I can't remember what exactly made me think of this piece of writing a couple days ago, but I'd completely forgotten it existed, and I decided I wanted to share it here. It's a short, pre-Dakiti piece of flash fiction starring Ziva & Co. that I wrote...a number of years ago. I went back and found the file on my old flash drive and it has a Last Modified Date from September 2012, but I think it came about earlier than that. Regardless, it's a little bit of an oldie. It's fun to look back at it because I recognize how parts of it influenced things that happen in my published trilogy (namely certain scenes at the end of Nexus and the end of Ronan). If you've read my books, you may recognize these parallels too.
It's also interesting to look at what changed between the time I wrote this and when I actually published. The main thing I noticed (that other people might not 😉) is the Malesium-core thermal grenade; in Nexus, one was used to breach a door and it was established that they only had a blast radius of about 4 meters, whereas in this story, characters are concerned one might bring down an entire building. It's also strange to see two of the spec ops teams working directly with each other in the field. While that's certainly not something that's prohibited for any reason, we just never saw anything like that in the series.
"Regret" is a little bit of a dumb title, but it's what I'd called the original document so I decided to roll with it. It's obvious that in their line of work, Ziva and her team have had to do some things they're not necessarily proud of. They're good at their jobs, but that doesn't mean they like every aspect of the work they do. This story helps explain why they—and particularly Ziva—are so detached, both in terms of what has caused them to be that way and why they strive to remain that way. If I remember right, this scene was inspired by an episode of The Unit, a military show that used to air on CBS.
There's no background info aside from what's provided in the story itself. I have no idea what the mission objective was, where it took place, or what the enemy's goal was. It's kind of fun that way because it leaves things to the imagination, and it's good practice for short stories because I'm not including a load of details.
Without further ado...
Ziva walked back out to the garage, hoping that by some miracle something had changed. She heaved a sigh when she saw nothing had—a gaping hole remained in the wall where their aircar had broken through, while broken wires and debris from the ceiling blanketed the vehicle itself. One beam in particular, a thick metal thing that looked like it belonged in a reinforced bunker rather than a simple outbuilding, had fallen straight down onto the car's roof, penetrating the unarmored frame. That—along with other accumulated rubble—had effectively rendered the vehicle inoperable.
Skeet appeared on the landing beside her, his face grim as he too took a moment to survey the damage for the umpteenth time. Without a word, he handed her a portable viewscreen displaying an infrared bird's-eye-view of the compound and surrounding area. She studied it silently for a moment before drawing a deep breath and handing it back to him; the news it bore would be considered good under normal circumstances, but at the moment it tied knots in her stomach.
"Beta team will be here for exfil in three minutes," Skeet said, verbally reinforcing what she'd already seen on the screen. "We'll have to move fast—they've got a group of hostiles hot on their heels." He paused a moment and took another look at the wrecked aircar before leaning closer and lowering his voice even further. "Look, even if we could move this thing, there's no time to—"
"I know," Ziva retorted, harsher than she'd meant to. She knew good and well what he was going to say, but there was something off-putting about hearing the words spoken aloud. The day had been stressful enough already.
She crossed her arms and sighed again, eyes fixed on that metal beam. Aside from the fact that it had essentially pinned the car to the ground, it was positioned just so that any attempts to move it or the vehicle could potentially cause the weakened roof to collapse, crushing anyone in the vicinity.
"We got what we came for," she said, referring to the small memory stick tucked safely away in a pouch on her belt. "I know what needs to be done."
Skeet placed a hand on her shoulder. "You want me to do it?"
She shrugged him away, her hand moving unconsciously to her holster. "I'll do it," she replied, wishing they didn't even need to be having this conversation. "You and Zinni go prep for exfil. I'll be along in a minute."
Once she was certain he'd comply, she proceeded down the short flight of stairs to the garage floor. The air was hot and thick thanks to the live wires and the smoke that continued rising from the car's engine compartment. She coughed against it and carefully picked her way through the chunks of wall and ceiling littering the floor. They made for rather unstable footing, one more thing that made any salvage attempts dangerous.
She stepped up onto the vehicle's hood, wincing at the harsh screech of metal grinding against stone, and took a moment to peer through the windshield at the lifeless form still sitting in the pilot's seat. Their treacherous guide was the reason they'd ended up in this mess; they hadn't realized he was an imposter until he'd tried to fly them straight into a power station. She'd shot him herself right there in the car, taking over the controls as best she could from the co-pilot's seat. The landing—if you could even call it that—had been rougher than she'd hoped, but she'd managed to keep her team alive.
