Title: Emergency Response
Author: Ice Cube
Rating: T for language, some violence
Spoilers: None for the series and a blink and you'll miss it reference to my story Running the Gauntlet. Definitely isn't necessary to read that one to understand this one, but I'm always up for more readers. This story is in the same universe as that one, and takes place before it.
Disclaimer: Right, if I owned them anywhere outside of my dreams, the characters that are forthwith mentioned in this story would be making me a lot of money and very happy…so no, they aren't mine, and I'm a just out of school with no money, so if you're going to sue, feel free, you won't get anything.
Characters: Gibbs, DiNozzo, Ducky makes a few guest appearances
Archives: Feel free; just let me know where so I can find it again.
Summary: A young boy held hostage, an agent down, a fire intent on destroying everything in its path – how do the triage rules apply, now?
Warnings: To those who think that I am capable of writing a fic that is torture free…I can't, and thus, if you don't want to see h/c, various possible emotional and/or physical tortures, and other forms of angst, find another story.
I don't always have my stories beta'd, I'm too impatient to wait for someone to proof it after I've written it, so I apologize for any mistakes, and if you email me to tell me that they're there, I'll fix them later.
Reviews are always a plus; it's great to know that people are reading my stories and that they evoke some strong reactions. Constructive criticism will be taken under advisement. Flames, however, will be treated with the utmost respect they deserve…they will be used as fodder for jokes for years to come.
That said, on with the tale…
Chapter 1 – Dispatch
The bruised and bloody knuckles on both agents should have been the first clue that the ransom drop had gone south. The glare that Gibbs afforded anyone who came even close to getting in his way was the second. DiNozzo's matching black eyes and his own steely gaze completed the puzzle. If it weren't for the handcuffed dock worker being manhandled out of the elevator and towards Interrogation, a number of agents who saw the pair on their way in would have conveniently found excuses to leave the building until things settled down.
It wouldn't have been the first time that the two-man team had caused havoc in the squad room – all in the name of getting their man. It was the reason that, once again, Gibbs was down to only one agent under his command. No one in the Washington office envied the next 'probie' that Morrow would assign TAD to the Major Case Response Team. Many of them still wondered how much longer it would be until DiNozzo was in the Director's office asking for a transfer. The rest of the agents were grumbling behind the Italian's back about the money they'd already lost to the pool betting on how long he'd last.
When he finally reached Interrogation with the suspect, Gibbs had to hold back from physically throwing the piece of trash standing next to him into the door to open it. As much as he wanted to rip the man limb from limb, he needed the bastard conscious if they were going to get anywhere with him. Right now, he was their only lead as to where the victim had been stashed. And the victim was a far higher priority than Gibbs' own need for vengeance. If the 'guidance' that the dock worker received into the hard metal chair was a little more rough than necessary, Gibbs certainly wasn't going to mention it and the suspect had already figured out that keeping his mouth shut was far more likely to keep him in one piece.
Gibbs stopped Tony halfway through the door to Observation with a gruff, "DiNozzo, get down to Ducky. Have him check you out. I want to hear from him that you're fit to go back out in the field. We're leaving in ten minutes."
Gibbs' voice was steely with a conviction that less than a year of working with the man should still have had Tony tripping over himself to fall into line before he'd realized that he'd done it. The former Homicide detective had never been one to follow along with the expected – as his new colleagues were slowly and begrudgingly figuring out – and Gibbs had been quick to realize that little marvel about the field agent he'd picked up in Baltimore. At the moment, however, Tony was willing to follow the order with nothing more than a token whine if it got Gibbs down to business that much faster. The team leader wasn't the only one itching to get on with their search, but they needed a new direction to search in first.
Tony was halfway down the hall when he paused; something was only now occurring to him about the firm deadline. "But, Gibbs. We don't know where we're going yet."
Gibbs glared and, this time, it was enough to have DiNozzo backtracking. The younger man was still learning how to trust Gibbs' gut and confidence, after all. "Ready to go in ten. On it, Boss."
