Title: If a Man Cries in a Forest, Does Anyone Hear Him Break?

Author: FraidyCat

Warnings: Future timeline; slightly AU; definitely AA (After Alan). Oneshot.


He was somewhere deep in the Cascades. After almost 12 hours on the road, he had veered off the interstate, onto the mountainous highways of southern Oregon. He continued vaguely North, but had no destination in mind. He wasn't driving toward anything, but, rather, away from everything.

He only pulled off to the side and parked because his bladder insisted upon it. The forest was dense on either side of the asphalt. Summer sun broke through the trees to dapple the road with patches of warmth, and light…but Charlie preferred the darkness in-between. It matched his soul.

As he stepped into the trees, away from any hint of civilization, it grew darker, and cooler, and he felt it settle into his chest like a bad cold. When it was almost so dark he could not see anymore, and he wasn't sure he could get back to the road, he fumbled with his fly. Soon a steady stream of urine kicked up bits of decomposing bark, and he listened to the hiss interrupt the almost sacred silence of the forest. He felt vaguely guilty, and slightly dirty.

When he was finished, he put himself back together and turned back toward the car. He was almost disappointed when he found it again easily. He stood beside it and counted five cars traveling North, and five traveling South, before he reached through the open window and grabbed the take-out bag from Kentucky Fried Chicken. He scrounged through it until he found the tiny, foil package -- the cleansing wipe so thoughtfully provided, even though he had not purchased chicken. Back in Medford, he had ordered coleslaw and mashed potatoes, and they had thrown in the wipe anyway. The pimply-faced teenagers in the drive-thru were either creatures of habit -- or they suspected that he would stop and pee in the forest sometime soon.

He had thrown the mashed potatoes out before he even got out of the parking lot, wondering why he had even ordered them. The coleslaw sat untouched in its container on the bottom of the bag. Now, he ripped the foil package open, suddenly struck by how much like a condom it looked. He started out with a giggle, as he began to clean his hands. Soon he was leaning with his backside perched on the front fender, nearly hysterical. He could not get the vision out of his head: A white-haired, white-bearded grandfather, complete with cane, grinning like a maniac and tearing into a Trojan.

There was no telling the exact moment that the tears of hysteria became tears of despair. Charlie couldn't pinpoint the second he had slid down the side of the car. All he knew with certainty was that he was sitting on the side of the road, leaning against the tire, clutching uneaten coleslaw and sobbing.


Don wanted to be angry.

All his life, during moments of extreme emotional stress, anger had served him well.

He was able, for example, to focus almost entirely on his anger with Charlie nearly seven years ago, when their mother had died. Over the years, there had been countless perps who had felt his anger in interrogation rooms, before he became a desk jockey. Anger that had somehow grounded and centered him, empowered him to dance those perps into long prison terms. Bouncing a healthy six-month-old Stephanie on his knee, he remembered how anger at his wife's arrogant OB-GYN had kept the terror at bay, when her delivery had suddenly turned sour.

So, yes. He could admit it, watching two-year-old Eric play with a gigantic plastic truck in the corner of the dining room. He could be honest, smelling something warm and comforting waft in from the kitchen, where Marcia was making dinner. He wanted to be angry, because that wouldn't hurt as much.

If he could only feel anger, every time his mind replayed the scene at the cemetery, maybe he wouldn't feel all of these other things.

He watched his son play, listened to his wife in the kitchen, touched his daughter on his lap, and felt ridiculously like an orphan.

In his mind's eye, he could see himself clutching Marcia's hand at the graveside, watching Charlie stand almost 20 feet away from him throughout the service. He had thought his brother needed a little space, and he was so happy Charlie hadn't locked himself in the garage with his blackboards again, he was willing to give it to him. He had never expected Charlie to turn around and walk away before the last "Amen" was uttered. Don had held court with his family at Charlie's house — Alan's house — and he had waited for his brother to join him.

