Chapter 6 - Making Friends of Enemies
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.