Michael looked down at the papers spread across his desk, tapping a beat into his pen and holding it to his lips. A headache was brimming, he could feel it right behind his eyes. But if this project wasn't done tonight, he'd have to ask for an extension… which was more or less suicide in this particular class. Professor Hart was both very strict and very good at her job. She gave challenging assignments worth finishing, and made sure her students understood the value of turning their work in on time. Which is why he was sitting at his desk on a Sunday night poring over a mess of notes and algorithms instead of sleeping off a hangover like his friends… most of whom had already asked for the extension.
A specific note caught his eye and he smiled, leaning in and finally putting his pen to paper after a quarter of an hour of thinking. This was the missing puzzle piece; what he needed to connect the dots and get on with his work. He wrote until he ran into another problem, then he worked it out and wrote more. An hour and change passed steadily and he was almost done when his phone rang.
He let it ring. If it was urgent, they'd leave a message. If it wasn't, he certainly didn't need a distraction right now. It stopped after the usual amount of rings, and when no message was left, he leaned back into his work.
But then the phone went off again. The ringing setting him on edge and pushing the headache closer to the brim, Michael closed his eyes and waited once more for it to be over. It finally was, and his pen touched paper again right before it rang for a third time.
Michael huffed and slapped his pen down, then ran his hands through his hair and stood, stretching out his back. There was only one person he knew who'd call repeatedly before leaving a message, the more drunk, the more calls. It wouldn't stop at three. He could use a break anyway, though Linc wasn't necessarily a stress reliever these days.
He picked up the phone, and stretched his arms. “Yes?”
“Hey, Michael. What're you, uh… what are you doing tonight? Right now?”
Michael’s hand found his hip and he rolled his eyes at the slight slur in Lincoln's voice and his sorry attempt to hide it, and cleared his throat. “School. I have a project due tomorrow and I'm behind schedule. Why?”
There was a second or two of silence while Linc rethought what he was doing. But, predictably…. “Think you could do a favor for me? I'd owe you one.”
“You owe me more than one already.” Linc sighed and Michael pinched the bridge of his nose as the headache became official. “What do you need?”
“There was a, uh, mix-up with who was taking LJ. Would you-?”
“Sorry, can't. I have school and so should LJ; living on opposite sides of town, I don't have time to babysit or run errands on a weekday. You or Lisa will have to cancel whatever plans you have.”
“No, man, I mean tonight. A sleepover. Lisa just dropped him off outta the blue, said she left a message I never heard that she was changing schedules on me, but I've got something going on right now.” Michael resisted a sigh, but Linc heard it anyway. “Michael, I can't take care of him right now. I've got friends over and I'm….” He got quieter. “I can't take good care of him right now. And I don't want him seeing me like this. Come on, Michael, please.”
Michael closed his eyes and told himself he was considering it, even though he already knew his answer. Linc wasn't lying when he said he did his best around LJ. It reminded Michael of his younger days, when Linc would do his best around him. And Linc always tried hard to respect his education and not get in the way of it. If he was reaching out now, he really needed the help. Additionally, Michael appreciated this option more than Lincoln trying to get LJ to sleep through whatever was going on there. And if he could help his brother and nephew out….
“I can be there in fifteen minutes. Has he got everything? Toothbrush, change of clothes?”
“Yeah, he's got his whole kit. I'll pick him up tomorrow morning, in time for you both to get to school.”
“Be there in fifteen.” He hung up, picked his keys out of the bowl, and took his coat off of the rack.
The predicted time later, Michael pulled up in front of Lincoln's apartment building to see father and son already sitting on the steps. LJ was up first and running to the car before the engine was off.
Michael was greeted with the traditional “Uncle Michael!” and tackle-hug from his nephew he was accustomed to. Linc stood and raised his hand in a half-wave.
Michael looked him over. He looked all right.Maybe swaying a bit when he stood, but pretty passably sober. Especially, he was sure, in LJ’s eyes. He also looked notably guilty and more than a little relieved. Michael would be lying if he said both of those expressions didn't please him. He nodded, then turned his attention to LJ. He smiled and ruffled his hair. “Hey, kiddo, how are you?”
LJ smiled up at him. “I'm okay. Dad says we're gonna have a sleepover! Can we make a fort?” He hopped a little and hung on to Michael's coat.
“We'll see. I'm a little busy right now with school.” When LJ’s face fell a bit, Michael patted his shoulder. “Buy hey. If not tonight, next sleepover, for sure.”
Michael smiled and held his hand out for a shake. “Promise, little man.” They shook on it in the enthusiastic and non-rhythmic way that children do and Michael broke it. “All right, get in the back. You got your stuff?”
“Then I'll see you in a minute. Let me talk to your dad.”
LJ slid into the car and Michael turned back to Lincoln, who was shuffling forward, and met him halfway. Linc had his hands in his pockets and head down. It was a stance Michael knew pretty well. “Thanks, man. And I'm- I'm really sorry. Lisa sprung this on me thirty minutes ago, I had no idea. It's not my weekend, I didn't have him tonight. And if I had another option for him to stay, and if I knew he'd be over-. You know I'm with him as much as I can.”
“Yeah, Linc, I get it. Don't worry. He'll have a good night's sleep with me and we'll see you in the morning.”
Linc nodded and looked past Michael to the car. Michael knew he was looking at LJ. He realized the guilt that Linc was showing was less for taking Michael from his work and more for missing this time with LJ, and having to pass him on to Michael so abruptly, and at this point the situation as a whole.
