Note: This fic follows Things We Can't Untie and Not Academic. They belong in the same sequence, although I like to think each can be read independently.
As this is written in tight third-person pov, remember that Don is an unreliable narrator when it comes to Charlie and guilt.
Don heard the key scrape during a lull in the game. Robin was working late and he hadn't been expecting her.
"Hey, you," he called happily, sitting up—he'd been sprawled on his stomach across his bed, watching TV. The door opened to show his little brother. "Oh. You," Don said in a different tone. "Hi. When did I give you a key?"
"Hey," Charlie said, looking discouraged in the face of what even he could realise was disappointment. He held up a plastic bag. "I borrowed Dad's. I brought you some stuff you left at the house."
"Thanks," Don said. Trying to make up for the Oh. You, he smiled at Charlie. "You wanna see the game? Go get yourself a beer."
"Yeah, as long as you get me one while you're in there."
Charlie disappeared into the kitchen, and Don heard the refrigerator door opening. "The four food groups according to Don Eppes: beer, ice cream, bad milk, and more beer."
"Don't touch the ice cream, it's Robin's," Don called hastily. "You swipe her ice cream, and I'm on the couch. Wait, did you say the milk's bad?"
"Yup. Two days past its date." There was a thud from the kitchen, presumably the little-brother home invasion trashing the carton. "Looks like toast for breakfast, bro. Oh, except there's no bread. Do you ever actually eat here?"
"Why do you think I come around yours all the time?"
Charlie came into the bedroom, holding the beer. "Looks like you're on a liquid diet, then."
"I have a wide variety of take-outs in my speed dial," Don retorted, thinking that was what he should have said to the crack about eating in his apartment. Instead he'd gone and dragged up the spectre of his other excuse to turn up at the house. Or maybe its dead corpse – he wasn't about to fuss about semantics. He'd called Dad this morning, trying to track down his favourite shirt (the half of his clothing that wasn't already at the house was starting to migrate over to Robin's; he should just save the rent of this apartment and get a storage locker), and Dad had asked him if he was making up another excuse to come over apart from scrounging dinner and— Dad broke off there, but he'd been about to say getting equations out of Charlie, Don could fill in the gap. He'd mumbled something about his shirt and hung up.
So this evening Charlie had turned up at the apartment with—Don investigated the bag Charlie'd just dropped beside him—three of Don's shirts, some socks and a sweater. Maybe Don wasn't the only one who needed an excuse. Charlie didn't make any protest anyway when Don told him to sit down and drink up. He kicked his shoes off—Don had spent years training him to do that when they were kids—and sat down on the end of the bed as Don scooted up among the pillows. Very college-student entertaining, but it was only Charlie, after all.
"I dunno," Charlie said, handing Don one bottle and rolling the other between his palms, "I did drive here."
"You can crash on the sofa and I'll lend you a clean t-shirt, just to keep my clothes travelling back and forth to Pasadena. And I have enough novelty socks and boxers I've never opened—and never gonna— to kit you out, too. In fact I have these boxers with love hearts on them that Liz gave me for a joke once… I'll pay you to take 'em away."
Don grinned. "A dollar."
"Love hearts have gotta be worth at least five," Charlie said.
Don could see an algorithm starting to tick away behind his brother's eyes. "D'you want take out? What kind?"
"You're gonna let me pick? After all those years of 'My car, my radio'?"
Don made a face at him. Brotherly relations having been established, they settled on pizza, with the usual squabble about Hawaiian, ending up with peppers and onions for Don and pepperoni and mushroom for Charlie.
"Who's winning?" Charlie asked.
"Dodgers are getting their asses kicked," Don replied. "I dunno why I bother."
He set his phone on the nightstand and found his beer again. The TV went to commercial break, but Charlie kept watching it with the same stare that told Don he hadn't really been seeing the game either. Don watched Charlie not watching the television.
"Don," Charlie said eventually.
"Are you angry?"
"At what, the hike in gas prices? Sure."
