Title: Survivor; a/k/a, "What's Up With That?"

Author: FraidyCat

Disclaimer: It's theirs.


Chapter 3: Alan Hears the News

Charlie had managed to play his wounded puppy eyes and put-upon little brother act sufficiently well to get Don to agree -- swear on his shield, actually -- that he would not 'accidentally' or otherwise let anything slip to their father. He was determined that at least one person would not rain on his parade.

Breakfast with Don turned into a shopping expedition; Charlie wanted to present Amita with a ring as soon as possible. Of course, Don wasn't married yet himself -- but Charlie still valued his opinion. Besides, he'd been engaged once -- to Kim. In addition, Charlie hoped to whet Don's appetite a little when it came to the whole marriage thing. His brother had teased him unmercifully over breakfast, but in the end, Charlie loved him like...well, like a brother, and the last thing he wanted was for poor Robin to be forced into the same position Amita had been. Don was almost stodgy and old-fashioned in some ways, although no-one who didn't know him well would suspect such a thing. If Robin proposed to him first, he might just turn her down out of some stupid sense of pride. Charlie would hate to see that happen.

They visited five jewelry stores before Charlie saw what he wanted. The bridal set featured a heart-shaped three-carat diamond in the center of the engagement ring. Considered of flawless quality, the diamond was a rare, delicate pink set into a white gold band. On either side of the heart nestled two perfect, tiny Akoya pearls -- Amita's birthstone. The lustrous, white spheres caught the slightest pink overtone when held to the light, and were a perfect compliment to the diamond. The matching white gold wedding band was elegantly simple, a row of tiny diamonds glittering in the precious metal. Don's eyes had widened when he saw the five-figure price tag and realized that Charlie was seriously considering the bridal set, but he didn't come close to passing out until the kid whipped out a Platinum American Express card and handed it to the salesman. Did Charlie even have a credit limit? Don was actually a little relieved when he got called to a crime scene while the card was still being processed. Five stores in one morning was a lot for him -- and the rings were making him nervous. He wasn't at all sure he could spend the afternoon helping his brother find a trousseau, or whatever else the still-giddy professor had in mind. So he had promised to come by the Craftsman for dinner the next day and left Charlie -- humming! -- on his own.

With the rings zipped safely in a backpack Charlie clutched tightly -- the idea was to present the engagement ring to Amita, and then bring everything back to the store for proper sizing -- Charlie took the long way home. He stopped at a few travel agencies to get honeymoon ideas, and soon colorful brochures filled his pack. It was nearly one in the afternoon by the time he finally entered the kitchen door and smiled at his father, who was just setting an armload of sandwich fixings on a counter.

Alan smiled in return, pleased to see Charlie so relaxed and happy. "Hello, son!" he greeted. "Have you been with Don all this time?"

Charlie moved close enough to the table to rest his pack on top, but did not let go of it. "Most of it," he answered. "We...had some errands. Then he got a call." He eyed a package of deli turkey meat hungrily. "I'm starving," he said, changing the subject. "Can I have one of those?"

Alan grinned and pulled two more slices of bread from the nearby loaf. "Of course," he answered. "I would have made something else, but I thought you'd have a big breakfast."

Charlie looked a little embarrassed, which confused Alan some, and carried his backpack with him to the pantry -- which confused Alan even more. "I'm sure we have a bag of chips in here," Charlie said, routing around the shelves one-handed. "This will be fine." He snagged the chips and turned again, smiling so brilliantly at Alan he couldn't help smiling back. "Amita is coming over for dinner. We'll have something nice, then."

Alan shook his head and turned back to his sandwiches. "Amita is here for dinner frequently," he pointed out. "Not that I'm complaining. What's so spec..."

Charlie interrupted, speaking so rapidly Alan almost couldn't understand him. "Should we sit in here? Let's have lunch in here, okay? I'll set the table."

"Fine," Alan agreed after a moment of stunned silence. "I was just going to eat in my recliner and watch the game, but I'd rather stay in here, now that I have some company."

"Umm-hmm," Charlie half-hummed in a tone of voice that indicated he hadn't heard a word Alan had said. The father turned slightly and watched, bemused, as Charlie moved around the kitchen retrieving plates, silverware, a couple of beers from the refrigerator -- all one-handed. His backpack seemed to have become permanently attached to his hand.

