Title: Walls

Author: FraidyCat

Disclaimer: Don't own 'em.

A/N: This is a test. Several days ago I stopped receiving anything from bot-at-fanfic. No reviews. No story alerts (so those of you wondering why I haven't reviewed, it's nothing personal. I'm having difficulty keeping up without my alerts.) Anyway. I wanted to see what happened if I posted something new. Also, I had a thought I wanted to explore. So here.


Don pulled the SUV into the driveway of his brother's house. He cut the engine and sat inside the vehicle for a moment, considering. Charlie had bought the house from Dad almost two years ago, and he still had problems calling it "Charlie's house". Now that Dad was moving out, into a condo, that would definitely change, wouldn't it?

He sighed and shook his head a little, thinking about the whole situation. When Dad had first started talking about selling and moving, back when Charlie bought the place, Don had understood. After all, the man raised children there, and those children had the audacity to grow up. More to the point, he had experienced a marriage in that house, good and bad — at the end, as bad as it could get, as he had watched his wife die in that house. Charlie had been upset, had wanted to know if he was a "bad housemate", and eventually had bought the place himself…and Dad had stayed. Don had always wondered if he had stayed to give Charlie a little more time to settle into himself — although at nearly 31, that should not have been necessary.

Now, Charlie was almost 33, and Dad had told them over dinner a few weeks ago that he had put a down payment on a condo a few miles away. This time he felt it was really time to move on. He thanked Charlie for giving him a couple of extra years to get used to the idea and get his finances lined up. He teased that he was looking forward to being on his own almost as much as when he first left home, at 18. He had insisted, there over roast, that his sons go get their calendars and schedule weekly dinners for the next couple of months right then, in an effort, Don was sure, to show Charlie that he was committed to the three of them spending time together. Don thought he'd handled it very well, he'd been impressed. Yet he could see in Charlie's face, and sudden lack of appetite, that his brother was thrown. He hadn't voiced any immediate objections, but he had rather abruptly remembered an errand he needed to do — at 8 o'clock at night. He still hadn't returned from his hasty departure when Don left for his own apartment after 10.

Don's team was sent to San Francisco for a week soon after that dinner, to help the agents there implement some field and training procedures developed at the L.A. office. When they returned, they were understandably behind in their own work, and the entire team had worked into the evening ever since. Don was lucky to make it to his own place every night, and hadn't managed to get by…Charlie's house. Today, though, his father had come by the office and asked to speak with him. He had come bearing gifts — homemade cookies for everyone and a turkey sandwich for Don — and Don was easily led into the break room for a little while. Still sitting in the SUV, he remembered the conversation.

"I've got movers coming next week," Alan said, nibbling a cookie. "Can you get some time this weekend to come to the house and make sure we don't throw out anything you want to keep? I figured this was as good a time as any to really clean the place out."

Don chewed his turkey, surprised it was moving time already. He swallowed. "I guess time got away from me," he admitted. "What kinds of stuff are you throwing out?"

Alan grinned at him. "The two of you. You and your brother. You've kept me waiting for grandchildren for so long, when you finally do it, there will be no hope for refraining from spoiling them. I'll be buying them all new toys. There's no reason to hang onto all that stuff in the garage — unless something is very special to you."

Don chuckled. "I don't think so — I thought that stuff bit the dust a long time ago. But as long as it's still there, I guess I could at least look."

Alan nodded. "There are still some boxes of your mother's things, too. You boys should decide what you want from that."

Don nodded silently and bit into the sandwich again.

Alan cleared his throat. "Donnie, I'm worried about Charlie. I don't know how he's taking this."

Don raised an eyebrow, and washed the turkey down with some water. "What do you mean? Has he said something?" He frowned. "He's not doing that 'P' thing again, is he?"

His father shook his head. "No, none of that. He's helpful and polite. He even went to the condo with me last weekend and helped me paint."

Don was confused. "Then what's the problem?"

Alan rubbed his hand over his face, and looked at Don, a little confused himself. "I don't know myself, exactly. Sometimes I look at him, and he's sitting on the couch, or at the dining room table, and…Don, he's not doing anything. He looks bereft, heartbroken. I've asked him if he's upset about me moving, but he says he understands, and either changes the subject or leaves the room."

Don played with the bottle of water. "Maybe something else is going on. Something with Amita, maybe?"

Alan sighed and tilted his head. "I don't think so. Since she decided not to go to Harvard, the two of them have been…redefining their relationship, and that's not easy… But I asked about Amita specifically, then I asked if things were all right at school. He says everything is fine."

