Disclaimer: I do not own Numb3rs.
Consider Yourself Adopted 10/10
"I didn't even notice him driftin' off," Jacob said. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder to indicate Charlie.
The mathematician's head rested in the fold of his arms. Beside him, Margo's laptop sat open with a black screen. Both man and machine slept.
"Did he finish the project?" Carlisle asked, stepping further into Margo's room. His daughter's designer-made, packed suitcases were stacked by her dresser. It was a pity she was going to have to leave them. There was only time left for transferring people, not things.
"Not sure, Boss," Jacob admitted. "Want me to find out?"
Carlisle nodded and Jacob leaned over the professor, shaking Charlie by the shoulders.
"Hey. Time to wake up. Nap time's over."
Charlie groaned, sitting up only to fall back against the office chair. His red-rimmed eyes glared at Jacob.
"Well good morning, sweetheart!" Jacob greeted. He ruffled both sides of Charlie's curly head. "You look like you need more coffee. Want some more coffee, Professor?"
"What I need," Charlie grouched, knocking Jacob's hands away, "is for you to go away."
Two palms settled on his shoulders. Charlie flinched at the familiar weight of them and gripped the armrests of his chair. The realization that Carlisle was in the room drove the irritation right out of Charlie. A sickening twist of fear knotted in his stomach.
"What you need, Charlie," the fatherly tone drawled above him, "is to explain why you're sleeping on the job." The fingers constricted around his shoulders, digging in like a pair of vulture claws.
Charlie opened his mouth to answer, but his mind gave him nothing. What job? What was Carlisle talking about?
"Did you finish the program?" Jacob prompted. "Last time I asked, you said you were close. That was about an hour ago."
Charlie licked his lips. "Yes. I checked it several times—just like you wanted."
The edge in Carlisle's features melted away to satisfaction. "Is that a fact? You got it all finished and ready to go?"
Charlie nodded, too unnerved to trust his voice a second time.
"Well in that case, let's put it to work," Carlisle ordered, keeping his grip on Charlie's shoulders. "For your sake it better do the job. I like you, Charlie. It'll be a shame if this screws up—or you've gotten it in that brilliant head of yours to try and pull something."
"It works," Charlie assured, the words a little too high pitched. His fingers began to key in commands, but he hesitated. He swallowed and cleared his throat. "…Your daughter wanted to be here."
Carlisle dismissed his concern. "She's busy helping my secretary. You know what banks to hit and where to send my money. So let's see it happen. Run the program, Charlie."
Charlie put Margo's program to work. Within minutes, her process unlocked virtual doors and thousands of untraceable electronic bills were transferred to Carlisle's various accounts. The stolen amounts were so numerous and so trivial that they would take quite a while to catch the FBI's attention. In fact, the program was retroactively filing the withdrawals as overdrafts, bounced checks, and other commonly made mistakes.
Charlie watched the numbers rise and fall and felt betrayed by them. They were giving the Sumner syndicate the ability to not just pay off their debts, but to go anywhere and disappear—to leave the country and start a new life elsewhere.
This is it, Charlie told himself, his face pale in the laptop screen's soft glow. Now they can leave the country. Now it's too late for Don to find me.
The program concluded.
Defeated, Charlie said, "You can run it again, but the likelihood of being caught increases with every use."
Carlisle was unable to keep the smile from his face. "I'll wait some time before using it again. Besides, first I'm going to make sure this thing really worked and that you, Charlie, haven't tried to pull some high tech trick on the family."
Charlie tensed beneath the heavy hands that still anchored him to the office chair.
"Relax," Carlisle added. "If the program checks out, if Margo vouches for it, then you'll have my trust. I'll let you rest. Hell, I'll let you sleep from here to Marseilles. But until then, you and I are heading to my office to keep an eye on things, got it?"
The program wasn't what worried Charlie. It was solid. He'd crafted it perfectly from Margo's original plans. There was no way that Carlisle would ever be able to use it as an excuse to hurt Charlie's loved ones. But Charlie also knew he'd used up the last of his mental reserves.
At the party, Carlisle had told him to get some sleep, but Charlie had opted instead to stay up through the night and finish Margo's program. He'd been unable to sleep, too afraid of missing the twenty-four hour deadline the syndicate had given him. And besides that, Margo had been especially tipsy from all those martinis she'd sucked down at the party. He shuddered, trying to get the feel of her hands and the sound of her cloying voice out of his mind.
