Dumbstruck

by Dira Sudis

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

Beta thanks to Iulia and cheerleading thanks to Queue!


Don was sitting at his desk, looking over one of David's reports before he signed off on it, when his phone rang. Half-hoping it was the assistant director with a hot case--only half, because it wasn't like he could really hope for a gruesome unsolved murder to rescue him from an all-day paperwork marathon--he grabbed it on the first ring. "Eppes."

"Don," his father said, sounding so irritated Don felt thirteen years old again, automatically guilty, trying to remember what he'd done wrong. "Your brother wanted me to call you. He's threatening to run away from home."

"He what?" Don blinked, looking away from the words on the screen, like maybe he'd gotten them mixed up with the ones he was hearing--or maybe Don wasn't the only one feeling thirteen again. Not that you could call a summer at Princeton with Mom in tow running away from home, exactly.

"He's having one of his--episodes. You know."

Don wasn't thirteen again, then; more like ten. Charlie had been four the first time, and it was strange what you could forget--Don hadn't thought about it in years, though at the time it had been impossible not to think about it, why it was happening, when it might happen again. It had stopped when Charlie was eight or nine, as inexplicably as it started. His dad had stopped saying Charlie was faking, by the end--probably because Mom had made him--but he'd also never seen much distinction between "psychosomatic" and "not real." And now, of course, there was nobody to run interference between him and Charlie.

"Dad, I'll be right there," Don said firmly. God, he'd probably been trying to startle Charlie out of it again, like it was a bad case of the hiccups. That had made Charlie angry enough when he was six, he wouldn't be taking it well now. "Tell Charlie I'll be right there."

His dad sighed. "Thank you, Donnie."

"Yeah," Don said, rubbing his forehead. "No problem."

Don hung up the phone and stood up. When David looked at him inquiringly, Don said, "I have to go. Charlie's--" mute, but the word stuck in his throat. Charlie had never liked people knowing when they didn't have to, embarrassed by these malfunctions of his brain even when he was a kid. "Sick," Don finished. "It's nothing really major, but he and my dad get like cats and dogs when Charlie's sick."

David snorted and said, "Nice, man. You couldn't even fake your own flu to get out of this shit."

Don just grinned and said, "Not making this one up, I promise you. Look, I'll take half and do them at home."

David rolled his eyes, but Don boxed up a stack of files from his desk and took them along.

Don had never suspected Charlie of faking it, if only because Charlie had never been able to lie to him. He'd known it for sure ever since the fourth or fifth time, when Charlie ran into his room in the middle of the night, a few days into one of his episodes, with tears streaming down his face: he'd had a bad dream, and been unable even to scream. In the morning, Don had asked Charlie what he'd dreamed, and Charlie had written, in his staggering five-year-old letters, i cudnt tak + then i wok up + i cudnt tak. Charlie had slept in Don's bed for two weeks after that, even after he could talk again.

Don also remembered the endless rounds of tests that had marked the first two years of Charlie's intermittent muteness--pediatricians, neurologists, ear nose and throat specialists, speech therapists (useless when he couldn't talk, pointless when he could) and then the parade of psychiatrists. Don had only been ten himself that first summer, so he'd gone along to a lot of the appointments, sitting next to his mother in one waiting room after another, reading outdated magazines or staring at the walls, dreaming of his next Little League practice. He remembered the third psychiatrist best, because she had wanted to talk to him, as well as Charlie.

"Well, Don," she'd said, smiling, while Don swung his feet and wondered why he was there, "you probably know your little brother better than just about anybody. And sometimes, when little kids can't talk, it's because there's something they need to say, but they can't, or think they can't."

Don had nodded and wracked his brain, remembering how his mom had told him to answer all the doctor's questions the best he could. He wanted to help Charlie, but he'd had no more idea what Charlie might need to tell anyone than anybody else did--except that Charlie had bad dreams when he couldn't talk, but he had the bad dreams because he couldn't talk, and not the other way around. Even after Don offered that one thing, she kept asking and asking--was there anything Charlie was scared of? Anyone Charlie was scared of? Had Don ever seen anyone hurt Charlie? Had anyone ever hurt Don?

He kept saying no, over and over, but she just kept asking the same questions in different ways, and seemed impatient with him when he repeated it over and over: no one was hurting Charlie. No one was hurting him. No one ever had. Then she asked him if Don was hurting Charlie, and that was the point when he'd gone a little mute himself. As if he'd ever hurt Charlie!

It occurred to Don, as he drove toward the house, that he couldn't quite answer that question the same way anymore. Not that Don had ever hurt Charlie, but he'd certainly scared him, and seen him scared. Their best guess, back then--from the fifth psychiatrist, because their mom had taken Charlie away from the third one when she couldn't seem to let go of the abuse hypothesis, and the fourth one had made Charlie cry before they'd even had a session, something about the glasses--had been that Charlie's episodes were the result of the stress he was under, as a genius kid. Theoretically, when they stopped, it was because Charlie had gotten used to the strain of being a genius; and then it had stopped, and they'd all stopped worrying about it.

But now Charlie was doing a whole different kind of work than he was used to, and here he was, mute again. Don couldn't help feeling that he knew why--because this time, it was his fault, getting Charlie mixed up in stuff he couldn't cope with, no matter how well he seemed to handle it most of the time.

When Don pulled up to the house, Charlie was sitting on the porch steps with his backpack beside him and a pad of paper in his lap, scribbling away. He looked up when Don got out of the car, and Don said, "Hey, Charlie. How you doing? Did Dad try scaring you out of it again?"

Charlie rolled his eyes and flipped back a few pages to show Don the sheet that said, in huge, angrily scrawled letters, repeatedly circled and underlined, NOT HICCUPS. Don grinned and squeezed Charlie's shoulder. "You want to come over to my place? I've--" but Charlie was already nodding furiously, grabbing his bag and getting to his feet. "Okay," Don said. "I'll just tell Dad."

Charlie nodded, looking horribly relieved, and then abruptly grabbed Don in a one-armed hug. Don half-laughed as the corner of Charlie's notebook caught him in the middle of the back, and patted Charlie's back, saying, "Yeah, okay, okay, you're rescued."

Charlie brushed past him, headed for the car, and Don went inside, stopping short as he stepped through the door; his dad was standing right there, as though he'd been watching them. He turned away abruptly, not meeting Don's eyes. "Your mother knew how to deal with him," he said quietly, and Don winced.

"Dad, it's okay, I know--"

His dad just shook his head. "I thought he'd outgrown this, I thought--well. Probably better if he stays with you for a little while." Don nodded, even as his stomach clenched at the helpless wave of his father's hands. "You were always the best with him when he got like this, he always wanted you."

"Dad," he repeated, but his father shook his head, and Don was as helpless with his dad as his dad was with Charlie.

"Call if he needs anything. I think he packed to stay overnight."

"Yeah," Don said, "Okay. Take it easy, all right? I'll give you a call later."

His father looked up then and smiled bleakly. "There's nothing wrong with me, Donnie. You just take care of your brother."

Don forced a smile in return, and headed back outside. For a moment he couldn't see Charlie, just his backpack in the front seat of the car, but as he came around he realized Charlie was in the back with Don's file box, flipping through the reports. Don smiled, smothering the impulse to grab the files from Charlie's hands, to tell him that was the whole problem right there. It could be a coincidence, or nothing at all, and he didn't need to fight with Charlie over it in the driveway no matter what it was. "Hey," he said as he settled into the driver's seat, "we gave you credit for everything, you don't have to check."

Charlie grinned and snapped his seatbelt into place, but went on reading. "All right, Miss Daisy," Don muttered, and that earned him a paper clip to the back of the head, but when he glanced at the mirror, Charlie was as-if-innocently reading. Don just shook his head and started the car.


Charlie dropped his backpack on Don's kitchen table and headed straight for the fridge, but Don yanked him back just short of it, holding tight to his arm. "Hey, Charlie, hang on a sec. I know Dad probably already asked you all of this--"

Charlie folded his arms, glared, and nodded, but Don didn't let go. He had to ask. There might be a physical reason this time, it could be something neurological--the word tumor flashed across his brain, and family history, but it couldn't be that, it couldn't. Not Charlie, not now.

"Are you having any other symptoms? Do you have a headache?" Charlie put one palm to his forehead, still glaring, and jerked it away quickly, then nodded.

Don sighed. "Right, right, you've been with Dad all day, of course you have a headache. Is anything else going on? Do you feel sick at all? Have you thrown up, is your vision--"

Charlie shook his head stubbornly, and Don sighed. "Charlie, I'm just worried. This is weird, everybody thought you'd outgrown this. Has this happened at all, since it stopped the first time? Did this ever happen when I was gone?"

Charlie's glare softened, but he shook his head firmly, and raised one hand to wave it dismissively. "Okay, okay," Don said, releasing Charlie's arm, and Charlie turned around and opened the fridge, pulling out two beers and handing one to Don. Don glanced at the clock--it was just after three in the afternoon--but what the hell? He couldn't let Charlie drink alone.