"And don't forget Ducky." The team leader didn't give his subordinate a second glance as he turned back to the suspect in the small room, smiling inwardly that the bastard was already trembling. There was no hint of a thought in his mind that Tony would do anything other than follow orders and every second they wasted bandying words was another second that they could have been out in the field, finding the missing child.
"What do you think he's doing in there?" Tony's voice almost cracked as he winced when Ducky prodded at the abused cheekbones. The medical examiner had already cleared him against serious head injury, although DiNozzo had been warned against overly exerting himself until his headache abated. Tony had to bite back a knowing smirk and instead mused silently that that would only happen once Gibbs was able to hand seven-year old Christian Thompson back to his father. Neither of the investigators would settle for anything less – they certainly weren't going to take time off to rest and recuperate. Handfuls of ibuprofen chewed up like Smarties, day-old cold pizza, questionably old candy from his desk, 'reappropriated' supplies from the vending machine, and caffeine that might as well be mainlined would have to suffice until Christian was found – one way or another.
Rear Admiral Elliot Thompson had been calling Gibbs' cell phone every hour on the hour for updates – as if either Tony or Gibbs actually needed further motivation to overturn every boulder, pebble, or grain of sand looking for his only son. The mischievous grin and sparkling blue eyes from the school picture attached to his file were forever burned in the young investigator's subconscious – complete with a ticking clock that was reminding him painfully of the odds that were dwindling with every passing moment. Right now it was hard not to imagine that clock looking a lot like the Doomsday clock. And it was ticking entirely too close to midnight for DiNozzo's peace of mind.
Thompson had returned to his home off base to find the door wide open and his son's backpack sitting perched on the threshold. Christian's Summertime Award pin off his Tiger Cub uniform secured a ransom note to the bag. The boy should have been at a pack meeting down the street – the den mother had never seen him. The note had warned Thompson against calling the police or the FBI, and that he would be receiving a call with further instructions soon. The two-star Admiral hadn't wasted time with the local LEO's or the Feds. One call to a poker buddy who just happened to head up NCIS – which was most definitely NOT the cops or FBI – had dispatched the two-man Major Case Response Team to his house ASAP. The two agents had turned the Thompson household upside down looking for clues, had come pretty close to accosting every neighbor on the block and beyond for information, and had pried into the private life of the Admiral, his deceased wife, and both of their families. When nothing had come up there, Gibbs had set Abby on the task of prying into the lives of everyone who had so much as a tie to anyone remotely related to the Thompson family. As much as they wanted to deny it, it was beginning to look like Christian was the victim of a kidnapping of opportunity rather than reason or vengeance.
DiNozzo and Gibbs had been working the case for almost thirty-six hours on nothing but hope, tenacity, and stale leftovers before the ransom call came in. Gibbs had demanded proof of life and the kidnappers relented by putting Christian on the phone – the terrified whimpers of a child calling for his Daddy cutting both investigators to the quick. When they sent Thompson to make the ransom drop twelve hours later, all hell had broken loose. The Admiral had balked at not seeing his son and the kidnappers had forced Gibbs' hand. He and Tony had broken cover to protect the Admiral and hopefully apprehend the two men. Only after what DiNozzo would call a "scrappy" fight with one of the kidnappers – which left him with the two black eyes Ducky was now evaluating – had started to wind down, a well-placed punch to Tony's chin disoriented him enough to give John Delaney the momentary opening he needed to disappear. While DiNozzo was still reeling from the blackness encroaching on his vision, Gibbs had managed to subdue his own assailant and pull his weapon. The shot Gibbs had gotten off had left a blood trail and plenty of DNA evidence, but nothing more. Abby was now running a search on hospital admissions in the area as well as the background checks, but no one was betting on the hope that she'd turn anything up in time. With one angry and injured kidnapper on the loose and inevitably feeling trapped, they were pressed for time to find Christian before Delaney decided to cut his losses.
