Chapter 2: Tougher Than The Rest
Alan: There's one thing you and your brother have in common. With some things you're both very thorough; other stuff, you completely miss.
Don scrubbed a hand over his face and stared at the monitor as if he could force the image to come into focus through sheer will. Cooperation with the Department of Defense had netted them satellite images from three nights ago of most of the area within an hour's drive of Fontana, and half a dozen junior agents were combing through the images searching for three black vans holding the missing weapons. One of the most likely candidates was up on his screen, but whether it was his tired eyes or the resolution of the image, he wasn't seeing anything useful.
"Don, you got a minute?"
He looked up at Megan, hearing both the friendliness and the demand in her tone. "Yeah, what's up?"
She jerked her head to the side. "Can we take a walk?"
His antennae went up. Colby and David were out of the office, Liz was carrying out an interrogation, and the rest of the bullpen was surprisingly quiet for half-past nine. But apparently the office interior still wasn't deserted enough. "Yeah, give me a sec."
He closed out the window and put the computer to sleep before rising from his chair and following her outside, casting a surreptitious glance or two at Megan along the way. She looked as tired as any of them, but without the same driven expression that he'd seen on everyone else who'd been part of the mess the other night. He wondered for a moment what she was feeling, having missed out on the action but still having to deal with the aftermath. Knowing Megan, she probably didn't tell Larry anything that wasn't completely public information, which meant she didn't have someone to bare her soul to the same way he and Liz did.
Not that either of them was confiding much in the other at the moment. They'd said little last night: went to his place, ate a takeout dinner and collapsed into bed. It was the closest to eight hours of sleep he'd gotten in a while, even if he hadn't intended it. He still wasn't sure that Liz had genuinely forgotten to set the alarm, but he wasn't about to push it. Any implication that she didn't know what she was doing was not going to go over well at the moment.
They exited the building, and Don squinted in the sunlight. He clapped a hand to his shirt pocket, then made a face as he realized his sunglasses were sitting inside on his desk. He gestured to a bench well out of the way of the foot traffic through the plaza, and Megan nodded.
"So what's up?" he asked once they were seated.
She folded her arms across her chest and hunched her shoulders a little, making her look like she was cold despite the warm sun beating down on them. "First off, I probably shouldn't be telling you this," Megan said in a low tone.
"That's a great start," Don muttered. The beginning of a headache was hovering over his eyebrows, and the bright light wasn't helping.
Her lips twisted. "There's some concern from upstairs that you shouldn't be in charge of this investigation."
"Yeah, tell me something I don't know," he replied. He'd had to fight like the devil to keep control of the case, and the way things kept mushrooming outward, retaining control was going to take some heavy-duty politicking. He was usually good at that sort of maneuvering, but at the moment he was devoting all of his energy to chasing down Hector Simeon and three dozen RPGs.
Her tone of voice grew sharper. "Okay, did you know that they asked me this morning to evaluate you and see if you are up to the task?"
He raised his eyebrows, incredulous. "What, like a formal evaluation?" That couldn't be done by someone on his team, and it usually couldn't be done without official notification.
"No, not formally." Megan shifted a little in her seat. "I was asked to make some observations and report my findings later on today."
"Uh huh." Don eyed her more closely. "What kind of observations?"
She shrugged. "How everyone's coping with the aftereffects of what happened the other night."
"Does that include you?" he threw back at her.
"I wasn't there, Don," she replied.
"No, but there's plenty of aftereffects to go around." He looked at her for a moment, then dropped his gaze, forcing down his defensiveness at the same time. "Sorry. I take it the idea was not to have you come directly to each one of us and ask?"
She gave a soft snort. "Not exactly."
Don leaned back against the bench and crossed one leg over the other, ankle resting above his knee. "So what do you want to know?"
Megan's tone turned dry. "I don't suppose asking 'How are you?' would garner me an honest answer?"
"Hey, what's that supposed to mean?" He kept his tone light, but when she turned towards him with her eyebrows lowered, he gave her a serious look. "Honestly? I'm tired as hell, I'm scared to death for Liz and Colby because of the people who are after them, and I'm scared to death for all of us if we don't get those RPGs back."
She blinked. "Wow. Are you always this open when you're exhausted?"
Don quirked up the corner of his mouth. "Only when someone I trust tells me they're here to spy on me."
Megan broke his gaze and looked down at the concrete walkway. "What about the rest of the team?" she asked quietly. "How are they getting along?"
"There's a little tension, I guess, but I don't think it's getting in the way." He reached up and rubbed the back of his neck. "I mean, whatever went wrong the other night is not a function of inter-team dynamics, that's for sure." Not sure what it was a function of, but I don't think anyone can blame any of us.
"I wish I'd been there," Megan said suddenly, brushing away a speck of dirt from her khaki pants. He looked over and was struck by the expression on her face: a combination of guilt and regret, like she'd let him down.
