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How not to be brothers

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Don stayed late at work more than ever, now. He stayed until the cleaners came, and sometimes until they left. He didn't need to do the work, and he didn't need to go without the sleep. He just didn't want to go home.

Used to be that he didn't want to go home to his boring apartment. Used to be that he'd go home to the house instead, crash in the guest room that had a wardrobe full of his second best shirts and half of his best ones.

Used to be that he'd wake up at three in the morning with Charlie next to him. Charlie had looked nearly panicked at first, clutching the sheets and sticking religiously to his own side of the bed. Don had stared, called him a freak, and gone back to sleep. It didn't take long until Don didn't stare any more, and Charlie wasn't on his own side of the bed. Charlie was on whatever side of the bed had the blankets, and the blankets were always on Don's side, and Don would shove Charlie out from his armpit and Charlie would whine and take more than half the blankets with him to his side, which was why Don had yanked them away from him in the first place.

It was fun, actually, and kind of sweet-- he and his brother were getting closer, and Don didn't think he was alone in wanting to clutch that to his chest, and he didn't think he was alone in hesitating in case he broke it. He and Charlie were the same kind of half-crazy, and tended to grip too hard on anything they got half-crazy about. Don could do enough math to guess his half-crazy and Charlie's half-crazy would add up to a whole lot of crazy and not speaking for another five years. But at three in the morning they could be close and intense and kind of obsessed with each other, lying nose to nose and talking through the night. As the light started getting misty and yellow, he'd kick Charlie out and Charlie would go sleep in his own bed until their father hauled him up.

Don had loved it.

Problem was, Don's math wasn't so good after all, and he'd guessed wrong about what their crazy would add up to: Don gripping Charlie's face between his hands as he kissed his mouth. Charlie's hands gripping his biceps as he pulled Don on top of him. Don's weight on Charlie, Charlie's teeth on Don's throat. Charlie sliding into bed with a cocky, possessive smile shaping his lips. Don snarling with hunger as he reached for him. They'd gotten close and intense and kind of obsessed with each other, and it was more than two halves crazy. It wasn't addition, it was some kind of insane multiplication.

"A half times a half is a quarter, Don," Charlie had said when Don tried to explain why they had to stop. Don had shuddered, partly because Charlie's hands were running all the way down his back, and partly because he didn't think Charlie's math was right either, but it was what he wanted to hear. He ground their hips together and crushed Charlie's body into the mattress with his own.

It was astonishing to Don, this discovery that Charlie could fuck. They both liked to kiss slow and dirty, and the way Charlie's mouth melded with his made him dizzy. It drove him wild that they had always been so different, but they had the same pattern of hair on their chests, the same texture of skin on their bellies. They both shivered when they were touched in the small of their back, and spent hours tracing patterns on each other there. There was a sound Charlie made in the back of his throat, part desperate, part triumphant, and Don was mesmerised by it until he realised that he made it too. After that, it was incendiary.

If they hadn't been out of their minds, they might have realised that they couldn't expect to do this for long. They woke one morning to the door banging open and Alan roaring at them both to get out.

Don had been staying at work late ever since. He was numb, he was empty, and he was hoping to stay that way, because there was a painful, sick feeling in his gut whenever the blankness wavered. He only went to his apartment to break up the hours. He slept when he had no other option, but he slept on his own couch. His eyes stung, and his head ached.

Charlie called a dozen times in the first day, and Don couldn't make himself pick up the phone. God, he was fucked up. His fucking brother. Charlie called again and again the next day, and the day after that. Don changed the settings on his phone so that it didn't ring when it was Charlie.

Megan asked him what had happened. She asked him why Larry was so worried about them. She asked him how much sleep he was getting. A few days later she asked him whether she was going to have to speak to the AD and get Don taken off active duty.

"It's family stuff," Don told her, and in his mind's eye he saw the look on his father's face. The look was more than horror, more than disgust. It was heartbreak, and betrayal. Don found himself retching over the trash can, and a few minutes later, found himself in the passenger seat beside Colby, being escorted home.

Don took a long shower and crashed on the couch until dark. He ate, tidied up, watched half an innings of a Cubs game, and then went back to the office.

At three in the morning he looked up, and Charlie was there.

"Don," Charlie said, in the rusty voice that Don had been kind of obsessed with.

He couldn't think how to answer. There had been marks on the skin under Charlie's clothes, Don knew, and he'd put them there.

Charlie sat down and picked up a whiteboard marker off the desk and pulled the cap off and stuck the cap on the other end. He rolled it back and forth between his fingers a few times and then pulled the cap off the end and put it back on the right end and put the marker back down on the desk. "Sometimes I wake up and every board in the garage is covered in equations," he said, very softly. "And I don't remember how they got there."

"Yeah, Charlie," Don said, and his own voice was hoarse too. "I know."

"And some of what's written on the boards is brilliant. Parts of it are always brilliant. Concepts nobody ever thought of before. Breakthroughs nobody knew were possible."

Don nodded. He'd seen it a hundred times.

"But it's always wrong, Don." Charlie looked at him, eyes wide and dark. "No matter how brilliant the parts are. Whenever I do it that way, it doesn't work out."

Don thought back to the numbers and letters and lines that sometimes covered the house. "It doesn't?"

It was a hell of a confession for Charlie to make, and he looked agonised at having to make it. "When I get like that, Don, I'm not thinking. I write pages of formulae based on the wrong axioms. I don't check if the pieces are going to fit together. I lose sight of the problem. I forget the reason I started working on it in the first place."

Don was starting to understand that he wasn't just talking about math.

"It's just-- Don. It feels so good, it feels amazing, and it makes everything else not matter, but it's not right. You wake up, and it all crashes down around you, because it wasn't right."

Don picked up the whiteboard maker and twisted the cap, staring down at it. "Yeah," he said again. "I know."

"I'm sorry," Charlie said. "Don, I'm really sorry."

"It's not your fault," Don told him automatically.

"And it's not yours. We just got kind of crazy."

Don looked at him for a long time. "Yeah."

Charlie smiled crookedly at him, but he looked relieved. "Come home, Don. We owe Dad an apology."

Don held out his arms to Charlie, and Charlie went into them, gripping him tightly. "I'm sorry," Don whispered to him.

"It's fine," Charlie whispered back. "It just wasn't the right approach, that's all."

Don let Charlie go. "I knew it wasn't right, Charlie. I should have stopped it."

"Maybe." Charlie shrugged his shoulders a little. "You know, Larry likes to say that Edison spent ten years learning how not to make a light bulb. Maybe we just learned how not to be brothers."

Don rubbed his face tiredly. "Charlie, we must have spent thirty years learning how not to be brothers."

"But that's okay. We can do that." Charlie put his arms around Don's waist and brushed his forehead against Don's jaw-line. "It just means we're closer to getting it right."