Ryan McPherson had been watching the FBI agents who had brought him in very carefully.
His fate was pretty much all but sealed. Thanks to this team of righteous do-gooders, he was already headed downriver toward a life term in prison.
But he had no intention of winding up stuck in some tiny eight by twelve cell for the rest of his life. Death was a hell of a more attractive option that that. So he had been watching. Waiting for his chance. He could make one last ditch attempt to get the hell out of Dodge and disappear or he could die trying, and he was satisfied with that.
And based on what he had seen all morning, the curly-haired runt was his best bet.
The others had been careful to keep the kid at a distance, to make sure he stayed on the other side of the glass walls, scribbling whatever it was he was scribbling outside, away from the room where Ryan had been sitting while they interrogated him. He seemed oblivious to the way they casually took hold of his arm or used their own steps to keep him from walking into a desk or partition, to the way they looked first to him when they did their instinctive scans of the bullpen. Combined with the way they looked at him and the way they touched him, it was clear he meant something to all of them. He wasn't just another co-worker. He was important. Particularly to the hard-assed Lead Agent.
If he was going to get out of here, he needed that kid.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw someone approaching the glass door and he dropped his gaze away from the kid, letting them nonchalantly slide across the floor, up to his cuffed hands on the table and then up, just as the door opened and the Lead Agent—Eppes—came in. He waved two fingers, indicating that Ryan get to his feet.
"Come on, McPherson. Your ride's here."
Ryan got to his feet, making sure to keep his gaze away from where the curly-haired kid was sitting bent over a desk, flipping through two separate notebooks and scrawling hurried somethings in a third. If he played it cool, and if they took the most direct route out of the bullpen, it would take them right past that desk.
And that would be all the opening he needed.
The hardest part would be keeping the agent distracted enough not to notice that the kid was sitting right alongside their path. "Can we stop on the way and get some Mickey Dee's or something? I kinda missed lunch, you know?"
The agent looked at him, his expression twisting in disgust. "You're headed for permanent lock up and the last thing you want from the outside is McDonald's? Are you kidding me?"
They moved out into the bullpen and it took everything in him not to grin as they started straight down the aisle that would take them by the curly-haired kid's desk.
~ * ~
One second Don was walking next to McPherson, one hand on his back, ready to get the guy out of the office and into the hands of the arresting officers and the next McPherson had lunged away from him. Don's first thought was a bewildered, What the hell? because there was nowhere for the guy to run. Resisting now was just stupid. That thought was immediately answered by a sharp cry that paralyzed his lungs.
Oh, God, Charlie.
The sound was a mixture of pain and surprise, a reaction to the handful of dark curls McPherson had gotten his hand around.
Before Don could even move, McPherson had wrapped his other hand around Charlie's throat, dragging him up into a half-standing position by his hair. Charlie let out a strangled, gurgling cry, hands scrabbling blindly and futilely at the figure behind him. "Just stay back," McPherson ordered.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?!" Don demanded, but he stayed, unwilling to risk having the psycho do any further damage. Around them all activity in the office ceased, the level of tension in the room ratcheting up nearly to the breaking point as a dozen plus federal agents turned to face down the hostage situation suddenly in their midst.
Charlie was sagging despite himself due to the awkward angle he was being pulled back over his chair, his face contorting in pain as McPherson gave his hair a sharp jerk, trying to make him stand upright. His breaths came in short frantic bursts from his nose, the hand clamped around his neck and the chain from the handcuffs digging into his jaw making it impossible for him to keep his mouth open.
"You're in an office of the FBI," Megan told him, "What do you expect to accomplish by this?"
McPherson glanced down at Charlie and said calmly, "I've seen the way you all watch him. He's important to you." His hand flexed around Charlie's throat and Don felt his stomach turn violently as Charlie's eyes widened, his back arching. His breathing stalled completely, replaced by the sickening sounds of choking and gagging.
"OKAY! Okay!" Don shouted, moving forward as far as he dared and then taking a step back. "Stop! We get it! You want to get out of here, right?"
McPherson's hand relaxed and Charlie sucked in a breath as best he could, his chest heaving, eyes wide and terrified. Goddammit.
"You were the top of your class at Fed School, weren't you?" McPherson sneered. "Yeah, I want out. And no one tailing me, either."
Don was both proud and scared out of his mind when Charlie spoke, his voice nearly inaudible. "I don't think—you appreciate the lengths these people are—w-willing to go to to keep you here."
McPherson dragged on Charlie's hair, eliciting a sharp hiss out of him and further exposing his neck. He spoke directly into Charlie's ear. "And I don't think you appreciate just how freaked out they are right now."
McPherson looked back up at Don. "All I want you to do is let me go. You can say I escaped, whatever the hell you'd like. But I want to get gone."
"You know that's not an option," David said from where he was positioned on their right, primed to take advantage of even the slightest opening. He had his hand on his sidearm and Don wished, not for the first time that he hadn't been stupid enough to take his hand off of his own.
"Are you sure about that?" McPherson asked and then tightened his grip on Charlie's hair. Charlie let out a muffled cry that only increased in volume as his head was yanked around, pulling him away from the chair. He staggered and this time there were tears in the cry.
"Charlie?! Let him go, McPherson, or I swear to God—"
Don got close two, maybe three feet away, and McPherson immediately whirled, dragging a whimpering Charlie around with him. "It would take next to no effort to snap his neck, Agent Eppes," he said and his fingers all but caressed Charlie's exposed throat.
Charlie shuddered, eyelashes wet and sticking together, and rasped, "Don..."
