Once again, izhilzha is to blame. She has an incredible amount of patience in re-reading each tiny change to each draft. Thank you muchly, hon.

As this is a missing scene, standard spoiler warnings are in effect. As always, none of these characters are mine. Numb3rs and all related characters belong to those individuals and entities appropriately designated in the show's credits and parade of logos. No infringement intended, no money made. Carry on.

INDEPENDENCE VARIABLE

by

V. Laike


The red and blue lights of emergency and police vehicles bounced off the walls of the house, reflecting against the faces of the paramedics waiting to enter 355 Parker Street. The police, too, were preparing to enter as two dark vehicles came to a screeching halt in front of the residence. Megan Reeves jumped out of one while David Sinclair and Colby Granger exited the other. All three agents, worry clearly etched on their faces, ran to the gathering of personnel already at the scene. Megan was ready to take charge. Her team leader had called for backup, and the fact that the team had not been able to make contact with him bothered her immensely. Combine the lack of communication with the report from central dispatch, and she struggled not to fear the worst.

David produced his badge to identify himself. "We got a call that an agent's down. What's going on?" His mellow voice was filled with urgency.

"We're getting ready to clear the house," replied the officer in charge. "How do you want to play this?"

"Your people take the perimeter," Megan ordered without hesitation. "We'll clear the house." If Don Eppes was in that house, his team was going to be the ones to find him. Megan pulled her gun as she split up the group. "David, you and Granger take the front. I'll circle around back." She pointed to the officer in charge. "You're with me."

The agents quickly took their separate directions. As Megan and the officer reached the back of the house, she saw what must have been Don's point of entry, the broken and open back door.

"FBI!" Megan shouted as she entered the house, gun at the ready. Satisfied that the room was otherwise empty, she quickly rushed to the young woman bound with duct tape to a mattress. The victim, tears staining her face, gasped as Megan kneeled beside her.

"He—he was going to kill me. He's in the other room. I heard gunshots. The other man didn't come back."

"What other man?" Megan asked, knowing full well the man in question was probably Don.

"The FBI agent. He—he—" The rest was lost among choked sobs as she struggled to sit up.

As the police officer began cutting the tape, Megan rubbed the girl's arm, offering reassurance. "Shhh. You're going to be okay now. It's going to be fine."


At the front of the small house, David led as he and Colby broke the lock and shouted their presence. They made their way through the front rooms, making sure each room they passed was empty before moving on. Reaching the center hallway, they came to a room flooded with light from a photography lamp. On the floor lay a bloody Yates as well as the unconscious form of their lead agent. David rushed to Don's side as Colby shoved aside a piece of furniture and checked for a pulse on the suspect.

"We need a paramedic in here!" David shouted as he pressed his fingers to Don's neck. He felt a marginal bit of relief as he detected a faint throb. "He's alive."

"That's more than I can say for this guy," Colby replied without surprise. David briefly noted the five bullet holes in Yates's chest as Colby rolled the corpse onto its back.

David slapped Don's face lightly. "Don. Hey! C'mon, man. Open your eyes." He received no response. Bending low, David listened to Don's breathing, alarmed by the shallow, labored gasps he heard. "He can't breathe," he muttered to himself as much as to Colby. David quickly holstered his gun and reached around to lay Don flat and tip his head back to open the airway. When he pulled his hand away, it was smeared with blood.

He looked at Colby in alarm. Colby returned his teammate's worried gaze as he held up a used hypodermic syringe. "What do you suppose was in this?"

"My guess? Morphine," Megan replied from the doorway, her jaw set in a grim line.

Colby nodded. "To kill the girl."

The two paramedics who had been waiting outside pushed past Megan and quickly made their way to the downed agent.

"He took a blow to the head," David said as he moved out of paramedics' way, "and he's having trouble breathing."

"Right." The EMT quickly lifted Don's eyelids, checked his pulse, and listened to his respiration. "Pinprick pupils," he said tersely. "Breathing is shallow and labored. Pulse is weak. And his lips are starting to turn blue. All consistent with a morphine overdose."

