Warnings: xOver The Pretender, Eppes-cest, Angst, Prior Death of Characters
He was on his fifth, perhaps sixth, beer and the view hadn't changed. His foot pushed gently against the ground, rocking him in the same spot as the one his parents had once occupied. Margaret and Alan Eppes had been a loving couple. They were often to be found watching the sun set or their children play.
Don had a different reputation in the still nicely maintained neighborhood. Loner was heard most often, usually followed by 'that poor boy' despite being in his mid-thirties. The sun had long since set. But this was California and Don wasn't growing chilled as he stared into the dark and drank.
He was accustomed to loss. A connoisseur of grief, one might say. When he considered that it all began and ended in this house, he wondered why he stayed. The law of averages disputed that all the memories were bad.
Admittedly, quite a few were good.
Five year olds had only the vaguest grasp of 'Mommy's pregnant' and even less of an understanding of gaining a sibling. Don was able to grasp staying with a neighbor because Mommy and Daddy were gone far more ably.
Worry clenched his stomach, his fingers itching for the bear he'd declared he was too big to carry. Daddy had come to get him, but Mommy wasn't home.
Don stared out the car window. The buildings were just shapes, the trees merely blurs of color. His dad was smiling, but where was Mommy?
They finally stopped at a large place with many hurrying people. Don took a deep breath, wiping his sweaty hands on his khaki pants. He held tight to his father's right hand with his left and it quickly grew moist again.
Somehow, it seemed like the elevator left his guts behind as it rose.
"Daddy?" Don asked softly, aware of the others packed into the space.
"It's okay, Donny."
The faint squeeze of his hand was more reassuring than the words. Pure faith told him that if Dad was here, then everything was still okay.
His sneakers made odd squeaky noises as he escaped the tight box. Dad leading him surely by the hand, he took a deep breath. The door that opened had what he recognized as his last name to the side. Don hesitated on the threshold, fidgeting, until he recognized the woman on the bed.
Don rushed to her side, a child's babble about his past thirty-six hours falling from his lips. But his mommy didn't reach out to pick him up or hold him.
She leaned towards him, shifting her cradled arms. "It's okay, Donny. Meet your baby brother."
Small hands clutching at the bed rails, Don leaned. He peered suspiciously at the tiny monsterish bundle. It didn't look like a brother. But what did a brother look like?
For some reason, Don's parents found that observation highly funny. They chuckled, his father placing his large warm hand on Don's shoulder.
"What do you think, Donny?"
Don frowned, unsure. The thing - a baby brother? - his mom held moved. Don flinched as it opened its mouth and blinked. He didn't remember asking for a brother. But, maybe he had.
After all, Dad always said that if he made his thing personal then he would take better care of them and they would last longer.
"Charlie," Don pronounced surely.
His mom looked to his dad, hesitating. She bit her lip, watching as Don reached out and nudged his index fingers into the clenching grasp of baby fingers.
"Charlie's an excellent name," came his father's quick support.
As Don forgot his concern over the new baby, his parents released their plan to name their second son Isaac.
Don drained his beer in a few fast, desperate gulps. The night air dampened his shirt until it stuck to his skin with leech-like intensity. His tie had been abandoned earlier, but it was still only the topmost shirt button that hung open.
He scowled at the dark yard. Impassively, the façade of familial normalcy stared back. His life hadn't stayed normal for long.
How could it when he'd failed them all so bitterly?
His leg ached.
Don shifted on the couch, lifting his bandaged hip. It was scraped and bruised. Charlie's wound was worse. He'd not only scraped his leg, he'd broken his arm.
Sighing, Don stared at the banner his parents had erected in honor of his tenth birthday. He'd been restricted for trying to teach his younger brother how to climb a tree - only to have him fall. He wasn't sure he deserved his birthday celebration. But he wouldn't say so Charlie was too excited about the cake and his present for Don.
Almost too excited for his lesson with the latest tutor.
"Donny, where's your brother?" his mother called from the kitchen.
"In the garage," he called back.
