Disclaimer: I don't own the characters and I don't make any money off of them.
A/N: Thanks as always to ritt, the world's best beta and sounding board!
I can't believe this, I really can't.
Don is yelling at me? After all the stuff I've done for him, all the cases I've helped him with, and he's yelling at me? Because for once I have to put something ahead of him? I don't believe it. I'm so angry that I want to yell back but for some reason I just sit there and take it. Then it dawns on me – I'm not angry. No, not angry at all. I'm hurt. I help Don whenever he needs it – no questions asked, no fuss – because I enjoy being able to help him, to make him feel better. And it hurts me that he doesn't understand that I would never backburner his case – or him – unless I had to.
Great, now he's storming out and Dad's giving me that look. The one that says… well the one that usually makes me wind up feeling guilty. Not this time. Nope, no way. In fact, I'm going to blow this joint and eat. I'm hungry, I've worked hard, and I need a moment to cool down. I start to walk past Dad, deliberately not looking at him, but I can't help it. My eyes slide over and I get the briefest glimpse of that look. Fine, whatever. Charles Eppes is obviously not his own man. Might as well finish up Don's case so he and Dad will get off mine.
As I struggle to flatten out the stubborn map, I can't help but wonder how I get myself into these situations.
Four hours and one growling stomach later, I've finished up with Don's case. Knowing how desperate he'd seemed about getting the results, I climb into my car and drive down to the FBI office. I'm a little surprised to find he's not at his desk until someone mentions they thought he'd gone outside. Carrying the map with the search grid on it and wishing I'd stopped for food on the way, I exit the building to the walkway where Don likes to stretch his legs. Yep, there he is with… Liz?
I let out a sigh of frustration as I stalk toward them. He guilt trips me into working my butt off so he can flirt with that agent? No, wait – maybe I'm jumping to conclusions. They could be talking about the case. Yeah, that could be it…
But it's not. As I get closer I see that rare smile on his face and hear the low, hushed tones of their voices. I know I should be happy that he's found someone he's interested in – someone who can make that smile show up – but I'm just not feeling it. I hand him the map and tell him what I've found, anger blossoming as he tells me it's too late to work on it tonight. Excuse me? You were busting a gut earlier to get on the ball. Somewhere in the back of my mind the logic of what he is saying registers, but I'm too tired, hungry, and agitated to care.
Instead of saying something we both might regret, I leave him with Liz and walk away. A small smile forms on my face as the perfect idea of how to get back at him for this registers in my mind. Oh Dad? Guess what I saw tonight? Don and Liz…
Sometimes I love being a younger brother.
With the way my luck has been going, I should have realized that finding the Cheetah was only going to further complicate my life. The ride over with my brother was tense and uncomfortable, both of us giving each other the silent treatment. Me, because I was still peeved at him and also wondering how badly it was going to hit the fan when the NSA found out. Him because, well… I guess he was still mad at me for not prioritizing his case. If only you knew, bro.
I watched as Don walked over to the other agents on the scene, happy to stand back and admire what had once been an incredible vessel. I was so wrapped up in studying it that the two NSA guys caught me completely off guard. Agent Cordero immediately laid into me, going on and on about how proud I must have been in pulling of my little stunt. I tried to explain, but Agent Graves cut me off with threats about losing my security clearance. I started to get more and more frustrated at my inability to get a word in, and then Don was there, just like when we were kids.
My brother had stormed up to us and was yelling at the two agents, diverting the verbal attack and accusations against me. He angrily demanded to know who they were, his normally schooled features allowing his surprise to show when they answered him. He looked at me and I felt a surge of guilt at the expression on his face. He knows now why I did what I did and why I couldn't tell him, but that doesn't ease my mind any. I looked at the ground and remained silent as he continued bickering with the NSA guys, only glancing up when Don steered me toward his SUV with a quiet, "Come on, Buddy."
The ride back to the FBI office was just as silent as the ride to the dock had been, but at least this time I knew my brother's anger wasn't directed at me. About halfway there I got up enough nerve to look over at him and frowned as I noticed the firm set to his jaw. I had to fight back a smile as I thought about how badly those NSA agents were in for it.
My smile faded however as we pulled into the parking deck and prepared to go inside. Could I really lose my security clearance? Did these agents have the ear of someone in authority to do that? Worse yet, would Don really get in trouble?
"Relax." My brother stated the one word with a calm, cool confidence as he patted my shoulder.
I nodded and followed him into the building where we had the unfortunate timing to meet up with the NSA at the main elevator. They held their tongues until the elevator was just reaching the floor Don's office was on but then they started in on me again. Cordero was particularly nasty as he insinuated that I had wasted a lot of tax payer dollars and then went on to throw out the word coincidence with the most unrepentant sarcastic tone I have ever heard.
His comments pushed me over the edge and I announced I was leaving, but the NSA guys quickly said no. I was going to yell back at him but my big brother was there for me again, cutting them off and telling me I could leave. I bolted as fast as I could, trusting that Don wouldn't let them come after me. I didn't slow my steps until I reached the walkway outside, where I wearily sat on a bench and wondered how this mess could ever be resolved.
I was still there a while later when Don found me, standing and studying me, trying to gauge how I was doing. I felt the sudden urge to apologize for moving his case down on my list of priorities to help a couple of jerks, even if they were Federal agents themselves. Apologizing and admitting fault don't come easy to me, so I simply told him I felt bad about putting his case on the back burner. Imagine my surprise when he told me that maybe I should feel bad. I stared at him, incredulous, until he broke into a smile and assured me he was kidding. Then he sat on the bench with me and we started hashing out his case, something we always do well together.
Before I knew it, I had come up with an idea and Don was ready to run with it. He told me to come back inside and I was about to hop up, excited to be back working with my brother, when it occurred to me that the NSA agents might still be in his office and were probably madder than heck with me. I nervously asked if they were still there to which he waved his hand dismissively and told me not to worry. I swallowed my fear, confident in Don's words, and followed him back to the elevator.
As we reached our floor and the doors started to open, the nervousness hit full force. I got a quick glimpse of Cordero and Graves glaring at me, but then Don was pushing them back into the office, telling them we'd had a breakthrough on the case. It didn't escape my notice how Don strategically kept himself between me and them until we were in the conference room and I was in my element, in front of the group and ready to teach. I met Don's eyes, nodding thankfully. He gave me a smile – genuine and heartfelt – and I knew we were okay again.
Before I began to present my theory, one last thought crossed my mind.
I don't love being a younger brother. I love being Don's younger brother.