Spoilers: Set early-ish S1, after Vector. Big spoilers for Uncertainty Principle and a slight reference to Vector.
Again, thanks to devra for the alpha and support.
Disclaimer: I do not own Numb3rs or anything connected with it.I'm just borrowing and will return all in one piece. Really.
Don bolted up in bed, scrubbing at his eyes.
"What the hell?" he muttered and stole a glance at his digital clock. Three-thirty-seven. Who was making so much noise at three-thirty in the morning? Outside, he listened to the sound of rain pelting the streets. It hadn't been raining earlier, he remembered. What time that had been, he didn't really recall.
Then he heard the knocking. He scrunched his eyes shut and sighed before forcing himself out of the bed. The floor was cold and damp beneath his bare feet and he realized he'd left the window open.
This last case had really taken a lot out of both him and his team. He was also painfully aware that it had taken a lot out of Charlie - even though his brother claimed he was fine, Don knew he was far from it. Denial and hiding were two tactics Don was familiar with and Charlie often used.
Charlie, who despite his recent consultant work, truly wasn't used to the everyday dirty work of an FBI agent. Don had learned long ago when to let go and even now, sometimes knowing didn't make it any easier.
Therefore he wasn't too surprised at what greeted him when he stumbled into the living room and peered through the peephole of his front door.
"Charlie." Sure enough, when he opened his door, there stood his brother, bike behind him, soaking wet and dripping in the hallway.
"It's three-thirty in morning," he said.
"I couldn't sleep," Charlie answered, one hand firmly on the handlebars of his bike. The other one was tucked ever so slightly behind his back.
"No kidding," Don muttered. "Come in. It's raining, you know."
"I know." Charlie's tone was quiet, subdued. Abnormal, a carryover from last night.
All not good.
"I'm sorry I woke you," Charlie started. "Um, but I...um..."
"It's okay. You know you can come here whenever you need to." Don reached out to clasp Charlie's shoulder and gently tugged him and the bicycle inside the apartment. "Geez, Charlie, you're freezing."
Charlie shrugged. "Got cold outside."
"Yeah." Don didn't like the short sentences. Especially since short sentences from Charlie were never good. "I'll get you a change of clothes."
Charlie nodded at him and parked the bike against the wall. Don disappeared into his bedroom and rummaged through a few drawers. Anything he had would be a bit too long for Charlie, but he managed to find something that worked. He grabbed the dry clothing and went back into the living room. Charlie was still standing next to his bike.
"Here." Don handed Charlie a shirt. As Charlie shifted to reach for it with his right hand, his left hand fell to his side.
That's when Don saw the blood.
Charlie must have noticed because he slid his left hand behind his back.
"It's nothing, Don. Really. Had a slight accident on the way here. It was slippery," was Charlie's excuse, but Don wasn't listening. Instead he walked closer to Charlie and pulled Charlie's hand out from behind his back and Charlie immediately hissed.
"Nothing, huh?" There was a deep gash in his palm that was still bleeding, despite the fact that Charlie appeared to have tried to stop it somehow. Charlie was wearing a navy hoodie over a light blue long sleeved shirt, and Don didn't truly how bad the wound was until he rolled up the hoodie's sleeve and found the lighter material underneath soaked with blood. Don almost swore when he saw it and figured Charlie must have used this shirt's sleeve to slow the bleeding. How the hell had he gotten here on his bike with this? To make matters worse, the wound didn't appear very clean; Don gathered that the dirt caked on Charlie's hand bars hadn't helped.
"This needs stitches."
Charlie tugged his hand away. "No way. I just need a bandage."
"No, you need a trip to the emergency room. Go get changed."
"I'm not going to the ER. It's fine," Charlie insisted.
"Right, fine. Show up at my door at three-thirty in the morning with a deep, bleeding gash in your hand and you're fine. Charlie, you're dripping blood on my floor. That's a good indication you're not fine. Go get changed, then I'll wrap your hand."
