Title: What Dreams May Come
Author: Laura Sichrovsky
Permissionto archive: Yes! Please!
Rating: PG-13 (There isn't anything sexual, but there is some pretty descriptive violence towards a child.)
Summary: Don is normally the perfect FBI guy. But on this night, when a case goes bad, something in him hurts and he needs the help of his family to get through this.
Warnings: Some violence directed towards a child.
Acknowledgments: Thanks need to go to M. Marchand for her help with this. She helped me see what I wasn't hearing and I really appreciate it. Thank you to CBS for being willing to take a chance on a show like this and for keeping it on. 22 new shows! Yes! Thank you to Rob Morrow for making Don such an interesting character to play with and do damage to. I'm sure he had no idea when he signed on to play out FBI guy that some crazy women out there would be writing stories about him. He is a brave man and we appreciate that too! Thanks to Don for being courageous enough to spend some time in my head. After hearing Charlie for a few weeks, he really didn't scare me too badly. In fact it was very nice to have him in my head. Next time though I hope he refrains from fighting with Charlie while he's there. It can be disconcerting to hear, "I did not!" "Yes, you did!" echoing in your head! Huge thanks have to go to my little sister, Kristen, for taking time out of her life to read this over for me and then chop it to bits. She is the best! Thank you to Alice Tylock for being daring enough to volunteer to beta this for me. She was a great help! And lastly, to my most patient husband who doesn't freak about the guys who live in my head. He is more wonderful than I could ever deserve. To the readers of this story, I hope you like it!
Disclaimer: I do not own Don, (Oh, how I wish I did!) Charlie, Amita, Alan, Larry, or any of the Numb3rs' characters. I am not employed by the creators of the show, (who are amazingly talented and wonderful people), nor have they given me permission to use these characters as I have. No one is paying me to do this (although if they asked I certainly would!) and if you are seized with the odd notion to send me money and gifts for this, please don't. Numb3rs and all it's characters are owned by Paramount Studios, CBS Broadcasting Inc., the Amazing Cheryl Heuton, and the Brilliant Nick Falacci and are being used here without their permission. If you have any complaints about this story, please don't send hate mail or pretzel bombs to them, direct it all to me.
What Dreams May Come
Don stood looking at the door in front of him, then down at the keys in his hand. It was absurd he knew, to be standing in the hallway, feeling more like he was being exiled than coming home, but he could not deny the emptiness that was welling up inside him. He took a breath, pushing these thoughts down. Now he was just being silly. It had been a long, draining night and he knew that the best thing for him was sleep. He paused in the act of placing the key in the lock, feeling his body trembling with fatigue and disturbingly, something more. He felt the comforting weigh of his coat on his other arm, then he sighed, pushing aside his indecision and shoving the key into the lock with more force than was really necessary.
He stepped into his apartment, automatically hanging his coat on the hook without even realizing he'd done it. He was in the act of tossing his keys onto the coffee table when a wave of emptiness hit him again, causing him to convulsively clench his hand, gasping as the cold metal dug into his fingers. Opening his hand, Don looked at the faint red lines tracing across his fingers and he blinked, realizing that some part of him actually welcomed the physical pain that gave him a moment's respite from his mental anguish. He was somewhat alarmed that his mind was moving so slowly and in such odd veins, but he was too emotionally washed out to summon up any real worry. Deliberately, he forced himself to set the keys on the table and he sat down on his couch.
Only then did Don notice that he was still sitting in the dark. Since this was an apartment, light came dimly in the windows, leaving the room in a sort of half-light, but the lights of his own residence were still off. He thought briefly of getting up to turn one on, but decided against it. What he really needed was a hot shower and some sleep, but the effort of getting off the couch was just too much and Don leaned back on the couch closing his eyes.
Images began to flash through his brain, dark pictures from earlier in his night. Dark trees, a cold pail moon, the empty, anguished face of a broken hearted mother. Don abruptly stood up, pulling in a harsh breath. Maybe a shower wasn't such a bad idea. He turned towards his bedroom, then suddenly changed direction, picking up his keys and stepping back into the hall.
