Charlie awoke slowly, his thoughts muzzy, his body Sunday-morning heavy. He held on for as long as he could to the sweetness of sleep, but as his mind cleared and he started to take inventory, the feeling that this wasn't just a lazy morning grew. His eyes felt swollen and gritty, his chest heavy, and his right hand ached as he flexed it. He made a loose fist and winced. Like he'd been hitting something--
Don's door. Charlie's eyelids popped open. He scanned the room, taking in the unfamiliar furniture, the stark walls gleaming a ghostly gray in the faint illumination that bled in through the blinds. He'd somehow made it to Don's apartment and--he winced. Apparently had hysterics or something. And now he was in Don's bed.
He shoved the comforter aside and pushed himself gingerly into a sitting position. His head was a little light, but the growling in his stomach, coupled with the realization that he couldn't remember when he'd eaten his last meal, presented an acceptable explanation. His behavior--he shied away from the memory of sobbing in his brother's arms. He could not go through this again.
Charlie shoved a hand into his hair. Megan had said to only give thanks for today, but now that he'd accepted Don's presence among the living he had time to work on strategies for keeping Don there.
Charlie swung his legs out of bed. He was still in his boxers and t-shirt; a folded pair of sweat pants sat on the very end of the bed and he dragged them on. They were too long, but he pulled them higher, tightened the drawstring.
Charlie padded to the door and hesitated with his hand on the knob. He prodded his thoughts, examining them like a dentist prods a tooth. The anger that had swept through him at the hostage site, that had fueled his stint in the garage, was still there.
Charlie hesitated, then shrugged. He couldn't very well just sneak out and go sulk somewhere. Sooner or later, he had to talk to Don. He opened the bedroom door, and immediately heard his brother's voice.
Don was in the kitchen, back to the hallway, cell phone propped between ear and shoulder as he washed dishes. Charlie kept silent, content for the moment to watch.
"I'm perfectly capable of doing dishes, Dad. I just wanted you to feel guilty." Don chuckled, and Charlie could swear he felt the sound, warm like sunlight on his face. "Naw, I just checked on him. He's still doing the Sleeping Beauty bit. He needs a haircut."
Don grabbed a dishtowel and dried the bowl he'd just washed, then opened the cabinet next to the sink and reached up to put the bowl away. The hem of his t-shirt rode up, and Charlie saw the bruise, two creeping tendrils of black wrapping around the left side of Don's body. Charlie's breath caught in the back of his throat. He wondered what the bruise would look like from the front, and his fragile sense of equilibrium shifted. "Still on my bed...Don't be ridiculous. I wasn't about to bail on him just so I could sleep in a bed. What if he woke up and I wasn't here? Besides, me and the couch go way back."
Don shoved the bowl onto the top shelf, but hissed as he stepped back, pressing his arm into his side. Charlie's anger awoke with the sound. Don had nearly died--had done his level best to get himself killed.
"What? No, I didn't say anything...of course I'm glad he came, but Dad--you saw him. He fell apart. Scared the crap out of me. I honestly don't know what to do."
"You could make me breakfast," Charlie rasped.
Don spun around, his eyes widening. He smiled, but Charlie could see something else. Concern? Wariness? Fear? And Charlie hadn't dreamed that bruise on his cheekbone.
Don waved Charlie toward a chair and pointed at the coffee pot. Tea? Charlie mouthed as he pulled the chair away from the cheap Formica dinette table and sank into it, and Don rolled his eyes. "Look, Dad, gotta go. Sleeping Beauty awakes...oh, now, that's just gross. We'll be over in a couple of hours, okay?"
Charlie watched as Don lifted his head and shrugged the cell phone into his waiting hand. Don winced, rolling his head from side to side to relieve the crick that had developed in his neck. "You should stop doing that," Charlie said mildly. "You could hurt yourself."
Don glanced at him. "Yeah, well, there's a lot of stuff I should stop doing." They stared at each other in silence. Don shook himself. "Tea, you said?"
"If you don't have any, that's okay."
"No, I think I do--I'll just have to nuke a mug of water for you--" Don bustled about, opening cabinets, rummaging through their contents, and each time he reached up that damned bruise played peekaboo with Charlie until he wanted to scream.
"Don, stop," he finally snapped. "I don't want tea, okay?"
Don, still on tip-toe, froze. He slowly lowered his weight to the floor, dropped his arms to his sides, and stood for a moment. Charlie could hear his breathing from across the room. When he turned, his features were completely schooled. "What's wrong, Charlie?"
"Nothing. I just don't want tea."
"Lift up your damned shirt."
Don blinked. He looked down at his chest, up at Charlie. Then he took the hem of his t-shirt in both hands and slowly raised it.
Charlie bit his lip, eyes on Don's face, until his peripheral vision told him Don's hands had stopped moving. He swallowed and looked down. He hissed in shock.
