Lean On Me
"Anybody home?" Don called as he let the door snap shut behind him. The dull click reverberated in the empty living-room.
"Garage!" came the muted reply.
"Where else," Don muttered and deposited his jacket over the nearest chair. Wearily, he went for the kitchen to find himself some food.
"Dad's not home?" he called out softer while checking out the contents of the fridge, knowing that with just one wall and a half-open door between them, Charlie would be able to hear him fine.
An unruly head full of dark curls popped through the door. "He's out with Art and some business partners. I'm sorry, but I'm kind of busy right now." Just as fast as he had appeared, Charlie vanished again.
"Of course you are," Don muttered, uncapped a beer and took a long swallow. He might as well sit in the garage with Charlie, busy or not. Company, even if it was the company of a distracted professor, was better than being alone tonight.
Preparing himself a quick sandwich, he followed Charlie into the dimly lit garage and stopped when he saw all the blackboards. There were at least 15 of them, hanging from every available wall space, standing on rolling racks strategically distributed all over the floor.
"Wow. What are you working on?" Don asked, surprising himself with the realization that he actually really was interested in it. A couple of months ago, he would have been terrified by all those blackboards, fearing that Charlie might again retreat into his math world in avoidance of reality. But Charlie had matured a lot over the last year and Don was certain that the 'precious little bubble', as he once called it, was a thing of the past now.
Charlie halted for a moment and took a step back from the blackboard he was currently scribbling on. "This," he said with a wide gesture, "is my Cognitive Emergence Theory."
Don nodded and rose his eyebrows, waving vaguely at the boards with his beer bottle. "Would I get any of this?". Charlie grimaced slightly as if weighing the possibilities in his head - which he probably was - and then shrugged his shoulders.
"Well, I could try to explain it in simple terms for you, but, you know..." he pointed to the boards with his piece of chalk, "I'm really kind of caught up in something here right now..."
Don grinned. "Hey, it's okay." He moved further into the garage. "Mind if I sit out here?"
"No, no, go ahead." Charlie muttered distractedly, already adding more indecipherable signs to his previous writing. Don wandered over to the old couch and sank into the cushions. He took an unenthusiastic bite off the sandwich and sighed. This was not the kind of evening he'd had in mind. He had hoped to catch up with their dad to talk. After this last week, he really felt like he needed it. There was this almost childish urge to reconnect boiling inside of him, which was not something he planned to reveal to Charlie any time soon.
Well, he had to take what he got. Finishing off his sandwich, he wiped his hand on his jean-clad leg and slouched further into the cushions. Sipping more beer, Don watched Charlie for a few moments as he sprung from one blackboard to the next, scribbling and scrawling as the inspiration struck and he couldn't help but smile.
Whenever Charlie really enthused about a problem and got so involved that he sometimes had to be reminded to eat or go to bed, he looked like a little kid all over again. Chalk smudges on his clothes and face, the feverish glow in his eyes, the bounce in his step.
It reminded Don of a day back in his childhood, when he came home from baseball practice and found Charlie working here in the garage. His 4-year-old brother was entranced in writing strange equations on his little blackboard and all over the cement floor. When he stepped closer, Charlie had turned around. "That's it," he'd squealed, almost jumping up and down, "Don, I got it!"
Only Don hadn't understood what he meant. The writing on the board and the floor had looked like hieroglyphs to him and he then realized with a pang that as much as he wanted to be Charlie's big brother, this was one of the areas in which he never could. He would never be able to help him with his homework, because Charlie was that much brighter already than he himself was or probably ever would be.
The resurfaced memory brought a lump into his throat once again and Don closed his eyes. He really shouldn't dwell on the past but rather relish in the fact that many things had changed for the better.
"You look tired."
Opening one eye, Don squinted at Charlie. He still stood over at one of the boards, chalk poised in midair, looking over his shoulder with a slightly concerned expression.
He snorted. "I am tired."
Don stretched his legs over the far end of the couch and got more comfortable. "Tough week," he muttered.
He let his eyes slip closed again and listened to the scratch of chalk on the blackboard until it stopped once more.
"Anything you want to talk about?"
Don stayed silent. And not because he didn't want to talk about it. In fact, he knew he needed to talk about it and not just with the department shrink who he was going to see the next day. That was mandatory in this case, per the director's order. All agents who worked on the case were going to see the psychologist.
But it just wasn't the same.
He finished off his beer and placed the empty bottle beside him on the floor.
"Maybe later," he muttered and leaned his face against the back of the couch, his eyes falling shut once more. The fact that the one beer he had was already buzzing in his head told him more about his condition than a look in a mirror could have. He clearly was wiped out, mentally and physically.
The garage was silent, so silent that he could hear the crickets chirping outside. Charlie wasn't writing anymore. With effort, Don raised his lids again and found Charlie standing only a couple of steps away, watching him with an indescribable expression on his face.
