A/N: I'm at the tail end of a multi-chapter (26 to be exact) Colby-centric (because that's the only type I write) "Numb3rs" story, but I've always wanted to write a coda. I had a couple nebulous ideas, but nothing concrete. Then in July I read "Blanket Security" by SoDak7 over on blackraptor (Mag7) and suddenly everything coalesced, and this is the result. For those who follow or are interested, I'm hoping to start posting the multi-chap by the end of the year; RL's a bitch of a taskmaster, though, so I make no guarantees.
DISCLAIMER: I don't own "Numb3rs" or its wonderful characters. I'm just playing in their sandbox since TPTB abandoned them.
Colby felt exhausted.
Don had sent him and Megan home for a couple of hours last night before reporting back to the federal building to help Charlie set up his mirror site, but it hadn't been time enough to sleep. It'd been plenty of time for his body, especially his shoulders, to stiffen up and for the bruises to mottle his skin in a colorful array.
The adrenalin from this morning's op had long since faded, leaving Colby achy and sore and so tired he could barely keep his eyes open.
He blinked rapidly at the digital clock in the corner of his monitor screen and bit back a groan. Only 1:15. How the hell was he going to make it through the rest of the day?
He'd caught hell from the staff doctor for taking the bandages off his hands, but, dammit, he couldn't hold his gun properly or get off an accurate shot if it went that far. Amita deserved for him to be at his best. So did Charlie. The decision had been easy. He'd known there'd be consequences.
So, Colby'd silently accepted the doctor's rebuke, didn't protest when he pointedly informed Don of the post-care instructions, and didn't blink at the two rolls of gauze he'd wound around each hand, circling his wrists at one end and taping it between his first and second knuckles at the other. It didn't matter if he could barely bend his fingers and the bandages hampered anything he did with his hands. It was worth it.
"Come on, Colb, get your things," Don said, clapping him on the shoulder.
Colby started, flinching away from the touch. He hissed sharply; he hadn't even heard Don come up behind him.
"Shit, man, I'm sorry." Don sounded contrite. "I forgot."
"It's okay," Colby said breathlessly, inwardly cringing. His voice gave away the truth, despite his words. Maybe Eppes wouldn't notice. Or at least not call him on it.
"Uh-huh." Don was unimpressed. "Time to go."
"What?" Colby swiveled the chair around, facing Don. "We get a new case?"
Damn, damn, and double damn.
Buck up, Granger, he growled at himself.
"No. I want you to go home."
All Colby could do was gape stupidly at him. He knew he had to earn his place back on the team. He knew trust was a fragile thing between them, something a careless word or expression could shatter. Knew he needed to prove himself—to the team, to the whole LA FBI branch.
But now they didn't think he could do the job? When and what had he done for them to decide that?
"No, Don, I'm fine. I can work."
His voice was rough, and Colby wondered if it sounded as desperate to Eppes as it did to himself.
"You've been awake for nearly thirty hours," Don pointed out reasonably.
"So has Megan."
Because one of the perks of being the boss was delegation, so Don'd gone home to sleep in preparation for the sting while the rest of them played Primacy and laid the trap for Spectre.
"She wasn't swept away in the spillway," Don said gruffly. He checked his watch, then chuckled, deliberately relaxing against David's empty desk. "Besides, she's already gone."
Colby leaned over the chair arm, biting back a groan as abused muscles protested, looking into the cubicle she shared with Don across the aisle. Sure enough, it was empty, and her monitor was off. Huh. If he'd missed that development, there was no telling what else he could miss.
Still…. He felt he owed them all, especially Don for making the call to intercept the freighter, felt he couldn't repay the man enough for talking to Wright and letting him stay, so he offered instead,
"I'm alright. I can help you finish up the case files."
"You're assuming I'm staying." Don smiled warmly. "Pack it up. Let's go."
In truth Colby didn't have the wherewithal to argue about it and he held his confusion at bay only long enough to grab his things before asking as they headed for the elevator,
"Did you not trust me to go if you left before me?"
Because he had to know.
Had to know if there was even a smidgen of trust to build upon or if he was starting from scratch.
Had to know if their opinion of him had devolved that badly. He thought they'd all been working together well enough the last couple of cases, despite the rocky transition back. Despite David.
