A/N: I apologize for the hideously long delay. I was taken ill - I assume it was karmic retribution for all the lousy things I did to Don in this story. :)
Thank you to everyone who read along and let me know. I have no words to tell you what your friendship and encouragement have meant to me.
PS - this section is very long, but it had to be kept in one piece.
He awoke more slowly this time, the dream world seeping seamlessly into the waking one, the details fading away, even before he managed to open his eyes. But his heart wasn't racing and his hands weren't cold, and the familiar lung-squeezing sense of urgency seemed to be absent. He lay still for a moment, chasing ghosts of images, but they were already gone. The only thing he knew with gut certainty was that this time, Twilliger had not made a guest appearance.
It was a first.
He managed to pry back his lids, blinking at the sunlight streaming in through the windows. Early afternoon, he gauged from the angle. He rubbed an arm across his eyes, then let it rest there, dimming the light. He'd been asleep for hours, then. Despite his arguments about the couch.
He had made what he privately referred to as his "prison break" the day before - back to Charlie's house, back to the sofa. He had been looking forward to being able to spread out in a decent-sized bed again, one with no side rails, so that particular development had come as a disappointment. But his father, consulting a sheaf of photocopied papers from the doctor as devoutly as though they were the original tablets of the ten commandments, had insisted firmly that he was forbidden stairs until his stitches came out.
"See here? Stitches in the abdomen and with your leg - no stairs for at least a week. Don't worry - we'll make the couch nice and comfortable for you." Alan had been painstakingly posting the medication schedule on the refrigerator as he spoke, so there seemed little hope of convincing him that these instructions, now that they were free of the hospital, could be more practically interpreted as "suggestions".
Instead he'd pointed out that his apartment building had an elevator that went directly to his floor - and a king sized bed.
"Yes, I know - " Alan did duty as a human crutch, steering him toward the living room and the offending sofa. "But it doesn't have any room for anyone to stay with you, and you can't be alone. You need care."
He had collapsed on the sofa with some relief despite the tough talk - the ride home had been surprisingly tiring. He blamed tiredness for his next move, because he had foolishly mentioned that Home Care nurses could fill that role very well.
"Don't be ridiculous," Alan found him a pillow and threw a ratty old afghan that his mother had been particularly fond of over him, even though, he reflected with some exasperation, it must be at least seventy degrees out. "You have family. Why would you hire someone when you have family to take care of you?"
"My insurance covers it," Don had argued with what he felt was surpassing reasonableness. "And come on, you guys have disrupted your lives enough for this."
Alan had stopped and stared at him, his gaze so stern that for one wild, déjà vu-like moment, Don was certain that he was about to be grounded. With no allowance. Or television privileges.
When Alan finally spoke, his voice was low, but hard and firm. "You are not - " he said quietly, "a disruption in my life. Not now, not ever. You understand me?"
Yes, sir. He had been so taken aback that he only nodded. A little cowed, he had stayed quietly on the sofa for the rest of the morning, meekly taking his medication without a murmur, until Alan, somewhat alarmed,was convinced that the fever must have returned, and insisted on taking his temperature.
Don grinned at the memory. Well, the sofa was pretty comfortable, as sofas went, even if it was narrow, and it had an added bonus in that the one arm was just about the right height for elevating his bad leg. And there were windows. At least he could see outside. Even better, maybe he'd be able to talk somebody into letting him go outside. Or, if they'd all just go away for a while, he could take his leg out for a trial spin.
He glanced at his right hand, now free of any bandages. It was covered with scabs, as if he'd taken a hard slide into home plate, but it functioned pretty well. He fingered the afghan his father had draped over him, pleating the edges between his knuckles. The "sick" afghan - he couldn't believe they still had it - didn't anybody in this family ever throw anything away? His mother had tucked it around him or Charlie whenever they'd been ill - when he'd been recovering from the mumps and was finally allowed to move from his bed to the couch, that time he'd dislocated his shoulder playing ball, and after he'd taken that header from his bike trying to take a hill too fast. It was too hot for the darned thing, really…but somehow, he didn't remove it.
The doorbell rang and he eyed the door speculatively.
"I'll get it!" Alan's voice sounded from back in the kitchen.
