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.