Had to know if the suspicion and bald anger he'd run into since returning was worth it.
Had to know if there was a future here after all, if he was stupid for turning down the DC job, if they'd ever accept him back in LA (the only place he wanted to be, with these people), if they'd ever rely on him again.
Don met his eyes searchingly, brows furrowed.
The elevator dinged and the doors parted, disgorging agents who moved around them. Colby cringed when a couple of them jostled him, but he held Don's gaze, anxiety and dejection growing stronger at the silence from that quarter. He finally looked away as he entered the empty car.
Colby took in a deep breath, pretending he didn't notice the shuddering nature of it. Shit.
The keys were snagged from his hand, and he turned to follow them.
"Of course I do," Don said firmly. "But you were uncomfortable holding a gun with dressings what? A third that size? What makes you think a steering wheel would be any easier?"
The elevator stopped on the fifth floor, and Don stood at the doors, barring entry, glaring at the people waiting to board. No one challenged the senior agent, and the doors softly slid shut.
Colby tucked himself in a back corner, trying not to touch anything with his aching, bruised muscles, his shoulders feeling brittle and ready to break off. He wished they would. Surely it'd hurt less.
"Car's just as lethal as a gun, Colb," Don said, facing him.
"Fair enough," Colby conceded. "You going to give me my keys back?"
The elevator stopped on the second floor and Eppes slammed the "close door" button, followed by the "down," keeping the car to themselves.
"No. You won't be needing them. Doc said those bandages stay on for three days. You damn well better listen to him this time. Someone will get you to work on Monday, so don't worry about it."
They exited the elevator in the lobby, and Colby followed Don out the front of the building toward where he'd parked his FBI-issued Suburban.
He didn't know what to make of any of this and apprehension curled coldly in his gut. He'd told Don all those weeks ago that he trusted him. He decided that's all he could do now, trust the words behind the actions, trust Don wasn't somehow trying to set him up or get rid of him.
Don wasn't Kirkland. And in the end, he'd been wrong about Michael.
Colby could only pray he wasn't about Don.
"You're not taking me home."
Don glanced at his passenger, who's face was as unreadable as his tone had been, before turning his attention back to LA lunch-rush traffic.
He rubbed the back of his neck. "You shouldn't be alone." At Colby's mutinous expression, he added, exasperated, "You barely got in the truck. I know your building doesn't have a working elevator. You'd never make it up five flights of stairs. Besides, when you wake up in the morning and can't move, you'll appreciate having someone there to help you out."
Granger snorted and when nothing else was forthcoming, Don chanced another glance his way. His expression was an odd mixture of melancholia, unease, gratitude, and …. Don looked more closely. Shame? Guilt?
And where the hell had that question about trust come from? He'd thought they were all past that, treating Granger the same as before the Janus List debacle.
Had he missed something? Shit. Was his head so wrapped up in what to do about Liz and their relationship that he'd somehow failed Colby?
Dad was right. He had to straighten it out—it wasn't fair to either of them or to the rest of his team.
The temperature had climbed with the sun, the weather experts reporting a near record-breaking heatwave for the next few days, and the dashboard thermometer already showed 89 degrees. Don was going to turn the A/C up, but then noticed Colby was holding his arms tight against his body. It could be from discomfort or pain and nothing to do with cold, but Don knew Granger wouldn't complain either way; he'd been damned tractable since coming back. He wished he'd grabbed his gum before they left and settled for redirecting the vents instead.
"So, you taking me in?" Colby asked.
Don cut him a sidelong look, checked his watch.
"I would, but Charlie's pretty pissed I used Amita this morning—"
"I wouldn't've let anything happen to her." Colby met his eyes, and Don saw the sincerity there.
"I know, buddy," Don hastened to reassure him. "But I need to set things right with Charlie. Make sure Amita really is okay. Probably placate my dad. Trust me. You don't wanna be around for that."
Colby nodded once. "Then where am I going?"
His voice was small as he stared out the windshield. His hands were clenched.
Colby whipped around to face him. "You can't ask David to babysit. He just got back from vacation. He's not going to want to deal with me. He shouldn't have to."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa." Don detected panic wound through the agitation, and he wished he was at David's apartment complex instead of sitting in hurry up and wait traffic so he could give Granger his undivided attention. "Megan already talked to him. He's expecting you."