"What's Gibbs doing where, Anthony?" Ducky had been blissfully tight-lipped since the young ex-cop had silently trudged into Autopsy and hopped up onto the exam table without even a gesture of protest, a movie reference, or a sarcastic quip. The guilt at letting Delaney go was written more plainly on his face than the physical pain from the bruises he was far more adept at hiding. He couldn't have handled any of Ducky's diatribes at the moment without losing it.
"In Interrogation. Usually, he at least lets me watch." Tony turned his head away from Ducky's continued prodding and moved to stand up – whether or not the older man was finished.
"Anthony, you know that Jethro…"
"I'm not saying he's doing some Vulcan death grip or anything like that. Just that maybe he's trying something other than 'hardass Marine'?" Tony moved to the door. "I need to get the car. Can you let him know I'm good to go?"
"Anthony, this is hitting…"
"It's hitting us all hard, Ducky." Tony paused as if warring with himself over something. When he spoke, his tone was hesitant and sounded impossibly young to be coming from him – as if he shouldn't be asking what he was going to. "You don't know if Gibbs had kids, do you?"
"No. He never had children with any of his three wives. Never seemed to want any."
Tony looked puzzled for a moment before he nodded and sighed. "Call him, will you?"
He left without another word.
DiNozzo beat Gibbs down to the motor pool by a full thirty seconds and had just opened the driver's side door when he heard the team lead clear his throat behind him.
"Just…just getting it warmed up for you, Boss." Tony looked sheepish as he handed over the keys and slumped into the passenger's seat.
He had barely grabbed onto the seatbelt buckle when the squeal of tires and the rush of inertia had him scrambling to keep his seat. Tony had to quell the rising feeling of nausea as he concentrated on the horizon and reminded himself that time was most certainly of the essence.
Christian's pleas for his Daddy to come and save him from the "mean men" were still echoing accusingly through Tony's mind. He idly wondered what his own father would have done if he'd ever been kidnapped. It wasn't like there wasn't ample opportunity for it to have happened. Anthony DiNozzo, Sr. wasn't exactly the poster boy for knowing the location of his offspring, even before the loss of his wife. He'd never made it a secret to his immediate family that his business was far higher on his list of priorities than a boy who shared his name.
Gibbs, on the other hand…well, DiNozzo could almost see what would happen if someone had dared to kidnap his child. He wondered if anyone in the world would be insane enough to try. Just looking at the man on his best days screamed retribution, hardass Marine, and pit bull with a bone – all rolled into one. Admiral Thompson may have the rank and the influence to do his best by Christian, but Tony was pretty sure that if this were Gibbs' own flesh and blood…well, no red tape, regulations, or priorities would get in his way.
The sight of the old warehouse they were rapidly approaching sent an intense shiver down DiNozzo's spine. The building looked like it was ready to collapse in on itself at any moment – without warning. Images of being trapped and buried alive gripped him momentarily, and the detective had to will himself to focus on the more droll aspects of the impending operation. The sheer size of the structure promised for long hours of searching empty rooms and finding who knows what in the darkness. Tony could imagine Abby having a field day testing for paranormal activity, but to him it spelled long hours of dust, pent-up adrenaline, and – best case scenario – a small boy who was frightened, but otherwise unharmed.
If there was one thing the former Homicide detective had figured out on the Force, it was that looking to the best case scenario was far easier to cope with than wondering about the what-if's. He could be realistic with the best of them and could readily tell others the likelihood of the best case scenario actually coming to pass. But if he was already assuming Christian to be dead, then there was nothing to look forward to other than body recovery and that made the hours spent searching for him that much more arduous and emotionally taxing. No one needed that much weighing down on them – not if they expected to make a lifelong career out of cases like this.
It wasn't that he didn't know the statistics. Christian had already been missing for more than forty-eight hours and that spelled out a grim conclusion. Despite what most of his former supervisors thought, DiNozzo was as serious about excelling at this job as he had been about understanding playbooks, offensive and defensive strategy, and game theory in college ball. He knew that the fiasco that he had caused earlier in the day had likely sealed Christian's fate and that they probably were on a body recovery rather than a hostage rescue. It wouldn't be the first time he had been a part of a less than fairytale ending, and he was absolutely sure it wouldn't be the last time either. He'd been in too many cities and worked Homicide for too long to have any naïvety left to think that just because Christian was only seven, he couldn't be dead. He'd seen mutilated corpses far younger than the Admiral's son.
