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!
Alan practically dove to reach the phone before it could shrill again. "Hello?" he answered breathlessly.
"Hey, Mr. Eppes," Megan's voice came through the line. "How are you?"
"A little busy, actually. How can I help you?"
"I don't suppose Don is over there?"
"Ah," Alan sighed as he slapped his forehead. "Yes, he is. I'm so sorry – I meant to call you. Don came over last night and he seemed a little tired so I convinced him to stay over."
"Wow," Megan replied. "That took a lot of doing I bet."
"Actually, it didn't. That should have been my first clue. His temperature spiked kind of high last night and he's been sick ever since. I meant to call you this morning and tell you."
"Okay," Megan sighed in relief. "We were worried. It's not like him to not call ahead when he's running late or not going to be in."
"He's been sleeping and pretty out if it, or I know he would have called or at least reminded me to."
"That's perfectly understandable, Mr. Eppes. I'm just relieved that he's with someone who cares for him. Is Charlie helping you?"
"Funny story," Alan muttered. "He's sick, too. And now that you mention it, I'm supposed to call Larry for him."
"I can take care of that for you," Megan quickly offered, laughing nervously when she realized how eager she sounded.
"I bet you can," Alan teased. "If you don't mind, that would be great. I've got two sick little boys upstairs to take care of."
"They are men," Megan ribbed him.
"Not when they're sick," Alan shot back. "I'll have Don call you when he's up and about later today."
"Thanks again, Mr. Eppes. Bye."
Alan disconnected the phone and switched the ringer off before setting it back on the charger. Please let them still be sleeping, he thought silently. He loved his sons to death, but they really could be difficult when they were sick. He preferred they sleep through the worst of it, and wake up feeling rested and energized.
Alan entered the kitchen and retrieved two sports drinks from the refrigerator – orange for Charlie and lime for Donny. He tucked the bottles under his arm and grabbed two compresses from the freezer. He really hoped his sons' fevers were down, but Alan wanted to be prepared for the worst case scenario.
Once he'd climbed the stairs, Alan quietly slipped into his youngest son's room, smiling as he saw that Charlie was still fast asleep. He softly padded over to the bed and leaned over the younger man, placing a tender hand on the sweaty curls. Sliding his hand around to Charlie's forehead, Alan breathed a sigh of relief as he discovered that the fever was gone.
"Dad," Charlie suddenly mumbled as he dragged an eye open.
"Shh," Alan whispered as he ran his fingers through his son's dark hair. "Go back to sleep."
The older man helped Charlie shift to lean upright against the headboard, before uncapping the bottle and handing the orange drink to his son.
"Thanks," the sick man spoke quietly as he nursed the cool liquid. "How's Don?"
"As sick as you are, I'm afraid."
"He'll be okay, right?"
"Yes, Charlie," Alan smiled. "It's just a touch of flu, same as you." Alan knew that Charlie worried about Don whenever he was sick, whether it was a brief allergy attack or a common cold – a habit he'd had since childhood. In fact, Alan remembered a time when Don had been ill with a nasty stomach bug. He and Margaret had tried to keep Charlie away from his big brother so he wouldn't get sick, too, but Charlie had sneaked past every barrier they'd tried, until they'd finally given up and let him sit with his brother. A very sick and cranky Don had tried to protest until he was hit with a wave of sickness during which the youngest Eppes had maintained a constant, soothing touch on his older brothers' feverish body. Don had collapsed in exhaustion, somehow winding up with his head in his little brother's lap. The surprising – and touching – part had been that Don hadn't moved, just murmured thanks and fell asleep under his Charlie's gentle touch.
"Hmm, what?" Alan asked as he was drawn back to the present.
"I said, go check on Don." Charlie capped the sports drink and slid back under the covers, clutching the bottle to his chest. "I'll be okay. I think Don needs you more right now."
"Are you sure that you're okay?" Alan insisted.
"Fine," The younger man yawned. "Go see Don."
