Agent Afloat Atlantis

by: mhalachai (Send Feedback)

Series: - No Series - #1
Chapters: 008 Word Count: 48792
Rating: TEEN
Character(s): Ziva David
Category(ies): Action/Adventure, Crossover
Pairing(s): - No Pairing -
Crossover Shows: Stargate: Atlantis
Summary: Ziva's new assignment certainly isn't what she expected.

Author Notes: Disclaimer: Sony and MGM own all things Stargate Atlantis. CBS and Bellisario et al. owns all NCIS. I'm only borrowing and will return them at the end of the fic.
Spoilers: Spoilers for the end of season five of NCIS (Judgment Day); for Search and Rescue of season five of SGA (no real spoilers for eps past that). The timelines don't match up but it's not a big deal.

One

The first hint Ziva has that things are going to get much worse, very quickly, is the ding of the elevators and the emergence of Mossad Officer Michael Bashan into the NCIS office.

Ziva, who is standing by her desk trying to think now that she no longer has a place at NCIS, feels her entire world narrow down to a single point of threat. This is her father's doing, it has to be, she thinks in a dim haze as two other men fold themselves out of the elevator after Michael. They do not look like much of a threat, but Ziva knows their type, and these two men are even more deadly than she. She does not know why they are here for her but it cannot be good.

And she is alone. McGee is sequestered with Abby, Tony with human resources and Gibbs in with the new Director and there is no help for Ziva now.

Michael walks to her, his deadly shadows two steps behind. "Officer David," he says, with words so like danger that Ziva's stomach cramps. There is nothing more loyal or deadly than family, and Mossad has always been her safest haven and mostly deadly threat. "NCIS Director Vance has informed me that your presence is no longer required."

"So I have been told," Ziva replies, speaking the same accented English as Michael because no matter what they might say, Americans dislike hearing any Semitic languages in their office buildings. "If you wanted me at the embassy, you could have called."

A new presence makes itself known behind Ziva and she doesn't need to turn. The scent of aftershave with that barely perceptible antiseptic hint of the autopsy room tells her that Doctor Mallard approaches. Suddenly, Ziva doesn't feel so alone.

The sensation is only temporary.

"In light of your dismissal from NCIS," and Michael smiles with overly white teeth, "You have been reassigned. I am here to brief you on your new posting."

It is too soon, too fast, and the inevitability of it all twists Ziva's stomach into outright pain. Still, she makes herself breathe, tries to keep calm over the spike of adrenaline in her veins. "Of course," she murmurs, because to say anything else would be suicide. "Allow me to gather my things--"

"There is no need." Michael's eyes never leave her face. "You will need nothing from this place."

Her balance falters, if only for a moment. She knows what this means. Being summoned by these men with such haste, not being allowed near her desk where she has weapons, can only foreshadow one of two things. A quick bullet to the base of her skull at the next opportunity, or orders for a suicide mission, both resulting in her death.

Ziva wonders why her father would authorize such a fate for her, then wonders if he knows she killed Ari all those years ago, then wonders at herself for being so certain her father would see her dead.

Ducky is closer now, a warm presence at her side. Ziva knows without a doubt that he would fling himself in the path of bullets for her, and she suddenly realizes that she loves him, as she loves Gibbs and McGee and Tony and Abby and Jennifer, all in different ways but as a family, and it's gone as surely as if they all had been in that California diner with Jenny when the bullets came.

She will not let Ducky come to harm.

She draws herself up, looking directly into Michael's eyes and letting him see that she knows what is happening. "I may need nothing, but there are a few personal items that I would not leave to my successor."

Michael waits. After a long moment in which Ziva plots out five ways to escape these men in the elevator, he nods. "Gather what you need." The men stay at his back.

Ziva turns and finally sees Ducky, and he is just as she imagined, angry and dangerous and oh, what she would have given to have known him as a young man. "Do you need help, my dear?" he asks, and they both know he does not mean with the packing.

Ziva shakes her head. "This is the way it has to be, Ducky."

She takes only what fit into her handbag; an orange running toque, a sparse collection of personal photographs, a tiny wooden dreidel given to her by McGee the previous winter. A small jeweler's box from the back of the drawer fits into the palm of her hand, hiding a small curious sapphire pendant twisted in silver. The jewel had reminded Ziva of something Jenny Shepard admired in Cairo, years before, and Ziva planned to surprise Jenny with the present on the woman's next birthday.

Jenny is dead now, and the dead take no adornments with them to the bosom of God.

Ziva gives the jewel box to Ducky. Memories of the dead only make one weak, and if Ziva is to survive beyond nightfall she can afford no weakness. She cannot find the right words, and so says nothing as she closes her bag. Her sidearm and NCIS badge go into a drawer, which she locks. The keys jingle in her grip as she hands the ring to Ducky. Her whole life in Washington on one metal ring: her car, her apartment, her desk, her locker. Ziva forces her voice to stay steady as she says, "Could you ask Abby or Tim to have someone pack up my apartment into storage?"

He knows then that she's not planning on coming back. His precise surgeon's fingers close around the keys. "Come with me to say goodbye to Abby," he says, and she knows it for an offer of safety, and something in her heart breaks as she cannot accept. With Jenny's death as a fork in the road, her fate lies in a different direction

"I cannot, Ducky." And because she may never see him again, she hugs him tight.

"Ziva, let me help," he murmurs in her ear.

She pulls back before answering. "It will be all right," she says, and it's not a complete lie. "I will call if I can."

Ducky's hands are full of pieces of Ziva's life as he looks at her. "Ziva."

"Ducky." Ziva smiles to keep back any sudden tears she may have over the losses of the day. "Please say goodbye to everyone for me."

She doesn't name names. She doesn't say anything else. She only picks up her handbag and turns her back on NCIS as she is escorted to the elevator and away from the people she loves as family.

~~~


The car drives east. The two bodyguards sit in the front of the car, leaving Ziva and Michael a semblance of privacy.

Michael waits until they clear the Navy Yard's security perimeter to speak, slipping finally into the familiar Hebrew. "This assignment is directly from your father."

Ziva does not know if she wishes to believe the man.

"When he heard that NCIS was through with you, he moved very quickly to get you into this new assignment. He knows how well you work with the American military."

If there is sarcasm in Michael's voice, Ziva can not find it. She remains silent as the car enters the freeway.

"Why is Jennifer Shepard dead?"

Ziva clears her throat. This is... was part of her role, to share confidential NCIS information with Mossad. Jenny knew that as part of the deal to keep Ziva in Washington, and Ziva isn't about to let Leon Vance change the rules now.

"An old enemy found her in California," Ziva explains.

"You were assigned to protect her there," Michael says.

"She ordered us to stand down," Ziva counters. "She evaded us."

"Why would she do such a thing?"

Ziva lets her eyes slip to the passing scenery on the other side of the tinted bulletproof windows. She had seen the whispers between Jenny and Ducky and Gibbs over the past few months, how Jenny's hands were beginning to shake, how she would walk into things, how her body grew gaunt and her eyes hollowed with illness.

Ziva should have given the pendant to Jenny months ago.

"I suspect she was dying," Ziva says, because there is no shame in staring death in the face and choosing to destroy one's killers in the final moments. "She wanted it like this."

And Michael does not contradict her, because he knows Ziva has no reason to lie about such things.

"What is this mission my father has prepared for me?" Ziva asks into the stillness. "I will need to return home to gather supplies."

"We have been to your apartment and have packed your personal belongings," Michael says, reaching into a briefcase by his feet. "You will not return there."

Ziva's hand clenches on her lap. These men have been through her home, have touched her personal belongings, and the thought makes her skin crawl. "Where are we going?"

"The airport," Michael says. "You are booked on a commercial flight to Colorado Springs. The plane leaves in two hours."

Ziva turns her head, confused. "What is at Colorado Springs? My target?"

Michael sighs. "This is not an assassination assignment, Ziva," he says in a long-suffering voice. "You will be an observer for the Israeli government. Think of it as a continuation of your position at NCIS. An investigator."

"What will I investigate?"

Michael hands her a single page, stamped at the top with the seal of the United States Air Force and a red caution of top secret. "Atlantis."

Ziva frowns at the paper. "What is Atlantis? A codeword?"

With a glance at his watch, Michael settles back in his seat. "Atlantis is a project run jointly by the American military and the United Nations," he says with just a hint of impatience.

"Weapons development?"

"Of a sort." Michael keeps his eyes on Ziva's face. "Atlantis is the name of an operations base in another galaxy. The Americans have been running a secret interstellar exploration program out of Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado for the last decade. We have not been able to get an operative inside the base until now, even though the Israeli government is made privy to all developments as part of our agreement with the Americans."

Ziva's fingers crumple the paper as the car accelerates into a merge. "A base in another what?"

~~~


The car leaves Ziva standing at the curb outside of domestic departures at Dulles with only her ticket, handbag and a suitcase packed by strangers. She's still in her funeral dress and people stare.

The first thing she does is find a small shop that sells suitcases and buys a new one at random. She will not board a plane with a strange suitcase. She closets herself in the handicap stall in the ladies washroom to transfer her clothing, shaking the cloth out and examining everything for bugs. Whoever packed her bag included so much of her life that they must have watched her for a while; her family photographs and the book from her nightstand and a tiny doll from Abby, and in the bottom of the suitcase lies the small decorated mezuzah case from her front door.

Ziva's fingers shake on the small metal case protecting the inscribed parchment. It was a gift from her mother's uncle, a young man when he escaped Poland in the early days of the War. She'd affixed the mezuzah into the frame by her apartment door one month after she started on Gibbs' team, and to find it here cements the message from her father.

There is no going back.

She kicks a hole in the old suitcase, pockets her Star of David necklace and goes looking for a security officer, throws on a heavy Spanish accent and explains how she ripped the case and wants to find a place to discard it without bothering anyone, and the man smiles at her innocent expression and her cutely fumbled English, and pays more attention to her breasts than to examining the case before he places it behind a security desk, and offers to escort her to her departure area, but she laughs and says she needs to telephone her Mama in Rota, and walks away before the man can insist.

Before she goes through security, Ziva finds a phone booth and dials Gibbs' cell from memory.

"What?" he demands as a greeting, loud and angry and he cannot know it is her, but his anger rips at her heart. She loves this man, in ways she cannot even begin to describe, and she misses him already.

"Jethro," she says, his name foreign on her tongue.

"Ziva?" He is instantly on guard. No doubt Ducky has told him everything. "What's going on?"

Ziva breathes deep, feeling the press of humanity around her. "I have been reassigned by--"

"Screw that!" He is so angry that the force of emotion travels down the line and quiets Ziva instantly. "If you're in trouble--"

"Gibbs!" Now is it Ziva's turn to interrupt. "What did you expect to happen? This is my life. I take the jobs I am given by my father." These are not the words she means, but she is an airport and even if the security is American, she will not use buzzwords like 'assignment' or 'Mossad' in case there are prying ears. "That is all this is. Another job."

Gibbs breathes heavily. "Is that what we were?" and those are words tinged with pain, and Ziva forces herself to remember that no matter how she buried a friend and boss on that day, Gibbs lost a partner and a lover and his entire team in a fit of retribution.

"No," she says, and the full pain of her loss hits her. She is losing a family she has held close for three years. "You are more than that."

Gibbs exhales slowly, and in the stillness Ziva hears the rhythmic thumping in the background. He must be in Abby's lab. "Do you need me?" he asks. In that instant, Ziva imagines all the things this man would do for her, and she for him. All the things she has done for him, the beloved brother she killed for him and for betrayal's sake, and the distance she would walk from God if he asked her.

"No." She rests one hand on her suitcase. "This is the way things have to be."

"Where are you going?"

The briefing in the car flashes before Ziva's eyes. "I am going to Colorado."

"What the hell for?"

"Since I worked so well with NCIS, I will continue working with the American military." There is more, so much more, but she cannot explain. "I will call you if I can."

A chatter on the other end of the line distracts Gibbs for a moment, then he is back. "How did this happen?"

"It is the way these things always go," and she hesitates because there is no painless way to say this, "I was always assigned to NCIS at the discretion of the director."

And she is dead, are the words that remain unsaid.

"It will be okay," she continues quickly, not sure if she's seeking to reassure him or herself. "I am going to work with the Air Force."

"The U.S. Air Force?"

"For the most part." She imagines the expression on his face. It hurts more than she had anticipated. "I will not forget the Rules, Gibbs, even working with the Air Force."

"You'd better not," Gibbs growls. His voice catches on the last word. "Here, say goodbye to Abby," and Gibbs vanishes before Ziva can tell him all the things she should not say.

"Ziva!" Abby's voice comes down the line, and it sounds as if she has been crying. "Where are you? What about the Air Force? Why did you leave so quick?"

Later, Ziva will not remember what she says to Abby, because as she speaks with a woman who slowly became her friend after three long years at NCIS, she finally realizes all that she is losing. She wants to blame someone; Jenny for leaving them behind and going off to die, or Vance for kicking her into the storm, or herself for not forcing the issue with Tony and going after Jenny sooner.

But there is no profit to blame, and Jenny made her choice, as has Ziva, and the black fabric of her dress is soft across her knees.

Gibbs comes back on the phone and for a few seconds, they say nothing.

"Todah rabah veShalom, Gibbs," Ziva finally gets out. She hangs up the phone before she breaks down.

She will not appear weak in front of a man who has done more for her than anyone.

~~~


Colorado in May is hot and dry. An Air Force driver picks her up at the airport and drives her east towards the Cheyenne Mountain base. She sits in the back with the windows down and the hot air blowing her hair about her face.

The next ten hours are a blur of paper and lectures and more paper. She is given a medical exam that includes devices from one of Tony's science fiction movies, things that glow and things that spin and things that have no describable purpose.

Finally, they tire of poking needles into her arms and send her to the commissary. The lateness of the hour presses down on her more than the weight of twenty-five stories of dirt over her head. Time moves oddly underground, and Ziva can't remember if they buried Jennifer Shepard that day, or the day before.

She is halfway through a soggy sandwich when the doors swing open to admit someone else to the quiet room. He's tall, with wayward hair conspiring to make him even taller. He wears civilian clothing and hasn't shaved in a few days, but the face is unmistakable from Michael's photographs. Lt. Colonel John Sheppard, military commander of the Atlantis expedition.

He is not what Ziva expected.

The man grabs some food at random from the cooler and slouches over to a table by the wall. He doesn't sit so much as collapse into the chair, poking at the food as if contemplating the effort to unwrap it.

Ziva clears her table and goes to where the Colonel sits staring at his food. After a long moment, he raises blinking eyes to her. Ziva's first impression is, he looks so tired.

Then, as she takes in the whole picture, the dark circles under his eyes and the fatigue weighing him down, the pallor of his skin under his tan, she amends that to, he has been hurt.

"Hi," the Colonel says after a few moments of silence. "Can I help you?"

"I am Mossad Officer Ziva David," she introduces herself, hands smoothing over her skirt in a nervous gesture she thought she had left behind in Tel Aviv. "I look forward to working on your team ."

He stares at her so long that Ziva's stomach sinks, back to that first day with Gibbs at NCIS three years before. "You're the late addition to the crew," he finally says, his voice faintly accusing, as if it is her fault he can't place her. "There was something about strings being pulled while I was at breakfast."

Ziva sits without being asked, folding her hands on the table top. There are many things she will tolerate, but never the assumption of nepotism. "In Mossad, there are two types of agents," she says, willing herself to remain calm.

"The quick and the dead," he shoots back, and the confused air about the man vanishes for just a moment, just long enough for Ziva to recognize it and to realize she's fallen for his camouflage. "I'm not saying you can't do your job, it's just..." He rakes his hands through his hair, sending it in impossible directions. "What is your job, exactly?"

Ziva draws in a deep breath. It has been a long day and everything is bottled up in her chest and the pressure of her day is starting to make her careless. "I have been working at NCIS in Washington," she begins, because it's the only thing about her life that matters. Mattered.

This, of all things, causes the Colonel to perk up. "Cool," he says, gifting her with a fraction more attention. "We've got Marines on Atlantis."

The commissary door slams open and Ziva reaches for a non-existent gun because it's after midnight and she's had a bad day and for some stupid reason, she sat down with her back to the door and some days she can't understand how her stupidity hasn't killed her yet.

In storms a man of about forty, balding slightly, wide blue eyes and a bit soft around the middle and his hands and mouth are in constant motion and he doesn't even seem to notice Ziva sitting with the Colonel, just slams across the room and sits beside the Colonel and steals his pudding cup before Ziva can gather her wits.

"--so beyond stupid that I can't even begin to explain it, it's like their absolute moronicism is playing Twister with their paperwork and it's like they're trying to sabotage everything we've done for the last four years!"

The man punctuates the sentence by jabbing a spoon through the air. The Colonel slumps down in his chair and relaxes just a little. "The IOA said no, huh?"

"We need Sam!" the man rants around a mouthful of pudding. "I mean, it's not like you suck or anything, Sheppard, but we need someone who can actually understand half of what we're doing in Atlantis so I don't have to spend all my time explaining it and you're not that smart--"

The Colonel rolls his eyes at Ziva, and she wonders if they do this routine for all the new people.

"--and I finally had convinced Sam that we needed to go ahead with lots of crucial experiments with the ZPM and now, now, Woolsey told me to file a requisition!" The man's voice rises with righteous indignation. "He wants me to do paperwork to do my job!"

The Colonel drapes his arm across the back of the man's chair and takes a sip of coffee. "What's wrong with paperwork?" he asks, giving Ziva a quick wink.

The man spins in his chair, menacing the Colonel with the pudding cup. "I haven't spent a decade saving the universe with my superior intellect to do paperwork!" He tries to say more, but starts sputtering instead and the Colonel takes pity on him, plucking the pudding cup away before it can do any harm and patting the man on the back.

"Easy, McKay, I get it. And I agree."

"So what are we going to do about it?" McKay seems ready to storm the castle, but the Colonel grips his shoulder hard, and most of the fight goes out of the man.

"We're not going to do anything but our jobs, McKay." The Colonel lets his hand drop. "We'll save the galaxy from Michael and the Wraith and all the other big bad things out there, and we'll do it the way we always do."

"What, by tripping around until we luck out on the right answer?" McKay snaps.

"Well, I was going to say, 'with style', but whatever."

Ziva is seriously starting to wonder how much of this exchange is for her benefit.

McKay lets out a huff, and then seems to notice Ziva for the first time. "Hi," he says, confused.

"Doctor McKay," Ziva said in greeting, holding out her hand. Her briefing contained almost as much information about this man as the Colonel. "I am Ziva David."

"Hi," McKay repeats. He lets go of her hand and turns to the Colonel. "Who's she?"

"She's coming with us to Atlantis," the Colonel says, going back to his coffee. "As..." His eyebrow lifts. "What are you going to do?"

Ziva puts on her best smile. "I believe my paperwork say I am to be 'auxiliary support'."

"Cool."

"What does that mean?" McKay demands. "Is she a scientist? Are you a scientist? What's your area of study?"

"The study of getting stuff done," the Colonel says before Ziva can formulate an answer. "She's not a scientist. She's been with NCIS."

"What's NCIS?" McKay demands.

"Navy cops."

"But you're not Navy."

"But we have Marines and someone needs to keep them in check."

McKay gives Sheppard a withering glare, but before he can speak the Colonel jabs a finger against his chest.

"I'm the only one who gets to harass the Marines," the Colonel says. He settles back in his chair and puts his arm back on McKay's chair and Ziva wonders if he knows how very comfortable he appears with this man. "Now, McKay, we leave early tomorrow, so go get some damned sleep and get out of my hair."

McKay rolls his eyes and leaves without saying goodbye to Ziva.

When the door swings closed behind McKay, the Colonel drops the attitude and sits up, intent and focused and the change sets Ziva's heart pounding in her chest. "Look, I know you can do your job and you're very efficient and all that. But the Pegasus galaxy isn't like working in DC. I don't care if you're not strictly military, in Atlantis you're under my command."

His glare is good, but Ziva has spent three years under Gibbs and she's not cowed. "I spent three years in the Israeli military after I left school, Colonel Sheppard," she tells him. "I understand the chain of command."

"I thought it was only two years for compulsory military service for Israeli women."

She stares at him for long enough to get her point across. "It is."

He nods and sits back. "Here's the deal. I know I've got to take you with us, but we don't know how it'll work out. It may be great, you might likely be eaten by a grue, who knows."

A year before, she would have asked him to explain himself, but Tony's continued torment of McGee had done so much to further her education in the idiosyncrasies of North American culture.

"So I say we give it a month and then see how things stand."

"That is fair, Colonel," Ziva says, because he may have received orders to take her to Atlantis, but in practicality, a military commander could have shelved her if he didn't want her. Or was it benched?

"So, cool. And call me Sheppard." He smiles at her from behind his coffee cup. "So, got any questions about Atlantis?"

Michael's briefing only served to whet Ziva's appetitive for information. She leans into the table and looks Sheppard square in the eye. "How does one kill a Wraith?"

The look in his eye is one of approval, and Ziva thinks, this might work.

~~~


The next day is a whirlwind of wonder. After the darkness of Stargate Command, Atlantis is light and open and beautiful. Stepping through the Stargate, walking into another galaxy, is almost enough to reduce Ziva to open-mouthed gaping.

In what Ziva will later discover is standard operating procedure, there is an emergency right away and McKay takes one look at the mess and vanishes in disgust. Sheppard snags a passing Marine and shoves him at Ziva, muttering about "the official Pegasus welcome wagon" before storming up the steps to the group of grown men and women throwing a collective temper tantrum.

The Marine, a Sgt. Stackhouse, almost drags Ziva out of the large room into the hallways. Only there does the tension slip away from his shoulders. Then he snaps back to almost-attention. "Welcome to Atlantis, ma'am."

Ziva raises an eyebrow, but does not comment on the man's haste. "Thank you. Is it always so..." She weighs the political inferences of several English words. "Loud?"

"No, ma'am." A hint of humor creeps onto Stackhouse's face. "But the Colonel will set it right." He stands aside to usher her down a flight of stairs. "Are you the Agent Afloat?"

Ziva almost misses a step. "What did you say?"

His eyes snap straight ahead. "Scuttlebutt says you're from NCIS. Coming here, that would make you Agent Afloat, Atlantis."

Ziva stops dead in the hall. "We are in a city," she says, and she gets that feeling again that she is missing something.

Stackhouse motions at a set of nearby windows. Ziva shifts her duffle higher on her back and looks out at an endless expanse of water and at two moons hanging heavy in the evening sky.

"It's a floating city, ma'am," Stackhouse says, and then further knocks the ground out from under her by adding, "And sometimes it flies."

This all has to be a trick.

Stackhouse hands her off to the XO, Major Lorne, who isn't working in his office so much as hiding. Ziva gets a smile and an earpiece and a map of the city, and it's only when the Major asks why she's there that things begin to falter.

"I am auxiliary support," is all she can offer him, words to fill the time as they walk down beautiful airy halls, past men and women from all of Earth's countries.

"I'm not exactly sure what that means," Lorne tells her apologetically, and interrupts Sheppard over the comms to ask him where he should be taking Ziva now.

"I don't care," Sheppard says in a tight voice, possibly unaware that Ziva is on the same channel and can hear him. "Tell her to fix something."

Lorne's frown makes him resemble Tony in ways that kick the air from Ziva's lungs, but then the moment is gone. "Is there something broken?"

"How the hell should I know, do I sit around with a lot of spare time on my hands?" Sheppard's voice over the comm is drowned out by the sudden strident tones of McKay. "Lorne, now is not a good time!" and the line goes dead and Lorne lets out a sigh.

"You heard the man," Lorne tells Ziva with a long-suffering smile. "There may be something, somewhere, that needs fixing."

"Is it always like this?" Ziva wonders aloud, trailing along beside the Major.

"Oh, no."

She waits.

"It's usually worse."

Ziva dashes all hopes that he's kidding when she see the expression on his face, and it only reinforces her earlier thought that the universe has gone mad.

