Coping the Best you Canby JoaG
The music was loud enough that Charlie heard it as soon as he turned onto the street. He squinted at the addresses in the streetlights' dim illumination, knowing even before he reached the brightly lit and noisy house that this was the one he wanted. He double checked the address on the slip of paper he'd written it on, and got off his bike.
He walked the bike through the several cars parked in the driveway and leaned it against the stairs. He contemplated putting off this duty, already hating to have to do it, but decided to go for broke and rang the doorbell.
The tinkle of the chimes was lost in the raucous music coming from inside. As loud as it was outside with the windows open, when Charlie tentatively opened the screen door and stuck his head inside, he felt like he'd been blasted by pure noise.
The stench of smoke and the underlying reek of pot hit him hard, reminding him of the one time Don had thrown a party when his parents had gone out of town for the weekend. Despite Don's efforts to hide the evidence the next day, their parents had grounded him for a month the moment they'd stepped into the house.
Charlie stood inside the door as he watched a few teenagers engaged in kissing, dancing and eating. When no one noticed him, he took a few steps into the living room. That was when Raymond's girlfriend noticed him.
"Professor," she said. Or at least Charlie thought that was what she said; her lips moved but he couldn't hear anything over the music. As she hurried towards him, a couple of the kids must have recognized him because there were a couple of furtive motions. He'd seen the booze, the joints and the drugs laid out on the coffee table. That wasn't what he was here for, although he just realized this might make his job even harder.
Nancy Sheldon motioned for Charlie to follow, so he did. There was a boy sitting on a recliner simply staring into space, a vacant look in his eyes. Another one grinned at Charlie and cheekily raised his bottle of beer towards him. Several empties already littered the chair around him.
Chips and dips and other goodies had spilled onto the floor, indicating that the party had been going on a good, long time. More kids were in the kitchen and Charlie caught a glimpse of movement in a darkened bedroom as he walked by the opened door. He blushed when he realized why there had been more than two pairs of legs.
Nancy opened a door and Charlie saw a set of rickety steps leading down into a basement. "He's in there," she yelled, the music slightly less loud in the back of the house.
Charlie nodded and began descending the stairs, holding onto the wall as he felt the wooden steps give slightly beneath his feet.
He stopped at the bottom and looked around for Nancy's boyfriend. Three more boys were lounging on an old mattress in the corner, looking through magazines. Opposite them, sitting on a large cushion, was Raymond, scribbling in a notebook.
Charlie walked towards his student, glad that they weren't directly underneath the pounding speakers upstairs.
The boy looked up at Charlie. For a moment his face fell, then he grinned.
"Professor Eppes." He waved a hand languishingly at another dirty-looking cushion. "Have a seat," he yelled over the music.
Charlie folded a leg and sat gingerly on the cushion's edge.
"Nance said you'd be coming by." The younger man put the book and pencil down, took a deep drag of a cigarette, then followed it down with a sip of something dark and fizzy. Coke, Charlie hoped, but by the glazed look on the boy's face, he didn't think so.
"You've missed classes," Charlie began, knowing the reason why Raymond had skipped school and why his grades had fallen so suddenly in recent weeks. He felt it his duty to be here, although the memories they invoked were too close to waking emotions he'd hoped to keep buried.
"You missed classes," Charlie tried again, this time yelling loudly. "And the last assignment you gave me was total gibberish. I know you're going through a hard time, but—"
"You have no idea what I'm going through," Raymond replied angrily, brushing a fly away from his face. "My mother's dying of cancer – do you think homework is more important than spending time with my mother?"
A hand appeared in front of Charlie, holding a tall glass out towards him, and he jumped. He looked around to see Nancy smiling at him. He hadn't heard her come back over the noise. He took the glass and sniffed it. Bubbles tickled his nose as he detected the drink's distinct cola odor.
He took a small sip, checking for alcohol, but he couldn't taste anything off. He *was* thirsty; the night was still exceptionally hot and he'd gotten lost on his way here. He took a long swallow, then put the glass down, burping lightly.
"So, your mom's hosting this party, is she?" At the look of anger on the young man's face, Charlie regretted his sarcasm. "Look, Ray, you've got a hell of a lot of potential, and I hate to see you waste your term. I can help you catch up, if you'd like."
Charlie patted his jacket pocket and took out the slip of paper that held Raymond's address. "Here's my phone number. He looked around for a pen or pencil, spotted the pencil Raymond had put down and grabbed it. He scribbled the numbers and handed it to Ray.
The young man didn't take it and Charlie, embarrassed, laid it down on the floor near Ray's knee. Needing to do *something*, he grabbed his glass and downed half the contents.
Charlie looked at the notebook as he put the glass down again and saw the numbers scribbled through it. He raised his eyebrows in permission, and when it was granted to him with a grim-faced nod, he took it and turned it around.
