He was as pale as the corpses at his feet.
The tremor didn't even make it through his taut body before he was running for the door, a hand clamped over his mouth holding back the inevitable. He saw the smug smile on the junior agent's face as he brushed past him and vomited into the bushes.
He heard the start of a teasing sentence that was cut off by Gibbs' harsh, "Shut up, McGee."
Had he not still been bent over, losing his lunch, he would have seen the shock on McGee's face.
"Only one thing would make DiNozzo react like that," Gibbs said, his voice softening as he stepped over to his senior agent.
Tony nodded a confirmation, wiping his mouth and breathing deeply to get the smell of death out. It didn't work. He gagged again, assaulted by the nightmarish images burned into his retinas. He felt McGee's confusion as surely as he felt the warmth of Gibbs' hand on his back.
"Kids, McGee," Gibbs said, his attention still on DiNozzo.
McGee nodded, thinking he understood. He completely understood five minutes later when he was visiting the bushes himself and wondering how he was going to sleep—ever again.
"You all right, Probie?"
He heard Tony's voice—and the lack of judgment in it—and he was grateful. McGee turned, looking at the evidence bags Tony was carrying from the house to the truck. He knew Ducky was in the house with the dead children, and he couldn't imagine how the doctor could stand the sight, the smell of those little bodies.
"I can't go back in there," McGee blurted.
Tony shocked him by taking his arm gently and leading him toward the truck. "You don't have to, Tim."
Tony parked the young agent on the bumper while he stowed the evidence bags. McGee didn't notice the senior agent beside him until he felt gentle pressure on the back of his head. McGee found his face between his knees as Tony said, "Breathe. Keep your eyes open."
They were quiet until Tony said, "Guess it's a good thing I tossed my cookies earlier."
McGee was confused.
"At least now I don't have to lie to you and tell you it gets any easier."
With the case wrapped up in a neat, disgusting, heart-rending bow, McGee found himself sitting at a bar, ordering an unnecessary drink. He was already blitzed, but he couldn't get those kids' bodies out of his head.
"Make that two, please."
McGee cringed at the voice behind him. He wasn't sure he could handle Tony after what he'd seen today.
The hand that landed gently on his back surprised him about as much as the haunted look in his partner's green eyes. Tony settled himself beside him, tossed back the drink and signaled for another.
"So maybe this is where I tell you that it never gets easier, that if it ever does, that's when you quit. All good advice, really. But it's trite and what you need right now is meaning. Something that's real and makes sense."
"And?" McGee prompted when Tony fell silent and just stared into his drink. He desperately wanted Tony to pull something out of his lengthy career in law enforcement that would stop the demons in their tracks. Or pull something out of his ass—McGee didn't care as long as it made the images fade.
Tony laughed. It was a brittle and sad thing. "And if I knew what to say to make it all better, would I be here tossing back drinks with you? Hell, McGee, if I knew some magic words, I'd have called you and neither of us would have to wake up with raging hangovers tomorrow."
"I'm not sure how, but that's kind of comforting," McGee said, wincing as he tossed back the rest of his unnecessary drink. Tomorrow's gonna suck. But it can't be any worse than today.
Tony half-smiled. "I try."
They drank in silence for a moment before Tony said, "I can't believe this is your first case with kids."
McGee wasn't sure what to say. He was still trying to think of something coherent when he blurted, "What was your first one like?"
Tony gave him a sidelong glance that turned into a lopsided grin. "We're talking cases, right?"
McGee snorted into the refilled drink he suddenly found in front of him. Yep, I'm wasted.
"The case was…" Tony started, but he stopped, and the sick look on his face made McGee regret asking. "It was brutal. And if you have to punch something, I don't recommend mirrors."
Tony showed McGee a little white scar on his right hand. McGee was slightly stunned. Tony, of smoke and mirrors fame, had just actually pointed out a scar. McGee wondered if he'd ever stop being surprised that the job could still surprise him.
God, I'm wasted, he thought again. Good, at least I can forget—if only for a little while.
"Don't ever forget, McGee," Tony said, and McGee wondered if he'd spoken aloud or if Tony was suddenly psychic. He looked at his partner, whose eyes had suddenly taken on an intensity usually reserved for scumbag suspects. "Don't ever forget, McGee. Do whatever you have to. Take that typewriter of yours and make a list. Paper the walls of your apartment with it, if you have to. Don't ever forget the victims."
McGee was intensely relieved when Tony turned his fierce green gaze back to his drink. The younger agent watched a family leaving the bar/restaurant and realized how early it was. Too early to be this drunk. He suddenly felt a rush of jealousy at the happy little family's … well, happiness. They probably don't see dead children when they close their eyes.
"Don't hate them, McGee," Tony said, following the junior agent's eyes. "They're the reason we're here. We live this life so they can live that one."
"Are you saying we have no chance at happiness?" McGee asked, realizing he was slurring.
"Best moment of my life, to date, McGee? Nailing a serial killer in Philly who raped and tortured five kids. I put five rounds through his head and slept like a baby for the first time in about six months." He paused, eyeing the increasingly drunk friend beside him. "There's all kinds of happy, McDrunk."
"So we're all going to be Gibbs some day? Basement-bound, boat-building, bourbon-imbibing double-b bastards?"
Tony couldn't help himself. "Lay off the alliteration, McScribe. You're gonna choke on it."
"No!" McGee fairly yelled, getting to his feet, albeit staggeringly. "You're telling me no one in law enforcement has happy families?"
"Easy, McGee," Tony said, rising to steady the obviously unsteady agent.
McGee drunkenly batted away Tony's hand, and Tony cringed. He hadn't meant to start this conversation with McGee. He hadn't meant to dump his baggage on the already strung-out young agent. Tony grabbed McGee by the arms, feeling the tremors and wondering if it was the alcohol or the sudden rage glittering in McGee's eyes.
"I'm sorry, Probie," Tony said, giving McGee a little shake. "My partner in Philly, he had the wife, the kids, the dog, the whole nine yards of happiness. I didn't mean to imply otherwise, okay?"
Tony threw some cash on the bar and started to lead McGee to the door. People were starting to stare at them. McGee followed, mostly because Tony hadn't let up the iron grip he had on his friend's upper arm. Tony called a cab, and they waited out front, both men silent and staring out into the gathering darkness.
"Your partner?" McGee asked, and Tony kicked himself for forgetting that McGee was a trained investigator who was extremely adept at connecting dots. Even half in the bag, he's good, Tony thought. "Your partner in Philly was a happy family man? And what happened to him, Tony?"
Tony stared into McGee's eyes and was surprised to see 80-proof tears gathering in the stormy depths. He sighed. "He died," Tony said simply, knowing McGee knew the story.
"He got shot in the throat during a domestic while you pressed on the wounds in futility even though you both knew he was dead." McGee sounded suddenly sober. "I may be drunk off my ass, Tony, but I remember that story. You pulled it out right after Kate died."
Tony flinched and McGee snorted his derision. "You really suck at consoling people, DiNozzo."
"The point was that we would get through it," Tony said, unsure when the conversation had gotten so out of hand. "I'm sorry, Tim. I guess you're right. I suck at this."
The defeat in his friend's tone broke through McGee's drunken haze. He huffed out the breath he had been holding and unclenched his fists as the cab pulled up. His anger melted as he realized that twice Tony had shared an old pain to help him dull his fresh one. He got in the cab. "Thanks, Tony."