Charlie sat on the back patio and let the January sun wash over him. It felt wonderful to be out of the hospital and, even though it had been almost a week, he was still reveling in the freedom of being home. "Well," he thought, "as much freedom as I can have with only one arm and seriously limited mobility."
He sighed deeply, but carefully, ever mindful of the healing ribs, and closed his eyes. It felt so good to be alone for a few minutes! For someone who spent a great deal of time by himself, it had been very difficult to be cooped up at Rampart General with dozens of people he didn't know attending to his needs. He'd had to beg his Uncle Paul to release him, and, thankfully, the good doctor had agreed. But only after Charlie had sworn to do everything on the post-release care list without compromise or complaint.
"If I hear of your father having one problem with you, I'll readmit you faster than you can factor your IQ. Is that understood?" Paul Wentworth towered over the youngest Eppes, frowning down at him as he lay in bed.
"Yes, Uncle Paul. I understand completely."
"I'm not so sure you do. You are not the best at taking care of yourself, Charlie."
"I don't do it on purpose!" he'd defended himself. "I just sometimes – forget."
"Forget? As in forget to eat? Forget to sleep? Forget to take time to unwind and relax? Honestly, Charlie, you amaze me. How someone so incredible bright can be so …"
"Clueless?" Don had offered helpfully from the chair in the corner.
"I don't need your help here, Don," Charlie informed him petulantly.
"Sure you don't." To Charlie's great dismay, Don, Alan, and his uncle had all laughed then.
"You will let your father and Don help you. I don't want to hear of any heroics like climbing the stairs by yourself until you are cleared to do so by me, got it?"
Charlie looked at the faces around him, the faces of the people he loved, and saw the concern written there - concern for him and for his well-being, concern that they had almost lost him and were damn certain they wouldn't be put in that spot again, concern that he would try and work against them in their efforts to help him.
"I'll do everything you want, I promise, just please, let me go home. I want … I need to go home."
"Charlie! Your visitors just called. They're almost here. I'm going to wait at the door. "
Charlie shifted uncomfortably at Alan's announcement. Not because of the impending visitors, the identity of whom no one would tell him, but because he still couldn't manage to get comfortable no matter where he sat. Also visitors meant it was time to move to the living room. And moving to the living room meant getting up, something he was not looking forward to doing.
He tried to pry himself upward with one arm, thinking that if he could sit a bit higher he'd be able to maneuver better. He only got as far as pushing up with his right arm against the chair before pain stabbed through his midsection. He groaned in pain and cursed.
"Hey, buddy, let me give you a hand. Actually, I can give you two for the moment. You seem to be short."
"Very funny, Don. I'll remember to laugh when it doesn't hurt so much."
For someone with Charlie's frenetic energy, the loss of mobility caused by his sore torso and broken arm had caused him no end of grief and frustration. Still, after a while, his normally positive disposition had carried the day and it had become an ongoing joke between the three Eppes men.
Don chuckled and moved behind the chair. Standing slightly sideways, he put his right arm securely under Charlie's and pulled him up while Charlie helped by pushing with his legs. This small movement hurt like hell and Charlie had to take several deep breaths before he felt he could move on to the next stage of actually walking.
"You ready to go in?" Don asked when he felt Charlie's breathing even out a bit.
"Yeah. Might as well get it over with."
Step by slow, careful step Don helped his brother make the short trip from the patio to the living room. He let Charlie do most of the work, while he acted more like a human crutch. He was also there when Charlie needed to lean into him and catch his breath. After a few minutes, they made it safely inside. Don lowered his winded sibling into a chair.
"You want a pillow behind your back, Charlie?" Don asked, not oblivious to his brother's pain.
"Yeah, that'd be great. Not a big one though. The thin one." Charlie leaned forward and allowed his brother to place the flat cushion behind him. He leaned back and carefully relaxed his muscles. When he realized that he was much more comfortable, he sighed.
"Do you want a drink? Or one of those happy pills you seem to hate so much?"
