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!
It's all gone.
That was the only thought Don had as he sat on the back of a paramedic's truck and watched his apartment burn.
Every last memory I have… every memento I've ever kept… gone.
"Keep the mask on your face, sir." The voice was accompanied by a gentle, gloved hand that pressed the oxygen mask over Don's nose and mouth.
He nodded mutely, still unable to tear his eyes away from the blazing inferno that used to be his home. Once upon a time he'd had one of his boxes of things at Charlie's house, but his younger brother had brought it to his apartment in a moment of thoughtfulness and guilt. So even that one box... it was gone now, too. I really don't have anything left, Don thought sorrowfully.
"How are you feeling now?"
Don wearily slid his gaze to the paramedic at his side and lowered the mask. "Fine," he replied flatly.
"You're not lightheaded anymore? No urge to cough?"
Don started to shake his head, but his lungs chose that moment to protest and he let out a long, hacking cough.
The tall medic raised an eyebrow. "That's fine to you? I really think you should go to the hospital, sir."
"No," Don rasped.
"Well," the other man sighed. "It is your choice. I think it's the wrong one, but all I can do is offer advice."
Don nodded and handed the blond medic the mask. "I'm good now."
"And you're sure you didn't lose consciousness?" The man seemed to be looking for a reason to convince his reluctant patient to take a trip to the hospital.
"No," Don shook his head. "Trust me – I saw everything."
And he had, too. He'd been sitting on his couch, swearing at the evening news as the anchor chastised the FBI for a case gone bad, when his smoke alarm had started screeching. Don had leaped from his couch and checked his apartment, before realizing the smoke was coming from under his front door. Mrs. Aberdeen, he'd immediately thought of his elderly neighbor. I bet she's in trouble.
Don had rushed across the hall and sure enough, the thick black smoke was pouring out from under her door. He'd pounded on her door and frantically called her name, but she hadn't answered. At that point, Don had broken down the door and rushed through his neighbor's burning apartment, finally finding her crumpled form on the floor of the bathroom. He'd scooped her into his arms, not hesitating to check for a pulse, and rushed back into the hallway, screaming for everyone to get out. There had been two doors that didn't open, so Don knocked on those until the residents finally poked their heads out and, at the sight of the smoke, rushed down the stairs. One of the younger neighbors had had the level-headedness to tell Don he was calling nine-one-one.
Don had run behind him, down the stairs and out of the building, where he was relieved to see several fire trucks and paramedics waiting. He'd gratefully handed Mrs. Aberdeen to a paramedic before doubling over and coughing. He'd grayed out for a couple of minutes – okay, so he'd lied about losing consciousness – and was jolted back to reality as an oxygen mask slipped over his face. At the medic's worried question, Don had told him that he hadn't passed out but had just been too tired to answer him at first.
Don snapped back to the present and cursed himself as he saw an expression of concern on the other man's face. "I'm sorry," he quickly covered. "My mind was elsewhere. What did you say?"
"Do you have someone that can come get you? Somewhere to stay?"
Do I? Well, of course there's always Charlie and Dad, but...
"No," he responded. "I think I'll just grab a hotel room." As emotionally and physically wrung out as he felt, Don had a feeling he really needed a nice, quiet place to decompress. And if he went to Charlie's, quiet wouldn't be an option. Too many questions to answer and too many worried looks and words to deal with. No, Don convinced himself. Quiet is better for tonight. I'll tell them what happened first thing tomorrow morning.
"I really think you should be with someone tonight," the medic insisted.
"I'm fine," Don assured him. He dug through his pockets and was relieved to discover that he'd never emptied them after he'd gotten home from work. He still had his wallet and keys, so he stood and smiled at the blond man. "Thanks for the help."
