Disclaimer: The characters of "numb3rs" do not live in my house. I flush out their thoughts free of charge.
The last place Don had expected to find Charlie at 6 in the morning in the middle of Spring Break was the Science Library at CalSci, but that's where his disgruntled father had directed him, when Don had stopped by the house at that insane hour, looking for his brother. Alan had stood at the top of the stairs, clutching his old, tattered bathrobe around himself, snapping that he just gotten back to sleep after Charlie's early and loud departure.
"If you've got a job for him, take it to the campus," he had muttered, turning to pad barefoot back to his room. Right before the door slammed, Don could have sworn he heard something about "should've bought the damn condo. Living alone better than Grand Central Station…"
Don winced and backed slowly away from the staircase. It wasn't that Alan was not a morning person – usually, he was as chipper in the mornings as he always was. Short the man on sleep, or give him a headache, though, and it was best to back out of the situation carefully.
Once he got to campus, Don had stood outside the Science Library and retrieved his phone. If Charlie was in there, he was going to have to come out. Even if the buildings were open this week – which they were not – it was too early. Just as he was about to punch in Charlie's speed dial, the door opened and a pretty coed stepped out.
"Oh!" She was clearly startled, and her hand flew to her throat.
Don smiled his most charming 6 a.m. smile, and scrambled for his ID. He held it so that she could see it, careful not to insinuate himself any closer to her while she was frightened.
"Agent Don Eppes, FBI," he greeted her. "Good morning! I didn't mean to startle you – I wasn't expecting anyone here, during Spring Break." He turned up the wattage on his smile. "Except my brother. I'm looking for Dr. Eppes."
She visibly relaxed. When she had first seen him, she had started automatically backpeddling into the building, but now she opened the door wider and stepped aside, offering it to him. "You're the second Eppes to make me regret signing up for extra hours on my work scholarship this week," she laughed. "Dr. Eppes nearly stopped my heart when he showed up. I was vacuuming, so I didn't hear anything. Just turned around, and there he was, in the computer lab!"
Don grabbed the door. He grinned, although he was clearly confused. "Computer lab? The two at home, the one in his office and his laptop aren't enough?"
She laughed. "Guess not." She pointed toward the back of the building. "The lab is on the second floor. It'll be easy to find – it's the only place with the lights on!"
Don had thanked her and followed her directions. Now he stood unnoticed in the doorway of the room, watching Charlie with interest.
There were four long, dark, wooden tables in the room. Each held four computers. Charlie sat at the second table, his back to the door. Don watched with interest as Charlie ripped some anti-static wipes from a canister and ran them gently over the flat screen. Then, he replaced the wipes with a cloth, pausing to spray it with some solution from a bottle. He painstakingly cleaned the keyboard and mouse. Next, Charlie picked up a can of compressed air, and used it to spray the keyboard. After lightly dusting the keyboard and mouse with a spray disinfectant, he picked up the headphones connected to the terminal and took his time straightening out all the cords: cord to the headphones, cord to the mouse, cord to the keyboard. Once they were neatly in order, he placed the headphones "just so", at the upper left corner of the keyboard. Charlie picked up all the cleaning equipment and moved to the other end of the table, still facing away from the door, and began to repeat the process.
Don leaned in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest, mesmerized by the sheer inaneness of it. Charlie got up in the middle of the night to come to a dead campus and clean computers? Don found himself hypnotized by the repetitive action.
Charlie finished with the second computer on the second table, and got up and moved to the other side. When he saw Don lounging silently in the doorway, he dropped all of the cleaning supplies and stepped backwards, bumping into the third table. "Shit!", he half-shouted, and the rare break in his vocabulary cut through the haze that was beginning to surround Don.
He straightened and began walking toward his brother. "What the hell are you doing, Charlie?"
The younger man pulled out a chair at the second table and sank into it, running his hand through his hair. His voice shook a little when he answered, and Don understood how badly he had frightened him. "I was going to ask you that, Donnie. How did you get in here?"
