apples and dates' for more than a year before I got the clue. You say the same about that, so you will think this is funny: my mother-in-law fondly calls me 'Miz Clueless.'"

"Funny, yeah," Gibbs said, grinning. "But does Ellen know you call her your mother-in-law?"

"Mmm," Ziva said with a nod and a small smile. "She likes it. But really, chamoti—my mother-in-law, that is who she is."

"Pretty much," Gibbs agreed. He changed tack slightly, and without knowing that he was steering into a squall: "Going home at the end of the year, right?"

"Yes."

"Your folks gonna be pleased to see you and Jenny?"

"Eli and Uncle No'am, and my other uncles, yes. My mother? I do not think so, and because of that, I am not taking Jen within five kilometers of her."

"She's a big girl," Gibbs said while setting the table.

When Ziva made no response, he looked up. Ziva's expression was one he knew, the same one she showed to suspects while questioning them. He had to fix that or this evening was not going to be fun.

"So your mom's a match for Jenny in a bad mood? That's... impressive."

Ziva laughed briefly and placed the steaks on plates, which she carried to the table. The latkes were already there, and Gibbs was tossing the salad. Ziva fetched another couple of beers and sat down.

"You are going to make me talk about my mother? That is Ingrid Heller's job... Be'tei'avon."

"What's that? Like, 'bon appetit?'"

"Yes. Be-tei-avon."

"Be'tei'avon."

"Tov, ve'todah," Ziva said. Good, and thanks.

"Hmph," said Gibbs around a mouthful. He was not going to say anything about the other day, when he nearly said 'todah' to Jen instead of 'thanks.' He took a swig of beer, and said, "And no, I'm not gonna make you talk about anything. But you're usually real happy to go home. Doesn't seem that way now."

"There is the conflict," Ziva said. "I really want to go home; I need some time there. But I will have to see my mother."

"You absolutely have to see her?"

"If I do not..." Ziva snorted a short, humorless laugh. "If I do not, even my father will... chide me. A very Jewish thing. Honor thy father and mother is the Fifth Commandment, but it may as well be the Second, and more so in Israel than anywhere else... And this time I will be at home off-the-job."

"Right. Last time you were there to grill that Chadad guy."

"Yeah, and my mother does not know about that," Ziva said. Her mother didn't know a lot, and part of that had to do with Rivka not wanting to know. The rest was officially withheld from her. Ziva really didn't want to talk about this, but she buckled down to it anyway. "My mother has not responded to any of my emails since I told her that Jen and I are together."

"She's homophobic?"

"Very far from it," Ziva said. "She actively encouraged my first relationship with a woman."

Ziva shrugged and made a point of focusing on her meal. There was no sense in ruining her appetite or inviting indigestion. Gibbs took the hint, and they ate in companionable silence. But when they cleaned up the kitchen together, Ziva started talking again without prompting.

"While we were eating I was thinking that sometimes I am not very intelligent," Ziva said. "That other woman, when I was twenty-three. I think my mother only liked her because she was not in the intelligence community."

"Other partners?" Gibbs asked while drying a dish.

"Men, both of them in the intel community."

"She hated 'em, did she?"

"Yeah," Ziva said and she had to laugh. "As I said, sometimes I am a bit dense."

"Aren't we all... So your mom's main problem with Jen is... What?"

"She is equating her with my father," Ziva muttered.

"Your mom clearly has issues," Gibbs drawled.

"She will say that I am one of those issues," Ziva said.

When Ziva changed the subject, Gibbs went with it. She really did want to learn more about hockey, and seeing as there was a game on, he explained the rules. The game ate a chunk of the evening, and he was yawning by the time it was over. Heading off to bed was as easy as saying goodnight, which he did. But he woke several times that night, with the faint creak of floorboards that told him that Ziva was awake again, and pacing.

In the morning Gibbs made sure that Ziva was occupied with making breakfast, and he called Jen's cell.

"Shepard."

"If your girlfriend slept two hours last night, it was a lot," Gibbs said quietly.

"I knew I should've canceled this thing..." Jen muttered. "I'll leave today instead of tomorrow. Stay with her, please?"

"Sure. You know she's just about in knots over going home?"

"That's not the chief issue," Jen said. "There was an incident, and she had to... encourage self-termination. She probably had nightmares last night. I'll be home by four p.m... And Jethro, thanks."

"No problem," he said and hung up.

In the kitchen he found Ziva dealing with more than breakfast. She'd clearly gone shopping before he woke up. Gibbs didn't even try to make sense of various ingredients dotted around the kitchen.

"When the going gets tough, the tough get cooking?"

"Something like that."

"So what am I gonna learn to cook today?" Gibbs asked.

"You want to stay?" Ziva said, surprised. "I thought you had that thing with some guys from work."

"Canceled. Someone else also canceled: Jenny will be home around four. She knows you. Next time she offers to stay at home, let her, cos she's not asking to suit herself."

"I woke you up, huh?" Ziva mumbled, her tone apologetic.

"Few times..." Gibbs poured himself some coffee, and made up his mind: Fuck those orders. "Jenny said something about a self-termination. I been there. Pure hell... Didn't know you were running anyone."

"I was not," Ziva said. "Not officially, anyway."

"Deniable?"

"Absolutely deniable."

"Freelancer," Gibbs said knowingly. "Friend?"

Ziva nodded, and startled when the toaster popped. She muttered cusses under her breath, embarrassed, even though Gibbs knew that the symptoms of hypervigilance are something beyond anyone's control. That heightened startle-response came and went, with no pattern. This wasn't a proper case of PTSD, but it was close. She put a slice of toast on a plate and started to butter it.

"Fucking hard," Ziva said quietly. "Not being permitted to grieve. Having to pretend like nothing is wrong."

"This thing went down when?"

"Last weekend."

That explained Ziva's new habit of lunch with Jen at NCIS every day of the last week. Gibbs didn't ask any more questions. He knew as much as he needed to know, enough to work with, where 'work' equated to offering the right kind of support. She wanted to cook, so he helped out with that, and let her suggest whichever topic of discussion. Whenever she fell silent, he let it alone. Sometime after noon, when he noticed that she was staring into a pot of sauce instead of stirring it, he took over without comment.

Ziva fetched Gibbs a beer, but she poured herself a glass of fruit juice.

"I had to test him once. Short version, he passed. He could have hated me for what I did to him. Instead he said to me, 'That is the game, sweetheart.'"

"Sounds like the right kinda guy to play that game."

"He was," Ziva said softly. "You always remember the really good ones, the ones who can be offered half the money in the world, and if what they are asked to do is wrong, they will choose death instead. And then this game kills the best of us... He was going to retire after that job."

"Life's a goddamn bitch," Gibbs muttered. "But the job? Done?"

