A/N: For Patty, who finds herself in a Cat Withdrawal, I humbly offer an Angstlet (otherwise known as a Oneshot). While some readers may feel that liberties have been taken with canon, much of this subject matter has never been clearly addressed in canon, and is therefore fair game.

Plus, this is fiction.

All things "Numb3rs" owned and operated by Heuton, Falacci and CBS.

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Secondhand Smoke

by Fraidy Cat

Charlie found him in the solarium, leaning slightly forward in the chair behind the desk, peering at the computer screen. His elbows were planted in front of the keyboard; his right forearm was horizontal on the edge of the desk, right hand gripping his left elbow. His left arm was vertical in position, left hand covering his mouth as if trying to keep himself from speaking. There was no light in the room, save that coming from the screen, which cast a surrealistic, almost neon glow over Alan's dejected face.

Charlie had just been stopping to say 'good-night'. He and Amita had joined Larry for dinner and a movie, somewhat rummy from a long week of midterms. The three of them needed a break before an even longer weekend of exam grading, Blue Book reading, tough decision-making. Midterm results were combined with data from the first half of the term; it was not unusual to discover a pattern, to determine that a student needed to drop a class, or change a major…perhaps even get a job at McDonald's® and postpone academia for the foreseeable future. It was never pleasant to tell anyone something like that. Charlie had long ago begun to dread the week after midterms more than the exams themselves.

The stricken look on Alan's face gave Charlie occasion to pause in the doorway, and he found himself wondering if fellow CalSci faculty member Ray-Ray had been put in such an unenviable position already. Perhaps it had been a mistake to encourage his father to take classes at CalSci; to increase his classload to two this term. Maybe it was too much for him. The man was 71 years old, after all, and competing with teenagers young enough to be his grandchildren – a fact he had pointed out to Charlie and Don more than once.

Charlie took a hesitant step inside the room. "Dad? Is everything all right?"

Alan looked up at the sound of his voice and blinked. His right hand dropped to rest on his left arm and he frowned as he looked back at the screen. "When you talked to Dr. Miller," he asked quietly, speaking of Charlie's mother's oncologist, "did he tell you that it was my fault? Is that why you wouldn't speak to me those last few months, and spent all your time in the garage?" He raised tormented eyes to regard his son. "Because you knew that I killed her?"

Charlie had thought an academic discussion was coming, and in no regard was prepared for Alan's questions. The blood drained from his head, leaving him dizzy, at the same time that the strength abandoned his knees. Some ingrained instinct sought balance, and his arms windmilled out, seeking the solace of the door frame. He lurched backwards until the door knob pressed into the small of his back, at which point he gave up and collapsed onto the hardwood floor. "What did you say?" he gasped, incredulous.

As if any more evidence was necessary, it was further testament to Alan's distress that he did not even seem to notice Charlie's disinigration. "It says here," he shared with the man on the floor, "that secondhand smoke is a known carcinogenic responsible for 3,400 lung cancer deaths annually." He leaned back in the chair, eyes still glued to the screen. "It metasticized to her lungs, in the end. Even if it hadn't, the secondhand smoke could have contributed to the original cancer."

Charlie had been scrabbling about on the floor, trying to get his feet under him, but now he leaned back against the door, suddenly cold, and shivered as he crossed his arms over his chest. "I…I don't even remember your smoking," he protested. "You always smoked outside, and you stopped for good in what? 79?"

Alan shook his head, refusing rescue. "That may have kept the majority of smoke out of the house, and away from you boys, like she asked…but it was in my clothes. My hair. On my skin." He finally tore his eyes away from the computer and they flashed with the sparks of anger as he looked across the dark room toward the sound of Charlie's voice. "I slept with the woman. She was exposed to all that." His brow furrowed. "What are you doing on the floor?"

"Her mother had breast cancer," Charlie whispered, ignoring the question. "A cousin. Aunt Irene has it now – it's hereditary."

"Still," Alan answered stubbornly, looking back toward the screen, "still. None of those other women died from the cancer. And none of them lived with someone who smoked."

Confronted with this evidence, Charlie found that he could not speak.