The bruise was huge, a thick and shiny black, covering most of the left side of Don's abdomen.
"That's what Kevlar is for," Don said quietly. "It's just big because it was such close range. The vest distributed the force of the impact--"
"Shut up." Charlie looked away, raised shaking hands to his face. He heard chair legs scrape against the linoleum, felt Don settle heavily beside him.
"Charlie--" A touch on his shoulder. He shrugged it off. The chair next to him creaked as Don shoved himself back. "Okay. Fine. Charlie, I cannot begin to tell you how sorry I am that you were there and saw all that. But you were told to leave, multiple times. By me, by Megan."
Charlie lowered his hands to his lap, but didn't look up from them. How could Don have ever expected him to leave--
"The thing is, buddy, you have got to figure out a way to be okay with my job. Do you really think I can function if every time I'm about to go into a situation of some kind I start thinking, 'God, gotta be careful. If something happens, Charlie will freak.'? Do you?"
Charlie glanced up at Don. Don was studying him, brow furrowed. He didn't seem angry, exactly, just in full-on Big Brother mode--Charlie's eyes were drawn again to the bruise on Don's cheek. And where did that come from? The butt of a gun? "Just doing your job," he said, not even trying to disguise the bitterness in his voice.
"As a matter of fact, I was. So was my team. You may have decided that I'm incompetent, but I'd sure like to see a little respect for my team."
"I never said you're incompetent. That's not--that's not it--" He shook his head, aware of Don's gaze, aware of the silence stretching out, but still unable to say the words.
Don blew out a sharp, impatient breath and looked away. "I don't think we're gonna get anywhere with this right now." He slapped Charlie's knee and rose. "Look, you hungry? You must be starving."
"I said you could feed me breakfast," Charlie muttered. God, he sounded so petulant. Wherever Big Brother Don went, Little Brother Charlie was sure to follow.
"Late lunch is more like it." And yes, the light through the kitchen window wasn't the thin clear light of morning, it was the thick gold of afternoon. He stretched out one bare foot into a patch warming a square of the kitchen floor and thought about the afternoon--was it only a week ago?--that Don had brought this case to him.
He watched Don, who had gone back to bustling. That and not looking at him. "I want breakfast."
"Well, I'm not making an omelet or anything. Dad's gonna want to feed us again in a couple of hours. Bowl of cereal?"
"And I can find the tea if you'll just be patient." Don deposited a box of bran flakes and a bowl on the table in front of him, then turned to the refrigerator.
Charlie twirled the bowl once around before picking up the cereal box. "Did you really join the FBI because I'm an irresponsible coward?"
"What?" Don spun around so fast that milk slopped out of the open container. "Shi-- Charlie, what has gotten into you?"
"Better watch that. Inertia and all."
"I know--" Don slammed the carton down on the table next to Charlie and went to the sink for a rag. He dropped to his knees in front of the spill, his breath catching, and Charlie realized it must hurt. He turned away, focusing on retrieving the sugar bowl, on pouring the milk. Don stood and threw the rag into the sink.
"I don't have a spoon."
Don closed his eyes. His fists clenched. Charlie recognized the signs that meant he'd pushed his brother a little too far. But this was nothing. Don had just pushed Charlie as far as he could go and still get back.
When Don opened his eyes, the anger Charlie had expected wasn't there. Instead, he looked sad, and tired, and--hopeless. He pulled a spoon out of the dish strainer, dried it on his t-shirt, and tossed it on the table. Charlie jumped when it hit. "Eat your cereal," Don said, and turned away. He stood at the kitchen window, maybe looking outside, maybe not looking at anything. Charlie picked up the spoon and pushed the cereal around. He didn't have much of an appetite anymore.
"No," Don said softly.
"No, I'm not an FBI agent because you're an irresponsible coward. I'm an FBI agent because I chose to be. For myself." He turned around and rested his hips against the edge of the sink. "But I can't say that knowing it was something you would never be able to do had no bearing on my decision."
"I see." The cereal was getting soggy. Charlie hated soggy cereal.
"At that point in my life, I needed something of my own. That's not so hard to understand, is it?"
"I guess not."
"I mean, you had math. You've had math your whole life. And I've had--" Don stopped, the look on his face one of a man standing on a precipice.
"Being the genius kid's older brother."
Don said nothing.
"Well, you were right about one thing. I'd never be able to do what you do."
The silence stretched out. Unnerved, Charlie looked up from the cereal bowl. Don was watching him with an expression on his face that Charlie had never seen before. "Don?"
"Actually, Charlie, you've been showing me lately that you can do a lot of it."
Charlie bit his bottom lip and turned to face his brother, soggy cereal forgotten. "Is that why you're raising the stakes?"
