Night Thoughts

Charlie Eppes yawns, stretches, relinquishes his death grip on the piece of chalk, and flexes his fingers. Time to call it a night. He can't really make any headway on modeling the workings of the brain when his own brain is too tired to work any longer. Besides, it's almost two am, and his biorhythms are at their lowest ebb. Everywhere--well, everywhere within about sixty degrees longitude east and west of him--decent people are snug in their beds.

Good thing he just has a graduate seminar and office hours tomorrow, Charlie thinks as he flicks off the lights in the garage. Both in the afternoon, too. He can sleep in a bit.

He enters the house and stops, disconcerted. Alan always leaves a light on for him if he's in the garage when Alan goes to bed, but right now the darkness is complete. He slides his palm across the wall, fumbling for a light switch.

"Charlie?"

Charlie jumps, even as he recognizes Don's voice coming from somewhere in the vicinity of the couch. His older brother must have been too tired to make the drive to his apartment and bedded down here for the night. Not unusual, though he's been better lately about making it all the way up to his old room. "Did I wake you?" asks Charlie.

"No, I wasn't asleep."

Charlie pulls his hand away from the switch plate. Something about Don's voice makes him think his brother wants the darkness. His eyes are starting to adjust, anyway, and he takes careful, sliding steps into the room, hand out, and pats down until his palm connects the back of the chair opposite Don. He sinks into it. "So--you just got here?"

"No. Been here a while." Don's voice is quiet, but there's an undercurrent to it that Charlie can't place. Tension, he thinks, or--fear? "Sorry about the lights. I thought you and Dad were both in bed."

"No problem." Charlie frowns. "So--did something happen? I thought I gave you enough information."

"No, everything's fine. We got Ramirez yesterday. Clean bust. Howard's thrilled." Don's voice takes on a dryly humorous edge, and Charlie sinks back in the chair. But something's still off.

"Then--Don?"

"Hmmm?"

"Don't take this wrong, but--why are you here?"

Silence fills the darkness. Don clears his throat. "I came here to think. Do you want me to lea--"

"No, of course not." Their father has mentioned finding Don alone and brooding, but this is the first time Charlie's encountered it. Now he understands why it worries Alan so. "I'm just trying to understand. You came here in the middle of the night, not expecting either of us to be up, just to sit in the dark and think? Were you going to still be here when we got up?"

"No." Very soft.

"Don. Have you done this before?"

A longer silence, then a rustling of fabric, a faint creak of springs. "I'd better go. I'll call you--"

"Dammit, Don. Stay put. Or I--I'll get Dad down here."

Don doesn't reply, but Charlie can hear his brother sink back against the couch cushions. "You can't sit in the dark and think at your own apartment?"

"The dark feels different here."

Suddenly Charlie needs light. He switches on a small table lamp next to him, earning a grunt of annoyance from his brother. "Geeze, Charlie, you could have warned me."

Charlie turns toward the couch, blinking his own eyes clear. Then he gets a good look at Don and sucks in a sharp breath. "You look like shit. Are you feeling okay?"

Don's face is gaunt, his eyes deeply shadowed, his skin gray with fatigue. "Just tired," he says, but the phrase seems to hold some deeper meaning for him.

To Charlie, the phrase has only one meaning--he's going to put his brother to bed right now, even if he has to--to threaten Don with their father to do it. As he stands he catches the dull sheen of lamp light on matte black on Don's lap, and a first faint shock of fear makes him stop.

"Why do you have your gun out?"

Don looks down at it, shrugs, digs the heel of his palm into his forehead. "It helps me think."

"I--I--I fail to see how a gun can be an aid to concentration."

"You'd be surprised." That same dry humor. He sounds almost normal, but he won't look at Charlie, and Charlie gingerly sinks down on the opposite end of the couch. "It depends on what I'm thinking about."

"So--what are you thinking about?"

Don picks up the pistol, balances it on his palm. Charlie's always been all about the data, but he realizes he doesn't even know what kind of gun this is. It's black, it's ugly, it kills people. Don has killed people. Charlie doesn't think there's anything more he needs to know.

Don sets it back on his lap, leans his head against the back of the couch. "Just--how tired I am. How I wish things would get better."

"You don't need your gun for that," Charlie says softly. "First of all, you get some sleep tonight. Then, in the morning we talk about how to make things better."

Don jerks his head off the back of the couch. "Haven't you done enough?"

Venom laces the words, and Charlie recoils. His own anger flares, but a stronger part of him understands that what is happening right here, right now, is too important for his emotions to rule. "What have I done, Don?" he asks quietly. "Tell me, and I'll stop it. I'll fix it. I'll change it."

