Atlantis welcomes them back in the usual way: In full crisis mode. Sheppard and McKay run to the control room and Ziva seeks out Lorne, who's in the middle of arranging counter-measures. "Can I help?" Ziva asks, tossing her duffle bag in a corner of Lorne's office.
"You know I can never turn down a lady," he says with a grin. "Can you organize logistics for turnout of the engineers?"
"Is it hot on the sun?" Ziva's already moving, hangover and Tony DiNozzo put out of her mind. She is back where she needs to be and all she can feel, in spite of the chaos and impending disaster, is relief.
She has a job to do.
It takes Ziva three weeks to work up the nerve to read McGee's book. Finally, she runs out of excuses, so on her day off, she loads the file onto her tablet and opens the file as she sits down to breakfast.
Five hours and twice as many cups of coffee later, Ziva is done. The end of the story hits her like a blow to the stomach and all she can do is sit and stare.
NCIS Director Vance is not going to fire Timothy McGee. He is going to have the man killed.
About the only thing McGee avoided in his story was the method and cover-up of Jenny Shepard's death. Everything else is there on the screen; the team torn apart, the interpersonal relationships ripped to pieces. Director Flock dies a hero, her replacement starts to dismantle the agency for his own ends, and it's just different enough to highlight about the what-might-have-beens.
And somehow, months before it actually happened in real life, McGee wrote how Mossad Office Lisa and Special Agent Tommy hooked up for a disastrous one-night stand that left them at odds by the end of the book. Ziva's not sure what to do about that: Killing McGee herself may seem like a bit of an overreaction, but she is seriously considering it.
"What's wrong with you?" Ronon drops his lunch tray onto the table across from Ziva, making her jump. "You look bad."
"She looks fine," Sheppard counters, pulling up a chair beside Ziva. "What's up? Paperwork?"
Ziva looks down at her computer, but the words have not moved. There are no more. "My... There is a book. Here. This one is next."
Sheppard raises his eyebrows. "Is this some kind of secret Mossad code language?" he asks around a mouthful of food.
Ziva shakes her head to rid herself of the sand in her mind. "A man I used to work with at NCIS. Tim McGee. He writes novels."
"Oh yeah? What kind of stuff?" Sheppard sounds moderately interested. Ronon remains busy attacking his plate.
"I believe they are called crime novels. The first one was Deep Six, and the next was Rock Hollow. I have just read the most recent book and now..." She takes a deep breath. "McGee must pay for this."
Sheppard puts his fork down. "Deep Six by Thom E. Gemcity?" he asks with a wide smile. "I love that book!"
Ziva turns her glare on him.
"The character seem so real--" Sheppard chokes on his own words as untold glee spreads across his face. "Oh god, are you Officer Lisa?"
"Do not say it!"
But Sheppard is too far gone to care. "Man, this is awesome. And you've got the third book? Can I read it?"
"I could order you to give it to me."
Ziva leans closer to Sheppard. "Do you really wish to order me to 'give it to you'?" she demands.
Sheppard just grins at her. "I could just tell everyone on base who reads the books that you have an advance copy of the next novel and they should come to ask you for it."
Ziva's mouth falls open. Of all the things the man could do! "You would not dare!"
Sheppard holds out his hand. "Wanna bet?"
Ziva is preparing to throttle the man when Ronon suddenly grabs her computer and backs away so she cannot reach him without going over the table. "What's the big deal about a book?" Ronon asks, fiddling with the tablet. "Why would anyone want to read about crime?"
"So you can be happy that it's not happening to you," Sheppard says as he arm wrestles with Ziva. She slams his hand to the table and stands while he's shaking off the sting. "Ronon, give it here."
"If it's got you fighting with her over lunch, maybe I want to read it first."
Ziva makes a strangled scream. "Fine, if you want the book so bad, take it!" She slaps the USB key into Sheppard's numb hand. "I have work to do!" After retrieving her computer from Ronon, Ziva marches out of the cafeteria, chin up. She has work to do. If Sheppard truly wishes to read about the not-so-fictional problems of LJ Tibbs, he is welcome to it.
