Missing Persons

by Dira Sudis

{ Notes, Warnings }

Table of Contents

Part I

Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3

Part II

Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9

Part III

Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15

Part IV

Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18

Part V

Chapter 19 | Chapter 20 | Chapter 21 | Chapter 22 | Chapter 23 | Chapter 24 | Chapter 25

Part VI

Chapter 26 | Chapter 27


Chapter One

They had guns.

Charlie had gotten so used to people with guns that it didn't immediately strike him as strange--never mind threatening--and then the guns were pointed at him, and hard hands were yanking him off his bike. They barely let his feet touch the ground as they hustled him toward a car. He looked around desperately in the gray light before dawn, and saw only two other people, one on a bike and another walking.

He opened his mouth to yell--for help, as a warning--but someone hit him hard in the mouth. He was still seeing stars as a gun fired twice, very loud, very close to his ear. He saw the walker and the person on the bike both crumple to the ground as his mouth filled with blood, and he didn't even think about resisting further. A rough hand reached into his pocket, took his cell phone and tossed it to the ground with a small plastic clatter, and then they shoved Charlie into the backseat of the car.

No one had said a word.


Don heard about the mess at CalSci about ninety seconds after he got into the office that morning. The shootings kicked up jurisdictional issues out the ass with one body in the street and one on university property, and three or four different agencies were fighting over turf. So far, the Bureau was keeping its nose out. If the rumors floating around were true, though, about single-shot kills from a distance, sooner or later people would start thinking sniper, and then they'd be hauled in again. If it was another copycat, months after the last sniper case, kicking off another chain of copycats... Don didn't want to think about it.

Through the day, Don left Charlie a handful of voice mails: breezy, annoyed, teasing, and terse in succession, calling whenever he could spare enough time to get to a part of the office with decent cell reception. He and Terry and David were up to their necks in evidence for the Magruder case, trying to get warrants. Don knew it was stupid to be stealing attention from it to worry about Charlie--he was Dr. Charles Eppes, people would be talking about it if anything had happened to him, and they would be talking about it to Don--but it nagged at him anyway.

He went over to the house for dinner, hoping to see Charlie and stop thinking about the damn shootings, get his head back into his own work--or get the scoop on them, if Charlie had been incommunicado all day because he'd been sticking his nose into the case--but his dad said Charlie had been at school all day.

"He called last night at midnight and told me he was going to stop by his office for a few minutes before he came home," his dad said, waving a hand. "I locked the doors and went to bed. Charlie probably fell asleep at his desk. He does that sometimes when he's got a big project."

He gave Don a little look, like he was scrupulously not saying A big project involving math, not that you pay any attention to Charlie's work when it doesn't involve your work, which was a lot to not say in a split-second glance. Don heard it loud and clear anyway, including his dad's merciful decision not to get into it right then. "He'll come home when he gets hungry."

Don grinned. "He's not a cat, Dad."

He thought about mentioning the shootings, but bit his tongue. There was no need to worry his dad if he didn't know about it. It was early yet; maybe the rumors were wrong, maybe it wasn't any kind of sniper at all.

His dad smiled back and said, "No, he's a grown man, and he'll be here when he gets here. Now grab a couple of plates, dinner's almost ready."

They ate together, just Don and his dad, and Don soaked up his dad's total unconcern over everything. They talked about baseball, and about his mom, which they never did with Charlie. His dad told Don stories about when Don was little--before Charlie was born--and Don tried to remember the last time he'd hung out with his dad without Charlie around. It was kind of nice.

The doorbell rang as they were clearing off the table, and Don went to see who it was as his dad made up a plate to put in the fridge for Charlie. It was Amita, and she smiled as brightly as ever at Don. He smiled back automatically.

"Hey," Amita said, "I just needed to talk to your brother," and right then Don knew, even though Amita was still smiling, even though his dad was still humming in the kitchen.

He saw Amita's eyes widen as he said, "He wasn't at school today?"

He had to get his voice under control; that had come out harsh, unsteady. He had to be under control for this.

She shook her head, starting to look scared instead of just startled. "I haven't seen him all day--I tried calling twice, but he didn't answer, and Larry hasn't seen him--"

Behind him, his dad called out, "Don, who is it? Don't keep them standing on the doorstep there, you're as bad as your brother."

Don shut his eyes, shut out the sight of Amita's face, closed off the thought process--he should call local law enforcement, he should call Terry, he should give Charlie's cell a call just to rule it out--and put a calm, professional smile on his face.

"It's just Amita," he said, looking back at his dad's untroubled face. "Charlie gave her a message for me, that's all. I'm gonna go get him."

"Oh," his dad said, frowning slightly, but Don could see him dismiss it. "All right, then."

Don nodded, grabbed his keys, and stepped out onto the porch. Amita was still standing there, and she looked more scared than ever.

"Don," she said in a small voice.

"Come on," Don said, "I'm gonna want you to tell me everything you know in the car."


He called Terry, because it was still hours too early to call anybody in an official capacity without some kind of solid evidence. She didn't bother telling him any of the things he already knew about time frames and procedures, just said she'd meet him on campus. They checked Charlie's office first, and though it was a mess there was no sign of struggle. Nothing seemed to be missing. Charlie's backpack and jacket were gone. Amita checked some programs he'd left running on the computer and said it looked like he'd been there until around five in the morning.

They checked the nearest bike rack next. Amita seemed encouraged when they found Charlie's bike was gone, and Terry shot Don a grim look and sent her back inside, telling her to keep trying Charlie's cell phone.

"Okay," Terry said, when Amita was out of earshot. "So he took his bike from the rack and headed for home at five in the morning, and now it's been fourteen--"

"Closer to fifteen," Don muttered, looking around, checking the lines of sight to the bike rack.

"Close to fifteen hours," Terry finished, her voice clinical, steady, as if this was just a case. "If he'd been in some kind of accident, he'd have turned up by now, since he appears to have had his ID with him. If he decided on his own to disappear--"

"The shootings were over here," Don said, and started down the sidewalk, not quite letting himself break into a run. When he got out of the shadow of the building, he was looking out at the street and parking lot where the bodies had been found, and--

"Home's that way," Don said, pointing. "If Charlie took his bike from here and headed on a straight line toward the house, he'd have biked right through that parking lot at five in the morning."

"Word is the bodies were found about five-forty," Terry said. "So we've got at least a circumstantial connection."

Don started walking, and Terry followed him without saying a word. He passed one scuffed chalk outline and then another, skirting the remaining streamers of crime-scene tape. Don looked around desperately, trying to triangulate to--to what? To where Charlie's body had fallen? To--

He just stood there, staring into the falling darkness, his mind skipping from one possibility to the next: crime-scene snapshots of Charlie, bloodied, beaten, Charlie's wide eyes blank, Charlie, Charlie, and then Terry said, "Don," in a low, urgent voice. She'd gotten ahead of him, and when she started running, he had to sprint to catch up. When she stopped short between two cars, he nearly ran into her.

He didn't understand what was going on until she dropped to her knees, and when he crouched beside her, he heard it, saw it. Charlie's cell phone was vibrating on the asphalt, rattling in a slight indentation. Of course it was on vibrate, Charlie would never hear it if he was working, but usually he'd feel it in his pocket, or he'd leave it balanced somewhere and hear the clatter when it fell. Charlie complained sometimes that they should offer interesting vibration rhythms as well as ringtones, Charlie--

Don lunged for the phone, hand grasping for that tiny plastic connection to his brother, but Terry held him back. "Don, gloves."

She reached into her pocket for one and used it to pick up the vibrating phone. Don spotted the smear of blood on the blue plastic just as it went still.


Don sat down like his strings had been cut, right about the time the local PD showed up to check into this possible third crime scene to go with their murders. Terry took the liberty of calling the AD to alert him to the potential kidnapping case--Charlie being who he was, the AD didn't say a word about her calling him directly, just said he'd assign a couple of agents right away--while Don sat on a curb with his head down. Terry was tempted to join him, but one of them had to keep going, and if this was a real case--involving Don's baby brother--he really shouldn't be any closer to it than he absolutely had to be.

Terry was standing beside Amita, keeping a steadying hand on her shoulder as the police began to question her, when Don's phone started to ring. Terry squeezed Amita's shoulder and went to Don, who had taken his phone out of his pocket and was staring at it like he'd never seen it before.

"Don," she said, looking around for a police officer, wondering how they could record the ransom demand, "Don, is it--"

"It's my dad," he said. His voice sounded rusty, and he shut off the phone altogether, stopping the sound in mid-ring. "Probably wants to know where I am. Where Charlie is."

Terry looked away while Don buried his face in his hands, and then he said, "I'm going to have to--Terry, I have to go, I have to--"

"I'll drive," she said firmly. "You're in no condition."

Don just nodded, and she gave him a hand up. He let go as soon as he was on his feet. He didn't say a word, not to Terry, not to Special Agents Henne and Preston, who'd shown up and started taking over the scene, flashing their badges and pulling rank on the police--not even to Amita, who was trying desperately to hold herself together. Terry told Preston where they were going, and Preston gave Don an unhappily assessing look which Don, thankfully, didn't seem to notice. Preston took down the address and said he'd see her soon.

Terry kept her hand on Don's arm, guiding him through the parking lot to where she'd left her car. He buckled himself in and then sat frozen; she didn't think he was even breathing. She couldn't let herself think about what they were about to do. She'd had to deliver a lot of bad news in her career, but never like this. Never to family.

Don flinched when she turned off the car in front of the house, and she said softly, "Don, do you want me to tell him?"

Don shook his head. "I've got to. I can't let him hear it from someone else."

At any other time she would have objected to the idea that she was "someone else," but Don sounded like nothing but his resolve was holding him together and there was no point keeping him out here arguing about it.

Terry nodded and said, "I'll come in with you."

Don didn't object, or give any other sign that he'd heard her.

The front door was locked, though there were lights on in the living room. Don let them in, and they only made it as far as the foyer before Mr. Eppes appeared. "Don! I've been trying to call both of you, where have you--"

He stopped short when he spotted Terry, and gave her a puzzled smile. "Hello, Terry."

"Mr. Eppes," she said, nodding, and set her hand lightly at the small of Don's back.

"Dad," Don said, and Mr. Eppes' attention was immediately riveted on his son. Don's voice sounded broken, sounded naked like she'd never, ever heard it before, and he reached out a hand to his father. Mr. Eppes took it in a tight grip; she could see the tendons standing out in his wrist.

"Dad," Don repeated. "Dad, Charlie is--"

Mr. Eppes pressed his free hand over his mouth, his eyes widening as his face went sickly pale, and Terry could hear Don choking on the word missing while the word dead hung horribly almost-audible in the air.

"We believe he's been abducted," she said quickly, because she couldn't leave either of them to suffer until Don could get the words out. "He hasn't been seen since early this morning, and we found his phone near a crime scene. The investigation is getting underway right now."

Mr. Eppes stared at her blankly, and then pulled Don to him in a tight hug. Don leaned his head on his father's shoulder like a little boy. Terry could see him shaking, but stayed where she was, outside their two-man knot of grief. She heard Don say, "I'm sorry," in a faint, unsteady voice, but she had no idea who he might be apologizing to.

Charlie, probably, knowing Don.

"I'll go," she said quietly. "Don, don't forget to turn your phone back on."


It was a very strange sensation. Charlie could feel that he was cold, and he could feel the place where the inside of his elbow hurt because they'd stuck him with needles, and he could even feel the place where they'd hit him in the mouth hard enough to bleed, but he didn't care.

He didn't care about much of anything, but he could still think, in a slow scattered fuzzy way. He thought he had good reasons not to answer their questions, so he didn't. He giggled when they got angry with him, even though it wasn't exactly funny. He recited digits of pi whenever they asked for numbers, no matter what numbers they asked for. He knew a lot of digits of pi. Probably all the numbers anyone could want were in there somewhere, if you went on long enough.

They asked him a lot of things he didn't know--things nobody knew, codes and decryption keys, impossible things--but he never told them he didn't know. He had a feeling it was important for them to think he knew.

They dumped a bucket of water over him and left him shivering on a dirt floor until he started to care again, the giggles and the floating sensation ebbing away into the muddy floor. Caring was a sick cold feeling in the pit of his stomach, a throbbing behind his eyes, fear rising up to choke him--but he knew it was all just a matter of time. He was holding up his end. He was keeping them talking. He was staying alive, mostly unhurt. Don would be there soon. Don would find him.


Nobody had to tell Don not to go to work when there was a command post in the dining room, but Terry showed up around nine in the morning to tell him anyway.

"You're on leave for at least the rest of the week, no matter what, AD's orders," she said.

Don just nodded. He hadn't slept, but he'd showered and changed clothes and downed a lot of coffee and talked, one at a time, to Henne and Preston and Abrams and Cash, watched them come and go and make a lot of quiet, urgent phone calls. Everything was sharp-edged and remote. Charlie had been missing now for twenty-eight hours. There had been no ransom demand, no contact from the kidnappers.

Don wasn't allowed to touch the files being assembled six feet away. His father was handling production of coffee and breakfast for everyone in the house. Terry was crouching in front of him where he sat in an armchair, looking up at him intently.

"David and I have the Magruder case under control, don't even think about it."

"Yeah," Don said. "No, I won't."

A latex-gloved hand touched his shoulder, and Don looked up at a woman in a vaguely medical uniform.

"I need to take a sample," she said. "For DNA testing."

Don stared blankly for a moment before he nodded and rolled up his sleeve. Terry squeezed his shoulder and disappeared.


Larry's first impulse, when he came around the corner and spotted Amita sitting on the floor with her back against his office door and her face in her hands, was to flee. It might save steps, to go straight to Charles and ask him what on earth he'd done now, and get him to apologize before the star-crossed love of Doctors Eppes and Ramanujan destroyed the delicate departmental détente between Math and Physics.

He became distracted by the words--delicate departmental détente--and stopped walking, and then Amita looked up. She was pale, her face bare of makeup and tear-stained, her eyes red. Larry remembered abruptly--how could he have forgotten?--that Derek Albright from Applied Physics had been shot dead yesterday morning, along with an undergraduate named Casey from over in GeoSci. Just possibly, Amita and Charles' nascent romance was not the issue here.

He hurried across the short distance as Amita pushed herself to her feet, his mouth was open on a question he couldn't voice as Amita said, "Larry, the killers--they took Charlie."

His verbal skills never really blossomed under stress, but Larry knew he would think later that staring mutely at Amita, his mouth hanging open, was a particular low point. For now, he didn't care: Amita was crying again and Charles was lost.

Larry thought he should probably hug Amita, or at least bring her into his office, but she blocked his path to the door. He stood staring out the windows at the bright morning sunshine, listening to Amita's muffled sobs in the summer-silent corridor, thinking about all the things you could never really grasp when you first heard about them: black holes, an infinite universe, zero Kelvin. And this.


Don spent a couple of hours thinking of things Henne should be doing, and telling Henne to do them. After Don's dozenth good idea, Henne said, "Fuck, Eppes, I know how to do my job, let me do it!"

He ended on a near-shout that woke something Don had been trying to let sleep, and Don was swinging quicker than he could think. He'd have broken Henne's nose if his father hadn't caught his wrist, jerking him back and forcing him to turn away.

Don yanked out of his father's grip, rubbing his shoulder awkwardly with a hand that didn't want to uncurl from its fist, not looking at anyone, fury shaking through his veins. His father said, "Why don't you go outside for a little while, Don," and he went.

He knew there was nothing he could do. He just couldn't stand doing it.


Don was standing in the garage, looking at the chalkboards, when Henne came out to talk to him. Charlie had erased something sloppily on one of them, so there were broken bits of numbers around the edges. Don reached out and touched the smear of chalk dust, and when he took it away there were clean, empty spaces on the board where his fingers had been.

He turned around at a knock on the doorframe, and Henne was standing on the threshold, only a little warily.

"You wanna sit down?" Henne asked, gesturing vaguely toward Charlie's papasan chair. Don kicked over a milk crate and sat on that instead, letting his hands hang open between his knees, and Henne walked over and crouched in front of him, looking him steadily in the eye.

"We found the car they took him in," Henne said. He didn't sound happy about it, and Don was glad he hadn't been macho enough to stay on his feet for this. His stomach was somewhere around his shoes as it was. He covered his eyes with one hand and nodded, and Henne went on.

"It was abandoned in the parking lot of a 7-11 in Glendale. No surveillance tape, and we haven't found any witnesses yet. There was a small amount of blood in the back seat. The type matches Charlie's, we're still running the DNA comparison. We found fingerprints on the rear window. They were smeared, but we picked up partials, and they match Charlie's. They were the only useable prints we could pull from the entire vehicle."

Don looked up, trying to think. "Smeared, like--they started to wipe them off and didn't finish?" That could be good, if they were getting sloppy, or bad, if they were feeling pressed.

Henne's mouth went tight, and he shook his head a little. "Dragged," he said, clipping the word off sharply. "Three or four inches."

Don could see it, sickeningly clearly: the mark of a hand trying to gain purchase on a smooth surface, pulled away. He put his head in his hands and tried to push the image away, to think. Everything he wanted to suggest now--check tire tracks, check for stolen cars in the vicinity, check, check, check--Henne and Preston and the others who were actually seeing the evidence would already have thought and tried. Henne was only being polite, updating him like this.

"We're trying to run down the attendees of the lectures he gave last month on his work with you, but they were pretty much open to the public and no one's come forward to mention anyone suspicious yet. We're doing everything we can, Don, you gotta believe me."

"I know," Don said quietly. He did know; he'd watched enough of their activity to know. The case just wasn't breaking. No ransom demand, no contact, no sloppy trail of evidence, just Charlie's blood and prints in a car in Glendale.

"Thanks," he muttered, and Henne nodded, straightened up and left. Don waited until he was gone before he got up and stumbled as far as Charlie's chair, sinking down into its unsteady hollow and closing his eyes.


Sometime around thirty-six hours they found Charlie's backpack, abandoned on a public transit bus in North Hollywood. About the same time, Charlie's bike turned up at another bike rack on campus, a quarter of a mile from where they'd found his phone, locked up with Charlie's bike lock. That night, a plastic bag containing his clothes--right down to socks, shoes, and underwear--was found in a bathroom stall at LAX. The fingerprint and DNA searches for the spaces involved yielded up dozens of possibilities, a dizzying array. The prints were almost certain to be mostly worthless, and odds were good any real evidence would be lost in the noise. There were no prints or DNA on any of the items themselves except Charlie's.

There was blood on Charlie's shirt, and wrapped up in his jeans was a Ziploc bag full of what appeared to be Charlie's hair. It had all been cut, not pulled out, so there was no testable DNA.

Don looked at the plastic bag, the mess of dark disconnected curls under the harsh light, for barely a second. Then he turned and walked into the kitchen and threw up in the sink.


Charlie started answering their questions properly after they broke the little finger on his left hand (it wasn't fair for something so small to hurt so much, he couldn't believe how much it hurt, couldn't think of anything but how much it hurt and how many more fingers he had). He stammered and mumbled and repeated himself, making things up when he didn't know what they meant.

He only said "I don't know," when it wasn't true, I don't know, I don't know in time to the beat of his heart and the nauseating waves of pain. I don't know, I don't know, and it drowned out everything, even Don is coming, Don will find me.


At 4:59 AM--forty-seven hours and fifty-nine minutes after Charlie disappeared--Don was sitting on the edge of the tub in the bathroom he'd once shared with his brother, his cell phone in his hands. It hadn't rung since his father had last tried to call him.

The time turned over to 5:00 and Don held his breath, the bright white light of the overhead fixture seeming brighter, stinging his eyes. At 5:01 he tried to inhale and started to cry in wracking, painful sobs, inadequately muffled against his hands, even as he told himself that forty-eight hours didn't really mean anything. He didn't stop until he passed out on the floor, half from hyperventilation and half because he hadn't slept in days.

He woke up twelve hours later. His dad had tucked a folded towel under his head and covered him with a blanket, but Don hadn't missed anything. There were no new developments. Sixty hours in, Charlie was just as missing as he'd ever been.


Chapter Two

Charlie didn't know how long it had been since he'd slept, just that it was nineteen hours longer than however long they'd had him. He didn't know how long it had been since they'd poured that bucket of water over him, just that he'd have cheerfully killed any of them for a mouthful to drink. But he did know that he couldn't let them kill him before Don found him, so there were things Charlie couldn't say. He couldn't keep track of which things they were--he was beyond the hallucinatory sleep-deprivation of grad school, his consciousness going ragged, porous, fractal. He was teetering on some edge he didn't understand but feared profoundly (he was going to break, he was going to shatter like glass when he fell). His lips were cracked and bloody, his head pounding: dying of thirst was, yes, just like the hangover that finally killed you. There was no way he could keep track of what not to say, so he just didn't tell them anything, for all he said, and he knew the best way to sell a lie was to believe it.

He tried not to think about Don, because they hadn't mentioned Don yet--hadn't mentioned his family or his friends at all, and barely seemed to have any idea that he existed outside his work. It was like they thought he'd been spontaneously generated in the supercomputer room at CalSci and rented out to the FBI from there.

Charlie thought they might not know about Don, if they weren't using him to exert pressure. They might not know Don was coming. Charlie had an idea it might be better if no one knew Don was coming--they couldn't threaten him with things they didn't know, wouldn't guard against Don if they thought he wasn't coming. For all he wanted to be seven years old and yelling My brother will get you! he was a long way from the street he'd grown up on, and these men weren't neighborhood bullies.

When they started telling Charlie all about how they'd left no evidence, when they said, "No one's coming for you," he didn't tell them Don was coming. He was selling the lie, even to himself. When they said, "No one's coming for you," he believed them, and he'd have wept if he'd had enough water in his body to produce tears.


For a couple of days, they had too much tantalizing evidence, too many possibilities. Henne and Preston threw so much manpower at the various leads at CalSci and LAX and North Hollywood and Glendale that Don went back to work just so there would be someone in the office.

Terry and David were careful with him, watching him all the time, exchanging meaningful looks when they thought he couldn't see. Don did paperwork. In five-minute bursts the world seemed normal, and then he looked up, or breathed, or thought of Charlie, and the illusion shattered.

The team investigating Charlie's case had decamped from the house and set up in a conference room. Terry went over there to check on things every hour that day, coming back and updating Don each time. The next day she updated him six times. The day after that, the AD came down personally, holding a file, and Don said, "Whatcha got?" in a determinedly normal voice.

It was a murder case, a sixty-year-old woman, and they had a partial print at the scene and a witness statement. Don wondered whether they'd chosen the case on purpose, to be as different from Charlie's as possible, but he didn't care. It was something he could do.


He was cold, and naked, and there was something very painfully wrong with all the fingers of his left hand. His hand hurt less if he raised it higher than chest level--elevate injury above the heart, he knew that from somewhere, and it seemed like a good thing to know--so he curled up and rested his elbows on his knees, both hands spread over his head, which felt as cold and naked as any other part of him. His hair was a prickle against his palms, and the handcuffs joining his wrists were cold against his forehead. When he closed his eyes, he could see his pain as waves, sometimes as fractals; he knew the math to describe them, but he didn't know how he knew it. He didn't know his name.

He didn't know how long he'd been there. He didn't know why they were hurting him. When they asked him questions, even the ones he knew should be easy, he always answered, "I don't know," and he always told the truth.


Don turned around and a week had gone by. When he came to the house that night, Amita was sitting alone at the dining room table with a laptop and a stack of papers. For a moment he honestly expected Charlie to walk out of the kitchen and took a quick step toward the dining room, opening his mouth to call out, and then Amita looked up. Her face was strained and grave as he'd never seen it before, and Don knew Charlie wasn't in the kitchen. The recoil punched him hard, but he rode it out.

Amita stood, gesturing at the contents of the table, and said, hesitantly, "Charlie told me after my thesis defense that it gave him an idea, so I thought I should try to find--I thought, if he--if I could do something with it, it wouldn't get--"

Don nodded quickly, not wanting her to say that it shouldn't get lost like Charlie. Don looked down at Charlie's laptop, Charlie's notes, and felt sorry for Amita having to search out Charlie's half-formed thoughts in all of that. He remembered dimly that he'd left her crying with a police officer that first night, and he didn't think he'd seen her since.

Don moved closer, opening his mouth to ask her if she was all right and shutting it again without speaking. Of course she wasn't, and she'd either have no answer for the stupid question, or she'd have one he wouldn't know how to listen to. Don reached out, instead, setting a hand on her shoulder and squeezing gently.

Amita looked up at him, but he couldn't hold her gaze for more than a split second; his eyes were on his shoes as her hand covered his, and he held on for another few seconds before he pulled away, shoving his hands into his pockets.

When he glanced up, Amita was running the back of her hand under her eyes, tucking her hair behind her ears.

"Have you eaten?" he asked quietly, though he couldn't remember the last time he'd been hungry himself. "Can I get you anything?"

Amita shrugged, looking down at the computer.

"Your dad just left to pick up some things," she said, and Don nodded and went into the kitchen. He checked the fridge automatically, and there was beer, and he wanted one worse than anything, all of a sudden. He hadn't let himself all week, feeling vaguely and constantly on-duty as he had in the months before his mother died. He took two without letting himself think further on that comparison, and set one down next to Charlie's laptop as he walked past the table. Amita's fingers went still on the keys, and then he heard the scrape of her chair pushing back.

She followed him into the living room and said, "Thanks," with a small shaky smile when he opened the bottle for her. They were on their seconds, sitting in the living room without lights or the TV, when his dad came back, having collected Larry somewhere along the way. There was homemade stir fry, sometime after that, and Don ate enough to keep his father from looking too worried at him. There was also a baseball game, and a disjointed discussion of baseball with Larry that involved much more physics than Don remembered being involved in swinging a bat. Don couldn't follow a word of it, but he liked the sound of Larry's voice, the occasional gentle interjection from Amita and the rumble of his father's questions, so he found another game when the first one ended and stumbled to the kitchen for more beer.

No one left that night: Amita slept in the guest room, and Larry on the couch. Don slept in his own old room, and Charlie's bed stayed empty.


They closed the murder case. David and Terry took over most of the responsibility for interrogations after Don nearly blew the whole case by attacking their prime suspect. He worked twelve-hour days on their next three cases--armed robbery, triple murder, four rapes in Santa Monica--and they caught that guy before he got to a fifth because he didn't move out of the hot zone before they got there. This time it was Amita running the numbers, and David who leaned over her shoulder as she worked. Don just stayed the hell out of the way, waiting for somebody to point him at a suspect.

He saw Cash and Abrams around, working a string of murders downtown. He never saw Henne and Preston anymore, but Terry still went over there and got the status report every day or so. Every time she came back from that side of the building she told him that they were chasing this lead or that lead, but Don knew how to interpret interim reports like that. What they really meant was, 'We have no fucking clue.'

Don carefully avoided that entire side of the building, and he hit the gym, or the firing range, at least once a day, putting in some quality time with the heavy bag, or the human silhouettes. Getting himself thrown out of the Bureau for going after Henne wouldn't help anything, not that Don was any use to Charlie at this point anyway.

He couldn't put in too much mindless time, though. He'd start to remember the blood on Charlie's Why Yes, I Am A Rocket Scientist t-shirt ("Technically not true," Charlie had admitted, "but I think it's more about the spirit of the thing,") and it wasn't a lot of blood, just enough for a nosebleed or a badly split lip--even a tooth knocked out would have been more, and they hadn't found a tooth. Or he'd find himself thinking of that bag of curly hair (Charlie's head must be all stubble, like when he was six and tried to cut his own hair with safety scissors and wound up with an involuntary buzz cut--he'd cried the whole time at the barber's, no matter how hard Don tried to distract him, and all Don could think about anymore was that he'd been mostly embarrassed by the noise Charlie was making, not sorry his brother was scared and crying).

On nights when there was nothing to be done at work, he went to the house and was soundly beaten at chess by his father. Sometimes Larry was around, and he would play Don instead; they were strangely well-matched, and a game could last half the night, with his father going back and forth between them, kibbitzing and pre-empting their worst mistakes. The house was bad, too--Charlie's absence was everywhere--but easier, because at the house Don was the brave one, and he could function better when he focused on being strong and calm and competent for his dad, or Larry, or whoever else was around.


He'd been questioned by a lot of people, but his favorite was the new one standing over him now, holding a gun to his head as he lay flat on his back on the floor. This one seemed saner around the eyes than some of the others, despite the gun. When he said, "Give me one reason not to kill you, Know-Nothing," he seemed honestly willing to hear an answer.

"I'm a mathematician," he said, quickly considering and rejecting provisional adoption of the title Know-Nothing. He did know things. He knew a lot of numbers, for instance; in any quiet moment he was given they scrolled constantly across the backs of his eyelids. He seemed to be able to do a lot of things with them.

"You'd be surprised what you can do with math, especially if you're as good at it as I am."

The man behind the gun raised an eyebrow, though the gun didn't move. "So you know you're a genius," the man said quietly, thoughtfully.

"Yes," he replied firmly. He did know that. He just had time to think And apparently so do you before everything went starry-bright and then abruptly dark.


Don had dreams of finding Charlie's body.

He was at the beach, and Charlie's body washed up on shore, naked and battered and waterlogged. Or he was running, and saw familiar fingers peeping out from under a bush, a foot protruding from a culvert, a tarp-wrapped shape in a ditch. Or he walked down the stairs at the house one morning and Charlie was lying on the floor, back in his t-shirt and jeans, now liberally soaked with blood, curly head smashed or neck broken. There were a thousand variations, but he always woke up still feeling terribly, disgustingly relieved.

If Charlie was dead--if Don found him--then it would all be over, and the truth was that nothing was over yet. Don lay in the dark with the certainty, gut-deep and heavy as lead, that Charlie was out there somewhere, waiting to be found. He swung wildly between hating Henne and Preston so much he couldn't think straight--why hadn't they fucking found Charlie yet?--and being so sickeningly grateful to them for looking that he could hardly breathe.

No matter how he felt, he was too tired to feel it for long, and sank back into sleep just to dream again.


Terry came back from the other side of the building, late one night when nearly everyone else was gone, and Don knew as soon as he saw her face. He was on his feet and running before he had time to think, hands curling into fists. Terry bolted to intercept him, took him down with an expert trip and shoved him over onto his ass. He sat propped against a cubicle wall, gasping for breath that tasted faintly bitter.

"Shut up, Don," she said fiercely, bending over him, before he could even think of forming words. "Shut up. I know what you're going to say, and you know there's nothing they can do."

"They can't stop, they haven't found him yet," Don snarled. Inside he was screaming, because as long as somebody was looking it was okay if it wasn't him. He was doing his part by staying out of the way, as long as there was somebody on the case to stay out of the way of. If nobody was looking Charlie wouldn't get found, and Charlie was out there waiting--

"Sometimes people don't get found," Terry said ruthlessly, and when Don tried to push up she planted one hand in the middle of his chest with all her weight behind it. "Don, you know that and I know that. If it was a matter of wanting it badly enough, we'd find every single one, but sometimes we don't. It's been twenty-six days, and it's been eight since they had anything like a fresh lead. They're not closing the case, but there are other people out there who need finding, and we have to devote our people to the ones we have the best chances of getting to."

Don looked away, shut his eyes, forced himself to breathe. Terry was telling him the truth and he knew it, but Charlie wasn't dead. Charlie was out there, and if Don couldn't find him yet, well, that didn't mean he wouldn't. Charlie had left those fingerprints, holding on. He'd keep holding on, and sooner or later he'd leave another mark, something Don could use. Don would find him, but he needed the Bureau's resources to do it, and that meant he had to play like a good boy for a little while. He let his breath go out, let his chin drop, rubbed his face with one hand.

"He's my brother," Don said softly, and he didn't have to fake the tremor in his voice.

Terry's hand shifted up to his shoulder. He felt like an asshole selling her this bullshit surrender, but if she didn't believe it no one would.

"I know," she said softly. "Don, I know. I love Charlie too, we all do. And the minute there's a lead, we'll be doing everything we can to find him. But for right now..."

Don nodded and stayed quiet a minute, showing her how calm he could be before he said, "I could use dinner."

"You could use a stiff drink," Terry said, straightening up. "But dinner's not a bad chaser."


Alan stood at the stove, stirring slowly, and watched his son from the corner of his eye. Don was chopping vegetables with the same intense concentration he'd used the very first time he was allowed to stand on a chair and wield a paring knife. His eldest. Don had been their only for more than five years, before Charlie had come along, and now, after thirty-five years, his family was down to two again. It was all wrong this way, Margaret and Charlie leaving them behind, but what could he do? Don was all he had left now.

He watched Don's fingers and the knife, blade flashing steadily, and waited until Don had finished what he was doing and looked up.

"Dad?" he said, with a small troubled frown, the kind he used to wear when he was a little boy, when it was Alan's job to break bad news to Don, and not the other way around.

"Don," he said gently, because there were some things that always had to travel from a father to his son. "I spoke to Terry. She told me about Charlie's case."

Don looked away, set down the knife without a sound. "Dad, I--"

I'm sorry, Don would say, yet again, if Alan let him.

"Hush, Donnie, and listen to your father." Don looked up again, his eyes dark and shining. He and Charlie had just the same eyes. Alan swallowed hard. "Don, I want you to know that whatever you think you did wrong, whatever you think you did that makes you responsible for this--"

"He's my brother," Don said, looking down at his restless hands, "I'm responsible--"

"But that doesn't mean it's your fault," Alan said sharply. "And even if it were--"

Don looked up quickly at that, pale and wide-eyed, and Alan said, "Don, whatever you think, whatever you're telling yourself, I want you to know that if you think you need my forgiveness, you have it. And you would have Charlie's, too, if he knew you needed it."

Don stood there, frozen, and Alan moved toward him, set his hand on his son's face. When Don still didn't move, Alan stepped in and kissed his cheek. "I can't lose you both, Don. I can't."

Don whispered, "Dad," in so small a voice that Alan would not have heard it if he'd stepped back. Alan tried not to think that Don's was the only voice he would ever hear saying that word to him again, and closed his eyes tightly against the tears that threatened. He was a father; it was his job to be brave for his sons.


Charlie had been missing a month when Terry brought Don a kidnapping case.

"We don't have to," she said. "But I wasn't going to assume you couldn't."

"I'm good," Don promised her, and he was, he was good, he didn't throttle anyone, didn't throw up at the crime scene. They found the kid in just under twenty-seven hours, brought him home to his mom and dad wrapped in a complimentary FBI jacket.

They went out for drinks afterward, Don and Terry and David and a few other agents who'd been involved in the hunt. David made a phone call on the way over, and Amita met them at the bar. She sat close to David's side until the two of them wandered off to play darts. Don felt weirdly bereft, but glad that Amita had somebody to lean against. He wondered if she and Charlie had ever played darts. Probably not. Charlie would have gotten distracted and sat scribbling on napkins half the night, and at that moment Don missed his brother so powerfully he couldn't breathe, couldn't move. He sat staring blindly down at the table until the worst of it passed, downed his drink and poured another from the pitcher on the table, only slopping a little over his hand.

Henne and Preston stopped by after Don was well-insulated with alcohol. Henne bought a round, but kept a few people between him and Don at all times. Don could feel Terry watching him, and he knew what he had to do. He walked over to Henne, who was brave enough to stand his ground when he saw Don coming, and said, "I know you did what you could."

Henne shook his head. "I'm fucking sorry, man. Listen, we're keeping an eye on things, watching for more--" and Don just shook his head, even as he made a mental note to find some way to insert himself into that particular information loop.

"You did what you could," Don repeated, and held out his hand.

Henne took it in a firm grip, meeting his eyes steadily, intently, and said, "Yeah, I did. I swear to you I did."


It was quiet. Insidious. There was no announcement, no moment, but Don could feel everyone around him giving up. They talked about Charlie in the past tense--not so overtly as Charlie was, but they only told stories about what he used to do. No one talked about him being found, about him coming home. Don could see it: they all thought Charlie was dead. Everyone but Don, the last holdout. The statistical term, Don had known before Charlie ever told him, was outlier.

Don had learned the statistics back at Quantico. Forty-eight hours was the critical period. Likelihood of successful recovery declined at such a rate every six or twelve or twenty-four hours under textbook conditions. Thirty-four days out with no contact, the statistics said Charlie was dead.

Charlie had said that to him once. "Statistically, you're dead now." But Don had been alive to hear it.

So Charlie was dead, statistically speaking; well, so was Don. All that meant was that neither of them had anything left to lose, going by the numbers.


Don didn't bother trying to get access to Henne's files. Too much risk, too little reward. He needed to go on giving every appearance of being on an even keel. He couldn't draw attention to himself. They'd expect him to go after Henne's files, but he didn't think that Terry had lied to him, or that Henne was incompetent. If the break was there to be made, they'd have made it.

The FBI hadn't found Charlie; therefore, the FBI didn't have the information Don needed in order to find Charlie. It was out there somewhere, wherever Charlie was. Don started watching every regional and local information source he could get his hands on, waiting for the next hint to show up, the next set of fingerprints, the next clue to Charlie's whereabouts. Never at night, never when he was alone in the office. Never secretive, because no one else knew that the fine print of the Des Moines field office's monthly report had anything to do with Charlie and mostly, so far, it didn't. But Don was watching.

He started preparing in other ways, too, dusting off every little trick he'd picked up working fugitive recovery--half of them he'd used, and half had been used against him. It was delicate, secret work, but he worked in a building full of secrets; if you knew the system, you could camouflage your own with everyone else's. You could hide whole lives as long as they were paper-thin, whole people who were just pieces of plastic. Nobody was supposed to know, and the system could work to your advantage if you knew just how to use it. If you were willing to cheat.

Don could feel the line blurring like it had in the old days, between thinking like the bad guys and being like them. It had always gotten the job done, though, and that was all Don cared about now.


Forty days was traditionally meaningful, but Don didn't really want to get into a religious discussion with his dad by bringing that up. On the night after the fortieth day, Don went out alone to a bar he'd never been to with Charlie or anyone else he knew.

A woman with shiny blonde hair and a quiet smile bought his second drink; he bought her third. She seemed to like his silence--probably thought he was romantic and soulful, or something other than a hair away from completely losing his mind--so Don didn't exert himself to be charming. He let her tow him to a cab, later, though they'd hardly exchanged more words than drinks. He lost himself for a while, in her mouth and her hands and the soft wetness of her, but when she kissed him goodbye and left him lying in a rumpled motel bed, he thought that lost wasn't really what he'd needed to get.

He thought about going to his dad's, or his own apartment, but his fortieth night wasn't over yet, so Don rolled over and went to sleep instead.


He was backed into a corner with Charlie in front of him, and Don couldn't talk for the sudden swelling joy in his chest at the sight of Charlie, alive and whole and right there within arm's reach. But when Don smiled Charlie frowned, and when Don reached for him Charlie stepped in close but shrugged away the touch, shoving something hard against his stomach.

"Charlie," Don said, puzzled and pinned to the wall, still trying to reach for Charlie, to kiss Charlie's cheek as his father had kissed his, "Charlie?"

But Charlie wouldn't let Don touch him; Charlie was furious.

"If you really loved me you'd have found me by now," Charlie said, and then Don knew it was a dream, and that hurt almost as much as the realization that the hard thing against his stomach was a gun, that Charlie was holding a gun on him. Charlie tilted his head, giving him a clinically curious look as he pulled the trigger, and Don felt the bullet punch his insides out, right through a gaping hole beside his spine. He fell to the floor as Charlie backed away from him, and he knew he had to wake up before he bled to death or he'd die in the dream and out of it, but he didn't want to wake up while he could still see Charlie.

"Charlie," he whispered, and the word was a stabbing pain in his gut and a bubble of blood on his lips, "Charlie."

Charlie was still watching him with nothing but the most academic of interest, still just out of reach. Don raised a hand, trying to touch him, multiplying the pain, bringing forth another gush of blood, and his vision of Charlie darkened and darkened until Charlie was gone, and Don was blinking at the darkness of a dingy motel room, his arms clutched to his stomach as he gasped for breath.


He was undercover in his own life, and so far his cover was holding. It was easy in any long-term job undercover to forget the bigger goal, to think that just getting through each day undetected was an accomplishment. He felt flickers of that false pride from time to time, when he'd reviewed half a dozen potential sources and every one had come up empty, but he also hadn't gotten caught.

Charlie was still out there somewhere, and Don still didn't know where. Flying under the radar wouldn't do him any good if he never went anywhere, and it was time--maybe past time--to reconsider his approach. There was one place he hadn't looked yet, and on the fifty-third day he cracked and asked Henne to let him look at the files.

Henne agreed immediately, set Don up in a quiet conference room with boxes and boxes of stuff, and that more than anything told Don this was an active case in nothing more than name. If they'd had a damn thing they'd never leave the victim's brother alone with the case files, but Henne just said, "I'm sure you'll know what you're looking at. Holler if you see anything."

Most of it Don already knew in summary, so he got a kind of déjà vu seeing the raw form. Some of it he'd imagined but never seen, like an 8 by 10 closeup of Charlie's fingerprints on a car window, rimmed in gray dust.

In a box labeled LECTURES there was the original memo from the AD giving Charlie permission to speak and write about his work, provided he didn't discuss cases still under prosecution, changed all names and identifying details, refrained from giving enough information to spark copy-cats, and strictly avoided mentioning which FBI agents he worked with, or even that he regularly worked with the same ones. It had sounded logical at the time, but now it made Don sick to think that the AD had been worried about drawing attention to him.

They'd done a lot of brute-force work with that, trying to track down the people who'd attended Charlie's lectures, who might have learned from there what he was doing. All they'd figured out was that anybody who read English and had access to the internet could have found out the general content of Charlie's talks, to say nothing of when and where they were held, where he worked, and when he taught.

Don had meant to go to the lectures himself, but something had come up and kept him from the first one, and the second had been scheduled against the FBI baseball team's game against the LAFD. They couldn't spare Don against the firefighters, so he'd met Charlie and his dad afterward for drinks, and Charlie had been bright-eyed and enthusiastic, babbling on, still half in lecture mode. Their father, as Don recalled, had been more excited about the number of young women who'd stayed after the lecture to ask questions than about anything Charlie had said.

There were interviews and background checks on a dozen pretty young co-eds in the file box. What there wasn't was a scrap of evidence that any of them were in league with the person or persons unknown who'd snatched Charlie, killed two potential witnesses, and left no DNA or fingerprint evidence in the process.

The next box had a picture of Charlie on top of the folders, blown up from the photo already in Charlie's FBI file, the one from his--as it turned out, totally unnecessary--visitor's pass. Don had been there when they took it; it had been him, standing off to one side of the photographer, who Charlie had been squinting at uncertainly when the picture was taken. He remembered how excited he'd been, about Charlie's breakthrough, about solving that case. He and Charlie had saved a hell of a lot of lives together.

They just hadn't saved Charlie's. Yet.

The next folder, substantial but not overflowing, had Don's name scrawled on it. He sat down on the edge of the table as he opened it up, realizing even before he saw the words what it must be. It had never crossed his mind until then.

Most of the file was handwritten; there was nothing more formal than a few memos to and from the AD, and that was obscurely reassuring. Henne and Preston hadn't wanted to take it seriously either, though they hadn't overlooked the possibility. The first checklist was on a torn sheet of notebook paper in Preston's handwriting--he'd probably done it right at the crime scene, certainly before the sun came up the next morning.

DE--

MOT.
???

MET.
Trained, professional, no evidence, efficient kills
Could easily lure/overpower CE

OPP.
No alibi
Knew CE's habits, movements

Don remembered when he'd told Preston he didn't have an alibi, though Preston hadn't asked him for one and Don hadn't even thought of it in those terms--but he'd said that night that he'd left the office close to midnight, gone home to bed, and come back in at eight, hours after Charlie had been taken. He slept alone. He couldn't account for his whereabouts. He was a close family member with an intense and sometimes rocky relationship to the victim. He was more than capable of committing the crime. Don had held other people's grief-stricken family members for questioning with less cause.

He supposed they hadn't needed to haul him in. He'd been subdued and cooperative, and there had been enough agents around those first few days to effectively constitute house arrest. He remembered Terry showing up the first morning, telling him not to come to work--AD's orders. He flipped through the pages and found Preston's handwritten notes from an interview with Terry. Six o'clock the first morning, barely twenty-four hours after. Calm. Understands procedural necessity. Supports informal observation of DE. Says no fight/friction btw. DE-CE. Says DE genuinely shocked/hurt. Says she led DE to phone, DE did not appear to know it would be there. Says DE not involved.

He had to look away for a minute, out through the windows into the activity of the cubicles. He could almost see Henne's desk from here. Preston didn't seem to be around. For just a second, Don let himself actually think of Charlie, of the sheer crazy joy of solving crimes with his help, of all the time they'd spent together in the months Charlie had worked with them, and he wanted to hit whoever thought that all of that boiled down to no fight/friction btw. DE-CE.

But it did, for the purposes of the investigation. And Don, at least now that he'd had fifty-three days to calm the fuck down, understood procedural necessity as well as Terry did. He took a breath and continued through the folder for the sake of thoroughness, though he didn't think the fact that they'd cleared him would yield up any useful clues about Charlie's actual kidnappers.

There were a lot of elaborations on the theme of Don's theoretical ability to commit the crime, a lot of negative observations on his behavior--no sign of guilt, no sign of prior knowledge of case developments, no evidence of contact with theoretical conspirators, no movement of large sums of money. The file was finished out with a flurry of memos between Henne and Preston and the AD, dated the day before Don had come back to work, in which the agents assured the AD that Don was not under suspicion, had never been under suspicion on more than procedural grounds, and was perfectly safe to have working for the FBI without formal investigation.

All things considered, Don thought he probably owed them both at least a drink. They could have made those first few days worse for everyone--he didn't even want to think about how his father would have taken Don being arrested for Charlie's kidnapping or murder--and they hadn't.

Still, that folder left a bad taste in Don's mouth, an edgy, itchy restlessness creeping down his spine. He tucked the file back into its box and headed to the break room for coffee. He stayed in there for the first few sips, until the caffeine hit and the warmth sunk in, and he felt a little steadier. When he walked back to the conference room, Henne was standing in a cubicle aisle talking to another agent. He caught Don's eye as he passed, and Don raised his coffee slightly in salute.

He looked quickly through the rest of that box. There were folders for everybody--their dad, Larry, Amita, the entire CalSci Math Department, even Terry and David, complete with some rivalry-motive speculations that would have been kind of funny if Don didn't know Henne and Preston had been considering them in all seriousness as the reason Charlie might be missing or dead.

There was a box for each of the shooting victims, too, and Don felt faintly guilty for not having given them more thought; their murders remained as unsolved as Charlie's disappearance, though their deaths were entirely final. This was why he'd had to stay the hell away from the case while it was actually being investigated, this was exactly what no perspective meant, forgetting two murder victims in favor of the one more nebulously missing. But Henne and Preston hadn't forgotten. They'd investigated every possible angle and concluded, as Don had always assumed, that Casey Perez and Derek Albright had been killed because of Charlie, because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, so they had nothing to tell him either.

The only bright spot Don could find, after sixteen straight hours glutting himself on reams of mostly negative findings, was that there had never been a ransom demand, and there had never been any suggestion--even in the glare of hindsight--that anybody was stalking Charlie. That meant no frustrated kidnappers, and no personally obsessed nutjob. That meant whoever had taken Charlie had wanted Charlie, had wanted Dr. Charles Eppes, and Charlie, Don knew from professional experience, was worth keeping around. Charlie was more useful than 99.99% of kidnapping victims and that was why Charlie would still be alive when Don found him.


Charles' office was naturally kept locked in his absence. The departmental secretary had a key, but Larry had his CalSci ID, which worked just as well if you knew how to use it. Larry liked to keep in practice. He'd done it for Charles once, when he'd locked himself out for the third time in a week and couldn't bear asking the formidable Sarah Gantry to let him in again: after that Larry had considered that he had tacit permission to let himself in, present circumstances notwithstanding.

The dull roar of the first week of classes--which somehow penetrated even into the hallowed precincts of the Mathematics Department--was muffled as Larry locked the door behind him. He hadn't come here often since Charles had disappeared--had been abducted--but it was, oddly, a soothing place. Apart from a faint layer of dust, the office gave every impression that Charles had just stepped out and would be back any moment. His chalkboards had been left untouched, without even the protection of a Do not erase note, which alone suggested that he'd been gone only minutes or hours, not months.

Larry looked around for a moment, enjoying the peace, and then sat down at the worktable, resting his head on his crossed arms and staring at Charles' desk, still as cluttered as ever. When Larry had been a young physicist--drunk, sleep-deprived, and/or manic in the company of other young physicists--they had often joked about putting Schroedinger's paradox to an empirical test. It had only ever been a ridiculous idea: a thought experiment upon a thought experiment. They had all accepted, implicitly, that one could not (potentially) kill a cat to test an unprovable point of quantum theory. It would be cruel to the cat.

He had never before thought about what it would have been like if they had tried it: not for the poor cat, but for himself, standing outside that sealed container, not knowing whether the cat lived or died at any given moment, attempting to accept the quantum reality of the cat's dead-alive state while knowing that eventually they would open the box and discover either a feline corpse or the same cat they had last seen, safe and sound and prepared to spring out of the box and resume its cat routine.

Somewhere, under the-universe-only-knew what conditions, what odds of survival, Charles was Schroedinger's Mathematician: both dead and alive, so long as he remained unobserved. Larry closed his eyes on the cluttered desk, holding to his faith in quantum physics and observing nothing.


Chapter Three

On the fifty-eighth day, there seemed to be calendars everywhere, reminding him of the date. Don kept his eyes turned down, kept looking away. Terry was watching him; Terry knew why.

He could barely do paperwork. Every time he signed anything he had to date it, nine five zero five. Thirty years to the day after nine five seven five--the date Aunt Irene had embroidered on a soft yellow blanket--the date Don's life had changed forever. The date his father had lifted him up to the edge of a hospital bed and introduced him to his brother.

Don sat in a bar, buying drinks just often enough that no one encouraged him to move it along, barely tasting them. Fifty-eight days. They hadn't even begun to plan a party before it happened, though Don had made some threats on the basis of his own thirtieth birthday. He hadn't had the faintest idea what he was going to do for a present, and wouldn't have come up with anything until the weekend before, maybe the night before. Twenty-nine years of baseball cards and books with numbers on the covers. He'd been sure he could do better this year, sure that he and Charlie were really getting to know each other, working together.

So much for that. This year he hadn't gotten Charlie a present at all.

After midnight, Don stood on the sidewalk outside the bar, ran himself through a couple of field sobriety tests just to be sure, and then drove to his dad's. The house looked dark and quiet, and he let himself in with his key, walking softly toward the stairs only to stop short at flickering bright light in the living room. Charlie was on the TV screen, seven years old, his mouth moving without sound as he talked to their father behind the camera; Don could almost hear him.

Charlie's head turned abruptly, and he dashed away from the camera, and then Don could hear him, memory washing over him with almost hallucinatory clarity: it had been Charlie's seventh birthday, and Don had been twelve and bored and ignored. He'd climbed up a tree and onto the garage roof, and launched a paratrooper attack with GI Joes, including a couple of the new recruits Charlie had just unwrapped.

On the screen, Charlie ran toward the garage, into the bright plastic hail of action figures, screaming. Don remembered the rough shingles under his belly and elbows, remembered Charlie's high, thin voice yelling, "Don, stop it, stop it, you're killing them!" The picture jerked and Charlie was kneeling on the grass, gathering up GI Joes and clutching them protectively close, small and bright in the scratchy, faded image, his head down and his face invisible.

Don walked into the living room and sat down on the floor, a stack of video tapes between him and his father's knee. Twenty-three years ago Charlie bounced to his feet, laughing again with his arms full of toys, and ran.


Coop showed up two days later out of the blue, on his way from somewhere else to somewhere else. He called from an hour away. Don named a bar outside of town, and Coop said he'd be there when he got there. His father was watching him as he hung up his phone.

"David," Don said calmly. The lie was as smooth and easy as any he'd ever told undercover, and the easing of worry in his father's face was its own reward.

"I think it's girl trouble," Don added with a wink, and his father was drawn in, snorting a half-laugh.

"He should be talking to someone who knows something about it," his dad said.

Don just smiled. "I'll be home for dinner," he said, lightly, like there was no question of him not being home for dinner, and his father nodded.

He was at the front door when his father called from the kitchen doorway, "I love you, Don."

He looked back, wondering if he'd fooled his father for a second, if his father thought this might be the last time he'd see Don for weeks, months, forever, and was letting him go anyway.

"I love you too, Dad," he said, but he didn't quite pull off the smile.


Coop was there before him, and the bartender set their beers down as Don settled onto a stool.

"So, I heard," Coop said, and there was no need to say what he'd heard. "Came as soon as I could."

Don nodded. It was no wonder it'd taken a while for word to get to Coop; they'd ruled out any kind of public media appeal early on, knowing that the kind of professionals who had Charlie wouldn't be swayed by a tearful father but might be spooked by an angry brother in the FBI. Spooked kidnapers meant dead victims. Don's throat closed on the beer, and he set the glass down hard.

Coop's shoulder bumped his. "Kind of surprised to find you here, as a matter of fact."

And that was the reason Don had had to see him, no matter what his father was home thinking right now. Billy Cooper was the one person Don would never fool with the Dutiful Agent scam he was running.

"Yeah," Don said slowly, "Well, right now I got nowhere else to be."

Coop nodded at that. He might generally support going off half-cocked, as long as it meant going sooner, but Coop knew as well as Don did that Don was only going to get one shot at this thing. He had to sit tight and pull down every scrap of intel he could get before he made his move.

"You know Eddie's still in business, down in El Cajon."

Don nodded. Eddie was strictly gray market: guns and prescription drugs and anything else almost legal and totally untraceable. Information, too, when you put the right kind of squeeze on him, which was how Don and Coop had gotten to know him in the first place.

"If I need anything, I'll know where to find it," Don said. He'd want a weapon that wouldn't get back to him, or to anyone else, when the time came.

"Yeah," Coop said. "Figured you would."

Coop gave him a thoughtful, measuring look that reminded Don of the first day of their partnership, the skeptical way Coop had said, "So you're our new manhunter, huh?"

Don sat up a little straighter, and Coop gave him a small smile and a smaller nod, and started talking about baseball.

They finished their beers, and Don didn't ask whether Coop wanted another, but tapped his fingers against his empty glass and said, "I better get home."

"Yeah, I got places to be, unlike some people," Coop said. They walked out to the parking lot together, and hugged one-armed between their trucks. Coop grinned at Don as he unlocked his door. "Tell Charlie the next round's on him, next time I'm in town."

Don grinned, feeling the same anticipatory surge of adrenaline he'd always gotten from working with Coop, looking forward to a job about to go down. The certainty rushed through him that he could do this, he would do this, and he and Charlie and Coop would be back here drinking beers together somewhere down the road.

"I'll tell him," Don said, and Coop slammed his door and drove off without looking back.


When the break came on the seventy-third day, it wasn't the oblique reference or buried allusion Don had told himself to expect; it was right at the top of the daily Bureau briefing. He read it through, forcing himself to keep still and quiet, pressing his hands to his desk to keep them from shaking, and only looked up after he'd scanned it, carefully, three times. No one was looking at him. No one was shouting that this was it. No one else saw what Don was seeing.

Three days earlier, a coordinated crew of six had robbed a shipment of condemned cash headed for destruction from the Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis. They'd taken less than a quarter of the cash--close to $20 million, not a shabby payday--and had executed the robbery in slightly under two minutes. The driver of the armored truck had reported that one of the men had actually called off a countdown as they worked, which appeared to have been the limiting factor on how much money was taken. They'd gotten away clean, leaving no useable physical evidence. Their faces had been masked.

No one had used the word mathematical precision in describing the job in the briefing, but it was all Don could think of. This was the job Charlie had stopped the Charm School Boys from pulling, but this time it had been done right.

Don knew what he wanted to check next, but he also knew enough to know that this was the earliest of early indications. He had to risk a reality check before he spiraled off completely into investigation by wishful thinking.

"Terry."

Terry looked over her shoulder at him and then swiveled her chair in his direction, giving Don her undivided attention.

"What's up?"

Don tilted the briefing toward her. "You see this? Robbery of a shipment of cash headed out of a Federal Reserve bank for destruction?"

She nodded. "Little bit like the Charm School Boys, except there was no pattern of bank robberies leading up to it. So really not like the Charm School Boys at all."

Don nodded slowly. "Yeah, yeah. I guess not."

Terry was watching him closely now. "Don? You think it is?"

Don shrugged. "It's obviously not them, they're all in prison."

And not a conventional copycat, either: their bank robberies had made the papers, but the public had never heard about the biggest heist the Charm School Boys didn't pull off. He'd told Charlie a lot about how that went down, bragging to his wide-eyed baby brother.

Terry nodded, and then stood up and walked over to him, leaning over his chair without quite touching him, speaking too softly to be heard by anyone else.

"Don, how are you doing?"

Don blinked as he looked up at her, as clear-eyed and honest as he knew how to fake. "Terry--"

"Seriously, Don, I know you didn't get much time off, and Henne told me you finally went through the files--" finally, because obviously Terry, for one, had expected him to crack sooner. It might not be long now before she found out she'd been right. "So I want you to tell me, honestly, are you okay?"

Don let his shoulders slump, flipping the briefing shut as he looked away. Terry wouldn't expect him to be able to meet her eyes. "I--you know. Some days, I think I can--and then some days I can't think of anything but--he's still out there somewhere."

When he glanced up at Terry's face, he could see her being kind enough not to say out there somewhere in an unmarked grave, probably.

"Okay," she said finally. "If you want to talk about anything, I'm here, all right?"

Don nodded, and Terry touched his shoulder in passing on her way back to her desk. He set the briefing on a stack of papers and left it there for a day and a half, as though it didn't matter at all. He didn't research anything but their current case from his computer.


At home that night, he started putting it together from publicly available wire reports. There had been no neat pattern of bank robberies leading up to the big heist, but there had been bank robberies.

Four in northern Missouri, all in different cities, in the three weeks before the hit on the armored truck. Eight in Arkansas, three in Southern Indiana, four in western Kentucky and two in western Tennessee. The same MO was shared between no more than two of them. There was no pattern to the frequency or locations.

They'd scored anywhere from two hundred to six thousand dollars, and though some had involved brandished weapons, none had resulted in injuries to bystanders, so in the absence of a pattern they wouldn't be top investigative priorities. They were in different states, local to different FBI field offices, being investigated by a total of eight different agencies, none of which seemed to be talking to each other yet. But they were nearly all inside the St. Louis Fed District, and had all taken place at least four weeks after Charlie was taken and ended two days before the hit on the armored truck, and they were all unsolved.

Charlie had told him once, quite confidently, that bank robbers stuck with a pattern; here were bank robbers who didn't. Charlie had used the pattern to catch the Charm School Boys, but whoever had pulled off these robberies wasn't leaving that kind of trail, and wasn't getting caught.

It was a lot of information, taken together, and it all pointed to a coordinated op planned by someone who was too smart to leave a trail and knew how to get the information they'd need to hit a Federal Reserve shipment. It had Charlie written all over it, but Don didn't think he could--or should--go to Terry and tell her that his evidence was that there was no evidence, the pattern was that there was no pattern.

Even if anyone did believe him--if they accepted that Charlie might be alive, if Don wasn't just strongly encouraged to take a good long leave to get over his brother's death--it would be the same as the original investigation all over again. No one who knew Charlie would have anything to do with it, no one who cared about him, no one whose first priority was getting him out safely.

They would, in fact, want to arrest whoever was responsible for planning these crimes. Don didn't like the thought of Charlie in prison one bit more than he liked the thought of Charlie wherever he was now. If Charlie was doing this, he was under duress, maybe suffering from some kind of Stockholm Syndrome, whatever. Charlie needed rescuing, not arresting, and as long as Don was the only one looking into this, he could make those kinds of decisions.

It wasn't like he had any privileged information, anyway; if the people actually investigating these crimes managed to solve them, then they'd find Charlie, and Don would probably thank them for it. But if Charlie was as smart and as good as Don thought he was, nobody else was going to find him.

"Just let me find you, buddy," Don muttered, and then he realized he was talking to his computer, shut it down, and went to bed.


He couldn't act on a single data point, no matter how big it was: after a job like that they'd be long gone, and with $20 million in untraceable cash, they'd have no trouble going just about anywhere. Despite the payday, Don had a feeling that whoever had Charlie wasn't going to want to stop now. They knew what he could do. If they were smart, the next one wouldn't be so high-profile, but they'd pull something else. If Don could find the next crime, maybe he could get a handle on how to find them. Find Charlie.

On the eighty-first day he spotted it: a media report of a robbery three days prior, four armed men cleaning out an illegal high-stakes poker game in Denver. It was estimated they'd made off with close to two million dollars in cash, and naturally, despite the number of witnesses no one had come forward with useful information to identify the thieves. They'd left no evidence, and from what sketchy evidence local law enforcement had put together, they'd pulled the job off like clockwork.

Two data points formed a long and wobbly line in this case, but it was enough for Don to set things in motion. He'd already done most of the background work, but now it was time to get serious. Once he filled out his forms and spoke to the AD--assuring the man he'd speak to Terry and David himself, make sure they were up to speed--the clock was ticking. He was on his way.


The last two weeks were the trickiest. He was already committed but had to wait, had to keep his cool, and he had to continue looking for more information. Terry had an eye on him these days--waiting for the explosion--and if she found out before he was gone, she'd stop him. Luckily they got slammed with cases, one after another--a double murder and then another kidnapping, and this one took four horrible days to solve, following which Don slept twenty-four hours straight without dreaming at all.

When he woke up, he staggered straight to his computer to start prowling his usual news sources for signs of Charlie. It took him less than an hour to find a hotel robbery in Casper, Wyoming that had what Don was starting to consider the hallmarks of one of Charlie's jobs: it involved three men, none of whom matched the vague descriptions from the other two jobs any more than the rest of the population. Nothing about the MO connected it to the armored truck job or the heist in Denver, though Don thought it had a similar feel to one of the bank robberies in Kentucky, nothing he could have put into words. They'd gotten away with about $100,000 and various valuables estimated at twice that. Police had no leads.

Don was starting to feel weirdly proud of this string of slick, competent crimes. Mainly, he supposed, it was the habit of being proud of anything Charlie did. Partly it was the pride of knowing he was the only one who saw the connection between them. But partly...

This was how he'd commit crimes, if he were going to. You couldn't help thinking about it, when your job was to exploit the mistakes the bad guys made. After ten years, he knew just about every trick in the book, but he didn't know how to catch these guys--certainly he'd never be able to make a prosecution stick for most of them--and he had to admire that.

Their only mistake had been taking Don's brother, really--because Don wasn't going to stop until he'd taken Charlie back.


Alan woke up when the door opened, and he had a moment of sleepy confusion--Don was standing in the doorway, must have had a bad dream--but the Don in his doorway was far too tall to have come to him when he couldn't sleep. Or at least, he hadn't, not any time in the last twenty-nine years.

"Don," he said softly, and Don came inside, a dark blur in the dark room.

He crouched at the side of the bed, and when Alan reached to turn on the bedside light, Don reached out a hand to stop him.

"Don't," he said quietly, and his voice sounded strange. Not so far from that brave but frightened six-year-old after all. "Dad, I have to--"

And Alan knew, right then, that he was about to lose the only son he had left. He caught Don's wrist, unable to say a word.

Don shook his head, but didn't pull away from his father's grip. "Dad, I think there's a chance--like, a crazy, win-the-lottery kind of chance--that Charlie is still alive."

Alan caught his breath; it hurt to hope for that, to think of what Charlie's life might be like right now if he was still alive, and Don was talking about a big gamble for even that much.

"And I think there's a chance--like a struck-by-lightning-while-holding-the-winning-ticket chance--that I can find him. Dad, I think I can find him. I can bring him home."

Alan could see that, dreamlike and vivid: a slip-of-paper victory burning to ash in Don's lightning-struck fingers. He couldn't imagine Don bringing Charlie home at all.

"Donnie, don't do this. I can't lose both of you."

Don shook his head. Stubborn, always stubborn. Why had they ever told their little boy that he had to look out for his baby brother? Why had he ever listened?

"Dad, I have to. If there's a chance and I didn't try--"

And yet Alan couldn't bring himself to say to his son, There's no chance. Even to himself, he couldn't say Charlie is dead. And if Alan couldn't pull him back from this, then Don was already lost. Alan could see it clearly there in the dark, and maybe he'd always known it. Maybe Don had been lost to him from the moment Charlie was taken. Maybe it had all been borrowed time since then.

He raised his hand from Don's wrist to his cheek, and his son smiled unsteadily under his hand.

"I can't stop you," he said softly. Don's smile winked out.

Alan leaned up on one elbow. "Go with God," he said softly. "Find your brother. I love you both."

Don bowed his head, and Alan pressed a kiss to his hair, as dark and soft as the day he was born. Then he lay back and closed his eyes, and did not watch his son go away.


There was something unspeakably terrible about the sight of Don's desk, empty and clean. Terry forced herself to keep walking, and sat down in her own desk chair only a little hurriedly. There was an envelope tucked under her keyboard, a proper memo dated twelve days before, from Don to her and David, notifying them of his upcoming indefinite leave of absence. On a Post-It, in smudgy pencil, he'd written, I couldn't tell you. You'd have stopped me.

He hadn't resigned, then: that was something. He was allowing for the possibility that he'd come back. The Post-It, on the other hand, was alarming. She tore it from the page, crumpled it and shoved it in her pocket; eating it or burning it would be far too conspicuous. Then she picked up her purse and briefcase and walked right back out of the office, leaving David to find out for himself when he got in.

She drove over to the Eppes' house, quietly and methodically cursing morning traffic for the entire hour it took. When she knocked at the door, she had to wait a few minutes before Mr. Eppes answered. He gave her an almost wary look, but said rather lightly, "I'm sorry, Terry, but Don can't come out to play today."

She smiled almost despite herself. "Can I come in? Just for a second?"

"For a whole minute, if you want," he said, stepping back from the door.

She waited only until he closed the door behind her to ask, "Do you know where Don is?"

He didn't look surprised, or caught out. "He's visiting friends. Up in Minnesota, I think it was. Getting away for a while, trying to deal with things. It's been hard for him."

Terry nodded. He had his story straight. He'd protect Don as surely as she would.

"Good," she said, "Minnesota, with friends, that's a good place for him to be."

Mr. Eppes nodded, and when he offered her a coffee for the road, she accepted. He made it with milk and sugar, just the way she liked it, and it was a damn sight better than what she could get at the office.


Don had had a bag of IDs and cash in a storage locker, just waiting, for weeks. He cleared that out in the middle of the night, and by the time the sun came up he was officially in the wind. He had a choice of names to use, personas of varying stability, even one he'd used before in case he wanted a little history.

Two of the IDs he carried had Charlie's face and stats, just in case Charlie needed someone else to be when this was over.

He drove down to Eddie's, and he saw Eddie notice that he wasn't flashing his badge or asking for information. Eddie nodded, and Don nodded back, looking down at the case of handguns.

"See anything you want?" Eddie asked, after Don had been staring for a few minutes and the only other customer in the store had edged away.

He wanted his Glock. It fit in his hand like an old friend; he'd fired a good thousand rounds with it in the last three months, thanks nearly entirely to the shooting range. It had his fingerprints all over it, inside and out, and it was publicly and traceably registered to Don Eppes, backed by his ten years' exemplary service with the Bureau. Even if it weren't traced, it was FBI standard and might as well say FED on the side in letters of fire.

It was safe in his apartment with his badge, and Don had to fight through a moment like looking down from a rooftop, wanting so bad to go back and get it, get both of them, find some way to make this work on the level despite everything he'd done to get this far. Maybe, maybe he could keep control of the situation, maybe he could make it come out right, if he got lucky, if they listened, if--

But maybe wasn't enough, not when it was Charlie on the line. Don had already made his choice a thousand times, but he stood staring down at the array of weapons available to him and had to make it again. He was about to buy an unregistered handgun under a false identity without observing any kind of waiting period. It wasn't exactly the heat of the moment, rubber meeting the road, but this was the moment he had to make his choice for good.

Don took a deep breath and forgot all about his Glock and his badge. They were behind him now.

He tapped the glass decisively. "The Sig."

It was still a cop's gun, but he'd be damned if he'd carry some nickel-plated gangbanger's toy. "And I'm gonna need a car, something that won't light up every hot sheet from here to Vancouver."

Eddie had a little Honda that fit the bill, and Don's bag of IDs fit into a pocket of the duffle bag he filled with clothes, ammunition, and a backup weapon. The Sig rested under his arm, shoulder-holstered; it felt huge and awkward, but he knew by the time he got where he was going, he'd only notice its absence. It only took him ten minutes to find the hiding place already concealed in the backseat by the last criminal to own this car, thirty seconds to stash his and Charlie's real identification inside where nobody but a fucking narc would find it.

He was on the road barely after daylight, headed east, toward Charlie.


He'd chosen Chicago half randomly--because random was the name of the game--but he'd had his reasons, too. It was a big city, and Don had a better idea of how to operate in big cities than anywhere else. It was inside the territory of the crimes committed so far, which had stayed off the coasts and out of the Southwest, but not a city they'd hit yet. They were going through a lot of personnel, changing crews to keep from attracting attention, and that was going to create a pretty big footprint at a certain level. If they stuck with that technique, they were going to keep going through a lot of personnel, and if Don was in position when they worked their way around to Chicago, he just might manage to be one of them.

It felt almost easy; he knew the kinds of places to go, the attitude to adopt, the things to say to the people who talked to him. Inside of five days (after he'd found word of a robbery in Des Moines, new faces, no leads, a quick million dollars) he was standing behind a middle-tier dealer named Dre, watching over a drug deal, the Sig comfortable in its holster. He'd loaded it with gloves on, no prints on the rounds.

Eleven days later he'd shepherded half his body weight in coke safely onto the streets of Chicago and found newspaper accounts of two more robberies, one in Milwaukee, one in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati job was worrying him: it had included a murder, one of the robbers shooting a security guard in the head on the way out. It was unnecessary, sloppy. He would bet anything they hadn't listened to Charlie on that, and if they weren't listening to Charlie, Charlie was in more danger than ever.

But Don wasn't thinking about that now; he was watching another deal going down, keeping an eye on the other side's guns, because that was his job. When the shouting started and the weapons came out, he pushed Dre behind him with one hand and pulled the Sig with the other, because he was working on autopilot, because he'd had ten years of practice pushing people behind him. And when he saw a gun taking aim--light flashing on the nickel-plating--he brought the Sig down and fired for center of body mass, dropped the shooter cleanly.

They hustled out of there and he didn't think about it, because he'd had years of practice at that part, too. Dre kept thanking him, and Don kept brushing it off. It wasn't until later, until he was back in the bare little room where he was sleeping these days, that he let himself think.

He'd just killed someone--hardly more than a kid, carrying a flashy gangbanger's gun--and not in the line of duty, but to protect a drug dealer, a drug dealer who was paying Don to do that sort of thing so he could go on selling poison to Chicago's kids.

He tried to think about it, poking at what he'd done like a bruise, like skin scraped raw or gashed open. He could see the kid, but only as a body on a slab, a photo tacked up on a bulletin board; in Don's memory he was just a blur eclipsed by the flash of light off his weapon. He thought of the cops who would investigate, who would go down to some south side neighborhood to tell a mother or sister or girlfriend, who would do their best but find nothing: ballistics would be a dead end, forensics at the scene too confused by the crowd who'd been present, witnesses willing to talk as plentiful as free lunches for footsore detectives.

He could only see it as a case; a frustrating one, one that would make him angry with everyone from himself to his team to forensics to--to Charlie--because of the unfairness of it, because no one should get away with a murder just because the victim had been the wrong kind of guy. The thought of having Charlie around to be angry at caught his imagination more than the man he'd killed, and Don put his head in his hands.

He couldn't detach himself from this. This victim wasn't his to investigate, his to champion; he'd killed that kid, he was the perp, the murderer. Don shuddered as it finally, finally hit him, like a physical thing, like a punch in the gut. He felt sick, felt pained, doubling over with his arms wrapped around himself, gasping for air. He'd killed somebody. He'd done this thing, he'd turned his back on everything he'd ever been, and still he couldn't hold that poor dead kid (a life, snuffed out, ended, over forever, just like that, and who knew what he might have been if Don hadn't--) in his mind. Still it was Charlie he kept thinking of.

The sick stabbing pain in his belly was just like he'd dreamed: Charlie whispering "If you loved me you'd have found me by now,", and it felt a little like dying already.

He was a murderer now, a dealer's hired gun. That was what he was capable of, if it meant getting to Charlie--and after tonight, he'd be Dre's favorite. Information, introductions, it would all be a hell of a lot easier to come by, and all he'd had to do was kill some kid in the middle of a drug deal.

Don sucked in a breath, forced himself to lie down like he was going to sleep. As long as tonight got him to Charlie, he'd deal with it. Getting Charlie out was all that mattered now. Charlie was the only one who would have a life worth going back to after this, and Don meant to get him back to it.


Early the next morning, Don went to the post office and rented a box. Later, from a few blocks away, he dropped a heavy, padded envelope in the mail to himself--his wallet, and Charlie's. He could go and get them (go and get his real self, go and get Charlie) anytime he was ready to lay claim to them. For now, they were best kept out of the way.


In the next sixteen days Don found a report of a robbery in Fargo and saw half a news story about a shootout in Billings that seemed to have been sparked by the theft of several labs' output of crystal meth. There was no way of knowing from the half he saw which victims might have been shot during the thefts instead of after; the reporter talked like it didn't make a difference.

He couldn't sleep for more than an hour or two without having horrible, vivid nightmares of prison. It was him on the inside some nights, his father writing him to tell him they'd found Charlie's body, but it was worse when it was Charlie he dreamed behind bars, scared or dead-eyed. It took longer, after he woke up, to convince himself those ones weren't real. He took to cat-napping at odd hours, and spent a lot of his long dark wakeful nights sitting around with Dre, now that he'd become one of the boys. He said as little as he could, but listened to every word, every rumor about who was doing what in Chicagoland.

Sixteen days of listening, talking to Dre's friends and some guy a friend of Dre's knew, and a guy he had sort of heard could be found at a certain bar. That guy talked to a guy he'd worked for one time, and then Don was sitting in a noisy bar, across a table from a man with dirty blond hair and a smile not quite charming enough to raise Don's hackles. Nothing wild-eyed about this one; he was in control and sane and smart. Smart enough to be the guy using Charlie, Don would bet. And now he was interviewing Don for an opening in his organization.

Don watched his eyes for any sign of recognition. If this guy had ever so much as seen a photo of Don it might all fall apart right here. He could get himself killed, get Charlie killed, before he ever got closer than this. But so far, there was nothing. So if this was the guy who had Charlie, maybe he didn't know what Don looked like. Or maybe he didn't have Charlie, and this was a blind alley, and Don was sitting here having a beer with some random criminal while Charlie--no. He had to focus on the lead he had.

The guy was probing Don's past, but Don had had the entire drive across country to practice this and weeks since then to perfect it. He knew his story backwards and forwards, knew how much of it he wouldn't talk about. He was just a guy looking for work in a particular field of expertise. He didn't play any harder to get than anyone in his right mind would, faced with a mysterious job at an undisclosed location with a potential employer lots of people knew about but no one would exactly vouch for.

"I dunno," he said, fiddling with his beer. "We're talking, what? Shooting, smash and grab, something like that?"

"We're talking a lot of money," the guy said, giving Don a critical look.

Don snorted, settling into his identity, letting himself stop thinking about playing a role, stop waiting for the guy to notice his real self behind his alias. "Sure, money's great, unless you're dead. Then it's just paper in somebody else's hand. I like to know what I'm getting into."

The guy was silent, looking him over intently, but Don knew his story. He had nothing to hide. The blond guy said abruptly, "What's the most math you ever took in school?"

Don didn't think he could breathe until he heard himself say in a nicely puzzled voice, "I got to third base with a girl who took calculus, that count?"

The guy barked a loud, sharp laugh, and Don let himself give the guy a skeptical look as he took a sip of his beer to wash the cotton out of his mouth. Math, God, he was talking math. The guy was talking Charlie, this was it, and still he didn't seem to have twigged to Don. Don wanted to laugh, for one dizzy, horrifying second, at the thought that this might work.

"Yeah," the guy said, still smiling, "yeah, that counts just fine. Listen, I hear you do good work on guard duty."

"Yeah, sure," Don said slowly, like he had no idea. "But you look like you can take care of yourself."

"Oh, I do," the guy said. "But there's an item I have. An item that I would prefer not get lost or stolen. Lately I've been thinking it needs more security, and I'm thinking you might be just the man for the job."

And Don was glad, suddenly horribly fucking glad that he'd killed that drug dealer, that kid, because it was going to get him to Charlie. It was going to get this guy to make Don the fox guarding his henhouse. Don took another swallow of his beer and managed not to choke on it.

"Sounds kinda boring, just guarding some package," he said, and he almost actually sounded bored. Close enough for government work, like they used to say.

The blond guy snorted. "Weren't you just saying you wanted to know what you were getting into? Long periods of boredom, doesn't that sound good?"

"Only if I survive the short periods of terror," Don replied, raising an eyebrow.

The guy grinned. "See, smart. Smart. I like that."

"Smart enough to know it sounds like I should be getting combat pay."

They haggled the rest of the way through their beers, and then the blond reached a hand across the table to shake on it--ten grand base and two percent of every haul, not bad since he'd never be anywhere near the action--and said, "Williamson."

"Lenny McDonald," Don replied, without missing a beat.

Williamson grinned, tilting his head. "You don't look much like a Lenny."

Don shrugged easily. "My mom's the only one ever thought I did."

"Right," Williamson said. "Mac it is." He scribbled something down on a coaster and slid it across to Don. Don palmed it without looking.

"Meet me there tomorrow, six sharp. And I mean in the morning. I'll take you up to the location, you can start immediately."

"Sure," Don said, showing Williamson a cocky money-in-the-bank smile when he wanted to beg to go now, now, now. "Tomorrow, six sharp. See you then."


It had been one hundred thirty days since Charlie was taken when Don got into a car with the guy who had probably taken him. It was still dark, cold and--naturally--windy, and the chill got into his bones. Don was wearing a stocking cap and a quilted flannel jacket over his jeans and long-sleeved t-shirt. The Sig was tucked under his left arm in its holster, and he'd tossed his duffle in the backseat before he got in the front.

Williamson didn't say anything, except when they stopped at a drive-thru for coffee, and then he just asked what size. Don drank his coffee and stared out the window as they headed to the freeway. The coffee was bad, but no worse than he was used to. He sipped at it slowly and let the stomach-lining burn of it ground him. He was all nerves and adrenaline, and adding caffeine to the mix was probably a bad move, but he had no idea how much longer he'd have to keep running without a stop. If he and Charlie got an early chance--if Charlie said the wrong thing and blew it inside the first ten minutes--if Williamson did know who Don was and was just driving him out of the city to dispose of him...

Don crumpled the empty cup between his hands and slumped back in his seat, letting the sharp broken corners prick his palms as he watched the road signs go by from under his eyelashes. They were into Wisconsin now, and the sun was well up. A few miles past Janesville, Williamson took an exit and headed out on a two-lane road, north and east into the middle of nowhere. Don watched the turns, estimated the mileage as best he could. Williamson didn't seem concerned about him knowing the route. Given what Don was pretty sure he knew about Williamson, that didn't strike him as a good sign.

Williamson pulled the car into the gravel driveway of an ordinary-looking ranch house with an attached two-car garage on a tidy half-acre lot. There were trees along the fence line between the house and the next one to the north, branches half-bare, leaves gone red and yellow and brown. To the south was a much larger lot, the house set a long way back from the road.

The house had blue aluminum siding, the porch railing painted white. There were dying flowers in the flower beds and the grass had been cleared of leaves and cut in wide, even stripes. Williamson got out and headed up the drive to the side door into the garage, and Don followed him, duffle bag in hand, gauging the distances as he walked.

It was twenty feet from the car to the side door. Fifty feet to the trees at the south property line, a good fifty yards from the side door to the road. It would take ten or twelve seconds, running flat out--twenty under fire, in a serpentine pattern. Maybe as long as thirty, if Charlie was hurt or stumbled, and then there'd better be somebody waiting on the road, and Don had no backup to call for out here. They'd passed all of four cars in the last ten miles.

One last glance around and Don stepped through the door. It was dark in the garage after the dazzle of morning sunshine, and Don had left his sunglasses in a pocket of his coat; he just had time to blink before Williamson grabbed him, wrenching his right arm behind him. Williamson had five inches and forty pounds on Don, and he had Don's gun hand immobilized. Still, Don tensed for a second, about to break the hold, frantic--Charlie, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I blew it--and then his brain caught up with his muscles.

Don relaxed, letting Williamson shove him face-first against the rough-finished wall. It wasn't an all-out attack; if it had been Don would've been dead as he stepped through the door. This was an orientation.

Williamson dragged his right arm high enough to start putting serious strain on Don's shoulder, and Don turned his head and said, "Okay, boss, I got it."

In his peripheral vision, Williamson smiled. "You got it when I say you got it, Smart Mac. I am the boss here. I know more than you do and I am stronger than you are. I am in charge, and there are eight guys in this house who will all kill you as soon as look at you, on my say-so."

Don nodded, and resisted the urge to go up on tiptoe to ease the dull burn in his shoulder; he didn't really need the punch in the back of the head it would probably earn him. He listened to what Williamson was telling him, instead: eight guys. Figure eight hours of sleep apiece a night, so probably only four to six of them were on watch at any given time. If they were getting less sleep, there'd be more awake, but they'd all be less alert. Maybe as few as two or three on watch at night, if Williamson was telling the truth. Maybe Charlie would know, if he'd been paying attention...

"This is not to say I won't stand by my deal with you," Williamson said evenly, and Don trained his eyes on the wall and focused on Williamson's voice again. "But you need to understand how things work around here. We are not a team. I am the boss. You work for me. Everyone here works for me. You copy?"

"I copy," Don said, as calmly as he could.

Williamson would hold him here until Williamson felt his point had been demonstrated, and there was nothing Don could do but let him demonstrate it. Williamson liked Mac because Mac was smart: smart enough to know his place. Terry, Don thought longingly, would already know what Williamson's mother had been like, and whether he'd wet the bed as a kid, and his precise odds of killing Don in the next five minutes just to watch him die.

Williamson stood there in silence for a minute, and Don's skin crawled with the sensation of Williamson's breath on the back of his neck. Then he gave Don a hard little shove and let go. "Turn around, stay against the wall, spread 'em."

Don raised both hands, turned around, and leaned against the wall. Williamson shoved him again, open hand in the middle of the chest, and Don just widened his stance and spread his hands further. Williamson patted him down with his free hand, reaching under Don's jacket to pull the Sig from its holster. He pressed the point of his elbow to Don's chest as he examined the gun two-handed, and Don noted that Williamson never pointed the gun at him as he checked it; he was only going to threaten Don when he intended to threaten him.

Worse and worse: Don hated competent criminals. All the time that he'd been admiring Charlie's work, though, he'd been admiring Williamson's, too. That was crystal clear by now. He hadn't thought enough about that. He hadn't thought enough about a lot of things.

Williamson jammed the Sig back into its holster and continued the pat-down, shifting his restraining hand down to jam uncomfortably and unnecessarily hard against Don's belt buckle, just about where that morning's cup of coffee was sitting. He didn't find anything but the spare change in Don's pocket, and nodded in satisfaction.

"Stay there," he said, and Don didn't twitch a muscle as Williamson picked up his duffle and unzipped it. He wondered what he'd have to have in there to get himself summarily shot in the head. IDs for Charlie probably would have done it, but those, along with his own extra sets, were long gone by now. A cell phone might only have gotten him laughed at as it was confiscated, depending, but he hadn't risked it.

Williamson checked Don's backup weapon as efficiently as he'd checked the Sig, noted the boxes of ammunition, rifled through his underwear, checked the toes of his socks and the pockets of his pants, unzipped his shaving kit and examined the contents. He snorted at the first aid kit in the side pocket, opened it up and checked it, but it was all ordinary stuff in single-use packets. He flipped through the worn wallet that contained the McDonald ID and some cash, an old phone card and an expired condom and a piece of paper, soft with age, crumpled and smoothed and neatly folded and entirely blank. Williamson unfolded it, looking it over carefully, and then refolded it neatly and tucked it back in, right next to the condom. He dropped Don's wallet back into the duffle, zipped the bag, and tossed it at Don. Don caught it readily but didn't otherwise move, waiting for whatever would happen next.

"Well," Williamson said, turning toward the door into the house. "I guess it's about time you met him."

"Him," Don repeated neutrally, heart suddenly pounding double-time, feeling fluttery and wild in a way that he couldn't honestly blame on exhaustion or caffeine. This was it, this was really it. Charlie.

Williamson glanced over his shoulder with a knowing smile. "Hoping for a her?"

Don smiled crookedly back and shrugged, hoping his inability to get another word out looked like some kind of nonchalance. Williamson led him through the ordinary-looking kitchen of the house. There were two guys sitting at the table, both prominently armed, and Williamson said, "Sam, Jimmy, Mac," without particular direction as he unlocked the basement door. Don supposed Sam and Jimmy would get the drift, and he at least had two names to go with two faces.

He took a quick glance around, noting that Sam and Jimmy had lines of sight on both the garage door and the basement door, while the fridge and cupboards blocked the line from one door to the other. It would be a bad corner to get caught on. The other option was a doorway that probably led into the front room, but that would be worse, a complete U-turn in full view of the men at the table.

Williamson stepped back from the door and gestured for Don to precede him down the stairs. They were bare wood, and the floor at the bottom was cement. In the light of a bare bulb, Don could see a heavy door to the left at the bottom of the stairs, locked and barred from this side. A bright orange extension cord was plugged in to a socket and disappeared under the door. The framing around the door was solid, the gap above the floor barely allowing the extension cord to pass. The door wasn't getting busted down from the inside, not without SWAT gear. If he was locked in with Charlie, they'd be sitting tight for a while; any escape would rely on seizing a moment when the door was opened for them.

"Here," Williamson said, behind him, stepping to the right at the bottom of the stairs, switching on another light. Don turned his back on the locked door and looked at the other half of the basement, washer and dryer and furnace and water heater, shelves of unmarked boxes and various supplies. Williamson grabbed a sleeping bag, rolled up and tied with a ground mat and pillow, and handed it to him. Don took it, suppressing the giddy thought that this was just like going to camp as a kid, duffle in one hand, sleeping bag in the other. Waiting to meet his bunkmate, already calculating how soon he could call his dad and say he wanted to come home.

"You need anything, you use this," Williamson said, holding out a compact walkie-talkie. Don started to shift his loads to free a hand, but Williamson grinned and tucked it into the front pocket of his jeans.

"Banging on the door's a little unscientific," Williamson explained, without backing out of Don's personal space.

Don nodded and didn't back away from Williamson, holding his gaze steadily. Williamson jerked his chin toward the door and said, "Well, in you go, then. You're on the clock, Mac."

Don turned, shifting everything to his left hand as he took the few steps to the door, and lifted the bar. His hand didn't shake as he turned back the deadbolt. He had to take a step back as he pulled the door open, and Williamson was right behind him as Don took his first look inside.


Chapter Four

He kept his left hand tucked between his thin undershirt and ragged sweater, pressed into the damp heat of his armpit as he worked out his calculations on blackboard six. The cold got into his fingers otherwise and made the healed breaks ache so badly that he couldn't see past chalk and slate to numbers and possibilities, and he had no time to waste in pain.

The final versions of the new algorithms marched across boards three, four, and five in steady rows, neatly recopied out of their beds of figuring. Now he had to work the pattern with several sets of plausible variables derived from the intel he'd been given, transforming possibilities into probabilities, a plan of action. He hated this part. It was mechanical and tedious. He couldn't quite hold all the calculations in his head, but also couldn't be bothered to slow his thoughts to the pace of his limping fingers and show all his work. If he was interrupted, he often lost his place and had to start over, and he was interrupted often--more often when Williamson left HQ. He could usually tell how far Williamson had gone, and how long it would be until he returned, by the frequency of harassment from the others. At least when Williamson was present he was only interrupted when Williamson wanted something, and the things Williamson wanted from him always related to his work.

Which wasn't to say that Williamson didn't have a knack for making those discussions unpleasant. The ache of his left elbow--constant whether he was cold or not, though he was almost always cold--kept that fresh in his mind, not that he was in any danger of forgetting. Not of forgetting Williamson, anyway.

"Fuck," he muttered, and lowered his right hand to rub his elbow. He'd spaced out and lost his place, without the least bit of outside help. He knew the logic of the algorithm front to back, up and down (and strange and charming), but all the specific numbers blurred together by the time he'd spent days crunching them with too little sleep separating shifts of work.

It occasionally occurred to him that this was what computers were for, but Williamson had never, ever offered him one to speed up the process, and he suspected it was better that way. He had long since decided that taking more time was an axiomatic good, and this would have taken a fuck of a lot less time with a computer. Anyway, he didn't think asking Williamson for one would end well, though sometimes Williamson just laughed at things like that.

He started the algorithm over from the beginning with his latest variable set, plugging in values and making periodic notations on the board in front of him, incoherent outside the particular context of the expression unfolding in his brain at the given moment. It all worked, one piece into another into another, click click slide thump. For a moment he honestly thought he was just hearing the sound of his own thoughts, and then he realized someone had unbarred the door.

He stopped calculating, got his left hand out of his sweater and pressed it--damp with sweat, it would leave a clear handprint--flat to the board, ignoring the sharp flare of pain in his elbow at the quick motion. They liked his hands where they could see them. He kept scribbling furiously, trying to get all the figures down before the door opened. If he had them down, he could pick up where he'd left off later, and he wouldn't lose so much time. Even if they took him upstairs, he could return to the calculation when he got back, right in the middle like they'd never opened the door at all, and that would help.

His left hand twitched with cold and his elbow throbbed, and his writing turned erratic--more erratic than usual--as the lock scraped back. He was out of breath, sweating buckets, wet fingers melting the chalk in his hand, and the door opened and still nobody was yelling at him, stomping inside to drag him out. He scratched out the last of the figures and froze, allowing himself one more moment facing the board, fixing the calculation in his mind, and then, shivering, he turned to look.

There was a stranger standing in the doorway, holding a bag and bedroll under his left arm, his flannel jacket open so that the gun holstered under his arm was visible, a dark gleam of leather and metal. He was wearing a stocking cap and though his mouth was a small flat line, there was a kind of smile at the corners of his dark brown eyes. The stranger was looking at him intently--almost hungrily--more than any of the others ever had, and the pit of his stomach shook. The others always looked bored when they saw him, interested only after he became an object for their amusement. They wanted his indignity, sometimes his pain; Williamson only ever wanted information. This one wanted him, and he desperately hoped he was wrong about what exactly that might mean.

Williamson was there, just behind the stranger, who was shorter though by no means small or slight. Williamson smiled over the stranger's shoulder, and he felt a stupid, treacherous relief to have Williamson back in the building, even with the stranger there.

"Brought you your very own guard," Williamson said, and then there was a dull smacking sound and the stranger--guard, new guard--oh God, they were going to leave someone in here with him all the time, Williamson being here would be no better at all--stepped quickly inside, nearly jumping across the threshold toward him.

He turned his back on the stranger as the lock and the bar slammed shut outside, though his skin was crawling in anticipation. He could feel himself edging toward total panic, and the only thing that helped that was to do his work. The wet, weakened chalk snapped in his grip, and he stood facing the chalkboard helplessly, shivering, trying to breathe, as his sweat turned cold and the stranger behind him didn't make a sound.


It was a terrible kind of déjà vu: he felt like he'd had his guts shot out. Like Charlie had shot him again, both barrels straight into his stomach, two dark eyes full of terror as brutal as shotgun shells. If he moved he would bleed out. If he moved he would make a sound, and he didn't like to think what it would be, what wounded cry would come out of his mouth on a bubble of blood. If he moved this would be real, and it had to be just another bad dream.

It couldn't be that Charlie didn't know him. It couldn't be that Charlie, here in this room so like his own garage, surrounded by chalkboards covered in math, was so damaged that he didn't know Don, that he was scared of Don. After a hundred and thirty days of silence, a hundred and thirty days of keeping his head down, a hundred and thirty days of waiting, searching--after he'd walked away from his whole life, killed a man to get here--it couldn't all come to this. To nothing. To Charlie not being Charlie, not knowing who either of them were.

This was supposed to be the end, or practically the end, of all of it. All they needed now was for Charlie to give him the sitrep, Don to lay out the precise tactics. A little shooting, a little running; maybe one of them would get hurt, maybe he'd have to kill Williamson, but then they'd be out of here. Home free. Dinner in Chicago, breakfast in LA.

Don stood very still just inside the door, forcing himself to breathe slowly and silently through his nose, teeth clenched. He closed his eyes and tried to talk himself down--Just imagine the part of you that can get the job done is a hostage, Terry had told him once, and your emotions are a crazy person who's got the rest of you at gunpoint. Talk them down. He'd squinted and said, Are you encouraging dissociative tendencies? and she'd said, I'm not a psychiatrist, Don. No code of ethics. I just want you to do the job. He'd smiled and said, Remind me never to get on your bad side, and she'd smiled back, and now the thought of her smiling made his throat close up with panic, his heart racing harder and his mouth tasting bitter with adrenaline overdose.

He had to breathe. He had to open his eyes. He had to look at the situation in front of him: the real one, not the one he'd wanted. Whatever he'd landed in chasing Charlie, he was in it now up to his neck. He had to know what. He had to breathe. He had to open his eyes.

After another couple of minutes he did it, focusing his gaze on Charlie, and it should have been funny, he's as scared of you as you are of him. But it was terrible, it was more wrong than anything Don had ever seen. He had to look at it in parts, break it into its components, or it was too much to deal with.

Charlie was shaking visibly. Don could hear his breathing, too, shallow and rapid: two quick pants for every carefully slow breath Don took. There was a wet handprint drying on the chalkboard from where Charlie's hand had been pressed when the door opened, and the back of Charlie's sweater was dark with moisture. Hyperventilation, even trembling, could maybe be faked, but Don didn't think Charlie was a good enough actor to sweat on command. He didn't think anyone was.

Charlie was scared. Charlie was really scared. And the only thing in this room with Charlie was Don, so Charlie was scared of Don, more scared than Don had ever seen him. This was worse than monsters under the bed, worse than his thesis defense, worse than sniper fire. And Charlie would only be scared of Don if he didn't know who Don was.

So there was something wrong with Charlie, some kind of brain damage, or psychological trauma, and it wasn't like he hadn't had plenty of opportunities for both in the one hundred thirty days it had taken Don to get here. Words clawed up Don's throat, filling his mouth, pressing against his gritted teeth, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, but he couldn't say that. Not to this stranger who looked at him out of Charlie's eyes. Not now.

But the stranger still had Charlie's brain, Charlie's math; Don could see that scrawled across three walls. He still had to be Charlie in some way--this couldn't be permanent, couldn't be really, absolutely, permanently real. It had to be a coping mechanism, Charlie's own dissociative hostage situation. Terry would be proud.

So Charlie had forgotten Don, but he'd held on to math, which made sense. Math was useful. Math was clearly why Williamson kept Charlie around. Don hadn't been any demonstrable use to Charlie since he'd been taken.

But Charlie had had more to lose than Don, and Williamson hadn't called a name, any name, to get Charlie's attention. Names were less useful than math, if probably more useful than Don. Charlie might not have kept his name. Probably hadn't. Don swallowed the Charlie? that lingered on his tongue and forced himself to look away from his brother.

He tugged off his hat and rubbed a hand through his sweat-damp hair, letting his heart rate settle and wondering what the hell to do next. Every procedure he'd ever learned had been some variation of call for backup, and he'd very neatly left himself without any. Unavoidable, or at least he'd thought it was--let himself think it was. The blank postcard he'd sent to Coop before leaving Chicago seemed less like a sensible precaution now, and more like a message in a bottle.

Maybe he should just assume they were going to die, and count every minute he didn't get both of them killed as a victory. Maybe he should take the Sig out right now and call it quits for both of them. He'd dreamed so many times of finding Charlie's body, of being able to stop because it was all over, the searching definitively ended along with Charlie's life. He could make it real now: one little crook of his trigger finger and Charlie would be lying there in front of him for real this time. It'd only take another few seconds to bring the thing to its logical conclusion--the same gun at his own temple, the same crook of his finger, one for him and one for Charlie, exactly equal and fair and Charlie even got to go first.

But no, that was the adrenaline talking, making colors too stark and lights too bright and desperate situations hopeless. So it wasn't going to be a cakewalk: so he'd have to start from scratch, earning Charlie's trust, learning the terrain. It didn't matter. He'd come here to do a job, and he'd do it or die trying.

He looked back up at Charlie just in time to see him rub his face against the arm of his sweater. Don stayed very still as Charlie started to move, and Charlie raised a stub of chalk to the board and began, slowly and shakily, to write. Don let himself breathe out as the chalk tapped faster. Charlie had math, and Charlie could always calm himself down with math. Charlie was still Charlie, still Don's brother, even if he didn't know it. Don would know it for both of them.

Don passed a hand over his own face and carefully, silently, set down his bag and bedroll beside the door, keeping his eyes on Charlie. Charlie kept working, and Don locked down the urge to go to him, touch him, reassure him, reassure himself. This was close enough to see: Charlie was alive, really alive, and right there across the room.

One hundred thirty days, and you couldn't call this day's work nothing, not really. He'd found Charlie. He could do the rest. Hell, if he could just get Charlie to trust him, Charlie would probably be able to figure out how to get them both out. This just set the timetable back a little.

Don looked around the room carefully, trying to analyze it tactically, though it was a pretty grim picture: no exits, no cover. They had about half the basement, so three walls were solid cinder block, with blackboards bolted to them all the way around. He suspected they covered any windows that might have been present, but couldn't remember any sign of basement windows visible in his brief glimpse of the house's exterior. The fourth wall was drywall, painted primer-white. That wall appeared to be flush to floor and ceiling, solidly constructed.

There was a wood and canvas folding cot set up against the interior wall with an unzipped sleeping bag crumpled on it, and beyond the cot there was another doorway. Don walked far enough to see that it was a tiny cubicle of a bathroom, just a toilet and sink, and that there was no door in the frame. He could see the holes where the hinges had been taken out.

There were two card tables pushed together in the center of the room, with papers stacked untidily on top. The floor was bare, smooth cement, the ceiling unfinished. Ducts and wiring ran between the joists that supported the floor of the house. Light came from a couple of bare bulbs in plain fixtures, operated by a switch near the door. There was a work light hooked to the corner of the blackboard where Charlie was standing, connected to the orange extension cord that was plugged in outside, but it was turned off.

Don stole another glance at Charlie. Looking at him was easier every time, familiarity dulling the jolt of panic and desperation in his belly. Charlie was wearing a faded black sweater--much too big and unraveling in a couple of spots--baggy jeans, and white socks, but no shoes. His hair had grown into a short curly cap, dense as wool, and his face was pale, shadowed with a few days' stubble. His shoulders looked sharp, like he'd lost weight, and he'd pulled his left arm inside his sweater, but at least he'd stopped shivering. He held his chalk in a weird-looking crabbed grip, and his writing was different from how it had been before, the corners of his fours and sevens more jagged than the ones Don had stared at on and off for three months in the garage. He was writing fast, lost in his work and giving no sign that he even remembered there was anyone in the room with him.

Don leaned against the wall and fished the walkie-talkie out of his pocket, looking it over carefully. There weren't any obvious signs of tampering; it probably wasn't bugged, though he couldn't be certain without disassembling it and he didn't have the tools for that. It would be ridiculously easy for Williamson, or anyone else in the house, to be listening in by less exotic means, though there was always the possibility that they just weren't bothering: Williamson was in control of the situation, and knew it. There wasn't a hell of a lot Don could do from down here, locked in with eight heavily armed men--or a dozen, or a platoon, for all he knew--in the house above him. Don shoved the radio into a pocket and shrugged his coat off, tossing it down on top of his bag. It'd make his gun that much more prominent, but maybe Charlie would get used to that. Though the room was cool, it wasn't cold enough to warrant the coat.

He started a slow tour of the room, staying well away from Charlie but having a good look at everything else. There didn't seem to be any cameras tucked into the ceiling wiring or obvious bugs on the light fixtures. The papers on the tables were mostly sheets of numbers he couldn't decipher, sorted into sloppy piles that were doubtless intensely meaningful to Charlie. There was also a large box of white chalk, and a smaller box with assorted colors. Don looked around for erasers, but there weren't any, just a rag hanging over the top corner of one of the boards. There was nothing else in the room, not so much as a chair.

By the time Don had checked over the whole room, the adrenaline tide was washing out, leaving his hands and knees shaky. But if he sat down, he might not get up, so he kept pacing, six slow strides from one wall to another, steady as a clock.


He'd gotten good at dividing his attention, as long as none of the things he was paying attention to were excessively urgent. Little by little he managed to steal attention from listening for the stranger's booted steps approaching to devote to resuming his calculations.

He kept going without pause at the soft thuds that were 97% certainly the sounds of the stranger setting down his bag and bedroll, and managed not to flinch visibly when he heard the first soft scuffing steps that meant the stranger had moved away from the door. He tucked his left hand under his right arm again, because it was getting cold and the blow still wasn't falling. Clearly the stranger was the kind who liked to let anticipation build, and he knew that anticipating the blow only made it hurt worse. He devoted increasing proportions of his attention to his work as the steps behind him stayed soft and slow and never came closer than a couple of meters. There was a brief rustling of the papers on the table, and then the sound of the stranger pacing at the other end of the room, across blackboards one and two.

The steps settled into a steady, reliable rhythm, pausing for short, regular intervals before proceeding again. They never came closer, and were neither so silent that the stranger's movement could not be tracked, nor so loud as to be deliberately intimidating.

He paused between calculations for a moment, scratching out a tidy little expression to describe the stranger's movement behind him. If his own fixed position was used as the focus of a circle, the stranger's motion was a tangent line...

