Fair warning – this gets a little twee at times, but it fits the mood I've been in. The only deaths that come into play are canon, but you may want to have tissues ready. (If you, like me, adore "Requiem" but go through half a box of Kleenex every time you watch, definitely grab some.) Spoilers through "Life Before His Eyes." There's a blink-and-miss-it reference to "The Namesake," but if you haven't seen the episode, it won't spoil it. Also, as Shannon calls Gibbs by his first name in "Life Before His Eyes," I figure she always thought of him that way, but called him Gibbs because it was their thing. So she calls him Jethro here.

She leaned out the window, waving and yelling as his truck pulled into the driveway. "I love you, Leroy Jethro Gibbs!" Then she ducked inside and bounded down the stairs, meeting him as he came through the door. "Did you hear me?"

He laughed and pulled her into a hug, snagging their daughter as she ran up and making it a family affair. "I think the whole base heard you, Shan."

Shannon Gibbs kissed her husband firmly on the lips above Kelly's protests. He'd been gone nearly twelve hours this time. Heaven help her if he had to deploy again. It got tougher every time.

A lot had happened in twenty-one years. One minute, there had been noise and blood and chaos and Shannon wondered if that was what being in the middle of a war was like. In the next moment, Shannon was sitting in the passenger seat of the van, calm restored. There was no blood. No wreckage. Just a country tune on the radio and Kelly snoozing with her doll in the back seat, her breathing calm and even. There was an overwhelming sense of peace.

Shannon glanced to her left and found the NIS agent who was driving them had been replaced with a dark-haired woman. She couldn't have been NIS, not with the way she was dressed – flashy black leather pants, a loose scoop-neck black shirt. With her flyaway hair and dark makeup, she looked like a rocker, not a federal agent. But she flashed Shannon a badge. "Anastasia Mareth."

Shannon hadn't yet been able to determine what agency the woman was from when Anastasia threw her badge and ID aside, tossing them gently onto the empty seat next to Kelly. "Excuse me, but what are you...?"

Anastasia scoffed. "Good question, what am I?"

Even though that hadn't been Shannon's actual question, she decided to pursue it. "Yeah, what is all this? Am I dreaming?"

"Oh, no." Anastasia shook her head. "It doesn't get much more real than this, I'm afraid." She glanced into the back seat, giving Kelly a fond but sad look. "I'm not big on dealing with little kids. Actually, I prefer to stay away from anyone under the age of seventy entirely, unless they're just really asking for it. But some things can't be helped. Free will's great and all, but when someone uses it to wreck someone else's day, I really start to scrutinize the whole thing. And all those nasty things the human body has figured out how to do that are incompatible with life? Don't get me started."

Shannon looked out the window of the van, beginning to get an uncomfortable sense of what was happening. There was no white light to follow, no pearly gates, no street of gold. Just...a park. With families. "If I'm supposed to be dead, this is not what I was expecting."

Anastasia's lips twisted together in a wry imitation of a smile. "It's never what people expect. It's what they can handle. Your experience is unique, literally."

Shannon smiled at that; she'd ranted at length about the misuse of both "unique" and "literally" in everyday conversation a few times. She examined the people around her. Some joyfully ran to each other. Some glanced around, as if waiting for someone. Some looked lonely. And then realization hit her like the proverbial ton of bricks. "Oh, my God, I'm really dead, aren't I?"

Anastasia nodded. "'Fraid so. Wish I could change that for you, but like I said – way above my pay grade."

Shannon smiled. "My husband likes that term." Thinking of him brought on a new set of worries. "Gibbs!" She felt her heart rate shoot up, and that was really strange, considering she wasn't supposed to even have a heartbeat anymore. "My husband, Jethro...my God, what's he going to do? He's in Kuwait; who's going to take care of Kelly until he can come home?"

Anastasia wouldn't meet Shannon's eyes. "Well, the good news is, the war is over."

