Title: Happy Birthday

Author: FraidyCat

Disclaimer: It's theirs.

Mea Culpa: I'm sure at least one person out there knows when Charlie's birthday actually is via "canon" -- but I made it today (August 23) because mine is today. Consider it AU, if you must. This is a freakin' sad oneshot.

Charlie sat quietly at his desk and counted the red carnations in the flower arrangement before him. There were only eight, which surprised him a little. Red seemed to be the dominant color when looking at the basket of flowers, but there were many more yellow and white daisies. Of course, the small white teddy bear was holding a red heart, which added to the nearly overwhelming affect of the dark hue. He grimaced slightly as he eyed the smiling creature warily. What on earth was his father thinking, sending him a birthday arrangement that contained a stuffed animal? His eyes wandered to the other arrangement, which had arrived earlier and was sitting on one of the shelves of the bookcase -- conveniently empty, since all the books were on the floor. Amita's contribution was much...manlier. Hearty sunflowers, a lot of greenery -- and nary a teddy bear in sight.

Deciding to switch the location of the two arrangements, Charlie stood. He had only taken half a step when five colorful mylar balloons floated through the door, followed by Megan. Her head was turned away while she argued with someone behind her. "These are very nice balloons."

"I never indicated that they were not, my sweet," Charlie recognized Larry's voice and caught a glimpse of the diminuitive physicist behind a particularly vicious-looking 'Happy Birthday' butterfly. "I'm simply questioning their appropriateness for the intended recipient. I have known Charles for many years, and he has never struck me as a man who appreciates balloons -- mylar or otherwise. Although helium does present some interesting areas of study."

Charlie laughed, and Megan faced forward again and thrust the handful of strings at him. "Happy Birthday, Charlie!", she beamed. "These are from Larry and I." Her voice and stance issued a challenge that Charlie noted his old friend did not take on.

Larry merely shrugged, met Charlie's eyes and chewed on a fingernail. "Yes. Quite," he muttered around his hand.

A triumphant note rang in Megan's voice. "We're just on our way to lunch. You probably have plans already, but we'd love it if you could join us."

Charlie struggled awkwardly with the long strings on the balloons, finally deciding to tie them to the basket handle of his father's funky arrangement. Might as well draw some attention away from the ridiculous bear. "Thank-you," he said, wrapping the strings around several times before making a loop to tie them off. Maybe there would be enough lift when he let go that the insane balloons would drag the hideous bear to its death. "I do appreciate the... the thought, and the...the...balloons." Good grief, he could hardly even say it. "I do have plans already, I'm sorry." He tried to inject some regret into his voice. It must have worked, because both Megan and Larry graciously accepted his story. After exclaiming over the flowers and bestowing birthday hugs -- even Larry, which surprised Charlie a little -- the two were heading out the door again.

Charlie followed them so that he could close the door, and arrived just in time to hear a low comment from Megan, her head tilted toward Larry. "Did you see that teddy bear?", she giggled. "Did he say those were from Alan?"

"Slightly...demonic," answered Larry, which made Charlie smile as he shut the door. Now that he had tied balloons to the arrangment on the desk, they pretty much had to stay where they were, so he crossed to the window behind his desk and stood in the patch of sunlight. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jeans, and let the hot August sun caress his face. He thought idly about the remainder of his birthday, and what he would do.

He was almost ready for the Fall Semester, and he still had several weeks to get it all together. So he could leave a little early this afternoon. First, he would spend about an hour at Don's apartment. He was still boxing things up there, and the movers were coming soon to put the things he could not part with into a small storage unit he had rented. There was plenty of room at the house, in the garage and the old garden shed, but Charlie didn't want his father to be faced with Don's things all the time. Plus, if he was honest, he didn't really want Alan to know he was holding on to so much. No doubt, the Old Man would have plenty of advice about that -- and Charlie was in no mood to hear it.

Later, he would drive out to the rehab center in Malibu to see his brother. If he arrived early enough, he could push Don in his wheelchair the few blocks down to the beach. In his heart, he knew Don would like that. In his soul, he knew Don could feel the ocean breeze and hear the crashing waves and draw peace from them. It didn't matter how many experts told him that Don was completely nonresponsive and unaware, Charlie knew that it would matter.

Opening his eyes and staring at nothing, he lifted one hand to absently rub his stomach, where the ulcer churned. He frowned. Tomorrow, he would have to tell his father that the rehab center was kicking Don out, that they claimed the last stroke took him beyond their abilities to bring him back. Tomorrow, they would have to make decisions...or more accurately, he would need to convince Alan to go along with ones he had already made. He knew that Alan would want to bring Don home. But Charlie had found another place, another rehab. They had refused, at first, after they saw Don's medical records. A quiet six-figure donation to their building fund had changed minds. It was a little farther away, which would be difficult, but his research taught him that they had remarkable success with brain injuries. He felt a surge of hope. If they doctors could just find the right combination of medications to stop the strokes, Don would fully recover from the bullet that had ripped through his brain on Charlie's last birthday.

Charlie knew it.

He knew it with the certainty that he knew...numbers. He knew it as completely as he knew that it was all his fault. If he had not picked that restaurant for his birthday dinner, Don would not have been shot when a madman burst in and tried, with bad aim, to kill his estranged wife. Charlie shook his head. Fifteen years as an FBI agent, and the bullet that finally claimed his brother wasn't even related to the job. How stupid was that?

He squared his shoulders and turned to get back to composing syllabi for his classes. He needed to get on the ball if he was going to get this finished in time to give himself the only birthday present he wanted.

An evening with Don.