Title: Permanent Consequences
Chapter 13: Sunset
TIMELINE: Present Day; Don's Day, The Third Trimester
Don couldn't remember the last time he had ridden a bus. Charlie hadn't been driving that long before the shooting, so he was used to alternate forms of transportation…not that he was riding his bike much these days. Don could see the large vehicle lumbering down the street toward the campus bus stop and waited anxiously for Charlie to tell him what to do. Students loitering in and around the tiny glass booth began advancing to the curb, leaving Don with a vague sense of claustrophobia as they towered over him.
"Just let them get on first," Charlie said quietly, as if reading his mind. "We need to go the wheelchair lift near the back door."
Before Don could answer, a burly undergrad leaned over and stuck his face almost into his brother's. "Hey, Dr. Eppes. You and your friend need some help, today?"
Don fully expected Charlie to politely refuse. If the day had taught him anything so far, it was that Charlie could handle himself. He was a little surprised, then, when he saw Charlie nod. "Yes, Dennis, thank you. If you could just help us onto the ramp..." He looked over at Don's startled expression. "Not the smoothest lift in the world," he explained, then he raised an eyebrow. "And don't forget your first lesson this morning."
Don remembered: "Learn how to accept help." He had learned today, in his brief outing, that the world was not a friendly place to someone who sat down on the job, so to speak, and he began to understand that lesson #1 was probably the most difficult for some people to learn. He was sure it would have been for him. Now he just nodded silently, as the bus finally pulled into the curb.
The students – except Dennis – dissipated into the front entrance, while Don followed Charlie and Dennis to the back. The bus driver had seen them – or maybe he was used to picking Charlie up here – and the wheelchair ramp began to lower as the wide back entrance opened. By the time the hydraulic lift was on the sidewalk, Charlie had positioned himself just in front of the lip. He would have let Don go first, but he understood that Don needed to see him perform the task, first. So Charlie let Dennis push him over the metal lip, and secure his chair to the ramp using the restraints provided. Don could see that Dennis must help Charlie out a lot, and he was relieved to know that there was somebody helping him when he and his father weren't around. As the lift began to ascend, Don rolled a little closer to watch Charlie, who grinned down at him. "Just like Disneyland," he quipped, and Don smiled. As the ramp leveled out with the bus interior, Charlie leaned over and released the restraints, as well as the locks on his wheelchair, and rolled off. The lift lowered again for Don, as Charlie positioned himself in one of the back corners that the bus system had torn seats out of to accommodate wheelchairs.
Don let Dennis repeat his performance, unaccountably nervous, and managed to thank him as the lift began to rise. When it was high enough that he could see where Charlie was sitting, and the small bus-token receptacle jutting out of the floor next to him – an obvious afterthought – Don was a little perturbed. Were paraplegics the new Rosa Parks, relegated to the back of the bus? Don looked toward the front of the bus, and didn't see anywhere else where they could go.
The lift jolted to a stop, and for a moment he forgot what to do. Charlie smiled at him encouragingly, and Don remembered to lean over and work on the restraints. As he did so, he heard a snide, masculine voice echoing in the bus. "Great. First the bus is almost 10 minutes late, and now we have to wait for not one, but two of them. We're even farther behind schedule, now!"
Don looked up sharply, finding the owner of the voice a few seats away. He forgot that he was one of the people the man was complaining about, and remembered only that Charlie was in a wheelchair. "This is a public bus system! Who the hell do you think you are?" He had his hands on the arms of the chair, ready to stand, when he saw Charlie frown and hesitated.
"I'm gonna be late for work again," the stranger growled right back at him. "My boss ain't gonna care that it's your fault, he's gonna dock me anyway!" He looked at Charlie with disgust. "You guys qualify for all kinds of government assistance anyway, you probably don't even know what getting to work on time means!"