Charlie took two scowling gulps of his beer, set it down on the coffee table, and then appeared to forget it completely. He was sprawled sideways in an armchair, engrossed in his notebook, occasionally consulting another book or notebook from his backpack. He scribbled away quietly, and soon his papers were spread in a haphazard array across half the coffee table. The other half filled up with the paperwork Don was dutifully working on. He parked his empty bottle next to Charlie's nearly full one and, after a brief contemplation of the fact that if he were at work he'd still be drinking coffee, switched to water.

He made sure to keep the report folders closed, or turned so Charlie couldn't see them, but Charlie had obviously already lost interest in them and was caught up in his own work. Don looked up at him from time to time, studying the totally absorbed, totally serene expression on his face. He rarely got to see Charlie working like this, when he didn't have a deadline looming that marked lives lost, when he was off somewhere safe in his mathematical world.

Don let himself watch Charlie for a few minutes at a time. If it were anyone else, he'd be worried about being caught staring, but there was no danger of Charlie looking up from what he was doing. He frowned slightly, glanced up the page, crossed something out, and the frown eased. And then, as Don watched, Charlie looked up into the middle distance, eyes unfocused, and opened and closed his mouth. He touched his throat and swallowed, and then looked down again more intently, his hand clenching briefly on his pencil, and Don had to look away. Charlie might have retreated into his math now, but he still wasn't safe enough.

Don tried to get back to his paperwork, but the rhythm of the work was broken, and he found it hard to concentrate. He caught himself wondering how often Charlie checked to see if he could speak, straining his ears for the noise that would signal that Charlie was back to himself. All the time he was processing reports, he was wondering which case was the culprit, what had happened, how Charlie had gotten into this state again after so many years.

When he realized he was squinting at the page in front of him as much because the light was failing as because he couldn't keep his mind on the words, Don glanced at his watch. It was past dinner time; he and David had had sandwiches close to eight hours ago, and God only knew when Charlie had eaten last. Don stacked up his files neatly and went into the kitchen, grabbed a selection of menus off the fridge, and took them back into the living room.

He stood over Charlie, staring at the top of his bent head, for not quite a minute before Charlie noticed he was there and looked up. Charlie's concentration was clearly failing as well. "You pick, I'll call," Don said, and handed Charlie the menus. Charlie smiled gamely and nodded, shuffling through them quickly. He circled a handful of selections from the Chinese place and handed it back to Don, and Don headed for the phone.

When he came back from ordering, Charlie was working again, so Don turned on a couple of lights and picked up the half-finished report he'd left, resolving to finish it before the food came. He was halfway into another when someone knocked on the door, and when he came back with the bags of food--Charlie had clearly ordered with a few further meals' worth of leftovers in mind--Charlie was tidying his own papers away, making space on the coffee table. Don quickly picked up his own files, dumping them into their box, and straightened up from doing so just in time to see Charlie take a careless sip of his hours-old beer. Don took it away from him as he made faces and dug through the bag for a fortune cookie, and dumped the bottle out in the sink before he came back with two more.

They settled side-by-side on the couch to eat, dispensing with plates, passing containers back and forth between them across the coffee table. Don watched Charlie's dextrous use of his chopsticks, smiling, and said, "Do you remember when you learned to use those?"

Charlie popped a piece of shrimp into his mouth and grinned, nodding, fumbling the chopsticks around in demonstration of just how well he remembered. At least this time nobody wound up wearing the sweet and sour sauce. They otherwise ate in silence, and soon they were both slumped back on the couch. Charlie held his nearly-empty beer bottle to his lips and blew, producing a high whistle. Don closed his eyes and listened as Charlie blew that same note over and over. He couldn't detect a pattern in the length or repetition of the whistles, but somehow Don was sure Charlie had one, that Charlie was saying something now and Don was just failing to understand him once again.

"Charlie," he said, without opening his eyes, and after a beat of silence, he heard Charlie swallow, finishing off his beer. Don looked over at him. Charlie was still holding the bottle, staring at it as he picked at the edge of the label. "Charlie, do you have any idea why this happened again now?"

Charlie didn't look back at him, just shook his head. Don sat up straight, turning toward Charlie, and tried to tell himself Charlie didn't shrink ever so slightly away as he tore a strip off the bottle's label.

"I mean--I know you saw a lot of psychiatrists when you were a kid and they never found anything, but--could it be something like that? Is anything bothering you? Anything you think you can't talk about?" Charlie still didn't look up, just twitched a short, tense shrug. It seemed as good as a yes, and Don pressed on. "If you--I mean, I don't know if you want to talk right now, it might be hard to write things out--but if you want to when you get better--you know you can talk to me, or--if it's a security issue or you want someone else, the Bureau has people you can talk to, if there's something going on that's bugging you."

Charlie nodded slightly, and Don just sat there, helpless, willing Charlie to reach for his notebook, to look up, to say something, anything. It couldn't be as bad as not knowing what he'd done, what had done this to Charlie. Finally Charlie peeked up at him, and then slowly he raised his face to meet Don's eyes steadily. He sat up straight, shifting to perch on the edge of the couch, and beckoned Don closer.

Don frowned, wondering what this was--Charlie hadn't reached for his notebook, wasn't making any hand signs other than urging Don closer. But he scooted in until his knee met Charlie's, and when Charlie still waved him closer, he leaned in until they were nose to nose, keeping his eyes steady on Charlie's, waiting for Charlie to tell him whatever he needed to say, waiting to understand.

Even as Charlie's beckoning hand closed on the back of his neck, even as he jerked Don in across the bare inches that separated them, he was trying to work out what his genius brother was telling him. When his lips touched Charlie's, Don's first thought was lip-reading? and when Charlie's lips parted, Don's followed, trying to understand. It wasn't until Charlie's tongue began to trace the curve of his lip that Don thought kiss and broke away, long seconds too late. He stared at Charlie, wide-eyed, and for a second Charlie stared back, looking horrified. Then he broke from his freeze, snatching up his notebook and pen, scribbling frantically even as Don said, on autopilot, through the shock, "Charlie--Charlie, hey, it's okay--"

He reached out a hand, but Charlie shied away, holding up the page that said YOU WERENT SUPOSED TO LET ME like a shield.

"I'm sorry," Don said, realizing how ridiculous it sounded even as he said it--but he was sorry, he should have known, he shouldn't have let Charlie do it. Charlie was shaking his head, scribbling on his notebook again as Don said, "Charlie, don't--it's okay--we can talk about this--" but when Charlie held up his notebook again it said IM SORRY.

"It's okay," Don repeated, even though his lips were still tingling, even though he couldn't quite think about what had just happened. "Charlie, I'm not mad at you, I--" Charlie shook the notebook at him, fiercely, and Don said, "Yes, okay, you're sorry, it's okay--" but Charlie shook his head wildly and dropped the notebook into his lap, preparing to scribble down something else, shaking with reaction. Don acted without thought, as instinctively as he ever did when Charlie was hurt or scared. He slapped one hand down on the page and caught Charlie's chin with the other, holding him still when he tried to flinch away. His eyes met Charlie's for the barest instant, and then Don kissed him, close-mouthed and brief, just enough to get his attention.

"There, okay? There--" Don had to stop, catch his breath, and Charlie was just staring at him, lips parted. "There. We're even. Now will you please stop apologizing?"

Charlie blinked and then nodded, and Don allowed himself to look away, rubbing at his lips, trying to find some kind of mental foothold, trying to figure out what to say next.

When he looked back at Charlie, Charlie was watching him, waiting, his fist clenched on his pencil, knuckles white. "Well," Don said finally, trying to smile. "I guess that qualifies as something you thought you couldn't talk about, huh?"

Charlie's lips twitched--not a smile, some kind of horrible grimace, there and then gone, and he scratched out STILL CANT and tipped the page toward Don.

Don nodded. "So it's not--I mean, when--" he blinked as the thought overtook him, but his mouth kept going, "when this happened the first time--when you were four--" Charlie's eyes went wide, and he slapped his left hand over Don's mouth, scrawling NO right over the previous message. Don nodded, and Charlie snatched his hand back before Don could quite register the feeling of his lips brushing against Charlie's palm.

Don ran a hand through his hair, watching Charlie slowly curling into himself, and said softly, "So you--you don't think this is why, then?"

Charlie shook his head, flipping to a clean sheet and writing in smaller, less frantic letters, BEEN TALKING FINE FOR 16 YEARS.

Don blinked, staring, thinking of Charlie at thirteen--Jesus, he'd gone off to Princeton that year--and was barely conscious of scooting back a few inches, opening up some breathing room between them. When Charlie looked up at him, wide eyes dark and hopeless, Don could only say, "Oh."

Charlie dropped his notebook on top of his stack of stuff as Don stared out the window at the fading light. He began gathering up the leftovers and Don let him do it, closing his eyes as Charlie walked the long way around the coffee table to get to the kitchen without brushing by him. Sixteen years, Charlie had been thinking this, and Don had never guessed. He'd thought sometimes, about Charlie being... different, weird. Affectionate, he'd figured. Not totally clear on what's normal.