Don waved him off as he turned on his heel and walked toward the street where he'd parked his SUV. Along the way, he passed an ambulance and two EMTs, each of whom was frowning and shaking his head at a covered body on the gurney. Don stopped walking and squinted at the prone figure, his heart aching as he recognized the pink flowered house shoes. I'm sorry, Mrs. Aberdeen, he thought ruefully. I should have noticed sooner.
Don shivered in the warm evening air and quickly made his way to his vehicle, climbing in and cranking up the heat. Get a grip, Eppes, he snapped at himself. It's eighty degrees out, and you're cold? Man, you are one messed up person right now.
He threw the truck in gear and tore off down the quiet, residential street. He drove for a long time, passing several motels as he went, but was too dazed to actually pull into one of them. He couldn't get over how alone he felt. Don knew Charlie and his father would gladly be there for him, but there was something missing. He wracked his brain and nearly ran a stop sign until the blast of a motorist's horn brought him crashing back to reality.
Careful, Eppes. Your family would be really angry at you if they had to come identify your mangled remains. Get to the hotel room and then you can brood and unwind. Don eyed a small, run-down looking hotel and pulled into the cracked, pot-hole ravaged lot. He slid out of the driver's seat and trudged to the manager's office. A small, greasy, beady-eyed man looked at him suspiciously.
"Yeah?" he demanded.
Wow, at least I've stumbled into four star service, Don thought bitterly. "I need a room for the night."
The manager peered around him and raised an eyebrow at the shiny, black SUV. "This ain't the best of neighborhoods, you know. I ain't liable for any damage to vehicles or..." He sneered at Don before continuing. "...Guests."
"You want me to sign a disclaimer or something?" Don snarled, his anger reaching the boiling point. He did exercise a fraction of restraint as he resisted the urge to slam the little man onto the counter and give him a lesson in respect. "I just want a damn room."
"Fine," the greasy man squeaked. "But don't say I didn't warn you. It'll be seventy for the night."
"For this roach motel?" Don muttered.
"Hey, it looks like you can afford it," the manager shot back.
"Right," Don sighed as he flipped open his wallet and pulled out eight twenty dollar bills. "I assume this is a cash establishment?"
The smaller man was about to protest, but he quickly shook his head and gave Don a gap-toothed grin. "Whatever you like, sir."
What the...? Don wondered at the man's sudden change. He looked down at his wallet and realized his badge was showing. Go figure.
The manager took the twenties and slid Don a ten dollar bill with a room key on top of it. "Anything that goes on here-"
"You've got no knowledge of it, right?"
"Right." The manager gave a knowing wink that disgusted Don. "That's the key to room 118. It's on the end of the walkway, so it's nice and quiet. Cleanest room I've got, too."
"Thanks," Don mumbled as he left the office. He suspected that, clean or not, he'd be sharing the space with more than one or two cockroaches, but he was really too tired to care.
"Donny! Donny, help me!"
"Mom!" Don yelled as he tried to reach his burning mother. "I'm coming!"
"Hurry!" she cried out again as the flames moved up her body. Her hair started to burn and melt and she let out a bone-chilling scream of pain.
"Mom!" Don called frantically as he tried to make his legs move faster.
"It's too late," she painfully whispered as she turned into a pile of ashes right before his eyes.
"No!" he sobbed as he fell to his knees, his arms outstretched. "Mom..."
Don shot up in the hard motel bed, his chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath. His eyes darted around the darkened room as he tried to orient himself. The motel room, Don silently chanted. That's where you are. That's where you've been every time you've woken up.
He sighed and swung his long legs to rest on the floor, propping his elbows on his knees and cradling his head in his hands. He tried to block out the images of the dream, but it was just too hard. He hadn't been able to block out the other ones either – the ones of Terry and Kim. It didn't take a shrink to know that he was upset at having lost all of his keepsakes from the three most important women in his life, but that knowledge certainly didn't stave off the dreams or make them any more bearable.
This is ridiculous, he chastised himself as he rose from the bed and moved to stand in front of the bathroom sink. They were just things – not the people themselves. You're overreacting.