"Yeah," Ziva said and shot Gibbs a very real smile. "Of course. He was the best. He got us the intel we really needed. He did not die for nothing."

Gibbs picked up his beer bottle and clinked it against her glass.

"To your pal, wherever he is."

"Hopefully someplace nice."

Ziva put her glass down and went back to the range. She nudged Gibbs out of the way, but caught his sleeve and held him still to place a kiss on his cheek.

"Thanks."

"You'd be doing the same for me," Gibbs said.

"Yes, I would," Ziva agreed.

"Why do I get the idea you haven't really talked to Jenny?"

"I have," Ziva said. "I have talked and I have cried—My God, I cannot remember when last I cried so much..."

"But?" Gibbs pushed, but his tone was gentle.

"It is like... Like Yuval Daron would say, 'the old soldier thing,'" Ziva said. "There is some of that between Jen and I, some overlap of experience. But between you and me? You tell me."

"Bigger overlap. Way bigger," Gibbs said.

"Mmm. So I have talked to Jen, but not in the same way. With her, I talk and I end up crying. The crying is necessary, but so is this, between you and me."

"A little room to be less emotional? Like that?"

"Yes," Ziva said wryly. "I might be tough as nails most of the time, but give me just a small excuse, when things are hard, and I will be anything but tough, even if it would be better for me to find this little rational space."

"Wow. She's human," Gibbs ragged.

Ziva swatted his shoulder and told him to make himself useful by moving the huge pot of spaghetti sauce to the back of the range. Like other things they'd cooked today, that sauce was going to be divvied up and frozen, but nothing was cool enough yet for transfer to containers or Ziploc bags. Gibbs caught Ziva's glance up at the kitchen clock.

"I'm gonna get told to take a hike when she gets home, huh?"

"That depends," Ziva said, deadpan. "If she comes in and starts taking my clothes off—"

"I'll declare that the end of the world is nigh," Gibbs stated.

"Either that or, as Todd would say, the sky is falling," Ziva giggled.

Gibbs didn't stay long after Jen eventually got home. It might even have been said that he hightailed it out of that house. Ziva took note, but Jen missed it, which was understandable because she hadn't spent most of the last twenty-four hours with him. And Ziva didn't get a chance to say anything about that. A hug and a kiss had turned into a whole lot more in very little time.

"Are you sure that you are fifty?" Ziva drawled after several hours.

"And menopausal, too. Yes, I'm sure," Jen chortled.

"So where was this libido of yours for three years before I kissed you?"

"Elsewhere, behaving itself... or saving itself for future activation. I can't quite decide which."

"You make it sound like a space shuttle on a launch countdown."

"A countdown would suggest that I knew with certainty that there would indeed be a 'launch date.' I knew no such thing." Jen levered herself up onto an elbow and propped her chin on her palm. She smiled into Ziva's eyes, and said, "I can tell you, with certainty, that I love you."

"Ohevet otach," Ziva answered quietly. Love you.

She ran the backs of her fingers over Jen's cheek, and rubbed the pad of her thumb softly over her cheekbone, and allowed gravity to help her hand lower, to the place where Jen's neck became her shoulder. There it rested, with Ziva's thumb sitting lightly on a collarbone.

"You're wearing that Is-this-real? expression again," Jen noted, smiling.

"Yes, still," Ziva said. "Because I cannot help thinking about how many times you and I have lain and talked like this... All that has changed, really, is no clothes, a lot of pleasure, and more love. And is that so much of a change?"

"No. Neither of us has changed. We're still the same."

"And so this is the same relationship, the same friendship... just with... more," Ziva said. After a pause: "If someone asks, I will not be able to explain this, in any language."

"Just say that you love me, and I love you. It's enough," Jen said.

"Ve'zeh yiyeh kal," Ziva chuckled. And that'll be easy.

"The truth sometimes is... And speaking of that," Jen said. "How're you feeling now, about Freddy?"

"I had some 'old soldier' time with Gibbs," Ziva said easily, relaxed. "It was good, so I'm... dealing better now."

"I'll remember that."

"You need not have said as much. You always remember the useful intel," Ziva said.

"And forget whichever ingredients I'm supposed to bring home for dinner," Jen drawled. "How much cooking did you two do today?"

"Just a tiny bit," Ziva said with a little half-shrug and a grin. Remembering something, she switched topic. "Gibbs left in a hurry."

"I vaguely recall his haste. When you called me yesterday afternoon you said that he had plans for today."

"He canceled... It is hard to tell when there is more company here with us than only him. He relaxes more when Tony or McGee or both of them are here."

"Now that you mention it..." Jen shifted and fit herself into Ziva's side. "So what do you think? He's jealous?"

"No. Just... uncomfortable. I will have to get him to talk sometime."

"You may have to put a gun to his head," Jen drawled.

"Give him more credit than that," Ziva said, but her tone was gentle.

"Maybe you won't need the gun, but it won't be easy," Jen said. "And these days I give him more credit than I ever thought possible."

It didn't hurt anymore, but what Gibbs had once said to her had been bad enough that Jen would never repeat those words to Ziva. Jen was strangely protective of Ziva's relationship with Gibbs, and she'd never forgive herself for doing, saying, or repeating anything that might hurt it. She hoped that Gibbs knew that, and wouldn't do anything silly, like 'confess' that very old conversation to Ziva.

*-*-*

Baltimore

Gibbs only glanced into the room, at the bed, and used the outer edge of his pinky finger high up on the edge of the door to pull it mostly closed.

"Get all these people out of here," he said to a Baltimore PD officer.

"Yes, sir. Okay folks, if you don't have a badge, move along. Let's go."

The small crowd of staff and a couple of hotel guests obediently moved out of the hall. Gibbs held back the hotel manager, the man who'd called NCIS directly instead of calling BPD. Gibbs had made that call and had gotten several officers to secure the scene. He'd told a detective that no-one should enter the room, and that order had been obeyed.

"So," Gibbs said to the manager. "Gleason was retired, but you knew she was Navy. How?"

"I always say that the Navy set me up for life. I cashed out in Ninety-four, signed up with the Reserves. I was wearing a Navy pin on my lapel, and Miz Gleason asked me about it. She told me she was an Oh-five, but she retired like a year back, and specifically requested that I not use her rank."

"Commander Gleason is not around to argue with me, and even if she was, she wouldn't," Gibbs muttered while pulling on Nitrile gloves. "Thanks for your time. I might need to speak to you again."

"Okay. I'll be downstairs."

Gibbs watched the manager walk away for a while before turning to Tony and McGee. Probationary Agent Danielle Everett was Ziva's latest 'replacement.' She was someone that Gibbs really didn't like. Unlike McGee and Tony she was standing by impatiently. She kept trying to look through the gap between the door and frame. That helped Gibbs to make up his mind.

"I'll wait for Ducky. One of you will stay with me. The other two can head back."

