Charlie was only leaving the house to go to school, and he was barely going to school now that it was summer, so Don was at the house a lot. Charlie said over and over that he didn't blame Don, didn't regret working with the FBI, he just needed some time off now. Don apologized from time to time, helplessly, not knowing what for, and Charlie always just nodded and went back to his work.
Don knew there wasn't anything he could do to fix Charlie--Charlie was burned out or shell-shocked or maybe even post traumatic, whatever a shrink would have called it if anyone could have pried him loose from his chalkboards long enough to be diagnosed. Don asked Terry what she thought once, after Charlie had been holed up for a couple of weeks and it was starting to sink in that he wasn't going to snap out of it this time. She looked at him like she was trying not to let him see that she thought he was an idiot, and said, "Don, he's scared."
But it was more than just being scared. Don had seen his brother scared before, even scared of the work, but Charlie had gotten through that, he'd come back to it. It had been such a small thing at the time, more paperwork in the end than action--ten minutes, three shots fired, Charlie hunkering at his side, Charlie's shivering shoulder under his staying hand, none of their people so much as creased--but after that it was like everything he'd seen in the last six months caught up with Charlie. All the light went out of him and he seemed smaller, drawing in and shutting down.
It could have been an observer effect--Charlie had told him you couldn't see a thing without changing it, and Don couldn't resist watching Charlie all the time, waiting for his brother to come back to him. When all he saw was Charlie pulling further away, it didn't take a genius to see that maybe he, like every other FBI agent Charlie had ever known, was part of the problem. It was just that Charlie couldn't cut ties with Don as easily as the rest of them.
They were in a holding pattern--Don kept trying to leave him alone, but couldn't; Charlie kept retreating into the garage, but he had to come out sometimes--until the day two strangers came to the door.
His dad let them in, and Don sized them up as they walked into the living room. The woman was obviously military, despite being blindingly gorgeous and dressed in civvies; she had the short-clipped blonde hair, the watchful eyes, and she was ever so faintly at attention. The guy couldn't have been more different from her. He was dark-haired, balding and soft around the middle, wearing a sweatshirt with a conspicuously placed maple leaf, and a sharp-eyed look that suggested he was the brains of the operation. They introduced themselves, and Don was proven right: she was Colonel Carter, and he was Doctor McKay.
"Professor Eppes?" McKay said, both of them dividing curious looks between Don and his dad. Don smirked at their confusion even as he realized what was going on: they'd come to recruit Charlie. They were here to take him away from Don, and the FBI, and everything he was scared of, and Charlie had every reason in the world to go with them.
"Huh," Charlie said, from the dining room. He was standing there barefoot, chalk dust streaking his wildly mussed hair and smeared over his hands and forearms and in patches on his jeans and t-shirt and face. He had a mug of coffee in one hand, and as everyone turned to look at him, he tilted his head, studying the recruiters. Don could see Charlie sizing them up just as he himself had, and he felt a pang of guilt at seeing Charlie so wary, and a simultaneous sense of pride: he had taught Charlie that. Charlie had learned that much from him.
"This is odd," Charlie said, while Carter and McKay were still standing there looking surprised in his direction. "Consensus was that you weren't interested in mathematicians."
The recruiters looked at each other and then Carter said, "Professor Eppes, do you know who we are?"
Charlie took a sip of his coffee--by Don's count, he'd been awake and at work in the garage for about thirty-two hours--and shrugged. "Only categorically, not specifically. Not that I'd tell you if I did know specifically, of course, because then you'd arrest some colleague of mine for leaking sensitive information."
"Ah," their dad said abruptly, startling Don and drawing Charlie's attention. "You know, I should go..."
He stepped quickly past Carter and McKay, and paused at Charlie's side to squeeze his shoulder. Charlie nodded and smiled, but the smile didn't reach his eyes. As their dad disappeared into the kitchen, Carter turned toward Don and said, "Sir, maybe you should also..."
