The day is a one of those perfect California days. Feeling particularly cheerful, Charlie impulsively decides to serve lunch al fresco when Larry arrives. After lunch, Larry suggests communing with the Koi for a bit as Charlie continues to regale him with his latest mathematical triumph for a new bank robbery case. Just this morning, he delivered the results of his newest predictive analysis to Don with a flourish and a bow.
Don laughed at the display, clapping him on the back before guiding him into the conference room to explain the conclusions to the team. Afterwards, Charlie felt a bubble of pleasure swell in his chest as Don winked at him before striding out with the other agents on their way to stakeout the two most likely locations.
“Charles, I have no doubt in your ability to predict the movements of fish and men. But I would offer one cautionary note, just colleague to colleague.” Larry taps his fingers to his lips, his mouth pursed as he gazes skyward.
Charlie barely suppresses a smirk, suddenly reminded one of those quirky garden gnomes at the sight of Larry fastidiously perched on a rock at the side of the pond. “Hmm, what’s that?”
“Don’t mistake the ability to predict with the ability to control,” Larry replies, holding Charlie's gaze for a long moment.
“Yeah, I think I know the difference.” Charlie glances away to roll his eyes, but Larry catches him.
Larry snorts and holds his hands up in a gesture of defeat. “Oh, to be young and brilliant and full of yourself,” he chides.
Charlie hears both his amusement and his affection. It softens his smile. Not even Larry could dampen his enthusiasm at his plan's success. There was no bad here: only two brothers growing closer than ever fighting crime. What could be bad about that?
The first thing Charlie notices is the smell. Bitter. Acrid. Burning fuel and cooking metal. His stomach roils. He can taste the air, a caustic lump burning the back of his throat, stinging his nose with noxious fumes. Charlie turns the corner of a fire truck, sees the smoke still pouring out of the burning car, and feels his steps slow as he fights his way through the rolling haze like he’s underwater. Sound fades away as he submerges himself in the chaos. The sirens grow distant, the whoosh of the helicopter above blends into the blood rushing past his ears. Shadows pass in front of him, making him adjust his course. The tide is pulling him towards something, always pulling him but he can’t find it. Doesn’t see it anywhere he looks. His chest tightens. He feels lightheaded. There’s not enough oxygen getting to his brain. He tries to draw in a deep breath, but the air’s too thick. He has to swallow it down. Charlie thinks he hears his name, tries to turn his head, but finds he can’t tear his eyes away from where they’re snagged. A man lying supine at the top of the steps. No. A body.
His feet feel leaden as he climbs the steps. His foot skids slightly, making him wobble off balance. Looking down, Charlie can’t make sense of it. Bits of glass caught under his shoe, but he doesn’t hear it crack. Everything’s moving too slow. His eyes trace the path of shells and broken glass trailing away from him like breadcrumbs. He freezes. A thick pool of blood darkens his path. Sick crawls up the back of his throat. He swallows again, pushing it back, stumbling as he draws near the body.
Something buzzes near his ear, just behind him. He winces, wants to swat it away, but he can’t feel his hands. Everything feels too cold, too slow.
Charlie starts to turn towards his name and stops.
“Charlie?” Something brushes past his arm. He turns. Terry. Terry will know.
“Where’s Don?” His voice doesn’t even belong to him. He knows he's spoken but it’s too far away to be him. Nothing makes sense today.
“He's over there.”
Terry knows. Charlie follows the direction of her nod, but he doesn’t see.
“Come on, Charlie. This way, ok? Follow me.”
Right. Yes. Terry knows. She always gets the answers right. Charlie stumbles again as he follows her back down the steps.
Charlie concentrates on counting his steps and keeping Terry’s shoes in view. They round the corner of an ambulance when she slows to a stop. Charlie stops too and looks up.
“Charlie, look at me. Don’s fine. The medics have already checked him out, but I wanted to warn you. He was injured. A bullet grazed his arm.”
“Don’s been shot?” Don’s been shot. Don was shot.
“Don’t freak out. Take a deep breath for me, okay, Charlie? Don’s fine. I’ll show you.” Terry leads him to the back of the ambulance. Sound and sight suddenly slam against him as he finally breaks the surface of this fog.