"No, you don't," he replied seriously.
There was that wry twist to her mouth again. "You don't know what I was doing instead," she said. "It couldn't have been much worse."
"Worse than an hour straight of expecting a bullet to the head at any second?" Don made a scoffing noise, pushing back the memories that his words were bringing back to life. "There's not much worse than that."
Megan turned sideways, pulling her knees up and tucking her feet under her. "Most agents would be asking for a couple of days off after something like that."
"Yeah, well, we got too much to do to be taking time off," Don replied, slumping back against the back of the bench. Or to be sitting out here chatting, he thought, but he kept it to himself.
She cleared her throat. "And some agents might be required to take a couple days of leave. After something like that."
Don stared at her. "Is that what this is about?" They couldn't put him on mandatory leave, could they? No one had been hurt, there weren't even any shots fired, and they were all fine. More or less, added a voice in his head that he ignored.
"It's me reading between the lines," she admitted. "You're pushing so hard on this thing that I don't think you're taking time to process what's happened."
He scoffed again. "We don't have time to process, Megan. We have a job to do. Come on, you know how it is."
"And you just told me that you couldn't think of anything much worse than what you all went through." She looked at him reproachfully.
"Hey, those two things aren't mutually exclusive." When she didn't reply, he let out a sigh. "Look, I'm planning on going to see Bradford once this all blows over, okay? You can tell that to whoever you want to if it makes them happy."
Megan's expression darkened. "This isn't about crossing some t's and dotting some i's, Don. This is about making sure you're okay with doing the job."
And something inside him snapped. "You think I can't do my job? Okay, what do you want to hear from me, huh? That I didn't think I was going to be coming back? That a man had a gun to my head and was ready to pull the trigger and that there wasn't a damn thing I could do to stop him?" He glared at Megan, his heart suddenly pounding the same way it did every time he allowed himself to think about what had nearly happened to him.
And then it hit with the same stunning clarity that he'd experienced back in Dr. Bradford's office months ago, talking about trusting his team. Don looked down at the ground, his mind racing. "Not a damn thing," he said again, but more softly. He'd been about as far from being in control as you could get during those horrible minutes he'd been kneeling on the concrete, expecting every moment to hear the gun go off and wondering if he would feel the bullet enter his skull. His life was in the hands of a gang of men who weren't likely to let them survive the night. And there wasn't a thing he could have done to influence the outcome.
He felt a light hand on his arm. "Repeat after me," came Megan's voice. "My name is Don Eppes and I'm a control freak."
He abruptly sat up straight and her hand fell away. "My name is Don Eppes and I'm an FBI agent," he retorted. "C'mon, Megan, you can't exactly be a Type B and do this job. If I push myself, it's because I have to. Certain things have to get done and I -- I don't want the responsibility of having handed them off to someone else if they might not do them right."
There was silence for a moment. Then Megan said softly, "Is that what you really think?"
Don looked at her for a moment and then lowered his face into his hands, suddenly aware of how his words could be interpreted with regards to the rest of his team. "I don't know," he said, his voice muffled. He replayed the last few minutes in his head, hearing the frustration that had burst forth and the honesty that he hadn't been showing even to himself. Learn something every day, don't you?
After a few more seconds, he sighed and said, "That thing with Colby yanked the rug out from under all of us, you know?" As if I didn't have enough trust issues already.
"Don, I listened to all of your accounts of what happened the other night. You're right, trusting each other is not the problem." When he raised his head, she went on, "It's trusting the people above you. Nobody told you about Colby. Nobody warned you before leaving you out of a major operation. And me sitting here telling you they don't trust you isn't exactly helping."
He let out a slow breath. "Nobody could tell me about Colby," he replied, turning her words over in his mind.
"Doesn't mean it doesn't hurt," came Megan's quiet response.
Looking at her more closely, he could see that she was referring to herself as much as to him. "I don't think I have the market cornered on mistrust right now," he said, lifting his eyebrows.
"You're not so bad at reading people yourself, Don," she replied with a rueful grin. "Or is it basically tattooed on my forehead?"
"Only to someone who knows you," he answered.
She reached over and patted his leg. "So what are my observations to report?"
"You tell me," he instantly responded.
Megan tilted her head to the side and regarded him for a moment. "Confident in yourself and your team, determined to make up for a mistake that wasn't even yours, and more than capable of bringing in the bad guys."
He blinked. "Thanks," he said, infusing his voice with as much sincerity as he could.
Then she reached out and quickly rubbed her knuckles against his cheek. "And in need of a shave, but anyone can see that."
"What, you don't like the rugged look?" Don shot back, drawing down his eyebrows and pretending to look offended.
She rolled her eyes. "Come on, Mr. Rough-and-Ready, we'd better get back inside before someone comes looking for us."