The rational part of his mind had a point, but the sentimental side was constantly reminding him of what those items meant. The letters his mother had sent to him when he'd been at Quantico, still smelling faintly of her perfume. He'd sealed those in a plastic bag as if that would help keep her spirit near. The tee shirts that belonged to him, but had been worn by Kim when they lived together. They were far too old and worn for him to use, but he'd packed them in a box as if that would keep the memories fresh. Last, the note Terry had left when she'd moved to Washington. They had said their painful, awkward goodbyes over dinner, and when Don had returned home, he'd found a letter in which Terry confessed just how much she'd loved him. It too, had gone into the box to be preserved.
Don shook his head and switched on the tap, splashing himself with cold water to chase the thoughts away. He looked at the mirror and was grateful that it was too dark to see his reflection. He knew what he would look like – tired, dull brown eyes, framed with dark circles, soot around his nose and mouth with a couple of smears on his cheek and forehead – all in all a very haggard, unattractive appearance. He'd desperately wanted to shower when he got to the room, but one look at the grime coated bathroom had changed his mind. Instead he'd just collapsed onto the uncomfortable mattress and fallen asleep.
Don switched off the tap and flopped back down on the bed, wincing as he was poked by every single mattress spring. He shifted his weight until he found the one position that was relatively comfortable and stared ahead in the darkness, refusing to invite another nightmare by closing his eyes.
What the hell is wrong with me? he wondered. I know it's not the actual people that I lost tonight – just some stuff that reminds me of them. If I know that, why do I feel so... alone? And that was exactly how he felt. Don knew his brother and father were just a phone call or short car ride away, but for some reason he felt completely and utterly alone.
Shivering again despite having the motel room's heat going full blast, Don pulled the thin wool blanket up to his chin and slowly drifted off to sleep.
A loud, incessant noise assaulted Don's ears, eventually dragging him from his slumber. While it was nice not to wake up in a panic from a nightmare, he also didn't think the alarm should be quite so loud. Don blindly stuck his arm out from under the suffocating covers and was met by a wave of hot air as he felt for the alarm clock.
Why is the heat on? he wondered as he continued feeling along the nightstand for the clock. Coming up empty, he finally cracked his eyes open and the memory of the previous night's events came rushing back to him. So if that's not the alarm... He glanced down at his belt and saw his cell phone display glowing as the ringer continued to sound.
He sleepily fumbled with the phone, eventually flipping it open and placing it to his ear. "Eppes."
"Oh, thank God."
"Dad?" Don asked as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. "What time is it?"
"It's about twelve hours after you should have called," Alan snapped.
"What are you talking about?"
"I just saw a very interesting story on the five am news broadcast," Alan began. "It seems there was a fire at my son's apartment building yesterday evening."
Crap. "Dad, I'm sorry. I was going to call-"
"Destroyed the entire fourth floor – that's my son's floor, you know."
Double crap. "I really was going to call-"
"I'm instantly thinking he must be dead because I know he would have enough sense to call his family and tell them he's okay!" Alan's voice crescendoed until Don's ears hurt.
"Dad!" he tried to stop his father's tirade. "You're right." Don let a faint grin on his face knowing those two words would baffle his father long enough for him to explain. "I should have called last night, but I was so tired that it slipped my mind."
"That's not an excuse," Alan argued. "And, by the way, where did you sleep last night?"
Damn. Do I tell him or do I lie-
A loud sigh interrupted his thoughts. "Don't tell me, Donny – a motel?"
"I didn't want to impose," Don weakly offered, knowing that was the wrong thing to say even as the words left his mouth.
"For the last time – you are never an imposition, Donny. You're family and this is what family does – supports each other, okay?"
"I am sorry, Dad."
"Good. Now don't let it happen again." There was a ruffling noise and muffled voices before Alan spoke again. "I'll spare you what your brother just said, but I imagine you'll be hearing it for yourself later. I know you've got to be taking off work today, so come on over here."
