"I'm fine, Dad," Don said, summoning up every last bit of patience he possessed. It was the tenth time in the past hour that his father had asked him. He'd lost count of how many times in the just over twenty-four hours since he'd arrived home at his brother's house from the hospital.
Patience, Eppes. He's only nagging because he cares. "I don't need my pills – I promise I would ask if I did." Don pointedly ignored his father's skeptical look. "Seriously, I appreciate the concern but all I want to do is watch the rest of the game in peace." Oh crap, he thought as his father's face fell. "Dad, I didn't mean-"
"No, no, Donny," Alan shook his head and forced a smile to his face. "I understand. I do tend to hover and I'm sorry. I just…" Don's heart almost broke at the look of despair on the older man's face. "I don't know what I'd do if anything ever happened to you."
"What am I?" Charlie asked as he appeared through the front door and tossed his keys on the table. "The expendable one?"
Alan rolled his eyes and threw up his hands. "I swear," he said with a genuine smile. "You two made me gray before my time."
"Uh huh, sure," Don pounced on the opportunity to smooth things over with his father. "We've only been planning it since Charlie was old enough to add two plus two."
"I believe it." He glanced at his watch and then at Charlie. "I need to go see Stan for a quick meeting and then run to the store. Are you going to be home for a while?"
"Go on, Dad. I'm home for the evening."
"I don't need a babysitter," an unhappy Don informed the two men.
Alan looked at his oldest and smiled patiently. "No one said you did. Now, do you need anything while I'm out?"
"Since you're going to the store-"
"Yes, I'm buying steaks and no, I'm not restocking the beer supply. Anything else?"
Don glared at Charlie who was laughing at his expense. "Take him with you?"
Alan looked at his youngest and then winked at Don. "Not a chance." Before Charlie could protest, Alan was through the front door, calling out a faint good-bye over his shoulder.
"Our father," Charlie shook his head as he closed and locked the front door.
"Performing his stand up routine at the Casa de Eppes on a nightly basis."
"Amen." Charlie moved to join Don on the couch, taking a moment to study his features. "You okay, bro? You look tired."
Don sighed and let his head sag against the cushions. "Yes, I'm fine and don't you dare ask me if I need my pills."
Charlie bit back a grin. "I see you and Dad had fun today."
Don playfully scowled and lightly punched Charlie's knee. "I could have used you at home to run interference today. You're supposed to look out for your brother, you know."
"I know," the younger man replied softly, all trace of humor vanished from his voice. "I'm sorry, Don."
"Hey," Don said as he leaned toward his brother and studied his face. "I was kidding, Buddy."
Charlie looked up, startled, and quickly shrugged. "Right." He moved to get up from the couch, stopping only when Don grabbed his arm and tugged him back to sit.
"What's wrong, Charlie?"
Don frowned, his mind racing as he tried to figure out the reason for his brother's sudden change in mood. All I said was 'You're supposed to look out for…' Don bit back a gasp. Oh God… "Charlie… look at me."
The young genius refused to obey.
"Please, Buddy." The agent placed a hand on Charlie's shoulder and gave him a gentle shake. "We need to talk."
"Nothing to talk about."
"I'm fine," Charlie insisted as he shrugged his brother's hand from his shoulder.
"Could have fooled me."
"Like I haven't done that before." Ouch, Don thought as he recoiled in shock. That's a little low. Apparently Charlie had the same thought. "I'm so sorry, Don. I didn't mean that the way it sounded."
"What is it, Charlie? Please talk to me."
"You don't… I can't tell you."
"I betrayed you."
Don's eyebrows shot skyward and he had to fight to keep his jaw from dropping open. "Come again?"
"You heard me."
"You've never betrayed me – ever."
"You told me to call you if Grayson contacted me and I didn't. Not only that, but I went off to meet him. That's the ultimate betrayal."
"God, Charlie… for a genius you sure are having a dumb moment." Pleased that his words had the intended effect – Charlie casting him an angry look – Don continued. "Yeah, you should have called me and yeah, going to see Grayson was one of the most boneheaded things you've ever done, but Buddy… it's not a betrayal, not by a long shot."
"I violated your trust."
Don sighed and reluctantly nodded. "You did and I wish you hadn't. But betrayal? Never. Betrayal would have been telling Grayson to forget about me or leaving me behind when I passed out on you. Charlie, not only did you not betray me, you risked your own life to save me."
"Is that really how you see it?"
"It's the way it is."
"You're not mad at me?"
Don shrugged and frowned. "I was at first, but then you showed up and saved my life. Besides, deep down I knew you'd be there for your students. You're always there for them, no matter what."
Charlie gave his brother a long, hard look and Don realized he'd let too much emotion show in his last sentence. "You say that like it's a bad thing."
"Of course it's not."
The professor's eyes narrowed. "What aren't you telling me?"
"Hey, I talked to you. It's your turn to return the favor, bro."
"It's not important."
Don glared at his younger brother before allowing a slight smile to creep onto his face. "I remember a time when you respected me enough that you wouldn't ever speak to me like that."
"I respect you more now – which is why I'm calling your bluff."
"It was a long time ago."
"Then it should be easy to talk about."
"It'll just stir up old, uncomfortable memories."
"Then stir away. It's the only way we can smooth them over and move on."
Don sighed and shook his head. "Stubborn little thing aren't you?"
"I prefer 'tenacious'."
"Fine." The older man took a deep breath and forced himself to look Charlie in the eye. "There were times, after I'd joined the Bureau, that I would come visit or write Mom and Dad a letter and they would brag about you. I was used to that, but they were really proud of how dedicated you were to your students. Heck, I was proud whenever I came home and saw it for myself – you always were a hell of a teacher."