Charlie searched for a way to explain to Carlisle how tired he was, how much he needed a break from the man's insane, obsessive offspring, but nothing came from the slurry of his thoughts.
"I asked you a question, Charlie. If you haven't learned by now, I expect an answer."
Charlie frowned. He shook his head. "...I don't remember what you asked."
Carlisle released the professor's shoulders and looked to Jacob. "Get him to my office. Bring that wheelchair—just in case."
Carlisle's gaze rarely left the screen as he sat in his office. He watched the substantial numbers in his accounts maintain their places. There was no sign of trouble. No hint of a trick. Margo had said the program was golden, so Carlisle called in favors and contacts. He paid off the family's debts. He gave a smug look of proprietorship to his future son-in-law.
Seated in the wheelchair, Charlie was leaning forward with his head buried in both hands. He wasn't confined to the chair. His crutches were well within reach, but the professor didn't feel like being on his feet.
Through the haze of mind numbing fatigue, Charlie heard his name and looked up from his hands. The mathematician was so tired he'd caught himself tearing up like a frustrated child. It was humiliating.
Carlisle stood over his acquired professor. He offered a hand to help the younger man stand up.
Hesitating, Charlie looked into the syndicate leader's calculating gaze and found unexpected affinity lurking in those green eyes.
Carlisle pulled him up from the chair and passed Charlie his crutches. "The program's perfect."
Carlisle snapped his fingers in Charlie's face. The professor's normally sharp brown eyes were dulled and staring off into nothing. Charlie returned his attention to the crime boss and Carlisle continued.
"We're leaving earlier than I'd planned. There's nothing more for you to do, so I want you to rest while we finish tying up loose ends. Got it?"
Charlie's gaze lowered again as he nodded.
"And Charlie?" A calloused hand gripped him by the chin and lifted Charlie's face. Very unhappy, very dark and tired eyes met Carlisle.
The crime boss smiled. "You're a good son, Charlie. I'm glad to have you in this family. Now, follow me."
Carlisle led them out of his office and into Mrs. Strickland's. He took his future son-in-law over to the closest grouping of couches and gestured at the biggest one. "Go ahead. Get some rest."
In seconds Charlie was on the couch, his injured leg eased up as he rolled over to face away from Carlisle. He curled on his side and fell straight into sleep.
Carlisle adjusted his square-cut glasses with an air of self-satisfaction. That's right, kid. Get comfortable. You aren't going anywhere.
Margo glanced around the room and huffed when she found the subject of her thoughts lying on a couch, arms and legs both curled up. The top of his head was pressed into the couch, but she could see most of his face. His expression was that of someone completely lost to the restful embrace of sleep.
Margo felt warmth spread from her head to her toes at the sight of him sleeping so peacefully. He looked so at home.
"I think we put him in a coma," Jacob said from his spot on the couch across from Charlie's. The cushions were sagging under Jacob's considerable weight. "Time to get moving yet?"
Margo shook her head. "No. Daddy's still waiting on Greg to call. He thinks he's just about got all of the undercover cops pinned. I've got the bombs placed. When we get to the street I'll detonate them with a phone. I just hope the FBI's inside when it happens."
"Either way, they'll be distracted," Jacob grunted.
Margo carefully sat on the edge of the couch, in the space above Charlie's head. Her fingers stroked through his hair, over his shoulder, and across the curve of his back. He was so cute curled up like this and she loved the feel of him beneath her fingers. She couldn't wait for them to finally be alone together without Jacob or one of her father's other goons snooping around. The anticipation of spending the rest of her life with him, of being intimate, was enough to make Margo's face break out in a silly grin.
She wanted to kiss him all over, but at the same time, Margo wanted him to sleep. She hoped rest would put the spark back in his dark eyes. She missed his smile so much.
All of her plans were working out so perfectly. Her family was safe from the Italians, and soon they would be safe from the FBI. Most of all, she had Charlie. She had Charlie forever.
The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department was swarming with activity throughout the night. Blueprints of the Starcoast Casino were studied and plans were drawn to enter the premises, locate the professor, arrest the bad guys, and somehow end the day without any of the Starcoast's hundreds of patrons getting caught in the fray.
Alan Eppes arrived at daybreak with Larry and Amita flanking him.
Don wondered if perhaps he shouldn't have called Alan. He walked past the room where his father and the CalSci professors watched a recording of the night before.
