Disclaimer: I don't own the characters and I don't make any money off of them.
A/N: As always, thanks to ritt for all of her help! Thanks to wiccad for helping me decide on a title.
Don Eppes wearily trudged through the door of his apartment and closed it behind him, remembering to lock it only at the last minute. He walked down his hallway, stripping off his suit jacket and tie and leaving them to lie haphazardly on the floor as he headed for the kitchen. Grabbing a beer, he quickly downed half the bottle before stopping to take a breath. Don moved to his bedroom and peeled off the remaining pieces of clothing, again leaving them to lie where ever they might fall.
He drained the last of the beer and tossed the bottle in the bathroom trash can as he cranked the shower on, making sure the water was as hot as he could bear. Don climbed in and clenched his eyes shut as the burning water assaulted his body. He grabbed the bar of soap and began scrubbing himself in an attempt to feel clean – a task he suspected wouldn't be accomplished anytime soon.
What the hell was I thinking? Of course Nikki's friends and family wouldn't want to see me – I did walk out on her. All I wanted to do was pay my respects, though. Was that really too much to ask?
Apparently it had been, judging from the angry glares he'd received from everyone in attendance. Then the whispering had started and Don began to feel bad that his presence was taking away from what should have been a time to recognize Nikki for what she had been – a hell of an agent and a fine human being. That alone should have been enough to warn Don off from trying to express his condolences to the family, but he'd always been a stubborn man. He had made his way to the family and as he offered his hand to Nikki's mother she'd slapped him hard across the cheek.
"How dare you belittle my daughter's memory by being here," she'd yelled angrily. "Get the hell out of here!"
"I'm very sorry for your loss." Don had barely managed to get the words out of his mouth before Nikki's sister, Erica, had lunged into him, pummeling him with her fists. Don had stood there and willingly taken the blows, his penance for walking out on Nikki, until her father and brother had pulled Erica off.
"She hated you, you bastard!" she'd hissed as she struggled against her brother's grip.
"Son," Nikki's father had spoken as he steered Don toward the front door. "I think it's best if you leave."
Don had mutely nodded and fled to the safety and privacy of his SUV, where he'd sat in a stunned silence, shocked by how much Nikki and her family really hated him. The events had made him feel even dirtier for leaving her and he'd driven to his apartment in a daze, immediately going inside and heading for the shower.
Don's thoughts were drawn back to the present as his skin began to sting from the harshness of his scrubbing. He looked down at his torso and vaguely registered several faint, fist-sized bruises dotting his upper abdomen and chest. No complaints, he thought to himself. I deserve them.
Deciding that he felt as clean as he was going to, Don switched off the shower and grabbed a towel, roughly drying himself and taking a perverse pleasure as the abused skin began to throb again. He tossed the towel on top of the toilet seat and strode into his bedroom, where he slipped on a pair of boxers and an old Stockton Rangers tee shirt. Don gave a fleeting glance at his bed before heading back to the kitchen for another bottle of beer. He turned toward the living room but halted as he decided to go ahead and grab round number three, knowing that he fully intended to lose control tonight.
Don carried the bottles with him into the living room and set them on the coffee table before continuing across the room to his stereo. He turned it on and scanned his CD collection looking for just the right song to go with his mood. He found and discarded several candidates – all of them being songs that he and Nikki had enjoyed listening to together. Growling in frustration, he angrily switched the stereo off and dropped onto his couch, picking up and draining the second beer. He tossed the bottle toward the trash can and missed, cursing aloud as the bottle broke into a large number of pieces on the hardwood floor.
This isn't about Nikki.
The thought popped into his head from out of nowhere and he wrinkled his brow in concentration. Great, I'm getting philosophical – the one thing I didn't want to do tonight. I'd better get drunk quick.
In an attempt to suppress the deep, brooding thoughts from further invading his brain, Don hurriedly opened bottle number three, but found he didn't have the strength or the willpower to drain the contents. Dammit, he swore to himself. Guess I had to face it sometime, but why now?
Don sighed and slumped into the couch cushions, unconsciously wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, before running it through his damp hair. He left his arm resting on top of his head and closed his eyes as the memories began to flood his mind.