Alan chuckled and stroked his young son's hair one more time. "Alright then. Sweet dreams, son." His words were greeted by Charlie's quiet snores.
The oldest Eppes quietly crossed the hallway and entered Don's room, his heart aching as he took in the sight of his eldest son sprawled across the bed. Don had never been able to sleep through his illness like Charlie had. Instead, he would wind up in a variety of weird positions, usually entangled in the sheets to the point that Alan was having to undo knots just so he could settle Don back on the bed. Now, thirty years later, was no exception.
Alan placed a hand against Don's cheek and smiled as sleepy eyes greeted him. "You're all tangled up, Donny. Hold still while I move the sheets, okay?"
"Sorry," Don mumbled, letting his eyes close.
"It's okay," Alan promised him. As he worked to loosen the twisted sheets from around his son's body, he frowned at the waves of heat coming from the pale skin. "How are you feeling?"
Alan stifled a laugh. Leave it to Don to be that blunt, he thought silently. "Fever?" he asked, more to fill the silence than to get an answer. He already knew Don was feverish, and that he would lie about how bad he was feeling.
"Don't think so," Don spoke around a yawn.
Alan rolled his eyes and patted himself on the back for knowing his sons that well. "You feel pretty hot to me," he told Don as he removed the last of the knotted sheet. "Let's get you settled back in bed, okay?"
Don nodded and tried to help his father as he repositioned him onto his back. About halfway through his weariness kicked in, and Don pretty much let his father do all of the work. "Sorry," he apologized softly.
"Shh, it's okay, Donny. That's what family is for. Don't ever forget that, son."
"Okay," Don sighed as he let his arms flop uselessly to his sides.
"Are you thirsty?" Don mumbled a word that sounded like 'no'. "I'm going to set this drink next to your bed, okay?"
Don nodded before restlessly tossing his head. "Hot."
"I know," Alan whispered as he threaded his fingers through Don's short, spiky hair. He carefully laid a compress on Don's forehead, shushing him when Don protested the sudden cold. "Let it sit there, Donny. You'll feel better soon."
Alan looked up at the doorway and found his youngest son wearily leaning there. "And just what do you think you're doing out of bed?" he demanded.
Charlie sheepishly stared at the floor. "Don... he needs me."
"You need to rest," Alan informed him in no uncertain terms. "I can take care of Don."
"I know," Charlie agreed. "But, well... I need to be there for him." His tired brown eyes met his father's. "Please, Dad."
"Charlie?" Don asked from the bed. To the casual observer Don was just identifying his brother's voice, but Alan could detect that tone that said Don wanted his little brother's company.
"Fine," Alan made a point of issuing a heavy sigh. "You're grown men, but I expect you to both get some sleep."
Charlie nodded as he slipped into Don's bed, seated next to his head. "Good night, Dad."
Alan smiled, not offended at all by Charlie's rather dismissive words. He would always be their father, but the brotherly bond between them was something else to see. And it kept getting stronger and firmer as they spent more time together.
Alan left the room and started to close the door behind him, but paused to take one last peek at the bed. Charlie had settled his brother's head in his lap and was resting his hand on Don's forehead, his thumb lightly stroking his brother's temple. Don tightly gripped Charlie's other hand in his, and held their joined hands against his chest.
Alan smiled, switched off the light, and retired to the living room where he fell asleep on the couch.
The next morning, Alan awoke to one of his favorite sounds.
"Should we wake him up?" Charlie's voice.
"Are you kidding?" Don's voice. "After all he did for us last night, he needs to sleep."
"But he looks so... uncomfortable."
"Trust me, Buddy, he's getting some good sleep right now."
"Well, at least cover him with a blanket."
"I will. You go start breakfast, okay?"
"Sure thing, Don."
Alan felt a warm blanket being spread across his prone body, accompanied by a gentle hand on his cheek.
"Thanks for everything, Dad," his oldest son whispered in his ear. "Now it's out turn to take care of you."
He heard Don's footsteps as they moved away from him to join Charlie in the kitchen. Only then did he let a small smile creep onto his face.