"Look at him. Look at his leg. Something's wrong. They've broken his leg," Alan exclaimed, equal parts horrified and outraged. Although the white cast was only visible where it wrapped around his son's bare foot, Alan could tell the thing went all the way up to Charlie's knee. It was easy to see how it bulged beneath the black fabric of his son's trousers.
Larry laid a comforting hand on Alan's shoulder.
Alone in a sea of sharks, the physicist thought. Larry frowned at the image of Charlie sandwiched on a couch between a young lady and an overweight man whose beefy arm was slung around the mathematician's shoulders.
"Dad, he's fine," Don assured, trying to downplay what his father was seeing on the screen. "He's alive and he's conscious. Whatever else we can take care of once we've got him, okay?"
Alan nodded, looking at Don before his worried eyes were drawn back to the screen, to the recording of his youngest son at some kind of mafia cocktail party.
"Is that Margo?" Amita asked, her arms crossing as she walked closer to the flat-screen TV they were all gathered around. The woman in question was snuggled up to Charlie with one hand playing in his hair and the other resting on his lap. The serious, possessive way she gazed up at him made Amita's skin crawl.
"Hard to believe this all boils down to a lovesick student," Larry said.
"You mean a psychotic stalker." Amita felt more angry than afraid. "I can't believe she blew up a building, killed over thirty people, kidnapped Charlie, and thought she could get away with it. Talk about arrogance."
"Clearly she's insane," Larry agreed, resisting the temptation to bite his nails. His fingers hovered at his lip as he watched the recording of his young friend interact with a room full of criminals.
"Well," Don said, checking his watch, "we're about to go teach her a thing or two about how the real world works."
He met his dad's eyes again.
"Be careful," Alan said.
Don gave him a brief nod.
"We'll be back soon. Both of us," he promised.
Geared up and ready to go, Don and his team, plus other agents and officers, gathered in the LVMPD's bullpen to go over the plan a final time.
"The focus is the thirty-first floor," Don reminded. A giant blueprint of the casino was displayed behind him. "It's the last place we've had a visual confirmation of Professor Eppes. The mole is 95% sure that's where they're keeping him. Remember, he's injured. He's wearing a white cast on his left leg. Take another look at the APB to make sure you know what he looks like should you come across him. You do not want to be the one who accidentally shoots Professor Eppes."
Colby, Megan, and David exchanged a look. The last thing anyone needed was for Charlie to get shot because a cop or an agent confused him for one of the syndicate's members.
"Beta team's role will be to secure all entrances and exits to the building," Colby added. "The underground lot is a key point. Note this exit in particular. It's the one most heavily guarded, so you can bet it's the one the syndicate likes to use most."
"These people are dangerous. We have to assume they'll turn this into a hostage situation if they think it'll buy them time," David said. "And they've got thirty-one floors-worth of people to pick from."
"Right," Don said, "so we do this fast—but carefully."
The cops and agents, startled, turned to the tech that was running towards the bullpen. Her face was white as a sheet.
The Starcoast Casino, all thirty-one floors, were full of people; mostly patrons. The Sumner Syndicate prowled the highest floors. They walked around with their weapons ready.
"Wake up, Charlie," Margo urged, pulling on his jacket.
He was drawn out of sleep by the panic in her voice. Charlie sat up groggily. He found her blue eyes excited and anxious. "What's going on?" he asked.
"We're leaving earlier than Daddy planned," she explained. Margo brushed a few messy curls away from the professor's eyes. "You can sleep in the car and at the safe house. Oh, and on the plane, too, okay? Jacob's getting the wheelchair. He'll bring your crutches with us."
Moments later Jacob smiled as he parked the chair next to the couch. "Here's your ride."
Charlie didn't smile back. They helped him move over to the wheelchair, and once his injured leg was situated, Jacob and Margo hurriedly handcuffed the professor's wrists to the armrests.
Charlie couldn't believe they even bothered. His wrists were raw from being handcuffed to chairs and bedposts. His ankle throbbed with pain despite the medication the syndicate's doctor kept handing Margo to give him. He couldn't stand on his left leg at all. Even the slightest pressure on that foot made his knees buckle from the pain.
Charlie raised his hands, letting the handcuffs clink against the metal armrests. "Is this really necessary? You know I'm in no shape to run away."
