DISCLAIMER: NCIS and its characters belong to DPB, CBS, Paramount, et al. The song "Le'at-le'at" is by Shalom Chanoch. Part of the lyrics appear in translation in this story. Barring mention of Bode Technology, Meir Dagan, Efraim Halevi, Adolf Eichmann, Ira Einhorn, Jonathan Pollard, the Siman-Tov Procedure, and the publicized criticism of the Mossad's expenditures by Israel's Office of the State Comptroller, all characters and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. Any further resemblance to real events and actual individuals, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Names, events, and opinions expressed are either property of Belisarius Productions and CBS-Paramount, or are products of the writer's imagination; neither are to be construed as real. The views and actions contained herein should not be interpreted as representative of the policies (official or otherwise), activities (official or otherwise), or personnel of any department or agency of any governmental body based in the US, Israel, or any other country.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: MANY THANKS to Orli, Einat, The Guy and his father (all for Hebrew editing), TK (he has guns; I had fun with one of them), and my Awesome Wife (sparring partner... It's not what you think!). SPECIAL THANKS: to my Absolutely Brilliant Proofreading Team: mayIreadtoday, The Guy and his father, and La H. Last, but never least, DEEPEST THANKS go to my Editrix Superbus law_nerd. My A is the reason why this piece reads as well as it does (yes, you are: quit arguing!).
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Possible Personal Idiocy Alert – I made a couple of last minute Hebrew word-choice alterations in this story. I last spoke Hebrew on a daily basis 14 years ago and am no longer fluent. Ergo, any screw-ups are mine. If you're an Israeli, feel free to tell me to "Fix It!" Per usual... Con-crit is welcome, and thanks in advance.
DEDICATION: This story is for my friend, mayIreadtoday, who always says it like it is, who is smart, and who has a knack of saying, "Hey, what about..." in a way that causes me to write *another* couple thousand words. Read, you're awesome. Thank you so much.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To needledinkrsa[at]gmail.com
SPOILERS: Seasons 3 through 5.

By needled_ink1975


Chapter One

Ziva needed to make her mark with this team, and she had to make that breakthrough soon, or it would be better to leave. If someone demanded complete honesty from her, she would say that she was tired of being grudgingly viewed as Kate's replacement. That was a personal comparison. She needed to be viewed as Ziva David, and not the person who would never be Caitlin 'Kate' Todd. She had to force the rest of the team to view her in a professional light, and to do so she would have to prove her worth in a way that went beyond what they expected.

They didn't expect enough. All they knew of her was attached to that word 'Mossad' and that didn't even begin to describe Ziva David.

Kidon. Bayonet. Someone with Box 850 (MI6) had once asked Ziva, Why 'bayonet' and not something else, like 'dagger'? The Mossad had its roots in Israel's military intelligence community, and old soldiers had been the first to be recruited by the Mossad, old soldiers who had often made use of bayonets instead of bullets from suppressed weapons to effect silent kills.

There is little or no defense against a surprise bayonet thrust out of the dead dark. Little or no defense against crack operatives with minutely detailed mission plans and the confidence of years of experience to back them.

Ziva was a kidon, a member of the Mossad's Anaf Metzada (Masada Branch) which, contrary to popular belief, does not singularly specialize in assassination and kidnapping. Ziva had been trained to kill in a variety of ways, but she'd also been trained in other skills. Many other skills. The members of Anaf Metzada tend to have a lot of free time on their hands. They are expected to use it well. Ziva had, pursuing anything that had seemed like a useful addition to her skill-set. All she'd had to do was suggest to her supervisor that she wanted to learn to do X, and he'd seen to it that she'd been included in a training program. She had to wonder how it would work here, had to wonder if she'd be allowed time off to acquire an addition to that long list. The word 'useful' repeated itself to her: if the skill would be of use to NCIS, she might be permitted that time off.

But her considerable skill-set, her general usefulness, and that word 'Mossad' all fell short of describing a woman who was nearly six-thousand miles from home, and just trying to make the best of it here.

What she wanted was an opportunity, just a small gap. She needed a case that was not what it seemed. Beyond that, she needed to remember the way things were done here. She couldn't go over the head of her immediate superior without that person feeling put out, left out, and out-of-sorts. Ziva called that childish, but she wasn't stupid and didn't dare express her opinion aloud. She also didn't bother to explain that the Israeli way of doing things had its roots not in arrogance, but in history.

In late September of 1973 a junior intelligence officer tried to warn the Israeli brass of a Suez Canal crossing by Egyptian armor divisions. Lt. Siman-Tov was ignored, to Israel's considerable cost during the Yom Kippur War. After the war, the Siman-Tov Procedure was adopted by Military Intelligence, and it is still employed throughout the Israeli intel community: anyone, no matter how low their rank, may take information or queries directly to the top, without consulting their immediate superior first.

Ziva knew the value of quick action, of listening to her gut and doing things in a way that saved time and produced results, but she'd gotten into Gibbs's bad books by going over his head to Director Shepard some weeks ago. No matter what, even if it hurt her budding career here, she wouldn't be doing that again.

And she had a while to wait for that gap. When it arrived, Ziva was the only one who saw the obvious.

There were two victims: Marine Corps Sgt. Steve Danner and his wife. At first, Gibbs had had his money on the sergeant and his wife amounting to collateral damage in what initially looked like a burglary-gone-wrong, but that idea was soon tossed out during a search of the Danners' modest hunting lodge, on the Virginia shore of the Delmarva Peninsula. They hadn't expected to find anything there.

"I have... many guns here," Ziva called from the basement.

"Well, yeah," Tony called down from the kitchen. "Danner was a pretty serious goose hunter."

"Did he hunt gooses with Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine guns?"

"It's geese," Tony muttered. "And y'know, you're right: an MP5 SMG is not the right kinda gun for geese."

They found a ten-unit crate of HK MP5s, and two ten-unit crates of MAC–10s. That discovery made the ATF hungry for the case, but Director Shepard was keeping them away for the meanwhile. Ziva was happy about that: if they weren't kept at a distance, the ATF would turn up a gunrunning ring that might just mask the trail of the Danners' killer.

Ziva was certain that the killer was affiliated with the gunrunning ring, but that these two killings were not related to that business, and her gut was telling her to focus more on the sergeant's wife than the rest of the team was. After all, the guns hadn't been touched. The guns were the equivalent of a smoke screen: the killer knew where they were, and he'd left them right where the cops would find them.

Today she'd tried for a second time to get Gibbs and the rest of the team to listen to her theory, but she'd been rather much ignored. Well, fine. She decided that it was time to go and talk to Dr. Mallard. That wasn't anything like going over Gibbs's head. It was more like shifting sideways. If Ducky agreed with Ziva, he'd have to consult with Gibbs, and Ziva had made up her mind to let Ducky do all the convincing on her behalf.

It was nearly eight p.m, but that didn't matter. Ducky worked late nearly every day, though that hadn't been the case for long.

"Ever since Mother came to live with me," he wryly told Ziva. "If I time it just right, she dozes off in front of the telly, and then when I get home I just help her to bed."

"Maybe she is lonely?" Ziva blurted.

"My dear," Ducky drawled. "My mother is a member of a bridge club, a knitting and crochet circle, two different church socials, and she plays lawn bowls, croquet, and—much to my chagrin—darts. If she's lonely then I'm a monkey's uncle."

"Oh. I see. Can we perhaps talk about Irina Nikoreva Danner?"

"I thought she looked Russian– Slavic bone structure," Ducky said. "But in my file her maiden name is listed as Schmidt..."

"Her marriage to Danner was the second one. She was married to Heinrich Gerhard Schmidt when she lived in Germany, and Schmidt is the name she gave to the INS when she immigrated to the States."

"Ahh... And what about Herr Schmidt?" Ducky asked.

"Deceased. Natural causes." Ziva handed over a copy of a rather brief autopsy report. "My German is passable. The medical examiner listed a fault, a congenital defect."

"Indeed he did– a Grade IV Herzgeräusch, a pretty serious heart murmur, or hole in the heart as it's more commonly known. Schmidt was lucky to live as long as sixty years. So let's say that his death is not something we need to worry about."

"For now," Ziva said, looking him in the eye.

"You've been burning extra oil on this one, hmm?" Ducky said with a small smile.

"My instincts tell me to... Before her neck was broken Irina was held in a forearm choke-hold, yes?"

"A shorter term is 'yoked'..."

The killer had put his arm around the victim's neck so that her throat was positioned in the crook of his elbow. A yoke is an extremely effective choke-hold. Simply by making a fist and pulling the forearm back, breathing is restricted because the larynx is depressed; blood flow to the brain is also restricted due to pressure on the carotids at either side of the neck. A properly applied yoke can result in loss of consciousness in about thirty seconds.

"He killed her husband with a gun," Ziva mused. "But then he put Irina in a choke-hold... Do you know if she actually lost consciousness?"

"There's very minor bruising as evidence of the yoke, but no petechial hemorrhaging associated with suffocation, and without the latter I would rule out a proper choke. No, she wasn't even briefly asphyxiated; she didn't lose consciousness."

"Doctor, put a hold like that on me, and then try to go from the choke-hold to the hand positions needed for a manual neck-break."

"All right..."

Ziva stood and Ducky stepped up behind her. They knew that the killer had not used leverage, that he hadn't shoved his victim's head over his forearm to break her neck. Instead, he'd gripped the top of her head in one hand, her chin in the other, and he'd snapped her neck by moving his hands rapidly in opposite directions: a torque break. Ducky had only seen two successful torque breaks in his entire career. In the movies, commando types and bad guys make it look easy, but it requires the assailant to be exceptionally strong, and the victim to be very slight of build. Irina had been only five feet tall.

"He could've released the yoke slowly and gotten a grip on her chin," Ducky suggested, and he did exactly that.

"I am the victim. I am scared. I will try to run," Ziva said.

It took very little effort to get away from Ducky, who frowned at Ziva when she turned around.

"Either he managed to choke her with very little pressure, or she fainted, or—"

"He knew her," Ziva said. "He might have been wearing a ski mask when he came into the kitchen and shot her husband. And the choke-hold was used to calm her down, to hold her still. He was talking quietly in her ear. He was telling her, reminding her that she knew him, reminding her—perhaps—that this was planned. Remind me, now: where was her body found?"

"In the bedroom. We found rifled drawers and closets left open—"

"But were there any of the typical signs of pursuit and struggle?"

"None. All of that was in the kitchen and living room."

"He killed Danner in the kitchen," Ziva said. "Irina ran away. But he caught her in the living room. And then?"

"The Turkish runner in the hallway..." Ducky got out the thick case file and removed an envelope of photographs. There were so many that he and Ziva spread them out on the floor. Eight shots of the hallway, and a long Turkish runner that was completely undisturbed. "It's a loose runner. It doesn't even have that non-slip rubber coating on the back."

"Correct. If either of them had run into that corridor, or if he had walked with her in the choke-hold, the carpet would have slipped and moved. It would have been messed up by their feet. You cannot walk properly when someone's arm is around your neck like that."

"She willingly led him to the bedroom," Ducky said.

"And when she was there..." Ziva picked up a photo showing that Irina's blouse was partially unbuttoned. "She began to undo those buttons."

"He walked up behind her, put his hands on her shoulders, as if caressing her... Yes. It would've been easy to then position his hands correctly."

"And... SNAP!" Ziva said, snapping her fingers for emphasis.

"Do you want to call Gibbs, or shall I?" Ducky asked.

"He does not want to listen to me," Ziva said, and both her tone and expression were unreadable.

Ducky decided not to comment and picked up the phone. He and Ziva were drinking Ceylon tea when Gibbs arrived. Ducky took it on himself to relate Ziva's theory, and what he was really doing amounted to rubbing Gibbs's nose in it, just a tad.

Gibbs never apologized for anything. Rule No. 6: Never apologize– it's a sign of weakness. All Ziva got for her troubles (and nine hours of unpaid overtime thus far) was a brief nod.

"What else did you dig up?" Gibbs asked.

"She was born Irina Nikoreva. Does the name Nikorev sound familiar to you?" Ziva asked.

"You have got to be kidding," Gibbs said, his shoulders slumping.

"What am I missing?" Ducky asked.

"The Nikorev family tried on a turf war with the Old Irish Trinity—Brannigan, O'Meath, and Connor families—here in D.C. about thirteen years back. The Nikorevs got their asses kicked. These days the Irish mob isn't what it used to be, so what gives, Ziva? You think the Nikorevs are trying to muscle in again?"

"Perhaps, but I have said already that these two murders have nothing to do with the guns. The ATF can worry about the guns, Gibbs. We only have to catch the person who killed Sergeant Danner and Irina, yes?"

"I'd prefer to keep things simple, yeah," Gibbs said. "So who are we looking at?"

"Someone in the Irish mob," Ziva said dryly.

Alone at home later, Ziva sat quietly with a beer, a personal reward for breaching that gap. But it was only the start. She opened a file and read through Kate Todd's career history again, for what seemed like the hundredth time. Ziva's half-brother Ari had killed Kate. The team knew that Ziva had killed Ari, which action had saved Gibbs's life, but only Gibbs and Director Shepard knew the whole truth: Ziva had shot her brother. Not even Ducky was aware of Ari's relationship to Ziva.

It could fix things, if she told them the whole truth. It could fix things very quickly, but in the wrong way.

She wanted to earn her place on that team. Having it handed to her on a platter, with a garnishing of pity, would not suit Ziva at all.

Gibbs surprised Tony and McGee by giving Ziva the investigation lead. It was now up to her to prove her theory. Ziva didn't rush in. She got the team to look at the bosses and captains of several Irish mob families, and she made sure to remind the three men to completely ignore the Nikorev family, kept reminding them to ignore all those guns. She found that that was a tough job, mostly because the people that they were plugging for information, members of D.C. Metro's Vice and Organized Crime squads, were rather insistent that the guns had to be the primary motive.

In the end it took three days to decide that the person they most wanted to speak to was a captain in the Brannigan family. He was an odd mixture of brawn and brain, with a touch of peacekeeper added to make that mix even more strange. Most importantly, he was a man with a reputation for knowing everything that went on in his world. His only tattoo was the phrase Knowledge Is Power, in large Gothic lettering right across the span of his shoulders.

Ziva's accent sounded familiar to him, and he could see the Star of David pendant at her neck. He wanted to know for sure. There was one very easy way to get that information.

"Lebanese?" he asked.

"Israeli," Ziva growled.

Charley Brannigan tried his usual trick of folding his massive arms and bunching his fists. That caused various muscles to bulge. He relaxed his fists when he saw quite plainly that this slight dark-haired woman wasn't the least bit intimidated by him. He knew what that meant: she was quietly but completely confident in her ability to put a serious hurt on anyone who deserved it, including big Charley Brannigan.

"Pardon," he said, with a slight Irish lilt. "What can I help you with?"

"Irina Nikoreva Danner."

"I read in the papers that she'd been murdered."

"Do not play games with me," Ziva said quietly. "I know things about you. If I say them out loud, it will be reason enough for other people to want to arrest you. I think you know that I am serious, yes?"

Charley gulped and nodded, looking past Ziva at the two-way mirror behind her.

"Good," Ziva said briskly. "Irina Nikoreva. Who was her lover?"

"Tommy O'Meath."

"Thank you, Mister Brannigan. There is an officer outside who will walk you out."

"That's it?" Charley mumbled.

"You would like to talk about those other things I know?" Ziva asked lightly.

"Uhh... No. That'll be fine. A good day to ya, miss!"

In the observation room, behind the mirror, Gibbs's expression was unreadable. McGee, however, was wearing a grin.

"She's not that hot," Tony said. "Kate was—"

"Stow that," Gibbs said quietly. "Ziva isn't Kate, DiNozzo."

Gibbs walked out, leaving Tony to frown in confusion.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean? Of course she's not Kate. I know that."

"Do you?" McGee said. "Ziva's worked overtime on this case. Why?"

McGee didn't wait for an answer; he walked out. Tony looked into the empty interview room and remembered the funny faces Kate used to pull at him through the two-way glass. She had always known exactly where he was, even though she hadn't been able to see him. And then he remembered that rooftop, the horrible sound of the impact of the bullet, and Kate falling. Dead before she hit the gravel. Gone for good.

That wasn't Ziva's fault, and Ziva was not Kate, was not trying to be Kate. She also wasn't trying to take Kate's place. She was just doing her job.

Tony made his way to the squad area. Ziva was at her desk. Not Kate's desk; Ziva's desk.

"You did good in there," Tony said.

"Thanks," Ziva said, and got back to work.

Tommy O'Meath lived in a small house just outside of Crystal City, Virginia. Unsurprisingly, they found more guns in that house, and this time the ATF was allowed to crawl all over their case. One of the guns they found was one that O'Meath should've tossed. Ballistics tests proved that it was the .45 caliber pistol that had been used to kill Sgt. Danner.

Ziva knew better than to celebrate. Cracking one case was only the start, and cracking cases was not the name of this game. She just wanted to be seen as a part of the team, someone worth keeping, someone who pulled her own weight. She didn't want anything more than that.

At home, she made to open that file yet again, then picked it up and put it into her bag instead. She'd give it back to Gibbs tomorrow. The rest of the team might still need time to let the woman rest, but Ziva had made her peace with the ghost of Caitlin Todd.


Chapter Two

There are three types of woman with the name Jennifer. The first type is only ever called Jennifer, and never Jenny or Jen. The second type is never called Jennifer, and is called either Jenny or Jen, but not both. The third type is called Jennifer, or Jenny, or Jen, and doesn't mind who uses whichever version of her name.

Director Jennifer Shepard had once been grateful for the fact that she was a Type Three Jennifer, because Jennifer is one of those names that tends to suffer reduction to a diminutive more often than many others, and sometimes absolute strangers are the culprits. However, she'd realized a few years ago that perhaps being a Type Three Jennifer wasn't such a good thing.

The name Jenny did not inspire respect. In professional circles, she'd found herself bridling at the tone some people used when they called her Jenny: familiar and patronizing. That just seemed to get worse after each and every promotion, as she came into contact with people who held very high positions in government and the military, and in the various intel communities. Most of them were men, of course.

By now it was too late to insist on Jen, or Jennifer for that matter. If she made a fuss, even a minor fuss, it was as good as letting several of those men know that they'd gotten to her. But she'd nearly let one of them have it today. He'd called her Jenny, had introduced her to several Washington high-ups as Jenny, without adding her last name or her title, and he'd gone so far as to address her as 'honey' when asking if she'd like some coffee.

"So I ordered new stationary, and I took the Jennifer right out. 'Director J. Shepard.' That's all it says. And I can't even insist on Jennifer or Jen at NCIS."

"But you're the director of that agency," her mother said. "Make it so, and all that."

"Mom, it isn't the Starship Enterprise." She switched the phone to her other ear and reached for the microwave door handle.

"I heard that ping, Jen. Don't tell me you're eating those awful TV dinners again."

"I didn't last night. Tonight I'm just too tired to cook."

"Fine. And for what it's worth, I'm sorry I named you Jennifer."

"Oh, Mom..." Jen muttered and rolled her eyes. Then, realizing she'd never asked before: "Why didn't you give me a second name?"

"Your father wanted that to be his grandmother's name: Eugenia."


"Exactly, so I said no to a second name."

"Thanks," Jen chortled.

After saying goodbye to her mom, Jen settled on a bench seat in her breakfast nook and ate the 'awful TV dinner.' It was something resembling lasagna and actually not that bad, or maybe she was just too tired to care. She hadn't brought home any paperwork tonight and she was intending to go to bed early. Jen needed the rest.

She'd snapped at Ziva today. What she'd said to Officer David was true enough, and it had been necessary to say it, but Jen should've said it while in a better mood. She'd have to remedy that, and she would, as soon as she found time to do so.

As he often did, Gibbs strolled into Jen's office and stood in front of her desk until she looked up from her paperwork.

"Jethro, when last I checked, you were supposed to be hunting a possible serial killer. Did he declare a vacation?"

"I've got an Israeli robot at a desk. I need my Mossad officer back," Gibbs said, and sat on the edge of her desk as if he owned it. "I dunno what it is with you two—"

"I've got no idea what you're talking about," Jen said, replacing her glasses. "Get off my desk and find me that alleged serial killer, or find me six separate murderers—" As Gibbs reached the office door, she said softly: "I'll talk to her later."

He paused there, with a hand on the frame, then closed the door and returned to the desk, but this time he stood next to it. She looked up, over the rims of her glasses, eventually taking them off again. They stared at each other for a while, and it was just like the old days, when she was a rookie and it seemed like he could never have been one of those, and yet she'd always met his eyes, even then. Gibbs had never been her hero.

Jen had learned to read him, all those years ago. She could practically read his mind right now. It went both ways. She'd never been able to lie to him, and she wasn't about to.

"My history with Officer David goes like this: just under four hours in Cairo, and only three hours in Riga. That's how much time we spent in the same room before she came here, and we were never alone in those hours. The rest is none of your business."

Gibbs nodded briskly, turned, and walked out.

That nod was all the apology that Jen was going to get. If she hadn't known Gibbs as well, she'd have been mad at him. As it was, she knew him well enough to know that he was a little hurt to come up rather bluntly with the fact that she didn't miss him.

It wasn't hero worship now. Ziva David was all grown up. The sad thing about that was that she'd been all grown up even at age twelve. While she'd joined the Mossad voluntarily at age eighteen, she had almost been bred for the Mossad, for the Aman (Israeli Military Intelligence), and even for Shin Bet—although, according to Ziva, anyone who wanted to join Israel's somewhat nefarious state security agency needed their head shrunk. Her first field assignment for the Mossad had come along only a few days after her twenty-first birthday, and she'd been ready for every bit of it except that first meeting with Jen Shepard.

It had taken Ziva a full hour to put a name to the spark that had caused her to want to stare at Jen: ambition. Jen wanted to occupy a position of power, and she was clearly willing to work her ass off to get it.

What did she want from life? Twenty-one-year-old Ziva hadn't been able to answer that question, and unanswered, it had burned. She'd have to wait another eight years to get even a clue.

"Ani mitzta'eret," Jen said quietly in unaccented Hebrew. I'm sorry.

Startled, Ziva jerked her head up and away from a pile of photos. Her face flushed. No-one got the drop on her, but Jen had.

"At mitzta'eret– lama?" she asked curtly. You're sorry– why?

"My tone, my attitude... but not for what I said." Jen nudged Ziva's backpack with the toe of a handmade ankle boot. Her mother came from very old money. "Let's go."

"But—" Ziva lifted a photo.

"Achshav, chaverah sheli," Jen said. Now, my friend. "Everyone else has gone home, and that photo stack will keep. If you carry on being an Israeli robot, as Gibbs calls you, I'm pretty sure you'll burn out, or maybe short-circuit."

"Like Tony's phone?" Ziva muttered, recalling a coffee spill.

"I think there'd be smoke involved, in your case. Maybe even some flames," Jen drawled.

Ziva followed Jen without further argument. They were silent in the elevator, and in Jen's car that silence thickened. It wasn't so much uncomfortable or awkward as it was full of things unsaid. Jen expected an argument in a little while, probably in her study, over Chinese food and wine. Ziva was expecting the argument and nothing else, and if she was honest, she was almost looking forward to that little set-to. It was about time.

But they were both hungry. They ate seated in red-brown leather chairs near a fire that Ziva had lit on the hearth. The only other light in the room came from the desk lamp.

Their second glasses of wine were poured after Jen had cleared away the empty cartons.

"Cigarettes in that box on the desk, if you're interested."

Jen sat back and sipped at the young California white. Her peripheral vision caught Ziva's rise from her chair, and she watched her open the carved wooden box to snag a smoke. Ziva carried both lighter and brass ashtray back with her.

"I don't smoke much anymore," Ziva said behind a veil of blue smoke, eyes narrowed against it.

"You used to smoke too much– you told me—"

"Dai," Ziva said. Enough. She wasn't interested in chit-chat. If it hadn't been for Ziva's excellent aim eight years ago, a suicide bomber would have killed them both. She had every right to speak plainly with Jen; it was unquestionably within her rights to set aside their professional relationship after hours. "Why are you not sorry for what you said two days ago?"

"Because it's true," Jen stated. And she repeated, but in a kinder tone, "I don't want you to be a part of NCIS if Gibbs and I are your chief reasons for being here. There's Tony, Abby, McGee, and Ducky as well, yes; you like them, but you wouldn't give up your job for any of them... You'd give it up if Gibbs suggested it. You'd walk away if I so much as hinted at it."

Ziva stared at the wine in her glass. Every word of that was true and she had no choice but to own that truth.

"So," Jen continued. "You must want the job, Ziva; not the company."

"I cannot like the company? I am not permitted to care?" Ziva snapped.

It would be hard not to care. Gibbs was alive only because Ziva had shot her brother. She and Gibbs shared a bond that was difficult to classify, but it was strong. Although he felt that he owed her, he knew that she didn't feel that he did, and that made for a complex relationship. And then there was Jen. They'd liked each other at first meeting, and not long after that Ziva had saved both their lives. They trusted each other without question. Some might have cited the incident with the suicide bomber as basis for that trust, but they knew better. Ziva had shot the bomber eight years ago, and she and Jen could count the number of hours they'd spent together in that time. They barely knew each other. Neither of them could explain their level of trust in each other, and they just did not question it. It was something like faith, and faith defies explanation.

"You must care," Jen said, shaking her head. "But you've got to learn to be there for the case first... It's not enough to excel at just about everything; not enough to be unbeatable; not enough to know the rules so well that you can push them to their limits. The aim is to be irreplaceable, and the only way you get to that place is by seeing the job as something that you can never, ever give up."

"But you will move up from your director's office some time," Ziva countered.

"If the right promotion is offered," Jen said, though for the life of her, she couldn't think what that rung on the ladder might be called. An office at the Pentagon was one possibility; a high-ranking position within the CIA was another. "I'll only move up then. And what would you think of the person taking my place?"

"They would have to work harder than you to be as good—Ahh. No. Your replacement might be very good, even better than you, maybe, but they would not be you."

"Right. And you'd make that comparison while thinking of my personal approach to the job."

Ziva looked a while into Jen's eyes, then turned her head to watch the flames lash dry logs. This was so different to her work with the Mossad, where it had been all about performance. She'd been able to advance there simply by doing. That had nothing to do with trying: it was all about having the skills and the knowledge and putting both to use. She could've stated flatly that she hated whichever assignment, even that she hated the job in general, and no-one would've taken note as long as she had produced the results desired by her superiors. If she said something like that now, here, it was likely that either Jen or Gibbs or both would send her back to Israel. More to the point, her teammates would probably distance themselves from her. Americans were strange: results were great, until people found out that one's heart wasn't really in it.

"I joined HaMossad before my father could suggest it. After that... I have never had a choice, you know?" Ziva said to the fire. "Choices are for people who do not understand duty. My work for HaMossad was and will be important; I will still do whatever they need me to do. But now I have a choice, another road to follow parallel to that first one, and my choice is this job. I want it."

"I know you do," Jen said. "So start believing that no matter what kind of personal... issues you have with anyone, your attitude to the job is all that matters. Do it well, do it with passion, do it like you own it, and your position is secure."

"Now I think I understand," Ziva said. "Personal clashes within the Mossad can get you transferred very quickly to another division, perhaps even kicked out altogether. Ignoring the suggestions of mentors, even ones that say 'Resign' can result in... trouble."

"Yes, I know. It's a strange organization. I often wonder how it's produced some of the very best operatives in the intel community."

"We get to kill people more often than other operatives do," Ziva deadpanned. "This is a very good incentive."

"How old is that joke?" Jen chortled.

"I first heard it—in Hebrew—when I was five or six. It is much older than that," Ziva said with a wry smile.

"Probably. I first heard it... I think I was still with Naval Intel."

"Matai?" At which time?

"When you were five or six," Jenny drawled.

"You have worked very hard to be where you are," Ziva said quietly, looking Jen in the eye.

"Really hard for what seems like too long, if I think about it too much. Sometimes... Sometimes I ask myself if it's worth it, but then I follow that question up with this one: why do I do this work? The answer to that is always the same; it never wavers. If I don't, who will? If I don't give it my absolute best, will someone else do that? I can't answer those questions. So I've put in twenty-six years so far. In three years time I'll be fifty. I'm a bit younger than most men who've gotten this job, but I've worked a damn sight harder."

"Yes, because you are a woman," Ziva said, looking at the fire again. "In Israel, in the military, police, and intelligence fields, the saying is, 'Make the grade; get the job.' Both genders are treated equally, but men still manage to 'make the grade' more often than women. I could have served in the army. I could have been a member of the Karakal Battalion, the co-ed combat battalion, but maybe I would still be a lieutenant when men my age have made captain... What I am saying is that the grade, for whatever, is something decided upon by men only, simply because more of them are in a position to make the rules. Until that changes, 'Make the grade; get the job' is just a... platitude. Right word?"

"Very much so, yes," Jen said. "But you hold a pretty high rank in the Mossad, don't you?"

"After nearly eleven years, eight of those in the field... I have enough commendations, yes. Right now, if I propose an investigation or operation, my proposal will be considered not by my section leader but by my division supervisor. I mean that I hold enough merit to skip several steps on the ladder... There are some who would like to see me follow my father, and they want that for the right reasons. He is a deputy director of HaMossad, but his daughter completely ignores that, and she always has. I have also worked very hard."

"And you're not about to kick back and relax," Jen stated.

"Sometimes I think that even if I wanted to, I could not," Ziva said grumpily. "Someone I know once said to me that he thinks I am genetically engineered to be addicted to work."

"Ouch," Jen chuckled. She glanced at the mantel clock and arched her brows. "Late. I'm kicking you out. Take my car and pick me up in the morning?"

"Tony and McGee are of the opinion that I cannot drive, you know."

"I remember how you drive," Jen said, unphased. "You managed a chase, at speed, in Cairo—of all places—and didn't get so much as a scratch on the car... You drove crazy on purpose, didn't you?"

"Bechayech!" Ziva said with a wicked smile. On your life! "I hate driving big trucks: you have to go so slow..."

"Just don't get a ticket tonight."

Jen walked Ziva to the door, and a little later she watched her two-door Mercedes glide down the street. She stood there a while, enjoying the chill night air, before going in. At her desk she sat down and sorted a thick sheaf of paperwork into smaller stacks.

"Do it with passion," she told herself wryly.

Gibbs didn't know what the hell Jen had told Ziva, and professionally speaking he didn't care. Professionally speaking, results were all that mattered. On a personal level, the Ziva he knew and admired (however grudgingly) was back, with something extra. He didn't quite know what to call it, but he liked it; he liked the difference it made to the way she did her job.

It took his team four weeks to get a name, another two weeks of surveillance to gather additional evidence, and a week's worth of waiting on red tape, but then they made an arrest. Arrests weren't always the grand prize, but this particular arrest had been made on solid evidence. They had their man and he was going down, no doubts. Celebrations were in order and an Irish pub seemed the best place for it.

They'd been there for an hour before Jen arrived.

"Sorry I'm late... Jamesons rocks, please," Jen said to the bartender. To the rest: "And I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Hudson somehow managed to kill himself."

Jen could only shrug at the stares she received.

"I'd better go and take a look at the body," Ducky muttered.

He left without further comment and no-one followed him. From smiles and laughter the rest of the team had been hammered down into scowls and anger.

"Cheat," Abby mumbled eventually. "Suicide is cheating justice."

"There's a good side," McGee said. "An innocent man wouldn't have killed himself."

"But what was he guilty of?" Ziva said. "If the murders stop, then people will say, 'He was that killer.' But calling him a killer and having a judge call him guilty are not the same."

"Yeah," Tony almost snarled. "Killing himself was payback– to us. A slap in the face."

"Well? What else can you expect from scumsacks?" Ziva said.


"Scumbags!" Tony chortled.

"But scumsack sounds worse," Ziva said. "It sounds right for Hudson."

"Pretty much," Gibbs agreed. "And I've got a boat to build."

Abby hitched a ride with him. McGee and Tony decided to go shoot pool downtown. That left Jen to nurse her drink, and Ziva needed to order another.

"Club soda and lime," she told the bartender. To Jen: "A table?"

"Might as well."

They ended up discussing the case and the intricate interlace of evidence that had eventually brought Hudson into custody. Working a criminal case was not unlike building a jigsaw puzzle without a picture to work from. The straight-edged border and corner pieces were the crime or crimes, and one had to work from the outside in. A picture of the suspect eventually appeared, as one gradually linked one bit of evidence to another, and worked out a way to piece it all together. Sometimes, though, no matter how good the team, there just wasn't enough evidence, and the center of the puzzle remained blank.

"You're not going to like that," Jen told Ziva. "You're going to hate putting a case away unsolved. And that's my only doubt. We'll only know that you're really suited to this job if you can handle that. After all, you're a spy, not a cop."

"I could say the same of you," Ziva commented.

"You'd be wrong," Jen chuckled. "I'm definitely a cop. That's why I'm okay with riding a desk. Being the boss is being a cop, always. I look at evidence all day. Evidence of good work and bad work and mediocre work. I police the entire agency."

"Oh. Yes, I suppose... But do you miss fieldwork?"

"Sometimes," Jen said wryly. "Like when I walk into my office to find that both in-boxes are full and there's a pile of paper in the center of my desk, as well as email, and I'm told that there's a meeting in fifteen minutes. Then I miss fieldwork."

"I will keep to fieldwork, thank you," Ziva drawled.

"Wise... I shouldn't have driven here," Jen said after sipping the last of her third Irish whiskey. "Are you okay to drive, or should I call someone to collect my car?"

"I have had only club sodas."

"And I'm going to prevail on you to stick around for dinner, or I probably won't have anything until breakfast."

"I can cook," Ziva offered.

"We'll have to stop and get things for you to cook."

"If you were not the boss, I would tell you to look after yourself better."

"You just did," Jen said, amused.

Ziva decided to keep it simple. Just two stops provided the wherewithal for dinner, which was steak and a green salad. She rolled her eyes at Jen's mumbles regarding the steak and how good it was. No matter how tired she was, Ziva cooked for herself or thawed something from the freezer, either stew or soup. Then again, she didn't take home a briefcase full of paperwork. She took it on herself to clean up after dinner. In the study she found Jen at work already.

Ziva stepped behind the desk and looked over Jen's shoulder.

"Most of it is reading really carefully, before signing," Jen muttered. "And you aren't cleared to look at this, but I don't care."

"Lama lo?" Ziva asked. Why not?

"I trust you. I always have," Jen said. Then irritably: "Dammit. No-no-no. The way this sentence and these two paragraphs are worded makes it seem as if it's okay for other agencies to borrow my people, without clearing it with me first. So this entire document has to be struck and redrafted..."

"I overheard you complaining to Gibbs about this. Tony did, too, and his comments suggested that you were overreacting."

"I admit, it could seem that way to anyone who isn't up to speed on the details," Jen said. "Let me explain why this business pisses me off. It's not about me wanting complete control. I'm mad about it because I'm not the only one who can see the flaws in this new fangled smart-ass idea called consolidation, but I seem to be the only one actively speaking against it. It'll never work, for the simple reason that federal agencies involve specialization that's individual to each agency. You can't take ten FBI agents and just swap them with ten CIA officers."

"Yes, but mostly because a CIA officer cannot operate as a CIA officer within the borders of the USA."

"Huh. The smart-ass—he's NSA, home to more brainiacs than NASA—already thought of that particular briar patch. To get around it, he proposed secondment: the CIA officer would be seconded to the FBI, and therefore fully deputized, thereby making their status as a CIA officer null and void for the duration of the secondment."

"That would involve... a lot of paperwork," Ziva said, frowning.

"Oh, I know," Jen muttered, signing and initialing another document. "Suggestion, then approval, then the secondment rigmarole, then... Every time someone is seconded I'd say that at least six people would need to do two hours of desk work each, and just as much paper will have to be pushed to reverse the process. But never mind the paperwork. If the press ever gets wind of the fact that FBI Agent Jones is also CIA Officer Jones who—y'know—operates on a 'Warrant? What warrant?' strategy... Well, I don't want to think about that."

"Mmm," said Ziva, rather glad that she didn't have Jen's job.

She didn't feel like going home just yet. She selected something from a bookshelf and settled into her chair by the fire. Reading didn't hold her attention strongly enough, and Ziva dozed off to sleep. She woke later to find the book on the table next to her, the fire low, the lights out, and Jen gone. A light but warm blanket had been draped over her.

Ziva blinked. Book... Blanket... The book had been taken from her, maybe off her lap; the blanket had been spread and laid over her. She hadn't woken. She had, in fact, no recollection of falling asleep, but that was beside the point. When last she was home, her eight-year-old cousin hadn't been able to take two steps into her bedroom without Ziva waking. She'd been trained to respond to the slightest changes, even when asleep, and yet Jen hadn't woken her.

Ziva puzzled over this mystery while writing a note to say that she'd fetch Jen at seven a.m. She left the house quietly and drove off in the Mercedes.

In bed later, she lay awake for a long while but no matter which way she turned this little puzzle of not being woken by Jen, she couldn't figure it out.


Chapter Three

After four months as Mossad Liaison Officer, Ziva had realized that being a part of the team involved more than working together. She'd taken note of the Monday morning conversations between Tony and McGee and Abby (those three in particular), and she'd noticed that sometimes Gibbs and Ducky had things to say on Mondays as well, about time spent with other team members over the weekend. Of course, those conversations only took place if the team hadn't worked right through the weekend. Sometimes they did, but if they didn't, such activities as going to a movie, lunch or dinner out, or a barbecue at a mutual friend's home, going to whichever sports game, or just kicking back with a beer and good conversation, were mentioned on Monday mornings.

Ziva didn't quite know how to approach anyone except Jen with an invitation to dinner or lunch or a movie. Americans are not Israelis. In Israel she could suggest a movie and pizza to a male colleague without that man thinking that perhaps she was asking him on a date. If she asked Tony—especially Tony—to dinner at her place, she'd receive a sharky grin before he said yes, and while she was aware that his schoolboy fantasies were something he kept well under control, those fantasies irritated her. She didn't want to put herself in a position where he would irk her to the point of snapping at him. After all, she was trying to make friends, not enemies.

So she started with Tim McGee, who seemed to put his ego on a shelf somewhere before he came to work, and instead of inviting him to her home, she took him to a mall, of all places. They returned to that mall two Saturdays in a row, and on the Monday mornings following, their conversations had sparked a fair bit of interest in Gibbs and Tony. Perfect. All Ziva had to do was wait. She didn't have to wait long.

His curiosity got the best of him. Tony had gotten McGee to spill the beans about what seemed like a lot of fun. The very next day, Tony had persuaded Ziva to take him to a mall in Baltimore on the following Sunday. The name of the game was passive pursuit. It's an urban surveillance technique that is best learned by picking a random stranger in a preferably crowded mall and following them closely, but in a way that evades detection. Tony soon learned that this wasn't as easy as it sounded.

"Young man, are you following me?" an old lady demanded.

"Uhh, me? No, ma'am," Tony said, managing to affect the manner of an offended puppy.

"Oh. I'm sorry. It's just that this is the third time I've seen you in the last half-hour..."

Some distance away, Ziva had her phone jammed against her ear to disguise the fact that she was laughing at Tony. He glared at her and strolled in her direction. He might have had a good laugh when her phone actually rang and she yanked it away from her ear before answering it, but then she was looking at him in a certain way. He was expecting it and sure enough, his phone began to vibrate.

"DiNozzo," he said into the phone.

"We've got three bodies and they're still warm," McGee said. "Gibbs and I are already here with the truck and all the gear. You're with Ziva, right?"

"Yeah. In Baltimore, dammit."

"We're in Sykesville– not far away... Boss just told me he gave Ziva the address."

They'd been on the road (grille lights flashing) for about six minutes when Ziva got another call, this time from Jen. Ziva put her on speaker while she gave Tony a new set of directions. He sped up the nearest exit and cars made way for them on an overpass and all the way back onto the highway. Tony flipped a switch that added a siren to the grille lights. Vehicles ahead pulled into the middle and far right lanes. Ziva turned off the speaker and pressed the phone to one ear; she stopped the other ear with a fingertip.

"S'licha?" she said to Jen. Excuse me?

"Be careful," Jen repeated loudly.

"We will be careful, yes."

Ziva hung up just as Tony took another exit, but this time he took a right and headed into Baltimore's western suburbs. He cut the siren and got Ziva to watch their progress on the dash-mounted GPS unit. He didn't want to take the chance of getting lost. However, it soon became apparent that if he followed any of the three Baltimore PD cruisers that had sped by their car, he couldn't get lost.

"What are you packing?" Tony asked.

"My SIG."

"All I've got is a little eight-round three-eighty backup. Dunno if this car's been Gibbs-rigged."

"Why were you driving this car anyway?"

"My Mustang is in the shop for her twice-yearly tune-up and service, so I just signed this tank out... I guess this is it. Grab a vest out the trunk and go flash your badge. I'll see if there's anything under the backseat."

Ziva ended up getting help with her body armor straps from a Baltimore PD officer who walked while he talked and adjusted those straps.

Gibbs and McGee would've had only two bodies to deal with if victim number three hadn't attempted to play hero. He'd tried to apprehend the man who had shot and killed a Navy lieutenant and her boyfriend, and he'd gotten himself killed in the process. The killer had then fled in victim number three's car. An eyewitness to the third shooting had gotten the plate number, and the car with those plates was parked half on the sidewalk and half in someone's yard. The man they were after was holed up in the house of one Heidi Bennett.

The officer introduced Ziva to his lieutenant.

"And Miz Bennett's in there, too," Lt. Parker said, gesturing toward the house. "SWAT's on the way."

"SWAT? You do not storm a house where someone is being held hostage," Ziva stated. "And this is my operation, Lieutenant."

"Ma'am, this is my turf," Parker protested.

"There you'd be all-out wrong," Tony said with a charming smile. "That man in there shot a Navy lieutenant in cold blood. That's our man, which makes any bit of this entire country our turf."

"That doesn't sound right to me. Jurisdiction is juris—"

"Enough," Ziva hissed, taking a step towards Parker. He tried backing up but found a squad car in his way. Ziva poked the Kevlar over his chest for emphasis as she said, "If you get in my way, I will have your badge."

"She will," Tony said, nodding.

"Okay, okay!" Parker squawked. "Whadya need?"

"Only cooperation."

"All right," Parker mumbled, looking surprised.

Ziva took a look at what Tony had found under the backseat of their car: a chopped-down M16 assault rifle. She curled her lip in disgust. After all, she came from the land that had invented the Tavor TAR-21 bullpup assault rifle, and the Galil assault rifle. In Ziva's experience, the M16 and all its variations fell far short of the marks set by the Galil and the TAR-21. Tony gave an apologetic shrug and asked her what she wanted to do about the guy in Heidi Bennett's house.

"Lieutenant Parker, I need you and your people to make a lot of noise, please. Can you get helicopters here? Even press helicopters. I want them to fly around. Make a noise."

"Uhh... Sure. What are you two gonna do?"

"I dunno yet," Tony threw over his shoulder while following Ziva.

They left Parker to talk into a radio, and they took the scenic route to the back of Bennett's small house. This involved dashing through several back yards. They had to make a detour when they climbed a fence and found that a large mongrel dog was watching them intently. The yard backing the one clearly owned by the big dog, was presided over only by a somewhat rotund ginger cat. They managed to sneak right past an old timer sleeping in a deckchair on his back porch, oblivious to the racket being made by two helicopters circling above, and after that they had just one more board fence to climb. Crouched over, they cautiously approached the house.

"Are you sure this is the right yard?" Tony whispered.

"This is the only light blue house on this street," Ziva whispered.

"Good point. It's the only powder blue house I've seen in years," Tony drawled. Then: "Ah-ha. No drapes."

He pointed to the window in question and Ziva snuck up to it on all fours. She knelt up slowly and peeked over the sill. A woman, bound and gagged, was sitting at the kitchen table. Ziva straightened a little more and mouthed, Where is he? The woman jerked her head towards the front of the house. Ziva nodded and ducked down again to report to Tony.

"Poor lady's gotta be scared out of her skin."

"That one? Huh! She is not scared. She is very angry," Ziva whispered. She crawled slowly to the back door and tried the handle. The door opened slightly. "It is not locked."

"I grab her, and you get him?"

"No. We get her out, then we both go and get him."

"Okay. Back me up, then," Tony said.

Tony slung his M16, settling it against his back. He and Ziva got to their feet quietly and nodded to each other before pushing the door open. Ziva went in ahead, crossing the kitchen to stand behind the woman at the table, and facing the entrance to the dining room. Tony helped her up and walked her quickly but quietly to the back door. Ziva followed, walking backwards. Tony held a finger to his lips before removing the gag.

"You gotta stay out here, ma'am," he whispered. "Duck down there, tight against that wall, and stay right there, okay?"

"You get that asshole. Did you see what he did to my roses out front?"

"He killed three people, too," Ziva hissed. "Down next to the wall, and do not move, please."

"Fine. Just get the sonuvabitch," she said, sitting down against the wall.

Back in the kitchen, Tony and Ziva took turns backing each other and crossing to cover. In the dining room they did the same. The house was old and all of the rooms were separated from each other by a door. The man they were after wasn't in the living room. That left the first floor. Ziva took the first flight of stairs and dropped to a knee on the landing. Tony came up after her and also took a knee. It made sense for Ziva to take the flights first because she was lighter and made less noise. At the head of the stairs she was grateful to find a wall and a window at her back; the first door was four feet from that, giving her adequate cover. Tony came up slowly and stopped just below the top of the stairs.

They could hear someone moving, and other sounds: drawers being opened and closed. He was rifling the house looking for things to steal.

Tony got down onto his belly and leopard-crawled into the hall. He stayed flat, with the M16 trained on the door at the end of the hall. He took a breath and nodded: he was ready. Ziva clucked her tongue in answer.

"Federal agents!" Tony yelled. "Get out here with your hands—"

"Screw you!"

He stormed into the doorway, a large-caliber revolver in-hand. Tony aimed for a knee; Ziva aimed for a shoulder. Two shots sounded almost as one, and a third boomed and mixed with a howl of agony as the big man ahead of them crumpled to the floor. His shot had blasted a fist-sized hole in the plaster ceiling. Ziva darted forward, keeping to the left side of the hall, out of Tony's line of fire. The man had dropped his gun and was clutching at his leg with the hand that still worked. Ziva's shot had possibly hit his brachial complex, a bundle of nerves that controls all movements of the arm. That arm was limp, almost lifeless. Ziva kicked the big revolver back towards Tony.

"I got shot by a girl?" their wounded collar whined.

"No. You were shot by a Mossad officer. Now shut up."

Their passive pursuit game at the mall had been terminated by work, but that turned into a benefit. At least, Ziva thought so. She was able to nonchalantly suggest dinner and a pool game at a bar'n'grill, as something like a just reward for their efforts that afternoon. Tony had accepted the invitation much as he would have if Ziva had been Gibbs or McGee. That was what she'd wanted. Tony had, for the moment, forgotten about those schoolboy fantasies of his. Ziva was just a colleague inviting him to go dutch on ribs and beer.

And after that it was easy. Ducky was next on her list– they attended an opera; then Gibbs– just a beer and conversation about the boat in his basement; McGee next– Ziva invited him to a coffee shop-come-bookstore where they discussed favorite authors; and Abby was lucky enough to get an invitation to dinner at Chez Ziva, dinner courtesy of Ziva's excellent efforts in the kitchen. Abby boasted and gloated a little, because Ziva had told her straight that she had no intention of inviting any of her male colleagues to her apartment just yet. Abby didn't pass on that particular bit of info. She agreed with Ziva: she needed to earn more respect from those men first.

"I agree with that, too," Jen said. "At the moment they're still caught up in the 'Wow, Mossad!' novelty... thing. To be honest, I think that even Gibbs is expecting you to tell him, any day, that you've been recalled to Israel."

"He does not know that I am contracted to NCIS for one year?" Ziva asked.

"He knows, but: 'Wow, Mossad!'"

"Hmph. Even the Mossad must play by the rules... Sometimes."

Jen snorted a laugh at Ziva's oh-so-innocent expression. Ziva spent more time after hours with Jen than she did with any of her other colleagues. They had dinner together twice or three times a week, usually on weeknights when Jen knew that without company she'd be bad to herself and go to bed with no more than a glass of wine or two in her stomach. She could always go to a restaurant but that wasn't the same, especially when she was too tired to pay proper attention to the menu. If Ziva dropped round for dinner, Jen found energy enough to cook, or to help Ziva cook. They mostly talked about work, sometimes very seriously, and while some might have said that that would've tired Jen further, she found herself to be invigorated by the conversation.

Talking to someone who understood, someone with similar experiences, seemed to be what they both needed. Some might have called Jen a mentor to Ziva, but Jen would have argued that point. Ziva was making her own way through life and her career, and she had no ambition towards the sort of high-ranking position owned by Jen.

Still, they were two women in a man's world; two women who were equal to any man in that world, but they had to constantly prove it. That was a hard road, one potholed and rutted and obstructed in ways that never seemed to affect their male colleagues, and those men had to be forced to respect women like Jen and Ziva. Getting too friendly with any of those men was not a good idea.


Chapter Four

Ziva was coming to like Jen's Mercedes an awful lot. Or maybe she just liked the federal sticker in the windshield, one that enabled her to park that car anywhere without concern that it might be towed or clamped. Washington's parking issues—namely, the seemingly complete lack of legal parking spaces—were cause for constant grumbles from many people, including Ziva. Her Mini Cooper had been towed once and its wheels had been clamped three times in the five months that she'd owned it.

This morning she deliberately parked Jen's car right below a sign that said, 'No Parking.' Ziva smirked when an early bird traffic cop increased his speed from stroll to march, ticket book at the ready... only to end up blinking at the sticker in the windshield.

"Good morning," Ziva said cheerfully.

The cop thumbed the brim of his cap and grouchily continued his foot patrol, leaving Ziva to stifle a wicked chortle or three. She crossed the street to a deli and bakery where she greeted the owner in Hebrew, and carried a conversation with himself and his wife while she collected this and that for brunch. This was her second stop. The first had provided several items that were definitely not kosher.

Back in the car, on the way to Jen's home in Glen Echo, Ziva ended up puzzling over the events of last night. It had happened again. Ziva had dropped round to discuss an aspect of the team's current case, and after a beer (possibly with the help of that beer) she had fallen asleep in her favorite chair in Jen's study. She'd woken to find herself covered with a blanket, and the mantel clock had showed the time: around four a.m.

As a point of comparison, she considered the fact that she'd recently dozed off in her own apartment while Abby was visiting. Abby had told her that what followed was rather scary: her slightest shift on the couch had resulted in Ziva waking and reaching for the gun on the end table beside her chair.

Jen didn't inspire that reaction. Twice now she'd been able to approach Ziva while she slept. On the first occasion she'd taken a book off Ziva's lap before laying a blanket over her. The second occasion had involved only the blanket. The overall point being that Jen hadn't woken Ziva, that Ziva's training hadn't kicked in when Jen had gotten up from her desk.

She'd been trained to sleep lightly, to be aware of her surroundings even while she slept. Almost anyone can learn the skill. It involves the simple practice of taking note of where things and people and even pets are, just before going to sleep. Those few moments of mental focus are all that is required to turn everything in the room into a sort of alarm clock. If something is moved, a closed door is opened, someone already present moves, or if someone who isn't supposed to be there enters the room, the 'alarm clock' kicks in. After enough practice, this technique remains active. It can't be switched off.

The fact that Ziva had dozed off without actively focusing on her surroundings, should not have affected that 'alarm clock.' She should have woken in the moment that Jen had left her desk.

But what confused Ziva most was that while this small mystery of the failed 'alarm clock' gave her pause for thought, she wasn't in the least worried about it. Another aspect of her training insisted that she should be worried about it.

Even the ones you respect; even the ones you least suspect: expect even them to cause you harm.

That was the golden rule, one that applied to every intelligence operative in every corner of the international intelligence community.

It seemed that for Ziva Jen was an exception to the golden rule. As yet she really didn't know how to feel about that.

"Boker tov!" Ziva called. Good morning! She returned the hidden key to its spot before closing Jen's front door. "Did you have breakfast?"

"No. I'm still in bed," Jen's voice floated faintly down the stairs.

"I have things for... umm... Brunch?"

"Oh, good..."

"You are older than me. You are the one who should be acting like a mother," Ziva hollered, while making her way to the kitchen.

Ziva heard footfalls on the stairs, and Jen arrived in the kitchen with bed-head and wearing a dark silk robe.

"Good morning. If I acted like a mother, you'd probably kill me."

"Ulai..." Ziva said, teasing. Perhaps. After a short pause she said, "I am still trying to work this out: you did not wake me last night. And that was not the first time."

"As I did the first time, I expected you to wake up at any moment, and you didn't." Jen took the apple Ziva offered and bit into it. Eventually she said, "Maybe this is the same."

"This?" Ziva gestured generally at the kitchen and Jen's robe.

"Yes. Unusual."

"But... comfortable," Ziva noted, unpacking definitely-not-kosher bacon from a paper bag. "And trust is a funny thing, and dangerous, also. I trust you, and Gibbs. Everyone else? No, I do not trust them like that, not even Abby."

"Trust is a big risk, yes," Jen agreed.

They prepped and cooked brunch together, seemingly as if they'd done so for years. Understanding. Trust. Both were at work, and in ways that didn't beg questions. They ate almost in silence. Comfortable. Both were very keen on the saying, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' There was nothing to fix, but there were things to discuss, if only to gain an equal grip on their situation.

"Situation?" Jen chuckled. "I think that 'relationship' is a better word."

"Be'seder," Ziva said. All right. She handed over a dish for Jen to dry and put away. "Relationship. Ours. What is it?"

"Beyond work... friendship, I think. It's possible to have two separate relationships with the same person."


"That's ancient history, but... yes. It's a good example. Unfortunately, it's also an example that he sort of hinted at more than six months ago. He assumed that you and I... Egypt. Latvia."

"I would never have lost focus like that," Ziva stated.

"I know. It's what makes you better than me, better even than Gibbs. Stronger than either of us were back then."

"But not stronger than you are now," Ziva said, rinsing the sink with the water that was draining away.

"No. More like an equal," Jen said. "That's why this is okay. Why we can trust each other and talk like this and have a relationship other than the one at work. No matter what you know about me, personally, I can trust you not to let that affect your performance on-the-job."

"Yes," Ziva said simply. But she added: "This is simple. What is complicated is how other people will see it."

"True, first among those being Jethro."

"Does Gibbs think that you sleep with everyone?" Ziva muttered, annoyed.

"I'm sure he doesn't. He just compared things and came up with an incorrect assumption. I told him the truth, and he knows it, but I also said that the rest is none of his business. This, now, is 'the rest,' but he's probably being a man and thinking that 'the rest' relates to the assignments you and I worked together. Focusing on the fact that you and I have history."

"A work history, yes. I know what Tony thinks because it is often written on his face... Men. I have spent most of my life surrounded by men and I still do not understand how they think."

Jen nodded in agreement and clinked her coffee mug against Ziva's.


Chapter Five

Someone had been executed. Zip ties had been used to bind his hands behind his back. He'd been blindfolded. He'd been taken to a small patch of lawn adjoining a basketball court not far from Johns Hopkins University Hospital. He'd been forced to kneel, and someone had shot him in the back of the head.

No-one had seen the actual shooting. A lot of people had heard the shot; 911 operators had taken sixteen separate calls reporting that gunshot.

At the scene, Ziva didn't say very much. She took photographs; she made notes. If someone asked her a question, she answered briefly, almost curtly. Ensign Davis had been shot before daybreak. The team managed to return to NCIS HQ before lunch.

During her break Ziva took a walk through the Washington Navy Yard, her intention being to clear her head and focus.

She wasn't a robot. She got nervous and scared, could be hurt emotionally and physically, and was generally human, in most respects, though there were those who'd seen her remain cool and collected in exceptionally trying circumstances, and they might've argued about 'generally human.' Ziva found it easier to focus when it was that or die. What she had always found tough was dealing with events that developed slowly. It wasn't that she lacked patience. She was a good chess player, one who could map her opponent's possible moves and plan her own moves to counteract them. That ability didn't do her any good when the chess board was reality, when she could see how things might pan out and she was almost powerless to combat those possible events.

Eric Davis had been executed. Ziva was an assassin. She was that among many other things but today, and probably until they closed this case, the 'many other things' would be pushed into the background by her teammates. She'd have an easier time of things with Gibbs. He'd been a Marine sniper, and he'd also practiced his craft outside of wartime. The Mossad had done their homework on him. Gibbs had been kept very busy by Naval Intelligence, before he signed on with NCIS. Tony and McGee had no idea, and Ziva wasn't about to say a word to them about it.

She leaned against a tree and gave a blank stare to the chocolate-brown water of the Potomac River. Focus, she told herself.

The manner in which Davis had been killed closely mirrored an assassination in Ziva's career. She hadn't pulled the trigger, but she'd been there. The man had been a bomb-maker, rather a prolific one at that, and when the Mossad had been informed that he'd relocated from Syria to the West Bank, that had been enough to say that his next targets were Israelis. They'd thought he was responsible for building the bombs used in two bus bombings, but they hadn't been sure, and besides, until he'd moved into that apartment in Jenin, they hadn't known where to find him. They didn't get him soon enough. On the morning before his capture, another bus bomb had killed two people, one of them a Palestinian woman and the other a Greek tourist. Twenty-one people had been injured, twelve of them seriously. More than half of the injured were Palestinians. No-one in the West Bank mourned the violent end of one Nadim Kaled. Ironically, his first name meant 'friend.'

His name aside, she remembered that bitter cold night as if it was yesterday, though she hadn't thought of it much in years. The scene of Davis's execution had brought the memories back. Kaled had fallen exactly as Davis had, onto his right side. Ziva's partner had used a .25 caliber pistol, a smaller caliber than the .380 used to kill Davis, and the smaller round had resulted in less damage, less blood. Or perhaps the dark had hidden it... No. The air had been clear. There was snow on the Golan. After the cordite had drifted away, Ziva had barely been able to smell the blood.

She frowned and remembered the large pool of blood below Davis's head. Other things jumped out from memory. The zip ties had been too tight: his hands had been red and swollen. That was important. Restraints that are too tight indicate haste, and a lack of experience in applying restraints. The blindfold had been a wide strip of cloth that had been folded twice, and it had been tied with a square knot. Strip blindfolds are only seen in the movies, and if ever they are used by people who know what they're doing, it's for short periods of time. A hood works without slipping. That strip blindfold would have slipped up, slipped down, come right off, if Davis had worn it for only half an hour.

The large caliber pistol; the zip ties pulled too tight; the strip blindfold. Ziva jogged all the way back to the Headquarters building.

"They are not professionals," she told Gibbs. "I say 'they' because I am certain that more than one person was involved. If you are going to shoot someone and you take them to a deserted area, then you can do it alone. But if you must get away before you are seen, you need help. And whoever killed Eric Davis did it in a rush. They did not plan it properly."

Gibbs looked Ziva in the eye for a long while. He admired her then, and not a little bit grudgingly. It took courage to admit to the kind of knowledge that would definitely remind McGee and Tony of the fact that she was no stranger to killing. More to the point, she was no stranger to executions. Gibbs would never ask, but he had to wonder how many times Ziva had ended a life in a quiet place. She was too smart to pull a trigger or use a knife in public.

There was more to that than smarts. Gibbs wasn't present to hear about it.

"Killing him in a public space," Ziva said to Jen. "This is what worries me. It is a statement. Possibly a message to people who live and work in the area."

"So maybe these guys think that those people might know who they are," Jen said.

"That could be a... delusion of grandeur. This is not the work of terrorists, but very often terrorists have this idea that everyone knows who they are, that everyone fears them."

"All psychopaths have big egos," Jen muttered.

It wasn't often that they spoke about cases while at work. More often Ziva would drop by Jen's place after work and they'd talk, but Gibbs had had to fly out to San Diego for a function, and Jen was the one supervising his team until his return. Jen sat on the edge of Ziva's desk and flipped through the stack of photos Ziva had taken from a drawer. McGee joined them and tapped a fingertip on one photograph showing the crime scene in relation to the street.

"That's a bookstore that Davis spent a lot of time in during college," McGee said. "The owner lives above the store. He was one of two people to provisionally ID the victim."

"And the other person?" Jen asked.

"Someone who works in a twenty-four-hour diner further up the street," Ziva said. "You can see the crime scene from that diner. You can also see it from the apartment Davis lived in while he attended college."

"So whoever killed him knew him quite well..." Jen said. "It's definitely a statement, killing him in that neighborhood. A mob job, maybe."

"But if my theory is correct, that the killers are amateurs?" Ziva said.

"Not the mob," Jen agreed. "So where does that leave us?"

"The usual. We must find out why someone would want to kill him," Ziva said with a shrug. "I think they had what they feel is a very good reason. But to kill him in public, even though it was still dark... There are families who live on that street. Children. To kill someone where just anyone can see is... I want to say 'unethical,' but the kind of ethics I am talking about belong to very few people."