Charlie shook his head. "No. I told you it's fine. Stop acting like Dad." To illustrate his point, Charlie took a step away from Don, but it backfired when he stumbled and his face paled. Don immediately reached out to steady him.
"Okay, buddy, I think you need to sit down." Don guided Charlie slowly to the couch. Charlie didn't say a word, just bit his lip, and let Don led him. Don firmly pushed Charlie down onto the cushions, not caring how wet his brother was. It was then that Don noticed that Charlie was shivering slightly.
"You okay?" he asked, knowing Charlie was anything but.
Charlie just blinked at him for a second. "Guess I'm a little dizzy," he admitted.
Don nodded. "Which is why we're going to the hospital. Do you need help getting changed?"
"The hospital will take forever," Charlie protested. "And no, I don't need help."
"Who cares if it takes forever; I don't have anywhere to go. Do you?" Don offered Charlie a hand up, which Charlie ignored. "Just why did you come by tonight?"
"I..." Charlie started, "I couldn't sleep."
"I got that much out of you already." Don kept talking, but started shepherding Charlie towards the bathroom in hopes of getting his hand wrapped and the two of them on their way to the hospital.
Charlie swallowed. "It's nothing."
"Nothing? Charlie, it's late. You're soaked and bleeding in my living room. It's something. I told you, the outcome of the case wasn't your fault. Wasn't anyone's fault. We still got the guy in the end." Don opened his medicine cabinet and searched for the first aid kit.
"Yeah." Charlie whispered. This was not going to be easy.
But first things first. Charlie needed medical attention. And dry clothing. Don found the first aid kit and bandaged Charlie's hand the best he could before ducking back into the living and returning with the clothing he'd picked out earlier.
"You need to get changed."
Don shifted the clipboard and looked up to see the rain continue to fall through the emergency room's glass doors. Every time someone came in, in came the wind and the water, and next to him, Charlie huddled even more into himself, shivering every so often, despite the fact that he was now in dry clothing and Don's extra jacket.
"Charlie, little help here. These forms don't fill out themselves."
Charlie glared at him, or tried to. With his still pale face and curls plastered to his forehead from the rain, he looked pitiful and all of five-years-old. "I can fill them out, you know. It's my left hand, not my right."
"Not if everyone wants read them," Don countered. "Besides, your right hand is shaking." He said the last line casually, but to be honest, that fact was starting to scare the crap out of him. Don's medical knowledge was limited to basic first aid and the CPR class he took with the Bureau, but it didn't take much to recognize the signs of shock. Whether it was emotional or physical, he wasn't sure, but most likely it was a bit of both. Charlie hadn't said a word on the ride over, and Don let him be.
For now, at least.
He watched Charlie's eyes fall to his hand.
"My medical card's in my wallet," Charlie finally mumbled and started patting his pockets with his injured hand. "In my pants, which are at..."
"Which are at my place," Don finished. "Good thing I took it out before we left." He reached into his jacket packet and pulled out Charlie's battered wallet. "This thing is falling apart."
"I like it that way," Charlie defended and plucked the battered leather from Don's hand. He opened it one handed and unsuccessfully attempted to pull out the insurance card.
"Here." Don lowered the clipboard to his lap and took the wallet, removed the card, and handed the wallet back to Charlie.
Charlie stared at it a second. "Thanks."
Don went back to the clipboard, copying down Charlie's insurance information.
"Don, I'm sorry."
Charlie's voice was so low, and for a moment Don thought he'd imagined him speaking. In the bustle of the late night - not make that early morning, Don realized after a glance at clock on the wall - ER waiting room, he figured he could have, until Charlie spoke again.
"Sorry I woke you," Charlie said, louder this time. He shivered and Don hoped they'd call his name soon. With the door constantly opening, the waiting area wasn't exactly the warmest, nor the driest spot.