"I've got a lot of things to do-"
"And you can do them all from here," Alan cut him off. "After you've had a nice, cleansing shower and a good nap."
Don glanced down at his soot covered clothes even as he became aware of every grain of dirt on his body. "That sounds good," he quietly agreed. He paused as a wave of grief rose and lodged in the back of his throat.
"Donny?" his father gently urged.
"I, um... I'll need to borrow some clothes, Dad. I... I don't have anything." Don silently swore as his voice wavered on the last word.
"Of course," Alan agreed nonchalantly. "I'm sure I've got something you can wear."
Don knew his father wasn't being insensitive – in fact, he was being incredibly insightful, knowing that making a big deal of it would only upset him more. "Thanks, Dad."
"Anytime, son." Don heard the enormous amount of love in his father's voice and his spirits lifted the tiniest bit. "So, what are you waiting for? Check out of whatever motel you're in and get your butt over here!"
"Yes sir," Don smiled as he disconnected the phone.
"I can't believe he didn't even call!"
"Calm down, Charlie," Alan said. "He didn't call because..." Alan trailed off as he tried to think of how to phrase his thoughts.
"Because why, Dad? There is no good reason for him not to have notified us. And to spend the night in a motel? Doesn't that hurt your feelings just a little bit? We're his family."
"Charlie," Alan smiled gently. "You should know how your brother is. He's a very private, very independent person. He didn't call because he didn't want to burden us."
"He's not a burden," Charlie protested.
"We both know that and on some level I think Don does, too. But that's how he feels about things. He's always been the strong one in the family, right? The one we all turn to for support?"
"Yeah," Charlie nodded sadly. "That's why it hurts that he won't let us return the favor."
"I agree," Alan sighed. "But we have to give Don his space. He'll come to us when he's ready."
Charlie grinned and raised an eyebrow. "Or when you tell him to get his butt over here?"
"That, too," Alan chuckled. He paused and placed a warm hand on his youngest son's shoulder, proud of the love and support that Charlie showed for his big brother, whether Don wanted it or not. "Emotionally, Charlie. He'll come to us when he's emotionally ready."
"How long?" Charlie asked plaintively.
Alan shrugged and patted his son's shoulder. "When he's ready."
"And in the meantime?"
"As hard as it seems, we need to respect his space. He's going to come over here and stay today and tonight and longer if I can convince him. But you just need to be respectful of his barriers. You can ask him how he's doing and if he needs anything, but don't push, okay?" Alan smiled as his younger son nodded. "Then we should all be just fine."
"Are you okay?"
"Yes, Megan," Don replied into the phone as he maneuvered his SUV through the narrow city street. "I'm fine."
Sometimes I forget she's a profiler. "I'm perfectly fine. I inhaled a little smoke last night, but the medic gave me some oxygen and sent me on my way." Don had long ago learned that a half-truth could be much more convincing than a lie.
"If you say so..."
"I do," Don firmly stated in an effort to end the conversation. "Anyway, I'm headed over to Charlie's to-"
"Wait," she cut him off. "'Headed over to Charlie's'? Where were you last night?"
Crap. "I stayed in a motel last night. It was late after I left my apartment and I didn't want to wake them up." He heard her let out a heavy, frustrated sigh. "I'm a grown man, Megan. It's my call, and I decided to stay somewhere else, got that?"
"Sure," she said. "But grown men still have families that care for them, Don." He took a deep breath before he started to answer, but halted as she spoke again. "I'm sorry, that was a little out of line. I won't bring it up again."
"Thank you," Don said sincerely. "I'm not going to be in today and tomorrow, but I should be in after that. The only major thing I can think of is the Johnson interview today, but I know you can handle that."
"I will, don't worry. Take all the time of that you need." He heard her laugh. "Besides, I like being the boss around Colby and David. They compete for my favor and I make out like a bandit."
