Angel Serenade

I wrote this thinking about Betty, who has been so patient with me for taking so long with DD2. I hope you like this, Betty. I wrote it for your angel.

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Alan wrapped Don in his arms and tried to give him comfort.

"It'll be alright. You'll see."

"No it won't." Don yanked away from his father.

Alan shifted in the stiff plastic hospital chair. Don walked over to the window, his hands on his hips. "Donny, you have to think about Liz right now."

Don's shoulders sank and his body slumped as his father continued talking.

"You've waited so long and now you've been blessed…"

"Like Charlie?" Don asked resentfully.

"Donny…"

"You know what I mean." His words were angry. "All these years waiting…all the tests we went through, the doctors we've seen…but not Charlie, oh no, not Charlie."

"Donny, people are blessed in different ways."

"I know that," Don snapped, 'but it's not fair. It's never been fair. He has one right after the other like a walk in the park."

"That's what happens sometimes, Donny. Only God knows why…"

"But he has so much already…everything goes his way…"

"I wouldn't say that, Donny."

"Wouldn't you? When he sets out to do something, it comes out perfect…but not me. I finally give Liz a child and I can't even do that right."

With this self-condemnation, tears finally came.

That night, Alan prayed that Don would have strength.

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"Come near the Christmas tree, Angel," Liz called to her five-year-old daughter.

Angel Eppes turned her head towards her mother, tilting it. "Nah, Mah-mee. Play." She turned back to look out the front bay window, laughing at her cousins as they tumbled around outside.

Don came from the kitchen, drying his hands on a towel.

"Dishes all done," he told Liz, tossing aside the towel and dropping beside her on the couch.

"You didn't have to."

"Least I can do, considering…"

"Don," Liz snuggled into his arms. "Charlie's told you a million times you don't have to feel obligated to do things around the house."

"But I do," Don said sullenly.

"You shouldn't."

"But I do."

It was a losing argument, but Liz never gave up trying.

"We've lived here for almost five years now. How long before you consider this our home- not just Charlie's."

"Is never too long?"

"Don…"

He pulled away from her and sat forward, staring at his feet. "I can't change how I feel. If Charlie hadn't taken us in, we'd be stuck in that tiny apartment. "

Liz sighed.

"If you remember," she said gently, "I did offer to keep my job."

"And who would have taken care of Angel?"

"Amita has been an extra set of hands…"

"I know, I know." It was bad enough he had to rely on his family to help with Angel; he would have been damned if he had agreed to allow Liz to stay on the job and let the rest of his family raise their only child.

"And your dad. More than anybody, really."

Don watched as Angel leaned forward, her breath fogging the window. She swayed a little in excitement and he jumped up, ready to race the few feet across the room so he could keep her from falling. But quickly, with an agility developed from experience, she put out the crutch circling her right arm and found her balance again. With a relieved sigh, Don sat down. But his eyes never left the braces encasing his daughter's legs.

"And the medical bills," Don said thoughtfully. "I'd have to work until I'm ninety to pay him back."

"We could have gone to the doctors the insurance was willing to pay for…"

Both parents were silent. Liz knew that was a lie. When one had to, sure, you went where the insurance would pay. However, when one had a rich relative willing to send you to the best…

"Bye," Angel suddenly cried sadly. "Byebyebyebye."

Don joined her at the window. Charlie and Amita were leading their kids to a neighborhood gathering at the end of the block. Angel placed her forehead on the glass, her eyes misting behind the thick glasses she wore.

"Byebyebye," she cried softly.

"It's too wet and cold," Don tried to explain.

But he knew she couldn't understand. She never would. Her cousins would be able to do-and learn-so many things that were beyond her capabilities. Don had no way of communicating to her that hard reality so she could comprehend and accept it. How could she? Don had yet to grasp that reality himself.

Angel started crying harder, her breath becoming shallow and ragged.

"Get her inhaler," Don told Liz. He cursed himself for not having kept Angel from seeing her cousins leave the house in the first place. Then he wrapped his daughter in his arms, trying to calm her down.

That night, Don prayed that his daughter didn't have to live in his brother's house.

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"Come on, Angel," Liz called across the front yard.

"Da," Angel cried in return.

"Coming!" Don stepped through the door and joined his daughter on the front porch. "When's the bus supposed to get here?"

"Any time between 7:15 and 7:30," Liz told him.

She put the digital recorder to her eye and walked backwards to the sidewalk, trying to get the best angle.

Charlie came out of the house and joined Don.

"Hey, bro," he said cheerfully. He clapped Don on the back and gave Angel's hair a soft tussle. "Her first day of school…are you nervous?"

Don gave Charlie his best scowl. "What the hell do you think?"

