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! Thanks to ritt for suggesting 'underwater'.
Don felt himself floating underwater. His body was numb and distant and he was surrounded by a muffled roar as he existed in the darkness.
He used to love being underwater. As a child every time his family had gone to the beach he would be the first one to race into the surf, eagerly throwing himself into the waves and losing himself in the sounds of the ocean. Sometimes he'd felt like that was the only place he could escape the persistent, annoying shadow that tirelessly followed him around, spouting off strings of facts and mumbo jumbo in which Don had zero interest. But the shadow was always too nervous to follow him into the loud, crashing waves. Instead, little genius Charlie would sit next to their mother on the shore and read his math books, occasionally calling out to Don to come join him so they could play.
Don would always ignore him, ducking down and staying beneath the surface. He refused to give up his temporary solitude until, inevitably, Dad would wade out to him, tap him on the shoulder and give him a pointed look. With a heaving sigh, he would trudge back to the shore to be immediately pounced upon by Charlie. Don would spend the rest of the trip building lame, child-sized sand castles while, between watchful looks from their parents, convincing Charlie that seaweed was poisonous to the touch and then subtly tossing washed up pieces of it in his brother's direction.
Of course his parents always caught on and he usually spent the next few days in his room, missing baseball practice and wondering why he couldn't just live underwater all the time. Everything was so peaceful and uncomplicated there. No "watch after Charlie" or "you know Charlie looks up to you" or "why can't you get good grades like Charlie". When he was below the surface in his watery refuge, all he heard was the beating of his heart and the rush of the surf and he could focus on himself, Don Eppes, without worrying about being someone's son or brother.
But now the sense of being underwater was no longer comforting. In fact, it felt terribly wrong.
Once he'd grown up and separated himself from his family, both emotionally and physically, he'd stopped feeling the need to be underwater – one of the reasons he'd been able to move to Albuquerque and head up the Bureau office there. Then Mom had gotten sick and, like the good son Don Eppes knew how to be, he'd moved back to his hometown. On top of his mother's illness, getting reacquainted with Charlie had been trying even at the best of times and Don had soon found himself taking more and more weekend retreats to the beach. Sometimes, when getting away hadn't been an option, Don would sit in silence, imagining the sound and feel of the water while Charlie raved on about something he knew he would never be able to grasp. The younger man would eventually call out to him, sounding just like he had on those afternoons at the beach and wearing the same hurt expression, until Don reluctantly returned to the real world and the shadow that was always waiting for him.
Suddenly tired of being underwater, Don tried to right himself and kick his way to the surface but panicked as he realized he had no idea which way was up. The pressure of the water began to crush him, painfully constricting his chest as the roar of the surf thundered in his ears. For the first time in his life, Don found himself wishing Charlie would call out to him so that he could move toward the sound of his voice and leave his watery prison behind.
The word was so faint that he was almost certain he'd imagined it. He ceased struggling in the water and strained to hear over the sound of the current around him.
"Come on, bro."
He knew for certain now that Charlie was there and wanting him to come to the shore. Don fought his way through the suffocating darkness, hoping he would emerge above the surface before his burning lungs burst.
"That's it, Don, You can do it."
Charlie was right there, he could sense it. Just a little bit farther…
"Can you open your eyes?"
With a tremendous amount of effort, he obeyed and found himself looking at a blurry face hovering over him in the water. He knew he had to hurry up and make it to the surface so he could take a gulp of sweet, blessed oxygen.
"Breathe, Don. Don't fight it."
A hand on his cheek, warm and comforting and… completely dry? Something on his other cheek, too. Cool, hard and… plastic? A whooshing sound that was far too familiar.
"I know it's uncomfortable but just let the ventilator do its job. Your lungs still aren't one hundred percent yet."
Disorientation and fear shot adrenalin through his veins, giving him the strength to twitch the fingers of his left hand over the surface on which he was lying. Instead of the sand he expected to find, he felt a soft material and discovered that something was covering his lower body – a blanket? A warm hand materialized on top of his and held on for dear life.
"Dad's gone to get the nurse, okay?" A soft, choking sound and the grip on his hand grew impossibly tighter. "You have to stay awake until she gets here, though. Please, Don?"
He longed to be able to say something reassuring to his brother but had to settle for squeezing the hand in his. The resulting smile on the younger man's face made Don realize something very important – as long as Charlie was waiting for him on the shore, he would never seek solace underwater again.