Posted with gratitude to Precious Pup and Tobilo, and to everyone who has reviewed this story.
He dreams about his mother:
In the middle of a landfill, faces he wishes he could have forgotten loom over her abused body, beating her and raping her again and again. He smells the trash all around him where he lays on his belly underneath and amid a large pile of garbage, watching as they lash, strike, punch her in front of him—first with their fists and then with baseball bats that appear from nowhere. Seconds later he realizes the pervasive odor seeping through his senses is from the decomposition of his mother's rotting corpse. He gags at the understanding, but his father and his uncles hear his weakness.
They chase him.
"Nadya!" he's already hoarse when he screams for her, looking for the child she was but finding Sarah instead. She's already running, too, but she's going towards him.
"Sarah!" he reaches a hand towards her and points her away from him. Away from them. "No! Go! Go now! The rendezvous!" he orders her in his dream, though he'd never actually use such a charged term—the better to keep them hidden.
She doesn't even have time to turn before a heavy, bloody hand reaches onto her shoulder, yanks her to the huge body of a man that's just as heavy and just as bloody.
"Otyets," Father, Sarah whispers her terror.
"Horoshow, Toli," Good, Toli, his father praises without even looking at Sarah, "Tuy prinesla yeyo mne," You brought her to me.
Sarah twists her neck to look on Tim—"No, Toli!"—with the horror of betrayal in her eyes.
Toli viciously shakes his head, "Nyet! Nyet!" No! Tim echoes inside his head. Sarah, I swear to you! He thinks in English, but the words come out in Russian, "Nadya, tebya klyanus!"
And suddenly there's a pinch on his hand, and when he turns to look, it's Nadya—the little girl Sarah used to be before they became the McGees. She's seven years old. He can tell by the New Kids on the Block headband she's wearing. She loved them fiercely until the day the Backstreet Boys came out.
"When's Mom coming home, Toli?" she asks, still yanking on his arm while his father disappears like he'd never been there, as the trash heap surrounding them becomes solid white nothingness.
"I didn't tell you," he bites his lip as his dream becomes more lucid. "I don't know how."
"Why won't you tell me?" she asks him, and as a little girl, Nadya's puzzled rather than scared like the adult Sarah was. "Don't you know I figured it out a long time ago?"
When he opens his eyes to the little bedroom he and Sarah share in the NCIS safehouse, that pinch on his hand is just as real as in his dream. He licks his lips and acknowledges Sarah's silent insistence of his wakefulness with a squeeze back. Immediately the pressure eases. He waits for his heart to calm down before he looks at her where she lays beside him on the other pillow. There's a net over her hair—just as there is over his—and neither of them uses the bedcovers, instead having gone to sleep atop the comforter wearing long sleeves, pants, and socks—the better to minimize the DNA they'll leave behind.
Sarah doesn't ask him about his nightmare, though that's obviously why she woke him up. He wonders if she's having trouble sleeping or if he woke her with his dream about Mom.
"Myertva ona," She's dead, he doesn't intend to confess aloud.
Sarah doesn't tense or jerk or cry or gasp. Instead, she rubs her thumb on the back of his hand over his knuckles. "Znayou," I know, Sarah whispers back.
Silence stretches between them as his mind loops between his dream and Fornell's words about Mom from the day before.
"Ploho Buhlo?" Was it bad? Sarah finally asks.
He leans back against his pillow, staring at the ceiling. Licking his lips, he blinks once as the dream comes back to him. He wonders if it happened to her like his dream imagines, even as he knows that isn't so, knows his father preferred knives when he tortured people, and Uncle Vanya had a bizarre fascination with acids. His favorite was sulfuric acid because it burnt his victims twice; first with the initial contact, and second with the dehydration it caused. His mind won't even let him consider his father's other associates and their predilections. Regardless, he knows his dream is nothing compared to the horrors of what she would have actually suffered.
He blinks more rapidly, several times now. His face crumples, but he doesn't cry. He wishes he could. "Da," he nods once with the whisper, but his body feels otherwise frozen by that admission.
A moment of silence passes between them, and then Sarah leans her head against his shoulder. He waits for her to ask for details about what happened. Every muscle in his body stays tense as he imagines what she'll want to know, if she'll ask him to find out more about it or—please no—to read the autopsy report.