It only took him a second to recognize the formula Ray had been trying to work out. Charlie scuttled closer to Ray, intending to point out where he'd gone wrong.
As he moved, the dim lighting seemed to catch on the edges of the page. The music, pounding painfully earlier, seemed to flow through him and ignite a rhythm he hadn't noticed before. Transfixed, rainbow colors flowed from the page, fluctuating with the beating music.
"What did you put in my drink?" Charlie asked with a thick tongue which was quickly going numb. Ray smiled, the anger in his face gone.
"A little secret ingredient. It helps. It really helps," he whispered as he leaned forward conspiratorially. "It makes the pain go away for a while. Won't make mom's pain go away, but it sure helps mine."
Charlie shifted his legs, intending to stand, to get away. But his legs and feet seemed to go the way of his tongue; numb and thick and useless. The room swam with colours and sounds, infusing him with energy and realizations that he had insights he'd never comprehended before.
The numbers called to him and Charlie stared at the notebook, driving his attention away from the distracting rainbows. He could see so many possibilities, so many permutations, that he grabbed the pencil again and began writing. Ray's voice was soft in his ear, pointing out other possibilities.
Ray nudged the glass closer to Charlie and he downed the last of his drink. He quickly wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and returned to the formulas.
When Nancy offered him another drink, Charlie took it without thinking, wanting this feeling to continue. His fingers were numb, causing him to drop the pencil occasionally. He fumbled with the pages, trying to turn them, and then laughed hysterically when neither he nor Ray could manage to do it.
It was late when Charlie realized the music had stopped. There was one boy either asleep or passed out on the mattress, Nancy cuddled up next to Ray, also sleeping. Charlie blinked in surprise, looked at his watch and frowned when the numbers blurred.
"You can crash here," Ray said as he leaned back against Nancy. He snuggled against the sleeping girl, yawning and closing his eyes.
"I have to go home," Charlie muttered, realizing suddenly that he'd probably missed supper. Don was coming over and Charlie had promised to help him with something...
He'd planned on working with Don tonight, although he'd much rather have begun working on Larry's new project. But if it was late enough that he'd missed supper, then maybe Don would have left and he'd be free to work on Larry's stuff.
He drained the last of his drink, and got onto all fours. With the help of the wall, he stood up. He swayed, took a few steps before staggering to the right. He looked for the stairs, saw them to his left, and aimed for them.
Proud of himself when he reached them, he went up the stairs slowly, hearing them creak beneath his feet. He wondered why he didn't remember them creaking so loudly when he'd gone down them, then realized belatedly that there had been music.
He hummed one of the songs that had played incessantly as he searched for the bathroom. He ignored the person lying asleep in the tub and scrunched his nose against the stench of vomit. He emptied his bladder, which he realized had been full for a long time. He washed his hands, swaying over the sink, then left the bathroom.
The lights were still on in the living room, several people sleeping on the couch or on the floor. Two of them were having noisy sex in a corner and Charlie quickly headed for the open door, not wanting to be a voyeur.
His bike was where he'd left it but he had a problem righting it. He lurched into one of the parked cars, scraping the edge of the bike's handle against the car door before he managed to get the bike to the street.
He straddled it, fumbled for the pedal, missed it, then carefully placed his foot on it again. He pushed off, fumbled for the other pedal while madly weaving back and forth in the street. It took him a moment to regain control, then headed for home.
- - - - - -
Don woke up and opened his eyes. Disoriented for a moment, he remembered he'd stayed the night and was in his old room. He glanced at his watch, noted it was barely 4 am and contemplated going back to sleep. Figuring he'd be more comfortable going to the bathroom first, he headed that way, glancing first into Charlie's bedroom.
The bed was still undisturbed and Don felt a chill run up and down his spine. He continued to the bathroom and once finished, headed for the living room on the off chance that Charlie had fallen asleep on the couch. A quick run through the house showed that his brother wasn't anywhere inside.
Don was heading for the kitchen when he spotted the lights in the garage. Fear quickly turned to anger. Yes, his brother was a grown man and despite their not being all that close as kids, it seemed they had come to a deeper understanding during the past months since Don had moved back to be close to his family.
Don was better able to identify with Charlie, the adult, than Charlie, the teenager. Granted that Don hadn't been in touch much with Charlie for several years before their mom had died, her death *had* brought them closer together. Still, tonight Charlie had acted like a typical teenager by not calling and wasting Don's evening waiting for him. And now here he was, playing with his math in his own private sanctuary and ignoring the fact that Don now had to go to work in a couple of hours without anything constructive to hand his team.
