A/N: This fic is in response to a challenge. I trust the challenger will let me know what she thinks of it?
Professor Charles Eppes bounded through the front door of his Craftsman home calling, "Dad! You here?" Without waiting for a reply, he swung the door shut, dropped his book bag on the floor in the corner and started up the stairs two at a time.
His father, Alan Eppes, came out of the kitchen, drying his hands on a towel. Shaking his head at his youngest son's explosive entrance, he called back, "I was in the kitchen, Charlie." He made his way to the foot of the stairs and leaned on the banister. "What's up?" he asked.
The young mathematician came back down in the same manner he had ascended – at a run. "Don's gonna be here any minute. Have you seen my navy tie?" He was trying unsuccessfully to tuck his shirttails into a pair of neatly pressed suit pants – a feat hampered by the fact that he was still moving at top speed.
"Slow down! What's your hurry?" Alan put one hand on his hip as he watched his son rake the curls back from his face.
Charlie let out an exasperated sigh. "Didn't you hear me? I said Don…"
Nodding slowly, his father replied, "I heard, I heard. Since when does your brother's imminent arrival get you into such a state?"
Charlie dropped into a nearby chair. "Dad," he said, the tone of his voice urging Alan to understand. "I have a lecture on the Gauss Prize tonight. It's very important that I'm not late."
"The 'Gauss Prize'?" Alan's brow wrinkled in confusion. "I don't think I've ever heard of…"
Rubbing a hand through his dark hair, Charlie interrupted, "That's because it's never been awarded before." He stood and began pacing in agitation. "The Gauss Prize is a new award named after Carl Friederich Gauss. He was practically the father of applied mathematics…" He stopped and turned to his father. "Never mind. The point is, the Gauss Prize is an award for those whose work in mathematics has made an impact outside of the math community." Charlie gestured wildly as he added, "It's a monumental award for applied mathematics, Dad! The first one is to be awarded this year, and the lecture tonight is all about that! I don't want to miss it!" He brushed past his father, muttering, "Now where's that damn tie…"
Alan snorted softly in laughter as Charlie bounded back up the stairs. His son's antics when he got into an agitated state never failed to amuse him. As Charlie raced back down, now with a maroon tie draped around his neck, Alan asked, "So – you're not the one giving the lecture?"
Charlie shook his head as he headed to the hall mirror. "I'm not a lecturer, no." Just at that moment, the front door opened and Special Agent Don Eppes stepped through.
"Hey Charlie," he said by way of greeting. "Look who I found in the driveway." He stepped to one side to allow the people behind him to enter. Charlie smiled broadly as his friends Larry Fleinhardt and Amita Ramanujan came through the doorway behind his brother.
"Hey, Larry – Amita. You coming too?" he asked.
The pretty young woman glanced at her companion and shrugged. "It is a landmark event Charlie. I wouldn't want to miss it."
"Absolutely," Larry agreed. He folded his arms and rested his chin on his right hand. "I can't think of a single instance when I anticipated the arrival of a mathematical award more. It's long overdue."
Charlie turned back the mirror and began fumbling with his tie. "Me neither. It's about time people working in that field got recognition for all their hard work."
Don chuckled. "Like you, Charlie?"
Pausing, his brother said speculatively, "Like me… but not necessarily me." He resumed tying. "I know plenty of people who work in applied mathematics that deserve this award." Dropping his voice a little, he added, "And some who never lived to see it."
Amita reached out and rubbed Charlie's shoulder sympathetically. She watched his fingers slow on the dark silk, and finally turned him around to face her. "Let me do it," she offered. Charlie's hands dropped to his sides as she undid the knotted mess at his throat. "Ties are so overrated," she observed lightly.
Don exchanged a puzzled glance with Alan, who shrugged. "Who are you talking about, Charlie?" he asked. "Mom?"
"Actually," Larry replied softly. "I don't believe that Charles was referring to your mother in this instance, Don."
Charlie shook his head sadly. "No," he said. "Although Mom would've been interested. I was thinking of someone else."
Amita finished with the tie and brushed some loose hairs from Charlie's collar. "There you are," she said brightly. "All set."
Don smiled, masking his concern for his little brother. "Looking good Charlie." Glancing at his watch, he exclaimed, "If we don't leave now, we'll never make it on time!"
Charlie grabbed his suit jacket from where it was draped over the back of one of the dining room chairs. Shrugging into it hurriedly, he said, "Let's go then." Calling a farewell to his father, Charlie ushered his friends out the door. Both Larry and Amita said their goodbyes as well and headed for Amita's car.
Don traded a long look with his father before hurrying out the door after them.
Charlie carefully set his knife and fork on his plate and sighed heavily. "Dad…" He tried to stem the flow of questions. Ever since he and Don returned from the lecture, his father had been asking – directly and indirectly – for Charlie to explain his earlier comment. "I don't want to…"
Alan interrupted. "Well pardon me if, as a concerned father, I worry about what is bothering you! You make a remark like that and then breeze out the door – I've been wondering what's gotten you so down lately!"
"I am not 'down'!" Charlie all but yelled. Rising from the table, he picked up his plate and headed for the kitchen.