A long way from not-totally-clear, as it turned out, but Don was the one who'd let Charlie kiss him, Don was the one who'd kissed him back. He tried to think whether he'd known somehow before this, or should have known, whether he'd encouraged Charlie--he touched his fingers to his lips again and then he couldn't sit and think about it anymore. His eyes flashed open and he jumped to his feet, gathering up the last few boxes and the two empty beer bottles. Charlie was standing at the sink, apparently staring out the small window at the streetlights coming on, and Don silently closed up the boxes and put them into the fridge.

Regardless of everything else, Charlie was still in the grip of one of his episodes, and if this wasn't why, then they were no closer to knowing why than they'd ever been. Charlie wasn't five years old anymore, but Don would bet he was still scared by this thing--scared enough to do something really stupid to distract himself from it, maybe, but Don couldn't let himself be distracted, not even by this, not when Charlie needed him.

"Charlie," he said, leaning against the fridge. Charlie didn't look at him, started the water and picked up a sponge and began diligently washing the lone coffee mug sitting in the sink.

"Charlie," Don repeated, raising his voice just enough to be heard over the running water. "Look--half the reason I wanted you to come over is that you're going to have nightmares. We both know that."

Charlie shrugged, and waved the sponge dismissively, as though it didn't matter. Maybe he really believed it didn't; Charlie certainly wasn't a coward. But Don couldn't let him be frightened and not do anything about it.

Don sighed and started trying to think of a simple, unambiguous way to say it, though he thought there was little enough chance of Charlie taking it the wrong way. I want you to sleep with me wasn't something that needed to be said between them tonight, all things considered. And if Charlie slept on the couch he might as well be back at the house--he wouldn't make a sound Don could hear no matter how scared he was, and there was no way he'd come and wake Don, not tonight, not after this.

Charlie rinsed the mug over and over, turning it in his hands, and Don remembered the lecture he'd given Terry and David once about how a donut and a coffee mug were, topologically speaking, exactly the same shape. He remembered the way Charlie had glanced in his direction and smiled when he saw Don was paying attention to him, and he remembered watching the motion of Charlie's hands, the way he smiled when he was talking about arcane mathematical principles, lighting up like a sparkler. Charlie shut off the water, and the silence seemed crushing. "It's been a long day," Don said quietly, and Charlie picked up a towel and shrugged again.

Don went over to him and took the mug and towel from his hands, tossing the towel on the counter and setting the mug on the dish rack. Charlie still didn't look up at him, but he didn't move away, either. Don set his hand on Charlie's shoulder, the same as ever--Charlie knew nothing had changed, he wouldn't think anything of it except that Don wasn't suddenly afraid to touch him. "Come on," he said softly, tugging Charlie gently toward the bedroom, "we could both use some sleep."

Charlie did look up at him then, frowning slightly, and Don said, "What, you thought I was going to make you sleep on the couch for that?"

Charlie looked away--looking for a pencil and paper, Don realized--and then grabbed Don's hand. When Don held it out flat for him, Charlie spelled the words on his palm, his fingertip touch so light it tickled, his palm sweating against Don's wrist. I-L-L G-O.

"No," Don said firmly, "I am definitely not sending you back to Dad now. Come on. We'll sleep. Maybe you'll feel better in the morning."

Charlie gave him a skeptical look, but Don looked back steadily, willing Charlie to believe that nothing had changed, that they would wake up in the morning feeling better, or at least no worse, because then it would be true, or true enough to go on with. Charlie seemed to understand that somehow; he nodded fractionally and turned away, going to the living room for his backpack and then into the bathroom while Don stood in the middle of the kitchen, telling himself to just keep believing that nothing had changed.


Don laid awake in the dark, staring up toward the ceiling, listening to Charlie breathing beside him. After a while, he thought he could distinguish the hitch in Charlie's breathing that meant he'd tried to speak and failed, and then Don shut his eyes tight and tried replaying the last ball game he'd watched in his head. Shutting his eyes made Charlie's breathing seem louder, though, and he couldn't get through a single batter without his attention catching on his brother.

When they'd been little, Charlie would curl up against Don's side, no matter how hot it was. Don would drag up a fan until it was blowing straight at their feet, and in the morning he'd wake up with a blanket and Charlie both wrapped around him.

Now they were carefully observing their own spaces. When Don came out of the bathroom, Charlie was already lying down on the left-hand side of the bed, away from the nightstand with the alarm clock, his back toward the door. He'd settled onto his back after Don had shut off the light, and now they were just lying in silence, pretending they were each alone.

He could feel Charlie's presence, though, his weight on the far side of the mattress, the warmth of his body, the sound of his breathing. It had been years since he'd had anyone in his bed this way--just lying there, not--not doing anything that he wasn't going to think about with Charlie right next to him--but just sleeping, or waiting to sleep.

The last time had been... Kim, actually, and he blew out a long breath at the thought, briefly drowning out the steady in-and-out sound of Charlie beside him. That last night in Albuquerque, after he'd said he had to go and she'd only looked away, twisting the ring on her finger and declining to make it a fight--it had been exactly the same. He'd gone to call his dad with his flight details, and when he came into the bedroom she was lying on the left side of the bed with her back to him. They'd laid there side by side, waiting for sleep, waiting for the morning, when he'd leave and she'd stay and the rest of their lives would start unfolding.

Don turned his face away from Charlie, thinking he could happily wait a while for tomorrow to get here, with whatever it would bring for him and Charlie. They'd spent enough years not speaking already, when they were both perfectly capable, and he didn't think he could stand it again, not now. His thoughts got all tangled up, imagining telephone calls with a silent Charlie listening on the other end, Schrodinger's baby brother--was he there or not? You couldn't know until he hung up on you...

He woke up as his head snapped back, a fist connecting with his jaw, and even as his own fist flew out he thought No, Charlie and jerked it back. He twisted away, reaching behind him to turn the lamp on, listening to Charlie's thrashing, the catch and break of his ragged breathing. Don blinked against the light that showed him Charlie, eyes shut, jaw clenched, still asleep but struggling wildly. Even as Don reached for him, Charlie froze, his mouth opening in a silent scream that hit Don like another fist.

As soon as Don touched him, Charlie started fighting again, his teeth snapping shut with an audible click. Don had to drop nearly flat, smothering Charlie's struggles with his own weight, catching Charlie's wrists and holding them. Only then did it occur to him that he could speak, that Charlie would hear, and he said, "Charlie, Charlie, hey, wake up--"

Charlie startled awake all at once, with none of his usual drowsy confusion. His eyes went wide, and his mouth opened, starting to form some word Don couldn't quite catch the shape of, and then snapped shut. He froze beneath Don, body going shivery-tense; Don could feel the clenching of Charlie's fists under his hands and let go abruptly, pushing up off of Charlie and away. Charlie scrambled backward, sitting up on his side of the bed as Don settled back on his.

Charlie's eyes quickly fixed on Don's jaw, and he traced S-O-R in the air before Don shook his head and said, "You were asleep, it's not your fault, don't worry about it." But Charlie just looked away, huddling in a miserable tight shape, his hands clenched in his lap, clutching at a fold of blanket.

Don rubbed at his eyes. This was great: keeping Charlie close had just made everything worse. He poked at the freshly-forming bruise on his jaw, glanced at Charlie and had to look away--the tight curve of Charlie's shoulders hurt nearly as badly as that voiceless scream, and he had no idea what to say; he was as awake as a nasty jolt of adrenaline could make him, but still brain-fogged with exhaustion. He turned and glanced at the clock. It was 2:37 in the morning.

He looked over at Charlie again and met Charlie's eyes, studying him. Charlie looked away sharply, looking weirdly embarrassed, and Don abruptly remembered what had happened on the couch, and the feel of Charlie's body under his, fighting him--not fighting him--and now he was just sitting over there, not quite daring to look at Don, and Don definitely didn't dare to look at him. He felt a little queasy all of a sudden, wondering how that had felt to Charlie, what he'd thought when he woke up, whether he thought--Don glanced up at Charlie, making unexpected eye contact, and opened his mouth to say God knew what.

Charlie saw something in his eyes, though; he bolted, scrambling out of bed and heading for the door. Don followed him only a stride behind, jolting awake and into pursuit all at once. Charlie grabbed his backpack off the floor as he headed through the doorway, and Don caught a trailing strap, stopping him in the kitchen. Charlie turned and tugged at the bag, scowling--but Don could see well enough in the light spilling out of the bedroom, the dark desperation in Charlie's eyes. He wasn't angry, he was running scared, and somehow that helped. If they were both scared of this thing, nothing could happen, right? They were on the same page here.

