Disclaimer: - Some adult language
A/N: - We've come to end of this story and Don and Charlie's adventures in the wilderness. Big thanks to everyone who's taken the time to read and respond and review - you've been great!
'Sometimes being a brother is even better than being a superhero.'
Three Months Later . . .
Don looked around and gave an appreciative sigh as he leaned back and rested his shoulders. He was well over the worse of his injuries by now, but still got the odd twinge in his back. It was the pneumonia which had proved to be his nemesis and the illness had been intractably stubborn. Even now, he was plagued by a lingering cough which hung on and remained hard to shift. His other hurts had disappeared gradually and it was true, time was a healer. Bruises faded and bones knit together. The only thing left to fix was his head.
Talking of heads – he looked over at Charlie.
His brother sat a few yards away from him staring dreamily out across the water, to all intents and purposes, wrapped deeply in thought, he seemed at least a hundred miles away. Don watched him for a while and debated, he didn't really have the heart to disturb him. He guessed Charlie would start talking when he wanted to. There was so much they still needed to say.
For now, Don was happy just to sit here and drift. The sky was blue and the day was mellow. Dad would be picking them up about suppertime, but for now, all this sun-drenched beauty was his.
Or to be more precise, his and Charlie's.
Don smiled slightly, couldn't help it. He doubted if Charlie had even noticed the scenery. He most certainly wasn't watching the horizon and the outlook was the last thing on his mind.
The sensation swept over him suddenly. Out of the blue and with no trumpets of warning. Don experienced a strange feeling of eeriness which made his skin prickle with goose bumps, a sense of compelling familiarity that cut through his newfound calm like a knife. He shivered and looked over his shoulder. The gesture was reflexive and knee-jerk. For a moment the air thrummed with danger and a threatening awareness of menace.
Nothing – of course, there was nothing. They were alone and he was being paranoid. Just the quick skim and flash of a lone pair of ducks as they dipped and flew over the lake. Exhaling sharply, he tried to relax but the fragile air of peace had been shattered. If he didn't know any better, he would bet his life they'd been here before. The occurrence was oddly unsettling and for a few seconds he felt distinctly ill at ease, like the recollection of a long-buried nightmare or the half-forgotten memory of a dream.
Come on, Eppes, get with the programme, he shook himself back to reality. They'd simply come here for a few hours fishing and, for chrissakes, it wasn't even the same lake. His memory still wasn't quite up to speed as a result of the vicious pounding he'd taken, but every now and then a broken sliver would return, like the silver-bright refraction of glass.
He still didn't know how he felt about that. It was a bit like getting back on a bicycle. No one had suggested they revisit the lake but there was part of him which wanted to return. When he'd broached the subject, Charlie had been horrified, and the strength of that reaction had unnerved him. The issue had been dropped like a bag of hot coals and he hadn't tried to mention it again. So much for the direct approach, Don sighed, and ran his hand through his hair. His fingers encountered the trace of a lump. It was yet another little souvenir.
One day, he would return for the hell of it, bite the bullet and retrace their footsteps. He'd go alone, if there was no alternative, but hopefully with Charlie in tow. He needed to go back and bury the ghosts – almost like some kind of pilgrimage, but one man's meat was another man's poison and he wasn't totally devoid of tact. Just because it felt right to him didn't mean it would necessarily help Charlie and he had no intention of forcing the issue which might end up doing more harm than good.
So here they were, on the much-vaunted fishing trip, but just an hour into Orange County. Not quite what either one of them had wanted, but it was better late than never, he supposed. This little jaunt had been dad's suggestion and quite frankly, Don was surprised he wasn't with them. Ever since they'd both left the hospital, he could hardly bear to let them out of his sight.
The last few months hadn't been easy and he was happy to see the back of them. He'd been trapped in the worse kind of limbo where everything felt forced and unreal. So okay – he was the first to admit it – he was probably a terrible invalid. It really didn't suit his personality, being stuck at home and chafing at the bit. He'd been pretty wiped out for most of the time, and paradoxically, this had worked in his favour. Too tired and out of breath to do anything but rest, and at one stage, move far from the couch.