His junior agent wore an odd look of vulnerability coupled with hurt and loss, making him look like a little boy. It was like a kick in Don's gut. It was moments like this that forcefully reminded him that Granger was two years younger than Charlie. He was usually so damn self-confident it was hard to fathom that his self-assurance could be damaged.
Clearly it had been.
"Hey." Granger refused to meet his eyes, but his chin tilted, showing he was listening. Don took it. "I thought you two worked things out?"
"Yeah." Colby fretted at the edge of tape on his left hand. "At work."
"Knock it off," Don growled, tapping the other's hand.
Colby had the grace to look embarrassed and folded his hands in his lap.
Don's attention lingered on the bandaged hands, on the abraded face, now starting to bruise after his mishap in the spillway yesterday morning.
Mishap? Hell, he'd nearly lost his junior agent investigating what was supposed to be a routine lead. Don's stomach still tried to crawl up his throat if he thought about Amita's frantic phone call, Charlie yelling in the background, Amita's heavy breathing and over it all the rushing of too much water, and he hadn't been able to do a goddamn thing for any of them, listening helplessly until Amita ended the connection.
He hadn't even known if Granger was alive or not and goddammit, it was the freighter all over again, but at least then he'd been there, yelling at Colby, trying to call him back.
He'd called Amita back after that, terrified help'd be too late, that he'd be too late….
Goddammit. Don jammed a hand through his hair, checked his watch. He didn't want to think about that anymore, didn't want to contemplate how close it'd been (again), that it could've been Charlie….
And if Charlie hadn't been there? No way Amita would've been able to pull Colby to safety, and Colby couldn't've hung on to that cable long enough for help to arrive, not with that surging water trying to drag him back under.
"And outside of work?" he demanded sharply, urgently quashing those thoughts before they reached their logical conclusion.
Colby glanced at him, pulling his arms in tighter. "I stay away."
And wasn't that telling? But he wanted Granger talking.
"C'mon, man, you gotta give me more than that."
His passenger gave a one-shoulder shrug, worried at the tape again until Don smacked his hand.
Colby sat on his hands, sighing when Don kept shooting him looks.
"I don't know if he's forgiven me," he said quietly. "Sometimes I think he still holds it against me." Another lop-sided shrug. "I don't bother him. I don't ask."
Don barely caught his own sigh. He had his own damn issues to deal with, he really didn't want to be somebody else's shrink. Still, he tried.
"Best friends fight, so do brothers." Because Granger and Sinclair were, in all but blood. "They get over it. Eventually."
Colby didn't look at him and this time, Don did sigh. But Granger was his guy and he'd come perilously close to losing him … too damn close, too many damn times. And he was worth it.
"For the record, David volunteered before Megan could even ask."
That got him Colby's eyes.
Hope wavered in that single word, and Don thought he really should've led with that.
"Yeah, buddy. He wants you around."
David was putting away groceries when they got there.
He opened the door and stepped aside so they could come in, smiling in greeting.
"Oh, man," Don exclaimed. "It's like an oven in here." He dropped Colby's duffle bag next to the couch.
"Don't I know it." David's apartment had an open floor plan and he returned to the kitchen, finishing his chore. "A/C was out when I got back. They can't get anyone here until Monday."
"Shit," Don muttered.
David grunted in agreement. "You want a beer, Don? They're cold." He found Colby doing his best to blend into the background and frowned. "And, no, you can't have one. Alcohol don't mix with your prescriptions."
Megan told him when she'd called that Colby filled them. That told David more about the younger man's health than anything he might actually say.
Predictably, Don checked his watch. "Nah. I gotta get over to Charlie's. I'll stop by on my way home to check on Colby, maybe take you up on it then."
"Don, no, you don't have to do that."
They were the first words Granger had spoken since they'd arrived, and David wasn't sure what to do with them or the tone of his voice or the emotion skittering in his eyes, today a bright green and David thought they'd change soon and idly wondered if it'd be blue or hazel next.
"Yeah, I do." Don clasped the back of Colby's neck. "You're my guy. You got hurt in the line of duty—no matter how much you deny it. I'll see you later."
