Note: This fic follows Things We Can't Untie and precedes Still and Always. They belong in the same sequence, although I like to think each can be read independently.
"But, Charlie, I can't," Rick said distressfully.
"You can't know until you've tried it, can you?" Charlie asked, wondering how many other teachers had said these words before him.
"I can't," Rick said again.
"Look, what's the worst that can happen?" Charlie hurried on before Rick's overactive imagination got to work. "You might fail. So you don't get a PhD, but you don't have one now, so what have you lost? Whereas if you suc—"
This appeal to logic didn't seem to reach Rick. "Hope," he interrupted gloomily.
Charlie bit his lip to stop himself from smiling and tried to remember if he had been this gloomy – not to mention panicky – in grad school. He thought not. "You'll be fine, wait and see. You'll get in there and once you start talking you'll forget how nervous you are."
"Yeah, Charlie, you might be – you could talk math at the end of the world – but I'm not like you."
Charlie sat down on the one clear spot on his office desk, hitching one foot under his other leg, and played his last, best card. "Listen, Rick, before my first thesis defence I was so scared that I seriously considered packing it all in and...I dunno, I don't imagine I'd have been any better at job interviews."
"Me." Charlie nodded. "In the end, I was more scared of chickening out than I was of doing it." He watched as Rick absorbed this. "What're you more scared of?"
Given a defined problem, Rick's gaze turned inward as he started to tackle it. Whatever the kid's problems, he was a scientist. Charlie added, "You'll be fine. Really," in the hope that this would sink into Rick's subconscious somehow.
"Oh, thanks," Rick said vaguely, and wandered off through Charlie's open door. Charlie sighed, and reached behind him for his laptop. His own defined task—reworking the latest combinatorics final into a form where it could be used for assignments next semester without the students going straight to the library for the answers—wasn't complex enough to hold much of his attention, and left entirely too much of his brain free to ramble unproductively. He needed something substantial and stimulating to think about, instead of wasting his time on things that he couldn't change or that, like Rick's thesis defence, were going to have to be waited for.
The laptop came off standby and instantly started a plaint for AC power. Charlie began the tricky task of finding the cable on the desk without getting up off it. The laptop, having connected itself to CalSci's wireless network, made its 'email received' noise. Charlie maximised the program.
What's this I hear about you being arrested for espionage? Should have stuck to math, Eppsie. Charlie rolled his eyes, hit reply and typed, Oh, I plan to. Haven't seen anything you've published for a while, run out of papers of mine to nitpick? Shame, I'd enjoy destroying your objections. He considered adding And it wasn't espionage, it was treason, you'll never make it as a mathematician if you don't do your research, but over the last few weeks he'd become unaccustomedly cautious. There was always the possibility that the FBI was watching his communications, and he wouldn't put money on some humourless agent correctly interpreting an Eppes-Penfield low-level argument. He would bet on no federal agency being able to get into the laptop itself—he'd helped write half the NSA's encryption algorithms, after all—but any chain of communication was only as good as its weakest—or least paranoid—link.
He shoved his hair back with the hand that wasn't holding the laptop. It was damn weird to be thinking like this. Since he'd been a kid in grad school, 'FBI' had meant not Big Brother but big brother in the specific: Don, who'd never meant anything but good to Charlie. To be looking over his shoulder, modifying his normal behaviour for the benefit of hypothetical law enforcement—it was as though he'd been transformed into someone else.
Footsteps in the hallway. That was Rick coming back, wasn't it? Dammit, he'd thought that was dealt with for today anyway. No, wait, high heels, but the stride was wrong for Amita, and anyway, they'd both spent the best part of five minutes this morning finding her left sneaker. Charlie closed down the laptop as Millie Finch put her head around the doorframe.
"Ah, there you are."
"No," Charlie intoned, "I am not going to take Freshman Calc next semester." The first thing Millie had done after she said I hear you're on the wrong side of the law now, Professor Eppes was to present Charlie with an extended to-do list.
"Oh, but you're so good at making math attractive to non-specialists," she coaxed.
"Millie, whenever I discover a method of being in two locations simultaneously, you will be at the top of my list." Charlie folded his arms over the laptop, and went on the offensive.