He was better now, or at least he was getting there, feeling bored and restless and antsy, and driving them all nuts at the office by calling in on average twice a day. God, he'd never thought he'd hear himself say it, but he was sick to death of reading the sports page – he'd become quite an authority on minority sports and was fed up of watching re-runs on TV.
When his head injury no longer bothered him, he'd caught up with a lot of his reading, alternating between some trusty old favourites and a pile of new books he'd kept meaning to try. There was a lot to be said for the quiet life and sitting about under the trees in the garden. He was sure he was going to enjoy it one day – say, when he was around eighty-five.
Next week, he was back to work on light duties, with strict instructions to ease in gently. He had a feeling it would not pose a problem when he'd seen the little glint in Robin's eye. He grinned softly as he remembered, and then shook his head with exasperation. She was not above using subterfuge and he suspected a coalition with dad.
Who would have thought it – he didn't stand a hope in hell.
His loving girlfriend and doting father.
They'd created an unholy alliance formed solely to keep him in line.
One of the best things to come out of this was the way the two appeared to have bonded, dad always did have a soft spot for lawyers, and after all, he had been married to one. It filled him with warmth and not a little relief as he sat back and watched them together, and he wondered if dad remembered the comments he'd made, when he and Robin had broken up the first time. As duplicitous as he knew his father could be – surely even dad wouldn't stoop that low – he wouldn't mind betting the words still resounded in his head whenever Alan spent any time alone with Robin.
From his point of view, it could only be good, and to be honest, he was all for it. He still nurtured a small fear she might walk away and he was not prepared to lose her again. For this sake, he would put up with anything – even the statutory humiliation, and so, he'd sat through all the naked baby pictures, gritting his teeth at the gleam in dad's eye. Talking of which, there was something unnatural in the amount of pleasure dad seemed to get from this, but what the hell; he was ready to sanction anything which might convince Robin to stay.
Sighing, he watched the movement of the water, and the slight rise and fall of the ripples. The earlier sense of menace appeared to have gone and the place felt benevolent again. The thought made him pause and shake his head, for God's sake he was sounding too fanciful. It wasn't like him to be so easily spooked or badly fazed by a slight shift in atmosphere, he felt annoyed and suddenly vulnerable, far more aware of his sense of mortality and subject to the vagaries of fate. Generally vigilant by nature, he usually took note of his surroundings. It was part an inborn sense of instinct and the rest a response to his job. This however, was something else entirely, and he wasn't all that sure he liked it, a formless sense of something half-remembered lying just beneath the surface of his skin.
Like Charlie, he wished Kyle Harrison was dead. Of course he did, it was a no-brainer. He was absolutely sure, without the shadow of a doubt, the man must hate him more than ever before. Charlie, too – Don studied his brother and wondered if the fact had occurred to him – that his life would be in serious danger, if Harrison ever got loose.
Charlie appeared sweetly oblivious as he sat deep in reflective silence. He would occasionally switch his grip on the fishing pole, but other than that, he seemed barely awake. Don hoped – really hoped – that he was truly unaware and his head wasn't choked-up with fears.
As for him, well, he was tough and he would survive. No point dwelling on all the what if's and maybe's. The bad dreams would cease and normality would return as he slipped slowly back into his life. There was no way he would lose track of Harrison, either where he was or what he was doing. He'd update himself weekly, if necessary, just to keep his finger firmly on the pulse. No chance of any unpleasant shocks – no more threats or nasty surprises. This mess had taught him a salutary lesson and he refused to be caught napping again.
Harrison had been arraigned without bail as the judge had rightly assumed him a flight risk. He was charged with attempted murder and hadn't personally said a single word in court. The 'not guilty plea' had been expected and Robin hadn't shown any mercy at pre-trial, but Harrison's lawyer had pulled out all the stops and headed off down the sympathy route. He was an Ex-marine, recently returned from Iraq, probably suffering from post-traumatic syndrome, newly bereaved when both his father and brother had died, and bet your life, he'd wear his uniform in court.