"And?" Shannon pressed. "When you put it like that, there's bad news too." She was elated to hear the combat had ended; but it was a strange mix of emotions. Sorrow that she wouldn't be there to meet him. Worry for his reaction. Concern for his and Kelly's welfare. Her Gibbs should have been coming home to a hero's welcome, not a fresh grave and a motherless child.

Anastasia finally stopped fiddling with the invisible spot on her arm she'd been picking at and looked up. "The bad news is, he's not going to be raising Kelly."

"What?" A million possibilities jumped to Shannon's mind, leaving her reeling. "He's her father! Don't tell me my mother's going to keep her from him. I love her, but Kelly belongs with him."

"I agree." Anastasia's lips pressed together, thinning into a single line. "But remember what I said about not getting to call the shots? I'm trying to be gentle, here. In my line of work, I've found people don't need blazing neon signs in their faces."

Horror dawned, and Shannon looked back at her daughter, who was still sleeping peacefully. "Kelly too?"

Anastasia nodded. "There's no up side to this. But if it helps, she didn't feel a thing. Like you."

Everything was happening too fast. The world had gone crazy and there was no way to make it stop. Shannon wanted to cry. She wanted to scream. She wanted to beg and plead and in the end, it would do her no good. Rule Eight – Never take anything for granted. She felt utterly defeated, but she had to carry on. For her daughter. In the back seat, Kelly began to stir.

"Mommy?" Kelly clutched her doll, looking concerned. Anastasia's credentials, previously beside her, had vanished.

"Kelly, baby." Shannon felt the tears welling up in her eyes. "It's gonna be okay." And there she went, breaking one of her own rules, never to lie to her child.

"Mommy, what happened?" Kelly scrambled over the back of the seat and into Shannon's lap, and Shannon clutched her tightly. "There was a man, and he was really nice, and he brought me here." Whatever Kelly's version of events had been, whatever her reality, they had realigned and now they were together. Forever. "Are we gonna go home now?"

"No." Shannon pressed her cheek against Kelly's hair, taking a moment to compose herself. She had to be strong. Anastasia had vanished, her job apparently done, and in time, the irony would occur to Shannon, that the name Anastasia meant "resurrection." It was one of the names she'd considered for Kelly. She straightened herself up and took Kelly's hand, then opened the door. "We're going to the park."

The hardest part was explaining everything to Kelly. Jethro had wanted to follow them. Kelly wanted them to be a family again. And so did Shannon, but she couldn't be selfish. It would have been so easy, to cross that invisible line, when he was in that coma, when he sat with that gun in his hand...to whisper in his ear, "Come with me." He would have; she had no doubt. And it would have been wrong, because the world needed him.

Shannon kept it to herself when a part of her cheered as the bullet entered Pedro Hernandez's skull. Avenged. Technically, Jethro's actions were wrong, but Shannon couldn't condemn him. He'd done the world a favor. Finished, the old-fashioned way, what she'd been trying to do legally. A lot of good that had done her. It was her choice to testify, and in the end, she knew she'd done the right thing. As Jethro joined NIS, as he put his grief to work finding justice for others, Shannon knew she and Kelly had not died in vain. It wasn't something she discussed with Kelly in so many words, but Kelly was a smart girl and Shannon was pretty sure she understood. As they watched, kept at a distance, Kelly cheered her father on, watching as Daddy caught the bad guys.

Mike Franks was exactly the sort of person Jethro had needed in his life to fill the void. He was no romantic partner, but he could be the mentor and pragmatist. When Dr. Mallard came along, he was the nurturer. Jethro tried his hand at romantic relationships, and Shannon never took it personally when he failed to mention his past. There was never a good time to lay the "dead family" card on the table. She genuinely wanted him to move on and be happy. But though guilt nagged her, it never hurt Shannon's ego when he stood at her grave, reluctantly telling her about the latest redhead to come into or leave his life, concluding with, "She's not you." Some of them, Shannon ended up cheering for. Some of them, Shannon was happy to see pack their bags. Kelly, in her sweet way, declared that Mommy was Daddy's One True Love, and no one else would do.

