Title: The Sounds of Silence

Author: FraidyCat

Disclaimer: Numb3rs characters respectfully borrowed from CBS et al. No claim of ownership comes from The Cat. Those who seek to bestow money or goods-in-kind in appreciation of these characters should contact CBS, as The Cat will refuse to profit from this story.

Background: Response to a challenge by lilfiftyfour, left at "ThePlotBunnyAdoptionCenter/43403/" fanfiction forum.

Summary: Charlie is faced with finding his place in a world without numbers.

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Chapter One: "Give Me A Big Smile!"

The range of emotions was astronomical, and the power they held over him was surprising. Don Alan Eppes was not a man unfamiliar with the more traumatic side of life, after all. Countless times, he had been responsible for informing the next-of-kin that a beloved husband, or parent, or child, or sister -- would never come home again. Even if he had developed a certain necessary detachment, over the years, those carefully constructed walls did nothing to protect him from personal tragedy. His mother's illness and death, the loss of more ex-lovers than he cared to count, even the circus surrounding the exposure of one of his team members as a double -- then triple -- agent; these things should have prepared him, in some way. His chosen career and 30-some-odd years of life should have hardened him. In fact, he would have sworn, before 6 a.m., that it had.

Yes, his career should have hardened him, and his life should have prepared him, but neither of those assumptions proved to be accurate. Instead, he listened to the phone call and all rational thought drained from his head and his heart plummeted to his feet. Standing naked in his bedroom, having heard the phone ringing as he emerged from the shower, he allowed himself to drip on the carpet until the digital bedside alarm rolled over to 6:01. Then he gently returned his cell to its place next to the alarm, and crawled back into bed. He yanked the covers up around his shoulders and willed himself to think.

At 6:06 Don snaked an arm out of his cocoon and snagged the cell phone off the table again. His hands shook a little as he scrolled his contact list. While he was embarrassed on one level that he did not remember Megan's speed dial number, he was enormously gratified on another level that he remembered how to access the contact list. He pushed the "Send" button and rolled over onto his back, blinking at the ceiling.

"Good morning, boss!" The woman was offensively chipper for any hour of this day, and Don squeezed his eyes shut against the cheer.

He spoke with no preamble. "Charlie's on his way to the hospital. The paramedics told Dad it looks like a stroke. I have to go."

"Oh, my God," she started, but Don just kept going.

He said what seemed to make sense. "I'll be late. I'll come in late."

"Don't worry about that," she admonished. "Just call us when you know something, all-right?"

Her words turned into static about that time, and Don found that he didn't really care what she was saying anyway. "Good-bye," he said over the top of her, and flipped the cell shut. He shivered, naked and wet under the blankets, and knew that he would never be warm again.

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He was startled to find his father, bereft and small, in a small waiting room just inside the emergency room entrance. Don had been heading for the receptionist's desk, but he quickly redirected his feet when he recognized Alan. He approached him rapidly and skidded to a halt in front of the chair. "Dad? Why aren't you with Charlie?"

Alan dropped a magazine he had been holding upside-down and bolted out of the chair, nearly bowling Don over. "They took him for a CT". he shared unhappily. "They asked me to wait here because there are too many people crowding them back there." He failed miserably in an attempt at a smile. "Busy night, I guess."

Don frowned and glanced over his shoulder at the receptionist's desk. "They'll come get us when he's back, right?"

Alan sighed, then nodded, rubbing at his forehead. He dropped his hand and looked at Don with guilt-filled eyes. "I thought it was just a migraine," he whispered brokenly.

Don ran his own hand through his short-cropped hair. then indicated the bank of chairs. "Let's sit down," he suggested, barely making it across another foot before his knees gave out. He waited for his father to sit next to him. "What happened?" he asked plaintively. "I know Charlie went home from school early yesterday; Larry mentioned it when he came by to pick up Megan. That's why I didn't call or come by last night; migraines usually take him out for a couple of days."

"I know," agreed Alan. "It didn't seem different from any of his other migraines. He gave himself a shot of Imitrex and asked me to hang a blanket over his window. He refused anything for dinner, but he wasn't sick..." Alan made a noise of choked disbelief. "I was actually thinking he'd caught this one early and it might not be quite so debilitating."

He stopped talking, and Don had to urge him onward again. "So?"

Alan shook himself a little. "I woke up at about 5:30 this morning. I was going downstairs to start the coffee and read the newspaper. I stopped at Charlie's door and peeked through a crack." He shuddered violently. "Dear God, Don, what if I had just left it at that?"

"But you didn't," Don soothed.

Alan didn't seem mollified. "It looked like his eyes were open, so I decided to ask if he was up to some breakfast." He shuddered again, and wrapped his arms around his torso. "It was...surreal. He was lying on his back, staring at the ceiling, not blinking. There was drool running from one side of his mouth."

It was Don's turn to shudder. "That must've been scarier than hell," he commented. "I'd probably still be standing there."

It was apparent how upset Alan was when he didn't take the time to reassure his eldest. "I would too, if I hadn't taken that class," he asserted. When Don looked confused, Alan filled in some blanks. "Last month, remember? The Soup Kitchen asked for volunteers to attend a first aid/CPR class. Many of the homeless who use the kitchen are elderly, and I paid careful attention when they taught us the F.A.S.T. rule."

Recognition crossed Don's face, and he began to nod. "Right, I remember. I was re-certified about six months ago. 'Face, Arm. Speech. Time' -- isn't that it?"

"Yes," Alan affirmed. "I was scared to death, but I asked Charlie to smile. I felt like an idiot, and I had to ask him several times. When he did, the right side didn't work right. Well, I grabbed his cell off the desk right then, and called 9-1-1. While we were waiting he tried to talk..." Alan's voice hitched. "Donnie, it was awful. Grunts. I just sat on the bed and patted his arm, and told him everything was fine. The paramedic asked him to squeeze his fingers, and it didn't look like the right hand even closed all the way."

Don lowered his head and breathed deeply. "So it wasn't a migraine?" he asked when he looked back to Alan.

His father scrambled for his shirt pocket, producing a glossy brochure. "The CT scan will show more, but it could have started as one. The doctor here gave me this information; sometimes young adults with a previously documented history of classic migraines can have a stroke in the middle of an attack!"

Don reached out an unsteady hand to take the brochure. "Ischemic Cerebrovascular Disease", he read before he let his hand fall limp into his lap. His eyes wandered the perimeter of the packed waiting room, where people sat in hushed clumps, or whispered frantically. A few, God bless them, sat alone and silent, watching the clock. Suddenly that silence rang loudly in Don's ears, and he almost reached up his hands to cover them.

Dear God, Charlie couldn't talk? Would Don never hear his brother's raspy voice, or his infectious laughter again? Charlie couldn't smile? Well, at least Don knew how that last one felt.

If Charlie wasn't all right, Don would never smile again, himself.