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!
"Thank you, Agent Eppes."
Don couldn't believe Maria Lowndes was saying thank you. He certainly wasn't delivering good news of any kind. Quite the opposite, in fact.
"It means a lot that you're the one telling me."
The tremor in her voice was matched only by the trembling of her small frame beneath his hand. He held her gaze as he waited for her to form her next words.
Oh God, she was going to ask that question. Don put on his poker face, knowing what was coming and hating himself for what he was about to do.
"Did he suffer?"
Did he suffer? Her husband had been bound, beaten, cut, burned, and – after three days – his torment finally ended with a bullet fired into his brain once his abductors realized they'd kidnapped the wrong man. "No, Mrs. Lowndes, it doesn't appear that he suffered." Knowing that she would probably find out the details of her husband's torment, Don firmed up the believability of one lie with another. "We've determined that he was unconscious the entire time."
"That's something to be thankful for."
Don nodded silently and marveled at her ability to remain calm at such a difficult time. Must be shock. It has to be shock.
Her seven year old son appeared at that moment, dragging his three year old brother behind him. Maria's shoulder steadied beneath his hand as she smiled down at her now fatherless children. "Go back and watch your cartoons," she told them in a strong voice. "Mommy will be there in a bit."
Don swallowed past the lump in his throat as the older boy stared up at him with wide-eyed innocence – an innocence he knew was about to be shattered forever. As the child continued to stare at him, Don got the absurd idea that the young boy was reading his mind so he tried to think happy thoughts. "I hear there's a Sponge Bob special on."
"That's right," the widow said in a cheerful voice. "That's Joey's and Eric's favorite cartoon." She bent down and hugged them both before gently ushering them into the living room, where something caught the agent's eye. "Stay put," she whispered as she closed the door as if to protect them from the horrible reality that had been thrust upon them.
Don fought down a wave of despair as he realized what he'd seen – a huge, brightly lit Christmas tree, decorated with child-crafted ornaments. Two holidays ruined at once and I'm the one doing it.
"I'll have to tell them soon," Maria spoke softly, almost as if she was talking to herself. "I think I should let them get through Thanksgiving first. I'd hate for them to remember today as the day their…" She shivered in the warmth of the small house and Don was surprised to find himself holding her tightly to him.
"I'm so sorry," he uttered.
"Don't be," the widow told him. "I know how hard you worked on the case and for you to be here on Thanksgiving when you could be with your family – that means a lot to me."
But I could have delayed telling you by one day and not ruined it for you. I should have-
"I'm actually relieved," Maria continued. "Not knowing hurt so bad, especially with all of the images I had in my head – all the thoughts of what might be happening to him. Knowing, well, it somehow makes it easier." She gave a breathy laugh as she pulled away from Don. "Crazy, huh?"
"Not at all," the agent assured her.
"Thank you again," she smiled sadly.
"Do you have family that you can call?"
"They got snowed in at the airport in Boston. They'll be here as soon as possible."
"Would you like for me to stay for a while?"
"No, I'll be fine." She gripped his hand and squeezed tightly. "I don't want to keep you away from your family any more on a day like today. Go be with them."
I would, but they're not here. I'll just go back to an empty apartment and think about how little in this world there is to be thankful for.
"Honestly," Maria spoke again, sensing his hesitance. "I need some time alone with my boys."
"Okay," Don replied as he handed her his card. "Call me – day or night – if you need anything."
"I will, Agent Eppes." She mustered up every bit of strength she could and gave him a tearful smile. "Happy Thanksgiving."
Don wearily trudged up the stairs to his apartment, trying to convince himself that spending Thanksgiving alone wasn't the worst thing that could happen. Of course it's not – look at Mrs. Lowndes. At least you haven't lost a loved one today. They may not be with you, but they are alive and well.
He suddenly had an urge to call his father and brother to verify that they were indeed alright, but quickly stifled the urge as irrational and foolish. No, they're at Aunt Sylvia's with the rest of the family, enjoying her turkey and Aunt Irene's famous dressing. They had been reluctant to go since that would leave Don alone, but he'd assured them he would be busy working on an important case. Now part of him wanted to go join in on the fun, but part of him was still too depressed about what he'd just been through. No, I'll stay here. It's a four hour drive and I'm in no shape to be on the road that long.
Reaching his apartment, Don slipped inside and locked the door behind him. He was on his way to his bedroom when he smelled something unexpected. I'm craving my family's dinner so much that I'm smelling it? Time to go to bed before you start seeing things, too.
As he reached his living room, Don became certain that the lack of sleep and stress of the day had finally caught up with him and he was actually seeing things. There's no way Dad and Charlie are actually asleep on my couch. They're a couple of hundred miles away… right? "Dad?" he called before he could stop himself.
"Donny?" Alan mumbled around a yawn as he opened his eyes. "It's about time you got home."
"I've had a long day," the agent apologized. Wait a second… "What are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be at Aunt Sylvia's?"
"We were," Alan told him as he jostled Charlie awake. "We ate and drove back so we could spend some time with you, too."
"Hey, Don," the sleepy professor mumbled. "You missed a great dinner today."
"Thanks for rubbing it in," Don grumbled, trying to keep his tone playful but failing miserably.
"No worries, bro," Charlie smiled. "We brought leftovers."
"In fact," Alan groaned as he pushed himself off the couch. "They're reheated and waiting in the oven. Have a seat and I'll bring you a plate."
"I can get it," Don tried to protest.
"No," his father commanded. "You had to work today and I can tell by the look on your face just how worn out you are. Sit and let me serve you."
"Better take advantage," his younger brother teased. "You know you'll never hear him say those words again."
"Right," the agent laughed as the tension of the day started to fade away. He sat at his small dining table, smiling as Charlie joined him.
