A/N: Just a happy quickie for the holidays. Happy New Year Everyone.
"Will you help me, Charlie?"
The young professor gave his father's girlfriend a look that he hoped portrayed annoyance.
She was oblivious to it.
"Come on, Chuck, you have to help me. I want Don to like me as much as you do."
Charlie began coughing. Won't have to do anything to meet that goal.
Millie sat down at Charlie's dining room table and folded her arms across her chest. "Please? Pretty please? With sugar on top?"
Since it was completely unlike (and unseemly) for his boss to beg, Charlie gave in.
"Okay, Okay. I'll help you throw a surprise party for Don. But I have to warn you, he'll hate it."
"No he won't- not if you help me throw it."
Charlie rolled his eyes at the compliment. "I don't care if Liz Warner shows up naked to sing happy birthday, I guarantee Don hates birthday parties, he hates surprises, and he hates being the center of attention."
Millie beamed, her arms gesturing wildly in the air. "We'll make it unique, so it won't seem like a birthday party. And you can tell him what it is right before he gets there, so it won't be a surprise."
"What about him being the center of attention? At work, that's fine because he's the one in control. And he does like to socialize at a party, that's for sure, but having everyone gaping and singing at him? Don hates that."
"We don't have to sing to him. See, Charlie, this is what I'm talking about. With your help I can throw Don the best birthday party he's ever had."
Charlie sighed. There was no use arguing with the woman. When she wanted her way, she got it. "Well, okay, but don't you dare tell him I helped."
"But you'll deserve some credit!" Millie protested.
What have I done to deserve this?
"Look, I'll help you," Charlie insisted, "but only if you promise to say you did it all on your own."
"Okay," Millie agreed, clapping her hands, "so, where do we begin?"
"I don't really feel like going out tonight, Charlie." Don sat tiredly on his brother's couch, trying to find a game- any sport- on the television.
"But you promised to meet everybody at the bar- I told them an hour ago where it's at and they're probably heading over already."
"Well, they're all adults, Charlie. They can figure out how to order and drink a beer all on their own. They don't need me there for it."
Charlie ran a hand nervously through his hair. Damn Millie and her "I know you can get Don to come- you're such a smooth-talker, just like James Bond."
Why did I always fall for that line?
"Please, Don. You have to go."
Don put down the remote and sat back, crossing one leg over the other, bobbing it up and down angrily. "Charlie, I am exhausted. We've spent a month tracking down this serial killer and you know we only caught him early yesterday. Do you know how many hours of paperwork I have ahead of me? Not to mention I've all been assigned to see the company shrink and you know how pissed off that makes me."
Charlie sat down on the coffee table in front of Don. "That bad?"
Don looked away. "That bad. All the victims were these little children…and I shot the perp. That's why I'm not carrying." He shook his head. "You should have seen how his family carried on about police brutality when they came to ID the body. You would think I was the crimininal."
Feeling bad for his brother, Charlie confessed, "Look, Millie has a surprise birthday party planned for you tonight."
"What?!" Don dropped his leg and sat forward in his seat. "Why the hell would she do that?"
"She thinks you don't like her."
"And that maybe you would if she could throw you this party."
"I hate birthday parties," Don growled.
"Make it so great you might like her," Charlie continued, "because she wants this thing between her and Dad to work."
Don sighed heavily. "Yeah, so does Dad."
"You don't have to go. I can tell her about the case and explain you didn't feel up to a party."
"You could," Don told him while getting his coat, "but it won't make her feel any better, and honestly, staying home won't do anything for me. Come on, Buddy. At least with you there it'll be bearable."
Charlie rushed to join him, smiling at the small but heartfelt compliment.
Don and Charlie looked up.
The outside of the building said "Clucky's Saloon" in large, fluorescent letters, the windows all dark and the door thickly wooden. "Doesn't look too bad," Don observed.
A shout from behind them caught their attention. They turned to see David, Megan, Larry, Amita, and Colby coming from a corner of the parking lot, gifts in hand.
"So it begins," Don grumbled out of the corner of his mouth to Charlie, but he put on his best smile when his guests stopped besides them. "I guess Millie talked you all into coming, huh?"
"Don't be stupid," Megan chastised, playfully slapping him on the arm, "we said yes the moment she asked."
"Yeah," Colby nodded, "who of us can say no to free food and booze?"
"Hope its good food and booze," David commented, "I'm starvin'."
"Don't know," Don told him, "never been here before- how bout you, Charlie?"
"Nope. And I don't believe Millie has either. She originally had you set up at Spago's but at the last minute that fell through. I think she finally found this place yesterday after flipping through the yellow pages a couple hours."