"They never do that with me," Don grumbled.
"You've never taken down a suspect while wearing heels and a skirt. I've been told it's rather intimidating."
Don chuckled. "Whatever works for you, Megan. Thanks again for everything, and I'll touch base with you tomorrow."
He flipped his phone shut and clipped it back onto his belt, letting out a weary sigh. Now all I have to do is face Dad and Charlie.
"I will, Dad," the younger man assured his father. "Don't push – I got it."
Alan smiled as he peered out the front window, watching Don's SUV pull into the driveway. He made himself sit in his chair instead of walking out to greet his oldest son. Don't push it, he reminded himself. He glanced at Charlie who was awkwardly standing by the stairs, his eyes glued on the front door. "Charlie, sit down somewhere."
"Right," the professor nodded as he took a seat on the couch, picking up a notebook and flipping it open to a page filled with his messy scrawl.
They both waited as they heard the front door open and the sound of keys being tossed onto the entry way table. "Hello?" Don called out.
"In here, Donny."
The weary agent walked into the living area and smiled at his family members as he held out his arms in a sweeping gesture. "See? Perfectly fine."
Alan was thinking he looked anything but fine, but managed to keep his mouth shut. His oldest son's clothes were smeared with dark, black soot, and wrinkled from being slept in. Don's handsome face was lined with exhaustion and sadness and also marred by several black smears. There were bags under his eyes, attesting to just how unpleasant the motel room stay had been.
"Are you doing okay, Don?" Charlie inquired.
"I'm a little drained, Buddy. It was a rough evening yesterday."
"Can I do anything for you?"
Alan smiled at his youngest son's questions. Apparently he really had been listening during their earlier discussion.
"I just want to grab a shower and then maybe sneak in a nap."
"Of course," Charlie replied empathetically. "I've made your bed up with fresh clean sheets, and I also found a tee and a pair of wind suit pants you left over here one night. I washed them and laid them out on your bed for you."
"Thanks, Charlie," Don beamed. "That's great."
"Anything I can do, Don – you don't hesitate to ask, alright?"
"Sure thing." Don stood next to his father. "You okay, Dad? You're awfully quiet."
Actually I'm a bit shocked by how well your brother is handling the situation, he thought. "Just glad that you're okay, Donny. That's all."
"I am okay, Dad," Don replied as he squeezed his father's shoulder. "I'm going to grab that shower now." He grinned with a twinkle in his eye. "I hope neither one of you wanted any hot water for the rest of today. I plan to take a long shower."
"What else is new?" Charlie teased. "You used the hot water up all the time when we were kids."
"The privileges of being the oldest." Don retorted.
"I'm the oldest," Alan jumped in, delighted at how the lines of tension seemed to be melting from Don's face. "But I'll make an exception in this case."
"How very generous of you." Don answered sarcastically as he rolled his neck to work out a kink. "Well, you two know where to find me..." He turned and climbed up the steps, leaving his family alone in the living room.
"Charlie, you did so well just now. Better than I would have, I think."
"I did learn from the best," the younger man smiled and rose from the couch. "I'm going to cook some soup for dinner. That way Don can reheat some if he gets hungry. I'll call you when it's ready."
Alan watched as Charlie retreated to the kitchen and allowed a huge smile of pride on his face. I really do have the best boys in the world. With that thought, he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, intent on resting up so he could be strong for when Don was finally ready to open up.
Don sighed as the hot water coursed over his body, easing his sore muscles while washing soot and tension down the drain. He closed his eyes and stuck his face into the spray, letting his senses focus only on the feel and sound of the rushing water.
It's all gone. The thought popped unbidden into his mind again. Everything you've ever saved, bought, used, counted on – it's all gone. He let out a weary sigh and placed his forehead on the cool tile of the shower stall. I've got so much to do now. Buy new clothes, furniture, find a place to live. Have to call the insurance agent – thank God I had renter's insurance. It's too much...