Barefoot, Don padded through the yard and yanked open the garage doors. The music hit him first; hard rock, not exactly Charlie's first choice. Or Don's. It wasn't quite loud enough to bother the house's occupants or the neighbours, but it was loud enough in the small confines of the room.
The next thing he was aware of was the smell of sickness. The smouldering anger fled as he spotted Charlie's body curled up underneath one of the blackboards hanging from the ceiling. A pool of vomit lay next to him and Don skirted it as he checked Charlie's pulse and breathing.
"Don?" Charlie's voice was ragged as he reached blindly for his brother's arm.
"Easy, easy." Charlie's pulse was racing and his skin was damp and clammy, but his breathing, although also fast and short, was rhythmical. Despite the sour smell of vomit filling the room, Don caught the scent of something else. He leaned closer, identifying cigarettes and drugs in Charlie's hair and clothes.
Don glanced up at the board Charlie had obviously been working on, his fingers were still covered in chalk dust. The numbers and equations seemed to weave drunkenly, and there was a happy face drawn beside one particularly messy bunch of numbers that weren't discernible.
"Where were you last night?" he asked as Charlie tried to sit up. He grabbed his brother's shoulder and hauled him so he was sitting. Charlie's head drooped and Don grabbed his chin. "Charlie?"
"Don?" Charlie opened his eyes, exposing deeply dilated pupils. "I don't..." He licked his lips, then gagged as he dry heaved.
"What's going on here? Who's playing music this— Charlie!" Alan rushed into the garage and hurried to kneel beside Charlie and Don. "What happened?" he asked as Charlie slumped against Don, who hurriedly grabbed his brother and held him close.
"I don't know, I just found him like this. Dad, you better call an ambulance, I think Charlie's overdosed on something."
"It's just booze," Alan replied as he lifted Charlie's head off of Don's shoulder to scrutinize his face.
"No, I think it's more—"
"No ambulance," Charlie muttered. " "m okay... drank..." he said into Don's shoulder as Alan lowered his head back down.
"See, he just needs to sleep it off."
Don shook his head as Charlie shivered against him. "It's more than alcohol, dad."
"Okay, I'll go call 9-1-1."
"No." Charlie pushed away from Don, moving without coordination. "No 'mb'lance.
"Charlie, you need medical help."
"No..." With surprising strength, Charlie pushed off Don and straightened, although he continued to sway where he sat.
"We'll take the car," Alan said matter of factly. "Can you get him to the driveway?"
Don nodded. "Okay, no ambulance. Let's get you up, 'k, Charlie?" He put his hands beneath his brother's arm pits and heaved. Charlie came up, and nearly went back down as his legs buckled. Alan caught Charlie's arm as Don held him close. Then Charlie moved, got his feet under him, and stood. Don eased his hold and with him and their father on either side of Charlie, walked him outside.
They had to stop halfway there when Charlie vomited once more, nearly taking a header when he threw himself forward, clutching his stomach. "You better get a couple of plastic bags before we leave," Don warned as he leaned Charlie against the trunk of the car. Alan hurried into the house, mumbling to himself about keys and wallets. "And bring my phone down, will you?"
They hurriedly unlocked the car door and manhandled Charlie into the back.
"I'll drive," Don said as he arranged Charlie onto the back seat.
Charlie clutched Don's tee shirt as he made to back out of the car to allow his dad access to Charlie. "Don't leave me," he said, a look of panic on his face as he raised his head off the seat.
"I'm not, Dad's just going to..."
"He's mad at me," Charlie whispered.
"Charlie, I'm not mad."
Despite their father's reassurances, Charlie tugged harder on Don's shirt, until he finally acquiesced to his brother's nonverbal demands and slipped inside the car. Even before he managed to slide onto the seat and manoeuvre Charlie's shoulders and head onto his lap, Alan had started the car and they were off.
"Charlie, where did you go last night?" Alan finally asked, meeting Don's gaze through the rear-view mirror.
"Student," Charlie answered softly.
"That's what Larry said," Don said, remembering their conversation with Charlie's once-mentor and associate as he eased a lock of hair that had fallen into Charlie's sweaty face. "He went out to talk to a student who was failing—"
"There was a party..." Charlie opened his eyes and looked at Don a moment before they lost their focus and he closed them again.
"That doesn't excuse Charlie taking drugs." Don saw his father's tight-lipped visage again through the mirror. "What the hell was he thinking?" Alan slapped the steering while in frustration as he brought the car to a stop at a red light.
"I didn't mean to," Charlie said after a long moment of silence. "Not the first drink..."
"You accepted a drink from someone at a party? Did you see them pour in front of you? Didn't I teach you anything?"
"Dad..." Don started as Charlie shook his head, his cheek rubbing on Don's sweatshirt.