Don had thought everything he had done that day was difficult, but nothing was as hard as keeping his seat and not punching that asshole right through the side of the bus. He sat fuming until Dennis crossed in front of him. The student had run down the sidewalk while the ramp was lifting, hopped onto the bus and made his way down the aisle. Now he tugged Don's chair off the ramp where it still sat. "Don't mind him," he said quietly as he pushed Don into the space next to Charlie. "Everybody knows he's full of it. You all set, Professor?"
Charlie casually placed a hand on Don's arm and smiled up at Dennis. "Yes. Thank-you, Dennis." The young man turned and walked halfway back up the aisle until he found a vacant seat. As soon as he was down, the bus pulled away from the curb.
Don glared in the direction of the man -- even though he had lost real eye contact with him when Dennis had shoved him into the corner -- for several miles, breathing heavily. Neither brother spoke for several stops, until the guy finally got up to disembark, shooting them a final dirty look.
Don saw Charlie smile, then casually flip him off. He couldn't believe what he just saw, and he grinned in spite of himself. "Did you just…"
"Yeah," Charlie answered. "Every time I've ridden the bus for the last three weeks, this guy has made some comment." He looked apologetically at Don. "He's never been quite that bad before, though. I'm sorry."
Don shook his head. "Why? Geez, Charlie, that asshole isn't your responsibility!" Don was still fuming from the original confrontation, and now felt even worse, knowing that his brother put up with this on a regular basis. "How often do you hear stuff like that?"
Charlie shrugged, and grinned a little. "Honestly? Probably not as often as it's said. You know me. I tend to space out every now and then. Although I'm trying to be more careful about that. Last week I ran over a woman outside the physical therapy office. Luckily, she was bringing someone else in, so it's not like she was on crutches or anything." He looked suddenly chagrined. "Although she could be, now."
Don laughed, although he was still appalled that people such as that bus rider were part of Charlie's world – part of anybody's, for that matter. He managed to get his mind off it when another thought filled his consciousness with fear. "Do you still have therapy, today?"
It was Charlie's turn to laugh now. "Relax, Don. I don't have that on the days I teach. Negotiating the campus is enough of a workout, don't you think?"
"You said it," grumbled his brother, massaging one sore bicep.
By the time they arrived at their own stop, Dennis was long-gone. In fact, the bus was mostly empty, so Don and Charlie had to push themselves onto and off the lift, over the unforgiving lip. Don looked up as the bus pulled away from the curb. He was grateful the sidewalk was more or less even all the way home. On the other hand, it was almost three blocks, and he wasn't looking forward to it. His hands had blisters on them now. "I won't be able to hold a gun for a week," he grumbled, trailing after Charlie. Again he had to suppress the urge to get up out of the chair and do some physical damage to someone, when he heard his brother laugh.
It was 4:30 in the afternoon by the time they rolled up the ramp into the front door of the house. The ramp wasn't quite as steep as the one to the kitchen door, so Charlie took pity on his brother, claiming he had to stop and check for the mail. Once inside, Charlie rolled toward the dining room. He stopped to sling his backpack on the table. "I'll probably just grade these tests until Dad gets home around 6," he said. "You can transfer to the couch and watch the news, or something. Remember to lift your legs up onto it with your hands, if you lay down!"
Don didn't have to be told twice, and he stopped abruptly in the living room and then began to back up a little to the couch. Charlie started up again, toward the kitchen. "I'm getting some water," he called behind him. "Want a beer or something?"
Don could hardly believe it himself when he said no, but he honestly thought lifting a beer bottle to his lips right now might be too much for his arms. While Don settled on the couch, Charlie continued into the kitchen, stopping at the refrigerator. Opening the door to grab a bottle of water, he saw the plastic bag of marinating steaks that his father must have put in there at some point this morning. He leaned inside to grab the bag, shake it, and turn it over, then plucked out a water bottle. Closing the door, he opened the bottle and took a long drink. Then he re-capped it, laid it in his lap, and headed back for the dining room. As he passed again through the swinging door, he looked at Don on the couch, and grinned.
His brother was fast asleep. He hadn't even managed to turn on the television.
