Notes: This is my first "Players" fic. I haven't watched this show in years, but seeing FJH in "Band of Brothers" made me nostalgic for it. I managed to re-locate a "Players" fansite on the Net, which gave me some much-needed info on some episode plots, and as I started writing this, some other details from the show came back to me that I tried to reference in the story, such as Charlie having to put a lot of sugar in his coffee so that he could taste it. I'd also like to give a special mention to SassyJ for her fics "Second Chance" and "Confusion." And, yes, the name "Lulu's" is a reference to HBO's "Band of Brothers." Reviews are welcome!
Christine "Chris" Kowalski had had a long day. She had left work at 5pm, but the last few weeks, she had been working some particularly tough cases with the guys. Added to that had been the dread of knowing her birthday had been coming up, and was now here. No one had mentioned it at the office, which the professional side of her had been grateful for, but the personal side of her was disappointed that she once again had no plans to celebrate with anyone.
On the drive home, Chris thought about how the rest of her night would unfold. She would make dinner, shower, change her clothes, and unwind with a glass of wine. Her mom would call her later that night to wish her happy birthday and make small talk, and then Chris would watch some television or go through some files, and then go to sleep, ready for another day at the office. It sounded uneventful, but the FBI agent told herself that with her job, uneventful was what she wanted. Just a nice, quiet, peaceful birthday.
She parked her car in her driveway and was standing on her doorstep, keys in hand, when two men suddenly came up, one on either side of her. She gasped, almost dropping her keys in her initial fear and surprise at their appearance, but then she recognized them.
"Ice! Alphonse! God, what are you guys doing, sneaking up on me like that?" She hoped her annoyance canceled out the embarrassment in her voice at having been caught unawares so easily. She must have been more tired than she had thought.
"Sorry, Chrissy, we just wanted to surprise you," Alphonse said.
"Yeah, you know, since it's your birthday and everything," Ice added.
Her eyes darted back and forth between them. "How did you know--?"
Kowalski was cut off when a car suddenly pulled up to the curb outside her house, and the driver honked its horn. The three of them turned to look in the direction of the sound, and they saw Charlie sitting in the driver's seat of the car, a silver open-top convertible.
"Hey, we gonna get this show on the road or what?" he called.
Chris was momentarily dumbfounded by how rapidly things seemed to be spiraling out of her control, and Ice and Alphonse used her confusion to their advantage.
They lifted her by the arms and carried her over to their car. They set her down, and Ice opened the door to let her get into the backseat. Chris stood there for a moment, wondering if she should do this, but one look back at her silent, darkened house convinced her. She climbed into the car, making Charlie grin with approval.
"There's our birthday girl! How ya doin', Chris?" he greeted.
His question was met with silence, making O'Bannon glance up at his two partners. "Guys, I think she's in shell-shock or something."
Ice only shook his head and climbed in to sit beside the agent in the back, while Alphonse sat in the roomier passenger seat.
Charlie drove away from her neighborhood, and Chris felt herself slowly start to relax. By the time they were well on the freeway, she had decided to embrace this unexpected occurrence—at least, as much as her guarded sensibility would let her.
"So," she asked with a deep breath, "where are we headed?"
"You ever hear of a place called 'Lulu's'?" Charlie asked.
Alphonse turned to look back at her with a roguish glint in his eyes. "You don't know what you've been missing."
She figured that his remark could apply to either the restaurant or to Alphonse himself, but wisely kept that thought to herself. Royo had probably intended the double entendre anyway. Chris decided her best bet would be to turn to Ice for answers.
"So what's so special about this…I'm guessing, restaurant?"
"'Lulu's' has got the best burgers in the city. Great people, great atmosphere…"
"And the music!" Charlie shook his head in admiration. "It's like...like…what do you call that feeling where it's like you're in heaven?"
"Maureen?" Alphonse said, presumably the name of his latest conquest.
Charlie gave him a look. "Very funny, 'Phonse," he said dryly.
"Euphoria?" Chris tried.
"Rapture," Ice suggested.
"Uh-uh. It's the same word that's the name of a band…"
"Nirvana," Ice and Chris said in unison.
Charlie snapped his fingers. "Yes! Nirvana! It's like nirvana!"
Chris smiled at his excitement and leaned back in her seat.
Ice noticed, but kept his expression neutral. He was glad Charlie's enthusiasm seemed to be catching. All three of the guys wanted their FBI liaison to have some fun on her birthday. She deserved it.
