Oneshot, an alternative ending for the episode, Arrow of Time.
I do not own Numb3rs, or any of the characters. Contains spoilers for the episode, Arrow of Time. Okay, FC, I may be snowbound, but I'm paying you back.
David's voice came from behind him, and in spite of his low tone, it echoed in the temple. "He's not coming, Don."
Don looked down at his watch in a brow furrowed with confusion. "Let's give him five more. Get out of sight, okay?"
David shook his head, sympathetically, but firmly. "Don, it's forty-five minutes after the time you told him to meet you. Buck's not coming."
Don shook his head in frustration. "I don't understand it. I thought I had him pegged." He looked up at David. "He said he would meet me here, he wanted this – I know it, I could feel it." The rest of the team was coming out of hiding, down from their perches, lowering their weapons. Their attempt to capture escaped killer, Buck Winters, alive, had for some unknown reason gone awry.
Colby had drifted up behind David, and they exchanged a glance. Don knew what it meant; read the unspoken meaning. They thought he was behaving irrationally – hell, everyone did, even his own father. Maybe he was – but he was sure he knew what Buck wanted – and Don was just as sure he was not going to give it to him.
"Maybe he changed his mind, and decided that he does want revenge," said Colby. "Maybe you ought to stay somewhere else tonight – maybe Charlie's house."
As soon as the thought hit, Don rejected it. The last person he wanted to be around these days was Charlie – he was in no mood for mathematical interpretations. His recent attempts to understand his faith were gaining traction – he felt he was getting somewhere. He sensed that tenuous connection at a gut level, not an intellectual one – it was something Charlie couldn't understand, and, Don was sure, would try to explain away with some obscure mathematical model of the universe. For once, he felt he had insight to something for which Charlie had no inkling. It was profound, and it was uniquely his. He wasn't about to let Charlie take it from him.
Charlie was sure to be moping, too. They'd argued that afternoon; Charlie had accused Don of shutting him out, and the memory of the hurt look on his face made Don squirm uncomfortably. It looked just like the expression he'd worn the week before, when he'd asked why Don had discussed his new quest for faith with everyone but him. He really hadn't done it to hurt Charlie, but he also knew that he had no intention of discussing his innermost feelings with him, either, whether that decision hurt his feelings or not. Charlie would just have to get over it. Maybe the next time, he'd think twice before he so smugly argued away points of view that weren't his own – maybe he'd respect other's opinions more. No, there was no way he was staying at Charlie's tonight.
The others were filing out of the temple, and Don stood there in the middle of it, drinking in the sensation of strength that emanated from the solid walls. He finally felt as though he'd found his North Pole, something to orient him, a base upon which to make decisions. He hadn't felt so strong, so confident in a long time. His faith was guiding him like a beacon, and it suddenly occurred to him that perhaps it was guiding him away from Charlie for a reason. Charlie was math, and math was Charlie – and math left little room for faith. At least that was the conventional wisdom – religion and science didn't mix. A tiny voice in the back of his head reminded him that Charlie had been very accepting of his search for God when they discussed it the week before, but he pushed the nagging thought out of his head. Charlie had a knack for appearing innocent and accepting, right before he argued you into a corner. Don didn't have the will or the patience for that right now. All that mattered was the search – and he had so much to learn. Jewish scholars studied for years; he'd barely cracked the surface.
He slowly started for the doors, just as David burst through, followed by Robin, their faces filled with concern. "Don," gasped David, as he pulled up out of a sprint.
"Your dad's been trying to call you."
Don fumbled for his cell phone – he'd turned the thing off, of course, while waiting for Buck. "What -," he began but David cut him off.
"Never mind that now – we need to get to the Craftsman. It's Charlie, Don. Buck showed up at his house – he's got Charlie."
Alan, Amita, and Larry were standing on the lawn when they got there, a stunned trio adrift in a sea of blue uniforms and crime techs, who ebbed and flowed around them. Don could see the look in Alan's eyes as he caught sight of him – the fear, and the relief. The look that said, "Here's Don, he'll know what to do, he'll fix this." Don dreaded that look; he didn't know what to do, he didn't have answers. Just a short time ago, he'd been so sure, so certain, that Buck would come to him. Now, he wasn't certain of anything, except a growing sense of panic.
