Chapter 12

At first he just leaned against the wall in the shower, hoping that the rushing water would wash it all away. When he realized he was crying, he slid down the wall and sat under the stream.

He believed everything he had said to Don. He did want to come home. Intellectually, he understood about the ring. Problem was, he doubted that there was enough Prozac in the world to soften the blow of seeing it like that, so unexpectedly. What if something horrible happened — horrible things had a way of happening around Charlie — what if it happened, and Don and Cecile broke up for some reason? Would she give the ring back, if they never got married? Or what if they got married, and later, divorced? Statistics on the longevity of any marriage weren't good. When one partner was involved in a career like law enforcement, the odds of a break-up increased. She surely would not give the ring back, then.

Charlie started to hiccup, and lowered his head to his chest. He forced himself to slow down, to think and not just feel.

It was only a ring.

Cecile's wearing it now did not negate the time his mother spent wearing it. If anything, it honored and recognized the love shared by his parents. It was actually very touching that Don would even think of asking for it, and that Cecile would so proudly wear the ring.

He believed what he said about it being Alan's decision, too. Even if Charlie had been here, Don didn't owe him any special consideration in this matter. The ache in his heart began to convert to warmth, when he realized that Don would have talked to him if he could have, anyway. Charlie believed him when he said that he didn't want to hurt him. Charlie believed him when Don said that he loved him.

The water running off his face was all from the shower, now, and Charlie felt a little jolt when he realized that he hadn't just come home because of the reasons he had given Don. Yes, it was time. Yes, he didn't want to throw any more time away. Yes, he missed them, and loved them. But that wasn't all of it.

He had come home because he finally understood how much they loved him.

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Charlie re-entered his life slowly. After a few days of rest, he called to make appointments with Dr. Aaron and his orthopedist. Dr. Aaron had a cancellation that afternoon, and after another call, Charlie went into L.A. early.

He appeared in the bullpen at the FBI with a case of soda, Don, who had waited for Charlie and the delivery driver in the lobby, and four pizzas. Charlie was especially glad to see Colby, Megan, David and Jim, but he had worked with several of the other agents as well, and everyone on site was encouraged to come by the break room and join them for a few minutes.

Charlie received Megan's hug, and handshakes from the men, and let himself feel the charged atmosphere of the FBI office again. It had been so long since he had helped on a case, he had almost forgotten the intensity of this place.

As if reading his mind, Colby sidled up to him. "Charlie." Colby was talking around a mouth full of pepperoni, and it sounded more like "Chaweee". After a few more chews and a swallow of Coke, Colby continued. "I have this case…"

Don, watching from his place at one of the tables in the break room, immediately interrupted. He stood quickly and joined them. "Colby, Charlie just got back. He's going to take it easy for the rest of the summer — Cecile held him down, and Dad made him promise. I was the witness."

Colby held up a hand in surrender. "Yeah, of course, I'm sorry. I was just going to ask if you were ready to start consulting, again. Now I know."

Charlie looked steadily at Don for a moment, and then Colby. "Don's not entirely accurate in this matter, Colby."

Colby looked from one Eppes to the other and hoped he hadn't started something. He was still hungry and wanted more pizza.

Charlie elaborated. "I'm afraid I can't help you on your current case, Colby. I need to settle into my own routine, and get back into things slowly. But you can put me back on your 'active duty' list for the next one, all right? Is that acceptable?" Charlie looked back at Don. "To everybody?"

Don and Colby looked at each other. Finally, Don shrugged. "Charlie's his own man," he said. "If he says he's ready, he's ready."

Colby broke into a huge smile, relieved that he would be working with Charlie again one day soon, and more relieved that the Assistant Director wasn't going to demote him from team leader. He peered around Charlie's shoulder at the table behind him. "Is there any more Hawaiian?"

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The next week, Don came by for a game on ESPN after work. He didn't pay for cable at the apartment — he just wasn't there enough; especially when he was a field agent and subject to being called out at any time. When he became A.D., he thought about getting it, but Cecile noted gently that as long as he couldn't watch something at his own place, he would be more likely to maintain frequent visits to Charlie's house, and that would mean more to Alan than a small amount of convenience might mean to Don.

He came through the empty kitchen and grabbed a beer, then pushed into the dining room, to find Charlie sitting at the table with his laptop. Don joined him. "Hey. Where's Dad?"

Charlie kept his eyes on the screen. A small smile played across his mouth. "Dinner with Art, then book club. I think he's finally convinced that he can let me out of his sight for a few hours and I'll be here when he gets back."

Don smiled. "He missed you," he said simply. "Give the guy a break. Are you working? Cognitive emergence?"

Charlie shook his head and turned the laptop around so Don could see the screen. "I was going to," he said, "but Dad borrowed my laptop for a few hours this afternoon. That reminds me. I need to see why the computer in the solarium isn't working. Anyway, I found this file on the desktop. 'Wedding', it says."

Don was looking with horror at the list of pre-marriage necessities Alan had enumerated. "This can't be for me and Cecile. I heard one of Prince Charles' sons may be getting married. Maybe he's planning for that."

Charlie laughed and turned the screen back around. "I'm telling you, Donnie, you have unleashed a powerful force. You need to seriously talk to Cecile."