Right. He folded one arm under his head and waited. The bell rang again. "You know, I could - "
"I said I'll get it! Don't move!" Alan appeared through the swinging door to the kitchen, drying his hands on a towel as he went. "Stay there," he added for good measure.
Right. Cause I might fly into fifty thousand pieces if I sit up by myself or something. He closed his eyes and half-listened to his father's mumbled conversation at the door, then to the decisive click as the door shut.
"It's for you."
"For me?" he opened one eye curiously, saw his father brandishing a large, paper wrapped cone.
"Well, it says 'Don Eppes'." Alan frowned suddenly. "Actually, it says, 'Special Agent Don Eppes'. I'm not supposed to soak this in the sink or something before you open it, am I?"
"Naw, of course not - don't be ridiculous…" Don tried to lever himself into a more upright position, cursing what used to be reliable abdominal muscles. He took the paper cone from his father and let him help in boosting him up, frowned suddenly. "Why don't you - stand over there in the dining room though - just in case." The look Alan gave him had him throwing up a hand in protest. "Hey, I was joking - it was a joke!" Mostly.
"It was hilarious," Alan assured him dryly. "It's time for your medication. Can I get you anything else from the kitchen?"
Don was peeling back the paper, but shot him a sideways glance as he suggested innocently, "A Rolling Rock?"
Alan smiled. "A coke it is."
Don made a face at his retreating back. Everybody's a comedian.
The discarded paper revealed a plant with thin, pale green leaves in a quietly elegant, hammered silver pot. Interesting. Something more permanent than flowers.
Not that there hadn't been plenty of those, the room was practically a greenhouse now - and cards - including comical ones almost daily from his team, all tattling on each other's apocryphal antics; and even one from LAPD's Jefferies, signed, of all things, by his cats. Don grinned. Turned out David had canvassed the floors of the FBI for PetWorld coupons and had buried the guy in such a supply of kitty litter that he was thinking of renting a storage compartment to house it. Or so they said. He wasn't sure he believed half of what they were telling him, but they sure kept him laughing.
Don studied the plant thoughtfully, then put it aside to look at the card - a real card, not one of those tiny ones from the florist's shop. He thumbed open the envelope and read the contents.
"Who's it from?"
Don glanced up as his father returned, setting a glass of soda on a coaster within his easy reach. "Nadine Hodges. The prosecutor. You remember Nadine?"
He saw Alan's brows lift appreciatively. "Nadine would be hard to forget. A plant, hm? She think your apartment needs a little brightening?"
Don resisted the urge to roll his eyes. My dad. All the subtlety of a sledge hammer. "She hasn't seen my apartment - just so you don't have to hurt yourself wondering. She just thought it would be nice, and she says it's low maintenance." Actually, what she had said was, Dear Special Agent Mr. Don Eppes, This plant looked like it could use a good home. It thrives on very little care and is almost impossible to kill - just like a certain G-Man I know. Get better soon. And call me - we have a lot to talk about. Take care of the plant, take care of yourself. Nadine.
He smiled. His father didn't need all the details. He was almost smacking his lips as it was.
He studied the slender fronds curiously. "What is it, anyway? Do you know?"
Alan peered at the plant over his glasses. "It looks like a Wandering Jew," he decided, returning to his paper.
Don felt a smile grow from deep inside. "No kidding?" he brushed a finger along one of the spiky green leaves. Gotta love a girl with a sense of humor.
Nadine had stopped by one of his last days in the hospital. She had smiled to see him sitting up and alert, but had confessed that she sort of missed drugged-up, loose-lipped Don Eppes.
He had snorted. "Yeah, right - just what the FBI loves. Why do you think we get private rooms?"
She'd smiled. "I assumed it was to make space for your adoring public."
Don laughed. "Yeah, that's definitely the other reason. What brings you here?"
"Besides the obvious? I wanted to let you know that Counsel has filed for a change of venue."
"Oh." Don frowned. "Think they'll get it?"
Nadine sighed. "Possible. Either way, I have to say, I don't see him getting anything less than the death penalty. Between the work you guys did and his hours of confession detailing everything, including three victims we knew nothing about - I don't think there's a jury in the country that will hold back on it."
Don nodded. "Good."
"Still." She'd hesitated and he'd looked at her more closely.