"Hey," Don said gently, in his best talking-down-the-hostage-taker voice, "Come on, don't leave now, it's the middle of the night. It was just a dream, you're not--"

Charlie shook his head, not buying it. One of his hands released the backpack strap only to latch onto a zipper, yanking it open. "Charlie!" Don snapped, but Charlie was ignoring that too, clothes falling to the floor as Charlie extracted his notebook. Don reached for it, but Charlie shoved the bag at him and darted away, just as far as the kitchen table. Don dropped the bag with a thud of books and followed Charlie, who had turned on the light over the table and was settling himself in a chair, flipping past written messages to a page of dense equations.

"Buddy," he said, forcing himself to speak softly again, "come on, don't--you've gotta sleep more than this. Come on--"

But Charlie wouldn't even look at Don, just braced one arm protectively over the notebook. He didn't even have a pencil, but he trailed one finger along the lines. Don grabbed his arm and tugged, but Charlie pulled back, refusing to be budged. He looked up at Don for just a second, stubborn and scared, and for the first time Don realized that it might be him, and not just this situation, that was scaring Charlie. Don let go instantly, taking a step back.

"Fine," he said unsteadily, fighting to make this just about Charlie not getting enough sleep. "Okay, fine. I'm gonna go crash on the couch. You need anything, come get me. You get tired, go back to bed."

Charlie huddled over his notebook again and gave no sign of hearing him, but Don knew there was nothing wrong with Charlie's ears. Just to be safe, he gathered up Charlie's stuff from the kitchen floor, plus his shoes from their place by the door, and took it all with him to the couch. If Charlie was desperate enough to leave barefoot, Don wasn't going to stop him, but this would at least improve the odds of him staying until morning.


Don woke up on the couch to the distant beeping of his alarm with a headache strangely centered in his jaw, and spent a minute blinking at Charlie's tennis shoes, tucked under his arm, before he remembered what was going on. He groaned and covered his eyes, dumping the shoes to the floor, but the beeping just went on and on in time with the throbbing of his head, and he had to get up and shut it off.

He was surprised to see Charlie still in the kitchen when he walked through, asleep at the table with his head pillowed on his arms. It couldn't be comfortable, but at least he hadn't run off into the night in his boxers.

Don shut off the alarm and then stood a moment in the bedroom, rubbing at the tread pattern printed on his arm and trying to figure out what to do next. There wasn't really a decision to make, but he had the luxury of a minute to pretend there was. He spent most of the minute considering putting on more clothes, but it wasn't like it would help. They'd both been fully clothed out there on the couch last night.

He took a deep breath and then headed back into the kitchen and crouched beside Charlie's chair. "Hey," Don said softly, settling his hand on Charlie's t-shirt covered shoulder almost entirely without flinching, shaking him gently. "Hey, Charlie, time to get up and go to bed."

This time Charlie woke up--or didn't wake up--the way Charlie usually did. There was a squirming stretch, a sleepy blink, the clatter of Charlie finally letting go of the pencil he'd held on to as he slept. Charlie didn't even seem to notice that the "Hey, Don," he mouthed didn't make a sound, and Don kept the same patient smile fixed on his face, so Charlie would go right on not noticing.

"Up," he repeated, "Bed." The kitchen was still dim enough that Charlie wouldn't think anything of it; if Don was lucky he wouldn't even register where he was, just that he wasn't in a bed and soon would be. Don tugged at Charlie's shoulder, and when Charlie slumped against him--it didn't mean anything, it couldn't possibly, when Charlie wasn't even awake--it was just the warmth of Charlie's body pressed against his, like when they were kids, like anytime before yesterday. Don kept still for a second, feeling that, before he pushed up to his feet, dragging Charlie along with him, guiding his stumbling steps to the bedroom. Once he was within sight of the bed Charlie managed to steer himself, collapsing squarely in the middle of the mattress, burying his face in a pillow and appearing to return to sleep instantly.

Don steered himself to the shower, turned it up hot and scrubbed hard everywhere the impression of Charlie's body lingered on his skin.


Don went into the bedroom to get dressed and forced himself to glance at Charlie just long enough to be sure he was still asleep before he dropped his towel. Charlie was asleep. Don wasn't going to change in the bathroom in his own apartment.

He found himself irresistibly watching Charlie once he had his pants on, though. Even though nothing had changed--not really, not in a way that mattered--he couldn't help wondering what else he'd missed about his brother all this time, couldn't help looking at him, trying to see where he'd kept these secrets hidden.

Charlie was still sprawled on his belly in the middle of Don's bed, legs splayed out, arms tucked under the pillow, his face obscured by a mass of curls. His t-shirt had ridden up, showing the dip and curve of the small of his back, and Don's eyes settled on that bared skin. It seemed strangely naked, exposed. Don fought the urge to cover him up, the weird sense that it was indecent--somehow dangerous--for Charlie to have those few inches of skin on display.

Don realized he was staring and turned away abruptly, going to the closet and pulling out a shirt at random. He buttoned it up on his way into the kitchen, started a pot of coffee, and went on into the living room to sit down with his files. He had a half-finished report somewhere from last night. He could work on it until the coffee was ready.

Once he'd had some coffee Don shifted operations to the kitchen table, and called the office to tell David--leave a message for David, since it was early yet--that he'd be late today, unless something came up, in which case he could be there in twenty minutes. Then he immersed himself in work, ignoring the niggling temptation to go check whether Charlie was still sleeping peacefully.

He glanced up when he heard a cupboard open and glanced over the growing stack of completed reports to see Charlie getting a mug down. His t-shirt pulled up when he reached for it, and Don dropped his gaze quickly, focusing on an expense report and listening to the coffee pouring. He looked up again when he heard the clinking of the spoon, Charlie stirring in his sugar, and Charlie gave him a little left-handed wave and a sheepish, tentative smile.

It was such a relief to see Charlie looking just embarrassed over this, as if it was something they could get past, that Don smiled back, though smiling sent a small twinge through the bruise on his jaw. Charlie didn't seem to notice it this morning; it really wasn't that bad. "Hey," Don said, "what do you think about going to school today? I've gotta go to the office and I don't like leaving you here by yourself."

Charlie rolled his eyes and sipped his coffee, but Don stuck to his guns. "No, Charlie, seriously--if anything happened, you couldn't call me. And if we needed you, I could call, but you couldn't tell me anything. Why don't you go to school, then at least there'll be people around. I mean, unless you want to come to the office with me."

Charlie shot Don a short glare at that last suggestion, but then he shrugged agreeably, took another sip of his coffee, and wandered toward the bathroom. "Your backpack's in the living room," Don called after him, "under the coffee table."

Charlie paused in the doorway and shot Don a curious look, but Don just shrugged and sipped his own coffee, and Charlie went into the living room to get his bag, and then into the bathroom. Don relaxed when he heard the shower start up--fifteen, twenty minutes until he had to see Charlie again. He could do this, they could do this, they could get past this thing. But it might be easier in small doses, for now.


Don stopped the car at the curb in front of Charlie's building, and caught Charlie's elbow as Charlie reached for the door handle. "You sure you don't want me to come in? I can tell Amita for you--"

Charlie was apparently bored with glaring; he only rolled his eyes as he flipped Don off. But Don could feel the tension in Charlie's arm, much more than what showed on his face. Whether it was because Charlie was annoyed, or because Charlie was nervous, or because Don was touching him, there was no way of knowing. He let go, and Charlie turned and got out of the car, giving a vague backward wave as he headed toward the steps. Don pulled away far enough to be out of sight of Charlie's windows, put the car in park, and pulled out his cell phone.

He had Amita in his speed dial. Charlie had a tendency to turn off his phone when he didn't want to be disturbed, so they occasionally had to recruit her to track him down. Two buttons, two rings, and she said, "Don?"

Don grinned. "Hey, Amita. Charlie's on his way in now, I just wanted to let you know. He's--" Even though he'd meant to, he found he couldn't say it. "He's not really a hundred percent today. Could you just stop by his office at some point, make sure he's okay?"

"Sure," she said, and Don could hear her humoring him. "I have some stuff I need him to sign off on anyway. Do you want me to call you if he doesn't eat all of his lunch?"

Don grinned. "Nah, he'll get mad if he knows I'm keeping tabs on him."

"But that won't stop you from actually keeping tabs on him." He could hear her smiling; when there weren't lives on the line, Amita tended to find him and his team pretty entertaining.

"What can I say, I'm his big brother," Don said, and as the words left his mouth he remembered Charlie's lips against his, and forgot how to breathe for a few seconds. He didn't hear what Amita said next, just the laughing tone of it.

"Well," he said, hoping it wasn't obviously the wrong answer. "I've gotta get to work. Thanks, Amita."

"Bye, Don," she said, and hung up. Don tucked his phone into his pocket and then sat staring out through the windshield at the hurrying students and strolling professors. His hands clenched tight on the steering wheel, and he tried to think about anything but that confused moment on the couch--paperwork, baseball, but nothing would stick in his mind against that memory. He knew just where Charlie's hand had cupped against the back of his neck, just how wide and dark Charlie's eyes had been, an inch from his own. The only thing he didn't know was how he could possibly have failed to know.

