Walking Ghost Phase
by Valerie Vancollie
valeriev84 at hotmail dot com
Spoilers: Dirty Bomb (any underlined parts are taken directly from this episode!)
Note: This fic was written for the Numb3rs Gen Fic Exchange and was written for Jul3s' prompt Missing scene for any of the season 1 eppesodes. The early days...
Disclaimer: I do not own any of the Numb3rs characters, items or situations. I only lay claim to the original aspects of the fic.
Don could only stare in horror at the expanding ball of flames, his mind frozen in disbelieving shock. They'd blown it early! Gerth's men had detonated the bomb early and without contacting them again for the money or with additional demands.
"Maybe what you need is a bit of motivation, Eppes."
Gerth's distorted voice rang through Don's mind as the reality of the situation slowly started to creep in.
A dirty bomb.
A dirty bomb had just been exploded in downtown Los Angeles, not even a hundred feet from where he stood.
"Well, dirty bomb phraseology is really a misnomer. We're talking radiological dispersion."
The radiation! Had they evacuated enough of the area? Or were there still civilians nearby, close enough to be affected by the radiation? He sincerely hoped not, it was bad enough that the vast majority of the rescue workers that had responded to their evacuation orders and his team had still been in the square. If they had failed to get everyone out...
"Cell function is disrupted, DNA chains get broken, mutated."
"So it's cancer."
"Cancer, leukemia, any number of diseases or immune deficiencies."
His mind seemed to be stuck in the past. The conversation with Larry and Charlie had filled him with fear and horror at the time, but now... now it terrified him.
Don had always known that joining the FBI was dangerous; that there was a possibility he could be killed in the line of duty. Yet, although there had been a few rough patches, such as the first time he'd been held at gunpoint, he had generally accepted and come to terms with that fact long ago. Never in all his years of service, though, had he been in a situation like this one. Yes, he had been threatened: by guns, knives, bombs, cars, gas... but never by something so insidious that he couldn't detect it, much less fight it.
In a single instant he had been exposed, probably to enough radiation to kill him within a week. The mere thought sent ice through his veins. To think that this was it, the thing which would kill him, that he was already just a dead man walking and that there was nothing he could possibly do to either slow or prevent it scared him more than anything ever had.
He was helpless.
Helpless to save himself, helpless to save his team, helpless to do anything but die a slow painful death.
"Dr. Carlyle said Louis Slotin, a Manhattan Project scientist, died nine days after being exposed. He died from what she termed a 'total disintegration of internal functions.'"
Don had seen the fear in Terry's eyes as she'd reported back to him after the interview. At the time he'd shuddered briefly at the wording before shrugging it off. Now, however, the words came back to haunt him.
Total disintegration of internal functions.
Horror flashed through Don at the thought. He couldn't even imagine what type of pain that would cause. Between Carlyle's description and what Larry and Charlie had told him at the start of the case, though, he felt he already knew far too much. God, had this been the way his mother had felt when she'd received her prognosis? He felt sick to his stomach at the mere thought but it refused to go away. He desperately hoped not. At least when she'd been diagnosed there'd still been some hope, treatments and therapies that could be explored, the potential for a cure even if her condition had been discovered late.
Don squeezed his eyes shut, wishing he could will away the situation; that he could simply do something about it! That he could chase down Gerth and his men or find something that would undo the damage that had been inflicted in the blink of an eye. Dozens of lives were at stake here. His team's lives were at stake. They had just been doing their jobs; Terry and David didn't deserve this fate, nor did the other agents, cops and firemen who'd responded to the evacuation orders.
"Maybe what you need is a bit of motivation, Eppes."
Don gritted his teeth as the distorted voice echoed in his head once more. A bit of motivation! A sudden ball of fury erupted within him as he thought of everyone exposed to the radiation by Gerth. Oh, he now had motivation all right. Motivation to track down the bastard and collect enough evidence to ensure the death penalty if it was the last thing he did, which was looking far too likely at present.
