Author's note:

In the beginning, I'd love to thank the Guest reviewer who has visited Prague and relived the experience with my story because THAT warms my heart a lot. :) Your comment is magical for me, so I hope you will find this epilogue to your liking, too.

Well, here we are. THE LAST CHAPTER.

I used to thank the most loyal readers personally in the last chapter but this story is going on for almost 5 years and so many people have gone and have come and so many of them simply stayed from start to finish that I stopped keeping track a long time ago.

Instead, I thank you ALL for the journey you have taken with me. It's been one of the most interesting times I have ever had and it had given me a lot. I hope that you have taken away something positive too – if there is even a minimal impact of my story on any of you, my job was done right.

However...

I can't go on without mentioning my sister Athina who has been with me from the very start and in whose beautiful country the idea was born since I came up with the story while vacationing on Crete. She has been my solid rock during the story multiple times.

I also can't go on without mentioning Kamille and Randy, the two people who Beta read several chapters of the fic and didn't get tired with correcting my mistakes.

I must mention Debbie who never ceased to amaze me with the dedication she has for reading my story and for being a kind and nice person overall, just like Nekesha, ihvee or DS2010.

I also have to mention thanks to Lipush who was very helpful with Israel facts and details.

And this is it. The epilogue. The end. Thank you so much, everyone!

Disclaimer:

I do not own NCIS or its characters.


Christmas Meeting – Chapter 44

26th May, 2022

"Gotcha!" Tony exclaimed, scooping up his five-year old baby girl in the air and twirling her, enjoying the sound of her adorable giggles.

But then Tali's expression turned into a frown as she buried her head in the crook of his neck. "Not fair." She complained, her little fists patting his shoulder.

He pulled away to look at her, innocent face plastered over his features. "How's so?" He asked her curiously, looking into her beautiful eyes of hazelnut brown colour.

"You should not step on the lines." She berated him, pointing her finger down on the ground.

Tony looked below his feet. They were standing in the middle of stony labyrinth – another replica of the famous one from Charters Cathedral – in the Garden of Reflection and Remembrance within the University of Maryland premises. They were only a few moments away from Ziva's commencement as Master of Arts in History and Tali was getting restless by all the waiting.

And so he took her on a little walk around the Memorial Chapel were the commencement ceremony was about to take place. People were everywhere, students – graduates – welcoming their families and friends, taking photos in their black gowns and caps, adorned by the hood in the colours of their department (white velvet for Masters of Arts and golden velvet for Masters of Science), stoles of gratitude in the typical red satin colour for the students of this university, some of them with personalized additional stoles to make a statement about the pride of their identity and the tassels with official medallions.

Tali then proceeded to play an imprisoned princess in the middle of the labyrinth while her chivalrous father, the mighty knight from House DiNozzo, fought all the evil monsters and overcame every danger to free his daughter. However, Tali had the habit to cheer him on quite loudly and he didn't intend to disturb anyone's commencement day by her incessant shouts despite advising her to lower her voice, not following the lines of the labyrinth but simply crossing them to get into the middle as fast as he could.

"I did step on them, didn't I?" He confessed guiltily, stroking her tiny back as he adjusted his hold on her in his arms. "But I had to hurry to save my princess. I would be really sad if anything happened to her."

Tali kicked with her legs in the air for a moment, smiling in her typical angelic way. "Well, Mom says that..." She paused, chewing on her lips as she contemplated whether to share with him what Ziva had told her numerous times.

"What does Mom say?" Tony inquired curiously, momentarily holding her in one of his arms as he removed a few strands of her gorgeous chestnut hair out of her face.

His baby girl leaned in to his ear, leaning against his shoulder. "That you are the best rescuer in the world." She whispered as loud as she can, pride lacing the tone of her voice.

Tony laughed softly in response, kissing Tali's cheek and head while he rocked her in his arms. "Mom really said that, hm?" He asked her to assure himself about truthfulness of the statement. His daughter was finally getting out of the phase of innocent children lies but one could never be sure.

She nodded her head vigorously and then immediately put a finger over her mouth and tiny nose. "But ssshhhh. I promised I won't tell." She added and shook her head in denial.

"Oh don't worry, sweetheart. I won't tell her." He smiled at her but secretly wondered what else Ziva could tell about him to their children. He was actually doing the same, telling them the stories about the bravest person he had ever met, the fearless ninja warrior. But Ziva did know about it, although she rather wished not to be present during those because he used to overact a lot. "It's going to be our secret."

Tali clapped with her hands to demonstrate her elation as Tony turned around when his eyes caught a familiar figure. "Oh, excuse me... Claire right?" He called out at the female passing by near them.

"Yes! Hello, Mr. DiNozzo." The young woman greeted him and waved at Tali who she had seen on numerous of occasions. "Hello, Tali."

"Hello." Tali waved back at her and Claire couldn't help but 'awwww' at her.

"Have you seen Ziva?" Tony asked her, once more adjusting his daughter in his arms.

He was a little worried. Not much but still. She had some secret appointment she hadn't shared with him in full detail in the early morning at the university and when their whole cavalry arrived, she had warmly welcomed them but he could sense the growing tension inside her. While invisible to the others, he could read her body language too well and knew that something big either happened or was about to happen – and it had nothing to do with the commencement.

