Worn out, beige tiles covered the floor of the waiting room, laid in a diagonal pattern to optically stretch the area, but the otherwise perfect symmetry was broken by a crack that ran wall to wall across the room, just an inch to the right of his chair. Charlie wanted to erase that crack, restore the perfection, take away the blemish that marred the picture.
God, how could he think of floor tiles or symmetry right now?
Oh yeah, so he wouldn't think about the flecks of blood covering parts of his jeans. Or the fact that his brother might be dying right now, that right in this instant, a team of surgeons was fighting to save his life somewhere beyond the sliding door that separated the waiting area from the operation rooms.
And because if he didn't keep his mind occupied with tasks it could actually handle, like equations or finding patterns in the most mundane objects, it would repeat the events of the day over and over and over again...
They'd been right in the middle of a good-natured argument about who was going to buy lunch later when the radio on Don's dash began to crackle and any thought of eating became a distant future.
A bust at a meth lab had gone wrong. Hostages were taken, people injured. Don had to move in to provide backup.
For a fleeting moment, Charlie thought about getting out of the car, the dread about whatever he might have to witness tickling at the corner of his mind. But he possessed an ingrained curiosity for almost all things, actually a good trait in his field of study, and he'd overcome his personal dread threshold a couple of times already while working with the FBI.
And usually, Don was the one to call the shots on his involvement and Don didn't say anything right now. He was busy driving and talking on his cell, taking the lead and briefing other agents who were responding to the call.
Arriving at the scene, he parked the SUV in one of the side alleys, right behind a row of other FBI vehicles and hopped out of the door just a moment later. Charlie stayed silent, acknowledged the tension as Don fished his equipment out of the back of the car, and watched the preparations of the other law enforcement people further down the alley.
Then Don came back to the front, Kevlar vest in place, and leaned his head through the open driver's side window.
"Listen, you stay in the car, alright? Just keep your head low. Maybe we'll need your expertise later, ok?"
Charlie watched his older brother jog away and hoped that they didn't. He had a bad feeling in his stomach, without really being able to tell why.
He had some papers to grade in his bag and busied himself with that task, but his mind wasn't really on it. He stole glances out the windshield now and then, trying to gage how things were going by the level of activity he was seeing. The tension in the air felt suffocating and Charlie's pulse sped up.
After a while he couldn't stay seated anymore and got out of the car. He started a slow pace, three cars up and three cars down, staying between the vehicles and the wall than ran along the alley. He counted cracks and flowers and the number of bricks missing pieces while he played around with different negotiating techniques in his head, just in case.
It always helped him to stay calm and centered when he did two or three or maybe even four things simultaneously. Many people didn't understand it, but that was just the way his brain worked. The more it had to do, the more complicated it became, the better he seemed to function on every other level.
Multiple shots rang out in the distance and his heart skipped a couple of beats as he swiveled around. No flurries of people as far as he could see, just concentrated attention around him. He resumed his pacing, adding more components to his mind game. He recited an academical text on Cryptography he'd read a while ago, counting the letters as he went through it, calculating the ratio of each of them and the ratio between consonants and vowels.
Indistinct voices, almost unintelligible through radio transmission, rose in intensity. Charlie started to encrypt the letters dancing in his mind, his palms becoming sweaty.
And suddenly, the apprehensive tension was replaced with explosive action, everyone moving at once in the same direction, and the fleeing silence took his mind games with it.
Charlie moved slowly, in contrast to everybody else, trying to stay out of the way as people rushed past him. He rounded the corner and reached the yard that opened up between the two one-story warehouses. There were countless bodies, running, crouching, lying motionless. And back at the far end, there was a group of familiar people, running, crouching. And one of them lying motionless.
And the air around Charlie suddenly even became too thick to breathe.
Even later, he couldn't remember how he made it there, his mind reeling and fading in and out of focus, trying to provide explanations of how he'd been seeing wrong, of how his eyes had played tricks on him because of the heat and the tension and this wasn't what it looked like. But then, he was there and everything he saw in this close proximity was exactly what he'd seen from so much farther away.
David and Colby were kneeling beside his brother, hands pressed against Don's body where he couldn't see. Don's Kevlar vest was opened on one side, the Velcro snaps hanging loosely, and crimson red was spreading hungrily over his shirt.
Charlie's knees hit the concrete hard, but the pain never registered. He reached out a tentative and quivering hand, catching Don's fingers between his own, unsure if he was in the way.
