Title: GTB, Part II: Ramifications

Author: FraidyCat

Disclaimer: Some people insist that each and every chapter disclaim. Therefore, they all do.

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Chapter 24: The Graduate

Alan bustled out the kitchen door before Bill's vehicle had even come to a full stop. He stood smiling on the nearby walkway as his sons climbed out of the car and made their way to the trunk, waiting for Bradford to pop the lid and let them in to retrieve their bags. Alan called out his greetings, "Welcome home, boys!" and tried to wait for them, but ended up scurrying to the rear of the car himself. When the doctor had called a few days ago, he had advised him to behave normally. Alan decided there was no time like the present, and leaned to wrap his youngest son in his arms -- the way he would any other time he hadn't seen Charlie in a month. "Fine, you look fine, son. I missed you."

He backed off and waited for Charlie's response. Bradford was coming around the car now, having climbed out of the driver's seat, and Charlie glanced at him before looking at his father with undeniable longing in his expressive eyes. "You too, Dad." His eyes fell to his feet, which shuffled on the ground. "You're feeling well?"

Alan reached into the trunk and started pulling out duffle bags, handing one to Don and then going back in for another. "Marvelous," he answered jovially, attemping to dislodge a small bag from beneath one he didn't recognize and assumed was Bill's. "Better than I have in years." He grunted, and with a mighty heave popped the bag from its trap. "I've got this," he smiled at Charlie as he backed away from the trunk. "You can grab your larger one, there." Charlie nodded silently and Alan couldn't help himself. He patted his son on his bowed back when Charlie leaned into the car. "I would have marinated some rib eye, or made up a lasagna...but I don't eat that kind of thing anymore. Larry picked up some frozen yogurt and a sugar-free blackberry pie this morning, though!" He turned slightly to wink at Bradford. "You'll join us for dinner?"

Bill smiled. "I'd love to, Alan, but I can't. I have plans tonight, and I need to get going."

Alan's smile didn't falter. "Another time, then. Thank-you, for everything you've done, Bill." He extended his hand, and the two older men shook hands warmly before Bill rested reached up to grab the raised lid.

"My pleasure," he answered, taking in the faces before him. While Charlie's was slightly apprehensive, still he could see the relief behind the expression. This was a family content to be together, after a long separation. He smiled. "Got everything?" Both brothers nodded and Bradford slammed the lid. Before he turned to return to the front of the automobile, he looked specifically at Charlie. "You've got my number," he reminded the younger man, and Charlie nodded again. Bill dipped his head once in confirmation, and felt oddly bereft when the Eppes began to move away, toward the house. He shook his head and sighed a little when he wedged himself back under the steering wheel.

Turns out he spent his vacation with family, after all.

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Larry was standing in the open doorway by the time the three men reached the house. "Charles, dear friend," he welcomed warmly. "I trust that your time away was beneficial."

Charlie's mouth quirked up in a smile. "I'm glad you're still here, Larry."

The physicist reached to relieve Alan of Charlie's bag. "My flight does not depart until the morrow," he responded lightly, and Charlie's head jerked up sharply. Larry pretended not to notice. "Come. Let me help you get resettled in your room. I find myself inexplicably curious as to what sort of vacation home Dr. Finch deems appropriate for herself."

Don shook his head and started to follow the two professors through the swinging door separating the kitchen from the house proper, but Alan's hand on his arm stopped him. "Have a beer," Alan said loudly.

Don waited until he heard feet mounting the staircase before he arched an eyebrow at his father. "Surely you know me well enough to understand that you cannot make an offer like that in jest."

Alan chuckled. "There's still a cooler full out on the utility porch," he answered. "Help yourself; Larry restocked this morning."

Don set his duffle bag on the floor of the kitchen and hesitated. "Why is Larry going home so soon? Charlie just got back!"

Alan shifted from one foot to the other uncomfortably. "About that," he finally said, "I think Larry should give you a ride home after dinner."