"No, I'm good. And those happy pills, as you're so fond of calling them, make it impossible to concentrate. If I'm having company, I want to able to carry on a coherent conversation. You see, unlike yourself, Don, I enjoy intelligent conversation with my guests, and prefer not to limit my vocabulary to baseball stats and popular beer commercials. So, remind me, who's coming again?" Charlie tried once again to get any information about his mysterious visitors out of his extremely tight-lipped sibling.
Don smirked at him. "Like I would tell you after that heinous insult to my conversational abilities."
Charlie's eyebrows rose, wrinkling the healing scar on his temple. "Heinous. Have you been at Dad's magazine rack again?"
His big brother pointed a warning finger. "Hey, lemme tell you, that Reader's Digest is a great resource for language. I learn something new every time I go to the bathroom."
Charlie opened his mouth to reply but his father cut him off as he entered the room. "You ready, Charlie? Are you comfortable enough?"
"I'm fine, Dad. Now, who's coming? Will you tell me, please? I mean, why all the secrecy?"
"We were afraid you might not agree to see us if you knew we wanted to come."
Charlie's eyes widened slightly as the newcomer entered the living room. Seven other men followed him in and Charlie's jaw dropped a little more as each one entered. The first man introduced his companions but it really wasn't necessary, not for Charlie anyway. He knew who they were. James Nash was the one speaking. The others were Vincent Radley, Fred Baker, Tyson Wheelis, Dennis Alvord, DeVaughn Lange, Oscar Knaack, and Neil Billingsly – the surviving members of the Omega Tau fraternity.
At some point during the niceties, Charlie remembered to close his mouth. He was, quite literally, speechless to think these men had come from all over the world to see him. And he didn't know whether he should be honored or terrified. What could they want of him? Were they going to berate him for not figuring out the link sooner? Or accuse him of not doing enough to save the others?
The feelings of inadequacy and guilt he'd felt in the immediate aftermath of all that had happened threatened to break in on him again. The hours of working through his feelings with Terry began to crumble as Charlie contemplated what these men might want. Nash had finished the introductions and was looking at Charlie, expectantly. Charlie colored slightly, realizing that he'd probably been asked a question.
"I'm, ah, … sorry, I didn't… um…"
To his very great surprise, the eight men chuckled as one. "It's nice to see we're not the only ones who do that," DeVaughn Lange commented to Alan and Don.
"You mean you guys zone out without warning, too?"
"Don!" Alan's rebuke was drowned out as the fraternity brothers gave a chorus of verbal confirmations to Don's question. Then James Nash turned his attention back to Charlie and smiled gently. "I asked if you felt up to having so many visitors at one time? Your father assured me you would be okay …"
He let the question hang, unfinished. None of them had expected this young man to be the picture of health but his pale, wan features caused Nash great concern, despite Alan Eppes' assurances he was up for visitors. It was clear that Charlie had suffered greatly from his ordeal. The bruises around his neck were faded, but still visible, as were the ones on his face. And though it was half hidden by the unruly black curls, Nash could see the line of a healing scar above Charlie's right eye. Added to all that was a slightly pinched look around the expressive, dark eyes that spoke of constant pain.
Nash began to regret insisting that they all come in to see him. Perhaps they should have waited. Still, for all of that, the young man smiled at him, a small smile, but a genuine one no less.
"I'm fine. Really. I'm just… surprised. I mean, it's very nice to meet all of you, but …um … why are you here?"
Alan opened his mouth to say something but Fred Baker stepped forward before he could speak. "We wanted to meet you, Charlie."
"We wanted to thank you," Tyson Wheelis added.
Suddenly, all the men began to speak, each adding on to what the other was saying.
"What you did …"
"You saved our lives, we're sure of it."
"We wanted to thank you in person."
"We can't imagine what would have happened if you hadn't figured out what was going on."
"We just wanted to say thank you."
"We just wanted to thank you, Charlie, in person," Nash finished. "We wanted you to know that we … we realize that if you hadn't figured out the link, we all would have died."