After several photography sessions, she had retreated to fulfil her graduate duties but considering all the commotion around, he suspected that it was just an excuse for her to hide in solitude and sort out her thoughts. His walk with Tali had also served as a hunt for a familiar face he could ask about her whereabouts because someone simply had to see her.

"Yeah, I met her about ten minutes ago, she headed for Francis Scott Key building." Claire answered and smiled, waving once more before continuing in her previous direction after Tony thanked her.

"Okay sweetie," Tony put Tali back on the ground and looked around himself until he spotted Abby with Burt standing not far away from them, "Daddy has to find and talk to Mommy."

With a couple of gestures, he gained Abby's attention and arranged a plan with her. "Do you see aunt Abby and uncle Burt right there?" He asked her, kneeling next to her to be at the level of her height. Tali nodded, swaying on her feet playfully. "Will you a big girl and go to her on your own?"

His baby girl nodded furiously, glad that she could prove what a big girl she was, accepting the sunglasses from her daddy and putting them on. Then she placed her fingers to imitate a gun and winked conspiratorially on her plush teddy bear and sauntered 'inconspicuously' towards aunt Abby. Tony kept watching his little ninja until she was safely in the arms of a person he trusted and then set out to find his wife.

Luckily, it wasn't far. He only had to cross the parking lot, currently completely overloaded with cars and people, and a street to get to the Francis Scott Key building that housed primarily the Department of History and was named after Maryland-born American lawyer, famous for writing the lyrics for the American national anthem The Star-Spangled Banner.

He let out a sigh of relief when he saw her sitting on the low wall next to the main building, fencing the parking lot for the faculty staff and staff of the university with a view through the lines of trees into McKeldin Mall, the centre point of the whole campus, named in the honour of Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, one of the Governors of Maryland. She was actually chatting with some of her classmates, laughing joyously at something.

Standing aside in order not to disturb because he didn't want to eavesdrop, he managed to make an eye contact with one of the classmates who was standing and thus, facing him. And it seemed that the young woman understood his silent plea, faking a message from her family and promptly leaving with her other friend, leaving Ziva alone on the wall as she didn't seem to have any desire to abandon her current place.

Tony sent both ladies a grateful smile that turned into a self-satisfied smirk as both women giggled all the way, their cheeks turning red. Well, look at that – even with increasing years and being married father of two children, he could still make his female counterparts weak in their knees only with his smile. Not that he needed to flirt with anyone else but it did stroke his ego in the right way.

Then he approached his wife, making enough noise to notify her about his closeness because sneaking up on her wasn't a good idea. That woman still did have certain ninja instincts and he could still remember the last time he had tried to shout boo at her. His shin remembered that as well, suddenly spreading pain through his leg as if she had kicked him once more.

"Hello, my lovely graduate." He greeted her, throwing his legs across the low wall to sit next to her, putting a comforting hand on her shoulder.

She smiled knowingly as if she had known that he would have come to find her, leaning against his shoulder comfortably. "Hey." She greeted him back and her eyes closed when he kissed the top of her head, adjusting her hair so the personalized stole in Israeli design could be visible on her black gown she was wearing.

"Contemplating the meaning of life, are we?" He asked her after a moment of silence when they just revelled in the near company of one another.

She laughed softly, her chest relaxing with the deep sigh she let out. "Something like that, yeah." She confirmed with a dreamy smile, loving the shivers surging down her spine as he lightly raked her hair while feeling pleasantly warm as the black cloth of her gown absorbed the sunrays. "I mean, I really did it. I graduated."

What started as a journey to find her identity within humankind had turned into a full historical study course. While she had started this voyage all by herself without anyone's help, she had taken on many fellow-passengers as the time passed. And thanks to that, she wasn't about to run through the finish tape alone but with her friends and family in tow, cheering her on.

"And we are all immensely proud of you." He whispered to her in an emotional tone, tightening his arms around her in a firm hug.

They stayed wrap up in each other for a long moment as if some invisible channel was between them, operating on a frequency known only to them. No words or gestures were needed, only the close proximity and unwitting caresses were enough to draw and take, give and provide the comfort they needed from the fountain of their mutual love. It was a beautiful moment of peace of two people realizing how far they had travelled.

"I am actually glad you came to find me." Ziva uttered after a while, toying with her wedding band as she turned it around her finger. "There is something I need to tell you."

It was his expectation so he remained calm without any harder effort. "I'm all ears." He assured her and assumed an attentive posture with exaggerated pensive expression she didn't mind whatsoever.

"It is about the appointment I had earlier this morning." She clarified although Tony didn't bat an eyelid. It seemed that the man knew simply everything about her, anticipating her future steps. "I was offered a job here, at the university, in The Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies."

Neither that came as a surprise to her husband because she had been active within the institute already as a student. After all, this particular institute had a very close relationship with University in Haifa she had come originally from. It seemed pretty logical to Tony that they would want her to work for them, considering all the cooperation during the studies.

She then explained further the job offer that included mainly administrative work in the institute with the opportunities to expand her knowledge by participating on various conferences, researches, taking care of official visitors with chances to travel the world as part of the local scientific team, but mainly and naturally Israel. Her contacts in her homeland were already a great bonus for the institute and they wished expand them with her help.