Don frowned, hoping the jury would see through the ruse, or at least not be swayed by any overblown sense of patriotism, but then again, he knew Robin was sharp as a blade when it came to final juror selection. Even though it was something he'd done many times, he was not looking forward to the court date. Although he took each and every case personally, this one mattered to him more than all the others.
This time it was about him and Charlie.
Harrison had set out to kill them.
It was going to take a long time to get over this – to recover from their time at the lake.
It was never going to be a simple fishing trip, and with hindsight, that much was obvious. Perhaps the Eppes brothers didn't do simple and he should be resigned to that now. They'd been bogged down with so many issues and burdened with old grievances and fears. Admittedly, he shouldered his fair share of the blame; just take the shooting, as a little starter. Their slight estrangement and the blow of Charlie's tumour, and then the dammed clearance ghost who refused to go away. Said phantom had been a particular thorn although neither of them had been prepared to confess it, and to be honest, when Charlie suggested the trip, he had been hoping for a chance to thrash it out.
Strange how it now seemed irrelevant – almost dying had seen neatly to that.
One thing was for sure, he patted his belt, fingers touching the reassurance of his holster. Didn't matter how innocent the journey – he would never leave his gun at home again. Or go anywhere too far off the beaten track where he couldn't get a signal on his cell.
He raised an eyebrow and shook his head slightly, more than a little amused by his own craziness, okay, he might not resort to such excessive extremes, but it would take a long time to feel safe.
Talking of safe – he looked over at Charlie and remembered that time in the hospital. It was almost exactly three months to the day when they'd first heard the results of the biopsy . . .
He felt remote and decidedly spacey as he endured the short ride in the wheelchair. On the whole, he supposed he should be worried, but the overriding emotion was relief. Was there a protocol for these sorts of times in one's life - a list of rules or a set of guidelines? He shut his mind to all the sights in the corridors and focused in on nothingness instead.
This then, was the moment of truth.
In a few minutes he would know if he had cancer.
He wasn't sure if the knowing would change very much or clear out the ghosts from his head.
At least he would be with his brother again, get to see he was really improving. Didn't matter how often they told him – he still wanted some real proof for himself. He shivered – God, he was well enough aware by now - all the phone call assurances meant nothing. For all he knew, Don might be desperately sick, but odds on, he still wouldn't say.
Not desperately sick, but then again, not too well. Charlie paled as he saw Don for the first time. He was grey and in obvious discomfort, but it was wonderful to see him awake. He looked up and then his good eye crinkled as he grinned and held his hand out to Charlie. Robin rose to afford them some privacy, and left the room after mentioning some meds.
"Hey, bro," Don's voice was croaky and thick with the sound of infection. "About time, you know, it's really good to see you."
"And you," Charlie swallowed hard. "It's really good to see you, too."
Reaching out, he linked with his brother's hand, knuckles bumping together awkwardly. Don's skin was dry with a slight hint of fever. Charlie gripped harder and held on tight. He closed his eyes and relief flooded over him again, feeling the warmth and life thrum through Don's fingers. They'd made it – they'd really made it this far, and despite all the odds, they'd survived.
Don beat him to it. "Are you okay?" he didn't waste any time with small talk. "Being stuck in Fresno was driving me crazy; I tried my best to get here before."
He chuckled, he couldn't help it, and the words lifted his battered spirits. All this impatience was such a part of his brother, and so damned reassuring to hear. Looking at Don and hearing his voice in the flesh, for the first time since that day in the forest, made Charlie realise how much he had missed him and how very afraid he had been.
"Physically, I think the surgery went okay. Since then, I've been a little headachy, but it's only to be expected, and they tell me I'm recovering well."
"I see you went for the matching accessory look," Don indicated their similar black eyes. "Hey, someone should have warned me, I could have sent you a panda if I'd known."
"I think having one bear is more than enough," Charlie shook his head, a little dryly, "and besides, Smokey might get a tad jealous. He's become something of a minor celebrity – especially with the nurses on my floor."