"People with training, yes," Jen said. She stood as Tony strolled over. "Did Gibbs issue any last minute orders before you dropped him off at the airport?"

"He got a call on the way there," Tony said. "Davis's parents. Ensign Davis had a storage unit. They haven't taken a look at what's in it, so we're gonna go check it out."

"I'll get the van," McGee said.

"And," Tony said, giving McGee's shoulder a nudge. "We have orders to work late and try to get this case closed quickly. He got more than one call on the way to the airport. Some reporter got Gibbs's cell number."

"I hope he didn't toss his whole phone in the trash, like last time," McGee drawled.

"He did?" Jen chuckled.

"From about fifteen feet away," Tony said. "Perfect overhand lob into an empty metal trashcan."

"Pieces'n'parts," McGee said with a wry grin. "Abby picked out the SIM card and told him that that was all he should've gotten rid of."

"And he asked why no-one had told him that before?" Jen asked, amused.

"You could've been a fly on the wall," Tony drawled.

In the storage unit, hidden behind some furniture, they found a box of newspaper clippings and several notebooks filled with Davis's small, neat handwriting. He'd been investigating a murder that had been committed nearly ten years ago. The notebooks were evidence and couldn't be removed from the Headquarters building. The team couldn't take them home. As per Gibbs's orders, his team wouldn't be clocking out at five p.m.

Working late nearly always put Tony in a rotten mood, more so when working late caused him to have to cancel a date. Gibbs's absence this evening only served to darken his mood further.

"Not fair," Tony grumbled.

"You sound like a ten-year-old," McGee said tetchily, and took his dinner from a microwave in the break room. "I'm gonna eat at my desk. There are worse things than working late, y'know."

"Correct. It is raining. We could be stuck at a crime scene," Ziva drawled.

"I don't think we need the workaholic's opinion here," Tony interrupted. "Some people have a life."

McGee paused in the doorway, thinking to offer Ziva some backup, but she gave him a look that said, Go.

"After I have been here less than six months what, exactly, do you know about my life?" Ziva asked Tony.

"Besides being a workaholic, I know that you have a weird take on ethics. I didn't have chance earlier, so I'll ask now. I heard you and Jenny Shepard talking this afternoon. Where do you, in particular, get off saying that public executions are unethical?"

"Excepting urban combat situations, I have not once killed someone in a place where it would be indiscriminately witnessed," Ziva said plainly. "It is unethical to present an execution as some sort of public display, which is the way things are done in Saudi Arabia. Have you ever attended such an execution, Tony?"

"No," Tony muttered, pushing away his plate. He'd suddenly lost his appetite.

"I have. If ever you attend one, I think you will be shocked to find small children riding their father's shoulders, so that they can see over the heads of taller people. A child who witnesses such an event is not likely to ever place as high a value on life as one who has never seen someone's head being chopped off. That is what I mean by 'unethical.' Clearer now?"

"You're not serious about kids—"

"Yes, but I am. No-one is barred from witnessing beheadings, hangings, and crucifixions in Deirah Square in Riyadh. They call it Chop-chop Square. Tourists are not common in Saudi Arabia, but if you are in Riyadh on a Friday, after noon prayers, you might find yourself pushed into the front row for the best view, as befits a guest."

"Okay. You win the public executions debate," Tony said. "But I think I had a right to call you on it. You're an assassin. You get orders, and off you go and kill people. You execute them."

"You say that as if you really believe that it means as little to me as signing my name to something," Ziva said quietly. She'd been expecting and preparing for something like this, but it still hurt.

"I never said that. But you seem to be okay with—"

"It is never 'okay,'" Ziva hissed. "Killing is always wrong and I never, ever want to do it."

"But you do it anyway," Tony countered. "You have a choice."

"Choice?" Ziva said and laughed without humor. "Tony, people like me enable you to keep your conscience nice and clean. Your hands, too– we are the ones who do the dirty work. Killing is always wrong, but sometimes it is necessary. People like you can speak of choices, because there are people like me."

McGee hadn't gone far. Something had told him to hang around. He snuck away to his desk now, rather than storm into the break room and ask Tony if he liked hurting people. McGee had plenty of trouble with the concepts of assassination and sanctioned executions. However, he had no trouble at all accepting the fact that Ziva was a good person. Monsters are heartless, and people who kill because they see nothing wrong with that, are monsters. He barely knew her, but it was pretty damn plain that Ziva was not one of those people. Tony had no business hurting her just because he wanted to win the overall argument.

When Tony eventually returned to his desk, McGee had no pity for the 'I'm such an idiot' look on his face.

"That was a low blow. Proud of yourself?"

"No," Tony admitted.

He'd apologized to Ziva. McGee hadn't heard that, but in his place Tony might have said that an apology was a good grace offered too late. He certainly felt that way.

"Stop beating yourself up," Ziva said later, when they were on their way home. "Yours was a valid question. The phrasing could have been more conversational and less... accusing, but it was a valid question."

"You don't deserve that," McGee said to Tony. And to Ziva, "Y'know, if you keep letting people get away with stuff like that, they'll keep right on kicking you. See you guys tomorrow."

Ziva and Tony stared after McGee, and eventually offered each other somewhat shocked expressions.

"I think he's right," Tony said quietly. "One, I don't deserve to be so easily forgiven. Two... Well, Gibbs smacks heads for a reason."

"So you are saying that if I give you a bloody nose it will make you feel better?" Ziva said, her tone unreadable.

"Something like—"

Ziva socked Tony in the gut instead. He gasped, clutching his middle, and dropped to a knee.

"There," Ziva said. "Now I have acted as a man would. We are... all square, yes?"

"Except for my bruised ego," Tony wheezed.

"Grow up," Ziva muttered and snatched up her backpack. "When next I accept an apology from you, remember that I am not a man."

"You wanna tell McGee about that deal?" Tony said, wincing as he got up.

"I will. Goodnight."

"See ya," Tony said.

He sat in the nearest chair and watched Ziva enter the elevator. He weakly returned the little wave she gave him before the doors closed. It was true, what the science guys said, about objects with small surface areas gaining better penetration: that little fist seemed to have reached his spine. Tony was rather glad that Ziva had caused his appetite to vanish earlier. With a full stomach the punch would have felt ten times worse. He might actually have thrown up.

"Pissing off the Mossad officer is a really, really bad idea..." Tony told himself.

Jen wasn't surprised to find Ziva on her doorstep at a little before ten p.m. Since they'd landed the Davis case, Jen had noticed Ziva frowning more often.

"Tough one for you," Jen said, somewhat unnecessarily, but the statement would open the ball. She closed her front door on the wind and rain outside. "You look like a half-drowned rat."

"Rav todot!" Ziva said and laughed. Thanks a lot! "I should have told the cab driver to come right up the driveway... And yes, this case is... tough."

"We'll hang that windcheater on the back porch to drip-dry... Hot chocolate?" Jen suggested, leading the way to the kitchen.

"Im brandi?" Ziva asked hopefully. With brandy?

"Now you're talking..." Jen said with a grin.

Ziva got angry about things and tended then to do something about it, or if she couldn't do anything, she expressed her anger verbally. But she wasn't one to complain very often, and especially not about things that couldn't be changed. She also didn't like to complain about how others felt regarding some aspects of her work for the Mossad.

"But I think that what you told Tony is true," Jen said. "I've learned the hard way not to point fingers, not to call myself better than those people who do the dirty work. In more organized—organized, not 'civilized.' In more organized nations, those who make the calls for termination are backed by the best possible intelligence resources. Sometimes the call is wrong, but that is rare because if there's any doubt, termination orders are not issued. I've been meaning to ask, and it pertains to this discussion: who took out Hiram Katz here in the States?"

"Asinu et zeh," Ziva said quietly. We did that.

"I thought so, and you know, if ever you need to make someone understand, use that example," Jen said flatly. "I bet that you could give other, similar examples. How many times have you personally ended the life of an Israeli citizen or someone Jewish?"


"Right," Jen said, gentling her tone. "Which is evidence to the fact that very often the dirty work amounts to absolute necessity. I agree with you that killing is always wrong, but sometimes it's also the right thing to do... May I ask why Katz was terminated?"

"He was going to bomb two mosques. The CIA did not call our evidence enough, but they left the door open. You are familiar with that term?"

"They wouldn't stop the Mossad from doing what they felt was necessary," Jen said, nodding. "Was further evidence found to back the decision?"

"He was an amateur," Ziva said irritably. "Notes. Maps. All the ingredients for the bombs were in his basement. We found out about his plan because he told his rabbi, and his rabbi sent us word. Some of my colleagues had help when they cleaned up all of that mess. The CIA were very helpful, suddenly. And really, the evidence was better than just good. But it was easier to let us do the dirty work."

"They would've set Homeland Security on Katz if you'd refused."

"They knew that we would not have refused, because it would have looked bad for Israel if Homeland Security had waited until the first bombing, which is what they usually do. That agency does more harm than good," Ziva said angrily. "And the CIA is very good at putting people in tight places, to get what they want. But I cannot complain: they learned that from us."

"It pays to learn from the best," Jen said, teasing to lighten the mood.

"There is no such thing as 'the world's best intelligence agency,' unless there is a very secret one that I have not heard about," Ziva said with a wry smile. "Most of the world knows that the CIA exists. Many people know about the Mossad. No matter how good a job either agency does, neither can be called 'the best' because their cover is blown in a very big way."

"True," Jen chuckled. "But if you had to rank them?"

"I would be biased, of course. You rank them."

"I have already. As I said, it pays to learn from the best," Jen said. "Americans refuse to see the obvious, that bigger is not better. The Mossad employs a tenth the number of people employed by the CIA. The Mossad's screw-ups are documented, and you can count them on the fingers of two hands. The CIA goes to great lengths to keep its screw-ups under wraps, because that list is very long. The bigger the agency, the more likely it is that its people will screw up."

"Nachon," Ziva agreed. Correct. After a short pause, she looked at her watch and said, "I should go."

"If you must, but I have two guestrooms."

"Thanks, but I did not go to the climbing gym tonight, so I will go early tomorrow."

"Sucker for punishment," Jen drawled.

"Lif'amim," Ziva chuckled. Sometimes. She thought for a moment before saying, "You are a good friend, Jen. Thank you."

"Can't say that I did much," Jen said.

"You... get it. That is 'much,' according to me."

"Goes both ways," Jen said, and reached for the phone to call a cab.

Davis had put his notebooks away because his amateur investigation into the murder of one of his old high school teachers had led him to a literal dead end: his chief suspect had been killed in a car accident. However, reading through all the notebooks turned up something that Davis had initially missed. The team suspected that he was killed because something had happened to cause him to remember a detail that an experienced investigator would have chased down immediately.

"Follow the money– everyone knows to do that," Jen said. "Kids who watch TV know you should follow the money. Why didn't Davis?"

"Because he rightfully thought that the cops had already done that," McGee said. "Reporters speculated that Sam Halpern was killed because of a gambling debt. Statements made to the press by Baltimore PD indicated that that original supposition was incorrect. They'd found that Halpern had always paid his debts—"

"Or so they said," Tony said.

"We have a dirty cop," Ziva said and handed Jen a notelet with a name on it. "All yours, Director."

"Back at you: rav todot!" Jen sarced. Thanks a lot! "I'll call the Baltimore DA. You're all sure about this, right?"

"He's one of the officers who reported to the scene of Davis's murder," Tony said. He'd stopped using the word 'execution.' "Talk about balls. I bet he shot Davis while wearing his uniform. That means that his beat partner is probably his conspirator."

"Give me a motive," Jen said.

"Guess who got hooked into big stakes poker games during his investigation of Halpern's murder?"

"Davis," McGee said. "And he ran up quite a tab with a loan shark called Virgil Epps, who is Officer Ronny Anderson's cousin by marriage."

"Davis stumbled on that, too," Tony said.

"It is in his notes," Ziva said. "We checked it out."

"Twice," Tony said. "We think Davis finally picked up on what he'd missed: follow the money."

"So maybe he attempted to clear his debts with Epps by trying to blackmail Anderson," Ziva said. "That is a strong possibility. There is the motive."

"When it comes to the reputations of fellow law enforcement officers, I'm not a cowboy, people," Jen said, gesturing with the piece of paper. "Before I call the DA and give him this name, you need to mount a little surveillance operation. Let's get something that's more than circumstantial, please."

"But there's only three of us," Tony pointed out. "We need a fourth if we're gonna run a stakeout op."

"I'm game," Jen said. "Tim, we'll take the second shift. I'll supply the coffee."

"Okay," McGee mumbled. Jen gave him a smirk and walked away. McGee's shoulders slumped, and he muttered: "Stuck in a car for four hours with my boss. Great."

"She does not bite," Ziva drawled and rolled her eyes. "Tomorrow you will probably make us jealous with reports of Colombian coffee. That is all she drinks at home."

"Can't you brew us some good coffee?" Tony asked hopefully.

"Ma ani, ez? What am I, the goat? Do you not know how to operate a drip machine?" Ziva said and stalked away.

"Remember," McGee deadpanned. "The Director doesn't bite, but Ziva does."

"The Israeli Rottweiler..." Tony grumbled.

Ziva hadn't been joking about the coffee. It was so good that McGee ignored the cream and sugar Jen had brought along for him, and he took it like she did: straight up black. However, after three nights of four-hour watches that produced nothing, Jen's coffee ceased to impress McGee. Stakeouts, according to McGee, were as bad as watching paint dry, in the dark, no less. He ended up in a car with Jen yet again on the fourth night, but this time they took the first shift. Gibbs was back and would be taking the second shift with Ziva. Tony had been lucky enough to draw a short straw which had given him a night off.

"Gotta say, I'm surprised Gibbs didn't politely tell you to hand back his case, ma'am," McGee said.

"Huh," Jen snorted. She tossed something in McGee's lap. "What's that?"

McGee knew what the object was by feel, but he'd never gotten a look at Jen's badge before. He held it up to the light from a street lamp some distance from the car. When his eyes had adjusted he noticed that all the raised detail on the polished brass badge was silver-plated, and where it said AGENT on his badge, and SPECIAL AGENT on other badges, Jen's read DIR. J. SHEPARD. Agency directors were the only people who ever got to keep their duty badges. If they resigned or retired, handing over their badges was a symbolic gesture. The badges were one-of-a-kind items and were returned to their owners.

"So Gibbs occasionally remembers what it says here," McGee said, handing the badge back.

"And when he doesn't," Jen drawled. "I remind him of what it says. He prefers not to be reminded, so it generally works out well... Umm, Tim? Are you seeing what I'm seeing?"

"I think that's Ziva," McGee murmured, leaning forward to get a better look through the windshield. "What the hell is she doing?"

"Well, she made sure we saw her," Jen said, unable to keep a grin from her face or her voice.

"She's probably gonna break the law, and you're happy about that?" McGee squawked. And tacked on: "Ma'am."

"How many nights do you want to sit here?" Jen demanded.

"Umm..." McGee scowled at the spot where he'd last seen Ziva. She'd vanished in two seconds flat. "Okay. Point taken. Whadya think she's gonna do?"

"What I'd do. Plant tracking devices on the cars in Anderson's garage."

"Oh. That'll be helpf—What am I saying? Breaking and entering: great!"

"Oh, calm down," Jen said gleefully. "She will most certainly enter, but she won't break a thing."

McGee gave up and laughed. What else was he supposed to do? These two maverick females were going to adjust the rulebooks to suit themselves, and he'd just have to hope that they didn't get him into hot water.

Some distance away, Ziva crouched in deep shadow and worked with picks to disengage an automatic spring lock. It was the kind attached to a remote- or switch-operated system that opened the garage's tilt-up door. Being a spring type meant that she'd have to turn and hold the tumbler unit while she opened the door a little way. Only a little way, because Ziva knew by now that some part of this door hit a light switch as it opened. When she got the door open just far enough for her to be able wriggle under it, she picked up a fourteen-inch-long piece of five-inch diameter PVC pipe that she'd removed from her bag earlier. She double-checked that the pipe was properly seated before resting the bottom edge of the garage door on it. She gave the door a test shove before reaching for her bag and taking a VFS (Video Fiberscope) from it.

The hand-held camera unit was already attached via cable to a small monitor. Manipulating a joystick on the camera unit resulted in its flexible 'nose' pointing in whichever direction Ziva made it go. Night vision photography revealed every detail, including the thin green 'strings' of two infrared lasers crossing just inside the double-wide garage door; the lowest was at least three feet off the ground. Ziva put the VFS away and slid her bag under the door, into the gap between the two vehicles. She wriggled in after it.

She would have liked to go the whole hog, and wire the garage for sound and pictures, but the team needed a warrant for that. Technically, a GPS tracking unit cannot directly incriminate a suspect under surveillance. Ziva suspected that someone would object to the use of GPS trackers soon, but they'd probably find themselves arguing the difference between passive surveillance and lawful interception: a wiretap more often than not requires a warrant and is an example of lawful interception. Stakeouts are an example of passive surveillance: just watching someone usually does not require a warrant. GPS trackers only observe. They do not record conversations. They also don't take photographs, but it's perfectly legal for officers and agents to take photographs and video footage of suspects under surveillance. Basically, Ziva was really glad that she wasn't a lawyer.

She attached the tracker units to the undercarriages of the two vehicles and silently got the hell out of Dodge.

Time for a little fun. Instead of heading back to the street corner where a cab had dropped her off, Ziva snuck down the street towards Jen and McGee's position. There were streetlights here, but there were also large trees and many were in need of pruning. They cast very handy pools of deep shadow, and Ziva made her way right past her colleagues' vehicle unseen. She dodged in behind it and then crept up to Jen's window, which was rolled down.

"Bed'yuk k'mo Riga," Ziva whispered through the window. Just like Riga.

"Aval tzarachti ba'Riga," Jen whispered back. But I screamed in Riga.

"Wha—Holy shit!" McGee squawked.

"Not quite my sentiments this time," Jen drawled and shot Ziva a glare. "Get in the car, brat."

Ziva chortled, highly amused, and did as she'd been told.

"You said 'this time.' There was another time?" McGee asked, trying to get his heart to quit hammering.

"Yes. She pulled exactly the same stunt when we were on an op in Latvia. I was actually thinking about it, hence no shriek from me this time. So, Super Spy? What do we do now?"

"We go home," Ziva said. "Gibbs thinks we will only catch Anderson meeting with his loan shark cousin at the weekend."

"Why'd he take his wife's car to work?" Gibbs mused, looking at a wide screen monitor. He pointed to the small pulsing blip that marked Anderson's wife's Toyota Prius, which GPS placed at a Baltimore PD precinct. He pointed to another blip that marked Anderson's Ford F150. "That's Arundel Mills Mall. She's gone shopping in his truck, and he's driving her Prius."

"A good ol' boy like Anderson is gonna be verbally mauled about driving that 'sissy' car," Tony said.

"That's what I'm thinking," Gibbs said. "You and Ziva get out there."

Staking out a car parked in a police precinct lot, in broad daylight, is a lot more difficult than watching a house or vehicle after dark. The GPS tracker on the Prius suddenly became worth its weight in gold. More than a block away from the precinct, Ziva and Tony found a parking spot, and 'watching' the car simply involved keeping an eye on a laptop monitor.

Still, it wasn't exciting. Ziva set the tracker monitoring system to ping at them if the Prius budged from its parking spot, and she read a novel while Tony played Tetris. He eventually put the game away, put his seat back, and closed his eyes for a nap. To Tony it seemed like only seconds had passed before the laptop issued a loud ping. He sat bolt upright and adjusted his seat back.

"Time?" he asked, starting the car.

"Just after three p.m. You were asleep for almost two hours," Ziva said. "He is heading west."


When following a car by sight, that car naturally has to be kept in sight to avoid arriving at an intersection and heading off in the wrong direction. The tracker unit enabled Tony and Ziva to keep their distance, and they decided to remain out of Anderson's rear view mirrors.

They ended up crossing the state line into Virginia. Anderson stopped at a restaurant in Arlington and then drove on, but not much further. He stopped again in Crystal City.

"It is a Toyota dealership. I doubt that he drove that car all the way here for a service. Maybe he is selling or trading in the Prius?" Ziva said to Tony, and she was already dialing Gibbs's number. "But the DMV says that that car is less than a year old..."

"Hinky. Why get rid of it?" Tony muttered. He parked their car opposite the dealership and watched Anderson talking to a salesman, who gestured at the latest model Prius on display. "Oh yeah. Tell Gibbs he's trading it in for a new one."

Ziva did so and put Gibbs on speaker.

"As soon as Anderson has left," Gibbs said. "You two go inform the dealer that a search warrant is on its way. And keep that guy away from a phone. I'll bring Abby to that dealership."

A little over an hour later, the salesman and his manager were surprised to find badges flashed at them, but they were cooperative. Tony explained that it wasn't likely that the car would be damaged in any way, and the two men relaxed completely.

"Gotta say, it's odd," the manager said. "Coming here? We're a pretty small dealership. He got that Prius from the biggest Toyota dealership in Maryland, one that regularly offers good deals to its customers. We can't match that."

"Yeah, he's covering something up," Tony said.

"Rather, he tried to cover it up," Ziva said.

"Hey, you better collect our handy little friend," Tony noted.

"Oh, yes. Excuse me."

Ziva fetched a screwdriver from the trunk of their car. Levering off the industrial plastic box attached to the Prius' undercarriage took only seconds. She dusted herself off and ignored the funny looks from the manager and salesman. A command typed into the laptop turned the GPS tracker off.

Gibbs, McGee, and Abby eventually arrived, and the Prius was given a thorough going-over. First, all visible fibers, hairs, and loose objects were collected. Vacuuming happened next. A Luma Light was used to look for stains and 'bleach-out' areas, but none were found.

"I'm not gonna print this car," Abby told Gibbs.

"Yeah, I don't see the point either," he agreed. "The victim had his hands bound behind his back– couldn't deliberately touch anything without attracting attention to himself."

"The kind of attention that would probably have earned him a beating," Ziva said. "And even if he did try to touch the door handle, for example, Anderson and his accomplice would have made sure to wipe it down."

"That's what I was thinking," Abby said. "So we're done here."

"All yours," Gibbs told the manager. "And sir, the guy who traded this car in probably killed someone. Telling him about his old car being processed by us is a bad idea."

"Telling anyone about it won't help us sell that car," the manager said with a shrug. "We're on the same page here."

Three hairs found in the Prius were microscopically similar to Davis's. DNA results echoed what the microscopy had revealed: Davis had been in the back of the Prius. Instead of collaring Anderson right away, the team decided to get his partner Michael Lehman in for questioning. They wanted Anderson, but there was a chance that if they interrogated him first, he'd say that his partner was the one who pulled the trigger.

Given that Baltimore is an hour's drive from D.C., Jen requested the use of the facilities at an FBI field office. The Baltimore SAC (Special Agent in Charge) offered to get Lehman to 'drop by' while Gibbs and Ziva were on the road. When Gibbs walked into an interview room and stated that he was an NCIS agent, Lehman stared at the table for a moment, then made a run for the door. Said door opened inwards, and the half-second it took to yank it open was all Gibbs needed to take Lehman down in a tackle.

Having seen what was about to happen, Ziva had bolted from the observation room, and she arrived next door in time to see Gibbs take an elbow to the side of the head. Stunned, he lost his grip on Lehman's other wrist. Lehman gave him a shove and got up, only to face Ziva.

He swung a punch at her. She caught his wrist in both hands, took a step towards him, and turned, throwing him over her hip. She didn't let go of his wrist. She held him in a pronated wristlock, and a little twist caused him to gasp and cry out.

"Maybe I should just break your elbow," Ziva said, nudging said body part with her knee. Lehman yelled cusses, tears streaming down his face. "Now that we understand each other... I am going to release you, and Special Agent Gibbs is going to handcuff you. If you resist again, I will just shoot you. Okay?"

Lehman nodded. Gibbs said not a word while cuffing him.

"I want a lawyer," Lehman said when the cuffs were on.

Gibbs smacked him upside the head and shoved him into a chair.

"I want the gun Ronny Anderson used to kill Ensign Davis," Gibbs muttered. "Fair trade. Tell me where that gun is, and you get a lawyer."

"If I give you the gun, Ronny's lawyer can say that I killed Davis. I didn't. Ronny shot him. I helped Ronny to collect and tie up Davis. I drove his wife's Prius, but I did not shoot Davis. I didn't even get out of the car."

"Why did you help Anderson?" Ziva asked.

"Cos he breaks kneecaps when people don't pay what they owe his cousin. I needed some dough to fix my bike, and I coulda paid it back in the first month, but I helped out with my sister's medical bills. She got in a car wreck. So there I am, telling Virgil I need a couple months more, and Ronny says that I'm good for it. Then he tells me that I'm gonna help him with this thing, and if I don't... You ever seen what a crowbar can do to someone's knee?"

"Okay," Gibbs said. "I buy it. You were scared. You went along and just drove the car. Gimme something that'll help you out in court, then tell me where the gun is."

"Umm... The blindfold. Ronny's wife does a lot of sewing, and Ronny brought the blindfold. Maybe he cut it from some of his wife's fabric?"

"If we find only a scrap of the same fabric, that is enough," Ziva said.

"Gun," Gibbs demanded of Lehman.

"It's under Ronny's dad's new patio. He got me to help him pave it."

"Call Jenny and tell her we need warrants fast," Gibbs said to Ziva.

Less than a half-hour later Gibbs received the arrest warrant for Anderson. He was told by a judge's clerk that the search-and-seizure warrants for Anderson's home and his parents' home had already been delivered to NCIS HQ. Tony and McGee were waiting to hear that Anderson had been arrested before acting on the other warrants.

"We're gonna do this the hard way, cos I don't trust the so-called easy way," Gibbs told Ziva. "We tell anyone at that precinct that we want Anderson, and someone will tip him off. Who's he crewing with today, Lehman?"

"Some wet-eared rookie. I want payback. I'll help you find that patrol car."

"You always trust a guy who offers to help you catch the bastard who got him in trouble," Gibbs told Ziva, and handed his phone to Lehman. "Get him to go someplace quiet. I want him there in an hour."

The quiet place wasn't entirely quiet. It was a small parking lot near a boardwalk that led to several fishing spots. Still, Gibbs considered the occasional pedestrian acceptable traffic. He and Ziva sat in their car and waited patiently. Gibbs had driven Lehman's old Bronco here. They both liked the fact that its windows were tinted: there was no-one in that truck, and Anderson wouldn't be able to see that.

"If he shoots at us..." Gibbs said to Ziva.

"I have yet to hesitate in such a situation," she replied calmly. "I will shoot back."

"Hmph. I hope for his sake he doesn't shoot at us, then."

"Yes," Ziva said simply.

"You can be so damn calm it's scary, y'know that?" Gibbs muttered.

Ziva hunched a shoulder and said nothing in response. At times like this she fell into a rhythm that had been determined by her training, and honed by eight, nearly nine years of experience. When Mossad investigations revealed that it would be impossible to capture or take down a target through a stealth operation, firepower was employed. That usually involved sending Mossad officers along with either the elite civilian SWAT and counterterrorism unit YAMAM (Yechida Merkazit Meyuchedet—Special Central Unit), or an elite sayeret (commando) unit of the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). Ziva had forgotten how many times she'd been shot at. She'd fired a total of a hundred-and-ninety-six rounds in close-quarter combat situations, most of them from automatic weapons, and she remembered as much only because others kept meticulous records of such things. More than twenty of those rounds had found their mark. If Anderson drew his service pistol on them today, she hoped that his name would be added to the tally of wounded, and not to the count of those attackers dead by her hand. So far that count sat at five.

"I must ask something. What is the American opinion regarding someone who dies later of wounds sustained in a gunfire exchange with a law enforcement officer?" Ziva said. "Is the officer considered responsible?"

"Only if it's a dirty shoot," Gibbs said. "If he shouldn't have shot the guy, that's a dirty shoot, in real simple terms. If it's a clean shoot—officer had no choice, then if the guy dies later in hospital, no, that officer is not technically responsible. What's the Israeli take on it?"

"It varies, both ways, yes and no. I personally do not know how to feel about it. Everyone I have ever shot at in a firefight was also shooting at me and the people with me. In the moment, and for some time afterwards, I am very certain that it is not my problem. After a while, though..."

"Far as I'm concerned," Gibbs muttered. "If some bastard draws down on me and I shoot back and he only dies later, I don't feel bad. Generally, if someone dies on the spot where I shot 'em, that's cos I shot to kill. But at times like that, it's shoot-to-kill or end up dead myself."

"Same," Ziva said. And then added: "Sort of. I mean, I still shot at him. Them. Four of them. Maybe I should add their names to the list of people who died because I aimed to kill..."

"Y'know what I think?" Gibbs asked. Ziva said nothing in response, so he just said, "The bad guys don't worry about shit like that, which means you're one of the good guys. I'd try not to worry about it too much."

"I am Jewish. I will probably worry about shit-like-that until I die."

"I thought the Jewish guilt thing was a myth," Gibbs said.

"The Jewish guilt thing, yes. The Jewish worry thing? No, it is not a myth," Ziva drawled.

Gibbs chortled, but his amusement was short-lived. He elbowed Ziva's arm and nodded to his side mirror. No words now. None were necessary. Both of them unlatched their doors, but held them closed as a Baltimore PD cruiser rolled by to a parking spot five spaces distant from the Bronco. A tall officer got out of the cruiser.

Gibbs hit the grille lights and siren just as Ziva bailed out of her door. She rolled and came up on a knee as Anderson spun around. The lights and siren were to let his rookie partner know that this was a legitimate grab, that he wasn't required to backup Anderson.

Ziva's pistol was steady, her eyes hard but calm. Anderson knew that look. He slowly raised both hands. But then he was flipping off his cap– a diversion, one that didn't work. As his gun cleared the holster, Ziva fired. At the distance of only twenty feet, it was an easy shot. She hadn't broken Lehman's elbow, but Anderson's she completely wrecked. He clutched at his ruined arm and didn't even think about the service pistol lying near his feet.

"Nice shooting," Gibbs said, sounding relaxed, but he wasn't. Not nearly.

It was hard to forget that rooftop; impossible to forget Kate's blank, slack expression as she fell dead. Gibbs's worst fear involved losing another member of his team. He should have gotten Kate and Tony off of that rooftop. Or he should have at least told them to keep low. A sniper on the loose, and there they were, all three just standing in the open. It was hard to let that go, to forgive himself for that mistake.

"You ever made a mistake that got someone killed?" he asked Ziva on their way back to D.C.

"Yes. I should have shot Ari sooner," Ziva said quietly.

"You didn't have enough evidence," Gibbs pointed out.

"Sometimes one must rely on instinct, and forget about the law. If I had done that, Kate would still be alive."

"I'd give... I'd give a lot for her to still be alive," Gibbs said. "But y'know that she was a stickler for the rules? She wouldn't have been happy if you'd killed him without enough evidence."

"And I would never have forgiven myself," Ziva said and sighed quietly. "I still have not forgiven myself, but I will one day. I know this, simply because he would have killed you if I had not killed him. Some might think that that alone should make it easy to forgive myself—"

"Yeah, right," Gibbs muttered. "Those people have never aimed a gun at someone in earnest."

"What I resent most is that he made it personal for me, for the first time ever," Ziva said, anger leaking out and tinging her voice slightly. "He caused me to question my professionalism in such matters."

"I take it you fixed that," Gibbs drawled. "Nothing unprofessional about your actions today."

Ziva laughed briefly and shrugged, and she didn't bother to tell Gibbs that the calmest moments of her life were those where Death lurked in wait. In those moments she could only do her best, and if that wasn't good enough, there was nothing she could do about it. That was surprisingly easy to accept.

"Feeling better?" Jen asked and handed over a beer. Ziva had just arrived on this fine Sunday afternoon, and she'd brought along a stuffed chicken that was currently roasting in the oven. "About the Davis case, and the baggage attached."

"Somewhat," Ziva said, moving her legs out of the way so that Jen could sit on the porch swing beside her. Once Jen had settled Ziva promptly parked her legs over her lap. "'Comfort' is my middle name."

"Like me you don't have a middle name... Talk to me?" Jen invited.

"In some ways the air is clear, you know?" Ziva said.

"Well, I know that you were annoyed by your father blithely telling Gibbs that he didn't know what use we'd have for an assassin. I didn't expect Gibbs to repeat that to Tony and McGee—"

"He did not. One of my former colleagues told Tony. He works here at the Israeli embassy now."

"Still? Maybe you should fix that."

"He is also a former lover, so how will that look?" Ziva grumbled.

"Oh. Ouch," Jen said and snorted a laugh. "Sorry."

"You are not at all sorry, but watch out, or I will make funny remarks about you and Gibbs."

"Touché," Jen said and straightened her face, with effort. "So you say the air is clear. Or just clearer? Gibbs is the only one who has any real clue what it's like to agree with the reasons for it, and carry out a termination order. I've killed two people in close-combat situations. I was once in a situation where I was supposed to terminate someone, and I couldn't do it in cold blood. Just wasn't in me to do it."

"I hope you have never called yourself weak for that," Ziva said.

"I did for years, and then I let it go," Jen said, looking out at the river beyond the varnished picket fence marking the bottom boundary of her yard. "I realized that comparing myself to people who are not me is pretty stupid. In situations like that, you are utterly alone. The event itself and your reactions combine to form a singularity, never to be repeated."

"Yes, and that is also because your mark is an individual," Ziva said. "Even if you do everything the same way for three marks in a row, each of them is someone else, and that alone makes each occasion very different. What is that saying about a river?"

"You can't step in the same river twice. That one?"

"Yes. It is different 'water' every time... So the air is... clearer now between Tony and McGee and me. Like you say, maybe it will only be completely clear between me and Gibbs. Also between me and you, because you are never afraid to ask even very difficult questions."

"You always have the option of refusing to answer," Jen pointed out.

"I know, and I know as well that if ever I do not answer, you will be okay with that."

"Respect is actually a very simple thing," Jen said.

"Yeah. Be nice and respectful and get me another beer, please," Ziva said with a grin.

"Brat," Jen said and laughed.


Chapter Six

Months passed and only Ducky was made indirectly aware that Ziva and Jen had something else going on besides a professional relationship. He was told about it, in a roundabout way. He and Ziva were visiting a museum together on a Sunday. She'd left her backpack and phone with him while she went to a restroom, and on her return he was talking on her phone. The caller had been Jen. The message: could Ziva bring over a bottle of wine later, preferably Chianti. Ducky had relayed that message without a hitch. Thinking about it, Ducky found that it made sense. Jen and Ziva were sore thumbs at NCIS, one the very first female director and the other an Israeli spy. Both were highly thought of, but in a distinctly grudging manner. It just made sense that they'd seek each other's company outside of work.

Ducky might one day be a very close friend, but he and Ziva were content to let that relationship build as it would. They believed in quality time, though their definition of quality time didn't include a lot of conversation. Museums, the symphony, the theater, the ballet, and simple Sunday afternoon walks taken arm-in-arm, usually after a good lunch, were what they liked best. The comments they made on this and that taught each about the other. He was something like an uncle, and she was something like a niece.

Ziva was building a friendship with Abby, too, but it wasn't close. They were just too different. Still, their differences didn't stop them from spending a fair amount of time together. Abby had cajoled Ziva into joining her bowling group, just once, and 'just once' had turned into a regular habit, a pun giggled about often because the rest of the group were all nuns. As yet Ziva hadn't gotten pally with any of them, but that wasn't surprising. At all.

Stalking unsuspecting mall patrons aside, Tony was a buddy, and McGee was one as well, but in a quieter way: she'd go see old movies with Tony and talk about books with McGee. On the whole the guys enjoyed her company and she enjoyed theirs. If Ziva wanted to go somewhere and didn't want any unwarranted attention from other men, she simply said as much and either Tony or McGee willingly tagged along.

If ever Ziva saw Gibbs after hours, it was at a bar'n'grill or else in his basement, and she couldn't help but feel honored to be allowed to work with sandpaper on the hull or some other bit of his latest boat. Still, there was something like a thin wall or a heavy curtain between herself and Gibbs. She knew a lot about him, but that had all been learned secondhand. Gibbs was a listener, not a talker, and he just did not talk about his late first wife and the daughter who never got to grow up.

All in all, over the period of nearly twelve months Ziva had worked quite hard on friendships with her colleagues. At least, it seemed like hard work when compared to the little effort required where Jen was concerned.

They rarely ordered in or got take-out. They cooked, more often together than separately. Both were tired tonight, though. It had been a long week and a hard one for the reason that everyone had had to put in overtime while helping three federal prosecutors to prepare evidence for trial.

And for once Ziva hadn't minded being desk-strapped. She'd just gotten over a nasty bout of flu, and though the calendar said that it was spring, it seemed that winter was trying to make a comeback. The Capital had been assaulted by strong, chill winds that had blown heavy cloud cover in from the west. Weather channels were forecasting heavy rain, with a strong possibility of sleet. The wet stuff hadn't materialized yet, but the elm outside Ziva's apartment was currently engaged in something like a samba with the wind.

"I hope that tree does not break," Ziva said, nodding towards a window.

"Yes, considering most of its friends said farewell to this world due to Dutch elm disease," Jen noted. "Amazing, how just a few won't get it... You mentioned just now that friendships with the rest of the team sometimes seem like work. Does the effort go both ways?"

"I think so. McGee really tries– I can tell by his questions. With the others... Even Gibbs is careful with his questions. That is where it might seem like work for them."

"Right. So you've got a long way to go before you have this kind of friendship with any of them."

"But I do not want this kind of thing with the others," Ziva said.

"Any reason why?"

"I would want it to be the same. That would require me to spend as much time with someone else as I do with you. I do not have much free time. Zeh ma she'yesh." Ziva said. This is what there is. She snagged something delectable off of Jen's plate and gave it an approving nod a little later. "When we order from that place again, I will have that dish."

"Really good," Jen mumbled around a mouthful. Ziva pinched another morsel. "Hey, eat your own food!"

"I am, with yours as a side dish," Ziva giggled.


Ziva smirked around a mouthful, eyes twinkling. She'd thought about taking a few extra days and going home to see her father, but not much cogitation on that idea had helped her to decide otherwise.

Eli David wasn't too happy with Ziva's position as liaison officer at NCIS, and what he sometimes failed to recognize was the fact that she wasn't simply on loan to the agency. He'd had to be reminded twice that as Liaison Officer, hers was a contractual obligation, that she was relied upon, and that the Mossad would need an exceptionally good reason to 'borrow' her back.

As the Mossad's deputy director, Eli had enough power to yank her back to Israel on a whim, but he couldn't do that without making certain people angry, certain people who were more powerful than him, first among those being the Mossad's Director-General. Another was the Israeli ambassador to the US, someone who had a direct line to Israel's Prime Minister. There was a list of people who felt that Ziva was in a position that was already valuable, and would only become more valuable, on several fronts, as time passed. She hadn't been afraid to drop that list of names. She'd told her father that the deal was very simple: if the Director-General agreed that the reason was good enough, there would be no question of a temporary return to Israel to effect whatever task may be asked of her.

The last of those two conversations had happened more than six months ago. Eli had reluctantly agreed to the deal.

Since then Ziva had renewed her contract without speaking to her father. She'd contacted her division supervisor instead, and of course he'd agreed to sign this and that as soon as a courier arrived. Every phone call to her father, and her last visit home, had involved arguments related to that contract renewal.

NCIS had become the lever that had lifted Eli's thumb off of Ziva, and she fully intended to raise that thumb further, to make it so that her father had a limited professional say in her life.

"And personally?" Jen asked.

"Unlike you and I, my father and I have just one kind of relationship. If I remove his authority in a professional way he will see that as me... distancing myself from him in every way. This will not be a bad thing. I stand a better chance of eventually building a family-type relationship with him if he feels that he has no say in my life. Of course, if ever he is appointed as Director-General, then things change. As DG he would almost own me, professionally, so I must make myself very useful to people here, and useful also to HaMossad. As you know, I am working on that."

"Yes, and I think you're doing a damn good job," Jen said. "I told him as much when last he called me. He seemed honestly impressed."

"And that is exactly what I want," Ziva said. "If I can become the 'valuable asset' cliché, then even if and when he is DG he will want me to stay here. Then it will be up to someone else within HaMossad to convince him that I must be 'borrowed' for something... Overall, this is complicated. We can talk about something else, yes?"

"Of course," Jen said.

Ziva's apartment; Ziva's music. Rami Kleinstein was singing 'Od Lo Tamu.' Jen knew a little about the tune.

"It's a love song to Israel, isn't it?" Jen asked.

"Pretty much," Ziva. "But not a very accurate one, unless it is part hymn to God. The title comes from the first line of the chorus: Od lo tamu kol pla'ayich. 'Your wonders have not yet ceased.' I would only say that about Israel when—by some miracle—we manage to bring about a lasting peace in the Middle East—"

"Israel can't do that alone," Jen stated.

"No, we cannot. And so the song is not very accurate, but it is beautiful."

"Yes," Jen agreed, thinking that it might be one of those tunes that would return to her via memory over the next few days, as had several other Hebrew ballads heard in this apartment. "What's that other one... Shlomo Artzi sings it. Hi lo yoda'at something-something."

"Hi Lo Yoda'at Ma Over Alai. 'She does not know what's going on with me.' I will put that on just now," Ziva chuckled. "And what is this 'something-something'? Your Hebrew used to be fluent."

"No practice, which is nuts, because I could practice with you," Jen drawled.

"Practice clearing the table while I go find your song."

Ziva ended up playing translator while they cleaned up in the kitchen. Except for her excellent command of Hebrew cusses, Jen's Hebrew was very formal. While many of the words in various songs sounded familiar to her, Jen knew that 'song Hebrew,' as Ziva termed it, was generally idiomatic and nothing like the stiff, formal way in which she spoke the language. Having Ziva translate the next three songs helped Jen to make sense of what she was hearing.

"If I translate this one line-by-line, maybe I will set fire to something," Ziva said regarding the next song.

Jen frowned in concentration while listening to Shalom Chanoch sing "Le'at-le'at," – "Little by Little":

...You draw closer to me, little by little.
Between whisper and glance, little by little.
You reveal who I am, little by little.
You reveal to me who you are, little by little.

Surprising how your body is so familiar,
And how the soul reaches the flesh.
A touch like this just can't be described,
And I never knew before...

You draw closer to me, little by little.
You melt between my fingers, little by little.
Breaking waves reach the shore, little by little.
In an endless movement, little by little...

...and she understood enough of that, and other lines, too, about dancing and the gradual removal of clothing. She glanced Ziva's way to see her smirking. Jen's cheeks pinked slightly.

"You see?" Ziva teased. After lighting a rare cigarette, she said, "When this song first came out I was nineteen and we could only hear it on Galgalatz, the Army station. One other contemporary station, Reshet Gimmel, would only play it after eight at night. When last I heard this song in Israel, it was played as a 'classic' on Reshet Gimmel, in the middle of the day. Times change... kind of. In Israel no-one dances to this song unless they are a couple."

"I'm not surprised," Jen said and cleared her throat.

"I knew guys who used it as a kind of pick-up tactic. They would ask tourist or kibbutz volunteer girls to dance, and translate it right next to their ears. They would either get told to piss off or they would get laid, nothing in between."

"Sounds like something Tony would try," Jen drawled.

"I think he would prefer to use lines from movies, and he probably has. The weird part– maybe it has worked a few times."

"The women were weird, then. Or at any rate, they were nothing like me."

"Or me," Ziva said and chuckled wryly. And then she yawned and cussed in Arabic. "No work tomorrow, but because I will wake at five anyway—and not get back to sleep—my little body clock is telling me to go to bed. Are you staying? This couch can fold out. Abby reports that it is comfortable."

Jen thought about the effort of going downstairs and waiting for a taxi, and compared it to the effort of staying right where she was. Staying put won by ten lengths.

But then the couch wouldn't fold out.

"It's this... thing here. Maybe I did not fold it properly when I put everything away last time. See? It is bent... Ben zonah..."

"Whores have sons that are hinges?" Jen chortled.

"Hmph! Yeah, no-one ever has to practice swearing in another language: you remember them all just fine, huh?"

"Perfectly. I hope that can be fixed."

"It can. I just need the right tools, but I do not feel like going to borrow them from the super right now. Am I calling you a cab or are you sharing my bed?"

"I'm staying because I am not putting those shoes back on," Jen stated.

"Why wear heels if they hurt you so much?"

"That's all you can wear with a pencil skirt."

"I suppose combat boots would not look good," Ziva conceded.

"No, but I wish they did. And then there's Abby, who pairs a pencil skirt with bright red knee-length Doc Martens and manages to pull it off."

"That skirt was leather, and she can wear whatever she wants because she is Abby."

Abby Sciuto probably could have worn an empty horse feed sack and flip-flops and the result would've been, 'That suits you!' from just about anyone. Abby could make any outfit work for her just by wanting to wear it, or so it seemed.

Little organizing was required. Jen borrowed a sleep shirt and used the bathroom first. Ziva ducked in there next, and by the time she emerged, Jen was asleep. Her Glock was laid on the bedside table. Ziva liked her gun closer and stuck the SIG Sauer P226 .357 Elite Dark under her pillow, which meant that it required an anti-lint cleaning every morning, but she felt it was worth it.

She yawned and crawled into bed, turning out the lamp even before she pulled the covers over herself. She hadn't felt this tired in a long while, and sleep stole her away quickly.

Five a.m, on the dot. Ziva woke, scowling in the dark, and gradually became aware of an arm and a leg draped across her body, a head nestled into the hollow of her shoulder. Ziva smiled sleepily and rested her cheek against the top of Jen's head. It wouldn't hurt to have a lie-in instead of heading out there, in the cold dark, to go for a run. The wind hadn't let up; she could hear it, and maybe some rain, too. No need to go out there. And in any case, moving might wake Jen. Ziva really didn't want to do that. She let her body relax again, and when next she woke light was edging around the sides of the drapes, and she'd woken because Jen had chuckled.

"Maybe I should've warned you."

"About this?" Ziva said and rubbed Jen's back.

"Mmm. You don't mind," Jen stated.

"Nachon," Ziva said, yawning. Correct. "Especially because you helped to convince me to stay in bed, and I got extra sleep instead of going jogging."

"Ten points for me, then," Jen said with a smirk. "You realize I could stay here all day."

"The last time I stayed in bed all day I was sick."

"Flu that turned into 'bronchitis-bordering-on-pneumonia,' Ducky told me. And typical you," Jen chortled. "You get sick and go see a medical examiner instead of a regular doctor... Was that when Abby stayed here?"

"She insisted on staying the night for nearly a week," Ziva drawled, but there was a hint of fondness in her tone. "I was fed lots of chicken soup. But when she had the flu all I was allowed to do was deliver some meals. I got the impression that she was dating someone and maybe he was staying the night."

"Why didn't we hear about him?"

"Lo yoda'at," Ziva said. Don't know. "But the simplest reason might have been that he was just a... fling? Right word?"


"Another subject– something I forgot to ask you last night: have I been granted clearance to enter MTAC?"

"No," Jen said and winced. She'd been dreading this. Access to NCIS's Multiple Threat Alert Center required personnel to have a minimum Level One (Confidential) security clearance. Although Jen had personally requested Ziva's clearance from the Department of Defense, that request had been denied. "And you know why."

"I am not Jonathan Pollard," Ziva muttered.

"No. Worse. You're a real-deal Mossad officer," Jen said. "Look at it like this: there's something like MTAC at Glilot, isn't there?"

"Yes, on a smaller scale."

"Would I be allowed to walk in there?"

"No," Ziva said and huffed.

"Right. Why?"

"Because NCIS is part law enforcement agency, part intelligence and counterintelligence agency," Ziva muttered. Time to accept this and move on. There was no sense in arguing about or even feeling put out by the conditions governing a very old two-way street. "Spies do not invite other spies into their professional living rooms."

"You said it... Ziva, if it's any consolation, I feel insulted on your behalf."

"Thank you. Gibbs said something similar, but it is not your fault, or his... Is this a dimple or a, umm, dent?" Ziva said, her fingertips exploring an odd little hollow through the fabric over Jen's left shoulder blade.

"Scar. Seven-point-six-five millimeter round, and luckily it was almost spent or I would've been dead. As it was it broke my shoulder blade, and then, for some reason unknown to every expert I saw, the bone healed fine but the flesh part of the wound went bad. I didn't respond to the usual kind of antibiotic regimen. The docs had to concoct a combination of regular antibiotics and less common ones. When it healed it left that dent behind."

"The joys of being shot..." Ziva muttered. "I caught some buckshot once. Most of the load missed me, but I got six pieces of it. Not fun."

"Not at all."

"And when you got shot, why were you not wearing body armor?"

"Undercover on a get-close-to-him job," Jen drawled. "That bullet was meant for my subject."

"Getting in the bullet's way blew your cover?" Ziva asked.

"No. The idiot who wanted him dead hired another idiot who tried a hit from range—maybe 60 yards—with a suppressed CZ-50 pocket pistol. He missed, of course."

"CZ?" Ziva squawked in disgust. "Blegh!"

"Their nine millies are okay. But the seven-point-six-five? Slide jam city..."

"Hmph. If it is not a SIG, it is no good."

"Glock is—"

"Combat Tupperware," Ziva insisted. "I do not trust guns that are, by cubed area, more than sixty percent plastic."

Jen giggled and her amusement had mostly to do with the entire conversation: most people would never have matched the picture of two girls in one bed to a knowledgeable conversation about guns. This was why she believed that law enforcement officers, federal agents, and military personnel ought to date in their own circle. People outside of that circle just didn't get it, and in the gap where common ground should have been, tension built. But having any type of personal relationship within that circle was not without its tensions. If the two people concerned had a professional relationship, an additional personal relationship of whatever kind was generally frowned upon, if not forbidden in Regulations.

"The rules say I shouldn't be here," Jen said eventually, and then explained how her train of thought had led to that statement.

"Ahh," Ziva said. She thought for a moment before saying, "Someone with the ATF once said to me that overall professional performance counts ninety percent in every disciplinary hearing about behavior off-the-clock."

"That's true," Jen said. She levered herself onto an elbow and propped her chin on the heel of her hand. "But in that case you want several years of professional performance in your back pocket. You've been with NCIS for a little less than a year. So I'm asking, Ziva: just how comfortable do you want this relationship to get?"

"It gets more comfortable than this?" Ziva chuckled.

"It can," Jen said quietly.

"Yeah..." Ziva thought carefully for a moment before saying, "I am not willing to give up this friendship. I am willing to defend it, if it comes to that. The job is very important to me, yes, but I still get asked if I would like jobs with other agencies, as an analyst or translator, or both. There is also, right now, an opening with the FBI: Mossad liaison officer. It is not a desk job. I cannot tell you more, but my duties would be much the same as at NCIS."

"Counterterrorism Division?" Jen guessed.

Ziva nodded and remained zip-lipped afterward. Jen chewed at the side of her lower lip, mulling it over. At last she shook her head.

"No-one on the team would rat us out. They haven't yet, and I'm pretty sure they all know that you and I have become close."

"They are not saying anything. Maybe that is because they all like us?"

"More to it than that, my friend: we're not making their lives difficult. Also, they trust us to be professional when it counts... Dumb regulations. For God's sake– we're just friends; we shouldn't have had to talk about this."

"Do not care about it," Ziva said quietly, rubbing Jen's back.

Jen smiled at the phrase. That was Ziva in Very Relaxed mode: she was thinking in Hebrew and translating to English. If she'd been thinking in English she would have used the word 'worry' instead of 'care,' a common Israeli word-choice error. Jen lay down again, replacing her thigh over Ziva's hips and hugging her middle.

"Damn straight. I won't care about it at all."


Chapter Seven

She hadn't seen Jen in more than two weeks. She had a lot of questions to answer, first among them:

"You called Gibbs? Why not me?"

"If you had helped me in any way, your whole twenty-seven-year career would be like dust right now."

Jen opened her mouth to argue and then closed it. There was no arguing with that point.

Ziva had been wanted by the FBI in connection with a bomb blast that killed two FBI agents. She'd been tailing someone, who turned out to be someone she knew, but he was no longer a Mossad officer. Now working for a clandestine branch of the Idarat al-Amn al-Amm, Syrian GSD (General Security Directorate), he'd planted the bomb and Ziva had unwittingly allowed him to escape. Her car was left parked at the scene of the explosion, and that's how the FBI had connected her to the crime.

Gibbs had been her first choice of contact for the simple reason that he'd withdrawn from NCIS, following a near-death experience.

"He could not get into trouble," Ziva told Jen.

"Abby could have, and you called Abby to get his number. I have that number, too," Jen stated.

"And you would have given me his number, and then? You are not being rational. Listen to me, Jenny. Ani makira otach," Ziva said. I know you. "I have spent more than a year getting to know you..."

Ziva laid it all out. She knew that Jen would have done her best to keep any general NCIS involvement quiet, but eventually someone—Tony, Ducky, McGee, Abby—would have said something about Jen being personally involved. The rest of the team had made sure to do only what could not be called obstruction. Anything Jen might have come up with would have involved running interference. She would have deliberately obstructed the FBI's investigation.

"That is what you were trained to do," Ziva said quietly. After a pause, she added: "I wanted to call you. Even if I had called just to tell you I was okay... I know you."

Jen didn't respond. She couldn't argue because Ziva was right. As it was, it had been a tough job to sit back and simply allow the FBI to run rough-shod over her top team. She was proud of them for doing what they had, which boiled down to aiding and abetting a suspect in a federal investigation. Aiding and abetting is a crime of principle that doesn't rely on the suspect in question being proved guilty. Even though Ziva had been proven innocent, her teammates could still face that charge, could still be tried, could still go to jail for upwards of ten years. And here Jen sat pretty, with not a mark, not a dust mote against her name. It just didn't seem right.

"Hey..." Ziva whispered. She stepped in front of Jen and rubbed her upper arm. "You are hurting now, not angry. I can see. Why?"

"I've just realized that ambition makes for a lonely road to travel. Top of the pile, I'm not really a part of anything that goes on below me, am I?"

"You do a good job," Ziva stated. "When we are stuck, when a case is going nowhere, you suggest that we try stuff, and it works. And you are invited to drinks after we close a case. You think that is because of... obligation? No. When you were stuck in that meeting the last time, we were all disappointed... And okay, so that is maybe because we like you better when you are buying the drinks, but—"

"Hah!" Jen squawked. "The truth at last!"

"Clown," Ziva accused, smiling. "But seriously, it would not be the same without you... And can I get a hug now, please?"

Jen didn't even pause to nod. She slipped her arms around Ziva's neck, stepping closer when a pair of arms tightened around her torso. Jen would never have expected the quiet sniffle followed by a sob, and her mind immediately told her, That's not fair. True, it wasn't fair to think of Ziva as someone completely tough, someone beyond emotion. Jen found herself to be whispering nothings, soothing without trying to get Ziva to stop crying.

"If the FBI had ignored the evidence," Ziva said later. "I would not have stayed here. I would have tried to say goodbye to you, but I might have failed. It was... very hard to know that I had so few choices; that I might have had to run without seeing you again."

"I would've found you, after the dust had settled," Jen said firmly. "But given the rabidness of Homeland Security, that settling period might've been years."

"Yeah," Ziva agreed and sipped at her beer. After a pause she said, "Strange. I was detained at the Israeli embassy for a while, as you know. HaMossad have pictures of Tony arriving at and leaving my apartment once every week, since Gibbs left. There are no pictures of me being visited by Abby or Ducky or McGee, and no pictures of you visiting; no pictures of me visiting any of them, or you. They asked me outright, am I sleeping with Tony."

"I think your father has something to do with that," Jen drawled. Then, looking Ziva in the eye: "Are you?"

"No," Ziva said, relaxed, and with a cheeky smile: "You are the only colleague I sleep with."

"And if you stay tonight, it won't be in a guestroom," Jen stated.

"If? Huh. I am staying," Ziva said and covered a yawn with her hand. "I am so tired I could sleep for two days straight, I am sure."

"Sorry. Work tomorrow."

"I know, I know," Ziva drawled. Seriously: "Before I forget... I think that Gibbs will be back soon."

"That's my hunch as well. Back in two months, at the most," Jen said. "He left for the wrong reasons, and he knows it: written all over his face."

"Yeah..." Ziva shrugged, deciding to leave the subject alone. She got up from her chair. "See you later."


All defenses down, Ziva didn't hide a slight limp when she left the study. She had stitches at her hairline and one eye was going black from the fight with Syrian GSD agent Faatin Amal that morning. That limp was probably due to sorely punished abdominal muscles, maybe even a bruised kidney, Jen guessed. And she thought to herself, Such is the life of an intelligence operative.

Someone somewhere was probably gunning for Jennifer Shepard right now. On every mission and assignment, every covert operation, intelligence operatives made enemies of the variety that tended to hold a grudge for a very long time. Jen had a list, and any of the people on it might choose to make a concerted effort to end her life, on any day of the next week. She guessed that Ziva's list might be a fair bit longer than her own, with as many as four new names added to it just today, Amal's first among them. The Syrian woman would soon find herself on a plane, bound for Gitmo.

When Jen eventually crawled into bed, Ziva stirred, then started fully awake, her hand reaching under the pillow at once.

"Just me," Jen whispered.

Ziva relaxed and blew up at her hairline, heart hammering. It would be like this for days: adrenalin pumping for the slightest reason. And Jen knew all about that, so Ziva didn't bother with an apology. She had something else to say.

"I missed you."

"I missed you, too, but from this range I can safely say that it's impossible to miss each other," Jen teased gently.

Ziva snorted a laugh and hugged Jen's shoulders tightly, but that grip gradually relaxed as sleep claimed her again. Jen listened to a heartbeat that slowed to a steady, even thump: calming, reassuring– the complete opposite of the experience of the last two weeks.

Over the last four or five days, Jen had tried to tell herself that it might be a good idea to put a little distance between herself and Ziva, but that idea seemed less-than-good right now. It seemed stupid, in fact. Despite a continuously high level of worry during these two weeks, Jen had performed at her professional best, as had Ziva, despite her very difficult circumstances. That trend would simply continue.

There was no sense at all in 'fixing' what wasn't broken.


Chapter Eight

"Whadya mean, gone?" Gibbs snapped.

"Hasn't been at work for three days, Boss," Tony muttered.

"Umm, maybe someone should go calm Ziva down," McGee said and swallowed nervously. "She said something about wanting to kick Judge Liebewitz in the, uhh, crotch."

"I bet she said 'balls,'" Gibbs growled. "And she'll have to stand in line. We lost Meller cos Liebewitz pulled some pure-law bullshit about unlawful surveillance, due to so-called goddamn circumstantial evidence... I can't believe this. By now he could be anywhere..."

"What's going on?" Jen asked from the walkway above the squad area.

"Lewis Meller is not at home, not at work. No-one's seen him in three days," Tony said.

"Jesus Christ..." Jen muttered, hands white-knuckling the railing.

"I want Liebewitz's ass in a sling," Gibbs said angrily, his face very red. "I want him off that fucking bench he's so goddamn proud of!"

"I doubt he'll lose his bench, but I also doubt that Liebewitz will enjoy explaining himself to the SECNAV," Jen said and headed into her office.

McGee fetched Gibbs a cup of water from the cooler and handed it to him hesitantly.

"Thanks," Gibbs said and downed the cupful. "Goddammit. We've got four dead female sailors. Four in less than two months..."

"And Meller killed who-knows-how-many civilian women before he started focusing on women in uniform," McGee said, slumping his chair.

"I'm gonna go tell Abby to call her pals at the Bode labs," Tony said. "Maybe she can get them to put a rush on those samples."

Saliva that didn't belong to the four Navy victims had been found on their skin. Two cold cases, civilian women, had peaked Ducky's interest, because they'd been killed in the same area and their bodies had been posed in the same subtle way seen with the four Navy victims. Saliva samples had also been collected from the civilian victims. Given that the samples were somewhat degraded, they'd been submitted for mitochondrial DNA testing. Ducky hadn't even bothered to request the Y-STR DNA analysis that's standard when a suspect is male.

"Abby can try, but mito sequencing takes longer than the regular testing. Can't rush it," Gibbs said and got up. "Tony, meet us at Seamus Green's. McGee, go tell Jen we're calling it a day. And give Ziva a call, tell her where we'll be."

"Sure, Boss."

Perhaps drinking wasn't the best idea, but as it turned out, the beer helped. Jen had come along to the pub and so had her briefcase, source of a legal pad and pen. McGee took notes while the four of them brainstormed the only avenue left to them: Find Meller.

Three days ago Judge Liebewitz had issued an immediate cease-and-desist order against all surveillance on Meller, and since then he'd had three days in which to go wherever he wanted to. No-one had been watching airports or border crossings. It was likely that Meller had a fake passport, and that ruled out a standard search of passport control and airline databases for his name and a flight number. They'd check anyway, but they hoped that something in Meller's apartment might give away his destination. They had every right to press for a search-and-seizure warrant now. Meller had not been seen or heard from since the judge had told NCIS to back off. Cops don't believe in coincidences. Most judges tend not to believe in them either.