It got uncomfortable after that, just the two of them, awkward and in Granger's case ill at ease. David didn't comment on it, figuring where most (if not all) of it was coming from and he didn't want to get into it now.
And, honestly, there was no reason to. It was done and over. Couldn't change the past, all he could was learn from it and move on.
That'd be easier on Colby too.
It'd be easier on David if Granger's entire demeanor wasn't so diffident and apprehensive. Made David feel like a hybrid of Attila the Hun, Hannibal Lecter, and Mr. Hyde. Maybe some Frankenstein's monster for good measure.
It was early yet but Colby's meds knocked him on his ass (though his appetite had been blessedly normal) and he refused to take David's bed, so Sinclair dropped a blanket and pillow on the couch for him.
Then quickly excused himself as the junior agent bedded down, his face pulling and twisting with pain whatever he did, though not a sound came from his mouth, and it all hit Sinclair hard enough he had to leave for a couple of minutes to regain his composure. He came back with a box fan, plugged it in and turned it on medium to help the ceiling fan move the air and hopefully keep his guest somewhat cool.
He set a glass of water and Granger's prescription bottles on the coffee table within Colby's reach.
"You need anything else, man?"
Granger tilted his head back on the pillow, regarding David. "No. I'm good."
"Alright then. I'll let you get some sleep. See you in the morning." He turned to go.
"You can watch TV," Granger said quickly, grabbing David's attention at once. "It won't bother me."
Reading between the lines, clear now since they worked out their issues wrought by the triple spy gig—which David was so not thinking about—he took a seat in the armchair, yogi in hand.
"Nah. I won't be able to keep my eyes open much longer."
David settled on basketball, catching the third quarter of the Knicks game. He was just getting caught up in the action on the court when Colby shifted, the sofa softly creaking.
"Thanks for letting me crash here, man."
Sleepiness made the rasp in his voice rougher, and David couldn't help but smile.
"Not a problem," he said warmly and added, to reaffirm it in Granger's head, especially with the strained afternoon past, "That's what friends do."
Colby raised his head and met David's eyes.
It hurt he had to ask; hurt even more that David couldn't name all the emotions flitting through Colby's eyes, and he had to cough his throat clear.
"Yeah, man," he said firmly.
Colby studied him with drug-glazed eyes before softly saying "Good" and lowering his head back to the pillow, breaths already evening out in sleep.
David stared at the blanket-shrouded lump on his couch, a fierce ache squeezing his throat, so much so he barely noticed when the Knicks game ended and the Clippers started, just different voices commenting in the background, white noise. But it wasn't soothing.
He'd seen Granger sleep before—on long assignments, stakeouts, protection detail. Then there were the times they'd come off grueling cases where they were both bone tired and walking was almost beyond them. Colby'd drive him home then, even though Granger lived closer to the office, and by the time they got there, David'd be awake enough to insist Granger spend the night rather than risk an accident driving all the way back home. Colby'd refuse the bed, sacking out on the couch every time. On the occasions even he was too exhausted to get David home, he'd bring him to his place instead. Even then, Colby'd take the couch, giving up his bed to David.
David didn't think that was right or fair. Arguing got him nowhere, Granger insisting he was the guest (as if that explained everything). Teasing only prompted Granger to say Sinclair's older bones needed the comfortable bed. The one time he commented he didn't want to sleep on Colby's dirty linens, the younger man had apologized and put clean sheets on the bed, wished him a good night, and camped out on the sofa.
David never said that again.
It disturbed him and made him more than a little sad to wonder how often Colby's parents must've displaced him for someone they deemed worth more than their son for it to be second nature to him all these years later, even displacing himself in his own home for a guest.
So, he'd seen Granger sleep before, yet David still couldn't tear his eyes away.
He'd been wrong—so terribly, terribly wrong—when he'd said he didn't know who his best friend was for the past two years. He knew him all too well. The shredding of his heart as he looked at the form on the couch, completely buried under the blanket, not a sign of skin or hair anywhere, told him so.
It also told him he hadn't been the only one hurt by the whole Janus List fiasco. Clearly, he hadn't suffered as deeply as Colby had; hadn't had to navigate the same layers of hurt, the same depth of anguish. This whole afternoon had just offered a beginning of a hint of what his partner had been going through.