"Some of those ladies are nice," Kelly said one day. "Agent Jenny was cool, until she left. But I think she knew."

"I think she did," Shannon agreed, swinging her legs over the edge of the monkey bars as she tried to keep up with Kelly's playground gymnastics. The afterlife wasn't all one day in the park, but they tended to frequent it. The weather was always perfect, there were never any bugs, it never got dark, no one ever got hurt, and there were always others around. Not just loved ones who had gone before, but new friends and interesting souls. Each day was whatever they needed or wanted it to be.

Kelly had made dozens of friends with other children whose time had come too soon. She missed Maddie and watched out for her, and it had to be strange, seeing Maddie grow while Kelly didn't age. But with this realm came unearthly wisdom, and Kelly never questioned it. Her most frequent playmate was a boy named Grant who always came with his uncle at first. His old-fashioned slang had charmed Kelly, and soon Shannon heard her daughter trying out phrases like "the bee's knees." Grant had died in 1945 in London, only eight years old, of asthma complications. Now he ran and played freely, never having to fight for breath again. In quiet times, he shared his favorite tales of Captain America comic books with Kelly. It seemed even British children were not immune to the superhero's charm. Recently, his mother had joined them after a long and rewarding life, and the reunion had been joyous, leaving everyone in happy tears. Now Mabel and Shannon compared notes on raising children from their respective eras, Mabel as young and beautiful as she'd been in her prime. They kept watch over the families they'd left behind, but it could be sad not to be there when they were so desperately missed. To miss their loved ones who carried on. And, sometimes, a little privacy was called for. Kelly was usually happy to run off and play with Grant or any of her other pals before Jethro's "so romantic" dinners turned into clearly-intended-for-adults-only nights. Shannon was happy to find something for them to run off and do well in advance. As much as she wanted Jethro to feel free to find happiness in a healthy relationship, there was only so much she cared to watch.

Some days were better than others. Sometimes, it seemed like too much to be patient. Shannon wanted to be there every time Jethro called for his girls in the night. And some opportunities were so tempting. When she stood unnoticed in a Paris hospital room, watching his chest rise and fall. His physical wounds would heal, but his freshly broken heart would take longer. "I'm here," she whispered, only to be heard in his dreams. "We love you."

"Only thing that keeps that man going is his lust for vengeance," one person randomly commented in the park one day, and for a moment, Shannon thought they were talking about her husband. But while it was no one she knew, it was true all the same. Every day, Jethro's mission was to either spare a fellow soldier or their family the pain he'd endured or to deliver the comfort of justice. He was doing a lot of good in the world. Shannon couldn't have been more proud. Neither could Ann Gibbs, who regularly came by to dote on Shannon and Kelly in between her Stillwater social club gatherings.

Anastasia came by once in awhile, between clients. Shannon was never sure what or who the non-traditional escort was, but she seemed to care deeply beneath her breezy exterior. Still, it reduced Shannon to giggles when she happened to ask Anastasia for the best piece of advice she could offer from her vast experiences.

"Never meddle in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup. Also, never tell that joke at a Donner party."

Shannon had never been fond of bad puns. But the irreverence and the sheer bizarre quality of an already bad joke provided some much-needed comic relief, on a day that had been rough. It would have been her twentieth wedding anniversary, and instead of celebrating in her husband's arms, she was stuck on an otherworldly plane watching him drink alone in his basement.

Ann understood. She had hugged Shannon tightly, telling her, "You don't always get what you want, or even what you deserve. Sometimes you get what you got." And then they'd shared a slice of apple pie with chocolate sauce and everything seemed a little bit easier to handle.