"You don't need to protect me, you know?"
Don huffed at that and pulled up his hands to scrub them over his tired face. "Trust me, Charlie, you don't want to know."
His last words had obviously hurt, if the way Charlie's face shuttered closed was any indication and Don felt immediately sorry for his harsh words. But he couldn't muster up the energy to deal with it right now. He heard Charlie walk back to his original position and the scratching resumed.
He stared ahead, examining the pattern of the couch cushions. The old couch that used to be in their living-room, the one their Dad hated, but never had the heart to admit since their Mom had picked it out. Another set of memories rose to the surface, just as equally unwelcome as the first.
"Did Dad say when he'll be back?"
"No," came the curt answer. The scribbling sounds never ceased and Charlie didn't even move away from his work, his shoulders rigid.
Just great. Don closed his eyes again and let another small sigh pass his lips. This was clearly not his day. Or even his week. And on top of everything else he now was also getting a headache.
Charlie was studiously writing away, but he wasn't really concentrating on what he did. Realizing that he'd actually written the same equation twice, he reached out and wiped at the board angrily.
He could understand to some extent why Don tried to protect him. He wasn't trained in law enforcement and he had to admit that he'd witnessed quite a few disturbing events over the last two years since he started helping the FBI. He would probably never get used to seeing a corpse, but that was beside the point right now.
This wasn't about corpses. This was about lending a shoulder, which was something that should come naturally between brothers. At least he thought it should come naturally by now between Don and him. At least he thought Don would have the trust to accept his shoulder when he offered it.
Ah, who am I kidding?
He chucked the piece of chalk into the small receptacle that hung from the bottom rim of the board and turned around. His concentration was broken anyway, no sense trying to pretend he could actually accomplish anything valuable tonight. He might as well go to bed early to be fresh for another try in the morning.
His gaze fell on Don and he stopped in his tracks.
His older brother had pulled up his legs, his face slumped forward and against the back of the couch, and was fast asleep. It didn't look like a particularly comfortable position to Charlie, but nevertheless it was a sight that conjured up memories from days that were a lot more carefree than the present mostly proved to be.
Days back when he was little and a child prodigy loved by everyone, especially his big brother. Days when he couldn't wait for Don to come home from school or training or wherever he went, only to pounce onto him as soon as he was through the door. Days when he gasped in helpless laughter while Don tickled him senseless on the living-room floor. Days when they watched TV together, Don all curled up on the couch just like he was right now and Charlie sitting on the floor beside him with his head leaned back against Don's arm.
Days when there weren't any barriers between them, only the ingrained love between siblings. Unconditionally.
In the dim lighting the single bulb hanging from the ceiling provided Don didn't exactly look like the big brother Charlie remembered. There were more lines around his eyes now, a few faint nicks and scars here and there. Battle wounds. No, life wounds. He looked older, even much older than usual right now. Whenever he smiled, Charlie could see that childhood big brother shine through, but those moments had become rarer as time passed on.
A wave of sorrow rushed through him, an emotion so strong that Charlie had to swallow to keep the sudden tears that were threatening at bay. He had been awfully unfair, something he tended to do more often than he cared to admit. Because when it came to life, he certainly had had the easier path to travel.
Taking the last few steps over, Charlie sank down on the arm of the couch as realization hit him.
Everything had fallen into place for him without too hard an effort. He'd had all the possibilities and support he could dream off and while there were a few bumps and curves along the way, they seemed so much more insignificant now in hindsight. Sure, school had sucked for him on many levels, but he always had parents behind him to back him up. And they had backed him up, every single time. They had enabled him everything, whatever the cost.
And never, not once, did he feel any kind of animosity or even jealousy from Don, something he probably would have felt if he'd been in his position. There had been anger, masking the helplessness he probably felt when they started growing apart. And there was never anything else then the open readiness to repair what needed to be repaired when they finally found common ground again a couple of years ago.
Don had never done anything else than accepting him for the person he was. He was always there when he needed him, even after he had shut him out. Don didn't even start any of the fights they had over the past and only fought back once Charlie had become hurtful in his arguments. Which was another thing he tended to do and didn't like to admit readily.
So, Don shutting him out when things became too grizzly was nothing more than protective behavior. Not a sign of lacking trust in his abilities, but a clear sign of affection. Don trusted him and Charlie had heard him say it more than once. But he still had problems believing it, for whatever reasons.
Well, he wasn't exceptionally good in the emotional department to begin with.
Reaching over, Charlie plucked a wool blanket from one of the boxes behind the rolling blackboards. It was getting chilly. Standing, he silently spread the blanket over the still form of his brother, careful not to disturb him. Then, he slowly walked over to the door and switched off the light.
"We arrested a kidnapper three days ago," Don whispered suddenly into the darkness and Charlie nearly jumped.
"Yeah?" He tried going for conversationally and failed. Miserably.
