A/N: Thanks to tinkoo for helping me with the title!
Disclaimer: I don't own the characters and I don't make any money off of them.
It's Never Too Late by 3rdgal
Don Eppes brought the SUV to a halt and turned to the passenger seat to glare at his brother. "Nice going."
Charlie stared at the sign in front of them in disbelief.
Road Closed- Bridge Out Ahead
He glanced at Don and grew defensive. "Hey, how was I supposed to know the road was closed? It doesn't say so on the map."
"You don't even know if we're on the right road!"
"I'm pretty sure we are, were, whatever." Charlie's frustration grew as he snuck a peek at the map in his hands. They'd been lost for the past few minutes, but Charlie had kept insisting they continue on, certain his shortcut was a good one. He knew Don was angry, but he had no desire to sit there and be a verbal punching bag for him to take his anger out on. In a moment of frustration, he rolled his window down and flung the map out into the pouring rain.
"Charlie!" Don scolded as he shook his head. He pulled out his cellphone and flipped it open. No signal. He didn't really expect one while they were in hills as remote as these, but he always tried to be optimistic. Why had he listened to Charlie's shortcut idea in the first place? He scrubbed his hand over his face, forcing himself to suppress his anger. Charlie was right; it wasn't his fault the road was closed. The rest of it, well it didn't matter now anyway.
"Are we going to turn around?" Charlie's voice held just enough sarcasm to rekindle Don's anger.
"No, Charlie," he growled. "I thought we'd keep driving through."
"Sorry," Charlie snapped, sick of his brother's mood. "But we seem to be just sitting here."
"I was checking for a signal. I thought we should let dad know that we're going to be late." Don felt a small triumph as Charlie's expression turned apologetic.
"That's a good idea," he answered. "I'm really sorry, Don. I thought it was a good shortcut."
"I know, Buddy. Next time, let's just stick to the main roads, okay?"
Charlie nodded. He sensed his older brother staring at him, so he looked up and met his gaze. "What?"
"Dad taught us not to litter."
"Are you serious? You expect me to get out and get it?"
"You threw it out there."
"But it's pouring down rain!" Charlie protested angrily.
"Then you shouldn't have thrown it outside."
"Whatever," Charlie muttered as he opened the door and stormed off into the rain. He grumbled angrily as he made his way to the side of the road, where the map had landed. As he bent down to pick it up, his gaze trailed down the steep slope. His jaw dropped as he saw a car sitting at the bottom. Through the dark and rain, he could still make out enough details to surmise that the car couldn't have been there for long.
He quickly stood and rushed back to the SUV, slipping and falling into the mud as he did so. "Don!" he cried out as he opened the door.
Don was about to make a joke about his brother's soaked, muddy appearance, but stopped as he took in his pale face and the panic written across his features. "Are you okay?" he asked, his voice full of concern.
"There's a car at the bottom of the hill! I think someone had an accident!"
"What?" Don demanded as he climbed out of the vehicle. "Show me."
Charlie led Don to the edge of the road and pointed. "Do you think somebody's in there?"
"Only one way to find out."
"Wait!" Charlie's panicked cry stopped him in his tracks. "It's too slippery and dangerous. What if you fall?"
Don flashed his little brother a reassuring smile. "I promise I'll be careful." He squeezed Charlie's shoulder. "Just wait here." Before his brother could protest again, Don had already started down the hill.
Charlie held his breath as he watched Don navigate the treacherous terrain. He had no idea what he would do if his brother got hurt. As Don reached the car, Charlie squinted so he could see better. He felt his stomach turn as he saw Don talking. There was someone in the car!
"My name is Don Eppes," he introduced himself to the woman in the car. "How badly are you hurt?"
"Bad," she whispered weakly.
"Anywhere in particular?"
"Everywhere," she panted, as even one word answers taxed her strength. "Lot of blood."
"You just hold tight for a second and let me get this door open." Don searched for the handle amidst the wreckage that used to be the car door. He finally found it and gave it a tug, frowning as he realized it wouldn't budge.