Shannon had always wondered why Jethro's attempts to cheer her or Kelly had often involved adding chocolate to something already sweet. Kelly had been keen to take up the habit, and in a world where food was for fun and not nutrition, Shannon saw no reason to deny her. So when they missed Jethro or a friend was in trouble or they found themselves disheartened by the circumstances in which another had joined them, Kelly's solution was simple. "Put a little chocolate sauce on it, Mommy?"

Ann had been onto something. Applied with love, it truly was a band-aid for the soul.

Something special had happened along the way. After Mike retired, Shannon really thought Ducky was going to be Jethro's only friend. He had team members come and go, more going than coming. Then came a smartass Baltimore cop named DiNozzo. Abby, the eccentric forensic scientist with a passion for life even Jethro couldn't ignore. Soon, he became the mentor. And the father figure. Abby had lost her father. Jethro lost Kelly. And soon it became obvious they were finding surrogates in each other. Tony was bold, brash, and basically Gibbs in a smoother package. Others came and went around them, but the bonds only strengthened in time.

Even Kelly noticed it. She had taken a liking to "Agent Jenny" for awhile, until Jenny left. Kelly had a knack for predicting which team members would stick around for the long haul, and those who earned her affection were granted the title of "Auntie" or "Uncle." She adored Mike and Ducky. And when she started referring to Tony and Abby as her brother and sister, Shannon couldn't help but smile and agree that Kelly was onto something. She loved Abby especially, and Shannon was grateful, because she'd worried Kelly might get jealous. Abby was only a few years older than Kelly would have been if she'd lived. Her Goth style reminded Shannon of Anastasia, and Shannon was sure it was no coincidence that her spirit guide – for lack of a better description – and Jethro's "daughter of the heart" shared so many characteristics.

Death didn't grant total omnipotence. Sometimes, she could look back and have a look at how things might have been different – if Jenny had stayed, if Jethro had made different career choices. And though she would have loved to have her family together, she knew the sad outcome if she and Kelly hadn't died. The folded flag pressed into her hands. The other military families that would have had to suffer the same loss. The unsolved cases whose families would never know peace. The universe knew what it was doing, and even in tragedy, there was light. When she saw children who had never known love in their lifetimes finally get a "happily ever after" on this plane with caretakers who had longed for children but never had them, some of the world's cruelties seemed softer.

Shannon hadn't been sure how Kate would do. She was made of the right stuff, but even so, Jethro was not the easiest man to work with. But Kate proved herself quickly and joined the family, earning herself "big sister" status in Kelly's world within months. And in Abby's, too. And sweet, shy Tim. Kelly loved him. Except he never got the "brother" title. When Shannon had asked about it, the answer seemed obvious in retrospect. "Because he's Abby's boyfriend, Mommy!" Kelly, like most little girls, was all about the romance. Even when Tim and Abby decided to become friends rather than lovers, Kelly was still rooting for them.

Shannon was happy to watch the team come together, and it seemed for a while that things were finally going to settle down for her husband. He had a team he loved; he was doing the work he was made for. Then an envelope with the plague dusted the squad room. As Tony struggled to survive, Shannon watched anxiously. She wanted to help, but the rules were pretty clear on her end. She and everyone else on "the other side" could only interact directly with the living through dreams or when they were in transition – wavering between life and death. Sometimes there were exceptions, but those were rare. And it wasn't like anyone could just say "screw it" and act anyway. Only the escorts had that kind of power.

The more disease ravaged Tony's body and attempted to destroy his lungs, the closer Kelly hovered to Shannon. Grant was nowhere to be found anyway, but that wasn't particularly worrisome, as there were genuinely an infinite number of places he could have been exploring. It wasn't like anything bad could happen to him. But when Tony did pull through, and mentioned dreaming of a boy who reminded him of "that kid from Hope and Glory" who urged him to keep fighting, Shannon realized exactly where Grant had gotten off to. And she gave him an extra-tight hug.

