All Apologies

by Dira Sudis

Disclaimer: Charlie, Don, and Numb3rs belong to Cheryl Heuton, Nicolas Falacci, and some people at CBS who aren't me.

Beta thanks to Iulia!

Charlie sat at the dining room table nursing yet another cup of coffee, reviewing the math again and conspicuously not watching the phone, which he'd set down just outside his field of vision. The algorithm might work. Under certain conditions, not altogether improbable conditions, it could definitely--

The phone rang, and Charlie lunged across the table to pick it up, tipping over his coffee. "Hello?"

"Charlie," Don said, and the quiet, tired tone of his voice told Charlie everything he didn't want to know. "It's over. I'm sorry."

Charlie stared at the milky puddle of the coffee, spreading across his notebook and onto the table. He picked up his laptop with one hand and moved it out of the way as he said steadily, "Don't apologize to me."

Don started to say something else, but Charlie had to hang up so he could deal with the spilled coffee. When he went into the kitchen to get a cloth, his father looked up expectantly, his eyes bright with hope that his clever, clever sons would have pulled off another daring rescue together.

"It's over," Charlie said. His own voice sounded like it was a long way off, somewhere in the vicinity of the fading light in his father's eyes, which he saw as if through a long, dark tunnel, or a telescope. Astronomical distances: the light must have gone out years ago. He was only realizing it now. "Carrie Driscoll is dead."

He turned away before his father could say anything, and mopped up his mess, stacking the damp papers and shutting off his laptop before he headed out to the garage.

It was past four in the morning when Don was finally able to leave, uncontrollably sobbing parents passed off to a grief counselor, initial reports filed, his head well and truly ripped off by the AD. He drove aimlessly for an hour, radio shut off, staring into the night and not thinking about anything, not a seventeen-year-old girl's body lying broken in a ditch, not zero leads on her kidnapper-killers, not the fact that zero leads were somebody else's problem now that he'd been taken off the case and definitely not Charlie's hollow voice and a hang-up click.

He didn't realize where he'd driven himself until he turned off the car in the driveway at the house. He'd been trying to avoid it, but that was pointless. He had to deal with Charlie. Charlie was going to need him right now, and Don never could leave Charlie hanging. Not even when he probably should have. It was after five in the morning, pushing on toward dawn, but there was a light on in the garage, just like Don had known there would be.

He stopped short in the garage doorway and winced. This was every bit as bad as he'd been trying not to think it might be for the eight hours since he'd spoken to Charlie. A dozen four-by-eight chalkboards were leaning up against the far wall in a stack, and the front one had been wiped perfectly clean--not just erased, but washed. Charlie was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of them with his face in his hands; he might have been asleep to look at him, but Don knew Charlie better than that.

It was Charlie who had called him in Albuquerque, Charlie's small voice, too shattered for tact, that had said, "Mom has cancer. Dad wants to know if you can come home."

Don hadn't found out until later that it had been Charlie who found her on the floor in the kitchen, not unconscious but weeping from pain and weakness, Charlie who had gathered her up and driven her to the hospital, driver's license or no. For months--two years and more--Charlie hadn't talked any math around the house but statistics: recovery rates, chemo regimens. It had seemed like he was coping fine until Don came out to the garage one night and found him just like this, sitting with his chalkboards blank, and then he'd realized that Charlie wasn't coping at all.

"Charlie," Don said, as gently as he could, hearing the exhausted scrape in his voice. Charlie flinched as if he'd shouted. Don walked over and crouched down beside him, letting one hand rest against the cool slate of the chalkboard for balance. "Hey, buddy--"

"Don't apologize to me," Charlie whispered into his knees, and then he lifted his head. His eyes were bloodshot but dry, and his voice sounded burned-out, just a shell. "Don't. This is my fault."

Don frowned, reaching for Charlie's shoulder. "No, hey, no--"

"Don't!" Charlie snapped, pulling away from Don's hand and scrambling to his feet, stalking a few strides away. For a minute Don stayed put, looking up at Charlie. This wasn't the way this had worked before, and Don was angry, in a remote, washed-out way, that nothing was going right, not one damn thing, not the case and not even Charlie. Things weren't even going wrong the way they were supposed to. "Don't," Charlie repeated, standing six feet away with his back to Don. "This is my fault. I told you I could find her and I didn't. I fucked up."