"Hey," he gently chided her. "Is that anyway to speak to the man who's trying to be your knight in shining armor?" She managed a weak smile in response. "What's your name?"
"Nice to meet you, Jenna," he flashed her one of his best smiles. "My brother is waiting for me at the top of the hill. I'm going to go send him for help, okay?" He frowned as he noticed her eyes had closed. "Jenna!" Her eyes slowly fluttered open. "Hold on for me, okay?"
"Good. I'll be right back."
Charlie watched as Don climbed back up the hill. As he neared the top, Charlie stuck out his hand and helped him up.
"Somebody's in there?" Charlie nervously asked.
"Yeah, the driver's injured. I can't get her out of the car." Don checked his cellphone again. Still no signal. "Damn."
"How badly is she hurt?"
"It's bad." Don flipped his cellphone closed and pressed it into Charlie's hand. He moved his hands to gently grip his brother's shoulders as he fixed him with an intense stare. "Charlie, I need you to go for help."
"What?" Charlie asked, panic creeping into his voice.
"Just drive down the road until you get a signal and call for help. You were using the map. You'll be able to give them a better idea of where we are."
"What about you?" Charlie's voice shook as he spoke.
"Somebody needs to stay with her." He saw the fear on his little brother's face and reached out to squeeze his shoulder. "I'll be okay. I promise."
"But I don't even have my license."
"You have your learner's permit back," Don said, seeking to build his younger brother's confidence. "Besides, this is an emergency. You need to go quickly, Charlie. Now!"
Charlie took a deep breath and somehow managed to stumble back to the SUV. He uncertainly glanced back at his brother.
"Be careful," Don ordered him.
"I will if you will," Charlie replied as he started the engine.
"Deal. Now go!" Don waved for Charlie to leave before disappearing back down the slope.
As Don climbed back down the slippery slope, he felt worry growing in his gut. He knew Charlie could drive, and would get help, but he was afraid it was going to be too late. Jenna was already too pale, and Don was pretty sure shock was setting in, contributing to her already weakened state. As he neared the car, he forced his concerns to the back of his mind and pasted a smile on his face.
"Jenna!" he called out as he saw she had fallen unconscious in his absence. "Jenna, I need you to wake up!"
Her eyelids fluttered and opened. "Hey."
"Hey yourself," Don replied gently as knelt down onto the wet ground next to the car so that he could be at eye level with her. "I thought we had a deal. I need you to stay awake for me, okay? Help will be here soon."
She choked back a laugh. "Right."
"Hey," he scolded softly. "Positive attitude."
"Right," she whispered apologetically as she attempted to draw in a deep breath. Her eyes started to close again.
Her eyes flew open and she attempted a smile. "Sorry."
"Why don't you talk to me?" Don suggested. "It might help you stay awake."
"Well, you know I have a brother. What about you? Any brothers or sisters?"
"Older sister. Becca."
"Really," Don smiled as he reached out and placed his hand on her neck to monitor her pulse. "I'm the older brother."
"Bet your relationship's not like ours."
"What makes you say that?"
"We're four years apart, but I graduated high school the year after she did." She sighed weakly and her voice took on a hint of sadness. "Put quite a strain on our relationship."
"I understand," Don chuckled. "My little brother graduated the same year as I did."
Jenna smiled. "You really do understand. I've never met anyone else who could."
"What was it like for you?" Don wanted her to keep talking so she would stay awake, but he was also genuinely curious to hear her take on being the younger sibling.
"I thought it would be great at first. I was going to be in school with my big sister. She was my idol and I was looking forward to getting to spend all that extra time with her." She sighed sadly. "I'm sure you understand that she didn't feel the same way."
Don nodded. "It's hard being shown up by your kid brother. Charlie was so smart. He was my parents' little darling, the teacher's pet; everyone loved him."
"You know, that doesn't mean anything. I'd have traded all of that in a heartbeat just for my older sister's acceptance."
"You can't expect a high schooler to understand that."
"True," Jenna agreed. "But tell me, do you understand, I mean really understand it now?"
"I'm starting to."
She suddenly shivered and gasped as pain flared in her body.