"Don!" Terry's voice snapped him out of his dark thoughts and he slowly turned to face her and David as they rushed over to him. "Are you all right?"
"For now," Don replied tersely, checking them over for visible injuries.
"Yeah," David shuddered as he glanced towards the small crater left by the blast. "For now."
"They want to check us over," Terry stated, indicating the back of a nearby ambulance where a man dressed in protective gear stood waiting for them.
Although her voice seemed calm, Don knew her well enough to detect the fear lurking in her eyes. He was suddenly thankful for his sunglasses, not wanting either of them to see the terror he felt.
"Let's do it so we can get back to tracking Gerth," Don stated, indicating for them to precede him.
He wanted both of them to be looked at first, just in case something could be done. They had been further away from the bomb, not that he had much hope for anyone in the square who hadn't been wearing radiation suits.
"I'm not picking up any radiation. You're clean, you all are."
It took a second or two for the man's words to sink in, Don's mind unable to grasp the meaning at first.
Clean. He was clean, his team was clean. They weren't irradiated. But that meant- that meant there hadn't been any cesium in the bomb. It hadn't been a dirty bomb!
Even as the relief sank in, Don felt his determination hold firm. He would find Gerth and bring him in no matter what. He'd just have to be careful that his anger didn't cloud his judgment. There was no way he'd let the man influence him into making a mistake that could be used against them in court.
The combination of the adrenaline still coursing through his system and the relief now flooding it, threatened to make his hands shake but he forced them steady as he grabbed his suit coat. He didn't have time for that now.
They had to find Gerth and the cesium before he could make good on his threat and create a real dirty bomb.
Alan glanced at his youngest as he put his key into the lock and opened the front door. Charlie had fallen quiet on the way home from dinner, just after they had dropped Don off at his apartment. Dinner had been a pleasant affair and the conversation and ribbing on the way back to the car hadn't been strained, so he was at a loss as to why Charlie appeared to be brooding now.
"Is everything all right?" Alan asked as they stepped inside and he closed the door.
"Huh?" Charlie uttered, pausing in removing his jacket to look at him.
"I asked if everything was all right. You seem bothered by something. This isn't still about your thinking it was Driscoll Plaza, is it?"
"No, it isn't," Charlie stated, putting his jacket away. "It may not even be anything, but I think it is. I'm just not sure what."
Alan instantly recognized the expression on his youngest's face. It was the one he often got when contemplating his older brother or something Don had said or done.
"You and Don didn't argue again, did you?"
"No, no!" Charlie hastened to assure him. "Don and I are fine, I just think something's bothering him."
"Oh?" Alan questioned, getting worried.
While Charlie was a genius with anything math related, his youngest wasn't normally very good at reading people's emotions. For him to think that something was bothering his brother, who had gotten very good at concealing his emotions, meant that it was quite serious. Yet he hadn't noticed anything troubling about his eldest during dinner. True, Don had been quieter than normal but he had chalked that up to exhaustion. The stress of the case he'd just closed had to have been enormous. He himself had found the whole ordeal draining and he'd only learned about it earlier today and hadn't been involved in most of it.
"I think it's got to do with Darryl Gerth, the man in charge of this whole mess. He was really frightening."
"Charlie, surely you didn't expect a man who would steal nuclear waste and threaten to create a bomb with it to be anything else?"
"No, I guess not," Charlie replied. "The thing is, he was so calm about it all at first, as if it were some type of game. One minute he's laughing and the next he's threatening to kill Watson."
"Watson? Is he one of Donny's agents?" Alan questioned, alarmed.
"No, Mark Watson was one of the men who worked with Gerth. He was the son of Gerth's foster parents."
"Like I said, you can't expect someone like him to be rational."
"I know. The thing is, he really seemed to get to Don. From the moment I walked into the room, Don was short with him and he even cuffed him on the back of the head at one point. I almost felt like we were back in high school and Don was seconds away from jumping him. And- and the tone of his voice when he spoke to Gerth. It was just like it used to get when Don was really angry with a bully, or even me at times, and about to start a fight."