"It's just - I'm sure you realize - " she placed one hand comfortingly over his. "You know the sentence of 'death penalty' doesn't necessarily mean the death penalty, especially in California? It means years on death row, probably countless delays and appeals - odds are, he's as likely to die of old age as he is of a lethal injection."
Don had turned that over in his mind. "I know."
"Think you can live with that?"
He shrugged. "What, him grinding his life away in a maximum security lockup, surrounded by hostile, violent felons with way too much time on their hands and no way to relieve their frustrations? It couldn't happen to a nicer guy."
She had smiled then, that sweet smile that curled deep into one corner of her mouth, and he'd been tempted to lean forward and kiss it - had only stopped himself with the reminder that leaning forward was still a pretty dicey proposition these days and that nothing ruined the mood like falling flat on your face on the linoleum. So instead he'd blurted, "You know, the most important woman in my life was a lawyer." She'd arched her brows at him and he'd continued, with a slightly sheepish shrug. "My mother."
"Oh." The smile deepened and she'd swayed a little toward him. "So, you see me as a mother figure."
Her eyes twinkled, and Don smiled back, musing that he'd risked worse things in his day than a lousy tumble to the floor. And what the heck. Some things are worth the risk. So he'd got a firm grip on the bed rail, gingerly shifting forward. As his lips successfully brushed hers he murmured, "Not even close."
He smiled at the memory, turning the card over in his hands. He'd have to get some of those Egyptian cotton sheets. Once he got home, of course. If Charlie or his dad got wind of it, he'd never hear the end of it. He caught a glimpse of his father watching him with a satisfied smile on his face, and bristled slightly. "What?"
"Hm?" Alan innocently shook out his paper. "Nothing. Just - thinking."
"We're just colleagues."
Alan nodded. "That's what I was thinking."
"Oh." Don settled back against his cushions, fingering the edge of the afghan, worn soft with age.
"Anything special you'd like for dinner?"
"Naw. Anything's fine." Truthfully, the oral medication made him queasy in a way that the intravenous hadn't and food still sounded like a less-than-exciting proposition. "When's Charlie due back?"
"Oh - about five, I guess. He had some catching up to do."
Don's smile faded. "Yeah - I'll bet."
Alan glanced at him over his glasses. "He had Amita helping to cover for him and at least two TAs that I know of - I'm sure it's nothing dire."
"Yeah, right. I know that." Kind of. He was trying to, anyway.
Charlie had still been in his room when he'd woken up after their talk - surely the guy had somewhere else he had to be? He'd had that anxious/questioning/compassionate look he got sometimes - the one that made Don acutely uncomfortable, because it meant he was going to go places that Don spent a lot of time studiously avoiding.
Finally, he'd stammered, "It's just reaction - you know that, right?"
Don had blinked, his head not nearly clear enough for one of Charlie's "start in the middle" conversations. "What are we talking about here?" he'd asked, a little uneasily.
"Dad. I mean - when he yells about - about - you know. The work I do with you. It's just reaction - he doesn't really blame you. You know that, right?"
Don had hesitated. He didn't know that, actually, not really - wondered about it sometimes, hoped for it, but - he looked at Charlie's anxious eyes and nodded. "Yeah. Sure."
Charlie had looked relieved. "Good. Because I wouldn't want you to think - I mean, that's good."
Don turned his head to watch his father serenely working his crossword puzzle, the stack of photocopied papers neatly organized on the table next to his elbow. "Dad - " he began, then faltered.
Alan glanced up at him. "Need something?"
Don hesitated. "Naw," he said at last. "I guess not."
Forget it. He could let Charlie's explanation ride for now. Probably Dad didn't know the answer himself, or worse, would fob him off with a kind lie. Did it really matter anyway? They were both steeped in thirty years of 'Donnie, keep an eye on Charlie' and 'Donnie, watch out for your brother' and 'Donnie, you're in charge - look after Charlie'. Impossible to separate the skeins of then from now; he couldn't manage it himself - how could he expect anyone else to?
He yawned, trying to find a more comfortable position on the sofa cushions, shifted his leg delicately. Even without the IV, he seemed to be trapped in a sort of semi-torpor. Hard to know when that would finally dissipate - and yet, that was the easy stuff, the physical. A little time, a little PT, and he was bound to get through that. It was the head stuff that was harder to tackle.