She emerged, wiping the residue of her meatloaf preparations from her hands. His mom's meatloaf was good, but not his favorite meal. It was Charlie's favorite.
"You know he's not allowed to stay out there by himself."
Don rolled his eyes, turning his head to hide the action. "Jeez, I know. He's not alone."
"Your father's at work, Donny. Who's out there?"
"His teacher," Don explained with a shrug.
Charlie was different. It just made him that much more special to Don. He didn't understand why his mother turned away, hurrying towards the back door.
She reentered several long minutes later. Rushing past him, she called out, "Donny, check your rooms to see if Charlie came inside."
He knew his brother wasn't inside. If the tutor had left, he was probably curled up in a corner of the garage obsessing over whatever new concept he'd learned today. There was no way he'd have come in the house without immediately showing Don his new discovery.
Don completed his cursory inspection of the house, checking the other rooms just in case. He didn't find his brother, of course. Still, his mom was on the phone.
Planning the lecture he'd give his little brother for scaring Mom, Don slipped out the back door. The garage had been transformed into a work room for Charlie. The chalkboards were on specially shortened stands with a stool so he could reach the top parts.
Don usually watched from his chair. It was plush and squashy, with a great vantage point from which he could see the whole room. Smugly, he acknowledged that Charlie never let the people who came sit in Don's chair. The one they used was straight-backed and much less comfortable.
When the police arrived, Don was still staring at the center chalkboard. Charlie had taught him a basic mathematical code just for them. The equation didn't make any sense but the numbers spoke to him.
In Charlie's childish and hurried scrawl, it said, "She's taking me to the middle."
The bottle was empty. It clattered as Don sat it with the four other bottles he'd already drained. The noise was the only thing disturbing the silence of this night. Even the faint, subdued noise of traffic had faded as the hours ticked by.
Don stood, giving himself a moment as the world shifted. He hadn't been this buzzed since the third year he'd been working for the Bureau. Of course, that year he'd gotten far more drunk than buzzed.
Don closed the file and set it aside. He'd not expected to make Assistant Special Agent in Charge so quickly. The Bureau just seemed to be the place for him. He'd initially applied for the FBI for a very simple reason.
The FBI had jurisdiction over child abductions.
He'd moved from his training at Quantico to his first assignment. It had taken two weeks to get his copy of Charlie's file. The flatly stated and impersonal facts filled in the gaps his ten year old brain hadn't even noticed. It was disturbing to see, once more, the sketch produced by his description of that particular 'tutor.'
The clear absence of leads depressed him anew. At the same time, he was finally able to see the sheer amount of work that had gone into trying to find his little brother.
Don stood, twitching his suit jacket into place. He had an appointment with his Assistant Director and everyone knew you weren't late for those.
"Thank you for coming, Agent Eppes."
He suspected that the AD seemed unusually serious. Unfortunately, that could be from any number of issues and was difficult to diagnose.
"Agent Eppes." A hesitation. "Don, I have both good news and bad for you."
Don frowned, unsure how to interpret such a warning.
"First, the FBI has been seriously impressed with your dedication. You're being promoted to Special Agent in Charge and transferred to the Los Angeles field office."
"Thank you, sir but Los Angeles?"
The AD sighed. "I know your file requests no placement in Los Angeles. However, the department psychologists believe it would be best at this time."
Don's tone was deliberately frosty. "That seems to contraindicate the promotion, sir."
Deciding to ignore the insubordinate response, the AD merely replied, "Approximately a month ago, a raid was conducted on a facility in Delaware. Known only as The Center, it was a purported think tank. However, reports began to indicate that they were in possession of multiple child prodigies reported missing."
Don had gone very still and silent as his AD spoke. "Sir?" he asked cautiously.
There wasn't any good way to do this. "Agent Eppes, I regret to inform you that the FBI secured a positive DNA match from a child who died in their custody to your brother Charlie."
He folded his hands over the arms of his chair to hide how they shook. "Sir?"
"Go home, Don. Bury your brother."
