Chapter 1: Prologue
I know I can't save everybody, life taught me that lesson long ago, but that doesn't mean I don't do everything in my power to staunch the flow of blood from the wound at his side (or be mindful of the rebar that protrudes from the flesh of his belly) and tell him that everything is going to be alright.
DiNozzo is giving me that look again, the same one as before when he begged me to leave him here and save myself. But just like before, I ignore him and tear more material from the bottom of my shirt to use against the blood. Each time I replace the impromptu bandages at his side he hisses, tries to move away from what I'm doing, and I try to keep my face a mask of complacency. Because he doesn't need to see my barely checked panic and I don't need to worry him with the 101 ways this could all go very horribly wrong.
"Save it, DiNozzo." I snap, still avoiding his eyes and pushing harder than I mean to into the torn flesh around the course surface of the rebar. He still shifts under my hand but doesn't cry out this time and I try not to think about why that might be a bad thing.
"Jethro!" he says this time, all frantic and despairing and I can't help but lean back on my haunches to finally look at him full in the eye.
"Will you please just go? There's no reason for both of us to die down here." I want to smack him upside his head and ask him where he gets off using that name on me and in that tone, but I do neither and break our eye contact.
"I said save it, Tony," but I think he gets what I'm really trying to say: that there's no force in heaven or on earth that could possibly make me leave him here. Not like this.
Tony and the building around us heave a shuddering sigh at the same time and I don't know whether to be more concerned at the blood escaping from the corner of his mouth when he breathes, or the debris that rains down on top of us from the partially collapsed floor above our heads. My first instinct is to throw myself over Tony to protect him (and I do) but when the dust and I finally settle back, he's gasping for breath, gunboat grey, and I have to swallow my heart back down and out of the back of my throat.
"DiNozzo?" I say his name stupidly, expecting him to look over at me and laugh and tell me he was only kidding and that everything is going just fine on the inside. But that's not what I get and instead of the solace I need, I get a good look at blue tinged lips and the terrified and desperate eyes of a man who's drowning and knows it.
"DiNozzo." I say again like this is all his fault, like he's got no right to be looking at me like that: desperate and floundering like a wet fish on a dry dock. His hand shoots out to gather the fabric of what's left of my shirt in his hand like it will anchor him here somehow, as if his lack of oxygen makes him lighter than he should be and he's liable to float away. I try to tell him with my eyes that I won't let him float away and cover the shaking fist twisted in my shirt with my own palm.
"It's okay," I lie.
"Everything is going to be okay. You just gotta breathe, Tony."
He's terrified but I'm starting to see something that looks a lot like acceptance in the creases around his eyes and I want to shake him. He's giving up and I splay my hand over his chest and make him meet my eyes.
"You know how to do this," it's almost an admonishment. My fear is making me cruel. "It's the easiest thing in the world. Just breathe in and then breathe out."
'You've been doing it all your life. Get your shit together.' but I know these thoughts won't help so I keep them internal.
He actually manages it for a while and I don't take my hand off his chest even though it breaks every rule we've established with each other over the years. I keep it there and we both watch the ebb and flow of it under his chin.
I want to congratulate him or something but then he tries for a bigger breath than before and suddenly he's choking on it, blood splattering against the palm he puts in front of his face to protect me from the spray. When his hand comes away from his mouth the blood is dripping sideways down his chin and his teeth are stained with it and I know nothing I say now is going to keep him here for long.
I build boats, you'd think I'd know more about keeping them afloat.
"Damn it, Tony," scrapes out past my throat as he looks back and forth between his blood covered palm and me before finally collapsing down into himself like an ill-constructed house of cards and starts to shake. I try to hold his body steady so the rebar he's impaled on doesn't tear a larger hole in him than there already is, but my arms are already beginning to quiver with the strain of holding him still and I don't know how much longer I'll be able to keep this up.
The building shifts again like it can feel Tony slipping away and has something to say about it but all I can hear is a roar in my ears when the supports of the floor above us finally give way and I lose Tony to a sea of white dust.
I have no rule for this.
Chapter 2: Traffic on the 695
Tail lights, that's what my mornings have been filled with for the past 3 days, tail lights stretching out as far as the eye can see in all directions, and my car stuck right in the middle of it all. They're doing construction on the 695 and if there's anything that can shut DC down (besides a slight dusting of snow), it's construction on the 695.
I check my watch for the 4th time in as many minutes (even though the clock on my dashboard is working perfectly fine) and curse the cars that sit around me in the searing summer heat making me late for work. All of us are surrounded by little forcefields of heat radiating upwards, making the highway look like the inside of an oven, and my eyes keep wandering to the temperature gauge of the mustang because for the past 45 minutes it's steadily been rising towards that little brick of red proceeding the capital H on the dial (which I know stands for Hot, but today I decide it's oh HELL no instead). Gibbs has already been on my ass twice this week for being late and even though I know that he knows all about the construction on the 695, you have to know when to pick your battles with Senior Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs.
The traffic in front of me moves forward a quarter of an inch and I ease my foot off the break to coast forward, letting the inertia of my movement pull me a little too close to the back bumper of the guy ahead of me just because I can. I catch the other driver's eyes in the rearview (and normally this is the point where I'd look away) but today I'm pissed and I hold his angry gaze with my own until he's the one to look away and I get to be pleased with myself for having won the game. It's not his fault that I'm in this mess though so I actually grumble out a 'sorry' I know he'll never hear and I don't look for his eyes again.
3 hours and one side-of-the-highway breakdown later and I slam the cab door shut and thrust the cabbie a bigger tip than I intend to and don't realize it until he tears away from the curb outside of my building. I guess I really did owe it to him, and keep thinking this even when he squeals away with smoking tires and a screamed 'BASTARD!' floating out through his open windows. He had to deal with check points and one tense moment when I realized I'd left one of my badges in the glove box of the mustang and the only thing that saved us was the fact that one of the guards knew me.
The shop had said it would be a week or so to deal with the coolant leak in the mustang's engine and the other 20 people they'd plucked from the highway for the exact same thing. So to placate me the owner had offered me use of his brother's cab company to get to work and had stuffed me in the back with promises to call me as soon as my mustang was finished. Though I can't help but worry that my rather heated debate with the mechanic's brother over the best way to navigate DC streets will result in me getting my car back in a cardboard box, rather than in good condition and on all four wheels.
I think about giving the guy the finger despite of it all, certain that he's still watching me and cursing at me in the rearview mirror, but I bite down on my knuckle and don't do it.
I really am a nice person, I tell myself, this day is just hell-bent on testing me.
A far off rumble of thunder sounds in the distance and I turn my head into a western breeze that smells like water and see tall banks of clouds making their way in over the Anacostia. The air is stagnant where I stand, the temperature threatening to hit triple digits in full sun, and I silently will the storm clouds to move in faster. This bank of white tipped, grey based clouds in the distance is the long promised reprieve the weather man has been smiling at me about each morning this week as I've put on my extra deodorant to fight against this unusually hot and muggy summer we've been having. DC is a frying pan and while I appreciate the sun dresses and bikinis it inspires, I'm tired of feeling damp all the time and tired of the foul mood the weather has put everyone in (myself included). I'm promised that this storm front will bring with it cooler temperatures and, if I'm lucky, some decent thunderstorms. And that thought almost makes me forget the morning I've just hand.
Thunderstorms fascinate me, I can't help it.
Ever since I was a kid spending summers at the beach on Long Island with my mother before she died, I've had this sort of love affair with severe weather. There was nothing more amazing then sitting on the beach watching huge thunderheads race towards me like they were eager to show me what they were capable of, the lightening following soon after to chase me indoors to watch the havoc unfold from the safety of the house. Then later, after the storm had passed, I'd lose entire hours just walking up and down the beach inspecting each item that had washed up on shore like it was some sort of gift the storm had left behind just for me.
Like it knows I'm standing here waiting for it, the breeze picks up minutely to play up the back of my jacket and dry my sweat so that I'm almost shivering and thunder rumbles the ground beneath my feet in greeting. If I'm lucky, we won't catch a case today and I can watch the wonders of nature unfold through the big plate glass windows of the bullpen and try to hide my obvious glee from McGee. The kid will probably have a textbook breakdown of weather patterns for me when I get to my desk anyway, all DC can talk about right now are the 70 degree days hiding behind the cold front headed directly for us, and I'm sure he'll have something to say about it.
I leave the gathering storm to do its own thing in the sky above my head and make it through the last leg of security in record time. It probably helps that I'm 4 hours late for work and not fighting against the rest of NCIS to get through the metal detectors and up to my floor. I take my gun from its holster and put it into the bin the bored looking security guard offers me and try to coax a smile out of her with a wink. But, like everything else today, the gesture falls flat on its face and I walk away from the check point feeling more like a creep than someone who just wanted to make her day a little brighter. Even the elevator seems to be mad at me and it squawks my arrival onto the floor with an irritated ding and a flicker of lights and Gibbs is already glaring at me from his desk.
He's the only one behind a desk, the only one on the floor really, and I walk into the front of indignation that rolls out from his desk and wonder if I brought the storm clouds from outside into the building with me somehow. I duck my head like he's already smacked the back of it and keep my eyes pointed down at the carpet even when I round the edge of Bishop's desk and feel the inexorable pull to look for Ziva.
I've been doing this for a while now... this 'pointedly looking at the floor and not at her desk' thing and it's nothing against Bishop (though I think she thinks it is) because I like Bishop. She's smart and witty and a great addition to our team, but she's no Ziva (nor will she ever be) and I think she pays for that just a little bit more than we realize. I left my heart on the tarmac at an airport in Israel, and while there's room inside my chest for someone new, I keep that bit closed off now and there's crime scene tape where my heart should be. Not that I'm even remotely interested in Bishop, it's just that that place seems to be closed off to new friends (as well as lovers) these days.
I dump my backpack beside my desk chair and hit the button that will power up my monitor before I take my seat and risk a glance over at Gibbs. He's got the handset of his office phone captured in the space between ear and shoulder and he's looking over at me like he wants me to give him an excuse to hang up on whomever he's talking to. I don't know why though... he's good at playing the functional mute and besides, ignore anyone long enough, they're bound to hang up on you (or so I've been told). He only looks away from me when he realizes I'm not going to help him and I divert my attention to the 30+ emails sitting in my inbox, wondering when the 2 agency memos about someone's promotion I left in there last night decided to have babies in the Sent Items folder when I wasn't looking. It's all of it busy work and I try to lose myself in it even after Gibbs hangs up the phone and doesn't say a word to me, his silence conveying more in its length than he manages to speak in a week.
"Where have you been?" McGee appears at the side of my desk and I manage to catch the coffee mug filled with the congealed leftovers of Monday's breakfast before it can finish it's trip over the edge of my desk. He's startled me and I try not to let it show.
"Car trouble," I answer truthfully, "and the 695 was a parking lot this morning."
"I'm tellin' ya Tony, you should take that short cut I told you about. It'll cut your commute time in half." I can tell he's still proud of himself for having come up with a meticulous plan to get my ass into work on time while my highway is nothing but a ground up strip of the bones of its former self, but I can't bring myself to share in his enthusiasm at being such a smarty-pants.
'I like my commute time,' I want to say but Gibbs is listening in on our exchange and I know he'll read between the lines on that one.
"I'll think about it, McGee," is what comes out instead and he huffs away in the wake of my dismissal. The smirk it pulls from me dies on my face though when Gibbs and I lock eyes from across our respective desks and I can feel the moment he decides I need to be punished for my transgressions of the day.
"Tony," he starts, tearing off the top sheet of the pad of paper he's been writing on to wave in the air in my direction, "I need you to go down to Human Resources and get the personnel files on these two probies."
I smother a groan. The women in personnel hate me (Gibbs knows this) and I can't help but feel like the universe is conspiring against me today as I sit and stare at the sheet of paper clutched in Gibbs' expectant hand. The women who sit behind the desks in the basement level HR Department and I have had a love/hate relationship with each other from the beginning and right now both sides are working on constructing our own versions of the Berlin Wall. They are nothing but a bunch of crabby old paper-pushing hags who care more about procedure than if I get to keep my job or not. But, ask me again tomorrow, and I might have a different opinion of them because (while they may be crabby old paper-pushing hags who care more about procedure than if I keep my job or not) I think they still kind of like me. In our tumultuous relationship there really is a fine line between love and hate.
I head over to Gibbs' desk and take the proffered green sheet of paper torn from his steno pad and pick at the frayed edge at the top all the way down to the basement. You can't access HR from the elevator that reaches our floor. You have to go down to the main lobby and then to a separate bank of elevators that descends you down towards the Tech department and some other various administrative offices. If it were me and I had to work in a department like HR, I'd be lobbying hard for an office with windows at least, but the office I'm headed to is only a small offshoot of the bigger and better Navy HR offices located in other buildings and in other parts of the city.
I walk through the narrow smoked glass door (white block letters announcing the department's name and suite #), my eyes searching for Carol, aka arch nemesis, but find the main reception desk empty and the little office oddly quiet. I can see the top of a gray-haired head from behind one of the desks along the back wall and clear my throat to try and get the figure's attention. She looks over at me from around her monitor and it's a face I don't recognize and I think that maybe, finally, my luck has changed.
"I need to pick up a couple of personnel files for Agent Gibbs," I say, trying to get a feel for the woman who is still staring at me from across the room and around her computer screen. She sniffs then disappears behind the monitor again.
"Agent Gibbs couldn't come down and get them himself?" I hear from somewhere far off and I suddenly wonder if this new addition to HR is the person Gibbs was talking to on the phone earlier and sense that I should choose my next words carefully.