Don thought of a possibility and wondered how to word it. "Does…did you…he knows we're going through all of Mom's stuff this weekend?"

Alan was nodding affirmatively, again. "I talked to him about that, last weekend, when we were painting. I asked if he thought it would be a good idea to really clean out the garage and the basement, while we were at it. He missed a stroke, I'll give you that — but then he said that we should do that, it was probably time. He seemed upset before then, anyway."

So Don had agreed that while his father was at book club that evening, he would go by the house, and try to see what was going on with Charlie. Now, here he was. He was tired — he'd like to be home in bed, even though it was only 7 — but he climbed wearily out of the SUV and started for the kitchen entrance. When he had almost reached it, a movement by the koi pond caught his attention, and he saw Charlie sitting out there. He was on the ground, in the shadows of some trees, and Don had almost missed him. He changed his trajectory, and headed for the fish.

Once at the pond, he lowered himself to the ground next to Charlie, and settled in, cross-legged. "Hey, Charlie. What're you doing out here?"

Charlie rested a hand on his own crossed legs and glanced at him. "Hey, Don." He looked back at the pond. "I just like to watch the patterns."

Don followed Charlie's eyes and wished he'd stopped at the kitchen for a beer. "I know when you like to watch the patterns, Charlie. Are you okay?"

"Sure," Charlie shrugged. "How are you? You've been busy."

"Yeah. I'm sorry I haven't been by lately…"

Charlie shrugged again. "You've been busy," he repeated.

Don feared that this level of conversation could go on forever, and he was a little cool out here in the early fall evening. He decided to cut to the chase. "So…Dad tells me the movers are coming next week. Seemed to happen really fast."

Charlie was silent.

Don pressed. "Are you okay with this?" He tried to be gentle, yet firm. "Can you understand that Dad needs to move on?"

Charlie looked at him, the naked and confused pain in his eyes temporarily blindsiding Don into silence."I think…I may have born in the wrong country. Or the wrong generation. Wrong something."

He started to look away again, but Don touched his arm, and Charlie looked down, instead. "What are you talking about?", Don asked him.

Don had moved his hand, but Charlie was still looking at that place on his arm, as if Don had burned him or something. "I don't understand this need everyone has to move away from each other," he finally admitted. "In most other countries, it's unheard of. Even after children marry, everyone stays in the same house. It just gets more crowded." Charlie shivered, suddenly, and looked back at the koi. "Mine just keeps getting emptier."

Don was at a loss. "I think…I think maybe Dad is worried that neither one of you will – branch out, maybe, that you'll stop growing because your roots are too bound. Try to think of it as a…'repotting'."

Charlie snorted. "I'm not a hothouse hydrangea, Don. My roots feel fine. Or at least they do to me – I guess I've been strangling other people with them, though. I didn't mean to take advantage of Dad, ever," He sighed. "Amita says I'm high-maintenance."

Don chuckled softly. "You're not going to tell me she's the first person who's noticed that." When Charlie didn't laugh, he bumped his shoulder with his own. "You can be a lot of work, Chuck, but we love you anyway."

Charlie was playing with some grass in front of his knee. "Then why does everyone leave me?", he whispered, and Don reached an arm around the thin shoulders, and squeezed.

"Nobody's leaving you, Buddy, Dad is only moving a few miles away. We'll all still get together, the three of us – sometimes just you and me, or you and Dad…"

"It'll be harder," Charlie protested, head hanging almost to his chest.

Don squeezed again. "We're Eppes. We can make this happen."

Charlie suddenly pulled away from him and started to stand up. "Don't make fun of me. If you're here to make fun of me, just go." He delivered his speech and stormed off toward the garage. Don, surprised, got to his own feet and followed.

He found Charlie sitting in an old recliner that had been stored in the garage for as long as Don could remember. He leaned against a desk and gazed down on his brother. "Charlie, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you feel that I was making fun of you. I just don't want you to worry about this."

Charlie didn't answer, so Don tried again. "Can you make me understand what you're feeling?"

Charlie sighed, and crossed his arms around his chest, hugging himself. They were both silent for a few more seconds, until he began to speak almost dreamily. "When I was a little over 13," he said, "I left home. Oh, I took part of it with me. Mom came with me for most of three years, until my senior year at Princeton. We would come back to be with Dad for the summers, and he would fly out to spend long weekends with us. Once or twice, our schedules worked out so that you and I were back at the same time. But it was never home again, Don. Not since I was 13. I stayed at Princeton another two years without Mom, got a good start on my first doctorate, then hit Europe for a couple of years. I was back in California before I was 21, but I was attending UCLA, working on my second doctorate, and I lived in a small apartment off-campus. When I was 23, I went back to London for six months, tried to make a go of it with Susan. Then, I accepted a position at CalSci and came back to California. I started teaching and working on my third doctorate at the same time, and I lived near campus for the first six months, until I got pneumonia. I moved back to the house, and Mom took care of me…Dad was traveling a lot for work then. By the time he got a new assignment, and was in the city with us, I was 25, and Mom received her first diagnosis. Just when it could have become 'home' again – it became something else entirely."