The footsteps deviated abruptly from their established path, moving not nearer to him, as he'd been expecting, but further away. He kept writing as he listened, until he was startled into total stillness by a different sound entirely, a cloth rustle and metallic zipper rasp and--and then a distinctly liquid sound. He turned, keeping his feet planted in the same spot, and peered toward the bathroom doorway. He couldn't see anything, and felt himself drawn toward the sound as it continued, leaning further and further and finally going on tiptoe to lean further yet, until he finally caught a glimpse of the stranger's back. His shoulder was wrapped in the leather of the holster he wore, and his blue jeans were tight, though the seat sagged a little in the way that indicated they were unzipped, as, of course, they had to be, because the stranger was--

The liquid sound stopped, and he turned away abruptly, settling back on his feet with his face to his blackboard, raising his hand to the board and wiping away the expression for the stranger's movement. He'd been naked in front of Williamson and a succession of others; he'd had to piss with armed men watching every move he made. The reverse was distinctly weird, and wildly unexpected. None of the others had ever stooped to giving up their privacy in his presence, however uniformly the reverse had been true. And the stranger had made no attempt to make the act a threat, made no real reference to him at all. It was an anomaly beyond his ability to describe.

He heard the sound of the sink running and then shutting off, and then a wordless annoyed sound from the stranger. He couldn't resist turning around again, to see the stranger standing in the doorway, wiping his hands on his now-zipped jeans. The stranger had taken his hat off, and his dark hair was standing out at angles.

He stood a moment, staring, idly calculating those angles, and then the stranger raised his eyebrows and he realized what he was doing and turned away quickly. Before he could resume his work, the stranger said softly, "Hey, I don't think we've really been formally introduced."

Wasn't that the punch line to some joke? That was not a formal introduction. He turned his head just far enough to see the stranger leaning in the bathroom doorway, his hands open at his sides and his hair still a wild, largely vertical mess. He wondered if there was some way to quantify the way wiping your hands on your pants made you look less threatening, and whether the stranger was aware of it.

He looked back to his blackboard, studying his notations, and said, "Williamson calls me Know-Nothing or Know-It-All, interchangeably. Like flammable and inflammable."

"Yeah?" the stranger said, as though this were an interesting bit of trivia. "Williamson calls me Mac."

He nodded. Mac. That was the kind of name Williamson's men tended to have. Skip, Randy, Hank, Sam, Jimmy. Mac.

"You like being called that?" Williamson-calls-me-Mac said, and it was such an odd question that he had to turn and look. He couldn't remember ever being asked whether he liked something by a person who sounded as if they'd take his answer as anything other than a clue to how hard to hit him.

Mac was watching him curiously, and he shrugged and looked away again. "It's not actually my name, if that's what you mean."

Mac snorted. "Yeah, I didn't think it was. So if we're going to be stuck in this room together all the time, what do you want me to call you while I'm here?"

It was an interestingly bounded question: it placed the two of them inside a matrix from which Williamson first and foremost, but also everyone else, was excluded. And yet it only reflected a reality that Williamson himself had established--newly, for the first time; he'd never had a guard of his own before, for all that he was sometimes locked in with one or another of Williamson's men. But Mac was to stay here, for some duration, inside the room with him at Williamson's order--and Mac had asked him a question.

It wasn't as if he hadn't given some thought, from time to time, to what he'd like to be called if he could choose. He'd considered the possibility that it was important to have a name for himself, even if no one else knew it, but he'd found that no name he chose lasted long without an external point of reference. It was a peculiar, artificial exercise, trying to apply some textual string as a label to himself. He'd considered the major constants--pi, e, i--and there would be some amusement in naming himself imaginary, but he was real enough, and not entirely constant. He smiled then and made an impulsive choice, reached over to a blank space and scrawled c on the board.

When he glanced back over his shoulder, Mac had folded his arms, and was leaning his head against the doorframe, eyes half shut. c wondered how much time had passed since Mac had asked; he wasn't any good at gauging. Mac picked his head up when c looked at him, and squinted at the board.

"C..." Mac said, clearly waiting for another letter.

"c," he corrected. "Lowercase, italicized. It's a physical constant, the--"

"Speed of light," Mac interrupted, nodding. "Like E=mc2."

c stared at him, and Mac smiled suddenly, bright and startling, his eyes so warm and pleased that c could only nod mutely.

"I passed physics in school," Mac said with a dismissive shrug. "I know some things."

c looked away from Mac's gaze. "You may be aware that it's not entirely constant, then. It's different in different environments."

He bracketed the c he'd written, idly, but it was an incomplete matrix. There was a space unfilled.

"What about you?" he asked abruptly, turning back to look at Williamson-calls-me-Mac again.

Mac raised his eyebrows. "I just said, I--"

c shook his head, "No, no, you, while you're here. I told you what you should call me in this room, but you didn't tell me what I should call you."

"Oh," Mac said.

He went very still, holding c's gaze, and his face was as blank as someone trying to hide something, which was odd in itself: no one bothered to hide anything from Know-Nothing. c watched him, waiting, wondering how this question could possibly be difficult for someone who knew his own name.

"How about you call me Don," he said finally. "In this room."

c nodded. "Okay. Don."

There. The matrix was complete. Know-It-All = c and Mac = Don, just as he reported all his calculations to Williamson in English units even though he did them in metric. He turned back to his blackboard, satisfied, and glanced over the last notations he'd made, taking a moment to pick up the calculation where he'd left off. He was nearly finished before he heard Don start to pace again.

He managed to work through his calculations, with Don pacing somewhere behind him, and finally turned to record it on a sheet, pulling the single mechanical pencil he was permitted from his pocket. Don stopped pacing and watched as he scribbled, taking a step closer to the opposite end of the tables. "What are you doing, anyway?"

c looked up at him, tilting his head. Don seemed honestly curious, so much so that c was almost tempted to try to explain it to him.

"Did you study much math, in school?"

Don shrugged and looked away, glancing sideways at c as he spoke. "My brother used to do my homework, actually, until our mom caught us and made him stop. Math wasn't much fun after that."

"Ah," c said. Don wasn't altogether different from the others, then; he was still one of those who viewed math as a dry, useless discipline, for all c accomplished with it daily. "Well, even if you'd done your own homework, you wouldn't understand what I'm doing here."

Don looked oddly wounded at that, and c winced. Stupid to offend the man. "I mean, it's really boring, anyway," c added. "And Williamson doesn't like me to talk about it with anyone else."

Don nodded, and then abruptly turned his back on c, standing with his face toward blackboard three as though it fascinated him, running a hand through his already-disarranged hair. c tried to mimic the gesture, but his fingers caught in the tangles--when had his hair gotten so long?--and he had to tug it back out. He turned back to the board and started to erase his last calculation with the side of his hand, and then flinched when something struck the floor beside his feet. c glanced over his shoulder, but Don was staring fixedly in another direction. When c bent down to pick the thing up off the floor, he realized it was the rag he'd left hanging on one of the other boards. c smiled, baffled, and used the rag to clean his board, tucking the end of it into his pocket when he was done.

He'd gotten halfway through his next calculation set when he heard the door being unbarred, and his heart started to race again, his breath coming short and sweat breaking out--what now, what now? He worked faster, pressing his left hand flat to the board, and then in his peripheral vision a shape moved--Don, stepping between him and the door. c felt his lips twist into a grim smile, even as his pulse raced. Someone should probably explain to Don that there wasn't much danger of him making a run for it.

The door opened just enough to admit a hand holding a crumpled paper sack, and someone outside said, "Lunch."

Don took the bag, and the hand withdrew and the door was barred again. c returned his focus to the board, trying to get back into the rhythm of his work, let the numbers fight off the shakes.

"Hey, c," Don said, behind him. "Lunch."

c nodded, but didn't look back. "I just have to finish this," he said, hating the unsteadiness of his voice.

If Don wanted him to stop working and eat now, he could easily force the issue, but if he'd let c work, the queasy terror would pass on its own. He kept working frantically, and didn't register that Don had left him entirely alone until he turned around to record his next set of results and found a peanut butter sandwich, a pear, and a condensation-covered can of Coke sitting on a tiny cleared space on the table nearest to him.


Don sat with his back to the wall, his lunch a solid knot in his stomach, watching Charlie work.

It had been a stupid thing to do, telling Charlie his name: possibly the single stupidest thing he'd done since he'd hared off on his own, and quite likely stupid enough to get them killed all by itself. Even if they didn't know what Charlie's brother looked like, they were bound to know his name; Charlie must have said it at least once, if nothing else. Don wished he could tell himself he had no idea why he'd done it, that his brain had shut off and he'd heard himself speak. But that hadn't been it, though the moment had felt a little bit like his brain shutting off, and a lot like free fall--everything happening too fast, nothing to catch, nothing to hold on to. That moment when you jumped, so you couldn't even console yourself, in the instant before the ground rushed up and crushed you, that it hadn't been your fault.

But this instant stretched sickeningly on and on, because so far he and Charlie were alone. The consequences of that one stupid, stupid word wouldn't come in a few mercifully quick seconds. They were just waiting for him down the line somewhere, when Charlie slipped and said it to Williamson, when somebody bothered to listen in on them down here. It could get him killed. It could get them both killed.

And the worst part was, he'd said it because he wanted Charlie to recognize it, recognize him. When he'd had to look away after Charlie failed to, it hadn't been because he was worried about both of them dying. It was because he'd been disappointed.

He banged his head gently against the wall, too softly to make a sound or threaten his remaining brain cells. To think he'd flattered himself, weeks back, that he understood how little perspective he had on this thing. He'd come here to save Charlie, and he'd throw both their lives away right now if Charlie would just look at him and know who he was.

So here he was, alone with Charlie, operative word alone. No safety net, no backup, no partner. No one even knew for sure what he was doing, never mind where. He was falling and falling and falling, and Charlie, over there doing math in his stocking feet, was looking like a pretty flimsy parachute.

Don shook his head, trying to rattle his brain into better order. He only succeeded in making his head hurt, so he got up and paced again, criss-crossing the room, eyeing the lines of sight from the door. He wished he could knock for hollow spots behind the chalkboards, but even Charlie, changed as he was, would probably recognize what he was doing. If Charlie realized Don was thinking about escape routes, Williamson would know about it soon enough. Williamson wouldn't have any reason to treat his unnamed genius more gently than he did Don, and Charlie obviously possessed a hell of a survival instinct to have made it this far. If Williamson asked him anything, Charlie would tell what he knew. So Don couldn't say a word or take a single false step, which was going to be hard, locked in with him like this all day. It wasn't just Charlie he couldn't reach out and touch: it was everything.

Don stuffed his hands into his pockets and stalked back and forth across the concrete until he could cross the distance with his eyes closed and judge it perfectly. His stride lengthened and quickened with every turn. Don was nearly running when he noticed that Charlie had stopped writing, and was casting him quick glances, making little jerky motions of his head. Don was distracting Charlie, maybe scaring him again. Don forced himself to be still--and for a minute he couldn't make his body obey, momentum driving him onward. For the length of those few quick heartbeats he was scaring himself, out of control. Then his brain reasserted itself, and he was dropping down to sit by the wall again, concrete cool through his jeans, unyielding under his fingertips. He barely breathed until Charlie was safely back to work, chalk taps speeding along in a staccato like Don's heartbeat.

Sitting there watching Charlie work, not being able to interrupt him, reminded Don of nothing so much as the months before their mom died. She'd asked him, sometimes, to check on Charlie. "But don't bother him, Donnie, just see how he's doing. Is he eating?" So he'd gone out to the garage and stood in the doorway, watching while Charlie worked and worked and worked, leaving sandwiches and cookies and Cokes where Charlie would find them if he ever took a break, restraining the ever-present urge to yell, to grab Charlie and shake him, to drag him inside by his ear.

And then he'd gone back and held his mother's hand and told her Charlie was all right, just busy with some important problem. Don never raised his voice, never let her see him upset. She'd never asked why Charlie's math problem was more important than she was. She'd never asked Don why his knuckles were always bruised, either. For a while he'd patched the plaster in his apartment every weekend, but for the last month he'd let it go. By the time he got around to it, after the funeral, the place looked like the set of one of those action movies they were perpetually shooting downtown.

It hadn't been that he was angry at Charlie, really. After the first few weeks, he'd realized there was no more use being angry at Charlie than at God, or doctors, or cancer, or his mother for being mortal, or his father for not being able to fix it somehow. Don had just needed to hit things.

He wanted badly to hit something now, and couldn't. He'd scare Charlie. He'd give himself away. He'd mess up his hand, get them both killed when their chance came because he was too slow to his gun. He just had to sit, quiet as if he were at his mother's bedside again, and wait for whatever was going to happen next. Another deathwatch.

After twenty minutes, when Charlie was safely back into his math again, Don got up and paced some more, eyeing the chalkboards, wondering if he could do pull-ups. If he broke one "accidentally," Charlie might not suspect anything--but then, if he broke one with a window behind it, Charlie wouldn't have to suspect anything. Don would be shoving him up and out the window, and then... what? Running to the nearest house, maybe empty, maybe full of innocent bystanders? Williamson was tidy, organized, probably not the type to mow down an entire family--unless he was pushed, unless it was the efficient thing to do. It might be, if the alternative was letting Charlie get away, letting Don take him.

Don's fists clenched and he forced himself to look down from the chalkboards that might or might not conceal windows, staring at the floor. He had to keep his steps even and light and quiet, or he'd scare Charlie again, and soon enough he sat down. After that, he found himself dreading the idea of pacing; it was harder to control himself when he was in motion than when he was still. He sat, instead, watching Charlie, evolving increasingly improbable scenarios for their escape: setting a fire, improvising a small explosion from his spare ammunition, somehow persuading Charlie to fake an illness. He spent more time than he wanted to add up entranced by the idea that he could simplify matters by having Charlie not fake an illness: he could force Charlie to eat chalk, like that time he'd dared him to when they were kids. He could shoot him, force Williamson to get him medical care--

He could see it, too easily. Pulling his gun--he could do it just like this, while Charlie was facing the board, so he wouldn't see it coming, wouldn't have time to be scared. Not until afterward, anyway, while Don was trying to stabilize him on the basement floor and Charlie was staring up at him with those dark, terrified eyes--not surprised, because Charlie expected Don to hurt him--but hurt, and scared that Don would hurt him more. And then Williamson would come down and shoot Don in the head for damaging the genius, and he'd never know whether Williamson got medical care for Charlie or let him bleed out right there, or maybe die slower, with an untreated infection...

No. Not an option. Too much risk, too little likelihood of accomplishing anything, too much shooting his baby brother.

Don glanced at his watch when he heard the sound of the door being unbarred, and was startled to find it was evening. The constant fluorescent light was disorienting. Don crossed the space quickly, squeezing his arm against the reassuring solidity of his gun as he moved himself between Charlie and the door. He could feel his own heart rate kicking up, and he could hear Charlie starting to freak out again in the suddenly increasing tempo of chalk-taps.

The door opened wide this time, and it was Williamson, with a Beretta on his hip and a plate of food--meat and potatoes and peas, weirdly normal--in his hand. He looked right past Don to Charlie, and when Don turned to look he saw Charlie almost smiling: looking not happy exactly, but relieved, instantly un-panicked, wiping his hands on his rag and stepping away from the blackboard.

Don knew what Williamson had probably done and ordered done to Charlie in the last three months, but it was that half-smile on Charlie's face that made Don want to kill the man, suddenly, viscerally, an eager twitch in the muscles of his arms and hands. He wouldn't even need his gun.

"You're out," Williamson said, glancing at Don and jerking his chin toward the door. "Go eat, take a shower if you want. You have about an hour and you don't get out again until this time tomorrow."

Don stood perfectly still for a second, forcing down the impulse to refuse, to pull his gun, to try to pull Charlie out right then and there, with Williamson and an unknown number of armed thugs between him and the front door. When Williamson started to raise an eyebrow Don burst into motion, grabbing his duffle from where he'd dropped it by the door and letting himself out. Sam, or possibly Jimmy, was standing near the bottom of the stairs--Don wouldn't have made it even to the door, if he'd taken Williamson down--and said, "Bar it behind you." Don nodded, blank-faced as he could manage, and turned and locked and barred the door, sealing Charlie in with his captor. Locking himself out.

He followed Williamson's thug up the stairs, watching his own feet all the way. There were four other guys in the kitchen, dishing up food and eating wherever there was room, and Don dropped his bag and joined the crowd. He wasn't hungry--not with Williamson under his feet, alone with Charlie--but it'd look weird not to eat, and anyway, Charlie was probably safe enough for now. He wouldn't have looked relieved if Williamson was inclined to include torture on the dinner menu. Probably. Unless Don's presence had changed the routine, like old Heisenberg said.

Don ate standing up at the counter, trying to watch the others without looking like he was watching, keeping his mouth shut and his ears open. It didn't matter: they weren't talking, weren't giving him anything he could use. All he could tell was that they were all bigger than he was, all armed. Two of them were talking idly about the Packers, giving Don a little intel on Brett Favre, none on them except that they didn't seem to care very much about the Packers.

They dispersed as they finished eating--rinsing their dishes and stacking them in the dishwasher like well-trained kids, and it was fucking eerie--mathematical precision, again, and this was obviously Williamson's, not Charlie's.

Not mathematical at all, Don thought, staring at the bottom of his bowl, a little lightning-struck with the obviousness of it: military. Ex-military, maybe Special Forces? Christ, didn't they do psych screens at all? But whatever Williamson was, he had expertise not unlike Don's, and if Don could see it on him, there were excellent odds that sooner or later he'd spot it on Don. If he hadn't already. If--

The skin was crawling on the back of Don's neck, and he was nearly alone in the kitchen, just one guy sitting at the table now, going nowhere. Don put away his own dishes, grabbed his bag, and headed off in search of a bathroom.

Through the other doorway was a living room with a threadbare couch and a cheap TV. Two of the guys were sitting there, one flipping through channels while the other stared, unblinking, at the screen. Don glanced toward the small foyer, the heavy front door, locked and deadbolted. He didn't let his gaze linger on it any more than he let it linger on the guns they were both wearing --one was a Desert Eagle .45, the other a semi-automatic he couldn't identify at a glance, maybe a Russian make.

Off the living room was a short hallway with a bedroom on either side--Don caught a glimpse of cots and sleeping bags through an open door--and a bathroom further down, on the right, toward the back of the house. The door at the end of the hall was firmly closed, and the doorknob had a key lock. Don didn't need to check it to know it would be locked.

Don went into the bathroom and locked the door behind him, dropped his bag in front of the door and turned on the shower, and then stood still in the small room, alone for the first time in twelve hours. He covered his face with his hands and let himself shake. He wanted to kill somebody, right that minute, and he wanted to run back down to the basement and refuse to leave Charlie's side, and a little part of him just wanted to call for help, fall on his knees and beg to be bailed out of this mess. If he could get hold of local law enforcement... but the odds of getting Charlie killed in the crossfire were too high, to say nothing of whatever poor bastard from the Wisconsin State Police came out here to answer the call. To say nothing of himself.

He wanted--God, he wanted to be at home again, going to his dad like a little kid with a bad dream. He wanted someone else to fix this. But all his dad had said was, "I can't lose you both," and Don had thought he knew better.

I'm sorry, he thought, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm not the genius, I'm sorry, I let you down, I'm sorry, nobody's coming home, Dad, I'm sorry.

But his dad had said, "I forgive you," too, and he'd said, "Find your brother." Don had done that much at least: even if no one else ever knew it, even if Charlie himself didn't know it, Charlie wasn't really lost anymore. Even if they both died here, at least Don had found him first.

Don straightened up, taking a breath, getting hold of himself as the room warmed up, filling with steam. He hadn't had a choice, really: there hadn't been a choice to make. Charlie was his brother, and he'd had an idea that he knew how to find Charlie; he'd had to do what he could with it. He couldn't have lived with himself if he hadn't, and he knew, after ten years, just how much that wasn't a figure of speech for an FBI agent. Guys like that found a way to stop living, sooner or later, and they usually made a hell of a mess for everyone around them.

So there: he'd done that much good. Whatever happened to him and Charlie here, it wouldn't get Terry or David killed--probably wouldn't even destroy their careers. Terry was smart. If she had to give him up, she'd give him up. She'd told him once she'd never lie for her partner. Of course, it had been a long time ago; maybe she'd changed her mind since then, maybe his secret was safe. Maybe she hadn't, and the FBI was working on hunting him down right now.

Don smiled--it was a win-win, wasn't it? A loyal partner, or the cavalry coming? He could feel the unbalanced edge to the smile and his thoughts, but it was closer to control than he'd been all day, so he'd take what he could get. He forced his breathing into an even rhythm and started getting undressed, unlacing his boots and hanging his holster on the back of the door. Don showered and shaved quickly, and got dressed again in the sticky-wet heat of the tiny room. He dried his feet carefully before he pulled his socks on, knowing he'd have his feet in his boots for the next twenty-four hours. That had been one of the weirder things he had to get used to after he left fugitive recovery, taking his boots off to go to sleep. It had been weeks after he transferred before he could sleep without being ready to bolt out the door at a second's notice. If he made it out of here alive, he might be sleeping in his boots for good.

Don headed straight back down to the basement, but his watch showed he'd only burned half of his hour. It wouldn't look right to be eager to go back in. Don glanced up the stairs, thinking longingly of the front door, open air--but it wouldn't look much better to be eager to get out.

He put his ear to the barred door, but couldn't hear anything but a low murmur of voices. He strained to catch some note of fear in Charlie's voice, but instead he picked up the familiar tone of Charlie in lecture mode. His guts twisted and his breath caught. It shouldn't have been possible to miss Charlie so much from so close, but his little brother hadn't spoken to him like that in a long time, and might never again.

Don looked around and then headed over to the other side of the basement, checking the solidity of the interior wall, the layout. Everything looked normal and depressingly well-constructed, offering no obvious opportunities for escape or concealment. There were boxes stacked up against the walls of the bathroom, and Don walked over to look at them. He put his ear to the wall again, glanced at his watch. He had twenty-five minutes to go, and everything was quiet in Charlie's room. There was a layer of dust on the boxes--more than three months' accumulation if he had to guess. Don glanced toward the door to Charlie's room, listened for movement upstairs, and then lifted the top off the nearest box.

There was a school kid's art project on top; it shed glitter on Don's fingers when he picked it up. There were papers and folders underneath, and Don wondered who'd lived in this house, who'd planted the flowers out front, and what the hell had happened to them, why they'd left these things behind, whether they were all right. He couldn't think about it, though; they were gone. Charlie was here. Don replaced the lid and moved the box, going to the second, which was more of the same, papers and report cards. He closed it up and set it aside, and opened a third.

Pay dirt. The entire box was stacked full of glossy comic books. Don grinned suddenly, almost laughed before he choked back the sound. The year he was eleven he'd broken his arm in April, losing himself an entire season of Little League. His dad had brought him comic books the first day, and after he got hooked he'd walked ten blocks to the comic shop every week--he wasn't allowed to ride his bike until he got the cast off--and bought up all the comics he could scrape together the change to afford. It was the only way he'd kept from going nuts until June, when the cast came off and he could at least play sandlot ball again.

Don flipped through the comics quickly; he didn't care about the contents, but he was curious about the dates. None was less than a year old. He hoped that meant that whoever they belonged to had been long gone before Williamson started using this place as his HQ. Don opened up his duffle and slipped in as many comics as he could fit. They weren't weapons, but he had more guns than he had uses for them, right now. He was perilously short on ways to pass time without driving himself insane, and clearly he was going to have to be patient. Comic books would help.

Don put the lid on the box again and stacked the other boxes on top of it just as they'd been, wiping the top one clean to make the finger marks less obvious before he went back to stand by the door. There was still no sound from inside, and he was straining so hard to hear that the squawk of his walkie-talkie from his pocket startled him. "Mac," Williamson said, and he could hear a faint echo of the man's actual voice inside. "Come on down. You're back on."

"Gotcha," Don said into his radio, even as he unbarred the door.

Williamson looked amused. The plate in his hand was empty, and Charlie was already back to work, looking completely unperturbed. "You're punctual," Williamson said, and Don forced himself to focus on the boss.

He shrugged, a little tensely, but Mac would be tense. It was all right so far. Williamson didn't seem to know.

"I do my job," he said, and Williamson just smiled and walked out. Don didn't move until he heard the door barred and locked, and then he sat down on the floor, watching Charlie with his hand on his bag. He'd wait until he really needed a comic book, and then he'd take it out.


c looked up at some point and discovered that Don had set out his bedroll and lain down. He was stretched out across the door, with his feet toward the wall and his head toward c. He had his back toward the door, and his holster was folded neatly on the floor near his head, empty. c set down his chalk and moved closer, looking for the gun, and then spotted it tucked between Don's shoulder and his throat, half-hidden by the pillow he rested his head on.

Don seemed to be asleep. c hadn't noticed him lying down, and he wondered how much time had passed. He had some idea that it made a difference; the longer someone had been asleep, the more deeply they slept. He'd never seen anyone sleep before. He supposed he'd known that they did, just the way he knew that other people pissed, or took their clothes off, or felt pain. But as far as he could remember, all those interactions had always gone one way for him.

Until now, until Don. He might have to have a guard with him all the time, but it meant that the guard had c with him all the time, even when he wasn't... on guard. c took a step closer to him, and then another, quicker. The hungry way Don looked at him scared him, but Don had talked to him, too, had asked his name like he expected c to have one, and now he thought maybe he did. None of the others had ever expected him to have a name. None of the others had ever sat quietly while he worked, trying not to distract him (though Don's very presence could be intensely distracting). c was forced to consider the possibility that Don was qualitatively different from every other person he'd ever met.

Different, and still sleeping. He wasn't really scary at all like this, not looking at c, not moving, though fear shivered down c's spine, as inescapable as the chill radiating from the walls. Another step and c was towering above him, looking down at him the way other people usually looked down at c on the floor, or bound to a chair. For a wild thoughtless instant c wanted to kick Don as hard as he could, just to see what it felt like to be on that side of the equation, but just visualizing it made fear run cold and sharp through his veins. Every action had an equal and opposite reaction, and Don's reaction to being kicked would only begin with striking back; Don would wake with that gun at his hand and c at his mercy. If c kicked him, he might find Don wasn't different from the others at all.

c crouched down instead, trying for another perspective. He leaned close to look at Don's face, motionless in sleep. Don had long eyelashes, and his hair was mashed by the pillow into all-new angles. It wasn't quite black like c had thought, nor quite straight. Don was breathing slowly and shallowly, in a rhythm that c thought he knew meant Don really was asleep. There was a kind of safety in that. He could look as much as he wanted until Don woke up.

c waved his hand cautiously in front of Don's face, but Don didn't move. c shifted closer and then closer again, sitting down on the cold floor and leaning in until he could feel the sleeping warmth of Don's body. Don hadn't zipped up his sleeping bag, and he seemed to have his arms folded in close to his chest. A little of the band of his watch was visible on his left wrist, and c suddenly hungered to know what it said, what the time was.

He shut his eyes and forced himself not to care. It didn't matter; time was an arbitrary construct. If he started wanting to know, it would be hard to stop, and he'd wind up scratching at the door, crying and begging until someone came down and forcibly distracted him from the whole concept. He bit down hard on his lip--didn't care, didn't care, not about that--and then opened his eyes to distract himself from time with Don.

So close, he could see the butt of Don's gun, matte black, pressed against the skin of his throat. Don's cheek was smooth; he must have shaved during his hour off. c rubbed at his own itchy days-old stubble, and then reached out a hand toward Don's cheek, with some unformed thought of testing the contrast, before he jerked back. He could feel his heart beating faster, hands closing into helpless fists. He hardly dared to breathe, waiting for Don to wake up, waiting for the inevitable explosion.

Don shifted slightly, sighing in his sleep, and c was close enough to feel the air stirred by his breath. Then he was still again, and c took in a long deep breath and felt a little thrill of recklessness, the same one that had once or twice made him talk back to his tormentors. They only hit him more, but somehow it had felt good to be making them do it, to exert that one sliver of influence available to him.

Don had moved a little; more of the butt of the gun was exposed, and words drifted across c's brain, fragmentary and meaningless. Handle toward my hand. c reached out with a shaking hand, and this time his fingers closed on his target, the plastic grip plate warm from Don's skin when he touched it. He tugged, and then everything happened at once. Don's eyes flashed open--Don's hand closed over his on the gun--Don's arm across his chest pushed him back--Don rolled up and over him.

c blinked and he was on his back on the cold floor, his heart racing and the back of his mouth flooded with a bitter taste, his vision going bright and sharp. Don didn't immediately move, resting above c with most of his weight on his left arm across c's chest, the gun firmly in his right hand. Don glanced at it--c looked too, and Don wasn't pointing the gun at him. Don turned it carefully but kept it aimed away from them both, and then reached back and tucked it into the back of his pants.

Otherwise he didn't move, just stayed suspended above c, and c thought of the hungry look in his eyes, the things he might want, things Williamson had only obliquely threatened so far. This could be it, and all c could think was that he couldn't remember ever being this close to someone else. Don wasn't hurting him yet, and c found he was as much curious as scared, maybe more so. For now, all he felt was warm, between the frantic rush of his own blood and the proximity of Don, who was staring down at c and looking more puzzled than angry.

"Don't do that again," he said. Just that. He didn't even shout the words.

c blinked, baffled, and nodded. He couldn't have spoken if he wanted to. He couldn't breathe, and only half because of the weight on his chest. Don shifted, not moving his arm but redistributing his weight, and c inhaled and nodded again, still waiting for what would happen next.

Don smiled suddenly, inexplicably, and his eyes went warm and intent. c's stomach twisted--this was it--but up close Don didn't look hungry, just focused. He said, "What were you planning on doing with it, anyway? You gonna shoot your way out?"

c opened and closed his mouth. The gun. He'd grabbed the gun. Don hadn't even pointed it at him when he took it away, hadn't even really hit him. c had thought he was provoking Don, but that seemed to be beyond him. He felt off-balance, for all he was firmly on the floor.

"I didn't actually have a plan," he admitted.

Don snorted, shifted off of him entirely, and sat up. c was cold without him, and almost weightless. He sat up too, hugging his knees.

"You gotta have a plan," Don said firmly, and then glanced at his watch. "Shit, c, it's three in the morning. Go to bed."

Three in the morning is an arbitrary construct, he thought, but he said nothing, nodding and stealing a last curious glance at the only person who'd ever told him the time. He went to his cot, lay down and pulled the sleeping bag over himself. It wasn't as warm as Don, and the cold crept up through the canvas of the cot, but it was better than nothing. c was tired, suddenly, now that he was horizontal. The lights went out, and he heard the rustle of Don getting back into his sleeping bag, and a muttered, "Night."

"Night," c whispered back, smiling uncontrollably, invisible in the dark, and then he fell asleep.


Chapter Five

Don woke up with a start, as he'd been doing all night. He held still until he'd identified the sound of Charlie's breathing six feet away, muffled but audible. Once he was sure of that, he checked his gun. He was pretty sure that hadn't been a dream-- that Charlie had actually tried to get it from him. It hadn't been the Charlie from his dream, months back, though: no dead-eyed stare from his angry baby brother. Charlie had looked as shocked as Don felt, and that sheepish mutter of "I didn't actually have a plan"--that was his brother all over.

Charlie was in there somewhere, which was reassuring and maddening at the same time. Don lay still, breathing slowly and evenly, thinking it over. He was as sure as he could be without a partner's perspective that his observations were solid. Charlie hadn't seriously been trying to get hold of his weapon, hadn't intended to hurt him. He hadn't been nearly as frightened of Don, even when Don had pinned him to the floor, as he had been when they first met. That was the beginning of trust. If Don could get Charlie to trust him--if Charlie had heard what he said about planning--this could work. It could work. They could survive. He just had to be patient.

Don shifted up onto one elbow and rolled far enough from the door to see that there was a faint light coming from underneath this time. He felt like he'd slept enough; time to start another long day, waiting. He sat up and reached for his holster, shrugging it on by feel and slipping the Sig into place. He looked around the room, trying to see what he could in the minute amount of light.

He remembered the layout of the room. It wasn't like there was much of anything to trip over, but it felt different in the dark--weirdly less claustrophobic when he couldn't see the walls around him. After a minute he got to his feet and walked to the chalkboard Charlie had been working at the day before, careful not to touch the board itself and smudge the writing, feeling along the frame until he got to the work light. He turned it so it was pointed away from where Charlie slept and then clicked it on.

It was just after eight-thirty by his watch. He'd gotten about eight hours of sleep, give or take the interruption, and Charlie should have gotten at least five by now. He seemed to remember that that was enough for Charlie to function on, more or less.

Don glanced over toward the cot where Charlie slept, only faintly illuminated by the indirect light. Charlie was almost entirely hidden by the sleeping bag, just one foot sticking out with a sock hanging half off. Don walked over without thinking about whether he should, stepping softly. Charlie's skin where it showed was purple with cold, and Don tugged the edge of the sleeping bag down to cover his foot, which shifted the cover slightly away from his face.

Don knew he should go back over by the door, put away his bedroll and let Charlie get as much sleep as he could without risking disturbing him, but except for that scuffle last night, this was as close as he'd gotten to Charlie since finding him. His whole body ached to be hugging his baby brother, or better yet throwing him over his shoulder and making a break for it. Don's hands closed into fists, and he shut his eyes and waited until the impulse passed, until it was just a bad idea lurking in his brain and not a tactical plan his body was on the verge of executing without him.

Don crouched down and looked into Charlie's shadowed, sleeping face. His eyebrows were drawn down into a little frown that Don had never seen before except when Charlie was actually in the middle of a problem. He had always slept like a baby: sprawling and innocent, kicking and elbowing anyone unlucky enough to be stuck sharing a pup tent, or a hotel bed, or a back seat with him. Now he lay huddled under his sleeping bag, arms drawn in tight, utterly still. Don raised a hand and then hesitated--but if Charlie woke up he could just say it was time to get up, and Charlie wouldn't argue.

Slowly, gently, barely making contact, Don brushed the backs of his fingers over Charlie's forehead. Charlie's whole face scrunched like he was going to sneeze, and then he exhaled and seemed to relax, twisting away from the touch and settling again. His face looked like Charlie's face then, easy and careless. Don smiled, as reflexively as Charlie had relaxed, and then there was the sound of the bar lifting on the other side of the door, loud in the silence.

Charlie sat bolt upright at the sound, his hands clutched tight to his chest. Don straightened up almost as fast, stepping quickly toward the door, into the line of fire between it and Charlie. He kicked his sleeping bag aside and drew the Sig before the door swung back. Jimmy-or-Sam, standing there with two travel mugs in one hand, the other still on the doorknob, looked at Don oddly as he reholstered his gun, but said only, "Coffee."

Don swallowed. He could hear Charlie gasping behind him, trying to be quiet, and pitched his own voice to cover the sound. "What, no donuts?"

Jimmy-or-Sam held out the mugs impatiently. When Don took them, he pulled a couple of slightly squashed foil-wrapped energy bars from a pocket of his baggy pants. He set one neatly on top of each travel mug, then shook his head and pushed the door shut in Don's face.

Don turned to see Charlie sitting with his knees drawn up and his face in his hands. Don winced.

"Hey, c," he said softly, "come on, have some coffee, up and at 'em."

Charlie nodded without raising his head, and then looked up at Don, glancing back and forth from him to the spot where he'd been crouching, next to the cot. Nothing so overt as asking the guy with the gun what the hell he'd been doing. Don walked over, offering Charlie the mug in his right hand. Charlie's hands shook as he reached for it, and he knocked the energy bar onto the cot.

"Didn't mean to wake you up like that," Don said, closing both his hands around his own coffee mug as he looked down at Charlie's head, at a loss for what else to say. He didn't dare start actually apologizing to Charlie--it wouldn't look right, and if he started he wasn't sure he could stop. He'd just have to hope that Charlie started picking up what he meant, sooner or later.

Charlie wrapped his hands around the mug, and ducked his head toward the wisp of steam escaping toward the lid. It was hard to tell whether the slight movements of his head were shivers or nods. Don moved away to give him some space, switching on the overhead lights. He kicked his sleeping bag into a heap and sat down on it to drink his coffee.

After a couple of sips, he ripped open the foil on the energy bar and took a bite, wincing at the not-quite-right chocolate taste. He washed it down quickly with more coffee. There was a small crackling sound from the cot, and Don looked up to see that Charlie had opened his, too. Don took another small sip of his coffee, watching Charlie take a bite. He wrinkled his nose, and the expression of distaste was painfully familiar--how many times had he seen Charlie frown just like that at his vegetables? Charlie took a casual sip of his coffee, his shoulders only hunched against the cold and the general affront of being awake, and he was almost Charlie, every movement, every habit.

Then something crossed his face, and he picked up the energy bar again, eating it in quick, methodical bites without betraying the least distaste. Like he knew he didn't have a choice except to starve, like he'd never had a soft-hearted mom who let him have a snack before bed if he got hungry because he hadn't finished his dinner.

He thinks his name is c, Don thought. He doesn't know anything but this. He thinks this is who he is. If Charlie had any chance to ever get better, to ever be Charlie again, it lay in getting him out of here alive. A long shot all around.

Don didn't look over again. He finished his own breakfast, crumpled up the foil and dropped it inside his empty mug, and set it neatly by the door. Then he got up and zipped and rolled his sleeping bag and floor mat and pillow, returning it to the same tidy bundle it had been before. He set it down beside his duffle, and only then looked over at Charlie--c. He was sitting up on the edge of his cot, head tipped back to get the last drops of his coffee. When he lowered his head and caught Don's eye, Don looked away, and Charlie got up and went to the table.

Once Charlie was busy, Don let himself take a long look at his brother. Charlie's stubble was taking on truly crazed proportions now, and while it wasn't as easy to tell with his hair shorter, he had that unwashed hermit look that he'd gotten sometimes when he'd stayed out in the garage for a few days straight without venturing further into the house than the downstairs bathroom.

"Hey, c," Don said, and Charlie tensed as he looked up. Don summoned up a half-smile, trying to soften the words, but said just as bluntly as he ever would have, "When's the last time you took a shower?"

Charlie didn't look offended, though, and he didn't look sheepish. His eyes went deer-in-the-headlights wide, just for a second, and then he looked away. His voice shook a little as he said, "That depends on what day it is. I lose track."

Don gritted his teeth, not letting Charlie see him flinch. That was Torture 101, depriving your victim of time-sense. God knew how long it had been since Charlie had had any, locked away with no windows and only his visits from the guards to go by.

Don glanced at his watch. "Well, it's now 8:52 in the morning on--" he actually had to stop and think. It had been a long time since he'd given a fuck about the date. He'd been on his own private Charlie calendar for 131 days now.

"November thirteenth," he finished, and Charlie was watching him from the corner of his eye. "So you'll get a shower today, and you can start keeping track from now, okay?"

He waited, watching, and Charlie gave him a tiny nod before he turned away, looking through his papers again. Don turned away too, digging his walkie-talkie out of the pocket of his bag he'd dropped it into before he went to sleep. No time like the present to find out how much he could use this thing to ask for. Still crouched near the door, he clicked it on.

"Hey, Mac here, who's on the door?"

There was a long pause, long enough for Don to wonder if anybody up there even had a radio turned on, or if the radio Williamson had given him was just for his own amusement. Then his radio clicked on and a voice said, "Jimmy. Whaddya need?"

Don shifted his weight, listening to Charlie not making a sound behind him, not a paper rustling, not a breath audible.

"Know-It-All here needs a shower."

Jimmy snorted. "We usually just hose him off when he starts to smell."

Don leaned his forehead against the hard plastic of his walkie-talkie, listening to the quick quiet shuffle of Charlie walking to the bathroom in stocking feet, the closest thing he had to a hiding place. As the water switched on, Don pressed the button on his radio.

"Yeah, well, you're not usually locked in with him twenty-three hours a day. He needs a fucking shower, so why don't you come down here and unlock the door?"

Ominously, Jimmy just said, "We'll see what the boss says," and then clicked off.

Don rubbed his face and muttered, "Fuck."

If Williamson thought Don had overstepped--if this was seen as an attempt to subvert security procedure, getting Charlie upstairs--worse, if Williamson thought Mac was being too kind to his charge and started to wonder why...

The toilet flushed, and a minute later the water shut off. Don glanced over to see Charlie wiping his hands on the stomach of his sweater. He couldn't let Charlie see him uncertain about this. "You have clothes to change into, c?"

Charlie looked around the bare room, and Don winced. Stupid question. But Charlie shrugged and said, "Upstairs somewhere, I guess. Somebody gives them to me when I wash up."

"Okay," Don said, "Okay. Good. Somebody should be--"

And he was listening for it, from his position near the wall, so he heard the footsteps clattering down the stairs and raised a hand toward Charlie as the bar was taken off the door. Don kept his eyes on Charlie for a second, enough to see him flinch from the sound, and then he straightened up with one hand on the doorframe, blocking Charlie from the sight of whoever was coming in.

It was Jimmy. Not Williamson, which seemed promising; maybe Don had gotten away with this one.

"Come on, then," Jimmy said, looking irritated. "Let's go."

Don looked back at Charlie, but he was just standing there, looking at the floor, shoulders drawn in. When he glanced back toward the door, Jimmy was glaring at Charlie, and Don could see all too easily how petty annoyance and boredom would lead to the casual cruelty Charlie obviously expected. Don crossed the distance to Charlie and took him by the arm.

"Come on, let's go," Don said quietly, and when he tugged Charlie moved, walking ahead of him to the door. Don brushed past Jimmy, keeping himself between Charlie and the thug, steering his brother up the stairs.

Another of the guys was waiting at the top, holding a paper shopping bag. He held it out and Charlie just stopped, frozen between him and Don. Don took the bag and turned Charlie toward the living room and the bathroom beyond, trying to ignore the fact that Charlie didn't seem to know the way. Don opened the bathroom door and gently shoved Charlie inside, but when he set the bag down on the sink without stepping inside, Jimmy said, "Oh, no," from behind him.

Don turned, trying not to think of how trapped Charlie looked, standing shivering in the small room. "What do you mean, no?"

"I mean, if he goes in there, you go in there with him, dumbass," Jimmy said, looking obnoxiously satisfied with himself. "I'm not waiting an hour to take a piss because he locks himself in there and we gotta disassemble the fucking door. Anyway, he could have an accident or something. You'd better protect him."

Don gritted his teeth at the tone, not bothering to look like he didn't want to punch Jimmy. Mac would want to punch Jimmy at this point. Anyone would. His fists were clenched, his arms tensed, but Don couldn't hit Jimmy any more than he could hit anyone or anything else here.

"Fine," he said flatly, because Jimmy's hand was drifting toward his radio, telegraphing another call to Williamson for backup. He'd doubtless get it. Don had a feeling nobody so much as looked sideways at Charlie without Williamson's express permission, not given how tightly everything seemed to be controlled.

However he'd been terrorized, it was all part of the boss's plan--which meant that if Williamson was letting Don treat Charlie a little bit like a human being now, it wouldn't come without strings.

"Fine, look, I'm going in with him."

He stepped inside the bathroom, closed the door and locked it. There was barely space for both of them to stand without touching each other. Charlie stared at the floor, arms folded around his middle, waiting for God knew what.

Don leaned against the door, stealing the unobserved minute to think. He was alone in a small room with Charlie, behind a locked door that he controlled. He could turn on the water and probably baffle whatever audio surveillance there might be, whether mechanical or human, as long as he spoke softly. Now would be a perfect time to call for help, if he had any to call for.

Even if he couldn't tell anyone else where they were, though, this was the first halfway safe opportunity he'd had to tell Charlie who he was. There were a million things he wanted to say all crowding together in his throat and choking him--starting with I'm not going to hurt you, I'll never hurt you. I'm your brother. Your name is Charlie. I missed you. I love you, and I don't know why I never bothered to say so before. I'll get you out. I'll get you home. You'll be all right.

He was reaching for the sink tap when he saw Charlie flinch and crashed back to reality: he couldn't tell Charlie a damn thing, and Charlie wouldn't believe him if he did. Not now. If Charlie started to remember on his own, then there'd be no avoiding the risk, and Don would have to explain it to him. If Charlie started to really trust him, once they were planning together, then he might as well tell him. They'd have plenty of secrets to keep then. But now was not the time--not even close to it.

Don converted his motion into a grab for the bag, and Charlie didn't relax, but he didn't raise his hands into an actual cower, either.

"Okay," Don said, turning toward the sink as he opened the paper bag. There was a small, paper-wrapped bar of cheap soap on top of what looked like a change of clean clothes, and he took it out and offered it to Charlie. He took it after a second's hesitation, hand shaking. Don opened the cupboard under the sink, forcing himself to ignore Charlie's trembling, and pulled out a towel and washcloth. He set the towel on the edge of the sink and handed the washcloth to Charlie, who took it, still staring at him, still watching him and waiting.

"Go on," Don said, gesturing to the shower and choking back reassurances. Nothing he could say would make Charlie trust him. He had to keep quiet. He had to be patient. He had to let Charlie watch him doing nothing.

"And don't forget to wash your hair."

Charlie just blinked at him, but Don turned to face the door, folded his arms and waited.


c stood staring for a moment at Don's back, mesmerized by the rise and fall of his shoulders as he breathed. He was so close c could see sweat on the back of his neck, just like the damp chill on his own nape. c tore his eyes away, turning and pushing the shower curtain back and getting quickly inside. When he had the curtain drawn again it was a little easier to think; he could almost pretend Don wasn't out there, wasn't in the small room with him. Don would let him pretend, in fact, which the others generally didn't, on the rare occasions when they let him have a real shower. c knew better than to question it, though.

He set down the soap and washcloth on the shower ledge and quickly began to remove his clothes, tossing them over the curtain as he took them off. Sweater, t-shirt, jeans, and boxers, and then he had to lean against the wall to get his socks off. Somehow he managed not to fall, and not to think too much about the silent presence of Don on the other side of the thin vinyl curtain. He wondered if Don had turned away from the door, if he was standing there watching with that look on his face. c froze, listening for any sound of movement, but he couldn't even hear Don breathing. The room was so still he could hear the TV somewhere else in the house, but not a sound in this room except his own thumping heartbeat, loud in his ears.

He turned on the tap to drown it out, skipping awkwardly back from the gush of cold water. He could hardly bear to put a hand into the stream to gauge the temperature, and the ache sank instantly into his bones. He shivered violently, clenching his teeth to keep quiet, goosebumps springing up all over his body. Once the water had progressed from cold to tepid, c turned on the shower and stood under the spray, rubbing his hands over his skin for the friction heat as the water continued warming up.

It felt so good, so horribly good, to be wet and halfway warm and getting clean, with no one actively harassing him. He let himself forget--when he could--how filthy he was, how disgusting it was, but he could smell himself most days. Whatever Don had in mind for later, c appreciated the shower.

When the water finally got hot enough to chase away his shivers--nearly scalding, but he didn't mind, he couldn't remember the last time he'd been really warm--he reached for the soap, peeled off the paper wrapper and lathered up the washcloth. He washed quickly but thoroughly, scrubbing fiercely at his skin, under his arms, down his back, contorting into weird positions until he had hot water running everywhere. He washed his face twice, scrubbing the cloth over the constant maddening itch of stubble, and then started on his hair. He scrubbed soap over it until it was foamy and slippery and then worked his fingers through the impossible tangles of it, tugging at the knots until they gave up--or until he yanked out the offending strands. He wasted precious seconds of hot water rinsing strands of hair off his fingers, herding them to the drain with his toes.

c nearly yelped when the water turned suddenly cold, but managed to strangle it back and stayed under until his hair was clean and rinsed. He shut the water off sharply, shivering all over again and suddenly once again conscious that Don was just outside the curtain. He took a breath, preparing himself to ask for a towel, when Don's hand appeared over the top of the curtain, holding one. c took it, drying himself quickly. Cold water was running down his neck, down his back, and he scrubbed at his hair, trying to dry it before he moved down further. He wrapped the towel around his hips, bracing himself to step outside and dress, but before he could reach for the curtain Don's hand appeared again, this time holding a clean pair of boxers.

c was suddenly, helplessly seized with the urge to cry, because he was so fucking grateful for that hand holding those shorts, and because he knew--the way he just knew things, though he had no names for them, no faces or memories to have learned them from--that it wasn't fucking fair, wasn't fucking human, to have to feel so grateful for such a thing. He swallowed hard and shook his head, pushing the feeling away, and then grabbed the boxers from Don's hand and put them on under his towel. When a t-shirt appeared over the curtain, he was ready for it and pulled it on, tossing the towel over the curtain rod. He heard Don take a step away, and no further offerings followed. When he pushed back the curtain, Don was facing the door again. It was as kind as handing across a towel, that carefully and obviously averted gaze. c experienced another wild surge of gratitude and pushed it down as best he could. Don was starting to make a habit of being kind to him, and c still didn't know how to analyze that pattern. He'd have to wait for more data.

c quickly pulled on the clean sweatpants and socks Don had left out, noticing as he did that Don had packed up his dirty clothes in the paper bag that had held the clean ones. He stood still for a moment when he was done, staring at Don's back, and then said, "Um."

Don turned to face him. He had c's mechanical pencil clipped incongruously to the strap of his holster; he must have rescued it from c's jeans before bagging them. Don seemed to follow c's gaze, because he immediately pulled it off, offering it eraser-first.

Handle toward my hand, c thought again, and it had been a knife, hadn't it? That was how you passed knives, you held out the handle, and when you took it you said--

c cleared his throat and closed his hand around the end of the pencil and said, "Thank you."

He looked straight into Don's eyes as he said it, and maybe it was just some knife-handling protocol from some recess of his own cracked brain, but Don seemed to understand. He nodded and let go, and c turned half away, shoving the pencil into the pocket of his sweatpants and hauling the drawstring in, because they were already sagging on his hips. He felt as much as heard Don shifting down the wall, further into the room, and when c looked up at him, Don gestured toward the sink, where a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste had been laid out for him.

c rubbed his itching cheek against his shoulder as he stepped to the sink. There was no razor there, which was half disappointing and half a relief, but mostly something he'd rather not think about with Don standing so close behind him. He put toothpaste on his toothbrush and focused on getting his teeth really actually clean for the first time in days. If his mouth tasted as much of copper as of mint when he was done, at least his teeth felt smooth.

When he'd finished spitting in the sink and shut off the tap, Don said, "All set?"

c only flinched a little at the sound of his voice, turning to face him, and then held perfectly still as Don leaned in and past him, picking up his toothbrush from the sink. Don put the toothbrush in his back pocket, and when he turned to open the door, c saw that there was a disposable razor beside it, and his stomach sank. Only a reprieve, then, and Don must have been briefed on the procedure, to have known to keep the razor from him. c shivered as Don's hand closed on his arm, pushing him out into the colder air of the hallway.

He kept his eyes turned down, walking where Don--Mac, he was Mac out here--guided him. He was on guard for a shout or a blow all the way to the door, and felt himself relax a little when he set a foot on the basement stairs. He was halfway down when Jimmy appeared at the bottom. Mac's hand tightened on his arm and he froze, trying not to recoil visibly, staring down at Jimmy's boots.

Mac prodded him, and he took another step down and then another, Mac almost stepping on his heels. He was only two steps away--close enough, he knew, for Jimmy to grab him--when Jimmy said, "Lemme take that."

He felt cold--colder, he was already cold everywhere but where Mac's hand wrapped hot around his arm--at the thought of Jimmy taking him anywhere. Mac shoved him forward, and he stumbled down the last two steps with Mac's hand holding him up, toward Jimmy and then past him, through the door and into the room where his name was c and he could almost breathe as Mac's hand finally let go.

Somewhere behind him, though he didn't dare look back, Mac said, "Fuck off, if Williamson wants his dirty socks he can pick them up later."

c winced--Williamson wouldn't like to hear about Mac saying that--but he stayed where he was, breathing, arms wrapped around himself for what warmth he could generate by shivering.

Don stepped through the door--nearly into him, because c had halted just over the threshold--and slammed it shut behind them. They both stood there, perfectly still and so close that c could feel Don's breath against the back of his neck, until they heard the lock turn and the bar drop on the other side.

Don's hand brushed across the small of his back, there and gone before he could flinch, as Don stepped away from him. He dropped the paper bag with a muffled metallic sound, and c turned to watch as Don crouched over his duffle bag, his jeans tightening across his ass. c had a moment of figure/ground confusion, arrested by the motion and shape of Don's body, and then by the items in his pocket thrown into sharp relief, toothbrush and razor lined up with their handles neatly parallel.

He couldn't tear his eyes away, even as Don straightened up and turned to face him. Only when Don said, "Hey, one more thing and then you can get to work," did c realize that he was staring at Don's knees and drag his gaze up. Don was holding an aerosol can that some helpful fragment of hidden memory identified as shaving cream in one hand and the razor in the other, looking at c with an expression he couldn't read at all.


Charlie was just standing there, shivering, and Don stayed still, keeping his face neutral and waiting for Charlie to respond. Don knew the shower thing must have been scary for him, but the sooner he could get everyone--Charlie included--used to Charlie being upstairs sometimes, the sooner they might have a real chance at making a break for it. He'd felt Charlie relax when they reached the basement steps, and that was the only sign he'd had so far that Charlie felt safe with him, or at least safer with him than he did in general. Don had barely had time to register that fact before Jimmy had scared Charlie, popping up like that--hell, he'd startled Don. But Jimmy was on the other side of the door now, and if Don was just patient, Charlie would calm down and come back to him again.

He had a sneaking suspicion Charlie was waiting, too, as he stood there and watched Don and shivered, still damp from his shower and probably cold without that ratty sweater that stank like he'd been wearing it for four months solid and crunched in spots when Don wadded it up. There had been handcuffs at the bottom of the paper bag, underneath the perfectly ordinary clean clothes, right beside the toothbrush and toothpaste and disposable razor. They were still there now, underneath Charlie's dirty clothes, and they were going to stay there.

The purpose of the handcuffs had been clear enough. Charlie was allowed to handle chalk and a single mechanical pencil, either locked in alone or in the presence of one or more armed guards. There was no way they were going to hand him something with blades and let him go. And once Charlie was in handcuffs, under the supervision of a bored, armed guard, irritated at having to babysit him...

Charlie raised his hands then, together, wrists up, and Don flinched from the bravely expressionless look on his face.

"That's not necessary," Don said firmly. "Here, go shave."

One of Charlie's hands moved toward the razor, and then both jerked back and he wrapped his arms around himself again. "It's a rule."

Don stared at Charlie, trying to work out a way around this, fighting the frustration welling up into real anger. This was stupid, such a dumb thing to get stuck on. Charlie didn't have to do this, he wasn't going to put Charlie through this.

"It's a stupid rule, okay? So let's just skip it."

Charlie shrank from the word stupid in a way Don had never seen before--when had Charlie ever been called stupid?--but said almost inaudibly, "It's still a rule, it's still--"

Don sighed, shifted the shaving cream and razor into one hand and grabbed Charlie by the arm with the other, pulling him, unresisting, to the bathroom. When he had Charlie standing in front of the sink, facing the spotty little mirror, Don set down the stuff on the sink and leaned in the doorway. Charlie just looked up at him, and somewhere in his eyes, Don could see a hint of his brother's stubbornness. He knew how hard it had to be for Charlie to put up this much resistance, but he was not about to give in. He was not putting cuffs on Charlie. He was not going to be any more a part of this than he had to, not when he and Charlie were alone down here.

"Look," Don said, "Williamson put me in here to keep an eye on you. That's my job. That means I tell you what to do, and I am telling you to just shave and get it over with and stop arguing with me about it."

Charlie flinched as though Don had struck him, and Don winced. He shouldn't be bullying Charlie into accepting a little freedom, but it did seem to have done the job. Charlie reached unceratinly for the shaving cream. Don sighed and looked away, shifting to the outside of the doorway to give Charlie some space.

He could hear the wet soapy sound of Charlie lathering his face, just as he'd been able to hear Charlie's every move in the shower, and just like before, it was weirdly, sickeningly intimate. Intrusive. Now, at least, Don was perfectly free to move away.

He pushed off from the doorway, and at that moment there was a loud clatter from the bathroom. Don turned to look just as Charlie reached into the sink with a shaking hand to pick up the razor he'd knocked in. Don hesitated, opening his mouth, about to tell Charlie to take it easy, which would be stupid. There was nothing easy about this for Charlie. Even under a layer of shaving cream, Don could see that his jaw was clenched, and he had the razor in a death grip. Don could see it shaking as he raised it to his face, and this was crazy, Charlie was going to cut himself to ribbons.

Don leaned in hastily, his right hand catching on the doorframe to keep him from falling on Charlie as he reached to stop Charlie's hand with his left. Charlie flinched from the motion and moved spasmodically, taking a wild swipe at his own face that Don lunged to push aside. He felt the stinging slice across his own thumb at the same instant he saw red well up on Charlie's face, like it was one wound shared between them.

The razor fell from Charlie's fingers, and Don muttered, "Fuck," and pushed past him, grabbing a wad of cheap toilet paper off the roll. Charlie was almost cowering against the sink, frozen, and Don used his left thumb to press the toilet paper to Charlie's jaw, hard enough to be putting pressure on both their cuts simultaneously. His fingers rested against the hot damp skin of Charlie's throat. He could see, in his mind's eye, his blood and Charlie's flowing into either side of the non-barrier of the toilet paper. With a clinical detachment miles away from the baffled terror in Charlie's eyes and the sting of his own broken skin, Don thought he was about two minutes too late now to hope that Charlie hadn't been exposed to anything transmissible by blood contact since he was taken.

He had to look away from Charlie's staring eyes, so he twisted around in the tiny space to grab some more toilet paper, dropping one red-soaked wad in the toilet and replacing it with a clean one.

"Okay," Don said quietly, "okay, so you're right. A rule's a rule."

When he glanced at Charlie's face, bafflement was starting to win out over terror. Don supposed the standard script called for him to be in the process of beating Charlie to death for cutting him at this point, not admitting--however obliquely--that it had been his own fault.

He eased his thumb off the toilet paper, holding the scrap against Charlie's cheek for another minute as he looked at the cut on his own skin. It was a neat straight double line at the tip of his thumb, and the flow of blood had already slowed to seeping. When he peeled the paper away from Charlie's jaw it was the same, two parallel lines just at the edge of his jaw. Don ripped a single square of toilet paper, pressing a bit to Charlie's cut until it stuck there and holding the rest against his thumb with his finger.

Charlie was backed against the sink, and Don reached around him to fish out the razor, switching on the tap to rinse it off, his own hands shaking just a little.

"Okay," he said, in a low, gentle voice like he'd use on anybody traumatized almost beyond the ability to process speech, trying to steady them both. "So if you can't hold a razor without having your hands cuffed, then you just won't hold it, all right? Chin up."

Charlie's eyes widened and then closed, but he obediently tilted his chin up. Don left the water running, so that there'd be some sound in the tiny space other than the two of them breathing. He set the fingers of his left hand against Charlie's jaw, holding him still.

Charlie flinched at the first touch of the razor, his eyes squeezing tightly shut. Don wondered if the others had done this to him, if they'd been rough and cut him up enough to make being handcuffed--or going three days without a shower to avoid the whole issue--seem like the better choice. Don had to go slowly to keep from cutting Charlie; he kept making small moves, like he was trying to drop his chin and then remembered that he was supposed to keep it up. They were nearly chest to chest, and Don could feel the speed of Charlie's breathing.

He tried to tune out Charlie's fear and focus on just one thing: the cowlick on Charlie's cheek, identical to the one on his own that he'd spent his later teenaged years figuring out how to shave properly. By the time he was in college he could do it in two practiced flicks, and by now it was muscle memory, automatic, but of course to get Charlie's he had to do it backward. He might as well have been working left-handed, leaning in so close he could feel Charlie's breath on his cheek. When he was done he reached behind Charlie to rinse the razor, shifting back and looking at Charlie's face, pale above the shaving cream, naked and pink where Don had already shaved. He still had his eyes closed, the lashes dark against his skin. He looked like he hadn't seen the sun since he'd been taken. He probably hadn't.

"So it probably feels like I'm about to cut your throat, huh?"

Charlie's eyes flashed open as Don tapped the wet razor against the sink, startled and as confused as ever. Don smiled, and it was almost automatic, almost easy. It was Charlie, after all. He was here with Charlie.

"You can say yes. I mean, that's what I'd be thinking."

"Y-yeah," Charlie whispered, nodding fractionally.

Don nodded back. "Well, you should know, in this position, with your chin up, your trachea actually gives some protection to the major vessels in your neck."

He touched his knuckles to Charlie's Adam's apple, and it shifted as Charlie swallowed under the touch.

"If I was going to cut your throat, I'd push your head down, like this." He slid his left hand into Charlie's wet hair and pushed gently down, until he was looking at the crown of Charlie's head, pressed a knuckle lightly against Charlie's throat.

"See, the veins are exposed, that way." He tugged gently and Charlie's head tilted back instantly, chin up as far as it would go, his cheeks bright pink all over now. Don nodded. "That's it. Chin up, safe as kittens."

Charlie gave him a quick flash of smile that didn't quite reach his eyes, but he didn't mutter Pompous ass, and roll his eyes, the way Charlie always did when Don mentioned kittens and safety. Don lowered his eyes to Charlie's chin and got on with shaving him. Charlie's lips were parted now, and his eyelashes kept fluttering, like he was peeking at Don and then shutting his eyes again. Don kept his eyes on his work, letting Charlie settle down on his own.

The last part was tricky, working around the cut and the toilet paper stuck to it, and then Don was done, taking a half-step away. He stood to the side of the sink, rinsing the razor and watching from the corner of his eye as Charlie ran an exploratory hand over his smooth cheeks. Don tucked the razor back into his pocket along with Charlie's toothbrush, both of them headed for his own shaving kit, and then raised his left hand, peeling back the toilet paper adhered to his thumb. It stung a little, but the blood had started to dry along the cuts in two neat dark-red lines. He stood there, flexing his thumb cautiously, and then heard the minute sound of Charlie peeling the paper off his face.

Don looked up, mouth pointlessly open to tell Charlie not to do that--too late, for one thing, and not like he really needed to keep yelling at Charlie, for another--but Charlie's cuts were clotting too, just a dark double line along his jawbone. Charlie leaned toward the mirror, peering at himself, and then, without moving his head, looked up at Don. For once, for a moment, there was something not at all scared in his eyes. Don smiled and raised his left hand to Charlie's face, turning the cut on his thumb toward the mirror and looking at their reflections.

Charlie pushed his cheek slightly against Don's hand, and Don said, "How do you like that? We match."

He would have said more, but the words died in his mouth as he met Charlie's eyes in the mirror, looking at the two of them side by side. They were so close, so alike, and Charlie had to see it. He had to know. Don could swear there was something in Charlie's eyes and he just waited for Charlie to say we always did, could almost hear the words. It would be all right, they would keep the secret somehow, they would make their move so fast it wouldn't matter--

Charlie cleared his throat and said with an audibly brave effort at flippancy, "So what does that make us, then? Blood brothers?"

Don blinked, controlling his expression, clamping down on the urge to grab Charlie, to make him see it. He looked away from Charlie's guileless eyes, taking his hand away from Charlie's face so Charlie wouldn't see it curl into a fist.

"Yeah," he said, picking up the shaving cream and turning to the door. "Something like that."


c knew he'd said the wrong thing, though he couldn't quite work out what the right thing would have been, or in exactly what way his answer had been wrong. Perhaps he'd assumed too much closeness between them--but that was hardly fair, when Don had implied the equivalence first. Don didn't seem to be actually angry at him, though he'd spent all the hours since c's faux pas sitting near the door on his bedroll, staring at a comic book. He'd only moved once, when someone pounded on the door, and c had been startled, but little more; Don had kept between him and the door, and it had turned out to be lunch. c had gotten quickly back to work, but he'd heard Don walk up behind him, and Don said softly, "It's twelve-thirty now, c. Don't forget to stop and eat."

c had nodded without taking his eyes off the board, and a while later he'd even remembered to stop and eat between iterations of his calculations. Every time he'd looked over at Don, Don was still looking intently at the same comic book. He didn't seem like the sort of person c would imagine having difficulty reading--he'd said he'd passed physics, after all--but he wasn't turning pages very often. c never caught Don looking at him.

Having an idea of the passage of time was disquieting in some respects; he suddenly had an idea of how long his calculations were taking, and with it, a nagging sense that he ought to be going faster, getting more done. When he heard the bar lift, his heart started to speed up, but he didn't approach true panic until Don murmured, "Quarter after six, c," at the scrape of the lock.

He focused on his current calculation, working furiously, as Don left and Williamson came to stand in his peripheral vision. He didn't stop until he had the figures, and turned and scribbled them down before he finally faced Williamson. Williamson was staring at him--at his face, he realized a little belatedly. Because he'd shaved. He felt himself flushing, his stomach lurching as he realized that Williamson would ask him about it. But Williamson looked away, at the papers on the table, and said, "How are the calculations coming?"

He cleared his throat and said, "Pretty well. I should be finished with this run soon." He picked up his results sheet, and Williamson took it from him, looking over the numbers with a practiced gaze--he didn't know the first thing about applied mathematics, but he knew how to read the results after all this time. c didn't know how much time. He wondered if Don--if Mac--could tell him, and then thought that Mac probably shouldn't. There was probably a rule.

"I don't see a ninety-percent success sequence here," Williamson said finally.

He nodded, not allowing himself to be frustrated with Williamson for stating the obvious. He just stated the obvious right back. "That's why I didn't tell you I had one, because I'm not finished yet. This is a very complex--"

"You hadn't shaved yet when you left the bathroom," Williamson said, without looking up from the page, and he flinched. He'd known this was coming, he shouldn't fall for such simple fakes, but he always did. He always wanted to, because even a second spent not anticipating the blow was better.

"That's true," he said, because it was and there was no point denying it. "Mac wanted me to do it down here. Actually, he did it. My hands were shaking."

So far so good, every word true. Williamson finally looked up from the page and then grabbed his chin, turning it to show the cut on his jaw. It throbbed, now that he was thinking of it, though he'd managed to forget it was there for most of the day.

"Uh-huh," Williamson said, and he should have sounded skeptical, or amused, or something, but there was nothing there to work with, nothing to analyze. He kept very still, and Williamson's hand forced his chin up to an uncomfortable angle. Chin up, safe as kittens, he thought, but he wasn't reassured at all.

"He handcuff you? I know he brought the cuffs down here."

His eyes darted involuntarily to where the paper bag had been, but Don--Mac--must have taken it with him when he left. Williamson's hand tightened, pressing against his airway, so that his whispered, "No," sounded strangled and desperate.

Williamson let go all at once, folding his arms, giving him a silently displeased look. His elbow throbbed and his fingers ached, he was sweating and freezing, and he knew he would crawl on his knees and beg for mercy if Williamson wanted him to.

He whispered, "I tried to tell him--"

"What makes you think you should be telling him anything, Know-Nothing?"

He flinched and stayed silent, and Williamson moved close to him, close enough that he could feel Williamson's body heat. It just made him feel colder. When Williamson's hand fell hot and heavy on his shoulder, he shivered. Williamson's grip tightened to the edge of pain.

"Mac doesn't take orders from you, Know-Nothing, he takes orders from me."

He nodded quickly, but it was too late. One small error at any step and the whole progression went inescapably awry. Williamson's hand moved to his face, stroking across the naked skin of his cheek, and his stomach turned, wondering if this would be the time that Williamson finally did all those things he'd whispered and hinted at before--but it was worse than that, of course, Williamson always found a way to make it worse than he expected. This time Williamson leaned in, the breath of his words hot and damp on his face, and said, "He'll do anything to you that I tell him to, Know-Nothing. Any old thing."

Williamson's fingers traced across his mouth and he had to shut his eyes tight, gritting his teeth against the useless urge to scream, his gorge rising.

Some voice of rebellion was crying He wouldn't, Don wouldn't, but Mac would, if Williamson ordered it, and he knew that. His eyes prickled at the thought, and Williamson's finger dragged his lower lip down. Williamson said softly, "He's got those handcuffs, after all, but..."

The silence was terrible, breathing Williamson's breath on every inhalation, and finally he opened his eyes, looking up at Williamson looking down at him as though he were just another page of unsatisfactory results.

"But maybe he wouldn't need them," Williamson said, one eyebrow quirking up so briefly he couldn't swear he'd seen it at all. "Maybe you'd like that, huh, Know-Nothing? Maybe you're just waiting for me to order Mac to fuck your sweet genius ass."

And he knew--the way he knew some things, and he didn't want to know how he knew this one--what this was, that the implication of receptive homosexuality was the implication of un-masculinity was the implication of un-humanity, but knowing why didn't lessen the power of it. Williamson's words still made him feel small and naked and powerless all the same. His stomach roiled and his cheeks burned with shame because maybe it was true, maybe he would like it--

"And maybe you'd better eat your dinner before you get back to work," Williamson said abruptly, his voice back at a normal volume, his hand dropping away.

He hadn't even noticed that Williamson brought in food, but when he looked there was a plate of spaghetti and a plastic cup of water. The spaghetti was half-cold, and the smell turned his already-unsettled stomach. He could barely hold food in his mouth to chew it. The very feeling of it was revolting, and Williamson watched every move he made. He ate anyway, because he had to, and the food sat like lead in his stomach while he worked under Williamson's eyes, as fast as he could without making mistakes. He felt colder after he ate, and tired, his brain going slow and foggy on him and his handwriting wandering across the board--adrenaline-crash and digestion made a poor combination for brain and fine-motor function.

He nearly dropped the chalk when he heard Williamson switch on his radio and say, "Mac, time's up. Let's go." He forced himself to keep working, not to respond as the bar lifted and the lock opened and then the door--but Williamson hurried out, and Mac didn't come in. The door shut again, and once he was alone in the room c let himself go still, waiting to see who would come in, and with what orders.


Don had taken the precaution of sitting at the top of the stairs this time, so when Williamson called for him he walked down, slow and silent on the first few steps, and then loud and quick at the end. When he opened the door he stood back a little to let Williamson out, but Williamson caught him by the right arm and pushed him back toward the foot of the stairs, pulling the door shut behind him.

Don opened his mouth to ask what the hell was going on--he couldn't let himself think This is it, couldn't look guilty, but oh God, what if--but Williamson said, "Shh."

Williamson didn't let go of his arm, didn't move away from him, and he was facing Don but seemed to be looking past him, through him. This wasn't about Don, though he didn't know what the hell it was about. Williamson was holding Don's right arm with his left hand, which meant there was no way Don could draw his gun without telegraphing the move to Williamson, no way he could draw faster than Williamson could. A bare-handed kill wouldn't be as fast as he needed, and only quiet if Williamson didn't fight back competently and viciously, which he would.

Perhaps three minutes had passed--way too much time with Williamson touching him, both of them silent, as close as he'd been to Charlie that morning over a razor--when Williamson abruptly pushed him toward the door.

"Go on."

Don nodded obediently, glad to get away, and let himself back in.


His guard came inside, and outside the door the bar was lowered and the lock turned, and then Don said, "Hey, c. It's seven-twenty now."

c looked at him, searching for some sign of what Williamson had ordered him to do--what he might want, whether it would hurt, and how much--but his half-smile was as disarmingly kind-looking as ever. c suddenly wondered what that smile hid, whether Don had always had his orders, what it was he hungered for when he looked at c.

Don turned away and c went back to his work. When he went to the table to write down his next set of figures, his sweater was there, clean and nearly dry, still warm and smelling like dryer sheets. He didn't dare look toward where Don was sitting on his bedroll, staring fixedly at his comic book, but he picked up the sweater and pressed it against his face for a moment before he put it on, and the dampness of his eyes faded into the dampness of the freshly-washed garment. c tried to analyze the gesture--surely such a kindness was meant to keep him off-balance, or was somehow pragmatically motivated--but it was hard to see beyond the fact that it was kind.

He struggled quickly into the sweater, tugging the sleeves down over his chilled hands and hugging himself in it just for a moment. If he didn't think too much about any of this, if he got back to his work immediately, he could have that much time not waiting for whatever would come next. If this was a fake, c wanted to fall for it. The blow always hurt less if you weren't anticipating it.

He got to work again, pushing himself faster and faster. He could find the .90 success probability by tomorrow, if he didn't sleep too much. It was so close, he just had to balance the factors--he could see it in his mind's eye, the perfect line he was pushing toward. He could also see the computer screen displaying the program that would find it for him before he could drink a cup of coffee.

No point thinking about that now. He went on to the next calculation, and the next after that. The sweater cooled before it dried, leaving him clammy and chilly as he worked, but he tuned out the discomfort, tucking his left hand inside his sweater for warmth, the right curling into the usual fist. It was hard to make the transition from chalk to pencil when he had to record his results, but he managed, one set after another after another, until he was halfway through a calculation and felt the warning twinge in his right hand. He tried to write faster, even knowing it was futile, as if he could outrace the errant impulses of his own muscles.

His hand twitched and then seized entirely, the chalk slipping from his grip to break on the floor. He jerked at the sound, looking over at Don, who was, naturally, looking back at him with a small frown. c went cold inside--he was being too slow--now, it would be now--and crouched, awkwardly withdrawing his left hand from his sweater and trying to flex the crabbed and useless right, rewarded only with a shock of pain from wrist to elbow as the muscles of his forearm cramped as well. He heard Don's heavy, quick footsteps approaching, saw Don's boots, and then Don grabbed him, hauling him to his feet by the arms. c couldn't quite choke back a sound, something like a whimper.

Don frowned harder and pushed him up against the cold rough wall--not against his chalkboard, at least, so he wouldn't lose the calculations.

"Let me see your hand," Don said.

c shook his head wildly, though he knew better than to actually struggle. "I can--I'll get back to work, just let me--" He shouldn't be arguing either, and Don was still frowning.

"Just let me look--"

His hand closed around c's right wrist, hot and strong, and there was no point, but c jerked back against his grip anyway, and succeeded only in smacking his elbow against the wall.

"Stop it, c," Don snapped, and then, "I'm not going to hurt you."

c froze, staring at Don, resistance forgotten in the face of that patently absurd and oddly sincere-sounding statement. Don seemed aware of what he'd said, meeting c's eyes with a grimace, and c cleared his throat and said in a small voice, "It's nothing, really. I'll get back to work."

"Yeah, you will, in a second," Don murmured, looking down at c's hand.

Don held it between both of his, so warm that c almost didn't care what came next. Don peeled c's frozen fingers back, gently but firmly, and drove a thumb into the cramped muscle of his palm. c gasped, shuddering, and the hard touch shot through his body, easing him everywhere and gathering as heat, low in his belly. He leaned heavily against the wall, watching Don's fingers work warm and strong over his hand, and when Don looked up and grinned at him, dark eyes bright, c could only smile dazedly back.

Don's hands moved ceaselessly over c's hand, raising friction heat on his sweaty skin, pressing hard into the muscles at the heel of his hand and squeezing his fingers. It hurt, but the pain was a relief compared to the dull ache of the freeze, and Don's touch was making his heart beat faster in an almost entirely unfamiliar way. Don leaned close to him, his body heat a welcome contrast to the chill of the wall at c's back. He smelled freshly washed, the crisp smell of his soap and shampoo distinct from any c could remember noticing on anyone else before. He shifted his weight against the wall, feeling the warmth in his belly shift lower and hotter, suddenly glad for all different reasons that he was wearing his baggy sweater again. He glanced at Don's face and saw Don still smiling, and it dawned on him that Don actually liked making him feel better.

It was such a startling realization that it cooled him a little--which was good, he realized, with a faint thrill of fear that drowned quickly in the continuing sensation of Don's hands on his, because he had no way of knowing how Don would respond to him responding like that. Still: Don liked to make him feel better. It wasn't, precisely, that everyone else he knew was a sadist. Williamson, for instance, seemed much too utilitarian for that; and several of the others didn't seem to get any unusually intense joy out of hurting him. But sheerly as a matter of efficiency, entertaining oneself by making someone else more miserable was far more effective than the reverse: exploiting entropy rather than defying it. He'd been shown the odd spasm of mercy by the others now and then, but Don seemed to actually like to make him happy, and now that c saw it he didn't know how he hadn't seen it before.

He also didn't know how it fit with Williamson's plans for him, and that was almost troubling enough to seriously distract him from Don's hands. Don let go just then, but stayed standing there, close to c, keeping him effectively pinned against the wall, watching his face. Don was smiling less broadly now, but still smiling, his eyes still warm, and c didn't want to think about how Williamson might be using Don's kind tendencies against him. He cleared his throat instead and said, "Your hands are warm."

It was a stupid, obvious thing to say, but Don just grinned at him and replied, "Yeah, well, yours are fucking freezing. No wonder you drop your chalk."

c stared at him for another minute as Don still didn't move away, and then, cautiously, he offered his left hand. Don smiled and took it between his, and c leaned his head back against the cold rough surface of the wall. For a few more minutes, he wouldn't think about anything.


Chapter Six

Don sat against the wall with a comic book in his hands, watching Charlie work. He was getting better at not getting caught staring--he had nothing but time to cultivate the skill--and it was kind of a satisfying sight, for two days' work. He'd take victories where he could get them for now. Charlie's clothes were clean, and he was working fast and easy, like he used to, no anxiety visible in the line of his shoulders. Don had shaved him again that morning, and taken the opportunity to make sure both their cuts were healing well. They still matched, both scabbed over, but Don had avoided looking into the mirror this time.

Last night, touching Charlie really seemed to have helped--he'd smiled at Don like he was actually happy, if only for that second, and that was a big step. Don would hold Charlie's hand any time if that was the way to get through to him, maybe get him thinking of the two of them as a team, a partnership. If Don could just get Charlie thinking in the right direction, Charlie would find a way out for both of them. Charlie'd make a plan--and that had to be what he was doing here, making plans, Don could work out that much from the numbers he wrote down when he finished a calculation. Charlie's plan would be smart, precise, something better than shooting everyone and running to nowhere, and Don would execute it. He'd get Charlie out of here, get him home--

Don jumped when the walkie-talkie in his pocket crackled. He was still watching Charlie, who looked up at him instantly, eyes going wide, his hand dropping to hold the chalk in a slack grip. Don checked his watch and muttered, "10:10, c," squirming as he pulled the radio from his pocket. It crackled again in his hand, and this time Williamson said, "Wake up, Mac."

"Yeah, what is it?" He kept his eyes on Charlie. Charlie was staring back in his direction, his dark blank gaze fixed on Don's hand, holding the radio.

"Put Know-It-All in handcuffs and bring him up to the garage."

Don went utterly still for a few seconds, instinctive rage rushing through him. His words caught in his throat just long enough for Charlie to shake his head once--a minute, desperate motion--as Don's thumb jabbed the talk button. He shut his mouth so hard his teeth clacked, slid his thumb away and squeezed the radio until his finger joints hurt.

"What?" he whispered furiously, "What, you just--"

"He's the boss," Charlie said, in a small, hoarse voice, and Don bit down everything else he wanted to say. He couldn't blow it now, and Charlie should not have had to remind him of that. Williamson had made his point before, and he could make it again: Williamson controlled the door. He controlled the guys with guns. He controlled Don and Charlie both. Don might be able to refrain from hurting Charlie himself, but he was powerless to stop Williamson from doing it. Don had to be patient. He had to be still. He had to wait until he had a plan.

Charlie was just standing there, waiting for Don to do something, and Don realized that the best he could do now was to spare Charlie the suspense. He got up and went to his duffle, digging into the pocket where he'd stashed the cuffs. There hadn't been a key for them, but if it came to that he could pick them. That would be something to worry about later, on the other side of whatever he was taking Charlie to in the garage.

He went to Charlie and took hold of his right wrist, skinnier than it should be, the bump of bone prominent and the skin so pale Don could see every vein under the faint shine of sweat. He pushed up the sleeve of Charlie's sweater, flipping the first cuff open, and Charlie whispered, "Behind."

Don froze.

"Behind my back," Charlie elaborated, his voice a little steadier but no louder.

He turned to face away without pulling his wrist from Don's grip. Don stared at the back of Charlie's neck, skin bare and unshielded by the familiar fall of curls. He could see the short hairs standing up over Charlie's spine, the fine shiver running through him. Cold, Charlie always seemed to be cold...

Don cleared his throat, forcing himself to think ahead--to think at all--and said, "Do you want to take your sweater off?"

Charlie's arm twitched in Don's grip, but he nodded, seeming to understand--if he took it off now, he could put it back on after, dry and clean--and Don let go of him. He stood with the cuffs in his hands and watched as Charlie shucked off the sweater, folded it neatly, and set it down on the table on top of his notes.

Charlie placed both hands behind his back, palms up, fingers curled, and Don nodded to himself. He had to do this. He'd cuffed lots of people he didn't want to, this was just one more. He'd done this a million times, snapped on the cuffs and rattled off their rights--and then the cuffs were clicking shut on Charlie's wrists and Don wasn't saying a word. Charlie didn't seem to have a right to anything Don could think of, not in this tiny jurisdiction. Don took his hands from the warmth and cold of Charlie's wrists and the cuffs, closing one fist in the back of Charlie's shirt, his knuckles pressing into the small of Charlie's back. He tugged, and Charlie turned and walked beside him to the door, where they both stopped, wondering.

Don reached out and turned the knob, and when he pushed, the door opened. His heart started to race, and Charlie said very softly at his side, "It won't ever be open any other time you try it. You can drive yourself crazy checking."

Don glanced sideways at him--how many kinds of crazy had Charlie been driven, in a hundred and thirty days?--and then propelled him through the door, following a half step behind. There was no one else in the basement, no one on the stairs, no one in the kitchen. Don opened the door to the garage and found it entirely sealed to light from the outside, lit by two bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Williamson was standing there alone, and there was a sturdy-looking wooden chair set in the exact center of the floor, over the drain, facing the back of the garage.

Don guided Charlie down the two steps to the cement floor and said, "As ordered."

Williamson nodded shallowly, looking them both over with a minimal sort of approval, and then came and grabbed Charlie by the arm--by his left elbow, the one Charlie seemed to hold when he was cold or nervous. Charlie flinched at the touch, and Williamson smiled a little. Don unlocked his fingers from Charlie's shirt with an effort and remained standing where he was as Williamson led Charlie over to the chair, guiding his hands over the back. Charlie squirmed a little in the seat, rolling his shoulders to get his elbows into a less uncomfortable position against the edges of the chair back. Don got the feeling Charlie had been there before.

Don couldn't resist glancing toward the outside door. It was just him and Williamson in the garage with Charlie. He could shoot Williamson, grab Charlie...

And probably get shot himself by Jimmy or one or all of the others, waiting outside the door, or attracted by the sound of the gunshot. Assuming he got a kill on the first shot, assuming Williamson didn't draw when Don did and shoot him or Charlie, assuming all kinds of things he couldn't assume, not with Charlie's life on the line. Don forced himself to be still, to wait.

Williamson drew the Beretta from his hip and Don tensed, folding his arms and pressing the back of his hand against his holstered weapon, but Williamson didn't take aim. He drew his hand back and smashed the gun across Charlie's face in one quick, economical motion.

Don flinched at the blow. His fist clenched, knuckles hard against his holster. He'd never wanted so badly to kill someone, or to hurt them in the process. Williamson had struck Charlie near his left eye, opening up a cut just beside his eyebrow that immediately poured blood down his face. Charlie kept his head down, panting, but didn't make a sound as the blood ran forward across his cheek and down the line of his jaw. Don stood his ground.

Williamson turned the gun, glancing at the barrel and wiping it on his sleeve. Without looking up, he said, "Mac, I brought you up here to clarify the chain of command."

Don's stomach rolled, and he understood, instantly and sickeningly. Charlie had told him, "It's a rule." And like an idiot, he'd thought he could get away with doing what he liked, as if no one would know. As if it were true that no one was watching them just because Don couldn't see them watching. They had so much to lose--Charlie had so much to lose--and Don had risked it for nothing. Williamson pressed the barrel of his gun against Charlie's bare cheek, and Charlie flinched and then froze again. Williamson dragged it down his throat, then punched Charlie hard in the chest with the hand holding the gun. Don could see that the blow struck at just the right angle to slam Charlie's shoulder blades against the top of the chair back. Charlie gasped, his head snapping up, and Williamson had already sidestepped, so the fine spray of blood off Charlie's face missed him entirely.

Don kept his face as expressionless as he could, watching. Mac would be disgusted, he thought. Anyone would be disgusted, watching a defenseless man bound and beaten. But Mac would know he had to stand and take this. Mac was getting increasingly clear on the fact that this job wasn't going to end much better for him than for the genius.

"I'm the boss," Williamson said. "Know-Nothing here is my prisoner, who I have hired you to guard. There are procedures. You weren't thoroughly briefed, but I thought you might be smart enough to pick things up as you went along."

Williamson moved around to the near side of Charlie, so that he had his back to Don, blocking his view. His hand snapped out, holding the gun, down toward Charlie's arm, and for an instant, when Charlie screamed, Don thought Williamson had shot him. But there was no blood, and no bang. A radial nerve strike, most likely; Don had experienced that in hand-to-hand training, and it hurt badly enough when it was your opponent's fingers. The barrel of a gun would be worse. He wondered, again, where Williamson had been trained. He was disturbingly good at what he did.

Charlie's scream was short, subsiding into gasps as Williamson stepped aside. Blood covered the entire half of Charlie's face that Don could see, running over the corner of his mouth, dripping from his chin. He was twisting to his left, trying to curl around his injured arm. Williamson walked around behind him and Don could see Charlie cringing away to the limits of his ability to move, the cuffs biting into his bare wrists and his elbows twisted against the back of the chair.

Somewhere inside, Don was drawing his gun, shooting Williamson in the face and damn the consequences--anything it took to be kneeling next to Charlie, getting him free, getting him away. But there in the garage, under Williamson's eyes, he was standing very still, arms crossed, every muscle tensed, watching. Waiting.

Williamson came around Charlie's right side, holding his right hand out--there was no way Don could draw his gun faster than Williamson could bring his to bear--and then made another lightning move, punching with his left hand this time, down at Charlie's back. Charlie didn't scream this time; Don could hear his breath escape him, and the ragged sound of his inhalation. He was trying to curl forward and to his right as Williamson moved in front of him again. A kidney punch, awkward with the seat back in the way--except that Charlie had already been cringing forward and to his left, exposing his back.

Williamson took a step away from Charlie then, and something shifted in his body language, the violence suddenly going latent. Don took an involuntary step forward, drawn toward Charlie, already thinking ahead to what he could do in the way of first aid. Williamson took another few steps away and then smiled and said, "There we go, Mac. Your turn."

Don stopped where he was--conspicuously out of his observer's position near the door, still a few feet short of Charlie--and met Williamson's eyes for the first time since he'd walked into the garage. But there was no mistaking this, and no escape; even as Williamson tilted his head, Don was walking forward to stand in front of Charlie, his hands in fists at his sides, well away from his gun. Before Williamson said anything, Don kicked Charlie in the shin--careful, controlled, not as hard as it probably looked, but he had to get Charlie's attention, and he couldn't risk a gentler touch.

Charlie didn't raise his head, but he looked up at Don. Both his eyes were wet, the left one rimmed with blood, but Charlie--c--Don's brother--was right there, scared and in pain, but not broken, not hiding, not yet pushed beyond his ability to endure. He blinked up at Don, head still bowed, gaze steady. He was waiting too.

Don tore his eyes away to glance at Williamson, raising his eyebrows. Awaiting orders. Williamson seemed to perceive that Don wasn't going to do anything--beyond that first kick--that he wasn't ordered to. He seemed amused.

"Hit him, Mac."

Don didn't hesitate, just turned his eyes back down to Charlie's and struck fast and hard to Charlie's left arm, right below the shoulder. If Charlie was still hurting from the nerve strike, it might disrupt the sensation; if not--well, you couldn't do much harm there. Charlie shut his eyes on the impact, his whole face screwing up and a grunt of pain escaping him, and Don's stomach lurched. It had felt good. Even though it was Charlie, even though it was terrible, sickening, still--he was finally able to hit something. Charlie's eyes flicked up to his again, and Don gritted his teeth against the fierce physical pleasure of action as he held Charlie's gaze.

Williamson spoke before Don looked up for instruction. "In the stomach this time."

Don nodded slightly at that--order received--and telegraphed the blow every inch of the way, until his fist struck Charlie in the belly, just below the ribcage. It was an awkward angle, and though he threw a hard punch--so satisfying, so exactly what his arm and fist and body wanted--it wouldn't be enough to do serious damage. That Houdini thing was a myth. Charlie shut his eyes again, and his breathing hitched badly but continued.

Don glanced up at Williamson while he listened to Charlie's hollow gasps--he had done that, he had hit Charlie hard enough to disrupt his breathing, and he could hardly breathe himself, couldn't let himself think. Williamson jerked his chin toward Charlie.

"Face. I want to see fresh blood."

He'd have to strike on the clean side of Charlie's face to be sure; he had a feeling Williamson would require do-overs if he turned in a substandard performance. He tilted his head, as if choosing his options, delaying until Charlie's eyes were on his, and then he went perfectly still. The instant he saw Charlie freeze in automatic mirror, he punched him neatly in the nose, at just the right angle to bloody it without danger of breaking it. A fresh gush of bright blood ran down over Charlie's mouth, and Charlie winced and then tilted his head back, showing his throat to Don and breathing open-mouthed. Don shook his hand out, knuckles throbbing, forcing himself to breathe.

Williamson said, "Kick him," and when Don looked up, he added, "Not in the shins."

Don looked back at Charlie. He had his eyes nearly shut, but he was still watching Don. Don didn't have a hell of a lot of time to plan, but he thought he could trust Charlie to hold still, and as long as Charlie held still--

He turned and lashed out with a kick to Charlie's midsection full force, leaving nothing for Williamson to complain about. The heel of his boot connected precisely with the point of Charlie's left hipbone, absorbing most of the force of the blow. It'd hurt like fuck to walk for a little while, but he wasn't going to break Charlie's hip with a kick, and he almost certainly wouldn't do any organ damage as the rest of his foot hit Charlie's belly. He'd tried to angle downward to keep from tipping Charlie and the chair--Charlie would hit his head and elbows and hands on the cement if he went over backward, and Don didn't want to think about how ugly that could get--but the blow folded Charlie forward to the limit of his cuffed wrists. Don waited an instant too long to jerk his foot away, and Charlie coughed and then gagged.

He felt the weight of it first and then the heat and the wetness. His sudden flinch backward was only half what he thought Mac's reaction ought to be and half real horror as he stumbled back and saw Charlie's blood dark on his jeans from calf to ankle.

It occurred to Don, as he stared at the top of Charlie's head, that the blood had to be from Charlie's nose; with his head tipped back, it would have been running down his throat until he coughed it up. It was still fucking scary, washing away every other thing he'd felt since he'd first hit Charlie in a cold gush, and Don didn't bother to wipe that entirely off his face as he looked up at Williamson.

Williamson was studying Charlie, looking slightly annoyed. "Do you know how to apply a stranglehold? Properly?"

Don gritted his teeth and pushed down that burst of fear, because he had to do it, and it would almost certainly mean bringing this to an end, and he could do it right. When Williamson looked up, Don nodded, and stepped in close to Charlie, shoving him up against the back of the chair. Charlie looked up at him, his face a mask of blood and tears and sweat. Don wiped his hands on his pants and then put them around Charlie's throat, tilting his head back--chin up, safe as kittens, right? Unless it was the trachea you were aiming for.

Charlie didn't resist. Charlie looked up at him with something dangerously close to trust, and Don gritted his teeth and clamped down on fear and anger and everything. He couldn't look away from Charlie's eyes, and Charlie didn't need to see that. Don stepped in closer so he'd have proper control, straddling Charlie as he sat in the chair, and then he shifted his grip and started applying pressure.

Charlie looked startled at first, his eyes going wide and then blinking rapidly. His mouth worked instinctively, like he couldn't quite believe this was really happening, that there wasn't air to be had. So close, Don could hear the tiny sounds of Charlie's mouth working, reaching for air he couldn't inhale. His eyes slid shut as his tongue pushed out, and all at once Charlie started to fight, straining up against Don, jerking in erratic, uncontrolled motions.

Don tightened his grip, slippery as it was with sweat and blood, and kept his fingers wrapped firmly around the back of Charlie's neck so he couldn't whack it on anything as he bucked. Charlie brought up a knee that hit Don hard in the thigh, and Don winced and shifted, nearly sitting on Charlie to keep him down, holding his grip as Charlie's lips turned blue and the temptation to let up--let him get just a little air--became nearly irresistible. But if he did that he'd have to start over, and it was nearly over now--Charlie's frantic struggles were weakening, and then he went abruptly still. Don let up immediately, keeping his hands on Charlie's neck just long enough to tilt his head all the way back, opening the airway for that first rattling breath, brushing a thumb across the still frantically beating pulse in his neck.

"I didn't tell you to stop."

Don jumped, straightening up and stepping away from Charlie all at once, badly startled. He shouldn't have been able to forget Williamson was there.

Don wiped a hand across his forehead and said, "You didn't tell me to kill him, either."

He knew as soon as he'd said it what the reply would be, and reran the possibilities in his head--shoot Williamson in the face, now or never, grab Charlie, dead weight and injured God knew how badly...

Williamson, expressionless, said, "Kill him," and Don had faced down guns in his face but he had never felt like he was in this much danger. He could hear his own heart pounding in his ears, and he knew what he had to do.

Don folded his arms, mustered up a standard-issue glare of annoyance, and said, "No," in a steady, sturdy voice without hesitating for more than a second.

Williamson raised an eyebrow, but he didn't pull his Beretta and shoot Don in the face. This had to be the right track: if he'd been wrong he'd be dead already. The room was silent except for the low, wet rasp of Charlie's breathing.

"I'm not going to kill him," Don elaborated, glancing at Charlie--still breathing--and then back at Williamson. "It's not the kind of work I do. You're definitely not paying me enough for it, especially considering I haven't seen a dime yet. And anyway, you don't want me to kill him."

There was a flicker of expression on Williamson's face at that, there and gone, and Don smiled, hoping it didn't look as queasy and desperate as it felt.

"He's a hell of a lot more valuable to you than I am, I know that much. You just want to see what I'll do if you tell me to kill him, and there's your answer: I'll tell you to fuck off. So now you know."

Williamson smiled back, shaking his head, for all the world as if Charlie weren't lying there with maybe a bruised larynx, maybe a damaged kidney, maybe choking on his own blood any second now. As if he wouldn't have killed Don if he'd failed that test--but he'd brought Don up here to clarify the chain of command in more senses than one. It could be him in the chair next time, just as easily, with Williamson's hands around his neck. He didn't think Williamson would see any reason to let up before Don was dead.

"Smart," Williamson said, because Williamson could see Don had gotten the message. "I do love having the smart ones around."

He holstered his gun and pulled out a small key, and when he tossed it Don caught it with a quick, steady hand and went straight around to kneel behind Charlie. Don closed his eyes for just a second, while his face was hidden from Williamson, but there was no time for more than that. Charlie was hurt. He'd hurt Charlie, he had no idea how badly. He had to take care of Charlie.

Don had to try three times to get the key into the lock, and then make a quick grab to keep Charlie from falling off the chair. He got one arm around Charlie's back and the other under his knees, lifting Charlie against his chest as he stood. The handcuffs were still dangling from Charlie's left wrist and the key was safe in Don's pocket. Williamson was smiling as Don straightened up, but he went to the door and opened it for him, leading the way inside and down to the basement.

At the bottom of the stairs, Williamson turned back, blocking the door into Charlie's room, and waved Don toward the other side.

"Get those clothes off of both of you. Easier to wash them before the blood dries."

Don stared blankly for a second, and then looked down. He could feel the blood cooling on the leg of his jeans, and his shirt was smeared with blood where Charlie's head rested against his shoulder. Charlie's t-shirt was streaked and spattered with blood, and his pants were wet in spots.

"Before it dries, Mac," Williamson said, and Don lifted his head and bared his teeth in something like a smile.

He laid Charlie carefully on the floor in front of the washing machine, detaching the dangling cuffs from Charlie's left wrist before anything else. There was a red line around Charlie's wrist, already darkening to a bruise against the bone. Don set the cuffs and keys on top of the washing machine along with his walkie-talkie. He wiped his hands on his shirt and then took his holster off, setting it down beside the cuffs, and then crouched awkwardly to take off his boots, staring at the floor, listening to Charlie breathe, pretending Williamson wasn't standing there waiting for him to take his clothes off.

Don shucked off his shirt and jeans quickly, without letting himself think, and stopped there; his shorts and socks were clean. Then it was Charlie's turn, and Don put his back to Williamson, kneeling at Charlie's side and easing his t-shirt up. Charlie was entirely inert, not so much as a flicker under his closed eyelids to suggest he was coming around. The bleeding was slowing, and the blood on his face was congealing, dark and stark against his pale skin. His lips were reassuringly pink under the gore. When Don peeled Charlie's t-shirt off, he could see the bruises already appearing on Charlie's torso: two dark blotches at belly and chest where he'd been punched and a neat outline of half of Don's boot lower down, the heel disappearing under his pants. Don unbuttoned Charlie's jeans and tugged them off, keeping his eyes on his own hands as he did.

He lifted Charlie into his arms again as he stood, and it was the weirdest sensation out of two days of non-stop weirdness: Charlie's skin warm and soft against his, Charlie's cheek heavy against his bare shoulder, the tickle of Charlie's breathing against his chest. The strangest thing about it was the way the contact was reassuring, in a deep-down animal way--every sense told him that Charlie was alive and with him, close and safe as he could be.

Don turned to face Williamson and Williamson jerked his chin toward the open door, stepping past Don to pick up Don's stuff from the washing machine. He laid it all on the floor just inside the door as Don walked toward the cot, shut the door and then locked and barred it just before Don's knees gave out and he sat down hard on top of the messy heap of Charlie's sleeping bag.

Charlie's head lolled back over Don's arm, and Don tried to think of what he had to do next--triage, first aid--though there wasn't a hell of a lot he could do beyond cleaning Charlie up, and he was running full-tilt into an adrenaline hangover. He didn't know if he could even stand up again right this second. He curled forward to lean his forehead against Charlie's, close enough to feel Charlie's breath on his cheek, stinking of blood and bile but still moving, still alive. Don could feel a shaking in his arms and didn't know whether it was himself shivering or Charlie. He could hear his own breath in the space between them, nearly as loud and as hoarse as Charlie's.

"I'm sorry," he whispered, and it had to be safe enough now, when Charlie couldn't hear him, couldn't hear his voice sounding so ragged and small. "Charlie, buddy, please, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so fucking sorry."


Everything--no.

A lot of things hurt. c was pretty sure some things didn't hurt: his balls, for one. Or two. His legs didn't really hurt, except maybe a faint throb in one shin, nearly drowned out by everything that hurt more.

His right shoulder was another, and not only did that not hurt but he felt warm there, warm and--

c opened his eyes, and Don's face hovered just above his, frowning. The gaudy smear of blood across his forehead and one cheek was new. The warmth on c's shoulder was Don's left hand resting there, and Don's right hand was holding a warm wet washcloth against c's face.

c blinked a couple of times, and Don said, "Hey, c, you with me?"

There was something cool against the back of c's neck. He looked around without moving and worked out that they were in the bathroom. He was propped up against the toilet, his head tilted back against the rim, and Don was crouching over him, and...

c's eyes slid down from Don's face to his neck to his chest to the soft gray of his jockey shorts, hovering not at all far above c's own boxers, and then his eyelids felt heavy and he let them fall shut.

"c?" Don said softly, and then sighed, and c thought he should open his eyes again, or say something, but his head hurt, and his throat hurt, and a lot of other things hurt. Don was touching his shoulder and his face, gently and warmly, and c didn't really think he needed to say anything at all for a little while. Don would understand.

He heard Don say his name a couple of times, but he was distracted by the slow, steady throb of the pain beside his left eye. He could see it as a wave function if he concentrated, and he was trying to work out how to quantify amplitude and whether he could incorporate color or prickliness when cold water splashed over his face. He opened his eyes--the right further than the left--blinking rapidly and doing his best to glare, though he couldn't, really, because it made his face hurt worse and corrupted the data.

He tried to say, "Hey," instead, but only a thin, painful whisper emerged from his mouth, and he wasn't sure Don would be able to derive any particular meaning from it. Don was still crouching closely over him, having just wrung out the washcloth over his face. Don moved away a little bit--just far enough to stick the cloth under the tap, just far enough for c to realize how much warmer he was with Don so close, all that skin radiating heat. He became a bit distracted by the view--Don's back was broad and bare, and c spotted two scars there before Don twisted around and settled over him again. When the cloth touched his face this time it was warm, and c closed his eyes only long enough for it to pass over them.

When the damp warmth settled over his throat, c swallowed cautiously and tried again to speak.

"That's nice," he whispered, thin and painful but at least intelligible, as he looked up at Don. There was blood on Don's shoulder, as well as on his face. None of it seemed to be Don's, though; Don only looked hurt in his eyes. c wanted to say that he wasn't really badly hurt--this wasn't nearly as bad as the time Williamson had hit him in the head so hard that he woke up vomiting, for instance, or the time he'd had his elbow dislocated and Williamson waited and waited and waited to put it back. But he knew Don wanted to take care of him, he remembered that from... last night? It seemed longer ago than that. And anyway it would be hard to say that much. And a lot of things did hurt.

The worry in Don's eyes seemed to ease a little when c spoke to him, even though it was just two words, and Don said, "You're gonna have a scar here."

He raised a hand next to c's face, not quite touching the spot. "Should've had stitches, but I taped it up and I think it'll hold."

c nodded a little bit, just a slight motion, but it hurt anyway. Don winced when c did, like looking into a mirror.

"I want to check if you've got a concussion, all right?" Don asked. "Just blink twice for yes, if it hurts too much to talk."

c smiled a little bit at that--it didn't hurt to smile--and then blinked twice. Don smiled a little bit back. Just like looking in a mirror.

"This is going to hurt," Don said, and then he put his hand on c's face, dragging his left eye further open, and started shining a light in his eyes. c blinked a lot--yes yes yes no no no yes no yes yes--but Don's hand stayed steady on his face, and the light flashed back and forth from one eye to the other and back before it finally went away. He could feel water running from his eyes, but Don just wiped it away with the cloth.

