Camouflage

Chapter 52

The next morning, Alan was at the stove cooking a pan of scrambled eggs when he heard Charlie charge downstairs, and he smiled to himself. Even his son's footsteps on the stairs sounded different this morning; instead of a slow plod, they were a fast rhythmic jog. He heard Charlie pulling together his papers and his laptop out in the dining room, and then he burst through the kitchen doorway a little breathlessly. He was dressed up a bit; clean-shaven and wearing one of his better tweed jackets, and Alan could smell a hint of cologne. "Sit down, I made you breakfast," said Alan.

"Good, I'm starving," said Charlie, and the rate with which he dispatched a plate of eggs and toast, with juice and coffee, made Alan smile. He hadn't seen his son eat like that since – well, since before the Murciano case. Charlie finished and ducked into the bathroom, and Alan could see him carefully check his face and teeth in the mirror and take a swig of mouthwash, and Alan shook his head, a bit bemused at the behavior – but happy, nonetheless. He knew what was driving his son's energetic, upbeat behavior that morning – his sons had told him about Don's decision to bring Charlie back to consult the night before. Like Don, Alan had mixed emotions over the decision, but to see Charlie so happy again – and Don too, for that matter – well, it was worth it, thought Alan.

"I'm heading to work now," he said, as Charlie hustled in to the dining room to get his things and back into the kitchen. "I can drop you off at campus."

"Okay," said Charlie, "that would be good. I have to go down to the FBI offices this afternoon – I'm taking a cab and then Don is going to drop me off at home after work. If I can get a ride this morning, I won't have to leave my bike at school."

On the ride there, Charlie still seemed to be buzzing with energy, but he seemed a little preoccupied. Without warning, he said, "I need to go apply for a permit again for my driver's license. Maybe I can get another ride from you on Saturday."

"Sure," said Alan, as he pulled to a stop in the campus parking lot. "No problem. There's that little diner by the DMV – they have great breakfasts. We can stop there first."

Charlie flashed him a grin as he got out of the car, and said, "Thanks. Sounds good," and loped off, and Alan watched him for a moment with a smile. He had known things would get back to normal eventually, he thought, still smiling, as he put his car into gear and pulled away.


Charlie started off the morning with a review of the research project implementation with his department head, Jacob Turner. He felt a little wired and more than a little nervous over what he had planned later that day, and he projected his slides on the wall and gave the update on his feet; he couldn't sit still. He must have made a favorable impression, however, because Turner watched him with a smile, and at the end, he made a few comments on the presentation and then said, "It's good to see you back, Charlie."

Charlie was glad it went well, but puzzled over that comment for a bit afterward – he'd been back for weeks now. He hurried on to the next thing in his schedule – a class lecture for applied differential equations, and again, nerves drove him – he was perhaps a little more animated than was usual lately – darting back and forth to the board and flip chart to explain the material. One of his graduate students was a teacher's aide for the class and he was sitting in on the lecture like he did every week, watching with a smile. Toward the end of class, Charlie saw Amita standing in the doorway, and his heart took a little jump. She was watching him, and she also had a smile on her face, and then to his surprise, she slipped into the hall and found a seat up in the back. He looked up at her and smiled, and she smiled back at him. When the lecture was over, one of his students stopped by to talk to Charlie, and thanked him and started to go on about how he'd been struggling with the concepts but after that lecture, he completely understood the material. Charlie was glad to hear it, but he kept one eye on Amita as the young man was talking – he wanted to talk to her – to catch her before she left. Then his graduate student stopped by on the way out, and said, with a grin, "It's good to see you back, Dr. Eppes."

It was almost the identical statement that Dr. Turner had made, and it made Charlie pause – he had seen his graduate student in that same lecture every week since he'd been back. He realized now what they were talking about – he'd been a lot more animated that morning when he was speaking, but he didn't realize it was that much more. Had he been that ponderous and dull and disengaged the last few weeks? He must have let his emotional state creep into his lectures. The funny thing was, he felt back – his material suddenly seemed a lot more interesting, much more enjoyable to talk about. That energy, he knew, wasn't just nerves. He knew most of it was his new outlook on life, thanks to his conversation with his brother. However, nerves were also a part of his abundance of energy, and those nerves were starting to make themselves felt as Amita, the last one in the room, came slowly down the steps of the lecture hall.

He waited for her at the bottom, and she smiled and said, "Good lecture," and then they both smiled again, a little awkwardly.

"I'm glad you're here," said Charlie. "I was going to come and find you after the lecture. I wanted to talk with you for a minute – privately."

Her eyes widened a bit and the smile disappeared. She seemed nervous, and Charlie felt his heart dip. It didn't appear that the thought of a private conversation with him was too appealing to her. But she said, "My office is right down the hallway – let's go there."

He walked with her down the hallway and into her office – thankfully the hallway was already deserted; the students had headed off to other classes. Not that anyone was going to see what he was about to do, but it was better not to be seen going in to her office together.

