Title: How Did This Happen, the Sequel

Chapter 25: A Man Walks Into A Bar

SIX WEEKS LATER…

After descending from the third floor of the medical building, Charlie stepped off the elevator and approached the main lobby, limping on his cane. His appointment had not taken as long as he had been expecting, and he had almost 45 minutes to wait before Alan picked him up. Of course he could call his father's cell, and tell him he was finished early. He knew his dad would rearrange his own schedule and make this his next stop; Alan had wanted to wait for him in the first place, but Charlie had insisted he would be fine. He was tired of being such a drag on the family, and he knew Alan had a lot of errands to finish up before dinner, tonight.

Even though he had gone back to work on a reduced schedule when Winter Break had ended, and the doctor had told him earlier that week that he was cleared for as much activity as he felt he could handle now, Charlie was tired. He suspected that had more to do with the nature of today's appointment than anything else. It was exhausting sitting in a psychiatrist's office for 50 minutes, divulging just enough information to keep her happy. He had only agreed to go in the first place because it meant so much to Don and his father. They had each come to him separately, and offered to go with him, even.

He understood their viewpoint. If their positions were reversed, he would certainly be worried about their emotional health. Then again, Don killed people all the time – well, more than once, anyway – so their positions were more or less the same, on that count. Charlie sniggered quietly. He did worry about Don's emotional health, too. Not as much, lately. Don's demons were being successfully held at bay. Charlie wished that his father and brother understood that he was coming to grips with his own, as well. He just needed to deal with it in his own way, and his own time.

He looked at his watch, again. Because it fit better into his father's schedule, Charlie had arrived almost a full hour early for his appointment. The doctor had seen him in the waiting room, informed him that her previous patient had cancelled, and whisked him into his session early. That was why today was especially exhausting. He hadn't really had time to rehearse, first, and figure out beforehand just what crumbs he could get away with tossing today. He sighed, relieved again that he had only agreed to do this for two months. Alan and Don had accepted the compromise, when he promised to re-evaluate at that time.

He stood again and headed for the street. Maybe a walk, a soda somewhere, would rejuvenate him a little. His primary care physician had said walking was good for his leg anyway, and the more he did it, the sooner he could lose the cane. Once out on the sidewalk, Charlie drew his jacket a little tighter around him and started walking. There was a chilly wind today, so he hoped he found somewhere to sit and have a soda, soon. He wanted to be relaxed and friendly, and not cause anyone to worry tonight, at Don's birthday dinner.

He smiled to himself, thinking of their guests. It would be the first time since what he had come to think of as "The Incident" that Don's entire team, and Larry, had come by the house for a social gathering. Don was still staying at the house, even though he had gone back to light duty a week ago. In fact, he had let the lease on his place go, and put most of his stuff in storage. Charlie hoped and suspected it was because he was waiting for Colleen's transfer to the L.A. unit of the DEA to come through, so they could get a place together. She had already come back twice for long weekends, and Don had added more minutes to his cell phone plan. Once he had started teaching again, it became a struggle for Charlie to get Don off the Internet so he could use his computer himself. This would be a happy birthday for Don, even though with it mid-week the way it was, Colleen couldn't be here. She was flying in again Friday, this time on business. She was actually on her way to a case in San Diego, but had arranged a 48-hour layover in L.A. Something told him Don would get more presents this weekend.

He frowned a little, thinking of Andy Carter, continuing his trek down the sidewalk. After a couple of weeks, Andy had been flown back to D.C. himself, and Georgetown had taken over his case. Charlie looked forward to an update on his condition.

Stopping for a moment, huddled against the wind, Charlie looked around. The only place within sight that he could see to sit down and get something to drink was the bar just ahead of him. He shrugged, and started forward. He had no intention of showing up at Don's party drunk, but bars sold soda, right? At least it was shelter from the weather. Besides, he didn't want to wander too far away from the medical building. The last thing anybody needed was for him not to make it back on time. If Alan showed up and he wasn't waiting for him, the party would be over before it began.

Besides the bartender, who handed Charlie a soda without comment, there were only two other people in the bar in mid-afternoon. One was someone who looked as if he would be more comfortable in the gutter outside, and Charlie wondered how long he had been sitting there drinking. Judging from the shot glasses upside down in front of him, it may have been awhile. He nursed his current shot and ignored Charlie, who grabbed his soda and started for one of the three tables in the small bar. A woman, slightly plump, sat over a plate of tacos at the center one.