"The SECNAV definitely does not believe in coincidences," Jen said. "And neither does the TJAG. If necessary they'll both appear in person and demand that warrant."

"Didn't you and Wiccomb used to date?" Gibbs asked, referring to The Judge Advocate General of the Navy, or TJAG. "No, wait– you were engaged to him."

"Really?" Tony gawped. "He's a genius but he's about the most boring person on the planet!"

"Focus, people," Jen drawled, hoping that her face wasn't as red as it felt.

"Right," McGee said, hiding his amusement with a gulp of beer. "Okay. We get the warrant. And we're looking for what– anything relating to travel, vacations—"

"Photo albums," Gibbs said. "My guess is the asshole left in a real big hurry. Unless he took pictures of his vics, albums would not have been high on his ditch list. He's gotta run, and all he's thinking about is getting rid of whatever obvious grounds for an international manhunt. We gotta get in his head in those moments."

"So we don't even dream about finding evidence linking Meller to our four victims," Tony said.

"But if he didn't take his toothbrush, hairbrush, didn't do his laundry, we'll get his DNA," McGee pointed out.

"I want his mother's DNA," Jen muttered. "But we need evidence that's a lot more solid than what we've got before we can press a judge to compel a sample from Missus Meller."

"Yeah. No way will she give up her darling son," Tony said, his tone disgusted. "She's the kinda woman who'll insist that he's innocent even if he confess—Whoa! Ziva, what the hell did you do?"

Ziva used her free hand to wave Tony off. Her other hand was busy pinching the bridge of her nose. There was blood down the front of her Goldman's Gym T-Shirt, and a very unladylike bit of cotton wool was wadded into one nostril. Her lower lip was split and puffy. It had to hurt, but she was grinning anyway. She parked on a bench seat next to Jen, and thanked a waitress for the beer she'd ordered on the way to the booth.

"We're dying here, hello?" Tony said. "What happened?"

"Savlanut!" Ziva muttered and took a healthy swig of beer.

"Huh?" said the three men.

"Patience," Jen translated, but she didn't feel very much like being patient. "Ziva..."

"Okay already," Ziva grumbled. She took a smaller sip of beer and said, "Liebewitz was at Goldman's Gym. He is there every Wednesday evening. I let him throw the first punch, and then I threw all the rest."

"In the boxing ring or the no-rules cage?" Gibbs asked eagerly.

"The cage. My knee had your name on it, Gibbs."

"Atta girl," Gibbs said and grinned like a pirate.

"This can't come back at us, can it?" McGee mumbled.

"He went willingly into the cage," Ziva said. "He did not have to accept my challenge."

"I bet old man Goldman tried to tell him not to," Tony chortled. "How'd it go? Something like, 'You meshugineh nebbish! She'll kill you! And a judge dies in my gym– what then?'"

"He said 'mangle,' not 'kill,'" Ziva giggled. "You speak Yiddish?"

"He speaks Goldman," Gibbs chortled.

"Sounded just like him, too," McGee said, grinning. "'Meshugineh' is crazy. What's 'nebbish'?"

"A pitiful, weedy sort of person– in this case, very apt," Jen drawled. To Ziva: "How're your hands, Slugger?"

"Four-ounce gloves do not protect anything," Ziva said and flexed hands that were swollen and bruising over the knuckles. "I taped-up properly, too, but—"

"You'll mend," Jen interrupted. "Now. Give it up. Blow-by-blow."

"Never mind that," Tony said. "Just tell us how bad he looks."

"Broken nose, mashed ear, sore ribs, and very sore beitzim."

"Eggs?" Jen mumbled a translation.

"Not from-the-chicken kind of eggs!" Ziva said and cracked up laughing with the guys.

"Oh, God..." Jen groaned, hiding her red face behind her hand. "I'll never live this one down."

"Aww, ani adayin ohevet otach," Ziva chuckled. I still love you.

"I might believe that tomorrow," Jen drawled, but she was smiling.


Ziva woke from a dream that had suddenly involved multiple mortar shells exploding all around her.


"Not mortar fire..." she muttered, turning on a lamp and getting out of bed.


"Regah!" Ziva yelled. Wait!

She snatched her gun from under the pillow, and muttered cusses in several languages all the way to the door. Ziva gave a bleary eye to the peephole and, with fresh mutters, got on with disengaging several bolts and locks.

"Jen, ma koreh achshav?" What's happening now?

"Ha'kol dafuk, that's what's happening," Jenny snapped.

"Everything is fucked up—what is this 'everything'?"

Jen opened her mouth to explain and then cracked a wry grin instead.

"I just have to say that when you think in Hebrew and translate directly, it's really cute."

"Zeh? Ani omeret klum. Ma ha'sha'a?" This? I'll say nothing. What's the hour?

"Erm..." Jen squinted at her watch. "No glasses... Uhh, shtaiyim ve'sh'va-esreh dakot." Two and seventeen minutes.

"Shtaiyim ve'sh'va-es—B'boker? Holechet le'cheder, bevahkasha– yallah!" —In the morning? Go to the [bed]room, please– let's go!

Jen snorted a laugh and kicked off her shoes. She picked them up and carried them to the bedroom, where still-sleepy Ziva first noticed that she was wearing an evening dress.

"You have a bad effect on me. I sleep through many bangs at the door.... I did not notice that dress, the shoes... Ugh. Jen, what is going on, what is fucked up?"

"Zipper, please?"

Ziva rolled her eyes and lowered Jen's long zipper. Next, she opened a drawer and liberated a sleep shirt that she dropped on the foot of the bed. She herself got into bed and again encouraged Jen to relate the details of what was fucked up.

When criminals cross international borders that nasty word extradition comes into play. It doesn't come into question if Mr. Murder Suspect isn't smart and flees to a country that supports the same attitude towards murder suspects. However, it is an issue when Mr. Suspect looks at a map and picks a country specifically because it doesn't support extradition, and it also doesn't believe that suspect Over There makes him a suspect Here, too. Countries with that attitude are quite numerous.

"Meller is in France. Tzadakti?" Jen said. Am I right?

"Yes, you are right," Ziva groaned. "Ha'kol dafuk."

"That sonuvabitch is free as a bird," Jen said from the bathroom while removing her makeup. "The SECNAV got word on his location while we were at that stupid cocktail party– great excuse to leave early, we both agreed... Interpol found him, but their hands are tied, because they have to maintain their neutrality. The SECNAV told them not to make trouble for themselves, or us, by trying to convince the French to arrest Meller. We'll have to think of something else... God, but it's sickening to see that bastard sitting at a café with a newspaper. We have photos."

"You want me to fix this?" Ziva said.

"Why don't I like the sound of that?" Jen asked, leaning in the bathroom doorway.

"We have good evidence to say that he killed four women, yes?"

"Yes. I just wish we knew who he was killing before he started targeting summer whites," Jen said, referring to the US Navy summer shore uniform.

"And Ducky is certain that the first Navy victim was not Meller's first ever victim. We found nothing in Meller's apartment to indicate that he has ever been there before, but I think that this is not the first time he has visited France."

"You mean—"

"Correct," Ziva said, with a small, dangerous smile.

"I can't believe I got this assignment..." McGee mumbled, staring at the Eiffel Tower on a bright fall day.

"This is not a vacation," Ziva stated. "There is the man we want to see. Stay close to me and do not open your mouth unless I say so."


The spare man with wispy grey hair was fully aware that he was being followed. Ziva and McGee kept to a certain distance behind him. It wasn't a short walk. They ended up in the Latin Quarter, on a narrow stair that led up to the third floor of an old apartment building. The door Ziva knocked at looked no different to three others. It was opened just a crack, and then all the way.

McGee followed Ziva inside and his eyebrows shot up when he found that the interior of the apartment seriously belied the exterior. Modern furnishings, and none of them modest. A very large desk supported four flat screen monitors, and a taller-than-usual tower chassis that probably housed a server instead of a simple computer. A high-end laptop sat on the desk's return.

"Shalom, Moshe," Ziva said, only when the door was closed.

"Shalom-shalom. We'll speak English. Who's this?"

Ziva introduced McGee to Moshe Aretz, who happened to be the Mossad Mefakach or Supervising Officer for all of France. McGee immediately switched 'Moshe' to 'Sir,' and Moshe left that alone. He'd learned many years ago that Americans are hung up on ranks and titles. Israelis are exactly the opposite. Moshe got right into the business at hand.

For the last week Lewis Meller had been tracked from the moment he left his apartment and all through each day, until he got home. Even then, there had been someone on stakeout, watching to see if he left in the middle of the night. The Mossad is an intelligence agency, not a law enforcement agency, but Ziva's interests were the Mossad's, too, and more importantly, it didn't hurt to build better relations between the Mossad and NCIS.

"It's also good for my people to get practice in tracking and general surveillance," Moshe said.

"I get to do that in shopping malls," McGee said and elbowed Ziva.

"Good practice is good practice. Is he any good?" Moshe asked Ziva.

"Getting better all the time," she said. "Were my suspicions correct?"

"Oh yes. Meller knows this city as well as someone born here. It won't be hard to find what you need, but we will need to be very clever to get it. You speak French, Tim?"

"Fluently, sir," McGee said, nodding.

"Good. You know his M.O. That's all we need to know, but first we have to hack into the French national crime database."

"I've done that before," McGee said simply, without a hint of a boast.

"Moshe, eifo ekdachim?" Ziva called from another room.

"I'll be back. She wants to know where the guns are," Moshe told McGee.

"She's real cranky without one," McGee drawled.

"I heard that!"

McGee had expected to get to work right away, but Moshe had other ideas that involved Ziva and McGee unpacking and relaxing. Ziva had the apartment's guestroom to herself. McGee was sharing Moshe's room; his bed for the duration was an air mattress on the floor, which reminded McGee of school and college sleepovers at friends' homes. The similarity, and indeed those memories, took flight out the nearest window when he walked into the dining room and found Ziva wiping excess oil from pieces and parts of a twin to her SIG back in the States.

"Not a vacation," he reminded himself aloud.

"Right," Ziva agreed while rapidly reassembling the pistol.

"You don't have a permit to carry that thing." McGee took a seat at the table. "What if you get caught?"

"Hah!" said Moshe, from the kitchen.

"Umm, what's that supposed to mean?" McGee mumbled.

"The only time I will have a problem is if I am forced to use this gun," Ziva said, lightly smacking a full clip home. "And even then, the trouble will not be much. Think."

"Uhh... Okay. Forced to use it: you catch Meller about to kill some poor woman?"

"Correct, and when the French police arrive, I produce proof that I am working with NCIS, proof also that Meller is considered extremely dangerous, and there is more evidence: he tried to kill that poor woman. I will get a... scolding, and the gun will be confiscated, of course. I might also face something like a polite deportation to the States. No more than that."

"The deportation bit might make it hard for you to get back into France, if you need to," McGee pointed out.

"Who says that I will return through an airport, through a border crossing, or a sea port? I have been inserted into this country twice via parachute, and once I fast-roped from a helicopter onto the roof of the Israeli embassy here in Paris, all sans passport."

"I am never gonna get used to you, am I?" McGee mumbled.

"Probably not," Ziva said with smirk.

McGee rolled his eyes, and when Ziva lightly punched his shoulder he clowned intense pain, playing the geeky nerd, something he often did when they spent time together after hours. She could be a lot of fun, but McGee could never forget that there was a side to her that was extremely disciplined, yet dangerous and feral; a part of her that had yielded to training and discipline without being completely tamed. He knew it was there, but he hadn't ever met it before, not properly, and if he was honest with himself, he didn't want to meet that side of Ziva. He could respect it, and respect her just fine without ever becoming acquainted with it. However, if ever he did come face-to-face with Ziva the Assassin, McGee hoped that that meeting wouldn't change his opinion of her.

He'd known her just sixteen months, and just sixteen months ago he would never have said of any trained, sanctioned assassin, 'He or she is a good person.' Ziva was all that: a very good person. Just by knowing her, McGee had been forced to reexamine his opinion of assassins, and she'd done so without his feeling a need to reexamine his opinion of assassination. It is never 'okay', she had once told Tony. McGee remembered wanting to kick Tony that evening almost a year ago, but he'd known, after one glance at Tony's 'I'm such an idiot' expression, that Ziva had done all the metaphorical kicking necessary. McGee still thought that assassination was a very bad thing, but he reckoned that if someone like Ziva sometimes effected what amounted to a death warrant, perhaps some of those warrants were a necessary evil.

Later, when Ziva had gone out to meet with another Mossad officer, McGee asked Moshe if he'd ever worked with her before.

"Several times. She is very good, so good that it's best that we let her go, let her do what she wants to do," Moshe said.

"I don't understand, sir," McGee said, frowning.

"You can be very good at something even if you aren't properly suited to it, and if, one day, you find that you don't really like what you're doing, you will hate it immediately. That is Ziva. So, like I told her father once, we let her go, and that way, whenever we really need her, she will want to help us."

"But if you only ever recall her for wet-work—"

"Uhh! No-no, you mistake me. Not just wet-work. She is a lot more than only an assassin. She is a kidon, yes, but being a kidon does not restrict her activities to assassination. Her training was and is limited only to her abilities, and those are many."

"That much you don't have to tell me, sir," McGee drawled.

"Right," Moshe chuckled. "But you know her only in the field of law enforcement. I've known her, on and off, since she was a girl. I watched her become one of the best communications and signals interception, and counterintelligence people I have ever met. She's a spy's spy, someone who can insert herself into someone else's operation as a mole, and they will never, ever know. Ordinarily, we worry about people who are that good, that smart. It pays to watch them closely... The person who was responsible for most of her training, in the intelligence field, was that good. We didn't watch him closely enough. It was Ziva who saw what was right under our noses: he was a double agent, working for both the Mossad and the Iranian secret police. Only Ziva was good enough to get close to him. So either we sent her to kill him, or we tried to do that by using a bomb, or by sending fifteen or twenty spec ops soldiers. But he had trained her. They had a relationship of trust. We gave her the choice. She chose to take care of it herself."

"Jesus..." McGee murmured. "I can't... Can't imagine having to do something like that."

"Ziva is a master when it comes to separating her personal feelings from her professional feelings. She wouldn't have done it if she had felt personally betrayed by him. She had nothing against him, personally. Professionally? The man was a traitor of the highest order. His death was necessary to the interests of national safety. Imprisoning him was not an option: Iranian extremists consider an imprisoned 'hero' a martyr, and as you are probably aware, a dead martyr is dangerous enough. A living one?"

"Yeah," McGee muttered. "Like sleeping with a live rattlesnake in the bed."

"A good comparison. So she went to visit him, and she killed him. I can almost guarantee you that he didn't know it was coming, and that he didn't feel a thing. She set fire to his house, too, and the body was too badly burned... That was the only time that she didn't have orders specific to method. Ziva has never said how she did it. No-one, not even her father, has dared to ask."

"Huh, yeah," McGee said with a sneer. "Something else I can't imagine: 'Oh, Ziva? How did you kill that guy who taught you just about everything you know?' Sorry for the sarcasm, sir, but—"

"No, don't be sorry. You care about her. This is only good," Moshe said, smiling.

"She's a good person," McGee said with conviction.

"Yes, she is," Moshe said, and changed the subject.

They couldn't risk detection and that ruled out running a standard search within the database. McGee and Moshe decided to write a program that would fool the database into thinking that their search and one run by someone with authorized access, were one and the same. This would serve two purposes, the first being that they would get the information they wanted, and secondly, the person who asked for something else might just look at his or her whacky search results and decide to go and talk to the brass about several cases that seemed to be linked. Of course, when NCIS suddenly presented the French Police Nationale with French evidence against Meller, any French law enforcement officer might suspect that said evidence and those whacky search results were linked, but proving it would be next to impossible.

"That's why we need a few days to write this program," McGee told Ziva. "When it's finished doing what it needs to do, it's also got to... It'll sort of eat itself, erase itself."

"Ein baiya—no problem. Better you take more time than less. The SECNAV told me to my face that we can stay here six months if we have to."

"Won't be that long," McGee said with quiet confidence.

"Okay, but you and Moshe take your time with that program. I am going out to join Oren."

Sometime later, Meller had no idea that two Mossad officers were a silent, and for now passive menace only yards away from him. Oren and Ziva regularly ducked into public restrooms where they made adjustments to their appearances: swapped a T-shirt for one of a different color, donned hats and/or wigs. Oren was a master at applying fake bits of facial hair to himself. Ziva wrinkled her nose at bushy sideburns and equally furry eyebrows; Oren, who hardly ever said a word, merely grinned. They sometimes looked like typical tourists; at others they looked like French natives.

Meller never looked like a tourist, and he never acted like one. As Moshe had said, Meller was very familiar with Paris. In some ways Ziva was glad of that. She wasn't ever bored. Meller tended to like the city's very famous cafés, but often he led Ziva and whichever partner to interesting places, like small galleries and museums not often visited by even the most intrepid of tourists. If Meller wasn't casually strolling from one interesting urban point to the next, he was driving a rental car to vineyards and craft centers.

"That's behavior we didn't see here," Ducky said via video call.

"Correct, but I think that is because it would have given too much away," Ziva said.

"Too many people knew him here," Abby agreed. "There's a serial killer artistically displaying his vics, and who suspects the very un-arty electrician?"

"Right," Gibbs said. "But we called cos we've got good news. Abby?"

"All hail the mighty Bode Technology labs: mito is ba-ack..." Abby sang.

"You have matches?" Ziva asked, hoping like hell.

"Seriously?" McGee said, scrambling away from Moshe's desk. "Umm, hi, folks."

"Hiya!" Abby said. "Yep, we got three mitochondrial matches, and y'know how rare that is."

"We've got the sonuvabitch," Gibbs said. "As long as you two and the nice Mossad people in France can convince the French police to dig up a sample for testing."

"We're working on it," McGee said.

After three days in Paris, McGee still hadn't adjusted properly to the time difference. Going to bed at midnight in France felt like he was taking an afternoon nap back in the States, and going to bed at midnight and waking up at four-thirty a.m seemed also to be Ziva's habit. He found her in the kitchen. A Bluetooth earpiece was helping her to hold a conversation with someone in Hebrew, while her hands were busy fixing French toast. She waved him to a seat at the small kitchen table, where he sleepily thought that she might be talking to one of the Mossad people on stakeout across the street from Meller's apartment building.

But then she switched to English:

"McGee is awake, too... McGee, Jen says 'Hello.'"

"Oh... Hiya, Director," he mumbled. Then he whispered: "Her Hebrew is that good?"

Ziva nodded, gifted him with a plate of way-too-early breakfast, and continued the conversation in Hebrew. McGee blinked and pressed a button on his watch to show the time in D.C.: nearly midnight. He grunted and shrugged, reaching for utensils and condiments. He had to get up to fetch the ketchup from the fridge, but Ziva read his mind, grabbed the bottle, and handed it over. He slowly shook his head.

"Women... It's too early for multitasking!"

"Yes, he did say that... Very cute, I agree," Ziva said, grinning at McGee.

"Whatever. I'm just gonna..." He took a mouthful of toast and his grumbles vanished. "Mmm! Ziva, I think I love you..."

"Thanks! And Jen says that you have to share... Oh! And now I am in trouble with the Boss..."

"Serves you right!" McGee said, laughing at Ziva's unrepentant grin.

The conversation switched back to Hebrew while Ziva continued to cook her breakfast. Eventually she turned off the gas and put her slices of egg-dipped toast on a plate.

"Yes, yes. Now go to sleep. Yallah-bye," Ziva said as she took a seat. She placed the earpiece on the table.

"Umm... Did you really just order the Director to go to sleep?" McGee chortled.

"Sometimes she forgets the time," Ziva said seriously, while spreading a thin layer of ketchup on her toast. "She takes paperwork home and works... She looks at the clock and it is three in the morning. I know her."

"Yeah, I can tell," McGee said. "And something tells me that if I was Tony, you'd have told her goodbye as soon as I walked in here."

"Yes," Ziva said simply.

McGee didn't bother to ask why. He knew. Tony would pry. McGee had only one question:

"So you two speak Hebrew all the time?"

"No," Ziva said, amused. "Jen is meeting with the Israeli ambassador tomorrow."

"So she was brushing up on her Hebrew. Guess I woulda taken that kinda practice, too... Was she stationed in Israel at some point?"

"Ninety-one through Ninety-three."

"When I was still in junior high..." McGee mumbled.

"If you work as hard as she has, for twenty-seven years, I think you will be a good director of NCIS, or another agency. Would you like that?"

"Nope. I'd prefer to head a criminology department, or something like that. How about you?"

"When I am too old for fieldwork, I will consult. I am not interested in a job that ties me to a desk."

"Huh. Yeah, I can't see you as a desk jockey," McGee said. "But your dad's a deputy director of—"

"He is the Director-General of HaMossad. He is now called haMemuneh, or just Memuneh. It means 'chosen one' or 'leader'... The Prime Minister appointed him to that position last month."

"Wow. Okay. He, uhh, doesn't want you to follow him into that position?"

"He wants that, very much. Others want that, too. But I do not," Ziva said, looking McGee in the eye.

"Good luck to your dad and the other folks," McGee chortled.

"You know me better than all of them."

McGee's amusement disappeared fast and he concentrated on his food, rather than say that he was sorry. He had a good relationship with his parents. He couldn't imagine what it would be like to have a father like Ziva's, someone who had it in mind to convince his daughter to fulfill his own dreams; someone who didn't know his daughter as well as her colleagues did.

And it all clicked into place then: no wonder at all to McGee that Ziva and the Director were friends. He guessed that Jen Shepard had the kind of courage that seemed to elude him, the sort of gumption needed to say things like, 'If you need to talk...' and 'I'm sorry your father is being a bastard about your career.' He wanted to say those things but a small part of him was scared of upsetting her, and another little bit was quite terrified of seeing Ziva cry. That wasn't very fair, when he knew that if ever he needed to talk, and if ever he ended up emotional during that discussion, she'd be there for him.

"Girls seem to grow up so much faster than boys..." McGee thought aloud.

"Why did you say that?" Ziva asked, interested.

"Because... Umm..." McGee grabbed hold of some courage and blurted: "I'd like to be the kind of friend you can talk to, but I dunno if I'm really prepared for that."

"I am not looking at a little boy. A man is speaking to me. A good man," Ziva said quietly. "Remember that."

"Thanks. I will," McGee mumbled, and it seemed to him as if he'd made a leap of ten years in just a few minutes. He felt older, suddenly, but he wasn't stupid enough to suggest that Ziva open up to him. Instead he said honestly, "If the Director isn't available one day, and you need to talk, I hope I'll be prepared then."

"So you are going to learn Hebrew?" Ziva teased, deliberately lightening the mood.

"Gimme five years, okay?" McGee said and laughed.

The program was ready. Moshe gave McGee the honor of launching it. He needed just eighteen keystrokes to do so, and then he laced his fingers behind his head. They wouldn't have long to wait, given that their lurking lay-in-wait program would latch onto the first search request made by anyone with access, throughout France. McGee shut his eyes and concentrated on the music playing softly in the background: Elgar's Chanson de Matin.

"Mirror," Moshe announced.

McGee smiled, but didn't open his eyes. He had a feeling that it would take some time for every resulting case match to display on one of Moshe's monitors. And he was right.

There was a lot of dross, of course. Their search parameters caused the database to spit up many cases that had to be excluded: only one similarity was not enough. However, there was also no shortage of cases where five and six similarities were reported. Meller was a smart killer who attached just a few personal signatures to each kill, and threw in a lot of random pointers. Those were meant to throw investigators for a loop, and very often they did. Abby's mitochondrial DNA results were all that had linked two separate US cases to one of the dead Navy women. Regular, more obvious evidence hadn't been able to link those cases, because Meller's personal signatures had been lost among the random artifacts of violence that he'd deliberately attached to all of his victims.

"This one looks like a rage kill," McGee told Moshe, referring to a picture on his laptop. "But you see how she's lying? That's a pose, a really sly arrangement of limbs."

Meller's main signature was a subtly posed victim, and so far they had six French cases that had 'MELLER' stamped all over them. What they needed now was to see if any of those cases were mirrored on the Interpol database.

"What if there is nothing there?" Ziva asked McGee.

"Then we might be here for six months, or until your Mossad people catch Meller stalking his next victim. Ducky says that Meller will be feeling that urge to kill again. We just dunno when he'll act on it."

"But I'm sure that at least one of these cases has been entered into the Interpol database," Moshe said, and gestured to a passport photo on a monitor. "This woman here. This one is Meller's mistake."

"I agree," Ziva said. "She was Swedish, not French... So we find her on the Interpol database, we give this evidence to the French authorities—"

"And we're the experts," McGee said. "We get Ducky out here as a super duper expert, to back us up, and we coach the French cops on what to look for. They'll end up finding these other five cases."

"Even if they find just one more, they will arrest Meller," Moshe said. "The French are still sour about that Ira Einhorn mess, and now they won't extradite, won't even look at someone who is here but wanted in another country—particularly the US, unless that person harms a French citizen. Then it is a different story. They will arrest Meller with pleasure... And it doesn't matter who holds the keys, it doesn't matter which country has this monster: he must be locked up."

"He will be," McGee said coldly.

The French police might have been snootier if there'd been a political fuss made over Meller's presence in France, but that hadn't happened. Secretary of the Navy Ben Holder was a seriously smart man in general, but in particular, during his Navy JAG career, he had once been on the losing end of an extradition wrangle with France. As such, and with the help of one Ziva David, the Mossad, and Interpol, he'd rewritten the rulebook slightly: walk intelligently and carry big sticks. Holder also knew how the French liked things done, and he hadn't hesitated to sign the necessary documentation that had parked Ducky on a plane.

Ducky's near-endless list of credentials impressed the French no end, but in Ziva's opinion, it was Ducky's charm that was of more assistance.

"I take it, monsieur, that you will be making an arrest soon?" Ducky said charmingly to the Paris Chief of Police.

"Quite soon. As soon as we know where he is."

"Moment, si'l vous plaît," Ziva said politely. One moment, please. She made a phone call, and after a few moments: "Café de la Paix, monsieur."

"Merci," the Chief said, and reached for a phone.

Only ten minutes later, Ziva's phone rang. Ducky cast his eyes in her direction and was soon rewarded with a slow, satisfied smile: Meller was being handcuffed.

"Monsieur," Ducky said and stood, his hand offered to the Chief. "I am authorized by the United States Secretary of the Navy, to offer you his most sincere thanks. Of course, whatever evidence we have against Meller will be made available to you and your staff."

"You are most welcome," the Chief said, shaking Ducky's hand. "Convey my warmest regards to the Honorable Secretary Holder."

Ziva did her best not to roll her eyes. She would be very glad to get back to a place where doing a good job was a whole lot more important than owning a charming disposition.

When Ziva, McGee, and Ducky returned, Jen treated the entire team to dinner at The Old Ebbitt Grill. She would've taken them somewhere fancier, but Gibbs was a member of that team and Gibbs hated fancy restaurants even more than he hated computers.

During dinner one of the toasts raised was to the Mossad, and Ziva chimed in heartily. Another toast was raised to Ziva herself, and she tried unsuccessfully to mask her acute discomfort by insisting that McGee had done most of the work in France. Gibbs quickly altered the toast to include McGee; Ducky did his part by changing the subject altogether; Tony jumped on that wagon, with Abby and McGee's help. At the head of the table, Jen sipped at a cosmo to hide her smile. It was good to see evidence of the fact that she wasn't the only one who was trying to get to know Ziva better. It was about time, actually.

"Zeh lo chashuv," Ziva said later, in Jen's car. This doesn't matter.

"Of course it matters," Jen insisted. "They care: that matters."

"Yes, and I am grateful, but the time it has taken—more than a year—does not matter. You care more, and you cared sooner, but only because we have spent a lot of time together. I have already said to you that I do not have much time to give anyone else."

"Sometimes I don't know if that's a good thing."

"Lama?" Ziva asked. Why?

"I just wish the others knew you like I do."

"Ahh... But I do not think that I would like that," Ziva said. "If they were all women... Then yes, maybe. Many men lose their professional respect for women when they know those women very well. You know this."

"Unfortunately, yes," Jen muttered.

"And I must still work to make them respect me, because Tony and McGee and even Gibbs might prefer to see me only as a friend at work... where I am not your friend, am I?"

"No," Jen said and chuckled. "You and I manage our dual relationships very well. Okay. I concede the point."

"Bed'yuk. Ani tamid tzodeket," Ziva said with a grin. Exactly. I'm always right.

"You're full of crap, is what you are," Jen chortled.


Chapter Nine

McGee thought that he knew all about Ziva's cranky side, but the no-gun, post-transatlantic flight sort of cranky was no match for what everyone was being subjected to today. When he saw Jen heading for the elevator, he decided to take a risk. McGee got up from his desk, excused himself, and followed her.

"Director, can you talk to her? Please?" McGee's tone suggested that he was begging.

"Talk to who about what, Tim?" Jen asked, confused.

"Ziva, ma'am. I dunno what that Woodruff guy said to her, but—"


"Suspect in the Arthurson case," McGee explained, trying to be patient. "He said something when we let him go, and ever since then she's been... It's like being burned and frozen at the same time, Director. Even Gibbs is avoiding her."

"I see," Jen said. After thinking a while she said, "Tim, you may recall that on several occasions I've given her verbal about various things. When we're at work, we're working, and my professional persona tends not to have a calming effect on Officer David. Get it?"

"Aww, crap," McGee muttered.

"Sorry," Jen stage-whispered.

Much later Ziva paced back and forth in Jen's home study, ranting about men who think they can just say anything about anything, particularly to female federal agents whom those men know to be governed by regulations that forbid those female agents from kicking their teeth in. The tirade ended with cuss words in four different languages. Or perhaps five. Steam blown at long last, Ziva flopped into her favorite chair and took a gulp of wine from her glass.

"Mamzer," she snapped. Bastard.

"Umm..." said Jen.

"Sometimes I forget that you understand," Ziva said and cleared her throat. That particular insult is perhaps the worst an Israeli, or any Jewish person can throw at anyone. "Ben gamel! Better?"

"Ziva, even I could come up with something better than 'son of a camel,'" Jen chortled.

"Yes, I am sure," Ziva said and sipped more sedately at her wine. "And so could I. His mother's—"

"Point proven!" Jen squawked, and laughed. "I remember that one, too. In Hebrew, Arabic, Yemeni... Moving on, and before I forget, I should say that Tim asked me to facilitate this... venting session. Kind of. He asked earlier, when we were still at work. I told him, basically, that we're exclusively pros while at work."

"Oh. His reaction?" Ziva asked.

"Only disappointment in the face of my roundabout refusal to cross that line in order to make his day easier. And in case you're wondering, we had that conversation in the elevator."

"Why does that make a difference?"

"Asking my assistant if he could speak to me in private, and then proceeding to discuss an off-the-record, beyond-the-rulebook matter wouldn't have been smart. Talking in another room with a door might have aroused suspicion. Talking in the squad area might have enabled someone to eavesdrop. That left the elevator. Tim's smart... or else he's just trying very hard to become the new Gibbs."

"Version two-point-geeky," Ziva said and chortled.

Another elevator conversation:

"Ziva's birthday's coming up," Tony said.

"Yes." Jen glanced sideways at him and rolled her eyes at the famous DiNozzo I-know-stuff smile. "Tony, I am racking my brain over a gift—my gift for her. You'll have to think of one on your own."

"I have," Tony assured her. He cleared his throat, visibly steeled himself, then said, "You're, umm, not planning anything... private that evening, are you?"

"No, but—"

"Great! Party. My place. Don't tell her. Thank God: my floor!"

He dashed out of the elevator before Jen could say another word.

Another one:

"Hey, Director," Abby said cheerfully. She waited for the doors to close, then: "Okay. So I got Ziva an iPod and I wanna know if there's any way you could get me a list of her favorite songs? Cos I wanna load some on there before I give it to her. Just like twenty? Maybe? Pleeeeeze?"


"Only if it won't be like a total schlep, okay?"

"I... Abby, I'll try," Jen mumbled.

"Thanks! You'll email me the list?" Abby asked, backing out the doors onto her floor.

"Will do," Jen said and sighed.


"Going up?" Tim McGee asked instead of stepping into the elevator. He did so only when Jen nodded, and when the doors closed: "Director, do you know if Ziva has any books by Charles de Lint?"

"She's got Yarrow," Jen said, thinking that she may as well just give up. "And I know she has some of his short fiction and poetry scattered in three or four anthologies."

"Thanks," McGee said with a relieved grin. "It took me ages to remember that conversation she and I had last year about de Lint."

"I've been thinking about a gift on and off for about four months, and just as well– I only stumbled on an idea last night," Jen drawled. "Sheet music. But I had to ask her what piano pieces she'd like to learn, so..."

"Don't feel bad. I think that of all the hard-to-gift people I've ever known, Ziva's the toughest nut in the basket," McGee said wryly.


And another:


"Doctor Mallard, good day."

"Ziva and I teetotal when we have lunch together," Ducky said. "So may I ask, what does she prefer in wines?"

"Serious reds," Jen said. Yes, best to just give up completely.

"Serious reds it will be, then. Many thanks," Ducky said with a quirky smile and a nod to Jen's red hair. "Serious, indeed."

He practically sprinted out the elevator doors, leaving Jen to glare holes in his retreating back.

And yet another:

"Been invited to the party?" Gibbs asked.

"Oh, for Christ's sake! What's with all these elevator conversations?"

"I'll take that as a yes," Gibbs said with a smug grin and a chuckle. After a short pause: "I gave up and got her a twelve-pack of mixed beers from indie breweries."

"And just to think: Christmas is coming soon," Jen groaned.

"I'll just do the pack of mixed beers again," Gibbs muttered. "But you? Huh! Good luck."

"Thanks," Jen sarced.

When he stepped off the elevator, Gibbs's grin was positively evil.

Tony figured that if he didn't let Ziva know about that party, chances were she'd plan something else for the evening, so she was duly informed two days in advance. Pleasantly surprised, Ziva had agreed in a mumble to arrive at his place at seven-thirty.

Tony knew how to throw a party and also knew how to get everyone to relax enough to really enjoy themselves. He believed that the type of party ought to suit the guests, and so he played bartender while his guests and the birthday girl relaxed and talked in his den. The snacks had been catered; Tony managed to mix cocktails rather professionally; the music was just in the background: perfect.

At a little after eleven Ziva thanked Tony for the party and thanked everyone else for her gifts. She and Jen shared a taxi. Good thing Ziva's apartment building had an elevator or they would have had to lug a twelve-pack of beers and a twelve-bottle case of wine, among other gifts, up ten flights of stairs.

"Staying?" Ziva asked and covered a yawn with her hand.

"Can't," Jen said. "I've got that business breakfast-plus-lecture thing tomorrow. I never eat at those. I can come over for brunch, if you'd like."

"I would like, yes," Ziva said, following Jen to the door.

She got a hug there, and Jen wished her a happy birthday one last time, then bid Ziva goodnight. After locking the door Ziva thought that her apartment suddenly felt very empty indeed.

Getting to sleep seemed impossible, and whenever she dozed off it wasn't for long. Ziva eventually gave up, turned on the lamp, and tried to read. That also didn't work. She couldn't concentrate on the story because she kept thinking about Jen, kept wishing—

"Ach! Tipshah!" Ziva muttered. Oh! Silly me!

Then again, was it silly just to miss someone's company suddenly and for no other reason than it was cold out?

"Be'tach..." Ziva grumbled at herself. Of course.

She set the book aside, turned out the lamp, flattened pillows, and flopped down, yanking the covers up with a huff. She told herself to go to sleep. That didn't work very well at all.

"You look like hell," Jen stated.

"I did not sleep too good," Ziva muttered, closing the door.

"When last did you see Doctor Heller?" Jen asked, referring to Ziva's psychologist.

"I do not need to talk to her about this," Ziva said, gesturing between herself and Jen. "It is simple, the reason why I could not sleep: I missed you."

Jen put down a half-dozen eggs carefully and left the rest of the contents of a paper bag alone. They were always plainspoken with each other, and Ziva often more so than Jen. There was no point in mincing words, but Ziva was an Israeli, and Israelis generally just speak their minds, get to the point, and discuss things plainly. Jen had gotten used to what many Westerners would call abruptness. Israelis just call it honesty.

"Has missing me caused you other sleepless nights?" Jen asked, looking Ziva in the eye.

"No. That was the first. When we left Tony's place, when we went out into the cold, I thought then that it would be nice to wake up with you and go back to sleep, because it would be warm with you and cold outside... Silly. We have shared a bed only three times."

"But the first time was the whole night and most of the next day, so that should count twice by itself," Jen said, gently teasing. More seriously: "You've told me that you're careful with alcohol because too much depresses you. Possible you had a bit too much last night?"

"Ulai..." Ziva said. Perhaps. After some thought, "Possible, yes. So even if you had stayed..."

"No way of knowing, my friend. What's past is past. But Ziva, next time you miss me, either call me or come over to my place. Okay?"

"Yes, ma'am," Ziva chuckled.

"Brat. Help me with this and then you can nap while I do some paperwork. I came directly from the meeting, by way of Harry's Market and Deli. Look..."

Jen revealed a huge beefsteak mushroom, and Ziva decided that she was hungry.


Chapter Ten

Perhaps she was a little rougher than necessary, but after a two-mile foot chase in a snowy Virginia wood, Ziva was in no mood to be gentle. She'd had to march this tall, red-haired survivalist at least a mile back to the nearest road. Handcuffs and all, he'd tried to make a break for it twice. Maybe she hadn't been smart because on both occasions she'd been walking behind him with a gloved hand gripping the broad hinge of her Smith&Wesson Mod. 300P cuffs, and her gun was holstered. On both occasions he had simply lurched forward, pulling her off balance, and the second time she'd fallen face-first in the snow, splitting her chin open on a hidden rock. It was a small split and thanks to the cold it hadn't bled too much, but she was wearing white snow camo gear, and it looked like an awful lot of blood had spilled from that wound. So she ended up walking with her SIG in-hand, said hand more than snug in a silk-lined thermal glove designed to be thin enough for the wearer to pull a trigger. Her collar had been told that she wouldn't need much of an excuse to do exactly that. Either he'd believed her or he'd been just too tired to try another stunt like the other two. At any rate, they'd eventually made the road and had met with the waiting van. Perhaps panic had sparked his third attempt to run. He failed again, but this time he wasn't simply tackled.

Ziva ran after him and got alongside him. She knocked him off balance, and as he fell her knee caught him in the kidney, and a knifehand strike to the back of the neck knocked him cross-eyed. She stepped away and let Tony and an FBI agent drag him back to the van.

"And I want my cuffs back!" she called after the two men.

"Every female officer and agent I've ever met..." the FBI agent muttered to Tony.

"Huh?" Tony said, frowning.

"They buy their own cuffs, and even if they're a perfect frickin' match to standard issue, it's 'And I want my cuffs back!'"

"Ziva's aren't S.I. They're cuffs she can't pick because of those push-pin locks, and if she can't pick a lock, no-one can. Get it?"

"I guess," was the grudging response.

Tony locked his own standard issue cuffs onto the suspect's wrists before removing Ziva's hinged pair. He returned them to her and was thanked with a nod.

Flashing lights in the distance announced the arrival of Gibbs. He'd had someone else to catch and was dressed in 'snow-whites' as well. He gently tipped Ziva's head up to get a look at her chin. An FBI medic jogged over, bag in hand.

"Cold-clotted. You touch it, you open it up again," Gibbs told the medic. "Best you leave it to the folks in an ER, corpsman."

"Sure, Gunny."

"I didn't have to run today," Gibbs said to Ziva. "Kransky believed me when I told him I'd shoot him... Heard you had to run Bryant down. Tony said two miles."

"More," McGee said as he walked towards them. He opened his laptop and showed Gibbs and Ziva the data from her GPS tracker. "Two-and-a-quarter miles, give or take ten yards."

"I am glad I did not know it was that far when I started running," Ziva drawled.

"I'd feel the same way," Gibbs said. He looked Ziva in the eye. "I got only one word for you, Officer David: outstanding. See you later."

Gibbs gestured to a waiting state trooper who led Ziva to his cruiser. The vehicle drove past Gibbs and McGee, who returned Ziva's wave and watched the car a little longer.

"Foot chase in snow this deep? And Bryant's even more of a survivalist than Kransky. I don't think I woulda caught him, Boss," McGee said plainly.

"Me neither, and I know Tony wouldn't have. Don't expect to hear me say that word 'outstanding' again any time soon."

"Nope, I won't."

Ziva was stitched up and pushing paper by the time Gibbs, Tony, and McGee got back to NCIS headquarters. The team had worked this case right through Christmas and into the new year. They'd had to invite the FBI along for the ride when they discovered that Kransky was involved. The FBI had dibs on him, and for once that was a valid claim. Ordinarily they threw their weight, and really earned their 'glory hounds' reputation if a case was even remotely classed as high profile.

Kransky was connected to a crime that rated as an act of terrorism; Bryant had been a minor suspect in the same investigation, but now that he was linked to Kransky again the FBI were taking a harder look at the evidence. The deal: the Bureau would play a supporting role; NCIS would be given credit for cracking this current case and for making the collars in regard to both cases; custody of the suspects would fall to the FBI. That wasn't a bad deal. Anything that halved their post-investigation paperwork wasn't complained about.

"Did you question them?" Ziva asked Gibbs.

"Bryant buckled and gave Kransky up, for both hits," Gibbs said, nodding. "Kransky's not saying anything, waiting on his lawyer. My bet, he's not ever gonna say anything, and he won't take the stand at either trial. The evidence is good, and Bryant told us a few things about Petty Officer Nichols's murder that we haven't told the press, including what kind of boots Kransky was wearing that night. Bryant wears a size ten wide. We found sign of boots that were a size twelve. Kransky wears a size twelve and Bryant told us that Kransky's real particular about winter boots: he won't wear anything but Sorel. The Feebs found a receipt for the pair of Sorel Open Range boots he's wearing right now, replacements for the pair that got bloodied. Wanna guess the date on that receipt?"

"November twenty-eighth?" Ziva said.


"Something else that tells me Bryant was there but not an active participant in Nichols's murder," Ziva said. "I fell in the snow twice, Gibbs, and Bryant could have tried to keep me down, could have kicked me or stomped me. Instead he just ran away."

"Yeah, I know. Accessory to the fact," Gibbs said, certain. "If you're done, get outa here, and I don't wanna see you till Monday. You earned it."

"I will not say no. Todah ve'shalom!" Thanks and goodbye!

Ziva turned in her report and other bits of paperwork, then collected her bag and gun before heading to the elevator. From the walkway leading to her office, Jen watched and liked the spring in Ziva's step. It said that she was okay. Jen hadn't been close enough to check on Ziva's abused chin. She'd stayed well away on purpose because she wanted to fuss, and chances had been that she'd have forgotten that fussing shouldn't happen at work, let alone in the middle of the squad area.

She got to fuss later because Ziva had used the hidden front door key and had let herself into Jen's house. She didn't have a fireplace in her apartment but there were three in Jen's house. Jen found her curled in a chair in the study, watching the flames.

"Well, there go my good intentions of changing and packing a bag and hurrying over to your place."

"You mind this?" Ziva asked.

"Of course not. Let me see."

Six very fine stitches had been put into the half-inch split. Jen had seen a lot of stitch jobs, had even wielded a hemostat and suture needle herself on occasion. She knew good work when she saw it, and said so.

"The stitches are nothing," Ziva muttered. "The bruising is going to be... spectacular. By tomorrow my throat will look like it has been attacked by something."

"Gravity's awful like that," Jen chuckled, but sympathetically. "What's the pain level like?"

"I have drugs," Ziva said with a grin, then winced because grinning suddenly hurt. "I will try not to do too much of that this evening."

"And I'll try very hard not to amuse you," Jen drawled. Then honestly, "I didn't come down and talk to you earlier because fussing over your hurt chin in the squad area—"

"Not a good idea," Ziva said, and put up with the ache she gained from a smile. "Might have been funny, though... So I have made you soft, huh?"

"You're such a brat," Jen said, but the accusation was halfhearted. By now 'Brat' was something of an endearment. Eventually she said, "Not soft in general."

"Soft in general would be bad," Ziva said quite seriously. "And so how is it that soft where I am concerned is okay?"

"I didn't go downstairs and fuss over you, did I?"

"Lo, aval..." Ziva said. No, but... "Jen, you still wanted to, and that says to me that if ever we are in the field together... I will need to rely on you then."

"I'm the director, remember? If ever I have the good fortune of getting away from my desk, I'll have a say in organizing the operation. I'll make sure we don't end up partnered, okay?"

"And you will hold focus and not worry about me?"

"Ziva, I didn't stop worrying about you until I walked in and saw you sitting in that chair," Jen stated. "We've already discussed this: caring isn't a bad thing. I'll stay focused despite worrying about you."

"I would feel the same, I think, if you were in the field," Ziva said.

"Now she gets it," Jen said dramatically.

Ziva gave a long, slow Israeli shrug and in equally typical Israeli fashion, she said nothing afterwards: she'd conceded the point. Jen laughed and shook her head.

"Why do I put up with you?"

"You love me," Ziva chuckled.

"As good an explanation as any," Jen drawled.

Ziva often went to bed earlier than Jen, whenever she spent the night. That happened at least two or three times per month, and Jen had come to think of one of her two guestrooms as 'Ziva's room.' When Jen eventually went upstairs she wasn't expecting to find Ziva in her bed, but that wasn't a surprise. She had an idea that Ziva wanted a late morning, and sharing sleeping space with Jen was the easiest way to convince herself not to go running at the ungodly hour of five a.m.

Jen prepared for bed quietly and in the dark, unwilling to wake Ziva by turning on a light. She needn't have bothered.

"I will feel bad if ever you bang your toes in the dark," Ziva said sleepily.

"Yeah, well..." Jen said while getting into bed. She cuddled up and hugged Ziva's waist. "I have an Israeli body pillow: lucky me."

"Hmph. The Israeli body pillow did enough running today. You must keep me in this bed tomorrow morning."

"I thought so. Your late morning is guaranteed."

"Todah," Ziva said. Thanks.

"Bevahkasha," Jen said, smiling. You're welcome. "My favorite Hebrew word, but its dual purpose confused me at first."

"Mmm. 'Please,' and 'You are welcome'... You do not have other favorite words?"

"Here's another: lishon," Jen teased. Sleep.

Ziva snorted a laugh, hugged Jen's shoulders, and kissed her forehead.

"Two words that are true: ohevet otach," she whispered. Love you.

"Gam ani ohevet otach," Jen answered, without second thought. And I love you.

She lay awake thinking about that, while Ziva slept. Love is a funny old thing. It creeps up and creeps in and it'll keep itself small and quiet, waiting for someone to find it. When that happens, love either throws a party, or it just settles back, relaxed and content simply to be recognized. What happens after that is up to the people who found love.

Jen had been around long enough to know that sometimes it was better to be satisfied with little, happy with less than what-might-be. She wasn't so sure that this was one of those times. Her intuition was whispering about opportunities missed. Every last one of them was a regret, but they were by-the-way. Career opportunities, chances to vacation with friends, that tiny-but-perfect summerhouse-come-ski-cabin in Vermont... All by-the-way, completely inconsequential when compared to the woman whose heart was beating beneath Jen's ear.

Rushing in wasn't wise, however. Jen told herself to adopt a wait-and-see attitude, one strengthened by the knowledge that this friendship was a very good thing for them both. There is more than one kind of love, and each kind of love ought to be considered as valuable as the next. All Jen had to do was wait-and-see, and if another door to another kind of love opened one day, she'd step through it. Until then she would value what they had built together over the last twenty months.


Chapter Eleven

Ziva crouched next to a pile of tires, her chest heaving. With a metallic clang three targets popped up, two representing civilians, and one representing a baddy. The targets hadn't even stopped swaying slightly when she fired at the baddy: a large hole bloomed in his cardboard chest.

"Evolution complete," a male voice came over a loudspeaker.

Ziva got up and dropped the clip from her pistol. Racking the slide back ejected the remaining chambered round, and her hand snapped out to catch it in midair. She made her way to the back of an urban close-combat course at the FBI Academy, Quantico. A Marine corporal was waiting there to count her unused ammunition. She presented him with her pistol, its slide locked back on the slide-stop, along with two full clips, an empty one, and one clip bearing just two rounds.

"And this one," she said, setting a round on-end on a table. "This is the SIG P226 Elite Dark, chambered for three-fifty-seven SIG."

"Okay..." the corporal said, referring to a chart. "Thirteen-round clip?"

"Navy issue, yes."

"So that's two by thirteen, is twenty-six, add three, is twenty-nine... subtract that from fifty-two... Twenty-three targets, twenty-three rounds. Good job, ma'am. Someone inside has got all your scores."

"Thank you."

Ziva depressed the slide release lever and, released from the slide-stop, the slide on her pistol shot forward. Depressing the de-cocking lever dropped the hammer. She holstered her empty pistol and walked away. The clips she'd used all through this weekend were not her own; she was not permitted to use the three clips that had originally been issued to her with her gun. The loaned clips were filled and checked by Marine Corps personnel. Every round given to her, and every round she'd expended was counted twice. There was no way to cheat during these three-day weekends that involved running several urban and open range close-combat courses. Twice every year she had to re-qualify as a combat-ready QRT (Quick Reaction Team) operator. This was her fifth.

She knew the drill and didn't bother to report to the Master Gunnery Sergeant in the observation suite adjacent to the gun cleaning room. At a table covered with a rubber sheet, she field-stripped her pistol and began to clean it. She was tired and wanted to go home, and going home was going to involve a ninety-minute drive. She hoped that the Master Gunnery Sergeant's minions wouldn't take too long to tally her complete score for this weekend.

Ziva had had a helluva week before coming out here, and truth be told, she was more than a little miffed at the fact that she was the only member of Gibbs's team who was also a QRT operator. She'd been with NCIS for only a month when she'd first come here to Quantico voluntarily, and there had never been any question of returning here twice each year to re-qualify. Not even Gibbs, who was a Marine combat veteran, was a QRT operator. Ziva personally called that slack.

"Dunno why you look so pissed," said Special Agent Tobias Fornell. "McLure in there says that you aced the whole weekend."

"Hmph. You know Gibbs well, don't you?" Ziva asked.

"Pretty well. You wanna know why he doesn't bust his ass on this course?"

"How did you—"

"All I know about you, Officer David, is exemplified by your scores this weekend: you expect the best from yourself, and you feel that you have a right to expect that from others. So reading your mind was easy, as soon as you mentioned Gibbs."

"Oh. All right," Ziva said while reassembling her pistol. "And so? Why will Gibbs not take this course?"

"He reckons he was shot at enough, in the Gulf War and other engagements. And now you say?"

"He has earned an exemption. Fair enough," Ziva said. "But—"

"DiNozzo? McGee? Get real," Fornell scoffed. "Can you see either of those city boys running'n'gunning like you did yesterday, with a full thirty-pound MOLLE pack and that M4? Can you see either of them working that mock SWAT job on Friday, with a tactical shotgun?"

"You have been watching me," Ziva said.

"For longer than this weekend, and for good reason. Jenny Shepard might find herself bumped up the ladder one day," Fornell said seriously. "If they ever don't want you there at NCIS, Ziva, you gimme a call."

"I thought you wanted me to go back to Israel," Ziva said. "You told me that, once."

"That was nearly two years ago. I misjudged you, Miz Mossad Spy."

Fornell's teasing was his way of apologizing, and Ziva's honest laughter was her way of accepting it. The door to the observation suite opened and a gunnery sergeant approached her with several sheets of paper.

"Welcome back aboard, ma'am. Your official documentation will be delivered to you by Tuesday, latest."

"Thank you," Ziva said, answering his sketch salute with a nod. She and Fornell went over the score sheets. She'd lost just three points on Friday, and only two yesterday. She hadn't missed a single target during either of today's 'evolutions,' or combat scenarios. "I work better alone."

"Or, it would've been better if you'd been given the unit lead on days one and two," Fornell said. "These guys forget where you come from. They forget that for each one of their real world ops, you've tallied four or five. Experience should gain the lead."

"You said it, not me," Ziva drawled.

"I'll say something else: you've earned it. Put your name up for lead operator next time."

"Okay," Ziva said simply, but she'd remember. She got back to business: "From your comments I take it that whoever might replace Director Shepard will also want to replace me."

"More like just get rid of you," Fornell said, nodding. "Leon Vance's name tops the list of people who want Shepard's desk, and you and Vance can't stand each other."

"How do you know that? It was a personal clash, not a professional one."

"He talks, out there in San Diego, and I've got people out there with ears. He tells it like you did him wrong, but I know the real story: you reminded him that he's married, and he got all up in your face, and then you produced your badge and walked away. And in any case, did you forget that all of that went down right here, in the Boardroom?"

"Which is a stupid name for a bar," Ziva said. "And yes, I did forget. Now I wish that I had just brushed him off politely and left..."

"Huh. You wish you'd been more girly?" Fornell chuckled, highly amused. "That would have been way out-of-character."

"Is there a point to this?" Ziva asked, glad that her already flushed face hid a blush. "I have a long drive home, Mister Fornell."

"Just remember my offer, kid," Fornell said. "It'll stand as long as I hold a badge. Got me?"

He knuckled her shoulder gently on his way out, leaving her to frown at the matte black pistol on the rubberized surface of the table. She holstered it eventually and really didn't like its light, empty feel. Tired as she was, Ziva jogged the three-quarter-mile to the cadet quarters, where she made a beeline for a shower, her mind an enforced blank. Thinking could wait until she was on the road.

In her car she pondered what she felt was an incident classed as 'ancient history.' Ziva didn't bear grudges. She called them a waste of time and emotion, and an overall waste of personal energy. She examined her feelings now and found that she wasn't even a little mad at Leon Vance for telling tales that were only half-true: the incident had occurred, and that was half the truth. What he was probably saying was what he'd told her that night, that he hadn't been serious, that the comments he'd made didn't equate to his making a real pass at her.

"I wish you'd told me about that," Jen said three hours later. "No, sit. I'm cooking for you. Just relax... Why didn't you tell me?"

"It did not seem very important," Ziva said, rubbing at a stiff muscle in her thigh. "What would you have done, if I had told you about it? That incident occurred after hours, Jen."

"Okay, you've got me there," Jen muttered. "I wish I had a say in who gets my desk if and when I move up. Unfortunately, a few people who work for the SECNAV will make that call, and my guess is that Vance stands a pretty good chance of getting the job. It's him or Lucas Seacliff, but Lucas likes his current position too much, I think."

"He is the NCIS senior liaison with the Royal Navy, yes? I worked with him once, about four years ago."

"I'll talk to him, when next he's here. That much I can do. But if he says no, when I accept another post, you call Fornell."

"I will. Has anyone suggested a new post for you yet?"

"I told you about the last offer. If there'd been another I would've told you about that one, too," Jen said.

"That last offer was a joke," Ziva grumbled. "Really– how could anyone expect you to go from Director of NCIS to being only a chairperson of some stupid subcommittee?"

"Being asked to chair a Senate-appointed subcommittee is considered an honor."

"It is also an honor if one is invited to tour the White House with the President, but like the tour, most subcommittees only last so long. And then?"

"Okay, okay," Jen chuckled. "I promise that I won't surrender my desk unless you personally feel that my new appointment is worthy of me. How about that?"

"You are joking now, but I will hold you to that."

"My tone was playful, but I wasn't joking. Your opinion is important to me," Jen said seriously.

"Thank you, but the final decision must be yours," Ziva said.

"It will be, but your opinion will count at least forty percent... God. We sound like an old married couple!" Jen said, and rolled her eyes when Ziva cracked up laughing. "It's not that funny."

"It is," Ziva chortled. "Because I was thinking exactly the same: we sound like married people."

"If I was married to you, I'm damn sure that it would be a lot more fun than my nearly five years with Stewart."

"You were married once? And who is this Stewart?"

"Engaged, not married, but the engagement lasted so long it may as well have been called a marriage. Stewart Wiccomb."

"Admiral Wiccomb? The TJAG?" Ziva mumbled, and then she cracked up again.

"Right!" Jen chortled. "What the hell was I thinking?"

"He is the most boring man I have ever met... Good-looking, but so, so boring. And so? What the hell were you thinking, huh?"

"He was the first and only man to tell me that I should not even think of giving up my career to suit him."

"I can see that that would mean a lot," Ziva said, sobering up. Then: "Oy! Boring. Very, very boring..."

"But handsome," Jen said wryly. "And not so boring in bed."

"Oh, well, this explains why we are not married: I am interesting, but very boring in bed."

Jen's turn to crack up. She laughed so hard that she had to sit down. Pleased with that reaction, Ziva grinned and sipped from her beer bottle.

She and Jen had taken Fornell's warning to heart, and they'd remember it, but for now everything was good in their small world.


Chapter Twelve

Technically, the victim was a civilian. Arlington PD could've investigated fully, but they handed the case over to NCIS because the victim had been killed only two days after being honorably discharged from the Navy, during the twelve-week program at the OCS (Officer Candidate School) in Newport, Rhode Island. Prior to his OCS candidacy, the victim had attended UVA (University of Virginia) where he'd obtained a bachelor degree in mechanical engineering, something he'd consistently saved for during a full eight-year tour in the Navy. He'd opted for retirement rather than a standard ETS (Expiration of Term of Service) discharge.

"Why would he do that?" Ziva asked.

"When you retire, you enter a reserve corps," Gibbs said. "I'm a retired NCO, and that means that I wasn't separated from the Marine Corps. Separation is what happens when you're discharged: you're no longer a part of whichever branch of the military."

"So by retiring, it made it easier to sign up again?"

"Exactly. That was Chief Petty Officer London's whole plan in a nutshell. He served his tour, saving like crazy, and he retired with the big idea being that as soon as he got his degree, he could reenlist, become an officer, and pay off the student loan he took to cover what his savings and his piddly retirement benefits didn't."

"So he reenlisted after college, but then he was discharged during OCS," McGee said. "Arlington PD were real smart to give us this one, cos I got that horrible feeling..."

"Join the club," Tony said.

First step, before approaching Navy JAG with a request for Kyle London's service record, was to review the crime itself.

London had put up a bit of a fight: he had bruised, scraped knuckles on both hands, but he was otherwise unharmed, which was odd. Given that he'd thrown at least two punches, and they'd clearly landed, anyone would have expected to find evidence of retaliation.

"But he does have a needle stick," Ducky said, a gloved fingertip pointing out the tiny scab and nominal bruising in the crook of London's right elbow. He pointed to shadowy bruises on London's shoulders, his right wrist, and upper arm. "Someone held that arm, and his shoulders were gripped by a very big man—look at the size of those hand prints. Lastly, someone else injected him with something."

"You're saying we're looking for three people?" Gibbs said, frowning.

"That's what former Chief Petty Officer London is telling us, Jethro," Ducky said. "As soon as I've drawn enough from his aorta for testing, Abby's going to put a rush on blood samples. Whatever they injected him with is your murder weapon... Crimes like this scare me."


"They didn't hit him back. They got rid of him and that was their only intention. Jabbed him full of something lethal, like an unwanted dog at the pound."

"So we gotta find out why they'd wanna get rid of London," Gibbs said.

"Fast," Ducky said, while making the Y-incision. "London might be their first target, but he will not be their last."

London's hometown was Charlottesville, Virginia. It might have been logical to think that Arlington was just a stop on the way to Charlottesville, but good investigators prefer to think outside the box. The best way to do that is to start from a place that isn't influenced by supposition.

"Always ask Who before asking Why," Tony explained to Ziva. "We start with the victim. Who was he? We know that. So now we ask, who did he know? Specifically, who did he know in Arlington? Arlington PD detectives spoke to the vic's mother who gave him the name of a college friend. Those detectives already did that legwork, and we know that London was sleeping on Vince Reynold's couch. We also know that Reynold hadn't pried, and hadn't asked London why he was in Arlington. And that's why you ask Who before you ask Why."

"The Who will tell you Why," Ziva said. "We have to speak to Reynold again."


Vince Reynold was a quiet young man who respected the privacy of his friends and made a habit of not asking questions. He and London hadn't been close. They'd merely shared classes at UVA, had occasionally watched a game together, and they'd talked enough for Reynold to know one very important thing about London.

"He was a Muslim. Converted while we were in college, he told me."

"Is there a masjid, a mosque nearby, Mister Reynold?" Ziva asked, rapidly developing her own version of McGee's horrible feeling.

"Yes, ma'am." Reynold got up and crossed to a window. "You can see it from here."

And now they knew why London had stopped over in Arlington.

