this is what you will
come back to, this is your hand.
- Margret Atwood 'You Begin'
This is the way it was:
Charlie took his first step following Don across the room.
When he was two years old Don told him that fish were bears; that black was yellow and that Charlie was adopted from a pack of runaway circus monkeys that wondered through the neighborhood one Thursday afternoon when no one else was home to take him in. Don told him that his hair was green and his eyes were pink; that mud pies would make Mom happy and one plus one was nineteen.
When Charlie was four he still believed all but the last one, even though he knew better.
Don collected baseballs cards and Charlie collected numbers. Don had friends and Charlie clutched his books close, too young and too shy and too different.
(His tutors smiled at him at him tightly when he corrected them and his mother sighed when he didn't and told her later. Don frowned at Charlie over his Geometry book and bit his lip. He told Charlie not to be so fucking queer when he knew no one was going to hear. Charlie didn't know what he meant.)
Charlie scribbled baseball stats absently, sitting on the floor of the living room half behind the sofa with his books spread out in front of him while Don and Dad watched the game. Don talked about playing and Charlie scribbled Don's stats. He frowned and marked through them with black ink.
(He could never reduce Don to numbers.)
Mom handed Dad a beer and ruffled Don's hair and asked if they wanted lunch. She took away Charlie's books and told him to watch the game. He only mostly did, and Don kept making faces at him. He did the stats in his head, the numbers flashing behind closed eyelids like spots when you looked at the sun.
He watched, from the doorway of the garage, the way Don's fingers curled around a sweating bottle of beer. Watched as a droplet of water sliced down across Don's knuckles. Jeremy, Don's best friend, threw a baseball at Charlie's head and Charlie caught it—just barely—and Don looked like he was torn between being pissed off and scared to death and said Charlie's name like—
Charlie wrinkled his nose and threw the baseball back to Don. He sighed and said, "Mom said to tell you to come in and wash your hands because dinner is almost ready and she knows there is dirt under your fingernails and if it's still there when you sit down to eat she's going to make you listen to the statistics on bacterial infections until your plate is clean or you turn green, whichever comes first."
Don kicked his chair in class when he started to interrupt, and glared at anyone who dared to try and—
Charlie scribbled notes in the margins of Don's math homework when no one was looking. His handwriting was sloppy and Charlie used more baseball metaphors than even he knew existed. Don brought his grade up to an eighty-nine and still mostly met Charlie's eyes when Charlie wasn't looking down.
Valedictorian wasn't even a race, but Charlie refused to give the speech and Don was the only other Eppes who knew that Charlie wasn't disqualified for being under seventeen.
(He got caught at thirteen with a can of beer on the table in front of him, watching carefully the way the sunlight reflects off the aluminium. Don's the one who caught him and took it away and swore to God that if he caught Charlie pulling something like that again he was deader than dead and Mom would never let him leave the house again and really, go ahead, Don would take delight in that, probably. Charlie was a freshman at CalSci and his palms itched with boredom and separation.)
Professor Fleinhadrt moved his hands quickly when he spoke, waved them around to make a point, to get attention when it was wandering. Charlie's fingers tightened on his pen to keep still and he watched carefully—listened hard over the sound of half-hearted note taking—as the professor told him about the universe. He paced when he was thinking, explaining, teaching and Charlie's eyes followed his every step.
Don stopped coming home on weekends, breaks, at all. Charlie missed him when he thought about it, which wasn't very often.
(Only every time he watched the baseball game with Dad and knew that Dad missed Don too.)
This is how it is:
Don doesn't just like his job; he is his job. Other than his age, that's the only thing Charlie knows for sure about him.
(He's introduced to the head of the LA FBI forensic accounting department by one of the three people who are over Don now that weren't before he moved back. It's the first time in his life that he's been introduced to an adult as "Don Eppes' younger brother." He's not sure he minds it, and he's not sure he doesn't.)
Charlie paces in front of blackboards, tossing a baseball from one hand to another. He talks about numbers like he's always wanted to and when the students get it he grins. When they understand it's like he's finally teaching.
He writes numbers in the garage until his fingers ache, and he forgets to notice the hurt.
Don grabs a fistful of Charlie's jacket and asks like it kills him to.