"Looks okay," Don said. "Your pupils are the same size and reactive to light, that's a good sign. Do you remember what time it was, the last time I told you the time?"

c blinked twice, took a breath, and said, "10:10. Don."

Still just a thready whisper and it hurt like a bastard, but it made Don smile at him, so c figured it was worth it.

"Good," Don said.

He looked down, his fingers tracing over c's other hurts, and c watched at first, Don's fingers running over his skin with all of Don's skin in his peripheral vision, but seeing the touch and feeling it all at once was too much, and he had to close his eyes.

"You're gonna have some nasty bruises," Don said, "But I think you'll live."

c opened his eyes again and blinked twice. Don nodded solemnly and reached for something on the floor by his foot. It turned out to be an orange tablet as big as the tip of Don's thumb. When he held it up he said "I want you to suck on this until it's gone, okay? It's just sugar. Not quite orange juice and a cookie, but it's the best I can do right now."

c blinked at the part about orange juice and a cookie--that almost made sense to him, but he didn't know why--and then hastily blinked again for yes, raising his shaky right hand to take the tablet from Don's fingers. He licked it cautiously before he stuck it in his mouth, but it was sugar, orange-flavored, and his mouth watered painfully at the taste of it. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had anything so sweet. He held it on his tongue, letting it dissolve, watching Don watching him. When the last trace of sugar was gone--and he rubbed his tongue against the roof of his mouth, swallowing hard, to be sure--c licked his lips and then his fingers, and then smiled at Don the best he could and whispered, "Thanks."

The sugar felt warm in his stomach, and he imagined he could feel its diffusion into his bloodstream. He started to feel a little more alert almost instantly--enough to contemplate lifting his head sometime in the foreseeable future, maybe. He glanced down his own body again, letting his fingers trail over his skin as Don's had.

His throat hurt almost as much outside as in, and he remembered fighting uncontrollably against Don's grip, Don's weight pressing him down and down into darkness. Lower down, he could hardly bear to touch the bruise on his chest, half-obscured by hair, but ugly. Both his wrists were ringed in red, and his poor left arm... It wasn't its fault it was non-dominant and he didn't, in the view of his captors, need it quite as much as the right. c cupped his right hand briefly around his left elbow before he continued his exploration down on his stomach.

There was a round bruise from a punch, and below it an oddly neat bootprint from Don's kick, fading toward the toe and stronger further back. It disappeared under the edge of his boxers, and c pushed them down in pursuit of it, to the point where the bruise turned black, where Don's heel had struck his hipbone. Pain radiated from the spot, a deep, slow, serious throb. It was the bone that hurt, he thought, like healing fingers or a well-bashed skull.

Above him, he heard Don hiss with sympathy, and Don's fingers traced lightly over the borders of the bruised skin, just where it didn't hurt. The backs of Don's fingers brushed his hand, still pushing down the waistband of his boxers, and for a moment he just wanted to push further, push them off, and see what else Don would touch so gently, if c bared it.

Then Don's hand lifted away, and c remembered that he wasn't really ready to lift his head yet, let alone try anything more strenuous, so it was probably for the best. Don's hand came back holding one of that morning's coffee mugs, filled now with tap water. c raised his eyes to Don's and blinked twice, as emphatically as he could, parting his lips to be sure of making himself clear. He didn't raise his hand this time, but Don didn't seem to mind holding the mug for him. He set one hand against the back of c's neck and raised the mug to his lips with the other.

c tried not to drink too fast, but Don kept the mug tilted so carefully that he wasn't in any danger of choking. When he'd gotten enough he blinked once, firmly, and Don took the mug away and held up a white tablet, small enough to swallow. Probably. It said 800 on the side facing c.

"This is ibuprofen," Don said. "It should help your pain, but it might hurt your stomach if you take it without eating anything. You can have it later, or you can take it now and if your stomach starts to hurt we can deal with it."

c looked from the tablet back to Don, baffled. He didn't know why Don had 800 milligram ibuprofen--that was a lot, he knew that was a lot, good stuff--but it stood to reason that any dose of it he gave to c was a dose he couldn't use himself later if he needed it. But Don wanted him to feel better--wanted to give him a choice about feeling better, even. c blinked twice and opened his mouth again. He could probably have managed to get the tablet into his mouth, but he didn't raise his hand and Don set it on his tongue quite competently, raising the mug again so he could get another sip of water to wash it down. It didn't work as fast as the sugar, and tasted much worse, but c smiled at Don and whispered, "Mister nice guy."

Don raised his eyebrows, smiling a little but looking almost as surprised by c as c usually was by him, which was only fair.

"Did you miss the part where I did half of this to you?"

c blinked once, slowly, deliberately, as clearly as he knew how. No. He hadn't missed anything: not the way Don had looked him in the eye as he hit him, as he choked him, like c was a person, like it was something the two of them shared and not something Don did to some thing. He hadn't missed the way Don hadn't liked doing it, and hadn't done a thing he wasn't ordered to. He hadn't missed the way Don had let c correct him about the handcuffs this time, when it really mattered. He hadn't missed this, Don cleaning up the mess he'd made of c.

Don still looked baffled. c felt around with his left hand--it hurt to move it, an ache up and down his arm, but he could manage just fine. It wasn't like having his elbow dislocated at all. The cloth Don had been using was there on the floor, though it had gone cool now. c picked it up and transferred it to his right hand, drawing Don's attention. While Don was looking down at his hands, c raised the cloth to Don's face, wiping at the streak of blood on his forehead.

Don looked up under the touch, meeting c's eyes with a searching gaze, but c just blinked twice--yes--and went on scrubbing Don's face clean, and then his shoulder. Don held perfectly still, permitting his efforts. When the last of the blood was gone, c let his arm sag, and Don took the cloth from him and rinsed it again.

"Thanks, c," he said softly, and he ran his hand over c's hair.

c smiled and let his eyelids sag nearly shut. Don moved further away from him, to his left side, and said, "Come on, you don't want to sleep here, do you?"

c opened his eyes again, looking up at him, and no, it wouldn't be a good place to sleep. He was cold, without Don over him. Don slid an arm behind his shoulder and pulled him up to a proper sitting position. c could feel the twinge in his belly, where it would have been much more painful if he'd pulled himself up. His head and his hip throbbed harder once he was upright, and it hurt to put his weight on his left leg. He went a little dizzy, and had to lean his head against Don's shoulder. Maybe he didn't have to lean quite so heavily, or stay put so long, but Don didn't seem to mind.


Don was worried by the way Charlie was leaning on him. There wasn't any sign that he had a concussion, and none of his other injuries seemed critical--though there'd be no telling about the kidney until Charlie took a piss--but he didn't seem able, or willing, to walk on his own from the bathroom to his cot.

Then again, it might just be that he was cold; Don hadn't bothered to get either of them dressed before he started working on Charlie. He'd have liked to get Charlie covered up--as much to hide the darkening bruises as to keep him warm--but the only clothes available were the dirty ones Charlie had taken off that morning before showering. They reached the cot and Don stopped, keeping his arm around Charlie to steady him.

"You want to put your clothes on?"

Charlie looked from the paper bag to the blackboards to his cot, and Don frowned. He didn't want Charlie thinking that he should get back to work--not if he could barely stand up by himself, and he had to be in far too much pain to even think about math right now, though maybe he wanted the distraction. But he'd be cold on his cot without clothes, since he didn't seem to want to actually sleep inside his sleeping bag. Don gestured toward the cot, hoping to distract Charlie from whatever calculation he was performing about how badly he wanted yesterday's sweatpants and socks.

"You know you could zip that up, it would be warmer."

Charlie looked up at him, and Don could see him choosing his words. He cursed himself for not phrasing it as a question that Charlie could answer by blinking. It hurt just listening to the ragged whisper that was all Charlie could get out of his throat. The bruises there were ugly, black and purple, and Don thought he could make out the shape of his own fingers. The sight made him feel sick, but he couldn't look away.

"Panic," Charlie said, and waved his hand in a vague gesture at the cot.

Don thought that over for a second and then nodded. "You panic? You're too confined, right? Can't get away from anything."

Charlie nodded shallowly, and Don glanced back at the cot. Charlie would have to sleep on his right side. It was the opposite of the way he usually slept, and he was bound to try to flip over and fall on the floor or something--God knew he'd fallen out of bed often enough as a kid.

"Okay," Don said, keeping one hand on Charlie's shoulder to steady him and leaning down to grab the sleeping bag off the cot. "I think we can do better than this."

He wrapped the sleeping bag around Charlie (like a cape, and he remembered Charlie, five years old, running through the house on the third day of a cold with his blanket tied around his neck and trailing behind him. Ten minutes later he'd crashed on the couch, cheeks flushed red, curly hair damp with sweat, his blanket just a blanket again) and guided him down to sit on the floor.

Don went to the cot first and tipped it up on its end, watching for a moment to make sure it would stay--but the end was square, the legs flush to the ground, so it ought to be all right. Then he stepped around it to where his stuff was piled, near the door. The sight of his radio and holstered Sig and the handcuffs and key, all piled neatly on the floor, stopped him for a second. He grabbed the handcuffs and key and stuffed them into a pocket of his duffle, laid his holster and the walkie-talkie on top, and picked up his bedroll. He tossed the ground mat down parallel to where the cot had been and practically at Charlie's feet where he was sitting, watching. Don unzipped his sleeping bag and laid it out on top of the mat and all the way to the wall, and then put his pillow at the far end of the side with the mat.

"Okay," he said, "come on and lie down."

Charlie looked up at him, half curious and more grateful than Don could stand to see. Don waved toward the side with the pillow.

"That's for you. I just hope you don't hog the covers."

He went over to his duffle and shrugged his holster onto one shoulder, then opened up the bag. For a second he considered putting some clothes on, but decided not to. He didn't want to if Charlie couldn't. Don picked up a handful of comic books and went back over to the makeshift bed, where Charlie was already lying on his side with the sleeping bag carefully spread out to share. He'd pushed the pillow as much to the middle as he could and only rested his head on the very end. Don stepped over him to lay down on the side nearer the wall, setting his holster and gun down by the wall as he looked up to confirm that the cot screened them somewhat from the door. He lay on his side, propped on his elbow instead of laying down on the pillow, and dropped the comic books between them.

"Here you go," Don said. "All you need is chicken soup and it's a real sick day."

Charlie smiled at him, raised his left hand to his mouth and mimed a cough. Don gave him a little smile and nodded, pushing the comic books closer. Charlie took one, squirming around to hold it so that he could see it without lifting his head, and Don took another and spread it out on the concrete past the edge of the sleeping bags, turning onto his stomach to read with his chin propped on his wrists.

He played games with the comic books when he read them, to make them last longer. He'd glance for just a second at a panel and then shut his eyes and tried to remember every detail he could of what he'd seen, including words in the bubbles. Or he'd close his eyes and imagine it as a movie, trying to improve on the dialogue and figure out how they'd do the special effects. He could make two pages last an hour, if he worked at it, interspersing his games with glimpses of Charlie.

Now he didn't even have to look; there were maybe six inches separating them. He could feel the warmth of Charlie's body alongside his own. Charlie didn't fidget, but he turned pages much more often than Don did. Don had done five rounds of the eyewitness testimony game--he was improving, he could remember nearly every color in a panel accurately after the quickest glance--when he realized Charlie had stopped turning pages. Don looked up and saw that Charlie had folded the comic book over, and was letting the book rest on the pillow as he stared at it.

Don pushed up on one elbow to see which page he was finding so fascinating, but it wasn't even a page of the comic: it was a full page ad for some teen drama that had come out a couple of years ago. Charlie looked up at him and then set a finger on the page next to a blonde girl in a low-cut shirt. Don had never thought that Charlie was really into blondes, and he raised an eyebrow, smiling.

"You like her?"

Charlie swallowed laboriously and then whispered, "Never seen one."

The smile vanished off Don's face and his stomach dropped, and even as he realized exactly what Charlie meant he was groping for something else, anything else--never seen a TV ad, never seen a TV show, never--

Never seen a girl.

Not that Charlie could remember, anyway. Not that c could remember. Don forced himself to smile, because Charlie didn't seem upset, and started to say the first thing that came to mind.

"You want to be--" and then he stopped short.

Charlie--c--tilted his head and mouthed, "What?"

Don shook his head but explained anyway. He didn't have the heart not to. "I was gonna ask if you wanted to be alone with her."

But that wasn't an option, of course: Charlie couldn't be alone, anywhere, ever, and the idea of trying to leave him alone with--for--Don shook his head, trying to push the whole idea away. It didn't bear thinking about.

Charlie just smiled, though, a little lopsided in his battered face, not seeming to mind Don saying something so stupid. He blinked once, deliberately, for no, and whispered, "I'm good."

Don smiled cautiously back and went back to looking at his comic book, but it was hard to concentrate. Soon he was turning pages nearly as fast as Charlie.


c glanced at Don as he reached for another comic book, and realized that Don had been entirely still--his chin on his wrists, his eyes shut, his comic book open to the same page--for the entire time it had taken c to read that installment of Batman and Robin's adventures. This seemed to be taking Don's tendency to linger over his comic books to an extreme. c whispered, "Hey," as loudly as he could.

Don didn't move, and c was reluctant to actually make an effort to wake him. It was kind of nice, lying here. c nestled down into the pillow and lay still, watching Don sleep, perfectly motionless except for the rise and fall of his breathing. He didn't dare to touch Don, but he could feel the heat and the solid presence of Don's body, inches from his own, sharing covers. The pill Don had given him seemed to have taken the edge off his pain--the waveform was much less interesting now, more uniform--a smooth steady ache that he found almost entirely ignorable.

c watched Don sleep and let the expression spin out, playing with numbers that were all his own, for once--nothing anyone wanted from him, nothing anyone here would ever be able to understand, abstraction piling on abstraction until he had no idea whether it was math anymore, or just a game he was playing in his head.

He thought again about getting up and doing some actual work, but he liked this, lying here warm and quiet with Don, doing his own math in his own time. It didn't have to be translatable. He didn't have to construct a single split-second timing sequence from it. And he'd fucking well earned this today, hadn't he? Williamson was nicely pragmatic about what work Know-Nothing could be expected to do after something like this; there was an excellent probability (he'd place it in the upper eighties, perhaps as high as ninety, Williamson's own favorite) that the boss wouldn't even bother with a dinnertime visit tonight.

c maneuvered slowly backward, slipping out from under the sleeping bag without disturbing Don. Once on the concrete, he didn't give himself time to shiver, but pushed to his feet as quickly as he could, crouching with his hands on his knees and his feet spread wide until he could be sure of his balance. His head and hip throbbed, and he noticed that his bruises had darkened further--everything certainly hurt more standing up--but he managed to limp over to the light switch by the door and, after a quick glance around to memorize the altered layout, shut it off.

He made his way back to the sleeping bags and heard movement as he crouched down, reaching toward the floor. Don shifted, tossing the top sleeping bag back.

"Hey," he said softly, and c felt Don's hand reaching toward him, searching. When c set a hand on Don's arm, Don's hands settled on him, easing him down to the floor. c held on even after he was safely down, so that Don had to turn onto his side, facing him. Don held on too, his hand on c's shoulder, and c closed his eyes and listened until Don's breathing settled back into sleep, Don's hand resting heavy and open on his side.

His own hand rested carefully still on Don's arm. He didn't quite hold on, but he didn't let go, either. There was math in Don's breathing, numbers in the warm skin under his fingers and the heat they shared. They were a closed circuit, a completed matrix. c closed his eyes and followed the expression where it led.


Don woke up again to Charlie shaking his shoulder and the brightening light of someone opening the door, and reached automatically for his gun. The cot half-blocked the light, and would block them from the sight of whoever had opened the door until they stepped inside. Don was on his feet, his gun in his hand, before he quite knew what was going on. He dropped the sleeping bag back down over Charlie and patted his shoulder, half reassurance, half a warning to keep his head down.

Charlie seemed to understand, tucking his head into the pillow. Don barely had time to register that Charlie's bruises looked worse now, even in the uncertain light, before he was stepping onto the concrete floor, glancing at his watch as he headed toward the door. It was nearly seven--at night, he thought, it must be his hour off--but it wasn't Williamson at the door, just Jimmy standing there staring at him. Don blinked at him, wondering how many kinds of bizarre picture he presented, nearly naked and holding his Sig.

He smiled slightly, which seemed to disconcert Jimmy, and picked up his jeans from the top of the stack of clean laundry just inside the door. Jimmy ostentatiously turned his back as Don pulled them on, and Don grinned as he did them up. It was nice to be the one making somebody else squirm for once. He checked his safety and tucked the Sig into the back of his pants and the walkie-talkie into his pocket before he pulled on a t-shirt. He grabbed his duffle and the paper bag of Charlie's dirty clothes, and stepped over the threshold.

When Jimmy turned to look at him, he smiled again, and Jimmy actually stepped away from him this time. Don locked and barred the door and brushed past Jimmy to throw stuff into the washing machine. Jimmy muttered, "Fucking weirdo," not quite under his breath, and headed up the stairs.

Don turned all the washing machine settings to cold and switched it on, then headed upstairs to the bathroom for his shower and shave. He still felt off-balance and disoriented--it was dark out, which seemed right, except that it felt like the middle of the night or early morning, heading toward dawn. His time-sense was going to get as scrambled as Charlie's, if it wasn't already. Life down the rabbit hole was like that.

He got into the shower, thinking vague middle-of-the-night thoughts about rabbits--he'd read a book about them in high school once, hadn't he? Two of them had been brothers, one a genius and the other a leader, and they'd both been heroes, together. He'd been annoyed by the book then, the way he was annoyed by everything in high school that seemed to be telling him to be nice to Charlie. He thought he could stand to read it again now--he remembered it being long, for one thing, and it'd kill some time.

He washed up on autopilot, and his hand was on his dick, stroking absently, before he really gave any thought to what he was doing. He hadn't jerked off in... he couldn't actually remember how long, which didn't surprise him much if he considered he'd been on a case for the last four and a half months straight. He thought, randomly, of what he'd almost said to Charlie, about leaving him alone with his comic book girl--and Charlie was alone now, wasn't he? And that was a really badly counterproductive line of thought in this situation.

Don pushed away the image of Charlie--his bruises and blood, leaning like he couldn't stand on his own--which was making him feel vaguely sick. Don shut his eyes and pretended he had all the time in the world to shower, calling up the usual vague images of women--the blonde from the bar, months ago, for instance--but she seemed like someone he'd only heard about, as if he had amnesia too, like his whole life had closed down to that room he lived in with Charlie, and only the past three days were real. The only woman he could remember clearly was the girl in the comic book, with Charlie's finger planted next to her frozen smiling face.

He gritted his teeth and thought of her, of gravity-defying women in spandex and masks from the comic books he'd been reading, of nothing at all, and friction did the job. He finished washing up, feeling awake and a little bit good. Some unacknowledged tension was gone from his body, a counter flipping over to zero. Some still-thirteen-year-old part of him thinking why don't I do that all the time? Then he was out of the shower, drying off and dressing, shaving.

He was cold when he stepped out of the bathroom. He headed straight down to the basement and moved the clothes to the dryer, turned the settings to hot. He checked his watch, realizing with a smile that he could go back in to Charlie whenever he felt like it, since Williamson wasn't in there with him. His stomach growled as he thought it, though--he didn't know what the hell had happened to lunch today, but even down the rabbit hole it was time for dinner.

He took the stairs two at a time back to the kitchen, and one of the guys was sitting at the table, eating a sandwich and staring out the window into the darkness. Don went to the fridge and got out stuff to make his own sandwich, and the guy--Sam, it was Sam, the one who'd been in the kitchen that first day who wasn't Jimmy--looked up at him. Don nodded a little, and Sam nodded back.

A couple of minutes later, as Don was putting things away and debating whether to go eat in the basement, Sam said, "Jimmy said you had the lights off down there."

Don looked up, saw the mildly curious look on Sam's face that had to be hiding much more--Jimmy wouldn't have stopped at the lights being off--and grabbed a can of soda from the fridge before he headed over to the table to eat. He sat down across from Sam. It was past time he started getting a better idea of who was who upstairs, and Sam was the first one who'd showed any willingness to talk.

"Yeah," Don said. "Well, no windows, Know-It-All doing his thing twenty hours a day. Get totally fucked not knowing whether it's day or night."

Sam nodded slowly, and Don let him stare, eating his sandwich in big bites. He'd want to make a sandwich for Charlie, too, look around for some fruit or cookies or something, see if there was anything that would keep for a while, maybe start a little stash of snacks. He'd have to see if he could get Charlie to nibble on things, might help him get some weight back. And if there was a single thing that looked like a treat in this kitchen, Charlie deserved it today.

Don glanced up again at Sam to find Sam still watching him, and raised his eyebrows. Sam just snorted and shook his head.

"Christ, you couldn't pay me enough to babysit that freak."

Don kept chewing, and noticed with a certain degree of professional detachment how very much that sounded like the sort of thing he'd punched people for saying to him in high school. Sam seemed to know exactly what he'd said and was watching for a reaction, but whether it was the nap or the shower Don was feeling calm, and it was easy not to show anything. When he'd swallowed, Don said, "Yeah, well, it's not really hard. He does his thing, I get paid."

Sam shrugged. Don kept eating, thinking things over. Sam was the reasonable one up here--or it was his job to seem like the reasonable one. Here he was talking to Mac, sympathizing with him just when Mac was bound to want to trust someone. He missed Terry desperately--she could have told him how to exploit this, the best things to say--but he didn't need her to tell him not to say more than he had to, or give himself away more than he could help.

"Boss thinks you like the brain," Sam said, again while Don's mouth was full.

Don shrugged. Williamson could probably be pretty certain Mac liked his genius charge after today. He might think he had Mac in line; he might not. He certainly had the rest of his men in line and that included Sam, which meant Don might as well be sitting here with the man himself. Don washed down his bite with a gulp of soda and said, "I try and like people I gotta be around all day. Makes life easier."

Sam nodded, looking away, and spoke off-handedly. "Just between you and me, I wouldn't go getting attached to that one."

Just between him and Don and Williamson and everyone else in the house but maybe Charlie, Don didn't doubt. He wondered whether that was a specific warning or a general one, and how the hell he'd tell the difference. Not like there was much he could do either way except keep his boots on and his gun handy. Their strategic situation sucked: he was going to have to wait for something to break upstairs, if Charlie didn't spontaneously decide to offer him some better ideas. Maybe he could find some way to upset the balance of Williamson's men, but he didn't think he could do it through Sam. Sam was paying too much attention.

"Liking's not the same as attached," Don said firmly, popped the last of his sandwich in his mouth, and stood up.

Sam went on sitting there as Don made a sandwich and rummaged around looking for goodies--he found a couple of apples that looked all right and some crackers, but no sweets. He wondered if there were some kind of black market trade in groceries and, if so, how he could possibly find his way into it. He grabbed a soda, settling everything safely in one arm. Jerking his chin toward the stairs, he said, "Get the door for me?"

Sam nodded and followed him down. Don detoured quickly to grab his and Charlie's only-moderately-damp clothes from the dryer, and then let himself into Charlie's room. He didn't look back as Sam shut, locked, and barred the door, but he allowed himself a single deep breath, unobserved. It was a bad sign that he was starting to feel safer down here than up there, when up there was closer to freedom. It would be a dangerous habit of thought to get into, but he could feel it creeping toward him, and he wasn't sure there was any way to stop it.

Don focused on Charlie instead. Charlie was up, standing at one of the boards further down the room with all the overhead lights off, the work light shining directly on him and that board. He had his left hand braced against the board, and he was fully dressed again, sweatpants and sweater and all. He looked just like he had three days ago, until he turned his head toward Don. The light shone directly on his face, on his left eye nearly swelled shut, on the black line of the cut and the white stripes of the tape standing out against dark purple bruising. His nose was red and swollen, too, and there were dark bruises ringing his throat. He smiled at Don as he stood there, still holding a hand against the blackboard to stay upright.

Don smiled back as best he could and waved at the food. "Come on, dinner time, take a break. You shouldn't be working."

Charlie shrugged, but came away obediently. "Got bored," he whispered, and Don winced at the rasp.

Charlie lowered himself awkwardly to the floor, and Don let him do it for himself, putting the sandwich directly into his hands once he was down. He settled beside Charlie, hands between his knees. It was too dark over here to read, with the overhead lights off, but that was all right. He'd gone through way more than his daily ration of comic books today. He should probably start working out to kill time and to keep sharp, shake the impulse to sleep away his forced confinement. Charlie trusted him a little more now, he thought. He might not have to be so careful about keeping quiet.

For now, though, he would sit with Charlie and make sure he ate. Charlie was pressed close to his left side, so that it was the right side of his face in Don's peripheral vision, undamaged but for the fading line of a shaving cut on his jaw. Don raised his left hand to his own face, rubbing his thumb against his lip to feel the roughness of his own small cut, and Charlie swayed a little bit, leaning against his shoulder. Not because he couldn't sit up, Don thought--he'd been standing just fine when Don came in--but because he wanted to be close.

He remembered that the rabbits in the book he'd read had been like that too, always squeezing together in their little burrows, taking comfort from each other's presence. Don picked up an apple from the assortment at Charlie's feet and leaned against Charlie right back.


Chapter Seven

Don remembered to give Charlie another ibuprofen around eleven. He'd already gotten back to work by then and wouldn't stop, glaring mutely but fiercely when Don tried to pull him away from the chalkboard. Don finally went to sleep himself, for a few fitful hours, in the shared sleeping bags by the wall. He left his gun lying on the floor by his head, where Charlie could have reached it if he particularly wanted to. If Charlie was going to trust him, Don figured he might as well start trusting Charlie.

He fought his way up near to consciousness once, but Charlie was asleep beside him, and Don thought hazily, Well, that's all right, then, and went back to sleep. The next time he woke up Charlie was back at the chalkboard, though he couldn't have slept more than an hour or two. Don felt wide awake. It was barely four in the morning, but he sat up watching Charlie for a while.

He was startled as hell by the arrival of Sam bearing coffee and power bars, and Charlie actually followed him over near the door to get his hands on the coffee. Don drank his, ate his power bar and some crackers that were still sitting on the floor--Charlie's apple and half the crackers had disappeared at some point while Don was sleeping--and then turned on the rest of the lights and tried to pretend like it was daytime in some meaningful sense, though after the first rush from the coffee he started running down.

He thought about suggesting a shower, but Charlie had that really focused look on his face that suggested he still didn't intend to be interrupted, and after giving a second's thought to the idea of parading him past the guys this morning, battered as he was, Don gave up before he even started. He paced, stretched, did a half-assed workout with his eyes on Charlie the whole time. Charlie didn't seem to hear a thing. Don gave Charlie another pill when eleven rolled around again, and fell asleep for a while with a comic book in his hands. When he woke up, lunch was sitting at his feet and Charlie was still working.

He ate and paced, touring Charlie's chalkboards to see if anything looked familiar, but he'd never paid that much attention to what Charlie actually wrote out, always waiting for Charlie to boil it down to the FBI Agent's Digest version. He spent some time figuring out how close he could get to Charlie and the chalkboard he was working at before Charlie started swatting him away. Pretty close, as it turned out: less than a foot if he was careful and quiet and didn't try to touch the chalkboard. Closer from the left side than the right, not surprisingly, but if he walked up behind Charlie he couldn't get within two feet before Charlie whirled around, startled at first and then annoyed.

Don was standing at the back wall, trying to figure out if there was a window concealed behind the left-hand chalkboard, when he heard Charlie clear his throat and turned toward him. Charlie was standing by the card tables in the middle of the room, holding a sheet of paper in his hand.

"Tell Williamson." His voice was louder than it had been yet, almost steady. "I'm done."

Don nodded once, slowly, not really sure what that was supposed to mean. Charlie staggered over to the sleeping bags and lay down on the side nearer the wall where Don had mostly been sleeping. He tugged the pillow squarely under his head, went to sleep, and stayed that way for about twenty-four hours.


c knew it was Don right away, because no one else would wake him by kicking him gently. He rolled onto his back and winced.

Don crouched down beside him and said, "Yeah, here," and pressed a tablet to his mouth. c swallowed it dry, and then pushed himself up to sit and drink the water Don offered him.

"5:30. PM. On the nineteenth. Williamson's coming down." Don said. "Thought you'd rather be awake and medicated."

c nodded his thanks, smiling though his bruises all hurt worse than ever--they'd had time to get ripe while he was sleeping through an entire day--and Don smiled back. Then came the sound of the door opening, and Don straightened up and stepped away. c closed his eyes and listened to Don's brisk footsteps until they were gone. He opened his eyes when the door closed.

Williamson paused by the vertical cot, and looked it up and down in a pointed way, but c didn't even bother to think about standing. Williamson walked over in front of him, leaning lightly against the now-cleared card tables. He held up the single sheet of paper that held the distillation of the last however-many-days' work.

"You're sure about these results?" he asked.

c nodded. Of course he was sure. He'd checked all the best probabilities three times. He knew whose ass was on the line if things went wrong. He'd made no superfluous assumptions, he'd done exactly what Williamson wanted, with machine-like precision, if worse handwriting.

"You're sure," Williamson repeated.

"I'm sure," c said. His voice sounded low and rusty to his own ears, but it didn't hurt quite as badly as he expected it to.

Williamson nodded and pulled a folder out of his coat, dropping it on the table behind him. "Get to work on this."

c nodded. There would be intel on the next job: numbers, diagrams, pages of observations--all carefully stripped of any identifying information or extraneous factors Williamson didn't want him to consider--and instructions for the scenario he was to construct. Input, output. Machine-like.

Williamson looked down at him, sitting in a tangle of sleeping bags, and it occurred to c to worry, just for a second, about how it would look, and whether Williamson would be angry. But Williamson snorted something close to a laugh, shook his head again and pulled out a walkie-talkie, into which he said, "Hey, Jimmy, come open the door, and bring Know-Nothing's dinner."

c leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes then, listening to Williamson wandering around. He'd look at the boards, but he never asked c what they meant anymore. He'd stopped pretending to care at the same point he'd stopped pretending that c was anything other than a brain on legs to be controlled by the regular application of pain and terror. c rubbed his elbow and listened for the opening of the door. When it came, he pushed up to his feet, walked near to the door to take a plate of food, plastic fork, and bottle of water from Williamson's hands.

Then Williamson and Jimmy both left, and c was alone again, for the second time in three days. Well, it was possible he'd been alone the day before, too, but he'd been asleep, so he hadn't appreciated it. He celebrated by taking a piss, though Don not being there didn't make much difference at this point. They were both pretty used to each other, as far as c could tell, and becoming expert in the fine art of pretending the bathroom had a door.

He took a look at himself in the mirror as he washed his hands. He was able to open his left eye further today than he had been when he'd gone to sleep, and the bruising was going green at the edges. His nose seemed pretty much back to normal, and the razor-cut on his jaw was healing nicely, just a pink double line now. The bruising on his throat was starting to fade, all brown and green like camouflage. He wiped his hands on his sweater, and then pulled his shirts up and peered down at himself.

The bruises on his belly and chest were going nicely multi-colored, but the bootprint was still dark and his hip still hurt like hell. He reached around and poked awkwardly at the bruise over his kidney, but all he could really tell was that poking it hurt. He'd known pretty much as soon as Williamson had hit him that the single blow hadn't been enough to leave him pissing blood, and that was really the only important metric in the circumstances. c readjusted his clothing, resisted the urge to poke at the neatly-taped cut on his head--it was fresh, Don must have redone it before waking him--and went out to the card tables.

He ate standing up, flipping through the first few pages of the parameters. Another robbery, like they mostly were, but Williamson was changing things up again. Not surprising, though it would mean more work for c. He'd introduced a lot of factors that would be tricky to quantify, let alone predict. If he seriously wanted probability calculations on skirt lengths for the female accomplices, this was going to take forever. Still, it was a good, novel MO, highly unlikely to be connected back to any of the others. c had been the one who'd explained to Williamson how important it was to keep changing, keep moving, to avoid patterns to avoid getting caught. Williamson seemed to listen to him on that, at least.

Williamson...

c turned and stared down at the sleeping bags. It had to be obvious that they'd both been sleeping there, and even though c had been fully clothed, it seemed to him that it would read as something other than what it was, to Williamson or any of his men. And yesterday--no, the day before--they hadn't been fully clothed at all. Don had climbed out of the sleeping bags wearing only his jockeys, and for a moment he'd actually been straddling c, as he bent to squeeze c's shoulder. Then he'd walked away, and the light from the doorway had flashed on a dark bruise on his inner thigh.

So Williamson and the others would be thinking that Mac and Know-Nothing were fucking. Had Williamson ordered it? Was Don trying to make it look that way? But then Williamson would look approving, not amused, and he would have asked c pointed questions to confirm whatever he thought was going on.

He acted amused, though, and that meant--they would be allowed? c tried to work out whether this would make it more or less likely that Williamson would order Don to rape him, but there wasn't sufficient useable data. Williamson's threats had always been vague--and always only threats--up to the time Don arrived: but Williamson had now threatened him with Don specifically, and the other day in the garage might well have been a kind of trial run.

But if it was, it had certainly reassured c at least as much as it could possibly have reassured Williamson: he knew now what it would be like, if Williamson ordered Don to do anything to him. It would be like that, all over again. Don would look him in the eye, wait until he was ready, hurt him as little as possible. c would be a person to Don, before and after and during, and it would be something between them that Williamson only stood aside and ordered. It was hardly frightening at all, if he thought of it like that, but Williamson would find a way to make it terrible--and Don would hate it, he realized. Don didn't seem like the type to enjoy rape any more than he'd enjoyed beating c while he was bound.

Well, and maybe c couldn't actually prevent that, but he could head it off in a way. If they could do it here first, privately, on their own terms, wouldn't that be better? If Williamson couldn't order them to do anything they hadn't already done, it would spike his guns a little. He might not even bother then. c would be confirmed as the faggot Williamson occasionally accused him of being (and what would that make Williamson's Mac? Nothing the others didn't already think he was, so there was little enough risk to consider there) but he didn't think he'd mind that much. There wasn't anything wrong with being gay, after all. He knew that.

And he was, wasn't he? Situationally, at least? Wasn't that what it meant, when he'd rather lie beside Don and watch him sleep than imagine some girl in a picture naked? He closed his eyes for just a second, experimentally imagining Don naked--not a great imaginative leap at all, all that skin and warmth and smiling brown eyes, crouching over him--and, oh, yes. He opened his eyes, catching himself against the table as he staggered, blood rushing to his dick. Yes. He was very definitely gay. At least in this room. And there was nothing wrong with that: even Williamson didn't seem to mind.

c glanced at the sleeping bags again.

He'd just have to hope that Don didn't mind either, or this could get tricky. He was at least unlikely to be violently disturbed by the idea--not only was he generally reluctant to harm c, but sleeping together, especially as unclothed as they'd been at first, seemed like the sort of thing that would be avoided as queer by the kind of guy who'd take serious offense. And Don had seemed attracted to him in some way from the beginning. The day before, Don had seemed to be playing some private stalking game, repeatedly getting as close to c as he could until c repelled him--moving in over and over as if drawn by gravity, some force he couldn't resist.

Well, gravity acted to draw two bodies toward each other, more powerfully at smaller distances. c would move closer, and they'd see what happened next.


It seemed like déjà vu, at first. Don glanced up from his comic book to see Charlie standing at one of his freshly-cleared chalkboards, and he could swear he saw him erasing the exact same thing he'd been erasing the last time Don had looked up.

Don glanced at his watch. It was pushing midnight, and he should really try to get Charlie to get some sleep sooner rather than later, if he wanted either of them to approach a normal circadian rhythm. It'd be useful if only for reducing the likelihood of being caught sleeping when somebody came down here. Charlie didn't need to miss more meals than he already did, and Don didn't need to be caught off guard more than he already was.

Charlie started writing again, and Don shifted sideways for a better angle, setting down his comic book. As he watched, Charlie wrote down exactly the same equation he'd just erased. Don stared at it, trying to spot somewhere that it had changed. Charlie seemed to be staring at it, too, pacing a step to one side and a step to the other, as if it would look different out of the corner of his eye. Then he turned back to the board and scrubbed it out again.

Don started counting. He got to two hundred and forty-seven before Charlie started writing again: exactly the same equation. Don grinned.

"Hey, c."

Charlie shook his head in that "I'm not listening, don't interrupt me" way he had always had. Don could tell him his hair was on fire right now and he'd just keep shaking his head and staring at his chalkboard, or at least he could have done that to Charlie, before. c seemed to pay a little more attention to his surroundings, but then, c had to.

Don closed down that line of thought, thinking instead of how Charlie looked better tonight, his bruises and balance all improved for a day asleep, diving straight into some fresh project Williamson had brought him. Don stood up and started walking toward him, coming at him from behind and to the right on a forty-five degree angle. He hadn't really experimented with angles, before. He stopped a foot from Charlie's shoulder and waited, watching as Charlie erased his work yet again.

"c," he said, practically in Charlie's ear. "Earth to c."

Charlie turned his head and glared at Don over his shoulder. "I'm working."

"No," Don said, reaching out and prying the chalk from Charlie's fingers. Charlie resisted for a couple of seconds and then gave up. "You're writing and erasing the same thing over and over, and you have been for an hour."

"Look," Charlie said, "just because you can't comprehend the subtle refinements--"

Insulting the intelligence of everyone around him. God, it was just like trying to get him to come in for dinner when he was on a tear. "You can't comprehend when you need to give your brain a break. Come over here and sit down with me for five minutes, and then I'll give you your chalk back."

Charlie looked pointedly from Don to the box of chalk on the table, but Don just grabbed him by the shoulder and started pulling, and about four feet away from the board its hold over him seemed to break. He relaxed under Don's hand and walked with him to the sleeping bags, slouching down beside him.

Don leaned against the wall, stretching his legs, and looked over at Charlie sitting with his elbows on knees, head in hands.

"Hey," Don said softly, "how are you feeling, anyway?"

Charlie shrugged, and looked up at him with a half-smile, blinking both eyes as wide as they'd go--still not symmetrical, but closer.

"Better," Charlie said. "I, uh, I do that sleeping thing sometimes, just crash like that. I hope you didn't think I was dead or anything."

Don nodded. Charlie didn't need to know exactly how much time Don had spent sitting by him, watching his sleep for signs of rapid eye movement and assuring himself that if Charlie hadn't had a concussion, he couldn't have lapsed into a coma.

"So, this is how it works, huh?"

He waved toward the table, freshly stocked with all-new sheets of paper covered in numbers, and the chalkboards, wiped clear.

"Williamson brings you some stuff and bang, you do math magic?"

"Magic, ha," Charlie repeated, but he was still smiling a little bit. "Yeah, something like that. It used to be--"

He hesitated, glancing over at Don, and Don leaned forward and looked curious but non-threatening with all his might. Charlie looked away, folding tighter into himself, but he kept talking.

"Williamson and I used to--it was like working together, almost like--almost a partnership. I mean, he was the boss and I was the one who got held at gunpoint and locked in all the time, but mostly he didn't--it wasn't like this, as much."

Don nodded, though Charlie was looking away from Don, and probably couldn't see it. Charlie just kept going.

"We--the first job we did, I did with him, that was--I knew how to do that. I didn't know how I knew, but I knew. And then there were other jobs, and I would--I would tell him what we should--what his guys should do, and he would listen, or tell me something else to do, but then we--we had this one job and--it made sense to design everything to avoid the possibility of casualties. You kill people, it's worse, they look harder for you, you leave more forensic evidence."

The Cincinnati job, Don thought. A security guard shot in the head on the way out, by a man Williamson's size. He thought he could see where this was going, and folded that thought down inside, where it wouldn't show on his face, wouldn't stop Charlie from talking.

"But Williamson thought I was being too careful, thought I was trying to control--he wanted to make a point, so he--he killed a man, told me all about it after, and that's when I--I started--I yelled at him."

There was a half-hysterical bubble of laughter behind the word, disbelieving. Don scooted around so he was facing Charlie, and he could see Charlie was holding his elbow again.

"That's when he did this?" Don asked, reaching out and setting his hand over Charlie's, squeezing gently.

Charlie raised his head, met Don's eyes and then nodded, just once. "Dislocated. Left it like that for--I don't know how long, I never knew how long anything lasted. It felt like a long time."

Don winced at that, and let Charlie see it this time. He slid his hand down to Charlie's wrist, pushing his sleeve up, and Charlie let his hand fall away so that Don could cup the bare elbow in his hands.

"Does it hurt now?"

About a month since the original injury and reduction of the joint, and Charlie didn't seem to have any nerve damage in his left arm, at least.

Charlie shrugged. "A little. It's not a big deal."

Bracing the elbow in one hand, Don took Charlie's wrist in the other, watching Charlie's face for pain as he tested his range of motion. It wasn't horribly diminished--he seemed to use the arm pretty much normally--but it was clear that he'd sustained damage, now that Don thought to check. A month in, he wouldn't even be finished healing yet, really.

"It'll keep getting better," Don said firmly.

Charlie nodded, but his eyes were back on his blackboard, flickering from place to place as if he was reading something he hadn't written yet. Don squeezed his wrist and then let go, and somehow that made Charlie look at him, suddenly intent.

"What about you?" Charlie asked. "How's a nice guy like you wind up in a place like this?"

It was Don's turn to look away, biting his tongue against the impulse to say, I came looking for you. Not yet. Charlie was starting to trust him, but it was still far too soon to lay the truth on him and expect him to keep the secret.

"It's a living," he said lightly instead, looking from one blank chalkboard to the next, remembering faintly and distantly the chalkboards in the garage, and in Charlie's office.

"And it's not--" he looked back at Charlie, to find him watching carefully. "It's not the kind of job you can walk away from if you don't like it, you know?"

Charlie nodded his understanding, and he touched Don's shoulder lightly, with a quiet smile like forgiveness on his battered face. Don sat still, smiling back at Charlie, letting the moment stretch until it was almost too much to bear. He looked away and picked up a comic book, not quite shrugging off Charlie's touch.

"So, come on, isn't it time for your daily dose of improbable physics and masked heroes?"

Charlie's hand tightened on his shoulder, and when Don looked back Charlie was a thousand miles away, staring into nothing, his lips moving slightly like he was communing with the math gods. Softly, voice level, so he wouldn't break the trance, Don said, "Don't tell me you just had a breakthrough based on Batman and Robin."

"Improbability, actually," Charlie replied, still not looking at Don but starting to smile. "Oh--of course, I--"

Don smiled back--he didn't know how many times in his life he'd seen a lightbulb go on above Charlie's head, but it was still fun to watch--and then Charlie was looking straight at Don, smiling at him, moving toward him. Don raised his arm to catch Charlie in a hug, smack him on the back, except the angle wasn't quite right and before he knew what was happening Charlie's mouth struck his, and while Don froze in total shock Charlie's lips were soft and slightly parted, there and then gone. Charlie pushed up off his shoulder and took two quick strides to the card table, grabbed some chalk and started writing as soon as he reached the board.

Don opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, raised a hand to his face and rubbed at his lips. Charlie hadn't just--no, Charlie had. He'd been--excited, and thinking of something else, but he'd definitely--

Charlie had kissed him. Kissed him. And, it belatedly occurred to Don, he hadn't actually told Charlie he shouldn't.

He looked up at Charlie, who was scribbling so furiously he was actually raising a little cloud of chalk dust. That meant it was shitty chalk, Don thought, in a numb, bemused sort of way--he should try to get Charlie some better chalk--no, he should get Charlie out of here, home to his own chalk. Don cleared his throat and said, "Hey, c."

Charlie kept on writing furiously, chalk tapping, sliding, hissing against the board, and he moved sideways to start on a fresh board, scribbling notes and a diagram.

"c," he repeated, louder, and this time Charlie waved his free hand in Don's direction, no, busy, go away.

That meant he knew Don was there and was ignoring him on purpose, and Don hesitated. If he actually wanted to talk to Charlie now, he'd have to physically get up and go over there, peel him away from his chalkboard and force him to listen--and he might be staying over there as much from embarrassment as because he was working on a serious breakthrough. Although from the speed of writing, he also seemed to have figured out something important. He probably hadn't meant anything by it. He'd just been excited and now he was hoping Don would just forget all about it and leave him alone to work.

And Charlie's work was important, much more important than proving some kind of point. It was fucked up and weird, but Don could deal with fucked up and weird for a few hours easier than he could deal with Charlie having his elbow dislocated again because he was slow off the mark. And sitting here and shutting up was a hell of a lot easier than being made to dislocate Charlie's elbow tomorrow.

And, truth be told, he didn't really want to get that close to Charlie again right this second, just in case Charlie--c, who didn't know Don, who'd never seen a girl before--got the wrong idea or something. That would make it worse. No, he would let Charlie work for now, and in the morning, when they'd both rested and gotten some distance from it, Don would just--set him straight. He'd be calm, Charlie would be sheepish, this whole thing would blow over, and later, when they were out of here and Charlie had his memory back, Don would probably tease him about it.

Or maybe they would never, ever speak of it again. That would be all right, too. Don picked up a comic book and set himself to think about anything that wasn't Charlie for a little while.


c lay still, watching Don sleep again. It was almost like having a hobby, he thought, watching Don while he slept. When Don was awake, it was almost like having a friend, although what with one thing and another 'friend' was probably not the most precise possible term for it.

For now though, Don was sleeping and c was watching. He'd just woken up himself, and he'd left the work light shining on blackboard six when he lay down to sleep, for just this purpose. Don was lying on his side--his left side, lucky bastard, while c still couldn't even quite manage to sleep on his back--with his head pillowed on his bottom arm and his back to the wall. His gun lay on the floor with its holster. c could reach it as easily as Don could from where they lay, but c had no interest in reaching for it. Don had been right, for one thing, a gun would do him no good until he had a plan. And anyway, Don had told him not to do that again.

He hadn't told c not to kiss him again, which c chose to consider promising. His lips had touched Don's for perhaps as long as his fingers had touched Don's gun a few nights before, but Don had only frozen in surprise, not knocked him to the floor. If Don had been really angry about it, he'd have hit first, not frozen. If he froze it meant he was more surprised than anything else, and surprise was something c could work with.

c touched his own lips, remembering that brief contact as he stared at Don's mouth, softened now in sleep. He scooted closer to Don, holding his breath, but Don slept on, undisturbed by his presence. c reached out one hand, letting it hover over Don's arm and then settle painfully slowly onto his sleeve, feeling the warmth of his skin through the soft fabric. He dared to inch closer. His head was entirely off the pillow now, his cheek nearly touching the point of Don's elbow. He slid his hand slightly up Don's arm and felt the tensing of muscle as Don moved. c froze, eyes wide, waiting to be caught.

Don shifted in sleep, raising his arm and throwing it over c, tugging him closer, and c closed his eyes and curled in, the top of his head against Don's chest, Don's arm heavy and lax over his side. His heart was pounding so loudly that he was surprised Don didn't hear it, and the vague arousal of waking up warm and close to Don was coalescing rapidly into an actual hard-on. c shifted his hips a little, not wanting to actually take his hand from Don's arm to adjust himself, and then let his hand slip down to Don's stomach. There was more heat there, or maybe it was himself that was hotter at the muscular feel of Don's body under his hand, rising and falling as he breathed.

c turned his face up against Don's chest, shifting his hips closer, his knee against Don's thigh. He was breathing Don now, the smell of him filling c's nose, and the hot, thick air in the tight space between their bodies made his head swim. His hand was moving down Don's belly before he knew he meant to do it, rucking up his shirt to touch bare skin, hair crinkling under his fingers as they trailed to the top of Don's jeans, the metal of the button skin-warm under his thumb.

Don gasped, and c felt it against his face, under his hand, felt Don awake and in motion--Don's hands on him and over him, pushing him onto his back--his dick throbbed, yes, yes, please, yes--and Don's weight moved over him, Don's breath hot on his face for an instant--

And then Don was scrambling away, flinging the sleeping bag back and surging to his feet, leaving c lying cold and exposed as Don stood, panting harshly, one hand out as if to stop c from following him, fingers spread wide. Don was silhouetted against the work light, but c could make out the wideness of his staring eyes.

Don said, "No," not loudly, but so forcefully that c felt pressed back against the concrete by it.

He swallowed, resisting the urge to cover himself--his dick was still hard, his own breath coming as short as Don's--and said the first thing that came to mind.

"Why not?"

Don opened and closed his mouth repeatedly before he finally said, nearly as forcefully as before, "Because I don't want to."

c tamped down the many, many scathing things he might have said on the subject of doing things one didn't want to do, and nodded slowly, calmly. Don didn't want to. Well.

"All right," he said, pleased that his voice sounded steady, maybe ever so faintly amused. His hard-on was easing, his heart rate slowing. He was conscious of the ache of the bruise on his back, but he couldn't turn away from Don to avoid it. He just squirmed a little as he settled back more comfortably against the pillow and tucked one arm behind his head. The cool air striking his skin told him that the motion had drawn his shirt up above the top of his jeans an instant before Don's eyes darted down.

Don shifted back a step, seeming uneasy, but his voice was firm as he said, "All right. So that's it."

c smiled and shook his head. "No, it's not, but I accept your premise. You don't want to. I do want to. We have two opposite propositions before us which must be reconciled, like P and--"

"Do not start talking to me about P vs. NP," Don snarled, suddenly, startlingly fierce, and c blinked.

"What do you know about P vs. NP?" he asked, pushing up on his elbow.

Don had seemed quite genuinely ignorant of advanced mathematics. Had Williamson planted a ringer? Did he suspect c of botching the mathematics in some way? Don did spend a lot of time staring at the chalkboards, but it wasn't as if there were anything else to stare at, and c had never seen any evidence of Don doing any sort of math himself.

Don seemed taken aback by the question, as if he hadn't expected c to find it odd that he was familiar with one of the great unsolved problems of mathematics. But this hesitation was brief, and then he said,

"Nothing, except that it's got nothing to do with real life. This is not math, c, you do not get to put me on your chalkboard and calculate how you can get your way with me. I said no, and I meant it."

c was briefly distracted by the idea of Don, if not on, then up against, a chalkboard. He licked his lips, looking up at him, and then said, in a careful, quiet voice, "Are you going to hit me?"

"Am I--"

Don cut off his first answer and ran a hand through his hair, turning his face away, casting his profile against the light. c reminded himself to keep breathing.

"No," Don said, in a low, soft, weary voice. "God, no, c, I'm not going to hit you, I just--"

"Okay," c said, and he could feel himself wavering, almost. But his reasoning was sound. He needed to do this, they needed to do this, before the issue was forced. He didn't think now was the time to present the logic of the situation to Don, but that didn't mean the logic didn't remain compelling; and he knew what he wanted, and he could safely ask for it, this once, in this room, with this man.

"If you're not going to hit me, then I'm going to keep asking."

Don stared at him in silence, and c stared back, waiting. Now would be the time, if Don were really seriously determined to stop him, when Don would walk over and hit him, hard. Just once, probably, somewhere he wasn't already hurt, with a closed fist rather than a booted foot, but he would do it, and it would make things much more difficult.

Don rubbed a hand over his face and then said, "Not while I'm fucking sleeping, you're not."

He crossed the space between them and bent low over c, and their eyes met as c tensed in anticipation of the blow. Don's mouth went hard, and he shook his head the slightest fraction, holding c's gaze as he grabbed his gun and walkie-talkie and the sleeping bag he'd knocked aside. He turned away, walking beyond the cot, and c lay motionless, listening to the sound of Don bedding down by the door.

After a while, c scooted into the space where Don had been lying, pushing the pillow aside and curling down into the sleeping bag as he pulled the other half over himself. The warmth and scent of Don still clung to the soft flannel, and c closed his eyes and breathed it in as his eyes watered and his body was wracked with shivers. Don hadn't hit him. He didn't know why not, but he had to think it was a good sign.


Because I'm your brother, that's why not.

Don had been stupidly desperate to drink his coffee that morning, burned his mouth straight back to his throat and nearly gagged scalding coffee all over himself. His tongue and the roof of his mouth felt raw, but at least the discomfort reminded him not to keep mouthing the words, over and over, as he had while he lay in the half-dark by the door for hours before the coffee showed up. The words rattled in his skull instead. I'm your brother. I'm your brother. I'm your brother, that's why.

Charlie was in the shower, and Don was leaning against the door, carefully not looking at himself in the slowly-fogging mirror. He was more uncomfortably conscious than ever that Charlie was naked on the other side of the curtain. He couldn't avoid hearing the slick-skin sounds of him washing, and his brain kept skipping away to think of his own last shower and wondering whether--but Charlie wouldn't, would he? Where Don could hear him? And he--

It was sickening, and it was sick--I'm your brother, I'm your brother, I'm your brother--but that was just it. Charlie was sick, whether brain damaged or psychologically scarred, and this was a symptom. That was all it was, just a sign that Charlie had been hurt, and if it made Don uncomfortable, that wasn't any more Charlie's fault than Don's second case of chicken pox.

Though as he recalled, he'd blamed Charlie for that at the time. He'd been twelve. It had seemed reasonable.

He couldn't think of any way to stop Charlie from thinking about it now that he'd started--he couldn't even think of a way to stop himself from thinking of it, and God knew he'd be happy to. It was partly the problem of thinking of a negative: Don't think about how your brother wants to fuck you, yeah, great, that was worse than not thinking of pink elephants and what oranges smelled like and whatever else they'd been told not to think about back in Intro Psych.

Mostly, though, it was just that they were together twenty-three hours of every day in a room with no windows. There were exactly two distractions available: math and comic books, and apparently sitting down together to stare at spandex-wearing superheroes was not helping matters, so Don was officially tapped out. Hell, if he'd been locked in with anybody but Charlie, they'd probably be looking pretty good right now--and if he was honest with himself, there had been that instant this morning, when he'd been half awake and felt somebody's hand on his skin. Before he'd woken up enough to know it was Charlie, it had felt better than anything had in a long damn time.

But it was Charlie, of course, and he'd only reacted that way because he hadn't known--and Charlie was only behaving this way because, awake or asleep, he didn't know. Tempting as it was to tell him now and make him stop, this was the worst possible time to try it. Charlie was wildly unlikely to believe him, for one thing, and even if he did, Williamson was bound to notice Charlie suddenly behaving differently toward him. He'd find out why, he'd find out exactly who Don Eppes was if he didn't know already, and then Don would be dead, or maybe just taken away from Charlie. Either way he'd be helpless to help Charlie while Williamson did what he pleased.

The shower turned off, finally, and Don shut his eyes just in case Charlie had something in mind--but when he grabbed the towel and held it over the curtain rod, Charlie took it from his hand just as quickly as he had the last few days, and he didn't step outside until he had his boxers and t-shirt on.

Don stuck close to the door, watching Charlie from the corner of his eye. He seemed to be behaving normally, and Don relaxed a little as Charlie dressed. Maybe being upstairs, nearer the others, was working to Don's advantage, encouraging Charlie to keep his mouth shut.

Charlie started brushing his teeth, swiping at the mirror with his left hand, and Don let himself think ahead to the morning's parade past Williamson's thugs and another long day confined with Charlie. He was taken completely off-guard when Charlie said casually, "You have a pretty fantastic ass, you know."

Don froze, once again feeling weirdly as if Charlie had just drawn a gun on him. Keeping his face blank, he met Charlie's eyes in the mirror with what ought to have been a quelling look, though Charlie went on smiling slightly. The swelling around his eye was going down, though the bruising was still spectacularly multi-colored and the gash still stood out, a black line of scabbing in the bruises. Charlie's hair looked longer, weighed down with water against his forehead and the back of his neck. His mouth was covered in white foam. He raised his toothbrush slightly, flashing his teeth, and said "You wear your jeans that tight, somebody was bound to notice."

Don gritted his teeth, closing the small distance between himself and Charlie and jostling him a little against the sink as he grabbed the toothbrush from Charlie's hand.

"Okay," Don said flatly, "that's enough, you're done. We're not talking about this."

Charlie just smiled wider and pressed back against Don as he bent to spit. Don glared at the back of his head and stepped quickly away, rinsing the toothbrush under the tub tap. He shoved the clean toothbrush into his pocket and grabbed Charlie by the arm. Charlie prudently grabbed his own dirty clothes, and Don yanked the door open and propelled him through it.

Charlie stumbled and Don held him up, marching him quickly through the house, for once barely noticing the presence of the other guys. Sam fell in behind Don as they headed down the basement stairs, and when Don had shoved Charlie inside and slammed the door shut behind them, he heard them locked in. More than he ever had been before, Don was acutely aware that he was just as trapped as Charlie was behind that door.

He realized he was still holding Charlie's arm and let go, taking a couple of quick steps away. The cot was still standing on end; he should put it back so Charlie could use it. Charlie wouldn't think to do it if Don left it there.

He could hear Charlie standing still behind him, breathing a little quickly. Waiting. Don cleared his throat and spoke without turning.

"I want you to quit it, c. I'm asking you to quit it."

"Okay," Charlie said, too easily, and Don closed his eyes and bit back a groan.

He turned around warily and said, "By 'okay,' you mean that you acknowledge that I'm saying that but you don't agree to it, don't you?"

Charlie grinned. "You're a quick learner."

He didn't feel quick. He felt tired of this, queasy and edgy, as raw as his mouth. He didn't know how long he could cope with this, and he didn't want to think about what he might do when he couldn't cope anymore. This wasn't right, and he didn't know how Charlie could keep mathematics and not keep that.

"So either I have to hit you, or you're going to keep this up."

Charlie nodded briskly, like that was obvious.

Don sighed. Charlie was sick. It wasn't Charlie's fault.

"That's kind of a shitty thing to do, c."

"Yeah," Charlie said, "well, so is beating somebody whose hands are cuffed behind his back, huh?"

Beyond pulling a gun on him; this time he felt like Charlie had actually hit him. Don kept very still, steadying himself, controlling his expression down to nothingness. Charlie's eyes went wide and his mouth dropped open--he could see he'd scored with that one--and Don reminded himself that hitting Charlie was not the answer to this. Still, that didn't mean he couldn't shut Charlie up.

He turned away sharply, digging through his duffle until he fished out the handcuffs. He moved fast, grabbing Charlie's wrist and snapping a cuff on, and Charlie flinched hard, yanking his other hand back so that Don had to reach for it and haul it in to fasten the cuffs, binding his hands before him. Charlie stared up at him, wide-eyed and pale under his stubble, and Don gritted his teeth and turned away again. He grabbed Charlie's razor and the shaving cream and then turned back, pressing them into Charlie's hands. Charlie took them, but didn't move, staring up at Don fearfully, making Don feel sicker than ever.

"Don," Charlie whispered, "I'm sorry."

He swallowed hard against remorse and bile, and gritted out, "You shouldn't be."

Charlie stood very still, and Don said more loudly, "I'm not going to hurt you. I'll take those off if you don't want to shave, but I'm not going to do it for you anymore."

Charlie's hands clenched tight on his shaving stuff, and curled in toward his chest. His eyes shut tight and his shoulders hunched. He nodded shallowly and turned away, walking toward the bathroom with small, silent steps. Don watched him for a couple of ragged breaths and then sank down to sit on the cool floor, his head in his hands. He was fucking this up badly, but if there was a right way to handle the situation, he didn't know it.

He listened to the running water and occasional clattering of Charlie shaving, dropping things, clumsily picking them up with his bound hands. Speaking of shitty things to do. Fuck.

Don pushed up to his feet, grabbed the handcuff key and headed over to the bathroom, but Charlie was already splashing water awkwardly on his face. He was nicked in a couple of spots, but at least he was shaved. Charlie didn't say a word, but when he held his hands out to Don they were shaking. Don wanted to hold them, steady them, give his brother a minute's comfort, but that was what had gotten him into this position in the first place, thinking Charlie would know affection from a come-on. He held each of Charlie's wrists just long enough to unlock the cuffs, then stepped clear of the door so Charlie could get to his chalkboards, tucking the handcuffs into his pocket as he did.

Charlie didn't bolt, though, leaning against the sink like he wanted to look small.

"I didn't mean it like that," Charlie said, low but nearly steady. "I just meant--optimally, neither of us would have to do shitty things. But you had to. And I have to."

Don opened his mouth, but he couldn't think of an argument for that. He shook his head and turned away.


Chapter Eight

Exhaustion hit c like a hammer blow as he stood at the tables, searching for the page with observations on traffic patterns in the vicinity of the target. The side of his head started throbbing all of a sudden, and he staggered a little under the suddenly unbearable weight of his own body. He caught himself on the table, and looked for Don, only to find him lying down by the door, wrapped in his sleeping bag. His holster was lying near his head, empty, and c knew that if he ventured closer he'd see Don's gun tucked safely and distrustfully between his shoulder and his throat.

He wouldn't venture any closer, though. Don was awake, watching him with dark, intent eyes. c nodded a little bit--he tried to smile, but his mouth just twitched awkwardly, and he didn't think the motion qualified. c tore his gaze from Don's and looked to his own sleeping bag, only then noticing that Don had set the cot back down. c's sleeping bag was spread out on top of it--folded in half, but not zipped--and there was a pillow at the end near the door, so he could have his back to the wall while lying on his right side. It would leave less than a meter between his head and Don's. He would be able to hear Don breathing, even if Don wouldn't let him lie nearer than that.

c nodded again, to nothing and no one in particular, straightened up and went to the light switch. He heard Don tensing at his feet, but merely leaned over him and shut off the overhead lights, leaving himself the work light to navigate by. When he got to his cot, he stared, stupefied, at the obstacle in his path. Lying on top of the sleeping bag was one of Don's comic books--not only one c hadn't read yet, but number 78 of a series in which he had last read number 77.

He glanced toward Don, now an indistinct shape in the shadows, and then back down at the cot, neatly made up for him, taking his comfort into consideration. Don wasn't conceding--not by a long shot--but he wasn't angry, either, or whatever cold, silent thing he'd been all day.

c picked up the comic book carefully--Don always handled them gently--flipped back the top layer of the sleeping bag and sat down on the cot. He wanted to say something, but he couldn't think of the words. Thank you, he thought, would be as inadequate as I'm sorry.

He opened the book, instead, though it was nearly too dim where he sat to make out the brightly colored pictures, and his eyes wouldn't focus well enough to take in the words. He turned the pages idly, knowing Don would hear, and then set the book down well underneath the frame of the cot, where he wouldn't seem to be rejecting it, before he lay down. He meant to listen for the sound of Don's breathing, but he was asleep before the sound of his own sleeping bag settling over him died away.


c kept quiet all through showering and brushing his teeth. When they were locked into the basement room, Don pulled out the handcuffs and said, "You want to shave?"

c hesitated a moment, meeting Don's steady gaze. Don was standing his ground on this, then. c's face itched, and he knew he had nothing to fear from Don, even if he couldn't stop his hands shaking once the handcuffs went on.

"Yeah," c said, offering his wrists, and Don nodded and cuffed him, briskly but without rushing.

c didn't think about anything but shaving as he shaved, working around yesterday's cuts and trying to ignore the weight of the chilly metal on his wrists. His own shivering was harder to ignore, but he went slowly and didn't drop anything this morning. He could hear Don walking around outside the bathroom, a welcome change from yesterday's terrifyingly absolute silence.

When he was done he stepped outside the bathroom, and Don came over quickly to take the cuffs off him. c watched Don's face as he worked the key, gathering his courage. When the cuffs were safely back in Don's pocket, Don met his eyes, and c forced a wobbly smile and said, "I, uh. I still want to have sex with you. Just so you know."

He thought he saw a flicker of something like relief in Don's eyes, but then Don was scowling at him.

"Well, I still don't, so there you go."

c nodded. "There's not really any harm in me asking, then, is there? I'll ask, you'll say no, maybe I'll argue with you about how you're repressing your feelings. It's something to do for two minutes."

Don raised an eyebrow and then glanced at his watch. "Two minutes is all you're looking for, huh?"

c couldn't help it. He laughed, right out loud, and the sound of it was so unfamiliar it even startled him. Don smiled.

"I'll take what I can get," c said, feeling giddy.

He'd made Don smile, after everything. Don liked him, and the way Don looked at him--there was something there. This had to be possible. In all this irreducible risk, there had to be some chance of reward.

"Yeah," Don said, "Well, what you can get right now is back to work."

c nodded obediently and went over to the table. After a moment spent casting about for the previous night's train of thought, he picked up the information on traffic patterns. But for the rest of the morning, the memory of Don's smile would sometimes break in on his concentration, and he'd find himself grinning helplessly at his calculations.


It hadn't even taken a whole day for Don to start missing Charlie across the stupidly small distance of the basement room. The feeling quickly went beyond altruism--though he did still want to make it better every time he saw Charlie shiver or freeze, and he'd given up on doing much of anything other than watching Charlie now. It was more than that. He wanted to touch Charlie--just touch him, not in a bad way, not like that--for his own sake.

It was weird not to touch Charlie--they'd always communicated as much by squeezed shoulders and gentle punches as anything else. You had to touch Charlie to be sure you had his attention, most of the time. And the rest of the time--God, it wasn't like it was weird. It was a normal human impulse, touching people you loved. They were brothers. Charlie didn't know that, so Charlie had drawn the wrong conclusion from Don touching him, but--well, he could explain that much, couldn't he? Even if he couldn't explain why the touches were innocent, he could tell Charlie that they were, maybe draw some kind of treaty line or something.

And not touching had to be half Charlie's problem anyway. He'd spent the last hundred and thirty-some days alone in a room with no one to touch and no one touching him except to hurt him. If that made Charlie a hundred thirty times as lonely as a single day not touching Charlie was making Don, then it was no wonder he wanted every kind of touch he could think of all at once to make up for the lack.

Charlie was at the table, shuffling through papers, when Don pushed to his feet and said, softly enough not to bug him if he was really busy, "Hey."

Charlie literally dropped everything and looked up, and it was kind of alarming to have Charlie tune in to him so instantly and entirely. Don forgot for a second what he'd been about to say, and Charlie smiled slowly as he noticed that.

"Hm?"

"I--"

He'd been going to tell Charlie about wire-cage monkeys and how he was suffering from a documented form of psychological privation, but instead Don just said, "I don't mind touching you."

Charlie blinked. "Um... Thank you?"

Don rolled his eyes. "I mean--look, I just don't swing the right way for the rest of it, but I don't mind touching you, and I know I'm probably the only person you know who touches you more than he hits you. So you're out of luck for the other thing, but--"

Charlie was smiling again, almost smugly--maybe he thought he was getting a foot in the door, and if he tried anything right now Don was going to give serious thought to just hitting him and getting it over with. Charlie tilted his head, eyeing Don thoughtfully.

"So I could say 'I need a hug,' and you would hug me?"

Don ran a hand through his hair. Trust Charlie to still make it sound weird. Somehow Don doubted talking about baby monkeys would have helped.

"Yeah, something like that."

"Okay," Charlie said, looking at him expectantly.

Don stood still, looking back and waiting, until Charlie's self-assured smile slipped a fraction.

"I need a hug?" Charlie's lips were still curled up but his voice was almost plaintive.

Don crossed the space between them quickly--from the door to the chalkboard, just like he'd wanted to do that very first minute and most of the ones since. He wrapped his arms around Charlie and hugged him tight. Don felt Charlie freeze and started to back off--fuck, if he couldn't stand lying in a zipped sleeping bag, being bear-hugged wasn't going to feel too reassuring--but then Charlie's hand settled tentatively on his back. It was Don's turn to hold perfectly still. Charlie's arms slowly circled him and then tightened, and Charlie was holding on right back.

Don thought he should probably let go at some point, or he was going to give Charlie all the wrong ideas all over again. But it felt so right, hugging Charlie, being close to him, Charlie hugging him right back with the fierce, unexpected strength of his skinny arms. Don turned his head a little, just enough that his cheek brushed the softness of Charlie's hair, and then he did force himself to let go, stepping back quickly.

He met Charlie's eyes, not at all sure what to say. Charlie was hugging himself, like once his arms got the idea they didn't want to stop. He tilted his head and smiled, and said, "I do still want to have sex with you, though."

Don had to smile. It was almost as funny as it was disturbing, how much this was like Charlie's great Send Me To Princeton campaign when he was twelve, and every day Charlie dared to argue with him was another day Charlie learned to trust him.

"Yeah," Don said. "Well, so do lots of people."


Don was sitting by the door, drinking his coffee and blinking under the overhead lights, which had been on for a couple of minutes now. c, who'd been up for hours before the appearance of breakfast, stood by chalkboard six and sipped his own coffee, watching Don. The right word for the phenomena he'd been observing came to him all at once--in a flash just like any other breakthrough--and c only wondered if he shouldn't mention it as his mouth opened and the words fell out.

"I love you."

Don's head snapped up and he looked absolutely blank for a few seconds, still blinking, like his eyes hadn't adjusted enough to focus on c three meters away. Then he scrubbed a hand over his hair and his shoulders slumped. He looked down at his coffee but didn't drink any more of it, and said in a quiet, tired voice, "No, you don't. You have Stockholm Syndrome."

c frowned. He tried the word Stockholm a time or two, but all he could come up with was Nobel prizes, and the fact that there wasn't one for Mathematics. But Don said it like he ought to know it, and c hadn't anticipated this sort of counterargument. He was pretty sure he didn't have whatever it was, if it meant he didn't actually love Don, but he didn't want to assert that when he didn't know how Don could disprove it.

"Stockholm Syndrome," Don repeated, and when c looked up he was still staring at his coffee. He sounded oddly defeated, for a man sure of his argument. "It happens when one person has power of life and death over another, and the endangered person feels loyalty and sympathy toward the person who holds power over them. It's a natural self-protective response."

c rolled his eyes. "Well, then you might have a point, if I'd said I love your boss, but I didn't say that. I love--"

"Do not say that again."

Don looked up, looked straight at c, so fierce that c's next argument, the one about how he wasn't actually afraid of Don, died in his throat. Don pressed his lips together, and his glare faded to something a little less paralyzing.

"It won't help your case," he said more quietly, and c nodded.

Don looked away, and c turned back to his boards, flipping the chalk between his fingers. He didn't last long before his eyes slid back to Don, studying the curve of his shoulder, the tight lines of his hands on the coffee mug. "If you'd prefer something less sentimental..."

Don snorted. "I'd prefer you to be quiet."

He took another sip of his coffee and swiped a hand over his face while c stood still, watching, trying to switch his brain back to math from Don. He was more distracting than almost anything.

Don finally looked up and saw him watching. He rolled his eyes and said, "Sure, go ahead. Set yourself up, I'll shoot you down."

c smiled, though he knew he shouldn't, really. He cleared his throat and tried to keep an appropriately straight face as he said, "Well, it's just that you're pretty much the last person on earth, as far as I'm concerned."

Don frowned, though there was a smile lurking in his eyes, like he thought c was kidding. It was a good smile; c wished he'd earned it.

"Last? You've never even met a woman as far as you know. I'm more like the first. There'll be somebody else, c. Lots of somebodies."

c shrugged and looked away, toward blackboard seven, where he occasionally worked out his own private calculations. It was blank now, but he remembered the numbers.

"First and last aren't mutually exclusive under sufficiently constrained conditions." He glanced toward Don, and found him squinting in his direction. Don didn't get it yet.

"I've calculated my own life expectancy," c explained patiently. "It's not great."

Don flinched at that, eyes going wide, looking much more pole-axed than somebody who'd almost killed him should at the idea of him dying.

"Don, this isn't exactly a line of work that predisposes anybody to dying of old age."

Don set down his coffee on the floor with what seemed like excessive care, and got to his feet. He walked slowly over to c, his steps deliberate, his eyes betraying the same weird intensity he'd shown c in the very first moment they met. Even as he fought the urge to back away from Don's advance, c thought, You do want me, I know you want me, I may be brain-damaged but I'm not blind.

Don stopped less than a foot from c, holding his gaze, and said in a low, steady voice, "Williamson hired me to guard you, c. Not because he thinks you're going to bust out of here armed with chalk and your giant brain. He wants you kept safe."

c blinked, frowning and lowering his gaze to Don's collarbone. It was an interesting point.

"That must mean he thinks people other than himself might try to kill me. I hadn't factored that into my life-expectancy calculation before, I don't think it really impr--"

Don caught his arm in a tight grip, and the words failed in c's mouth as he met Don's eyes again. He resisted the urge to pull away from the restraint, and Don's other hand settled on his shoulder.

"c," Don whispered, and the hair stood up on the back of c's neck. "It is my job to keep you in one piece. I intend to do my job."

c nodded slowly, transfixed, and cautiously raised his own hand to Don's arm. "You take--your job--seriously. I get that."

Don's mouth flattened to a grim line, and c knew it wasn't a job that Don was staring at like his hope of heaven. It wasn't a job that Don was holding on to tightly enough to hurt. c knew the word for what Don was doing here, too, though he had a feeling he wouldn't get too far saying it.

Don nodded and took his hands away, easing back a step and finally dropping his gaze. c turned back to his board and tried to catch his breath. He rolled the chalk on his fingers, listening to the small sounds of Don walking away, though staying always, always, between c and the door, and thought, You don't want to say it, but you fucking well love me too.


Don scrubbed his hands over his face. He wished he couldn't believe they were arguing about this, but it was so Charlie it was killing him.

"Fine," he said. "What if I was--what if I was sick? And if--"

"If we had sex," Charlie filled in. He'd noticed at some point that Don never said it and had started supplying the words, which didn't really help at all.

Don took a deep breath, in and out. "You'd get sick, and I don't want to do that to you."

"Safe sex doesn't mean no sex," Charlie announced confidently, licking his fingers for the last traces of his sandwich. "We'd just have to be careful. Depending on what you had, except that you don't have anything, or you wouldn't say what if."

Don sighed and leaned his head back against the wall, setting down his own half-eaten sandwich on the floor. "Right, but--look, it doesn't even matter why not. I don't want to, I'm not gay." He glanced at Charlie just as he opened his mouth, and rolled his eyes. "Or bisexual, okay? I don't have sex with guys."

Charlie shrugged. "If you haven't, that doesn't necessarily mean you won't. People do weird things when their options are limited, and you don't get out much more than I do."

Don glanced involuntarily up at the door, then scowled at Charlie. "I don't care how little I get out," Don said. "The answer's still no."

Charlie tilted his head. "It doesn't have to be--I mean, if you don't want to perform some particular act--"

Don squeezed his eyes shut, far too late to stop the barrage of mental images. Charlie would insist on negotiating about oral sex or anal or something else and Don couldn't help seeing it. Charlie naked, Charlie standing over him, Charlie on his--

He regretted the half of his sandwich he had eaten, and clenched both fists against his thighs. He couldn't move. He would not hit Charlie.

"It's not--" Don gritted out. "No."


c blinked in the dimness, half awake. He only had to turn his head a little to find Don, sitting in the corner between blackboard five and blackboard six, reading a comic book under the work light. c rubbed his eyes and glanced above Don's head at the boards, remembering the stalled line of reasoning that had compelled him to lie down and, as Don would say, give his brain a break. No immediate avenues for progress leapt to mind; his mind, in fact, didn't leap much of anywhere. He was warm and comfortable, lying on his cot, wrapped in his sleeping bag.

He must have moved, because Don looked up at him, and nodded slightly when he met c's eyes.

"What time is it?" c murmured, squirming around, trying to stretch without sticking any body parts outside his sleeping bag.

Don squinted at his watch. "Four forty-seven. In the afternoon."

c nodded and stayed where he was, raising his left hand to probe along the healing cut beside his eye. The scab had come off in the shower today, and the skin beneath was closed up, a dark pink line more than a centimeter long. Don had winced when he saw it, but c couldn't stop checking it out, the new scar smooth under his fingertips. He made the same stroking motion with his right hand, tucked between his thighs for warmth, and then slid it higher, cupping himself.

"Don," he said, "would you like to have sex with me?"

Don didn't look up from his comic book. "No, c."

c shifted his fingers, squeezing a little. He hadn't jerked off since a while before Williamson brought Don to stay with him, though he didn't know when exactly. He'd gone through a couple of phases when he did it all the time, locked up alone, as much for something to do as because it felt good. The work light shone down on the top of Don's head and his shoulders, lighting him up with the yellow of the incandescent bulb, showing the brown in the darkness of his hair. He was staring intently at the page before him, and as c watched, the tip of Don's tongue emerged to touch the corner of his mouth. c licked his own lip, sweeping his thumb across his dick through his sweatpants in mirror of the motion.

He cleared his throat and said, "Please?"

Don did look up then, and smiled a little as he said, "No, thank you."

c smiled back, warmth pooling in his belly, spreading lower. "You're perfectly welcome."

Don's smile widened, and he shook his head and returned his attention to his comic book.

c kept as still as he could, watching Don, moving his hand minutely as his dick hardened under the touch. He couldn't do much more, with his right arm under him, and after a while he needed to touch himself more than he wanted to keep watching Don. Moving as slowly and quietly as he could, c rolled over, twisting the sleeping bag around himself, kicking to free his feet from their tangle and then to get them covered up. Soon enough he was lying on his left side, his head gingerly resting on the pillow--Don's pillow. His face was to the wall and his right hand was free.

He closed his eyes, listening for any sound behind him, waiting until he heard the usual rustling of Don's comic book pages. Then c slid his hand down into his pants, spreading his fingers wide, letting his palm skim over his own hot, taut skin. He kept breathing as evenly and silently as he could through his mouth as he touched himself, but he shuddered at the first brush of fingertips, his breath stopping in his throat, his balls tightening. He wanted to hurry, but he couldn't, not with Don just across the room, four meters behind his back.

c pressed his mouth against the pillow to muffle the sound of his breathing as he stroked himself. He moved slowly, not even closing his hand, just dragging his fingers up and down. He felt too hot under his sleeping bag, sweat breaking out everywhere. He was nearly panting, electric pleasure building in his groin. c ground the side of his face down, waking a twinge of pain from the fresh scar and fading bruises, and it steadied him enough to take his next breath smoothly, sliding his thumb around the head of his cock. His hips jerked at that, and he tightened his hand hard around himself and didn't move, listening to the silence behind him. He didn't even breathe.

c kept still as long as he could, but he didn't last. His dick jerked first, irresistibly seeking friction, and only then did he take another breath. He loosened his grip and stroked himself quickly, once, twice--the dry friction would start to hurt soon if he didn't stop, but he didn't want to stop--and then there was a burst of sound from behind him and c froze.

It was static, he realized, once the first instant of blind panic passed and the sound continued. He pulled his hand out of his pants and turned, propping himself on his right elbow but keeping his hips turned toward the wall, to see the source of the sound: Don's walkie-talkie, probably tuned to an empty channel and turned all the way up. Don was holding it against his right ear. He'd turned so that his right side was nearer to c, his face toward the corner. Don's right wrist shielded his eyes, but c could make out Don's blood-drained knuckles, the tensed muscles of his jaw.

Not watching. Not listening. But not leaving, either, and not making c stop. Letting him have this. c closed his right hand around the wooden edge of the cot, holding on as he watched Don, drinking in the sight of him. He didn't often have a chance to really look at Don anymore, but now there was only an infinitesimal probability of Don catching him at it. He stared, his heart racing and his breath coming short, his cock as hard as ever with Don only a few meters away. c raised his left hand and licked his palm, then slid his hand into his pants.

He couldn't keep himself from gasping as he closed his hand tight around himself and took the first stroke, but it was all right. Don wouldn't hear. c's eyelashes fluttered, but he kept his eyes open, watching Don. He stroked himself roughly, awkwardly, inside his pants and with his wrong hand. Maybe it would feel like this if it were Don's hand on him, if Don turned and looked, stood and came over here, if he leaned over the cot and touched--

He squeezed his eyes shut for a second, closed his hand painfully tight on himself, holding back his orgasm for just a little longer. When he opened his eyes again he only looked at Don in pieces: the curve of his shoulder, he muscle of his forearm standing out, his hair standing in unruly waves, the softness of his throat just under his jaw. c's hand kept moving, dragging it out, so good, so good--and then Don moved.

He turned his head, dropped his wrist a little, peeking at c from the corner of his eye, and c felt his own eyes go wide as Don's did, like looking in a mirror as their gazes met. c's head tipped back and his eyes clenched shut and he was coming hard under his own touch, under Don's eyes, his hips jerking, making the cot thump erratically against the wall as the static kept playing.

He stayed still for a minute, catching his breath, eyes closed and head hanging back. The first thing he noticed was that his fingers hurt--his right hand was going almost numb from clutching the frame of the cot. c let go, and then let himself flop back flat on the cot, his left hand still curled around his dick in the wet heat of his boxers. He was going to have to clean that up in a minute. The static washed over him, steady and ever-present as Don himself, and c kept his eyes closed a while longer, drifting. He could feel himself smiling, and he didn't want to stop.


Don kept still as long as he could, and when he couldn't keep still anymore he jumped to his feet and started to pace, from the chalkboard to the door and back again. He kept his chin tucked, though he switched the radio back to the standard channel and jammed it into his pocket. There was no sound from the direction of Charlie's cot, but Don wasn't going to make the mistake of looking again. His hands were in fists, painfully tight, every muscle vibrating with the need to throw a punch. He kept his arms folded, his knuckles pressed against his biceps, bone grinding slowly, implacably, against tensed muscle.

He walked fast, stiff-legged, and after the first few turns he shut his eyes. There was nothing to see, no obstacle to navigate, and he knew the dimensions of the room like he knew the bounds of his own body. The absence of sight made him more conscious of the quiet of the room--there was just the sound of his own steps, the faint ringing in his ears from his clenched jaw, and the hiss of his own breath. No sound from Charlie.

His stride lengthened and sped until he was nearly running, back and forth in the tiny space, from the wall to the door, the wall to the door, cinder blocks and locks, keeping him in here with Charlie. He must not hit Charlie, must not move one inch closer to Charlie than he already was.

When he heard movement Don forced himself to be still, standing halfway from the door and facing the wall. He forced his hands open, pressing his palms to the cinder blocks between two chalkboards. Behind him he could hear the rustling of Charlie's sleeping bag, and he tried to focus on the cool painted brick under his hands. He flexed his fingers and tried to force the muscles of his arms to release their tension. Don found himself pushing instead, pressing against the wall with his feet braced, like he could just shove his way out of here, straight through brick and earth.

He heard the quiet scuff of Charlie's feet, moving hesitantly toward him. He knew he had to say something before Charlie got into arm's reach, but he hadn't managed to unclench his teeth before Charlie said, "Don?" from about six feet behind him.

Charlie's voice was small, tentative, and Don could almost picture his wide eyes--flashing wider, dark and shining in the half-light--

"Don't," Don snapped. He wasn't even sure whether he was talking to himself or Charlie, but he could hear the sudden silence of Charlie freezing in place behind him, not moving away. On Don's next breath he could smell sex, rising warm off Charlie's skin, and his heart was racing, his fingers curling in against the brick.

"Get away from me, c."

Charlie still didn't move, didn't say a word, but Don could hear him breathing now, low and fast. Don turned his head just a fraction, keeping his eyes closed so there was no danger of seeing Charlie.

"I've already had my hands around your neck once," he said flatly, and that got Charlie moving. Don pressed his forehead hard against the cinder block and listened to Charlie retreating all the way to the bathroom. The water switched on as soon as he got there, covering all other sounds, but Don didn't move. It was easier to control himself if he didn't move at all.

It wasn't like he'd never hit Charlie before he got here--Charlie had hit the height of nine-year-old obnoxiousness just when Don hit the low point of fourteen-year-old impulse control, for starters--but he couldn't remember ever wanting to this badly. He'd never closed his eyes and entertained the vision of pounding on Charlie until he stopped talking, stopped arguing, stopped looking at him like that.

He thought he was imagining it when he heard the bar lift outside the door, just because he so desperately wanted to hear it. When the lock turned, Don bolted toward the door and grabbed his duffle. By the time Williamson pulled the door open Don was standing on the threshold, and he brushed past the boss with barely a glance, running up the stairs two at a time.

There was no one in the kitchen, and Don thought for a ludicrous instant that he should eat, and then he dropped his bag and headed through the doorway to the living room. There were two guys on the couch, Sam and one of the others, but Don barely saw them. He didn't break stride until he reached the front door. He opened the deadbolt, the lock, and the lock on the storm door, and stepped out into fresh, cold, open air.

Don hesitated for an instant on the threshold, staring out into the night, but when he heard someone get off the couch behind him he took off again. He crossed the porch in two quick strides and jumped over the steps, and then he was running flat out, long strides all the way down the lawn to the ditch beside the road and then veering around to the gravel driveway. Open air and space around him, and he was moving at last. He could keep running forever if he wanted to, except that Charlie was back there--so he couldn't go anywhere.

He couldn't bear to take a single step back toward the house. From here it looked so fucking normal, lights golden behind the curtains at the windows, and no one would know to look at it what happened in the basement.

Don turned on his heel, putting his back to the house. He bent and picked up a handful of gravel, cupping the stones in his left hand, picking them out one at a time to shy at the line of trees that marked the edge of the property. The moon and stars and the glow of the house gave enough light to see the occasional strike of a pale stone against a dark trunk, bouncing off into the grass. He kept throwing until he started to feel the cold, fingers going numb and shoulder stiffening, and then he brushed the rock dust off on the seat of his pants. When he turned, Sam was there, standing a little way up the driveway. Don nodded and started back up to the house.

He heard Sam click on a radio. "Never mind, he's coming in."

Don gritted his teeth at that, trying not to show the wince. He'd have been dead as soon as he stepped foot on the road--or Charlie would. Don didn't pause at the door, grabbed his duffle from the kitchen floor and went on to the bathroom as Sam locked up behind them.

He didn't wait for the water to warm up, stepped under the icy spray and washed fast, scrubbing everywhere like he was covered in mud, or blood, or anything he could ever wash off. When the water started getting hot he shut it off, and stepped out shivering. He got dried and dressed and shaved without looking at the mirror. It hadn't fogged up.

There was a pot of soup on the stove, and Don dished some up and wolfed it down, standing right there. He was starving as soon as he put food in his mouth. He rinsed his bowl and spoon when he was done and put them both in the dishwasher, grabbed his duffle and headed down the basement stairs without hesitating. He got to the bottom and was reaching for the door before he thought better of barging back in there to--what? Punch back in? Tell Williamson how much he loved his job? Hit Charlie, because that would solve everything or anything?

Don sank to sit on the stairs, resting his head in his hands. It had been stupid to run like that. He shouldn't have risked Charlie, doing something that obvious, shouldn't have gone so far he couldn't hear what Williamson was doing to Charlie down here. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

He pressed his thumbs against his temples, tried to think of something more helpful than that--he heard Terry's voice all of a sudden, as clear as if she'd plunked down on the step beside him, telling him he was burned out and it was a natural response and he needed to cut himself a little slack before he self-destructed. He smiled bleakly at his feet. He was pretty sure he'd already self-destructed; it had just taken a little while for the shockwave to hit.

The door opened and Don straightened up sharply. Williamson was standing astride the threshold, and waved him inside. Don nodded, trying to look stolid and reliable and only interested in doing the job he was, theoretically, getting paid for. He picked up his bag and made to step inside past the boss, but Williamson stopped him there, just inside, with a hand on his shoulder. Don froze at the touch, looking automatically into the room for Charlie. He was standing by one of the chalkboards, holding the chalk stationary against the slate. Only pretending to work, and not pretending very hard, at that.

"Mac, man, I'm sorry," Williamson said, and Don turned his head and stared blankly at Williamson's oddly genial smile.

"I didn't even think of how much time you actually spend on shift with this gig when I was working out your schedule. So you'll get a day off tomorrow. Jimmy'll come down at eight and let you out. Take you into town for the day."

Don felt his mouth open and shut it firmly. He nodded, and didn't bother trying for a smile. Williamson smiled wider, wide enough for both of them, squeezed his shoulder too hard, and shoved him inside. Don stumbled a step and then froze, listening to the door being barred behind him. He stared at Charlie's back, and watched him drop his chalk, watched him press both hands flat against the board and lean his forehead on it, watched him begin to cry in perfect silence, betrayed only by the shaking of his shoulders.

Don took two quick strides into the room.

"c," he said, and all his anger, everything he'd felt but the need to take care of Charlie, was wiped blank by this. He couldn't even grasp--they had until eight tomorrow morning and then what? Williamson had realized who he was and wanted to kill him after all? But why wait, why not do it here and now in front of Charlie for maximum effect? Or else he wanted Don out of the way for a while, private time with the genius...

Charlie probably had a better idea than Don did of what to expect, and Charlie was crying.

"c..."

He got close enough to touch Charlie's arm, his fingers brushing the sleeve of Charlie's sweater at his elbow, and then Charlie was moving away from him, pushing off the board with both hands, shaking his head and swiping a hand across his face.

"I have to work," Charlie said. "I have to--I won't get anything done tomorrow, I'll be useless, I have to work while I can."

He was still crying, his voice shaking, tears pouring down his face, but the hell of it was he was right. Charlie had to work. And if he could only work with Don there--if he felt safer, felt saner, felt anything that helped him get through the next few hours--then Don had to give him that.

"All right," Don said slowly. "All right. I'll go read. You work."

Charlie looked up at that, meeting his eyes. His eyelashes were spiky with tears, his face was wet, he was shaking, and he was staring at Don like he'd never seen him before. Like he didn't want to forget him. Then Charlie nodded and said, "Thank you," and turned to get another piece of chalk from the box.


Don was lying down by the door, but he wasn't even pretending to sleep. All the lights were still on, and every time c looked in his direction, Don was looking back. Watching him.

c never asked him the time. While he worked, he couldn't feel it sliding away from him, but whenever he surfaced he knew it was gone. He didn't want to know how much, how little remained to them, but the question wormed its way to the front of his mind until it blocked all else. He stood still, frustrated, at the corner between boards two and three, looking at neither. If this had happened during a computational phase he could have gotten through it, but the conceptual work was too stop-and-start, required too much complex thought and redirection, and the anticipation of eight o'clock dragged at him, distorting everything. Williamson had given Don to him, and now Williamson was taking him away--for a day? Forever? c didn't think Williamson had ever bothered to lie to him, but he might lie to Mac.

Behind him, Don said, "c, it's three in the morning."

c turned, nodding, trying not to think of how Don knew exactly when to interrupt him. Don was sitting up, looking at him, and c wanted to say I need a hug but he didn't think he could get the words out, remembering Don's tensed shoulders, Don's growled get away from me, Sam's voice on Williamson's radio saying Mac had taken off running.

c shut off the work light, instead, and Don said quietly, "I've got the overheads."

c nodded and stumbled to his cot, wrapping himself in his sleeping bag as the lights went out, and it was so ordinary, so exactly like every day since Don had come here, so entirely unlike everything before. He pressed his face into the pillow and tried not to think of tomorrow, not nearly as unknown as he could wish. Today, really. Five hours and counting. Williamson might kill Don, or just take him away and never bring him back. c thought the probability of either was equal. And almost certainly, whatever reason they had for taking him away, Williamson would want to talk to c about it. To Know-Nothing.

He turned onto his side, his back to the wall, and listened for the sound of Don breathing. It was there, steady and familiar and nearly close enough to touch. c squirmed over onto his stomach, resting his chin on the pillow and straining forward, reaching out with his right hand, fingers splayed, in the direction where Don lay. His hand dangled in the air, touching nothing, getting cold.

c whispered, "Don."

He heard motion, and then he felt it. First there was just a movement of air near his hand, and then Don's fingertips grazed his palm. He reached spasmodically after the contact and Don's hand closed around his, warm and strong.

"Yeah," Don whispered back. "I'm right here."

c held on tight. He lay awake for a long time, and he never felt Don let go.


Chapter Nine

Don woke up and his hand was cold and empty, resting flat against the concrete. He sat up all at once, reaching for Charlie, and found Charlie's chilled fingers hanging in the air. Moving quietly and carefully, he knelt up and tucked Charlie's hand back under the covers. Charlie stayed limp, unresisting, so either he was asleep or he didn't mind.

Don got to his feet, navigating the room as easily in the dark as he would with a light on after ten days' practice. He found the work light on the corner board unerringly and clicked it on, holding up his watch to check the time.

His stomach clenched and behind him Charlie said quietly, "How long?"

Don turned. Charlie was still lying down, and he'd dragged his sleeping bag in around himself, curling up small on his cot.

"Twenty minutes," Don said, walking back.

He crouched by Charlie's cot, studying his brother's face. This might be his last chance, and he wanted to say it now, say everything. Under the circumstances Charlie might even believe he was telling the truth--but Charlie would almost certainly be questioned today--interrogated, tortured--and Don couldn't expose him to that kind of risk. The bruises around his eye were nearly gone, but the new scar still stood out, a livid reminder of what Williamson would do to Charlie just to teach Don a lesson.

The possibility remained that it was only a day off, that he'd be back here tonight, that both of them would reach the end of this day alive and in one piece.

"c..."

Charlie shook his head, and Don knew better than to try to tell him anything would be all right. Charlie would know better than he did what the odds were of that.

"I know you have to go," Charlie said quietly. "Just--please--say goodbye to me properly."

Don opened his mouth and shut it, staring down at Charlie. There was no smirk now, none of that baby brother determination to get his way. He wasn't reaching for Don, wouldn't pull him in, wouldn't take anything. Don could turn away, walk out, leave him like this and maybe never see him alive again, but have the satisfaction of knowing he hadn't given in. Charlie was asking him now, just asking. Just begging.

Don tipped forward onto his knees, and he saw Charlie's slight recoil at the sudden motion.

"Shh," he whispered, "I'm just gonna--" Say goodbye, but he couldn't actually say it, not out loud.

He kissed Charlie's forehead first, and then his cheek, because that was normal. He knew he could do that. His hand curled around Charlie's shoulder, through the sleeping bag, and when he hesitated, Charlie turned his head and Don met the motion, so the kiss was mutual.

Don shuddered at the touch of Charlie's mouth under his, his hand tightening reflexively, and he felt Charlie shiver right back. Charlie's lips parted under his and he didn't know why he'd thought he couldn't do this, because he could, he was. Here was action, here was motion, here was the exact opposite of sitting still and keeping his hands to himself. Don's mouth dragged over Charlie's, wet and hot and goodbye and I'll come back to you and don't die don't die please don't die.

Charlie broke away to gasp in a breath that sounded like a sob, and Don had to touch him, sliding his hand under the sleeping bag to Charlie's chest, setting his palm over the hammering of Charlie's heart under the prominent bones, with his fingertips against the naked softness of Charlie's throat. Charlie's hand caught his shoulder, holding him close. Don kissed him again, fiercely, desperately, my brother, mine, and Charlie's tongue slid across his, wet and smooth and strong. They were so close, so connected. They were breathing each other's breath in damp, broken gasps. Don would have the mark of Charlie's fingers on his skin.

Don tried to pull away--time was ticking--but he couldn't make the move decisively. They broke apart and reconnected in slight movements and quick brushes of mouth on mouth, glancing contacts of tongue and lips and spit and air. The smell and the taste of Charlie overwhelmed him, Charlie's sweat under his fingers, the prickle of Charlie's stubble against his lips.

They both froze when they heard the bar on the door lift. Don pulled back, and he was kneeling over his baby brother, staring down at Charlie's flushed cheeks, swollen lips, wide eager eyes and the bright slash of a fresh scar. His own breath was coming short, his lips tingling. Don couldn't look away. When the door started to open, he swiped his sleeve across his face, pushed up to his feet and turned away. He didn't dare look back.


Williamson took his gun and handed him an envelope of cash, smiling smoothly all the while. Don didn't bother to count it. Maybe they'd kill him and take it back; maybe they wouldn't. The only thing he could think of buying right then was another gun to fill the empty space under his arm, and he had a feeling he wouldn't get away with that.

Jimmy gave Don exactly one weird sideways look in the course of the twenty-minute drive, and after that Don stared out the window. He didn't think Jimmy had seen anything incriminating this morning, but he definitely didn't want to talk.

"Town" turned out to be a major intersection near the interstate, with a scattering of chain stores and motels. Jimmy parked at the KMart and turned off the car, and Don got out when he did.

"Go where you want," Jimmy said. "Sam'll pick you up tonight."

"Where at?" Don asked, looking around.

Jimmy gave him a sudden, toothy smile. "Don't worry, he'll find you."


c pressed his fingers to his lips and closed his eyes. He'd thought, sometime in the darkness with Don's hand warm on his, that he might get through this day--and whatever followed--by trying to forget Don, forget how things had been when he was here. It would make it easier; he'd gotten along well enough without Don. As long as he had nothing better to compare to, his conditions had not been intolerable.

He hadn't calculated for the kissing, though. He didn't think he could bear to forget that, so he would have to hold on to it. It would have to be enough to get him through everything else.

c lay curled on his cot and waited for whatever would come next.


Don went into the store, because it was somewhere to get out of the cold and he might as well get some use from the money. He wandered the aisles, picking things up almost randomly, until he couldn't stand to kill any more time under the fluorescent lights. He chatted with his cashier, and she gave him directions. Armed with those and his shopping bag, he set out for the Super 8 half a mile away.

Halfway there, by the highway, there was a gas station with a pay phone in the corner of its parking lot. Don stopped walking and stood there staring, frozen in the cold wind.

He could call 911 right now. He could call his dad, or Terry, or the LA Field Office.

It was like a mirage in one of those Bugs Bunny cartoons with a desert island with cartoon characters turning into steaks and ice cream cones before each other's eyes. He couldn't quite believe the phone was real.

Motion in his peripheral vision caught his attention, and Don looked to see Sam standing twenty yards away on the other side of the parking lot, watching him. His face was expressionless, but he shifted his weight and shrugged a little, and Don could see the gun he was carrying. It was an obvious and deliberate warning. Don didn't know if Sam would shoot him right here, at a gas station in broad daylight, but that didn't mean he wouldn't be as good as dead before he got to the phone, to say nothing of Charlie.

Don turned away and kept walking. He didn't spot Sam again, but he could feel eyes on his back every step of the way.


c got bored after a while. He stood up, trailing his sleeping bag from his shoulders, and went to blackboard four. He warmed up as he worked, hardly noticing when he dropped the sleeping bag, though he had to kick it aside half a dozen times before it came to rest underneath the tables. He didn't think about Don, or about not thinking about Don. Absence had a character in mathematics--zero--but outside the blackboards absence was just absence. Out of sight.

He worked steadily until absence became presence, a stray glance discovering Williamson standing in the doorway, watching him. c froze, and Williamson smiled.


Don got a room at the motel just to have walls between him and Sam, but he'd done enough stakeouts to know the privacy was a pretty thin illusion. He couldn't stand the silence, but he also couldn't stand to lie there and watch television while God-knew-what was happening to Charlie. He turned on one of the soaps and lowered the volume until it was just voices in the distance, like working in the open-plan office in LA. He was so homesick for a second he was literally sick with it, but he just gritted his teeth and stared at the ceiling. Homesickness was the least of his worries.

They wouldn't kill Charlie, he didn't think--not really. Charlie was in the middle of planning a job for them, and that had to be when he was safest. If they killed anyone it would be Don; he was expendable. Or worse, they'd just leave him here, pull up stakes and move Charlie somewhere else. Don would never be able to find them again. He didn't even have any proof he could present to anyone that Charlie was alive, or that Williamson and the others were connected to the string of apparently-unrelated crimes.

But Williamson had called it a day off, and Sam was there, tailing him. He was being watched, and if they were bothering to watch they still had a decision to make; his cover wasn't blown just yet. Don stared at the ceiling, listening to the distant shrieking of the soaps, waiting for footsteps outside his door.


He shivered, sitting in the bathtub with his hands cuffed behind him. Water from the tap was running over his feet--just cool enough to leach body heat--and Williamson was perched on the edge of the tub, one hand resting lightly on his shoulder. His sweatpants were soaked, and he couldn't pull his hands up high enough to keep them out of the cold water. The bones were already starting to ache, twinging where the breaks had healed, and his elbow was dully protesting the twist. They hadn't even gotten started yet. He sat and watched the water level rise: over his feet, up to his ankles and over his hips, creeping up his shins.

Williamson's hand tightened all at once, hauling him onto his back with a splash, pinning his hands and arms painfully beneath him. He lifted his head clear of the water automatically, and Williamson caught him by the hair.

"I'm going to want you to tell me all about Mac," Williamson said, pushing his head down, "in just a minute."


He didn't sleep, but there was only so long you could stay alert, and the shitty motel bed was the most comfortable place Don had rested his head in weeks. He sunk far enough into a doze to think he was in his own bed, and knew just enough to know he couldn't move--couldn't think--or the cozy illusion would shatter. He had to think of something else, something that wasn't here or there. His hand rested heavy on his thigh and his mind drifted easily to kissing.

Kissing, kissing Charlie... but it was all right, just kissing, just his mouth on Charlie's, moving slow, and Charlie's mouth so soft and wet under his--and Don was abruptly wide awake, jerking his hand away from himself too late.


"He--he knows things about math," c gasped. He'd tried everything else he could think of--everything but that, trying to hide it--but Williamson didn't care about Don's gun, or his comic books, or his ibuprofen. "P versus NP, I think he--"

Williamson rolled his eyes, visibly bored. He pushed c's head toward the water and he couldn't go under the water again, he really just couldn't, he had to--

"He kissed me," c said, his volume control breaking and the words were nearly a shout, and yes, now Williamson looked interested, though he shouldn't. A kiss shouldn't matter like math or guns or drugs did, but this was no time to think about what should be. If c wanted to keep breathing he had to keep talking, and he wanted very badly to keep breathing even as every breath burned his nose and throat and lungs.

"I sort of--I asked him to and I thought he wouldn't but he did and I--I liked it and I thought he liked it--"

Williamson's gaze grew terribly focused, and c choked on the words, feeling exposed as he never had when he was naked before this man: he'd been hungry, hurt, exhausted, soaked in his own piss, in his own blood, but he'd never been vulnerable like this. He waited for his breath to be cut off again, for the water to cover him, but Williamson's hand jerked him slightly upward, and he kept breathing. The gratitude welled up with the tears and somewhere down inside he thought he really did know Stockholm Syndrome from the real thing.