Don whole and breathing. And talking. To him. Wait, what? What is he saying?
“It's okay, really. It's fine.” Don nods at him reassuringly.
It’s as if a toggle in his brain has flipped and suddenly everything inside of Charlie is moving too fast. He’s aware of his heart racing out of his chest as words rush down his brain and pour out of his mouth in an uninterrupted stream. “They weren't violent. There were two of them. Why 16 robberies exactly the same, and then this?” He exhales noisily, frustration tightening his chest. Nothing makes sense today.
“I mean, first of all, nobody ever tried to stop them, right? And it wasn't just two guys. You know, they had four backing them up.” Don’s jaw flinches. Charlie’s eyes skitter over to wear the paramedic is bandaging his arm. The blood is stark and too red against the white. It doesn’t seem real.
“Yeah. We had no way of knowing till we confronted them,” Terry adds.
“That's it. You're good to go.” The medic pats Don’s shoulder once and turns away. Don stands with a grimace and a noisy breath. He’s in pain. Charlie can tell. He’s in pain because… he got shot. He got shot. Don was shot today. Nothing makes sense.
Charlie is still staring at the spot Don had been. He doesn’t even notice his brother moved behind him until Don touches his wrist.
“Nothing to Dad, right?”
Charlie furrows his brows. What does he mean? He was shot today.
“Charlie. Don't say anything to Dad. I'll take care of it, okay?”
Charlie nods vaguely, recognizing Don’s ‘I-mean-business’ tone. But that doesn’t make any sense. He got shot. They should tell Dad. Dad could make sense of it. Explain it to Charlie.
“You heard me, right?” Don leans in closer.
Charlie feels his warm breath across his ear. Don’s ok. He’s warm and breathing and alive. He got shot but he’s okay. Charlie nods again, and the warmth is gone. He shivers in its absence as Don’s footsteps echo away from him. He hears Don barking orders over the noise surrounding them. When did it get so loud?
He feels light pressure on his arm and looks down. There’s a hand, small and familiar, resting on his forearm. He follows it up to Terry’s face, her eyes pinched and concerned. “I’m sorry, what?” He clears his throat. “What did you say?”
“You sure you’re all right, Charlie?”
“The equation. It was, it was wrong. Wasn’t it? I was wro-” His stomach rebels before he can finish. Staggering quickly past the ambulance, he feels the turkey sandwich he ate with Larry lurching up and out of him, splattering against the pavement and onto his shoes. Was that today? Just hours ago, Larry had warned him. Had forecasted trouble. Advised caution and care. He knew. How did he know that Charlie was wrong?
A towel appears in front of him. He takes it and wipes his mouth, stepping away from the puddle and turning back around. Terry holds out a bottle of water and hands the towel back to the medic. “Slow small sips, ok?”
“You want me to check him out too? He looks a little shocky to me,” the paramedic asks Terry.
“No, he’s all right. We’ll keep an eye on him. He wasn’t here earlier. This is his first scene.” Terry waves off the medic and then walks over to a nearby agent and speaks to him for a few minutes in low tones Charlie can’t quite hear. “Charlie, I’m going to send you back to the offices with Agent Miller. Take it easy, ok? Maybe you could take a look at your calculations, figure out how they need to be modified?”
Charlie nods vaguely again, his stomach churning. His equation. It won’t work now. They don’t know. They don’t understand yet that it was false. It misled them here. None of this should have ever happened. Don got shot. Nothing makes any sense anymore, but Charlie dutifully follows Agent Miller to his car anyway.
Dazed, Charlie keeps replaying the scene over and over in his head. The smell of burnt rubber still stings in his nostrils even though he’s tucked away safe and sound in the solarium now. Flashes of vivid images and sounds keep surfacing in his mind no matter how hard he tries to focus. The crunch of glass, flicker of red lights, the slow loud creak of a body bag zipper. Light hair, open eyes. Dead. Charlie shudders as he mentally pushes it all away. He stares at the equations in his graph notebook - his brilliant, dangerous equations - but he can’t see the numbers.
“Charlie? Charlie, you haven't heard a word I've said, have you? Why don't you tell me what's wrong, huh? Did you and Don have a fight again?” Alan touches him lightly on the shoulder, leaning too close to inspect his face. “Are you feeling ok, son?”