"He wanted to but he got called up to the Director's office." I lie. Saying this makes me feel like I'm one step closer to being redeemed in Gibbs' eyes, like his patented Gibbs Gut will sense that I defended him somehow. I even put these words behind a cheesy grin but my new gray haired friend isn't buying it and she stalks to the back room where they keep the antiquated paper files no one has bothered to put onto computers yet and smacks the manila folders down on the counter in front of me. I move to sweep up the stack but she keeps her hand planted firmly on top and we stare each other down for another immeasurable moment.
She's new here. She doesn't know me and I don't know her and there are a few different ways that this could play out.
1. She could decide that I'm the enemy by association (if the one sided conversation she was having with Gibbs this morning is anything to go by), or
2. she could ask me my name and, having heard all there is to hear from the other crabby old hags in the office, still come to the same conclusion that I'm the enemy. Or,
3. I could amend my earlier loyalty to Gibbs, throw him under the bus, and perhaps gain an ally who will defend me the next time I do battle down here.
Gray hair makes the decision for us and lets up on her grip so that I have to stumble backwards a few steps to avoid falling over when the folders come free. She turns on her heels without so much as a goodbye and heads back to her desk. I've been dismissed but I'm not really sure what's just happened and who's just won our little tête-à-tête.
"Thanks," I mumble without much truth behind the word and walk back out into the hall just in time to see a group of HR employees (probably returning from lunch) round the corner.
I meet Carol's eyes almost instantly and she gives me a coy smile and a curt nod which the other woman surrounding her pick up on right away and their collective opinion of me seems to soften a bit. It's a wonder I'm acknowledged at all and it would seem that the women of HR and I are back to being friends again. I want to tell them I take back the 'crabby old hag' comments from earlier, chalk the lack in decorum up to my miserable morning stuck on the 695 in traffic, but I just smile back and salute her with the personnel folders when we meet in the middle of the hall.
"Agent DiNozzo," she says, heading to the front of the pack and to the invisible line that is drawn in the hallway between me and them.
"Carol," I say, equally as aloof and she studies me for a moment, the women flanking her looking back and forth between us.
"We missed you at Bunco this week," Every instinct in me screams to check around the hallway and make sure that no one else is down here to hear what she's just said. Not even Gibbs knows (or has ever let on that he knows) that I have been invited into this little inner sanctum of women to play dice with them.
I resist the urge to sweep the hall and keep my eyes trained on Carol.
"I didn't think I'd be welcome after that snafu with the paperwork on Monday," Carol cocks her head to one side and laughs a little at that then crosses the line that divided us only moments ago to put her hand on my arm.
"Oh Tony," she sighs, just shy of belittlingly, "You are too cute."
She sidesteps me then with a cute little move and her little band of HR employees follows, their ranks parting around me only to close the breech again after they pass. Carol stops with her hand on the door and everyone turns to look at me again.
"We'll see you next week then," she says with a twinkle in her eye then disappears into the office to leave me standing confused in the hallway. This is turning out to be, by far, the strangest day I've had in a while and I make my way back up to the main lobby still trying to figure out why I even bothered to get out of bed this morning.
When the elevator doors open onto the lobby the room is dark. The natural light that usually gives keeps the space bright is muted due to the steel grey clouds that have taken over the sun. There are still blue skies above NCIS but that won't last for long and I make my way back up to our floor to get a better look at the incoming storm front from our big picture windows.
Gibbs and McGee aren't at their desks when I get off at the bullpen and I see that the light over MTAC is lit. I set the personnel folders on the spot on Gibbs' desk I know he'll look for them first and then make my way over to the bank of windows near my desk. The view we have of the river is pretty spectacular and I watch as the banks of clouds scurry in our direction. The front swings out ahead of itself in places, saucer like clouds racing against their larger thunderhead brothers to see who can douse DC with the rain they carry first and every now and then lightning sends fingers of white down to touch the earth. All of this happens slightly off to the east of me and the grey of the clouds against the vibrant blue of the summer sky to my left makes the front look all that more imposing. We're going to get a wallop of a storm and part of me can't help but wish I had become a weather man instead of an NCIS agent. How cool would it have been to be Jim Cantore, battered by hurricanes and cyclones and sideways rain and get paid for doing it? But then I remember what it is I do, the lives I save on a daily basis, and know that no amount of notoriety or celebrity status could ever take the place of what I do.
I fold my arms across my chest and watch the storm continue its path across the sky and don't hear Gibbs when he approaches and for the 2nd time this day, someone manages to startle me.
Chapter 3: Ineptitudes
McGee cuts the overseas connection and I can feel Vance's eyes on me almost instantly. I'll admit it wasn't the best idea to call a 5 star general out on his bullshit on a conference call, but no one ever said they hired me for this job because of my people skills. The tension in the room keeps McGee's back to me with shoulders slumped and I can feel the director walk up into my personal space, the urge to draw my gun calling to me at the invasion.
"Leon," I put a warning there behind his name but like always, he ignores me.
"He's a five star general, Gibbs." Vance hisses and even though I can't see his face I know the look he's giving me: eyes slightly bulged, threats telegraphed across his face but never spoken... get that look enough over the years and you can sense it on you anywhere.
"Yeah, well, he's an idiot."
"I know that. Hell, every man in this room knows that, but you just can't go around calling members of the senior staff of the Army morons!" I can tell he's pissed but also that he's not going to do anything about it and has resigned himself to the fact that his afternoon will be spent placating bruised egos in the name of interagency relations.
"Will there be anything else, Director?" I ask sharply, swallowing down my apprehension of him being so close and turning to face him so that we're practically nose to nose. I'm bucking his authority with the maneuver but he lets it slide and shakes his head.
"No, that'll be all. But I need McGee to stay behind."
"Fine," I fire back on the turn of my heels and I'm out the door before he can think of anything else to say to me.
I let the door to MTAC slam shut behind me and head for the railing at the side of the platform just outside and spy Tony. My second in command is standing in front of the windows with arms crossed watching the storm clouds gather in the sky above the river outside. He doesn't have the personnel files I sent him out to retrieve from downstairs, but my eyes dart to my desk and I see them sitting on one corner. Thunder rumbles outside the windows and I feel it shake the metal railing beneath my hands and my eyes are again drawn back to Tony. He looks like a kid in a candy store and I watch him crane his neck to get a better look at the lightening display currently developing outside NCIS, my earlier irritation at him melting away.
He's been through a lot lately and though I'm sure he thinks I haven't noticed or maybe that I don't care, that's just not the case. I've had my eye on him for awhile now and pick up on more than he thinks I do but it's never been an easy thing for me to show him what I'm really feeling. For so long I've relied on my subtle nuances to convey what it is I just can't put into words but there are times when I think that this system I've developed to convey emotion isn't working as well as it should. It's just not enough sometimes and I find myself seeing the hurt I put on their faces with my standoffishness when really I'm just not sure how to tell them what it is I'm really thinking. Tony takes these ineptitudes of mine in stride and I'm luckier than I realize to have the team I do. Because every other agent as NCIS wouldn't have stuck with me this long.
I make my way down to where Tony stands and take up the place beside him and I think I startle him a little when he realizes I'm standing there. His frame immediately stiffens and he drops his arms to his sides to stand with fists clenched and I kick myself for my earlier insensitivity. I know for a fact that the 695 is a mess right now and that it's the best route for him to take to work (despite McGee's insistence to the contrary) but I let the grouch on the phone in HR piss me off and I took it out on Tony.
"Boss," he says in acknowledgement and I want to apologize to him for earlier but that's not something I do and he knows it. When he meets my eyes I try to convey as best I can what I'm really doing there beside him.
"Storm's coming in," I say as my pseudo apology and he nods at me knowingly before looking back out the windows.
"And it looks like it's going to be a doozy, too." Tony's comment drips with fascination and I let my own eyes wander to the banks of clouds rolling in and wonder at what it is he sees in them. The storm looks angry to me but Tony's looking out at it like the heavens have just opened up and all the movies he's ever loved are raining down from the sky in tightly packed shrink-wrapped boxes. But then again, he always gets like this when storms are brewing.
"What are they calling for?" I ask him, hoping he picks up on the fact that there's more to my question than just disinterested small talk.
"The guy from channel 4 said there was the possibility of some severe weather this morning. Looks like he was right." DiNozzo says as he points in the direction of the storm front and lightning flashes from the thin layer of clouds that has settled over our building to illuminate his outstretched hand. As if it knows it's being addressed directly the lightning bolts the storm lets lose interrupt power to our floor and for the briefest of moments the lights above our heads flicker before another crack of thunder sounds. Tony and I both take a step back instinctively and I search the pane of glass for cracks. The thunderclap was immense and I can see several heads pop up from cubicles in my peripheral vision.
Someone mutters a "Wow" to my left and I turn back around to see McGee descending the stairs from MTAC. He heads to the other side of Tony and the two put their heads together to start talking weather while I make my way back to my desk and to the probationary agents' files that sit on the corner of it waiting to be looked through.
Bishop has been called away for a mission with her previous agency and is likely to be gone for a few weeks so Vance has gotten it into his head that this would be the perfect opportunity to break in a few new agents. Under the guise of training, he's ordered me to try these new guys out but I'm not that stupid. There's only one reason he has me do this anymore and it's to test if a new agent has what it will take to make it in this agency and I've become the best judge of that somehow. I think Vance knows if someone doesn't have the chops to make it under my command for a week at least then they're not worth their weight around here and can be reassessed and reassigned. I think this process should offend me but on the other hand I can where the director is coming from and I pull the first file over in front of me to shuffle through its pages as another crack of thunder explodes outside the windows. Someone behind me stifles a surprised gasp with their hand and I look over to see that it's Abby.
"Holy crap that was loud," she exclaims as she passes me a sheet of paper with lab results on it. I sit blinking at it until she realizes I have no idea what it is she's just handed me and she flushes a little. My heart swells minutely at the show and I can't help but smile up at her.
"Oh, those are the results on the Sanderson case. It was definitely the Ensign's DNA under her fingernails and that there," she says, nodding in the direction of the paper I'm holding, "should be enough to arrest him on."
I get up from my desk chair after looking over the numbers and codes I have no hope of understanding and give my forensic scientist a quick peck on the cheek.
"That's good work Abbs," and I want to follow it up with a Calf-Pow, but if the incoming storm outside our windows has anything to say about it, I'm going to have to settle with the kiss as payment for the good news. The Sanderson serial rape case has been a rough one and everyone on my team is going to be grateful that we're finally putting it to rest.
"I see that the weather geeks are getting a kick out of the storm," she says with a smile in Tony and McGee's direction and I look over to them and catch the tail end of their animated argument over velocity and wind speeds. Tony really does get into this stuff.
"Don't let DiNozzo hear you call him that," I warn with an amused shake to my head and Abby laughs a little before making the movement to zip her mouth shut and throw away the key, a movement so reminiscent of my Kelly that my heart skips a beat in my chest. Abby is looking away from me when it happens but I still resist the urge to rub the spot in my chest that aches so suddenly. Even though I know she has no idea she does it, sometime I have to look away from this woman that has wormed her way into my heart and remind myself that she is not my daughter, though I love her like she was.
When I look back to her Abby is studying me but I don't think I've let anything critical show because she smiles and then leaves me to join in with McGee and Tony on their weather debate. The sky outside our windows is dark now, eerily grey (green almost) and another crack of thunder rumbles the building so hard this time that the pens in the coffee mug on my desk rattle against each other. I put my hands out to steady things just as McGee and Abby come back towards me, something on the plasma pulling their interest, when it happens.
For a fraction of a second I think I catch the muffled wail of a far off siren, its voice barely penetrating the concrete walls NCIS is made of before it's not just thunder that's shaking the floor beneath my feet, but something else. It's something I can't find the word for because I've never experienced it before and my brain is confused by it's existence. The lights above my head flicker and I look over to the bank of windows where Tony still stands and watch as he backs away from them as if in slow motion. The pressure in the bullpen builds and I suddenly feel my ears pop painfully just before Vance throws the door to MTAC open to bellow at us to take cover, the windows in front of Tony burst in on themselves and someone to my left starts to scream.
The lights go out in an instant and plunge us into a green semi-darkness that my eyes have trouble adjusting to for a moment but I can still make out Tony crouched low and shielding his face from the flying glass as wind whips in from the open windows and sends any lose paper it can find swirling away. Not really thinking it through I'm up on my feet and sprinting past the stunned faces of Abby and Tim and towards Tony when I finally register what it is that I'm seeing.
Right outside the decimated windows, maybe 5 yards away from where I stand, is an earthen colored funnel that quakes the floor beneath my feet with the force of its roar. My legs and a rain soaked wind want to take me in another direction, but I propel myself forward and towards Tony who is looking up at the funnel from one knee on the floor and not moving. He's memorized by it and I try not to let the hypnotic twirl of the twister outside our windows pull me under its trance as well.
I have no words for what I see.
Give me terrorists and criminals any day and I'll do everything in my power to put them behind bars and make them answer for their crimes. But pit me against a force I have no defense against, and you can kiss your sweet ass goodbye.
I reach Tony's side just as the tornado fills the view from the window completely and put a hand on his shoulder as if to pull him away. He tries to blink the blood out of his eyes from the cuts in his skin from the glass and look up at me, but there's no time for it and the floor beneath us shifts and then it isn't there anymore. Tony is torn from under my hand and I hang in a weightless limbo for a microsecond like I'm stuck in some kind of sick cartoon before I plunge down into the chasm the rending floor has made.
I don't know how many floors it is that I fall through but the tornado is biting out a chunk of the side of the building and I keep catching glimpses of it outside as I fall.
It's like falling out of a tree and I bounce off bits of each floor as I pass, each obstacle stopping my fall minutely before collapsing beneath me to send me downward again. I know that I'm hurt and that things are cracking as I plummet, but the roar of the building and the tornado raging around me are demanding all the focus I have.