"You sure it's the bear who's become a celebrity?" Don grinned, and teased him gently. "When it comes down to cute and adorable, can't beat those puppy-dog eyes."
Charlie proceeded to roll said puppy-dog eyes. "And here we have it, ladies and gentlemen – my big brother, should have been a comedian. No wait – don't you have to be funny? We might have a small problem with that."
Don sat forward abruptly, grin fading, as he broke into a strenuous coughing fit. It continued for a least a minute or two, interspersed with a series of groans. He tore his hand out of Charlie's and wrapped it around his ribcage, holding on tightly to his damaged chest as he waited and rode out the storm. Charlie sat mutely and watched in distress. It didn't help much to see Don was used to this. He had a sudden, uncomfortable flashback, to that terrible night by the lake.
Jake's forearm compressing his windpipe and a sense of indescribable panic, helpless and stricken with terror, as he fought and struggled for air.
"I'm calling the nurse."
He reached across for the call-button, but Don shook his head and forestalled him. He pulled a face and waited a second or two, and then pointed towards the Kleenex instead.
"It's okay – just pass me some tissues. There's nothing the nurses can do."
Charlie swallowed and fought hard with the images, but for the first time, they refused to forsake him. It was almost as though he was back there again, watching Don and Harrison down by the water, with the moonlight carving shadows in the huddle of rocks and then glancing off the surface of the lake.
Harrison's face as he looked down at Don, grinning maniacally, like some kind of lunatic, and over and over, the thud of his boots as they pounded his brother's body.
He took a deep breath, and then regretted it, as the sharp intake made his face ache. The swift passage of air burned his sinuses and hurt the tender bridge of his nose. It jolted him back to the present though, and for that alone, he was grateful, his life right now was plenty tough enough, without the added burden of the past.
"Sorry about that," Don sounded rueful. "I know it's all pretty revolting, but it's kind of hard to cough properly, what with the broken ribs."
Charlie guessed he should say something, but everything felt stupidly inadequate. He felt guilty and suddenly uncomfortable and the silence only made it seem worse. Don had surrendered and taken that beating for him – because Jake had been holding him hostage. He'd relinquished his advantage over Harrison and given up any hope of escape.
What the hell could he say, what could he possibly say, which would in any way help salve his conscience? Don nearly died – they both almost died – due to his insistence on going up to the damned lake. If only he'd done what most people did and confronted the truth about his illness, he should have trusted them, relied on their love and support, and been more open with his family and friends. But he hadn't and this was the ghastly result. His sick brother coughing his lungs out. In the end, it was all so unnecessary, all this terrible anguish and pain.
Suddenly, the silence seemed deafening, and he was aware of Don regarding him sharply.
"Charlie, we need to - "
"What, talk about this?" he knew what his brother would say.
Any other words were thankfully averted by the sound of voices outside in the corridor, and then Charlie felt his throat close over, as Doctor Rosen swept into the room. He shook Don's hand and then sat down by the bed, making small-talk as he prepared his folder. Charlie realised his teeth had started chattering, he looked up and his eyes clung to Don's.
He felt it then – tingling on the periphery, like looking down, towards the end of a long tunnel. A familiar sense of distance and enclosure which promised to put an end to all his pain. The sensation was not entirely unpleasant, rather intangible and seductively inveigling. It would be easy, so easy to discard all of this and step into the void once again.
He felt the strength of Don's hand on his arm, the warmth of his touch on his skin; the sensation dragged him back into the moment, and he heaved a sigh of shuddering relief. He was never going back to that place, so alluring and yet so very dangerous. It was illusion and he no longer needed it. He had a wealth of reality instead.
"I'm ready," he looked up at the neurologist calmly. "I need to know my results."
"Don, are you still with me?"
Don roused and opened his eyes, not entirely sure that he was. "Yeah," he sat up a little straighter and realised he must have been coughing. It had become such an integral part of his life that it didn't even wake him anymore. "Sorry, man, did you say something? Must have dozed off for a minute or two."
"It's okay," he heard the grin in Charlie's voice, "didn't want to fish you out of the lake."