He stood, leaning against his door, breathing hard and berating himself for behaving so childishly. He was turning to go back into the apartment when he realized what was really wrong. Yes, he was tired, but that wasn't why he was really standing out in his hallway at midnight, staring at his door. Going into his apartment meant a night alone with his thoughts. His whole body began to tremble as those thoughts threatened to make their way past the barriers he had so carefully erected. No…no he definitely did not want to be alone with those thoughts. But what alternative was there really?
Don frowned, mentally reprimanding himself for his weakness. He stood for a moment more thinking that if he didn't go back inside, he would be relegated to standing out in the hall of his apartment building for the rest of his life. The thought was almost funny, but the humor was overshadowed by his exhaustion and his need for sleep. Once more, he reached for the doorknob and once more, his mind screamed at him that spending the night alone was a bad idea.
Surely there were other choices. If he didn't go into his apartment, where could he go?
He could go to Charlie's house. He knew his father and Charlie would let him in with relatively few questions. But it was just after midnight and both of them were asleep. It wouldn't be fair to them to wake them up and make them have to deal with him like this.
There was always Terry's place. She most likely wouldn't be asleep either after the night that they had suffered through, but she had looked almost as shell-shocked as Don felt when he had last seen her and he just couldn't bring himself to intrude on her.
He furrowed his brow as he thought. Surely there were more people he could turn to. He felt his shoulders slump as he realized that there really weren't. Don kept to himself as a rule and that left him with few close friends in his life. He wasn't really an anti-social person, but a lifetime of keeping his emotions to himself had left him with few people that he felt he could really open up to. He just didn't go out of his way to get to know people or to let people know him. Besides, he hated to make other people deal with his problems. It was after all, his job to fix everyone else's problems.
And so, here he was, standing in the hall outside his apartment in the middle of the night, alone and hurting, with nowhere to go. He supposed all that was left was to open the door and go in to bed. But he just could not do it. The emptiness of his apartment and his life was worse than this mind-numbing exhaustion and he finally admitted to himself that he could not face a night alone.
He turned away from the door and slowly walked away into the darkness. He really wasn't aware of how long he'd been walking, or even where he was going. He just knew that if he stopped, the thoughts would overtake him and he would be lost.
Don knew that most of his problem at the moment was that he'd had minimal sleep for the last 4 days, no more than naps really. But he just could not walk away from this case, could not shut it out for sleep. He'd had cases that had gotten to him before, but not like this one. For some reason, this case had gotten under his skin in more ways than one and it even invaded his dreams when he did sleep.
Maybe it was because it involved a child. More likely, if Don was completely honest with himself, it was because the little girl's name was Margaret, the same as his mother's. Something about that made this seem more personal than it should have. Whatever the cause this case had really gotten into his head and had spurred him to work harder than was good for him. And then, after all that work…he really hated to think about that.
Don liked to think that he was a true professional as FBI agents went. He had seen the worst that humanity had to offer and he was always able to turn off his emotions and face it without the mental scars that could be a hazard of the job. But this time…this time it had affected him deeply and he really had no idea why. This time he could not turn off his battered emotions and he could not get the little girl's face out of his mind.
He took a deep breath of the night air, hoping to clear his mind and sooth his soul, but it really didn't help. His head was throbbing, a nagging pain behind his forehead, and his eyes were burning badly. He felt battered, bruised and exhausted, but mostly he felt a sadness welling up inside him that he could not block out and that disturbed him more than any of his physical ailments.
What he really wanted was to go home. Not to his empty apartment, but really, truly home. He wanted to collapse on the couch in the living room and to have his family make everything better. But he knew that was just a wish. He could never do that to his brother and father, never let them see the true horrors that were the everyday reality of his life. He could never let them see him like this, weak and empty, alone and afraid. He was the oldest son, the big brother, the rock for this family. They needed him to be the protector and unfair or not, he could not falter, could never let them see this vulnerability or they might feel they could not depend on him. And no matter how much of his sanity it cost him, he would never let them down.