“When it comes to LJ… you do okay. You're a good dad, Linc. You love him, and he knows that. You're there for him whenever you can be, and….” He stopped and looked over his shoulder at LJ. “You make sure he's safe, and happy. That means a lot.”
Lincoln shuffled his feet, and kept his head down, but he was nodding. Michael couldn't really guess what he was thinking right now, but he hoped that what he was saying was getting through to him, because he did mean it. It looked like it was. Linc met his eyes and nodded again. “Thanks, man. Really.”
Michael smiled, but he wasn't sure whether it came off as more sympathetic or pitying, or even annoyed, which he was still feeling, a bit. But regardless of how it looked, it wasn't going to change, and he needed to get home and back to work. “Any time. See you tomorrow.” He turned to his car.
“Sure thing, bright and early.”
They waved to each other from the car and steps, and Michael turned the engine on. “Alright, LJ, ready to hit the road?”
Fifteen seconds later exactly, the seatbelt clicked and LJ gave Michael a thumbs-up through the rearview mirror with a grin. Michael held his own thumb up and pulled out onto the street, fastening his seatbelt.
A while later, Michael and LJ walked into the living room of his apartment. “Brush your teeth and get in your PJs. I'll get your bed set up. Toothpaste is in the top drawer.”
“I know.” LJ passed his bag to him and dug his toothbrush and clothes out while Michael held it. He found them and ran to the bathroom and Michael made his way back to his desk and stood by his chair to read through the last paragraph he had written of his assignment, refreshing his memory. He could get back to this easily enough, after another half hour to get LJ settled in and a pot of coffee made. And something for his headache.
He took the aspirin he should have before he left and got the sofa bed set up with LJ’s own cowboy-themed sheet set stored in the closet and a few of Michael's own blankets. Just as Michael was tossing the pillows down, LJ came out ready for sleep. “So we're not gonna make a tent?”
Michael paused and took a deep breath. He'd forgotten. “Not tonight, buddy. I don't really have time. I've got a lot of work to do.”
LJ was a sweet kid; he didn't tend to overreact when things didn't go his way. But still, he didn't try to hide his disappointment. “Okay. Next time.”
“Next time. Remember, we shook on it.”
LJ smiled and nodded, and for a second he looked more like Linc than Michael had ever noticed before. He crawled into the bed and pulled a couple stuffed animals out of his bag, which Michael had put by the side. “Can you tell me a story with John and George?”
Michael raised his eyebrows. Story time. This was more or less a tradition by now, but it was almost nine and they both needed their sleep as soon as they could get it. And as sweet as LJ was, he knew how to manipulate everyone into activity after activity beyond what they'd originally intended. The smart thing to do now would be to say no, kiss LJ good night, and let him fall asleep on his own while Michael finished his work. But once again, Michael had already made his decision.
This was a pretty regular thing - an impromptu sleepover because Lisa dropped LJ on Linc unexpectedly. And Michael had no idea how many times Linc was able to handle it on his own and juggle his plans around without having to call him. Michael knew from his own experiences that getting passed around was less than fun, and he was sure LJ felt the same. Even if for his nephew, it was between members of his family; people he knew and loved and trusted.
As cheerful as LJ was, and happy as he seemed, Michael knew it was hard. And it would be less hard if he made these “sleepovers “ actually a little fun; more of an actual treat than just a less familiar place to stay the night. And that wasn't hard to do for a six year old.
“I'll tell you what.” He smiled. “You close your eyes and count to one hundred. If I don't have the best fort you've ever seen ready by then, I'll give you ten dollars.”
LJ’s hands were over his eyes before Michael had finished his proposition, a big grin on his face. “One, two, three….”
Michael joined in the counting, pretty sure that LJ couldn't make it to one hundred perfectly on his own yet, and definitely not at the right pace. But before he got to building a fort, he considered the papers spread across his desk for a few more seconds. If he didn't get his project done tonight, it would get marked down. But probably only half a grade, considering this was his first offence. And there was still a chance he could get it done, if his nephew drifted off soon enough and he stayed awake long enough. He smiled to himself as LJ sped his counting up to cut his time almost in half, and pulled all his papers into a pile on the back corner of his desk. Then he got to work on a fort.
About one hundred twenty seconds later (Michael may have cheated by slowing the counting down to something closer to a number every 1.4 seconds) a desk, small table, chair, collection of sheets and blankets, and three flashlights came together to become a fort nice enough that the child in Michael was beaming with pride.
LJ was lying comfortably inside, more than satisfied with his uncle's structural genius, and Michael crawled in after turning the main light off and the lamps on. “Where are George and John? We've got a story to tell.”
With LJ lying next to him, Michael retold The Story of Ferdinand the Bull with a hippo and bear, and then an abridged version of The Jungle Book with the props set aside and a few strange twists to the traditional story where Michael forgot the timeline. After that, LJ was content to play with shadows, provided by their flashlights and hands.
Michael re-taught him how to make a rabbit and moose, but then found himself drifting off himself while his nephew played well past his bedtime. And as Michael's mind slowed and relaxed, and the headache faded, he found himself contemplating his relationship with LJ. So far in life, Michael wasn't good at relationships of any sort. For as long as he could remember, he was either leaving or being left. Families, friends or girlfriends; because of moving or personal issues, it didn't really make a difference when all was said and done.
And he didn't even get along with the people who were more or less constants in his life. Linc was a perfect example, even though it still felt like he should be the exception. Maybe they'd get their issues sorted out eventually, but at this point he doubted it. But that wasn't the point of his… mental ramblings. The point, if there really was one, was that even with everything that had and was still going wrong in his life… when it came to LJ… he did okay.