She should have known better. Within the day, over half the base gets their hands on a copy of the book, because Sheppard cannot keep himself from posting his location on PegasusBook, Reading the new Thom E. Gemcity book. Guess who's the REAL Mossad Officer Lisa?
Lorne has to lock Ziva in his office from going after Sheppard when she reads that.
The week does not get much better. Ronon manages to find paper copies of McGee's first two books from somewhere and starts pestering Ziva about proper police procedure and forensic techniques. It turns out that his home world of Sateda had a similarly structured investigative service, although their forensics were nothing compared with what NCIS has. The conversations with Ronon are almost enough to distract Ziva from everyone who wants to now talk to Ziva about the books.
After five days, Ziva writes McGee a stern email about how she will never speak to him again. As soon as she hits send, she regrets it and must bribe McKay with much chocolate to remove the email from the upcoming data burst. Ziva's feelings of contrition last long enough to write a nicer letter to McGee with some of the complimentary comments the expedition members have passed on to her. At least, she reasons privately, his sales will not suffer too much from the leaked copy in the Pegasus galaxy.
The process of writing and rewriting the email to McGee prompts Ziva to write to Abby as well, teasing the woman about some of the book's forensics. Ziva also asks for some music recommendations, because she's gone through the music on the shared Atlantis servers and she's bored by the scientists' music. Not one of them is nearly as eccentric in their tastes as Abby Sciuto.
And then, because it would be rude to write to Tim and Abby and not send along word to Ducky, Ziva writes a story about Teyla's baby Torrin and some of the children on a Genii-affiliated world, all without using any proper names or alien details. She also sends word along to Palmer and asks him if there have been any interesting cases in recent weeks.
While she's stuck on a seven-hour-long Jumper trip with Lorne and Henderson bickering in the front seat, Ziva lies on her stomach and types out a message to Gibbs. She does not plan to send it, and so it is easy to write all the things that she could never say to him in person. She amuses herself by alternating lines between Russian, Spanish and English, and ends up writing nearly everything that has happened to her since the day of Jenny Shepard's funeral.
When the Jumper engines give out and they are stuck floating in outer space while help is summoned, Ziva manages to edit the Gibbs letter down to something she could actually let the man read, then translates it all back to English for him.
And when the message comes in from Atlantis that help might be delayed for no more than a day, there's MREs in the upper racks, Ziva takes her turn at the dead controls and stares at the stars until some things make a little more sense, while others descend into confusion. While Henderson snores and Lorne lounges in the back reading a copy of External Affairs, Ziva takes a deep breath and opens a new email.
How did things between us get so wrong?
She erases the email before she goes to sleep.
After the Jumper is towed back to Atlantis, none-the-worse for wear, Ziva spends an hour in the shower before heading to the commissary for some food that did not spend the last year in a foil bag. When she arrives, five-month-old Torrin is babbling and holding court to an adoring crowd of scientists and soldiers while his amused father Kanaan looks on.
Ziva sits at a nearby table to eat, watching the crowd with one eye while skimming through the backlog of work that accumulated while she was stuck in outer space. She's almost done her sandwich when Sgt. Stackhouse appears at the side of the table.
"Welcome back," the man says, his step light at this, the beginning of his day. "I've been looking for you."
The only reason Ziva does not bite the man's head is that he has saved her life on at least two occasions. "Here is where I am."
The corner of his mouth twitches at Ziva's dispirited response. "This came for you in the last post bundle through the SGC," he says, placing a small piece of paper on the table by Ziva's hand. "I figured that since you don't get a lot of mail from home, you'd want it ASAP."
He leaves, veering past the baby crowd to chuck Torrin under the chin and make a few of the scientists giggle. Ziva rolls her eyes at the Marine's behavior, but she does not think too much of it. She knows Stackhouse has four younger siblings back in Maine he helped raise after his mother died of cancer.
After finishing the last of her sandwich, Ziva finally turns to the small piece of post. It is a picture postcard, the edges battered from passing through the U.S. military postage system. The glossy photograph shows a sunlit beach in Naples, Italy.
She does not know anyone in Naples.