Margo knelt to strap in his legs. "Hush. It's the quickest way to move you," she said. "We're kind of in a rush."
"Why?" Charlie's suspicious gaze switched from her to Jacob, but both of them were avoiding eye contact.
"We're just getting an early start, Charlie," Margo told him. She circled around and gripped the handlebars of his wheelchair. But before pushing Charlie out into the hall, she hesitated. She leaned down and pressed a kiss to his temple, wrapping her arms loosely around his neck as she rested her head against his.
"I can't wait to marry you. I love you so much," Margo breathed into his ear.
"All right," Jacob said from the door. He motioned for her to hurry. "You can do all that on the road. Bring Romeo on so we can get the hell outta here. Strickland's got the van ready. Your dad and Greg are waiting for us in the lot. The Creswells have agreed to let us borrow their jet since those damn Italians got ours. Damn FBI's probably watching ours anyway."
"Daddy said we have to go to a safe house first," Margo said.
Jacob nodded. "Yeah, just for a couple of days."
"FBI?" Charlie's eyes widened as he realized what was happening. They were evacuating!
"The FBI knows I'm here," the professor whispered. The words were like magic.
"Yes," Margo said frostily, pushing him into the hallway and towards the elevator.
Charlie's mind was spinning with possibilities. For the first time in days he felt hope. He felt a smile trying to work its way onto his lips.
"Today is the day they're all going to burn," Margo told him with a sigh. She briskly walked up the hall, pushing Charlie. "It's too bad we can't stay to watch."
"What are you talking about?" Charlie tried to twist around to see her, but of course he could hardly move. "Margo, what are you going to do?"
Then, without needing her answer, the truth clicked. He knew exactly what she was going to do. He'd lived through the horror of it once himself already.
"Margo, you can't! This building's full of people!"
"It'll be so beautiful, so full of light," Margo said wistfully. They reached the elevator. She pressed the call button.
"Yeah, especially with the water cut off. The front desk's been gettin' shit all day about people not being able to brush their teeth," Jacob said, laughing. "They got a real surprise comin'."
"But why?" Charlie demanded. "Why do you always have to hurt other people? Why can't you just take what you want and leave?"
"We gotta shut him up," Jacob warned.
"Don't yell, Charlie," Margo said, rubbing the back of his neck.
"But this is crazy!"
Her tone was glacial. The hand on the back of his neck tightened. "Charlie, I don't like it when you raise your voice at me. This is happening because it's the only way we can escape. It's happening because your brother thought he could send a spy in here and we'd be too stupid to figure it out."
"I'm not mad at you, Charlie. I know he's your brother, and that you love him. It's too bad it's come to this. He should have stayed away."
Margo's blue eyes gave Jacob a silent command.
Grinning, Jacob reached into the pocket on the back of Charlie's wheelchair. He pulled out a wide roll of duct tape, ripping a piece off. The harsh noise made Charlie flinch.
"Margo, look—please, you don't have to do this. Just like you didn't have to kill my students. Talk to the FBI. They'll probably let you walk right out of here if they know the only alternative is you're going to blow the whole place up," Charlie reasoned.
"Calm down, Charlie. You're going to be okay," Margo assured, her hand sliding up to play with the hair on the back of his head. "You're just going to be quiet for a while. Just a little while."
"Close your mouth. It'll hurt a lot less later if your mouth is shut when it goes on." Jacob said, dangling the wide strip of tape in front of Charlie's large brown eyes.
"Margo, let me talk to Don. Let me tell my brother I want to be with you. We have don't have to leave this w—" he closed his mouth as Jacob pasted the duct tape over the lower half of his face.
While Charlie glared at him, Jacob smoothed down the edges. He gave the professor's cheek a patronizing pat just as the elevator door pinged open.
The video file had been emailed to the LVMPD and to the FBI. The tech brought it up on a big screen for all gathered to see, and hit play. Hearing the commotion, Alan, Larry, and Amita had joined the bullpen. The three hovered at the periphery.
It was a room with no furniture except for a stainless steel table with a man strapped to its surface. Several objects that looked like his fingers were scattered on the floor in small pools of blood.
"It's Rudy Ling," Lt. Walker breathed, his eyes riveted to the recording like everyone else's. The video was not live. The clock on the wall of the bullpen read seven to twelve, but the time stamp on the video read 9:47 AM. What they were watching had occurred a few hours earlier.