Don tripped on the slight lip of the kitchen threshold. He'd done that so many times in his life, even sober, that he couldn't bear to remove the cause. He'd grown up in this house, lived here almost all his life except for the years he'd rented it out while away with the FBI.
The kitchen was neat and orderly, everything in its place. One of his first postings had been with a partner schooled overseas. He'd taught Don an appreciation of English beer. Thus, Don went looking for a few more bottles not in the fridge but in the pantry.
"I think you've had enough, don't you?"
Professor William Charles Olsteen, Don's lover of the past year, leaned against the kitchen table. He steadied himself with one hand, the other white-knuckled on the head of his cane. His bandaged leg glared white in the dimness.
"No," Don demurred roughly, turning back to the pantry. He didn't want to think - not about his job, not about his life, and especially not about either of the Charlies he'd loved.
"Agent Eppes? Agent Eppes!"
"What?!" Don barked, stopping his rapid stride out the front entrance.
The man who'd been calling him was clearly not an agent. He was slightly shorter than Don with a duskier skin tone. Clothed in jeans, pale blue collared shirt, and tweed sports coat, he looked like a college professor. Though the dark brown eyes and ample mahogany curls guaranteed he'd be the type that undergrads followed around drooling.
Irritated with himself for appreciating the man's attractiveness and not hearing his words, Don forced himself to tune back in.
" territorial convergence theory to organize lateral "
Don blinked, asking with a growing good mood, "Who are you?"
The man stopped his babble, blushing slightly as he held out his hand. "I'm so sorry. The social graces occasionally escape me. Professor Olsteen, CalSci."
Don returned the handshake, pleased to find it dry and firm. "And you were looking for me because?" he prompted.
"Oh." Olsteen grinned, quick and easy. "One of your team members knows a guy in the NSA who I've worked with before."
"You've worked with the NSA," Don questioned, the doubt clear in his voice.
"I teach highly advanced math - encryption, probabilities, connections."
The slightly smug expression on the man's face caused Don to adjust his approximation of the man's age. For a moment, he wavered and then decided to take a chance. "Join me for lunch and we'll talk about what you can contribute."
The professor hesitated a moment, considering the offer. His eyes acknowledged the undercurrent of personal beneath the business offer. Finally, his answer came quietly. "I think I'd like that, Agent Eppes."
They fell into step, walking away from the building. Don held his hand across his body, offering it to his companion. "Drop the title if we're going to work together. Don will be fine."
Taking his hand for the second time that day, Olsteen replied, "I go by Charlie."
His faltered step pulled their hands apart and Don shook himself. This absurd reaction to the name was outdated - a relic of his loss.
Don reached out, laying his hand on the man's shoulder for just a moment. "It's good to have you on board, Charlie."
He held tight to the pantry door as he drew his head back. His lover was watching him with a pleading expression.
"Go back to bed," Don grumped. He turned away, leaning on the kitchen counter so he wouldn't have to look at the other man.
The hand that settled on his back startled him. Don looked up to see a faint reflection of the pair of them in the kitchen windows.
"Come with me."
Don closed his eyes, features contorting with his inner conflict and grief. His body shook with the desire to turn and accept the comfort he knew was on offer.
"Please, Don Don't push me away."
He held his reserve for a moment longer. But, even in the faint reflection, he could see the pain as his lover began to back away. Suddenly, losing his lover was the unacceptable pinnacle to his pillar of loss.
Don twisted, roughly pulling the other man to him. His kiss was sloppy, desperate and fraught with mixed emotions. Charlie yielded to the need he could feel in that embrace. He allowed Don to lead him through the house and push him down on their bed.
"I don't care," Don murmured over and over again as he ravished his lover.
When Don had collapsed from alcohol and endorphins, Charlie held him close. Running his fingers through the short, sweat damp hair, he stared into the rapidly lightening dark.
"I'm so sorry, Donny I never meant to do this to you," he whispered to the unconscious man.
Waved into the office, Colby Granger leaned on the edge of the senior agent's desk. "The professor really came through for us on this case."
"Yes, he did," Don agreed.
"You should take him out to celebrate."
Don stopped shuffling through the work on his desk to lean back in his hair. His hands folded across his chest were deceptively calm. "And what is that supposed to mean?"
"You have noticed that he doesn't join the rest of us for lunch or coffee twice a week - even when there isn't a case?"
Don's eyes narrowed. "Your point?"
"Our point," Megan said, joining Colby in Don's office, "is that Olsteen makes you act human. Since that makes life easier on all of us, we think you should keep him around."
Don looked incredulously from Colby to Megan. "Are you seriously suggesting that I begin a relationship with a civilian consultant?"
"You already have one," Colby scoffed.
"He's an orphan, Don. He'd understand," Megan added. Tapped more into the gossip chain, she knew the professor's genial nature hid a deep pain of his own.
Don grumped and brushed them off. Later, though, he found himself stopping by an office at CalSci. When Charlie accepted his invitation with instant pleasure, he found part of his perpetual loneliness drifting away.
The sun was way too high in the sky when Don awoke. Turning, he reached for his alarm clock and found only an empty nightstand. The bed beside him was empty as well, causing him to frown.
When he recalled the reason for the previous night's descent into alcohol, Don wrapped himself in a bathrobe. He was suddenly uncomfortable with his usual nudity at home.
Stepping into the kitchen, Don followed the scent of coffee. Pouring his first cup of the day, he remarked, "My alarm didn't go off."
Charlie never looked up from the stove as he responded, "I turned it off. I've already called you in sick."
Don turned, leaning against the counter as he sipped the bitter black brew. "I'm not sick."
Hunched in on himself, Charlie turned from his cooking to place a pair of plates on the table. There was clearly deep emotion in his voice as he admitted, "You may be after I tell you what I've done."
"Charlie, no," Don protested immediately, stepping towards the table in their small dining nook.
"Please sit down," Charlie begged in a near whisper. "I should have told you this the first night you brought me here."
"It's a nice home," Charlie commented, looking around.
Don shrugged. "It's been in my family for a while. I rented it out, but it will always be home."
Charlie nodded, wandering farther into the house. "Roots are important."
Stepping up behind and embracing the shorter man, Don murmured low voiced into Professor Olsteen's ear, "More important are the connections we make now."
"Don," Charlie whispered, turning in his arms. He raised guilt darkened eyes. "I'm "
Anything he might have confessed vanished in the passion that rose between them for the first time.
Massacring his food, Charlie moved it around his plate. Finally, forcing himself to lay the fork aside, he clenched his hands in his lap.
"You wanted to talk."
Don's words caused Charlie to startle, finally looking up. There was understanding in his lover's eyes.
"Want to, not really," he murmured uneasily.
"Then we don't need to do "
Don's attempt to end the standoff fell short. Staring steadily at the table, Charlie spoke in a firm, detached voice, "On my brother's tenth birthday, I was kidnapped."
Hand clenching compulsively on his coffee mug, Don closed his eyes to listen. He was moved by the pain he could already hear coursing through Charlie's detachment.
"I didn't realize it at first. It wasn't violent or threatening. A five year old who can do calculus becomes accustomed to being taken places by strangers for evaluation or testing. But I always got to go home before that That time, I was told my family had died in a car accident on their way to pick me up. Mother, father, brother, all dead."
Although Charlie's voice had grown whisper soft, he was the only active noise in the house. Don had leaned into the table. He knew this story from the other side and it hurt to hear.
"I cried, grieved violently, for several weeks. When I finally paid attention to my surroundings, I didn't recognize anyone. They told me it was a special home for kids like me. Kids who had no family but had all these gifts."
"Charlie, please stop."
Charlie looked up, meeting Don's gaze. "I can't. You have to understand. None of this was ever your fault."
"I was almost fifteen when I realized how much they were lying to us. One of the guys, older than me, escaped. Gossip works the same the world over. There had always been rumors, questions about some of the problems they had use working on, but this was different. For the first time, there was open talk that maybe we still had family somewhere."
Charlie didn't seem to notice that he'd begun to cry. The tears slipped down his cheeks unimpeded. Don looked away, uncertain how to relate with the man across from him.
"They weren't able to bring him back. Eventually, others started to disappear. When it was my turn, I realized he was helping us escape, providing identities and making sure we stayed safe."
Don shook his head. "The FBI closed them down."
Charlie's laugh was bitter and cold. "The FBI, CIA, NSA were all frequent customers for their particular brand of analysis. Do you know why they finally acted against a group they'd been enabling for years?"
"No," Don admitted quietly.
"There are a great many calculations involved in building demolition. When it's being accomplished by airplane, the variables are even more complex."
Don was very pale. "Charlie, are you talking about what I think?"
"He got me out twelve days before that contract came in. None of us were specialized in our fake studies, but everyone has their strengths and math has always been mine. They could have been my calculations."
"Charlie, no "
"The girl who did that work She didn't get out in time. Barely a week on the outside and she knew what she'd done. She killed herself and it could have been me."
Don's hands shook as he released his coffee mug. He leaned forward, reaching out across the table. Charlie grasped his hands with both of his in return, tentative and surprised at the lack of rejection.
"I'm so sorry. It was wrong of me to deceive you but, just because one location's gone doesn't mean I'm safe. There are others who still need help. A single professor can give credence to an entire transcript."
Charlie shook his head as Don started to speak. He squeezed tightly at the hands in his grasp. "Professor Olsteen is a vital part of the nexus that helps these children get back to their families."
Don yanked his hands back. He stood so suddenly that his chair rocked against the floor. Charlie flinched, looking down at his abandoned plate. He couldn't see that Don's face showed frustration and his internal conflict rather than anger.
"And what did this underground railroad ever do for my family? Mom was eaten alive by cancer, still following the faintest lead. Dad didn't even make it to my college graduation. And me? Again alone."
"I'm sorry, Don."
"What am I supposed to do about this?" Don's indignation began to overshadow his prior knowledge. "Do you have any idea what you've taken from me?"
Don stopped as he realized Charlie was completely incapable of responding. "And if I say I need my brother?"
Charlie looked up. His face showed his resolve, set in stubborn lines. "Charles Eppes is dead. You're going to have to accept that, Don."
Don crossed his arms over his chest, turned away to stare out the kitchen window. Daylight showed what he hadn't been able to see last night. But with the daylight had come further revelation. No longer would he be able to hide and claim ignorance.
Apparently, the silence had lasted for too long. The faint noise of Charlie standing echoed through the silence. The choked voice was obvious in its attempt to detach - and complete failure.
"I'll be out of your house by the end of the day."
"If you have something to say, say it."
Don snapping at his team was neither a surprise, nor a new experience. Megan, David, and Colby glanced among each other before Colby was silently designated their representative. He swallowed before closing the case file beneath his hands.
"The tech guys did a great job with this wi-fi thing but where's the professor?"
"Professor Olsteen will no longer be consulting on our activities."
The meeting broke up as Colby shook his head. "Stupidest thing you've done in a long time, Don."
Occupied with undoing the damage to his financial identity, Don ignored the unwanted advice.
Charlie continued to scrawl across the chalkboards in his classroom. He'd forgotten the plastic chalk holders that usually protected his hands. As a result, pale smears decorated his thighs, hips, chest, and hair.
"Not now," he muttered, erasing his own incorrect scribblings with his sleeve.
"Just call him No problem is unsolvable."
Charlie turned, throwing his chalk with an underhanded toss. It bounced across three desks before shattering against the wall. "This, Larry," he declared with disgust. "This is definitely not solvable. It is, in fact, so unsolvable that it might as well be P vs NP."
"They will come after the people closest to you."
The word echoed in Don's head in a circle. They repeated incessantly. He didn't have anyone close left, he told himself.
Charlie led his class through the false exercise. Finally, it drew the attention he'd wanted to seek in the beginning but hadn't been able to get due to poor cell reception.