"No," Charlie said sharply, and Don was startled all over again, but all Charlie's attention was on Colonel Carter, so Don stayed put. If Charlie wanted him here--for whatever reason Charlie might want that--he would stay. "My brother's an FBI agent, his security clearance is nearly as high as mine and anyway, this isn't a secure location. You aren't going to tell me anything truly sensitive here." Carter nodded slowly and Charlie went on. "As I was saying, I deduce that you represent the highly classified Air Force project known in certain academic circles as the Brain Black Hole--like a brain drain, except nobody and nothing ever comes out. Several people commonly thought to be working on the project were recently reported dead, and no one ever seems to leave, so either you're operating a security-clearance roach motel or the project is just so cool that no one who's gotten in ever wants out."
McKay cleared his throat, glanced at Carter, and said, "Both, actually, but the rules are changing now. Somewhat."
Charlie nodded slowly and said, "But you're never recruited a mathematician before."
Don was still stuck a few steps back, and said, "Wait a minute, reported dead?"
McKay turned back in Don's direction and got out, "Yes--" before Carter cleared her throat.
"That can't possibly be classified," McKay said quickly, giving Carter a frustrated look. "They were working on an Air Force project and they died. Their families were told that, there's no reason we can't tell Professor Eppes' family that. Yes," he said again, to Don, when the colonel showed no sign of objecting further. "Six scientists working on the project, under my supervision as head of the scientific team, died over the past year despite all I, and the military team, could do to keep them safe."
Don didn't like the sound of that, and when he looked across at Charlie, he couldn't catch his brother's eye. Charlie had his head down, staring into his coffee. McKay turned back toward Charlie to continue his argument. "I'm not going to say it's perfectly safe--lab accidents happen everywhere--but it's safer now, a lot safer. That's why we're here."
Charlie nodded but still didn't look up. "Before this it was astrophysicists, geneticists, biochemists, engineers of every kind... but now you've got the practical stuff figured out and there's room for theory."
"Speaking as astrophysicists," Colonel Carter said softly, "We'd really like to see what someone like you could do on the purely theoretical side." So apparently McKay wasn't all the brains.
Charlie squinted at her for a moment, his wary look lightening the instant before he looked down again, but not before Don saw. Something about what she'd just said had been a hell of a lot more reassuring to Charlie than promises that he probably wouldn't die, but Don wasn't reassured at all. These people, whoever they were, were either going to get Charlie killed or just take him away forever. "Purely theoretical," Charlie repeated quietly. "Not--I'm in applied math, really, and I thought my recent work with the FBI might be why--"
Don had to look away. Of course. All Charlie really wanted to know was that his work with these people would be nothing like the work he'd been doing with Don. They could kill him or keep him forever as long as the FBI stayed the hell away. As long as Don stayed the hell away. It was a damn drastic way to cut ties, but maybe it was the only way.
"Well," McKay said quickly, "Naturally if you have any practical insights to offer we'll be glad to have them, but that's not our main purpose in asking you to come aboard."
When Charlie looked up again, he looked straight at Don, meeting his eyes directly for the first time, though he spoke to the recruiters. "And I guess that's probably all you can tell me, isn't it? Unless I come along with you to..."
"Colorado," Carter offered. "It's quite nice this time of year."
"Yeah, I'm sure it is," Charlie said, but he was still holding Don's gaze. This was why Charlie wanted him here, then. This was the moment of truth.
Don was tempted for an instant to say no, to tell Charlie not to go, that the risk was too great no matter how cool the project was and he'd be safer here, but Charlie was too scared here--or burned out, or whatever he was--to leave the house. Don could see the decision in Charlie's eyes already, and he couldn't tell whether it would be worse to ask him to stay and have Charlie listen to him, or to ask him to stay and have Charlie ignore him. It didn't matter; if he could even consider doing that to Charlie then Don wasn't just part of the problem, he was all of it.