"Hey, I'm quite a catch, according to Robin," he grimaced at the empty holding net beside them, "and besides, the way our luck's been going, I could be the only catch of the day."
"I think you're right," Charlie put his fishing rod down and rummaged in the cooler beside him. He took out and opened a couple of beers and then passed one over to Don. "Here, this will help ease your throat."
"Thanks," Don took a swig from the bottle and then raised a toast at Charlie, eyes twinkling. "You sure this is safe to drink, bro, don't want to attract any bears?"
"Very funny," Charlie scowled at him and then ruined the effect by looking quickly over his shoulder.
They drank in silence for a minute or two and Don idly watched the sunlight on the water. There were no mountains soaring over this lake and the surrounding hills were golden and serene. He remembered his earlier feeling of menace; it was baffling and more than slightly embarrassing. In light of all this soft rosy beauty it seemed absurd now and distinctly out of place.
Charlie gave a heavy sigh. "You were quite right, that day back in the hospital, and I guess we really ought to talk about it. You know, Amita once told me how open I was – it seems ironic now, in light of all this."
"These things take time, Chuck," Don spoke to him gently, "and hey, I don't have a leg to stand on. I know I'm the world's worse control freak, and I never found all this emotional stuff easy."
"But you have found it now - " Charlie paused, and looked up at him pleadingly. "I mean, Doctor Bradford has helped you a lot with those issues and you seem to be far more relaxed."
Don considered. "Doc Bradford made me look at things honestly, yeah, and I didn't always like what I saw. Made me realise why Robin left me the first time and helped me to start making some changes."
"Going to temple?"
"That's a big part of it," he couldn't help tensing defensively. He didn't want to get into a religious debate or have to argue his fledgling beliefs. "It feels like somebody opened a door and showed me a whole other world. Must be a little like you with the math – you see things from a different perspective, well, that's how I feel about going to temple and accepting faith into my life."
"I'm really glad for you, Don, if it helps you."
"What, no lecture on God versus math?"
"No lecture," Charlie shook his head, slowly. "We'll just have to agree to disagree."
Don grinned," are you quite sure you're feeling okay, because I can call dad if you want me to. I can't believe you're not holding forth on me, did you remember to take your meds today?"
For answer, Charlie flipped him the bird, and took two more beers out of the cooler. It appeared they might be in for quite a session and Don couldn't help but feel glad. Charlie had been so buttoned up about things, and it was starting to become a real worry, as though a light had been extinguished inside him, he'd been remote, verging on the withdrawn. He guessed it was why dad had brought them out here, in the hope it might get Charlie talking, as ideas went, it wasn't half bad, and his father was a wily old bird.
His injuries had fuddled his head for a while, and the morphine stripped away a lot of clarity, but gradually, as he got stronger, he began to see things with more of an edge. There were constraints between dad and Charlie which had been absent before their trip to the Sierras, buried hurts and unresolved feelings which were slowly eroding with time.
Not just with dad – it was the same with Amita. To his dismay, he had noticed a difference. It was hard to avoid her air of distress or the wounded look in her eyes. He decided, as Charlie was in the mood to talk, it was time to chow down on the bullet. After all, he supposed, in the scheme of things, it was kind of what big brothers were for.
"So, how's it going with you and Amita now, she forgiven you for keeping things a secret?"
"Come to terms with, rather than forgiven," Charlie picked at the label on his beer bottle. "Paradoxically, the results worked in my favour. I don't think she would have been quite so understanding if it had turned out I really had cancer."
"Sounds weird, but I actually get it," Don nodded. "She was hurt and feeling rejected. You turned away when you should have trusted her – looked to her in your hour of need."
Charlie spoke with a hint of bitterness. "That's a little rich coming from you, don't you think, when you avoid being open by omission. You neglected to tell me you'd been shot in the chest that day we drove up to the lake."
"It was wrong – I was stupid – what can I say, but any other time, I would have got away with it. Charlie, I guessed there was something up with you, but the fates were against us that day."
"So, it was my fault?" Charlie's voice wobbled. "My selfish needs turned you into a martyr? I can't have all that on my conscience – it's bad enough as it is."
