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Something Stupid

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Don broke up with his first girlfriend in a fight over Charlie. He was six, and she lived down the street. He doesn't remember her name anymore. They were going to get married, and she said Charlie could be their baby. Don said that was dumb; they couldn't get married now and when they did, Charlie would be his best man, not their baby, not a baby at all. The fight had escalated quickly into yelling and hair-pulling and then tears; he'd been spitefully glad when her family moved away, two years later, and sat on the porch with three-year-old Charlie, watching them load the truck. Charlie watched the truck go past, and then said, "4,801 times 4,553 is 21,858,953."

Don squinted down at Charlie and then said, "Our house number and their house number?"

Charlie nodded, smiling up at Don, and Don smiled back down. They understood each other.

Charlie says, "1,970 times 1,975 is--"

"3,890,750." Don finishes, looking sideways at his brother, sitting in the armchair with his head tilted back against the cushion. He can just see the blue TV light glinting on Charlie's half-open eyes. "Me and you. I know that one."

Charlie nods, and doesn't say anything, but Don doesn't look back to the TV, playing a taped game they both missed during the case they finally closed tonight. Charlie's eyelashes flutter, and the light disappears.

"That's the first one you ever told me," Don says softly. Charlie's been taking this case hard, and Don doesn't know what this means, but he didn't bring Charlie home with him because he thought Charlie cared about the game, and not because Megan told him to, either. He knows Charlie needs to talk, even if it's in multiplication.

Charlie's eyes open wider, brighter, and Charlie is looking straight at him. "Well," he says, with a ghost of a weary smile, "I wanted to impress you."

When he was playing pro ball--minor league, yeah, but pro all the same, a distinction he was proud of at the time, however much he plays it down now--he didn't really date. There were women around like a cloud (of electrons, Charlie would say, constantly moving, negatively charged) and he just passed through them.

He and Charlie met a couple of times a week for lunch, when Don was in California. Don recited his stats for Charlie every time they were together, watching him update his years-old compilation of data, and then he would sit back and Charlie would talk about his work in careful small words, or about school politics, which didn't require translation. He watched Charlie write down his strikeouts and pop flies, RBIs and errors, while talking blithely about tenure and publications and awards. It itched at him, but Charlie never made pointed noises over a downward trend or mediocre numbers; every time they talked Charlie was still delighted by the mere fact that Don played baseball, just like he had been when Don was in little league.

One day, Don said, "I think I'm gonna stop," and Charlie froze in the middle of recalculating his lifetime batting average. Don said, "I, uh, I took this exam. For the FBI. And I passed. 98th percentile, as a matter of fact."

"98th," Charlie said, who had never scored below the 99th in math and never above 85 in English. Don still remembered that the best he ever did, before the FBI exam, was a 93.

"Yeah, so I think I'm gonna go for it. I'll go out to Quantico for training in the fall."

"That's great," Charlie said, but he shut his notebook without finishing his calculation, set down his pencil with a click on the table and fiddled with his straw wrapper. They didn't really talk for the rest of lunch, but when Don grabbed the check, Charlie said, "Fifteen percent of $18.93 is $2.84," and Don knew he was forgiven.

"Yeah," Don says, "Well, you did impress me. You still do, all the time."

Charlie nods slightly, quickly: that's not his point. "I didn't--I don't--Don, you know you're not an idiot, not next to me or anywhere else." He says it firmly, but it's a question.

Don knew he was going to regret saying that, but he's been kind of hoping Charlie forgot about it. "Yeah, I know that, Charlie. It was a dumb thing to say."

"Dumb doesn't mean it's not true, though," Charlie says. "I can think of all kinds of things that would be dumb to say. Mostly it's dumb to say them because they're true."

"Yeah?" Don says, and this is not the time to observe that Charlie's smart not to say them. The opposite, in fact. "So why don't you come over here and be dumb with me, then? Say something."

Working with Coop was like being on a neverending road swing with the smallest, best team Don had ever played for. They did good work, living in each other's hip pockets and sometimes closer than that, in backseats and motel rooms and that godawful gas station bathroom. The world outside him and Coop and their work seemed not to exist, and he always had this vague sense that he'd catch up with everyone when they were on a home stand, but there were no home stands in fugitive recovery.

Sometimes he would rack up his stats in his head, like he was going to recite them to Charlie the next time they talked. I killed a guy today. I fired four shots. Two missed, two hit. I put away a rapist today. I fucked up and we lost a murderer. I spent ten hours driving, smoked two cigarettes, had sex in the shower with Billy. I killed a man... But he never talked to Charlie. He never talked to anyone but Coop and the occasional Marshal or fugitive.