"That's absolutely fabulous!" Tony exclaimed in joy, his face lightening up the more she talked about the job offer. "Does that research with the scientific team include some excavations? So you could be something like female Indiana Jones? Ta-ta-da-da, ta-da-da, ta-ta-da, ta-ta-da-da..."

She burst out laughing when she heard him to sing the melody from Indiana Jones movies, relieved that his reception was so positive. Not that she was afraid to share it with him or thought that he would be negative but she would understand if he had any reservations. He did suffer whenever she had gone to visit Israel alone in the past and recent trips to her homeland were in his company.

"This is not a movie, Tony." She hiccupped between the laughter, smacking his shoulder playfully for teasing her. "And I'm not an archaeologist. But I can buy a whip, if you want."

He covered the place on his chest where his heart was with a hand. "Oh please, do." He teased her further because he loved to see her smile, especially if that smile had a lot to do with him.

Instead of punishing him with another smack, she beckoned him with her finger, licking her lips seductively. He immediately yielded and accepted the offered sweet kiss with pleasure, despite getting mildly slapped on his head. Unlike Gibbs, she always did her best to soothe his pain with her kisses, caresses and just being with him, making him the happiest man under the sun and stars.

"So, do you think I should take it?" She asked him, adjusting the collar and the tie around his neck that got dishevelled due to his plays with Tali.

He was obviously taken aback by the question, his eyes studying her unbelievingly. "Why do you ask me, honey? You don't need my permission." He assured her, absolutely shocked that she hadn't accepted the job offer yet, apparently deeming it so serious that she needed to talk about it with him first.

There was a fragment of guilt he had seen multiple times in her eyes as she lowered them in shame. "I know I do not need your permission. I just..." She paused for a moment, failing in the effort to hide the red shade of her cheeks. "I just want to know what you think."

Ah, so maybe it wasn't about giving her permission but about her own insecurities. In moments like these, she sought validation because she couldn't find it in herself. While it could seem pathetic for a person who was otherwise independent, strong-willed and smart, he did understand where it was coming from because he was no different. There was some deeply rooted fear and she had only asked of him to help her deal with it.

With soft gentleness, he took her right hand and for a moment rubbed her palm with his thumb while holding her intense gaze. Then, he ran the thumb across her fingers, eventually closing them into a loose fist. Turning her hand around, he brought it to his lips to kiss her knuckles while peering at her through his eyelashes. He knew how these little, romantic gestures worked on her and he could that she relaxed a bit.

"As your loving husband, your former co-worker, your eternal friend and a loyal person who admires you every single day I think that yes, you should take it." He persuaded her about her own abilities and worthiness with undying affection in his eyes. "No one's perfect from the start and you probably won't be any exception. But I know it won't stop you and eventually, you'll become one of the greatest assets of the institute, if not of the whole university."

If it hadn't been extremely inappropriate, she would have jumped his bones right there and now but one had to keep some manners. She had never needed some good luck charms or quotes to live by because the man in front of her sufficed for all fortune bringers in the world. He was the magic formula that had freed her from the dark curse she had often inflicted upon herself.

But there was still one shadow of a doubt that needed to dispersed, one she secretly dreaded from the very first moment her life had turned into a happiness-filled fairy tale. "But what if..." She protested with a frown that spoiled her gorgeous face with wrinkles of worry.

"No no, uh-uh, listen to me now." Tony intercepted quickly because he did guess where her thoughts headed and he knew he couldn't treat it lightly because her doubts had a basis. Working for such institute meant occasionally clashing with the world she had used to be part of and while they had been living peacefully for years, one should know that the enemy never sleeps.

"It's time for you to finally let it go and forge a new past, sweetheart. Only then you can become what you are meant to be." He explained to her for probably a hundredth time but if she needed to hear it, so be it. "I know your concerns are justified but remember that you're about to become a huntress. Your past will haunt you no more. Instead, you will hunt for other people's past."

When she heard the word 'huntress', she immediately pictured herself as the night elf warrior with a glaive, riding a feral nightsaber panther from the game McGee played so fiercely, World of Warcraft*1, and she couldn't bite back the laughter. It was that kind of relief she need and in combination with Tony's assurance, it worked miracles with her confidence and she felt the firm ground beneath her feet once more.

But when he joined her laughter, toying with a strand of her hair before lovingly tucking it behind her ear, emotions started flooding her with the intensity of a waterfall. Memories flashed through her mind, memories she loved to recall with pleasant tingling all over her body. She learnt not to dwell on the past that much but it didn't mean that reminiscing about the nice things in her life was bad.

She thought back to all those moments he had held her hand to be the support she needed, the barely noticeable caresses that provided her with incredible happiness and warmth, the sweet words he used to whisper in her ear to invigorate her passion, the intuitive selflessness with which he adapted to her lifestyle and never demanded of her to change herself or held against her the dreams and goals she had set.

It made her incredibly emotional and through the laughter, hot tears began to form in the corners of her eyes and there was nothing in her powers she could do to stop them. He didn't question it, only pressed his thumb on her cheek to catch the salty droplets. "Forgive me." She apologized for her effusion of feelings that certainly wasn't the last one that day.

