Disclaimer: Numb3rs is owned by CBS; I do not profit in any way from this work.

A/N: So here it is, and I suppose it's obligatory. Don and Charlie, in peril in the wilderness. I think it's probably some arcane rite of passage most writers have to go through . . . many thanks to Marilyn and Patti for their emails and messages of support.

This story is a free-for-all Eppes angst-fest, and I've been very, very mean to both brothers.


Superheroes

'Sometimes being a brother is even better than being a superhero.'

Marc Brown


Part One

The room was elegant and thoughtfully decorated with a palette of warm muted colours. The pictures were modern originals – all costly and chosen with care. There was an air of discretion and money, so strong he could almost smell it. The overall ambience was further enhanced by a selection of high quality antiques. The whole impression was one of taste and expense and he guessed it was supposed to be soothing. He found it cold and even slightly dishonest. It looked nothing like a doctor's office.

Charlie leaned back in the light oak chair; he thought that maybe it was a genuine Baedeker. He stared out through the open window and watched the play of sunlight through the trees. Not random, although most people thought so. His eyes tracked the dappled gold movements. He'd once read a paper about it – the so-called phyllotactic patterns of leaves.

"Doctor Eppes," the voice was smoothly diplomatic. "Do you have any other questions? Anything at all you can think of – this must have come as a shock, take your time."

A shock; well, that was a given. A full-on kick in the teeth, was more like it. He felt light-headed, his mind still reeling, but in some ways, it wasn't much of a surprise.

"One question," he tried to refocus on the matter in hand, but the leaf-patterns were oddly compelling. He sat up a little straighter and swallowed hard. This was no time to lose his self-control. "The most obvious one, I suppose. I want to know my long-term prognosis, if you should find out the tumour's malignant."

"It's early days," the neurologist was candid, "but the images show the tumour quite clearly. It's still less than one centimetre in diameter, and described as a microadenoma. There's no point wasting time with a biopsy, it's far better to simply remove it. No deep incisions, a transsphenoidal procedure. In point of fact, we go in through the nose."

Charlie actually smiled a little. From a detached point of view, he couldn't help it. In a way, the surgeon's words were almost funny . . . there was an awful lot of nose to go in through. The response was just a touch slapstick with more than a pinch of pathos. In some ways, it was uncannily Don-like and he drew an ounce of extra strength from that. He had a feeling that over the coming weeks he would need all the surplus courage he could muster.

"I understand about the procedure, but you're not really answering my question. My mother died of cancer not so long ago. It was quite rapid and not very pretty. She had treatment, but it didn't seem to help much, as a matter of fact, she always claimed it made things worse." He paused, and accepted the quick stab of pain that remembering his mother always caused him. The sorrow felt fresh and resurrected, God, he wished she could be with him today. "If the biopsy's positive and the news is bad, then I don't know if I'd choose those forms of treatment. In the end, it would be my decision, but I have to know what to expect."

Doctor Rosen nodded with some sympathy. "I suppose there's no point in my telling you that, statistically, most pituitary tumours will turn out to be benign. It's of small comfort and poor consolation – most especially to a mathematician. But please, let's not talk about cancer yet. We can cross that bridge later if we come to it. I'd rather concentrate on the procedure. Let's take this one step at a time."

One step at a time, the words grated. Just for a second, Charlie clenched in frustration. He wanted – no, make that needed – total honesty, a straightforward plan of attack. If he had all the facts, then he could deal with them. Or at least, he could try and begin to. He bit back a heated rejoinder - what gave Rosen the right to play God?

He, Charlie Eppes, had a brain tumour.

There was no escape or refuge from the fact.

For several months now, he'd kind of suspected. It was a miracle that no-one else had noticed. All the clues had been tumbling into place for some time – quite literally, staring him in the face. The blurred vision, the crippling headaches, and then the dizziness and slight droop in one eyelid. Granted, they were all pretty subtle, but regardless of that, they were still there. At first, he'd put it down to simple fatigue. His life was busy and the pace had been frantic. What with CalSci, his book tour, the whole, damned business with Don, he'd been burning the candle at both ends.

The fear had crept up on him stealthily, a nasty warning on the borders of his consciousness. He'd pushed it aside and ignored it. With any luck, it would give up and go away. There was no real equation for dealing with this – no space or spare room in his life. After a while, he could no longer pretend to himself. Something was wrong – who was he kidding? He could almost hear the clock counting the hours down, the second hand ticking around inside his head.