Dad had been wrong, of course, Don thought as he remembered his father's words from earlier. He'd told his father about Nikki having cancer and his disbelief that she had committed suicide, to which his father had softly replied, "Yeah, I know." That had set off a light bulb in Don's head. Of course Dad knows, you idiot – Mom had cancer too. But wait – how much does he know about? Just the cancer part, or...
"Did you and Mom ever talk about what would happen..." Don had started to ask.
"I never wanted to," Alan had replied. "I guess we were just lucky it never came to that."
Now that he was getting closer to the heart of the matter, Don's resolve returned and he rapidly gulped down his third beer in a last ditch effort to force the thoughts from his mind. The alcohol only served to make him feel more light-headed – it did nothing to calm the thoughts whirling around in his head.
'...Lucky it never came to that.'
That's what you think, Dad.
Don closed his eyes as another memory, one of his last of his mother, began to play in his head. Tears welled as he heard her voice clear as day...
"Donny," his mother called weakly from the hospital bed.
"Yes, Mom?" Don moved to her side and gently grasped her hand.
"Where are your father and Charlie?"
"They went to grab some lunch."
"And you?" Margaret asked with sudden concern. "Have you eaten?"
"Coffee and a bagel this morning you mean," she quietly chastised him. "You need to take care of yourself."
"I am, Mom," Don promised her. "But someone has to take care of you, too."
Margaret smiled and lifted her son's hand to her lips, pressing a soft kiss to his fingers. "My little Donny – out to protect and save the world." The words were uttered with respect as Margaret graced her son with a warm, loving smile. "But heroes need to take care of themselves, too. Don't ever forget that."
Don nodded, but they both knew he wouldn't change.
"Pull up a chair and sit with me," Margaret requested. "I need to talk to you about something."
Hearing the worry and sadness in her voice, Don quickly slid a chair over and took a seat, clasping her hand between his. "What is it?" he asked with concern in his voice.
His mother took a deep breath met his gaze with one so intense that he was unable to look away. "What?" he whispered.
"You've always been the strong one in the family," she told him. "You take care of me, your father, and Charlie, and you do it so well. You're the rock of our family. Do you understand that?"
Don modestly shrugged, trying to play it off, but Margaret would have none of that.
"Don Eppes," she spoke firmly. "Listen to me when I tell you that, okay? It's the truth – you are the one we depend on in this family. The one I depend on the most, especially now that the cancer is getting worse."
"Okay," Don breathed.
"Good," his mother smiled sadly. "This next bit is hard for me to say, and it's going to be even harder for you to hear, but I need you to promise to hear me out. Can you promise that?"
Don nodded as a knot formed in the pit of his stomach. "I promise."
"I'm nearing the end," she spoke quietly and slowly. "The doctor told me that it won't be much longer now."
"Mom," Don protested. "You have to think positive."
Margaret squeezed his hand. "I have been positive for you, Charlie, and Alan. But now it's time to make preparations and get everything in order." She nodded thankfully as he reluctantly agreed. "Along those lines..."
Don frowned at his mother's hesitance. Whatever it was, she was afraid to just come out and say it, and that was not like his mother at all. "Go on, Mom."
"The pain becomes excruciating toward the end," she whispered. "No amount of morphine can truly dull it. The nausea and fatigue are practically unbearable. This is the information I've gotten from the other patients that I've talked to, some of whom were in that stage and have already passed away." Margaret again paused as she contemplated the best way to say the next bit. "Donny, I don't want to – I can't – go through that." She pulled his hand up to rest against her cheek. "I need to ask you... I know it's a lot, but you are the strong one..."
Don started shaking his head. She couldn't be asking him to... "No," he firmly stated.
"Not now," she assured him. "Only if it gets worse down the road. I need to know you will be able to... help me."
Don had tears running down his cheeks, and cursed himself for showing weakness in front of his mother. "Mom," he whispered plaintively. "I can't. Please, don't ask me to do that." The tears flowed faster and he hung his head in shame. "Please," his muffled voice begged.
"Oh Donny," he heard her cry. "I'm so sorry baby. I shouldn't have asked you that." Don felt her tugging at him and he allowed her to pull him out of the chair and onto the bed. He continued to cry as she held his head against her shoulder. "I'm so sorry, Donny. Please forgive me for asking." She rubbed his back as he composed himself, and he finally pulled away and met her eyes. "I mean it, baby – forget I ever asked, okay?"