"Ah, yes, I know which one you mean. Your mother used to call it his warning voice, the one that dared you to contradict him or take it a step further."
"Yes, that's the one," Charlie agreed.
"Perhaps it's the tone he uses when dealing with suspects," Alan reasoned.
"No, I've seen him interact with suspects before when he's in interrogation, and I've never heard him use this tone. There was a distinct edge to it. Then there were the glares. Gerth was almost goading Don at one point, while the next it was like, well if looks could kill, Don would be dead. And Don was giving back as good as he got."
"This man did threaten to set off a dirty bomb and from what I understand, he was refusing to tell Donny where the cesium was. He was probably just anxious to secure it and ensure that nobody got exposed."
"I suppose," Charlie said. "It was just... I guess it took me straight back to high school."
"I'm sure everything is fine," Alan stated. After all, he hadn't noticed anything wrong at dinner.
Don shot into awareness, gasping for breath and covered in sweat. The phantom pain from the dream and the ghastly images lingered for several moments more, causing the nausea to roil within him and he scrambled desperately for the bathroom. He made it to the toilet just as his dinner made a reappearance. Clinging to the toilet bowl, he rode it out, moaning as his stomach finally seemed to settle just a little.
Despite the fact that the information had helped them resolve the standoff with Baker peacefully, Don now wished he had never asked Larry for the details of what cesium exposure did to the human body. Nausea, vomiting, internal bleeding, destruction of the soft tissue and death were one hell of a potent nightmare cocktail. Not to mention the total disintegration of internal functions Dr. Carlyle had mentioned.
Don gave a short bark of dark laughter as he realized that in feeling nauseous and vomiting he was undergoing the same two symptoms he would have had if the bomb in Angeles Square had actually been dirty. Nausea and vomiting were the first two parts of the walking ghost phase.
Walking ghost phase.
What a horrible name, though a fitting one from what he had seen of Baker. On some level Don pitied the man. Yes, he had willingly participated in what could have turned into a truly horrific crime, but he suspected that Baker had no real clue of what he'd gotten himself into. He'd bet that Gerth had never mentioned the dangers to him, the consequences. Hauser had informed them that the doctors didn't hold out much hope for the man's survival.
Not wanting to continue that line of thought, Don climbed unsteadily to his feet and flushed the toilet before turning to the sink. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and winced. His face was ashen with the darkening circles under his eyes testifying to how little restful sleep he'd gotten so far this week. Not wishing to examine the look in his eyes too closely, he turned on the faucet and cupped his hands under it, rinsing the awful taste from his mouth.
Determined not to get sick again, Don bypassed his bed and made for the living room instead. There was no doubt in his mind that if he went back to sleep now, the nightmares would be back with a vengeance as they always did after he'd woken. The best thing to do was to stay awake and pray that the exhaustion made tomorrow night better. He just hoped they didn't catch a new case.
Since the mere thought of food or drink caused vehement protests from his stomach, Don dropped onto the couch instead and grabbed the remote. A flick of his wrist and the TV turned on. He surfed carelessly through the channels, desperately hoping to find something to distract him from his thoughts. He coasted straight past the news channels without pausing to see what was on, stopping briefly on all other channels to check their content. He finally settled on an old black and white movie he vaguely recognized.
Don wasn't aware of drifting off until the images flashed before him once more, followed swiftly by the phantom pain. He jerked upright and fought off the nausea, determined not to vomit again.
He was still trying when the doorbell rang.
Alan sighed as he tossed fitfully again and caught sight of the clock. He had been drifting in and out of sleep for hours, unable to get any real rest. Despite what he had told Charlie earlier, he was worried about Don. For his youngest to have picked up on it, something must really have been bothering Donny. The problem was his eldest kept far too much to himself, never reaching out to anyone for help.