"And they had room for a small party on a Friday night?" Megan said thoughtfully, "food can't be that good."
"What the hell," Don told them as he held the door open, "drink enough booze and anything will taste good." He entered after them, hoping the evening would end quickly.
Praying he was dreaming when he was completely inside, his eyes popping open along with those of his friends.
The place was outlandish.
Directly in front of them, there was a dining area with brightly painted chairs and tables, pictures all over the walls of cartoon characters wearing western attire, balloons covering the ceiling, children and parents sitting eating pizza and pouring pop from large pitchers. To their left was a video arcade, at least fifty different games being played at full blast, screaming tykes and loudly blaring music, a counter at the farthest wall with an attendant handing out the junk it contained in exchange for tickets held by teenagers. To their right, there was a large room filled with fluorescent-yellow tubes, slides, nets, jungle-gym bars, and several ball pits. A server passed by them dressed in a cowgirl outfit that was complete with ten-gallon hat and miniskirt, while a horse mascot was making the rounds at the back of the dining area, the funny-looking creature walking around on two legs, his oversized head bobbing back and forth as a group of toddlers circled him.
All available space was taken up with kids from age two and up, the majority of them running and screeching and yelling and crying. The place was clearly a pounding headache-in-the-making.
"Oh my lord," Don croaked out. His friends laughed heartily behind him, raising his ire.
Charlie apologized, "Sorry, bro," but could think of nothing else to say. Amita clung to his arm, unable to stifle her laughter. Charlie tried glaring at her but soon found he was joining in.
Larry looked at the place with concern. "I hope they don't have any merry-go-rounds."
Don spotted his father and Millie at the back corner of the dining room, both facing away from them. Leaving his entourage behind, Don began to stride across the room, furious, ready to demand they leave. But as he neared, it became clear Millie was crying and Don slowed his pace, listening to her sob while his father patted her on the back.
"I had no idea, Alan. They never said a word on the phone- just told me they could provide a cake and that they had pizza and drinks and entertainment."
Don's heart sank when she finished with, "Now Don will really hate me."
Sucking in his temper, Don swallowed hard, put on his best smile once again, looked in a mirror across the way to make sure his dimples were in full display, and then cleared his throat to make his presence known. "Well, I have to say this was certainly a surprise."
Millie and Alan turned around. She threw an arm out in despair and cried, "I'm so sorry, Don, this was all a mistake. We don't have to stay here. I'm sure we can find someplace else to go."
Sure, on a Friday night without reservations,
It was clear Millie wasn't going to give up on having the party and Don didn't feel like traipsing from one restaurant to another to find another place to hold it, or waiting in line for hours to get a table. Rubbing his forehead, it took every ounce of energy remaining in his body to force the next words from his mouth, "No, no- I'd rather stay."
"Really?" Millie suddenly wiped her face and a large smile appeared. Excitedly, she gestured the rest of their group over. "It is unique, isn't it?" A cowgirl came up to them and Millie stepped aside with her to talk.
"Thanks, Donny," Alan squeezed his son's shoulder. "You know I'm going to owe you big time."
"And don't think I won't forget it," Don warned. At the disbelieving looks of his friends when they arrived at their table, he shrugged, saying, "They have pizza and cake. What more do you want?"
"Beer would be nice," David griped.
"Booze of any kind," Colby added.
"You'll have to do with Coke," Don told them firmly. "And if you're good, I'll give you some quarters for the arcade."
"They use tokens nowadays, old-timer," Colby laughed, "and if we plan to play more than a couple games, we'll need dollars- you know, like in twenty."
Don raised an eyebrow. Wow, he thought, I am getting old.
Millie returned with a cowgirl. "We have this long table here- see, it's reserved just for us. Now, sit where you want," everybody began to get settled around it but Millie grabbed Don's arm, steered him to an oversized chair at the head of the table and pushed him into it. "You're the guest of honor so you sit right here."
Don sank into the seat and rolled his eyes, remaining silent while his friends began to talk.
While Millie ordered pizza and cola, a nine-year-old boy sat down right beside Don in a similar chair to the one in which he sat, both kings of their own elongated party tables. It wasn't long before the boy began to whine.
"I hate this place."
"Now," a thirty-something mother fussed around him, "don't be so negative."
Two other kids, clearly siblings, sat at his table though it had been set up for over ten.
"Nobody's coming," he complained to his mom, this time quieter.