His brother's lids started to flutter open, revealing impossibly serene eyes and when Charlie realized what was unraveling right here before him, any sense of warmth left his body.
"C-charlie..." Don's voice was raspy, accentuated by his harsh breathing, but there didn't seem to be any pain visible in his eyes or his face. But the fingers in Charlie's grasp responded slightly to the touch.
"G-go... you... you need t-to..."
"No." The word almost felt foreign as it left Charlie's numb lips, because a big portion of him didn't want to be here, didn't want to witness this, but how could he not?
And then, Don's body began to shudder and strong hands gripped Charlie's shoulders from behind and he was shoved unceremoniously out of the way as the paramedics moved into position. He couldn't tear his eyes away, caught in the horror that was one of his nightmares becoming reality. Don's limp body was lifted onto a stretcher and then, everyone moved away from him, heavy footsteps thundering towards the waiting ambulance and all he had left to look at was concrete, fading dandelions and a pool of blood drying in the sun.
"Here." Megan handed him the third cup of coffee since their vigil had begun roughly 6 hours ago. Charlie nodded in thanks and fingered it for a moment before he placed it onto the small table beside him, where the other two cups had grown cold and stale before.
His stomach couldn't handle anything right now, but he just couldn't find the words or the strength to say it.
Alan was standing by the window at the other side of the room, his shoulders tense as he stared out into the parking lot.
They were all here, David, Colby, Megan. Even Larry had dropped by earlier, but the desperation drove him away again after a couple of minutes and he excused himself to the cafeteria. Conversation had stopped a while ago, the duration of the wait weighing down on all of them.
Charlie knew that the longer it took, the lesser the chances were. He had no point of reference to judge if 6 hours was too long already. It was for him, anyway.
"Dad?" He almost felt guilty because everyone seemed to flinch as his whisper broke the stony silence. Everyone but his father.
"Yes, Charlie?" he just said, his posture unchanging.
He stood up, stiff limbs protesting the motion, and moved over to the window to stand beside his father, feeling the strong presence beside him and hoping that, whatever the outcome would be, that if he lost his brother and his father his eldest son today, they'd be able to overcome that.
He'd caught snippets of Colby and David talking earlier, a lot of technical terms he didn't understand, but also facts he did get. Armor piercing bullets, often also called cop killers. Kevlar couldn't protect anyone facing that. They'd lost 4 agents and 2 more were injured besides Don, but his actions of drawing fire on him, if only for a small, fateful moment, had saved the lives of the two hostages. Civilians, drivers from the express company that occupied the neighboring building, who, for whatever reasons, hadn't been removed from the premises and had walked into the middle of the operation at the wrong time.
Don would be considered a hero, probably even receive a commendation for his bravado.
He would hate that. Don never considered anything he did heroic. He just did what the job required. If that meant jumping in front of a gun and potentially risking his life, it didn't matter, it just made no difference.
"He didn't want me there," Charlie said, facing the curtains and the window pane and the parking lot outside.
"Huh?" His father's confused question nearly didn't reach him as the rushing in his ears suddenly intensified with the memories rising to the surface.
"Back there... after... he told me to go. He didn't want me there to..."
"Of course he didn't, Charlie." A warm hand cupped the back of his head and pulled him against a strong shoulder and he leaned into the half-embrace. For a moment, he wanted to cry, but even though his body began to tremble, the tears just wouldn't come.
A scrub-clad doctor, wearily turning his cap in his hands, delivered a guarded prognosis an hour later. Charlie faded out on all the details, his mind unable to take in anymore other than that Don would probably live. And while everyone else seemed to deflate and shared relieved smiles, he just got up and moved towards the exit, slowly at first, gathering speed with every step.
He needed to get out of here, he needed room to breathe. He ignored the voices calling after him as he started to run, ignored the incessant ringing of his cell phone while he was still running some time later and only stopped when his body refused to go on anymore. And he sat down on a curb, finally crying, until he couldn't do that anymore either.
Only then, he looked around and realized he had no idea in which part of the town he was. And he finally answered his cell, telling his almost hysterical father that he was alright, that he was coming home now. And used the last of his cash for a cab.
The days progressed and their lives slowed down considerably. Don was recovering from his severe injuries, improving little by little every day, but Charlie just couldn't bring himself to visit him and see that for himself.