"For what?" He asked her softly, having no objects over any displays of her feelings. Contrarily, he didn't like when she suffocated herself with the pent-up emotions. It was a path to the personal hell she wanted to be free of.

With his question, she realized that her apology reached further to their past than she had intended. "For being so stupid and foolish all those years ago. So much pain could have been avoided." She admitted regretfully, shaking her head at her own actions.

Sure, it was easy to be wise after the event but it didn't justify her obstinate stubbornness with which she had defended herself against the growing feelings for Tony. She had used Rule 12 and other so-called obstacles to avoid them in order to save herself the incorrectly assumed heartbreak. She couldn't have been further from the truth and the present days taught her that.

Silencing his attempt to object with the way she looked up at him ardently, she pressed her graceful hands on his cheeks, searching his eyes for an endless minute with a soft smile on her lips. "I do not know where I would be without you. But I am certain that my happiness would have been false because only you can make me the happiest person in the world." She confessed sincerely, rewarding his attention, his tolerance and his devotion with a kiss that could make the Earth move.

And even if it didn't, it moved with his world like a strong earthquake. His love for her supplemented the fresh air in his lungs and her love for him spread through his body like a wildfire through parched ground. His thirst was quenched by drinking the sweet nectar from her lips and his hunger was sated by tasting her unique flavour he had fallen for such a long time ago.

"Likewise." He whispered thickly when they parted, leaning his forehead against hers to deepen the moment of intimacy between them.

It was interrupted by a text message Ziva received from one of her classmates, urging her to show up as soon as she could because the commencement was about to begin soon. Hand in hand and in comfortable silence, they set off on their way back to the Memorial Chapel, strolling through the campus through the same path Tony had taken to get there.

There, on the Chapel Lawn, they met their family and friends, paying a special attention to their children – their daughter Tali and their son Timmy. Both kids received a loving kiss from their mother before she thanked everyone for their wishes of luck and retreated to the group of graduates where she belonged, her black gown flying around her feet as she walked.

Tony let Senior to take care of Tali, lifting his three-year old in the air play with him for a moment until the doors to the chapel were opened and the relatives of the graduates could assume their seats inside. Together, they had taken quite a few first-rate photos with them pulling various faces and even recording a daddy/son video message to express their delight over Mom's achievements.

"They opened the door, we should go inside." Terri commented as she approached him, reaching for Timmy in his arms and before he could do anything, she took his son into her arms and then moved him to David's embrace.

"The camera." She beckoned with her fingers resolutely while she made gesture with her other free hand to assure everyone else from their not-so-little party that they were on their way in a second.

Tony was used to the straightforward and sometimes commanding nature of his and Ziva's friend but his lack of understanding at the moment was more than visible. "Hold on, I am a big boy. I can take care of my kid and take good photos, as well. There's no need to help me." He attempted to protest only to make Terri snort in return.

"No, you can't. You should be sitting on your ass in the chapel and just watch her." Terri dismissed his objection and extended her open palm to give him a clear signal that she wasn't about to leave without the camera in her hands. "This is her moment, Tony, and yours, as well. Do you understand what I mean?"

He stared at her for a long moment and then his eyes started to water with thankfulness and pride. Terri was right, in a way it was their moment. In the case of many students, the endless support through their studies was coming from their families, both biological and adoptive or surrogate, mainly parents or (and) friends. There were also several admirable individuals who had managed to graduate with flying colours without any substantial assistance.

All of these people were now rewarded during the commencement ceremony by watching their graduate to be referred with their degrees, filling them with incredible pride and happiness. It was the emotional moment for all mentioned sides as the words of thanks couldn't ever describe the gratefulness over the provided support in whatever form it had transpired.

And while Ziva's surrogate parents did their best, as well as her loyal friends, it was predominantly Tony's merit that she had had the support she needed. He had encouraged her in her academic life, just as in her extracurricular activities. He had never omitted to attend an event she had directly participated in and if he hadn't been able to do so, he had always made up for it without a reminder.

He had stayed up late with her countless times to study with her, boning up all the required knowledge before exams. He had read every single paper she had turned in, being remorselessly critical without an evil intent just because she had asked him so. Whenever she had been stressed, he had massaged her feet and shoulders, cooked a hearty tasteful meal for her, bought her a box of chocolate or acquired to her whatever her cravings dictated.

Even if it hadn't been enough, he had never yelled at her to pursue a foolish and useless argument with her, no matter how much he had been driven mad with his own problems. Instead, he had soothed her nerves with well-aimed words and caresses, making the tears in her eyes to vanish. He had helped her to develop certain study routine to make things smoother and favourable to everyone in their household.

Speaking of their household, he hadn't minded to take over the role of the head of the family, dutifully ruling it. He had babysat whenever it had been needed and if he hadn't been available, he had always found another trustworthy babysitter to do so. To put it simply, he was an absolutely copybook example of a perfect husband and father, rendering Ziva speechless multiple times.

Maybe he would have broken under the weight of all those duties because he had also commanded his own team, albeit in much safer and calmer fashion than previously as part of Gibbs' team. But she was an absolutely copybook example of a perfect wife and mother who equally understood his needs and had never forgotten to reward him for his excellent support.