(Charlie wants to press his fingers there, wants to peel away bandages and see, but he knows he can't. Knows he couldn't look if he did. He sees Don framed in red like other agents in black bags; like news footage of strangers; like crime scene photos Don never wanted him to see. He chokes on the images; the numbers; the statistics he doesn't want to know. Charlie knows more about how bodies fall than he ever should have.)
He isn't sheepish when he shows up with the answer; he's scared and white and shaking and he feels like might throw up again. He ties Don's vest a little too tight.
(Larry talks about unpredictability and inelegance. Charlie presses his fingertips together and closes his eyes. He thinks about a little girl safe in her bed and he sits next to Don at dinner and grins like he's never known anything so wonderful. It's not that he doesn't hear Larry, it's that he doesn't want to.)
He knows he doesn't think like other people, he can't meet their eyes when he's talking sometimes, because he knows they see it too.
They sit around the table and Charlie's got his fingers curled around a beer. He smudges the condensation with his thumb, smears it across the tabletop.
Terry looks at him with wide eyes, and David tells a joke. Larry knocks his Coke off the table when he tries to explain why the joke is inaccurate, impossible. Dad is bringing back a towel and Larry is stumbling over his explanation because he's trying to apologize too.
Amita stifles her laugh with the back of her hand and Charlie laughs into his beer. He closes his eyes when Don takes away his bottle.
This is how it will be:
Charlie will wake up night after night from dreams of causalities, and roll over to dawn crawling through the window to choke him with yellow.
He'll know how to handle a gun as well as he knows how to handle a baseball. Not like Don, but passable. Better than he was at seven with thick, clumsy fingers anyway. The weight of it in the back of his mind will be comfortable and comforting and he won't be able to go anywhere without an FBI agent less than twenty feet behind him.
(He'll remember the times when he missed Don because Don was two states away and didn't call. He'll think how much easier that was.)
Larry and Laurel will have a wormhole and a half, and Charlie will still snicker when he thinks it. Elizabeth will be two when she sits in Charlie's lap out by the koi pond and he'll whisper in her ear that the fish are bears and growl low in his throat until she giggles.
Don will watch, and they'll share the joke, even if they don't.
He'll realize something when Amita kisses him, but he won't be sure what until much later. He'll wipe her lipstick off his cheeks for years, and it'll never be the same. When he looks in the mirror at night he'll wonder how he got to be so wrong. He'll only be certain that when he grows old he'll have pictures of her children on his desk and she'll be one of his best friends.
When Don presses his fingers into Charlie's arm one afternoon the sun will be heavy outside, bright and burning hot, sending waves through the living room that the air conditioner can't even begin to help. The shadows cast by the half-closed blinds will slant across Don's cheek; his arm; his back; his hand. He'll lean forward an almost fraction of a part of an inch, and then back again, his hand falling back and away.
That's when Charlie will understand.
Don will grin when he's snapping his gun into the holster at his side. He'll ask, "So, what are my chances?"
Charlie will wrinkle his nose and scratch at the back of his neck. "I can't reduce you to numbers," he'll admit, and it will almost be like admitting it all.
Don won't get shot at, but Charlie will, when he's pressing the button on the vending machine with the side of his hand. He'll laugh when they're bandaging his arm, and Terry will be looking at him like he's lost his mind while she's answering questions and giving them her gun.
Don will be white as a sheet and his hands won't leave Charlie's shoulder any more than he'll leave Charlie's side. Charlie will laugh when Don unrolls his sleeve and says, "Hey, isn't this my shirt? And goddamn it, Charlie, you don't have to do everything, I do," and Charlie will answer, "You couldn't have told me that before the criminal's bullet—what was it you said?—scraped my arm?"
It'll be Charlie who leans forward the next time.
(It will just be another secret they keep between them until there are too many secrets between them. It'll be hardest when Don is two feet away and Charlie has no access to him, but he'll get by. They both will; they all will. They always have.)
Charlie will watch as Elizabeth sets on the edge of her seat and takes in his every word. He'll grin like he's got the world; he'll try not to remember that he used to think he did. He'll drop his hands quickly when he notices Larry's in the same motion next to him.
They'll all have dinner at the house and Don will tease Charlie for his cooking and David will stop Charlie in the middle of talking about how recipes are just math by groaning loud enough to make everyone laugh.
He'll sit beside Don in the living room and watch a baseball game, and it will almost be like it always should've been.