All the while he had been thinking, he had been walking, rarely looking up, never consciously going any particular place. Now he stopped, standing on the sidewalk, looking up into the night. There really was nowhere for him, no refuge from his torment. As much as he hated to admit that, he embraced the thought, knowing it was true. If only…but there were no if onlys for Don. He knew he had done this to himself and if he were honest, he knew that he did not deserve salvation.
He sighed, looking at where he was. He had followed the path of least resistance, walking down hill from his apartment building. He was in a neighborhood of shops, long since closed and the occasional all night market. He turned, looking at the mostly empty road, noting how few cars were out at this time of night. He was wondering where to go next when he noticed a car driving more slowly than the rest, pulling up to the curb a few feet from him. Someone got out, walking the opposite direction towards an all night convenience store.
The FBI agent in him was immediately suspicious until he noticed the lighted sign on top of the car that said, "TAXI." On an impulse, he flagged the cab down. He tried very hard not to think anymore as he got into the back of the car and gave the driver an address.
Charlie put his fingers to his temples, lightly rubbing at the slight ache behind his eyes. He'd spent the last six hours grading tests and his eyes were starting to get tired. He could have let Amita do this, but he liked to get a feel for how well his students were learning. He knew it took him longer than it took most teachers to grade tests, but Charlie liked to make notes in the margins; a lot of notes in the margins. But this way he felt he was really communicating with his students.
Charlie picked up the next test from his pile, preparing to grade it, when he heard a car pull into the driveway. A car? At this hour? It had to be someone just turning around in the driveway. Charlie put the test down and got up to look out the window.
He blinked as he saw a large vehicle stopped in the driveway with someone getting out of the back. He watched in bewilderment as he saw the person lean in the window of the car, talking to the driver. He knew he should be worried at an intrusion at this time of night, but his curiosity won out over his concern and he just observed. After another moment, the two people finished their conversation and the car backed out and pulled away into the night.
The person that was left, just stood in the driveway, looking at the house, but not moving. Charlie's brow furrowed as he tried to figure out what was going on. Who would be out there in the middle of the night? He was about to go switch on the porch light, when the figure turned, the moon illuminating its face. Charlie couldn't contain a gasp when he realized that it was Don standing alone in the night. Without even thinking about it, Charlie went out to join his brother.
"Don," Charlie called out as he crossed the driveway.
Don didn't move, didn't even seem to notice that Charlie was there. Charlie was about to ask him what he was doing here when he got a better look at him. Don was normally immaculate. His hair was FBI short and always kept combed. On the whole, he dressed better than Charlie, wearing button up shirts and ties to work. Slowly, Charlie began to take everything in, noting how shocking Don's appearance actually was. His hair was a messed up, and if Charlie looked closely, he could see dirt and bits of grass hiding in it. His shirt, at one time light blue, was several shades of brown and green. It was torn in three or four places and with a start, Charlie realized Don had a small dark spot that could only be dried blood on it.
He looked up into Don's face, his heart skipping a beat with alarm. Don had dirt streaked across one of his cheeks, but it was his eyes that caused Charlie's breath to catch in his throat, those empty, dead eyes.
"Good Lord, Don! What happened?"
At first he still seemed oblivious to Charlie's presence, standing rigidly in front of him. Then Charlie noticed a slight tremor, realizing that Don was trembling. Don frowned, running a hand through his hair.
"You know," he said distantly. "This wasn't a good idea. I…I think I'll call a cab and go back to my apartment."
"A cab…what are you talking about? What happened?"
"I…I'm sorry," Don replied, his head bowed. "I didn't mean to bother you. I'll leave."
Charlie reached out and took hold of his brother's arm, gently pulling him towards the house.
"Come on, we're going inside. It's too late and too dark to be out here."
Don gave a light resistance, but when Charlie stepped closer and put an arm around him, he gave in and allowed himself to be led into the house.
Once in the living room, Charlie locked the front door, then turned to see Don standing right where Charlie had left him, that same empty look in his eyes. There was something disconcerting about the way Don was acting. Charlie tried not to be afraid, but the totally empty look on Don's face was chilling and Charlie realized that Don appeared to be moving on autopilot, not seeming to care where he was or what he was doing. Now, looking at his dead, soulless eyes, Charlie shuddered. Something had happened to his brother, something so unthinkable. Charlie couldn't even begin to imagine what could do this to someone as strong as Don.