Images of all the tiny faces frozen in their last moments that he hadn't been in time to save were burned in his memory, hidden deeply in his subconscious – far deeper even than the scars his father had left behind. Those faces were all the more reason to focus on what hope he could find – hope that Christian wouldn't be yet another permanent guest in that lockbox of memories. As another option, banking on optimism might just keep him focused on the task at hand and distracted from thinking about what happened earlier. The fight at the docks was playing over and over in his head along with the odds and the clock, convincing the young man more and more that the little boy's death would be his fault.
"DiNozzo! You coming, or are you going to sit on your ass all day?" Caught up in his self-flagellation, Tony hadn't even realized that the car had stopped until a hands-free radio was dropped in his lap and the echo of the driver-side car door slamming shut reverberated in his ears.
Despite knowing how much time was of the essence, and despite willing himself to jump out of the car more quickly than he could get his seatbelt off, Tony found that he had to fumble for more than a few seconds before he managed to extricate himself from the vehicle. By this time, Gibbs had made it more than halfway across the vacant parking lot without looking back once. The younger investigator had to sprint to catch up with him.
"Glad you could join the party, DiNozzo." The voice was harsh on his ears and Tony had to subconsciously remind himself not to visibly flinch. He did have a feeling, though, that one of his smartass remarks would not be welcome and simply adjusted the earpiece before flicking the switch on the radio itself. He grimaced as the feedback squealed and instinctively jerked his head away before realizing the futility of that.
Tony thought he caught a glimpse of a smirk from his boss before the task at hand crashed back down on both of them. The severity of their search had them once again concentrating solely on approaching the warehouse as stealthily as possible. There was no telling if they'd beaten Delaney here, and it wouldn't do Christian any good if they were picked off by pot shots before even getting in the front door.
"Clear the first floor then split." Gibbs' voice was so quiet that DiNozzo couldn't actually tell if he'd heard it in his earpiece or from the man's mouth. The young investigator simply nodded and started clearing corners and any place small enough to hide a body. The open floor plan made it a quick and efficient task. He was on his way up the stairs before he remembered how big the warehouse had seemed from the outside.
"Why do I always get the stairs?" DiNozzo really hoped that Gibbs hadn't heard that over the radio.
Gibbs smirked at Tony's complaint but wasn't about to dignify it with a response. The voice-activated radios were an asset in situations like this where agents simply couldn't spare a hand for the "push-to-talk" button, but it was easy to forget just how sensitive they were.
The silence of the basement was oppressive, but thankfully most of the windows had long ago been broken, so plenty of light filtered in. Whatever had been stored down here when the building was still in operation had been sold off or scrapped, and it was these small favors that made a search of this magnitude more palatable.
Gibbs had been through enough search and rescue operations in his career to have an idea about how long this was going to take. The word of one soon-to-be convicted felon wasn't enough to warrant a full call-out without waiting for some kind of paper trail or jumping through several hoops – at least it wasn't when the time it would take to muster up a full contingent of agents could easily mean Christian's time would run out. Gibbs had made a call to the Director en route, asking for a team of agents to be put on stand-by. Backup was being called together by Morrow as the MCRT began the search, but Gibbs and Tony hadn't been willing to wait. As he'd driven up to the warehouse, however, Gibbs had started to have second thoughts. Trying to find one boy and his captor in a warehouse of this size was not unlike trying to find a needle in a haystack; especially considering that Delaney had most likely scouted out the building in order to find a readily defensible position.
It hadn't been hard to discover that the basement level of the building had no place to contain a child and had been cleared in a matter of minutes. He was on his way up to the second floor when he smelled it. Beneath the stench of mold and who knows what else, there was the acrid hint of smoke. Somewhere in the building, something was burning.