A man stood behind the table. He held a large serrated knife in his gloved hand. He grinned at the camera as he pressed it to the mole's throat.
"Who is that?" Don asked. His brow furrowed. He didn't recognize the man from all the photos he'd studied of the Sumner syndicate.
"We don't know," the tech admitted.
"Good morning, Agent Eppes," drawled a friendly voice.
Don straightened. He knew that voice from having listened to it during the cocktail party. It was Carlisle Sumner.
Everyone in the room was stone still. If the syndicate had Rudy, if they knew Don and the FBI was in town, then that meant everything was compromised. Charlie could already be dead—executed right along with the poor bastard on the screen.
"He was trying to find out where Charlie was," Lt. Walker said, shaking his head. "He wanted to narrow it down for you guys as much as possible. They must've caught him."
"I must admit you came close, Agent Eppes. Your man here slipped at the finish line. Out of respect for your efforts I'm sending you this message," Carlisle said, remaining off camera. "I hope your clock doesn't read 12:15. If it does, then you're already too late."
A signal must have been given, because the man standing behind the table nodded. He sawed his knife back and forth across Rudy Ling's throat. The mole's cry was strangled and terrible. Blood spurted. When the deed was done, Rudy's murderer triumphantly snatched the mole's head by the hair and held it in the air. Strings of blood and gore dangled from the slack-jawed face.
"Don't worry, Agent. I'm not going to kill Charlie. As a matter of fact, we've grown rather attached to your brother. He's a good son," Carlisle's voice continued.
"He's my son!" Alan growled at the screen.
Don glanced at his dad. Larry and Amita both held his arms, as if the older man needed anchoring.
"12:15, Eppes. You couldn't save those college kids, but I'm giving you a shot to snatch 4,000 back from the jaws of Fate."
There was gunfire, and the man who'd killed Rudy Ling stumbled backwards, dead before he'd even hit the ground.
The tape ended. The bullpen stared at the blank screen in stunned silence.
Then every eye looked to Don.
"They know we've got them surrounded so they're going to use the chaos of thousands of people being evacuated from the Starcoast to dodge us," Don said, irritated that they were a step behind the syndicate again. He looked out over the bullpen. "Let's assume he's not bluffing, people. Let's get everyone out of that casino. We need emergency services. Look, everyone's on this. Get those people out. But keep an eye out for known suspects. Let's keep the cameras rolling on those exits and entrances, all right?"
The bullpen erupted into activity as people rushed to carry out Don's orders.
"We have to consider more than the Starcoast," Megan said. "Don, we've got to consider the damage this could cause to every building around. I don't think this is a bluff either. They're going to blow up casino and create another mess for us to clean up just like they did with CalSci," she said, unable to keep her own anger out of her tone.
"Didn't the mole say they're trying to get to Europe?" David asked.
"Yeah, Carlisle Sumner's got family connections in France," Lt. Walker said. "But you can bet their gonna lay low once they get out of that casino. I say we stick to the plan. Hit 'em hard. These are the kind of people you can't hesitate around. You can't let them call the shots. You've got to act or they'll find a way to slip right through your fingers."
"And if they somehow get Charlie out of the country…" Colby shook his head.
"Guys, I think our best shot is to let them escape," Megan said. "I keep thinking of... what does Charlie call it… Game Theory? Let them win this round while we work on winning the next one."
"What, you think Amita and Larry can help us out? Use what info we got and predict where they're going?" Don asked, interested.
"That's probably what the Wiz Kid would try to do," Colby said, a small smile touching his lips.
Don checked his watch. He looked over the almost emptied bullpen. Every resource was being directed towards the salvation of 4,000 plus people who were potentially not even half an hour from being blown sky high.
"All right," Don said. "Let's do it. Let's get started on Round 2."
At 12:15 the Starcoast Casino imploded.
There were multiple blasts, the first occurring at the bottom of the building, and the last from the top.
Groaning and shuddering, the beautiful, 4, 613 room structure collapsed in on itself in a deafening roar of shattered steel and glass. Smoke billowed upwards for miles. It filled the empty streets like a monstrous wave. A sea of emergency and law enforcement vehicles crowded at the perimeters of the destruction. The media was present, too, their helicopters surveying the devastated building from above.
Forty-two hours later, armed with Larry and Amita's prediction, Lt. Walker's list of known Creswell safe houses, and a visual confirmation, Don, his team, and their backup closed in on the two-story suburban house where his brother was being held while the Sumner Syndicate waited for a chance to slip out of the country.