Charlie walked over to Don and gently led him to the couch, feeling his breath catch when he had to take the next step and lightly push on Don's shoulder to induce him to sit. Panic was working its way through Charlie as he looked at his brother. He had never seen Don show even the slightest vulnerability in all the time he could remember. Even when their mother died, Don had been the strength the family had needed. Charlie had never even seen him cry. Now he seemed to be slipping further away with each passing minute and Charlie knew he had to do something.
He really did not want to wake up his father. If Dad worried when Don and Charlie went to crime scenes, what was this going to do to him? But Charlie was smart enough to know that this was beyond him and that he needed his father's help. Not wanting to leave Don alone, even for the time it took to wake their father, Charlie went to the bottom of the stairs.
"Dad!" He yelled at the top of his lungs, hoping to get his father's attention. He was greeted with silence.
Don remained quiet, sitting on the couch starring into nothingness but there was a small stirring in the deadness of his eyes.
Don had tried to remove himself from this evening. To his memory, the whole night had been relegated to a blur, a flash of random images that held no real meaning. He remembered standing outside of his apartment, but not much about going inside. There was some sort of incident with a cab. He vaguely remembered getting into it but not requesting any particular destination, although he must have, because he was here. And that was everything his mind would tell him right up to this point.
Now his senses seemed to be slowly checking in with him, telling him what was going on outside of him. He was sitting. His peripheral vision told him that it was a couch he was sitting on. He felt his body start to relax as the familiar sounds and smells of his father's house soothed him. He could hear the clock on the mantle ticking, sounding almost like the beating of a tiny heart, could hear the sound of the humidifier in his father's room running, a low hum that echoed through the walls, he could in fact hear the distant snore of his father, sleeping peacefully in his room. He could smell the sharp odor of his father's favorite pine cleaner. He'd never understood why it was called, "pine" as no tree in history had ever smelled that way. He could smell the fabric softener his father used to wash the couch slipcovers and somewhere in the background was the musty smell of the birdcage.
As he became more aware of what was around him, he heard a voice, recognizing it as Charlie's. His brow furrowed as a fragment of memory flashed through his mind. He had been standing in the driveway of his father's house and Charlie had come out to him. He was sure he had said something to his brother, but he couldn't remember what it was. Somehow it really didn't seem important anyway, although he couldn't shake the feeling that something significant had happened, some kind of acceptance. Suddenly an image came to his mind, Charlie putting his arm around Don and leading him into the house. For some reason this brought a momentary rush of peace before the despair engulfed him again.
"Dad!" Charlie's voice cut into Don's musings. There was a note of urgent panic to it and Don knew that it had something to do with himself. "Dad! I need you now!"
"Charlie," Don said quietly, surprised at how weak his voice sounded. "You shouldn't yell in the house. You know how mom felt about yelling in the house."
Charlie had initially felt a rush of relief to even hear his brother's voice, but Don sounded vague and disconnected, and that served to heighten Charlie's panic.
"Don?" Charlie was trying to ascertain his brother's state of mind, to see if he felt comfortable leaving Don alone to go wake up their father.
"I'm here, Charlie," his voice held that same distracted quality that was unnerving Charlie.
"Don, I'm here, but I need to go upstairs for a minute."
"Why?" There was something so cold and unfocused about Don's voice. Charlie shivered.
"I have to go get Dad."
"Dad is here." Alan Eppes' voice sounded strong and stable. Charlie felt a rush of relief. "Now would my sons like to tell me what all the yelling is about?"
Alan stood at the top of the stairs, taking in the scene below him. His oldest son was curled up in ball on the couch, looking like he'd been on the losing end of a fight. Charlie was standing at the foot of the stairs with a look of sheer panic on his face. Alan came the rest of the way down, crossing to the couch.