When a campus cop approached, holding a ticket pad and looking unprepared to be impressed by the government parking sticker on his windshield, Don pried a hand loose to wave acknowledgment and apology and put the car in gear.


Don walked in with his box of files and David glanced up casually. Don only saw him check out the bruise on his face because he was watching for it. In a perfectly even, conversational tone, David said, "How's Charlie?"

Don set the box down on David's desk and went over to the stack of files on his own. "He'll live," Don muttered. He could feel David watching him, but he knew he should play it oblivious, let David assume what he would. It wasn't like he'd guess the truth from the available evidence. Don hadn't guessed the truth, after all, even as it was happening.

He cleared his throat--not a fake cough, not even a fake throat-clearing, because between the weight of David's stare and the memory of Charlie's eyes, he felt like he was choking--and picked up the first report on the stack, flipping it open to review. When he heard David sorting through the box, Don counted another thirty seconds and then let himself relax.

The stupor of paperwork was soothingly repetitive, but like his drive from CalSci to the office, hours too late for rush hour, it required less of his attention than Don would have liked. Even when he focused on what he was doing much more than was remotely necessary, the events of the night before crept in at the edges of his consciousness, sense-memory crawling on his skin like an itch he couldn't scratch, slowly maddening.

He countersigned David's reports, and the night before he'd slept with Charlie beside him in his bed. He checked forms for completeness, and last night Charlie had kissed him. He reviewed the sections David had flagged, and last night he'd kissed Charlie right back.

After an hour with his mind running on parallel tracks, Don was starting to feel restless, overheated and disoriented, and wondered if he actually was getting sick. It might be a mercy. Maybe he could sleep through the weekend without drinking anything stronger than cough syrup.

He shied away from the thought of the weekend, two whole days without work for him or classes for Charlie. It wasn't like they couldn't both find things to do at their offices on a Saturday anyway. Then the assistant director called Don and David into his office, and Don allowed himself a small eager smile. A case was a reprieve; if there was a case he and David would keep working until it was solved, and he wouldn't have room or time to think of anything else. They'd be reviewing crime scene photos, visiting the scene, examining evidence, talking to witnesses...

It was a weeks-old multi-state fraud case.

Don wasn't actually surprised: like any law-enforcement agency, they dealt with more paper trails than blood trails, in terms of sheer volume. And Don's team had gotten a reputation for solving financial cases phenomenally quickly, thanks to Charlie; they were even more or less cost-effective, since Charlie never remembered to bill half his consulting hours. The forensic accountants on staff, for some reason, always insisted on being paid, and rarely came in after hours or on weekends.

Still, he had to force his obedient return smile when the AD motioned to the two file boxes full of evidence and said, "Well, I'm sure you'll have this wrapped up by dinner time."

"We'll do our best," he said, and picked up a box. David smiled and nodded and grabbed the other box. He followed Don down the hall and waited next to Don at the elevator in silence.

When they got in and the doors closed behind them, leaving them alone inside, Don finally looked over. David didn't look away, meeting his eyes with a searching look. "You want me to call him?" David said. "Or you wanna skip him on this one?"

"No," Don said, shifting the weight of files in his arms. It would be pages upon pages upon pages of numbers, the kind of thing Charlie would tear into like candy; there was no way it could upset him or stress him out, so Don couldn't pretend to himself that he needed to spare Charlie from this one. "No, I'll call him."

So much for that reprieve. Don tried to grasp at some faint hope that he'd be able to concentrate with Charlie around, because then he'd have to stop thinking about it, but he knew better. God, Charlie would look at him and know Don had been thinking about this all day, and then he'd freak out again, when this morning it had seemed like they could just forget it and move on... Maybe they could shut Charlie in the conference room and let him work. Maybe this case would yield someone to interrogate, someone Don could yell at, take this edginess out on. It wasn't anger--he wasn't mad at Charlie, this wasn't Charlie's fault, it was just a thing that had happened--but he was strung way too tight, and he'd have done just about anything for a chance to let loose on somebody who deserved it.

Don set the new file box down on his desk, shoving paperwork aside to make room, and David set the other one next to it. David immediately opened the boxes and started looking through the files, and Don walked a little way out of the cubes, toward the windows and decent cell reception. He speed-dialed Amita. "Don?" she said, cutting off the third ring. "Why didn't you tell me Charlie couldn't talk?"

Don rubbed his forehead and forced a small smile. He could see his reflection faintly in the window, the bruise shadowing his mouth; it was a poor effort. "I figured you'd find out soon enough."

Amita made a small sincerely amused noise, not quite a snort, and then said, "So, what's up? Does Charlie want me to come over there and help with something?"

Don turned sharply on his heel and looked around, quickly scanning the office. Theoretically, Charlie could have shown up in the last twenty minutes. Theoretically, Don might not have noticed, Charlie might have been here but hiding from him... He was walking toward the entry desk as he asked sharply, "When did he leave?"

Amita sounded a little taken aback. "At least an hour ago, I was--isn't he there?"

Don mouthed Charlie? at the guard and got a frown and a headshake, and said, "No, he's not." He tried to soften his voice as he walked back out of public territory; this wasn't an emergency, and of all the people he might be okay taking his mood out on, Amita was just about the last. "Did he say he was coming here? Leave a note?"

"It just said he had to go. I assumed--do you think he's okay?" She sounded worried; he'd scared her.

"I'm sure he's fine," he said firmly. It was true, as far as it went; he had no reason to think Charlie had done anything but make good on yesterday's threat to run away from home. Charlie had every reason to want to stay the hell away from him right now; apparently Don hadn't been the only one faking okay in the kitchen this morning. Charlie had kept this from him for sixteen years; Don should have known Charlie could fake an hour of calm. "I'll call him and tell him to send me a text message or something, but he probably just wants everybody out of his hair until he's better. Don't worry."

"Okay," Amita said, either dubious or distracted, "Call me if you need anything, or if there's anything I can do." Don hung up before it occurred to him that if Charlie wasn't available she could probably lend a hand with the case. It didn't feel right dragging her in for no reason, though. Charlie seemed to have adopted the FBI as his hobby, but Don didn't think Amita was quite that bored.

He dialed Charlie's phone, but it went straight to voice mail, as he could have predicted. "Charlie," he said, trying to keep his voice even, "call me when you get this." He had a feeling Charlie wasn't going to be turning his phone on until he felt like talking on it.

Don glanced across the cubicles toward his own desk. David was sitting down, sorting papers into stacks, flipping folders open and shut again quickly. Getting things ready for Charlie. Don leaned against a window, peering down at the street, and dialed his dad.

He picked up on the third ring. "Hello?" His voice was sharp, not-quite-worried, and Don realized it had been nearly a day since he'd taken Charlie and promised to call.

"Hey, Dad," Don said, and the smile came with the breezy tone, and felt just as false. "I was just calling to see how you're doing."

"How I'm doing? Who cares how I'm doing? There's nothing wrong with me. How's your brother?"

Don licked his lips and tried not to think about how Charlie was right now, or why. The question at least saved him from having to think of a way to ask whether Charlie had turned up there; he could skip straight to avoiding the truth. "He's doing okay. He's a little frustrated, but he went in to school today, wanted to get some work done."

"It's Friday," his dad said, "I'm making brisket, you boys should come for dinner."

Don winced. "Ah, actually we just got a fresh case, and I'm gonna need Charlie's help on it--we're probably going to be working late on this one."

"Oh," his dad said, "well. You could bring David, work over dinner..."

"No, no," Don said, "this--no. But maybe we'll come by tomorrow for lunch, make sandwiches, right?"

"Yeah, sure," his dad said, sounding resigned, but no more disappointed than usual. "There'll be plenty of leftovers."

"Okay, yeah, we'll do that," Don said, "I gotta go."

"Of course," his dad said, "go on, good luck."

"Thanks," Don said, and snapped his phone shut. He stayed there another minute, staring out the window without seeing anything. He'd driven Charlie to running off; he'd been the one Charlie could trust and now Charlie didn't trust anyone. And bad as it was, the relief was worse: he wasn't going to have to face Charlie until Charlie was ready to face him.

Don became conscious that he was just standing there, leaning against the window, and straightened up quickly. He had work to do. He couldn't allow Charlie to be his problem right now, not if there was nothing he could do.

He headed back over to his desk, and when David looked up inquiringly, he said lightly, "No luck. Charlie's gone off the grid."

David looked at Don for a second, and then said, not entirely serious and not quite joking, "You want me to get some people on that?"

Don was startled into an actual smile and said, "No, no. He hasn't actually violated his parole. He's entitled to turn his phone off without telling me where he's going once in a while."

David grinned and glanced down at the stacks of paper in front of him. "So we'll have to turn most of this over to the accountants downstairs, then."

"Probably," Don said, "but you know, there was a time when this office used to solve cases entirely without the assistance of Doctor Charles Eppes." He picked up one of David's stacks of folders and flipped open the top one: phone records.

"Huh," David said, lifting another pile of paper out of a box as Don pulled a highlighter out of his desk drawer. "You know, other field offices where I've been posted, we didn't even have a math genius."