“Yeah, um.” Charlie clears his throat, leaning back in his chair. “I'm ok, Dad. No, everything’s fine. I’m just, um.....thinking.”
“I can see that.” Alan hesitates. “If you to want talk, you know you can come to me, right? I mean, I know that was usually your mother’s department, but...”
Charlie winces slightly. He can’t help it.
Alan grunts gruffly and stands. “Well, I am sure you’ll figure it out. You usually do.” He pats him twice on the shoulder and leaves.
Charlie shakes himself from his reverie and stands in one brisk movement. Not going to think about Mom right now. Not going to think about any of this. Need to move. Has to be something I can do… Charlie scans the room desperately and rifles through papers and books scattered around the room.
It’s too bright in here. Too warm with afternoon sun. Sometimes, Charlie misses working in the garage, cool and dim, no distractions. Just chalk and his old boards. Just remembering his old garage space brought back the ghosts of abandoned equations, the itch of never reaching an end. The comforting familiarity of P vs NP edged into the corners of his mind.
Charlie strides out of the house and into the garage with deliberate measured steps. Looking around at the clutter, he mentally maps out the most efficient and economic use of space in his mind's eye and starts rearranging all the storage. Charlie refuses to pause even for a moment, moving purposefully until half of the garage is clear of everything but his chalkboards.
After he hangs the first few, his eyes catch on the analysis he was last working on. That day. The last day. He traces the shaky letters and numbers with his fingertips, aware only in retrospect how hard his hands shook as Don coaxed him away from the boards. Charlie remembers. How hard he resisted, how he kept writing despite the devastation laced in Don's voice. How Don's skin had smelled sour and sharp when he buried his face in the crease of Don's neck, hiding for a little while longer, before the words could be said out loud. That she was gone. Finally and forever gone.
Charlie freezes in place. The musty air is too heavy, it presses down on him. His chest hitches with effort as he breathes in and out. Grabbing a dust rag from the floor, he slaps it against the board and erases it into oblivion. Turning on his heel, he runs over to his first board and tracks the calculations there, his mind already spinning out potential lines of thought for where he had left off. Scribbling down notes so he won’t forget, he alternates writing and hanging more boards along the exposed wall beams. Swept away by the momentum of his thoughts, he dives deep into his numbers, pushing away awareness of time or need or obligation. This is where he needs to be. Nothing else needs exist.
Charlie rubs fingers across his lips, checking over the last line of calculation. They feel dry and cracked under his fingertips, and Charlie absently notes how thirsty he suddenly feels. He needs to step away, maybe go fix a snack as well as fetch some water, but he hasn’t made enough progress. He’s made very little of it, in fact, and he’s had to stop once already to give Amita instructions for covering the rest of his classes this week. He needs to avoid any further interruptions.
When he hears Larry enter the garage, he pledges not to let his friend distract him. He’s not deep enough yet, hasn’t found the right slipstream of thought. Formulas and equations are crowding in his mind all at once, vying for attention. He needs to constrain them, to find the right one. Only then would he slide into that sweet spot, that in-between place, where only the numbers matter, where he both relinquishes and reclaims control.
Charlie almost successfully tunes Larry’s nattering out when he hears a second person enter the garage.
“What are we talking about? Computer games?” Don's voice cuts through Charlie's thoughts like a razor.
“Yes, but if you keep talking to me, I’m gonna lose my train of thought, so please, don’t talk anymore. Cause I-I- I need to follow through on this- this line of adjacent vertices.” Charlie listens as his own voice trembles with distress. He hates that about himself, that he can’t hide his emotions better than that.
Nothing but silence is returned and he grimaces, imagining Don’s disappointed look at the back of his head. He’s not ready for Don. He needs to dive down, deep and fast, because Don is the one person who can pull him out. And he needs this. He needs it.
Don finally speaks. “Look, please don’t do this.” The ‘to me again’ hangs unspoken in the air.
Charlie’s guts churns with shame. He whirls around to face Don. “Don’t do what, Don? Go ahead, go ahead, try and tell me what it is I’m doing. You don’t even know what it is I’m doing.” Charlie lashes the words out like projectiles. The chalk snaps in his hands. He feels cornered. Don needs to leave.