"Donnie, what is all this?" It was only after Alan had asked the question that he actually looked into the face of his oldest son, feeling his heart skip. Raw pain and panic were etched into his every feature. "Oh, Donnie. What happened?"
Alan gently moved to sit next to his son, gathering him in his arms like he had when Don was a small child. Charlie crossed over and sat down on Don's other side, moving to wrap his arms around his brother, laying his head on Don's shoulder.
At first, Don held his body rigid against them, seeming not to know what to do with such intimate contact of a strictly asexual nature. Don was not a tactile person. In fact he seemed to go out of his way not to display what might be perceived as a weakness of any kind. But Charlie and Alan knew that at this moment in time, he needed to be touched, needed to be held almost as much as he needed to breathe.
"Now," Alan said gently, "Tell us what happened."
"What is there to tell?" Don asked in a dead voice.
"Oh, how about why you are here at midnight. Or why you look like you lost a fight with a bush."
"Maybe I should just leave." Don's voice was starting to sound even more detached. "I didn't want to bother you."
"Listen to me," Alan reached out and turned Don's face so that he could look into his son's eyes. He was startled by the emptiness he saw there and continued in a gentler tone of voice. "Listen to me, Donnie. You have never been a bother to your brother or me and you never will be. Do you understand me?"
Don blinked and slowly nodded.
"Good. Now, talk to us. Why don't you start with why you came here?"
"I…" Don's brow furrowed, his expression still abstracted. "I'm not sure."
Alan tried to calm the disquiet that ran through him. This behavior was so far removed from Don's normal behavior that it worried him.
"Okay," Alan said, keeping his voice even. "Why don't you start with where you were before you came here."
"The street," Don sounded slightly confused. "I was walking along the street."
"That's a start," Alan said to no one in particular. "So you were in the street?"
"No, I was walking along a street. It had shops on it. That was after I was at my apartment."
"What about before your apartment?" Charlie interjected gently.
"I…was at work."
"I…eleven I think."
"Why were you working so late?" Charlie looked concerned. "And how did you get that blood on you?"
Don looked down at his shirt, feeling his carefully constructed mental walls starting to crumble. The blood…the dirt…the little girl's face. No! He couldn't. Not again…
He clenched his jaw, attempting to hold in the panic that threatened to eat him alive. His breath started coming in small pants through his nose, his eyes widening, then squeezing shut. He tried to calm himself, but it was no use as the images from earlier in the night assaulted him. His eyes flew open and his breath came faster, becoming more labored.
"No," Don spoke just above a whisper, forcing the word out through clenched jaws. "No, no, no, no, no."
The words were spoken softly, repeated like a mantra or a prayer, continuing until all the air was exhausted from his lungs. Don drew in a ragged breath, gasping and pulling himself into a fetal position.
Charlie jumped in to help, hoping to stop him from retreating into that empty place in his head.
"Don!" Charlie wrapped his arms around his brother, holding him close, wanting him to know he was there for him. "Don, Please, calm down," Charlie said, trying to keep the raw panic out of his voice. "Don, Please…"
Charlie pulled back to look at his brother, looking into his eyes. They were no longer empty. In fact he was overwhelmed by the anguish he saw in them. He had never experienced such raw, deep, suffering before in his life.
Don blinked, trying to put his mental wall back up and his lower lip began to tremble slightly. Don looked in Charlie's eyes, his expression half distress and half apathy; the dichotomy was slightly unnerving to Charlie. With a sigh, Don turned away again.
Don tried to draw back into his head. It was dark and quiet in there and he didn't have to face what had happened tonight. But try as he might, there was a sound that pulled him back. At first he wasn't sure what it was, but then, nostalgia took him along and he relaxed into hearing words spoken in Hebrew by his father.
Some of Don's earliest memories were of his father's soothing voice reciting texts in Hebrew. Whenever Don had nightmares as a child, his father would climb into bed with him and he would drift back to sleep, feeling the rumbling of his father's voice, hearing the gentle words in Hebrew, knowing he was safe and loved. The same feelings swept over him now, calming the turmoil in his soul. Idly, Don's mind translated the words, drawing on the few scant summers of Hebrew school that he and Charlie had been required to attend as children.
