Title: Blood and Gold
Rating: PG-13 (language, violence, adult situations)
Timeline: AU Season Four, set after "Velocity"
Summary: Don's team might be back together after Colby's return, but are they really all in the same place? As a new case threatens them in more ways than one, they have to work on trusting each other again and showing the rest of the FBI that they still have what it takes to bring in the bad guys and keep themselves safe from a variety of threats, some from the outside and some from within. An AU take on Season Four, featuring angst, action, and romance, roughly in that order. Written for the NUMB3RS Big Bang on LJ, available at my journal (zuben_eschamali dot livejournal dot com)
Disclaimer: The characters you recognize are not mine, but the property of the NUMB3RS folks, as are the opening quotes in each chapter. I'm only using them for fun and to work out angst. Chapter titles and lyrics are all from Bruce Springsteen.
A/N: Long, long ago, I started this story, and then it sat, three-quarters finished, for almost two years. When the first NUMB3RS Big Bang came along this spring, I thought it was the perfect kick in the butt to get this thing done, and it was! In the DVD commentary to "One Hour," Rob Morrow said that one of the ironies of the episode is that while the audience gets to see how trustworthy and competent each of the members of Don's team are, Don himself doesn't get to see that. Take that, combine it with a number of aspects of early Season Four that were never resolved entirely to my liking, and this novel-length story is the result.
Muchas gracias and merci beaucoup to Kiki, rittenden, cerise_reve, and emmademarais for their fabulous beta work. You guys rock. Any remaining mistakes are all mine. Thanks to Lady Shelley for maintaining "Running the NUMB3RS" and to spikedluv for her quote collection, both of which were valuable resources.
Now, pretend you've seen only the first couple of episodes of Season Four: Colby is newly back on the team, Liz and Don are still together, Charlie hasn't written that book, and things are still a little tense in the office as the curtain rises…
10 hijacked trucks
5 coded digits
3 missing crates
Where the road is dark
And the seed is sowed
Where the gun is cocked
And the bullets cold
Where the miles are marked
In the blood and gold
I'll meet you further on up the road
-Bruce Springsteen, "Further On (Up the Road)"
Chapter 1: Waitin' On A Sunny Day
Liz: Come on. It's complicated now.
Don: Yeah? Why's that?
Liz: People will find out.
Don: Yeah? So what?
Liz: So what?
Liz: This is the Bureau. It matters.
The sound of his cellphone was, sadly, one of the most recognizable noises Don knew. The familiar ringing sound woke him from a pleasant dream that was more like a recollection of how he and Liz had spent a pleasurable hour together last night before falling asleep tangled in each other's arms. As his bleary gaze caught the digital clock and the bright red "5:52", he snapped wide awake.
The phone ringing at this hour was never good news.
He turned towards the sound, which was coming from the nightstand on the other side of the bed. Next to him, Liz was stretching out an arm towards the phone. "Don't," he warned, reaching for her arm, but she had already flipped the phone open. "Hello?"
There was a pause, and he waited with bated breath. He wasn't surprised to see Liz's cheeks flush in the dim light as she said, "No, he's right here," before handing the phone to him. He frowned at her and accepted the device, which she offered with an apologetic smile. "Eppes," he said into the phone.
"Don?" It was Megan, sounding way too awake for six in the morning.
"Yeah. What's up?" He threw the covers back, already mentally preparing himself for an early-morning drive to a crime scene. At least traffic wouldn't be bad.
"Sorry to wake you so early," she replied. In the background he heard traffic noises; she was already on the road.
"No problem," he said, knowing she was referring to disturbing more than his sleep. "Where are we going?"
She let out a sigh. "I'm going to Washington. That's what I'm calling to tell you - I'm going to be out for the rest of the week doing some follow-up work from that DOJ assignment I was on."
He slowly sat back against the headboard. "They just told you about it?"
"Forty-five minutes ago, and my plane leaves in an hour." That and the disgruntled tone of her voice told him more about the high level at which her assignment had been made than any classified stamp on a document.
"I suppose this has to do with the aftermath of what Colby was up to," he grumbled, aware of Liz next to him pretending not to listen in.
"You know I can't say." Megan sounded tired, and Don hoped she was okay to drive and talk at the same time. "But I'll be back next Monday. Hey, you managed a whole three months without me; a week should be nothing."
"Yeah, but it's getting kinda hard to lead my team when half of them are doing things they can't tell me about."