Charlie looked away for a moment. He had saved them, but what about the others? He could have saved Bill if he'd only been quicker, if he'd only been able to make the connection sooner. His thoughts showed on his face as clearly as if someone had written them. The men of Omega Tau looked at each other, at a loss for words. This was not the intention of their visit. They never intended to cause this exceptional young man more pain. Wordlessly, a new spokesman was elected and he knelt in front of Charlie, who warily looked up into the dark face of DeVaughn Lange.
"We know what you're thinking, Charlie," he said softly. "You're thinking that you should have been able to solve the case sooner, that you should have been able to figure it out sooner."
"All of us have gone through that… all of us have felt that way for one reason or
another," Lang continued. "Nothing as dire as this by any means, but we know how it feels to wonder if our genius is worth the anguish we feel when we fail, or when we fall short of our own goals and expectations."
Charlie looked up in surprise and Lange and the others smiled.
"Being smart doesn't make us infallible," Tyson Wheelis assured him. "It makes us more aware of the consequences of our fallibility. But what you did, Charlie. You did more than any two of us could have possible done. And we are grateful for that."
"And we wanted to tell you in person. And we wanted to give you this." Dennis Alvord stepped forward and handed Charlie an envelope.
Charlie looked at it quizzically, then opened it, slowly. He pulled out what looked to be a letter and his eyes grew slightly wider as he read.
"Can you … can you really do this?" he asked when he'd read it over.
"We can," Vince Radley assured him. "And we are."
"May I ask what it is?" Don inquired politely from the other side of the crowded room. "Or is it a secret?"
"They've …" Charlie started but he couldn't seem to finish. His voice trailed off and he lost his focus as his eyes returned to the paper before him.
"We've submitted a request to officially restart and charter the Omega Tau fraternity," Dennis Alvord picked up where Charlie had left off. "We talked it over and decided that it was time the fraternity had a second chance."
"A chance to do it right," put in Billinsgly. "None of us can remember being very happy about the way Blaylock ran things. So we've decided we want to do it our way. We'll admit more members, the acceptance policy will be less stringent."
"And we're planning on going international." Oscar Knaack added. "It is our intention to make a true network of exceptional minds. And we won't be just names on a list. We will have meetings and expect our members to perform services that benefit their local community and the world community at large."
Ideas began flying around the room and Don and Alan soon lost track of who was speaking.
"We also want to set up scholarships in the names of our lost brothers."
"And set up a system for families with exceptional children."
"We also want to get something in place for those families with gifted children who can't afford to get them the special help they need."
"We want to make a sub-chapter of the fraternity for those kids who might not meet the requirements for entry but who are gifted nonetheless."
"We want to be able to include as many people as possible in this."
"We feel we could really make a difference in the world if we just get ourselves together."
"And Charlie was our inspiration."
That comment stopped the furious brainstorming and all eyes turned to the rather overwhelmed young man. "M…me? But I didn't do anything." Charlie was genuinely confused. What could he have done to inspire this incredible group of men to reunite?
"You showed us what we weren't doing," Nash told him.
"Yes," Billingsly confirmed. "When we spoke together we realized that, if we had been a true brotherhood, Carlson would never have gotten as far as he did. Surely, we would have been aware that something was up. But we weren't a true fraternity. We left you alone to do it on your own."
"And we realized that was wrong of us," Knaack added.
"Did you see Spiderman?" Alvord was asking.
Charlie nodded. "I went to see it with," his voice broke for a moment, then he swallowed and cleared his throat. "I went to see it with Bill." He smiled sadly at the memory. They had agreed to put aside their genius and watch the movie for the fun of it. There would be no picking apart the technical aspects or looking for holes in the logic. "We had a great time."
"I had a chance to meet Bill Michaels once," Tyson Wheelis told them. "He spoke at a seminar I was attending. He was a great guy."
"Yes," Charlie nodded. "He was."
"Well," Alvord continued, "do you remember when Uncle Ben said 'with great power comes great responsibility'? That's us, man. We have been given incredible abilities. And we need to use those abilities to make the world a better place. You showed us that, Charlie. And we thank you."
"I showed you…?"
Nash stepped back into the conversation. "Let's just say that we are aware, if only peripherally, of the contributions you make not only to the FBI but to other groups."