She hopes Tony, wherever he is, isn't have as crazy a time on his first day as Agent Afloat.

~~~


It'll be two weeks until she gives up trying to figure out her job title. In the meantime, every day she leaves her bedroom and takes her little flat computer thing and spends her time being Gibbs.

Not really. There is less slapping and yelling when she does it, but she finds people around the city and does what Gibbs spent three years teaching her: getting them to talk.

At first, most people think she's with Woolsey, the new commander, and give her cursory responses, especially the scientists who seem to be suffering from Carter-withdrawal. But Ziva perseveres, and word gets out that she's on a job from Sheppard, and soon she hits upon the magic words:

"What needs to be fixed?"

Sometimes the responses are factual, in that this door sticks and there's something wrong with the water filter on the east-southeast tower. There is the perennial answer of get rid of the Wraith and anyone heard what's up with Michael? No one comes out and says they have problems with anyone else. Not at first.

It's subtle, and like any investigation, there's a pattern hiding there, waiting to be teased out by seeking questions.

So every morning she laces up her trainers for an hour-long run around the city, or does morning calisthenics with the enthusiastic Marine contingent, then showers and ties back her hair and learns a little more about the Ancients and the city and the Wraith.

Mostly, however, she learns about the humans supplanted to Atlantis by a well-meaning international contingent of politicians and bureaucrats.

And true to form, there has never been such a mess as is made by politicians.

Time passes and then it's her sixth day, the Sabbath by the Earth calendar but it doesn't matter as they're in another galaxy and God will understand that she's busy. The intel comes in bits and pieces and her report for Sheppard is progressing nicely. After a solitary breakfast by sunrise, Ziva gathers her computer and follows the map to the botany labs.

Botanists are early risers, it seems, and Ziva finishes with half the department in under an hour. The other half, she's told, are away on missions or in the infirmary or dealing with personal issues, which, she suspects, means they've been interacting with Woolsey and are taking some personal time to avoid punching someone.

She's halfway down the hall when someone swings around the corner up ahead, and all Ziva's eyes register are the red hair and female form and her mind freezes on Jenny when the woman looks up and smiles and it's not Jennifer Shepard at all because Jenny is dead.

"Hello," the woman offers shyly, ducking her eyes away from Ziva for a moment. "You must be Ms. David, everyone's been talking about you."

Only with years of Mossad training can Ziva makes herself smile. "I am. You are Dr. Brown, yes?"

"Katie, please," and the woman so unlike Jenny Shepard guides Ziva over to one of the wide window bays and they sit and talk and Katie is soft and open and she stutters sometimes on her suggestions for deficiencies in the city's plant supply and her hopes to renovate one of the long buildings on the southern pier as a greenhouse to make Atlantis more food self-sufficient.

Ziva eventually leaves without making a fool of herself, but only barely. She escapes down the halls, deserted this far from the city core, down stairs, down and down, until she's finally standing on the northern pier under an alien sky.

The wind this close to the water is quick to whip around Ziva, the salt tang of an alien ocean teasing at her. Ziva slings her computer over her shoulder and sits on the railing of a breakwater to watch the water crash against the city, only meters below her feet.

She concentrates on the waves. It's been too long since she went to the beach. When she was a child, they often went on a week's vacation to the sea, her and Mama and Tali and everyone except for her father. After Tali was killed by a suicide bomber, Ziva never went back to the sea.

The last time she was by the water had been in Los Angeles, with Tony, while Jenny was running for her life and hiding even from those who were supposed to protect her. The last time she saw Jenny, Jenny was dead.

The pounding of the waves makes the air tangy, and Ziva licks salt from her lips.

Jenny is dead and Ziva never had a chance to say goodbye. She knows that's how these things go. The step between life and death comes in an instant, even for those who walk into death with eyes wide open. Only...

Ziva closes her eyes on the sudden rush of hot tears on her cheeks. Only, Ziva hadn't had a chance to close that chapter on her life and now she never would.

It had happened only once, in Cairo, after Ziva saved Jenny's life from an assassin's bullet. The night had been hot and both had been drunk on the near-miss, and while Ziva had been the one to step against Jenny and kiss her breathless, Jenny had been the one to pull Ziva into the bed and tangle her beneath the sheets until dawn.

Ziva opens her eyes on the empty sea. Jenny is dead and Ziva shouldn't lie to herself, not anymore. They'd never spoken of their encounter, as Jenny was afraid for her career because the backwards priorities of the Americans towards sexuality, but Ziva had bought the sapphire pendant for her lover as well her friend.

"And in this, I am a fool," Ziva tells the sea, wiping her tears away. The wind rises in response, pulling tendrils of hair out of her ponytail.

She stares at the sea until her eyes hurt from the glare. Only then does she pull her computer around and resume work.

The sun is almost directly overhead when the pitter-patter of combat boots alerts Ziva to a visitor. She looks around to see Rodney McKay, his eyes wide. "You shouldn't be down here," he tells her, and proceeds to sit on the pier beside her.

"Why not?" Ziva continues typing.

"Well-- um, a wave might sweep over the side and you'll be washed into the sea."

"I have been sitting here for..." She consults her watch. "Over three hours. In that time, no wave has come higher than that mark there." She points. "Next objection?"

His hands wave while he speaks, and Ziva does not think he realizes how much he gives away without saying a word. "What if someone needs to get in touch with you?"

"I have my earwig."

He makes a face. "They're called earpieces, not earwigs, you make it sound like they're mind-eating insects or something."

Ziva serenely opens another file. "Next?"

He snaps his fingers. "Sunburn! The UV index is over seven!"

"I am Israeli, Dr. McKay." She shifts around to look at him directly. "We know about the sun. Why are you here?"

"Because you shouldn't be down here," he tries again, but his gaze slips down to her computer. Ziva has to restrain a smile. She has him now.

"You will see my report in time, Dr. McKay."

He rolls his shoulders back, failing at his attempt to pretend that he does not care. "Are you sure you're being complete enough?"

Gibbs' interrogation trick number thirty-six when dealing with children and the annoying: Ask what questions one should ask. "Is there someone I have not spoken with?" Ziva asks, although she is pretty sure she knows what he will say.

And sure enough, he launches directly into, "Me! I'm the senior scientist in Atlantis and I'm on Sheppard's team and I know everything that goes on around this place and no report on what's broken in this place is complete without talking to me because I know everything about what's wrong!"

Ziva sighs, thinking back to the interviews with some of the engineers who had asked very nicely if maybe McKay could be transferred back to Earth in exchange for Colonel Carter. But that is not what the man needs to hear, and in any event, those words are for Sheppard alone. "Dr. McKay, if that is the case, I would not need to speak with you."

He gapes at her. "That makes no logical sense!"

Ziva wonders if this is how McGee feels like, trying to explain computer terms to Gibbs. "Dr. McKay, what would you do if you realized that something in the city needed to be repaired?"

"I'd fix it, of course!" he blurts out without thinking.

"I rest my case," Ziva says as she sets her computer down on her lap. "I do not need to talk to you about things in Atlantis, because you can fix anything that you know is wrong."

She means tangible things, of course, because she knows his type and he will not think of people's feelings or egos. That is why she is here.

Or, at least, what she is doing while she tries to figure out what she is doing in Atlantis.

McKay refuses to leave her alone, however, and Ziva spends the rest of the day with the man in the cafeteria. He tells her every single thing about the city and its inhabitants that needs to be optimized, and if she can't get to him accept responsibility with, "Why have you not fixed it?" or "The IOA will never let you do that" or "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means," she puts it into her computer for Sheppard to deal with later.

The sun has set and Ziva's drunk enough coffee to put Gibbs on edge, when Sheppard appears at the table with Major Lorne in tow. "McKay, where the hell have you been?" Sheppard asks. Something about the man's manner sets Ziva on edge. He's not unhappy or anxious, just looking at her warily

"I've been busy with your little fix-it project," McKay says.

"What fix-it project?" Sheppard's eyebrows go up. Even his hair looks confused.

McKay points at Ziva. She holds up her computer and says, "You told me to find out what was wrong on Atlantis and I am doing so."

"Did I say that?" Sheppard turns to Lorne. "Did I say that?"

"Yes, sir," Lorne replies blandly. "Last week."

Sheppard rubs his eyes. "Really?" His hand falls. "Go figure. Hey, McKay, Zelenka was wondering if since you're obviously taking the day off, if it was okay if he took the ZPM off-line--"

McKay is out of the hall before Sheppard can finish the sentence.

"Sir?" Lorne's eying Sheppard like the man kicked a puppy. "Wasn't that a little bit far to stretch the truth?"

"I'll make it up to Zelenka later." Sheppard jerked his chin at Ziva. "Come on, up. You and me need to have a little talk."

They walk in silence until Sheppard has them suitably far away from any signs of life. Then he plants his feet on the ground and leans his shoulders against the wall. "What the hell are you doing here?"

Ziva doesn't have any idea what he's talking about. "You wanted to speak with me--"

"I mean," Sheppard says loudly over her words, "Why are you in Atlantis?"

"I received an assignment from the deputy director of Mossad." As she speaks, her shoulders go back and her chin comes up and she's far enough away to dodge a physical attack, if it comes, and she doesn't know what's happening. Sheppard has had six days to come after her. What's changed now?

Sheppard's arms cross over his chest, his hand far enough away from his sidearm for Ziva to breathe easier. "I got your full file today."

Which means he hadn't seen it before.

Which means he had no idea what she is capable of.

"You're a trained assassin and intelligence officer!" he says accusingly. As if she was unaware of the fact. "And you're in my city! What's your assignment?"

"It's not what you think," Ziva tries.

"Then explain what I should be thinking!" Sheppard shouts, pushing off the wall and Ziva drops her computer and there's a moment when she doesn't know how this is going to end.

They stand for a moment, ready for the fight, then Ziva holds up both hands, fingers wide and empty. "My assignment is not hidden from you," and it's hard to hold onto the English words now. "I am here to help in anyway that I can."

"Are you telling me that Mossad sent me one of their best agents to do paperwork?" He doesn't believe it, and there's only one way to solve this.

"The deputy director wanted me here to help," she says again. "It's... it's partly reprimand."

"Because you let the director of NCIS get killed," he says. He's the first person to say those words to her face and it's like a fist against her jaw because he's not right and he's not wrong.

When she can breathe again, she licks her lips, tasting the memory of the sea's salt. "The matter of which you speak is... complicated."

Sheppard never breaks eye contact. "These were part of your file," he says as he pulls some paper from a hip pocket. "NCIS Director Leon Vance doesn't pull any punches."

He tosses the paper at her and she manages to catch it with suddenly boneless fingers. It feels like a betrayal and she shouldn't have expected anything else.

Sheppard holds up the other paper in his hand. "The other version out of NCIS is that you're an excellent investigative agent with an eye to detail and interrogative ability unrivaled and that we're damned lucky to have you."

It's a little hard to breathe. "Who... who is that from?"

"It's a joint effort." He unfolds the paper and gives it to her. The typewritten words, on NCIS Director letterhead, are bordered with Gibbs' messy handwriting. Gibb's name slides over the edge of Jenny's signature, and it takes Ziva a moment to look at up the date on the letter.

Jenny had written this letter of recommendation for Ziva on the day before the flight to Los Angeles. Gibbs had obviously added his opinions after the fact, but still, for Jenny to have written such a final recommendation for Ziva... Just how ill had Jenny been?

Sheppard carefully takes the papers back from Ziva. "Which of these do I listen to?"

Ziva wants to tell him about Gibbs and Jenny and how they are good people, good agents, but she can't get the words out.

"Which of these guys do I want at my back in a fight?" Sheppard asks, and then it's easy.

"Gibbs. And Jen-- Director Shepard."

Colonel Sheppard nods as he folds the papers into his pocket. "Why are you here?" he asks again.

"The deputy director of Mossad is my father," Ziva says, and Sheppard doesn't seem surprised. "I do not know his reasoning, but I suspect he wanted someone here whom he could trust. There is no hidden mission."

Sheppard nods again. "Okay."

"Just like that?"

"What did you expect, the thumbscrews?" Sheppard asks. "Come on, you and me are going to have a little talk about how you need to keep your Uncle John in the loop when it comes to secret ninja assassin skills."

"Oh, I am not a ninja," Ziva says quickly, in case he wasn't using a figure of speech. "Just well-trained in the arts of surreptitious movement."

That seems to worry Sheppard, but at least Ziva is trying.

~~~


There are many conversations that stand out in Ziva's memory, but her talk with Teyla Emmagen is most enlightening on exactly how things are in the Pegasus galaxy.

Before she can find Teyla, however, she has a non-conversation with Ronon; they're both working out in the gym and she's warming up with some moves she knows from krav maga and Ronon's in her face, asking for a demonstration. She manages to get in some good body blows before he picks up on the defense. At the end of the session, she asks him what he thinks needs fixing and he grins and says, "My ribs" and that's pretty much that.

The one person she avoids is Richard Woolsey. She hates politicians on a good day and he seems to be aggravating everyone to such a degree that she stays away. She does not want to tell her father she has been sent back to Earth because she could control her temper by attacking the expedition leader.

As her ill-luck would have it, Ziva finally manages to run Teyla to ground just after Teyla finishes speaking with Woolsey. Ziva knocks on the open door of Teyla's quarters. The baby is making cranky noises and Teyla whirls on the intruder.

"Hello," Ziva says, drawing on the inner strength that got her through three years with Gibbs. "I can come back if this is a bad time."

Teyla's hands flex against her sides and she relaxes her shoulders with a great deal of effort. "I must feed my son," she says in a melodic voice. Ziva has always been a sucker for voices.

"Would you like privacy?" because Ziva has no idea what the customs are for Teyla's people.

"Most of your people seem offended by a woman feeding her child," Teyla says, the steely edge to her words softening. She picks up her squirming child and he quiets almost immediately.

Ziva bows her head in acknowledgement of that fact. "I have found that North American and Western European cultures seem to have over-sexualized the female breast. Especially those without children."

Teyla pauses in undoing the strap on her shirt. "That is a most interesting interpretation on the matter." She smiles for the first time. "Please, come in."

Ziva seats herself on a chair while Teyla arranges her son against her chest. The baby starts nursing immediately. "What is his name?" Ziva asks. Talking about children is always a guaranteed method of opening a conversation with a parent.

"He is called Torrin." Teyla fixes a curious stare on Ziva. "You are newly from Earth."

"I am," Ziva acknowledges with a nod. "I am called Ziva David. Thank you for taking the time to see me."

Teyla smoothes back the hair on the baby's head. He remains oblivious to everything but his meal. "What else can I do?"

Ziva's hand stills on her computer. "I do not know what you mean."

Teyla fidgets unnecessarily with Torrin's clothing before she responds. "Your people seem to think that birthing a child makes a woman incapable of rational thought," she says finally. "I have been informed that I am to 'take it easy'." She spits the words into the space between them.

Ziva contemplates several responses to this, but from what everyone has told her about Teyla Emmagen, the woman does not respond well to platitudes, and rightly so in Ziva's mind. Anyone who can survive life in a galaxy with the Wraith and then, later, with the Earthers of Atlantis, is not to be trifled with.

So Ziva sets her computer to the side and crosses her legs, and gives up a little of herself. "My mother went back to work a month after the birth of my sister Tali," she says. "She is... was, Mossad. Like myself. She could have taken more time, but she always put the safety of her people over her personal feelings." The memory brings a small smile to Ziva's lips, in spite of herself. "She told me that all of Israel's people were her family, and she must work to protect them all as she would us."

Ziva's mother had died in an undercover operation when Tali was seven years old, and Ziva had never forgiven her father for being so cold after her funeral.

"I agree with your mother's sentiment," Teyla says. "The people of this galaxy understand that we must work together to fight the Wraith, all of us, not just a select few."

The baby breaks off from nursing and lets out a small cry of what sounds like agreement.

Teyla shifts the baby to her other breast before continuing the conversation. "Israel is your people? Or your homeland?"

"A little bit of both," Ziva says, because she took in the teachings of the Torah like breathing as a child. "Although I have been in America for three years, and before that, all over the world. My world," she hastens to add, because she is speaking with a woman who travels between planets without a thought.

"I have not heard of this land of yours," Teyla says. "I have not heard much about your world at all, outside of Dr. McKay's thoughts on Canada. I find that I wish to know more." She looks at Ziva expectantly.

Well, Ziva certainly wasn't expecting this. "I am not sure..." What about this is giving her such hesitation? Teyla's eyes are on her again, and there is a challenge in the woman's gaze. It is not as if anywhere told Ziva she wasn't supposed to speak of Earth to their allies. "I can tell you much about Earth, I am just not sure you will wish to hear it all."

Teyla's eyes spark. "In the words of Colonel Sheppard, try me."

So Ziva takes a deep breath and tells Teyla about Israel and Mossad, which leads to the history of the Jewish state, and then the War and the Holocaust and then back to the present day and the battles between civilizations and religions and how human beings always seem to find reasons to kill each other.

Ziva leaves with a promise to come back the next day to hear Teyla's story about the Pegasus galaxy and the long struggle with the Wraith. Her head is full of turmoil and wonder at how Teyla has worked with people from Earth for so long and hasn't heard any of these stories. She wonders what Sheppard has told her.

Her feet move without any input and she finds herself out on the north pier again. The sun is setting on the horizon when Ziva takes off her shoes and dangles her bare feet above the surf and writes letters home.

To McGee, she asks when his next book will be out and states that if he so wishes, he might want to write about Director Flock's heroic death and how LJ Tibbs manages with a new team, for she believes the fictional telling of how they manage will have to better than what they are living. She does not tell him how much she misses being around him all day at work.

To Ducky, she says she misses his stories and having tea with him, and she thanks him for helping her figure out American culture. She does not ask him how Gibbs is holding up.

To Abby, she writes of the sights she has seen and the oddities of working with the Air Force, and that there are no forensics where she is and she finds that she misses the hum of the mass spectrometer. She thanks Abby for being Abby and apologizing for not saying goodbye in person. She does not say how she misses Abby's unique take on the world and her odd taste in music.

To Gibbs, she writes how his rules and his techniques are making her assignment, details vague, much easier. She tells of how his additions to Jenny's letter were much appreciated, and she wishes him luck with his new team. She cannot tell him how much he means to her because that is not who they are.

In a letter to Tony, she gets as far as, Jenny wanted to die the way she did and then I miss you before she deletes the draft and writes only, I too am now stationed on the sea.

She attaches a photograph of the Atlantean sea that the censors will most likely remove and watches the sun dip below the water, the moons high and bright in the sky. The sea spray bathes her feet and she sings a Hebrew prayer because she knows she cannot return home from this world unscathed.

Two

Sheppard grabs her the next day and yanks her into what looks like a broom closet. Ziva pushes off his hand and wonders how this man got to be in charge of the most important military post in two galaxies. "What?" she demands with remarkable restraint.

"You told Teyla about-- about everything!"

"Was I not supposed to?"

"No!"

Ziva frowns. "No, I was not supposed to, or no, I was supposed to?"

"Huh?"

"What do you want?"

Sheppard slumps against the wall. Can the man not stand unsupported? "You told Teyla about everything."

"I know." Ziva leans in and stage-whispers, "I was there."

"And now she wants to know why I didn't tell her about Earth's history before." He kicks at the ground, looking ten years old.

"She is mad at you." Ziva can't hide a smile. Tony does the same thing, only with more bluster. "You are upset because Teyla is angry with you."

"No, I'm upset because Woolsey is driving me insane and taking everyone else on post with me!"

"He is not driving me mad," Ziva says, holding back that she is usually the one to do the mad driving.

"Have you spoken with him?"

Ziva has to concede that no, she has not had that opportunity.

"That's why." Sheppard frowns at her. "Hey, how come he hasn't found you yet?"

Ziva steps close to Sheppard, smiling her most devious smile, the one that always scares Tony. "Because I am very, very good." She moves back to give the man his space. "Now, Colonel, I believe it is time for you to go out of the closet."

Sheppard leaves without a backwards glance.

~~~


In spite of everything, of the pain of missing her dear friends at NCIS and a yearning for land that does not move underfoot, Ziva has to admit that some things on Atlantis are slightly more tolerable than in Washington. Her English will probably never be perfect, but on Atlantis there are so many who speak the same languages as she that it is never an issue, because she can easily switch into French or Spanish or Arabic to get her point across.

She's never been in a place with so many different tongues. Over lunch one day, Dr. Tanaka offers to teach Ziva some Japanese phrases if she will help him with the translation of a French scientific article. Captain Weisz from Berlin speaks to her very formally in German and she replies with similar delicacy, a careful dance around unspoken decades of history. Even most of the American soldiers converse easily in English and Spanish.

It is refreshing to no longer be the only one requiring a little extra translation.

What she misses about Earth, however, is real food. The cooks on Atlantis cannot use spices to save their lives. When she finds out that Major Lorne smuggled in a gallon jug of Habanero Tabasco sauce in the last medical shipment, she hatches an elaborate scheme to gain access. After all, one cannot live on salt alone.

~~~


She finds she cannot keep out of Woolsey's path forever. Lorne is waiting for her outside the women's showers one morning with an apologetic look on his face. "I'm sorry about this, but..." he begins, and ten minutes later, Ziva is sitting in Woolsey's office, her wet hair dripping on her shoulders.

"Ms. David," Woolsey says, mispronouncing her last name and she resists the urge to go for a knife.

"Dah-veed," Ziva interrupts. "It is pronounced Dah-veed."

He just looks at her through his spectacles, and it goes downhill from there.

Sheppard finds her in the gym two hours later, attempting to murder a punching bag. "That bad?"

Ziva delivers a roundhouse kick to the bag that sends it flying. "I do not wish to speak of it."

"But he's still alive, right?" Sheppard leans against an equipment rack. "I'm not going to go up there and find some assassination after-party?"

She stops her assault on the bag and whirls on Sheppard. He at least has the grace to look embarrassed.

"I do not understand why they placed someone like him in charge of a facility like this," Ziva says. She steps away from the punching bag to stretch. "It is a facility of military personnel and of scientists, and he appeals to neither group."

"That had occurred to me."

"While Colonel Carter, she was both!" Ziva punctuates her words by throwing her hands in the air; she's gesturing more than she did at NCIS and she wonders at how quickly some things change. "And before that, there was a very carefully delineated reporting path, between yourself and Dr. Weir."

Sheppard's eyes narrow, but he doesn't ask who told her about Elizabeth. It had been McKay, in one of his long rambling soliloquies on how things used to be better in the old days, but that is not the point and so she does not share.

"And you can be in charge of the military again, but there is no way on dirt that the civilian population will voluntarily report to Dr. McKay."

Sheppard's frown deepens. "Do you mean 'on Earth'?"

"Is that not what I said?"

"You said 'on dirt'."

"Do not dirt and earth have the same meaning?"

"Yes, but--" Sheppard catches himself. "So what are your recommendations?" he asks instead. It takes her a minute to sort out what he means.

"You wish to go over my report now?"

"Sure. Are you done?"

"I am, but apparently I have to fill in related paperwork for Woolsey." She does not mask the distaste in her voice.

Sheppard shrugs expressively. "Screw the paperwork. Go clean up and I'll meet you in Lorne's office."

"Why Lorne's office?" she calls after him.

"Because it's got a lock!"

He does not say if he plans to lock them in or Woolsey out, but she's had plenty of experience in not keeping the boss waiting so she heads to the showers at a run.

She has three reports for Sheppard and, because they are in his office, Major Lorne. There is the Hardware version, where she lists everything wrong physically with Atlantis, what is missing and what is extra and what needs repair. Sheppard's eyes gloss over and she moves to the next file, the McKay report.

Lorne rolls his eyes and Sheppard grins like a proud parent as Ziva summarizes the opinions of Dr. McKay, how they're all going to die if they're not careful and here's how they can survive the next few years thanks to him. Lorne begs out of that one after a few minutes, and Ziva pulls open her last file, the one marked with an innocuous To Do as the file name.

As she reads, Sheppard's grin fast falls away. It has taken Ziva several days to tease out the real problems in Atlantis, but she has finally done so. Woolsey's arrival is only a mask on the real problem, which is really quite simple.

No one knows what is happening.

It is not anybody's fault, not really. Things just happen so fast in Atlantis, and there are many people and sometimes things are just omitted from the reports. After all, everyone knows Sheppard's team saved Teyla, and they know Colonel Samantha Carter was removed by the IOA and replaced by Woolsey. It's just that not everyone knows who Ziva is, or why Dr. Saunders from xenobiology left Atlantis suddenly or why the Marines from Lorne's team aren't talking to the Army Rangers from Nicholson's team. In that vacuum, rumors arise and distort and make the problem even worse.

When Ziva finishes speaking, Lorne's eyes are closed and Sheppard has buried his head in his hands. "Remind me again why I joined this expedition?" Sheppard pleads.

"You sat in the wrong chair," Lorne says without opening his eyes. "I'd thought no one had noticed what happened with my team."

"We are on a floating city in the middle of an ocean," Ziva points out. "Scuttlebutt spreads fast enough when people get to go home at night." She thinks over her words. "Does scuttlebutt spread or does it multiply?"

"It's a massive pain in my ass!" Sheppard lifts his head. "How the hell am I supposed to fix it?"

Ziva has spent two days preparing for that question. "You should find someone for the non-military personnel to report to."

He just stares at her.

"The military personnel report to you... Or at least, Major Lorne," Ziva says, and Lorne nods as he slumps down in his chair. "The research scientists used to have Dr. Weir, and then Colonel Carter. They do not want to talk to Mr. Woolsey and very many of them would rather fling themselves into the sea than voluntarily report to Dr. McKay."

Sheppard lets his head fall back into his hands. "Why did I ask you to do this?"

"Because you were in the middle of an argument and wanted to keep me away from you," Ziva reminds him. "It is not my fault that you cannot put the genius back in the bottle."

Sheppard rolls his head to give Ziva the evil eye. "I think she means genie, sir," Lorne contributes absently as he scrolls through Ziva's report. "Just..."

"What?" Sheppard says when Lorne doesn't continue.

"I've got an idea. Give me a couple of days?" That is all he will say, and soon Sheppard and Ziva are in the hallway while Lorne tries something.

"Now what are you going to do?" Sheppard asks, and she manages to avoid hitting him. "Report's done, after all."

"I do not know," Ziva says. She finds his whole leadership style annoying, but that is because compared with Gibbs, John Sheppard seems to be making things up as he goes along.

Sheppard angles towards the control room as they walk. "How would you feel about going through the Gate with Captain Chen's team tomorrow?"

Ziva stops and stares at him.

"Oh-nine-hundred tomorrow morning," Sheppard says over his shoulder. "Simple recon mission. Don't forget to pack all your sharp objects."

She finally finds her voice before he turns a corner. "What will I be doing?"

"Auxiliary military support!" Sheppard tells her before he vanishes into the control room.

Ziva allows herself a spin of happiness on the way to her quarters.

~~~


The next time the Stargate opens from Earth, there is mail from home. To Ziva's surprise, she receives five emails with NCIS addresses and she hoards the knowledge close to her with a warm heart until she is alone. She takes her computer out to the north pier and sits in her usual place, her bare feet swinging over the sea as she begins to read.

McGee writes that he's glad she's going okay, and that he's in the middle of another novel that should be done by July. He expects to be fired for it, but under his words, Ziva can tell he doesn't care. Her heart aches for him, this young idealistic man who will one day be the best of them, and she reads the annoyed stories of his new job with a smile on her face. Timothy McGee will succeed in life, and Ziva wishes him all the best.

Ducky has sent her a thirteen-page email detailing their recent cases and devolving into related anecdotes much as he does in person. It is so much like being back at NCIS that Ziva wants to cry. Jimmy Palmer sends a note as well, nothing long or important, just that he wishes her well and that he passed his exams with flying colors, in case she's interested, and Ziva regrets not writing to him in the first place. She will rectify that.

There are three emails from Abby. The first is short and very angry. The next is a long apology without really saying anything at all. The third is somewhere in the middle, and there is more truth in that letter than in any conversation Abby and Ziva ever had at NCIS. It starts with Kate died without saying goodbye and I guess I'm bad at losing my friends and ends with Ducky gave me your necklace and usually I'm not big on blue, but this is really cool. I know it was for Director Shepard and that there was, you know, stuff between you two, and I hope you don't mind because I really like it and man, this sentence is never going to end so I'll stop now. Ziva takes a moment to imagine how the sapphire will look against Abby's pale skin, and closes the email with a smile.

Gibbs send a one-paragraph reply, about how he's heard rumors about the project she's on and how it's very important, and how he thinks she's probably the best suited for the job. That's it. He doesn't say anything else. She's not sure she could bear it if he did.

There is no word from Tony.

~~~


Ziva opens her eyes to darkness and she cannot remember where she is.

It is not until she tries to sit up that she realizes she cannot move. Her hands, legs, hips, all trapped beneath something immovably heavy. Even this does not scare her, surrounded as she is by the darkness.

Something warm brushes over her forehead. "Shh," soothed a familiar voice. "Do not fight it."

"Wha..." The breath necessary for the word slices pain through Ziva's chest and she lets the word slide into a moan.

"Quiet, you are with me." Hot breath on her cheek, then a kiss on her skin. "I am with you, little sister."

Ziva closes her useless eyes and turns her head away. Something about the situation is wrong, and she cannot think of what that might be. "Ari?" she breathes.

"I am here." There's a skittering in the darkness and more warmth down her side. Ziva tries to move away, but the warmth follows her.

Ari. It is something she needs to remember about her brother Ari. Ziva pushes her mind back, back, beyond Tony and Gibbs and back to Ari.

Ari in Gibbs' basement.

Ari lying in a pool of blood.

Ari, who is dead and can not be breathing on her cheek in the darkness.

When she tries to point out the impossibility of it all, Ari laughs softly. "How do you know I am dead, little sister?"

Ziva draws in breath around the warm wet darkness in her mouth. The air tastes of copper on her tongue. "Because."

"Because?"

The pain in her chest grows with every breath. "Because I shot you," she says, no matter how much it hurts.

He tsks at her in the dark, drawing his fingers over her cheek and throat and collarbone, and she jerks to get away but cannot move from the pain. "Why would you shoot me, dear sister?"

She's crying now and she can taste the salt and copper in her mouth. "I had no choice."

"We all have choices." Ari's voice is soft in her ear. "We all make choices, Ziva, and you made yours." He kisses her cheek and this time, she doesn't pull away. "I can give you that choice back, little sister."

She turns toward the voice, trying in vain to see Ari in the dark. "You are dead."

"We were dead from the moment of our births, sister. Our father saw to that. We were born to die at his hands." There's the sound of movement around her, the groaning shifting of rock and metal in the black. "He made us what we are."

"Ari." His name fills her mouth. "Stop."

She feels him kissing away her tears. "I do not blame you," he whispers. "I forgive you."

Her hands clench and she can feel the rocks now, hard and gritty and painful under her back and hands.

"Come with me."

When she shifts her weight this time, she can feel the rubble pressing against her legs and hips, can register the dust in the air. Her chest hurts and her head hurts and the details all come together and it is blood in her mouth, debris holding her down in the dark and she cannot see.

"I am not dead," Ziva says as loud as she can, ignoring the pain. She manages to lift her hand to her ear and touch her earpiece. It crackles and hums and she has no idea if there is anyone left to hear her. "I'm not dead, Ari, and you are."

"We can be together," he says, his voice turning into a hiss. "Come with me."

"You are right," Ziva says, pulling away from Ari's suddenly scratchy fingers. "I made my choice."

There's other noise around her, high above and muffled, but all Ziva is aware of is that Ari is no longer with her in the dark. She's alone and held down and she cannot see her way out of the darkness.

"I made my choice," she says again, and there's a sudden shaft of light in her eyes and even as she stares, the light fades away and takes the sound and pain with it.

When she comes back to the world, everything is white and fuzzy and soft. The ceiling looms over her and she tries in vain to remember.

"Welcome back." It is the young doctor, adjusting the IV by Ziva's bed. "You gave us a scare."

Ziva licks her lips and thinks she can taste the salt of the sea. "What happened?"

"There was a cave-in," Dr. Keller says. She sits beside Ziva's bed. "You and Stackhouse were caught in the rubble and it took the engineers a while to get in from the gate."

"How is he?" Ziva asks. Details are filtering back to her now. The cracking rocks under their feet. Falling. Darkness.

She cannot remember how it felt to land.

"He's fine," Dr. Keller reassures. "You're lucky, Ronon says there's an indigenous scavenger on that planet with a bite that can make its prey disoriented and confused, inciting auditory hallucinations. We got a sample from you and there's evidence of chemicals in your bloodstream." The woman sounds too happy about all of this. "But it's washing out of your system. You shouldn't hear anything else."

Ziva blinks at the ceiling. "What about the other senses? Would they be affected?"

"Um, no," the doctor says slowly. "The chemicals only affect the auditory nerves. But you're going to be fine, nothing broken or torn." She lays a hand on Ziva's shoulder. "You'll be out of here in a few days."

The woman leaves and Ziva turns her head. Stackhouse is laid out on a bed ten feet away. He's crying in his sleep, and Ziva wonders what choices he's made, who he has lost.