"I told you, anytime." He laid his pen down, the paperwork finally finished. He got up and handed the paperwork off to the desk clerk. When he returned to his chair, he found Charlie staring into space.
"You know, this last case, it was...it was rough."
"Was it?" Charlie asked.
Don was confused. "Six people died, so yeah, I'd say it was rough."
"People die all the time," Charlie answered. "You said so. Part of the job."
When had he said that? He couldn't have said that to Charlie. Not after this - or had he? The last twelve hours were bad and Don had been hounding Charlie for answer that wasn't there.
"Yes," Don agreed. "People die. And it so happens that is part of the job. But it's never easy and it's never okay."
Charlie just blinked at him, and there was the look that Don hated to see. That 'why, I could have, no, I should have done something more' face. The one that made Charlie seem even more naïve and young than he truly was. The same face Charlie had worn during the Charm School Boys case. Don had been frustrated then, maybe even mad. Now he was just tired. The FBI had beaten some hard truths into him, and even though he still considered himself an optimist, reality always tried its best to get in the way.
And reality could never be ignored.
Don wondered what he should say, what he could say, but before he could even open his mouth, a nurse called Charlie's name.
"Charlie, the doctor wants to keep you here a few hours. I think I should call dad."
Charlie shook his head. "No way. You get hurt and the first sentence out of your mouth is 'not a word to dad'."
"That's different," Don stated.
"It just is."
"That's not a reason."
Don ran a hand across his face. There was no way either of them were hiding this from dad. He'd know something was up when Charlie strolled through the door in Don's clothes. "Charlie, you needed ten stitches and your blood pressure was so low they're giving you IV fluids."
"So? I'll be home by breakfast."
"Breakfast? Try lunch. It's almost seven already."
Don studied Charlie. Refusing the gown the nurse handed to him earlier, Charlie laid on the gurney, eyes staring straight up at the ceiling. An IV ran into his right hand and despite the fact that it was supposed to be helping Charlie improve, Don swore Charlie didn't look any better than when they'd first gotten here. To make matters worse, Charlie had also started running a slight fever; hence the reason the doctor was a bit reluctant to sign discharge papers just yet.
At least it was Saturday and a rare day off for Don. Charlie had no classes to cancel and Don figured the two of them could use a nap whenever they managed to get out of here.
Charlie still refused to talk. Since his name had been called, Charlie had clammed up and there was nothing more said about the recent case. Not that a crowded emergency room was the best place to tackle such a discussion, but it made the silence that passed between the two even more pronounced.
"You're not really going to call dad, right?"
Don mulled it over a moment. Chances were that when their father got up to make breakfast and didn't see Charlie, he'd worry. But Charlie could have just as easily gotten up and headed over to campus to work. Don weighed the consequences. Dad might have his head later, but Don just couldn't ignore the plea in his brother's voice.
"No. But you can do the explaining when I take you home."
Charlie closed his eyes, pushing his head even further into the pillow.
"You okay?" Don asked.
"My hand hurts," Charlie muttered.
"Yeah, I think it would. By the way, how did you hurt your hand, Charlie?"
"I told you, my front tire slipped and the bike toppled. It's raining."
"The bike toppled? You mean you fell off your bike?"
"No, the bike slipped. I did not fall. And there was a rock-"
"Rock? That's not what you told the doctor."
"She asked me if there was glass involved, which there wasn't. And she didn't find anything but dirt in there, so it's fine. She asked how I did it. I told her I slipped. She didn't push the subject any further after that."
"You should have called a cab."
"A cab?" Charlie repeated, eyes still closed. "It was only rain."
"Lots of accidents happen in the rain. You could have been hit by at car."
"Seventy-percent of bicycle accidents don't involve cars at all, you know. Statistically there's a much greater chance I could have hit a pedestrian."
"Well, that makes me feel so much better."
"You sound like Dad again. Don, I'm not five."