"Easy," Don soothed. He cupped her cheek and wiped away a tear with his thumb. "Take it easy. Are you cold?"
She nodded. "It wasn't that bad before, but it's getting worse now."
Don shrugged out of his jacket and gently reached through the window to tuck it around her. He sat back and cupped her cheek again, lightly stroking it with his thumb. "Better?"
She nodded. "Thanks." She felt her eyes closing and quickly jerked them back open. "Your turn."
"What was it like for the older brother?"
"Ah," Don smiled before growing serious. "I definitely didn't want my kid brother in my classes, but there he was, acing tests and impressing all the teachers. I felt threatened and tried to cling to what I had- my popularity with the other students. I acted out a lot to maintain that."
"More times than I could count. Mom and dad were not amused. They kept telling me that I was the big brother; I had to set an example for Charlie. Me? Set an example for the genius who was breezing through high school, having scholarships offered to him on a daily basis. Right." He sighed as old emotions stirred in his heart. "I turned my focus to baseball. I knew it was the only way out of Charlie's world and into my own."
"My sister used dancing to get away from here. Full scholarship to Ohio. That's a long way from California."
He heard the little sister's hurt in Jenna's voice. He easily recognized it because he had heard the same hurt in Charlie's voice, many years ago. "She just felt that she needed to put distance between you. It's the only way she could make a name for herself. In my case it was Charlie who initially moved across the country. My life did get a little easier, but his didn't. No one was ready for a thirteen year old college student. He tried to reach out to me a couple of times..." Don's voice trailed off as he remembered the times that Charlie had called him. He hadn't wanted to listen to his perfect little brother complaining that things weren't going his way anymore. Now that they had grown closer, he regretted not having listened more carefully.
"You blew him off," Jenna quietly stated.
"Yeah," Don sighed. "I did."
"I bet he understands now."
Don studied her face for a moment. If he looked closely he could see a little bit of Charlie in her face. "He's starting to."
She nodded, wincing as her pain level increased. "What brought you back together?"
"Our mother got sick. I left my job in New Mexico and transferred back to LA. Charlie and dad needed me. Mom made me promise to be their rock, to get them through her death. Then she made me promise not to drift away again."
"Do you regret that promise?"
"No," Don replied firmly. "Not ever, even for a minute."
She smiled weakly. "I didn't think so. Our mother got sick, too. Our father died when we were young, so we were all mom had left. We had a lot of family bonding moments up until the day she died. Her dying wish was that we stay close to each other."
"No regrets for you, either."
"No. She's my big sister. Even when we drifted apart, I still adored her."
He smiled and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
The use of his name surprised him and he locked his gaze on hers. He felt a wave of despair wash over him. She wasn't going to make it.
"Tell her for me."
"We both know," she quietly cut him off. She waited until Don nodded to continue. "Tell her I love her. Tell her I really do understand now. And that she shouldn't regret anything she did."
Don nodded as he wiped a tear from her cheek.
"Then tell yourself the same thing."
His gaze faltered for a moment, but he regained his composure and nodded.
"Then you tell Charlie everything we talked about, okay?" She saw doubt in his eyes. "Don't give me that men don't talk about feelings crap. You tell him. He needs to hear this as badly as you did."
"Okay," Don whispered as his voice broke.
"You'd better do it, Don Eppes, or so help me, I'll come back and haunt you."
He couldn't help the smile that appeared on his face. "Yes ma'am."
They sat in silence, gazing into each other's eyes, both appreciating the importance of their discussion. They were interrupted as sirens approached in the distance.
"They're coming," he stated the obvious.
"I know." She smiled at him one last time. "Tell them."
Her eyes slid shut and her head sagged against Don's hand. He could hear her breathing, but the breaths were shallow and irregular. He could barely feel her pulse under his fingers. He knew it was too late, as he wearily stood and climbed the slope to meet the ambulance.
Charlie breathed a sigh of relief as he saw Don crest the hill. He watched as Don waved the ambulance toward him, and directed the EMTs to the hillside below. He seemed to be moving in a trance, his movements stiff and robot-like. Charlie grew concerned as he watched Don observe the scene below him. His brother seemed to be incredibly detached, and Charlie was certain that meant bad news for the injured woman in the car.