It felt like he was running out of time.

He'd kept it to himself, hadn't told a soul. Not Don, and most certainly not dad. There'd been occasions, in the intimacy of her bedroom, when he'd almost given in and told Amita, but even then, a grain of common sense had prevailed, and in the end, he'd held himself back. It was stupid – he knew it was stupid - he wasn't sure if it was fear or cowardice. She loved him enough to stand by him, and the support would be right there if he needed it. But he was filled with a crazy, irrational dread; to articulate his fears would make them real.

He wondered if mom had felt like this. With hindsight, he suspected she had done. Those early days, she'd soldiered on as if nothing was wrong, kept quiet and maintained the façade.

Oh mom.

At long last, he thought he understood. Perhaps he was more like her than he realised. The familiar sense of loss came back to haunt him, and he missed her so much, that it burned. The leaves dipped in shades of vibrant green, interspersed with the first, languorous glints of autumn. Charlie acknowledged the same, empty sadness. It always was her favourite time of year. He turned away from the window. Doctor Rosen was right, he decided. He'd been rolling downhill like a snowball, careering and gathering momentum as he thundered on, out of control. Not much point getting too far ahead of himself, it was stupid to begin planning his funeral. For the time being, he was forced to drift with the flow, and take things one step at a time.

He lifted his head. "How long does it take for the results to come back – when do we know for certain?"

"I'll operate first thing Monday morning. You'll know by the end of the week."

First thing Monday morning - he nodded. There was something to be said for top dollar, and with this kind of service, who was he to begrudge the cost of another Baedeker chair?

Today was Friday; he wouldn't have to wait very long. He thanked the lord for small mercies. He didn't think he could cope with more than two days, it was bad enough as it was. But first, he had to get through the weekend. Seventy-two hours of pretending and smiling. He remembered, with an abstract start of dismay, that he'd agreed to go fishing with Don. Two whole nights spent under canvas with his brother. Charlie was tempted to cancel. He wouldn't last under Don's sharp-eyed scrutiny; not if his big brother radar was turned on.

The simple solution was to call off the trip.

He would plead some excuse about workload and . . .

No, Charlie sighed, and tried to rake through his curls, temporarily forgetting his new haircut. He'd had them all shorn away just the other day, carried along on a whim of depression. In the end, it would make things easier . . . he'd always been a little vain about his hair. He remembered one night, on the landing, hovering like a ghost outside the bathroom. His mother was crying, bitter tears of distress as she pulled out large handfuls of hair. Resolutely, he forced the memory aside. He was panicking again and this was foolish. He would square up to this crisis like an adult – come out fighting and meet it head on.

Two days alone with Don would be perfect. A welcome chance to clear away all the cobwebs. Whatever grim future might lie ahead of him, he was going to need his big brother's help. He'd choose the right moment and tell Don the truth, spread his cards out, face up on the table. Simply bite the damned bullet, and once he had him on side, enlist some aid with the inevitable fallout. He needed him . . . needed Don and his resolute strength, in-spite of all their recent disagreements. Don would be tough, as unyielding as granite, when it came down to offering his support.

He shivered, and felt his muscles contract. Until now, he'd been existing in limbo. Too afraid to confront the unpleasant details or deal with the reality of it all. Well, here he was, so to speak, at point non plus. There was no going backwards from this moment. No more secrecy or hiding from his loved ones.

Time to haul the Big C out in the open.

In a way, he was taking the easy way out, and he was candid enough to admit it. He knew that Don would be there to deflect any flak and step into the direct lines of fire. He wondered if he was taking advantage - he guessed that he was - just a little. He was counting on Don's innate sense of duty, a reassumption of their old childhood roles. Whatever the state of their relationship, despite all the spats and petty squabbles, his big brother had always been his protector.

It was just something he'd always known.

Don would help him. It went without saying. He didn't doubt it, not for a second.

His brother had been through this before, after all, back in the dark days when mom was dying.

He had one last week of grace before he got the results. A whole week when he still didn't have cancer. Before that, he had two days up in the mountains, beautiful, rugged and remote. If it could help him get to grips with all this . . . if nothing else, it might clear his head. The scent of pine resin and autumn leaves, crystal water and cold, cold air. The vast sky and the aching silence could be a time for contemplation and acceptance.