A vortex of wind envelopes me and starts to lift me up at one point but it doesn't carry me far before slamming me hard into something that manages not to give way under my weight. It's the polished foyer of the lobby and I turn my head in time to see the floor above collapse and destroy one of the metal detectors before racing towards me just as the windowed front of NCIS is sucked out into the sickly green sky that's now visible above me.
Ask me someday to take you though the events of the day and I'll never quite be able to explain to you how it was I managed to get to my feet. Or how I'm somehow able to find one of the receptionist desks and throw myself against it for some kind of cover before the building comes down around me.
Somehow I do it.
But luck is not entirely on my side this day and when a piece of debris traps my head between itself and the stone lobby floor, I have no defense against the blackness that carries me up and away.
The shrill alarm of my clock radio pulls me from sleep and I flop an absent minded arm in its direction hoping to maybe score a direct hit on the snooze. Nothing happens though and I make to roll over and try again when a white hot flash of pain tears up my side forcing me to stop as it pulls a moan from me.
"What the hell?" I say out loud and then pry my sleep heavy lids open to try and get a good look at what it is that's mimicking a hot poker in my side.
I'm confused at my surroundings at first. They're blurry and no matter what I do I can't get them to focus so I check my memory banks and try to remember who I was with last night and where we had ended up but find that I can't think back that far. My last conscious hours are nothing but a jumbled mess inside my head and I'm starting to get a little worried. I risk shifting again but the pain is back and this time when I move something from above me pelts my face and I try to put my arms up to protect myself from whatever it is. This aborted attempt makes a few things quite clear. Firstly, I never moved my arm to try and hit the snooze button and second, that wail I hear is not from my alarm clock but the sound of the NCIS building's fire alarm.
I'm at work and something has happened.
Panic swells up from somewhere inside of me and I try to choke it down before it can consume me completely, but the pain in my side is throbbing in time with my heart now that I've been made aware of it and nothing I do can get my arms to work again. The panic is a living breathing thing inside my chest and I close my eyes that still can't see clearly against its thrashing claws. I can't lose it now, not if I'm going to figure out what's happened and how to get out of it so I make myself calm down and focus on my breathing. Even that simple act hurts but it gives me enough calm to anchor to and I try opening my eyes again. There's something in them, blood most likely, and I turn my head to the side and feel the warm slip slide of the rivers of it that trickle down the side of my face and out from around my eyes. It's a little better and I can finally make out some of what's around me.
I'm laying beside a wall and I risk turning my head to the other side to get a better look at it and find that it's one of the two marble covered reception counters in the NCIS lobby. Somehow it's managed to shield me from a large chunk of the floor from above and I'm in a little cave of collapsed building material. I crane my neck forward, ignoring the pull at my side that has sweat springing up on my forehead and my teeth clenching together against a scream, and manage to see the rebar poking out from my side and the bottom half of my legs disappearing underneath the rubble. It's more than I can handle and I collapse back down again, breathing hard and barely holding it together. The panic is back with a vengeance when I realize I can't feel much below my knees but I position my head back in the place where the blood flows away from my eyes instead of into them and try to regain the calm I had found earlier. I check my arms again next and find that one of them is only trapped beneath a pipe and I manage to free it without much fuss or pain. When it comes free I swipe at the grime in my eyes and try not to throw up when my hand comes away from my face completely covered in blood.
"Head wounds," I remind myself out loud, "they bleed a lot."
I use my free hand to get some of the loose debris off me and take stock of the various lacerations and impalements around my body. There's a pretty big shard of glass sticking out from my other arm and I leave the arm where it lies, trapped under some torn drywall and ceiling tiles because I can't feel it anyway so why risk moving it? My luck I'd dislodge the glass then bleed out onto the lobby floor before I can even figure out how I got here. My vision is still blurry despite the removal of the blood from my eyes and, add that to my still jumbled thoughts, I know I have to have a concussion. I can feel nausea start to coat the inside of my mouth but I fight against it. I can't afford to get sick and I certainly won't be able to move enough to avoid getting it all over myself if I do, so I close my eyes against the rocking sensation moving my eyes too much brings and focus again on my breathing.
Instead of continuing to catalog the bad stuff I take a moment to try and focus on something positive. There's light around me, weak streams of it managing to permeate my cocoon and illuminate the space around with me so that I'm not in total darkness. I can feel fresh air puff against my face every so often so I know I won't suffocate down here and I have at least one working limb (should I need it).
See, things are going to be okay.
As if to prove me wrong the ceiling above me shifts precariously and I can do nothing but watch as pieces of it break off to fall on top of me and knock the air out of my lungs, some pieces landing dangerously close to the oozing hole in my side. When I try to draw the air I've lost back in the drywall dust comes with it and my chest seizes in coughs that have my vision going gray from the pain that the movement erupts in my side. It's all I can do to stay conscious and finally the building stills and tears sting the cuts at the sides of my eyes when they start to drop.
I get lost in it for a moment, the despair. But then I'm remembering what it was that landed me here and I lose the fight with consciousness when the memories pummel against me.
In my dreams the events play out in vivid detail and I wonder if I'm not still just a little bit conscious and hallucinating from the trauma and the blood loss. I've had to have lost quarts of it by now and there is a cold calculation to blood loss: lose enough of it and your toast.
I remember watching the clouds and being fascinated by the strange rotation they were showing. I'd never seen a tornado and while I guessed that that was what I was seeing forming in the sky, it never occurred to me to be afraid. Tornados were things that happened to other people, rural farms and in states like Kansas or Iowa... not in DC and certainly not outside my windows. So I stood there stupidly watching as the clouds reached for the ground and didn't start to move until the thing continued to grow and I realized it was heading straight for me. Even then I don't think I was entirely convinced that I was in any real danger and while I was backing away from the glass, I wasn't turning around to run away. Part of me wanted to stand there and watch as mother nature unleashed her fury on an unsuspecting metropolis, all the while making me bear witness. There was something heavy about that burden and it kept me rooted in place until the windows shattered inward and I had to look away as the glass sped toward me. I could feel it nicking my skin and drawing blood, maybe even sense the dull thud of the big shard that hit me in the arm and lodged all the way down and into the bone, but by then it was too late. I was the twister's slave and nothing I could do would save me.
I can remember Gibbs appearing at my side and his hand on my shoulder but then he was being sucked down into the abyss that opened up beside me as the tornado started prying the front of the building up and away from itself. The floor beneath my knees tilted and I could feel myself slipping sideways and headed toward the same hole that had just swallowed Gibbs but then the wind was lifting me up and sucking me towards the swirling vortex that was hoovering anything it could get its hands on into its gaping maw. I was in the middle of a battle, a split second war for my soul that gravity eventually won, and I finished my slide down the floor as the other side of the slab I was on was wrenched upwards and out from under me.
The sound of my name followed me into blackness.
"Tony!" McGee... or maybe Abby, I can't quite remember.
"DiNozzo!" couldn't have been Gibbs, he fell down the hole first.
"Damn it kid, open your eyes!"
Now that doesn't make sense.
Realizing the voice calling my name is not part of my nightmare, I force the lids of my eyes open and the blood streaked face of Gibbs swims into focus. His appearance in my eye line elicits a tightened knot of emotion in my chest but I don't know whether I want to laugh or start crying again.
"Boss?" I croak out instead, not caring about how pathetic the word sounds coming out of my mouth. Gibbs is on his hands and knees over me in the small space of my cocoon and he lets his head hang in relief when I look up and over at him.
"God, Tony, I thought you were..." but he doesn't finish the thought and I'm glad of it. I know how precarious my situation is. I don't need another reminder.
"What happ'd, boss?" I swear I was more lucid a few minutes ago but now my words sound slurred, like I don't quite have the grip on myself I thought I did.
"There was a tornado." He says simply. "The building collapsed."
"Thank you Captain Obvious." I want to say and think I keep the thought to myself but Gibbs looks over at me again and laughs a little.
Shit, I'm losing it now.
I must fade out again because when I open the eyes I didn't realize I'd closed Gibbs has made a space for himself at my side and is tapping my face with his fingertips, all the while yelling my name.
"Look," he's saying to me, "I know all you want to do is sleep right now DiNozzo, but you've got a pretty bad bump on the head and we need to keep you conscious, alright?"
"Okay," I say but I think I'm going to have a hard time keeping my word because I can already feel the pull of unconsciousness beckoning for me again.
Gibbs gets busy shifting rubble off of me like his hands need the work and every so often I hear him curse when he uncovers a little more bad news about my rapidly deteriorating state. But it's when he rips the bottom part of his shirt off to press it into the place where the red hot poker is protruding from my side that I really start to scream.
I think he might try to apologize to me and I think maybe I should remind him about Rule #6, but I can't see anything past the blue and white stars that erupt behind my eyes or the agony that has me trying to shift away from Gibbs even as he yells at me to stay still.
"Boss... stop," even I can hear how watery my plea sounds and I don't try to stem the flow of tears the pain manages to wrangle from the corners of my eyes.
But he doesn't stop and the pain never quite goes away but eventually it settles down into something on the lighter side of unimaginable and I realize Gibbs is talking to me.
He rambles on about the storm and the tornado and how he's never seen anything like it before and I try to focus on his words, I really do, but the pull of sleep is so alluring that I find myself following after it every so often. Whenever he sees me do this, he pushes down a little harder on my stomach and I know what he's doing is cruel and unusual punishment, but I can't fault him for it. If our roles were reversed and I was the one trying to keep him from bleeding out or falling asleep to never wake up again, I'd be doing the exact same thing.
"...Tony, you are so..."
"I miss her!" I say suddenly when one particularly rough push of his hand has me panting back into the present again.
"Who?" He asks, though I know he knows full well who it is that I'm talking about.
"...Handsom... funny... what?"
"Ziva, Gibbs," I pant.
"I miss Ziva."
"Oh. Do you guys talk a lot?" I know it's just another trick to try and keep me conscious, but I answer anyway if only to give myself something else to think about besides the pain.
"Every... every once in a while. She's pretty... ah... pretty busy over there trying to find herself." I know this declaration comes out bitter but keeping quite against the moans trying to claw their way up the back of my throat is sapping all my focus and I'm having a hard time censoring my half of the conversation.
"I miss her too, Tony," he says, trying to hide the words behind a slight shift of his weight on the debris that sends unseen things skittering. "She was a good agent."
He says it as if it were an afterthought, but I see right through him.
"Listen Gibbs... if I don't... I mean, I think it's pretty bad, so would you..." but I don't know how to ask him for it.
I expect him to get angry with me and give me the "don't you dare give up" speech, but as a testament to how really bad this all is, the clichéd lines don't come. Instead, he looks over at me and I hold his eyes with my own for a fraction of a second longer than is kosher and I think he understands what it is that I'm trying to ask of him. I'm making out my last will and testament here and all he can do is look away to study the fallen ceiling perilously suspended above our heads. I hate him a little for it. And yet he surprises me seconds later with a quiet:
"I will, Tony." And looks back over at me.
His eyes are shiny for the first time in... well forever and I know in that instance that there's no one else in this world I'd rather be trapped down under this rubble with then him.
As if to cover the crack in his armor his promise to me has made, Gibbs launches into a speech about the subtle mechanics of boat building and we lapse back into our little ritual of me trying to die and Gibbs keeping me firmly rooted in place by a constant pressure on the wound at my side.
And even though the thought of him leaving scares the shit out of me, there's something I need to try because the Major Case Response Team doesn't need to lose two more members today. There's been enough of that.
"Gibbs," I start after he lapses back into another silence after having given me the rundown on how he gets his boats out of the basement when he's finished with them.
(How he does it has baffled me and others around him for years but my focus wavers so badly now that I can't remember much of what he's told me. I almost want to ask him to repeat it but know he won't.)
"You should pro'ly start thinking about gettin' yourself outta here." my voice is slurring again, the words becoming mush in my mouth as I slowly lose the energy to form them.
After I give him what feels like adequate time to absorb the idea of leaving me here I've given him, I look over and catch his angry glare and think maybe I need to try a different approach.
"If you start... dig'ng now... you might be able to get... rescue workers in h'r after me before I... well... you kno'..."
See, we both win that way. Words are so much easier when I don't have to voice them.
"Not gonna happen DiNozzo," he says matter-of-factly, like he needs to convince me the thought hasn't run through his own brain a few times already. I, on the other hand, have no qualms about calling a duck, a duck, and I don't back down.
"You're in a lot, better, shape, than I am... Boss, but that ceiling is already so unstable... if it comes down... we're both dead."
'And that is not how Leroy Jethro Gibbs goes out,' I want to add, but I think he reads it's meaning on my face.
With that final thought, I think I've come to the end of my reserves. I can tell Gibbs is contemplating what I'm suggesting and I can also tell the exact moment he decides he's right where he needs to be and isn't going anywhere.
"Boss..." I start.
"Save it, DiNozzo," he snaps and I shift under his hands but don't have it in me to call out against the pain that tears through me this time.
"Jethro!" And I know it's a low blow (and he looks over at me like it is), but I've gone too far to give up now, and I use everything I have left in me to beg him to save himself.
"Will you please just go? There's no reason for both of us to die down here."
"I said save it, Tony," and suddenly I see that it's no use. He's going to stay by my side and something warm settles in at the base of my spine and I really look at him for the first time since this whole thing started.
His face is covered in drywall dust and its streaked with blood down one side of it, but he only has eyes for what's going on with me and I've been too preoccupied with myself to really take stock of him before now. His eyes make a constant circuit around my various injuries, every so often landing on my face to check that I'm still awake and I see genuine fear in his eyes whenever he looks at me full on. I realize then that he's got one hand on my arm and that the pressure of his grip there increases each time I shift against the pain and I know it's his attempt at comforting me.