Ziva closes her eyes on the memory of Ari's touch and a brother's forgiveness kissing her skin.

~~~


When the alarms go off, Ziva has been in Atlantis for three and a half weeks. The bruises from her fall are vivid on her skin, but at least she's once again able to run for five miles without stopping.

She is in the briefing room with the other department heads, listening to Woolsey's lecture and McKay's not-quiet counterarguments, when the unfamiliar noise sounds. She may not know the origins, but McKay's running before the first peal stops and Sheppard's on his heels and then the whole room empties and Ziva is the last out, right behind Teyla and the baby in her arms.

"This is bad," McKay announces to no one in general.

"How bad?" Sheppard crashes into McKay and doesn't step away once he regains his balance.

"We're got an internal intruder breech!" McKay shouts at Sheppard, ignoring everyone else. "That means--"

"I know what it means!" Sheppard yells back. He points at the monitors. "How many and where?"

"And how?" Woolsey puts in.

McKay ignores everyone, making the computers do things Ziva cannot understand. "At least ten, in the north wing-- No, eleven!" More and more life forms are appearing on the screen. "They're reading as Wraith!"

Lorne's yelling into his earpiece and Ronon's already got his gun free of its holster. "Let me go," he growls at Sheppard.

"Just wait!" Sheppard stares intently at the monitor. "'K, Ronon, with me, we cut them off at this juncture," he jabs at the screen, "And Lorne's team will set up a block here." He waves his hand at a critical entry point to the main body of the city. "Don't let them pass. Sound general quarters and get everyone guarding every entrance and double the Gateroom guard--"

"I can go with Ronon," Ziva hears herself saying. She's barely healed and she's never seen a Wraith in her life but this is why she's here and she'll only be in the way, otherwise.

"As will I," Teyla says. She shoves her son into Rodney's arms and she's almost sheet white.

"No, you will--" Sheppard stops when Teyla gets in his face.

"I will do what I do best!" she spits out, all five feet of her ready for a fight.

Ronon settles the matter by grabbing Sheppard by the arm. "We're wasting time."

Sheppard lets out a strangled noise, but he's accepting a P90 from a nearby Marine instead of arguing. "We're going to recon and slow them down if we can and we are not going to endanger ourselves!"

"Agreed," Teyla says. "Watch my son, Rodney."

"Uh, okay?" McKay squeaks, holding the child awkwardly, but never stopping his one-armed work.

Sheppard waves his hand and the four of them set off at a run to the nearest transport closet. It's a bit of a squish and they tumble out again near the point of incursion.

"Teyla..." Sheppard tries as a plea, but she's having none of it.

"This is what my people have been doing for as long as there have been Wraith," she hisses quietly. "Or are you like Woolsey, to not allow the best person into combat based on irrelevant reasoning?"

"Well, when you put it like that," Sheppard says. He switches his attention to Ziva. "David, you sure you're up for this?"

"It has been a while since I have killed anyone," she concedes. Her sidearm has a full clip and there are more bullets in her pocket, a long knife at her waist and years of experience in her hands. "But you have told me the best way to kill a Wraith. I believe I am ready."

Ronon makes an inquiring sound, and Sheppard says, "She's well-trained."

"I thought she was a paper-shoveler."

"Paper-pusher," Sheppard corrects automatically. His P90 is up and he's ready for action. "You thought she was a paper-pusher."

"Are all paper-pushers from your planet like this?" Ronon asks.

"Only the ones from Mossad," Ziva tells him, and then there's movement ahead and they quiet and split up and wait.

The wait is over quickly. Ronon gets the first one with a blow from his ray gun, then Teyla takes out another with her P90 and there's a sudden rush and Ziva runs for the two heading to the left. She takes out one with three shots from her gun and the second is too close to shoot. They go down in a heap and Ziva barely avoids an incapacitating head blow, driving her long knife up into the creature's skull and into its brain. With a twist of her hand, the Wraith goes limp and she dumps the body to the side, withdraws her knife and grabs her gun and gives chase and there is no time for thought, only action and desperate defense.

Finally, the Wraith stop coming.

Sheppard's team and Ziva caught all the ones trying to make side-trips into smaller areas of the city. The main force was stopped by the contingent of Marines. No Wraith survived, and Atlantis only lost two soldiers in the attack.

Ziva will not know this for a few hours. All she knows is the rush of adrenalin in her head, the hyperawareness of attack, and the empty aching paranoia of not having anyone left to kill.

Ronon's the first to speak. "You gotta tell me more about Mossad," he says, and Ziva just looks at him. It's almost as if he thought this was fun.

Sheppard's limping a little from being thrown into a door, but he's talking over his headset and Teyla surveys the bodies with quiet contentment and that's just the way it is.

"Come on, kids," Sheppard calls. "Back inside. McKay's got some answers for us."

They make it past their reinforcements and the huddle of Marines, to the control room and Woolsey is so far out of his element Ziva almost feels sorry for him. Almost. She left most of her sympathy for the day back on the killing floor.

"Oh, thank god," McKay says when he sees them. He meets them midway with the fussing baby held in outstretched hands. "You're all right."

"McKay, didn't know you cared," Ronon rumbles and Sheppard lets out a cough.

It seems as if the Wraith got into the city with a cloaked jumper And gee, I wonder where they got that from? Shut up, McKay, and the jumper got away and there are no more Wraith in the city and yes, I'm sure.

Orders are given and words exchanged and Woolsey stands back to let things happen as they must. Ziva sits on the stairs to clean her knife on her ruined shirt. She does not think she will have to fill out paperwork for shots fired, not on this day. Her brain will not slow down enough to let her think.

"...I got ten, and Teyla got six," she overhears Ronon telling McKay after a while.

"Seven," Teyla corrects as she hums a lullaby to her son.

"And David got five." Ziva can hear the grin in Ronon's voice. "Four with her knife alone."

"All right, Ronon, stop it. You'll give the Marines nightmares," Sheppard orders as he limps off. Ziva salutes him with the flat of her blade.

For days, McKay jumps whenever he sees Ziva. Ronon appears at Ziva's door in the morning and demands to learn her fighting style, all of it. Teyla locks Woolsey in his office for two hours and when she emerges, her head is held high and Woolsey seems to be thinking very hard for the rest of the week.

Sheppard steals Ziva's apple the next day at lunch and pretends to cower when she grabs it back. "Your month's up," he says without preamble. "You wanna stay?"

She looks out the windows, at the calm sea. Around them are many languages, so many different people. She's seen how things change quickly around here, and what they're fighting for, and what they're fighting against.

At night, and when she's alone, and most of the rest of the time, she aches to go home to NCIS and be with Gibbs' team again. However, she is not stupid or blind and she knows she will never have that again. Could she return to Washington and not be part of NCIS? Can she go back to Israel and Mossad now, after so long away?

More importantly, can she walk away from a place where she is needed? Where she may just serve a useful purpose in protecting Earth and her people, and all the people in the Pegasus galaxy?

One of the earliest lessons Ziva learned at her mother's knee was that people change and grow, and life moves on, and that everyone ends up where they need to be, that is the mystery of God's hand in the lives of his people.

Ziva hands Sheppard her apple with a smile and a "Yes" and that's that.

On her way back to her quarters, she borrows a screwdriver from Dr. Zelenka and places her mezuzah on the wall outside her door. The prayer of blessing falls easily from her lips.

~~~


Days zip by and it's like any other assignment Ziva has had. Some days are dead boring and some are deadly exciting and there's no telling which it will be when the sun rises.

Ziva does what she can to help out. Everyone has given up trying to figure out what she is supposed to be doing and slowly, the requests start coming in. Dr. Parrish from biology stops her one day to ask if she'd mind passing on a departmental request for supplies. One of Dr. Keller's nurses sits with Ziva at lunch and they talk about Paris and the man leaves at the end of the meal looking much calmer. The Marines know she was once with NCIS, and they keep her informed of Atlantean scuttlebutt 'just in case'.

Little by little, Ziva is pulled into the web of Atlantis and she finds the ache of missing NCIS fading a touch.

And then things get a little more complicated.

The first part of Lorne's solution to the communications mishap is a bastardized Pegasus Galaxy version of Facebook that he calls PegasusBook because they are far enough away from Earth to not bother with copyright infringement. Privately, Ziva thinks it nothing more than electronic gossip, because on an enclosed floating alien city, who needs an electronic invitation to movie night? But since everyone on Atlantis has the same level of clearance, it's not as if state secrets will be spilled. McKay can be heard complaining about the system for weeks, but only because he didn't think of it first, and Sheppard is usually at his side, listening to McKay's rants with half an ear. It is almost cute.

The second part of Lorne's insidious little plan makes itself clear only gradually. More and more of the scientists start accosting Ziva in the hallways, letting her know how things are going, that they need a little more help, that they could really use more supplies, or even that things are fine and dandy. Totally unsure as to what has brought this on, Ziva makes notes of it all on her computer and sends them on their way.

After the sixth such encounter, Ziva finds her wits enough to ask Dr. Addams why he's speaking with her. "Because Major Lorne told us to," the man says in a distracted tone. "Now, if I can just show you the problems with power requirements..."

Ziva finds Lorne lying on his back in a Puddlejumper, working on the crystals with Dr. Zelenka. "What are you doing?" Ziva demands, already halfway into the argument in her head.

Lorne moves his head enough to squint at her with one eye. "Working on the Jumper."

Ziva glares at him.

Lorne lets out a sigh. "Hey, Doc, are we done here?"

Zelenka looks between Lorne and Ziva, his nod reluctant. "I believe we have completed the main portion of the repairs, yes."

Pulling himself into a sitting position, Lorne says, "Good. I think I'll take her up for a test run. Want to come with me, David?"

It's not a request nor is it an order, but in answer Ziva drops into the front passenger seat. Zelenka clears out while Lorne closes up various panels, then the Major slips into the pilot seat and lifts the Jumper into the air.

"Jumper Seven to Control. I'm taking her out on a test run, should be back in about half an hour," Lorne tells the tower.

There's a pause, then some static and Sheppard's voice comes over the speakers. "Jumper Seven, this is Sheppard. Who's your co-pilot on the test run?"

"David's here with me, sir." As Lorne speaks, the Jumper bay doors open and the craft flies out into a beautiful clear day. "I figured she'd want to test the new power thrusters."

"It's your funer--" A cough cuts off Sheppard. "I mean, good choice, Major," Sheppard concludes with alacrity.

"Back in a bit." Lorne engages the engines and the Jumper swoops around the city and off to the horizon.

Ziva rests her feet up on the edge of the consol as Lorne puts the Jumper through its paces. They dip lower, barely skimming the water, and Ziva imagines what it might be like to ride these waves in a boat, one as small as in Gibbs' basement. She will never see it finished now.

"What did you want to discuss away from the city?" Ziva finally asks. The continent is a shadowy smudge on the horizon, the distant mountain range nudging the sky.

"A few things," Lorne says, eyes on the controls. "You want to take her up into orbit?"

"Me?" Ziva asks, startled, but when Lorne cocks an eyebrow at her she removes her feet from the consol and take the controls. The ship is, as always, curiously alive under her hands. Remembering what Sheppard has shown her about flying, she eases the ship into a perfect ascent angle. They fly through clear sky, the blue around them fading to brilliant stars in the black of space.

Lorne guides her through putting the Jumper into a geosynchronous orbit. He's grinning almost as widely as she is. "It's not like anything else, is it?" he asks.

Beneath her calm exterior, Ziva's heart is pounding in excitement. She has just flown a spaceship into outer space all by herself. They are above a world very different from Earth, and yet very much the same, so blue and green and real. Ziva wonders again about the infiniteness of the universe and God's nature. She briefly touches the Star of David on her golden necklace and wishes, without a trace of irony, that Ari could have seen this sight.

"The first time I went through the Stargate back on Earth, I couldn't believe it." Lorne gazes out the view screen at the planet before them. "Same thing when I saw Earth from orbit in the Daedelus. It's just... you see it in books or on TV and it looks small, but this..." He shakes his head. "It's just been a while since I got to come up here and look."

"It is a very busy job, being the XO," Ziva agrees. Is that what this is about? She hopes so. While she does like the Major, Gibbs' Rule Number Twelve is probably even more practical on an enclosed base. "Is that why you told the civilians to talk to me when they need things?"

Lorne swivels his chair around to face Ziva. "Off the record?"

At this, Ziva raises her eyebrows. "Are you trying to incite a mutiny?"

"God, no." Lorne slumps down a little in his chair. "You know what the XO's job is in the military?"

Ziva has heard many of the jokes, some of them from Tony, but does not want to annoy Lorne. After all, he needs to get them back down to the planet. "To support the CO?" she guesses.

"Yeah. And make sure everything's running well. And make sure everything the CO orders gets done. And, on Atlantis, dealing with Mr. Woolsey and a parcel of civilians, and making sure no one kills anyone else." Lorne looks Ziva square in the eye. "As I'm sure you've noticed, I'm kinda busy."

Ziva lets out an impatient sigh. "Why did you not just ask me?"

Lorne's still looking at her. It is unnerving. "Do you have any idea what you've done since you came?"

The conversation is like playing an evidence guessing game with Abby -- Ziva has no idea how to push Lorne to answer her question. So she stays quiet.

"You took an impossible job from Sheppard and you made it work. Hell, you saved us both one bucket load of trouble. And I'm not just talking about the McKay thing. It's almost impossible to get anyone on Atlantis to talk straight to us."

"You think your own people lie to you?" Ziva cannot believe that.

"No, not lie. We've all been around too long, that's all," Lorne clarifies. "When most of the scientists have a problem with... a certain someone--"

"Rodney McKay," Ziva supplies for him.

"Well, yeah. They didn't really go to Colonel Carter because they knew she and Sheppard are both Air Force and she'd go to Sheppard, and Sheppard and McKay are on the same team. They won't go to McKay directly, and so things weren't getting said or done."

"Then why did they talk to me?" Ziva asks.

"Because you were new here. Sheppard gave you his blessing, but no one knew what you were up to. So they let things slip."

Ziva feels as if she is missing some vital information. "Is that not a good thing?"

"Yes, it was. Is." Lorne smiles ruefully. "You know the other reason the civilians talk to you? Not only do you speak a dozen languages--"

"Ten," Ziva feels obligated to note.

"Whatever. You actually talk to them in words they understand, and you're not an academic and therefore not a threat to them."

Ziva is not sure if she should be affronted. "I can be threatening if I wish."

"Not like that. You're not going to belittle their science. You're also not going to tell them how wrong they are or demand they shape up." A beeping from the consol distracts Lorne for a moment, then he's off again. "They've already seen the results of your first report, too, and if there's one thing people appreciate after being part of the military machine for so long, it's responsiveness."

Ziva has no idea what to say, so she falls back on her old standby. "At Mossad, if you are not able to adapt to the situation, you are usually dead," she says. "I was only completing an assignment."

"By yourself, by any means necessary, and you saved me a few months of twenty-hour days." Lorne swings his chair back around to face the horizon. In the distance, the moons are peeking over the edge of the planet. "Sheppard showed me your file. I know why you ended up here, about NCIS Director Shepard and your father pulling strings to get you here."

Ziva watches his profile, the faint hint of stubble on his chin, the worn collar of his jacket rising and falling with every breath, and she wonders how she ever saw hints of Tony in him.

"What I want to know is, are you going to ditch us the first chance you get, or are you in it for the long haul?"

Ziva stares at the moons and feels the readiness of the Jumper beneath her fingers, and she does not know how to answer.

"Think about it," Lorne says as he prepares the Jumper for the descent from orbit. "Let me know what you decide."

When they land, it takes all of five minutes for one of the engineers to step into her path with a request for more power for shield tests and Ziva suspects that her answer for Lorne is being made without actual input from her.

Three

The Wraith attacks around the galaxy become unpredictable, with Michael growing bolder as the other Wraith Hives move in more conservative patterns. Atlantis focuses on protecting the humans and trying to gather information on Michael, pulling on all ties from the Genii and the other races, and Ziva is once again struck by how enemies can set aside differences in the face of a stronger enemy. She wonders if anyone else notices how humans repeat their history unknowingly.

Weeks turn into months and suddenly it is the middle of August and Ziva's ordered on a two-day Earth-side working vacation. She protests to Woolsey's deaf ears and finds herself standing in the Gateroom beside an equally disgruntled Sheppard and McKay. Ronon and Teyla watch from the steps.

"Have fun," Ronon says, grinning when Sheppard flips him off. Teyla shifts her son higher on her shoulder and frowns at Sheppard's antics.

"You could come with us," Sheppard tells them.

"Why would I do that?" Ronon tosses his dreads over his shoulder, nearly smacking Torrin in the face. "Bring back popcorn or something."

"What's taking so long?" McKay calls up at the control room. "Do I need to come up there?"

Beside Woolsey, Lorne leans over the railing to give the group a wide smile. "We've got it under control, Dr. McKay. Have fun at the Pentagon."

"Yes, Washington in August, what a pleasant place for a trip," McKay grouses. Sheppard cuffs him on the side of the head and Ziva laughs out loud.

"You could just pull on his pigtails," Ziva tells Sheppard in an undertone, and he glares at her but no one else heard, so Ziva's happy as the Stargate activates and they walk through to the Midway station and then back to Earth and from there it's a whirlwind to Washington.

Ziva offers to drive the rental car around town, but McKay was along for the ride when Ziva first flew a Jumper after she received the ATA gene therapy and refuses to get in the car until Ziva is as far away as possible from the steering wheel without sitting in the trunk. They compromise by Ziva riding shotgun. Sheppard listens to Ziva and McKay bitch about Washington traffic and Americans in general until they're on the middle of the freeway and going eighty miles an hour. Then he turns to look at McKay in the backseat and asks if McKay wants to drive, and McKay starts screaming about the car not driving itself are you trying to kill us all? and Ziva loses it.

Galaxies away from Atlantis, and some things never change.

At the Pentagon, Ziva meets some very nice Air Force officers involved in the Stargate program, a Brigadier General Jack O'Neill who reminds her strangely of Gibbs and the legendary Colonel Samantha Carter. They're both hesitant around Ziva until McKay makes some crack about Carter's scientific chops and Ziva retorts about McKay's babysitting skills and things calm down a little. The first day's debrief doesn't take long; Ziva's contribution as the international contingent is over quickly and, ignoring the sad eyes from Sheppard, she's excused from the rest of the day. It's not yet noon on a Thursday and before Ziva realizes what she's doing, she has found a taxi and is directing the driver to the Navy Yard and NCIS headquarters.

The security guards in charge of guest admittance haven't changed, and they greet her as an old friend as they log her in and badge her and assign a young agent to escort her into the building. When he asks where she's going and she tells him, to the squad room, his steps slow.

"Um, ma'am..."

Cold fear stabs into Ziva's chest. Someone is dead. Someone on Gibbs' team is dead and no one told her and it's only with remarkable restraint that Ziva manages to not physically accost the man to stop his stuttering.

"It's just that Special Agent Gibbs' team is in West Virginia. Ma'am."

Relief washes over Ziva but she does not let her body give away her thoughts. "Very well then, I will go see Abby in the forensics lab." The man still won't move. "What? Did he take Abby with him?"

"No, ma'am, it's just that..." He coughs. "Ms. Sciuto isn't in the mood for company, most days."

Ziva draws herself up to her full height and gives the man the Gibbs stare. He quickly wilts and leads her, albeit reluctantly, to the elevator. She manages to rid herself of the man before she goes in the door of the lab, to which he acquiesces easily. He will never make full field agent, Ziva thinks in disgust.

The music pumps loudly from the lab as Ziva lets herself in the door. Abby is bent over the microscope, as familiar as ever with pigtails and black schoolgirl skirt. Ziva's breath catches in her chest as she stares, drinking in the familiarity of this room and this woman.

"Whoever's standing there better make some noise quick," Abby said, never turning around. "There's a strict no-lurking policy on Thursdays."

"You would not believe the time zone I have just come from," Ziva starts, and Abby's spinning around before the sentence is complete. Green eyes wide, Abby stares for a moment before dashing over to Ziva and engulfing her in a bone-crushing hug.

"You're back!" Abby exclaims, pulling away for a moment to look at Ziva before diving back for another hug. "You came back!"

Ziva lets herself relax into the embrace. Abby smells of gunpowder and roses and acetone, the silver spikes of her collar sharp against Ziva's throat, and Ziva's mind flashes through a few non-professional thoughts before Abby pulls back again, still grinning. "Of course I came to see you," Ziva says with a voice surprisingly solid. "I have a few days' leave and Washington is the first place I came."

Abby's smile fades slightly, but she rallies and slips her arm around Ziva's elbow. "Gibbs isn't here."

"I know." Feeling rather daring, Ziva squeezes Abby's hand. "I did not only work with Gibbs at NCIS."

It is just the right thing to say. Abby turns off her machines and makes a quick quiet phone call, then locks the lab behind her and pulls Ziva down the stairs to the morgue.

Ducky and Palmer are elbow-deep in an autopsy when the door whooshes open. Palmer spots Ziva first and grins behind his plastic shield; Ducky continues talking about the body and Abby can't keep herself from bouncing on the toes of her platform boots.

"Um, Dr. Mallard," Palmer tries.

"In a minute, Mr. Palmer. There is some fascinating scarring on the pancreas that we'll have to explain before we can continue to the toxicology reports," Ducky says.

Before Abby can say anything, the door again opens. "Abby, what's so important that you need to see me--" McGee's voice stops suddenly when he sees Ziva in the room. His face lights up. "Ziva!"

The next few minutes are a rush of hugs and handshakes and questions. Yes, Ziva is doing well, as is everyone at NCIS, and it's not even strange to have this conversation in the morgue with a half-dissected body fifteen feet away.

Ducky ends the huddle by announcing that he is taking everyone to lunch. Palmer has to decline as he has a performance review in under an hour. Ziva gives him a quick hug and wishes him the best. He blushes behind his glasses as he waves them all off.

Somehow, they manage to squeeze four people into McGee's Porsche and drive to an expensive restaurant. The maitre'd knows Ducky by name and seats them at a table by the window. After the waiter takes drink orders, Abby breaks the awkwardness by saying to Ziva, "You're been out in the sun, haven't you?"

Ziva touches her hair self-consciously. Atlantis floats near enough to the equator that the summer weather is always perfect, and Ziva has taken to spending most of her free time outside on north pier. "Yes, a little," she admits, wondering how much of her life now is supposed to be secret.

"Yeah, Tony said you were stationed somewhere with water," Abby goes on, blithely unaware of the shock her words are to Ziva. "He forwarded that picture you sent, it's really pretty."

Ziva fights to speak, to say anything. In the months she has been stationed on Atlantis, Tony has never once sent her a message of any kind. "Do you speak with Tony often?"

"Not really," Abby says through a mouthful of bread. She swallows before she continues. "He sent in some evidence a while ago, and I usually get an email a week. The Reagan's a big ship and he's pretty busy, from the sounds of things. But they're going to be back in dock in a few days, he said in his last email, but you probably know that."

Ziva blinks and tries very hard not to take this as a betrayal. She was Tony's partner for only three years. The man has known Abby for much longer, and Abby at least was able to be contacted at any time.

Still. Ziva's stomach twists under the weight of it all. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see McGee looking away and Ducky shaking his head, and Ziva forces herself to push Anthony DiNozzo from her mind. She places her attention on Abby. The woman's hair is longer, pigtails swinging over her shoulders. Below her spiked collar, a small blue and silver pendant dangles from a delicate silver chain.

In spite of herself, Ziva smiles, because Abby had no way of knowing that Ziva would be in that day to plan to wear the chain. "Tell me, how are you all really?" Ziva asks.

McGee shrugs. He is thinner and more angular, his joints looser under his stylish clothing, and underlying his quick smile is a cynicism that sits ill on him. "Cyber crimes is dull," he says. His fingers straighten the utensils by his plate, moving quickly over the metal. "But I've had a lot of time to finish my next book. It's coming out on shelves in a few months."

"And it's not going to get him fired," Abby interjects. She scowls at Tim. "He keeps saying that."

"I said it once," McGee reminds her. "But so what if I do get fired?"

Ziva stops scanning the room and stares at McGee. Ever since she met him, his whole life has been NCIS. He loves being a field agent, at solving crimes. Had loved it, Ziva corrects herself. Cyber crimes isn't anywhere near being a field agent, not in the least.

Abby looks as if McGee has just told her the sun isn't going to rise tomorrow. "You stop that right now, Timothy McGee!" she whispers harshly. She takes his hand in hers and squeezes tight. "You don't get to walk away from this any more than I do!"

McGee stares at Abby's hand on his for a long moment before lifting her hand to his lips and kissing her knuckles. It's an oddly mature gesture, coming from McGee. "I'm not going anywhere," he says quietly, more to Abby than to anyone else.

Ziva sits back in her chair. "What has been happening since I left?" she demands.

Ducky is the one to answer. "Sometimes, Ziva, things don't work out the way we'd like them to."

"What is happening with Gibbs?" Ziva asks, because no one has mentioned the man since she left Abby's lab and that is not normal. For three years, almost every conversation her team had touched on Gibbs at some point, because that's just the way things were.

"His new team is competent," Ducky begins.

"But they're not you guys," Abby interrupts. "I mean, Tony was all... Tony, you know?" In spite of the lack of explanation, Ziva suspects she understands Abby's meaning. Tony DiNozzo is tenacious and hyperactive and absolutely brilliant at solving cases and to put him on a ship is insanity. "And McGee could do anything--"

"Abs, stop it."

"I'm serious! Gibbs would give you that glare or smack you around and you'd get things done that no one else could do!" Abby crosses her arms over her chest and gives McGee a glare of her own. "And Ziva was no slouch either."

"What does my posture have to do with anything?" Ziva must ask.

"She means, my dear, that you were very competent in your position," Ducky tells her. He pats Abby's shoulder. "Abigail, perhaps this is not the best venue for this."

Abby tugs on the end of one of her ponytails, and Ziva is struck with the mental image of Sheppard yanking on McKay's hair to get his attention. "I just miss things the way things used to be."

"Things change, Abby." McGee's fingers move in angular patterns on the table's edge. "You got to go with it."

Abby's glare grows icier. "That's very Zen coming from a man who drop-kicked a computer across the lab when it stopped working."

Ziva throws up her hands. This is worse than listening to McKay and Woolsey going head to head over the briefing table on Atlantis. "Can we please not do this?" she asks. "Please?"

"I agree," Ducky adds. "Let us take this opportunity to catch up on what has been happening since Ziva left."

Mercifully, the salad course arrives and the conversation turns to Abby's newest batch of abstract forensic photography (on display in a small gallery in Georgetown) and McGee's continuing adventures as a published author (and the rumors of a movie deal for his first book which he thinks may be the excuse Gibbs needs to finally kill him) and Ducky's upcoming presentation at a forensics conference in London. Ziva contributes a few anecdotes about working with Marines and Air Force officers, all minus any identifying details.

During dessert, a tinny rendition of a familiar song starts trilling from Ziva's pocket. She makes a grab at her cell phone, wondering when someone had time and access to change her ring tone to a song from the eighties. "Hello?"

"Hey, it's Sheppard," says the Colonel over the line. He sounds annoyingly smug. "How's DC?"

Ziva turns slightly away from her companions. "Did you change my ring tone?" she demands.

"Would I do something like that?"

"You--" She stabs at the air with a finger. "You Rickrolled my phone!"

"I have no idea what you mean."

"Sheppard!"

Everyone at the table flinches when Ziva spits out that name, and she doesn't have a chance to explain because Sheppard keeps talking. "So there's this thing tonight and you're supposed to come."

How had this man ever been promoted beyond Captain? "What are you talking about?"

"There's going to be some kind of dinner and award ceremony at the White House and we're all going and you have to come too. Can you be ready by five?"

Ziva says the first thing that comes to mind. "Are you sure I should come?" She's not sure the White House will welcome a Mossad officer into a dinner with the president, regardless of her latest affiliation with Atlantis.

"Yeah, of course. McKay's going to wear a suit. You should dress, too." A muffled voice on the other end of the line tells Ziva that McKay is in the room with Sheppard. It sounds like he's saying, why wouldn't she dress? and then oh god.

"Is McKay picturing me naked?" Ziva hisses. Sheppard's laughing too hard to answer for a moment. "Make him stop!"

"McKay, Ziva wants you to stop picturing her naked. Why? Probably because she can kill you with her brain." Sheppard laughs again. "There, David. I can guarantee you that McKay will never picture you naked again."

"Stop saying that!"

"Be ready to go at the hotel by five," Sheppard says, all business again. "And no armament, it's the White House."

"I am aware of the protocol for State dinners."

"Good. See you at the hotel." The line goes dead and Ziva is so irritated it takes her two tries to get her phone into her pocket. When she looks up, she is confronted with three curious sets of eyes.

"Who's Sheppard?" McGee asks.

"Air Force Lt. Colonel John Sheppard," Ziva says, because while she's had four months to get used to working for another Sheppard after Jenny died, this is the first her former co-workers have heard of it and it must be jarring. "He is the commanding officer of the project I am working with."

"Because that's not at all weird," Abby says, going back to her chocolate cake.

Ziva picks up her coffee cup and swirls the dregs around the porcelain. "It is," she admits. "He even has green eyes."

Then she drains her cup, fearing she has given too much away.

McGee clears his throat. "I have to get back to work," he says apologetically.

"Me too." Abby stands up slowly. "If you can come back again, Ziva, you should." Ziva stands and gives Abby a hug goodbye. The woman clings to Ziva a little too long, but finally pulls back. She touches the shining pendant at her throat. "And thanks for this."