"Of course you're not. I'm the first to point that out, despite that fact that more often than not, you can certainly behave as one. You could have called me. I would have come over. Or picked you up."
"At three-thirty in the morning?"
"Yes. I might have been slightly pissed, but you know I would have come."
Charlie opened his eyes again and lifted his right hand, looking at the needle embedded there. Don pushed himself out of the chair next to the gurney and stood over his brother, trying to get him to make eye contact.
"Charlie. It was a tough case. I understand that you couldn't sleep. If I hadn't so exhausted, I'd have been restless, too. But I have a lot more experience with these things."
"So you get used to it?" Charlie asked.
"No," Don answered. "But you learn how to deal with it. It wasn't your fault. You know that, right?"
Charlie ignored him and stared down at the IV imbedded in his uninjured hand. "Right?" he repeated.
"If I came up with the answer ten minutes sooner-"
"Six people still would have died," Don finished. "Even an hour or two wouldn't have made a difference. That guy was crazy and unpredictable."
Charlie finally turned his eyes towards him. "Nothing's completely unpredictable."
"I'd think human behavior would be."
Charlie smiled, a ghost of a smile that lasted less than a second. "That's what Larry keeps telling me."
"And do you listen?"
Charlie didn't answer, just looked down at his hand again.
"Charlie, at Quantico, they touched upon unpredictable analysis and incomplete profiles. Not every criminal can fit a perfect mold. That's why they keep coming up with new ones. Terry throws out psychological profiles at me, but even she was off the mark here. There's no way we could have known he'd double back at the last second and change his target. Math can't always predict human behavior."
"Math can find patterns," Charlie countered. "Patterns that are made by human behavior."
"And if someone decides to switch up that pattern?"
"You would see the new pattern forming. But..."
"But not without a decent amount of new data."
"Who was it you told me to pay attention to during the Charm School Boys case? Heisenburg and his Uncertainty Principle."
"An object cannot be observed without changing that which is being observed. Someone is bound to act differently when they know they are being watched, even if they try their best not to. Human behavior is a complicated variable. But Don, there was just...it was that news broadcast all over again."
Don frowned. "What news broadcast?"
"The one I saw after I was sure I'd given you all the information you needed to stop the Charm School Boys."
"The shootout," Don stated. "Well, that was unpredictable, too. We still got the bad guys in the end, though, thanks to your expertise. You figured out what they were doing wasn't just robbing banks. Just like you figured out this last case."
"I should have figured out it faster."
"Charlie, not this again. I have faith in you. Why don't you have faith in yourself?"
"That's just it."
"That's just it what? I think you lost me here, buddy."
"You have faith in me, which is great. But faith means pressure and pressure means..." Charlie turned his head away from Don again.
"Stop that," Don said and moved back into Charlie's line of vision. He wanted Charlie to look at him. "I don't mean to put any pressure on you, Charlie. I just know you can do it. It's not easy admitting that I need my little brother in order to sometimes do my job, you know. But I guess I do."
"But what happens when I can't give you the answer? When I'm wrong? I've been wrong. I've even been wrong when you and your whole office thought I was right."
"You were right in the end."
"In the end, yes. But what happens the day I'm not right in the end? When something even worse happens because of it?"
Don let out a breath. He'd tried never to think about that. He'd been frustrated. Frustrated that somewhere in the past few months, Charlie had become integral to his high arrest and solves rates. His team was one of the best in the LA office and Don knew it was partially due to the fact that he had a mathematician at his fingertips. Since when had he needed that? He'd gotten past the jealousy and sibling rivalry, but that didn't mean it was completely forgotten.
It also caused him to stress his brother out. Again, the Charm School Boys case popped into his brain. It was hard to find answers when the one person who might be able to help you shuts down.
But apparently Charlie had learned from that experience. They both had. There were no outbursts, cluttered chalkboards, or denials this time. No P versus NP.
This time it was just a late night bike ride in the pouring rain and a trip to the ER.
