Summary: A confrontation with a student has sinister consequences for Charlie as it threatens to end his relationship with Don, and his life.

Warnings: Minor violence and language. Lots of angst.

Disclaimer: The characters you recognize belong to Cheryl Heuton and Nicolas Falacci. No copyright infringement intended.

Author's Note: An element of the plot resembles that of another Numb3rs story currently being posted. This is purely coincidental.

Many thanks to my awesome beta's Elise and Lostinwonderland. This story wouldn't be what it is now without their help.

Proving Ground

Part 1/6

by Megan

Never forget what a man says to you when he is angry.

-Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887)

Friday

3:25 pm

"... so you see, because x is the reciprocal of y, the graph will look something like this."

The sound of Charlie's chalk scraping on the board filled the classroom as he quickly demonstrated to his students one of the more advanced concepts of the afternoon's lesson. Once finished, he turned back to the class. With a satisfied smile, he watched as the students finished taking notes and looked back at him expectantly. Nothing thrilled him more than seeing the understanding in his students eyes as they grasped yet another concept.

"Are there any questions? No? Well then make sure to read chapters eight and nine tonight and I'll see you all Monday afternoon. Have a good weekend everyone."

Sitting down, Charlie watched, and nodded at his students as they filed past him to head home for the day. Once the class was almost empty, save for a handful of students still gathering their papers, he focused on writing lesson plans for next weeks lectures. He was forced to stop when a shadow crossed his desk.

Thinking it was a student who had decided they had a question after all, he looked up with a smile on his face. The smile faltered somewhat when he realized who it was standing in front of his desk.

"Professor Eppes," Tony greeted in his usual gruff manner.

Tony Rossey was one of the students that sat in the back of the classroom and never asked any questions. His homework was always submitted on time, and even though he was quite bright, the assignments of late had been suffering. Trying to talk to Tony about it had been pointless. The kid simply didn't want his help.

"What can I do for you, Tony?" Charlie politely inquired. "Did you have a question about today's assignment?"

"No." He carelessly dropped a pile of papers onto the desk. Charlie immediately recognized them as being the assignment he had returned at the start of class. "I want you to fix this."

Charlie's eyes followed Tony's thick finger to the D+ he was pointing to on the title page of the assignment.

"Your mark? I went thoroughly through your work, Tony. I can't give you a higher mark than that. Your proofs don't make sense, the equations are sloppy -"

"I need a higher mark," Tony interrupted.

Charlie thought about it for a minute. "Well, if you wanted to resubmit the paper I could -"

"No!" Tony exclaimed, causing Charlie to jump. "You don't understand. My father knows I'm getting the assignment back today and will expect to know the mark tonight. Redoing the assignment is not an option."

Charlie pushed his chair back, feeling slightly intimidated, but disguised his actions as a stretch so as not to alert Tony to his discomfort. Tony was a big guy, easily outweighing the professor by sixty pounds. While Charlie was used to dealing with difficult students, he'd never felt physically threatened before.

"Well, Tony, I'm not sure what you expect me to do."

Picking up a pen, he pushed it, and the assignment towards Charlie. "Change the mark."

"Tony," Charlie incredulously exclaimed. "You know as well as I do I can't do that."

"You don't understand, professor. My dad will not appreciate this mark. Do you know what he'll do?"

The uneasiness in Charlie's stomach grew. "If you're in some kind of trouble, there are people that can help."

"I guess it's too late, isn't it?" Grabbing the assignment off the desk with enough force to crunch the papers, Tony left the classroom after shooting Charlie a scathing look.

Stunned by what had just occurred, Charlie sat at his desk and stared into space. He'd never had a conversation like that with a student. Was Tony in trouble? Did he come from an abusive family? Knowing that the situation could get out of hand, and part of his responsibility as a teacher was the welfare of his students, he grabbed his bag and headed to the campus offices to notify the appropriate people of the troubling conversation.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

Monday

12:50 pm

Charlie returned to his classroom from lunch with a cup of tea in hand, and started setting up for his afternoon lecture. The weekend had gone by far too quickly for his liking. Don had been too wrapped up in work to stop by, and his father had spent most of the weekend reading after claiming he was feeling a little low. The solitude had left Charlie lots of time to work on a series of problems Larry had needed help with.

After setting down his belongings, Charlie realized someone had come and taken the overhead projector. It wasn't the first time, and it wasn't necessarily a problem. He just wished people would return it on time. As students started filing in for their afternoon class, he slipped past them in search of a projector.

Returning, he briefly apologized and swept the room with his eyes. He froze when his eyes locked with those of Tony Rossey. Sitting in his usual spot, Tony didn't look any more or less troubled than he normally did. In fact, it almost looked like he was suppressing a smile.

