Chapter 7: It's not him
Don stayed in his determined mind until he was halfway to Pasadena. The closer he got to his childhood home though, the more doubts started to hit him, causing his carefully built up shield against complete and utterly despair to crack and crumble. By the time he pulled into the driveway, his fierce belief that it wasn't Charlie, that he hadn't just witnessed Charlie being bagged and transported to the morgue - well, it wasn't so fierce anymore and that caught up with him.
For five minutes he sat in his car, unmoving, slumped over the steering wheel, breathing hard, trying to fight back the panic again, to gain back some control over his emotions. He needed to get a grip of himself, damn it. It was bad enough that he had to go in and tell his father that Charlie's car had been blown up and that Charlie was still unaccounted for. He couldn't break down on top of that. He needed to be strong, calm, give his father the reassurance that everything was going to turn out fine.
But was it really? What if it had been Charlie after all?
No! No, it wasn't him. It couldn't have been him! Don would know. He was sure he would know it if it had been Charlie or not, he would be able to feel it. If it had been his little brother, if he had lost him - he'd know. Simply because his heart would have been ripped out then and there. But his heart was still in his chest, albeit hurting, but it was still beating. He still felt complete, not devastatingly empty as his brother's loss would leave him.
It's not him.
Right. Right. Don took a couple of deep breaths and leaned back, his arms falling down. His eyes caught sight of the basket ball rack and unasked, flashes of the past conjured up in his mind. Him and Charlie at that day he had already remembered earlier, playing until their mother called them inside for steaks and potatoes. The first time they had played out here, Don showing Charlie how to hold the ball, how to triple, how to throw him, his surprise at how good Charlie turned out to be, and joy to at least have something normal he could do with his little brother. Their game after their first day of high school together, Don mad like hell but calming down somewhat while playing with Charlie, reminding himself that it wasn't his brother's fault that he ended up in the same year as Don. Their last game before they both headed out for college, when they had played the whole night, saying goodbye, making a silent promise to not let distance change their brotherhood. Or then that time when Don's confidence had been shattered after he had started to doubt that he had brought the right guy behind bars, ruining an innocent man's life, and Charlie had come out to play with him, giving him new hope.
Pain assaulted him like he had never experienced one before, so strong that he actually had to moan, closing his eyes that burned with tears again and once again having to calm down his breathing, his arms crossed over his hurting chest.
Please, Charlie, please be okay. You have to. It's not you.
But even if that body hadn't been Charlie, where was his little brother then? Why wouldn't he pick up his phone, why had no one seen him for the entire day? The thought that his brother had been kidnapped instead of blown up did nothing to calm his fear. But he'd be alive. And as long as he was alive, there was hope.
And as he was alive, because otherwise Don would know it, there was hope and now, all Don had to do was to find his little brother. Then kill him personally for scaring his big brother like that and having him go through this hell.
Three deep breaths later, Don felt himself in enough control to face his father, so he reopened his eyes and swiftly got out of the car, marching up to the door, perpetually avoiding to glance at the basket ball rack again. He hesitated another moment, his hand hovering over the knob, but then took another deep breath, repeated his mantra and quietly entered his childhood home. Soothing warmth engulfed him like it always did and what made him call this still his home, despite the apartment he owned but barely ever saw. It was quiet but Don could feel that his father was home, there just was this air of - family present. A delicious smell waved from the kitchen but for once, Don couldn't find any appetite in himself. This house was an oasis of quietness, of happiness, of rest - of peace. It was a happy house, despite their mother dying right here. Somehow, just that made this house perhaps even more peaceful. Today though he brought fear and grief to this house and he hated it that he had to be the one to taint this invaluable pool of constant warmth.
With a heavy heart he softly closed the door and slowly walked into the living room.
His father came out of the kitchen with a smile on his face. Don stopped, rooted to the place, unable to speak and he watched as the his father's smile died instantly, instinctively sensing that something was wrong.
"Donnie?" he asked, stepping towards Don.
Don lifted his head but didn't answer, couldn't. He had seen that smile die, had heard his father's gentle voice calling his childhood name, and all composure he had scratched together crumbled down into ashes along with his belief and his hope until he was left defenseless against the panic that had tried to overwhelm him since he had gotten that phone call from hell.
"What happened?" his dad bellowed but Don just couldn't answer him, couldn't tell him that Charlie...