"Come back in here and finish your supper!" Alan commanded Charlie's retreating figure.
"I seem to have lost my appetite!"
Alan growled in frustration and glanced at his eldest son. "Don't you have anything to say?" he asked.
Don shrugged and downed the last of his bottle of beer. "Like what?" he countered. "If Charlie wants to talk about it, he will." He rose from the table and picked up his plate. "If he doesn't… you're not going to get him to." Heading for the kitchen, he added, "Leave him be, Dad." He drew up short as the door swung open abruptly. Charlie narrowly missed colliding with his brother on his way out of the kitchen. Don watched silently as the young genius took the stairs two at a time.
Shaking his head, Alan picked up his own dish and stood to follow. "Whatever this is has been bugging him for a week now," he said by way of explanation. As Don held the door open, he passed through into the kitchen and set his plate on the counter by the dishwasher. Don added his own to the stack and grabbed a sponge to wipe down the countertops. Alan continued, "I wish he'd just let it out. He'd feel better."
"Why don't you tell him that?" Don asked, hands spread wide, palms up. "The way you've been asking, it sounds like an attack." He turned away and began sweeping detritus from the evening's meal into the disposal. "If I asked questions like that in my line of work, I'd never get anywhere."
"I'm not conducting an interrogation, Don!" Alan argued, putting dishes into the dishwasher with a loud clatter. "I'm worried about your brother – he's upset about something, and I want to know what it is!" He slammed the heavy door shut and braced the palms of his hands on the countertop. "I want to help him," he finished quietly.
Don set down the sponge and put one hand on his father's shoulder. "Then leave him alone, Dad. Let him do – whatever it is he needs to do. He'll tell you when he's ready."
"Like you do?" Alan snorted in derision. He shrugged off his son's hand and turned to face him. "You never tell me what's bothering you."
Don made as if to turn back to the sink, but stopped. Fixing his father with a steady gaze, he replied in a low tone "Maybe I'm not ready."
In the stunned silence that followed this announcement, Alan glanced over Don's shoulder to see Charlie standing in the open doorway. Clearing his throat, Alan asked, "How long have you been standing there, son?"
Charlie shook his head. "Not long," he replied. He stepped into the kitchen and shoved his hands in the pockets of his blue jeans, the picture of discomfort. "I was thinking, and I realised you weren't trying to be nosey, Dad…" He shrugged. "And then I heard you say you were worried about me."
"Let's go sit down in the other room," Alan offered. The three men filed into the dining room and resumed their seats. Both Don and Alan waited patiently for Charlie to continue.
Shaking the curls out of his eyes, Charlie said, "When I was at Exeter giving a lecture…"
Don cut in. "You were at Oxford?"
"About – what? Four? Five years ago, Charlie?" Alan responded.
"Closer to six." Charlie rolled his eyes at the interruption. "Anyway – I was giving a lecture there and I met this wonderful woman…" At his brother's widening grin, Charlie sighed. "Get your mind out of the gutter, Don. She was a fellow mathematician – a researcher, in fact – with some brilliant ideas for application outside of the laboratory."
Alan asked, "What happened?"
Charlie shrugged. "Not much. We talked – for hours. She was incredibly brilliant. A wonderful mind…" he trailed off.
Don leaned forward. "Charlie?" he asked softly.
His brother scrubbed his face with both hands and heaved a tortured sigh. "Last week I got a letter in the mail. From her lawyer. It said she'd been killed in a car accident." Don and Alan exchanged long looks. "He's coming here."
"Who?" Alan asked. "The lawyer? From Oxford?"
Nodding, Charlie said, "Apparently she wrote me into her will."
"You must have made quite an impression," his brother observed.
"I guess." Charlie sighed again. "I don't want to seem ungrateful, but… I don't want anything of hers. I don't want to be reminded…"
Alan said slowly, "I understand. I know how you feel, Charlie."
Charlie looked at his father sadly. "I thought you might." He laced his fingers together and rested his hands on the tabletop. "It's just so hard – she was a beautiful person. Not just physically, but mentally… spiritually." He paused. "I mean…"
"She had a beautiful soul," his father finished.
"Yeah," Charlie whispered. He gazed at the polished oak sorrowfully. "A beautiful soul," he repeated.
Don reached out and covered his brother's hands with one of his own. "I'm sorry, buddy," he said. "We'll be here when he shows up – will that make you feel any better?"
Charlie nodded again and lifted his gaze to his brother's face. Giving him a crooked smile, he replied, "Yeah. That'd be good."
"No problem." Don let go of Charlie's hand and stood up. "Any idea what time?"
"Anytime after eight," he replied. "I told him I had afternoon classes." He watched as his brother unclipped the cell phone from his belt and walked into the kitchen. He could hear Don making a call – probably to his office.
Alan spoke. "Charlie, why didn't you tell me sooner? You've been going on for a whole week…" he let the words trail off, unsure of how to continue.
"Don't, Dad," Charlie pleaded. "It's enough – this is enough. Now you know."
"All right." Alan pushed back from the table. "You'd better get some sleep, my son. Tomorrow comes early."
