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!
Don glanced at his watch as he and his agents escorted John Corcoran from the building where he'd set up his latest torture chamber. It had been a frustrating and tragic case, but Don took comfort in the fact that they were able to save the life of Corcoran's last victim. As the tension began to leave his body, Don rolled his head on his shoulders to encourage his neck to follow suit. He vaguely listened to the conversation going on beside him.
"They had to die," Corcoran was explaining to David in that eerie tone of voice whacked-out serial killers tended to possess. "They had to give their lives to me, like my Judas."
"He didn't give his life, John," David argued. "You killed him."
"What are you talking about?" their suspect demanded with disbelief in his voice. Don gave him a studious look. "I didn't shoot Jared – you did." The sincerity of Corcoran's words set off alarm bells in Don's head. "Why are you lying to me?"
Oh damn, Don thought as he scanned the skyline around them. That means-
He spotted the tell-tale glint in the distance. Before he could give it another thought he was flinging himself at their captured killer. "Down!" he ordered his agents. "Gun!"
Don felt a familiar jolt of pain in his lower back and then felt his breath leave his body as he landed hard on top of Corcoran.
"Shots fired!" he heard David's yell in his earpiece.
You don't say, Don growled silently as he tried to take stock of the situation. He had a very panicked Corcoran pinned on the ground beneath him and was somehow managing to cover most of the crazed man's body with his own.
"You're trying to kill me!" the killer screamed as he tried to buck Don off.
"Shut up and quit moving!" Don commanded, making sure to keep himself planted firmly on top of the frantic form beneath him. "I'm trying to save-" His voice was cut off as another force slammed into the back of his shoulder. His brain was working fast enough to realize that if he hadn't been blocking it, the bullet would have easily hit Corcoran in the head. "Someone find that damn shooter!"
"We're on it, Don," he heard David's calm voice in his earpiece. "Can you make it over here?"
Don moved his head a fraction until he could make out his agents' forms in the shadowy building frame several yards away. "Can you give me some cover-?" Before he could finish there was another, sharper force that burrowed into his thigh and left him breathless.
"Leg," Don gasped into his radio. "Don't think I'll be moving."
"Agent down," David announced over the channel. "I need medics here, NOW!"
The word drew Don's attention back to the man trapped beneath him. "Are you hurt?"
"My ascension," Corcoran stated again, closing his eyes and smiling in acceptance.
"Damn." Don muttered into his radio, "I think Corcoran's hit."
It was then that the lax body under him sprang into life, barreling off the ground and tossing Don aside as if he were a rag doll. The killer lifted his face and hands to the sky and proudly proclaimed, "He is calling me home!" Moments later there was a loud report and a large red stain spread across Corcoran's chest as he fell to the ground.
Knowing the shot was probably fatal and deciding he should now concentrate on saving himself, Don curled into a fetal position, trying to ensure the majority of his vulnerable spots were protected by his Kevlar vest. Seconds crawled by like years as Don helplessly lay on the unforgiving concrete, waiting for the noise that might possibly signal his end. His heartbeat was pounding in his ears so it was quite a shock when a hand gently gripped his shoulder.
He whipped his head up and squinted against the sunlight to make out the worried face of David Sinclair. "What are you doing?" Don hissed in anger. "Get back to cover!"
"Easy, Don," David soothed. "Colby led a couple of agents to a rooftop over there." He gestured behind his boss. "They found a sniper's rifle and a picture of Porter and his wife."
"We led him straight to him," Don muttered angrily. "Where is he now?"
David frowned and shook his head. "Gone. I guess he completed his mission."
The injured man sighed in frustration. "All with our help."
"We didn't have any way of knowing."
"That's a lame excuse and you know it." Don started to push himself off the ground, but David easily halted his attempts by tightening the hold he had on his boss's shoulder.
"Stay put," he ordered. "Medics are on their way."
Don shrugged out from under David's hand. "It's just a graze."
The other agent gestured to the bloody limb. "That's more than a graze. Add that to the two hits I know you took in the vest and that all adds up to getting checked out and a possible ride to the hospital."
Don scowled but remained seated. "When'd you turn into my dad?"
David grinned. "About the time I tasted his cooking. Figured if he was that good of a cook, he was probably an expert in other fields as well… like how to deal with you."
Don sighed in resignation and felt exhaustion conspiring with the pain in his body to make his eyelids grow heavy. With David's help, he lay back on the ground, smiling in thanks as his agent placed a folded jacket under his head to act as a pillow. "You're still going to pay for that remark, you know."