So yes, he did know what Terri meant by her well-intentioned orders to hand his kid and camera in so he could just savour the moment because the commencement ceremony was a reward for both him and Ziva. "Yeah, I do. Thanks." He expressed his gratitude because without her, he would have probably never realized how important for him was to just watch Ziva without constantly taking pictures and babysitting his son.

Terri patted his shoulder with a smile after he surrendered the camera. "Take it as training for the moment your kids will graduate." She winked at him, dragging him behind her into the Memorial Chapel.

The individual ceremony for the Department of History was much more intimate and private than the pompous, yet amazing university-wide commencement the next day in Xfinity Center. Tony did enjoy both ceremonies equally because for him, it wasn't about the approach of either the faculty or the university as a whole but it was about the graduate in question – and that was his wife.

The smaller ceremony began with the speaker coming to the stage to welcome the families and friends of the graduates, bringing their attention to the exits in the case of emergency and then asking them to rise and keep standing until all the members of the platform and graduate candidates arrive and take their seats. It showed the respect towards the academic values.

Then he announced the arrival of the graduating class of year 2022 and their college department, commencing the processional with a music accompaniment. A flag bearer with the official flag of Department of History walked in first from the ambulatory, followed by the platform party consisting of the teachers, department members and also one of the graduates who was about to give a speech to their fellow students. All of them were dressed in their required gowns.

Those were just behind them, walking the two aisles between the three rows of pews one by one until they reached the front seats that were reserved for them. The platform party assumed their position 'on the stage' or in this case in the chancel terminated by an apse as they were in the chapel, the altar replaced by a crimson satin curtain. While the chapel was a place of worship, it was interdenominational so none of the religious directions could be superior to the other.

After the last of the graduate candidates found their place on the pews, the speaker invited them, their families and friends and the platform party to sit down. The music also stopped and except fo some incomprehensible murmur, the chapel fell silent. Then the speaker introduced the person who was about to preside over the whole commencement, Bonnie Thornton Dill*2, the Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities.

She welcomed everyone in the chapel, informed them about the today's agenda and the significance of it and went on to introduce the individual members of the platform from associate deans and professors, to various directors and professors, as well as the student speaker for this commencement ceremony and the chair of the Department of History.

The last one was granted a word afterwards, delivering an inspirational and kind speech to his students who reciprocated their gratefulness with applause. Afterwards, the most important part of the ceremony began – the conferring of the degrees. The directors of the respective study programs asked the candidates for degree to rise in groups according to the importance of their degree – doctoral degrees first, master degrees second and bachelor degrees the third.

Then they asked the Dean to recognize those candidates who had successfully completed all requirements for the respective degrees, in Ziva's case the degree of Master of Arts, and the Dean accepted those recommendations and recognized the degrees for the students. The speaker then asked the candidates to approach the platform so they could be individually recognized.

Alphabetically lined up, the candidates shook their hands and hand over a name card to the director of their program who announced their name aloud. Then they walked across the stage to the Dean who shook their hands in congratulations and presented them a white envelope with their name on it. Inside was lithography, a decorative print specially designed by the university for the particular academic year at the commencement ceremony as diplomas were mailed some time after the ceremony itself. Then the students paused for a picture with the Dean whilst shaking hands and walked off the stage to give space to another candidate and let them to have their own spotlight.

As the now rewarded graduates returned to their seats, they move their tassels on the cap from the right front side to the left front side to indicate their newly acquired degree. After all the degrees were referred, the Dean introduced the student speaker all the candidates had agreed on in a vote so she could deliver her graduation speech full of essential, yet subtle student humour.

The ceremony then continued with the individual awards for personal outstanding achievements of the students to recognize their exceptional passion for their studies. In closing, the Dean expressed the warmest of congratulations both to the graduates and their families, the sincerest hope that they would always consider the university as their home and gifting them with several more words of advice and wishes to their future personal lives and careers.

She concluded her speech with an invitation to the reception organized in the honour of the new graduates, receiving a round of applause directed both at her presentation, as well as the students. The speaker asked everyone afterwards to rise and keep standing during the recessional as the platform party left the Memorial Chapel first, followed by the awarded graduates.

Despite being nervous, Ziva managed to go through the ceremony without a single stumble, her eyes watering multiple times. Her knees were wobbly when her name was called but she held her head high and took her diploma with dignity, stifling a sob when she hear the distinct shouts 'mama' from her children. As she walked back to her seat, her eyes locked with Tony's for a moment and she held his gaze during the switch of the tassel on her cap.

Outside, she initiated a warm group hug with everyone to thank them for their endless and amazing support through all those years. They had never let her down and never accepted her thoughts to quit the studies, always finding a way to provide her with all the necessary help. They had wanted her to succeed and thanks to them she had. Fully aware of that fact, she couldn't ever thank them enough.

Rest of the memorable day passed in a good mood filled with several photo shoots of serious and silly nature all over the campus with her friends, her family and of course, her schoolmates. They also attended the reception where they had the chance to meet and chat with the people from the faculty, making Tony even prouder to see what kind of impact Ziva had on some of the staff.

Her future colleagues – well, potential future colleagues since she hadn't confirmed her acceptance of the job yet for understandable reasons – were also there and he had a wonderful discussion with them. It definitely reinforced his belief that the job was the right one for his lovely wife, combining together all her interests and her roots into a perfect and entertaining package. He had the privilege to enjoy his work because he genuinely loved it and he naturally wanted the same thing for Ziva.