Suddenly he felt himself being shaken, a hard grip on his shoulders, forcing him to look into his father's eyes, unable to hide the terrible news in his own eyes anymore, confronted with the growing fear in his father's.
He tried to speak, but his voice still wouldn't work. He tried harder, knowing that he owed his father the truth, that his dad needed to know. Finally, a word managed to come over his lips. "Dad." He wanted to close his eyes, unwilling to see what his next words would do to his father - to their family. Instead, he held his father's panicked eyes. "Charlie..." His voice broke and try as he might, he couldn't say anything else.
In front of his eyes, his dad paled as his eyes grew wide, wild with panic, with dread, with grief.
He couldn't watch this any longer. Bowing his head, Don closed his eyes. "He... His car... Dad, he's... I... I can't... I don't know..." his voice died.
The next thing he knew was feeling his father's soothing hand on the back of his head and his father's voice talking to him. "Donnie, shh, it's okay. Just tell me what happened to Charlie. Tell me what's wrong with your brother." A brief pause in which Don slowly raised his head again, looking up at his dad, feeling part of his panic grow back. "Please, Donnie. I need to know. Charlie... What happened?" his father urged him, his voice hitching a bit in the end.
Don took a painful breath and nodded miserably. His dad was right. He needed to know. "I'm not - sure, Dad," he admitted. "I... got a call. Charlie's car..." He had to stop.
His dad waited but before Don could continue to tell his father just what was going on, they were interrupted by an all too familiar voice.
"Dad? Don? What happened?"
Don's head snapped up. There was his brother, standing just outside the kitchen, staring at his father and brother with wide, worried eyes. His breathing, unharmed and very much alive little brother.
"Did someone die? Stan? Uncle Artie? Aunt Irene?" Charlie asked hurriedly, taking a step towards them, his eyes dark with concern and apprehension. "Is it one of your team? Don!"
With one big stride, Don was over by Charlie and had his little brother engulfed in a bone crashing hug, too relieved to hear the little yelp from Charlie as the air was literally squished out of his lungs and pressure was applied onto yesterday's graze. He buried his head into his brother's neck, deeply inhaling his scent, so familiar in his mixture of musk, aftershave, chalk and sweat. So precious.
It's not him.
Don buried his hand into Charlie's hair, bringing him even closer to him, tightening his grip. He wasn't sure if he ever wanted to let him go again. He wasn't sure if he could ever go through anything like he had in the past few hours again. But most of all, he didn't give a damn about who was watching his reaction. He didn't give a damn that at the moment, he was not the master of his emotions, that any sense of control had slipped him.
All that counted was that he had his baby brother in his arms, well and alive.
"Thank God," he whispered, further tightening his hold.
"Don." The muffled voice of Charlie echoed in Don's ears like an angel's choir, him not remembering ever having heard anything so sweet.
His brother was alive, was right there in his arms, so close that he could feel his breath on his neck, his heart beating against his own. Charlie was alive. He hadn't been burnt to unrecognition when his car had exploded right under him, he wasn't in a body bag on his way to the morgue, he wasn't being autopsied right this moment. It wasn't Charlie. He hadn't lost his little brother.
This time there was some urgency in his brother's voice and Don grew aware that he could feel Charlie straining against him. Oh. Reluctantly, Don let his brother go somewhat, still keeping him in his arms though, just drawing back enough so that his brother could breath again. He stared at his brother's relieved but confused face, trying to memorize even the smallest wrinkle and closed his eyes as a new wave of indescribable relief flooded through him.
Thank God indeed.
His one hand still buried into the dark curled mess of Charlie's hair and his other hand resting on the back of his brother's neck, he leaned his forehead against Charlie's. "I love you, Charlie. Never, ever do something like that to me again. I can't lose you," he declared quietly, surprised at how easy these words came over his lips. The Eppes men and he especially didn't talk feelings, let alone easily. Normally. But this time circumstances were anything than normal.
He hadn't told Charlie that he loved him since... he couldn't quite remember since when, but it had been sometime during their childhood. But after these past few hours, after having to battle against the possibility that he had lost his little brother forever for what felt now like an eternity, after his brotherly instinct having to stand up against what evidence was thrown at him - after feeling how devastating the loss of Charlie would be for Don, feeling that edge coming closer and closer, that black pitch of nothingness... He needed to tell Charlie, needed his brother to know and hear just how much he meant to Don so he would never do this to Don again, so Charlie would understand that he simply couldn't die, not now, not as long as Don lived.
