Disclaimer: I don't own the characters and I don't make any money off of them.
A/N: I'd like to thank my wonderful, tireless beta, ritt, for all of her help!
Left, right, left, right, Charlie silently chanted in his head as he studied his feet. He had to push himself more and more to keep them moving. His energy was flagging, a combination of the pain in his knee and head, the hot afternoon sun beating down on him, and the ever increasing weight of his load. Grunting with effort, Charlie shifted the arm he held over his shoulders, wincing as his companion hissed in pain. He glanced to the side and took in the other man's pale and pain-lined features. "Sorry, Don," he whispered.
Don slowly blinked but made no effort to speak and Charlie didn't really expect him to. He was surprised that Don was even half-awake and on his feet, albeit heavily supported by his younger brother. After everything they'd been through, Charlie was determined they would both make it okay even if he had to carry his big brother all the way to safety.
Charlie's injured right knee suddenly buckled and he struggled to regain his balance while keeping Don upright. He succeeded but his efforts elicited a cry of pain from his brother that tore at Charlie's heart. "I'm so sorry," he soothed, watching as Don's face went impossibly paler. "Stay with me, okay?"
Don nodded, both men realizing too late that it was a mistake. Don's face took on a greenish tint and Charlie felt his body tense. He quickly but gently eased his big brother to his knees, supporting him by the shoulders as he lost what little remained of his lunch. Don's vomiting seemed to go on forever, eventually turning into dry heaves as his stomach was finally emptied. He sagged in Charlie's arms and closed his eyes, the absolute last of his reserves drained.
"Don," Charlie spoke to him as he knelt at his brother's side. Charlie lifted his face to examine him more closely and his heart broke at the red flush in Don's cheeks and the beads of sweat on his brow. He cupped Don's face in his hands and frowned at the heat radiating from him as he stared into his glassy eyes. "Oh Don," Charlie whispered plaintively as he dropped down to sit next to the older man. He gently eased Don to a sitting position and then guided him to lie down, cradling his head in his lap. "We'll take a break for a minute, okay?" Charlie dug in the bag he'd been carrying and pulled out a small bottle of water. "Drink this for me Don." He lifted his brother's head, hating how heavy and lifeless it felt in his hands, and tipped the bottle of water to his lips. Charlie slowly let the water trickle into Don's lax mouth and gently massaged his throat to encourage him to swallow. He capped the water and began to stroke Don's sweat soaked hair as he surveyed their surroundings.
Charlie saw nothing but mountains and sloping valleys all around him, and the bright sun in the afternoon sky. He squinted up at it, idly wondering what time it was and how much longer they had until nightfall. He would have checked his watch, but it had been another casualty of their accident.
He was drawn away from his thoughts as Don moaned and tried to roll over. Charlie placed a restraining hand on his uninjured shoulder and whispered to him. "Shh, lie still." He slid his hand to rest on Don's chest, right over his heart, and left it there. He was relieved to be able to feel both the rise and fall of his brother's chest as well as his heartbeat. Don seemed to settle under his touch so Charlie began rubbing light circles to further soothe him. "We'll rest a little longer and then we need to try to go a bit further," Charlie whispered, although he might as well have been talking to himself as unaware as Don was.
"…'Kay," Don weakly murmured.
Charlie's eyes widened and his spirits lifted at the sound of his brother's voice. "You with me, then?"
"For now," Don's voice was so faint that Charlie could barely make it out.
"Good," he said. "Save your strength, though – you're going to need it."
His brother gave a faint nod, turning his cheek to press against Charlie's leg, and the younger man frowned at the heat he felt there. Don was hot – too hot – and Charlie had no idea how long it would be until he could get them help. He eyed the pack sitting next to him, debating on whether or not he should offer Don more water. His brother was becoming dehydrated, but their supply was limited and Charlie had no idea how long he needed to try to make it last. He fought down a sudden urge to panic, turning his thoughts instead to how they'd gotten here in the first place.
"Donny! My little angel!"
"Hello, Aunt Irene," Don greeted her as she enveloped him in a tight embrace. Charlie grinned at the forced smile on his brother's face, his own expression faltering as the elderly woman turned her attention to him.
"And my baby boy, Charlie!" She plowed into him as she hugged him, and Charlie glared at the laughing expression on Don's face.
"Hello, Aunt Irene." Charlie tried to slip out of her embrace, but she deftly kept her grip on him as she reached up and touched his hair.
"You've never heard of a barber, my dear boy?"
"I like my hair like this," Charlie protested, finally freeing himself of her suffocating grip. "Besides," he added with an evil smile. "We can't all maintain that professional FBI agent hairstyle."
"Oh," Aunt Irene cried in alarm as she turned back to Don. "Are you still in that dangerous job? I thought I told you to find something else, Donny."
Don glared at Charlie before fixing his aunt with his most charming smile. "I like my job. I like helping people."