When the reception ended, their large entourage went for a walk and headed for a restaurant where they ate a light dinner and Ziva received numerous gifts as congratulations to her graduation. Kids were exhausted by that time they returned home, immediately nodding off and barely staying awake during their evening routine. And since another big day was ahead of them, Tony and Ziva went to sleep quite early, as well.

The next day was reserved for the university-wide commencement in the Xfinity Center in the campus of University of Maryland. The participation wasn't obligatory but Ziva didn't want to miss the last few minutes of her student's life so not going there was out of the question. Unfortunately, the number of people she could invite was limited unlike with the college commencement so she had to choose only four people.

Tony, Tim and Terri were clear candidates for her but she hesitated between Abby and Gibbs. Both equally deserved to be there but she also refused to replace anyone from the secure trio just to have them both. Eventually, she invited Abby who would probably enjoy the whole ceremony more than Gibbs who had never been fond of such formal processions.

And it proved to be a good guess because her former boss thanked her for sparing him the boredom which didn't mean he didn't appreciate her achievements at all. His pride couldn't be bigger than it already was. But instead, he offered to babysit the two little rascals for them, carrying out his duty as a grandfather which was a role he felt more comfortable with.

And so it was those four who assumed their seats on the stands to observe the over two hours lasting university-wide commencement ceremony to enjoy the last few moments of Ziva as a student. It began with a speaker announcing the arrival of the flag bearer and student's speaker in one person who led the preliminary procession as the orchestra started to play procession music.

Other flag bearers of their respective colleges and schools followed as their names were announced, each bringing along their fellow graduates belonging to the presented college or school. Ziva took her time to look up on the stands to wave at her husband and friends to help them find her in the crowd. After all the students assumed their seats, the flag bearers brought the flags on the stage and joined the others.

The faculties and their staff came forward afterwards, followed by the platform party including mace bearer and the president of the university as the students stood up to honour them, watching them to climb the stage up. After that, the traditional presentation of colours occurred with the national anthem of the United States being sung subsequently.

Several speeches from the university staff, including the president were given, as well as the student's speaker and invited guest who was awarded with an honorary degree. Then, the individual colleges and schools were presented by their deans until and provost stepped forward and in a similar fashion like on the college commencement, she asked the president of university to confer all the degrees she named.

The president happily agreed and recognized the candidates with a round of applause to congratulate all of them to their achievements, giving word to the president of alumni association to speak to the novices in their ranks. The student's speaker then asked for drum roll and instructed her fellow students to switch the tassel on their caps from right to left, officially turning all of them into graduates.

Afterwards, the students, their families and friends alike sang the words of 'Alma Mater' song with its lyrics specially adapted for the University of Maryland. The whole ceremony concluded with the last words from the president who wished the awarded graduates good luck in the future and expressed his wish for them to return back to the university whenever they needed it.

The recessional happened in the reversed order of the processional and in much more informal fashion as the graduates mingled, exchanging goodbyes and wishes among them, as well as with their former teachers. The atmosphere was pleasantly friendly and even the families and friends weren't shy to start chatting with someone they had never seen. After all, they all had something in common – pride for their graduate.

Many tears, happy tears, flowed that day, providing Ziva with one of the most unforgettable days of her life. As a little girl, she had never dreamt about becoming Master of Arts but since her academic journey had started a couple of years ago, it had become one of her life goals. She didn't want to prove anything to anyone, just herself to show that her decision to explore her roots and history in general was the right one.

Leaving the university as a freshly awarded graduate, a wife and a mother was beyond her dreams. Going back to the university as its alumni and employee was even more incredible. Finally, she felt as if she found her place in this world. Not that she didn't feel similar way ever before but now, she felt complete. And only after experiencing such a feeling of completeness, she realized how wrong she was about some of her life choices.

Thankfully, her decision to leave Israel, return to the US with Tony and apply for University of Maryland had proved as one of the best life choices she had ever made. It would have meant nothing without the whole journey, though, both the one that had preceded and that had followed. In her case the proverb 'Every cloud has a silver lining' definitely worked.

She had managed to overturn the misfortune culminating with her father's death into her strength. With her closest family dismantled, she was broken, abysmally damaged but she still had the will to live and was in dire need of a fresh start. Although it meant leaving even more people she loved behind, she had made use of that opportunity to start anew with clean a slate.

While the departure had hurt both her and the ones she was forced to abandon, she was eventually rewarded for her bravery and determination. They weren't dead, they were still there and the Fate weaved their paths in diverse directions only to reunite them in the most unexpected way. Thanks to that, her fresh start was enhanced to an absolute peak of happiness she was eternally grateful for.


No longer hearing Ziva talking on the phone as she ended the call and went inside the yacht's lounge, Tony bent down to the fridge bar take out the bottle of champagne and a box of strawberries. Halving the fruit with a knife, he retrieved two champagne flutes from a compartment that was part of the yacht's bar on its roof and set them on the counter.

With a contended sigh, he approached the control panel at the front to slow down the speed of the ship, mostly letting the natural stream of the Anacostia River carry the ship away as it pleased. After the emotional, yet exhausting two-day long commencement ceremony, their family took a shelter on the yacht previously belonging to Eli David and stationed in Jaffa Port in Israel, now known under the name Talia & Timmy after both their children.