They arrived at "Lulu's," and as Alphonse helped her out of the convertible, Chris decided to ask the question that had been on her mind ever since she had seen Charlie pull up to her house. "Guys, where'd you get the car?"
The three ex-cons looked at each other, and then, as if on cue, they scattered.
"I'm gonna get us a table," Alphonse volunteered.
"I gotta use the restroom," Charlie muttered.
That left Ice alone with Chris. She raised her eyebrows at him, but Gregory only shrugged. "All you gotta know is that everything's been taken care of. Now let's eat. I'm starving!"
He led the way into the restaurant, and as he opened the door, Chris's nose was hit by the aroma of French fries, making her realize that Ice wasn't the only one who was starving.
Alphonse had gotten them a booth with a wide, curving leather seat, so that they ate next to each other instead of across from each other. The seating arrangement had Ice on one end, followed by Chris, then Alphonse, and lastly, Charlie, returning from the men's room. The booth's openness let Chris see the restaurant's dance floor and jukebox sitting against the far wall to her left. She also noticed a small bar in the northwest corner of the restaurant, across from the main doors.
The service at "Lulu's" was prompt, and within minutes, the four of them had received their burgers, fries, and drinks. Even if she hadn't had much of an appetite that night, Chris still would have had to agree with Ice's opinion about the food. The burger she had at "Lulu's" was the best she had ever tasted. After they had finished eating, Ice got up to use the bathroom, and Alphonse, who had been making significant eye contact with a redhead at the next table as the meal had wound down, also left to initiate a conversation with her.
Charlie stayed at the table, continuing to fidget the way he had been doing for the past half hour. Kowalski had been able to bear it when Alphonse had been sitting between them and acted as a human barrier, but now that Royo was gone, Chris had to say something.
"Charlie, could you do me a favor and relax a little bit, please?"
He turned to her, but was seemingly still distracted. "Huh? Oh, sorry, Chris. It's just that I hate this music!" He glared over at a man by the jukebox, who insisted on playing the same heavy metal song over and over again. Unfortunately for Charlie, his adversary was large and burly, so no one else in the restaurant seemed inclined to switch the music selection either, which irritated the computer expert even more.
Chris smiled, bemused at his reaction. "What? I thought the music here was like nirvana," she said sarcastically.
"Well, not this crap," O'Bannon assured her. "I was talking about jazz." He started ticking off artists on his fingers. "Armstrong, Coltrane, Davis, Holliday, Sinatra. They're the best!"
This surprised her. "I never knew you liked jazz so much, Charlie."
The genuine amazement in her voice embarrassed him, and he just shrugged in reply.
The uncomfortable silence between them was broken when Ice returned from the men's room. He stopped for a moment, listening to the song being blasted on the jukebox, and then his mouth twisted into a grimace.
"Who chose this song?"
Charlie pointed to the thug by the jukebox. "Take it up with him," he said bitterly. "This music is killing me, Ice!"
"Yeah, me too. 'Scuse me, Kowalski, but I gotta do something about this."
"Ice, be careful," she warned. "I don't want you guys getting into trouble."
"No trouble," he assured her. "I just want to have a little chat with this guy, that's all. Be back in a sec." He approached the man by the jukebox and leaned in to say something.
Chris and Charlie watched with interest as the man's expression went from sneering to afraid in less than a minute.
He quickly walked away from Ice and out of the restaurant, prompting some of the customers to cheer. As soon as he was gone, Charlie jumped up from his seat and began rummaging for coins in his pants pocket. "All right, now it's time for some real music!" He hurried over to the jukebox, but Ice stopped him before he could put his change in.
"Let me go first," he said evenly. "I did get rid of the guy."
Charlie hesitated for a moment, but he had to admit that Ice was right. "Okay, okay. Fair's fair," he relented, "but someday, Ice, you gotta teach me how to do that."
His partner cracked a smile. "In due time, my man. Now why don't you go and keep Kowalski company? Alphonse has got the bill taken care of."
Charlie nodded and returned to the booth, receiving an inquiring look from his female companion.
"Ah, I figured I'd let Ice get first dibs on the jukeobx. Just bein' generous." He leaned back, adopting a care-free attitude, but when Chris turned away the next moment, he released the breath he had been holding, relieved that she had bought his act.