"Everybody's so busy this time of the year, sweetie, but I'm sure someone will make it." The woman nodded politely to Don and then took her seat on the other side of her son. A cowgirl came by with two sets of child-sized cowboy hats and bandanas. She first attempted to put one on the little boy, but he squirmed too much so she left it on his table. Turning to Don, she dropped the second set on the seat beside him when she was greeted with his "think-it-and-die" stare.
"This sucks," the boy beside Don continued to complain.
Don silently agreed, starting to wish he had taken Charlie up on his offer to stay home. He stared around the table at his family and friends, grateful that at least they were having a good time. Their conversation never ceased, everybody joking and laughing, each person debating the uses of some theorem Charlie had used on a previous case, all of them relaxing. When the food arrived, they greedily snatched it up, still talking in between bites of pizza and gulps of cola.
Don tried to join in, but didn't feel up to talking. He just stared at the plate they put in front of him, realizing the atmosphere of the place was counterproductive to his own relaxation. Having so many kids running around only reminded him of the case they had just finished, of the kids he hadn't saved, and the man he had killed. Even though Don knew he'd done everything possible to prevent the loss of life, the man's ghost and his victims still continued to haunt him.
"Excuse me," Don suddenly said and bolted from the table, heading outside for a breath of fresh air.
The animated talk at his table died as his family and friends watched him leave.
"I've made a mess of everything," Millie lamented, "I knew he didn't really want to stay."
Megan assured her, "It's not this place, not really. Don is always depressed after we wrap up a case."
"Yeah," David agreed, "guy takes it too hard we couldn't save everyone."
Alan put his arm around Millie. "That's just Don."
"But he left," Millie cried, "and he looked so miserable."
"I could see if I can catch him," Charlie said standing up, "talk him into coming back inside."
"No, better not," Alan told him, "you know he hates to be bothered when he wants to be alone."
Everyone looked at each other, uncertain what to do next. Millie stared at her hands, embarrassed. "I'm sorry for ruining everybody's night. I really wanted this to be special for Don and just, I don't know, I guess fun for all of you."
Deciding his brother wasn't the only big man in the family, Charlie put on his own dimples. "We've been having fun."
"Really?" she asked.
Taking Charlie's cue, the rest of the gang started talking over each other in their attempts to assure her they had no complaints.
"Come on," Colby interrupted, nodding into the other room, "I think there are some video games calling us." David, Megan and Larry joined him, soon followed by Charlie and Amita.
Alan took Millie by the arm. "See, everything's working out fine."
"He's a big boy. You don't have to worry about him." Soon they were with the rest of their friends, gathered around Megan and Colby as they tried to outdo each other on the DDR.
Don paced back and forth outside, debating if he could really leave.
Millie would be disappointed, but he didn't care anymore.
His dad would be unhappy, but okay, he'd just stay away until he was forgiven.
That left Charlie.
Can't bail on you now, he thought, reentering the building.
Okay, where'd everybody go? The back of the dining area had emptied out.
Don glanced to his left and correctly assumed his group was in the arcade. Deciding he wasn't up to being around a bunch of teenagers, Don went to their table and sat down. He was glad he'd have some more time alone. Leaning back and resting his head on the top of the chair, he closed his eyes, sighing contentedly.
"That old guy your dad?" a small voice asked him.
Don peeked open an eye. The nine-year-old boy had returned, sitting on his oversized chair once again, this time facing Don. Sighing irritably, Don shut his eye, pretending to sleep.
A hand shook his arm. Giving in, Don sat up and opened both his eyes, looking sideways at the little boy.
"That old guy your dad?" the boy asked again.
"Yeah, that old guy's my dad."
"Oh" The boy hesitated before adding, "You're lucky."
"Yeah?" Don bent forward and rested his forearms on his thighs, so he was eye level with the boy.
"Yeah. My dad couldn't come to my birthday party. He's in Iraq."
A wave of guilt washed over Don. He had thought he was doing his dad a favor by showing up for this party when really it was his dad who was doing the favor for him. Suddenly, Don was more appreciative of Millie, of his friends, of his brother- and most of all, his father, who Don could have at his birthday party when the little boy in front of him had to do without his.
Licking his lips, Don softly asked, "Is he coming home soon?"
"Mom says so, but she said that a few months ago, too."
"You miss him, huh?"
"Yeah, I do." The boy fidgeted with his fingers. "Mom says he's got an important job."
"He does," Don agreed.
"Real important," the boy stressed.
Don smiled. "You're proud of him, aren't you?"
"Yeah," the boy smiled for the first time that night, "I am. But I miss him, too."
"He a lot of fun?"
"Oh, yeah," the boy leaned towards Don, "when he's home, Dad plays with me all the time. How about your dad?"