Don grinned. "After you, ma'am," he said, affecting a cowboy drawl.
And despite the gravity of their conversation, he was suddenly feeling better than he had in days.
Liz pushed open the glass door and nodded at the blond agent who was exiting. She really hoped he had made a fresh pot of coffee, since she wasn't up for either dregs or making a new pot. Thankfully, the carafe was nearly full, and she grabbed a cup and poured the dark brew nearly to the top.
Behind her, the door opened, and she cast a glance over her shoulder. Theresa Pennington was walking in, stifling a yawn. "Hey, Liz," she said, her voice muffled by her hand.
"How are you?" she replied, putting the coffeepot back on the burner and casting a surreptitious glance at the clock. Nearly ten in the morning. She wished she could get away with rolling into the office as late as the junior agent did.
"In need of some of that," came the answer. Liz stepped out of the way and watched as the other woman poured a cup of coffee. She sipped at the black liquid and closed her eyes. "Mmm, I can almost pretend it has flavor."
"If Starbucks ever opened a store in this building, there'd be a line filling the lobby within minutes."
"And we'd never get any work done because we'd be too jittery to concentrate." Theresa took another sip and looked at Liz, the levity disappearing from her tone. "How are you doing?"
"I'm fine," she automatically replied, shaking non-dairy creamer into her cup. When she looked up, she was only half-surprised by the skepticism written all over Theresa's face. She quirked up the corner of her mouth. "Well, as fine as someone can be who's not allowed to go home without supervision."
Theresa's brown eyes twinkled. "Considering the kind of supervision you've got, I don't think most women would complain."
Liz raised her eyebrows. A beat later, the other woman flushed and dropped her head. "I'm sorry, that's a dumb thing to say, isn't it? Of course it doesn't matter how hot your boyfriend is when all you want to do is go home."
She hid a smile behind her coffee cup. "Theoretically, at least." When the brunette looked up again, her eyebrows raised in query, Liz went on in a low voice, "Of course I'd like to be able to go back to my place if I want to. For one thing, it would mean we've caught Simeon. Thing is…" She shook her head. "I'm not entirely sure I want to."
The puzzled look stayed for a few more seconds, and then Theresa's face cleared. "Because of the way Simeon left you there."
Liz gave a tight nod. Even though he hadn't assaulted her, the threat had still very much been there -- and it had been in her own bedroom. There was probably a therapy session or two in her future, but at the moment, it was a moot point. And maybe things would work themselves out in her head in the meantime. Yeah, right. She drew in a deep breath. "Besides, it's all irrelevant until we get the bad guys anyway."
"Any progress on that?" Theresa leaned back against the counter, somehow managing to fold her arms across her chest and still hold on to her Styrofoam cup.
"Still nothing from Marta Moreno, but the Ortega kids have spilled everything they know." She took a gulp of coffee. "Not that it's a whole lot. They confirmed that Simeon was expecting the Feds the other night, but they don't know how he knew. Nor do they know where the RPGs are, or where Simeon or Esteban are right now."
"Beyond the list of several dozen properties he owns that we don't have probable cause to get a warrant for."
"Right." Then Liz thought of something, and her face brightened. "But Colby and David are supposed to be back in half an hour after interviewing the head of the trucking company. That should give us something to go on about the cargo thefts." She shook her head. "Hard to believe that's how this all started."
"No kidding. That's kind of fallen to the back burner, hasn't it?" Theresa took a deeper draught of the coffee.
"I suppose it has." Liz thought for a moment. They were focusing all of their efforts on finding the missing RPGs, which certainly had to take priority. But in the meantime, the original objective of finding a security guard's killer and stopping a series of cargo thefts had fallen by the wayside. She tried to remember what Don had told them at their initial briefing, when the rest of the office was heading off to take down Hector Simeon -- or so they all thought. "Did anyone ever connect Simeon to the owner of the U-Stor-It? It was an East L.A. gang but not the Salvadoreans, right?"
Theresa shrugged. "I don't know. I remember you and Colby mentioning that in your statements, but I don't know if anything's been done with it since."
Liz made a moue. She hadn't really expected Theresa to know, since her involvement with the case seemed somewhat haphazard. Come to think of it, that in itself was kind of strange. "Can I ask you something?" Liz said. When the other woman nodded, she went on, "What are you doing on this team, anyway?"
Theresa cocked her head to the side, her expression darkening a little. "Come again?"
Liz gave a quick roll of her eyes. "I don't mean anything by it. In case you haven't noticed, we're all a little edgy at the moment. If you're only going to be around for this case, I think it would help to know that so Don knows how to assign you."
The narrowing of Theresa's eyes lessened, and she leaned her head back a little. "Just a temp, I figure. I mean, I would think someone would have told me if it was going to be a permanent posting." She jerked her chin towards Liz. "What about you? It's kind of strange to have a team with an odd number, and I'm guessing that you're the newest member."