Don stopped thinking about the beer in the cooler and felt his jaw drop a little. He hadn't gone back to his apartment since the shooting. When he had needed something, like more clothes or his shaving supplies, Larry had fetched them for him. If forced to tell the God's-honest-truth, Don had been considering letting the apartment go, and moving into the Craftsman for a few more months while he waited to see what developed with Robin. All of that shot through his head in milliseconds, but all he could manage verbally was a weak, "But..."

Alan reached to touch Don's sling-encased forearm gently. "I love having you here, son. I do. Nothing would make me happier than having both of my sons under the same roof."

Don raised his good hand to run it over his head. "Then why?"

Alan sighed. "Bill says it's important to Charlie's transition that things go back to 'normal' as soon as possible; that's why Larry is leaving tomorrow..." He grinned a little. "Although I'm sure not seeing Megan for a month probably had some influence over his decision as well." He soon found his way back to the topic at hand. "Anyway, I don't want Charlie to think you and Larry are staying here because you don't trust him; or, because I'm afraid to be alone with him. We'll all be sending a very strong message in the next few days, Don -- we need to decide what that message is going to be."

Don moved to the table and dragged out a chair, dropping into it wearily. What his father said was true; it also forced him to ask himself a very uncomfortable question. Did he trust Charlie to be alone with their father? He was relieved to discover that he did. Even when Charlie had been in deepest submission to Mark, he had fought his way to the surface in order to help Alan. Don did not doubt his brother's love for his father – or himself – for a moment.

Alan, who had lost over 15 pounds since his heart attack, made quick time out to the laundry room, where he grabbed a beer and a bottle of water out of the cooler before he hurried back into the kitchen. He placed the beer in front of Don and then started to twist the cap off the water, full of nervous energy. "I know it's been several weeks," he continued, "and while you were at the beach with Charlie, Larry and I went to the apartment. We aired the place out, and cleaned everything up. I called Colby, and he said it's no longer a crime scene and we could do whatever we wanted." He smiled again, finally pulling out a chair for himself and sitting at the table. "He even insisted on helping." He lowered his voice a little. "I thought it would be horrible," he shared confidentially, "but I think he and Larry synchronized their watches, or something. As we pulled into the parking lot, one of those crime-scene cleaning service vans was pulling out. I tried to get Colby to let me pay for it, but he insisted he had just called in a favor."

Don smiled feebly and shrugged. "Probably true. We throw those guys a lot of work, ya know."

Alan took a swig of his water and then changed the subject. "Well, Larry could take you to Robin's, instead. If you want."

Don brightened perceptibly. Things were looking up.

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Considering everything they had been through, separately and as a family, it was surprising how quickly things settled into a peaceful routine. Charlie spent some time working in the garage, but not as much as he had in the past; some days, he did not go out there at all. When he and Alan decided to wash and detail both cars one lazy August afternoon, and found almost 60,000 dollars under the driver's seat of the Prius, Charlie was stunned and terrified. He knew he was not missing that much from his accounts. He started to hyperventilate and speculate about all manner of possibilities. He even wanted to call Don and have him check for unsolved muggings during the time that he was living as Mark. Finally, his father was able to convince him to start at the beginning. Alan recommended a thorough audit of all of their bank accounts. Charlie agreed, and within hours had discovered that most of the money was indeed missing from his own. Then he tracked the final 20,000 to Alan. He was in the garage most of the afternoon working on that, and scared Alan half out of his wits when he burst into the kitchen crying. It took Alan almost half-an-hour to calm his son down and get the details from him. By the end of the story, Charlie had apologized at least ten times and was hiccuping in huge gulps of air in an attempt to keep the tears at bay.

They were in the living room, where they had both been sitting on the couch. Alan sat back for a moment, then suddenly laughed and sprang to his feet. "Son, this is wonderful!" he crowed, beginning to pace towards his recliner. When he got there he whirled to face an ashen-faced and confused Charlie. "Don't you see?" Charlie dumbly shook his head, and Alan laughed again. "You're guilty. You feel guilty." Charlie tilted his head a little, beginning to resemble Nipper, the RCA-Victor mascot, and Alan actually giggled before he started back for the couch. "You feel guilty, son -- and no Mark. You faced that feeling; you didn't run from it!"

