Disclaimer: NCIS does not belong to me. No copyright infringement is intended.

A/N: This story is a follow-up to "Witness" (Season 2). It could probably stand on its own, but it would really make more sense if you've read "Taking Care of His Own."


Sympathy, In All Its Forms

"Good job. Send it up to the director." Gibbs tells him, handing back his completed report. Tim tries hard not to feel like a kid who's just aced a math test. But the feeling is the same – pride, accomplishment, satisfaction.

He's proud of his casual expression, of how professional he sounds as he nods calmly. "Will do, Boss." But man, it's hard not to break into a goofy grin. Because praise from Gibbs? That's not something you take lightly. And after hearing Kate and Tony talk, Tim knows it's a rare thing for Gibbs to OK a report on the first draft.

So though Tim ducks his head and returns to work, inside he's basking in the praise. He wonders if Gibbs knows how much those two words mean, coming from him. Probably, he decides. Because, after all, there don't seem to be many things Gibbs doesn't know. Not that Tim thinks his boss in infallible, or anything. Except…well, sometimes it sure seems like he is.

Gibbs is threatening Kate and Tony with canned peas, now, but Tim barely registers the conversation. With his report approved, he should be able to go home. But there's one more task he has to finish, first. With a frown of concentration, he goes back to the letter he's attempting to write to Mr. and Mrs. Kendall.

It's a small gesture, he knows. He can't imagine that a letter from a stranger could possibly make much difference to people who have just lost their only daughter, but still Tim feels the need to do something.

He's still trying to figure out how to start the letter when he glances up to see Kate and Tony hovering near his desk.

"Dear Mr. and Mrs. Kendall," Tony reads, leaning over to see what Tim is working on.

"It's a sympathy note," Kate realizes.

Tim looks up defensively, expecting some kind of mockery from Tony. Instead, though, his partner's face is uncharacteristically serious. "That's nice, McGee," Tony says, and Tim is surprised to hear that he actually sounds sincere.

Kate smiles. "That's very nice." She, too, is looking at him with an expression that is a strange mixture of encouragement and sympathy.

So Tim answers their comments with a smile, albeit a slightly self-conscious one, and feels a sudden surge of gratitude for his coworkers' understanding. Because Tony and Kate might be pretty merciless in their teasing, sometimes, but it seems they know how to shut up when it matters.

But then, now that he thinks about it, they've been showing an unusual amount of sensitivity all day. Kate bringing him coffee, telling him that it hadn't been his fault, somehow managing to convey the sentiment without sounding patronizing. Tony telling him, almost matter-of-factly, to stop second-guessing himself so he could get the job done. Pity would have made him furious, he knows. But he hadn't got it. Instead, he'd gotten….he's pretty sure it's fair to call it respect.

As Kate and Tony wander off to collect the remnants of their food fight, Tim returns to his letter. It's harder than he would have thought, coming up with things to say. He has to explain who he is, of course, but even that doesn't come easily. How, exactly, does one go about explaining to a set of parents that he's the one who should have protected their daughter?

He finally scratches out something that sounds, if not particularly eloquent, than at least passable. The next part is even harder. Once again, there really don't seem to be words to cover this. "I'm sorry" is just so completely inadequate for something like this. "Erin was a wonderful person" doesn't really work, either. She was, he knows, but who is he to say that? To her parents, especially. People who have known her her whole life.

Please accept my condolences, he finally writes. Almost immediately, he crosses the line out. He's always hated that word, "condolences." Maybe it's just because it's so official-sounding, but it always strikes him as, if not exactly insincere, then at least…impersonal. Not that he can really write a personal letter to a couple he's never met, but still. He feels like he owes Erin's parents more than an awkward, stilted expression of sympathy.

He's chewing absently on the end of his pen – a habit he's never quite managed to break, even though he hates how much it makes him look like a geeky high school student – when he is once again interrupted. Gibbs, back from meeting with the director, comes around behind Tim's desk and pushes himself up to sit on the edge of it. Glancing at the paper next to him, Gibbs inclines his head slightly. "Sympathy note?"

"Yeah," Tim admits, his tone heavier than he actually meant it to be.

Gibbs nods. He doesn't say anything, but the way his expression softens, just the slightest bit, tells Tim that he's pleased. Or maybe more like approving.

After a long moment of silence, and of trying not to flinch under Gibbs's trademark piercing stare, Tim finally ventures, "Uh, did you need something from me, Boss?"

"Nope." At first, Gibbs doesn't elaborate any more than that. He just keeps up with that steady, penetrating gaze, giving Tim the feeling that he's being mentally dissected. Finally, he says quietly, "It wasn't your fault, McGee."

People keep telling him that, Tim thinks. Kate, Tony, and now Gibbs. But that doesn't make it any easier to believe. He knows the argument. It's logical. True, even. But still it's not enough to erase the guilt.

"Feels like it is," he finally tells his boss.