Kate's death had come as a shock to everyone – Shannon included. She had been so busy worrying for her husband she hadn't seen Ari take that shot. Her heart broke for everyone involved. When Ari started taking shots at Abby and Ziva revealed that she knew about Gibbs' family, it was clear Ari was using his vendetta in the most twisted way possible – going after women to remind Jethro of the guilt he felt over not being there to protect his girls. And that made Shannon hate him all the more.

Though Kelly usually shied away from violence, she became Ziva's biggest fan the moment Ari was killed. Anyone who protected her daddy was ace in Kelly's book. And Ziva began to grow on Shannon then, too – but there was hope. All through Ziva's life and her career, she'd been a pawn in her father's game. She finally had the chance to strike out on her own, still a proud Israeli, still Mossad, but without her strings being pulled.

Not long after Kate's death, Ann approached Shannon and Kelly in the middle of one of their tea parties with Mabel and Grant. Mabel smiled knowingly over Ann's shoulder and moved away, motioning for Grant to join her. Shannon looked up, perplexed, and immediately saw why. "Well, hello."

Ann grinned. "Found this sweet thing looking a bit lost. Thought I'd let you show her around."

"Kate!" Kelly needed no introduction. She lunged forward and hugged Kate fiercely.

Kate looked a little startled, but then returned the hug and smiled at Shannon. "Ann told me about you. It makes a lot of sense, now."

Shannon shrugged and stepped over to claim her own hug. "Everything makes a lot of sense from this side of things. I wish we weren't meeting like this, but you meant an awful lot to Jethro."

Kate smiled, a little sadly. "I like to think so." She surveyed the scene in front of her. "I have to admit, this isn't what I expected. Traditional Catholic upbringing and all."

Ann laughed. "Thought you'd be singing with the saints?"

"Kind of," Kate admitted. "To be honest, I was afraid it would be a little boring."

"Why do you think all of us are over here?" Ann asked, grinning. "It's there if you want it. Spent some time there myself. I find us commoners have a lot more to talk about."

Kelly grabbed Kate's hand, pulling her toward the picnic blanket they'd set up. "Come play with us."

"All right." Kate grinned and allowed herself to be led. She glanced at the tiara Kelly had adorned herself with. "Do I have to be a princess to join?"

Kelly shook her head. "I'm the princess this time, silly. You get to be the super cool girl spy. And my BSBFF."

That was a new term to Shannon, and she was sure she looked as curious as Kate. "What's that, Kel?"

"Big Sister Best Friend Forever!" Kelly explained, in that patented child tone that suggested it should have been obvious.

Kate laughed, smiling genuinely. "I think I could get used to that." She shook her head, still looking a bit overwhelmed, understandably. "Never thought I'd be done so soon. Heck, never thought I'd be showing up in my friends' fantasies, either." It had been one of the rare exceptions to the rule about interfering with the living – necessary to keep everyone on track and safe until Ari was apprehended. She scoffed. "Tony didn't surprise me, but McGee? Guess it really is the quiet ones you've got to watch out for."

Shannon chuckled, then frowned a bit. "I do have to ask you, though – and this is purely from a biased standpoint – but could you have cut Jethro a little slack?"

Kate's eyes widened in surprise. "I never saw him. That guide or angel who whoever he was, he said Gibbs wasn't ready yet."

Shannon supposed she shouldn't have been surprised. Jethro's own guilt complex was his worst enemy. "Never mind, then." She held out a shortbread biscuit. "Cookie?"

"Thank you." Kate took it, then laughed as Kelly grabbed her handy bottle of chocolate syrup and added a dab. "Ah, chocolate. I approve."

"That's good." Shannon chuckled. "We go through a lot of it."

As time went on, Tony's status in Kelly's hierarchy shifted from brother to best friend, not through anything he'd done, but mostly because Kelly had declared he and Ziva – now another one of her sisters – needed to get married. Kelly loved to play matchmaker. Kate wandered off and found her own things to do, but she still came by regularly.