Ziva smiles. "It looks beautiful on you."

McGee is next and Ziva hugs him as well, because now that they no longer work together she can do whatever she wishes. He's stronger than she remembers. "It's been really good to see you again, Ziva," he says. He reaches into an inner pocket of his suit jacket and pulls out a small USB drive. "Um, I'd like you to have this. It's the final draft for my next book, External Affairs. From the way things sound, it might be a while before you get a chance to see the final version."

Ziva holds the drive tight as she kisses McGee on the cheek. "Thank you," is all she can say. She knows how much his books mean to him.

McGee and Abby wander off, and Ziva resumes her seat at the table with Ducky. The man watches McGee hold the door for Abby. "Those two," he says under his breath.

"How are they doing?" Ziva asks.

Ducky's gaze is far away. "It is one of the peculiarities of this situation, that young Timothy and Abigail grow closer. As friends," he adds, a necessary clarity when speaking of any former lovers. "It was a criminal waste to remove an agent of Timothy's caliber from the field."

"Do you not also have to return to the office?" Ziva asks, signaling the waiter for more coffee.

Ducky give Ziva a look. "Not to rest on my laurels, but NCIS needs me. If Director Vance presses it, I suppose I could always go work for the FBI." The distaste in his voice gives lie to that idea.

"Ducky, will you ever retire?"

"I doubt it," the man says. "Staying home all day with Mother would not be the most exciting way to spend the best years of my life."

Ziva laughs, because she has met Mrs. Mallard. More coffee arrives and Ducky declines an offer for a second cup.

"Now, my dear, tell me the truth. How are you doing?"

Ziva takes the time to stir cream into her cup, the swirling liquid a welcome excuse for her to think. "I am... well," she says, surprising herself. "My new position is not as..." She's not sure how to say what she means without hurting anyone, but Ducky knows her and he's always been one to value truth in all things. "I believe I am happier in my new position than McGee is in his."

"That is because McGee and DiNozzo are being punished by the new regime," Ducky says. "While you sound as if you have been moved into a star new assignment. The Air Force was quick to snatch you up."

"I suppose." Ziva rests her chin on her hand. "I have been thinking much about the nature of change, in recent weeks."

"What about it?"

"There is an English saying, 'you can never go back to your house,' yes?"

"It's 'you can never go home again', but yes, I know the one you mean."

"And I think, even if I could change things back, it would not be the same. We all change and it is either better or worse, but that is the nature of change." She shakes her head. "I am not even making sense to me."

"What underlies all of this?" Ducky asks, as always getting around the confusion of language and sensing what Ziva does not say.

"I... I have been asked to make a choice," Ziva says, her stomach clenching with the memory of darkness and Ari's voice in her ear. "And I do not know what I should do."

Ducky regards her for a full minute without speaking. Then he says, "I suspect this has to do with the secret project you are involved with." Ziva nods. "If I may offer some advice, don't make a choice out of fear or out of what might have been. Think about what is and what is best for you."

Ziva knows that, really she does. In that instant, she also knows that the best thing for her and for her people and for humanity is to continue in Atlantis, working with everything she has to help the people of the expedition and of the Pegasus galaxy.

She just does not know how to say 'yes', when to do so will be to remove her last chance to return to NCIS.

Not that her father would allow her to return, she knows this. Her position as Mossad's eyes and ears within Atlantis are far too valuable to take any consideration of her personal feelings into the matter.

Ziva breathes deeply and tries to push down the feelings of loss at admitting that she can never go back. Ducky pats her hand, and it's so him that she smiles. "Thank you," she says.

"You are quite welcome, Ziva."

Ziva recalls herself to the situation at hand. "And thank you for giving that necklace to Abby. It looks good on her."

"She was rather upset at your departure," Ducky says.

"She wrote me several letters to that effect."

"But she wears that necklace at least twice a week."

Ziva smiles. "I... I bought that necklace for someone else," she admits. Judaism has no such ritual as the confession, but her people do know the value of a good cathartic conversation. "Someone I... cared for. In the past."

Ducky gives her that all-knowing stare. "For Jenny."

Ziva feels the blood rush to her cheeks. She has never spoken of such things with Ducky, and she's certain Jenny would never have mentioned it. "How..."

Ducky sighs. "I do wish you young people would stop imagining that you invented the ways of the world," he says. "I am a trained observer of human nature, and I knew Jenny for a very long time."

"It was over before I came to Washington," she feels the need to state. "Jenny was always very careful of her career."

"Yes, she was." Ducky smiles, but softly. "I do miss her," he admits.

Ziva swallows the lump in her throat. Life changes, people live and they die, and there is no going back, no way to change the past. "As do I."

They sit in silence as Ziva finishes her coffee.

~~~


Ziva sits in the hotel lounge with McKay and Sheppard and she cannot stop her attack of the giggles.

"I hate you," Sheppard grumbles as he nurses his drink.

"You always were special," Ziva teases. McKay ignores them both as he reads an academic paper, making notations with a big red pen. "How many officers in your military have received the Silver Star and still do not have a Good Conduct medal?"

"They discontinued that medal in 2006!"

"You have been in the Air Force for longer than two years, yes?" Ziva reaches out to touch the new addition to Sheppard's uniform, the real reason for the award ceremony at the White House that evening. "It is funny."

Sheppard bats her hand away. "I wouldn't have to put up with this from Lorne."

"Then next time, bring him." Ziva raises her glass. "To Lt. Colonel John Sheppard."

"To everyone back home," Sheppard corrects, raising his glass to toast. "Come on, Rodney."

Without looking up, McKay raises his glass and waves it about, nearly tipping the liquid onto Shepard's lap. Sheppard grabs the wayward glass and sets it down.

"What the hell are you doing that's so important?"

"Madison starts grade one next month and Jeannie's finally going back to get her doctorate and she wanted me to review with her thesis proposal." McKay scratches red lines through a whole page and goes onto the next. "And since I have to pay attention at the Pentagon tomorrow, tonight's the only chance to look at it."

Sheppard looks at the paper. "You do realize she's going to kill you when she sees that."

"She'll have to find me first."

Ziva settles back in her chair, watching the two men interact. Sheppard is in his dress blues, looking crisp and professional for the first time in Ziva's memory. Even his hair is tamed. By contrast, McKay is flying apart, his tie loosened and his top button undone and his attention in every direction.

Ziva, too, is different. Her expensive dress is luxurious against her skin, stockings covering her legs and her feet in high heels for the first time in months. She is gorgeous, she knows, and Sheppard didn't really notice and after an initial choking on his drink before dinner, McKay managed to pick his jaw off the ground and ignore her too, and that's fine with her.

A flicker of familiar motion near the door grabs Ziva's attention away from McKay and Sheppard. She jerks her head around, telling herself that she could not have seen what she just saw, but by the time her glass is on the table, she's staring directly at the very last person she expected to see in Washington.

Tony DiNozzo.

All Ziva can do is stare as Tony walks across the room. He's more tanned than she remembers, his hair longer, but it's him and her heart is doing strange things in her chest. He stops by the table, hands in his pockets and something Ziva is not sure she can identify in his expression.

Sheppard kicks McKay under the table to shut the man up. "David?" Sheppard asks, hidden questions in her name.

"Tony," Ziva says, greeting the man while at the same time giving Sheppard all the information he needs. "What are you doing here?"

"The Reagan docked early," Tony says, his voice lower than Ziva remembers it. A shiver runs through her whole body because this is the first time she's seen him since everything changed. "Abby told me you were in town and which hotel you were staying at, and I thought I'd come by and say hi."

His words are innocent but his eyes are not, and Ziva is having a hard time breathing.

Sheppard stands, the dim light of the bar catching on his uniform. McKay's just watching. "John Sheppard," the Colonel says, holding out his hand to Tony.

"Hey," Tony says, putting on his friendliest smile. The expression doesn't reach his eyes. "Tony DiNozzo."

They shake and McKay rolls his eyes. "Would you care to join us for a drink?" Sheppard offers.

"Actually, I came to see if Ziva might like to go grab some coffee, to catch up." Tony looks at her as he speaks, his gaze sliding down over her body, just for a moment.

"That sounds like a good idea," Ziva says quickly. She picks up her shawl and her purse before she can change her mind. "I shall see you tomorrow," she says to Sheppard and McKay.

"Have fun," Sheppard says with an easy smile, one Ziva knows is to indicate to Tony that no one is stepping on anyone's toes and one she will remember for the next time they spar.

Tony rests his hand on Ziva's lower back for a moment as they exit the lounge and leaves it there until they are out of the front door. "I've got my car," he says, leading her to the familiar automobile. "Just got her out of the garage an hour ago."

He opens the passenger door for her, which he has never, ever done. Ziva stops and stares. They have not spoken since that day in Vance's office and that silence means something. That Ziva has tried and Tony never responded, that means something. "What are we doing?" she asks him.

The easy expression on Tony's face never changes, and she hates it because she knows it is his way of lying. "I don't know, Ziva, I thought we might want to catch up. You had lunch with Abs and Ducky and the Pro-- McGee."

There's an edge to his words and she cannot understand. "Because they were at NCIS and you were not."

"And now I'm here."

Ziva steps closer to Tony, close enough to kiss him. She has known him for so long and there are still times when she cannot understand what he is thinking. This is one of those times. "Do you really wish to take me for coffee?"

He runs his tongue over his lower lip as he considers. "We could if you want. Or ice cream? We could get ice cream."

She wishes she could read what is hidden in his eyes. "Did they not have ice cream and coffee on the ship?"

"Yeah, they did," he says slowly.

"Then," she says, and it takes everything she has to keep her spine straight. "Perhaps we could go somewhere more private to talk."

Tony's breath hitches in his throat, but he flashes a brilliant smile to cover up his nervousness. "I've still got my apartment. We could yank the dust covers from the furniture."

"Did you cover your furniture with dust covers?"

Tony shakes his head. "Nah. I got McGee to help me dump the perishables and lock up after me." He lets go of the door and walks around to the driver's side of the car. "Abby and Gibbs were dealing with your place."

And there it is, the bitterness underlying his movements that makes Ziva hesitate before she gets into the car. In the back of her mind is part of her conversation with Ducky, that some things can never be the same, but she takes a deep breath and closes the door and Tony pulls the car into traffic.

She's not sure what to say, so she watches the Washington streets go by in silence. The seat is far enough back that she can cross one leg over the other, and as she does so, her dress slides down to bare her thigh. Tony clears his throat. "So, you cleaned up real nice," he blurts out. His words sound out of place in the soft air of the car. "I mean, you're always nice and, um, clean, it's just tonight you're nicer than usual."

"It was a dinner," Ziva says, cutting him off. "Colonel Sheppard received a medal."

"Fancy dinner, huh?"

"Yes." Then, because if she does not say anything, it will be as if she is hiding something from him, she adds, "At the White House."

Tony whistles. "Someone's moving up in the world."

She's not sure if his words are a jab or honesty. It has been too long since she has needed to translate the words of Tony DiNozzo. "The dinner was not to honor me. I was merely there."

"Not sure it works that way," Tony says. The light from passing street lamps passes over his skin like a pulse, and Ziva wonders what she is doing. "So what else have you been up to since May?"

Ziva smoothes out a wrinkle in the fabric of her shawl. "I have been involved in an international project, mostly with the Air Force and Marines." She does not want to say the words top secret, but she is not sure how else to avoid telling Tony the details. "My English continues to improve." Where had that come from?

"You speak fine, Ziva." Tony keeps his eyes on the road. "Or is it you talk fine? I can never keep those straight."

Ziva's stomach turns over and she wonders if this is what Gibbs means when he says something does not feel right. She pushes down the thoughts that this is a bad idea and taps out a small beat on her knee. "How is it, on the Reagan?"

She does not miss how his hands tighten on the steering wheel. When he speaks, she can hear the lies in his voice. "A little of this and that. Had some fights, some disciplinary problems. Stuff a dead monkey could handle."

His tone of voice sends Ziva's stomach into another twist. This is not the Tony DiNozzo she knew, this is a very unhappy man.

"But hey, sounds like you got a good deal out of the shuffle." The car pulls up outside Tony's building and as the parking garage grate closes after the car, Ziva wonders if she's missed her last change to fix this. "I got your email. Pretty picture. Where was that, again?"

As questions went, it was crudely obvious and not worthy of Tony's interrogation skills. Ziva runs her thumb over her purse and thinks of the cell phone she has hidden inside. This isn't like being on Atlantis or off-world in the Pegasus galaxy. She is on her own here, and she has to fix the situation or leave as quickly as possible. As much as she doubts she can fix this problem, four months in the brewing, she isn't sure she is brave enough to leave. "The exact location is classified."

Tony pulls into his parking spot and turns off the engine. Stillness engulfs the car interior. "It's classified but they let you send a picture?"

"It is the Air Force," Ziva shoots back, well-versed in the rivalry between military branches after four months on Atlantis and three years under Gibbs. "Why did you not reply to me?"

Tony's hand freezes on his keys, but only for an instant. He yanks his keys free of the ignition and exits the car in a series of overly loud moves. Ziva remains in place, wondering how she always manages to mess things up with Tony.

He jerks open the passenger door, startling Ziva, but she ignores his hand and stands under her own power. He's too close for propriety, but Ziva will not be the one to back down.

The sound of car door closing is loud in the deserted parking garage. Only a few inches separate Tony and Ziva and in spite of all the logical reasons crowding in Ziva's head about how this is a very bad decision, her body aches for touch. She has slept alone for a very long time and the heat between her and Tony has been building for years.

In the end, he's the one to move first, with one hand on her waist and the other on the car behind her, steadying them, he lowers his head those last few inches and kisses her.

They've done this before, faking it in a hotel under FBI surveillance, but even as they pretended they established a rhythm. In the part of Ziva's brain still functioning, she's a little stunned that this feels so familiar, the sweep of Tony's tongue on her lip, the way his fingers clutch at her dress and the way she wants to fall into him.

They make it to his apartment without scandalizing the neighbors. The door closes behind them and Ziva scans the room for threats while Tony kisses her neck, his hands tugging at the zipper of her dress. The place feels deserted and cold in spite of a half-unpacked suitcase on the coffee table. Then Tony spins her around and presses her against the wall. She delays him in pulling off her dress right there in the hall by grabbing his shirt collar and dragging him upright.

His face is flushed, his hair a mess and she wonders if she looks equally disheveled. "What?" he pants as his hands tighten on her hips.

"I--" She has to stop and swallow before she can finish the sentence. "I was not expecting to see anyone in Washington."

He dips his mouth back to her neck. "I've got condoms, if that's what you're worried about." Ziva's back arches as he bites down on a particularly sensitive spot. "Is that it?"

She makes some noise meant to be agreement, and then Tony spins them into the bedroom and any other words Ziva wants to say are lost in a rush of skin and sheets and touch.

Some time later, Ziva's too exhausted to fight her way out of the tangle of sheets and limbs. She lies on her back and stares at the ceiling and listens to Tony breathing in her ear. After a while, Tony rolls away from her and sprawls across the mattress. He does not say anything.

Ziva turns her head to see his profile. He's looking at the ceiling, his face as blank as she's ever seen. Ziva pushes down several was it good for you jokes and turns onto her side. "Tony?"

He still will not look at her. "Yeah?"

Ziva forces herself to take a deep breath, then another. She's well-trained in pulling herself into a particular mindset while needed, and it takes very little effort to remove herself from the post-coital fog and return to alertness. "You never answered my question."

"And which question was that?" he asks the ceiling.

Ziva sits up, pulling the sheet with her to cover her breasts. It is easier to have this conversation if she does not feel so vulnerable. "Why did you never reply to my message?"

When he finally does shift his gaze to her, she's not ready for the conflicting emotions she sees in his face. "Did you ever consider that maybe I had nothing to say to you?"

She's out of the bed in an instant, reaching for her underwear and dress and shoes. Rather than spend any more time in this place than she absolutely has to, she shoves her stockings and jewelry into her bag. She's out the door in under a minute.

Tony does not come after her.

The apartment hallway is silent and the elevator does not come quickly, leaving Ziva with the forced inactivity of waiting. She stares at the illuminated down arrow and she cannot think. Her body's still vibrating with combination of the fading afterglow and the emotional blow to the stomach. Not just her body. Her fingers are shaking as she reaches up to press the elevator call button again and again.

She knew this was a mistake going in, but she let her emotions run over the logic in her head. She missed Tony so much that she hadn't thought before falling into his bed.

The elevator doors open and Ziva hurries inside. The elevator's mirrored interior shows her what a mess she is. She manages to restore order to her makeup and hair by the time the elevator arrives in the lobby, and she is outside on the front step before she realizes that she left her shawl in Tony's apartment.

Because nothing in the world could force her to speak with Tony for any reason, Ziva raises her hand to flag down a passing taxi. The driver takes one look at Ziva and turns up the radio as he points the cab towards the hotel.

The Indian pop music is just noise in Ziva's head. She wishes she could feel numb or think logically about the situation, but she cannot. In the claustrophobia of the taxi, the emotional kick to her stomach coalesces in her torso and moves up to her chest, gripping hard around her heart and throat.

Three years of working with Tony, four months of missing him so much, and it took less than an hour for all of her hopes to be dashed to pieces on the rocks of her own bad judgment.

Did you ever consider that maybe I had nothing to say to you?

Tears rise in Ziva's eyes and she presses a hand over her mouth to keep from crying. She knows that Tony has spent the last four months in purgatory, being miserable and waking every day to the memory that he had been ripped away from the place he belongs. She knows that Tony's whole life was being an NCIS field agent with Gibbs and the team in Washington, and that he must be hurting.

But absolutely nothing in that knowledge can ease her humiliation at the way he pulled away from her, at his words.

She manages to calm herself slightly by the time the cab pulls up in front of the hotel. She pays the driver more than double the fare for keeping his thoughts to himself and holds her head high as she enters the hotel, heading straight for the lounge.

McKay is gone but Sheppard is leaning on the bar, digging his way through a bowl of bar mix while ice melts in his glass. He glances up when Ziva sits next to him. His surprise at seeing her quickly fades to anger.

"Do not," Ziva says before he can open his mouth. "Do not say anything."

Sheppard knocks back the rest of his drink. "What am I not supposed to say?"

Ziva drops her purse on the counter. The catch goes as it hits the hard wood, her golden necklace spilling out into the light. It takes her two tries before she can speak. "Do not ask me how I am, or what happened. I know..." Speaking without crying is difficult and Ziva hates feeling so weak because it brings back the crushing memory of Did you ever consider that maybe I had nothing to say to you? "I know I appear at... less than my best."

Sheppard crumples a napkin in his fist. "Ziva, you're under my command," he says in an undertone. "If something happened--"

"What do you think happened?" Ziva demands, her control near to snapping. It would probably be frowned upon by the American legal system if she were to kill the military's newest Silver Star recipient, but she's this close to not caring. "Tell me, Colonel Sheppard, what do you think happened this evening?"

Sheppard tosses the napkin down, catching the attention of the bartender. "What the hell am I supposed to think? You left here with some guy you used to work with and you come back--"

Ziva slaps her palm on the wooden surface of the bar, the sting doing nothing to ease her inner turmoil. "I come back like what?"

Sheppard stares at her, his green eyes dark, and while she can recognize his concern, it makes her feel even worse. "You look like things didn't go the way you wanted." He turns to the bartender and says, "How about a bottle of your most moderately priced scotch and two glasses?"

The man melts away into the dim clatter of the room. "Where is Dr. McKay?" Ziva asks, because while she is upset she is not totally destroyed, and if she must be sober to rescue the man from whatever trouble he is in, she would like to know now.

"He's up in his room on the phone with his sister." Sheppard accepts the bottle from the bartender and pours a generous amount into each glass. "It's only eight o'clock in Vancouver. We’ll probably be able to hear the shouting from here. Drink up." He pushes one glass in Ziva's direction.

"Are you going to tell me this will make everything better?"

Sheppard snorts as he picks up his own glass. "When do you believe what I tell you?" He tips his glass in a toast. "To making things worse."

It's possibly the least helpful thing he could have said, but it's so true that Ziva lifts her own glass. "To making things worse."

The scotch burns on the way down but she doesn't care. The heat of the liquor eases the knot of tension in her stomach. She sets the glass back on the counter and reaches for the bottle.

"You sure that's a good idea?" Sheppard asks from behind his glass.

"No, I am not." Ziva pours until she's satisfied that her glass really is half-full. "But I have a presentation tomorrow at the Pentagon and since I will most likely be unable to sleep, I may as well be hung-over as well."

"So you've dealt with Pentagon briefings before?"

Ziva kicks the leg of Sheppard's chair. "You are the one drinking alone in the dark."

"It's not that dark in here." Sheppard tops up his drink. "Your turn to make a toast."

Ziva lifts her glass and thinks. After a pause, she says, "To Rule Number Twelve."

"To Rule Number Twelve," Sheppard echoes. They drink, and after Sheppard's done cringing at the burn, he asks, "What's Rule Twelve?"

"Never date a co-worker."

"Hear, hear." Sheppard signals for more nuts. "But it's not really a date. You weren't even gone for two hours."

The alcohol seems to be going straight to Ziva's head. "And that is the other thing!" she exclaims. "You would think three years of sexual tension would at least manage more than thirty minutes of sex."

Sheppard chokes on a cashew. "You should ask for your money back," he says once he can breathe.

"And I left my new shawl there," Ziva adds, reaching over Sheppard's hand into the bowl.

"I wouldn't worry about it, it's not his color." Sheppard's face is solemn, but there's a smile hidden in his eyes and Ziva finds herself smiling back, just a little.

It hurts, but it is not the end of the world.

They (well, mostly Ziva) finish the bottle before the bartender discreetly calls McKay to come get them. The scientist berates them both as he hauls them gently into the elevator, managing to get everyone to their own rooms with a minimum of stumbling. Ziva closes the door behind her and doesn't bother with the light, clothes hitting the floor as she strips on her way to the bed. Sheppard is right, she thinks as she crawls naked between the covers. Sometimes the only way to deal with a messed-up situation is alcohol. She will not feel bad about Tony DiNozzo's mental deficiencies and she will certainly not think about his physical attributes. Ever again.

That sentiment lasts until she wakes to the shrill bell of the alarm clock. It's too early and she's hung over and various parts of her ache and as she stumbles into the bathroom to throw up, the previous day seems like a very bad dream.

Somehow, she survives the day's briefings without embarrassing herself. After everything is over, Sheppard drives them to the airport for their return flight to Colorado and from there, to Atlantis.

Ziva's cell phone does not ring all day.

Four

Atlantis welcomes them back in the usual way: In full crisis mode. Sheppard and McKay run to the control room and Ziva seeks out Lorne, who's in the middle of arranging counter-measures. "Can I help?" Ziva asks, tossing her duffle bag in a corner of Lorne's office.

"You know I can never turn down a lady," he says with a grin. "Can you organize logistics for turnout of the engineers?"

"Is it hot on the sun?" Ziva's already moving, hangover and Tony DiNozzo put out of her mind. She is back where she needs to be and all she can feel, in spite of the chaos and impending disaster, is relief.

She has a job to do.

~~~


It takes Ziva three weeks to work up the nerve to read McGee's book. Finally, she runs out of excuses, so on her day off, she loads the file onto her tablet and opens the file as she sits down to breakfast.

Five hours and twice as many cups of coffee later, Ziva is done. The end of the story hits her like a blow to the stomach and all she can do is sit and stare.

NCIS Director Vance is not going to fire Timothy McGee. He is going to have the man killed.

About the only thing McGee avoided in his story was the method and cover-up of Jenny Shepard's death. Everything else is there on the screen; the team torn apart, the interpersonal relationships ripped to pieces. Director Flock dies a hero, her replacement starts to dismantle the agency for his own ends, and it's just different enough to highlight about the what-might-have-beens.

And somehow, months before it actually happened in real life, McGee wrote how Mossad Office Lisa and Special Agent Tommy hooked up for a disastrous one-night stand that left them at odds by the end of the book. Ziva's not sure what to do about that: Killing McGee herself may seem like a bit of an overreaction, but she is seriously considering it.

"What's wrong with you?" Ronon drops his lunch tray onto the table across from Ziva, making her jump. "You look bad."

"She looks fine," Sheppard counters, pulling up a chair beside Ziva. "What's up? Paperwork?"

Ziva looks down at her computer, but the words have not moved. There are no more. "My... There is a book. Here. This one is next."

Sheppard raises his eyebrows. "Is this some kind of secret Mossad code language?" he asks around a mouthful of food.

Ziva shakes her head to rid herself of the sand in her mind. "A man I used to work with at NCIS. Tim McGee. He writes novels."

"Oh yeah? What kind of stuff?" Sheppard sounds moderately interested. Ronon remains busy attacking his plate.

"I believe they are called crime novels. The first one was Deep Six, and the next was Rock Hollow. I have just read the most recent book and now..." She takes a deep breath. "McGee must pay for this."

Sheppard puts his fork down. "Deep Six by Thom E. Gemcity?" he asks with a wide smile. "I love that book!"

Ziva turns her glare on him.

"The character seem so real--" Sheppard chokes on his own words as untold glee spreads across his face. "Oh god, are you Officer Lisa?"

"Do not say it!"

But Sheppard is too far gone to care. "Man, this is awesome. And you've got the third book? Can I read it?"

"No!"

"Please?"

"No!"

"I could order you to give it to me."

Ziva leans closer to Sheppard. "Do you really wish to order me to 'give it to you'?" she demands.

Sheppard just grins at her. "I could just tell everyone on base who reads the books that you have an advance copy of the next novel and they should come to ask you for it."

Ziva's mouth falls open. Of all the things the man could do! "You would not dare!"

Sheppard holds out his hand. "Wanna bet?"

Ziva is preparing to throttle the man when Ronon suddenly grabs her computer and backs away so she cannot reach him without going over the table. "What's the big deal about a book?" Ronon asks, fiddling with the tablet. "Why would anyone want to read about crime?"

"So you can be happy that it's not happening to you," Sheppard says as he arm wrestles with Ziva. She slams his hand to the table and stands while he's shaking off the sting. "Ronon, give it here."

"If it's got you fighting with her over lunch, maybe I want to read it first."

Ziva makes a strangled scream. "Fine, if you want the book so bad, take it!" She slaps the USB key into Sheppard's numb hand. "I have work to do!" After retrieving her computer from Ronon, Ziva marches out of the cafeteria, chin up. She has work to do. If Sheppard truly wishes to read about the not-so-fictional problems of LJ Tibbs, he is welcome to it.

She should have known better. Within the day, over half the base gets their hands on a copy of the book, because Sheppard cannot keep himself from posting his location on PegasusBook, Reading the new Thom E. Gemcity book. Guess who's the REAL Mossad Officer Lisa?

Lorne has to lock Ziva in his office from going after Sheppard when she reads that.

The week does not get much better. Ronon manages to find paper copies of McGee's first two books from somewhere and starts pestering Ziva about proper police procedure and forensic techniques. It turns out that his home world of Sateda had a similarly structured investigative service, although their forensics were nothing compared with what NCIS has. The conversations with Ronon are almost enough to distract Ziva from everyone who wants to now talk to Ziva about the books.

After five days, Ziva writes McGee a stern email about how she will never speak to him again. As soon as she hits send, she regrets it and must bribe McKay with much chocolate to remove the email from the upcoming data burst. Ziva's feelings of contrition last long enough to write a nicer letter to McGee with some of the complimentary comments the expedition members have passed on to her. At least, she reasons privately, his sales will not suffer too much from the leaked copy in the Pegasus galaxy.

The process of writing and rewriting the email to McGee prompts Ziva to write to Abby as well, teasing the woman about some of the book's forensics. Ziva also asks for some music recommendations, because she's gone through the music on the shared Atlantis servers and she's bored by the scientists' music. Not one of them is nearly as eccentric in their tastes as Abby Sciuto.

And then, because it would be rude to write to Tim and Abby and not send along word to Ducky, Ziva writes a story about Teyla's baby Torrin and some of the children on a Genii-affiliated world, all without using any proper names or alien details. She also sends word along to Palmer and asks him if there have been any interesting cases in recent weeks.

While she's stuck on a seven-hour-long Jumper trip with Lorne and Henderson bickering in the front seat, Ziva lies on her stomach and types out a message to Gibbs. She does not plan to send it, and so it is easy to write all the things that she could never say to him in person. She amuses herself by alternating lines between Russian, Spanish and English, and ends up writing nearly everything that has happened to her since the day of Jenny Shepard's funeral.

When the Jumper engines give out and they are stuck floating in outer space while help is summoned, Ziva manages to edit the Gibbs letter down to something she could actually let the man read, then translates it all back to English for him.