"Considering the way today could have turned out, I will. Gladly."
Don looked up from the exam table he was lying on to find his father – panic etched on his features – barreling into his ER cubicle.
"I'm okay, Dad," he quickly sought to ease the older man's worry. "Really, it's nothing serious."
Alan doubtfully eyed the slit in Don's pants leg through which he could see a glimpse of a bandage. "So you let them cut up your jeans for a fashion statement?"
"It was a graze," Don assured him. "I could have treated it myself with some ointment and a band-aid."
"I think that's the part that worries me the most," Alan muttered. "That you actually would have tried if not for your team's insistence you come here to get checked out."
Don sighed, closed his eyes and leaned back on the table. "Which of my loyal fellow agents do I have to thank for letting that cat out of the bag?"
"I don't reveal my sources." Alan stepped closer to the bed and rested a hand on his son's shoulder. In a much softer voice he inquired, "How are you – really?"
Don cracked an eye open and gave his father an appraising look. "A little sore."
"On the Don Eppes pain scale of one to ten, that little admission would be about a thirteen?"
"Your bedside manner needs some work, Dad."
Alan sighed and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Donny. Even though Megan promised me your injury wasn't life-threatening, I was so worried on the way over here… I have to release it all somehow." He smiled warmly and patted the shoulder beneath his hand. "I'm truly glad that you're going to be okay, son."
Don covered his father's hand with his own and gave a small smile. "I know." He cocked his head and peered over Alan's shoulder. "Where's Charlie?"
"He went to some ceremonial something or other at the monastery with Larry. Needless to say he'll be surprised when he comes home tonight and finds you propped up in bed."
Don shook his head. "It's not that bad. I can go back to my apartment once they spring me from this place."
"Can you even get around on that leg okay?"
"Sure," Don answered although his tone sounded less-than-confident.
"Uh huh," Alan dryly remarked. "Humor your father, Donny. At least spend the first night after getting shot at home where I can keep an eye on you."
I suppose I owe you that much, Don thought to himself. "Okay," he nodded. "But I got dibs on the couch and the TV remote."
Alan grinned and shook his son's hand. "You drive a hard bargain, son."
Charlie walked through the front door of his Craftsman home and was delighted to find his older brother stretched out on the couch. "Don," he cheerfully greeted him. "Nice to see you. How's the case going?"
"We caught Corcoran in the act," the agent informed him. "Saved the guy he was set to kill, too."
"Thank God," the professor sighed. "That guy was a true psycho." Sensing his brother seemed to be a little down, Charlie decided to lighten the mood. Tossing his jacket on the back of a chair, he plopped down onto the couch cushions. "Scoot over man, you're hogging-" He came to an abrupt stop as his brother winced and gasped in pain. "Don? What's wrong?"
"I'm fine, Buddy," Don hissed through clenched teeth. "My leg's a little sore – that's all."
It was then that Charlie noticed his brother was wearing an old pair of sweatpants instead of jeans. His eyes narrowed as he studied Don's face – a little paler than usual if he wasn't mistaken. "What happened?"
Don hesitated before finally admitting, "We weren't the only people after Corcoran. That suspect we first brought in – the one whose wife was the first victim?" At Charlie's nod, he continued. "Turns out he was the one who shot Jared Parr. Then he followed us straight to Corcoran."
"And your leg?"
"I guess Porter didn't want anyone coming between him and justice."
Charlie's eyes grew wide. "So he… he shot you?"
"Just a graze, Buddy – I'm fine. Corcoran's not but I am."
Charlie's brow furrowed as he considered what that meant. "If Porter was such a good sniper with Jared Parr, how did he hit you when he was aiming for Corcoran?"
Don looked at his lap and shrugged. "It's my job to protect people in custody, too."
"You were trying to get in the way? Even though you knew what a monster he was? You said you caught him in the act!"
"I don't get to pick and chose who I protect, Charlie."
"But this monster? Why, Don? Why in the world would you risk your life for someone like that? Custody or not, I don't get it. I mean couldn't you just knock him out of the way or something?"
Don was quick to counter. "He wasn't wearing a vest and we were wide open – easy targets. So yes, I had to try to shield him – I was the one wearing the Kevlar vest, the one with a gun, the one with two free hands…" He paused, took a deep breath and consciously lowered his voice. "I was the one with a job to do."