"You okay?" the professor asked his brother. "You look really beat."
"It wasn't a good day," Don quietly replied.
"Want to share?"
"No," the agent replied in a tone that left no room for discussion. Seeing the wounded look on the younger man's face, Don tried to soften the blow. "I just can't talk about it right now, okay?"
"I understand," his little brother promised him. "But I'm here if you change your mind."
"Oh, I almost forgot!" the professor exclaimed with a huge grin. "I'm supposed to give you something from Aunt Irene and Aunt Sylvia." He leaned over and gave Don two quick hugs before grabbing and pinching his cheeks.
"Hey!" Don shouted in protest. "What do you-"
"Don't hurt the messenger," Charlie managed to speak through his fit of laughter. "Even if he did enjoy delivering the message."
"Here you go," Alan said as he appeared with a plate loaded with an enormous amount of food.
"You're lucky I'm so hungry," the agent muttered as he dug in. After two bites he noticed exactly how much was on his plate. "You do realize there's no way I'm going to be able to finish this, right?"
"It's Thanksgiving, Don," his father reminded him. "Eat till you're more stuffed than the turkey."
"Right," Don snorted. "Seriously, thanks for this. You two didn't have to drive all the way back here tonight just for this."
"Of course we did," Alan said as he smiled at his sons. "It's not Thanksgiving without your family by your side. Especially when they're the thing I'm most thankful for."
"Me too," Charlie agreed.
"Yeah," Don said with a forced smile, grief rising in his heart as he thought of another family. "Me too."
"Then hurry up and finish already," Alan urged. "We can catch the tail end of the Kansas City-Denver game."
"So someone's thankful for his bookie this year, too?" Don wearily joked.
Rolling his eyes, the older man chuckled. "Humor me, Donny. I promise I'll make a resolution to give up gambling next year."
"At least he doesn't have a house to gamble away," Charlie joined in, sternly eyeing his father. "Why do you think I bought it?"
"You two are a laugh a minute," Alan grumbled as he stood up from the table. "Just for that I'll let you take care of the dishes while I watch the game."
The two brothers made a half-hearted attempt to stifle their laughter as their father left them for the company of the television. Don slowly grew somber again and pushed at the mountain of food that still filled his plate.
"You going to eat that or play with it?" his little brother teased. "You know what Mom always said about playing with our food."
"Mom," Don whispered softly, his heart aching as he thought of another mother and her two sons. He clamped his jaw shut and tried to contain the wave of sorrow that washed over him.
"Don?" Charlie was asking, his voice low and soft and full of concern. "You with me, bro?"
The agent shook his head and offered up a weak smile. "Just tired. Turkey does that, you know."
"Not usually quite so fast," the professor noted dryly. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I should put this up before it goes bad." Don abruptly stood and carted the plate into his small kitchen, losing himself in the task of finding a container in which to store the leftovers. He had ransacked three cabinets before a gentle yet firm grip landed on his shoulder, halting his movements and tugging at him to turn around. He set his mask in place and gave in, nearly flinching at the alarm he saw in his little brother's eyes.
"Talk to me," Charlie pleaded.
"No," Don shook his head. I won't ruin your Thanksgiving, too.
"Something's bothering you," the younger man observed. "I want to help."
Help? You got a time machine so I can go back and save an innocent man? Or a machine that will erase the memory of the Lowndes family and how I destroyed them? "You can't help me, Charlie."
"Try me," his little brother insisted. "What can it hurt?"
"You," Don breathed as he tried to brush past the smaller man. He let out a huff of surprise as Charlie blocked his path and leaned in until their faces were inches from each other. "Charlie," he growled in warning. "Move."
"Make me," the professor hissed back. "You can't hurt me any more than I hurt watching you right now. Something happened today, Don. Let me help you."
"Even a genius like you can't fix everything." Don winced at the hurt on Charlie's face at the word 'genius', but he was desperate to get his brother to back off.
A look of resolve hardened on the youngest Eppes' features and he folded his arms across his chest, shaking his head as he studied the agent's face. "Nice try, but I'm not going to drop this. Talk to me – let me share your pain. I promise it will help you."
"Fine," Don sighed, fighting back a tiny grin at his brother's dogged determination. "But remember – you're asking for it."
"I ruined a family's holiday today," he stated as he wearily leaned against the kitchen counter.
"The kidnapping case you were working on?"
Don nodded mutely as he studied his kitchen floor, his eyes drifting along the swirling pattern imprinted on the linoleum.
"You found the man who was abducted?"
"Dead," Don replied quietly.
"This one really bothered you, huh?" Charlie inquired, and Don knew he was referring to his usual detachment from the cases.
"He didn't – no more so than other victims. But his family… That's what got to me."
"Oh," his younger brother responded sympathetically.
"Two boys – four years apart. Now it's just them and their mother. Kind of reminds me of…"
"Right." Don sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "It's not exactly the same, but I keep thinking about us when Mom died. Only this family has to go through it at this time of year. How are they supposed to deal with something like that?"
"The same way we coped when Mom died," his brother told him confidently. "They turn to each other for support. Those brothers will probably grow up closer than we ever were as kids and the bond with their mother will be as strong as ours is with Dad."
"I hope you're right."
"Hey, who drove over two hundred miles today just to spend time with you today?" Charlie lightly teased. "Trust me, Don, they'll be okay."
Don gave his brother a grateful smile and draped his arm around the younger man's shoulders. "Thanks, Buddy. I really needed that."
"Any time," the professor assured him. "Shall we join Dad? See if he's winning or losing?"
"Of course," Don grinned. "I don't know about you, but I'd love to know how nice our Hanukkah presents are going to be this year."