"Yeah." Don sounded more than tired and Charlie carefully padded back over in the darkness, suddenly feeling the need to be nearer. He pulled back one of the chairs from the table in the center of the room and sank onto it.
"A good arrest. Solid evidence, everything by the book. We even got the kid out unharmed."
"That's good," Charlie nodded, even though he knew Don couldn't see him. Goosebumps started breaking out on his skin and he knew that it wasn't just the chill.
"I thought so as well," Don continued. There was a slight rustle of cloth as he obviously turned around, facing Charlie and propping his head onto his hand. "Until we discovered the basement."
Charlie couldn't even nod. Actually, he wanted to run right now, but he knew that he had to stay. "What was in the basement?" he whispered.
"A body. A child." Don's voice was hard, void of any obvious emotion and Charlie felt himself shudder. He wasn't sure if he actually could stand this.
Charlie gulped in much needed oxygen to calm his nerves. "I... I don't know," he admitted and Don chuckled without humor. "Yeah, me neither."
They stayed silent for a long time, not moving, not speaking. Deep in his heart, Charlie wanted to encourage Don to continue, but he couldn't bring the words out. He didn't know what to say at all. But he realized he needed this as much, if not more, than Don did.
"Go on," he finally said, his fingers gripping the back of the chair hard.
"Her name was Shalice and she was a beautiful girl," Don whispered, "And her parents didn't even report her missing. We could have gotten that bastard a couple of weeks ago, but they... they didn't care enough."
Oh my god. "H-how... w-hy?"
"I don't know." There was movement and Don rose up into a sitting position, his fingers raking through his hair. His eyes now more accustomed to the darkness, Charlie could see him finger the blanket on his lap. "I honestly don't know. They tried to explain it to me, but I-I... I didn't understand it this afternoon and I'm not any closer to understanding it now."
"How..." Charlie had to heave a deep breath to continue, "how could they not care?"
"They couldn't come up with the ransom money and they had 6 other children to care for. That's what they said." Don leaned his head back as far as he could and Charlie thought he saw him blinking his eyes a couple of times. "The kidnapper had threatened to kill Shalice if any police would be contacted, so when they couldn't raise the money, they gave her up." His voice almost broke. "They just decided to carry on with their lives without her."
They were silent again, Don obviously trying to get a grip on his emotions and Charlie still trying, and failing, to wrap his head around what Don had told him.
"But the probability for her survival was..." Charlie started and broke himself off immediately. It made no difference to point out that Shalice's survival chances might have been vastly improved by involving law enforcement. It wasn't only a moot point now, furthermore it was the whole tragedy of the story.
His stomach then decided to rumble and another low chuckle, this time tinged with feeling, wavered over from Don.
"I'm in the mood for pizza," Don stated, a slight smile audible in his voice.
"Good idea," Charlie agreed, but neither of them moved.
Finally, Charlie rose to his feet and walked the few steps over to Don, his right hand outstretched. "Pepperoni, mushrooms and extra cheese?" His hand was grasped and Don pulled himself to a standing position. "Yeah." He didn't let go of Charlie's hand though and Charlie looked up to find Don's eyes scrutinizing him.
"I'm okay," he said, and to his own surprise he really was.
"Thank you," Don simply said, his emotions still too raw and detectable in his voice.
"No," Charlie shook his head and pressed Don's hand firmly, looking up and searching his eyes, "thank you."
It was a tender moment of mutual understanding and deep affection between them and Charlie felt that this was probably one of the few moments where he could lean forward and hug Don without being rejected. But it flittered away just as soon as it had appeared.
Don's other hand moved up and gently nudged him towards the door.
When Alan Eppes returned from home his dinner appointment much later than he'd anticipated, he was delighted and also a little surprised to find his older son's SUV in the driveway. After all, it was a weeknight and Don never stayed that long on weeknights. Unless, of course, when he was staying over. Which he didn't do often and usually had a reason for, so Alan couldn't help but worry when he hurried up to the house.
But what he saw once he'd entered made him smile instead.
Both his sons were camped out in the living-room, the oldest stretched out on the couch while the younger one was huddled in a nest of blankets and pillows on the floor right in front of it. The TV cast an eerie light on both figures, who were deeply asleep.
Empty pizza boxes on the small end table completed the picture that spoke of a companionable evening.
Alan stood there for a while and regarded both his sons with a fond smile. He suspected there was a story behind all this, because when he left earlier that evening, Charlie had been so absorbed by his work that probably not even an earthquake could have disturbed him. He hadn't talked to Don in a couple of days, so he didn't know what was up in his life right now, but if the weary appearance of him was any indication, work life at the FBI was as stressful as ever.
Alan reached out and switched off the TV at the set, bathing the room in darkness only filled by relaxed breathing, oddly enough in tune.
His smile widened as he made his way up the stairs. He really should get some sleep now, because breakfast was going to be a big affair later and he was looking forward to it.