"Outa here. I'm behind on my reports," Tony said and shouldered a bag. "If all of us stayed... That room's so small that we'd be walking into each other all the time."

"Yeah," McGee agreed. Even though he didn't want to, he said, "I'll stay."

"I can stay," Everett said just a little too eagerly.

"No way, Probie," Tony said. "This kind of case needs a lot more experience than you've got. C'mon. We've got four other cases at the desk-work stage."

Tony gave Everett a nudge and ignored her sulky expression. Gibbs moved toward the door only when Tony and Everett were standing near an elevator.

"I don't like her, Boss," McGee said.

"You didn't like the other one either," Gibbs drawled.

"Alice just got on my nerves. Danielle really rubs me the wrong way."

"Yeah. Me, too," Gibbs said and pushed the door open. "Try not to touch anything while you're taking pictures."

Easier said than done. That room was really small. When McGee set up a ladder at the foot of the bed, to get elevated shots, Gibbs had to stand in the doorway. He took a look at the door then, knocked on it, and checked the frame.

"Got one of those no rattle rubber strips in the frame."

"That'd kill rattles, and keep noise in or out, too," McGee said, trying not to think about what he was photographing. "The door?"

"Solid, not the cheap kind with plywood or hardboard over a frame."

Gibbs helped to get the ladder out into the hall and went back inside, where he gave the victim his undivided attention. The late Commander Brenda Gleason was nude, lying face-down, tied hand and foot to the bed. A pillow covered her head.

"We aren't actually sure it's her," McGee said quietly.

"Given the size of the bloodstain, that pillow is hiding a lot of damage. My guess is the perp used a high caliber handgun. We probably won't be able to make a positive ID until we get dental records."

"Guess I'd better move the pillow."

"Wait," Gibbs said. "Hair and fiber collection needs to happen before that pillow is shifted. We'll do some of that, then work on lifting prints."

When Ducky arrived he took one look at the scene and sent Palmer back to their vehicle to fetch the Handy Vac, a small cordless vacuum cleaner with a sterile filter.

"Have you collected anything yet?" Ducky asked.

"Only what the Luma-Lite showed up," McGee said. "Got some pubic hairs. Not hers."

"Aah," Ducky said, glancing at the body again. "They're not blond?"

"Dark," McGee muttered.

"Semen?" Ducky asked.

"The Luma-Lite didn't hit on anything," Gibbs said. "We've printed everything except the bed, and her. Remember to keep those knots whole, Duck."

"I'll make sure to cut the rope well away from the knots, yes," Ducky said. He bent at the waist for a closer look at the knot on an ankle ligature. "But I don't think these are going to tell us anything, unfortunately. Very common-or-garden. But not the rope... Cotton. That might help us catch your tormentor, my dear."

The pillow had been moved by now. As Gibbs had guessed, a large caliber round had made a mess of Gleason's face on its way out. Ducky bent and got a better look at the gag in her mouth. It was constructed of a six-inch long piece of regular broom handle, with a piece of rope tied permanently to a groove cut in one end. The rope went round the back of Gleason's neck, and was tied to the other end of the shaft of wood.

"A stick gag. Well, well... And what do you make of that, Jethro?"

"Easier to put in and take out than a rag or tape gag."

"Quite," Ducky said.

~ ~ ~

Several hours later, back at NCIS HQ, the first person Gibbs and McGee ran into was Will O'Connell. He was NCIS's equivalent of a police desk sergeant or duty officer, the person who decided who worked which case. O'Connell's title was Case Supervisor, but he was usually referred to as the 'case boss.'

"Gibbs. The Gleason case has gotta go to Lockner and his team."

"Why?" McGee asked before Gibbs could say anything.

"You guys are already working four cases. Lockner just wrapped two, which means that he and his team are all freed up."

McGee saw that logic, but one look at Gibbs told him that it was time to go elsewhere.

"I'll go turn in this evidence."

Gibbs paid McGee no mind, and glared at O'Connell.

"Don't even go there," O'Connell said. "The case is going to Lockner and that's final. I'll remind you about that mandatory leave, too."

"Shit," Gibbs muttered.

"Yeah. In three days, you're gonna have to break for those seven days anyway," O'Connell said and walked off. He tossed over his shoulder: "Feel free to tell Lockner what you expect of him."

"It's not about me," Gibbs said.

If O'Connell heard Gibbs he didn't let on, and Gibbs had to admit that the guy knew how to handle people. He permitted debate but never allowed argument, and he also knew when to chase people and when to let them move at their own pace. At all times O'Connell knew the progress level of every case on the books, and generally he allocated cases correctly. Lockner was a damn good agent, but at present he had two rookies on his team, and that did not please Gibbs in the slightest. He decided to mention this to Jen.

"I don't like the two rookies problem either, but as you say, Lockner's top drawer," Jen said, looking at Gibbs with interest. "You don't usually go over O'Connell's head. Something's bugging you about this case."

"The perp used a stick gag, quick release knot on one side. My gut's saying that Ducky's gonna find physical evidence to say that that gag was applied and removed repeatedly."

"He wanted her to talk every now and then."

"Yeah," Gibbs said and parked on the edge of Jen's desk. "Made a call on the way back from the scene. Gleason worked Naval Intel."

"When I get back after Thanksgiving," Jen said. "I'll take a look at Lockner's progress. I'll overrule O'Connell if necessary."

Gibbs straightened up and gave Jen a nod before walking out.

*-*-*

Monterey

Her eyes still closed, Jen sleepily felt around in the bed next to her, and her expression became grumpy. The sounds of conversation and some utensil or other rattling against a pot or pan told her that Ziva was in the kitchen, talking with Ellen, Jen's mom. And this was Ellen's vacation home, a small and secluded beachfront house.

Ellen and Ziva got along like a house on fire. Jen rolled onto her back and stretched, smiling at her mother's laughter. Over that laughter came a rapid clicking of claws on hardwood floors, and Jen was soon joined on the bed by Jack, a rather unoriginally named tricolor Jack Russel terrier. In her opinion he should have been called Pirate, because he had a round black patch over his left eye. Ellen hadn't thought of that. She hadn't actually wanted a dog, but she hadn't been about to drive past the pup running down a lonely road where he'd most certainly been dumped. A year later, and Ellen and Jack were inseparable. Jen was pleased about that. She rubbed the young dog's ears and smiled when he licked her chin.

"I suppose I'd better get up," Jen said to Jack.

He wriggled tighter into the space between her upper arm and body, as if to say, Not yet, but to no avail. Jen eased him away and sat up. He promptly arrived in her lap. She indulged him and petted him a little longer, doing her best not to get angry about his past. How anyone could've just dropped him out of a car and driven off...

"I help to put people like that in jail, Jack. Sometimes it's a very satisfying occupation."