"You'd be right. On both counts." She gave a quick shrug. "I guess I'm here until I'm needed more urgently elsewhere." Truth be told, she was surprised she was still here after admitting on the record to dating Don.
Theresa regarded her for a moment. "How does that jive with, well…" She trailed off.
Liz raised an eyebrow. You're gonna have to go ahead and ask it, she thought.
She got a knowing if rueful look in response. "How does that jive with being involved with the boss?"
Liz shrugged. "Up until a few nights ago, it wasn't anything more than a rumor as far as anyone else was concerned. Since a few nights ago, no one's said anything to me, and as far as I know, they haven't to Don either." Since he's barely left my side, I don't know when they could have.
One of Theresa's fingers was tapping against her cup. "Can I ask you something?" she finally said.
Liz cocked her head to the side. "I suppose," she said, slightly warily.
"How long were you and Don working together before you started dating?"
Aha. This probably wasn't the last time she'd be asked that particular question. "Not that long," she replied. "But we'd known each other from Quantico, and I was only here on temporary assignment at the time." She came a few steps closer and leaned up against the counter next to Theresa, deciding it was time to act a little friendlier. Dropping her voice, she added with a sideways glance, "Although at that point, I don't think it's really accurate to call it 'dating.'"
There was a small smirk on the other woman's face that vanished as quickly as it had come. "Going out in public can be tricky when it's an office romance."
"Yeah." She drained the last of her coffee and tossed the cup in the garbage can. "That's why when I was assigned here more permanently it took me a few weeks to get around to telling him I was here."
"And then you picked up where you had left off?" There was a pause, and then Theresa shook her head and stood up. "I'm sorry, it's none of my business, really."
"No, it's okay." Liz was surprised to find that she didn't mind. After going public, so to speak, with the statement she'd given to Theresa a few nights ago, she didn't have to keep everything a secret anymore. Not that she was going to tell everyone in the office, but she felt there was something she could trust about the younger woman.
Besides, it wasn't like she had a whole lot of female friends to discuss men with.
So she said, "We took it easy for a while. It was different knowing I was here full time, you know? Not to mention that I ended up on his team, especially after the whole Colby thing. We've basically been taking it as it comes."
"And it's been going okay? I, um, couldn't help but notice you had a little disagreement out in the field, but that's okay now, right?"
"Yeah, it's fine." More or less, an inner voice piped up, but she ignored it. She turned sideways, resting one hip against the counter. "Why all the questions?" Liz asked, trying to keep her tone friendly.
A faint blush stained Theresa's cheeks as she dropped her head. "I guess you could say it's personal interest. What it's like being involved with someone you work closely with."
Liz felt the corners of her mouth turn up. "I hear you've been asking around about Colby."
"I plead the fifth," Theresa muttered, bringing her coffee cup up to hide her face.
Now she was out-and-out grinning. "All I can say is, it's not the kind of job that makes it easy to meet people. So you gotta take advantage of the chances you get." Even if you don't think they're going to last forever, she added in her head.
"I'll keep that in mind," Theresa replied. Then the tone of her voice changed. "How's Colby doing, being back in the office?" The question sounded casual, but Liz could read the deeper curiosity in her voice.
And while she felt capable of deciding what to share about her personal relationship, she wasn't about to speculate on someone else. "You'd have to ask him," she said, throwing a hint of suggestiveness into her tone. "How long are you here in L.A., anyway?"
Something flashed across the green eyes that Liz couldn't read before Theresa lowered her head back to her coffee. After a quick sip, she said, "I don't know. As long as I'm needed, I guess. However long that might be."
She gave a nod in reply. "All my mom ever wanted was for me to settle down with a nice guy and have a stable life. I don't think she's accepted yet that that's not going to happen."
Theresa smiled back. "Yeah, having to move across the country at a moment's notice makes it hard to have that picket fence and 2.5 kids, doesn't it?"
"Yeah, but who are we kidding? If we wanted that, we wouldn't have picked this job, right?"
The other woman's smile slipped a little, but then she said, "Right."
Liz looked at her more closely. "Why'd you join the FBI, anyway? If you don't mind me asking?"
Theresa looked up and across the bullpen through the glass walls of the break room. "Looks like that's a story that'll have to wait."
Following her gaze, Liz saw David and Colby emerging from the elevator with a third man in tow. She looked back and saw a spark in Theresa's eyes. "Okay, you're off the hook. For now."
She was sure she wasn't imagining the relief that washed over the other woman's face, even though it was gone in a split second. "Race you to interrogation," Theresa said lightly before heading for the door.
Liz watched her go, her eyes narrowing as she thought about that last exchange. Then she saw a swift grin cross Colby's face when he caught sight of Theresa, and her own face softened into a smile. Maybe something good would actually come out of this whole mess.