Title:You'll Never Walk Alone
Disclaimer: Completely. Absolutely. With enthusiasm.
Summary: Oneshot. Again this is DreamBrother's fault. Another challenge on the "What a Line" thread in the forum "Calling All Authors".
Alan called Don after four days.
Don was navigating the halls of the Wilshire Blvd. headquarters, aimed in the general direction of the bullpen but considering splitting off and taking the stairs down to the lobby. The weekly Wednesday morning Team Leader meeting with A.D. Wright had stretched on interminably. It was nearing time for lunch, and anal retentive paperwork always stimulated his appetite. This was especially true, he had discovered since Wright initiated these meetings two months ago, when he had to spend over three hours discussing everyone's else's anal retentive paperwork. His head was pounding from too much talk and the large quantities of caffeine he practically had to mainline to get through these ridiculous administrative time hogs Wright insisted on referring to as "Interagency Dissemination Encounters", and he remembered with increasing fondness the good ol' days. The L.A. office possessed an exemplary solve rate under A.D. Merrick; it galled Don that Wright was wasting everyone's time trying to fix what wasn't broken.
His stomach growled loudly, and he wished again that the team had been needed on a bust, or a raid...or at a school crosswalk, or something, that morning. Whenever he was pulled out of the office, he could skip these things. A heavy, put-upon sigh escaping him, Don reached for the phone on his belt and turned it back on. He would call Megan and make sure this was a good time for lunch, but he headed toward the stairs anyway, hoping that it was. He intended to have four Excedrin Migraine with his turkey sandwich at the deli across the street, and he intended to do that soon.
Don had just reached the door leading to the stairwell when the phone powered back up and he saw the "new voice mail" message on the display. Reception wasn't great on the stairs, so he slowed his steps and leaned against the wall to check them out. One number he didn't recognize, and another was the electric company. He groaned, recognizing it because he had been forced to call it at least seven times in the last week. First he had received a bill for $1,318.00. He was two days into being referred up the corporate ladder when his electricity was shut off. He had spent last Thursday night at the Craftsman and asked Alan to help him out. His father had managed to get the power restored before he got off work on Friday, but the company still insisted he owed them the money. Don thought they had finally come to an agreement yesterday when a senior customer service rep admitted that his account was only one digit away from one held by "Donald Epps" (without the second "e"); yet here they were, calling again. He would definitely wait until after the Excedrin to listen to that one.
The third message was from his father's cell phone. He decided he'd better return that one right away, since his Dad didn't generally call without a good reason -- not in the middle of a working day, anyway. He depressed the "2" to speed-dial Alan -- the old man had been heartbroken to learn that he wasn't #1, until he heard that it was Charlie -- and closed his eyes, rubbing at his forehead with his free hand. Alan answered immediately, obviously waiting for his call. "Donnie. I called you an hour ago. Were you out in the field?"
Don sighed again, dropping his hand and opening his eyes. "I wish. I was disseminating."
There was a pause, followed by a cautious. "What?"
Don smiled into his cell. "You know, I've told you about those weekly meetings Wright's got all the Team Leaders going to. I just got out."
"Oh. Right. Oh." Don could hear disappointment in his father's voice, and reluctance. "I know that always puts you behind on Wednesdays. You sound exhausted already."
Don shrugged. "Gives me a headache. What's up? If you wanted to come in for lunch today, I'm not sure I can wait that long. I'm starving."
Alan sounded like he was chewing on his nails. "Hmm? Oh, no, no, son." He tripped over the next several words. "I mean, yes, I always like having lunch with you, but that's not why I called."
Don squinted. His father was entirely too distracted. "So?"
This time Alan sighed. "It's your brother."
Don rubbed at the back of his neck and answered a trifle disdainfully. "What, the stress of spring break is too much for him?"
Alan ignored the barb. "He won't come out of the garage. I thought he might drive down to San Diego with me last weekend, to see your Aunt Ida, but when I asked him on Friday night he mumbled something about being busy and disappeared into the garage. I went ahead and drove down there alone -- I'd already promised Ida I would come for a visit -- and I came back Monday morning. He was still in there."
Don frowned. "Why do you say 'still in there'? Maybe he was just in there again. He's probably working on cognitive emergence or something."
