Warnings: Some disturbing images, mild language

Spoilers: Big ones for Sniper Zero

Setting: Early season 2

Disclaimer: The characters belong to C. Heuton and N. Falacci. I am making no money from this.

Author's Note: This story is in a different style from what I usually write. There is loads of Charlie angst and a little h/c. This is my attempt at something 'artsy'. Due to the style, I felt it necessary to overlook some of the punctuation in order to not interrrupt the story's flow. I hope you enjoy it.

Thanks to Swenglish for encouraging me to finish this story in a timely fashion.

Fine

by Megan

"You ask me why I do not write something... I think one's feelings waste themselves in words, they ought all to be distilled into actions and into actions which bring results."

-Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

I take the stairs to the upstairs bathroom two at a time because I know dad still hasn't fixed the downstairs one. One of Charlie's experiments had taken a turn for the worse and lord only knew what he did to that toilet to screw it up so badly. I wish he could be more like a normal kid and build model cars instead of doing his best to demolish the house.

Today was his first day of high school, and oddly enough, I didn't even see him there. Not that I'm too upset over that. Hanging out with your younger genius brother isn't what gets you friends.

Once at the top of the stairs, my stomach sinks when I see the bathroom door closed. Knowing it can only be one person, I bang on the door hoping to scare the crap out him, literally and figuratively, so I can get in there before I'm forced to do something embarrassing or drastic; whichever comes first.

"Charlie! Get the hell outta there, I gotta go!" I yelled as loudly as possible, starting to dance on the balls of my feet.

No answer.

"Charlie! I know you're in there!"

"In a minute, Don."

His voice is soft, quiet. If I didn't have to go so badly I might have thought something was wrong, but seeing as how my eyeballs must be yellow by now, there could be an air strike and I wouldn't care. My bladder is practically exploding and I'm really jumping up and down now and what the hell is taking him so long?

"Charlie! If you're not out of there in three seconds I'll never let you look at my baseball cards again!"

Silence. Great. So now he's ignoring me. Left with two options, one of which is less than sanitary, I make a decision. It's not like I have anything he hasn't seen before.

Throwing open the door, what I saw actually made me forget about my bladder.

Charlie is standing in front of the mirror, his shirt haphazardly thrown on the floor. What catches my attention is the deep purple bruise over his ribs, and the dried blood contrasting horribly with the pink washcloth he'd used to dab his nose with. He's looking directly at me, his brown eyes wide and disbelieving.

"Charlie! What the hell happened?" And just like that, he closes off from me. He looks at the floor. If his shoulders slumped anymore they'd be down around his knees.

"I had an accident."

"What kind of accident?"

"I tripped on the stairs. Landed awkwardly on my side."

The tear stains on his face tell me he's lying. I walk around him heading towards the toilet, trying to hide the fact I'm looking for other bruises. He must be more perceptive then he lets on because he knows exactly what I'm doing.

"I'm fine, Don," he quietly says as he moves to put his shirt back on.

Charlie is back into his stubborn mode. The one that says, 'I'm old enough to take care of myself'. I just hope that one day this stubbornness of his doesn't get him killed.

Charlie says he's fine. I don't believe him.

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

Mom has cancer. I don't now whether to scream or cry. How can everything be going so right and then suddenly something horrible has to invade just to remind you that as good as you have it, you're just as unlucky as Joe Shmoe who sits on the street corner panhandling? The one thing that equalizes us all is fate.

Or death.

I shudder at that thought. I will not allow myself to think like that.

Dad had tried to sound calm on the phone, but I knew he was upset. The slight tremor in his voice and pause every time he had to say the word 'cancer' spoke silently to me. I wanted to hop on the first plane, I really did, but cases had to be wrapped up.

Now, three days later than what I'd wanted, I'm pulling into dad's driveway. Dad had said I didn't have to come out immediately. He'd said mom was just about to start chemo and that she didn't want him to miss work unnecessarily. That's mom. Worried about everyone else's well-being but her own.

Walking up to the front door, I pull out my key and let myself in. The first thing to strike me is the silence. A tingly feeling started working it's way out from my gut. What had happened?

"Dad? Mom?"

Only silence answered me. Hearing my heart pounding in my ears, I hurriedly walk into the kitchen and find a note in the middle of the kitchen table.

Donnie,

I've taken your mother to her first round of chemo.

Will be back around 3.

Your brother is in the garage. Please check on him.

Dad

Dad's letter sounded kind of ominous. I had a feeling as to what Charlie could be doing. If dad wanted me to check on him, he must not be handling this very well. But, was anyone? How was anyone supposed to deal with the fact their mother was dying from a slow and debilitating illness?