"I love you," he repeated, with even more force.
He felt Charlie's hands gripping his arms and he opened his eyes to stare into his brother's dark eyes, even more confused than before and with something akin to fear now present there as well. "Don... What on Earth happened?" he asked, frowning. "And what did I do?"
Don leaned back a bit more, his eyes narrowing. As sudden and overwhelming the relief had come at the sight of his brother, unharmed and alive, as sudden rage now filled him and like with the relief, he had not the slightest incline to hold back now either.
"Yeah, Charlie, excellent question: What exactly is going on here? And where the hell have you been these past few hours, huh? Do you have any idea what I've been going through this afternoon? Do you have any idea how many times I tried to reach you?" he yelled, his hold on his brother tightening once again. He may be furious now with Charlie, but long not ready to let him go. Besides, this way he could guarantee that Charlie wouldn't escape. Charlie was going to tell Don what mess he was involved in now. "You want to know what happened? You died, that's what happened!" Don hissed, shaking Charlie a little. "You hear that, Charlie? You died! I thought you were dead. Are you happy now? I thought I lost you, you idiot, I saw your body, I saw them bag you for God's sake and you have the nerve to ask me what you did do?" Charlie had paled and he could feel him shaking in his hands. Don didn't care. "Have you any idea what hell I've been through, thinking that I might have lost you forever? Have you any idea how damn much that thought hurt? God, Charlie! What the hell were you thinking, vanishing like that, not picking up your phone, not leaving any note about your whereabouts, letting your car blow up. What? Did you think I wouldn't get notified? I'm your brother! I'm with the FBI! Who do you think they called first after confirming the license plate?! Did you think I just wouldn't care to learn that my brother's car got blown up with a body in it that matched your description?! What the hell, Charlie! Why didn't you call me, damn it? And you'll tell me what the fuck is going on or I swear to you, I'll kill you myself. What if it had been you, huh? What if you had died in that car today and not that poor bastard?" He was back to shaking Charlie again, all the pent up fear and panic of the past hours catching up with him with a vengeance. "You'll never do that to me again, you hear me, Charlie? Never! You tell me where you are, each minute of the day, you'll always have your cell with you, charged, and you'll pick up when I call you, no matter what and you will tell me what is going on, security level be damned. You got that, Charlie? Or by God, Charlie, I'll cuff you and lock you into your precious garage for the rest of your life, throwing away the key!" Don didn't notice that he was himself shaking or that the fear he had felt was plainly showing on his face, in his eyes, in his shaking voice. "Damn it, Charlie, say something. Talk!"
His eyes as wide as they could get, Charlie stared speechlessly at his big brother, totally taken aback at his uncharacteristic and total loss of control.
"What?" he asked finally, aghast, his voice small.
The moment his youngest had suddenly appeared by their side, Alan felt his knees go week with unspeakable relief and he staggered towards the next chair, sinking down listlessly. He wanted to go embrace his baby boy and never let him go, but Don had been faster than him and it looked as if Alan had to wait his turn.
Charlie was alive. Charlie was unharmed.
He couldn't have dealt with the loss of his youngest, he just couldn't have. Nor with Don's but he hadn't just the life scared out of him in fear of Don's life.
His eyes fell upon his boys, both of them alive and well and once again he sent a silent prayer heavenwards. Don had Charlie still in his arms, held tightly against him and Alan could see the confusion and surprise on Charlie's face. No wonder. If anything, his eldest was the master of showing no emotions. For Don to lose his precious control like that - frowning, Alan studied the back of his son. Whatever had happened or whatever Don had thought had happened, it had shaken him to the core and he suspected that Don would have a hard time accepting the fact that anything could get to him like that. With a small smile, Alan shook his head. He knew his son's job required from him to distance himself from his cases, to not allow emotions. What his son still had to learn was that strong emotions could also be strength, fuel. And that showing his family emotion was not a weakness.
A strangled sound from his youngest made him come back out of his thoughts and he was surprised to see that Don had even tightened his hold on his brother, apparently to the point that breathing got a little difficult for Charlie.
Indeed, whatever had happened must have been very disturbing for his strong eldest.