And when the message comes in from Atlantis that help might be delayed for no more than a day, there's MREs in the upper racks, Ziva takes her turn at the dead controls and stares at the stars until some things make a little more sense, while others descend into confusion. While Henderson snores and Lorne lounges in the back reading a copy of External Affairs, Ziva takes a deep breath and opens a new email.

Dear Tony,

How did things between us get so wrong?


She erases the email before she goes to sleep.

~~~


After the Jumper is towed back to Atlantis, none-the-worse for wear, Ziva spends an hour in the shower before heading to the commissary for some food that did not spend the last year in a foil bag. When she arrives, five-month-old Torrin is babbling and holding court to an adoring crowd of scientists and soldiers while his amused father Kanaan looks on.

Ziva sits at a nearby table to eat, watching the crowd with one eye while skimming through the backlog of work that accumulated while she was stuck in outer space. She's almost done her sandwich when Sgt. Stackhouse appears at the side of the table.

"Welcome back," the man says, his step light at this, the beginning of his day. "I've been looking for you."

The only reason Ziva does not bite the man's head is that he has saved her life on at least two occasions. "Here is where I am."

The corner of his mouth twitches at Ziva's dispirited response. "This came for you in the last post bundle through the SGC," he says, placing a small piece of paper on the table by Ziva's hand. "I figured that since you don't get a lot of mail from home, you'd want it ASAP."

He leaves, veering past the baby crowd to chuck Torrin under the chin and make a few of the scientists giggle. Ziva rolls her eyes at the Marine's behavior, but she does not think too much of it. She knows Stackhouse has four younger siblings back in Maine he helped raise after his mother died of cancer.

After finishing the last of her sandwich, Ziva finally turns to the small piece of post. It is a picture postcard, the edges battered from passing through the U.S. military postage system. The glossy photograph shows a sunlit beach in Naples, Italy.

She does not know anyone in Naples.

Turning the postcard over, Ziva's eyes are drawn to the postmark from the Naples Naval Station before she registers that she knows the handwriting on the white cardboard.

It is from Tony.

Ziva,

I'm sorry. I didn't mean what I said that night. What I meant was I didn't know what to say to you after everything. You just left without saying goodbye and then you send me that email and I didn't know what to think.

I still don't, not really.

I liked your email. Here's where I am now, Naples. We're in dock to resupply and then we're off again.

Maybe we can talk sometime?


Ziva does not know what to think, either. Even after a ten-mile run around the city, she still does not know what to make of the postcard. She folds it and slips it into the edge of the black plastic canvas surrounding her tablet computer and carries it with her, hoping that one day Tony DiNozzo will make sense to her.

~~~


The return emails from NCIS arrive a day after Captain Weisz's team goes missing.

Ziva does not have a chance to look at the letters. Her days and nights are filled with the bone-wearying panic of men missing in a galaxy where the missing too often never return. Search teams are sent out, allies are consulted and enemies interrogated. All they find are an empty blood-stained pack by the Stargate and one lone boot belonging to the team's biologist, Dr. Tracy. Four men have vanished into nothingness.

McKay and Zelenka don't sleep for over two days, trying to decipher the return addresses on the off-world Stargate. The medical team tests everything from the planet and the blood-covered pack to see if there was some clue as to the team's whereabouts. Even the Daedelus is pressed into service when it arrives in orbit.

There is nothing. The men are gone.

Or, as Ziva overhears a whisper late one night in the hallway, they have been taken by the Wraith.

Ziva assumes the base-side duties of Lorne and Sheppard to allow them to go out searching. She does not know what she is doing, but every time some new problem drops onto her lap, she refuses to let herself hyperventilate. She is helping in the only way she can in this galaxy. Men are missing, and no one on Atlantis will rest until they come home safe.

That is what makes the discovery of the team's decomposing bodies nine days later so impossible to bear.

Ziva is in the control room beside Woolsey when the Stargate activates, disgorging Sheppard and Ronon. Everything Ziva needs to know is written on Sheppard's ashen face. The man ignores Woolsey's questions for a moment. "Gear up," Sheppard says, voice rough. "You're coming back with us."

A faint hint of muddy earth and decomposing flesh clings to Sheppard and Ziva has to make herself stand still as he approaches. "Why?" And then, because that seems callous, she adds, "What must I bring?"

Sheppard shrugs, his knuckles white where he is holding the P90 too tightly. "Something happened and you're the investigator. Come figure it out."

Ziva exhales. It has been months since her investigative skills have been required and she is not sure she can bring them back so quickly. But Sheppard look at her like she might actually be able to help so she says the only thing she can.

"I will be right back."

She runs because she is afraid that if she walks, they will leave without her and Sheppard is right, she is an investigator and this is worse than any NCIS case, because the men of Weisz's team are-- were her people, her responsibility as much as they were Sheppard's. Weisz was German military and he'd walked very carefully around Ziva because he was German and she was Israeli and that was the way things would always be. Dr. Tracy had always been meticulous in his reports and requests for supplies, and Ziva had thanked him on more than one occasion for being so low maintenance. The other two on the team, Carvahlo and Bianco, both military, both Argentinean, had been so similar that Ziva always mixed them up in life. They had looked like brothers in spite of their surnames.

And now they are dead and it does not matter.

Three years under Gibbs makes the packing process automatic. Camera, sketchpad, computer, all into her backpack. Ziva detours through the infirmary on her way up to the Gateroom and finds Keller packing together body bags. "I need gloves," Ziva blurts out.

Keller never looks away from her packing. "Over there. Take what you need."

Ziva stuffs a whole box of gloves into her bag and adds various plastic bags and vials for evidence. She grabs one of Keller's many bags and together they head to the Gateroom. The halls of Atlantis are filled with silence. News has spread quickly. Ziva wonders what Lorne will do with the team's PegasusBook location status, and then the hopelessness of it all lurches up in her stomach and she breathes deeply to avoid being sick.

From the stench of decomposition on Sheppard and Ronon, there will be plenty of time for that on the planet.

On the planet, she follows behind Sheppard until the man stops at the edge of a hill and points at the small stone hut in the lee of the slope. "In there."

Ziva drops her bags in the grass and gloves up, taking the camera with her as she walks to the hut, careful to watch for any signs of footsteps or tracks. The rocky ground gives away no secrets.

The wind is blowing at her back, so Ziva makes it to the door of the hut before the stench of decay hits. The nine days have taken their toll on the bodies. Most of the flesh is missing to bacterial decay and scavengers. Distantly, Ziva thinks herself lucky that their faces are gone, bone exposed. It is selfish and grotesque, but she does not have to look at the faces of the dead. Skulls are anonymous in death.

The wind changes, blowing the decay at her, and Ziva manages to stumble out of the hut and to the edge of a small creek before she throws up. Her stomach nearly empty to start, the episode is brief. Ziva retreats to her knapsack to pull out a bottle of water to rinse her mouth, giving her time to build up a wall around her emotions before she returns to the hut.

Dr. Keller has not moved, and Ziva is grateful for the woman's solidity. Ziva takes many photos of the scene, taking in the details without speaking.

After a few minutes, something sharp catches Ziva's eye. She pauses and snaps a few more photos of the ground before calling over Keller. "Do you see this?"

The doctor crouches beside Ziva, her gloved hand to her nose to block the smell. "Yeah."

"See what?" Sheppard demands from the door. Ziva doesn't spare him a glance as she takes another round of pictures.

"The three bodies over there have large holes in their chest cavities," Ziva says. "This body has been stabbed with a military knife. The knife remains in the ribs."

"I can't be certain until I get them back to Atlantis, but it looks like a fatal blow," Keller adds.

Sheppard glances up at the darkening sky with bloodshot eyes. "Do you know who it is?" he asks, tight-lipped.

"I suspect that this is Dr. Tracy," Ziva says, standing. The world is curiously quiet in this hut with the dead men.

"Why the hell do you think that?" Sheppard demands.

"Because," Ziva says, walking across the floor to the three bodies huddled in a corner. "Dr. Tracy only had one boot with him."