Charlie looked over at Don, finally. "Don."
Don sighed. "Not any more." He'd never managed to stay mad at Charlie for very long. The longest had probably been for a couple of weeks in the middle of the NP thing. After that he'd just gotten tired. Hurt, on the other hand...hurt lasted a lot longer. There was still some five-year-old part of Don complaining jealously Mommy always loved you more!
Charlie sighed, and asked with pure, typical Charlie tactlessness, "You were angry, though?"
"Gee, I wonder why? You get yourself arrested for treason on my watch, what on earth do you expect me to feel?"
"What do you mean, your watch?" Charlie retorted.
"I trusted you," Don snapped, surprised at the bitterness he'd thought he'd buried. "I didn't think you needed a keeper."
"I'm an adult, Don. I'm thirty-two years old, I knew exactly what I was doing."
"Oh, yeah? Next time, do me a favour and be a bit less certain of yourself."
Charlie flushed up. "I'd do a lot for you, Don, but don't ask me not to do something that I know is right!"
Don's mouth fell open. "Am I missing something here? You broke the law. Technically, you're now a traitor to the United States."
"There's no way that research is any danger to national security, the whole thing would have been ridiculous if it hadn't been so appalling."
"Like Mom used to say, sometimes the law is an ass. That doesn't mean you should go off on some vigilante kick." Don shook his head. "Explain this to me: was there no other way? You're famous, people listen to you—"
"Yeah, everyone except my own brother."
Don had already made that point for himself. Guilt stabbed him. "Aw, buddy, don't tell me that that was what this was about." Megan had said something..."Jumping up and down to get my attention?"
Most of his life he'd had this feeling, that all Charlie's disasters were his fault. If he'd considered Charlie more, said the right thing or bitten his tongue on the wrong one, loved Charlie better, it might never have happened. No matter how many times Bradford or Dad told him, or Don told himself, that it was useless and irrational, he couldn't help it.
"No! Don, not everything is about you—!" Fury sparked from Charlie's eyes and burned across his cheekbones.
Something shifted off Don. This one really wasn't his responsibility. As if the vague guilt had been squashing it, anger boiled up.
"You don't get to play the baby brother card and then turn round and accuse me of making it all about me! Either the case stands on its own merits or it doesn't. Me being your brother has nothing to do with it. Not when you were the one who jumped into the middle of this—never minded your own business in your entire life—"
"All those brains and you got no damn sense—" He was yelling now. "Just dropping yourself in it, spoiling everything, getting yourself arrested, how'd you think you'd like Gitmo, you idiot?"
Charlie flinched backwards, almost falling off the bed, and Don grabbed his wrists and hauled him back up. "Of all the irresponsible reckless stunts, dammit—Charlie—stupidest genius I ever met—"
Charlie said "Ow," the same half-pained, half-petulant noise he'd been making since he was two, every time Don laid a hand on him. Don stopped in mid-rant, looked down at their hands, Charlie's radial pulse thumping against the heel of his hand, and let go like he always had.
Charlie rubbed his wrists and glared darkly. "Listen, I would have been involved if I'd never consulted for you in my life—if you'd still been in Albuquerque! I was associated with this long before Phil was arrested. I collaborated on the math for the research, remember?"
Don thought that collaborated had a much nicer sound in academia than law enforcement. "Tell me this, if I had listened to you, would you have done anything differently?"
Charlie looked away. "I don't know. I don't know."
"You damn well broke the law, Charlie, and I know you thought you had a reason, but so did everyone I see in interrogation with cuffs on."
"That work on crop yields, Don – do you know how many lives it could save? Try looking at the big picture here!"
"Oh, I don't think I'm the one with that problem," Don said grimly.
"It's all right for you, sitting in judgment, so detached—"
"You think I'm having it easy? Having to watch you hauled off in cuffs? When the whole office knows what happened, and they know who you are because I brought you there in the first place?"
Charlie's face changed. "Are you in trouble with the FBI because of me?"