He'd been there, the day after it happened, staying a couple of feet away from the bed while he watched the respirator press oxygen into Don's lungs, blood and medication dripping through IV tubing, countless monitors and other appliances recording bodily functions. He'd stayed 15 minutes, rooted in his spot and unable to move any nearer than that. When he finally could turn around and leave, silent tears were coursing down his face.
His father went to the hospital each day, staying as long as he was allowed. He understood Charlie, even if he was actually unable to explain why he couldn't go to visit Don again just yet.
His father seemed to understand a lot. Charlie had expected him to be edgy at least, worrying himself sick and trying not to show it, but Alan proved to be a steady, constant force, functioning like he did before, just with a little more intensity.
And Charlie worked harder through the days than he had for a long time. He didn't go down to the FBI office at all, spoke to Megan only a couple of times on the phone. And he didn't lock himself up in the garage either, didn't revisit PvsNP, although the mere thought was a bit tempting. He also didn't put another stroke to his Cognitive Emergence theory.
Instead, he took over two more classes at CalSci, substituting for a fellow professor who'd fallen sick. He helped Larry with some of his work. He kept himself busy, almost every day, for at least 16 hours. Because this way, when he finally went home, his mind was so wrung out that he couldn't think anymore and just fall into bed.
It didn't work throughout the whole day though. Whenever Charlie took a break, his thoughts strolled back to one problem he hadn't been able to solve yet, one mystery that puzzled him even worse now than before.
"Don asked about you again," Alan said over dinner, the words probably meant as a byline, but the intend behind them was all too obvious. Don had been in the hospital for over a week already and Charlie still hadn't been visiting him.
Charlie nodded, toying with the food on his plate, his appetite gone. He'd come to a possible solution to his problem, but he still wasn't sure if he should share his findings yet.
There was a way to find out, though.
"This wasn't the first time Don got shot, was it?"
Alan's knife clattered onto the rim of his plate, his eyes wide in utter surprise.
"Now, what brought that on?"
Charlie continued to rearrange his vegetables. "I was thinking... and remembered something. A couple of years ago, when Don was supposed to come to visit and you suddenly had to go on a business trip to Chicago and he came a few weeks later instead."
The blink in his father's eyes told him he was on the right track. "You weren't on a business trip, right?"
The silence stretched almost uncomfortably before Alan answered. "No."
Charlie nodded, more puzzle pieces in his mind falling into place and revealing the picture. It fit. He didn't really like it, but it fit.
"How did you know?" his father probed, shoving his own meal away from him, propping his elbows on the table.
"Mom... was different that week. More subdued, a little less patient. And when Don then came to visit, he looked so tired. He didn't leave the house much that whole week he was here, wouldn't even play basketball with me. He said he'd pulled a muscle in his shoulder."
His father was silent, staring past Charlie, his eyes mirroring the memories.
"He got injured during an arrest while he worked for Fugitive Recovery. It wasn't so bad as... this time. But yeah, I flew out to Chicago to stay with him."
"You and Mom talked every night on the phone. I sometimes could hear her downstairs when she thought I was asleep already."
"Charlie, what really brought this on?"
"The fact that my brother almost got killed and I freaked out about it and you didn't. You went through something similar before. You had the experience, I didn't."
"Charlie..." He knew that tone, had heard it so often in his life whenever he went off a tangent or snapped shut because he couldn't handle with the situation at hand.
"No, Dad, it's alright, really. I understand." Charlie could actually smile. "I wasn't really that... focused on anything besides my work back then. I wasn't good at handling my emotions, actually I still aren't. I can understand why you protected me then. It's just... no one ever told me, you know? Not even Don."
Alan slowly pushed his chair back and got up, walking a few steps into the living room before stopping.
"As a father, you never stop worrying. I worried when both of you drove off the driveway with your bikes alone for the first time and I worry today when you two are working on a case. And Charlie, I worry a lot more about you than I do about Don. Because he's doing this job for a while now and I had to arrange myself around that."
Charlie's throat suddenly felt constricted. "He's good at what he does."
"He's very good at what he does, Charlie. But his job is dangerous. I wished more than once that he'd chosen a different career, but I respect the passion he has for it, the sense of justice. And I respect that you chose to follow his steps to some extend, even if I'd prefer you sticked to your blackboards."
"I do, Dad," Charlie pointed out silently. "At least most of the time."