He heard a staticky sigh through the phone. "It's nothing to do with you, Don, you know that."
"If it's something to do with my team not being able to do the job I rely on them for, then yeah, it has something to do with me." There was silence, and he let out a breath, his frustrated words still ringing in his ears. In Megan's, too, he was sure. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to take it out on you," he said more contritely. Bradford would have a field day with that one, he thought ruefully. Talk about control issues.
"If it's any consolation, believe me, I'd rather not be going."
"Yeah, I know." Megan had been extremely unhappy after her return from Washington, although the disaster with Colby had occurred so close on the heels of her return that it was hard to tell them apart.
Suddenly Don remembered a conversation in the bullpen, when his shattered team was trying to decide whether or not to believe Colby's story about being a triple agent, right after Megan and David had found Michael Kirkland's dead body. David had argued that the dead man wasn't Colby's handler, but another Chinese spy who had outlived his usefulness. Don had asked Megan what she thought, and she'd paused before answering, "I don't know," with a very un-Megan-like reticence that made him think she was hiding something. He hadn't pushed it at the time, but now it sprang back into his head, and he frowned. They'd heard some details about Colby's two-year assignment over the last few weeks, but not all of them, and he knew they never would. It had only recently occurred to him to wonder if Megan's DOJ assignment had been connected to all of this, and now he was convinced that it was.
He hated not knowing what was going on.
Megan's voice broke into his thoughts. "I gotta go, Don. I'll keep in touch, don't worry."
As much as you did during those three months you just mentioned? he wondered, but instead he all he said was, "Have a safe trip."
He folded the phone shut and thought for a moment. Was there anyone he could talk to, any strings he could pull or get Charlie to pull to find out what was going on? He told himself that it was more than curiosity, more than his control-freak nature that meant he had to know what was so urgent that Megan had to leave at a moment's notice. No, it was his need to be able to manage his team and plan for their case load without wondering from one day to the next who was going to show up at the office and be able to do the work that he wanted them to do.
He let out a sigh, and Liz reached over to caress his leg. "New case?" she asked.
"Not for me, no. Megan's been called away for the week."
"Oh." She was silent for a moment, then said, "I suppose that means you're one short, doesn't it?"
Don looked over at her, taking in her sleep-heavy eyes and her silky brown hair spread across the pillow, and a slow smile spread across his face. "Yeah. But on the bright side," he said, reaching across her to place the phone back on the nightstand and lingering so that his body was pressed against hers, "at least I can keep an eye on you all week."
She rolled her eyes but pulled his head towards hers, and they exchanged a series of leisurely kisses similar to those that had started off last night's events. It was still early, and he wasn't about to object to a little passion to start off the morning on a good note.
Unfortunately, even Liz's warm skin and lush lips didn't distract him from his frustrated thoughts. After a few minutes, he sighed and rolled off of her, flopping back against the pillows. He absently reached for her hand, trying to reassure her that it wasn't anything wrong with her. But she only gave his hand a short squeeze before pushing the covers aside and climbing out of bed, leaving a rush of chilly air behind her.
It's going to be one of those days, Don thought glumly.
It was one of those days, Liz thought with a frown, staring at the computer screen in front of her. After starting with a rude awakening and the embarrassment of answering Don's phone to find one of his - their - whatever - team members at the other end, things hadn't gotten any better. She might be on loan to his team for the week, but he couldn't just slot her in to whatever Megan had been doing, given their different skill sets and experience. Her hopes rose for something new to work on when Don was called up to the Assistant Director's office shortly after lunch. An hour later, however, she was still doing a license plate search on some small-time drug runner, even though as soon as they arrested him, there'd be two more there to take his place. She might not be the adrenaline junkie she used to be, but there had to be something more exciting and meaningful than this to her job.
Behind her, David Sinclair had been silent all day beyond a few basic pleasantries. Across the aisle, the presumptive cause of David's reticence sat at his own desk, occasionally running a hand through his sandy brown hair as he worked through a series of phone calls to what sounded like victims of a pyramid scheme. She hadn't asked, still unsure of her footing around Colby after his accusatory comments on the Brett Chandler case. Okay, sure, she had been partnered with him in part to ferret out how he was doing and what his long-term plans were likely to be, but she had tired of that pretty quickly. Don had understood when she'd stood up to him about it - eventually - but she wasn't sure that Colby saw her as anything other than a spy for the boss. Oh, the irony of it all, she thought.