Alan was just about to tell Don to let his brother go when Don drew back on his own account, not letting go of his brother though, only leaning his head against Charlie's, whispering something to his little brother that Alan couldn't get. It must have been something big though because Charlie's expression showed nothing but shocked surprise.
As obvious as Don's distress was that apparently, Charlie had no clue as to what was going on. Technically, nor had Alan, but he had seen Don before Charlie had shown up, had witnessed how Don had tried to tell him something he definitely didn't want to say and it was easy for Alan to guess just what Don had almost told him. A cold shiver ran down his spine as he imagined what would have been if it had turned out that Charlie was...
He knew he probably wouldn't have survived his baby boy by long, him just not strong enough to deal with another devastating loss of a loved one, his son. What did surprise him though was to discover, that he wouldn't have been the only one to not bear such a loss again. Not that he hadn't already known that Don loved and needed his little brother more than he was aware of - but he still had thought that even losing Charlie would not break his strong, confident son. After seeing the devastation and pain in Don though just before Charlie had joined them or witnessing just now how overwhelming his eldest' relief was at seeing his little brother in good health, he wasn't so sure anymore.
At that moment, Don started yelling, his relief obviously having turned into almost uncontrollable fury, finally a typical emotion from his son, and Alan's eyes snapped open, listening intently, knowing only too well that he was bound to learn more about what had happened to cause Don to have an almost breakdown than he would once Don had calmed down - and clammed up once again like it was typical of him as well.
He didn't like what he learned, not one bit.
Someone had blown up Charlie's car? With someone looking like Charlie in it, causing every one close to Charlie to believe he was dead? Who on Earth would do such a cruel thing? And what was this about Charlie being involved in something he refused to talk about? Security level? What in Heaven was going on in his youngest life that brought on such malice?
And - did that mean that Charlie was still in danger? Was someone lurking out there, intend on killing his baby boy?
"Damn it, Charlie, talk already!"
With difficulty, Alan focused back onto his sons, pushing the fear and the questions away - for now. Don still had Charlie in a vice grip, shaking him and slowly, apart of the confusion, pain started to register in Charlie's eyes.
Time to intervene.
"Donnie - let your brother go," Alan spoke, his voice thinner than he liked.
But Don hadn't heard him - or didn't listen. Instead, he continued to shake Charlie. "I want to know what mess you're involved with, I want to know the names of those idiots who dragged you into it, to hell with who they belong to, and you, you Charlie, you won't leave my eyesight again, not for a second, you hear me? And if I'm not with you, then two of my agents are with you, is that clear? No discussion!" Don's hold tightened, his knuckles standing out white by now.
"Donnie!" Alan called out to him again, pleased to hear that his voice had gained strength.
Not that his son seemed to pay him any attention, his focus obviously solely on his brother alone. "I am never going through anything like this afternoon again, Charlie!" He glared into his brother's eyes with an intensity that not even a laser could match. "Two days, Charlie. Two days in a row I get the call that you're hurt. First you've been shot and now you've been blown up. I don't want to find out what I'd be told tomorrow. This ends now," he hissed and by now, he was gripping his brother so hard that this one let out a small, inaudible yelp.
Alan heard it none the less and swiftly stood up, all the way frowning. Shot? Had Donnie said Charlie had been shot? But he pushed that question away as well. First, he needed to stop Don. He could understand Don's relief turned anger but it would serve no one if he killed his brother now in his relief. "Don - let go of your brother," Alan ordered in his best dad-tone, putting a hand onto Don's shoulder, squeezing hard. "Now."
Don blinked but slowly, he came aware of how tight his hold on Charlie was and quickly let him go. Charlie remained where he was, staring at Don in a daze.
"Sorry, Buddy," Don growled, "but I..." he shook his head.
"Someone blew up my car?" Charlie finally spoke, his voice strangled, unbelieving.
Don nodded grimly.
"With someone inside?" Charlie asked even more unbelieving.
Again, Don nodded, his eyes flashing again.
"And... And you thought it was me?" Charlie struggled to say.
His face dark, Don nodded again. "That was the general consumption from everyone," he answered and Alan knew instantly that there was more to tell about that. He kept silent though, not wanting to interrupt this awkward version of twenty questions.
Charlie's frown grew bigger. "In the garage?"