"I don't know," Don finally admitted. "But we haven't gotten there and I try not to think about what would happen if we did." Don sat down in his chair. "But I still need your input. You're the one who constantly reminds me that everything is numbers. So much so, that you even have me believing it."
"Everything is numbers." The statement was followed by a cough and Charlie tugged the IV line when he tried to muffle it with his right hand.
Don got back up and laid his hand across Charlie's forehead. Immediately, Charlie tried to push it away, but hissed when his injured hand come in contact with Don's hand. "Yeah it is, including your temperature. Maybe I should go find a nurse." Don lowered his hand and looked out towards the ER traffic.
Charlie rolled his eyes. "I'm fine. I just want to go home."
"Yeah, real fine. Use a different word that actually defines what you're feeling. Dad's gonna be pissed that I didn't call him."
"He'll get over it. You are still not going to call him, right? I know he worries, but he probably thinks I'm on campus or something."
Worry was probably an understatement. Their father had most likely already called Charlie's office and Don knew Alan Eppes would be waiting by the front door when they finally got in. But hopefully it wouldn't be much longer. "Provided we get out of here anytime soon, yes. But your fever's up. I don't know if they'll like that."
"They can give me Tylenol and I can deal with that at home."
"Yeah, with Dad."
"Well, he'll bring me soup, at least. And won't stick me with needles."
"True," Don agreed. Silence fell between for a few seconds. "You know, Charlie, you're allowed to be wrong."
"Even when it counts?" Charlie met Don's gaze straight on and Don knew he was waiting for him to say yes. Was his father right when he said Charlie valued his opinion? Did he always expect Charlie to have the answer and would it be okay if he didn't?
If he didn't, Don would just do his job the best he could. The same way he'd been doing before Charlie became the go-to-math-guy for the FBI.
"Yes," Don told him. "But you've never let me down when it counts. So statistically, well, I think the odds are in our favor."
Charlie gave him a small smile. "Statistics have nothing to do with it."
"Oh, they don't, do they? Funny to hear that coming from a mathematician."
The problem wasn't completely solved or forgotten, but Don hoped Charlie got the message.
Don was right when he'd said their father wouldn't be too happy with the fact that he hadn't called. When he'd checked his cell phone in the hospital parking lot, there were three missed calls, all from dad. When he and Charlie walked in the door, Alan was in the living room, the phone in his hand, most likely because he'd been calling around to find Charlie. As predicted, his eyes went straight to the white bandage wrapped around Charlie's hand.
"What happened? And why didn't you pick up your phone? I was about to call the police."
Don only looked at Charlie, who told Alan about the accident on his bike and not being able to sleep.
"It was pouring last night. You shouldn't have gone out there."
Charlie sighed and gave shot Don a look. "It wasn't pouring when I left," he defended.
"You could have called."
"I was closer to Don's. And I am a grown-up, Dad."
"Of course you are," Alan agreed. "But sometimes you forget to act like one. I thought you'd gotten up early and gone to campus when I didn't see your bike this morning. But when I called your office you didn't pick up."
Don snorted. "Charlie? Up early on a Saturday? The only time Charlie's up early on a Saturday is when he's stayed up the entire night before."
"Hey! I do not sleep that late." Charlie flopped onto the couch, and tried to stifle a cough with his good hand. In doing so, his bad hand took a portion of his weight as he settled and he let out a yelp, which only caused him to cough more.
Alan exchanged a glance with Don and approached his youngest. "I thought you said you hurt your hand." He reached his palm out and before Charlie could protest, laid it across his forehead.
"It's a cold," Charlie stated, not bothering to try and swat Alan's hand away.
"It's a fever," Alan clarified, "and therefore more than a cold." He looked at Don. "The hospital let him go with this?"
"This is nothing," Charlie insisted.
"They said to watch it, most likely it's either a virus or reaction to his hand and the shock."