Charlie shook his head, grinning. "Gotta let 'em go sometime. On Alan's first day, I had to use a crowbar to get Amita's hands off him. Not anymore…you see how she counts the minutes till that first bus arrives? Now she puts her hands on the kids so she can toss them out of the house."

Through the screen door behind them, they could hear screeching followed by Amita's harsh voice.

"Michael Jonathon, you put your shoes back on right now!"

Charlie winced. "Better go help."

"Amita or the kids?" Don laughed as Charlie slinked back inside.

"What time do you have?" Liz yelled.

"7:22," Don yelled back. He dropped to a knee and eyed Angel. She grinned back at him, wavering back and forth. Moments later, a gaggle of children slammed open the front door. Don pulled Angel to him, watching as Charlie's four sons and solitary daughter came bounding out of the house. They pushed against each other, laughing. Maggie dropped onto the top stair, pulling a sock up her seven-year-old leg, her twin brother David depositing himself beside her.

The other three kids jumped off the porch and ran down the street to the corner, standing with a group of kids already gathered there.

Charlie came outside again. "They didn't hurt Angel, did they?"

"No, no. Just acting like typical kids," Don assured his brother.

Normal…

Maggie suddenly came up the stairs and stood next to her cousin. "Come on, Angel," she said innocently, "we have to go."

Her brother joined her. "Don't you know anything, Maggie," he said with an air of authority, "Angel has to ride the retarded bus."

Don's smile left his face.

The world spun around him and suddenly the day seemed dark. He was aware that Charlie was yelling at Dave. He heard the little boy repeat his remark and argue it was a fact. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Charlie take the boy inside and moments later, the sound of a bottom being spanked came to his ears.

"Don! Don!" Liz was jumping up and down on the sidewalk excitedly. "The bus is coming! Bring Angel down."

Mechanically, Don helped his daughter down the front stairs and to the bus, noting it was smaller than the regular one. He was vaguely aware that he kissed her good-bye. And he paid no real attention when a disgruntled nephew came up and apologized to him with tears in his eyes and rubbing a sore bottom before running down the street.

Liz waved at Angel one last time; then she contentedly put her arm through Don's.

That night, Don prayed that his daughter didn't have to ride that damn, little school bus.

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Alan wrapped Don in his arms and tried to give him comfort.

"It'll be alright. You'll see."

Don didn't respond.

Alan continued talking. "The doctors say she might be fine. If her lungs were just better developed…"

Don pulled away and went to the waiting room window. Liz came into the room and headed straight towards him, falling into his arms.

"I don't know what to do." She started sobbing.

Don ran his fingers through her long hair. It was so unlike her daughter's. Angel's hair was cut short because it took a long time to grow and was difficult to manage.

But he loved to brush it anyway.

Later that night in the children's ward, Don stood next to Angel's hospital bed and gasped. There were so many tubes coming out of her tiny body she was almost lost underneath.

"She's sleeping," Liz quietly told him. She was sitting in a chair, her hand grasping her daughter's pale fingers. "The doctor has her on the strongest pain medication he could give her."

Don nodded and sat beside his wife.

"She was asking for you earlier."

"I wanted to come…"

"I know, sweetheart." Liz dropped her head onto Don's shoulder.

"Did the doctor say anything new?"

"No- just the same old things. They're doing their best…they're trying everything they can…" Liz started crying again.

Don put an arm around her shoulder. He didn't know what to say.

When Liz walked out to get some coffee, Charlie came inside. He put a hand on Don's back in support.

"She'll be okay. You'll see."

When Don didn't respond, Charlie continued. "I remember the first time Mikey went to the hospital. His fever was so high…I thought he'd never cool down. Amita was just frantic. It was worst when his sister had to go."

"Angel's not one of your kids, Charlie," Don said heatedly.

Confused, Charlie stuttered, "I-I know, Don…"

"She's not one of your oh-so-perfect brats that have to be run to the hospital every time they catch a little cold."

Charlie stepped back a couple paces, anguished for his brother.

"I know it's been difficult, Don."

"Do you, Charlie? Do you really?"

Not knowing how to answer, Charlie assured Don again. "You'll see. She'll be okay."

"Angel's never been okay," Don stated simply before turning his back on his brother.

Charlie stood there a few moments more, fighting the desire to throw his arms around Don. Instead, he told him, "If you need anything, just ask." Then he left.

Don moved closer to Angel and took her hand. He would never have believed it possible, but she was frailer than she'd ever been before. In her sleep, Angel cried out. Quickly, Don pressed the buzzer for the nurse. He whispered loving words in his daughter's ear, crying to ease away her pain.

That night, Don prayed that his daughter wouldn't hurt anymore.

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The funeral was private.

The casket was small, a flurry of angels resting at each corner.

Don told Liz he wouldn't attend. Alan talked him into going.