"How old are you anyways," Don whispered to himself at Charlie's trust in people. Then he leaned over his brother as Charlie suddenly tensed and curled up tightly. Charlie's fist was still clutching Don's shirt and his fingers scrabbled over Don's chest as they searched for a better purchase.
"Breathe through it," Don urged as he one-handedly tried to open one of the plastic garbage bags his dad had thrown into the back seat seconds before starting the car while holding onto his brother with the other. After a short while, Charlie relaxed.
"We're almost there," Alan said as he turned into the hospital grounds. Don didn't say anything as Charlie's hand, which up until now had had a death grip on his shirt, slowly relaxed and fell into Don's lap.
- - - - - -
"He'll be fine," Doctor Morin said as they all stared at Charlie through the open door, who was sleeping in the hospital bed. "It was a good idea to bring him in, just as a precaution. He'll be feeling a little hung over for the next day or two but I think he can go home in a few hours."
"Thanks," Don said as their father walked into the room and sat down beside Charlie's bed.
"If you'd like, I can recommend someone he can see for counselling."
Don suddenly felt like he'd been punched. He turned around and glared at the doctor. "My brother doesn't *do* drugs. This was an accident."
"Yes, Mr. Eppes, I know, they all say that, but—"
"Someone slipped him the drugs, Doctor Morin. He—"
"Your brother's blood works showed a high level of barbiturates and alcohol, Mr. Eppes. He isn't in any danger, but I will tell you that if he'd taken one more pill, he wouldn't be in this room. He'd be in ICU fighting for his life. I'll be in to see him later, if you want the name of the doctor, let me know."
"Dad..." Charlie had turned onto his side, his dark hair outlining his pale face and making it look even whiter. He was fighting sleep, his eyelids heavy as he looked at both of them. "I didn't... honestly, I didn't. It wasn't until I'd drank the Coke that I realized..."
"And then it felt too good to stop?" Don finished for him.
Charlie nodded. "I didn't think... kinda stupid now," Charlie slurred, laughing softly. "Oh shit, that hurts." He brought a shaking hand up to his head and rubbed a spot over his eyebrow.
"Just get some sleep, kiddo." Don rubbed a hand through his brother's hair, knowing from experience how badly he felt. "You'll feel better soon." Nothing to be proud of; his job *had* brought him into tough situations where drugs had been involved.
Charlie obeyed and closed his eyes. Don met his father's gaze. "He'll be fine, dad."
- - - - - -
Don found Charlie standing in the middle of the garage, staring at the blackboards he'd worked on so diligently the night before. The smell of vomit was gone; the cement floor still wet from the hosing down Don had given it a short while earlier.
"I have no idea what I was thinking of." Charlie scrunched his face as his eyes tracked the series of formulae he'd scribbled. "None of it makes sense... I mean, look at this. This is so wrong." He waved at a corner of the blackboard in disgust.
"You weren't exactly thinking straight..."
"Yeah, I wasn't thinking at all." Charlie took an eraser and began rubbing the chalk from the boards. "But the funny thing is, I know as I was writing all of this down, it *made* sense then."
"Yeah, I know that feeling." Don moved forward to take the eraser from his brother's hand. "Shouldn't you be in bed?"
Charlie swayed slightly as he looked at Don. "I feel stupid. I can't go in there—" He waved at the opened door and the house beyond. "Dad must think..."
"You didn't choose to take drugs, Charlie. You admitted that someone slipped you—"
"Not the first time," Charlie said softly. "But once I was... high... I knew what I was doing and I liked it."
"Your perceptions were off. Like you said, you were high, you weren't thinking."
"It all made sense, Don. I felt like there was nothing I couldn't solve. Shit." He turned away from Don, rubbing his forehead, shoulders hunched. "I should have known Raymond Cooper was doing drugs. Over the last two months, his assignments were so off... I just thought he was having a hard time with his mother being so sick..."
"You were just trying to help him, Charlie. I wish... when mom was sick... I could have..."
"You were having a hard enough time, Don." The smile Charlie gave Don didn't quite reach his eyes, and he knew this was still a spot of contention between them.
"You coped the best way you could, Charlie. At least you didn't..."
"Do drugs. Yeah, I know." Charlie glanced again at the nonsense he'd scrawled. "Thanks Don, for last night..."
Don moved closer and put an arm around his brother, steering him towards the house. "Anytime, kiddo, anytime."
Author's Comments: I had never intended to write for Numb3rs; I can't do the math and I certainly can't do the FBI stuff – writing sci-fi is sooo much easier. But I'd just read a wonderful Numb3rs fic this morning and got punched in the gut with this plot bunny when I should have been researching for a fic in another fandom.
Hugs and thanks to devra, who insisted this was worthwhile sharing and not keeping it hidden on my hard drive.
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