Almost a week later, Don still waited.

Marcia tried to comfort him. Even the babies could tell Daddy was sad. Yet there was a part of him that none of them could reach. Marcia had never even met his mother, and had only known Alan for a few years. The kids would never remember him. His heart ached to share its deepest sorrow with Charlie. Only Charlie. Specifically Charlie. Just Charlie, who had grown up in the same house as he had, and who knew exactly what Don was missing.

He wished again that Charlie had locked himself in the garage with the blackboards. At least then, Don would know he was safe. At least then, Don could be angry.


In a motel just outside Seattle, he stared at the telephone for almost half an hour, before he reached out and touched the hard plastic. He had left without plans, without clothes, without his cell…without his brother.

After five more minutes of hesitation, he made the call.


Considering that at least one baby cried in the background, Marcia was remarkably calm.

"Is he all right?"

His sister-in-law didn't answer. He heard a quick intake of breath, a muted "Don!", and then a deep voice that reminded him so much of Alan, he nearly hung up.

"Charlie? Charlie, where are you?"

Charlie squeezed his eyes shut against the onslaught of memory and clutched the receiver tightly. "Not sure," he finally admitted. "Driving. Stopping. Driving more." He seemed incapable of a complete sentence.

As did Don. "Can… Are… When …" The older man sighed. "I miss you."

An unexpected sob rose in Charlie's throat. "I miss him," he answered, and stopped before Don could hear the tears.

"I know," came the response, low. Then, a second time. "I know."

Neither brother spoke for long minutes. On either end of the connection, each struggled to control his emotions. Charlie, surprisingly, managed to do it first. "I'm sorry. You all right?"

Don wished again, desperately, for the anger. He locked eyes with Marcia, who jiggled Stephanie on her hip. "Come home," he finally managed to choke out. "Please."

At the added "please", Charlie disinegrated. He slipped off the edge of the bed, onto the floor. Don was sure he heard a sob.

"Oh, God," Charlie wheezed into the phone. "I can't breathe."

Don's own tears dried instantly, absorbed by Big Brother. He absently dropped a hand to his son's head. Eric was standing, hugging his father's leg, waiting to be picked up. "Buddy. Calm down. I'll come and get you. Tell me where you are."

A few more gasping breaths, and Charlie was suddenly sober again, almost detached. "I'm sorry, Donnie. I'll come home s…when I can. You're all right? Marcia is taking care of you?"

Don leaned over to hoist Eric up with one arm. He didn't even feel badly, when he begged. "Eric Charles, it's Uncle Charlie."

He heard a slightly panicked "Don, don't…" before he shoved the phone at Eric. The toddler grabbed the cordless with glee.

"Unc!" he chortled into the wrong end of the phone. Don gently turned it around and Eric tried again. "Chawee! Unc Chawee! Wanna pway twucks! Come pway twucks!"

Don whispered in his boy's ear. Eric giggled when it tickled. "Unc Chawee, wannoo come home now. Kay? Ewic lubs u."

Don studied Eric's face while his son listened to his brother for a while. The little boy's face lit up. "Yeah! An Stefny, too, kay?" Eric kicked to get down. "Bye-bye!" he yelled, and thrust the phone back at his Daddy.

Don lowered him to the floor and tentatively spoke to Charlie again. "What was that all about?"

He heard Charlie sigh, then sniff a little. "He wants me to bring him a present. And Stefny too."

Don's heart skipped a beat, leapt into his throat and then thudded back into his chest. "You gonna do that?", he asked.

Charlie was silent for a while, then sniffed again. "I want to," he said.

Don played his last card. "I need you," he whispered, and waited almost an eternity for Charlie to answer.

"Me, too. See you in a couple of days."

Don smiled widely at Marcia. "A couple of days," he confirmed. "Drive carefully, Chuck."

Eric, sitting now at Don's feet, looked up and frowned. "Daddy! Unca Chawee not Chuck!"