"I didn't imagine this, Don. I know you're having problems with the Russian mob and don't want my help."
Don scowled. "Don't want your help?" he asked. "I don't want you in my life. We're done."
Colby and Megan looked away, pretending ignorance of the pair's conflict.
Charlie practically snarled at David's presence in his office. The agent sprawled in a chair, looking apologetic but immovable.
"I don't need a babysitter."
David wanted to shrug, but that would only hurt. He pursed his lips in an expressive moue. "Don's a little conflicted right now."
Charlie paced before turning to his desk. From the back of a drawer, he pulled a cell phone other than his usual. "Don isn't the only game in town," he muttered, keying a pre-programmed number.
Don was prepared for a gunbattle when they arrived to rescue the hostages. He was not expecting to find a dark-haired man speaking calmly with the freed hostages over the corpse of his target. As Don's team entered, the man turned slowly. He identified himself without prompting.
"Agent Jarrod Donovan, CIA. I believe you can stand down, Agent Eppes."
Don lowered his gun but didn't put it away quite yet. "What happened here?"
"A small operation concerning the Russian mafia. I believe the hostages were in relation to one of your cases?"
"The whole thing is my case! The FBI has jurisdiction in domestic matters."
Dark eyebrows rose for a moment before the agent smiled. "Of course."
"Parker," Agent Donovan called. He was answered a moment later by the irritable call of "What?!" from the back room.
The woman who stepped out to join them looked nothing like any CIA agent Don had ever seen - outside of the movies. Her pencil thin suit skirt and stiletto heels turned her walk into a predatory strut. The scowl on her face could have been a reflection of the operation or simply her standard mood.
"Agent Parker," Jarrod drawled with a heavy tone of irony. "The FBI will be finishing up here."
"If you think "
"Agent Eppes can handle it," he interrupted.
Turning her stare on Don, the woman paused. "I see," she finally muttered, stalking to the door. "Well? Let's go!"
Agent Donovan turned to Don, nodding once. "It's all yours, Donny."
Don stared blindly around the room for an extended moment. He could just hear the female hostage's statement that it was the woman agent who had shot the Russian. But, why were there only two people on the CIA team?
He hurried outside, grabbing the man's arm as he opened the passenger door to a black sedan. "You're not a CIA agent," Don both asked and accused in a low, harsh voice.
Surprisingly, the man simply smiled gently. "Not today."
"Get in the car, Jarrod!" the voice from the driver's seat demanded.
Shrugging off Don's hand, the man sat. As he closed the door, he hesitated. "Tell Charlie." A pause as he read the lack of shock on Don's face. "Tell him this one's free."
When Don arrived at CalSci, Charlie was sleeping fitfully on his office couch under the watchful eye of David. The agent sat up straighter in his chair, wincing as the sudden movement pulled the muscles and skin around his gunshot wound.
"How is he?" Don asked in a whisper, trying not to wake the sleeping man.
"Better since I got the call and was able to tell him it's over."
David glanced to the couch before standing and moving closer to his supervising agent. "Look, I really don't know what happened between the two of you. It may be none of my business, but no one cares if you're involved with the professor. Make both of you happy again and get over whatever it was?"
Don nodded, patting David gently on his uninjured shoulder. "Thanks. You go on home. I'll take care of him."
Taking the chair, Don merely sat and watched Charlie sleep as he thought. Finally, as the younger man seemed to be stirring anyway, he knelt next to the couch. "Charlie? Wake up, buddy that can't be comfortable."
Sweet affection curled Charlie's mouth as he woke. "Don?" he asked, not fully aware.
"Come on, sweetheart. There are better places to sleep."
Charlie blinked to full awareness, propping himself partially upright on his elbows. "Don?"
"Come home, Charlie."
It was a simple request, yet one that needed to be clarified.
"You can live with that? With us, that way?"
Don shrugged, his emotions scrolling so quickly across his face as to be unreadable. "I can't live without it."
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