Jack cocked his head to one side and wagged his stumpy tail, and when Jen got out of bed he followed her into the bathroom. Later he followed her into the kitchen.

"Boker, yafah," Ziva said, smiling. Morning, beautiful.

"Flattery..." Jen drawled. She'd done no more than brush her teeth and throw on a robe. Her hair was a mess and she didn't care. "Happy Thanksgiving."

"Seems like 'Grumpy Thanksgiving,'" Ellen chortled.

"I woke up alone, until the dog decided to visit... Please don't tell me there's a turkey in that oven."

"It is a duck," Ziva said.

"When I went shopping yesterday," Ellen said. "I thought, There's only three of us, and a turkey made no sense."

"Telling me," Jen said and kissed Ziva briefly. She kissed her mom's cheek on the way to the coffee pot. "Tomorrow I demand a lie-in."

"It's nearly ten a.m," Ellen pointed out. "That's nearly one p.m back East."

"Oh," Jen mumbled.

"This is what you get for nearly killing yourself with work," Ziva muttered.

"That's what it took to get these four days off," Jen retorted.

"Seven days," Ziva said, her tone light, airy, oh-so-innocent.

"What did you do?"

Ziva pretended great interest in a cornbread recipe, and Ellen looked from that picture to the one at the breakfast table. Her daughter had forgotten both the newspaper and her coffee and was glaring at Ziva.

"Hello?" Jen said impatiently.

"Three days extra, unpaid of course, but it is not like you will miss the money," Ziva said, still reading that recipe. "Ben Holder says that if he sees you back in D.C. early, he will make you take six days extra for the December break, instead of only three extra. And he means it."

"Not that it would surprise me at all," Jen drawled. "But are you saying that the SECNAV is in cahoots with you?"

"No, I am in cahoots with him. He called me," Ziva said. She put down the recipe book and looked Jen in the eye. "And the SECNAV also said that he is going to try again to get the budget increased so that he can hire a resident assistant director to lighten your load, but he said that I should not put too much hope in that... You slept for most of the flight here. You slept for ten hours straight last night. You could go back to bed right now and sleep longer, yes?"

"Okay, I get your point," Jen muttered.

"Good."

Ziva returned her attention to the recipe book, and muttered something under her breath.

"What was that?" Jen asked.

"I said..." Ziva set the book aside again. Looking up reminded her of where she was: Ellen's kitchen, with Ellen standing right there. She might've spoken Hebrew, but she couldn't bring herself to be that rude. "I will tell you later. But it was related to what I said on Monday."

"Monday was a very long day," Jen said.

"Late on Monday, just before Monday became Tuesday, what did I say?"

"Oh. That," Jen chuckled. "I don't mind if Mom hears that."

"What did you say?" Ellen asked.

"Better that we make love in the morning, because by the time she gets home she is too tired," Ziva said.

"That's not funny," Ellen told Jen sternly.

"And you think I don't know that?" Jen said irritably. "I'd love it if my job were nine-to-five. I'd really rather not make operational decisions regarding eighteen new terrorist threats ID'd by MTAC in less than one goddamn month. I'd like it if my signature and initials weren't required on every damn case file to cross my desk. I'd much rather that I didn't have to deal with ignorant politicians seemingly hell-bent on making my job harder. But that's the way it is, and no, none of it is funny, especially when all of it interferes with my sex life... I'm going to soak in a tub."

She got up and stalked out of the kitchen, leaving her mom to stare at the space she'd left. Ellen turned to Ziva eventually.

"Why isn't there a resident deputy director?"

"Assistant director," Ziva corrected. "MTAC is to blame. It should be separately budgeted but is not, and it eats up more than two thirds, nearly three quarters of the total NCIS budget, which is generally considered to be very generous for such a small agency. But politicians forget how expensive it is to identify and track down terrorists. And they forget that the director, assistant directors, and investigators at NCIS HQ and at each branch are all civilians, while everyone in MTAC, except for Jen, takes a military salary—"

"Those salaries aren't taken out of the NCIS budget?"

"No, they are taken from various military budgets, which will tell you that MTAC is a very, very expensive asset. Where civilian employees are concerned, NCIS cannot really compete with the salaries offered by other agencies, and that situation will be even worse if Jen rearranges the budget to hire a resident assistant director."

"Hold on," Ellen said, putting down her coffee mug. "Jen's the one who decides how to spread the budget?"

"Not in a general sense, but she was told by the previous SECNAV, and has been told since by other politicians, that if she wants an assistant director she will have to fit that person into the existing budget."

"I'd quit," Ellen said.

"Really? So if you had a hard month at work you would sell your gallery?"

"No, but—"

"It is the same, Ellen," Ziva insisted. "Jen loves her job as much as you love the art gallery. Believe me, it goes beyond her sense of duty, which is in some ways stronger than mine. It is only love for her work that keeps her in that office."

"Okay," Ellen mumbled.

"It is not always like this. Identifying eighteen active high-level terrorist threats in one month? That is a few short of what they find in one year. Usually Jen is home by seven p.m—"

"And I'm dragging her upstairs by nine," Jen said. She marched to the breakfast table, retrieved her reading glasses, and walked away again. She tossed over her shoulder: "And we don't make love in the morning because she's on the treadmill by five-thirty."

"Just wait till this leg is all better," Ziva called after Jen.

"And then you'll be out running by five," Jen hollered back.

Ziva opened her mouth to argue, but shrugged and shut up instead, because Jen was not wrong.

Ellen decided to shut up now, too, but she couldn't keep an amused expression off her face. Never mind kisses and this recent mention of sex, Ellen thought that not much at all had changed between Jen and Ziva, but perhaps that was because she'd secretly thought of them as a couple for more than a year by now. She just hoped that, having gotten the clue at last, Ziva wouldn't regret it. After grieving her late husband, Ellen had said to a friend that she'd decided not to 'inflict herself' on another poor man. When Ellen was in a mood, she kept well-clear of everyone except Jack, and Jen was the mirror of her mother in nature, if not in looks. Then again Ziva was... well, Ziva.

"If you weren't you I'd say, in a gentler way, that you've bitten off more than you can chew," Ellen dared to say.

Ziva wanted to say that she neither bit nor chewed but was rather inclined towards nibbling. Rapid second thoughts reminded her that Jen definitely would not appreciate her mother knowing about that.

"It is not so different," Ziva said instead, managing somehow to keep a straight face.

"You spend more time with each other now," Ellen pointed out.

"She is still Jen, and I am still me, and we know each other. I do not try to 'fix' it if she is grouchy like this– she needs to feel angry, like everyone else. And when I am in a bad mood, she leaves me with it, too. It is easy to respect each other."

Ellen made up her mind then to put away presumptions, and to pay more attention to what was right in front of her.

