Handle With Care
Word Count: ~ 1.400
Summary: They were all tired. They were all at the end of their wisdom. And now, their only chance of finding this serial bomber was losing it as well and that just wouldn't do. Ian wouldn't give up. He wouldn't let Charlie give up.
Characters: Ian Edgerton, Charlie Eppes
Pairing: Charlie/Ian Edgerton
Setting: Anytime after Sniper Zero
Author's Note: I'm back! I've been lingering in the background over the last year or so (has it been that long?) and I just started a re-watch of the show (how I miss it!) and I couldn't get rid of this idea. I'm picking this fandom up again, though. There's still that draft for a really long Charlie/Ian story waiting for me to get round to it ...
Beta: Eleanor Harkness-Jones, who did this even though this isn't her fandom. Thank you!
Disclaimer: I'm not making money with this fanfic. The tv-show Numb3rs and the characters appearing within it belong to their producers and creators. Any similarities to living or dead persons are purely coincidental and not intended.
The door to the storage closet was shut with some force. Ian pushed Charlie away from the door gently until Charlie was pinned against the wall. The light bulb flickered. The room smelled of paper and ink cartridges and floor cleaner, which was a change from the air-conditioned bullpen and the kitchen, where the scent of black coffee reigned. For a second, the only sound was their breathing.
"What are you doing?" Charlie asked finally, trying to side-step and escape. He failed when Ian followed the move and stood in his way again. Charlie stared at him with dark, pained eyes, his boyish face tired and pale.
"Take a deep breath," Ian said calmly. Charlie frowned. Then he darted to the other side, trying to get past Ian quickly, but Ian just caught him around the waist with his arms. Charlie struggled; pushing against Ian's hands and chest, but Ian just tightened his hold and managed to maneuverer them into a corner of the room, trapping Charlie between the walls and himself.
Charlie glared at him. "Let me go."
"No." Ian stared right back. "We need you on this case."
"I can't work on it anymore!" Charlie replied, re-discovering the rage that had had him bite his brother's head off just five minutes ago before Ian had followed his dramatic exit to the elevators and shoved him into this room. Charlie's hands curled into tight fists at his sides but Ian knew that he wouldn't hit him. A lot more needed to happen to make Charlie hit anyone. "I'm not a computer! Sometimes I can't do the work that you need me to do, don't you see that?"
"Oh, I see that alright. I see that you're running away. You can't, though. You have a responsibility, Charlie, and you can't walk away from it." Ian felt exhaustion take over and his barriers crumbling, his temper slipping. He took a deep breath to calm down. The last thing he wanted to do was yell at Charlie. If Don's experience a few minutes ago was anything to go by, it would only make things worse. However, it was hard to find his composure. They were all tired. They were all at the end of their wisdom. And now, their only chance of finding this serial bomber was losing it as well, and that just wouldn't do. Ian wouldn't give up. He wouldn't let Charlie give up.
Charlie's face darkened even further. "Don't you dare and berate me about my responsibilities. You have no idea about my responsibilities! You have no idea about me! You don't get me at all!"
The words cut deep and before Ian could stop himself, he lashed out. "I get that you came here, you wanted to play with the big boys and now you'll have to stay until the end just like they do because that's what this line of work is about, Charlie. It's not for quitters." Charlie's eyes flitted away and he ducked his head. Ian took a deep breath, reminding himself that his goal had been to shake Charlie up a bit, to make him come back, not to make him feel bad about himself. In a softer voice, he added, "I never took you for a quitter, Professor." The nickname was an apology.
Charlie didn't accept it. "I'm not a quitter."
Charlie stared at him for a long time and then his eyes slowly filled with tears. "I can't… I…" He swallowed and looked at the floor. When he raised his head again, his eyes weren't wet anymore, but his expression was still miserable. "I can't. My mind won't… let me. Sometimes, I can't tell my mind what to work on. I can't decide. It just… it tells me what to do."
"What does it tell you now?"
Charlie's hands clutched the strap of his messenger bag, squeezing until the knuckles were white. "P versus NP."
Ian had been afraid of that. He knew that problem from stories Alan and Don had told him – it was Charlie's retreat when faced with a crisis, he could work on it for months on end… and it was unsolvable. "You can't solve it, Charlie."
"Yes, I can." He didn't sound sure, though.
Ian shook his head. "You're just telling yourself that. I don't mean to sound cruel here but there is a guy blowing up school buses and the only person who might be able to tell us where he hits next is you. There's no time for your needs and P versus NP."
Charlie closed his eyes. "I can't work on this now." He tried to leave. Ian reacted on instinct. He quickly framed Charlie's face and kissed him, pushing his tongue into Charlie's mouth and pulling him close. Charlie made a startled noise and dropped his bag, but then he kissed back tentatively, as if he wasn't quite sure what Ian wanted to achieve.
Ian wrapped one arm around Charlie's waist and rested his free hand against Charlie's chest. He whispered, "Your heart is racing." Charlie stared at him. Softly, Ian added, "You're scared out of your mind." He held Charlie's gaze. "I get that. Believe me, I do. We all do. We're all scared that we'll make a mistake and that lives will be lost because of it, but it's just something we have to deal with."
"I don't know if I can."
"Sure you can," Ian replied. "A guy who can turn up at a trained sniper's hotel room and ask him out for dinner without having the slightest clue if the sniper's even interested in men…" He smiled. "A guy like that can do anything." He became serious. "Nobody said you'll have to do it alone. Let me help you." His lips brushed Charlie's again, chastely and tenderly. He rested his cheek against Charlie's temple and whispered, "Okay, now, take a deep breath."
Charlie obeyed but Ian could still feel his heart racing, could still feel the nervous tension that implied that Charlie was ready to bolt.
He hugged him close, tucking Charlie's head under his chin and rubbing his back in slow, soothing strokes. "Come on, you can do this." Ian knew they were up against a coping method that had been ingrained in Charlie for years. Don and Alan had mentioned that they'd tried various times to stop him from retreating into P versus NP, but never before had Charlie had a chance to lose himself in his numbers. Maybe, just maybe, this would do the trick: Pulling him out of it before he had a chance to drown.
Charlie was breathing deeply, pressing his face into the curve of Ian's neck. Ian had never been very tactile or in need of tenderness but this was nice. And maybe, it helped him a little as well, because he was just as scared as Charlie. He was scared that they wouldn't be able to solve this in time to save a bus full of children. And beyond that, a lot of things terrified him at the moment: this fling with Charlie was beginning to run deep, to become commitment and a steady relationship and Ian hadn't had that in a very long time. He brushed his fingers through Charlie's dark curls and closed his eyes. But it would be okay. It had to be. Because if someone with an incredible mind like Charlie could fall for someone like Ian…
"I can do this," Charlie said softly and looked up at Ian.
He smiled and leaned down to kiss him softly. "I know you can."
Charlie nodded and gave a quick smile, still uncertain but that wasn't a bad thing. He would find his courage in front of the whiteboards again. He always did. Charlie went to the door and – after one last look back over his shoulder – opened it, leaving the room with determination.
Ian sighed deeply. "You're the only one who doubts you."