Don sat down opposite Charlie. "Student was coming out right when I got here. Part of the cleaning crew or something."
Charlie frowned. "But…"
Don interrupted. "Dad said you were here. I think I woke him up. He wasn't very happy."
Charlie nodded. "That would be the second time this morning."
Don leaned back in the chair, studying Charlie. "He mentioned that. Seriously, Chuck, what's going on?"
Charlie leaned over and picked up the cleaning supplies, which he then plopped onto the table. He waved a hand over them, reminding Don of both a magician and one of the girls from "The Price Is Right".
He was pretty sure he was distracted by the image and heard Charlie incorrectly. "What did you say?"
Charlie reddened a little and his voice was almost defensive. "I said, 'therapy'. My therapist recommended that I find some almost mindless, routine activity that occupied me physically in some way, and that I try doing it when I'm having trouble…I don't know…quieting things down in my head, I guess."
Don wasn't sure what he wanted to say first. Finally, he settled for, "Does it work?"
Charlie grinned a little, in a self-depreciating sort of way. "Not too well. I've been doing this at least once a week for a couple of months, and I have yet to do it the same way twice. My mind keeps devising new ways to tackle the problem, new solutions based on new equations. Pretty sure that's not supposed to happen. But I agreed to a three-month trial."
Don hadn't thought of a way to disguise his next question. "You have a therapist? Why?"
The defensive look was back. Charlie looked away and didn't answer.
Don tried again. "I guess I don't understand why you would need…. I mean, what about Amita? You're getting pretty close, right?"
Charlie looked back at him and arched an eyebrow. "Right." There was a sarcastic tone to his answer. "And I can go to her and complain about my girlfriend, no problem." He leaned forward a little, still looking at Don. "I'm sorry. I mean, I know it's weird. But now that we're officially a couple, it's great – but it's also like I lost one of my friends, in some ways. Does that make any sense?"
Don thought about it. "I guess. You're saying you find it difficult to talk to her on the purely friendship level…"
Charlie nodded and relaxed back into his chair. "Exactly. We're more on the minefield-level right now." Don smiled, and Charlie continued. "So I'm really missing Larry, too. This whole relationship thing is a bit overwhelming, and I've had Larry to bounce things off for most of my life – since Princeton."
Don felt a pang of hurt, and purposefully ignored it. "What about Dad? You guys have gotten pretty close over the last couple of years."
Charlie snorted. "Again, not exactly the best choice right now. Half of my problems are related to Amita, and half are related to my boss. You know, the woman Dad is dating? Which reminds me – a few of my problems are related to who my father is dating."
Don drummed his fingers on the table. He looked over Charlie's shoulder, then back at his face. "You could always talk to me," he said.
Charlie smiled a little sadly. "You think it escapes my attention that you're placing yourself as the last alternative? I know you're pretty overwhelmed yourself, Don. Your time is at a premium."
Don felt a tiny stab, but he couldn't identify it right away. Could be guilt – or it could just be anger. "Look", he offered, not taking enough time to word his sentiments correctly, "I appreciate all the time you give to my cases, and…" He stopped talking at the hurt on Charlie's face.
His brother's voice was barely controlled. "Ah. I didn't realize having someone to talk to was a job perk. I must not have been paying attention when Merrick and I negotiated that part of my consulting arrangement. Should I be claiming that as a fringe benefit on my taxes?"
Don involuntarily squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then opened them again. "Buddy, I'm sorry. That came out wrong." Charlie didn't seem to have anything else to say, so Don continued. "What I meant was that I know you consult for a lot of agencies, but I also know you do a lot more for us, and you do it because you're my brother. Whatever I ask for – and usually more. Regardless of how busy you may be already, with school or another consulting gig, or research. I just meant that I appreciate that, and I feel the same way. I can't really cover a computational physics class for you, but I'd try, if you asked me. Whatever you ask, Charlie. It doesn't matter how busy I am. That's all I meant."