Alan shook his head, turning back to the sandwiches. "Do you want tomato on yours, Charlie?" Most of the time, Charlie did; however, he was acting so strange that Alan was afraid to risk it.

"Oh, yeah," Charlie responded enthusiastically, as he passed close enough behind his father to squeeze his shoulder fondly. Alan chuckled and reached for a pickle. Eventually, the two had everything on the kitchen table, and they settled in for their lunch. Charlie, who was still humming in a soft, off-key, abstract sort of way, had finally relinquished his hold on his backpack -- but he had set it on the floor directly at his feet, even hooking a strap around his ankle for security. Alan began to wonder if there was something live inside.

Charlie fell into his sandwich like a man who hadn't eaten in weeks, chugging through his beer and half a glass of water before Alan could so much as lift an eyebrow. He lifted his own sandwich to his mouth, but commented before he took a bite. "What's gotten into you today, Charlie? If you were my daughter instead of my son, I'd call you giddy."

Charlie laughed and reached out for another handful of chips. "I'm happy," he answered. "Can't a guy be happy?"

Alan smiled, bits of lettuce showing on his teeth, as Charlie crunched his chips and remembered his breakfast conversation with Don. Alan noticed a slight frown when the humming stopped, and it really wasn't his fault that he interrupted Charlie's train of thought at exactly the wrong time. "Charwee?" he asked, still masticating a bit of turkey.

Charlie had been staring at the table, but now his head shot up. He looked almost guilty. "Amita and I have sex," he blurted out, then abruptly shut his mouth as the unplanned words echoed in the kitchen. A chunk of turkey flew out of Alan's mouth and bounced off Charlie's chin.

"Good Lord, son," he choked, wiping his face with a napkin and grabbing his beer. "Do you think I don't know that? I live in the same house! My bedroom is just down the hall, for Pete's sake!" He coughed and took a long swallow of brew.

Charlie dug the hole a little deeper around him. "We don't do anything...frightening," he defended. "We never meant to scare you."

Alan looked at him as if he had grown another head. "Scare me?" he repeated. "Charlie, this isn't exactly my first time around the block!" He balanced his sandwich on the edge of his plate and tilted his head a little as he worriedly studied Charlie. "Son, are you feeling all-right?"

For the second time that day, Charlie blushed crimson to the roots of his hair. He looked miserably at his sandwich, his appetite suddenly gone. "Don said we scare you," he muttered.

Alan barked out a hearty laugh. "It sounds to me as if Don got you pretty good this time," he said, shaking his head again and picking up his sandwich. "Scare me. Oh, that's rich! The only thing that scared me about your sex life was wondering if you would ever have one, my boy!"

Charlie didn't know who he was angrier at -- his father or Don -- and he abandoned his lunch and pulled his backpack into his lap, hugging it defensively. "I should kill you both," he complained. Alan had almost stopped laughing, but that just started him up again. This time bits of bread sprayed the table, and the corner of a potato chip bounced off Charlie's eyebrow. He scowled and rubbed at his head, thoroughly unhappy. This wasn't going the way he'd planned at all. Alan was still smiling and shaking his head when Charlie unzipped the pack and inserted one hand, rummaging around for a bit and then withdrawing a black velvet-covered ring box. He flipped it open and slammed it onto the table in front of his half-eaten lunch. "How about this," he challenged. "The social reject is getting married, and you can't stop me!" He half-stood, shouting now. "Scared, yet?"

This time Alan inhaled his food instead of spraying it all over the table, and he gasped and choked as half of it went down the wrong pipe. Even as he stood himself, clawing at his throat, he couldn't tear his bulging eyes away from the stunning ring in the center of the table. "Dad?" Charlie asked, frightened. Alan didn't speak, but continued to cough and choke until Charlie ran around the end of the table and stood behind his father, stretching his arms to encircle the man's chest. He placed his fist on Alan's sternum and began to feel with his thumb for his xiphoid process, trying to get his bearings.

Alan twisted in Charlie's arms until he was facing his son, and used his own strong arms to pull the boy to him, one hand behind his head. "Never give the Heimlich to someone who can still cough," he whispered into Charlie's ear, tears soaking into the curly black hair. He deposited a kiss of benediction on Charlie's head and held on more tightly, gratified when Charlie returned the pressure. "My God, son, I'm so happy for you. So happy." Charlie relaxed for a few moments in his father's arms, and when he started to pull back, Alan spoke into his ear again. "Now. Let's talk about grandchilden."