"Hey Boss, you smell that, too?" DiNozzo's voice rang out in Gibbs' ear for the first time and caused him to flinch much like Tony had earlier.
"Son of a…that better not be you laughing, DiNozzo," Gibbs grumbled as he adjusted the volume on his headset. Now that he was concentrating on singling out the stench, there was no doubt a fire had broken out somewhere. He couldn't see any smoke on his floor, so it had to be somewhere above him.
The smell brought back memories that he couldn't afford right now. Sunshine and daisies and a little girl's voice pleading with him not to go away again mixed with his spotty memory of just after his CO had broken the news. It actually brought Gibbs to a standstill until he could picture Christian, hear his cries for his Daddy, and think about the phone call he was sure to be getting within the hour from a frantic father. His resolve steeled once more, and Kelly and Shannon placed lovingly, but firmly, back into the corner of his heart that was untouched by anyone else, the lead agent was able to start clearing rooms efficiently.
"Look sharp, DiNozzo. The fire's somewhere between you and me; we don't want to be in here any longer than necessary. No telling what's been forgotten in here that could go up." Gibbs cleared yet another room on the floor, hoping that the boy was here as well, below the smoke and inevitable flames.
"Fifth floor is clear, Gibbs. I'm moving down to the fourth now." Tony's voice faded out and Gibbs went back to his own task. Pausing in a storage room that had long ago been emptied of its contents, he pulled his cell. While he had originally had little problem spending the extra time looking for the boy while backup took its sweet time getting there, the added danger of the fire accomplished two things. It proved – at least enough to justify the man-hours – that there was credence to this being Christian's location. It also made time a precious commodity. The scowl on his face when Dispatch informed him of the ETA for first responders was quickly growing as he looked down the hall, seeing just how many doors there still were on the floor.
The squeal that echoed in Gibbs' ear startled him, but was quickly replaced with Tony muttering – clearly to himself, "I'm okay. Stupid rat thinks I'm a scratching post or something. This is not the Titanic, and I'm pretty sure even DiCaprio would realize that I am not a life raft."
"Backup's on the way, DiNozzo. Any sign of the fire on Four?" Ignoring the non-sequitur, Gibbs shook his head and wondered, not for the first time, if uncalled for humor was one of Tony's many masks or if it truly was the young man's only real coping mechanism.
Tony took a deep, steadying breath as he watched the rat scurrying away from where he'd kicked it clear across the room. The rodent had come screeching out of the boxes DiNozzo had upended and straight up his pant leg. Even now, he still thought he could feel the little claws latching onto his skin. He almost missed Gibbs' question.
As he peered out of the office he'd been clearing, DiNozzo noticed how much thicker the smoke had gotten in the last few minutes. He hadn't seen any flames yet, but knew it was only a matter of time. The ambient temperature had increased several degrees already, and the air was getting harder and harder to breathe. DiNozzo had seen a few victims of arson on a case in Peoria; it was one of the top ways he did not want to go out. 'A blaze of glory' was all well and good, but only when it was in the figurative case.
"DiNozzo, report." Gibbs voice sounded unusually tiny through the earpiece now that he'd turned the volume down, and Tony almost let out a snicker before the gravity of the situation rained down on him again. Now was not the time for his sense of humor to rear its head. He rattled off a status report as he'd been trained to do long ago without letting it really filter through his concentration. The smoke was starting to make his eyes water, and it was all he could do to not imagine being trapped up here if the fire cut him off.
Each door he'd opened so far on this floor had been more of the same. Empty storage rooms and converted offices covered in so much dust that he was pretty sure no one had set foot in them since before the storage company went out of business. Someone had clearly been up here recently – the hallway had tracks through the dust that overlapped each other. Without a clear trail to follow, however, he swept each room carefully. Tony had just started to become used to the silence when he heard it. Something was scuffling behind the door he was just about to check. Checking his gun, DiNozzo whispered into his mike.
"There's definitely something more than rats up here, Boss." Tony reached for the handle on the door, more suspicious when he found it locked. He tried the handle once more before putting his shoulder to the wood. It didn't give on the first try, but he could more clearly hear someone on the other side.