They sailed from Ballpark Boathouse in the vicinity of the Navy Yard, actually passing it at the moment. The sun was setting but the air was still warm with a soft breeze cooling down the heated skin. Their plans were simple – enjoy some quality time as a family, relax and shake off the stress of the last few days. They planned to spend weekend sailing back and forth the Anacostia and Potomac rivers around D.C. without stepping a foot on solid ground unless needed.

The children had their own room below but still nearby enough to check up on them if needed. When on deck, neither of the parents dare to lose a sight of them just in case they would have the brilliant idea of jumping into water or something. Fortunately, both kids were quite reasonable and well-behaved, albeit having their moments of crying fits and disobedience.

But in every sense, it was the best idea for a vacation they had in a long time. It was actually the first time they were able to use the yacht in such a scope since it had been shipped from the Israel years ago. Before that, they had spent only a couple of hours sailing on it on weekends or it served as one of the refuges for Ziva's studying, as well as their mutual intimate sanctuary.

Tony listened attentively to the remote city sounds mixed with the sounds of other boats and people sailing on them, as well as the beautiful and calming sound of rippled water, breathing in the familiar smell. There was something absolutely unique on watching the city slowly burying itself in the dark and replacing the natural light for artificial one from the middle of a river.

Then he returned to the bar, grabbing the champagne bottle so he could remove the golden foil wrapped around the top and the neck. Twisting the wire of the wire cage that hold the cork down, he discarded it and took a white napkin to cover the cork in case of any leak during the opening. It took a couple of twists of the bottle and tilts of the cork to hear the familiar pop sound that signed that the bottle was opened.

Like a seasoned waiter, he tipped the glass and slowly poured the champagne down the side until it was half full and all the foam was gone. Afterwards, he threw two halves of the cut strawberry and adorned the edge of the glass with one slice, as well. By that moment, he heard Ziva leaving the lounge and climbing the stairs up to the roof of the yacht to join him for a little celebratory nightcap.

She stretched her body and yawned slightly, extending her hand to accept the offered glass of champagne, inhaling its wondrous scent. "Hm, champagne with strawberries." She hummed in delight, planting a sweet peck on his lips. "You are spoiling me."

"That is what husbands are for." He flashed his branded smile, watching with content as she danced across the roof, shielding her view against the setting sun with a serene sigh.

Then she sat down on the chaise lounges at the back and patted the vacant place next to her, hinting to him that she wanted him to join her. He took his own flute and did as she requested, assuming his cross-legged position opposite of her. Her eyes shone brightly, mirroring the harmonious smile and for a moment, he was mesmerized by the captivating gleam of her curly hair as the last sunrays caressed her locks.

Lifting her glass festively to propose a toast, she looked deeply into his eyes, drowning willingly for a while in the emerald sea of his gaze. "To my sympathetic, patient, loving and simply perfect husband." She said and tilted her flute in anticipation of the clink.

He smiled softly and gladly mimicked her movement of the glass. "To my tenacious, hard-working, passionate and simply terrific wife." He complimented her equally and the glasses touched each other before they both took a sip of the sweet sparkling wine.

The taste lingered on their tongues when they simultaneously leaned in for a kiss, boosting their respective usual flavour. As if they had all the time in the world, the kiss was slow, thorough and deep, but still fervent and fierce as ever. Being together alone at last, albeit just for a short while, made them drop the hurry and just peacefully enjoy every single millisecond of it.

When they parted, Ziva took another sip and lay down to face the darkening sky, nibbling the strawberry between her teeth. Her body hummed in appreciation of the rest as the tsunamis of stress finally faded away and she felt calm again. She found it incredibly peaceful just to sail on the water and be with the ones she loved. Maybe happy endings did apply to her, after all.

Tony stood up to check the controls of the ship but the autopilot was quite intuitive and the course was set in order to sail through the determined corridor, alarming them about approaching danger ahead of time so there were no worries in this regard. "How are the kids?" He asked his wife because he realized that she went to check up on them after ending the call. He had done the same before going to the roof.

"Sleeping like two logs." She replied, unabashedly admiring the view in front of her as he stood by the control panel in white trousers and T-shirt. The man was born to look dashing in any colour but white seemed to ginger up his innocent look that made her to try and lure him to the darkness. "Which is a wonder, considering the bedtimes stories you are telling them."

Tony chuckled and turned around with crossed arms. "Tales of ninja warrior princess and special agent prince are completely harmless." He objected, having fun with his own made-up stories based on their life together.

It was like telling their children how mommy and daddy had gotten together, only in abridged, fairy-tale-like manner with all the 'once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, a young prince chanced the perilous journey through blistering cold and scorching desert, travelling for many days and nights, risking life and limbs to find his beloved who believed to be cursed, breaking his heart to pieces' and 'the princess refused to give up, climbing the highest room of the tallest tower to enter the chambers of an evil witch, kicking her... butt like a true ninja warrior she was, breaking the curse once and for all' to 'and they lived happily ever after' stuff.