Don had been trying to keep up with the timeline, and make it match with his own. He'd been with Stockton most of the time Charlie was in Europe the first time; training at Quantico by the time Charlie was at UCLA; in Fugitive Recovery when Charlie was with Susan, just starting in Albuquerque when Mom was first diagnosed. He had moved to the L.A. office when Charlie was 28 and he was 33, and Alan had called to tell him that there was no more that could be done for their mother. Don tended to focus on the last three months she was alive, months when Charlie retreated to the garage, and math – he forgot about those first three years. He forgot about them on purpose, because he didn't want to know what they had been like.

Charlie had started talking, again. "After she died, I didn't think it could ever be a home again. Just a nice, Craftsman-style dormitory for me and Dad." He sighed again, and dropped his hands to his lap. "But something happened. At least for me. The last couple of years, I've finally felt like I had a home again, for the first time since I was 13 years old. I felt a lot closer to Dad…and to you. Even though you didn't live with us, you felt like part of the house, and you've been good about coming over." He ran a hand through his hair. "It's just hard to see that end. I enjoyed it – and I don't know what I did wrong."

Don had learned more about Charlie in the last five minutes than he had in the 32+ years before that. For one thing, he had no idea Charlie had three doctorates. For another, he had never, ever considered what it must have been like for Charlie to leave when he was only 13 – even with Mom with him, for a while. No wonder the kid had a complex about this house, this home.

"You know you didn't do anything wrong, Buddy. Dad just…needs this. I'm sorry that what he needs and what you need right now are so opposite. You should talk to him. Make him understand, like you made me understand."

Charlie stood and walked toward the end of the garage, peering at boxes along the way. "No. I won't do that. I won't guilt him into doing something he doesn't want to do. I'll buck up. I promise, I'll try to make it easy for him. I've been sulking about this too long already."

Don gave his back a long look. "Charlie," he finally said, "You're not 13, anymore. You're old enough to know that a home is not the walls that protect you from the rain. Home is carried in your heart – and you have got to know that you are in Dad's heart. And mine."

Charlie turned to look at him. Don could barely hear his whisper across the garage. "Promise?"

Don smiled. "Cross my heart."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The three of them picked through the boxes as if they were at a garage sale. Don found an old baseball and glove he could not part with, and some more sheet music of his mother's. Alan consolidated four boxes to three, but couldn't seem to do more than that, and asked Charlie if he could leave them for a while longer. Charlie, clutching a book to his chest, smiled and said "Of course".

Alan indicated the book. "What did you find?" He really wanted to know. He was proud of Charlie today, going through all these memories, and somewhat surprised that he was saving only one item.

Charlie shyly showed him the children's book, the first one he remembered receiving from his parents, probably because it was the only one he loved: Bunches and Bunches of Bunnies. He was three, and he would sit with his book for hours, multiplying bunnies, while Don sat nearby and struggled with his third-grade homework, glaring at him whenever he started to multiply out loud.

Alan smiled. "I remember that. You drove us all crazy making us read you that, over and over.

Don had moved behind Alan, and Charlie caught his eye for a moment, and then returned Alan's smile. "This book reminds me of everything I love," he said, "and everyone I carry in my heart. It makes me think of home."

Charlie saw Don grin at him while his father started for the door. "Son, you know that room we painted blue a few weeks ago?"

Charlie followed his father outside. "Yeah, Dad."

"I've been thinking I might like green better. You know, that nice green you picked out for your office last year. What do you think?"

Charlie and Don had moved up to flank Alan as they approached the kitchen entrance to the house. "I think," answered Charlie, "that it's Don's turn to help you paint."

Don glared at him around Alan's back. "That is so not right, Chuck. You're the one who painted it blue in the first place."

Charlie laughed, and Alan's heart lightened. "Dad wanted blue," Charlie pointed out. "Now it's your turn, because now he wants green."

"Boys, boys," interrupted Alan. "Don't argue. I found some more paint brushes in the garage. You can both come." He looked at Charlie and smiled. "What is it the bunnies say? 'Two times one'?"

"Wonderful," Charlie mumbled. "I love a good paint fight."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -