Title: That Which Tears Us Apart
Genre: Gen. Angst.
Time line: Now. And Then.
Summary: When the Eppes family gets bad news, will it bring them together, or tear them apart?
Notes: After months of rabid reading, this is my first fan fic, Numb3rs or otherwise. I ask your pardon in advance for any etiquette faux pas in the future. Reviews appreciated!
Disclaimer: Don't own 'em – but wanna cuddle 'em.
Don was really looking forward to the weekend. His unit had just cleared a big case, and chances were good Friday would be filled with paperwork, and no new case would be assigned before Monday. That meant two full, complete, days off. Time for the laundry, time for a movie, time for a nap…He was thinking about this so fully that Don didn't notice at first that Charlie hadn't said much since he'd picked him up at Cal Sci. Don remembered that Charlie had accepted with thanks when Don showed up unexpectedly in Charlie's office after his last class, and offered him a ride. Don and Charlie's father, Alan, had called Don's cell and invited him for dinner and the last game of the World Series on television — an offer Don could not refuse! Now they were almost all of the way to the house, and Don could not remember Charlie saying anything else.
Stopped at a traffic light, Don glanced his brother's way. Charlie's head leaned against the passenger window, and his eyes were closed. In the dim light, Don couldn't tell if he was actually sleeping or not. He tried to remember if Charlie was working on some project of his own, or with his friend and fellow professor Larry Fleinhardt. He had contributed an algorithm pattern to Don's recently closed case, but that had been over a week ago. If he was tired enough to fall asleep on the way home, he must be working on something else.
The signal changed to "green", and Don turned onto the street where he had grown up. When Alan decided to sell the house last year, Charlie had been so distraught at the idea of having to leave it, that he had bought it himself. Alan agreed to stay, and he and Charlie still lived in the house, with Don a frequent visitor. Stopping in the driveway, Don looked again at Charlie, who hadn't moved. "Charlie?" he asked softly. "Hey buddy, wake up — we're home." When there was no response, Don gently shook Charlie's arm. "Charlie, come on — wake up," he said, more loudly this time.
Charlie jerked his arm away from Don's grasp and brought it up to run fingers through his curly dark hair. He yawned, and looked sleepily at Don. "What happened?" he asked, confused.
Don laughed. "We came home, that's what happened!" he answered, opening the door of the SUV. Don waited for Charlie to grab his backpack and join him, then the two men walked into a kitchen that smelled of spaghetti and garlic bread.
"Just in time," Alan smiled as his sons entered. "Wash up and have a seat!"
"Great, dad," answered Don as he went to the refrigerator and grabbed a beer. "I've been waiting for this all day!"
Soon the three men were focused on their meal. After his immediate starvation was sated, Don slowed down a bit to relish the home-cooked food, and glanced Charlie's way. Again, it occurred to him that he hadn't heard much from Charlie; Don and his father had been sharing news in-between bites, but Charlie hadn't entered the fray. Now Don saw that Charlie still picked slowly at his salad, and hadn't even approached the main event yet.
"Is something wrong, Charlie?" he asked. "You love spaghetti!"
This was all it took for Alan to begin studying Charlie as well. He grew concerned as he took in his son's complexion, paler than usual. He joined his questions with Don's. "Charlie? Aren't you hungry tonight?"
Charlie sighed and laid down his fork. He looked first at his father, then at Don.
"I know what you're waiting for here," he said. "You're both waiting for me to say that everything is fine." Suddenly, he pushed back from the table and stood. His gaze shifted to the floor, and he continued. "But I don't think it is," he almost whispered.
The obvious distress in his tone caused both Alan and Don to stop eating as well. Alan reached to touch Charlie's hand, which rested lightly on the table. "What is it, son?" he asked quietly.
Charlie raised his eyes back up to meet his father's. "I'm tired," he said simply, sitting down again.
"You look tired," interjected Don, "and you don't usually fall asleep on the way when I give you a ride home from school…"
"You're doing too much, again," growled Alan, glaring at Don. "You've got to stop asking him to consult all the time! He already has a full-time job, and his personal mathematical projects, and writing for those journals…:
"Wait a minute!" Don held his hand up. "I don't force Charlie to do his consulting work, with the FBI or anyone else! Besides that, he hasn't been doing anything for me!"
Alan looked confused, and switched his gaze back to Charlie. "Well, what is it then?" he asked. "Are you consulting for someone else right now? Something confidential that we can't know about?"
Charlie sighed again, and pushed all the dishes away from in front of him. Than he laid his arms on the table to form a cradle for his head, which he immediately dropped to rest there.
"Charlie?" Don's voice sounded too loud, even to him.
Charlie sat up again. "That's just it," he said. "I'm not consulting anywhere right now. I'm not helping Larry or Amita with anything — in fact, they're helping me, fact-checking my latest project before I submit the results to a journal. I'm in-between everything. All I have to do is teach."
Don grinned. "You're not busy enough? That's why you're tired?" Alan began to relax as well, until Charlie continued. Refusing to look at either of them, but concentrating on his fingernails instead, he said, "That's not all."
Alan and Don exchanged a look.
"What do you mean?" Alan asked softly.
Charlie spoke rapidly, as if getting the words out quickly was the only way he was going to get them out at all. "I'm tired. I said that already, but I mean REALLY tired. I have to take a nap everyday at lunch just to finish my classes. I can't seem to concentrate, I'm so tired all the time. I have no appetite. I've lost almost 10 pounds this month. And I have all these bruises…most of them, I don't even know where they came from. My hips hurt, my knees hurt…sometimes, I run a fever for no apparent reason…"
Alan's face paled, and again he clutched at his son's hand. "You have to see a doctor," he said.
Charlie moved to hold his father's hand with both of his, and looked directly at him. "I did," he said. Squeezing his father's hand, he continued, "Dad…he's doing blood tests, and he also wants to schedule a bone marrow aspiration.'
Don watched Charlie, and listened to him, and felt himself go cold. "How long have you been hiding all this?" he asked, sounding angrier than he had intended.
Charlie dropped his father's hand, but didn't break contact with it as he shifted in the chair to face Don. "I haven't been hiding," he stated flatly. He stared at Don until his brother met his gaze. "I'm not hiding," he said more gently. "Which does not mean I've reached some great new level of maturity, Don. I just don't have the energy. All of this just started a few weeks ago, and I just had my doctor's appointment this morning. I would protect you both if I could…" he looked again at his pale father, and then, sighing yet again, back to Don. "I don't want to tell you this. Either of you. I was just too tired to figure out a way not to."
Don's face suddenly paled as well. He pushed back from the table and jumped up. Unconsciously he began to pace and run one hand through his hair. "Why, Charlie?" he barked, in his best interrogation tone. "Protect us from what? What's the bone marrow test, the blood tests, what are they for?"
Charlie tightened his grip on his father's hand, but did not look at him. Instead, his eyes locked with Don's, and he tried to absorb some strength from all the anger emanating off his brother. His voice didn't even shake as he answered.
"Leukemia. Acute lymphocytic leukemia."