A/N: Well, I meant to have this up on Sunday, but you know what they say about one's "best laid plans"... Heh. Turns out my account wasn't in favor of functioning properly again, until now. What can I say? Kay Sera, Sera...
Oh, and I've decided that in the interest of quicker updates, since I'm writing this as I go (another lesson I seem to never have learned... sigh), the chapters will end up being shorter than I usually make my chapters for any story. But which would you prefer? Longer updates? Or an update every week, give or take?
I'll be taking votes – cast your ballot here, and the count shall be announced at the next update!
To those who left a review for the previous chapter, thank you so much for your feedback and enthusiasm – for you many silent lurkers... I appreciate your interest all the same :P – perhaps I can coerce you into speaking up? … I'm quite willing to name my next bundle of goldfish after each one of you... Think about it :)
The dust was still settling and the smoke billowing when the crowd of NCIS employees rose from the cover they'd found, or struggled to stand from where they'd been thrown to survey the damage silhouetted by the setting sun, which was absolute. Looking at the twisted, half-collapsed remains of the building they'd only moments ago evacuated, it was practically as one that the enormity of what had happened hit them, as well as the relief that, given the late hour and the fact that it was a Saturday, they were operating at nearly a quarter of their usual capacity.
Sirens could already be heard fast approaching in the distance, given that the fire department, PD, and the agency's Incident Response Team were automatically notified when the alarms were activated and the order to evacuate executed, and so the lead agents still standing began taking stock of all who had made it outside, in a grim attempt to begin tallying casualties. Off to one side, behind the broad NCIS sign that had protected them from the blast and the worst of the debris, three agents stood dazedly studying the destruction before them, until the oldest of the group promptly brushed aside the haze of shock, and turned to check on his team... only to stop short, his gaze as hard as the words that followed.
That was enough to snap the other two back to the present, McGee turning immediately to start scanning the rugged crowd, while Ziva looked back to the building, eyes widening in a face gone pale.
"Ziva?" Gibbs asked, quietly, dangerously calm, and both men looked to her as she forced herself to speak.
"I think he... went back inside," she whispered, not wanting to believe it even as the memory slammed into her: running out of the building, halfway to cover before turning back to see Tony freeze at the door, a look of horror stealing across his features – screaming at him to move, then being forced to look away when McGee pulled her along as he was passing her; when she'd looked back again, the doorway was empty. At the time, she'd had only a second to look before the final explosion in the building's foundation detonated and she dove for cover; she couldn't be sure he hadn't gotten out... could she?
"You think?" The icy stare was nothing compared to the cold that enveloped her as she remembered again the moment where she saw Tony standing in that doorway... and saw his head turn to look back the way they'd come, his hand releasing the door to let it swing back shut. She swallowed hard.
"He went back inside." She forced her voice to be steady, even at the sick feeling that took root in her stomach and matched perfectly the look on McGee's face, as well as the one that flashed across Gibbs' before his hardened once more and he whipped out his cell phone and hit a number for speed dial.
"But... why?" McGee asked plaintively. He stared at what was left of the place that for many, including Tony, was their home away from home, trying very hard not to recall survival rates or the conditions of recovered bodies from past cases involving bombed buildings.
"Worry about the 'why' after we get him out, McGee – you can ask him yourself before I have his ass put on suspension for this stunt," Gibbs snapped, limping almost imperceptibly as he walked away without another word to greet the arriving emergency workers, his phone still pressed tightly up against his ear.
McGee was waiting for Ziva to say something, but at her continued silence, he finally shifted his gaze and locked onto hers. When at last she spoke, her voice had gone quiet again; it bore no less of its usual stoicism, even though her face remained pale, her eyes round and solemn and far too old for her years.
"I cannot bear to bury another friend." A shudder ran through him at the simple, sorrowful statement, and his thoughts ran immediately to Kate, and the wound left by her death whose ache lingered even now. It took a conscious effort to separate himself from it, and to refuse to even consider adding Tony to its depths.
"He'll be fine." It came out more as a wavering croak, and he cleared his throat and growled at himself in his head to try not to sound so damn meek about it. "He'll be fine," he repeated, inwardly applauding how convincing it sounded this time round. "You know Tony, he's like a cat – he just keeps coming back."