True to dad's word, Charlie was in the garage frantically scribbling on one of his many blackboards. The last time he did this was when he returned from Princeton. We didn't talk much back then, but I heard my parents talking. I knew he had it rough there.

I watched him for a minute, waiting to see if he'd acknowledge me. Obviously not.

"Charlie." My voice is quiet.

"Oh, hi Don." He doesn't even turn around as he replies, never mind the fact we haven't seen each other in years. I don't know what I was expecting. It wasn't like I'd left on good terms. It seemed he was once again choosing his numbers over me. At least his numbers couldn't hurt him. I couldn't say the same about myself.

"What is all this, Charlie?"

"P versus NP." He still didn't turn around.

"P what?" I asked as I walked over to examine one of the boards more closely.

"P versus NP. Polynomial versus non deterministic polynomial. I'm trying to determine if every language accepted by a non deterministic algorithm is also accepted by-"

Charlie had barely started talking and he was already going way over my head. I never knew if he did that unintentionally, or on purpose to make it obvious how much smarter than me he was. I hoped it was the former. "In english, Charlie?"

"Basically, a P type problem is a simple math equation. An NP problem is a problem that's so difficult to solve, it would take all the supercomputers in the world working together on it. If a computer can solve the NP problem by trying all possible solutions simultaneously, then P equals NP, and all digital encryptions would be worthless. This equation is said to be unsolveable," Charlie explained as though he were talking to a five year old.

"If it's unsolveable then why are you working on it?" I changed tactics. "Mom's going to be back soon from chemo. She's going to feel pretty crappy. Have you got her room all ready for her?"

His response was so quiet I couldn't make out what he had said. "Say that again, Charlie?"

"I won't need to. She's going to get better."

Charlie still hadn't turned around and I was starting to get pissed. What the hell was the matter with him that he couldn't look at me during a conversation?

"I know you want her to get better, buddy. I do too, but you have to face the fact she might be sick for a while." Or die. "Now would you turn around and look at me? Charlie!"

The chalk shatters like ice as it hits the pavement, the only sound in the garage is Charlie's heavy breathing. He spins, and I am taken aback by the anger in his eyes and his appearance in general. Three days. It's only been three days since mom's diagnosis, and Charlie is already falling apart. His face is pale, his clothes hang on his too thin frame. How is he going to survive this?

"She's going to get better," Charlie ground out. "If I solve P vs NP, I'll get something back. I'll be doing something good. Something everyone says is impossible. That means something good has to happen to me. To mom." That last part was whispered as he turns back and picks up another piece of chalk.

My eyes start to tear as I watch him. He's bargaining. I know the stages of grief. The next one is depression. How are we going to survive this?

That night at three in the morning, I begged and then threatened him to get some sleep. He told me he was fine. I didn't believe him.

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

Charlie almost got killed today. I thought maybe becoming a teacher and taking responsibility would have tempered his stubborn streak. I thought maybe he'd do as he was told. I thought wrong. That sniper certainly didn't think twice before taking a shot.

I got into the driver's side of the SUV and slammed the door, feeling pleased when Charlie flinched. Serves him right. He didn't have any problems walking into the line of fire. Something needs to frighten him.

"I'm sorry, Don," Charlie whispered, his voice shaking. "I didn't think-"

"Damn right you didn't think!" I yelled, hitting the steering wheel. "You didn't think and you certainly didn't listen!"

"I said I was sorry."

"Well sorry doesn't cut it this time! Do you know what I felt when I saw that gun pointed at you? What I thought? I thought I was going to have to explain to dad why his mathematician son was shot to death surrounded by FBI agents!"

Charlie remained hunched, his hands held firmly between his knees. It wasn't working. He was shaking so hard no amount of restraint was going to stop it. It's that damned adrenal response he was so proud of before. Well, he certainly isn't proud of it now.

A lone tear tracks down his pale face. What was he seeing in his mind? Was he imagining what the bullet would have felt like tearing through his body? Was he seeing his funeral? Or maybe he was wishing he could have finished his calculation before the sniper's interruption.

Moments later, my anger faded into something a little more constructive: concern. Anger would get me nowhere with Charlie, and would only cause him to respond in kind. Concern might get through to him.

"Are you hurt, Charlie?" He'd hit the ground pretty hard. I had been so concerned with not letting him get killed that a trivial bruise or cut hadn't mattered.

"I'm fine," he answered, sounding like a child who had just lost their first pet.

Clenching my jaw, I really tried to not yell. Instead, I reached over and tugged on his sleeve, pulling one of his hands up from between his knees. Gently turning his hand over, I wasn't surprised to see the palm of his hand raw and abraded, fresh blood slowly oozing. Lord knew I'd taken more than one swan dive like that one before, and I knew exactly what kind of injuries it could cause.

