Title: HDTH, Numeral 3: Chinks in the Armor

Author: FraidyCat

Summary: Important to read "How Did That Happen?" and "How Did That Happen, the Sequel" first. Our saga continues. Summary Warning: more family angst, less plot; reviews pointing this out are not necessary. Story is brief (for me), and completed, and will be posted in several chunks throughout a few days.

Disclaimer: The ill-behaved characters of "numb3rs", who persist in conducting periodic interventions in FraidyCat's office, do not belong to her. If they did, there would be punishment involved. This disclaimer applicable to entire story. No animals were harmed during the writing of this fanfic.

Chapter 1: I Feel Like Taking a Deep Breath

Alan loomed in the open door of the refrigerator and contemplated the alternatives.

He glanced up at the clock on the wall over the refrigerator and sighed, shifting his weight a little. Finally, he grabbed the last bottle of beer and the tub of cottage cheese. He elbowed the door shut, and stopped for a spoon before he placed his dinner on the kitchen table. He pulled out his chair and sat down, not bothering with a bowl or plate.

It was an effort these days for Alan to bother with anything. In the nearly-seven months since his sons had been kidnapped and tortured by that insane Martinez-Cortez woman, he had learned again the first lesson he had tried to teach them as children: Be careful what you ask for. He expertly popped the top from the beer bottle on the edge of the table, and took a long draw, thinking that he didn't even like beer all that much. He drank if because it helped. It helped him remember happier times, when he was sharing a beer with Don, and they were watching a game together. Sometimes, Charlie would be in the living room with them, but usually he was nearby, in the dining room. He was nearly always hunched over his laptop, wherever he was, but Alan appreciated his coming in the house to work in close proximity, every now and then. He could have stayed in the garage, after all. Alan frowned, wondering if he had ever bothered to thank Charlie for that.

Alan set the bottle on the table and stirred the cottage cheese disinterestinly. Some dinner. He hadn't mustered up the energy to cook anything for weeks. There were undoubtedly some frozen leftovers from much nicer meals still up in the freezer, but the quicker he disposed of the dinner hour, the faster he could…wander around the house, and find something else to do.

He grunted in self-disgust as he lifted a spoon full of cottage cheese to his mouth. He really had no reason to sit here feeling sorry for himself. How many times had he made it perfectly clear that he wanted the boys involved in good relationships, relationships that might lead to marriage, and grandchildren? He was only getting what he wanted. It was just hard, since Colleen had finally arranged a transfer to L.A. last month, and Don had moved out of the house. The two of them were living together in a condo just a few miles away. Don had actually bought it, which encouraged Alan, a little. His oldest son had never so much as hinted at marrying Colleen, but they were obviously putting down roots of some kind.

The cottage cheese was sour, and he spit it back out and looked accusingly at the container. Charlie still lived here, but he might as well not. He was almost manic about work since his physical recovery, in a way that made Alan fear there had not yet been an emotional recovery. When he wasn't on campus, or consulting for Don, or in the garage, Charlie was with Debbie. His youngest son had always had boundless energy, but his frenetic pace the last few months truly concerned Alan.

He got up and dumped the container of cottage cheese in the trash, and considered, honestly. He was willing to admit that he might be a little more worried about Charlie than he had to be, because Alan had not developed a love of Debbie, as of yet. He shook his head, not understanding. The woman was a nurse, but she didn't seem all that nurturing to him. Maybe it was like Don had suggested, the one time Alan had tried to talk to him about Debbie. Perhaps she had to take a break from it, after working all day as a professional sympathetic. Or, maybe she was just one of those people that it took a little time to get to know. The Lord Above knew plenty of people had seen Charlie that way, over the years. It probably shouldn't surprise Alan that his son should be drawn to his own type, in a way. Plus…Alan knew Don was right when he said that the two of them tended to spoil Charlie, and it was probably good for him to be with someone who wasn't a pushover.

Still, he thought, as he headed aimlessly for the living room, giving up on dinner, he loved Colleen, and it would be nice to feel the same way about Charlie's…girlfriend. Alan had seen how perfect Colleen was for Don almost from the beginning — even when she was 'married' to Charlie. He grinned to himself and sank into his easy chair, drawing once more on the bottle of beer. Talk about awkward!

Of course, he had never said anything remotely negative to Charlie about Debbie. For one thing, he was still like a child that way: Letting him know you were unhappy about something tended to insure that he would do that very thing. More importantly, Don had told Alan about the talk he and Charlie had in the hospital, when Charlie had told him a story about Margaret and urged him to pursue Colleen. The story had really been the start of Alan's descent into whatever claimed him now. It had brought Margaret back to him in a way so intense, it was like losing her all over again. It had made him evaluate his own relationship with Charlie's boss, Millie. He enjoyed her friendship, especially the months that his chess partner was floating around space somewhere, but when he thought of Millie in comparison to Margaret…. Well, there was no comparison. He still hoped that one day he could find another companion to grow old with, but having had the best, he realized that he could not settle for a casual friendship. He had been careful since then to make sure that Millie was only invited to things that included other mutual friends. He did not want to send the wrong message. At least Larry was back, and still a reliable – if slightly quirky – friend. Even though he was firmly embroiled in his own partnership with Megan, he managed to come by the house regularly, for chess, or just to chat. Alan snorted quietly. In fact, he may have seen Larry more than he had Charlie, the last few months.

He forced himself to think about better things, things other than the fact that he seemed to be the only one without a partner, these days. It was very good news, for instance, that his sons still wanted just the three of them to have a vacation together, this summer. Charlie was teaching summer school first session, but had declined to teach during the second. Don had actually taken three consecutive weeks of vacation for the first time in his career, and the time was finally almost here. Both Don and Charlie had insisted that Alan choose the destination and activity — woudn't hear otherwise — and that touched him deeply. It was much more special that they wanted to do something with him, and something of his choice, than they knew. Sometimes, on lonely nights like this one, the knowledge still brought him to tears.

He brightened a little. That's what he could do. He could start packing for the trip, even though it was several days away. Well, he admitted as he heaved himself out of the chair and headed for the stairs, he could pack again. He had actually started packing almost two weeks ago.

He hoped, with a slight twinge of guilt, that his sons would enjoy themselves. He wasn't sure why he had chosen what he had himself. He hadn't done this in years. Decades. Perhaps it was the reminiscent mood he had found himself in as of late, and a desire to recapture something he had enjoyed as a younger man. It sounded so relaxing, and the solitude promised to make him a happy man. He would have Don and Charlie to himself, virtually 24/7, for the first time in years – and maybe the last.

He squared his shoulders as he took the stairs to his room. Go ahead. Call him a selfish bastard.

He was still taking his boys fishing.