Don glanced up at David and smiled again. "And you guys still closed cases, huh?"

"Once in a while we did," David said solemnly, so they settled down to give it a try.


Don got home late--he and David had the outlines of the case coming together, from good old paper-shuffling lead-chasing detective work, plus David's clever breakthrough with the phone records. They were probably still going to have the accountants check out some of the particulars, but they almost certainly had enough to get a couple of warrants--all of which, on a simple fraud case, was going to wait until Monday morning no matter what the director had said, unless something really unexpected happened over the weekend.

They went out for a celebratory drink afterward, and without Terry there, determined to drink them both under the table, it actually did wind up being just the one drink. But it was good: they had the bad guys as good as caught, and he and David sat a while and traded war zone stories over their drinks, David's from Tel Aviv and Don's from his six month stretch at the Detroit field office. By the time they headed home to their respective weekends, Don was feeling pretty good.

He could feel his relaxation evaporate the instant he stepped through the door of his apartment; his pulse jumped, and he fought the totally inappropriate impulse to reach for his gun. Don stood just inside, holding perfectly still and listening for any sign that Charlie had come back. When he didn't hear anything, he walked silently through the apartment in the failing light, not turning on any lights or touching anything. But Charlie wasn't there; it was just his apartment, nothing to show that anything out of the ordinary had happened.

There were two coffee mugs in the sink, though; that wasn't right. Don washed them both, focusing on the sponge in his hands and the smell of stale coffee rising up with the hot water, not thinking about anything else. He grabbed a towel and dried one mug, putting it back into the cupboard as though it had never been used. When he set the other mug on the dish rack, he realized he was thinking like this was a crime scene, trying to destroy the evidence. He was already ticking off a forensics checklist in his head: change the sheets, vacuum, check the bathroom...

Don stepped back from the sink and scrubbed his wet hands over his face. This was insane. It was nothing, certainly not a crime, it was just--but when Don tried to think about what had happened, face it squarely and be done with it, he shied away. Mentally, at first, shutting out the memory, the prickle of his skin and the hot unsettled feeling in his stomach, and then physically, striding quickly out of the kitchen. He didn't let himself think until he'd changed clothes and was lacing up his shoes, and then words battered through the roadblock: I don't think I can outrun this.

But that didn't mean he couldn't try.


Don ran long and hard enough to punish himself for whatever he'd done, until he could barely walk a steady line up the sidewalk, and his hands were unsteady when he unlocked the doors. He didn't hesitate this time, didn't look around the apartment, just flipped on the lights he needed as he staggered to the shower.

When the hot spray went cold, he washed up quickly, dried off and tucked the towel around his hips. He made it as far as the bed before he collapsed face down, and was awake just long enough to remember Charlie doing exactly the same thing, not even twenty-four hours before, in the very same spot.

His phone woke him up; he swatted at the alarm clock a couple of times and then realized his mistake and rolled out of bed, groping around until he found where he'd dropped his pants and pulled the phone from a pocket. He cleared his throat as he flipped the phone open, and said, "Eppes," as authoritatively as he could manage, kneeling naked on the floor of his bedroom.

"Hi," Charlie said, and the barely-restrained fear in his voice snapped Don awake like nothing else could. "Uh, I know this probably isn't the best time, but--I don't know exactly where I am, and I think I just heard gunshots in the parking lot."

Don pushed himself to his feet, ignoring the protest of his stiff muscles, and went to his dresser, yanking on underwear with the phone held between his ear and shoulder, then going back for his jeans. "What do you know about where you are?"

"Well, I'm in a motel," Charlie said, his voice steadying as he catalogued the facts. Don got his gun on and went back to the dresser for a pair of socks. "A really cheap one. I took the 30 bus from somewhere near campus, and then the 121, and then I walked a couple of blocks. I'm near enough to hear the freeway. I think this place is La Jolly something."

Don had half the transit maps for the greater Los Angeles area memorized; he'd spent enough time staring at them during the flu case. He had a pretty good idea of where Charlie was; he even had a vague memory of the motel sign, La Jolla something in faded paint and trashy neon, right off the freeway. "Okay, Charlie, I think I know where you are. Sit tight and I'll be there as soon as I can."

"Don," Charlie said, and Don could hear it coming. He'd have wished Charlie mute again if it would have stopped him. "I want to say--I really am--"

"Not now," he said, "let's just get you safe first. Stay away from the windows. Do you know what room you're in?"

"Seven," Charlie said instantly, because of course he'd remembered the number. "Don--"

"Not now," Don repeated, with a t-shirt in his hand that he couldn't put on until he put down the phone. "I'll be right there."


He drove as fast as he safely could through the sparse middle-of-the-night traffic, not so much because he thought Charlie was in imminent danger--he probably wasn't, though he obviously was scared, and not unreasonably--but because it required more concentration than driving slow. He didn't want to think about anything else, not when he was going to pick up Charlie, not now that Charlie could talk again.

Don winced at that thought; Charlie could talk, which meant Charlie would talk, and if Charlie insisted on talking about this thing--it wasn't that they would fight, because Don wasn't angry at him. But if Charlie kept trying to apologize, or, worse, explain, it wouldn't be over, it would be right there, between them, and if Charlie wouldn't just let it rest, if he wouldn't let Don forget...

He was changing lanes, sliding past an old beater cruising along at five under the speed limit, trying to think of how he was going to stop Charlie from talking about this. It was hard to shut Charlie up when he got going--and then Don saw himself doing just what he'd done the last time, grabbing Charlie and kissing him, and not stopping this time, holding on, pulling Charlie closer... His mouth went dry and heat flashed through him, and by the time he'd reached the left lane his heart was pounding a mile a minute, and he knew. This wasn't horror, this wasn't anger or disgust, and maybe it felt like being pinned down under fire, but that was just adrenaline. Fight, flight, fuck. Don knew this feeling. He wanted this. He wanted Charlie.

He managed to get back to the right lane, slowing down enough to drive with what attention he could spare and trying to catch his breath. This was what he'd been fighting for a little more than a day, and he knew it with an investigator's certainty; this was that moment when all the pieces fit and the explanation came clear. All the times he'd watched Charlie, all the times he'd noticed Charlie didn't seem to understand the concept of personal space and then decided he didn't mind... Hell, he'd slept with the math guy who'd consulted on his third case in Detroit, and called Charlie afterward, even though it was the middle of the night, because the math-babble made him homesick. But he'd never have known, never have let himself understand it or want it, if Charlie hadn't--but Charlie had, and now Don knew. Now Don wanted this.

He spotted the motel and headed for the next exit, trying to keep calm. He had to focus. It was possible that Charlie was in danger, and Don had to make sure he was okay before he could think about anything else. He watched for bus stop signs as he navigated toward the motel, and when he passed one he slowed down further, retracing the route Charlie must have walked that afternoon, doing his best to lose himself in an unfamiliar neighborhood--doing his best to lose Don.

Don pulled into the parking lot, driving slowly down the row to room seven and parking just outside. He glanced around, but the parking lot was quiet and still now; the fact that Charlie hadn't called him back in the time it took him to drive over suggested that whatever had happened was probably long since over. He got out of the car and went to the door, knocked and said quietly, "Charlie, it's me."

He heard the rattle of the chain and the scrape of the lock, and the door opened to show him Charlie, dressed the same as he had been the last time Don saw him. "Hey," Charlie said, meeting Don's eyes for the briefest possible instant before he looked away, keeping himself slightly behind the door. "I--uh, it was probably nothing, wasn't it? I shouldn't--"

"You did the right thing to call me," Don said firmly, keeping on his side of the doorway. Charlie was obviously over his earlier panic, and was right back to wanting to hide from Don more than anything else; this was not the time to push him. Don kept it strictly business. "Did you hear anything other than the gunshots?"

Charlie looked up at Don cautiously and then glanced past him, toward the darkest corner of the parking lot, and said, "There was some shouting, just before, and then pop pop pop, and tires squealing, and then nothing." His mouth twitched into a smile that didn't touch his eyes. "I didn't even think it was a gun, but I remembered how you said it's not nearly as loud when it's not in an enclosed space, and then I, uh," Charlie looked away again, losing steam, "I didn't hear anything else and I--I didn't know what to do."

"Charlie," Don said quietly, wanting to reach in and touch him, deterred by the fierce grip Charlie was keeping on the edge of the door, the defensive hunch of his shoulder. "Hey, buddy, look at me." Charlie looked up, and Don said, "I mean it, you did the right thing, okay? This is what you've got me for."

Charlie nodded, looking away again but holding his ground, neither shutting the door nor letting Don in; if they'd been at home, Charlie would have been in the garage by now, covered in chalk dust and still scribbling. Don put his hands behind his back to keep from reaching out, and said quietly, "I'm gonna go have a look around, okay? You just sit tight a minute." Charlie was turning away even as he spoke, and didn't quite slam the door on him. Don stood there a moment, looking out over the parking lot and reminding himself that Charlie was still Charlie, no matter what had happened in the last day, just as difficult as ever.