I sigh then, coming to the realization that it's not duty or his nature that keeps him here with me, but something else between us that I know we'll never name, though its presence in this moment is tangible. I think I finally get him (after years of trying to break the code) and saying goodbye to him in this moment feels like the right thing to do. But something shifts above my head and the sigh I was working on hitches in my chest and gets stuck there, caught on the dust that rains down around us and invades my throat when I try to breathe. Gibbs lunges forward to cover me from the worst of it but I can taste the iron of blood in the back of my throat now. I can't get my lungs to expand the right way and I don't think I have the energy left to worry about it.
Black spots fill my field of vision and I blink uselessly against them, searching out Gibbs' eyes and looking for some guidance on how to get myself out of this one.
"DiNozzo." It's the tone of his voice that helps me find him in the threatening blackness and he drops one of his palms on top of my chest.
There is no added pressure, just the warmth of human contact and his soft whispered orders just to breathe. Without having realized it, I've gathered the shoulder of his shirt in my fist, and I try to do as he says.
"You know how to do this. It's the easiest thing in the world. Just breathe in and then breathe out." He leaves his hand on my chest and I try to draw strength into myself from his touch, willing my lungs to inflate and raise the hand up and then lead it back down. I focus in on that simple act and manage to somehow bring in just enough oxygen around the pain and the panic to keep unconsciousness at bay.
And it almost works. But then I feel blood invade the space at the back of my throat and I cough on it, covering my mouth just in time to catch it in my palm rather than spray it all over the front of Gibbs who's still kneeling over me. The amount of it surprises me and I know I look back and forth between it and Gibbs trying to grasp what it is that's exactly happening to me in this moment.
Something is altered inside. There's a shift of things and suddenly Gibbs' hand on my chest just isn't enough to keep me here anymore and I can feel myself slipping. The ceiling around us rumbles like it's mad that I'm trying to die but nothing that it or Gibbs does can keep me anchored in place.
And the last thing I hear is a choked "Damn it, Tony." before I float away completely.
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Chapter 5: The Man to See
When I'm finally able to sneak away from MTAC I stop right outside the door and heave a sigh of relief. Vance was on a rampage, once again projecting his frustration with the enigma that is Gibbs out onto me when I didn't even do anything. Part of me thinks I should be pissed off at Gibbs for constantly doing this to me (all of us really, and not just with Vance), but then I think back on all the times he's had my back, helped me keep my job after I screw up, or just plain saved my life, and I realize I can't be angry. Just like I realize more often than not that I can't stay mad at my own father.
As I come down the stairs I spot Gibbs and Tony standing in front of the windows overlooking the river and I stop on the steps for a moment. The view I have is kind of picturesque, and I don't just mean the graceful Merchant ship cutting its path through the brown water of the river. Gibbs and Tony are having a quiet conversation about the gathering storm and even though I know that Gibbs could care less about what's going on in the sky outside, he's making a concentrated effort to connect with DiNozzo and that is what stops me for a moment.
Tony is the kind of person that can, in one moment, both infuriate and surprise the hell out of me at exactly the same time and I never know which Tony I'm going to get in any particular moment. It's like this dance we do but no one has bothered to teach me the steps and Tony seems to be both my partner and the choreographer. It's maddening. And every time I try to exert some control, put him in his place and conquer the mountain with my sword in the air, he manages to somehow to knock me down to start our little game of King of the Castle all over again.
All these metaphors are giving me a headache and I restart my descent back down to the Bullpen floor. Just as I reach the last few steps, a thunderclap sounds that's so loud it rattles the windows, the steps under my feet and the railing I hold tight to in my surprise. I gasp out a 'wow!' and Gibbs and Tony both look in my direction.
I nod to Gibbs and he understands what I mean by the gesture:
'Yes, Gibbs. I've placated Vance. He's not going to come after you."
And then head to the other side of Tony who's still looking out over the scene in the sky like there will be a Michael Bay explosion in the clouds at any moment. He starts spouting of statistics that sound made up on tornado's in the DC area and we fall into a lighthearted debate about some of the more famous storms to hit the area as Gibbs disappears back to his desk only to be replaced by Abby a few minutes later.
"I swear," she says at my elbow with a smile in her voice, "you two fight more than an old married couple"
Tony chuckles at that but I scowl.
"HA! I've got you this time. You're forgetting about that one in 2001, McBrainiac!" He chides, managing to land two jabs at me without even trying. One for another stupid nickname and the other for one-upping me, yet again, in our little weather debate.
"You remember. It went right past the Washington Monument." He's right and I try to shake off my embarrassment at being upstaged by Tony for once (and in front of Abby and in something scientific). I can tell she's getting a kick out of the fact that I've just been taken down a peg by Anthony DiNozzo but then her face softens, I decide Tony can win this round and we all go back to looking out over the river and the angry clouds that have congregated over it.
It's like nothing I've ever seen before and I resist the urge to press my nose to the glass to try and get a better look at what's happening beyond my sightline. The building is still blocking most of the storm from view but if what it's sent out ahead of itself is any indication of its strength, we're all in for an interesting afternoon. I almost suggest we find a TV and some cover and ride out the incoming fury in the safety of the basement where it will be safe. We could hide out in HR maybe and that thought almost makes me chuckle. I've heard whispers around the break room about the epic battles being fought between Tony and the women who work down there, but I think mostly it's just rumor.
"Hey, I think they're saying something about the storm on the news," Abby says with a poke to my arm and we leave Tony at the bank of windows to head for the plasma to un-mute it. An exact replica of the scene we've just left behind is being broadcast over the airwaves and I smile a little at the irony as I finally find the clicker and turn the TVs volume back on.
"... and residents are urged to seek shelter immediately as a tornado warning remains in effect until..." I watch the warning marquee at the base of the screen with gigantic white letters against an angry red background but I don't hear the rest of what the announcer is saying because Abby is tugging at my arm. We both watch what unfolds on the screen then turn our heads to look back the way we've just come, maybe hoping it's all just some kind of joke.
But the twister we've just seen form on the news is the twister that fills the view from the windows and when the glass shatters inward, just as Vance exits MTAC to yell at us to take cover, I body check Abby to the floor behind my desk. She screams as we fall, her voice carried away from us on the vortex of wind that slams everything in the office slightly to the right. One of her legs is splayed out and I hook it in with my ankle to tuck her against me completely. Seconds later the computer monitor from my desk crashes down into the space she's just occupied and this time she covers her ears with her hands when she screams.
I protect her with my body as best I can and rest my face against the dip of her neck, using the familiar scent of her to ground myself somehow. The smell of her brings back memories of a long ago romance I haven't thought of in years and I hold on to those memories while everything else around me rattles apart.
The floor underneath us gives an almighty lurch and I increase my hold around her upper body as the tornado's wind whips around us. I can feel paper and debris pelt my skin and there's even a terrifying second when the pressure in the room changes and we're both being dragged bodily across the floor a few feet to stop in the space between Tony's desk and mine by the force of wind. Abby is shaking in my arms and I want to check to make sure that she's okay, but there's a tearing sound above the howling wind now and I hold on to her for dear life as the building around us heaves. Pieces of the ceiling start crashing around us and the sound of everything is so loud in my head that I press my ear to Abby's neck hoping to deaden the noise. I can hear her heartbeat and I focus on its rhythm, the only thing that makes sense in the chaos around us.
I wonder for a second if this is it and my thoughts stray away from Abby and my own well-being, and to my father. They tried a round of chemo on his cancer recently and he's showing some signs of improvement so the idea that I might die here at the hands of a tornado makes me wonder what he'll think of me if he has to bury me in the ground when this is all over. It would be something he would do: resent me for the fact that mother nature got me in the end and not some terrorist. A son's heroic death at the hands of madmen propels political careers forward. Being taken out by an act of God does not.
I increase my hold on Abby minutely and we stay that way until the wind drops and the papers flung about in the melee flutter down around us like confetti. But there's no party going on at NCIS today and when I eventually get to my feet and pull Abby up from the floor with me, no one is laughing or celebrating surviving the storm. The front of the building is gone and I'm looking out over the normal view I'd have of the Anacostia and the city that's sprung up around her, but this time there is no glass separating me from the outside world. It's gone, all of it's just gone, and sparks are raining down from exposed wires in the ceiling, the electricity coercing through them having nowhere to go but out.
I glance sideways to meet Abby's eyes and realize that our hands are still linked together from when I helped her up, neither of us able to let go just yet. She seems relatively unscathed but I pull her towards me to look her over anyway. Abby comes willingly, white as a sheet and a little shell-shocked, but she still comes.
"Are you alright?" I ask her, bending down a little to keep her eyes on me when she starts to look down at the floor.
"I'm okay... I think." She's got blood running down her arm from a cut under her sleeve and I move the fabric away to find a shallow trench running along the flesh of her upper arm. Her hair is disheveled and she looks like she's just seen a ghost, but everything else appears to be alright. I, on the other hand, have made it to the other side of disaster without so much as a scratch, though my ribs are starting to twinge from our earlier fall to the floor. I ignore this pain and pull the handkerchief I always keep on me but never remember to use from the pocket of my jacket and press the white cloth into the cut on her arm. She hisses and I wince in sympathy.
"I'm sorry!" I say but I don't remove the hand. She's not paying attention to me anyway.
"My God, Tim. Tony and Gibbs!" She's pointing to a space in front of where the windows used to be and I follow the line of her arm, down past her bangled wrist, and finally make myself look in the direction she points. Gibbs is nowhere to be seen and the place where we left Tony mere minutes ago is no longer there. It's vanished and my brain has to take a minute to wade through the possibilities my imagination keeps conjuring. My mind wants to fracture off in a million different directions, but Abby's tremors under my hand zero me back into what I need to do: be the calm focused center that gets us all through this.
I take both of Abby's hands in mine and make her look at me.
"Abby, I need you to take the stairs if they're still there and get anyone you can find out of the building. We need to let the rescue teams know that there's people missing." I don't give these 'people' names on purpose and I think Abby is grateful for that.
"What about you?" She asks, not letting me drop her hands even when I try. "What are you going to do?"
"I'm gonna try to make it up to MTAC and see if everyone is alright. Vance was up there." She looks over to the mangled skeleton of the stairs that used to be the way up to MTAC then back at me skeptically.
"I have to try, Abs." I say before she can argue and I watch as her head falls and her shoulders slump.
"Please, please, PLEASE be careful," Abby breathes before pulling me into a bone crushing hug then turning away to join a group of people congregating near the hallway leading to the stairs. She herds them out and off of the floor and I watch them go, not doing or saying anything when she looks back at me one final time before disappearing around the corner, her face unreadable. Part of me wants to call her back, but someone needs to get out to the first responders and tell them what's happened, so I hold the plea in the back of my throat and turn away.
Squaring my shoulders then grabbing onto a partially overturned file cabinet when the floor beneath me shifts, I use the twisted railing of the stairs up to MTAC to hoist myself up onto a part of the staircase that's still intact. It holds steady beneath my feet and I sit on it for a second, trying to catch my breath. I haven't been training as hard I used to and now it's coming back to bite me in the ass. But at least the stairs stay stationary enough for me to continue and I make my way to the door to MTAC which is still miraculously intact. The storm seems to have been satisfied with gorging itself on Tony and Gibbs and the 10 feet or so of floor that they had been standing on. Thoughts of my missing friends are liable to undo me so I don't let myself turn around to survey the damage below me and bang my fist against the metal door I've come to.
"Can anyone hear me in there?" I bellow, hoping that a room designed to be impenetrable is enough to have saved the lives of the people trapped inside of it.
"Hello!?" I cry out again then someone rattles the doorknob at my navel and throws their weight against the door.
"McGee?" Comes a muffled reply and I think it sounds like Vance.
"Director? Is that you?"
"Yeah, we're all okay in here but I can't get the door open. It's jammed." I can just barely make out what he's saying and I search the door frame for signs of trauma. The building has shifted and I can see that the smooth surface of the metal door is distorted in places and that the frame isn't quite square anymore.
"Push from in there and I'll pull from out here. Maybe we can get it to budge enough for me to get some better leverage." I yell and hear Vance's muffled acknowledgement back. I wrap both hands around the handle and give as hard a pull as my tired arms will allow. The door shifts, but only minutely, and I give up seconds later with an irritated sigh and sore, chafed palms. The people in MTAC will be saved, but it's going to take bigger and better tools than my own poor hands to do it.
I tell Vance as much with a shout through the door.
"It won't budge, Director. But Abby's gone to get help, someone should be up here soon."
"How is it out there? Everyone alright?" I knew we would eventually get to this part, but knowing that doesn't make it any easier, so I lie.
"I don't know yet, things are pretty crazy right now." I put my forehead to the cool metal of the MTAC door and pray that he buys my lie because I think I've just about come to the end of my ability to deal with all this. And having to put into words that Gibbs and Tony (and countless other people) may be dead, just might be the thing that sends me over the edge.
The Director of NCIS is an important man so lucky for me it doesn't take long for a band of firemen flanked by the Director's personal security team to appear from the hallway Abby disappeared down only a few minutes ago. I recognize one of them, Agent Petersen is his name, and he hails me with a hand in the air.
"Alright, McGee?" He yells up to me and I nod before I realize he probably can't see it then move back towards the stairs.
"I'm fine but the Director and a few techs are stuck in MTAC."
"He says they are." One of the firemen is trying to secure the stairs and as I look back down at the way I came up, I realize what a monumentally stupid idea climbing them really was.
"Hold on, we'll get you down." Petersen says as if reading my mind and I put my back to the wall with arms outstretched and palms flat, suddenly afraid the platform I'm on will give way when the building gives another rumble. A few guys below me duck for cover when some debris start to fall, but the structure settles again a moment later and they resume their efforts at extricating me.