Gibbs sighs. "Yeah. Trust me, I know. But look at me." He waits until Tim does so. "It wasn't your fault, Tim." It takes a lot of effort not to look away. But somehow, unnerving as the intensity of Gibbs's stare is, it's also strangely reassuring. Because even though Tim hasn't had much luck convincing himself that it wasn't his fault, it's hard not to trust Gibbs when he's like this.

So Tim swallows hard, and nods. He still can't quite forgive himself, but it helps to know that his boss believes in him. Helps a lot, actually. Maybe even more than it really should. But Tim doesn't have time to contemplate whether it's a little bit pathetic, the way his respect for Gibbs might just border on hero-worship. Not right now, anyway.

Gibbs gives him yet another long look. Considering, this time. Then he nods. "All right. Finish up your letter." He claps Tim on the shoulder and heads for the elevator. Before the doors open, though, he calls over his shoulder. "Hey, McGee!" When Tim glances up, he adds, "I don't lock my front door."

"Huh?"

Gibbs steps into the elevator without another word.

0000000000000

An hour or so later, the team is gathered in Gibbs's living room. Everyone but Ducky, that is, whose mother's nurse could not be talked into staying late for the third evening that week, no matter what bribes the ME had offered. And, of course, McGee is still missing. But it's early, yet. And Gibbs knows him well enough to be convinced he'll make it eventually.

To everyone's surprise, Tony had been the first to show up tonight. Usually, he waits until at least a half-hour after the rest of the team arrives, then casually drops in, giving the impression that, having nothing better to do, he's decided to make an appearance. Gibbs doesn't buy it, of course. Hell, Tony probably needs these little – well, whatever they are. Even in his own head, Gibbs refuses to give them a sappy name – as much as any of them. If not more. But his Senior Field Agent has his pride, and Gibbs can live with that.

Evidently, since tonight is more about being there for McGee than dealing with the aftermath of a tough case, Tony hadn't felt the need to keep up with his usual act of indifference.

Abby had been next, greeting them with her usual exuberance, before demanding in a stage whisper, as though McGee could hear her from across the city, "How's he doing?"

Then Kate had come, more confidently this time, smiling softly as she'd apparently remembered her first time being initiated into this little tradition.

Now, beers in hand, sprawled out or curled up on the sofa and two armchairs, they sit in silence, waiting for McGee to talk himself into coming.

"You did fill him in, DiNozzo?" Gibbs finally demands.

"Yeah, Boss." Tony rolls his eyes, and imitates McGee's earnest expression. "But he's fine."

Gibbs has to hide his grin. Tony isn't the only one who has his pride.

"Think he'll come?" Kate asks after a moment.

Gibbs smiles knowingly. "Oh, he'll come."

00000000000000

"Stop being such an idiot," Tim mutters to himself. This will be the fourth time he's passed Gibbs's house. He's been circling the block for the last ten minutes, talking himself into going back home, only to find himself driving once more past his boss's house. But this is ridiculous. For one thing, he's probably freaking out the neighbors, circling around like this. For another…well, it's time to make a decision, already.

Pulling up to the curb, Tim tells himself that it can't hurt to drop by, just for a little while. After all, they're probably waiting for him. And while he'd rather they didn't think he needed comforting, he can't deny that the prospect of going home to an empty apartment right now isn't particularly appealing.

So, despite the voice in his head telling him that this is a stupid idea, he makes his way up the front steps. He hovers on the porch for a while, giving himself one last chance to back out. To his surprise, though, he finds he doesn't really want to. It might be a little embarrassing, but there's also something reassuring, knowing his teammates are there for him.

He considers knocking, but, remembering Gibbs's words from earlier, decides to just go in. The door clicks shut, and Tim has to smile at the sight that greets him. Abby is sprawled out on the sofa, her booted feet propped up on Gibbs's lap. He's glaring at her, but the amusement is clear in his expression.

Tony and Kate are in the armchairs facing the couch, Tony flopped sideways over the arm, Kate actually sitting like a normal person. She's sputtering at him, no doubt about something he's just said, but he just grins back at her.

There's something comforting about the familiarity of the scene, Tim thinks. He starts to feel self-conscious, though, when the room falls quiet, all eyes turning toward him.

"Uh," he stammers. Real smooth, Timothy!

Gibbs rescues him. "There's beer in the fridge," he tells him casually. "On your right."

"Uh, thanks." Tim grabs himself a bottle and heads back into the living room. Still feeling slightly awkward, he perches on what he assumes is supposed to be a foot stool.

Tony breaks the silence. After shooting an evil grin towards Kate, he turns to Tim. "So, Probie, did Abby ever tell you about the time she got her lip caught in a dentist's drill?"

"DiNozzo!" Kate shrieks, wincing as she brings a hand up to cradle her jaw.

For the first time all day, Tim finds himself breaking into a grin.


A/N: Feedback is definitely welcome. I'd love to hear from you!