As the lights of the clock changed to announce a new hour, Alan threw back the sheets knowing sleep was a hopeless cause. He never could sleep well when worried about one of his boys. He'd learned to deal with it when Don had joined the Bureau and lived far away, but now that he knew he was close by it became more difficult.
Quietly he made his way down the hall so as not to disturb Charlie. Once downstairs, he debated what to do. Cooking always helped sooth his nerves but he couldn't really prepare a meal right now. He opted instead for the TV, hoping to fall asleep to some late night show.
Although he'd intended to find something mind numbing, Alan found himself unable to change the channel after ending up on a news report. The large radiation sign behind the anchorman left little doubt as to the topic of the broadcast. Morbid fascination kept him watching.
"-reported earlier, details are still sketchy at present, but we have managed to confirm several important facts," the man was saying. "Some time in the morning of the day before yesterday, a truck transporting nuclear waste to a dump site was hijacked. After killing the driver, the thieves left a ransom demand of twenty million dollars, threatening to create and set off a dirty bomb in the city should their demands not be met.
Although the details of what happened over the course of the next hours are not known, what is obvious is that a threat was made to downtown LA. The area surrounding Angeles Square was evacuated by authorities comprised mainly of the FBI, LAPD and LAFD. Exact details are unknown, but it has been confirmed that a bomb went off in the square, critically injuring two members of the investigating team."
Alan gasped in surprise. He hadn't known that anyone had been wounded in the blast!
"Although authorities have been adamant that no nuclear material was detonated with the bomb, a source who spoke on condition of anonymity has stated that at the time of the blast this was unknown."
The man's mouth continued to move but Alan couldn't hear what he was saying over the rushing in his ears. At the time of the blast this was unknown, the words seemed to echo over and over in his mind in a continuous loop. If it was true, then that meant that Donny hadn't known when the bomb had gone off that it wasn't dirty. He hadn't known that it wasn't spitting radiation everywhere, exposing everyone including himself.
Alan was on his feet and halfway up the stairs before he fully realized what he intended. He had to see Donny; now. This could be it, what had been bothering Don.
The next half hour was a blur for Alan. All he was sure of was that he had to go to his eldest and see for himself that Don was fine. That nothing had happened to him since dinner. It was probably a good thing that it was so late as that meant there was little to no traffic, not that he could remember the drive to Don's apartment nor the walk to his floor. The next thing he was aware of was standing outside his door.
Here Alan paused. It was the middle of the night, Don would surely be in bed by now, as would all of his neighbors. Briefly he hesitated, unsure whether he could wake Donny without also inadvertently waking one of the other people in the building. His son should wake faster, though, he'd always been a light sleeper and had become even more so since joining the FBI.
With that thought, Alan reached up and rapped his knuckles against the door. Perhaps it being so late would work to his advantage. Chances were Don's guard would be down due to being woken so suddenly. He was so focused on that thought that he almost missed the door opening seconds before he was about to knock once more. Startled, he could only stare in surprise at the silhouette of his son.
"Dad?" Don asked, surprise lacing his voice. "Are you all right? Is Charlie okay? Has something happened?"
"What? No, we're both fine," Alan replied, overcoming his surprise. So much for catching Don off guard, he'd clearly been up already. But then why wasn't there a light on? "I... I need to talk to you."
Don's voice clearly conveyed his exhaustion and Alan briefly felt guilty, but then brushed it off. If his eldest was so tired, then why hadn't he been asleep? "Yes, now."
Instead of arguing as expected, Don merely turned around and walked back towards the living room. Feeling his worry increase, Alan stepped inside and shut the door. Any doubts he'd had about coming here had already vanished. It wasn't like Don to give in so easily, something was clearly bothering him as Charlie had said.
The lack of light and Alan's unfamiliarity with the apartment meant he had to carefully pick his way to the living room where he saw his son sitting on the couch by the light from the TV.
"What do you want to talk about?" Don questioned wearily.