Alan sighed and moved his arms, so that he could navigate the mouse with his right hand and shut down the computer. Soon they were sitting in complete darkness – Alan still in the desk chair, Charlie still on the floor. "I asked him once," the father said softly, "Dr. Miller. After Margaret's first diagnosis – you were still living in England, with Susan. He said the same thing as you; there was a family history. Maybe he was being kind. Maybe they just didn't know, yet."

Charlie shook his curly head, and struggled with the math. "Mom wasn't diagnosed until after I moved back home."

Alan sighed again. "I promised I wouldn't tell you. She didn't want you to come home because she was sick – she wanted you to come home because you wanted to. So she had a lumpectomy, and a few weeks of radiation. We didn't treat it aggressively enough, obviously; it came back. Then, the third time – when she asked me to tell Donny to come home, after she'd argued so vehemently against that, with you, the first time – well, she didn't even have to tell me the prognosis. I knew that it was terminal." Charlie could hear Alan shift in the chair before he continued. "There was so much to do, I never talked to Miller about the secondhand smoke again. But I understand your doing it…and your subsequent anger. I'm just sorry that your inability to be around me meant that your mother also lost access to you, those last months."

Charlie swallowed and let his head flop back against the door. "I didn't ask him about that," he confessed dully. "After he told us he was stopping all treatments, I asked him about alternative therapies. Mexico. Switzerland. Anything."

Alan didn't sound quite convinced. "Really?"

Charlie answered in a near-monotone. "He said there had been some success – but that it was very expensive, and your insurance wouldn't pay for experimental treatment. He said if you sold the house, it probably wouldn't be enough to cover travel and lodging, let alone very many treatments. So I asked him if a million dollars would be enough. I retreated to the garage, and 'P vs NP', because I was trying to win the money. But I wasn't smart enough. Don was right to hate me; his motivation was a little skewed, but the result was the same. I spent all that time in the garage, and in the end I wasn't smart enough. You didn't kill her, Dad – I did."

Father and son sat in relative silence for a long moment, the only sound coming from the ticking of a second-hand on an old grandfather clock in the corner. Alan felt tears squeeze out of his eyes, and he did not have the energy to raise a hand to wipe them away. "Well," he finally said, his voice wobbling a little, "we're basically a couple of idiots, aren't we?"

Charlie huffed out a sound that could have been a laugh – could have been something else. "Don and I got drunk after we went to the cemetery on the first anniversary," he responded. "Don kept saying that if he had been less selfish, if he had come home earlier, it would have made a difference. He's convinced it's his fault. So there are three idiots in this family."

The same nondescript sound of pain and loss came from Alan. "Why is it," he wondered, "that we insist upon turning grief into guilt? 'If only I'd done that'. 'If I just hadn't done this.' Margaret would slap us all."

This time the son's sound was closer to a chuckle. "Our brains are deceptively and disturbingly finite," Charlie mused. "A mind's instinct is to make sense of the insensible. To assign reason to the unreasonable."

"And this illustrates what your mother and I always tried to teach you," pointed out Alan, pushing back the chair and rising stiffly to his feet. "The heart's purpose…well, basically, it's a blood-pumping organ, so I imagine I really mean to say 'the soul'. The soul, on the other hand, is infinite. It loves, remembers, cherishes, feels, grows…the soul is a more forgiving task-master than the mind, my son, and one should not give up one for the other. Develop your mind, but never forget to nourish your soul."

Charlie was silent as Alan began to carefully feel his way around the desk in the dark. He negotiated the solarium slowly, and was just a few feet in front of Charlie when he could finally make out his outline on the floor. He tilted his head. "My mind," Alan began again, "truly does not understand why you are on the floor. But my soul figures you have a good reason, and that it doesn't really matter anyway." He lowered himself to the hardwood creakily, eventually sitting with crossed legs, facing his son. "My soul tells me to sit with you," he said quietly.

Charlie blinked in the dark and felt the tears sneak out of the corners of his eyes, travel down his face and drip off his chin. With an act of supreme will, he shut down his mind, and let his soul feel love.

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End