"No, in the middle of West Temple Street, in plain sight for everyone," Don replied, barely controlling his temper. Then his eyes narrowed. "Which garage?"
But Charlie didn't gave an answer. "How could this happen?" he murmured, more to himself.
It was the wrong thing to say.
"Gee, I don't know, Charlie," Don said icily. "Perhaps because you idiot got involved in something that's obviously way above your head and you still refuse to talk to me so I can get you out of it before things escalate like this. But of course you wouldn't listen. You never listen!"
Now that was the wrong thing to say as well.
Charlie's eyes snapped back into focus and he glared at his big brother. "I'm sorry you got such a scare today, Don, really, but I told you to keep out of this. I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself. I am a grown up, you know?"
"I've got news for you, Charlie: Getting shot at and getting your car blown up is not doing a very good job at taking care of yourself. But it sure is a fast way to get you killed!" Don gave back heatedly. "Now stop being such a complete and stubborn fool and finally start answering my questions!"
"I told you I can't! I'm sorry, Don, but you know that I simply can't!" Charlie flared up.
"To hell with it!" Don snapped. "In case you haven't noticed, someone obviously has it in for you and I for my part I'm pretty sure that next time, it will be you who's dead and not some poor bastard who had to give it up for you! Now talk!"
Charlie paled and guilt flashed up in his eyes, but he still shook his head. "No, Don. No. I can't tell you. If this is related to what I may be involved with at all. And you know what? If it is, I don't want to tell you. This is not an FBI investigation and the less you know, the better."
"It is now," Don contradicted. "My brother gets targeted, it damn well is my concern."
"No, it is not," Charlie said quietly and turned away.
Don's eyes narrowed and his hand shot forward to grab Charlie's arm. "Where the hell do you think you're going?"
Charlie looked back at him. "I need to make a phone call. Now let me go, please."
"Sure, now you can suddenly make phone calls," Don replied sarcastically. "What was this afternoon when I desperately tried to reach you when I first got an anonymous call that you're in danger, followed by another call to tell me that you've been blown up together with your car, huh?"
"I left my cell in my car, Don," Charlie answered, tightly. "The car wouldn't start, so I left most things in it and then took the subway to come home. Then I went out for a ride. Now please let me go."
"A ride?" Don asked incredulous. "I go to view yourcrime scene, watch how they bag a body that could be you and you were out on a ride?"
"Don, I had no way of knowing what happened," Charlie reasoned. "If I had known, I'd have made sure to let you know. You know that."
The pleading in his voice must have gotten through to Don as Don let him go, shaking his head.
"Thanks," Charlie nodded and reached out to squeeze his brother's arm - then turned, walked over to the phone and walked with it up into the solarium.
Don and Alan watched him disappear up the stairs. Finally, Alan turned towards his eldest. "Care to fill me in in what is going on here?" he asked, his voice betraying that Don better didn't try to refuse an answer.
Still, Don shook his head. "In case you haven't noticed, Dad, I have no idea either," he declared bitterly.
But Alan wouldn't have it. "You still know more than I do. What's this about Charlie getting shot?"
Chagrined, Don avoided his father's eyes. "It was nothing, Dad. I just... heat of the moment, you know?" he replied, even tried a crocked smile.
"Forgive me, Donnie, but I don't think your brother getting shot is 'nothing'," Alan protested, not leaving his son out of his eyes.
At last, Don met his eyes. "Charlie's fine, Dad. And I really don't know what is going on. So you'll have to ask Charlie." His eyes drifted upstairs. "Good luck with that," he added sarcastically and headed towards the door.
"You're leaving?" Alan asked, perplexed. Now was not the time for Don to leave!
"I need to inform my team about the developments," Don just answered though and the door fell shut after him with a loud bang.
Alan looked from the door to the stairs and let out a big sigh. Sometimes he really wished his sons hadn't gotten that damn stubbornness from their mother. Or her temper for that matter.
"What do you mean, it's not Charlie?" Megan asked, very hesitantly.
Don ignored it and simply explained. "The body's not Charlie. Charlie's home."
A moment of complete silence. Then, even more hesitant: "You sure about that?"
This time, Don took offence. "Yeah, I think I can recognize my own brother, Megan."
"Sorry," Megan immediately said. "It's just..." her voice trailed off.
"He's fine," Don said in order to change the topic. "He had had no idea about what happened."