Don nodded, and Charlie nodded back, suddenly looking away to meet Carter's eyes. As soon as their gaze broke, Don felt adrift, as though Charlie--Charlie who had never gone away, Charlie who had always stayed right where Don left him--was already miles away. He hardly heard Charlie saying, "Okay, then, Colorado it is."
Two days later, Charlie called from Colorado to say he was leaving. He already sounded happier than Don had heard him all summer. "I just have to get some shots and then I'll leave straight from here, I don't need any stuff from home." Don just muttered a few words--good, that's great, great, that's good--and then handed the phone off to his dad. He meant to leave the room, but found himself leaning against the counter, hearing the echo of Charlie's voice in his father's questions--Shots? Are the doctors looking after you properly? Did you call school and tell them? Are you sure you don't need anything?
When he asked Charlie when they'd be hearing from him again, Don walked out. He didn't want to hear what his father would say when Charlie said, "Never."
It turned out not to be never; Don got an email from Charlie--from Charlie's CalSci address, in fact, though that had to be spoofed--less than a week later.
I'm here. Everything's going well. The work is keeping me really busy. It's great stuff, and my office has a beautiful view.
I guess maybe we should have decided on code words before I left, huh? So you'd know it's me writing this, and that they're not censoring or fabricating my messages. But I'm sure the government would never do anything like that, right?
Don couldn't help smiling a little at that; he didn't need a code word to know that was Charlie. But when he opened up a reply message, he found he couldn't say a thing.
It seemed like every time he turned around at work he ran into something he wanted to ask Charlie about, and no matter how much he told himself he couldn't have asked even if Charlie were at home, it was worse knowing he was stuffed into a bunker--no, an office with a view, unless that was one of Charlie's odd moments of sarcasm popping up--hundreds or thousands of miles away, somewhere he'd needed inoculations to go, for God's sake.
Don couldn't say a word about work, or about how Terry and David had stopped mentioning Charlie at all, as if he were dead, ever since Don said Charlie had gone away to work on a classified military project. He couldn't mention the hopeful look Amita got every time Don showed up for a baseball game, and how her shoulders slumped as she looked back down at the stats sheet every time he shook his head. Don couldn't write about how Charlie had only been gone eight days and Don had already caught their dad sitting on Charlie's bed, just staring at his hands, three different times. He couldn't talk about how he caught his dad doing it because he did it too.
Hey Charlie, he typed, forcing every word.
I'm glad things are going well. And of course the government would never censor your email. Unless it was important.
He stared at the short, inadequate message until Terry walked by, startling him out of his freeze, and then he hit send before he could second-guess himself.
A week later, Don got another email from Charlie.
I'm not dead. I mean, not that I'd have any reason to be dead, it's just that I know you're probably worrying about that kind of thing, so I thought I'd say up front that I'm not. I'm just really busy. I keep forgetting to sleep, but things are going really well otherwise. Tell Dad I'm eating and not to worry.
Don closed the email and didn't look at it again until three days later, when he was systematically clearing out his inbox, when he was on a roll, responding without thought to one message after another.
I'll tell Dad not to worry. Put the chalk down and take a nap.
He sent it off and told himself not to worry, but he forgot to tell his dad the same.
The next Tuesday at eleven he found himself staring at his email, but ten minutes later David caught a break on the case and Don didn't see his desk or his email again for a day and a half. Charlie's email was waiting when he got back.
I don't actually have any chalk. I kind of miss chalk.
If I never see another energy bar or bowl of "beef stew" again after I get home, it will be--too soon? Is that the phrase? That sounds weird, but Rodney says it's right and Radek can't figure it out either and now it's been forty-five minutes and I've distracted fourteen different people from their projects and no one can remember how that phrase goes and I think they might make me work in a broom closet for the rest of my stay if I don't shut up. Anyway, I never want to see another energy bar or bowl of "beef stew." Don't tell dad, though, okay? Everything's still fine.