"About what?"

Charlie grinned at him. "Vegas."

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Just before the 4th of July, which the Eppes were celebrating with a backyard barbecue that would include all the usual suspects, Charlie went to his morning physical therapy appointment and then decided that he might as well go by Cal Sci and pick up his schedule for the fall semester. The week before, he had met with Dr. Simpson, Division Chair, and Dr. Peterson, Vice President of Faculty Affairs. Both had been suspicious of his time away, and less than friendly.

Dr. Peterson laid it all on the line. "Of course we realize that you have been a valuable asset to Cal Sci, Dr. Eppes. You remain one of the most esteemed mathematicians in the field today, and it brings the university a certain amount of recognition to have you as a member of the faculty. For that reason, we have tried to accommodate your somewhat unique needs. There has been some talk, however, and we're concerned that your most recent absence included a few interviews with other schools."

Charlie almost laughed. He did smile. "I just had a nervous breakdown, that's all. Nothing to worry about. Happens all the time in the world of academia; at least amongst us genius-types."

The men, sufficiently chastised, had finally agreed to let him return full-time in the fall, but Charlie got the feeling that they weren't going to be throwing him any parties anytime soon.

He had come back this week because he wanted to get his schedule early, and spend the rest of the summer preparing. He wouldn't be a bit surprised if he had all upper division courses, night classes several times a week and a few new grad students to advise. His suspicions were confirmed in the administration building when a secretary handed him approximately seven pounds of paperwork and file folders, and Charlie headed down the steps of admin, studying the course assignment sheet on the top of the stack.

By the time he got to the bottom of the stairs he needed his cane, and realized that he had left it inside. He turned quickly to go back in, and a woman coming down after him, also looking down at a mass of paperwork, plowed into him full speed ahead.

Both sets of papers hit the ground, and Charlie staggered backwards a little, trying to catch his balance without re-injuring his knee. He was pretty sure Dr. Simpson would make him have any additional surgery in his office during his lunch hour.

The woman had followed the papers to the ground, and at first he was worried that she had fallen, but then he heard her talking and saw her scrambling through the papers. "I'm so sorry, I wasn't looking, that was so stupid…it's all mixed up…"

Charlie knew if he got on the ground to help her he'd never get back up, but he leaned over and picked up a folder, and tapped her on the shoulder with it. "Let's just pick it all up and find a table somewhere to sort it all out. Are you all right? You're not hurt?"

She looked up at him then, and Charlie nearly lost his balance again.

It was the woman. It was the woman from the log in Bandon, the guardrail near Lincoln City. He gaped at her, and she at him. She shrank away a little, smashing papers into her chest. "Are…Are you stalking me?" Her eyes were wide, wary. She was still backing up.

"What? I…no…what?" Charlie was clearly nonplussed, and didn't even think to help her as she stood.

She clutched the papers tightly. "Who are you?", she demanded.

Charlie ran a hand through his hair. "I…teach, here. I'm on the faculty. Eppes. Charlie Eppes."

Her eyes grew wider, and she took a step forward. "Dr. Charles Eppes? Applied Mathematics?"

Charlie nodded mutely.

"Oh, my…" she breathed, taking another step. "You're the reason I negotiated so hard for this job, the reason I accepted an Associate Professorship under Dr. Kincaid…"

Charlie's head cleared a little. "Dr. Tremont? Dr. Simpson told me that a Dr. Tremont will be working closely with Dr. Kincaid fall semester, with the intention of taking over for her when she retires next January."

She nodded. "Beth. Beth Tremont. I can't believe…I was just hoping I would get to meet you, at a division mixer or something. I just wanted to be around when your mind went off."

Charlie was confused. "What?"

She blushed. "It's just…I've envisioned it like the sun. You know how, when you're cold, you find the most direct sunlight you can, and point your face toward it, close your eyes…let it warm you? Like…Like you were doing on that log. In Bandon."

He nodded slowly.

"So I thought, the rings of energy displaced by that supernova in your head might splash a little. You've already accomplished so much in this field, and I wanted to be standing within splash distance the next time your mind went off. I wanted to see if it was as warm as I imagined."

Charlie was getting warm, but he didn't think it had anything to do with the supernova in his head. He tried to gather a few consecutive coherent thoughts. "Well…I…I can show you the math and sciences building," he finally offered. "We'll find a lecture hall and sort through all these papers."

She smiled at him and took another step. When she had drawn even, Charlie forgot all about his cane and started walking.

He heard the rustle of papers, then the smooth dessert that was her voice. "I've seen it from the outside, and I noticed the new addition. I was wondering, in the old part…"

Charlie looked over at her and waited.

She smiled again, a little lopsided grin. "Well, are there any lecture halls with actual blackboards, anymore? I prefer working with chalk. I just can't get enough of it, for some reason."

Charlie smiled, tilted his face a little to the sky, and felt the warmth of the sun.

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FINIS

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A/N: No, I am not expecting a four-logy. I know stories remain open: will Don and Cecile elope? Will Charlie jump Beth? This is my odd little attempt to let things add on a happy note, with the possibilities of healing and love looming for all.