Then Williamson said, "Tell me more about that."

c closed his eyes and opened his mouth. He could feel every muscle cringing from the sound of his own voice, pouring out the only secrets he'd thought to keep, to get through everything else. Making the best a part of the worst.

"He kissed--he kissed my forehead first," c whispered. "And then my--my cheek, very gently."


Don's heart raced as he stared at the ceiling, and if there had been any mercy in the world, Sam would have stepped inside right then and put a bullet in him. But there was no mercy, and no denying it. He was hard. He'd kissed his brother that morning and liked it, been turned on then and was turned on now, while Charlie was maybe suffering, maybe dying.

But there wasn't a damn thing he could do to help Charlie from here, and Don didn't dare go back to him not knowing what the hell was going on in his own head. If he wasn't better prepared for it than he had been this morning Charlie would catch him off-guard again, and he might want more than kissing next time.

The thought should have been awful, should have been sickening and terrifying--infuriating--and instead all he felt was a curl of heat. His pulse kicked up, and Don smiled sourly. That was an answer, wasn't it? But not enough. He had to know.

Don closed his eyes, letting the thought slide forward, letting his hand drift down. What would happen, if they put him back in with Charlie now, if Charlie smiled and said I still want to have sex with you, if he said hit me or kiss me, right now, let's go.

Another kiss, and this time Charlie pushing, Charlie taking--not so scared, but maybe just as desperate, with his hands on Don's shirt and his mouth hot and hungry. Don's hips jerked up at the thought of that contact, pressing into his own palm through his jeans. His breathing turned harsh and quick as he thought of his hands sliding down Charlie's body. Tugging that sweater off him to reveal Charlie's skin, pale and fine under his fingers. His hand on Charlie's jeans, touching Charlie like he was touching himself--flicking the button open, sliding the zipper down--Don's hips jerked at the thought, heart racing with something that should have been anything but excitement, his dick throbbing harder with every beat of his pulse.

Don bit down hard on his lip, digging his fingernails into his palms, and rolled onto his side, letting his momentum carry him up and onto his feet. He jammed his fingers under his arms, and they dug into his ribs where his gun wasn't. He couldn't think about it. Charlie needed him, and he'd be no good to Charlie like this.


c's cheekbone pressed painfully against the edge of the tub, and he shut his eyes tight as he breathed. The water lapped at his throat, and it was warmer than it had been or he was colder. They were approaching thermal equilibrium, he and the water. Williamson's hand clenched in his hair, and his voice seemed to come from further away than arm's length.

"Come on, now, you've had your rest. Tell me."

c's toes curled against the drain, but he couldn't get enough pain from his waterlogged skin to force himself to alertness. He pressed his cheek down instead, and jerked his hands backward until pain shot through his shoulders, clearing some of the fog from his brain.

"Tell what?" he whispered. He remembered, but he might get away with asking, and he wanted to delay. Williamson was under his skin now, poking at soft, raw places that squished and bled at a touch.

There was a splash, and he flinched--Williamson's hand in his hair kept him steady, so that he yanked out a few strands, bright sharp pains in his scalp. He couldn't avoid the handful of water Williamson poured over his face, just blinked it frantically out of his eyes, blew out through his nose and choked, though none had even made it into his mouth.

Williamson waited until he'd managed to stop coughing and then said, "Come on. Tell me what I asked you to tell me."

"What I want," c whispered, and his face was wet. It didn't matter. Williamson had seen him cry before, and that was the least of this. Williamson's hand tightened warningly when he hesitated, and c rushed the words out.

"Touch him, I want to touch and--and look at him, the lights on and--no clothes and touch him--"

"Where?" Williamson interrupted, because he wouldn't let c forget this was an interrogation, not for a second.

"His dick," c whispered, because it was the answer Williamson would expect. "His ass, his mouth, his throat, the--"

Still he stumbled on the words, his mouth working in silence, and there was no warning this time, he was under, fighting to get his mouth and his nose shut against the cool silky pressure of water and next time, next time he would just breathe it in and die--next time--and it was almost a disappointment when Williamson dragged him up and c breathed air again, because it wasn't over.

"Where?" Williamson repeated.

c sobbed, made an automatic motion to wipe the warm snot from his face and wrenched his shoulder and wrist. The jolt of pain snapped something deeper than bone or muscle; he relaxed against Williamson's hand, clenched in the front of his shirt.

"His face," c whispered, and it didn't even mean anything, or what it meant was so far away he'd never reach it. It was just words now. "His face--beside his eyes, when he smiles--"


Don kept pacing until he found himself facing the wall in the bathroom, and sat down on the edge of the tub, head in hands. So he wanted to fuck Charlie almost as much as Charlie wanted to fuck him: fantastic. Charlie was sick, Charlie's mistake was innocent, but Don was the other kind of sick, so fucked up he was turned on by his own baby brother, damaged and scared and dependent on him for everything, and--

He shuddered, and he did feel sick now, when he thought about it coldly, when he ignored how Charlie didn't look sick, didn't feel sick--

Don's fingers dug in against his temples, like he could claw out his eyes, claw out his own brain, and make this thing go away. He forced his hands open, stood up and went to the sink, splashing water on his face, blinking it from his eyes. He rubbed the back of his hand against his nose. He looked his reflection steadily in the eye.

"Wanting it doesn't make a difference," he said quietly, forcing the words out past the taste of bile, the shaking of his stomach, the way his throat tried to close rather than let this out into the air. "Wanting Charlie doesn't change anything. It's wrong."

It was what Charlie wanted--this morning he'd even thought it was what Charlie needed--but Don couldn't do it again. He couldn't let himself get off on this, on Charlie like this. Don was the older brother here, the responsible one, the one who knew better. It was time he acted like it.


His chest ached where Williamson had made him breathe again, and the burning strain in his shoulders was the only place he felt warm. His face was mashed into the bathroom rug and every breath tasted like blood, but it wasn't over, no matter how he'd tried.

"Tell me," Williamson said. "Once more, and then you're done."

He tried to turn his face away--it had to be a lie, except Williamson's behavior in certain respects was entirely predictable, and Williamson never told him that lie. Williamson's hand turned gentle, stroking his cheek. c shuddered, but he was shivering so hard he didn't think Williamson could tell.

"Just tell me," Williamson repeated. "What do you think?"

I think I'd rather die than tell you, he thought, but you won't let me.

"He loves me," c whispered, because there was no escaping it.

"And you?" Williamson murmured, pushing c over, turning his face toward the light.

c opened his mouth, staring up at Williamson, but he didn't say it. Don had told him not to say it again, and he wouldn't--couldn't. The words stopped in his throat and stuck there, choking him.

After a few seconds Williamson smiled. He'd heard it anyway.

Williamson got up, delivering a casual kick to c's midsection as he turned away. c curled around his belly, gasping for breath again, and watched through nearly-closed eyes as Williamson stepped out the bathroom door.

"Jimmy," he called, not raising his voice particularly, "Tell Sam code three on Mac, and then put Know-Nothing away."

c closed his eyes. Code three could be anything, but there was no data to suggest that Williamson would ever knowingly give him anything he loved.


Don stood just behind the door of his motel room for a long time with the postcard in his hands. Someone had left it behind, tucked into the Gideon Bible, which had seemed like too good a chance to pass up. He had addressed it but otherwise left it blank. There was a blue mailbox out near the front office.

He would be in full view of the parking lot; Sam would see him drop the postcard. If sending a postcard was the same as making a phone call, he could get himself killed, and lose Charlie his one shot at getting out alive. If he didn't send it things would stay exactly the same: no backup, no hope of a second chance for Charlie if Don failed.

He turned back for a second, taking a last look around the room, but he'd brought little enough in with him: he was wearing his coat, and his shopping bag was at his feet. He picked it up, took the chain off the door, and stepped outside.

The hair on the back of his neck prickled with the consciousness of being watched, and he walked in steady strides, twiddling the postcard between his fingers, giving Sam a look at the picture of the Chicago skyline, the conspicuous blankness of the message box. Nothing to see. Nothing to kill anyone for.

He got to the mailbox and opened it with the hand holding his shopping bag, tossed the card in quickly before the shot could ring out--but no shot rang out. He stood there for a moment, counting the beats, the footsteps he couldn't quite hear, and then Sam's hand closed on his arm. "Time to go, Mac."


He stood very still as the door shut behind him. His boards were there before him, and he thought dully that he should work--but why? What would Williamson do if he didn't? Kill him? Cover his face with water again? Pull him up again? Williamson knew about Don, and Don wasn't here, and he would never again look up from his work to see Don reading a comic book. So why work? How could he?

His brain had gone slow--waterlogged and cold, shaking--but it occurred to him that he was alone. Williamson wasn't here. If he stopped breathing now, no one could make him start again.

He'd need water.

He spent a moment thinking of how to wring out his shirt to get enough when he realized that the bathroom was right there. He turned and walked past Don's bedroll tied up neatly and ready to be put away, past his own cot as neat and straight and flat as if no one had ever lain on it. Been kissed on it. He shuddered at the thought, the memory of Williamson's avid eyes superimposed over Don's kind, warm ones.

He knelt down at the toilet (where he had sat while Don tended him, where Don had fed him sugar and painkillers--but Williamson knew that now too, had taken it from him while pressing his face down into water) and there was water now, all his own. He pushed the seat up and lowered his face toward the surface of the water. His hair slithered wetly over his head as he moved.

Two quick drops struck the surface of the water just as the tip of his nose touched it, and the sound of the small splashes and feeling of cool water on his skin forced him back, breathing the dry air in huge gasps. He scrambled sideways, pressing himself against the wall, wedging himself into the tight space.

He couldn't do it. Williamson had won.


Somebody had done the laundry in Don's absence: Charlie's clothes and his own were stacked neatly on the dryer. Williamson looked through Don's shopping bag as Don reholstered the Sig. Don watched his face, but Williamson just smiled, digging through Don's few purchases.

Without looking up, he said, "That a good friend of yours, in Reno?"

Don gritted his teeth, sparing a second to be desperately glad he hadn't sent that postcard to his father, and said, "Just somebody whose address I remembered."

It didn't come out quite as easily as he'd hoped it would, but he'd given this up on purpose by way of making a deal. He wouldn't argue against the fiction that he was an employee--that he would do a job, be paid, and go on his way--if Williamson would let him have that one little semblance of freedom. They could know where he sent the postcard, and it would be blank, but he would send it. He wished them all the luck in the world catching Coop checking that PO box.

"Hope he knows you're too busy to entertain visitors," Williamson said idly, running his fingers over the plastic packaging of the blanket Don had bought.

He could refuse to let Don keep it, refuse to let Charlie have it. But he'd called it a day off, like he wanted to play this game, so Don would play along.

"Well, he does what he likes," Don said.

Coop wouldn't come after him, not for a blank postcard. If the card was blank, the message was the postmark, nothing more. There were other ways to signal a call for help, and Don hadn't used any of them. Not yet.

Williamson looked up at him then, with a smile that was nearly a leer. "So do I."

He'd had Charlie all day. Don had seen a lot in ten years, but he didn't pretend he could imagine everything Williamson could have done to Charlie. He wouldn't have killed him, or rendered him unable to work, but Don knew that would only make a guy like Williamson get creative. Don didn't look toward the door, but held Williamson's gaze, waiting him out. Williamson handed his shopping bag back to him and Don tucked it under his arm, not showing more than he had to.

Williamson kept smiling that nasty, knowing smile--Charlie would have told him, of course, Charlie would have told him anything he asked, anything he had to--and pulled something out of his back pocket. The little plastic bag crinkled, and when Williamson shook it out Don could see it was from KMart, like his own. Whatever it was, Jimmy must have picked it up that morning. Williamson held it out and Don took it automatically.

As he looked inside Williamson said, "Fuck him if you want. Probably the only perk you'll get in this job, and I guess he's pretty enough from behind."

A little plastic bottle. A little box. Don crumpled up the bag and shoved it into his own back pocket, and though he knew he had to be careful he scowled at Williamson.

"That an order?"

Williamson grinned. "You gonna tell me to fuck off again? Suit yourself, Mac."

Don bared his teeth and told himself that he was not, of all possible reasons, angry because Williamson was siding with Charlie. He stepped past Williamson--not quite shoving him, just a rough brush of shoulder--to grab the clothes off the dryer. "We done?"

"Sure," Williamson said, and Don turned away, heading for the door. "That's what I like about you, Mac. Your work ethic."

Don gritted his teeth and shuffled the laundry to his left arm so he could unbar the door. Williamson was on his heels and Don didn't hesitate, yanking the door open and stepping quickly inside.

He half-expected a repeat of that first day, Charlie standing at the board in his ratty old sweater, with his left hand braced against the board and right hand flying, but Charlie was nowhere to be seen. Don set everything down just inside the door as Williamson slammed it shut, dropping Williamson's little bag inside his own shopping bag. He took in the room at a glance--his bedroll had been tied up, and Charlie's sleeping bag was laid out neatly on his cot. Somebody had cleaned up while they were doing the laundry. Don was already striding to the bathroom, the one place Charlie would have any sense of being able to hide.

He stopped short in the doorway. Charlie was wedged into the space between the toilet and the exterior wall, with his knees drawn up to his chest and his head leaning against the cinder blocks. His hair was wet, and his lips were blue-tinged, and Charlie wasn't moving. Wasn't visibly breathing. It flashed through Don's mind all at once that after everything, Williamson might just have killed Charlie by accident.

"c," Don said.

Charlie's eyes flashed open, wide and dark in his bloodless face, the newly-healed gash beside his eye the only hint of color. He hauled in a deep, gasping breath as he stared up at Don, but it wasn't relief on his face. It wasn't fear, either. Don was pretty sure he knew that look, but he didn't want to think about it--not on Charlie's face.

Don dropped to his knees, reaching for Charlie. Charlie shut his eyes again, but he didn't pull away, and that was something. Don ran his hands over Charlie's head and neck, over his shoulders and down his back, everywhere he could reach with Charlie curled up the way he was. He hadn't seen blood anywhere, but Charlie was soaking wet, almost cold to the touch. Don couldn't feel him shivering.

"You hurt, c? You bleeding anywhere?"

Charlie shook his head, but still didn't open his mouth. Don had to look away from his face, watching his own hands run uselessly over the wet sweatpants covering Charlie's knees and shins.

"You're freezing," he said. "Come on, we gotta warm you up. Come on."

Charlie didn't move, but he didn't resist being pulled to his feet, and followed Don out to the cot when Don led him by the hand.

The sleeping bag was zipped shut. Don muttered, "Fucking hell."

He leaned down to grab it, letting go of Charlie so he could get it open. It had been zipped up. Charlie couldn't stand a zipped sleeping bag and probably hadn't been in any state to work the zipper for himself.

Don glanced over at Charlie and dropped the sleeping bag on the cot. "c, you gotta get those clothes off, okay? They're just making you colder now, we can't warm you up unless you take them off."

Charlie nodded slightly, but he didn't move.

Don shut his eyes for just a second. He took a deep breath, bracing himself, and said, "I'll help you, okay? Put your hands up for me."

Charlie raised his hands shoulder-high, so that Don could see the fresh dark rings of handcuff-bruises circling both his wrists. Don winced as he grabbed the hem of Charlie's shirt, tugging it up and off quickly, but Charlie didn't flinch. The sodden shirt hit the concrete with a wet slap, and Don spared only a glance at the new bruises on Charlie's chest and stomach before he looked away, tugging down Charlie's sweatpants and boxers in one motion. He grabbed the sleeping bag with his left hand as he dropped Charlie's pants with his right, wrapping it quickly around Charlie. It was more gratifying than it should have been to see Charlie raise a hand to hold it shut around himself.

"Okay, good, good," Don murmured, "here, just sit down and let me take your socks."

Charlie slid obediently to the floor next to the head of the cot, his back against the wall. Don tugged his socks off and then tucked the bottom of the sleeping bag over his bare feet, giving them a quick rub before he moved away. Don laid Charlie's wet clothes out flat on the floor to dry and turned the work light to shine on them. He took off his coat and shrugged out of his holster, so recently returned to him--for all the good his damn gun would do him when they could take him away from Charlie any time they liked. Williamson had made that point clearly enough.

Don left the holstered gun on top of his bag, and shucked out of his shirt before he took off his boots and socks. The hairs stood up on his arms and chest and the back of his neck. His toes curled against the chill of the concrete floor. They'd left Charlie down here soaking wet in the cold, too far out of his mind to look after himself. Don ran a thumb over his belt buckle, considering. Skin to skin was best for heat conduction. He glanced at Charlie, sitting motionless six feet away, wrapped in his sleeping bag with his head on his knees. Harmless. Defenseless. Don left his belt fastened.

He tipped the cot up on end and shut off the overhead lights. He didn't need to see very well to fish the blanket he'd bought out of his shopping bag. He untied and unzipped his own sleeping bag and grabbed the pillow, carrying it all over to Charlie.

Don knelt down in front of Charlie. He hadn't moved a muscle. He was resting his head on his knees, his face down, but at least he'd started to shiver. Don set his hand on the back of Charlie's neck and squeezed gently.

Charlie looked up and his lips twisted, a thin attempt at a smile. Don returned it with interest, reaching for the red fleece blanket.

"Here," he said softly, holding a corner to Charlie's cheek, "I brought you something."

Charlie's smile widened and then vanished as he turned his face away, hiding his eyes against the blanket and Don's hand.

"Hey, hey, it's okay," Don whispered, "I'm here, I'm back, it's all right."

Charlie didn't respond to that at all, and Don squeezed the back of his neck again.

"Come on, c, lie down for me, okay? We gotta warm you up, and it's easier with two than one."

Charlie nodded against his hand and moved, letting go of the sleeping bag so it could be spread out under him. He tugged the fleece up to cover himself. Charlie went where Don moved him with carefully-placed hands on his bare skin, and after a couple of minutes they were both lying down, facing the wall, under one sleeping bag and on top of another. Don scooted the pillow under both their heads and then squirmed closer, reaching out to tuck Charlie against himself, shoulders to feet.

Charlie lay still in his arms, shaking continuously, and Don shut his eyes and held on, running a hand up and down Charlie's arm, squeezing his hand where he clutched an edge of the blanket. Charlie had nearly stopped shivering. Don closed his eyes, starting to feel warm himself, to let himself think that Charlie was safe, and then Charlie whispered, "I'm sorry."

"Hey," Don said against his hair, "hey, n--"

"No," Charlie said, "you don't know, Don, I told him--"

Don shut his eyes, pressing his face down against Charlie's bare shoulder. Charlie smelled clean, and the smell of his skin had never been something Don had recognized before this week.

"It's not your fault," Don said, just loudly enough to be heard. "c, he made you--"

"I told him I wanted you," Charlie said in a rush. "I told him you kissed me, I told him you--you care about me."

Don squeezed Charlie closer, crossing his arms over Charlie's chest, telling himself that if Williamson knew the truth, he'd never have let Don come back. He'd never have said what he said.

"He already knew," Don murmured in Charlie's ear. "Or he wouldn't have asked."

Charlie shook his head. "I told him everything, Don. What we did, what it was like, how--how I felt, what I wanted. See--"

He bowed his head, pulling away just far enough to open a small cold gap between their bodies. His voice was a tiny, toneless whisper when he spoke again.

"Secret things."

And Don had asked him whether he was bleeding, like that was the worst Williamson could do to him.

"It's all right," Don whispered, and it was a lie, the kind of lie you'd tell a little kid. Don could feel Charlie not falling for it. He pushed out of Don's grip and struggled over onto his other side, facing Don with his back to the wall.

Charlie met Don's eyes squarely, and Don looked back in the half-light, watching his brother's face. He wanted to tell Charlie something, give him something, but he couldn't think of anything both true and safe, and he couldn't lie, not to Charlie, not right now.

"c," he said softly, and Charlie shook his head slightly and leaned in for a kiss.

Don pulled away, setting his hand against Charlie's chest--bare skin, wiry hair curling against his palm. Charlie was starting to feel warm, but not yet hot. It had to be Don's own sweat, slicking his palm. It had to be panic kicking his pulse up.

"c," he repeated helplessly, but Don couldn't quite make himself say no.

Charlie's hair was wet, and he looked so tired, so drawn and aged and abused. Charlie caught Don's arm and tightened his grip as he leaned in again, though he stopped short of another kiss.

"Please," Charlie whispered. "I just want something that doesn't hurt."

Don closed his eyes and wondered if there had ever been any chance this wouldn't happen. He couldn't say no to Charlie, not like this, not when he'd looked into Charlie's eyes and seen him despairing. Williamson had broken Charlie today, taking things away from him that he hadn't known he could lose, and if Don didn't give him something to hang onto now, it wasn't going to matter if they got out. There wouldn't be any of his brother left to save.

Even as Don decided, Charlie's grip on his arm went slack. He felt Charlie shift backward, going away from him already, like Don had missed the moment just by stopping to think. Don tugged Charlie close, opening his eyes to meet Charlie's as they went wide. He gave Charlie a shaky smile--now or never, do this or watch him die--and then kissed him, and Charlie's hand on Don's arm tightened so hard it hurt as their mouths touched.

Charlie exhaled against his lips, a long ragged sigh, and Don shuddered, sliding his arms around Charlie and deepening the kiss slowly. He could do this, no matter how well he knew it was wrong. He couldn't say whether it was the least evil choice open to him--that would be up to Charlie to judge, someday--but it was all the could think to do now, and the man in the field had to go with his own best judgment.

When Charlie took a breath it was nearly a sob, and Don pulled Charlie tight against himself and kissed him again, for the reassurance of touch, for the moment to figure out what the hell he was doing.

But Charlie wasn't hesitating: he moved closer and shoved the blanket out of the way, baring himself against Don. His hand skidded down Don's side to his hip, Charlie's thumb brushing the skin just above his jeans as his fingers curled against the denim. Don caught his breath as blood rushed to his dick, pulling his mouth from Charlie's. He reached down to catch Charlie's wrist and Charlie's fingers caught at his skin, trying to hold on. Don leaned in to kiss him again, but he didn't release Charlie's hand. This wasn't about him, this couldn't be about what he wanted. This was about Charlie. Charlie needed something that didn't hurt.

"Shh," he breathed against Charlie's mouth, though Charlie hadn't made a sound, hadn't protested at all except the tension in the muscles of his wrist in Don's grip. "Let me."

Charlie nodded jerkily and relaxed, his eyes wide and dark in the dimness. Don shifted, getting one knee under himself and pushing up, pulling Charlie down onto his back and straddling his hips. Don hesitated there for a second, still holding Charlie's wrist, looking down at Charlie lying under him looking up, naked and eager and horrifically tempting. It would be so easy to let go, to forget that he had a purpose here, to just do what he wanted, what they both wanted--but he had to focus.

Don settled lower, releasing Charlie's wrist to run his fingers through Charlie's hair, watching his eyes--but Charlie kept looking up at Don, trusting him, waiting. Don took a breath and wiped the back of one hand across his mouth, the other still tangled up in Charlie's curls.

"c. Buddy."

Charlie's nickname, and he'd been careful not to say it, not to betray himself like that. Until now, when he was about to betray them both.

"I need you to remember something, okay? I need you to remember what I'm going to say."

Charlie nodded, eyebrows drawing in slightly--he didn't understand, but that was all right. Someday he would. Don leaned back, letting what light there was fall on Charlie's face, watching Charlie's eyes to see that he was paying attention.

"If I hurt you," Don said carefully, "then I'm sorry. I never wanted to hurt you."

Charlie frowned, opening his mouth to ask. A glimmer of fear showed in his eyes, and in the sudden slight tension of his body under Don's--it hadn't crossed his mind that Don would hurt him, maybe. He didn't know what Don meant by it. Don leaned down and kissed Charlie, silenced him, silenced them both. Maybe it wasn't fair to ask that future Charlie's forgiveness like this, but he didn't think he could do it without the chance that Charlie might understand. And it felt like forgiveness already, the way Charlie's mouth opened under his, the way Charlie's breath caught on a moan when Don's fingers slid over his collarbone and down onto his chest.

Don scrubbed his fingertips through the hair on Charlie's chest, even though he knew it was kind of an annoying sensation, ticklish and hair-pulling. But it was Charlie under his hands, and Don needed to learn him, the way he squirmed as Don touched him, the heat of his skin, the quick uneven rise and fall of his breathing. Don let his mouth slide away from Charlie's, down the sandpaper rasp of his cheek to his throat. He could hear Charlie's breathing, soft and quick, as he kissed down Charlie's skin and his thumb brushed over Charlie's nipple.

Charlie jerked under him, making a sound more startled than turned on, and Don smiled and did it again, sitting back to look down at Charlie as he did. Charlie's eyelashes fluttered, the corners of his mouth curling up between gasps for breath. Don leaned down to kiss him again, just a brief touch, and then sat back, watching his own hands slide down Charlie's chest. There was round dark bruise under the hair, precisely centered on his sternum. Don touched it lightly, and heard Charlie's breathing stutter, and then laid his hand over it. The bruise was about the size and shape of his palm, just where you'd do chest compressions, and Charlie had been soaking wet. Immersed.

Don lowered his head and kissed Charlie there, careful not to put pressure on the bruise, and shifted down Charlie's body to kiss the bruise on his belly, too. They were both fresh, but as Don lifted his head he saw an older mark, a brown-green patch on his hip. Don looked up and met Charlie's eyes watching him intently, and moved lower again, leaning down to kiss the spot on Charlie's hip where he'd kicked him. Don set his other hand on Charlie's opposite hip. He could feel heat against his wrist, against his cheek. Charlie's dick, standing up hard.

Don let his mouth trail against the soft smooth skin of Charlie's hip, looking at it sideways, blood-dark and thick. He could smell it, smell sex and sweat and Charlie. This was the furthest thing from everything he'd ever wanted in his life--everyone he'd ever wanted--but his own dick was hard in his jeans and he wanted to touch, wanted to taste, wanted to--

Don flicked a glance up at Charlie. His eyes were barely open, but Don could see the gleam of Charlie's eyes behind the darkness of his eyelashes. Charlie was watching him, waiting to see what he would do. Don shut his eyes and dragged his mouth up higher along Charlie's side, trailing lightly against his skin, and let his left hand slide in from Charlie's hip. He slid his palm low across Charlie's belly, down to the dark curling hair. Charlie groaned and jerked under him, the head his dick brushing Don's wrist, an impression of heat and then gone. Don watched Charlie's face, the rising darkness of a flush on his cheeks in the half-light, the skin of his throat shining with sweat. Don reached lower and closed his hand.

Charlie's eyes went wide as he thrust up into Don's sweaty and tentative grip, and when Don tightened his hand Charlie's mouth fell open. Don moved up to kiss him, bracing over Charlie on his right arm and stroking him clumsily, left-handed and backward, but Charlie didn't seem to mind. Charlie's mouth moved erratically under his, gasping, mouthing words Don couldn't hear, but Don couldn't tear himself away from the drag of Charlie's lips against his, the rush of his breath and the odd quick flick of his tongue. Charlie's hips jerked irregularly under his hand, like Charlie was trying to hold still and couldn't manage it. Charlie's hand caught at Don's hip again, fingers hooking into the pocket of his jeans and holding on. Don could feel the pressure of Charlie's knuckles against the crease of his hip, and couldn't spare a hand to push him away.

Charlie's dick was hot in his hand, silk-smooth against Don's callused fingers, and the sensation was such a weird combination of familiar and strange that Don had to look. There wasn't much to see in the shadow between their bodies, just rhythmic motion, accompanied by the sliding sound of skin on skin and Charlie gasping, "Don, Don."

Charlie's voice shook him like nothing else ever had, and the steady motion of Don's hand stuttered--but he couldn't, God, he really couldn't stop now. He buried his face against Charlie's throat, kissing him roughly, moving his hand faster until his name was lost in moans and Charlie arched under him. The sweat ran off Charlie's skin as fast as tears, wetting Don's lips. He licked a spot clean at the base of Charlie's throat, and sucked at Charlie's pale, wet skin hard enough to leave a mark. Charlie's breath choked off as he fucked Don's fist, and Don kept stroking him and kissing him as he came and came, not letting go until Charlie went still beneath him, catching his breath.

Don pushed away from Charlie's body, kneeling up over him to catch his own breath. He looked down at himself to keep from looking at Charlie, the embarrassingly obvious bulge in his jeans, his sticky-wet left hand curled awkwardly in midair. If he took long enough washing up, maybe Charlie would be asleep--

Don's whole body jerked with the shock of Charlie's hand on his dick, warm even through his jeans. He looked up and met Charlie's eyes, watching him intently.

"c," Don said, and his voice was as hoarse as if he'd been the one gasping and moaning. "c, no, don't, you don't have to--"

Charlie rolled his eyes and smiled lazily, grinding his hand against Don's cock, and Don couldn't stop his hips snapping into the friction. Don shut his eyes and gritted his teeth. He couldn't do this, he couldn't let Charlie do this for him. There was no excuse for this.

"c," he said again, reaching down blindly to pull Charlie's hand away. The touch vanished before Don could catch Charlie's hand--and then Charlie grabbed Don's wrist, dragging his left hand down. Don opened his eyes again to the sight of Charlie licking a stripe across his palm, licking his own come off Don's skin.

Don opened his mouth, but no sound came out. Charlie opened his mouth and sucked one of Don's fingers inside, his eyes on Don's, hot and intent, his tongue doing things Charlie shouldn't know how to do. Don shuddered, sickened and unbearably turned on all at once.

"Don't," he whispered, as much to himself as to Charlie.

Charlie's teeth closed on his fingertip for a second, and then Charlie let go. Don shifted his weight onto one knee, watching Charlie warily--so he saw the motion of Charlie's hands flashing out, barely before he felt them catch him, one at the hip and one at the knee. There was a dizzy instant in midair, and then he hit the floor on his side, concrete barely padded by a sleeping bag.

Charlie shoved him onto his back before Don had quite registered what had happened, straddling his hips and reaching for his belt buckle. The impact hurt, and it had knocked half the breath from his lungs, but that wasn't why his heart was racing.

"Fuck--c--"

"Shut up," Charlie replied, working at Don's belt buckle.

Don shook his head, trying to form words past the friction sound of Charlie yanking his belt off, the feeling of Charlie's hands undoing his jeans, and the throb of his dick, hard as he'd ever been. Charlie went still all of a sudden, his fingers on Don's zipper, and met Don's eyes.

"You think you're hurting me," Charlie said slowly: it was his I know you're not a genius, so I'm being patient voice. Don had been hearing it since Charlie was four years old.

"You're not hurting me. I know what it feels like when people hurt me, and it doesn't feel like this. I want this." Charlie dropped lower over him, suddenly. Don froze, but Charlie, oddly, just pressed his lips to Don's temple, beside his eye. His lips dragged against Don's skin as he went on. "I want you. Now stop arguing with me."

Charlie pushed up again and looked down at him, waiting for an answer.

Don shook his head, but he couldn't say it: You don't want me. You want my alias. You want Mac, you want your guard, you want anyone but your brother. You don't even know you have a brother.

You don't even know I exist.

Charlie's hand slid into Don's jockeys, closing around his dick. Don had to turn his face away from the intent look in Charlie's eyes, biting the inside of his cheek to keep from coming at the first touch of Charlie's fingers. It had been months since anyone else touched him, but he knew it was Charlie's hand on his skin, Charlie's sweaty palm, and Charlie's clever fingers stroking him. His hand moved slowly at first, as though he was feeling his way--because, oh God, because c had never--

Charlie started moving faster, his thumb circling the head of Don's dick, and Don's hips snapped up reflexively. Don bit down until he tasted blood, and he was left gasping against the flare of pain, the irresistible pulse of arousal.

Charlie's hand shifted away, tugging his pants and jockeys down together, and Don helped, kicking them off. He was past the point of denying Charlie anything. Charlie settled over him, straddling him as Don had straddled Charlie, but sinking low, skin to skin, so that Don's dick pressed up against the soft skin of his belly. Charlie rocked against him slowly--learning this, too, one cautious movement at a time--and it was almost, almost enough friction. Don could feel Charlie getting hard again in the tight space between their bodies.

Charlie's mouth dragged up Don's throat, lingering at the point of his jaw. The lightest possible scrape of teeth against the tendon made Don gasp. Charlie's mouth found his, and Charlie moved harder and faster against him as he shoved his tongue inside, and then went abruptly still.

Charlie raised his head far enough to look Don in the eye, licking his lip in a slow, thoughtful swipe, and Don didn't want to hear whatever Charlie was going to say. He raised a hand to the back of Charlie's neck, tugging him down for another kiss. Charlie made a satisfied noise against his mouth and kissed him slowly and thoroughly. He ran the tip of his tongue across the bitten spot on the inside of his cheek, making Don shudder and jerk up hard against Charlie's hip.

Charlie was thrusting steadily now, hard against Don, his breath coming faster between sloppy, wet, coppery kisses. Charlie shifted, getting a hand down between them to line them up, dick to dick, hard and hot for each other. Don arched up, getting his hand on Charlie's ass to pull him down harder, heavier, more. Charlie's mouth was soft on his throat, licking, kissing, and Don could barely breathe, his heart pounding and his hips moving uncontrollably. When Charlie kissed his way up to Don's ear and closed his teeth lightly on the lobe, Don jerked under him one final time, gasped, "Oh, fuck, Charlie--" and came.

Charlie held still over him for a moment. Don could feel Charlie watching him and kept his eyes closed. His whole body felt as heavy as the concrete floor, and if he held still enough, maybe he could just keep feeling good, and not remember anything else. Then Charlie's hand slid down his arm, picking up Don's hand, and Don couldn't resist peering through his eyelashes to see what Charlie was doing.

Charlie was sitting back against Don's thighs, watching Don's face, holding Don's hand. Charlie smiled, tilted his head, and tugged on Don's hand. Don went where Charlie pulled him, curling his hand around Charlie's cock--his right hand this time, at least. The angle was better, and the feeling of a dick in his hand was familiar and strange and hot, in a vague way, stirring something down in his belly, heavy and sated but never indifferent. But Charlie didn't let go of Don's hand, keeping his own curled around it, his palm against Don's knuckles, his fingers over Don's fingers.

Don let his eyes sink all the way shut again, so there was nothing to distract him from the feeling of their hands on Charlie's dick, and then Charlie started to move, dragging Don's hand up and down. Don went where Charlie moved him, jerking Charlie off how Charlie wanted him to. Tighter when Charlie's hand tightened on his, this flick of fingers and that motion with the thumb. Don didn't know whether Charlie was showing him how he liked it or just using him to make it more interesting, but after a while Charlie bent low over their hands and kissed Don's closed eyes and then his mouth, lightly, just lips and ragged breath, touch and go and touch, on and on and on until Charlie came with a sigh against Don's mouth, his cock jerking under their joined hands, hot and wet between their bellies.

Don shook his hand free of Charlie's and pulled Charlie down on top of himself, heavy and warm and still. He laid his hand on Charlie's back, so he could feel the slowing beat of Charlie's heart, and Charlie was breathing wet and quick against Don's throat. They were hot and sticky--God, they were disgusting--but they were both still alive, and maybe he couldn't ask for more than that tonight.


Chapter Ten

c opened his eyes to Don, standing near the door and pulling a shirt on. He was already wearing his jeans, and c found that the sleeping bags and the soft red blanket had been tucked carefully around him, so that he was still as warm as if Don were beside him. Or, he thought, smiling a little to himself as he remembered, over him, or under him.

Don straightened up, keeping his back to c and running a hand through his hair, and c felt his own smile falter. Sex with another actual person--one who liked him and wanted him to feel good, even--had been a lot like he'd thought it might be, a lot like he thought he might be remembering from sometime before, in the same wordless faceless way he remembered everything he found he knew. Hot and messy and good and something he wanted to do again just as soon as humanly possible, except...

For a little while last night, he'd thought he finally understood what was going on in Don's head: Don had been so intent when he said I never wanted to hurt you, and there had been something so defeated in his voice. c had thought that he'd finally found it, finally identified the place where Don's assessment of their situation diverged from his own. Don didn't want to hurt him, and Don thought having sex with him automatically meant hurting him. c supposed that, technically speaking, Don had a point: c was a prisoner, Don was his guard. There were ethical issues. But he'd thought they could be overcome if he could demonstrate to Don that no real harm was done.

c had miscalculated. He'd never considered that he might have the power to hurt Don until he'd tasted blood in Don's mouth, and at that moment, knowing, he'd have stopped. But Don had pulled him down and kissed him again, and c had given up on calculating anything for a little while. Then Don had said a name--not just said it, but had it ripped out of him on the verge of orgasm, dragging feelings and meanings and things c couldn't begin to analyze along with it.

It had never occurred to c--because Don had never brought it up, because c had a tendency to forget that other people had worlds bigger than a basement room--that the reason Don had resisted having sex with him might have been fidelity to some other person not present. He knew he'd have dismissed the objection as readily as he had dismissed all of Don's objections. He'd have pointed out the absence of a ring on Don's hand, or said that anyone he could bear to be separated from for this job couldn't be that important to him.

But Don had said that name like it was the most important thing in the world, and maybe that was why he'd never said it before. Maybe he hadn't wanted to hear c dismiss someone so important from consideration as easily as a hypothetical illness or supposed psychological disorder.

The whole idea made c feel all sorts of things, squishy mobile sensations in his guts that he could never lay out in rows and work through. He felt sick. He felt sorry that he'd made Don betray someone who mattered so much to him, that he'd hurt Don without knowing it, that he'd known perfectly well what he was doing--hadn't Don been furious with him? Hadn't Don said no a hundred times?--and done it anyway. He felt angry that Don hadn't told him the truth before--still hadn't told him now--and viciously glad that Don was here with him instead of somewhere else with that someone else. But when Don turned so that c could see his face from where he lay with his eyes nearly closed, sorry won out over everything. Don looked tired, worried and pale, his face shadowed with stubble. c tried to think of how to apologize, when after all Don had pulled him down for a kiss, when Don had let c take his hand and use it, when Don had pulled him close afterward and held on until long after c could tell he was asleep.

Don took a step toward the bathroom, staring at the far wall. c tightened his arms around himself like a shield in his cocoon of blankets and said, "Who's Charlie?"

Don froze: an abrupt, unnatural failure of momentum. He didn't close his eyes, didn't look toward c or away.

His hands, open at his sides, didn't twitch. c understood the feeling. He had done the same when Don had said Charlie's name last night, frozen just like that when he had thought that his momentum would drive him on and on and on without any possibility of stopping. c didn't breathe while Don didn't move, waiting to see what would follow the freeze: an explosion or a retreat, terrible fury or a silence just as cold.

He saw Don swallow, and then Don looked at him, eyebrows drawing down though his mouth twitched into and out of a small, tense smile.

"You are," Don said.

c laughed, a short incredulous sound, all surprise and release of tension and no actual amusement. c forced himself to be quiet as Don kept looking at him, not laughing back.

"Me?"

Don nodded and looked away, then back. He sighed.

"It's the radio alphabet. You know, Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta... C is Charlie. It's more of a--" Don looked away again, shrugging stiffly, "a person's name, not a number. I think of you that way sometimes. I'll stop if it bugs you."

c blinked, watching Don's face. It defied reason, that he himself could be the person who mattered so much to Don, whose name had been wrenched from Don's mouth. But why would Don lie? Why shouldn't he just say there was someone else, somewhere else, or had been once, or...

"No, I... really? Me?"

Don met his eyes again and gave him a small smile, bleak but real enough to reach his eyes, making wrinkles there, where c had finally kissed him last night--something else to lose, now. c's heart squeezed tight and he couldn't breathe.

"Who else?"

Charlie. A name, a person's name like Don had said, and given to him by someone else, someone who cared. A gift, like the blanket, and maybe the trouble with choosing a name for himself had always been that names were supposed to come from other people. C is Charlie. It fit, with a progression he could trace from the name he'd given himself to the one Don had made it into.

"Charlie," he repeated slowly. "I like that. Charlie."

Don was still smiling, though he still looked tired and drawn. But he said, "Yeah. Charlie."

Don stood there holding his gaze until Charlie could feel his own eyes watering. Don blinked and then looked away, shaking his head and running his hand through his hair, and walked to the bathroom, where he'd been heading in the first place.

The tap turned on, and c found himself curling tighter automatically, hiding his face in the fleece blanket and clutching his knees. The day before crashed back down on him like a wave--the water, and Williamson, and all the things he'd said. But this morning was different from last night: he had something to lose now. He had Don, and a name, and new secrets that wouldn't stay secret long. His breath caught at the things he might be made to tell after today, his heart racing faster, water running from his eyes, and not even the pounding of his heart could drown out the sound of running water.

"Charlie? Hey, sleepyhe--hey. Charlie."

He fought the grip on his shoulder automatically and fruitlessly, bucking against the hard hand until sound penetrated his panic. "Charlie, hey, hey, it's me, it's okay, Charlie."

Don. Of course it was Don. Don had gone into the bathroom and turned on the sink tap like he'd done dozens of times before. Charlie opened his eyes and Don was looking down at him, eyes black in his pale face--but he smiled shakily when Charlie opened his eyes. "Earth to Charlie. You in there?"

It sounded familiar in Don's mouth, not new or awkward at all, and that alone could convince him that he had been "Charlie" to Don for a while now. Charlie shook his head, refocusing, and then nodded when he realized what the question had been.

"Yeah," he said. "Sorry, I'm--I'm here."

" Good," Don said, and then he tipped forward from his crouch to kneel in front of Charlie, and before Charlie knew quite what was going on, Don was hugging him tightly. There was cool air against Charlie's back, where the blanket had fallen away when he moved, striped with the warmth and pressure of Don's arms. He raised one hand to Don's shoulder and let his face fall forward onto Don's shoulder, breathing in Don's smell. Don's cheek pressed against the top of his head. Neither of them moved, breath after breath after breath, but eventually something had to give. Charlie raised his other hand--just to Don's side--but Don flinched and lifted his head.

"Okay," Don said softly. "Charlie, I hate to say this, but you need a shower."

c froze and tried to jerk away. Don's arms tightened for an instant and then Don let him go, and Charlie fell back against the wall, clenching his fists in the sleeping bags and trying not to think about the sound of water, water on his face--

"Hey," Don said, but c couldn't look. He shut his eyes, shivering, feeling the smooth confines of the tub around him again, the water creeping up, covering his face. Don's hands on him tightened, jerking him upward. He gasped for breath reflexively, and then he was pulled tight against Don's chest.

"Hey," Don said, "Charlie."

He was pushed away again just as abruptly, and the loss of contact made him open his eyes.

"Look at me," Don said. "Charlie," and Charlie had to look.

Don leaned in again and kissed his forehead, and then drew back just far enough to speak, his lips brushing Charlie's skin. "I know you don't want to go back in there, Charlie. I know."

Charlie shuddered, and Don's hands shifted from their grip on his arms, one curling around his shoulders and the other running up and down his spine. Charlie clenched his eyes shut, and tried to think of nothing but Don's hands.

"But you have to, and I will be with you, and you will be okay. As long as I'm with you, I will do everything I can to protect you. You know that, right?"

Charlie nodded a little, and Don shifted, letting his forehead rest against Charlie's. "I'll be right there," Don repeated, and then sighed against Charlie's mouth, not quite a touch. "Come on, let's get you dressed."


The TV in the living room was turned up so loudly that Don could hear it clearly from the top of the basement stairs, and that had to be a bad sign. He thought Charlie might have telegraphed the same impression, but it was hard to tell; he had been continuously tense and shivering since Don first suggested a shower, and hadn't spoken a word.

Don kept him moving because there was nothing else to do, up the stairs and through the kitchen, cataloging the dishes in the sink at a glance. The feeling of 'kids home alone' was palpable. Williamson must have gone somewhere and obviously wasn't expected back soon. If Charlie hadn't been practically catatonic, it might have been a good moment to try something, but he didn't think he could get Charlie to walk to the street at this point, let alone go running off to nowhere under fire. As it was, he had to keep steady pressure on Charlie's shoulder to get him through the doorway and into the living room.

One of the men was slouched on the couch, flipping through channels with a glazed, vacant expression. Don had never heard him speak, though he'd seen him during a dinner break or two. Randy was tall and lean, younger than most of the men--younger than Charlie, Don thought. He looked up from the TV as they entered the room, Don pushing Charlie ahead of him, and something predatory sparked in Randy's eyes.

Don didn't think, he just moved, one quick stride to bring himself level with Charlie, yanking Charlie behind him before Randy had time to so much as sit up straight. He did sit up, leaning his elbow on his knee and smirking right through Don at the spot where Charlie stood stock still under Don's hand. Don held his ground, not releasing his grip on Charlie, not smiling, not moving a muscle toward his gun or away from it. He had stared down worse than some twenty-six-year-old punk with a fifteen-second attention span and a tendency to torment the helpless. When Randy's gaze finally flicked up to meet his, Don shook his head slightly, pulled Charlie around to his far side, and walked him past the couch to the hallway.

At the bathroom doorway Charlie froze, seeming paralyzed by the equal forces of his fear of going back to the place he'd been tortured the day before and Randy's dead-eyed, malevolent presence behind them. Don gave him a full second, and then shoved him bodily across the threshold, following him in and locking the door. Charlie stumbled a stride further, catching himself on the towel bar just short of pitching headfirst into the tub. The bag of his clean clothes fell from his hand, and Don leaned past Charlie without touching him to pick it up, letting him have his moment now that they were safely inside. Charlie didn't let go of the towel bar, didn't straighten up, didn't look over.

Don turned away, setting down the bag on the sink and pulled out a towel and washcloth. He'd just bet the laundry cycle was going to get fucked, too, with Williamson gone, and made a mental note to take a couple of towels down with them. Behind him, in a low, desperate voice, Charlie said, "I can't. I can't."

Don turned back, reaching out to touch Charlie's shoulder, and Charlie didn't so much pull away from the touch as go suddenly limp, sliding down the wall to huddle on the floor, face against his knees. Don crouched beside Charlie with one hand on his back, and stared unseeingly at the chrome shine of the faucet, considering his options.

The only way he was going to get Charlie into the shower was the same way he'd gotten him into the bathroom: actually pushing him through it, every step. Don glanced toward the door, listening for a second to the continued noise of the TV--but there was exactly no reason to care what anyone else was going to think. They were already thinking it. Fuck, after last night they were right. And anyway, he needed a shower at least as much as Charlie did, and probably couldn't rely on getting his dinner break any more than he could rely on anything else running smooth.

Don squeezed Charlie's shoulder and moved to sit on the edge of the tub, unlacing his boots. He stuffed his socks into them and stood up, shrugging out of his shoulder holster and setting it down on the back of the toilet. Charlie flinched when the buckle clinked against the porcelain and finally looked up. Don watched from the corner of his eye as he unbuckled his belt, letting Charlie look without visibly looking back. Charlie was staring at him, lips slightly parted, though for once there was nothing speculative in his eyes. It somehow wasn't comforting to know that Charlie could be derailed from sex by mortal terror.

When Don laid down his belt and started to pull off his shirt, Charlie said, barely above a whisper, "Don?"

"Yeah," Don said, keeping his eyes on his hands as he thumbed open the button on his jeans and unzipped them. "I'm right here."

Charlie flinched as Don's pants slid down, and he pressed himself harder against the wall. Don kept the motion of his hands slow and steady and visible, folding his jeans and dropping them on top of his boots.

"Don," Charlie said, "I don't--I can't--what are you doing?"

Don went still, looking down at Charlie, taking the time to think it through as Charlie stared at him. Charlie worked by predicting things; he predicted by patterns; Don wasn't adhering to any of the patterns they'd established. So, no, Charlie didn't know what he was doing, and the uncertainty was scaring him as much as anything else.

"Hey," Don said, crouching to Charlie's level. "I said I'd help you. I said I'd stick with you. I meant it. That's all."

Charlie's gaze flicked from Don to the bathtub and back to Don, skipping down from his face to his body. Charlie still wasn't checking him out, as far as Don could tell--just taking in the fact of x amount of bare skin in proximity y. Don could see the moment when the pattern slotted into place.

Charlie said, "Help me," as his eyes met Don's again, with an uncertain inflection--maybe an echo, maybe a request.

Don nodded and reached for the hem of Charlie's shirt, the wet-and-dried fabric stiff and rough under his fingers, and tugged it up and off. Charlie didn't fight him and didn't quite cooperate. As soon as Don had dragged the shirt off Charlie's arms he wrapped them around himself, holding on tight.

The way Charlie sat made the jut of his collarbones more obvious, shadowed below and punctuated by the small, red mark at the spot where Charlie's neck met his left shoulder. Don let his eyes skim away from that sight, to the bruises on his chest, to the spot where his chest hair looked glued together. Don wrinkled his nose and flicked his fingertip gently against Charlie's shoulder.

"Definitely time for a shower. Come on. Up."

Charlie just blinked at him, but when Don set a hand on his shoulder, Charlie turned his face away and pushed up to his feet. Don stood with him, twisting sideways to turn on the water. Charlie shifted away in the tight space between Don and the wall, and even though his eyes were on the slowly-warming rush of water over his fingers, Don couldn't help being aware of Charlie dropping his sweatpants and kicking them aside.

All he'd have to do to really and truly distract Charlie from his brand-new bathtub phobia would be to turn his head, take a half-step in and press himself up against Charlie's body. Kiss him again. Touch him again. Don knew how now, exactly how and where and what it would feel like and the sounds Charlie would make against his mouth.

Don pressed the joint of his index finger against the hard edge of the faucet and held it there, even after the water started to steam, nearly scalding him. He couldn't think about that. It hadn't been about him, about what he wanted. He'd taken care of Charlie when Charlie needed him. That was all. Charlie didn't need that now. Charlie needed a goddamn shower, and Don needed to keep it in his pants even if he wasn't actually wearing any. He switched the shower on and slipped his jockeys off without looking at Charlie.

Don got under the spray, turning his face into it for a second, and then turned, blinking, to look at Charlie. He opened his mouth to say coming?, and then closed it without speaking, stepping back to make a space under the water. He beckoned to Charlie with his hand.

Charlie bit his lip, rocking slightly on his heels, and Don kept his eyes fixed on Charlie's face. Just his face.

Charlie nodded and followed Don into the shower. He turned his back to Don, one hand over his head as he stood under the spray so the water didn't fall on him directly. Don yanked the shower curtain shut--there would be puddles on the floor, and no one would clean them up--and Charlie scooted away from the movement of his arm, pressing closer to the shower wall. Don backed off a half-step, but it didn't help; Charlie's hands pressed flat to the tiles, and Don could see the muscles bunching in his shoulders and all down his back, a full-body cringe.

"Hey," Don said, and it was safe now, covered by the sound of the falling water. "Charlie, hey."

Charlie shook his head slightly, but that was a response, at least. Don tugged on his shoulder, turning Charlie around so they were facing each other, and then looked quickly away, grabbing soap and a cloth. Charlie wrapped his arms around himself again and stood there while Don lathered the cloth. He twitched--not away, exactly, just jumping a little--when Don touched him again, running the cloth over the hard, angular curve of his shoulder, down over the trembling-tense muscle of his biceps.

Charlie didn't move under Don's hands, but he let Don pull his arm away from his body and wash it, flinching a little when Don soaped his armpit. Charlie had always been ticklish. Don didn't let himself think about Charlie's skin under his fingers, the smell of both their bodies rising up in the steam, the slippery smoothness of soap. Maybe Charlie did need to be distracted, maybe...

Maybe Don needed to be distracted. He turned Charlie under the water, making him rinse off, and scrubbed the back of Charlie's neck and behind his ears while they were handy.

"You scared?" he said softly.

Charlie shrugged tightly, but when Don pushed his head under the water to rinse, he shuddered convulsively, slapping his hands up against the tile again, and nodded hard under Don's hand on his head.

"Yeah," Don said, letting Charlie raise his head, scrubbing at his back. Charlie shuddered again, and Don groped for words.

"It's okay to be scared. I mean." Don bit his lip hard, running the washcloth quickly over Charlie's ass. "You know, six is scared too."

Don took his hands away, and Charlie peeked back over his shoulder, then turned to rinse all by himself.

"Six?"

"Yeah, you know." Don squinted, scrubbing at his little brother's chest hair, and didn't think about what he was washing out of it, just thought about not smiling.

"Six." He traced the numeral on Charlie's shoulder, squeezing the washcloth out with his other hand. "Six is scared of seven."

He glanced up at Charlie's face. Charlie was blinking at him, completely baffled, completely focused on Don.

"You know why?" Don asked, lowering his gaze to Charlie's left arm, scrubbing at his elbow.

He saw the shake of Charlie's head from the corner of his eye, and pushed Charlie to half-turn and rinse again, so that he could speak into Charlie's ear.

"Because seven eight nine."

Charlie let out a startled bark of laughter, and even as Don grinned at him, his breath caught, because Charlie had honestly been surprised by the punch line. Charlie had never heard that joke before, not that he could remember. He was shaking his head, and when Don pressed the washcloth into his hand Charlie took it, washing up apparently on autopilot.

"That's the worst joke I've ever heard," Charlie said.

"Yeah?" Don said, stepping back, keeping the grin on his face, keeping his voice light, not thinking about how many jokes Charlie could remember having heard in his life.

"What's the difference between peanut butter and an elephant?"

Charlie turned, rinsing, but craned his head over his shoulder to keep watching Don. He was frowning in concentration, trying to figure it out, but shook his head after a few seconds.

"Elephant won't stick to the roof of your mouth," Don said, and without pausing for breath, thanking God for all those hours of stakeouts with Coop and his endless supply of stupid, stupid jokes.

"How is a duck the same as a bicycle?"

Charlie squinted at Don, now just standing still under the water, trying to make sense of the joke. Don could see him trying to reason it out, trying to extrapolate from one joke to the next.

"They both have wheels," Don said, because Charlie was never going to give up and ask him. "Except for the duck."

Charlie grinned, shaking his head, and then his eyes widened and he said, "Hey, wait, I--"

Don stopped breathing as Charlie looked away, his gaze tracking left--Don's left, subject's right, suggestive of reference to memory, may indicate truth-telling. His head turned, following his gaze, and Don couldn't look away from Charlie's profile, the bright smile in his eyes, the stark pink slash of the scar. Don was standing here, naked in the shower with his little brother, washing off last night's sex, and Charlie was remembering something. For the first time, Don wished he wouldn't. If Charlie remembered, the smile would vanish. Those eyes would turn furious, betrayed, disbelieving. Hurt, scarred. Violated. Abused. Raped. Charlie was sick, injured, traumatized. He was Don's prisoner, his charge, his responsibility. His brother. And he had--

Charlie's eyes met his suddenly, and Charlie was grinning as he said, "How can you tell that a mathematician is extroverted?"

He jumps on top of you and opens your pants, Don thought, holding his smile, holding Charlie's bright gaze, and reminding himself that Charlie had never interrogated anyone, and wouldn't know how forced his expression was.

"I don't know, how?"

Charlie's gaze slid slowly down his body, slowly back up, and Don clenched his hands against the impulse to cover himself, forcing them open again instantly. Charlie didn't seem to notice. He leaned toward Don and said, laughter barely restrained, "When he speaks to you, he looks at your shoes instead of his own."

Charlie, so far as Don knew, didn't have any shoes. Don summoned up a snort of non-laughter--like Charlie's joke just wasn't funny, any more than his own were--and offered Charlie the bar of soap.

"Wash your hair, Dr. Extrovert."

Charlie frowned a little but ducked his head, rubbing soap through his hair. Don started washing up himself, maneuvering awkwardly to get at the water around the suddenly immobile pillar of Charlie. He was staring at his own feet now. Don pushed him bodily back a step so he could get under the water himself, and Charlie said, without raising his head or slowing the mechanical motion of his hands, "Do you think so?"

Don frowned, looking down at Charlie's face, but Charlie didn't look up. "Think what?"

"Think I have a doctorate," Charlie said, and now he did look up, his eyes searching Don's.

Don stared back, then forced himself to look away, shrugging as he ran the washcloth over his own skin, not thinking of the way Charlie had spent weeks bursting with excitement after his thesis defense, filling every available writing surface with furtively scribbled repetitions of Dr. Charles Eppes.

"You know a lot of math, right? They give people degrees for that."

Charlie nodded, but his eyes turned down again, and he turned his back to Don to rinse his hair with his head ducked. So his face didn't get wet, Don realized, a split second before Charlie said, "If I'd been through a doctoral program, though--people would know who I was. They would have noticed I was missing."

Don opened his mouth and closed it, forcing himself not to say, We noticed, buddy, I promise you we noticed. The water abruptly turned icy cold, and Charlie flinched, but didn't make a sound. He wasn't surprised, Don realized, and now that he thought about it, the damn dishwasher was always on when they went back downstairs. Such a stupid, juvenile thing, but it left Charlie shivering every morning, and Charlie was so used to it he'd never said anything. Don had never even known.

"Okay," Don said. "Hurry up, let's go."

Charlie nodded, running his hands quickly through his hair to rinse it as Don scrubbed himself, gritting his teeth as he started to shiver. Don shut off the water as soon as they were both reasonably clean, and didn't look over at Charlie as they dried off. He didn't think Charlie looked at him, either.

They got dressed quickly, bumping elbows and squeezing awkwardly past each other in the tight space. Charlie brushed his teeth while Don got his holster on, and then Charlie pressed back against the sink, holding the paper bag of his things, while Don stepped past him to unlock the door.

The muffled sound of the television was suddenly loud as Don stepped into the hallway, and Don didn't allow himself to hesitate, dragging Charlie after him as they walked into the living room. Randy was still on the couch, right where they'd left him, and Don could see the moment when Randy spotted his wet hair. He didn't sit up this time, but slouched further into the sofa as a nasty light gleamed in his eyes.

Don and Charlie had made it nearly to the kitchen when he drawled, "Isn't that romantic," and punctuated his statement with a decisive change of channel, hip-hop to cable news.

Don knew even as he turned on his heel that he should have kept walking. Having turned, he had to say something, and it had to be the right thing. He met Randy's gaze, held it for a couple of beats, and then said, "I do my job. If hassling the genius was yours, you wouldn't wait until the boss was gone to do it."

Randy's lips pressed together ever so slightly, but he looked away, changing the channel with a savage jab of his thumb on the remote and a sullen mutter of, "Fag."

Don gritted his teeth and didn't say Better that than a sociopath. It occurred to him that Randy was a looser cannon than any of the others he'd met so far, and maybe he could use that--but not now, not with Charlie in the line of fire. Don turned back to Charlie, and found Charlie watching him, eyes wide and unreadable.

When Don pushed, Charlie turned and walked on into the kitchen where Sam, Jimmy, and couple of the other guys were sitting at the kitchen table. Sam was staring fixedly out the window, while the others had their heads down and their mouths diplomatically full. Charlie hesitated minutely, flinching from the massed presence, but Don pushed him on toward the stairs and said levelly, to the room at large, "Somebody get the door?"

A chair slid back as Don started down the stairs with his hand on Charlie's shoulder, but he didn't look to see who it was. Charlie went to his chalkboards as soon as Don pulled the door shut behind them, and Don stood close to it, listening to the sound of the bar and lock being put in place, watching Charlie.

He was just standing in front of the middle chalkboard on the long wall, not even holding a piece of chalk. Don leaned back against the door, waiting. It was cool through his shirt, and water was dripping down the back of his neck. He folded his arms, squeezing the holstered gun against his ribs, and stared at the back of Charlie's neck.

Charlie raised a hand to the spot, as if he felt Don's gaze, and then began running one hand through his hair, finger-combing it. It was probably just that it was wet, but it looked longer than it had when Don had first found him.

"Are you?" Charlie said, without turning around.

Don winced, but smoothed the expression off his face and said, "Am I what?"

There were at least two things Charlie might have been asking, theoretically, but mostly Don just wanted Charlie to look at him.

Charlie obliged him, turning around, still raking his fingers through his hair, as he asked, "Are you just doing your job? Did Williamson order you to?"

The worst thing about the question, Don thought, was that it was utterly matter of fact. Charlie was watching him intently, but his hands never stopped moving through his hair, and his curiosity was detached. Clinical. For an awful instant, Don was reminded of a dream he'd had, Charlie standing over him with a gun in his hand, watching him bleed out with that same calm gaze.

"No," Don said, maybe too fiercely. Charlie tilted his head, eyebrows raised. Don sighed.

"He gave me permission. I let him know I didn't want his permission. He didn't press the point. I didn't intend--"

But Don cut himself off sharply there. There was nothing more useless to say, after the fact, than I didn't mean to.

Still, Charlie nodded, seeming satisfied, and Don peeled himself off the door and went into his bag for fresh clothes and his shaving kit. When he straightened up with the razor in his hand, Charlie was watching him with a different kind of intensity, and had taken a step back, nearly up against his chalkboard. His lips moved, but no sound came out. Don didn't have to hear to know what he was trying to brace himself to ask.

"No cuffs today," Don said firmly. "But if you want a shave, I'll do it."

All at once Charlie was smiling at him, bright with relief, and somehow Don found himself smiling back.


Charlie went straight back to work when Don finished shaving him; sex--or sixteen hours away from his blackboards--seemed to have had a salutary effect on his brain. As soon as he looked at his work, he could see where he was headed, how to work the predictive algorithms, how to fit them together into an expression of the job Williamson had planned. He was vaguely conscious of the sound of Don shaving somewhere behind him, and then, three blackboards later, he looked over to find Don standing at his left side and holding out a sandwich.

Charlie blinked at him, trying to shift mental gears from mathematics to speech, but Don just smiled and took Charlie's left hand, folding his fingers around the sandwich and pushing it gently toward his mouth. Charlie smiled and took a bite, and Don turned away as he turned back to his work. Later, he looked around and found a bottle of water on his table; when he looked past it he spotted Don doing push-ups near the door, and all brain activity abruptly halted. Charlie was vaguely aware of his mouth falling open while he watched the motion of muscle in Don's arms, the steady rise and fall of his body, held in a perfect line, pivoting on his toes through fifteen degrees of arc.

Charlie counted forty-two repetitions before Don crumpled all at once, the neat lines of his body losing coherence as he drew one knee under him. His forehead and elbows sagged to the floor, the broad curve of his back moving with his quick breath. His shirt was dark with sweat down his spine, his holstered gun lay near his right hand, and Charlie abruptly turned back to his blackboard. Don hadn't thought he would look up; it wasn't fair to watch this, whatever it was.

He could still remember the taste of blood in Don's mouth. He could still feel Don's hands touching him, Don's arms holding him close. He could still feel the mark on his throat, scarcely glimpsed in the mirror as he brushed his teeth. But Don had only hugged him this morning, and been carefully chaste in the shower, quiet and businesslike on the other side of the razor. Don wasn't pulling away, but he wasn't continuing what had begun last night, either.

Charlie glanced over his shoulder to find that Don had rolled onto his back, his knees drawn up and his feet flat on the floor. His hands were behind his head, and he seemed to be staring up at the ceiling: maybe about to do sit-ups, maybe staring into space and wondering about the same things Charlie was wondering. I didn't intend, he'd said, and Charlie thought he'd meant it, if only because he'd cut himself off so abruptly. This wasn't part of some master plan. Don didn't know what they were doing either.

Charlie turned back to his blackboard again. He forced himself to consider patterns of security patrol movement, and not ask himself whether he found that comforting or not. He settled quickly back into his work, conscious of nothing but his blackboards and papers, moving back and forth between them as the expression came together. At some point he turned and Don was standing next to the card table, looking down at the box of chalk. Charlie jumped, and Don looked up with a small, sheepish smile, but didn't say anything, just looked back down at the chalk. Charlie closed the distance to the table, picking up the papers he needed, and said, "Don?"

"You mind if I borrow a board?" Don asked, nodding toward blackboard seven, the only one still entirely blank. Charlie stared at him for a moment. Sometimes it felt as if Don had always been here in this basement with him, and then sometimes he did something utterly alien, like ask if he could use a blackboard as though he sincerely believed they were Charlie's to grant or withhold.

"Sure," Charlie said, and Don seemed to hear the smile in his voice.

He looked up and smiled back, and then opened the box of chalk and extracted a stick. Charlie shook his head and went back to his work. He glanced over a little later, and Don was painstakingly drawing a grid on the board, the lines very neat and straight, the spacing even. Eight by eight: the structure of the matrix was familiar in a nagging way, just beneath the surface. Charlie turned back to his own blackboard, thinking about it.

He idly began scribbling his own sloppier matrix, trying to express the entire space of the job, stopped and scrubbed out half of it, started over. A simple matrix wouldn't do for the whole job, and he didn't have a handy way to represent a multidimensional matrix on a flat board, unless...

The next time he looked up, Don was still standing at the blackboard, and there was chalk dust smeared across the back of his jeans. He turned, and Charlie jerked his gaze up to Don's face in time to catch his quick smile.

"Hey, come here. Time for a break."

Charlie glanced back toward his board--but the vector construction was something of a tangent anyway, relevant to planning the job only on the highly conceptual level that Williamson had in the past demonstrated exactly no patience for. Better if he interrupted this line of thought, blotted it out, and got back to work on the predictive expression. Charlie dragged a finger down the edge of the matrix, allowing himself one more wistful look, and then turned his back on it and walked over to where Don was waiting for him.

Don stepped aside so that Charlie could see what he'd drawn on the board. The eight-by-eight grid was complete now, and half the resultant sixty-four squares--every other one--had been shaded gray with smeared white chalk. The others had been wiped carefully clean, so that the slate showed black. Down the left-most column, a symbol had been written in each square in white chalk: R, K, B, Q, and then an odd little heptagon, flat-bottomed with three points at the top, then B, K, R. In the second column, there was a P in every box. The arrangement was mirrored in the right-most columns, in blue chalk.

Charlie looked over at Don watching him expectantly, and when he looked back, it was a chess board in chalk, and the heptagons were crowns--for kings, of course, because the Ks were knights.

"You know how to play?" Don asked.

Charlie smiled. "White or blue? White moves first."

Don groaned. "Wait, never mind, it's over before it starts."

"No, no," Charlie said, his smile widening. "You're right, I should take a break. This is good. Maybe we should make it interesting. We could bet on it. I'll let you have white."

"Betting doesn't actually make it interesting if we both know you're going to win," Don said, but when Charlie looked over he'd picked up the white chalk.

"It could motivate you to put up a fight," Charlie offered, and Don raised his eyebrows.

Not angry, Charlie reminded himself. Not pulling away. He reached past Don to pick up the blue chalk, and said almost casually, "What do you say, I win, I get a kiss?"

Don didn't say anything, and when Charlie looked up Don was squinting at him thoughtfully. "If I win," Don said, "I'm going to make a Scrabble board. And we're going to play that."

"Scrabble," Charlie repeated, looking at the board, his voice wobbling half because Don hadn't said no, and half because... Scrabble? "I don't think I know that one."

"I'll teach you," Don said lightly, rubbed out a pawn and drew it in again two spaces forward. "It's fun, you'll love it."

Charlie frowned at the board, envisioning possible moves--his own and Don's, a dizzying profusion of potential playing out in ghost-chalk before his eyes--and then forced himself to choose one. He rubbed out his queen's pawn with his thumb and drew it in again two spaces forward, facing Don's.

"Huh," Don said. He moved the next pawn over without obvious pause for thought, and Charlie watched possibilities shift and die away. He moved to take Don's second pawn before Don's hand had even dropped to his side, and smiled briefly at Don's defeated sigh. Don brought out his bishop, and Charlie thought he could see the shape of Don's strategy, such as it was--he could see the path to his own victory, a dozen paths to his own victory, and vanishingly few to Don's. He moved his knight, smiling.

After that he was barely conscious of Don beside him, or the chalk in his hand, the slate under his fingers as he rubbed out pieces--his own, Don's--and rewrote them elsewhere. He was watching scenarios, the potential collapsing into the actual, constantly enlivened by the inexpert unpredictability of Don's moves. He had always insisted upon that to Williamson--any scenario that involved amateurs was harder to predict, harder to control--but when Don took the bait, nabbing Charlie's queen with a pawn, the trap was firmly set. Three more moves, and Charlie laughed, delighted, smearing his thumb across the white heptagon.

"Checkmate."

"Ten moves," Don muttered, and Charlie turned to look at him, half eager and half curious, to see what Don would do next. Charlie had won, but Don had never exactly agreed...

Don looked over at him for a moment, then turned to face him, squaring up, and put his hands behind his back. "Okay, Charlie, hit me."

"Um," Charlie said, off balance. He'd been confident he would win, but he hadn't quite believed that Don would concede the wager. He wasn't sure Don was conceding it, even now.

"The bet wasn't, um." Charlie hesitated, his mouth dry as he stepped across the small distance between them.

Just a kiss. He'd kissed Don before this, with less encouragement. Don held his ground, looking steadily into Charlie's eyes and giving nothing away.

Charlie licked his lips and raised his hand cautiously to the back of Don's neck, curling his fingers around the nape. Don didn't stop him, didn't resist Charlie's hesitant tug, letting Charlie draw Don's face down to his own. Charlie leaned up, pressing his mouth to Don's, tightening his fingers against Don's warm skin, and Don sighed, lips parting.

Charlie made a small noise and pushed into the kiss, tilting his head as he licked into Don's mouth. Don's lips moved lightly against his, his tongue brushing Charlie's, and Charlie shivered, heat flaring in his groin as a chill shot down in his spine. He clutched at Don's shirt for balance, leaning in, and Don moved for the first time, setting a hand flat on Charlie's chest, lifting his head just far enough to break the kiss.

"No," Don said, his voice husky, sounding as dazed as Charlie felt. "No, the bet was for one. That's it."

Charlie blinked up at Don, staring into eyes gone almost black. His mouth was still so close to Charlie's that the breath of his words brushed Charlie's lips. His palm rested against Charlie's heart. Charlie could lean into it, haul Don down by the hand on his neck, press past Don's no, forget the flimsy pretext of the bet. Take what he wanted, no matter what Don said. A million possible moves bloomed before his mind's eye, smelling like chalk. Tasting like blood.

Don closed his eyes. He let his head drop so that his forehead rested against Charlie's, and whispered, "Go on. Back to work."

Charlie took a breath--Don's breath, exhaled to him--and then one more, and then nodded and let go.


Dinner, in the form of congealed, lukewarm takeout pizza, arrived a little before nine. Don ate a couple of slices, and cleared a space to set the box down on Charlie's table, not bothering to try to invade the cloud of chalk dust around Charlie's frantically moving hand. Don settled down near the door with a comic book, and twenty minutes later, smiled when he heard Charlie's, "Ooh, pizza."

Charlie didn't speak again for the next several hours, lost in his work. Don experimented with listening at the interior walls, but the furnace was running and served as a depressingly good white-noise generator. Pizza probably meant Williamson wasn't around; the fact that somebody had remembered to feed him and Charlie meant things upstairs hadn't gone entirely off the rails. But if he didn't get a dinner break, if he never got out of this room without Charlie, his options got even more limited than they ever had been. He sat staring into space, thinking pleasant, stupid thoughts about Coop leading a charging SWAT team in here to pull them out.

Don snapped awake, still sitting on the floor, and looked first for Charlie, but found him serenely working away. He paused as Don watched, running a chalk-dusted hand through his hair and graying a wide streak of curls. Don touched his own hair idly, wondering whether he'd find it grayer the next time he looked into a mirror. His dad had been teasing him as they picked up the dishes, reached over and ruffled his hair and said, "Wait till you have kids, it'll all go gray fast enough," and then the doorbell rang and Amita had been standing there, smiling. Don tried to think of what his father's hair had looked like the last time he'd seen him, but the room had been dark.

Don shut his eyes, trying to rein himself in--his mind was wandering. He didn't usually think about this stuff. He couldn't. Don pushed to his feet and went to stand over the tangle of sleeping bags and Charlie's blanket, lying as Charlie had left it that morning. Don had considered, on and off all day, tidying it up. He could set up Charlie's cot again, move his own bedroll aside, but somehow he'd found another way to fill every minute of the last fifteen hours. Now he was exhausted, and Charlie was still up and working and showed no sign of stopping. How much could it possibly matter where either of them slept? Charlie had backed off when Don told him to. Don's hands were dirty; they weren't going to get clean if he slept four feet away. They weren't going to get clean ever. That was no reason to make Charlie sleep cold.

Don reached down and picked up one of the sleeping bags. He wrapped it around himself and lay down with his back to Charlie, leaving Charlie's sleeping bag and blanket in the space between him and the wall.

The next time he opened his eyes, the overhead lights were off and Charlie was stepping over him, digging through the covers and muttering, "I'm just going to lie down for a little--"

"It's okay," Don said. His brain was somewhere dim and warm and quiet, and he couldn't fail to reassure Charlie. "It's okay. Put your head down."

Charlie nodded, settling in, and dragged the fleece blanket up to touch it to his cheek. Don reached out, meaning to touch Charlie's hand where it held the blanket, and was asleep before he could make contact.


The next day Don made him take another break for chess; this time Charlie wagered a hug against Don's continued threat of Scrabble. Don looked startled when he said it, but also, Charlie thought, pleased. The game lasted twelve moves this time, and when it was over Don didn't stand back, but heaved an exaggerated sigh and grabbed Charlie's shoulder, pulling him close.

Charlie let his cheek rest against Don's shoulder as he was held tight and close, and as the hug went on he tried to calculate an equivalence to kisses in area of skin-surface contact, multiplied by duration, and divided by absence of overt sexuality. But then Don squeezed him tighter, straining his ribs, and made a low humming sound in his throat, and Charlie realized Don was happy. All further calculations were suddenly rendered irrelevant.

The day after that, Charlie decided on his strategy, and made his wager accordingly: if he won, the next day they would play two games of chess. Don gave him a skeptical look, but accepted the bet, and Charlie won handily in eleven moves, and then went back to his work.

The next morning he woke up cuddled close to Don. Don murmured in his ear, "You know, some stuff you don't have to win from me."

Charlie smiled and said, "I'm enjoying the challenge."

Don laughed rustily, and squeezed him a little before they got up.

They agreed to hold the chess games back-to-back, allowing Charlie to work straight through the day. He was vaguely conscious of eating lunch--he licked the fingers of the wrong hand at one point, and got a mouthful of chalk--but then there was nothing but the expressions unfolding under his hands, coming together in chalk and slate. Then there was a hand on his shoulder, startling him out of his work, and Don said, "Heads up," in his ear. He turned under Don's hand as the door opened, and Williamson smiled at him from the doorway.

Don squeezed his shoulder and then stepped away, and c didn't move until he heard the door close, and he was alone with Williamson.

"You've been busy," Williamson said.

c looked around his boards, gauging his progress since the last time Williamson had seen them. Since before Williamson had taken him up to the bathroom.

"Yes," c said, and his voice shook.

He clenched his hand on his chalk and stood still, near his board. A headache started to bloom beside his left eye, and he carefully did not reach up and rub at the spot. Williamson's gaze shifted from the boards to the single heap of sleeping bags near the wall, one pillow and one blanket tucked among them.

"Very busy," Williamson murmured, but this time his inflection did not require an answer.

c stood and stared at the sleeping bags, thinking of--of Mac, of all the things Williamson now knew about them. All the things he had told Williamson, and he remembered a whisper in his ear, "He already knew, or he wouldn't have asked."

But then, there were a number of things Williamson didn't know--and c knew now that Williamson had wanted to know those things, which was interesting.

"Yes," c said again, watching Williamson closely to catch the eyelid-shiver that was the only sign that he'd startled Williamson by speaking.

Williamson's gaze on him intensified. "You and Mac--you get along okay?"

"Mm," c said, as though the very idea of Williamson caring whether Know-Nothing got along with one of his employees weren't completely absurd. "I find he... supports optimal function."

He translated himself automatically, as soon as the words were out of his mouth. "He doesn't interrupt me too often."

It was true, too. And his guard's presence seemed to deter everyone else from interrupting him even when he was upstairs, though no one had made an issue of it directly since Randy, that first day.

"Not too often," Williamson said, arching an eyebrow, and c ducked his head, looking away. The flush rose in his face regardless of the fact that Williamson was nearly entirely wrong. It was all right; Williamson expected the flush. He wouldn't look past it.

"And what's this?" Williamson said, turning away. "Chess?"

"Yes," c said, "We--"

Williamson looked up at the hesitation, gaze sharp, curious. "You?"

c swallowed, hating to give this away--but then he had hated to give up his queen to a pawn, too. It had to be done. There was no choice in the matter. Still, his voice came out a ragged whisper as he said, "We bet on it. I always win."

Williamson snorted, almost a laugh--he'd made just that sound when c had confessed to watching Don sleep, and it made him sick now to hear it, made his throat go tight. He couldn't breathe, though no water covered his face.

"That's good, Know-Nothing. I'd hate to see you getting beat by my hired gun."

You've already seen me beaten by your hired gun, c thought, and remembered a kiss pressed to the last bruise remaining from that session in the garage, breath hot on the skin of his hip, the way it had made him shudder, the way it had made him need. Williamson didn't know about that.

Not yet.

"Good," Williamson said, an odd, cheerful heartiness in his voice.

He was pleased by all of this; he'd given his permission, though he hadn't bothered to make it an order. He liked it, but he didn't require it. But he cared.

c kept his gaze on the floor. He knew he was shaking; shaking was all to the good. Williamson would expect to see him shake, and as long as Williamson only saw things he expected to see, he wouldn't ask too many questions. It didn't make c feel less queasy, or less conscious of the fact that Williamson could drown him in the toilet, ten feet away, without even bothering with cuffs or a trip upstairs, if it pleased him to do so.

He heard Williamson's radio click on, and Williamson said, in a clipped, business-like tone, "Mac, I'm done here. Bring down dinner for Know-Nothing."

Faint and distant, he heard Mac's answer. "On my way."

c took a deep breath at that sound, familiar and reassuring even through the tinny quality of the radio output. He took another at the sound of the door being unbarred as Williamson's footsteps moved away from him. The door opened and he finally looked up to see Don step through the door, looking right past Williamson like he wasn't there. Their eyes met as Don came inside, and the door closed again. Williamson was gone, and Williamson had not asked him a single question about the job he was working on.

"Hey," Don said, very softly, when he was standing close beside Charlie. "Hey, how about an advance on tonight's winnings?"

Charlie looked up, frowning slightly--Don wasn't going to have any winnings tonight--but Don set a hand gently on his shoulder, exerting the very slightest pressure to draw Charlie toward him. He would let Charlie resist if he wanted to, and insist on winning the hug fairly before he took it. But Charlie had no resistance left beyond what it had taken to stay on his feet for the last several minutes. He relaxed into Don's arms, and held on until their dinners were thoroughly cold.


It took dinner, two games of chess, and a comic book, but eventually Charlie settled down and went back to work. Don sat and watched him, turning his gun over in his hands, thinking about his first unaccompanied trip upstairs in days. It had lasted less than ten minutes, but that had been enough: something was going on.

It wasn't just that Williamson was back. That had caused an obvious and total attitude adjustment among the men, but they hadn't returned to the usual steady, disciplined team. The men upstairs were like birds on a wire, and Don had been able to feel their tension even in the few minutes he'd been in the kitchen with them. They all contrived to brush their hands across their weapons more frequently than usual, talked more and louder over their food between furtive quick glances toward the windows and doors.

Something was coming. It wasn't a job going down; this wasn't an offensive kind of preparedness. These were men awaiting an assault. Don thought, wistfully, that it might be the cavalry coming--but it was far more likely to be whoever Williamson had hired him to guard against. The way Williamson ran his jobs meant a lot of people worked for him and then didn't work for him anymore; some of them were bound to know or suspect about Charlie. It wouldn't take a genius to grasp that he was valuable, and try to steal him, and what was it Charlie had said? "I hadn't factored that into my life-expectancy calculation before."

Don holstered the Sig and watched Charlie working, listening for shouts, gunshots, for heavy footsteps on the stairs, thinking about everything he still couldn't risk saying to Charlie. Don had spent one of his few minutes upstairs in the living room, looking out the window toward the road. Ten, twelve seconds at a flat-out run, if you had someone there to run to. If you had a plan.

"Hey, Charlie," he said.

Charlie stopped writing and looked over his shoulder at Don, but didn't say anything.

Don looked down at his hands, kept his voice even. "You ever think about trying to improve that life-expectancy calculation of yours?"

He glanced up as the silence stretched. Charlie met his eyes without blinking. "I'm always thinking."

Don nodded, and Charlie turned back to his board, raising his chalk to where he'd left off. Don nodded again, to Charlie's back.

"Good."


Chapter 11

Charlie woke up exactly where he'd fallen asleep, tucked against Don's side with Don's arm resting heavily over him. He only had to turn his head and lift Don's wrist slightly to see the face of his watch. It was four-thirty in the morning, and he'd had nearly four hours of sleep. He let go of Don's wrist and pushed up. Don's arm tightened around him, his whole body going tense around Charlie's in an instant and subsiding just as quickly.

"Hey," Don murmured, his voice sleepy, or a good facsimile of it, "it's still dark out, go back to sleep."

"You go back to sleep," Charlie said, because he was already wide awake. Don's arm didn't hold him in place the way it would if it had really been an order. "How do you know it's still dark, anyway?"

But Don didn't answer. By the time Charlie was on his feet, Don seemed to be asleep again, folding forward into the space where Charlie had been lying. Don was right, of course: at four thirty in the morning on the twenty-eighth of November, the sun wouldn't be up yet for hours. Charlie hesitated for a moment, squinting down at his papers in the half-light and wondering why he thought that he knew a precise number. Two hours, nine minutes to sunrise, for this date, this location--what location? He didn't know where he was. He couldn't ever remember seeing the sky.

Charlie shook his head, shuffling papers as he squinted at the boards. He'd been nearly finished with the algorithm he was developing on blackboard six; it only required a few refinements. When he'd found himself trembling and torn over allowing said refinements to encroach on blackboard seven, around the edges of the perpetual chess game, he'd realized that he needed to sleep. Now it seemed clearer and simpler, and it was obvious that nothing would be harmed by a few lines spilling over.

He went to the board and started writing under the work light, leaving the overheads off so Don could sleep. He could see the final shape of the expression emerging, had nearly grasped it, when his concentration was snapped by a clatter from above, footsteps pounding down the stairs. Even as Charlie looked toward the door, Don was on his feet, gun in hand as he moved between Charlie and the doorway, snarling, "Move."

He waved Charlie toward the bathroom, but Charlie was only halfway there when the door was yanked open. He froze at the tables.

Charlie stared, paralyzed, at first registering only Don's hair, spiky and wild in the light from outside. Then Don fell back a step, two steps, and Williamson came in looking grim, breathing fast. It was not a reassuring sight in the slightest.

Williamson glanced briefly at him, then focused on Don. "You know how to administer an injection?"

Don, by his hesitation, didn't know what this was about, but at the mention of an injection it all came clear to Charlie. He fell back another step, heart racing, vision blurring, and barely heard Don's crisp reply.

"Intramuscular or intravenous?"

Williamson said, "Straight to the vein. Give him that, get these cuffs on him, and bring him up to the garage. Leave everything else, the clean-up crew will bring it. Understood?"

"Understood," Don said, and Williamson was gone, leaving the door standing open. The sounds of men moving around upstairs seemed loud. Everything seemed loud, even Don's gentle voice whispering, "c? Charlie? You with me?"

Charlie shook his head, but heard himself say, "We're moving. Usually it's not rushed like this."

Though he didn't know whether it was usually in the middle of the night. Before Don had come, he'd had no idea about when the middle of the night was.

"Do you know what this is?" Don asked, waving a syringe through his vision, the needle-tip still capped.

Charlie nodded jerkily, clutched his elbows and forced himself to let go. "Not the formulation, no, but they drug me each time. It makes me docile and--suggestible."

Don's hand caught his chin, forcing Charlie to meet his eyes, and Charlie could only hold his gaze for an instant before he looked away, at the shine of light on his interrupted work.

"Apt to do as I'm told," he whispered, feeling cold and naked despite his clothes. The dose often lasted longer than the trip from one place to another, and the transport of his blackboards could lag well behind. Handcuffed and semi-sedated, without work to do, he'd been available for the entertainment of Williamson's men.

They hadn't hurt him particularly: hadn't raped him or beaten him too badly to work. The line had always been there, and they hadn't crossed it, but now they knew the line had been crossed with Williamson's permission. Don wouldn't--but who knew what Don's next orders might be? And Don could only protect him for so long as Don was with him. Sometimes not even then.

He felt the chill of cool air on the skin of his forearm as Don pushed his sleeve up, but he wasn't aware that he was shaking until Don said, "Fuck, I can't do this, I'll hit a nerve."

Charlie shook his head and whispered, "You have to, I can't fake it."

Don's hand was on his arm, towing him across the room. Don pushed him down onto the sleeping bags, and Charlie's heart began beating faster, faster yet--he'd miscalculated, Don would--but Don only touched him to cover him up, wrapping the fleece blanket tightly around him, leaving only his left arm exposed. Don rested most of his weight against Charlie, pulling Charlie's left arm straight across his lap, and Charlie shut his eyes, trying not to tense and failing miserably. There was the pinch of the needle's entry, and the steady swelling ache of the drug pushing into his body, displacing blood, overloading his veins.

He heard the clatter of the syringe striking the floor, and the pinch and ache settled to a low, slow burn in the crook of his arm.

"I'm right here," Don whispered, "I am right here."

But the handcuffs were there, too, closing first around Charlie's left wrist, and then, once Don had dug his other hand out of his wrappings, locking around his right. Charlie's hands scrabbled helplessly, uselessly, against Don's knee, and Don's hands closed around them, warm and steady but forcing him to be still all the same.

"I am right here," Don whispered again. "I am your guard. I'll be with you. It's my job."

Charlie nodded, his cheek dragging against the fleece, and Don said, "Can you walk?"

"I fall down a lot." His words were already slurring, his limbs already going heavy.

Don's arm was hard and steady around him, levering him up and tucking the blanket around him when it fell away. Charlie got a bit of it between his fingers and held on. His head sagged against Don's shoulder as Don walked him as far as the door, but at the foot of the stairs Don sighed and bent, sliding one arm behind Charlie's knees and scooping him up with a gruff murmur of, "Tuck your head, you need it."

Charlie curled obediently closer, pressing his forehead against Don's throat. He could smell Don's skin when he breathed, and if he closed his eyes and didn't think too hard, it was almost like being back in the basement, going to sleep, though he knew he wouldn't quite lose consciousness, only teeter on the foggy edge.

From a long way off he heard Williamson say, "Was there some part of 'leave everything else' that wasn't clear, Mac?" and he felt the low rumble in Don's chest as Don said something about shoes. He hadn't been told to listen, only to keep his head down, so Charlie stayed still and quiet.


Don sat staring into the dark, wondering how much time had passed. The interior of the van Williamson had hustled them into had no windows, and the door had no handle on this side. There were no seats or seatbelts, just a blank dark space, too big for Don to brace against any two sides. Don had some idea of when they sped up or slowed down or changed direction, but no idea how fast they were actually moving, or where.

The only gauge of passing time he had was his own heartbeat and Charlie's; he'd been testing them against each other periodically, and he thought Charlie's had been speeding up, getting steadier, but he had no real way of knowing. Charlie had stayed slumped half across his lap for the whole ride so far, wrapped in the blanket that Williamson hadn't taken away, though he'd given Don a nasty smirk over it.

After a few decelerations in a row--one sharp enough to wrench a startled noise from Charlie as his weight was thrown against Don--Don decided it was time to start trying to get Charlie talking. Hours might have passed by now; the dose could be starting to wear off.

Don pried Charlie upright. "Come on, genius. Time to sit up for me."

"M'a genius," Charlie mumbled against Don's arm. Don shifted his grip, tugging; Charlie was as good as dead weight, only moving in uncoordinated, unhelpful twitches.

"Math genius," he added, his head falling heavy against Don's arm as Don manhandled him into a sitting position. He sagged sideways against Don, and Don scooted closer to support him. Charlie was nearer to the door, which Don didn't like, but he didn't want to try to shift Charlie further away from it just yet.

There was another deceleration, slowing them nearly to a stop this time, Don thought, followed by a turn and a sharp acceleration, a quick heavy roar from the engine. Don slid his arm around Charlie's shoulders and squeezed.

"You awake, genius?"

"Yeah." Charlie settled his head on Don's shoulder. "'Wake."

Don tried to think of some way to check his mental state, something like the standard run of head-injury questions, tailored to a semi-sedated math genius with amnesia. Something popped into his head, a game Charlie used to try to get Don or their parents or babysitters or innocent bystanders to play with him, and Don spoke before he thought.

"Tell me a prime number," Don said, staring into the dark. The ride was bumpier now, not as fast as the highway, and as hard as he listened there was no sound from the cab. Had the men been ordered not to speak, not to listen to the radio?

"Thir'y-one," Charlie murmured obligingly. "Now you."

"Two," Don said. "Your turn."

They were slowing again, more sharply this time. Don reached out his right hand to the wall, bracing them both, hating to have his hand so far from his gun.

"Three hunnerd sev'n. Don' say three."

"Five," Don said. "Ha."

It was a full stop this time, and another quick acceleration. Charlie wiggled against him; trying to elbow him, Don thought, thwarted by the drugs and the cuffs and the blanket. Don tugged the blanket away, freeing Charlie's arms. He found Charlie's thigh with one hand, warm through his jeans, all hard, wiry muscle. He squeezed just above Charlie's knee.

"Move your feet for me."

"Eigh'y-nine," Charlie mumbled, but his legs moved, his sock feet thumping quietly against the floor. "Now--"

They turned sharply this time, at speed, and Charlie fell over toward the door, making a high startled sound as he went. Don scrambled up into a crouch over him, pushing him bodily toward the back driver's side corner. Charlie struggled feebly and Don's booted foot caught on the blanket, but after a moment he had Charlie propped there. He found Charlie's hands with his, slid his fingers against Charlie's palms as he dropped to his knees, trying to brace against the next deceleration, and said, "Squeeze."

Charlie squeezed, muttering, "three-'leven, two-six'y-three, four-oh-one."

His grip was weak, fluttering erratically, and when the van made a lateral move Charlie let go altogether, falling sideways again. Don fell back, scrambling toward the front wall as they decelerated again, on rougher terrain this time--gravel or dirt, probably an unpaved shoulder. His feet slipped on Charlie's blanket, and he grabbed it and tossed it toward where Charlie was lying.

From up front, he heard a sudden, explosive, "Fuck," and then they were braking hard.

Amid the pings and bangs of rocks striking the undercarriage Don though he could hear other, slightly more distant, percussive noises. He made his awkward way back to Charlie, who was lying against the back wall, half-covered by the blanket.

"Cover your head," Don said sharply. "Cover your head with your arms."

He heard Charlie comply, reached out a hand to confirm it, briefly squeezing the point of Charlie's elbow, and then spread the blanket over him.

"Stay still and stay quiet."

The van stopped completely, and Don managed not to fall this time, but moved himself in front of the door. The engine cut out, and in the sudden silence he heard shouting and then--yes, definitely gunshots, one, two, three shots. Handguns, but he couldn't distinguish caliber from in here. His own gun was in his hand, and he couldn't remember when he'd drawn it. He curled his finger around the trigger guard, hefting the weight of the weapon. The passenger side door opened up front, and the front quarter of the car rose slightly as someone got out. Running footsteps passed the sliding door and kept going, and two shots were fired from somewhere beyond the back of the van.

There wasn't enough shouting, Don thought. No one was yelling Stop or FBI or calling for backup. He couldn't even make out footsteps all the time, just the occasional shot, nearer or farther, and then the driver's side door opened, and more footsteps took off running, more shots were fired.

He tried to hear Charlie breathing, and couldn't. Don had told him to keep quiet; he was being very quiet now. Don's heart was pounding, his palm sweating against the grip plate of the Sig as he crouched in front of the sliding door, waiting, waiting.

Footsteps, slow and deliberate, crunched up to the door. A gun fired twice, at close range, a bang and the high whine of metal giving way, and Don couldn't help flinching. Two holes opened up near where the outside handle ought to be, letting in a faint light. He couldn't look away from them to see where the rounds had gone. His heart raced faster, waiting for a ricochet, a change of angle, waiting for the lock to give way.

Williamson's men would have a key, or would keep driving. Don could hear voices now, muttering. Two men at least. If they got the door open they'd have him and then Charlie, like fish in a barrel. Don could hear where they were standing, on what must be the shoulder of the road, some back road somewhere. There was no sound of traffic, no sirens bearing down on them despite the running gunfight going on outside. The two men outside the van were the only thing between him and Charlie and open space.

Don felt something shift in his brain, simultaneous with yet another burst of adrenaline, and his hand tightened on the gun. He knew his tactical situation. He knew his mission. He had to get the civilian to safety. That was all there was to it.

For the first time in months, Don felt utterly in control.

He sat down, bracing himself with his left hand behind him, keeping his right hand and the gun up and ready. He kicked hard at the door, rolling to his right just as another shot was fired, this one right where he'd been. Stupid of them, if they knew what was in this van, if they were after the genius; they could have hit him. So either they didn't know what they were after, or they didn't know what they were doing. Don rolled back before the sound of the shot had died, kicked again harder at the weakened lock, and this time something gave way.

He fired, one two three four five shots at the two dark figures revealed when the door slid back on the gray light before dawn. In the silence that followed Don could finally hear Charlie breathing in choked, half-muffled sobs, over the ringing in his ears.


His throat ached, and he could faintly hear someone crying, far away. He wanted to tell them to stop, but he had to be quiet. Don had said he had to keep quiet. The blanket was yanked back, but he didn't move, only cringing back against the wall. Don's voice, tinny like it was coming through a radio, said, "Stop it--genius, stop."

When Don said genius it sounded the same as Charlie, not self-negating like the way Williamson said Know-It-All. He still didn't know what Don wanted him to stop doing, though, until Don's hand pressed over his mouth and Don's mouth came right down near his ear, and he felt, "Shhhhh," against his skin more than heard it in his half-deafened ear.

"We have to move," Don said against his cheek. "Do you understand me? We have to get out of here."

Charlie nodded, his mouth dragging against Don's palm. He wasn't sure what Don wanted him to do, but he knew Don had wanted him to nod. Don's hand shifted away from his mouth, closed around one wrist and tugged. Charlie closed his eyes against the dizziness--ears, ears, his ears were broken--as Don pulled him up to his knees, dragging him forward. He shivered suddenly, violently, as the cold air washed over him and turned his head away from the light to try and find his blanket.

"Wait," he tried to say, though what he could hear of his own voice was a garbled whimper. "Wait--"

Don's hand left his wrist for a moment, and then the blanket was wadded up, stuffed into the locked circle of his arms.

"Hold on to it for now," Don said, and pulled Charlie forward again into the gray light and the sharp cold.

The floor dropped out from under him and his feet followed, but the ground beneath was uneven--no, the ground beneath was people, dead, splashed luridly with blood, torn apart--that was why he was deaf, Don's gun had fired in the tiny space, so many times, like thunder right inside his head. Don pulled him, and Charlie stumbled after, falling against him. Don caught him awkwardly, one-handed; Charlie peered across Don's body and realized that Don's right hand still held the gun out to his side, away from Charlie.

"Come on," Don said, and pulled on his wrist again.

Charlie stumbled unevenly after him. The ground was hard and cold and jagged, hurting his feet. Charlie bit his lip and clutched his blanket. He limped as fast as he could, leaning heavily on Don's grip. He didn't know how far they'd gone when he looked up from the ground--white in spots, gray-brown in others--to look around, and then he stopped dead.

The light was gray and watery, but he could see--he could see a long way, ground and more ground, a road and trees and the sky unfurling forever in all directions, dizzying, unfathomable. And it wasn't just that the air was cold, it was that it was empty, moving without encountering obstacles. He was outside.

There was a distant popping sound, and then a series of pops, somewhere behind them.

Don snarled, "Dammit."

His arm went around Charlie's back and hauled him forward again so hard that Charlie nearly fell on his face. But Don kept him upright, somehow, kept him moving, and then there was less wind, less view, less sky, more obstacles--trees.

The ground was softer, and Charlie choked off a sob of gratitude in his throat as Don ground to a halt, still holding Charlie hard to his side. Charlie pressed close, trying to rest his weight against Don, trying to warm himself against Don's body--but the air got in everywhere, even into the soft lump of his blanket in his arms. Charlie shook and shook without stopping.

"Okay," Don said, his voice dropping lower. "Okay, just a little further. Come on, Charlie, stay with me."

Don pulled him along more gently, though still quickly, into a small space where trees and bushes grew thickly. Then Don tugged the blanket out of his arms and wrapped it around Charlie, pinning his arms again. Charlie made some small sound at that, and Don said, "Shhhh, it's all right, sit down, sit down."

Don pushed, and Charlie sat. Don tucked the blanket over his feet and heaped leaves and dirt all around him--getting the blanket dirty, dulling the red--and whispered, "Stay here, all right? Stay still and stay quiet until I come back, do you understand me, Charlie? Don't move from this spot until I come back."

Charlie nodded, but Don caught his chin and held him still.

"What did I say?" Don whispered, staring into Charlie's eyes, though Charlie's own gaze tended to drift.

"Stay," Charlie murmured. The ringing was dying away from his ears, leaving a cold, empty quiet. "Stay t'you come back."


Don knew he was holding on too hard; Charlie's eyes were wide, glazed, terrorized, the scar beside his left eye standing out starkly in his pale face. Charlie didn't have enough idea of what was going on to be terrified of anything that wasn't right in front of him, and what was right in front of him was Don.

"I'll come back," Don whispered, leaned in and pressed his lips hard to Charlie's forehead.

Then Don was on his feet again, running as quietly as he could. He moved parallel to the road, back in the direction they'd been driving, watching and listening. He had to leave Charlie; he couldn't scout and drag Charlie at the same time. Charlie didn't even have shoes. He was safer staying put. Don knew that, but he couldn't help listening with all his might in that direction while he tried to see what was going on.

The stand of trees was maybe forty yards back from the road. Don could see the black van was still there, sliding door still hanging open, two dead bodies leaking red in the snow beside it. There was a sedan parked some way ahead, and a pickup truck behind, but no sign of movement anywhere along the stretch of road Don could see. Going back toward the vehicles was exactly the same problem that staying with them would have been: obvious targets to whoever had still been firing on the opposite side of the road.

If he could see where the shooters were, and who they were--if he could get some kind of grip on the larger tactical situation--then maybe he could get himself and Charlie out of here in one piece, out out out and free. Everything he'd done to Charlie a week ago would be over, would be behind them, if he could just get Charlie to safety.

Don heard a small sound. It was off to his left, not more than ten feet away, and Don froze behind the scant cover of a pair of trees, cursing his wandering attention. One step at a time: step one, don't get killed. He flexed his hand on the Sig, shifted his weight carefully. He'd been afraid he'd busted something in his right leg getting that door open, but everything worked. There was just a tingly, half-numb sensation, not unlike the feeling of five quick one-handed shots' worth of recoil in his right arm and shoulder. Don allowed himself a second with his eyes closed, an instant of the desperate, focused hope that had been standing in for prayers since he was seventeen. He took one deep breath, and then he whirled toward the sound, two running strides with his gun level and a hard stop.

He was face to face with Williamson, Williamson's Beretta trained on him as steadily as his Sig on Williamson, gazes locked. Don didn't lower his gun. Williamson didn't lower his. Don couldn't read anything in the steady gaze, the slight open-mouthed smile that might just have been a gasp for breath. He tried to keep his own face impassive, but he was calculating desperately: if he shot Williamson now--if he killed Williamson here, if Williamson fired simultaneously and killed him--could Charlie survive? The sun was coming up, the air would get warmer, and the drug would wear off. Charlie would probably know to find help. If there was help to be found. If Williamson's own men, or Williamson's enemies, didn't find him first.

Every second he held his aim he gave something away to Williamson, but Don couldn't lower the gun, not when Williamson had a weapon trained on him, not when Williamson might squeeze that trigger. If Williamson killed him, Don couldn't afford to go down alone. Don couldn't look away.

He could feel sweat rolling down his temple, clammy in the cold, but he couldn't waver, couldn't back down, couldn't shift his finger off the trigger. Williamson's mouth twitched toward a wider smile, but Don just stared back. Behind him, the sound he'd been listening for caught his ear: Charlie, voice wavering and desperate on a slurred, "No."

Don turned and started to run, turning his back on Williamson's gun, his shoulder blades itching, waiting for the bullet that didn't strike.

Charlie was gabbling, "No, no, don't--" and then cut off abruptly, and Don pushed himself faster. He couldn't stumble, couldn't fall, not now, they had Charlie--Don rebounded off trees and jumped every dip in the ground until he saw a flash of red. He crashed through the brush as Charlie's blanket was tossed up in the air, and found Randy bending over Charlie, Charlie's face in the dirt, his fingers scrabbling against the ground--trying to stay, Don realized.

He was running full-throttle into the scene of a crime in progress, and his mouth was open to yell, Freeze!

Don shut it hard, kept his finger off the trigger, and hit Randy squarely in the chest with his gun, knocking him flat to the ground with a whoosh of lost breath. Don dropped to his knees at Charlie's side, between him and Randy, side on to keep Randy in his peripheral vision. Awkwardly, left-handed, he grabbed Charlie's shoulder and said, "Hey, hey, genius, it's all right. I'm back, calm down."

Charlie didn't calm down. He swarmed off the ground in a wild, flailing, convulsive movement and wrapped himself bodily around Don, pressing his face against Don's thigh. Don settled his hand on Charlie's head, and glanced over to check on Randy just in time to see him trying to get to his feet, his face a furious, ugly mask.

Don leveled his weapon and said, "One step closer and I will shoot you in the head, I am not kidding."

Randy opened his mouth, going for his own gun, and Don thought loose cannon, hell, not now, not now, and then Williamson spoke from behind him.

"Randy, go find Skip. We need to get moving."

Randy's hand fell to his side, his face going blank. He nodded toward Williamson and jogged off into the trees.


He turned toward the sensation of softness against his cheek: his blanket. Above him, Don said, "You have to let go of me for a second, genius," and he obeyed before he could think that he didn't want to. He'd gotten to that awful stage of the dose when his brain cleared enough to argue, but not enough to do anything--but Don's hands didn't leave him, even as he uncurled. They wrapped his blanket around him again, and then lifted him up against Don's chest. Charlie ducked his head against Don's throat, and would have held on if he could. Instead he closed a feeble fist around the edge of his blanket.