And David hadn't known. Hadn't even realized it. Until now.
Oh, Colby seemed confident enough, brazen even, but now faced with this, David looked at the rest of it with new understanding.
Colby'd been deferring to him, to Don too, not arguing whatever they assigned him or how they treated him doing it. Then there was the whole Clay Porter thing, jumping from a balcony into the bed of a frigging moving pickup. What exactly the jackass thought he'd accomplish, David still didn't know.
It wasn't the only risk he'd taken either and looking at where his best friend lay, David had a sinking suspicion he knew exactly what the younger man had been doing. Had been proving.
He couldn't get around the fact that he hadn't known.
He'd finally put the triple spy thing behind him, but at what cost? David fingered his shaved head. Looking at Colby, he knew the cost had been too damn high.
And the blame lay squarely with David for allowing his hurt to damage Colby even more.
Son of a bitch.
It hadn't been worth this. Never this.
"How's he doing?" Don asked when David let him in.
"Took a muscle relaxer and two pain pills."
"Dammit." Don ran a hand through his hair, rubbed his mouth. "I told him to go home. Spectre made it personal though."
"No," David said harshly. "Megan told me Liz was at in-service training. Colby'd never leave you shorthanded."
"Yeah, I guess," Don conceded grumpily.
"Let me get that beer for you," David said after a moment.
He felt so grateful Don had stopped back he was giddy with it. He needed the distraction from his unhappy thoughts, from the pang of what he'd inadvertently done.
"What the hell, man?"
David sighed, reaching for two beers in the fridge. He guessed Don must've spotted Colby in the dim lighting.
"It's gotta be at least 80 degrees in here. He's gonna roast with that blanket."
"Leave him alone," David snapped.
Don looked up, eyebrows raised.
David popped the caps on the bottles and held one out. "Beer?"
Eppes came up to the high breakfast counter separating the kitchen from the rest of the apartment and took the offering.
"You wanna tell me about it?" Don kept his eyes on David as he took a long pull.
"Nothing to tell."
Don scrutinized him, saying nothing, as if he didn't trust that rushed answer.
And he'd be right.
David didn't know if guilt made him want to share, let someone else know the horrible thing he'd done, or if sharing might somehow make it easier to bear. He didn't know what he hoped the answer was.
Eppes turned back to the sofa, and Sinclair tensed.
"Can he breathe like that? Do we need to check him, make sure he's still alive under there?"
"Can't you hear him?"
David didn't hear the TV or box fan anymore, focused so completely on the sound of his partner's breathing that he could hear it all the way over here. Of course, before that goddamned List, Colby wouldn't've been breathing through a goddamned blanket. Shit.
"What the hell is going on with you?" After a couple minutes of silence, Don added, "Do you want me to take him to my place?"
"What?" Shock made the word sharper than Sinclair intended, and he modulated his voice. "He's not going anywhere."
"He wasn't entirely sure he'd be welcome here. If he's not—"
"He is." David slammed the bottle down on the countertop, sloshing beer out the mouth. He reined in his emotions, forcefully exhaling them. "He is," he asserted more calmly.
Don held up his hands. "Alright. You might want to tell him that."
"I did." David morosely cleaned up his spilled beer, threw the dishrag in the sink. "I think he got it."
Though the man had been half asleep and half doped up, so did he really hear David's sincerity or even his words? Did he see?
"David. The blanket."
It was Don's enough voice, the one that said he was done dicking around and what he wanted he wanted now, no excuses, no delays.
Still David hesitated, draining the bottle and fetching another. While he wanted to talk about it, it violated Granger's privacy and David couldn't explain without revealing something of his own.
Don sat on one of the counter stools and watched David, saying nothing.
David huffed, suddenly incensed and not even knowing who at: himself or Eppes.
"He does it for security, alright."
Don's brow furrowed, and he glanced at the couch.
"Isn't he a little old for a security blanket?" He sounded dubious.
David sighed. He was telling it wrong, and the irateness faded away, leaving him tired and dispirited.
"More like out of sight, out of mind." He brushed his fingers over his bald head, feeling bristles; he really needed to shave again. "It's protection for him, screens him from being exposed. A barrier to keep anyone from seeing him too close. It's the safety he needs so he can rest."
