It was scary how weird it felt to be back in the US. She'd spent seven years in the shadows, first in captivity then to keep from being recaptured, then just because it had become a way of life, and she had adapted to life under the radar and away from big cities. LA was overwhelming, a cacophonous assault on her senses.
Kate had heard of reverse culture shock, of course, but all her head knowledge hadn't prepared her for the discomfort of feeling so out of place in the country she'd lived in for most of her life. She was longing for some familiarity, an anchor, something to make her feel like she belonged, but at the same time she was terrified by the prospect of seeing people, of having to talk about the last seven years, of trying to fit back into a life that was never going to be the same.
After a long flight, she'd had a debrief with a tall man called Nate that had felt almost as long. Now she was waiting in what she'd heard Callen and Sam describe as the boat shed (in a room she suspected was usually for interrogations), not knowing quite what to do with herself or what to expect. At least she had been allowed some quiet to settle her nerves, or try to. She hadn't felt this rattled in years.
From what she'd been told, at least a few of her team were here, as well as her sister, and that was both thrilling and terrifying.
She wanted to see them: she ached to see them. But it had been so long and they had thought her dead, had mourned her. Her disappearance had caused them such grief, probably guilt too. How could she ever explain? Would they ever truly understand and forgive her? She almost wanted to bolt out of the door, run away, so she wouldn't have to face the possibility of their anger.
The common sense part of her brain knew she was being ridiculous, knew that if the situation was reversed, she would be so glad to see a long lost friend that she wouldn't care about anything else, but it was hard to keep hold of that when she was exhausted and agitated and excited and ready to fall asleep on her feet. She wanted to see everyone, but in a way she would be incredibly glad when all the reunions were over and she could figure out her new normal.
She wasn't sure how long she'd been sitting there, worrying at the edge of her jacket with her fingers, when she finally heard voices raised in argument just outside the room.
"I'm a psychologist too, Mr Getz, I know what the risks are, this is my sister-"
Kate couldn't help smiling, was out of her seat and halfway to the door by the time it swung open.
Rachel stopped in her tracks. "Oh my God."
This, Kate was sure, was going to be the worst part of all her reunions. The disbelief, the shock that seeing her was going to inflict on everyone she loved. How was she ever going to find the words to apologise for letting them think she was dead? So what if it wasn't her fault - that didn't make her feel any better.
The words seemed to jerk Rachel back to reality, and she crossed the room into Kate's open arms without further hesitation. Over Rachel's shoulder, Kate could see Nate watching them with an expression that was half concern and half satisfaction. Kate could only imagine the tirade he'd been exposed to for trying to keep Rachel away.
Then she closed her eyes, shutting everything else out and concentrating on returning her sister's warm embrace.
Rachel was whispering something over and over, so fast and low that it took Kate a while to decipher it. "I missed you, I missed you, I missed you so much..."
"I missed you too, Rachel. I am so sorry."
Unexpectedly, Rachel drew back from her, though her hands still grasped Kate's shoulders firmly, as if holding on to her tightly enough would prevent her from ever disappearing again.
"Hey, hey, sweetie. None of this is your fault."
Kate grimaced. "If I had just tried harder to get in contact-"
"-you might've ended up dead." Rachel always had been good at getting the last word in. The familiarity of it made Kate grin. "I'm just glad you're alive, Katie. I can hardly believe it, but I'm so glad."
They reluctantly let go and sat down, and Kate, finding she was unwilling to totally lose contact, grabbed her sister's hand.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, just looking at each other. Rachel had not changed much, as far as Kate could remember. Her face was still kindly and wise, she still had a mischievous smile, and she hardly seemed to have aged. She could see Rachel inspecting her the same way, and she was sure she wouldn't come off so well, especially after so many hours of travel. She felt about a hundred.
Rachel squeezed her hand. "It's so good to see you."
Kate smiled. "It is good to see you too."
"I know there are others waiting, but I'm afraid I used the sister card. I didn't want to wait any longer, so I bullied Nate into letting me go first." She shrugged and grinned. "I expect the others will forgive me, eventually."
Kate laughed, a little nervously. "Who else flew down?" The strange mixture of excitement and trepidation was making her feel sick.
"McGee, DiNozzo, and Gibbs. They're all really excited to see you."
Rachel gave her an odd look, and Kate realised she'd slipped into Serbian for a moment. "Sorry."
"'S okay. Just might take me a while to get used to it."
"I think it is going to take me a while to get used to speaking English all the time. Is that strange?"
Rachel laughed. "I think given what you've already survived in life, getting used to speaking English again will be a cakewalk." She gave Kate's hand another reassuring squeeze. "You always were stronger than you knew."
"I hope you are right. I-" she stopped, swallowed against the constriction in her throat. "I am a little scared of seeing everyone again."
Rachel leaned over and wrapped her arms around Kate's shoulders, pulled her close, rubbed her back like she did when they were kids and Kate had a skinned knee. "You will be fine, Katie. I promise."
Kate leaned into the embrace, the knot of near panic in her stomach easing slightly. Family. It was one of the things she'd missed most during her time away. Family by blood and family by choice - both had been there for her unconditionally in the past. She hoped that her team would be as forgiving as her sister. At least she had Rachel here to support her, just as she had when Kate was struggling during her first months at NCIS.
A knock on the door made them both look up. Nate peeked round the door. Except for his height and his three o'clock shadow, he looked exactly like a schoolboy who was expecting to be yelled at, and it made Kate giggle. Rachel caught her eye and started laughing too, a moment of sisterly connection that made Kate laugh harder out of sheer relief and pleasure, and Nate's frightened reaction to that was still more amusing.
"They're, um, ready for you," he said, looking deeply confused.
Kate managed to gulp a few times and catch her breath. "Thank you. Could you give us a minute?"
Nate nodded and withdrew.
They grinned at each other, then Rachel stood up and held out her hand. "C'mon, kiddo. Ready to face the music?"
Kate let Rachel take her hand and pull her upright. "As ready as I will ever be." She injected as much confidence as she could into her voice, but her feet seemed reluctant to move away from the table.
Rachel tugged, frowned in confusion, then gave a sympathetic smile as she realised Kate was frozen on the spot. "It'll be okay," she promised.
Kate pulled a face, forced herself to take a small step towards the door. "That's easy for you to say."
Rachel reached out, gathering her close for a brief hug. "I'm so proud of you, baby sister," she murmured, and Kate took a deep breath so that she wouldn't burst into tears.
"Thank you," she whispered back.
They stood for a moment, then Rachel tugged on her hand again.
This time, Kate followed.