The Eppes gathered around the tiny gravesite, each one with tears running down their cheeks. Except Don, who stood emotionlessly in the midst of them all, half-listening to the minister speak.

..we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven…

Don's mouth tweaked and his eyes blinked rapidly. .

neither will there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, any more…

Don shivered. Liz wrapped her arm tighter in his and leaned against him.

he will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body.

Don took his arm from Liz and turned and walked away.

He returned to the Bureau the next day, though he still had another week off. He sat behind his desk staring off into space for hours. His secretary delegated his work to others.

No one complained.

At home, Don never spoke. Liz cried at night in his arms, but he offered no comfort. He allowed her to lie against him, but he said nothing to her.

He refused to touch her hair.

When Liz began cleaning out Angel's room, Don hid out in the back yard and refused to help. Charlie and his dad carried the items out to a rental truck in front of the house. As Charlie was driving away, Don came around front and noted the truck was the smallest size available. Then he climbed into his SUV, drove to a local bar, and got drunker than the day he graduated from Quantico.

A month after the funeral, Liz confronted him. They sat alone in the living room, the house to themselves.

"Don, you have to talk to me. I know you're hurting, but it won't help to keep it bottled up inside."

He remained quiet, all his thoughts wound tightly into a ball.

"Don, there was nothing they could do.." She waited silently for him to answer.

Finally, the ball began to unravel. He said bitterly, "What about us? What about me?"

"Don," Liz said, taking his hand, "you're only a man. Who knows why God decides what he does."

He turned away from her, dropped his head in his hands sobbing.

"It's all my fault," he choked.

"No, baby, no…" Liz laid back and pulled Don on top of her, held his head against her breast and wrapped his body between her legs. She kissed his forehead and brushed her fingers through his hair. "How can you possibly blame yourself?"

"You don't understand," he cried into her neck, "Liz- I think I prayed my Angel away."

He was inconsolable.

"No, baby, no," Liz said softly, "don't think like that…"

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"Now, are you absolutely certain about this?"

Don tapped his fingers impatiently. Liz smiled sweetly. "Yes, again- we are absolutely certain."

"Well, now." The woman pushed her glasses up her nose and did a cliché shuffling of the papers she was holding. "The documents your lawyer submitted are all in order. We only have a few more things to go over."

Don sighed loudly.

The woman glanced at him disapprovingly. "You don't seem to have much patience."

Immediately, Don sat upright and beamed at her. "Oh, no. Take your time. We settled a tough case yesterday, so I'm just a little tired, that's all."

"Your job was one of my concerns."

"I mainly do desk duty now," he said nervously. They were so close, but he was suddenly terrified something would go wrong and the agency would change its mind. "And I work normal hours- I'm home every night at six." He leaned forward, pointing at the papers in the woman's hands. "If you just look at our background checks and interviews."

"I already have," the woman replied stiffly. Her glasses slipped back down her nose. She stared over the top of them, looking down at Don. "We just have to be extra careful."

"We understand," Liz said pleasantly. She took Don's hand and rubbed it reassuringly. "I'm at home full-time, and we have a wonderful extended family."

"Yes," Don said, bobbing his head up and down, "My brother's wife works out of our home and my father's there all the time."

"He's quite old isn't he?"

"Well, yes, but in really good health," Don said. He wiped his sweaty right palm on the top of his pants. Why the questions? They had already been through this months ago.

"And our nephews and nieces are teenagers," Liz added, "they'll be able to help, too."

"Mmm," the woman murmured. "I hope they're well-behaved."

"Yes!" Don and Liz exclaimed together.

Seemingly satisfied at last, the woman pressed her intercom and spoke into it. "You can come in now, Freda."

Liz and Don twisted in their seats, watching the door with anticipation. Freda came through moments later, carrying a small bundle in her arms. She naturally went to Liz and was about to hand it over to her; but Don's arms were stretched out so far ahead in front of him and his face looked so eager, she paused.

When Liz nodded her okay, Freda carefully passed the baby to Don.

As Freda left the room, the woman before the Eppes pulled out a clipboard.

"Now," she said, "all we have to do is go over everything that's wrong with her one more time. Once you sign a final acknowledgement that you were informed, you'll be free to take her home." The woman began going over the list on her clipboard, checking things off as she spoke.

Don's eyes softened as he gazed at the baby in front of him. He put his face forward, nuzzling her with his nose. Though she could neither see nor hear him- and never would- somehow, the baby was instinctively aware her new daddy was holding her. She put up a tiny hand to his face and opened her mouth, her lips brushing his with a welcoming kiss. Don whispered against her skin, "Don't listen to that silly woman. There's nothing wrong with you…You're perfect, just like my first little angel."

That night, Don dropped to his knees besides his daughter's crib, bowed his head and prayed.

"Thank you."