She continued up onto the aircar's roof, careful to avoid the weak spots presented by the beam and the hole it had created. The frame gave a little under her weight and she hesitated, wiping the sheen of perspiration from her forehead. Taking a deep breath, she dropped into a squat and lowered herself over the edge of the car, finding purchase in yet another pile of rubble.
The young human remained precisely where she had left him...not that he could have gone anywhere. He'd been ejected from the car upon impact, and thanks to the falling beam, the vehicle had settled directly on top of him. They'd already done everything in their power to pull him out, but with no way to move either of the heavy objects, he was effectively trapped.
"Max?" she said quietly, stooping down beside him. The young man was nothing more than a local civilian serving as their translator, but in the past few hours he'd demonstrated a bravery beyond her expectations.
He opened his eyes at the sound of her voice, struggling to focus as he blinked away a mixture of sweat and blood that had dribbled down from his forehead. He moved his free hand up and brushed some of his shaggy brown hair out of his face—both legs and his other arm were pinned under the aircar.
"What's your status?" Ziva asked.
He ran his tongue over his dry lips and cleared his throat. "I still can't feel my legs," he wheezed. "Can't feel much at all for that matter."
Part of her doubted his legs were even still attached. "You're in shock," she said, pausing a moment. "I need you to try to stay awake, okay? Our extraction team will be here soon with another car and...we'll be able to move this thing and get you out of here."
The young man forced some semblance of a smile and shook his head. "With all due respect Lieutenant, I'm not stupid. You've all been telling me that this whole time, but I know that when they get here you're going to have a hard enough time just getting your team out." He stared straight upward as he spoke, tears welling up in his unfocused eyes. "I should be the least of your worries—I would only slow you down."
Ziva remained silent, neither wishing to agree with him nor wishing to lie to him anymore. He was right; even if they could get him out, there was a chance he wouldn't make it, and if he did, there was a chance that trying to transport him would get one of her people hurt or killed. Neither scenario was the least bit appealing, but then neither was leaving him there to be found by the enemy and tortured for information. And knowing the people they were dealing with, that's exactly what would happen. He'd been nothing but loyal to her team over the last few days, but he was untrained. They would break him.
"I'm dying," Max continued. "I'm finished. I'd rather end this now than have these guys do it for me. They already killed the rest of my family—I don't want to let them kill me too."
It felt like an inappropriate time to tell him they wouldn't kill him, at least not immediately. They'd find ways to make him suffer more than he already had. Ziva sighed and wiped at her forehead again. "What do you want me to do?"
His gaze flicked toward her sidearm. "Would you give me the dignity of taking my own life?"
It wasn't the first time she'd ever been presented with such a request, but it was the first time she'd ever considered granting it. She found that her hand had once again come to rest on her holster, and she slowly moved it up to grasp one of the two Malesium-core thermal grenades attached to her belt.
"Tell you what," she said, removing the device and pressing it into his open palm. "Let's try this instead. The Beta team will be here in less than a minute, and the insurgents are about two minutes behind them. I want you to start counting—the second you hear them come in here, you flip this." She carefully placed his thumb against the primer switch and closed the rest of his fingers around the grenade's cylindrical shell, hesitating for a moment when she noticed how badly his hand was trembling. There was no way he'd be able to maintain a steady grip on it, and the last thing she needed after all of this was to have him inadvertently bump the switch and bring the building down on top of them. "Maybe you can take a few of them with you."
Max smiled and nodded, blinking several times as two monstrous tears leaked down his face. "Sounds good to me," he murmured. "Thank you, Lieutenant. In spite of all this, I hope your mission was successful. I wish you and your team the best of luck."
Ziva dipped her head, her jaw clenched so tight that she was incapable of forming even the slightest of smiles. It was pointless to wish him good luck in return, and any other response she managed to muster up would be hollow anyway.
The sound of an approaching vehicle drew her attention and she looked through the hole in the wall to see that the Beta team had arrived. Drawing a deep breath and releasing it silently through her nose, she stepped up and out of the reaches of his peripheral vision. "All right Max, I want you to start counting now. Two minutes." She took a split second to gather herself, then drew her pistol.
He cleared his throat and closed his eyes, settling back against the debris and proudly holding the grenade up where she could see it. The trembling hadn't abated. "One, two, three..."
Ziva felt herself break out into a cold sweat and she swallowed, adjusting her grip on the gun. She felt her gaze begin to deviate and quickly returned it to what was directly in front of her: her white knuckles, the barrel of the pistol, the back of Max's head. For a moment, the only thing she could hear was her own pulse.
"...six, seven, eight..."
She inhaled. Exhaled.
"...ten, eleven, twelve..."
She pulled the trigger.