Alan strode towards him as he approached, and grasped his arms in a quick, emotional half-hug. "Donny – thank God. I tried to call you, while Larry called LAPD. It happened so fast – we were eating dinner, and he was just there, holding the biggest gun I'd ever seen. Charlie stood up and faced him, but then Buck moved next to Amita and put the gun to her head." Don's gaze darted to Amita – she looked shocked, her face tear-streaked, then turned back to his father, who was babbling, his voice brittle with fear. "He threw cuffs at Larry, and told him that if he didn't put them on Charlie, he was going to shoot Amita. Naturally, they did as they were told – no one was going to argue with that lunatic. I kept hoping that someone was following him, that someone would show up, but no one did."
'Yeah,' thought Don to himself, bitterly. 'They were all at the temple, with me, because I said he'd be there.' He noticed suddenly that Colby, David, Liz and Nikki were all there, behind him, listening. His team, solid, and always there for him – all of them there now, save one.
"Once Charlie was cuffed, Buck moved to him and put the gun in his back, and ordered him to walk out with him." Alan's voice careened onward, like a locomotive out of control, rushing over everything in its path in his overwhelming desire to purge himself of what he'd just witnessed. "Charlie was very calm – he told all of us to stay calm, and not to do anything foolish. Just before he went out the door, he said, 'Tell Don it's okay.'" Alan's eyes raked over Don's face, in agony. "What does that mean? Does it mean something to you?"
"Yeah." Don's own voice sounded foreign in his ears, rough, sandpapery – completely detached. It had to be something or someone else talking, because anyone who felt as he did at the moment would clearly be incapable of speaking. Terror, deep engulfing terror, a sense of mind-numbing inadequacy, and suffocating guilt rushed through his core into his veins, stealing voice, thought and mind. Suddenly overcome, he stumbled away, leaving his father staring after him. He'd been so sure of himself, so sure of his faith, so sure he was right… and he'd never been so wrong in his life – about all of it, about Buck, and especially about Charlie.
Conviction came limping slowly back, by painful degrees, like a wounded dog. It wagged a feeble tail in the office, when Colby said, "You know, you could still be right about Buck wanting to end his own life. Maybe he's just trying to be sure we do it, so he picked on a civilian – and someone we know, to play on our emotions."
Don sat hunched over his knees, a position he'd assumed upon arriving and held until then, as if he was preparing to bring up his lunch. If lunch hadn't been so long ago, he probably would have. At Colby's words, though, he straightened slightly, and the emotion-clogged wheels of his brain slowly creaked into motion. Of course – he hadn't been entirely wrong; he'd been right about Buck's intentions. The man wanted to die, and he wanted Don to take him out. Facing 250 years in prison and a lifetime of guilt for giving up his wife, Crystal, a killer herself, whom Don had subsequently shot – Buck hadn't come out and said as much, but he'd made it clear nonetheless in their long phone conversation. He wanted to die. Maybe he wouldn't hurt Charlie – maybe that's all this was – a suicide bid, as surefire as Buck could make it. Maybe there was still hope for Charlie.
Don's cell phone vibrated, and he groped for it, like a drunk. At the sight of the number on the screen, he was on his feet, stumbling for the conference room and the video/audio link. The others scrambled in after him, as Buck Winters' voice filled the room. "Agent Eppes." The name drifted in as a verbal sneer. "Sorry to stand you up. I had a dinner engagement. I've got someone here who wants to talk to you."
"Don." Charlie's voice floated over the speaker, familiar, but the normal smooth huskiness was jagged with pain, or fear, or both.
"Charlie – where are you? Are you okay?"
"I – I can't tell you where I am – Buck's going to do that." Pain, definitely pain. Charlie's last statement ended with the grate of a suppressed groan. It was the vocal equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard – everyone in the room shifted uncomfortably.
"Don, please, whatever he tells you to do – just be careful. Did Dad tell you what I told him?"
"That's enough," interjected Buck.
"Yeah, Charlie, he told me. Hang in there, okay? We're gonna come and get you."
Buck's voice came over the line again, taunting. "He's done talkin'. Remember our time in the interrogation room, Agent Eppes? The bruises, the broken bones? Well, your brother is learning all about that. Stay tuned – you'll get another message in a few minutes."