"I don't believe it," the younger man argued. "You're too good of an agent – of a human being – to waste your life for his. And I think you agree with me deep down inside."
The agent sighed. "Charlie-"
"Don't 'Charlie' me, Don. I thought by now I had earned your respect enough that you were going to be honest with me." When his brother remained silent, Charlie shook his head and rose from the couch. "I guess I was wrong about that." He left the room, never bothering to look back and see the hurt on Don's face.
"You're going to wear that remote out."
Don stopped channel surfing long enough to frown at his father. "Would you believe there's not a single game on?"
Alan chuckled. "There's more to life than sports, you know."
"You've always been a smart boy, Donny," the older man said with a wink. "I trust you'll figure it out." He watched as his oldest son shrugged and settled on an old sitcom. When Don set the remote down and didn't speak, Alan perched on a nearby chair and studied the brooding man for a minute. Deciding he couldn't take the tension level in the house any more, he spoke, careful to keep his tone light. "So… does the fact that you were surfing through the channels like a madman have anything to do with the very distracted and somewhat cranky mathematician in the garage?"
"If that's your subtle way of asking if he's mad at me, then the answer is probably yes."
Don cast his father a quick glare before running a hand through his hair and sighing. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Alan took a deep breath to maintain his patience. "It doesn't mean anything, Donny. Although I'm all ears if you'd like to share."
"Why not ask Charlie?" Don countered. "He's always more than willing to spill his guts to you."
The older man chuckled as he shook his head. "He's actually built up some resistance to my techniques these past few months. Comes from having a girlfriend, I suspect." Alan grinned in triumph as Don huffed a small laugh. "So I throw myself on the mercy of my oldest to keep me up-to-date on my sons' lives."
Don was silent as he bit his lip and studied a spot on his sweatpants. Alan's heart ached at the turmoil he could feel radiating from his firstborn. He didn't know whether to be relieved or not when Don finally spoke.
"What Charlie wanted to know… The short, easy answer is that its part of my job. The longer answer… it's not a pleasant story."
"Your brother has matured a lot since he started working with you," Alan cautiously pointed out. "I daresay he's seen and experienced stuff he never imagined he would. And you know what?" He paused until Don gathered up enough courage to look him in the eye. "It's made him a stronger, more dedicated person and I wouldn't trade what either one of you have been through for the world." His son's eyes widened a bit and Alan couldn't help but chuckle. "Not what you were expecting your old man to say, was it?"
Don smiled and shook his head. "Not quite."
Alan moved from the chair to the arm of the couch, sitting down and resting a hand on Don's shoulder. "Take one more piece of advice from your old man?"
Don raised an eyebrow.
"Talk to your brother. He wants to know what makes you tick – what makes you who you are. Share that with him and I promise you, Donny, the rewards will far outweigh any negative consequences you might be worried about."
"What makes you so sure?"
Alan gave a wry smile. "Because I am a very wise, old man." He gave Don's shoulder a playful shove. "Now get up on that injured limb – I know you know how to do that – and go talk with your brother."
After making his way to the garage undetected, Don was content to lean against the doorjamb and watch his brother as he paced back and forth between two blackboards, erasing a figure here, adding a figure there… It never ceased to amaze him – though he would never let on to Charlie – just how gifted his brother was. He remained silently standing and watching until Charlie seemed to be winding down, less erasing and writing and more staring and tapping chalk against his bottom lip. Don cleared his voice to make his presence known.
Charlie turned around and frowned. "Dad's going to have your hide if he catches you off of the sofa."
You'd be surprised, Don thought to himself. "Nah, I'm the master of avoiding detection."
Charlie shrugged and turned back to face his board.
Okay, he's still upset. "Charlie, about earlier… it's not what you think."
The younger man's gaze never left the blackboard. "Don't worry about it."
"Charlie," Don sighed. "Will you let me get this off my chest? I'm trying to open up here."
That got Charlie's attention. He slowly turned around and gave his brother a doubtful look. "Say what?"
"You're really going to make me repeat that? It was hard enough to say it once." A slight twinge in his leg reminded Don that despite his father's blessing, sitting down might not be a bad idea. "Can we make some room to sit somewhere in here?"
"Oh, sorry." Charlie practically threw a pile of text books off the ratty green sofa he kept in the garage. He moved to help Don, drawing back at his brother's 'I'm-not-an-invalid' stare. Once the older man had settled on the couch, Charlie moved another stack of books and sat on the other end. After a moment of silence, he prodded, "So you were saying…?"
