A bell jingled over the door as Don Cragen entered the diner. It was a tiny hole-in-the-wall on the Lower East Side that he might have passed without even noticing, but the interior was warm and comfortable. The smell of bacon made his stomach rumble.
Scanning the room, he spotted John Munch in a booth in the corner, clothed in his usual black and hunched over a coffee cup. Predictably, he was sitting facing the door, his back to the wall. Cragen crossed the room, noting the sparse crowd. Late for breakfast, but still early for lunch. Close enough to home to be relatively convenient, but far enough away that they weren't likely to bump into anyone from the precinct. Don allowed himself a moment to admire his detective. Munch was one wily old cop.
He took off his coat and slipped into the booth, mouthing "coffee" to the waitress. Munch looked up through his tinted glasses, and Cragen was immediately struck by an irrefutable fact: the man looked like hell. His face was pale and drawn, looking even thinner than usual. His hands were wrapped around his mug as though he needed the heat.
"Thanks for coming, Cap. I appreciate you coming down here on a Saturday, especially since I was a little vague on the reason."
"I'm gonna go out on a limb here and guess it has something to do with you calling in with anthrax last week. Twice. You know, you've dealt with enough perps in your career that you should be able to tell a more convincing lie."
"What makes you think I don't have anthrax?" Munch gave it his best shot, but his smirk was a shadow of its former self. Cragen was well on his way to being seriously worried.
"John, what's going on with you?"
Munch held his tongue while the waitress sat Don's coffee down and walked away. When they were once again alone he sighed and pushed his mug away. "I don't have anthrax," he said. "I have prostate cancer."
Cragen felt like he'd been punched in the chest. The air left his lungs in a little huff.
His face must have shown his shock. Munch held up a calming hand. "Don't worry, I'm not about to die on you. It's Stage 1. The survival rate is essentially a hundred percent."
"Good. That's good." Don felt something loosen in the area of his heart. "Jesus, John. How long have you known?"
"Biopsy results came back three weeks ago."
"Three weeks? Please tell me you've told someone before now."
"Like who? One of the ex-Mrs. Munches? As long as the alimony keeps coming in, their interest in my well-being is exactly zip."
"Like your partner? Your friends? Your brother, for God's sake? Me, John, you should have called me the minute you found out. Why the hell would you want to go through this alone?"
"For the same reason I don't want anyone to know now." Munch peered at the captain over his glasses, revealing bluish circles under his eyes. "Disregarding my tendency to run off at the mouth about various topics near and dear to my heart, I'm a private person. I don't want this being the water cooler discussion point in the precinct."
"It's cancer, John. It's nothing to be ashamed of."
"I'm not ashamed. I'm sure everyone would be very supportive and sympathetic. Can you imagine how much I would hate that? Not to mention I get enough shit about being an old man, the last thing I need is to provide more ammunition." Munch sighed and slid his thumb and fingers under his glasses, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. "All I want is to get through a very undignified situation with as much dignity as possible. Is that so much to ask?"
Cragen pulled his coffee cup towards him and peered at its depths. Maybe it was a generational thing, but he understood where Munch was coming from. "It's your decision, and I'll respect your wishes," he finally said. He smiled faintly. "You realize that if Finn ever finds out you kept this from him, he'll kick your ass."
Munch snorted. "Maybe then I'll pull the pathetic old man card."
"There's nothing pathetic about you," Don said, serious once more. "You're a hell of a tough guy, John."
"I'm doing my best, Cap, but I do need some help."
"I was hoping to keep working as usual, but the radiation therapy's kicking my ass. The nausea's not so bad now, but I'm so damn tired, no energy."
"Do you want to take some time off?"
"And do what? Lay around contemplating my navel? Or something a bit lower? No, I want to keep working, but I'm in no shape to work the street."
"Well, I can confine you to desk duty, but it'll be pretty hard to explain to the rest of the squad."
"I know. I'm open to suggestion." Munch's tired eyes looked at him with expectant trust and a glimmer of hope. Cragen couldn't help but feel a little pleased at the show of faith.
"I think I have an idea," he said slowly. He pulled out his wallet and tossed a few bills on the table. "Come on. I know someone who can help."
The next morning, Finn walked into the precinct to find his partner hobbling around on crutches. A grin spread across his face.
"I can't wait to hear this."
"Your sympathy is overwhelming," Munch groused.
"What happened to you?" Olivia asked.
"Skydiving," he replied, "hard landing."
Elliot chimed in, repeating the story Munch add told him earlier. "He wiped out riding his friend's Harley."
"Now the only thing he'll be riding is a desk." Cragen schooled his features into a look of mild disapproval before marshalling his troops back to work. Munch shot him a grateful look as Finn scribbled something obscene on the cast covering his partner's perfectly healthy foot. The captain's face softened and he nodded once before heading back to his office.
John Munch was a tough guy, a private guy, and Cragen had told him the truth. He would respect his detective's wishes and keep his secret, but he would be keeping a close eye on the man for the foreseeable future. No matter what he thought, Munch wasn't in this alone. Cragen would make sure of that.