A Muslim victim. Alone at home, Ziva sipped from a beer bottle and thought that this was why, if ever DHS (Department of Homeland Security) offered her a position, she would most likely refuse it. A Muslim victim put this Israeli into a corner. She could either break down those walls with an indifferent attitude, or she could be sensitive to the case, which involved remaining in the corner. Even if she chose the latter, it wasn't likely that her actions would be respected by any Muslims connected to London. She was an Israeli, and while it was ignorant to assume that all Israelis are anti-Muslim, it was also somewhat understandable.

Ziva really didn't like it that her country was building walls and deliberately building homes in areas that were meant to be occupied by Palestinians. She called Jewish settlers Jewish trouble-makers, and the fact that they had the backing of, and sometimes were ordered to build those homes by the government, did not make the settlers themselves any less responsible for a lot of violence. If Ziva had a backyard and someone came and built a house in it, she'd be upset. If she didn't have legal recourse (most Palestinians do not), she might try to evict the invader herself. Anyone would.

The history of the Palestinian region of the Middle East amounts to just one invasion after the other. The Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Macedonians, the Romans, the Moors, the Crusaders, the Mongols, the Mamluks, the Turks, the British, and finally mostly European Jews who eventually established the State of Israel. The word 'established,' according to Ziva, was the wrong one. She preferred to be hard and very honest and use the word 'took.' From 1882 Jews began to arrive in Palestine in waves called Aliyah ('ascent'), each wave consisting of thousands of Jews from Europe and other places like Morocco, Egypt, the Sudan, and Ethiopia. From 1917, with the help of the British, tens of thousands more were smuggled away from their countries and brought to Israel, until the British faced an Arab revolt, and then they tried to reduce the numbers of Jews entering the region. That only served to create underground Aliyah movements, so the British relented and helped out again. During World War II, mostly thanks to the Americans' post-Depression immigration policy that effectively barred access to refugees, Jews fled Europe to that tiny piece of land that they would call Israel in 1948.

There were no discussions with those people already resident in the region. There were no discussions, even, with those Jews already resident in the region. Some of them, like Ziva's great-grandfather on her father's side, would have said, 'Now, hold on. If you want a lasting peace, friends, this is the wrong way to get it.' There were those who tried to say as much, and were ignored. The idea of 'coming home,' the idea of bringing other Jews 'home,' was like an unstoppable tidal wave. Those who did speak against doing it that way, are not in the history books. Those Israelis who can claim relatives who advised a different approach, tend not to claim them, tend not to speak of those relatives. They also refuse to call themselves 'invaders.'

That word 'invader' is a hard one to own. Ziva didn't like it but she owned it nonetheless. And she was often torn: she loved Israel. She sometimes missed home so badly that she woke up crying. She was also one of those people for whom feelings of patriotism did not seem logical: she experienced those feelings on a purely emotional level, and her brain argued with them. After all, she could have been born elsewhere; she could have been raised elsewhere. Nationality, being merely an accident of one's birthplace, is something that should not be as important as it nearly always works out to be. There is the place, and then there are the people who own ideas attached to that place. Patriotism is only an idea, but one that turns from logic and becomes an emotion. Patriotism is reliant on people who think that they should feel that way, or are told that they should feel that way, and yet some, like Ziva, are born patriots: the emotion was there long before she ever thought logically about it. She didn't know why, though it might have had something to do with the fact that, on her father's side, she could trace her lineage in Palestine back nearly six-hundred years.

With half her blood having a six-hundred-year-long history in the region, many would say that she needn't have owned that word 'invader.' But half is not the whole. Everyone on her mother's side had come from elsewhere, mostly Eastern Europe. Her mother was a second generation Israeli; her parents had both been born in Latvia. Ziva had been to Latvia, and hated it, and yet her mother's parents had often openly wept while talking of a country they'd loved. She had wanted to ask, So why did you come here? but she'd already known the answer. To a Jew, Israel is home, according to the Bible. Ziva personally agreed with that idea, but she would always remain torn about the manner in which Israel had been settled in modern times by Jews.

Forcefully removing others from their homes had not been and was not a good thing. Her country's borders had been established by displacing thousands of others. Those borders were maintained by keeping thousands out. Thousands who had all been born there, whose families had lived there for hundreds of years. Ziva felt those six-hundred years whenever she was in Israel. She felt that love of the earth that had known the tread of all her father's family. She also felt every bit of sadness felt by those who had been displaced. They loved the same earth, after all.

Ideas. The strength of ideas sometimes confounds logic. Logic said now that as a law enforcement officer, Ziva should only care about catching Kyle London's killers. That really was all she cared about, but the truth wouldn't matter. If she were to meet with, for example, London's imam or any of the men who prayed regularly with him at mosque, they would ignore Logic and see only the Star of David around her neck, would only hear her accent and think only of her nationality. Israeli. No-one Israeli could want justice for a slain Muslim. No-one Israeli could possibly call themselves an 'invader.' No-one Israeli could want peace with Palestinians. And to be fair, those people would have no reason not to feel that way.

Ziva couldn't call herself responsible, couldn't say that she wanted the best for Kyle London, if she didn't somehow limit her activity on this case.

Ziva arrived at work to find that Gibbs had summoned Lieutenant-Commander Bud Roberts Jr. over from JAG HQ. Ziva knew that they needed Roberts to get access to London's service record. They also needed him to arrange interviews with all of London's OCS classmates, and with anyone he'd been in contact with during his seven weeks in OCS. But Gibbs had summoned a US Naval officer? She shot McGee a look which said, Huh? He shrugged and mumbled something about Gibbs keeping certain people in their places. Tony had more to offer.

"Remember Gibbs said yesterday that he retired from the Marines?"


"That puts him in a unique position," Tony said with a grin. "He gets to boss officers around. And he does. Often. And they obey."

"There would be no problem with that in Israel, but here... If Gibbs is recalled to active duty—" Ziva began.

"They can't do a damn thing about it, and if they try he can lodge a formal complaint. They know this. It can't be fun for them. And that is the whole point."

"Yeah. It is," Gibbs said, standing right behind Tony, who cringed and made a beeline to his desk. "Isn't Roberts here yet?"

"Not yet, Boss," McGee said.

"When the Hinge gets here, bring him to the conference room. Ziva, let's go."

"What have I done now?" she asked, following Gibbs. "And what is a Hinge?"

"Oh-Four officer rating. LCDR. Lieutenant-Commander. All they do is nod and say 'Yessir!' to whichever higher rank, like their heads are on a hinge. And you haven't done anything wrong. I should make a new rule. Never assume guilt cos it makes you look guilty. So? What've you done now?"

"Nothing wrong, I hope," Ziva said and shut the conference room door. "But we must talk about this case."

"Thought so. That's why we're here," Gibbs said. "Talk."

"I need to work more in the background, when and if you decide to start asking questions of London's imam. Explaining that I really am trying to close this case, and I am not running a secret fan club for London's killers, will waste time."

"You're assuming that anyone Muslim will be anti-Israeli," Gibbs said. "Isn't that the kinda thing that starts fights over there?"

"Starts? Gibbs, more wars have been fought, more blood has been spilled there than any other place in the world. The birthplace of monotheistic religion is also the birthplace of war, and the old fights and old arguments just... persist. The fights were started thousands of years ago, and no-one has let go of the grudges yet. And what I am saying is, I cannot fix three-thousand-three-hundred years of grudges, and I cannot undo what has been done since Eighteen-Eighty-something, all by myself."

"Nope. Point taken," Gibbs said. "I can reassign you to another team—"

"No. I want to work this case, but as I said, in the background. There is much I can do that need not be... hands-on, yes?"

"That's the term, yeah, and it's also true. There is a lot you can do, starting with keeping us in line as far as etiquette is concerned."

"You have already... screwed that pooch," Ziva drawled. "An autopsy has been performed on London's body. That is a no-no."

"Ducky posted London before we found out he was a Muslim. He's real upset about that."

"He did his job," Ziva stated. "His personal experiences and the feelings attached to them are something that he cannot allow to interfere. I know about Bosnia. I know that he was ordered to perform autopsies on the bodies of Muslim children in a mass grave. I also know that without Ducky and others, the killers of those children would never have been brought to justice. If I am killed tomorrow, even if both my parents arrive here and beg him not to, I would hope that Ducky will remember that his responsibility is to the victim, and not to the victim's religion."

"But you're taking a step back now, for similar reasons," Gibbs said.

"Am I? No, you have it wrong. My first duty is to Kyle London. I will do a better job if my presence is not remarked upon by those who cannot know that I do not value my own faith above the faiths of others... Faith. Hmph. I have not attended beit t'filah, synagogue since my sister was killed... My uncles talked about revenge right there in a place that is supposed to be holy."

"Worst kinda thing, revenge," Gibbs said, looking at his hands. "You do it, and only after it's done do you realize that it didn't fix and could not fix a damn thing. Just made it all worse."

"I know. I have no idea what they did, but my uncles were all soldiers, and when a soldier cannot look you in the eye, then what he has done is too terrible to talk about. That scared me. I swore to myself, and also to God, I suppose, that I would never take revenge for anything," Ziva said. Before Gibbs could comment, she said, "I will see you later. We will need a list of mosques to work from, if interviewing London's OCS classmates turns up nothing."

"Ziva?" Gibbs said as she reached the door.


"Why are you a cop here instead of one over in Israel?"

"Is this the burning question, the one that McGee and Tony are still too scared to ask?" Ziva said, amused.

"Probably," Gibbs said with a grin.

"It is very simple. To be a cop there, I have to resign from the Mossad. I do not have to resign from the Mossad to be a cop here. I like... multitasking."

Ziva shot Gibbs a grin and left the room. He thought that perhaps the Israelis should've allowed Ziva to multitask. They were losing out.

London's service record revealed that he'd sustained a stress fracture during OCS, and he'd chosen to be discharged rather than roll through the program again in six to eight months. Gibbs suspected that London had 'acquired' that stress fracture deliberately: his drill instructor had seen London go over a wall in a confidence, or obstacle course, and land flat-footed instead of rolling.

"A sailor with his experience—he must've been through at least eight fitness exams by the time he retired. Someone like that would automatically roll on landing. Flat-footed? He bust himself up on purpose, just to get the hell away from whoever scared him. And he got away, only that didn't work."

"Right. What do you need?" LCDR Bud Roberts asked.

"A list of everyone in his class, each of his instructors, and everyone else he came into contact with during his run in the OCS program. I want every one of them immediately available for interviews, no exceptions."

"That's a lot of people," Roberts pointed out.

"Roberts, I got my team, twenty other Major Case investigators, Ducky, and even the Director on a list of folks ready and waiting to grill the people on your list. Eleven other cases have been put on hold until these interviews are concluded. Why? Cos like I explained, they just put London down like a dog. The longer the perpetrators of that murder are walking around free, the greater the chance of them killing the next person on their list. Those OCS people have all gotta get here from Rhode Island, so haul ass... Please."

By seven a.m the following morning, one-hundred-and-twenty-seven people were sitting in a lecture auditorium at Annapolis. They'd been told that today would not end until all the interviews had been conducted.

Ziva and McGee were sitting in a small room off the auditorium watching three monitors. One showed the entire auditorium, and McGee and Ziva each had a monitor to themselves. Small joysticks mounted on control pads helped them to use hidden cameras to zoom in on individuals and observe them carefully for a few moments. Each person in the auditorium sported a name tag that was easily legible on screen. Anyone exhibiting signs of nervousness would have their names entered into a laptop, along with notes on their demeanor, and those individuals' names would be bumped to the top of the interview queue.

"Whoever came up with this technique needs a medal," McGee muttered. "But all these people look half-asleep. Totally relaxed."

"I agree," Ziva said, and huffed. "And this thing with the cameras was developed by the CIA. As soon as camera technology became more user-friendly, the CIA started to use cameras everywhere they could. Just like casino security people, the Mossad does not mind using techniques developed by others. The others save us time."

"Logical. I like it," McGee said with a grin. He cleared his throat and said, "You're really not enjoying this one, huh?"

"This case? No." Ziva checked a name off her list. He looked just as calm as most everyone else. "It will only get worse. It is always the same. When someone is murdered specifically for their religious beliefs—and I feel that this is the case—their death is the result of fanaticism, which has two faces. For now we are focusing on the first face: those who killed London. We might soon come up against the second face: those who will call London a martyr. That is why Gibbs told Tony that we will not yet be trying to find London's imam, the Muslim scholar who guided London through his conversion. We will not have to find him. He will probably find us."

"I'm guessing you'll choose to lie low if he pitches up," McGee said.

"If I do not, my presence might just call the whole team's neutrality into question. No matter what my personal position is, my nationality will brand me as partisan. That is why I am already taking a, umm, backseat role. You see?"

"And maybe if you covered up or took off your Star of David, that would help, too?"

"I am still an Israeli," Ziva said, her tone measured and quiet. He hadn't meant to hurt her feelings, and Ziva had no intention of talking about that. "But if I remain in the background, if I do not directly engage with anyone who is a Muslim, then there will be no problems. It is a very simple solution."

"Seems that way," McGee said. "Hope it works, but I wish you didn't feel cornered."

"Ma la'asot? What can you do? Such is life," Ziva drawled. After a pause she gestured irritably at the larger of the three monitors. "Half-asleep and completely relaxed. Correct. London's killers are not in that auditorium. I am not seeing the right kind of body language. And also, nobody there looks like they took either of the two punches London threw. I will go and tell Gibbs."

Everyone was interviewed anyway. Gibbs, his team, and everyone else temporarily assigned to this case hoped simply to find even the tiniest lead. They got a few of those. Several of London's fellow officer candidates suggested that NCIS look back at London's eight years in the Navy, before he retired and went to college. He'd mentioned to a few of his classmates that he'd enjoyed most of that first tour, but not all of it. He'd thought at least twice that it might be best to get out and stay out, rather than enlisting again and enrolling in OCS. He hadn't offered details, though.

"So we gotta interview people London crewed with before he retired," Gibbs told Jen.

"You can have Gavin Thomassi and his team," Jen told Gibbs. "That's a permanent assignment until this case is closed."

"That'll keep Thomassi and his people focused. Thanks," Gibbs said. He weighed his options before saying, "I know Ziva's worrying about this case."

"We haven't discussed it yet. There hasn't been time."

"Maybe making time is a good idea," Gibbs said pointedly and left Jen's office.

"Strange man..." Jen mumbled to herself. She picked up her cell phone and sent Ziva a text message: Dinner tonight? Less than a minute later a message alert tone sounded. Okay. My place b/c I have everything for that Mexican chicken dish you like. Jen grinned and sent back an Okay of her own, with thanks attached. Great company, excellent food, and conversation: it would be a good evening, even if that conversation led to uncomfortable places.

A Post-it on the outside of the door said, in Hebrew, 'It isn't locked.' Jen took the Post-it inside with her, and locked the door.

"That's bad, leaving the door unlocked."

"This from someone who considers a key holder disguised as a rock in a flower pot an acceptable risk," Ziva shot back.

"It's not disguised as a rock. It is a rock, cut in half, hollowed out, and held closed with magnets. You've told me yourself that you've often picked up two incorrect rocks in a row, looking for the key holder," Jen finished with hanging up her coat and walked into the kitchen. "Shabat shalom." A peaceful Sabbath.

"Is it Friday—Ugh, no... How did I lose a day?" Ziva grumbled.

"Stress," Jen said. She put a bottle of white wine in the fridge to chill, then stepped up to Ziva and hugged her briefly from behind. "Dabri iti, bevahkasha." Talk to me, please.

"Yossi Gershom called me this morning and wanted to know why I had not informed HaMossad of this case. He did not tell me how he had found out about it in less than seventy-two hours, and I know better than to ask Yossi even for his new dog's name."

"Yossi is head of the Mossad's Anaf Nevi'ot, and it's his job to know everything. Nevi'ot is the Collections Branch. But you're part of Anaf Tevel now, the Liaison Branch, which is headed by Lior Benz. Why is Yossi calling you?"

"Firstly, I am not only a member of Tevel. I cannot speak, even to you, about Metzada," Ziva said quietly, adding chopped herbs to a pan of sauteing onions and chicken. "Please do not ask—"

"I won't," Jen said, her tone reassuring. "But why hasn't Lior contacted you?"

"It means that Yossi has overridden Lior, and I think that his unspoken message is that there is somebody other than me 'liaising' with the Mossad," Ziva said glumly. "Either that, or they intercepted information being sent to another intelligence agency."

"You need to find out which, please," Jen said.

"Take over here, please– just watch that it does not burn. I have a secure satellite link."

"You do?" Jen mumbled.

"Yes, because I am a spy!" Ziva said, gesturing dramatically with a spatula. "Take this. Stir."

Jen laughed and took the offered spatula and Ziva left the kitchen. She wasn't gone for very long. Jen took one look at her expression, and she winced.

"Who's about to die?"

"One of the SECNAV's clerks. Jerry Derwent. He has been meeting with someone in the Russian intel community."

"Oh my God..." Jen groaned. "How many Confidential, Secret, Top Secret, and Compartmented documents has he fetched and carried between my office and Holder's..."

"Right. I have already informed SECNAV Holder," Ziva said. "I told him that I would tell you. I also told him that this is not our problem, that we are cooking, and he can find someone else to arrest his clerk."

"In that tone?" Jen said, trying not to laugh.

"Yes," Ziva said. "What is so funny?"

"Did he say 'Yes, ma'am'?"

"And I reminded him that I hate being called 'ma'am,'" Ziva muttered.

"Only you would dare issue orders to the SECNAV..." Jen said and laughed hard.

"Tni li et zot..." Ziva said. Give me this... She took the spatula and gave Jen a little shove away from the range. "Has the wine chilled enough?"

"If it hasn't, too bad."

Jen decided to wait until they'd eaten before asking Ziva to tell her what else was bothering her. Jen knew that there was more. Getting Ziva to talk could be difficult at times, and at others impossible. Jen rarely worried about the latter because apparently Ziva's shrink simply said something along the lines of You will talk about this now, and Ziva complied. She liked a little distance, and while there was more than a little of that with her shrink—Ziva and her shrink parted ways sometimes for more than a month at a stretch, in many ways there was not much distance between herself and Jen. There might be some coaxing needed tonight. Or maybe not.

"Will you stay tonight?" Ziva asked, while packing the dishwasher.

"I took your hospitality for granted and brought a bag," Jen said.

"Good. I do not like it if you go home alone very late."

"If I didn't know better, I'd call you overprotective."

"Mmm. Overprotective would be me insisting on taking you home to see with my own eyes that you have arrived there safely... I am not that bad, am I?"

"She goes from bossing the SECNAV to being insecure... Ziva, you know that you can just arrive at my house, anytime, if you need to talk—"

"Bevahkasha– dai," Ziva said, frowning. Please– enough. "We only got this case three days ago, Jen. Last night you were at that fancy dinner. It is not like I have been feeling this way for months."

"Tov, be'seder," Jen said. Good, okay. "But remember, please: any time."

"Ani lo eshkach," Ziva said quietly. I won't forget. After a pause she admitted, "I cannot hide very much from you, and whatever I do keep from you is usually because of rules made by others. Just now I asked you not to ask me about Metzada, because if you ask, I will say to myself, 'Fuck the rules,' and I will tell you."

"And at least some of the reason for that is because you know I'd never repeat it. I also wouldn't use that information to my professional advantage," Jen said.

"More to it than that. More to it than simple trust, but I do not have a definition for... this," Ziva said, gesturing between the two of them. "Lo be'Ivrit, lo be'Anglit." Not in Hebrew, not in English.

"Me neither," Jen said with a shrug and a small smile. "But it works, so it doesn't need 'fixing.'"

"Mmm. Time for some Bach and the rest of the wine and... Ugh. This case and all the baggage it drags up..."

"Bach... Unaccompanied Cello Suites?" Jen suggested while collecting the wine bottle and their glasses.

Ziva purred quietly in agreement, and decided not to tell Jen that those cello solos had on occasion put her straight into a very peaceful sleep. She needed to relax and if she fell asleep, seeing as Jen was spending the night, they could continue the conversation tomorrow... Ziva frowned and told herself not to fall asleep. Better to get this business all talked out in one go.

"McGee did not mean to, but he upset me today."

"I'm listening," Jen said and took a seat on the couch.

"He suggested that I either cover up my Star of David or take it off while I am working."

"As you say, he meant no harm: it's a logical, though partial solution... What did you say?"

"I just changed the subject. I think he got the message," Ziva said. She looked into her wine glass and swirled the liquid before taking a sip. "It was given to me by my Great Aunt Zara, my maternal grandmother's little sister. My grandmother thought that she would never see Zara again: they were separated by accident at a train station, and the group my grandmother was with would not let her go back. The train took her to the coast, to a ship, and she got out of Latvia. But not Zara... She never talked about it and she is dead now, so God only knows how Zara escaped from Majdanek death camp. She was in Salaspils prison camp first—"

"We were only a few miles from Salaspils, when you and I were in Riga."

"Also just a few miles from Rumbula Forest, and she might have been among the thousands shot dead there," Ziva said.

"How old was she?" Jen asked, guessing that it was best to keep her talking.

"Twelve. The Nazis kept children at Salaspils as a sort of... blood factory. Jewish blood was just fine to use in transfusions. It is rumored that they did medical experiments on the kids there, too. If that is true, she might have had to endure some of that before they stuffed her in a cattle-car and sent her to Lublin, to Majdanek. I went there, when I was fourteen; a school trip. I looked for a way to get out, based on the original layout. Even now, when I am trained to evade and escape, if I did not have insulated wire-cutters to deal with not one, but three double electric fences, I would not get out of that place, not alone."

"She had help."

"Yes. Clearly she did not want to talk about what that might have cost her... And she gave me this," Ziva said, tapping the Star of David that rested just below the notch between her collarbones. "When a Holocaust survivor gives you a Magen David, it is never 'just a piece of jewelry.' If you are Jewish it is a reminder to always remember. But I have had to take it off many times, and each time that removal symbolizes... It is like putting myself away, and in many instances, that has been the case: I go away and do something for HaMossad and pretend to be somebody else. It is also like leaving myself behind, in case I am captured or killed. I do not take off this little bit of gold unless I absolutely have to."

"But as I said, taking it off wouldn't be a complete solution."

"Not even a super-speedy conversion to Roman Catholicism would help," Ziva drawled. "I would still be an Israeli."

"You'll always be an Israeli, a Sabra born and bred."

"Ani mitga'aga'at ha'baita," Ziva almost whispered. I miss home. "And it is silly– when I was working full time for HaMossad I was hardly ever at home any way."

"But you went back regularly. You went home last September. Maybe you should go home more often?"

"I will be very... sappy, and admit that more regular trips home will make it all worse," Ziva grumbled, blushing.

"So cute sometimes," Jen teased.

"You deserve this!"

Jen got hauled over Ziva's lap and had her ribs tickled until she shrieked. Ziva let up eventually.

"Mean..!" Jen wheezed and laughed weakly.

"Sh'tuyot," Ziva chortled. Nonsense. "I love you and you know it."

"I do, but sometimes I'm not sure," Jen grumbled good-naturedly. "You're such a brat, Ziva David."

"Being a brat is an antidote to being too serious."

"That's why I put up with it."

"Which is proof that you love me. Thank you," Ziva said with a grin.

"You're welcome," Jen said, and rolled her eyes.

"Tetro-what?" Gibbs muttered.

"Tetrodotoxin," Abby repeated.

"Blue-ringed octopus venom," Ducky translated. "Minute quantities can kill a large man in a minute or less. It causes immediate paralysis—"

"And you've gotta test specifically for tetrodotoxin, or you won't find it," Abby said. "That's why it took us so long to get a result."

"How and where do you get octopus venom?" Gibbs asked.

"Two ways. One, you can be a total nut job and try extract it yourself. Two, you rob a lab that stocks it for research purposes," Abby said. "There are four labs on the Eastern Seaboard that have samples. One of them had a break-in less than two months ago."

"Eighteen milliliters of refined Blue-ring venom was stolen," Ducky said. "That's enough to kill about a hundred people, perhaps more."

"Fort Lauderdale PD still has the case open and active," Abby said. "Make 'em happy and close it for them?"

"I'll try," Gibbs muttered.

London's last six months in service, during his first spell in the Navy, had been a shore assignment. Something that he'd requested. That was odd. London was an ESWS (Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist, said E-Swas). An ESWS is a leadership position, something that has to be earned through a series of examinations; application is voluntary and qualification doesn't carry a general pay or hazardous duty pay increase.

"He really wanted those silver cutlasses," said Commander Jack Stevens, referring to the cutlasses depicted in the ESWS pin. "Then a couple years later I get this request chit from him for a dry dock job at Norfolk. I mean, Norfolk? Black Hole, Virginia. Where Navy careers go to die. Shocked the hell out of me, because London was one of the best fighting chiefs I've ever met. Next thing I heard about him, he'd retired."

"Retired and went to college. You know that he got a mechanical engineering degree at UVA?" Tony said. "Could that have been the reason for requesting the dry dock spot at Norfolk?"

"He kept to himself, y'know?" Stevens said. "He never told me about his plan to get that degree and reenlist, ship back in through OCS. London was the kinda guy to do everything on his own steam. If he'd told me about his OCS plan, I would've encouraged him to go to college on the Navy's dime... And one thing I can tell you about that dry dock job: he specifically requested a spot with Commander Retson's crew. Retson is a mustang. Y'know what that is?"

"An officer who came up through the enlisted ranks."

"Right. He's also known as an innovator; finds ways to get repair jobs, in particular, done fast and super safe. So maybe that tied in with London's degree, because as an ESWS, his speciality was damage control."

"Last question, sir," Tony said. "Can you remember any kind of disagreements he had with other members of your crew?"

"That kind of scuttlebutt wouldn't have reached my ears. The person to ask about that is SCPO O'Dell."

Senior Chief Petty Officer James O'Dell was a short, thickset man who was going bald. When he arrived, he walked into the interview room, sat bolt upright in his seat, and stared at the two-way glass behind Tony.

"When people do that, I get suspicious," Tony said.

"Retson," O'Dell said. "And that's all I'm saying. To you. You copy on that?"

"Boss?" Tony said, turning to the two-way glass.

In less than a minute Gibbs entered the room and handed O'Dell a cup of water. He sat on the edge of the table, relaxed, calm: the very image of someone friendly. O'Dell, in his mid-forties, was clearly scared. A career sailor always has a lot to lose through whistle-blowing. If O'Dell's claims couldn't be substantiated he could be counter-charged with bringing the name of an officer into disrepute.

"Chief, all I want is nods and head shakes," Gibbs said.

"Okay," O'Dell said.

"Retson's good for London's murder?"


"He ordered it?"

Head shake.

"He did it himself?"


"He found out that London was a Muslim?"

"And so am I," O'Dell said, looking Gibbs in the eye.

"You and London were friends?"

"For the last three, four years. Not while he was still in the Navy," O'Dell said. "He warned me about Retson. I only tied it all up when you guys called me in here. That's when I found out that Kyle was dead. He got killed on the Tuesday, and the Sunday before that he called me and told me to watch out for Retson, and said something about a list of people, and a schedule. That was all he said."

"Go fill the Director in on this development," Gibbs told Tony, who left the room at once. He said to O'Dell, "We've been expecting London's imam to come by. Other Muslim victims, their imams have turned up fast. This time, no joy, so we contacted various mosques, but none of the folks there knew London. Got any idea where his imam might be and who he is?"

"Not every imam is resident at a mosque. Some teach out of their homes. All I know is that Kyle's imam is an old man in Charlottesville, old and respected. Any senior citizens suffer a suspicious death lately?"

"Not that I know of. You think that Retson would go that far?"

"I'm openly Muslim, Gunny, have been for twenty-two years. Retson isn't the only officer who's made it plain to me and others that we're something like a bad influence. He's the kind of racist, bigoted bastard who'd go after the roots of something he doesn't like. Kyle said that about a list and a schedule. Who's on it? When's Retson going after them?"

"We don't know who Retson's accomplices are," Gibbs said and got up. "So for your own safety, you stay put."

"More than happy to oblige," O'Dell said.

Gibbs didn't have to go far. Retson had been called in today as well, and was in a room just two doors down the hall. Gibbs turned the handle and smacked the door open, then slammed it after him. Commander Retson jumped a little in his seat.

"Whoever's in that observation room," Gibbs said to the two-way glass. "Get DiNozzo to fill in the blanks, then send Officer David in here. I also want the Director observing this one."

Gibbs turned and sat at the table. He stared at Retson, a man with a weathered face, iron-grey mustache, eyebrows, and hair. His eyes were a very pale blue, and Gibbs didn't like them one bit. The door opened a few minutes after Gibbs had sat down, and Ziva entered. Gibbs gave her a nod and jerked his chin at Retson, who frowned in confusion. He wasn't confused for long.

Ziva took a quick step towards him and laid the heel of her hand against his temple. Retson was knocked right out of his seat. Ziva wrenched an arm up behind his back, forcing him to his knees, and jammed the muzzle of her pistol against the back of his head.

"I do not need lethal injections. Or two accomplices," Ziva growled.

"You can't do this!" Retson shouted.

"She can do whatever she wants," Gibbs said and folded his arms. "As I understand it, Officer David—who's Mossad, by-the-way. Officer David has a... What's it called?"

"Basically, it is a get-out-of-jail-free ticket. It is a diplomatic dispensation to do whatever I feel is necessary, in certain situations. It can be interpreted as a license to kill, even here in the United States, and it has been sanctioned by the SECNAV. By your boss, Commander."

"This is duress!"

"It's only duress if I'm the one with the gun," Gibbs said. "Officer David hasn't asked you a single question, and she will be real careful not to ask even one question. As I've already explained, she's Mossad, and is acting on that dispensation of hers."

"Doing what I, personally, feel is necessary," Ziva said.

"Now that we've got the details sorted out... Retson, I got every right to call you what you are," Gibbs said. "A terrorist. You killed a man just because the name of his god differs from yours. You didn't blow anything up, but we know that you've got a list, and a schedule, and enough of that octopus venom to kill a lot of people. Terrorist. Homeland Security Act. Detention for seventy-two hours without access to a lawyer. I'm gonna let you think about all that for a couple minutes, Retson. Two minutes. They start... now."

Behind the two-way glass, Jen checked a clock on the wall and resumed her calm observation of the scene in the room next door. McGee glanced at her and loosened his collar. He was sweating and trying to remember this and that from textbooks and Regulations manuals. He gave up with the brain-strain.

"Is any of that legal, Director?"

"It can be interpreted in any number of ways," Jen said lightly. "My personal interpretation revolves around the fact that Retson is our prime suspect, and if you take a careful look at Ziva, you'll notice the absence of a certain piece of equipment that's usually considered necessary in order to secure a violent suspect."

McGee leaned forward, the better to visually hunt for what was missing. It didn't take him long to notice that the leather pouch on Ziva's belt that normally held her handcuffs, was empty.

"No cuffs? That simple?" McGee mumbled.

"That simple." Jen smirked, taking the missing handcuffs from her pocket. She dropped them back in that pocket and quoted, "'Any federal law enforcement agent or officer, absent the aid of handcuffs or other restraints, may subdue a suspect by direct threat of violence.' In other words, she can hold her gun against his head for the next three hours, and Retson's lawyer can't say a word against it."

"You asked her to give 'em to you? But what if we get asked about those cuffs?" McGee blurted.

"Calm down," Jen said, but not unkindly. "I didn't ask her for her cuffs. She gave them to me and I had no idea why until... That."

McGee tore his eyes away from Jen's annoyingly calm profile, and followed her gesture at the two-way glass. In the room next door, Ziva still had Retson pinned on his knees, still had her pistol against his head. Her expression was unreadable.

"She knows all the rules backwards, Tim," Jen said. "Nearly ten years ago, when she was barely twenty-one, Ziva assessed a situation in less than thirty seconds, and acted in a way that saved the lives of more than forty people in an outdoor restaurant in Cairo. She shot a suicide bomber in the head, tossed her gun to me, and she used her bare hands while I used her gun to take care of the insurance guys. You know what I mean by 'insurance guys'?"

"The men meant to make sure that the bomber does his job?"

"Right. Them. There were three of them. I took down two, and Ziva tackled the third guy before he could drive off. It was all over in less than a minute, start to finish. That little bit of history is the reason why I trust her judgment, and why I trust that judgment to produce an acceptable result. The so-called legally correct result might just involve Retson walking out of here with a smile on his face. Retson had two accomplices. We don't know where they are, and now we've been told about a schedule and a list. Who's to say that those two accomplices aren't stalking someone right now? That guy with a gun against his head is not the type to crumble when faced with a hard tone of voice."

"Guess not. So Gibbs thought of that, too, and got Ziva in there?"

"Gibbs uses the right tools for the job. Retson thinks he's a hard-ass, so Gibbs proved him wrong... Those two minutes are up."

In the interview room, Gibbs had also taken note of the time. He slapped his hand on the table and got up to stand next to it.

"List. Schedule. Kyle London called a friend and told him about your list of names, and a schedule. Now, my gut is telling me that someone else that we don't know about is lying dead and decomposing somewhere, and that person told Kyle about the list, the schedule. I'm not sure about the order of things. Did you kill the rat before or after you killed Kyle?"

Retson said nothing in response.

"Let him go," Gibbs told Ziva.

"Okay," she said, backing off and holstering her pistol.

Retson looked confused while getting up off the floor. Gibbs put a hand on his shoulder and shoved him into a chair. He took out his cuffs and fastened one manacle to Retson's wrist, and the other to a shackle fixed to the underside of the table. For good measure, Gibbs locked both manacles.

"I got a better idea than this interrogation business," Gibbs said to Ziva. "Let's just go through Commander Retson's life from his footlocker up, and if we don't find anything we can start going through his relatives' homes. We'll find all we need within twenty-four hours, let alone seventy-two."

"Quite possible, yes," Ziva agreed.

"You'll never get a warrant for that," Retson said and laughed. "Not the kind of blanket warrant that'll enable you to search homes to that degree."

"Homeland. Security. Act," Gibbs said, enunciating each word with care. "Within the next hour, my agents and Marine Corps MPs will have rounded up each and every person who works with you, from your CO right on down to the slick-sleeve new-useless-body you've got fetching your every cuppa joe. They'll start collecting family and non-Navy friends next, but I won't need 'em. Guess where I'll start, Retson? With those new baby sailors you send off on goddamn snipe hunts every hour or so. All I need to do is scare the piss outa one of them, and next minute I'll have a list of names of everyone you've spoken to in the last month, Pretty Boy... See that clean face, Officer David?"

"Yes. Someone else took the two punches thrown by London. We just have to ask people about sailors with bruises, I think."

"Yeah," Gibbs muttered. Then he turned to the glass, and said, "Director Shepard, get me that warrant, please."

"You've already got it," Jen's voice came over a speaker.

"See ya later, Retson. My bet is, by the time I get back here, they'll be prepping evidence for your court-martial... Let's go."

Ziva followed Gibbs without a backward glance at Retson. Before she'd entered that interview room it had taken her just a few seconds to guess why Gibbs wanted her there. In the observation suite next door she held out her hand and Jen placed the handcuffs on her palm. Ziva secured them in their pouch and got herself a cup of water from the cooler in the corner.

"You must let me question those sailor apprentices, Gibbs," Ziva said.

"Little slick-sleeve Rickies faced with a Mossad officer?" Jen embellished. "Poor babies..."

"'New-useless-body' told me that a 'slick-sleeve' is a sailor apprentice," Ziva muttered. "But what does 'slick-sleeve' mean? And... 'Rickies'?"

"A Ricky is a Navy recruit, and they start out with slick sleeves– no rating insignia," McGee said. "And right now I feel sorry for a bunch of them."

Later McGee and Tony occasionally chorused groans and winces as, beyond the two-way glass, Ziva managed with very few words to mangle the egos of young sailors. She'd grilled eleven so far, regarding Retson, and two of the eleven she'd literally reduced to tears.

Jen arrived in the observation room at around nine p.m.

"Aren't you two supposed to be at home getting some sleep? Gibbs meant it when he said that you've got to be back here at four a.m. Thomassi needs you two to go out to Charlottesville. Guess who has an apartment there?"

"Another one?" Tony squawked. "Does Retson come from old money, or something?"

"Yeah, that's two houses now, and an apartment," McGee said, frowning.

"No old money. Your guess is as good as mine... In general, how has Ziva been handling things?" Jen nodded at the two-way glass.

"To use a Navy term, shit-hot," Tony said, slinging his jacket over his shoulder. "We now know that Retson is real friendly with a civilian dry dock employee called Alex Linder. Sound familiar?"

"My God..." Jen mumbled.

"But no-one at the dry dock has seen Linder in about three weeks. Gibbs is already on it," McGee said. "G'night, Director."

"Night," Tony said.

"I'll see you tomorrow," Jen said, dialing Gibbs's number with one hand, using the other to turn down the volume on Ziva's interrogation of a tow-headed fellow who looked way too young to wear a uniform. When Gibbs eventually picked up, Jen said, "Is this the same Linder who's a skinhead and managed to pull a double jeopardy move in a murder trial?"

"The same one... and he's really, really dead," Gibbs said and coughed. "Been dead at least three weeks. Maybe double jeopardy actually served its intended purpose."

"Where'd you find his body?" Jen asked.

"In his garage. He did custom paint jobs on cars and pickups, so this garage seals practically airtight. The neighbors are gonna start complaining about the smell any time now... My guess is, Retson thought Linder was guilty of that murder back in Ninety-eight, so he got friendly with Linder—"

"And tried to get Linder to help him out with his list and schedule?"

"Right. And maybe Linder and Kyle London were friends. Linder rats on Retson to London, Linder gets taken out, and London is next."

"So now all we have to do is find Retson's two accomplices, because it's possible that they helped him to kill Linder, too."

"More than likely—Hold on a second," Gibbs muttered. After a longish pause he said, "Get Ziva to take a break, and tell her to move on to a Machinist's Mate Hardy, initial T. I remember his name being on the list of people we rounded up. Tell her to ask him where he dropped his garrison cap... Nice of him to put a name tag inside it."

"I've made a note. She's in the middle of making someone wish he was somewhere else."

"I wish I was somewhere else," Gibbs said sincerely. "Later."

"Bye," Jen said and hung up.

Ziva took a break of about an hour, but not before she'd gotten an MP to lead Tanner Hardy into an interview room. Jen had ordered pizza and Ziva ate a couple of slices without really tasting them, while sitting on a stool watching Hardy through the two-way glass. Jen was seated in a more comfortable chair at a small desk, busy with paperwork, and she let the quiet alone for a while. Eventually she put down her pen and swiveled the chair so that she could take in Ziva's profile. If Ziva was tired it didn't show, and by now she had to be tired.

"When you're done with Hardy, you're also done for the day. Okay?"

"Mmm. Maybe," Ziva said.

"That was professional me speaking, Officer David."

"No, it was not," Ziva said and gave a short laugh. "It was the same you who ordered pizza and made me eat it."

"Busted..." Jen said, amused.

"If I break Hardy, I will probably have no rest for a while," Ziva said seriously. She got up and added, "Time to shake Retson a bit. Let's go see what he has to say when I tell him we have got Hardy."

Jen followed Ziva and they split ways at the interview room door. Ziva waited for Jen to enter the observation room before opening the door. Retson had been sleeping with his head on his free arm. He blinked at Ziva, slightly dazed for a moment, and his eyes followed an MP as he exited the room.

"Ordinarily," Ziva said lightly. "Our security people are Shore Patrol personnel. What do you call them? Dicks with sticks, yes? Regular sailors who are temporarily assigned to walk a beat or hold a post, armed with only a baton. They do not really know anything about law enforcement; they are not trained. So when we need the, uhh, real deal, we make use of the Marine Corps's MPs. But that is never a good thing for the people who sit where you are sitting. Do you know why?"

"Do tell," Retson snarled.

"The MPs make sure that people like you cannot do something stupid, like hurt or kill yourself, when you get very bad news... In a room only meters away from this one, Commander, someone is waiting for me. He is a very nervous-looking man. I watched him for nearly an hour. Would you like to guess his name?"

Retson gulped and sweat began to sheen his upper lip.

"No guesses? I will just tell you then," Ziva said. "Tanner Hardy."

Retson gulped again and Ziva noticed a nerve twitching in his left eyelid. He'd loosened his uniform collar and tie, and the gap it left enabled her to see the pulse jump in his throat.

"When I am finished with him, Commander, I am almost certain that we will have enough for an arrest warrant... Such a pity," Ziva almost whispered. "When I first learned about American mustang officers, I thought that they must be very fine men and women. Good examples. People to look up to. I do not think that I am the only one who feels, now, that to apply such a generalization is foolish. Such a pity that one man can disgrace a whole group of people."

At the table Retson fumed, his bunched fist shaking with fury, but he kept his mouth shut. Ziva stared at him for a while before turning on her heel and walking out. The MP took her place while she joined Jen in the observation room.

"He's done," Jen said. "Just a little more pressure and he'll crack."

"I think so, but I also think that if I had not roughed him up earlier, he would still be very calm now. I do not think that the JAG prosecuting attorneys assigned to this case are going to like me very much."

"Ziva, that's their problem and not yours. Gibbs read Retson for a hard-ass, which is why he called you in. That no cuffs technicality was a little bit of brilliance on your part, and it's all those prosecutors need to be able to say to Retson's lawyers that it's time to focus on the fact that their client is facing murder charges. More to the point, he didn't say anything germane to our investigation while you had a gun to his head, did he?"

"True," Ziva said. She rolled her shoulders and cracked her neck. She gave Retson one last look before turning to leave the room. She said over her shoulder, "Can you bring me some coffee, please? When you give it to me, speak Hebrew. Remember what it says in Hardy's file?"

"On it," Jen said, phone in hand.

Ziva strolled down the hall. No need to hurry now. She held onto her relaxed attitude when she entered the interview room where Tanner Hardy was waiting. He was a big man with sandy brown hair and the kind of large brown eyes that probably made girls' hearts melt. Ziva opened his file and looked for something to indicate his marital status, but instead her eyes lit on another detail, one she'd missed earlier.

She'd noticed that Hardy had scored low on his AFQT (Armed Forces Qualification Test) but that wasn't something especially unusual. Hardy had attended a trade school instead of a regular high school, and the Navy was only too pleased to welcome brand new recruits who already boasted a trade. What Ziva had missed was Hardy's IQ score, which was very unusual. The military standard cutoff is eighty-five. Hardy had scored eight points less. She read the addendum twice: Permanently exempted from active duty. The only sailors permanently exempted from active duty are those with a disability. It was suddenly everything Ziva could do not to go down the hall and beat the daylights out of Retson. Somehow she managed to remain in her seat.

"Commander Retson is a very bad man," Ziva said softly.

Hardy's throat worked and his gulp was audible. His hands began to tremble. Ziva said nothing else and she decided to remain quiet until that coffee had been brought to her. A couple of minutes ticked by, and every second marked an increase in Hardy's nervousness. The door opened eventually and Jen walked in carrying a venti cup.

"Ha'kafeh shelach," Jen said. Your coffee.

"Todah rabah," Ziva said. Thanks very much.

Jen left the room quickly. She didn't want to miss what she knew would happen next. Abby had been the one to fetch the coffee. She'd come in to wait on evidence brought from Linder's garage and home.

"Director, who is this guy?" Abby asked. "And why'd you two make with the Hebrew just now?"

"We're pretty sure he's one of Retson's accomplices," Jen said. "As for the Hebrew, watch."

In the interview room Hardy was frowning and the knot in his stomach was getting bigger. He'd spent the last three years involved in a program that trained Israeli Navy fitters and turners. Those Heil HaYam guys spoke Hebrew all the time, and that made sense. What didn't make sense was two NCIS agents speaking Hebrew.

Making nervous people even more nervous was Ziva's speciality, and it was a valuable skill during interrogations. It sped things up remarkably. Nervous people lie very badly, and more often than not, they tell the truth before they can stop themselves. However, Ziva was not about to cause Tanner Hardy to incriminate himself. She needed him to be nervous, but she also had to control that.

"You have something to ask?" Ziva said.

"Your accent... You spoke Hebrew just now. You're Israeli?" Hardy said.

"Yes. I am the Mossad Liaison Officer here."

"M-Mossad?" Hardy stammered, and sweat began to trickle off his forehead. "Why's Mossad involved in this?"

"I just work here," Ziva said honestly. "Now, I am going to tell you something. We found your garrison cap only six feet and four inches away from Alex Linder's body."

"Oh no..." Hardy muttered, and he started to shake.

"Do not say anything about yourself, Tanner. Do you understand?"

"Uhh... Mustn't incriminate myself?"

"Right. Calm down. And listen carefully. We will start with Kyle London. What happened to him?"

"Commander Retson gave Kyle a shot. An injection. He went all stiff, and then all limp."

"Where did this happen?"

"Arlington. In the parking lot behind Billy's Pub and Pool Hall."

"Who else was there?"

"Toby. Toby Sanders. Kyle punched him a couple times. They wrestled, then I—"

"Shhh!" Ziva warned. "Do not incriminate yourself, remember?"

"Okay," Hardy mumbled.

"Good. Alex Linder. How was he killed?"

"Toby cut his throat," Hardy whispered, his expression suddenly horrified.

"Was Retson there?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Good. Good job, Tanner," Ziva said. "Now, why did Retson kill Kyle London?"

"Found out he was a Muslim. Commander Retson's got a major hate-on for Muslims. He's got a list of enlisted guys and officers who're Muslims. He told us—"

"Shhh!" Ziva warned again. "That is all I need to know. Remember the rules?"

"Mustn't incriminate myself."

"Right. A lawyer will come and speak to you soon. Do not speak to anyone else, not even to me, okay?"

"Yes, ma'am," Hardy said, nodding. He watched her get up and said, "How much trouble am I in?"

"I will make sure, personally, that you get a very good lawyer, all right?"


Ziva strode to the door where she told an MP to send someone to take Hull Technician Toby Sanders into custody. She went straight down the hall, ignoring the flurry of footsteps behind her as Jen and Abby ducked into another observation room.

Ziva smacked the door open and gestured to the MP in the room to hold his post.

"Hardy gave me everything we need. Double murder, Retson: Linder and London."

"Tanner Hardy is simple. He doesn't know—"

"And you took advantage of that, you son of a bitch!" Ziva yelled, slamming her fist onto the table. She leaned over, her face inches from Retson's, and hissed, "I made very sure that he did not incriminate himself. I am personally going to make sure that he is cut a very good deal. And when it comes time to sentence you, Retson, I am going to tell the judge exactly how badly you abused that boy. Any comments?"

Retson shook with both fury and fear. When he opened his mouth, nothing came out of it. He eventually shook his head.

"Master Sergeant?" Ziva said, her eyes still locked to Retson's.

"Ma'am?" the MP responded.

"Arrest Commander Retson for the murders of Alex Linder and Kyle London."

"Yes, ma'am. Commander Retson, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Article Thirty-one B, you are hereby advised of military arrest, for the murders of Alex Linder and Kyle London. Fill in these forms and do not say anything further unless you waive your rights to silence and to an attorney."

Ziva slid the forms and a pen across the table, and stalked out of the room. In the hallway she leaned against a wall and shut her eyes for a moment. It wasn't often that she struggled to control her temper, and perhaps that was what made it difficult: not enough practice. She had very nearly struck a restrained suspect, which would have landed her in only a little hot water, but might have done a lot more damage to the case for the prosecution. But for Ziva the worst part was that urge, that very real desire she'd had to hit Retson. She hated it.

"You okay?" Jen asked softly.

"I wanted so badly to hit him," Ziva whispered.

"You didn't, though."

"No. Still... I do not like that feeling."

"That's what makes you so much better than people like him... And you're really tired. Time to go home, hmm?"

"Yes, but first I must find a good JAG attorney for Tanner Hardy. Who is good?"

"Leave that to me. I'll get hold of Bud Roberts and tell him to forget what time it is."

"What time is it anyway?"

"After midnight. Go home."

"Okay. Ad machar," Ziva said. Until tomorrow.

"Lailah tov," Jen said. Goodnight.

Abby peeked past Jen's shoulder and watched a very tired Ziva make her way down the hall.

"Jeez. Where'd all the fire go?" Abby asked quietly.

"She deliberately doused it, rather than beat Retson into a pulp," Jen said. "Abby, play secretary for me, please, and get Bud Roberts on the phone. You can call Gibbs after that and deliver the good news."


It was past one when Jen eventually walked to her car in the executive parking garage. Ziva melted out of a shadow thrown by a pillar. Jen decided not to say anything. She zapped a remote operator at her car that deactivated the alarm and unlocked the doors. Ziva got in and had nothing to say until Jen was out on the road.

"My eldest cousin is... slow. That is the word, yes?"


"My mother and I are not good friends, but what she says about people like Tanner and my cousin, is true. They are God's children. They are a blessing. They believe that everyone and everything is good until someone corrupts them. People like Retson are thoroughly evil... I thought this case could not get any worse."

"I'd like to tell you that it's over now, but it's never over," Jen said. "Cases that I worked more than ten years ago, with the FBI and Interpol, still haunt me. Some of the people I helped to put away are dead now; they got the death penalty and that still wasn't enough. Nothing is enough when a case hits a personal nerve... Not everyone is cut out for this work."

"I think that no-one is 'cut out' for it," Ziva almost whispered. "Even if it is a lifelong calling, it is something that you can be good at, but you can never enjoy. Some of my work for the Mossad is the same... I do not know where I fit."

"You're pretty good at catching the bad guys, and they need to be caught. But Ziva, if you want out of this job, that's more than understandable."

"Ani lo yoda'at achshav; lo yoda'at ma ani rotza," Ziva said. I don't know right now; don't know what I want.

"And that's okay."

"For me? Personally, no. It is not okay," Ziva muttered.

"Hey, indecision doesn't fit me well either, but I'm a bit older than you and I learned a while ago that questioning, and even second-guessing myself is not always a bad thing. Learning about ourselves is never, ever a bad thing. You've got to know yourself better than anyone else does, and sometimes that involves indecision, and questioning, and second-guessing."

"But it does not feel good," Ziva grumbled.

"Yes, dear," Jen said, teasing gently. "So you're camping at my place tonight?"

"Hmph. Lo rotza li'hyot levad ha'lailah," Ziva said wryly. Don't want to be alone tonight. "That much I do know. So yes, I will be camping. Thank you."

Ziva relaxed in her seat. She couldn't save the world, and that was something that she didn't have to tell herself often, but whenever the urge was upon her it was something that was difficult to put back in its kennel. She figuratively (and sometimes literally) kicked the ass of whichever negative element she happened to encounter, and she had to accept what little, if any, satisfaction that brought her. This was one of those occasions where Ziva wouldn't be able to find even a little satisfaction. The only cure for the bitter taste it left was to move on, but she cut herself some slack: moving on needn't happen tonight.

Later she and Jen clinked glasses and sipped at nightcaps in silence, without a toast. Ziva had a feeling that other members of the two teams wouldn't feel much like celebrating either. One of the people they'd be locking up really ought to be called innocent. Tanner Hardy was a victim, too. There was nothing to celebrate here.


Chapter Thirteen

Jen had no idea what Ziva saw in FBI Special Agent Brent Langer, but at least she could safely say that she wasn't the least bit jealous. The trouble with that amounted to an equation: nil jealousy = multiple queries. She ought to be jealous... right? Maybe not.

She considered her relationship with Ziva for a moment: pretty much unique; very close; tons of love and trust; rock solid. Then she put Langer into a mental photo frame with Ziva, or tried to, and came up with two mental photo frames and a lot of space in between.

The penny dropped. Jen had no reason to feel jealous of a person who would very likely need a couple of years to get to know Ziva (and would never know her as well as Jen did). She also had no reason to waste time on being jealous of someone who could never come between herself and Ziva: if Brent Langer ever tried to cause any sort of conflict between Jen and Ziva, he'd end up feeling very sorry for himself.

Jen took a sip of wine and sorted her paperwork into manageable stacks, and honestly hoped that Ziva had fun tonight.

Ziva wasn't having fun. Two dates with Langer had ended the same way: he'd sulked like a scolded puppy when she refused to kiss him. This was the third date, and the sulking had begun as soon as he'd collected her this evening. A couple of hours on and he hadn't gotten over himself yet.

"I was told that Israeli girls are really liberated," he grumbled.

"We are. We know that we can say yes, and we also know that if we say no, and he does not listen, we can tell him to grow up or get lost. If he still does not listen, there is always Krav Maga. So. I am telling you. Grow up. Or get lost. Or find out about Krav Maga."

"Jesus. You mean that," Langer said, blinking, genuinely shocked. "Can't we get to know each other?"

"Apparently getting to know me must involve kissing?" Ziva said angrily. "Worse, it involves a supposition that all Israeli girls... put out on the first date. If you are assuming things about me, how can you get to know me?"

"Okay, point," Langer muttered. "But you coulda said all this on the first date."

"I thought you were intelligent enough to have gotten the message by now. Clearly I was wrong. I do not date people who are less-than-intelligent. Good night."

"Ziva—Hey, you can't just walk out on me," Langer said, looking around at other diners in a rather nice restaurant. "C'mon. Finish your dessert and I'll take you home."

"I am not going home," Ziva said, while counting out bills for her meal. "I am going to visit a friend."

"Who, Jenny Shepard? I've heard those rumors."

"If you would like to visit an operating theater as a patient, say one more word—at any time, to anyone—about my best friend."

He'd thought that Gibbs had been joshing when he'd hinted that Ziva's official title of Liaison Officer was very deceptive. Right now Brent Langer looked into dark brown eyes and wondered how many weapons Ziva had on her person, and he wondered just how badly a Krav Maga take-down would hurt. He knew better than to offer this woman an apology if he didn't mean it, and he was not sorry, so instead he gave her a nod and watched her walk out of the restaurant. And he told himself very firmly not to say another word—to anyone, at any time—about Jen Shepard's relationship with Ziva David.

Jen winced when she heard her front door open and close. Fun dates do not end before midnight, and there was still an hour to go before midnight. There was a soft thump of a bag being dumped (she guessed the location as being near the bottom of the stairs) and that meant that Ziva had gone home before coming here. That date had ended really early. Footsteps led off to the kitchen. The fridge door opened.

"At rotza mashehu?" Do you want something?

"Bira, bevahkasha," Jen called. Beer, please.

Ziva arrived in the study eventually. Jen looked over the tops of her glasses at a face that had been scrubbed clean of makeup. Ziva's expression was unreadable. Jen took an offered beer without saying a word.

"I have invited myself for the weekend," Ziva announced.

"More than welcome," Jen said sincerely. "Would you prefer to talk about something else, or dare I ask what happened?"

"I do not date stupid, immature people," Ziva muttered. "He thought that all of us Israeli girls are liberated, and you can guess what he thinks is the definition of liberated. So I get angry. And he is all 'Wow, you are angry!' And I am all 'Mazal tov: gilita et Amerika!'—"

"Wait. 'Congratulations: you discovered America!' What?" Jen queried, frowning.

"I am not teaching you very well," Ziva said, and she had to laugh. "Gilita et Amerika. Like... 'tell me something new,' or 'everyone who has a brain knows this.'"

"Okay. So he's dumped, basically," Jen said. "Sorry."

"I am not sorry," Ziva said and meant it. "I gave him three chances. He blew them all. I should have told him lech zayen akrav." —go fuck a scorpion.

"First thing in my head?" Jen said, trying to keep a straight face.

"Ma?" What?

"You're a Scorpio," Jen chortled.

"Tsk..! People usually say 'lech zayen parah'—'go fuck a cow,' but that is cruelty to animals," Ziva muttered. She glared in response to Jen's giggles. "Tell me something?"

"If I know the answer, sure."

"Why does half of Washington think that you and I are having an affair?"

"Langer said something about you and me?" Jen said.

"I said that I was going to visit a friend, and he said that he has heard rumors about us."

"Okay," Jen said, and thought for a while before saying, "One, we're both single and we spend a lot of time together outside of work. Two, we speak Hebrew at the office, and no-one else understands it, so they think we're talking about personal stuff instead of boring things like the chain of evidence."

"Americans..." Ziva said, rolling her eyes. Her expression became abruptly mischievous. "Can I sleep with you tonight?"

"If you talk to me about... carburettors in Hebrew, in that tone of voice?" Jen said, amused. "Those rumors will start to involve lurid details."

"I am tempted, but it is better not to become a mass murderer, I think."

"Oh boy. What dire threats did you brandish at Langer?"

"A visit to an operating theater."

Jen might've mentioned the fact that defensiveness usually causes people to gossip even more, but she had an idea that Brent Langer would rather eat broken glass than mention Ziva and herself in the same sentence again.

"There's no need to defend my honor, y'know," Jen noted.

"Kavod. Honor. Small words with big and complicated meanings," Ziva said. "Your honor is very much mine to defend. If I did not feel that way, I would not be able to call myself your friend."

"Langer's an idiot," Jen said softly.

"He is being an idiot somewhere else– leave him to that," Ziva said with a dismissive gesture. She swigged the last of her beer and said, "I am going to bed. You have the whole weekend to do that paperwork. Leave it now?"

"I don't have much left and I'd rather get it done now, and have the rest of the weekend free."

"This makes sense. Later, then."

"In a bit," Jen replied, slipping on her glasses.

And she didn't tarry. In a little under two hours, thirty-something documents were checked, amended if necessary, and signed, and fourteen forms were filled in. All of that and the rest of her paperwork was packed into the legal briefcase she'd wisely upgraded to. Her stylish brushed aluminum case she now reserved for meetings away from the office and trips out of state and abroad. It was far too skinny to cope with her regular stack of paperwork.

Jen opened the carved wooden box on her desk and took out a cigarette. It was a miracle that she hadn't upped her intake of both nicotine and alcohol in the last two years. This was her first smoke in three days, and it tasted good, gave her a little hit that was appreciated instead of taken for granted or missed entirely. She didn't miss her days of heavier smoking and drinking. The drinking had nearly gotten her into trouble, and then smoking had been something of a substitute. The people who determine if one should keep a Top Secret security clearance have no issue at all with tobacco products (as long as they're not from Cuba), but they do have very big issues with booze. Jen had woken up to that fact and had applied a lot of discipline, and limiting her alcohol intake had eventually become a habit of its own. Kicking the thirty-a-day smoking habit had proved a good deal harder than reminding herself that scotch isn't wine, that wine isn't beer, and that beer isn't water.

She dimmed down her desk lamp and rocked back in her chair. Jen blew a smoke ring and watched it sail into the darkness beyond the small pool of light on her desk. Smoke rings reminded her of Ziva, who'd taught her that there's no blowing at all when it comes to those rings. It involves making the back of one's tongue act like something of a hand-tap on a drum, a popping action. Jen took a drag and wasted it on four rings in a row, smiling at memories of the first time she'd managed just one, and how Ziva had gotten the giggles because that had been something of an accident: after much practice and cursing, Jen had popped her second ever ring nearly a week later. Hundreds had sailed into nothingness since then, and many of them had marked years where Jen had had no idea where Ziva was or what she was doing.

She'd often thought of those intense eleven days in Cairo, and how even though they'd spent so little time together in that period, and none of it alone, Ziva had somehow managed to turn just a few hours into quality time that had left a permanent mark on Jen's life. The same was true of only six days in Latvia. Even if she hadn't seen Ziva again in the years following the operations in Egypt and Latvia, Jen would have had to work hard to forget her. Sometimes that was best, in their line of work.

Impossible to forget her now, but at the same time Ziva was never anything like an attention-demanding presence. She was simply there, present in a comfortable way; a very welcome part of Jen's life.

How might that have changed if things had worked out with Brent Langer? How would it change if Ziva became romantically involved with anyone? For one thing, she probably wouldn't spend as much time in this house, and it was highly likely that staying the night, in whichever bed, would become a thing of the past. A small dart of sadness pricked at Jen's heart: she'd miss her 'Israeli body pillow' and their quiet, still-sleepy early morning conversations; she'd miss the other, more lively conversations held in the kitchen, their first meeting place if Ziva slept in another bed.

Jen had stopped herself from falling in love with Ziva, but she hadn't been able to stop herself from getting used to having her around. Changes to that fluid arrangement of arriving in each other's homes whenever they wanted to, were going to be really hard on Jen, and she was certain that Ziva wouldn't find it easy either. However, change is more easily dealt with by those open to the possibilities of change, and Jen had been somewhat foolish to cruise along and think these thoughts only now, when she'd practically been forced to.

Langer's advent and dismissal was a wake-up call—two such calls, in fact. Firstly, Jen was reminded to always expect change, even in this relationship with Ziva. Secondly, she was reminded that Ziva might just want to keep this friendship platonic. That would not be a bad thing, not at all, but it was difficult to know one way or the other without talking to Ziva about it, and a quiet voice with a slight edge of urgency told Jen to steer clear of the topic, at least for now. Langer had been dismissed just tonight, after all.