Don angrily grabbed the bottle of shampoo and squirted a large amount into his hands. He roughly worked it into his hair until his head was covered in a thick lather, but even the clean smell of the shampoo couldn't chase away the smell of smoke. That's never going to go away, Don despondently thought. Never.
Don rinsed his hair, and despite how useless he thought it would be, lathered his hair again. If that smell would just go away – well, maybe everything else would, too. The feelings of sadness and anger and loss. Deep down inside he knew that the thought was illogical and that the lingering smell was only in his mind, but he was desperate for some feeling of normalcy to return.
As he rinsed his hair a second time, his hand trailed over his left ear and he felt the familiar bump there. He'd been a freshman in college, enjoying the chance to shine far away from his brilliant little brother, and the older baseball team members had suggested an initiation rite. It had been something fairly simple, but something he knew his mother and father would have hated... so he'd jumped at the chance. Don would never forget the looks on their faces – Charlie's, too – when he came home that Thanksgiving with a small, silver loop in his ear. His mother had been more understanding than his father, but still hadn't liked that he had done something so 'drastic,' as she had put it. In fact, when he'd gone to Quantico and had to let the hole grow closed, she'd casually mentioned in one of her letters to him that she was glad that moment of rebellion was behind him. He smiled now as he remembered reading her delicate, cursive writing, and feeling the love as it poured through the words. He even still had that letter...
No, he growled silently. No, I don't have it anymore. I don't have anything of hers anymore. He quickly shoved his face back under the running water – making it much easier to convince himself that it was the shower that was wetting his face and not tears of sadness and loss. I miss you, Mom. More so now that you're really gone.
Don looked up sharply at the closed bathroom door. "Yeah?"
"Have you got everything you need in there?"
"Yes, Dad. I'm all set." Don unconsciously swiped at the moisture on his face and prayed his father wouldn't barge in on him.
"Okay, son. I'll be downstairs if you need me."
"Thanks," he called back as he sagged against the wall in relief. Can't be losing it in front of your family, Eppes. You're supposed to be their rock – not the other way around.
Still smelling the sickening stench of smoke, Don half-heartedly scrubbed his body one last time before turning off the water and drying off. He stood in front of the mirror and swiped a comb through his hair, frowning at the creases that still lined his face.
A nap, he thought suddenly. I just need some sleep and I'll be fine.
Don peeked into the hallway, verifying it was empty before slipping into his room and shutting the door. He smiled as he found the clothes Charlie had told him about lying neatly across the bed. Good ol' Charlie, always trying to look out for me. He quickly slipped into the clothes and slid beneath the covers. The fresh laundry smell of the sheets and his clothes, along with the lingering clean smell of the shower just barely masked the smoky smell. He sighed into the pillow and let his eyes drift close, and was soon he was fast asleep in the comforting environment of his childhood home.
Alan stealthily walked down the upstairs hallway until he reached the door to Don's room. He leaned close and listened carefully, making sure he confirmed the sound of deep breathing before quietly pushing the door open. He padded to the side of the bed and gazed down at his oldest son. Alan was relieved to see that the soot had been washed away, although he was still troubled by the look of complete exhaustion on Don's face even while he was sleeping. Don's hair was drying in a crazy assortment of spikes and Alan wanted so badly to reach out and smooth them back into place, but didn't dare for fear of waking his son.
Alan forced himself to turn away from the bed and let his eyes drift to the dresser, where there were three pictures of Don and Charlie, together at different ages, lined up along the edge. He smiled as he remembered Charlie placing them there for Don after he'd bought the house and insisted they set Don's old room up for him. Don had been extremely touched, and Alan had felt more than a little guilty that the thought of keeping Don's room had never occurred to him. As he shook the feeling off, he noticed a new picture on the dresser, separate from the original three. It was a family portrait of the four of them, taken a year before Margaret had gotten sick.