Don stares at him, eyes huge and dark in his pale face. He shakes his head. "God, I'm sorry, Charlie. It's not you. You can't change what you are, and you can't change what I'm not. And you have nothing to do with how much I've been fucking up lately." He turns away, but the admission seems to have rekindled some kind of nervous energy; his knee bounces up and down, he cradles the pistol on one palm and rubs his other thumb across the grip.

"I may not be able to help, but I still think sleep is a good idea," says Charlie. Somehow he's maintaining his casual tone. "Why don't you just give me the gun and head up to bed?"

Don glances back at Charlie. He snorts. "Give you my gun? You'd probably shoot your foot off. At least if I ever get shot with my own gun, you'll know I did it on purpose."

Charlie goes cold.

One corner of Don's mouth twists up as he stares at the pistol in his lap. "Because...if I ever get shot with my own gun, the bullet will go--here." He lifts the gun--he moves so fast--and points the muzzle at the middle of his forehead.

"Don--" Charlie chokes. "Don, this isn't funny--"

"Or here." Don slides the gun around until the muzzle is pressed into his temple, so hard that Charlie can see the ring of white skin blossoming under it.

"Don, please--"

His brother lowers the weapon and studies it for a long moment. He licks his lips. "Or here," he says, and closes his eyes as he slides the muzzle into his mouth.

Charlie feels his heart--stop.

"Donnie," Charlie whispers, "God, Donnie, please. Stop this. You're scaring me." Don doesn't seem to hear him. Charlie can hear the faint click of Don's teeth against the barrel, but his brother's hand is rock steady. Charlie's afraid to say any more, afraid not to, afraid to breathe.

Finally, with a little cough, Don slides the barrel of the gun out of his mouth. His hand falls limp at his side; his head drops back onto the couch cushions. Charlie lunges forward, but stops with his hand hovering over his brother's, and gently--so gently--pulls the gun away. Don doesn't seem to notice. Charlie stares at the weapon in loathing. He doesn't know what to do with it--he can't think--or rather, he's thinking too fast to follow his own thoughts. He doesn't want to follow his own thoughts.

Finally, holding it gingerly by the grip, Charlie takes it into the kitchen and sets it down on the counter. His hands are shaking so badly that he's afraid to touch the gun again, but he finally sets it in a Tupperware bowl, snaps the lid on, and puts it in the refrigerator. He'll have to warn Alan first thing in the morning, but he doubts Don will look there.

In the living room, Don hasn't moved. He looks dead, Charlie thinks, and a sob finally escapes him.

Don stirs. "Charlie?"

"What?"

"Buddy, are you crying?"

Charlie swipes at his eyes with a sleeve. "Damn right I'm crying, you asshole. You scared the shit out of me."

"Oh, hey," Don breathes, and holds up a hand. It's an offer of comfort, and Charlie stares at him, incredulous, then turns away. He's still shaking, still cold, still doesn't know how he'll ever close his eyes again without seeing that image in his mind--

"Charlie, I'm sorry. Really, I didn't mean--" Don stops.

Charlie turns, but Don isn't looking at him any longer. From the expression on Don's face, Charlie knows he's staring into the eyes of a monster. "Don?" He sits next to his brother on the couch.

"Charlie...I--I don't know." Don's voice is low, but edged with panic.

"What don't you know?"

Don covers his face with his hands. "I don't know what I meant. Oh, god, Charlie--"

Charlie takes Don by the wrists and pulls his hands down. "I know what you didn't mean, or you wouldn't have come here."

Don tenses at that, then nods once. "No, I don't--I don't want to--"

"But you've thought about it?"

He nods again, and the tension suddenly seems to drain from him. He slumps forward a little. "I'm just so tired. And what's in my head, I can't get it to stop."

Charlie feels fresh tears sting his eyes at that quiet confession. He grips Don's wrists tightly. "First things first. You need some sleep, Don."

Don shakes his head. "Charlie, I can't. I--"

"Shhh. I'll be with you. I need to run through my lecture on Legendre polynomials. Trust me, you'll fall asleep." He grins.

Don raises his head, and Charlie's heartened by the spark in his eyes. "Is that what your students do?"

"No smart remarks. If you can't make a positive contribution to class, I'll be forced to deduct points from your grade."

Don smiles for a moment, but then he blinks and looks away. "And tomorrow?"

Charlie slowly, carefully puts his arms around his brother, afraid that Don might pull away, afraid that Don might break. "Tomorrow, we'll figure out how to make things better. I promise."