"Okay," he whispered as she tenderly kissed his hand and lightly rubbed his arm.
Don opened his eyes and noticed that the sun had begun to set and the living room was getting dark. His vision was blurred and he squinted as he counted five empty bottles on the coffee table and one in his hand. Funny, he thought. I don't even remember getting up to get another one... or three. He became aware of tears on his cheeks and quickly wiped them away, as if that would erase the memory of that awful day as well.
Don suddenly pushed himself up off of the couch, thinking that moving around would get his head back on straight. But the six beers had taken a toll, and he was too light-headed to handle the sudden change in position. He swayed precariously before he listed to the left just a bit too far and crashed onto the floor. A whole new set of aches and pains assaulted his body, but the alcohol had numbed his senses enough that he didn't really feel the pain. Instead of fighting to get back up, Don allowed his eyes to close and he slipped into a blissful state of unconsciousness.
Alan didn't know what it was, but something had set off his father's intuition. He'd been reading the evening paper as he always did, when a sudden, unexplainable need to check on Don had come over him. He'd tried to dismiss it for the first few minutes, but the feeling had persisted to the point that he'd set his paper down and told Charlie that he was going for a walk. In retrospect, Charlie was going to want an explanation as to why Alan had taken the car if he was going for a walk, but for now all Alan could focus on was getting to his oldest son in a hurry.
Finally reaching Don's apartment, Alan parked in the visitor's garage and quickly walked to the elevator. He entered the apartment building and took the elevator up to Don's floor and reached his son's door. He raised his hand to knock when it hit him – what exactly was he going to say to Don? Sorry, I got this really bad feeling and instead of picking up the phone and calling you like a sane individual would, I thought I'd speed over here and come barging in. Alan debated calling Don from down the hall, but in his concern and haste he'd left his cell phone at the house. Oh well, Alan thought to himself. I guess I'll play it by ear. He took a deep breath and knocked on the door.
Alan waited for a good five minutes before knocking again, much louder this time. Another five minutes and still no answer. Alan pressed his ear to the door and listened but heard nothing. Giving only a moment's pause for debate, he selected a key from his key ring and slid it into the lock, letting himself in.
The interior of the apartment was dark, the only light coming from the street lamps as they filtered through the slats of the window blinds. Alan peered into the darkness but could only see a few feet in front of him.
"Don?" He called in a loud whisper. "Don? Are you home?"
Alan's concern grew as he quietly made his way further inside. He tripped over something and looked down, shocked to find Don's jacket and tie carelessly lying on the floor. Something's definitely wrong. Don is too neat and organized to leave stuff like this lying around. He continued into the living room, squinting through the dim light at a large, awkward looking lump on the floor next to the couch. His heart lodged in his throat as he recognized the shape – Don!
Alan rushed to kneel by his son's side and gently cupped his cheek, relief coursing through his veins as he felt Don's warm breath against his hand. Thank God. "Don?" he asked as he ran a hand through his son's hair to check for any bumps or cuts. "Donny?"
Don was motionless beneath his hand and Alan glanced around the room, his gaze coming to rest on the empty beer bottles littering the coffee table. "Oh, Donny," he whispered sadly. He knew his son didn't like to lose control, and figured something must have really upset him to drive him to drink like this – something more than an ex-girlfriend's death. He glanced back down at Don and thought how much more comfortable he would be in his bed. The only problem was that there was no way Alan could carry his full grown son all the way into the bedroom. He lightly patted Don's cheek. "Don! Wake up for me, Son!"
The younger man groaned but didn't open his eyes.
"Come on, Donny!" Alan resorted to a soft slap across the cheek, which roused Don enough to turn his head away. "Atta boy. Wake up for me."
"Wha..." Don mumbled as his eyes slid open.
"It's Dad," Alan told him. "Are you okay? Did you hurt yourself?"
"I was worried, so I came over to check on you."
"Couldn't call?" Don grumbled.
Go figure Don would pick up on that even when he was drunk as a skunk. "Well, It's a good thing I didn't, huh? Otherwise you'd be spending all night on the floor."