Turning the postcard over, Ziva's eyes are drawn to the postmark from the Naples Naval Station before she registers that she knows the handwriting on the white cardboard.
It is from Tony.
I'm sorry. I didn't mean what I said that night. What I meant was I didn't know what to say to you after everything. You just left without saying goodbye and then you send me that email and I didn't know what to think.
I still don't, not really.
I liked your email. Here's where I am now, Naples. We're in dock to resupply and then we're off again.
Maybe we can talk sometime?
Ziva does not know what to think, either. Even after a ten-mile run around the city, she still does not know what to make of the postcard. She folds it and slips it into the edge of the black plastic canvas surrounding her tablet computer and carries it with her, hoping that one day Tony DiNozzo will make sense to her.
The return emails from NCIS arrive a day after Captain Weisz's team goes missing.
Ziva does not have a chance to look at the letters. Her days and nights are filled with the bone-wearying panic of men missing in a galaxy where the missing too often never return. Search teams are sent out, allies are consulted and enemies interrogated. All they find are an empty blood-stained pack by the Stargate and one lone boot belonging to the team's biologist, Dr. Tracy. Four men have vanished into nothingness.
McKay and Zelenka don't sleep for over two days, trying to decipher the return addresses on the off-world Stargate. The medical team tests everything from the planet and the blood-covered pack to see if there was some clue as to the team's whereabouts. Even the Daedelus is pressed into service when it arrives in orbit.
There is nothing. The men are gone.
Or, as Ziva overhears a whisper late one night in the hallway, they have been taken by the Wraith.
Ziva assumes the base-side duties of Lorne and Sheppard to allow them to go out searching. She does not know what she is doing, but every time some new problem drops onto her lap, she refuses to let herself hyperventilate. She is helping in the only way she can in this galaxy. Men are missing, and no one on Atlantis will rest until they come home safe.
That is what makes the discovery of the team's decomposing bodies nine days later so impossible to bear.
Ziva is in the control room beside Woolsey when the Stargate activates, disgorging Sheppard and Ronon. Everything Ziva needs to know is written on Sheppard's ashen face. The man ignores Woolsey's questions for a moment. "Gear up," Sheppard says, voice rough. "You're coming back with us."
A faint hint of muddy earth and decomposing flesh clings to Sheppard and Ziva has to make herself stand still as he approaches. "Why?" And then, because that seems callous, she adds, "What must I bring?"
Sheppard shrugs, his knuckles white where he is holding the P90 too tightly. "Something happened and you're the investigator. Come figure it out."
Ziva exhales. It has been months since her investigative skills have been required and she is not sure she can bring them back so quickly. But Sheppard look at her like she might actually be able to help so she says the only thing she can.
"I will be right back."
She runs because she is afraid that if she walks, they will leave without her and Sheppard is right, she is an investigator and this is worse than any NCIS case, because the men of Weisz's team are-- were her people, her responsibility as much as they were Sheppard's. Weisz was German military and he'd walked very carefully around Ziva because he was German and she was Israeli and that was the way things would always be. Dr. Tracy had always been meticulous in his reports and requests for supplies, and Ziva had thanked him on more than one occasion for being so low maintenance. The other two on the team, Carvahlo and Bianco, both military, both Argentinean, had been so similar that Ziva always mixed them up in life. They had looked like brothers in spite of their surnames.
And now they are dead and it does not matter.
Three years under Gibbs makes the packing process automatic. Camera, sketchpad, computer, all into her backpack. Ziva detours through the infirmary on her way up to the Gateroom and finds Keller packing together body bags. "I need gloves," Ziva blurts out.
Keller never looks away from her packing. "Over there. Take what you need."
Ziva stuffs a whole box of gloves into her bag and adds various plastic bags and vials for evidence. She grabs one of Keller's many bags and together they head to the Gateroom. The halls of Atlantis are filled with silence. News has spread quickly. Ziva wonders what Lorne will do with the team's PegasusBook location status, and then the hopelessness of it all lurches up in her stomach and she breathes deeply to avoid being sick.
From the stench of decomposition on Sheppard and Ronon, there will be plenty of time for that on the planet.