The second paramedic pulled a respiratory bag from her kit and prepared to intubate Don while her partner quickly readied an IV.

Megan, David, and Colby stepped out of the way as a second team of medics brought in a gurney. "Is he going to be okay?" Colby asked in a voice heavy with worry.

"We get him on the proper treatment, he should be fine," the female EMT replied brusquely, bagging her patient as her partner deftly staunched the head wound.

The FBI team watched in silence as their leader was lifted onto the gurney and quickly rolled out to the ambulance. When David spoke, it was with a quiet seriousness. "We need to notify his family."

Megan restrained a sigh of regret. "That would be my job."


The emergency room jumped with its usual controlled chaos while its waiting area offered a moderate haven for those awaiting news. It was here that Charlie and his father found Don's team thanking a person in scrubs who quickly disappeared back into the exam area. Charlie's heart had been hammering ever since he received Megan's call for him and Alan to meet the team at the hospital. All she would say was that Don went down during a field operation and that they should get to the hospital as quickly as possible. Dad had been uncomfortably silent on the drive over, not once correcting Charlie on his driving habits or telling him which lane he should be in or where he should turn. Charlie only heard, occasionally, under his father's breath, "Please don't let him die," and "I'm sorry, Margaret. I did my best."

As father and son rushed into the waiting area, Charlie looked from one agent to the other, uncertain in his worry whom he should address. "What—what happened? What's going on?"

Megan spoke first. "We just spoke with the doctor. Don's going to be fine."

"Oh, thank God," Alan exclaimed in relief. "What happened?

"He was dosed with morphine," Megan explained. "They've got him on a standard course of treatment, and he seems to be responding. He's still on a ventilator—"

Charlie and Alan each gasped in alarm.

"—but he is breathing on his own," Megan continued quickly. "The ventilator is just to assist until he gets his strength back."

Charlie had to make sure he understood what she was saying. "But he's going to be okay."

"He's going to be fine," David replied reassuringly.

Colby offered them a smile of encouragement. "The doc says his physical condition and the speed with which he received treatment are both in his favor. They expect to release him in the next thirty-six to seventy-two hours."

"Three days," Charlie whispered in dismay.

"At the most," Colby insisted.

A nurse approached the group and interrupted them politely. "You're waiting for Agent Eppes?" As they all nodded, she said, "We're getting ready to move him to a private room, but he can have one visitor before we go."

"You go, Dad." Charlie placed a hand on his father's back. "I know you want to talk to the doctor."

The nurse led Alan away. As David and Colby excused themselves to get some coffee, Megan and Charlie sat down on one of the waiting room couches.

"So what the hell happened?" Charlie asked. "You caught the guy who did this, right?"

Megan nodded. "Yates is dead. We won't know for certain until Don's awake and can give his statement, but it looks like Yates jumped him and got a chest full of lead for his trouble."

"What about Don? What happened to him?"

Megan apparently thought it best to start at the beginning. "David and Colby and I were staking out the money drop at the park. Don was taking a warrant to the bar Yates hangs out at. Best I can tell, your brother found out that Yates had been there and left with one of the waitresses, Lindsey Fuller. Don tracked down her address and went to check it out. Dispatch says he reported himself at the scene the same time our arrest was going down."

Charlie's eyes grew wide. "Don went in by himself?"

"He followed protocol," Megan said in a placating tone. "Yates already had another victim at the house. Don radioed for backup and requested ambulances to the scene. Charlie, there was an assault in progress. His primary objective was to see to the safety of the victim. Yates ambushed him when he was searching the house."

Charlie swallowed and nodded his understanding. "So he went in alone." After a brief pause, he asked his next fearful question. "Why—why's he on a ventilator? He stopped breathing?"

"No." Megan shook her head. "He didn't stop completely. Respiratory difficulty is one of the symptoms of a morphine overdose, and he received a heavy dose."