Though she looked confused at the comparison, she seemed to take genuine comfort from his confidence, allowing him a moment of rare bravery, which he used to cautiously lay his hand on her shoulder and give it a reassuring squeeze, which was shockingly well received. When he caught sight of the ambulances beginning to pull in, he gave her closer scrutiny, frowning at bruises that he'd somehow not noticed until then, and at the way she held a painfully swollen-looking right hand tight against her torso.
At the same time he registered that his ears were ringing obnoxiously, and he quite suddenly felt bruises of his own begin to make themselves known, inflicted by the dive they took to reach the minimal cover of the sign just before the explosion. All this in mind, he made an executive decision; he was, after all, Acting-Senior Field Agent until they found Tony, which they would... and alive, thank you very much. Screw the rates – Tony was a survivor, never a statistic.
If anything, he was always the enigma that baffled statisticians. Hell, aside from being the only twenty-first century survivor of the pneumonic plague, Tony literally held the records for survival of kidnappings, hostage situations, compromised stings, and botched undercover operations; other agents had come close... before, like normal people, their luck ran dry and they ended up either over the hill, or six feet under it. But not Tony – he was... well, Tony. It just wouldn't happen.
And if it ever did, Gibbs would be there to glare at him, slap him on the back of his head, and drag him back up to where he was suppose to be.
"Come on – we should both go get checked out," he said, using a little of the leftover bravery to lead her away from the wreckage and to the waiting paramedics. He would've been worried that she'd gone so easily, had he not been relieved that she hadn't broken his fingers for having the nerve (and just where did that come from?) to press them into the small of her back to gently urge her forward.
McGee was woefully rejecting the stronger drugs that would surely flatten him and opting instead for downing a few generic painkillers for the wrenched shoulder and bruised ribs when he was joined at the curb by a still-pissed looking Gibbs, and a moment later Ziva, whose hand was wrapped tightly, the barely visible fingertips already purple and black beneath the swelling. Judging by the pinched look that had emerged now that the worst of her shock had left, the appendage was likely broken, in a few places, and it would seem she too had declined meds that would leave her unfit to remain on site for what was to come.
"Something wrong with your hand, David?" Gibbs asked, pointedly staring at the hand in question until Ziva slid it behind her back, out of sight.
"I am well, Gibbs," she replied stiffly, in a tone that clearly said that he'd better be ready to do far worse than a broken hand if he wanted to try and make her leave. His only response was a slight nod, and perhaps a flash of approval, before he moved right along.
"I just met with some of the boys on our IRT, and they're not happy about it, but I've got myself in place as Incident Commander, so we'll be directly involved with how things are handled for the duration."
"Boss, don't you have to be a first responder, and on the actual team to be Incident Commander?"
"Sure looks to me like I got here first..."
"But you're not -"
"...and I may be getting old, Special Agent McGee, but I'm pretty damn sure I remember heading Incident Response teams in the Corps during tours for longer than you've been an agent, and a hell of a longer than you've had that MIT degree of yours. Or do you think I would put myself in charge when any inexperience on my part would jeopardize whatever chance any possible survivors have of making it out alive?"
His tone bore a razor edge that made McGee flinch, looking appropriately contrite, but he continued before the younger man could muster up a stuttering apology.
"I'll be in unified command with the team's senior field engineer, and the fire department's search and rescue coordinator. Ziva, you've had experience with and response training for bombing sites – you'll be with me, helping sort out the procedures for this mess, especially with the rookies; I want no newbie mistakes getting in our way on this one." She nodded, and the last of any visible fear or pain vanished, her shoulders squaring readily under her appointed responsibilities. "McGee, what I want from you is details about the bomb threat – who called it in, when, and what happened between the time the threat was confirmed and detonation. But before that, I wanna know what it'll take to for a radio transmission, any electronic signal, to penetrate through large-scale debris."
McGee frowned, opening his mouth to voice his confusion, before Gibbs reached over and delivered a none-too-gentle tap to the side of his head, more specifically right over the ear that still held his earwig, and he remembered quite suddenly the raid they'd come back from just over half an hour ago; funny, how he found he couldn't even recall the details of the case, when it'd occupied their every waking moment for the last five days.