As he headed toward the corner of the parking lot Charlie had indicated, Don wondered how much of what he thought of as Charlie's quirks came from this thing Charlie had been sitting on for sixteen years--but that was the same as wondering how much this thing came from Charlie being a genius. Charlie was Charlie, and apparently Don was more like Charlie than he'd have thought, a day ago.

He spotted the tire marks first, and traced them back to a parking space. He could've wished for a flashlight, but a little circling turned up two shell casings and a few beer bottles' worth of broken glass. No blood, no sign that anything but a little light recklessness with firearms had gone on here tonight. He could have called LAPD to come and make sure, but he suspected they had better things to do than come and hunt down probably-nonexistent crimes with no apparent perps or victims and one semi-reliable witness who wasn't going to want to talk to them.

Don squinted across the parking lot at Charlie's door. The LAPD weren't the only ones Charlie wasn't going to want to talk to, but Don definitely had nothing better to do than try to sort this out, if Charlie would just listen...

It might be better if he was willing to just hold still, actually. Don couldn't see where talking was really helping the situation so far; he couldn't even think how to put this into words. He understood, suddenly, why Charlie had kept falling back on apologies; what else could you say? And if he'd thought Charlie couldn't possibly want this, the way Charlie had thought Don couldn't--

Don stopped short at Charlie's door, thinking that through. Judging from the last twenty-four hours, Charlie might not want to act on this, even if Don was interested. It was crazy to think they could do this--hell, it was illegal, but then it wasn't exactly the kind of illegal Don dealt with on a regular basis. It had been illegal for him to sleep with that guy who picked him up at that bar in Houston back when he was posted there, too, and that hadn't slowed them down. As long as this was what Charlie wanted, as long as Charlie wasn't getting hurt...

But first he had to give Charlie a chance to choose it. He tried to imagine opening his mouth and saying any of this, and then he figured--Charlie had managed to make it clear enough without saying a word. Don would just follow his brilliant brother's example.

He raised his hand to knock at the door, and then hesitated and tried the knob. It opened under his hand; Charlie hadn't bothered to lock it behind him. Don stepped inside. The lamp was turned on, and Charlie was sitting on the end of the bed, his head in his hands and his backpack at his feet. He didn't move when Don closed, locked, and chained the door, and Don allowed himself another minute's hesitation, his heart pounding faster as he realized that he was about to do this, he was about to walk across the room and--

Three strides and he was standing over Charlie. Don crouched down in front of him, steadying himself with a hand on Charlie's knee. Charlie raised his head, looking startled, as though he hadn't even heard Don come in. His lips were slightly parted, and Don leaned in and kissed him, letting the tip of his tongue trace the curve of Charlie's lip. Charlie held perfectly still under the kiss, frozen, and when Don pulled back, Charlie just stared, eyes wide. His mouth opened and closed soundlessly, and Don grinned, settling onto his knees, and slid one hand into Charlie's hair to pull him closer.

Charlie moved under Don's hand, leaning into the kiss, his mouth opening against Don's. Don held still for a moment as Charlie's lips brushed agonizingly lightly against his, Charlie's rapid breath filling his mouth, and then Charlie's hand caught his shoulder and held on tight, and Don leaned into the kiss. The touch of Charlie's tongue against his was a shock, sensation rushing straight to his groin, and this was really happening, he was really kissing Charlie, and he couldn't get enough. Charlie was still going slowly, his kisses less tentative but still gentle, but his hand on Don's shoulder was clenched hard enough to hurt.

Charlie sat back all at once, letting go of Don's shoulder and taking a deep breath. Don let his hand rest on the back of Charlie's neck, and Charlie didn't pull away further, his eyes searching Don's. "Are you--" Charlie managed. "Do you--I mean--"

Charlie's lips were wet, shining in the low yellow light of the cheap lamp. Don leaned up and kissed them lightly. "If this is what you want," he said, but that was as far as he got. Charlie froze under his hand and then pushed away, scrambling backward across the bed.

Don reacted automatically, catching Charlie's ankle, and Charlie fell onto his back on the bed and went still. Don let go instantly, but hauled himself up over Charlie, planting one knee between Charlie's legs, holding himself over Charlie as Charlie stared up at him, openmouthed but silent again. They were both still for a second, Don waiting for Charlie to pull away or start arguing, wondering what the hell he'd said. Charlie was breathing rapidly, but his eyes didn't quite meet Don's; he was staring at Don's mouth. Don nearly held his breath as Charlie raised one hand to his face. His thumb dragged along Don's lower lip, and Don closed his eyes; when Charlie's finger traced the edge of the bruise on his jaw, he opened them again.

"I'm s--" Charlie said, before Don lunged in and cut him off with another kiss, rougher this time, Charlie's mouth open and wet under his. He let his weight settle against Charlie's body, half on top of him. Charlie's hips bucked up under his thigh, and he could feel Charlie getting hard and ground down in answer, rubbing his dick against Charlie's hip. Charlie made a noise low in his throat at that, but it didn't sound like any kind of apology.

Don slid one hand into Charlie's hair, cradling the back of his head, and Charlie's hand slipped down from Don's face, across his shoulder and down his arm until his fingers tangled with Don's. Don held tight to Charlie's hand, pressing it to the mattress as Charlie's fingers dug into his skin. Charlie's free hand skidded down Don's side, and Don thrust against Charlie at the lightest touch. Charlie arched under him, and his fingers slid up under the hem of Don's t-shirt, and a siren screamed, sounding like it was right outside the door.

They jerked apart, Don rolling away and Charlie jumping right off the bed. The siren kept going--some part of Don's mind identified it as an ambulance rather than a patrol car, the tone was a little different--but Charlie kept backing up, his eyes shocked-wide and his chest heaving, and this time Don held still and let him go. Charlie stopped when he hit the wall, and raised a hand to his mouth, never looking away from Don as he pressed his fingertips to his lips. Don sat up slowly, trying to make his motions non-threatening and keeping his eyes on Charlie, but Charlie wasn't looking away, wasn't running, wasn't shutting him out. Don broke their shared stare, finally, glancing at the bedside clock. It was nearly three in the morning; no wonder everything seemed a little surreal.

Charlie cleared his throat, and when Don looked up at him he said, in a surprisingly normal voice, "Maybe we should go."

"Charlie," Don said, searching Charlie's eyes for some sign of whether this retreat was temporary or permanent, whether it was him Charlie was pulling away from or everything else, "you have to tell me--"

But Charlie was shaking his head. "Don, let's just--let's go, okay? I want to go now."

Don nodded. "Yeah, okay, let's go."


Don drove slower going back, with Charlie beside him, backpack in his lap. At first he rested his chin on top of it, but by the time Don turned down his own street, Charlie's head was tilted forward, his shoulders slumped. He sat up when Don turned the car off, blinking at Don's building, and Don realized he should have asked Charlie whether he wanted to go home. But Charlie unbuckled his seatbelt and got out of the car without saying anything, so Don followed him.

Don unlocked the door to his apartment with Charlie leaning on the wall, less than arm's reach away, and that seemed like a pretty good sign, but once he got inside Charlie headed for the living room, saying, "I'll take the couch, okay?"

Don stood in the doorway, watching Charlie untie his shoes, and said, "Yeah, if that's what you want."

Charlie looked up at him. The only light was from the streetlights outside the windows, but it showed him Charlie's eyes, blinking sleepily. Charlie shrugged out of his shirt and tossed it over the arm of the couch without any sign of self-consciousness. "Yeah," Charlie said, "Yeah, it's just--it's late."

Don nodded. "Night," he said, and retreated toward his bedroom. It was late, and neither he nor Charlie had had much sleep the last couple of nights, and--hell, Charlie had been waiting for this for sixteen years. Don couldn't blame him for wanting to have enough sleep under his belt to know he wasn't hallucinating it when it did happen, maybe a few days to get used to the idea. He undressed on autopilot and then hesitated, remembering Charlie lying in the bed waiting for him, thinking of what might still happen if Charlie changed his mind.

He crossed over to the left side of the bed, leaving his own usual spot open, an invitation Charlie wouldn't miss, and laid down facing the door. He blinked twice, struggling to keep his eyes focused on the space where Charlie might, theoretically, appear, and then he was asleep.


Don woke up on the wrong side of the bed to the sound of his alarm beeping. When his groping across the pillow failed to find the alarm clock, he opened his eyes. Charlie was standing next to his bed, holding his alarm clock and frowning. "It's Saturday," Charlie said, "you don't have to go in, do you?"

Don blinked at Charlie. "No," he managed after a minute marked by the steady beeping of the alarm, "not this early, at least."

Charlie nodded and flicked the alarm off, and Don settled his head back against the pillow, watching as Charlie set the alarm clock down and didn't leave. Charlie was wearing boxers and a faded t-shirt with a flaming dragon on it, and in the clear morning light, he still looked like everything Don wanted.