The kids loved it and although he could see that his wife rolled her eyes at his versions from time to time, like turning her father Eli into the king of a realm, his father into a roving merchant and Gibbs into a valiant knight, she did enjoy his narration just as much. It was indeed harmless and it kept the children on the edge of their seats so they would find out whether the ninja warrior princess and special agent prince would end up together like they always did.

"And how did the phone call go?" He asked curiously, mirroring her position on the chaise lounge with the flute in his hand.

She bent her knees and threw one leg over the other to make herself more comfortable. "It went well. I am supposed to stop by next week to sign some papers and I officially start in the second half of June." She told him with almost eager gleam in her eyes. She hadn't been so excited over a job in... well, years.

"Tell me more." He invited her, turning on his side to be an attentive listener she needed.

She took a deep breath and talked for long minutes about her excitement, her fears coming with it but also her confidence, what she was looking forward to and how she was completely and absolutely grateful for such opportunity. They conversed like that for the rest of the evening until a late night, sharing opinions and creating a schedule for their family life since their baby girl was about to start attending school soon.

As the sun disappeared behind the horizon, the air grew colder and so they eventually ended up snuggling together beneath a warm blanket under the starry sky – at least as far as light pollution allowed seeing stars. There was little need to talk some more in certain moments and so they just cuddled up, sharing an affectionate kiss here and then, whispering loving and meaningful words to each other.

"I love you so much, Tony." She confessed heatedly after one especially passionate kiss, running her fingers across his face to feel his beautiful face beneath her touch. Even with the darkness all around, she saw him clearly as during the day.

He ran his thumb over her swollen bottom lip, nudging her nose with his. "And I love you, Ziva. So," he replied in a thick, emotional tone, accentuating each word with sweet kisses one every part of her delicious mouth, "and very much."

The End of Chapter 44

THE END


*1 Okay so I'm not going to explain what World of Warcraft is – gamers should know and non-gamers aren't interested anyway. Either way, considering that the thing with the huntress is inspired by a certain dialogue from the game itself (hello, Illidan and Maiev), I inserted night elves too, although I did, in fact, burnt their precious tree (yes, I am a proud Forsaken and a Sylvanas loyalist).

*2 Bonnie Thornton Dill (born 1944) is a real person and the actual Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland.


Well, here it is. Yet another version of TIVA happy ending that we can all agree they deserve. I planned this one from the very start so it feels rewarding to finally write it in words.

As for the future, I can't tell at the moment when I will publish a new story. So many things happened over the last few years I was writing Christmas Meeting and so many things changed for me and I learnt that writing an ongoing long story isn't for me anymore. I am not changing my writing style, though, I am still long-chapter kind of person than short ones but that also takes quite a toll and I am not able to deliver the amount of words so quickly. One of the things I have realized is that I want to do regular updates but it's no longer possible for me to keep up with the words demand. And so, my next story will be published when it's finished or nearly finished so I could provide regular updates within a few weeks from each other instead of months.

And also, to be honest with you all, Ziva's return in Season 17 irrevocably damaged me. I still love TIVA immensely much, I can never get tired of writing them (though do not expect of me to ever incorporate anything from Season 17, I have happily deleted it from my mind, together with Season 13 and I do recognize everything up to the end of Season 10) but I would lie if I said that the utter disappointment over the plotline didn't affect me because it damn did despite keeping the lowest expectations possible. I also feel that most of the fandom kind of feels the same way – I don't want to speak for anyone, I know quite a dedicated group of people who emerged to my attention mostly after this occurred but we all have to admit that the fandom isn't what it was used to be and the show definitely does have a hand in it. Some of us have moved on and some of us keep returning from time to time but we dedicate our focus on something entirely different.

The latter happened to me and so my Reylo (Star Wars) fic I am writing now which is a rewrite of Episode IX to make it more sense took precedence over the unfinished TIVA fic I have started to write on the side some time ago. So there is a fic I am working on but sporadically and I have no timeframe for finishing it. Actually, after YEARS of dutifully writing whenever I could, I now feel free of the obligation to deliver updates at least once a month, I don't have to rush and I can dedicate my free time to different things, too. Because while it may seem that I am predominantly a fanfic author, I can honestly proclaim that I am a gamer first and author second and when I want to play a video game, I close everything and immerse myself into whatever game I feel like playing. Especially now when I don't feel guilty for spending my free time in all those beautiful fantasy worlds of World of Warcraft or The Witcher 3 instead of writing and with all the upcoming games like Cyberpunk 2077, Mafia: Definitive Edition and Assassin's Creed: Valhalla.

Writing is a creative process that requires patience and time and the older I am, also the right conditions that don't include only peace, good music and the inspiration but also good sleep, corresponding mental condition, done household duties and many other little details I won't bother you with. What I want to say is that lately, I often resort to self-care because writing became sort of a chore for me and I would like to change that for the future. It should be a lovely hobby, not a work that needs to be done. It's something I imposed on myself, so it's entirely my mistake and that's why I am taking the step away for a while and plan to appear when the right time comes.

Either way, my words from the above stand. I thank all of you who have ever came in to read the story for your attention (even those who yelled at me for taking so much time between the updates, you made me realize that I have to change my approach) and I hope to see you in the future, whenever it will be. My PMs are always open so if you ever feel the need to connect, you can slip a message to me.

Have a great week, summer holidays and keep taking care of yourself. Love you all and thank you once again. Bye!