It took him a moment to realize the full implication of Gibbs' actions, and his eyes went wide.
"Because Tony still had his tack gear, mic and receiver on him before the explosion, and we might be able to get through to him?"
The patented 'No shit' look he got rolled right off him, his mind already launching into the science of radio waves, their strength versus the composition of the debris that would serve to obstruct them... then he realized Gibbs was still looking at him, and that there was something else he was missing, which just wasn't right. Of course, they had just narrowly escaped an explosion and collapse, and not unscathed, so he was willing to cut himself some slack.
When it finally did occur to him, however, he couldn't stop the rush of embarrassment that spread a bright flush across his face as he realized what it was that he'd briefly forgotten that Gibbs, of all people, had thought of first.
"...And because the GPS locator embedded in the equipment will help us to pinpoint his position for search and rescue, especially if he's... if he can't... if we can't reach him," he finished, stumbling around voicing the possibility, or rather likelihood that none of them were willing to touch with a fifty foot pole: that nothing they were doing or would do mattered – that Tony was already dead, and all they could recover was his body, all they could do would be to go to another funeral.
His only indication that he'd finally caught up was being released from the heat of that glare, which hadn't made him this uncomfortable since he'd first come on as the team's latest probie over three years ago. Without another word, Gibbs turned on his heal and stalked back to the pseudo command center that had been erected roughly a hundred feet from ground zero, Ziva walking dutifully at his side.
After they'd gone, McGee took a moment to feel exhausted, to be in pain, to watch the agents who'd made it out being led or carried away by paramedics and to feel angry that they were safe and sound and being cared for while Tony lay trapped beyond their reach... to resent Tony for doing this to them, no matter what reason he'd had for ignoring the danger, and going back inside. But as quickly as he allowed the torrent of emotions to wash over him, he forced them to subside, tucked them back into a corner in his thoughts, and turned the rest of his attention to the IRT's tech support vehicle as it pulled onto the property, stealing himself for the long haul.
He had work to do.
Had it not been for the watch on his wrist, he never would've known how much time had passed since he'd woken to find himself in this coffin-like prison of twisted steel above, intermingling with miscellaneous rubble around and bellow. Of course, it was a miracle unto itself that the thing had not only survived the final explosion's concussion, but also the finishing collapse – if he ever saw McGee again, he would totally be rubbing his face in this; never again would the little dweeb get to scoff at him for the thousand-plus price tag, or the website's claims of it being indestructible... kinda like him. He was still alive, wasn't he? If only just...
As it was, he kept the gloating to himself, and stared at the display as he pushed his wrist up against a chunk of concrete to depress the button that illuminated it brightly: 9:00 PM. God, had it really only been an hour? It felt infinitely longer, every minute dragging by like ten, with unconsciousness stubbornly avoiding him, no matter how much he hurt.
Somewhere along the line, he'd managed with no small amount of tears and swearing to use his teeth to pull what was left of his sweater sleeve away from the last of its seam at his right shoulder, after which he shakily wrapped it tightly around the rod at the wound, and pressed down as hard as he could before he could have time to think about it. With no witnesses around, he'd let himself scream at the resulting agony, breathing in gasps and moans until his whited vision cleared once more and the pain returned to a more manageable level.
At the time he'd done it, he'd started shaking so badly he'd thought he was having a seizure, and he couldn't for the life of him remember what in the hell had made him think it was anything resembling a good idea, never mind necessary. Now, at the faintness that was cropping up in his already concussed head, he knew very well that it was likely the only thing that had kept him conscious this long, and might well be a deciding factor in whether or not he bled to death before help could arrive.
It seemed that the combination of the continued presence of the metal shaft, the dirt clogged into it, and the sleeve packed tightly against it had served to significantly slow the flow of blood, whose pool he could no longer feel expanding over him. So, apparently his luck hadn't entirely abandoned him, which was nice.
Of course, is it 'luck' if all I'm doing is delaying the inevitable?... And just what happened to optimism, Tony? Stop whining and focus!