“No, actually, I do. The thing is I don’t think you do.” Don’s voice becomes increasing louder. Charlie flinches slightly and then quickly glances at Larry, hoping he didn’t notice. Larry could always read Charlie like a book. He needs them both to leave now.
Larry rubs his cheek and then waves his hands in the air. “Okay. I’m gonna go contemplate the koi pond,” he announces to the floor and then exits the garage.
Charlie immediately turns away and hangs another board.
“Charlie, look, you helped us find these guys once before, you can do it again. Come on.”
Charlie knows exactly what Don was doing. Appealing to his logic, his ego. But Charlie knows how to play Don equally as well. “Why, so you can get shot again?” he mutters.
“No, buddy. Look, understand I appreciate you care about me, but it’s not going to happen.” Don’s voice has gone soft again, beseeching even.
Charlie pretends not to care. He focuses on hanging another board and picks up where he left off in his calculations. He’s not talking about this. He’s not thinking about this. He only has room for the safety of numbers in his head. Don was shot today. “Statistically, you’re dead now. You understand what that means? A man aimed a gun at your head and fired. The fact that you survived is an anomaly, and it’s unlikely to be the outcome of a second such encounter.” He hurries to get it all out, like a poison. His own voice betrays him again, breaking at the end. Charlie squeezes his eyes shut as Don moves into his peripheral sight.
“Listen to me. We don’t have many leads, okay? If you can help us predict when and if these guys are going to hit another bank, this is the only shot we got,” Don replies.
Charlie taps the board harshly at Don’s choice of words, distantly hearing gunfire in the recesses of his mind. His brain is shouting equations at him now, demanding his attention and drowning out the need in Don's voice. Charlie pants for breath, shoving away the welling feeling of panic. “Please understand, sometimes… I can’t choose what I work on. I can’t follow through on a line of thinking just because I want to or- or because it’s needed. I have to work on what’s in my head. And right now this is what’s in my head.” Numbers, just numbers. That’s all that’s in my head. Why isn’t he leaving? No more talking. No. Just ignore him. Pretend he’s not there. Focus.
Slowly but surely, the numbers unfurl. Charlie coaxes them out until he’s fully ensconced again and ready to let go, slipping down deeper and deeper into the steady quiet.
Charlie startles awake, feeling over-heated and cramped. His eyes sink close again, and he’s assaulted with images from his dreams. Sitting quickly upright, he sweeps away the visions of blood, bodies, and chaos and shakes loose from his nightmare.
Still tired, Charlie slinks back down into his papasan chair and lets sleep crowd in again. He begins to dream again before he’s even fully asleep, aware it’s a dream yet not able to rouse himself. Images of a bleeding, unblinking Don being zipped into a body bag bubble to the surface again. The aware part of his mind, the part that knows it’s still a dream, demands the image change. Don stands, happy, smiling, swinging a bat as he walks to home plate. His baseball uniform from years ago, stretched tight across shoulders. His muscles shift under the prime number on the back of his shirt as he smacks the ball with a satisfying crack. His legs pump gracefully as he rounds the bases and scores. A sharp twist of desire swamps his gut as Don tilts his head and beams at Charlie through the chainlink fence.
Charlie bolts upright again, almost dislodging himself from the cushioned chair. Rubbing sleep from his eyes, he stretches slowly until his feet are resting on the floor. He had curled up on the chair sometime in the early hours of the morning, seeking a quick nap after his calculations ground to a halt.
He remembers thinking about Don, sitting on the fender of the ambulance, his arm marred with a bloody bandage, right before he drifted off. That must have been why he had those nightmares. That last dream though. Charlie isn’t so sure about that. It felt good to see Don happy and safe, playing ball. He always loved watching him play. Shifting uncomfortably in the chair, he feels a pang of shame as his morning erection throbs against his thigh. What is wrong with me? Can’t even dream normal.
Slouching back deeper into the chair, he covers his face with his hands. It’s just a biological impulse, completely normal. His wires just got crossed a bit at the wrong time of morning. Stressed out about yesterday’s event, needing some release, his subconscious wandered down the wrong avenue. It’s meaningless. And easily forgotten. Just don’t think about it.