When the stairs are finally secure and I'm back on solid ground (if you can call it that) I ask the paramedic who insists on looking me over before he'll let me leave if he knows of any casualties. I get the company line about not having any information and would I please think of myself first before I bat his hands away and go in search of someone who knows me and will give me answers. We have plans in place for disasters like this and I make my way to a designated rendezvous point that I realize to late will most likely be empty. So I'm pretty surprised to see Jimmy and Ducky there when I arrive.
"Oh, Timothy," Ducky says, shaking my hand instead of hugging me like Jimmy just did. I can see in his eyes that he was hoping I was someone else, but I don't let it bother me because no one is thinking too clearly at the moment.
"Are you injured, my boy?" He asks, giving me the same once over the paramedic tried to do, but this time I don't bat the hands away that worry over me.
"I'm fine, Ducky. Just twinged my ribs a bit. Have you seen them?" He knows who it is I'm asking after and he shakes his head.
Jimmy is hovering around the ME, cataloging every movement and watching him like a hawk but the doctor seems to be handling the stress of everything pretty well and his heart appears to be holding up against it all.
"What happened to you guys?" I ask and Jimmy launches into the story of how they escaped Autopsy with all the gusto of a tightly wound mechanical toy. Disaster, it would seem, hits the fast forward button on Jimmy Palmer and I try to keep up with him as he rambles on with occasional exasperated side notes from Ducky.
"We had the TV on and saw the warnings, well WE didn't have the TV on, I had the TV on because Dr. Mallard had stepped out into the garage to talk to an ambulance driver that had just delivered a body, but that's beside the point. When I realized it was headed right for us, I called to them to take cover, and we managed to right when it hit. The building shook like crazy, the lights went out and some of the ceiling fell in but we were all able to take cover under one of the autopsy tables. Mr. Sanderson is a little worse for wear but Dr. Mallard wouldn't let me stay behind to cover him up and the garage made it through unscathed so we were able to get out that way and then Dr. Mallard figured the best place for us to go was right here. He was very brave and was the one who remembered the disaster plan rendezvous point."
The place our team chose in a fit of compliance is a space under some trees behind the NCIS building. The storm that had decimated the place a mere hour ago is far off now and has taken the rain, high temperatures and muggy conditions with it and left us with a stiff breeze and a day I'd call beautiful if it were any other day. The damage and the rescue crews are all on the other side of the building from where we are and I know I need to start making my way over there to get my answers and to help out if I can. I need to find Abby, too.
"Have you guys seen the damage yet?" They both look up at me and it's Jimmy's eyes that go wide as he gives a slow nod of his head that he makes sure Ducky can't see. That maneuver has my heart falling into my stomach.
I leave them on the lawn under the protection of the trees after more Autopsy staff arrive and make the journey around the building to where the real chaos lies. The storm has moved off and I can see blue skies every once in a while between the clouds that are starting to break apart above my head. In the weather report this morning they mentioned that there could be intermittent periods of storms today and I pray that they're wrong because I don't think anyone can take another round of what we've just been through.
And when I round the front of NCIS to get a good look at what the storm did, I know in that moment that my heart isn't coming out from the pit of my stomach any time soon.
A battalion of police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances are all piled on top of one another on the street outside my building and there are more people milling about than my poor brain can process. My eyes search the crowds for people I know but everyone looks the same with their white, dust covered faces and hollow eyes and I fight back an urge to scream. The front of NCIS looks like a warzone, one section of the front completely obliterated with bits of flooring and office furniture hanging half on and half off of floors with no exterior walls and every so often someone calls out "INCOMING" and white dust covered bodies scurry out of the rubble to avoid another falling piece of debris. There seems to be no order to the chaos and I realize that I've just been wandering for the past few minutes until someone grabs my arm and stops me.
"Sir, are you alright?" It's a rescue worker and I see that I've wandered pretty close to the debris field and where the front door to NCIS used to be.
"I'm fine," physically at least but he's looking at me like he doesn't believe me.
"What can I do to help?" but even as I ask it, I realize what a dumb question it is. How could I possibly be of any use here?
"Honestly, sir, the best thing you can do is stay back and let us do our job. There's an agent over there who seems to know what's going on for you guys." I look over to where he's pointing and see that the agent in question is Ned Dorneget and I almost start to laugh but then I spy a newly freed Director Vance heading over to where Dorneget stands and I walk away from the firemen without getting his name and head toward the people I know. I reach the small group just as they start discussing the status of the rescue effort and when Vance sees me he waves me over.
"I want McGee as point on this," Vance says and he puts a hand on my shoulder when I get close enough. The gesture surprises me. Enough so that I don't argue when he suddenly puts me in charge of everything then moves off to address other issues and leaves me standing with a deflated Ned Dorneget.
And then suddenly, just like that, I'm the man to see. But before I do anything else there's one thing I have to know and I turn to Ned and ignore the wounded look on his face from being dethroned so quickly.
"Have you heard anything about Tony or Agent Gibbs?" I ask him more forcefully then I intend to.
The stunned shake of the head I get in reply is all the ignition source I need to plunge myself head first into the pandemonium.
There are 12 hours of Desert Storm that I don't talk to anyone about. Partly because it's classified and partly because they are hours spent trapped in a collapsed fox hole that it took 5 men half a day to dig me out of. And in those 12 hours I managed to gain a new respect for fresh air and one highly developed fear of enclosed spaces. I think I've managed to successfully keep this fear hidden from anyone who knows me (Franks might have guessed, but he doesn't count anymore, does he?). So it goes without saying that I start to get a little panicked when I wake up to find that I can't lift my head or that everything is as dark and as close around me as it was for those 12 hours in Desert Storm that I don't talk to anyone about.
There's something heavy pinning my head to the ground and for the briefest of moments my trip down the front of NCIS through the floor remains an incomprehensible mess in my head. My thoughts won't stay where I put them but eventually the memories begin to slot back into place and I remember where it is I am and how I got here. I can feel a warm liquid gathering in a pool around the cheek I have smashed into the foyer floor and I know that it's blood, but I'm having a hard time deciding what my next move should be. I have to get my head free, the feeling of being trapped is trying to overwhelm me. So I put my hands to the piece of debris that's holding it down and mercifully the bit of ceiling is loose enough that it only takes a few tries to get myself free but the pain at my temple is immense and even the weak light managing to make its way into where I'm trapped hurts my eyes. I close them against the unyielding pain and will myself not to be sick. I lose that fight pretty quickly though and sour the air of the small space I'm in with what I expel.
I test my joints one by one and everything appears to be in working order but there's a pain in my chest that hitches with every breath I try to take in and I know I've bruised, if not broken, at least a few ribs. I get proof of this when I try to sit up and the pain is so excruciating that I have to fall back onto the bit of flooring I just managed to get my head out from under. I roll myself over carefully, put a hand to my injured side then pull up the fabric of my shirt to see that a decent sized bruise has blossomed over more than half of the right side of my torso. I let the material fall back down and then lean my head back again, breathing heavy and trying not to panic as the walls around me close in.
This is not Desert Storm, I remind myself, and try imagine that the collapsed floor around me isn't as close as it feels until I can finally breathe a little more normal again. I risk cracking my eyes open to slits and the pain stays pretty tolerable in the weak light so I continue the check of myself I had begun earlier. Besides the ribs that are obviously in bad shape, there's a pain in my wrist I can't check on because the fingers of my other hand are covered in shallow cuts I don't remember getting and the blood makes slippery work of unbuttoning the cuff of my sleeve. I finally give up after the superficial pain and the frustration at not being able to get my hands to stop shaking pisses me off enough to not care anymore. I can flex my wrist without too much pain and that will have to be enough for now.
If I have any major injuries, they're internal, but I push that thought away to deal with later and take in my surroundings again with what I hope is a level head. I've been trained for situations like this and I try to fall back on instinct when logic runs and hides every time I try to think things through. Luckily, I'm saved from my delirium by a muffled cry that sounds off to my right which my brain automatically identifies as DiNozzo. I've developed this 6th sense when it comes to my team and there's no doubt in my mind that it's him.
Finally having some target to aim for, I stifle my own groan of pain and manage to maneuver myself onto my hands and knees to start using my palms to try and clear myself a path towards my agent. It's painstaking slow work because my wrist keeps shooting white hot bolts of pain up my arm every time I use it and every piece of debris I shift has the possibility of disaster clinging to it. Move one wrong bit, shift one piece the wrong way and I risk bringing everything down around me, killing me (and possibly Tony too) in the process and that's not something I want to chance, so I study each piece as I come to it to carefully asses it's threat level. It both takes forever and gives me something else to focus on besides the thoughts of what Tony's condition will be if I eventually reach him, and my own bruised insides that keep trying to scream at me to rest. I can't rest though, and I plow forward with as much speed as I dare.
I find him lying against the other reception desk, almost exactly in the same place I woke up against its twin a few yards away. But where I was just pinned a little under some drywall, Tony is soldered in place on his back on the floor by an angry piece of rebar protruding from his lower half. But worse than that is the 30 or so feet of debris between me and him without a space big enough for me to climb through. I'm cut off from him completely. So close, yet I can tell from the angle of things and the precarious way in which the ceiling is being held up by crumbling columns of cinder block and twisted steel reinforcements that I can't get to him this way.
I let out a curse that would have made my father blush and pound a fist against a piece of drywall beside me, leaving a side-of-the-fist shaped dent in it from the force of my frustration, barely registering the pain it pulls from my wrist.
"Tony!" I yell out to him from behind the wall of debris separating us, but he's unconscious and doesn't move or open his eyes. I use my own eyes to sweep the mess around me again, desperately seeking someway to move things away so that I can get in to him, but it's no use. I'm about to give up and just start pulling at things randomly when a noise from behind me catches my attention and I try to rein in my fear and frustration enough to listen for what it might be. It's a metal twang that every few seconds repeats and vibrates the still air around me slightly until what it is I'm hearing finally clicks into place. Someone deeper into the building behind me is banging metal against metal in an attempt to alert rescue workers of their position.
I look back to Tony and have to duck my head slightly so I can get him back into my field of vision around the debris. He's still unconscious but I can just barely make out the slightest rise and fall to his chest (though that doesn't make what I'm about to do any easier). I sit there looking at him for an immeasurable moment, memorizing him just in case this is it and I never see him alive again, and pray for the first time since before Shannon and Kelly died. If there is a God, I beg him in that moment to keep Tony alive until I can help whomever is pounding away behind me and then return to find another way to reach my agent.
Leaving him here when I'm so close feels almost like a betrayal (something I seem to be doing to him a lot lately) but there's nothing in this moment I can do to reach him. I tear myself away from the sight of him, leaving some of my soul at the scene of my failure for the rescue workers to find later, and hope that my halting and awkward prayers a few minutes ago are enough to save him.
"Don't you die on me, DiNozzo," I mumble for no one to hear but me then turn myself around and start making for the noise that is still sounding every few seconds.
The debris is beginning to thin the farther back into the lobby I go and when I find myself in a space with enough room to stand in, I take the pressure off my hands and knees and try to stretch my sore muscles. Tension and frustration have shortened them into angry bands of sinew that take precious minutes to stretch back out before I'm even able to get all the way up off the floor. But once I've managed it, it's a huge relief though I can feel a wave of pain threatening to crest and crash over me. I know it's only adrenalin that has gotten me this far and that the longer I rest the quicker it will wear off, so I ignore the throbbing in my chest and rub the tiny spray of blood that coughing on dust brings up away on my pant leg.
I don't have time right now to worry about that little development.
There may be less debris and more space in this section of the lobby, but the lights are out and I'm almost in total blackness and with no light to search by I do the only thing I can think of.
" Can anyone hear me!?" And a few seconds later I hear a distinctively female voice answer back.
"Over here!" she cries and I have to take second to check the nausea that erupts on me when my brain suddenly suggests that it's Abby who's calling out to me for help.
No, I know Abby's voice and I chide myself for letting this disaster I've found myself in mess with my Gibbs Gut (as Abby would call it), and swallow back the bile that's managed to make its way up the back of my throat. I have to hold onto the hope that Abby, Ducky, Palmer and Tim are all still alive and until someone shows me their bodies laid out in autopsy, I'm not going to let that hope go.
"Hold on, I'm coming!" I say, like putting the promise into words will help propel my feet forward and keep them going in that direction.
When I round a chunk of fallen-in ceiling I spot them on the ground on the other side of it. One of them, an elderly woman I don't recognize, is holding a flashlight and the beam is pointed directly into my face after I round the corner. And for one agonizing moment, pain lances across my brain so badly that I have to put my hands to my face to keep from calling out. She apologizes profusely and when I've gotten myself under control enough that I'm able to open my eyes again, she's got the flashlight pointed at the wall behind her and she's looking at me with round, apologetic eyes.
"I am so sorry young man," she says and the moniker makes me want to laugh.
"Are ya alright?" I ask, kneeling down beside her and trying to read on her face if she's the kind of person who will lie to me about how bad it really is or not. But for the small pile of plumbing she's trapped under, she looks relatively okay.
"Alive, but I couldn't manage this pipe on my own," She sweeps her hand in the direction of the metal that has her trapped in place and it only takes me a few seconds to free her. She rolls away then leans against a surviving wall with a hand at her hip, panting against pain or relief, I can't tell which.
"Thank you." She says sincerely when I kneel back down beside her and she thrusts the flashlight into my hands. "Now go check on Carol."
Normally an order barked out to me like that would earn you my utmost ire, but today I let the lapse in decorum slide and head over in the direction she points.
Carol. I know that name. She's the HR office manager hell bent on making DiNozzo's life a living hell and the other woman trapped beneath the rubble who hasn't yet uttered a sound.
I make my way over to Carol's still form and shift enough of the debris away so I can get a better look at her. Her skin is ashy grey under the beam of the flashlight and I'm suddenly relieved that I'm blocking the other woman's view of her.
