Disclaimer: I don't own the characters and I don't make any money off of them.
A/N: Thanks as always to ritt, the world's best beta and sounding board!
"Did you know," a very drunk Don slurred, "That a sneeze can kill you?"
Charlie stared at his older brother in obvious bewilderment. Don had just shown up unannounced at his house – not an uncommon occurrence – but the fact that he'd arrived in a cab and more drunk than he'd ever been scared the hell out of Charlie.
"Come on, genius," Don jeered. "You're not answering."
"I, um," Charlie fumbled for words as he eyed the beer in Don's hand, still unopened but he suspected not for long. "I guess if it was a large enough sneeze to set off a vasovagal response-"
"English, Charlie!" Don snapped. "I'm talking a plain old sneeze. Don't go making it all fancy."
"Then no, Don, I didn't know that could be fatal." Charlie slowly sat on the couch next to Don, trying to decide the best way to slip the still unopened bottle from his hands.
"How about when you're hiding from some psycho with a gun?" Don slurred, though his voice had dropped to a whisper. "Trying to be quiet while some hapless agent tells you he's coming to get you, and you sneeze." Don looked up at Charlie with an expression of utter despair. "How about then, Charlie?"
Charlie just stared at his big brother, at a complete loss for words. He leaned back into the sofa and shifted so that his shoulder was resting against Don's. "Want to talk about it?" he quietly offered.
"No," Don replied. "But it... This one... I can't get it out of my head."
"Hapless agent?" Charlie asked.
"I couldn't save her," Don whispered brokenly. "I kept telling her she would be okay – that I was coming to get her – but I couldn't make it in time."
"Theresa Malone. She was his latest kidnap victim. Only six years old." Don's head sagged to his chest and he let the bottle slip from his hands to crash onto the floor.
Charlie watched as the bottle shattered and fluid flowed everywhere, and he couldn't help but relate that to Don. His strong big brother was sitting next to him, shattered and distraught, his emotions threatening to spill out. "You were talking to her?"
Don nodded as he watched the beer seep into the living room rug. "Sorry about the rug, Charlie."
"I don't care about the rug," the younger man assured him. "I can clean it; I can buy another one. I care about you."
"She got out of the room he kept her in," Don continued. "She was so smart, too. She grabbed his cell phone and called nine-one-one. Her name was out there on an Amber alert, and I was listed as the lead on the investigation, so they patched her through to me." He paused and leaned over as if to pick up the broken pieces of glass, but Charlie grabbed his forearm and restrained him.
"That can wait," he whispered quietly. "This can't. Please, Don, go on."
"I asked her if she saw anywhere she could hide. Somewhere small and dark where maybe he couldn't fit. She was breathing so hard, and she kept letting out these little sobs... I told her she had to be brave and be as quiet as possible." Don closed his eyes and let his head flop onto the back of the couch. "She did it, too. She stopped crying and started breathing normally. I told her she was doing great and she said..." Don's voice trailed off and he ground his teeth.
"Said what?" Charlie begged as he rubbed Don's arm.
"She said she could because..." Don's voice hitched and he growled in frustration. "Because she knew I was going to come get her."
"You were tracing the call?" Charlie asked. "Keeping her on the line while you located her?"
"Right," the older man breathed. "She said there was a closet... She said it was smelly and small, but she climbed in there and shut the door. She told me it didn't have a lock, but I promised her that was okay – that I'd be there soon."
Charlie swallowed the lump in his throat and gazed at his defeated brother. He wanted to hug him so badly, but sensed that Don wouldn't be able to handle that right now. Instead, he remained silent and let Don go on at his own pace.
"She heard him nearby so I told her to be quiet, but leave the phone on." Don placed a hand on his face and pinched the bridge of his nose as he squeezed his eyes shut. "Then... she sneezed. I guess it was sudden and startled her because she dropped the phone. When she picked it up, she was crying."
Charlie could only nod in mute horror as he imagined how terrified the little girl must have been.
"They radioed with her location and I was only a block away. I drove as fast as the truck would go. Even over the noise of the racing engine, I heard her talking to me. 'He's coming, Agent Don. He heard me. I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry...' Then another loud noise and she screamed." Don caught Charlie off guard as he listed to the side and buried his face in the younger man's shoulder. "Oh God, Charlie. I heard him. I heard the gunshot..."
Charlie blinked back tears as he reached up and threaded his fingers through Don's hair, laying his cheek on top of his brother's head. He didn't have the words to say – didn't know how to ease his brother's pain – so he just made as much physical contact with him as he could.
"He killed her," Don whispered. "I got to the place – an abandoned house – and found him carrying her body out of the house. He saw me and he smiled, Charlie. The pervert smiled at me as he held the little girl's body against his chest. I actually prayed that he would try to shoot me. I wanted a reason to... You know."
Charlie nodded and slipped his other hand around Don's shoulders.
"But he didn't. He told me he was setting her body down and surrendering. God help me, Charlie, I was tempted to shoot him right then and there." Don paused and sighed in exhaustion. "But I couldn't make myself do it."
"I know," Charlie finally found his voice. "Because you are a good man. I know it and little Theresa knew it, too. You did good, Don. You caught a dangerous, twisted man. He's not going to be able to hurt anyone ever again."
"Why?" Don quietly begged. "You're the smart one. Why did this happen, Charlie?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "But it did, and it is going to make you stronger. It hurts now, but give it time. It's who you are, Don, and I would never change that, not for anything in the whole world." Don nodded against his brother's shoulder and Charlie smiled, please to know that Don would still seek him out for comfort when something bad happened.
"I can stay over tonight?" Don spoke, breaking the silence.
"Of course," Charlie nodded and tightened his embrace. "In fact, I'm not letting go of you tonight."
Don barked a short, sad laugh. "Promise?"
"Anytime," Charlie whispered as he sensed his brother drift off to sleep. He smiled and kept holding Don, determined to keep watch over him throughout the night.