What the fuck?
Don stared at his brother more closely and tried to digest what he was saying. What had happened was down to ill-fortune and chance, so how come Charlie was bowed under with self-blame?
"Care to enlighten me, how was it your fault? How could anything that happened be your fault? Bad luck, if you like, and coincidence, but mainly one evil sonofabitch."
"But that's just it, Kyle used me as leverage, and you did everything you could to stop him hurting me. He might be evil, a vicious killer, but a lot of what he said to me was true."
"That's bullshit and I want you to know it. Ever heard of Stockholm syndrome? Harrison got his kicks from messing with you, he was screwing around with your head. A head, I might add, which was pretty confused and short a few major essentials. You were sick back then, sick and vulnerable. For God's sake, you almost died."
He sat back, breathing hard with fury, really wishing he could get his hands on Harrison. He squeezed the beer bottle tightly, as though it was the bastard's neck. It went a long way to clearing up a few mysterious issues, if Charlie truly believed all this crap. He exhaled and cast his mind back; things had been weird since that day in the hospital, but he'd been spaced out and too sick to do anything, when with hindsight, he could have been more proactive. After all the emotion and trauma, when theoretically, they should have grown closer, he'd sensed Charlie pulling away from him and retreating back into his shell.
It really should have been a wild celebration. The tumour was benign and wholly treatable, but instead, they'd all been too damned shell-shocked, and underscored with a mute sense of relief.
"Look, Doc Rosen explained you weren't thinking straight, you were firing without enough cortisol. What you did was nothing short of heroic. You do recall saving my life?"
"I recall you surrendering to Harrison, and then bargaining for my life with a madman. I remember you stepping in front of the gun – a gun he was pointing at me."
Don put down the beer and struggled up to his feet. This was no time for restraint or moderation. He moved across to the bank next to Charlie; they needed to sort this thing now. After it all – after everything they'd been through, he'd be damned if he was taking any chances. That fucker Harrison was not going to beat them, and he was not prepared to compromise with this.
"You know what my lowest point ever was?" he draped an arm across Charlie's shoulders, and took a fortifying swallow of beer. "It was discovering mom had cancer. At the time, I kinda thought, this is it, man; it doesn't get much worse than this."
"Don - "
"And then my brother says we need to go fishing at a time when things are not so great between us. It makes sense, in-fact, it makes more than sense, because I know that I'm partly to blame."
"There's no need for you to do this."
"Yeah, there is," Don regarded him seriously. "You had your say, so now it's my turn. We both have a take on this, Charlie, and there are a few things I'd like to explain. That night, by the lake, when you finally came clean and told me about the tumour, I remembered that feeling when I heard about mom, and at that point, I knew I'd been wrong. It was horrible – just the worse kind of deja-vu – and to be honest, I didn't know if I could do it. I could see what you were asking, what you wanted of me. I wasn't sure if I could go through that again."
It wasn't a question. "But you would have."
Don answered softly. "I would have - just like I would have taken that bullet. For the same reason you hiked all the way to the ridge, and then pulled that crazy stunt with the knife." He sighed, and then ruffled his brother's hair, happy to note it was growing out a little. "Don't you get it, Chuck, things are good now. Sure, we're different, but in the end, we're still brothers. Doesn't mean you're not the world's worse pain in the ass, but you do know I love you, right?"
"I love you too, Don."
He felt the sudden lift of Charlie's shoulders and sensed that his brother was smiling. What a difference a few straightforward words made, in the end, it all seemed so simple.
"Does this mean we're good?"
"I think we're good, except for one thing I'd just like to mention . . . no more keeping secrets by omission."
"Deal - and no more crazy stunts with a knife."
Charlie shivered. "Most definitely a deal. I'm giving up the superhero business. In future, I'm sticking to what I know best and a more effective way of solving crime."
Don grinned and couldn't resist it. He cocked his head and pretended to consider; "and for that alone, the world will be grateful, when it's spared the joy of seeing you in tights."
Lisa Paris - 2009