Charlie's head straightened and an expression of comprehension crossed his face. "Huh," he finally said softly. "Guess I've got something to talk to Bill about, tomorrow."

Alan chuckled again, perching on the edge of the couch. "In the meantime," he proposed, "let's take part of my money downtown to CycleSport; you can help me choose my own bike. I can't keep riding yours forever. Besides, if I get my own, we can take rides together."

Charlie grinned, but protested. "We do that already; I use Don's old 10-speed."

Alan waved a hand dismissively. "That thing belongs in the trash. Don didn't even take it with him when he moved to the apartment." His dark eyes twinkled. "He hasn't taken it over to Robin's house, either."

Charlie thought about reminding Alan that Don still paid the rent on his apartment, and that his relationship with Robin was not carved in stone. He even opened his mouth; but in the end, he didn't say anything about his father's wishful thinking.

It just felt too normal.

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Alan began to admonish himself for letting his thoughts go in that direction, though, at the First Annual 10 Percent Fat or Less Eppes Family Labor Day Barbecue.

It was a smaller and more subdued affair than the doomed 4th of July event. Megan and Larry -- and of course Amita -- weren't there, and Bill was spending the long weekend at his cabin. David was taking some vacation time to check on his sister, Karen. Colby had arrived, winking at Charlie behind Alan's back, and Millie was there. Don and Robin were a little more than fashionably late, and when they finally walked around the corner of the house to join the others in the backyard, Robin's distress was palpable. Her arms were crossed over her chest, her gait was stiff, and she seemed to be staying purposefully an arm's-length away from Don. "Oh, dear," Alan murmured, looking across the lawn, and the others at the picnic table followed his gaze.

Charlie unconsciously stated to smile, but Colby kicked him under the table. "Wonder what's up with them?" the agent queried.

Don was carrying a plastic grocery bag from the fingers on his injured side. While he was still in therapy, working on fine muscle control, he no longer needed a sling. His major, gross motor movements were back, and unless a person looked very closely or studied very hard, it was difficult to tell that there had been an injury at all. He seemed unperturbed by Robin's attitude, and smiled widely as he approached the seated group. "Hey!" he greeted. "Did you save some for me?"

Alan rose tentatively and glanced at Robin. "We haven't actually started grilling yet, son. How...how are you, Robin?"

She sniffed and rubbed a hand across her face. "I suggest you talk to HIM about that!" she fumed, obviously furious.

Alan moved his eyes back to Don, who seemed to be taking it very well. "She's a little upset right now," his son explained. "Just didn't see it coming. I'm sure when she gets used to the idea..."

Robin flew across the few feet separating her from Alan, waving both hands in the air. "He's crazy! I can't believe he did this; see if you can talk some sense into him Alan, please! Throwing away a 13-year career, just throwing it away like it's nothing!" She suddenly whirled and jabbed a finger in Colby's direction. "And you," she spat distastefully. "You knew about this, didn't you?"

All eyes turned to Agent Granger, who reddened furiously and shot Don a dirty look. "Hey, it's his life," he protested. "I can't stop him from quitting. I tried."

All eyes moved on to Don. "You quit the Bureau?" Alan managed to squeak. He tried to determine how he felt about the possibility. Yes, it would be wonderful to know people weren't shooting at Don every day; on the other hand, the retirement benefits were outstanding, if Don lived that long. "Son, I know you hate the desk work, but it's only been for a few weeks. It'll get easier. And it's only for a few more months anyway!"

Robin snorted loudly and sarcastically. All eyes switched to her. "Tell him," she insisted, staring at Don. "Tell your father what a stinking, miserable LIAR you are!"

Charlie made a choking noise and buried his face in the soda in front of him. Alan, standing next to him, absently patted him on the back and regarded his eldest. "Don?"

Don's smile had not faltered. "Dad, I'm happy. This is what I want to do. It's gonna be great! Robin and I could even work together, if she'd give it half a chance. I'm sure Three Ring could find something for her to do. She's very flexible."