"Oh, now you think of that. Thanks a lot, Charlie."
"I'm sorry, I didn't think that they would blame you for what I did—"
Just when Don had stopped being pissed off—"How can you be this naive and live?"
"It's not any worse than what Dad did in the Vietnam War—"
"Dammit, Charlie, Dad's rap sheet was dead and buried before I was in kindergarten. You were working with me, you consulted on the damn case!"
Charlie was looking at him anxiously, biting his bottom lip. Don relented a little. "Aw, it's okay, I only got an earful from the AD. Do the words 'conflict of interest' mean anything to you, Eppes? What did you think you were doing, letting your brother anywhere near the case, considering that his name was all over the chief evidence? The next case you pull that you or your family are connected to, if it's so much as your great-aunt's cousin's dog, you'll be off it so fast your head will spin. And so on. He won't, though, he never does. I've worked at least three cases that I would have pulled me off, when I was SAC."
"So you'd take another agent off those cases, but you don't take yourself off them?" Charlie said, raising his eyebrows.
"Don't you start," Don snapped. "You don't exactly have room to criticise."
"I was only pointing out that we're more alike than you think we are—"
"I can't believe that you're putting bending procedure on the same level as treason!"
"But it's your job to represent the law—"
"Yeah, and what's yours, to ignore it? At least your friend had the excuse that he didn't know what he was doing. You've got no excuse at all."
"Oh, so now you admit he's innocent. It's a little late. It's not like you've never sympathised with a suspect. You let Steven Buckley walk in the Robin Hood case, don't tell me you didn't."
"We had no case! Your guy was charged and in custody, someone else's collar. What did you expect me to do about it? I can't fix the whole world, Charlie! Believe me, I'd even pull you out of this if I could, but I can't."
"Maybe I don't want pulled out of it, have you considered that?" Charlie folded his arms across his chest. "I'm going to finish what I started."
"Can't you imagine what it was like for Phil, locked up for breaking a law he couldn't have known about? And you all assuming he was guilty because he's Muslim? Don, it could have happened to us, if we'd been born in Europe eighty years ago."
"All right, all right—"
Don's doorbell dinged.
"That'll be the pizza," Don said, and got up. Charlie stalked after him, mouth set, looking like he was considering walking out. Don opened the door. It was one of the assorted high-schoolers the pizza place employed, the little chatterbox Latina who thought Don's job was cool.
"There you go," she said, setting down the boxes. She looked dubiously at Charlie and backed into the hallway.
"Is everything okay, Agent Eppes?" she asked in a whisper. "That guy isn't a criminal or anything?"
Don managed not to burst out laughing, just about. "Uh, that's my little brother. He's kinda upset with me right now. There you go, Conchita."
He bit his lip to keep from smiling as she took his card. He got her off his premises without her calling 911, but it was a close thing.
Charlie was sitting on the table, investigating the pizza boxes. "You're on first-name terms with the pizza delivery girl?"
"Don't tell Dad," Don ordered.
"What was all that about in the hall?"
Don's laughter burst out. "I think she's been watching too many cop shows. Ones where they interrogate suspects in their own apartments. She wanted to know if you were a criminal."
For once he'd managed to make Charlie laugh with his mouth full instead of the other way about. He thumped Charlie between the shoulder blades as he choked.
"Does it show?" Charlie gasped, slightly hysterically.
"It's that five-o'clock shadow," Don said. "Definitely sinister."
Charlie snorted helplessly. "She—she—"
"You know what's the funniest thing about it? She must have thought you could take me. Not very flattering."
"Yeah, flattering to me," Charlie said weakly. "Don, I think she was having rescue fantasies."
Don sobered abruptly. "No way! She's young enough to be my kid, that's gross."
Charlie lay back on his hands and whooped. "Donnie's got an admirer..."
Don grabbed one of the velvet cushion things that Robin had introduced and threw it at Charlie. "Shut up and eat your pizza before it goes cold."