Hell. Telling oneself not to think about a pink elephant is a surefire way to conjure up a pink elephant. Better to think of something else. Focus on what you do want to think about. An ex-boyfriend floated to mind – he had played college ball for the Boston College Eagles coincidently enough while Charlie attended MIT. Charlie's hand slowly slid down his chest, thinking of baseball uniforms and lean muscles, keen blue eyes and tongue-moistened lips. Charlie groans as he brushes his palm down the bulge of his sweat pants. He remembered his chest in perfect detail, how it felt to lick the planes of his smooth abs, to trace the crease of his hips down to his cock.
Letting out a sigh of relief, Charlie pushes his pants and boxers down a little to free his erection. He shifts his legs apart and plants his feet firmly on the floor to gain leverage and strokes himself lightly from base to tip. Fuck. It’s been too long since he let himself be with someone like his ex. The taste of sweat-laced skin, The scent that was completely male, the calloused wide grip that was almost too rough. Charlie digs in his heels as his hips jolt forward, tipping the chair slightly so it barely rocks. The images come faster as he speeds up his strokes, just flashes now: dark, coarse hair, arms bracketing him taut with strain, the smooth shift of muscles under Charlie’s hands.
Charlie gasps, a spasm of pleasure catches his breath as he runs his thumb over the head of his cock. So close. God, so close. He remembers the kisses, the long, messy kisses for what felt like hours. The clash of tongue and teeth, panting each other's air, gazing up into intense dark eyes-
Charlie comes with a loud groan, surging forward and rocking the chair on its cylindrical base. Grabbing the sides of the frame, he catches himself just in time to prevent the chair from falling over and wills his head to stop spinning.
It didn’t help at all. If anything he feels even antsier, more at loose ends than ever. Standing swiftly, he flings off his shirt and cleans himself before rearranging his clothing. He stalks over to the laundry machines, feeling claustrophobic between too many stacked boxes, and washes his hands and face briskly in the cold water of the utility sink. He wrenches the water off forcefully and grabs a clean towel out of the dryer. After drying off, he reaches back in for the plain white t-shirt he sees peeking out from the jumble of bathtowels. He pulls the fresh shirt on, slams the dryer closed and leans heavily on his arms gripping the sides of the sink, knuckles white. Coffee. Coffee is definitely needed before any sense can be made of anything. Charlie shoves off the sink and stalks out of the garage in search of caffeine.
After three more frustrating hours at his boards, Charlie has still made very little progress. Throwing his chalk down, he stomps out to the koi pond and glares at the fish. Stupid fish in their stupid pond. How easy a life? Swim in circles until food magically rains down from the sky. Never having to solve maddening algorithms of polynomial time.
Charlie blows out a frustrated breath. They are pretty though. He sits down cross-legged on the edge, letting the hypnotic swirls of the color wash over him. He isn’t there long before Don calls out to him from the back door. Charlie glances up momentarily mesmerized as he watches Don tilt his head and smile in greeting as he walks purposefully toward him. Charlie sees dream Don superimposed on his brother for the briefest of seconds before he blinks the image away.
As Don stops in front of him, Charlie pushes up on his feet, seized with the singular idea of escape. He needs to get back to work. Now. Charlie sidesteps, trying to pass by without having to lift his head and meet Don’s eyes, but Don whirls around just as quickly, dogging Charlie’s few steps. Don’s obviously going to follow wherever Charlie goes. He squats down facing the pond again, and Don stands behind him, waiting. Charlie waits longer.
“Charlie. Charlie, come on.” Don sighs noisily. “Turn around, will you? Look, we really need you on the case, buddy. We have a lot more information than before, enough now that it will help your equation. More data means better results, right? Charlie?”
Charlie stands up and roams the perimeter of the pond restlessly. Don’t look at him. He always knows what to say, how to twist Charlie’s will to his own. But not if he ignores him. No talking. No looking. And he’ll leave, just like last night. He hunches over and huggs his knees, watching but not seeing his fish. He hates ignoring Don. Especially when he really wants to hug him and bury his face in his neck.
“I mean, we- we think they have special military training and now they have struck again and killed another innocent person. Charlie?”
The plea in Don’s voice is killing him. Charlie stands to turn towards Don, only to abort his plan and shuffle further away. No. He won’t give in. He’s keeping Don safe by not helping. His equation got him shot. He is never doing that again.