Robin finally got close enough to Don to extend both arms and push them into his chest, shoving him backwards three feet. Then she turned to Alan, again. "He hasn't even been working the desk! All those mornings we thought he was at work, he's been...he's been... God!" She threw up her hands and stormed toward the koi pond, suddenly speechless.

Charlie plunked down his glass and extricated himself from the picnic table, preparing to follow her. "I'm a little worried about the fish," he whispered.

Alan watched him go and then looked at Don. "What did you do?"

Don reached into the grocery bag he was still holding and pulled out something that looked so much like Charlie's curly head that both Millie and Alan gasped. He held up the dark wig so that they could see it better. "I joined the circus," he announced happily. "I've been going to clown school!" He had successfully rendered everyone remaining at the table speechless, so Don shoved the wig back into the bag and pulled out a handful of tickets instead. He moved around the table, passing them out and leaving one at Charlie's seat. "Tomorrow is our graduation, and we get to perform at the Three Ring Circus scheduled for the Armory, in south L.A." He ended his circle of life back where he began, in front of his father. He offered Alan the last ticket. "Please say you'll come, Dad. I know how crazy this sounds, but I love it; I honestly love every minute of it. Don't you want me to be happy?" He pointed out the obvious. "Plus, people hardly ever shoot at clowns."

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The barbecue ended as abruptly as the last one had, and Alan went to bed swearing he would never host another cookout, the rest of his life. To make matters worse, Charlie was gone most of the next day. He had a session with Bill -- Don had pressed another ticket upon him, begging him to take it to the doctor -- and after that he spent several hours at CalSci. He had agreed to teach two classes during the fall semester, and he was understandably nervous. He was spending more time preparing for those classes than he usually did when he was teaching a full load. Don was working on his costume and make-up, refining his "clown character", whatever the hell that meant. Alan found himself wandering the house in a daze most of the day, wondering if the circus offered benefits like retirement, or health insurance. His son was a clown. Alan couldn't quite wrap his head around it.

Dutiful father that he was, though, at the appointed hour he was seated on the bottom row of the bleachers, along with the families of all the other graduating clowns. Charlie was on one side of him; Millie on the other. Colby and Dr. Bradford were sitting on the next row; poor Robin was nowhere to be seen. Alan was beginning to doubt that he would ever see her again. Charlie bought him peanuts, and Alan sat through the animal acts in dreaded anticipation. The clown class, the Ring Master had announced, would be presenting their graduation performance just before intermission.

Finally, following a hoop act during which Alan tried not to think about what Don had said about Robin, and then the death-defying high wire, the Ring Master introduced the class of 2008. A miniscule black-and-white police car brimming with clowns careened into the center ring, dumping bodies out the windows and off the roof with every turn. At length, amidst the cheering and laughter of the crowd, the tiny car came to a halt, and the final few clowns began to climb out.

Not all were in full white-face. Don, for instance, who had been driving the vehicle, was emulating a Keystone Kop. He wore a heavy police uniform circa 1930, and twirled a gigantic handlebar mustache with one hand and a nightstick with the other. A tall hat, secured to his chin with a strap, perched atop the ridiculous wig. Tufts of wild dark curls shot out from his head for nearly six inches.

While Alan watched, the group of clowns converged on the small vehicle and began to unload an unbelievable amount of material from the trunk; he had no idea how they got it all in there. Fascinated, it was a few moments before he realized that they were building a jail cell in the middle of the ring. Clown Don began to circle the Ring Master, making fun of him with childish but universally-recognized gestures. The Ring Master played along, obviously part of the routine. At one point, almost snake-like, Don reached out and grabbed the Ring Master's microphone. He ran around the ring with it, the Ring Master shaking his fists and chasing him, half-a-dozen clowns bringing up the rear. The show was silly, and quite obviously intended for children, but Alan couldn't help himself. He found himself laughing.

Eventually the Ring Master ended up in "jail". At that point, Don began to send his minion clowns into the crowd, to gather other prisoners. Alan stopped laughing when he saw an orange-haired white-face with flopping feet headed his way. "Oh, no," he mumbled, scooting closer to Charlie. "He wouldn't."

