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hold me like i'm hope

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It was raining when she arrived.

Not a drizzle, but the kind of downpour that forced cars to pull over and knocked the power out in some of the older sections of Washington, D.C. Tony almost didn’t hear the knock at the door over the pounding. Somehow, Tali had slept through it all, curled up on the living room floor, fingers wrapped around her favorite stuffed animal: A puppy, given to her by her Uncle Gibbs. She never fell asleep without it.

They’d been together a few months now: Tony and Tali, a father and his daughter. He was getting used to calling her that: His daughter. She greeted him every morning with a shouted, “Abba!” and lifted her arms above her head, opening and closing her fingers until Tony picked her up. They’d grown more comfortable together. She slept through the night; he learned she prefered carrots to sweet potatoes. His Hebrew had improved, too. He studied it every night. If Ziva was alive, Tali would’ve grown up speaking both Hebrew and English. Tony was determined to keep at least this one thing the same for her.

He told Tali stories about her mother. About the first they met, about movie nights and pranks in the office and their first kiss. He told her about the elevator, about dancing in Berlin. About the moment he knew he loved her. He told her about Ziva’s laugh, how it sounded so much like her own. Tali always sat quietly in his lip, just listening. She had her mother’s patience and her mother’s smile.

After he left NCIS, he took Tali to all of Ziva’s favorite places, all of the cities that were most important to their story. Tel Aviv. Paris. Berlin. He was looking for Ziva without ever admitting it to himself. If he was honest, he still was. He spent nights searching newspaper clippings and checking in with contacts. He knew they answered because they took pity on him, but he couldn’t bring himself to stop. He knew she was dead. He did. But he hadn’t seen her. There was no proof. And that was enough to leave just the smallest bit of hope.

Tony could run a long time on just a little bit of hope.

Even though he spent years before her death not talking to her, it felt different now. Back then, he knew she was safe, finding peace. At least, he hoped she was. He missed her then, but not in the way he missed her now. Now, he missed her so much it felt like free-falling. Every morning, he woke up and hit the ground all over again.

As he walked toward the door, he glanced over his shoulder to check on Tali. She was still fast asleep. If the rain didn’t wake her, a knock at the door wasn’t going to do it. He took a moment to smooth his clothes out of habit. It didn’t matter much what he looked like anymore. Most of the time, he was in sweatpants and covered in stains, but some habits were hard to break.

He opened the door.

His world stopped.
He blinked, stopped breathing, thought briefly that he might be having a heart attack. She was soaking wet, dark hair in a ponytail, loose tendrils matted to her cheeks. Her expression was hard to read. She took a step forward. He took a step back. He couldn’t swallow. Why couldn’t he swallow? For all the time he spent looking for her, refusing to accept her fate, he shouldn’t have been so stunned. He couldn’t move or breathe or think because she was in his doorway. Ziva David was standing in his doorway, wearing dark jeans and a sweatshirt and smeared makeup.

And she was alive, alive, alive.

He never let himself imagine this, wouldn’t let it get that far. Sometimes, though, he wondered what it would be alike to be angry with her. Sometimes, all he wanted was to bring her back so he could yell and scream at her, demand answers for why she kept their daughter from him all those years.

But she was dead, and there was no room for that. All he could feel was the ache in his chest that nearly brought him to his knees everyday. He couldn’t be angry with her because she was gone. All he could do was miss her.

Except, now, she wasn’t dead. She was standing in front of him, completely motionless since she attempted that single step a moment ago. When emotion finally pushed past the shock of it all, his knees nearly gave out. It came in a wave, the relief. It was the first seconds after a gunfight. A turbulent flight finally making a landing. A terrifying storm coming to an end.

He took a breath, rested a hand against the door frame to keep himself upright. He waited for the anger, because now he was allowed it. But it didn’t come, wouldn’t come. Instead, he reached out, needing to touch her to ground himself, to make sure this was real. She let him press her hand to his cheek, even leaning into the touch.

They remained that way for a moment, and then something in him came undone. He took another step forward, wrapped his arms around her, pulled her impossibly close to his chest. He wanted her closer. He wanted her everywhere. There were tears in his eyes and on his cheeks and on his lips. She cradled his head in her hands, rested her cheek against his. Tony felt her fingers running through his hair.

He didn’t breathe.

“How?” he managed, his voice shaky, barely audible.

“I will explain, I just ...” she took a step back, tucked a strand of wet hair behind her ear, glanced behind him. “Can I see her?”

