It wasn't the most coherent debriefing Don had ever run; Liz and Nikki were still buzzed with adrenaline, David was busy coping with the traumatised witness, and Charlie was huge-eyed and far too quiet. It was always a bad sign when you couldn't get him to talk.
There was quite enough for Don to get the gist of what had gone down at the apartment building, though. He sat at his desk with chills going down his spine. If David hadn't been so good with Emerson Laidlaw he'd have let Charlie drop Emerson off home by himself. The thought made him shudder.
"I wanna see Ricci sweat," Nikki was saying viciously. "We'll see how bad he is now."
"Wait'll Granger hears about this one," Liz cut across her. "The old 'Whiz Kid' nickname will be back in action again."
Don stood up abruptly. "Where'd Charlie go, anyway?"
Nikki laughed. "Said he was gonna wait till he got home to throw up. Guess he couldn't make it."
Don glared at her. She hadn't earned the right yet to treat Charlie with that tolerant amusement. "Yeah, and did you keep your lunch after your first shootout?"
Nikki lifted her chin and stared levelly back at him. "Ricci, boss. You figure he's stewed long enough?"
"Yeah, whatever," Don said. He wasn't about to go into the interrogation room with Ricci himself, not after this. He'd turn Nikki loose on him without a qualm, though; she was all tough-girl mouth and prickly offended dignity. Nothing like Don's frantic furious scared panic. Some remnant of his professional self reasserted itself, and he added, "Those fake tracking numbers, he feeds them to his boss, okay?"
"Gotcha," Nikki said.
Don brushed past her and went to find his brother. Going off Nikki's comment, he headed for the men's bathroom. What was scaring him was how quasi-normal this situation seemed, how many times Charlie had almost died already. And even in the first welter of fear and fury, Don knew that he wasn't going to stop Charlie from working with him, wasn't going to get him out of harm's way. That battle had been lost a long time ago.
As he hurried along the corridor he suddenly remembered something he hadn't thought of in years: baby Charlie versus Manhattan traffic, thirty years ago. Because he'd been so young himself, and so scared, he only remembered it in disjointed flashes. The cold air stinging his throat as he screamed. The stranger who'd grabbed Charlie up (a grown-up, expensive smell of good suiting and good cologne) exclaiming, "God takes care of madmen, drunks and innocents!" Someone's hand clutching Don's upper arm, bruisingly tight, as through he had been the one to run out in the traffic. Their Grandma Eppes in one breath scolding Charlie, and Dad for letting Charlie loose for even one second, and the next praying (in Yiddish, on the street). Charlie, completely unalarmed by the whole thing, peering bright-eyed at Don over Grandma's arm. Don realised that even though he could still hear Grandma's sharp, shaky-edged tones, he couldn't remember the prayer, that it was almost there but not quite. Remember it; he should be saying it, right now.
"Madmen, drunks and Charlie Eppes," he muttered as he pushed open the bathroom door. That would have to do for now. Charlie was in the bathroom, standing with his back to the wall in the corner beside the sinks, arms tucked around his middle, eyes on the floor.
"Charlie," Don said, and went over to him, deciding to draw a decent veil over the possible current whereabouts of his last meal. He put a hand on Charlie's arm. "Hey, Charlie."
"I'm fine," Charlie said, and then, lifting his eyes, "For values of 'fine' defined as 'no bullet holes'."
"Yeah," Don said, on a huff of outgoing breath, and rubbed Charlie's arm, curling his thumb into the hollow of his elbow.
"Is it me, or is the air conditioning set ridiculously low?" Charlie asked fretfully.
"Probably you, buddy," Don said. He could feel Charlie shivering under his hand. He tried to place his déjà vu, a public bathroom and a shocky Charlie...a hospital bathroom, five years ago. He shoved the memory away, hard. If anyone had told him back then that Charlie would ever fire a gun in anger—he grabbed Charlie's shoulders and pulled him into a hug, closing his fists on the fabric of Charlie's blazer.
"I'm sorry," he said, which was I'm so glad you're alive and I never meant to do this to you and I tried to look after him, Mom and I love you, little brother, all the unsayables wrapped up in two words.
Charlie gave a surprised little "ouf". After a second, he patted Don's shoulderblades and said in his normal voice, "I think we've sufficiently established that I can't be kept away, don't you?"
Don shoved Charlie back to arm's length to get a look at him. The hug seemed to have startled him out of incipient panic attack, at least. "It's all right," Don said, not knowing which of them he was trying to comfort. "It's all right. We're gonna try and get Ricci to deal so we get the boss, but they won't be coming after you again—"
"I'm not—not on some revenge thing. I know I just got in the way—" Charlie gave a shudder that rattled his teeth together, dark eyes widening. "Don, it was Emerson they were after. You gotta make sure they can't get at him—"
"Already on it, buddy," Don reassured him. "Let—"
Let us do our job, he'd been going to say, and choked it back because they so nearly hadn't.
Charlie leaned back, hands on the sink behind him. "It makes me so angry. What harm did Emerson ever do anyone?"
Don nodded, and realised that Charlie's angry-protective expression was probably mirrored on his own face. "It's not that I don't care about Emerson, but, Charlie, you—" Charlie was far too old now to be grabbed up and squeezed till he squeaked, and Don wasn't Grandma, so he gave Charlie's arm another rub instead. "Talk about massacre of the innocents, huh." And he was including Charlie in there even if he really shouldn't, even if Charlie had directly caused a man's death today. That didn't seem to have sunk in yet, and Don hoped it never would.
"You mean me, too," Charlie said, a little too fast and a little too high. "Don, I—"
"You were the first one to point it out. Did I say 'limited social skills'?" Don retorted. To tell the truth, that felt like an escape. There were much worse ways for this conversation to go.
"I do too have adequately functional social skills," Charlie said.
"Thanks to years of concentrated effort on the part of Mom, Dad, and don't forget me."
Charlie started laughing, the wobbly-edged kind of laughter that came with the adrenaline letdown and could be triggered by the slightest excuse. "Sorry," he said after a moment, "sorry, I'm a bit—"
"All right," Don said. "You're all right."
Charlie nodded. "Yeah."
The door opened and Martinez, of Narcotics, came in. He glanced between Don and Charlie. "Everything okay?" he asked, not quite at either of them.
Don stepped in front of Charlie a little before he realised what he was doing. Most of the field agents were pleased to see Charlie back, and by now the whole office must be thoroughly used to seeing Eppeses arguing in odd corners, they'd probably missed it when Charlie was gone—it would be nice, Don thought, to have some damn compartments in his life, but then he'd never been any good at keeping the personal apart from the professional—
"Yeah," Charlie said, stepping out past Don. "Fine."
"Really," Don said as he followed Charlie back into the corridor.
Charlie looked round at him. "Yeah. I will be."
Don gave Charlie's shoulder a last reassuring pat, and they headed back to the bullpen together.