"Shh," she shushes him unnecessarily—he's barely even breathing. "It's okay," she promises, the words a puff of air across his upper arm.
"Geez!" Tim sits straight up in the bed at hearing her words in English. They were speaking in Russian when they should have been the McGees!
Sarah sits up beside him. Brow furrowed in concern, she barely opens her mouth to speak before Tim's whole hand is over it, unambiguously shutting it. She stiffens, and he feels the fear travel through her at the unexpected contact like it's twisting up his own spine anew. He drops his arm to hold it tightly to his side.
"Remember your colors!" he tersely explains, though the old reminder of which flag, which identity, they're using to fly under the radar is more directed to himself than Sarah, but Sarah still stiffens—Tim hasn't spoken that phrase as an admonishment since their first year as the McGees. After that, neither of them needed to be reminded of who they were supposed to be at any given time.
Yanking on his shoulders, Sarah forces him to face her. "We're in an NCIS safehouse with your team," she reminds him of the confidence he had in his team last night, a faith he loaned to her mere hours ago.
Tim nods his acknowledgement of the facts as they were the night before. "But today's a new day," he points out. His eyes drop for a second—two max—before he drags them back up to look her in the eye. "From here on out, anything can happen," he tells her what he couldn't last night.
"Story of my life," she comes back immediately, but her nearly pithy words underlie a harder, surer tone. She's telling him she's ready for this.
Tim shakes his head, already overwhelmed and exhausted by the knowledge of what he has to do today, how tremendously he has to pretend, and he's never gotten Tim and Toli mixed up before but he just did. "I don't think I can—"
She pinches his earlobe—viciously—shutting him up instantly.
"Understand something," she lays her hand back down onto his shoulder. "You don't carry this burden alone. We carry it together," her words are calm and direct, but kind. "Who called the shots on the last three vacations we took?" They've never actually taken a vacation. They only run practice drills of their emergency protocols.
"You did," Tim concedes. He'd wanted to make sure she knew what to do in case he became captured or incapacitated. Mom had eased Toli into his own role leading Sarah in the same way. He hadn't been ready for it back then, though. That's why they spent five months living in a state park in California while Tim tried to find a way around child protective services.
"I know you don't want me to be in danger at all," Sarah continues, gaze not giving him an inch, not letting him look away. "But we didn't have a choice. We still don't have a choice." She smiles and leads, "When you're cornered…" but she doesn't complete their mother's wisdom: You find a way to stand, or find a way to run, Tim's mind fills in the blank instead. "I want to stand this time, Tim," Sarah pleads with him. "Even if we fail."
Abruptly, Tim shakes his head. "You say that now, but you never knew what he—" his voice breaks, but he could have filled the silence that followed with a million different things of what Sarah didn't know—what their father was capable of, how their mother suffered everyday under his thumb, how Toli watched people being hurt, even brutalized simply because they'd displeased his father.
Sarah begins anew, more quietly this time, "I understand that they're worth the risk to you." Her eyes briefly drop to the floor, indicating the storey below them and his team.
His jaw locks, and he blinks away. Two days ago, when he'd first mentioned Agent Thomas to her, he hadn't made it quite so personal, hadn't made it about the team. He'd only said that there were agents in danger, and that it would be wrong of him not to step in and do his best to try to save them if he could. The truth is, though, he's not sure how far he would have gone to try to save the task force if his team hadn't been on it. He hates that about himself, hates the impotence his father still somehow manages to enforce upon him even through hundreds of miles and tens of years.
"It's okay," her words are gentle, offering absolution for all his sins—sins against her whom he may be compromising even now, against the team whom he may be endangering by not speaking out loudly enough about what he knows, and against the rest of the task force whom he may not have tried to save at all if circumstances were just slightly different.
"This is the right choice," she promises, cupping his face in one hand.
He leans into her touch, feeling echoes of their mother in the way Sarah seeks to comfort him, wishes so acutely Mom were here to guide him through this landmine that she was so much more familiar with overcoming than he was. He bites his lip, trying to accept Sarah's pardon.
He shakes his head, "If it's not the right choice…" he leads but can't continue.
Sarah finishes it for him, "Then we already know what to do anyway."