On the planet, she follows behind Sheppard until the man stops at the edge of a hill and points at the small stone hut in the lee of the slope. "In there."
Ziva drops her bags in the grass and gloves up, taking the camera with her as she walks to the hut, careful to watch for any signs of footsteps or tracks. The rocky ground gives away no secrets.
The wind is blowing at her back, so Ziva makes it to the door of the hut before the stench of decay hits. The nine days have taken their toll on the bodies. Most of the flesh is missing to bacterial decay and scavengers. Distantly, Ziva thinks herself lucky that their faces are gone, bone exposed. It is selfish and grotesque, but she does not have to look at the faces of the dead. Skulls are anonymous in death.
The wind changes, blowing the decay at her, and Ziva manages to stumble out of the hut and to the edge of a small creek before she throws up. Her stomach nearly empty to start, the episode is brief. Ziva retreats to her knapsack to pull out a bottle of water to rinse her mouth, giving her time to build up a wall around her emotions before she returns to the hut.
Dr. Keller has not moved, and Ziva is grateful for the woman's solidity. Ziva takes many photos of the scene, taking in the details without speaking.
After a few minutes, something sharp catches Ziva's eye. She pauses and snaps a few more photos of the ground before calling over Keller. "Do you see this?"
The doctor crouches beside Ziva, her gloved hand to her nose to block the smell. "Yeah."
"See what?" Sheppard demands from the door. Ziva doesn't spare him a glance as she takes another round of pictures.
"The three bodies over there have large holes in their chest cavities," Ziva says. "This body has been stabbed with a military knife. The knife remains in the ribs."
"I can't be certain until I get them back to Atlantis, but it looks like a fatal blow," Keller adds.
Sheppard glances up at the darkening sky with bloodshot eyes. "Do you know who it is?" he asks, tight-lipped.
"I suspect that this is Dr. Tracy," Ziva says, standing. The world is curiously quiet in this hut with the dead men.
"Why the hell do you think that?" Sheppard demands.
"Because," Ziva says, walking across the floor to the three bodies huddled in a corner. "Dr. Tracy only had one boot with him."
For a long time, the only sounds heard are the snap-snap of Ziva's camera and Keller sealing up plastic bags for transport to the Daedelus.
It is her first solo investigation. Ziva takes over the large office Sheppard never uses and spreads her evidence across the walls. There is not much to see. The photographs of the dead, the bloodstained knife retrieved from Tracy's ribs, three sets of dog tags, the team's notes, and a list of unanswered questions.
How did the military officers die?
Who/What/Why was Tracy stabbed?
Why was the team on P4R-7X2? Why did they not dial Atlantis if in trouble?
When did they die?
Why did they leave no message for Atlantis?
The when and how of the deaths come from Keller after two days. "The bodies indicate that time of death was at least nine days ago," she tells the gathered crowd in the briefing room. "It's very likely that they were dead before we even realized they were missing."
"I'll be sure to let the search teams know, thanks for that," Sheppard snaps. He's been an asshole since they found the team and if he does not stop soon, Ziva will punch him in the face.
"What's wrong with you?" McKay demands, whirling on Sheppard. "It's not her fault--"
"I never said it was!"
"--So stop attacking her like it is!"
Before Sheppard can say something to McKay that will ruin their friendship forever, Lorne pushes between the two men and forces Sheppard to stand back.
Ziva has worked with these men for a long time, and she knows how they deal with stress, and this is just another coping mechanism for an impossible situation. "There is no way to be certain, the delay in finding the bodies has removed most of the physical evidence," Ziva begins. She takes a deep breath because there is no words to make this easier to accept. "But it looks as if, from the angle of the wound and a partial print on the knife handle, that the knife was the cause of Dr. Tracy's death, and that it was self-inflicted."
"Wait," McKay interjects. "You're saying that Tracy committed suicide?"
"That is how the evidence presents itself, yes." Ziva looks at Keller for backup, but the woman remains silent.
Sheppard turns his head away in disgust. "You're telling me that Tracy killed himself."
Woolsey clears his throat. This is what Ziva has been afraid of, that the man's adherence to the rules will take away only the worst from this, that Tracy suicided, that his comrades were dead at his hand. That is not how the evidence presents itself, but what other conclusions can the man draw?