A movement across the bullpen caught her attention, and she looked up to see Don striding towards them. His face was like a thundercloud, and she inwardly groaned. "Oh boy," she said under her breath. David's head shot up at her words, and they exchanged a quick look before their boss appeared in front of them.
"C'mere," Don called, dropping into his chair across the cubicle from Colby and gesturing towards Liz and David. They rose from their seats and crossed the aisle, David taking up a position next to Don. Liz perched on the edge of Colby's desk, figuring that that awkwardness was better than what would be assumed if she sat on Don's desk. Colby rolled his chair away slightly to give her more room, but his expression was friendly enough as he nodded a greeting.
A rustle of movement caught her attention, and she looked up to see a number of other agents moving around the bullpen, more than usual. She soon realized that most of them were headed towards the war room. "What's going on?" she asked.
Don blew out a breath and tapped the short stack of file folders he was holding against the top of his thigh. "What's going on is a major sting operation in the Valley taking down the remnants of a Salvadorean cartel that's been operating in L.A. for the past two years."
Liz frowned. "Not the cartel that Ivan Tabakian testified against?" That was the case where she'd re-encountered Don almost exactly a year ago. That had been her case from her time in Organized Crime, and she should have heard about it if something was going down.
He pursed his lips. "Yeah, that would be the one."
She stared at him. "That's my case. Why is this the first I'm hearing about it?"
"Oh, it gets better," Don said dryly. When she raised an eyebrow, he nodded towards the large glassed-in room that was filling with agents. "Notice anyone missing from the party?"
"You mean besides us?" Colby asked.
Don's lips twisted as he raised his eyebrows in unspoken agreement.
Liz slid off the desk and folded her arms over her chest. "What's going on?"
"What's going on," Don said, his voice tight, "is that we're going out to Fontana tonight to investigate a series of cargo thefts."
"But what does that have to do with this Salvadorean cartel?" David asked.
"Nothing." Don dropped the stack of slim file folders he'd been holding onto the desk behind him. "Not a damn thing."
Liz exchanged glances with Colby and David, hoping one of them would ask the obvious question. Colby's face was blank, and David was lifting his eyebrows at her. Thanks, guys. "So…" she started.
Don tilted back in his chair so that his head was nearly level with the top of his desk. "So…?"
She glared at him. "Why are we, as you put it, the only ones missing from the party?"
His eyes were dark, a mixture of anger and frustration simmering in their depths. He was so much more quick to anger than he used to be, she realized. Actually, a number of his emotions came to the surface more easily than they had before he withdrew into himself for five weeks while struggling with Colby's apparent betrayal. Passion and anger were the first two that came to mind, although it was sadly the latter that tended to dominate over the former.
"Which reason from upstairs do you want to hear first?" Don was saying in a low voice. "The one where the only stable member of my team is out of town, the one where half of this team can't carry on a casual conversation with each other, or the one where 'interpersonal relationships'" - his fingers made air quotes as he looked her in the eye, leaving no doubt as to which relationship he meant - "might interfere with our reliability?"
There was silence for a moment. Then Colby said, "Well, damn."
David snorted. "Wright doesn't trust us enough to put aside whatever issues we might have and work together in the field?"
"Hey, you're the one who can't handle something as simple as going on a stakeout," Colby muttered.
"Excuse me?" David didn't raise his voice, but the cutting tone was not something Liz was used to hearing from him.
Colby's head shot up, and his eyes met David's. "Are you telling me you can put aside your 'issues' in the field? 'Cause I haven't really seen it so far."
David took a step forward, and Liz lunged to stand between him and Colby, holding up a hand towards each of them. "Hey!" she said, looking at them both in turn. "Are you trying to prove the guys upstairs right, or what?"
The two former partners stared at her, and she glared right back. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the corner of Don's mouth curve up, and she rounded on him. "Glad you find this amusing," she snapped at him, and the smile instantly left his face. She let out a sigh. "Sorry," she said, taking a step back and lowering her hands.
"No, you're right," Don replied. "There's a reason we're in the doghouse."
Liz leaned back against Colby's desk. "And if Megan was here instead of me - "
"Then Wright would have come up with some other excuse, okay?" Don shook his head. "Look, let's just focus on the case we do have, do a good job on it, and make them realize we're a damn good team, okay?"
