A/N: I am having trouble uploading Word documents and am settling for text. Sorry for the lack of clear breaks and editing (bolds, italics, et cetera).

X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X

Chapter 21

Day Four. Don shook his head as he walked into the hospital room. He should probably be surprised it took this long.

The head of Charlie's bed was raised so that he was sitting. He was tiredly lifting his right hand, poking at some keys on the laptop that was on...well, on his lap top. Larry leaned over slightly from the chair, so that he could see the screen. "Charles," he intoned as he rapidly pushed a few keys of his own. "You're not concentrating. Checkmate. That's two games already. It usually takes us days to play one - and I don't believe I've ever won two consecutively."

Charlie pressed his head into the pillow. "Larry," he said, showing what Don thought was admirable patience, "I'm in the hospital. I was shot. Don tried to break my nose. I was in a car accident. I was kidnapped. Oh. And I've had a cold. Take your pick."

Larry closed the laptop and lifted it to the bedside table, standing. "Of course. Don! It's good to see you," he continued as Don reached the bedside. "You may take this chair. I was just leaving."

Charlie's head shot off the pillow so quickly that he winced. "Larry, I didn't mean that you have to go."

"Not at all, not at all," responded his friend. "You need your rest. I have a faculty meeting soon, myself. I must get back to campus." He looked at Don again as he held the chair out to him. "Is is good to see you. I was concerned for you both."
"

"Thanks, Larry."

"You'll contact me, if either of you requires anything before my scheduled return tomorrow?"

Don hid a smile. "Sure, Larry, thanks." Charlie, whose head was back on the pillow, eyes closed again, simply lifted his hand in acknowledgement.

Don watched Larry leave, took the chair and checked to make sure Charlie wasn't asleep already. "So where's Dad?"

"Probably not at his book club."

In spite of himself Don laughed, and Charlie opened his eyes to look at him and grin. "He left to do errands when Larry got here. He'll be back for evening visiting hours, if I know him."

Don looked around the bed. "Where's your PCA?"

"Took it away this morning. Trying to control pain with oral medication, now."

Don was surprised. "Already?"

Charlie shifted in the bed, wincing again, used his right hand on the controls to lower the bed a little. "It's been four days." He looked at Don again a little guiltily. "And I asked them to."

"Charlie..." Don didn't even finish. What was the point? He shifted his feet.

"I'm hoping to lose the IV antibiotics tomorrow. My red blood cell count is almost normal."

"That's good. Amazing what a few days of sleep and a couple of million dollars' worth of medical science will do."

Charlie grinned. "I want to go home. I think that's what Dad's doing, getting everthing ready."

Don stood. He wasn't sure why, he just stood. "He feels badly, you know."

Charlie looked up at him, his face confused. "Why?"

"All of it, I suppose. But mostly what...what you said, what you did."

Charlie looked away. "I...It just came out. I was sick, terrified, trying to distract her."

Don sat down again. "What we do or say in a crisis is perhaps the truest barometer of who we are," he said.

That got Charlie to look at him again. "What? Where did you hear that?"

Don grinned. "Had to go to the department shrink yesterday."

Charlie smiled, laid his head back on the pillow again. When he closed his eyes, Don knew he had to finish this before he lost out to sleep. "I was there," he said, softly. "I saw your face. It was more than that."

Charlie turned his head toward Don, opened his eyes. He didn't say anything for so long that Don had decided he wasn't going to. Finally, he heard his brother's voice.

"222."

Now that he had not expected. "What?"

Charlie's eyes were still open, but he was looking at the ceiling now, seeing something Don didn't know was there. "The pattern of her blouse. There were tiny dots interspersed among various geometric shapes. I could only see about half of the front of her, because of Dad, and...and the rifle...but I could see 37 dots. That includes the sleeves. If the pattern was consistent, there were 37 more I couldn't see, 37 on each side, 74 on the back. There were 222 dots on her blouse."

Don was glad he had sat down again, because his legs probably wouldn't hold him right now.

His brother, still looking at the ceiling, continued. "When I realized that I knew that, I knew what I had to do." He looked at Don, then. "I felt myself getting lost in the numbers, again. I knew that if she killed you, it would be like after Mom died, I would fall into my own head, and this time there would be no one to pull me out. Dad would not just lose one son. He would lose us both. With what he's already lost, that would probably kill him. So it was three lives, or one. Simple math, Don. Even you should be able to do it."

Don stared at his brother.

"Also..." Charlie turned his head back, closed his eyes again. "Also, I was more afraid of the numbers than I was of dying."

"Charlie." He didn't really know what to say, or how to say it. "Maybe you should talk to someone about that?"

"I have," Charlie answered. "I just talked to you."

"You know what I mean," Don answered. "Someone professional."

Charlie's voice was fading, Don knew he was about to lose him. "I have thought about it," his brother finally admitted, "but it would take an awfully good 'professional' to convince me that I am wrong, to love you. To love Dad." He forced himself to open his eyes again, meet Don's. "That's what's at the core of this whole thing, Don, don't you see? It's not some issue of low self-esteem. It's just love." His eyes slid shut again, and this time Don knew he had fallen asleep.

He watched his brother sleep for a while, then stood and walked to the window.

He crossed one arm over his chest, propped the other vertically on it so that he could hold his chin in one hand.

Maybe Charlie was right.

Maybe it was as simple as love, as complicated as love, as frightening as love.

He looked toward the bed again, thought about the terror of being in that room, the anxiety of Charlie being hurt, and sick, the horror of seeing his father victimized as well. If he had been on that case as an agent, would he have felt those things? Compassion, sure, but still, detachment. What made the difference was love.

Maybe Charlie was right.

X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X

Finis

Stay tuned for further traumas in the life of Charles Eppes, the unluckiest genius in the universe.