"How—when—how did he get dosed with morphine?"

"During the struggle. We recovered the syringe."

"The syringe." Charlie could barely speak. "What—what about the diazepam? Couldn't he have been dosed with the diazepam?" Charlie's eyes begged Megan to tell him it wasn't as bad as an overdose of morphine.

"No, Yates administered the diazepam orally. He probably slipped it into the victim's drink, either at the bar or after he got her to the house," Megan explained as gently as she could. "It's how he made her compliant enough to restrain her."

"So Don received the morphine injection."

Megan nodded slightly. "His breathing was labored, so they intubated him has a precaution."

"He went in alone." Charlie's stomach knotted as he contemplated the terrifying implications. "So no one was there to report that he was down."

"Dispatch says he reported it himself."

Charlie felt a tightening in his chest. "He reported himself as an agent down before passing out from a morphine overdose."

Megan put a hand on Charlie's knee, offering reassurance and comfort. "Charlie, Don's going to be fine."

But Charlie didn't share her enthusiasm. "Right. He's going to be fine."


The following evening found Charlie sitting by his brother's bedside watching him sleep. It was a natural sleep now, not the morphine-induced coma Don had been in last night. Continuing blood tests confirmed the treatments were effective and the morphine was working its way out of his system. Don's recovery was progressing steadily enough even to remove some of the periphery medical equipment, wires, and tubing that had been necessary when he was first admitted. Charlie took comfort in the fact that as each piece of equipment disappeared—much of it just a short while ago—Don was one step closer to recovery. Charlie had been restless during the hours when Alan had been sitting with Don—they'd been taking turns—and used his down time to do some research. He'd been both troubled and relieved when he researched the effects of morphine overdose—troubled by the severity of the potential symptoms; relieved because Don's reactions had not been as extreme as they could have been and he'd received medical attention in time.

Charlie listened to the steady whooshing of the ventilator as it continued to reflect Don's own improved breathing. The nurse had informed Charlie and Alan that Don would be coming off the respiratory apparatus that evening, but Charlie didn't want to risk his brother waking alone with that tube stuck down his throat. During his research, Charlie had run across a little-known fact: oftentimes when men awakened from surgery still intubated, their instinctive reaction was to yank the tube out. This had been known to result in damage to the throat, damage that could necessitate an emergency tracheotomy. Emergency trachs could in turn result in inadvertent lacerations to the larynx, sometimes damaging the vocal cords beyond repair. Suspecting that Don would awaken confused and acting on instinct, Charlie could see two options. The thought of suggesting restraints appalled him; thus Charlie determined to sit with Don until he awoke that evening.

Charlie found himself very grateful that he'd taken this preemptive measure. As he suspected, Don awoke earlier than the nursing staff anticipated and was not a docile patient when coming to. Don's eyes flew open as he returned to consciousness and began to fight the ventilator. If Charlie had not been there to stay Don's hands, Don would have undoubtedly ripped the tube out in a blind panic. As it was, he fought Charlie's grip as confusion filled the dark brown eyes.

"Hey, hey. Easy, bro," Charlie softly scolded. "You're okay. Don't fight it. The doctor will be here in just a moment."

No sooner were the words out of his mouth than a nurse entered the room.

"Well, good evening, Agent Eppes," she said brightly. "Nice to see you awake."

Don ceased his struggles, but he held Charlie's gaze, silently asking what was happening. Charlie could only imagine what scenarios were playing in his brother's mind. "You're fine. You're going to be fine," Charlie said reassuringly as he gave an extra squeeze to the wrists he grasped.

Having turned off the appropriate alarms, the nurse prepared to remove the ventilator. "Now on the count of three, I want you to cough as hard as you can. Okay?"

Don's eyes darted to her. He nodded, then closed his eyes, preparing for the discomfort of having the foreign object removed from his throat.

"One, two, three."

It was the weakest cough Charlie had ever heard.