Later, after Jen had had her soak in the bathtub, she arrived back in the kitchen wearing a faint smile, faint but genuine.

"So we have three extra days?" Jen said to Ziva. "But Mom's flying back to LA on Monday."

"You two can stay here," Ellen offered.

"Or," Ziva said, while checking on the duck. "We can charter a plane and go down to Puerta Vallarta, and get a water taxi to Yelapa. Gibbs says that Mike Franks will not mind."

"Don't say no," Ellen chuckled. "Jen, the weather there at this time of year is decidedly tropical."

She pointed through a picture window to emphasize the contrast. Outside shrubs were being buffeted by a stiff Pacific breeze that was also whipping up small sand devils on the beach, and beyond that the waves were angry storm-green rollers. The horizon was occupied by a heavy bank of steel-grey cloud. Jen looked at all of that and thought back to her hope of catching a slight tan. That wouldn't be happening here.

"Okay. We'll go to Yelapa... Mike has a boat, right?"

"Yeah. We can go fishing," Ziva said.

"I've sailed, piloted, and/or paddled most everything that floats," Jen said. "But I've never been fishing in my life. How do you know anything at all about fishing?"

"Surf fishing is Eli's thing to do when he has time for fun, but not enough time to go all the way to the South to spend time with the horses. He used to take me and Tali fishing when we were kids. I have not been fishing from a boat, and I want to try that."

"I'll give it a try, too, and if it's not my thing I can still be a good deckhand... and catch a tan."

"Just remember that red hair and don't burn," Ellen fussed.

"Yes, Mom," Jen drawled, amused.

~ ~ ~

It was really brought home to Jen that she needed this vacation when she woke from a nap on a couch, with her head in Ziva's lap, and somehow five hours had disappeared. Ziva had said her say yesterday and didn't add anything else. One look from Ellen was enough to say a lot more, but she also didn't hammer the point verbally. Instead she continued her conversation with Ziva while Jen headed into the kitchen to find a snack. She settled for something small, a handful of peanuts, because dinnertime was not far off. At her feet, Jack wagged his tail and looked at her expectantly.

"Just one," Jen said and gave him a peanut. "And no more."

Jack munched the peanut and did his best starved pup impression.

"Uh-uh, don't you guilt me out."

Jack wagged his tail vigorously and Jen rolled her eyes, tossing another peanut that he caught in a snap. He managed to wheedle another five peanuts out of that handful.

"I'm such a sucker, and you're a manipulative little bastard."

Jack panted happily and skipped in a circle. Jen didn't comment on that. Her return to the living room found Ziva pacing while talking. Barely a limp, mostly because she had to avoid limping, but it was there, as was a certain tightness on Ziva's face. Her thigh was sore, and having Jen's head on her lap for five hours probably had something to do with that.

"You should've woken me up."

"She tried," Ellen piped up.

"And you said, 'No. Go away,'" Ziva chortled. "I could not go anywhere, and I did not to try to wake you up again."

"Hmph," said Jen and flopped on a couch. "Five hours is taking the body pillow concept a little too far."

"The only one complaining is you."

"And your thigh," Jen said wryly.

"It 'complains' all the time, so what is new?"

"But it's been 'complaining' less, right?" Ellen asked.

"It is sore all the time, but the pain is less, yes," Ziva said, clearly pleased. "The most pain comes from the bullet wound area. The muscle graft donor site is almost healed, it hardly ever hurts now. After warming up I can walk for almost two kilometers before this thigh starts to hurt properly."

"But the biggest bonus is no cane," Jen said. "Even I was starting to hate the damn thing."

"Mostly because I complained about it so much," Ziva noted.

"True," Jen drawled.

"You know that you two bicker like people who've been married for twenty-five years?" Ellen said, amused.

"We seem to be experts at sounding like married people," Ziva said with a broad grin. "We sounded this way even two years ago."

"Longer," Jen said. "Ducky recently confessed that he started wondering about us just six months after you joined NCIS. When I asked why, he said, 'Tone of voice, more than whatever you two said.'"

"Abby said something similar," Ziva said, and sat beside Jen. "She said that we sounded comfortable."

"I'll go with that," Ellen agreed. "And it's just more pronounced now."

She switched topic and asked Ziva a question about work, and Jen was content to sit back and listen to their conversation, which wasn't anything new. Ziva and Ellen had first met a little over two years ago, and they'd liked each other at first meeting. Since then they'd never been short of things to talk about, to the point where Jen just being an audience had become something of a habit. The two people she loved most getting along? Jen loved that, and was very grateful for it, more so because she knew that her mother wasn't the easiest person to get along with. Then again, neither was Ziva, or Jen herself, for that matter. However, between the three of them there was an unspoken acknowledgment of the strong personalities of each, and that was their chief basis of respect.

Ellen and Jen had been almost constantly at odds with each other until Jen was about fifteen, and had realized that nearly every argument they'd had up to that point had actually been something like an agreement, but one spoken in two different languages. All the traits she least liked in her mother were those she liked best about herself. The difference lay in expression, only, and when Jen stumbled over that fact she set out to find the middle road between them. It hadn't taken much effort, because Ellen had responded in kind. They still clashed these days, but mostly over unimportant things where it was possible to agree to disagree (or just never talk about whatever again). If they happened to clash over something more important, they reverted to discussing it in writing, rather than taking the risk that their similar fiery tempers would flash over and start a proper fight.

Ellen and Jen knew each other really well, and while listening to their conversation this evening, Jen thought that Ellen and Ziva were heading down that same road of knowing each other well.

Later, when Ziva had gone to bed (because, as she said, she hadn't had a five-hour nap), Jen asked for the first time what Ellen thought of this relationship.

"You can't tell?" Ellen chuckled. "Jennifer, last year I sat on your porch swing and encouraged you to drop a hint in the lap of Miz Clueless. And I believe that my sentiment, when you called to announce that she'd gotten a clue at last, was, 'Finally!' Honey, I generally don't encourage that of which I disapprove."

"I know, but..." Jen paused and chose her words. "Mom, you've not said outright—"

"Aah," Ellen said, and her expression was apologetic. "It's really that different, isn't it?"

"There were two women during college, and another one during my second stint with the FBI ten years ago, but I never allowed myself to fall in love with any of them, and those were all closeted relationships. This relationship with Ziva is something of a luxury that I've earned, in a professional sense. If I wasn't currently Director of NCIS, the truth is that I'd probably have to give up the idea of attaining that office. That's what I mean by 'luxury.' Same-sex relationships aren't even nearly an acceptable thing in Federal and military circles. They're only just tolerated in the former instance, and while they will be acceptable on paper, soon, in the latter instance, it will take perhaps decades for military people to shrug about a same-sex relationship. But I am Director, and for damn good reason, and I'm unbelievably fortunate in having proved that before Ziva and I fell in love."