Don woke up because he smelled tri tip on the broiler, and he was drooling. He groaned and rolled over before he remembered where he was, and quickly thrust a leg out to keep himself from tumbling off the couch. He sat up slowly, lifting an arm to rub his eyes and wincing at the sudden clenching pain in his upper arm muscles.
"Not as easy as you thought it would be?"
Don heard his father's voice and looked over to see him peering at him over his glasses from the easy chair, open book held on his lap.
Don yawned. "Never thought it was easy. Just didn't expect it to be so hard," he answered truthfully. He looked around dully, knowing he would have to lie down again and transfer the proper way. "Where's my chair?"
Alan stood, looking at his watch. "Dinner's almost ready. It's in the back of your SUV, so you can take it back. Charlie asked me to put it there."
Don looked up at him, confused. "What? Why? Won't he still go to the garage for awhile, or something? At the very least, he has to go to bed."
Alan started for the kitchen. "Acutally, he's already started the laundry and graded half his papers. He'll do the other half tonight, or in the morning before therapy. Why don't you go out to the koi pond, and tell him dinner is almost ready." He paused at the door, looking back seriously at Don. "He's been out there a while."
Sensing a silent message from his father, Don stood, a little unsteadily, and did as he suggested. Less than two minutes later he was approaching Charlie at the pond. Charlie's chair sat near the bench. He wasn't skimming the pond this time, but merely sitting and watching the fish. He was completely absorbed, and didn't seem to notice when Don sat down on the bench. He looked…sad, and Don felt apprehensive, hoping he hadn't done something wrong. Maybe it was the jerk on the bus. That kind of thing had to get to a person. "Why did you have Dad put my chair in the SUV?", he finally asked. "I would have finished the day."
Charlie jerked a little in the chair – he really hadn't noticed Don sitting down on the bench. "Oh," he said, quietly. "Hi. Hi. Is dinner ready?"
Don tilted his head a little. "Almost. So what about the chair?"
Charlie sighed, and rolled a little closer to the koi pond. "It's too hard," he answered, his voice even quieter.
Don strained to hear him, and then frowned. "What? What's too hard, Buddy?"
Charlie's head jerked up and he looked back at Don. "God. You haven't called me that since before I was shot. I've missed it." His eyes teared up, startling Don, and he looked away. "I've missed you."
Don stood and took the few steps to stand next to Charlie. "I've missed you too," he admitted. "Today was…difficult, physically, but it was nice, too. Spending time with you, joking around…being brothers."
Charlie sniffed. "That's why it's hard," he said. "I don't want to see you in that chair, again. I've been afraid for years that something like that – or worse – would happen to you. Please don't make me watch you in that chair anymore. Watching you in that chair is harder than being in one myself."
Don squatted on legs that protested, having had most of the day off. He waited until Charlie looked at him, then held his gaze with his own eyes. "I know," he said. "I would go back to it in an instant, if it meant that you could get out of yours."
A single tear rolled down Charlie's cheek and he brushed it away impatiently. "It's only a prison sentence if we let it be, Don. It only wins if we let it take us away from each other."
Don had learned a lot in the last 24 hours. The most important lesson was one he had known for years – Charlie was almost always right. "Not gonna happen," he smiled, leaning his head against his brother's. "I may be a slow learner, but I'm back, now."
Charlie let himself lean into Don and sniffed again. "Good," he managed to whisper.
From the kitchen window, Alan saw the sun setting, glinting off the water of the koi pond and the dark hair of his sons. Their heads were together, and from where he stood, it was difficult to tell where one ended, and the other began. For the first time since Charlie was shot, his heart felt true peace – because that was exactly as it should be.
A/N: Okay, sobbing like a little girl again, here. I didn't even know this was the last chapter until about three paragraphs from the end – this story wrote itself, dragging me along for the ride. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did! (Check out Howling Thunder's long-anticipated "Wish You Were Here", and watch for a collaboration with Serialgal coming soon to a fanfic near you! This has been a commercial break.)