Don said, "I want a flashlight this time." His voice was quiet, but he sounded angry, as cold and hard as the ground. Charlie flinched, and Don's arms tightened around him. "And a first aid kit, if you want him to be able to walk or hold a piece of chalk any time soon."

Don wasn't talking to him: Don was talking about him, to--

Williamson said, "Have you forgotten who's in charge here?"

Charlie shut his eyes tight, vibrating in sudden sharp terror, suspended between Don and Williamson and unable even to cower. There was so much violence waiting to coalesce, and him at the center, the focus.

"No," Don said tightly, but the word meant yes. "I'm just trying to do my job. His feet and hands are bleeding. He's going to have gangrene if you don't let me--"

The click of a radio engaging, and Don fell silent. Williamson said, "Skip, I want the emergency kit in the compartment."

Faintly, a voice from the radio said, "Roger that, boss. ETA ninety seconds."

Williamson didn't say anything after that, and Charlie wasn't sure if the shuddering he felt was himself, or Don's arms shaking. He felt dizzy, and his hands and feet burned in the cold. Gangrene. He rubbed his face against Don's throat, and Don's chin pressed against the top of his head briefly. Then there was a crunching sound, and then motion, slow and unsteady.

He opened his eyes and saw the sky and the trees and the earth all swinging wildly as Don walked, and shut his eyes again quickly, not opening them again until everything went still. They were at the van, but it was white now. Someone was climbing out, and then everything shifted again as Don climbed in and laid him down. The door rattled shut, plunging them into darkness, and Don cursed, low-voiced. Charlie flexed his fingers--they stung a little but were mostly numb, and the sensation was far away. He wondered what it would be like if he couldn't hold chalk anymore--could he make Don write for him?--and then there were some plastic sounds and then light, yellow and dim and startling. Charlie banged his elbow against the floor and muffled a yelp as the engine roared to life and they started to move.

"It's okay," Don said, "It's all right. You know what, yell all you want, now."

Charlie's mouth fell open without thought, and he said, "Ahhhh," obediently.

He frowned even as Don, face lit by the flashlight as he held it over his head looking for something, smiled. The sound barely carried above the rumble of the engine, and it couldn't possibly be considered a yell. Charlie tried again, but his vocal cords obeyed him no better than his hands. His next, "Ahhhhhh," was more emphatic but little louder, and he sounded like a zombie, brain-dead--and if his brain didn't work--if he couldn't hold chalk, if he couldn't work, if he--gangrene--

"Ahhhh!"

His last effort ended in sputters, choking on his own spit, his own fear, bitter in his mouth, and Don's hand was on his face.

"Shh," Don said, tugging Charlie's blanket off and running his hands over Charlie's chest and belly, "shh, hey, rain check on the yelling, okay? Ease up, genius. Ease up."

Charlie closed his eyes, mouth hanging open as he panted. Don's hand landed next on his thigh, sliding quickly down to his ankle, tugging off his sock. Don's fingers pressed along the sole of his foot, and Charlie flinched from the tickle. Don caught his ankle and held him still, pressing harder, and then said, "Charlie, your foot--the blood--"

He'd stepped in it.

"Y' killed 'em," Charlie murmured.

Don's hand tightened hard on his ankle for a second, then let go, tugging off his other sock, checking his other foot.

"Yeah," Don said, almost a sigh, and the hand that had held the gun moved gently and steadily over Charlie's skin. "Yeah, I did."


Charlie wasn't quite as roughed up as he'd looked, more dirt than blood, and the worst of the blood wasn't his. Don tried not to think about the fact that Charlie had stepped on a body, that he hadn't noticed that Charlie had stepped on a body. Worse had already happened to Charlie; he'd done worse to Charlie himself. And now they were back in the van, headed to wherever Williamson wanted them to go, and worse things would go right on happening to Charlie until Don could find a way out.

Charlie shook harder and harder as Don checked him over, the cuffs rattling on his wrists as Don cleaned up his hands, using every alcohol wipe in the kit and probably more gauze and antibiotic ointment than was really necessary. It made him feel better, anyway, gave him an excuse to run his hands over Charlie's skin, banishing the image of him on the ground and out of reach. Still, he worked quickly, because it wasn't helping Charlie much. Don could feel Charlie shaking harder the more the cuffs rattled, a vicious cycle; by the time he was done he could hear Charlie's teeth chattering.

He pulled Charlie up against his chest, and Charlie nuzzled in against Don's throat as Don got his hand on the cuffs, muffling them. Charlie's hands closed around his wrist, holding on weakly. Don switched off the flashlight and closed his arms around Charlie and held on, humming softly into Charlie's hair, staring at the darkness. At some point Charlie became suddenly heavy and dense, his grip relaxing completely, his breath warm and easy on Don's skin. He was asleep. Don let his own eyes close, then, and didn't open them until the van was braking to a stop.

The door rolled open and Skip was standing there. For a wild, disoriented instant Don tensed, about to push Charlie away and reach for his gun, because it was just one man in his way this time, just one--but when he looked past Skip he spotted Randy, leaning against the wall behind him, and heard the low voices of others, a little further off. Don gritted his teeth and ducked his head. He held on to Charlie and forced himself to be still. Today's chance had passed. He'd have to wait for another.

Skip said, "Come on, Mac, move it."

Don scooted forward on his ass, Charlie still dead weight in his arms. He staggered when he stood up and Skip caught his arm, steadying him. Don glanced around, taking in the layout. It was almost identical to the last house, though there was only one concrete step up to the door into the house, and the doorknob seemed to be of a heavier construction. He let his gaze flick past Randy without settling, but he could see that Randy was watching him--watching them--intently.

Skip lead them inside--away from that gaze--and not down into the basement but up, through a bright, sunny kitchen and down a hallway to the stairs up to the second floor. Skip took a right at the top, and there was a steel door standing open, a bar set into the frame on the outside. Skip stood aside, and Don stepped through. The door slammed shut behind him.

The room was almost completely dark. There was a single crack of light showing where a window had been imperfectly blocked. It was enough to guide Don across the empty expanse of the floor to the only object in the room, a bare mattress lying against the far wall.

He crouched and laid Charlie down, staying put for a second to make sure Charlie stayed asleep. But Charlie was sleeping heavily--drugged, exhausted, crashing off terror and adrenaline--and didn't so much as twitch. Don listened to him breathing until he noticed his own hands shaking, and then straightened up so fast he got dizzy. His arms felt strange without Charlie in them, rubbery and useless. He stood for a second, getting his balance, looking down at the still shape of Charlie on the mattress until he couldn't look anymore.

Don turned away sharply, realizing as he did that the floor was carpeted. Charlie wouldn't hear him. He paced away from Charlie to the door--put his hand against it but didn't push, didn't try the knob, because it would be locked, it would always be locked--and then up the length of the room and back. He didn't quite register the doorway until he was stepping through it--it was a bathroom, pitch dark. The space felt larger than the basement bathroom, but Don stopped short at the sink, fumbling the tap on by feel and ducking his head to drink tepid water from the tap. It tasted rusty and sour, like bad milk, but he forced himself to drink, and then splashed some on his face.

His hands closed on the edge of the sink, and he held on tight, keeping himself up by his braced arms as he shook, feeling sick for reasons that had nothing to do with a stomach full of well water. He'd killed two men today. He headn't even thought, hadn't hesitated. He hadn't even considered calling out Freeze--not then--he'd just killed them.

He'd come within a breath of killing two more, and he'd have been fucking glad to see Randy or Williamson dead at his feet. He'd maybe blown his cover, nearly lost Charlie. He'd risked so much, and here he was. Here they were. Locked in another room, this time with carpeting and a mattress and a crack of light from outside.

Don's arms shook with strain, and his gun was heavy under his arm. He'd killed two men today, and it hadn't been nearly enough.


He woke up in the dark, shivering. He tried for a moment to just shut his eyes and go back to sleep, but he knew he wouldn't be able to. He had to find something to cover himself with, or he'd just shiver and shake until he felt sick, and then he'd never get back to sleep. If there was nothing, he'd have to pace or try to warm himself the best he could. He should be working, anyway. He tried to remember what he was working on just now, but it skittered away from him.

He tried to turn and reach for his sleeping bag, but his hands were cuffed and the surface beneath him was unexpectedly yielding. He remembered abruptly, taking a step down onto uneven ground that gave underfoot--a body--and was instantly seized with the horrible sensation of lying on a body--he could see himself, suddenly, tossed into a grave, landing on another body, already beginning to cool--Don--

He reached out his hands, the metal jangling and heavy, and his palms struck a hard, rough surface like plywood--like the inside of a makeshift coffin--and he scrabbled at it desperately. His fingers just slipped away, not making real contact--they were bound in some way, covered, useless--couldn't hold chalk--gangrene--

He tried to scream, but he couldn't draw a breath. Something clamped down crushingly tight around his chest, closing his throat and choking off any sound. He tried to push up, to get up, get away, but his body turned heavy and stupid and wouldn't cooperate. He was dead and rotting and he couldn't breathe, couldn't think, couldn't move.

Hands caught him, pushing him down, and he tried to struggle, but it was useless. The other hands were attached to someone live, someone warm. The hands were strong, and someone was talking to him in a low, urgent voice, someone was saying, "Charlie, Charlie, come here, come back, come on, Charlie."

He realized that the voice sounded scared just as he realized that there was some light now, enough to see that it was Don above him, talking to him.

Charlie shut his eyes tight and thought panic attack, and wondered why he knew those words but not how to make it stop, how to breathe, how to be sure he wouldn't die of it this time. His heart still raced, he still gasped hollowly for breath, but Don's hands stayed steady. It was only something soft under him, not a body. He was in a dark room, not a grave. His fingers were wrapped in bandages, not paralyzed, not numb. Adrenaline, not a heart attack, not blood at the back of his throat.

He raised his hands again, and managed to close his fingers in Don's shirt--clenched them so hard they hurt, joints protesting and tape pulling at his skin, and he was breathing now, too, damp rasping gasps that were almost sobs. He started to shake. His eyes prickled and he turned his head away from Don, trying to hide it.

It was stupid, after everything, to be so scared of nothing, of a mattress. Even as he thought it he remembered the men Don had killed, remembered being outside and Randy and Williamson, and his shaking only intensified, his breathing still ragged and fast. Don's hands started to move from his arms, sliding over his shoulders. One hand curled at the back of his neck, the other rubbed lightly down his back, following the tight defensive curve of his spine.

"Charlie," Don whispered, "Charlie, hey, shh, Charlie."

He didn't think he'd heard Don say his name so many times since he'd first spoken it, and there was a funny shaky edge to it. He'd thought Don was scared, when he first spoke.

"Charlie," Don said again, his mouth close to Charlie's ear, his hands still moving, slower and warm on his skin. "Charlie, tell me what to do. Tell me how to help you."

Charlie turned his face up, looking up at Don, their faces nearly close enough to touch. He wanted to touch Don, but he didn't think he could bear to let go of Don's shirt, and wouldn't be able to feel Don's skin if he did set his bandaged fingers against it. Charlie didn't think he could bear to touch Don and not feel him. Don was staring down at him with wide eyes, dark in the shadows, and Charlie could feel Don's breath, quick and damp on his lips.

"Charlie," Don whispered.

He still sounded scared; he looked scared. Charlie thought for a frantic instant that he had to be wrong, that it couldn't be true--but all the signs he had so often recognized in himself were present. He and Don were a completed matrix, (almost) always bracketed by four walls. They had always been in this together.

"Charlie," Don said, "Tell me what I can do for you and I will do it."

Charlie blinked and tightened his grip on Don's shirt, swallowed down the bitter fear choking him, and said, "Kiss me."


It wasn't that Don didn't expect Charlie to say it. He'd known Charlie would say that. He just hadn't expected Charlie to say it like that, his voice oddly steady, firm for all it was a whisper, a command rather than a plea. Don blinked down at him, and as he hesitated he could see the uncertainty creeping back into Charlie's eyes--he was still shaking, still trying to catch his breath--and that was all wrong. He wanted Charlie to trust him. He wanted Charlie to be able to say things. He wanted to give Charlie whatever he needed to make up for coming to locked in another windowless room.

Don tugged Charlie closer and kissed him, his lips parting quickly against Charlie's. Charlie shifted up into the kiss, his tongue darting into Don's mouth, there and gone and back, wet and teasing. Don leaned over him, groaning against Charlie's mouth as heat gathered in his groin, and Charlie's teeth scraped his lip. Charlie's hands shifted, and Don felt them come up short against the cuffs, heard the sharp click of metal. Charlie shuddered, turning his head to gasp, and Don moved, lowering himself to lie beside Charlie on the mattress.

"Tell me," he whispered against Charlie's mouth, running his fingers through Charlie's hair. "Tell me what to do, Charlie."

That had to make it better, if he only did what Charlie asked, what Charlie needed. That had to make it less like forcing himself on his baby brother, cuffed and hurt and scared.

He felt another shiver run through Charlie, but Charlie whispered, "Touch me. Skin--under--"

Charlie pushed closer, kissing him again, interrupting himself. His mouth moved quickly, hungrily, against Don's. Don let his left hand slide down to the bottom of Charlie's shirt and up under it. Charlie's skin was warm under his palm, his ribs hard and prominent under Don's fingers. Charlie moaned and shifted against him, squirming closer. His hips hitched against Don's thigh, and Don's breath caught at the feel of Charlie's hard-on through his jeans. He let his hand ride higher, his thumb finding Charlie's nipple almost by accident, and Charlie made a startled sound and jerked against him.

"More," Charlie breathed against Don's mouth, "touch me, more."

Don shivered and Charlie shifted again, hooking a leg around Don's thigh to pull them together. He was stronger than Don expected, and Don's hips snapped reflexively against Charlie's. He was hard himself. His breath was ragged against Charlie's mouth as his right hand found the soft skin of Charlie's hip, fingers sliding under the waist of his jeans. Charlie's mouth struck his off-center. Charlie's tongue slid wet and fast over his lower lip, and then Charlie whispered, "Undo my jeans."

Charlie's fingers were on Don's face, his palms on either side of Don's jaw. When Don leaned in to kiss Charlie, he could feel the links of the cuffs, hard and cool against his throat. His own breath stuttered, and his hand slid away from the button of Charlie's jeans, palming Charlie's cock through the denim. Charlie's fingers dug into his cheeks. Charlie's tongue slid roughly into Don's mouth as he thrust against Don's hand, hard and hot and impatient, and Don groaned and thrust back. He tilted his head, licking deep into Charlie's mouth, and Charlie's hands shifted on his face an instant before Don felt a sharp pinch on his throat. He jerked away from Charlie's hands, and Charlie squirmed down, licking softly at the spot on Don's throat where the links had caught.

"First the button," he breathed against Don's skin, rocking into Don's hand on his jeans. "Then the zipper."

Don bit down on his own lip--he was hard, painfully, throbbing hard in his jeans--but this was for Charlie, and Charlie had told him what to do. He found the button with his left hand and clumsily thumbed it off, then pushed the zipper down, the metal teeth pricking at his skin as he shoved his hand inside.

Charlie said, "Oh, yeah," and stopped licking, falling onto his back, but Don followed him, his hands on Charlie's balls through the thin fabric of his worn boxers. Charlie bucked up into the touch, his dick pressing up against Don's wrist, and then Charlie gasped, "Stop." Don froze.

Charlie pressed a quick kiss to his mouth, and Don could breathe.

"I want to see," Charlie muttered, and Don pulled his hand out of Charlie's jeans and moved away as Charlie squirmed around awkwardly, pushing himself up to sit with his back to the wall. The light fell on him from the side, on his flushed cheeks and his messy hair and his open pants, his dick straining against the fabric of his shorts in the gap. Charlie held his hands to his chest, the white of his bandaged fingers bright against his skin. He curled one finger at Don, and Don leaned in irresistibly.

Charlie whispered, "Push them down. Not all the way, just--" and Don nodded, bending over Charlie's lap and pushing his jeans and boxers down just far enough to get his dick out.

It was hot and silky-hard in his hand, and already familiar. Don swallowed, ignoring the way his own dick jerked as he stroked Charlie, focusing on the quick thrust of Charlie's hips, the stutter of Charlie's breath. He could smell him, all sweat and sex, his thumb slipping easily over the head, already damp. Charlie gasped, and his hands landed on Don's head, pushing it a little lower, close enough to feel the heat radiating off Charlie's cock. His lips parted and he took another breath, and above him Charlie said, "Do it, Don."

Don tilted his head, looking up at Charlie looking down at him. Charlie's eyes were shadowed, but his mouth twitched toward a smile as he said, "Please."

His hands tightened in Don's hair. Don closed his eyes and lowered his head, his hand still curled around the base of Charlie's cock. He let his lips touch the head, and felt Charlie shudder all over, his hands clenching. Don licked, the taste of Charlie exploding on his tongue, and Charlie gasped, "Please."

Don's mouth was open wide before he could think, sliding down onto Charlie's dick, and it was exactly like that image he'd been carrying around in his head for weeks, except now that he was here he wanted it, the heat and the weight of Charlie's dick, pushing into his mouth. He tried to be careful--he knew he didn't know what he was doing--but Charlie's hands held him down, the cuffs across the back of his head now, and Charlie jerked up erratically into his mouth. Don tried to relax and let him, catching his breath when he could, letting his tongue slide wetly against the underside of Charlie's cock as it thrust into his mouth, a choking impact against his throat.

Charlie's hips jerked harder, and Don had to back off, pushing up against Charlie's hands tightening fiercely in his hair. For a wild second he thought Charlie wouldn't let him, and he jerked up against Charlie's hands, far enough to get Charlie's dick out of his mouth--but Charlie didn't push again, his thumbs moving against Don's head in a clumsy caress. Don gave Charlie a rough quick stroke with his hand, and Charlie went almost rigid, his whole body tensing in the instant before he bucked under Don's hand, coming and coming as Don stroked him through it.

Charlie slumped back all at once, slouching against the wall. His hands were dead weight on Don's head, and Don let himself fold over, resting his forehead on Charlie's thigh. His own hips jerked reflexively, his cock aching in the constriction of his jeans, but he couldn't move yet, couldn't look into Charlie's eyes. He stayed still, gasping, and every breath was Charlie, stinging his mouth and throat. He felt raw, battered in a completely unfamiliar way, but he kept his eyes closed and kept breathing, waiting for the moment to pass.

Charlie's hands moved, fingers curling into the collar of his shirt, the metal of the cuffs cold against the back of his neck. Don shuddered, and Charlie tugged.

"Come on," Charlie murmured, his voice gone soft. His hands were still strong, though, and Don lifted his head and moved, crawling up Charlie's body until they were face to face, and Charlie whispered, "Open your eyes," against Don's mouth.

He didn't think he could do it, but he'd told Charlie he would do what Charlie told him to, so when Charlie said, "Don," he opened his eyes. They were Charlie's eyes, dark and familiar, the only familiar thing. Don leaned in and kissed him softly, just once, because Charlie looked him in the eye.

Then Charlie tugged at the collar of his shirt again and said, "Take this off for me."

Don knelt up and pulled his shirt up and off, and as he did, Charlie's hands landed on the front of his pants. Don thrust against the touch as he dropped his shirt, and Charlie stroked him through his jeans, but when Charlie moved to open them his wrists caught against the cuffs, and his bandaged fingers slipped. Don tensed, but Charlie glared at his own hands in frustration instead of fear and said, "Open your pants."

Don obeyed without hesitation, sighing his relief, eyes half-closing as he slid his hand into his jockeys. Charlie said, "Wait."

Don opened his eyes just far enough to glare--but Charlie wasn't teasing. His eyes were wide, locked on Don's hand.

"Sit down," Charlie said, jerking his chin to the spot beside him. Don took his hand off his dick with an effort and moved, turning to sit next to Charlie, and Charlie immediately slumped against his left side, pressing his mouth to Don's bare shoulder.

"Now," Charlie murmured, even as Don wrapped his hand around his dick again, his breath catching at the familiar feel of his own hand, under the weight of Charlie's eyes.

"Show me what you like," Charlie said, licking his skin, and Don groaned, jerking himself hard, the friction a burn on thin skin. He took his hand away, raising it to lick, but Charlie said, "Let me."

Don held his hand steady and watched as Charlie leaned in and licked a wide wet stripe across his hand, from the base of his palm to his fingertips. Don's dick twitched at the sensation without even being touched, and when he closed his hand around himself again there was a little wet sound in the slide of skin on skin, the heat of Charlie's body against his side and Charlie's mouth against his throat. He was close, his hips snapping up against his own hand, and then Charlie whispered, "Oh, you like me," and Don was coming, his head falling back hard against the wall, Charlie sucking softly at his throat.

Don let his eyes drift shut, his hands lying on his thighs, even as he heard and felt the motion of Charlie moving around beside him, the rattle of cuffs and the rasp of a zipper and something that sounded like he was wiping at the mess on his shirt.

"Here," Charlie murmured, "Come on, put your shirt on, you'll get cold."

Don sat up and took his shirt from Charlie's hands, and then forced himself up to his feet. His holster was hanging on the knob of the bathroom door, and he picked it up and shut off the light, making his way back to Charlie in the darkness. Even the crack of light was gone, now, and when he thought he was close he stopped and said, "Charlie?"

"Here."

Don walked the last steps, kneeling to take the Sig from the holster and lay everything down at the side of the mattress where he'd be able to reach it easily. Charlie's hand was on his arm by the time he'd positioned the gun to his satisfaction, tugging him down, and Don squeezed onto the mattress beside him.


Chapter 12

Charlie blinked a few times, but the darkness was equal under all conditions. His back was against the wall, but he was only a little cold. He could feel the heat of Don's body, not quite touching his. Charlie kept still, listening for Don's breathing, and he could barely hear it. There were other sounds, though, further away--footsteps and muffled thuds. Moving day.

Charlie flexed his fingers and then his wrists, testing the adhesion of the bandages and the limits of the cuffs. The metal clicked quietly, and he heard the small answering sound of Don moving, felt the mattress give as he shifted his weight. Charlie reached out slowly until his fingers were stopped by Don's body, nearly at arm's length, and Don said softly, "Right here, genius."

There was a faint rasp in his voice that reminded Charlie sharply of the night before--or whatever that had been, exactly, the time before they'd lain down to sleep, Don's arm draping familiar and heavy over him.

Charlie smiled slightly in the dark, and flattened his palms against the warmth of Don's body through his shirt--the small of his back, Charlie thought. Don was sitting up on the mattress, facing away. He didn't say anything else, but he didn't flinch from Charlie's touch.

The sounds from outside the room continued. When he concentrated, Charlie thought he could make out the murmur of voices. Then Don's hand closed around his right wrist and tugged, and Don said, "Heads up."

Charlie let Don help him up to a sitting position and settled on the edge of the mattress, his knees drawn up and his hands hanging between them. Don was silent and motionless beside him, a presence as solid as the walls. Charlie listened to the muffled footsteps approaching the door, and the first thing he noticed, when the door opened and the lights came on, was that Don was sitting beside him with his knees drawn up and his hands hanging between them.

That pose broke almost immediately. Don flattened his hands on his knees and stood up, moving between Charlie and the door. Past Don's knees, Charlie saw Skip coming in, carrying one end of a plastic-wrapped blackboard. He thought about standing up, but the other end of the blackboard was in Randy's hands. Charlie shivered as Randy stepped inside, and Don's stance widened as though he'd sensed it, shifting to keep himself firmly between Charlie and the two men. They set the blackboard down against the wall to Charlie's left and went back out without a word or a look in Charlie's direction, leaving the door open. They were barely gone before another blackboard was carried in, by men whose names Charlie didn't know.

When those two left, Skip and Randy were back with the next board, and then the other two came back with the next, and then Charlie was on his feet, because Williamson had walked in on their heels. Charlie raised his hands to Don's back, looking over Don's shoulder at Williamson. He touched leather--Don had put his shoulder holster back on--for an instant before Don took a half-step forward. Charlie dropped his hands and followed, his eyes on Williamson, who looked around the room as though he hadn't even noticed them standing there, just like the others. Williamson had his hands in his jeans pockets, and something red tucked under his arm: his blanket, Charlie realized, with a sick lurch of his stomach.

Don reached back and closed his hand around Charlie's wrist. His right wrist, Charlie noticed. Williamson always grabbed his left. Don towed him across the room to where Williamson stood, just far enough from the door to be out of the way of the men coming and going. Don kept himself between Charlie and the door, between Charlie and Williamson.

He didn't let go of Charlie's wrist, but once they'd reached Williamson Don seemed to be at a loss. Williamson didn't look at them, and Don didn't speak. As the impasse extended, one second after another, Charlie felt the palm of Don's hand heating against his skin. Don's fingers tightened, just for an instant.

Charlie glanced at Don's face, catching the brief clench of his jaw, and then the deliberate blanking of all expression. He remembered, in too-bright, sharp-edged fragments, being outside with Don, being trapped between Don and Williamson, in the path of sizzling anger that had seemed as naked and bright as weapons drawn. Part of that perception had probably been the drugs, but Don wasn't speaking now, keeping so carefully still.

It was up to Charlie. He took a breath, shook off Don's grip, and seized the moment between one set of men leaving and the next arriving.

"May I have that blanket, please?"

No possessives to Williamson, because Williamson didn't consider that Know-Nothing owned anything; politeness, because Williamson was frequently amused by it.

He seemed amused by it now. He turned his head and smiled, and though Charlie was watching as closely as he could from the corner of his eye, he detected no response from Don. He was holding steady.

"If you want it," Williamson said, but made no move to give it to Charlie.

Charlie didn't hesitate, not to touch Don or gather a last breath for courage. He stepped around Don and extended his hands, bound and bandaged, palms up to Williamson. Charlie tried to keep his hands steady; Williamson seemed to be looking at them. Skip came back in, carrying Don's duffle bag and a paper bag. Williamson's eyes flicked up to Charlie's face, and Charlie gritted his teeth and kept still, shaking hands extended, as Randy walked in carrying two sleeping bags, neatly rolled up. He walked around them, behind Charlie, his steps silent. Charlie tried not to think about not knowing where Randy was. He knew where Williamson was, and right now that was all that mattered.

Williamson's gaze shifted to Don. "You think he's going to keep all his fingers, Mac?"

Don said, "Yeah," in a clipped tone.

Charlie could have looked Don full in the face, from where he stood, but he didn't look. He remembered the word gangrene and the conviction that his fingers were going numb, rotting off. He flexed them, a brief irresistible twitch, but it was enough to draw Williamson's attention back to him.

"Here," Williamson said, and thrust the blanket into the circle of Charlie's arms, forcing him to draw in his hands to hold it. It was neatly folded and clean, and smelled like laundry detergent--different from whatever Don had used to wash their clothes before this. Charlie's nose itched, but he kept still, his head down. Williamson grabbed his left wrist and Charlie jerked involuntarily, looking up and meeting Williamson's eyes.

"Hey," Williamson said, and Charlie could see the key in his other hand in the instant before his fingers closed over it. "If you don't want them off, you don't have to have them off. You guys have some games you want to play, whatever..."

Randy and Skip walked out as Williamson spoke; they had to have heard. Charlie could feel himself blushing, his stomach turning at the thought that Williamson knew, or could guess, what they'd done in this room before they slept. If he looked at Don--if Don looked at him--Don would say something angry and protective, and the key would go back in Williamson's pocket.

Charlie whispered, "Please."

Williamson smiled. "Well, aren't we little Mr. Manners today."

Williamson leaned in, looming over Charlie, and Charlie dropped his gaze, ducking his head but keeping his hands as steady as he could. Williamson twisted Charlie's wrist, just enough to send a dull, threatening twinge through his elbow, and slipped the key into the cuffs with a metallic click. Charlie let his eyes close as the cuff on his left wrist opened, and opened them again when the metal dropped away from his right. Williamson pocketed the cuffs and glanced around the room, dismissing Charlie from his attention. Charlie gingerly hugged the blanket to himself, and then one of the men walked in, carrying a toolbox. Williamson nodded to the new guy and walked out.

As soon as he'd cleared the threshold, Don's hand was on Charlie's back. When Charlie looked over at him, Don was looking past him, his face a tightly controlled blank. His other hand landed on Charlie's left shoulder, and Don didn't say a word, just turned Charlie to the right, toward an open doorway--a bathroom, Charlie realized. It was where the light had been coming from last night, when they...

Charlie didn't let himself look back at Don again, not with the other men in the room. Don walked him as far into the bathroom as they could go--there was a tub and shower at the back of the room, and Charlie stopped short, eyeing it. There was no curtain, just the bare white space and the dim shine of the faucet in the light from the room behind them. Don's hands tugged at him, and Charlie turned to face Don, standing as always between Charlie and the door.

"Gimme that," Don said, very quietly.

He reached for the blanket, his hands hovering over it, but he didn't take it from Charlie's grasp. Charlie looked up at Don, searching his eyes, but the light was behind him and Charlie wasn't sure what he was seeing. Don gave him a quick, bleak smile and beckoned with his fingers.

"Give it here a second, genius."

Charlie gave him the blanket. Don shook it out of its folds between them, and Charlie wrinkled his nose again as the unfamiliar detergent smell rose up. Don barely let it hang straight for a second before he was crumpling it up, compacting it into an untidy ball between his hands. Charlie watched the motion of Don's hands against the red cloth, muted in the dim light, and then Don put his hands behind his back and murmured, "Close your eyes."

Charlie met his eyes again, startled, and tried to look over his shoulder, to see where the men were on the other side of the open doorway. Just then he heard a drill start up, and Don stepped closer, set a hand on the back of Charlie's neck and whispered in his ear, "Charlie, close your eyes for me."

His eyes fluttered half-shut when he felt Don's breath on his cheek--not quite a kiss, not quite a touch--and closed as Don's hand dropped from the back of his neck. He grabbed the front of Don's shirt as Don whispered against his ear, "I brought you something."

Charlie shivered a little, turning his face into the touch of the blanket against his cheek. He opened his eyes and leaned up to kiss Don lightly as Don wrapped it around him.

"Okay," Don murmured, lifting his head far enough to break the kiss. "Okay. Sit down. You'll be back to work soon."

Charlie nodded, looking down at his fingers and forcing them to detach from Don's shirt. He used them to hold his blanket--his blanket, that Don had given to him--around himself instead, and sat down on the floor, drawing his knees up close to his chest. Don sat down beside him and tucked the end of the blanket over Charlie's feet, and Charlie stared at the floor and listened to the sound of the blackboards being bolted into place.


Don was on his feet as soon as he registered one of the men outside moving toward the bathroom. It was Skip, bottles of water in one hand and energy bars in the other, and Don was suddenly starving. He glanced at his watch; it was four-thirty. His eyes went to the crack on the wall where the light had shone through, but it was covered by a chalkboard now. There had been light outside when they entered the house, bright sunshine, but he couldn't say from what angle. If the window in the kitchen faced east, west, or south, if it had been morning or afternoon or midday--he had no idea how much time had passed in the van, how long he'd stood in the dark before Charlie woke--how long they'd been sleeping, after--

"PM," Skip said, very quietly, glancing at Don's face as he handed over the food and water, and Don took it, nodding what he thought would pass for thanks. As he turned back toward where Charlie sat, he wondered how he could guess whether that was true or not, and whether it mattered. Don handed Charlie one bottle of water and one energy bar and wondered how worried he should be that he'd let Skip read him that clearly. That one was easy, he thought. Very.

He was watching Charlie's face, and Charlie was looking toward Don's watch even as he ripped the foil off the energy bar. Charlie bit off almost half and started chewing, and Don kept watching to make sure he didn't choke, leaving his own untouched for now.

"It's four-thirty," he said quietly, to the question in Charlie's eyes, and because one of them might as well have the luxury of certainty, he didn't hesitate before adding, "PM, on the thirtieth. It's been twelve hours."

Charlie nodded his comprehension as he raised the bottle of water to his mouth, and Don kept watching him, waiting for him to choke, to start shaking again. Charlie just looked like he needed a shave. He flinched at the skid-thudding sound of a bolt being stripped every time it came from outside, but the constant noise of drilling didn't seem to bother him, and even his flinches didn't stop him from chewing. He didn't seem to notice he was doing it. He didn't even know how scared he was.

Charlie swallowed and raised an eyebrow as he looked up at Don. "If you're going to pretend you're not hungry and try to feed me that, I'm going to sit on you and shove it down your throat."

Don was startled into a smile. "Yeah? I'd like to see you try."

Charlie took another sip of water and said, "Just keep doing what you're doing, then."

He smiled as he said it, and there was a warm glint in his eyes that wasn't just the light shining in over Don's shoulder. Don looked away all at once, setting his water down on the sink, and swallowing hard as he glanced out at the larger room. He couldn't think about Charlie's eyes, not now. Randy was out there, using a box cutter to slit the plastic wrapping on one of the chalkboards already mounted on the wall. Don widened his stance a little, glancing back down at Charlie to see that he was still all right.

Charlie was watching him intently, not chewing at all now, and Don forced the smile that had been so natural half a minute before. He raised the energy bar and opened it.

"There," he said, "no need for violence."

Charlie's lips quirked up at that--not really a smile--and Don looked away again as he took a bite. Charlie was all right for now, and Charlie would go on being all right for a little while. Don stepped into the doorway and leaned there, watching the men work, keeping himself firmly between them and Charlie.

This room was a little smaller than the basement space had been. They'd put up chalkboards on all four walls: one immediately to his left where he stood in the bathroom doorway, three on the long wall, across from the door from the hallway, two on the wall opposite where he stood. They were putting up the last one on the interior wall as he watched, and Randy and Skip were tearing the plastic off the ones already up. The mattress had been propped against the wall between the last chalkboard and the door, and two bedrolls, Don's duffle, and a familiar battered paper bag were arrayed around it.

The door to the hall was standing open, and no one was between him and it on a straight line, but all four of them were wearing guns on their hips, and Don could feel Randy watching him. He'd never get Charlie out the door now; at best he'd get himself shot. Williamson would replace him with Randy, and Charlie would be locked up with a sociopath, all day every day, until he was too scared to work and broke under the strain.

Don gritted his teeth and looked away from the open door, back at Charlie. He was slowly and methodically peeling all the gauze and tape off his fingers, piling it up on the edge of the tub in neat, tape-wrapped lumps. The light wasn't great, but Don couldn't see any blood. They'd only been scratches, really. Charlie's hands were fine.

The drill went suddenly silent, and Don looked up to see that the last board was in place. Skip was just hooking the work light on the corner. There was a brief flurry of motion in the center of the room as the two card tables were set up, and someone brought in a banker's box and took out a stack of papers, the boxes of chalk and Charlie's mechanical pencil, and the rag he used as an eraser. They were all laid out on the tables, and then the last man left the room, shutting and locking and barring the door behind him.

Don stood there blinking for a moment at the room--it looked eerily exactly the same, except that the orientation of the boards was off, in order but forced onto different walls by the smaller dimensions of the room. He'd have said he didn't know what was on any of them, but he knew the big grid should be next to the lines of equations starting with sigmas, not around the corner from it.

Don didn't hear anything before he felt a touch on the small of his back, and then Charlie said against the back of his neck, "Back to work, huh?"

Don stepped quickly away from him, through the door and out into the room.

"Yeah," he said, rubbing at the back of his neck, not looking at Charlie. "Game on."


Charlie picked up a piece of chalk, rolling it between his fingers as he paced along his chalkboards. They'd put them all up in the right order, as they always did and as he always suspected they wouldn't. There were a few travel smudges, and he carefully wrote in whatever had been obscured on his own work, though he left the chess board for Don to repair.

By the time he'd made a circuit of the room his brain had clicked back into the track of his work as though the whole day had been just a bad dream before waking--as though he'd only just woken up beside Don and started toward the chalkboard for the morning. He rocked on his heels in front of chalkboard six, enjoying the novel sensation of carpeting under his feet and thinking that not all of the dream had been bad, and then he shook off the thought and the sensation and got to work.

Charlie was standing at blackboard four when he had to stop for a moment, staring up at the ceiling and letting his thought spool out as he swung his arms in wide arcs. His shoulders were sore; they got tense when he had to stay cuffed for a long time. It was strange to be able to pick out just that one sensation, to have cramped muscles not obscured by bruises or the bright-sharp pain of an abused joint. At that thought, he tried stretching both arms straight up above his head, extending them together until the moment when his left elbow protested and he had to drop it.

He looked around automatically as he cupped his sore elbow in his other hand. Don was standing on the opposite side of the room, between the outside door and the doorway to the bathroom, with his back to Charlie. The wall was oddly indented where he stood, a little hollow in the wall a couple of meters wide. As Charlie watched, Don turned slightly. He took a careful stride to put his face to the wall, measuring the space, and made an expressive gesture with his hands that Charlie understood instantly, gauging the angle to the door. In a moment he would turn and pace the other way, and see Charlie watching him. Charlie turned his face back to the board, staring at it without seeing.

He'd done it himself at times, what Don was doing back there--and Don was doing it quietly while Charlie worked, so that Charlie wouldn't see. Charlie had spent hours pacing around a succession of rooms, calculating angles, trajectories. Forces required. He'd spent a lot of that time trying to remember some line he half-remembered--something about a lever and moving the world. But he hadn't had a lever, or a fulcrum. He could know every angle and he still wasn't going anywhere. Now Don was making those same calculations, and it wasn't strange at all, wasn't surprising, even though Don was keeping it quiet. Don was locked in here just the same as he was.

Charlie scrubbed the heel of his hand across his forehead, frowning at the chalkboard. It should be strange. Don shouldn't have to calculate angles to get out of this room; he should only have to pick up his walkie-talkie and say he wanted the door opened. He couldn't. Charlie knew he couldn't: they were in this together. Williamson didn't treat Don like he treated the other men. He kept Don--he kept Mac--locked in here with Charlie, kept the two of them together. Between them, maybe they could find a lever, a fulcrum, and--

Charlie shook his head sharply. He had work to do. He couldn't be thinking about this, shouldn't be knowing this. He had work to do, and no time to be staring into space thinking strange thoughts just because Don was bored enough to wander around staring at the walls.

He started writing, leading with his hand and dragging his thoughts behind the laborious calculation until his brain was fully engaged and his writing was no more than quick notation. He paced all over the room, miscuing repeatedly due to the boards being shifted around the walls. He had to stop and change direction in mid-stride over and over, and each time he did he caught a glimpse of Don. He didn't give it any thought; the knowledge of where Don was just crept in on him gradually, half-consciously perceived. When he reached the end of a train of thought and looked around, it struck him that Don had been right there--sitting on the floor by the mattress, his knees drawn up, his hands hanging loose at just that angle--for a long time now.

Charlie set down his chalk, brushed his hands against his pants, and went over to Don. Don didn't look up, didn't move. When Charlie knelt beside him he could see that Don's eyelids were ever so slightly parted. He wasn't quite asleep, or at least his eyes hadn't given up the fight.

"Don," Charlie said, very softly, and Don's eyes widened slowly, and he looked over at Charlie. Charlie tilted his head, reaching out and touching Don's wrist to tilt the face of Don's watch toward himself.

"It's one in the morning," Charlie said. "Go to sleep."

"Yeah," Don said, blinking his eyes wide, glancing around the room. "No, I'm awake."

Charlie rolled his eyes. "Go to sleep, Don. Come on. There's a mattress and everything."

Don's eyes flicked up and met his for just a second, and then Don looked away again. Charlie could see the tension in his jaw, in the line of his throat and his shoulder.

"That's yours," Don muttered.

Charlie rubbed his eyes, but the tension didn't disappear from Don's body at a second glance. He kept his own voice soft.

"I like to share. Lie down."

Don opened his mouth to protest, and Charlie stood up and grabbed one of the sleeping bags, untying it and shaking it out.

"I'm not ready to sleep yet, I have a little more work to do. If I want you to move, I'll wake you up, okay?"

Don was on his feet almost as soon as Charlie was, at first just staring at him and then picking up the other sleeping bag and unzipping it. Charlie tossed his sleeping bag down on the mattress, flannel side up, and then looked around.

"Your blanket's in the bathroom," Don muttered. "I'll get it."

Charlie nodded, glancing back toward the boards. With the work on blackboard five, blackboard one slotted abruptly into place. The whole shape of the job was coming together now, tantalizingly close to completion. Charlie was vaguely aware of Don walking away as he headed back to work.

A while later he realized he'd heard the water turn on and then shut off in the bathroom and looked around. Don was lying on the mattress face up with Charlie's blanket tucked against his side under one arm. He had his other arm thrown across his face, and he'd taken off his boots and his holster. His feet were bare, and the gun was lying beside the mattress, close to his right hand.

Charlie smiled and went back to work, but every glimpse of bright red in his peripheral vision pulled his mind away from the boards to Don, lying there across the room. Every time he turned away from the boards to make a note on paper, he was looking at Don, sleeping so deeply he never moved an inch. Charlie's periods of work got shorter, and the periods spent staring across the room longer, until even the allure of a job nearing its end couldn't keep him from watching Don sleep.

It had been only hours since it had been him on that mattress, Don leaning over him. He'd been cuffed, unable to touch, unable to do anything but give directions, but now his hands were free, unbound and unbandaged. Charlie set down the chalk without another thought or a backward glance at the boards.

He crossed the room in quick strides to sink to his knees beside the mattress, carefully to one side of where Don had left his gun.

Kneeling over Don, Charlie could see that his cheeks were pink and smooth; he'd shaved before going to sleep. Charlie rubbed a hand over his own face, prickly and itchy, and glanced toward the bathroom--but it would have to wait until Don was awake, and once Don was awake Charlie could think of better things to do with him than get a shave.

Don lay perfectly still, only his chest rising and falling in a slow, even rhythm. Charlie set one hand on the mattress beside Don's right arm, and the other on the other side of his body. Slowly he shifted his weight onto his hands, leaning over Don, but Don still didn't move. There was a small mark on Don's throat: a tiny red bruise from where Charlie's cuffs had pinched him. Charlie leaned in slowly, carefully, watching what he could see of Don's face and the arm slung over his eyes, but Don showed no sign of waking. Charlie touched his lips to the mark, then licked it, and Don sighed and shifted under the touch.

Charlie raised his head quickly as Don lowered his arm, but Don's eyes were still closed, his breathing still even. He turned his head slightly, his face angled toward the wall--away from the overhead lights, which must have been bright against even his closed eyelids without the shield of his arm. Charlie leaned down again, pressing a kiss to the skin beside Don's eye.

Don didn't move at all this time, and Charlie smiled a little. He kissed the bridge of Don's nose, and then his cheek and the spot just under his ear, stupid places he'd wanted to touch and never quite dared. Don turned his head a little and Charlie moved instinctively, his lips brushing across Don's, familiar already, sending the same quick curl of heat through him as it had the first time. Don's mouth was soft under his, lips parting without resistance at the touch of Charlie's tongue, but Charlie broke the kiss after the first taste.

He looked down at Don for a moment, frowning as he tried to remember--there was something about kisses, kisses were supposed to wake people up, there was a... a song? Charlie shook his head, frustrated by that particularly useless (and clearly fallacious) fragment of information, as Don slept on beneath him. He raised a hand to Don's side and let it rest there, absorbing the heat of Don's skin through his shirt, riding the motion of his breathing, but the contact didn't wake Don any more than the kiss had. Charlie slid his hand up to Don's chest and shoved gently.

"Don."

Don made a low, throaty sound, still not awake, and it occurred to Charlie that it was late, and Don had been tired. He ran his hand over Don's chest again, and said more softly, "Don?"

Don opened his eyes, blinking up at Charlie without otherwise moving--it was strange to see Don not moving, not snapping straight to full awareness, not reaching for his gun.

"Charlie?" Don murmured, squinting up at him, his voice low and thick with sleep. "What are you--"

Charlie could see the moment when Don woke up, his eyes going wide as his mouth snapped shut on whatever he'd been about to ask, his whole body tensing. He pushed up onto one elbow under Charlie's hand, looking around as if there might be some threat he hadn't noticed in the room with them. His hand twitched out toward his gun, and Charlie could feel the sudden furious pounding of his heart.

"Sorry," Charlie said, watching Don's face as Don looked at everything in the room but him. "I didn't mean to startle you."

Don shook his head as he looked back at Charlie. There were lines around his eyes and on his forehead that hadn't been there while he slept, or in the instant just after he woke.

"I shouldn't sleep like that," he muttered, rubbing his eyes. "Too comfortable. I'll move, you should get some rest."

Charlie's hand was still on Don's chest, and he pushed gently, just enough to convey the idea of pushing, not enough to exert any real force.

"Don't."

Don's brows drew together, and he opened his mouth to argue, but Charlie leaned in and said, "No, I mean, I'll rest, but you don't have to move."

Don's frown melted into another expression, harder to read, and he shook his head slightly as he said, "Charlie..."

Charlie waited for more, but Don didn't seem to have any actual arguments prepared. Charlie leaned in and kissed him, and Don jerked back from the first touch but didn't push him away.

"Just let me," Charlie whispered.

He pressed his mouth to Don's again as lightly as he could, and he felt Don's shuddering breath escape as Don's mouth opened to his. Charlie let his weight rest harder against Don's chest, and Don settled back beneath him as Charlie followed him down, deepening the kiss. Don didn't respond at first, only allowing Charlie to kiss him, and Charlie accepted the challenge. He teased Don with quick flicks of his tongue, pulling away whenever Don started to move, until Don made a small frustrated sound, sucking at Charlie's tongue.

Charlie grinned into the kiss and shifted his weight, sliding the hand on Don's chest down to his belly as he licked deep into Don's mouth. Don was relaxed beneath him, resting on the mattress as Charlie curled down over him, but the instant Charlie slid his fingers under the hem of Don's shirt to touch bare skin, he felt Don's whole body go tense. The muscles under Charlie's hand went hard, and Don yanked himself out of the kiss, turning his face away sharply.

"Charlie," he said raggedly, "please--"

Charlie felt an instant's sharp, furious frustration, but at the same moment he realized that Don was holding himself so still he was shaking with it, a faint frantic vibration under Charlie's fingertips. Charlie shut his eyes for a second, trying to redirect blood from his hard-on to his brain.

He said as gently as he could, "I want to, and you want to."

That much had been obvious just from the kiss, to say nothing of the agonized way Don was holding himself back.

Charlie leaned down slowly, touching his lips lightly to Don's cheekbone; he could feel the quick flutter of Don's eyelashes against his mouth. He could feel the fever-heat of Don's skin.

"And we're both alive, and we can. Isn't that a good enough reason?"

Don made a strangled noise that might have been a laugh. "Is that supposed to be logic?"

Charlie smiled again, and let his lips slide down Don's cheek to the pulse point high on his throat. "No, but I can write you a proof later if that's what you're into."

"No," Don said breathlessly, but Charlie shivered at the light brush of Don's fingers against his wrist, not pushing him away. "Geometry was never really..."

Charlie pressed a slow wet kiss to Don's throat, just for knowing to associate proofs with geometry, just for raising his fingers to touch. He felt Don swallow as his words trailed off.

"Okay," Charlie said, and then forced himself to pull back. He knelt up to take his shirt off, tossing sweater and t-shirt away with a thump.

Every inch of his skin tightened at the touch of cool air, hair standing up, his nipples going almost painfully hard. His dick throbbed in anticipation. Don lay still on the mattress, watching, his eyes dark and intent, but not meeting Charlie's.

"Your turn," Charlie said, bracing himself for more argument, but Don seemed to have given in for good.

He sat up and pulled his t-shirt off without further comment, though he still didn't meet Charlie's gaze. Charlie's hands were drawn irresistibly to his bare shoulders, smooth and muscular, the left one marked with an old, faded scar on the back. Charlie settled to sit on the edge of the mattress, leaning in to kiss that spot on Don's shoulder, and Don shivered at the touch. Charlie would have stopped, but Don's arms came tentatively around him, looping loosely around his hips. Charlie converted the kiss to a slow lick across Don's collarbone, and was rewarded by the reflexive curl of Don's fingers against the small of his back.

Charlie shuddered at the quick, light touch of Don's fingernails on his skin, the sensation going straight to his cock. His hips jerked forward as his balls tightened, and he ducked his head as Don's hands went flat at the small of his back. His first lick missed--chest hair, warm as the skin beneath, dry under his tongue--and his second hit bare, crinkled skin. Don made a weird, startled sound and his whole body jerked around Charlie's. Charlie closed his teeth lightly on Don's nipple, then licked again, then just breathed over it, until Don's fingers were digging into the skin just above Charlie's jeans, and Don's breath was quick and ragged.

Charlie pushed backward, and Don let go of him instantly, dropping his hands to his sides, making no effort to keep Charlie close. Charlie had to lean in and kiss him, just a quick touch for reassurance as he moved to kneel over Don, straddling him. His hands found Don's belt buckle easily, and Don made a soft sound as Charlie started to unfasten it. Charlie felt Don's hands moving again, Don's fingers brushing his belly on the way to his jeans, reaching out to reciprocate.

Charlie's dick twitched at the faint touch. He knew Don's hand already, and he wanted it. That rush of blood wanted it. He had other ideas, too, though, and he shifted as he fumbled Don's belt open, settling lower over Don's thighs. He felt Don's hand fall away and grinned as he got Don's jeans open and started to tug them down. Don's hand went flat on his side--the touch was hot, Don's skin sweating against his, and the slight damp friction made Charlie want more.

He leaned down and kissed Don again, wet and deep and slow, and Don pushed up into the kiss, his hand firm on Charlie's side, not quite pulling him down. Charlie settled his hand on Don's cock, still covered in the thin fabric of his jockeys, but he could feel the heat of Don's hard-on through it, the hard flesh jerking under his touch. Don's fingers curled against his skin, but Don didn't pull, didn't push, didn't ask. Charlie smiled into the kiss and pulled away, using both hands to get Don's jockeys off.

He couldn't take his eyes off Don's cock, even for the few seconds he hesitated before touching it, shoving Don's shorts down his thighs. Don kicked them the rest of the way off and Charlie closed his hand around Don's cock, hot and silky in his gip. Don gasped, and Charlie looked up, and this time Don met his eyes. Charlie couldn't read anything in his expression beyond an instant of surprise. He tightened his hand around Don's cock and Don let his breath out on a moan, his head falling back. Charlie kissed his Adam's apple. Don shuddered, his dick jerking in Charlie's hand, and Charlie had to look down again.

His hand was pale around the blood-dark head of Don's cock, and he stroked up and down slowly, watching, learning Don's body. When Charlie loosened his grip, Don held his breath, and when Charlie trailed a single fingertip up the underside of his cock, from base to crown, Don's hips jerked helplessly. Charlie closed his hand again, stroking firmly as he shifted his weight so that he could lean lower over Don's lap, hesitating for a moment to breathe in the smell of him, hot and musky and going straight to Charlie's dick. Charlie licked his lip and started to lower his head, and suddenly Don's hand was hard on his shoulder, fingers digging in painfully, pushing him back.

Charlie could feel his mouth hanging open as he looked up at Don, and he almost looked behind himself, to see whether the door had opened, to see why on earth Don had made him stop. But one look at Don's face told him: Don was biting his lower lip, the skin gone white from the pressure, and when Charlie met his eyes he shook his head slightly.

"Charlie," he whispered, his voice strangled and desperate, and his lips stayed parted though no more words escaped as he shook his head again. His grip on Charlie's shoulder didn't slacken, but he wasn't pushing Charlie away anymore, just holding on.

Charlie knew he could ignore that silent no--he let his hand trail up Don's cock, stroking his thumb across the head and finding it wet, and Don shuddered and closed his eyes. Charlie could do what he liked, could take Don into his mouth and make him forget how to argue. He could do anything, and the mere idea of that power was dizzying, his balls tightening, his breath rushing too shallowly. He tipped forward, his shoulder striking Don's, twisting to find Don's mouth with his own.

"Shh," Charlie breathed against Don's mouth, licking his bitten lip, "Shh, I won't--"

Don gasped in his words and his breath, falling back flat on the mattress as his hips bucked. Charlie fell with him, half on top, his mouth skidding across Don's cheek as his hand kept moving on Don's cock. Don's hand came up to curl around the back of Charlie's neck without force, resting like it belonged there as Don arched beneath him, swearing breathlessly as he came all over Charlie's stomach.

Charlie was still stroking him--Don still had his eyes closed--as Don hooked his fingers into Charlie's jeans, undoing them in quick, jerky motions. Charlie let go and shifted onto his side to make it easier, and Don followed, tilting onto his side, facing Charlie. Don's head was down as he undid Charlie's pants--maybe just watching his hands, but maybe--

It flashed rapidly through Charlie's mind: a perverse determination not to let Don carry out some kind of oral sex double standard, followed by the vivid memory of that sensation, of Don's mouth, wet and hot and on his dick. Don's hand slid into the open front of his pants, cupping him through his boxers. Charlie thought that he could probably get Don to let him do it the next time--and his brain seized up on the idea of next time, of next times, of virtually unlimited repeatability, and he came at the barest brush of Don's fingertips against the head of his cock. Don's hand closing around him was almost too much. Charlie heard himself make a high, broken, breathless sound, and Don's second stroke was wetter, his own semen slicking Charlie's skin.

Charlie squeezed his eyes shut and buried his face against the mattress until Don's hand slid out of his boxers. Even the touch of the cloth against his skin was jarring; he squirmed, but couldn't get away from it, and Don wasn't making a sound. Charlie took a breath and lifted his head.

Don was watching him. His lips were parted, and his eyes were--Don's eyes were laughing. Charlie couldn't help but grin, and Don said, "Well, that was easy."

Charlie tried to glare, all but holding his breath to keep from laughing out loud, and Don's eyes slid away from his, a little submerged smile flickering at his mouth. Charlie caught his breath as Don's hand slid into his pants again, but Don just wiped his hand on Charlie's hip, adding to the mess of his boxers. Charlie kept watching Don's face as Don took his hand away, letting it rest in the tight space between them. They had both almost caught their breath, and Charlie could feel the come on his skin going cold. The flush was fading from Don's cheeks, and in a moment the happiness would fade from his eyes. Charlie didn't want to see that part.

He pushed himself up to sit, and said as lightly as he could manage, "I should clean up."

Don nodded in Charlie's peripheral vision, and Charlie watched his legs--naked, hairy and muscular, one knee scarred--swing out of the way as Don sat up, making room for Charlie to squirm past. Charlie headed into the bathroom, trying to remember whether he even had a clean pair of boxers, and stopped short.

Don had found a curtain somewhere, apparently, because the shower was covered now. The plastic curtain had a pattern of polka dots, different sizes and colors, and Charlie stood a moment, absorbing the pattern, then shook himself and turned away. His other clothes were folded on the back of the toilet, and there was a washcloth, also folded, at the edge of the sink. It was cool, slightly damp, when Charlie touched it. Don must have used it when he washed up earlier, and left it out for Charlie, as he'd left Charlie's clothes, and the curtain.

Charlie dropped his jeans and peeled his boxers off, tossing them into the sink to rinse as he ran water onto the washcloth. He stood scrubbing at his stomach, shifting from foot to foot on the cold bathroom tile. His field of vision narrowed to his own hands, his own skin, and the damp white washcloth, and in the swinging instant between one foot and the other, he experienced a sense of certainty.

It was a feeling he knew from his work. It was the point in time--before computation or calculation--the point when he knew how a thing was supposed to work. This, he thought, with absolute certainty, this is how it's supposed to be. Dancing on a chilly floor before heading back into the carpeted room, back to a bed warmed by someone else's body. Don's body. The glow of sex and a vague sleepiness and the irritation of his chest hair sticking together and the bathroom light too bright for his tired eyes, this was all exactly right, all the way it worked. This had to be what real people's lives were like, what real life was like. And it could stay like this for him and Don, if--

Charlie shook his head hard, squeezing his eyes shut against the light and throwing the washcloth into the sink. He wrung it out, then reached into the water for his boxers, scrubbing at them where he thought they needed it and then wringing them out as well. He stared around him for a moment and then tossed the wet shorts over the shower curtain rod. They slid off and landed with a wet splat on the other side, and from outside the door Don called, "Charlie?"

Charlie stood wavering for a second, debating whether to go after them, and then shrugged and turned away, switching the bathroom light off and stepping into the larger room. Don was watching for him when he came through the doorway, sitting on the end of the mattress. He was already completely dressed again, his hands on the laces of his left boot, and Charlie hesitated in the doorway, pinned by Don's watchfulness. Something relaxed in Don's face--not a smile, but something easier than that first wary gaze--and Don raised a hand, beckoning Charlie closer.

"Come on. It's okay."

Don stood up as Charlie reached the mattress, and Charlie hesitated again, but Don touched his shoulder, propelling him gently forward.

"Lie down," he said. "Back to the wall."

Charlie tugged the sleeping bags around and lay down with his back to the wall, pillowing his head on his arm and watching Don's back as he finished tying his boots. He stood when he was done, walking briskly away, and Charlie shut his eyes, only to open them when the world went dark. Don had shut off the light, he realized, listening to the muffled sound of his footsteps returning.

Charlie pressed himself close to the wall as Don lay down. He reached out in the blackness to find that Don's back was to him, and that Don didn't pull away from his touch. Charlie scooted forward, leaving a space between their bodies but touching his forehead to the back of Don's neck, just at the edge of his t-shirt collar. Don didn't reach for him, or move closer, but he tipped his head back just a little, and Charlie smiled in the dark.


The bathroom tile was cool under Don's cheek, and conducted sound much better than the carpeted floor outside. He could hear voices in the room below them distinctly. He could also hear gunfire, and the car chase, and he'd identified the movie long before Yippee-ki-yay motherfucker, so there was really no tactical advantage to staying where he was.

He kind of liked Die Hard, though, and there was no tactical advantage to not staying where he was, either. He had his head at the threshold, his eyes toward the other door, his gun out on the tile beside his hand. He only had to lift his head to see Charlie, no matter where he was in the room, and he could track him without looking by the tapping of chalk. Every time he flicked his gaze toward some sign of movement, his eyes caught on the mattress, with its rumpled pile of sleeping bags.

Last night made three times, and took with it the last shred of anything like justification for what he was doing to Charlie. If he couldn't say no to Charlie like that--two minutes after he'd woken up thinking he was in his parents' house, Charlie coming to get him for some reason--then he was never going to say no to Charlie at all. This wasn't sheerly circumstantial anymore: this was him, now, as much as the murder he'd committed in Chicago, the men he'd killed on the road. There would be no going back from this. If he and Charlie both made it out of here alive...

There was a crashing sound from downstairs, snatching Don's attention back, and Don's hand was on his gun in the same instant he recognized the climax of the movie. He lifted his head to find Charlie scribbling away at the blackboard directly beside the bathroom door, frowning, his lower lip caught between his teeth. Don licked his own lip, and felt a second of nothing but wanting Charlie before the inevitable recoil hit like a gut-punch. Last night Charlie had nearly gone down on him, and that thought still turned his stomach, but his dick remembered how it had ended. Don brought his hand down on the gun and pushed up, letting his weight press his skin painfully against the trigger guard, anything to remind him that this was a bad idea.

His eyes were still on Charlie as that suddenly ceased to be a problem. They both heard the door being unbarred, and less than three hours had passed since breakfast had been tossed through. Charlie froze, looking to the door and then to Don, and Don was on his feet at once, stepping out to stand between Charlie and whoever was coming in.

Williamson, naturally, with Skip behind him. Skip stayed in the doorway, and Don stood his own ground. He could hear Charlie keeping very still behind him. Williamson walked in, stopping a stride short of Don, and looked around the room: the chalkboards, the drift of papers on the table, the mattress, none of it seeming to catch his eye longer than anything else.

Don took that instant to steal a glance back at Charlie. He spotted Charlie's eyes going suddenly wide on one side at the same time as the flash of motion on the other, so he whipped his head around right into Williamson's fist, smashing squarely into his right eye. His head snapped back, and it took as much effort to keep his gun hand down as it did to keep his feet. He swayed for a dizzy instant. His left hand was clenched into a white-knuckled fist, the gun pressed hard against his thigh, and then he had his head up and his gaze steady on Williamson's face.

Williamson was watching him right back, with no particular expression on his face. He wasn't angry. He might have hit Don--and done it in front of both Charlie and one of the other men--to punish him, or maybe just because he could. Either way, he was waiting to see what Don would do next, and there were two of them against one of him. He had to think of Charlie. Don could feel his eye starting to swell, brow and cheekbone throbbing so hard he could barely think. He lowered his head a little, bending his neck, and kept his right hand down at his side, finger safe on the trigger guard.

Williamson turned back toward the door, and Don didn't look up. He saw Skip's feet come in. There was a crinkling plastic sound, and Don looked up as Williamson said, "Put some ice on that."

Don tried to catch the tossed ice pack, but he was clumsy and off-balance with only his left hand free. He fumbled it and wound up on his knees, swaying as he reached to pick it up. Charlie made a small, choked sound, and Don didn't dare look at him.

Above him, Williamson said, "Where are we at, Know-It-All?"

Don closed his hand around the burning-cold ice pack and kept still, waiting, listening as Charlie cleared his throat and audibly shuffled in a circle, surveying his work around the room. Don shut his eyes and prayed for Charlie to say something Williamson wanted to hear.

"I'm into computation now, actually," Charlie said, and his voice was unsteady but Don could breathe.

He took a few steps toward the center of the room, out from behind Don and into his left-side peripheral vision. Charlie sounded a little stronger as he said, "If you'd like to go over the specifics?"

Williamson said, "Yes. We're done, Skip."

Don waited until Williamson and Charlie were at the card table, until the door had closed behind Skip, before he holstered his gun and pulled himself up to his feet by the doorframe. He went into the bathroom and sat on the edge of the tub with the ice on his right eye, watching over Charlie with his left, for what good it did anyone.


Charlie couldn't have said whether it was that he was so busy, or that Don was deliberately and skillfully avoiding him, but he didn't get a good look at Don's eye for hours after Williamson left. When he did, it took him by surprise. He glanced up after scribbling some figures on a sheet of paper--there was something counterintuitive in the specific values, the success intervals weren't shaking out the way he'd expected them to--and Don was standing by board seven, fixing the chess board, with his right side to Charlie.

The purple-black bruise extended from eyebrow to cheekbone, and his eye wasn't quite swelled shut. Charlie could see a line of it, lividly bloodshot, bright red in the darkness of the bruising. It made his stomach turn, and he leaned a little against the card table. He knew, logically, that it wasn't a terribly bad injury. He knew he'd had worse himself. It shouldn't have hurt like a physical thing to watch Williamson strike Don. It shouldn't have sickened him just as much to hear knuckles connect with Don's flesh as it did to hear a fist strike his own. It had been all he could do to stay on his feet when Don had dropped to his knees, and Williamson had been watching him--not Don, not once he knew Don wouldn't try to fight back. Williamson had been watching Charlie, to see what he would do. To see if he understood that this was for his benefit, and Charlie understood then exactly why Williamson would give Don back to him, knowing Charlie loved him.

There was a limit to how badly they could hurt Charlie, and expect him to keep working. There was no limit to how much they could hurt Don.

He hadn't been able to stop shaking until long after Williamson left, and then he'd been absorbed in his work (and if his progress wasn't good, if he couldn't nail down the success interval, what would Williamson do to Don tomorrow?) and meanwhile hours had gone by and now Don was fixing the chess board.

Charlie walked over to him--he had to swing around almost directly in front of Don before Don appeared to see him, but Charlie just smiled and went to stand close to him. Don smiled and then winced. Charlie felt his own smile fade.

"Did you take anything for that?"

He'd seen Don carrying the ice around until it had melted completely, and he knew Don had painkillers, because he'd given them to Charlie before, but somehow he wasn't surprised when Don shook his head.

"It's just a black eye, Charlie. No big deal."

Charlie frowned. "Would you say that if it were my black eye?"

Don's mouth went tight, his eyes flicking to the side--to the scar beside Charlie's eye--and Charlie said, "I know exactly how much it hurts, Don. I've been hit like that plenty of times. Exactly like that. If you've got something, take it."

Don turned away--turned his right side to Charlie, so he couldn't see him, so Charlie was left staring at Don's blackened eye--and went back to drawing in the pieces on the chess board in their starting positions.

"Last game, I won the right to two games," Charlie said after a moment. "What's your bet for the first game?"

Don smiled a little, just a twitch of his lips this time, and said, as he always did, "Scrabble. Yours?"

Charlie licked his lips. "If I win, you take a painkiller."

Don turned to stare at him, his good eye narrowed nearly as much as the bad.

"Before the second game," Charlie added, pressing his point, though his heart clenched with the fear that Don would just walk away from the game for this. "You won't be competitive if you're distracted."

Don studied him for a few seconds in silence, then turned back and picked up the white chalk. Charlie took a breath and picked up the blue.

"I wasn't aware that I was ever competitive."

"You're improving," Charlie temporized, and Don smiled more widely and made his first move.


Williamson ignored Don on his next couple of visits, only pressing Charlie for more results. Charlie handed them over each time, occasionally pointing to something and saying something like, "See, it's not working there," or "I have to get this one down somehow."

Williamson mostly just nodded or said, "Yes, you'd better."

Charlie didn't try to explain a single idea to Williamson. There were no elaborate analogies, no reference to the expressions scrawled all around the room. Don stayed out of the way, watching.

By the third visit he could open his right eye almost all the way, and the bruise around it had gone green at the edges. Williamson finished his inspection of Charlie's still-unfinished work, sounding a little more clipped than usual. Don could see Charlie's shoulders hunching in response, his hands moving faster through the papers, but Williamson turned away from him and looked at Don.

"Mac," he said. "Come with me."

Don saw Charlie freeze, and clenched his own jaw against the impulse to argue. Williamson looked at Charlie and smiled almost sweetly. He said in an exaggeratedly patient tone, "I'll bring him back, Know-Nothing. But you're going to work without distractions for a little while, and Mac is going to come with me. Now."

Don gave a shallow nod, and followed Williamson when he went to the door, not risking so much as a look back at Charlie. Williamson stopped in the hallway, and nodded to the door. Don shut it behind him, locked and barred it with the prickly sense of Williamson's gaze on the back of his neck. When he turned around, Williamson was already starting down the stairs, and Don followed.

Williamson led the way down the hall, through the kitchen and to the door to the garage. Don spotted Skip in the living room, two men in the kitchen and another in the family room--the tv was showing another action movie, one Don couldn't instantly identify--but Don didn't recognize anyone but Skip. He hadn't seen Sam or Jimmy since he and Charlie had been shut in the van, but there had been two people up front: he'd heard gunshots and bodies falling, but he hadn't looked.

Don kept his eyes on the back of Williamson's head now, as they walked out into the garage. It was cold, and Don's fingers twitched toward fists. He barely had time to wonder what had happened to his coat--he'd never bothered to put it on before they left, and it hadn't been among the things brought up to the room he and Charlie were kept in--before he spotted it hanging on a peg by the side door out of the garage. Williamson stopped and grabbed one of the other coats hanging there, shrugging into it and jerking his chin toward Don's.

"Put it on, it's chilly. You got gloves?"

Don stared at Williamson for a second and then forced himself to look away, shaking his head as he grabbed his coat and pulled it on. It was as cold as the air in the garage, but he buttoned it up and jammed his hands into the pockets as Williamson opened the door to the outside, and was immediately glad for the extra layer. The sky was a bright, grim white. Don squinted against the light--grimacing at the sharp twinge from his bruised eye--and followed Williamson toward the back of the garage, their footsteps crunching quietly on frozen ground. The trees came up pretty close to the house, and even when they reached the back there was nothing much to see. A stretch of open ground gave way to trees on every side, hemming them in.

There were no sounds of traffic. Presumably there was a road somewhere in front of the house, but Don hadn't caught sight of it, though he did risk looking around as Williamson led on. He could hear a bird calling somewhere distant, and then silence again.

Getting out of the house wouldn't be enough now; no thirty second run to even the dubious refuge of a neighboring house or a paved road. There was nothing and no one here so far as Don could see, but him and Williamson. They veered left across the short grass and into the trees, and Don felt a flash of déjà vu. If Williamson drew his gun and turned it on Don now--if Don drew his--they'd be back in those woods all over again, except Charlie was locked in that upstairs room, very much in the control of Williamson's men and waiting for Don to come back. Williamson wouldn't have brought him out alone like this without taking precautions; they probably weren't alone at all.

Don glanced around at the trees, wondering who might be watching. He'd seen four men inside the house, but there was no way of knowing how many Williamson had now. It wasn't worth the risk, not with Charlie so far out of his reach. He stared at the back of Williamson's neck, squeezing his arm against his holstered gun through his coat, and reminded himself of that: it wasn't worth trying. Not now.

They stepped out of the trees into another level field entirely surrounded by forest, with brittle grass up to Don's ankles. At the other end of the clearing was a ridge, covered with grass but too level and straight to be natural, and in front of that sturdy backstop were paper targets: three bullseyes and three human silhouettes.

Williamson stopped and turned to him, though the targets were a good hundred yards away, too far for handguns to be much use.

"That was a nice piece of shooting you did the other day," Williamson said.

Don eyed him carefully. Williamson might have seen the bodies, but the only time he'd seen Don with a gun in his hand, Don had been pointing it at him.

"I do my job," Don muttered, looking down the field.

"Yes," Williamson said. "And I'd like you to keep doing it proficiently, so from now on you'll have regular target practice."

He'd be separated from Charlie on a regular basis, then, and God knew what might happen to Charlie in his absence. But it would get him out of the house, get him these moments armed and seemingly alone with Williamson. If he could arrange something with Charlie beforehand--if Charlie realized this was an opportunity to exploit, if they could find a way to exploit it--this might give them an opening. This might be the break they needed in Williamson's perfect control.

Don nodded, and glanced sideways at Williamson. "From rifle range?"

Williamson smiled, showing a lot of teeth. "Well, point blank's not much of a challenge, is it?"

Don gritted his teeth and smiled back, then turned and strode down the field. He could hear Williamson coming after him. His crunching footsteps echoed Don's, making the hair stand up on the back of his neck. Forty yards from the targets, Don stopped, spread his feet into a steady stance, and pulled the Sig.

He'd never qualified beyond twenty-five yards, but he'd spent enough time in firearms pissing matches on the outdoor ranges in training and in empty stretches of desert with Coop, backing away and away and away from a target. He could make forty look good enough. Williamson kept walking for another step or two after Don stopped, planting himself just out of Don's peripheral vision over his right shoulder. Don didn't allow himself to hesitate, or to worry about whether his form would give him away. He was ten years out of the academy and fifteen yards of out range. He fired for the inside silhouette first, then the next to the right, and then the last, with three squeezes of his trigger finger and a smooth sweep of his arm.

The sound of the last shot was still dying away as Williamson said, "Weapon down and safety on."

Don had been lowering his arm anyway, but he flicked the safety on and repeated back, "Down and on."

Trust Williamson to be careful about range safety. Don heard a radio click on--of course Williamson was carrying one--and Williamson said, "Mark hits."

Randy popped up from behind the backstop, and in the cold quiet Don could hear the rattle of the spray paint can as he shook it. Red paint bloomed on the throat of the first target, low on the torso of the second, and off to the right of the third, at the edge of the target paper. Randy flashed a smirk at Don after very carefully marking the miss, then turned to scramble back up over the backstop.

"Move up," Williamson said. "Try thirty."

Don nodded and started moving up as Williamson said, "I'd have liked to do this sooner, but we were busy clearing the old house."

The old house, like they were a happy little family who'd had to move when Dad took a transfer out of state.

"Wouldn't want to leave anyone's toys behind," Don muttered, stopping to eyeball the distance.

Williamson stopped too, and said, "Well, I worry more about fingerprints. Silhouettes again, one each, center of mass."

Don squinted, pain flashing through his face, brought the Sig up and thumbed off the safety, and didn't think about fingerprints at all for the few seconds it took to fire three more times.

Every federal agent was in the database.

"Down and on," Williamson said, and Don lowered his gun slowly, pushing the safety back on and nodding. Williamson said, "Mark hits," into the radio and continued without pausing, "You'd be surprised where fingerprints turn up. I showed a few of the boys how to lift them, just so they'd know how careful they had to be."

Don stared at Randy, marking shots this time in blue--he'd hit the chest on the first and third targets, throat on the middle. Fingerprints. But a fingerprint was worthless without a database.

Williamson could lift a thousand, he still couldn't send them down to the lab to be run against AFIS.

Randy disappeared behind the backstop, and Williamson said, "Try the bullseyes at twenty five, three each, alternating."

Don nodded, and Williamson added, after three or four seconds, "Mac."

Don's head whipped around automatically, glaring. Asking what the hell that was supposed to mean would be going too far, but he stared at Williamson for a couple of seconds and then shook his head and walked five yards forward, Williamson dogging his heels. He had to be fishing for a reaction. It wasn't an unreasonable guess that a man in Mac's position wasn't working under the name he'd been born to. It didn't mean Williamson knew anything. It probably meant Williamson didn't. He couldn't possibly have cracked a federal fingerprint database. It couldn't possibly be worth it to him just to know who Mac really was.

Unless he didn't need fingerprints to tell him.

Safety off, steady stance, steady hands, nine shots in three sweeps, left to right to left to right, no wasted motion. Don's hands stung a little as he lowered the gun. He hadn't been on a range since he left LA, and he was out of practice.

Williamson said, "Mark hits," into the radio, and then stood in silence while Randy ran from one target to the next, marking them in blotches of red. Giving Mac time to think about fingerprints, maybe.

Don looked toward the trees without turning his head, thinking about anything but fingerprints just to spite him. Target practice every day, that was going to be the deal now--and if he really cared about his accuracy, he should practice with his primary and his backup, even if the backup was spending all its time buried in his duffle. Williamson had seen it the first day, so he knew perfectly well that Don had it, and he was bound to bring it up, make sure Don knew he hadn't forgotten. One of these days Williamson would tell him it was time to practice with the other gun. Until then, Don didn't think he needed to mention it.

He heard the faint static buzz of Williamson's radio activating, and a tinny voice said, "Boss."

"Go ahead," Williamson said, and Don forced himself to keep his eyes forward, tallying his hits. He seemed to have missed one of his shots on the middle target completely.

"Know-It-All's banging on the door. Yelling he's got it."

Don gritted his teeth and kept still, thinking about Charlie pounding on the door, trying to earn him back.

"Good," Williamson said. "Pound back and tell him to shut the hell up." He shut off the radio and added pleasantly, "We'll let him savor his accomplishment for a little while. Move up, Mac, I want to see what you do at fifteen yards."


Chapter 13

Twenty-four hours after Williamson had taken the results away and given Don back to him, Charlie was reduced to sitting in the little recessed space between the door and the bathroom (a closet, he'd finally realized, with the doors and hanger rod removed) facing the door. He set his chin on his knees and wrapped his arms around his shins, keeping his back firmly to the wall and trying to guess what the next job would be.

They were supposed to be random, of course, but it was nearly impossible for the human mind--even Williamson's very clever one--to generate true randomness. Though Charlie had carefully explained to him the importance of leaving no identifiable pattern, as it was the repetition of any pattern of crimes which would eventually get a repeat offender caught, Williamson's jobs tended merely to distribute pseudo-randomly across certain variables: geographic location (of which Charlie was never precisely aware), type of institution targeted, the size of the haul, the team required, and on and on.

Something was nagging at Charlie, though; something was different now, and he couldn't think of what. There was a variable he wasn't considering. It would be easier if he could write it out on the board, lay it all out in rows and try to find what was missing, but he had never let Williamson know he played this guessing game. It would be dangerous to write anything down. He sat still instead, rehearsing the development of every job he could remember, trying to tease out all the salient features.

Charlie hated having nothing to do. Partly it was just the idleness; ideas sifted through his brain when he wasn't focused on assigned work, blooming and mutating behind his eyelids. The mere knowledge that he wouldn't be allowed to pursue a theoretical line of inquiry wasn't sufficient to make them stop. He'd learned not to try to use blackboard space for his private thoughts, but they continued to play out regardless, until the next job wrenched him away and left him with only the memory of an insight.

Worse than that, however, was the anticipation. When he was working on a job, he could at least be certain that Williamson would not allow any interruption which kept him from his work for long. Between jobs, however, the other men were free to do what they liked with him. Having no work to dive into left Charlie feeling more than usually exposed, and simultaneously without any way to distract himself from the feeling.

He slept as much as he could, and read Don's comic books when Don offered them. Don didn't turn away from anything Charlie wanted, but Charlie found his personal paradox extending to Don. He was unusually, intensely conscious of the gun tucked under Don's arm, the strength--the potential violence--coiled in every inch of Don's muscular body.

He startled badly when Don dropped into his line of sight, crouching between him and the door, and cornering him in the shallow space of the closet. Don quickly raised both hands palms out, and tipped backward onto his ass with a thump. Charlie couldn't help twitching a smile at that, and Don smiled more confidently back.

"Easy, genius," Don said, after they'd both taken a few breaths and the worst of Charlie's brief adrenaline surge had passed off. "I was just going to challenge you to a chess marathon."

Charlie blinked. "A chess marathon?"

"Sure," Don said easily. "I mean, you can't keep beating me forever. If we just keep playing over and over, eventually I'll win, right?"

Charlie tilted his head. "Well, given infinite time--are we allowing for a learning curve?"

"Sure," Don said, his smile widening. "Let's allow a learning curve."

"Given infinite time," Charlie repeated pointedly. "Probably."

"Uh-huh," Don replied. "Come on, unlimited games, unlimited bets."

It had to be better than sitting in the corner and driving himself insane with an unwinnable guessing game. Charlie nodded and pushed himself to his feet, watching the quick, lithe motion of Don getting up out of the corner of his eye. He felt a shiver in his belly, something between hunger and fear, and then Don was smiling at him and he smiled gamely back, walking over to the freshly redrawn chessboard.

Charlie bit his lip, deliberating over his bet on the first game, but eventually pitted a hug against Don's habitual Scrabble wager. Something flickered through Don's eyes when he said it, an oddly naked expression passing over his face before he grinned and said, "Don't you go easy on me, genius."

Charlie smiled back and shrugged. "I'll get plenty of chances."

After he'd won, Don gave him his winnings with good grace, carefully tucking Charlie to his right side, well clear of the gun under his left arm, and Charlie rested his head against Don's shoulder and stood still in his embrace. It was Don, after all, just the same as always. He could do anything to Charlie at any time, and he'd never chosen to; he wouldn't now, either. The pattern was fixed. With Don's familiar smell on every breath and Don's hands resting on his back, Charlie was beginning to relax when Don shook him gently.

"All right, genius, game on. Let's go."

Charlie smiled and bet a kiss on the next game, and again on the game after that, and again on the game after that, and Don did not keep a particularly careful count when Charlie collected his winnings. After the fourth game he was sandwiched between Charlie and the wall, with his hands in Charlie's hair and Charlie's hands on his hips. It was only when Charlie's hand slid toward the front of his jeans, tilting his own hips away to make room, that Don muttered, "No, just a kiss, come on. Next game."

Charlie pulled away with an effort, raising one hand to Don's face. He traced the edge of the fading bruise around his eye and said, "Scrabble again?"

Don smiled and nodded, skin wrinkling under Charlie's fingertips, and Charlie smiled back.

"If I win," Charlie murmured, letting his fingers drift down Don's cheek, "I want your mouth."

Don's eyebrows raised, his lips parting to ask, and Charlie ran his thumb over Don's lower lip.

"Wherever I tell you to put it."

Don flicked the tip of his tongue against Charlie's thumb, and blood rushed to Charlie's dick even as Don stepped back.

"Deal."

Charlie ended the game in fourteen moves--he'd have been able to do it faster when they first started playing, but Don really did seem to be improving--and moved toward Don even as he set his chalk down. Don kissed him without hesitation, but set one hand flat against Charlie's chest.

"Gimme one more game before I pay up?" Don murmured against Charlie's lips. "Six is my lucky number. I'm due."

"There's no--" Charlie mumbled back, his lips dragging against Don's. "No statistical evidence--"

Don's tongue slid into his mouth, silencing him, and he was breathless when Don pulled away. Don's hand moved sideways across his chest, thumb brushing his nipple through his t-shirt.

"One more game? Please? Scrabble or sex."

"One," Charlie agreed, a little dazed, and picked up his chalk.

Don made his opening move, and Charlie barely glanced at the board before making his own, his eyes drawn irresistibly to the wetness of Don's mouth. As Charlie watched, Don's teeth raked thoughtfully over his lower lip, and then Charlie heard the quick tap of Don making his move on the board. Don's mouth curved into a smile before Charlie forced himself to look away and make his own next move.

The game went on in a haze. Charlie barely paid any attention to his own strategy. Don kept licking his lip, or rubbing one finger thoughtfully across his mouth, and once a smile flashed across his face as he considered the board, brown eyes bright and narrow, taking Charlie's breath away. He saw as much as heard Don say, "Hey, Charlie, look," and even so it took him a minute to comprehend it.

He looked up at the board just as Don dragged his thumb over Charlie's king, whispering warmly in Charlie's ear, "Checkmate."

Charlie stared at the board, and then turned to stare at Don.

"You did that on purpose. You distracted me."

Don's grin faltered slightly, as though he thought Charlie would take his victory back from him.

Charlie grinned. "I guess you were right about that learning curve."

Don's smile widened and he said, "Well, don't worry, you'll get a reprieve. It'll take me a while to draw a Scrabble board."

Charlie set his hands to Don's cheeks, thumbs at the corners of his mouth, and said, "Why don't you just shut up about Scrabble for a little while."


Don was lying on his back with Charlie curled against his side, his head on Don's chest. Charlie's blanket was draped over both of them, sweat still cooling on his skin everywhere the air touched. The worklight was still on, shining toward the abandoned Scrabble game on the chalkboard nearest to the bathroom. Charlie liked the strategy and the math involved in scoring, but he was as bad a speller as ever, and Don didn't have a dictionary handy to end their arguments. Still, he'd been up 219 to 73 when Charlie had given up on making another word and started trying to distract him.

Charlie's approach had been a little more direct than Don's, but just as effective. Now they were lying together on the mattress, with Don idly running his hand through Charlie's hair. It curled around his fingers like it didn't want to let them go, and Don stared at the ceiling and tried to think of something to say. He and Charlie didn't talk much, for all the endless hours they spent locked up together--even for the last few days, when Charlie hadn't had a job to work on and seemed to be going crazy with boredom, they'd hardly talked. Don had never been so quiet with Billy, or Terry, or any other partner, but those stakeouts seemed like dreams--memories of the distant past. Don felt the impulse to ask What's the first thing you remember like a physical thing, welling up from his gut, and choked it back with his mouth already open. He didn't think he'd want to hear Charlie's answer.

Instead, he murmured, "D'you know why you don't remember things? You hit your head or something?"

Charlie squirmed against him, an all-over motion Don identified after a couple of seconds as a shrug.

"I don't remember," Charlie said. "Maybe I've always been like this."

Don shut his eyes, thinking of Charlie not knowing, not having any idea what he didn't know, or how much he'd lost. Who he'd lost. But Charlie caught Don's hand and moved it until Don's fingers rested at Charlie's hairline on a thin, old scar. Don's throat went tight even before Charlie said, "There, maybe. It's the only scar that's been on my head since before I can remember. Maybe that's when I started forgetting."

Don moved his fingers crosswise over the narrow scar, letting Charlie's hand rest over his, and he didn't say You were eleven, Charlie. Don had been sixteen, and Don's driver's license had been three days old. Their parents had both been working that day. Don had been given the car keys, Charlie, and a shopping list, and sent to the grocery store.

He'd been arguing with Charlie about something--Charlie had just joined Don in high school that year, they were always arguing about something--and never even saw the stop sign before he blew through it. He didn't know what happened next--noise and motion and the sick crack of his own arm--and when everything stopped he looked over to see Charlie was hanging limp in his seatbelt with bright red blood running down his slack face.

Don remembered sitting slumped against the steering wheel for what seemed like hours, years. The pain of his arm cut through the adrenaline in waves, but nothing else hurt nearly as bad as his certainty that he'd just killed his baby brother.

Charlie's hand fell away from his, and Don let his palm flatten against Charlie's hair. Very softly, as if he wasn't sure he wanted to be heard, Charlie said, "The first thing I remember..."

Don held perfectly still, didn't even breathe, until Charlie sighed. His next words were a little louder, though still a whisper. "I woke up in a car, in the passenger seat."

Don's hand tightened convulsively on Charlie's head. He could see it, clear as day, the moment when Charlie opened his eyes, blinking blood from the lashes, and said, "Donnie? What happened?"

Don had been able to hear the sirens then, and the shouting of people around them, and he'd started to laugh even as Charlie started to cry. He knew he had to stop--Charlie kept saying, "Donnie, what happened?" but Don couldn't stop. Charlie was alive.

"My head hurt, and my fingers were in splints."

Don almost choked on the words. No, they weren't. They weren't then. They weren't when Charlie was eleven. But that wasn't what Charlie was trying to tell him.

"I didn't know where we were, where we'd come from or where we were going, but I--I sat up and looked back. Williamson--I don't think I even knew his name, but--Williamson laughed. He said--he said all I--"

Don lowered his arm to hold Charlie closer. He could feel Charlie's entire body tensing as he spoke, a faint shiver running through him and transmitting itself to Don. He leaned in and pressed an awkward kiss to the top of Charlie's head, and Charlie pressed his cheek against Don's chest.

"He said all I left behind me was a trail of--of bodies. So maybe--maybe that's why I don't--"

Don kept his arm tight around Charlie, thinking of Casey Perez and Derek Albright, a gangbanger in Chicago, two men on the side of a road--but that trail of bodies wasn't Charlie's, at least not in the way Charlie seemed to fear, from the hollow tone of his voice and the rigid set of his shoulders under Don's arm. Don opened his mouth to try to tell him so, but there was nothing he could say, nothing Charlie would be able to believe. He set his hand on Charlie's shoulder instead, rubbing gently.

Charlie shook his head, shifting to press his face against Don's skin, hiding his eyes. Don felt the warmth of his breath, but had to strain to hear him as he said, "I could be doing so much worse."


"Trust me," Don said. "There's an I in conceit."

Charlie scowled at the board. "Why should I trust you?"

Don smiled. "Because I don't need to cheat to kick your ass and we're not betting anything on Scrabble anyway?"

Charlie transferred his scowl to Don, and then back to the board. He could spell note off Don's N, miss the double word score, and not use either of the Cs that had been sitting obstinately on his side of the board for nine turns now. Or--

"Ha!" Charlie said, grinning triumphantly, and wrote in cone. "Double word score! Two and one and one and one is ten."

Don opened his mouth on a grin, and then they both froze at the sound of the door being unbarred. Don had already gone for target practice earlier that morning, and lunch had appeared less than an hour ago. Don squeezed Charlie's shoulder and stepped in front of him as the door swung open. Charlie stayed where he was for a second, peering over Don's shoulder, but it was Williamson with a box in his hands, and Charlie scooted out from behind Don to meet him as he dropped it on the near card table with a promising paper-dense thump. Charlie was already reaching to pull the lid off when another box landed beside it, and he looked up to see Skip turning away, and Randy approaching with another box.

Charlie looked up at Williamson, who was smiling slightly and holding out a folded sheaf of paper. "Here's the precis," he said, and Charlie extended his hand halfway to it, expecting it to be snatched away. Williamson's smile widened, and he laid it in Charlie's hand.

"Get to work," he said, already turning away. "This one's going to take you a little while."

Charlie started reading, then glanced at the boxes, then toward the door, to find Williamson lingering there.

"That's to get you started," Williamson said, jerking his chin toward the boxes. "We're still gathering intel, you'll get updates as needed."

Charlie looked back at the boxes, and then sank to the floor as the door shut behind Williamson, reading carefully through the six sheets which laid out what he was expected to do. The plan was carefully detailed, lacking only the logistics that would actually make it work--that was to be Charlie's job.

Even as he started building the plan in his head, trying to work out what he didn't know, a part of his mind was reaching back to the old guessing game, checking this job against the others to see how it fit into the not-quite-a-pattern. It was the most complex job he'd been given so far, but not entirely unlike previous jobs. They'd done one with a crew of eight; they'd done one using some explosives; they'd done one with a similarly layered and complex security system. Charlie considered each variable, wondering what the betraying pattern of the jobs would eventually turn out to be, when it suddenly struck him.

There was a constant to all the jobs: he'd planned them all. And that made it obvious which variable had changed, too, which variable he'd been ignoring until now. Don.

Charlie looked up sharply at the thought, and found Don sitting near the foot of the mattress, reading a comic book. Charlie stared at him for a moment, through the slight cover of the card tables' legs. Don licked his lip and turned a page, and Charlie forced himself to look away, heart racing, the words on the page blurring before his eyes.

Williamson had given Don to him. And then Williamson had taken him away with increasing frequency, which only served to heighten Charlie's focus on Don. Williamson always been intensely interested in the nature of their interactions. It was Williamson who had first forced Charlie to contemplate sex between them, by threatening him with rape. The last time Williamson had seriously questioned him, all he'd wanted to know about was Don.

Don had won the chess game by distracting him, but Don was a distraction every hour they were locked up together. Charlie didn't know what game Williamson was trying to use Don to win, nor how many moves they'd already made, but he knew that he didn't dare lose.

He didn't think he'd made a sound, but Don said, "Charlie?" and Charlie felt himself flinch even as he looked up, wide-eyed. Don was leaning forward, nearly on his hands and knees, watching him with dark, worried eyes.

"Hey, genius, you okay? What's he got you reading?"

"Nothing," Charlie whispered, shaking his head. "It's--nothing."

He stared back down at the page, trying to still his racing thoughts, trying not to feel the pull of Don's presence, even now, trying not to be distracted.

"It's just going to be difficult."


Don stopped, halfway to the house. He was following almost exactly in Williamson's footsteps, because there wasn't quite a beaten path through the ankle-deep snow yet. Here in the yard directly behind the house, it stretched away to either side of the line of footsteps, drifted and white and pristine. Don bent over, scooping up snow with both hands, his fingertips instantly beginning to sting with cold as he packed snow into a ball nearly too big to hold in one hand.

When he straightened up, holding the snowball, Williamson was standing a few strides ahead, watching him with a strange, thoughtful expression. Don stood his ground, turning the snowball in his hands and packing it tighter, and Williamson smirked, shook his head, and turned away.

Don had to shift the snowball from hand to hand to get his coat off, and wound up briefly holding it in the crook of his arms to take off the fingerless gloves that had appeared in the pocket of his coat on the day of his third trip out for target practice. Williamson stopped outside the door to the house, wiping his feet, and Don stood juggling the snowball in his half-numb hands and kicking snow off his boots. Williamson cleared his throat, and Don looked up, startled, because it wasn't like Williamson to do anything as delicate as clear his throat to get anyone's attention.

Williamson wasn't looking at Don, but thoughtfully studying the row of shoes and boots on the landing, just inside the door. He glanced at Don's feet without ever looking at his face, and Don gritted his teeth and stared over Williamson's shoulder though the open door. The sun from the kitchen window was shining on a row of keys, hanging on little hooks on the wall. Car keys, he thought. The end hook didn't have any keys, just a collection of multi-colored rubber bands. If Williamson told him to take his boots off, there probably wouldn't be any way to avoid leaving them down here, trying to protect Charlie in his stocking goddamn feet.

Williamson didn't say a word, though, just turned away and walked on inside. Don wiped his feet on the mat and followed him all the way upstairs, carrying his snowball through the warmth of the house, all the way up to the room where Charlie was working. Williamson locked him in, and Don stood just inside the door for a minute, watching.

Charlie was right where Don had left him, right where he'd been for a day and a half now. He was sitting on the floor between the card tables and the far wall, the contents of all three of the boxes spread around him in piles. He had his pencil constantly in hand, periodically making notes or scribbling something on the back of a page, but he hadn't so much as touched the chalkboards so far. He'd lain down to sleep for maybe an hour last night, but that was it. Don had to leave food on the card tables, because if he came any closer Charlie looked at him like he was going to steal the papers, and wouldn't unfreeze until Don backed away.

"Hey," Don said, putting his hands behind his back as he did.

Charlie looked up at him, blinking like his eyes had to adjust to the light. Charlie smiled tiredly, like he knew he was supposed to, but he didn't say anything back.

Don smiled. "Come here for a second, okay?"

Charlie frowned at Don, like he didn't understand the words. He looked back down at the page in his hand and rubbed his eyes. Don could see how tired he was in that second, and if he could just get Charlie to step away from the job and lie down, he'd probably sleep for hours. But it really was a big job, and Charlie didn't have any more choice than Don did about doing what Williamson said. Less, in fact.

He didn't even have much choice about doing what Don said; he set down the page and pushed himself to his feet and walked over toward Don. Don felt just bad enough about that to give up on his first plan for the snowball. He took a step inside instead, meeting Charlie halfway and bringing the snowball out from behind his back as he did. Charlie frowned at it, uncomprehending, and Don broke it apart in his hands, raising it over Charlie's head and crumbling wet, packed snow down on him before he quite knew what was going on.

Charlie jumped, reaching for the back of his neck, and let out a strangled squeak, quickly choked off.

"What--" he gasped, dancing around like it had gone down his shirt, trying to brush snow out of his hair at the same time, "That's cold."

"Sorry," Don said, watching Charlie and realizing that he wouldn't throw the snow back into Don's face, wouldn't try to avenge himself in any way at all. "It snowed. I thought--you probably haven't seen snow, have you?"

Charlie stopped jumping up and down and looked at Don with an expression disturbingly reminiscent of Williamson's out in the backyard--thoughtful and hard to read. Charlie bent his head and shook some snow from his hair into his hands, looking at it even as it melted on his palm.

"Crystalline water," Charlie murmured. The flakes disappeared against his skin as he spoke, leaving just a sheen of wetness behind.

"I'll bring you some more next time," Don said, reaching for Charlie's empty hand. Charlie flinched when Don's fingers touched his palm, and Don winced and started to pull away, but Charlie's hand closed strongly--hotly--around his.

"You're freezing," Charlie said, frowning down at Don's hand and then up at his face. "Your hands are freezing."

Don shrugged helplessly. "Snow will do that."

Charlie smiled a little and caught Don's other hand, pressing them palm-to-palm between his and rubbing them briskly, up and down from his wrists to his fingertips. Don stood and let him, watching snow melt in Charlie's hair and on his shoulders. When Charlie stopped, Don went on looking down as Charlie leaned up for a kiss, letting Charlie go on holding his hands clasped. Charlie's mouth felt hot against his, and he was conscious of the roughness of his own cold-chapped lips against Charlie's.

Charlie pulled away after a minute, their mouths making a small wet sound that jolted through Don, hot and sharp. But Charlie was already looking over his shoulder, toward the papers on the floor, his fingers curling around Don's.

"I have to..." he said, without looking back at Don.

It would have been easy to pull him away, distract him--for his own good, because he needed the break, needed some rest. But neither of them had any choice about doing what they were told.

Don pulled his hands from between Charlie's and took hold of his shoulders, turning him away, back toward the job at hand. He dropped a brief kiss on the back of Charlie's neck, and said, "Go on, then, genius."


Charlie was beginning to get a handle on the shape of the thing. He'd need to do a projection of security-team movements and responses to stimuli, but he had plenty of data to work from and more was forthcoming. He'd have to analyze the electronic system as well, to work out where disruptions would have the best effects. He'd have to calculate the types and sizes of charges to use in coordination with likely security responses, and plan the movements of the team. He'd probably have to break them all the way down to pairs--maybe even two solos--and it was entirely possible the plan would wind up calling for nine.

He rubbed his head, staring at the stacks of papers arrayed around him, fragments of algorithms, patterns, and calculations blooming chaotically in his head. Everything circled around in his brain so he couldn't pin down a starting point to work from, and at the middle of all of it was the question of Don, and what Williamson was really doing.

Charlie kept trying to work out logically whether Don was in on whatever it was with Williamson. He didn't think it could be determined deductively, though; there were too many assumptions involved, either way. If Don knew his part in Williamson's plan, and was playing it out in accordance with orders, then he was an incredibly good, careful actor--but then Williamson would have chosen someone with just those qualities to carry out his plan. On the other hand, Williamson didn't trust anyone with more information than absolutely necessary; if he could make Don serve his purpose unwittingly he'd have done it. All of Don's actions toward Charlie, all the things he'd said, might be sincere.

But none of that explained Don's earliest reaction to him, the naked hunger in his eyes the very first time Charlie had seen him. That... that just didn't add up at all.

The job didn't add up, either, Charlie thought, shuffling the papers again as though they would make more sense in another arrangement. It was too much effort, too much complication, too much risk. If Williamson was trying to break his own pattern of careful, tidy jobs by suddenly becoming reckless and grandiose, it was going to backfire in a hurry.

Still, it was the job he'd been given; he'd have to find a way to make it work. He'd have to find some way to make sense of Don, too. Something empirical, because logic would not suffice. But for now he'd go after the problem he had data for, and let the rest wait. Charlie got to his feet and picked up a piece of chalk, turning to the empty board. It was time to get started.


"Okay," Don said, ejecting his empty clip as the fragments of the last tennis ball drifted to the ground. "Now you're just fucking with me."

Williamson snorted and tossed him a fresh clip to change out. Don caught it and tossed back the empty.

"Moving targets," Williamson said firmly. "You need the practice. And it's the targets moving toward you that you usually have to worry about."

Don shook his head, but raised his weapon again, sighting down the barrel toward the backstop as Williamson raised his radio and said, "Again."

There was the familiar sound of a pitching machine discharging a ball, and another bright-green projectile came flying toward Don on a low arc. He blew it out of the air, already shifting toward the next one, the next, the next. He had a steady rhythm going, and by the time he'd shot down the seventh he knew to shift his weight, turning in anticipation of the eighth--

--which was a half-second too soon. He fired even as he was moving, but the fucking thing slammed into his stomach while he was still off-balance from the turn and the recoil. It knocked him on his ass, all his breath escaping in a hollow whoosh.

He lay in the snow with his eyes shut, working his mouth, trying to make his lungs remember how to inhale as a gun fired above him--Williamson taking out the rest of the targets. Don's eyes popped open as he finally took a breath, and Williamson was standing over him, gun in hand. Don was still blinking against the bright midday light as Williamson raised the gun and pointed it at Don's head.

Don froze, not even breathing as his heart pounded triple-time, hand tight on his own gun. There was no way he could get it up in time, not from this angle.

"Bang," Williamson said. "You lose." He holstered the gun and reached out a hand to Don, adding, "This is why we practice."

Don glared at him and struggled up to his feet without help.


There was a bruise on Don's belly, just below his ribcage and slightly to the left side. It was perfectly, uniformly round, and an ugly red-brown. Very fresh; it must have come from today's target practice, though it didn't look like the mark of a fist and Charlie couldn't imagine what else might have caused it.

Charlie wanted to ask, but didn't want to talk about the hour Don spent away from him every day with Williamson. Asking would only give him more data he couldn't use: truth or lies with no way to distinguish for certain. Actions would speak more reliably than words, and Don hadn't objected at all when Charlie wanted some action.

Now that he had Don naked Charlie wanted to kiss the bruise, but Don would misinterpret the downward movement and pull him away. Charlie ran his thumb across it instead, gently tracing the arc of one edge as he leaned in to kiss Don. Don's eyes closed and he groaned into the first touch of Charlie's lips on his, and then Charlie shifted on his knees, lowering himself over Don again until his cock brushed Don's, and Don's mouth opened as he arched into the touch.

Charlie pushed his tongue inside, tasting Don's mouth, sinking into it even as he rolled his hips, his cock barely touching Don's, a tease for them both. Don's hand tightened on Charlie's knee and his hips jerked up, but Charlie had his rhythm and pushed up as Don did, keeping the contact slight. He wanted more, his whole body screaming for it, every inch of his skin as hungry as his cock as it slid for just a second against Don's. His balls tightened, pleasure skittering down his spine, every muscle tensing, wanting more.

And that was the plan.

He had to breathe, pulling his mouth from Don's with a sucking sound, his cock jumping at Don's ragged moan as he let his lips slide wetly down Don's cheek. Even the prickle of Don's skin--not quite stubble, not yet--made him want more, and Charlie was distracted for a while, tonguing the hard line of Don's jaw as Don writhed under him, his head thrown back, hips arching up, cock thrusting wildly against Charlie's. And still, Charlie didn't even know where Don's left hand was; his right was on Charlie's knee, not pushing, or pulling, or forcing in any way.

Charlie's lips brushed Don's ear, and he remembered about the plan. He shifted his weight, lower and to the side, so that Don's cock could thrust against his hip, and his against Don's. His thumb rubbed over Don's nipple and he licked the soft skin just below Don's ear, thinking dizzy thoughts about symmetry as Don gasped and jerked beneath him, sliding his cock against Don's sweat-slick skin.

"Don," he whispered, just like the plan. "Let me fuck you."

Don went absolutely still, and Charlie instinctively froze too. He could feel the pounding of Don's pulse through his skin, Don's cock hot against his hip. His own heart was hammering wildly. He wanted--God, he didn't even want to know anymore, he just wanted to fuck--but the knowing mattered, too, and he'd rehearsed it all in his mind already. Don would argue; Charlie would offer to be fucked instead, and Don's apparent reluctance to risk hurting him would be pitted against his resistance, and then--

Charlie moved his lips against Don's temple, and started to lift his head so he could look Don in the eye and gauge where they were at in his mental script. Don's hands moved fast, though, catching Charlie's head and holding him right where he was. Charlie heard himself make a small startled sound, and Don turned his head, sighing a long breath against Charlie's mouth and then kissing him, licking into Charlie's mouth slowly, carefully, as if Charlie would break. As if Charlie would pull away, as if he could.

He slid a hand up into Don's hair, holding on right back, returning the kiss and thrusting slowly against Don's hip. Don jerked up against him and then went still again, kissing Charlie like there was nothing else, like they weren't naked, weren't touching. Don's tongue curled against his, and Charlie barely had breath left to moan, thrusting against Don's hip and pulling back from the kiss.