"Shock?" Alan repeated and turned back to Charlie. "And was that something you decided to conveniently leave out of your story?"
"It wasn't important," Charlie answered and slumped further into the couch, looking more and more like he wanted to get out of the hole he'd dug himself into.
"If it goes over 102 and stays there, they said we should call the family doctor," Don pointed out. "It's not that bad, Dad. He was only running about one-oh-one an hour ago."
"All right." Alan stopped hovering a moment and the relief in Charlie's eyes was plain to see. "Though maybe we should take it again now that you're home."
"Dad..." Charlie started.
"You're sick. Sick people sit still and get their temperatures taken."
"Dad, Don just told you that they took it at the hospital an hour ago."
"So? Humor your father. I'll be right back."
Alan disappeared up the stairs.
Charlie glared at Don. "You had to give him details, didn't you?"
Don shrugged and sat down next to his brother on the couch. "You had to fall off your bike in the rain and wake me up at three-thirty in the morning."
"I could tell him about kitchen window."
"The one I broke when I was twelve? Go ahead. What's he going to do? Ground me? I don't even live here."
"For someone that doesn't live at home anymore, you certainty spend enough time here. And what happened to the kitchen window?" Alan stood a few feet away. Don hadn't even heard him come back down the stairs. How did he do that? Sometimes parents were downright scary and Don wondered if he'd inherit any of those traits if he ever had kids. And his father stressed the "if" often.
"Nothing happened to window," Don commented innocently.
"Yeah, nothing but Don's baseball."
"Charlie." Don nudged Charlie in the ribs. Charlie only grinned and started coughing again.
"That's enough." Alan handed Don the aural thermometer. "Donnie, stick this in his ear. Your mother told me she broke that window."
"Mom lied," Charlie quipped and Don took the opportunity to put the tip of the thermometer less than gently into Charlie's left ear. "Ow! Watch it."
"Sorry," Don muttered. "Mom and I made a deal, Dad. And that was over twenty years ago. Charlie was like six. I can't believe you even remember this."
"It was the window over the sink. There was glass inside the garbage disposal," Alan said. "You mother was still trying to get it out when I came home. Why did she...never mind. Some things, perhaps, were better kept between you and your mother."
The thermometer beeped and Don pulled it from Charlie's ear. Charlie sighed dramatically. "Well?"
"101.3," Don responded. "Pretty much the same it was at the hospital."
"Like I said before." Charlie turned his injured hand over, studying the bandage.
"Don't touch it. It'll never heal," Alan reprimanded.
Charlie looked puzzled. "I hadn't even..."
"You were thinking about it."
"No I wasn't." He looked at Don. "Tell him I wasn't."
"I..." Don held up his hands. "You're on your own. I plead the Fifth."
"What happened to faith?" Charlie asked.
"It's still there," Don insisted. "But you told Dad about the window."
"The window doesn't matter," Alan put in. "You," he nodded at Charlie, "should be in bed."
"I'm not tired," Charlie insisted. "The couch is
fine." He shifted and accidentally put pressure on his
injured palm. He sucked in a
Alan raised an eyebrow at Don. "They send you home with any pain medicine?"
Don reached into his pocket and pulled out a bottle of pills and a couple of slips of paper. "A few. A prescription in case he needs anymore. Another prescription for antibiotics. I haven't stopped by the pharmacy to fill it yet."
Alan took the slips from Don's hand. "I can do that. I need to run past the grocery store anyway. We don't have any soup."
Charlie groaned. "I don't need soup."
"You're sick. Of course you need soup." The way Alan said it, Don knew there was no if, ands, or buts, in his statement.
"No carrots," Charlie muttered. "I hate-"
"Carrots," Alan finished. "I'm your father. I don't think I would forget such a thing."
"I got your pillow from upstairs."