Don thought fondly of the worn-out Scrabble board sitting on the shelf in Charlie's hallway closet. "Yeah, my dad plays with me all the time, too."
The boy began twirling the cowboy hat that had been left for him on the table. "This place is kinda stupid, ain't it?"
"No…no, it's real fun." Don said with as straight a face as he could muster.
"Then how come you're not playing with your dad?"
"Well…" Yeah, Eppes, why did you abandon your family? "I guess maybe I should go join them."
The boy's eyes lowered and his bottom lip quivered. "I guess."
Don finally understood why the boy had sat down next to him. "You know," Don said gently, "I think it's my brother's turn to play with my dad. Do you think we could hang out for a while?"
The boy raised his head, eyes wide. "Do you wanta?"
"Yeah, but only if it's okay with your mom."
The boy jumped up and grabbed Don's hand. "I'm Andy. My mom's in the ball pit. Come on. We can go ask."
They went inside the other room to find her. Don received a suspicious look from the woman until he pulled out and showed her his badge, using it to gain her approval. Don threw his tie and suit coat into a bin along with his dress shoes. He was beginning to roll up his sleeves when the boy took off, running back into the dining room. He returned shortly, his arms full. "Almost forgot," Andy grinned at Don.
Oh, boy, what have I gotten myself into now?
Charlie dropped into his seat at the table, pulling Amita into his lap. She giggled in his arms, resting her back against his chest. Megan and Larry soon followed, Millie and Alan in tow, Colby and David bringing up the rear, the two agents intently discussing ways they could be more productive in winning prize tickets.
"Those games are fixed!" Colby said loudly as he grabbed a cold piece of pizza. "We'd have to spend another forty dollars before we had enough."
"What are you trying to win?" Millie asked, pleased everybody seemed so happy.
"Silver six-shooter," Colby and David said as one.
Everybody around them laughed.
Amita wondered, "Why would you want one of those when you carry the real thing everyday?"
Colby and David stared at her as if she was crazy. "There happens to be a big difference," David told her.
"Well, I think you better explain, cause I don't get it either," Megan told them.
A long explanation ensued.
"Well, this didn't turn out too bad after all," Millie exclaimed after a while. "I only wish Don had stuck around long enough to open his presents."
"I'll volunteer." Charlie raised his hand and reached for a present. But Alan cut him off at the pass, slapping at his fingers.
"No you don't, Charlie. Those still belong to Don, even if he wasn't much fun tonight."
Just then, a loud yelp boomed across the dining room, startling the occupants of the table. Turning to face the play area, all of their eyes were busting at the sockets when out of the doorway Don appeared, an adult-sized black cowboy hat balanced haphazardly on his head and a matching bandana covering the lower part of his face, shirttails loose and flying around him. He staggered into the room with an exaggerated wobble and with his hand over his heart, his eyes rolling wildly in his head. Charlie pushed Amita off his lap and ran to Don's side, trying to catch him as he fell heavily to the ground, getting dragged down with him instead.
"Oooooh," Don moaned, a hand across his head.
Andy came running out of the adjacent room, a silver pistol in his hand pointed menacingly at Don.
"Gotcha!" he yelled.
Don moaned loudly once again.
"What the…" Charlie muttered, stunned at his brother's behavior.
Behind him, the rest of his group started to howl with delight.
Don looked at Andy and cried, "Please, sheriff, have pity on me!"
"No way! You's bad through and through."
Don covered his eyes as the boy pointed the pistol. "Take that! And that!"
A group of parents circled the edge of the room, laughing gaily at the grown man lying twisting and turning like a fish out of water, his brother trying to maintain a grip on him and keep him in his lap. Don stopped moving at last and Andy stepped forward, raised a triumphant hand in the air, and then tried to put his foot in the middle of Don's stomach, but sadly missed.
"Oomph!" Don instinctively curled up.
At that, Charlie started laughing so hard he lost his hold on Don and let him slide off his lap.
"So not funny," Don squeaked as he bounced off the floor.
Andy stood in front of them beaming, oblivious.
Don finally got a hold of himself and sat up, grabbing the little boy and giving him a soft noogie. Around them, people clapped and cheered so they stood up, Don and the boy bowing once or twice.
Don's eyes twinkled.
He took the boy's hands in his and began to swing him back and forth. They were on their way to the play area when a voice came over the loudspeaker, requesting one Andy Johnson and one Don Eppes to return to their tables. Don did a quick turnabout, swinging the boy as they headed to the back of the dining area, matching hats and bandanas and smiles making everyone who didn't know them think that they had to be father and son.
Once at the table, Don made introductions all around. "This is Andy," he said, patting the boy on the head.