They slipped inside and as a precaution Charlie quietly turned the lock on the door handle as he walked in behind her, into the tiny office. They couldn't afford for someone to walk in on them. She didn't see him do it, but he thought to himself, "If I were her, I'd think that was a little creepy – especially if she doesn't want this."

The thought made his stomach clutch, and he was that close to losing his nerve and scuttling his plan, but then Amita turned to face him, and said, nervously, "I been wanting to talk to you, too, Charlie. I've wanted to apologize for my behavior in the hospital – when I – well, I – I kissed you. I shouldn't have done that – it was so risky – and I don't even think you wanted - well-," and that was all she managed to get out, because he grabbed her by her arms, and kissed her.

She froze for a moment and he thought she was going to pull away so he loosed his grip on her arms, but then, without breaking the kiss, she put her arms around him and pulled close to him. He could feel her body against his – and God, it felt so good it took his breath away, and he snaked a hand into her hair. After a moment, they both pulled away, breathing hard, and then Charlie said, "Yes, that's what I wanted to talk about too," and the statement was so superfluous after that kiss it sounded funny, and they both laughed – nervous, giddy, relieved laughter – their eyes locked on each other.

Charlie reached out and held one of her hands and said, "I got pretty sick afterward and we never got a chance to talk about it. And then you seemed kind of distant, and I thought maybe you had second thoughts - ,"

"Oh, I did have second thoughts," said Amita. "Not that I regretted the kiss itself, for one minute – but I thought about how dangerous it was, afterward – especially for you. I would die if caused an issue with your career, Charlie."

He pulled her close, and murmured, "Well, one thing I learned from all of that – you only live once," and then he kissed her again, more gently this time, more slowly.

Suddenly there was a rap at the door and then the rattle of the door handle, and Amita gasped and jumped back, wide-eyed. Charlie jumped too, but then he whispered, "I locked the door – you're not here," and she took a deep breath and smiled. They stood and waited until they heard footsteps receding, fighting the nervous inclination to break into hysterical giggles, and then Amita sighed. "Thank goodness you did that – but that's what I mean."

"I know," said Charlie, more soberly. "We'll have to stay low-profile for a couple of months. But I wanted you to know how I felt, and I really want to keep seeing you."

She smiled. "We could meet in your garage – for work, of course. I've been hoping to get another set of eyes on my thesis – to get another opinion." She blushed, prettily.

Charlie grinned at her. His heart was singing. "Of course," he said. He took a deep breath, reached for her hand again, and said, "I have to go – but we'll talk." Then he kissed her again, briefly, gently, and when they parted they lingered for just a moment, lips nearly touching, before they broke away.

"Maybe I'll see you at lunchtime," she said. "I've been eating lunch in the teacher's lounge lately down the hall from your office – usually with Larry – maybe you can join us."

He turned at the doorway and smiled, mentally thanking his brother. "That sounds good." They smiled at each other and he stepped out and took a deep breath, and wondered if a person could die from too much happiness.


At two-thirty that afternoon, Megan, Colby and David filed into a conference room for a meeting with their boss to go over the two cases they now had. Don was already in the room and he glanced at his watch, then out at the bullpen, and they followed his gaze. "Hey," said Colby, "It's Charlie!"

Charlie hurried in with his briefcase a bit breathlessly, trying to loop a lanyard over his head that held what looked like a brand new badge; the lanyard was getting caught in his curls. "I'm sorry," he said. "They were having a hard time in the security office with the lamination machine."

"No problem," said Don, smiling a bit at his team's look of surprise. "Welcome back."

All three of his team members broke into smiles at his comment, and they all jumped up and clustered around Charlie, shaking his hand. "Good to see you, Whiz Kid," said Colby, beaming, with a hearty slap on Charlie's back that almost knocked him off his feet.

Don was still smiling, but he cleared his throat. "Let's get down to business here. We've got not one, but two cases, now, and I figured we could use Charlie's help on both of them. There's the murder of the film executive up in Malibu, and now the gang shooting from yesterday." He went on to fill Charlie in on what they knew so far, and Megan watched him as he talked. She could see that Colby and David were delighted but very surprised by Don's seemingly sudden turnaround. She was not quite as surprised that it had happened, but the suddenness of it was intriguing – as was Charlie's badge. Don had been giving every sign that he was going to need some time to process everything that happened before he would consider asking his brother back – if ever, and she wondered what had precipitated his decision. She could see by the color coding on the badge that it was the type issued to longer term contract personnel – so Don had decided to not only to renew his brother's contract, but to renew it for more than just these two cases.