He was still frowning, and Don said, "Charlie?"

Charlie said, in a tone which suggested he'd been thinking about this a lot, "I'm not sure how to distinguish empirically between an offer and an invitation, and I can't decide whether the distinction is significant if the results come out the same."

Don thought longingly of coffee. He knew there was something he could say to reassure Charlie about this--he suspected he even knew what Charlie meant, that Charlie doubted Don really wanted this. In a few hours he might be able to make a joke--definitely a joke, right?--about not loving Charlie that much, but for now the best he could do was to flip back the sheet and scoot a few inches in Charlie's direction and say, "Buddy. Please."

Charlie blinked, and then his frown reversed all at once, and he was smiling like Don was the solution to some tricky equation. He crawled across the bed to where Don was, kicking the covers out of the way and planting his knees on either side of Don's hips, bracing his hands on Don's shoulders as he leaned down to kiss him. Charlie's hair brushed against Don's face, and Don closed his eyes as Charlie's lips settled against his. For a moment everything was still, and then Charlie tilted his head and opened his mouth and he definitely hadn't wasted the last sixteen years, because sometime in there Charlie had learned to kiss dirty.

Don made a choked-off sound, opening to the lewd wet thrust of Charlie's tongue, and reached for him. His hand landed on Charlie's thigh, hairy and warm and bare, Charlie's skin, Charlie in his bed. Don sucked at Charlie's tongue and slid his hand up until his fingers were under Charlie's faded old boxers. Charlie folded down over him, sitting down in Don's lap, his ass separated from Don's rapidly-hardening dick by a couple of thin layers of cotton. Charlie moaned as he rocked against it, and Don could feel Charlie's hard-on against his belly, jerking against him in little thrusts, but he wanted more skin than this.

He tried to break the kiss, but Charlie wouldn't let up, and for a moment the hot wet persistence of Charlie's mouth was all Don could think about, his dick throbbing at the possibilities. Don writhed under Charlie and Charlie rubbed against him and it was almost too good to interrupt, but Don had been taught to focus under adverse circumstances and he really, really wanted to get them both naked.

He got one hand on Charlie's hip and the other flat on the bed and pushed himself up to a sitting position with Charlie in his lap, breaking the kiss by sheer mechanical failure. Charlie raised his eyebrows, looking more impressed than startled, his lips red and wet. Don felt the prickle on his face from Charlie's stubble when he saw the reciprocal pinkness around Charlie's mouth, and he thought they were going to have to do something about that, but his hands were already moving, grabbing the hem of Charlie's shirt and tugging it up.

Charlie wiggled on Don's lap as he lifted his arms to have his shirt pulled off, and for a disconcerting second Don remembered that Charlie had always done that, always wiggled as his shirt was pulled off him. Then Charlie rocked back, grinding on him, a completely grown-up motion, as his fingers hooked into Don's t-shirt and pulled it up. Charlie kneeled up as he pulled Don's shirt off, and Don's hands went straight to his hips, his thumbs hooking in the elastic of Charlie's boxers as he pressed a kiss to the exposed jut of Charlie's hipbone. He could feel the heat of Charlie's dick straining the fabric beside his cheek, remembered the stubble-burn on Charlie's face and winced, sitting back as he eased Charlie's boxers down.

Don wrapped his hand around Charlie's dick, and heard Charlie catch his breath; when Don looked up Charlie had his eyes closed, but his mouth was open, the tip of his tongue visible at the corner. Charlie braced his hands on Don's shoulders as Don started to stroke, and Don had to look down again, watching his hand moving on Charlie's dick. There was a drop of wetness at the tip, and Don swiped his thumb across it, making Charlie shudder, his hips jerking. Don's mouth watered, and he was leaning in, and then Charlie shoved him back strongly, catching Don off guard and knocking him flat.

"My turn," Charlie announced breathlessly. Don wanted to say he wasn't finished with his turn yet, but then Charlie had always been like that, and Don had always let him have his way. Also, Charlie had Don's boxers off before Don had quite registered what was happening, and Charlie's mouth pressed against his, another kiss cutting off any possible protest as Charlie settled over him again, this time skin to skin all the way down.

Charlie thrust against him, his dick skidding across the skin of Don's stomach, Don's finding the groove of Charlie's hip, and Charlie's tongue stroked against his, hot and wet and forceful. Don slid his hands down the smooth skin of Charlie's back to the curves of his ass, and Charlie arched back into Don's palms, making a rumbly noise like yes that went straight to Don's dick. Don jerked up, seeking the friction of Charlie's skin, and hauled Charlie down against him, hooking one foot over the back of Charlie's knee to keep him there, and Charlie's mouth broke from Don's. For a second he was looking down at Don as he thrust, and Don could feel muscle bunching frantically under his hands, the heat of Charlie's dick moving against his skin, Charlie's rushing breath against his face, his eyes wide and wondering as they locked on Don's. Then his eyes fluttered shut and his head fell forward, and Don's lips pressed, oddly chastely, against Charlie's forehead as Charlie came all over his stomach.

When Charlie went still, his weight pressing Don into the mattress, Don turned his head aside. He caught his breath with his cheek against Charlie's forehead, and slid his hands to the small of Charlie's back, thrusting up against him experimentally, heat gathering impatiently in his groin. Charlie rolled off all at once, settling on his side, still leaning against Don. He dragged one hand through the splatters on Don's stomach and then curled it around Don's dick, stroking slowly. His grip was wet and tight, twisting a little on the upstroke, and took Don's breath away. He reached for Charlie's face, tugging Charlie close enough to kiss. Charlie's lips brushed across his, but he turned away again, Don's fingers sliding across his jaw, and Don realized it was because he wanted to watch. He closed his own eyes and gave it up, his hips jerking under Charlie's hand and Charlie's gaze, a groan catching in his throat, and Charlie muttered in his ear, "That is so cool."

Charlie's hand was still moving slowly on his dick, and Don exhaled a laugh, rubbing his cheek against Charlie's curls. Charlie had always been, in funny ways, easy to impress. "Cool, huh?"

Charlie finally looked up at him and grinned, wiping his hand on the sheet. "Very cool." He settled his chin on Don's shoulder and closed his eyes, and Don let his own eyes sink half-shut and watched the stillness of Charlie's face.

"Hey," he said softly, when enough time had passed that Charlie would be definitely asleep or not, and Charlie's eyelashes fluttered enough to show he'd heard, though he didn't bother to actually open his eyes. "When did you get your voice back?"

Charlie smiled a little, and then ducked his head, pressing his face into Don's shoulder. "Uh," he said, into Don's armpit, which kind of tickled and probably didn't smell that great, "about ten-thirty yesterday morning. Five minutes after Amita left to give my guest lecture to Hornung's undergraduate seminar."

Don frowned and squirmed around enough to dislodge Charlie so he could look him in the eye, getting one finger under Charlie's chin. He remembered the fury, fifteen years back but still fierce, and tried to keep it out of his voice. "Hornung as in that guy who called you a trained monkey when you were fourteen and said you'd never be good for anything but parlor tricks?"

Charlie blinked and nodded, and after a minute said, "I... didn't think you'd remember that."

Don remembered not to yell. "Charlie, you locked yourself in the garage and wouldn't eat. Mom was threatening to sue CalSci over this guy, and you do guest lectures for him?"

Charlie laid his head down again, on Don's chest this time, and said, "He's about a hundred years old. I keep hoping that some year when he starts arguing with me about what number theory is he'll work himself into a massive heart attack."

Don grinned, running his fingers through Charlie's hair, watching the curls recoil like living things, like the external signs of his busy brain. "Yeah? I never knew math was such a bloodthirsty field."

"You'd be surprised," Charlie muttered, and then, "Anyway, I won't anymore. I emailed the departmental secretary and told her I've got unavoidably conflicting scheduling for the rest of my tenure at CalSci."

"Good," Don said. "Y'know, if you need something to do, I've got this really great fraud case sitting on my desk."

Charlie snorted. "Uh-huh."

"It's interesting," Don insisted, because he knew it would be, to Charlie, once he caved and agreed to look at it. "David and I tried to check for the transaction patterns that you established in some of the earlier cases you worked on, but it's not fitting any of them. We think they may have found a novel way to pull this off."

Silence, and the minute scrape of Charlie's cheek against his chest; when Don took a breath he realized he could feel the brush of Charlie's eyelashes as he blinked. The brain was engaged. Charlie said, "Huh."

Don stretched a little beneath him, feeling warm and good, thinking about a shower, and some coffee, and maybe donuts, and having this case signed and sealed before Monday morning. "Tell you what," he said, as if Charlie still needed persuading. "If you figure it out in under fifteen minutes, I'll blow you in that unisex bathroom on the third floor."

Charlie went very still for a second, and then relaxed against Don again, fingertips tracing a not-quite-ticklish line down his ribs. "Yeah? What if it takes me, like, twenty minutes?"

Don smiled and curled his arm around Charlie's shoulders. "Hey, you're a genius. I'm sure you'll think of something."