"I see that, and I also see why you didn't tell me about the other women," Ellen said. "Without the kind of example you've presented now, I might not have understood why you kept yourself at an emotional distance from those other women."

"On the money..." Jen muttered. "And so yes, it's really different, in many complicated ways, not least the need for a constant awareness of the fact that some people smile and offer congratulations, even while thinking up ways to use my relationship with Ziva against me. That breeds a lot of doubt, in general, which unfortunately tends to percolate into layers of my life far removed from the professional. So while I know that you love me and that you like Ziva a helluva lot, as I mentioned, you haven't said outright that you approve."

"Well, I do," Ellen stated. "I think you two fit like jigsaw pieces, and to me, that's what's most important. And I remember liking Stewart Wiccomb but thinking—"

"That he was oh-so-boring?" Jen chuckled wryly.

"That, too. But I was going to say that you two didn't have a whole lot in common, and where you didn't match up... There were these very noticeable chasms, and I thought, How in hell are they going to bridge those gaps? With you and Ziva, I see bridges over small gaps, and I don't see many of those gaps."

"There are a few awfully wide gaps, Mom," Jen said quietly, thinking of Ziva's somewhat permanent silences regarding her career with the Mossad. "But you couldn't possibly know about those, and trust me when I say that they're the kind best spanned by a drawbridge. Everyone needs their space, sometimes, and I respect completely Ziva's keeping those drawbridges raised, and shutting out even me. Then again, she tells me what she doesn't want to talk about. That's still communication, and a way of helping me to respect those drawbridges."

"But that's also why it works," Ellen said. "I have no doubt that she'd accord you the same respect. Thing is, with Stewart I saw the kind of gaps that really needed to be bridged."

"Tell me about it..." Jen drawled, and after a pause she murmured, "She's all I could possibly want."

"They say that fortune favors the brave," Ellen said. "I say it pays double favors to those both brave and patient. You didn't get that patience from me or your father."

"Success is the result of ambition tempered with patience," Jen said, smirking. "That's the tale of my entire career. In a way I taught myself to be patient."

Ellen agreed with a nod, thinking that Jen had an unquestionable right to boast about that.

~ ~ ~

"I think I should learn Hebrew," Ellen announced.

This in response to whatever Jen had said, and Ziva's unmistakeable 'Say what?' reaction. Ellen had no need of a translation of 'Ma pitom?'

"Please do not learn that Hebrew," Ziva groaned. "She sounds like a teenager."

"On purpose," Jen giggled.

"She sounds just like her father now," Ellen told Ziva. To Jen: "What did you say?"

"Ani meta alayich," Jen said, directly to Ziva.

"Ugh..." Ziva groaned again, her face red.

"So what does it mean?" Ellen demanded.

"'I die on you,'" Ziva muttered. "Kind of like 'You're to die for.'"

"And so you are," Jen insisted.

"Bat kama at? Shesh-esreh?" Ziva said, exasperated. How old are you? Sixteen?

"No, but sixteen years would be the gap between us, and thanks to your influence, my current behavior is all your fault. Brat."

"Right now she's definitely her father's smart-ass daughter," Ellen chortled.

Ziva found herself thinking that she resembled neither of her parents closely, for which she was grateful, but she had to wonder how that had happened. She was a mixture of this trait and that, seemingly cherry-picked from several relatives, and then there were bits of her character that weren't matched in anyone else in her family. This partially explained why she'd had trouble fitting in there when she was younger. Maturity hadn't helped that situation much at all; whenever she managed to fit in that came as a result of effort. She was fortunate in, and grateful for the fact that several of her relatives seemed to believe that that kind of effort was a two-way street.

"Oops," Jen said, rather puzzled over Ziva's expression. She jumped to the most likely conclusion: "Did I push things a little too far?"

"Huh? Oh. No-no," Ziva said. "Just... Just thinking that I am not much like either of my parents. It is no mystery why Ellen and I get along so well: you are just like her... You and Eli like each other. Why?"

"I like him, too," Ellen chipped in. "But I doubt he turns that sweet charm on Jen."

"Mmm. He values his life," Ziva drawled. To Jen: "Right?"

"Definitely seems that way," Jen chuckled. She sipped at her scotch before saying, "Eli and I share a professional appreciation for all the hard work on the way to the big office. We also know what it's like to be put in a position where our decisions can place people in the line of fire."

"He had to learn to care about that," Ziva said flatly.

"Yes, and he did learn," Jen said. "You made him learn, and you did that several months before Eli and I ever had a personal conversation. My love, there's no way in hell that I could call Eli a friend if he hadn't learned that lesson... And now we occasionally call each other for advice."

Ziva nodded, her smile faint, but seemingly relaxed. It hid her thoughts, and worries, but they didn't concern Eli. She and Eli were making their peace, bit by bit, and barring some enormous unforgivable mistake on either of their parts, it seemed to Ziva that one day they'd find that peace.

Her worries mostly revolved around her mother's ominous silence over the last few months. When Rivka David had nothing to say, it was for one reason only: she was saving up every word for a yelling match.

*-*-*

Yelapa, Mexico

Mike Franks counted himself lucky to own a small house at the southern edge of this tiny town that seemed to want to have nothing to do with the Twenty-first Century. In Yelapa there were cobbled streets, but no cars, nor any other kind of motorized transport. Instead burros did the heavy hauling, if any. The only way to reach the town was by water taxi from Puerta Vallarta. To the west, the Pacific spread into vastness, and to the east, at the town's back, there was dense jungle. The place remained green and the water stayed warm year-round. At this end of the long curving beach that water was deep enough to accommodate Franks' sailboat.

If tourists wandered down towards Franks' end of the beach they ended up meeting with one of five signs that said, in several languages: PRIVATE KEEP OUT. To date he'd had to chase only one tourist. According to Ziva, this was because Franks' borderline-ramshackle clapboard house didn't look especially inviting. Franks and Gibbs had grinned at her in a way that said 'Exactly!' after which she and Jen had been shown inside. It was plain, but there was nothing ramshackle about the interior of Franks' home.

~ ~ ~

They'd all spent most of yesterday out on the boat. Jen was at home aboard any watercraft, from kayaks to aircraft carriers. She'd given fishing a try and hadn't found it to her liking, but she'd proved an excellent deckhand, not least because she was the deckhand who fetched beers for whoever wanted them. Ziva had liked the fishing just fine, and had been happy to catch and release all but her last two yellowtail jacks. Those, with Franks and Gibbs's fish, had become dinner and also today's breakfast.

Gibbs had lost the round robin coin-toss, which had landed him with dish duty. When he eventually came out of the house onto the porch, he nearly said, 'Get a room!'

He'd invited Ziva and Jen down here, but he hadn't stopped to think first.