As Ice's selection came on, a popular dance track that got calls of approval from the restaurant's crowd, Chris discovered where Alphonse had gotten to. He was still with the redhead from the next table, but they were now chatting over drinks at the bar. The young woman seemed to want to join the other patrons now flocking to the dance floor, but Alphonse was shaking his head as he tucked his wallet away into his back pocket. Royo signaled the girl to wait a moment, and then he went over to Charlie and Chris.
"Hey, guys. Look, I think I'm gonna get a ride back later with Candice over there." He jerked his thumb in the direction of the redhead, who was moving to the music's beat in a way that made Charlie give a low whistle of appreciation.
"What about Maureen?" Chris asked teasingly.
Alphonse put a hand to his heart, as if she had wounded him. "Aw, Chrissy, don't go making trouble for me," he mock-pleaded. "Besides, you know you're always number one in my heart," he added with a flirtatious smile. "Have a great birthday, all right?"
Candice, impatient with waiting, came over and pulled at Royo's hand with her own. "C'mon, Thomas, let's dance!" she urged.
As Alphonse let Candice lead him away from his friends' table, Charlie and Chris exchanged equally amused glances with each other.
"Thomas?" Charlie repeated incredulously. He was barely able to contain his laughter.
"It could be worse. He could have said his name was Cecil," she said with a wide grin.
He raised his eyebrows. "What's this? Special Agent Kowalski made another joke? Aw, we gotta get you out more often."
She snorted derisively. "Try it, and no more sugar for your coffee, O'Bannon." She idly stirred her drink with a straw, and then turned to face him again. "Seriously, though, how did you guys know today was my birthday?"
"You really wanna know?"
She nodded, half-expecting to hear that they had hacked into her file.
"Ice called your mom and asked her."
Her mouth fell open. "No!"
He laughed. "If you don't believe me, ask him yourself."
Chris stood up from the table. "I think I will." She walked over to Ice, who had just chosen another song on the jukebox, and said something to him.
Ice gave a reply and opened his arms, signaling an invitation to dance, and Charlie grinned when Kowalski reluctantly accepted.
As she and Ice danced to the fast-paced hip-hop song he had picked, Chris tried to get him to collaborate what Charlie had told her. She concentrated on pushing aside her embarrassment on the dance floor to assume a professional air.
"So did you really call my mom and ask her when my birthday was?"
"Would you have preferred it if we had hacked into your file instead?"
"Yes," she muttered under her breath, and though Ice couldn't hear her over the music, her discomfited expression was enough of an answer for him, and he smiled.
"C'mon, Kowalski, so we know when your birthday is, so what? Aren't you glad we dragged you out here to have fun?"
She thought about Ice's question and realized he was right. She had worked many cases over the years with these men, and though they drove her crazy most of the time, they were still her friends, and she wouldn't have it any other way.
"Yeah," she called to Ice, "I am glad."
His expression became smug. "Told you so. Happy birthday, Kowalski."
The song ended, and Gregory escorted her back to the table.
"All right, Charlie, you're up," Ice said.
That was all the prompting his friend needed. O'Bannon was up and at the jukebox in a flash, where he selected a slow jazz tune.
As the type of music changed, so did the atmosphere, and couples began forming to slow-dance.
As Chris settled back into the booth, a pretty, dark-skinned woman tapped Ice on the shoulder and asked if he was free to dance.
The ex-con glanced at Chris, who nodded, letting him know it was okay. As Ice joined his new partner on the dance floor, the FBI agent figured she would sit this one out, only to be proven wrong when Charlie bounded up to her.
"May I have this dance?" he asked, his Bronx accent and the sardonic smile he wore on his face lightening the mannerliness of his question.
She laughed, taking the hand he held out to her and letting him help her from her seat. "You may."
Charlie kept a polite distance from her as they danced, but the song's slow beat and the late hour were making Chris feel sleepy. She looked around and noticed other women leaning their heads on their partners' shoulders. It looked comfortable, and the temptation became too great for her to resist.
She drifted closer to her own partner and rested her head on his shoulder, before closing her eyes. For a moment, Charlie froze, unsure of what to do, but then his instincts kicked in, and he just kept leading her to the music.
Alphonse, still on the dance floor with Candice, noticed this new development, and he navigated his way over to Ice to talk to him about it. "Hey, check out Charlie and Chrissy," he whispered. "Who knew Charlie could be so smooth, huh?"
Ice was unconvinced. "Nah, Kowalski's just tired, that's all." He glanced over at his two friends again. "On the other hand, Charlie don't seem to be minding her using him as a pillow."