When Jen eventually crawled into bed, she didn't get a chance to use Ziva as a body pillow. A wiry arm came around Jen's middle, and tugged. It was rather an expert tug, and Jen had been here before: she just went with it and was pulled partway close; Ziva wriggled and tucked up behind her.

"Sheli," Ziva mumbled, not even half-awake. Mine.

"Shelach." Yours.

But Jen had whispered very softly, both to keep a small, somewhat helpless note from her voice, and because she knew that had Ziva been awake, she would not have even offered that possessive, let alone have stated it as a claim.

If she'd shared a bed with anyone else, and if she hadn't kicked that person out or hadn't gone home herself, come five a.m Ziva would have gotten out of that bed and gone running. She rarely went running if Jen was her bed partner, and she didn't even think of budging this morning. She was warm, and comfortable, but she was awake and she knew that she wouldn't get back to sleep.

Ziva didn't want to think about Brent Langer, but as her shrink would have said, 'You can put it off so it bites you tomorrow, or you can pull its teeth today.'

All she'd hoped was that he might work out either as a friend or as a lover, but in the latter case she'd also hoped that he would have been open to the idea that she wanted a life outside of a love affair.

Ziva believed in commitment, but she didn't believe in obsession. She didn't understand those women who became involved with someone to the extent that everything and everyone else faded into the background. She remembered being hurt several times, during high school, when her girl friends suddenly fell in love and seemed to forget about her, and everyone else. That had made no sense then and it made no sense now. Ziva had been in love three times, and she hadn't allowed that giddiness to steal her away from her friends. She loved them, too. Stealing time from them to give to her new love interest was something she considered almost criminal. She couldn't imagine being obsessed with anyone to the extent that she quit spending quality time with Jen, Gibbs, Ducky, Abby, McGee, and Tony.

Langer would probably have been jealous if she'd announced that no, she couldn't have dinner with him, because she was going to play pool or watch a game with Tony. Really jealous. He was just that type, something Ziva had picked up on during the second date, when he'd glared at a young guy who'd given Ziva an appreciative look or ten. So it was likely that if they'd continued to date, his jealousy would have prompted a breakup. Ziva despised possessiveness. She was not a piece of property. She did, however, like the idea of being cared for as she cared for others. Her friends were like her family: a part of her. That sort of gentle possessiveness was nothing like a bad thing, in Ziva's book, but she didn't think that a man like Langer would differentiate between 'mine' and 'mine alone.' The latter was ownership, the former, freedom.

There'd also been Langer's obvious expectation of things moving quickly into the bedroom, or probably the backseat of his car. Ziva wasn't a stranger to one-night stands. If that was her mood, she went out and got what she wanted and said goodbye after she'd gotten it. When it came to dating, however, even if her mood suggested that sex might be a really good idea, she twitched the reins and brought the urge down onto the bit, controlled it, because when she dated someone she was emotionally invested, and being hurt was the price of a mistake. She probably wouldn't have been hurt badly, where Langer was concerned, because after the first date with him she'd decided that being guarded and careful, and not allowing her emotions too much play, was a wise move. Still, as amply demonstrated by the amount of anger she'd felt last night, Ziva could only control so much, and no more.

Why were men like Langer so likeable? Why did they have to have those good traits mixed in with really bad ones? But at least he was honest; at least he hadn't tried to pretend to be anyone else. Ziva was good at spotting false actions and reactions, but outside of her professional life she tended to drop some of her 'super-spy' training around people she liked. She'd given Langer the benefit of the doubt, had given him, as she'd told Jen, three chances. He hadn't gotten the message that what she wanted was something other than a relationship that amounted mostly to hot sex and plans for more hot sex. She knew exactly what happened when the hot stuff fizzled out, knew exactly how much it hurt when she backed that hot stuff with an emotional commitment, one that was not answered in kind by her partner. There was nothing wrong with getting to know someone before jumping into bed with them, but men like Langer had this idea that jumping into bed was part of that getting-to-know-each-other business.

Maybe she shouldn't have made it so obvious that she found him attractive... Ziva snorted angrily at that thought.

"What's wrong?" Jen said sleepily, hugging Ziva's shoulders.

"Just thinking. Go back to sleep."

"I can have a nap later," Jen said and yawned. "You're supposed to be my body pillow..."

"Am I heavy?" Ziva asked, raising her head from Jen's shoulder.

"You always ask me that, and I always tell you no. Relax, and tell me what made you huff like that just now."

"Okay." Ziva rested her head down again. "I was thinking that maybe I should not have been so obvious when I checked out Brent's ass—"

"But just because you checked out his ass does not mean that you were going to say yes to sex on the first date, or even the twentieth date."

"Exactly, and remembering that made me angry. Why did I even think it was perhaps my fault? Sometimes being a woman is... is... Why do we think such ridiculous things?"

"Hormones, probably," Jen drawled. "We can blame just about everything on hormones."

"I went on three dates with him instead of one, because of hormones," Ziva said irritably. When a thought dropped in on her, she voiced it: "When last did you date anyone?"

"I haven't since I started at NCIS. A couple of guys have asked me out and I've said no. That's mostly been about work and knowing that a romantic relationship will involve grumbles from my partner about how much paperwork I bring home... Even you grumble about that."

"But not for selfish reasons," Ziva said. She shifted up onto an elbow and looked Jen in the eye. "I worry about you. Sometimes you do not get enough sleep."

"That's been happening less, because you grumble about the paperwork," Jen noted, and smiled. She added: "But if I was involved with someone... There aren't many who can accept that hours and hours of paperwork must still be done, even when one is in love. At least, it's not something easy to accept at the start of a relationship."

"True, and if there are grumbles and arguments in the beginning of a relationship... Not fun."

"Mmm. So for now I'm a bachelor girl," Jen said. And she added very honestly: "But one who's open to a relationship with someone who'll accept that my job is an important part of my life. In fact, I already have that relationship."

"And this is a good relationship," Ziva said seriously. "The best I have ever had with anyone... Brent would not have liked this... this intimacy you and I have. But he is gone. Time to stop thinking about him."

"Only if you're ready to move on," Jen said.

"I am," Ziva said with a nod. "I was not invested, and I am not hurt. I was just... pissed off."

"Okay... Ma at rotza la'asot ha'yom?" Jen asked. What do you want to do today?

"Shum davar," Ziva said with a grin. Absolutely nothing.

"Sounds good to me," Jen chuckled.


Chapter Fourteen

Jen hadn't liked the man who'd waltzed into her office with a briefcase chained to his wrist. He'd told her very little; the documents he'd given her had told her only a little more, none of it good. She had no idea what Ziva's orders were, and neither did Ziva. She'd promised to get Eli David to call soon and give Jen the basics.

Jen shook her head at the single toiletry bag sitting on the coffee table. Ziva could take nothing else. The clothes and shoes she was wearing now (their labels indicated that they'd been purchased in Spain) had been delivered to this apartment just twenty minutes ago. In another twenty minutes she'd go downstairs to a waiting car and be driven to Dulles airport, and flown to Israel in a private jet.

"Say something," Ziva said quietly.

"You'd better come back," Jen blurted.

"I will do my best," Ziva said with a wry smile. "Sometimes it is better not to know things, huh?"

"Sometimes not knowing is hell, but to have knowledge can be just as bad, if not worse... My imagination is fed on facts, none of them pleasant."

"Try not to imagine too much," Ziva said. She slipped an arm around Jen's shoulders and hugged her close. "I will come back so that we can talk like married people again, okay?"

"Is that a proposal?" Jen kidded.

"It is a promise I want very much to keep, but... Well, you know."

Jen knew. She'd been shot and she'd been shot at, she'd taken a few punches, she'd had knives drawn on her, and once someone had aimed a hunting bow at her.

"When was that?" Ziva asked.

"Never... ever work for the DEA. People on drugs are fucking crazy," Jen drawled, and she smiled when Ziva laughed. "I worked one job with them, when I was with the FBI. Never. Again. What's the craziest thing that's happened to you?"

"I stole a car that had no brakes, in the Tyrol," Ziva chortled.

"Oh my God. I'm seeing a little European car going over a cliff—"

"But I jumped out before it went over the cliff. The stupid man I was chasing came back to see if I was dead, so I caught him. Mefager."

"Brainless, I agree," Jen said, amused.

"I wish I knew what I will be doing. At least then I would be able to put my mind into the right gear," Ziva muttered.

"Considering that they're hauling you all the way from the US to do something, it must be skill-set specific. What can you do that few or no others can do?"

"In combination? A few things. We know it is a solo or minimal backup task. Climbing will most likely be involved. They are training several others to climb, my father tells me, but although those people volunteered for the training, although they want to do it, they are still very new to it, and it takes years to learn to climb like I can climb. People retire from the Mossad all the time. At one point, three years ago, I was the only climbing specialist left."

"Huh. No wonder Eli wasn't thrilled when you chose to sign on with us."

"A lack of preparation is my fault?" Ziva said with a humorless laugh. "That is what I told both him and the Director-General at the time. I also asked them if they liked the idea of that information being leaked: HaMossad has only one climbing specialist left. Sending only me to do whichever job that involves climbing would be as good as a target on my back... I must go."

"Dammit," Jen said, squinting at her watch.

Ziva gave Jen's shoulders a squeeze, and got up. Muttering about a glass of water, she jogged into the kitchen. Jen told herself not to cry, and hoped that that order would work.

"Einayim sheli?"

Jen blinked before getting up. Ziva rarely used endearments, because she came from a land where even men regularly give endearments to each other. In the States—excepting the ubiquitous and empty 'sweetie'—endearments are not offered to just anyone. Ziva had broken the habit of calling almost anyone 'sweetheart.' But einayim sheli is not a simple endearment. It's old-fashioned, and literally means 'my eyes'; it translates indirectly to 'most precious.'

Jen didn't comment on any of that and made her way into the kitchen, where Ziva put down her glass of water and reached behind her neck.

"You must keep this for me," Ziva said, removing the chain and Star of David from her neck.

"I told myself not to cry," Jen sniffled, taking the chain and pendant. "You come back. That's an order."

"I will do my best. Tzarich lalechet achshav," Ziva said quietly. I must go now. "Love you. Bye."

"I love you, too."

A swift kiss to Jen's cheek, and Ziva was gone. Jen looked at the small bundle of gold on her palm, and with her other hand she wiped tears from her cheeks.

"You'd better come back, Ziva David," Jen muttered, while fastening the chain around her neck. There was no safer place to put it.

"The last time Ziva was late, the FBI suspected her of blowing up a couple of their agents," Tony said, and glanced at his watch again.

"Gibbs isn't here yet either," McGee pointed out. "Coincidence?"

"Not likely," Tony said with a brief shake of his head. "Did you see that guy, yesterday evening? Tall. Visitor's tag. Spook stamped all over him."

"Weird, how some of them really look the part," McGee muttered. "Blond, but he looked Middle Eastern– that guy?"

Tony and McGee looked at each other for a moment.

"Mossad," they said in chorus.

"Hope Ziva hasn't been recalled," McGee said.

"Yeah. The Israeli's proven kinda handy."

"Which rhymes with 'eye-candy.' You're so obvious."

"And you're such a geek, O Elf Lord." Tony made to give McGee a head-smack, but a hand gripped his wrist, and squeezed. "Ow-ow-ow-owww!"

"Head-slapping is my prerogative, DiNozzo." Gibbs released Tony's wrist and gave him a tight one upside the head. "Siddown and listen up."

Both Tony and McGee knew that tone, and neither of them liked it one bit.

"How bad?" McGee asked, wincing in anticipation.

"That guy who was here yesterday evening? You did not see him. Clear?"

"Yeah, Boss."

"When Ziva gets back, you don't ask so much as a how-are-ya. The two of you will pretend that she never went away. You reading me?"

"Yes, sir," McGee said quietly.

"I got one question," Tony said.

"You get exactly one answer," Gibbs said, no-nonsense.

"Survival rate on missions like the one she's on?"

"For someone like her... around eighty percent," Gibbs said flatly.

"That's a solo run," Tony almost whispered.

Gibbs gave a slow nod, and firmly changed the subject, forcing the two men to get stuck into the case they were working. McGee only got to ask Tony about his 'solo run' comment at around four p.m.

"Operatives as good as Ziva double their chances of success and survival when they have a buddy who's only half as good as they are. Alone, Ziva rates the eighty-per, so a buddy would bring the rate up to a hundred-plus. She's solo on this one, whatever the hell it is."

"That's not—" McGee began.

"Don't say that word 'fair,'" Tony muttered. "It's not about 'fair.' It's about what works, McGee. The people who send operatives like Ziva out to do... stuff study that stuff from every angle you can think of, and some angles that you couldn't imagine. She's got a solo run, cos it can't work any other way."

"That sucks," McGee said and sighed unhappily.

He slumped back in his chair and was about to lace his fingers behind his head, when his eye caught movement near Jen's office. McGee looked that way properly and saw Jen pause on the walkway above the stairs. Their eyes met for a moment before she looked away. That was a clear message: No, I cannot talk about it.

"We shouldn't be talking about this," McGee said to Tony.

"I know," Tony grumbled, watching Jen head into the elevator. As she turned and pressed a button, light glinted off the chain and pendant around her neck. Ordinarily, he'd call that evidence for a certain theory of his, but not today. He swallowed a lump in his throat and kicked the side of his desk. "Sonuvabitch..."

"What?" McGee asked.

"Ziva left her Star of David behind."

"How d'you know that?"

"Jenny Shepard's wearing it," Tony muttered.

McGee blinked at Tony, then deliberately turned his back and concentrated on the information on his monitor. It was nearly time to go home, but McGee intended to work late tonight, without putting in for overtime. He wasn't too surprised when both Tony and Gibbs stayed late as well.

There was only one way to get to her lay-up: on foot. To arrive by way of the 'driveway' was suicide. The road was more than four miles long, and very steep. In places it was so narrow that even the smallest car wouldn't be able to complete a three-point turn, but the only vehicles suited to that 'driveway' were four-wheel drive SUVs and pickups. More to the point, Ziva didn't need to get as close as a vehicle could.

At the top of the 'driveway,' which was the end of that road, there stood a fairly large house built of stone. At any one time it was home to at least sixteen men, and none of them could be called 'civilians.' Ziva's target was just one man, but in order to really stir up the hornet's nest, she would drop as many as four others, possibly with thigh shots. She hadn't decided yet. That decision rested on what her eyes would tell her in about two days.

For now she had company in the form of a quiet former British SAS operator, a Yorkshireman with greying dark hair and the lean, weathered look common to most special forces operators. He was known to her only as Mick, and he didn't know her last name. After the completion of this little sniping operation, it was likely that they would never see each other again, and if ever they met by accident each would completely ignore the other. When they were on the move out here in the Latabund Mountains of Afghanistan, they hardly said a word. Talking would break their concentration, but would also sap their strength. They were hiking and sometimes climbing at an altitude of around fifteen-thousand feet, and to say that the air was rarefied was a gross understatement.

Three days ago they had been inserted via helicopter some two miles from the nearest human habitation, and nearly twenty-eight miles from the stone house. Sound carries in alpine regions, and Ziva shared the general concern that her target might be spooked by the sound of a helicopter.

Ziva and Mick carried everything they might need, which wasn't much. Their packs were super-lightweight, aluminum tube-frame alpinist rigs, which were crammed with the bare minimum of spare clothing articles, food, medical supplies, NVGs (Night Vision Goggles), insulated batteries, and ammunition; strapped to their packs were lightweight sub-zero sleeping bags and CamelBak hydration systems. Their only 'luxury items,' according to Mick, were toilet rolls and no-water-required hand soap.

They also carried climbing equipment: coils of rope and protection devices—the pieces of gear, like nuts, hexes, and cams, that are wedged into cracks in rock and to which the rope is attached by quickdraws, slings of stitched webbing with a carabiner at either end. Chalk bags held, as their name suggests, crushed French chalk that would help their hands and fingers to grip the rock. If and when the going became icy, a pair each of ice axes and titanium crampons would make for safer climbing.

Ziva carried their heaviest individual item: seventeen pounds of Chandler M40 .338 Lapua precision rifle, with a McMillan A-4 tactical stock. Mick never offered to carry it, and Ziva would not have accepted the offer if he had. In an unspoken trade-off, Mick carried their tent, but they hadn't needed it yet. He also carried their only communication device, a combined radio/GPS locator beacon with just two activation settings, one that called for an emergency extract with backup, and one that called for a standard, or 'mission complete' extract.

Mick was Ziva's guide, no more than that. He knew the area well enough to draw detailed maps of it from memory, which enabled them—with the help of NVGs—to hike and even climb in low light conditions. During the brightest and darkest hours, they found hiding places where both could go to sleep at the same time, without fear of discovery. Every camp was a cold camp: no fire, flame, or light of any kind. Their sit-down meals consisted of the as yet still experimental FSR, First Strike Ration; they snacked regularly on chocolate and gorp– 'Good Old Raisins and Peanuts'; their CamelBak hydration systems were refilled from innumerable mountain streams and 'doctored' with electrolyte sachets.

"Done for the day," Mick said abruptly.

They'd been hiking for five hours straight. Ziva didn't argue with his decision, even though she'd acclimatized to the point where she felt she could easily go on. Four days ago she had unashamedly called rest stops on the hour every hour, and after four hours of hiking, with a short climb thrown in, she had been the one to call it a day. Out there, knowing one's limit is literally a matter of life-or-death. If either one of them called a halt, the other was obliged to agree.

Ziva followed Mick up a short incline sparsely populated with pine trees and the occasional shrub. He stopped suddenly, and slowly brought his suppressed Galil SAR up to his shoulder. Ziva's sniper rifle was useless to her now, heavy and long and generally unwieldy. She mimicked Mick's slow walk backwards, but eventually got a grip on his pack, turned around, and guided his covered retreat. She hadn't seen what he had, but she could guess.

"Snow leopard?" she whispered.

"Aye. Just keep me moving. He's a big lad, and he's settled. Might spring at us, though."

"He might track us, too."

"Damn me if I'll shoot him just-in-case."

"Then we are agreed," Ziva said, and decided that she liked Mick. If the leopard came after them, then they might have to shoot it. Doing so as a preemptive measure was nothing short of criminal in Ziva's book. "You are fortunate. I have never seen one."

"I've seen plenty of 'em, but usually through binocs or a spotter's scope. Or at least from further away than twenty feet! Let's get a move-on."

Mick allowed Ziva to set the pace at a jog, which they kept up for ten minutes. He told her to slow up and they kept walking for another half-hour before he found them a leopard-free camp.

"That bit o' PT will cost us," Mick said.

"Yes," Ziva agreed. "And from now on we must mount watches."

"Two hours each. I got this one. You eat and kip down."

Before now they had usually been able to sleep for four hours straight before moving on. With their individual sleep time halved, and with the extra energy they'd expended while fleeing the leopard, Ziva and Mick had to slow their pace, and stop twice as often to rest and/or nap. However, they managed to adjust within twenty-four hours, exactly what any alpine warfare instructor would have expected.

"Say one thing for you," Mick said around a mouthful of chocolate. "I'd choose you over most o' the blokes I know."

"Thanks," Ziva said and allowed herself a grin. And she had to add, "But I wish I had had a camera when you and I first met. Your expression was very funny."

"I had to remember that Israel's got mountains. Where'd you train? The Golan?"

"Swiss Alps," Ziva said, shaking her head. "Climbing has been my sport since I was a girl. I wanted to see what alpine maneuvers entailed, so yes, the Golan first, but only for a fitness trial. I can suggest whatever training I think might be useful, and then my supervisor sees to it that I get the best. You go to where alpine warfare was invented, if you want the very best alpine warfare training."

"Makes sense... Actually, lots o' stuff the Mossad does makes sense. Very practical, most Israelis."

"I would change that to 'some Israelis,'" Ziva drawled.

"I hear ya," Mick said with a broad grin.

That they got along was a good thing, but both made sure to keep whatever bits of conversation relatively impersonal. They would temporarily part ways some time in the next two days, and Ziva would be on her own. There was still light enough and she got out her maps and satellite images yet again. Ordinarily Mick let her alone to study those, but he shifted over, next to her, and looked at everything in silence for a while.

"Fuck. No bloody wonder you've got to go it alone..."

"There is very little cover," Ziva agreed. "Two of us out there means more chance of at least one of us being spotted. And when the job is done, I must not run. I cannot. I will be seen. So I eliminate the alpha target, then relocate quickly, and reengage: two more shots—"

"Aye. Panic 'em, like."

"Correct. Then relocate again, and reengage: just one more shot. Relocate again, chamber the remaining round, drop clip, home full clip, and wait. I will increase the panic if necessary, but I think that with their leader dead and three in much pain, they will decide to take cover and tend their wounded."

"That's a three-three-eight Lapua you've got, right?"

"Yes, with an ASE Utra S7 suppressor. It moderates the three-thirty-eight's signature to that of a little twenty-two long rifle round. Just a crack."

"What range are you hoping for?"

"The rifle is zeroed to five-hundred meters. From this area here, and along this arc," Ziva said, tracing a line on a satellite photo. "The distance to this point, near the house, is exactly six hundred meters."

"From that distance, they won't hear a bloody thing. They'll know you're on the side o' the mountain, but that suppressor will keep 'em guessing about exactly where you are. Keep relocating..."

"I will be a ghost," Ziva said.

"Your alpha target. What'd he do?"

"Three months ago five Syrian youths decided that they would not blow themselves up on various buses on the same day. They handed themselves in to the police in Jerusalem and asked for protection from the man who had recruited them. Essentially, I am their protection. An attempt was made to kill three of them—a cousin and a pair of brothers. That attempt failed, but a Mossad officer was killed that day. Then one of the other boys left a safehouse to buy cigarettes, and his body was found a few days later. We have moved the remaining four boys to another country, but not even that will be enough. Those four boys know this man's face."

"And even with him dead..." Mick muttered.

"Yes. It is possible that this—what we are doing—is all a wasted effort, but it might be enough of a deterrent to keep those boys alive. That is my focus."

"Right. Not a good idea to try think past that. So. Lemme tell you about the climbing ahead of us..."

Ziva listened intently, sometimes halting Mick and repeating back to him his descriptions of rock formations, major cracks and crevices that would aid her climb, and larger landmarks that would be an aid, with a compass, to general navigation. He knew this side of the mountain, and its summit, but Ziva would be keeping to the east of the summit, following a ridge to a small col, or dip between two rocky outcrops that looked like horns. From there she would descend the south side of the mountain and make her way west towards the stone house.

"I could come along to... hereabouts," Mick said, tapping a map with a fingertip. "But that area, just over the col, is as far as I dare."

"Better that you remain on the north side of the mountain," Ziva argued, shaking her head. "Look at the satellite pictures: the south side is practically bare, just snow and stone. I will have to be very careful. As soon as I go over the col, I will be visible to anyone at that house who has good binoculars. The range from the house to the col is just under two-thousand meters."

"That bloody close?" Mick muttered. "Aye, all right. I'll go as far as that first horn, and anchor off a bivvy."

"Good. Yes. Get some sleep, and then you can stand watch later while I get more than two hours."

"Fair trade," Mick said with a grin.

Besides running and swimming, the only other exercise Ziva took was at a climbing gym. If she missed one of her thrice-weekly sessions on that wall, it was guaranteed to put her in a bad mood for a day or two. Climbing involves a combination of intense physical activity and high concentration levels, and skill is maintained and improved upon only by constant practice. Ziva rightfully felt that any practice session missed was a setback. Today she was grateful that she'd not missed too many of those sessions in the last couple of months.

She and Mick had a sheer face to deal with, and if that wasn't bad enough, the wind was gusting at forty miles per hour, delivering a windchill of thirty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. When the wind eventually dropped, it began to snow.

"There goes the spring warmth, proper-like," Mick complained. "This kind o' snow storm up here tells you just one thing: freezing fucking cold for the bloody duration. Thirty-six hours at least."

"But it is good for me and what I must do," Ziva pointed out.

"Good point."

For the next three hours they continued to traverse the rock face, going slow and safe, making double sure of the seating of every protection device, every hand- and foothold. Mick had the lead and made sure that they took breaks, hangdogging in their harnesses by means of quickdraws attached to hexes or cams.

The view was rather spectacular, even with the snow, and perhaps because of it. Flurries would occasionally reduce visibility to a couple hundred yards, and then the snow would thin, and something like a curtain was drawn away from a vista of snow-topped, rocky peaks. Ziva wished for a camera again. Instead, she'd have to try to describe this to Jen and anyone else who might want to hear it. She could say that she'd been climbing; that much she could say and she would. This view was too much to keep to herself.

When they reached the edge of the face they found themselves between loose rock and a high place. They had only one option: try to descend the face in order to traverse the slope below a scree slide. Continuing directly eastwards was not smart.

"With that sixty-degree incline that slide could boast a bloody sign saying, 'Break Your Legs Here.'"

"Tell me about it. But I think that there is a lot of rotten rock along this arête, up or down."

"Aye," Mick agreed, looking at the edge of the face. The crumbling, cracked rock looked dodgy, to say the least. "So we descend the face proper."

"Yes. Coming this way was still better than a scramble along the foot of this face."

"Oh, aye. Better and much faster."

Descending took time, though. They couldn't leave anything behind. As Ziva made her way down she wedged hexes and cams in wherever she could, and then she waited at each protection point while Mick removed the protection devices above her, and carefully relied only on hand- and footholds to reach her position. Slow going, tiring, and very stressful. They were both feeling all of that when they reached the foot of the face. Time for a long break.

"I went climbing in Utah last year, my first trip ever to the States," Mick said, while settling down in the windbreak provided by a large boulder. "Those civvie climbers think they're hot stuff, sport climbing and free climbing. Wonder how they'd handle climbing while carrying packs?"

"Some do carry packs, but most would not manage. At the climbing gym I go to, people say I am crazy because I climb with a pack that contains a twenty-five-pound sandbag. There is someone else who does that, but they do not say anything to him, because he is a mountain rescue guy."

"Huh. Wager he'd look askance at you right now: mostly full pack plus seventeen pounds o' rifle."

"If you make me think about that one more time, I will hit you," Ziva said and laughed.

It was dark by the time they made it to the slope on the other side of the scree slide. Except for the occasional mini slide in front of bus-sized chunks of crumbling rock, the going was good here, if somewhat steep. They pressed on with the help of NVGs, eventually reaching the foot of the short craggy face of the col. It took them a while to find a place flat enough to pitch their tent. They needed it, at last. The wind had come up again.

"Good thing I don't have to anchor-off overnight," Mick almost yelled over the wind. "Got it?"

"Tight," Ziva yanked on the fourth and last of the tent stays, double testing it. She'd used a rock to hammer in the pegs. "I am not going over that col tonight."

"Hour before dawn is soon enough," Mick agreed.

Given that the weather had turned foul, they risked a light in the tent. It wasn't likely that anyone would be outdoors for miles, but more to the point, it was still snowing and visibility had been reduced to just a few yards.

Ziva had Mick's help to plan what she needed to take with her tomorrow, in a smaller, frame-less pack that had been rolled up in a side pocket of her larger one. Like their clothes and their tent, the small pack was drab grey and sandy brown camo that blended in to their rocky surroundings. Ziva's rifle, scope, and suppressor were painted to match. That left her face and hands.

"Grease paint," Mick said. "And you're doing what with your hair?"

"Watch cap." Ziva took it out and laid it next to the grease paint. "I will pin up my braid and cover it with the cap."

"All right. Spare gloves. Scarf. Can't do without that parka. Sleeping bag. Three meal packs– you'll probably only need one, but if you get stuck, or they find me and this camp... Best you take three. Take our spare CamelBak as well as your own. Small med kit and a bog roll... And that leaves ammo."

"I have a box of twenty-five rounds, as well as five full clips: fifty rounds, total."

"Not meaning to tell you your business, but remember to reload those mags whenever you get the chance."

"I will remember," Ziva said.

She packed her small amount of gear carefully, thinking in terms of what she might need to grab first. She jammed the grease paint sticks and her watch cap into a side pocket, along with a few spare hair elastics.

Time to clean her rifle, a just-in-case procedure. The cleaning kit was a small, flat box. Mick screwed together the three-piece cleaning rod while Ziva removed the bolt from the rifle. She used a little cleaning fluid on the patch fed through a small loop at the end of the rod. Once down the barrel, stopping it before it popped out the muzzle crown, and she pulled it back: only a small greyish smudge on the patch. A drop of oil on the bolt, and she replaced it. A spent cartridge was fed into the breach, she shot and locked the bolt home, safety off, and a respectful squeeze of the two-stage trigger resulted in a clean Click! Safety on, bolt up and back, and the spent cartridge was cleanly ejected. Mick caught it, looked at the brass a moment, and handed it back to Ziva.

"Lapua. Did you load your own?"

"I have not yet used a factory-produced round for a job like this," Ziva stated. "All my rounds are hand-loaded, and yes, I did that myself."

"Good. And what about that rifle? Is she gonna get crunched after this?"

"No," Ziva said and chuckled. "I will not be able to police my brass, so a Mossad gunsmith will make small expert alterations that will completely disguise all the rifle's ballistic signatures, and then it can be used again. But other rifles have ended up 'crunched.' The first rifle I used was one that I had also trained with. It was an Accuracy International AW Mag three-thirty-eight Lapua. After my first sniping job... they 'crunched' my baby."

"That's why I never trained as a sniper," Mick chortled.

"I learned my lesson and I will not get attached to a rifle again, but this Chandler will be very hard to forget. Two days before we first met, I used up about a hundred rounds at a shooting range."

"How did your shoulder feel after that?" Mick asked, pulling a face.

"That suppressor reduces recoil significantly, and the Kick-Eez butt pad also absorbs a lot of shock, so my shoulder was fine... I must eat. Mick, I think we must find another way down this mountain tomorrow."

"Keep heading east, aye," he agreed. "Let's have the maps and pictures again."

It made sense to plan their exit in advance. While Ziva would have most of the advantage tomorrow, calling that 'insurance' was a fool's gamble. Advantage is lost if it isn't fully exploited. The satellite images and maps gave them a good idea of what they'd face by heading eastward: a much tougher descent.

"Those people at the stone house know this mountain," Mick said. "They wouldn't head that way, wouldn't think we'd go that way either."

"You are reading my mind. So it is more work, but a safer option, yes?"

"That's what my guts say. And we're risking a full night's sleep tonight."

"Yes," Ziva agreed. "And tomorrow you must nap whenever you can. When I come back I will have enough energy for us to move at least two, perhaps three clicks off this position. But when we make camp again—"

"You'll be lights-out PDQ."

"What is 'PDQ'?" Ziva asked.

"Pretty Damn Quick."

"Oh. Yes, it will be that way, and it will be best if you do not rest and give me four hours of sleep."

"That's why I'm here," Mick said simply. He didn't want to ask, but he had to: "And if you don't come back?"

"Wait until dusk to see if they have found my body. If they have it will be because they had someone with a scoped rifle who killed me, and he saw that through the scope. It is more likely that a stray round will get me. If so, they will not know that it is safe to go out on the mountain. So when you find my body, you know what to do?"

Mick's response was a nod. He knew that if she felt that she was too badly injured, she'd make quick, expert use of the tactical folding knife clipped to her belt. He wouldn't find her wounded. He'd find her dead. He'd carry or drag her body to a place with sufficient cover, then take her rifle, remaining ammunition, and every other piece of removable equipment, and set it aside. He had a can of benzine in his pack, and several cheap bandages. Her head and hands would be wrapped in the bandages, which he'd then soak with benzine, and set them alight. Mick would be long gone by the time anyone came to investigate the source of the flames.

"I'd really prefer it if you don't get killed, okay?"

"Me, too," Ziva said with a broad grin. "I promise that I will try very hard not to get killed."

"That's all I can ask," Mick said simply.

The snow had stopped falling, but the wind was still howling. In the dark before dawn, and with the help of NVGs, they'd plotted Ziva's short assault of the col's face. There were plenty of hand- and footholds, and she made the climb without need of protection points. Mick watched until she disappeared over the top, and then he returned to the tent. He hadn't bothered to wish her luck. She had all the skills necessary to make a success of the mission. All he had to do now was wait, and rest, and eat. And wait.

Over the col, Ziva was making her way as quickly as she dared to a crest of rocks. She'd identified the likely lay-up on satellite photos, but there was a chance that the crest would not afford her enough protection. If that was the case, she'd have to find another place.

And there were lights on in the stone house. When the wind shifted it brought to her ears the heavy thrum of a powerful diesel generator. If some of the men in that house were awake this early, it said much about their level of discipline.

Ziva never underestimated people. She tried to think of even children and the elderly as equals in every way. That kept her alert, aware that death comes quickly to those who think, I'm better than them. Every man in that house down there would be armed. If they saw her they would shoot at her, and perhaps a round that hit her would be a fluke, sheer luck, but what if they had someone with a rifle even a tenth as good as the Chandler across Ziva's back? The further she moved from the col, the closer she got to the house, and every step nearer increased the odds of being shot.

Today she had a job to do. Just a job. Her alpha target was simply a mark, someone whom she'd never met. This business was impersonal, a strategic assassination, a preemptive measure meant to deter anyone from hunting down four boys who had done the right thing. In the process they'd alerted the Mossad and other intelligence agencies to the presence of a faction split off from Al Quaeda. The boys were oblivious to that fact, and it was best if they were kept in the dark there.

If Ziva succeeded today, it was unlikely that any of these events would make the news anywhere. The elimination of this man might just be enough to kill off all loyalty to his ideals, and if that was the case, the splinter faction would dissolve without ever having made a solid impact anywhere. This is often the aim of intelligence agencies: to strike first, to render stillborn any possibility of a threat. Sometimes that involved guesswork, and if so the people involved in the initial planning of operations like this one, chose operatives other than people like Ziva.

A psychologist had profiled her as perfect for this job. Besides the compatibility of her skill-set, she responded positively and without question when presented with hard evidence of a target's wrongdoing. As such, this man, whom she knew only as Ashir, was as good as dead.

Ziva eventually found that, if anything, the rocky crest might provide too much protection. She scouted it silently, looking for a place where she'd be able to get down easily in order to relocate and reengage. She found an angled slab of rock that gave her exactly what she wanted: she'd be able to simply slide off of it, and then move on. There was time and so she scouted out her next two lay-ups before returning to the slab. She climbed up and settled down.

Now began the waiting game.

She extended the legs of the rifle's bipod, and flipped up the scope covers, before homing a five-round clip. She worked the bolt and chambered a round, then adjusted the mil-dot scope for a target at the distance of six-hundred meters. She'd make finer adjustments when that target came into sight. For the present she let her eyes do all the work, ignoring the scope until a couple of men stepped out of the house. By now the sun was rising and her NVGs had long since been packed away. The Nightforce scope did its job in both low-light and full light, and it clearly showed her that neither of the two men was her alpha target.

Even the best scopes can give an operator a bad case of eyestrain, and Ziva kept relying on her eyes, using the scope only to identify anyone who stepped out the house. She kept shifting and flexing various muscle groups to keep the cold at bay. Her hands were snug in thermal gloves, and a scarf over her nose and mouth both kept her face warm and saw to it that her breath didn't puff into steam, which might've given her position away.

She'd been lying on the rock for nearly two hours when her alpha target first appeared.

Gloves off, stuffed into a pocket.

Safety off.

Her left hand did the work of adjusting the scope. Her right hand never left its grip on the rifle stock. Scope adjusted, her left hand found the thumb-hook on the rifle's buttstock, and a little backwards pressure snugged it into her shoulder. Through the scope Ziva saw Ashir talking to one of his men. They laughed about something and Ziva waited until they resumed their regular discussion.

Her finger squeezed the trigger slowly, taking up the travel in the first stage. Breathe in. Breathe out. Hold it. She squeezed the trigger through the second stage. Crack!

At that distance the bullet had to travel for a full second before hitting the target, but Ziva was sure of her shot and didn't bother to watch him fall. Her right hand worked the bolt; her left held the rifle into her shoulder; through the scope she was already aiming at the upper thigh of the man Ashir had been talking to. Crack!

She watched him hit the ground, and eventually her ears caught the sound of yelling, and howls from the wounded man. She'd decided to alter her original plan. It would be better this way, better to move while the men down there didn't know whether to hide or help their wounded friend.

She made it fast and dirty, sliding down the slab of rock, risking a sprint to her next lay-up. Panting, she settled in fast, worked the bolt even before flipping up the scope covers. Down there men were scrambling. Two were dragging Ashir's body towards the house, and three were struggling to carry their wounded comrade. Other men were yelling, their expressions urgent. And one man had taken cover behind the open door of an SUV.

The hairs on the back of Ziva's neck prickled when she saw that he had a scoped rifle. She didn't hesitate to line up a headshot. As he was knocked backwards, his rifle was flung out and landed on the ground. Not part of the plan, but she had ammo enough: she aimed at the rifle in the area just behind the trigger guard. Splinters of wood flew as the stock shattered.

Ziva got up and ran again, but this time back to the crest, to the angled slab of rock. She worked the bolt and chambered the clip's last round, dropped it from the rifle and pocketed it at once. She homed a full clip.

Safety off.

They were shooting now, but shooting anywhere, just putting up a show more than looking for a specific target. One man was being a total idiot, standing in clear view. Ziva gave him his just deserts, a .338 round to the thigh.

More panic down there, but up here Ziva lay still and watched through the scope, while her hands were busy beneath her rifle, filling the empty clip with loose rounds taken from a pocket. By the time she was done, the men down at the stone house had wisely decided to head indoors, taking their wounded with them. The would-be marksman's body had been left, but they had taken Ashir's inside.

Ziva scanned the windows of the house, looking for a long barrel that would indicate another scoped weapon. All she saw was evidence of automatic rifles and carbines, and none were pointed her way. She scanned over the house again, just to be sure, and then she moved.

No running now. She kept to a crouch and sometimes crawled on all fours or on her belly. This was the hardest part of the job: getting back to the col. She had to rest once she reached its craggy feet. Three grueling hours of slow careful movement had taken an awful lot out of her.

Time to eat, and then she'd risk a nap.

Her guess was that the men down there would try to get their wounded better care than they could provide. That would involve taking the two men down the mountain to the town below. In one vehicle: a driver, and perhaps just one other man to tend the two wounded men. Ziva worked on the figure of sixteen, including Ashir and the dead marksman. Subtract those two, subtract four in the car, left ten men in the house. The question to ask now: would they attempt to find her, or would they wait for the return of their friends, who might bring reinforcements?

If Ziva was in that house she'd vote for moving soon, but then she hadn't felt any loyalty towards Ashir. By all accounts, Ashir had been a very charismatic man. With him dead it was quite possible that his men were emotionally devastated, in mourning, not thinking clearly. They would also be wanting revenge. How best to get it? Wait for reinforcements. Wait until they had more men to make combing both sides of the mountain an easier job.

But by the time those extra men arrived, Ziva would be gone.

There were men hunting them. They hadn't seen them, hadn't heard them, but they knew that those men were hunting them. They moved in short stretches of two hours, and then rested for two hours, sometimes anchored to rock faces or on ledges only wide enough to support their backsides. Whenever they rested, both slept. They needed to remain matched in energy levels now, or there'd be hell to pay. Neither of them could risk reaching a point where they'd need to rest for longer than two hours.

And the eastern descent of this mountain was murder. They had to risk securing protection points into crumbly, rotten rock; they often came up with short but very sheer faces that were covered over in verglas, a thin layer of ice that didn't support crampons and ice axes well; their hands were torn, and shins, knees, and elbows were grazed and bruised. Once, when Ziva had had the lead, she'd gripped a handhold only to have it crumble into nothing, and she'd taken a whipper fall, dropping and swinging past Mick's latest protection point. Her harness had bruised her pretty badly. After that, they had slowed their pace considerably.

It took them nearly thirty-four hours to reach a place where climbing gear was no longer necessary.

"Activate the beacon," Ziva said, while coiling her rope. "We head directly north now. Those men behind us will never expect that. And no rest until we are in the chopper."


Mick pulled the pin on the beacon and flipped a switch so that a green LED flashed. He withdrew the full length of the flexible wire antenna, and replaced the beacon in his pack, careful to let the antenna hang loose. As well as emitting a UHF radio signal, the beacon was fitted with a GPS tracker, enabling them to keep on the move.

Ziva set the pace of a steady hike, knowing that they might need to keep moving for as long as four hours before the helicopter arrived to extract them. They were relying on RAF support, and for all they knew, choppers of every variety, and every pilot had been deployed into some action or other. That wasn't a comforting thought. Ziva forced herself to focus only on putting one foot in front of the other, and by his expression she knew that Mick had forced himself to focus similarly.

They'd been hiking for close to three hours when they heard the welcome thud of rotors. Time to hold position on the rocky hillside, and wait.

"Hot shower," Ziva said and grinned at Mick.

"I want real food first," Mick chuckled.

"Okay, yes. Food first, shower later. I am going to need a doctor, too."

Mick leaned over and got a good look at the gash in her shin, and he whistled and grimaced.

"You're tough as old boots, you are... But much better looking."

"Thank you," Ziva said and laughed. She stood and waved both arms at the approaching helicopter, then turned to Mick and yelled in his ear, "And I am very grateful for your help."

"Like I said, anytime."

Ziva decided to get the debriefing out of the way first, before doing anything else. As usual it was done Mossad-style, fast and to the point. Is he dead? Yes. Did you have to kill anyone else? Yes, one more. Wounded? Two. And that was it, barring a reminder that discussion of the last eight days events in Afghanistan, and the preceding two days in Israel, with anyone who hadn't been read-in on the mission, constituted a serious breach of security.

And that was it. No thanks at all for a thankless job. Just the way Ziva liked it. If ever she was thanked for a job like this one, she might just quit.

A little later an RAF surgeon jokingly asked if she was human, and Ziva answered that yes, unfortunately she was: she felt like she was one big ache. She demanded to be stitched up and patched up in such a way as to facilitate that longed-for hot shower, and the doctor complied. When she eventually made it to the mess tent it was to find that Mick had decided on a shower first, too. No grease paint.

"Is that really you?" Ziva kidded.

"My mum will actually recognize me now," Mick said with a grin. "Get some o' this stew. It's damn good."

Beef stew and rice, and real coffee. After eight days of rations that were designed in a lab like science experiments, Ziva would have called cold baked beans on stale bread a meal fit for a king. What she was eating now tasted like the best thing in the world.

"Got debriefed?" Mick asked.


"You Mossad types don't half believe in expediency. Mine was the quickest bloody debriefing ever... Back to Israel for you?"

"No. I work in the States, with NCIS," Ziva said. Then she groaned: "I had better get good sleep tonight and on the plane tomorrow, because I will probably get back and have to dive into the middle of a case. Maybe I should be bad and take a day off..."

"Just one? Go on, be a devil and take two," Mick teased.

Ziva threw a scrunched up napkin at him, and grinned at him when he laughed. When she headed off to get seconds, she ended up thinking that she would miss him, while wishing that she wouldn't miss him, but knowing at the same time that she'd hate to be the kind of person who could forget good people like Mick.

The big C-17 Globe Master III had refueled in midair twice on its way to Andrews Air Force Base, not that Ziva had been much aware of either event. As soon as the plane had taken off she'd made herself something of a nest between two locked-down cargo crates. Snug in a sleeping bag, and with earplugs keeping down the volume of the plane's massive Pratt&Whitney engines, she'd spent most of sixteen hours asleep. By the time she and the crew of just three landed, Ziva was so hungry that she was tempted to stop at McDonald's before going to Jen's place. She tided her hunger over with a small bag of M&Ms from a vending machine in the base's visitor's lounge. When her cab arrived she told the driver to take her to Glen Echo.

At Jen's house the study light was on, indicating that Jen was still awake, but it was late, almost midnight. Ziva took a moment or two and decided to knock at the door instead of using the hidden key.

The door was opened eventually. The two women stared at each other for a while before Jen got a grip on Ziva's sweater and tugged her inside, shutting the door before wrapping her in a tight, fierce hug. Ziva dropped her bag, the better to return that hug. She had bruises just about everywhere, and a few of them were complaining about Jen's grip, but Ziva ignored them. It was good to be back; it was very good to be safe; it was wonderfully good to be held and hugged.

"I was beginning to think the worst," Jen eventually admitted softly. She'd never worried as much about anyone as she had about Ziva. She swallowed a lump in her throat, and said, "Your father told me you'd be out of contact for five days at most. You've been gone eleven days."

"The plan had to change. We could not risk being inserted too close to the target's residence, because the sounds of helicopters might have made him run. The terrain did not allow safe landing for parachutists, so we were inserted via helicopter fifteen miles, as the crow flies, from where we had to be. The actual distance was close to twenty-eight miles, and all uphill, or... up-mountain. We, umm, hoofed it. That is the right saying?"

"Yes, but I was told you'd be alone."

"He is an ex SAS man, and I had him along as a guide and climbing partner, but during infiltration and exfiltration only. I was alone for the job itself; I left him, and went ahead alone for about two clicks, to my lay-up."

"I felt better for a bit, but now I don't," Jen muttered. "It sounds like it could've turned into a suicide mission."

"But I am here now," Ziva said, resting their foreheads together.

"And I could kiss you," Jen said very honestly indeed.

"Kiss me when I can enjoy it," Ziva said plainly. "I have not yet allowed myself to think about what I did. It is in the back of my mind, acting like a lion in a cage, pacing back and forward. I will think about it tomorrow. Maybe I will have to call Doctor Heller, but maybe not."

"You've had enough practice to know when that sort of call is necessary or not," Jen said. After a short pause: "You've gotten skinny."

"The RAF doctor used the word 'wiry.' I had seen him for a Vitamin B complex shot before my partner and I went out. When the doctor saw me yesterday, he said that I had become wiry."

"Skinny," Jen insisted. "I made lasagna tonight, thinking to freeze some. Kitchen. Go."

"Have I ever told you that you are bossy?"

"Only all the time... I think you might want this back."

Ziva turned in time to see Jen removing the chain from her neck, and she stood still while Jen stepped close and her fingers closed the clasp under long dark hair.

"Back where it belongs," Jen said of the little Star of David.

"Did you wear it all the time?"

"I never took it off," Jen said, nodding.

"I bet Tony thought interesting things about that," Ziva said, amused.

"Y'know, I don't think he did. He and McGee and Gibbs have all been just as worried as I've been. C'mon, you: kitchen."

"Okay, okay..." Ziva chortled.

Jen resumed being bossy after Ziva had had her very late dinner, bossing her upstairs and into a hot bath. After that Jen removed the waterproof dressing over the stitches in Ziva's shin, and shook her head over the generally bruised and grazed state of her legs and arms.

"The rest of me was not spared either," Ziva muttered. "You see these marks? From the leg loops on my harness. I fell once. Whipper. Big, big scary swing... and then WHAM! Into the rock face. It was a full-body harness. Sore shoulders, too."

"You need drugs," Jen muttered, and got up to fetch Tylenol and a glass of water. "Or maybe you're already on drugs. I can tolerate heights, but climbing is crazy stuff."

"It is not. You should have seen the view."

"The view I have is of banged-up you. I think you need to go see a doctor about those hands tomorrow."

"They will be fine. I did a good gluing job."

"Nuts!" Jen chortled. "I still can't believe that you really use superglue..."

"Medical grade superglue, and it is very good, much better than tape. When you take off the tape it opens the flapper, the torn skin again."

"Urgh. Here. Take those."

"Sometimes you are such a girl," Ziva teased and popped the Tylenol.

"If you weren't all banged-up, I'd be tempted to ask you how 'girly' Judo is."

"Krav Maga beats Judo," Ziva shot back.

"Not fair. Krav Maga beats just about everything," Jen chuckled. "I was going to say earlier that we've really gotten into the habit of sounding like married people—"

"I told you that I would come back so that we could talk like married people again."

"You did, thank you. As I was saying, now we sound like kids."

"Hmph. This 'kid' spent sixteen hours asleep," Ziva said, crawling into Jen's bed. "But it does not feel like it. Tired again."

"I think you'll be feeling all that tension and exertion for a couple of days yet. Will you take tomorrow off work?"

"Yes," Ziva said and yawned. "You still have paperwork to do?"

"It can wait. I'm taking tomorrow off, too," Jen said. "I worked through the weekend to keep myself from going nuts with worry."

"I am sorry."

"You have nothing to be sorry for," Jen stated.

She went downstairs to turn off several lights, and when she came back she stopped in her bedroom doorway to watch Ziva sleep for a while.

Sometimes Jen had a hard job with keeping a rein on her emotions, and now was one of those times. She could introduce the subject, and suggest that she and Ziva talk about the path this friendship might take, but there was a still little check in Jen against doing so. Something was telling her to leave well enough alone, to be patient, because Ziva might not be ready to answer that level of emotion. That would hurt Jen a little, but she would get over it. It might hurt their friendship a lot, however, and Jen would not get over that.

And there was much to be said for their current level of involvement, much to be said for being two women who were unafraid of a simple truth.

"Love you," Ziva mumbled sleepily, hugging Jen close.

"No Hebrew tonight?" Jen teased.

"Ohevet otach," Ziva chuckled. "Better?"

"Metzuyan. Gam ani ohevet otach," Jen said, smiling. Perfect. And I love you.

The best psychological preparation for a sniper, is no preparation at all.

Snipers are generally selected through testing that reveals their personality type, with the ideal being someone who exhibits high levels of conscientiousness, high levels of emotional stability, and the ability to see certain circumstances in 'black and white.'

Conscientiousness: every good sniper feels that killing is wrong, but sometimes necessary.

Emotional stability: every good sniper has the ability to think clearly, react swiftly, and remain in control of both their environment and their emotions during high-stress situations.

'Black and white': if a child, or someone's invalid grandmother, or even a member of the sniper's own family is holding a gun on a room full of people, a good sniper will still see that person as a target, without second thought on the matter.

Thinking about it happens later.

Since the start of her career, Ziva had been ordered to kill eleven people. There had been others besides the eleven. The would-be suicide bomber had been her first and to date, the most difficult to deal with after-the-fact. He had been a 'reaction kill,' someone who had put her life and the lives of around forty others, including Jen, in danger. Ziva had drawn her gun, aimed, and fired. Thinking had happened later. Thinking and feeling, and even now, nearly eleven years on, she could remember his very young face, could see him falling. She tried not to think about him too often because whenever she did, her heart broke a little each time. To combat that she forced herself to view him as a would-be murderer, someone who had been completely intent on killing innocent people.

The rest were like the marksman on that mountainside in Afghanistan. She had killed them in self-defense. They were 'clean shootings,' meaning that her actions were more than justified. There were six in all, including the would-be bomber.

But assassination is a very different ballgame to a situation where one has no option but to shoot or be shot, kill or be killed.

Although every one of those eleven people had done enough to warrant life sentences in countries with even the most lenient of legal systems, killing them had been wrong. Ziva clung very tightly to that idea, while feeling as well that her actions were necessary. She held as fact the idea that she would not be an assassin if not for people like those eleven targets. However, she knew that she would reach a point in the future where no amount of justification would be enough, where no matter how thoroughly evil the target, she would refuse to kill him or her.

"One day I will have to say no," Ziva said quietly.

"We all have our limits," Jen said. They were sitting on opposite sides of the breakfast nook table in Jen's kitchen. It was a favorite post-lunch place to talk. The bench seats were comfortable, and the coffeepot was nearby. "I found my limit first time out... I often wonder if I'd have done it if my mark was a man."

"Huh," Ziva snorted.

"Which means?"

"Men are cowards when it comes to female targets. They think it is easier for us– it is not. If a man has a choice, he will order a woman to kill a female target."

"On the money..." Jen drawled, and decided not to tell Ziva that Gibbs had been the man to make that particular decision. "When you hit your limit, what might the reason be?"

"A personally observed erosion of my humanity."

"You think that that's a possibility?" Jen asked.

"I must believe that it is, or it might begin to erode without me being aware of it," Ziva said.

"And that's what makes you an assassin, and not a killer."

"Very few see that difference," Ziva said softly.

Jen bit back an urge to criticize those who couldn't see the difference. She'd been an Army brat, and had served as a Naval Intelligence officer; she'd worked for Interpol, for the CIA, for the FBI, and the ATF; she'd held the position of security chief at two separate US embassies; at present she was Director of NCIS, which was a law enforcement agency that was also an active intelligence, counterintelligence, and counterterrorism agency. Jen had almost been bred to see and understand the difference between the concepts of 'assassin' and 'killer.' She also knew that very often the term 'assassin' is misused.

A hit man is not an assassin. A drive-by shooter is not an assassin. A 'soldier' in a gang, the mafia, the Yakuza, the KKK, or a terrorist cell is not an assassin. Trained assassins don't operate from a position of personal motivation, or for whatever kind of personal gain, be it financial or a status boost. Whenever killing results from personal motivation or will provide personal gain, the person who does the killing is just a killer, and never an assassin.

"I'm really glad that I know the difference," Jen said. "It's one of the reasons why we have this friendship."

"Yes. You understand me. That is rare, and something for which I am very grateful."

"Hey, there are two of us in this relationship, and I'm not the easiest person to get along with," Jen said.

"Mi amru et zeh? Hem lo makirim otach," Ziva said. Who said this? They don't know you.

"They haven't tried to get to know me," Jen said with a shrug. "Most of that has to do with my bitchy professional rep... And it's funny. So many men are utter bastards in their professional lives, but that's business, perfectly acceptable. As soon as a woman takes a hardline stance, she's a bitch, and a bitch is just plain nasty, which is never acceptable."

"Double standards..." Ziva said, clucked her tongue, and shook her head. "It is the same for me. It is okay if men kill, because that is their job. But me? I must be a monster."

"I think it's a lot worse for you," Jen said gently.

"Sometimes," Ziva whispered. She wiped angrily at sudden, traitorous tears. "To cry is to let them win, even if they cannot see."

"Ziva, if it hurts, and you don't cry, it'll build up and end up hurting you even more."

"Doctor Heller is very good at getting me to cry. I cry often enough, and I do not want to cry now."

"All right," Jen almost whispered.

"I am sorry. My tone—"

"Was surprising but very understandable," Jen said, shaking her head. "No apologies. And something tells me that you'd like a change of subject."

"Lo bed'yuk," Ziva said. Not exactly. "I have not asked yet: you know the basics, but did my father read you in on this latest operation?"

"Officially? Yes. He also cleared me to view your operational jacket. The couriered copy is in my safe at work."

"Good. That is better. I was going to ask him to clear you, when I go to Israel in June," Ziva said.

"In that case I'll read it," Jen said and lit a cigarette, which Ziva immediately stole. She didn't bother to light another. They'd share this one. "I asked if he'd consulted with you regarding your jacket, and he said no."

"He need not consult with me about something like that."

"I have better manners."

"Much," Ziva said, amused. "At least where I am concerned. When we are not at work."

"My 'hardline stance' is going to slip a little tomorrow," Jen said, tracing the wood grain of the tabletop with a fingertip. "The guys and Ducky and Abby all know that we're friends, and just for tomorrow, they're going to expect some sort of indication, or demonstration of that."

"Like what?" Ziva chuckled. "If they know about our friendship, then they can guess that you took today off to spend with me. That is not enough?"

"It's more than enough in some ways, and in others it's... lacking," Jen said, amused. "Gibbs told everyone that when you get back they shouldn't acknowledge your absence."

"Ahh. He can be a bit overprotective sometimes. I mean, in some ways his order is correct: do not acknowledge my absence when talking to anyone who is not a member of our team. But while at work... No-no. Overprotective."

"And I said as much. He said that he'll follow my example, and so will the rest of the team."

"Well, last night you said that you could kiss me," Ziva ragged.

"And that is a prime example of the term 'overkill,'" Jen chortled. "You're going home tonight? So you can walk in at work and gimme a good morning hug."

"Which style? A-frame American, or Latin-American-Euro-Israeli-just-hug-dammit?" Ziva drawled. "I hate those stupid A-frame hugs where there is enough distance between two people's knees to park a Smart Car."

"Not quite that much," Jen said, highly amused. "And I'll order up a just-hug-dammit, thanks."

Day Thirteen. McGee looked up as Gibbs walked in with Jen. Their expressions said a lot, but that glint of gold was missing from Jen's neck, and that said it all. McGee scrambled out of his chair and punched Tony on the shoulder. He nearly dropped his phone.


"She's back. Your girlfriend can wait."

"That was my dad, McGeek," Tony said, but without even a hint of venom. He said quietly, "Y'know, the last time I worried this much about someone, it was a family member."

"Same," McGee said, nodding. "Umm, I was actually gonna put in for medical leave today. Saw my shrink yesterday evening."

"It's a smart guy who goes to a doc before he gets sent to a doc," Tony said, looking McGee in the eye. "And maybe you should still take a day or two. Frankly, you look like crap. No sleep?"

"Couldn't. Not a wink last night... I should go wash my face, or something. She's been under enough stress not to worry about me."

"If Ziva heard that," Jen stated. "She'd probably smack you, Tim. We all care about each other. Evidence of that is never a bad thing."

"G'morning, Director," Tony and McGee mumbled.

"Good morning. Questions, gentlemen?" There was only one, really: is Ziva okay? Jen opened a file and read from a list of relatively minor injuries jotted down by the RAF surgeon. She added her personal opinion last. "Same old Ziva, but she climbed a mountain, so she's lost a few pounds, and has a few scuff marks and stiff muscles and some stitches... and superglue."

"What?" Gibbs laughed.

"Glue," McGee said and nodded. "She uses superglue instead of Band Aids when her fingers and hands get torn up while climbing."

"I thought it was crazy until an ER doc used glue instead of stitches in a cut on my hand," Tony said. "Less pain, less itching while it healed, and it healed faster."

McGee had called Ducky and Abby, who duly arrived and, after asking how Ziva was, they joined the conversation. Ducky grumbled that superglue was sadly not of any benefit to his 'patients.'

The members of other Major Case Response Teams respectfully kept their distance and got on with their work, but eyes were often cast in the direction of Jen, Gibbs's team, Abby, and Ducky. Nearly everyone in the building was aware by now that Ziva had been gone for several days. They knew better than to ask about it, but then, they didn't have to. Ziva's teammates and colleagues were talking in a relaxed manner for the first time in almost two weeks. The feeling among other MCRT personnel was one of simple relief. They barely knew Ziva, but that didn't matter: she was a part of their family. She was back and she was okay, and that was all that they needed to know.

Jen had told Ziva to be at work by nine instead of eight, and she strolled into the squad area precisely on the hour.

"Nu?" Jen said. Well?

"Boker tov," Ziva said warmly. Good morning.

"Boker or," Jen answered, smiling. Morning light.

Jen got her good morning hug, and so did each of the rest of the team. And McGee was fussed over and told to go home. Abby had a slow morning in the labs and offered to drive him.

"I can drive," McGee grumbled.

"How many intersections are there between this building and your place?" Abby demanded.


"Right. I'm driving you."

McGee grumbled all the way to the elevator, much to Ziva's amusement. She sat at her desk and found that Jen was still leaning against it.

"At lo ovedet kan," Ziva chuckled. You don't work here.

"Slave-driver," Jen drawled, and walked away, smiling at two demands for a translation. She said to Gibbs and Tony, "You two will never get rid of me that easy. The Gillis case, people. Progress is slow. Fix it."

"We are still working on the Gillis case?" Ziva asked.

"Yeah," Gibbs said with a grin. "But I got a hunch that we might just be a little more focused now."

"Strange notion," Tony laid it on. "Wonder what gives you that idea, Boss?"

"Shuddup," Ziva chortled.


Chapter Fifteen

"I suppose that if I dread this, it will be worse."

"Probably." Jen offered a smirk in reply to Ziva's glare, and she took a bite from a slice of homemade pizza. Ziva was packing for a trip back to Israel, and the slice of pizza was Jen's fourth. Ziva hadn't had very much to eat. "At least I'll be here to make sure you have breakfast tomorrow."

"Fuss-bugger," Ziva muttered.

"I think you mean fussbudget. A bugger is something else entirely," Jen chortled.

"Fine," Ziva grumbled.

"Cheer up," Jen said gently. "You'll only be gone five days, two of those mostly taken up with travel, which leaves three days. You're seeing your father on one of the three days... What you haven't said is where you'll be."

"I will see my father in Tel Aviv, and then I will go to the South, to Mitzpe Ramon, to visit with my mother and her family. After that I must report to Anaf Metzada. I do not know why. Possibly something as simple as meeting new members. All of us good little kidonim must remain in-touch and trusted by each other."

"You don't trust any of them," Jen stated.

"Correct. And they do not trust me."

"I think that they might fear you."

"The ones who know me, yes," Ziva said simply. After a short pause: "My father is the Memuneh, and because of that their fear has become more... complicated. He is the Boss, and his daughter has that reputation of being focused enough to kill her own people. They will be nervous. I will not be able to work with them if they are thinking with only one half of their brains about the mission, while the other half is worried about what I will say to Eli David about their performance. I do not think it is possible to fix this."

"You could transfer out of the Metzada Branch."