The Sumners stood in the safe house's living room and considered their options. The call had come too late from their allies. The FBI was literally on their front lawn.
"Boss we've got callers," Jacob said, peering through the living room curtains of the safe house. He couldn't believe his eyes. The Feds had caught up to them. "Damn. All this fuss over one little math freak. Maybe we should hand the kid over?"
"No!" Margo cried. She looked at her father. "Daddy, we can't!"
"Go on ahead, we'll take care of it," Carlisle promised her. He kissed his daughter on the forehead. Standing there in her pink nightgown, he swore she looked like a little girl again. "Get upstairs with Charlie."
Margo hugged her father and nodded against his suit. "I love you, Daddy."
"It's gonna be all right," he told her grimly, reaching for an assault rifle. "Now get up there."
Margo ran up the stairs and found Charlie handcuffed to the bed. She quickly undid the restraint, handed him his crutches, and told him to get in the closet.
"Wait for me here," she ordered. "If you come out, I'll kill your brother."
Charlie's eyes widened. "My brother—!?"
She slapped a palm over his mouth. Her gaze was deadly serious. "I mean it, Charlie. Stay. Or he dies."
Charlie looked at her like she was crazy and tried to push past her, but Margo aimed a low kick right at his broken ankle. The pain made him see white. It exploded up his leg like a geyser of fire. Screaming, Charlie collapsed in pain, curling over his leg.
Margo slammed the closet door shut. "Stay in there, Charlie!"
Don and his team crept into the house as SWAT entered from the back. The entire structure was surrounded by law enforcement.
They crossed into the empty living room. The lights had been turned off.
A bullet whizzed past Colby's head and all of the agents ducked for cover, scattering to different points of the room. The sound of gunfire filled the living room as the FBI traded bullets with the syndicate. Holes were ripped into the walls and furniture was blown apart.
Don worked his way through the chaos. His determined eyes were on the stairs. The battle around him barely reached his senses. Everything in him was screaming for him to get to the second floor.
Colby took a chance, diving from his hiding place behind a recliner to where David was crouched behind an overturned bookshelf. Together, they stood and fired, shooting the suspect identified as Jacob Minor twice in the chest. The obese man cried out and fell backwards.
SWAT took out several other enforcers.
Unwilling to wait another second, Don ran for the stairs. He knew in his gut that Charlie was within his grasp. He knew his team could handle the situation below. He outran the gunfire that followed him up the steps.
Megan edged along a wall. She'd seen two suspects flee into the kitchen. She motioned for David and Colby to follow her lead. She kicked open the door and jumped back as a torrent of bullets greeted the agent. When there was a break in the fire, Megan ducked into the room and returned fire, shooting the man identified as Greg Sumner four times.
She was so close that his body jumped with each shot.
As he crumpled to the ground, Carlisle Sumner dropped his gun and caught the younger man in his arms. He knelt on the tiled floor and held his dying son. He felt the life bleed out from his boy.
The three agents surrounded Carlisle and Greg's body in a triangle; their guns were all aimed at the syndicate leader's head.
Carlisle looked up at them. The bewildered glaze in his green eyes hardened into a murderous glare, but he did not reach for his assault rifle. He gently laid his son on the floor. His gaze remained locked with Megan's. He lifted his hands with an air of sarcastic defeat.
"Aren't you going to arrest me, Agent?" he drawled through gritted teeth.
"Yeah," Megan said, not at all intimidated. She slid her gun into its holster and yanked out her handcuffs. "I'm going to arrest you, and the state of California's going to execute you."
Don held his gun out and slowed to a prowl, creeping up the hallway of the second floor towards an opened door.
He heard movement, but spun around just in time for Margo to bash him in the head with something blunt and wooden. Don's world flipped over. He was on the ground. He'd lost his gun. Margo was pummeling his stomach with her fists. She was cursing and screaming at him. Don's brain crashed and she stepped off of him. He was winded and disoriented. Margo smiled. She lifted her foot over the agent's neck.
"No!" Charlie abandoned his crutches and ran, charging out of the opened bedroom. He blocked out the grinding pain in his ankle bones. He dove into Margo and knocked her away from Don.