"How bad is she?" I hear from over my shoulder. "She lost consciousness a few minutes before you got here."
I maneuver my shaking hand over to search for a pulse I know I won't find because Carol's eyes are open and unseeing. When my fingertips find no movement at her carotid, I use them to close her eyelids before sighing then moving back over to the woman who survived. Death has been such a constant companion with me over the years, you'd think scenes like this would get easier to handle... but they never do and I wonder if that's a good thing or not.
"What's your name, darlin'?" I ask my fellow survivor as I crouch beside her and she looks up at me with hurt in her eyes. The news of Carol's death passes between us unspoken and she lets her head hang with a shake of her shoulders when she realizes I'm not lying.
"I'm Mona," she says between the tears, and I'm suddenly at a loss for what to do so I put an awkward hand on her shoulder and try to give her something that looks a little like comfort.
"I'm sorry," but the words don't feel like enough.
"No, I'm sorry. I figured she had passed, I just didn't think it would hurt so bad." She replies gesturing towards her battered leg but we both know what she really meant.
"Do you think you could stand?" I ask her and her face goes a little white at the prospect but she nods and allows me to pull her up from the floor. She has to lean heavily against me and my ribs give an almighty throb, but I push the pain back down and we hobble forward toward more stable accommodations.
"Carol and I were headed up to watch the storm come in through the lobby windows. I assume a tornado came through?" She asks as we make our way slowly. She's holding the flashlight in her free hand and the beam bounces back and forth across the debris, sending shadows darting out from beneath its light and I have to focus on the floor so as not to lose my balance. She doesn't seem to need an answer from me and keeps talking.
"We were just getting off the elevator when a security guard came running over to us and told us to take the stairs back down to the basement. She said it was getting bad outside, and then the ceiling just fell in right on top of her. No warning but a few rumbles of thunder. I got taken out by a pipe and Carol... well... you saw."
We take a break on a bench near the elevators that has managed to survive the destruction and Mona puts a hand to her hip and mine goes to my ribs. We make a pretty interesting pair.
"Hey, I never got your name." She says, turning towards me with a grimace.
"Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs," I reply putting out a drywall dust covered hand for her to shake. She takes it and dust puffs out from between our clasped hands.
"Of course you are," she laughs and seems amused when she sees the confusion broadcast across my face. I want to ask her what the hell that's supposed to mean, but I don't have it in me after Carol.
"We spoke on the phone this morning. I was giving you a hard time about those personnel files." My conversation with the grumpy lady in HR comes to the forefront of my mind and I shake my head in disbelief.
"That was you?" I ask her and she smiles back at me sheepishly.
"I don't suppose you'd accept an apology would you? It's the least I can do since you saved my life."
What the hell, I think to myself. Nothing like disaster to make friends of enemies.
"Apology accepted." I say and tears brim in her eyes before she looks away to swipe at them angrily.
"Well, now that that's out of the way, if you could get me back down the basement stairs, there's an exit that way we can use to get out of the building if it's not blocked." I weigh what she's telling me in my mind and a plan starts to form.
I manage to get us back down into the basement without much trouble but when we reach the top of the stairs that lead out of the basement and to the outside, I deposit her into the hands of some of her coworkers who were waiting around to see if she and Carol would make it back and don't follow them as they start to walk away. Mona makes the two girls holding her between them turn around when she realizes I'm not with the group anymore and meets my eyes.
"What are you doing, Agent Gibbs?" She asks, her eyes telling me she already knows but still has to ask me like if she makes me say it out loud I might convince myself what a dumb an idea it is and abandon it completely.
"One of my agents is still in there, Mona. I have to try and get to him."
"It's suicide," she says simply but like she already knows I don't care.
"I won't leave him there." She nods.
"Do me a favor, will you?" I ask before they turn to leave me.
"Anything, Agent Gibbs. Name it."
"Find Agent Timothy McGee if you can and tell him that Tony is trapped under the debris in the lobby directly under where we fell through the floor. If you can't find Tim then Abby Scito or Ducky Mallard from Autopsy will work too."
'If they're even alive,' my brain wants to add, but I don't let it.
I'm sending my last prayer at saving Tony out with a woman who, a few hours ago, was in the top slot of my shit list and I hope my new-found confidence in her isn't unfounded... but I can tell by the defiant jut of her chin as she sticks it out to stare at me proudly that she'll take this heavy task I've handed to her and not rest until it's completed.
"You got it," she says and I watch the small band of leaderless HR employees make their way over to the other side of the building where help is hopefully waiting.
I turn to head back down the concrete stairs but something stops me on the topmost glass peppered step. It's like I'm standing at the gates of hell and armed only with a shaky prayer that's hardly worth its weight in gold. The thought of Tony as cold and as dead and as still as Carol was under my fingertips has me shuddering and my feet refusing to move. I've lived through too many of these moments and the thought of facing down another is almost more than I can bear. But then a vision of Tony standing before the bullpen windows watching the gathering storm clouds with such unbridled glee springs to the forefront of my mind and the force of the memory sends me down the steps at a run. If there's even the slightest chance that that kid is alive, I'm going to be there with him until the rescue workers can manage to find us. Screw the risks and screw the possibilities.
The lobby is as dark as ever when I climb back up the stairs from the basement, pointedly ignoring the steadily increasing pain in my chest from the bruised ribs. I remembered to take Mona's flashlight from her and make my way in the general direction of the other reception desk with its beam of light swinging out in front of me.
The debris begins its encroachment on my panic almost instantly, increasing exponentially as I get on my hands and knees again to shimmy under a girder that's in my way and manages to catch the back of my jacket with one of its torn edges. The sound of rending fabric and the jerk back it creates on me as it catches has me cringing away but I keep myself under control enough to free my arms from the jacket. I don't bother to retrieve it and move on through the maze of collapsed building material determined to find Tony.
Minutes tick by (though they feel like hours) but eventually I reach the shattered glass back of one of the desks and try not to curse when shards of it bite into my knees. I take a second to hope that it's the one Tony is on the other side of and shift the last piece of debris out of my way. I'm right near his head and the first thing I can think to do is call out his name.
Nothing, he's not moving and I try to see through my mist covered eyes if his chest is still rising and falling. My trip through the debris field has depleted most of my control and I can't hold back the panic and despair that floods my system when he doesn't move when I call. I'm not used to that: being ignored, nor am I used to being frozen in place with fear, unable to even reach my hand out to check at his neck for a pulse.
"DiNozzo!" I practically yell and finally, mercifully, I see movement under his eyelids.
"Damn it kid, open your eyes!"
This time my orders are followed and my head falls to my chest when he opens his eyes and my system floods with the warm heat of relief.
He calls me 'Boss' on a whisper of a breath.
"God, Tony, I thought you were..." but I can't finish the thought.
Let me know what you think!
Chapter 7: A List of Names for Vance
"I've got my men covering this quadrant here and Squad 47 has everyone they've got in this section here. If your men are trapped where you say they are, then we'll find them. The floor right below yours still hasn't been cleared yet but they radioed in a few minutes ago letting me know they were close to being done."
I'm standing in the street under a hastily erected tent leaning over the hood of a police car with the blueprints of the NCIS building and grounds spread over across the top of it. Captain Kent of the Metro Area Fire Department and I have come to the mutual conclusion that we can only pull this operation off successfully if we both work together so for the past 40 minutes we've been diligently cordoning off the blueprints in front of us into 20x20 grids that groups of assembled firefighters and police officers can search. Added to grid are red stars in the places I know large numbers of people could be trapped with one particular star drawing my eyes every few minutes or so. It's the last place I saw Tony and Gibbs and the unofficial focal point of the rescue effort (though equal attention is being paid to anyone else listed as missing on the list Ned Dorneget keeps updating for me). I've learned from the Captain and the various minions he has reporting to him periodically that we're the only building the tornado has managed to take a chunk out of so we have the whole of the Metro FD and PD at our disposal, the result of which looks like a 3 ring circus but in reality is a well oiled machine now that we've got egos and Type A personalities in check.
Captain Kent picks up his radio to check one more time on the progress in the building and I take a minute to step to the side and chug half of the bottle of water someone shoved into my hands an hour or so ago. Ever since Vance handed over the rescue reins to me from Dorneget it's been one disaster after another and I haven't had time to think let alone hydrate and I relish the cool liquid at is slides down my word weary throat. My existence has been condensed down to search grids and meetings with the various leaders of various rescue groups and it's a wonder I've managed to keep it all together for this long... or remember anyone's name for that matter. The one saving grace in all of this has been Dorneget and I remind myself yet again to remember to mention this to Vance when I get the chance. The guy has swallowed his pride and really stepped up and I can't help but feel a little fondness for the stumbling way in which he manages to keep me from washing out at this. He gets me the names I need, the updates I miss and corrects me when I get things wrong and I know what a cluster this would all be if he wasn't here with me to help (though I never thought in a million years I would ever say that about the guy who once got his tooth bugged and leaked classified information).
In the brief solitude I find myself in I let my eyes wander across the grass and towards the gaping hole at the front of NCIS and wonder where Tony and Gibbs are in all this madness. It's like a bomb went off and I can't help but picture what they might look like when the rescue teams eventually find them and pull them from the rubble. I keep telling myself that any minute now I'll hear some happy voice come over the radio to announce that they've found them alive and whole but as the hours tick away from me with reckless abandon, the chances of that outcome become more remote. And then there's always the possibility that one or both of them was sucked up into the twister and that we never will know what happened to them or recover their bodies. It's scenarios like that that have my stomach heaving, and I push them away like they're hot and just scaled me. I can't afford to think like that, not with the lives of so many people depending on the decisions I make in the coming hours.
Pulling me back to duty is Captain Kent who calls me back over to his map to reconfigure some of the grid and we lose ourselves in planning until it's time for another round of meetings with the leaders of the search groups. The engineers have cleared the floor beneath what's left of my office and the firemen reorder themselves so that a team can get up there and sweep the floor for survivors. Even as we prepare this I keep looking off to the east where another bank of tall thunderheads is gathering and know I'm not the only one who looks in that direction.
All non-essential personal (including the director who I was finally able to convince to leave) are in the process of being bused over to Quantico to be debriefed... except for Abby who stubbornly refuses to leave even after I promised to keep in constant contact with her over the phone. She's been flitting between me and the rescue workers delivering bottles of water and the hamburgers that a local merchant has been grilling up for the past hour on the edge of the debris. A lot of locals have turned out actually and while most have come just to gawk at the devastation, some have put themselves to good use and I know the rescue teams appreciate it. But dusk is on its way and the incoming bank of storms seems to be thinning the crowd of gawkers and Good Samaritans alike and someone has started erecting large banks of lights off to one side of the building so the rescue efforts can continue on after dark.
Also out there in the waning afternoon light is Jimmy Palmer and I add another name to the list of people I've got to mention to Vance when this is all over. Paramedics are in short supply now that people are starting to get pulled from the rubble at the base of the building and Jimmy has been helping out the local doctors over at the triage center set up under some tents put up in the tornado cleared parking lot off to my right. Ducky tried to stay behind as well but everyone backed me up on the decision to get his ass on a bus though he only agreed to go once he realized there would be superficial injuries to treat when everyone got safely to Quantico. I know Abby has been keeping everyone updated over there with frequent calls to Ducky and I'm secretly glad she told me to shove my order to leave 'where the sun don't shine' and I search for her dark hair in the crowd of dust covered heads. I can't spot her but knowing she's out there somewhere makes me feel better somehow.
I'm still pouring over the map with the Captain when the news comes over the radio that the floor beneath where Tony and Gibbs disappeared has been cleared of all survivors and dead. My friends are not among them and I watch with a growing dread as someone updates the numbers on the list of casualties and injured chalked onto a board someone set up on an easel in the tent our command center is assembled under. There are so many names already and every time the number in the 'dead' column grows, I want to turn around and throw up into the grass. I can't do that though. Can't show weakness, not when so many people are counting on me to get them through all this. The weight of that burden is staggering and I chug the rest of my water to hide the tremor that's taken over my body.
I'm not the right guy for this.
Gibbs should be here taking point and getting shit done because I've never been good at stuff like this... always the dutiful follower but never the leader. And yet here I am, put in charge by the Director of NCIS himself and coordinating a rescue effort of mythical proportions and doing an okay job at it. None of the disasters unfolding this day are the result of any folly of mine and for the first time since this crazy ass-backwards day started, I feel something like hope fill my chest cavity. Maybe I can do this and maybe Tony and Gibbs are still alive and any minute now I'll hear that happy announcement over the airwaves and cheer with the rest of the crowd when my friends are pulled from the rubble alive and intact. I let this thought fuel my confidence and keep my self-depreciating down to a minimum. If I turn soft now, this day will only get worse.
I'm right in the middle of a conversation with one of the engineers who's working on securing the ground level of the building when Dorneget appears at my elbow and tries to get my attention. But what this engineer is telling me is important and I put a hand out to silence him for a second and then try to apologize for my rudeness with a quick flick of my eyes in his direction. I think he understands and the engineer continues on with his update.
"Far as we can tell, Agent McGee, they might have fallen all the way down to the lobby. I got my guys clearing floors as fast as they can and as soon as humanly possible, we'll get crews in there to start clearing some of that debris."
It's that moment that Dorneget tries to interrupt us again and I bite back the urge to scold him like some petulant child.
"WHAT Dorneget?" I snap a little more harshly than I mean to (and I'm instantly sorry for it) but he takes it in stride and turns around to point towards the triage tent.
"Abby is over there with a woman who says she saw Gibbs about an hour ago. She's waiting for you over there."
"She says she saw Agent Gibbs?" I repeat for no reason other than to try and wrap my head around what I'm hearing. "You're sure?"