"I cannot just stop being a kidon," Ziva almost whispered. "I am useful even to you, to this government in that capacity, so I must remain a member of Anaf Metzada to act as a kidon. You see?"

"I wish I didn't, but yes, I do," Jen said. She thought carefully, weighing risks and gains, before saying, "This is the first time you've confirmed that you're a kidon. I took that for granted, even before you first mentioned Metzada, and before I was cleared to view your full jacket."

"I could not talk about it before you were cleared. And I will not be saying much more than I have now," Ziva said. "This is mostly because what you have been told by some of those formal, very brief reports in my dossier, is enough. You will not want to know more than that."

"When anyone sounds as certain as you do now, I trust their judgment. I trust yours," Jen said quietly. "But it won't be about wanting to know, or not. If you need to talk, I'll listen."

"I might need to talk sometime, but not now," Ziva said, lifting her large duffel bag down to the floor. She shoved it out of the way before sitting on her bed next to Jen. "I feel... stupid, and childish. I really do not want to go."

"Then don't."

"I have to."

Ziva held up her credentials wallet yet again and this time her badge bought her a one-way ticket straight past customs. She approached and spoke briefly with a uniformed security officer, and then left the woman to relay a message by radio to the airport's central security office. By the time Ziva exited Ben Gurion's Terminal Three, a car and driver were waiting for her. The driver didn't get out to help with her luggage. When she got into the car she told him where to take her, and after that not another word was said.

Her father's home was in Ramat Gan, just to the east of Tel Aviv. It was nothing fancy. A two-bedroom apartment in a rather nondescript building. However, if anyone walked into the small lobby by mistake, they'd probably be surprised to find that they'd need to step through a metal detector, and beyond that they'd be greeted by two heavily armed people wearing very unfriendly expressions. Ziva's father was not the only Mossad staff member who lived in this building. The security personnel gave her a key and let her board the elevator, and she forgot about them after that. She got out on the fifth floor and made her way to the door at the end of the hall.

It was a hot, humid day and the first thing Ziva did was turn on the air conditioner. In the guestroom she unpacked only what she needed to dress after a shower. There was a note left by the bedside, but she didn't read it until she employed a hairdryer after her shower. As she'd expected, the note was unsigned. It told her where to find a pistol and ammunition, and it made mention of the fact that there was no milk in the fridge. Ziva rolled her eyes and suspected that after a look around the kitchen, she'd need to go shopping for a lot more than milk.

She hadn't wanted to come here, mostly because 'here' involved dealing with her father. However, and as always, whenever she was in Israel it really felt like home. She preferred the dry heat of the Negev Desert to Tel Aviv's high humidity, but even Tel Aviv seemed to exude a 'You Belong Right Here' atmosphere. Being able to speak and think in just one language certainly added to that feeling, and she didn't have to make an effort to blend in; didn't have to try to act American-half-asleep-casual instead of Israeli-always-alert-but-casual.

While shopping she got into a political debate with an absolute stranger, and that, too, was like a neon sign saying, 'Welcome Home, Ziva David.' The little debate was prompted by a radio talk show blaring into the makolet, or convenience store. Their conversation continued while Ziva sought out fruits, vegetables, dairy products, eggs, bread, and a Pesek-Z'man (Time Out) Black chocolate bar, because she couldn't resist. At the checkout she and the absolute stranger parted with broad smiles, offering each other good wishes for the evening. Ziva's smile lasted through two more stops, and all the way back to the apartment building, but it faded when one of the security men told her that her father had arrived.

In the elevator Ziva decided that she would try to make the best of it for this single night and for half of tomorrow. She and her father might just manage civil conversation. Perhaps. All she could do was try to facilitate that, and hope that he didn't pick up on the fact that she was handling him. Only a few seconds of thought about that changed her mind. If Eli realized that she was manipulating him in any but her usual way, there'd be hell to pay. And in any case, arguing him into a corner wasn't manipulation. It was winning fair and square. She hadn't lost any of those battles yet and she didn't intend to lose even one, ever. People who knew Ziva might've pitied her father, but only until they realized that he just didn't seem to learn.

When she walked in Eli was sitting at his neat desk near the door. He didn't pause in his telephone conversation to someone, and his greeting to Ziva was a lift of his hand. He was speaking Farsi, a language Ziva understood but didn't speak, and one she was determined to learn. It was at the top of a list that included another three languages she considered important: Yemeni Mehri, Pashto, and Persian Dari. While unpacking the groceries she thought wryly that if anyone of average intelligence was to view that list, while knowing that Ziva was also fluent in several Arabic dialects, they'd say she wanted to learn the other four languages because she had it in mind to catch a few extremists. In reply Ziva would say, 'Don't generalize.' After living in America for a while, she could say with certainty that lots of people who spoke only English (and not very good English at that) could be called 'extremists,' but more to the point, intelligence work mostly involves listening to what ordinary and very innocent people have to say. Understanding and being understood by those people makes it possible to weed out the very small number of bad guys.

When her father got off the phone, he greeted Ziva properly and warmly, but they didn't hug. Hugging wasn't part of their language, but he grinned broadly when she presented him with a kafeh kar, sweetened double espresso mixed into cold whole milk, a favorite Israeli drink. That was as good as a hug. Ziva mentioned that there was more grey in his hair, and that he'd gotten skinny.

"Stress. It seems to me that I've done nothing but fix things for all of my first year on the job. There was too much action and not enough administration done by my predecessor, so..." Eli looked down at his long, lean frame. "My clothes are too loose now. When I finish with fixing things, it'll be better."

Ziva answered civilly and they managed a lot more civil conversation for quite some time. Ziva knew how to read her father, however, and sensed that he was holding something back. Perhaps he wanted to speak of it only tomorrow, but Ziva was tired and she wanted to sleep easy when she went to bed, instead of tossing and turning and trying to guess what he wanted to say. When a clock on a wall told her that it was fast approaching nine p.m, she quietly suggested that it would be best to just say it, so that they could both enjoy a good night's sleep.

Eli stared at his daughter for a moment, remembering rather abruptly who he was dealing with. She could seem so ordinary; she could affect the air of a woman straight out of college, or seem like a housewife, and then suddenly she was the woman he'd helped to make, the woman he sometimes feared, even when she was nearly six-thousand miles away in America.

Eli said not a word while he fetched his briefcase and handed Ziva a large manilla envelope. She knew by its weight that it contained photographs.

"You've been taking pictures of my friends again."

"Friend, singular," Eli said, then switched to English: "I want to practice my English. I know that she speaks Hebrew, but... stiffly. She speaks it like an Ulpan school teacher who instructs immigrants. But I wish she was still here. She was very good, when she worked here."

Ziva flipped through photos of Jen and herself indulging in a rare shopping trip and lunch out. Other photos showed Ziva arriving at Jen's place; Jen getting out of a cab in front of Ziva's apartment building. Ziva did not dare take it for granted that she was often watched. She could never relax, just in case the people watching on any given day were not Mossad operatives. She herself did not bear grudges, but other people did, and several of them would probably enjoy making her suffer before killing her. It paid to be aware. These photos were not a surprise.

"Her Hebrew is better now."

"I imagine, yes," Eli said lightly.

"What? I cannot have friends?" Ziva muttered.

"Not if a friendship with someone will jeopardize your position. The Americans like very much to, umm, throw their rulebooks at people. Yes?"

"I am aware. So is she. We are friends because we understand each other. Take more pictures, Eli'ezer. Pictures are not enough to intimidate me."

He knew what it meant when she addressed him by his full first name, something she'd begun to do during her first year of training with the Mossad. It was a power game, and to date he hadn't ever won it. Where had her will come from? Not her mother, but perhaps from Zara, Ziva's great aunt who had escaped from Majdanek. There was also Eli's father's iron will, and perhaps that had somehow missed a generation, and had been bestowed upon Ziva.

And so, into the fray:

"You two are more than friends, and when that rulebook is thrown at both of you, I will make sure that you're disciplined for irresponsible behavior."

"Well, yes, you can do that, but it is conditional on the rulebook being thrown."

Eli was controlled enough to keep his mouth shut, to keep his expression blank, but he couldn't keep a small amount of frustration from showing in a tightening of the lines at the sides of his eyes. He'd wanted practice in English and now he was getting practice in the art of keeping his cool, because Ziva had shot him a small 'Touché' smile upon noticing the expression in his eyes. It was time to be smart.

"Let's start again," he said.

"Okay," Ziva said. "Please. Start again."

"You love her?"


"She is worth it? Worth the risk of considerable damage to your career?"

"I love her but I am not in love with her," Ziva stated simply.

"I understand the distinction you're making, but it's easy for outsiders to think there's no distinction." Eli took the photos from the coffee table and found a short series that showed Jen offering a forkful of a sweet pastry, and Ziva accepting it. He dropped the pictures one after the other on the table, so that they resembled a short, stilted movie. He shuffled through other photos taken on the same day and found one in particular: the two women were looking at something in a store window; Ziva stood behind Jen, with an arm around her waist, her chin resting on Jen's shoulder. "Americans are... very strange, I give you that. If that picture was taken here in Tel Aviv, I would not be concerned."

"You have a point," Ziva conceded easily. "She will be angry about being spied on, but if I can take these photos with me?"

"You can. I think you should... And Ziva, I am not saying that you shouldn't have friends."

"I realize, but you could have said that before—"

"Yes. I am sorry," Eli said. "It's difficult to be both your father and your boss, you know?"

"And it is difficult for me to be both your daughter and a Mossad officer."

"Difficult? It seems to me that you manage better than I do."

"Maybe you should have tried working as a field operative for a time. It is easier to learn how to fool people when your life depends on it."

That was a poke with a sharp stick, one that only Ziva dared to deliver personally. Most of Eli's predecessors were men of action, men who had been soldiers first before taking on mantles within Israel's intelligence community and eventually owning the title Memuneh. Several of them had been decorated war heroes. The man he'd recently replaced was one of those, Meir Dagan, who'd been the right man for the job in all respects bar one: he lacked political finesse. Another small fault had been his sometimes lax approach to administration.

"This said with respect, because in some ways I have very big shoes to fill. However, Dagan is the reason why I'm having to fix an endless list of things. He's the reason why I have to clear things up with the Office of the State Comptroller," Eli said irritably. "Dagan said yes-yes to every suggestion that did not directly involve intelligence collection and operations. So now I have to explain why various building projects at Glilot headquarters cost as much as twenty million shekels more than others that had originally been approved on-plan. You want to clean up that mess? The reason why I was appointed as Director-General is because I'm an efficient administrator, an intelligence expert, and I'm not bad with the political side of things, too. Halevi was the same as me, and he did a damn good job."

"But those us who do not sit at desks all day got used to Dagan," Ziva said. "He knows what it is to sign his life away just by saying yes to a mission. And I am not unsympathetic to your position, but you must understand how we feel. Those of us who risk our lives for this agency and for this country would appreciate it if you were sympathetic to our positions. I have heard that you are not."

"The two men who were killed last month were careless."

"Really? I think you decided that even before you investigated. You can be as careful and as responsible as God, and still get killed. Eli'ezer, you must remember that we are only flesh and blood. We are not superheroes, not little perfect and immortal tin soldiers on your war map. None of us does anything without your signature on orders. That means that you are sending people to do what might get them killed. Blaming them for getting killed does not remove the ultimate responsibility from your shoulders. If you do not like that, resign."

In those moments, Eli wished that she was not his daughter, that she was just another Mossad officer. He wanted very much to issue her with an official reprimand for insubordination, but the fact of the matter was that she could have been any other field officer. Katsa officers and kidonim all had the right to speak plainly with him. To them the term Memuneh meant simply that he was the 'first among equals' instead of 'the Boss.' He was as yet still too new to the position. The others were taking their time, feeling him out, learning about him. More often a realist than not, Eli knew that Ziva was speaking this way simply because she knew him already. Other conversations like this would follow, and he'd better be ready for them. The Prime Minister had appointed him to this position, but if enough people within the Mossad felt that he was not the right man for the job, all they would have to do was say as much, and he'd be kicked out. And here was Ziva, pointing out to him that no, he actually was not the 'first among equals.' To date he had never operated in the field. Just as Efraim Halevi never did, Eli could not consider himself equal to anyone who routinely risked their life in the field.

And Ziva was watching him, practically reading his mind.

"Ken. Ata rak haMemuneh, aval ani kidon. Al tishkach." Yes. You're just the Man-in-Charge, but I am a kidon. Do not forget.

"I need a drink," Eli muttered. "I have scotch here. You want one?"

"Is it good? If not, then no, thank you."

"I was given a bottle of Cardhu Twelve-year-old. I haven't opened it yet."

"You will thank me for ordering you to open it," Ziva said with a grin. "It might be the best thing you have ever tasted. Jen has made me into a scotch snob."

"My notes say that she mostly orders that Irish whiskey, Jamesons."

"When she is not at home, yes."

Ziva didn't bat an eye regarding those 'notes.' Being annoyed by them was pointless. Intelligence operatives everywhere accepted that their privacy was a limited thing. At least Jen had once been very active in the intelligence community. She knew how it went and probably suspected that by now she was often the target of a telephoto lens, but knowing that and being presented with evidence to the fact were two different things. Ziva wasn't looking forward to giving those photos to Jen.

She accepted a tumbler from her father, and they clinked glasses. She waited for him to take a sip and grinned at his immediate expression of appreciation.

"Yes, thanks for the order to open it," Eli chuckled, then straightened his expression. "Back to business. Yuval Daron called me to say that he'd asked to see you. You're leaving from here tomorrow. You're going directly to your mother in Mitzpe Ramon, or to Kaf-Gimmel first?"

"I suppose that logistically it would be easier to arrange transport to Kaf-Gimmel from here," Ziva said, referring to a top secret Anaf Metzada training base in the Negev. "I will call Ima in the morning and tell her the plan has changed."

"It doesn't have to change much. I'll get a helicopter to take you to the camp, and then you can go to Mitzpe Ramon tomorrow evening. That will mean that you have more time with Rivka."

Ziva gave her father a weak smile, and he laughed. She loved her mother and her aunts and their families, but their talkative genes had skipped Ziva's generation. In one way she was very much like her father: she liked the quiet, and quiet was in really short supply when in company with her mother and aunts.

"Maybe I should go there first, and go to Kaf-Gimmel to recover," Ziva joked.

"Are you a kidon, or a chicken?" Eli teased.

"You want me to put you in a headlock to prove which one?"

"No, thanks," Eli chuckled. "You've reminded me of this: you and your cousin Itai wrestling when you were little, with No'am instructing. You learned so fast that soon Itai said, no, he didn't want to because you always beat him."

"Itai is still a male chauvinist, but I wonder where he learned that. Not from Uncle No'am, or you."

"Lucky for me that I'm not a chauvinist, or I would be constantly shamed by my daughter's many, many superior abilities," Eli drawled. "Can I ask you something?"

"Ask, but I may not want to answer," Ziva said.

"Fair enough. Are you ever going to come back to work here?"

"I am very useful to the Mossad where I am; more useful, I think, than I would be here."

"You've forged good ties between the Mossad and both the NCIS and Naval Intelligence, yes, I will not deny it. You feel that you're getting better at that job?"

"Every day. I would not be a good asset in a purely diplomatic post, but I have made a good impression so far. I keep getting offers to work as a liaison officer and translator with the FBI, ATF, and even the CIA, and I can see how taking any of those posts would be good for the Mossad and for the Israeli intelligence community as a whole..."

She'd become someone that the Americans had grown to trust. Ziva was a spy, but she had taken on and just about mastered an altogether different job. Besides working criminal cases, her position at NCIS involved the facilitation of better relations and a better understanding between the Mossad and NCIS, and the ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence). She was also building professional relationships with people from other agencies. Some of those people had begun to approach her instead of trying to contact the Mossad directly.

"And that can go both ways," Eli said thoughtfully. "We can ask you to go and talk to whichever American agency for us. That's better than trying to deal with someone over a phone, or even via video conference."

"Neither of those are completely secure. Remember that aspect, too."

"Yes, oh yes... Some of the local politicos might start trying to put you in their pockets."

"That would be a very bad idea," Ziva said flatly.

"I know of one who requires a warning to that effect. I'll get Yossi to tell him. If I tell him myself he will think—"

"Daddy is looking out for his little girl?" Ziva said and laughed.

"You laugh, but you must remember that this man I'm talking about doesn't know you."

"Let him make that mistake, then. He will get to know me very quickly."

Eli thought about that for a moment, then nodded and shrugged. Fine. Talking to one less politician would make his life a bit easier.

Ziva loosed the luggage straps from her bag in the back of a Bell JetRanger, and after closing the door she double-checked that it was latched. She gave the pilot a thumbs-up, then ducked and jogged away, squinting against dust and sand kicked up by the helicopter's rotors.

Camp Kaf-Gimmel wasn't much. Four large tents, eight smaller ones, a refrigerated supply trailer, water and fuel tankers, and portable sanitation units. A large diesel generator sat on its own flatbed trailer. There were also several vehicles, including a couple of five-ton trucks, HM-Vs, ATVs, and dirt bikes. All of that could be spotted by any reasonably good satellite, but even an exceptionally good analyst would simply call the camp some sort of acceptable extension of the military base that claimed ownership of these eight-thousand dunams—about two-thousand acres—of desert. After all, the base was publicly known for its development of special desert warfare tactics; it had a corps of officers and general personnel whose sole purpose was to try out any idea that dropped into their heads. This camp would be ignored by even the very best intelligence analyst in the world, because that person would also be looking at pictures of several other camps that looked just like this one. Only, the other camps were the real deal.

When last Ziva had visited Kaf-Gimmel, it had been somewhere else, and the layout hadn't been quite what she'd recently seen from the helicopter. She had to find her own way around today. Everyone here was teaching or learning something that was deadly, or generally regarded as illegal in most countries, or they had desk work to do.

She eventually found the admin 'block' housed in one of the eight smaller tents. She nodded to someone at a desk and ducked through a flap in a canvas 'wall,' into Yuval Daron's 'office.' He was balding and what hair was left to him was snow white. Currently he was poking at a laptop keyboard with two fingers.

"Haven't you learned to type yet?" Ziva teased.

"If I learn to type properly, I will probably be given more things to type... Damn paperwork can wait. You look well, and that smile is a good thing to see."

"This one is for you. I've missed you," Ziva said honestly.

"And you're speaking Hebrew like it's your lover: you've missed that, too," Daron teased.

"I get to speak Hebrew over there."

She was feeling him out, and when he raised his silver eyebrows, Ziva smiled: he knew all about it; knew a lot more than her father did.

"She's good for you. Even kidonim need friends," Daron stated. "That bit of action in Cairo was the start of your friendship with her, and what a beginning... Not one to be forgotten. But I didn't ask you to come here so that we could gossip. Let's walk."

Ziva had presumed that Daron had asked her to visit Kaf-Gimmel to socialize a little with other kidonim, but instead they walked some distance out into the desert to talk privately.

Yuval Daron had been Metzada's man in charge of candidate selection and training for the last eighteen years, and he would hold the position for as long as he felt capable of doing a good job. He told Ziva that he was thinking of retirement. He was still more than capable of doing a good job, but he was a grandfather twice over and wanted to experience more of that aspect of life.

"If you weren't as valuable an asset as you are, I'd suggest your name for the job. But we need you over there. So? Who gets my job?"

"Yossi Gershom," Ziva said, without hesitation.

"My mind is as yours, but your father will want to keep him at headquarters."

"Not if you say otherwise. Eli'ezer got a lecture from me, about needing to remember that we kidonim can be killed as easily as he can. Yossi was a kidon; Yossi knows what it is to get orders and carry them out in spite of the fact that they might get him killed. Also, he knows Eli'ezer, will not hesitate to advise him, will also not hesitate to tell him off. But where he is now, as head of Nevi'ot, means that he isn't in a position to advise anyone except the people who are subordinate to him. Eli'ezer still speaks of him as an equal, though. That's who we need here: someone Eli'ezer trusts."

"Okay. Yes, I agree. I'll speak to your father, and tell him as well that I've spoken to you about it."

"If you're as honest as that, he'll like it," Ziva said, certain. "And tell me, the rookies are good this year?"

"So-so," Daron muttered. "It's still the same. We go through all the trouble of finding good candidates, and then we have to tell them, 'But remember that most of you will be reserves, and you may never, in all your career, act as a kidon.' We must have reserves; we must be able to draw on a pool of people who need only a little more training before going operational. But we tell them that they're reserves and the light goes out."

"I still say that the selection program is at fault. I was never eager to be a kidon. All of the best kidonim are the same– not even a little bit eager. We see the program as something necessary, something of a solemn and unpleasant duty. It's not 'exciting'; it's serious and dangerous, and given that our work sometimes—actually very rarely involves taking lives, it's something that no-one should want or like to do... I think you and Yossi need to get together with the shrinks and alter the selection exams."

"That's a good idea." Daron gave Ziva a small shove and he sat next to her in the side of a low sand dune. "Funny. People like you and me forget that not everyone is like us. I can't imagine seeing this work as an exciting game."

"I think that's because people like you and me also want to believe that everyone else who does this work feels as we do about it," Ziva said. "It's not pleasant to think about the others, about the people who don't mind killing because they see nothing wrong with it."

"It's always wrong," Daron muttered.

"I remember them all," Ziva almost whispered. "Eleven so far. I can never forget them. That's my only regret: I have to remember what they did to deserve their end at my hands... There'd be no need for this program, and no need for people like me and you, if not for those eleven very, very bad people."

"Shepard was cleared to view your dossier, so she knows the basics. Your teammates over there?"

"They have vague ideas about my career history. Gibbs knows a bit more than the other two, but only a little bit."

"And you want to keep it that way. Why?" Daron asked. "If they understand, it might make life better for you."

"I'll be a little cruel, Yuval. Does your wife understand?" Ziva asked.

"No. And that wasn't cruel; it was a fair question. I spend so much time out here that sometimes I forget about things like that."

"Proof to me that you've earned a quiet retirement."

"Yes, I have," Daron said with a small smile.

"I feel horrible for saying it, but in the end she made it easier for me to leave."

Jen decided not to comment on that, and kept her eyes on the road. It was bucketing down with rain. No sooner had they greeted each other at the airport than Ziva had begun to bitch about her mother, and Jen felt strongly that her best course of action was just to drive and let Ziva talk. She'd not been let into this little dark corner of Ziva's history before: her parents' separation and divorce. The story wasn't unfamiliar, though. Eli had spent too much time at work; Rivka had resented that; they'd tried to work it out, but her resentment had built beyond that point where it would ever disappear completely. Rivka still resented Eli and his job more than five years after their divorce, and whenever Ziva visited, she got to hear the whole record of woe all over again.

"But now she is talking about my career—"

"Ohhh shit..." Jen winced.

"—and saying that if I do not give it up soon, I will be stuck with it, addicted to it, like my father. And we know what that means: when I am married, my husband will have every right to resent my job... If my mother would just stop talking for five minutes, maybe she would get to know me."

"Right. I just... I cannot see you getting married to anyone."

"Commitment is much more important than a marriage license," Ziva said through gritted teeth. "I will never need a stupid piece of paper to say that I love someone."

"Those pieces of paper make certain legal issues easier to deal with."

"Yes, true. And maybe I would get the piece of paper for that reason, but for that reason only... Women like my mother... She has never had a job, other than work on a kibbutz, which is not the same as going for an interview and working for someone who does not know you; coming home and making your salary stretch for the month; working harder to get a promotion. As a kibbutz member, you must work eight hours only, wherever you are needed, for six days per week. When the workday ends, your commitment to that job ends as well. Yom Shabat—Saturday—is your day off, and every month you get a cash allowance to spend as you will. You do not pay for meals; you do not pay rent or utilities; some kibbutzim even have clothing allowances; education is free. It is not the real world, and that is all she knows."

"Are you sure you're her daughter?" Jen teased gently.

"I look just like her, so yes," Ziva drawled.

"You haven't said where we're going," Jen said. "If it's your place, then I need to take the next exit."

"Not my place," Ziva said.

"Fine by me. I missed you. So did Gibbs. He wanted you to handle an interrogation because he was certain that you would've gotten it done a lot faster."

"And how long did it take in the end?"

"Two hours," Jen drawled.

"Hmph... I wish that tomorrow was Monday. I want to get back to work."

"Feeling a little homesick suddenly, hmm?"

"At makira oti kol kach tov..." Ziva murmured. You know me so well...

"It's good to know you," Jen said simply, but she was thinking along more complex lines. Some might have said that Jen didn't know Ziva very well at all, given that so much of her career history was a closed book, one that was also closed on her feelings regarding incidents in the last few years. But knowing someone isn't restricted to knowing every tiny detail. Jen knew Ziva well enough to finish her sentences, and say the things that Ziva left unsaid. Ziva knew her just as well, and Jen said as much, adding, "We're both good listeners. That's why we know each other as well as we do."

Ziva didn't have to say, 'Unlike my mother,' and Jen left that little sentence unsaid. The subject of Ziva's mother was closed for the meanwhile, and Jen wouldn't be the one to open that door again, even though she thought that talking about it might be helpful to Ziva.

"I have not even started on my father yet," Ziva announced after a longish spell of quiet. "Mostly because I think I am still a bit shocked: we did not fight."

"Ulai yesh Elohim," Jen said dryly. Maybe there is a God. "Or to be less dramatic, maybe that's why it's raining like this."

"Maybe," Ziva said with a small smile. "We had a few words, but just a few, and then we talked like adults. Some of that is something that you and I must talk about. He had someone taking pictures again."

"Yay," Jen drawled and sighed in a long-suffering way. But she had to say: "Were they good pictures?"

"You can see for yourself. I have them with me," Ziva said, amused.

While Jen flipped through the photographs later, Ziva brought up her father's very valid point: some Americans are strange, and she added the word 'conservative.' Jen couldn't argue, and if she was honest she was more ticked off by the fact that a good many of her fellow Americans were strange and overly conservative, than she was about the fact that someone with the Mossad had been surreptitiously pointing a camera at her.

"I must remember to be a little careful," Ziva said, handing over one last photo: the two of them looking through that store window. "No physical contact is a good rule outside of this house and my apartment."

"Maybe we should just transfer to Israel. Or Argentina," Jen drawled.

"Or Italy or Brazil," Ziva chuckled. "Or we could just stay here and be a tiny bit more careful."

"All right," Jen grumbled. "This is all your fault."

"I know, which is why I said that it is me who must remember to—"

"I was kidding. I mentioned Argentina for a reason. It's where I quit being a strange, conservative American."

"I wondered about that," Ziva said. "Sometimes you make even Abby seem a little conservative."

"And that's saying something... Sometimes I miss Argentina. A lot. Like now." Jen let Ziva take the photos away and put them back into their envelope. "It's not often that we go anywhere together, and it would be nice not to have to worry about being 'careful.'"

"Well, we cannot transfer to Argentina. They still hate HaMossad for 'stealing' Eichmann," Ziva said dryly. "Maybe we should not try to be careful."

"Now you're playing devil's advocate. Of course we have to be careful. Dammit."

"We sound like married people again," Ziva noted quite seriously. She remembered how strange it had been to look out of an airplane window several hours ago, watching Israel disappear and trying to fight off tears, while at the same time experiencing a small swell of joy at the thought of coming back here. "I missed you a lot more than I thought I would."

Several months ago Jen had made up her mind to let Ziva set their pace, and she had also accepted that what she'd begun to feel might never be answered by Ziva. With that in mind, Jen hadn't allowed her feelings to run amok. It just wasn't smart. They were close; they were damn good friends, and that was something to treasure and protect and hang on to. Friends like Ziva were few and far between. Jen didn't have another like her, had never known another like her, and chances were that she wouldn't ever have another friend like Ziva.

Never mind being careful when in public venues. Jen's kitchen just became something of a potential minefield.

"Would you like to talk about that?" Jen asked, deciding to play it safe.

"My father asked me if I loved you," Ziva said. This was one of those times where she felt strongly that being as straightforward as possible, was best. "I said yes. Then he asked me if you are worth the risk to my career. I said that I love you but that I am not in love with you. What I should have told him is that you are worth so much more than only my career."

"Those photographs told a misleading story, and you fixed that," Jen said reasonably. "If you'd commented on how much I mean to you, he probably would've questioned the veracity of your assertion that you're not in love with me. You played a good hand of poker by answering as you did."

"He never wins that game with me... I suppose you are right."

"Mmm. At ayefah, nachon?" Jen asked. You're tired, correct?

"Not so tired that I cannot tell that you are trying to change the subject. It is your turn to talk," Ziva said.

"Can't you let me squeak by just this once?" Jen said with a small, exasperated smile.

"Not this time. Tell me?" Ziva said, her tone gentle.

"Okay," Jen said, and some quick thinking gave her the perfect way to say everything: "You fall for me anytime you want to, Ziva David."

"I probably will," Ziva said plainly, but she was smiling.

"You've made my day, and possibly my year. Now, will you please go take a nap? I'm surprised you haven't passed out."

"Bo'i iti?" Ziva said. Come with me?

Jen answered by wordlessly getting up from her seat at the breakfast nook, and she followed Ziva upstairs. It was warm enough to sleep on top of the covers, and they only removed their shoes before lying down. Ziva was mostly asleep already, but she forced herself to stay awake while Jen was getting comfortable. She hugged Jen tight when she'd settled.

"I kept wanting to come home to you. It was confusing: I love my country so much, and I loved being there, but you were not there, so it felt like something was missing."

"That's the sweetest thing anyone has ever said to me," Jen stated. "But quit being sweet and go to sleep."

Ziva grumbled halfheartedly about Jen being bossy, but not for long: she promptly fell asleep. Jen lay awake for quite some time. She allowed her heart to skip every now and then, permitted herself to smile when remembering the words, 'I probably will.'

She wasn't aware of frowning just before sleep claimed her properly, but later when she remembered her dreams, Jen silently cursed the name René Benoit.


Chapter Sixteen

"Pssst! Psssssssssssttttttt!"

Ziva blinked at her monitor. There it came again, that soft hissing sound. Now, who—A small paper ball dinked her temple, and as it fell, it began to unravel: the paper cover from a drinking straw. Abby? Everyone else had their heads down, toiling away. Ziva turned only her head and she caught sight of the very edge of Abby standing in the alcove leading to the stairwell. Ziva excused herself in a mumble and no-one looked up, giving her opportunity to leave her desk and duck unseen into the alcove with Abby.

"Ma?" Ziva whispered. What?

"You better find out what the Director's up to," Abby murmured, her expression serious. "I know you don't know, cos if you did know, you'd be telling Tony to act more like a pro instead of giving him love tips. Girl he's 'dating'? Daughter of an arms dealer."

"How did you find out about this?" Ziva asked, quite stunned, and before Abby could answer: "And what makes you think Jen is involved?"

"La Grenouille," Abby whispered, eyes locked to Ziva's, and she nodded when those dark eyes went wide with shock. "Uh-huh. Yeah. La Froggie is Tony's girlfriend's daddy-oh. Don't wanna know where Shepard got the sample from, but DNA don't lie: compared it to the Benoit sample the ATF has on file. Froggie's her dad, all right... Might get me fired, but this is all yours."

Ziva automatically gripped the envelope placed directly into her hand. Abby slipped into the stairwell and the door closed behind her.

"Shit..." Ziva leaned up against the wall and stared at the envelope in her hand.

"You okay?"

Ziva straightened off the wall and nodded at Gibbs, stepped past him, and ignored the three pairs of eyes locked on her all the way up the stairs. They saw her hold up a hand to silence a protest from Cynthia, Jen's PA, and then she went straight into the Director's office without knocking.

"Huh," Gibbs muttered to himself.

"You saw that, too?" McGee mumbled.

"Possible cat fight," Tony said, full of it, as per usual. Dolefully: "Damn. We're missing it..."

"That office," Gibbs said while sitting down. "Just became a small, soundproofed corner of hell."

"On second thoughts... Glad I've got work to do," Tony said.

"Same," McGee said, returning his attention to the case file on his desk.

In the 'small, soundproofed corner of hell,' Jen stared at the DNA results. Her face was flaming and her heart was pounding due to a mixture of guilt, anger, and excitement. The excitement stemmed from having been proven right: she'd only been one fifth certain that Jeanne Benoit was the daughter of her nemesis. And she was angry with herself and felt guilty for the fact that she hadn't spoken with Ziva about this business. Trouble there amounted to the two separate relationships they led, and Jen knew that the best way to conduct the kind of operation currently underway, was to involve as few people as possible. As it was she had to contend with the fact that four analysts knew everything; four strangers with the ATF.

"If you are not going to say anything, I might as well leave," Ziva said flatly.

"This is what I do. This is what you do," Jen stated.

"This is personal for you!" Ziva snapped. "This is not the job... And do you know that he is the CIA's pet? You could have asked me—You could have trusted me! The CIA will not let you do anything to him, Jen, just like they will not let HaMossad take him down. You know how I know this? I was sent to kill him four years ago, and I was recalled. That is how I know."

Ziva paced back and forth, her eyes on Jen's face. She had no pity for the shock gradually registering there.

"Right now, one of Benoit's heavy men is an undercover CIA officer. That man has been in deep cover for more than five years. You even buy Benoit coffee, and they will arrest you for obstructing their operation. Think about that. And you fix this mess with Tony. If Benoit finds out who he is... He himself is not a violent man, but he knows violent men, and Tony has enemies. You fix it." Ziva strode to the door. She stopped there, and added, "Today, Abby is the smartest person in this building. At mevinah?"

"Yes, I understand," Jen said softly. As Ziva was about to open the door, Jen asked, "Why did she give the results to you?"

"She cares about Tony," Ziva said flatly, her eyes hard on Jen's. "She hoped, I suppose, that I could talk sense into you... Have I?"

"Benoit killed my father," Jen stated.

"Your father committed suicide," Ziva countered.

"I've got evidence that says otherwise." Jen got up and stood beside her desk, arms folded. "He's dead now, but he was credible. Very. I went all the way to Russia to speak to him."

"I'll speak to my father," Ziva said.

"Ziva, about Tony?" Jen said.

"Ani makshiva." I'm listening.

"I didn't tell him to fall for Jeanne Benoit, and I've told him repeatedly to keep his mind on the job."

"But you put him in danger," Ziva said, her tone hard. "And what you have been doing is not sanctioned—"

"But I have funding, extra personnel, access to everything the ATF has on Benoit, op-exclusive MTAC privileges," Jen insisted, counting off on her fingers. "It has been sanctioned and that's what confuses me."

Ziva stepped away from the door, walked right up to Jen.

"Last bug sweep in this office?" she whispered in Jen's ear.

"Did it myself this morning: clear."

"Who gave you the tip about the Russian man?"

"It came through bona fide channels, direct from the Pentagon. The original source is classified."

"Not for long," Ziva growled.

Jen finally got home after nine p.m. Several lights in her house were on timers, so lights on inside didn't mean a thing. Opening the front door to be greeted by the aroma of something that was perhaps Italian in origin and definitely tomato-based, meant several things, first among them being that she would be eating tonight instead of calling a mug of instant soup 'dinner.'

Jen kicked her shoes off and nudged them into the hall closet; she set her briefcase in the closet, too: screw working tonight. She was never paid for the overtime hours she put in anyway.

Before making her way to the kitchen, Jen checked on something in her pocket. However, she only checked that it was there, and she did not double-check her thoughts regarding that object.

"You're spoiling me," Jen said to Ziva.

"I will be eating this, too," Ziva said and shrugged.

"Are there meatballs in that spaghetti sauce?"

"That is why I am stirring it carefully."

"You are really spoiling me. Thank you."

"And the wine has breathed for long enough," Ziva added. "Pour me a glass, too, please... I am sorry that I shouted at you today."

"But you were right. I should've trusted you, and I am very sorry that I didn't. So we're square. L'Chaim."

"L'Chaim," Ziva said. To life. She touched her glass to Jen's, and sipped from it before setting it on the counter near the cooking range. "We will find out who set you up for a very hard fall."

"Oh, I have no doubt. I just hope we can grab him before he realizes that we're onto him."

"There is that," Ziva said. She was as much a realist as was Jen. "You are tired. Sit?"

"First, bishvilech..." Jen said. For you... She put her hand in her pocket and took out what had been there since just after eight a.m that morning, four hours before Ziva had turned the Director's office into a 'small, soundproofed corner of hell.' The key chain was a simple but heavy sterling silver Zayin, seventh letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and Ziva's initial. "You said once that someone might see you retrieving or returning the hidden key. Now you can leave it where it is."

"When do we talk about this?" Ziva asked. Both key and chain were warm from being in Jen's pocket.

"As and when. Now, if you'd like that."

"Not now. For now, only this..." Ziva kissed Jen's cheek softly, and pocketed the key chain. "We have much work to do, and I think that it might take months."

"Yes." Jen sat down and sipped her wine, a dry but slightly fruity late-harvest Merlot that would compliment the spaghetti sauce and pasta perfectly. "There's no rushing this kind of operation."


Chapter Seventeen

"If my cover gets blown..."

"Be quiet, or I will just kill you and have one of my people take your place," Ziva snarled. "Get in the van."

With the large flat crown of a suppressor pressed to the nape of his neck, Trent Kort didn't argue. He was fuming about the fact that this little Israeli girl had managed to get close to him, but he wisely kept that under wraps. In the van he met with a smug grin from Gibbs. He couldn't see who was in the driver's seat, and soon he couldn't see anything at all.

The room spun, and he had a headache from the lower halls of hell. A single bare light bulb illuminated the room and two empty chairs far too brightly. He tried to move and winced when handcuffs bit into his wrists. He suspected that a second pair had been used to link his wrists to some part of the back of the chair he sat in. Duct tape bound his ankles to the chair legs. Kort rolled his head from side to side to ease the stiffness out of his neck, and he shifted awkwardly to try and get some feeling back into his butt.

"Hey! This is bullshit!" he croaked loudly. "We're on the same side, y'know!"

He heard footsteps, and then a key was turned in a lock. Ziva entered and was followed by Gibbs and McGee.

"We're not on the same side," Gibbs told Kort. "Not nearly."

"This is an official Mossad operation," McGee said. "They borrowed us, cos we have... shared interests. Worse for you, the folk at the Company sanctioned this op. You recognize that?"

"Shit," Kort breathed, staring at a document held for his perusal. "Director Marden's signature..."

"We do not have much time," Ziva said, and sat down. "So let me tell you what we know. Then you will not bore us, yes?"

"Yeah... Yes, fine," Kort said and swallowed hard.

It might have taken less time to work it all out if Gibbs and his team hadn't had other things to do, like catch an assortment of criminals. They hadn't been able to risk involving the ATF analysts assigned to Jen's strangely sanctioned campaign. For the most part this was because that campaign needed to proceed as if nothing was amiss, but there was also the possibility that one or several of those people were playing two fiddles instead of one. If that was so, then any of them could report, perhaps unwittingly, to the person responsible for Jen being fed a lie by a dying man in Russia.

The former Soviet Spetsnaz officer turned out to be a wild goose in more ways than one. He was the wild goose that had fed Jen a red herring, and he was a man who'd simply accrued a lot of debt. Telling a lie had wiped that slate clean, allowing him to die without concern for his family having to pay what he'd owed. There was no more to his story.

Nearly six weeks of investigation—most of it following a very faint paper trail—had led to those facts, which had left the team flat, straight back at square one. Gibbs had suggested that they try and do things 'ass-backwards.' They would've ordinarily started at the bottom of the food chain and then worked their way up, but instead they went to the top first, in this case the SECNAV. Ben Holder was more politician than Navy man now, but he'd helped them before with the Meller case, so they went to him hoping that their risky move would prove worthwhile. It did. He'd heard Jen and Gibbs out and had immediately called CIA Director James Marden who, once appraised of the situation, had promised to help Jen in any way he could.

Marden was not called 'the Fox' for nothing. Helping out Jen and her team classed as helping both the Navy and NCIS, and as it so happened, he would also be doing the Mossad a favor. With the thought of a few valuable favors owed in return to himself and the CIA, Marden had read the SECNAV, Jen, and Gibbs in on Trent Kort's deep cover mission.

Kort was nothing more than an ear and a mouth. He was a COMINT (Communications Intelligence) operative: he listened and he passed on what he heard, so that the CIA was always one step ahead of René Benoit. Keeping ahead of Benoit's game enabled the CIA to rig things so that whatever arms Benoit had for sale, went only where the CIA wanted them to go. Either those arms formed part of a sting operation, or they were bought by CIA plants who made sure that they didn't fall into the wrong hands. Other CIA plants would then, ironically, sell the arms back to Benoit, and so the cycle continued.

That made Benoit an extremely valuable asset in the area of counterterrorism. His arms deals had brought an end to the careers of a staggeringly high number of terrorists and extremists. In short, Benoit was untouchable, just too valuable to tamper with even in a small way.

But someone was trying to bring him down, and that same someone had attempted to use Jen Shepard as their pawn.

"We think you might have met the guy we wanna talk to," Gibbs said to Kort. "We think that he's one of few people who meets socially with Benoit. You know all those people, don't you?"

"I see 'em, but I'm never in the room with them when they talk. They're his friends. He trusts them," Kort said. "That's saying a lot. Benoit doesn't trust easy."

"Anyone stand out?" McGee asked.


Ziva flipped through several dossiers with photos paper-clipped to their covers. She held one out to Kort.

"Yeah, that's him. West Coast accent, but he lives near Bethesda. He's a businessman. He acts like Benoit's one of those, too, like he doesn't know what Benoit sells. I'm telling you—like I've told my handler plenty times—Bannerman knows it all."

"It says nothing in here about your suspicions," Ziva said. She raised her eyes from the open file and gave Kort a hard look. "Your handler is supposed to note down all your observations, yes?"

"You serious? Nothing in there? I been telling Styles for the last three years that Bannerman is worth investigating. Three years."

"Nothing..." Gibbs said, checking the file over himself.

"I'm on it," McGee said, already halfway out the door.

"Can you get these fucking cuffs off me, please?" Kort muttered. "Feels like I got a knife between my shoulders..."

"I can very easily make that feeling real," Ziva said, her voice and expression emotionless. "In fact, I have permission to do exactly that... We know about Metrit."

"Now, hold on. I was following—" Kort began in a panicked tone.

"Following orders?" Gibbs took a photo stack from an envelope and laid gory images out like cards on the floor in front of Kort. "I've been around a while, Kort. The only people who issue orders to kill like that are terrorists."

"And the only people who kill like that with no specific instructions, are psychopaths," Ziva added. "The CIA does not train people to do that. Yes, you can make it look like an accident, but that? Throwing a body in front of a train does not come close to that kind of mess. Our medical examiner could not tell us what you used. What was it? Pipe? Bat? How many times did you hit him... Answer me!"

"I was told to make it look like a gang did it!" Kort yelled.

"The hell you were..." Gibbs held up a sheet of white paper with black borders, several signatures, and a black ink stamp: THREAT ELIMINATED. "Just says here, '...using whichever means that may be most easily disguised.' Wet-work standard. We spoke to your handler at the time. I know Jason Arbroath. He says one of two things: you can use a gun; you can't use a gun. That's all he'd ever say, wasn't it? You'd get a call and all he'd do was give you a name, then say, 'You can't use a gun. Goodbye' and he'd hang up."

"If I'm not there in the morning, Benoit will flip. He'll go AWOL, pull the same stunt he did before I managed to get on his crew." Kort was speaking quickly, urgently. "My people can't afford to lose him."

"They will not lose him," Ziva said, taking her phone from her belt. "This afternoon Benoit approached Director Shepard, asking for protection. He thinks that someone is trying to kill him. Watch."

The video wasn't very long, but for all the small size of the screen, the picture was very clear, as was the audio.

Shepard: "You've made my life very difficult. Why should I help you?"

Benoit: "I'll work for it. I have a feeling that the CIA—perhaps—has a lot to gain if I remain active. All I ask is that you find out who this person is. That is all. No more."

Shepard: "I think we may actually have common ground. I think that the person who's gunning for you, and the person who just about wrecked my career, are one and the same. Someone will meet with you in the next forty-eight hours."

Benoit: "My thanks, madame."

Ziva snapped the phone shut and returned it to her belt.

Yonatan Metrit was just twenty-three when his life ended. He was planning an assassination that would have thrown Israel into war with Egypt again. Ziva had no argument with the termination order, but no-one, not even the worst, most depraved of serial killers deserved to die as slowly and as painfully as Metrit had.

"So," she said. "As you can see, you are very much expendable."

"Yours," Gibbs said, gathering up the folders and photographs.

He left the room, closing the door behind him. Kort tore his eyes from the door and looked up at Ziva.

"Unlike Metrit, you will not suffer," she said quietly.

"Please!" he begged.

"No," Ziva said, pulling on a long Nitrile glove, the kind used by pathologists.

Ziva had never shot anyone in the back of the head. She had seen too many black-and-white photographs of pistols aimed at the backs of innocent heads. She was certain that no-one she had executed like this was innocent, and she had always stood, and would always stand slightly in front of them, where they could see her face. Only two had chosen to look at her, and her gut told her that Kort's name would not be added to those. It didn't matter. This was the honest way to do it, to truly face her actions and their results.

Target: the left temple, angled back and down so that the subsonic round would strike and lodge in the right temporal bone. Very little mess; zero chance of survival.

Kort tried to shift the chair, tried everything he could to break his bonds, and struggling was the last he knew. The suppressed 5.7x28mm pistol emitted only a whistling crack—hardly louder than a hand-clap—and Kort slumped in the chair. Ziva set the pistol on the chair she'd been sitting in earlier, and peeled off the glove. She laid that on top of the pistol.

"You done, Officer David?" someone called from beyond the door.


She walked to the door without a backwards glance, leaving two CIA 'cleaners' to get on with their work. In the hall, she and McGee nearly collided.

"Sorry! Gibbs said to bring you this," McGee said and held out a gym bag.

McGee hadn't expected Ziva to strip right there in the hall, but she did, down to her underwear. He mentally called her attitude 'on autopilot,' and he really didn't want to know about the kind of psych training required to produce what he was seeing. She pulled on the clean sweats and socks, and laced the brand new sneakers. She didn't touch the clothes and shoes she'd stripped off, and stopped McGee from picking them up.

"Their job, not yours," Ziva said, jerking her head at the two men placing Kort's body into a bag.

"Okay. I didn't know that the CIA and Mossad had... similar procedures in this... area," McGee said uncomfortably.

Ziva only shrugged in response, took her phone from McGee, and walked away. He stepped out of the way when one of the men came to grab Ziva's clothes and shoes, and the gym bag.

"Whadya gonna do with all that?" McGee asked. And he guessed with a shudder, "Acid?"

"Son, you watch too many movies. Gun gets the treatment with a blowtorch and a vise, then it gets tossed. The body will go into a regular crematorium furnace, and the clothes, shoes, and other personal effects will go into an incinerator. Neat as you please."

"V and B now?" the other man queried.

"Yeah." To McGee he said, "We put a shop vac over this entire room, then mist down every surface with bleach. All evidence gone... And before you ask, no we don't do this often."

"Most of the time you'll find us analyzing intel," the other man said.

He poked a button and the high-powered vacuum cleaner roared into life. McGee took a last look at the body bag, and jogged up the hall. Ziva wasn't in the makeshift OPTAC (Optical Target Acquisition and Cueing) room, but her signature was on the bottom of the form Gibbs was filling out.

"Is she okay?" McGee asked.

"Apparently smoking is a sometimes thing for her these days," Gibbs said. "Unless she's just killed someone... But yeah, she'll be okay, for the real simple reason that we couldn't put Kort in jail, cos we couldn't put him on trial. Couldn't even call him a terrorist and send him to Gitmo. Events like this? They're really the last resort, when there's nothing else left."

"I get that," McGee said and began to pack up a laptop. "Kinda freaky, though. That was not the Ziva I know."

"Would you have wanted to recognize the Ziva-you-know just now?"

"No," McGee said immediately. "So she distances herself—the Ziva I know—from the part of her that I saw just now?"

"Right. That's the training. You wouldn't get through the first phase, even. A real small number of people make it, Tim, but not all of them are like Ziva. Her dad told me that she's the kind who never improvises. Shoot him. She shoots him, either from range or point blank. Overdose. She makes it look like an overdose. Impact accident. Falling accident. Knife– silent kill—lung, then carotid... And the list goes on. My guess is, her list and my list are exactly the same, and like I do, she only works off that list, never gets inventive. Her handler or immediate superior has to choose the method, unless she's in a situation where it's kill or die."

"Hmph. So glad my name's McGee and not Gibbs or David..."

"Uh-huh. Read that and sign there, initial here, here, and here."

McGee did as ordered, then continued to pack away the second laptop. Ziva walked in and Gibbs wordlessly handed her that sheet of paper. She read through it and added her initials next to each mention of a date.

"Finished?" she asked.

"Yeah," Gibbs said and stood. "We going for a beer or are we taking ya home?"

"There is beer at Jen's place," Ziva said.

"Boss, you two take the car. I'll get the van back to Impound," McGee offered.

"No. The cleaners will do that," Ziva said.

"Oh. Okay..." McGee mumbled and decided not to think about what else those 'cleaners' might do.

He wasn't too comfortable later on the paved walk to Jen's front door. He'd visited this house several times for cocktail parties and a couple of summer barbecues, but tonight was different. For one, there wouldn't be upwards of twenty people here.

He knew, as did the other team members, that Ziva and Jen had a personal relationship outside of work. Whenever his mind had pondered the type of relationship, McGee had found something to do. He just would not go there. It was none of his business, firstly, but more importantly, their professional behavior and performance should have been all that counted. To date the latter could not be faulted in any way. No matter how much trouble it brought him, if ever the two women found themselves in disciplinary hearings, he'd officially request permission to speak on their behalf. That sort of request had to be honored; no-one would be able to refuse him. In that one area, McGee called the Regulations perfect.

But he almost groaned aloud when Ziva opened the front door with a key. Her own. A glance at Gibbs revealed arched brows and a few surprised blinks. Noticing McGee's attention, Gibbs shrugged and followed Ziva inside.

"I am here," Ziva called. "With company."

"Jethro, I hope," Jen answered.

"And McGee."

"Am I getting four beers or three?" Gibbs asked.

"Four. Am I ordering pizza?"

"It is nearly midnight. You have not eaten yet?" Ziva muttered, leaning in the study doorway.

Jen's only response was a glare over the tops of her glasses, and she reached for the phone.

"Ten li ko'ach..." Ziva muttered. Give me strength... She bunched her thumb and fingertips, raised her hand to chin level, and shook it– a decidedly Israeli mannerism. "You are impossible."

"I'll see you in the living room," Jen chortled. "Hi, Tim."

"Ma'am," McGee mumbled.

"Stop being a scarecrow. C'mon," Ziva said, dragging him by the sleeve of his jacket. In the living room they found Gibbs watching a news station from the comfort of a recliner. "Get one of those beers and make like him."

"Where are you going?" McGee mumbled.

"If you must know, I need to pee."

Gibbs snorted a laugh and waved McGee to a couch.

"Relax, will ya? If you weren't welcome, Jen woulda said so."

"I guess," McGee said. He took a swig of beer and found that that did wonders for him. "To be real honest, I hope the pizza gets here fast."

Washington D.C. is a city of very long hours, and the pizza arrived promptly thanks to the stiff competition between several late-night pizzerias.

While McGee ate he couldn't help but observe. It happened to be what he was trained to do, after all. The first thing to come to mind was this: if Jen and Ziva had anything to hide, they'd have been nervous; they weren't. They were just more relaxed, very comfortable in each other's company, and—seemingly—just as comfortable with Gibbs and McGee around. McGee liked to feel trusted, always felt grateful when trust was offered him as freely as this, and that just cemented his determination to back these two women if ever he felt he had to.

When they'd finished eating it was time to deliver a report. Gibbs handled most of that. Instead of spelling it out, when he told Jen that Kort had been removed from the picture, he gave a nod in Ziva's direction, and that's when McGee nearly said 'Ohhh...' aloud.

Jen looked a long while into Ziva's eyes, and it was a hard job to keep emotion from her face and her voice when she said:

"Ha'kol be'seder?" Is everything okay?

"Kacha-kacha," Ziva said honestly. So-so. "Later, okay?"

"Sure," Jen said, and a sip from her beer bottle helped her to refocus. "So what do we know about this Styles character?"

"Robert Styles. Twenty-three exemplary years with the Company," McGee said. "He's so clean that it's suspicious. I mean, this guy hasn't gotten a parking or speeding ticket since high school. All-A student at University of Maryland: political science major on the ROTC program, Army. Did a full eight-year tour with Military Intel, and he must have been a bright spark cos he served those eight years solely at the Pentagon. From there, straight on to Langley."

"Do we know if he was assigned as Kort's handler, or if he chose Kort?"

"Chose him. Picked his name from a list," Gibbs said.

"And get this, ma'am," McGee said, checking his notes for certainty. "He picked Kort out of thirty-four names. What's interesting? Kort was yanked from another op, got desk-strapped just so his name could go on that list. Styles isn't the big fish."

"No. Handlers can choose from a list of operatives, but they don't get to compile that list, nor do they get to choose their op specs. And beyond that, there's that bastard at the Pentagon who managed to get fake intel sent to me through credible channels. I think Styles knows the Pentagon element... So who else is watching Styles?"

"Director Marden said he'd call on a secure line tomorrow," Gibbs said. "But bet anything you like, Styles is fast asleep without a clue that he's already under surveillance."

"Umm, maybe it's a stupid question, but Kort's dead, and isn't Styles gonna figure that out?" McGee said.

"Who did Kort work for?" Ziva drawled. "It is a sad and true fact that deep cover guys like Kort do not last."

"Yeah. After three days with no contact, Styles will declare Kort MIA," Gibbs said. "Benoit—on Marden's say-so—is gonna put the word out that he wants another man... And guess who might just do his best to plant another deep cover man of his choice?"

"The Big Fish," McGee said with a grin.

"Can't wait to reel him in," Jen muttered.

If anything this entire Benoit mess had brought them closer, but tonight Ziva kept her distance and Jen understood. They didn't talk about it beyond Ziva asking for space, because it always took her a little while to distance herself from the emotionless zone where she was able to kill without remorse.

Jen wondered about that. She often wondered why her own very good training had let her down in Paris all those years ago, when she simply hadn't been able to shoot Svetlana Chernitskaya in cold blood. While she'd never called that an entirely bad thing, it wasn't good either. For all Jen knew, Chernitskaya was still alive and still mad about the fact that Gibbs shot her fiance. An important lesson learned from that debacle: Jen was not suited to wet-work—a term she utterly abhorred—but she was uncannily cool under fire and had a reputation for being a smart shooter. She tended to outwit whoever was shooting at her by forcing them to do something stupid (she had once cried out, as if hit, and had continued to whimper until the bad guy made the stupid mistake of coming to gloat. She promptly shot him in a kneecap).

"You are still awake. Lama?" Ziva said. Why?

"Thinking. Can't sleep?" Jen asked.

Ziva shook her head and remained in the doorway. More than a minute passed before Jen got out of bed and crossed the room. Simply inviting wasn't enough, not tonight. She took Ziva's hand and gave it a tug.

"C'mon. We've only got about four hours before we have to rise and shine... or at least attempt a glow."

"Is that the time already?" Ziva grumbled, and yawned.

"Uh-huh. Get in bed, you."


Jen gave Ziva a shove to get her to shift over, then crawled in next to her. Ziva rolled onto her side and held the covers up to help Jen settle back into being spooned without the duvet bunching between them. She settled her forehead against the nape of Jen's neck and hugged her waist. Jen smoothed her hand over Ziva's forearm, to her hand. Their fingers interlaced almost of their own accord.

"I am beginning to want this all the time," Ziva admitted softly.

"Me, too," Jen whispered.

"Oh..." Ziva was surprised, but only mildly so. For the last five, nearly six weeks, she and everyone else on the team, including Jen, had been putting in sixteen- and eighteen-hour days, basically doing two jobs at once. Under that workload, it might have been easy to miss the arrival of a hippopotamus in whichever room, let alone a slight change in Jen's attitude after hours. And Ziva abruptly remembered their conversation in the kitchen, nearly three months ago. "I said not so long ago, 'I probably will.' I think that I am falling... Or maybe I have fallen for you already."

"I prefer not to use the past tense," Jen said, smiling in the dark. "I hope I never stop falling, never stop feeling this way about you."

"Zeh lo yiyeh kal," Ziva said, ever the realist. This won't be easy.

"No, but I think we can make it work... For now, though, sleep?" Jen suggested gently.

"Yeah," Ziva mumbled and yawned. "Sleep is good..."

Without remorse, but not without regret. The two are not the same.

Ziva's personality type and training supposedly precluded the need for a psychologist. She was required to see one just four times per year for a standard psych eval, and the person she saw for those formal evaluations was stationed at the Israeli embassy. She also had the option of seeing someone at the Mossad headquarters at Glilot, near Tel Aviv, whenever she was there. However, Ziva strongly disagreed with that bit about her training precluding the need of more regular sessions with a shrink.

Dr. Ingrid Heller was paid out of Ziva's pocket. Only Jen knew about this relationship. At least, only Jen had been told about it. There was a strong likelihood that the Mossad was also aware of the relationship, but perhaps they weren't fully aware, because Heller had agreed to always see Ziva after hours. However, Dr. Heller was not the kind of shrink who ordinarily made house calls. The Mossad would have needed to do their homework on Heller to figure out that her visits to Ziva's apartment were actually therapy sessions.

Such sessions often began while Ziva was busy preparing dinner and would continue while they were eating, and stretch beyond the point where the dishwasher was loaded. Sometimes Heller arrived at seven p.m and left at around eleven, or even later. She always charged for just one hour, though, and this had mostly to do with the fact that Ziva was her most unusual patient. At least, Heller sincerely hoped that there weren't any more trained assassins on her patient list.

"You've never said how you found me," Heller noted out-of-the-blue.

"What is that saying?" Ziva teased. She liked her silver-haired therapist very much. "Curiosity killed the cat?"

"Very mean of Curiosity to do so– cats are special creatures," Heller shot back.

"Mmm," Ziva said and chuckled. She checked on grilling vegetables and then began to carefully fry non-animal rennet halloumi cheese. An Ashkenazi bakery had supplied her with a loaf of braided challah bread. It was Friday, and this was a kosher Shabat dinner laid on just for Heller. "I looked you up online. Google found you for me. And then I called you. So no, I did not spy on you."

"You don't spy on people unless you're ordered to, or unless your training and instinct say that you must," Heller said. "I want to ask you about something you said in our last session. You said, regarding women in the Israeli Defense Forces, 'Israelis feel they have more to fight for.' The word that struck me there is they. Not we. You're an Israeli, too."

"Yes, but no Palestinian, Syrian, Egyptian, Iranian, or Lebanese person, no Arab or Muslim person is my enemy until they shoot at me or try to blow me up," Ziva said. "I do not blame whole nations for the acts of a few religious militants."

"I'll bet that wasn't a popular outlook when you were working in Israel," Heller muttered.

"I have not expressed it openly until now. I am not stupid."

"Right," Heller chuckled. After a pause she said, "Let's talk about last night. You killed a man."


"Someone else could have done that."

"Eight others, yes."

"Did you volunteer?"



"If I had not offered, the next person on the list was Gibbs... Actually, he was the first person on the list," Ziva said. "He could have overridden my offer. He did not. He said, 'Yours' and then he exited the room."

"This man had killed an Israeli citizen. Was that Gibbs's reason for passing the task on to you?"

"No, and that is why I offered." Ziva removed the heavy skillet from the heat before taking the cheese slices out and laying them on a rack over kitchen towels. "I think that if ever Gibbs has a choice, he will choose not to kill. This is because of something in his past. He killed someone in revenge, and he pays for that every day."

"You've never killed out of revenge?" Heller asked.

"I cannot," Ziva said and looked her in the eye. "I simply cannot. I must have orders, or I kill in defense of others, or I must feel that my life is in immediate danger."

"Have you ever disagreed with orders? Called the reason for them unjustified?"

"Oh, yes," Ziva said with a small smile. "But then I make it okay. That is easy. It is always easy to force an error. I am never... wasted on harmless political targets, mostly because the people who issue termination orders do not get to choose the person who will carry out the orders. The people who choose those operatives are shrinks, you see."

"Oh... Right," Heller mumbled and slowly shook her head.

"So the kind of people I am sent to kill are never innocent and they are always dangerous. It is easy to make them remember that. They threaten me either directly or indirectly—they order one of their people to harm or kill me—and then it is okay."

"That seems logical. Cold, but logical," Heller said. "But the man you killed last night was harmless, in that moment. He was tied to his chair."

"If he was not, then it would have been messy," Ziva said simply. "He would have fought, and I would have needed to disable him first. That would have caused him pain. Instead... Yes, he was helpless, and it was quick and painless... Maybe I should say that he never once said sorry for what he had done."

"You presented him with evidence of that crime, of his brutality. Really? He didn't express remorse?"

"No. He claimed he had followed orders."