"He gave you any hint about who may have been behind this?" Megan asked, all business now.
Don stared ahead. "No."
"Or why his car was blown up?"
Megan sighed. "Did he tell you anything at all?"
Don closed his eyes. "Not really." He hesitated. "Then again, I might have been a bit - unreasonable. We didn't really have any chance to talk," he admitted, not liking to have to tell this Megan. But she was still an agent. A profiler. His partner. She'd have figured it out anyway. And she was in charge for the moment though Don had every intention to talk to Merrick about that in the morning.
Sure enough, Megan chuckled. "I bet." Before Don could say anything else though, she went back to business. "We need his statement."
Don nodded, his eyes glancing back at the house. "I know."
"But I'm sure we can wait until morning for that," Megan continued. 'Leave you some time to settle. And talk', was the unsaid message.
Don got it loud and clear. "I'll bring him in in the morning," he agreed. "And please see to it that a couple of agents keep an eye on the house as of now."
"Sure," Megan assured him. "And Don? I'm glad that Charlie's okay. Give him and your father my best."
"Thanks, Megan," Don said quietly.
"I'll inform David and Colby. Boy will they be glad to hear the good news. I'll see you two in the morning then," Megan said.
"Yeah, bye," Don said back and with a deep sigh, put the cell phone away, leaning against the car, suddenly feeling utterly exhausted.
He felt as if more than just a day had passed. Actually, it felt more like a decade. He sure felt a lot older - or as if that decade had been taken off his life.
So close. It had been so close. How easily it could have been Charlie. How close had he come to lose his little brother forever? If that body really had been Charlie...
But it hadn't been him. Charlie was alive. He was just inside the house, he was safe.
Frustrated, Don ran his hands through his hair. No. No, he wasn't safe. As long as they didn't know just what the hell was going on, his brother was not safe. As long as they didn't get that sick bastard responsible for all this, his little brother was still in danger. He could still lose his brother. What almost had happened today could still happen.
No! No, it wasn't going to happen! Don wouldn't let it. No one was going to take his little brother away from him, no one! They first had to kill him, damn it. But he wasn't going to let this happen either. No matter what it took, Don was going to find the sick bastard and make him stop.
And then Charlie would finally be safe again.
Now all he needed was for his little, boneheaded brother to stop being a complete idiot and let Don handle this. Starting with Charlie telling Don all he knew to begin with, followed by what he thought was going on.
Slowly, Don turned around, facing the house with a glowering stare.
He couldn't believe that Charlie still refused to talk. Couldn't he see that this had gone beyond whatever problem Charlie had with him? They were talking about Charlie's life for Heaven's sake! And consequently, also their father's and Don's life. Because if they lost Charlie... After today, Don had no doubt that if that would ever happen, they would be lost as well. Why couldn't Charlie see that? Why couldn't he understand how essential it was for him to let Don handle this from now on, letting him do his job, as an agent, as a brother?
But no, of course not Charlie, not his genius brother who probably was going to kill himself one of these days with his damn stubbornness.
Yeah well, his brother could maybe be a hell of a lot stubborn - but so could Don. And in a battle of willpower with Charlie, he was still fairly certain that he would come out as the winner. He always had, so far. Okay, most of the time at least. Surely half of the times.
And best to start with it right now.
With a small nod, Don pushed away from his car and walked back up to the house, determined to face down his brother and make him talk, no matter how long it would take.
His father looked up when Don came back in, heading purposefully towards the stairs and it was all it took for him to comprehend what was going on. "He's gone to the garage," he simply said.
Don gave a small nod, redirecting his step. He should have known it. After all, the garage had been Charlie's refuge ever since coming back home for good. And his sanctuary. And his hiding place. And for a while, even his prison, Don thought darkly as he strode through the kitchen to the back door and out, towards the garage. It was only natural that Charlie, after learning of today's event and the scene with Don, would once again flee to the garage. But if he thought he could escape Don's questions by doing that, he was wrong. They were going to talk, rather Charlie was going to give his brother some answers and that was that.
No argument, no choice.
He was not going to let Charlie get himself killed.
He had just opened the door to the garage for perhaps an inch when Charlie's voice stopped him, making his hand go automatically for his service piece.
"What are you doing here?"
Charlie didn't sound pleased at all, neither scared though. Silently, Don removed the safety and carefully crept closer, forcing his breath to go steady and calm.