"S'okay," Don slurred. "Deserve it." With that said, Don let his eyes close again.
"Oh no you don't!" Alan fussed as he lightly slapped his son's cheek again. "You're getting in that bed right now. On your feet!" Alan grabbed Don under his arms and lifted him to a seated position. "Come one, Donny. You gotta help me out here."
Don's bleary gaze landed on his father's face and he wearily nodded. "...'Kay."
Alan grunted as he lifted and Don drunkenly pushed up with his legs, and the two narrowly avoided crashing back to the floor as Don swayed to the side. Alan yanked him upright and draped his son's arm across his shoulders. "Okay, to the bedroom. One foot in front of the other."
Don nodded and began to clumsily make his way to the door, only managing to remain on his feet thanks to a large effort on Alan's part. An eternity later they reached Don's bed, both men exhausted and panting for breath. Alan used the last of his strength to make sure Don – all of Don – wound up safely on the mattress, before sitting on it by his son's side. He glanced down and smiled as Don lapsed back into a semi-conscious state, but not before rolling onto his side and pressing his face against his father's leg. Alan lovingly ran his fingers through his son's dark hair. "Go to sleep, Donny. We'll talk in the morning."
Alan groaned in the living room, quietly enough so as not to disturb his slumbering son, as he bent down with the dustpan and hand broom. He methodically swept up the broken glass around the trash can, idly wondering if Don had smashed the bottle in anger or just missed the receptacle when trying to toss it out. Either way the glass needed to be cleaned up and Alan was happy to do the small chore for his son. He groaned again, his popping joints joining in the chorus of displeasure, as he stood upright and dumped the glass shards into the wastebasket.
He made his way to the broom closet and hung the broom and dust pan from their respective hooks before grabbing a bottle of water from Don's fridge and sinking onto his son's couch with a sigh of exhaustion. A smile flitted across his face as he remembered Charlie's reaction when he had phoned home a while ago. He'd told his youngest son that Don wasn't feeling well and that he would be spending the night with him. Charlie had immediately offered to join the two, but Alan had assured him that wouldn't be necessary. Charlie's had reluctantly agreed, a hint of hurt mixed in among the concern in his voice. Alan knew that Charlie cared for and worried about Don as much as he did, but he also knew that Don would want as few people as possible to witness him in this state.
A moan of discomfort sounded from the bedroom and Alan hurried to his son's side, just in time to see Don staggering into the bathroom. Not wanting to crowd him, Alan patiently waited on the edge of the mattress while making sure the covers were folded back and the pillows were fluffed just right. After a few minutes he heard the sound of the toilet flushing and his pale, dazed son stumbled out of the bathroom, stopping short as his gaze landed on Alan. "Dad?" he asked in confusion.
Not knowing how out of it Don still was, Alan nodded and gave him a gentle smile. "Yeah, it's me. Feeling any better?"
"When did you get here?" Don asked as he fell into the bed across from his father, burying his face in his pillow.
"A while ago," Alan told him. "And you didn't answer my question."
Don didn't move as he his muffled voice spoke, "Better than what – death warmed over? Slightly."
Alan longed to reach out and rub Don's shoulder in a gesture of sympathy and comfort, but sensed Don was lucid enough not to appreciate that. "Can I get you something? Aspirin? Coffee?"
Don groaned inwardly. So Dad saw the mess in the living room? Great. I bet he wants to talk about what's wrong with me. I wouldn't even know where to start, Dad... "Aspirin would be good," Don replied. "My head is killing me."
"Okay, two aspirin coming up."
"How about a whole bottle?" Don wearily joked.
"That bad, huh?" Alan whispered softly. "I'll be back in a minute."
Don nodded while still keeping his face buried in the pillow. Truth be told, he just didn't have it in him to face the disappointment in his father's eyes at his condition. You're a grown man for goodness sake. And you're worried about what your father thinks of you? Yeah, I guess I am.
A gentle hand on his shoulder signaled his father's return and Don raised his head, accepting the bottle of water and pills that Alan was holding out to him. Rolling onto his back and scooting up to lean against the headboard, Don dry swallowed the aspirin and gulped down half the water. He capped the bottle and wiped his hand over his mouth, still purposefully avoiding his father's studious gaze. "Thanks," he whispered.