Don put the pillow on the end of the couch and told another good look at his brother. Charlie was sitting up, but just barely. He was leaning so deeply against the couch cushions that he'd probably fall over if Don yanked one from under him. Charlie's eyes were at half-mast and he was staring into space. The TV was on, but Don knew Charlie wasn't paying any attention to it. A bowl of soup sat a couple of feet away on the side table, and looked untouched.
Oh well, Don figured. Dad had tried. And would try again later,
no doubt. Don had thought Charlie looked bad at the hospital, but
honestly, he didn't look much better at home. The paleness was a
bit better, but in its place was a fever flush across both of
Charlie's cheeks. A stack of papers sat on the couch next to him,
a pencil lying on top of them, as if Charlie had been working,
but decided to abandon the project. As Don, shifted the paper and
sat down on the couch Charlie absently raised his hand to stifle
"Thanks," he told Don.
"How you doing?" Don asked. "Because you don't look that hot. You sure you were feeling okay before last night?"
Charlie gave a little shrug. "It's that time of year. All my students are coughing and sneezing during classes. Maybe I picked something up."
"Maybe you need to get more sleep."
"You should talk." Charlie started to inch towards his pillow, putting an elbow on it. He yawned.
"You should take a nap."
Charlie shook his head. "It's those pain meds you and Dad made me take. By the way, it's so not fair when you gang up on me."
"Who says I have to play fair?" Don teased. "Seriously, Charlie, you all right?"
"Seriously?" Charlie asked. "I feel like crap. My hand hurts, I'm cold, and Dad's soup is making me nauseous. Plus I promised Larry I'd work on some calculations..." He looked towards the paper Don had moved. "The numbers aren't making a lot of sense to me right now. That can't be good, right?"
Don glanced at the items he had moved, seeing Charlie's handwriting across the pages, strings of numbers he had no clue about. "I thought you and Larry had finished these. Before the case, I mean. You mentioned that at dinner last week."
"You can always spot the flaws more accurately when you recheck your work after letting it sit a few days. There are some errors and I'm not exactly sure why."
"You'll figure it out."
"Yeah," Charlie muttered and lapsed into silence a moment. The sounds of CNN filtered in and Don heard them briefly mention, yet again, the events of almost two days ago.
Charlie's voice was so soft that Don almost didn't hear it. "Yeah?"
"Did you really mean what you said? Before, at the hospital?"
"We did a lot of talking at the hospital, Charlie. You might have to be more specific."
"About it being all right if I was ever wrong. That it could be okay if one day I can't come up with the answer for the FBI. For you."
"Oh," Don answered. "Well, I said it was, so of course I meant it."
Charlie shook his head and opened his mouth to respond, but coughed instead. "No," he managed. "You say you meant it, but you really think it'll never happen."
"I said I have faith in you." Don was a little confused. "Charlie, I'm not lying here."
"I know you're not," Charlie responded. "But how you can say it will be okay when you are not factoring in the fact that it could happen? The equation, your thinking, is incomplete without that variable."
"Are you saying I'm too optimistic? Now that's something I don't hear every day. I'll have to share that with Terry." Don tried to lighten the mood, grinning a little, but Charlie wasn't buying it. "Charlie, I value you opinion or I wouldn't ask for it. And believe me, I don't always want to ask for it. But it works. I see it, the NSA sees it. Which, by the way-"
"I can't tell you. Don't even try," Charlie finished.
"I'll find out. You have to crack."
"No way. I'm better at keeping a secret than you give me credit for. I didn't say anything about the window."
"Until today," Don pointed out. "Charlie, numbers are your life. Catching criminal suspects is mine. If anyone had told me that when I joined the FBI the two could work in hand in hand, I wouldn't have listened. Nor would I have believed. I believe now."
"You would have been wrong. You were wrong. Math does a lot more than crack a few bank cases."
"So I've seen. Charlie, if you're wrong. You're wrong. You can make a mistake. You've almost made some. I've made some. You just try and learn from them. Which I'd think a college professor would know. Preach even. I'm sure Larry does."