"That's what Abby says."
"Will you stay here Ned, while I go and check this out?"
"Sure thing, boss," he replies with a smile and I try to feel like I deserve the title.
I make my way over to the triage tent as fast I can but it takes me longer than I would like because I keep getting stopped every few feet or so to give or get an update on what's going on. Eventually I'm able to make it over to the tent and am greeted by the irony taint of blood as soon as I enter and the distinct smell fills my nostrils and tries to gag me. The smell of blood has always sickened me and I try not to let copious amounts of it in the tent bend me at the middle.
A line of stretchers extends from an opening in the side of the tent where ambulance after ambulance backs up to stuff themselves full with the injured and transport them to waiting hospitals, and I'm suddenly very aware of how terrible this disaster really is. On each stretcher lies a person who is injured enough to require a hospital and the line seems to go on forever and there's no one to blame it all on. It's one of those rare, senseless tragedies and I almost wish there was someone to track down and make pay for all of it, a picture to tape to the wall in the Bullpen that isn't there anymore, and a name to curse. But I have none of that and my parents raised me too Catholic to shake a fist at the sky and blame God so I swallow down the anger I have nothing to direct it at and make my over to where Jimmy and Abby are urgently questioning a gray-haired elderly woman I don't recognize.
"McGee!" Abby exclaims with more enthusiasm than I would have thought her capable of and throws her arms around me when I get over to where they stand. Jimmy's front is covered in blood so we settle on a handshake with uncomfortable chuckles when we realize we were about to hug for the 2nd time that day. Abby and our grey-haired Gibbs witness look back and forth between us like they're waiting for an explanation for our laughter, but I want to know why this little old lady with her leg in a splint is going around saying she's seen Gibbs and I look over at Abby expectantly.
"McGee, this is Mona. She works in HR and says she ran into Gibbs a little while ago in the lobby."
My eyes dart over to this Mona and she's looking up at me from her cot like she dares me to keep up my superior attitude with her and see what happens. She reminds me so much of my Penny in that moment that I have to take a second to remind myself that she's just an elderly woman with news of my boss. Regardless of who she is, I let my face soften and the tension fall away from my frame and try to relax as I ask her to please take me through what she remembers happening and she studies me for a moment like she's trying to figure out just what kind of man I am.
"I saw your Agent Gibbs about an hour ago." She starts, glaring at me when I start to interrupt with a question of my own. I give up with a shake of my head and let her continue.
"He helped me get out from underneath some rubble and then got me out of the building. When I left him he was getting ready to go back in and said I should find you or Ms. Sciuto here to let you know that..." She takes a second to think and I'm about to start questioning her integrity but as if she can sense my thought process, she shoots me another glare that effectively shuts me up and lets the rest out on an irritated breath.
"... that Tony is in the lobby right under where they fell through the floor and that he was going back in to stay with him until you guys could get the rescue workers in. They're by the receptionist desks so you should get someone in there right away if you haven't already."
"Did he say how Tony was?" I'm torn between the need for more information and the urge to hug this woman for the first good news I've heard in hours and I settle on pestering her for more information.
"No, but judging by the look on his face, I don't think things were going so well. He was pretty anxious to get back to him. I'm sorry, I should have asked him for more info." The sudden softness in her voice throws me off for a second and I realize she's picking up on the collective dread being thrown off by myself, Abby and Palmer at the same time, the poor woman with the broken leg stuck in the middle of it all.
"Mona, you telling me Agent Gibbs is alive is the best news I've heard since all of this started. No need to apologize."
"How did Gibbs look?" Jimmy asks, always the medical professional, and Mona's face turns stormy.
"He didn't say a word to me about it, but I could tell he was in a lot of pain and was looking pretty rough around the edges when I left him. Nothing really stood out, but I'm guessing he was trying to hide most of it."
Palmer and I share a concerned look behind Abby's back and I know in that moment that I need to get my ass in gear. I take one of Mona's hands in mine and give it a sincere shake.
"Thank you for letting us know about Agent Gibbs. I'm going to get the rescue teams on their location right away and see if we can find them." Mona nods and I let her hand drop then turn to Abby who's looking at me with that unreadable look again, that one she gets when she knows I'm about to do something stupid.
"I'll find 'em Abbs," I say putting my hands on her shoulders. "Both of them," and send this promise off in Jimmy's direction as well before I let my hands and drop and leave the tent the same way I came in.
The scene still looks the same when I exit and I don't know why I expected it to look any different now that I'm armed with new information on Tony and Gibbs' location. I make a beeline for the command center and grab as many critical people as I can find on the way so that I have a decent size group to address when we all make it back to our main base of operations.
"I got some new information on two people still missing. A witness saw Agent Gibbs in the lobby area about an hour ago and he told her he had a location on Tony DiNozzo as well. They're located by one of the two receptionist desk's where the majority of the destruction is so I need all available resources centered on this area here." I spout, pointing to the places I'm describing on the blueprints still spread across the roof of the police car.
To avoid them being blown away in the increasing wind someone has procured two large rocks and I don't let myself check the horizon again. Or worry about what the storm front still a ways away from us is doing. Instead I dive into coordinating the engineers to get the lobby cleared so we can start sending teams into the rubble beneath the broken face of NCIS and try to rein in my building anxiety. Things aren't going fast enough and it's an agonizing wait sitting in my little open air command center waiting for the all-clear to move people in. I want to get in there and start digging myself (and I fully intend to don a hardhat and try to get in there with the rescue teams) but I make myself stand there and wait with a cool exterior, all the while burning with uncertainty and frustration on the inside where no one can see. I've never been good at the waiting part though I'm pretty good at pretending I am just to piss Tony off who can't stand still on a stakeout to save his life. But our days of stakeouts could be over depending on how we find him and I try not to let that thought crack me apart... not after I've managed to keep it together for this long.
Even Dorneget and the Captain are stoic as we wait and it's like finding Gibbs and Tony will be the event that turns the tide in this nightmare. Like if we find them everything else will fall into place and the world will right itself again. I can only hope that this is true and wear a line in the grass with my pacing a I ride out the agonizing wait.
After what seems like hours, the all-clear finally sounds and I leave Dorneget with the Captain in Command and make my way across the lawn with a purloined hard hat with a crack down one side that looks like its seen better days. No one questions me or tries to stop me and I pick a place right at the front of the building where I have a good view of almost everything and stand with arms crossed as the rescue workers settle in to their trade. It's like they all know that I need this moment and as long as I stay out of the way, I don't think anyone is going to make me leave.
I'm there when the storm clouds pass overhead without so much as a drop of rain or rumble of thunder and I'm there when the sun sinks behind the horizon (shadows covering my feet) and I'm still there even when the generators roar to life and light the night sky with 100,000 watts of artificial day.
I stand there as they cart body after body out of the rubble, each stretcher stopping before me so I can check their faces to see if one of them is Gibbs or Tony, but none of them are and I stand there even when the building gives a shudder that has other men bolting for safety.
And I'm there when someone yells from inside that they've found them and don't let anyone stop me when I take off towards the huddled group pulling debris away as fast as they can to open up a protected bit of floor made safe by the NCIS sign that once made its home at front of the building. They'll need a crane to move the massive sign, but they're still able to clear a path to the figures hidden beneath it and I'm there when they manage to pull the first figure out from under the rubble.
I hold my breath in that instant and pray with every bit of faith I have left that they're both still alive and that I don't have to bury two of my friends this day.
"Think you could pass me another bit of sandpaper? This one's all used up." I squint into the light of the tropical sun above my head and hand him his sandpaper along with another beer to replace the one he finishes off in one long gulp to throw over the side of the boat to join the other empties in a pile on the sand.
It's one of those perfect Mexico days complete with spotless blue sky, empty white beach stretching out to either side of us as far as the eye can see and the ocean rolling in and out behind us with waves so perfect I can hardly believe they're real. We've got our latest find upside down and half buried in the sand, but it's too lazy a day to expend the energy to try and dig it back out. Besides, she's not even sea worthy yet and the ocean sets a gentle rhythm Tony matches with his sanding and the silence is all we need to keep up the work.
"I'm really glad you let me come here with you," he says after a while (I never could get Tony DiNozzo to stay quiet for long) and I smile at him but don't say anything back and he seems content with that... for a while at least.
"You know, after everything that happened, I wasn't sure if you'd want to see me again."
Oh here we go.
"You were only a few hours late, DiNozzo. I know what the traffic around DC can be like."
He goes back to his sanding but I know he's not done yet.
"Think McGee will be mad he wasn't invited?"
"I don't know, DiNozzo! Just finish your sanding. You're starting to make me regret bringing you here."
"Alright, but one more question and then I promise I'll leave you alone."
I let out an exasperated sigh at this because I know Tony is far from finished but I let him ask his 'one more question'.
"I was just wondering why didn't you stay awake. I mean, if you would have stayed awake we both would have made it out of there, you know."
"What are you talking about?"
The breeze coming off the ocean is picking up and a rumble of thunder has me turning away from him to look out to sea where I can tell a storm is brewing and marring the pristine blue sky with a band of grey at its horizon. When I look back to Tony the sun ducks behind one of the gathering clouds and I'm almost cold from its loss.
"What's goin' on, Tony. What did you do with the sun?"
Tony surprises me when he throws his head back and laughs up at the sky and flings both hands in the air.
"Oh Jethro, there never was any sun!" he yells still looking up at the sky.
The way he says my name just then is familiar and it stirs something in me that I just can't pin down. He looks back over at me but keeps his arms up, a shit eating grin on his face.
"Tony, what are you doing?" This is getting really weird.
"I'm dying Boss! What does it look like I'm doing?"
"Bring back the sun, this isn't funny anymore."
"Well, dying never is."
"Come on, Tony!"
"No YOU come on Gibbs. Think about it for a minute. Think about what you have to do.
You build boats... so wake and keep me afloat. Bring back the son so we all can go home and call it a day.
DC's burning, Gibbs." he taunts
"And only you can put out the fire."
"Cut it out, DiNozzo. I'm serious."
"Oh they'll cut it out alright. Question is: are you going to be there to see it?
Now wake up and save my ass!"
Tony brings his hands down in front of my face and claps them so hard that I feel the air on my face when his palms come together and just like that my quiet little sandy beach disappears and I'm staring down at a dust covered stone floor with no recollection of how to breathe.
It takes my lungs a second to remember what they were made for, like they're in the process of rebooting after having shut down, but even once they come back to life, I'm finding it impossible to draw in enough oxygen to make the whole breathing thing worth my time. It occurs to me that the giant piece of ceiling pining me over DiNozzo might have something to do with it and I push up with all my might to try and buck it off. I don't know where I get the strength: I'm oxygen deprived and half out of my mind with shock, but I manage to somehow get the impossibly heavy piece of ceiling off my back and fill my poor shriveled lungs with enough oxygen to keep me alive.
I sputter and cough and for who knows how many minutes, I sit back on my haunches and just try not to die. My body is one big ache, I can't see straight and every time I try to clear my vision, the space I'm in spins then shifts on its axis and I think I get sick to my stomach more than once in the process. It's a constant battle not to lapse back into unconsciousness but when I think I have enough of a hold on the here and now to focus on something else besides myself, I shift my attention over to DiNozzo and try to get that dream out of my head.
"Tony, what are you doing?"
"I'm dying Boss! What does it look like I'm doing?
He's lying in the same place I left him before succumbing to the blackness but this time the blood on his face is in the process of drying on his lips rather than spraying out into his palm and no more of it looks to be flowing from the rebar wound at his side. My oxygen starved brain tries to tell me that this is a bad thing, but I'm still having trouble focusing on anything other than keeping myself upright.
Tony still hasn't woken up and I find myself looking at him stupidly as if I expect any minute he'll wake up of his own accord and comment on our lack of rescue up to this point. He doesn't though and he's completely covered in dust except for where I was draped over him and my fingers leave two little clean places on his neck when I take them away after having checked for his pulse.
There's nothing there and for the first time in my life I want to cry because I don't think I have the strength left in me to give him CPR.
CPR takes endurance and it's hard to pull off for long even for people who are in good shape. But I have no endurance left in me and I'm sure has hell not in anything that could be described as 'good shape'. I can barely keep myself vertical so how is it that I'm supposed to get his heart beating again and force air into his lungs when I can barely manage that in myself?
"DC's burning Gibbs and only you can put out the fire."
I sigh at the remembered dream and know that there is no way I can just sit here and let DiNozzo die on me so I make myself get back up onto my knees, clasp my hands together like they taught in the class after finding the place on his sternum I need with a quick slide of my finger along his rib-cage, and push down with everything I have left.
I fall into a rhythm of compressions and breaths I'm too far gone to really make sure I get right, stopping every so often to clear off more dust from his neck trying to find a pulse, only to restart my efforts every time my searching fingers come back empty. I keep on like this until I'm drenched in sweat and my arms shake so badly that I don't even think I'm managing to compress his chest anymore and I collapse into a heap at his side when I suddenly lose the ability to keep myself up any longer.
I feel the detached fuzziness I know proceeds unconsciousness but I look over to DiNozzo and don't let it carry me away just yet. I have so much I want to say to him before I go but find that I've come to the end of everything I own: my air, my strength, my ability to form coherent words... so I just look over at him and hope he can hear what I'm thinking because my mind still works and in it I rage at the unfairness of how this all ends. We have so much more to do, Tony and I, and to come to the end of things with him bleeding out and me bleeding in, seems like we're both getting the short end of the stick.
I had plans to go out in a blaze of glory, not knee deep in another man's blood and my own sick. And yet, if I were to go out with anyone by my side, I'm glad it's DiNozzo, and with the last of me I reach over and take his hand in mine.
"I stayed, buddy," I think as the blackness sneaks in around my vision.
"...and I tried...