Don didn't let him go far; their lips were still nearly touching as Charlie gasped. Don's hands held him down, too close to meet Don's eyes, too close to do anything but sink into another kiss when he'd caught his breath. It occurred to Charlie, in a dim, distant way, that Don was putting off the inevitable argument, but he didn't care. His hand slid down Don's throat, over his chest, to curl around Don's hip, anchoring him as he moved against Don. His cock skidded on Don's skin, and he broke his mouth from Don's--to breathe, to beg, anything--but Don only let him have a single quick inhalation before kissing him again, fast and rough.

Then the world tipped sideways, and Charlie was lying with his back to the wall, watching wide-eyed as Don got to his feet, walking away. Charlie panted helplessly, wondering what was next--but Don only turned out the overhead lights, leaving the bathroom light and the worklight on. It cast the mattress where Charlie lay into shadow, but there was plenty of light for him to see Don crouching naked over his duffle bag, digging through it for something. Charlie's heart was pounding, his cock so hard it hurt, and if Don pulled out a comic book, he would--

Don straightened up with something in his hand that made a plastic, crinkling sound, and walked back to the mattress. Charlie couldn't read his face--though he couldn't miss the hardness of his cock, so whatever this was, it couldn't be so bad. Don crouched and grabbed Charlie's hand, pressing the thing into it, and then lay face down on the mattress, pillowing his head on his folded arms. Spreading his legs.

Charlie bit his lip and tipped his head back hard against the wall, because he couldn't--he couldn't come now, just from the fact that Don was lying there--

He looked down at what was in his hand: a small plastic bag. He sat up a little, in the narrow space between the wall and Don--Don was just lying there, all skin and radiating heat and bare ass and strong thighs opened to him, just because Charlie had asked--and tipped the contents of the bag into one hand.

A box of condoms. A bottle of lubricant.

Charlie dropped everything, reaching for his cock and squeezing hard, just there, because he could not--and his brain was running away on its own track, asking why, asking what it meant--but what it meant was that he could fuck Don and do it properly. Like the laws of thermodynamics or the order of operations, he knew how to do this, and lubrication was vital.

Charlie took a breath and moved, kneeling up to straddle Don's hips--again. The condoms slid down the mattress to lie against his knee, but he'd dropped the lube right onto the small of Don's back. When he picked it up, Don flinched.

Charlie bit his lip, set the lubricant down next to the condoms, and leaned forward over Don's back. He rested his hand on Don's shoulder, and the skin was beaded with sweat, the muscle beneath it rigid, vibrating with tension. He could have asked are you sure, but he suspected that Don was. He hadn't been delaying the argument, only making up his mind, and now it was made up.

Don had said he didn't have sex with guys; he'd never done this before. Charlie thought that he had, himself, though he didn't remember it. That had to be why he knew what to do, why he thought he knew how it would feel. He wanted to say I won't hurt you, but the words sounded ludicrous even in his own head, and anyway he wasn't at all sure that it was true.

He pressed a kiss to Don's hairline, instead, dragging his lips softly down his spine to the nape of his neck, his hand moving in slow circles on Don's back. He thought he felt Don relax by some tiny degree, and suddenly it occurred to him that he knew just what he wanted to say. Charlie swallowed, playing the words over in his head--but Don had told him to remember them, and he had.

"If I hurt you," he whispered, "then I'm sorry. I never wanted to hurt you."

Don shuddered all over, but he seemed to relax a little, too, and Charlie licked the sweat from the back of his neck and then knelt up, shifting himself between Don's thighs, nudging them further apart with his knees. Don's skin was hot against his, and Charlie set his hands on Don's ass. There was just enough light to distinguish the darker skin of his hands from the paleness of Don's ass, but Charlie was lost in the feeling, skin soft over muscle, Don squirming beneath his touch.

Irresistibly, his right hand slid in, finger seeking more heat, softer skin, until his thumb touched--just--there--and Don's whole body jerked. He made a muffled sound like a curse, and suddenly Charlie could see him breathing, shoulders heaving in a quick rhythm--and that was better at least, he thought. You had to breathe.

Charlie reached for the bottle of lube, opening it up and squeezing some onto his fingers--it was cold on his skin, and he winced in anticipation--but when he lowered his fingers to Don's ass, Don only shivered a little, spreading his legs wider. Charlie hesitated a moment, just touching, and then pushed with one fingertip--hard, harder--and he said, "Breathe."

Don gasped and his finger slid in, disappearing inside Don's body, slick and tight and hot. He had to shut his eyes against the sight, gritting his teeth as his cock throbbed, slowly twisting his finger in the grip of Don's body, feeling the small movements Don made from inside.

Charlie started easing his finger in and out, and his hand seemed to know what to do, flexing and twisting in patterns that felt as right as any mathematics. He listened for Don's breathing, trying to match his rhythm, in and out and in and out. He went on and on, easing along, until his wrist was caught in a hard grip. Charlie's eyes flashed open to find Don looking back over his shoulder, an almost desperate look in his eyes.

Charlie gave him an apologetic smile and reached left-handed for the lube, squirting more onto the fingers of his immobilized hand, half of it missing completely. Don jerked, his grip loosening, and when Charlie slid two fingers in, his eyes closed. He laid his head back down, though his hand stayed where it was, loosely circling Charlie's wrist.

Charlie kept his eyes trained on the back of Don's neck as he eased his fingers in--tight, tight, tight, so good even just around his fingers, and then Don's head twitched up, just a little, and Charlie grinned and curled his fingertips. Don's hand went tight on his wrist again, his head jerking up. He didn't look back, and Charlie crooked his fingers again, because he knew this part; he didn't know how, but he knew. Don made an inarticulate noise and took his hand away, and from the motion of his shoulders Charlie thought he was covering his face. Charlie bit his lip, working his fingers back and forth, and then leaned forward, resting his forehead against Don's back so he could slide his left hand under Don's body.

Don shifted a little, letting Charlie's hand slide under his hip to find his cock. He was half hard, and thrust quickly into Charlie's grip as Charlie twisted his fingers in Don's ass. Don was panting, his hips jerking back and forth between Charlie's hands, and Charlie kept moving as steadily as he could, pressing open-mouthed kisses to Don's skin. His cock ached, jerking in sympathy with his fingers sliding into Don, with Don's cock hardening in his hand, and finally he couldn't wait anymore.

He removed his hand from Don's ass first--Don made a startled, choked-off sound--and then from Don's cock, pushing himself upright. It took him a moment to find the condoms, longer to get the stupid box open and one packet separated from the others. His hands were shaking, his heart pounding. He could hear himself gasping for breath, and Don doing the same thing beneath him, a half-beat behind, echoing. But when he shut his eyes and let his hands go, they knew what to do, rolling the condom on, finding the lube again, and then his hand was on Don's ass, holding him steady--open--for the press of Charlie's cock, slow, slow, steady and in in oh god in.

He thought Don was saying something, but the sound was far away and all Charlie could feel was this, his body pushing into Don's body, his cock squeezed tight. He tried to go slow, but it was so good, and then Don moved under him, moved toward him, and Charlie slid in fast and deep. The arm he was holding himself up with was wobbling, and Charlie slid down as slowly as he could, resting his weight on Don, his cheek pressed to Don's spine, his ear over Don's heart, and he couldn't hear anything else. His hips started to move--not on every beat, but every fourth, and then every third, small moves at first and then more, pushing up again and fucking Don helplessly, mindlessly, more, more, more. Don started pushing back, meeting his thrusts, and Charlie couldn't hold back anymore, turning his face to Don's back, muffling a cry against Don's skin as he came.

He lay still for a moment, after, trying to catch his breath. Don was very still beneath him--and then he squirmed, under and around Charlie, and Charlie slid his right hand down to Don's hip and tugged. Don seemed to know what he wanted, tilting to his left so Charlie could slid his hand under Don's body again. He made a small noise as Charlie began to stroke him, thrusting into Charlie's fist, and every motion of his body touched Charlie's cock, still inside him, sending aftershock jolts of pleasure through him. The feeling was almost unbearable, and when Don came he went silent, but Charlie gasped, "Fuck, fuck, fuck," against his back as his cock was squeezed tight, thrusting helplessly.

When Don went still, Charlie finally, carefully pulled out. Don's breath hitched and Charlie winced in sympathy--he thought he knew how that felt, too--and then rolled to his feet, headed to the bathroom to clean up. His hands shook under the water as he washed them, and his legs felt rubbery. His whole body felt strange, alive and awake in a way that was at odds with the warm post-orgasmic sleepiness he could feel at the edge of his consciousness. He shut off the water and stepped out of the doorway, and then stopped short. Don was standing beside the doorway, his forehead leaning against the wall, his eyes closed.

Charlie licked his lips but couldn't quite bring himself to speak. He reached out to touch Don's shoulder, but Don jerked away just before he made contact, and stood staring at Charlie with wide, dark eyes, unblinking. Charlie bit his lip, and then, moving slowly, stepped in toward Don. He could feel Don tensing, but Don didn't pull away or raise his head. Charlie closed his eyes and pressed a kiss to Don's mouth, and Don stayed frozen, not even breathing against Charlie's lips.

Charlie kept his eyes turned down as he stepped back, moving around Don to go back to the mattress. One sleeping bag was missing--lying in a heap near the door--and Charlie carefully smoothed the other over the mattress, lying down with his back to the wall and covering himself with his blanket. He heard the shower switch on, and as long as he lay awake, watching the rectangle of light from the bathroom doorway, he never heard it shut off.


Williamson had to know something was up. He couldn't have missed it, when Don was so eager to get out of the room that he practically knocked Williamson down as soon as he opened the door to get Don for target practice. He hadn't said anything, and Don hadn't said anything, and now Williamson was just standing next to him, watching him shoot bottles in whatever pattern he was directed.

It wasn't, exactly, that he'd needed to get away from Charlie--although Charlie kept shooting him these looks like he thought Don was about to fall over and die, and that had gotten old within an hour after he'd given up on getting any sleep. He'd just needed to move, to get out, take a deep breath and know that there was a world outside that room--that mattress.

Don had known Charlie might want to, he'd known, and he could have said no. He hadn't, and it was all right. He hadn't hurt Charlie; Charlie hadn't hurt him. Hell, it had felt kind of good at times--good enough to get off on, so he really couldn't complain much. It was just--just weird, physically, and if he'd stood in the shower and shivered for close to an hour, it was just a physical reaction to unfamiliar stimuli. It was just--

"Every other green one," Williamson said, and Don nodded once and forced himself to stop thinking--just count and fire and count and fire, all the way to the end of the clip.


Don came back from target practice and challenged Charlie to a game of chess, and Charlie felt relief rush through his chest like his first deep breath in hours. Charlie made a few quick notations on the board to hold his thought, and then joined Don at the chess board.

"What are we betting?"

Don grinned and said, "Come on, Charlie, it's not about what you win, it's about the love of the game."

Charlie grinned back, a little unbalanced by the change in Don from that morning--he'd spent hours pacing, in between short-lived attempts to sit down which Charlie couldn't watch without feeling sick to his stomach. But now Don had come back to him, and Charlie passed him the white chalk and awaited his opening move.

Knight's pawn. Charlie smiled--it was Don's third-favorite opening, comprising about twenty percent of his first moves--and rejected the first three strategies that presented themselves to him. He countered a little randomly, with Queen's pawn, just to see what Don would do next.

The game stretched out over thirty-seven moves, and Don accused him of going easy but took enormous delight in capturing Charlie's queen, even though Charlie put him into checkmate only three moves later. Charlie tugged Don down into a kiss, his hand on the back of Don's neck, and Don leaned down easily this time, his mouth opening to Charlie's. Charlie smiled, breaking away, and asked hesitantly, "Maybe we could play Scrabble later?"

Don grinned, and the light in his eyes as he straightened up told Charlie it was exactly the right thing to say. "You realize we haven't actually finished a game yet?"

Charlie wrinkled his nose. "I didn't think it had an end. Isn't it more a trial of endurance?"

Don just shook his head, turning away to clear the chess board and redraw the Scrabble set, and Charlie went back to work. When he was standing in front of his calculation, though, he hesitated with the chalk in his hand, his mind returning to the larger problem.

Don was his. He was willing to accept that as an axiom, after last night, and move forward from there. That meant Williamson was using Don to distract him from something, something Don wasn't aware of--and it had to be something to do with this job, because the last one had been routine apart from Don's presence. Lulling him. This one was complex, more complex than anything Charlie had ever done before.

It was more than that, though. Charlie frowned at the board, thinking it through. It was more complex than it should be, far too much planning for the payoff involved. Charlie turned to look around at the stacks of papers he was working from, recalling Williamson's casual mention of further recon in progress, and--it would help, it might well be absolutely necessary to pull off this job, this way, but the economics were all wrong. There was nearly as much money being pumped into this job as could possibly be gotten out of it--

If the payoff was what he'd been told it was.

Williamson had gone to the trouble of bringing in Don to distract him, and then given him a job of unprecedented complexity to work on. Don was there to keep him from thinking too much about it, because if he thought too much about it he'd see that it was a test.

But Don was genuinely there to guard him, too--the shootout on the roadside, while he was being transported in a rush.

The job wasn't the point. The point was that somebody--somebody who could provide a payoff worth all of Williamson's trouble--wanted to see what he could do. You couldn't put an item up for sale without revealing that you had it in your first place, which made it more likely to be stolen; God knew they'd constructed enough heists around appraisers.

Charlie stared blankly at the board, trying to think it through logically, verify the progression--but it all fit, it explained the variables, and it made his path clear. If they wanted to see what he could do, then he had no choice but to show them.


Don half-woke when Charlie moved, and lay blinking at the darkness, wondering vaguely whether something was wrong. But Charlie was curled up against his back, his hand on Don's hip, radiating heat through the thin barrier of Don's shirt and jeans. Don had remembered to get dressed again while Charlie was already dozing off--he wiggled his toes in his boots, and reached out his left hand to touch his gun where it lay ready on the floor. Everything was where it should be.

He closed his eyes, sleep settling over him again, and then Charlie shifted away slightly. Cold air slid into the space between them like a gun at the back of his neck, and Don jerked sharply and entirely awake. He stared wide-eyed into the dark for a second--Charlie naked at his back and the door locking on the outside and his gun under his hand and his boots on--and then he was on his feet, bolting toward the dubious refuge of the bathroom. He was on his knees on the tile floor by the time he realized that he'd picked up his gun on the way, and his hands were shaking almost too hard to check the safety and put it on. He couldn't force himself to set the weapon down.

Twenty-one days to make a habit, and he'd been locked up with Charlie for twenty-eight, so long it seemed normal, so long he was--sleeping with his brother, he was getting fucked--

Don gasped, and then lunged blindly toward the toilet--but nothing came out on the exhale but a sound echoing back, a wounded, animal noise. He slapped both hands over his mouth--gutshot, he thought wildly, falling sideways to slump against the side of the tub, nightmare coming true, gutshot. He tried to hold his breath, but the sobs tore through him uncontrollably. Don shook like he was in the grip of an earthquake or a hurricane, something vast and vicious and utterly beyond him.

Twenty-eight days, and he was no closer to getting them out.


Charlie lay very still in the darkness, listening. He shut his eyes, and after a while he began to shiver, and pulled the sleeping bag firmly around himself, but he couldn't stop hearing. He knew, dimly, that he ought to go toward the sound, toward Don, that he ought to offer some comfort. But he knew just as well that Don was trying to keep quiet, trying not to be heard. He knew that it was him Don was hiding from. He remembered the taste of blood in Don's mouth, the sound of the shower running and running and running long after the water had to have gone cold, and he knew why.

After a while the sound got quieter, and after a while his own shivering eased. He still lay awake, looking through the darkness toward his boards, working out the next step of the job at hand. He had to work quickly. Don wouldn't last much longer.


Williamson led him to the back of the yard, instead of across it. The snow had been melting, leaving drifts that showed the slight contours of the ground, in between patches of dead grass over saturated earth. The sun was shining, and Don was getting to know the cold well enough to distinguish the day as slightly above freezing--practically balmy for mid-December. Wherever the hell they were.

They headed into the trees on a beaten path, and when the yard and the house had disappeared from view, Williamson stopped and waved Don ahead of him.

"You're shooting bottles again," Williamson announced. "But today the targets hold still and you move."

Don looked down the path, scanning for a glimpse of green glass. If he just took off running now--down the path until it curved and then on and on, just running, running, getting away--

Williamson said, "Ready, set," and Don was off and running as Williamson drew a breath to say, "Go."

On his third stride he heard Williamson giving chase, and he looked around for bottles even as he pushed himself faster. He was nearly even with the first one when he spotted it, stumbling as he pivoted to fire off to his left at a bad angle. But he was rewarded with a crack-crash, and he was running on before Williamson had quite closed the distance between them.

He found the second bottle in good time, firing off to the right on a tight angle, and as the bottle smashed he heard Williamson stumble behind him. Don bared his gritted teeth and ran on faster, pulling away, but his shot at the next bottle went wide, and before he could falter to take a second shot, there was a pistol crack behind him, and the bottle exploded in his peripheral vision. Williamson was cleaning up his leavings; Williamson was two strides behind with his gun out.

Don spotted the fourth and fired, and then the fifth and then the sixth, and it had been a month and more since he'd run any distance. Even on rough terrain--the path was rocks where it wasn't snow or mud, swerving wildly through the trees and up and down--he felt his body catching the rhythm of it, settling to its pace. His arms swung left and right to take the seventh bottle and the eighth in quick succession.

He jumped down a steep section of the path, landing with a splash and a jolt and running on. He heard Williamson make the same jump behind him and kept running--he could run forever, though the clip wouldn't last as long--and on impulse he decided to miss the ninth bottle altogether, not even taking a shot at it. He was even with it when Williamson fired, and didn't turn his head to see the green glass flying.

He stumbled taking aim at ten, and Williamson gained ground--he was barely a stride behind Don, longer fucking legs, but Don ran on and on, eleven and twelve and up a hill and down--he was on his last round, and he'd saved one. His clip should have been empty, it might be the end of the course--but he glimpsed green and whirled to fire, skidding almost sideways in the mud. He'd have gone down if Williamson hadn't caught his arm, and the bastard was grinning and panting.

It was only when he said, "Fun, huh, Mac?" that Don realized he was grinning back.


Chapter Fourteen

The work was moving fast, and it took Charlie time to recognize why. It wasn't that it was easy--he had as many false starts as good ones, and from the look of the algorithms he was developing the calculations were going to be horrendous. But the job was taking shape in his head, and he stayed immersed in it for long, still stretches of time, painstakingly pinning down one corner at a time on the board in scribbles of chalk.

Don paced behind him, in and out of his peripheral vision, steady as the beat of Charlie's heart--steadier, since Charlie hadn't been sleeping much, and his heart tended to race when he bent over after a piece of chalk, or stood from sitting to eat. He'd been trying to rest here and there, lying down when he noticed that Don was, or when the light in the room took on that particular sharp-edged quality which meant that his thought processes were about to spiral off into total chaos. But his sleep was all dreams and his dreams were all nightmares (Don's sobs echoing on and on and on; silence) so he never lasted long before he was up and working again.

And Don was always there, a steady, silent presence. Williamson came in a few times with further data (the security movements altered their pattern, and he had to spend hours on a calculative detour, working out how to weight recency versus a longer baseline for predictive purposes), but he didn't take Don away again. Charlie wrenched his brain momentarily out of the job to actually look at them, and realized that Don wasn't crowding toward the door, or toward Williamson, anymore. He stayed on the other side of the room now, watching intently, but he was wary rather than eager.

Charlie looked back down at the papers Williamson had handed him. Don was his, and for all Don was meant to distract him, Don guarded him from distraction--not only from any of the others taking him from his work, but from his own fear of the others.

Not that that meant he had less to be afraid of, Charlie thought, showing the page in his hand a small, grim smile. But the things Don couldn't guard him against--well, that was why he had to work fast. He had a job to do, and he couldn't do it without Don.


Don had been locked in with Charlie for about sixty hours straight by the time Williamson walked in without a folder under his arm. As far as Don could tell, Charlie had slept for about four of those hours, restless, mumbling urgently sometimes. Don woke whenever Charlie lay down, and kept watch over him until he shook himself out of his sleep and went back to work.

Charlie looked up from what he was doing when the door opened, looking expectantly at Williamson. Don saw the exact moment he realized that Williamson wasn't there to bring him more data or poke around his results. He went pale, his hand clenching tight around his chalk, and backed up slightly, right into his chalkboard. Don's stomach lurched in sympathy, his heart pounding, his fist clenched.

"Mac," Williamson said, and jerked his chin toward the door, "you're out."

Don looked at Williamson, who met his eyes without expression, and then at Charlie, who wouldn't meet his eyes at all. Don turned away and headed out the door, stopping short on the threshold. Skip and Randy were standing in the hallway, and Don almost choked on his next breath, his hand twitching automatically toward his right hip, where Mac's gun wasn't. Randy smiled, and Don could have killed him right then, was actually trying to calculate in his head whether Williamson would actually kill him for it or only--

Skip stepped in between, grabbing Don's arm and pulling him away--not down the stairs, but across the little hallway, to another bedroom. It was smaller than Charlie's, but there were no boards over the windows. Slanting afternoon light streamed in, yellow and warm, almost blinding. Skip pushed him inside and Don stumbled to a halt in the middle of the little bare room, blinking. Skip slammed the door shut, and was dropping into a folding chair beside it, gun in hand, when Don turned.

"Get comfy," Skip said, nodding toward the other folding chair. "It's going to be a while."

Don forced his hands open, but they closed into fists again right away. He stalked to a corner instead, the one nearest to Charlie's room, and sat down to wait in a dim, chilly triangle of shade.


Charlie stayed where he was, trying to breathe. Williamson wasn't looking at him. The door was standing open, though he'd heard another one close nearby; was Don so close? But too far--it was Williamson stalking back and forth across the room now, treading the same path Don paced. Charlie tried to quantify what it was that made Don's motion a comfort, and Williamson's a menace. It had to be quantifiable. Everything was quantifiable.

Pattern of past behavior suggested itself immediately, and then Randy stepped into the open doorway and leaned there, and pain bloomed in Charlie's chest. He leaned his head against the board, listening to himself gasp, unable to take his eyes from Randy even as Williamson veered off course and approached him. Randy watched him right back, smiling slightly, and Charlie blinked rapidly, his eyes stinging, sweat breaking out all over his body, his hands aching and shaking with the tension of his fists.

He jumped when Williamson spoke, almost in his ear.

"You and I are going to have a talk," he murmured, and Charlie forced himself to turn his head, to look up at Williamson, his face surrounded by flickers of light in Charlie's vision. He didn't smile, didn't frown, didn't betray a single emotion.

"But first, you're going to spend a little quality time with Randy, to put you in the proper frame of mind."

Charlie shook his head slightly--involuntary as the shiver coalescing up his spine--and Williamson hit him hard across the face, backhanded. Charlie stumbled, his hand sliding across the board, smearing the chalk and gaining no purchase, and he fell almost in slow motion, failing to catch himself or be caught. He was still looking up at Williamson, and Williamson had something black in his hand. He knelt, resting one knee on Charlie's belly to keep him still, keep him from catching his breath, and raised it to Charlie's face. He fastened it over Charlie's eyes, blocking out all light.

"This will help," he murmured, and then the weight was gone from Charlie's belly.

Charlie didn't hear his footsteps, just the sound of the door being closed. Being locked. Being barred. And then Randy said, "Hello there, Know-Nothing."


Don's head jerked up when he heard the other door close, and the bar drop. He glanced at Skip, but Skip was staring at the ceiling, his arms crossed over his chest with his gun still in hand. Don pressed his ear to the wall just in time to catch the sound of footsteps on the stairs, descending briskly. Williamson.

That meant Randy was locked in with Charlie.

He could shoot Skip, get across the hall and shoot Randy, that would take out two before he'd have to face Williamson coming back up--

Muffled by the intervening walls, he heard Charlie's voice--just an indistinct murmur at first, forming into words as it rose in volume. "No, no, nonononononopleaseno--"

Don was on his feet, staring down the barrel of Skip's gun.

"Sit," Skip said flatly. His eyes were cold, his finger was on the trigger, and his sights were on Don's head.

Don stared while Charlie begged, and sat like a puppet with its strings cut when Charlie went silent.


He tried to pull away from the hand on the back of his neck, but then Williamson said, "Breathe." He couldn't ignore the command and hauled in a breath, air stinging his raw throat. He choked halfway through, coughing and sobbing. It wasn't until he tried to rub his nose that he realized Williamson was holding his head between his knees.

Charlie closed his hands around his own ankles and hung on, trying to catch his breath. He was flinching from Williamson's steady grip but trying not to noticeably pull away.

"Now tell me," Williamson said, when Charlie was mostly quiet. "How's the job coming?"

Charlie's first attempt to speak came out as nothing more than a garbled bark of sound. He bit his lip, focused, and tried again.

"We--well," he managed. "I think."

He tried to actually dredge the job up out of the tarry blankness of his brain, fear-soaked and shivering.

"Security movements--"

"Good," Williamson said crisply. "I see you and Mac have been playing Scrabble. Do you like it when he fucks you?"

Charlie shuddered and choked all over again, his moment of control dissolving--Don's hand had rested on the back of his neck sometimes, just where Williamson's hand was now, and Don had whispered in his ear sometimes, but never--

"No," he whispered shakily, even though it was the wrong piece of the truth.

Williamson squeezed hard, shaking him a little, and Charlie had a flash of vision--a lion, shaking its prey, on a television screen--a memory--and his heart began to race again, his hard-won breath leaving him as his chest went tight.

"No," he gasped, "no, no, no, no," but his body didn't listen and neither did Williamson. His neck was wet and cold when Williamson let go, and he didn't remember to try to get his back against a wall until Randy's fingers touched his skin, and then it was too late.


For the first hour, Don thought Charlie's screams were the worst part. His own breath came short while Charlie screamed, his own heart racing--Charlie was always screaming no and please and stop, stop. It was always anticipation, always terror. So far, nothing sounded like pain, like he was being hurt yet. But the waiting was worse; Don had seen enough to know that Charlie was used to being hurt. It was the waiting to be hurt that would be worst for him now.

But after an hour there began to be more silences, and Don couldn't move while he couldn't hear Charlie. He stood frozen with his forehead pressed to the cold glass of the window, watching the light die, straining for any sound. If Charlie was screaming, at least Charlie was breathing; if he was silent--

He'd been soaking wet, the last time. There was a bathtub right there. And Randy would--Randy would fucking love it, the little monster, the fucking textbook sociopath. Don stared out the window and wished he were back in the woods, wished he'd shot Randy in the head the instant he got Charlie clear of him. Wished he'd touched Charlie, wished he'd kissed him goodbye this time, wished he knew Charlie was breathing.

When he screamed again, Don inhaled, feeling sick with fury, and shaky with something like gratitude. It shouldn't have been a relief.


"Please," Charlie whispered, his voice no more than a husk, tears saturating the blindfold and seeping down his cheeks. He couldn't stop shaking. Randy's fingers walked up and down his arm. Up and down.

He had his back pressed to the wall, his whole body laid out straight; if he tried to curl up, he'd touch Randy, lying close beside him on the mattress.

He could smell Don sometimes, when he managed to get a breath through his nose. Don and himself and sex and all the things that had been good--had felt good--and Randy was lying there now, touching him, taking Don's space, taking Don's place.

Charlie choked on his next breath, and the breath after that was a scream, and underneath it Randy laughed, closing his hand on Charlie's arm to keep him still.


Charlie had been quiet for a while now, however hard Don pressed his ear to the wall, or however long he held his breath, listening. He had nothing but logic to listen to: they wouldn't kill Charlie in the middle of his work. They wouldn't.

Williamson wouldn't; but Williamson was careful and smart, and Randy was nothing but a psycho on Williamson's leash, locked in alone with Charlie. Don looked from his own curled fists to Skip's gun, considering it; but Charlie would be sure to hear that shot. Don couldn't risk doing that to him.

So he stood still in the corner, listening to nothing, waiting, until the door opened.

Williamson switched a light on, and Don blinked against it, only then realizing how dark it had gotten; the windows reflected back the yellow light, hiding the empty night outside. Williamson's gun was holstered, freeing his hands for...

Don stared.

Williamson smiled and offered him one of the bottles in his hand. Bud Light with a twist-off cap. His mouth watered, his stomach growled, and Charlie screamed. Don turned his head, clenching his jaw, swallowing hard to keep from gagging--all those nights he'd spent, three months drinking beer in his dad's house, in random bars, with Coop, with Terry and David--three months, while this had been happening to Charlie.

Don heard the folding chair creak as Williamson settled into it, the sound of a beer cap being twisted off. The sound of Williamson taking a drink. Don squeezed his eyes shut and kept breathing.

"If there's anything on your mind," Williamson said, and Don turned to look at him. He'd set down the other beer and taken his gun out; Skip had disappeared. "I find myself with some time on my hands, and I'm in a listening mood."

"Fuck you," Don muttered, still straining to hear. Charlie's voice was getting weaker with every hour. He'd been exhausted going into this. How long could he go without breaking completely?

Williamson laughed, blocking any sound from across the hall.

"I'd make a nice change from the genius, huh?"

Don gritted his teeth and stared, and Williamson shook his head and stood. "If you're not feeling talkative, I think I know someone who is. Excuse me."

He took another pull from the bottle in his hand and walked out, leaving the second beer on the floor, as though he'd forgotten it. Don stared at the light shining on the condensation, and listened.


Charlie pressed himself into the corner as tightly as he could. He could hear, almost feel, Williamson's presence, a few inches away. He'd lost track of Randy again. He might be anywhere, might be right beside him, watching him--

"Breathe," Williamson said, and Charlie heard him drinking something before he spoke again. "Now. Let's review. You don't like it when Mac fucks you?"

Charlie cringed, pressing his face harder to the wall. It wasn't like that at all--wouldn't be, if--and Randy might be listening, and--

"Know-Nothing!"

"He doesn't," Charlie blurted, coughed and breathed as his throat tried to close, tried to grab the words back. Williamson's hand closed on his left elbow, squeezing hard and twisting ever so slightly, just enough to remind him, as if he could ever forget.

"He doesn't want to--to hurt me. He doesn't. Do that."

"He doesn't fuck you." Williamson's voice was steady, not a question. A command.

"He doesn't fuck me," Charlie whispered back, shaking. He'd been ready to tell Williamson anything about what he wanted, but--not Don, he'd never meant to betray Don this way--

"Does he let you fuck him?" Williamson asked, taking his hand away, and Charlie closed his own hand protectively over his elbow, even though he knew it showed his weakness. He had too many weaknesses to keep from showing. He was nodding before he could think about it.

"Does he like it when you fuck him? Does he come for you, genius?"

Genius, like Don called him, the same way he said Charlie, but it was cruel in Williamson's mouth, tarnished like everything else he spoke of. A high-pitched sound broke from Charlie's throat, and he buried his face against his knees. Williamson's fingers closed his hair, tugging his head up, and Charlie squeezed his eyes shut tight behind the blindfold.

"Does he like it when you fuck him?" he whispered, and Charlie could feel Williamson's breath warm against his cheek, smell the beer he'd been drinking.

He tried to pull away, to shake his head, but Williamson held tight, and Charlie was pinned, shaking, and could only tell the truth. "I don't know."


Randy hauled him to his feet and wrapped something soft around his shaking right hand. It was the cloth he used to erase the boards, and he realized that a second before Randy's hand closed around his and dragged it up, pressing it against--

"No," Charlie gasped, trying to keep his hand still, trying to pull it back. "No, that's--no, I need that--no--"

Randy laughed in his ear, his whole body pressing against Charlie's, his strength forcing Charlie's hand to slide against the slate, obliterating hours, days--he didn't even know which board he was at, what he should be trying to remember--

He struggled wildly, some last desperate burst of adrenaline driving him--it was his work, they only kept him alive for his work, and if that was gone--he couldn't--he had to--"No! NO!"

He only succeeded in turning himself around, and Randy took him by the shoulders and dragged him sideways across the board, beyond the end and across another. Charlie lost his feet and Randy was carrying him, pinned against the wall, using his own body to destroy his work, and Charlie flailed against him, kicking wildly and screaming, wild animal noises coming from his throat.

Suddenly he was whirling, a brief sick airborne moment before he hit the ground on his side, curling up automatically; it was only on the next breath that he smelled urine, felt the wetness and realized what he'd done.

"Fucking freak show," Randy snarled.

Charlie's left arm was grabbed, twisted up, and Randy was dragging him across the floor as he struggled feebly, trying to calculate how many boards might have escaped, unable to think, barely able to breathe for terror and shame.

"You're going to need washing up."

His cheek touched the tile, and when he heard the tub switch on, he found himself on his hands and knees, crawling desperately away. Randy caught him before he'd gone far. There was nowhere to go.


Don stood and waited--for some sound from Charlie after the last round of screams, for something to happen--and eventually he found that what he'd been waiting for was the moment when he couldn't wait anymore. He turned his back on Skip, faced the wall, and unbuckled his belt.

He wrapped it around the knuckles of his right hand with quick, precise motions. He'd had practice with this. He knew how. He could channel a lot into one blow, he could judge the distance just right, he could keep from breaking his fingers or making too much of a mess.

He raised his left hand to the wall and tapped with his knuckle, gauging the distance from the perpendicular wall to his left and the window to his right, trying to guess which side they'd started from, studding it out. There.

Don heard Skip stand up behind him as he drew his right hand back, smashing his fist hard into the drywall. It caved but didn't punch through. Don was already winding up for the second effort, a little lower than the first. Skip was yelling behind him, but Don yanked his hand free of the plaster and hit it again, higher this time, and then he sidestepped toward the window, and punched again, as hard as he could, harder. He was starting to feel it in his hand, in his arm, but it didn't hurt enough.

He kept going--kept hitting--again and again, moving back left when he got to the window and punching holes all down the wall, again, again, again, his breath coming fast and his arm moving on automatic, in a steady rhythm that still didn't carry enough anger, enough fear, away from him and into the wall.

Somebody was yelling behind him again. Not Skip, and he didn't realize it was Williamson until there was an arm around his neck, yanking him back and then down to the floor. He lay on his back staring up at the light, half blinded with the wind knocked out of him. Williamson knelt with one knee on Don's chest, as Don tried to breathe. Williamson snapped his fingers, his hand coming briefly between Don and the light, and someone handed him something. Don turned his head, thinking of fighting, thinking of going for his gun, but it was his right hand he'd been hitting with, and he was starting to actually feel it now.

Williamson was holding his hand, weirdly carefully. He dropped Don's belt on the carpet, and Don's eye followed, watching the smear of blood on black leather.

A sharp stinging pain on his hand brought Don back to somewhere like himself, and he tried to pull away. Williamson just pushed down harder with his knee and clamped down harder on Don's hand.

"That was fucking stupid," Williamson said, pressing a wad of gauze to the cut on Don's hand, pulling it back to look and then pressing it down again.

Don winced. The cut was long--running from the knuckle of his index finger down to the base of his thumb--and probably filthy with plaster dust. Don glanced up at the wall, trying to count the impacts. They'd probably have to replace the drywall; there wasn't enough left to patch.

Williamson sprayed something on his hand, and Don jerked and hissed. Williamson snorted and shook his head , bandaging Don's hand with neat, precise movements. It looked professional, practiced, but there was blood all over Williamson's hand as he stood up. Sloppy. Weird.

Williamson held that hand away from himself, fingers curled, as he said, "Next time I'll let Skip stop you, Mac."


Charlie huddled next to the bathtub, wrapped inadequately in a towel, listening to the endless awful thudding sounds. He thought they were coming from across the hall; from where Don was. Had been. Might be.

Then they stopped with a last loud thump, and that was worse. Charlie sat shivering, wondering if he could find clothes, wondering whether Randy was perched in the doorway, watching him, wondering why he was being allowed this respite--but he knew that one. It wasn't a respite. They were making him listen.

The sounds gave way, after a last hard crash, to ominous silence. He heard the door open, quick footsteps across the carpet and into the bathroom, and before he could cringe away there was a hand on him, pulling him half-upright. He cried out involuntarily when the blindfold was ripped off; the light was blinding, and the first thing he saw was Williamson's hand before his eyes, streaked in red. He tried to move, but Williamson was sitting on the edge of the tub, and had Charlie between his knees. He clamped them around Charlie, pinning him in place, and shook his hand at Charlie. The blood splattered onto his face.

"Do you know whose this is?" Williamson asked.

Charlie shook his head, and Williamson caught him by the hair, pinning Charlie's head hard against his knee.

"Yes, you do," Williamson said. Charlie could smell it, coppery on every gasping breath. His stomach turned. There was no limit to how much they could hurt Don. "Tell me whose it is, Know-Nothing."

Charlie squeezed his eyes shut, groping for words--words he mustn't say, words he must--and he whispered, "Mine."

Williamson's hand clamped over his mouth, cool and wet with Don's blood, and Charlie gagged, curling convulsively around his stomach, but there was nothing left in him. When Williamson's hand released him, he heaved in a breath and another, coughed and choked and said, "He's mine, don't, please--"

And that was, oh, that was the wrong thing to say, Williamson shouldn't know that Don was his, shouldn't know that he knew that Don was his; but Williamson didn't seem to notice what Charlie had said. He pulled Charlie's head back until the tears streamed from the corners of his eyes to his ears, until Charlie had to meet his impassive gaze.

"How's the job coming, Know-Nothing?"

Charlie swallowed, resisting the urge to try to look out into the room, to see his boards--even if nothing was lost, even if he could work fast, it was a bigger job than ever, it was going to be so hard--

Williamson saw it, and his hand tightened. "Tell me," he said, low and dangerous.

Charlie sobbed once, bit his lip and tasted blood--Don's blood on his skin, Don's--but Williamson was implacable, and it was true. "I don't know," he whispered. "I don't know if I can."

"But you have to," Williamson said, calmly, like he'd known all along. "Because you know who'll pay if you don't."

"Please," Charlie whispered, listening to the silence across the hall, thinking of Don's sobs in the middle of the night. He knew who would pay if he didn't. "I can't--I can't without him--please don't--"

Williamson let go of him all at once, stood up and went to the sink, and Charlie stared at him, dazed, while he washed the blood from his hands. He walked out without another word or a backward glance.


Don sat with his hands between his knees, his right hand throbbing in time to his heart, staring at his watch and waiting. He'd heard Charlie cry out just once, and then nothing. An hour had passed after that sharp sound, when Skip suddenly stood up and said, "Come on, Mac."

Don bounced to his feet and followed Skip out the door and across the hall and into Charlie's room.

Only the worklight was on, shining on a badly smeared chalkboard. It took Don a minute to spot Charlie, sitting in the furthest corner from the door, pressed back into the walls. He looked up as soon as Don walked in, made a small convulsive movement toward him and then subsided, letting his head fall against the wall.

Don walked over to him slowly, looking around the room. There was almost nothing except that smeared chalkboard to show signs of struggle, though Don was sure there had been one. Charlie was dressed in his other change of clothes, t-shirt and sweatpants and clean white socks, his arms wrapped around his knees. As his eyes adjusted to the light, Don could make out a bruise on one cheek, his hair slightly wet, but there was no other sign of injury. Of physical injury.

"Hey," Don said softly, lowering himself to his knees when he got within arm's reach.

Charlie's head came up quickly, and Don could make out the dark spattering of petechial hemorrhages around his eyes. Sign of strangulation in an autopsy, but there were no marks on Charlie's throat. It might have been anything.

"Don't," Charlie whispered, and his voice was thin and small. He winced like it hurt to talk. "Don't touch me."

Don nodded slowly, raised his hands palm-out and started to back away, but Charlie lurched toward him again as he did.

"Don't go," he whispered.

Don nodded again.

"I won't," Don said softly, and he sat down against the wall, just out of reach. Charlie seemed to notice his hand then, and Don held it out, knuckles up, showing him the bandage. Charlie winced and laid his head down on his knees.

Don leaned his own head back against the wall, tucked his injured hand against his gun, and breathed. Charlie was here. He was here. It could be worse.

After a while, Charlie tipped over sideways in slow motion, coming to rest in the fetal position with his back to the wall and the top of his head pressed against Don's hip. Don reached over slowly with his right hand, trying to put it out in front of Charlie's face where he would see it coming, and Charlie pulled it down, tucking Don's hand against his chest and cuddling it like a teddy bear. Don spread his fingers on Charlie's ribs, feeling Charlie's heart beat against his palm, and sat perfectly still, keeping watch as Charlie finally slept.


Charlie opened his eyes exactly where he'd closed them, curled between Don and the corner, Don's injured hand held to his chest. He finally felt less dangerously exhausted than he had, and sleep seemed to have cured him of the terror-hangover that had brought him to huddle in the corner in the first place, hardly able to speak or move or even bear to be touched when Don was finally returned to him.

A certain amount of terror still lingered: Williamson hadn't told him anything he didn't already know, but he hadn't wanted to think about it. He had to do this thing, and do it right, not only for his own sake but for Don's. He stared across the room at the smeared board under the worklight, trying to reconstruct its contents even as he lay there holding Don's hand to himself and wondering if there were any other way.

But no. He knew Williamson's patterns of behavior as well as he knew anything but math. Williamson controlled every angle; Charlie only controlled his own work. All he could do was the job before him. Resolved, he let go of Don's hand and struggled up to sit, wincing as he realized that his entire body had stiffened into that fetal curl. Beside him, Don said, "Four hours, attaboy."

Charlie looked over to find Don watching him, his head tipped back against the wall, his eyes shadowed. Don looked at him searchingly for a moment, and then held out his left hand, showing Charlie his watch. It was a little past three.

"Morning of December eighteenth," Don said. "You good if I crash for a little while?"

Charlie swallowed and nodded. Don looked so tired, and there had been those sounds. "You're--you're good?"

Don glanced down at his hand. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just a scratch."

Charlie looked down at Don's hand, resting awkwardly on the carpet. The light was bad, but he could make out small cuts around the bases of his fingernails. His knuckles looked bruised, and he held his hand carefully, as though it hurt. Charlie recalled the way he'd been clutching it, and hoped, probably pointlessly, that he hadn't contributed to Don's pain.

But there was nothing he could do for Don now except his job, so Charlie just nodded and said, "Okay," and got to his feet.

He walked over to the card tables, rolling his shoulders in a vain attempt to loosen the knotted muscles of his back. There were two new sheets of paper lying under the box of chalk, and Charlie stared at them for a moment before lifting the chalk away and picking them up. The up-facing sides were blank, but when he turned them over he found his chalkboards: digital photographs, he supposed, taken before--before. Printed out at high resolution, and while he had to squint to read a few lines, the copies were good enough to allow him to reconstruct everything.

Naturally, Williamson would not have allowed the job to be delayed. He'd only been making a point, and even if the instrument with which he made the point was Randy, it was always Williamson in the end. Charlie swallowed, staring down at his work in his hands, and was reaching for the chalk when a flash of color made him look up.

Don was kneeling on the mattress, the two sleeping bags on the floor behind him, trying to pull Charlie's blanket from where it had gotten stuffed down between the mattress and the wall. After a moment he stood and pulled the mattress up vertical; when he let go to pick up the blanket out, it toppled over onto its other side. The side no one had lain on before, not Don, not Charlie, not Randy. Charlie stood blinking, dazed, as Don shoved the mattress up against the wall, spread out one sleeping bag and then lay down. He balled up Charlie's blanket under his head, pulled the other sleeping bag over himself, and then lay still. For a moment his eyes were open, gazing toward Charlie, and Charlie stayed frozen until they closed.

Don was asleep on the other side of the room, and his work was undisturbed. Just like that, everything snapped back into place, everything was once again as it should be, give or take the bandage on Don's hand and the ache in Charlie's neck. Just like that, the night before was made to disappear. It was almost more frightening than the fact that it had happened at all.

Almost.

Charlie forced himself back to work, and by the time he'd finished copying out the contents of the first board he was adjusting the algorithm he'd half worked out on it. By the end of the second the security movements were clicking into place, the pattern forming in his head and flowing onto the board. When he'd gotten that more or less worked out it gave him an idea about the structure of the electronic security system, and he began mapping it out on board seven just as the lights switched on.

It was Don; having flipped on the switches by the door, he was already walking to the bathroom, checking his gun and giving Charlie a quick smile as he went. Charlie smiled back briefly and immersed himself in his work again; he began writing out the variables he still needed to confirm in pencil on the wall beside the filled chalkboard. He'd moved on to standing at the card table, staring at schematics and a table of engineering specifications, when Don said, "Hey, let me do that."

Charlie looked up, frowning--he didn't think Don was really up to predicting the effects of explosive force on structural steel--and only then realized that he had his left hand on the back of his own neck, still futilely attempting to work the knots out. Charlie lowered his hand as Don moved behind him, and Don's hands settled warm and strong on the back of his neck, thumbs pressing into cramped muscle until Charlie lost all track of what he'd been looking at.

He remembered the first time Don had touched him, rubbing his cold-cramped hand. Don had always been his, right from the start, before he'd been able to fathom that it could be true. His touch was already familiar, and Charlie knew Don and himself well enough to see the moment coming, like the peak in amplitude on some wave function, the moment when simple animal comfort turned to heat, desire. There--that touch, that press of Don's fingers, the slight scrape of the gauze on Don's right hand at the side of Charlie's neck, and Charlie's breath came short. His head sagged forward as his dick hardened, and Don kept touching him, so close Charlie could feel the heat of his body down his back.

Charlie didn't even think it through, just tried to shift back against him. But Don anticipated him, moving when he did, and the only way Charlie could close the gap was to turn under his hands, pulling Don down into a kiss. Don's hands kept moving over his back, touch frustratingly muffled by his t-shirt until Charlie pulled away to take it off. Don watched him with a small smile on his kissed-wet lips, and Charlie pushed him back to the wall--carefully between the boards--and unbuttoned Don's shirt as he kissed him, only occasionally sidetracked by the feeling of Don's hands on his own bare skin.

He wouldn't let up long enough for Don to actually take any clothes off, but got both their jeans open and had his hand on Don's ass when Don said against his mouth, "Do you want--"

Charlie was nodding into another kiss before Don could get the rest of the sentence out. The next time Charlie let him up for air, Don managed to say, "Stuff's in the bathroom."

By the time Charlie had retrieved it, leaving his own jeans where they fell, Don was naked and waiting for him on the mattress. Don didn't seem as tense this time. Charlie was as much convinced that he liked it afterward, when Don followed him to the bathroom to clean up together, as during, when Don came in his hand, shuddering and gasping his name.

Don got dressed again when they were done, but his eyes were sleepy and soft, and he lay down when Charlie tugged on his hand. Charlie curled up against his back, covering himself and Don with his red blanket, and slept until someone brought food, and then got back to work. There had been something in the specifications, something important. The next time he looked up, Don was pacing again, and Charlie stole a second to smile at him. Don, turning at the end of the room, saw him and smiled back, and Charlie went on working for hours with that smile held warm in his belly.


Don stood in the corner of the room, watching Charlie work. He'd finally finished the days of calculations, and was into the second day of doing what seemed to be the same sequence of equations over and over with different numbers. He kept writing down results and frowning at them and then trying again, and again, and again.

It was weird to recognize the pattern, to know that it meant the job was coming to an end. Don found himself calculating how long it would take Charlie to finish this time, and how long it would be until the next job, and how long that would take, and how long Williamson would wait before starting to push Charlie again.

Don stepped away from the wall and started pacing again. He really ought to start working out again. Develop a routine. Sit-ups would probably be an all-new kind of aggravating, although it seemed to hurt less each time Charlie fucked him. Maybe he was just getting used to it. He could feel himself getting used to all of this, to a world the size of a single room and the silence of Charlie keeping his back turned for eighteen hours of every day. He would come to Don--when he got stuck, or when he noticed that Don was lying down, or when some internal timer went off, once in every twenty-four hours over the last few days--and start with kisses, and he never exactly asked, but Don found himself rolling over for Charlie every time.

He was getting used to it--even getting to like it. He didn't think he could have said so out loud, but Charlie never asked in words, and there was no point lying to himself. He didn't get that sick-falling sensation when Charlie pushed inside him anymore; he was hard way before Charlie laid a hand on him. It wasn't normal by a long fucking shot, but it was usual now, and at least if Don lay back down afterward, Charlie would lie down too and get more than an hour's sleep at one time.

Pacing from one wall to the other, Don wondered if there was any chance he'd ever be more use to Charlie than this. He knew he'd made things better for Charlie--kept him safe from most of the routine torment he'd suffered before, supplied him with some kind of human comfort--but maybe that was the end of what he was accomplishing. Maybe he'd made the status quo tolerable enough that Charlie wouldn't see any need to try to escape, if he'd ever have been willing to risk it at all. Without Charlie's help, the very best Don could do for them was to get them both killed; Williamson held all the cards, kept all the exits covered. And if Charlie didn't want to escape, independently, it might never be safe to try to persuade him. He still didn't know how far Charlie would trust him; he was only mostly sure about how far he could trust Charlie, and he could never expect Charlie to keep that kind of secret in the face of torture.

Don stopped short, facing a chalkboard Charlie wasn't working at, with notations spilling off the slate and onto the wall around it. The only question left, really, was whether this--right now, right here, Charlie's life in this room--was worth everything he'd done. Don stared at Charlie's handwriting, the sharp-cornered fours and cramped twos, so different from the scrawl Don had once been familiar with. He'd found Charlie, and he was taking care of Charlie the only way he knew how. He couldn't have done anything differently: couldn't have refused to come after Charlie just because he might not be able to pull him out, or because it might take a long time, or because he might find himself doing things he wouldn't have under any other circumstances.

Still, later that night when Charlie climbed on top of him, pressing hungry, smothering kisses to his mouth, Don stole a second of air to say, "Charlie."

"Mmm?" Charlie murmured, his mouth sliding distractingly down Don's jaw to his throat, his hand covering Don's cock so that Don had to bite down on his lip and concentrate to find the words.

"Charlie," he whispered, "do you ever think--"

Charlie's fingers covered his mouth, and Charlie's teeth closed lightly on his ear. "No," Charlie whispered. "Don't think. Shhh."

Don opened his mouth, but Charlie's fingers pressed inside, and Don found himself sucking at chalk-and-sweaty skin, fingertips pressing against his tongue. By the time his mouth was free again, he'd forgotten what he meant to say, but then it hardly mattered. Charlie wasn't going anywhere.


Williamson stood there in silence for an almost unbearably long time, frowning down at the three closely-written pages that comprised Charlie's final results. Charlie didn't even pretend he wasn't watching every movement of Williamson's eyes down the pages whose contents he had long since memorized. When Williamson said, without looking up or tilting the page, "You're sure about this?" Charlie knew he'd latched onto the specifications for the explosives.

"I can go over it with you if you want," Charlie said, waving to a stack of papers when Williamson glanced up. "The physics are fairly straightforward, although the failure mode prediction gets kind of involved."

Williamson squinted at him for a moment and then shook his head.

"You do the math," he muttered, looking back down at the page.

Charlie reminded himself to breathe. He'd done this thing, absolutely the best he could. It was out of his hands now. Well, almost out of his hands. It was still right there within his reach.

"It's going to be difficult," Charlie said, as Williamson flipped to the last page.

Williamson glanced up at him, raising one eyebrow. "Not your problem anymore, Know-It-All."

Charlie gave him a grim semi-smile. "So you won't blame me if anything goes wrong, then?"

Williamson looked back to the page, frowning harder. "If you've given me a solution that's not functionally possible--"

"I didn't say it was going to be impossible," Charlie said firmly. "I said it would be difficult. The team is going to have to stick to the plan exactly or it'll fall apart. If they don't stay on schedule to the second, this won't work."

"So you only demand that they be as good at their jobs as you are at yours," Williamson said.

It was strangely close to a compliment, reminiscent of their early jobs, when Williamson had seemed at times to like him, or at least to like his abilities. Charlie would have smiled at that once, blushing and clutching at the crumb of approval, stammering out some response; now he said nothing, waiting.

"Maybe I should send you on the job, huh?"

Charlie blinked. "Even if you were seriously entertaining the idea, it wouldn't be the most efficient use of my skill-set."

Williamson nodded; it was no more, nor less, than the truth, and of course Williamson would never let him out on a job.

"What is it you want me to do, then, apart from hire a good crew, which is my business?"

His business, and already done, given the time constraint. Charlie had wound up having to design the job around the Christmas holiday time window, allowing himself a few guesses about how it might affect security staffing, since that was one of the few areas in which he hadn't been deluged with solid information. Whoever they were, the team had already been assembled, and were probably already on their way to the job location.

"Give them a good leader," Charlie said firmly. Williamson looked up at that, meeting his eye steadily. "If you led the team, for example, they'd stick to the plan exactly."

Williamson smiled a little. "You flattering me, Know-Nothing?"

Charlie's lips twitched, and he shrugged. "It's my job to know effective tactics when I see them. You're effective. You'd get the job done."

"Of course I'd get the job done," Williamson said, shaking his head. "I'm not about to let you take the credit for my save. Why don't I send Mac, hey?"

Charlie looked to the far side of the room at that, where Don was leaning in a corner watching them. He'd obviously been listening, and there was a strange look on his face, almost hopeful. Maybe Don would have liked that; his pacing might be reassuring to Charlie, but it had to indicate a certain degree of boredom. Charlie tried to think of it as if it were an actual possibility relevant to job utility, and not merely a threat on Williamson's part.

"No," Charlie said finally, looking back at Williamson with a small frown. "Wrong leadership style. Mac tends to seem open to negotiation."

Williamson snorted, and Charlie said, "There won't be time for negotiation on this one."

"I get it, Know-Nothing, I heard you." Williamson folded the sheets in half decisively. "I'll take your comments under advisement."

He half-turned toward the door, stopping to look at Don for a long moment, as though he really were considering sending him on the job. Charlie didn't move, didn't look at Don to see how he withstood the scrutiny; and then Williamson walked out.

Charlie made it as far as the mattress on shaky legs, and Don caught him as he started to fall, lowering him to its surface as his eyes closed.


Chapter Fifteen

Don had been half asleep, lying with Charlie's dead weight sprawled over his chest. He snapped awake when Charlie did.

Charlie pushed himself up onto his elbows--jamming one sharply into Don's chest--as he said, "Time?" in a thick, anxious voice.

Don pushed Charlie away a little, working his left arm free and blinking at his watch.

"1:15 pm, on the twenty-fourth," Don said, and Charlie sagged back down over him.

He could still feel Charlie's wakefulness in every muscle, slightly tensed, waiting to move. Charlie pressed his face to Don's throat and said, "I need a shower," in a decisive tone barely audible against Don's skin.

Don frowned a little, running a hand through Charlie's hair. A shower wasn't usually Charlie's first priority, waking up, but on the other hand it was true.

"Okay," Don said, dropping his hand, making it easy for Charlie to get up.

Charlie pushed himself to his knees, but then his hand closed around Don's wrist and he tugged. "And you."

Don smiled. Charlie kept hold of Don's wrist all the way to the bathroom, and only let go to reach into the shower and turn on the tap, twisting it all the way to hot and turning on the shower.

Don caught a glimpse of Charlie's face as he pushed past Don to get to the sink, turning that tap to hot and full blast as well, and he only thought he'd been awake before. Colors went sharp, and there was a bitter taste in the back of his mouth as his heart started to race. Charlie was serious about something, Charlie was finally getting with the program. This was the beginning of something big.

Charlie said quietly, "You may want to sit down."

Don drew his gun and then sat, perching on the toilet, resting his right hand and the Sig on his left knee. Charlie stood facing him, taking a couple of deep breaths as steam began to curl into the air, the running taps warming the room.

"Okay," Charlie said. "The question is: if Williamson walked in here right now, and tried to kill me, would you let him?"

Don stared for a second at Charlie staring intently back at him, as though the answer were actually in doubt, before shaking his head. "You know I wouldn't."

Charlie nodded shallowly. "Okay," he said. "In about three hours, Williamson is going to come in here--or send someone in here--to try to kill me."

Don could not think of a single word to say. He didn't think he could even breathe, or move, every muscle in his body tensed to the point of locking up. Charlie was looking down at him with that faintly concerned expression he'd sometimes worn, back in their other life, when he hoped Don had been able to follow whatever mathematical thing he'd just gone over, but suspected he hadn't. Don groped for words, any words.

"The job?" he said finally, because it had to be something to do with the job.

Charlie looked a little relieved, and nodded. "It wasn't just a job, it was a demo. Williamson wanted me to show what I could do; odds are," and knowing Charlie, he meant that in the technical sense, "this job is meant to seal negotiations. Unless I miss my guess, there will be a buyer in the building when the job goes down."

Don blinked, forcing his numb brain to break down Charlie's words, ransacking them for meaning. "A buyer."

"For me," Charlie said, shrugging a little stiffly. "Williamson's too smart to think he can run me forever. He's made plenty of money with me, but he has to get rid of me, or sooner or later someone will spot a pattern in jobs I've planned and catch us. Catch him. He could just kill me, but why do that when he could get someone to pay to take me off his hands?"

It made a certain horrible kind of sense. Eventually someone other than Don would make the connection; if not the jobs to Charlie, then the jobs to each other, all dangling unsolved, all so perfect. And Williamson was nothing if not practical.

Charlie kept going now that he'd started, his conclusions cascading out like an arcane mathematical proof.

"He wouldn't sell me locally, because leaving me in the vicinity still raises problems for him. I know what he looks like--if I'm arrested I could point to him. So it's got to be international, and in order to have the money to make it worth Williamson's time--we're talking about organized crime, maybe a drug cartel, or--"

Charlie stopped short, and Don met his eyes, feeling sick with realization, wondering how long Charlie had known this, been waiting for it. "Or well-funded terrorists."

Charlie nodded. "I--I don't know where Williamson got me, I don't know what kinds of things I did before, but Don--the stuff I know, about structural engineering, bombs, nuclear material, bioweapons--"

Don winced, and Charlie nodded. That's not why you know, Don wanted to say, but now was not the time. Three hours. One way or another, it would all be over soon. After that, he could tell Charlie, or it wouldn't matter.

"I can't risk," Charlie whispered. "I can't risk that they'll put a gun to your head and I'll kill thousands of people with a mathematically perfect attack. It has to be now."

Don looked up sharply at Charlie, feeling sick all over again. Williamson had left the room with Don's blood on his hand, and--God, he'd been using Don for leverage. And it had worked, as surely as Don would kill anyone who stood between him and Charlie. Still, Don shook his head. "You're not a killer, Charlie."

Charlie made a little laughing sound, desperate and humorless and not actually a laugh at all. "No? Then I will be soon enough. This job, this showpiece--if they stick to the plan I gave them, everyone on the job is going to die."

Charlie looked away, and Don didn't know how many more shocks he could actually register in a row. It took him several seconds to grasp Charlie's words, and everything around him seemed like a dream, bright and insubstantial. The gun under his hand was real; everything else was dissolving in the incongruous warmth of the bathroom, steam flowing like water through the open doorway.

"They'll get in past all the security," Charlie said slowly. "And they'll hit the electronic system once on the outside to get them in, and again once they're in to seal the human security out. They don't realize that they're also going to fuck up fire suppression, but they won't have much time to think about that, because fifty-two seconds after they close themselves in, they're going to set off a blast that's supposed to open up the vault. It won't; it'll kill three of them in the initial explosion, and start a fire that will spread rapidly through that floor of the building, killing the rest of them before they can find a way to get the doors reopened while allowing the rest of the building to be evacuated before it spreads. Randy won't be with the vault team, so it should take him four or five minutes to die."

Charlie glanced down at Don to gauge his reaction, and if he could tell what it was, Don hoped Charlie would say so. Don could make out a savage hope that Charlie was right in every detail, and something like fear, and too many other things to consider naming, all blurred by the distance of shock. Charlie looked away without speaking, so Don finally said, "You tried to send Williamson."

Charlie shook his head. "He'd never have gone. I just made sure he would send Randy. Everyone's scared of him. People do what he says. He'll be the ideal leader to make sure that everyone sticks to the plan exactly. And that's how I'll be sure to kill him and everyone else."

Don shook his head, finally finding something solid to grasp in all of this. "Charlie, that doesn't--you're not killing anyone. They're choosing to get involved in this job, that carries a risk of something happening. You just--"

"I'm just making sure it will," Charlie said, softly but with finality. "And since Williamson is selling not just me but the proposition that I can be controlled, at the moment when he realizes what I've done I become worthless. I'm hoping the buyer will be on site to take immediate possession; that should provoke a fight between Williamson and the buyer, probably with heavily-armed backup on both sides. That should reduce the number of men available to come after us, and give us some warning."

Don lowered his face into his left hand and sat for a while--excruciatingly conscious of every ticking second, but needing every one to try to find some equilibrium. Charlie had done this; kept it from him, kept it from Williamson. Through torture and terror and day after grinding day, Charlie had set this all up and waited for the trap to spring, and now the moment had come. This wasn't the beginning of anything; Don had walked in on the last five minutes--last two hours and forty-five minutes.

Don raised his head and looked up at Charlie, who was watching him with an unreadable expression. His face was flushed from the heat, his hair going wild in the damp, but his eyes were steady and dark. Don could smell him in the warm air. They were separated by bare inches, Don's head at the level of Charlie's waist. Don sat back a little and met Charlie's eyes.

"What would you have done if I said I'd let him kill you?"

Charlie blinked, but didn't look at all surprised by the question.

"I'd have asked you to fuck me," he said, without hesitation, without the least pause to think. He'd already had a plan for that contingency. "Because I want to, before I die, and because you couldn't say no on the grounds of not wanting to hurt me if you were about to let me die, and because you might have gotten sentimental afterward and changed your mind."

Don closed his teeth on his lip, hard, and did not think about that, about Charlie offering himself up for one last--

"You kill me," Don said, low and hoarse. "Charlie, you fucking kill me."

Charlie's eyes widened a little as Don stood, but Don pushed him back to the wall and kissed him. He meant to go slow, he meant to be gentle, but his whole body shook with adrenaline, and he was pinning Charlie to the wall just trying to steady himself. It wasn't until the second time he lifted his head to breathe that he realized he still had his gun in his hand, pressing it against Charlie's shoulder to hold him still. He holstered it and cupped his hands to Charlie's face, kissing him roughly, grinding his hips against Charlie's as Charlie moaned. He could feel Charlie's dick hard against his hip, hot as everything else in the steaming room, and his own hard-on was throbbing in his jeans, but nothing mattered as much as this, his mouth against Charlie's, his breath Charlie's breath, every inch of him pressing every inch of Charlie to the wall.

Charlie kept trying to talk when Don's lips parted from his, "D--" and "Pl--" and "Nn--" but Don couldn't let him finish a syllable, kissing him harder every time. His teeth scraped Charlie's lips, his tongue thrusting deep into Charlie's mouth, until Charlie's head sagged back against the wall and Charlie's mouth was soft and wet and open to him, Charlie's breath rushing against his mouth. Don raised his head and looked down at Charlie, slumped against the wall, sharp eyes gone dazed, lips red and slick, sweat trickling down his temple.

He touched his forehead to Charlie's and closed his eyes, felt the flutter of eyelashes as Charlie closed his. He slid his hand into Charlie's pants, palming Charlie's cock as he whispered, "I'm not going to let you die."

Charlie's head shook a little under his, and Charlie gasped, "I know."

Don ducked his head and kissed Charlie's throat, sucking at his skin almost hard enough to leave a mark, just under his jaw and then again below that, and again below that. He jacked Charlie's cock a little, feeling it jerk in his hand, hot and desperate, and then he was yanking Charlie's shirt up, shoving it off over obediently raised arms. He dropped to his knees and took Charlie's pants down with him.

Don didn't hesitate, didn't tease, just wrapped a hand around Charlie's cock and brought it to his mouth. He sucked at the head until Charlie's hands caught in his hair, and then he braced his hands on Charlie's hips, holding Charlie hard to the wall as he took Charlie's cock into his mouth. He didn't try anything remotely fancy--even by his standards--just swallowed him, sucking hard and fast, bobbing up for breath when he had to. Charlie's hips jerked under his hands, but Don pushed him back fiercely, growling low in his throat as Charlie's body thumped solidly against the wall.

Charlie gasped, his hands tightening painfully in Don's hair, his cock twitching in Don's mouth. Don could feel Charlie's heartbeat, racing as fast as his own, and they were all one thing right now, all together. Don closed his eyes and swallowed around Charlie's cock. Charlie's grip stayed tight but suddenly reversed, trying to push him away, and Don pushed back harder, sucking until Charlie came, spilling into his mouth, the taste shocking and intense and flooding his senses. He swallowed until he choked, turned his head and gasped and then was sucking Charlie again, forcing himself to be gentler as Charlie let out a moan that was half a whimper. He couldn't let go of Charlie's dick, the taste and the feel of Charlie in his mouth, until Charlie's hand slid to his face and pushed him away.

Don fell back all at once, turning his face aside, eyes squeezed shut. Every gasp stung his mouth and throat, and he was shaking. He raised a hand to his face and it came away wet, come or sweat or tears, he didn't even know. Charlie knelt down between Don's splayed thighs, kissing his cheek, the spot beside his eye, and Don let his head fall back, leaning awkwardly against the toilet, as Charlie opened his pants.

He didn't last long--he was surprised he hadn't come in his pants, just from sucking Charlie's cock--but Charlie's hand was like an echo of the same sensation, the same connection. His hips arched up and he was gasping and coughing and coming. Charlie leaned his forehead against Don's temple, and they both stayed there, catching their breath, until Charlie's fingers closed around Don's left wrist, tugging his watch into view. Don tensed a little, though he knew they hadn't really lost much time.

Charlie kissed his mouth lightly and said, "Come on, the water's going to get cold."


Don had washed his hair for him, and insisted on combing it out after he toweled it dry, standing over him and working out every stubborn tangle while time ticked by. It wasn't like there had been anything more important to do, and Don had seemed calm by the time he finished, some of the wildness gone out of his eyes.

Their few preparations hadn't taken long. Don had brought his stash of comic books behind the makeshift barricade--the mattress propped behind the card tables, turned on their sides--and Charlie read while Don sat very still, spare clips and his backup weapon arrayed on the carpet around him.

Charlie peered up from his comic at the second gun from time to time; he'd never even known it was in Don's bag. All that time--but what would he have done with it had he known? Don had been right from the beginning; a gun was no good without a plan. The plan would have been no good without a gun, and someone more skilled than himself wielding it. He had needed Don for this.

Don had his left hand resting on his knee where Charlie could see his watch. Not long now. He squirmed and swallowed, nerves shaking through him before he forced himself to be still. Don turned his head, looking Charlie over, and Charlie squared his shoulders, trying to look ready.

"When I say 'Down,' what do you do?"

"I get down flat," Charlie parroted, gesturing to the corner he was already tucked into. "And I don't move."

"Don't move until I move?" Don asked. "Don't move until it seems quiet?"

"Don't move until you call me by name and tell me to get up," Charlie recited.

Don nodded, seeming satisfied, and got up on his knees, tucking the clips into various pockets. He paused with the second gun in his hand and then looked sideways at Charlie. Charlie held very still.

"You know which end of this to point?" Don asked.

Charlie nodded, reaching out one finger to point to the barrel, and Don smiled.

"Okay," Don said.

He took Charlie's hand and molded it to the grip, and Charlie found it horribly reassuring how strange and heavy the gun felt when he took its weight.

"Safety," Don said, guiding Charlie's thumb to a little lever. "On, off. On. Leave it on until you think you're going to need to fire. Point and shoot."

Charlie nodded slowly, and Don gave him another grim smile. "You probably won't need it, but this way--you can watch my back, right?"

Facedown in the corner. No. He'd only be watching his own back; the only way anyone would get to him was over Don's dead body. Charlie's mouth twitched, and his stomach lurched, but he took the gun from Don, holding it carefully in his lap. Safety on.

There had been sounds of cars arriving an hour ago, but the house had been quiet since. Charlie stared at Don's wrist as the time ticked past. The job should have started at 4:06 on the dot (5:06, but Charlie was nearly positive that the job was in the Eastern time zone and this house in the Central--if he was wrong, they'd get another hour to sit here and wait). Nine minutes to complete the insertion, barely three minutes after that before things began going obviously and lethally wrong.

Everyone would be dead no more than six minutes later. Randy and seven others blown up and burned. He felt vaguely sick when he thought about it too much; not sorry, exactly--he wouldn't undo it--but disgusted and horrified by what he was doing. He couldn't help wondering if--how many times--he'd done this before. Maybe that was why he couldn't remember anything, maybe that was why anything like a memory carried with it that sick, cold, lurch of terror. Maybe everything before was too awful to hold in his head, and after this--

But he'd have to survive the next hour for there to be an after worth worrying about. Charlie gritted his teeth and was reaching for another comic book, left-handed, still holding the gun in his right, when a muffled shout rang out, an unfamiliar angry voice. The shouting intensified, becoming a fury of conflicting voices, and then the pop of a gunshot, and then a whole volley. Charlie's eyes squeezed tight, his whole body pressing back into the wall, his hand clenching tight on the gun.

"Down," Don said, low and calm, and Charlie went flat just as Don shot out the lights.


The light from the bathroom shone on the glass littering the middle of the floor. Don kept his eyes on the reflected glare, reminding himself they'd come in with light behind them. He didn't dare be blinded by it. They'd see the light and gravitate to it; they'd see the red of Charlie's blanket, lying on the bathroom floor as a decoy. They only had to be distracted by it for a second; Don, hunkered down at the opposite end of the room behind his makeshift cover, only needed a second's advantage.

If they were too cautious--if they hesitated at the door to really assess the room--but here they came, running footsteps pounding up the stairs, two sets distinguishable from the continued shouting and gunfire further below. The bar was thrown off, the door yanked open, and two men burst in with their guns out. The first one swung straight toward the bathroom door, and Don took him out with a head shot, blood spraying dark on the wall. Don didn't hesitate before sweeping left, two shots into the second one even as he fired. The gunman collapsed into the closet space, legs kicking for several long seconds before he went still.

Don stayed crouched down, blinking his eyes clear of sweat and dazzling light, waiting. Two men dead, just like that. He heard a few final thumps from below and the whole house was silent. It had lasted a couple of minutes, maybe less.

Don said, "Genius?" as he looked behind him. There was a hole in the chalkboard above his head, a hole blown through the mattress to his right that corresponded to a hole in the wall.

"Okay." Charlie's voice was shaky and muffled. He was still facedown on the floor. Don reached down and touched him, criss-crossing his back and down one folded leg. No blood.

"Okay," Don said.

He kept scanning the room, waiting for something more. He moved sideways in a crouch to the end of their little barricade, easing each step down silently onto the carpet until he was in the open. He could see a slice of the wall past the doorway from this angle, but not enough. He moved out a little further, took a deep breath, and then took two fast heavy steps, crunching across the glass as he said, "Come on, genius," in a slightly louder voice, running to flatten himself against the interior wall, where the angle from the door was the worst. He had his gun up all the way, squeezing the trigger even before he saw movement, and the third man was dead in the doorway.

Don leaned his head against the wall for a second, listening and breathing, but he heard nothing else, and moved slowly down the wall to the doorway. The first through the door, the one who'd been taking aim at Charlie's blanket, had been Skip. Don didn't recognize the other two--the third one's face was a mess of blood, but his clothes looked new except for his shoes, scuffed leather in a vaguely unfamiliar style. Don glanced back in Charlie's direction, closed his eyes and hoped hard, and then pivoted around the doorway with his gun out.

Nothing. No one. Don looked down the stairs, but there was nothing there. He couldn't even hear anything. He darted quickly across to the next doorway--the room where he'd been held while Charlie was tortured--ears open all the time for anyone coming up the stairs. The room still held two folding chairs and sported holes in the far wall, but it was otherwise empty. Opposite that room was another bathroom, empty and dusty, no towels on the racks or curtain on the shower rod. The furthest bedroom down the hall was furnished. There was a bed with a multicolored quilt and four pillows, neatly made, an old desk and mismatched chair, a shabby dresser. The closet stood open, empty, a spare set of closet doors leaning against the wall beside it. Don turned and bolted back down the hall to the room where Charlie waited.

He jumped over the body in the doorway, then glanced toward the corner Charlie was huddled in and stopped. Don grabbed the body by the ankles and dragged it inside, out of the way, leaving a bloody path across the carpet. He caught a whiff of cigarette smoke over the gunpowder and blood stink as he did. It smelled faintly off; it might have been that he was just cranked up to eleven on adrenaline, but it might also have been foreign cigarettes, which would match with the local-but-new clothes and the weird shoes. So this was one of theirs, then. Maybe Williamson had lost that fight Charlie had predicted. Don walked over to the card tables and tipped them down, the mattress falling heavily on top of them. Charlie, in the corner, twitched but still didn't uncurl.

"Charlie," Don said, "come on, get up, let's go."

Charlie sprang up instantly, eyes wide and shiny, cheeks red. Don reached out and grabbed the gun from his hand, checking the safety and tucking it into the back of his own pants.

"Stay behind me," Don said, looking Charlie over.

Charlie looked back at him with a slightly crazed expression, but managed to nod his understanding.

"And watch your step, there's glass."


Charlie followed Don carefully, past glass and blood and three dead bodies. His eyes passed over them quickly, a blur of color, a riot of smell on an unwary breath. Charlie turned his head, breathed through his mouth, and fixed his gaze on Don's back, the second gun now safely tucked into the back of Don's jeans. The straps of the empty holster crossed his back, and he had his gun in hand, muzzle pointed to the ceiling as they stepped out through the door.

Charlie glanced around, briefly curious; he'd never seen anything outside of his room in this HQ. But Don was starting down the stairs, and Charlie stayed one step behind him, pressing his back to the wall. Step, step, step, and neither Don's booted feet nor his own socks made a sound on the carpeted surface. Halfway down the stairs, the other wall ended, leaving them visible to the space beyond. Don eased past that boundary, dropped into a crouch and fired. The gun cracked and Charlie jumped, belatedly looking around for somewhere to get down.

Don looked back and up at him, straightening, and beckoned to Charlie with his hand, moving faster down the last few stairs. Charlie hurried down after him, clutching the railing to keep from falling, and then they were on the linoleum floor. The front door was right there, locked up tight, but Don turned right down a hallway, moving so that Charlie was sandwiched between him and the wall as they both stepped sideways. Charlie glanced past the front door, toward the room that would have had a view of the stairs. He caught another fast glimpse of another body, facedown, dark hair black with blood, and then Don was tugging him along the hallway.

They stopped nearly at the end, and Don leaned to his right, trying to check the room beyond, gun up. Charlie didn't know why, but he looked back, toward the front door. Time seemed to break--everything happening at once, but everything taking forever to happen--as Williamson came around the corner with his gun out.

He wasn't even looking at Charlie; his avid, deadly gaze was all focused on Don, and Charlie stared at his face, fascinated. He'd rarely seen Williamson with his attention focused so absolutely on something other than himself. Even as Williamson came around the corner he was bringing his gun up, taking aim, and Charlie didn't even try to make a sound of warning.

His right hand found the gun at Don's back, heavy and awkward and exactly what was required. Charlie thumbed off the safety as he turned the gun toward Williamson. Trajectories swooped in his mind's eye, but he pulled the trigger without really aiming. The crack was like thunder, and the recoil knocked him back, into the wall and into Don, and a dark wet hole opened in Williamson's belly.

Williamson's eyes went wide, his gaze finally falling on Charlie. He looked surprised, and that was almost a better victory than the blood spreading rapidly from the wound in his stomach. Still, Charlie's numb hand tightened on the gun, and he was raising it again as Don whirled around.

Don's left hand caught Charlie's right, pushing the gun down, even as he swung his own gun around and down. Williamson was still on his feet--his gun still raised--and Don's eyes were probably on that, but Charlie was still focused on Williamson's face. Charlie saw him grin, bloody-mouthed, in the instant before Don's gun fired, knocking Williamson's head back, the side of his face disappearing in a spray of blood. Don's arm jerked and came back into place: another loud shot, and Williamson's throat gaped red as he fell to the floor with a solid, final thump.

Don wrested the gun from Charlie's hand and put it away again, turning to face Charlie as he looked up and down, his gun held with the barrel pointing up between them. Charlie looked at Don's face, not at the wreckage on the floor, or at the spreading pool of blood. Don was looking away, down the hall again in the direction he'd been checking before.

"Don."

Don's head whipped around, his gaze instantly riveted on Charlie.

Charlie flexed his now-empty right hand and whispered, "Why did you--"

Don's eyes flicked toward Williamson and back to Charlie. "You're not a killer."

Charlie shook his head. "You don't know that."

Don's lips quirked up slightly, though his eyes stayed serious and steady. "Trust me."

Charlie nodded a little; he did trust Don. He thought Don was probably wrong--certainly wrong, by some definitions--but Charlie trusted him.

Don looked away again. "Come on," he said, leading Charlie away from Williamson.

Charlie followed him out into the kitchen--a dead man slumped over the table, another on the floor--Charlie trained his eyes on Don's back, and Don led him around the corner and through another doorway. The basement stairs lay before them, and an outside door to one side. Don emptied a little rack on the wall of the keys dangling there, and said, "Here, put these on," kicking at a pair of sneakers, lined up neatly among a row of other shoes. "They should be about your size."

Don tugged him forward, and Charlie obediently jammed his feet into the shoes. It was a weird sensation--constricted but protected--and then Don snorted and bent over, tugging the tongues of the shoes up and rendering them much more comfortable.

"Come on, you can tie 'em in the car."

Don opened the door and Charlie followed him out--out--in a daze. There were two cars there, black and shining, but Don ignored both of them, leading Charlie past them to the far wall, where a row of coats hung beside another door. He shrugged into one and nodded toward another. Charlie put it on quickly, only really noticing the cold as he did so, his fingers clumsy on the buttons. Then Don turned and opened the door, stepping through quickly.

Charlie followed. He hesitated just outside, his hand still on the doorknob, feeling a strange sense of vertigo. This was it. Williamson lay dead in the house behind him and he was outside. The air was full of fog, hanging ghostly above the ground, and the sky was overcast, the light already failing. Charlie smiled at the frozen ground, the skeletal trees barely visible through the mist, and jumped when he heard Don laugh.

Don was standing a little way away, down the driveway. Charlie followed him to find that he was staring at a car parked on the gravel. It was boxy, light blue except where it was beginning to rust, dented here and there. Don was looking at it like it was the most beautiful thing in the world.

"91 Cutlass Ciera," he said incomprehensibly, holding up a key. "Perfect. Come on, buddy, we're getting out of here."

That much Charlie understood. He headed for the passenger door that Don waved him to, trying the handle and finding it unlocked.

"Buckle up," Don said, settling into the driver's seat, and even as Charlie complied Don leaned sideways over his lap, popping open the glove compartment nearly onto Charlie's knees. He rummaged quickly through the contents--a small flashlight, a map of Wisconsin, and an unlabeled white envelope. Don opened it with one thumb; it contained a few official-looking slips of paper and a stack of twenty-dollar bills. Don pulled out the money and dropped it in Charlie's lap as he straightened up.

"Hold onto that," he said, slid the key into the ignition and turned it.

The car roared to life, and Don grinned, shook his head, and muttered something about trains running on time as he laid his arm across the back of Charlie's seat, watching over his shoulder as he backed the car up. He turned forward again a moment later, executing a tight turn, and they were rumbling slowly down the driveway through the fog. Charlie looked back to watch the house disappearing in the gloom. There wasn't a thing to show what had happened in there. For an instant Charlie heard Williamson laughing, saying All you're leaving behind you is a trail of bodies, but Williamson was dead, and the view out the back window was nothing but a blur of gray.

Charlie turned around, settling face-forward in his seat, and looked down at the money in his lap. On some half-conscious impulse, he picked up the top bill and held it up, trying to see it properly in the last of the light: tiny foil strip, yes, watermark, yes, all the lines crisp and clean and distinct.

"Not counterfeit," Charlie said, and then bit his lip, wondering why he should know that. His mind bloomed with suggestions, the way fluid dynamics could track the movements of money, counterfeit or otherwise. When he glanced over most of the triumph had drained from Don's face.

They turned off the gravel driveway onto what he supposed must be a road, though it was at least as bumpy. They crawled along it in the fog as the light continued to fail, and something came over Don's face as he flicked on the headlights, his jaw tightening. Charlie felt suddenly unaccountably scared, and the feeling didn't diminish when Don pulled over the car, well off the side of the road, turning off first the headlights and then the engine. It was nearly dark, and the silence surrounding them was absolute.

"Charlie," Don said quietly, and Charlie instantly replied, "No," randomly, desperately. He didn't want whatever was about to follow that word.

Don's head jerked toward him, Don's eyes intent on him in the twilight, and Don's hand settled firmly on his shoulder and squeezed.

"Charlie," he repeated, "I have to go do something, and you can't come with me."

Charlie's heart went cold, and he shrank under Don's hand, glancing outside at the dark; but Don was taking the keys from the ignition with his other hand, laying them in Charlie's lap.

"You don't have to wait for me," Don said, low and steady, "but if you do, I will come back to you. You can go wherever you want, do whatever you want--go to the cops--"

Charlie shook his head frantically, and Don's mouth went tight.

"Anything," Don said. "But I have to--I have to go." His voice shook a little, and Charlie wondered whether the resolve in Don's voice was for Charlie or himself. Don glanced out through the windshield, over his shoulder toward the road, though Charlie couldn't see it in the fog and dark.

"If anybody comes," Don said, his face turned away but his hand steady on Charlie's shoulder, "you tell them you were hitching a ride, and the guy driving the car pulled over and got out to take a piss in the trees. You don't know anything about him, not even his name."

Charlie frowned, and Don seemed to sense it, looking back at him with a grim, urgent expression. "Charlie, you don't know anything."

Charlie opened his mouth, but Don lunged in and kissed him before he could speak, fast and rough and breathless. Charlie fumbled at his seatbelt trying to get out, get to Don, keep him here. He sucked roughly at Don's tongue in his mouth, one hand clutching the sleeve of Don's coat. But Don pulled away abruptly, saying again in an unsteady voice, "I'll come back," and then he opened the door, letting in a brief burst of cold foggy air as he shook off Charlie's grip, and he was gone.


Don walked quickly through the trees, not quite letting himself run on the uneven, hard-frozen ground, hoping he could navigate back to the house by dead reckoning. It was dark among the trees, if a little less foggy, and it wouldn't be hard to get lost and wind up wandering through some Wisconsin forest for the entire night. They hadn't been moving too fast in the car, but it was hard to gauge the distance in the dark and fog; still, it seemed like he should see some sign by now. He thought about turning back, just going and getting Charlie and getting the hell out of here, but--

The gunshots wouldn't bring cops. If there were any neighbors within range of the sound, they'd be inured to it from Don's days of target practice. And Don hadn't been the only one: he'd heard periodic small-arms fire, muffled and distant, throughout the last week. So there was no urgent time limit here. Nobody was going to catch him and Charlie red-handed.

Give it time, though--a hot summer, bored country kids checking out that creepy house where you used to hear gunshots all the time--they'd find the target range first, or the track through the woods littered with broken bottles and expended rounds. They'd make their way to the house--maybe they'd get all the way inside and smell it, maybe they'd just look through a window and see. But then there would be cops, six months from now. A dozen violently-killed men rotting in this house... It'd be a circus, and they'd pull in the best forensics team they could find to sort out the slaughter, and then--

Fingerprints, just like Williamson had told him, to say nothing of the DNA evidence in the room where he and Charlie had been kept--on that mattress, on the sleeping bags, on Charlie's goddamn blanket. He and Charlie would both be in CODIS now, so no one would even have to notice the similarity of their DNA to realize exactly what had been going on. If Charlie was going to walk away from this--if everything that had been done to him wasn't just going to lurk here, waiting to drag Charlie back--then somebody had to clean house. Don was the only one left to do it--and he would, if he could just fucking find it.

He came up short as the ground loomed suddenly high in front of him. For a second he thought he had to have gone completely wrong somehow, and then he made out the shape of an abandoned spray paint can lying on the ground and realized he'd come up on the backside of the target range's backstop. He turned left and skirted around the clearing until he got down to the end where people had stood to shoot; the ground there was well-trampled, and his footprints wouldn't show up so much. From there he picked up the track back toward the house, following the familiar route across the open yard and up the side of the garage to the door he and Charlie had only just slipped out.

Don took a breath, steeling himself, and then opened the door and stepped inside, sparing a glance at the expensive-looking cars in the garage--armored, he'd bet anything, they had to belong to the buyer--as he hurried to the house door. He meant to go straight downstairs, but a creeping uneasy feeling made him go up to the kitchen instead and look down the hall toward the front door.

Williamson--Williamson's corpse--was still lying there, in a pool of blood that looked black in the near-darkness. Don thought about turning a light on but didn't, walking up the hallway instead. There were two furrows through the paint on the right side, opposite where he and Charlie had stood; he hadn't even heard Williamson fire. Don stopped just at the edge of the blood pool and looked down at what was left of the man.

Most of the blood looked to have come from the gut wound; he hadn't bled for long after Don shot him. Don eyed the placement of Charlie's hit and felt exactly no temptation to take a closer look. As it was, he only suspected that the shot had been well-placed to hit the abdominal aorta. If he was right, Charlie wouldn't have needed a second shot to kill Williamson--he'd only have needed to wait a minute. He had no interest in being sure he was right. Charlie hadn't killed Williamson. Don had.

Fingerprints, Don thought again, and wondered how much Williamson had known. This was the drawback to vigilantism; if you weren't actually Batman, no one explained what they'd been doing when you won. Or maybe that was why Batman didn't kill anyone: morbid curiosity. It didn't matter now. Whatever Williamson had known, this dead body didn't. Don was starting to turn away when a light in the living room switched on, and he fired a round through the far wall before he realized there was no one there.

Don stepped carefully around Williamson, across the foyer and into the living room. Another dead man lay there, face down, heels toward Don. He'd had his back to them as they came down the stairs, but Don hadn't taken the chance. The lamplight reflected off his blood, barely starting to dry where it had pooled on the carpet. Don forced himself to look away from the body, toward the lamp. It took him a few dazed seconds to follow the cord to the wall and find the timer plugged into the socket. He holstered his gun and crouched, looking it over. It looked pretty much like the ones his dad had, to make sure there was always a light on for--

Don gritted his teeth, blinking hard at the timer. It was easy to see how it worked. He glanced at his watch and reset it to turn on again in twenty minutes, then laid the lamp gently on the carpet, making sure the bulb rested against the shade. There was his time limit, then.

Don got up and headed for the stairs, pausing over Williamson for one more look. He holstered his gun and reached for the one at the small of his back, the one Charlie had fired. He wiped it clean with his shirt--not a print left--and then dropped it on top of Williamson's corpse. A little blood, thick and half-congealed, splashed from the impact.

Don stepped over the body and ran up the stairs to the second floor, back into the room where they'd been held.

Charlie's blanket was still lying on the bathroom floor, safely outside the splatter radius of any of the dead bodies. Don balled it up and stuffed it into his duffle bag, which he'd left sitting in the tub. His and Charlie's clean clothes were in there, along with the somewhat depleted first aid kit and his wallet, holding the McDonald driver's license and most of the cash from his payday. Don tucked the wallet into his pocket, zipped the bag and shouldered it. He jumped over the bannister on his way down the stairs this time, avoiding Williamson's body on his way down to the basement.

The basement was divided into two halves. This one held the washer and dryer, furnace, and water heater, along with assorted anonymous supplies. There was a basket of clean clothes, neatly folded, near the door. Don dropped the duffle bag beside it and then forced himself to turn away, opening the door on the other half.

Don had seen pictures like this at Quantico, slides projected on the big screen, instructors talking about how to dissect all the confused evidence of a multiple homicide. The technical term, he thought, was abattoir. There was blood on every wall, a man in a suit slumped backward in a kitchen chair and--he counted up quickly--eight more on the floor. There was an assortment of monitors and laptops on the table the dead man sat beside. One still showed static under a spatter of blood; the others were all blank, sporting bullet holes, victims of the crossfire.

Don stood in the doorway, breathing carefully through his mouth as he reconsidered the necessity of checking the room any more carefully. He shook his head slightly and reached for the light switch, and felt the sting on his leg almost before he heard the shot. It took a long lagging second for him to drop into a crouch, pulling his gun as the next bullet splintered the doorframe at the height of his head. Don fired three shots toward the wavering arm raised out of the mess of bodies, and then the Sig clicked, empty.

Don kept his eyes fixed on that spot as he fumbled a fresh clip out of his pocket and changed it, sparing a glance down at his leg--his right thigh was bleeding, a long strip torn out of his jeans--before he stood and began walking, gun out, picking his way through the bodies to the one who'd shot him.

He kicked the gun from the hand and only then looked up to the face, past the mangled chest, the freshly-spreading pool of blood joining others on the floor around it. The eyes didn't glare, didn't even focus on him, before rolling up and going still.

"Fuck," Don muttered, but he limped around the room, checking each body to be sure they were all dead before he staggered out and shut the door behind him.

His boots tracked blood where he walked, but he had to stop his own bleeding first; everything else would be tidied up soon enough. He glanced at his watch. Twelve minutes to go. Very soon. He pulled a clean shirt from the laundry basket and pressed it hard to his leg. The sting of the wound was backed by a deep, throbbing ache now, and his whole body was getting heavy, trying to argue that getting shot made this the end of the day when it wasn't even close.

It was a shallow cut, at least. He'd lost less than five minutes by the time the bleeding slowed enough for him to fumble the laces of his boots off with shaky hands, dropping his pants and wiping his hands on them before he went into his bag for the first aid kit. He used way too many butterfly bandages, way too much gauze and tape over an uneven glob of antiseptic cream, but his hands were unsteady, and he didn't want to spring a leak at the wrong moment. He grabbed a pair of jeans from the basket, a size or two larger than his own. The hems dragged even once he got his feet back into his boots, but at least they covered the odd bulkiness of his thigh.

Don wiped his hands off again on his ruined jeans, grabbed a sock from the laundry basket and looked around for a flashlight. Williamson's touch showed again; there was one on the shelf in the back of the room, just past the furnace. Don switched it on, moved his duffle bag to the stairs, and shut off all the lights in the basement. When everything was set, he laid himself carefully down on the floor beside the water heater and blew the pilot light out. Then he pulled the Sig out, wrapped the sock around the barrel, and beat the gas valve until it broke open. The smell of it flowed over him at once.

For an instant he was tempted to just stay where he was, lie still and rest and let it take him. Charlie was out, Charlie was safe, the clock was ticking, and soon every shred of evidence would be gone. Don had done what he'd come here to do. The floor was cool and pleasantly horizontal under his cheek, the throb of his leg was distant, and his eyes were so heavy. The gun slipped from his grasp, and the sound of it hitting the concrete floor seemed muffled by more than an awkwardly-wrapped sock.

But as his eyes slid shut he remembered Charlie's frantic grip on his arm, and his own voice saying I'll come back. One last hot wash of adrenaline had him on his feet and running, pain fading to the background as the world went sharp-edged and stark and a countdown blared in his brain. He grabbed his bag as he bolted up the stairs, out the door to the garage, and out the door past that to the cold open air.

Don cut across the backyard, not letting himself break stride until he was into the trees no matter his lungs and legs burned. Even then he slowed only to a fast walk, feeling down his leg--but no, the bandages were holding, his leg was dry. He'd lost the flashlight somewhere, and it was full dark now, utterly black in the trees. If he lost the track--

The explosion was deafening, and Don turned to look back just as the concussion struck, knocking him off his unsteady feet. He landed half on top of the duffle bag and scrambled back up, his path illuminated now by the orange firelight. The neighbors were going to notice that, but by the time they got a fire truck out here, there'd be nothing to do but watch it burn to the ground, not out here off the city water mains. Don reached the target range and cut around it, losing most of the light as he went into the trees, trying to angle back to the road.

He saw lights and pushed himself faster, even as his stomach dropped--they were flashing red, and there couldn't be someone on the scene already, unless a state trooper on patrol had spotted Charlie, and in that case--

But the flash was too slow; Don stumbled out onto the verge of the road twenty yards from the source of the light and finally recognized it. Charlie had turned the hazard flashers on like a beacon; he was standing there beside the car, hugging himself in the blinking light and watching the trees. Don turned toward him, limping on, but Charlie was practically flying across the distance between them, striking Don as hard as the concussion wave. Don threw his arms around Charlie and held on, and Charlie staggered a little but kept them both on their feet.

"Don," he whispered, "Don, Don--"

"It's over," Don said, pressing his cheek hard against Charlie's hair. "We're done. Let's get the fuck out of here."


Chapter Sixteen

Don seemed to relax minutely once they turned onto a paved road. The fog was less dense, and the car's engine roared as they finally accelerated beyond the agonizing creep that had carried them away from the house. Charlie leaned his head against the cool surface of his window, staring out at the darkness sliding by. The sound of the explosion, the terrible glow of the flames reflected in the fog, the sight of Don limping out of the trees, face pale under dirt and scratches... It all looped in his brain, repeating endlessly.

Charlie turned, letting his head rest the other way, facing toward Don. He looked gray in the faint blue light from the dashboard, his face set, skin pale under smudges of dirt or blood. Don's hands were clenched hard on the wheel, though the road was straight and empty. He'd been limping. There had been an explosion.

The car was slowing. Charlie looked forward and realized they were approaching an intersection. Don glanced left and right as he came to a stop at the sign, then accelerated again, going straight through.

Charlie opened his mouth to ask where they were going, then closed it. It didn't matter where they were going. It mattered what would happen when they got there, and Charlie wasn't ready to ask that question. He let his eyes half-close. He was tired, though it had really only been a handful of hours since he'd slept. The dark outside, and the warmth of the car, and Don's nearness all combined to lull him into a doze. He snapped awake at a sudden lateral motion, his eyes flashing open to see Don's head jerking up as he yanked on the wheel.

Don pried a hand from the steering wheel to rub his face, and Charlie's heart raced as he realized what he was seeing. Don was about to drop. He'd gotten them out and been hurt in the process, and he couldn't go much further now. Charlie flushed with anger--at himself, for not seeing it sooner. Don, like anyone, operated from finite resources, and they must surely be close to total depletion now.

Charlie swallowed the emotion and the bitter rush of adrenaline and said, "Don, could you pull over?"

Don spared him a sharp, worried glance. "You okay?"

As though he were the one--Charlie nodded, doing his best to look shaky. It wasn't hard.

"I just need to--um--could you?"

"Yeah, yeah, Charlie, of course."

Don was already braking, pulling the car carefully onto the shoulder of the two-lane road. Charlie wrenched his seatbelt off and opened the door, stumbling out into the cold air. The sky was clearing, and there were stars visible past the clouds. Charlie stared up at the blazing points of light in the darkness, mind wiped blank until he heard Don's door open.

"Charlie?"

Charlie came sharply back to earth. The headlights were still on, the car still running. Charlie could see Don's face a little better out here, and he looked just as ragged and weary as he had inside.

"Hey," Charlie said. "Sorry. I just needed a break."

Don frowned, and Charlie added, "Maybe I could drive for a while?"

Don's frown vanished, and he started to laugh, but Charlie could hear the unsteady edge to it. Charlie started around the car as Don tried to stifle the sound, loud in the open silence around them. There wasn't another car in sight or earshot, just trees on either side of a long straight road.

"No," Don was saying as Charlie came toward him, "No, Charlie, you're not--"

"You're bleeding," Charlie replied.

Don stopped laughing all at once and looked down at his leg, giving himself away. Charlie forced himself to keep breathing and opened the back door on the driver's side. He gestured toward the seat where Don's duffle bag was resting.

"Get in."

Don looked up at him again, frowning. "Charlie..."

"Either let me drive, or let me help you," Charlie said in his most reasonable voice.

Don stared at him for another long minute--Charlie could feel the warmth inside the car pouring out against his side, battling the crisp cold air around them. Don ducked into the driver's door, and Charlie gritted his teeth and prepared to refuse to get back in himself--but Don was only turning the car off. He pocketed the keys as he shut the door, and came around beside Charlie.

Charlie got into the backseat, scooting across to make room as Don joined him. Charlie reached forward and switched on the interior light as Don pulled the door shut, sealing them in with the last of the heat. The car was utterly silent except for their breathing, no longer lost in the rumble of the engine and the road. Charlie opened Don's bag to find the first aid kit, and was confronted with a mass of red fleece. His blanket.

Charlie tugged it out, turning back toward Don with it in his hands. Don was leaning back in the seat, watching him with half-lidded eyes.

"You went back," Charlie said. "And you got my blanket."

A small smile twisted Don's mouth, and he murmured, "It's cold out, Charlie," as though that somehow made sense of his priorities.

Charlie shook his head as Don's eyes closed, laying the blanket over Don's lap; it was cold. Don was alarmingly still under Charlie's hovering hands, but he kept breathing. If he was asleep Charlie had no interest in waking him.

After a moment, though, Don blinked and said, "Kit's in my bag too."

"Right." Charlie turned away to find the white plastic box.

He got out the antiseptic wipes first, and braced one hand on Don's shoulder as he swabbed Don's face with the other. Don flinched when the alcohol touched a small scrape, but everything else was just dirt, and Don's eyelids lowered, eyelashes hovering just above his cheeks. Charlie pressed a quick kiss to the sharp-smelling skin beside Don's eye, and Don made a small sound, little more than a sigh.

Charlie forced himself not to be distracted, and moved on to Don's hands. The scrapes were worse there, and Charlie moved carefully over the red scar of his week-old cut. Don's hands were warm in his, fingers twitching slightly under his ministrations. It was strange to be the one doing this, strange how Don let him. But they were free now; they could do what they liked. Don wasn't his guard, and Charlie wasn't anyone's prisoner. He had as much right to look after Don as Don had to look after him. Charlie tried not to think too much about how much blood came off on the wipes with no corresponding cuts beneath.

When he'd finished, he looked up at Don's face to find Don watching him.

"Let me see your leg," Charlie said softly. Don just nodded and unbuttoned his pants, lifting up far enough to push them down. Charlie winced at the messily wrapped bandage on Don's thigh, just below the end of his shorts. He pushed the edge of Don's coat back, trying to arrange the blanket around him to keep Don warm. Charlie had to peel away layers of tape and gauze before he saw blood, and then he had to turn his face away.

"What...?"

Don was silent so long that Charlie had to look up, wondering if he'd fallen asleep, but Don was watching him.

"In the basement," Don said quietly. "One of them was still alive."

Charlie looked back down, peeling the bloodied gauze away to reveal a cut longer than his hand, angling slightly upward across Don's thigh. It was shallow, bleeding only sluggishly, and held mostly-closed by small strip bandages. Charlie cleaned it up carefully, picking away the strips that had snapped. Don hissed once, then went utterly silent. His leg was hard with tension under Charlie's hand, visibly trembling by the time Charlie finished. But Don held the end of the gauze in place while Charlie wrapped his leg, tightly and neatly, and when it was done Don grabbed an alcohol swab and washed his blood from Charlie's hands.

Charlie caught Don's hand and ducked over it, pressing a quick kiss to one reddened knuckle. Don squeezed Charlie's hands and then pulled away to tug his pants carefully back up.

It was then that Charlie noticed it, watching Don's coat gap away from his body as he moved. Charlie reached out unthinkingly across Don's chest to touch the empty holster under his arm. He didn't have anything tucked down the back of his pants now, and he'd come out of the trees empty-handed. "Don?"

Don shrugged out of his coat and then out of the holster without answering, and Charlie's stomach twisted. Don looked more naked without a holster on than he had with his pants down, and it was strange to see him that way now, out in the open, exposed.

"Don, where's your gun? Where..."

Don paused in maneuvering his coat back on to look straight at Charlie. "They're gone. We're good guys now, we don't need to shoot anybody, and we really don't need to get caught with those guns."

They're gone. The gun Don had used, the gun Charlie had used. Up in smoke along with the bodies, leaving no evidence. Charlie looked down at his own hands, wiped clean. Don had insisted he wasn't a killer.

"Thanks for this," Don said quietly, and then tugged on Charlie's arm. "Come on, we can't stop again until we find gas and coffee."

Charlie nodded, and when Don offered him the blanket he took it, carrying it with him as he moved back to the front seat.


Don fought the temptation to change directions. They would probably have to sooner or later, but as long as he had no idea where they were, they were best off traveling in a straight line. Eventually they would have to run across something. Even if they were headed north, they'd eventually hit the Canadian border, and at least that would be a landmark.

Or they'd run out of gas, still in the middle of nowhere--on Christmas--and maybe freeze to death, or be found by the police, or freeze to death and then be found by the police. Don shook his head and checked the gas gauge. They had nearly half a tank left, and it wasn't that cold outside. They were bound to find something sooner or later.

A sensible voice somewhere in the back of Don's head said that once he found out where they were, he'd have to decide where they were going, but now wasn't the time to think about that. Get Charlie away, get them both fed, get enough sleep so they could think straight. Later... later he could figure out what came next. For now he'd just follow a straight line, and that would have to be enough.

When Don saw a glow in the distance, he reached over, gently shaking Charlie's shoulder. Charlie straightened up quickly under his touch.

"What's that?" he asked immediately, so at least Don hadn't hallucinated it.

"Coffee, I hope," Don said.

His eyes were gritty, his whole body almost numb with exhaustion. He'd been tempted to stay in the backseat under Charlie's hands, but they'd still been too close to the house to risk it, and they needed--

It was a little two-pump gas station, attached to a garage. Some of the light came from that, and some came from the other small building tucked close beside it, sharing a driveway off the road, with JANET'S painted across the two brightly-lit windows.

Food. Don heard Charlie's stomach growl in unison with his own. They'd had energy bars at some point, well before they'd escaped, but proper food had been in short supply all week. Charlie was opening the door almost before Don stopped the car beside a pump. He got out and headed toward the door of the diner without even looking back toward Don, and then backpedaled sharply when a burly man in jeans and a heavy canvas jacket stepped outside. Don shoved the map into his coat pocket and slammed his door.

"Fill it up?" the man asked, and Don nodded, moving around the car toward Charlie, angling himself between him and the stranger.

"Go on in," he added, nodding back toward the diner. "Coffee's fresh, Jan just made a pot."