"Someone's definitely banging around in office number…" DiNozzo didn't have a chance to finish the sentence as the door opened suddenly and a two by four swung for his head through the opening. The impact sent him reeling as the room started to spin wildly out of control. Tony hadn't even had the chance to train his gun on Delaney when searing numbness lanced through his now seemingly nerveless fingers and he heard the distinct clatter of his weapon sliding across the floor. He tried to make some sort of sound to alert Gibbs to the situation, but he realized with a detached sense of his surroundings that the headset to his radio had just crunched under his foot. Blood was dripping down the side of his face as he spun out of the way of the lumber.
DiNozzo had to blink several times to get enough focus to keep from falling over. If he thought he'd had a headache before, it was nothing compared to the throbbing that was now trying to take over the hold he had on consciousness. Spots of light flashed before his eyes and sent him stumbling back towards the wall, trying to angle his path back to his gun. Instead, he had to throw himself out of the way of Delaney's swing once again. Tony knew he needed to get enough space so he could get hold of his service weapon and hopefully take control of the situation. It seemed that time was running away from him as it had been since the fight on the docks had started the countdown to Christian's life.
Abandoning his gun for the more immediate threat, Tony tackled Delaney in an effort to bring this dance back to his lead. The two traded punches, but it was clear that the concussion severely hampered DiNozzo's fighting style, and he quickly started losing ground again. It was when he was stumbling through the door that he'd been trying to get through only minutes ago that he heard it. Choked sniffles caught Tony's ear and distracted him enough to turn his head. The petrified blond-haired boy tied to a chair in the center of the room was the last thing he saw before the world exploded in a flash of white pain and then Tony knew nothing more.
Gibbs had been pretty sure that he'd more than winged Delaney as he'd been escaping from the docks which would have delayed the man getting back to the warehouse. The fire springing up the way that it had, however, led credence to a gut feeling that the kidnapper was around. Gibbs thought briefly about the risk of continuing the search in the fire before soundly ignoring his ever-dwindling sense of self-preservation and pushing onward. There was a little boy lost somewhere in here – not to mention his partner searching up on the floors above him – so it wasn't really a choice Gibbs had to think about.
"DiNozzo, report." Annoyance tinged his voice when he had to call for the young man again. He'd expected a prompt response to whether or not the fire was on the floor Tony was searching. It was unlike the younger man not to answer at first call – even if it took him a minute to actually get around to answering Gibbs' question. Regardless, Gibbs needed a status report on the younger man's whereabouts in case the fire found any type of accelerant left over from the warehouse's days in use.
Tony's voice finally crackled through the radio. "I'm about halfway through the fourth floor, Gibbs. Most of the rooms are empty of anything but rats and cardboard boxes. There's been a couple of offices, but no sign that anyone's been in them."
Gibbs nodded even though his partner couldn't see it and reported back the same. He was about to ask for the unanswered status update on the fire when DiNozzo cut him off.
"There's definitely something more than rats up here, Boss." Tony's voice was muffled by the static and Gibbs had to strain to hear the quiet words. "Someone's definitely banging around in office number…"
Gibbs blanched as Tony's voice was cut off abruptly and all that was left over the frequency was dead air.
"Repeat, DiNozzo." Gibbs held his breath, hoping that Tony had simply gone radio silent as he worked to open the door. It wasn't the first time that the younger man had trailed off mid-sentence to concentrate on something more pressing, but it unnerved Gibbs now more than usual. If there was one thing that could be said about DiNozzo, it was that the man could chatter away incessantly about nothing – like he just wanted someone to realize that he was there. He counted slowly to thirty in his head before he started to admit that something was seriously wrong.
He waited another quick fifteen seconds before he tried again.
"Tony, answer me."
The tone of his voice brooked no delay, but he was met with no response.
"That's an order, DiNozzo."
Gibbs' growl echoed down the abandoned hallway as his voice rose in anger and concern.
Concern won out and resonated deep in his chest; something was seriously wrong.
The only response to his plea was continued silence.