He could almost hear Alan shaking his head. "I say 'still' because he was wearing the same clothes as when I left Saturday morning. It was all I could do to get him to come inside for a while to shower and change. He wouldn't eat the lunch I made him -- he just carried it out to the garage. When I took some more out later for dinner, the sandwich was sitting on the floor covered with ants."
Don let his eyes widen as he calculated. "Dad, it's Wednesday morning. Are you saying he's been in there since Friday night? Why didn't you call earlier?"
Alan became defensive. "You know how he gets, Don. He was wearing different clothes again Tuesday, so I thought maybe he'd come in for a few hours during the night. Every time I take food and water out there, more boards are out, and they're all covered with numbers. He's lowered the ones from the ceiling, again, and they're propped up all over the place." Alan didn't even try to hide his worry anymore. "When I took him some toast and tea this morning, he was swaying on his feet. This is starting to look like...when your mother died."
Don's headache increased exponentially and he thought for a moment, but made his decision quickly. "Listen, I've got to get out of here anyway. Let me go check in with the team. Maybe I can swing some PTO for the rest of the day -- or at least take an early lunch. I'll be there as soon as I can."
Alan brightened considerably. "Early lunch? I'll make something nice."
Alan stood at the open back door and waved. Don waved back, moving directly from the SUV to the garage. Somewhat tentatively he opened the door, nearly choking on the cloud of chalk dust that escaped into the atmosphere. His heart thudded into his shoes as he surveyed the scene in front of him. Every board Charlie owned was out, and they were indeed covered with numbers as Alan had claimed. The desk was littered with similarly scrawled notebooks. Charlie was standing with his back to the door, actually writing on top of another set of numbers. None of them made any sense to Don, and he didn't know whether he should be relieved that it wasn't "P vs NP", or terrified that it was some other unsolveable obsession. Cautiously he picked his way over an ignored plate of toast, a discarded sweatshirt and a half-empty bottle of water to stand next to his brother. "Charlie," he said softly. "What's going on?" There was no response, which was not unexpected. Don reached out and stilled Charlie's frantic hand with his own, and turned it up a notch. "Charlie!"
The younger man tried to tug his hand free. "Let go," he begged. "It's finished, it's finished, it's nearly finished..."
Chilled to the bone by the senseless ranting, Don moved so that both hands gripped Charlie's shoulders. He exerted as much pressure as he had to in order to turn his brother away from the board, and toward himself. That accomplished, he lowered one hand to firmly grasp Charlie's wrist. "Stop it. Stop it, Charlie." His brother struggled against him, his breathing so rapid and shallow that Don feared he would hyperventilate and faint soon. He pulled Charlie away from the board, both of his hands now around Charlie's thin forearms. "Step away from the chalk, Buddy." He walked backwards across the garage toward the old couch in front of the desk. "You can finish it later. Come and sit down, and tell me what you're working on." He continued to speak calmly, yet authoritatively, until they reached the sofa. "Maybe I can help," he suggested, still holding onto Charlie's arms so that his brother didn't bolt back to the board -- at which he was still staring. Warily, he let go of one arm long enough to touch Charlie's stubble-covered chin, and turn his head in his direction. "Charlie," he said again. "Charlie, do you see me?"
Even though it had been apparent since the phone call that Charlie was in trouble, still the large, wounded eyes shocked him -- as did the lack of recognition in them. Don kept his hand on Charlie's chin and squeezed lightly. "Charlie."
He counted a full ten seconds before a flash of familiarity registered in Charlie's dark, expressive eyes. "Don," he whispered, as the eyes grew suspiciously shiny. "Don..." Charlie reached up with a shaking hand, but didn't make contact with anything before he dropped it to his side.
Now that he had his brother's attention, Don slowly let go of his chin and stroked through the long curls once before he dropped his own hand and shoved it in the pocket of his jeans. He was still holding onto Charlie's forearm. "Yeah, Buddy," he smiled. "It's me. Want to tell me what's going on?"
Charlie shuddered and started to sway, and Don pulled him down to the couch before he fell on the hard cement floor. He found that while the look in his brother's eyes left him almost as breathless as a hit to the gut, he still couldn't look away. He finally let go of Charlie's arm and waited for him either to bolt, or to crack.