Don nodded again, got his hand on Charlie's elbow and steered him to the door. It was bright and warm inside, filled with the smells of coffee and deep-frying. A woman--Jan, presumably--stood behind the counter, wearing an apron over a red and green sweater. There was no one else present, a handful of tables all empty. The doorway behind Jan would lead to the kitchen, and past the tables Don could see the doors to the restrooms.

She smiled at them so brightly that Don found himself smiling back, pushing aside the problem of escape routes.

"Come on in and have a seat, boys, Tom'll have you ready to go in no time. You look like you've been driving a long way. Can I get you some coffee?"

Don nodded emphatically, towing Charlie toward a table in the middle, a compromise between the line of sight to the door and the availability of cover. Charlie followed, though his gaze stayed fixed on the counter; there was a chocolate cake there, sprinkled with red and green sugar, under a cover. Don pushed him into a seat and took the one across from it, where he could watch the door as well as the road. He tried to assure himself that their tactical situation was secure--that Tom and Jan displayed exactly no psychological characteristics of homicidal psychopaths--but he still felt naked without a gun. He forced a smile as Jan poured them cups of coffee.

The smell of coffee and the sound of it pouring hit Don low in the belly, reminding him that he'd been on the road for God knew how long and hadn't seen a bathroom since well before then. Don wrapped his hands around his mug and tried not to shift too obviously in his seat as Charlie finally settled right-way-around.

Jan said, "Kitchen's mostly closed, but I could fix something up if you want more than coffee--sandwiches, maybe?"

Charlie looked up sharply and said, "Cake?"

She chuckled, sharing a conspiratorial glance with Don. "Sweet tooth, huh?"

"We had to leave before dessert," Don said with a smile, the lie easy and automatic. Jan clucked and turned away, and Don waited only until she'd taken the cake into the kitchen to cut before he said, "I'll be right back, okay?"

Charlie's eyes went huge, his whole body tensing toward Don.

"Just to the bathroom," Don said, nodding toward the door. Even then Charlie made to follow him as he stood up. "Charlie, no. Alone."

Charlie sank slowly back down, nodding stiffly, and Don turned away with an effort. He was leaving Charlie alone, undefended, nearer to the outside door. They were the good guys now. This was how it had to be.

Don avoided looking toward the mirror until he was washing his hands and caught a glimpse of himself, pale and hollow-cheeked and strange in this ordinary bathroom. They hadn't been on the road nearly long enough to look like this, but no one would see the truth just looking at them.

Don splashed water on his face, wiped it dry on his sleeve, and got back out to the table.

Charlie was halfway through a huge slice of cake, and a matching one awaited Don. Charlie had already finished his cup of coffee, and a glass of chocolate milk stood beside it. Don grinned and sat down, tipping some of Charlie's milk into his coffee. Charlie smiled with his mouth full, frosting and sugar smeared on his lips, and went back to chewing as Don stirred his coffee and took a sip.

They were the good guys now. Charlie was sitting in a roadside diner eating chocolate cake. Don had done it. He'd gotten Charlie out.

When Don had thought about doing this--before he'd started--he thought of it almost like a case. This was the part where he was supposed to drive Charlie home, wrapped in an FBI jacket, and give him back to their dad. Hugs and smiles. A party.

But he'd left the FBI behind, and Charlie wouldn't recognize their father right now if he were standing in front of them with a sign. Don couldn't do anything until he told Charlie the truth. He fixed his gaze on his cake, then forced himself to pick up his fork and start eating, despite his abrupt loss of appetite. He chewed and swallowed, washing his bite down with more coffee, before daring to look up at Charlie again.

He was licking frosting off his fork, his eyes bright with pleasure, and Don couldn't help smiling back. He couldn't take that light from Charlie's eyes, not yet, not now, not here. He deserved this reprieve; they both did. Later, after they'd slept...

Later would be soon enough. Don had already done enough unforgivable things, and he wasn't going to get Charlie to California tonight. Hours wouldn't make a difference now.

The door from the cafe's kitchen opened, and Jan reappeared, bearing the coffee pot and two bowls of ice cream. Don raised his eyebrows at Charlie, who looked over his shoulder and then back to Don with a tiny smile. Don rolled his eyes, but he ate his bowl of ice cream along with his cake, only drawing the line when the next coffee refill came with a slice of strawberry pie. Charlie cheerfully dug in, and Jan assured Don that she'd box it up.

"And a few other things. We'd just have to throw it out anyway, we're closed tomorrow."

Charlie was frowning a little into his pie as she walked away. Don drank more coffee--black this time, Charlie had finished his milk--and watched him. He was still eating, though with longer and longer pauses between each bite, and then he started drawing patterns in the strawberry topping.

Don said, "Charlie?"

Charlie smiled reflexively as he looked up at Don, and Don's stomach twisted with an uncomfortable mix of happiness and dread.

"Sorry," Charlie said. "I was just thinking--it's Christmas, isn't it?" Don glanced at his watch, and Charlie waved away the few hours' difference. "Christmas Eve. I'm just--trying to think--I don't seem to have many associations. I know the date, the colors, the general idea, but not..."

"Well, not everybody celebrates Christmas," Don pointed out.

He could say more, but Charlie probably did have associations with Hanukkah. If it triggered something, if he started remembering right now, right here...

Charlie just shrugged. "I guess not," he said, and went back to eating his pie, his frown easing.

Don felt sick, coffee and guilt acid in his stomach. He should say more; Charlie shouldn't be comforted by so little. He deserved more. He deserved to know who he was. But Don just drank more coffee and watched Charlie eat.

Charlie made his own solo trip to the bathroom, his steps dragging as he walked away from Don and hurrying as he came back, wiping wet hands on his pants. Don stared down at his coffee and tried to pretend he hadn't watched the door the entire time Charlie was in there, waiting for him to call out.

When they went to leave, there was an entire paper shopping bag waiting for them at the counter, and Charlie's eyes lit up. Don was suddenly gladder he'd left two twenties under his coffee cup. Tom had come back in a while before and gone straight into the kitchen, but he reappeared while Jan was ringing them up. Don pulled the map out of his pocket and said, "I think we got turned around somewhere. Can you tell me the quickest way to the freeway?"

Tom snorted. "You think you got turned around? You headed for the interstate, or US-41?"

Don grimaced and started unfolding the map. "Which one's closer?"

Charlie leaned against Don's shoulder, watching as Tom and Jan debated the best route to I-39. Jan glanced up at them, and Don could see the moment she noticed their lack of personal space. He was about to elbow Charlie away when she smiled indulgently, and Don could see it on her face.

They hadn't stumbled across an island of tolerance in rural Wisconsin. She thought--she knew--that they were brothers.

Don looked away, focusing on the map as Tom settled on a set of directions. He committed them to memory before he folded up the map and towed Charlie, clutching his bag of treats like a treasure, back out to the car.

Charlie fell asleep as soon as the car warmed up, having settled the bag of food in the back seat and pulled his blanket into his lap. Don cracked his own window, letting the cold breeze keep him awake, and tried not to think about anything but navigating to the freeway. They'd head south, because there was nothing north but Canada, and south was Chicago. He'd left things in Chicago, and they'd need to at least stop there. Maybe spend a night, get some rest. His eyelids were sagging as he drove, though he managed to keep the car between the lines on the deserted back roads. A little further, and he could rest. A little further.

Don didn't think he'd ever been so glad to see a green interstate sign in his life. The promise of being able to tell where he was going kept him running until he saw a sign for a rest stop. Taking the exit wasn't so much a decision as a physical imperative. He parked under the lights in the little lot, glanced at the distance to the small brick building, with its bathrooms and vending machines and payphones, and then looked over at Charlie. He was fast asleep with his mouth open, drooling a little on the Ciera's immaculate upholstery. The car was warm, and Don didn't think he could possibly move more than a few feet.

"Charlie," he murmured, reaching over to unbuckle Charlie's seatbelt.

"Mm, kay," Charlie mumbled, squirming toward the door. Don climbed over into the passenger seat--his leg throbbed, protesting the movement, but Don was well past caring--and dragged Charlie more or less on top of himself as he reclined the seat. They'd keep warm enough this way to be safe overnight.

"Leg?" Charlie said, almost coherently, patting at Don's right hip even as he settled against Don's chest, awkwardly spreading the blanket over them both.

Don shifted Charlie a little more to his left side. "It's fine, Charlie. Go to sleep."

"Kay," Charlie said again, settling his head on Don's shoulder, and Don closed his eyes.


Charlie tugged Don into a stall to check his leg after they'd both taken a piss and washed up.

"Charlie," Don said, glancing around. "If anybody walks in here--"

"Then let's be quick," Charlie said impatiently.

Don sighed and followed him in, locking the door behind them. He leaned against a side wall and slid his pants down, and Charlie grinned at him and then dropped to his knees between Don's feet.

"Charlie," Don said, his voice strangled, but Charlie confined himself to unwinding the bandages around Don's leg.

"Looking good," he said, and Don's head thunked back hard against the metal divider.

Charlie smiled to himself. But it was looking good; there was barely any fresh blood on the bandages, and no sign of infection. Charlie squeezed on a fresh packet of antiseptic and rewrapped the bandages. He only set his hand on Don's opposite thigh to push himself to his feet, and waited until Don had his pants back up, his hands occupied with zipping them, to lean in for a quick kiss.

Don froze for an instant, then kissed him back gently. Charlie closed one hand in Don's shirt and let the other drift down to rest on Don's wrist. His hands had frozen in the act of doing up his pants, and his knuckles pressed against Charlie's belly when he shifted closer.

A door slammed somewhere outside the men's room, and Charlie jerked back. Don reached out and unlocked the door and stepped out of the stall with a wry smile.

"Come on, Charlie, places to go."

Charlie smiled gamely back, and they headed out to the car. Don got into the backseat, spreading the map out across the back of the driver's seat and frowning at it. Charlie sat beside him and dug through the bag of delicacies Jan had packed up for them, coming up with a box of cookies. Don took some without looking when Charlie held the box under his hand, and Charlie peered at the cookies as he ate. They were Christmas trees and Santa Clauses and reindeer and five-pointed stars, all sprinkled with red and green sugar like the cake last night. He recognized all the emblems of Christmas, but they felt less meaningful to him than chess, or even Scrabble. He ought to at least be familiar with the cookies, but there was nothing except their taste in his mouth right now.

Beside him, Don folded up the map and stretched awkwardly in the confined space.

"Let's take a walk," he said abruptly. "Stretch our legs before we get going. Bring the cookies."

Charlie nodded agreeably, allowing Don to grab a few more cookies before they both got out of the car.

Don walked with his hands jammed into his pockets, and Charlie tucked the cookies under one arm and imitated Don's posture, walking along beside him in the slowly-brightening morning. They'd slept the whole night jammed into the front seat together, and now, walking around in the daylight, the night before was starting to seem dreamlike: the violence of their escape, the explosion that followed it, the kindly waitress who'd fed him cake and chocolate milk. The cookies were real, though, and so were the cold aches in his fingers and elbow. Charlie took his hands from his pockets, flexed his fingers, and retrieved another cookie to munch on, then held them out for Don. Don took one, muttering, "Thanks," and Charlie nodded.

It didn't take long for them to reach the end of the sidewalk; it led only as far as the little building with the bathrooms and vending machines. Don just kept walking, though, skirting the building and stepping off onto the grass, coated in frost over hard-frozen ground. Charlie followed, stepping carefully in his unfamiliar shoes. He'd laced them tightly, but his feet still had a tendency to slide in them if he tried to walk too fast. Don was moving slowly this morning, though. He wasn't visibly limping, but lingering over each stride.

Don was in no hurry to get back in the car, Charlie realized. He wasn't in any hurry to get to where they were going. His shoulders were hunched--against the cold, maybe, though it had been colder when they first got out of the car and Don hadn't seemed bothered.

Charlie watched him in a series of sideways glances as they walked through the thin stand of trees growing beside the freeway, but Don kept staring down at the ground, only frowning slightly. Cars whizzed by steadily on the road: holiday travel. Again, Charlie tried to conjure up an association from the depths of his brain, but still none came. Whatever crimes he'd committed as an adult and forced himself to forget, he ought to have a childhood's worth of associations with these things--but maybe he'd had a particularly dismal childhood. Maybe that was how he'd gotten started on his life of crime.

Charlie shivered as the wind gusted, running down the back of his neck. For a moment his perception turned inside out. The world around him, the light so clear and the cold wind and Don, the cars going by and the smell of pine trees, all seemed dreamlike and impossible. It had to be the other that was real: blood and fear and a world bounded by four walls and covered in chalkboards.

"Charlie," Don said abruptly, snapping the world right-side-in again.

Charlie stopped walking and turned to face him, waiting. Don squinted at him. It was full daylight now, though the sky was a uniform gray. Don looked pale, still tired, the lines of his face grim in the unforgiving light.

Charlie blinked, waiting, trying to look patient and receptive to whatever Don might be about to say even as he planned how to resist being abandoned here, or wherever they stopped next.

Don seemed to see something in his face; he winced and looked away, toward the road. When he said, "Charlie," again there was less resolve in his voice, and he still didn't follow it with anything.

"Don?" Charlie asked finally.

Don met his eyes with a gaze so focused it seemed to bore into him. Charlie's breath caught, and then something shifted, and Don was looking through him, hardly seeing him at all.

"Don," Charlie said, a little sharper. One shift of his gaze, and Don seemed to be a thousand miles away and gaining speed.

Don looked down, shook his head and then shook himself all over.

"We need to go to Chicago," Don said finally, turning back toward the car. "That's where Wi--that's where I was hired. I left some stuff there, I need to pick it up before we go anywhere else."

We, Charlie thought, feeling warmed all over by Don's offhand use of the plural. We.

"Sure," Charlie said. "Chicago sounds good."


The drive to Chicago stretched, little by little. Don drove the speed limit, or under it, because the last thing they needed was to get pulled over now. They stopped for coffee, and then stopped to piss, and then stopped at the side of the road because it was snowing.

It wasn't that Don couldn't drive in snow, although it had been years since he'd done it. That had been up in the mountains, and this wasn't much more than flurries on gentle hills. But Charlie had his nose pressed to the glass as soon as the first flake swirled past the windshield, and it wasn't like Don had a schedule to keep.

He stopped the car on the shoulder, turned it off, and led Charlie away, down into the ditch and out the other side, past a stand of dead cattail reeds with snow already accumulating on their tops. Charlie just stood there, staring up at the sky, watching the snow fall on him. Don turned away and paced, up to the fence that marked the edge of the state's right-of-way and back down to the ditch.

After a while, he could see his own footprints in the snow, but Charlie was still standing there, hands in pockets, face upturned. His ears and nose were pink, but he was all right.

So far. Because Don had looked at him this morning, and not told, and gone on not telling. Charlie had woken him with a drowsy kiss, an exploratory hand under the blanket--Charlie had knelt between his feet in that bathroom stall--Charlie had stood there holding a box of cookies with red and green sugar dusted on his lips, waiting for Don to say something. And if he had told this morning, then what? They'd have gotten into the car and driven to Chicago with that between them? Or else Charlie would have run off, hitched a ride with the first long-haul trucker, or serial rapist, or perfectly decent Midwesterner to come along, and maybe been better off with any of them than with Don.

He couldn't even see an after anymore. He couldn't imagine Charlie being angry or scared or sick or disbelieving. He couldn't imagine anything that followed the telling.

He knew he had to tell; he'd rehearsed a hundred lead-ins. Most of them started with telling Charlie who he was, because he deserved to know his own name, if nothing else, to know that he really wasn't a killer, had never done anything wrong at all until he was forced to. If Charlie didn't start to remember things with that prompting, he'd be bound to ask Don how he knew all of this, and then he would have to answer. He wouldn't have a choice anymore. Like running toward a firing gun--as soon as you broke cover there were no more decisions to be made, it just happened. And then it would be over, and...

And then it would be over. That was all. This would all be over, like breaking a spell in a fairy tale. Charlie would know the truth, would know what Don had done to him, and that would be the end of this. Don couldn't plan for that blank space, and none of the half-imagined scenarios from before fit: Charlie didn't need to be rushed to a hospital, and didn't know where home was, let alone want to go there or not.

Don looked over at Charlie, and Charlie had finally stopped watching the snow. It was dusted over his hair and his shoulders, but Charlie was standing there watching Don.

"How's your leg?"

It sounded strange out here, in the open, Charlie's voice getting swallowed up in the snow and the trees. The road wasn't even visible from here, though Don could hear the cars going by.

Don shrugged. "Not bad."

It wasn't; he'd been practicing not limping, as he paced, and the leg was holding up. It was a superficial wound--already, it itched nearly as much as it hurt.

"It's started healing. It'll just take some time."

"You should have had stitches, shouldn't you?" Charlie's eyes lowered to follow Don's leg as Don moved closer.

"Probably," Don said.

Charlie was frowning, worried more about a gash on Don's leg than the fact that he didn't know his own name. Don shoved down the guilt. Not now, not by the side of the road.

"By the time we found a hospital they'd just have bandaged it anyway."

Charlie hooked his fingers into the hip pocket of Don's jeans, anchoring them together, but Don could feel how cold Charlie was through the cloth. He was shivering a little, his ears bright pink, but he barely seemed to notice it. Don tugged Charlie's hands from his pockets, took them between his and blew on his fingers.

"Come on," he said, when Charlie finally looked up at him. "We've got a way to go yet."

They stopped again, though, at the Welcome Center near the Illinois border for more coffee and, once Charlie caught sight of the gift shop, sweatshirts and maps and ice cream sandwiches and a book of number puzzles. Don hesitated in front of a rack of postcards, but Charlie was already wandering off, and Don followed him without a backward glance.

Charlie changed into his new sweatshirt--gray, with a line-drawing of the Chicago skyline in black--in the car before they even left the parking lot, and then opened the book of puzzles. He made little, "ha!" noises and turned the pages like he was reading a children's book. Don just focused on driving.

At last they stopped on the north side of Chicago for dinner in another diner, with a little fiber-optic Christmas tree on the counter and some ragged garland hung up that had obviously been packed away and brought out year after year for at least a couple of decades. Charlie took great delight in ordering from a menu.

Afterward, Don checked over the car carefully in the parking lot. The light was already failing, street lights coming on, as he jammed Charlie's blanket back into the duffle bag and gathered up their assorted purchases and yesterday's doggie bag. Don opened the trunk--it would be just their luck if it held a dead body or kilo bags of heroin--but there was nothing in it but flares and jumper cables, a gas can and a blanket.

Charlie stood and watched all of this, still frowning slightly, but Don just said, "Hop in," and Charlie did. He only drove a few blocks, until he found the right parking space and pulled in, half-blocking a hydrant. It would be towed by morning, if not before.

"All right," Don said. "Everybody out."

Charlie said, "Oh," and then patted the dashboard, as though saying goodbye.

He looked back once, when they'd reached the end of the block, and then they turned the corner and the car was out of sight, one more tie between them and Williamson snapped. They were only two blocks from an El stop. When they got to it, it was Charlie who hesitated, looking from the stairs to Don's leg. Don shook his head and started up, and Charlie followed, footsteps ringing out hollowly. Don handed him some singles and turned him toward a machine to buy his own pass, and Charlie was grinning triumphantly when they hit the turnstiles at the same time.

They were lucky, and didn't have to wait long for a southbound train. It was warm inside, nearly empty. Don pushed Charlie into the seat by the window, stretching his leg out into the empty aisle. Charlie sat peering out at the darkness, or looked around at the handful of people who got on the train. After a while he dug into a shopping bag and pulled out his book of puzzles, frowning silently down at it in such obvious imitation of the woman sitting three rows away with a book that Don had to smile.

He tugged on Charlie's arm when they had to change trains, and again when their stop was approaching. He'd decided on a south side neighborhood--one where nobody would ask for ID or anything but cash for a room, but not too close to where Dre had been operating when Don last saw him, all of a month and a half before. It felt like years.

Don stopped on the platform, catching Charlie's arm to keep him from trotting off alone into the dark, and scouted the neighborhood from the height of the El. He spotted a likely-looking motel sign and turned Charlie toward the stairs.

"Not much farther," he said. "You can sleep in a bed for a change."

"Uh-huh," Charlie said, glancing sideways at him between streetlights with the same knowing look that he'd had looking up at Don from his knees that morning.

Don looked away. Not much farther; once they were safely in a room, Don could tell Charlie. He'd have no more reasons to delay, and if Charlie bolted afterward, Don knew the ground better than he did. He'd have good odds of finding Charlie before anything worse did.

The motel was right where Don had thought, shabby but decent. The clerk methodically checked Don's money for counterfeit, then slid a key across the counter with a mechanical, "Merry Christmas."

Don nodded slightly and grabbed the key. He was in the process of turning away, his eyes on Charlie's face, as Charlie said absently, "Happy Hanukkah."

If the clerk said anything to that, Don didn't hear it. All he could make out was the rushing sound that usually intervened between his hearing and gunfire, his heart racing a mile a minute as a smile dawned on Charlie's face.

"Tonight's the first night of Hanukkah," Charlie said brightly, and Don squeezed the room key hard against his palm and turned away, out of the motel office, into the cold dark night.

Charlie was behind him; in the crisp air Don could hear his quick footsteps, nearly running to keep up as he said, "I know--Don, I know how to calculate the dates of Hanukkah! And--and Passover, too--and Easter, but that's just easy to get from Passover."

"Yeah," Don said, dazed, into Charlie's pause.

Charlie had remembered Hanukkah--remembered math for Hanukkah. Not anything else. But he was bound to start remembering more things soon; Don had to tell him the truth before the point became moot.

"It's only once every forty years or so that Christmas and Hanukkah coincide this way," Charlie rattled on, as Don glanced down at their key and started counting off the rooms they passed. "The first day of Hanukkah this year is actually the twenty-sixth, but in the Jewish calendar the days start at sundown, so--" Don glanced over to see Charlie looking around at the darkness. "I guess it started a couple of hours ago now."

Don nodded and stopped walking at room 8, fitting the key into the lock with only a little fumbling. He switched the light on as he stepped inside and moved to drop the duffle bag on the nearer bed. He heard Charlie step inside behind him, letting the heavy door slam.

The beds had typical polyester spreads in a green-and-purple floral pattern. The carpet was beige, threadbare. There was a TV set visibly bolted down, and a generic landscape painting on the wall above it. Don turned to take in the single curtained window, with a table slightly off-center in front of it and two chairs, and finally realized that Charlie was still standing just inside the door, the brightness of his realization all gone off his face as he looked around the room.

It was the first time Charlie had been shut inside a room like this since they'd escaped. Don looked around again, trying to see it from Charlie's point of view--the room wasn't as big as the ones where they'd been kept, and the furniture made it seem even smaller. Even the bathroom door was closed, seeming to shut off a possible bolt hole rather than offering the possibility of privacy. For a moment Don felt a little of Charlie's claustrophobia. He crossed the space between them, taking the bags from Charlie's hands and setting them on the table.

"You want to go back outside?" he asked quietly.

Charlie looked up at him sharply, questioningly. Don could see the moment when he realized that Don knew what was bothering him; he blushed faintly and looked away.

"I'm fine," he said. "It's... just a motel room, right? Real bed and everything. Should be nice."

Don set a hand on Charlie's shoulder. "Hey," he said. "It's okay. I'd prop the door open if it weren't freezing outside."

Charlie smiled a little and shrugged stiffly, and Don let go, moving away as far as the window. As little as he liked the idea of anybody being able to look in, Charlie needed something. He pulled the curtains back with a rattle, and Charlie turned toward the sound, relief breaking suddenly over his face at the sight of the darkness and the parking lot just outside, blurry through the condensation on the glass.

Don stepped back, taking away the nearer chair to leave more open space by the window, and Charlie shot him a smile and moved up to stand staring out through the glass. For the first time all day Don realized that Charlie didn't give a damn what was outside as long as he could look outside.

Don quietly locked the door and put the chain on, but Charlie was absorbed in staring out the window. Don slipped away to the bathroom, shutting the door silently behind him. The smallness of the room didn't bother him, but having a barrier between him and Charlie still did. Don forced himself not to rush back out, washing his hands thoroughly and then checking the bandages on his leg. Everything looked all right, though, and he knew he shouldn't mess with it more than he had to. He was just killing time now, trying to avoid going back out to Charlie. This was it. This was the time.

Don took a deep breath and repeated the words over in his head. Your name is Charles Eppes, you are Dr. Charles Eppes. One sentence, one step, and it was all downhill from there. Like jumping off a cliff. Don hesitated a second longer with his hand on the doorknob, then opened it and stepped out.

Charlie was still standing by the window, but he looked over his shoulder at Don as soon as Don stepped through the door. Don opened his mouth, but couldn't say a word to the waiting darkness of Charlie's eyes. Charlie looked back out the window and said, "We should have candles in the window."

Don shut his mouth and swallowed.

"For Hanukkah," he said, crossing the space between him and Charlie one slow step at a time, navigating around the beds and table and chairs.

Charlie nodded. "A menorah," he said slowly, like he was sounding the word out. "You use one candle to light the others, one more each night, and there are prayers you say before you light them."

Practically the only Hebrew either of them still knew. How many years had they spent chanting out the words, standing at the front window, trying to keep still and be patient with the promise of food and presents awaiting them? He could remember Charlie's face, wide-eyed and solemn, bright in the light of the flame on the even-numbered nights when he was allowed to light the menorah.

Don moved closer. There was a little squeaking noise from the window; Charlie was drawing in the condensation. Drawing candles, Don realized--a series of narrow rectangles, all scrupulously identical, each with a little fingerprint-wick at the top.

"Do you remember the prayers?" Don asked.

Charlie's finger faltered in its path, making a blot in the smooth line of the sixth candle. Don shifted a step to see Charlie's face properly. He was frowning at the window, at his finger, which was moving steadily again.

"No," he finally said. "Almost. It's--it's like it's on the tip of my tongue, but I can't--"

He yanked his hand back abruptly from the window, and Don could see it shaking before it closed into a fist, and Charlie pressed it against his own stomach. Don reached over his shoulder and traced out the last candle for him.

Don knew the prayers perfectly well. He'd said them with his family nearly every year of his life. There had been one year at Quantico; he'd asked Terry to join him, feeling weirdly shy. Praying in front of her had been somehow more intimate than having sex with her, and he didn't even really believe it, wasn't even sure he cared one way or the other. A few years later it had been a hotel room and Coop, and he'd come within an eyelash of skipping it; if Coop had looked skeptical, or laughed... But he'd sat still, waiting, and Don had taken a breath and said the blessings as fast as he could. He'd never skipped a year, not knowingly, and he'd said the blessings with Charlie there ever since Charlie was born, and he'd been every kind of naked he could think of with Charlie in the last six weeks.

Charlie wanted to know, deserved to know, deserved the mitzvah if anyone did. A fragment of the translation he'd long since memorized drifted across Don's brain: "Who has kept us in life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season." It had to be more than half a miracle that they'd made it this far, and that was worth a prayer if anything was, but all the words he should be saying--all the things he knew right now that Charlie didn't, you are Dr. Charles Eppes--caught in his throat, and Don didn't say a word.

His hand dropped from the window, his arm curling around Charlie, and Charlie leaned back against him, looking out the window. Don could feel him relaxing, and eventually his head fell back against Don's shoulder. Charlie raised one steady hand to the window, drawing in a flame on the wick of the rightmost candle. When he'd done that, Charlie turned under Don's arm, turning his back on the window, looking up at Don and smiling.


Don was looking down at him with the same frozen, anxious look that he'd been wearing on and off all day, his lips parted like he was, once again, about to say something. Whatever it was, Charlie suspected neither of them wanted to hear it. Don licked his lips and took a breath, and Charlie set his hands on Don's shoulders, holding him still. Don stood frozen, his shoulders hard under Charlie's hands.

Charlie said, "I didn't get you a present."

His voice came out low and husky, and his lips nearly touched Don's as he spoke.

"Yeah," Don said, his eyes fixed on Charlie's, almost too close to focus on, a little wide. He was breathing fast against Charlie's lips. "I didn't--"

Charlie kissed him, cutting him off, and Don's lips kept moving, dragging against Charlie's long enough for it to turn into a real kiss, Charlie's mouth open against his, his tongue slipping into Don's mouth. Charlie held onto the back of Don's neck with one hand, holding him down, but Don didn't pull away. He didn't move at all. Charlie tilted his head back, and Don took a sudden step away, leaving Charlie off-balance. He shook his head, and his eyes looked wild as he stared around the room.

He was shifting his weight to take a step, his eyes on the door, and Charlie lunged across the space between them, almost snarling, "Shut up."

It felt scared and desperate in his throat, but it came out almost savage, and Don fell back a step before him. Don's eyes were wide, startled, his mouth opening, and Charlie shook his head quickly; he hadn't meant it that way. He reached up to touch Don's cheek and found his own hand shaking, his fingers only steadying when they rested against Don's skin.

"Shh," he said, and kissed Don again, lightly this time, an invitation against Don's already-parted lips.

Don grabbed his arms and pushed him back roughly, turning his face to the side and holding on, holding Charlie at arm's length.

"Charlie," he said, and his voice was breathless but oddly flat, mechanical, rehearsed, "Don't. I have to--"

"Please," Charlie whispered, and this time it sounded the way it felt, hollow and desperate.

Please don't tell me you're leaving, don't tell me you're a real person with a real life waiting for you out here, please don't tell me I'm safe and I can go wherever I want, please don't send me to the cops, please don't leave, please let me stay. Just one word, with Don's hands still clenched hard around his biceps, but Don flinched as though Charlie had hit him. He gave Charlie a brief hunted glance and looked away again.

"I'm alive," Charlie whispered, because the argument had worked once before. He twisted his right arm and Don's grip slackened abruptly, as if he hadn't realized he was holding Charlie in place, allowing Charlie to set one hand flat on Don's chest. "And you're alive. And we can."

Don shook his head, still looking away, and Charlie let his thumb move in a slow arc over Don's t-shirt, feeling the expansion and contraction of each breath, the heat of Don's skin through the fabric, the shift of hair beneath it.

"I can't," Don said hoarsely, after what seemed like a long time, though it had only been a dozen rapid breaths pressed against Charlie's palm.

Charlie slid his hand up to Don's throat, the bare skin hot against his fingertips, prickling with stubble as Charlie's thumb traced the hard line of Don's jaw, pulse pounding under Charlie's fingers. Don turned his head, meeting Charlie's eyes, seeming to search for something.

Charlie stood very still, waiting--please, don't, please, not now, please--

Don's hand came up to cover Charlie's, tugging Charlie's fingers up to his face, to his mouth. Charlie traced Don's lower lip with his thumb, and when he tugged a little Don turned his head, meeting Charlie's eyes with a lost look. Charlie said, "Shh," again, and kissed him. This time Don let him in, sighing against Charlie's mouth as his lips parted, his hands finding their way to Charlie's back and finally, finally pulling him close.

Like a switch had flipped--current reversed--Don seemed suddenly to need this just as strongly as he had resisted it. His hands moved constantly, restlessly, over Charlie's back--not holding on, just trying to touch him everywhere at once. Don kissed him hungrily, sucking at Charlie's tongue, licking eagerly into his mouth as Charlie ground his hips against Don's. Don was hard, and Charlie smiled into their kiss. Whatever Don had been resisting, it had never been a question of whether Don wanted him.

Charlie broke his mouth from Don's with an effort. Don's mouth brushed across his jaw, settling on his throat, hot and soft and distracting, as Charlie looked over Don's shoulder, gauging the distance to the bed. They were nearly there; he pushed Don another step and Don fell back, pulling Charlie down on top of him. Charlie moved to straddle him, planting his knees in the mattress--real bed, ha--and sliding his hands into Don's hair, kissing him deep and slow while Don pushed up under him, thrusting his hips and making the whole bed bounce. Their teeth clashed roughly and Charlie shifted sideways, his hand running into something as he reached out to steady himself.

It was Don's duffle bag; he shoved it off the bed and it landed with a solid thump. Beneath him, Don went still, looking away from Charlie, toward the sound of impact. Charlie settled lower, kissing the corner of his mouth until Don turned back to him, licking into Don's mouth as he pushed Don's shirt up. Don wriggled out of it quickly, tossing it off the bed as Charlie knelt up to pull his own shirt off, and when Charlie unbuttoned his pants, Don did the same.

Charlie threw himself down to the bed beside Don as he unzipped his pants, and Don's eyes followed him, then skipped past. Don went still and Charlie turned his head, following Don's gaze to the wide-open window, the candles traced in the condensation and the parking lot beyond, where anyone could happen by and see them.

"Fuck," Charlie muttered, and rolled off the bed and onto his feet. He pulled the curtains shut carefully, not letting them brush against the window--mustn't disturb the candles--and leaving one narrow gap. To breathe through, he thought, though he knew perfectly well that the curtains wouldn't keep air in or out.

When he turned away from the window, Don was lying naked on the sheets, the bedspread shoved to the floor along with his pants. His cock was hard, blood-dark; there was sweat shining in the hollow of his throat. His legs were slightly parted, and Charlie's eyes were drawn irresistibly to the bandage around his thigh, still neat and white.

Charlie pushed his pants and boxers off and moved back to the bed, kneeling at the foot and crawling up until he could drop a kiss gently on the gauze, resting one hand on Don's thigh just below it. The muscle was hard under his hand, shivering with tension, and Charlie looked up at Don.

Don was watching him intently, breathing quickly through his mouth and looking almost pained. Charlie shifted his gaze to Don's cock and felt his own cock twitch in response, hunger singing through his veins. Charlie shifted forward a little, his eyes steady on Don's cock as he pressed his open mouth to the bare skin of Don's thigh, sucking slightly and pressing his tongue softly against the skin.

Don nearly growled, grabbing Charlie by the arm and hauling him up so they were face-to-face on their sides. Don kissed him hard, sucking roughly at Charlie's tongue when Charlie pushed it inside. Charlie smiled into the kiss, throwing his leg over Don's hip and tipping him onto his back so that Charlie was on top again. Charlie shifted lower, getting their cocks lined up and thrusting slowly and carefully, so they moved against each other just right. Don's eyelids flickered. He pushed up on his elbow and pulled Charlie down for a kiss, breaking his rhythm.

Charlie let Don hold him in place for a while, his hips jerking awkwardly, irresistibly, his cock and Don's rubbing together. Don jerked up beneath him as their mouths pressed together, mashing roughly, teeth clashing between gasps for breath. Charlie shifted his weight back onto his knees and reached down, setting one hand on Don's left thigh and pushing it out. Don twisted under him, and he was nearly on his side before Charlie realized he was trying to turn over.

"No," Charlie whispered, pushing him down flat, and Don looked up at him, almost frowning. Charlie shifted himself between Don's legs, letting his weight rest lower on Don, grinding their cocks together.

"Like this," he murmured, pushing up to kiss Don's mouth. "Right here."

Don's eyes closed as Charlie thrust against him, and Charlie caught Don's hand and pulled it down between them, lacing their fingers together so that their joined hands circled their cocks, pressing them together as they stroked. Don thrust up against him, biting his lip, his eyes still closed. Charlie twisted his grip a little and kissed Don when he could, breathless from the feeling of his cock against Don's, Don's hand around him and his hand on Don's.

He tried to move slowly, to remember to be careful of Don's bandage, but Don kept pushing faster, his mouth frantic under Charlie's, kissing him until every breath stung on his lips. They were moving roughly, wildly together, bouncing on the springy bed, every motion amplified. Don gasped suddenly, between one stroke and the next, and his hand tightened as his cock jerked, and Charlie felt him coming in spurts, hot and wet over Charlie's fingers.

He pulled Charlie down flat for a kiss, long and breathless, and when Don finally let him up to catch a breath, Charlie felt orgasm hit him like a wave, a wall, knocking his breath out. Don's hand was the only steady thing, stroking him as he shook, and afterward Don rolled him sideways again and tangled their legs together. Charlie slid his sticky hand to Don's hip, and hid his eyes from the light against Don's shoulder.

On the edge of the sleep he remembered the candles, one lit, seven waiting, and smiled. This was only the first night.


Don had to be careful, getting out of bed in the early light, to keep from waking Charlie. He had to be careful in the shower, to keep from getting his bandages too wet. Afterward his hands were shaking, and he had to be careful as he freshly bandaged his leg, shaved, and dressed, all without making too much noise. As long as he concentrated on one thing at a time, he could do what he needed to do.

He stood by the bed, looking down at Charlie, and thought only of what he was going to say right now, this minute. Don reached out and shook Charlie's shoulder--bare, warm under his hand, but he swallowed hard and remembered what he was about to say. Charlie blinked up at him sleepily, eyelashes barely parting.

"Don?"

"Hey," Don said, squeezing Charlie's shoulder. "I have to go run some errands, but I'll be back in an hour or two, all right?"

Charlie blinked. "Don't get shot this time," he mumbled, and Don smiled.

"I won't," he said.

Charlie's hand closed on his wrist, fingertips digging in. "Come back?"

"I will," Don said. "I'll come back. Just go back to sleep, okay?"

Charlie nodded, but his hand stayed tight on Don's wrist. His eyes closed again, and he turned his face down into the pillow, but his grip didn't loosen until Don pried Charlie's fingers free. His hand tightened into a fist when Don let it go, tucked under the pillow. Don stood staring down at Charlie for a minute longer, and then turned around and walked out, locking the door and putting up the Do Not Disturb sign as he went.

It was bright and cold outside, eight in the morning, and the wind added a sharpness to the steady throb of his right leg. Don jammed his hands into his pockets and walked fast back to the El stop, joining a small crowd on the platform, day-after-Christmas shoppers making an early start. The wind stung his eyes, and Don blinked rapidly, staring back at the motel sign marking the place where Charlie slept. He forced himself to keep scanning the people around him, watching for threats, watching for people he might have met before. He didn't spot any, but he kept watching--kept concentrating on watching--even after he was on the train.

When he got off the train he had to think about how to get to the post office, and about everything he needed to do. He had to rehearse the lock combination over and over again. He swung open the door of the PO box he'd rented months before and simply stared for a moment at the small tidy stack of padded envelopes, then pulled them out one by one.

The top one held a set of car keys, and he took them from the envelope and tucked them into his coat pocket, for all the good they were likely to do after a month and a half. The next envelope, mailed a week before the keys, held an assortment of IDs he hadn't needed yet. Don left that envelope sealed, tucking it inside his coat, and then, after a hesitation, reached out and took the last envelope. It was thick and bulky, and folded neatly into two halves when he lifted it.

He'd mailed this one nearly two months ago; it held his wallet--Don Eppes's wallet--and Charlie's. Don wavered for a second, holding it in his hand, and then looked around. The post office was nearly deserted, and the handful of people around weren't stopping at the wall of mailboxes, moving quickly to the vending machines or the counters. Don ripped open the envelope and reached in, pulling out Charlie's worn leather wallet, a twenty-fifth birthday gift from their parents. Before that Charlie had been using some nylon thing with a video game character on it. The wallet flipped open easily in his hand, and Charlie was staring up at him, smiling uncertainly from a CalSci ID, labeled FACULTY right under his name.

He wouldn't even have to say anything; he could just toss the wallet to Charlie, let him find everything. There was a photo tucked into the billfold, the four of them, taken months before their mother died, before the doctors gave up hope, before Charlie disappeared into the garage. Charlie wouldn't have any trouble recognizing Don in the picture, or realizing what the photo represented. If he really wanted to spell things out, he could lay his own wallet next to Charlie's, let him see the names, the birthdates. Charlie might not want to believe it if Don just told him, but the wallets were hard evidence, verifiable facts.

Don shoved Charlie's wallet back into the envelope, crumpling it between his hands and leaning his forehead against the mailboxes, finally letting himself feel the sick, shaky horror that had been threatening since he woke up. He hadn't been able to say a goddamn word last night--or maybe he had been able, but he hadn't done it. It didn't make a difference; he'd been able to fuck, and that was what would matter, when he did tell. If there had ever been any defense, any explanation, for what he was doing, it had gone up in the smoke of that house in Wisconsin. Now he had nothing.

Don stuffed the envelope into his coat with the other--fakes and the real thing, all tucked away together--and slammed his mailbox shut, giving the lock a twirl. There was no helping it; he'd done it, and he still had to tell Charlie the truth, the sooner the better. If Charlie could never forgive what he'd done...

Maybe that would make it better for Charlie somehow. They'd never be brothers again like they'd been before, and they couldn't go on like this. He had to tell Charlie the truth, and if Charlie was furious afterward, maybe that would make everything else a little easier. Maybe Charlie telling him to fuck off and die would be easier than Charlie asking him how he could do such a thing and expecting him to answer.

And maybe he and Charlie would have been better off if he had killed them both the very first day; but there was no taking any of it back now. Don walked out into the cold sunshine, heading quickly down the block, trying to shove the thought of Charlie--the memory of him last night, his hands and his mouth and every inch of him, the cold anticipation of what had to come next--to the back of his mind.

Three blocks later, Don stopped short. The Honda was parked in the middle of a block, just where he'd left it. It had picked up a few new dents and paint scrapes, the left rear tire was perilously low, and there were crusts of frozen snow on the bumpers and windows, but the car was inexplicably exactly where he'd left it, when he thought he'd be back in a day or two with Charlie in tow.

Don stood staring until someone bumped into him, and then he turned his head, blindly muttering, "Sorry."

He started across the street without looking, dodging traffic until he was standing beside the car. He dropped the keys the first time he tried to unlock the door, and had to hold one hand to his chest to steady the envelopes as he bent down, his right leg protesting sharply.

When he finally got it open, the car smelled exactly the same. He wouldn't have thought he remembered it, or that it even had any particular smell, but the faint stink of stale smoke and the artificial pine scent of the air freshener hit him hard. He was suddenly back on that drive across country, back when he'd thought he knew what he'd have to do, when he'd thought he could do this and only lose his career in the process. Don stood for a minute with the door open, breathing the cold city air, and then he got in and started it up. The envelopes under his coat pressed heavily against his chest as he put on his seatbelt, and Don reached in and took them out, stashing them together under the driver's seat.

He took a wrong turn, navigating back to the motel after he stopped to fill up the tire, but it was still only nine-thirty by the time he got there. He sat for a minute, looking at the window of their room, after he shut off the car. The condensation on the window had evaporated, taking Charlie's candles with it. The curtains were still parted an inch in the middle, showing him nothing from this angle. Don got out and went around to the trunk.

Charlie's backpack was lying there, packed, Don knew, with a few changes of clothes and Charlie's Gameboy. He had no idea where he could say he'd gotten them; maybe Charlie would take one look and remember. Maybe the sight of his own things would bring him back. Don stared at the backpack for a while, the cold wind cutting through him, and then he heard the door open.

He looked around the raised trunk, and Charlie was standing there in boxers and socks, peering at him through the six inches he'd opened the door. "Don?"

Don forced a smile and grabbed the bag.

"I got you some presents," he said, and Charlie's eyes lit up.


Don brought a wave of cold with him when he came inside, and Charlie retreated to the bed while Don locked the door. Charlie took a quick, reassuring glance toward the window as he pulled the still-warm covers around himself. The narrow line of daylight was still there, and Charlie breathed easy even as the lock slid home and the chain rattled into place. Don turned to face him, the backpack he'd brought from the car still dangling from one hand.

It was yellow and black, softly rounded by its contents, covered with interesting pockets and zippers and buckles. Don held it out toward him hesitantly, his face wavering between a smile and a frown, as though he wasn't sure Charlie would like it. As though he weren't the only person who'd ever given Charlie any kind of gift at all. Charlie reached out, catching a strap, and Don took a clumsy step after the bag before he let go.

It landed in Charlie's lap, oddly light--its contents weren't dense or hard-edged enough to be books or papers--but there was something strangely, intensely satisfying about having a backpack. It felt right. Charlie smiled up at Don even as his hands ran over the exterior, nylon fabric and plastic buckles and webbed straps. Don smiled unsteadily back, and Charlie ducked his head, focusing on his present.

He explored the outside pockets first. One held two mechanical pencils, a clicky pen, and three binder clips. The opposite one had something in it too, a pleasing symmetry.

Charlie's mouth fell slightly open at the sight of the shiny brown packet. Milk Chocolate M&Ms. Charlie took out the bag and held it cradled in his hands, feeling the candy shift inside, rattling quietly. He knew how it would smell when he opened it. He knew what the candy shell would taste like, giving way to chocolate. He knew--

"Statistically, thirteen percent of those are going to be red," Don said from above him.

Charlie looked up, openmouthed--how on Earth would Don know? Why did he even know himself?

Don shrugged, oddly diffident, and said, "I read that somewhere."

Charlie's eyes narrowed as he wracked his brain. This wasn't the first unexpected bit of mathematical knowledge Don had ever volunteered. "The same place you read about P vs. NP?"

Don bit his lip, looking oddly pained by Charlie's question, and didn't answer. Charlie had to look away, shoving the M&Ms back into their pocket, retreating from his inexplicable misstep.

He found the zipper for the main pocket and opened it, revealing the jackpot, bright folded cloth. Charlie reached in to pull out whatever was on top--soft worn flannel, striped, and then his hand clenched on the cloth as he was swamped with vertigo. He felt cold--his heart racing, adrenaline electric and bitter in his mouth--and panicked--there was something in that bag, something awful--

He heard his name, from a long way off, and jerked backward as a hand closed tight around his wrist. Don was on his knees beside the bed, looking up at Charlie, eyes wide, his face utterly drained of color. Charlie let go of the shirt and reached for him, drowning the smell that clung to the fabric with the scent of Don's skin, motel soap and the familiar unwashed shirt. His coat was cold against Charlie's cheek, but Don was warm beneath it.

Charlie could feel himself shaking against Don's steadiness as the moment passed. The room stopped tilting, and his heart slowed, and of course there was nothing bad in the bag; Don wouldn't give him anything bad.

Charlie let go of Don, straightening up, and Don let go of his wrist all at once. Charlie's cheeks felt hot, the skin painfully tight, and he didn't look at Don, keeping his eyes focused on the bag and hastily pulling out the contents. Two flannel shirts, a solid one beneath the striped, and a gray sweater. Jeans and cargo pants, boxers, socks. At the bottom, wrapped in a t-shirt, something small and hard.

Charlie shook out the shirt, and realized as he tugged it away that there was a pi on the front in white. He looked up at Don, smiling shakily, to see Don still staring at him, still pale, as though he thought Charlie would freak out again or fall over and die at any second.

"Sorry," Charlie said, "I just--I don't know. I like it. Thanks."

I like it was stupid, massively inadequate to the feeling blooming in the pit of his belly, replacing that crazed cold burst with warmth and belonging. These clothes, folded up with some unknown laundry-smell clinging to them, worn and faded--these clothes were a real person's clothes, a person with a life and a past. Don was giving them to him just like Don had given him a name. Charlie smiled for real, groping for more words, but Don just went on looking up at him, searching his face for something.

After a moment he winced and looked away, and Charlie looked back down at the things in his hands, feeling as if Don had slapped him. He'd been too excited--too randomly, crazily frightened to begin with--he was too broken, too far from being a regular person, the kind Don would want to keep around.

Charlie laid down the pi shirt gently on top of the other clothes, blinking at the thing in his left hand, the thing that had been so carefully wrapped in the shirt, a present within presents. It was shiny, silvery plastic, and fit comfortably in his hand. It said Nintendo in slightly raised letters. Charlie brushed his thumb over it and then flipped the lid up, holding the--DS, for dual-screen, a Nintendo DS; had he had a toy like this in his forgotten past?--in both hands. His left thumb pressed the power button automatically. The screens lit, and Don sat down on the bed. Charlie's head jerked up, watching him, but Don stayed still, staring toward the window, his profile revealing nothing to Charlie except that his eyelashes were long and dark, and the color was returning to his cheek.

Charlie closed the DS without looking down at it and stuffed it back into his backpack along with the clothes. Don didn't move at the sound, didn't react at all when Charlie set the backpack on the floor, or at the sound of Charlie unzipping the side pocket and fishing out the M&Ms, or when Charlie flipped back the covers from his lap. He caught his breath when Charlie touched his arm, and met his eyes warily.

"Charlie?" he said, uncertainly, as if Charlie might not answer to his own name.

"Yeah," Charlie said, and tugged on Don's arm. "Come here."

Instant resistance flashed in Don's eyes, quick as a reflex; someday Charlie was going to make that go away. Someday Don was going to believe he wanted what he wanted. For now, though...

Charlie held up the M&Ms in his other hand. "Come on, I need an assistant for a statistical study. Take your coat off, lie down."

Don looked away again, rubbing a hand through his hair, rearranging the wildness of it. But he bent over and untied his boots, kicking them off as Charlie curled up on the bed, his head on the pillow they'd shared while they slept. Don tossed his coat onto a chair and crawled up the bed, lying down with a foot of space between him and Charlie, his whole body straight and still.

Charlie tore open the packet and dumped the candies onto the bed between them--but Don was heavier, and they all slid down to pool against his side.

"Hold still," Charlie murmured, herding the candies into color groupings, his fingers brushing against Don's chest. Don hardly even seemed to breathe, and Charlie could feel the warmth of his skin through his t-shirt. By the time he'd double-checked his counts, that warmth had been transmitted to the candy. The smell of sugar and chocolate rose up between them, and the sheets were starting to be marked with bright candy-colored smears.

When Charlie finally looked up to Don's face, he was watching Charlie with a strange intensity. Charlie thought suddenly of the first time he'd seen Don; he'd had that same look on his face, hungry and focused. Charlie swallowed hard. "Seventeen point six percent red," he said softly. "That's an anomaly."

Don blinked, and Charlie felt as much as saw the sudden lessening of tension in him. His voice was perfectly even as he said, "You're an anomaly," but there was a smile lurking in his eyes.

Charlie grinned, feeling like he'd escaped some unspeakable danger, like they both had. For several seconds he couldn't think of what to say to express it; Don wasn't quite smiling yet, and might not if Charlie said the wrong thing now.

"Well, you're an irreproducible result."

It was the right thing. Don's mouth curved into a smile. "You going to eat your candy, genius? Because it's going to melt all over the bed in another minute."

Charlie grinned and scooped up half the M&Ms, obliterating the color-sorted groupings, and crammed the whole handful into his mouth. He crunched through the candy coatings to a mouthful of gooey chocolate, closing his eyes in bliss as his mouth flooded with saliva.

Chocolate. The taste and smell and feel were so familiar, so correct--but he couldn't remember ever eating M&Ms before. He hadn't even known he wanted them until Don gave them to him, but they were exactly the right thing.

He clamped a hand over his mouth as he swallowed and opened his eyes. Don was grinning at him, his eyes as warm and sweet as a whole mouthful of chocolate. Don scooped up more candy and held it out to him, and Charlie took it, but more was just more, not better, nothing like the sheer narcotic joy of the first bite.

Charlie opened his mouth to tell Don he should have some, but even as he thought it Don's hand came up, holding more candy.

"Here," Don said, extending his hand to Charlie's mouth.

Charlie parted his lips wider, and Don shook the sticky half-melted candy into his mouth. It was entirely an accident that Charlie's tongue, flicking out, grazed the skin of Don's palm, but Don didn't pull away. The salt tang of sweat flavored the chocolate, tugging Charlie's thoughts briefly in another direction--but no, not now, not after everything else that had happened this morning. Having Don back in bed with him was more than enough.

Charlie looked down as Don lowered his hand; there was more candy on the bed, trapped under Don's side. Don reached for it, but only pushed it further down.

"Lie back," Charlie said, and Don shifted onto his back as Charlie scooted closer, gathering up the last of the M&M's off the sheets. Charlie held his hand to Don's mouth, and Don's lips parted, accepting the candy from Charlie's fingers with a startled smile.

The smile lingered even after the chocolate was gone, and Charlie brushed his thumb over the wrinkles beside Don's eye, leaving a blue and orange candy smear. Charlie squirmed closer, right up against Don, to lick it away. Don went very still.

"Sorry," Charlie breathed against his cheek. "Don't go, I'm tired, you didn't get much sleep."

Don didn't move away, and Charlie draped himself over Don, hooking one leg over Don's thigh and resting his head on Don's chest. As soon as he laid his head down exhaustion settled over him, heavier than any blanket, his heartbeat a thumping ache that contrasted strangely with the sweetness of chocolate on his tongue.

Charlie raised one weighted arm and tugged the blankets over them, kissing Don's throat. They could sleep again, and start over later, and if they had to they could just keep doing it over until they got it right. "Just go back to sleep," he murmured. "Okay?"

Don nodded a little, and slowly, slowly, relaxed. Charlie wanted to raise his head to see if Don was sleeping, but his own eyes were already closed, so Charlie decided to trust him.


Charlie had meant it when he said he was tired. He spent nearly all of the next twenty-four hours in bed, sleeping or playing his DS. Don pried him out once, got him to shower and go out for pizza and a spin through the nearest drug store, dressed in his new (old) clothes. Charlie smiled down at his own sweater, baggier than it should have been, like it was something wonderful, like it hadn't flung him into a panic attack a few hours before.

Don sat and watched him sleeping later, still in his clothes, his cheek pressed to his sleeve, nose buried in the crook of his elbow. He had to be getting that same old smell on every breath, but he didn't seem to be dreaming. Still, his body stayed curled tight, the angle of his shoulder stark, the familiar small frown still twisting his eyebrows.

He'd nearly remembered that morning, and Don didn't think he'd ever seen anything as terrifying. It hadn't been--only--the imminence of getting caught; Charlie had been terrified, had looked like remembering hurt. Don had been no more able to stand and watch than he could have if Charlie had been drowning in front of him.

He tried to steel himself as he sat there, watching Charlie sleep. He was going to have to watch. Next time, or the time after, Charlie wouldn't be pulled back by a word or a touch. There was nothing really wrong with Charlie's brain, and whether Don told him the truth or not, Charlie was going to remember. The longer Don let it go, the worse it would be when the time came.

But Don couldn't wake Charlie up to hurt him, even if it was for the best, and left to his own devices Charlie slept until after dark. He woke up and crawled out of bed, his hair wild and his eyes still dazed with sleep. He took a box of birthday candles from the drug store bag and set up eight of them in a row, staring at them for a moment before shaking his head slightly; he still didn't remember the words. He lit two candles and watched them burn down to pools of bright blue wax. The flames reflected in Charlie's eyes as tiny sparks, and Don didn't say anything before the lights went out.

He watched Charlie eat leftover pizza, watched him crawl back into bed with his Gameboy, and when Charlie said, "Hey, come here," he went.

Don let Charlie pull him down, let Charlie arrange him like a pillow, lay still and quiet until he fell asleep himself, drifting in and out until it was light outside and Charlie was drooling on his shoulder, numbing his whole arm. A new day. He had to tell today.


Chapter Seventeen

At some point, Charlie woke up in daylight. He looked over toward the window to find the curtains half-open, sunlight shining through. Don was sitting in one of the chairs with his feet propped on the end of the bed, drinking coffee and watching him.

Charlie thought blearily that that had to be pretty boring, and rummaged around in the bed until he found the DS under his pillow.

"Wanna play?" Charlie mumbled, sitting up and holding it out. "Second slot's free."

When he started it up, there had been a saved game in the first slot, with only a entered for a name. Charlie had taken the third slot and labeled it c, not wanting either to continue someone else's game or to delete it, wondering vaguely where Don had gotten these presents.

Don stared at him for a second, then leaned forward and took it from Charlie's hand.

"Thanks," he said, and Charlie nodded and fell back onto his pillow.

He opened his eyes again on Don, sitting on the same chair, but hunched over now with his elbows on his knees and his eyes fixed on the game. He recognized the music; Don was approaching the first boss. The light through the window had changed, and for the first time in what seemed like days, Charlie felt awake.

He got up and went around to stand behind Don's shoulder, peering down at the screen.

"Hey," he said. "You should--"

"I got it," Don said, hunching further over the game, blocking his view.

Charlie smiled at the back of his head. He'd only been going to suggest that Don take a break when he finished the level; it was going on three in the afternoon.

Charlie said, "Okay," and grabbed a piece of pizza from the box precariously balanced on the TV, munching on it as he picked up his backpack and rummaged through it for fresh clothes. He tracked Don's progress through the game with half an ear--it wasn't going well. He probably hadn't gathered enough gear before going to the boss. Charlie knew Don would figure it out eventually, though.

Charlie finished his slice of pizza, washed it down with water from the bathroom sink, and then went to take a shower. It was a novel experience, shutting himself all alone in a little room to shower; even though there was no one else around, it was still reassuring to know that Don was just outside. The water stayed hot, but Charlie rushed through washing up and got out. He yanked his clothes on, damp in the steam, and opened the door again so he could hear the sound of Don playing. He was approaching the boss again; he must have died while Charlie was in the shower and gone back to the save point.

Charlie shaved with mostly-steady hands, and brushed his teeth while pressing a piece of toilet paper to a spot just under his ear. His hair was dripping down his neck, turning cool in the colder air from outside the bathroom, and Charlie shivered and dried it some more before he left the bathroom.

Don was scowling down at the DS, but seemed to know Charlie was there; he said, "Hey," in an abstracted tone, seeming about to follow it up with something else, and then his whole body jerked as he began to fight. Charlie smiled and looked around for something else to do while Don was occupied. His eye fell on the remote for the TV, and he went over and picked it up, sitting down with the bags on the unused bed and turning the TV on.

He watched a few minutes of some kind of kids' movie about a mouse, then started changing channels, cycling through soap operas--how did he know they were soap operas? But he did, they were--and a few sports channels before stopping on a radar map of the United States. He barely heard what the man standing in front of the map said, watching the data loop and change, observation and prediction all in bright colors and smooth motions--all done with computers, and Charlie's fingers itched for that kind of power, a half-dozen problems springing up in his mind, one job after another that he could calculate so smoothly if he only had--

Charlie caught himself and shook his head, glancing over at Don. No more jobs, not ever again. Charlie flipped through a few more channels--cartoons, a few channels in foreign languages, cartoons in a foreign language--before he hit a busy screen, tickers and graphics around the central image of a burning building, and a calm voice saying, "Arson investigators still decline to speculate on the motive..."

The banner said CHRISTMAS EVE ATTACK and the remote fell from Charlie's hand as he stared at the screen. He could hear Don's game--Don was in trouble, dying over there, but Charlie couldn't speak or move or look. His heart was pounding. He could only make out snatches of what the voice on the TV was saying.

Working to identify and near exterior doors and trying to escape and the image changed to a row of three grainy photographs, three rectangles aligned across the screen: a young woman with brown eyes and straight black bangs, a tired-looking man with grey hair and a mustache, and Randy, sneering into the camera.

The screen went blank, replaced by Don standing in front of it, walking cautiously toward him and frowning. Charlie could still hear the forlorn sounds of the abandoned game, but Don was crouching in front of him, saying something Charlie couldn't make out.

They'd been near the doors; they'd lived long enough to try to escape the fire, breathed smoke and seared their lungs with superheated air, burned and burned until their bodies took three days to identify. Don backed away from him again, and Charlie gritted his teeth and tried to breathe--had Don been saying that? Breathe? He looked up, trying to look for Don, and felt suddenly dizzy and sick, pain striking through his belly, stopping his breath, speeding his racing heart. Charlie tried to stand and stumbled. He thought he would fall all the way to the floor, but Don was there somehow, easing him down to his knees and shoving a bucket in front of his face as he gagged.

Don's hand was on his head, holding him there--Don would push him down, he thought wildly, drown him in his own vomit. He tried to struggle, but his body wouldn't cooperate and Don held him tight, until Charlie finally caught a foul-smelling breath and registered that Don was running his fingers through Charlie's hair, murmuring, "Shh, shh, you're okay."

Charlie shook his head at that, and gagged again when he tried to take a deep breath, but there was nothing left to come out of him. He retched and coughed and shook in Don's hold, until Don finally took the bucket away and wiped his face with something rough and damp--the towel he'd left in the bathroom. Charlie still couldn't catch his breath, shivering violently, but this time the exhalation came out as something like a sob.

Don said, "Shh," again, and Charlie managed to push him away this time, falling clumsily back against one of the beds and wiping the back of his hand across his stupid stinging eyes.

"I'm n--" he said, and had to haul in another unsteady breath, and he could feel water on his face, could hardly see Don through the blur of his vision.

"I'm not sorry," he snarled, but the word came out on another sob, and he felt as much as saw Don move across the space between them, setting a hand on his shoulder.

"I'm not," Charlie repeated, but he could barely make out his own words, and the next thing out of his mouth was just a rising cry, muffled against Don's shoulder.

Don's shirt quickly became hot and wet under his face, but Charlie couldn't seem to stop, only occasionally raising his head to catch a cool breath. He kept trying to say I'm not sad, but the words never seemed to come out whole and intelligible. He wasn't, though, not sad; sickened and scared and angry, somehow, but it all translated into this shuddering leaking sobbing mess on the outside. His hands were cramping from holding so tightly to Don's shirt, and Don's hand smoothed over his back, up and down as steady as a clock, but Don didn't say a word.

After a long time, Charlie lifted his head to take a breath that came out as just another breath. He looked up toward the window; the light was getting gray and thin, but it was enough to make him realize his head was throbbing. He unclenched his fingers from Don's shirt and scooted carefully away, one leg going pins and needles as he did. He winced, rubbing awkwardly at his face--hot and damp--and didn't look at Don.

"Sorry," he muttered.

"It's okay," Don said, and his voice sounded rusty. He cleared his throat, and Charlie clenched his fist.

He felt scraped raw, emptied out. If Don told him it wasn't his fault, that he hadn't killed anyone, that he had nothing to be sorry for, he didn't know what he'd do. He didn't think he could cry any more, and his hand shook even closed in a fist.

But the silence stretched out, until Charlie finally did look up, only to find that Don was staring down at his own hands. He glanced up at Charlie and smiled a little and shook his head. Charlie frowned, but Don just pushed up to his feet and turned away.

Charlie watched him bend and pick up the bucket--the bathroom trash can, he realized, wincing as Don took it away. The bathroom sink turned on, and the toilet flushed, and then the water ran again, longer, while Charlie wiped his nose again on his shirt sleeve.

Don came back with a washcloth, offering it silently to Charlie, and while Charlie was wiping his face--it was cool, and felt good on his overheated skin--Don sank down to sit beside him, their shoulders pressed together. Charlie lowered the cloth, resting his arms on his knees as he twisted the cloth, and realized Don was sitting beside him in just the same posture, though his hands were still.

"I did the same thing," Don said quietly, into the silence. "The first time I killed someone."

Charlie looked over at him, startled. He didn't think Don had ever spoken to him about his life before this--it was hard sometimes to remember that Don had had a life before this. And Don wasn't saying it's not your fault. He was saying it happened to me.

"I was working with another guy. We got separated, I fell behind." Don's voice was steady, but his hands were clenched hard. His eyes were nearly closed, eyelashes hovering just above his cheek.

"I caught up and this guy was holding my--my partner at gunpoint. I yelled--I yelled at him to stop, and then I fired. I killed him. There was no choice to make. It was the right thing to do, and I saved my partner, and I wasn't sorry."

Charlie nodded, and Don's lips tightened, not really a smile.

"I went home that night and spent half of it on the bathroom floor."

"What did you--" Charlie said, and Don's eyes snapped open, like he'd forgotten Charlie was there. But the same sick roil was still there in his stomach--not gone, even if it was exhausted for now, and he had to know. "What did you do? How did you--"

Don gave him a small sad smile, his eyes tired and warm. "In the long run, I tried my hardest not to ever have to kill anybody again. In the short run, I went out and got drunk, and then I tried not to think about what I'd done until I could think about it without wanting to puke."

"Oh," Charlie said. He could try not to think, but he was tired of forgetting things.

"There's a bar a couple of blocks down the road," Don said, nudging Charlie's shoulder. "Come on."


Halfway through his second beer, Charlie propped his chin on his hand, squinted thoughtfully at Don across the remains of the nachos, and said, "Do you have a computer?"

Don smiled and took another sip. "Not with me, why?"

Charlie waved a hand, dismissing Don's answer, and Don could see relaxation creeping into the gesture. Charlie was already slouching more comfortably in his seat; his tolerance must have dropped off in the last six months. "Just--have you ever used one?"

There was something disturbingly wistful in Charlie's eyes. Don nodded slowly. "Not for the kind of stuff you probably would."

Charlie took another long swallow of his beer and then nodded. "I've been thinking--there must be a program to--"

Those were the last words Don understood, not because Charlie was slurring but because it dropped off so rapidly into math.

Charlie either didn't notice that he'd completely lost his audience, or didn't mind. Don kept drinking slowly, listening to Charlie's voice and watching his face--it wasn't really that different from the last month, Charlie doing math while Don sat and watched quietly. Only now Charlie was facing him, occasionally throwing in a sentence he could nod at; it was more than Charlie had talked to him all the time they'd been locked up together. And now the doors weren't locked from the outside, and now...

Don kept drinking. Not now, not like this, not in some stupid drunken blurt--or maybe, he thought, even as he shoved the thought of it down, maybe exactly like this, because how else would he ever manage to do it? This way would be bad, but there wasn't any way to do it well.

Charlie set his bottle down with a hollow sound, still talking, though he'd subsided to a mutter and was wetting his finger off the sweating bottle and writing on the table in water. Don got up and went to the bar, ordered two more and bummed a ballpoint pen off the bartender, along with a stack of napkins.

Charlie grinned up at Don when he came back, scooting closer to him and spreading out a few of the napkins to illustrate whatever he'd been talking about. Don obediently leaned in and watched Charlie draw, but he was distracted from the figures by Charlie's hands. Math looked like dancing from this angle, like something Charlie did with his body, not just his brain. A sport, and a spectator sport at that. Don grinned and drank his beer, glancing up at Charlie's face to find Charlie smiling widely at him, his eyes bright and his cheeks flushed.

After that Charlie talked more directly to Don, looking into his eyes, tracking his attention. Don recognized the tone of voice--this was Charlie at his day job, or even in the office, trying to make Don and his team understand how he'd broken their case for them. Teaching had to be some kind of instinct for Charlie, and all it took to dig it up was a few beers and a ballpoint pen. Don followed Charlie's math the best he could, in between going back and forth to the bar. He almost didn't notice how Charlie leaned closer to him with every successive drink, how Charlie's voice got low and slow, how Charlie looked up at Don through his eyelashes.

Charlie said, "Here, you try it," and Don took the pen from his hand--clumsily, their fingers brushing and tangling over it. He frowned down at a napkin and tried to reproduce the matrix Charlie had just explained to him with the numbers Charlie whispered in his ear. Don could feel Charlie's breath, and his fingers were tingling on the pen, his whole body feeling warm and loose and good.

When he glanced up, trying to think through the steps of the math problem, he realized the bartender was very carefully not looking toward their table. He took a quick glance around and realized a few of the bar's patrons were looking, and pocketed the pen.

"Come on," he whispered to Charlie. "Time to go."

Charlie smiled sunnily and didn't argue.


Don had been right about how drinking made things better; even walking down the sidewalk with the wind in his face, Charlie felt warm. His legs seemed to swing more easily as he walked--random walked, bumping into Don every few strides, which made Don laugh. He felt as though he'd been cut loose from something heavy, as though his whole body had been made of knots and they had all come untied. Now he was made of strings, sliding loosely against each other, summoning up friction-heat and singing here and there with stray vibrations.

"The universe is made of strings," he informed Don, when Don grabbed his arm and pulled him close. After a blinking instant Charlie realized they were on a street corner, traffic whizzing by in a directed stream of bright lights and shiny bumpers.

"Yeah?" Don said, holding on to Charlie's arm. "Not math?"

Charlie shook his head and had to take a staggering step to keep his balance, Don's hand holding him up. He paused, braced with his feet apart and one hand on Don's side, and shook his head again for the sheer novelty of the sensation.

"Described by math," he called out to Don, staring up at the spinning sky. "Made up of string."

"Oh," Don said, tugging Charlie into motion. Charlie held onto Don's coat as he made his unsteady way across the street; the pavement seemed to roll under his feet. "Yeah, obviously. String."

"Everything is connected," Charlie explained. "Things seem to be far apart but really they're attached by these strings. Really they're not even different things, just opposite ends of the same really big thing. You touch one thing and another thing feels it, one thing moves and everything moves."

"Huh," Don said, but Charlie thought Don understood him a little; as much as he understood himself, anyway.

"String theory," Charlie said, abruptly remembering the name. "Physics. Everything is made of string."

Don didn't say anything this time, but pushed Charlie up against a wall; Charlie reached for him eagerly, his lazy heart speeding up and his blood gathering in his dick, but Don stepped away. He was unlocking the door, Charlie realized when he looked around. They were back at the motel. Even better.

Charlie stumbled into the warmth of the room as soon as Don got the door open, and nearly fell across the bed in the dark, giggling and dizzy. He heard Don lock the door and then a light came on. Charlie bounced gently on the bed, smiling up at him, and said, "Hey, come here."

Don leaned against the door, watching him and smiling, his eyes bright and the skin at the corners wrinkling in a way that made Charlie want to lick him there and everywhere. "Didn't you just say we're made of string? Aren't we really already in the same place?"

Charlie grinned. "Only one way to tell."

He yanked his coat open and slid his hand into his jeans without unbuttoning them. The coldness of his own hand on his cock made him jump, but Don's gaze was riveted. Charlie watched the front of Don's jeans, framed in his open coat. He curled his hand around his own warm flesh, stroking himself clumsily. It felt good--ridiculously good, lazy and slow and hot, strings twisting together into something more. His eyes drifted shut and he moaned at his own touch, and the sound tingled on his lips, making him want to kiss, lick, taste, reminding him about Don, and his experiment.

He opened his eyes and discovered empirical evidence of the connectedness of all things: Don was leaning against the door, hard in his jeans, his cheeks flushed.

"C'mere," Charlie repeated, and Don didn't argue this time.

He knelt between Charlie's feet, his hands settling on Charlie's thighs as he leaned in, his mouth touching down warm and wet on the back of Charlie's wrist, just above his jeans. Charlie tried to tell him how good it felt--how a string ran from his wrist to his cock, and Don's mouth touched everything--but it came out a groan, his hips jerking toward Don's mouth. He pulled his hand free, and Don's mouth slid down his skin to the tip of his finger.

Don looked up at him and took Charlie's finger into his mouth, sucking softly, his teeth scraping just a little, his lips sliding wetly over Charlie's skin. Charlie's cock throbbed with every touch of Don's tongue. He was nodding frantically, dizzily, though there was no question in Don's eyes, just the hot dark shine of certainty. Charlie tried to unbutton his own jeans, left-handed, but Don's teeth closed lightly on the base of his finger, and Don's hand batted his away from his fly.

Don let go of Charlie's finger and yanked Charlie closer to the edge of the bed, his legs splaying wildly, feet floating free, his ass teetering on the edge--but Don was there, holding him steady, flicking the button open and the zipper down with quick, efficient movements. Charlie summoned his own fine motor skills and trailed his fingers down the side of Don's face, the sensation sparkling on his skin. Don pushed his jeans down the little way they would go, then his boxers, and his hand was on Charlie's cock, a little rough, every touch electric, every movement humming.

Charlie wanted to touch Don but couldn't. His hands were too unsteady to do more than swipe at his hair or cheek as Don teased him, lowering his head to breathe over Charlie's belly, lick at the point of his hip, while his hand kept moving on Charlie's cock. Charlie jammed his fingers into his own mouth instead, biting down to keep from coming; he was losing the sense of himself as strings, becoming flesh and blood again and needing Don's mouth on him.

"Don," he breathed, and Don raised his head, his hand sliding down Charlie's hip, fingertips resting on his ass. They were cold on his skin, and Charlie tilted his hips and closed his eyes, forgetting what he'd been about to ask for.

"Don, fuck me."

For a second nothing happened, and then Charlie felt wet heat on the head of his cock, slow and soft, and he shuddered and pushed into it--that was what he'd been about to ask for--and it was good, so good, but not what he wanted anymore.

"Don--Don--hey," he gasped, and his hand landed in Don's hair. He tightened his grip and pushed Don off, opening his eyes just in time to see Don looking up at him with wide, dark eyes, shaking his head in a nearly-undetectable arc.


Don stared at Charlie, watching the little frown form between his eyebrows almost in slow motion, as much puzzled as unhappy. He recognized that look. Thirty years of experience told him what was coming next, and frustration burned as warm as alcohol in his stomach as Charlie said it.

"I want you to."

Don gritted his teeth and tilted back on his heels, looking anywhere but Charlie's cock, dark and hard and slick with Don's spit--he could still taste it--showing exactly what Charlie wanted.

"Well I don't want to," Don said.

Charlie moved all at once, nearly kicking him in the head with a wild flail, and landed on his knees, practically in Don's lap, one hand landing on his dick with uncanny precision.

"Yes you do," Charlie whispered, leaning into him, smelling like beer and sex and his hand moving just right. Don's cock throbbed. God, he wanted.

"No," Don said, backing away again, practically onto his ass, shoving Charlie back as gently as he could and pushing up to his feet. Charlie stared up at him from the floor, looking somehow more obscene from this angle, his lips red with kisses and his dick half-hidden by his shirt and coat.

Don shook his head, turning his back on Charlie, and Charlie drawled, "Oh, that's how it is."

Don gritted his teeth, telling himself not to turn, not to look, not to be drawn by that know-it-all tone, but Charlie said, "Go on, then, go. The door's not locked anymore, nobody's keeping you here."

There was a tremor in his voice that Don had never heard from his brother when they used to fight; this wasn't that Charlie, confident and cool, in his geeky way. This was his Charlie--c, underneath Charlie's familiar old clothes--and Don couldn't walk away. He looked over his shoulder, and Charlie was looking down and tugging his pants up awkwardly, one-handed, without standing.

"I'm not going anywhere," Don said quietly. "I just don't want to."

Charlie shrugged stiffly. "You want to. I want to and you want to. You just don't want to admit it."

Don scrubbed his hands over his face. "Fine," he said, "I don't want to admit it. That still means I don't want to."

But he'd made the classic mistake, giving Charlie an inch, and Charlie was up on his feet at once, his pants sagging precariously. His dick was still visibly hard, and Don bit down on his lip and stared at the curtained window.

"Why not?" Charlie asked, sounding so genuinely curious that it dampened Don automatic brotherly urge to strangle him. "I mean, what's different now, what changed? Just because you can leave--"

Don shook his head, turning to half-face Charlie, and Charlie's eyes went wide, as though he'd just realized something. He made a wild gesture--he was drunk, Don reminded himself, for the first time in months, the first time he could remember.

"Or is it that I can leave?" Charlie demanded. "I'm not your prisoner anymore, is that--"

"You know that's not true," Don snapped, even though he knew better than to engage, even though he knew there'd be no convincing Charlie of anything but his own stubborn ideas. "I never wanted--"

"You never wanted to admit you wanted!" Charlie snapped back triumphantly. "Was that it, was it all about how you shouldn't? You get off on your guilt, huh? It just hurts so good--"

"Shut up," Don snarled.

It was all too close to the truth, stabbing all around the edges of being exactly right. He hadn't wanted it. He'd been sick with not wanting it, scared and furious, but it hadn't taken a week for all of that to turn into wanting just this, wanting Charlie just like this, no matter how wrong it was--and maybe because of how wrong it was, way down in the dark of his brain.

"It's no fun for you anymore," Charlie plowed on, "isn't that it? Well, come on, there's one frontier left, there's one thing you haven't done wrong yet, come on! Don't you just want to--"

Don turned to face Charlie as Charlie moved, taking a quick step back and knocking Charlie's reaching hand away. Charlie just smiled, wobbling where he stood.

"See?" Charlie whispered. "You want to, we both know you want to, so come on. I'm drunk, take advantage. One more time."

Don almost couldn't breathe; Charlie might as well have hit him. He backed up, leaning against the cold crack between the door and the jamb, staring at Charlie, bright-eyed and somehow close to innocent, despite every word he said. He had no idea.

"Charlie," Don said hoarsely, not knowing how the hell to follow it up.

Charlie stepped right up to him, holding his gaze, one hand raised, palm out, like Don would bolt. Don would have, if there had been anywhere to go.

"Shh," Charlie said, leaning up against him--still hard, still fucking hard, and Don's cock twitched in answer. His lips touched Don's throat, dragging lightly across his skin.

"Just tell me why, Don, that's all I want, is to know why. If I could just understand you--you have a whole life in your head and you might as well be me for all you say. Tell me what it is with you, tell me why."

Don breathed, and Charlie was against his chest; the air he breathed was a cloud of Charlie. He had nowhere to go.

"There's some variable I'm missing," Charlie whispered, fascination in his voice like Don was an unsolvable equation. "Just tell me what it is, because I'm tired of trying to figure this with one eye closed."

Don dropped one hand heavily onto Charlie's shoulder, and Charlie peeled away from him far enough to look Don in the eye. Don felt cold, painfully clear-headed. The lights were bright, shining down on Charlie looking up at him, waiting. Charlie had asked, point-blank. This was it, this was the moment. He had to tell the truth.

He opened his mouth, licked his lips, and said nothing. Charlie squirmed against him, and Don caught his breath, but the words weren't there, not in his head, not in his mouth, not in the air. The moment had come and he was saying nothing.

And he wasn't going to say anything. The realization shook him, and his hand on Charlie tightened convulsively. Charlie frowned again--concerned this time, not frustrated, and his hand flattened against Don's chest even as Don leaned in and kissed him.

"I'm sorry," he whispered against Charlie's lips. "I'm just--I'm so sorry."

Charlie was nodding into the kiss, hands on Don's face, warm and sure, steadying him.

"It's okay," Charlie said, and Don smiled grimly and took a step away from the wall, pushing Charlie back before him.

"It's not," Don said. "But I'm still sorry."

"Shh," Charlie breathed, his hands sliding down to Don's throat, to his shoulders, pushing his coat off. "Shh, it's all right, just come to bed."


Don stood mostly still, just pressing his mouth to Charlie's when it came into range, while Charlie undressed him. Charlie pulled the covers back and Don lay down, tucking his hands behind his head and watching as Charlie stripped. He sped through it and crawled into bed next to Don, laying his head on the same pillow and tugging the covers over them. The room was cool, the sheets were cool, but Don radiated heat, and when Charlie scooted closer--right up against him, his cock against Don's hip--Don didn't move away. He just kept watching Charlie, with the same steady, unreadable gaze.

Charlie kissed him carefully, waiting for another retreat, another explosion, waiting for the taste of blood in Don's mouth, but Don just kissed him back slowly, tentatively. Charlie's cock was achingly hard, his whole body still hungry for Don's--but he'd hurt Don in some way he didn't quite understand, saying stupid things he shouldn't have said. Charlie barely moved, only settling a hand on Don's shoulder, only dragging his mouth across Don's, slower and slower, their tongues meeting, stroking, pushing past each other in no hurry to go anywhere. Every touch vibrated all through him, and staying still was torturous; but something had cracked in Don, something as delicate and necessary as finger-bones, and Charlie couldn't jostle him too much.

Slowly, the sheets warmed up, and Don seemed to warm up too. His hand cupped Charlie's cheek, sliding back into Charlie's hair to tilt his head at just the angle he wanted. Charlie made an encouraging sound, and Don's hand slid to the back of his neck and tugged a little. Charlie got closer the only way he could, climbing on top of Don, letting the covers slide back.

The light shone into Don's eyes as Charlie looked down at him, and the shadow was gone; Charlie thrust his cock against Don's and Don's eyes squeezed shut as his mouth flashed open. Charlie kissed him harder this time, shoving his tongue inside purposefully, the same question in different notation. Don's breath between kisses seemed like a sigh, but he thrust up hard against Charlie and didn't pull away.

He could do it just like this, him on top and Don lying still and letting him; the mechanics weren't too bad. But Charlie wanted something different, wanted to be drunk and boneless and facedown in a pillow, wanted to let Don do the work.

He whispered, "Please," as he pressed his open mouth to Don's temple, almost against his ear, and Don shuddered and thrust up harder against him. Charlie smiled and licked Don's skin and rolled down onto his side, and Don moved with him, his hips between Charlie's thighs.

Charlie groped backward, straining his shoulder but unable to turn his back on Don, who leaned in, kissing his throat, his shoulder, distracting Charlie as he finally got his fingertips on the drawer of the night table, pulling it open and reaching awkwardly inside. He'd found the condoms and lube in Don's bag, looking for his own things, and left them optimistically in the drawer, on top of the Gideon Bible.

Don's teeth scraped the bump at the end of Charlie's collarbone, and Charlie's fingers closed around the box and bottle. Don's hand cupped his twisted shoulder for a moment, sinking body heat into the joint, and then his hand slid down, across Charlie's biceps, lightly across the inside of his elbow, down his forearm and wrist. Charlie looked at Don--up at Don, who'd propped himself over Charlie on one elbow.

They were pressed together, chest to chest and cock to cock, and Charlie could feel tension all through Don's body; they were balanced just at the vertical, but something in Don's eyes was teetering. Charlie opened his mouth, but he couldn't think of a word to say that might not tip Don the other way. He licked his lips instead, and Don's eyes followed the motion. Don's tongue followed his back into his mouth, and Don tipped slowly and gently forward, pressing Charlie down beneath him. His hand slid from Charlie's wrist to close over his hand, taking the supplies from his grip, and Charlie relaxed into the mattress under Don's weight.

For a while Don didn't really move, just resting his weight on Charlie, his hips cradled between Charlie's thighs, kissing him slowly and thoroughly. They were both breathless, and Charlie pushed up into each kiss the best he could, his hips jerking up against Don, his cock seeking friction. Don's hands, when they did begin to move on his skin, slid in random swipes over his shoulders, his arms, his sides, and after a few forays Don went back to keeping one hand cupped to Charlie's face, kissing him and kissing him until Charlie was making breathless noises of protest between kisses, his cock straining.

It was strange, being held down this way, having to wait for whatever Don might do. His own hands were free, and Charlie ran them almost frantically over Don's back, grabbing at his ass to pull him closer, but Don was stronger than he was and ignored his efforts. The slower Don moved, the more desperate Charlie got, closing his teeth on Don's lip, digging his nails into the soft skin under Don's shoulder blades.

Don laughed a little against his mouth and said, "You sure you don't want to be on top?"

His voice was breathless, almost shaking. Charlie just spread his legs wider, wrapping them around Don's waist so that Don settled lower over him, and Don caught his breath sharply and pushed up off of him.

For a second Charlie hung on, and then he realized what Don was doing. He squirmed over onto his stomach, his heart racing harder--this was it, Don at his back, Don moving over him, this was just what he had wanted. Did want. Charlie's hips jerked spastically when his cock touched the sheets, and then Don's hand was at the back of his knee, pushing, and Charlie knew this. He tucked one knee under himself, bent flat to his chest, and the dull strain of the muscle as it stretched was somehow exciting, somehow familiar.

Don's hands rested on his ass, hot and dry against his skin, thumbs sliding slowly down toward the center. Charlie shoved the pillow away from his face and pressed his forehead to the cool sheet beneath, gasping for breath--he knew this, he knew this. He knew that if he gave into the urge to touch himself right now he'd come, just from this, just from knowing, in some blind wordless way that spread like fire and light through every cell of his body, what was next.

Don's mouth touched his spine, and Charlie shivered even before he pulled away, cool air rushing over Charlie's skin from the nape of his neck to his ass, exposed by his position. He heard the noise of lube being dispensed from the little bottle, and then one of Don's hands was flat on the small of his back, hot against his hot skin, and one slick fingertip was pressing against him. It rocked tentatively, teasingly, and Charlie made wordless, hungry noises against the sheet, already damp with his breath. Then all at once the finger pressed inside, not hurting but with the same dull hot stretch of muscle he'd felt in his leg, concentrated, intense. His body knew this, even if he couldn't remember.

Charlie pressed his mouth to the mattress, breathing fast through his nose without a sound. If Don thought he didn't like it, that it didn't feel good, he might stop, and then Charlie might just die of frustration. But Don's finger slid into him, wiggling in an exploratory way that made Charlie shudder all over, pleasure running hot and cold up and down his spine, and it was Don who gasped.

Charlie was squeezing tight around his finger--the penetration too much and not nearly enough, all at once. He tried to press up and back, though it was awkward with one leg under him and the other splayed out to the side. Don's hand flattened harder against the small of his back, holding him still, and Don's finger moved in him, slowly, methodically, twisting and teasing until Charlie gave up on being quiet.

"Don," he gasped, half a moan, rounding up to a whine, and Don's fingers curled against his back, short nails scraping slightly, a whisper of pain in the teasing pleasure.

"Yeah," Don said, still breathless, easing his finger out. Charlie held his breath, but Don pressed two fingers back in, slick and slow, and Charlie folded his arms under his head and gave in to the sensation. His head had cleared a little before, but he felt drunk again--more drunk--with pleasure and hunger, the steady slide of Don's fingers, the flick and twist and curl. All of it left him dizzy and weak, made of strings that all twined around Don's fingers at one end, making his cock throb and his heart race and his skin tingle and crawl. His breath came short and uneven and his mouth half-formed one word after another, none of them meaning anything.

Don added a third finger, and a curl of pain slid through Charlie's body, there and gone as he relaxed, rocking back with the rhythm of Don's hands. The head of his cock dragged across the sheets when he moved, and Charlie said please over and over, though he wasn't sure if it was out loud. He was ready, so ready, and then he heard the small unmistakable sound of foil tearing and Don cursing under his breath--slippery fingers were a bitch.

Charlie laughed into the sheets, and then Don said, "Charlie," in a low, steady voice, and his hand was on Charlie's hip.

Charlie twisted his head around, looking back over his shoulder at Don, laughter still twitching around his mouth. Don's eyes were warm and smiling, leaning over him, and Don's cock was pushing into him. Charlie closed his eyes, trying to remember to breathe. Don was moving slowly, carefully, and he felt huge, pleasure and pain and sensation and connection all combining into this, into being fucked. Don went still, buried in him, and Charlie put his head down and rocked his hips a little, tentatively, trying to say yes, good without having to make the words. Don's mouth pressed mutely against his back, and Charlie thought he'd heard.

Don pulled back only slowly, painstakingly slowly, like he didn't want to, and thrust back in a little too fast, almost roughly, but he was dropping kisses on Charlie's shoulder and dripping sweat on Charlie's skin. Charlie nodded helplessly, yes, yes, and Don did it again, faster, and again, and his hand slid under Charlie's hip to his cock, closing clumsily around him. His strokes were uneven, slick fingers slipping, but Charlie made an involuntary grateful noise and jerked into the touch, his cock hardening fast as Don stumbled toward a rhythm, his breath hissing against Charlie's skin.

Charlie pushed up a little on his tucked-up knee, sending blood rushing into his foot and changing the angle of Don's thrust just so--he saw little lights behind his eyelids, his whole body going briefly pins and needles, and Don's hand tightened on his cock.

Don's cock moved in him again, again, and Charlie said, "Oh fuck, oh--" and came with Don's hand on him and Don's cock in him and Don's lips brushing lightly against his skin.

Charlie had barely gone still before Don was moving again, thrusting into him slowly, gently. Charlie shuddered. Every sensation felt amplified now. He braced his arms against the bed to push back at Don, clenching around his cock until he gasped. Don closed a hand on his hip, moving faster but raggedly, and the next time Charlie thrust back against him Don froze and then jerked, gasping as he came.

Don stayed there for a while, resting on Charlie's back, squishing him into the mattress with every breath. Charlie's cheek was resting on a damp spot on the sheet, to say nothing of the wet spot lower down, but Charlie felt like a puddle himself, much too warm and limp to care. When Don moved away--slowly, making a soft soothing noise and running his hand over Charlie's back--Charlie couldn't help letting out a small wordless whine. Don flipped a sheet over him, a poor, light substitute for the warmth and weight of Don's body, but he came back soon, cleaning Charlie up and tugging him out of the bed and into the one beside it, sliding between cool clean sheets. It was like déjà vu, cuddling up to Don again; but he'd gotten everything he wanted now, and when Charlie looked at Don's face, he only looked tired.

"Thanks," Charlie whispered, settling his arm and leg across Don, his nose against Don's neck where every breath would smell of him.

Don's arm settled over Charlie's, holding him in place, and Charlie was almost asleep by the time Don said, "You're welcome."


Don woke up almost exactly the way he'd fallen asleep, with Charlie wrapped around him, too warm and too close, and a dense knot of guilt aching in his stomach. His head hurt now, too, and his mouth tasted foul, but the worst part of his truly bad hangovers had always been what he remembered, not what hurt.

He could have taken back deciding not to tell; he could take it back right now, or tomorrow, or in a few days. It had been a bad moment, a drunken argument, it had seemed like a good idea at the time but didn't stand up to the cold light of day. That sort of thing happened. God knew he'd spent enough mornings after taking back things he had said, never mind things he hadn't.

But it wasn't just what he hadn't said, it was what he'd done. He'd fucked his baby brother, and he'd liked it like he couldn't remember ever liking anything, and there was no way in the world to take that back. For the rest of his life he would know what Charlie had looked like, sounded like, felt like, inside and out, and Don would never be able to forget. And he would always want it, and nothing would ever be the same again.

Don looked around the small, dim room, trying to calculate how long it would take to get Charlie moving, packed up and gone. Whatever he'd been waiting for, hanging around here... there was no point waiting anymore.

But no rush, either. Charlie was sprawled across him, heavy and still in sleep. For all he'd been too close for comfort last night, Charlie still didn't know the truth. His own clothes hadn't made him remember, his gameboy hadn't; hell, he looked his own brother in the face every hour of the day and still had no idea. Maybe it wouldn't matter that Don never told, if Charlie never remembered. Don closed his eyes and let himself think of that for a second, of giving Charlie one of the fake IDs waiting in the car and just staying in the wind forever, just like this. Together. Not brothers ever again, but still together like they were supposed to be.

But Don had chased enough fugitives to know what kind of life it would be, motel rooms or maybe a cheap apartment somewhere, working under the table when the cash ran out. Charlie wouldn't mind, because he didn't know any better; he'd spend hours in public libraries, reading books about math and using their computers.

And it would take maybe an hour, maybe two, before Charlie found himself on the internet, researching his own ideas about math; ten minutes to call or email CalSci or the FBI. Another ten to find out who Don was, if that. Two, three hours tops, from the moment Charlie got any more freedom than he'd had with Williamson until it all came crashing down.

Don opened his eyes and stared up at the ceiling. It wasn't like he didn't know what he had to do; there was only one way this was going to end, and no point putting it off. He squirmed over onto his side, dumping Charlie off. Charlie moaned and frowned, burrowing into the covers, and Don shook him gently.

"Hey. Chuck."

Charlie made an inquisitive noise at that, even as he tried to push Don's hand away, and Don realized what he'd said. "Charlie. You awake?"

"No," Charlie said into the pillow, and then he stretched, and Don felt the body beside his waking up, a current of awareness running through Charlie's muscles a second before Charlie's mouth touched his bare shoulder. Charlie added in a low voice, "I could be persuaded."

Don swallowed hard and turned to kiss the top of Charlie's head, forcing down the lump in his stomach--it didn't matter now, none of it would make a damn difference anymore--and said, "What do you think about getting out of here today?"

"Huh," Charlie said, more a yawn than a word. "Can we go to the Museum of Science? It's supposed to be cool. Or the Aquarium. Do you like fish?"

It was miles down the freeway from what he'd meant, but that hardly mattered. They both knew Don wasn't going to tell Charlie no.

"Sure," he said, ruffling Charlie's hair. "We'll go see the fish."


Charlie pressed his nose to the glass and thought that he felt like a kid. He still couldn't remember what it had been like to be one, but he'd been watching them all day, at the museum and the aquarium. He thought he felt what they felt, the same delight in everything he saw. He'd stopped at every exhibit, tried every demonstration--most of the concepts were painfully simplified, but Charlie was fascinated. The presentation was great, but better than that it was familiar somehow. These things all seemed right.

Somewhere in his forgotten past, there had been museums, and video games, and trips to the aquarium, and gift shops. Sometime before whatever he'd done that he had to forget, there had been good things. He'd been real once; he'd been a child once. Logically, he'd known that had to be true, but he'd never seen children up close before, and they were everywhere today.

Don had given him a strange look when he mentioned the museum being crowded, but there were more people around than he'd ever seen, all of them real, families with kids, strolling adults, nobody scared, nobody scary. Don still watched them all with wary eyes, but when Charlie wasn't actively pointing something out to him he would lag a little behind, letting Charlie go off on his own. That alone told Charlie there was no danger here.

Charlie tore his gaze away from the tank full of tiny, bright silver fish and looked around for Don. He was standing a few meters away along an unobstructed line of sight, but he wasn't looking at Charlie. He was staring to one side, his eyes fixed and his mouth tight. Charlie tensed as he followed Don's gaze, but there was nothing wrong there.

Two boys stood in front of another tank, and as Charlie watched the bigger one bent and picked up the smaller one, hoisting him awkwardly up to the window. He tried to point to something and then had to quickly grab at the smaller child, using both arms to hold him up, and in Charlie's peripheral vision he saw Don's hand move and then fall back to his side. He'd have tried to catch the little one if he'd fallen, Charlie thought, even though he was much too far away.

Charlie walked over to him, the fish forgotten in his curiosity about Don. His own childhood was a blank, but Don had to remember his. Charlie recalled, with a vague sense of unease, that he'd said something about that last night, let his envy and frustration loose; but before Charlie was in arm's reach Don turned to him and smiled, and Charlie didn't worry any more about it.

"I've been wondering," Charlie said, looking down at his feet, "what I wanted to be when I grew up, when I was little."

Don didn't say anything; when Charlie looked up Don was watching the little boys again. Charlie cleared his throat and pushed on, thinking of the packet of freeze-dried ice cream he'd bought in the last gift shop, which he'd had to have because he knew how it would taste, the bizarre feel of it on his tongue, just from looking at the package.

"An astronaut, maybe? Don't all kids want to be astronauts?"

Don looked back at him, something strange in his eyes, his mouth in some shape that wasn't quite a smile or a frown.

"Maybe," Don said. "I didn't."

Charlie smiled. "What did you want to be?"

Don just stared at him, and Charlie wondered if this was something you weren't supposed to ask, if it was something other people didn't think about or remember about themselves.

Don looked down and said quietly, "I wanted to play baseball."

Charlie waited, but Don just turned and started walking, into the next dim room lined with glass windows. Charlie followed him, walking quickly to keep up, and said daringly, "Tell me about it."

Don glanced sideways at him, raising an eyebrow, and Charlie bit his lip. He'd said something last night, something he shouldn't, demanding Don tell him something. He didn't know what exactly--it had seemed important at the time, and it had hurt Don somehow--but he was pretty sure it hadn't been this.

Don didn't break stride, anyway, and said lightly, "About baseball?"

Charlie shrugged, hooking his thumbs into the straps of his backpack and tugging at them as he walked. "About when you were little, when you wanted to play."

Charlie was looking away, at the tanks they were passing--frogs, all colors and sizes, on rocks and in pools--and Don let out a breath, not quite a sigh. He touched Charlie's shoulder, steering him over to a tank full of frogs--no, toads, according to the sign--but when Charlie leaned his forehead against the glass it was to look at Don in the watery light.

Don stared at the glass, but Charlie didn't think he was seeing it. He said haltingly, "You were supposed to be five to play t-ball."

He glanced sideways at Charlie, and Charlie nodded, almost holding his breath.

"My birthday was..." Don trailed off, frowning at the toads suddenly fiercely.

"My birthday is in July," he said. "I would have turned five halfway through the season and then had to wait a whole year. I begged my parents like crazy, until they begged the t-ball coach just to shut me up."

Charlie smiled even as his stomach clenched with envy intense as hunger--that was what he wanted, memories like that, a history like that. Parents. Parents who had listened to a four-year-old boy beg for the thing he wanted most in all the world, and found a way to give it to him.

"So you got to play?"

Don nodded, smiling a little at last. "Shortest kid on the team. My mom came to every game, and somehow my dad would always get there for the last inning, and they'd buy me ice cream after and I'd tell my dad all about the game. I was always trying to keep score, because they didn't, they always told us we tied. Drove me crazy."

Charlie grinned. "You needed a good statistician."

Don looked over at him, reached out and ran a hand over Charlie's hair.

"Yeah," he said. "I guess I did."


Charlie was talking to him about penguins as their waitress led them to a table; he was just regurgitating all the signs and brochures he'd read that day, as far as Don could tell. He had that confident, knowing tone in his voice, though, and Don was happy to let him run on. He still felt weirdly shaky somewhere inside from telling Charlie about playing ball as a kid, like running too far too fast, until his legs would barely hold him up.

He hooked the bag of gift shop junk--assorted rocks, random glow-in-the-dark stuff, a t-shirt with a shark on it, everything that Charlie hadn't been able to jam into his backpack but still absolutely had to have--over the back of his chair and sat down. Across from him, Charlie was shrugging out of his backpack and sitting down too. "Last year a glacier blocked the mouth of the bay," he said, "and thousands--"

He stopped dead, staring down at the table. As Don watched, he ran his fingers across the smooth wooden surface, once, twice, three times across the same short path.

"Thousands?" Don asked, and his voice was light but his heart rate was kicking up. Charlie didn't even seem to hear him, frowning down at the table. His fingers were still.

"Charlie?"

He shook his head slightly, pushing his fingers slowly across the table in the opposite direction. Don sat very still, saying nothing, every muscle tensed to spring.

"Don," Charlie said, after far too much time had passed, everyone around them going on like nothing was happening at all. Charlie looked up with wonder in his eyes, a grin growing bright on his face.

"Don, I just remembered something."

Don didn't even try to look pleased for Charlie; he was having a hard enough time breathing. Charlie's smile was fading into a worried look when Don said, "Are you sure?"

Charlie frowned, and he shrugged. "I think so. I've never..."

Don rubbed his hands over his face, trying to get himself under control. Charlie wouldn't have been smiling at him like that if he'd remembered anything upsetting. He'd been happy, and Don was fucking it up, taking that away from him.

Don lowered his hands, balling them up out of sight, and said, "So tell me about it."

Charlie smiled again shyly. "I was little."

His hands waved in front of him, trying to estimate a size. "I was sitting on my--on my mom's lap, Don."

Don pressed the heel of his hand down just above the healing gash on his thigh, pain surging under pressure. He kept his face steady, and nodded, and breathed.

"She was holding on to me, so tight, I can--" Charlie's eyes unfocused, his smile turning dreamy, and he said, "I can remember how she smelled. I had my hand on the table, next to this piece of paper she was writing on. She asked me if I could multiply these two numbers she wrote down, four digit numbers, and I could, I did, as soon as she wrote them down, and I was sitting there with the answer on the tip of my tongue, but she was--"

Charlie shook his head, running one hand over his own arm from shoulder to elbow, and Don pushed down harder on his thigh, the dull throb turning sharp. Charlie had been three; Don had been sitting on the other side of the table with a calculator, waiting to check his answer. He'd been the one Charlie said it to first. He'd been the one who told their parents they had to see what Charlie could do. He'd had no idea what it really meant.

"She was holding on to me so tight," Charlie said. "Like she was nervous, or angry. I didn't know if I was supposed to be able to, so I wasn't saying it. I was just sitting there, not saying anything. That's all I remember."

Don remembered that long frozen moment. Charlie had turned his face against their mother's shirt (she'd been wearing a cream-colored sweater, and Don could remember what she had smelled like, too) and said nothing. Their father had been standing in the kitchen doorway, because his excitement made Charlie too nervous to speak.

It was Don who had broken the silence, who'd said, "Come on, Chuck, tell. I dare you."

And Charlie had turned his head and said, nearly shouted--

"Nine million, three hundred twenty-four thousand, four hundred thirty-two." Charlie frowned, rubbing his forehead. "I can't remember the factors, though, and it divides into more than one pair of four-digit numbers."

Don couldn't remember them either, though he'd punched them into the calculator and held up the result to show his dad, shouting his brother's triumph.

"Sorry," Don said, but Charlie shook his head.

He was smiling again, brighter than ever. "Don, I have a mother."

Don could remember how she'd smelled, and how the hospital had smelled, and the smell of chalk in the air as he stood in the garage and repeated, "She's gone, Charlie," until his brother understood. He pressed down on his leg until his fingers were almost numb, and the tightness in his throat faded in comparison to the pain.


Charlie set up the candles that night and hesitated before lighting them. He could remember his mother, her arms, her hands, her smell. Not her face, or her voice--not yet--but he remembered her. His mother. She had asked him to do math for her. She must have taught him to light the candles; she must have taught him to pray. But the words still wouldn't come. All he could remember was 9,324,432--divisible by four, the number of candles he would light tonight.

Charlie opened his eyes and lit the match, glancing up at Don, who sat watching him with the same guarded expression he'd had for hours now, before looking back down to light the candles. Don had been upset when Charlie remembered. Charlie hadn't understood that at first, but he'd been bouncing it around in his head, all through dinner and on the way back to the motel, and he had a queasy, uncomfortable hypothesis.

Don didn't want him to remember.

He didn't want to believe it, but it was the only thing that made any sense. He'd tried to think that Don had been worried that he'd remembered something bad, but he didn't think Don believed he had really bad things to remember, and anyway he'd been smiling. If it was that Don didn't want him to be unhappy--

But Don didn't want him to be unhappy, Charlie could swear that. Don had never wanted to hurt him, and even Charlie had known the things he accused Don of last night weren't true. Don had proven that he still wanted Charlie now that they'd escaped.

They had escaped, Charlie thought, glancing up from the brief flames of the candles, already starting to gutter, to look around the room. They could go outside--and had--but not much had really changed. He'd been afraid that Don would leave him, because Don had a real life to go back to, but Don hadn't. He was sitting around going nowhere, just like Charlie was; Charlie had nowhere to go, and Don...

That had to be it. Don didn't want him to remember because Don didn't want things to change. Maybe he didn't even think of Charlie's lost memories as something that was wrong with Charlie. Maybe he just thought of it as being how Charlie was, and he was worried that if Charlie remembered things would be different.

The candles started to sputter out, sending up four streams of thin white smoke, and when Don looked up Charlie smiled at him. Don smiled wearily back, and Charlie thought that maybe the next time he remembered something he just wouldn't mention it right away. He could take things slow and let Don know he liked everything just the way it was.