Don typed out his response in record time--I'm glad you're okay, I'll tell Dad not to worry.--and that night on his way home he stopped at on office supply store and bought a box of the plain white chalk Charlie preferred. He set it down in the middle of Charlie's bed, and when his dad came up and found him sitting beside it, he said, "Don, what's that for?"
Don said, "It's for when Charlie comes home," and his dad just nodded.
For three consecutive Tuesdays after that, he received the exact same email at 11:04 in the morning. If not for the date stamps--and the unique paths he found when he checked the complete headers--he'd have thought he was looking at old mail.
Everything's fine. Don't worry about me. I'm having a great time.
Don didn't reply to any of them. Every time he tried, he could only ask questions--Charlie, when are you coming home? Charlie, are you really okay? Charlie, where are you?--and he knew Charlie couldn't answer them.
He told himself Charlie couldn't answer them because the answers were classified, and not because Charlie was in no position to answer questions, lying in a hospital bed or a military-grade coffin somewhere while his automated 'don't worry' emails replicated themselves into infinity.
Don thought the automated emails were disturbing until the Tuesday when no email came at all. He stared at the phone, waiting for his dad to call and say an air force officer had come to the house, wondering if they would just have to wait to hear, shuffling crime scene photos around his desk and seeing Charlie in every blank stare and blood spatter. What had McKay said? Lab accidents happen. What the fuck kind of lab accidents killed six scientists in a year?
At four o'clock Terry took him aside and said, "Don, get out of here. Just go." Don did as she told him.
Don drove to his dad's house, though he knew his dad wouldn't be there; it was a soup kitchen day. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been to his apartment for more than a shower and a change of clothes. Don's apartment didn't have even the memory of Charlie; it was the house that Charlie would come to, if he did. When he did. Charlie had said when.
Don sat in the driveway for a while, not wanting to go inside and find the house still waiting, still empty, Charlie still not there. But there was the chance, there had to be a chance. There was a reason he might have turned off the automated emails. Don pocketed his keys and walked up to the house, wishing just for a second that he had his gun in his hand and Terry at his shoulder--but that kind of backup wouldn't be any help now.
He stepped through the front door and nearly tripped over a pair of unfamiliar black sneakers, left with their laces still tied on the floor in the foyer.
He didn't think about what it meant or how big they were, just walked on into the living room. He had to step over the duffel bag with EPPES stenciled on the side, abandoned in the doorway, and then he stood and stared at Charlie, asleep on the couch in the same clothes he'd left in, blue jeans and a t-shirt and socks with holes in the toes.
It was like he'd never left, it was like Don had hallucinated the last seven weeks--it was fucking typical that Charlie would come home, when he could have been hurt or dead or gone forever, come home in the middle of the day and fall asleep, not call and tell anyone not to worry, leave his bag in the doorway...
Don scrubbed a hand over his face and realized that he had, in fact, become his father, shouting at him for coming in at three in the morning and then hugging him so hard he couldn't breathe.
He stood a while longer, watching Charlie sleep, watching Charlie be okay, forgetting to be angry with Charlie the way he always did if he gave it a few minutes. Charlie lay absolutely still, just his chest rising and falling to say he was still alive--Don had spent enough nights on vacation sleeping next to Charlie, enough car trips in the backseat with him, to know that Charlie never, waking or sleeping, held that still unless he was completely wiped out. Hell, they'd probably sent Charlie home because he was suffering terminal sleep deprivation; he'd been riding the edge of that even before he left.
When Don was absolutely sure that Charlie wouldn't disappear if he looked away, he ran up to Charlie's room and got the box of chalk. He tucked it into Charlie's hand and Charlie turned his head, and Don burst out laughing, feeling the edge of hysteria that made it loud and long and laughing anyway, because it felt so damn good to be laughing at Charlie again.
Charlie's hair was braided into cornrows.
Charlie blinked up at him sleepily, smiling, and said, "What?" as his hand tightened on the box of chalk.