For an eight year old, Kelly had been remarkably perceptive in life. In the afterlife, even more so. She desperately wanted her father to be with them, naturally, but she understood why the living world needed him more. When the sedan carrying Maddie and Jethro had plunged into the water, Kelly had known exactly what she needed to do. Maddie was easier to persuade. She'd gotten out of the water sooner and wasn't as far gone – and she had dreams and plans. She and Kelly had exchanged hugs and, with a little help from Tony, Maddie had taken a gasping breath.

Jethro was the tougher sell. He had saved Maddie. He had every reason to want to cross over. But it wasn't his time, and Kelly finally convinced him to go back – much to everyone's relief. Kate and Kelly high-fived each other as Kate grinned proudly.

Shannon hugged her daughter. "Good job, sweetie."

Kelly snuggled into her mother's embrace. "You had to do it all those other times. It was my turn."

Kate kept watch over Tony for awhile longer, concerned about the effect all that diving and rescue breathing had on his damaged lungs. He was visibly gasping from the exertion, but when he waved off the paramedics as they loaded Maddie and Jethro up for a trip to the ER, Kate was pretty sure he'd be okay. When he let Ziva hug him after arriving on the scene and joked about making sure she got as wet as he was, Kate knew.

"My, my." Ann shook her head as she joined the group, cheerfully exchanging hugs with everyone. Obviously, she'd seen it too, and was as relieved as they were. "Will that boy of mine ever keep himself out of trouble?"

Kelly shook her head. "Not as long as there's people in more trouble than him."

Shannon beamed with pride, both in her husband and daughter. Kelly was definitely a very perceptive little girl.

"Director Jenny" – nickname upgraded with her promotion – had worked her way back into Kelly's good graces during her time in charge at NCIS. Though it was obvious Jethro had moved on from the romantic side of their relationship and she hadn't, they still cared for each other deeply. When it had been her time, she was more comfortable being around Ann than Shannon and Kelly, so they didn't see her often. But Shannon understood. It had to be awkward.

The circumstances of Michelle Lee's death were traumatic, like Paula Cassidy, but she hadn't integrated into the family unit of the team. Her loss was mourned, but it was only devastating to her sister. Jimmy Palmer took it the hardest, and Shannon kept a special eye on him for awhile. He was always trying just a little too hard to be cool, but it was endearing, and Kelly had really put it best when she said, "Uncle Jimmy is funny and nice, but he's a little bit strange." Kate agreed, often describing Jimmy as "super-smart but not refined."

Some compared watching their loved ones to a movie; they were both interested and invested but unable to interact. If it had been a movie, Kelly would have been throwing projectiles at the screen when Michael Rivkin came on the scene. "He's not a nice man," she declared almost immediately. "Ziva thinks he is, but he's not." She had not been a huge fan of Jeanne Benoit, as Jeanne got in the way of her fantasies regarding Tony and Ziva, but she had been able to accept it, reluctantly. She knew that Jeanne's father was bad news, but she knew Jeanne meant no harm toward Tony. But Michael was not given so much as a chance from Kelly, and when he turned out to be trouble, Shannon wasn't surprised. Kelly, like her dad, had good instincts.

Shannon and Kelly both despaired of the rift in Ziva and Tony's relationship in the aftermath of Michael's death. Neither wanted to see the team torn apart. Kate was more certain that Ziva would come around, given time. She was sure it would be like when Jethro had retired to Mexico – he needed time to let his shattered heart heal, but he returned when his team needed him. None of them expected Eli David to send his daughter on a suicide mission in the meantime.

Kelly had been the cheerleader. "Don't give up! She's still alive! She needs you!" Kate, a woman of more action than platitudes, was at Ziva's side in the lowest moments, urging her to stay strong. Ziva was too out of it then to remember her visits. She left only when Tali came, and though Kate never said so, Shannon could tell she was relieved that Ziva's sister was on duty for the worst of Saleem's atrocities. The situation called for a sister's touch.