While everybody greeted each other, a group of cowgirls appeared behind them carrying two lit cakes. Snatching Andy and putting him onto his shoulder, Don walked the boy around in a circle while everybody sang to him. Soon it was Don's turn. He tilted his cowboy hat over his eyes and slowly danced in the middle of the group of cowgirls. Alan nudged Millie halfway through the song, nodding as another one of the girls was able to slip her phone number into the back of Don's pants in the guise of playfully patting him on the behind.
Soon Don and Andy settled down somewhat and were sitting on their thrones, shoveling in spoonfuls of ice cream and cake, Andy next sitting on Don's lap while they took turns opening gifts, Colby blushing and insisting Don would have to wait till later to open up his.
Millie grabbed Alan's arm and squeezed excitedly. It was clear Don was having fun. Alan squeezed back, his eyes misting over as he remembered similar birthday parties that were now long past, when he didn't have two grown men for sons but two little boys.
Andy took off with a promise from Don that he would be joining him shortly.
"Well, whatya think, pardners?" Don said jovially, "You guys up to running the obstacle course they call a playroom here?"
Larry, Alan, and Millie begged off.
"I'm up to it," Megan told him, "though I'm surprised that you are. It usually takes a week…"
"Yeah," Don nodded, "to get over a shooting?"
"Yeah," his team members said.
"Well," Don said, sounding serious, "I have to admit this place got me pretty down at first. Every kid I looked at reminded me of our last case."
Millie said, "I'm so sorry, Don."
"You don't have to be," Don assured her, "This is the best birthday party I've had in over twenty years."
"I find that hard to believe," she said uncertainly.
"Believe me, it's true," Don said firmly, "Look, I spent some time with Andy and you know, I realize I can't keep looking at things the way I do. I mean, when I look at the world I see it through the cases I've worked on. This place, it's fixed my vision. At least when I'm here, I can look at the world in another way."
"How so?" Charlie asked, intrigued.
"By seeing things the way I did when I was six, when I played cops and robbers. Back when everybody knew the bad guys were bad and that the good guys were heroes. Just remembering that is enough to make everything in my world right tonight."
Alan gave a wan smile. "I hope you can take that memory back to the Bureau with you."
"I'm going to try. And I've got something to help me do it, too." Don grinned, pulling something out from his waistband that had been hidden under his shirt.
Colby and David gaped at him enviously. "How'd you get that?" they demanded to know.
Don laughed, twirling the six-shooter expertly in his left hand. "Andy's mom won it for me."
"But…how?" David complained, "I didn't see her anywhere in the arcade."
Don laughed again, smugly rubbing the toy gun. "They have kiddies games at the back of the playroom. Andy's mom says it's much easier to win tickets when you play them. Didn't take her much time at all to win me this."
Colby and David pushed back their chairs and raced into the other room.
"Won't do them any good," Don shook his head, "I got the last one." He displayed the pistol to Charlie, telling him, "Look, Buddy, it's really silver-plated. And if you put these in here…" Don pulled out a roll of caps, cocked the pistol and put one in before handing it to Charlie, "go ahead, shoot it."
Charlie pulled the trigger, the occupants of the table jumping a little at the ensuing snap. A small poof of smoke appeared in the air.
"Cool," Charlie said.
"Wait here," Don told him. He ran into the other room, coming back with another black cowboy hat and bandana, standing in front of Charlie and handing them to him.
Puzzled, Charlie asked, "How'd you get these?"
"Same way I got mine," Don said proudly, "talked a counter girl into letting me borrow them."
"And what do you expect me to do with them?"
Don took his six-shooter and slipped it back into the waistband of his slacks.
"Well," he told Charlie, "If I remember correctly, it's my turn to be the good guy. And you know, the hero never goes after the bad guy without his best buddy by his side."
With that, Don turned, heading towards the playroom. As an afterthough, he paused, rushed over to Alan and surprised him with a big hug. "Thanks for coming to my party, Dad," Don whispered in his ear. Before Alan could reply, Don had taken off once again.
Charlie slowly spun the cowboy hat that he held in his hand, thoughtful. He glanced up at his Dad.
"Well, Charlie," Alan prodded.
It was all Charlie needed to be moved to action. He leapt up from the table, slammed the cowboy hat on his head and was busily tying the bandana around his neck as he went in search of his brother, yelling, "Hey, Don wait up!"
Alan watched across the room as Don appeared in the room's opening, started helping Charlie adjust his hat and bandana, their heads bent together, clearly making dire plots against a nine-year-old-boy.
Alan gave Millie a big hug.
"Thanks for giving me my boys back for one last night."