There were nods of agreement all around, and Don took the stack of folders off his desk again, the storm apparently over as quickly as it had come up. She resolved to keep a closer eye on him; he still hadn't gone back to his therapist, after putting it off for almost two months. And if the Assistant Director was including him in the list of "unstable" people on the team, that was worrisome.
On the other hand, it was ridiculous to classify her that way. So maybe she didn't need to worry about Don after all.
"All right, here's the story." Don rose to his feet before opening the top folder and spreading the contents over his desk. "Lytle Trucking, a company based in Fontana, has been getting its shipments stolen regularly over the past six months; the drivers have been hijacked. They added security cameras in their trucks, but the cameras got busted. Then they hired guards to ride in the trucks, and last week, a guard was killed. Forensics traced the killer to a Latino gang out of East L.A., the leader of whom owns a U-Stor-It in Fontana and a warehouse down the road in Colton."
"Why is this our jurisdiction?" David asked bluntly. Apparently he hadn't calmed down as quickly as their boss had, Liz thought, and a glance at Colby told her he was also still a little steamed.
Don pointed to a photo showing a semi truck hauling a metal box with "Hanjin" written on the side. "The stuff that gets stolen is in containers that come in through the L.A. or Long Beach ports and are headed for some other part of the country, which makes them interstate commerce, which makes it our jurisdiction."
David gave a tight nod. "And what brought this to our attention?"
"A report from a concerned citizen passed on from the Fontana police. Apparently they were worried about a large group of, uh, people of Hispanic ethnicity congregating at this public storage facility."
Liz raised an eyebrow. "That was the wording?"
He shrugged and looked away at the photos. "Close enough. I guess you could say the citizens of Fontana aren't all that into cultural diversity."
"You know what the locals call that town, don't you?" she asked. When he shook his head, she said dryly, "Fon-tucky."
Colby snorted, and even David broke into a wry grin before he said, "That might explain it."
"Yeah, well, whatever the reason, Lytle isn't the only company experiencing thefts, so we might be linking this to other cases in the area," Don said. "The shipment they lost last week had a bunch of RFID chips buried inside, and they've tracked a couple of them via GPS to that public storage facility owned by our suspects."
"And they want us to go and get it back?" David asked.
Don nodded. "Apparently it's a valuable shipment, and they really want it back instead of writing it off as a loss."
"What kind of shipment?" Liz asked.
"That, we don't know. 'Proprietary information', apparently."
Colby leaned back in his chair. "They want us to get involved in something that someone's already been killed for, and they're not willing to tell us what it's about?"
Don spread his hands wide. "Believe me, I'm not happy about it either, but there's nothing we can do. On the bright side, all the evidence indicates that it's not an inside job, so if the stuff is at this U-Stor-It, that should be the end of it."
"Why's that?" Colby asked.
"Well, last month they lost two containers of consumer electronics, but also a shipment of Barbie doll knockoffs and a whole forty-foot container of Legos. I mean, I know Christmas is coming, but the thieves aren't gonna make a killing off those." Don reached up and rubbed at the top of his ear as he spoke.
Liz blinked. Suddenly, a vivid memory flashed into her head of last night, her tongue running over the shell of that same ear before taking the lobe into her mouth while his hands were -
She quickly looked away and forced the memory back down, hoping her cheeks weren't flaming. This is exactly why you're not supposed to sleep with someone in the office, she told herself. "Interpersonal relationships" indeed.
Then a burst of noise caught her attention, a murmur of laughter coming from the glassed-in war room. She soon realized that all four of them were looking in that direction, all wearing equal expressions of frustration at being left out of the operation. No, there's worse consequences than embarrassment to worry about. Once this case was closed, she was going to insist that she be permanently assigned to a different team. As well as she and Don worked together in the field, there was no reason to jeopardize either of their careers, or Colby or David's for that matter, by giving their superiors reason to doubt their focus on the job.
She looked up to see Don watching her, but he didn't say anything. "So, what's the game plan?" she asked brightly.
He looked at her curiously for a second, but all he said was, "Well, finish up what you're working on and check out the background on this cargo theft. Maybe grab some dinner, too. We're heading out after seven. It's an hour's drive, and the public storage place closes at eight, so there won't be any customers around to get caught in the crossfire." She raised her eyebrows, and he added hastily, "Not that there should be any crossfire."
"Great," she said, the brightness fading from her tone. She leaned over and snatched one of the folders off his desk, making an effort not to notice how close she came to that same ear as she did so. Awake since six, and now on a field trip till after midnight. This day just keeps getting better.