"Lawyers help people, too," she pointed out. "I believe the pay is better, and they don't have people shooting at them. Tsk, tsk." She shook her head hopelessly and grabbed each of her nephews by the arm, hauling them along with her through throngs of Eppes family members. "Never mind those things for now. We have a feast to enjoy!" Irene deposited them at a table for six that was currently unoccupied. "Now, let me find your father. Oh Alan!" she called as she bustled off into the crowd.
"How did we let Dad talk us into this?" Don groaned. "An Eppes family wedding."
"Because he knows how to push our buttons," Charlie grumbled back. "Just look at the bright side, we only have..." He paused to check his watch. "Three more hours."
"Is that all?" Don rolled his eyes.
Charlie ignored the sarcasm and read the nameplates on the table. "Ellen, George, and their son, Paul." He sighed. "This just keeps getting better and better."
Don laughed. "You're still mad at Paul for putting gum in your hair when you were seven?"
"I still maintain that it was an ingenious plot thought up by Aunt Irene to get me to cut my hair."
"Paranoid," Don leaned over and whispered teasingly. "Look it up in the dictionary, Chuck."
"You're so funny," Charlie shot back as he shoved Don's shoulder. His anger dissolved as Don swayed unsteadily on the chair. "Are you okay?"
Don took a deep breath and nodded. "Just been a little dizzy this afternoon."
"Then why did you come?" Charlie asked with concern.
The light-headedness passed and Don smiled. "Because Dad would have thought I was making it up. Besides, it comes and goes." Seeing the doubtful look in Charlie's eyes he lowered his voice. "I'm fine, Charlie. Don't worry, okay?"
Although still concerned, Charlie nodded as he glanced around the banquet hall. "Where is Dad anyway?"
"Probably at home laughing his butt off because we're here and he somehow got out of it," Don mumbled.
"That would be too rotten, even for-" He abruptly stopped as he heard Aunt Irene's bellowing laughter growing nearer.
"Oh Alan, you still make me laugh!"
The brothers' faces lit up as Irene dragged her latest captive to the table. Alan saw their expressions and gave them a warning look as the elderly woman pushed him into a chair. "Ah, now all of my favorite Eppes boys are here! Wonderful!" She again disappeared into the crowd, no doubt to wrangle Ellen, George, and Paul.
"Hello, Dad," Don's eyes twinkled as he spoke.
"Not a word," Alan warned him. "We just eat, pretend to be merry, and then we're out of here."
"Works for me," Charlie agreed.
Alan eyed Don in silence for a moment. "Are you okay, Don?"
Charlie turned his attention to his brother and was shocked to see that Don had lost some of the color in his face in the past few minutes.
"I'm fine." Seeing his father's hand making a move, Don quickly added, "Okay, I might have picked up a bug from work." He batted his father's hand away from his forehead. "But it's nothing serious."
"Are you sure, Donny?" Alan glanced at his youngest son. "Charlie can drive you home if you're not feeling well."
"I will be fine, Dad." Don grinned. "You two worry too much, you know that?"
"Still..." Alan trailed off. "If you need to leave-"
"I'll let you know," Don promised. "Now, let's just have a good time."
Charlie sighed as he wondered 'what if'. What if he'd noticed Don wasn't feeling well earlier? What if he'd insisted they leave right then? What if-
"Charlie," Don's hoarse voice called to him.
He glanced down at his brother who was still resting in his lap. "Yeah, Don?"
"Think we should go."
It was then that Charlie realized the sun was dropping closer to the horizon, and nightfall wasn't too far away. "Yeah, we should. Let me check your side first." He gently lifted Don's shirt and peeked under the makeshift bandage wrapped around his stomach. The deep gash in Don's right side was still leaking blood, but at least it wasn't actively bleeding anymore. "Okay," Charlie said as he covered the wound back up. "You ready?"
"As I'll ever be."
Charlie nodded and gently lifted Don's shoulders, trying to keep most of the pressure on Don's uninjured one, so that he was sitting upright. Charlie quickly leaned against his brother as Don dangerously swayed, eventually steadying as the dizzy spell passed. "You okay?"
Don didn't waste his energy speaking, just gave a slight nod.
"Okay." Charlie stood, slid the pack onto his back, and slipped his arms underneath Don's. "Up!" he called out as he hoisted him upward. Don weakly pushed with his legs and they soon had him on his feet, although leaning heavily on Charlie. Don quietly moaned as a wave of fire erupted in his injured right shoulder and panted as he tried to adjust to the sudden change in position. Charlie whispered soothingly to him. "Take your time. Let me know when you're ready."
Charlie slung Don's left arm over his shoulders and held it there with his left hand, while gripping Don's waist with his right. He slowly stepped forward, waiting as Don awkwardly followed suit. They eventually got into a rhythm, but – to Charlie's dismay – they were moving at an even slower pace than before. I wonder if we're ever going to make it out of here, he thought despondently. He glanced at Don's face and memories of all the times Don had looked out for him flashed through his mind. His determination bolstered, Charlie set his jaw and eyed the rugged terrain ahead of them. Yep, we'll make it – if it's the last thing I ever do.