"Had he?"

"Both the Mossad and the CIA train people to kill as quickly as possible, simply because if you kill him quickly, he cannot run away," Ziva said wryly. "A bomb might have made more of a mess, but it would have been quick. Ingrid, if I show you what he did—I have the photographs here. If I show you, you will not want to eat this dinner."

"Let's eat and continue the session afterward," Heller said.

She'd never suggested as much before, but tonight was different. The meal was delicious (it always was), and they cleaned up in the kitchen together. Ziva brewed a pot of tea next and they took the tray into the living room. There Heller buckled on some professional brass and asked to see the photos Ziva had mentioned earlier.

"My God..." she murmured. "I've seen worse, but those injuries were the result of head-on motor vehicle accidents, roadside bombs, accidents involving exploding gas tanks, and artillery shells that detonated early. I see what my patients have seen."

"You will have to call that something else, when you speak to your therapist. I am sorry," Ziva said, taking the photographs away.

"I don't tell him everything. He can surmise that a gang inflicted all of that."

"That is what he said: he lied about being told to make it look like a gang attack."

"You know what his orders were?"

"Only that he could not use a gun. The method was up to him, but one or two blows with a blunt object is sufficient to kill even a very big man. I know this."

"I know that, too, just without personal experience," Heller drawled. "All right. You say that remorse and regret are not the same thing. The dictionary says otherwise. Explain."

"Remorse is feeling sorry. Remorse is guilt. Remorse is acknowledging an error," Ziva said. "There was no error. I have no reason to feel sorry, and I do not feel guilty. But I wish, very much, that I had no good reason to kill him. I also regret this: I will never be able to forget him, cannot forget what he did."

"You could quit," Heller pointed out, playing devil's advocate.

"Quit? Quit while knowing that there are people like him out there?" Ziva murmured, quite stunned. "There are always lists, Ingrid. If my name is on those lists then this—" Ziva held up a gory crime scene photograph. "—is less likely to happen. If I had been sent to kill the man in this picture, he would have died so quickly that he would not have known about it. He needed to be removed because he was prepared to die while killing the Egyptian ambassador to Israel. He had to be removed because to catch him, to put him on trial would have made him seem like a leader to other fools. He had to die, yes, but not—" She shook the picture. "—like this. If I quit there is always a chance that someone on a list is a monster in disguise. You see?"

"And when you're good, your name is at the top of the list," Heller said quietly.

"It has been at the top of the list for five years," Ziva admitted, replacing the photograph in an envelope. "It is there at the top not because I am 'good.' It is there because I have no trouble killing my own people, if necessary. I killed my brother, remember? And before that I killed the person who had trained me. That was why I was sent to kill Ari: because I could do it and would do it and I would not make a mistake."

"Wouldn't hesitate," Heller guessed.

"Oh no, I hesitate. I always hesitate. I do not ever kill without thinking first," Ziva stated. "Ari was my toughest assignment, but in the end he made it easy. He went rogue, and that was the reason why he had to be killed. And then there he was, with a rifle aimed at Gibbs. Easy, in the end... but still hard: hard on me, personally."

"So you regret the reasons for killing," Heller said. They'd already discussed Ari. They'd talked that subject into the ground. They'd talk about it all again, but not tonight. "But you don't feel guilty about killing."

"Regret, yes. Remorse, no." Ziva offered Heller a cigarette and held a light for her, then lit her own smoke. She sat down. "You know why they train women to kill?"

"First define 'they.' Who are 'they'?"

"Intelligence agencies, mostly. Certain military units, worldwide, also train women as assassins."

"All right. Why?"

"Because we are not as aggressive as men," Ziva said. "When we kill we are cold, calculating, exacting. It is not about power for us; it is not a demonstration of power. The old theory has it that women used poisons to kill because we are not strong enough to kill mechanically. That is wrong. Women used and still use poison because we do not feel the need to kill in a way that demonstrates that we are better, stronger than our victims. You see?"

"Women are more emotionally driven, though."

"No, Doctor Heller," Ziva chuckled, shaking her head. "No, you are wrong. In general you are right, but specific to killing, you are very, very wrong. When a man kills—even a highly trained assassin. When a man like that kills there is always a moment when he looks at his victim and calls that person weak. That is a comparison, yes?"

"Yes. I see: I'm stronger and better and smarter than you."

"Correct. When women kill, we never care about the shift in the power balance. We go and do the job, and we care only about the fact that it is over. It is done. They train women to kill because we see killing as something separate, as something that is not a part of us. When we kill we never make it personal. Killing is always personal to men: I am better, stronger, and smarter than you."

"Why have you told me this?" Heller asked.

"It is never personal. That is why I don't feel bad about the fact that I feel no remorse," Ziva said. "If ever I kill someone for personal reasons, the next person to die will be me."

"Eight other people on the list..." Heller mused.

"There is never only one name on a list like that," Ziva said, nodding. "I never say yes until I have thought about it, until I am sure that I have no personal reason to be on that list. There is a big difference between wanting to kill, and following orders. I have never wanted to kill anyone in my life."


Chapter Eighteen

Tony turned down the umpteenth request to dance, and Ziva smirked.

"Perhaps you should have worn a dress."

"Shuddup," Tony muttered. But after a pause, "Maybe I shoulda gotten a sign made: 'On Duty– No, I Can't Dance.' Why are we here, anyway?"

"I must tell you again?" Ziva said irritably. "Have you been asleep for the last eight weeks?"


Tony huffed and tweaked his bow tie, surreptitiously looking Ziva over yet again. He had no idea why there wasn't a line of men begging her to dance. What was it about a woman in a pantsuit of even the most severe cut? This one was dead black, three-piece, paired with a startlingly white shirt. The severity of the outfit was cut by a dark red silk tie bespangled with small, meticulously hand-embroidered emerald green dragons. Ziva had worn her hair loose, her face was subtly made up (except for the kohl. Why didn't she wear that more often?), and the overall effect was jaw-dropping.

Ziva elbowed Tony out of his contemplative silence and they strode off after Jen and some foreign dignitary. They stopped at the edge of the dance floor. Tony matched Ziva's stance: arms folded, expression blank, eyes constantly moving, looking for the slightest threat. He glanced to his left in time to see Ziva's expression suddenly darken, and he just-just caught a string of possibly Arabic cuss words that came through gritted teeth.

"What?" he said, out the side of his mouth.

"He asks her to dance when he cannot dance?"

"Oh. Right," Tony looked Jen's way and promptly winced and looked elsewhere. "Ouch."

This was Jen's first trip to the dance floor this evening, and Tony had an idea that it might be her last. That was a pity. When well-partnered, Director Shepard set dance floors afire, no matter the style of dance. To say that she was currently ill-partnered was a sorry understatement.

"Some guys have this dumb idea that they'll dance better with a partner who dances well," Tony said.

"Dumb is right," Ziva growled. Then, enthusiastically, "Go and cut in."

"Huh?" Tony squawked.

"I have my SIG, and a backup, a very mean knife, and my bare hands," Ziva said. "I can manage the security side of things for what is left of this tune. Go and cut in. And when the tune ends, pass her on to, uhh... FBI Assistant Director Lawry?"

"He'll do. Sneaky. I like," Tony chortled.

Ziva's expression switched from pissed off to smug while watching Tony's progress across the floor. The foreign dignitary immediately stepped aside when Tony asked it of him. He had no option. Dance floor etiquette forbids any argument against a cut-in request.

"My hero," Jen said and laughed gratefully. "He had ten left feet, let alone two."

"Ziva noticed and this was her idea. I'm gonna pass you on to Assistant Director Lawry," Tony said. "Umm, and I'm just dancing. I have a crap memory for dance names. Foxtrot?"

"Right, and you're not bad... I think I'll skip the next invitation to one of these events."

"If Whoever-he-is at the Pentagon has people watching—"

"Dammit," Jen muttered.

"I think that's why Ziva got me to cut in," Tony said, looking Jen in the eye. "You might as well have a little fun, huh?"

"I certainly wouldn't have danced again if Mister Ten Left Feet had kept me here through two tunes."


"Very," Jen agreed. She looked to her left and caught Ziva's eye. Her smile received only a nod in return. "Ziva puts most Secret Service agents to shame."

"Slightly cyborg-ish tonight, I noticed," Tony said wryly. "Miz Oh-so-pro. Maybe that's what's scaring off the guys. No-one's asked her to dance even though... Well, look at her."

"Mmm," said Jen, trying to keep her face straight.

"No further comment," Tony teased. Then, remembering the plan, "Tune's nearly over. There's Lawry."

"Dance me that-away then."

"Yes, ma'am."

When he got back to Ziva, Tony was pleased to get a little low five from her. She sent him to cut in twice more over the period of three hours, with a third and last little maneuver intended to facilitate Jen's exit from this stuck-up Capitol Hill ball. The atmosphere was bound to become less stuck-up as time ticked on, and with the help of a seemingly endless supply of champagne, but Jen had had a long day and had specifically requested an eleven p.m exit.

"Would you two like to stay?" she asked when they reached the car outside.

"I wouldn't mind," Tony said, thinking of all the women who'd asked him to dance. "Ziva?"

"Another time, perhaps," she said.


Tony would have opened the car door, but Ziva beat him to it, politely offering Jen a hand. Tony stood back, watching silently, taking in the small but weighted gestures—the car door, that offered hand, a brief meeting of their eyes. He read Ziva's subtle but definite Back off body language, and he was almost certain that she was unaware of it. He was also pretty sure that Jen was pointedly aware of it, and probably quite pleased by it.

Ziva shut the door and headed around the back of the town car. Just as Ziva closed her door, Jen's window sailed down. Tony automatically stepped closer and bent so that she wouldn't have to shout.

"Please send Cynthia a text message to the effect that I'm only to be disturbed tomorrow in the event of a nuclear disaster, or the declaration of World War Three. Ask her to please pass that message on."

"Consider it done. Goodnight."

"Thanks. Goodnight, Tony," Jen said and the window sailed up.

Tony watched the car move into traffic and jammed his hands in his pockets. With his mind occupied by one of his favorite topics, namely what he termed 'The Ziva and Jen Affair,' he might have forgotten about the ball if not for feminine laughter floating down the wide stone stairs and out into the night. He wondered briefly if he could sneak Jeanne into this shindig, and his expression abruptly clouded. He had to break it off with her. Soon. Tony didn't want to think about that now. He jogged back up the stairs, focused on having a little fun.

In the car Ziva was silent, and so was Jen, even though the divider was up between them and the driver. Jen wanted to ask Ziva what she was thinking, but that could wait. She'd heard her give the driver Jen's address only, which meant that Ziva would either be taking a cab home, or would spend the night. Either way, there'd be at least a few minutes of conversation, during which Jen was determined to have her say about that damned suit. For the first time ever, Ziva had managed to drive Jen to near-distraction, and she had an idea that that had been Ziva's precise intention.

Jen wasn't dressed for the farmyard, but for all the fact that the label in her dress read 'Versace,' the garment seemed far from impressive when compared to the suit. Then again, Jen wasn't meant to be impressed by her own clothes. She had to wonder what Ziva thought about the strapless black dress with a full, calf-length skirt designed to make a serious impression on a dance floor. Tony had been the one to whirl Jen through a jive, a dance that had showed the skirt's potential to the maximum, and only its length had helped Jen to hold onto a modicum of modesty when she was spun out to the end of Tony's arm and back again.

When the car pulled into Jen's driveway, Ziva clucked her tongue and shook her head at Jen's reach for her door handle.

"Okay," Jen said and laughed quietly. "But I'm quite capable, y'know."

"And I am in the mood to be... capable for you."

Jen blinked at Ziva's retreating form and was still staring at the closed door when the other one was opened. She snapped out of it and accepted the hand Ziva offered. She wanted to keep hold of that hand, but couldn't. Jen bent slightly and thanked the driver with a nod, then made her way to the house alone while Ziva watched the town car out of the driveway.

Jen wasn't alone for long. Ziva closed the front door, and leaned against it.

"At yafah, yafah me'od. At yoda'at?" she said quietly. You're beautiful, very beautiful. Do you know?

"Not so much a matter of knowing. I certainly feel beautiful at present," Jen said, blushing intensely.

"Good," Ziva said, smiling. She thought about it first, then spoke her mind, "I wanted to hit everyone who got to dance with you."

"And I am going to have to ask you not to wear kohl to work," Jen drawled.

"I rarely wear it because it annoys me when people stare."

"It's... Well, frankly it's overkill. Just mascara and a little eyeliner is... bad enough."

"Ken?" Ziva said, her tone teasing. Yes?

"Yes," Jen said, blushing afresh. "And that suit. My God... Go home before I need a cold shower."

"So rude," Ziva laughed and took out her phone. She kept her eyes on Jen's while calling for a cab, then pocketed her phone. "I will be gone in a few minutes. Would you like me to wait outside?"

"I was about to say that I feel like a teenager, but what the hell am I doing with someone sixteen years my junior... and who regularly acts it?"

"I will keep you young," Ziva said with a grin. "You said it yourself: you feel younger."

"I'm going upstairs," Jen said. Quite determined to get her own back, she stepped into Ziva's space and blew against her ear. Ziva screwed her eyes shut and made heavy use of the door again. Jen smirked. "I'm sure you feel quite grown up now. Goodnight."

Ziva laughed weakly and levered herself away from the door, and opened it. She made doubly sure that it was locked before pocketing her key. Habit caused her to immediately move out of the pool of light near the front door, and into the shadows, and that in turn caused her smile to fade.

She hated the fact that they didn't know his name, didn't know his face. With a name it could all be over in a matter of seventy-two hours or less. Until they had his name—no. Until they had him, until he was dead or locked up, Ziva and Jen needed to remain zeroed-in on this hunt.

That was what it was: a hunt. The question of who was hunting whom would only be settled when someone went down, in whatever way. Ziva strongly suspected that as soon as he found out that they were onto him, the 'Pentagon element' would attempt to physically harm Jen. After all, he'd ordered someone to plant a bomb aboard René Benoit's boat. That someone had probably been the late Mr. Kort. They hadn't bothered to ask him; he would have lied about it, and now it didn't matter because Benoit was almost as well protected as the President. Not so Jen.

Ziva took out her phone and called the cab company again, canceling her cab. She let herself into the house. The ground floor was by then totally dark, and very little light showed upstairs. Ziva knew the house well enough and never put a foot wrong in the dark. Jen's bedroom door stood open but Ziva knocked and remained in the hall.


"I will be in the usual room, and from tomorrow there will be a security detail somewhere nearby."

"All right. Are you okay?" Jen asked.

"Obeying my instincts. I think it is very likely that he or someone working for him was watching you tonight. Set out an extra clip with your Glock. Lailah tov." Goodnight.

"Okay. G'night."

From her bathroom Jen listened to the fading clip of Ziva's heels in the hall. By their measure she knew that that was Ziva's business stride, and by her tone Jen had registered that Ziva was 'on autopilot,' as McGee would've put it.

Jen finished with removing her makeup and made sure to set out the extra clip next to her Glock on the bedside table.

In bed, in the dark, she thought that someone else might be hurt to know that Ziva had all but dismissed their earlier banter, their very first real flirtations, and had replaced those memories with a focused awareness of her surroundings. Jen yawned and before sleep claimed her she thought that someone else might also be lying awake and fretful, instead of sleepy and calm. She pitied anyone who was fool enough to try and break into this house when Ziva was here and 'on autopilot.'

In the morning Jen found Ziva in the kitchen. Her nose had woken her, or rather, the scents of breakfast had caused her nose to wake her. Ziva grumbled that she'd intended to bring breakfast upstairs. Jen might have gone back to bed but she chose to sip coffee and page through the Sunday paper while Ziva finished cooking. She was wearing the suit pants and the waistcoat, with her shirt sleeves rolled, and an apron that usually saw use when Jen barbecued.

"And the tie, too?" Jen finally asked, and hungrily surveyed a full plate.

"An open collar with a waistcoat looks... untidy."

"This from someone who often wanders around this house in low-rise boy-cut panties and one of my Navy T-shirts."

"Is that still okay?" Ziva asked with a glint in her eye. "I would not want you to be rushing into a cold shower every five minutes."

"Ha-ha...ha," Jen drawled while buttering her toast. "Oddly enough—very strange, if I think about it, panties and a T-shirt seem to be less of a... uhh, turn-on than the suit... Was. That's weird..."

"Do not let your food get cold. Who is wearing these clothes, and for how long have you been very used to me, hmm?"

"That is an excellent point," Jen conceded and tucked into her breakfast.

Anthony DiNozzo was not any kind of professor, let alone a professor of 'movie history.' When he thought about it that was the only major lie he'd told Jeanne Benoit... but then there were all the little ones attached to that big lie. They added up. In her place, he'd never want to see one Tony DiNozzo ever again, and it wasn't too much of a surprise when his guess proved correct.

Of all people, he'd had René Benoit's help with what could only have been called 'the breakup.' It hadn't gone well. Jeanne had walked away in tears, without even saying goodbye.

"That is great a pity," Benoit said, and he seemed genuinely disappointed.

"You're an arms dealer. What's with the whole... gentleman-nice-guy thing?" Tony muttered.

"I am always a gentleman," Benoit said and shrugged. "Not always the good guy, you understand. There is a difference."

"Right... I wish it was all different," Tony said, his eyes still on Jeanne who was walking across a park, walking away. Never coming back. "I really love her."

"I do not think that she will ever talk to me again either," Benoit noted. For any of this business to make proper sense to Jeanne, she'd been told the whole truth, and that had included the delightful revelation that her father was an arms dealer. "Maybe I should have mentioned those statistics given me by the CIA..."

"The ones that prove that you've helped put a bunch of terrorists in jail?"

"Yes. However, I very much doubt that it would have made any kind of difference."

"Yeah, cos she is so damn smart," Tony stated. "What about all the guns you've supplied to the bastards that haven't been caught yet?"

"I have—now what is the term... Ahh. A selective conscience," Benoit drawled.

"I don't," Tony said glumly.

"Come," Benoit said, nodding towards his limousine. "The best thing for us, I think, is to get drunk."

"Okay," Tony muttered. "And just my luck: I lose the girl and end up being a drinking buddy to her gunrunning dad..."

Three days later Tony managed to grab some time and corner Ziva. He hadn't been looking forward to this little meeting. He knew what she was going to say, about professionalism, and how he should never have fallen in love with a mark. What he didn't expect was the cold look in her eyes while he spoke. Eventually he rambled into silence, his reasons, his explanations suddenly sounding worse than poor even to his own ears.

"Are you finished?" Ziva asked.

"I know, I know: I should've been more professional."

"Your... little boy sulk makes me want to hit you," Ziva growled. "Everyone else—even Gibbs—is saying and thinking 'Oh, poor Tony!' But they are not thinking as they should. Let's say that we had never stumbled over the idea that the same person who is trying to get rid of Benoit, is also trying to get rid of Jen... I am telling you, and I hope you hear: Benoit would have decided to look very hard at you, his daughter's new lover. He would have found out who you really are. And then... Then your body would have been found in the Potomac. Poor Tony? No. Irresponsible, stupid Tony for not following orders and remaining a casual... fling to Jeanne. If you had, Benoit would not have bothered to pay any attention to you."

"I know. He told me so to my face," Tony said looking at his hands. "I didn't expect her to be so—"

"She was not the problem," Ziva snapped. "Tony, if you do not admit to yourself that you are the only person who screwed up, you will make the same mistake twice, and maybe next time it will get you killed."

Ziva stalked away, leaving Tony to stare after her, quite stunned. For the umpteenth time he thought that Ziva had very large cojones. After all, as she'd said herself, everyone else was of the opinion that Tony DiNozzo had been hard done by. Had any of those others been here, they would've taken his side. However, thinking about what Ziva had said caused Tony to reconsider the value of that backup: she was right.

"Irresponsible, stupid... me," he repeated her words to himself. It didn't feel good. Just as well. There were too many good memories attached to the short-lived relationship with Jeanne for that to be called a lesson he'd learn from. "Stupid, irresponsible me."

Gibbs wasn't there to give him a 'Remember this!' smack upside the head. Tony decided that imagining one was good enough. It took him a moment to frown and remember something else– Saturday evening: Ziva opening the car door; Jen taking her offered hand; the very brief look that had passed between them. What about that?

He should have thought first before going after Ziva, before cornering her again. At least they were in the executive parking lot. Ziva was borrowing Jen's car with its nifty federal park-anywhere sticker to run an errand to the SECNAV's office.

She rounded on Tony.

"I beg your pardon?" she hissed.

"You heard me," Tony said adamantly. "What about you and Jenny? I'm not blind, Ziva, and neither is anyone else."

"If you were anyone else, I would never speak with you again," Ziva said and meant every word. "You question our professionalism, Jen's and mine?"

"No, hold on," Tony said at once. "I'm not talking about that."

"Then what is your point? Was your lack of professionalism not my point? How shall I make myself clear regarding Jeanne... Seeing as you are a man and probably cannot grasp the nuances of regular plain speech, let me try a crass approach. It would have been okay to just fuck her. Instead you fell in love with her and allowed that to fuck with your job. Is that more plain?"

"It was plain the first time," Tony muttered.

"Fine. Now let me tell you something for nothing," Ziva said and stepped closer to Tony. "When you can fall in love and deny it in favor of doing your job, then only a complete fool will ever question your professionalism."

"You mean—"

"Tishtok– shut up," Ziva growled, wagging a finger. "Not another word. I am going to be late."

Tony watched her walk to the car, then abruptly turned on his heel and strode the short distance to the elevator. He heard tires squeal behind him but stepped into the elevator without taking a look.

"Idiot," Tony told himself and jabbed a button. The elevator finally delivered him in the squad area where he almost collided with Ducky. "Sorry."

"Is something wrong, Tony? You look like the Furies are after you."

"Funny you should say that," Tony said with a glance up at Jen's office. He wondered if Ziva would call Jen, then dismissed the thought: Ziva fought her own battles. "I'm just... dense today, Doc."

"I'm genuinely sorry about your muddled, erm, romance," Ducky said quietly.

"Oh. Thanks. I guess everyone knows, huh?"

"I doubt that. Would you like to talk?"

"Umm, yeah. But not about Jeanne. Elevator?"

"Huh. Where else?" Ducky chortled. "I'm on way down to the morgue, anyway."

There wasn't much to tell. The elevator hadn't reached the basement when Tony had finished his sorry confession of sheer stupidity.

"Good Lord," Ducky drawled, slowly shaking his head. "Do you mean that you actually said, 'What about you and Jen?' Dear boy, are you off your head?"

"Maybe," Tony said. He frowned at his hands, and after a pause said, "Or maybe I just wanted to lash out. I mean, it's pretty clear those two have had something going on for... I dunno. How long do you reckon?"

"Tony, that's not the point, and I refuse to discuss it. As long as they maintain their professionalism, I feel that no-one has any right to question any aspect of their relationship. You'll have to travel a long way for a long time to find two women more professional, and that is the bottom line, which you crossed. You have that fence to mend with Ziva and I hope that you can."

"Might be as simple as an honest apology," Tony said, thoughtfully.

"Perhaps. Some advice?" Ducky said.


"Make no mention whatsoever of Jen Shepard. Keep your apology clean, quick, and simple. Heartfelt as well. Good luck," Ducky said, patting Tony's shoulder before stepping out of the elevator.

Clean, quick, simple, and heartfelt. Tony got right down to it as soon as Ziva returned. He asked to speak with her a moment. She gave him a long look, one that wasn't the least bit kind, before nodding and following him down a corridor. Theirs was a going-nowhere stroll and Ziva fell into stride next to him.


"I am really sorry," Tony said while walking. He looked at her and repeated, "Honestly sorry."

"It will not be something that I can forgive twice," Ziva said, equally as honest.

"I won't put you in that position again."

"Do you know what will happen if my professionalism is called into question in even a small way?"

Tony shook his head.

"I will be recalled to Israel, in disgrace. But forget about me, and remember only that I believe in honor. I will be recalled and that—in my eyes—will dishonor Jen... I will not forgive it twice, Tony."

"You won't have to," he promised.

"All right. We have work to do, yes?"

"As always," Tony said with a wry smile.


Chapter Nineteen

They couldn't just go and grab Robert Styles, scare the hell out of him, and get him to talk. If they did that, whoever the 'Pentagon element' was might be tipped off to the fact that they were on to him. Instead their investigation had to proceed cautiously and slowly. Styles was under constant surveillance by his own people, who reported directly to Jen Shepard. While that side of things was being taken care of by CIA officers, Jen's people were stalking Lloyd Bannerman.

Bannerman seemed like every other successful real estate broker: he lived in a big fancy house, drove a small expensive sports car, played golf every Wednesday and Sunday (weather permitting), and he ate out most nights at exclusive restaurants. He wore bespoke suits and Italian shoes, and his crocodile briefcase probably cost more than Jen made in two months. On the surface this seemed legit. A closer look revealed that his company was not just a real estate brokerage.

"What?" Gibbs said, blinking in disbelief.

"Oh, the front-of-house is a real brokerage and they do big business, Boss," McGee said. "But that's just the front-of-house."

"Fronting a PMC," Tony tacked on.

"A private military corporation fronted by a real estate agency?" Ducky said, his expression incredulous. "Good grief..."

Jen's living room had become an unofficial HQ over weekends. Abby was present at this meeting as well.

"Is it a registered PMC?" she asked.

"Oh yeah," Tony said, and passed around a copy of the registration. "All above board—

"Except for the hiding out bit," McGee said. "Bannerman has his own private army. They hire out on short tours exclusively."

"No more than six weeks at a time," Tony said. "And that is all about the moolah. They're not working long tours, so they get paid more, which means more money in Bannerman's pocket. Only, he's not paying tax on it. Not a penny. The guy who supposedly owns that PMC pays taxes on about forty-five percent of what comes in, because he rigs the books to show that the company brings in fifty-five percent less than it really does."

"Handy, having a former accountant as a business owner," McGee said.

"Let me get this straight," Ziva said. "There is a private military company that is co-owned by a real estate broker and an accountant?"

"No-no," McGee said. "Owned only by the real estate broker. The other guy, Jones, is listed as the owner, but he's really just the manager and takes home a salary. It's not peanuts, but this guy drives a ten-year-old pickup, lives in a small clapboard house, and is paying a lot of alimony to his ex wife."

"And he wasn't always an accountant," Tony added. "I went sniffing around, talked to some of the mercs about a job, and when I asked about the boss, they spoke pretty highly of Jones. Guys like that... Put it this way, if you're not a former cop or ex military, you won't fool a real soldier that you are."

"So we dug into Jones's past. He legally changed his name in eighty-four, pretty much in an attempt to cover up a Bad Conduct Discharge from the Marines. Records sealed on a Master Sergeant Barry St. John."

"I'll get us a look at those," Jen said. "But I'm pretty sure we don't need to look too hard at Jones and the reason for his Big Chicken Dinner... Bannerman. Benoit told me that he and Bannerman met at the Grand Prix in Monaco four years ago, and just hit it off. Same tastes in art, literature, cigars, cognac; both play golf and love to sail. Benoit says that they've never discussed guns even in the abstract. Haven't talked about hunting; haven't discussed the situation in Iraq. Nothing that might have set off bells for Benoit, and he's still doubtful that Bannerman is in any way linked to this investigation."

"He won't be when you mention that PMC," Ducky said and snorted. "Mark my words."

Jen marked them well. She mentioned the PMC to Benoit two days later, over a secure line.

"What do you need me to do?" Benoit said at once.

Sitting across Jen's desk, someone with the CIA smiled in a way that, had he been there to see it, might have caused Bannerman to wet his pants.

Bat haMidbar– Daughter of the Desert. Her grandfather, her mother's father, had once called her that, in a soft, somewhat bewildered tone. His people were all refugees from Latvia, and though he loved Eretz Yisra'el, the Land of Israel, he wasn't and had never been suited to desert life. His granddaughter seemed to have only her mother's face and slight build. The rest? Spirited, like a fine Arabian filly, the sort of horse coveted by his son-in-law, and just as those horses' bloodlines proved that they belonged right there, in the desert, so was the desert bred in Ziva's blood.

Sometimes she dreamed of the desert, of the silent places to be found just a few minutes drive outside of Be'er Sheva. She would dream of long views, stretching seemingly into infinity– rocky flats and distant hills, all colored gold and dusty grey. The white-heat of the sun, and mirages. The silence there was only ever disturbed by the wind, as if it was the only thing that had that right. After dreams like that, Ziva would wear a small frown for days: Washington and its surrounds were all just too... green, too lush.

"What're you thinking about?"

She and Gibbs were on stakeout, and that was mostly a babysitting job. Bannerman had no idea what was being planned for him, but that event was still about seventy-two hours away. They didn't know if he was in contact with the 'Pentagon element.' They didn't know if Styles knew Bannerman; if he did, then it was possible that Styles had told Bannerman that Kort was MIA, presumed dead. That might just make Bannerman think of running. Hence the babysitting job.

"The desert," Ziva answered quietly.

"Miss it?" Gibbs asked.

"Sometimes very much, yes."

"I got a taste for it, during the Gulf War. You drive and stop, and there's all that space... and quiet."

"That is what I miss the most," Ziva said. "A Bedouin man once told me that quiet places are for brave people only. In the quiet you face all the personal truths that are difficult to accept. If you love silence, then you accept yourself, as you are, but you also put yourself to work to fix the things that must be fixed. I heard that when I was fourteen. I cannot forget it."

"All of that makes sense to me," Gibbs said. He nodded towards the house. "Lights out downstairs. Looks like he's calling it a night."

"Nearly midnight. He might have a TV upstairs."

"Probably." Gibbs decided to let a little quiet in for a while. He could go for days without talking, and he knew that Ziva could, too. She'd talk if she wanted to, if she was interested in discussing something, and if she was interested in a topic, she could talk for hours. Sometimes Gibbs envied that, but only in the moment. When he was alone he did not miss conversation. He wasn't alone right now, and though he'd never cared much for talking, he didn't mind listening. Sometimes he even wanted to listen. "Question."

"Yes?" Ziva said.

"You and Jenny."

"That is not a question," Ziva chuckled.

"And that's an ambiguous remark, Officer David," Gibbs said, grinning, his teeth flashing in the dark interior of the car. "You gotta watch those."

"Only with certain people," Ziva said simply.

Gibbs liked that. He liked her confidence and her relaxed attitude. Though he'd never admit it to Ziva, Gibbs had expected a standoffish, perhaps slightly defensive response. He realized that he knew her, but not very well, and he'd also made the mistake of thinking that she was just like Jen. She and Jen were indeed very alike in some ways, but not all. Jen would've told him to back off. She might in ten years deign to hold Ziva's hand while in Gibbs's company, but she'd still tell him to back off if he asked so much as, How's it going with you two?

"I hope she's expecting the long haul this time. She didn't, with me."

"Long haul? A long-term relationship?" Ziva asked, the dark hiding her blush. She wasn't quite as relaxed as Gibbs thought. But she was confident. No doubts: it's a nice place to be. "Many years are a possibility, but Time and Life make their own rules."

"Who said that?"


"And now I'll take that saying as gospel," Gibbs muttered.

"Mmm. Me, too. But as to what you said, she and I are making no plans. We are... making it up as we go, yes?"

"Yep. Good choice—all of it—if you ask me. You two match up good."

"You didn't think so, some time ago, when you called me an 'Israeli robot.'"

"Damn, but she still reads me like a book..." Gibbs chuckled.

"How not? She loved you; she still cares about you," Ziva stated. She knew Gibbs well enough: if she kept to this track he'd clam up. She switched back to the previous one instead. "Jen and I. You thought it was the same as you and Jen?"

"To be honest, back then I had no idea what to think. What went down in Cairo?"

"She has not told you?"

"Jen told me that you saved her life. You make a habit of that?"

"It was not the same. Jen does not feel that she owes me a debt."

"I do," Gibbs stated flatly. "You bet I owe ya. So how's that different?"

"I saved my life as well as hers. You see?"

"Plain as day, yeah. So?"

"I shot the fucker in the head before he could blow us up. You want more plain than that?" Ziva asked in a flat, emotionless tone of voice.

"You try real hard to see him as the bad guy– using a word like 'fucker.' Just how young was he?" Gibbs asked.

"Sixteen," Ziva whispered.

Gibbs put out his hand in the dark, and found Ziva's. He squeezed it gently and held on to it. She didn't let go, didn't try to pull away, and neither of them said a word, until a car drove up behind them more than an hour later. Tony and McGee had arrived.

"Beer?" Gibbs asked Ziva.

"Not a wise choice tonight," she said.

Gibbs gave his trademark nod and started the car. And he found himself thinking along the same lines Jen had, two years ago: people like himself, and Jen, and especially Ziva ought to date within a circle of people with similar experiences, similar backgrounds, simply because no-one else understood. No-one outside that circle could possibly begin to understand.

If Bannerman found it odd that he didn't know any of the guests at this party, he didn't let on, and Benoit, according to McGee's personal opinion, was the coolest customer in the world. He was literally surrounded by CIA officers and four NCIS agents. They were all in his house and on his patio, generally making themselves at home while partaking (very) sparingly of champagne and not sparing the excellent hors d'oeuvres at all, and Benoit appeared to be enjoying the novelty of it all. Seeing Bannerman heading Tony's way, McGee gave him a heads-up. Tony and two officers were playing barmen tonight. McGee was being geeky, he and several officers passing easily for IT moguls. Ziva was conversing in fluent, unaccented French with a CIA linguist, and they were talking books. Gibbs and four officers were talking boats.

"How's it going?" Jen's voice came through McGee's earwig.

"He hasn't done more than greet Benoit," McGee said into his cuff mic while adjusting his fake glasses. "He's doing a lot of talking to everyone else."

"Schmoozing. Guess we've just got to be patient."

"Yeah. How's Ducky liking MTAC?"

"A million questions," Jen drawled.

A slight click told McGee that she'd 'dropped the mic,' or disconnected. He grinned and passed on her 'million questions' comment to his fellow 'IT moguls.' One of them asked what Abby was up to tonight.

"Comms'n'cams in MTAC."

"She can do that, too?"

"If it relies on a computer," McGee said somewhat proudly. "Abby will figure out how it works, yeah, but in this case she's actually fully trained and has MTAC clearance. Standby OPTAC comms tech crew."

And in an OPTAC suite at headquarters Abby was proving to Jen that there was nothing standby about her abilities. All the NCIS agents had minicams attached to their persons in some form or other; that was four, add a further twelve attached to CIA officers, and one to Benoit himself. Only seventeen cams, but everyone in the room was wired for sound. Abby used the various minicams to keep track of Bannerman and so switch to whichever mic was closest to him to pick up what he was saying. The sound feed was being filtered through a helpmate program that 'grabbed' certain words. In this case the list was fairly short: PMC, private military company or private military contractor (both said as phrases), military, arms, guns, supply, and finesse, the latter being Benoit's catch-word indicating that he was about to try and hook Bannerman. If anyone said any of those words, the filter program set off a flashing alert light mounted on Abby's keyboard. However, the NCIS and CIA people would be doing their best not to say any of those words unless they were talking with Bannerman.

"I think he's heading for Benoit now," Ducky said.

"Maybe..." Abby agreed.

Jen looked up from her paperwork, waiting on certainty before taking off her glasses and switching on her headphones.

"Uhh... Yep! Director?" Abby said.

"I'm already tuned in," Jen told her.

At Benoit's place, the 'party' was winding down. Half the 'guests' had left, and the remaining people were talking quietly in small groups. Tony answered Benoit's hand signal request and brought over a tray bearing two snifters of cognac, a box of cigars, clipper, and lighter. The cigars were a 'gift' from one of the contraband lockers over at the ATF, and therefore illegal: Cuban. Tony somehow managed not to laugh when Bannerman's eyebrows tried to launch themselves into space. The two men took a cigar each, and Benoit removed the clipper and lighter from the tray. Tony nodded acknowledgment of Benoit's softly spoken thanks and walked away.

In MTAC Jen leaned forward in her seat and watched the huge screen intently. Bannerman had no idea that he was starring in a movie. He was a cliche: tall, dark, and handsome, dressed in a classic tuxedo, and Jen wryly thought that he wouldn't look out of place in any Hollywood production requiring a rather dashing protagonist. She hoped that tonight he'd give himself away as the villain instead.

Benoit was an old hand at this stuff. He was in his sixties and had, since his early twenties, wined and dined princes, some of whom had bought this and that from him even though they hadn't needed those items. He wasn't shy to make an honest boast of the fact that he could probably convince every nun in a convent that they needed to mount an anti-aircraft gun on their roof. Getting Bannerman to confess to owning a PMC was going to be a piece of cake.

He took his time, as he usually did, and eventually got down to it.

"Look at that," Benoit said, pointing out a heavily armed man patrolling his well-lit front yard. "My security people have no finesse."

"The company's at fault," Bannerman said and shrugged. "Get the right company, and you'll hardly see them. One of the companies I know of is... Well, they're pretty damn good, but they don't do long-term contracts."

"But for enough money—"

"There's more money in short-term contracts, trust me. A lot more money."

"Hmm. Well, I'm not always here, as you know; I spend perhaps three months out of the year here, and not... all at once. I would not mind paying more if I could get what I want."

"Then technically, you'd be a repeat client. Would you want the same team?"

"You sound like you know a lot about this business," Benoit said lightly.

"I... Yeah," Bannerman said with a sly laugh. "I, uhh. I own a company that could provide you with what you want."

"That's... interesting," Benoit said. "Or maybe it isn't so interesting. We don't talk too much about work, you and I."

"Yes," Bannerman said. "I've never asked what you do."

"And I think that is because you already know, hmm?" Benoit said, his tone amused, relaxed, almost conspiratorial.

There was a pause. In MTAC, Ducky literally had his fingers crossed, and Jen was barely breathing, staring at the screen. Abby stopped nibbling at her lip in case she bit right through it.

Bannerman took a long toke on his cigar and blew three perfect smoke rings.

"Yes," he said and he sounded as smug as he looked. "Yeah, I know what you do, and maybe we could do business, if you don't mind small consignments of small arms?"

"I don't mind," Benoit said lightly, and he glanced over Bannerman's shoulder. "But I think that they do."


"Shut up," Tony said and had Ziva's help with handcuffs. "This will go a lot easier if you just keep quiet."

"But I—He's an arms dealer!" Bannerman said desperately.

"Yeah right, and I really like these stupid stiletto heels," Ziva muttered. "Mister Benoit works for the CIA."

"Oh God..." Bannerman murmured.

Benoit smiled innocently and shrugged in a slow Continental way. Then he sighed when he saw that his 'guests' were all heading to the front door.

"But it was such a nice party..." he said to himself.

Bannerman hadn't been arrested. He was informed of this fact while in a moving vehicle. He was hooded and couldn't see where he was being taken. When the hood was removed by someone standing behind him, he blinked in a brightly lit room with four solid walls and a door. He'd imagined a mirror in one wall, like the kind he'd seen on TV. When his eyes adjusted he noticed that there was a camera in a corner, just under the ceiling, pointed right at him. He shifted to the left and the camera followed him.

"Motion detection." McGee dropped the hood on the table and walked around to a seat opposite Bannerman, who glared at him. "I bet you're thinking that I'm way too geeky to be a cop."

"And too young," Bannerman muttered.

"That's the trouble with a baby face, but add a badge..." McGee said with a smirk. "Listen up– you were told that you weren't arrested. There's no paperwork on you. That means one of two things: either I can just let you go like this never happened, or the CIA can decide what to do with you. The choice is yours."

"What do I have to do? I'll do it. I don't care what it is," Bannerman said in a hurry.

"If I say the name Jennifer Shepard, you say..?"

"I have no clue who she is, but someone I know doesn't like her," Bannerman said. "At least, I think he doesn't like her. He's never said it, y'know? Just the impression I get from the way he's talked about her."

"I'm guessing that this same person somehow got you to go to that Grand Prix in Monaco, the one where you first met René Benoit?"

"He said that he couldn't make it, so I could have the apartment he'd rented for the week. No way was I gonna pass that up."

"Right. Has he ever said anything about Benoit?"

"He knows so much about René that I thought... I thought they were friends. So yes, I'd say that I'd seen René, would tell him what we'd talked about, where I'd seen him."

"That's it? He wouldn't ask specific questions?"

"Well, he used to. He'd ask about René's security. René has private guys. I'd guess they're proper mercs—mercenaries. I'd guess that they're licensed but not contracted to a PMC. When I told him that, the questions stopped."

"Okay. Gimme a name," McGee demanded.

"Philips. Josh Philips."

"Thanks," McGee said and stood.

"What happens now?" Bannerman asked.

"I suspect you're going to be doing some work for the government. Possibly in prison. Someone with the IRS says you owe a few million in back taxes and penalties."

"You said you'd let me go," Bannerman whined.

"You'll be let go, and then arrested," McGee said. "Some CIA people are gonna come in now, and remind you that you solicited the business of an arms dealer in their employ."

"I am so screwed..." Bannerman whimpered.

The 'stupid stiletto heels' were dangling from Ziva's hand when she walked into Jen's study. She was wearing a black cocktail dress with narrow straps at the shoulders, but those shoulders were hidden away by an NCIS windcheater.

"Very chic," Jen said, amused.

Ziva gave her a glare, dropped the shoes near her favorite chair, and strode out of the study. She returned momentarily with two bottles of Danish beer. Tuborg Green was Ziva's favorite and Jen had fast come to like the pale lager as well. She clinked her bottle to Ziva's before sipping, then smiled wryly while trying to remember when last she'd had beer out of a glass.

"You're a bad influence."

"I am?" Ziva perched on the edge of Jen's desk. "How so?"

"I used to pour my beer into a glass."

"This is glass," Ziva said and flicked a fingernail against her bottle. "Put it into another kind of glass and you have more to wash up."

"Smart-ass," Jen chortled. After a pause she asked softly: "Are you staying tonight?"

"Be'vadai," Ziva said. Definitely. She smiled at Jen's sudden blush. "And not in the guest room... Now you are properly shy. Do you think it will be so different?"

"Ktzat," Jen said quietly. Just a little. "And the difference I feel right now is lovely."

Ziva agreed with a nod and a smile. She didn't feel the need to talk about this, and Jen's expression told her that she felt the same way.

Only a little different. In bed it made them slightly more aware of each other, but no less comfortable. Physical contact was nothing new, neither was sharing a bed, and this new thing between them didn't change that. There'd be time for changes, very pleasant changes when this investigation was over.

"Maybe when I see a picture of him, I'll know who Josh Philips is."

"Maybe," Ziva agreed. "I really want to catch this guy now."

"Huh. You and me both," Jen drawled. "And I really... It bugs the hell out of me that he probably knows about this; about you staying here and me staying the night at your place."

"And that is something he will use, if he can... Maybe I should go."

"Ziva, even if you never come back, he still knows," Jen pointed out. Softly: "Relax?"

Ziva breathed in deeply, let it out slowly. Ordinarily that worked, but tonight a small amount of tension remained and refused to ease away. Jen fell asleep long before Ziva did.


Chapter Twenty

Jen stared at a photograph of a smiling, bespectacled man with blond hair. She had never met him before. What did Josh Philips have against her, or Benoit? And Benoit swore that he'd never met Philips either. Worse than that mystery, Philips didn't work at the Pentagon.

He was a forty-two-year-old millionaire bachelor, the heir to a huge mining fortune. According to various sources (all of them public) he rebuilt classic cars, and when he wasn't doing that he was playing polo or golf, skiing, sailing, or mountaineering. He had no business interests or concerns, but he patronized several children's and animal welfare charities. He had no children of his own. He'd had well-documented relationships with three different women, but none of those had lasted more than a year. He lived in an antebellum mansion near Norfolk, Virginia. He had a butler, a housekeeper, three maids, two gardeners, and four stable staff. He had six Hanoverian horses, two English bulldogs, and had once bred Siamese cats, but according his last interview with Town and Country, he now had five house cats of unknown breeding.

"This guy is an open book, and he looks like a saint," Jen muttered to Ziva. "The women he was involved with said that he was kind when they broke up... Are Gibbs and Tony back yet?"

"Not yet," Ziva said. "McGee says that you must please come down and shoot him. He is bored, bored, bored."

"That bad?"

"Klum," Ziva said and huffed. Nothing. "Except for a few parking tickets, that were all paid, McGee cannot find a single bad thing about this man, this Philips."

"Then why the hell has he got a hate-on for me?"

"I am starting to think that Bannerman deliberately gave us the wrong name."

"I keep running into that thought, too."

Three hours later, Gibbs and Tony agreed with that theory. They'd spent an hour in Philips' company, with an IRS agent. Philips seemed honestly shocked to hear that Bannerman had been arrested for tax fraud, and was even more shocked to hear that he owned a PMC. Gibbs had decided to risk dropping Jen's name, but indirectly.

"I asked Tony, 'Have you seen Jenny Shepard lately?' and Philips didn't even look our way. He has no idea who you are."

"I'm sorry, Boss," McGee said, regarding his interrogation of Bannerman.

"McGee, you forget I was watching. You did good, and more to the damn point, I bought Bannerman's story, cos every bit of it is true, except for the name Josh Philips."

"So what do we do now?" Tony said. "Do we even know where Bannerman is?"

"He's in a minimum security pen in Idaho," McGee said.

"Idaho?" Gibbs wheezed, pretty much stunned.

"Part of his no-trial deal," McGee said. "He agreed to plead guilty at arraignment and go straight to sentencing, also agreed to pay what he owed to the IRS, in exchange for being close to his sister and nephews. They exist, were checked out. They live in Idaho."

"I think that those relatives are a convenience," Jen said. "Nice and far away from the person whose name is not Josh Philips... Seeing as I've got to pay for the tickets, who's coming with me to Idaho?"

"Not me," Gibbs stated flatly.

"We already had this conversation..." Ziva sang and laughed. "Not me."

"This isn't a field assignment," Jen drawled, rolling her eyes. "Tim?"

"I've got a wedding to go to, sorry," McGee said and suddenly was looking forward to said wedding.

"Well, that leaves you," Jen said to Tony.

"Thrilled," Tony muttered.

After flying for eight hours in econo-cramp class, Tony had expected a motel room for the night. Instead he found himself blinking at a spacious room that boasted two queen size beds. The Grove Hotel, Boise, was not the Ritz but it certainly seemed like it. Jen grumpily mumbled something about the hotel's suites and single rooms all being booked.

"I can go sleep in the car," Tony joked and bounced on a bed. He flopped back and grinned at the ceiling. "Or maybe not."

"Hmph!" said Jen, and she shut the bathroom door. "Order food. A lot of it. You know what I like."

"I remember."

Before Ziva had turned the operation on its head, Tony and Jen had spent a lot of time together talking about Benoit and how best to put him in a corner. Most of that talk had gone down over lunches and dinners. Tony knew exactly what Jen liked to eat. She had confessed once to a hatred of all things haute cuisine, so Tony avoided that menu. He ended up ordering two chef's salads, roast lamb with all the trimmings, and chocolate cake for dessert. There was a coffeemaker in the room, but Tony figured that a bottle of red wine would be more to Jen's taste. He'd managed to sleep on the plane but he had an idea that Jen hadn't. She tetchily confirmed his hunch when she emerged from the bathroom, freshly showered, wearing a robe over flannel pajamas. Yes-indeed, that bottle of wine was a very good idea.

She didn't say anything until they'd eaten. It was Tony who eventually got the ball rolling: Bannerman, and the mystery 'Pentagon element.'

They hoped that Bannerman knew the real name of the 'Pentagon element'; it was possible that the name given to him was a pseudonym. Jen had already contacted a very good police sketch artist, just in case the next name given them by Bannerman proved to be that of someone not listed on any division staff roster at the Pentagon. They had no doubt at all that the person who had gotten Bannerman into the PMC business, and who had suggested that he befriend Benoit, was the 'Pentagon element.'

"We know that a Mister Bill Smith—how unoriginal—paid for that week in Monaco with a Caymans transfer. I just wish we knew where he got the money to rent that apartment. Twenty grand per week, in Grand Prix season..." Tony said and whistled low and slow. "I don't know any civil servants that can afford that."

"You wouldn't catch me throwing away money like that, but I could afford that twenty-kay," Jen said simply. "Old, old money that happens to live in a Caymans account. Don't forget about things like inheritances and trust funds. I know several civil servants who actually don't need to work—I'm one of them. It's possible that the Pentagon element is someone like that."

"Yeah, but it's also possible that he's in a position—or has been in a position to skim cash, or just make dirty money disappear," Tony pointed out.

"That's also true, and in that case we're probably looking at someone in one of the three military intel communities, or someone who's worked with federal law enforcement—"

"DEA, maybe?"

"Where there's drugs, there's a lot of cash," Jen said, nodding.

Brainstorming took the issue so far and no further. The subject switched back to the team's regular cases, but they were interrupted by the cricket chirrup ring-tone of Jen's phone.

"Ziva, erev tov. Ma shlomech?" Jen said. Good evening. How are you?

"Kol be'seder po," Ziva said. All okay here. "I am calling to say goodnight. Is Tony there?"

"Ken," Jen said. Yes. "And he's frowning."

"Aww, we are being mean to him. Short and sweet: lailah tov, ve'chalomot tovim." Goodnight, and very good dreams.

"Lishon tov, metukah," Jen said. Sleep well, my sweet.

Jen hung up and set her phone aside. Tony had quit frowning, and he was paying way too much attention to his fingernails. He understood very little Hebrew, and that didn't include a single word Jen had said, and yet her tone of voice had given so much away.

He'd had his suspicions from the moment Jen and Ziva had greeted each other in the squad area two-and-a-half years ago, with a hug and kisses to both cheeks. Then he'd noticed a subtle change in their behavior after Ziva had been with NCIS for about six months. They'd gradually become more and more relaxed with each other, and somewhere along the way they'd reached a plateau of comfort that they had maintained to this day.

And he remembered that confrontation with Ziva in the executive parking lot. What had she said, before telling him to shut up? When you can fall in love and deny it in favor of doing your job... How long had these two been in love, how long had they denied it 'in favor of doing their jobs'? He had to think that way. Only a complete idiot would have missed Ziva's implication.

"Earth to Tony?" Jen drawled. When he looked up, she rolled her eyes at his Gotcha... grin. "Just spit it out."

"That's a very broad directive, Director," Tony said. He closed his notebook, put it down out of the way. "Care to rephrase?"

"I'm a big girl," Jen said, looking him in the eye.

"Yeah, I guess you're both adults."

Tony was prepared to let it alone, leave it right there, and Jen saw that plainly. She had a choice: to let him in just a little, or shut him out. Slamming doors is something that becomes a habit. Jen had Gibbs as an example. The doors Gibbs had slammed shut weren't likely to be opened anytime soon, and that really didn't do the man any good. It kept him from building close relationships; it limited his level of trust and also caused him to question the amount of trust others bestowed on him. Jen wasn't about to follow that example.

She carried the wine bottle and their glasses over to her bed. Tony held his glass while she poured. Jen clinked her glass to his.

"What do you want to know, Tony?" Jen said and settled on her bed.

"Only what won't get me killed by your Mossad officer," Tony said quite seriously.

"Okay," Jen chortled. "Well, if it's the classic 'Are you/aren't you?' question, the answer is, not yet."

"That word 'yet' being operative, but... Really?" Tony almost squeaked. He was pretty much stunned.

"Really," Jen said. "Not yet. When we wrap this operation..."

"That's... obviously what Ziva meant not so long ago, but never mind that. Umm, can I say something?"

"Go ahead."

"Okay. The straight dope." Tony sat up and crossed his legs. "You two act like lovers, and that's been going on for nearly two years. You're both a hundred percent professional at work, but even at work, there's that undercurrent of familiarity. An intimate familiarity. I mean, you two don't have to speak. Sometimes you just look at each other and there's this whole silent conversation going on."

"I've never had that with anyone else," Jen admitted.

"So my typical male brain had it all wrong," Tony said. "You two aren't, yet, but you're gonna, and it's pretty obvious that there's no way you'll hide in the closet. So how are you gonna get around the Regulations?"

"That's a bridge too far, Tony. Ziva and I haven't discussed it yet."

"I'm gonna end up missing one of you, aren't I?" Tony muttered.

"Probably," Jen said quietly.


"You know where my house is," Jen said, smiling. "Just knock on the door and visit."

"It won't be the same."

"Don't make me cry, please," Jen whispered.

"I won't. No tears tonight," Tony said gently.

All it took was an introduction. When he was told who they were, Bannerman's shoulders slumped in relief. He did, however, jerk his head at the corrections officer in the room. Jen reminded that man of who she was and asked him to leave. He hesitated for a moment, then walked out the door.

"Thanks," Bannerman said, and he wasted no time after that. "As soon as I give you the name you want, you won't be even a little mad at me."

"We figured as much," Tony said.

"Well?" Jen demanded.

"Colonel Jack Schering," Bannerman whispered. "And I'd laugh at your say-what expressions, but as you might guess, my sense of humor evaporated the moment I said his name."

"We need to move you," Jen said quietly, urgently. "And your sister and her sons."

"I'm emailing Gibbs..." Tony said, fingertips flying over a notebook keyboard. "Who can we trust?"

"Judge Walton, SECNAV Holder, and Director Marden," Jen listed.

"You sure about Marden?" Tony asked.

"I am," Bannerman said. "Schering can't stand you, ma'am; he feels similarly towards Marden."

"Thanks," Jen said. To Tony: "Don't put Schering's name in that email. Just say that we have to move Bannerman, his sister, and her two kids right the hell now. You tell Gibbs to get those three names involved, and Gibbs will do all the convincing necessary."

"Okay... Done. Sent. Now what?"

"Won't take long. We wait," Jen said. "And get some answers. Mister Bannerman, how is it that you know even the name of a top echelon Army spook?"

"The more I think about it, my gut tells me he rigged it," Bannerman said. "He's the reason why I got into the PMC business. I met him maybe... five, maybe six years ago. Can't tell you how the conversation got started, but he suggested a PMC as a good investment. I looked into it, and ended up agreeing. He gave me advice on how to set it up... Then a couple months before that Grand Prix, he started telling me about Benoit. 'Sure he sells guns to whoever can pay, but he's a great guy.' That's what Schering said about him. So then I go to Monaco and Schering had said I should look up Benoit. Told me to be smart, though: Benoit didn't like name-dropping. I've never mentioned to Benoit that I know Schering."

"If you had, you'd be dead," Jen stated flatly.

Bannerman nodded. His brain had been screaming as much at him for nearly ten days.

Less than an hour after the email had been sent, someone knocked on the door and entered when invited in. He looked puzzled while telling Jen that there were three 'federal people' to see her. She asked which variety of 'federal people.'

"Secret Service," the corrections officer said, looking uncomfortable.

"Hmph. Case of grabbing whoever was available, I suppose," Jen drawled. "Did they give you something for me?"

"Only their names: Holder, Marden, and Walton."

"That's a surety code, not their names," Tony said. "Please go get Bannerman's personal effects."

"I figured you were gonna say that. Bag's waiting outside..."

While Bannerman changed his clothes, Jen went out to speak with the agents. She was told that another four agents, two of them female, were stationed at Bannerman's sister's place, and that she and her kids were scared but cooperative.

"What's the plan?" Jen asked, while filling in several forms.

"Private jet. Destination as yet unknown. FBI pilots on standby. We have someone with WITSEC on the way. I guess she's got all the details and will have 'em relayed to you, ma'am. The three of us have been assigned permanently until we hear otherwise."

"Good. Thank you... That's him."

"Mister Bannerman, come with us, please, sir."

"Okay. Thanks, Miz Shepard."

"No. Thank you," Jen said and shook his hand. "Stay safe."

"I hope so," Bannerman said. "And you, too. Okay?"

"I'll try," Jen muttered.

Ziva was on autopilot again, only this time McGee guessed that she might remain in that state for a lot longer than two hours. He mentally cursed Schering's existence and squirmed, trying to get comfortable in the body armor that Gibbs had ordered mandatory until further notice. Body armor and a tactical drop-leg holster strapped to his thigh. Ziva and Gibbs wore theirs as if they'd been born wearing the damn things; McGee hated his.

"Boss, if anyone is watching us, they're gonna wonder why we're geared up."

"Right," Gibbs said flatly.

McGee knew that tone and didn't bother to ask for an explanation. And Jen and Tony's plane was late. McGee and Gibbs had been sitting in fed-res parking at Dulles for the last seventy minutes. Right in the section reserved for very official, very federal use. In a big black Tahoe that had very obvious government plates.

"Sitting ducks..." McGee couldn't help but mutter.

"Yup," Gibbs said.

McGee rolled his eyes and gave up.

Elsewhere Ziva was being patient while Abby and someone from the ATF ever-so-carefully defused and removed a suspicious looking box from the undercarriage of Jen's Mercedes. Ziva knew exactly what that was. It would explode, yes, but if and when it did it was meant only to self-destruct, not blow up the car. Ziva could have defused and removed it herself, but Abby had called in a friend before Ziva had had chance to mention that.

"How do we open it, Joe?" Abby asked eagerly.

"As long as it stays within thirty feet of the car, so it keeps transmitting those same GPS co-ords, we can open it with a can opener," said explosives and tech expert Joe Delano. "Anything will do. We got the destruct charge defused and that's all we had to worry about."

They decided on a junior hacksaw in the end. The PPS plastic box had been painted black and was sealed with heavy duty construction adhesive, waterproof, airtight, but not too tough in the face of a fine hacksaw blade. Ziva leaned forward as one half of the box came away: she smirked and snorted.

"We used those ten years ago."

"Yeah, it's kludge, but it's reliable," Joe said. "And my guess is that this baby has an upgrade. Whadya think about... that?"

"Not the regular chip," Abby said. "Not for that model of smart tracker/recorder/transmitter."

"It does not record anything. Collects data and transmits only," Ziva stated. "That chip was originally a Mossad hack. It disguises the microwave transmission as an FM frequency."

"Is this the one that grabs a radio station and amplifies the signal?" Joe asked.

"That is the reason for that monster battery," Ziva said, nodding. "It senses a detection frequency and switches to the FM station at once."

"Whoa..." Abby said. "Standard transmitter detection units automatically ignore all FM radio frequencies. So that chip makes this baby undetectable?"

"Yes. That is why I told you and Joe to use your eyes only to find the box."

"So how are we gonna grab its transmission frequency?"

"Simple—" Joe began.

"We are not going to do that," Ziva said.

"We're not?" Abby and Joe said in chorus.

"No." Ziva picked up a hammer.

"Wait! What about fingerprints?" Abby squawked. Both Ziva and Joe looked at her as if she'd just stepped out of a spacecraft. "Oh. Right. He's an Army spook. No prints, no fibers, no serial numbers, no nothing."

"Correct," Ziva said and smashed the smart tracker. "Come to Mamma."

Meanwhile, at Dulles airport, security personnel escorted Jen and Tony out to the Tahoe in fed-res parking, where something like a handover took place. Rather elaborate. Meant to draw attention. A small group of people gathered to watch Tony don body armor and a tactical holster; watched both Jen and Tony check the loads in pistols and multiple spare clips. The security personnel had no idea what was going on but they had orders: they only left when the NCIS folks got into the Tahoe.

"I think I saw someone using a video camera," McGee said.

"Good. It'll be all over that YouTube thing in an hour or less," Gibbs said.

"So we're doing what? Goading him?" McGee said.

"Yup," Gibbs stated.

"Yeah-whatever. I'm starving," Tony grumbled. "Can we stop somewhere and get something to eat?"

"Good idea," Jen agreed. "It wasn't worth even looking at the food on the plane. All we've had is coffee in the last eight hours."

"Better if we order-in when we get back to HQ," Gibbs said, checking his mirrors. "Looks like we've got a tail."

"Oh good. It's working already," Tony said with a mean grin. The windows were tinted and he was pretty sure that the person following couldn't see him turn in the back seat and look for a number plate. It was probably a rental signed out to a fake ID, but he recited the number to McGee anyway. "Bet he's confused about all of us playing dress-up."

"You don't think he knows that we're onto him?" McGee asked.

"That's not Schering behind us," Gibbs said. "No way is he working alone. He's got help... I think we can turn the screws even more. Jen?"

"Yes. Tim, please get Director Marden on the line for me."


Chapter Twenty-one

No-one had been specifically yanked from another operation in order to fill Trent Kort's spot in Benoit's security crew. Styles had a list of suitable candidates given to him by his supervisor, and that list had numbered personnel currently available. He'd chosen someone with a little more experience than Kort. That man now knew a lot more than did Robert Styles, but that was shortly to be remedied.

Thanks to the CIA's constant surveillance over the last five weeks, it had been found that Styles was a man of some very regular habits, one of those being that he spent each Tuesday evening at an English pub that boasted the best fish and chips Stateside of London. He didn't own a car (the reason for the lack of parking and speeding tickets) and went everywhere by bus or taxi. A bus dropped him off at a corner near the pub, and he'd take a cab home. He always called for a cab rather than hail one, and he used the same cab company each time.

