part four: hoping

They won't shut up.

He's got a pretty firm grasp on reality now, and he does his best not to alarm the poor medical personnel just doing their jobs, which means he can't yell at any of the hallucinations, which means they get to yell at him uninterrupted.

This strikes him as entirely unfair.

Charlie's turned his back on the whole mess, except for the occasional reminders of who is or is not real. Colby doesn't blame him, though some support would be nice. Larry and Megan have stayed thankfully neutral, watching everyone with an expressionlessness not common to either in reality. Don hasn't made an appearance, possibly because the memory of his real visit is too clear.

Everyone else, from his parents to his high school wrestling coach to his CO from Afghanistan to David, has taken this opportunity to inform him of how poorly he's handled this and how unlikely it is that his team will ever forgive him, that they've already done more than he could ever expect or deserve.

The worst part is that he knows that.

There's only so much he can take in silence, and eventually he has to break, or go mad. "All right, fine," he says aloud, sharply, "what are the odds?"

Every figure in the room goes silent and turns to look at Charlie, with the exception of a rather startled young woman in blue scrubs, who backs out of the room with alacrity.

"That one was real," Charlie points out, and Colby flushes a bit at having scared her.

The main issue stands, though. "If Charlie says I don't have a chance I'll listen to him, and you can go away," Colby announces, softly, to the hopefully-unreal inhabitants of his hospital room. "And if I do have a chance, then you all have to listen to him, and go away." It's worth a try. Clearly Charlie's the one with the most influence here.

Charlie sighs, and gestures helplessly with his chalk. "It's like...a river," he says, and raises his eyebrows, as though expecting Colby to understand everything now.

The hopeful look is genuine Charlie, but Colby can't help thinking that's not much of an analogy.

Charlie shrugs. "So you're not very creative," he says, "don't blame me. The point is, there are too many variables, and not enough data. Inconclusive results."

Inconclusive. "What good is that?" he snaps, because he really, really wants to know this one answer. Wants Charlie to tell him something--anything.

"Colby," Charlie says, patient as though he is teaching a specially disadvantaged student, "I'm not really Charlie. I'm only what you make me. And you are not a genius, nor a mathematician, nor have you been paying nearly enough attention to Charlie to be able to fake it. I can't actually tell you anything but what you already know."

Somehow, Colby had been hoping for some kind of reassurance, because Charlie's come to represent...hope, or insight, or trust, or whatever it is that means he's almost always right, and if Charlie told him things would work out, maybe he could believe it. But this is not Charlie, anyway; this is just a trick of his mind and the drugs. Even if he did give an answer, even if it was the answer Colby most wants to hear, it probably wouldn't matter.

Not-Charlie sets his chalk down in a silent apology with wide, sorrowful eyes, and begins to erase his chalkboard. As the eraser moves in swift, wide strokes, Colby can see the wall behind it. The black equations scribbled everywhere around the room are fading, too, until there's nothing left of the hallucination but Not-Charlie himself, fiddling with his dusty eraser.

Everything is silent, except for the distant chaos of a normal day at a large hospital. Colby closes his eyes and wonders if this means the drugs are wearing off, or if his hallucinations have just temporarily grown tired of him. There's nothing but the smell of chalk dust, like vanished hope.

"It's not that I don't want to tell you everything will be fine," Not-Charlie offers into the stillness, words heavy with the weight of what he can't say.

And since Not-Charlie's a part of himself, Colby can't help but understand.

He drifts off for a while, fragmentary dreams he can't remember taking the place of the vivid illusions. It's not really possible to sleep well with the medical personnel checking on him every few minutes, but he gets close enough that the time passes more quickly.

Every time he opens his eyes, Not-Charlie is still there, reminding him that nothing's changed. Which he needs, because the sight of a syringe hasn't yet failed to trigger a brief flashback, but he wishes something would change.

Actually, he kind of wishes the whole thing had been a bad dream, and he could wake up and go back to work like normal.

He isn't sure how long it's been when the gray-haired nurse, whose name neither he nor Not-Charlie remembers, comes in and asks, "Is it all right if a Dr. Charlie Eppes visits you?" She seems much less suspicious of Charlie than of Don, which is only natural, Colby supposes, because it's hard for anyone to be properly suspicious of Charlie.

"It's fine," he assures the nurse, and looks at the door, curious why Charlie would visit. The familiar curly dark head ducks into the room, with a tentative smile.

Not-Charlie says, startled, "This is real." Colby glances at him, and at the real Charlie, and there's no confusion between them at all because in addition to Not-Charlie's eraser, Charlie's very nearly wearing a beard. The math genius has never had to stick to FBI standards of appearance, but still, he's a good deal scruffier than Colby can remember seeing him before.