It didn't get much more complicated than this: one of them was his ex, and the other had saved his life. He approved of their relationship, and he hadn't expected them to behave like they hardly knew each other. At the same time he hadn't expected Jen and Ziva to be that relaxed, for a value of 'relaxed' that included hugs and physical contact in general (while wearing shorts and bikini tops), and currently a rather long kiss that was as far from chaste as they all were from D.C.

Gibbs loudly cleared his throat. No result.

"Do you two mind?"

"It worked," Jen said. "Desperate times..."

"Probie, I didn't teach you to be that gullible," Franks drawled.

Gibbs scowled at Franks and was about to retort, but Ziva linked her arm into his and half-frogmarched him in the direction of the surf.

"Best it gets talked out before you three head back to El Norte tomorrow," Franks said.

"MmmHmm," Jen agreed.

She pushed her sunglasses up on top of her head, and stepped under the shade of Franks' porch, where she took a seat and reached for the end of a half-inch thick rope. Franks was splicing a thimble (a kind of steel eyelet) into the other end. Jen started wrapping rope carefully around her palm.

"I'm presuming you'd like a monkey's fist at the end of this line," Jen said.

"Always forget you're a Navy gal. I can't never tie that damn knot. Thanks."

"I'm also presuming you've got a ball of some kind lying around."

"Got a heavy rubber one that some dog lost..."

Franks went inside and fetched the solid rubber ball, about the size of a baseball. Jen reassessed the knot, and started from scratch, taking four turns around her palm instead of three. Franks sat down again and watched Jen's handiwork. When she'd constructed a 'cage' of rope, she worked the ball into the middle of it, and started to methodically work the rope tight around the ball, which would be completely enclosed when she was done. It would look good, but the ball-weighted knot would make it easy to toss this rope to someone on a jetty.

Franks eventually remembered his own splice job.

"They ain't started talking yet," he noted, looking a way down the beach.

"Those two do most of their talking in silence," Jen said quietly. "Between them a lot of things go without saying, but this time..."

"Jethro told me that she shot her own brother," Franks said, weaving another strand of rope in and out with the help of a marlin spike. "That so?"

"In that kind of situation, you would've done the same," Jen said, looking him in the eye.

"Yep. Reckon I woulda," Franks agreed, and said no more.

Gibbs and Ziva ended up about a half-mile down the beach, and what had started out as something of a forced march had turned, eventually, into a stroll. It was early yet, just gone eight a.m, and they'd be rowing the beached dinghy out to Franks' sailboat at around nine. Ziva looked back over her shoulder at the boat that bobbed on a gentle swell, and was safely moored to a chain rode that was permanently fixed to a large chunk of coral in deep water. The rode's buoy was currently acting as a perch for a pelican. Yesterday that pelican had made a real nuisance of itself, begging scraps when they'd scaled and gutted their fish.

"The bird is back."

"I told ya not to feed it," Gibbs said.

"He cleaned up all the guts and fish heads, so that is like saying that I 'feed' the garbage can at home."

"Smart-ass."

"Yes," Ziva said. "Twice over, sort of. That kiss was my idea. You know her. Tell me how she is feeling now."

"Uncomfortable... She didn't used to be shy," Gibbs noted.

"She is not shy. 'Private' and 'shy' do not mean the same thing. We had to get you to the point where you would talk to me, and Jen agreed that a kiss would work."

"Yeah. She never used to be shy, but she was also never that... demonstrative."

"As I said, the kiss was my idea," Ziva said. After a pause, "C'mon. Talk to me, please."

"I'm not reneging," Gibbs said firmly. "I said you two match up, and you do."

"But?"

"Can I beg off with the dumb male excuse?" Gibbs drawled.

Ziva laughed and shook her head. Gibbs bent and picked up a pebble, and sent it skipping over smoother water beyond small breakers.

"Wind better pick up or we'll be riding the donkey out past the point."

"Riding... what?" Ziva said, frowning in confusion.

"Riding the donkey. Using the boat's engine instead of the sails."

"Oh, okay. But we are not out here for a nautical vocabulary lesson."

Gibbs skipped another stone, really put his shoulder into it. His lips were pressed into a thin line.

"I'm not jealous," Gibbs stated, but quietly, not-at-all defensively.

"Yes, I know," Ziva said. "Why are we having this conversation only now?"

"Since you moved in with Jen, whenever you and me have had time alone, it's either been kinda rushed, or we had more important stuff to talk about. Like that self-termination business."

"True," Ziva said. "So just say it, huh?"

"Any reason why you haven't moved all your stuff outa your apartment?"

"McGee's sister is going to move in there. I do not need the furniture. Also, when necessary, Sarah will spend a couple of nights on McGee's couch, because I will need to use that apartment. Sometimes it is not a good idea for operational planning to be handled at the embassy, or back in Israel, and at times I will have to deal with people that Jen should not meet. You see?"

"The apartment's a convenience," Gibbs said, nodding.

"So the apartment made you worried that I was not serious about Jen?"

"That's some of it."

Ziva rolled her eyes. Even with Jen's warning that it wouldn't be easy, she hadn't expected this reticence in Gibbs. Reticence and resistance. This business was like pulling teeth.

"Look, you usually do not spare my feelings, ever, and why?"

"Because ya hate it," Gibbs drawled.

"Nu?" Ziva encouraged. Well?

"It's stupid..." Gibbs picked up another pebble, and this time just hurled it hard and far. "Dunno why it's bugging me now, suddenly."

"Gibbs, for fuck's sake, please just spit it out," Ziva muttered.

"Y'know, you're cussing more," Gibbs just had to say.

"Because a bastard shot a hole in my leg, and it is a very Israeli leg that reminds me painfully that I am not an American. So fuck it, yes, I am swearing more, being more myself, and you know, I can swear much worse in Arabic and Russian. And if you do not spit it out right now, I am going to start calling you by some of those words."

"You might call me some of 'em anyhow," Gibbs almost growled.

"Ohhh..." Ziva mumbled. "You are not sparing my feelings. You are angry with yourself?"

"Dumb pride..."

"Ouch," Ziva said, and she didn't need it spelled or spat out now. She helped Gibbs out instead: "A girl got the woman you lost?"

"And why should that fuckin' matter?" Gibbs muttered, his expression a mixture of confusion and anger. "Me and Jenny split more than fifteen years ago... You're practically goddamn made for each other. And I care about ya, both you and Jenny, and you match up where I never even started to fit—"

"Stop-stop-stop..." Ziva said.

She put a hand on Gibbs's wrist to keep him from chucking another pebble, and used that grip to turn him. Her free hand took off her sunglasses. She squinted a little in the bright sunshine, but met his eyes, and when he made to turn his head and look away, she used a fingertip against the side of his stubbly chin to keep him face-front.

"Your pride is hurt because you know what others are saying and thinking. I think that that is reasonable."

