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Never Hardened To the Loss

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When they first lost Kate, Gibbs was devastated. Shock rooted him to the top of that roof, driving away even the simple sniper instinct to get down, the minute she fell. When they came back to headquarters, he sat at his desk and watched the rain beat against the glass of the window.

But that was years ago, and like any other wound, time dulled the constantly throbbing ache as the pain scarred over. He hadn't believed that it would, back when the wound was fresh, but no one ever did when they were still waiting on the scab to form.

He should have known better. Kate wasn't the first agent he'd lost. She wasn't the first teammate he'd watched go down in a line of fire. She wasn't even the first woman he'd loved who'd been taken from him by a sociopath's bullet. And while Kelly and Shannon still kept him awake on some nights, staring up at the ceiling and wondering how things might have been different, eventually Kate no longer did.

That wasn't to say he ever forgot her, nor that he ever would. But he had a job to do and a life to live, and though it was later rather than sooner, he stopped smelling Kate's perfume every time that it rained. Ziva became a genuine member of his team, instead of the constant reminder of the family member they'd lost. Moreover, the years after Kate's death brought more deaths to mourn, Jenny, Lee, and Cassidy among them, and the pain caused by the loss of Kate took a back seat to the newness of the additional deaths.

But just in case he would ever try to fool himself into thinking that the hurt wasn't still there, sometimes a reminder showed up and forced him to remember just what he had lost.

One evening of what should have been mundane leaf-raking proved that point well. He paused long enough to stretch muscles overworked by the day's caseload, and glanced up into the sky to see a plane overhead.

Contact with planes came as part of his job, and Gibbs wasn't sure what was so special about a plane he could barely even see, that it would be a catalyst that he needed to open the flood gates to memories he'd long since locked away.

But he stood there for the longest time, watching a plane he couldn't see, while he remembered the smiling, sure-of-herself secret service agent that Kate had been. By the time his trip down memory lane reached the inevitable and familiar blood splatter on Tony's face, the plane had long since moved out of Gibbs' sight, and he decided he'd had enough of raking leaves.

He went inside to work on his boat.

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Everyone visited graves on holidays, birthdays, and other special occasions. Truth be told, Tony was half afraid that he'd choose one of those days and end up running into Gibbs.

So he was very cautious about the day he picked, because he didn't do big emotional displays in front of just anyone. He figured he could make an exception only for the woman who had stood by him while he'd had the plague, and whose blood he had worn on his face.

It cost him extra money and time off from his actual vacation, but he chose a quick stop in Indiana before heading off to begin his vacation time. There was a certain irony that Tony was sure Kate would have appreciated, if she were still able to argue back with him.

He took an additional extra detour to the flower shop two miles away from the cemetery to buy a bouquet of flowers that Kate had once told Abby were her favorite. He sat them carefully onto the cold ground before kneeling down to remove the weeds around her grave.

It had been a long couple of months, and the vacation was one Tony knew he needed. He supposed he should be trying to suppress any memory of what had happened, but instead it spilled out, and he spent the bulk of a lonely Monday afternoon telling Kate's grave all about Jeanne.

He thought that Kate would have liked her. He knew that Kate wouldn't have approved of the undercover mission - never in a million years. If he closed his eyes to push out the image of the grave staring back at him, he could see and hear her indignation at his actions.

But he was pretty sure she'd be back on his side, once he told her about Jeanne trying to frame him for murder. Kate was full of contradictions, that way.

It was what made arguing with Kate so much fun, and God, did he ever miss the arguments.

"I've got to go. Don't want to miss my plane.," he told her, as he stood up. "I promise to catch a wet t-shirt contest for you, Kate."

He could almost hear her biting reply in the Indiana wind, and it was easier to smile on the way back to the airport than it had been in a long time.

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"It was a pretty typical day, Kate." Abby gave her skirt a casual toss, aiming for the hamper and hitting her target, more or less.

"I worked in the lab all morning by myself, until the Tony and Ziva show made it to my humble little lab." Abby wriggled her toes against the cold tile of the bathroom floor as she leaned over to run the water for the bath.

"Yeah, they're still doing the will they or won't they." Abby waited for the water to reach a quarter of the way up the tub before dropping in her soap.

"Actually,  you'd be surprised at how much Tony's grown up. He's almost actual boyfriend material now." She ran her hand back and forth quickly in the water, to agitate the bubbles into growth. "Well, no, he wouldn't be for you - but you always liked the more mature types."

Abby placed her feet into the water, waiting for it to continue filling. "You and Gibbs weren't quite as obvious as Ziva and Tony. More...Tim and Tony obvious."

She reached and pulled the shirt off, missing the hamper by an extra ten inches this time. "Oh, yeah. Tony and Tim are definitely still doing the will they or won't they thing, too."

She unclasped her bra and gave it a good toss, too, not caring as much when it missed the mark. "See, you'd think that would cause problems, but with those three, I think they'll work it out."

Abby slipped into the water, just enjoying the heat massing into her skin for a moment. "Nah," she murmured lazily. "I think it'll be okay, Kate."

She reached for the wash cloth and leaned back into the tub to wash her arms. They might have lost Kate, but Abby still spoke to her, and though Abby missed having someone answer her back, she felt sorry for anyone who couldn't still feel Kate's presence enough to have the nightly after work conversations that Abby was able to have.

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It wasn't any big surprise that Tony had gotten used to Ziva's snores. The two of them sound like a matching pair of pugs with bronchitis, after all. But unlike his partners, Tim didn't snore, and their nightly nasal orchestras often woke him.

It always irritated him, but he learned that complaining didn't get him anywhere. Usually, he stared up at the ceiling until exhaustion took a greater toll than Ziva and Tony's snores.

But tonight, the day's case kept him up. They'd dealt with a sniper, and each one of them had spent the entire day very carefully not mentioning what they were all thinking.

Tim continued to think of Kate now, as he listened to his partners and watched them sleep. He wondered what she would have thought of the way their lives have turned out since her death. Would she have approved of this arrangement. Would she have approved of Ziva at all?

If Kate was still alive, would Tony have chosen this relationship? Would Kate be in Ziva's position? Kate and Tony had always flirted, as far as Tim could see. Would Kate have taken Tim and Ziva's position?

He was a writer and an agent.  The what-ifs and what-might-have-beens struck him as hard as the loss itself.

Ziva shifted in her sleep, tossing one arm more firmly around Tony's waist. Tony opened a sleepy eye, ran his fingers through Ziva's hair, and looked over at Tim.

"It's two in the morning, probie. You should be asleep," Tony murmured. "I know it's hard over that woman's snores, but you should at least try."

Tim didn't roll his eyes, but did slip down into the bed and scooted a little closer to Tony. One of Tony's arms snuck around Tim before Tony drifted back to sleep..

Admittedly, Tim would never know the answer to how different their lives would have been if Kate hadn't been killed. But he knew that he was happy, and that Kate would have approved of that, if nothing else.

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As a medical examiner, each of his tools held memories and special significance. Ducky remembered sitting in a class, several years ago, when mother still had all her marbles and he'd not yet known how demanding his job could be on his own sanity. He remembered a well-meaning instructor promising that in time, the stomach and heart would both harden to the cruelty of seeing someone in pain.

Such foolish advice, Ducky had thought at the time, and experience had yet to change his opinion of said advice.

Moreover, each time he walked past the freezer he had stored Kate's body in, he was moved to remember the compassionate and kind girl she'd once been and how that image contrasted so harshly against the cold, emotionless woman he had briefly stored in that compartment.

Neither his heart nor his stomach had ever hardened to that loss, nor did Ducky suspect it ever would.