"Son of my heart. Child born of love. Your pain is my pain. Your joy, my joy. With all I have, with all I am, I promise you I will be there for you. I will share with you the joy you bring to me."
Don knew that it was from a religious book of some sort, but he just didn't feel up to the effort of figuring out where it was from. It didn't really matter. The sound of the words and the sentiments were calming, bringing him a moment of peace. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes. He hadn't realized how completely surrounded he was, noting now that he was being held from almost every side. His first instinct was to pull away, but Don pushed that thought down and leaned closer to the people holding him, reveling in feeling so loved. It was only peripherally that he realized his father had stopped speaking.
"Don?" Charlie whispered, still clinging desperately to his brother.
"I'm here, Charlie," It was spoken in as much of a whisper as Charlie had used. It took a great effort for Don to speak.
"Don, what happened?" Don could hear that Charlie was almost afraid to ask this question, fearing to send Don off into his head again.
Don took a deep breath, then reached out, touching both his father and brother. He took comfort from their nearness, from knowing they cared about him. He knew he'd have to face this, have to deal with the anguish it caused, so he drew in another breath and brought down his mental barriers.
"For the last few days at work, we've been handling a kidnapping case; a four year old little girl taken from her bedroom."
"I remember you saying something about that." Charlie responded, shifting closer to Don.
"It came to an end tonight. I was looking at the ransom note and the surveillance tapes and it finally hit me what I was seeing. It all fell into place and I knew, I mean really knew, where this guy was with the girl. We packed everyone up and headed out. This must have been about nine o'clock at night. We went to this abandoned trailer in a muddy field. I can still feel the cold wetness of the grass seeping into my skin as we practically crawled up to the trailer."
Don shivered, settling further into his father's embrace. Once more, Charlie adjusted himself to be able to keep a tight hold on Don, wanting him to know that he was there for his brother.
"A team surrounded the trailer, securing it. I was the point man, leading all these men to the door. We broke the door down, only to find that he wasn't there. Our team fanned out and found a trail that lead away from the trailer. He had escaped out a window into the field behind the trailer. The trail looked pretty recent, so I took David and we took off after him. I could hear everyone else behind us, but we didn't slow down. I wanted to catch this guy, although I'm guessing he had a pretty good head start. The field sloped down, turning into a hill. I lost my footing going down the hill. I tripped over something and fell. When I picked myself up, I saw what I'd tripped over and I thought I was going to faint."
Don had started to tremble again and he wasn't sure he could continue. His father held him tighter, gently kissing the top of his head. Charlie moved to free his hand and began to rub Don's back, keeping his head on his brother's shoulder. Taking strength from their touches, Don returned to his story.
"I guess he'd decided he didn't need his hostage anymore because he'd left her body on the ground like so much garbage. He'd tied her up and tortured her, cutting her in dozens of places. He'd beaten her, he'd stripped her clothes off, then he'd wrapped a plastic bag around her head and suffocated her. She was dirty, bloody, and naked. Then, as he was leaving he just threw her on the ground and left her there to rot. This poor little four-year-old girl…that was what I'd tripped over. I don't even remember moving, but suddenly I was holding her body, looking at those dead, frightened eyes behind the plastic bag, and nothing else had any meaning. David and I took her back to the trailer. But that wasn't the worst of it. Her parents were there. I don't know who called them, but they were waiting when I got back. I'll never get over the look on her mother's face when she had to see her little girl like that. I let them down…I let that little girl down. Now every time I close my eyes, I see her face. And for some reason I just can't get it out of my mind that her name was Margaret, just like Mom's."
"Oh Don," Charlie said. "You didn't let anyone down. You did the best you could."
"If I did my best, then how come an innocent little girl is dead? Why didn't I see the clues sooner? Why didn't I stop it?"
He felt his sorrow overwhelm him again, but this time he gave into it, feeling his body begin to shake with sobs. Charlie stopped rubbing his back and moved himself closer, holding Don all the tighter. Alan wrapped his arms tighter around his suffering son, wishing he could take away Don's pain.