Part way through the lesson, he quickly finished off his tea, grimacing as the now cold liquid slid down his throat.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

Monday

3:40 pm

"Good afternoon, Charles," a friendly voice greeted him. Looking up from his work, he blinked and tried to bring the blurry form, that turned out to be Larry, into focus.

Towards the end of the class, he'd started feeling sick and found he couldn't concentrate on the lecture. He had managed to finish the class, but immediately had to sit down before he collapsed. The room seemed to swirl around him, and he felt uneasy, like something bad was about to happen. It has to be the flu, he thought to himself. Dad said he wasn't feeling well over the weekend.

"Are you all right, Charles? You look a little flushed." Larry's concerned voice broke his reverie.

"Oh, hi Larry. It's nothing. I think I'm getting a bit of a cold. What can I do for you?" He managed a small smile and tried to act as natural as possible.

"Well, I wanted to see how you made out over the weekend with those equations. I would have checked earlier, but Laurel and I were otherwise engaged."

"Good for you, Larry. It looks like things are going good between you two."

"Yes, yes, they are." He ran his hand through his hair as he approached the desk, but didn't elaborate further. "The equations?"

"Oh, yes, that's right," Charlie said as he turned and rummaged through his bag. Producing a folder, he handed it over to Larry. "Here ya go, I think that's everything."

"Good. That's good, Charles. Now, you go home and take care of that cold. You don't want to get worse."

"Sure thing, Larry."

Somehow, he managed to get his stuff together and bike home. The more time passed, the better he felt. He still felt spaced out, but wasn't nearly as dizzy. Maybe all he needed was fresh air.

The house was silent when he got home. There was a pot of stew on the stove, and a note on the fridge from his father explaining that he had gone to bed as he still wasn't feeling well. Being as quiet as possible so as not to disturb his father, Charlie got a small bowl of stew and sat at the kitchen table. He found he wasn't really hungry.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

Friday

12:15 pm

Larry made his way to Charlie's classroom, intent on chewing the younger man out for showing up. Over the course of the week, Charlie had gotten progressively worse. It had started out with a slightly flushed appearance, and he seemed more distracted than usual. As the days passed, Larry had noticed dark circles forming under his friends eyes, drawn features, slight tremors, and a complete lack of appetite. Charlie hadn't gone with him for lunch since Tuesday. When Charlie had released his afternoon class early yesterday, Larry's alarm bells went off.

He rounded the corner and found his friend slumped over his desk, fast asleep. At least he's getting some sleep, Larry thought to himself.

"Charles," he gently called, approaching the desk. "Charles, I'm going to take you home."

"Hmm?" Charlie moaned, raising his head.

"You're not well, Charles. Get your stuff and I'll drive you home."

"Don't you have class? Wait, I have class."

Larry's eyes narrowed. Charlie knew full well Larry didn't have a class on Friday afternoon. Also, how could Charlie have forgotten that every other Friday the class he normally taught in the afternoon was in the morning? Any doubts he'd been experiencing about Charlie's health, or lack thereof, were abolished. It was obvious the young man was sick.

As Charlie stood, Larry saw his knees start to buckle and rushed forward to grab his arm before he fell and hit his head on something.

"Charles!" he exclaimed, worried. "Are you all right? What's wrong?"

"It's nothing, Larry. I was just a little dizzy. I'm fine now." To prove his point, he shrugged off Larry's arm and continued gathering his stuff.

"When was the last time you ate?"

Charlie thought hard for a moment. Before he could reply, Larry interrupted.

"Okay. If you had to think about it that long, it's been way too long. No wonder you're dizzy."

Charlie mutely accepted Larry's reason for his dizziness, and tried to ignore the fuzziness in his head. It was getting bad. So bad in fact, that he'd dismissed yesterday's afternoon class because he was unable to concentrate. He couldn't remember anything. Even big events, like what he'd done at home last night, things he should be able to remember, weren't accessible to him. He felt like he was caught in a storm, and no matter how loud he yelled for help, he knew no one would hear. It almost felt like his mind was separating into it's own world while leaving his body behind.

He silently followed Larry to his car, his mind starting to drift again.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

Friday

1:20 pm

Charlie stood in the garage, feeling like he was in a nightmare. No matter how much he wanted to do something, his body refused to let him now. His mind raced with images of numbers and equations. They flashed through his mind at lightning speed like nothing he'd ever experienced before. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't stop his hands from trying to write down every piece of information that appeared. He could feel his heart racing, sweat dripping down his back, and his breaths coming in quick pants.

This was the absolute worst he had felt. For the past few days he'd felt off, with some days being worse than others. With each progressive day that went by, he kept feeling generally worse and worse. Larry was the only one who had noticed, but had believed Charlie's excuse that it was just a cold. His hazy mind couldn't remember seeing Don or his Dad at all in the past few days.

No one else paid any attention. They thought he was just in one of his phases working on a hard problem. Only he knew that wasn't the case.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

Please review. Constructive comments greatly appreciated.