Don re-entered the room. "All set," he said. "I'm going to go home. I'll be back at seven thirty."
Charlie and his father stood simultaneously. "Thanks, Don – Dad," he said before heading for the stairs. "I appreciate this." His heavy footfalls hung in the air long after his bedroom door had closed.
Alan turned to his oldest son. "Yes, Don," he added. "Thank you."
"Hey," Don replied, grabbing his jacket from its peg near the front door. "We're family, right?" He sketched a short wave and departed.
"We're getting there."
"Professor Charles Edward Eppes?"
Charlie nodded at the elderly man standing on his doorstep. "That's me," he replied.
The gentleman stuck out his hand. "Pleased to meet you, my young man." Charlie shook it, pleasantly surprised at the firmness and warmth of his grip. He continued in his cultured Oxford accent, "My name is Bartholomew Wainwright. I'm Doctor Langhorne's solicitor."
Stepping to one side, Charlie invited the man in and ushered him to a chair in the living room. Wainwright didn't perch on the edge of his seat, like Charlie expected, but lowered himself right into the chair. "Lovely furniture, this," Wainwright commented. "Is it Stickley?"
"Yes, it is." Alan came in from the kitchen carrying a tray of cups and a coffeepot. "Are you familiar with Stickley furniture, Mr. Wainwright?"
"I'm an avid admirer of Gustav Stickley's work," the man replied. "You must be Professor Eppes' father."
Alan gave his youngest an admonishing glance. "Alan Eppes, at your service," he replied. "Would you like some coffee?"
"Yes, I believe I would. Cream, no sugar, please. And by all means, do call me Barty."
Alan began to pour. "As long as you call me Alan," he replied.
"Certainly." Barty pulled back his sleeve cuff and checked his watch. "Dear me," he sighed. "I can never adjust properly to the different time zones." To Charlie, he said, "Would you happen to have the correct time?"
Glancing at his watch, Charlie replied, "It's ten after eight." He looked up at his father, about to ask where Don was when the door opened and his brother rushed in.
"Charlie… Dad…" he began, halting at the sight of their visitor.
"Don!" Alan greeted him warmly. "Come in and say hello to Mr. Bartholomew Wainwright."
The little man stood and took Don's hand. "Just Barty, please," he said.
"Don Eppes." Don released the other man's hand and seated himself on the couch. "Charlie's brother."
"And my son," Alan put in.
Don grinned. Turning to Charlie, he said, "Sorry I'm late. I got a phone call last night, and – you know how it goes."
"I take it you haven't gotten any sleep yet, then?" Charlie asked. Don shook his head.
Noting Barty's speculative look, Alan said, "Don gets calls at all hours of the day, Barty. He works for the FBI."
"Ah, how interesting." Barty seemed to relax slightly. "An FBI agent, a mathematics professor, and… what do you do, Alan?" he asked. "If I may inquire? Are you retired?"
"No, no," Alan answered, sitting beside Don on the couch. "Not anymore. I have a consulting business I run with a friend of mine. I used to be a city planner," he added. "Now I do architecture consultations."
"Admirable," Barty replied. "All fine upstanding careers."
Charlie leaned forward in his seat. "Mr. Wainwright – Barty," he amended. "You've been very nice and all, but can we get to the point please?" At Barty's upraised eyebrows, he continued, "I've got to admit – I'm uncomfortable with the whole idea of being in Cassie's will. I'm…" he paused and cleared his throat. "We were great friends, and I – I can't…" He trailed off, momentarily overcome with emotion. Don reached for him, but Charlie shook his head vehemently. After regaining his composure, he asked quietly, "Could we just get on with it?"
Barty set his cup on the coffee table. "Of course," he replied, his cultured accent a soothing balm to Charlie's nerves. "I am sorry for your loss, Charlie. Cassandra was a lovely young woman." He reached into his pocket and drew out a long, cream-colored vellum envelope. Passing it to Charlie, he said, "She left you this."
Charlie took the envelope in slightly trembling fingers. Glancing at Alan and Don for moral support, he gently opened the flap and pulled out a matching piece of paper. Unfolding it carefully, he began to read. As his eyes scanned the page, he said, "This must be wrong."
"I assure you," Barty replied quietly. "It is all correct and completely legal."
Charlie looked at the grey-haired solicitor frantically. "No!" he cried. "No, it has to be wrong! I can't do this!"
"Charlie!" Alan became alarmed. Don reached for the paper as his father came around Barty's chair and put his arm around his youngest son's shoulders. "What's the matter, Charlie?" he asked. "What can't you do?"
Don read the letter, one hand over his mouth in shock. Looking up at Barty, he asked, "This is all in order, you said?" The elderly man nodded sombrely. Don added, "When is this supposed to happen?"
Glancing again at his watch, Barty replied, "In approximately forty minutes, if I've got the times correct. That would make it nine-fifteen, more or less, would it not?" Don nodded.
Alan demanded, "Would someone please tell me what's going on here?"
"Certainly," Barty replied. "In her will, Doctor Cassandra Langhorne named Professor Charles Edward Eppes the legal guardian of her four-year-old daughter, Emma."