A/N: I just saw the date and realized that it's later than I thought…blame my boss who, since I'm going away for Christmas, just realized she'd like about a year's worth of work done in a couple of weeks. I need Larry to explain to her about the time/space continuum.
Glad you enjoyed Don and Charlie. I enjoy writing sibling relationships the way other people enjoy writing romance - maybe because I have so many siblings of my own and they're all such important relationships in my life! Thanks to everyone for sticking with it, and we're almost done now. (And yes, Patty - you always do look out for Don. I hope he appreciates it!)
Man of Inaction
Breathe. Breathe. You're doing good. Breathe. Didn't I see this in one of those baby delivery films once…? He folded his arms over his knees and rested his forehead on them. Yeah. Good. In just a second, you'll get up and finish. Try not to think about the fact that you're out of breath going down the stairs – feeling stupid doesn't help anything.
In fact, the whole secret of getting through this thing seemed to be keeping his head down and not thinking too much. Not that he was logging a whole lot of awake hours to think in anyway. At this rate, he wouldn't even be awake enough for desk work in another week.
He felt someone settle on the step next to him, but didn't bother to open his eyes, trying instead for identification via approximate displacement of space, respiration rate, after shave…Dad. "Hey…" he breathed.
"Hey. Need a hand?"
He shook his head without lifting it.
"Where are you headed?"
"Field trip. Downstairs."
"I'll – get there. Just taking a pit stop."
"I see. Four walls closing in?"
He snorted. They both knew his eyes were shut most of the time anyway. "ESPN. Can't take it any more. Every time I open my eyes, day or night, there's some rerun of Little House on the Prairie on. What scares me is that I think I'm starting to like it." It was even starting to invade his dreams, though the line between his dreams and the television was blurry these days. The sound and light from the TV set underlined everything, a steady rhythm that bled into his sleep with no beginning and no ending.
He heard his father clear his throat, no doubt trying to suppress the smile that lingered in his voice anyway. "You could try not leaving it on a channel that plays Little House on the Prairie," he suggested amiably.
Don lifted his head at that. "I do. Somehow it mysteriously gets changed. Every time. Not that I think that's really a mystery." His hand went automatically to his robe pocket to check for the remote, resting where, he reflected wistfully, his gun used to. Pointless anyway. No doubt Charlie knew some science magic to override a remote.
"Oh." Alan didn't even try to suppress the smile this time. "Maybe you should turn it off. I'm not sure it's healthy to have it on so much anyway."
"I'm afraid Charlie will read me another bedtime story."
"Ah. And – what was today's topic?"
"I don't know. And I don't want to find out. I think he's secretly using me as a guinea pig for his Cognitive Emergence thing. Testing the boundaries of sanity or something."
"Oh…now…I'm sure he wouldn't use you as a guinea pig…" But Alan didn't sound sure. Testing the boundaries of knowledge was almost sacred to Charlie and didn't allow for many limits.
"Don't be." Don used the railing to teeter carefully to his feet. "It's that whole - math thing." He tightened the belt of his robe. It was one of his father's, so it was a little long, and a little big all over, requiring some gathering in. He touched his left pocket this time, where the cheratussin bottle was tucked and where, he thought dismally, his cell phone used to sit. Reduced from man of action to man of extreme inaction overnight. Okay, it hadn't exactly been overnight, but it felt like one, long, interminable night, interrupted intermittently by slightly longer periods of wakefulness. He'd been awake for two hours straight so far today. If he could make it to three, it would be a record.
He kept his grip on the rail and started downward, pretended not to notice his father's reflexive grab for his elbow, quickly retracted.
Good choice, Dad. I'm not an invalid. Okay, I am, but it'd be nice if I didn't have to feel like one.
Last step. Maybe another pit stop? Not a bad idea. He kept a hand tight against the wall for support as he eased himself down on the last step. He noticed his paternal shadow followed suit, so he fought the urge to press his hand over his racing heart.
"I'm just taking my time. You don't have to - you know."
"I know. I guess I just feel like it. Haven't seen you upright in a while."
"Yeah, yeah…don't rub it in." He reached for the rail again. Rest times are getting shorter. That's a good sign.
"So – what did Charlotte have to say about your new x-ray?"
"She didn't tell you?" Don kept one hand on the wall until he ran out of wall to hold onto, then hesitated. The couch looked good, but the reclining chair was closer. Chair it is, then.
"No, she said it was between doctor and patient, now that you're more cognizant."
"Yeah?" Well, that was something anyway. Almost a grownup again. "She said everything looks pretty good. Lungs pretty clear. Just…" He dropped into the chair abruptly, so hard that the back reclined suddenly and the foot rest swung up.
Okay - a little clumsy, but it got him where he wanted.
His father made himself comfortable in the chair opposite. "Just…?"
"Oh, just…" He reached for the downstairs television remote on the nearby table. "…that it will be a little while until I feel like myself again. I'll be stuck at a desk for a while."
"I see. She give you any idea how long?"
Don was silent. A lot of things were better – the lollipop thermometer was consistently showing yellow instead of red, and even though it had yet to make its way to green, he hoped that it would any day now.
"That bad, hm?"
He looked up, wrinkling his forehead, as his father correctly interpreted his silence. "Six to eight weeks," he admitted reluctantly. "That doesn't seem possible, does it?"