It took her team's dogged determination and a few miracles, but after a dramatic rescue, Ziva was back at NCIS where she belonged. The relationships healed – and, eventually, so did her heart. She would always carry the emotional scars, but she held her head high and moved on with life. For the first time in her life, she was free to choose her own destiny, and she embraced it.

Kelly had not resigned her position as official team cheerleader, but now she returned to her regularly scheduled, much more healthy, girlish fun. She ran around with Grant and her other friends, but she still stopped occasionally to watch Tim fumbling around in Abby's lab or Tony circling Ziva's desk, roll her eyes, and say, "What are you waiting for? Ask her on a date! Kiss her! Geez, do something."

Shannon always laughed. "It's not quite that simple, you know."

"Sure it is." Kelly shrugged. "Tony asks lots of girls out, like all the time. If Uncle Jimmy can ask Miss Breena out and she says yes, how hard can it be?"

Though it was pretty clear neither of their lives was in danger, it was hard for Shannon to watch Jethro investigating her mother's fiancee's death. She knew the memories it had to bring up for both of them, and she understood why her mother had done it. Avenged, again. Despite the stakes that had been driven into their relationship, Jethro didn't think twice about helping, because she was family. He had known damned well what he was doing when he "arrested" Shannon's mother, and he was the one who asked Ms. Hart to be upstairs in the first place.

In the end, despite the violent circumstances of the reunion, Shannon thought it helped them both to heal.

Mike Franks was the next to join them. Like Jenny, he'd been dying and had at least found a way to go out in a blaze of glory. He sauntered up to Shannon, unassuming, and put a hand on her shoulder as she watched Jethro grieve and worried for him. "Don't fret too much. He's a lot tougher than he gives himself credit for. Hell, he knew I didn't have much time left anyway. Better to fight and choose your own path than lay around and wait for it to be over."

Ann, who'd been playing "Go Fish" with Kelly, snorted. "I know that's right."

Shannon hugged Mike. "Thank you for watching out for him."

"Ah, it's nothing." Mike smiled. "We did a lot for each other."

"Uncle Mike!" Kelly bounced as she waited her turn.

"Hey, kiddo." Mike scooped her up, spinning her around the way Jethro used to – though whether it was intentional or something he'd done with his granddaughter, Shannon couldn't tell. Kelly giggled delightedly.

Mike set Kelly down again, still holding her hand, and smiled at Sharon. "Come on, what say I introduce you to Liam and I can tell you about the time me and a certain probie agent had to run for our lives in Bogata..."

Mike had asked them to come to the diner, and Shannon would have gone anyway. But once she realized what he had in store, wild horses couldn't have kept her away. She watched from her booth, sipping milkshakes with Kelly, watching her daughter squirm with excitement as they waited. Watching as Jethro got the gift he so richly deserved – the chance to see what could have been. Even if he didn't see everything, every possibility, the way Shannon could, those little glimpses would do him a world of good.

While Jethro watched Tony hold his newborn and cursed himself for not saving Kate, Shannon knew what would have happened, what Jethro didn't see. Ziva David was too good to be caught. The charges NCIS had against her didn't stick, and she was trained to cover her tracks. Weeks later, Ziva, no longer softened, the wild and untamed assassin, would slit Tony's throat in a dark alley and think nothing of it. Kate would resign from NCIS. The new team would never work together as smoothly. Tim would take a job at Google, and with Jethro in Mexico, Abby would have no reason to stay at NCIS. She and Tim would be fine in California, visiting Kate and the baby on holidays, but it wasn't the same. Ziva would die in Saleem's camp, having nothing to fight for and no idea what devastation she'd caused. It really wasn't pretty, and Mike had spared Jethro that for a reason – but Shannon knew he wouldn't hesitate to whip it out if Jethro berated himself too much.