Don looked away, tried to shake off the mood, but Charlie stood to face him. He felt like he was walking along the same precipice, straight towards Don, and he wanted to push him off. "How much of what you do now is to prove you're better at dying than I am?"
Don's head snapped around and he stared at Charlie, open-mouthed, as understanding flooded his face. He grabbed Charlie by the shoulders. "Is that what all this is about? You think I have some kind of a death wish or something? Charlie, no."
Anger vanished and fear returned. Charlie felt hot tears sting his eyes. "First there was the bomb and then there was the knife and then there was the whole hostage thing and you've been so--" he choked-- "so sad. I don't know what that shrink is doing to you--"
"Sit, buddy." The gentle pressure of Don's palms on his shoulders grew more insistent and Charlie dropped back into his seat. Don sat next to him and took his hand. Startled, Charlie glanced down, then sat very still, afraid that if he so much as twitched, Don would let go.
"Charlie?" Don spoke gently, and Charlie looked up into his brother's drawn, tired face. But his brown eyes were clear, and filled with a peace Charlie hadn't seen in far too long. "Look, maybe I've been pushing things a little too hard for a while, and I'm sorry."
"Sorry?" Charlie whispered.
Don shrugged and stared past Charlie, as though looking for the right words in his bowl of soggy cereal. "Yeah. I'm--I'm sorry. You know and I know that things have been bad lately. Bad enough so that it starts to feel like everything about my job is death and horror. But--when I had a chance to help those kids--"
"You pushed even harder."
"No, Charlie. I remembered." Charlie swallowed as a brilliant smile lit Don's face. The last time he'd seen that smile was just before Don walked into that school--and the hands of a murderer. "My job is about life, Charlie. It's about protecting and saving and preventing. It's on the negative side of the equation, maybe, but it still equals the right thing."
Charlie knew that Don's explanation should be making him feel better, should at least give him the satisfaction of more data for his model, but somehow both anger and fear were mixing into a formless agitation and he had to fight to keep still.
"I finally had the chance to move some of the terms to the positive side. You should understand that. You of all people."
Charlie began to tremble. "They don't equal you," he whispered. "It still wouldn't balance."
Charlie shook his head, pulled away. Don looked at him, open-mouthed. "Does it always have to be Big, Brave, Donnie to the rescue?"
Don laughed uneasily. This conversation was obviously still not going where he'd hoped. "Well, I had to do it for you so much I kind of got used to it, I guess. And now that you don't need me anymore, I have to find--"
And there it was. Charlie's own precipice. "That's a lie." Suddenly he was nine again, the night before high school started, and Don, with that casual cruelty he'd indulged in as they'd grown apart, was saying, So you think you're the big man now. Guess that means you don't need me anymore. "That's a lie," he repeated, his voice frantic. "Don't--don't say that."
"Charlie, of course it's not a lie." Don glared at him. "I used to save your skinny ass from bullies on a weekly bas--" He stopped, eyes widening, and stood. He rested one hand on Charlie's shoulder. "You really believe that," he said, voice husky. It was not a question.
"I still need you, Don." Charlie's words were quiet, precise. "More than anyone else ever could."
Silence. Charlie sat, frozen, while Don distractedly squeezed his shoulder, lifted the hand to rest it for a moment in his hair, dropped it back to his shoulder. Don cleared his throat. "I wasn't going to mention this yet, but I talked to Dr. Bradford."
Startled, Charlie looked up at his brother's profile, tight, controlled. "The shrink?"
"Yes, Charlie, the shrink." Don's voice was gentle. "He said that he'd be happy to see you." Charlie sucked in his breath. "Or both of us, or me first, then you, or give you some referrals if you think it'd be too weird to talk to him--however you want to play it. It's a little irregular, but it's pretty apparent you--you're having case-related stress issues." The words were dry, but Don's voice-- Charlie closed his eyes. "He did say that talking to you might help him place some of my issues in a clearer context."
"So I'm one of your issues."
"Of course you are, Charlie. Just like I'm one of yours."
Charlie sighed. He still hadn't moved, and neither had Don, as though that simple contact of hand on shoulder was all that kept them from being torn apart. "Yeah. Sure. I'll see him."
Don gave his shoulder a little shake.
"What's wrong with us?" Charlie whispered.
"What do you mean, buddy?"
"Why do we need a shrink just to talk to each other?" He looked up at his brother.
Don shook his head. "I don't know about you, but for me--there's so much, you know? I don't want to blow it."
Charlie digested that in silence. It was oddly comforting. And yet, what was the saying? Actions speak louder than words. "You can say or not say whatever the hell you want," he said in a low, fierce voice. "Just don't leave me again."
Don's grip on his shoulder tightened. "Never by my choice. That's all I can give you, Charlie. Please try to understand."
"I know. It's enough for today." And it was.