"Mom," Don suddenly mumbled from the bed. He restlessly tossed his head and frowned. "Mom," he muttered again, a hint of anguish in his voice.
Alan returned to the bed and lightly placed a hand on Don's cheek. "Shh," he whispered, his voice barely audible.
Don's movements stilled and he settled back into a deep sleep.
Alan wondered about Don's dreams. Why would this fire bring up memories of his mother? Margaret had never been in a fire, or even near one, except for camping. Yet Don seemed to be having bad dreams about her.
Then Don's words from earlier hit Alan like a ton of bricks: "I, um... I'll need to borrow some clothes, Dad. I... I don't have anything."
He doesn't have anything, Alan thought. He lost everything. Not just his apartment and his possessions, but everything – including his keepsakes. Anything he kept that was just between him and his mother is gone. No wonder he's missing her so much.
Alan gave his son one last lingering look before heading out to the garage. He had finally gotten rid of most of Margaret's stuff a few months ago, but he'd kept certain items that were of sentimental value. He smiled cheerfully as he thought that some of those things were about to come in very handy.
Don gradually woke to find the afternoon sun streaming in through the bedroom window. He yawned as the fog lifted from his mind and it dawned on him that he didn't remember having another nightmare about his mother. Finally starting to pull yourself together, Eppes. Atta boy.
There was a soft knock on the door, followed by Charlie's voice. "Don?"
"Come on in, Buddy."
Charlie smiled and walked into the room, dropping on the bed next to his brother. "Sleep well?"
"I did," Don assured him. "Thanks for the clean clothes and the sheets."
"My pleasure. You know, I don't have classes the rest of the week. If you need to go shopping, I'd be happy to keep you company."
Don fought back a sigh. That's right – he did have a lot of shopping and restocking ahead of him. "I appreciate it, Buddy, but you don't-"
"Have to," Charlie cut him off. "Yeah, yeah, I know. But, Don, I want to. Please?"
Don laughed. "Okay, fine. But for company only. We aren't even in the same universe when it comes to taste."
"Deal," Charlie beamed. "Although a change in wardrobe wouldn't hurt..."
Don lifted his pillow and threw it at Charlie, who just managed to duck out of the way. "Tell you what, I'll let you pick out some clothes for me, if I can pick out a hairstyle for you." He waggled his eyebrows and chuckled as Charlie gave him a look of mock panic. "That's what I thought."
Charlie grinned, happy to see Don's spirits lifting. "Hey, I made some soup if you're hungry."
"I'm hungrier than that," Don told him. "How about a pizza?"
"Sure," Charlie nodded. "My treat." Don opened his mouth but Charlie quickly shook his head. "I mean it – my treat, Don."
"Fine," Don agreed. "It'll be my treat when we have an apartment warming in a few days."
"Sounds like a plan." Charlie stood and gestured at the bed. "I can call you when the food gets here, if you want to sleep some more."
"That'd be great if you don't mind, Buddy." Don leaned back and let his eyelids droop.
"Later, Don." Charlie smiled lovingly at his brother – safe and sound and with his family, where he belonged.
Don had brushed his teeth and changed into one his father's old tees for sleeping when there was a knock at his door. "Come in," he called.
Alan poked his head in and smiled. "Good, you're not asleep yet."
"No," Don answered. "I slept most of the day today, remember?" His brow creased for a moment. "What are you still doing up?"
"I just wanted to check on my son before I went to bed," the older man answered as he stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. "And I was hoping you wouldn't mind talking for a minute."
No, Dad, Don thought. I still don't think I'm ready to talk. "I am getting pretty sleepy, actually."
"Humor an old man," Alan teased. "You owe me for not calling."
"Fine," Don sighed and rolled his eyes. He dropped onto the mattress and motioned for his father to join him.
Alan obeyed him and patted his knee. "I'm so glad that you're okay, Donny. I don't know what I'd do if something ever happened to you, do you know that?"