The clown's attention was diverted to Charlie, who stiffened perceptibly. "Please, Dad!" he begged. "Don't let him take me!"

The plea was sufficiently desperate. Alan took one look at his youngest – were those tears in his eyes? – and stood before the clown could make a choice. He allowed the man dressed in a pink tutu – a man with hairy legs, by the way – to present him to Constable Don, center stage. He began working on his plans to disinherit his son and waited for Don to waive him toward the "jail cell", which by now was getting rather full.

To Alan's utter surprise, Don began speaking into the Ring Master's stolen microphone, instead. Up until that moment, he had only been using it in silent gesture, as he mimed to his posse of clowns. "WHAT ARE THE CHARGES AGAINST THIS MAN?" Don fairly roared, and Alan was shocked when the audience began screaming out possibilities. He glanced longingly at his seat on the bleachers, and was surprised to see Robin there, sitting in the spot he had vacated. She was cheering, screaming, clapping, and did not look distressed at all. Behind her, Colby was nearly apoleptic with glee, and Bradford was wiping an eye. Even Charlie was grinning like a fool. Only Millie had the common decency to look a little uncomfortable, and Alan's eyes lingered on her gratefully. His head was fairly spinning; dozens of strangers in the audience of hundreds were enjoying the moment immensely, but Alan was feeling the need to sit down. He started to turn to his disguised son, intending to play the heart attack card if he had to, when a creature less than three feet tall, dressed in a miniature replica of Don's costume, came barreling out of nowhere – the damn clowns were everywhere – and skidded to a stop right in front of them. He started leaping, apparently trying to thrust a rolled scroll into Don's hand. After three jumps, Don caught up the little person; in one quick motion he ripped the scroll out of his hand and tossed the tiny clown over his head, backwards. The audience screamed and Alan turned, horrified, just in time to see the man safely land on a small rescue trampoline several of the other clowns had caught him with.

"This is NOT funny," he hissed, turning back in time to see Don unfurl the scroll, which extended down to the floor and kept coming.

"Ah, this is BAD," Don said into the microphone. He dropped the scroll, twirled his handlebar mustache and circled Alan slowly. "You have been charged with DECEPTION!" he bellowed. "HOW DO YOU PLEAD?"

Alan lifted his hands in mock surrender, hoping to end the fiasco as soon as possible. "Just get it over with, officer," he tried to smile. He was so embarrassed he didn't even notice that the Ring Master had walked out of the 'jail cell' and was coming toward them.

Don smiled at him under the mustache, and Alan suddenly felt fear. "Call someone to bail you out," he said into the microphone. "A GIRLFRIEND, perhaps?" The audience erupted into hoots and catcalls, and Alan looked toward the bleachers to see that Millie was trying to stand up. Robin seemed to be impeding her progress somehow. Don kept up his tirade. "Unless, of course, you DON'T REALLY HAVE ONE, Old Man." He dropped the mic to his side and spoke so quietly that only Alan could hear him. "You and Millie wouldn't mislead your own sons about a thing like that, would you?"

Busted. Alan's mouth gaped, and he found himself speechless. He looked back at the bleachers, and knew that with the exception of Millie, they were all in on it. This had to be the most elaborate practical joke known to mankind. His eyes narrowed, and he swiveled his head to look at Don again. The Ring Master had taken his microphone back and was announcing what Alan had deduced to the audience at large, introducing Don as an FBI agent and soliciting applause for the supporting cast of clowns, who really were graduating that night.

Don wrapped his good arm around his father and pushed him toward the stands. "I'll walk you back," he said into his ear as he lifted his other hand and waved at the cheering crowd. Alan hated himself for being proud when he saw it; that was Don's injured arm. He let himself be propelled toward the bleachers, unsure where he was supposed to sit now that Robin was in his seat. The graduating class had been cavorting their final good-bye, spinning and cartwheeling in front of them as they walked. When Alan's line of vision cleared, he saw that the smiling Ring Master had somehow gotten to the bleachers ahead of them. The man winked at Don, tipped his hat and handed him the microphone again before backing away several feet. Oh God, Alan thought miserably. What fresh hell is this?