She was wiping her mouth, and when she lowered her napkin she smiled at him. Charlie didn't know quite what happened when he suddenly became a little unsteady, holding the soda with one hand, and his cane with the other. "I don't mind if you join me," she offered. "Unless you'd rather be alone."

Well, yeah, he had wanted to be alone for a while before his father picked him up. He had wanted to compose himself for the party. He found himself not wanting to, anymore, and also wondering what her eyes looked like outside in the light. If they were this green and sparkling in a dingy bar, they must be incredible.

He limped to the table and set down his soda, lowering himself carefully into a chair. She smiled again, and something slammed him into it. "I'm Debbie," she said, sticking out her hand. "I'm an office nurse in the medical building just down the block. I take kind-of a late lunch. You don't mind if I eat in front of you?"

Charlie shook her hand. It was warm, and soft, and comfort, and her handshake was strong. He was reluctant to sever the connection, which was odd; he wasn't usually much of a toucher. "Please," he assured her. "I don't want to interrupt your lunch. My name is Charlie. I just came from the med building. I thought I'd have a soda while I'm waiting for my ride."

She didn't even ask who his appointment was with, or try to figure out what was wrong with him. Instead, she picked up a taco in her hands and looked at him conspiratorially. "Charlie, I know what this place looks like, but Johnny makes the best tacos in L.A. And that's saying something." She took a huge bite, chewed with her eyes closed, and hummed in pleasure. Charlie found himself fascinated. Her eyes popped back open and she laughed. "I know whereof I speak, by the way. As you can tell, I've had my share of good tacos."

Charlie smiled with her, although she didn't really qualify as overweight, in his opinion. "Don't malign yourself," he chided gently. "To me, you look like someone it would be a pleasure to hold." Good grief. Had he just said that? Charlie would have been sure that his cola was spiked with something, if he had drunk any yet.

His face flamed red, and she giggled. She looked him over. "You look a little scrawny, yourself. Like a stiff wind could take you."

He played with the sweating glass before him. "Hard winter."

She nodded, a flash of sympathy barely registering in her eyes before it was gone. "That can happen. My widowed mother lives with me, and she had pneumonia twice this winter. I had to take almost two weeks off work during our busiest time of year, so I could take care of her. My sister wanted to come and help, but it's difficult. She has a really dangerous and stressful job, herself. She's a firefighter in Oregon!", she finished proudly.

"That's…that's amazing," Charlie answered, finding it truly so.

Debbie nodded, chewing another bite of taco. She swallowed and continued her story. "And married, too! She actually has a seven-uear-old son. She's one of a select few of female firefighters in the country who also have traditional families." She blushed, a little. "Sorry. We're just really proud of her. You know what that's like."

"I do," Charlie confirmed. "My older brother is in federal law enforcement. The things he deals with, every day…." He looked down at his soda, trying to forget exactly how much he knew, now, about things Don dealt with. "Well," he finished lamely, "my dad and I are really proud of him, too."

The woman frowned a little and began to chase down stray lettuce with a fork. "So what do you do, Charlie?"

He glanced back up. "Oh. I teach. At CalSci. Applied Mathematics, mostly."

She shuddered. "I could have used you during my pharmacology courses." He smiled, even though her steady stare was a little disconcerting.

"What?", he finally asked.

She seemed to come out of a trance, and grinned apologetically. "I was just wondering how a math professor has such a hard winter that he ends up in a dive bar in the middle of the afternoon."

Charlie sighed, and smiled slightly. "You have no idea," he answered.

She pushed her half-full plate away and leaned back a little in her chair. She crossed her arms over her chest and smiled. "I have all afternoon," she offered, then amended herself. "At least until my lunch hour is over."

"What if it takes longer than that?", Charlie surprised himself by saying. Seemed he was just full of surprises, today. A ray of sun suddenly carved its way through the dirty window and fell over the dingy table, glistening off dark curls that fell slightly beyond her shoulders.

She smiled again, her eyes sparkling like jade in the sunlight. "Something tells me we can work that out," she said, and Charlie felt his heart constrict. Confused, he didn't understand at first what was happening. Then he heard his mother's voice in his head, and his eyes widened a little when understanding found him.

Debbie was taking his breath away.

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END, Part II

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A/N: And there you have it: FraidyCat gave each boy a woman. (She may be saving Alan for herself, having always had a thing for older men.) If Tanager36 is anywhere out there, credit for the taco lady begins with her. I do not promise a "Part III"; neither do I deny the possibility. Thanks for reading!