Tony nodded, turning to the side so she could enter the apartment. He didn’t trust himself so speak again, so he just watched as Ziva gently woke Tali, watched as the little girl immediately reached out for her, smiling and giggling in a way Tony had seen just a few times. Ziva had her eyes closed as she held the little girl on her lap, cheek resting against her hair. It was a quiet moment, meant just for mother and daughter, but somehow Tony couldn’t get himself to look away. He thought maybe Ziva would disappear if he closed his eyes even for a moment.

-----

Later, after Ziva put Tali to bed, she made her way back to the living room. Tony was cleaning up from a day full of Tali’s play, but he stopped as soon as she came back. He couldn’t stop feeling like he was looking at a ghost. His eyes had played tricks on him for months, in the streets of every city he took Tali to. But now, Ziva was real. She wasn’t a glimpse of a dark-haired woman on the street or a familiar laugh in a coffee shop. She was here. She was alive. No matter how many times he repeated the sentences, couldn’t stop the need to touch her and make sure.

She sat down at the couch, her eyes dropping to her hands. He paused for a moment before walking over to sit beside her, leaving a cushion in between.

When she still didn’t look up, he reached over, gently brushing his hand against her leg, “Ziva.”

She raised her eyes, “I do not know where to begin.”

“How about the beginning?”

Her lips twitched in a small smile. She was silent for a few seconds, although it seemed like hours to Tony. FInally, she opened her mouth and began to speak. She told him Mossad informed her about the threat on her life. They offered to put her and Tali in a safe house, but she didn’t trust them. Not with Tali. So, she told them to take Tali to Tony and she ran, using the network of diamonds her father had forced her to arrange so many years ago. She never stayed too long in one place, instead bouncing from country to country nearly every week. For months, she had no contact with anyone. For months, she wondered if Tali ever made it into Tony’s care. If she was safe and happy. If she was alive.

Finally, a week ago, word reached her that Kort had been killed. Orli tracked her down, informed her that Tali was with Tony in Washington, D.C. Ziva got on the next flight to the United States.

Tony listened in silence. He knew she was telling him what he asked: How? How was she alive? How was she here? But if he was honest with himself, that’s not what he really wanted to know. He knew Ziva was capable of disappearing. He knew she could fool anyone and stay out of harm’s way if she needed to. Nothing she told him surprised him. He always knew it was possible. That’s why he never really gave up.

What he really wanted to know, the question that kept him awake night after night was, why? Why didn’t she tell him about Tali? Why did she keep their daughter a secret? Why didn’t she trust him? Why didn’t she believe in him the way he believed in her? In the silence that followed her story, Tony was sure she could hear the real question in the way his heart rate sped up, in his inability to turn and look at her again.

Her voice was barely there when she said, “I am sorry.”

He swallowed once. He could feel the anger he had pushed down rising up. The relief and utter elation at seeing her alive just a few hours ago was quickly giving way to the betrayal he hadn’t been able to let himself feel for months. Now, it was rushing through his veins, pounding in his temples.

He wanted answers. He needed answers.

“How could you not tell me?” he asked, trying to keep his voice as even as quiet as possible.

“NCIS is your family,” she said. “I know how it felt to leave that behind. I did not want to do that to you.”

He didn’t look at her. Couldn’t.

“That wasn’t your decision to make.”

“I know.”

“I told you I wanted to change for you, that I loved you.”

“I know.”

“I thought you trusted me.”

Her hand shot out instantly, her fingers wrapping around his wrist. She waited until he looked at her to speak again, “I do. More than anyone.”

He jerked his hand away, “Apparently not. Apparently you trusted Orli more.”

“If that was true,” she said. “I would have left Tali in her care. I wanted our daughter with you.”

“A daughter I didn’t even know existed!” his clamped his mouth shut as his voice rose, reminding himself of their sleeping daughter in the next room. He forced himself into a harsh whisper. “You knew how much I wanted a family. You knew I would’ve happily dropped everything for both of you—”

“I did not want you to do that.”

“Again, that’s not your decision,” he snapped. “And I quit NCIS, just so you know. And guess what? I still see everyone. Gibbs takes Tali to the playground and McGee babysits and Abby spoils her rotten. She has playdates with Jimmy’s daughter. Ducky can’t go three days without stopping by. They are still my family. You made the decision that you had to cut us out when you left. It didn’t have to be that way.”

“I understand that now,” she said quietly. “I regretted not telling you. I decided I was going to even before all of this happened. I am sorry, Tony.”

“Did you think I couldn’t do this?”

Her eyes widened and she moved closer to him, taking a risk by reaching for his hand. He let her take it.

“I knew you would be a great father,” she said. “I knew you would be there on the next flight. I knew all of that. That is why I did not want to tell you. I did not want to disrupt your life.”

He shook his head, “You never gave me the choice.”

“I am sorry, Tony. More than you know.”