Don ran his hand over the hard ridges of Charlie's braids and said, "That's some fashion statement, Charlie."
Charlie's smile widened as his eyes slid shut again. "I didn't want to cut it," he mumbled, "but it kept getting into people's machinery and McKay was threatening to let one of the Marines give me a buzz cut."
Don felt his own smile falter--Charlie wasn't coming home from a semester abroad, no matter what it looked like, and if Charlie were paying attention to what he was saying he probably wouldn't have told Don that much. Charlie opened his eyes, and a vague frown pulled at his eyebrows, his smile fading. Don shook his head quickly; no need to bring that up now. There would always be things Charlie couldn't tell him. "Go back to sleep," he said, "I'll make dinner. Beef stew, right?"
Charlie yanked the pillow out from behind his head and smacked Don with it, and Don was grinning again as he headed for the kitchen. Charlie was home. That was what mattered.
When their dad got back, there was a lot of yelling and hugging--Charlie hugged Don suddenly and fiercely in the middle of the kitchen, and Don grinned and hugged him back. With his cheek pressed to the hard knobbled curve of Charlie's head instead of the cloud of curls that had been the same since Charlie was two, it was a little like hugging a stranger, but when Charlie stepped back he was still the same, the same bright grin, the same startled-loud laugh when their dad teased him.
Then their dad said, "So how was it, this project of yours?" and all the laughter collapsed into silence.
Charlie was still smiling, but his smile was a thousand miles, five thousand miles, who knew how far away. He looked down at his feet, compressing the smile smaller, holding in his secrets, and said, "It was good, it was really good."
Don meant to ask about energy bars or Charlie's hair, but Charlie didn't look up, just went on smiling at something Don and their dad would never see, never know. Their dad was used to Charlie's silences and started talking about his day, just like this was any day. Don turned away and went back to cooking, but out of the corner of his eye he saw Charlie's fingers moving, tracing the shape of a box of chalk in his pocket.
After dinner, Don could see his dad waiting, as he was, for Charlie to disappear off to the garage. Charlie was cheerful but restless, scattered, just like he had been for the first half of the summer. Don wondered where he'd been that he couldn't get chalk if he wanted it, and why the hell he'd come back, but he couldn't ask questions any more now than he'd been able to before. All his questions were the same question in the end anyway: Charlie, what did I do?
When they were all done eating, Charlie cleared his own dishes and said, "I'm going to go unpack," and then hesitated. Don watched Charlie watching them, wondering whether they were waiting for something or Charlie was, and then Charlie turned away, gathered up his shoes and his bag and carried everything upstairs.
His dad raised an eyebrow at that and muttered something about how he should have sent Charlie away to summer camp years ago. Don forced himself to smile and washed all the dishes before he headed upstairs.
He wasn't--really--trying to sneak up on Charlie, but he hesitated a step short of the open doorway and looked through at his brother, who was sitting on the bed with his bag open, a notebook and a lightweight gray and blue jacket in his lap, papers scattered across the bed. Don stood perfectly still, watching Charlie's secret smile--broader now, in an unguarded moment. He was practically glowing with happiness as he looked at his notes, and after a moment Don couldn't watch anymore. When he turned away, Charlie called out, "Hey, Don, come in."
Don turned back and leaned in the doorframe. He couldn't help smiling back at Charlie when he was like this, shining like a flame. He'd been happy like this when he was three years old and figured out square roots, and it was just the same now. Charlie looked away first, gathering up papers to clear a space on the bed, and Don accepted the unspoken invitation and sat down. He glanced at a page Charlie had left, but it was solid equations, or maybe one long equation. He squinted at it, trying to follow the strings of symbols to an equals sign, and said, "I guess it doesn't matter whether this stuff is classified or not, does it? I won't know the difference."
He didn't look up, but he could hear Charlie smiling as he said, "It's mostly not."
Don did look up at that. "Mostly?"