Charlie was stunned. "I … I don't know what to say. This is just so much … I mean it's…"
"It's a lot to take in, we know. And we worried that it was too much for you too soon. But your dad said he thought you were up to it."
The younger Eppes turned wide eyes to his father. "You knew about all this?"
"Yes. I knew. And let me tell you, it was nice for once knowing something the two of you didn't. Between Don's confidential work and your confidential work, dinner conversation is getting pretty limited around here. At least now we all have something we can talk about."
Everyone laughed at that and the mood in the room relaxed some.
"So what do you think, Charlie?" Nash asked once the group had quieted again.
"I think it's great. I think you have a lot of good ideas."
"Well, we figured if we were going to do this, we should go into it with the idea of doing it right. We'd like for us all to meet again in a couple of months, but we'll make sure it's at a time when you're feeling better. For now, though, we're going to head out. We promised your dad we'd keep it brief. It's been a real pleasure meeting you Charlie."
The eight men took their leave in a chorus of cheerful goodbyes and Alan led them to the door to see them off.
Charlie sat and stared at the letter in his lap. It was unbelievable, what had just happened. He almost thought he'd been dreaming it all and he would awake to find himself back on the patio sitting it the sunshine. How was it that he had inspired eight of the most brilliant men in the world to take this kind of action? Not to mention leave their homes and travel all the way to LA to see him. He hadn't done anything remarkable in his mind. In fact, to his way of thinking he'd failed to see the pattern sooner, and Bill had died because of it.
Logic told him that was ridiculous. He'd done his best. Alan, Don and Terry had told him the same thing. So had Bill's widow, Madeleine, when she'd come to see him in the hospital. She didn't blame him for not seeing the link sooner. She was grateful to him for finding the killer.
"The kids miss seeing you," she'd told him. "I want you to come by when you're feeling up to it. They'd love to see you. I'd love to see you. Please don't be a stranger, Charlie."
"That was something, huh?" Don's presence at his knee cut off his thoughts.
"Yeah. Something." Charlie didn't look at his brother. He kept his eyes down, pretending to focus on the letter he held.
Don wasn't fooled. He knew something was bothering his brother and he was pretty sure he knew what it was. Charlie still felt guilty, still felt that he hadn't done enough. And while Don understood it, he heartily disagreed with it.
"Hey. Charlie." He put the edge of his finger under Charlie's chin, gently lifting his face until it was even with his own. "I can't say I know exactly what's going on in that head of yours, but I can say this – you did more than anyone could have expected you to. And I'll say it as many times as I have to until you believe it."
Charlie sighed and actually let his eyes rest on Don's. "I know. I just have to let it … I don't know … breathe a little. Do you know what I mean? I need to be able to put some space between …I don't know, between me and … it. Does that make sense?"
Don nodded, never letting his eyes leave Charlie's. "It makes a lot of sense. And I know from my experience with this kind of thing that it also works." He paused then, wanting to say what was on his mind but not sure how to say it. Finally, he took a deep breath and went for the direct approach. "I know I haven't said this in so many words, but I'm very proud of you, Charlie. The way you incapacitated Carlson, the false trail… I don't know what you were thinking but it was …"
"I was thinking about you," Charlie said very softly.
Don blinked in surprise. "Me?"
"I was thinking, 'what would Don do?'." Charlie gave a half smile then turned away, embarrassed he'd let that confession out. He tried to cover the sincerity of his blunder with humor. "I guess hanging around you has had some kind of influence, huh? Most guys I know, all their brothers ever taught them was how to smoke cigarettes and swear."
"Charlie. Look at me Charlie." Don waited until Charlie's eyes were fastened on his once again before speaking. "I'm glad you've been hanging around. And I'm glad you're here to hang around for a long time to come."
Charlie smiled again. "Me, too, Donny. Me, too."
Around the corner, hidden from sight, Alan Eppes wiped away a tear. It had been a tough few weeks. And there would be a tough few weeks ahead. But they had made it through and would continue on together - as a family.
A breath of sun-warmed air wafted through the house then. It caressed Alan's cheek and wrapped around Don and Charlie. And as it passed, it left behind the light scent of a woman's perfume.