"By the way, did you know the air's on the fritz all along this hallway again?"
"It's a little hard to miss. Estates say they'll have it fixed by tomorrow, but then they swore last time that it was fixed for good. Surrounded by the brightest technical minds in the country, and we can't get a little central air, I ask you. I've only been informed of it by fourteen people, including yourself and your TA. What's the matter with him?"
"He's having hysterics every time the words 'thesis defence' are mentioned. Is it that noticeable?"
"Fraid so. Still, at least he's trying. The Garcia kid's AWOL again. I gather that his grandmother died this time. Third grandparent this year. I am having suspicions."
"Considering that he was at four grandparents' funerals when I taught him in his senior year, yeah, I would be too."
"I think that Mr Garcia and I will be having words when he returns," Millie said ominously. "To lose seven grandparents in three years seems more than a little careless."
Charlie snorted. "You'd think that someone working to a Master's in mathematics should be able to count to four."
"Academia never ceases to surprise," she said. "For example, a member of staff who shall remain nameless—not in this division, thankfully—manages to believe that you were framed by the government, while maintaining her belief in that old nonsense that you're spying on the university for the NSA."
Charlie almost fell off the desk. "What?" He crumpled a hand in the middle of his t-shirt. "Me?"
"You mean that's the first time you've heard that one? Well, well."
"It's completely illogical. Why on earth would the NSA possibly—?" The NSA had had better things to do with Charlie Eppes' brain.
"Whoever said paranoid conspiracy theories had to make sense? " Millie said cheerfully. "I was dreadfully tempted to introduce her to the 'Free the CalSci Two' campaign, but in the interests of collegiate harmony I resisted."
Charlie rolled his eyes and held his hands out in front of him. "Look, no shackles. It's not that I don't appreciate the intention—mostly—but the, uh, execution—"
"Sedition in the grad student dorms and arrests in the staff room," Millie said with inappropriate glee. "When do I need to start checking my office for bugs? Harbouring Feds in our bosom all these years—"
Any more of this and he was going to start defending the FBI to Millie. And a small part of his mind was inquiring how many Feds Millie could harbour in her bosom, and which ones, and this really was not a line of thought he wanted to pursue.
"Oh, and I hear the protest group has suffered a split, with Dina Jones leading the moderates, and the more hard-liners under Robbie Kaye."
"Spiky dark hair, perpetual smell of weed?" Charlie asked. "If he's the kid who invaded my property, harassed my girlfriend and threatened my brother, I'd really rather he found some other anarchist figurehead, because I don't think I'm what he's looking for. Or vice versa."
"With friends like these, who needs enemies? Really, Charlie you almost sound like some grumpy right-wing grandpa sitting on his porch with a rifle, shouting bits of the Constitution at the postmen. Or maybe it's the family G-man with the rifle? The words 'police brutality' have been bandied about. Don didn't hit him or anything, did he? Not that I can blame him, I regularly feel like hitting the brat, only the thought of his fees stays my hand—"
Charlie rocked upright. "No! Don's not that stupid. Anyway, he only ever hits people bigger than he is."
"That counts as 'not stupid'?"
Charlie gave an angry little shrug. "I wasn't there, but Amita says she was busy giving him the deep-freeze treatment, and doing quite nicely, when Don arrived—"
"Right, I'm sure Amita well knows how to cope with nerdy boys who can't take 'no' for an answer."
Charlie glanced up suspiciously, wondering if that was a little pointed even for Mildred, and made a mental note never to get himself into a position where Millie would have to choose sides between him and Amita. "That wasn't Agent Eppes of the FBI on my front lawn," he said. "He'd have got the same treatment when Don was in fifth grade, except that Don probably would have hit him back then. The way Amita tells it, Don was standing on the spot with his hands in his pockets, grinning, and the Kaye kid was backing off foot by foot until he fell over the sprinkler."
"Ah, good old male primate behaviour," Millie said. "Nothing new under the sun. Except possibly the sprinkler."
Charlie saw the funny side suddenly, and started to laugh. Millie smiled at him. "Haven't heard that in a while," she commented. "I do wish I'd been a fly on the wall of the Eppes house while that was going on."