“Charlie, please don’t do this. Do you understand the stakes we’re dealing with here? More bloodshed, people’s lives? I mean, if I have to do this on my own, it’s going to put me and all of my people at greater risk. Is that what you want?” Don’s yelling now, and Charlie can feel his resolve cracking. He hates it when Don is mad at him. Hates it.
“Their old pattern’s gone. I told you that,” Charlie continues to shuffle around the pond evasively, avoiding Don's touch as he passes him again.
Suddenly, he feels a yank of momentum swinging him around, Don’s hands clutched in the fabric of Charlie’s hoodie as he tries to wriggle from Don’s hold. Don pulls him forward, trying to force Charlie to meet his gaze, but Charlie keeps his eyes down and leans away even as he’s dragged closer.
“Well, then there’s got to be a new pattern, doesn’t there?” Don’s breaths pant across his face, and Charlie struggles more, squirming to free his jacket from Don’s grip. Get away. Get away. Leave. He’s too close. It’s too much. Stop thinking and move. His skin feels too tight. Heat prickles the back of his neck. Charlie ducks his head to escape Don’s glare, but Don chases his every move.
“Isn’t that the way it works? You incorporate whatever’s going on?”
Charlie freezes then, his eyes trained on the crease in Don's neck. His fingers try to pry his hoodie out of Don’s grasp, but Don isn’t letting go. He whispers a painless “Ow.”
It works. Don drops his hands like they’d been burned and murmurs an apology. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry… I need your help, you understand?” Don looks pained. Charlie hates that he’s the reason for it.
“I don’t I- that I can…” Charlie lacks the right words, can’t explain how tied up in knots he is over this. He has done this. It was his brilliant plan from the start, and now it’s gone completely wrong, and Don’s going to hate him. Charlie jerks his clothes straight, flickering his eyes up.
Don's face softens the minute Charlie’s eyes meets his. “Charlie, I know it’s hard for you. I understand that. But it’s hard for- for everybody!”
Charlie’s done. This is over. It’s impossible to make sense of anything with Don looming over him with that miserable expression. He squats down again, throwing pebbles into the pond and watching the ripples.
“You know, I don’t know how I got in a situation where I need your help to do my job, but I sure as hell have! And I wish you would just snap out of your- your precious bubble for once!” Don stalks off quickly, throwing his arms up in fury.
Charlie's shoulders slump as he sits down in the grass. He catches sight of his dad watching through the French doors as Don walks away. He had witnesses for the entire pathetic display. Dropping his head into his hands, Charlie shields his face from view and breaths. What is he supposed to do? He doesn’t even know anymore. If only Mom could be here. She always knew how to explain it to him so it all made sense.
Charlie wanders into the house after a while, eying his dad out the corner of his eye. His dad offered to talk before, but Charlie doesn’t think he meant about this. About Mom. Hovering near the family pictures on the wall, Charlie lingers over the one of Don and himself as young boys - happy, carefree, innocent. The way two brothers should be. He strokes his thumb over the frame.
Looking above it, he sees his mother on her wedding day, beautiful and young. Don has her eyes. He always favored her more where Charlie favors their dad mostly. Turning away, he sees his dad lounging with the newspaper, pretending to read it. Charlie settles onto the ottoman in front of him, his eyes fixed on the wall with the pictures. He has no idea where to begin so he just starts talking.
“Dad. Uh, I’ve been working on a problem. P versus N.P. It can’t be solved.”
“I think you knew that when you started.” Alan casually turns the page of the paper, but Charlie can tell he’s purposefully not reacting to his confession.
“I could work on it forever. Constantly pushing forward, still never reaching an end.” Part of him thinks that sounds like heaven. A different part is disgusted with himself.
“You know, sometimes you want to think that things don’t end.” Alan finally looks over at Charlie, his voice heavy with grief. “But they do.”
Charlie tries to swallow but his throat closes at his father's words. He reluctantly and meets his father's gaze. It’s steady. Calm. Patient.
“When mom was sick, I couldn’t stop working on it.” Charlie's voice breaks. The regret is too heavy, it weights him down.