Don looked thoughtful as he took another swig of beer. David knew he got the implications when his eyes widened, and his breath released with a catch; his muttered "oh man" cinched it.
"Exactly," David mumbled.
"Still," Don attempted to shake off the feeling. "It means something he told you. He's not so alone anymore."
David was already shaking his head. "We've never talked about it."
"Then how do you know? You could—"
David held up his hand to stop him. "After my dad was killed, my mom did the same thing. I asked her about it."
"Oh." Don sighed, frowning at the sofa. "It can't ever be easy, can it?"
"I never could get my mom to stop doing it. She never felt safe enough after Dad was gone. It was the only way she could sleep—no matter how hot it got. It's a barrier between her and whatever or whoever might hurt her next."
David picked at the label on his bottle but didn't drink.
"Before the goddamned Janus List," he admitted to his beer, "Colby'd finally started leaving his head exposed." David gave a humorless laugh. "I thought I could show him he was safe—that his heart and soul were safe—with me, that he wasn't vulnerable if I was around."
He shook his head bitterly and gestured at the couch.
"I failed him. Worse, I proved to him that he needs that shelter."
"Nah, man," Don countered. "You showed him you got it without ever having to talk about it at all. That's gotta mean something."
It got quiet after that, David listening to his partner's steady, slow breaths that indicated deep sleep, somehow finding some solace there and not sure he had that right.
"So what you need to decide," Don said presently, "is if your friendship—"
"Brotherhood," David corrected forcefully.
Don dipped his head in acknowledgement. "Is your brotherhood worth it? Is all the effort and time you need to put into it worth it?" He took another hit from his bottle. "Is he worth it?"
"Yeah," David said immediately, answering all the questions, because he didn't need to think about it. It was as obvious as the sun setting in the west.
"Alright then." Don held up his bottle, tipped it toward David's. "Here's to rebuilding your brotherhood."
David tapped his bottle against Don's, added, "And tearing down his barriers."
"There you go."
David clicked the TV off after Don left and set the yogi on the coffee table.
That's when he heard it, a disturbance in the breathing he'd been listening to all night. He hesitated at the lamp, not sure if he'd need it or if Colby'd slip out of it on his own.
It came again, a ragged sound, harsher than it should've been, and David reacted on instinct, grabbing what he thought was a shoulder and giving it a rough shake.
Colby snapped awake at the touch, pushing himself up on his elbows, the blanket sliding down his shoulders. He reached groggily for his gun—already safely out of reach—eyes frantically darting around.
"It's okay, man. Just a nightmare."
Colby's face was flushed from heat, hair mussed from the blanket, eyes wide and black in the low light. They caught David's and seemed to badly contain a score of emotions.
The doctors had told all of them about the hallucinations Colby'd had after Lancer's drug cocktail and it hit David viscerally that he'd come off them at the hospital, not knowing real from hallucinations.
And he'd done it alone.
What did it say that he had dream-memories about that time and not about the spillway? David had a hunch. Goddammit. Godfriggingdammit. How many ways had he managed to fail his best friend?
Fear and uncertainty and a despair so great it took David's breath were in those lost eyes and again he reacted on instinct, pinching Granger's arm hard.
"That real enough for you?"
Colby winced, but he smiled genuinely, relaxing. "Yeah, man."
His eyes were already drooping.
"Go back to sleep," David commanded. "I've got your back."
The lowering head paused, the eyes narrowed, and David patiently waited.
After a moment, surprise and then gratitude cracked Colby's wary expression.
The surprise hurt like hell, but the relief from Colby trusting him enough to obey buoyed David's spirit, even when the blanket flicked back over Granger's head.
It was a start.
David settled back in the chair and thumbed the TV back on, knowing it wouldn't bother Colby, resigned to a sleepless night.
He looked at the couch, at the bright blanket.
It was worth it.
Colby was worth it.
A/N: Yes, I made Colby younger than Charlie. I've hoarded everything Colby said about his past and added that to what I know of Army and FBI physical and age requirements and come up with an age of 30, which is 2 years younger than Charlie. Anyway, this is my first (and maybe only) coda, so I'd love to hear what you think. Please leave a review!