Disclaimer: I don't own the characters and I don't make any money off of them.
A/N: Thanks as always to ritt, the world's best beta and sounding board! Also thanks to ritt, Em, Mags, Sin, and Z for all of their encouragement. This one gave me a fit to write, and I think they know how much it means to me that I finally did get it written.
Don was so cold. A cold so deep and complete that he doubted whether he would ever be warm again. He crossed his arms in front of his chest and shivered as he tried to retain what little body heat he had left. He was sitting on Charlie's front porch in the dark gloom of a stormy afternoon, certain that he might be warmer inside, but for some reason he couldn't make himself move.
No, not some reason, he thought to himself. It's because of them.
'Them' was a woman and three kids playing in the yard across the street. Somehow, the heavens had graced their yard with a solitary ray of sunlight which gave the delighted children's faces an angelic glow. Don was mesmerized as he watched the kids – one girl and two boys – run around the yard. The older girl seemed to be trying to keep the two younger boys under control, but they just laughed and ran from her while the woman watched their antics with an amused look on her face.
Don shivered again, the tremor setting off a deep, unrelenting ache that consumed his being. He tried to distract himself from the pain by closely observing the woman. She was a brunette, rather tall and perfectly proportioned – at least in Don's eyes. She had soft, pale features that required no makeup to enhance her beauty. No, he smiled. The natural look was perfect for her. She sat on the top step of her porch, and it occurred to Don that she was mirroring his own position almost perfectly. He idly thought that if he crossed the street to introduce himself, her smile and the ray of sun she seemed to be attracting could melt away the icy cold in his veins.
Don tore his gaze away from the other yard and looked up to see his little brother standing beside him. "Hey, Charlie." Another shiver assaulted his body and he clamped his jaw shut to prevent his teeth from chattering.
"You okay?" Charlie asked, his voice filled with concern.
"I'm just a little cold."
"It is cold out here," the younger man agreed. "Why don't you come inside where it's warm?"
Don opened his mouth to speak, but stopped and shrugged as he returned his attention to the family across the street. After a moment, he felt Charlie's hand rest on his shoulder and leaned into the surprising amount of warmth it brought. "Is Dad still mad at me?"
"No," Charlie answered as he sat next to his big brother on the top step. Don shivered violently and Charlie pressed himself against the older man, trying to share his warmth. "He never was, you know."
"Really? I thought..." Don trailed off and shook his head, choosing to let the subject drop. Charlie wasn't quite so willing.
"It was a mistake, Don. Dad knows that."
"Still," Don spoke quietly as he smiled at the children's play. "It was a big mistake."
"We all make mistakes, Don." Charlie paused as he watched the family too. "Unfortunately, some are bigger and affect more people than others."
"An Eppes men's night out," Don sighed. "It seemed like such a good idea."
"It was," Charlie nodded. "You – we – couldn't have known what would happen." Charlie draped an arm over Don's shoulders in a desperate attempt to ease the other man's tremors. "You've got to forgive yourself, Don. And the first step in doing that is to come inside with me."
Don remained unresponsive, his eyes glued to the young girl as she ordered the two younger boys – he assumed they must be her siblings – to stop going so close to the street. The brunette – her mother, Don thought – smiled and subtly nodded her encouragement.
"Ever wonder what it would have been like to have a sister?" Don asked.
"You mean like having a third parent?" Charlie grinned, also watching as the girl across the street watched out for her brothers.
"Yeah," the older man softly laughed. "I guess that's exactly what it would have been like." He suddenly gasped and curled his upper body over his knees. "Oh God."
"Don?" Charlie asked with a hint of panic in his voice. "Don, what's wrong?"
"Cold," Don mumbled through his shuddering. "Hurts too."
"What hurts? Tell me, Don," Charlie pleaded as he laid his upper body over Don's, trying to infuse as much of his body heat into his brother as he could. "Talk to me."
"I ache inside. All over." Don tensed as the pain increased to the point that he could barely breathe.
"Shh, deep breaths, Don." Charlie slid his hands under his brother's arms and carefully pulled him to his feet. "You need to come inside. It's warm inside. You'll feel better – I promise." He slowly led Don toward the front door, stabilizing him as he swayed against the unseen force attacking his body.
As they got closer to the door, Don was able to stand and move with much more ease. The ache lessened and the biting cold diminished enough so that his lungs no longer hurt when he breathed. He smiled thankfully at Charlie and moved to the front door under his own power. As he reached the threshold, he placed his hand on the knob but didn't turn it, instead glancing over his shoulder at the yard across the street. He was only mildly surprised to see that the children had stopped playing, and were lined up along the edge of the street with their mother. They were all staring at him with an intensity that should have unnerved him, but didn't.
"Inside, Don," Charlie whispered in his ear. "It's warm inside."
"But what about..." Don nodded at the family across the street.
"You need to think about yourself now." Charlie quietly opened the front door and Don turned and reluctantly took a step inside, surprised as he felt a comforting warmth begin to surround his freezing body. The relentless ache inside started to fade. He knew he should go all the way into the house, but he was still being drawn to that family across the street. "Don," Charlie called softly.
"I know," he replied as he looked at the family again. They were still lined up at the edge of the street, but they seemed to be standing even closer together and holding hands, as if they were facing a tough situation. "But what about them?"
"They'll be fine."
"How do you know?" Don pleaded.
"Because their father and husband was a very strong man," Charlie stated confidently. "They learned to be strong from him."
Don turned back to the house and peered inside, letting his eyes adjust to the brightness within. He saw his father standing in the dining room, a warm, welcoming smile on his face. "Dad," he swallowed. "I'm so sorry. I should never have-"
"Accidents happen, son," Alan quietly interrupted him. "It's okay. When it's your time..." He trailed off and gave Don a loving look.
Don found himself smiling back, his guilt being swept away by his father's words. He shifted his glance to his father's side and his heart sped up. "Mom?"
"I'm here, too, Donny." His mother was beaming at him, overjoyed at having him so close to her. She held out her arms and nodded. "It's time."
Don looked at his younger brother, the confusion evident in his eyes. "What?"
"The accident, Don," Charlie whispered.
"I remember. I was driving and I looked away for a second..." His voice gave out and he swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. "I remember we had an accident, but I thought... What...?"
"Dad and I have been waiting for you," Charlie told him. "You weren't ready yet. You had to say good bye. But it's time now, Don."
A sudden wave of anguish slammed into Don, robbing his body of its warmth and replacing it with a gut wrenching pain. He closed his eyes against the onslaught and heard whispers floating around him, carried by the wind.
"I love you, Dad. I'll be good for mom."
"I know – I'm the oldest boy, so that makes me the man of the family. I won't let you down, Dad."
"I'll look after my brothers, Dad. Say 'hi' to Uncle Charlie and Grandpa for me."
Then the woman's voice rose above the children's and enveloped his being. "You've fought so hard, Sweetheart. I know it hurts and you tried. It's okay to let go now. Do you hear me, my love? You can let go now..."
Don opened his eyes and forced himself to step all the way into the house. The door closed behind him with the barest hint of a whisper as the cold and pain vanished from his body. He smiled at his family as they stood in the dining room, their arms open, and slowly moved to join them. Three pairs of arms wrapped around him and he closed his eyes, just barely registering his father's words.
"Welcome home, Donny."