Charlie tapped a few papers into a neater stack and said, "My work will be subject to review, probably for the rest of my life, but it looks like my derivative work from the stuff I was doing there will be considered declassified. The originals all had to stay, of course."
Don nodded, gathering up page after incomprehensible page, since Charlie didn't seem to mind. "So this is, like, big, important work you're doing here. Breakthrough stuff."
"Yeah," Charlie said, almost breathless, "Don it's--it's so cool. I didn't even understand a lot of the stuff I was working on, this is--this is my whole career here, I could work on this till I'm eighty and never do anything else and never run out, it's amazing."
Never do anything else. And it wasn't like he'd thought that just because Charlie came home, Charlie would come back, but it was harder to remember that Charlie was gone when he was sitting right there.
Don looked up at Charlie and smiled. "That's great, Charlie. That's really great."
Charlie grinned a little wider and set the papers in his lap aside--though he didn't move the jacket--and started digging more stuff out of his bag. A few changes of clothes, all khaki and gray and blue, and then another sheaf of papers. He set them down on the bed, digging further, but one sheet slid away, and Don reached out and caught it. It was folded--a huge sheet of paper, he realized, and without thinking he started to unfold it, expecting scrawled calculations or diagrams. He saw Charlie go still at the same time he saw the holes and the outline and realized he was looking at a target paper, standard human silhouette.
Someone--not Charlie, Don didn't recognize the writing--had scribbled EPPES and 25 in the corner, and Don couldn't actually count the shots due to the large holes at the head and center of body mass, with a few single bullet holes scattered around. Every one Don could see was on target. It certainly looked, from this, like his baby brother had qualified as a pistol marksman at twenty-five yards sometime in the last seven weeks.
"Charlie," he said, but couldn't think of a damn thing to follow it up with.
Charlie ducked his head, and raised one hand to worry at the end of a braid, curling along the nape of his neck. "They had a firing range set up, and the Marines would train any of the civilians who wanted to learn. I didn't have anything better to do, so I went pretty often. That was my best day."
Don ran his fingers down the target. He still didn't know what to say. He was impressed, of course, but he'd always been impressed by nearly everything Charlie did, and he found that this accomplishment was just as baffling to him as the notes scattered over the bedspread. "Charlie, why...?"
Charlie raised his head, and Don tore his gaze from the paper to meet Charlie's eyes, and saw something there suddenly uncertain, the first real dimming of Charlie's exuberance since he'd come home. Don realized then that Charlie was groping for the right answer, that somehow after everything he wanted Don to be proud of him. And maybe that was the answer to his question right there.
"Dammit, Charlie," Don muttered, and leaned awkwardly across Charlie's duffle bag to fold him into a one-armed hug, crumpling pages between them and under them. There was a sliding sound and a rattling thump, and Charlie pulled away suddenly, squirming to lean over the edge of the bed, one hand waving awkwardly behind him. Don hauled him back up by the wrist, and Charlie smiled crookedly, holding up his box of chalk.
"It was all computers and metal and plastic," Charlie said, settling himself again as Don let go, "no blackboards. Nobody understood why I missed blackboards, why I wanted..." Charlie looked down, turning the chalk over and over in his hands. "Don, I missed you."
Don couldn't say a word until Charlie looked up, and he realized Charlie wasn't just talking about the last seven weeks, and then he had to look away. Charlie had missed him. Charlie hadn't wanted him gone, he'd just... needed some time. And space. And time on the firing range. Don cleared his throat and said quietly, "I missed you too, Charlie."
Charlie nodded and tucked the box of chalk under his knee, then reached for his target paper. "I'd have taught you," Don said as he handed it over, "If..."
Charlie shrugged, folding neatly, pressing the creases. "It wouldn't have occurred to me. But maybe now..."
"Yeah," Don said, "You're good, you should keep in practice. I know a couple of places, I could take you."