"How did the others die?" Woolsey asks, his pen marking up his notepad.
Keller lifts her head. "From what I can tell, the cause of death in Captain Weisz, Sgt. Bianco and Lt. Carvahlo is the same. Something burst out of their chests directly under the sternum, causing a large hole in their chest cavities." She taps on her tablet and the view screen comes to life with a bad CGI mockup of a human body, and the resultant direction of the blast. Ziva has seen the demo many times before and she is ready for it, but the others aren't so lucky. McKay draws in a sharp breath, Ronon shakes his head, Lorne winces, and Sheppard just stares at the screen with that same ashen expression.
For once, Woolsey is a loss for words. Keller goes on.
"The thing is, there is no residue from whatever cause the hole."
"Because the bodies were in the elements for nine days," Sheppard says.
"No, that's not it." Keller sits up. "Whenever something impacts a bone with as much force as would be necessary to cause this level of damage, a residue is left behind. Metal or wood, if the blow was physical, or a burn from heat or some kind of chemical. What I'm saying is, that something came out of these men's chests and left no reside behind."
"Which in itself is strange," Ziva says, in case anyone missed it. McKay has recovered enough to roll his eyes at her.
"And the other thing." Keller leans back in her chair, coming to the end of her strength. She has been with the bodies for two days. "There is a level of decomposition not explained by the length of the time or the state of the bodies."
"Which means what?" Lorne asks, so tired.
"Most of their internal organs are missing." Keller is once again speaking to the screen. Mercifully, there is no accompanying demonstration. "The bodies don't show any entry marks from scavengers and there wasn't time for the organs to decompose. The organs are just... gone."
Sheppard taps his thumb on the tabletop. "Do the Wraith do stuff like this?" he asks Ronon.
The man shakes his head. "No. They'll feed off humans or kill them outright, but this isn't their style."
"How about Michael?" Lorne asks.
"I did not seen anything like this, while on Michael's ship," Teyla says as she comes through the door. She is holding her son, rocking him in her arms as he sleeps. "But it would perhaps be useful to ask the former members of his crew."
"What did the Genii say?" Sheppard asks Teyla as she sits in the chair offered by Lorne.
"They have not heard of anything like this, and Landon expressed his sympathies for our lost men," Teyla says. She shifts her son up in her arms. The boy's soft dark hair bunches against her jacket as he sighs in his sleep.
"Office David," Woolsey asks, his voice instantly quieting the room. "Is it possible that one or more members of the team did this to the others?"
It is a polite way to ask if Tracy turned on his comrades, and Ziva understands Woolsey's reasoning. She even has a section of her office dedicated to that very question. But Sheppard looks as if he might throttle Woolsey if the man says more and Ziva tells them the truth.
"There is no trace evidence on Dr. Tracy's body to indicate that he killed his teammates," Ziva says, while Keller nods. "The blood on his clothing is only his own. Bianco, Weisz and Carvahlo all have the blood of the others on their clothing, making it likely that their chests exploded while they were in the same locations they were found."
"But why would Tracy kill himself?" Woolsey asks the obvious question, one for which Ziva has only ideas.
"I have a theory," Ziva says. It is a scenario she concocted late the night before, staring out at the sea and wondering why a sane man, a faithful Catholic, would take a knife to his own chest. "It is possible that Dr. Tracy saw what killed his teammates. If it was coming for him..." She lets her voice trail off, her point made.
Woolsey bows his head. "Thank you, Officer David, Dr. Keller, for these preliminary findings," he announces. "I will support a finding of 'killed in action' for every member of Reconnaissance Team Delta, unless new evidence arises to the contrary." He stands. "Please, keep me informed as you search for the exact cause of death for the other three men."
"Of course," Ziva murmurs to the man's exiting back. She leans back in her chair and stares at her notes, her mind a million light-years away.
She does not know how long she sits there before someone leans on the table beside her. She lifts her eyes to see the room deserted except for herself and Sheppard. The man's shoulders are slumped. When Ziva first came to Atlantis, she had thought the man lazy for his posture. Now, she understands his exhaustion and responsibility.