And best of all, he would be with his brother.

One last chance to spend some precious time with Don.

Charlie braced and moved to the edge of the chair. "Okay, let's get this thing done."


Port of Los Angeles

The bullets struck with the force of a sledgehammer. Don lost his footing and went spiralling backwards. The third one carved into his bicep, three inches down from the edge of his vest. The breath had been sucker-punched out of his lungs, and he lay there, gasping and floundering. The sound in his throat was ragged as he struggled to take in some air.

It was useless. He jack-knifed onto his side, assuming the foetal position; curving his body around the pulse of pain which had centred like a ball in his chest. There was shouting somewhere off in the distance and a voice above the crackle in his earpiece. Through the darkness and the roaring of blood in his head, he thought they were calling his name.

More footsteps, and the popping of gunfire. He lay there, semi-conscious and out of it. A blaze was raging in the centre of his ribcage; he could breathe in, but couldn't exhale. He felt cold and his muscles were shaking. Not good, he recognised the symptoms. The world was hazy, blurred with black around the edges. He thought he might be going into shock.

"Okay, man, we got you," it was Sinclair. He knelt down on the concrete beside him. "Just take it easy, and breathe nice and slowly. We got a bus on the way."

It was sound advice, so he took it; he tried counting as he lay curled on the sidewalk. In and out, he used the words as a mantra, concentrating on the passage of air. He heard Sinclair talking to someone else, just out of sight of his range of vision. No more shots – and Don knew the raid was over - on this occasion, the intel hadn't played them false. Other than his stupid slice of misfortune, it must have panned out okay.

There were hands on him, competent and gentling. Undoing the Velcro straps of his vest. A familiar smell of moulded plastic, and then an oxygen mask over his face. Easier now - it was easier. He took a breath, relieved the shaking was lessening. He tried to lift his head cautiously, and concentrated on the fire in his chest. A rush of cold in his veins as they sited an IV – he raised his good hand in an effort to protest. He regretted the movement immediately, and a wave of pain crashed over him again.

"Stay still, Don," Sinclair's voice was firm, as the paramedic's continued to work on him. "Those bastards used you for target practise. You took a live one in the upper left arm and two rounds centre mass in the vest."

Don grunted. Tell me about it. He focused inwards and made an effort to relax. "I'm okay - " he sure as hell didn't sound it. His voice cracked as the words huffed out of him.

"Yeah, right," the nearest paramedic smiled. "A real, tough guy. Of course you are."

"The guns?" Don concentrated on Sinclair as they lifted him onto a gurney.

"We got them. The whole, damned shipment." Sinclair squeezed his good shoulder briefly. "All present and accounted for. Liz and Colby have it in the bag. Like it or not, I'm coming with you to the hospital. Take it easy, Don, it's a wrap."

He leaned back as the tension seeped out of him. Whatever drug they'd given him was working. The pain seemed to be tapering off slowly to more of a localised ache. They wheeled him across to the ambulance, and David helped them lift him into the vehicle. A loud slam of the doors behind him, and then they were moving away.

The raid had gone down so quickly. He hadn't really had a chance to process. There'd been a horrible, gut-clenching second when the whole thing had slipped out of synch. He'd barely had time to call out a warning before the ice-water shock of being hit. Not serious. Pretty certain it couldn't be. Already, he felt a hell of a lot better. He wasn't too sure about his upper arm, but neither bullet to the chest had penetrated. He owed his life, and not for the first time, to the efficiency of his Kevlar vest.

Fuck – this was the last thing he needed.

Not after the last few months.

The business with Charlie, and Megan gone. His fractured team barely holding it together. He opened his eyes, and moved restlessly, cursing the errant gods for his bad luck.

"Okay, man?" David must have seen his distress. "Not long now. They're taking you to County General. I'll let Colby know when we get there, and then he can contact your folks."

"I'll call them myself," he gave David 'the gimlet look'. The one when they knew he was serious. "It's not bad and I don't want to worry them. They have enough going down as it is."

"Don - " David sounded uncertain.

"Look, dad's away on a golf trip to Vegas, and Charlie's meeting me later. There's no point in worrying either of them. I'll tell them all the gory details later on."

By now, the pain was lessening. He was aching, but feeling more human. He strained his eyes to catch a glimpse of the wound in his arm – it was just a bloody scrape by any accounts. All this fuss for a simple bullet graze and what he knew must be some technicolour bruising. With any luck, he'd be discharged by the end of the day. He was beginning to feel like a fraud.