"But…" Charlie prodded when Don stopped speaking.
"I… I never remember you being that way with me. I'm your brother and I could never think of a time when you showed that much dedication and belief in me. I guess I was…"
Don nodded. "Yeah."
"I know the feeling."
"What?" the agent asked in shock.
"The first time you came home to visit after you got partnered with Coop – you brought him with you."
"All I could think of the whole time you two were here was how much like brothers you acted. Playing around, teasing each other, talking about women and sports, drinking beer… My God, Don, that's what I wanted from you when we were growing up. To be that close to you, to learn all the stuff a guy should learn from his awesome big brother, only I never got that. I was jealous, too."
"Oh man. I'm sorry, Buddy. I never realized that."
"I guess we can both be pretty dense, huh?" Charlie chuckled.
Don grinned back. "Must be an Eppes gene."
"The important thing, I think, is that we understand now. Coop's gone and Grayson's…" the younger man paused as he composed himself. "He's gone, too. But we still have each other."
"Count on it." Don reached over and impulsively pulled his younger brother into a hug. After a moment of silence he whispered, "I am sorry about Grayson."
"Don't be," Charlie responded as he carefully pulled away from his brother's embrace. "I made the bad judgment call, not you."
"He was a good kid."
"Right," the professor snorted. "That's why he tried to kill an FBI agent."
Don chewed on his bottom lip as he remembered what Coop had suggested to him in the hospital. Deciding that there was only one way to heal Charlie's spirit, Don silently thanked his old partner and began, "Did I ever tell you about Coop and I in fugitive recovery?"
"You've always been kind of tight-lipped about those days."
"They aren't a lot of fun to remember," Don admitted. "The work was grueling and the people we dealt with – both fugitives and non-fugitives – weren't the most upstanding individuals. Anyway, Coop was always good at it – had a fire that drove him to succeed. Sometimes that fire burned a little too hot."
"How do you mean?"
"Do you remember McDowd?"
"That animal that was after a witness? Almost killed her and you? Yeah, I won't forget him anytime soon."
"When we caught up with him we were on a rooftop. We'd already incapacitated him and I was putting cuffs on him." Dan paused for a second as guilt over ratting out his friend warred with the desire to help his brother. Charlie's well-being won out. "He suggested we drop him off the side of the building. That way Karen would never have to worry about him again."
"He was kidding," Charlie said uncertainly.
"No, he wasn't. I've never sat by while he's killed anyone, but back in the day I did witness him become 'overly persuasive' with some reluctant witnesses."
"Don, you should have reported-"
"No," Don cut him off, giving him an intense look. "No, I shouldn't and didn't. And you can't either after I tell you this."
"What?" The professor grew pale as it dawned on him. "Grayson?"
"You have to take this as my word to you, not anything to be repeated ever again. What's in his report stands as the official record despite anything I'm telling you as your friend… as your brother."
"Coop was doing everything in his power to find me after I'd been abducted and he was taking it personal. I'm not just his old partner but I'm his old friend, too. When he found the warehouse and I wasn't in there, he assumed Holloway had hurt me badly if not killed me. He asked where I was and Holloway laughed it off. Coop's temper got the best of him… Holloway didn't stand a chance." Don didn't really know all the details of course, but Coop had made it clear before he left that Don could sacrifice his reputation to help Charlie. It was an act of selflessness that made Don regret their parting of ways even more.
"And Grayson?" Charlie nervously inquired, drawing Don's thoughts back to the present.
"Coop had no way of knowing Grayson was trying to help you rescue me. He made a snap decision."
"And shot an innocent young man?"
Don raised an eyebrow. "'Innocent' may be too strong a word for Grayson. But I did want you to know about Coop."
"Why? He's your old partner and friend. Why would you tell me something like that about him?"
"Because your judgment of your students is sound. And because I don't want to see you hurting. And… for the same reason you accompanied your student into a dangerous situation."
"Because we're brothers."
"Yes. That means more to me than my friendship with Coop."
"And more to me than my relationship with my students." Charlie smiled sadly. "That's why Grayson was willing to run away with Sammy even if it meant he was ruining his own life. He was doing what he thought was best to save his big brother's life."
"Like how you risked your life for mine."
"Yes," Charlie nodded. "But there was more than that to it."
"Oh?" Don asked, sensing anything more might make the younger man clam up.
"When you first told us you were joining the FBI, I thought that was wonderful. I knew you'd be so good at it." Charlie met his brother's gaze and Don could see the obvious pride in his brown eyes along with something else… regret? "Then, the first time you got shot, I freaked. I thought if I could make a nice, comfortable living for myself, I could get you to come home and help you get settled into something less dangerous."
"Aww, Buddy," Don breathed. "I'm sorry – I didn't realize, but… You do know that this is who I am, right?"
"I do now. It took a while, but I finally understand." He met the older man's eyes again and gave a heartfelt smile. "And I wouldn't have you any other way."
The agent gave in to the moment and gently embraced his little brother for a second time, fully appreciating how much communication was taking place between them and how much stronger their bond was growing. Sensing they were both exhausted from the seriousness of the conversation and could benefit from a lighter mood, Don pulled back, squeezed Charlie's shoulder and gave him an amused grin. "So what kind of 'less dangerous' activities are we talking about?"
"I dunno," he shrugged as a spark of life flared in his eyes. "Maybe one of those 'rent-a-cops' that patrols a wealthy subdivision?"
Don let loud a loud laugh and shook his head. "That's even more dangerous, Buddy. I'd be dead by now for sure."
"How do you figure?"
"Are you kidding? Dogs pooping on sidewalks, people letting their grass grow too tall or painting their house an unacceptable color… After one week of that I'd have died of boredom."