He had been relieved to finally turn his back on the hospital, had been looking forward to the car that would put miles between him and its antiseptic interior, had even borne the indignity of the wheelchair ride from the building with something approaching grace. So he had been totally unprepared for the fist of ice that had gripped his guts as Charlie halted the wheelchair at the curb where his father was holding the car door for him. His hands had tightened on the armrests until his knuckles ached and he'd sat there, images flipping through his brain like a jumpy old movie coming loose from the reel, until Charlie, misinterpreting his inaction, had offered, "Oh, here - let me give you a hand."
His face must have shown something, because his father, standing in front of him with a more direct view, had said quietly, "I've got you," and rested his hands over his on the armrests until he had finally found the strength to loosen them. Even then, he'd kept his eyes closed for the transfer into the car seat, swallowing hard at the sound of the seatbelt clicking closed, and didn't open them until they were safely home in the driveway. Damn.
Megan had warned him about what he'd already suspected - that he would be required to undergo debriefing with a Bureau psychologist before he would be considered fit to carry a weapon again, fit for duty. He hated it - hated the inevitable dance between the law enforcement professional and the head shrinker - the one prodding and prying, the other terrified of saying something that would inadvertently lead to the label "unstable" or "unfit"…as if this kind of work wouldn't make anybody a little crazy - as if being driven a little crazy by it wasn't the absolute essence of sanity. Only the Twilligers of the world could face it unchanged and indifferent - and what kind of a recommend was that?
Careful, Eppes - say that out loud and you'll be tied to a desk for the rest of your career. Walk through the process and give all the right answers like a good boy. At the very least, maybe it will leave you able to fire up the grill without having to blow into a bag. And it's not like you're doing so great at getting this under control on your own.
His eyes drifted automatically to the stack of DVDs and then away. No point in going there again - he had been through them dozens of times looking for…he wasn't sure exactly what. A reason? Some kind of sense? He knew better than to think that he would find that in those interviews, had only succeeded in making himself sick of the sight of Twilliger's smug, calm, apathetic face, of the way he talked about those women, as though they weren't even real lives, people worth considering - as though the families he had left crushed and scarred counted for nothing…whoa, definitely have some anger lingering there, Eppes - better get rid of that before going head to head with the psychologist, or there'll be hell to pay…nobody likes to let an angry guy carry a big gun…
"Something I can get for you?"
Don glanced up, startled. How did he do that? He would have sworn he was deeply involved in his crossword puzzle. "Naw, I'm good."
"You're allowed another pain pill, you know. If you need it."
"Really. I'm okay." His leg ached some, but he was wary of pain pills - knew too many other agents who had started by using them to numb the pain of injuries, only to end by using them to numb a whole different kind of pain. Risky. He'd rather tough it out.
"A nap might be a good idea. I'll wake you up in time for dinner."
"I think I'm already going for the Olympic gold in sleeping." Though it seems like I'm heading that way anyway. What the heck is in that medication? "How about you? You don't need to hang around here. You must have stuff to do for the business - or golf, maybe."
"I feel like spending time with my son. So sue me."
"Yeah - it's hard to get this kind of dynamic company just anywhere." He tried to cover another yawn, didn't quite succeed. "Go on - take off - do something fun. Just leave me the remote."
Alan filled in the final blank in his crossword with a triumphant cackle and put it aside, reaching for a new one. "As it happens, I'm having a ball."
Was there any real point in adding, you look tired? You look older? You look like you could use some fresh air - or maybe prettier, sweeter-smelling company than a doped up and ornery son who is almost guaranteed to tick you off sometime in the next ten minutes? That I'll feel better if I can believe that it's over for you - that your life is back to normal - ? …at least, until something like this happens again?
He sighed and managed to half-turn on his side, unconsciously tugging the shabby afghan tighter over his shoulders, like a cocoon. The Wandering Jew filled his vision and he gave a tiny smile. 'This plant looked like it could use a good home'…funny. He didn't know whether he was alarmed or touched that she had seen something in him that he barely recognized in himself. Maybe a little of both. Was he really wandering in the desert, searching for some promised land to call home? Could be.
He let his eyes sink closed. 'Almost impossible to kill'…it had better be. How often did he make it back to his apartment to feed himself, never mind a plant…? He'd have to give it fair warning - existing in his circumference was no mean feat - not ajob for sissies.