"Wait – wait!" exclaimed Don. "You need to tell me where you are." There was nothing, the line was dead, and conviction died again with it.
The videos came through a half hour later. They were blurry, rough, recorded in short bursts on Buck's untraceable cell phone. Winters had a good memory; he'd catalogued each injury that Don and Ian had dealt him, and he delivered each one of them to Charlie. Each one was a memory, made sharp and intolerable by Don's sense of his own culpability. What had Charlie said to him that afternoon? The arrow of time only moved forward. Well, in spite of Charlie's statement, time had made a loop and come back upon itself, revisiting past wrongs all over again. The arrow had twisted, and this time, Charlie was impaled on the barb.
He waited until morning to make the call, to make sure it was light, to make sure their brains were fogged by lack of sleep. Light – so they could see to shoot. Lack of sleep – impaired judgment would mean a tendency to make hasty bad decisions, such as shooting a perp if he so much as twitched for his gun. His voice floated into the conference room, the sneer gone, replaced by a ragged brashness that he flaunted like a banner. "You ready, Eppes? Come and get me."
They found him in a corrugated tin storage building in a junkyard, a squat rectangle of gray striped with rust. The door was open, and they could see just enough around the piles of junk, a jungle of oil-blackened engines, sprinkled with dust. Charlie was on the floor, and Buck was standing over him, his gun pointed toward Charlie's body. For a moment, Don's heart nearly stopped; he thought the worst had already happened, but then Buck prodded Charlie with a foot, and he moved and groaned. Still alive. "How's it feel, Eppes?" shouted Buck, smiling viciously, weaving a little, drunk with fatigue and triumph. The smile faded, turned to an ugly scowl. "But then, you don't know how it feels, yet, do you? You don't know how it feels when someone you love gets shot in cold blood, because of your own screw-up. You don't know that, yet. You don't know shit."
"You're right, I don't," said Don, levelly. He laid his gun down with an exaggerated motion in the doorway, and stepped in, his hands raised to show that they were empty.
"Stay back," warned Buck, shifting nervously from one foot to the other. "Stay the hell back."
Don took another step forward, then stopped where he was, or appeared to. He pushed his feet forward, millimeters at a time, without lifting them, as he spoke. "I never wanted to shoot her, Buck. I think about it every day. You too, I know – you never really wanted to shoot those people, you got caught up in the excitement. You don't want to shoot him, either."
Buck was growing increasingly agitated, and he pointed a trembling pistol at Charlie. "I do, too! You get back, or I'll nail him right now!"
For the first time, Don could see that Charlie was conscious; one eye was swollen shut, but the other was open, just slightly. Charlie was awake, and fully conscious of what was happening. The revelation froze Don for a second, and he fought for control. If he screwed this up, his failure might be the last thing Charlie would ever see. "Buck, I know what you want, and it isn't to shoot anyone. You want us to take you out, so you could die like Crystal. It's not gonna happen."
"It is so gonna happen," snarled Buck, and he tightened his grip on his pistol. With a sudden stab of terror, Don could see the determination in Buck's eyes translate itself to his arm – the pistol no longer wavered haphazardly, it was coming to bear on Charlie's head…
The dual reports nearly made him jump out of his skin. Behind him, David's rifle cracked, sending a round into Buck's shoulder, and at nearly the same time, Buck's pistol jumped, kicking back with a deafening report; then spun away from Buck's temporarily lifeless hand, hanging from a numb arm. For a moment, time stood still as Don's team swirled around him, bending over Charlie's body, cuffing Buck, who was howling with rage and torment. Don could see blood on Charlie's face, but it had been there before, hadn't it?
Legs that belonged to someone else carried him closer, as Buck was dragged away, and Colby looked up with relief. "It missed him, Don – there's no bullet wound." He pointed to a gouge in the dirt floor. "That's where it hit."
Charlie's good eye was closed, though, and fear still coursed through Don, until the eye flickered open and met his, somehow sending light from its dark depths. An answering shaft of sunlight streamed through a small square of a window like a beam from heaven, giving the shack a sense of holiness, of profound awe, that rivaled any temple. Don sank to his knees at his brother's side, and knew, at that moment, he'd finally found religion.