A/N: Written for the ncis_verse Picture Prompt Fanfic challenge. Since I can't post a link to the photo, you'll have to use your imagination: a sunny day, a couple of empty swings in a park.
WARNING: Contains mention of child death and molestation, although there are no graphic details.
"Hey, DiNozzo. You gonna join us today? We've only got about an hour of daylight left."
Tony snapped to attention. "On it, boss."
Cases involving children always ratcheted Gibbs' surliness meter a few notches higher. He certainly didn't have a monopoly on discomfort – nobody on the team enjoyed this kind of work. But Gibbs was the only one who'd actually been a parent, and that gave him a different perspective from the rest of them. Tony understood this, and mentally kicked himself for the momentary lapse in attention. But something about this particular playground had taken him back to Baltimore, and one of his first homicide cases. It still haunted him, even after all these years...
The body of 6-year old Amanda Fleming, missing for three months after disappearing from her own front yard, had been uncovered by a dog scratching around under a tree in Patterson Park. The Baltimore ME estimated she'd been buried about 2 weeks earlier, and the grave was shallow, so the body was fairly decomposed. Tony had seen his fair share of dead bodies in Peoria and Philly – car accident victims, drug deals gone bad, homeless people who'd died of exposure – but this was the first time he'd seen a dead child.
"Everyone tosses their cookies the first time," Danny consoled a pale and shaken Tony as he wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
"Does it get easier?" DiNozzo queried, casting a sideways glance at the tiny body, still clad in a pretty pink and white spotted dress. Her undergarments had been removed, he noted ruefully.
"You better hope not," Danny quipped, slapping Tony on the back for encouragement. "C'mon. Let's get to work."
Tony had never had any trouble sleeping – usually he was out cold shortly after his head hit the pillow. This was the case that would change all that. He lay awake for hours every night, sometimes traumatized by a new development or by the memory of that decomposing body and the lovely little girl she had been; sometimes working the facts this way and that, trying desperately to find the answer that would bring little Amanda's killer to justice.
They worked the case for 6 months. At first, it was the only thing on their docket, and he and Danny spent many an evening in the squad room over a double order of Mo-Shu Pork poring over evidence and reviewing witness statements for inconsistencies. Family members were of course initially suspected, but then ultimately cleared. All the neighbours had rock-solid alibis. The Captain gave them as much time as he could, but after two weeks, another case landed on their desks, and they were ordered to scale back their investigation. With each day that passed, they were less likely to find the killer...unless he struck again, Tony thought ruefully.
But he didn't.
The partners refused to give up. It became an obsession for both of them. Little Amanda's mother, Carolyn Fleming, was persistent, and Tony had to give her credit – she knew how to work on the Captain to keep the case top-of-mind. Danny's living room became their new center of operations, and each spare evening they had was spent trying to chase down new leads. Fueled by TV dinners and cases of beer, the partnership that would eventually be torn apart by betrayal was initially forged and solidified by shared revulsion for an unspeakable crime.
And then it went cold.
They hit a virtual brick wall. There were no new leads to be had, and without the benefit of the department's resources, Tony and Danny could do no more.
"I know you did your best, boys. I couldn't have asked for two more dedicated detectives. I appreciate everything you've done for us." The words, uttered in a shaky and pained voice late on a Friday afternoon, hung in the deathly silence that had suddenly overcome the squad room. As Carolyn was silently escorted to the exit, Tony felt a sudden urge to rip his heart out.
He glanced across at his partner. "Mick O'Sheas." Danny nodded. It wasn't a question.
They drank six shots each, before either of them could utter a word. Tony downed his glass, and slammed it on the bar, pointing at it for yet another refill.
"Did we really do our best?" He stared absently ahead at the mesmerizing glint of the lights on various coloured bottles behind the bar.
"Yeah. We did." Danny sighed. After a long silence, he spoke again. "They say every cop has one."
"An unsolved case that sticks with them for their whole career."
"You trying to cheer me up?" Tony scowled, turning to face his partner.
"No, I'm just sayin'...we're not the only ones this has happened to. And we won't be the last."
"Hey," Danny clapped Tony on the shoulder. "We'll get him. We will... someday. We won't forget." He picked up his seventh shot and raised it in the air. Tony responded in kind, and they clinked glasses. "To Amanda."
"Amanda." The burn of the amber liquid did little to assuage his feelings of guilt and inedequacy, but it would have to do. For now.
The NCIS investigation led them to Giles Walkerton, a man with a history of increasingly sordid activities. They'd found child pornography on his computer, and evidence that he had previously visited Thailand's under-age brothels.
But it was the photo of little Amanda Fleming on the wall of Walkerton's bedroom that told Tony he finally had his man.
He carefully poured two shots, and setting one on top of Danny Price's grave stone, he raised the other in the air. "We got him, Danny. You were right...I didn't forget."