"What, did you think this wouldn't affect him?" Not-Charlie says, uncharacteristic acid in his tone. "Charlie's been part of 'your team' longer than you have, and you thought he'd be just fine while your betrayal tore them apart?"

No, he'd never thought that. Just...kinda hoped.

But Charlie's smile is unshadowed, there's no accusation in his eyes as he says, "Hey, Colby!" His voice is hushed, appropriate to the intensive care unit of a hospital, but there's an unmistakable quality of enthusiasm in it.

"Hey, Charlie," Colby smiles back, and his own level of cheer rises in direct proportion to his visitor's. "What are you doing here?" he asks, and carefully doesn't say that he's pretty sure no one would want a valuable consultant visiting an assumed traitor.

"I've got good news," Charlie hastens to assure him. "Don's really busy talking with everyone, so he sent me to tell you. They found evidence--Kirkland had some papers put away, just in case of--what happened...and there was a, a video, of Lancer..." He trails off, going a little pale.

Colby had completely forgotten about Lancer's silent witness, the camera. At the time it hadn't seemed very important, but now he thinks about everything Lancer said and did being on tape. The muted horror in Charlie's eyes--he hopes no one's let the mathematician actually watch the thing.

Charlie shakes it off, and his smile returns as he goes on, "You've been officially exonerated. Of course they'll have to debrief you, once you're better, but your record's clear. You're free, Colby."

Out of what has quickly become habit, he looks to Not-Charlie, who grins equally wide and says, "What, now you don't trust the real one?"

He shifts his focus back quickly, though not quickly enough to escape Charlie's notice. "Still hallucinating?" Charlie guesses, sympathy clear in the words. "They warned me you might be."

"Yeah," Colby admits, preferring not to give details. That would just be too weird. He changes the subject. "So, your math saved me again, huh?"

Charlie looks a little flustered. "I didn't do that much," he disclaims, "not this time. Just pointed a direction is all. Don and David and Megan really deserve the credit."

He's not going to argue, because it's one of the best things about Charlie, the humility Colby hadn't expected from a world-class genius. Charlie doesn't hesitate to remind the forgetful of his own value, but he never holds it over them, never demands anything but the trust he's earned many times over.

David's like that, too, and the rest of the team. Even in his drug-scrambled brain, Colby knows they won't try to yank him around by what he owes them. It makes him want to pay them back in the only way he can even more. If they'll let him.

"Charlie," he asks, abruptly, before he can think better of it, "is there a way to figure the odds on whether I could ever work with the team again?"

Reactions play openly across the mathematician's face: an instant of surprise, muting into joy for a split-second before that spark takes over, the one Colby's seen before: it comes with all the impossibly accurate equations Charlie's handed them. "There is," he admits, "and actually I've done some work about that sort of thing, lately, if you really want to know--of course human interaction precludes any absolute statements, there are too many variables, but I can get pretty close. I worked up a trust metric--" He's looking for a chalkboard, or a whiteboard, or markers or something, which isn't nearly so easy to provide when it has to be real. Failing that, Charlie just settles in for a verbal explanation that goes out of Colby's comprehension almost as soon as it begins.

Colby can't help it, he isn't following and he knows Charlie sees it on his face. Not-Charlie looks more offended than the real one. Charlie just says, "Based on my analysis, there's an excellent chance that you can regain the trust you had. The primary variable that could affect the outcome now is whether you want to."

"So the odds are pretty good?" Colby double-checks, because even though he thinks he actually understood most of that for once, he's drugged and slow and this is important, he wants to be sure.

Charlie takes pity on him, and his smile is all reassurance. "Yeah, Colby," Charlie says, "your odds are very good."

Everyone in the room but the real Charlie seems very small and clear, like they've walked into the horizon and paused partway, even though the room's not that big. All of them are smiling like it's as good news to them as it is to him, even Carter, who says, "I saved your life, man--do better with it than I would've."

He can see his team, plus their frequent consultants, waiting for him in the distance, and this time there's no betrayal in their faces, only acceptance.


When the drugs finally wear off, Colby doesn't remember much of what he saw during the hallucinations; only general impressions and a few especially vivid images. Don has to tell him everything that happened when they rescued him again before he's confident he has it straight.

By way of rewarding him for following orders so well, the folks in charge offer him whatever posting he wants. The way they word the letter, he knows they think his team won't want him, which sort of negates the point of the reward since that's the only posting he does want.

He remembers he has it on the best authority that his odds are pretty good, and sticks it out.

Later, he has to go through therapy, of course, because he's been tortured and therefore must have issues to work through. Colby tells the psychologist that the nightmares aren't too bad, because he can't explain that they all end in laughter as Charlie slams a chalkboard down.


Author's Note: My first Numb3rs fic ever--finally finished, please review!