A/N: I know this chapter will receive negative reviews due to length. I had a longer version created, but when I read it myself, I decided a lot of what I had put down was unnecessary. I believe this chapter polishes off the story more than adequately. I realize many will disagree, but this is all of it- the longer version has been deleted. I apologise. There is another story in the works, for those who are interested in knowing. Enjoy.
It took three hours and a lot of coffee, but they were finally guided to Charlie's bedside. The doctor informed them he'd received four broken ribs and a concussion in conjunction with two severely broken legs. Charlie would heal, but it would take a long time.
"Hey Dad," the young mathematician murmured. He looked at the small group gathered around his bed and smiled slowly. "The gang's all here, huh?"
"Yeah, son," Alan replied. "We're all here." He looked down at the matching plaster casts. "Did they have to put pins in?" he asked.
Charlie moved his head negatively. "Just broken. Not… smashed." He briefly closed his eyes. "Car was too slow," he added.
"Good thing," Don said with a smile. "Otherwise we'd have to wait on you for even longer." Charlie chuckled, a sound that rapidly turned into a suppressed cough while he held tightly to his ribcage.
"Easy there," admonished Alan, casting Don a reproving look.
Charlie opened his eyes. "Hurts… to laugh," he gasped.
"Sorry, bro," Don said, immediately contrite. "Won't do it again."
Charlie'sarms relaxed and his head settled deeper into the pillow. "At least – not for a while." He tried to look over the edge of the bed. "Emma?" he asked.
"I'm here." A little head peeked over the bedclothes. "I'm here, too." Don reached down and lifted herso she couldsee. Settling onto her uncle's hip, she looked Charlie over critically. "You're okay now?" she asked.
"Not quite, honey," Charlie replied. "But I'll get better."
Alan cleared his throat. When Charlie looked at him, he said, "We had quite a job convincing someone that this wasn't their fault." Charlie looked at Emma, who had burrowed her head in Don's chest again. Charlie lifted his arms. "Bring her," he said.
"Charlie," Alan cautioned. Don, too, looked skeptical. Charlie shook his head slowly – he still felt a little dizzy. "I don't care," he replied. "Bring her to me."
Don moved to the bed and eased the girl down beside his brother, careful not to jostle him. "Be gentle, sweetie," he advised. "Don't bump him." She nodded and slowly crept up to lay her head on Charlie's shoulder, curled up on her side. Charlie wrapped his arm around her little body and looked up at his father and brother.
"Uh, Dad," Don began, catching on. "Why don't you and I step outside for a minute?"
Alan looked at his eldest son blankly for a second. "What? Oh!" He glanced at Charlie, who was planting a kiss on the top of Emma's head. "Yes, let's do that," he replied.
Once the door was firmly shut behind them, Charlie spoke. "You didn't do this, sweetheart." Emma lifted her head and looked at him. "Do you believe me?"
"I was chasing Melvin," she whispered.
"No," Charlie replied, shaking his head.
He smiled. "Don't you remember? You were standing on the step."
Emma protested, "But I was before!" She squirmed slightly and Charlie hissed in pain, tightening his arm around her. "Hold still," he said from between clenched teeth. She froze. When he'd caught his breath, Charlie continued. "You were before, yes. But when that car showed up, you weren't anywhere near there – I was."
She nodded ever so slightly. "You were in the street," she agreed.
"And what does that tell you?"
Emma frowned in concentration. "Not to stand in the street?"
"That's right," Charlie smiled. "So if you stay out of the street, instead of doing something dumb like I did, you'll be fine."
"But you're not dumb!" Emma said. "You're smart – Uncle Don said so."
Charlie's smile faded. "Even your uncle would have to admit standing in the street talking to a dog isn't smart." He sighed. "If anyone's to blame for this, it's me, Emma. Not you."
Several minutes of silence passed while she considered this. Finally she asked, "How long are you gonna stay in here?"
"As long as I have to," Charlie replied, resting his cheek on the top of her head. "Not one minute more."
Emma whispered, "I thought you were gonna go to heaven, like Mummy."
"Nope," Charlie replied. "You're stuck with me now."
"Uncle Don told me you weren't …" She trailed off. Lifting her head, Emma looked him in the eye and added, "I didn't get to tell you. I thought you were gonna… die… before I said."
Charlie gazed at her in sympathy. "Oh Emma," he said sadly. "I'm sorry you were worried, sweetie. I don't want you to worry." He hugged her carefully. "I'm very sorry. What did you want to tell me?"
"I don't want to call you Charlie anymore." She laid her head back onto his shoulder. "You're my daddy now."
Charlie nodded. "I thought so. I heard you." He smoothed her hair with his free hand. "You know what? Once upon a time, I didn't want to be a daddy." Charlie kissed her head again. "But now – I can't imagine being anything else."
"What does that mean?"
"It means," Charlie said, glancing at the two men standing in the doorway. "That we're really a family now."