Don closed his eyes and pushed himself up to his feet. "No, Charlie," he said, too tired to put much force into his voice, "it's not. You know that."

"No I don't know that," Charlie snapped, and Don opened his eyes as he whirled around again. "I told you I could find her, I said I could find her, I thought I could find her, and I was wrong and I didn't and she is dead, and that is my fault."

Don frowned. "It wasn't your call to--"

Charlie shook his head wildly, his hair a dark blur around his face, pale in the flickery light. "Don't coddle me, Don! If--if I were one of your people--"

Don ran a hand through his own hair, shuddering at the thought. "Well, you're not one of my people, thank God--"

"--if I were even an adult to you--"

Don gritted his teeth, because Charlie was not trying to take the moral high ground there, he really couldn't. "That's an easy fucking mistake to make when Dad's still doing your laundry--"

"--You wouldn't be apologizing to me so don't apologize to me--"

Don grabbed him by the arms, squeezing tight, and snapped, "I will apologize to you," right in Charlie's face. It shut him up for half a second and Don pressed on. "You are a professor of applied mathematics, Charlie, and I will apologize to you, y'know, because I am sorry, I'm sorry I ever got you mixed up in my work, and I'm sorry I ever brought a single case file into this house and I'm sorry I ever asked you to help me with one damn thing--"

Charlie's eyes just kept going wider, his mouth falling open, and Don was taken completely off-guard when he lunged in, his grip broken as Charlie hit him square in the chest with both fists. Don stumbled back one step and then another, but Charlie followed him, flailing wildly, landing mostly glancing blows as Don dodged on autopilot. "Don't say that," Charlie growled, sounding so wild the hair stood up on the back of Don's neck as he raised his arms to block the next blow. Charlie kept coming, shoving, hitting wildly, "Take it back, Don, don't you say you're sorry--"

He tried for a grab, and barely escaped a wild punch to the throat, and that was just fucking well enough. Don caught Charlie's elbow, wrenched his arm up, and jabbed his left fist into the pit of Charlie's stomach.

Charlie doubled right over, and Don let him go, looking down at him as he shook out his hand. Charlie was making weird breathless wind-knocked-out sounds, and when Don had counted thirty he crouched down to Charlie's level, looking at his face and seeing tears leaking from his tightly-closed eyes. Don ran one hand down Charlie's back and said firmly, "Come on, Charlie, breathe in. I know you know how."

Charlie dragged in a strangled-sounding breath and crumpled all at once, and Don caught him, easing them both down to the floor, still rubbing Charlie's back. Charlie held himself in a tense little curl for his first couple of breaths, and then relaxed against Don all at once. He rested his head on Don's shoulder and muttered, "Ow," into Don's throat.

Don leaned his cheek on Charlie's head. It had all happened so fast, he was getting his adrenaline on a delay; he'd hardly felt a thing when he hit Charlie, but he was keyed up now, his heart racing with Charlie warm and heavy in his arms. "You hit me first," he said, and it didn't come out as lightly as he wanted it to, just kind of wobbly, almost like he was going into shock.

"Sorry," Charlie whispered. His hand wandered over Don's chest, patting lightly where he'd punched before, slipped into the open collar of his shirt, fingertips dragging over his skin. "Don, I'm sorry."

Don tightened his arms around Charlie and said, "I know," into his hair, hoping Charlie would understand what he meant. He didn't think he could tell Charlie it was okay, not tonight. Nothing was okay tonight.

Nothing had been okay that night, either, after Don had visited his mom at the hospital and come back to the house to find Charlie out in the garage, chalkboards wiped clean. The prognosis wasn't good. The doctors were grim and apologetic, and his parents had been pathetically, painfully happy to see him, reminding him of how little he'd been around in the past several years. He'd talked to Kim on the phone, told her he was looking into transferring to LA at the end of his leave time instead of coming back to Albuquerque, and stupidly hung up on her halfway through the fight that had ensued, because he just couldn't deal with it.

And then he'd found Charlie, sitting on the floor all alone, and Charlie, at least, Don could do something about. He'd sat down on the floor and pulled Charlie into his arms, just like this, and Charlie had leaned on him, just like this, and his heart had started to pound a little. Just like this.