Charlie shook his head, trying to get his laughter under control before it turned into a fully-fledged fit of the giggles. He could imagine the scene pretty well, right down to Don's particular grin. If he had been there, he would probably have ended up hiding behind his big brother, which would have been damn embarrassing in the current situation.
"You know, what you did took a lot of courage."
Or stubbornness, or something. "People say, 'That question's academic', and they mean 'irrelevant'," Charlie said. "What's it all for, if we roll over and say 'all right, then', if someone tells us we can't publish?"
"Oh, I couldn't agree more," Millie said briskly. "You were entirely justified. Mind you, I might sing a different tune if I wind up having to rearrange all your classes because you're in jail."
"Well, it would be an opportunity to get some research done," Charlie muttered.
"Never expect the worst until it happens," Millie said, rapping Charlie's desk with her knuckles. He stared down at it.
"Millie, you don't actually think you're appeasing the forest spirit that lives in my desk."
"Pfft, habit," Millie said airily, but Charlie wasn't really thinking about ancient superstitions.
"I'm not sorry," he said, but his voice wobbled treacherously. "I'm not—"
Millie looked at him sharply. "How are you and Don dealing?"
Zing. Badly? Charlie sighed. Transparent as glass. "In sports metaphors? I haven't worked out yet whether it's the equivalent of supporting the Red Sox or not."
Millie snorted with laughter. "What on earth would guys do without sport? The multi-purpose conversation topic."
"Before he came back to LA, we didn't talk," Charlie blurted out. "I mean we spoke about six times in three years. Maybe four. He was engaged and I never even knew he was dating—"
"Don was engaged?" Millie exclaimed.
Charlie bit his lip. "Yeah, I know. Man, don't tell him I told you. But I still don't even know what happened with us back then, I dunno how I'd fix it—"
"If it happens again?"
An experiment that he definitely didn't want to make repeatable. "At least this time I'll know the reason." Not that that was any particular help. Charlie hadn't realised how much he liked working with Don until he wasn't able to any more. It might have been a more equal relationship than it used to be, but he still needed it as much. He was pathetic, tagging after his big brother at his age.
"You do know the two of you are starting to get Alan worried?"
"He should be used it by now, Don and I spent half of our lives fighting," Charlie said irritably.
"Look at it like this," Millie said briskly. "Would you rather you were fighting, or that you weren't talking at all?"
A clearly-defined problem, yes. "Fighting," Charlie said promptly. Anything was better than silence.
"Why do I get the impression that you haven't put it to the test yet? Open the Schrödinger's catbox, Charlie, as a scientist." She leaned over the desk and chucked him under the chin. Charlie laughed shortly and rolled his eyes at the chin-patting.
"All right, all right..." He slid his laptop into its bag.
Millie patted him on the arm this time. "I didn't mean right this minute," she said. "I doubt you'd be exactly welcome to walk into the FBI and find him. Pick your battlegrounds."
Charlie sighed a little at his own idiocy—where else would Don be this time of day? Millie did one of her disconcerting quick changes from quasi-maternal to Boss Mode. "Besides, Dr Eppes, don't you have some academic duties here to fulfil? It's not all government-defying and schmoozing with the investors, you know..."
Charlie grinned suddenly. "Oh, wait, I imagine all those rich, respectable investors won't want to have anything to do with me now. Silver lining, and all that."
It was Millie's turn to roll her eyes. "That's what you think, sunshine," she said brightly. Charlie braced himself for the onslaught, but was saved by a timely ping from Millie's designer purse.
"I swear, some day soon this Blackberry is going swimming with the turtles," she grumbled. "I'll talk to you later, Charlie."
She walked out. Charlie sighed, and propped his chin on the edge of the closed laptop. The thought of going to Don and asking Are you angry? Do you forgive me? sent a little squirm of dread through his solar plexus, an amplification of his old tendency to tread warily around his brother. What if Don said Yes, I am. No, I won't?
He remembered what he'd said to Rick earlier—"You can't know until you've tried it," —and laughed a little. Teach yourself, professor.
Suddenly he thought of Don's smile as he teased Charlie about the Celtics, that evening in the back yard. And even though he was alone in his office, miles from Don, Charlie smiled back.