He saw Alan hastily cover his mouth with his hand. "Why don't you tell me?"
Don sighed, then made a face at the inevitable cough that followed. "Look. I'll be the first to admit that I don't feel that great, but I really thought after a week…" He stopped and reached for his Kleenex, now resting where he used to keep his cuffs. "..that I'd be – y'know – a lot more myself than this. Six to eight weeks…I mean, that's two months."
"Charlie would be impressed with your math."
Don gave him a look. "Hilarious."
Alan smiled. "You know what they say about slow but steady."
"That it drives you crazy?"
"That sometimes it's the only way to get there."
"Yeah." He fingered the remote. "I just – I mean, my body's the one thing I've always been able to count on, you know? I guess I feel kind of…disoriented. Betrayed."
This time Alan was silent, then, "What if I get us both something to drink? The cranberry juice seems to be staying down all right."
Don nodded and watched him leave the room before turning his attention to the television. Let's see…here we go, hockey…he put down the remote to watch. The movement and noise and steady voiceover of sports had always been almost meditative for him, a Zen place, even when he couldn't actually find the focus to concentrate on the game. So he was surprised to discover that the speed and yelling and crashing and excited commentary were wearing on him, and after a second he hit the mute button and substituted the closed captions.
Okay, this was bad. Illness was one thing. But it shouldn't turn you into somebody else, should it? He fixed his eyes on the screen, tried to pick up on the action.
I will not go to sleep, he told himself firmly. I will NOT. Still, he jumped a little when a frosty glass thudded on the coaster next to him.
"So, what's the score?"
"I haven't caught it yet." Yeah, that's good, he mocked himself. It's not like they flash it on the screen every other second or anything.
"You don't want the sound?" The casual tone sounded a little more studied this time.
"Naw - I - thought I'd check and see if there was baseball anywhere." Something a little quieter. Kind of early in the season for that, though. He tried to pretend that he didn't notice his father trying to pretend that he wasn't studying him.
"The sum of your parts is more than the physical, you know," Alan said at last. "Just as the sum of Charlie's parts is more than the cerebral."
"Yeah, I know." I guess. I just wasn't sure anybody else did.
"So maybe while you're down for the count and can't do anything else anyway, you might want to try exploring some of those other parts of yourself."
He gnawed at his lower lip. Okay. So maybe I'm not so sure about that as I thought. He surfed a little longer, paused with his thumb on the button. Something was different, but he couldn't quite…
He noticed the rich golden light pouring through the windows, warming the floorboards. Hey! "It stopped raining."
"Two days ago."
He stared at the window, then turned off the television and lowered the footrest.
"You going somewhere?"
Don nodded vaguely, rising slowly.
"Do I get a hint as to where?"
No clue, Dad. Don shrugged. "Soon as I have one."
"Do you need a hand?"
"Naw…I'm just…" he shrugged again. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see his father shake his head.
"You've been saying that for as long as I can remember. Some day I'll figure out when it's true and when it isn't. Take your juice!"
He picked up the glass and took a swallow, reaching for the wall with his other hand. He made his way through the dining room, pausing only briefly to lean against the piano, kept going through the swinging kitchen door. It was a longish stroll for him.
He wasn't entirely surprised to find his journey stopping with the garage. He hesitated for a minute, pulling his robe more tightly around him, thinking his opportunity to enter undiscovered would be limited - coughing was bound to give him away eventually. But he entered anyway.
He saw Charlie had his back to him, headphones on, and allowed himself to cough. He had no idea what he expected coming here, but after a minute he got comfortable on the battered sofa and closed his eyes. The tap tap of chalk made a soothing sound. Another forty-five minutes and he would be awake for three hours straight. Maybe trying to figure out Charlie's math would keep him up. He slit his eyes enough to watch the chalk swirls fill the board, Charlie's head moving in time to the muted sounds bleeding from the headphones. The glass of juice felt cool between his curved palms.
The sum of his parts. He wondered if that was the kind of sum Charlie's math could calculate. Right now, he wasn't even sure what the components would be: one agent minus one baseball player plus a dozen failed relationships, divided by a hundred conflicting emotions? The tap tap of chalk was hypnotic and he stretched his legs out in front of him. Or maybe it was something more like D equals Eppes homestead squared. He smiled faintly. That thermometer better start showing green soon, Eppes – because you are losing it.
"Are you supposed to be up?"
He was surprised to find his eyes had closed, opened them abruptly. Okay, okay – that wasn't the same as sleeping – doesn't count. "Can't stay in bed forever. I needed a change of scene."
"What did you expect to find out here?"
The question of the hour, evidently. "A whole lot of chalk dust."
Charlie turned back to the chalkboard, his headphones discarded. "Well, since you're here…I've been doing a little research. Found a lot of different theories on things that can speed recovery from pneumonia. There was this one – really interesting - wait – let me get my laptop - "
Don slid a little further down on his spine, watching the chalk dust dance in a thin and watery shaft of sunlight. Nice. It was nice to see the sun again But then, it always came back, eventually, if you waited long enough. He grinned.Which sounded suspiciously like what his dad had said.
Thirty minutes more, and he'd be awake for three hours straight. Of course, with Charlie starting in on post pneumonia recovery theories, there was a good chance he wouldn't make it…he yawned.
What the hell. Beat the heck out of Little House on the Prairie.