For Don, the moment was both terrifying and cleansing. He had sworn when he moved back home that he would never let his family down, that he would never be weak for them. Throughout his mother's illness he had been the rock for the family, keeping life moving as close to normal as he could, being the emotional support for Alan and Charlie. When his mother died, he had curled up on his bed and cried for three hours, great soul wrenching sobs that had hurt his throat. But he never shed a tear in front of Alan and Charlie. He had made the funeral arrangements, he had dealt with the relatives, he had been there for his father when his father had broken down. And through it all, he had been the strong solid hero of the Eppes family. He had never shown weakness and had been sure he never would.
Yet here he was, breaking down on a couch in his father's living room. The odd part for Don was how well his family was taking it. The world did not come to a screeching halt because Don Eppes had let his defenses down. Charlie and their father were not wringing their hands in worry because Don needed to be human. They were in fact, taking care of him as he had always tried to take care of them.
In an odd flash of memory, Don heard his mother's voice ghosting in his head.
"Isn't that what family does, Donnie? We love each other and we take care of each other."
Don had been twelve at the time and he had been failing algebra. While he loved Charlie, some part of him had always resented the fact that math had come so easily to his brother. If he was honest, he also resented all the attention Charlie got from their parents and he hated the fact that Charlie was quickly skipping grades in school and might soon end up in the same class as Don. It just hadn't seemed fair. Why did Charlie have to intrude on everything?
Don hated to admit it, even now, 24 years later, but he had deliberately ignored Charlie that year. He could have been nice to him and made school easier for him, but he had been so resentful that he's just pretended that Charlie didn't exist. Then had come that fateful day in late November, when Don had come home from school with a note from his math teacher, telling his parents that he was getting an F in algebra. He had been trying to get enough courage together to go face his father when Charlie had walked in.
"What are you doing?" The question was an innocent one, a brother who honestly wanted to be a part of his hero's world.
"Why do you care?" Even with 24 years of time past, Don cringed at how harsh his voice had sounded.
Charlie just looked at the floor and Don had felt pretty bad about it.
"I'm just," Don started. "I…I have to tell Mom and Dad I'm failing math."
Charlie had looked up, his brow furrowing.
Don merely nodded.
"I can…I mean if you want me to…I could help you."
It was an offer made out of brotherly love and it had left Don speechless. Later, when he was talking to his mother about it, she had just smiled.
"What did you expect?" She'd asked.
"But I haven't been the nicest brother to him."
"Do you think that matters to Charlie? You are his brother and he loves you. And because of that love, he wants to help you. Isn't that what family does, Donnie? We love each other and we take care of each other."
Don blinked away the tears and the memories, looking at his brother and father, feeling a great love for them.
Don took a deep breath, struggling to relax, but unbidden to his mind came the image of the little girl's face and his whole body began to tremble again. Why hadn't he been able to save her? Why hadn't he been smart enough to figure it out sooner? Why had he failed?
"Why?" Don didn't even notice he was now talking out loud. "Why couldn't I save her? Why did I let her die?"
"Don," Charlie said, his hand on his brother's shoulder. "You did the best you could."
"But my best wasn't good enough and a little girl died." Don's voice was a whisper.
"I think you are taking this too personally," Alan interjected, holding his son tightly. "You are letting it crush you. You did your best. What else is there?"
"Somehow I think I'm going to be asking myself that for the rest of my life."
Charlie had been sitting, looking at his brother, watching the pain and self-loathing take up residence on Don's face. It wasn't right and it wasn't fair. Why did Don hold himself to a standard that he would never expect of anyone else? In some ways it irritated Charlie.
Don looked over to see a frown on Charlie's face.
"What?" Don asked.
"Hmm? Oh, nothing."
"No, tell me."
"It's just…Why are you beating yourself up over this?"
"Charlie, a little girl is dead! Don't you get that?"
"Of course I do, but what can you do about it?"
"I should be able to do something," Don snapped at him.
"Fine." Charlie's reply was equally terse and clipped. "Go save her."
"I can't. She's dead because I screwed up."
"Then just go back and fix the screw up."
"Charlie, that is impossible!"