Charlie did both, springing off the couch to stand over Don, and running a dusty hand through his hair, streaking it white in places with chalk dust. "It was my fault," he began. "I found it. I found it."
Don stayed seated and looked up. "Found what, Charlie?"
A tear escaped Charlie's left eye and rolled lazily down his cheek and dripped off his chin. "In her breast. I found a lump in Amita's breast."
Don tried to rein in his first reaction, and was immediately dismayed when he could not. "So you're repeating your stellar behavior from when Mom was dying -- and from the same thing!" He stood and glared at Charlie, raising the timbre of his voice with each word. "You've left that poor woman alone all week while you've retreated to this damn garage and your damn NUMBERS?"
Charlie winced as if Don had hit him and closed his eyes, dropping his face into his hands. Don could barely understand his muffled answer. "I didn't want to, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" He raised his face and Don could see that he was crying in earnest now. "She- she- just had, had an ultrasound on Fri, Friday, and, and, she had a plane tick, ticket already to fly back East to meet her p, parents in New York for sp, spring break...I begged her not to go, Don, I begged!" Charlie finally took a breath and collapsed on the couch. "I used that word. I begged." He had stopped crying, and now sounded despondant.
Don cursed himself for letting his own emotions get out of control -- apparently he wasn't as over the whole "P vs NP" thing as he thought he was -- and sat down again himself. "I'm sorry," he said at length, knowing how inadequate the words were.
Charlie blinked at him. "She got a referral," he said softly. "She wants a second opinion. Her doctor got her in with a well-known oncologist in New York this week. Tomorrow. Her appointment is tomorrow."
Don took a breath and searched for something to say. "That's good," he finally offered. "A second opinion is the way to go. She'll want to talk to her parents, too, so it's good they're with her."
Charlie lowered his eyes, but not before Don saw a different kind of hurt in them. "I wanted to go with her -- at least fly in for the exam -- but she said 'no'." He raised clearly confused eyes to meet Don's again. "She said she can't be worried about me while she makes this decision. What does she mean?"
Don could have shot himself with his own service weapon when he heard his answer. "Well, look at you. Unless this guy in New York completely contradicts the L.A. doc, this can only get worse; and you're already stuck in the garage burying your head in the numbers like an ostrich buries his head in the sand." Charlie gasped and recoiled, and Don hurried to cover. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."
Charlie shook his head and fresh tears flew out of his eyes."You're right," he croaked. "You're right." He stood again, agitated. "I can't do this. I couldn't do it the first time, and nothing's changed. I still can't."
Don stood and cupped one hand behind Charlie's neck. He spoke firmly. "You've changed, Charlie. You have. That's why it was so wrong of me to say those things. I've watched you grow so much since Mom died...so much." His own voice cracked with emotion, and he leaned forward until their foreheads were touching. "You can find it within yourself to deal with this. I believe that. I can see how much you love her. I can see how close the two of you are."
Charlie choked on a sob. "I loved Mom, too. She was closer to me than anyone, but I let her down!"
Don moved his hand enough to join it with the other one as he stepped forward and fully embraced his brother. He blinked back his own tears as he stared at the jumble of numbers over Charlie's shoulder. He tightened his hug, trying to still the trembling of the slight body encircled in his arms. "Never. You never let Mom down. Dad and I were the ones who had trouble understanding, not her."
He was relieved to feel Charlie's arms come up around his back. "I'm scared," his little brother admitted in a tiny, tear-clogged voice.
"I know," Don answered, reaching up with one hand to smooth Charlie's hair. "I gotcha, Buddy. I'll always be here. You won't be alone."
A strangled sob burst from Charlie's mouth and he buried his face in his brother's chest, his shoulders shaking from the intensity of his tears. Don just soothed him with nonsense sounds, hung on tighter and began a slight rocking motion where they stood. No more words were spoken, and the only sound in the garage were Charlie's cries.
A/N: The challenge line was "It's finished, it's finished, it's nearly finished." It is actually from a "comedy of the absurd" play written by Samuel Beckett, but when taken out of context struck me as unbearably sad. Therefore, an unbearably sad whumplet.