"I came to look for you, see if you're all right. And to tell you about a little incident with your car. I couldn't reach you by phone," an unknown voice answered, calmly.
"Ah. By incident, you don't mean by any chance someone blowing up my car, not to forget with someone apparently matching my description sitting in the driver's seat, do you?" Charlie asked equally calm, sarcasm heavy in his voice though. And anger. Don could definitely hear the anger.
Realizing that Charlie was in no immediate danger, Don lowered his gun, stayed put though, having no intention to move or make his present known, having every intent to eavesdrop though. It looked as he may have a chance to learn a bit more about what was going on. And most importantly, who had gotten his little brother into this mess.
"Charlie..." Careful now.
"Oh no, Noah," Charlie interrupted him, definitely angry now. "Don't you Charlie me. Did you also know that the police called Don? My brother thought he was called to my crime scene, Noah. This isn't a joke anymore. My family was made believe that I had died!"
"You know, I can take the other crap that happened over the past two months, the letters, the mails, the calls, the break in into my office, the road hate, even last week, when those bikers tried to push me off my bike on the way to CalSci. And hell, I can even take being shot at like yesterday if I absolutely have to," Charlie hissed, his voice tightly controlled. Outside the garage, Don's heart pounded in his ears. What? "It wasn't too funny, but at least it was only directed at me and though I've been in a tight spot for a short while, I knew that I wasn't in any real danger. At least not for the moment. But this, Noah..." Charlie sighed and Don could picture him shaking his head. "I know it's very important that I complete the job you've given me, but honestly Noah, if this sick joker has now gone over to play his dirty mind tricks even with my family... I'm this close to quitting, Noah."
Don nodded involuntarily. His brother should have quit at least two months ago, from what he had heard. Or better yet, never have accepted the job in the first place. And how was it possible that all those things had happened to his little brother without him picking up on him? A break in? Road hate? Harassing letters and calls? That incident with bikers? According to Charlie's words that had been going on for two months and Don hadn't noticed anything at all? Noticing that his grip on the weapon tightened, he quickly put back in the safety and then returned it to the holster. He wouldn't need it. If it came to an argument with that guy in there with Charlie, all he'd need were his fists.
"Charlie, I can understand you, really, I get it..." This Noah guy started to say.
"Oh, you do?" Charlie was back to sarcasm.
There was a little moment of silence. "Your brother wasn't the only one who hadn't known if the body was you or not when that car went up, Charlie."
Don frowned. Was this guy seriously implying that he had felt anything like Don had after getting that call from the police? The hell!
"I activated your tracker in order to gain sureness and I tell you, I was never so glad that we convinced you to keep this tracker than today. You're probably my best friend. And the closest thing to a partner I've ever got," Noah said quietly, causing Don to strain to understand him. What he did hear rendered him speechless. A tracker? Best friend? Partner? "So yeah, I think I've got a pretty good idea of just how serious this is."
Charlie's silence was almost deafening.
"I'm sorry, Chap, but you can't quit now. That's just what they want, that's why they do their best to scare you off, to manipulate you like this," Noah tried to reason. "If Kovlav breaks that code, if Vision not only gets all the data but also the access to..."
"I know!" Charlie interrupted him, sounding defensive.
"Look, we'll do our best to get the guy who makes your life a living hell. We already have a team on your father and friends and I've asked a friend of mine in the FBI to keep an eye on your brother. And you'll have to stick it out with me from now on. Something like today won't happen again, Chap," Noah promised.
Don suppressed a snort. Charlie though hadn't any such restraints. "I think I've heard that before. After the thing with the bikers for example. Next thing I know I'm being shot at. Actually, I believe it was only this afternoon that you basically promised me the same thing. And what happened?" Don heard Charlie move, coming closer to the door and, from what he had figured out, to Noah. "Tell me one thing, Noah: My car was in the garage of the headquarter. I took the subway and left my bag in it because the motor hadn't started and I figured I'd be back sometime tonight anyway. A short time later, my car exploded in West Temple Street. How's that possible, huh? And I bet the rights to one of my programs that somehow, the video footage didn't get snitch. Neither of when that bomb had been placed, nor by whom, nor how someone else than me drove my car out of the garage. Am I right?"
Noah didn't answer.
