Author's Note: This plot was almost degraded to a challenge/ plot bunny. I had a very hard time making it 'work' and was about to hand it off to someone else. Please let me know what you think!
'The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.'
"Don, I'm sorry!"
"Sorry's not good enough this time, Charlie."
Alan looked up from stirring a large pot of spaghetti as his boys stormed into the house.
Or actually, Don stormed in, and Charlie was trailing behind like a kicked puppy.
"It was a mistake- an accident!"
Don flung his coat over the back of a kitchen chair as he kept moving, away from his younger brother. "Do you know how much time and money your 'accident' caused us today?"
The water bubbled over the pot and hissed when it hit the hot stove. Alan jerked and began blowing on the water, causing it to shrink away and recede into the pot once more.
"Not exactly, no, but I do understand the severity of the situation!" Charlie was standing at the kitchen table with his hands planted on the back of his chair, watching as Don paced angrily around the room.
"The severity of the situation is that you made me and my entire team look like idiots!"
Alan reached out and clicked the stove off before turning to face his sons. "Bad day?"
They both turned and looked at him with incredulous expressions.
"Wanna tell a neutral party?" he tried again.
Don took a deep breath and straightened, pinning Charlie with an angry glare. "Charlie caused us to arrest an innocent man today."
Alan looked at Charlie.
"Yeah, I screwed it up," he admitted, as if saying the words would make the problem disappear. "I ruined someone's life." He ducked his head and added softly, "A few people's lives."
Alan looked back to Don.
Don stood still, looking almost proud for a moment before explaining, "He was helping us on a case. We had a suspect- a bomber suspect- and were trying to predict his next move, catch him in the act."
Alan nodded, used to the vague stories by now.
"So we're on this guy, right, watching him just in case he makes a move, and I get a message from Charlie. You know those text messages you can send over the phone?"
"Yeah, right, I see kids playing with those things all the time," Alan said.
Don glared at Charlie. "You hear that? Kids can play with those things more efficiently than you."
"Hey," Alan interrupted, not liking the way Charlie seemed to be shrinking. "Continue with the story."
Don took a breath, obviously reeling himself in. "So I get this message. 'Don be careful. The guy is wired.' That's what I read from Charlie."
Charlie seemed to shrink even more and Alan was confused. It sounded like Charlie had helped Don. "I don't get it."
"I figured Charlie had finally cracked his little equation thing he was working on, so I give the okay to move in on this guy. And you know what we found?"
"Nothing. Not a damn thing. The guy was clean. Innocent even, right Charlie?"
Charlie looked up quickly. "Right." His gaze returned to the table.
The timer went off and Alan moved to shut it off. He cracked the oven door to cool the garlic bread. "So how is this Charlie's fault?" he asked as he resumed his position in between his sons.
"Yeah Charlie, how is this your fault?"
Charlie shifted his weight nervously and swallowed. "I never meant the guy was 'wired'," he started softly.
"I meant he was 'weird'."
"Weird?" Alan echoed.
Don turned away, becoming upset all over again at the quiet admission. His hands went up in the air as he spat, "For Christ's sake Charlie, get a dictionary."
Charlie's eyes glistened and Alan scolded, "Don, settle down."
"The way the numbers worked out," Charlie said to his father, "It didn't make sense. I realized we had the wrong guy."
"Then why didn't you say so?" Don's voice was raising. "Charlie, when I said 'Next time use a phone', I thought you knew how to use one!"
"Don, I'm sorry, I-"
"Just do me a favor and stay in your classroom, okay? Quit trying to help."
Silence fell over the household.
Charlie stayed where he was, eyes down, chest moving harder than usual.
"I'm going home," Don announced, grabbing his jacket.
Alan blinked himself from his stupor. "But, dinner-"
"I'm sorry dad. Next time, okay?"
"Okay," Alan mumbled as the door closed. He looked at Charlie in the silence that remained, noting the young man's tense shoulders and barely-trembling fingers. "Charlie-"
"I'm okay," Charlie said quickly, pushing himself away from the chair he had been clutching. "It's my fault anyway, he has a right to be angry." Charlie raised one hand to rub his eyes, then he raked it through his curly hair. "I'm not hungry," he said, and turned away.
"Charlie, get back here," Alan tried, but Charlie was already on his way out.