Both of them tumbled to the carpet, but Margo was the first to get back up. Margo drove the tip of her shoe down against Charlie's cast, right over his broken ankle. The professor screamed and tried to scramble away from her, but Margo followed. There was a horrible, furious expression on her pretty face. She caught up to him and stepped on his leg again. Charlie thrashed against the floor. His good leg caught her and Margo was sent toppling backwards with a cry.
Panting, Charlie struggled onto his feet. The pain was hideous. He tried to balance on his right foot, and did a painful, limping run away from her and back into the opened bedroom.
Margo sat up. Her blue eyes were shocked. The rage had left her body.
"Charlie!" she cried. "Wait! You don't understand!"
The professor's knees buckled and he collapsed in the middle of the bedroom. Tears streamed down his face. He'd never been in so much pain. He tried to crawl, but Margo caught up to him again. She knelt beside him and pushed Charlie onto his back. Her face was no longer angry.
"Charlie," she said, her voice broken with emotion. "Listen to me! I love you so much. I just want us to be together. For you to be safe. I never, never, never wanted you to be hurt like this. I'm so sorry I hurt you just now. I-I was mad. I can't let him have you back, Charlie! Don't you understand?"
Charlie glared up at her, his chest heaving. "I hate you. Every last one of you."
She shook her head, not believing him, and tearfully crushed her mouth against his. She kissed him even as he twisted his face away. Charlie squeezed his eyes shut, gasping at how much his body hurt.
Margo woodenly stood up. She crossed to the room's door and pulled it closed. After locking it, she pushed a dresser in front of the door to further block any entry. On the other side of the door she heard voices, people crying out in concern for Charlie's brother.
Looking over her shoulder, she saw that Charlie was trying to get up again.
Sighing, Margo knelt beside her acquired professor and rammed her palm against his ankle.
Charlie's agonized screams hurt her ears and tore at her heart, but Margo did it again until he stopped moving. With shaking hands, she brushed the tears from his face.
"Don't fight me, Charlie. Please stop making me hurt you. We have to hurry." She grabbed him by the jacket, and with all her strength, dragged the professor over to the room's only closet. She tucked Charlie inside.
Breathing hard, his pain-glazed eyes beseeched her. "Margo, please—just let me go. This doesn't have to happen! I have a father and a brother—"
"You have me," she insisted. "And I'm not letting them take you away."
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a lighter.
Charlie's eyes widened. "No!"
He scrambled to get up, but the pain was so excruciating he crumpled back into the closet. His vision blurred and he saw flashes of black. Terrified of passing out and burning alive, the professor tried to block out the pain and move. He couldn't die now. Not with Don right outside. What would that do to Don? Knowing they'd come so close…
Margo held the lighter to the room's lacy curtains. The beautiful fire danced up the soft fabric and made her face glow in its flickering orange light. Relieved by the fire's presence, Margo quickly returned to the closet and shut herself inside with Charlie.
He was almost to his feet; both palms flat against the walls to give balance as the mathematician put all of his weight onto his right foot.
Margo pushed him back to the floor. She followed him down, throwing her arms around his middle and burying her face against his stomach. Outside the closet both of them could hear the crackling, sizzling of the fire as it spread. The smoke soon stung their eyes and made their throats itch.
Charlie's strength, or the adrenaline that had fueled it, ebbed away as he fought to break free of her embrace. His efforts became so weak that Margo was able to sit up and pull Charlie into her lap. She held him in her arms and kissed him several times before pressing his curly head to her chest.
She held him tight, her body rocking gently as sweat poured down her face. The heat was suffocating.
"Shh, Charlie. Don't be scared. I'm here. I'm here and I love you so, so much. I love you and I'll never leave you."
When Don came around, it was to the smell of smoke and burning wood. He sat up and nearly knocked Megan over. She'd been leaning over him, trying to assess his injuries. Colby and David were busy breaking into a room that was only feet away from where Don finally grabbed hold of his senses.
"Charlie!" Don was up in a heartbeat, stumbling forward and ignoring Megan's cry of concern.
"She's set the place on fire!" David yelled as the door at last gave way. The team spilled into the bedroom. Flames were spreading across the right side. Fire was on the walls and licking the furniture, creeping its way across the floor and rolling over the ceiling. Smoke and small flecks of hot ash collided with the coughing agents.
"Charlie!" They yelled, all looking wildly around the room. The walls were blackened and chunks of plaster were crumbling, falling to the floor.