"Wonderful," the nurse congratulated him, gently removing the tube. "Would you like a little bit of ice?"

With great difficulty Don tried to swallow and nodded tiredly. Charlie retrieved the cup of ice the nurse had set on the tray table when she'd entered. Gently lifting Don's head from the pillow, mindful of the cut on his scalp, Charlie carefully spooned a few pieces into his brother's mouth.

"Thanks," Don said in a hoarse whisper, falling back in exhaustion.

"Do you know where you are, Agent Eppes?" the nurse asked.

"Hospital," Don replied.

"Do you remember why?"

Don eyed his brother questioningly. "No." After a penetrating look, Don asked his own question. "You . . . okay . . . ?"

Charlie quirked a puzzled smile. "Yeah, I'm fine. Don, what's the last thing you remember?"

Don paused a moment, searching his memory. He sighed deeply and closed his eyes, coming upon an answer as he reached with his right hand to touch what must have been a tender spot on the back of his neck. "Neck hurt. Shot Yates."

"Right," Charlie said quietly. "You went down during an op. But you're going to be fine, right?"

Don opened tired eyes and nodded, his own lips turning up in a half-smile. "I'll be fine."

Charlie resumed his seat. "Dad will be back soon. He just went to grab a bite in the cafeteria."

"You should go, too," Don said.

"No, I'm fine where I am."

"The doctor will be in shortly," the nurse informed the brothers as she offered them a smile, made a note on Don's chart, and left the room.

Don closed his eyes, and after a few moments, Charlie thought his brother had dozed off. He was startled then when Don shifted in bed, awake and alert. "When can I go home?" Don asked as he searched for the controls to raise the head of the bed.

"Oh, you've got another twenty-four hours of rest and relaxation here." Don shot him an irritated glance. "As soon as your blood tests come back clean and you can walk under your own power and keep a meal down, you're good to go."

"How long have I been here?" Don raised his wrist as if to look at his watch and found only an IV in the back of his hand.

"About nineteen hours."

Don sighed. "And another twenty-four before I get out."

"Give or take."

Don quirked a smile at his brother. "Is that a mathematically accurate term?"

Charlie returned the smile. "No, but it's a medically accurate one."

Don sighed, took a deep breath, then pulled back the covers and moved as if to get out of bed.

"What do you think you're doing?" Charlie asked, slightly alarmed.

"I've got some business to take care of," Don replied as he sat up and tried to organize his IV.

"Oh, right." Charlie moved to help his brother but was waved off.

"Charlie, I'm fine," Don insisted in that slightly annoying tone that said everything would be fine just because he said so.

Charlie backed off. "Okay."

"Besides, the sooner I can move under my own power, the sooner I get out of here."

"Right." Charlie watched as his brother made his way to the small bathroom. When Don exited a few minutes later, he gave Charlie an exasperated look.

"Why don't you go get something to eat?"

"I told you, I'm good."

"You missed dinner, didn't you?"

"Yeah, but how—"

"So go. And bring me back a bagel or something. I'm starved."

Charlie rose from his chair, wanting to help his brother, but not quite knowing what to do. Don didn't seem to be in any pain, and he appeared steady on his feet. Still, Charlie could see lines of tension and exhaustion around his brother's eyes. "You're sure you'll be okay?"

Don hoisted himself back onto the bed. "Positive. You heard the nurse. The doctor will be in in a little while. I'll be fine by myself. Go."

"Uh, okay." Charlie made his way to the door, looking back as Don pulled his legs up onto the bed and reached for the blanket.

"Go."

"I'm going." Charlie closed the door softly behind him and made his way to the elevator. In a matter of hours Don would be released and head back to his apartment. Everything would be fine, and life would resume as usual. Don might even turn his cell phone off for a day or so, a thought that made Charlie vaguely uneasy. Why couldn't Don just let someone else take care of him for a while? Why did he always have to be so stubbornly self-sufficient? If Mom were here . . . Maybe, Charlie thought, maybe I should ask Mom.

finis