"Interesting," she thought to herself. She watched Don's face as he talked, looking for signs of reservation, for a hint that he was uncertain about his decision, but found none. It seemed like a perfectly ordinary session in the office – well, perhaps there was a slight difference. Don seemed just a bit more energized, a bit more confident than he had been in recent days – as if he knew exactly where he was going, and what he was doing. No second-guessing here – in fact, it seemed as though the opposite were true. Don appeared to be quite satisfied with the arrangement; and Charlie – well, Charlie was much easier to read; his eagerness and gratitude were plainly written on his face. There was more enthusiasm in the air in general; as if as a team they had been incomplete and now were at full strength, and ready to go. Don had apparently seen something lacking and had decided to fix it.

Afterward, Colby and David and Charlie filed out of the office, still talking about the two cases, and Don sat down to collect his paperwork. Megan lingered in her seat, pulling her notes together, and looked at Don and murmured, "Good call."

He looked up at her. He smiled at her comment, but a sigh came with the smile. "I hope so."

"You don't sound certain."

He shrugged. "Oh, I'm certain that bringing Charlie back in was a good decision, all things considered. I set some limits on what I will allow him to do – it was the only way I could be comfortable with this from a safety standpoint." He paused, and looked at her and shook his head. "It wasn't working for us at all, on a personal level, without this. It bothers me a little that we can't connect without work as a common ground."

Megan smiled and shook her head. "It doesn't matter what the common ground is," she said. "The important thing is that you've found something that works – don't apologize for it. The rest will come with time – maybe a lot of time – and don't be surprised if you still have ups and downs while you get there."

Don nodded. "Yeah, I guess I kind of figured that."

He fell silent, and Megan added softly, "You know, Don, it's a crazy world out there. A lot of the craziness doesn't even touch us, or what we do here. You can't protect him from everything."

Don looked at her, and his lip curled - a smile, mixed with a look of determination. "Maybe not," he said. "But I can sure as hell try."

His gaze trailed out to the bullpen, where his younger brother was in an animated discussion with Colby and David, and his smile deepened, laced with both amusement and affection. "It's good to have him back."


Don and Charlie talked about the case all the way home that evening. Don thoroughly enjoyed the conversation – it felt good, as good as their best moments working on other cases during the previous year – those moments in which he felt like they were really clicking. When they talked about work, the awkwardness just fell away – but he still had some reservations about his decision; he was still concerned about his brother's safety, even if he'd set some limits. If anything happened to Charlie on a future case it would be even harder to forgive himself. One thing was sure, he would be hell bent on reducing Charlie's visibility to the criminal element - and his father's, too. All of those thoughts still made him uncomfortable, but it was worth it, worth the worry and doubt to have him back, he thought, as he took in the spark in his brother's eyes and the big smile on his face as he talked about the case. He remembered the hospital and Charlie lying there so still and near death, and thinking that he would have given anything at that moment to see him like this.

Charlie was going on about the analyses he wanted to run for the case and it seemed he wasn't ready to stop any time soon, but as they pulled up in front of the house, Charlie suddenly dropped the subject and said, "Oh – I just wanted to tell you – I took your advice on Amita today."

Don's eyebrows rose, and an amused smile came to his lips. "Already?"

Charlie flushed, smiling shyly. "Yeah, well, I felt like I'd already waited too long. I just wanted to say you were right. It went really well – thanks."

Don grinned at him. "Glad I could help." He paused, remembering their conversation the night before, remembering Charlie's note. There was one part of it he hadn't addressed.

Charlie said, "Are you coming in? Dad is making lasagna."

Don smiled. "I wouldn't miss it." Charlie sent him an answering grin – a brilliant, happy smile. He'd been smiling all afternoon, Don reflected – it was a profound change from the quiet, sad, brooding person that had occupied his brother's body as recently as last evening. And Don had to admit, he felt better, too - lighter somehow, relieved - happy. They got out of the SUV and began walking toward the front door, and Don said, "Today was good – it went well, didn't it?"

Charlie nodded emphatically. "Absolutely. It feels…" He paused, searching for a word. "…right." He said softly, his eyes connecting, "Thank you, again. I promise, I'll follow any guideline you want to set."

Don nodded, smiling, and said, "I know you will. And I agree, it felt right." And then his expression sobered, and he said softly, "Oh, and there was something I forgot to mention last night, when we talked. I saw some of the other comments you had written, at the bottom of the page that your message was on."

Charlie flushed to the roots of his hair. "Oh, those," he said, "I was – well – I just -," he stammered.

Don shook his head. "I didn't mean the stuff in the middle – I think maybe it was about you – although I think you're being way too hard on yourself, there. I meant the stuff at the bottom, about me." He looked at him, earnestly. "Charlie, just for the record, I wasn't just doing my duty. And I do feel the same way. I just wanted you to know that." Then he smiled and slung an arm around Charlie's shoulders, and pulled open the door.


End

Author's note - thanks so much for sticking with me through this one, especially to those who took the time (some of you every chapter) to review. It means a lot to a writer to know that your efforts (whatever the quality) aren't just going off into the ozone - that someone is reading. I realize how much I missed writing - I just may have to do some more. Thanks again - you're the best - Serialgal