It wasn't the first time he'd been hit in the vest, he lay back and cursed his stupidity. It hurt like fuck, and he would - just as he thoroughly deserved, be hellish sore for a couple of weeks. He gripped the side of the gurney and took a breath in, gratified to find it was easier. No sharp hitch or grating sensation – no broken ribs, as far as he could tell. In any case, he was going to be just fine, a little stiff and more than glad of the Advil, but no way was he staying in the hospital. This couldn't have come at a worse time.

The next few days were important to him; he would have to sweet talk the doctors. The circumstances weren't exactly perfect, but he needed this weekend with Charlie. Don sighed – it was the same old story. The one which had been playing out since their childhood. There was unfinished business between them, and too many words left unsaid.

He'd been a little surprised by the suggestion at first. It was so long since they'd spent time alone together. These days, if he wasn't working, then he was almost always with Robin. Robin . . . he couldn't help smiling, well aware that he probably looked foolish. With any luck, they'd assume it was the painkillers, but just the thought of her made him feel happy. It was going well . . . he didn't want to jinx it. Their relationship had really blossomed lately. She was bright and funny and beautiful, and fuck, they couldn't keep their hands off each other. He caught up with dad whenever he could, but he and Charlie had kinda let things slide. Oh, not on the surface, on the surface, it was fine, no, the change was less obvious, more subtle.

It stemmed back to the whole clearance business – academia versus reality.

Don winced, as his ribs caught him sharply, even now, he felt a slight sense of betrayal. What had hurt most of all, and what still hurt today, was that Charlie hadn't spared him a damned thought. But what the hell, he supposed, it was all over now, his little brother had been given back his clearance. So, why did the hurt still rankle? In spite of everything, the wound remained raw.

The phone call had caught him slightly unawares.

A weekend alone, just the two of them.

Two entire nights – him and Charlie – stuck alone in a tent, miles from anywhere. No backtracking or diverting phone-calls, and no convenient excuses or escapes. With any luck, it could prove to be just what they needed. No outside pressures, just a little gentle fishing. It was a chance to thrash it all out between them. Maybe a way of exorcising old ghosts.

And now, this had happened. Don gritted his teeth, feeling pissed off all over again. Talk about throwing a wrench in the works, for God's sake, he could so do without it. He thought it over and made a quick decision. In-spite of everything, he'd been pretty lucky. At the end of the day, it would take a lot more than this, to stop him going up to the lake. He missed Charlie. There, he'd admitted it. It would be nice to get things back on a good footing. There was a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, and he was not going to fuck it up now.

He knew the wound in his arm was nothing, just a few stitches and a course of antibiotics. The bruising was another matter entirely – non-life threatening, but it was going to be sore. He could manage, and it would be worth it, just to get this thing sorted with Charlie. A long drive and then a hike up to the lakeside; once they'd pitched the tent, they'd more or less stay put.

Yeah, he made a face, he could do it.

He only hoped it would turn out okay.

Don gave thanks to whomever. For once, the cosmos had aligned in his favour. Maybe, after all, there was an upside; it was a stroke of good luck dad was away. He knew he could fool Charlie most of the time, but dad was another matter entirely. One sharp look and he would be scuppered. There was no getting past the old man.

He winced as the bruising made itself known, and forced him to shift on the gurney. He was an ass – did he really want to do this? He closed his eyes and gave a slight groan.

The alternative was far more appealing, of course, a whole weekend of being pampered by Robin. He would rest and get to play the wounded hero, sleep off the bruises in her lavender-scented bed. Don sighed in quick frustration and pushed his head back against the pillow. The satin curve of her body and the soft cotton sheets . . . the random image was enough to entice him.

What the hell, he sighed ruefully, better just call him a masochist. He'd never really pictured Robin as a carrot before, but she was tempting and oh, so very sweet. Better file that one away for later, and stick strictly to the agenda. He'd be on sick-leave when he and Charlie got home again, so maybe not all would be lost. He'd still have the chance to spend some precious time with her, get the opportunity to ham it up a little, and to see the quick flash of concern in her eyes behind the tough front she showed to the world.

First things first, he put on his game face.

He had to get himself seen to.

He nodded reassuringly at David.

It was time to get this show on the road.

TBC