He would've Gibbs-slapped himself on the back of the head if he didn't already hurt everywhere, so settled instead for biting the inside of his cheek, and flexing the hand pressed over the wound just enough for a quick zing of pain to bring his thoughts sharply back into perspective: a bomb had destroyed the building. He would be hard (but not impossible, Tony) to get to. He was alone (thank God no one else had time to come back for me), and badly injured, but for the moment relatively stable.
Gibbs, Ziva, and McGee had gotten out, he was sure of it – a flash of Ziva's angry, terrified face, screamed words he had no choice but to ignore... he blinked, and the moment was gone, his thoughts moving on, for lack of anything else to do.
Did he have anything he could use? Tony tried to remember what it was he'd still had on him before the alarms had started, if he'd kept anything that he could use now; there was the knife he kept strapped to his ankle, and he hadn't removed his holster, so he still had his .9 mm on his hip, trapped now between his body and the rubble, for all the good it would do him down here. The tack vest he'd donned was still zipped to its top, so that meant he had spare ammo (again, useless), a mini mag light (useful, but unnecessary with the most recent gas line to have caught a flame... which was all kinds of unsettling), the spare zip ties from the ones used in the mass arrest from earlier that evening (Terrific!... Now if only there was someone down here that I could arrest for this shit...), and his spare shades, since he'd begun the costly and irritating habit of destroying the poor suckers while on duty.
All in all, there wasn't a whole lot he could do with any of it... except maybe being able to use the ridiculously expensive sun glasses to at least die in style. The thought of being dug out looking like a skewered Secret Service stooge made him snort... and then cough, grimace, curse, and move on.
Of course, when he realized in the next moment that he'd forgotten about the mic, earwig and receiver still wired to him through the apparently useless vest, he repeated the process, only in reverse, cursing his stupidity and poor memory so vehemently that the strain drew out a grimace and more coughing... then of course, more cursing, though noticeably and deliberately more quietly uttered while his body rode out the shock waves.
When at last he'd recovered, he realized he'd have to turn the receiver in his uppermost vest pocket on his right side back on, and shakily removed his right hand from the wound to do so, after which he achingly slowly reached up and pressed down the mic attached at his throat.
"This is Sp... Special A... gent..." His voice was immeasurably rough, like speaking with vocal cords made of sandpaper, and he did his best to clear it before continuing, though it wasn't much improved by the effort. "This is Special... Agent... Tony Di... Nozzo." He took a second just to breathe, amazed by how draining so few words could be. "Do you... read?...Can... anyone hear... me?... Is there anyone on... this... fr... frequency?"
Hope held out until he felt brave enough to try lifting his fingers from the comm to listen... and he was greeted by nothing but white noise in his ear. Disappointment lasted only a moment before he reminded himself that McGee would be out there working on this, along with the rest of the team, if Gibbs had anything to say about it (which he would, of course), so naturally he had nothing to worry about – this potential for communication was probably on their to-do list... likely right up there with finding out what the hell had gotten into him, to make him come back in when he certainly knew he could only have minutes to spare... a time limit that had turned out to be overly hopeful. At this point, he was as curious as they would be...
A frown of concentration had him squeezing his eyes shut, struggling to push past the blur of disoriented memories to those final moments: they were running through the lobby, racing for the doors...
...almost there, almost there...
...people fought to push past each other, panicking, desperate...
...keep moving, there's no time...
...fresh air, everyone running ahead, a flash of silver hair in the crowd... Ziva, angry, terrified, screaming... telling him to... move?...
...run, run RUN...
...Yes, to move, to get out... no time left... and then suddenly...
This wasn't right... they'd forgotten something... or someone... who else was on shift tonight?... Ducky?... No, conference, Seattle... Palmer?... Gone with him, much to the man's obvious dismay...
...that only left...
Tony's blood ran cold, and he knew suddenly exactly what had made him turn away from his team, from the safety of the setting sun's light, to run back into a literal ticking time bomb, focused on nothing aside from the desperate need to get to the stairs, to get to a floor close to the basement, to a glass encased lab, to the sound-proof, cot-bearing room adjacent to it, to get to...
A high-pitched moan, distinctly feminine, and almost recognizable sounded from somewhere beyond his cage, filled with such pain as to dwarf any felt from within his own body.