Don said, "I've been thinking."

Charlie's smile got away from him; his lips parted, and he realized with something a little too fast and startled to be humor that this must be just how Don had felt a few hours ago.

Don seemed to know it. His lips quirked into a slightly wider smile, and he said, "I was thinking we should check out tomorrow, start driving. Somewhere warmer."

After a day spent freezing every time they stepped outdoors, and lugging his (hand-me-down or stolen or inherited, depending on your precise definitions) coat around all the time they were indoors, Charlie couldn't argue with warmer. But Don wasn't just throwing out the suggestion as an alternative to buying mittens and a hat. He'd been thinking about it.

"Anyplace warmer in particular?"

Don nodded. "California. I know people there. They could help you find out who you are, without going to the police or anything."

Charlie opened his mouth, but he didn't know what he wanted to say--Yes, yes, now, let's go, or Florida, Mexico, anywhere but California--the thought made his heart race, filled him with excitement and an enormous formless dread.

He heard himself say in a small, choked voice, "California?"

Don leaned closer to him, his gaze warm and kind and searching. Charlie realized, dimly and far away, that Don may not have wanted him to remember, but now he was offering Charlie a way to find out.

"Yeah," Don said. "I grew up there. It's... nice."

Charlie swallowed hard. He did want to know. He had a mother; these people Don knew could help him find her, help him find out who he'd been and how he'd become this nameless person on the run. He nodded quickly, before he could think better of it. "California."


Chapter Eighteen

Somewhere in Oklahoma, Charlie rolled down the window. It wasn't hot outside--barely even warm, with the wind generated as they barreled down the freeway--but the sun beat steadily down on the car, heating it, and the cool buffeting of the wind felt good on Charlie's face. Don had bought him sunglasses at a gas station in Missouri, but wouldn't let Charlie stick his head out the window even if he wore them. He stuck his arm out instead, and stared into the orange-red afternoon sun above the flat brown land.

Air flowed over his hand like water: fluid dynamics, he thought, concepts drifting lazily across his brain. Bernoulli's principle. Speed and flowing air were what let things fly. Beside him, Don made another tour of the radio stations and, just like the last dozen times, turned the radio off again after cycling through the dial a couple of times. Charlie didn't mind. He was used to silence, and the rushing wind and the growling engine and Don's quiet, solid presence in the driver's seat were more than enough for him.

They were rushing toward California at sixty-five miles per hour. Toward the setting sun. Toward the end of the earth. Toward whoever Charlie had been.

Lying in a bed in a motel room in Tennessee, with Don sleeping squarely between him and the door, Charlie had decided he wasn't scared. Whatever he found, whatever he learned, Don would be with him, and that was all he'd ever needed.

The freeway curved, and the wind took on a more vicious edge. Charlie pulled his hand inside and rolled up the window. After a minute or two his hand felt warm again, and the window glass was warm when he leaned his forehead against it. He reached out without looking, and let his hand rest on Don's thigh as he watched the world roll past.


Charlie woke up as the car slowed down. The sun was bright, slanting in the afternoon and shining straight into Charlie's side of the car. They were headed much more south than west, for the first time since they'd hit Memphis. Charlie squinted behind his sunglasses and said, "Don?"

"Little detour," Don said, without looking over at Charlie. His hands were on the wheel at ten and two, like the night they'd escaped through the fog, though the day was bright and clear and the road was straight.

Charlie tried to remember what had been on the map that they might be detouring around. "Do you have something against Albuquerque?"

Don smiled, and his hands relaxed on the wheel. "I just thought you should see the desert. Sun, sand, parabolic dunes..."

"Oh," Charlie said, and the image was there in his mind--not the flat desert around them but dunes, rippling hills of sand shaped by the wind, by fluid dynamics. Parabolic dunes, ends anchored by vegetation and their centers pushed into ever more extreme curves by the force of the wind; transverse dunes, migrating under prevailing winds, sand sliding down a concave face.

"Yeah, cool," he said, looking west to the horizon, the dunes rising in the distance and the gate approaching, welcoming them to White Sands National Monument.

Don parked in a nearly-empty lot by a small building labeled Visitors' Center, and Charlie followed him inside. Don paid the ranger, collecting a sticker for the car and a map, along with a number of stern warnings about park rules and how not to die in the desert. Charlie tuned out and studied the postcards and souvenir magnets. He trusted Don to know how to keep them safe.

Don tugged a lock of his hair, and Charlie looked up and followed him out to the parking lot. Don didn't look at the little map once they were in the car, just pulled out and headed down the only road leading into the park. The dunes got closer, taller, whiter as they approached, until they were into the heart of them, pale sand rising up all around the road. Charlie had his nose pressed to the window, tracing their contours as best he could from his limited perspective.

He hardly noticed Don had parked until Don touched his shoulder.

"Hey, genius, come on. You can see them better from outside the car." Charlie tore his gaze from the view and grinned at Don, then scrambled out. Don was still leaning inside, but a moment later he straightened up with Charlie's backpack slung over his shoulder, looking like it had more inside than just the bottles of water. Charlie adjusted his sunglasses and started off into the sand beside Don.

It was hard going, sand sliding underfoot, making him aware that the shoes he wore didn't fit quite right. Don took his arm, helping him along as they climbed, and at the top of the first dune they stopped and looked out across the sand. The dunes rolled away in snaking curves (not perfect parabolas, because the wind wasn't that tidy), anchored here and there by tufts of grass. The breeze was steady and cool up here, but Charlie was still warm from walking, from the sun and the reflected heat rising off the sand.

He shook Don's lingering grip off his arm and dropped to sit on the ground, untying his shoes.

"Charlie?"

Charlie looked up at Don, meeting his eyes as best he could when they were both wearing sunglasses.

"Come on," Charlie said, yanking his socks off and shoving his bare toes into the sand. It was warm on top, cooler underneath, the sand dry and fine against his skin. "Take your shoes off, make yourself at home."

Don shook his head, but he was smiling. Charlie tugged on the leg of his jeans, and Don heaved an exaggerated sigh and sat, unlacing his boots slowly, every movement meticulous. He tucked his socks neatly inside his boots and tied the laces together before he stretched his legs out, digging his feet into the sand.

Charlie leaned back with his hands braced behind him and looked out over the dunes. There was nothing as far as he could see but the pale sand stretching to the hazy blue horizon, blotted here and there with low dogged desert plants.

The wind blew steadily along the peak of the dune. Grains of sand skittered before it, over his hands and feet, tickling the undersides of his wrists and raising the short hairs on the nape of his neck. Charlie found himself thinking about the first time he could remember being outside, the sky as white as the sand he was sitting on, the ground frozen hard as knives under his feet. He'd been cuffed and drugged and terrified, clutching his blanket as Don dragged him along.

Charlie let his eyes drift half-shut. It wasn't so scary to think about now that he was free, sitting on a dune in the desert with Don still beside him after everything. Half the fear of that day had been the drugs, not letting him think when thinking was what had made him useful, kept him alive. He'd been as helpless as he ever was, so much at everyone's mercy, but Don hadn't taken advantage. Don had protected him even then, gotten him away from the shooters, into the woods--

Charlie's eyes went wide, his fingers curling into the sand, and he turned to look at Don, who was looking back over his shoulder toward the road.

"You were trying to take me away," Charlie said, and it wasn't even a question. "Weren't you."

Don turned to look at him, a frown creasing his forehead. "Charlie?"

"On the road," Charlie said, realizing even as he said it that that wouldn't narrow things down much after the last few days. "Before--when we were in the van, when you took me into the woods. You were trying to take me away from Williamson, weren't you?"

Don said nothing for a few seconds, and Charlie was tempted to reach out and tug his sunglasses away, to expose his eyes and see what they would tell him. Charlie couldn't move, his hands as locked up in the sand as they'd ever been in cuffs. He could hear the wind against the dunes, whistling along his ear. He could hear his heart beating. He could hear people back on the road, calling out to each other. Someone had a whistle, and kept sounding it every few seconds, getting further and further away.

Between one shrill sound and the next, Don nodded.

Charlie had to look away, feeling warm and unsteady all at once. Even then, Don had been trying to help him, trying to get him away from the people who had hurt him, would hurt him. He might have pulled it off if Charlie hadn't been so helpless--but Randy had found him there in the woods. And now Randy was dead, and so was Williamson, and so was everyone who had hurt him, and he wouldn't think about it yet, because it still made his stomach roll queasily.

They were all gone, that was all that mattered; they were gone, and Don was here with him, warm and alive on the sand under the bright wide sky. Charlie leaned forward, drawing his knees up and rubbing his arms, trying to erase the memory of pain on one side and the memory of recoil on the other.

He looked out at the dunes, the patches of grass and the lines of shadow. The dunes were shaped by the wind; they were maps of their own weather conditions. Charlie could almost see the vectors trace themselves across the landscape, ghostly chalk lines in his mind's eye. He glanced up at the angle of the sun, searching for an optimum solution to a problem he'd barely realized he wanted to work on, and when he'd finished he stood up and looked down at Don, who was watching him now.

"Come on," Charlie said. "Let's go somewhere warmer."

Don nodded and asked nothing but, "You want to bring your shoes?"

Charlie bent and gathered them up, shoving his socks into the toes and knotting the laces while Don stood up beside him, settling Charlie's backpack on his shoulders.

When Charlie straightened up, Don said, "Lead the way."

Charlie grinned and turned away, striking out along the ridge of the dune. The sand was almost hot underfoot, and his steps barely made a sound; he had to look over his shoulder to see that Don was following. Don was looking off to the north, away from the road, across the endless dunes. Charlie turned back to watch where he was going without saying a word, but a moment later Don's hand landed on his shoulder, and it stayed there as they walked.

When he reached the point he'd picked out, Charlie turned and started walking downhill, half-running as momentum pushed him along. Don caught up, skidding down the slope at his side, and Charlie started really running, trying to stay ahead of him. Don started running too, and Charlie laughed on his next gasp for breath, swatting at Don and trying to push him away, off course. Don pushed back, and Charlie caught at Don's shirt as their arms crossed, falling to his knees in the sand and pulling Don down after him.

The impact jarred him into silence, but Charlie stayed where he was, holding on to a fold of Don's shirt and grinning open-mouthed as he gasped for breath. They'd arrived: they were kneeling side by side in a hollow near the base of the dune, sunny and sheltered. There was nothing to see but the dune they'd come down and the rising slope of the next one, casting a shadow that covered most of the valley between the dunes. Charlie could hear the wind, but it was just a low shushing murmur, and there was no sound of other people at all, no sign of the road. Charlie stood up, looking at the tracks of their feet and the position of the sun, fixing the way back in his mind. When he looked at Don, Charlie could see him doing the same.

Charlie dropped his shoes to the sand and took off his sunglasses, squinting against the suddenly-brighter glare of the sun off the sand. His flannel shirt went next, dropped on top of his shoes, and then he pulled his t-shirt up and off. He turned his face up to the sun, letting the light and heat pound down on his skin, breathing the dry air.

He felt really warm. Not just not too cold, not overheated with panic, not huddled under blankets or clinging to Don for body heat, but warm, all by himself, for maybe the first time he could remember.

He looked over at Don only to find him standing perfectly still, watching. He still had his sunglasses on, and white sand clung to his jeans, and he had a small, tight smile on his face, like he was happy but something hurt.

Charlie took the two strides to Don's side, setting one hand cautiously on Don's hip. "Is your leg...?" .

Don still kept it bandaged, but Charlie had caught glimpses of the wound. It seemed to be closing into a scar, and he hadn't noticed Don limping in days.

Don looked down at Charlie, then took his sunglasses off and leaned his forehead against Charlie's. The hand holding the sunglasses came to rest on Charlie's hip as Don said, "My leg's fine. You're going to get a sunburn, though."

Charlie shook his head. "The sun will be behind the next dune in an hour, maybe an hour and a half. It's already past peak intensity. And I'm not that pale."

Don snorted, his breath rushing against Charlie's nose and mouth, and his other hand cupped the back of Charlie's neck, then slid down his spine to the top of his jeans. "You're pretty pale, Charlie."

Charlie grinned, ducking his head to kiss the side of Don's neck.

"So maybe I'll get a sunburn," Charlie murmured. "I've never had a sunburn. Come on, tempt fate with me." He tugged on Don's shirt. "I know you haven't gotten any sun in a while either."

Don let Charlie go, and pushed him gently back. When Charlie let go, Don shrugged the backpack off, dropping it to the sand with a thump, and tugged his shirt off in one smooth motion. Charlie smiled even as his breath caught. The sun shone bright on Don's skin, the paleness at the inside of his wrists and the golden tan at the back of his neck, muscles flexing as he tossed his shirt down and then bent to the backpack.

Charlie shoved his hands into his pockets and stared at Don's ass, because he could, because they were alone and Don clearly didn't mind. Don straightened up, Charlie's blanket flaring from his hands in a flash of red to settle on the sand.

Almost as soon as the blanket was out of his hands, Don was undoing his jeans. Charlie stood and watched, mesmerized, as Don slipped them off along with his underwear, brushed the worst of the sand off, and then folded them and dropped them on top of Charlie's backpack.

Only then, naked and entirely nonchalant, did Don turn to Charlie and say, "This what you were thinking?"

Charlie swallowed hard, mouth gone dry as sand and his heart beating wildly. He could stay in the desert forever if Don would stay like this, sitting down on Charlie's blanket, squinting up at him in the sunshine with a teasing smile.

"You stand still all day and you really will get a sunburn," Don said, and leaned forward, lifting his jeans off Charlie's bag to retrieve a bottle of water.

"And you have to stay hydrated," he added, tearing the plastic off the cap and tipping his head back to drink.

Charlie kept watching for another moment, Don's throat working, his eyes nearly closed, the water in the bottle sparkling in the sun. He had to look down, to watch his clumsy hands unbuttoning his pants and shoving them off, his dick already starting to tent his boxers before he dropped them too. He stepped out of them and over to the blanket, nearly falling onto it at Don's side. He landed on his back, propped on one elbow. Don's eyes traced over him from head to foot as Don offered him the bottle, and Charlie squeezed it as he drank, water leaking from the corner of his mouth and down his chin.

Don leaned toward him, brushing the corner of Charlie's mouth with his thumb.

"Careful," he said, his eyes on Charlie's. "Wet skin burns faster."

"Mm." Charlie took a breath and offering the bottle back to Don, letting his hand hover near it even after Don took it and started to drink. He said, "Oops," at the same time he let his hand knock it aside, spilling water over Don's chin, down his throat and onto his chest.

"Careful," he muttered, running his hand over Don's throat, down into the hair on his chest, and Don settled back onto the blanket even as Charlie moved to kneel over him.

Don was grinning as Charlie kissed him, his breath almost a laugh. "That was smooth, Charlie. Really smooth."

"Yeah?" Charlie said, smiling right back, as exhilarated as he'd been running down the dune, his lips dragging against Don's. His tongue slipped into Don's mouth, and Don sucked at it until Charlie pulled away. The words tingled in his mouth when he spoke again. "The part where I spilled water on you, or the part where I jumped on top of you?"

"Neck and neck," Don said, and pulled Charlie down for another kiss, his other hand on the small of Charlie's back. Charlie lifted his head when he had to breathe, and let his mouth slide down Don's cheek, following the trail of wet skin to his jaw and down his throat. Don's hand slid up from the nape of his neck and into his hair, strong fingers and broad palm cupping the back of his head as Charlie licked water from Don's collarbone.

He slid down lower, sitting on Don's parted thighs, dragging his lips across the hair on Don's chest to one nipple, already drawn up tight by the coolness of evaporating water. He licked, and Don made a startled sound, his whole body jerking under Charlie's. Charlie smiled, braced a hand on Don's hip, and closed his mouth over the nipple, sucking soft and wet and then harder, scraping his teeth on the sensitive skin until Don's fingers clenched in his hair and his hips jerked up suddenly, catching Charlie off-guard and rocking him back.

Don sat up far enough to kiss Charlie, urgent and almost rough. His teeth ground against Charlie's lower lip, and he said, "Come here," and tugged on Charlie's shoulder and his head, and Charlie went. Don's cock was hard under his as Charlie settled over his lap, hot and straining, and Charlie rocked against him slowly. Don's eyes slid shut and he setlled flat on the blanket again, his head tipped back. Charlie wanted to kiss him but didn't want to sacrifice the sight. The touch of Don's cock against his, the sight of Don's face, slack with pleasure in the sun, the feel of Don's whole body surrendered to his, was all about as much as Charlie could bear.

Charlie moved slowly, looking down at Don, letting the bright light burn the image into his brain; everything was stark, the darkness of Don's hair against the red of the blanket against the white of the sand, his cock skidding against Don's--not enough friction to finish, just enough to drag the moment on and on and on. Don's mouth opened and closed, and Charlie could feel his cock jerking, his hips twitching up in tiny motions.

Don's hands slid up over Charlie's knees to rest on his thighs, his fingertips flexing back and forth in time to the slow thrust of Charlie's cock. Don's breathing was fast and ragged, like Charlie's own, and sweat glistened on his skin. Still, he didn't grab at Charlie, didn't so much as open his eyes to ask Charlie for more.

"Don," Charlie said, hoarse out of his dry mouth, and Don's eyes flashed open instantly, locked on his, dark in the bright day. Charlie couldn't get another word out, just slid his hand down his own thigh, tangling his fingers with Don's, pushing up to meet his. Charlie barely had to pull and Don's hand was pushing up further, circling Charlie's cock as Charlie started to stroke Don's.

The angle was awkward--their wrists and knuckles bumped, their rhythm was off--and then Charlie shifted his grip, reaching for Don's fingers again, and their hands joined, circling their cocks together, and that was just right, tight and hot and slow. Charlie's arm ached with the effort of not jerking them both off as fast as he could, and Don's fingertips pressed hard against Charlie's knuckles as Don stared steadily up at him.

Don licked his lips and Charlie had to lean down and kiss him, awkward and breathless, his mouth brushing the line of Don's jaw. Don tilted his head back, showing his throat--Charlie remembered dizzily that that meant he was safe, safe as kittens Don had once said. Charlie couldn't resist pressing his mouth to the bared skin, sucking hard enough to bruise, until Don grunted, his hips shoving up under Charlie's, his hand tightening. Charlie sucked harder and felt the vibration of the wordless sound Don made as he came, wetting Charlie's fingers.

Both their hands kept moving, and Charlie turned his face down, resting his forehead against Don's chest as he thrust down against him. He could smell salt and sex in the desert air, and the sun pounded down against his back, and Don was saying, "Charlie, Charlie," in a broken voice, and nothing could last forever. He kept his eyes open and watched himself come on Don's cock and his belly, his whole body rocking until Don's hands caught his hips and forced him to be still.

Charlie closed his eyes, trying to catch his breath, and kept them closed as Don tipped him gently sideways. He heard a rustling sound, a glugging of water, and his lips parted even as he felt a cool cloth on his dick; Don tidying up. Charlie opened his eyes as Don tossed his t-shirt onto the sand and tilted his head back to drink. He looked down at Charlie with an easy smile when he was done, and held out the bottle. Charlie pushed up on one elbow and gulped until his stomach ached, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand when he was finished. Don set the bottle aside and stretched out on the blanket, and Charlie lay back down beside him, stretching out on his back to expose maximum surface area to the sun.

The light was red through his eyelids, and the sand beneath him shifted when he wiggled a little, molding itself under his body. He felt warm and loose--nearly drunk on the sun and Don--and he drifted without thought, without so much as a number string making its way across his brain. He didn't sleep; he just was.

At some point, Don touched his arm and said, "Hey, Charlie, turn over for me."

"Mm," Charlie said. If Don wanted to fuck him now, Charlie would have exactly no objection, except that he might have to move. Everything was exactly perfect right here.

"Later," he murmured. "M'good."

Don snorted, and Charlie heard him move. He cracked his eyes open just far enough to see the shape of Don looming beside him.

"Fine," Don said, and Charlie could hear his smile even if he wasn't focusing his eyes well enough to see it. "But don't cry to me when your dick is too sunburned to touch."

Charlie's eyes flashed open, and the light was dazzling, almost blinding. He rolled over instantly, flinching away from the blanket in anticipation as he settled on his belly, but Don had warned him in time. It didn't hurt. He laid his head down and squirmed a little, pushing at the sand until it accommodated him again, and then settled with his head on his folded arms, face down with just enough clearance to breathe.

He could feel the movement of the air against his back, his ass, the soles of his feet, and somehow it made him more conscious of the space all around him, open and empty. If he wanted to, he could take off running in any direction he liked, and no one would stop him.

Well, Don would, because if Charlie went running off naked into the desert he'd probably die of sunstroke or exposure or some embarrassing combination of both. But that would be all right. He didn't need to run, so Don didn't need to stop him. It was all just a lot of free-floating possibility. Quantum states, running and not-running.

Charlie could hear Don moving beside him, but he was too comfortable to lift his head and see what Don was doing. If it were something important, Don would tell him. If it were something dangerous--

Charlie shivered suddenly, despite the warm air, and the space around him was full of more possibilities than just unfettered movement. Anyone could be out there. He felt the hair stand up at the back of his neck, his hands tightening into fists, and then Don's hand settled on the back of his neck, warm as the desert sun, steady and still. Charlie felt himself relax again under the touch, tension draining out of him like water disappearing into the sand. Don's hand started to move, down his spine to the small of his back, petting him like--like a cat.

There was something about cats, cats and quantum states; it glimmered on the horizon of his mind, but Charlie didn't make even the mental effort to reach for it. His body and brain felt heavy, hypnotized by Don's touch. Eventually Don's hand went still on Charlie's back, resting between his shoulder blades, and Charlie could feel it slide a little against his skin with every slow breath he took.

Very quietly, Don said, "I love you."

Charlie's head jerked up, his breath catching, and Don's hand was yanked away like Charlie had burned him. Don's eyes were wide and stunned, his face pale as the sand.

Charlie swallowed, but his throat was dry, and his voice came out as a scratchy whisper. "Nope. Not asleep."

Don's mouth twitched--something between a wince and a smile--and he looked away. Charlie searched his face for some sign, some way to understand, and eventually Don looked back at him. He didn't quite meet Charlie's eyes, his gaze fixed just to one side. As Don raised his hand, Charlie realized he was staring at the scar beside Charlie's eye. His eyes closed as Don's fingers settled lightly against his temple, and he shivered when Don's thumb covered the scar. Don had never touched him there, not since the bandage had come off.

"I can't say it to your face," Don said, barely more than a whisper, unsteady as the sliding sand. "Not--not after everything."

Charlie opened his eyes, and Don's hand pulled slowly away from his face, settling between them on the blanket. Don's gaze followed it, his eyes nearly closed as he looked down. Charlie leaned in and touched his mouth softly to the tight line of Don's lips.

"You don't have to say it," Charlie promised. "I heard you."

Don's hand shifted, settling on Charlie's side, and Charlie turned over, putting his back to Don. Don scooted closer, fitting his body against Charlie's, and Charlie closed his eyes. Don's words echoed in the silence, and the sun beat down.


Don woke Charlie when the shade tipped into dusk, the sky darkening into a deeper blue. The temperature was already dropping, and Charlie buttoned his shirt up to the collar while Don shook as much sand as he could from the blanket. There were stars visible in the east as they got back into the car, and Charlie was asleep with his coat draped over him before they were even out of the park. Don turned the car westward and drove on into the deepening darkness.

He shouldn't have said it; he'd had no choice but to say it. It was an awful thing to say--literally textbook manipulation by an abuser, he could see the page in his mind's eye--and it was true, for whatever that was worth when loving Charlie didn't stop Don from hurting him. But if Charlie ever needed to know, he deserved to. In all the lies, Don had to tell that one truth.

It was done, anyway. It was practically the last thing he'd needed to do. Don felt wide awake behind the wheel, calm and detached. They were maybe fourteen hours out of LA--no time at all compared to the last six months. They'd be there in time for breakfast.

Charlie stirred beside him, just past Deming, and said, "Dinner?"

Don took the next exit, and somewhere in the middle of eating a burger in a half-deserted truck stop, with Charlie sitting across from him asking the waitress about New Year's Eve like a tourist or an alien, Don's momentum deserted him.

They got a motel room a quarter of a mile down the road. Don stepped into the bathroom to piss and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, his skin a little reddened by the sun, and one spot on his throat dark as a bruise. He felt suddenly gritty and sticky and grimy, and didn't rub at the spot, though it developed an instant stinging ache that was echoed by a slow stirring of blood in his cock. He took a quick chilly shower, and when he stepped out of the bathroom, shirtless, wet hair dripping down the back of his neck, Charlie was sitting on the bed waiting for him.

He'd set up eight little candles on a piece of cardboard in front of him, and he had the cheap drugstore lighter in his hand, flicking the flint idly. There was no overhead light in the room, and Charlie hadn't turned on any of the lamps but the one in the corner that worked from the switch at the door. The bathroom light was still on, but the spot where Charlie sat was dim enough that the occasional spark from the lighter was startling and bright between his fingers.

Don didn't say a word, just walked over and sat down on the bed behind Charlie, peering over his shoulder at the candles. Charlie kept still for another minute--Don could imagine the frown of concentration, even if he couldn't see it--and then, just as he had every other night, Charlie gave up on remembering the words and lit the candles, all but one. He leaned back against Don, and Don automatically closed one arm around Charlie, holding him close.

Seven lights, but Don found himself staring at that one last cold wick. One more day's drive to LA. One more night. He looped his other arm around Charlie, tightening his grip, and watched the candles melt, leaving the last one standing in a pool of multicolored wax. When the last curl of smoke was gone and the wax had started to cool and Charlie still hadn't moved a muscle, Don bent his head and kissed the side of his brother's throat, down to the collar of his t-shirt.

Charlie slumped against him, hot and pliable as candle wax. He tilted his head to let Don keep kissing him, and Don obeyed. He kissed along the base of Charlie's throat, up to the shadowed spot behind his ear, down to the nape of his neck and along the bumps of his spine. Charlie's hair was getting longer, and it tickled Don's nose. He breathed in the smell, catching his breath between quick, soft kisses. He had to be careful. He couldn't leave a mark, not tonight.

Charlie made a low throaty noise and pulled away a little, and for a thoughtless instant, Don held on--not yet, not now, one more night.

Don realized what he was doing and let go, his arms snapping out to his sides, but Charlie only pulled away far enough to face him, one hand dropping onto Don's biceps, warm against his skin. Charlie was giving Don a searching look, and he had the light behind him; he could see Don's face better than Don could see his.

Don felt his lips part, but before he could say anything--or had any idea what he meant to say--Charlie shook his head. He leaned in and pressed a kiss to Don's open mouth, holding so still Don could feel the breath moving between them. Don raised his hand to Charlie's hip, making cautious contact, and then Charlie moved, tilting his head and slipping his tongue into Don's mouth, kissing him softly but thoroughly, so sweet it ached.

Don pulled back and Charlie leaned after him; Don jerked out of range, tightening his grip on Charlie's hip, and Charlie pushed to catch him, hitting Don chest-to-chest, the buttons on his shirt hard points against Don's bare skin, his mouth catching Don's rough and off-center. Don forced himself to let go of Charlie's hip--couldn't leave a mark tonight, not a bruise, not a scrape, nothing--and leaned back again.

Charlie made an exasperated noise and shoved him flat to the bed, settling hard on top of him. His weight ground down on Don, and Don could feel Charlie getting hard. Charlie's tongue pushed into his mouth, strong and hot, and Don sucked and shoved his hips up against Charlie's. His cock was hard already, just from Charlie's weight on top of him, every muscle in his body quivering, and just this one last time, Don knew exactly what he wanted.

He yanked his mouth away from Charlie's again and breathed, "Fuck me," against Charlie's lips.

Charlie replied with another rough kiss. As soon as Don started to respond, Charlie shifted, mouthing his jaw with a scrape of teeth, sucking at his throat, planting his hands on Don's shoulders, and Don tilted his head back and groaned. Charlie understood, without a word, without really understanding at all.

Charlie was sucking at that same damn spot on his throat, teeth and tongue and lips, and Don's cock was throbbing. Charlie's hand slid down and in from Don's left shoulder, thumbing his nipple roughly and then pinching hard, and the quick twist of pain-pleasure wrenched a hoarse groan from Don's throat. Charlie was grinding down against him, and Don would come from this, come in his painfully-tight pants before Charlie got anywhere near his ass, if Charlie kept it up much longer.

Don closed his eyes and bit down on his lip and then said, "Charlie."

Charlie let up, licking softly at the stinging spot on his throat.

"Yeah," Charlie murmured. "Yeah."

He pushed up off of Don--pushed up by his hands on Don's shoulder and chest, compressing Don's breath half out of him. Don lay still, gasping, as Charlie knelt up and struggled out of his shirt. He was silhouetted by the bathroom light behind him, as he had been against the bright sky in the desert.

Don traced the lines of Charlie's body with his eyes, the wild soft curls and jutting angular shoulders and the ropy lean arms, stronger than they looked. Charlie dropped his shirt and unbuttoned his pants, and Don's mouth actually watered, wanting to be on Charlie's skin, Charlie's cock, to taste him again, make him feel good again, one more time.

Charlie went still, and Don froze; Charlie grinned suddenly, a wide flash of teeth, and said, "Don. Take your pants off."

"Yeah," Don said. He felt himself flush, like he shouldn't have been staring--or like he shouldn't have been staring any more than he shouldn't have been doing any of this. He yanked open the button his jeans and shoved the zipper down, his eyes on his hands, so that he was surprised when Charlie leaned down and pressed a fast hard kiss to his mouth before scrambling off the bed.

Standing at Don's feet, Charlie dropped his pants and kicked them away, and Don pushed his own pants down and off and rolled over almost all in one motion, thrusting his cock irresistibly against the cheap motel bedspread. The sight of Charlie--one more last sight of Charlie--was burned on his mind's eye.

Face down on the bed with his eyes squeezed shut, it was like his life was flashing before his eyes: his life with Charlie this last while, his Charlie who no one else knew. Charlie shivering and frantic the day Don found him; Charlie bruised and battered and barely conscious, lifting a washcloth to wipe his own blood from Don's face; Charlie tucked under his sleeping bag, jerking off with his eyes locked on Don, coming with a look of startled pleasure as their eyes met. Charlie jerking him off, Charlie coming in his mouth, Charlie fucking him. His Charlie.

He heard Charlie moving around, felt him get back onto the bed, his knees nudging Don's thighs apart, and Don folded his arms under his head and pushed up slightly, his weight on his elbows and knees and his ass raised. Charlie's slick finger pressed against him, familiar by now but still sending a shiver up his spine--but Don jerked and said, "Charlie, don't."

Charlie's hands--one dry, one with lube-wet fingers, cool on his skin--closed on Don's hips.

"Don?" He sounded confused, just a little irritated.

"Don't," he repeated, biting his lip. "Just--fuck me. Just like this."

Charlie had never done that, never not prepared him; Don didn't even know if he could take it like that. But he didn't want Charlie to be careful with him tonight. He couldn't leave a sign on Charlie's skin, but it didn't matter much what happened to Don. He wanted to still be feeling it tomorrow, and for as long after that as he could.

Charlie's hands tightened at Don's words, short fingernails digging into his skin. He heard Charlie take a breath--he could almost hear him asking if Don was really sure about this, but Charlie didn't say a word. All at once Charlie's hands were gone, and Don heard the familiar small sound of a condom packet being opened, Charlie getting ready. Don reminded himself to breathe, forced his body to remember this, to relax, and Charlie grabbed Don's hip with one hand and pushed his cock against Don's ass, a steady impossible pressure.

Don gasped and pushed back against it, and after a few desperate seconds something fell into place and Charlie was sliding into him, huge and shocking as the first time. Sweat broke out all over Don's body, his arms and legs going shaky and his head spinning--it hurt, but it was more than just pain, it was--it was Charlie's cock in his ass, opening him and invading him and changing him--

Charlie went still inside him, and one of Charlie's hands moved, jamming a knuckle hard between his ribs as Charlie said, "Fucking breathe down there," in a thready voice.

Don broke and gasped, hauling in one breath and then another, ragged and far too close to a sob. He shoved his fist into his mouth and breathed through his nose, pushing back against Charlie's cock as Charlie started to move. He pulled out torturously slowly and thrust back in faster, harder, jolting Don's whole body. Charlie's next thrust pushed him forward on the bed, knees and arms burning where they dragged against the bedspread. He felt Charlie's weight shift behind him, in him, and then Charlie did it again, pushing him up the bed with the next thrust, and the next, until Don had one arm and the top of his head braced against the wall.

Charlie settled into a steady rhythm, fucking him in hard strokes, not fast but merciless. Don felt the impact of every thrust up his spine and down his arms, his jaw clenching tight, teeth digging into his knuckles. But he kept breathing without making a sound, listening to Charlie's small gasps and grunts above him, and every hard jerk of Charlie's cock was evidence of how good this felt for Charlie.

It was almost too much for Don when pleasure started to thread through the pain; he moved, Charlie moved, and suddenly it was there, electric and undeniable as the force of Charlie's body moving against his. His dick went hard again, his balls tightening and every inch of his skin singing with the sensation, and the pain was there like it was in the second half of a long run, when he'd hit his stride. It was still real, but it didn't matter anymore, not when Charlie was thrusting into him, so steady, so good.

The fist in his mouth couldn't stop small sounds from escaping Don then. Charlie's thumb swept in a quick arc against the back of his hip--one small soft touch in the middle of a hard fuck, making Don shake all over.

He was getting close, light-headed and giddy with pleasure and hyperventilation, and if Charlie just kept fucking him--but even as he thought it Charlie's rhythm stuttered, his hands flattening on the small of Don's back and his thrusts going wild, uncoordinated. Don thrust back against him, trying to get the angle right just one more time, but Charlie slammed into him and gasped, "Don," and came in long jerking pulses.

Don bit back a whimper and waited; Charlie didn't move, only resting his weight harder against Don's back. Don shifted his weight, taking his hand from his mouth and reaching down to finish himself off, and then Charlie pulled out of him all at once, quick and rough. Before Don quite knew what was going on Charlie was moving, shoving him over onto his back. Don stared up at Charlie, blinking and half-blind--the bathroom light was dazzling, Charlie just a dark shape above him--and then gasped as Charlie's fingers shoved into him, Charlie's other hand closing around his cock.

Charlie's fingers twisted and curled inside him, rough and sliding slickly, and Don's breath left him as Charlie stroked him, pleasure like pain, intense and wracking. His eyes nearly closed, but Don forced them open, watching Charlie above him as Charlie's hands moved, off-rhythm and too fast. The sensation was too much, and Don's fists closed in the sheets, his mouth working helplessly as he gasped, his whole body shaking around and under Charlie's hands. Charlie said, "Don," and Don gritted his teeth and came, hips jerking, eyes finally squeezing shut as the world shattered apart.

He lay utterly still, legs splayed open, eyes closed, breathing harshly and fading fast. He wasn't sure he felt the press of lips against his chest until it was already gone.


Don's hand on his shoulder shook Charlie awake. Charlie grunted and rubbed his eyes, and then his neck, sore from sleeping in the car. Don didn't say anything, and Charlie was about to ask him what was going on when he saw the sign looming up in the distance.

Welcome to California.

Charlie stared and stared at it, and then shut his eyes tight as they drew even. He kept them shut until he was sure they were across the state line, hoping Don wasn't watching him, knowing it was silly. But when he looked again they were in California--where Don had grown up, where Don knew people who could tell him who he was--and the end of the road was that much nearer.

California looked a lot like New Mexico and Arizona, bright desert stretching away on either side of the road, but the difference was palpable inside the car. Don's silence took on a deeper quality, tense and waiting, and Don didn't shift in his seat anymore. Charlie didn't fall asleep again, though they kept driving for hours. Desert gave way to towns, then to city. The traffic around them got heavier, the land more built up, and the numbers on the signposts to Los Angeles kept getting smaller.

They stopped for dinner as the light failed, and Charlie thought of the last eight little candles, stowed in an outer pocket of his backpack. But after they ate Don just kept driving, the night lit up by the city around them, and Charlie said nothing.

Don took an exit off the freeway and Charlie's heart started to race, all the streetlights stabbingly bright, every street and every building they passed taking on enormous clarity and significance. They pulled into the parking lot of a motel that looked a lot like every other motel they'd stayed in over the last week, and Don turned off the car. Charlie's mouth went dry and Don didn't move.

Charlie said, "Is this--?"

Don shook his head a fraction, and something unclenched in Charlie. He realized that he felt relieved. He took a couple of breaths, oxygen rushing cool through his blood, and Don said, "It's late, I thought--we should sleep. In the morning..."

Charlie nodded quickly. "I've never known who I am. One more night won't make a difference."

"Yeah," Don said, looking down at the steering wheel, his hands still resting on it. "One more night."

Charlie stayed in the car while Don went to the office and got a room, and when Don came back with the key Charlie followed him down the row to their door.

Don went straight into the bathroom, and the sound of water running made Charlie conscious of how thirsty he was, his throat painfully dry. He reached the doorway just as the door opened, and Don was there, offering him a cup of water. Charlie grinned and took it, gulping it all down in long swallows.

He licked his lips as he lowered the cup, and they felt strange, numb and tingling. Don's hand landed on his shoulder and Don leaned toward him, looking him in the eye with a slight frown.

"Charlie," he said. "Buddy, I need you to remember that none of this was ever your fault."

Charlie blinked, and heard the cup drop from his slack fingers. Don's hand tightened on his shoulder and Don pushed him back one slow step and then another, and Charlie realized he'd been drugged, that Don had--

He tried to panic, to fight, but the stuff was acting fast, more brutally effective than anything Williamson had ever given him. Don pushed him down to sit on the end of the bed, and his body was leaden, helpless. He tried to scream and nothing came out but a paralyzed mumble. He tried to grab at Don's arm--tried to hit him--but his hand only twitched. Don didn't even seem to notice the motion, pushing Charlie flat on the bed.

"You're going to sleep a while now, Charlie." He could feel Don's breath against his ear, but everything was slipping away.

"When you wake up you'll be safe, and no one will ever hurt you again," Don said from a long way off, as his lips brushed Charlie's forehead. "Not even me."


Charlie was lying flat on his back, head tipped back to keep his airway maximally clear. Don sat beside him for a long time, holding Charlie's hand in both of his, monitoring the pulse in Charlie's wrist and watching him breathe. An adverse reaction to the sedative was likeliest immediately after the dose was administered, and he knew enough to have a little doubt about whether the drugs Eddie had sold him back in El Cajon were precisely what they claimed to be. He couldn't be sure whether the dose he'd calculated based on Charlie's body mass and a safe margin of error would be enough or too much. There was a phone on the night stand between the beds; they were in LA on a Sunday night, and Don had been re-certified in CPR last year. If Charlie needed an ambulance, help would arrive fast enough.

But Charlie kept breathing, and his heart kept beating, and his hand in Don's was warm and still. The effects of what he'd just done to Charlie wouldn't be anything as quick and clean as respiratory arrest. Don sat and watched Charlie, breathing against the enormous weight on his own chest.

This should feel worse; what he was in the middle of doing to Charlie was far crueler than fucking him. The bewildered terror on Charlie's face, fading into sedated slackness, kept superimposing itself over the still features Don looked down at now. He wasn't consoling himself now with the idea that it would be best for Charlie in the long run, that this way Charlie would get the help he'd needed. Don wasn't thinking much of anything--wasn't feeling much of anything except the ache in his chest and a terrible stillness.

The night his mother died had been like this: a still body on a bed and this dull weight in his chest. Charlie had been wild with grief, hysterical and half-crazed once Don managed to make him understand what had happened; his father sat by the bed and wept. Don had seen him cry before, once or twice, and it had always terrified him.

That night he didn't feel much of anything: not fear, not grief, not even the irritation he'd usually have felt toward Charlie. He'd had nothing except the knowledge that someone was going to have to manage the funeral, that he would have to call work and tell them he was taking some time off in the middle of a case, that he would have to tell Kim, that he would have to start telling family members, that Charlie really ought to be forced to sit still and calm down before he hurt himself.

Don had done everything he had to that night, all the time waiting for himself to break down, for the understanding of what had just happened to sink in, to feel real. It hadn't, not that night.

Not this night, either, he hoped. He had to carry this through to the end.

He laid Charlie's hand down at his side and backed slowly away from the bed. Their bags were in a pile on the floor, and Don picked them up to start sorting Charlie's things from his own. He checked them all methodically, and the third small pocket he opened stopped him short: it held a lighter and a box of birthday candles.

Don glanced instinctively toward Charlie, who was right where Don had left him, still visibly breathing. Tonight was the eighth night, the last night, and Charlie had faithfully lit the candles over the last week, sitting in silence with Don and observing the holiday as best he could.

Don picked up the candles and lighter and went back to sit beside the bed, beside Charlie, breaking the box into a flat piece of cardboard and melting the bottom of each candle with the lighter to stick them in place. When they were set, Don took Charlie's hand in his again, took a deep breath and closed his eyes, and chanted out the prayers he'd learned as a little boy, the prayers he'd taught his baby brother, the prayers that he'd swallowed unsaid for the last seven nights.

When he'd finished he lit all eight candles, and watched their light flicker over Charlie's face until they were gone.


Chapter Nineteen

Alan woke up without knowing why; he lifted his head from the pillow and listened, automatically reaching across the bed--but no, Margaret was sleeping down--no. Margaret was gone. The house was perfectly silent and still and empty, but for him. Charlie was gone. Don was gone. He was the only one left, in this room where he'd loved his wife, where his sons had been conceived, where Don had said he had to leave.

Alan turned over, shifting into the center of the bed, closed his eyes, and thought again about moving. He'd find someplace new, bright and compact and empty of memories. He couldn't sell the house, but he could rent it out to some young family, a couple with kids who'd need rooms to dream in, a solarium and a yard where they could run around. He'd throw in the piano; kids should learn to play, Margaret had always said that.

He could almost see those hypothetical kids, sitting side by side on the piano bench, playing scales a half-beat out of time and pushing back and forth at each other with their shoulders. They both slammed on the keys, once, twice, and then Alan was awake again, grabbing the ringing phone, his heart racing with the same terrible mix of fear and hope that he felt at every call.

"Hello?"

There was a silence, long enough for Alan to hear the thudding of his own heart, the dark waiting stillness of the house. The man on the other end of the line took a shaky breath.

Don said, "Dad, it's me."

"Donnie," Alan said, nearly a shout, sitting bolt upright, rubbing one hand over his face and squeezing the phone painfully tight. He could barely speak for all the things he wanted to say. "Don, are you all right? Where are you?"

"I'm--" Don said, and then stopped. "I'm--Dad, I can't come home."

Staying upright was suddenly an enormous effort; Alan braced himself against the mattress and bowed his head. "Don--"

"I'm sorry," Don said quickly, and Alan could hear the strain in his son's voice, much too familiar. "I'm--Dad, I'm so sorry. I can't. There are some things I've--I can't come back."

Almost numb, Alan said softly, "I understand."

"No," Don said. "Dad, there's--there's something I need you to do for me. I need you to go out to the garage. There's--I just--go out and look in the garage, all right? I locked the door, you'll have to take the key."

Alan stared into the dark, trying not to think of what this might mean. "Don, please--"

"I'm sorry," Don repeated, his voice nearly breaking. "Dad, tell... tell everyone that I'm sorry."

Don didn't say anything else, and Alan took a deep labored breath and said the only thing he could. "I will, son."

In a faint, small voice, Don said, "Thank you," and then hung up. Alan slowly lowered the phone, turning his head to stare out the window. Don had been here--had been in the garage--but he couldn't come home.

There are some things I've... done? Seen? Alan couldn't imagine it--and then he found he could, and didn't want to.

Alan lowered his face into his hands and steeled himself for whatever Don might have left in the garage, whatever made him so sure he could never come home again, and then he pushed himself slowly to his feet. He put on his robe and slippers before he left the room, shuffling along like an old man on unsteady legs, holding on to the railing as he walked down the stairs.

The key to the garage hung on a hook by the back door; he took it and held it in a closed fist as he let himself out into the cool night, crossing the driveway to the garage without hesitating. If he let himself hesitate, he might never do what Don needed him to, and he'd given his son his word.

The hinges creaked as he pushed the door open; he'd been letting things go. The first thing he noticed was the sound, after all the silence: the washing machine was running. The normal, homely sound of it chugging away somehow made him feel everything would be all right in the instant before he switched the light on and saw the body on the floor.

Charlie. Lying curled on the cushion of his old chair with something folded up under his head, wearing a heavy coat and blue jeans and sneakers. Charlie.

Breathing.

Alan stumbled closer, falling to his knees on the cold concrete, reaching out a shaking hand that stopped just short. There was a bright pink scar beside Charlie's left eye, and his hair was a short mess of curls; his face looked gaunt under the five o'clock shadow, paler and thinner than he'd been in July.

Alive.

Alan finally dared to touch him, settling his fingers against Charlie's cheek and feeling the warmth of skin and the rasp of stubble. This wasn't a dream. Charlie was home.

"Charlie," he whispered, barely able to get the word out. "Charlie." Alan moved his hand to Charlie's shoulder, shaking him gently. "Charlie, wake up."

Charlie moaned, a sound familiar from a thousand efforts to get him out of bed on time, and Alan's eyes prickled, his vision blurring. Charlie. He wiped his eyes quickly with his free hand, blinking them clear in time to see Charlie's eyes open, a frown forming on his forehead as he looked around with an unfocused gaze.

"'s Don?" he murmured. Charlie's words were thick and slurred, but the question was clear, and Alan's heart stuttered in his chest at the prospect of answering it.

"I don't know," Alan said after a moment, but the words barely seemed to register with Charlie, who was still looking back and forth around the garage.

"Safe?" Charlie finally said, and Alan realized that he was badly disoriented, barely recognizing his surroundings. Surely if he'd needed medical attention Don would have taken him to a hospital, would have at least said something. Charlie looked up directly at him. "Safe?"

Alan squeezed his shoulder. "You're safe now, Charlie. Everybody's safe. It's all right."

"Drugged me," Charlie said, emphatic and briefly clear, but his eyes sagged shut, his head dropping back to rest on the makeshift pillow. It looked like a quilted flannel jacket.

"Can't--" Charlie murmured, waving one hand, and Alan heard a painful echo of Don's words: I can't--I can't come home.

"Hafta sleep," Charlie whispered, going limp again.

The washing machine shut off, a sudden cessation of sound. Alan let his hand slide from Charlie's shoulder to his throat, checking his pulse, but it was steady and strong. Charlie had been drugged, and wherever Charlie had been, whatever Don had done to get his brother back, Don couldn't come home.

Alan thought briefly of what he should do next--call the FBI, call a doctor--but Charlie was breathing, and Alan couldn't move away from him so far as the phone in the house, couldn't even take his eyes from his son's face. The best he could do for both his boys now was to stay right where he was. Morning would be soon enough to do more.


Don had packed up his apartment before he left, triaging the boxes according to every scenario he could think of for his possible return, for if he never returned. He was only stopping by now to pick up a few things, ignoring the squared-off stacks of his former life and heading straight for the bedroom closet.

The lockbox was on the top shelf, and his fingers twisted out the combination before he had to think. He carried it into the kitchen and laid it down on the table, staring at the contents under the stark overhead lights, feeling the total dislocation of being here again after everything.

This apartment had never been where he really belonged, which made it a little easier; entering the garage at his dad's--Charlie's--house had made him almost dizzy, and he didn't like to think what would have happened if he'd tried to go into the house, or if he ever set foot in the FBI's Los Angeles Field Office again.

Of course, if he ever set foot in the office again vertigo would be the least of his worries.

His hand hovered over the opened lockbox, wavering back and forth from his badge to his gun. He took a deep breath and picked up the Glock, and the gunmetal was cool in his hand and felt just right as he picked it up, the weight familiar as an old friend.

He stared down at the gun and thought that this was the problem, right here: when you gave up your life to save someone else, you weren't supposed to find yourself still alive at the end of it, wondering what to do next.


Terry was on her way out the door, rounding up the last of the paperwork she'd brought home to work on over the weekend. She grabbed her cell phone on the first ring. "Lake."

Don said, "Hey," and Terry froze, hair standing up on her arms and the back of her neck. "This is going to get awkward in a hurry if you've moved in the last three months."

Terry closed her eyes, took a breath, and pulled herself together. She was dressed for work already, her gun and badge clipped to her belt; that helped. She went to the front door and looked out. "I'm right where you left me, Don. Where are you?"

"Not on your doorstep," Don said. "But I did leave you something."

Terry shifted her hand to the deadbolt and then hesitated, an ugly wordless suspicion creeping in. Don had been desperate, and smart about leaving, and he'd been gone for months, doing God knew what. "You have any idea how creepy that sounds?"

"Sorry," Don said, and the light bantering facade cracked a little; she could hear real contrition in his voice, and the systemic exhaustion of a man in a war zone. "I fell in with a bad crowd."

"I'll bet you did," Terry said as she unlocked her door. She opened it slowly, but Don really wasn't there; the only thing out of place on the porch was the gray lockbox on the welcome mat. Terry stepped out to stand over it, but she didn't touch the box. She kept her eyes straight ahead, looking across the street at her neighbor's front door.

In her ear, Don said quietly, "I missed you, Terry. I really could have used a partner on this one."

"I missed you too," Terry said, crisply enough to almost contradict the words. "I get the feeling I'm about to be missing you even more."

The box at her feet was just about the right size to hold a gun, a badge, and a letter of resignation. She thought she could predict the letter's entire contents, even the date: it would be a day or two before Don had fallen in with that bad crowd. And Don wanted her to pick up this live grenade and carry it into the AD's office; there was no way she'd walk away from that without taking fire.

"You told me once you'd never lie for your partner," Don said.

Terry smiled and rolled her eyes, despite everything. Trust Don to remember that ten years later. "You're not my partner anymore, Don. You're my ex. I've got a soft spot for exes lately."

"Yeah?" Don said, and for that one syllable they were just talking; Don was just expressing not-quite-idle curiosity about her personal life. Terry sighed and crouched down, laying a hand on the box, and she heard Don sigh too. "Terry, I've gotta go."

"Yeah," Terry said, slowly picking the box up, sliding one foot in to cover the small square of yellow paper that had been hidden beneath it. "I know. Good luck."

She closed her phone and pocketed it, finally looking around as she straightened up. A small car was pulling away down the street, accelerating steadily and in a straight line. The morning light was clear and the car was less than a block away; she could have made out the license plate number if she'd tried.

She didn't try. She looked down before the car reached the corner, bending down again to pick up the Post-It. It was written in pencil, smudged by her shoe but still readable, still recognizable as Don's handwriting. Ten digits and four words: if he needs me.

Terry looked up, staring down the street in the direction Don had disappeared.

"God damn son of a bitch," she said, in tones of wonder. "You did it."


Charlie woke up with his cheek on Don's coat, and for a couple of breaths everything seemed to be all right. But he was sleeping in his coat and shoes, and Don's coat didn't have Don inside it, and he opened his eyes on a strange room. Everything came back in a cold awful rush. Charlie shut his eyes again for a minute, trying to remember what he could about where he was. There had been a man who'd told him he was safe, who'd seemed kind even through the thick haze of semi-consciousness; the man had known his name, which must mean he'd talked to Don. Don had said he'd be safe--Don had drugged him.

Charlie opened his eyes again and looked around, freezing automatically when he realized he wasn't alone. It was the man from before, the one who'd been there the first time Charlie woke up.

Charlie relaxed a little when he realized the man was asleep sitting up, his head bowed. Charlie sat up, clenching one hand in Don's coat, and looked at the man more carefully; he was the second person Charlie had ever seen sleeping, and Charlie couldn't let himself think about Don right now.

The man was wearing a plaid robe and slippers, and Charlie found that he couldn't summon up much fear of a man wearing slippers. He was old, stocky, his hair mostly gray. He had a prominent nose and olive skin, and Charlie realized abruptly that the man had sat beside him all night--light was filtering through the windows now--on a cold concrete floor. Charlie himself was lying on some kind of cushion, more comfortable than plenty of places he'd slept, but the man hadn't intruded upon it.

Charlie looked around again. His backpack was sitting on top of the washing machine at the far end of the room, and three of the walls were covered in--Charlie's throat nearly closed, his heart lurching in his chest--chalkboards. But then he saw what was on the boards. For a moment he couldn't grasp it; it was too wild, too far from all the work he'd ever done. Then he let himself think big, think astronomical, and it was beautiful, bold if not yet elegant. His fingers itched for chalk to take up the work; he could see where the reasoning was going astray, and he longed to set it right.

He forced himself to look away, closing his hands into fists. He couldn't interfere with the work on the boards. It belonged to someone--to the old man, perhaps. Maybe that was why Don had brought him here. Maybe the man was a mathematician, someone who might be able to identify him. Don had said, after all, that he knew people who would be able to help Charlie find out who he was.

And then Don had drugged him and brought him here and vanished, leaving him alone with this old man, who had clutched his shoulder and told him he was safe and who had stayed by his side all night. That wasn't an act of professional courtesy, from one mathematician to another; it wasn't even the kindness of a colleague to someone he'd worked with in the past. The old man knew him, cared about him, which meant that Don had somehow found out who he was when Charlie himself didn't know, and then found this man--

No, Charlie realized, lowering his face into his shaking hands as it all came together. He was getting the causality backwards. Don hadn't stumbled into Charlie's path and then somehow developed a plan to bring him here. Don had always had a plan to bring him here, from the moment they met, from before that. The hunger in Don's eyes that very first day was finally explained: Don had already been looking for him then, and Charlie had been the prize at the end of his search.

Don had told him he wasn't a killer because Don knew who he had been; Don had brought him to California because this was where someone was waiting for him--someone who already knew Charlie's name, the name he'd only learned when Don had accidentally called him by it--because of course they'd told Don what his name was when they sent Don looking for him. It even explained why Don had resisted having sex with him: Don had been there to rescue him. He wasn't supposed to get so involved with Charlie, nor to take advantage of him.

And now Don was gone because his job was done, because he'd returned Charlie to...

Charlie tipped forward onto his knees, trying to look into the man's down-turned face, raising his fingers to his own nose. It wasn't the same line; the old man's hair wasn't as curly as his own. He had a broader, heavier build than Charlie. But his hands were curled loosely in his lap, and his short, tidy fingernails were just the same shape as Charlie's bitten-down ones, and he had sat beside Charlie all night, and Don had brought Charlie here.

Charlie couldn't think about what Don had done to him in the last twenty-four hours, couldn't think about Don at all without a cold howling empty feeling creeping inside him and making his bones ache and his stomach turn. He pulled Don's coat into his lap, clutched it hard against his stomach to steady himself, and forced himself to remember the last thing Don had said, because he had to work with the data he had.

When you wake up you'll be safe, and no one will ever hurt you again. Not even me.

Charlie had been utterly under Don's power by then; Don had had no reason to lie to him. But he had said Charlie would be safe and then brought him here, and that had to mean that Don thought the old man wouldn't hurt Charlie. That meant that either Don knew the old man and trusted him, or he knew the old man's relationship to Charlie, and knew it was one that would cause the old man to protect Charlie.

He shut his eyes again, his mind turning away from the solution, trying to find another, any other scenario that would explain the evidence without leaving him so terribly vulnerable to disappointment.

Maybe this man had used Charlie, the way Williamson had used Charlie; maybe this place was where he'd kept Charlie before (but the work on the boards wasn't practical, it was beautifully theoretical). Maybe Williamson had stolen Charlie from the old man (but Williamson had said he only left bodies behind him, so the old man ought to have been dead if Williamson had ever met him) or maybe Charlie had run away from the old man and Williamson had found him later. The old man wanted Charlie back, to force him to keep working (maybe the work on the boards wasn't theoretical at all; maybe it was just a bigger terrible job than Charlie had yet imagined--maybe the old man was going to force Charlie to destroy the universe from this bare chilly room littered with boxes and sports equipment and laundry baskets).

Charlie had to stuff a hand into his mouth to muffle the hysterical giggle he felt welling up in his throat, grasping desperately for the next step in the logical chain. Why had Don told him he would be safe, and why had the old man repeated it?

But that was obvious: they told him he would be safe so he wouldn't try to escape, a simple inverse of Williamson's habit of assuring Charlie that he would be quickly killed or apprehended by the police if he were out on his own. Charlie pushed himself to his feet before he could think about it, before he could let himself fear it, and picked his silent way across the concrete floor to the windows letting in the early sun.

There was a door between the windows, and the knob turned under Charlie's hand. When he opened the door a chilly breeze blew in from the open space outside. Charlie shut it again, a little too fast; the door banged shut and behind him the old man said, "Charlie?"

There was no anger in his voice; it was entirely a question, soft and rising at the end. As if he might not be Charlie, or might not deign to answer.

He braced himself and turned. The old man had gotten to his feet and stood there in an entirely diffident posture, with a look of strangely mingled joy and worry on his face. Charlie took a breath and chose a hypothesis to test. "Dad?"

The old man's--his father's--face lit up with joy, and he said, "Charlie," more firmly as he crossed the space between them with his arms open. Charlie smiled cautiously and stood still to be hugged, squeezing his eyes shut and telling himself it was a hug, just a hug, just like Don--but he couldn't think of Don--and then the old--his father--was loosening his grip, stepping back with one hand on Charlie's shoulder. He seemed at a loss for words, and just said, "Charlie," again.

Charlie managed a shaky smile, but he had to look away after a moment; his gaze fell on the chalkboards, and he shifted his weight toward them. His father squeezed his shoulder and gave a little laugh, then let him go. Charlie took a few quick steps over to them, letting his hand hover in front of the lines. He felt steadier, looking at the numbers, the expressions washing over him. It let him think a little. He ought to say something, to find out where they stood.

If he let the silence stretch too long his father would surely begin to ask questions Charlie wouldn't want to answer. He turned back to face his father, who was standing there watching him. He had that same hungry look in his eyes Don had once had--but Charlie couldn't, couldn't think of Don--but he had to know.

"Did you..." Charlie had to stop and swallow and force the words. "Did you send Don to find me?"

His father's expression shifted into something pained. "I didn't send him, Charlie. Nobody sent him. The FBI couldn't put him on the case, but he had to find you. He told me he was going before he left, and I--I gave him my blessing."

The FBI. Don had been an agent. Charlie understood suddenly why he'd always been encouraging Charlie to go to the police; Don had thought of them as the good guys, his own side. But if he'd come after Charlie without being assigned the case--if he'd come to Charlie's father for his blessing--then he'd had some prior personal connection to Charlie, to Charlie's family. But if he'd been a friend, why not tell Charlie so? If he'd wanted so badly to get Charlie back, why abandon him now?

His father said, "Charlie, do you have any idea where your brother went?"

Charlie stood very still, his mind gone blank. He opened his mouth to say he didn't understand, but something down in his stomach understood perfectly; he felt queasy and otherwise oddly numb. He should be panicking, his stomach said. He should be screaming. He kept his hands open at his sides, his eyes on the cool green slate just out of his reach.

From far away he heard himself make a noncommittal questioning sound, only a little shaky. "Hmm?"

"Your brother, Charlie. Don. He didn't sound like himself when I talked to him, I'm worried about him."

Charlie dared a glance toward his father, who was frowning a little now, but still looked only concerned, not angry. Charlie shook his head as he turned his back. "I don't know. He didn't tell me what was going on, he just--left me here."

His father said nothing, and Charlie jammed his hands into his pockets and looked around for chalk, trying to focus his eyes on the boards, on anything except the memory of the way Don had looked at him, the way Don had said no and no and no to him and then yes and I never wanted to hurt you, the taste of blood in Don's mouth--blood is thicker than water--the taste of come in Don's mouth--because Don was his brother, his own brother and he hadn't known. And Don hadn't told him, and Don was gone.

Softly, his father said, "Charlie, aren't you going to ask me where your mother is?"

Arms holding him tight, and a soft sweater that smelled like everything good; Charlie's heart jerked into his throat and he turned before he could think, saying, "Yeah, where--" before he saw his father's face.

He looked knowing and terribly, horribly grieved; Charlie had known the man only minutes and still the pain on his face took Charlie's breath away. It had been a test, and Charlie had failed it--but worse than that, his mother was not here, his mother was gone and Charlie should have known it.

Charlie turned his back on his father, shutting his eyes tight and wrapping his arms around himself--he'd left Don's coat--his brother's--Charlie took a breath and nearly gagged, nearly sobbed, everything wrenching out of place in his chest as he held himself frozen tight, forcing everything down. He couldn't fall apart now. He couldn't. He had to be quiet, he had to be still. He had to get through this. He was on his own and he had to get through this.

But the one memory he had--just one, and he'd treasured it and shined it and called it up a thousand times since it had come back to him--lost all the sparkle of anticipation he'd attached to it. His mother would never hold him again, he would never feel her arms around him or smell the way she had smelled, would never be able to ask her whether she had been scared that day or angry or just excited. Whether she had been proud of what he could do.

Charlie wiped his face with his hands, but his eyes were dry. He still had the memory, a little thinner and fainter now, but still his as much as it had ever been. He wouldn't think about the rest, not yet. He turned to face his father, who stood a little more than arm's length away, the grief in his face a little less now.

His father held out one hand. "Let's start over. My name is Alan Eppes, and I'm your father."

Charlie swallowed hard, and put his hand in Alan's.

"I'm Charlie," he said. "I'm sorry."


Larry couldn't have said why he stopped by the Eppes house at a barely-decent hour on the first Monday morning in January. It wasn't that he didn't know his own reason, only that some things were better left unsaid, even in the privacy of one's own mind.

The night before had been the last of Hanukkah. Charles had observed once, as offhandedly as if the same were not true of him, that the first Hanukkah after his mother's death had been difficult for his father. Alan had lost both his sons in the past six months. Larry had not gone so far as to develop a hypothesis for the outcome of this set of conditions--not in words--but it was barely breakfast time and he was knocking on the front door.

Nothing happened at first, and Larry's anxiety crept toward articulation. He was raising his hand to knock again when the door opened slowly, swinging just wide enough to reveal Alan standing in the gap.

"Larry," Alan said, frowning at him. "Good morning."

He looked more bemused by Larry's presence than Larry would have expected; over the past months they'd developed a fine understanding of, and on Alan's side a significant tolerance for, one another's eccentricities.

"Good morning," Larry said, standing his ground on the welcome mat.

Alan didn't open the door further.

"Larry..." Alan was wearing a robe and slippers, and despite his limited vocabulary, he seemed oddly wide awake.

"Is this a bad time?" Larry asked.

Alan smiled and frowned all at once; the expression looked slightly painful.

"No," Alan said. "Not bad."

He seemed about to elaborate, then glanced back over his shoulder.

"Why don't you come in," he said, finally moving back and opening the door wider.

"I'd be honored," Larry said, and stepped inside.

The interior of the house was warm and comparatively dim, but there was a light shining through the kitchen doorway. Larry turned toward it automatically, taking a step in that direction and then freezing when he caught sight of the man the light silhouetted, standing beside the dining room table. Larry blinked several times, but the vision remained, statue-still but quite real.

"The wavefunction collapses," Larry murmured. "The mathematician lives."

Alan grabbed Larry's shoulder when he would have taken another step toward Charles. He looked back at Alan's face to find his friend's expression profoundly guarded, and then turned back toward Charles--who at second glance was barely recognizable as Charles at all.

He had the same face (if thinner and freshly scarred) under the same hair (badly cut, but Charles had done worse of his own volition in the time Larry had known him) and wearing the same clothes.

But the man standing in the dining room wasn't anyone Larry knew, nor anyone who knew Larry. He looked as wary as one of the deer Larry had often seen on hikes, who'd learned that humans might proffer food and might brandish weapons and all smelled about the same.

"Charlie," Alan said, his voice painstakingly gentle. "This is Larry Fleinhardt. He's a professor at CalSci. Charlie and I have just been getting acquainted, Larry."

"I see," Larry said carefully, making no sudden moves. There are more things in heaven and earth, Fleinhardt, than are dreamt of in quantum physics. Charles alive and not-alive indeed.

Charles cleared his throat and said, in a valiant attempt at matter-of-factness, "I don't really remember anything. I know Don found me and brought me home, but even that is a blur."

And a lie, Larry thought, judging by the careful cadence of his words; he'd heard Charles give lectures that way countless times. On the first day of class, or giving a talk to Larry's students, when he was nervous about his reception and rehearsed the exact phrasing too many times beforehand. Still, after whatever he'd been through, Charles surely had earned the right to keep his own counsel--at least until he was sure he could trust the people who told him they were his family and friends. Larry began to walk toward him, moving slowly but steadily in the absence of any objection.

Charles stood his ground but kept looking past Larry--not to his father, Larry realized, but to the door. He adjusted his own trajectory to clear Charles' path to it, and thought he detected some infinitesimal release of tension in response.

Larry stopped at arm's length, looking Charles properly in the eye, and said, "I'm glad you're back, Charles. Whether or not you remember why I care."

Charles smiled a little at that, tense and fleeting, but he unbent enough to say, "We worked together? Are you in math?"

"Yes, and no. Astrophysics."

"Oh." Charles looked toward the garage as if he could see it from here. "The boards, in the garage."

Larry nodded. "We were working on supergravity."

"Supergravity," Charles repeated, and the wariness in his eyes was replaced by something like wistfulness. "Did you find someone else to finish it while I was gone?"

Larry smiled. "No, Charles. I never imagined anyone else could."


Don swapped the Honda for a pickup truck he was pretty sure could make it cross-country. He had enough cash to get going, and his one best set of ID, set up under Witness Protection protocol and unlikely to be found by the FBI unless they decided to do an audit of every individual in protection, looking for him.

Depending on what Charlie said, maybe they'd think he was worth the bother. He'd find out when they showed up, or when they didn't; the phone number he'd given Terry wouldn't be hard to trace with a warrant in hand, and he didn't plan on letting that phone out of his sight. They could find him if they got serious about it.

He tried not to think of what Charlie might be saying or not saying--to their father, to the FBI--but even that was better than thinking of that terrified look on Charlie's face when he realized what Don had done, of how cold and small he had looked on the floor of the garage. He'd find out the truth in the worst possible way, and there was every chance Charlie would say something that would leave their father knowing what Don had done to his brother. At least then his father wouldn't regret him not coming home anymore. At least then they'd know how much help Charlie needed.

Don kept his eyes on the road, and tried not to think about any of it, but there was nothing else left to think about. He had nothing now but time and the road in front of him, leading nowhere but away from everything and everyone he loved.

He pushed down on the gas and didn't look back.


His father and Larry didn't expect him to say much. After Larry ventured the theory that Charlie shouldn't be told too much about what he should remember--in case he began to remember things the way he thought he should and not the way he really did--they didn't even talk much directly to him. Instead they talked to each other--about neighbors and sports and books they'd read and work they'd done--making comfortable asides to Charlie so that he didn't feel neglected. It was fascinating to watch; he thought they must be friends, and it was strange and wonderful to be so readily included in their company, to see how real people lived, in houses, over coffee and eggs.

But his fascination with them could only keep everything else at bay as long as Charlie concentrated intently on their conversation. Whenever his attention wandered, he was reminded of how he had ended up here. He studiously avoided looking at the wall filled with framed photos. He didn't want to see his mother there, find her face foreign and frozen behind glass before he could remember it himself.

He didn't want to see Don there, because then it would all be utterly, absolutely true.

Not long after all their dishes had been cleared and his father had poured everyone a second cup of coffee, his head began to ache. Soon after that, Charlie was swamped by an enormous, crippling wave of exhaustion. His eyes wouldn't focus; he could barely hold his head up, and his chest ached with every breath.

"Could I--" Charlie said, and then stopped short, realizing he'd interrupted Larry, realizing it was the first time he'd spoken in more than an hour. Both men were staring at him.

"I'm sorry," he said, huddling smaller in his chair under the weight of his weariness and their scrutiny. "Is there somewhere I could lie down?"

Alan smiled--gently, but pained, Charlie found when he forced his eyes to see--and said, "Your room is upstairs, Charlie. The last door on the left."

Your room, because he had lived here--owned this house, in fact, a concept beyond his capacity to grasp. He barely owned the clothes he was wearing, the pencils and souvenirs and video game in his backpack. To own a house was unimaginable. What would he do with it? Keep his enemies in the basement?

"Charles?" Larry said, and Charlie realized he had giggled aloud at that last thought. He felt drunk with exhaustion, fuzzy-brained and warm and limp.

"Sorry," Charlie mumbled, pushed himself to his feet and made his way to the stairs. He could feel them watching him, but they stayed at the table and let him go on his own. He was grateful for that, so much it hurt. Or maybe it was breathing that hurt, and gratitude that made his eyes sting. He climbed the stairs with an effort, running his left hand along the wall and the doors that he passed, until by process of elimination he arrived at the last one.

The door opened on a bedroom; he hesitated on the threshold for a moment, but it was just a bedroom. Nicer than a motel room, but functionally similar: there was only one double bed, covered with a plaid comforter, and bookshelves where there would be a TV, and a closet door instead of a bathroom. But the window let in sunshine and Charlie was too tired to care much about the details. He stepped inside, closing the door behind him, and stumbled to the bed, yanking the covers back.

He was leaning down, his hand on the mattress, when the smell of the sheets hit him. It was the exact same smell that had risen from his backpack the first time he'd opened it; the smell of his clothes, the same detergent, the same house. Charlie pushed away, stumbled and sat down hard on the floor, his teeth clacking together as formless panic scrubbed the softness of sleep out of his brain. Everything was sharp-edged and bright, everything was threatening; Charlie didn't dare flee through the bedroom door, there were people downstairs--maybe not downstairs anymore, if they'd heard him hit the ground, they could come for him, and there was no bar or lock on either side of this door.

Charlie scrambled across the floor--not even standing, crawling clumsily on the carpet, slithering when his legs wouldn't cooperate fast enough--until he'd reached the furthest corner. He put his back to the juncture of the walls, curled up tight, and buried his head in his arms. His own shirt smelled right: like him, and like sweat, and maybe a little like Don. Between one breath and the next Charlie was sobbing, violently and painfully, and he didn't stop.


Chapter Twenty

He woke with a start and tried automatically to cringe backward--but he was already jammed tightly into the corner, walls pressing against his shoulders. His feet skidded against the carpet, and his whole body ached, his head throbbing and his eyes gritty and stinging in the dazzlingly sunlit room. The space was crowded with furniture, almost claustrophobic despite the uncovered window; it was also entirely foreign. He looked around desperately for Don, and then it all crashed back on him.

His name was Charles Edward Eppes, and he was home. This was his bedroom, in his house. Don was his brother. Don was an FBI agent. Don was gone.

Charlie leaned his head back against the wall, shutting his eyes against the glare and trying to breathe deeply without collapsing into sobs. His head and his eyes hurt too much to do it again. He wouldn't think about... about anything, except getting along in this strange place, with these strange people. His home. His family.

Charlie's feet were going numb. He wiggled his toes and then pushed himself stiffly to his feet, bracing his hands against the walls on either side. He limped over to the window and looked out, blinking in the sunlight.

He was looking down on the roof of the garage, and off to the side was a yard where he (where he and Don) must have played. It was all brown grass and bare trees now, with an arc of rocks on the edge of his field of view. The glass of the window was cool against his forehead despite the sunshine pouring through, and Charlie focused on that, shifting from foot to foot as pins and needles stabbed up his legs.

When he could walk he turned away, the room a dim blur to his sun-blinded eyes. He limped around the bed without looking at it, to the door. Charlie hesitated for a moment before setting his hand on the knob (it would be locked, it was always locked, you could make yourself crazy trying) and then gritted his teeth and forced himself to try.

The knob turned. The door pulled open. Charlie stopped short, unable to step into the hallway.

There was a laundry basket on the floor in front of his door, and all Charlie could see was Don's coat and his own backpack on top. Distantly--sounding further away than just downstairs--he could hear the rumble of his father's voice, and Larry's voice answering. Charlie bent and grabbed the laundry basket, bringing it inside. He dropped the basket on the bed without hesitating, grabbing Don's coat and clutching it to himself. He took a deep breath and the familiar smell of Don washed over him, gun oil and the car and sweat and Don, Don, Don.

Charlie turned his face aside, gasping and squeezing his eyes shut against the threat of more tears. He couldn't.

He couldn't think about this (until he could think about it without wanting to puke, Don had told him, Don). He forced his arms to release, his fingers to uncurl, and dropped Don's coat on the bed, reaching for his backpack--his own things, his video game and clothes and souvenirs--and then stopped short.

His blanket had been beneath Don's coat. It was neatly folded now, suspiciously fluffy; the last time Charlie had seen it, sandy and more biologically soiled, it had been crumpled in the backseat of the car. Charlie reached for it with a shaking hand, but he didn't have to touch it to know it had been washed. Every trace of Don would be gone.

Williamson had washed it once, and Don had made a point of crumpling it up and giving it to him all over again, so that it was always something between them--but now it was clean and impersonal in a laundry basket. It would smell just like everything in this house, like the sheets on his bed and the clothes and everything. If Charlie wrapped his blanket around himself there would be no comfort there, just the same sick panicked falling sensation all over again.

Charlie was shaking already, gasping for breath; he pushed the laundry basket away, down the bed. He reached for Don's coat like a lifeline as he fell across the mattress. The bed was soft, at least, and as long as he kept his face pressed to Don's coat he couldn't smell anything else, and with his eyes closed he could almost, almost, almost pretend.


Charlie woke and slept and woke, tangled in Don's coat and the comforter with sleep holding him down like a smothering weight. The light shifted each time he struggled up to consciousness. He was occasionally lucid enough to wonder if he'd been drugged again--or still--and sometimes confused enough to wonder if Don was coming back to bed soon. Then he'd catch a glimpse of the laundry basket and the world would mercifully fuzz out.

Eventually he woke in dim gray light, sweaty but clear-headed, and had to piss too badly to consider rolling over and going back to sleep. The door to the hallway was standing slightly open, sparing him a moment of panic, and Charlie hesitated only for a deep breath before stepping through. He stood for a minute in the middle of the hallway, looking around helplessly, but the bathroom was right there through another open door.

It was bigger than other bathrooms; it even had a window. Charlie did what he had to and washed his hands, wiping them quickly on his jeans before he escaped back to the hall. He stood for a minute at the top of the stairs, listening for voices he'd heard before, but they'd fallen silent. He could hear the television, a quick stream of speech that he recognized somehow as a hockey game even though he couldn't make out the words.

He stepped closer to the stairs and had a sudden flash of memory, of following Don out of the room they'd been held in, down the stairs, the gun in Don's hand raised and a second gun tucked into Don's pants. Don was so close Charlie could reach out and touch, right where he belonged, right there.

Charlie's breath caught and his chest hurt and he couldn't, he couldn't do this. Don was gone, and Charlie was here, and he just had to get through it. He was safe now; he didn't need Don (his brother) to protect him anymore.

Charlie rubbed his eyes, and his hands came away wet. He wiped them on his pants and told himself it was just strange to be alone. Someone was downstairs, watching the hockey game. He would go downstairs, and then he wouldn't be alone.

He stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked. His father and Larry were both there, sitting in front of the television in the warm yellow glow of lamplight. Larry had a book lying forgotten in his lap, and his father was staring intently at the game, clutching the arms of his chair.

Even as Charlie inhaled to speak, his father looked up. The look on his face when he saw Charlie there was the look that had been on Don's face, the very first moment they met, hungry and intent; Charlie knew what it meant, now, but it was too much to face, almost frightening in its bewildering intensity. He took an involuntary step back, and his father looked abruptly away.

Charlie's gaze fell on Larry, who was slumped comfortably in his chair, giving Charlie only a friendly smile.

"Charles," he said. "Kings versus Rangers. Would you care to join us?"

Charlie swallowed and focused on Larry and the sound of the hockey game. "Sure," he said, and walked into the living room, freezing again as his father stood.

Alan said only, "You missed lunch, I'll get you something to eat," and brushed quickly past Charlie on his way to the kitchen.

Charlie watched him go and then looked toward Larry, who waved him toward the seat his father had vacated. "I suggested to your father that you might need some space, but it's difficult for him. He's missed you."

Charlie sat, watching Larry, searching his gaze. Larry didn't live here, had just stopped by this morning coincidentally, but it was late afternoon now and he was sitting in the living room watching hockey. His father wasn't the only one who wanted to be near him. And maybe it did help, not being alone.

"Thanks," Charlie said, and Larry smiled a little wider and nodded in acknowledgment.

Charlie sat for a minute, watching the numbered players flash around on the screen--stats kept popping up in his head for half of them--and then looked from Larry to the stairs and back to Larry.

"Were you just sitting here, waiting for me to come down?"

Larry shrugged.

"It makes a nice change from sitting here not knowing where you are," he said, his voice almost light. "I'm sure the novelty will wear off eventually."


The phone rang while Alan was in the kitchen. He had set a plate on the counter and gotten out a loaf of bread, and he could hear Charlie's voice but not his words, talking to Larry in the living room. Charlie.

Alan grabbed the phone on the first ring, with a wild burst of hope that he realized, as he brought the receiver to his ear, was suddenly obsolete. He had to pause a few seconds to recover before he said, "Hello?"

"Hello," said a familiar voice on the other end. "Mr. Eppes, this is Agent Henne."

Alan glanced in the direction of the living room--there was no sound now but the hockey game--as he said slowly, "Agent Henne. It's been a while."

He'd wanted this phone call for months, and now it had come all backward; if Henne were calling to tell Alan he knew where Charlie was, he wouldn't be calling. It didn't take a math genius or an FBI agent to deduce that Henne didn't know where Charlie was.

"Yes, Mr. Eppes," Henne said, and Alan could hear a wince in his voice. "I'm sorry about that, but I'm afraid I have to ask you whether you've heard from your son recently."

I can't come home, Don had said. Tell everyone I'm sorry. Henne wasn't calling about Charlie.

"I have two sons, Agent Henne. Which one were you asking after?"

The silence was shorter this time, but Agent Henne sounded even more pained as he said, "I'm sorry, sir. Have you heard from Don?"

Don had brought his brother back, but he couldn't come home. He hadn't so much as come into the house, hadn't shown his face. The words were nearly true.

"No, I haven't. Should I?"

The pause was different this time, throat-clearing and paper-shuffling. "Terry Lake delivered Don's resignation to the AD this morning."

Alan let his eyes close. I can't come home. He didn't even realize until it failed that he had had some hope that Don only meant that he couldn't come home yet.

"Terry stated that she had no direct contact with him."

"I--I see," Alan said slowly. Either Terry was lying to protect Don, or Don had kept clear of her to protect her; either way, Terry was probably getting plenty of scrutiny from her bosses right now, for Don's sake. Alan wondered when it would be safe to get in touch and thank her for that. Probably not today, or any time soon. "Thank you for letting me know, that's very kind."

"You..." Henne said, and Alan could hear him trying to think of how to go on questioning the father of the man he'd never found.

"It's the least I could do," Henne finally said. "If we find anything out, I'll let you know."

"Thank you," Alan repeated, and realized that he would be dreading every phone call now, fearing that it would be the FBI calling to say they'd found Don. Saying they'd brought him in. If Don were willing to speak to the FBI, he'd be doing it now.

"Mr. Eppes," Henne said slowly. "About--about Charlie. I want to say... I am terribly sorry."

Alan moved to the kitchen doorway just in time to hear Charlie make some excited-sounding observation over the murmur of the hockey game. He could tell Henne the truth, let him off the hook. And then Henne would come here and ask Charlie questions, when Charlie couldn't stay awake for more than an hour at a stretch, when he was scared of everything and didn't recognize anyone, when Charlie's wild, wrenching sobs were still ringing in his father's ears.

"Yes," Alan said, stepping back inside the kitchen. "I know."


Charlie's only condition, when he agreed to his father's suggestion that he talk to a doctor, was that it happen somewhere with windows. The solarium was sunny and warm, and the doctor--a neighbor and old family friend, apparently--introduced himself over a handshake and then sat down in a chair at a right angle to Charlie's.

Charlie barely caught his name, occupied with sizing the man up: he was a couple of inches taller than Charlie, and older than Charlie's father. His grip was firm but he was slightly built, the hair remaining on his head nearly white.

You can't hurt me, Charlie thought, though even as he thought it his eye fell on the black leather bag Dr. Edwards had set down on the coffee table. You can't hurt me much, not easily.

His father was just in the kitchen and would hear Charlie if he shouted. Charlie tried not to think about how he wanted someone closer, someone pacing quietly behind him, steadier than his own nervous heartbeat.

"What did you want to know, Dr. Edwards?" Charlie asked, trying to keep his voice even, trying not to show fear.

"Call me Dale, Charlie, we're both adults."

Charlie nodded jerkily, waiting for the questions. He would confess to flashes of memory, he thought: disjointed images, incomprehensible. He wouldn't admit to the abuse, to anything he didn't want to get back to his father. He would say that Don had found him, and nothing more about Don, nothing at all. A physical examination wouldn't find anything telling; he'd showered twice now since Don had last touched him. Every trace was long gone.

"Mm," Dale said, holding out two fingers of each hand toward Charlie. "Can you squeeze my fingers, hard as you can?"

Charlie blinked but complied, clenching his fists around the doctor's bony fingers.

"Your dad mentioned you've been sleeping a lot. He's worried about that, but I told him in the short term that's likely just a response to stress. If it persists beyond a week or two we might need to be concerned."

"Oh," Charlie said, letting go of Dale's fingers and reminding himself not to be lulled into a false sense of security.

"The memory loss is probably something similar," Dale added, holding up one finger. "Follow this with your eyes without moving your head," he said, and Charlie obediently tracked Dale's fingertip side to side and up and down.

"Gross injuries or critical neurological damage would be manifesting more dramatically, so I don't think there's much value in rushing you into a lot of invasive tests before you've had time to rest and settle in."

Charlie nodded slowly, and Dale said, "Does your hand hurt?"

Charlie looked down and realized he was holding his left hand curled defensively in his lap, though his right was open.

"Not really," Charlie said, feeling off-balance, still waiting for the worst to start. "It aches sometimes."

Dale nodded, and held out his right hand, palm up. "May I see?"

Charlie extended his hand, and Dale said, "Thank you," as though Charlie could have refused.

His fingers moved briskly over Charlie's hand, quickly but gently probing each bone and joint, finding each healed break. Charlie remembered the first time Don had touched him, Don's hands on his hand, forcing warmth into the cramped muscle, waking more warmth in Charlie--Don was his brother--Charlie's heart was suddenly pounding, his throat tight, and he turned his face away, squeezing his eyes shut.

The doctor said softly, "I'm sorry, Charlie. Did that hurt?"

Charlie shook his head, unable to speak.

Dale said, still softly, "Ah."

Charlie forced himself to meet the doctor's gaze, kind and sad and seeming to know something though Charlie hadn't said a word. He was giving himself away, much too easily--the mere touch of the doctor's hand on his had ripped him open. He would have to be more careful, but his hand felt cold and alone when the doctor let go.

Dale said quietly, "How about your head, does that hurt?"

Charlie raised his left hand reflexively, rubbing one fingertip over the scar beside his eye as he ducked his head further. He could remember the throb of it when he first woke up, Don crouching over him, all warm bare skin. Don had bandaged the cut, washed the blood from Charlie's face, taken him to bed and kept him close and warm and safe, and now the cut was a scar and Don was gone.

"No," Charlie whispered. "Sometimes."


He slept on the couch in the daytime, and in his bed at night. He kept Don's coat folded between the pillows, and when he glimpsed himself in the bathroom mirror his cheek would be imprinted with lines of stitching. He took showers when it occurred to him to do so--three times one day, not at all the next. Nobody washed his hair for him, and nobody slept between him and the door, and nobody shaved him when his hands shook. No one else's body heat warmed him under the blankets, and there was no one to lean against, to push aside so he could lie down. He went to play his DS once, and the menu of saved games listed a and Don and c, and he shut his eyes and shoved the game under the bed without turning it off.

He wore all the clean clothes in his laundry basket, then woke up to find that they'd reappeared, clean and folded all over again. He ate when he was awake, whatever his father put in front of him. He roamed the house, looking at everything but the photos on the walls, until the place began to seem familiar through sheer repetition. He told himself soon it would stop feeling so big, so empty, but he was always conscious of how there weren't enough people to fill the space. There was always someone missing.

Once Charlie opened a door on stairs leading down into darkness, and he could feel the basement chill rising up, see the space down there, dark and confined. He shut that door hastily and didn't open it again.

He woke once in the middle of the night. The house was utterly still, the sky outside his window dark and blank, and he stood a long time in his bedroom doorway, wondering if he dared to venture further into the silent emptiness of the house. But it was his house, and he was hungry, and there was a light on somewhere downstairs, a sign of life despite the stillness.

The light was over the stove, as it turned out, and when he cautiously opened the refrigerator there was a sandwich there on a plate, draped in plastic wrap and labeled with his name on a yellow sticky note. Charlie picked it up and took a bite without even closing the refrigerator, and then, feeling daring, he took out the jug of milk. He had to open all the cupboards to find a glass. After he'd poured and put the milk away, he went back to the cupboard where he'd seen a package of cookies, and stared at them a long time.

It's my house, he thought. My house. His hand shook as he reached for the cookies, and his knees nearly gave way as he took them out; he sat down on the cool linoleum floor to eat them in the light from the stove, and he woke up there in the sunlight, next to the empty package and empty glass. His father was staring down at him, and he had a stomachache.

When Charlie looked at himself in the bathroom mirror, his cheek was pebbled from the texture of the floor.


On what he eventually learned was the fifth day since he'd returned, Charlie woke up in the morning, looked across his bedroom to his dresser, and tried to decide what to wear. There was his caffeine shirt, or the yellow one with the bear on it, or the striped--

Charlie sat bolt upright in bed, staring at the dresser, wracking his brain. There was nothing there, no memory, no experience of wearing those clothes or putting them into those drawers. But when he looked at the dresser he knew what was in it, just like he could look at an equation and know what to do with it, even though he couldn't remember being taught. He knew the caffeine t-shirt was soft and stretched and wearing thin, that the yellow t-shirt was thicker and scratchier and tight in the collar.

Charlie got up and went to the dresser, reaching one hand out cautiously to the handle of the top drawer. Underwear. Boxers, socks--his favorite boxers, plaid and almost obscenely soft, the hem on one leg unraveling. He yanked the drawer open and rummaged through the tangle of clothes, fearing for a moment that he was wrong, that they wouldn't be there, that the clothes he could almost feel on his skin were a memory of five years ago, or ten, or not a memory at all...

His hand closed on the familiar worn cotton and he pulled them out, quickly stripping out of his clothes to put them on. He followed them with his oldest jeans, faded to pale blue with ragged hems; they sagged on his hips, sliding down below the tops of his boxers, and that was wrong. They shouldn't fit like that; he shouldn't be so skinny. He frowned for a moment at the jut of his hipbones, then reached into another drawer for the baggy blue t-shirt with the faded red lettering, tugging it down to cover himself.

He grabbed his favorite socks, nearly worn through at the toes, and sat on the bed to pull them on; his glance fell on the closet door, and he knew what was in there, too, the array of shirts and the handful of suits--suits!--and shoes that fit. Charlie scrambled over the bed and pulled the door open, dropping to his knees to sort through the haphazard pile of shoes until he found the ones he wanted: sneakers, old and trashed, coming apart at the seams, but he knew they would fit his feet just right, every millimeter. He sat on the bed and laced them up, and then grabbed a gray flannel shirt and shrugged it on, smiling as he looked down at himself. He looked like a real person, like the Charlie his father and Larry wanted him to be. He was starting to remember, to know.

He stepped out of his room and looked around the hallway. There was a closed door directly across from his own, and he looked at it expectantly, but--no. There was nothing there, no memory, no knowledge. Charlie frowned, stepping toward it, but as he did he glanced down the hall, and his eye fell on another closed door, one he did know.

Charlie didn't decide to go there; he just went, automatically, to stand outside the door of his parents' bedroom. He raised his hand to knock and--

He knocked, softly, hesitantly, because he wasn't so scared, not really, he could go back to bed if Mommy and Daddy were sleeping--but he heard a low comforting murmur of voices from inside and then the door swung open, and he was looking up at his father looking down at him. His father didn't say anything, just shook his head, and Charlie looked down at his feet, embarrassed--but then his father said, "Well, come in," and Charlie looked up, tentatively raising his hands. His father picked him up, tucking Charlie against his body as Charlie looped his arms around his father's neck, holding on tight and held tight. He laid his head on his father's shoulder and breathed in, the familiar Dad-smell of soap and aftershave and Mommy and Daddy's bed, and he wasn't scared anymore, not at all.

The door swung open and his father was standing there, frowning, half-awake. "Charlie?"

Charlie tried to smile, though his eyes were stinging, his vision blurred.

"Dad," Charlie said, stepped in and put his arms around his father's neck, his face against his father's shoulder.

His father's arms closed around him, holding him tight--almost, almost close and warm and safe enough, almost--and his father said, "It's okay, Charlie. You're home now."


He had one last thing to do, before he got on with his life--or Jacob Field's life, at least, which was the only one he had left anymore. Don stood on the sidewalk outside the tattoo parlor for five straight minutes with the piece of paper folded in the palm of his hand. After he got run into for the third time, he sucked it up and went inside.

The tattoo artist glanced from the piece of paper to Don's face, and Don could see the moment when he made the prudent decision not to ask anything but, "Where?"

Don pointed to his right hip, where he'd be carrying the gun Jacob Field had a permit for, as soon as he got a new holster. The tattoo artist showed him where to lie down and how far he had to lower his jeans.

It hurt like fuck, like the kid with the ink-gun was sawing his leg off at the joint, but Don had pretty much expected that. He stared at the wall, covered with Polaroids of happy customers, and gritted his teeth. When he let his eyes close he remembered the bruise he'd left on Charlie's hip with a savage kick, remembered kissing that spot, and he forced his eyes open again and bit down hard on his lip.

The pain and the goddamned buzzing noise both let up and Don took a breath, letting himself relax a little--and then a hand landed casually on his ass, inches away from the burning throb of the new tattoo. Don's whole body jerked like he'd been electrocuted, one arm flying up and back before he could stop it. He didn't make contact--he forced himself down and still, hiding his face against the chair, clutching the edge with both hands, and he could feel himself shaking, could hear the absolute silence of the kid behind him.

"Sit tight a second," the kid finally said, and his footsteps were mercifully loud, walking away. Don hung on grimly to the chair and his self-control, and sat tight for a good long while.


Charlie's memories continued to pop up over the course of the day, like bubbles of carbonation in a glass of soda. He had a flash of some other breakfast as he ate his cereal, a plate of eggs, his mother's hand.

When he walked into the living room and saw the blanket tangled on the couch where he'd spent the last few days sleeping, he had a sudden vivid memory of lying on the couch, feverish and restless and too weak and tired to move. He'd been staring at the television and worrying in a scattered way about falling behind on schoolwork. Charlie folded up the blanket and went back up to his room just long enough to retrieve his laptop from the desk.

He sat at the dining room table with his computer, peering curiously at his email (the whole inbox was red, topped with flashing warnings about exceeding his storage limit) and then opening one file after another, glancing through what was obviously his own work. Some of the files made sense to him, and some--most of the most-recently edited ones--were complete blanks. Someone else might as well have made them. Maybe someone else had.

He put all the files whose contents he didn't recognize into their own folder, where he wouldn't have to look at them. Some looked uncomfortably similar to the work he'd done for Williamson, made him feel trapped even with open doors and windows all around him. Made him feel the lack of a steadying presence, pacing quietly behind him or lying asleep, waiting for Charlie to join him.

Charlie looked around after examining one particularly involved expression, and it was late afternoon. He shut down the computer and walked cautiously to the back door, and then out. He'd meant to go into the garage, to see if he could remember what exactly he'd been doing out there, but the sun was shining and he stopped dead on the driveway, looking around the yard. The ring of rocks he could see from his bedroom window marked a pond.

Charlie walked toward it warily. The water was clear, and he could see the pond wasn't deep, but it would be easy enough to fall in--easy enough to drown in, if he hit his head on a rock going down. He would slide under the water without a fight and that would be it.

Charlie shivered at the thought but stayed where he was, a few feet away, peering down not at the water but at the fish. They were soothing, hypnotic, swimming in their little fishy paths--random-seeming but not random at all. The patterns were nearly detectable even after the first few minutes. If he could just observe them long enough he'd know every move they were going to make.

He glanced back toward the house, considering going to get his laptop and see if he had anything he could use to model their movements, when a flash of color caught his eye. It was a bike, leaning up against the back of the house, old dead leaves drifted up against its tires.

Not a bike. His bike. The third and fourth gears would stick, and the brakes had to be maintained carefully--they'd be shot to hell now, after months left out in the open. He walked over to the bike to have a look at it, reached out to curl his hand around one grip.

They had guns.

Charlie was vaguely conscious of dropping to his knees, banging his elbow on the bike frame, scraping his knuckles on the chain--they had guns and they grabbed him off his bike, hit him in the mouth--they fired twice, he saw the bodies fall before they crammed him into the car with his mouth full of blood--his heart raced and his breath came short and the remembered taste of blood mingled with the acrid taste of adrenaline in his mouth. Their faces had all been masked, but his memory of those blanked faces was overlaid with kaleidoscopic images of later, angry, cruel, questioning faces lit by a single bare bulb, and his fingers--

He wasn't aware of crying out until a hand grabbed his shoulder, and then he let out a hoarse, choked sound, incoherent and helpless. He tried to scramble away, getting tangled up in the bike and falling, hitting his arm against the wall and bashing his knee on the gears. It wasn't until he got turned around and saw his father's bloodless face that he realized who had touched him.

Charlie covered his face with both shaking, filthy hands and tried to breathe. He needed Don right then, a sharp desperate spike that was different from the constant sense of his absence; Charlie needed Don now like he needed oxygen, he needed Don's arm around him and Don at his back with a gun in his other hand and he needed Don telling him he was all right, he was safe. He needed Don to be here, be with him, and he was all alone with this. He tried to hear Don's voice saying it and couldn't, and when he did catch his breath he exhaled something dangerously close to a sob.

His father said, "Charlie?"

Charlie pressed his fingers hard against his eyes and kept breathing. Don wasn't here, but Charlie was safe, and he wasn't alone, not completely. He had his father. And as bad as it was, he had another memory.

"They killed people," Charlie whispered. "The people who took me, they..."

"Yes," his father said slowly. "Two students at CalSci were killed when you disappeared."

Charlie shuddered. They'd had guns, they'd hit him, he'd seen them kill the witnesses. He couldn't stop shaking, he felt sick with the freshly-remembered terror, and even here in his own backyard he felt terribly exposed and undefended, but underneath it all was a sick sense of relief. Don had been right. Nothing that happened was your fault.

It had been them, those masked men, they had taken him. He hadn't been a killer before. They'd done this to him. Charlie lowered his hands, forced himself to look his father in the eye. "They weren't caught," he said. "They killed those kids and they took me and they were never caught."

His father said nothing, only shook his head.

Charlie closed his eyes and fought down his fear and whispered, "I think I need to talk to the FBI."


Chapter Twenty-One

Agent Henne directed a last frustrated look after Charlie's dad as he walked away, and then smiled wryly at Charlie. "It's good to finally meet you, Dr. Eppes."

Charlie gave him a shallow nod, and twitched his mouth into something like a smile. Henne wore a gun on his hip. He was big, easily two inches taller than Charlie's dad and young and strong, broad-shouldered in his gray suit.

He could kill Charlie as easily as look at him, but he'd let Charlie scrutinize his badge and he didn't try to move between Charlie and the door. Charlie's father--for all he'd apparently been hiding Charlie from this man for nearly a week--seemed to trust him not to actually harm Charlie. Henne was one of the good guys: an FBI agent, like Don had been. But Don had always made him feel safe, and Don was gone, and Henne was just watching him.

Henne's smile disappeared. "Have you heard from Don lately? Do you know where he went?"

Charlie swallowed hard and tried not to hear Williamson's voice echoing behind Henne's words, asking him about Mac.

"No," he whispered, and the words only stuck in his throat because they were true, because there had been no word, because Don had left him here all alone. "Not a clue. I don't want to talk about Don."

Henne nodded shallowly. "We don't have to talk about Don right now."

Charlie had no trouble hearing the unspoken but we will. The threat was clear. Still, Henne stayed where he was, leaning back in a comfortable chair.

"I understand you want to tell me what happened."

Charlie shrugged. There was plenty that had happened to him that he had no intention of talking about, but he could tell this much. He needed to tell this much.

"There were four men," Charlie said quietly. "I was on my bike and they grabbed me. I saw one of them raise his gun, I saw him kill those two kids."

Henne leaned in, and Charlie flinched away automatically. Henne winced and raised both hands, palms out placatingly.

"Can you describe them, Charlie? If I bring a sketch artist over, could you help us identify them?"

Charlie nodded hesitantly, fingernails digging into his palms, forcing himself not to pull away from this. This was what he wanted, this was why he told his father to make the call.

"Yeah," he whispered. "Yeah, I can do that."

He couldn't tell Henne the rest. He couldn't tell Henne that he knew they'd gotten what they deserved, that they were all dead somewhere with Williamson's bullets in their heads--because Williamson hadn't been one of those four. He hadn't seen Williamson until the very end, when everyone else had failed to get the answers they wanted from him; Williamson had asked him an entirely different question. Williamson had driven him away with his fingers in splints and said All you're leaving behind you is a trail of bodies.

If Charlie mentioned Williamson, Henne would want to know what had happened to him, how Charlie had gotten away. Charlie could still feel the kick of the gun in his hand, could still see Williamson's head flying back with the impact of Don's bullet.

Charlie had no intention of talking about Don.

Henne was watching him closely, but when Charlie met his eyes directly he just nodded. "Why don't we stop there for today. I'll come back tomorrow with the sketch artist."

Charlie nodded, but it was just like being back in that dirt-floored room, back in that basement. When the man in charge walked away there was never enough relief at his departure to drown the dread of his return.


Charlie paced restlessly from one door to another, all around the house, for nearly an hour after Henne left. He needed someone to make him stop, to tell him to take a break and rest, to come and play a game, he needed...

He stopped near a telephone and stared at the keypad, and a string of numbers popped into his head. Larry's phone number. Larry had never made him feel afraid, not once, not for an instant, and Larry would distract him. It wouldn't be the same, but it would be something, it might be enough for now. Charlie picked up the phone and dialed before he could second-guess himself.

Larry answered on the fourth ring. "Hello?"

"Hi," Charlie said, and suddenly realized he didn't know what to say.

"Charles!" Larry said, before the silence could become noticeable. "Hello! How are you feeling?"

Charlie rubbed his forehead and wondered how he could possibly answer that question.

"I'm starting to remember things," he said instead. "I was wondering if you might--"

Charlie glanced up and found his father standing in the doorway.

"Larry?" he said softly, and Charlie nodded.

"Ask him to dinner," his father said. "I made brisket."

"Dinner?" Charlie said, to his father and into the phone.

Larry said, "I'll be right over," and that was that.

He really was right over; Charlie barely had time to set three places at the table before Larry appeared. Charlie listened to his father and his friend talking over dinner, and it was different from the first time he'd listened to them: half the things they said woke contexts in his brain, fragments of memory or just an understanding of what they meant.

When his father said, "How's Amita doing?" Charlie could see her, long dark hair and a shy pretty smile. He felt a dizzy rush of emotion and clutched at the edge of the table to keep upright.

When he looked up, Larry was watching him.

"Amita's out at Harvard now," Larry said gently. "With you gone, and Don gone, she... she just wanted to start over."

Charlie nodded, trying to push the thought of her away--there seemed to be too much there, more than he could remember or begin to understand. "Did you tell her I'm home?"

Larry nodded, just once, and didn't elaborate.

"Tell her I said hi?" Charlie asked hesitantly, and Larry said he would.

Charlie went back to eating while conversation turned sideways, to people whose names he didn't recognize at all. Terry. David. Maybe they would come back to him later, or maybe he'd never known them at all.

After dinner, Larry asked Charlie if he remembered how to play chess. Charlie's fingers longed for chalk suddenly, in a visceral, desperate way. He nodded quickly, unable to speak. He was so eager to play, to slip into that piece of familiarity, even if there would be no wager, no kisses at the end, no lingering hugs...

Charlie forced himself not to think of that. They could put up another board in the garage, and he would--he would have to draw the set himself. He gritted his teeth at the thought, pushing away memories, because he couldn't, not now, not in front of his father and Larry. He wasn't alone, that had to be enough.

His father set down a shining, worn wooden box on the table, and Charlie blinked at it, baffled. Then the board appeared beside it, and the world snapped into place. Real people did not play chess on chalkboards.

Charlie hid his embarrassment at the near misstep in motion, setting up the pieces, taking black by habit; Larry took white without comment. Charlie wondered whether they'd done this before, whether he'd given Don white that day because he was used to giving the first turn to Larry, or to his father--or to his--

Charlie shook his head and focused on the game as Larry made his first move. It was strange to play someone who wasn't Don, who had different (better) strategies and habits. Charlie found the whole mode of the game distracting, anyway, lacquered wooden pieces under his fingers instead of chalk and slate. It took him twenty-eight moves to beat Larry, and then his father took a turn.

Charlie was on better form there, and beat him in sixteen. His father grumbled about Charlie beating him, and Charlie wanted to say, I beat Don in ten the first time, but the words choked him, memories pushing to the fore no matter how he tried to hold them back.

That had been after the first time they had sex; they'd been playing for a kiss. He remembered the closeness of Don's body beside his as they played, Don's mouth on his after he won, the warmth and the promise of every game of chess they'd played thereafter. He couldn't say a word.

Larry cleared his throat and Charlie looked up, feeling caught out. Larry had been going to take another turn against him, but now he and Charlie's father were both looking down at Charlie, worried. Charlie manufactured a smile.

"Maybe we should play something else," Charlie suggested, letting his hands close into fists in his lap, longing for chalk, longing for things he must not think of now, must not want. "Do you have Scrabble?"

This made his father laugh for some reason, loud and startled.

Larry was squinting at Charlie, baffled. Charlie kept still, waiting for an answer or a question.

His father said, "It might be missin