"I'm sorry," Charlie repeated, slumping down further against Don's chest. "I thought I could find her and I'm--I'm so sorry, Don."

Don pressed a kiss to Charlie's hair, and then another to the back of his neck, and murmured, "Shhhh," into the collar of his t-shirt. Charlie shivered a little--just like he had before, just like Don knew he would--and Charlie's hand found his hip and squeezed.

Charlie turned, shifting his legs around and pressing his face into Don's open collar. "I'm sorry," he repeated, his breath hot against Don's skin, "I'm sorry I couldn't--I'm sorry I told you--I--"

Don held Charlie tight and pressed his face into Charlie's hair. "Shh," he said again, because he couldn't say anything else. "Shh."

But Charlie sat back, opening up a space between them, and the tear-tracks were still wet on his cheeks, shining in the overhead light. "I'm sorry," he repeated, not meeting Don's eyes as the words kept tumbling out of him, "I'm sorry I wanted to work with you, I'm sorry I wanted to help--"

Don cupped Charlie's cheeks, brushing the last drying tears away with his thumbs, and kissed Charlie, stopping Charlie's apologies. He didn't want to hear them any more than Charlie wanted to hear his, but for a few seconds Charlie's mouth still moved under Don's in patterns he could almost understand. Then Charlie's hands caught his shoulders and held on, and Don pressed his tongue into the heat of Charlie's mouth, and Charlie made a low noise that echoed deep in Don's belly, need and relief all at once.

It was just like before, Charlie kneeling up in the circle of his arms, Charlie's mouth under his, and Don slid one hand down Charlie's throat, feeling the pound of Charlie's pulse under his thumb. Charlie's hands slid down his back, pulling him closer, and Charlie's lips slid away from his, brushing across the spot on Don's throat that made him shudder, and Charlie whispered, "I'm sorry I need you."

Don swallowed hard against all the things he couldn't say, pressing a hard kiss to Charlie's skin just above the collar of his t-shirt and sliding a hand down between Charlie's legs. He could feel the heat of Charlie's body through his jeans, the tight twitch of muscle under his fingers, and pressed his palm against the hardness of Charlie's dick. Charlie jerked at the contact, his hips curling forward and his head going back, and he gasped but didn't say a word. Don looked at Charlie through half-lidded eyes and didn't say anything right back, not I'm sorry I keep giving you what you think you need, and not I'm sorry I think I need it too and as his own dick throbbed, as he leaned in to press his mouth to Charlie's, definitely not I'm sorry I knew this would happen.

Charlie's head tilted under his, deepening the kiss, as Don's hand moved rhythmically, irresistibly, against Charlie's erection. Don's breath came short as Charlie licked into his mouth, making soft incoherent sounds that solidified into his name. "Don, Don, please--" and it wasn't an apology.

Don nodded, rubbing his cheek against Charlie's, and Charlie's hand caught his wrist and stilled his hand. "Yeah," he said, "Okay, yeah. Hang on." Don got to his feet, his hands climbing up Charlie's body as he went, Charlie's hands pushing him up as Charlie stood, and then he turned away. He had to adjust himself just to walk across the garage, and his heart was pounding almost too loudly for him to hear the words still confined to his head. I'm sorry I've been looking forward to this all night and, I'm sorry I made you wait one minute longer than you had to. He slapped the lights off first--triage, visibility was a greater danger than anything else right now--and then turned the lock on the door, familiar under his hands. He'd done this before, plenty of times. More than he should.

He grabbed the cushion from the papasan as he walked back past it, and tossed it down close to the wall--hard under the windows, too far over to be seen from the door. He'd learned lines of sight as a matter of ballistics and trajectories, but they worked just fine as lines of sight, too. In the darkness, he could barely see the shape of Charlie undressing, just the paler flash of skin as he threw his t-shirt down and started on his jeans. Don followed suit, pulling his shirt off over his head without unbuttoning it and tossing it on the empty frame of the chair.

Don heard the thump and clink of Charlie's jeans and belt hitting the concrete floor together as he leaned over to untie his boots, and had to look up; his eyes were starting to adjust, and he could see the curl of Charlie's body settling on the darkness of the cushion. He had his chin propped on one hand, and the other hand between his legs, stroking himself as he watched Don undress. Don couldn't help smiling, kicking his boots toward Charlie's sneakers, keeping his eyes on the dark blur of Charlie's face as he straightened up and reached for the weight of the gun at his hip. He checked the safety and then set it down carefully on the floor, under the chair where he'd be able to find it, and then it was safe to shove his pants and underwear off in a heap, kicking them away as he crossed the space between him and Charlie.