Charlie sighed and looked down at his lap. He kept silent, and Don couldn't believe what he confessed next. "I've seen a department shrink a few times lately, myself."
That got Charlie's attention. He looked back up, eyes wide. "What? Is everything okay? Did something happen?" His worry turned toward frustration. "You never tell Dad and I what it's really like for you. We want to know, Don."
Don smiled grimly. "You already know more than I want you to, Charlie. Your consulting with us takes care of that. You've seen a lot more than I ever wanted you to. It's not that I think you guys wouldn't understand – I just don't want to put either of you in that place."
Charlie surprised him by quoting something Don had said nearly a year before. "Your head is a scary place to be, sometimes." This time, Don didn't respond, and quickly looked away. He was stunned by Charlie's next observation. "You sound just like her. Almost word-for-word."
Don looked back at his brother. "Her? Who?"
Don had been afraid of that. He stared at Charlie, and waited for him to continue.
Charlie shifted in the chair. "When Mom was first diagnosed, she did not tell Dad, or me -- for two months. She received treatments alone for two months, and when she finally broke down and told us, that's what she said: 'It's not that I didn't think you could handle it. I just didn't want you to.'"
Don was nonplussed. He had never known much about the first time his mother was diagnosed. He had only been told the true seriousness of her condition when she lost her remission. "What changed her mind?", he asked, softly.
"You did," Charlie answered, and Don was surprised again.
"She called you, on your birthday. She was just going to leave a message on your machine so you would hear it when you got home, but Kim had taken the afternoon off to make you a birthday dinner."
"I remember that birthday," Don murmured.
Charlie's voice grew quiet, and sad. "She told Mom to call back in a couple of hours, that you were just at therapy and were hoping to be released back to field duty that day. That was how Mom found out that you had been shot in the shoulder two months before."
"Oh, my God," Don groaned, and dropped his face to his hands. He had never known that any of them knew.
Charlie ignored his obvious distress. "When she stopped crying, Mom told us how cheated she felt. She told us how badly she wished she could have gone to you, and been with you. She asked us never to tell you this, and then she told us that she had cancer. Finding out that you were shot convinced her that we had the right to decide for ourselves how much we wanted to understand."
Don lifted his head and looked at Charlie with sad eyes. "She told me the next day, when she called me back…and I guess I didn't want to understand much. I didn't even come to visit. I didn't come home until two years later, when she lost her remission."
Charlie made a sound in the back of his throat. "Please. Let's not get into who let Mom down the most, okay? I shouldn't have said anything." He stood up suddenly, abruptly. "How did all of this happen, anyway?" He flung his arms out wide, then dropped them, dejectedly. "There's…there's life all over the place…."
Don stood as well. "Messy, isn't it?" Charlie looked at him silently. Don sighed. "Charlie, if seeing a therapist helps you, that's great. I just want you to know that I always have time for you. Even when I act like I don't, you have my permission to call me on it, to remind me to stop being Agent Eppes and start being your brother."
Charlie crossed his arms over his chest and spoke beligerantly. "And what else?"
Don racked his brain. He replayed the conversation, and shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. Charlie held his eyes until he said it. "And…I can talk to you about anything. The ugly things I wish neither one of us knew about. The fact that I'm afraid I will never find a woman I love as much as I love the job – which I also hate. My increasing inability to exhibit normal, human thought and behavior patterns. All that stuff."
Charlie looked a little shell-shocked. "Well, yeah," he finally answered. "All that stuff. Although I didn't necessarily mean you had to say it all right now."
Don laughed out loud. "You know what Dad always says. 'Be careful what you ask for'."
Charlie grinned. "Could I ask for breakfast? You could give me whatever data you were hunting me down for at 6 in the morning." He started to gather the cleaning supplies.
Don waited until Charlie was looking at him again to shake his head. "No." Charlie looked surprised, then embarrassed. Before he got to teary, Don hurried on. "I'm having breakfast with my brother. I'll deal with my consultant later, during business hours. Deal?"
Charlie smiled shyly, at first, then widely.