"I don't normally deal with human life in the classroom," Charlie replied. "But yeah, mistakes can always be an educational tool. But can you make mistakes in the FBI? It's not a classroom."
Don shrugged. "Agents do. Whether you can or not, it happens. You just try your best to make sure it doesn't. You hope your victim, your witness, stays alive, but you're never surprised when they don't. But you can't give up, even when the worst-case scenario starts to come true. Do you give up when you can't solve a math problem?"
Charlie shook his head. "No. I'm stubborn."
"I guess I am too. Part of the Eppes' charm." Don paused a moment. "Charlie, this case was...bad. Plain and simple. Everything an agent hopes won't happen, happened. When it was done, I spent hours at the office going over every move, every strategy. Looking to see what went wrong."
"Did you find anything?" Charlie looked as if he expected Don to say "yes." To say something went wrong.
Don shook his head. "No one did anything wrong. We couldn't have known."
"Six people are still dead."
"They are," Don admitted. "But it could have been worse."
Don let out a breath. Cases like this were never easy, but the fact that this wasn't the worse thing he'd ever seen was far from comforting. "Yeah, it could have been. But he won't hurt anyone else. That's what matters. It's over."
"It is." Charlie yawned again and was starting to lean move heavily into his pillow. Don knew it was only a matter a minutes before Charlie crashed.
"Get some sleep," he told Charlie.
"Not sleepy," Charlie muttered, but settled his head against the pillow anyway.
Don grinned and got up to find a blanket. When he found one and returned back to the couch, Charlie was out like a light, hair astray, fever-flushed, and peaceful. He coughed again in his sleep, and Don hoped whatever antibiotics Charlie was on for the hand also took care of this little bug before it got serious.
He laid the blanket over Charlie's shoulders.
It was over, all right. But Don knew it might not be the last horrible case Charlie ever worked. No matter what, he couldn't protect Charlie from everything.
Epilogue - Two days later
Don stopped in the doorway to Charlie's room, folder dangling from his fingertips and leaned his body against the door jam. Charlie didn't notice him, or if he did, didn't acknowledge his presence.
His brother was sitting on top of his bed. The covers were pushed all the way to the edge and sheets of papers covered the exposed sheet. Charlie had a pencil in his teeth and was shifting the pages in front of him. A new bandage covered his left hand, Don noted. He pulled the pencil out of his mouth to cough, a deep cough, that to Don didn't sound any better then it had this morning when Don stopped by for breakfast before heading to the office.
"Being in bed usually means being under the covers."
"I was too hot," Charlie explained, not even bothering to look up.
Don noted the still flushed cheeks. "Uh huh. Fever will do that. What did the doctor say?"
"What makes you think I went to the doctor?" Charlie started scribbling with his pencil.
Don yanked the pencil from Charlie's hands. Charlie let out a protest. "Last night your fever was 102.5. Plus, I talked to Dad after he made the appointment this morning. So, what did the doctor say?"
"What, you didn't talk to Dad after my appointment?"
"Of course I did, but I wanted to hear it from you."
Charlie sighed. "Bronchitis. No class for a week. Different antibiotics. Some inhaler thing. Hey, what's that in your hand?"
"It's a case," Don answered. "But you still sound pretty rough, buddy. Maybe I should come back later." Don smiled, letting Charlie know he was teasing.
Charlie rolled his eyes. "Don, it's bronchitis. I feel a lot better, really. Antibiotics work wonders. What's the case?"
"It's popular. Not everything case I get involves high profile murders, you know." Don handed the folder to Charlie.
"I never said it did." Charlie flipped the folder open and scanned the pages. "A bank fraud case sounds good right now. A piece of cake, really."
"Got an answer already?"
Charlie shook his head and smiled. "No, but I won't give up till I do."
Don grinned right back. "Good. I wouldn't have it any other way."