Don slowly stepped back as the EMTs brought up a stretcher with the woman strapped onto it. One of the EMTs stopped and seemed to be giving Don directions. Then he handed Don his jacket and rushed to the ambulance. It was then that Charlie noticed that Don was wearing only his dress shirt, which was soaked through. He didn't know how Don could be standing there, soaking wet in the chill of the night, not even shivering. He reached into his brother's SUV and pulled out Don's FBI windbreaker. He crossed the distance to Don's side and handed him the jacket.
"Here," he spoke to draw Don out of his trance.
Don turned to look at his brother, and Charlie gasped at the myriad of emotions swirling in his brown eyes. "Don?"
"We need to go to the hospital," Don said as he put on the windbreaker. He looked at Charlie with a sad gaze. "I promised her."
Charlie nodded and followed Don back to the SUV, frowning when his brother climbed into the passenger seat. "You want me to drive?" Charlie asked doubtfully.
Don's eyes met his and he saw an intense look of pride and love in his brother's gaze. "You're a great driver, Charlie. I trust you."
Charlie nodded. For once the genius professor was totally speechless. He climbed into the car and started the engine. He glanced back at his brother, who was staring out the window, his jaw clenched as if that would keep his emotions bottled inside. Charlie respected his brother's need, and made the drive in silence.
Charlie sat in the uncomfortable waiting room chair. He studied the two coffee cups in his hands. One was his, the other was Don's, handed to him when his brother had left a few minutes ago.
Earlier they had arrived at the hospital's emergency room. Don had flashed his badge at the admitting nurse, who had informed them that Jenna Rogers was DOA. Don had nodded at the news, without the slightest bit of surprise on his face.
Charlie had thought they would leave after that, but Don told him they needed to wait a few more minutes. They had moved to the waiting room, with Charlie getting them each a cup of coffee along the way. They'd been sitting in a companionable silence, Charlie occasionally stealing a glance at his big brother's weary face.
Later, a distraught woman had entered the ER, identifying herself as Becca Rogers, and asking about Jenna. Don had handed Charlie his cup, saying, "I'll be back in a few minutes."
Charlie returned his thoughts to the present and he looked across the waiting room where Don was currently hugging Becca. He'd whispered something in her ear earlier, which had made her start crying. He'd been holding her ever since, running a hand through her hair and rubbing her back to comfort her.
She finally pulled away and smiled at Don through her tears. She cupped his cheek and stood up on her tiptoes to kiss his forehead. He nodded as she turned around and disappeared through the ER doors.
Don turned back to Charlie and crossed the waiting room. Charlie stood to meet his big brother, who surprised him by enveloping him in a tight hug. Charlie awkwardly returned the embrace, trying not to spill coffee on either one of them while doing so.
"Charlie," Don whispered softly in his little brother's ear. He loosened the embrace enough to pull back and look at his brother's face. "I love you."
Charlie was caught off guard by Don's openness. "Me, too," he mumbled in reply.
"I mean it, Charlie. It's important to me that you know that."
"I do," he replied confidently.
Don's whole body seemed to sag with relief. "Good," he whispered aloud, though Charlie was sure he was actually talking to himself.
"Are you okay?"
Don smiled at him. "I'm better than I've been in a long time. In fact, after we get done at the awards ceremony, I want to take you out to dinner."
"The ceremony is already over. Larry accepted on my behalf."
"I'm so sorry. I hate that we missed it. You deserved the recognition."
Charlie was stunned by his brother's sincerity. Don hated awards ceremonies, and seemed especially frustrated by the sheer number that had been held in Charlie's honor. He'd only grudgingly agreed to go tonight because their father had told him how prestigious this one was, and that Charlie's entire family should be there for him. "It's okay, Don. It was just an award. I'd rather just have dinner with you."
Don beamed at his younger brother. "Then let's go eat. And I want us to talk over dinner. I mean really talk." He looped an arm around Charlie's shoulder and stared down at his little brother.
Charlie smiled up at him. "I'd like that."