Alphonse chuckled. "You could say that again. My memory's a little fuzzy, but I think that's the second time she's done that."
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the room, where he couldn't hear his friends' comments, O'Bannon had also closed his eyes, letting the jazz music fill his ears. He loved jazz because it calmed him, lowered his normally nervous energy to a less frenetic state, and by the time the song ended and he had opened his eyes, it was like he had awoken refreshed from a nap.
Chris had the same feeling, but mostly because she had actually dozed off while dancing with Charlie. She was a bit embarrassed when she woke up and had to look at him, realizing what had happened, but the teasing she expected to hear from him never came.
"Guess we'd better get you home, birthday girl," was all he said, and there was a softness in his voice that she had never heard before. "Lemme go get Ice." Charlie left, and she saw him speak to Ice for a minute, but then he returned to Chris alone.
"Ice says he's gonna stick around a little longer. Guess he met a girl," Charlie explained, looking in the direction of the woman who Chris had seen ask Ice to dance. "So I guess it's just you and me." He grinned and put on his jacket. "Let's blow this popsicle stand."
She nodded in agreement and stifled a yawn with one hand, before she too put on her coat, and then followed Charlie out to their car.
The drive back to her house was quiet, but the cold night air revived Chris enough so that she remained awake during the ride. She half-wished that Ice and Alphonse were also in the car, so that she could thank all of the guys for celebrating her birthday with her. She sighed at the thought, making Charlie glance at her in concern.
"Yeah. I just wanted to thank Ice and Alphonse for tonight." She groaned and put her face in her palm as she remembered something else. "I didn't even say goodbye to them before we left!"
Charlie smirked as he exited the freeway. "Trust me. Even if you had, they woulda had other things on their minds."
He soon pulled up to the curb outside her house and parked the car. He got out, then went around to open the passenger side door for her and help her out.
She smiled at his chivalrous behavior. "I would have expected this from Alphonse, but not from you," she admitted to Charlie with a laugh.
He took the comment well. "He's been giving me lessons," he joked back. "He's a regular charm school, 'Phonse."
"That's one way of putting it," she agreed.
She let Charlie walk her to her house, and he bid her goodnight on her doorstep. They hugged goodbye, but as he turned and started back to the car, Chris called after him.
He paused and turned back around to see what she wanted.
She went up to him and gave him a peck on his right cheek. "That was for Ice." She kissed his other cheek. "That was for Alphonse. And this…is for you," she said, before giving him a kiss on the lips.
As she moved away from him, Charlie looked down, a blush creeping up his face as he ran a hand through his hair.
"Okay, but I think it'd be better if you thanked the guys yourself. It just isn't the same coming from me, you know?"
She smiled at his witty reply and lightly patted his cheek a couple times with her right hand. "Goodnight, Charlie. I'll see you tomorrow morning at the office." She turned to head back up the walkway to her house.
"'Night. And happy birthday, Christine."
Hearing him call her by her full first name, she whipped her head back around to stare at him in surprise. Charlie winked at her in response, before he hopped back into the convertible and revved the engine to life. He peeled away down the street, and she shook her head.
Con men. They always left you feeling unsettled.
When Chris returned to work the next day, things were relatively normal between her and the guys. Charlie had to endure some teasing from Alphonse about what had happened on the dance floor last night, but the computer genius gave as good as he got, and Chris was grateful he had apparently not divulged details about what had happened after he had dropped her off at her house.
The next week, however, an angry Malcolm O'Connor called Kowalski and her team into his office.
"I just checked my credit card statement and found some unusual charges. I made some calls and found out that someone charged the rental of a convertible as well as dinner and drinks at some restaurant called 'Lulu's' last week to my credit card." He gave the four of them a hard look. "Anyone know anything about this?"
The guys looked at each other, and then all three of them shook their heads. O'Connor looked at Chris, who had yet to respond.
"Special Agent Kowalski? Perhaps your moral compass can point me in the right direction."
She glanced over at her co-workers and friends, and remembered seeing Alphonse putting his wallet away. She bit her lip, conflicted, but then she realized that she had not actually seen Royo use a credit card to pay for their food last night. "I'm sorry, sir," she answered, "I'm afraid I can't help you."
O'Connor fixed each and every one of them with a glare, and then dismissed them from his sight. He knew that he wouldn't find any hard evidence to pin the charges on any member of Gregory's bunch. They were too good for that, and besides, O'Connor had to admit, even if it was only to himself, that the FBI needed these three men.