Because the inescapable truth was that, no matter how fast he ran, how firmly he tried to separate things, how carefully he fought to create proper distance, his job bled over onto the people and things around him, leaving detritus. Collateral damage. It was the price of doing what he did - the price of being part of his life. And that part he hated. It made him hesitate about relationships - why inflict this gig on some poor unsuspecting woman? It made him wonder, over and over, whether or not it wouldn't be wiser to put a couple of states between himself and his family again. Better for them? Better for him? He could never decide. Or was that what she had meant by wandering?
He kneaded his forehead, burying his face in the pillow. To many questions, and he was fresh out of answers. Or maybe it was this darned medication, making him not just queasy, but maudlin, too. It was certainly making him sleepy.
He didn't realize he actually had fallen asleep until some indeterminate time later, when he was jolted awake by the slamming of a nearby door and the calling of a familiar voice, followed quickly by a loud shushing sound.
"Oh. Sorry. He out?"
"Well, he was - "
His father's stage whisper made Don smile into his pillow. Man. You guys have absolutely no talent for stealth… he started to tell them that it was okay, he was awake now, but somehow he turned his head and buried the other side of his face in the pillow instead, tugged back into the greyness by a dragging lassitude.
He's not deaf. But then, this is one of the problems with having your bed in the living room…
"Yeah…just tired, I think. I don't think he had any of the dreams, but I didn't want to leave him alone in case…"
Damn. They knew about those…? Just…damn…
"Oh. Good." Charlie's voice was closer, hovering just above him now, and Don wanted to tell him that this wasn't a wake, thank you very much, but his eyes and mouth seemed to be weighted closed. Okay, that was enough of these pills then - they stopped today. Really. Today. He tried to stretch, and his father was there immediately, a light pressure on his forehead.
"Donnie? You okay?"
Yeah, I'm fine…I just want you two to stop talking about me as if you're about to add, "Doesn't he look lifelike! Just like he's asleep!" Because that's all I am. Asleep, I mean. Not laid out for burial. Or, I was, until you woke me up. I think I actually had more privacy at the hospital.
"Can I get you anything?"
"M'good." There. Evidently he still had some slight power of speech left.
"You're good. Of course you are." His father's voice had an amused, sarcastic edge that made him smile.
No. For real. I am.
"Go back to sleep. I'll keep your dinner warm."
"What is for dinner, anyway?" Charlie, now. He must be perched on the arm of the sofa, next to his bum leg.
I've got one piece of furniture I can use and you've gotta share it? No overabundance of personal space here…
"I haven't had a chance to fix anything. I was hoping you'd bring something home."
"Oh, great. I worked all day and I'm supposed to provide dinner too!"
"Yes, well, I was home, hard at work watching the kid all day…" Don heard the smile in his father's voice, felt a pat on his arm, along with a rising sense of indignation. Was he talking about him? Was that some kind of shot? That was definitely a shot, and when he couldn't even defend himself! Those pills are absolutely going tomorrow. Definitely. He couldn't afford to be lying here defenseless - not with those two around.
"I guess I could call for pizza…think he's up for a slice?" Charlie again: he could feel one hand resting lightly on his foot. Surrounded.
"We'll put some aside for him. He'll be hungry later."
Yeah, well, you guys just have it all figured out, don't you? And if you're ordering pizza, then no sausage - I'm not eating any of that darned sausage. He was sinking deeper now, just barely able to follow the bits of conversation, still struggled to get their attention, to have his say.
His father's hand tightened on his arm. "Easy, Donnie. Everything is okay. You're here with us."
Yeah. Yeah. He stopped struggling, letting that sink in, listing toward the encroaching allure of sleep.
Maybe he was making this all too complicated. Maybe it was as simple as the fact that, for better or for worse, he was theirs. And that, for better or for worse, they were his.
"Go back to sleep. Everything's all right."
He felt the familiar threadbare texture of the old afghan by his cheek. He wanted to tell them that he understood, not sure if the words ever made it to his lips, or if they just lingered in his mind.
"Just relax - you're home."
Where nobody ever throws anything - or anybody - away. Home.
He smiled to himself.
Yeah. I know.