"It's okay, Charlie," Don assured him, hands held out to show his palms. "You're gonna be okay. We won't let anything happen to you, okay? You got me, Buddy?"
His little brother swallowed, his chin twitching down in the slightest of nods. "Yeah, Don," he whispered.
"Does that mean you're gonna let me out of here?" McPherson said, giving the side of Charlie's head a rough pat. "Wouldn't want you to break any promises."
"Ryan, you know this isn't going to end the way you want," Megan interjected. "But if you hurt Charlie, it's going to go a lot worse for you."
McPherson's mouth curled into a humorless smile. "How can it possibly get worse?"
"You haven't even gone to trial yet," David put in. "Nothing's set in stone."
McPherson turned toward David and Charlie staggered along with him, his legs buckling at the sudden change. He stifled a cry, face twisting as his hands grabbed at McPherson's, struggling to get it off.
"Please," McPherson said disdainfully and Don barely bit back a curse as Charlie fought to get his feet underneath him. "You've been telling me the exact opposite all day. You practically laid out your case against me."
"Convincing us and convincing a jury are two very different things," Megan said.
Don couldn't stand it any longer. Charlie still hadn't gotten his feet where they could support him and his face was flushing, breath starting to wheeze. Don stepped forward and McPherson jerked back toward him, another strangled sound slipping from Charlie's throat.
"Dammit, he can't breathe! You can't do a hell of a lot of negotiating with a dead hostage, McPherson!"
"Then I guess we're done negotiating," he said and adjusted his grip on Charlie. For mere seconds Charlie's breaths were noisy and ragged and then McPherson kicked him in the back of the knees and he crumpled, wincing when he landed on the abused joints, the chain pressing hard into his throat.
It went against every instinct screaming inside him, but Don stepped to the side, his hands clenching into fists, and gave Colby—who was standing by the elevators directly behind McPherson—a tight fraction of a nod.
The gunshot was nearly deafening in the space of the bullpen.
Don caught a glimpse of Charlie's reddened face sucking in a whaling breath and then McPherson collapsed forward on top of him, shooting a spike of fear up through his chest. "Charlie!"
Megan and David reached them at the same time, reaching for McPherson's body and hauling him up off of Charlie.
Don's stomach lurched when he saw him. There were small chunks of flesh and shirt splattered over Charlie's shoulders, blood saturating the back of his white t-shirt. He was shaking, hard enough to make the curls on his head quiver.
"Oh, God, Charlie," Don murmured, kneeling and pulling him up with a hand curled carefully around the side of his head.
Charlie's shaking fingers reached up to grasp at Don's jacket and he leaned into his chest, mumbling in a thin voice, "D-Don, th-there's b-b-blood on m-me isn't there?"
"Yeah, Buddy, a little."
Charlie let out a strangled sounding laugh at the understatement. Don grimaced as his palm touched something wet in Charlie's hair. He flinched at the touch and Don jerked his hand back. "Oh, jeez, Charlie, I'm sorry."
"Is...is my head bleeding? It sure feels like it," Charlie muttered into his chest.
"I don't think so, but if you think you can get up, we'll go into the break room and I'll check you out, okay?"
"Mmkay," Charlie murmured and then nodded, followed by a soft hiss, his hand moving toward his throat.
"Is he okay?" Megan asked breathlessly and Don glanced up at her as he pulled one of Charlie's arms up over his shoulder.
"As okay as he can be considering," Don said grimly. "You ready, Buddy?"
"Yeah," Charlie breathed. "Let's go."
"Megan, you got this?" Don asked, pausing.
She nodded. "Yeah. Go get him cleaned up."
He and Charlie started toward the break room and Charlie said, "You wouldn't believe how much it hurts, being yanked around by your hair." It was hard to ignore the rasp in his voice.
Don chuckled even though that was the last thing he felt like doing. "I can imagine. Especially this curly mop you've got."
Once in the break room, he helped Charlie sit gingerly and then immediately knelt in front of the chair, looking up into his brother's face. He pushed back the curls falling into his eyes with care, not wanting to irritate his already abused scalp. "Can you look up for me, Buddy? So I can get a good look at your throat?"
A grimace flickered across Charlie's face and he swallowed gingerly, but he grit his teeth and slowly lifted his chin.
The skin around his neck was raw and reddened and pretty clearly heading in the way of a nasty series of bruises. There was a dark spot along the line of his jaw on the right side where the chain from the handcuffs had dug in initially.
Don let out a soft, but fierce, curse and pushed to his feet, moving to the fridge to get ice a little more roughly than was strictly necessary. He was stuffing ice cubes into a plastic bag when Charlie said in a small voice, "I'm sorry, Don."
The anger washed out of him in a hurry. He turned an incredulous look on his little brother, who sat with his hands in his laps, long curls dangling in front of his eyes. "Sorry? What the hell are you sorry for?"
Charlie waved a hand. "I-I should have been paying more attention. I should have—I don't know—done something. He was handcuffed—" He cut off with a frustrated huff, his curls shaking slightly side to side as he shook his head. "I'm sorry."
Don scoffed in disbelief. "What? Charlie, you have nothin' to be sorry for. It's not your job to be vigilant. It's ours." He shook his head, sealing the baggie with a sharp movement and stepping forward to squat in front of Charlie again. He lifted the bag, touching it to the bruising on Charlie's neck, his other hand cupping the back. "We treat you different and that guy pegged us. He took advantage of our weakness where you're concerned." The corner of his mouth twitched upward. "We all go a little crazy when you're involved."
Charlie's head dropped, an embarrassed smile curving his lips. "It's not like I'm more valuable than any of you."
"Maybe not, Buddy, but you're definitely the one who gets in the most trouble."