He must give Conchita a bigger tip next time, he thought. She had inadvertently dismissed the fight, letting things slide back to the bearable again. Just another dinner with Charlie, a little prickly, but survivable.
Charlie looked up at Don over his pizza crust. "How do you eat an elephant?"
"One bite at a time," Don completed the familiar childhood riddle. "Oh, that elephant."
"Mom used to say that, remember? Damn stubborn, our mother."
Charlie's mouth quirked ironically. "Not that either of us take after her in that respect at all."
Don leaned his arms on his knees. "You know, I thought...I thought we were doing good."
"We were," Charlie said. "As good as we've ever been since we were kids...That's what I'm sorry about. Messing that up." Charlie looked up at Don with unhappy dark eyes.
Don sighed. "You're still my brother."
What do you feel about your brother? Bradford had asked him last year. And he'd known the question had to be coming sooner or later, as soon as anyone started digging in Don Eppes they'd turn up the Charlie issues, but all he'd been able to come up with was, "Dunno...he's my brother."
Very Zen. And yet, and yet...for three words, it said the hell of a lot. He's my brother meant high school, and baseball, and all the fights, and the math, the consulting and the years when they weren't really talking, road trips and camping and piano and shooting hoops on Sunday afternoons. Mom. The garage and the solarium and the guerrilla war over Don's bedroom that had lasted from when Charlie learned to walk until he went to Princeton. It meant sitting in the cheap seats in Dodger Stadium sharing one cotton candy between them, roughhousing in the living room until their parents feared for the furniture, all those times Charlie had turned the kicked-puppy expression on Don, approximately fifty million long-winded math explanations, squabbling for first go in the bathroom on school mornings, homework in the solarium, jumping between Charlie and the bullies, rides to school in Don's elderly VW...
It meant everything, shared blood, well, genetics, and all that shared history from the moment Dad had lowered the tiny squirmy bundle into Don's arms and said "Meet your little brother, Donnie."
"You're my brother," Don said again. "Still. Always."
Bordering on the slushily sentimental as this was, it didn't seem to reassure Charlie.
"I was just as much your brother when we weren't speaking to each other." Charlie looked down at his hands. "I still don't even know what happened back then, Don," he added plaintively. "I miss you."
Same words and the same tone as he'd used one other night, years ago, after Don had come back to LA but before Mom had died, when they'd both been in a black mood prompted by too many beers and too much bad news.
"Work. Life. Distance," Don said uncomfortably. "I dunno, buddy."
"And I'm not saying it was all your fault, because it wasn't," Charlie said distractedly. "I mean, I wasn't likely to forget your phone number, was I?"
Yeah, but I'd need to give it to you first, Don thought, squirming with old guilt. "Look, it's not like I didn't care about you then," he said. "I did, I thought it was great you were doing your genius thing, I just..."
Charlie looked up. "Just as long as I wasn't doing it around you," he filled in, his face falling visibly. "Oh."
"Oh, Charlie, no!" Don said, all the more insistently since there was a hint of truth in it. "I thought I was doing okay by myself, you know? Looking back, I doubt it. That was then, it's different now. I've changed. You've changed."
Charlie just looked at Don, obviously trying to control his expression. Still the baby brother who thought Don had never wanted him...
"Look, I miss you," Don got out all in a rush. "And I don't just mean when the techs say sometime next week, Agent Eppes," he forestalled the obvious objection. "I'd gotten to like having you around. Talking math and just being there...You think I was lying when I said you were my friend?"
"Oh," Charlie said in a completely different voice.
Don grinned, signalling a lightening of the tone. "And not having to buy my own lunch all the time."
Charlie grinned back, the thousand-watt grin. "I don't imagine the Bureau could really object if I turned up on the doorstep with a sandwich occasionally."
"No," Don said, and tugged gently at the back of Charlie's hair, giving his head a little shake.
"We're gonna be all right, aren't we?" Charlie asked hopefully. "In the end?"
Don sighed. "Yeah," he said. "We'll be all right."