When Ann stepped outside with Jethro for a long overdue mother-son talk, Kate slid into the booth next to Kelly, pretending to steal Kelly's milkshake. Kelly giggled, snatching it back, and pushed her drawing aside.

Kate glanced at the drawing – Kelly, Shannon, and Jethro, all together again. "That for your dad?"

Kelly nodded. "Yeah. I could make another one with everyone in it, but that's kind of a lot to explain to him. He knows, but he doesn't want to admit it."

"Best to keep it simple," Kate agreed.

"Are you here to talk to Daddy, too?" Kelly asked.

"Maybe." Kate shrugged. "Mike told me to stay close, just in case, but I think he'll do a better job of getting the point across."

"Yeah, Uncle Mike's good at that." Kelly hugged Kate. "What kind of cake do you want for your birthday next week?" It was a bit bizarre on some levels, celebrating birthdays when they weren't getting any older, but it was a familiar ritual of humanity and a way to mark the time. Also, fun.

Kate groaned. "I was trying not to remember. Would've been my fortieth. I don't even want to think about the amount of crap Tony would have given me."

Kelly nodded. "I know! That's why we need to extra-celebrate it. So what kind of cake?"

"Surprise me." Kate ruffled Kelly's hair, then looked up at Mike, who nodded at her with his head, making motions that Jethro was about to come back in the door. "Looks like that's my cue to scoot. See you later." She waved and headed off, and Kelly watched her go, grinning.

"What's so funny?" Shannon asked.

"She's wearing the magic pants," Kelly observed, grinning.

"Magic...pants?" Shannon hadn't heard that one yet.

"Yeah, the white ones." Kelly giggled. "They're her favorites."

Shannon was familiar with the pair of pants in question, but she wasn't following. "What makes them magic?"

"I don't know," Kelly admitted, "but she never got them dirty at a crime scene. Must be something magic."

"Nano-Care!" Kate called over her shoulder as she walked out the back door.

Kelly shrugged. "I like magic better."

Finally, the moment came. Kelly was more than happy to do the honors, taking Jethro by the hand and leading him to their table. This, more than anything, was his gift – and theirs. They had a few more moments together as a family. As much as Shannon knew Jethro wanted to take this moment and hold it forever, he would have his memories. They would be there, waiting. And he would continue protecting the world. She could tell it honestly had never occurred to him that if he had stayed a Marine, he would have died a Marine. And it would have been a noble, heroic death. But many more would have followed, because he hadn't been pursing terrorists and catching killers. Shannon had made her peace with the way things had turned out. Now it was Jethro's turn to. He would never get over losing them, nor did anyone expect him to, but he needed to be at peace with his decisions. And, finally, he got that.

Jethro left the diner with a new outlook on life, one that would serve him well. Shannon stayed to finish her milkshake. She heard Kelly giggle as Mike approached, asking, "Is this seat taken?"

"Uncle Mike!" Kelly grinned. "That was fun! And it was good to see Daddy again, even if he couldn't stay."

"I know." Mike smiled and sat down with them. "But he'll be back. Hopefully a couple decades from now. He's got a few ladies to walk down the aisle first, you know."

Kelly clapped her hands together, squealing happily. "Ooh! Ooh! Who's getting married?"

"Amira," Mike said, very seriously.

Kelly made a face at him. "Silly. She's just a little kid."

"I didn't say when," Mike pointed out.

"Ohhhh." Kelly got it. "But Abby and Ziva are gonna get married, right?"

Mike snorted. "Yeah, maybe, if those fellas ever get their heads out of their aaaaaaa-" He broke off, glancing at Shannon guiltily, then back to Kelly. "Just finish your milkshake, kid."

And now I get back to my long-neglected works in progress. But I had to get this out of my system. Hopefully it wasn't too over-the-top. Or if it was, you still liked it. :) BTW, Nano-Care is a real stain-resistant fabric and the only possible in-universe explanation I can think of for Kate's white pants staying flawlessly clean. ;)