"You and, well, what is troub- why is it so dark in here?" Alan demanded, reaching for the light switch and turning it on.
The sudden illumination caused Don to jerk his hand up even as he turned his head away and closed his eyes. Alan could only stare in horror at his eldest's appearance. He was pale and clammy, clearly shivering despite the heat of the apartment.
"Donny!" it came out as a whisper. "What happened? Are you all right? Is something wrong?"
"I'm fine," Don snapped, shifting away from his father, not wanting him to see just how bad he felt.
"Fine? You're not fine! Donny, you look like you've seen a ghost."
The unfortunate wording triggered flashes of his earlier nightmare and Don felt his stomach rebel at once. Shooting to his feet, he rushed for the bathroom, vomiting even as he collapsed in front of the toilet.
Alan rushed after him, pausing but briefly to take in the scene as he reached the bathroom. It took a moment to sink in, but then he turned on the faucet and moistened the washcloth next to the sink. Gently he lowered himself beside Don and began running the cloth over his face and neck, knowing there wasn't much more he could do until it was over. Between the way Don had looked earlier and the fact that he seemed to be bringing up little more than bile, he knew that this wasn't the first time his eldest had been in this position tonight.
When Don finally seemed done vomiting, Alan got up and filled a glass with water so he could rinse his mouth. He then lowered himself to the ground once more where Don sat slumped against the wall.
"Are you okay?"
"Yes, sorry about that."
"Are you sick?"
"No," Don admitted, opening his eyes to look at his father. "It was the word ghost."
"Part of the fallout of exposure to cesium is called the walking ghost phase."
Alan paled at the words, his earlier suspicions confirmed. "Oh, Donny," he whispered, wishing Don would let him take him in his arms as he had as a child. "You thought you'd been exposed, didn't you? In Angeles Square."
"How'd you know?" Don demanded, glancing at him in surprise.
"It was on the news earlier, that authorities had thought that the bomb was dirty until no traces of radiation could be found."
"I thought we'd had it, all of us; Terry, David, myself and everyone else who had helped evacuate the area. When that bomb went off, it was like it was over and there was nothing I could do about it."
Alan's heart went out to him at the tone of his voice. He could only image what Don had gone through in that instant and wished it had never happened. He had known from the moment Don had told Margaret and himself that he was joining the FBI that he would face things he'd never wanted either of his boys exposed to, but he had never imagined a situation like this. He strongly suspected that the hardest part for his fiercely independent son had been his helplessness over the situation, Don had never dealt well with not being in control of his destiny.
"Nothing can change what you felt at that moment, Donny, but you must remember that it wasn't a dirty bomb. You weren't irradiated, none of you were. You're safe."
Don snorted, closing his eyes. His exhaustion was, for once, plain to see with most of his defenses down. Alan felt his heart clench despite his frequent wish that Don would show his true feelings more often. This was not what he wanted, it was a horribly twisted version of his wish.
"Come, we need to get up off the floor," Alan declared, climbing to his feet before reaching down to help Don up.
Alan slipped an arm around his son's shoulder, supposedly to help him stay upright but also to comfort himself. The shock and cold that had run through him upon hearing the reporter's words still hadn't completely left him. He had almost lost his eldest today and it would have been in a way as horrific as that in which he'd lost his Margaret if Gerth had kept his word. He needed to be close to Don as much as his son needed it even if he couldn't ask for it.
Gently Alan lead them away from the toilet and back into the bedroom towards the bed.
"Dad, no," Don protested as he saw where his father was steering him.
"Hush, you need to sleep. I'll stay with you."
"I'm too old for you to sleep with me."
"No one's ever too old to be comforted," Alan disagreed, gently but firmly pushing Don onto the bed before pulling the covers over him and lying down next to him.
Despite Don's best efforts to remain awake, he soon drifted off, comforted by his father's presence. Alan watched as his son's breathing deepened and he settled in, prepared to ward off any nightmares that would come.
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