“Yeah, I know. I didn’t get it. Uh, not then.” Alan hesitates, his eyes unfocused for a moment. “And your brother sure doesn’t understand why you spent the last three months of your mother’s life working on a math problem. But Charlie…” Alan leans forward, his eyebrows raised in emphasis. “Your mother, she understood why. Because she knew how your mind worked.”
Charlie lets his eyes fall closed. When he opens them again, he stares at her picture again. The last two days have been fraught with so much anxiety and regret that he started to believe the world was going to crash down around his ears again. But he still feels her love. It’s almost been a year, yet he feels her pride, her encouragement like an embrace. She was always proud of him, always said he was a good man like his brother. He can't be that man and continue to hide. He can be brave. Like Don. For her.
Charlie returns to the FBI offices the next day. It takes a day and a half to crack the case and form an apprehension plan. Now, he waits in the armament bay, watching the TAC teams’ preparations as he searches for Don. Once Charlie rejoined the case, Don was cautious but supportive. Charlie won the respect of the others back once he determined the bank robberies were masterminded as a diversion for a much bigger future larceny, and Don's team quickly organized a massive operation to catch the Charm School Boys during their final and largest robbery to date. The teams are about to deploy. In less than l0 minutes in fact. Just the thought of Don in the field again has Charlie’s stomach turning barrel rolls.
Yet the thought of Don going out on a complex tactical mission distracted by their unresolved issues, that thought steals Charlie’s breath away.
Squaring his shoulders, Charlie winds his way through the crowd of agents, spotting his brother climbing into a nearby TAC van. He climbs in behind him, his careful breathing growing shaky at the sight of Don already suiting up in Kevlar and weapon holsters. Don nods in his direction, encouraging him further into the van. Charlie scrambles mentally to recall his rehearsed speech.
“Hey.” Don looks torn between concern and wanting to kick him back out. Charlie realizes he has a minute at best so he better make this good.
“Just one thing.” Charlie raises his one finger, falling back on lecture mode. “Heisenberg and his Uncertainty Principle.”
Don nods once and twists around slightly, indicating the back of his vest. “Right. Do me a favor? Tie this.”
Charlie squeezes into the tight corridor and leans into Don’s space to tighten the strips of velcro properly. He flashes suddenly back to the fight they had at the pond yesterday. It’s as though they are mirroring back that same interaction, their positions reversed: Charlie leaning down and forward, Don twisting back and away. However, instead of repelling one another, they’re drawn toward each other, settling for moment in one another's air.
“What about it?” Don asks softly.
“Remember I told you how the act of observation will ultimately affect that which is being observed?” Charlie holds Don's gaze, willing him to understand.
“Yes, you did.” Don nods again, his whole face open, receptive even.
Charlie takes an abortive step toward him. “These guys know you’ve studied them. They know you’re trying to out-think them.”
Don grips Charlie by his shoulders. “Charlie, it’s all right.” He squeezes and then slides past to step off the van. Holding up two crossed fingers, he throws Charlie a confident look. “Me and Heisenberg, we’re all over this.”
Charlie watches him leave, a small smile curling the edges of his lips. Don understood. And he’s promising to come home.
After hanging up the phone, Charlie sags against the kitchen counter in relief. The arrest had gone well, and there were no injuries all around. Charlie straightens up as he hears the click of the backdoor and his dad’s shuffling footsteps.
“Hey, Pop, I thought I would make dinner tonight. What do you think of soup and sandwiches? Figured we could polish off the rest of the corned beef that way,” Charlie calls out as he sticks his head in the refrigerator and retrieves the ingredients.
“Wow. What’s the occasion? Soup and sandwiches, that’s quite the spread,” Alan teases as he hangs his keys next to the door.
“Well, I could cook if you insist, but you said the kitchen was unlikely to survive another such encounter.” Charlie replies, a practiced look of wide-eyed innocence in place.
Alan laughs outright and wags his finger. “Right you are, my boy. Soup and sandwiches it is.” Alan reaches over Charlie's head and pulls down the large sauce pan as Charlie pushes up on tiptoes. “Did you hear from your brother yet?”
Rolling his eyes at his father's casual display of height, he takes the proffered stockpot and sets in on the stove. The question about Don sounds light and easy, but Charlie sees the tight lines of his shoulders. “Yep. Well, I mean, Terry called. It went well. No worries, Dad.”