Then Don got offered a transfer, to Albuquerque, to run his own office, and it was like hitting that home run. He knew it was the end. Coop didn't like it, but he didn't argue, and came down to Albuquerque to help Don break in his new apartment, then took off the next morning and let Don get used to being a part of the world again. He phoned his parents and Charlie picked up, and all he could say was, "Charlie, hey, it's Don."

Neither of them said anything for a while--Don couldn't think of what to say to Charlie that wasn't numbers, couldn't think of how to reduce Coop and everything he'd been doing in the last year to numbers--and then Charlie said, "So, you want to talk to mom?" and that was that.

Charlie freezes, but Don is watching the light on his eyes, sees it brighten as his eyes go wide. Then he does move, fidgeting, shifting, and Don thinks, Jackpot. This is what Charlie wanted: an excuse to say something stupid.

"Come on," Don says, raising a hand and beckoning. "Let's be the very stupid Eppes brothers tonight."

And Charlie takes a breath and says, "Oh, well, if we're going to be very stupid..." and he pushes to his feet, takes a couple of awkward steps across the space between them, and half-falls onto the couch beside Don.

Don hooks an arm around Charlie's neck, pulling him to slouch against his side, heavy and warm. "Well, I figure, anything we do, we should still do superlatively."

"Mmm," Charlie says, and Don can feel the sound in his throat and his chest, under his arm and against his side. It feels good to have Charlie close like this, maybe better than it should, but that's all right, they're being stupid together. "To be superlative would actually require us to be the very stupidest of Eppes brothers. And since we don't know what our competition might be--"

"Yeah, Cousin Tom and Cousin Eddie probably have an unfair head start," he says into Charlie's hair, and Charlie turns his head just enough for Don to see him smile.

"I love you," Charlie says, very quietly and clearly, and it's Don's turn to freeze, because Charlie doesn't say that. Not to him. He doesn't really say it to Charlie, either, not straight out. They both hedge, or occasionally mutter a deniable "L'v'ya" into a hug, and they always have, since they were kids. And they don't say it, because...

Because it's true.

He fell in love with Kim, and they were going to get married; his parents liked her. No one mentioned her to Charlie. Don could say anything to her, and she understood. Until he told her he was staying in LA, because his family needed him. She didn't understand that: his mom was getting the very best care, his dad and brother were in the house, so what difference did it make if he was an hour's drive away or an hour's flight? He wanted to tell her about it--about how Charlie didn't seem to light up for anything but him anymore, about the way his father seemed so tired, the way both his parents seemed to be dying of his mother's cancer, turning frail, turning old before his eyes. But if she didn't understand him when he said he needed to stay, he wasn't sure she would understand him when he said any of that, so he didn't elaborate, and Kim hung up.

Don went into the living room and sat down with Charlie and watched the baseball game, watched Charlie sitting with his feet on the coffee table and his notebook on his knees, still recording the stats. They'd sat through an inning when Charlie said without looking up, "I didn't mean to eavesdrop."

Don blinked. It hadn't even occurred to him to keep his voice down; Charlie never seemed to be paying attention anyway. He should've remembered that that had always been at least half a pose on Charlie's part. "It's okay," he said. "No big deal."

Charlie shook his head and finally looked up, meeting Don's eyes. "So you're staying, then?"

Don nodded. "Yeah," he said softly. "Yeah, I'm staying."

Charlie went back to his work, but a few minutes later he said, "Good," loudly enough for Don to hear.

Don slides his arm down across Charlie's chest, to hold him still without strangling him if he bolts, and then says, "I love you too," against the back of Charlie's neck.

For a second Charlie doesn't react at all, and then he pushes up against Don's arm just far enough to turn around, kneeling on the couch facing Don. Don tugs him closer, and the light in his eyes is as hopeful as it is shocked, so he presses his mouth to Charlie's and cuts off whatever question he was going to ask. He figures this is as good an answer as any.

Charlie's mouth is hot over his and this should feel a lot weirder, but then it's Charlie. They understand each other. Charlie collapses against him, and Don falls back sideways on the couch, letting Charlie fall on top of him as they kiss, pressing him into the couch. When Charlie lifts his head, Don can still feel their breath against his mouth, and Charlie's body is heavy and warm and hard on his, and he whispers, "How's that for superlative?"

Charlie grins, brushes a light kiss across his mouth, and whispers, "Oh, I think we can improve on it."