The company in question had been very cooperative, and when Styles got into a taxi this Tuesday night, he had no idea that one of his own people was driving. He was a little groggy because he'd put away a few English lagers. His face was flushed and his mousy brown hair was slightly mussed. It eventually occurred to him that the usual ten-minute drive home had now run to fifteen minutes, and:

"You're going the wrong way, buddy."

"No, sir. You just sit tight. You're blown, Styles, and in deep shit. Got me?"

"Oh God..." Styles breathed, sobering up fast.

"Just sit tight."

Styles gritted his teeth against saying anything else.

A half-hour later they were somewhere in Virginia. The car turned off of potholed blacktop and onto rutted dirt. There were no streetlights and long grass brushed the undercarriage of the vehicle. Occasionally a bit of shrubbery scraped the wheels and side panels. Headlights eventually revealed a small house and a barn, both old but well kept up. The two modern vehicles parked outside looked very out of place, and more so when the cab's headlights swung to reveal an old red tractor and several implements.

"Get out, Styles. Try to run and you'll be shot."

Styles did as he was told, emerging from the cab as two people came out of the house. He didn't protest their grip on his arms. The cab drove away while he was marched to the house. The last person he expected to greet him, did.

"You got some explaining to do, son," said CIA Director James Marden.

Styles' mouth fell open but he snapped it shut again. He was smart enough to know that it was best to keep quiet until he knew exactly why he was here in this rather lived-in little house. Come to think of it, the stocky, greying Director looked like he was part of the furniture, dressed as he was in jeans and a flannel shirt. Styles' eyes darted around and soon he found photographic evidence to substantiate his hunch that the house belonged to the Director.

Then a second Director walked into the living room and Styles nearly buckled at the knees.

"Someone's gone awfully pale," Jen drawled.

"Yeah. Take a seat, Styles, and don't mind the venue. Allison?"

Allison Fisher was a legend at Langley. A middle-aged African-American woman, she'd been personal secretary to three directors, and rumor had it that a couple of presidents had offered her positions at the White House. Allison waved to a spot and McGee set down a stenographer's machine in front of a chair, plugging it into an AC outlet. Allison took her seat and glared at Styles. She didn't like people who brought her agency into disrepute.

"Let's get on with it," she said.

"Start at the top, Styles," Marden ordered.

Gibbs and Ziva were camped in some accommodating bushes at Jen's place, keeping an eye on her Mercedes, which had been nonchalantly parked in the driveway rather than in the garage. There were lights on in the house. Abby and Ducky were probably watching TV to help give the impression that nothing was amiss, that no-one was expected to come snooping around.

They didn't for one minute think that Schering would come nosing around himself. Gibbs had an idea that a likely suspect was the person who'd been driving the vehicle that had tailed them from the airport that afternoon. Ziva had to agree.

She would have liked this business better if someone was dogging Schering's every move, but as yet that couldn't be risked. Schering was just too good, someone who'd been a field operative for eighteen years before he'd decided to ride a desk. It was a well-known fact that he kept in shape and regularly took part in training exercises to keep his skills honed to razor sharpness. They needed evidence against him before they could get someone to do so little as walk past Schering's apartment building. Under the circumstances, if anyone tripped Schering's alarm bells it would probably be to their fatal cost.

He'd been an infiltration specialist, and he'd developed various techniques that enabled short range monitoring, in order to gather situational intelligence that would assist him and other operatives working on the same project.

"Creep and reap," Gibbs said softly. "That's what he called it. Get close enough to hear every word without being seen. Close enough to effect a silent kill as well, if necessary."

"Two kinds of reaping," Ziva muttered. "So he is a people expert, too, huh?"

"Oh yeah," Gibbs said. "He can tell if an absolute stranger is acting out of character. Reads body language and facial expressions better than anyone else I've ever met... I was laughing honestly at a real funny joke he told, when he informed me that I didn't like him one bit. I thought I'd hidden it well enough. Hadn't... He's one scary sonuvabitch, I can tell you that."

Hence their caution, hence their patience. And Ziva and Gibbs didn't doubt that whoever was coming to check on the car tonight would be an experienced operative. He wouldn't drive up; he'd walk, but as he neared the house it was likely that he'd stick to deep shadow. He'd do his best not to be heard or seen. Tough break, though: Gibbs and Ziva were wearing NVGs of the variety that had backup batteries strapped to their vests. No worries about the damn things dying suddenly. It was unlikely that the man on his way here would be equipped with NVGs, for the simple reason that it was possible he might be spotted by someone, who might call the cops. He'd have too much explaining to do if he was carrying specialized gear. The bet was, too, that he wouldn't be armed, but anyone that was up to Schering's specs was not likely to need a weapon. Gibbs and Ziva were armed in the usual way, but they also carried Tasers, and the plan was to be sneaky: zap him before he knew they were there.

It was Gibbs who spotted a pedestrian some distance up the street. Nearly two a.m. He nudged Ziva who crept out of the shrubbery and darted silently to another bit of hedge next to the garage. She pressed her larynx mic to her throat.

"What is he doing?" she whispered.

"Just crossed the street... Your seven o'clock... eight o'clock... He's in a hold, probably listening, getting his ears in tune... You stay real still and quiet... He's moving... Now your nine o'clock... Nine-thirty... Ten. You should have line-of-sight."

"Visual," Ziva whispered acknowledgment.

Through the NVGs everything was a greenish-grey and starkly defined. She watched the man, who was crouched over, very cautiously approach the car. She hadn't heard a single footfall, not even when he'd been just feet away from her. She waited for him to squat into a hold again, next to the car, then pulled the trigger. The Taser cartridge bit into and gripped the denim stretched over his thigh, and he slumped against the Mercedes.

Ziva ignored their collar and pressed a button on a remote operator. The garage door rolled up while Gibbs yanked on the insulated conducting cable and pulled the Taser cartridge clear of the man's skin. Gibbs handcuffed him quickly and took a strip of duct tape from Ziva to put over his mouth. In the garage Tony yawned and started a van while making a call. Abby and Ducky came out of the house.

"You go with them," Gibbs told Ziva. "And you drive."

"Boss, that's—" Tony started saying.

"You're real slow on the uptake, DiNozzo," Gibbs drawled.

Ziva, Ducky, and Abby were already piling into the Mercedes. Likely it woke a few neighbors, but tough: Ziva gunned the engine while her other foot stomped flat on the brake; she engaged reverse, released the brake, and the car shot backwards with a squeal of rubber; parking brake, accelerate, hard left on the wheel, second gear; parking brake released: perfect ninety degree parking brake turn'n'takeoff. Bye-bye, Mercedes-Benz.

"Who wants to drive a truck when it'll flip if you do that?" Tony mumbled.

"Ya think? Get in the van and drive," Gibbs chuckled.

Styles had sung like the proverbial little yellow bird. He'd then asked to be shipped to a maximum security prison with a secure isolation wing, the only condition being that it be anyplace but Leavenworth or Gitmo, for the obvious reason that Schering wouldn't find it difficult to get at him in either place. A helicopter collected him and two officers who would essentially act as Styles' bodyguards from that point on.

Those not in the know were filled in before their latest 'prisoner' was questioned.

As they'd suspected when Schering's name had first come up, Styles' relationship with Schering stretched back to his days with the MI (Military Intelligence Corps). Schering had needed someone who rode a desk to do certain things for him, mainly backing his mission suggestions, and Styles wanted experience as a handler. The arrangement was close to perfect until Styles committed a small error of judgment: he'd suggested to Schering that he was getting cocky and that someone would figure out their arrangement before long. Styles described the aftermath of that comment as something akin to 'what a single sock must feel like in a clothes dryer.' He'd been tossed onto his back and was slammed into an arm-bar in seconds flat, and Schering's metaphorical grip on Styles had been driven home by his literal grip: he'd popped Styles' left elbow. The injury had been explained away to a doctor with a lie about unarmed combat practice gone awry. From then onwards, Styles had been more than convinced that crossing Schering was as good as inviting agony on himself, at the very least. Schering was, after all, a highly trained killer.

Styles' move to the CIA had come at Schering's suggestion. Schering's advancement had been pretty much guaranteed, and he wanted at least one 'Company man' in his pocket when he moved into a permanent position at the Pentagon. All went well during Styles' first seven years with the CIA, and then something went wrong during an MI operation.

Schering came home wounded; two other men were killed.

It took Styles three years to piece the incident together from snippets of whispered information, and scraps of written reports. Even Director Marden hadn't been aware of the botched MI operation. Jen was, however, fully aware of it.

Her father Army Col. Jasper Shepard had rarely talked about his job. There were only two occasions. The last regarded the false accusations that he'd taken a bribe from Benoit (proven false now, thanks to Styles: Benoit and Jasper Shepard had never met), and the first regarded the botched operation. He'd been a little drunk when he'd told his 'traitor Navy girl' that he'd done his utmost to get several people wearing a lot of brass to reconsider it. They hadn't listened simply because the prize had been too big. That alone should've made them suspicious: at that time Reagan was talking to Gorbachev about both their countries reducing their nuclear capabilities, and yet intel was 'more than convincing' regarding the recent delivery to Cuba, by the Soviets, of a nuclear-powered Akula class attack submarine.

Cherry on top and the link that joined everything up: René Benoit was rumored to have brokered the submarine deal.

Three MI operatives were sent to get photographic evidence. It was a deep cover mission set to last four months or more. Schering called for extraction just seven weeks after he and his colleagues had been inserted. The Chinese contractor they were working for had sniffed them out, somehow (no-one really knew how that had happened). Schering had barely escaped with his life and only because he'd been on shift at the time. He'd suspected that his colleagues had been killed in their sleep.

And there had been only one person who hadn't given his support to the operation. Just one person who had repeatedly spoken against it. Col. Jasper Shepard.

"So Schering got it in his head that your dad somehow tipped off the contractor?" Gibbs asked.

"That's what it comes down to," Jen said. "That scandal, two years later, that Dad had taken a bribe, was the result of Schering's personal vendetta against him. After he got rid of Dad, he started trying to get rid of me... And here we sit."

"This is... outrageous," Ducky said angrily. "You didn't do anything to him."

"That op was the only one he ever bailed on... Sorry for butting in, but I know this guy."

They'd all been talking in the dining room. There was a small exodus from there to the living room where Schering's man sat handcuffed and guarded by a CIA officer. He was of medium height and wiry, and his head was shaved bald but he wore a clipped goatee that was a match to his dark eyebrows. Gibbs asked his name and affiliation.

"Chad Scott. I was a Marine, Force Recon until I caught a bullet. Now I consult privately, and do a little work for Schering on the side. And I'm telling you, if Schering could risk it, he'd kill you with his bare hands, Director Shepard. Shunting your career, good start. Screwing up your personal life, next step. I dunno what the hell he's got planned there, though... That man hates in a way that makes Satan ashamed."

"My law degree is telling me that Mister Scott's wrists need to be free of those cuffs," Director Marden said.

"Yeah." Gibbs removed the handcuffs. He gave Scott a hard look. "Just bear in mind I can slap these straight back on the moment you walk out that door. The charge was pretty small, but you still planted an explosive device on someone's car. Got me?"

"I do, yeah," Scott said, rubbing his wrists. To Ziva he said, "HaMossad? Uhh... At ovedet?" The Mossad? You work?

"Ata medaber?" You speak [Hebrew]?

"Uhh... Rak me'at. Medaber me'at me'od, aval ani... mevin yoter. Mossad, ken?" Scott said. Only a little. I speak very little, but I... understand more. Mossad, yes?

"Ken," Ziva said with a small shrug. Yes.


Ziva answered only with a raised eyebrow. It was, after all, a stupid question coming from a former spec ops man who'd been bushwhacked by a girl. What kind of girl manages to do that? Only one kind.

"Huh. I warned him. Hu... manyak," Scott said. "I told him he's messing with fire."

"Az ma?" Ziva muttered. So what? "You said it yourself– he is a fucked-up bastard. Men like him never listen to good advice. You wasted your time."

"Guess you're right," Scott said. "So what d'you folks need to know?"

"First tell us what you think we should know," Ziva said.

By the time Scott was done, dawn was breaking.


Chapter Twenty-two

Styles' apartment had been 'raided' the next afternoon. There had been sirens, and many uniformed people, and of course a couple of news crews had arrived to ask what was going on. Gibbs had shoved Tony in front of the cameras to spin a story about an ongoing investigation (true), and to say that Styles was missing (false) and wanted as a possible fraud suspect (partially true: he was going to come out of hiding and testify against Schering, who was the fraudster, among other things).

"Did you get everything?" Jen asked.

"It was right where he said it was," McGee said. He was carrying a laptop and an external drive that had been hidden under the floorboards in Styles' apartment. "Now comes the hard part. Even with Styles' instructions, it's gonna take me and Abby at least until tomorrow morning to decrypt everything here. And I mean, Director, that Abby and I will have to work right through till tomorrow morning to get it done."

"Fuck," Jen muttered, then raised a hand in apology. "Sorry, but—"

"I've been saying the exact same thing. A lot." McGee waved her off. "Director, go home. I got about six hours sleep. You've had none in more than twenty-four hours, ma'am. Schering is being watched, and if he acts even the slightest bit hinky, Director Marden's orders are to shoot him. Please go home."

"I don't really feel safe at home right now."

"Umm, Ziva said to tell you that she'd be at your place, ma'am," McGee said quietly.

"Can you arrange a car and driver for me, please?"

"Yes, ma'am."

An hour later, Jen tiptoed through her front door and closed it as quietly as she could. She found Ziva asleep in her bed, and she went about the business of undressing and donning a T-shirt as quietly as possible. Removing her makeup took only a couple of minutes. Back in the bedroom she found that Ziva had woken.

"I was trying not to disturb you," Jen grumbled.

"Maybe all of that trying is what woke me up."


"Bo'i elai," Ziva said, smiling. Come to me.

Jen got into bed and snuggled up at once. Just as it had several times before, Ziva's heartbeat helped Jen to ease swiftly into sleep. Ziva chose to lie awake, to consciously hold onto these moments for a while.

Tomorrow QRT or SWAT operators would take Schering down, preferably in his office, perhaps in his apartment. It wasn't a certainty yet, but it was likely that Ziva would be a member of whichever team, and everyone on that team would have a camera mounted on their helmets. Jen would be somewhere, watching the whole thing.

That someone or several people would get hurt was an absolute certainty: Schering was always armed. He would definitely do some shooting. Ziva doubted that he'd try for headshots. His targets would be moving, and that meant that he'd go for torso shots, even though all the operators facing him would be wearing body armor. There was a chance that their Kevlar might fail. Or he could deliberately aim low, try for pelvis and thigh shots, hoping to hit a major artery, and at the very least put those operators down. If they were down, headshots would then be a fair bet. Double-tap: drop then drill, and no-one would walk away from that.

And Jen would be watching it all.

Ziva stared at the ceiling. She wasn't the least bit afraid of dying, but at that moment she was utterly terrified of what her death might do to Jen. She realized abruptly that this is love: to consider oneself an integral part of one's lover, and to consider one's lover an integral part of oneself. Whatever might happen to Ziva tomorrow, would also happen to Jen, in a way.

But she had a job to do, and she knew that she was one of the best, if not the very best operator available for that job. If Schering managed to get past the initial team, he would run, but he would also be more determined than ever to harm Jen. Ziva could not allow that to happen.

"Are you okay?" Jen mumbled and yawned. "You're all stiff."

"I should hate him for this," Ziva said.

"You don't?" Jen levered herself up onto an elbow and looked into Ziva's eyes.

"I feel nothing for him. He is a target. That is all."

"I don't want you to, but you should lead that team tomorrow," Jen whispered.

"Yes, I must," Ziva said and shut her eyes. "But I am scared for you. If I get—"

"Ziva, look at me, please," Jen said softly. She waited for Ziva to open her eyes before saying, "What happens, happens. Remember your training tomorrow, and for just those few minutes, forget me."

"I wish I could say that that is impossible," Ziva said through gritted teeth, fighting tears.

"It'll keep you focused, keep you alive. Yes?"

"Yes," Ziva said, and took a deep calming breath. "Okay."

This time it was Jen who lay awake, until Ziva fell asleep.

Just as he'd predicted, it had taken McGee and Abby most of the night to decrypt the documents on Styles' computer. Styles had invented an encryption system that was very simple but extremely effective. He called it 'washing.' Styles had started out with a simple handwritten system that he called a recipe. It involved replacing each letter in a word several times with numbers and letters from non Latin scripts that did not correspond to an equivalent Latin letter. Working from his recipe he used Character Map to effect the individual letter switches. Each complete pass was a 'wash.' Styles called ten passes enough, and McGee and Abby had had to agree: there wasn't a program written that could decipher the resulting hodgepodge of letters and numbers. The only way to decrypt the words was to use Character Map and apply the recipe in reverse order, or what one was left with was garbled garbage.

"I hate Character Map," McGee announced to Jen.

"I bet," Jen said. "I owe you and Abby dinner sometime."

"We sure earned it," McGee said flatly.

He yawned and rubbed his unshaven chin, and wearily presented Jen with hard copies of each note Styles had made since Schering had gotten Kort's name on that list. McGee had placed the most important of those documents on top of the pile. Eight names. Every one of those eight people owed Schering favors, and were probably in fear of their health whenever he was in the same room with them.

"Marden got us copies of their jackets," McGee said. He handed over eight folders. "One of those names belongs to a White House senior staff member. The rest work at the Pentagon... in useful positions."

"So I see," Jen said, shaking her head. "He's got the right arms twisted to get any amount of information both fed to him, and sent to others, so that it all looks completely legit... Un-goddamn-believable..."

"We've gotta get protection for those people before we move on Schering," McGee said. "Cos I got an idea that they don't know each other."

"Right," Jen said, reaching for a phone. "It's also possible that each of them knows only one other person on this list—"

"And in that case, if he takes out just that one person, the chain is broken: all they'll be able to testify to is being coerced by Schering. That's not small spuds, ma'am, but it's not the beefsteak either."

"I'm on it," Jen said, phone in hand. As McGee reached the door she said, "Tell Ziva to get ready, please, Tim."

"Ready?" he asked, confused.

"She's the mongoose to Schering's cobra. We don't have anyone better."

"Uhh..." McGee mumbled, his mouth suddenly dry. "Umm, someone with the Company, maybe?"

"Would you be able to kill one of your own?" Jen said flatly. "She has before, and she will again, if she has to."

"I know about that. Moshe Aretz told me."

"Then you know already that Ziva is the right choice for lead operator. I'll add that Schering is MI, not CIA, but Marden reminded me that the man is a legend in the intelligence community. A lot of people are going to have trouble believing Schering did any of this."

"Right. I'll go tell her," McGee said and swallowed hard.

This Pentagon women's locker room was quiet but for the drip from a faucet with a slow leak. Ziva sat on a bench, fully geared-up except for the Kevlar helmet that sat on the tiles near her boots. She stared at the photographs taped to a locker door. Three of them were full body shots, and two were portraits, all five taken with a telephoto lens.

Schering had reddish-brown hair that he wore on the shortest possible clip. Ziva had asked about that and Marden had said that he'd never seen Schering with his hair any longer than that. Someone else had told her that Schering never visited a barber. She guessed that he possibly ran the clippers over his head daily, as part of his morning or evening ablutions routine. A rather important point: it spoke to the nature of the man, to his discipline, and also to his reputation for insisting that independence and self-sufficiency, in as many aspects of life as could be practically managed, was a good thing.

Schering probably managed such minor tailoring jobs as shortening, hemming, and putting the turn-overs in his trouser cuffs. He was probably an excellent cook. He wouldn't mind doing every bit of his own housework and laundry, except for dry cleaning. He could probably effect any type of general household repair job, and Ziva knew that he was skilled enough in electronics to know whether he could fix the microwave or just go and buy a new one. Resourceful, extremely so. All of that and he was a trained killer to boot.

She looked at her watch, then studied the pictures again.

Not too tall; lean face, neck, and forearms of an athlete; wide-shouldered. Cold blue eyes in a tan face; a stark, unsmiling mouth.

"You ready?" Gibbs asked through the door he held ajar.


He stepped into the room and didn't have far to go to take a seat on the bench, but not too close. He capped one of his knees with his helmet and took a good long look at those photos.

"What did Marden tell ya?"

"The call is mine to make," Ziva said.


"I must not kill this one."

"We get him alive– that's your order?" Gibbs asked.

"It is," Ziva stated. "Being restricted, being trapped, being in prison is the worst kind of punishment for men like this one."

"I got an idea he's gonna try a suicide-by-cop."

"Yes, but he will not turn the gun on himself. Not this one. And I will not kill him."

Three p.m. According to security footage and the footage from minicams attached to various people's clothing, Schering was in his office. Jen was studying those images while seated in one of the Pentagon's OPTAC suites. Schering didn't seem perturbed, even though by now he had to know that at least three of his people were missing. The other eight had been rounded up; they and their families had been moved to secure locations.

"Smug bastard," Tony said. "I bet he thinks that even if we've got Bannerman, Styles, and Scott, they're too scared to say anything about him."

"Probably," Jen said.

"Alpha Team in position." Gibbs's voice came curtly over the speakers.

McGee, who'd been pacing, took a seat next to Tony. Gibbs and Ziva were being backed up by six D.C. Metro SWAT members. It had been decided that it was best not to include Pentagon and other military or federal staff.

"Evac," said the comms tech. "SITREP?"

"Ninety percent," came a tinny answer.

The evacuation team was responsible for getting everyone off of Schering's floor, on the northwest side of the building. That would leave his outer and inner offices. In the outer office his PA was about to get a phone call. James Marden was handling that. The woman knew his voice well and would do exactly as he said. The comms tech put the call on audio:

"Kathy, I need you to leave your desk and step out of the office. Right. Now. Understood?"

"Sir, I—"

"Now, Kathy," Marden firmed his tone.

One half of the screen showed images from the security camera in Schering's outer office: Kathy got up, hesitated a moment, then headed for the door leading into the hall. The other half of the screen showed images from a helmet cam assigned to one of the eight-member react-team. As Kathy walked out the door, she was grabbed and a gloved hand was placed firmly over her mouth. She was passed on to three of the evac team members, who hurried her away.

"Alpha Team, be advised: door to inner office is closed. Repeat, access barred."

"Copy." That was Ziva.

Jen bit her lip and her hands curled into fists. She watched intently as Ziva's slight black-clad figure directed the seven men to positions in the inner office. When they were where she wanted them, she gave a nod to a man near the door.

He booted it in, the tactic meant to startle Schering. It didn't. A loud pop sounded through the speakers and Jen, Tony, and McGee let out a collective gasp as the man at the door literally flew backwards.

Another pop: part of the wall next to the door seemed to explode.

"Man down!"

"Shots fired! Shots fired!"

In the OPTAC suite the comms tech was trying to get a clear picture off of footage that had abruptly been cut off. The man who'd kicked the door in had been wearing a helmet cam.

"What the fuck is that?" Tony yelled. They knew that Schering would be armed, but the weapon he was holding was like none Tony had ever seen. "What? A cannon?"

"It's a modified World War Two Lahti twenty mil anti-tank rifle," the comms tech muttered. "It's a trophy. I remember seeing it in his office. I had no idea the fuckin' thing still—Wait. He fired two shots, right?"

"Yeah. Yes! Why?" McGee said.

"Alpha Team, Alpha Team. You are good to go. Repeat, you are good to go."

"You got eyeballs on that?" Gibbs demanded.

"He only had two rounds for that thing, sir. On a shelf. Only two."

On the screen, Gibbs tapped Ziva's shoulder and she nodded, rushing the doorway at once. Gibbs and another man followed her. A helmet cam showed Schering holding a pistol. Pops heard, shots fired right at Ziva...

...she ignored the pain: part of the training. She ignored the fear: part of the training. She had to go around behind his desk, and she did, her eyes locked to his. Her left hand shot out so fast that Schering had no chance to react. He'd expected a gun. Instead a small vise gripped his right wrist and shoved his hand and the gun to the side. He'd expected a gun and stared aghast at the matte black blade slicing through his forearm to the bone. His gun dropped from fingers that he could no longer feel.

"Fuck you!" Ziva yelled, kicking away the gun, kneeing him in the groin for good measure. She spat on the floor next to the crumpled, bleeding, groaning heap that was Schering, then turned on her heel and walked away. Over her shoulder she said, "He will bleed to death in about three minutes. That is not my concern."

"Medic!" Gibbs hollered.

Ziva managed to reach the outer office before she leaned against a wall and sat down slowly.

"She's hit," Jen whispered, staring at the screen.

"Get another med team in there now!" McGee yelled at the comms tech, and he was already running.

As much as it pained him, Tony stayed with Jen. He tried but he couldn't imagine what she was feeling then. If she'd been able to articulate it, he might not have understood anyway.

McGee ran the equivalent of a mile, and that included four flights of stairs. Power to the elevators in this wing had been shut down and hadn't been restored yet. By the time he reached Schering's outer office, a sheet had been spread over the dead SWAT operator, and Ziva was being attended to by two EMTs. McGee had run right past the gurney bearing Schering, hadn't spared him a second glance.

"How bad?" McGee huffed, panting.

"Nasty flesh wound– right through her thigh," Gibbs said. "Vest took four rounds: three-five-seven SIG."

"Holy shit..." McGee mumbled.

"Hey, do not faint, okay?" Ziva muttered. "Go tell Jen I am okay. I will see her at the hospital."

"All right," McGee said. To Gibbs: "You'll stick with her, Boss?"

"Until they tell me I can't," Gibbs said flatly.


Chapter Twenty-three

To McGee's mind, hospital coffee was universally awful stuff, and he was sure that the coffee available at the Bethesda Naval Hospital was not going to be any different. He stopped at a Starbucks on his way there. Tony had called to say that he hated waiting at hospitals and wanted to go do some paperwork instead. Upon hearing as much, Gibbs had issued McGee with some unusual orders. He found Tony pacing in a waiting area. Jen sat alone on a couch, arms folded, expression blank.

"I got you one, too," McGee said, handing Tony a venti cup. "I left Gibbs to argue with a federal prosecutor and Schering's lawyer."

"Thanks... They're arguing already?" Tony said and sipped from his cup.

"Ziva used a knife. Schering's not even out of surgery yet and his lawyer is real pissed about that knife. I told him to his face that if Ziva had used a gun her training would have kicked in and Schering would be dead. Carter Menzies is the prosecutor, and he just waved my way and said, 'He said it.' So now Schering's lawyer is focusing on Ziva: she's Mossad; she's not a citizen and shouldn't be a QRT member; she's blah, blah, fucking blah."

"Calm down," Tony said, no-nonsense. He'd never heard McGee drop the F bomb before. "You're upset, and that's understandable, but if this blows up in Ziva's face, she'll need us to be pros. You reading me?"

"We'll have to keep our cool and say the right things," McGee muttered, nodding. "Being upset won't give the right impression."

"Right. The SECNAV is still stuck in that hearing on the Hill. He sent the Director a message: he's arranging legal backup for Ziva. If the backup is even nearly equal to Holder himself, Schering's lawyer's arguments are as good as toast... Lemme get outa here. Call me when Ziva's out."


McGee dumped the coffee tray in the trash and carried the two cups over to Jen. She didn't look up, the fingertips of her right hand fiddling fretfully at a pendant around her neck. She was wearing Ziva's Star of David again. McGee weighed his options before sitting next to her. That was better than standing around looking lost.

"Here. Straight up, black, and strong. I remembered."

Jen blinked and took the offered cup.

"Thanks," she mumbled.

"How long has she been in there now, ma'am?"

"Umm..." Jen looked at a large wall clock. "A little less than an hour. They stabilized the wound first, clamping a minor artery and a couple of veins. Then they sedated her while three surgeons discussed and planned what needs to be done. That took a bit of time. The surgery will last around three hours, I was told... I guess I should be back at the office."

"Gibbs said that you might say that," McGee said and squirmed. "I got orders to keep you here."

"Really?" Jen said, and she was considerably amused. "I have to say, you look thrilled with those orders."

"Oh, yeah. Totally thrilled," McGee said and cracked a wry grin. "Cos I know I'm a pushover, about the worst guy for the job."

"Tim, right now I'd take orders from a mouse," Jen said. "And Gibbs knows it. In any case, I've never thought of you as a pushover. Don't put yourself down. You're a member of my top MCRT because that's where you belong."


McGee frowned, a little ticked off at himself. Jen shouldn't be saying things to make him feel better, not now. That she was here instead of at the office spoke volumes. He knew that if he'd been the one in surgery she'd be concerned, but she wouldn't be in this waiting room. McGee sucked it up and found a little courage.

"You okay?"

"Barely," Jen whispered. "She'll be all right; it's not life-threatening—I tell myself that over and again, and it doesn't seem to matter... I was there when they took her vest off. It caught four rounds. She has fractured ribs. If not for Kevlar..."

In those moments McGee could not think of Jen as the Director of NCIS, just as he couldn't think of Ziva as only a colleague. He switched his coffee cup to his left hand, and put his arm around her shoulders, tugging gently. Jen wriggled closer and hid her face against his shoulder.

While she cried quietly, his mind drifted back a few months to Ziva's absence, one that had involved climbing a mountain. That was all he knew about that business, and that was okay. He didn't need to worry in retrospect. He was certain, however, that Jen had known all about that mission, and she'd worried alone. If one day he needed to present evidence to the fact that women were incredibly strong, he'd cite Jen's constant, unruffled presence at work, and her hours alone at home, and how no-one had been able to question her professionalism, despite the fact that someone she clearly loved was in harm's way. But that was the past.

McGee's memory showed him clearer pictures of Jen's professional cool today, and he hoped like hell that when she quit crying she wouldn't offer him that word 'Sorry.' She had nothing to apologize for. At the same time, he'd come to know her.

"Sorry," she mumbled somewhat predictably.

"How did I know you were gonna say that?" McGee drawled, reaching for the box of tissues on the end table beside him. "My mom likes to say that it's just plain wrong to apologize for being human."

"She sounds like a wise soul," Jen sniffled. She dabbed at her eyes and, looking at the tissue, she drawled, "Yay for waterproof mascara."

"The rest needs a little repair," McGee offered honestly.

"I won't be long," Jen said and stood. "Thanks, Tim."

"Any time we're not at work," he said with a grin.

"I think Ziva's brattiness is catching."

McGee's only response was a broader grin, but he was thinking of a conversation he'd had with Ziva nearly two years ago. She'd said that he was a good man, and not a little boy, and he'd grown up a fair bit in only minutes. He'd have to tell her about this and how, in some ways, her influence was responsible for his offering a shoulder to Jen today.

He wasn't a man to seek the approval of others, but he believed firmly that he owed a duty to his friends, one of being a good person. If they might feel proud of him for that, then that was something to work for. Ziva would be proud, and that in turn was something in which McGee could take a little pride. He found himself to be looking forward to telling her about these last few minutes.

He glared at the clock, huffed, and looked away, frowning. Time had no business dragging on occasions like this. It also had no business flying when circumstances were much better. On the whole Time was a bastard, to McGee's mind, and he said as much to Jen on her return.

"Well, let's kill Time, then," Jen said, amused. "What are we going to talk about?"

"What would you like to talk about?"

"Don't leave it up to me." Jen cleared her throat and was mildly annoyed by a blush. "My professionalism seems to have vanished... And y'know what? I don't give a damn. If anyone from Internal Affairs told me that my job was on the line, I'd just hand over my badge."

"I, uhh, dunno that Ziva would be too pleased with that," McGee dared to say.

"She'll probably be transferring," Jen said unhappily. "Fornell—of all people—let her know a while ago that she'd be welcome with the FBI."

"If transferring doesn't involve moving away from D.C., that's okay."

"She'd be working out of FBI Headquarters, right here, but as Tony said not so long ago, it won't be the same."

"I think that that's up to us," McGee said seriously. "If she stays in the neighborhood, so to speak, we—Tony, Gibbs, Ducky, Abby, and myself, have no excuse to let our friendships with her backslide. It's up to us to keep it the same. I can't speak for anyone else, but I am not gonna let a change of circumstances interfere with my friendship with Ziva."

"Does that mean that you're not going to be a, quote, 'scarecrow' when next you visit my house?" Jen teased.

"Until today I didn't know what to think," he said honestly. "I also didn't feel it was right to think anything at all. You two are damn good at your jobs, and that's all that matters."

"I'm afraid that my earlier bawling and this very conversation proves that a conflict exists," Jen said. "One that requires an adjustment before one is demanded or enforced by a third party."

"Guess so," McGee said and shrugged. "But I'll paraphrase my mom: no crime in being human."

"Exactly. Being human is a lot more important than my job," Jen stated.

The SECNAV was adamant that any personal attacks against Ziva needed to be quashed before she came round from surgery. Ben Holder tended to get whatever he wanted, but that had a lot to do with choosing the right tools for the job.

The federal prosecutor handling the case against Schering was pleased to be suddenly flanked by former JAG judge advocate Rear-Admiral Mitchell Barstow, and Arthur Weiss, the University of Maryland's Professor Emeritus of Law. Prosecutor Carter Menzies sat back and let their names alone add a lot of weight to what he'd been saying repeatedly for the last two hours.

"Ben Holder has asked me to be here, and so I am, but these arguments are puerile and a waste of my time, of which I have precious little: I'm eighty-two," Weiss muttered. "Carter has said it all, I'll wager—"

"And I'll double that wager," Barstow said.

"Thanks," Menzies said with a grin.

"Great. I'm up against a Good Old Boys club," said Harry Jenkins, Schering's lawyer. "Look, all I want is a solid answer to two questions: one, why was a Mossad officer on that team?"

"That Mossad officer has been a member of an NCIS Major Case Response Team for nearly three years," Barstow said. "She's a liaison officer, one who could just sit at a desk in a cushy office, but who works her ass off instead. Technically, she's entitled to two paychecks but only gets one. She's also a first class QRT operator. Y'know what it takes to be a QRT member? She has to re-qualify twice every year. You wouldn't make it through day one of those three-day weekends."

"But never mind that," Weiss said. "It's my understanding that QRT operators can, at any moment, be summoned into life-threatening situations. You realize, Mister Jenkins, that it's your intention to sully the name of someone who would voluntarily put her life on the line even for you. But let's turn our attention to your client, a man of considerable skill at arms, an adversary requiring at least his equal for any bit of conflict to be termed a 'fair fight.' And I put it to you, Mister Jenkins, that your client is the reason why a Mossad officer breached that office."

"That's what I said," Carter Menzies drawled, looking bored.

"Fine. Second question," Jenkins said. "She used a knife. SWAT and QRT operators are issued a folding knife, I'm informed. It's a kind of multi-tool that has a curved blade with no point, something suitable for cutting whatever was used to tie up hostages, for instance. Is my information correct?"

"Cutting rope, duct tape, zip ties, and other things, like phone lines, yes," Barstow said.

"And am I also correct in saying that here in D.C. in particular, SWAT operators are strongly advised not to make use of any other knife unless they've run out of ammunition?"

"I would say that 'strongly advised' is heavy and dramatic language," Weiss said. "It is my understanding that they are merely reminded that it's much easier and safer to use a firearm from a distance greater than arms length."

Jenkins picked up a photograph of Ziva's Bear Ops tactical tanto, and smacked it on the table next to a stock photo of a SIG Sauer P226 Elite Dark.

"She used that knife instead of that gun, from which she didn't fire a single shot."

"Correct, but would you prefer for your client to be dead?" Barstow asked. "Let me explain how a warrior thinks. It's real simple. Knock him down right now. That's what Officer David was thinking, and I'll have you know that the SECNAV and CIA Director Marden left your client's fate up to her. She chose for Knock him down right now to involve keeping him alive. Your client is a trained killer, Mister Jenkins, one who fired five rounds at Officer David, one who used an anti-tank rifle to kill a SWAT operator mere seconds before Officer David chose to let him live. She could have just as easily killed him. If there'd been a gun in her hand her training would have caused her to drill that bastard to the point of failure. Do you understand that terminology?"

"Keep shooting until he doesn't move," Jenkins muttered.

"If you'd been in her place, facing someone like Schering? You'd have just used a gun, preferably the biggest gun you could find. I called and spoke to two of the other operators who went into that office. She'd ordered them to take Schering down only if she fell. Do you understand? She acted in a manner that ensured that your damn client is still breathing. The picture of that knife ought to be your favorite thing in the world right now."

"Well said, Mitch," Weiss said. "Now, Mister Jenkins. Your questions have been answered, and my guess is that they were answered more than two hours ago. Further to the point, your client is facing some stiff charges. My personal question to you—off-the-record—is, why in hell are you fussing over the events of this afternoon when, overall, your concern ought to be, 'How do I get a traitor off the hook?'"

"Yeah, good luck with that," Barstow chuckled wryly. "The abuse of his position and his Top Secret and Compartmented clearances, and his coercion of various officials with similar security clearances, rates as treason. As soon as he's slapped with a dishonorable discharge, you and your client are going to experience the sharpest edges that the federal justice system can swing your way. Were I you, I'd be hitting the books instead of abusing this table by hitting pictures of knives."

"This said on-the-record," Carter Menzies said. "If you go after Ziva David, I'll have some of Schering's former MI colleagues step up and testify to exactly what he's capable of. A jury will just love that. Do you know that your client could kill you with a single punch?"

"I'm aware. What completely evades me is this level of support for a Mossad liaison officer," Jenkins said. "I feel it's within my rights to ask for an explanation."

"I've never met the lady in question," Weiss said. "And I know that Mitchell met her once a year ago—"

"Just in passing. An introduction, and that was it," Barstow said.

"My point," Weiss continued. "Is that when former Admiral Holder tells me that someone is, quote, 'first-rate' I know without meeting them that that person is someone to be admired and respected without question. Ben is one of the best judges of character I have ever met, and I've been around a long, long time, Mister Jenkins. Are we done here?"

"I guess so," Jenkins grumbled.

When Jenkins had left, Barstow asked why Schering hadn't been assigned a JAG lawyer.

"He turned down the offer immediately and asked a nurse to call Jenkins," Menzies said and shrugged. "Jenkins is no slouch and he's also got experience in military trials. The Uniform Code of Military Justice is one of his sharp areas. I guess Schering feels he'll be better represented by a civvie lawyer well versed in the UCMJ than by an Army JAG lawyer. No-one in uniform is gonna be completely unbiased when they find out just how badly and how often Schering has crossed not one, but several lines. Schering knows that. He ordered his docs to make it so that he could speak with Jenkins for twenty minutes before they prepped him for surgery, and I bet it was Schering who told Jenkins about knives and SWAT operators. Just after he got here, my paralegal came in with a note to say that Jenkins left the hospital and came straight here."

"Then your bet's safe," Barstow said.

"And am I correct in saying that a JAG lawyer would have told Schering to forget about Officer David and the knife?" Weiss asked.

"Is Prof Weiss correct?" Menzies asked Barstow.

"Pretty much. If I was his lawyer I'd definitely have something to say about the fact that she's Mossad, but I'd tell him to drop the knife-vee-gun argument. I'd also tell him that David being Mossad comes a long second place to the fact that she's a qualified QRT operator. That point wins the race, so if Jenkins does bring it up in court, that's how you approach it."

Menzies made a note and thanked the two men for their input. As far as he was concerned, Jenkins's arguments regarding Ziva's affiliation and the use of a knife, were nothing more than grandstanding meant to draw attention away from Schering's crimes. However, Menzies happened to share Holder's view that Ziva was 'first-rate.' He'd been one of the prosecutors in the Meller case. That the French had been the ones to try Meller and lock him up for life, was no skin off of Menzies' nose. Meller was locked up, and Ziva had been instrumental in making that happen.

Menzies didn't owe her, personally, but he felt that it would be ungrateful of himself, and others, if Jenkins was allowed to drag her name through the mud.

Benjamin Holder arrived at the hospital in time to hear from three surgeons that the operation was a success. He also witnessed a nurse whispering something in Jen's ear.

"I've been summoned," Jen drawled, but she was smiling. "She's awake."

"How did you get around that ridiculous family-only rule?" Holder asked.

"I'm family," Jen threw over her shoulder, while following the nurse. "Ask Tim."

"You're right: Ziva's brattiness really is catching," McGee complained.

Jen laughed and jogged to catch up with the nurse, leaving McGee to try and sink into the floor. To no avail. Holder was six-foot-three and it was said that he could probably intimidate a rhino. McGee gulped and racked his brain for a way to spill the beans as delicately as possible.

"They're, uhh. I mean, Director Shepard and Ziva are, uhh... Sir, this is not in my job description," he groaned.

"That's an argument that would stand up in court. But we're not in court," Holder said. "After hours and off-the-record: they're what, precisely?"

"Romantically involved," McGee blurted.

"Oh. Confirmed at last. Can't say I'm surprised," Holder said thoughtfully. "The only pity is our having to lose one of them."

"You're the SECNAV. Can't you fix that, sir?"

"Not without making their lives more difficult than need be. Can you imagine the amount of attention focused on them if it becomes known that their relationship's been permitted? And very few will say, 'But it's been permitted because they're nothing if not professionals when at work.' Their relationship will be the focus. In their place, I wouldn't like that."

"Me neither," McGee muttered.

"Mmm... I wonder what that whispered message was?"

"Ziva's on drugs. Could be anything. I'm not that curious," McGee said firmly.

The nurse had told Jen that Ziva had said something in Hebrew, had attached the name Jen Shepard, and had added the English words Right now. Summoned, indeed. In the recovery room, Jen smiled at a very groggy Ziva and squeezed her hand.

"You need to sleep."

"Yes, but... Ratziti rak lir'ot otach," Ziva mumbled. I just wanted to see you.

"Ohevet otach. La'lechet lishon," Jen said and kissed her forehead. Love you. Go to sleep.

Ziva obediently closed her eyes. She didn't wake when her bed was wheeled into a small private room. Jen didn't want to leave that room, but by now McGee had perhaps called the rest of the team. She made her way back to the waiting area where McGee told her that everyone else was on their way and probably cursing traffic.

"May I figuratively lean on your shoulder again?" Jen asked him quietly, and picked up her briefcase.

"Sure," McGee said. "She's okay?"

"She bossed a Navy nurse into coming to get me, so yes," Jen said with a smile. "Ziva will want a lot of visitors tomorrow, all right?"

"Yeah. I'll pass the word."

"Take that," Jen said, handing over a credit card. "Dinner and drinks on me at Seamus Green's. Drag Admiral—Mister Holder along. I am never going to get used to dropping your rank."

"Hold your desk for long enough, and you might," Holder said with a grin. "Thanks in advance for dinner."

"Welcome. Have a good evening, gentlemen."

"Ma'am, please get something to eat," McGee fussed.

"I will. I'm hungry. Thanks, Tim."

Jen strolled back to the elevator and rode up two floors. At a nurses' station she asked about restaurants that made a habit of delivering to the hospital, and was presented with a list. She was also told about a certain establishment's near-legendary mac'n'cheese that was 'fortified' with liberal amounts of bacon and mushrooms. That was good enough for Jen. She called her order through and left enough cash with a nurse for a sizable tip.

In Ziva's room, she cast a knowledgeable eye at a heart and blood pressure monitor, then took a seat in a surprisingly comfortable chair. A second chair became a makeshift return, and balanced on her knees her briefcase functioned reasonably well as a desk. Jen worked steadily and calmly until a nurse brought in her dinner, which Jen termed 'heavenly.' She had just finished with that when a nurse stepped into the room with an envelope.

"From the SECNAV's Office, Director," the nurse whispered.

"That'll be the list of charges pending against Schering. Have you heard how his surgery went?"

"If he's lucky, he might regain about twenty percent use of his right hand. The surgeons decided to just work on the tendons, ligaments, and muscles needed for gripping. One of them said to a theater nurse that he'd last seen that much connective tissue severed when he performed an amputation. She told him that Colonel Schering still only needs one hand to kill, so unfortunately, no harm done."

"What did the surgeon say?" Jen chortled quietly.

"What could he say when she reminded him that his own brother was patching up Officer David?"

"We women are terrible creatures, with that last word business," Jen said, smirking.

The nurse grinned and left Jen to survey the list of charges. They were termed 'pending' because the list was as yet incomplete. Tomorrow would see the start of an intensive investigation into Schering's every activity for the past five years, and it was highly likely that the list of charges would grow longer.

Another nurse came in on general rounds and began making notes in Ziva's file, stepping close to the head of the bed to make sure of her readings from the monitors. Ziva stirred, woke, and glared right at the nurse.

"Wow," she said, startled.

"You will never get used to it," Jen told her.

"Rosh sheli mistovevet... Mi zeh?" Ziva croaked. My head is spinning... Who's this?

"One of your nurses," Jen said.

"Hmph. Nayeret?" Paperwork?

"Not quite."

Jen counted back eight pages and informed Ziva that those eight pages listed the charges that were pending against Jack Schering.

"Ahh. Tov," said Ziva. Good. "Jen?"


"Choshevet she'at yafah me'od," Ziva said sleepily. I think that you're very beautiful.

"Todah rabah, chamudah," Jen said. Thanks very much, sweetheart. While trying to keep a straight face, she added: "Why don't you go back to sleep now?"

"Lo ba li," Ziva grumbled.

"You don't feel like it. Okay. At re'eiva?" Are you hungry?

"Lo, aval ani rotza bira." No, but I want a beer.

"Beer? Ziva, you can't have beer after coming round from general anesthetic."

"No beer, Officer David," the nurse confirmed.

"Oh. Okay..." Ziva said, and snored.

The nurse snorted a laugh and skedaddled out of the room. Jen managed to keep her laughter quiet enough not to disturb Ziva. She set aside the list of pending charges, and turned out the reading light above her chair. The monitors and light from the hall showed Ziva plainly still, and Jen contented herself with watching her sleep.

Earlier she'd told Tim McGee that being human was a lot more important than her job. Jen was determined to live up to that statement, determined as well to keep right along the path she'd stepped into just over an hour ago when she'd declared 'I'm family.'

Don't Ask, Don't Tell would probably be repealed at some stage, but Jen had no personal hopes of a repeal making things easier in any real way, at least not for several years after the fact. The military was a notoriously slow-moving beast. It was unlikely now that she would find herself in an office in the Pentagon. So be it. She'd worked for the CIA before, and she wouldn't mind going back, if a suitable position was offered to her.

DADT had always been something of a longstanding joke to everyone in the CIA. The US civilian intelligence community had a long history of making its own rules, especially in the area of 'asset retention.' If someone managed to run the rigorous security clearance gauntlet and come out bright and shiny, and they had skills and knowledge that were useful, the CIA, in particular, really didn't give a damn who that person slept with, as long as their partner or partners didn't pose a security risk. The CIA happily accepted service personnel who'd been dishonorably discharged from the military, which didn't seem to mind throwing away those valuable skills. 'Thick as bricks' was a phrase often tossed the military's way whenever the CIA 'recycled' former service personnel.

Within federal law enforcement agencies DADT was likewise sneered at, but for a different reason. What need of something like DADT when unspoken and unwritten rules existed that ensured that gay, lesbian, and bisexual personnel, once outed, would be constantly passed over for promotion? Jen had once heard an assistant director of the FBI compare the process to the old gardener's trick of using sheets of construction plastic to starve weeds of light. Covered up for long enough, the weeds died. She'd heard someone else call it 'lateral shunting,' with the idea being that if gay and bisexual personnel were held back long enough, they generally resigned.

Ziva was probably going to work with the FBI, and if Ziva wasn't Ziva, Jen might have been concerned that she would become a victim of 'lateral shunting.' Jen had good money to bet on the possibility that various Bureau high-ups were just about slavering at the idea of giving Ziva a badge. People with her experience and skill-set were thin on the ground, and even better, Ziva was connected. She would provide a clear channel of communication between the FBI and Israeli intelligence, and as a bonus, she could liaise with NCIS, ONI, and the SECNAV's Office as well. Some of the very worst miscommunications occur between neighbors, and in Jen's three years as Director of NCIS she'd gathered unhappy experience of two such miscommunications with the FBI. She wanted a better relationship with the Bureau, and the right people at the Bureau wanted a better relationship with NCIS. Ziva might just be able to make both parties happy. 'Lateral shunting' was not something that would affect Ziva.

On her arrival at NCIS Jen had taken time to survey the work histories of her staff, and she had found no fewer than eight victims of 'lateral shunting,' all of whom were soon surprised with promotion offers. She hadn't strictly been batting for their team then. If anyone had asked Jen which team she tended to bat for most her answer would have been, 'Mine.' Her college years had widened her avenue of experience to include women as well as men, and since then she hadn't had a specific preference for either gender. Then again, she'd never claimed a real preference for both, simply because she viewed bisexuality as an existence too complicated for her liking. Jen held to the maxim of 'Love the one you're with.' There'd been more men in her love life than women, and that was something she'd not given much thought to until lately.

She wasn't proud of the fact, but it was true that she viewed men as a convenience. They were convenient lovers in a number of ways, first among those being their conventionality. How often those two—convenience and convention—seemed to go together. If one was a woman with ambitions towards a large office and a big title, being conventional made life a little easier, as did having a lover who conveniently became insecure on the occasion of one's next promotion, and left rather than try to argue one out of taking the new job.

The only people that Jen had ever broken up with were Gibbs and TJAG Wiccomb, the latter because he proved entirely inconvenient (meaning, happy with a relationship that had lost even the glimmer of a spark), and the former because he resented her ambition. She was sure that Gibbs had worked it out by now. Jen's passion was counterterrorism and counterintelligence, and she had the kind of mind that constantly came up with ideas that served her country without infringing on the civil liberties of the general population. To be of proper use she needed the large office and the hefty title, but Gibbs had once accused her of being a ball-breaker, and of wanting to advance ever upward only so that she'd have more occasions to figuratively put her knee to the crotches of an ever increasing number of men. As she'd told him that night, before telling him that it was over, his view was too narrow for her. In short, that view was a restrictive inconvenience. Goodbye, Jethro.

Considering the narrowing of Jen's promotion prospects, some might have considered Ziva a 'restrictive inconvenience,' too. Jen quietly cleared her throat and smirked. She'd tell them where to go, all right.

Jen had never been in love with a woman before. She hadn't allowed herself that privilege, that luxury. Luxuries are for people who settle down and don't intend to budge an inch.

She'd be fifty in a few weeks, and she'd decided more than a year ago that every promotion worthy of her experience and skill-set was to be found here in Washington. Jen loved her house, its landscaped backyard, and its view of the Potomac; she loved the commute to work; she especially loved Washington's cherry-spangled springs and its red and gold falls; she loved the city's parks and architecture, its history, its widely varied culture that seemed to represent every nation on Earth. She was right where she wanted to be for the rest of her life, with the addition of the luxury and privilege of being in love with someone who understood her as no-one else ever had.

Jen didn't fool herself into thinking that Ziva would be satisfied with domesticity for the next however many years. She fully expected Ms. David to go a-roving, to perhaps end up spending months away at work in another state or even in another country. She also fully expected Ziva to grow and to change with that growth. That might involve outgrowing her love for Jen. Only a fool says 'forever' without considering just how long forever is. Ziva would be thirty-three this year, and if the good old tally of three-score-and-ten was to be her allotted number of years, her life hadn't reached its midpoint yet. Ziva was already one helluva woman. What might she be like at age fifty? All Jen wanted was to be there and find out. That was a reasonable goal, something she could work on, and who knew? Along the way, whatever work they both put into this relationship might just result in Ziva still being happy to call Jen her lover.

"I cannot see you, but I know that you are smiling," Ziva said and yawned loudly.

Jen turned on the reading light and they both blinked at its sudden brightness for a few moments.

"Feeling more like yourself?" Jen asked.

"What embarrassing things did I say?" Ziva grumbled.

"You said that you wanted a beer."

"Which is a bad idea. Why were you smiling just now?"

"Thinking about you, and us, and my very relaxed take on the future."

"The future is a very uncertain thing," Ziva said.

"I was thinking exactly that," Jen chuckled. "Thinking, too, that the uncertainty of the future doesn't bug me one bit. Add years and people change. That's just a fact. How we deal with the changes is what's important."

Ziva looked a long while into Jen's eyes. Eventually she held out her hand and Jen got up. Ziva's damaged leg was on the other side of the bed, but Jen still took care when levering herself up to sit beside Ziva.

"Tell me?" Jen encouraged, while removing the Star of David from her neck.

"I have not said much, about this, about us," Ziva said quietly. She waited until Jen had fastened the neck chain's clasp at her nape, then said, "I told Tony, in more words, that I had fallen in love with you, but I had chosen to ignore that to get this job done. That is exactly what I did... Please do not think that the separation I made is... representative of how I feel. I cannot make such a separation now."

"Is that your way of saying that I ain't seen nothing yet?" Jen asked, smiling.

"Nachon. Ani mit'ahevet bach," Ziva whispered. Correct. I'm in love with you. "Nothing and no-one stands in my way now, and I will not allow anything or anyone to interfere again... But I think that this stupid leg will argue with us both, for a while."

"That's one bit of interference you'll have to tolerate, my love," Jen chuckled, then frowned and looked up at the heart monitor above the bed. "Huh. I've had an utter hatred of these things until now... My love... And there it goes again."

"And you call me a brat," Ziva groused. "If you keep making my heart go bumping around like that, the nurses will come to investigate."

"I'll be good. I have a question."


"How many people have wanted to be as lucky as I am?"

"Women or men or both?" Ziva asked.


"Three. One woman and two men. They all seemed to have the same thing in mind—"

"Restricting you?" Jen guessed.

"Something like that, yes. I already know that you are not like them. You know me better than they ever did. You know me better than they ever wanted to... I am tired again."

"Sleep, then. I'll probably be gone when next you wake up. I'll be back first thing in the morning, okay?"


Jen stayed only until Ziva was properly asleep. At the nurses' station she left instructions to call her at any time if Ziva asked for her.

In a cab on the way home, Jen smiled and sighed quietly. She decided that 'Ani mit'ahevet bach' were three of the loveliest words in the world.

Her leg ached but that was better than being dead. Ziva had been told several times that she had a very strange take on pain, but she herself saw it as the only way to view serious injuries, especially those taken during life-threatening situations. Anyway, the ache had woken her up and she'd bear it for now, in the long quiet before the nurses began bustling around with checkups and bed-baths (Ziva wrinkled her nose) and breakfast.

She could think about Jen now, really think and dwell and even daydream a little. Ziva had had no chance to do any of that, and even when she'd had a bit of free time in the last months, she hadn't allowed herself to visit this place. It was a maze of very pleasant pitfalls and traps, all of which were almost impossible to escape, for the reason that once ensnared, no-one in their right mind would want to escape. Ziva certainly didn't.

Schering was in the secure wing of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and said wing was as well-guarded as Fort Knox. Schering was done for and nothing like a threat now. Job done, and well done, and Ziva could breathe easy and merrily fall into each and every one of those delightful pitfalls and traps.

Ziva rolled her eyes when the beeping of the heart monitor echoed the skipping of her heart, then grinned in the dark. She was in love, and not with just anyone. She was in love with a woman who knew all about her and accepted every bit of it. That was a tall order, for someone like Ziva.

She had not one but several closets, each full of skeletons that would all be considered stiff challenges by most shrinks. They were often a challenge to Ziva herself. To know that Jen was a match to each one of those skeletons, to know that she could handle absolutely anything Ziva chose to speak about, was a comfort the likes of which Ziva hadn't known before. Even her father was loathe to speak of some of the things she had done in her career. That career would continue; there would be more skeletons added along the way. Jen accepted that as easily as did Ziva. Such is the life of an intelligence operative.

Achy leg aside, Ziva felt exceptionally fortunate, and somewhat proud of herself, too. Friendship is a two-way street, and she'd put a fair amount of effort into this friendship with Jen. Being in love seemed like a just reward. It was also, to Ziva's mind, a natural progression: from a general caring, to love, to being in love– as natural as breathing, especially with two people as well-matched as Jen and Ziva. A pity that some of the rest of the world didn't feel that way. Too bad. The sour folks would be picking on the wrong girls.

Ziva just managed to hold in a laugh. Who would tell a maverick how to live? Anyone who tried would be greeted by an amused expression and evidence that whichever maverick was about to do as they damn-well pleased. Every maverick knows that life is far too short to make a habit of caring about what others think. Ziva certainly didn't care; neither did Jen. However, both had their heads screwed on properly.

Ziva would be leaving NCIS, but she didn't have to think about that for a while.

A .357 SIG hollowpoint round had done considerable damage to the outside of Ziva's thigh, but she'd been lucky. Technically it was a flesh or glancing wound, because there wasn't an entrance wound: the bullet had hit her leg, had penetrated skin and muscle, and had exited, but the trajectory and the force of impact had torn the small area of skin and muscle adjacent to the path of the bullet. Surgeons had performed a fresh muscle graft to help stabilize her vastus lateralis muscle, and they were confident of a full recovery. She would start rehabilitative therapy in five days, and she'd been told that if she stuck to the program and didn't overdo it, she'd be jogging again in three or four months. Even then, Ziva couldn't expect miracles. It was likely that she'd need as long as a year to build up to a five-mile morning jog or treadmill session.

But that was just her leg.

Body armor stops bullets from drilling holes in people, but it doesn't lessen the impact of each round. Ziva's torso was black and blue from collarbones to navel, and she had a couple of fractured ribs. Whenever she was awake, she was more angry about finding it difficult to sit up without help, and with considerable pain, than she was about her achy leg.

"I should have shot him, too," she grumbled to Gibbs.

"Remember what you said about the worst kinda punishment for guys like him," Gibbs pointed out. "And in any case, you carved up his arm so bad that he'll never use his hand properly again."

"Exactly. Krav Maga. That particular cut ensures exactly that. It is meant to completely disable the weapon hand, giving you opportunity to cut his throat... which—Owww!—I should have done, dammit. Ugh..."

Gibbs helped out with pillows at her back. He'd brought dinner. Steak, of course. It was tender and perfect, as were the roasted new potatoes; the green salad also hit the spot. A nurse came in and was about to scold until she took note of the menu. She went away wearing a small smile. The menu did much to improve Ziva's mood, too, but she couldn't finish it all on her own. Gibbs had her leftovers while Ziva took a phone call: one of her aunts in Israel. She eventually hung up.

"She loves me, but oy... Why can some women not stop talking?" Ziva demanded.

"Hell if I know," Gibbs said, clearing things into a paper bag. He put that on the floor, wheeled the table away, and sat down in a chair close to the bed. He thought for a moment before saying: "That was something I really liked about Jen. Sometimes I like to listen to more, sometimes I don't wanna listen to a lot, and she read that in me real well."

"Same," Ziva said, and promptly blushed scarlet.

"You two haven't even kissed yet, have ya?" Gibbs teased gently, his tone quite fond.

"No," Ziva mumbled. "So much to do, and so much tension... It interfered."

"Was the interference a good or bad thing?"

"Good, I think," Ziva said. After a pause she corrected, "No, I am sure it was—it is a good thing: even after all this, we still feel the same way."



She had called Fornell, had been dead honest with him, and he'd given her the name of someone who needed a very knowledgeable analyst immediately. Ziva was on desk duty only for the next six to eight months.

This was Ziva's move to make; only she could make the decision to transfer out of NCIS. If Jen resigned it was likely that Vance would be appointed as the next director of NCIS. Ziva was certain that he would void her contract with the agency, pending an assessment of her worth to said agency. The assessment wasn't formal. If it was, she wouldn't even be dreaming of a transfer, let alone actually writing to someone at the FBI Headquarters Building in D.C. No, the 'assessment' was more like Vance deciding if he liked Ziva or not, and she already knew the answer to that question. More to the point, even if Vance refused the position and someone else was appointed as Director, would that person like the Mossad? It was not an easy thing to like.

"I will not take that chance," Ziva told Jen, who was preparing dinner. "I know that you are conflicted, so I will remind you that if the new director decides that I am out, I will be required to report to the Israeli embassy immediately—"

"And after that the Mossad can order you to go home. I know," Jen said, frowning.

"Mmm. So you will not resign, and you will not oppose my move to the FBI?"

"No," Jen muttered. "I'll assist that move... But maybe—"

Ziva brushed a fingertip over Jen's lips, and she shook her head slowly.

"I know what you are thinking, that the whole team likes me, and only Gibbs really likes you, so the numbers suggest that you should be the one to leave."

"Well... Yes," Jen admitted.

"You are being sentimental."

"You generally have that effect on me," Jen said, amused.

"Seriously, now: think," Ziva said, but her tone was gentle. "If I leave, nothing changes at work. You are a very good thing for NCIS; an excellent director. If you resign, that will set back much of the work you have done."

"Sometimes... Sometimes when you make sense it's very annoying," Jen drawled.

Ziva laughed, rested her cane against a kitchen cabinet, and she bundled Jen into a hug.

"Tagidi li?" Tell me?

"Ani mit'ahevet bach," Jen said, smiling.

It was as good a time as any for that first kiss. And it was good.

The End

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