A/N: This story is something of departure for me. Number one, it's short – eight chapters. Two, it's Don-centric, more of a Don-hurt, Charlie-comfort fic. Three, it contains no villains, at least not the human sort. Finally, even if some of my fics are AU, I like to leave my characters in more or less the same circumstances (jobs, love life, etc.) that they have in the show – in this piece of fiction, I don't.

Don't own Numb3rs or the characters, and I don't hope to profit from this story. This disclaimer applies to each chapter in this story.

Chapter 1



The man's taped voice repeated; a tinny, somewhat syncopated pattern of words. Too long on the "hold," then a quick finish that made "your breath" sound like one word. Don lay on the moving bed, arms over his head, hoping the thin blanket was pulled up far enough; he wasn't sure if the hospital gown was covering his lower anatomy. He felt exposed, a little cold. The small room was dark, dominated by the CAT scan machine in the center, a large white art-deco doughnut in the gloom. The table moved back and forth underneath its arch, scanning Don's chest, then stopped.

"Breathe out."

"Breathe." Don obligingly took in another deep breath. He felt a twinge in his left rib cage as he did so. Remnants of his second kidney infection in a month, which appeared to be turning into the beginning of the next infection

"Hold…your-breath." He rolled his eyes a little. The taped voice was beginning to annoy him. The table moved. In, out. Stop.

"Breathe out."

He endured several more repetitions, the machine making passes over his abdomen, and tried to ignore the uncomfortable warm feeling of the contrast that they had injected into his veins, and the tinny taste in his mouth. They had warned him that it would make him feel like he had wet himself, and although they assured him that he wouldn't really, the sensation was so strong he had the urge to pull his arms down and do a quick check of the gown, just to be sure. At least this would be over with soon. He had already spent four hours at the hospital, the first three drinking yet more contrast in preparation for the scan, and was itching to get back to the office.

Instead, he was stuck here, in the hospital, admitted through the ER. After two rounds of antibiotic to fight his kidney infection, the symptoms had begun to return. This time, his regular physician refused to see him until he went for a round of tests, and told him to report straight to the ER. Grudgingly, Don had gone, knowing that without the antibiotic, his symptoms would soon be unbearable. He would get this over with, get his prescription, and be on his way. Maybe the doctor would give him something stronger this time; that would kick the damn infection for good.

The pretty young woman in the lab coat re-entered the room, her face impassive. "Okay, all done," she said with practiced brightness, and the orderly who entered behind her rolled the wheelchair over to the bed of the scanner. Don sat up on the bed, swung his legs over, and stood, trying to keep the gown in place. He scowled at little as he lowered himself carefully into the seat. Why in the hell he had to sit in a wheelchair was beyond him. ER procedure, no doubt.

"We'll take you back to your room, and the attending doctor will speak to you there," she said.

Don nodded, and the orderly wheeled him out and down the hall. He was acutely aware of the eyes on him, as he was wheeled along. Mildly curious stares from hospital personnel; more open interest from people in street clothes. He felt somehow embarrassed. "I'm not really that sick," he wanted to tell them. Big strapping guy like him, being wheeled around in a wheelchair. That was for old people, and people who were truly ill.

He felt irritation at his doctor return with force. This was stupid; the idiot should have just given him the damn antibiotic. God only knew what this test cost. It didn't matter that his insurance would pay for most of it; it was a waste. No wonder health care costs were out of control. He sighed with a bit of impatience as the orderly wheeled him back into the small ER room. 'Let's get this over with, people.'

One fidgety half hour later, the attending ER doctor, a pleasant-faced man in his forties, stepped into the room. His blue eyes were direct, steady. "Mr. Eppes, we have your results from radiology." Don's impatience was replaced by a sudden little flutter of something, anxiety maybe, at the man's expression, but it barely had time to register before the doctor continued. "I'm afraid you have a large mass in your left kidney."

'Mass?' Don felt a strange sensation, a flash of heat and ice at once, pass through his body, but his face remained stoic. "What kind of mass?"

"It's really impossible to tell from the scan. It could be benign, or malignant. You will need to discuss these findings with your regular doctor, and I suspect that he will recommend a specialist. Your condition is not immediately life threatening, so you are free to leave. Your blood work and urinalysis do indicate signs of infection, and we are going to prescribe an antibiotic for you to have filled. I will contact your doctor as soon as he is available with these results." He paused, his eyes sympathetic. "Do you have any questions?"

Don's mind was spinning. 'Hell, yeah, I have questions. One big one in particular.' "No," he replied, trying to block out the fact that the man had used the word malignant. Even as a mere possibility, it was frightening. The impatience had returned; he was suddenly crawling with it, desperate to get out of there, to get back to the real world.

The discharge was swift, and a short time later, he was dressed, walking through the halls like the other people, back to normal, one of them – only not. He met casual glances with ones of his own, pretending to be them – ordinary people, caught up with ordinary worries, knowing full well that he was not – he was not them, he was not ordinary, he was not normal. The specter that sat in the back of his mind kept him in a different place, on the far side of a wall that they couldn't comprehend. He stepped out of the hospital doors into the bright autumn sunlight, and began his walk on the other side.


End Chapter One