"What the hell is going on?" Sheppard wonders aloud after a few minutes. "If it's not the Wraith and it's not Michael, and the Replicators are gone..."
"Then we are looking for an unknown enemy," Ziva finishes for him. This is the part she hates most: knowing just enough to realize how lost she is. "What I cannot understand is why the team did not leave a message for Atlantis. If the scenario is correct and Tracy died after the others--"
"Then why didn't he let us know what was going on, yeah, I know." Sheppard slides his butt on the table, kicking his boots in the air. "You've checked?"
"We checked all of their equipment, all their clothing, the surrounding area, everything. There was no message that we could find."
"Great." Sheppard runs a hand through his hair, standing it on end. "They had to know something was happening to them, that's why they didn't come back to Atlantis. They were supposed to be on a simple recon mission, that's all."
"And in between the mission and their place of death, they encountered something that caused their deaths and prevented them from contacting us. You are thinking they were abducted, yes?"
"I don't know. Why would someone grab them, kill three and let Tracy kill himself, then leave the bodies where we could find them?"
"We are left with more questions than answers," Ziva says, standing. She stretches to rid herself of the kink in her spine. "You should get some sleep."
"I thought I was the one in charge around here," Sheppard protests mildly. "What about you?"
"I will sleep if you will." Then, realizing that she may have just inadvertently propositioned the man, she hastens to add, "In my room. Where you will not be." She's too tired to blush at her rambling.
Sheppard lifts the corner of his mouth in a half-smile. "Can't go breaking Rule Twelve." He slaps Ziva on the back. "We'll pick this up tomorrow. I'm going to go find Teyla and see if Torrin's up for a game of catch."
"He is only six months old."
"He's still small enough to catch," Sheppard says, cupping his hands as if for a rugby ball and leaving Ziva to wonder if this is another odd English phrase she does not understand. "'Night."
The sun still illuminates the walls when Ziva reaches her room. She stands in the shower until she starts to fall asleep, and even the continual hot water sliding over her skin will not wash away the imagined sensation of decay and failure. After she towels off, she dons her sleeping clothes and stands on her balcony to look over the sea.
Black clouds gather in the distance, the beginning of the planet's autumn storms. Ziva watches as the clouds inch closer to the city. She cannot quiet her mind enough to sleep, and she cannot understand the reason. She has seen many crime scenes more horrific than that of her current case. Why is this one different?
Because they are your men, her mind whispers at her. A lump forms in her throat and she wishes she could cry, but even that outlet is not available to her now. She must be strong for the city and for the dead.
On autopilot, Ziva picks up her computer and logs in to her email. Too many messages await her attention, but the supply demands will have to wait until she discovers what killed her men. She opens a new email to Jethro Gibbs and writes one line.
How do you cope when the murders you investigate are of your own people?
She hits send, knowing the email will be in that evening's data burst to Earth, and goes back into her room before the storm reaches Atlantis.
She wakes in darkness, the wind howling through the open balcony door. Knowing she should close the door, Ziva just lies in her cold bed watching the lightening flash across the city and the echoing thunder rock the ancient glass. The shock of adrenaline will not let her sleep and so she turns to the still-on computer on her bed. She sorts through ten days' worth of backlogged email, vacation and supply requests mingled with questions and suggestions.
After half an hour, Ziva makes it down to the emails from the last databurst from Earth. She received several emails from NCIS, ones she had no time for when Weisz's team was missing and no heart for once the bodies were found. Now, with the rain pounding down on the city and cold wind blowing through her room, Ziva opens the first of the emails.
Subject: Guess WHAT?
OMG Ziva, guess what? Vance took a job at the FBI and left NCIS and the new acting director putting McGee back as a field agent (even knowing about his book) and Tony's rotating back to NCIS Washington and they're all back on Gibbs' team (sort of, it's complicated) and I don't have to quit! Can you come back too?
The email is timestamped at the approximate moment Weisz's team died. Ziva stares at Abby's excited words until the tablet powers down from inactivity, then she lies back and watches the lightening dance across the city until the burden of the last ten days drag her under to a tormented sleep.