"Glad to help," Alan said. "So... Anything you'd like to talk about?"
Subtlety, thy name is not Alan Eppes, Don sighed inwardly. "Like what?" Don was as surprised as his father was that he hadn't stopped the conversation with a simple 'no'.
"Oh, I don't know," Alan said with a hint of sarcasm. "How about what it is that has upset you so much that you would drink like this?"
"Oh that," Don said, matching his father's sarcasm with his own. "No, I don't want to talk about it."
Alan paused, unsure of how much harder to push. "Talking about stuff helps, you know."
"Yeah?" Don asked in a flat tone of voice. "How so?"
Alan fought down a sigh of frustration. "Sharing the burden can lighten your load. That's what family is for." Don remained silent, but Alan didn't miss the look of – despair, shame, regret, guilt? - that crossed his son's face. Family related, he thought to himself. We were talking about Margaret a couple of days ago. I wonder... "Is this about your mother?"
"What?" Don looked up at him sharply, his face momentarily twisting in anguish before his mask slid back into place.
Ah, it is about Margaret. But what about her? "We talked about her the other day," Alan reminded him. "About having cancer and if she and I had ever talked about..." He trailed off as Don dropped his gaze to his lap and began fidgeting with his hands. Oh God, did she... She wouldn't have... "Don?" Alan pressed with a sense of urgency.
"What?" Don's voice was barely audible and his head remained down.
"Did you and your mother talk about what would happen-"
"Stop!" Don finally looked up and Alan's heart broke at the despair in his son's eyes. "Please, just stop."
"Oh, Donny," the older man breathed.
"No, Dad. I can't talk about this. Not right now. Maybe not ever. Okay?"
"I understand," he nodded. "But whatever-"
"Dad," Don pleaded.
Alan reached over and hugged his son to him in a fierce embrace, and whispered right against his ear, "Whatever happened – whatever was said – you're not to blame, alright? Remember I told you I never would have blamed my self? I meant it, and it applies to you too. You are not to blame. Got it?"
Don didn't speak, didn't move in his father's arms, just sat quietly while the guilt gnawed away at him.
Alan hugged him impossibly tighter. "Listen to me," Alan demanded. "Your mother would never want you to feel guilty about what happened. I need for you to understand that. This shouldn't be eating away at you, especially for all this time. Please, Donny, listen to what I'm saying."
Slowly Don lifted his arms to return his father's embrace. "I... I told her I couldn't do it."
"That's okay," Alan assured him. "She never really expected you to say yes. She was just scared about what she was facing – she wasn't thinking clearly. No blame, no guilt. Got it?"
Don felt that he had let his mother down, no matter what his father was telling him. But he also loved and trusted his father enough that his words were easing his pain. Don began replaying Alan's voice in his head, No blame, no guilt. It became his silent mantra and somewhere in his mind he saw his mother's face, ghostlike and radiant, smiling at him in approval.
"Now," Alan said bringing Don out of his thoughts. "You need to lie back down and get some more sleep."
Don nodded as he let out a huge yawn.
Alan smiled and gently pushed his son's shoulder until he was lying on his side. "Do you need anything before I go?"
"You're leaving?" Don asked sleepily.
"Well, I know that you're okay now. No reason for me to intrude any more than I already have."
"You're not intruding." Don cracked an eye open and squinted at the alarm clock. "Besides, it's two-thirty in the morning," he told his father. "You don't need to be driving this late. Stay here."
Alan chuckled. "Okay, if you insist. I'll be on the couch."
"No," Don protested around another yawn as he started to sit up. "You take the bed. I'll take the couch."
Alan placed a restraining hand on his shoulder. "This is your home and your bed. I'll be fine on the couch."
"But you'll wake up sore."
"Why?" Alan teased. "Because I'm an old man?"
Don managed half a grin at his father's comment. He yawned again and knew he was going to be off to dreamland any second now.
"I'll have you know, young man," Alan quietly informed him. "That I am not old – I'm wise."
"That you are," Don whispered as he drifted off to sleep.
Alan leaned over and pulled the covers over his slumbering son, tenderly kissing him on the forehead. "Remember," he whispered to his sleeping form. "No blame, no guilt."