"The closet!" Colby saw the closed door through the smoke. The agents rushed, weaving past the rapidly growing fire, and yanked open the closet door.
There they found Margo Sumner. She leaned over Charlie and glowered up at them. Madness danced in her blue eyes.
"No! Go away! Leave us alone!"
Don reached into the closet and ripped the woman away from his little brother. He almost threw her straight into the fire, but David and Colby caught Margo. She struggled like a wild animal between them. Fingers clawing at their arms, she screamed and kicked as they dragged her from the room.
"Charlie! Get Charlie!" she shrieked as they threw her against the wall and wrestled handcuffs onto the flailing woman.
Charlie wasn't moving.
Don crouched down and gathered his little brother into his arms. Coughing on the smoke, he tried to plot out a safe exit path, but his eyes were irritated. Tears rolled down the agent's face.
"Don!" he heard Megan shout from the hallway.
He saw a flashlight's beam waving around and Don hurried towards it, carrying Charlie. In the hallway, Don laid Charlie on the floor and checked for a pulse. It wasn't necessary. Right away, Charlie was pushing at his hands, trying to fend Don off.
David dashed past them armed with a fire extinguisher.
"Don, we're gonna have to move," Megan said.
"Let me go!" Margo was screaming. Her voice was shrill and desperate as Colby and Megan forced her up the hall. "He needs me! Don't you idiots understand that he can't live without me!?"
Charlie shoved at Don's hands. His face was drawn in pain and distress.
"Buddy, hey, it's all right. You're safe. It's me," Don assured, catching Charlie by the wrists. "Charlie—Charlie, look at me."
The professor opened his eyes. They were red and irritated from the smoke. They were arrested by the sight of Don kneeling over him.
Don smiled, letting go of his brother's wrists. "It's all right now. I've got you, Charlie. She can't mess with you anymore."
Charlie knew without a doubt that if Don was there, then everything was fine. He tried to sit up, and Don helped him. Shutting out the hideous pain in his leg, Charlie wrapped his arms around Don and clung to his older brother, pressing his face against him. Don's arms formed a barrier around him and Charlie shuddered in relief. All of the stress and fear he'd felt over the past week overwhelmed him.
"You came," Charlie said. "I knew you'd come."
Don laughed. "Of course I came. Charlie, I'd have chased them to the ends of the earth. Now come on. Let's get out of here. I think David's losing his battle with the fire. This place isn't safe."
"Yeah, I'm throwing up the white flag," David said, coming over to them.
"Hey Charlie. You can't begin to comprehend even with that big brain of yours how good it is to see you, man," David said with a grin. Don helped Charlie stand and the mathematician was enveloped in a quick hug from Sinclair. "Welcome back, Charlie."
Charlie grinned. "Thanks. It's really good to see you, too."
Together, the agents half-walked, half-carried him out of the burning house.
As paramedics rolled him towards the back of an ambulance, Charlie tried not to struggle against the stretcher's restraints.
"Charlie, I'm gonna call Dad. Him and Amita and Larry, and well, everybody are gonna head to the hospital," Don said, keeping up with the stretcher as it was loaded into the back of the ambulance.
"…Don, did you catch them? Did you catch all of them?"
Don grinned, bracing himself as the ambulance began to move. The siren wailed to life. "Yeah, Buddy. We got 'em. Between tonight and the other day when they blew up that casino, the jailhouse is gonna be like a Sumner-Creswell reunion," Don said, laughing a little.
"Is Dad okay? …I mean, has he been okay?"
Don nodded, pulling out his cellphone. "Yeah, but look—I need you to stop talking, okay? You're killing your throat, Chuck. Just rest. Let the pain killers kick in and stop worrying about everything, all right?"
Charlie swallowed, smiling again as he tried to hold his emotions in check.
But he couldn't take his eyes off of Don.
He was so proud, so deliriously happy to be with his brother, to have Don as a brother.
Don couldn't shake the feeling that everything he loved in his life was more fragile than he'd ever slowed down to realize. He felt overwhelmed with gratitude that Charlie was alive and safe.
It felt like a gift.
Don smiled, a strange rush of peacefulness filling him as he dialed Alan's cellphone number.
Special thanks to Ghanaperu and MsGrahamCracker for your consistent reviews. Thank you everyone who has taken the time to read. I haven't written the epilogue yet, so if there's something you especially would like to see in there, please let me know.