“Hmph,” Alan huffs. “No worries, huh. Just wait until you have kids and tell me to not worry.” Alan continues to mutter as he heads upstairs, leaving Charlie to his dinner preparations.
The soup and sandwiches don’t take long to finish, and Charlie finds himself searching for another task. He’d already cleaned up and put away his work on the millennium problem.
The whole week was a wash anyway and everything got mixed up in his mind. He started all of this with one goal in mind: to improve his relationship with Don. And now he has no idea where they stand with any of it, not professionally or personally.
“Smells good, son. You going to serve too?” his father calls as he seats himself at the dining room table.
“Here you go, Pop. I got it, now you got it.” Charlie sets the bowl of soup and plate of sandwiches in front of Alan. His father's timing is impeccable. He’s grateful for the distraction.
Bringing out his food and drinks for them both to the table, Charlie is about to join his father when he hears the front door unlock and open. A pang of nervousness tightens his stomach.
“Hello,” Don calls.
Alan stands up and walks over to embrace him. “Donny,” he sighs, the relief evident. “Wow, it’s good to see you.”
“Aw, you guys ate. I’m starving.”
“No, there’s plenty. Come on,” Alan gestures to the table and then sits to resume his meal.
“Yeah? Great.” Don looks over at Charlie. “What, Terry didn’t call, tell you guys what happened?”
Charlie had stepped into the kitchen, but he turns back to answer Don. “Yeah, she said you arrested every suspect. Only one shot fired, huh?”
“One?” Alan asks in surprise. “How’d you pull that off?”
“We knew roughly where they’d try to hit the next shipment and I knew they’d have an escape plan,” Don replies, hovering near the table.
Charlie returns to the kitchen to fix Don's bowl, looking back every few seconds. Anticipation flutters in his stomach for a moment, but he has no inkling as to what he’s expecting.
“That’s very clever,” Alan praises.
“I guess it was inspired by Mr. Heisenberg just like Charlie here suggested.”
Charlie sets another bowl of soup at the head of the table as Don brushes past, his arm dragging lightly across the small of Charlie's back.
Charlie's eyes dart sideways to track Don's movements into the kitchen. He glances back at Charlie as he grabs a beer out of the refrigerator.
Alan continues to eat and calls out, “Heisenberg? What do you mean, the physicist?”
“Yeah,” Don calls back before turning on the faucet to wash his hands.
“Oh.” Alan mutters.
Charlie glances up from his bowl at his father's long pause, and then fidgets restlessly in his chair when he gets caught in his stare.
“Your brother goes into a dangerous confrontation with heavily armed felons and you prepare him with a lecture on the movement of subatomic particles?”
“Yep.” Charlie drinks a small sip from his glass, hiding his nerves. “It worked, didn’t it?”
“Yes, I guess it did,” Alan concedes with a nod of his head.
Don rejoins the table, taking a long draw from his beer bottle as Alan sits back and studies his two sons. “I’m telling you, if your mother could see you two guys now… She would be so happy.”
Charlie could tell by his smile he was picturing her now. He begins to eat, concentrating on relaxing a little now that the case is over and Don’s home safe. A small, warm sensation creeps up his skin. Glancing covertly over, he startles slightly when he meets Don’s steady gaze, already assessing him. Gesturing with his bottle, Don asks, “How you doing with your P versus P thing?”
“N.P.?” Charlie corrects, huffing out a laugh.
“Sorry.” Don hasn't stopped watching Charlie for even a second. He feels the weight of his gaze tracking down the lines of his jaw and neck like the pressing of fingertips.
Charlie clears his throat. “I’m not pursuing it anymore.”
“No?” A pleased smile blooms on Don's lips.
“I’ve got plenty of problems to work on.” Charlie wipes his sweaty palms on his pants under the table. “Ones that I think I can actually solve.”
“Glad to hear it.” Don nods in approval and clinks his bottle to Charlie's glass. Then he bumps his father's glass as well, casting a satisfied look at his father. Alan toasts Charlie's glass as well and all three of the men drink together in a quiet moment of camaraderie. Charlie can hear the forgiveness he needs in the silence.