Charlie rolled over onto his back as Don reached him, and the faint light from the windows showed him Charlie's wobbly smile. Don lowered himself to Charlie's body and kissed that smile as his hand found Charlie's, still wrapped around his cock. Their fingers interlaced, and Charlie's eyes shivered shut, his mouth opening under Don's. Don braced his weight on one elbow and a knee, his cock finding the soft skin at the inside of Charlie's thigh. He thrust lightly as his tongue slid into Charlie's mouth, and Charlie's legs spread for him.

Don had to close his eyes for a second, heat jolting through him, even as he settled lower over Charlie, his hand tightening over Charlie's and stroking him harder. They'd done more than this before--just like this, Charlie under him, looking up at him, and the memory was heat down his spine and low in his groin--but this would be enough for now, or almost. Don shifted his weight, tugging Charlie's hand away and moving to line up his cock against Charlie's.

Charlie thrust up against him just as he did it, so that it was Don who gasped at the contact, and Charlie grinned as he slid his hand into Don's hair and pulled him down closer. Don smiled back--how many years, and he was still falling for the same fakes every time--and let his mouth slide away from Charlie's, kissing down the line of his throat, letting his teeth scrape lightly against Charlie's skin as he wrapped a hand around both of them. He settled his weight on Charlie's thighs, pinning him down and stroking them together, and Charlie's hand tightened in Don's hair. Charlie was gasping for breath, bucking arrhythmically under him, and Don ground down hard. They were both slick with sweat, easing the way, and Charlie's cock was hard under his and Charlie's breath kept hitching on little moans.

Don let Charlie pull him back for a kiss, tightening his grip as Charlie sucked at his tongue, and Charlie came first, spurting hot in Don's hand. Don could feel the jerk of Charlie's cock against his own, so close and tight it was almost like being inside, and he had to free his mouth to breathe, holding himself totally still as Charlie writhed beneath him.

Charlie held still, too, for a few seconds after, his eyelashes dark shadows against his cheeks, and Don let go of him and started to push away. Then Charlie's eyes flashed open, and Charlie's hand landed on Don's ass, his other arm tightening around Don's neck and pulling him down. "Come on," Charlie said, low and steady in his ear, and it was all the permission Don needed, pressing his cheek to Charlie's as he thrust against the wetness on Charlie's belly, his cock skidding against Charlie's skin as Charlie's hands pulled him closer, like he could never be close enough. "Come on," Charlie repeated, and Don started to laugh a second before he started to come.

When he could breathe, he muttered, "That's a really bad pun, Charlie," against his brother's throat, and he counted five in his head before Charlie started laughing. He rolled onto his side to watch, and Charlie rolled with him and lay facing him, trying to stifle his laughter. It kept escaping him in awkward breathless bursts and snorts, and Don had to smile. "Okay, it's not that funny."

Charlie shook his head, and when he moved the faint light reflected on the wetness at the corners of his eyes, and the next breath that escaped him was half a sob. Don pulled him close, pressing Charlie's face to his shoulder. He knew that turn-on-a-dime hysteria, when the horror built up so far anything else was hilarious, and the horror was still waiting at the catch of every breath to hit you again, harder. He didn't get it much at work these days, but when their mom was sick it had nailed him about once a week, and Charlie even more.

Charlie leaned heavily against him, breathing in gasps as he got himself under control. It was all so familiar, it had all been just like this for more than two years, until nothing was funny to Charlie anymore and he shut himself away with his math. "Sorry," Charlie said, his voice still shaky, "Sorry."

Don only said, "Shh, don't, shh," but Charlie wouldn't be hushed.

"I didn't know," Charlie whispered against his skin, cooling the sweat, and Don tried hard not to shiver. "Before, when--" His hand touched Don's side, skimming down his bare skin, and it had been more than a year since Charlie touched him like that. Don knew which before Charlie was talking about. "I didn't know, about--I'm sorry, Don, I didn't know you--"

About Kim, Charlie meant, but Don didn't really want to say her name right now either. He pressed a kiss to Charlie's forehead and tightened his arms in a hug, but he didn't say a word. All the apologies he owed Charlie choked him, I'm sorry I left her, I'm sorry I left her for you and I'm sorry you're the one I came home for and I'm sorry I left you behind in the first place, years of apologies saved beyond their expiration dates. All that slipped past his lips was, "Shh," and Charlie's eyes were already shut.