Alan watched him go, most likely heading to the garage and the refuge it offered. Just minutes before, his life had been in order. He had a small family that loved each other, a safe, sound house, and good food in the making. Now…
Alan opened the kitchen cabinets and started pulling down Tupperware.
Don sat in his vehicle, hands gripping the steering wheel tightly. The keys were in the ignition, his foot was on the brake, and his hand was on the gear shift… but the engine was off.
This time, he hadn't even made it out of the driveway.
He leaned back against the driver's seat and sighed. The house- Charlie's house- glowed warmly just a short distance in front of him.
"Three… Two… One…"
Right on time, there goes Charlie, making a beeline for the garage. The door shuts and a dim light comes on.
Inside the house, dad began putting leftovers- were they still called leftovers if they weren't left over?- away. He should go in and help.
Don breathed in the smell of leather and his own cologne as he shifted in his seat. His anger was fading quickly- it had started to the moment he saw the look of raw hurt on his brother's face. So maybe the kid really had only made a mistake, but the price of it was very serious. The FBI had wasted the entire afternoon first staking out and bringing in an innocent man, then trying to explain to him why such an event had happened. Don had looked stupid, felt stupid, and sounded stupid. And it was all Charlie's fault.
But wait a minute, a voice within Don interrupted, who had asked Charlie to come aboard in the first place? Who had put himself in a position where he needed Charlie so desperately to begin with? Who couldn't do his own work anymore?
A small headache was blossoming inside Don's skull. With one final sigh- because even if Charlie was his own flesh and blood, Don still hated sappy apology scenes- he reached out and grabbed the door handle.
The vehicle beeped at him as he opened the door and the small overhead lights spotlighted his movements to anyone that might be watching. Quickly, Don slid to the ground and pushed the door shut behind him.
His shoes tapped against he smooth pavement as he headed to the garage, however he didn't worry about Charlie hearing him. The young man would be invariably lost in thought.
Don grasped the cool metal doorknob and prepared himself to enter Charlie's realm. The more time the mathematician spent in the garage, the less time Don did, until finally, Don no longer felt at home inside it. Now he felt more like an intruder.
He pushed the door open slowly, both not wanting to disturb Charlie and at the same time not really wanting to enter at all.
When the door opened enough so that he could squeeze inside, Don did so silently.
He pushed it shut with a click.
Charlie stopped moving and the raspy sounds of chalk scratching over slate fell silent. He turned, white chalk still clutched in his right hand, and looked at Don.
Charlie's throat moved before his head dropped. "I know," he said quietly.
"I don't think you do." Don moved closer and Charlie watched, seldom-seen confusion written on his face. "So we goofed up. The department will get over it, Mr. James will get over it. In ten years, we'll be able to laugh about it. Nobody was hurt."
Charlie tried to hid a tiny smile. "What are you doing, Don?"
Don rolled his eyes. "I'm trying to apologize here, jackass. Quit interrupting." Charlie sat down across from him and Don continued, "Your genius far outweighs your… deficiencies. We're all glad, lucky even, to have you help out. I'm sorry I came down so hard on you. I don't do embarrassment very well, you know?"
"Do I ever."
Don stood up. "Come here," he waved, and pulled Charlie against him. "Do you forgive me?"
"You're gonna give me a noogie if I say no."
Don felt Charlie laugh against his chest before he let go. "I love you Charlie, no matter how many times you make a mess out of my life. Got it?"
Looking very much like a younger version of himself, Charlie smiled at Don. "Got it."
"Good, now lets go eat."
Alan shoved the spaghetti sauce in the small space in between the two-litter bottle of Coke and the pitcher of orange juice. The bottle swelled with the pressure, and Alan shut the refrigerator door quickly.
There. Everything had been cleaned up and put away. He had seen Don go after Charlie, and hopefully the two were rekindling their relationship. Now, it was time to relax in front of the TV.
With a satisfied sigh, Alan turned towards the living room.
"Boy am I hungry," Don announced as the door was thrust open.
Charlie trailed in after him, grinning. "Dad, that smells great!"
Alan suddenly felt very old.
"Take a seat," he sighed, turning back towards the refrigerator and it's ready-to-burst contents. "It'll be ready in a few minutes."
Some days, he wondered why he even bothered.