He knew she meant it, but that didn’t make it hurt any less. He didn’t know if there was anything she could say to really fix everything that had happened. Maybe only time could do that. But he had another question he needed an answer to.

“Are you taking her back to Israel?” he asked.

She paused, “I made a mistake, keeping her away from everyone. She ... We have been so alone. I want her to have a family. I want us to stay here.”

Tony released a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. He would have followed Ziva back to Israel, if that’s what it took to keep Tali in his daily life. But hearing that she wanted to stay, that Tony could have both of them and everyone else, too, sent relief flooding through him. Even if what happened between him and Ziva could never be mended, maybe having all of that would be enough.

He turned toward her, squeezed the hand that still rested in his, “Thank you.”

-----

Over the next few months, they settled into a routine. Ziva moved into an apartment nearby and, with her back, Tony felt comfortable enough to go back to NCIS. With Gibbs’ blessing and recommendation, he was assigned his own team. For the first time in his life, it felt like he had it all.

Slowly, the anger he felt toward Ziva started to fade. He spent many evenings at her apartment, eating dinner and playing with Tali. When Tali stayed with him, Ziva would come over and, when their daughter fell asleep, they would pick a movie from Tony’s collection. He would quote it the whole way through as Ziva rolled her eyes.

One night, just more than six months after her return, he realized he wasn’t angry anymore. Deep down, there was still hurt, a feeling of betrayal. But he knew nothing could be done to change it. And if there was one thing in the world he understood, it was Ziva. He didn’t agree with her choice, he never would. But he understood it. He got her. And most importantly, he knew how deeply she regretted everything. Tony knew all about regret.

He was thankful that she decided to stay in D.C., thankful they’d been able to share custody of their daughter so seamlessly. And every day they spent together brought them one step closer to where they used to be. He smiled more. Laughed more. Eventually, he had someone to tell his secrets to again.

She dug out all of Tali’s baby pictures, shared stories about her when she was newborn. Tony had to admit, it hurt to hear about all the moments he missed, but the joy of having Ziva there — alive — to tell him about them overpowered everything else.

On a quiet Friday night, with Tali already sleep and a black and white movie playing in the background, Tony turned to Ziva and said the one thing he hadn’t spoken out loud.

“When I thought you were dead, I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “It was like everything stopped.”

She turned to him, “I am sorry. I could not—”

“I know, I just,” he paused. “You were gone for so long and we didn’t speak for so long, it almost felt like you were dead. But then when I actually thought you were ...”

“Tony,” her voice was gentle, she rested a hand against his cheek. “I am here.”

“Why didn’t you keep in touch? In all that time?”

She sighed, dropping her hand, “I could not talk to you. I was trying to start over and if I talked to you, it would have been impossible because I love—”

She cut herself off. He stretched his hand out, lacing his fingers through hers, “Still?”

He watched as she swallowed hard, “Still.”

Very slowly, he tucked her hair back behind her ear. She watched — silent, maybe a little hopeful — as he let his fingers linger on her neck. Then, he was moving closer, pulling her toward him, never breaking eye contact.

And then his lips were on hers. Gently, at first, like a question, one she answered by pulling him closer, deepening the kiss, threading her fingers through his hair. It felt like a dream, kissing her, like a moment he replayed so many times in his head he could recall it at will. But it wasn’t a dream or a memory or a wish. It was better.

It was real.

Just as Ziva’s hands found the buttons on his shirt, just as her fingers started to undo the bottom one, Tali erupted into a sob from the next room. Her hands froze. Tony forced himself to swallow, to breathe, to move back away from her. For just a moment, he kept his hand on the back of her neck, pressed their foreheads together. Their heavy breathing mixed together. He didn’t see her smile, but he felt it. His laugh was silent. He pulled her in for one more kiss.

“I love you,” he whispered. “I need you to hear me say that.”

She leaned back, cupped his face in his hands, “I know.”

And then she stood to go tend to their daughter. Tony watched her until she disappeared before he sat back heavy on the couch. He glanced down at his hands and realized they were shaking. Having Ziva here, kissing her, touching her, was a certain kind of adrenaline. He didn’t know if he could live without it. Wasn’t sure he wanted to, either.

She walked back into the room, a sniffling Tali on her hip. When Tony smiled, it felt like coming home. Ziva settled in beside him and Tali climbed over their legs, resting her head against Tony’s knee. He gently stroked her hair as she fell back to sleep and realized, in that moment, he was so happy he was terrified. He couldn’t remember ever feeling this way, like he had everything he wanted, like he was done.

The words were out of his mouth before the thought fully formed, “Let’s get married.”

Ziva’s smile — bright and unguarded — was the only answer he needed.