"Larry might argue with you on that, but I won't. So tell me this. If you can't go back and save the girl, then why are you acting like you can?" Charlie's tone had lost its irritation and had turned gentle. "The only one you are hurting is yourself."
Don sighed. He wished it could be that simple. Why couldn't he just accept that there was nothing he could do and move on? Why was it whenever he closed his eyes, the only thing he could see was the little girl's face? He put fingers to the sides of his head and began to rub his temples.
Alan shifted so he could face his son while still keeping a hand on Don's shoulder.
"Donnie, I know this hurts. And I know that it will continue to hurt for a while. Just remember that you are not in this alone. We are your family and we love you."
Don found himself blinking away tears. It was strange to him, feeling such deep pain, yet feeling equally deep love.
Sitting, surrounded by his family, the people he loved the most and who in turned loved him, Don tried to get in the spirit of the moment, to feel some measure of peace, but he couldn't. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard.
Charlie took to rubbing his back once more. Alan on the other hand, just sat close to him, looking at his oldest son. After a moment, Don opened his eyes and looked at his father.
"What is it, Dad?" His voice sounded tired and hurt.
"I was just thinking how proud I am of you."
Don blinked, then looked at his father with wide eyes.
"Proud? You are proud of me because I failed?"
"No. I'm proud of you because you can feel. I know you want to curl up and die right now, but do you realize that because you feel so bad about this…well, it makes me see just what an amazing and compassionate son I've raised. Thank you for making me feel so lucky."
Don's lips began to tremble again. He fought to keep from crying. He was just too tired to get on that roller coaster again.
Alan reached out and touched Don's face.
"I'm sorry you hurt so much. We both are. But remember, we are here. If you are hurting, we hurt. If you need us, we are here. I think maybe you should move into your old room for a few days."
Don looked at his father questioningly.
"Well, this way your family is always close, day or night if you need us. It's okay to hurt, Don. You saw a child who had been killed. You should hurt. But just because you hurt doesn't mean you have to be alone. Let us help you."
Don looked from his father to Charlie. He was feeling something that wasn't the soul stealing pain he'd had all night. He frowned as he tried to figure out what it was. And then suddenly it all made sense.
Don yawned, his nose crinkling slightly.
"I think I'll go up to bed if you don't mind."
"Are you sure?" Alan asked.
Don nodded, yawning again.
"Well, maybe not better. But I know it will be all right. I may not feel better, but I do feel loved."
Charlie smiled at him.
"If you need me, I'm just down the hall. Are you sure you don't want me to sleep in your room tonight?"
"Thank you, Charlie, but I think I'll be all right. I'll come get you if I need you."
Don blinked, then looked at his brother. He could see worry in Charlie's every move, but he could also see love. Some instinct had brought him here, to his family's house when he consciously would not have chosen to bother them. But he was pleased he had come here. He was pleased to be with his family, with his brother.
"I promise, Charlie," And Don meant it. "Thank you."
"Anything for you," Charlie rose from the couch, touching his brother's shoulder, then leaning down, he pulled Don into a hug. "I hope you sleep well."
"I'll try, Charlie," As Charlie started up the stairs, Don called him back. "Hey Charlie?"
"I…I love you."
There was a moment of silence. While Charlie knew his brother loved him it was rare that Don ever said it out loud. Charlie smiled.
"I love you too. Good night," With that, Charlie went up to bed.
Alan rose from the couch and walked up the stairs with Don, not saying anything, just enjoying his son's presence. He walked him to his room, then on impulse, he followed him in.
Don turned and looked at his father.
"Going to tuck me in?"
"Why not?" Alan smiled, sitting on the edge of Don's bed while Don undressed.
Don climbed into bed, then snuggled under the covers, closing his eyes and letting exhaustion start pulling him towards sleep. It wasn't completely better, but it was a start. Then, as he felt his body relax, he heard something that made him smile.
"Son of my heart. Child born of love. Your pain is my pain. Your joy, my joy…"
He could feel the soft rumble of his father's voice and between one word and the next, Don drifted off into a dreamless sleep.