He thought the heat of the circus tent and the excitement had gotten to Don; his son's knees seemed to be buckling. Alan automatically reached to pull him back up, but Don was already on one knee, just a few feet in front of the bleachers. "Robin Elaine Brooks," Don said into the microphone, and the entire audience seemed to sense the change in mood and hushed as one, waiting. "Without you, I'm nothing but a clown," Don continued. He unsnapped his chin strap and took off his tall hat, reaching inside before he let if fall to the ground. When he extended his right arm, steady as a rock, palm-side up, a small jeweler's box rested in his hand. "I want you to share the rest of my life, and I want to share the rest of yours. I love you, Robin. Will you marry me?"

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The group had adjourned to Pie N Burger – which had a nice sugar-free selection – to celebrate.

They had placed their orders, Don ordering for Charlie, who had excused himself to the restroom almost as soon as they arrived. Robin was holding her hand out, letting Millie admire her ring. Colby was filling Alan in on some of the details. "One of the real clowns – an existing clown, not one of the new graduates – is an old friend of Robin's from law school. She looked her up when Three Ring came to town. Turns out she's married to the owner, now. The circus was laying off for a week to give everybody a break before doing several shows in L.A. and then moving on. So, Don and Robin went to dinner with the two of them, and this little plan was hatched."

"Well, the part about getting even with you," amended Bill. "We were all recruited for that; Don literally kept the engagement part under his hat."

Colby snickered. "Dr. Bradford even called your cardiologist, to make sure a little payback wouldn't kill you."

Alan shook his head, chagrined. "I cannot believe I actually believed my son was quitting the Bureau and becoming a circus clown," he moaned. He elbowed Millie, sitting beside him. "It was your idea to keep them guessing."

She ignored him and kept talking to Robin, across the table. Don's eyes crinkled and he smiled at his father. "I suggest you adopt a policy of honesty," he said. "Robin's part of the family now, and she's pretty good at getting even."

"I'll say," Alan muttered, and everyone laughed.

At that moment the waitress arrived with several pieces of pie. Charlie still wasn't back, and Don leaned to kiss Robin on the cheek. "I'll be right back," he whispered. "Just going to check on Charlie." She smiled at him and nodded, and Don slipped out of the booth.

In the men's room, he found his brother standing in front of the bank of sinks, a crumpled paper towel in his hand. He was staring blankly at his own reflection in the mirrored wall over the was basins, and probably had been for quite some time. Don quietly approached him, and waited for another customer to wash his hands and exit the restroom. He hadn't even told Charlie that he was going to ask Robin to marry him, and he was starting to regret that a little. Perhaps it had been too hard for his brother to witness that, so soon after Amita, when he was feeling so alone himself. "Hey," he said, and his voice, although quiet, still echoed in the acoustic room.

Charlie's eyes met his in the mirror. "Congratulations," he said with a grin.

Don grinned back. "Thanks. Thanks. Listen, Chuck, Robin and I obviously haven't discussed details yet; we could end up hightailin' it to Vegas. But whatever we decide, you'll be my Best Man, right?"

Charlie looked a little startled, and turned slightly to lob the paper towel he was holding into a trash can. "Maybe you should ask Dad," he suggested. "It would mean a lot to him."

Don lightly rested a hand on Charlie's shoulder. "Dad is going to sit in the front row and cry like a baby," he responded. "You're going to stand next to me, in case I pass out or something. You're going to be my rock, and catch me if I fall."

Charlie straightend his spine just a tad. Just like you have always done for me, he thought, locking his gaze with Don's in the mirror again. His smile was slow, and genuine, and reached his dark eyes. "Of course," he answered. "There's nothing I'd rather do."

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Props to Tanager, whose Plot Bunny has so far been responsible for two stories, 43 chapters between them. Hopefully, she will let the baby rabbits and their Cat rest for awhile!