For a long time, the only sounds heard are the snap-snap of Ziva's camera and Keller sealing up plastic bags for transport to the Daedelus.

~~~


It is her first solo investigation. Ziva takes over the large office Sheppard never uses and spreads her evidence across the walls. There is not much to see. The photographs of the dead, the bloodstained knife retrieved from Tracy's ribs, three sets of dog tags, the team's notes, and a list of unanswered questions.

How did the military officers die?

Who/What/Why was Tracy stabbed?

Why was the team on P4R-7X2? Why did they not dial Atlantis if in trouble?

When did they die?

Why did they leave no message for Atlantis?


The when and how of the deaths come from Keller after two days. "The bodies indicate that time of death was at least nine days ago," she tells the gathered crowd in the briefing room. "It's very likely that they were dead before we even realized they were missing."

"I'll be sure to let the search teams know, thanks for that," Sheppard snaps. He's been an asshole since they found the team and if he does not stop soon, Ziva will punch him in the face.

"What's wrong with you?" McKay demands, whirling on Sheppard. "It's not her fault--"

"I never said it was!"

"--So stop attacking her like it is!"

Before Sheppard can say something to McKay that will ruin their friendship forever, Lorne pushes between the two men and forces Sheppard to stand back.

Ziva has worked with these men for a long time, and she knows how they deal with stress, and this is just another coping mechanism for an impossible situation. "There is no way to be certain, the delay in finding the bodies has removed most of the physical evidence," Ziva begins. She takes a deep breath because there is no words to make this easier to accept. "But it looks as if, from the angle of the wound and a partial print on the knife handle, that the knife was the cause of Dr. Tracy's death, and that it was self-inflicted."

"Wait," McKay interjects. "You're saying that Tracy committed suicide?"

"That is how the evidence presents itself, yes." Ziva looks at Keller for backup, but the woman remains silent.

Sheppard turns his head away in disgust. "You're telling me that Tracy killed himself."

Woolsey clears his throat. This is what Ziva has been afraid of, that the man's adherence to the rules will take away only the worst from this, that Tracy suicided, that his comrades were dead at his hand. That is not how the evidence presents itself, but what other conclusions can the man draw?

"How did the others die?" Woolsey asks, his pen marking up his notepad.

Keller lifts her head. "From what I can tell, the cause of death in Captain Weisz, Sgt. Bianco and Lt. Carvahlo is the same. Something burst out of their chests directly under the sternum, causing a large hole in their chest cavities." She taps on her tablet and the view screen comes to life with a bad CGI mockup of a human body, and the resultant direction of the blast. Ziva has seen the demo many times before and she is ready for it, but the others aren't so lucky. McKay draws in a sharp breath, Ronon shakes his head, Lorne winces, and Sheppard just stares at the screen with that same ashen expression.

For once, Woolsey is a loss for words. Keller goes on.

"The thing is, there is no residue from whatever cause the hole."

"Because the bodies were in the elements for nine days," Sheppard says.

"No, that's not it." Keller sits up. "Whenever something impacts a bone with as much force as would be necessary to cause this level of damage, a residue is left behind. Metal or wood, if the blow was physical, or a burn from heat or some kind of chemical. What I'm saying is, that something came out of these men's chests and left no reside behind."

"Which in itself is strange," Ziva says, in case anyone missed it. McKay has recovered enough to roll his eyes at her.

"And the other thing." Keller leans back in her chair, coming to the end of her strength. She has been with the bodies for two days. "There is a level of decomposition not explained by the length of the time or the state of the bodies."

"Which means what?" Lorne asks, so tired.

"Most of their internal organs are missing." Keller is once again speaking to the screen. Mercifully, there is no accompanying demonstration. "The bodies don't show any entry marks from scavengers and there wasn't time for the organs to decompose. The organs are just... gone."

Sheppard taps his thumb on the tabletop. "Do the Wraith do stuff like this?" he asks Ronon.

The man shakes his head. "No. They'll feed off humans or kill them outright, but this isn't their style."

"How about Michael?" Lorne asks.

"I did not seen anything like this, while on Michael's ship," Teyla says as she comes through the door. She is holding her son, rocking him in her arms as he sleeps. "But it would perhaps be useful to ask the former members of his crew."

"What did the Genii say?" Sheppard asks Teyla as she sits in the chair offered by Lorne.

"They have not heard of anything like this, and Landon expressed his sympathies for our lost men," Teyla says. She shifts her son up in her arms. The boy's soft dark hair bunches against her jacket as he sighs in his sleep.

"Office David," Woolsey asks, his voice instantly quieting the room. "Is it possible that one or more members of the team did this to the others?"

It is a polite way to ask if Tracy turned on his comrades, and Ziva understands Woolsey's reasoning. She even has a section of her office dedicated to that very question. But Sheppard looks as if he might throttle Woolsey if the man says more and Ziva tells them the truth.

"There is no trace evidence on Dr. Tracy's body to indicate that he killed his teammates," Ziva says, while Keller nods. "The blood on his clothing is only his own. Bianco, Weisz and Carvahlo all have the blood of the others on their clothing, making it likely that their chests exploded while they were in the same locations they were found."

"But why would Tracy kill himself?" Woolsey asks the obvious question, one for which Ziva has only ideas.

"I have a theory," Ziva says. It is a scenario she concocted late the night before, staring out at the sea and wondering why a sane man, a faithful Catholic, would take a knife to his own chest. "It is possible that Dr. Tracy saw what killed his teammates. If it was coming for him..." She lets her voice trail off, her point made.

Woolsey bows his head. "Thank you, Officer David, Dr. Keller, for these preliminary findings," he announces. "I will support a finding of 'killed in action' for every member of Reconnaissance Team Delta, unless new evidence arises to the contrary." He stands. "Please, keep me informed as you search for the exact cause of death for the other three men."

"Of course," Ziva murmurs to the man's exiting back. She leans back in her chair and stares at her notes, her mind a million light-years away.

She does not know how long she sits there before someone leans on the table beside her. She lifts her eyes to see the room deserted except for herself and Sheppard. The man's shoulders are slumped. When Ziva first came to Atlantis, she had thought the man lazy for his posture. Now, she understands his exhaustion and responsibility.

"What the hell is going on?" Sheppard wonders aloud after a few minutes. "If it's not the Wraith and it's not Michael, and the Replicators are gone..."

"Then we are looking for an unknown enemy," Ziva finishes for him. This is the part she hates most: knowing just enough to realize how lost she is. "What I cannot understand is why the team did not leave a message for Atlantis. If the scenario is correct and Tracy died after the others--"

"Then why didn't he let us know what was going on, yeah, I know." Sheppard slides his butt on the table, kicking his boots in the air. "You've checked?"

"We checked all of their equipment, all their clothing, the surrounding area, everything. There was no message that we could find."

"Great." Sheppard runs a hand through his hair, standing it on end. "They had to know something was happening to them, that's why they didn't come back to Atlantis. They were supposed to be on a simple recon mission, that's all."

"And in between the mission and their place of death, they encountered something that caused their deaths and prevented them from contacting us. You are thinking they were abducted, yes?"

"I don't know. Why would someone grab them, kill three and let Tracy kill himself, then leave the bodies where we could find them?"

"We are left with more questions than answers," Ziva says, standing. She stretches to rid herself of the kink in her spine. "You should get some sleep."

"I thought I was the one in charge around here," Sheppard protests mildly. "What about you?"

"I will sleep if you will." Then, realizing that she may have just inadvertently propositioned the man, she hastens to add, "In my room. Where you will not be." She's too tired to blush at her rambling.

Sheppard lifts the corner of his mouth in a half-smile. "Can't go breaking Rule Twelve." He slaps Ziva on the back. "We'll pick this up tomorrow. I'm going to go find Teyla and see if Torrin's up for a game of catch."

"He is only six months old."

"He's still small enough to catch," Sheppard says, cupping his hands as if for a rugby ball and leaving Ziva to wonder if this is another odd English phrase she does not understand. "'Night."

The sun still illuminates the walls when Ziva reaches her room. She stands in the shower until she starts to fall asleep, and even the continual hot water sliding over her skin will not wash away the imagined sensation of decay and failure. After she towels off, she dons her sleeping clothes and stands on her balcony to look over the sea.

Black clouds gather in the distance, the beginning of the planet's autumn storms. Ziva watches as the clouds inch closer to the city. She cannot quiet her mind enough to sleep, and she cannot understand the reason. She has seen many crime scenes more horrific than that of her current case. Why is this one different?

Because they are your men, her mind whispers at her. A lump forms in her throat and she wishes she could cry, but even that outlet is not available to her now. She must be strong for the city and for the dead.

On autopilot, Ziva picks up her computer and logs in to her email. Too many messages await her attention, but the supply demands will have to wait until she discovers what killed her men. She opens a new email to Jethro Gibbs and writes one line.

How do you cope when the murders you investigate are of your own people?

She hits send, knowing the email will be in that evening's data burst to Earth, and goes back into her room before the storm reaches Atlantis.

She wakes in darkness, the wind howling through the open balcony door. Knowing she should close the door, Ziva just lies in her cold bed watching the lightening flash across the city and the echoing thunder rock the ancient glass. The shock of adrenaline will not let her sleep and so she turns to the still-on computer on her bed. She sorts through ten days' worth of backlogged email, vacation and supply requests mingled with questions and suggestions.

After half an hour, Ziva makes it down to the emails from the last databurst from Earth. She received several emails from NCIS, ones she had no time for when Weisz's team was missing and no heart for once the bodies were found. Now, with the rain pounding down on the city and cold wind blowing through her room, Ziva opens the first of the emails.

From: Scuito_A@ncis.gov
Subject: Guess WHAT?
Body:

OMG Ziva, guess what? Vance took a job at the FBI and left NCIS and the new acting director putting McGee back as a field agent (even knowing about his book) and Tony's rotating back to NCIS Washington and they're all back on Gibbs' team (sort of, it's complicated) and I don't have to quit! Can you come back too?

-Abby


The email is timestamped at the approximate moment Weisz's team died. Ziva stares at Abby's excited words until the tablet powers down from inactivity, then she lies back and watches the lightening dance across the city until the burden of the last ten days drag her under to a tormented sleep.

Five


The next morning, Ziva sits in the cafeteria, drinking coffee as if it will wash away the nightmare memories of Ari's blood on the basement floor. She reads McGee's email (like Abby's but with more details and less obvious glee) and Ducky's essay on childhood vaccinations and growing up with polio scares. There is no word from Gibbs, but she didn't expect any.

Tony has not sent her anything.

It's twenty-five hundred hours that evening when Ziva hides in Sheppard's office and pulls Tony's postcard once again from its carrying place in her computer case. The words have not changed, nor has her inability to make sense of the conflicting emotions in her head. After a few minutes, Ziva tucks the postcard away and buries her face in her hands. She's not sure if she'll ever be able to dig it all out and make sense of the tangle.

As she sits there, the door blasts open and Sheppard and Lorne tumble over each other. "We've got a problem," Sheppard pants. The men have been running but Ziva doesn't want to think about what can have them moving so fast so late. "The SGC computers just got a hit on Captain Wayne back on Earth."

She does not know what they are going to say, but it does not matter. Ziva knows that something bad has happened, something she did not stop, and her heart turns over with a sickening thump.

"There was a hit on his record by NCIS in Washington," Lorne puts in, his hand gripping the doorframe so tight his knuckles are white. "Request for information in a homicide."

Ziva is already on her feet, pulling things into her knapsack. She knows the exact commands on the NCIS computers to send such a request for information, which is only sent when the NCIS agent is certain of a murder victim's identity.

Captain Jefferson Wayne, United States Marine Corps, an original member of the Atlantis expedition, another of her men, is dead.

No.

Wait.

Ziva spins and grabs at her computer, jabbing hard at the screen until she comes to the file that confirms what she already knows, sending her heart into her throat with panic and sudden breathless comprehension.

"Until three weeks ago, Captain Wayne was on Reconnaissance Team Delta with Bianco and Carvahlo and Weisz," she says, staring at the record of the most recent team shuffles as if it might suddenly vanish. "And now he is dead."

"Just like the others on his team," Lorne says in a quiet anger. "This can't be a coincidence."

"What was he doing in Washington?" Sheppard asks Lorne.

"He's on a month's liberty," Lorne says. "His mother's getting married, and Jeff's been on Atlantis with hardly any leave since the beginning so we cleared him for an extended leave."

Ziva tries to breathe normally but it will not help. It is late and she feels sick to her stomach with everything that has happened, and this is only the start. "Do we know how Captain Wayne died?"

"No," Lorne says. "When NCIS hit the firewalls on Jeff's files, they pulled back and shut us out. The SGC is trying to track down someone in DC to get to NCIS headquarters and deal with this but--"

"There is no time," Ziva snaps. Her fingers are already flying over her computer to dump all of the information from the servers onto her tablet. "I know NCIS, I know Washington, and I know this case. I have to go back to Earth."

"What if this is a coincidence?" Sheppard asks, eyeing her closely.

Ziva does not bother to dignify that with a response. "How can I get from the SGC to Washington?" she asks Lorne.

"The Odyssey is in orbit and they know you're on your way," he replies. "They'll transport you to the crime scene in DC."

"All right," Ziva says. She has her computer and her full off-world kit, but after a moment's rational thought, Ziva makes herself unstrap the sidearm holster from her leg. She cannot go walking around Washington so obviously armed. She instead slips the sidearm into her bag and is out the door. With Lorne and Sheppard by her side on the walk to the Gateroom, there is no real conversation, but that is to be expected after so much violent death. In the Gateroom, Lorne veers up to the control room and Woolsey, while Sheppard stays with Ziva.

"You sure about this?" Sheppard asks, voice nearly drowned out by the boom-crash of the wormhole stabilizing.

"I must be."

"Because Tracy never went off-world with Delta team when Wayne was with them."

Ziva slips her arm through the strap on her bag, eyes never leaving the Stargate. "Tracy died in a way different from the other three," she reminds Sheppard.

"Yeah." Sheppard rakes his hand through his hair, which has been looking rather subdued as of late. "You need anything, the SGC will give it to you."

"I know." Ziva looks up at the announcement of IDC acceptance from Earth. "I..." She leaves off trying to reassure Sheppard. She has nothing left to give the man.

From above them, Woolsey calls down, "Officer David, good luck." She nods at him, not really sure she can speak at this point.

Sheppard's hands on her arm spin her around before she takes that first step towards Earth. "Hold on." He rips the Atlantis insignia and the Israeli flag from her shoulders, giving her a wan smile. "That's better."

So when Ziva leaves Atlantis on the hunt for Captain Wayne's killer, she does it annoyed at her CO. It's something.

The ramp at the SGC does not feel like Earth. It must be the lack of sleep, but this is like any other off-world mission in the Pegasus galaxy. The lack of a handy weapon sets Ziva on edge.

"Officer David," says a military man at the base of the ramp. He is vaguely familiar; Ziva recalls having passed him in the halls on her last trip to Earth. "Colonel Mitchell, SG-1."

"Do you have any more information on Captain Wayne's death?" Ziva demands. It is only after the man hesitates that she realizes that she is being rude, but she has no energy to make it better.

"Not yet, ma'am." The man smiles, no hard feelings. "The Odyssey is going to beam you to the crime scene and hopefully you'll be able to get an idea of what's going on."

"Odyssey transport in ten seconds," someone calls from the SGC's glassed-in control room.

"Do you know anything at all?" Ziva presses.

The man shrugs. "Not much at this point. The NCIS agent in charge of the investigation is a Jethro--" The bright lights of the transport cut off the rest of the name, but Ziva does not need more.

"Gibbs," she mutters to herself.

The Odyssey transport technician looks at her in mild surprise. "Ma'am, we're going to transport you to a sheltered space one hundred yards from the reported crime scene. If you'll switch your comm to channel seven, we will have you at all times."

Obediently, Ziva pries free her earpiece and connects to the Odyssey's communications network. "This will not put me within the crime scene, yes?"

"No. I mean, yes."

"What?"

The man looks more flustered than should be allowed. "You'll be across the street from the crime scene, ma'am. Ready?"

"No, but you may go ahead anyway."

The white lights fade to the chill overhead sun of a Washington morning. Ziva quickly scans the area. She's in a deserted alley, with the traffic sounding from nearby. Most ominous is the overtone of sirens.

Five men down, Ziva reminds herself, and steps forward.

The area is surrounded by gawkers held back by police tape and harassed uniformed officers. Ziva walks with purpose across the street, remembering a million times when she was supposed to be on the other side of this tape. The scene is so familiar that Ziva's heart skips for a moment. She knows those officers, the ways they move, and she imagines that she knows what they are saying.

The yellow tape stops her progress, making her uncertain as to what her next move should be. She must be on the other side of the tape, finding out what happened to Captain Wayne, but she does not know how to take that first step.

In the end, the decision is not hers to make. Tony spots her first. He's talking to McGee while taking pictures of the scene and of the bystanders. When the lens sweeps past Ziva, Tony's movements slow, and he lowers the camera.

"Tony? Hey, earth to DiNozzo!" McGee calls, holding up an evidence bag. Tony does not move, only stares across the lot at Ziva.

She wonders what he sees. In the past seven weeks, she has put on muscle and lost some body fat that she could ill afford to spare. Her hair is tied back in a harsh braid, and the weeks of investigation and little sleep have left her pale with dark smudges under her eyes. And here she is, once again on NCIS's doorstep, this time in worn combat boots and her grey and red expedition jacket. Just another off-world mission, Ziva tells herself sternly, and raises her hand in greeting to Tony.

"Boss," Tony calls over his shoulder. Gibbs is on his feet in an instant, picking Ziva out of the crowd. Ignoring Special Agent Michelle Lee calling out to him, Gibbs heads across the lot to where Ziva stands.

"Special Agent Gibbs," Ziva says in greeting, not sure what to make of the man's expression. "You are investigating the death of Marine Captain Jefferson Wayne?"

Gibbs stares at her for a long moment. "What are you doing here, Ziva?" he asks, lifting the police tape for her to duck under.

"Investigating the murder of one of my men." There are too many things in that sentence for Gibbs to question, but Ziva hopes that she can distract him long enough to get some details for herself. "Captain Wayne is-- was, attached to my new posting."

Gibbs' glare burns into her, but Ziva just stares back. She has faced down Wraith and monsters in the Pegasus galaxy, and Gibbs has never been able to cow her for long.

"Where is the body?" Ziva presses. Tony appears to hover at Gibbs' shoulder, but she cannot afford to look at him, not yet.

"Ducky and Palmer took the body back to the morgue," Gibbs finally says. "McGee and Lee are just finishing up the scene sketches."

Ziva looks at Lee, tiny in her NCIS jacket, and then at McGee, watching the confrontation with wide eyes.

"You want to tell me why I should tell you anything about my crime scene?" Gibbs asks.

Ziva knows how this can go. She's working for an international agency with a joint team of Air Force men and Marines, and she has not spoken with Gibbs since that phone call from the airport in May. She has nothing to offer him. She cannot even share with him the truth.

Her earpiece crackles as more comms are added to channel seven. "David?"

Ziva frowns, taking one step back from Gibbs as she touches her earpiece. "Sheppard?"

Gibbs flinches minutely to the name. Yet another oversight on Ziva's part, but there is nothing she can do to fix it now. "Yeah, it's me," Sheppard is saying on the channel. "Me and McKay are all here on the Odyssey. We've also got Lorne's team and Dr. Keller."

"What for?"

"In case you need backup."

"Colonel Sheppard--"

"Woolsey sent us in case this needs containment," Sheppard cuts her off. "Stay on channel, okay?"

"I will." Ziva glances at the blood spatters on the dirt by the white outline tape. Wayne's blood. "What are the ramifications of sharing details of my investigation with NCIS?"

"Nice say-nothing phrasing," Sheppard says.

"Lorne here, Ziva," the Major's voice enters the conversation. "We're looking for expediency. Can you use your discretion on this?"

"Yes," Ziva answers immediately.

"Then it's your call," Lorne says. "Just try and avoid giving away the entire program."

"Understood." Ziva leaves the channel open as she steps back up to Gibbs and Tony.

"Ziva--"

"Captain Wayne was a member of a highly classified joint international military and scientific expedition and I believe that his death may be related to the project," Ziva says in a hurry. There. No state secrets given away.

Gibbs blinks at her. Then he scares her to death by saying, "How many others have you lost?"

Ziva takes a moment to catch her breath. "Four. How..."

"I read your email this morning," Gibbs says, which is surprising enough. "How long ago?"

"They died twelve days ago. When they left on mission, Wayne had already been released for liberty. He was supposed to have returned within a month."

"That's a long time to be on liberty," Tony says, unable to take his eyes off Ziva and she does not have time for this.

"He has been deployed for over four years," Ziva answers. "His mother was to be married and he wished to stand up for her at the ceremony." Little details are coming back to Ziva now, of conversations in the mess hall, Weisz teasing Wayne about having to wear a 'monkey suit' and Bianco demanding details on the religious aspects of the Protestant ceremony. Just a random conversation between men who are all now dead. Ziva hauls her mind back from the rush of memory and the futility of death. "When was his body discovered?"

Tony waits for Gibbs' nod before responding. "A janitor on his way home from the graveyard shift called it in from a payphone on the corner," Tony says. "Ducky's preliminary puts the time of death at around five in the morning."

Ziva blinks and draws breath to speak before she realizes something about what Tony just said is off. "He could discover the time of death? Wayne's liver was still there?"

Tony's eyes widen at her question, but Gibbs skips ahead in the conversation. "The livers were gone in your other men?"

Ziva's earpiece crackles. "That's an affirmative," Keller says into Ziva's ear. "Every trace of the liver was gone in the three back on Atlantis."

"The livers were gone in three of the men," Ziva repeats. "Did Ducky say if there was anything different about the bodies? Any entry wounds?"

Tony opens his mouth to speak, but he never gets the chance. Gibbs has grabbed Ziva's arm and hauls her back to the edge of the crime scene. "This isn't the way it's going to work," he says, shoving her back under the police tape. She stumbles before she comes to a halt, her face burning at the indignation of being caught off-guard. "You don't get to hold back information and expect us to give you what we've got."

"I have not--" She cannot even finish the sentence

"Who are you talking to?" Gibbs demands. He points at her earpiece. "You're either in, or you're out."

Ziva pulls herself up to her full height to glare at Gibbs. "The full details are classified--"

"So's my investigation," Gibbs interrupts. "I'll send one of my agents over to take your statement in a minute." The man spins on his heel and stalks across the lot. Tony remains where Ziva and Gibbs left him, staring at the scene with a horrified fascination.

Ziva swears in Hebrew. It takes a cough in her ear pulls her back to herself. "You did the right thing," Sheppard tells her.

"I have been removed from the crime scene," Ziva says. She makes sure there is no one looking over her shoulder, then pulls her tablet from her backpack and opens the autopsy files on Weisz. The details on his body's condition are grotesque, but she has had days to internalize the information and it no longer hurts her.

"Don't worry about it," Sheppard says. "The SGC finally tracked down Brigadier General O'Neill and he's on his way in to do some damage control. Lorne's talking to him on his cell."

"Why was he not called in sooner?" Ziva demands, thinking how much easier this would all be if an actual general was there instead of her.

"Apparently cell reception's a little hard to get wherever he and Sam were fishing. He'll be back in town in a bit with the Colonel." McKay's indistinct voice near Sheppard's mouthpiece distracts them both for a moment. "If you were a General, wouldn't you leave Washington at every opportunity?"

"I believe Dr. McKay was speaking about the presence of Colonel Samantha Carter on General O'Neill's fishing trip," Ziva tells Sheppard. It is easier to fall back on the details and gossip of life on Atlantis than to think about how Captain Wayne's body will look cut apart on Ducky's table in Autopsy. "I did not know they fished."

"You know what they say."

Ziva lets out a sharp breath. "If this is another of your American sayings--"

"No, just that you can always tell the branch by their leisure activities. In the Air Force, there's fishing. Also, for example, I golf--" Sheppard's voice stops suddenly when Lorne comes on air.

"Ziva, the General's going to get you back onto the scene. You can expect full cooperation from NCIS."

Ziva looks up from her computer to see Gibbs pulling his cell out of his pocket. The brief conversation is enough to thoroughly irritate the man. "Who is on the other end of the line?" Ziva asks in awe. She knows from experience that it takes a great deal of intervention to annoy Gibbs so obviously on a crime scene.

"SecNav," Lorne says, sounding satisfied. "Now, get back to work."

Ziva mentally shuffles several retorts, but Gibbs is motioning to Ziva to get back over there, so she stows them all and ducks back under the tape. She walks the field, watching her step and taking great care not to smile.

Halfway there, she spies something in the dirt that freezes her in her steps and has her scrambling for her tablet. She opens the death scene photos from the planet and skips down to a handful of some strange markings in the mud of an alien world where her men died.

The markings are identical.

Ziva sinks into a crouch to avoid disturbing the markings. Everything about the marks are the same, and if she hadn't spent days staring at the photos, she would have walked right past them.

"What do you got?" Gibbs asks from somewhere to her left. She never looks up, just points at the dusty ground. Gibbs drops a yellow evidence marker beside the mark and someone snaps a few photos. "What is it?"

Secret technology be damned. Ziva expands the photo to full-screen and holds up her tablet for all to see. "This handprint was found near the scene where we found the four bodies," she says. McGee takes the tablet from her hands to examine closer. "At the time we were not sure which of the men it belonged to, but do you see where the small finger, the... piggy? Here it digs the deepest into the ground, but it is never the strongest finger."

"I think she means pinky, Boss," McGee says, comparing the photograph to the handprint in the dirt.

"She's right, sir," says Lee. "In cases of even the most frenzied of clawing, the pinky finger usually leaves the lightest mark, but if this is a hand mark, there would have to be something happening with his strength."

Ziva raises her eyes to the woman. Tony's staring at Lee with a grossed-out expression on his face. "She's developed an inexplicable fascination with forensic pathology," Tony explains.

"In any event, she is correct," Ziva says. She grabs her computer back from McGee before the man can open any classified files.

"And it's a solid connection between Ziva's crime scenes and ours," Gibbs interjects. He watches Ziva with curious eyes. An angry Gibbs is one thing to contend with, but Gibbs in an investigative mood is even more dangerous. "Why is SecNav so interested in this Marine?"

"That was the Secretary of the Navy on the phone?" Tony asks.

"Oh yeah."

Ziva hunches her shoulders in as a gust of cold wind rushes across the lot.

"Dinners at the White House, SecNav on speed dial," Tony says with an insincere smile. "You're certainly moving in high circles."

Ziva zips her jacket up to her throat, fingering the mended seam from where a Wraith's knife had come close to slitting her throat one cold September day. "I would be more surprised if your SecNav was uninterested in a Marine's death on home soil," she says distantly, and turns away. She will not look at Tony.

Gibbs claps his hands together. "We finish processing the scene and get back to NCIS to find out what Ducky finds in the autopsy." He looks at Ziva. "You need a lift?"

She begins to tell him no, that she will call a taxi, but stops when she realizes that she has no Earth money and no way of gaining any. It's the first time she has been so unprepared for a mission in many years. "Yes, I need a ride," Ziva says when she regains her head.

"Okay," is all Gibbs says. He turns and barks at Lee to stop her gawking, and Ziva is left alone in the middle of the field with her computer.

"Keller's working on what might have caused those hand marks," Lorne says over Ziva's earpiece. "We'll figure this out, Ziva."

"What if this is not something that can be explained by... normal means?" Ziva asks. She's aware it looks as if she is speaking to herself. She is also too tired to care if she appears crazy. Sometimes, she feels as if she is already there.

"Then the SGC rides in and cleans everything up," Lorne tells her.

"And if this happens again?"

"We'll stop it."

"Major--"

"Ziva." Lorne waits until Ziva quiets. "We'll stop it because we have to. It's that simple."

"You have never struck me as an optimist," Ziva says.

"And you're too pessimistic."

At this, Ziva lets out a sigh. "I do not know if you know this, Major, but pessimism is not an unknown trait in we Israelis. We call it pragmatism."

"Ziva!" Gibbs shouts across the lot. "If you're done talking to your imaginary friends, get over here and give us a hand!"

Six

The ride to NCIS is painful. McGee tries to offer his front seat to Ziva, but she will not sit next to Tony for any amount of comfort. Gibbs tires of it all quickly and throws the keys at Tony's head, pulling Ziva into the rear of the truck for the ride.

Separated from the front seat by a thin layer of plastic, Ziva and Gibbs stare at each other for a few long minutes. Gibbs breaks first. "You don't look so good."

Ziva rests her head against the smoothest spot she can find. The tension of the past twelve days will not leave her shoulders. She has spent the last several months riding in Puddlejumpers and spaceships, in horse-carts and motorized barrows, and she has forgotten the roughness of the shocks on the NCIS truck. "I have been awake for over twenty hours and I have not been sleeping well," she says, voice almost impossible to hear over the noise of the car. And then, because she has apparently lost all sense of caution when it comes to Jethro Gibbs, she adds, "The autumn lightening storms reached the city last night and they are making me dream of Ari."

Gibbs stares silently at her for a long time. "What's really going on with you?" he finally asks.

Ziva brushes the palm of her hand across her forehead. Exhaustion is pulling at her but she cannot afford to rest. Not yet. Maybe not ever. Without looking at Gibbs, she said, "Sheppard?"

"Still here," the man answers over Ziva’s comm.

"I will be going off-channel for a few minutes."

The man lets out a small breath. "If that's what you want. Keep your eyes open, we'll be here."

"Understood." Ziva taps on her earpiece and the electronic hum goes dead. She's finally alone in the back of the truck with Gibbs, who hasn't moved a muscle since they got in the back of the truck. "That is Lt. Colonel Sheppard," Ziva explains, because it occurs to her that some level of explanation might be in order. "He is the CO on the expedition I am on."

"Yeah, I know," Gibbs says, startling Ziva. "Tony told me."

"Tony?" Ziva demands. It takes her a long moment to remember that Tony briefly met Sheppard in August, at the hotel before the ill-fated encounter at Tony's apartment. "What exactly did Tony say?"

"Very little," Gibbs admits. "Which, for DiNozzo, is rather telling."

"Perfect," Ziva mutters. She had hoped that no one would ever know about her bad judgment in breaking Rule Twelve. "Abby wrote me that the team was back together again."

"Sort of." Gibbs taps a rhythm on his knee as he speaks. "The new Director started a second Major Case Response team to work in coordination with mine on the really big cases. The rest we split up."

"Who is the team lead on the second team?"

Gibbs flips the cover open on his notebook, then closes it again. "DiNozzo."

Tony has his own team. A faint rush of pride comes over Ziva from a place in her head she cannot decipher. "But then why is he here today?"

"We all trade off on weekend duty, you know that." Gibbs finally puts his notebook down. "I got McGee and Jardine, and DiNozzo has Lee and Brown, he transferred in from Quantico."

"Good," Ziva says, mind still stuck on the idea of Tony DiNozzo being a team lead. "That is good. NCIS is lucky to have them all. You all."

"I know."

There is no comment about Ziva's absence, but she does not expect any.

"So what's so important about this Marine that SecNav's calling me at seven in the morning on a Sunday?" Gibbs asks suddenly.

"As I told Tony--"

"Come off it, Ziva," Gibbs interrupts. "I've had SecNav call me exactly twice in my entire career, and the other time was after an assassination attempt on a foreign ambassador."

Ziva thinks over the intelligence files she has seen on NCIS. "Yemen?"

"Bahrain. Why is SecNav breathing down my neck on Captain Wayne?"

Ziva pulls her tablet onto her lap and, after hoping this will not have her executed for treason, opens Wayne's full service record. She hands the tablet to Gibbs. "This is Captain Jefferson Wayne, USMC."

Gibbs has to take a moment to put on his glasses, but he is soon intent on the file. It lists all details of the Marine's citations and decorations, including words Gibbs does not have the security clearance to see.

Words like Atlantis.

Gibbs reads in silence for a very long time. He does not seem to have problems with the touch-tablet, and since there is nothing for Ziva to do, the motion of the truck's passage lulls her into a doze.

She's jerked back to consciousness when Gibbs put the tablet into her lap. "It says that every member of his most recent team is dead."

Ziva rubs at her eyes in an attempt to wake herself up. "Reconnaissance Team Delta," she says. Gibbs nods. "Yes."

"Why was the team changed?"

"A routine shuffle to accommodate Captain's leave request. Also, Major Lorne wanted to have Delta Team get back to working with a scientist."

"Who's Major Lorne?"

"The XO. He is also in the Air Force."

The corner of Gibbs' mouth twitches at that. "What can you tell me about where Delta was before Wayne left?"

"I am not sure." Ziva hugs her tablet to her chest, hoping the sharp edges will keep her alert. "Until half an hour before I arrived at your crime scene, we had assumed that whatever killed the rest of the team was due to something recently encountered. I did not have access to the reports on Delta's previous missions."

"We'll need those files."

Gibbs words are soft, but they are the catalyst to finally pull Ziva back to wakefulness. She looks at the man, not knowing what to say.

His blue eyes narrow slightly. "But that's not why you're here," he says after a moment.

Ziva rests her chin on the edge of the tablet, feeling very much the schoolgirl under that gaze. "If Captain Wayne's death is related to the expedition, then the project oversight committee will handle the remainder of the investigation."

"What about justice for Captain Wayne?" Gibbs drives the knife home.

Ziva thinks about all she has seen in the Pegasus galaxy, and how justice there comes quicker than on Earth. "I will see that justice is served."

Gibbs lets his head fall back against the cupboards with a thump. "Is there anyone else from your expedition on liberty right now?" is all he asks.

"I will inquire." Ziva taps at her earpiece. Lorne's questioning voice is the first thing she hears. "Major, is there anyone else from the expedition on--" She stops herself in time. She almost said on Earth, and oh, what a disaster that would be. "On liberty in Washington?"

"No," Lorne says at once. "We had Dr. Tanaka in Japan, Captain Chen with his family in San Diego, and Dr. Esposito in Santiago. All three have been beamed back to the SGC and are undergoing testing."

"What about personnel recently released from service?"

"Scanned and vetted, David. It's not any of our people." He hesitates for a moment. "Are you staying with us this time?"

"Yes, I will be in contact," she says. Gibbs just shakes his head. "Has Dr. Keller found anything else?"

"Not yet. She's going over the autopsy reports with the SGC doctors. We'll let you know if we find anything."

"Understood."

"Oh, and David, just to let you know, one of the things General O'Neill is going to do is to have Wayne's body released to the Air Force and moved back to the Mountain."

Ziva refrains from screaming at the man. "Why did you not do so in the first place?" she demands.

"Because the SGC wasn't sure if Wayne's death was due to the program or to DC's normally high crime rate. And now that NCIS has control of the body, things are... complicated. We'll need the General to oversee the transfer."

"How long do we have?" Ziva asks, forgetting that there is no longer a we, only NCIS and her.

"A few hours. There's paperwork and stuff."

Perfect.

The truck progresses at the Navy Yard gate with the usual boredom of passing through security. With Gibbs at her side, Ziva has little trouble in gaining clearance to the base. They drive the familiar path to the garage and after the evidence is signed into the cage, Gibbs herds everyone into the elevator. Ziva takes the back corner, too tired to think about any potential threat from her former team. It is nothing against them, but still. One thing that Mossad and Atlantis have in common is the demand for constant vigilance, and Ziva is entering her second full day of wakefulness.

McGee catches Ziva's eye and smiles hesitantly. "I'm sorry about Captain Wayne," he says softly, and if Ziva pretends very hard, she can imagine that Tony DiNozzo is not staring at her in the enclosed space of the elevator.

"Thank you," Ziva murmurs. Then, because she does not want this to turn into an interrogation of herself, adds, "Your most recent book has made many members of my expedition very... happy."

"Ziva..." Sheppard's voice comes as a warning in her ear. She just smiles at the confused McGee.

"The military CO is a big fan, in particular."

The tips of McGee's ears go pink. "I'm glad he liked it. There are some minor edits in the print copy, though."

Ziva waves the edits away as a matter of course. "He finds the characterization fascinating."

"Why, does he have brain damage?" Tony mutters. The unexpected words send an icy chill down Ziva's spine and she's already preparing for a fight when Gibbs hits the emergency switch on the elevator controls, bringing the elevator to a halt. The man just turns and stares first at Tony, then at Ziva. Then he slaps at the controls again and the elevator resumes its upwards path.

He does not even have to say a word.

The elevator doors finally open and disgorge the NCIS team and Ziva onto the familiar office floor. There are fewer people around than Ziva remembers. It takes her a whole minute to recall that it is a Sunday and so the office is rightly vacant.

In Pegasus, she has walked into too many vacant rooms, the inhabitants taken by the Wraith or disease or famine. The parallel sends another chill through her.

The desks have changed. Tony veers off to drop his hat on a desk on the other side of the divider while McGee goes to Ziva's old desk. Gibbs is the only constant in the changing world of NCIS. Imperturbable as always, the man goes to his desk as he has for years.

Lee skirts Ziva with an apologetic smile on her way to the plasma screen. Every one of the NCIS agents has a role now, and Ziva feels momentarily bereft of a mission. It takes her a moment to rally. Captain Wayne is her charge, his death not changing the responsibility Ziva has towards him.

Gibbs slaps his cellphone closed. "Abby's almost here," he says. "In the meantime, what do we have?"

Tony's already moving, his face set in an easy grin too sincere to be real. "We have photographs, sketches, a body and a witness statement from the guy who found the body, and next to no physical evidence."

"There's the hand mark in the dirt," Lee volunteers.

"Which ties the body to Ziva's investigation," says McGee. "Other than that, Boss, we're light on clues." Gibbs looks at McGee for only a moment. A moment is all he needs. McGee clears his throat and continues. "Which means we'll need to decipher which of the seemingly inconsequential pieces of physical evidence have any bearing on the case."

"And we need it in under two hours," Gibbs tells them.

"What happens in two hours?" Tony asks.

"Ziva's people are coming to take over the investigation."

"Mossad?" Lee questions tentatively. The pitying look Tony gives her irritates Ziva.

"No, probie. Ziva works for the Air Force now." He keeps his attention on Lee, excluding Ziva to the point where it has to be deliberate. "Which makes total sense as Captain Wayne was a Marine."

McGee's staring at Tony with a level of incredulousness that Ziva has rarely seen. Gibbs is flipping through his notebook, his back to Tony and Lee.

"After all, the Marines have such a long history of working under the Air Force and civilian investigators," Tony continues, hands in his pockets now.

A low sigh in Ziva's ear draws her attention away from Tony. "You know, Ziva, if you were to accidentally push him into a wall, I could get the General to spring you from the pokey," Sheppard murmurs. "On my honor."

"What is the 'pokey'?" Ziva asks, loud enough for the agents to hear.