Don chewed on his lip for a moment. "What you were asking about earlier…" He waited for Charlie to nod. "It is part of my job to protect suspects in my custody. No matter how evil I may think they are, letting them be injured or killed in my custody makes me just as bad as them."
"But at what point do you draw the line? How much of your wellbeing do you really have to risk for theirs? Surely the FBI doesn't expect its agents to throw away their lives for the people they're paid to apprehend."
"No one would cry if I made a reasonable effort to protect a suspect but he was still killed," Don agreed. "But… there's more to it than that." He took a deep breath and slowly let it out through pursed lips. "A lot more."
Charlie reached out and patted Don's shoulder. "Take your time."
"Thanks," the agent whispered almost sheepishly. After a minute he patted Charlie's hand and gently slid it from his shoulder. "Back in my fugitive recovery days, Coop and I were assigned to track down a serial rapist who had escaped from custody. He was as brutal a felon as I'd ever hunted down. He'd started off raping and beating his victims and then to up the excitement, he began killing them instead. Thank God there were only two victims who were killed before he was apprehended and convicted."
"So when he escaped…?"
"We were terrified he'd start off on another spree, even more violent because he knew he had nothing to lose. Anyway, Coop and I got a tip that he was holed up in a cheap motel just outside of Atlanta. We headed over there as fast as we could and set up surveillance on the room we thought he was in." Don shook his head and frowned. "I mean the tip we got was one of the most detailed tips I'd ever received in all of my years in fugitive recovery. We knew we had the guy, you know?"
"I don't know if Coop and I were just that obvious or the anonymous tipster had relayed his information to someone else, but a couple of hours into our stake-out we see this man walking up to the door. Coop and I don't know him from Adam but we're concerned he's either an accomplice or someone who's about to make a very bad mistake. We get out of the truck and race toward the guy, who sees us coming and sprints the rest of the way to the door. Before we could catch him, he'd rammed his shoulder into the motel room door and knocked it in. That's when…" Don paused and tried to swallow back the sudden wave of emotion that brought moisture to his eyes. "That's when we saw him pull a gun… He fired off four shots before we reached him. Coop did a flying tackle to take him out and I burst into the room with my own gun drawn, ready to shoot down the suspect if he resisted."
After a minute of silence, Charlie softly inquired, "Did he?"
He looked at Charlie with pain-filled eyes. "Not even close. He wasn't there."
"A newlywed couple. Twenty-two and twenty-four years old and short on money so they couldn't afford a honeymoon at a nicer place." Don took a shuddering breath and plowed on. "When I got inside the room I found them cowering behind the bed. The husband had been shot three times – twice in the stomach and once in the chest – and was lying in the wife's arms, slowly bleeding to death right in front of her eyes."
Charlie shifted closer to his big brother and draped an arm over his shoulders. "My God, Don. That's awful."
"Turns out the shooter was the husband of our felon's last victim. He wanted to get justice for himself." Don leaned back against the couch cushions, trapping the comforting warmth of Charlie's arm behind his neck. "That's why I do it, Charlie. Why I'm so willing to give my life to save someone like Corcoran's. Because every time someone tries to exact a little vigilante justice, some other idiot out there will see them and think that's the best option for them, too. And that leads to an endless cycle of senseless tragedy." He rolled his head to the side and smiled sadly at Charlie. "And I refuse to be a part of that, no matter what the cost to myself."
Charlie leaned forward and rested his forehead against Don's. "Thank you for sharing that with me. I still don't like that you risk your life, but I do understand it now. That's all I wanted."
"I know. And thank you for understanding."
The two brothers looked behind them and found their father staring at them from the doorway.
"You're in for it now," Charlie whispered so that only Don could hear him.
"Watch this," Don whispered back. He winked so that only his father could see him and shrugged. "We were thinking you might not mind serving dinner out here tonight." He could practically feel Charlie shrinking away from him to separate himself from their father's imminent wrath.
Alan broke into a huge grin. "I suppose that's not a bad idea. I don't think we've ever dined in the garage before. I'll go make some sandwiches."
After their father had left, Charlie studied Don the way one would study an extraterrestrial being. Don merely shrugged, clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back on the couch. "It's all in how you say it."
"You know, Don, you never cease to amaze me."
Remembering his earlier thoughts about Charlie, Don smiled. "It must be an Eppes thing."