Gently, I wadded up a bunch of kleenex and pressed them into his palm, closing his fingers around them. I then repeated the process with the other hand.

"Where else are you hurt, Charlie? Did you hit your head?"

His deep ragged breaths were the only response I was going to get. Looks like I was wrong again. Concern does not make him open up.

Charlie say's he's fine. I don't believe him.

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

Life is like a game of Chance. All it takes is one split second, one bad decision, and it's game over. It doesn't matter who you are, how good you are, how diligent you are. We are all going to meet our end whether we're ready to or not. A mother and child found that out the hard way today. Charlie almost did.

"David!" I barked. "Are you sure this is the right parking lot?"

"Charlie said it would be here."

Someone whose parents obviously didn't give them enough love as a child had decided blowing up cars was a better way to make a living than working at the corner mechanics shop. Charlie had been called in to help predict when and where the next bomb would be. He'd been right before. 'There's a pattern,' he'd said. 'Predicting the next attack is like child's play compared to some of the other cases I've helped you out on.' Little did he know that particular simile would hold much more meaning after the days events.

"Everyone split up!" I ordered. "I want every car checked. Make sure you go down the rows one at a time and don't check the same car twice! We don't have a lot of time."

The bombs simplistic nature made them easy to find. Almost like this person wanted to get caught. One turn of the key in the ignition, and it's game over. I was just about to help join the search when I heard a familiar voice calling my name, and excitement and something else apparent in the voice as well. Fear.

"Don! I know which car the bomb is in! There's a second pattern this guy is using!"

Charlie was running in my direction, sheer determination on his face.

"Row six, the car on the end!"

A car door slammed behind me, and time stopped. I heard Charlie's terrified yells, but all I could focus on was the car. It's light blue exterior, dented side fender, rolled up windows, the child sitting in the back, and the woman's hand turning the key in the ignition. Game's up.

Charlie tried to fly past me, but he was too late. We were too late. Grabbing him around the waist, I spun and flung him to the pavement, using all the strength I possessed. This was not Charlie's game.

I fell on top of him, covering his lean body with my own as a searing heat burned my back and the sound of two lives ending deafened me.

Charlie shook violently below me, as though his body was trying to shake off the knowledge of what had happened. I could feel each gasping breath, the tickle of his hair against my face.

Slowly, I rolled off and sat beside him. He immediately sat up, looking over at the car as if by some miracle someone could have survived the carnage. Charlie's naive and hopeful thoughts would only serve to disappoint him time and again.

"Don, why didn't you do something? I told you which car! We could have gotten them out!" he yelled.

"Charlie, there wasn't any time. I'm sorry, buddy."

"I should have been faster," he whispered. "If I'd driven 2.4 miles an hour faster I would have been here six seconds earlier and that would have been enough time. No, I should have phoned. You've told me you want me to phone. Why didn't I listen?"

Grabbing Charlie by the shoulders, I turned him so I could look into this pale, tear-streaked face. His normally vibrant and beautiful brown eyes were dull; looking through me.

"Charlie, listen to me. There is nothing we could have done, you hear? Blaming yourself is not going to help. Believe me, I know." Charlie continued to look through me. The familiar gnawing of fear in my gut started to take hold again. "Charlie, are you hurt?" His lack of response was starting to scare me. What if he was hurt?

Letting go of his shoulders, I ran my hands through his hair, felt around each of his shoulders and then down his arms to his cold and clammy hands. I checked his back, and then around to his chest and stomach. He still wasn't paying attention to me. It wasn't until I pressed against his slim hips that I got a reaction.

Pulling my hands back as though I'd been burned, I noticed a smear of blood on my left hand.

"I need some help over here!" I yelled as panic started to set in again. Charlie was still sitting there like a statue, probably reliving the event over and over again.

"Charlie, why didn't you tell me you were hurt?" I exclaimed as I lifted his shirt and gently tugged on the waist of his pants to take a look. The pale skin bore a minor scratch, but was bleeding quite heavily. "Charlie, answer me, damn it! Are you all right?"

Slowly, his eyes focused on me and widened as though he'd discovered the biggest secret in the universe. "No, Don. I'm not."

Charlie said he wasn't fine, and I believed him.

The End

Megan - March 2006

Here's the full and technical definition of P vs. NP: A problem used to determine whether every language accepted by some non deterministic algorithm in polynomial time is also accepted by some deterministic algorithm in polynomial time.

My P vs. NP info came from: www dot claymath dot org slash millennium slash P vs NP slash Official Problem Description dot pdf (if you are interested).

Thank you for reading. Comments welcome.