"The hell it is," Gibbs snapped. "It's stupid. I haven't felt like this since I was a teenager."

"Wrong. You ended up feeling the same when you got injured in Desert Storm. That is why you left NCIS after you nearly got blown up on that ship. You did not want to stick around and put up with the same kind of judgmental looks from everyone: 'Is he fit enough for duty?' Think about it. It is the same. They are judging you in the same way: 'He did not make the grade with Jennifer Shepard.' But it is worse now because they are drawing a comparison, between you and me. They will never be so stupid to say it to your face, or mine, but you and I know what they are thinking."

"And what they think shouldn't matter," Gibbs insisted.

"But that is what you need to hear from me, not yourself," Ziva said. "Nothing has changed, Gibbs. You are my backup, and I am still yours. You care about her, right?"

"I just said so," Gibbs said, nodding.

"And who better than me to love her?"

"I just said that, too."

"Yeah, but change the context," Ziva said, smiling. "I am not just a woman. Not to you."

"Backup," Gibbs said, a smile edging onto his face. "Comes down to the wire, and a man's backup's opinion is the only one that matters."

"And what is my opinion?"

"That the rest of the world can go fuck themselves?" Gibbs chortled.

"Nachon," Ziva stated. Correct.

Gibbs bent and picked up another pebble. This time he skipped it for the hell of it and took some boyish pride in nine hops.

"Gotta admit," he said eventually. "I thought Jenny would be more standoffish, 'specially around me. I'm getting to know her all over again. Or maybe starting over."

"I think you both made some silly assumptions about each other. I know as fact that Jen thought you would never change, would never see her as anything more than overly ambitious and power-hungry. And you thought that just because she did not miss you, she also did not care about you... Yes?"

"Don't the two usually go hand-in-hand?" Gibbs said, frowning.

"No," Ziva said with a short, humorless laugh. "I do not miss my mother, at all, but I still love her. And Jen taught herself not to miss you, but she has never stopped caring about you."

"She wouldn't tell me that," Gibbs said, absolutely certain. "She'll say now that she cares, sure, but she won't backdate that and say she didn't stop caring."

"She has her pride," Ziva said wryly. "She also puts up with the fact that in areas like this, if you ask, I will tell you the truth and not spare her pride."

"Heartless," Gibbs kidded.

"Yes, I am terrible," Ziva said with a wicked smile that eventually softened. She said quietly, "I love her so much."

"You say that like it's a big surprise," Gibbs said. "Is that just part of being clueless for so long?"

"Chetzi-chetzi—half-and-half. Half the clueless thing, and half disbelief that I am feeling this much, for anyone."

"Oh c'mon," Gibbs scoffed, and seriously. "You? You're an all-or-nothing girl, Ziva."

"Correction: I have always wanted to be an all-or-nothing girl, where love is concerned. All, with no limits, is not possible when the person you love wants you to be someone else. So love becomes limited, and eventually what could have been 'All' turns into 'Nothing.'"

Sometimes Ziva was so selflessly honest that it left Gibbs floored; now was one of those times. Ziva looked away from his slightly stunned expression.

"She just wants me to be me, nothing more and nothing less. That? No-one but Jen."

"And you love her the same way," Gibbs said, picking up another pebble, remembering with stark, almost brutal clarity the words he'd said to Jen so many years ago. He'd wanted her to be different. He drew his hand back past his hip, twisting, and used the wound-up torque in his body to hurl the pebble out as far as he could. "Like I said just now, I didn't even start to fit."

"You know, maybe even I would not have 'fit' when she was younger and turning her intelligence and knowledge-base into a rocket-ship that took her higher and higher. It is easier for me because now she feels like she can relax a bit and settle down."

"You sound kinda relieved," Gibbs noted, not a little surprised.

"I am, because Jen was not ready for this kind of love when she was younger," Ziva stated the simple truth. She also decided that she'd said enough. The rest of the conversation would be none of her business. "Talk to Jen later?"

"Tonight," Gibbs agreed.

But he ended up with time while they were on the boat, during the sail back to shore. Ziva was taking her turn at the wheel, with Franks as coach.

On his way over to Jen, Gibbs paused to haul on a rope with one hand, while cranking a turn on a coffee-grinder windlass. That trimmed the mainsail and put an end to its slight luffing. Just forward of the mast he checked on the Bermuda foresail but it didn't require any attention. He joined Jen in the bow, where he matched her: legs under the railing and dangling over the side, and arms folded over the railing. With a good breeze almost dead astern, the boat was making an easy seven knots. Their feet were often splashed by the bow wave.

"Ziva's a green hand, but quick– learning her ropes fast... Maybe I should keep that boat I'm working on now. Finish her up, rent a mooring for her somewhere close, and you, me, and Ziva can take her out when we got time."

"The rest of 'the gang' wouldn't be invited?" Jen asked.

"Ducky, sure. Abby, if she wants to, but it's not her thing. Tony and McGee? Uh-uh," Gibbs said. "McGee's a real lubber, gets seasick on an escalator. And DiNozzo would work on his tan and not a lot else."

"This is true," Jen chuckled. Eventually she cleared her throat, and said, "I'm sorry we made you uncomfortable."

"I think you were a lot more uncomfortable than I was."

"As I said, desperate times. I know you. If Ziva had just asked—"

"Woulda brushed her off," Gibbs said with a nod. He looked up from the water, towards land that was still just a smudge on the horizon. "Did she fill in the blanks?"

"Yes, while we ate lunch up here, and you and Mike were talking sports." Jen paused and thought twice before saying, "It's funny how some fools are thinking she's filled your spot, because sometimes I feel like I've taken her away from you."

"If you'd resigned and she'd stayed... Nah, Jenny. I agree with Fornell, and Ziva. Vance woulda had Ziva packing her bags."

"I know. But still... Jethro, if you want to, I'd like you to visit more often."

"I'll end up talking cases with her," Gibbs said, thinking about the Gleason case.

"When Tim and Tony, and even Ducky and Abby visit, the latest case is usually what they talk about. Why should you be the odd guy out? And you have to know that the McReedy-Green investigation was an exception rather than an example of the rule. Long story short, even though she ends up talking to the JCS regularly, Ziva is bored. Talk cases, by all means."

"Director Grace won't mind that?"

"Rob? Please..." Jen laughed. "He's a man who cares that whichever job is done, and beyond that, he doesn't interfere. Ziva more than delivers as Liaison, and what she does after hours is all her own business."

"You wouldn't like me lending an after-hours hand to the Bureau," Gibbs said.

"You don't have a desk job," Jen countered.

"Point," Gibbs said. He'd needed this vacation more than he'd realized. Thinking of that he said, "We're getting old."

"Speak for yourself. I've got an Israeli brat keeping me young."

"No comment," Gibbs said with a grin.

*-*-*