"Is it preceded by 'hokey'?" McGee asks as he loads images from the camera onto the plasma.

"No," Ziva says, drifting across the floor to his side. Intellectually, she knows the room is not moving, but there is a sense of motion missing from her world. McKay always swears that Atlantis does not rock like a boat, but Ziva finds herself wondering.

"Then it probably means a jail cell." McGee hits the controller and Ziva is staring at a full colour version of Captain Wayne's body.

As grotesque as it had been to look at the decomposing bodies of Delta team, Wayne's body is worse. The early morning sun highlight brilliant flashes of colour on the dusty ground. Wayne's face frozen in terror, his eyes wide and bloodied. His fingers are bloodied too, and it takes all of Ziva's fortitude to not flinch as she steps closer to the screen.

"He appears to have clawed at something," Ziva says, more to her audience on the Odyssey who have not seen these photographs.

"That's what I thought at the scene," Lee says. She nudges McGee to get him to skip forward in the photograph to a close-up of Wayne's hands. "But there were no signs of blood at the scene that would match with the size and shape of human claw marks."

"Would there be?" Gibbs asks in his 'I'm testing you' voice.

Lee looks at the man with less awe than she exhibited in the field, and Ziva reminds herself that the woman is a fully trained NCIS agent with years of experience. "The victim's hands appear to be bleeding from torn nails. The level and location of blood would usually not appear from an external source, such as defensive wounds on an attacker."

"He still had a knife in an inner coat pocket," Tony adds from the sidelines, just out of Ziva's line of sight.

McGee raises a questing in eyebrow.

"He was a Marine," Gibbs says. "No Marine being attacked wouldn't have gone for a knife if the opportunity presented itself."

Ziva hears their words, but something is poking at her brain, pulling her away from the conversation. She takes one more step towards the screen. "Tim, can you go back?" she asks without turning around.

The images flip back, to the initial photograph of the Marine's body. Ziva's eyes trace over the supine form, over the bloodied hands, the terrified face, the trickle of blood out the side of his mouth, and wonders what it is she is supposed to be seeing.

"Why did Dr. Tracy only have one boot?" Ziva murmurs to herself. Pieces of the puzzle slide together as she flashes back to the planet and the four decaying bodies in that stone hut, and when she finally realizes what is wrong, she wishes to kick herself for being so unobservant.

Captain Wayne's chest is intact.

The body wears a clean white shirt over a normal chest cavity, no hints of blood or missing ribs, and it's so very different from the bodies back on Atlantis that Ziva does not know how she missed it.

Captain Wayne's body has its internal organs, or at least the liver. Captain Wayne's body has an intact sternum. The only thing tying his death to those in Pegasus is a lone handprint.

A handprint that sets Ziva's heart to racing with the idea that this is not yet finished.

"Ziva?"

Ziva spins around to see Jimmy Palmer beaming down at her. He's already changed into his blue autopsy scrubs.

"Dr. Mallard didn't say you'd be coming in today." The young man smiles even wider for a moment.

McGee clears his throat. "Ziva's new command includes Captain Wayne," the agent says in an undertone.

Palmer's smile vanishes in an instant. "Gee, Ziva, I'm sorry, I just--"

"What are you doing up here, Palmer?" Gibbs interrupts.

"Oh, Dr. Mallard wanted me to give this to you," Palmer says. He hands Gibbs an evidence bag containing a small metal object. "Abby isn't in yet and Dr. Mallard thought it might be important."

Gibbs signs off on the evidence transfer before donning a glove and pulling the object out into the light. "What is it?"

"Dr. Mallard wasn’t sure."

Ziva steps into Gibbs' personal space to look closer at the object. It is the size of an egg, rather flat, metallic with no discernable markings on it.

"You ever seen anything like this?" Gibbs asks her.

"I have not." Ziva casts her mind back to the weaponry and artifacts on Atlantis, and cannot come up with a single comparative object. "Where was it found?"

"Under Captain Wayne's tongue."

"What's it made of?" Tony asks.

"We're not sure. Dr. Mallard said it looks a little like one of those kitchen things you can rub on your hands to get the garlic smell off."

"Why would it end up in our Marine's mouth?" Gibbs slips the object back into the bag.

Ziva keeps her eyes on the object until Gibbs puts the bag on his desk. Then she asks, "May I go speak with Ducky?"

"Go ahead," Gibbs says. "Palmer, take her down."

"Oh, um, Dr. Mallard asked me to get his bag out of the van--" the young man stammers.

"Then drop Ziva off in autopsy and then keep going to the garage," Gibbs says. It's less of a suggestion than a demand, and Palmer heads to the elevator with alacrity.

Ziva gives Gibbs the look he deserves, then logs off her computer and lays it on McGee's old desk. "I will return shortly," she warns Gibbs.

Gibbs turns his back on her, already focusing on the case, so Ziva follows Palmer to the elevator. He's holding the door for her, always the gentleman.

"Thank you," she murmurs. The elevator walls are mercifully solid as she leans back, waiting for her head to stop spinning. She cannot shake the idea that something is waiting for her around the bend.

"Dr. Mallard will be glad to see you. Except that one of the Marines is dead," Palmer hastens to add. "We're still unsure about the cause of death."

Exposure. Knife wounds. That creature from Alien. Ziva manages to give Palmer a tiny smile. "It is most likely a simple explanation," she lies.

To her mild surprise, no voices from the skies speak into her ear at that one.

The elevator stops and Ziva steps into the sterile hallway outside Autopsy. Palmer is off again with a wave, and the door slips shut on a silent expanse.

The silence is unnerving.

Then a burst of static in Ziva's ear makes her jump. "--copy, David?"

"Lorne, what is it?" Ziva asks. The apprehension in the man's voice is very audible.

"You went off channel for a few minutes," Lorne says. "Major interferences with our communications."

Ziva's heart pounds hard in her chest. "I thought that our comms were impervious to terrestrial jamming systems?"

"They are."

McKay comes into the conversation at full tilt. "The last thing we heard was you asking someone named Tim to go back, and then the systems went straight to hell and I really, really hope that these readings are wrong."

"Ziva, what just happened down there?" Lorne demands.

The apprehension pushes down on Ziva in such a rush that her stomach cramps. The only thing that changed in the squad room after Ziva asked McGee to change the photographs had been the entrance of Jimmy Palmer and the metallic object from Captain Wayne's body.

"In the crime scene photographs, Wayne's torso was intact," Ziva says as she pulls her sidearm from her waistband and straightens her arms. From this angle in the hallway, she cannot see into Autopsy and that not knowing claws at her brain. "A metallic object was found in his mouth."

"That doesn't sound like what happened to Delta team."

"Delta team was out in the open for a very long time." Ziva presses her back against the wall and inches toward the corner. She is overreacting, she tells herself, but there are no such things as coincidences in her life and Ducky is alone in that room. "Captain Wayne has been dead for less than five hours."

She takes a breath and looks around the corner, though the glass doors of the Autopsy room. She can't see Ducky.

But she does see the impossible.

She sees Ari.

Seven

A sound escapes her lips, a prayer or a moan, she's not sure which, but there is no time to think because her brother, her dead beloved brother, stands beside Captain Wayne's body in Autopsy, staring at the floor, his arm stretched out.

Then.

By the wall, a body rises from the floor, unfolding itself as it straightens, but it is not a body at all. It is the shape of a human, but the being is first silver and metal and fluid and then it changes to a woman with dark hair and dark eyes and the universe rights itself from the impossibility of the dead returning, to the impossibility of an alien enemy standing on Earth soil. Ziva has never seen one of these beings, but she has read the files and seen the pictures and she knows them.

Replicators.

Replicator in NCIS Autopsy.

With Ducky.

Ziva thumbs off the safety on her gun as she ducks around the corner, closer to the door and out of the line of sight of the Replicators. "There are Replicators here," she hisses in a whisper.

Her words send an eruption of activity down the channel. "Are you sure?" Lorne demands, with Sheppard's voice rising over his demanding details and specifics.

"I am certain," Ziva says. She cannot see into the room and does not know if Ducky is alive or dead. "I have seen two."

"Fall back now, we'll be down there with a containment team in--"

"I cannot, there is a civilian with them!" Ziva exclaims. And because she knows that if she waits any longer Sheppard will order her back, she breathes deeply and pushes her way through the door.

Ari and the dark-haired woman by the wall turn lift their heads to look at Ziva. She only needs a moment to take in the scene before her, but the details are almost too much for her to comprehend and compartmentalize in an instant.

Captain Wayne's torso has exploded, leaving his bloodied insides exposed with no sign of any internal organs. Across the room, streamers of silver pour down the wall around the closed body cabinet doors, collecting into writhing metal puddles on the floor.

Worst of all, Ducky is on his knees before Ari, covered in blood, and somehow Ari's hand is inside Ducky's head.

Ziva lifts her gun and fires three bullets into Ari's head. All it does is drive him back a few feet with the force of the blows. It is not much, but it is enough. Ziva dives forward, grabbing handfuls of Ducky's shirt and dragging him from the room into the corridor. She does not need to look over her shoulder to know that the Replicators are coming for her.

As soon as Ducky's feet clear the door, Ziva slams her hand onto the big red button on the wall, the one to seal Autopsy in the event of a biological or chemical disaster. The doors slam shut before the Replicators cross the threshold and lights dim as the room is vacuum-sealed from within.

Ari and the woman Replicator stare at Ziva, their eyes cold and blank. It takes Ziva a heartbeat to tear her gaze away from her brother's face to look closely at the woman, but what she sees only chills her further. The woman wears the face of NCIS Special Agent Caitlin Todd.

On the other side of the glass, the other Replicators are taking on human guise, and Ziva's gut clenches as she sees the dead returning to life. Paula Cassidy. Jennifer Shepard. Mark Bryson. Chris Pacci. The dead men and women move to stand behind Ari and Kate at the sealed door.

"Ziva!" Sheppard shouts in her ear. "What the hell is going on? Report!"

That gets her moving. "There are six Replicators sealed into Autopsy," she says as she tries to pull Ducky on his feet. The man's eyes loll back in his skull. He is alive, but barely. "They wear the faces of dead people."

"What do you mean, dead people?"

"They are NCIS's dead," Ziva tells him. She hefts Ducky into a fireman's carry and heads for the stairs. He is not light and she is exhausted, but she will not let herself fail, not here and not now.

"We're evacuating the building," Sheppard says as the lights overhead dim and flash to red. Behind her, Ziva hears a loud thud, then another. The Replicators trying to free themselves. "All right everyone, this is a level five foothold situation, fallout in pattern Alpha Bravo 713!"

She knows that he is not speaking to her, but the lights flash and the glass behind her shatters and she's in the stairwell with Ducky on her back, and the exit is down but she's not thinking as she goes up. She has to get to the squad room. She has to warn Gibbs.

Adrenaline moves her up the three flights to the squad room with Ducky on her back. Her hand slips on the door handle, but her second attempt works and she heaves her body through the doorway just as something flies past her head. She stumbles forward and half drops, half rolls Ducky onto the floor. Desperately, she reaches back into the stairwell and pulls hard on the door, trying to close it but the Replicator wearing Kate Todd's face grabs the door from Ziva, yanking it open with one hand while the other sharpens to a metal point, speeding towards Ziva's head.

Ziva does not have time to think. Her gun goes up as she falls backwards. One, two, three times she fires before the ground rises up to slam into her back, and every one of those bullets go straight into Kate's head.

The Replicator is pushed off-course by the force of the bullets, stumbling against the door frame. Ziva refocuses her aim and puts one more bullet into Kate's shoulder, spinning the Replicator off-balance and back into the stairwell. With a speed Ziva didn't realize she still had in her, she pushes herself up and slams her hand on the emergency button to lock down the floor.

The door closes hard, a loud slam of metal on metal, securing everyone in place.

For a heartbeat, there is silence. Ziva's hand holds her gun pointing at the glass rectangle in the door. She cannot see the Replicator in the stairwell, but it must be there. Bullets do not stop Replicators, nothing stops Replicators.

Another heartbeat.

A hand slam onto the glass and then Kate is there, looking at Ziva through the thick window. Ziva can't help herself. She jumps back and she very nearly sends her last bullet into the bulletproof glass.

"Jesus Christ!" someone exclaims from a place above her ear, and Ziva spins. All she can think is that the Replicators got here before she did and she's being attacked from behind, but it's only Tony, his eyes as wide as she's ever seen them. His gun is drawn and pointed at the floor and he stares at the small window.

Behind Tony stand Gibbs and McGee. Each is armed and each is staring at Kate in the window. McGee is horrified and angry and confused, but Gibbs... there is a fury in Gibbs' eyes that sends a shudder over Ziva's skin. She spins back around to keep both eyes on the Replicator. So far in the room, only the Replicator has tried to kill her that day.

"Ziva--" Gibbs starts, but his words cut off as another shape appears behind Kate, illuminated by the harsh red flashing light. It is Ari, and this is every nightmare Ziva has ever had since putting a bullet into her beloved brother's brain.

Ari stands behind Kate, and the dead stare at Ziva with dark eyes, unblinking, emotionless.

Waiting.

Ziva takes a deep breath. This is not her brother. This is a thing, an alien robot, that hurt Ducky. He is the enemy and there will be no mercy.

"McGee," Gibbs says. His voice is not strong, but he carefully raises his gun until the barrel is pointed directly at Kate and Ari. "Check Ducky."

"Boss--"

"Now!"

No one ever disobeys that tone from Gibbs. McGee dives forward, ducking under the raised guns to fall to his knees at Ducky's side. "He's got a pulse," McGee says after a moment.

"Ziva, what the hell is going on?" Gibbs demands.

Ziva pushes at a numb buzzing in her head. "That is not Ari," she spits out. She cannot use the correct words, for even if it is a nightmare there are things that will mean nothing to Gibbs and Tony. "That is a... a golem in his form."

"Who ordered the building's evacuation?" Tony asks.

Before Ziva can find an answer, the whine and flash of the Asguard transporter beam fills the air. Ziva glances quickly over her shoulder to see Sheppard and Lorne and Lorne's team appear in the open space down the hall. Gibbs swings his gun down and Ziva can see he is hesitating on which direction holds the greater threat.

"David, report!" Sheppard barks, coming down the hall to stand at her side. Lorne's team spreads out across the room and Lorne himself takes point by the wall. Ziva is relieved to see that every one of them holds a Replicator dematerialization gun.

"There were at least six Replicators in Autopsy," Ziva says, putting her attention back on Sheppard. "These are two of them."

Sheppard sidles up beside Ziva. He has a life signs detector in his free hand and he raises it for a better look. Then he does a second take at the man in the glass. "Hey, isn't that your dead brother?"

Ziva ignores the question. "They gained information from Dr. Mallard."

Sheppard makes a noise in this throat. "They're not showing up on my sensors," he calls over his shoulder to Lorne. "We have an affirmative ID!"

"The room is clear, sir!" Henderson shouts from a distance.

"The hell it is," Gibbs interrupts. He moves to Ziva's side and she has not seen him so angry in many years. Since the last time he saw Ari. "What the hell is going on?"

"I'm Colonel John Sheppard, USAF," Sheppard says, not looking away from the Replicators. "This is a highly classified terrorist attack--"

"On my agency!" Gibbs retorts.

"You were supposed to evacuate!" Sheppard shoots back. "Why the hell aren't you gone?"

"My people are in the building and I'm not leaving until I know they're safe!"

Ziva lowers her gun as something occurs to her. "Where is Agent Lee?"

"She went down to forensics to wait for Abby to show up," McGee says. He's helping Ducky sit upright. "She took the metal thing down for analysis."

At Sheppard's raised eyebrow, Ziva explains, "It was taken from Captain Wayne's mouth. I believe that is what interrupted our communications."

"Great," Sheppard says under his breath. "Did your agent get out of the building?"

"How would I know?"

Before her sentence is complete, a fuzzy hum shudders through the building, standing the hair up on Ziva's neck. A strange quiet settles over the room.

"What was that?" Ziva asks. Her head is beginning to hurt and when she rubs at her temple, her hand comes away covered in blood. When had that happened?

Ziva's earpiece sputters to life. "I modified the Odyssey's tractor beam to turn into a shield around the building," McKay says. His voice crackles faintly.

"If this is a terrorist attack, who's attacking?" Gibbs is asking Sheppard.

But Ziva has a more important question. "How sealed off can we be?" she demands of McKay. There are any number of ways for the Replicators to escape, through the sewers or pipes or even through cracks in the windows.

"As tight as we can be," McKay snaps. "There is nothing getting in or out of that building. Not even the air."

Ziva's relief is quickly quashed by a sense of claustrophobic horror. "We are stuck in here."

"Until the situation is contained, of course you are!"

"It's part of the safety protocols of a level five foothold situation," Sheppard says. "We're in here until this is over, one way or the other." He glances over at Gibbs, and Ziva sees something pass between the men.

And then the Replicators in the stairwell both turn and walk away down the steps.

"Crap," Sheppard mutters. "They're on the move!"

Lorne motions to his men, Garcia and Manasseri, and Garcia turns and sprints up the stairs to the second level. Manasseri takes point at the door, and Sheppard motions everyone back deeper into the room. Tony helps McGee pull Ducky upright and guide him over to Gibbs' desk.

"How many people are left in the building?" Lorne asks someone on his headset. Ziva cannot hear the answer. "Affirmative on that."

"Well?" Sheppard asks.

"The SGC is coordinating with NCIS security on building logs," Lorne says. He listens intently to something on his earpiece. "There are nine people who were in the building and did not check out before quarantine was imposed. Roll call is..." A pause. "Gibbs--"

"Here," Ziva says, pointing at the man.

"DiNozzo and McGee..." Lorne looks questioningly at Ziva, who nods. "Lee, Mallard, one guest, that's probably Ziva... Parker and Jackson..." Lorne taps hard at his earpiece. "The last person in and not checked out was Sciuto."

Gibbs kicks hard at his desk, startling Ducky all the way conscious, then Gibbs is in Ziva's face and she doesn't have time to get away. "I've got Abby and Lee in this building with undead terrorists who can't be killed by bullets!" he shouts. Ziva knows he is angry and fearful and she understands but she cannot take much more of him. "What the hell is going on?"

Ziva stands up straight under the weight of his fury. He has not said it, but he does not have to. Atlantis has brought this problem down upon the Earth, and Abby and Lee are in danger right now because of this. But there are priorities that must be met, and Ziva cannot let herself feel the emotions threatening to overwhelm her, worry for Abby or grief for Ari. "Who are Parker and Jackson?" she asks.

"They're the Sunday MTACS techs, upstairs," McGee says. He lets go of Ducky's shoulder and takes a half-step towards Ziva. "Boss, Abby and Lee--"

"How much danger are they in?" Gibbs asks Sheppard.

For his part, Sheppard doesn't bother with lies or platitudes. "It's pretty high," he admits.

It's in the air, what none of the men is saying. There are women in danger, and that's not something that any of the men in this room can let continue. Ziva would object, but she knows Abby and Michelle Lee as Sheppard does not. Abby is gentle and a civilian and she does not know what is happening, and while Lee is a trained field agent, she is still a scholar at heart and is so very small.

So Ziva knows they must be found, for reasons different than the men hold, but the outcome will be the same and Ziva cannot bring herself to care.

"Okay, hold it!" Tony exclaims suddenly. "Let's just back up this freight train of weird! What is going on?"

Ducky sighs, a wet bubbly sound that is loud in the room. "It came out of the body," he says slowly.

Gibbs bends over Ducky, a reassuring hand on the man's shoulder. "Ducky, what are you talking about?"

Ducky coughs a few times. When he speaks again, his voice is stronger. "Captain Wayne's body. After Mr. Palmer left Autopsy, the captain's chest exploded outwards and something big and silver came out of the chest cavity." He shoots Tony a glance. "Rather like that creature in Terminator II."

In spite of the horrors of the day, Tony gets a far-away look in his eye for a moment. "Terminator versus Alien," he says. "I thought that was coming out next summer."

"What happened then, Duck?" Gibbs prompts impatiently.

"It wanted information, I'm afraid." Ducky lets out a breath. "It wanted to know who was in charge, how to blend in."

"How does looking like dead people help them to blend in?" Tony demands.

When Ducky looks up, there is a steely glint in his eyes. "I said they wanted information, not that I gave them the correct information."

"That makes it easier," Sheppard says. "This way, we just shoot the dead people."

"But how did we go from one in Wayne to six?" Lorne asks.

His questions pulls Ziva back in her memory, back to the scene in Autopsy, to the planet and the bodies of the dead. Realization hits her hard and she may be sick. "Organs," she says. Everyone looks at her. "The other Replicator were coming from the body trays in Autopsy. That's why the bodies of our men did not have any organs. That is where the Replicators came from."

Sheppard clenches his jaw tight. "Enough of this. We've got people to rescue. Did the Replicator say anything to you?" This last is directed at Ziva.

"After I shot Ari-- the one resembling Ari, they only tried to kill me," she says shortly. She gives Sheppard a look, wondering if he can figure out a way to make any of this sound better, because everything is ugly in her head and her hand itches with the remembered jerk of the gun as she shot her bother's golem.

"They started this by killing our people," Sheppard points out. He glances around the room, at Lorne's team guarding the exits, at Gibbs and Ducky by Gibbs' desk, Tony and McGee by the wall, and finally at Ziva standing alone as she slowly falls apart. "You know the layout of the building?" It's not really a question. "David, you're with me, we're going after Lee and Sciuto. Lorne, take one of these guys," he waves his hand vaguely at the NCIS agents, "And get the techs. Get them back here if you can and try and set up a fortified position."

"Hold on," Tony interrupts. "The building is under attack from shape shifting zombies and your brilliant plan is that we split up?"

Sheppard turns on Tony, but before Sheppard can say something that will start a fight no one has time for, McGee pipes up, "Why don't we try to get out of here instead?"

"No one's going anywhere," Gibbs says, never taking his eyes off Sheppard. "We're in a level five lockdown, right?" Sheppard nods. "At this point, anyone coming out of the building's going to be shot on sight. We're not going anywhere."

"The threat level is beyond anything you guys are prepared for," Sheppard puts in. "Forget red, we've..."

"Gone to plaid?" Ziva asks archly.

"I was going to go with infrared, but whatever," Sheppard snaps. "Grab a ray-gun, we're moving."

Lorne immediately hands Ziva his Replicator dematerialization gun, giving her a quick jerk of the head she knows is meant to reassure, but all she can think is that she may never see him again. There is nothing more to say.

Of the NCIS men, it is Gibbs who clears his throat. "Ziva--"

"I will bring Abby and Michelle back," she says too quickly, because she cannot stand knowing what Gibbs might say to her in this situation, and so she makes promises she does not know she can keep. She follows Sheppard with the noise of Lorne's voice buzzing in her head as he sets his own rescue mission into motion.

"More details," Sheppard says under his breath as he and Ziva make their way to the far stairwell. "That big guy in the door who looked like your brother Ari? Who was the woman?"

"That was NCIS Special Agent Kate Todd." Bemused hysteria bubbles up in Ziva's chest, because Ari shot Kate in the head and Ziva shot the Replicator Kate in the head and her life is full of snakes swallowing their tails. "She too is dead."

Sheppard pauses in his reconfiguring of the life signs detector. "That was a Replicator named Kate?" A totally inappropriate smile crosses his face. "We're after a Repli-Kate?"

Ziva stares at Sheppard. "Do you have that out of your system now?" she demands coldly.

"For the most part." He taps his earpiece. "McKay, what are the scanners telling you?"

McKay's voice crackles through Ziva's comm. "We were picking up the Replicators in the building, but there's a dead zone in the basement that our sensors can't penetrate. It looks like they've all retreated into that zone."

"So we will go blind into the vat," Ziva says.

"Blind as a bat, Ziva," Sheppard says. He raises his hand at Henderson, who raises his Replicator dematerialization gun to give them momentary cover. "We're going in."

The door unlocks under the touch of one of Sheppard's Ancient device, and Ziva and Sheppard step into a world of silent red flashing lights. Since Ziva is the one who knows the building, she is first down the stairs, with Sheppard covering her back.

Their comms crackle as Ziva's foot touches the top step of the basement stairs. "...going out of range... copy, Sheppard?"

"I hear you, McKay," Sheppard whispers. "We'll try and destroy the jammer."

"...not sure if you... hear me, but try and destroy.... jamming device."

Sheppard rolls his eyes. "Copy, McKay."

"How exactly will we do such a thing?" Ziva asks. "Do you have some C4 in your back pocket?"

"Well," Sheppard hesitates. "What was the jamming device made of?"

"I do not know. It appeared metal."

"So maybe it's made of the same thing as the Replicator. I say we try shooting it."

"You say that about everything."

"I do not."

"When the Puddle jumper's engine stopped working on P6R-3X2, you recommended that McKay take a P90 to it."

"I was frustrated," Sheppard stresses. They are approaching a bend in the corridor and Ziva's hands itch at not being able to see if anything is waiting for them. "Hey," Sheppard says, suddenly all business. "I'm getting a reading."

"Human or Replicator?"

"Human. Just around the corner and not moving."

"It might be a trap," Ziva says, a not-rational fear punching her in the stomach. What if it is Abby? Or Michelle? Or the Replicators having managed to mimic human life signs?

"Of course it might be a trap. You got a mirror?"

Ziva lets out an exasperated sigh. "Your hair is fine," she snaps. Going down on one knee, back to the wall, she pulls her shiny knife from her ankle sheath and ever-so-carefully angles the blade around the corner.

There is one body, lying crumpled on the floor. "One figure," Ziva says in a whisper. She cannot tell if it is Abby or Michelle.

"Your call."

Ziva takes a breath and tries to remain rational. "I lead."

"I'm on your six."

Gripping her ray-gun tight, Ziva pushes herself to her feet and swings around the corner, sweeping the corridor for any signs of movement. There are none. Even the body on the floor is deathly still.

"I'll cover you," Sheppard says again, so Ziva lets her attention fall to the body on the floor. It is Michelle Lee. Her eyes are half-closed and her skin is pale and tinged with grey, but when Ziva touches the woman's face, there is breath in her body and her pulse is steady if shallow.

"She is alive," Ziva says, her voice breaking in relief. The Replicators have taken five of her men, but they have not claimed a sixth life. Not yet. "I cannot see any bleeding, but she needs medical attention--"

"After what happened to the others, she'll need it," Sheppard finishes for her. He kneels by the young woman's body and pushes the hair back from her face. A long bruise marks the otherwise flawless skin on Michelle's forehead. "We should take her back upstairs."

Ziva says a silent pray of apology for what she is about to do. "We should leave her here," Ziva says. The way Sheppard jerks back to look at her hurts, but there is no time for her emotions. "The Replicators have taken what they want from her and they did not kill her. Abby might not be so lucky."

"We can't leave--"

"We must stop the Replicators!" Ziva hisses. "We brought this threat from Atlantis by letting Jeff Wayne come home! These things kill and replicate, and they take information and it cannot be for benign reasons! There are six billion people on this planet! Imagine what the Replicators might do if--"

Sheppard stops her rant by placing a hand on her arm. It is the first time he has ever touched her like this, and the gesture startles her into silence. "You're right," is all he says, and the pain in his eyes mirrors her own. There is no excuse for leaving Michelle Lee behind like this. "Move out."

Before they go, Ziva rolls Michelle into the recovery position, hoping desperately that the woman has no spinal injuries. Then off they go.

Another ten feet down the hall, Sheppard's life signs detector dies. By now, they are close to Abby's lab, and loud thump-thump of Abby's music pounds down the hall.

"That's not ominous," Sheppard mutters as the song tells them about a living dead girl.

On the contrary, the familiar sounds of Abby's music stiffens Ziva's spine. "That is how we work at NCIS," she remarks. She lifts her weapon and readies herself to sweep into the room. "On three."

Sheppard lifts his hand, counting on his fingers one, two, and then they both burst into the lab.

Ziva takes in many things at once. The Ari-Replicator and Repli-Kate have backed a panicking Abby against the far wall, with Ari's hand morphed to a point and moving towards Abby's head. Military tactics desert Ziva as her world narrows to the threat to Abby. She raises her gun and fires directly at Ari.

Her brother's golem collapses in a pile of small metallic dust. Abby lets out a scream and pushes back against the wall, away from the metallic puddle. Repli-Kate ducks to the side faster than any human can move, putting the bench between her and the dematerialization guns.

Sheppard sidesteps, trying to keep Repli-Kate in view. Ziva moves closer to Abby, trying spot Repli-Kate behind the bench, when something small and metallic on the workbench catches her eye. "Sheppard!" she shouts, pointing at the metallic oval. "That is it, the jamming device!"

Between an unseen enemy and a known threat, Sheppard doesn't even hesitate as he whirls, pointing his dematerialization gun at the oval and firing point-blank.

The oval disintegrates with the force of the blast, and a burst of sound erupts in Ziva's ear as her comm comes back online. Before Ziva can tell McKay of their success, Repli-Kate springs up from behind the bench and grabs Sheppard. She lifts him as if he weighs nothing and hurls him across the room and through the glass doors to Abby's office, hitting the stereo on his way down and cutting the music to silence.

He lays where he lands.

Furious beyond measure, Ziva fires another volley at the Replicator, but to her horror, the blast just washes over the woman harmlessly. Ziva tries again, but the result is the same, and some fragment of advice from McKay comes back to her, about how the Replicators can adapt to the frequency changes of the Atlantean weapons and use them sparingly or else everyone dies.

"Sheppard?" McKay's voice echoes in Ziva's ear. "Ziva? What is going on?"

Ziva's mouth has gone dry with perfectly rational fear. Repli-Kate steps slowly towards Ziva with emotionless determination in her dark eyes, and there is no way out of this. "Sheppard is down," Ziva tells McKay distantly. "The ray-guns have stopped working against the Replicators."

"What?" McKay squawks, and in his voice Ziva can hear all the worry and panic that the man will never voice for Sheppard. McKay lets out a wordless exclamation. "Okay, we'll fix this! You can rewire your dematerialization gun, just do as I say and--"

"There is no time," Ziva says. Her back-stepping has put her beside Abby on the wall. Abby grabs at Ziva's arm, her hand ice-cold and trembling and an idea, brilliant under the circumstances, occurs to Ziva. "You will tell Abby." Quickly, Ziva yanks her comm from her ear and hands it, along with the gun, to Abby. "Abby, McKay will tell you what to do."

"What?" Abby's voice cracks, but she's already taking gun and earpiece from Ziva. "Ziva, what's going on?"

Repli-Kate cocks her head to one side, considering, and Ziva realizes that she has inadvertently placed Abby in peril. Ziva shoves Abby back through the broken glass doors and into the office beside Sheppard's prone form. "We are in great danger," is all she can say.

"Yeah," Abby says with an angry sniffle. "I got that."

Repli-Kate takes another step towards Abby. "Ziva David," Repli-Kate says in a flat, unemotional voice, and while Ziva cannot be certain, it does not sound like Kate Todd's voice. "Mossad officer, assassin."

Ziva sternly reminds herself that the Replicator knows what Ducky told her and what they got from Michelle Lee. This is not Kate Todd. "I am the civilian coordinator on--" Would the Replicator know Atlantis? Ziva decided to risk it. "On Atlantis. Do you know about Atlantis?"

Repli-Kate blinks slowly, but at least she has stopped moving. "City of the Lanteans. The creators of the creators."

"What does that mean?" Ziva asks. Her heart pounds in her throat. When she was a child in Israel, a poisonous snake had crossed her path. It looked at her with similar dark eyes, as if trying to decide whether to kill her or to let her live. "The Lanteans created the Replicators, did they not?"

"The Asurans," Repli-Kate corrects. "They were our creators."

"And what are you?" Ziva asks. Behind her, she can hear Abby's frantic voice talking to McKay, the crunch of boots over broken glass. "Are you also Asurans?"

"We are weapons," Repli-Kate says. She steps to the side to see Abby, but Ziva moves to block the woman. "Our sanctuary was infiltrated by your men. We were defending ourselves."

The sheer audacity of it takes Ziva's breath away. "You killed five of my men!" she exclaims, her voice rising with every word. "Men who would have not harmed you!"

"Acceptable losses," Repli-Kate states. "Our programming tells us to disable all enemies."

"Is that what we are?" Ziva asks. "Enemies?"

Repli-Kate tilts her head into an impossible angle. "You destroyed the first of us." It takes Ziva a moment to realize the Replicator speaks of Ari. "Our programming is set."

And with that, Repli-Kate lunges at Ziva.

Ziva tries to move out of the way, but the Replicator's hand tightens vise-like around Ziva's throat. The world descends into choking grey. Ziva kicks and fights, but it is all for nothing.

Just as the black begins to cloud her vision, a white blast of energy rushes over her, loosening the grip on her throat. Ziva falls to the ground in a pile of metallic dust, coughing and choking as the world comes back to her.

Hands on her arms pull her upright. It is Abby, looking sick and determined and so wonderful that had Ziva not been struggling to breathe, she would have kissed the woman. "Oh my god, Ziva, are you okay?" Abby squeaks. She hugs Ziva hard, and in spite of the danger of more Replicators, Ziva hugs Abby back. "I thought it was Kate but it wasn't Kate--"

"It was not Kate," Ziva says quickly. She pulls back from the hug and somehow, with Abby's help, regains her feet. "The building was in lockdown, why did you not leave?"

"I was in the darkroom, I didn't see the lights until I came out here and found Kate and Ari--" Abby's voice catches. "What happened? Is everyone okay?"

"Almost," Ziva says. She makes her way to Sheppard's side. The man is beginning to stir, and he lets Ziva pull him into a sitting position. "Sheppard, can you speak?"

"Ow," the man mutters. He has blood on his face from a large gash in his forehead, but he appears coherent. "Did you get her?"

"Abby did," Ziva says with no small amount of pride. "Can you move?"

"Sure, why not?" Sheppard says. But before Ziva can haul him to his feet, there is movement in the door and two more Replicators stand there, ready for the attack.

Abby takes in a sharp breath, and Sheppard's pulling Ziva back down and telling her to cover her eyes, cover your eyes now! and Ziva closes her eyes as the bright light crashes down over them, but the world is white behind her eyelids and her hands don't stop the glare, and she curls in on herself, pressing her face against her legs as the light pulses and hums and as suddenly as it started, it stops and the world is quiet again.

Ziva blinks away the spots in her eyes. Where the Replicators stood are two piles of metallic dust, inert and harmless. Ziva cannot look away.

"What was that?" Abby demands. She stands and crunches over the broken glass to get a better look. The whole lab floor is coated with the remains of the Replicators. She pauses. "What do you mean, a dematerialization beam reconfigured from a tractor beam?"

"McKay, hold off on the top-secret science for a moment," Sheppard says. He uses Ziva to haul himself into a standing position. "Come on, let's get back to the others."

"Just like that?" Ziva asks. She cannot move her legs. "It's over? That easy?"

Sheppard looks at her, blood on his face and her throat hurts with every breath and Abby's about five seconds away from a melt-down. "You call that easy?"

"Is it safe to go out there?" Abby asks, but Ziva can tell she's straining to get to the others.

"We will see," Ziva says. She makes Sheppard lean on Abby out the door and down the corridor to the stairs. Michelle Lee has not moved, but the woman's breathing is stronger now, and she does not flinch as Ziva pulls her into a fireman's carry for the walk up the stairs.

Garcia nearly shoots them when they limp into the squad room, but he is soon convinced of their veracity, helped along by the readings of the life signs detector in Lorne's hand. McGee rushes forward and helps Ziva lay Michelle down on the ground, rolling up his jacket and placing it behind her head.

Gibbs comes over next. Abby unceremoniously transfers Sheppard onto Lorne's shoulder and rushes at Gibbs, nearly tackling the man to the ground. Gibbs hugs Abby back just as hard. "You okay?" he demands.

"I had to shoot Kate," Abby says, muffled by Gibbs' shoulder. "And Ari was there and Ziva almost died and I don't know how many more times I can say this but I don't like working on Sundays."

Gibbs chuckles low, running his hand over Abby's pigtails and planting a kiss on her temple. He looks at Ziva over Abby's shoulder and there's gratitude in his eyes, a gratitude that Ziva does not deserve. If Ziva had moved faster, the Replicators in Jeff Wayne's body would never have infiltrated NCIS, and Michelle and Sheppard would not have been hurt.

Lorne hauls Sheppard over to the desks beside Ducky. It takes Ziva a moment to see it, but the men in the room are not unscathed. The MTACS techs are ruffled and bloodied, if still upright, and Henderson sports a bandaged arm and Tony has a black eye. Ziva raises an eyebrow.

Gibbs catches the expression. "Two of your terrorists got into MTACS," he says once Abby stops trying to squeeze him to death.

Tony's eyeing Gibbs with annoyance. "Jenny Shepard and Paula Cassidy," he tells Ziva. "And wasn't that exciting fun?"

Ziva has no time for Tony's emotional fragility now. "I was faced with the Replicator that mimicked my brother. He was about to..." Injure? Interrogate? Slaughter on the laboratory floor for Ziva's sins? "Hurt Abby."

The woman in question rests her head on Gibbs' shoulder, trembling with the aftermath of the day. Gibbs pats her shoulder and Ziva thinks bitterly that her own father would never have comforted her so.

And just as soon as her anger rose, it disappears into nothingness. Shaking her head, Ziva crosses the squad room and leans on the desk next to Tony. He eyes her apprehensively, as if she might shout at him, but when she says nothing and the buzz of the room picks up speed again, he slumps down.

"This has not been a good day," Ziva says in a low voice after a while. Every word hurts, but she finds that she must say something to Tony. "Abby needed to raise arms against the... against the one that resembled Kate Todd."

"I shot... I had to shoot Jenny," Tony says quietly. Ziva closes her eyes at the pain in his voice. "She was trying to kill McGee and I shot her four times in the chest to get her to move back. Your Major shot her with the ray gun and she just... disappeared." He clears his throat. "Is this the kind of stuff you deal with every day now?"

Ziva thinks back to Stackhouse's words on her first day in Atlantis, about how things usually got worse. Today, five of her men are dead, her friends nearly so, and no one has won much of anything. They are all alive, but barely so. "Today was a particularly bad day."

Tony's fingers brush over her hand as they stand by the desk, then the room hums again as the force field goes down and five minutes later, General O'Neill and Colonel Carter barge in, flanked by a whole contingent of SGC Marines and a medical team.

"Well," General O'Neill announces to the room at large. He claps his hands together. "This is going to be one hell of a debrief."

Ziva lets out a weary sigh. She is so very tired.

Chapter 8

They may talk about renaming Bethesda Naval Hospital, but they'll never get rid of that smell. It's a pressing reminder in the back of Ziva's head that something is wrong and this isn't Atlantis, all through the examinations and the shouting match over jurisdiction and more examinations and Ziva eventually passed out on a sofa with her arm to cushion her head, ignoring the sounds of a very loud conversation between the vice-president and the secretary of defense on the other side of the open door.

This whole mess had to happen in an election year.

Ziva rouses slightly at some point when a weight settles on her shoulders. She cracks open her eyes to see Gibbs pulling a blanket over her shoulders. "Go back to sleep," he murmurs, all un-Gibbs-like.

"Wha..."

"You don't need to be awake right now," and Ziva believes him because this is Gibbs and he never lies to her. So she closes her eyes again, warmer now, but sleep is a little longer in returning.

"What's this world coming to?" Gibbs asks someone else in the room.

A dry chuckle. Ducky. "You sound like an old man, Jethro."

"I feel like one today."

"Don't be ridiculous."

"It's not ridiculous." The voices grow softer, moving away. "I saw Jenny and Paula today, clear as day, but it wasn't them."

"Consider yourself lucky," Ducky tells him. "I turned around and was presented with an exploded corpse and Ari Haswari."

"Ziva took care of him."

A pause, and Ziva makes certain she appears to be asleep. "Of all the people to stick into a situation this screwed up, it had to be Ziva."

"Come now, Jethro, she did an admirable job today. She saved everyone in the building."

"That she did."

The voices stop for a moment and Ziva thinks they have left, then she hears a footstep on the floor and a whispered voice,

"But she still can't pretend to sleep to save her life."

Ziva fakes a snore and the footsteps move away and this time, Ziva really does let herself fall back into slumber.