He went limp in sleep, falling back against the cushion, and Don let him go, laying on his side and watching him across the gulf of inches between them. His head and feet dangled off the edge of the cushion, and he could feel the radiating cold of the concrete floor reaching up to him. A little light was starting to leak in from outside, false dawn casting everything in black and white, and he could see the tears on Charlie's face and had to look away. The other end of the garage was pitch dark, no white on the chalkboards to pick up the light.

Last time, this thing had gone on for nearly two years, and Don had never quite gotten over the high of being the thing Charlie needed more than math. But it was math he had needed most at the end, and math was where Charlie belonged, and math, weirdly, that kept them together as much as they were these days. Don couldn't let Charlie go giving it up again, not for a day, not even if Charlie decided to replace math with sex again. Don didn't know what he'd do without Charlie on the next case, and the one after that. Maybe Charlie would keep him on as a hobby, this time.

He looked back at Charlie, reached out and brushed his thumb over Charlie's cheekbone. There was nothing there to wipe away now; the tears had dried up while he was looking away. He opened his mouth, trying to shape his mouth around the words--I'm sorry I ever did this to you, I'm sorry I keep doing it, I'm sorry I'm not sorry enough to stop, but no sound emerged. It wouldn't be worth much anyway, making his pointless apologies to Charlie while he slept, oblivious.

Don lay watching Charlie sleep until the light started to show color, Charlie's cheek turning pink under his hand, and then he sat up and reached for his clothes. He had things to do.


Charlie mumbled, "Mm-hm," and turned his face away from the light, but the voice persisted.


And then he was awake all at once--dozing in class--no, he was lying down and--oh, God--his eyes flashed open and, yes, he was in the garage, curled up on the cushion from the papasan, but he was wearing his jeans and t-shirt again, and Larry was crouching beside him in the broad daylight looking only exasperated. "Hey, Larry," he said, blinking up at him and hoping he only looked disoriented and not guilty.

Larry smiled down at him and said, "Good afternoon, Charlie."

Charlie winced--did he have a morning class today? He seemed to recall thinking something at some point about whether he could lecture without having slept--and Larry looked away. "Well, it's not P vs. NP," he said thoughtfully. "But it's not supergravity calculations, either. At least I hope it's not."

Charlie pushed himself up on one elbow, trying not to wince visibly at the soreness in his stomach and his arm, and followed Larry's gaze to the other end of the garage, where four of his chalkboards were set up. All four of them were covered in total mathematical gibberish, sigmas and thetas mixed indiscriminately with variously bracketed numbers and standard algebraic variables. Here and there he could pick out an actual licit expression, but it was mostly just symbolic soup in Don's handwriting.

His mouth fell open as his eyes traced over one hundred twenty-eight square feet of simulated math. This had to be what real math looked like to Don, this incomprehensible jumble of symbols, and it was a strange, almost painful insight, as though he'd suddenly realized his brother was blind or deaf, but Larry was saying, "Are you sure you haven't suffered a head injury?"

"No," Charlie said, still searching through the strings for meaning, wondering whether the occasional coherent phrase was sheer accident or something Don had remembered. "No, it's not--it's not my work." Strange that Larry didn't realize it right away, but Charlie supposed that the handwriting was similar enough to pass at a glance--he and Don formed their twos and fours the same way, the way their mother had. "It's actually..."

One hundred twenty-eight square feet, and every inch filled with numbers and symbols. Don hadn't understood one jot of what he'd written, but he'd stood there and done it, in the early light, while Charlie slept, quietly so as not to wake him. Four chalkboards filled up with mathematical white noise, just so Charlie wouldn't wake up to nothing after he'd gone to sleep with Don.

"It's actually...?" Larry repeated, sounding dubious.

Charlie pushed himself into a sitting position. Don had stopped saying I'm sorry long before Charlie had, but after all these years Charlie thought he knew his brother well enough to hear him anyway. "It's actually kind of an apology."