I really did try."
Take a deep breath and stick with me. This ain't over yet.
Chapter 9: An Outsider Invading
This has got to be, hands down, the CRAZIEST first week at a job I've ever had. Not only is the place I just started working at half collapsed in on itself, but I'm also immobile on a makeshift cot in a white fabric tent that looks like one stiff breeze would take it away if it tried hard enough. Then to add more to my list, they think I've fractured my hip and have me attached to a pain killer drip that puts me just on the right side of happy. They keep trying to load me into an ambulance and whisk me off to the hospital but every time a paramedic comes for me, I wave him over to someone who needs more urgent attention than I do. There are people dying feet from me you see, and everyone needs to get their priorities straight.
So now I sit on my little cot off in the corner, forgotten by most everyone except my new friends Abby and Jimmy. These two are a semi-constant presence beside me and I think the arrangement is mutually beneficial. I seem to be giving them some sort of port in this storm and they are keeping me updated on the status of the search effort for Agents Gibbs and DiNozzo. I still can't believe the two men I gave such a hard time to today are missing or that one of them might be dead and the last thing he might have known in this world was my irritation at having to give out personnel files I hadn't gotten the ok to hand over from Carol just yet.
Carol. Another tragedy to add to today. The two of us were just starting to hit it off over the storm and now I have to decide if we were friends enough to attend her funeral when this is all over.
I know the bodies of the dead are lined up behind the canvas wall at my back. I can catch glimpses of their growing numbers when the flaps of the tent get blown about in the wind, but I can't bring myself to ask to be moved and pull someone away from another soul who needs more care than I. So I endure it and say a prayer each time a new gurney laden with a shrouded and still figure comes to rest behind the canvas. I feel like their guardian and I think that's why I steer every paramedic that comes to take me away off in another direction.
"Mona? Is everything alright over here?" My little raven haired Goth is back and I can't help the surge of fondness that coerces through me at the sight of her. I know if I were to have met this young woman on the street any other day I probably would have crossed over to the other side to avoid the tattooed, dark lipsticked, girl who wouldn't have spared me a second glance. And I know what that says about the kind of person I am, but live as long as I have and sometimes you fall into a certain way of thinking of people. But to think I would have missed out on meeting this intelligent thing who has been nicer to me than my own kids, is enough to make me reevaluate how I look at the world. She sits with me when she takes quick breaks from helping the rescue workers and fills me in on what's happening beyond my 4 canvas walls.
"I'm doing just fine, love. Any luck on finding your people?" I ask her when she plops down into the folding chair Jimmy found for us a little while ago.
"No," she grumbles irritably, "they're still trying to make everything safe enough for people to get in there to search for them. McGee says it should be soon, though."
I can recall Agent McGee. He was the young agent with the far off look in his eye that had to come and hear directly from me that I had seen and spoken with Agent Gibbs. It's quite clear to me that the two men I met today are important to the visitors of my little corner of the white tent and that the not knowing is tearing them all apart from the inside.
I reach out a hand and pat Abby's knee and she smiles back at me before handing me the bottle of water she decides she doesn't want anymore and heads back out into the late afternoon light. When she moves aside the flap at the tent's entrance and holds it open so that another poor soul can be carried in on a stretcher followed by Jimmy, I can see that the sky above us is almost perfectly clear. It's as if there never was a storm and if it weren't for the chaos and the moans of pain around me, I could almost imagine that this all hasn't happened. Abby catches my eye one more time before letting the tent flap fall and I wink at her but she doesn't smile and disappears from view.
I won't see her again for a long while. Not until after the sun sets, artificially generated light illuminates the white tent from the outside until it's almost glowing with it, and everyone who needs to be taken to the hospital has been and they're getting me ready to be moved. I can't put it off anymore, the pain in my hip is growing steadily worse, and although I know Jimmy enjoys having someone he can come over and talk to who will put a smile on his face and rejuvenate his spirits a little, it's time for me to say goodbye. I want to ask him to go find Abby so I can say goodbye to her to, but she's needed elsewhere and I have to settle for Jimmy's promise that this little friendship between the three of us is far from over and that they'll be sure to visit me in the hospital. And, he reminds me with a determined glint in his eye, at work after they rebuild NCIS and we all go back to our normal lives.
But I think back to Carol and wonder how normal anyone's life can go back to being after surviving a tornado when so many others did not.
"Good luck with everything, Mr. Palmer," I say, offering my hand which he doesn't take but pulls me into an awkward hug instead. "You be sure to bring Dr. Mallard by with you when you visit if he has the time. I can't wait to meet him."
I say this last bit into his shoulder because he holds on for just a second longer than I expect (but can certainly understand). This has been a tumultuous day for everyone and it's not over for him yet like it is for me.
"Bye Mona," he says, like I actually helped rather than hindered him in all this.
I look up as someone throws back the flap of the tent and fully expect it to be my paramedics coming to take me to the hospital, but it's not and I watch a stream of dust colored people rush in and Jimmy is gone from my side before I even have time to turn my head back toward him and ask what's going on.
I'm the only one left in the tent on a cot and every available doctor that has stayed on to work through the night is over to the two figures they bring in on backboards and put on the tables where everyone is triaged before given a cot if they need it. Some don't make it to cots and are taken outside again. I pray this isn't the case with these two new arrivals.
Both figures have tubes down their throats attached to ambu bags attached to dust covered firemen squeezing them at alternating intervals. One of the doctors on loan from the local hospital says something to Jimmy that has the young man jumping up onto one of the tables to straddle one of the patients and begin chest compressions. I don't know who these men are because I can't see their faces, but judging by the way the crowd mills around, I think I know in my gut who they are. A few seconds later I spot Abby and Agent McGee just inside the tent flap and they both flee to my little corner of the tent to watch the scene unfold out of the way of the doctors. I grab Abby's hand when she gets close enough and she squeezes it hard, but I don't mind.
One of the men, the one not getting CPR, chooses that moment to wake up and all hell breaks loose for a few minutes.
"Agent Gibbs?" Someone says and I watch the man on the table struggle against the breathing tube down his throat and the hands that descend down on him in an instant to keep him from bolting.
"Agent Gibbs you've got to calm down!" One of the doctors is shining a light in Gibbs' eyes, agitating him further even as he continues to plead with him to calm down. Someone manages to get him hooked up to a heart monitor and the tent is once again filled with the sounds of its beeps.
I look over to Agent McGee and Abby to see how they're holding up against what's unfolding before us just in time to watch McGee make a beeline for Gibbs' side, determination steeling his gait. The younger agent grabs his boss' hand and no one moves to stop him and everyone in the tent quiets for a second as if they're all listening.
"Gibbs, it's alright," I hear McGee plead. "You did it. We got him out and you're safe now but you've gotta calm down and let the doctors do their job." I see Gibbs still slightly, but not completely and McGee continues on.
"He's right here Gibbs." And I know he's talking about Agent DiNozzo.
"Right next to you. Now calm the hell down and maybe then these nice doctors can get that tube out of your throat." This is the thing that calms Gibbs completely and I wonder if it's the knowledge that Tony is right beside him that does it, or the hope that he'll get extubated by the doctors if he does what McGee says.
They're still working on Agent DiNozzo beside him, but I make my eyes stay on the doctor helping Gibbs and see when he nods after using a stethoscope to check on his breathing. They pull out the tube a few minutes later but immediately replace it with an oxygen mask over his face when he's done choking and start to move him off the table and onto a cot. But his hand shoots out to grab Agent DiNozzo's wrist beside him and I can tell in that moment there will be no moving him.
For the first time since all this started I feel like an outsider invading on a private moment I have no business witnessing and part of me wants to ask to be taken to my ambulance now to give Gibbs his time with his agent who's dying right beside him. And for one brief second, I have a crystal clear view of the absolute despair filling Gibbs' eyes as he turns his head to search for Tony and the gravity of the anguish in that look is so intense, it takes everything in me not to fall apart completely. Abby gasps beside me. I've never seen a look like it before, and if I'm lucky I never will again, and this time it's me who squeezes my new-found friend's hand tighter.
Everyone in the tent draws their focus back to Agent DiNozzo and the doctor that makes Jimmy stop chest compressions every few moments to check the heart monitor for signs of a rhythm and order more drugs pumped into the IV they've stuck him with. And when the line continues it's flatline and he can't find a pulse with his fingertips, he presses his stethoscope to Tony's chest just to make sure. It goes on like this for an age and everyone in the tent is leaning forward slightly and praying for a miracle.
Our miracle comes in the form of little erratic jumps on a normally flat line that has the doctor screaming...
"He's in V-FIB, charge to 300!"
...like something out of an episode of Gray's Anatomy.
Jimmy jumps off of the table, Abby lets out a hysterical little laugh she tries to hide with her hands, and Gibbs closes his eyes while McGee hangs his head as if in prayer.
I've never seen anyone get shocked with a defibrillator before so I keep on watching even though part of me wants to look away as they apply the paddles, the doctor warns everyone to clear away, and he delivers a charge to Agent DiNozzo chest that has his torso arching off the table a few inches. I realize everyone in the tent is holding their breath and no one lets theirs out again until the doctor practically laughs out a:
"Sinus rhythm. He's back."
And time starts moving forward again like it forgot what it was made for for a second and abandoned its forward motion to stop and see if Tony DiNozzo lived or died.
When Abby leaves my side I know my time here is over and that I'll be forgotten now, but I'm alright with that. She heads over to Agent McGee's side and the young man throws his arm around her and kisses the top of her head as they both grab hold of Gibbs' hand at the same time and watch the medical personnel stabilize their friend.
I let the paramedics take me away then, though the sight of the connected little group of NCIS friends will be forever etched into my mind.
It's a relief to know that not even mother nature can rip asunder what fate has brought together. And as I lose sight of them as I'm taken out of the little white tent and away from those saved and killed this day, I know in my heart that we'll all get those 'normal lives' back that Jimmy Palmer was talking to me about.
I think I've always thought that if I were to die, I'd be ready for it. That I've made my peace with this life and that if it's really my time to go, I can accept it. But apparently that is not the case for me this time around and I open my eyes not to the crowds of gathered loved ones long dead the pastor of my childhood parish promised, but to the muted light and quiet ambiance of an ICU room.
Like the last time I found my way out of the blackness, the scenery around me is unfamiliar and murky and hard to make out. Like looking through the sides of an aquarium that hasn't been cleaned in a while and I turn my head to the side to see if I can locate the call button, but find that the tube to the oxygen mask covering the lower half of my face is stuck on something and won't let me turn my head that far. I reach up to try and pull it away but a warm hand encircles my wrist and I don't have the strength to do anything but let my arm fall back down beside me on the bed. I drag my weary and drug heavy eyes over to the left and think I make out the form of Gibbs and wonder if this is all just a dream.
I thought for sure I was a goner, especially after all that blood I coughed up and the sound of the building coming down around us being the last thing I heard before unconsciousness dragged me under, but apparently my stoic boss has managed to save my ass yet again and I say the first thing that comes to mind under the oxygen.
"Auntie Em?" The drugs that they have me on are good but my throat still aches and I don't have enough energy to laugh at the bad joke I've just made or ask him all the questions that spring to my mind.
What happened? How did I get here? Am I alright? Are you alright? How are Abby, Tim, Palmer and Ducky? Is everyone alive? How many people made it out? How many died?
He seems to read the questions in my eyes though and launches into some answers.
"You're at Bethesda, Tony. They transferred you here a few days ago after you had some complications with your lungs due to the plague scaring. Tim and Abby are just fine and so are Ducky and Palmer. NCIS is a little worse for wear, but we'll rebuild." He stops there without giving me a rundown of his own injuries and I find out why a few seconds later.
A nurse breezes in and pulls back the curtain to my quiet little room before letting out an irritated sigh.
"I thought I might find you in here. Mr. Gibbs you have to stay in bed, you're in no condition to keep wheeling yourself around this hospital!" She exclaims, clearly exasperated by my boss.
"It's Agent Gibbs," we both say at the same time, me from behind my oxygen mask and Gibbs from under his little cloud of disappointment at being discovered in my room.
I manage to pull the tube to my oxygen mask free of whatever it was catching on and turn my head to get a better look at him and find that I can see a little more clearly now. He's slumped in a wheelchair and clad in a hospital gown with the most hideous pattern I've ever seen covering it, looking as miserable as I feel with a bandaged temple and twin black eyes. Even though he looks like death warmed over, I'm pretty relieved that he's here with me, something familiar and known in a world where nothing makes sense anymore.
I don't mean too, but I cut into their little showdown in my room with a fit of coughing that has the nurse forgetting all about Gibbs for a minute to flag down a doctor for me. I try to stay with it, but when breathing gets to be too much for me to handle, I let oblivion pull me under with one last look to Gibbs.
When I reemerge again it's darker in the room but he's still there and I pull my hand out from his grasp only to put it back over his when he tries to move it away.
"How many?" I ask. The oxygen mask is still on my face and I'm pretty sure it's going to be permanent fixture there for a while (my lungs don't have the best track record), and it colors my words muffled. But I can tell he understands.
"19 dead, 43 injured. Twelve are in ICU still but they think most of them are going to make it."
I roll these numbers around in my head and the faces I see every day at work flash in my mind. I wonder at how many of these people I'll never see again and I shudder, Gibbs leaning in a little closer to look at me critically. I indicate I'm alright as best I can and he settles back.
"I have a new rule to add to the list," he says as we sit in silence for a few moments and he lets me digest the numbers he's just given me. I look over at him.
"Rule # 52 - Anthony DiNozzo does not die today."
And while I know the road is going to be hard and that there will be more to rebuild than just the NCIS building, I let a smile form on my lips behind the mask covering my face.
"That sounds like a good one, Jethro." I say and this time it's his turn to smile.
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