"Yeah, sure," Don shrugged and avoided his father's gaze. He really didn't want to be having this talk.
"Good," Alan smiled. "Now, is there anything you want to talk about? Anything at all?"
"Look, Dad, I really appreciate your concern, but I don't think there's anything to talk about."
"Really?" the older man asked skeptically. "You experienced a great loss yesterday. I would think there was something."
He's right, you know. You do need to talk about what happened. He met his father's worried gaze and decided to take the plunge. "I know this sounds silly, but I... I feel like I've lost them."
"Kim, Terry... Mom. All the stuff I kept that reminded me of them – it's all gone now. I mean, I know they were just things, not the people, but still..."
"I know how you feel, son. Why do you think I held on to your mother's stuff for so long?" He placed a hand on Don's shoulder and lightly squeezed. "But after seeing how concerned you and your brother were, I took a step back and reevaluated my feelings. You know what I found out?"
"What?" Don whispered as he held his father's gaze.
"That the most important keepsakes are here," he paused as he touched Don's temple. "And here." He laid his hand over his son's heart. "Those are the things that really count – your memories. That's what keeps them alive."
"I know that," Don nodded as he covered his father's hand with his own. "I really do, but it's still hard. I feel... Well, I feel alone." He expected his father to protest – to tell him that he and Charlie would always be there for him – and was surprised when Alan gave him a quizzical look.
Don swallowed. Can I really explain this to Dad? Will he understand? He looked at his father, his gaze intense with a desire to help Don ease his pain. I'll never know if I don't try. "It's just... You and Charlie still have stuff from Mom. I mean, stuff that was just between her and you. I can still come here and see her pictures, her letters, her music, but none of that was something between her and me. All I had for that were her letters. So I guess I feel alone in that you two don't know how I feel."
"That makes perfect sense to me."
"It does?" Don asked in disbelief.
"Yes," Alan nodded emphatically. "I can only imagine how I would feel if I lost her love letters, or any of the things I kept that was just between me and her."
Don felt a weight lifting from his shoulders. "Thank you for understanding, Dad."
"That's what I'm here for." Alan lightly patted Don's cheek. "And I think I have something that will cheer you up." He pulled a plastic bag full of letters from his pocket. "Consider it your first housewarming gift for your new place."
Don reverently took the bag and read the headings on the letters. "These are the letters I sent Mom from Quantico," he spoke softly. "She kept them."
"Of course she kept them, Donny. You were her son and she loved you. It helped her to feel that you were nearby."
Don looked up and raised an eyebrow. "You kept them?" he asked doubtfully.
"Call me sentimental," Alan sighed. "But when you and your brother talked me into getting rid of her stuff, there were still some things I needed to keep. Those were part of what I kept."
"But don't you want-"
The older man cut Don off by gently gripping his wrist. "Those were something between you and her. She'd want you to have them." He paused and watched the emotions that passed across his oldest son's face. "You know, she used to read them so much, I swear I can still smell a trace of her perfume when I open the bag."
Don looked up, his eyes wide and sad. "You too? I thought that was just me." He set the bag on the nightstand, lightly running his hand over the smooth plastic before turning to face his father again. "This means a lot to me, Dad." He gave in to an impulsive moment, leaning over and enveloping the older man in a fierce embrace. "A lot."
"My pleasure, Donny." Alan clapped his son on the back and planted a quick kiss on his forehead, ducking away before Don could protest. "You feel like getting some sleep?"
"I think I can now," Don smiled back appreciatively.
"Alright then. I'll see you in the morning." He rose and walked to the doorway, lightly running his fingers along the frame that held the Eppes family portrait. "Rest up, son. I heard Charlie planning out a list of places for you two to visit tomorrow. I predict a lot of 'difference of opinions' in your future."
Don groaned as he flopped back onto the bed. "It's his way of showing he cares, I know."
"As long as you know that we do care and that you're never alone," Alan stated as he flipped off the light. "That's all that matters."