"You know what I mean." Alan sank onto the arm of one of the chairs behind him. "When Don came home and told us he'd joined the FBI, I was angry. Not because of his choice, but because he didn't tell us before he made the decision. Your mother, she only saw his decision and the wish to do something worthwhile behind it. And I realized that I had to learn that as well to accept it. I had to learn to let go. Both of you."
He paused for a moment before he could continue. "I'm worrying constantly, but I know that all I can do to help is be there when you need me."
And Charlie could feel the shift happening, inside himself and right here between his father and him. He could feel the tension wafting away and something in him burst, taking his own worries with it as the splinters seem to be catapulted into every direction. It almost hurt for a moment, but there was only calmness left when it ended.
He smiled, a real, emotional smile and got up to clear the table.
Now he only had one puzzle piece left to fit in.
A small stuffed bear reigned over the room from above a small stack of books on the nightstand, its right arm secured in a red-checkered sling, a sign reading 'Get well soon!' tucked into its left paw. It bore a certain resemblance to the man occupying the bed, aside from the fact that Don's sling was a hospital-issue blue.
"Kinda cute, huh? Megan's idea."
Don's voice was soft and he smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes yet. He still looked impossibly pale and dark rings circled his eyes. He'd made good progress already, but it was all too obvious that he still had a long way ahead of him.
Charlie busied himself with arranging the chair by the bedside and flopped down into the creaky vinyl cushions. He'd needed longer than he actually thought he would to open the door that lead to this room, but now as he was inside, he was glad he'd done it. It was good to see Don alive, doing better, as good as it probably could be expected given the severity of his injuries.
"How do you feel?" he asked.
Don snorted, almost at least, because he didn't really seem to have that much strength behind his words yet. "Like I almost died."
Right. Charlie felt a little stupid.
The fingers of Don's left hand closed around the bed rails and he sucked his lower lip between his teeth and pulled himself onto his side to face Charlie, the discomfort the movement caused displaying all over his face. It hurt Charlie to watch and he waited until he heard Don's breathing level out again.
"Megan told me the other two agents will recover as well."
"Yeah." Don tucked his free hand beside his cheek onto the pillow, closing his eyes, his fingers straying to rub between his brows. Charlie knew that right now, his brother was thinking about the 4 agents that had lost their lives that day. And maybe even blamed himself for it.
He watched him, thinking back to the talk he'd had with their father the night before. Don's gown had shifted slightly when he'd turned, revealing a bit more skin above the bandage that covered the right side of his chest and Charlie could see part of a faded scar there, right under the collar bone.
"Why did you want me to go?" he asked in a whisper.
"Huh?" Don threw him a confused look through his fingers.
"At the scene, why didn't you want me to stay?"
They held each other's eyes for a very long moment and Charlie could see the dark clouds shifting into his brother's face and suddenly wished he hadn't asked at all.
Don's eyes closed again and a soft sigh escaped his lips.
"Death is messy, Charlie," he whispered almost inaudibly. "There's nothing poetic about it."
"You would've stayed."
Don opened his eyes a little, his fingers toying with the edge of the pillowcase. "Charlie, you've seen your share by now, I know. But I don't want you to ever have to go through that. You don't want to watch a loved one die, trust me."
It took a while for the full meaning behind the words to sink in, but then Charlie understood and it felt good and hurt at the same time. He reached through the rails and pushed his fingers into Don's palm.
"I would have wanted to stay, Don. I couldn't stay with Mom back then, but I would've wanted to stay with you."
He felt the soft pressure around his hand and Don blinked a couple of times, a suspicious wetness glistening in his eyes.
The arrival of a middle-aged nurse in the doorway interrupted them and Charlie pulled his fingers away as if he'd been burned, feeling extremely silly about it in the next instant.
"How is my favorite visiting FBI agent doing today?" she asked and the smile on Don's face widened a little, but he looked very worn at the same time.
"He'd be very grateful if he could get his painkillers."
She nodded understandingly, checked his chart and promised to be back in a minute. Charlie took this as his cue to leave and pushed the chair back into the corner of the room. Don had his eyes closed when he stepped back up to the bed and he did something he hadn't done in a very long while, leaned down and plastered a sloppy kiss onto Don's forehead.
And reveled in the soft blush that suddenly seemed to creep into too shallow skin.
"What was that for?" Don croaked, his eyes flying open, his expression a mixture between amusement and incredulity while his fingertips reached for his head.
Charlie grinned. "Just because. See you tomorrow, okay?"
And he left and knew that this particular picture was finally revealed in its entirety. This puzzle was finally solved.