"Right, I thought so," Charlie said, with bitterness in his voice. "Whoever is behind this, he either has access or at least has a guy inside the operation, Noah. How, under such circumstances, can you guarantee me that nothing else will happen? A guy died, Noah." Now, there was nothing but anguish in Charlie's voice and Don straightened. "Some poor guy probably was simply told to go fetch that car and bring it to location B, his only fault that he may have had some resemblance to me. Or perhaps, he was an actor. And now that guy is dead, because someone out there has it in for me. Worse even, this time, he also attacked my family by making them believe it was me in that car. God, Noah, I've never seen Don so distraught, not even when Mom died. I can only imagine how bad it must have been for him," Charlie finished and both the guilt, worry and distress in his voice got to Don and suddenly, he wasn't angry with Charlie anymore at all.
"Okay, then go under," Noah told him, more forcefully.
Charlie was quiet for a moment. "You mean witness protection."
Once again, Don felt panic swept up inside him at those words. Witness protection? No! No way!
"I don't like it much either, but maybe, it's time to seriously consider it. Not a full out, at least not yet, but let us bring you to a safer place, a place only known to me, Jean and Bob. From there you can finish your work, we'll see to it that you'll have everything you'll need," Noah said.
"First of all, I neither like the idea of running, nor am I willing to leave my family at this point of time, especially after what happened today," Charlie refused out flatly, to Don's surprise, if he wanted to be honest. He always had thought Charlie to be a runner. And frankly said, as long as he could stay with his brother and it wasn't full out Witness Protection, he thought going under wasn't that bad of an idea. "And second, it won't work anyway. To complete my research I need a supercomputer and no matter how far away you'll haul me, for a guy like Kovlav it would be easy to find it. I'm good at hiding my work from the world and mostly it wouldn't be a question, but not with Kovlav. He's too good for that." Charlie's voice was grim now, making Don wonder just who this Kovlav was. And what history was there between him and his brother, because it was clear to Don that there was an history. He could hear it in Charlie's voice and choice of words. "Plus, there's something else you're forgetting."
"Then why don't you enlighten me, Chap," Noah growled, clearly unhappy with Charlie. Don couldn't help but grin. He sure knew that sentiment. Sometimes, his brother could be a heck of annoying.
"The FBI's now in on this as well. I may have not gotten all the facts from Don, but I got as much. Kovlav won't be the only one to look for me, should I suddenly disappear from the face on Earth," Charlie said simply, a smile in his voice.
Don nodded. Damn right.
"That's not a problem. If necessary, Bob will call Merrick," Noah contradicted.
"It still won't stop Don," Charlie only said quietly.
"No, it won't," Don confirmed, pushing the door to the garage open, leaning against the frame and taking a good look at this Noah, ignoring Charlie's startled expression and questioning frown that turned to a full out pissed off frown in no time.
Noah looked relaxed to an unschooled eye, but Don's eye wasn't so it was easy for him to spot the muscles tensing as the guy turned toward him, the almost unnoticeable widening of his stance, the small jerk of his left hand towards his holster, the way too alert and calculating eyes. After having determined that no immediate danger was present, the guy smiled. "You must be Agent Eppes."
Everything in the tall, blond guy with his cold blue eyes screamed danger at Don and he had no doubt that he was facing a professional. Probably ex-military, probably Special Forces and most definitely a suit. The only question left was just what kind of a suit he was. Well, he'd find out soon enough. But first things first. Smiling himself, Don moved forward, careful to not send off any threatening signals. Noah watched him approach, his every move, but he stayed put and did not step back when Don stopped right in front of him.
"And you must be the one who dragged my little brother into this mess," Don said pleasantly. "I was looking forward to having a word with you."
Quick as a snake, he drew back his right arm and let it shoot forward, his fist connecting with the guy's jaw in a beautiful and most satisfying right hook, sending the obnoxious bastard flying back.
Yep, that had felt good.
(Author's Note: Come on, you didn't really think I'd kill Charlie! Not that I'm not capable of it, but surely not in such a story! Hope you enjoyed this chapter, I sure did. Thanks for the tremendous reviews, loved every one of it. I'm not quite sure when I'll be able to get out the next chapter, as soon, I'm going to Spain for three week of holidays - and without any internet access. But don't worry, if I don't manage to get it out until then, surely when I'm back in September.)