Charlie's smile was small but real as he nodded, and that smile wasn't about secrets, that smile was for Don, and Don smiled back easily. Then Charlie gave him a calm, professional look. "So," he said steadily, "I had my break, like I told you I needed, but I'm home now. If you guys need me for anything, you know where to find me."
"Yeah," Don said, matching Charlie's straight face, "well, actually..."
Charlie tilted his head, all business, ready to hear about the case, and no matter how closely Don looked he couldn't see where Charlie was flinching from this, where it was dimming the light in him. Charlie was ready. Charlie was back.
Don grinned. "We'd love to have you come and keep stats at the baseball games again. Not that Amita isn't doing a great job, but you're our guy."
Charlie smiled at Don. "Yeah, I'm your guy."
Don found he could go home--to his own place--again, once he knew that Charlie was back where he belonged, at home and at school and at the firing range at lunchtime on Tuesdays and spending one day out of every five, on average, in Don's office, helping out on cases. He even had his hair back out of its braids, and you could only tell it was cut raggedly and badly in the back if you knew what it usually looked like.
One night when his dad was out somewhere--a date, according to the note on the fridge--Don stopped by and found the house empty, though Charlie's bike was on the porch. He checked the garage, but it was closed up and dark, and then he noticed that the ladder was propped up against the edge of the garage roof. He checked that it was steady and then climbed up, squinting in the darkness. "Charlie?"
Charlie waved, and Don could only see him because he was lying on a light-colored blanket, an island in the darkness of the shingles. Don walked carefully across to him, and saw that he was holding a telescope, though it was just resting across his chest, and he had his biggest, happiest secret smile on, the one that made Don's throat close up with all the questions he couldn't ask. "Hey," Charlie said, and wormed sideways on the blanket, patting the space beside him, "here, I want to show you something."
Don smiled--he couldn't ever resist Charlie--and laid down. "I didn't realize you were into stargazing, Charlie."
"It was all the astrophysicists," Charlie said, "it seemed polite to take an interest."
Don settled himself and stared up at the sky, trying to identify the easy stars, the Boy Scout navigational stuff. "Okay, what am I looking at?"
Charlie's finger wavered into his view. "Polaris," he said, tracing a line, "down... there. You see the four stars that make a box? A baseball diamond?"
Don snorted. "That's a pretty sad baseball diamond," he said. It was all pulled out of alignment, third base way further out than first.
"Well, it's easier to visualize as a baseball diamond than as half a horse with wings, isn't it?"
Don looked over at Charlie, then back up at the shine of the stars. "Yeah, okay, it's a baseball diamond."
"Okay," Charlie said, "so--that star at the bottom right, that's home plate, and the one above it is first, right?"
"Yeah," Don said, "I got it, Charlie."
"So--you hit a foul ball over the first base line, way out past the dugout." Charlie's finger trailed upward. "And right there, right where the foul ball lands..."
Don stared past the tip of Charlie's fingernail into darkness. "I can't see anything, Charlie."
"Nah," Charlie agreed, dropping his hand, though Don kept watching that dark space out past the first base line. "You can't, it's too faint with the city-shine, and anyway it's seventy-two million light years away. But right there where the foul ball lands, that's the Pegasus Galaxy."
Don blinked, staring into the dark for a minute longer and then looked over at Charlie, and saw him radiating his happiness seventy-two million light years into the sky. "The Pegasus Galaxy," he repeated slowly, thinking of every wild rumor he'd heard in the last few years, about the Air Force and deep space.
"Yep," Charlie said, sounding completely satisfied with himself, and Don smiled slowly as it sunk in. Don hadn't asked Charlie anything, and Charlie wasn't telling him anything--wasn't violating security in any way at all--he just wanted Don to know where the Pegasus Galaxy was.
"Well, Charlie," Don said, looking back up at the sky, "that's good to know." When he started to laugh, thinking of Charlie and the Pegasus Galaxy, Charlie joined in, and they just had to lay there, laughing and staring at the stars, until they could settle enough to walk across the roof without falling off.