~~~


When Ziva wakes for real, the sky is dark on the other side of the glass and voices move softly around the room. The memories of the day lay heavy on her mind and she takes a moment to lie still and let the day crash over her.

Captain Jefferson Wayne is dead in the same way as the rest of Delta Team, and Replicators are to blame.

The ceiling of the room, hastily converted from a medical isolation ward into a quarantined unit with security posted at every entrance, is spotless white amid the florescent lighting. Ziva stares hard at the tiles as she tries to compartmentalize the day into lines that will allow her to face the others without screaming or breaking down.

First of all, the Earth is safe. Ziva knows that the SGC will go over every inch of the NCIS building and the Navy Yard and anywhere Jeff Wayne has stepped in the weeks of his vacation in Washington, talk to everyone person he met and make a history of everything he did.

When the doctors released Sheppard earlier in the day, he'd turned to Ziva and said he was taking Lorne and Colonel Carter to go talk to Wayne's family. Then he'd told Ziva to watch the NCIS team in case anything happened, which it wouldn't but Ziva had been secretly happy to not have to speak with the young Captain's soon-to-be-grieving family.

It is this feeling that now tastes like shame in Ziva's mouth.

But the Earth is safe. All the people on the Earth are safe from the latest threat from the Pegasus galaxy and Keller has gone back to Atlantis to start testing everyone there, so everyone will be all right.

Well, almost everyone. Ziva only has to blink to see Ari's face in her mind.

Enough of this. Ziva sits up and stretches out the twists in her back. When she glances around the room, she sees the two unfamiliar MTAC technicians, Parker and Jackson, playing cards with Henderson, Garcia and Manasseri. The table before them is strewn with small colored candies as chips. Ziva wonders if she should warn the technicians how much money she has lost playing poker with Manasseri, but decides against it. It is only candy, after all.

Gibbs and Ducky are at the other end of the long room, talking between themselves. Abby holds court with Tony, McGee, Lee and Palmer in the middle of the room, although from the looks of Abby's sugar jitters, the woman might break through the glass any moment now in a run worthy of Willy Coyote.

Wait.

Palmer?

Ziva blinks the sleep from her eyes and looks again, but as sure as the sun rises in the morning, Jimmy Palmer sits beside Michelle Lee and they are holding hands and hadn't Palmer been outside the quarantine?

She's still waiting for her brain to catch up with whatever reality she has awoken to, when Abby catches a glimpse of her and barrels over, jumping onto the couch beside Ziva. Abby smells of peanut butter and chocolate and Ziva's stomach rumbles with hunger and there isn't time for her to analyze that leap before Abby wraps Ziva in a bone-crushing hug.

"You're awake!" Abby exclaims. Before Ziva can comment on this declaration of the obvious, Abby snuggles in at Ziva's side, one arm around Ziva's shoulder. The woman is fairly vibrating in place. "I knew you'd have to wake up at some point."

"A good guess." It has been several months since Ziva has needed to handle a sugared-up Abby, and she's forgotten how she once did it. "What time is it?"

"It's tomorrow."

Ziva turns her head to stare at Abby, ignoring the shooting pain across her temple and neck. "How can this very moment be 'tomorrow'?"

"The same way we can be attacked by SkyNet in MTAC." Abby stretches out her legs. Across the room, Tony tilts his head to get a better look as Abby's skirt rides up her thighs and McGee gets that annoyed expression on his face and smacks Tony across the back of the head. "It only gets really strange when all of a sudden you find yourself in yesterday."

Ziva raises her eyebrows at Tony, who give her his innocent face and turns back to Lee. "It is after midnight?"

"Just past."

"Why is Palmer here?"

Abby shrugs. Her fingers move restlessly on Ziva's shoulder. Oddly, Ziva finds she does not mind, even though she is usually more uptight about personal boundaries. "He talked his way into quarantine by saying that since he was helping Ducky with the autopsy, he might have caught whatever it was and got himself locked up in stir with us."

Ziva takes another look at Palmer and Lee. "I can see how concerned Jimmy is about Ducky."

Abby dissolves into a fit of the giggles, burying her face against Ziva's shoulder as she shakes with laughter. It must be the lateness of the hour, but Ziva starts laughing as well.

It feels so normal that an edge of the tension in Ziva's body slides away. Yes, people are dead, but they have been avenged, and no more will die. Not on Ziva's watch.

Abby's still giggling when the room's doors swing open and Sheppard breezes in, carrying a large stuffed toy octopus. Lorne follows in his wake, struggling with several large pizza boxes, and then Rodney McKay of all people brings up the rear.

"Hey everyone," Sheppard says laconically. The bruises on his face are purpling nicely, but he's still able to smile at the room's assembled inhabitants. "Sorry to keep you waiting, but there's still processes and procedures to be followed. You know how it is."

The man makes a subtle hand gesture at three Marines at the poker table, who have risen at Sheppard's entrance with more alacrity than Ziva would have given them credit for this late. Ziva must hide a smile when Henderson raises an eyebrow at Lorne, who shakes his head, before sitting back down. Ziva knows the men on Lorne's team have fierce loyalty for the Major, even more than they do Sheppard, yet another interesting fact about life on Atlantis.

A movement in the corner of her vision distracts Ziva. It would seem that Gibbs also spotted the exchange for what it was. "Do you have any idea how much longer we'll be in here?" Gibbs asks Sheppard.

While Lorne wrestles the pizza boxes onto a table, Sheppard twitches his good shoulder a fraction of an inch. "General O'Neill's still working on processing everyone's paperwork."

"What paperwork?" Ziva wonders aloud. In her defense, she has been asleep for some time and might have missed a few things.

"Everyone has to sign non-disclosure agreements and promise to not even think about dissolving metal alien robots ever again," Abby says with pointed cheer. Her clear green eyes fix upon Sheppard. "Not even a little."

Sheppard jerks his attention over to Abby, who is still draped over Ziva. His expression does not change much, but Ziva has been watching his face in dangerous situations for many months and she can tell that something other than Abby's words has interested him. With Abby, it could have been the short plaid skirt or the knee-high white socks or the saddle shoes. Tony has explained the appeal of the schoolgirl look to the American male, but Ziva always thought that was just a Tony thing.

Apparently not.

"Here," Sheppard says, tossing the stuffed octopus at Abby. "Sorry about your hippo."

"Hippo?" Ziva echoes. She really is far behind on this conversation. "What happened to Bert?"

Abby takes a deep breath. "When Captain America--"

"Colonel America," Shepard interjects.

"--went flying through my office door, he landed on Bert and totally squished him flat," Abby continues. She hefts the octopus. "Don't think you can bribe me with toys."

"It's not a bribe, it's a thank you," Sheppard tells her, drifting closer. McKay's on his heels and quiet, which for Rodney must be some sort of miracle. "The doctors tell me that another inch to the left and I'd have been a goner. That hippo saved my life."

Abby sniffs. "Liar."

"I'm not lying." Sheppard hesitates. "Maybe I'm exaggerating a little."

"Exaggerator?" Abby shoots back. Her glare softens. Ziva has seen that expression on Abby's face before, and her heart sinks. If Abby starts making googly eyes at John Sheppard, Ziva may be forced into extreme action.

"It's more hyperbole," Sheppard says. He frowns. "I'm hyperbolic?"

McKay can take no more. "Oh, for heaven's sake," he snaps. "The only thing hyperbolic about you is your hair--"

Sheppard's grin goes fixed, like it does when he's trying to decide whether to hit Rodney or kiss him. So far, the hitting has won out ever time and Ziva just hopes she'll be around when Sheppard decides to swing the other way. "McKay, do you mind?" he hisses.

Abby's on her feet in an instant, stuffed octopus forgotten on the couch. "Rodney McKay?" she asks, in that tone of voice reserved for star forensic scientists and men bearing CafPow. She sticks her hand out and gives Rodney's a good shake when he automatically reaches out. "This is so cool."

McKay's just gaping at Abby like he has been hit between the eyes. "I-- You... I thought you were younger. Or something," he stammers.

"Huh? Oh, no, it's just the skirt," Abby says, still grinning like she's met a celebrity. Ziva must physically cover her mouth with her hand to hide her smile. After all the times McKay has complained about no one giving him his proper due, and when presented with it in the form of a five-foot-ten Gothic forensic scientist in a schoolgirl skirt, he cannot even speak. "You totally have to tell me all about that tractor beam death ray you aren't supposed to tell me about."

"Uh..." McKay looks helplessly at Ziva. She takes her hand down and smiles sweetly at the man.

"Doctor McKay is quite inventive," Ziva tells Abby. She catches Henderson and Garcia staring at them, and she winks. Manasseri slaps Garcia on the back and laughs quietly. "He can MacGyver any piece of technology into a solution for any problem." Ziva waits for a beat, then adds, "He is very good with his hands."

McKay's ears go red, Abby's smile grows wider, and Sheppard glares daggers into Ziva.

"Then you can tell me all about that too," Abby declares. She yanks on Rodney's hand and pulls him off to the side of the room, questioning the whole time with Rodney stammering back, leaving Ziva to face down an annoyed Sheppard.

"Was that necessary?" Sheppard asks.

Ziva reaches up to pat him on the cheek, but he ducks out of the way. "Your ego will survive," she replies. "Abby will have much to discuss with McKay. About science."

The glare remains. "You don't know what a Carebear Stare is, but you can work MacGyver into a sentence?"

"MacGyver was a very informative television show for a young Mossad officer," Ziva retorts. "What good will a stomach full of 'love' do in a war zone?"

Sheppard rolls his eyes at the ceiling. "You realize that if McKay gives up any more program secrets, we'll be taking Ms. Sciuto back to At--" He shakes his head at his own close call at saying secret words. "Back with us?" He shoves a shopping bag against Ziva's chest. "Here."

Ziva takes the bag from him, wondering at its weight. "What is this?"

"Picked up a little something for you at Target." Sheppard sticks his hands in his pockets. "You didn't have a chance to bring a change of clothes. It was Lorne's idea."

Ziva peeks into the bag. What she sees there throws her more than anything else that has happened since the Replicators were eradicated from NCIS.

Carefully, in case this is a booby-trap, she reaches into the bag and pulls out the bright blue bunny rabbit slippers.

Sheppard's face goes blank.

"Thank you," Ziva says slowly. "Although I already have shoes..." She looks back into the bag. "Why have you brought me Y-fronts?"

Sheppard tries to grab the bag but Ziva dances out of reach. This makes no sense at all. Why has John Sheppard bought her rabbit slippers and men's underwear?

"Are you sure this is not for you?" Ziva asks, holding the bunny slippers over her head. Sheppard takes the opportunity to snatch the shopping bag back from Ziva's hand.

"That's not mine," Sheppard says desperately. He looks at Lorne, who's holding a suspiciously intense conversation with McGee over the pizza. "This isn't my stuff! I must have grabbed the wrong bag--"

"You will not get out of this so easily," Ziva tells him. They are the centre of attention in the room, but she has had little enough sleep to not care. "You have given me bunny slippers, and you must accept the consequences."

"Lorne--"

"Your XO is supposed to protect and support you in the field. I do not think a shopping trip to Target counts as enemy territory." Ziva hugs the slippers to her chest, knowing Sheppard will not voluntarily put his hands that close to her breasts unless he wants to die.

Still, Sheppard takes half a step towards her before abandoning the idea. "The General wants to see you," he says gruffly. He holds out his hand. "Here, I'll watch those for you." He is generosity itself, but Ziva holds her head high and sails out of the room in full possession of her bunny slippers, if not her sanity.

Gibbs is quietly laughing at her as she goes.

The meeting with O'Neill is brief. After Ziva kicks off her boots and puts her feet into the bunny slippers, she sits on the edge of the commandeered desk and eats an entire carton of ginger beef and rice while O'Neill and Colonel Samantha Carter go back and forth with questions about everyone in quarantine and if they would sell state secrets and so on until Ziva wishes she could shoot something.

Finally, the pile of paper is completed. O'Neill lets his head fall to the desk with a thunk. He does not notice as Carter steals his spring roll.

Ziva asks, "Are there not any members of your own military you can be asking these questions of?"

"Sheppard recommends your judgment, and we don't have anyone who knows the NCIS personnel as well as you," Carter responds. The woman is too chipper to have spent an entire day wrestling with a planetary crisis.

"You could talk to Special Agent Gibbs," Ziva suggests. "He has worked with everyone longer than I have."

"Gibbs," O'Neill says, drawing himself upright again. "Didn't the Secretary of Defense call him a loose cannon?"

The corner of Carter's mouth twitches. "Actually, sir, I think he was referring to you."

"Ah, right." O'Neill blinks tiredly at Ziva. "Is there anything else?"

"This is your meeting," Ziva reminds him.

"True. Go on, head back into quarantine and keep an eye on everyone until we sort this whole mess out. And try and keep your forensic scientist away from McKay, I don't want her pumping him for information."

Ziva straightens her jacket as she stands. "Why, is there something else might Abby pump him for?" she asks in her most innocent voice.

Sam Carter chokes on a mouthful of rice.

When she gets back to quarantine, Abby and McKay are in the middle of a blazing row about the superiority of different types of sciences and to all appearances are enjoying every minute of it. The poker game is once again going, with McGee and Lorne added to the ranks of the game.

Sheppard is by himself in the window, as far away from Tony and Gibbs as he can get without physically launching himself through another glass window. Ziva does not hesitate as she makes her way to Sheppard's side.

He shoves something greasy towards her. "I saved you a slice of pizza."

"What's on it?" Ziva asks, unwrapping the offered meal cautiously.

"Ham and shrimp, covered in a cream sauce."

Instead of the anti-kosher horror he had just described, Ziva finds a slice of vegetarian pizza. "Now what?" she asks around a mouthful.

"More of the same," Sheppard says. "The paperwork's still not done, and so this crew's stuck for a while. I was thinking of clearing the Atlantis personnel out, letting them talk amongst themselves."

"But leaving me here," Ziva predicts.

"But leaving you here," Sheppard admits. "Just in case. I cleared it and we can head back to Colorado day after tomorrow." He checks his watch. "Make that tomorrow."

Ziva is watching McKay and Abby across the room as Abby launches into another tirade, taking no guff from Rodney. "You should leave McKay here as well," she tells Sheppard. "As you are leaving me."

Sheppard follows Ziva's gaze. "Why?" he asks, sounding rather tired of everything.

Ziva pops a tomato from the pizza into her mouth. "Abby once wrote a academic paper on alien abduction. It would be best if she were to receive the proper information from the donkey's mouth."

"Donkey's ass-- no, you mean horse's mouth," Sheppard says automatically. "And she's not supposed to know anything. Unless this is some underhanded way to get her to follow us home."

Ziva opens her eyes wide. "I do not know what you mean." She holds up her crust as a peace offering. Sheppard accepts as he wanders off.

The Marines stand as soon as they see Sheppard's signal. Sheppard himself drifts off to say something to McKay, and Lorne heads over to Ziva while the proceeds of the poker game are sorted into Henderson's hands. "What's going on?" Lorne asks in a quiet voice.

She does not pretend ignorance of his real meaning. "I merely thought that Abby might like to get to know the man who saved all of our lives."

"That's bull and you know it. What are you pulling?"

Ziva carefully examines Abby's open body language, her shoulders back and her spine straight, her knees crossed, and all of her attention on McKay. Ziva knows Sheppard sees the flirtation in Abby's stance, and wonders if McKay will need to be slapped over the head to understand. "I only wish to move things along. Our lives are not long enough for inaction."

Lorne stares at her in disbelief. "You're just stirring up trouble," he tells her. "And it's going to come back on me."

"It will not!"

"It always does!"

Ziva tilts her head at his unexpected annoyance, and then she remembers something. "You have next month in the betting pool, yes?"

"I don't know what you're talking--"

"That pool we are not supposed to ask or tell about--"

Lorne shushes her. "Don't go breaking things while I'm gone," he chastises her in parting. "Especially my CO."

Sheppard veers past her one last time on his way to the door. "I can take those bunny slippers to the base for you--"

"Leave!" Ziva orders.

Sticking out his lower lip in a pout, Sheppard goes.

Ziva does not relax until the door closes behind Sheppard. The McKay and Abby argument makes no sign of ending soon, so Ziva turns on her heel and shuffles past the couch where Tony and Ducky sit, to where Gibbs sits on a chair staring out a window at the Washington night lights. Ziva leans against the windowsill in silence.

After a few minutes, Gibbs clears his throat. "I've talked to a few Marines who've gone through Colorado Springs since the mid-90s," he says quietly. "There's always been a whole lot of secrecy and loyalty to the program."

"Marines are always loyal."

"To the Corps," Gibbs corrects. "But not the program, not like this. I always wondered what they were doing down there to create that kind of loyalty."

"You know I cannot tell you any details beyond what you saw today, Gibbs."

"And I don't want to hear them." Gibbs glances up at her. "It's just..."

Ziva frowns. She has seldom seen Gibbs at such a loss for words.

He tries again. "Today, I watched Jenny and Paula try to kill Tim and Tony. I saw Ari standing large as life and I watched you shoot Kate in the head."

"They only looked like the dead," Ziva says uncertainly. "We only knew they were Replicators because Ducky was strong enough to withstand their interrogation techniques."

"And because you were there to see them for what they were." Gibbs pushes to his feet and joins Ziva at the windowsill. "There are so many ways today could have gone wrong."

"But they did not." Ziva watches the lights of a helicopter landing on the hospital's helipad across the complex. "We did what we needed." A loud exclamation across the room makes Ziva wince. "McKay and Abby especially."

Gibbs chuckles. "There'll be no living with her after this."

Ziva gapes at Gibbs. "Did you just quote a movie?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

Tony DiNozzo pops up between them, making Ziva jump. "Did someone say movie?" he asks with a grin.

Ziva and Gibbs lock eyes. "It's good to see that his sense of subtlety continues to evolve," Ziva states.

"That's why they made him team leader." Gibbs steps back. "Don't you two kill each other while I'm gone."

"I'd never kill Ziva, boss," Tony protests.

"He'd never succeed," Ziva says over him. She smiles at Tony, but not really feeling it. Her stomach churns with apprehension. This is the first time they have been alone since that night at his apartment.

He smiles again, sheepish and shy, and Ziva's insides melt. It is not fair, the way he makes her feel.

She will blame this on the day's trauma.

"So," Tony says. He attempts to lean casually against the wall, but he leans in a little too far and knocks into the light switch and plunges the whole room into darkness. People protest, and the lights come back on. "Sorry," Tony calls.

Ziva cannot help the smile that spreads across her face. In some ways, Tony really has not changed in all in the years she has known him.

"Are you going to talk to me at all?" Tony asks, starting to look a little worried.

"That depends," Ziva says.

"On?"

"What's it like being team leader again?"

Tony hesitates for a moment, as if trying to figure out if she is serious. Finally, he says, "It's the same as last time. I've got Lee tripping over her feet to get things done, McGee keeps popping up like athlete's foot, and I can't get no respect." This last is said in a very bad impersonation.

"So exactly like last time."

"Pretty much, yeah."

Ziva gives Tony the once-over. "You seem to have survived the day in one piece."

He shrugs. "Once you see your dead boss try to assassinate a co-worker, you gain a little perspective."

Seeing as how Ziva spent the morning chasing her dead brother about, she will agree with that. "Do you have plans today?"

"You mean tonight? I've got this standing order with Air Force security--" He breaks off when Ziva punches his arm. "It's what, Monday? I've got the day off because of the weekend. Why?"

"If we get out of here soon, I have a day off as well before I must return to my duties. We could try for that cup of coffee again."

He blinks at her. Then again. "You do remember what happened the last time we tried that, right?"

Ziva will not back down. Her day truly has put some portions of her life into perspective. "I do."

"And you want to try again?"

He's too serious and it's making Ziva nervous. "The sex wasn't that bad, was it?" Too late, she realizes that the joke might not be taken well at all.

But Tony just looks flustered and confused. Ziva wonders if she will have to slap his head to get her point across. "No, it was okay-- I mean, more than okay, it was--" He stops before he can get himself into trouble. "So, hey, a day off."

"Yes."

"Coffee?"

"Yes."

"And you can tell me about the Terminator Aliens?"

Ziva smiles sweetly and steps closer to Tony. "Not a chance," she breathes in his ear.

Across the room, Abby and McKay continue to argue.

~~~~~


When Ziva finds Sheppard at the air strip the following day, the man's being huffy and it doesn't take more than one ignored question for Ziva to turn her back on the man for the entire flight to Colorado. Lorne's too busy doing paperwork to pay either of them much mind and McKay... well, his mind is somewhere else. It is just the four of them for this trip back to Pegasus.

When they finally make it down to the Stargate, they must wait for the dialing sequence. Ziva tightens her backpack on her shoulders, ready to go.

"Abby's a little strange, isn't she?" McKay says suddenly to Ziva. He barely glances at the bunny slippers she's mounted on her backpack in a parody of a trophy kill.

"She is a lovely person," Ziva says serenely, and smiles widely just to see McKay frown. "And most intelligent. Have you been telling her forbidden state secrets?"

McKay sputters and Sheppard narrows his eyes at the man. Lorne edges away from the whole conversation. "We talked, she's smarter than the average scientist--"

For Rodney McKay to admit someone else is smart is tantamount to a request to a marriage proposal, and Ziva wonders how much she missed by spending the day in Tony's apartment. "Did she show you her tattoos?" Ziva asks.

McKay's ears go red and Sheppard's growing more annoyed by the minute. "I saw a few," McKay stammers.

"Did you see her crucifix?"

She meant it as a tease, but the blush spreads to McKay's cheeks and Ziva forgets to watch Sheppard's reaction as she stares at Rodney.

"Really?"

McKay fumbles with his pockets.

"Really?"

She does not mean to sound so incredulous, but it must have been a challenge to McKay, for he lifts his chin and glares right back at her and says, "Why not?"

Sheppard huffs and turns towards the Stargate, his hair vibrating in affronted outrage. Ziva figures he will get over the fact that someone else got the girl this time (or maybe that someone else got McKay).

She lifts her fist in the air. McKay just stares. "Are you going to hit me?"

Ziva rolls her eyes. "You must stop thinking like such a geek," she tells him, and must physically take his hand to complete the fist bump.

The wormhole engages and they are given the all-clear; Sheppard's moving up the ramp in an instant and McKay's hot on his heels, badgering Sheppard with a question. Lorne joins Ziva for the short walk, saying in an undertone, "I hate dealing with domestic issues."

"Sheppard is upset at being left out?" Ziva raises an eyebrow. "Maybe next time he should ask if he can join in." For she saw the looks Abby gave to Sheppard in the hospital when he gave her the stuffed toy.

There is a thud on the metal as Lorne misses a step, and Ziva walks through the wormhole on her own.

Atlantis is the same as she remembers. A storm batters on the windows but the lights inside are warm, the floors move every so slightly as the winds batter the city, and the air is sharp and familiar. Woolsey welcomes them home and congratulates them in a subdued fashion, befitting their losses. He alerts them to a briefing the following day, accepts their words of greeting, and takes himself off to whatever he does in the evenings.

Lorne squares his shoulders and aims himself in the direction of his office. Ziva, Sheppard and McKay are left in the middle of the Gateroom. McKay and Sheppard are involved in some sort of staring match, very much like boys in the schoolyard, and Ziva will leave them to it. "Until tomorrow," she says, and moves to leave.

"Hey, David?" Sheppard says. She turns back. The exhaustion around his eyes is very apparent, and Ziva wonders if he has even slept since they left Atlantis. "Good work out there."

A warm glow of pride burns in her chest, but she keeps her features schooled. It is like receiving praise from Gibbs, and it comes to Ziva with a great shock that she has grown to respect Sheppard as much as she respects Gibbs. When has this happened? In the end, all she says is, "Thank you," and escapes from the Gateroom without saying something totally inane.

The halls are empty this late in the Atlantis night. She is greeted by people she sees, welcoming her back and commiserating about Captain Wayne's death. It is part of life on Atlantics, this acceptance of death in the line of duty, more than it had ever been at Mossad. She wonders if she will ever be able to return to Mossad, after her time in Atlantis.

She drops her knapsack off in her quarters and takes to the halls again, her fingers brushing over the mezuzah in passing. She wanders for a while, getting reacquainted with the city while the storm rages. Her feet take her past the mess hall, where she sees Sheppard and McKay sitting with Ronon and Teyla and the baby for a late-night powwow. She stays away. That team needs its time.

Lorne is not in his office, and it only takes Ziva a few minutes to figure out where he might be.

Captain Wayne's quarters are located in the heart of Marine country in the southeast tower. The door stands open and Ziva watches for a few minutes from the hall as Lorne carefully boxes the dead man's possessions.

He knows she is there, but he puts all of his attention on his task until the box on the bed is full. "You going to stand there or give me a hand?" he finally asks.

"I was uncertain you needed help."

"Need, no." Lorne smiles wryly. "Jeff was a neat SOB."

Ziva enters the room and sits on the chair by the wall, out of Lorne's way. This is ritual for him, and he treats the possessions of the dead with such honor and respect that Ziva cannot intrude. "How is his mother?"

Lorne never pauses in his slow and deliberate packing. "Coping, somehow. The whole family was still there from the wedding." He shakes his head. "It's a hell of a time to die."

"There is never a good time for a mother to lose her son."

Lorne removes a small woven scarf from a drawer, smoothing out a wrinkle from its brilliant blue and red folds. "He got this from one of the Athosian girls," Lorne tells Ziva. "She was taken by the Wraith on a trading mission in Jeff's second year here. I didn't know he'd kept this."

"Maybe as a reminder of how precious life is?" Ziva offers.

Lorne shakes his head. "More like a nice gift from a pretty girl."

Ziva looks around the room, at the lack of personal touches in the Marine's decor, and does not say that Jeff Wayne was not a man to keep meaningless things.

The fabric flows over Lorne's fingers, silent like river waters. "Maybe I'll see if the SGC can get this to his mother."

"That would be nice." Ziva sits with Lorne as he finishes packing up Wayne's possessions and helps him carry the boxes to the storage room, where they are labeled and prepared for transport back to Earth. Lorne has that hollow look in his eyes again, so Ziva tactfully bids the man a good-night and takes herself back into the corridors.

The storm outside has grown in strength. Ziva heads to the control room and makes her way onto the balcony. It is the best vantage point in the city to see the storm. But Ziva is not the only person with such an idea.

She joins Shepard under the overhang, out of the way of the worst of the rain and wind, and settles back to watch the planet's wrath on the city. Sheppard says nothing and Ziva has no reason to speak.

A spectacular flash of lightening zaps the north pier, making Ziva jump back instinctively. Sheppard never flinches, just grabs her shoulder and squeezes hard in reassurance. Once the boom of thunder fades, he asks, "Did anyone tell you about when the Genii attacked the city in a storm?"

"McKay has," Ziva says once she finds her voice.

"Yeah." Sheppard stares out into the night, searching for something in the flash and fury of the storm. "It's amazing, what she puts up with."

She. Atlantis.

Sheppard's hand is still on her shoulder. "You can go back."

She frowns up at him but does not dislodge his hand. For one thing, he's blocking most of the wind. "Back to where?"

"NCIS. They'd take you back if you asked."

There's a silent question in his tired green eyes, even as the wind whips the cold rain around them. At her back, there is a door into the city itself, offering protection to the humans in her care from the wind and rain on this alien planet.

"I know," Ziva says finally. She squeezes Sheppard's hand, wondering how long he has been up here, for his fingers are bloodless and ice-cold.

"So you've thought about it," and he's so much like one of her aunts, all pessimism and gloom that she wonders how he sleeps at night.

"I have thought about it."

"And?"

Ziva steps back, letting Sheppard's hand fall back to his side. "And I will see you tomorrow morning."

The wary expression on his face thaws, for just a moment.

"Now go inside before you catch your death and Major Lorne must become the CO," she continues, because she's really not sure what she might do if Sheppard were to thank her for staying.

Sure enough, Sheppard rolls his eyes. "Thanks, mom." Yet he turns back into the wind, and with a shake of her head, Ziva leaves him to his hypothermia.

The city is settling down for the night, the lights dimming and the walls making those soft settling noises that only people with the ATA gene can hear. It's as familiar as breathing to Ziva, this slow relaxation into sleep.

There is always the subtle worry that an enemy will attack in the night, but the city will shelter them, and the men and women manning the stations will warn them and protect them from harm. It is the same as any night in Tel Aviv, the very real dangers warring with the irrepressible knowledge that tomorrow will dawn and life will continue.

For tomorrow is another day.

the end

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MTAC - NCIS Fic